Midnight on Revello Drive, all the respectable people were asleep. Not surprisingly, the Summers house was brightly lit. Really, it was something of a wonder that the neighbors hadn't gotten up a petition for the Slayer and her family to pull up stakes and move elsewhere.
Spike wished for a cigarette as he did another circuit around the house. He was supposed to be in stealth mode, and a glowing cigarette tip would give away his position. Inside the house, Red was setting wards and considering magical options. It kept her mind off her girl lying confused and lost in hospital, at least. Spike wished he had something to distract his mind. Ripper and the Slayer had been gone for almost two hours, and Spike disliked the idea of that pair being together without some sort of buffer between them.
He hopped the neighbor's backyard fence and scouted the area for signs of enemy activity. Nothing moving but himself and a couple of intelligent dogs cowering in their kennels away from the darker predator prowling through their territory. No time for games, though. He headed back to the house.
The argument inside was audible to vampire ears out on the walk. Joyce was taking exception to the idea of leaving. Spike let himself in, smiling a little at the confirmation of his invitation.
"I agree," Joyce was saying in the kitchen. "Taking Dawn away is a good idea. But I would just slow you down."
"Mom," Dawn said a little hysterically, "we're not going to leave you. Not where Glory can find you."
"She's right, Mrs. Summers," Willow added. "It has to be all of us."
"I don't know," Joyce started.
"I do," Spike cut her off as he stepped into the kitchen. "No one gets left behind. I'll carry you out to the car and strap you in myself if I have to."
Joyce glared at him. "You're not being sensible."
"No, we're not." He looked at Willow. "Any word from the Slayer?"
"Not yet. But Xander and Anya will be here soon."
Dawn looked around, counting people. "There won't be room for everybody."
"I'm assuming that's where Slayer and Ripper have gone," Spike said, fishing out his cigarettes. "Finding bigger transport."
Dawn yanked the cigarette package out of his hand. "You can't smoke in here! We've got a recovering woman in here."
"Oh, yeah, right, sorry." He grimaced at the self-satisfied nod Dawn gave him. Every now and then he was hit with these twinges of 'I'm a vampire, dammit, why am I nursemaiding this bunch of meals on feet?'
The knock on the door distracted all of them. Spike glanced at Willow, who nodded, then he headed to the front of the house. Xander and Anya waited on the front porch. Spike opened the door, glanced up and down the street, then gestured them in.
Xander hesitated, glaring. "And why the hell are you on door duty? Where is everybody?"
"Slayer left me here to watch Niblet and her mum," Spike answered with a smirk. "Everybody's in the kitchen--except for Slayer and Ripper. They headed off a couple of hours ago."
Anya blinked. "Together?"
Spike shrugged, then looked over at Xander's car, parked on the street. "How reliable is that piece of junk?"
Xander bristled. "It is not a--well, maybe it is. But it gets me to work and back every day. Why?"
"Road trip, whelp, and we've got too many people for Joyce's vehicle."
"I hope I've got a job when I come back," Xander sighed.
"When?" Spike said softly. Xander glared at him but didn't have a good answer.
Anya stared down the street. "What in the world is that?"
An old school bus rolled down Revello Drive with its lights off and coasted to a stop in front of the Summers house. The door creaked open and Buffy hopped out. Giles sat in the driver's seat.
"Good, you're here," Buffy said to Xander and Anya as they all met on the walk. "We can leave as soon as everybody's ready."
"Leave for where?" Xander asked.
"And for how long?" Anya added. "How long am I going to have to leave the store closed?"
"I don't know," Buffy said. "As for where--I don't know. Giles says he knows a place."
"Giles," Xander repeated. "And we're trusting Giles now because ...?"
"Because he's what we've got," she snapped. "Have you two got everything you'll need for a couple of days?" Anya gestured at the duffle bags on the porch, and Buffy nodded. "Let's get started packing, then." She turned towards the house but pulled up at finding Spike behind her.
"So how'd your little trip with Ripper go?" Spike asked.
"We got a vehicle, it went. Are Mom and Dawn ready to go?"
"Your mum is saying we should leave her because she'll only slow us down."
"Damn it," Buffy muttered, and she headed for the house.
Spike met Xander's eyes and raised an eyebrow. Xander nodded and followed Buffy into the house. Spike headed towards the bus.
Anya looked back and forth in disbelief. "I'm not carrying these!" she yelled, gesturing at the duffle bags.
Giles climbed down from the bus and leaned against the side. "Are they still running around and arguing with each other?" he asked Spike.
"Pretty much." Spike looked at the bus. "Nice vehicle. Lots of windows. No enclosed spaces to hide from the sun."
"I've got cans of black spray paint, we can cover some of the windows."
"And where are we going? Slayer said you know a place. What kind of place?"
Giles smiled a little. "A safe place. You'll have to trust me."
Spike started to snarl, but noise at the house attracted his attention. Xander was carrying his and Anya's bags to the bus.
"Buffy's packing and ignoring all arguments," he said. "I think her mom may have finally admitted that there's no stopping the Slayer." He looked over the bus. "Field trip flashbacks, yig."
"At least there are no hyenas, this time," Giles said.
Xander did not smile back. "No, but we've got two vampires. I'm afraid my vote's with the hyenas."
"Can you drive this?" Giles asked, ignoring Xander's hostility. "Come daybreak, Spike and I won't be able to drive."
Glancing in at the driver's seat, Xander nodded. "I can manage it. You two going to be hiding under the seats?"
"Not likely," Spike said. He nudged Giles. "Show me these paint cans. Might as well do that now."
In the house, Buffy was single-mindedly packing things for herself, Dawn, and Joyce. Willow followed her silently from room to room, only speaking when Buffy opened the drawer in Joyce's dresser that held sweaters.
"Are we going to be gone long enough to need winter clothes, Buffy?" she said softly.
Buffy froze, hands wrapped around a forest green cashmere sweater. She blinked for several seconds, then slowly let go of the sweater and straightened. "Right. Over-reacting. It's just-- we've got to get stuff together, we've got to get out of here while we can."
Willow went over to her and put her hands on Buffy's shoulders. "We will. But we don't need too much stuff, do we?"
"No. You're right, we don't." Buffy looked at the duffle bag on the bed that she'd been packing and laughed uneasily. "But at least Mom would have a good work suit with her." She ran her hands through her hair. "Don't have time for this, got to get ready to go."
Willow shook her just a little. "Buffy, calm down! When you get all panicky, I get all panicky, and I don't need panicky right now, OK?"
"I'm not panicky! I'm just--" She took a deep breath. "I have to do something. Glory could be coming down the street right now, and--"
"I know, but--you've got to hold it together, please? We need you to hold it together so we don't fly apart."
Buffy closed her eyes. "Willow, I've only got so much holding it together left. You're going to have to hold on for yourselves here."
"I know." Willow hugged Buffy tightly. "But you've always been better at this than the rest of us."
Buffy hugged back. "Fibber."
After a few more moments, Willow pulled away. "I've got to go to the dorm, get stuff for Tara and me. I'll be back as quick as I can."
"You're not going alone! Take Xander or--or somebody."
Willow started to protest, then nodded and went. Buffy repacked the duffle bag with sensible things and slung it on her shoulder. She headed to Dawn's room to return some of the more impractical items, like dress shoes and a fancy blouse. She found Dawn curled up on her bed, clutching her Teddy bear.
Buffy started to scold Dawn for dawdling, but her sister's scared eyes changed her mind. "You can take that with you, if you want. I don't think anyone would care."
"I remember when I got Bear," Dawn whispered. "I was seven and had my tonsils out. Dad brought Bear to the hospital for me. Those monks thought of everything. I'm not going to survive this, am I."
"What? Dawn, what are you saying?" Buffy dropped the duffle bag and sat on the bed. "Of course you're going to survive this, that's why we're doing all this. Glory's going to miss that deadline, and you won't have anything else to worry about."
"But maybe--I was made to hide the Key. Once that deadline passes, the Key is useless. I'm useless. Maybe those monks just made me strong enough to last until the deadline, and after that there won't be any reason for me to exist any more."
Buffy remembered being Dawn's age, railing against the fates that had made her a Slayer, wondering if she was destined to have any kind of life other than the one foreordained for her. But she'd never had reason to doubt her own physical existence. Fourteen years of memories notwithstanding, Dawn's true lifespan covered mere months. Born for a single purpose, much like being a Slayer, with no clear idea if there was a future to look forward to. Much like a Slayer.
Buffy reached out and pulled Dawn towards her, resting her forehead against her sister's. "I don't know, Dawnie. But for as long you live, understand that I love you and I will die before I let anyone hurt you." She held the embrace for as long as she dared, then pulled free. "OK?" Dawn shrugged. Buffy pulled the duffle bag over and held it open. "You could put Bear in here, no one would mind."
"Are you taking Mr. Gordo?" Dawn asked suspiciously.
"Um, well, no--but I am taking Mr. Pointy!"
"Work stuff doesn't count." Dawn hesitated, then pushed Bear into the bag. "He makes a good pillow, if nothing else."
"Sure. Oh, here, your fancy-schmancy slutty shoes that Mom doesn't know you own. I don't know why I packed them, but I guess we can use the room for other things."
"Thanks." Dawn peeked into the bag. "Who are you trying to impress with the black lace undies?" Buffy smacked her with a pillow, then went back to her room to put back certain things of her own.
Once again Xander felt a little stab of jealousy at the college lifestyle as he followed Willow into her dorm. Past midnight on a school/work night, and there were dozens of people up and about with not a care in the world beyond a good time. Granted, he was up past midnight himself on a work night, but he was deeply involved in saving the world--again. And despite the message he'd left on his boss' answering machine about yet another family emergency, he didn't like the odds of his still having gainful employment after this latest adventure played itself out.
Willow gave him a tired smile as she unlocked her dorm room door. "I'm so glad you're around, Xander. You're dependable." A pair of drunken young men wearing only their boxers suddenly dashed out of a neighboring room, laughing madly as they ran down the hallway. Willow glared after them. "Unlike some."
Xander watched the guys run. "Yeah, I'm the dependable one."
Willow didn't dawdle as she gathered clothing and toiletries for a few days. She spent more time at the bookcase, checking various volumes.
"What are you looking for?" Xander asked.
"Bindings, reversing and changing, sharing energy, that kind of stuff. Giles said there might be a way to get Tara back from Glory."
"And you believe him why?"
Willow stared at him in confusion. "Why would he lie?"
"Because he's a vampire, and vampires like to play with people's brains before they play with the rest of the person?"
"It makes no sense for Giles to lie about something like this," Willow said, going back to the books. "There's no benefit to him if this doesn't work." She stood up, two volumes in her hands. "Let's go. Next stop the hospital."
"Will, visiting hours are over."
"Oh, we're not visiting, we're releasing."
Xander stared at her, seeing her calm, cheerful, determined expression. The pleasant version of the resolve face. The one that gave you the option of cooperating willingly. "We can pick up Tara in the morning, that's the plan, no one's going to leave her."
"I know," Willow said very reasonably, "but if we go get her now, we don't have to waste time waiting for the hospital people. We can just get straight out of Dodge." She picked up the two backpacks she'd filled and headed for the door. "Come on."
Xander hesitated, then he remembered that Willow had a copy of his car keys. He had no doubts that she'd leave him to walk back to Buffy's house while she went to the hospital by herself. "OK, OK, wait up."
He stayed just a little bit behind her as she strolled through the front doors of the hospital. He wasn't sure if it was magic or just her serene confidence that caused the security guards to ignore them. She led the way to the elevators and up to the floor where Glory's victims were being cared for. This time Xander was sure there was some kind of cloaking spell involved, because none of the nurses or staff on the floor paid the slightest attention to them and Willow was careful to not be in anyone's way.
The ward where the brain sucked people were was dimly lit, but no one was sleeping. All the patients were restrained, and they tugged fretfully at their bonds, whispering anxious nonsense.
"There are so many of them," Willow whispered.
"I guess she's a big eater," Xander shrugged. Willow gave him a dirty, if distracted, look.
The patients didn't seem to notice the two people creeping among them. Xander tried not to look at them too closely. They brought back dim memories of his grandfather, who had spent the last few years of his life slouched in a chair, muttering bits of old conversations and calling people by the wrong name. For some reason he had always called Xander "Charlie", and older Xander wished he had asked who Charlie was. Grandpa had liked Charlie.
Tara was in the end bed, restrained like the others, though care had been taken to protect her broken hand. Willow whispered nasty things under her breath as she went to her lover. "Tara?" she said softly. "It's me."
A beautiful smile went across Tara's face. "The sun," she breathed in wonder. "The sun's come out. And the moon," she added when she saw Xander.
Xander raised an eyebrow at Willow, who shrugged impatiently. "Sweetie, we're going to go on a trip," she said as she began unfastening the straps holding Tara's arms. She nudged Xander and nodded towards the straps over Tara's legs. "We're all going on a trip and I'm going to take care of you and I'm going to make you better."
When he was finished with the leg straps, Xander checked the small lockers next to the bed for Tara's belongings. "Here's her clothes. You want to try getting her out of that gown and into something less noticeable?"
"No one's going to see us," Willow said with certainty. "But she'll need her shoes. Here, you hold her, I'll put them on her."
Tara smiled at Xander as he took her good arm and kept her from wobbling. "The trees go gold in the fall," she told him. "But not in the spring."
"No, not in the spring," he agreed, thinking of his Grandpa.
Tara was wobbly on her feet but came along docilely as Willow led her to the door.
"What about pain pills and such for her hand and everything?" Xander asked as he scouted the area for anything of Tara's they might have missed.
"I have some herbs and such that will work. They'll keep her calm, too, in case ..." Willow ran her fingers through Tara's hair. "Maybe we'll have time to wash your hair before we go, baby. And then I can brush it out for you so it won't be so tangly."
"Pink blue," Tara smiled, leaning her head on Willow's shoulder. "Sound of cinnamon."
"Sure, honey. Come on."
Xander followed the two women, still watching for nurses and guards. He'd never stolen anyone from a hospital before. The patients still didn't seem to care what was happening around them, didn't seem to notice that one of their own was being spirited away. The man in the bed nearest the door, though, went still as Tara and Willow passed, then he turned his head to look at Xander.
"The Key," he said. "Destroy the Key. The Beast, the glorious one, it's almost time."
"We know," Xander said, rattled. "Trust me, we know."
"Xander, come on," Willow whispered from the door. Without a backwards glance, Xander left the whispers and their possible meanings behind.
Giles looked at his watch impatiently. "Granted, I've watched Buffy prepare for major outings before, so I know how she is on organization, but, really ..."
Spike was leaning against the side of the bus, one foot up and flat on the vehicle. He seemed quite calm and collected as he smoked, until one saw the way the foot against the bus was nervously tapping. "I'm not going back in there, mate. Joyce is still arguing that she should stay, Slayer keeps picking things up and wondering if she should bring them, and Niblet and Demon Girl are hiding in the corners. What's taking Red and Harris so long?"
"I don't know. Spike, one of us is just going to have to go in there, grab things, and bring them out and stow them on the bus. And you're the one with the invitation."
"Ripper, please, they're all just waiting for a common target to stick his head in there--"
They both looked over in relief as Xander's car pulled up in the driveway. "Isn't that ..." Giles started.
Spike laughed. "Good on you, Red. Leave no one behind."
Willow, climbing out of the back seat, blushed but smiled. "I was just wanting to save time. Now we can go." Tugging gently, she pulled Tara out of the car to stand beside her. Tara stared at the two vampires anxiously but cuddled into Willow's shoulder quietly.
Giles looked pointedly at Xander. "Do not give me that look, Giles," Xander snapped, pulling bags from the trunk. "Just--don't." He carried duffles and backpacks onto the bus. "And neither of you fall over yourselves saying 'Thank you, Xander and Willow, for remembering,' but--" He gestured with a small cooler. "Vampire snack packs."
"Oh, yes, of course," Giles blinked. "Thank you, Xander and Willow."
"You're welcome," Willow said. "And you can't blame him for my getting Tara, I threatened him with the resolve face. And it's too late now, anyway. Where is everybody?"
Spike and Giles looked at each other. "They're, um, still ..." Giles started.
"They're still packing," Spike finished.
"Still?" Willow protested. "But I thought we had to get going. Why haven't you gone in and hurried them along?" Spike and Giles looked each other again.
"Geez," Xander muttered as he jogged down the bus steps. "Creatures of the night, they hide. I'll go get them. If nothing else, I can haul Anya out of there bodily."
"She likes the caveman act, huh?" Spike asked. He chuckled at the evil look Xander gave him as he headed up the walk.
Still, Xander took a deep breath before opening the door of Chez Slayer. Not-quite-raised voices came from the kitchen, but Dawn was sitting on the couch, hunched together as if she didn't want to be noticed. She looked up at Xander anxiously.
"We're back," he said with as reassuring a smile as he could manage. "Time to load 'em up and head 'em out."
Dawn looked toward the kitchen nervously. "Mom's saying she shouldn't go again, that she'll only slow us down."
"Well, I don't know how, it's not like we're making a run for it cross country on foot. Get on the bus, I'll make sure she comes along."
Anya came out of the kitchen. She had her arms wrapped around herself and her unhappy thinking look on her face. "You're back."
"I'm back. What's up?"
"Why is Joyce being so stubborn? She knows it's not safe if she stays. I mean, we're going to go get Tara, who will slow us down as much as a woman recovering from a stroke, but no one's suggesting Tara stay behind. Doesn't Joyce know that everybody will just worry about her if she's not with us?"
Xander hugged her. "It's something good moms do, not want to be a burden. She thinks Buffy has enough to do without worrying about protecting a sick mom."
"That's dumb. Buffy will worry anyway, she's in there saying that. But Joyce keeps being stupid and noble."
"We're not leaving her, so it's not going to be a problem."
"Well, it's not like we can just drag her out of here--" She tilted her head to study the look on Xander's face, then smiled.
"I said nothing about dragging!" Xander protested.
"Xander," Dawn gasped, "you're not going to just grab my mom and--and carry her off."
"No, I'm not. Your mom's a smart woman, she'll see the logic of our arguments."
"And if she doesn't?" Dawn sounded far less outraged than one might expect at the idea of her mother being carried out bodily.
"Hopefully it won't come to that. I mean, we've already got Tara on board, so Mrs. Summers can't really argue."
"Tara?" Anya frowned. "We have to go get Tara."
"Actually, no. Willow talked me into going and getting her just now. Tara's on the bus."
Dawn squeaked and looked towards the door, then, guiltily, towards the kitchen.
"Go on," Xander said. "The more people already on the bus, the more argument we have for getting a move on."
Anya leaned up to kiss him. "You're a brave man, Xander Harris. I like that about you. Come on, Dawn." She took Dawn's arm and led her out the door.
Xander squared his shoulders and headed for the kitchen, trying not to wonder why Anya considered arguing with Buffy and Dawn's Mom something requiring courage.
"Evenin', folks," he said as he walked into the kitchen. "Everybody's on board, we're just waiting on the Slayer and her mom."
Buffy looked sternly at her mother. "I've got all your stuff packed, mom. Time to go."
Joyce sighed. "Buffy, be sensible--"
Xander went to her side. "Is there anything I can carry for you, Mrs. Summers? Maybe I can give you a hand getting out to the bus?" His smile was polite but firm.
Buffy gaped at him, then grinned. Joyce stared at him. "Xander, you're not suggesting--"
"No, really, no trouble at all. I'd be delighted to give you all the help you need getting out there."
There was a flash of the old "I'm the Mom of the Slayer and I took an axe to Spike once and I can take you on, mister" spirit in her eyes. "You wouldn't dare."
"With the greatest of respect and consideration, I beg your pardon, Mrs. Summers, but, yes, I would." And he was trying very hard not to grin.
Joyce looked at Buffy. "Are you just going to sit there and let him . . . loom over me like this?"
"Mom, you always said that people should only pick on people their own size. He's bigger than me."
Xander wallowed in happy machismo for a moment. "Mrs. Summers, I'd be happy to just lend you a balancing arm, but, one way or another, you're coming along."
Joyce stared at the kitchen counter for several second, biting her lip and blinking rapidly. "All right," she said gruffly. She reached for a napkin and blew her nose. "Not nice to gang up on a helpless middle-aged lady."
"No, ma'am," Buffy agreed, fighting a teary grin of her own.
Joyce glared at the walker in the corner. "We'd best take that thing, I suppose."
Buffy hopped off the stool, went to the walker, and folded it neatly, tucking it under one arm. "I'll go get the bags and meet you on the bus."
Xander waited patiently till Joyce had herself under control, then held out an arm for her to balance on as she got to her feet. "What lights do you need turned off and should I make sure the stove's not on or anything?"
"You've done this family trip thing before, I see."
"Once," he said briefly. "It was memorable. But is there anything you need to take care of before we go?"
"Um, yes. Could you help me upstairs, please?"
After that interlude, Xander escorted her around the house, making sure everything was secured for an absence of several days. All doors were locked, all kitchen appliances were off, all lights were off or on timers. As they headed out the front door, Joyce paused and looked at Xander seriously. "Would you really have made me go?"
"Yes, ma'am, I would."
Xander glanced at the bus to make sure everyone was occupied. "Because I am not going to see that look of crazy worry on Buffy's face again if there's anything at all I can do about it." He smiled at Joyce. "Sorry."
She patted his arm. "You are a very nice man, Xander Harris. Let's go."
But just as they reached the bus, there was a sudden exodus from the vehicle, led by Dawn. "Me first! I have a key! Which is only appropriate." She ran past Xander and Joyce towards the house.
"Excuse me?" Joyce said, turning to watch.
Xander looked at the bus. Giles sat in the driver's seat, leaning on the wheel and very slowly beating his head against it. "What is it?"
Buffy bounced down the steps. "Willow asked if everyone had gone before we left and none of us had and we'll be right back."
Anya followed. "We won't be long." She kissed Xander's cheek in passing.
"We all do remember that we are on the run for our lives, don't we?" came an aggrieved voice from the driver's seat.
"I can't run on a full bladder, Giles," Willow said as she led Tara down the steps. "Be right back."
Spike trailed the exodus down the steps. "No," Xander said, "you cannot be headed back into the house."
"Don't be stupid," Spike sneered. "Need a hand, love?" he asked Joyce.
"I have one, but thank you." She looked at the bus steps, though, and frowned.
"Right," Spike nodded. "Harris, hop on and catch."
"Excuse me?" Joyce protested. Xander shrugged and ran up the steps.
"Mind your head," Spike grinned, then he carefully put his hands on Joyce's waist and lifted her up the steps. Xander caught her flailing hands and helped steady her as she got her footing on the bus floor. Spike followed up the steps. "Right, then. Get the 'Wait Til The Last Minute' girls back on board, and we're out of here."
"Finally," Giles muttered. "It's just as well Willow brought Tara, this has taken much longer than I expected." He glanced at the sky. "It'll be dawn in a few hours."
Spike patted him on the shoulder. "That's why we painted over those windows in back."
Xander looked out the windows. "Hey, they're coming back, that was quick."
"A female record," Giles muttered, but he fired up the engine. "All aboard, ladies. Xander, Spike, sit down, please."
Everyone piled on, and Dawn dropped next to Joyce on the front seat. "And we turned off the bathroom light," she said, "and the door's locked and everything secure."
"Thank you, dear."
Buffy was the last to board. She paused on the step and looked around the neighborhood. For all the field trip foolishness, she hadn't forgotten that they were, as Giles said, on the run for their lives. She didn't see anyone watching, but that meant little. So long as they were free and on the move, they were safe.
She climbed on board and pushed the handle that closed the door. "I guess we're ready," she told Giles.
"Finally." He put the bus in gear and pulled away from the curb.
Buffy looked over everyone. Willow and Tara shared a seat, and Tara was lying down with her head in Willow's lap. Xander was in the seat behind Anya and hanging over her seat back, watching everything. Spike had taken the spot behind Joyce and Dawn for now, leaning back against the window and scanning everyone as well. He caught Buffy watching him and nodded briefly before continuing his observations.
Sighing she dropped into the front seat behind Giles. "It's too late to worry about whether this is the right thing to do, right?"
"I'm afraid so, Buffy. But for what it's worth, I think this is the wisest strategy."
"Where are we going?"
"North for now, then east. I know a place in the mountains several hours away. Get some sleep while you can, Spike and I will keep watch."
"Try, at least."
"Fine, fine. By the way, you should turn the headlights on. I don't want to explain all of us to the cops."
"Oh, yes, right, I forgot."
She stayed where she was, hanging over the railing behind him and watching the road as they ran away.
Nearly three a.m., and the traffic was fairly light on the freeway north. Giles drove easily and not quite fast enough to attract attention.
Spike bent down the backs of two of the bus' bench seats, making uneven but adequate sleeping surfaces. Joyce made a wry comment about road trips to concerts, but she stretched out gratefully with Dawn at her side. On the other side of the aisle, Willow settled Tara against her. Anya curled up in the corner of her seat and went efficiently to sleep.
Buffy made her way carefully up the aisle, checking on people. She smiled a little at the sight of Dawn curled up under Spike's duster.
A couple of seats back, Xander still hung over the back of Anya's seat, one arm reaching down so he could lightly stroke her hair.
Buffy sat down next to him. "Field trip from hell, huh?"
"I said that when I saw this thing. I thought the deal with graduation was that you never had to ride in one of these again." His smile was tired, though, and the humor reached nowhere near his eyes.
She rubbed his shoulder. "You should get some sleep, you're going to be driving in a few hours. It's kind of neat. Me and Willow and--and the others, we do the mystic thingies, but when it comes to real life stuff, we always yell for you."
"Yeah," he said. "I'm Average Normal Guy, Mr. Everyday."
"And we need him," Buffy said, disturbed by the bitterness she heard. "I mean, do you want me to drive?"
His smile answered. "Not at all."
"Then get some sleep."
"I don't think I can, not with people up and moving around." He nodded towards the back of the bus.
The last few windows on either side had been spray painted black. Spike crouched among the rear seats, rearranging baggage.
Buffy patted Xander's arm. "I'll go tell him to keep it down." She frowned at the look of distrust Xander sent towards Spike. "It's only Spike, he's harmless."
"Yeah, harmless. Look, Buffy . . ."
He went silent. With every appearance of unconcern, Spike settled back on his heels, as if he was only stretching his back. But from under lowered eyelids he was watching Xander. The scarred eyebrow quirked when he saw Xander looking back, and his faint smile dared Xander to tell what he knew. But an eye-flick towards Willow was reminder enough about the unwilling bargain.
"I don't trust him," Xander finally said, still looking back at Spike. "I've got my reasons even beyond him being a vampire. Helpless is a great act for somebody just waiting for you to turn your back."
"He can't do anything with the chip," Buffy said just a little impatiently. "You know that."
"Yeah, the chip." Xander twitched at the knowing smirk that went across Spike's face before the vampire went back to whatever work he was on. "But what about him?" He nodded towards the driver's seat.
"Look, he wants to stop Glory as much as the rest of us--"
Xander took Buffy's hand in both of his. "I understand that he doesn't want Glory to win. I'm all the way with that. But what if we win? Somehow we always manage to pull it off, stop the apocalypse. When the sun rises the day after tomorrow and Glory doesn't get her hands on Dawn in time to open that portal, what then? All world-saving deals with vampires will be done, all bets are off. What do we do about Giles the vampire then?"
Buffy stared over his shoulder, out the window at the passing darkness. An off-ramp with attendant all-night gas stations and quiki-marts went by. There were cars parked in front of those mundane little places, and people with their own three a.m. business going in and out. She wondered if there were any vampires over there.
"I don't know," she finally said softly.
"Except you do know. He's a vampire, no soul, no chip, doing his vampire stuff in the night. You're the Vampire Slayer."
She looked to the front of the bus. Giles had only one hand on the wheel; the other was dangling out the partially open window next to him. He glanced up at the rear view mirror, and Buffy realized with a start that the mirror was angled correctly for him to see the interior of the bus. But she couldn't see him, just like she wouldn't see any vampire.
Xander looked at the driver's seat and sighed. "Maybe, if you'd done it when you first found out, it wouldn't have been so bad. But you're getting used to him this way. And he's being very careful not to let anybody see anything too weird. He knows as long as he can make us think of him the way he was that he's pretty safe. He knows you're not very good hurting the people you care about."
"You're wrong," she said, still staring at the back of Giles' head. "I'm very good at it." She shook herself. "Get some sleep, Xander. We can't pull this off if you collapse on us."
He nodded, then kissed the fingers of the hand he still held. "You, too."
They both knew it was a lie, but he accepted it and let her go. He reached for his jacket, shoved it between his head and the window, and closed his eyes.
Spike didn't look up from his work as Buffy sat down in a seat near him. "What are you doing?" she asked.
"Building a crypt of sorts away from the sun. Making room to lie down under the seats." He looked at his hands. "Filthy floors on this thing."
"It's what we could get. But why under the seats? Aren't the windows being black enough?"
"They'll do for me, pet, but Ripper's another matter. Even if he's not in any danger, ambient sunlight will be painful for him."
"That's not fair."
"Perks of survival, love," he grinned. "We get tougher the older we get. You find out from him where we're going yet?"
"Not yet. He just said some old place in the mountains. I can ask him again, but he just says he'll pull over if I say 'Are we there yet?' again."
Spike shook his head, then gave her a serious look. "Are you planning on getting any sleep between now and the big day?"
"That's stupid, Buffy."
She shrugged. "It's my thing. Speaking of which, you shuffling around is keeping Xander up. We need him to get some sleep before he drives. You almost done?"
He surveyed the space he'd been creating. "It'll do." He climbed off the floor as Buffy worked her way back to the front of the bus. He followed her down the aisle, then settled onto Xander's seat, nudging the feet off.
Xander jerked from his amazing-almost-sleep state. "What the hell--" He glowered at his seat mate. "Get the hell away from me."
"I'm just checking up on you, pet." He smiled winningly. "Seeing as so much depends on you and all." He glanced across the way at Willow, who snored faintly. "Wise move, not telling about the chip."
"I am going to tell her, either outright or living long enough after you try to kill me to gasp it out with my last breath."
"'To the last, I grapple with thee,'"Spike quoted with a smile. "'From Hell's heart, I stab at thee. For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee.'"
Xander frowned. "Why the hell are you quoting 'Wrath of Khan' at me?"
"Philistine." He made a show of snuggling down in the seat and putting his knee up against the seatback in front of him. "Go to sleep, Xander."
"Not with you right there. Get the hell away from me."
"Why so shy? Wouldn't be the first time I've watched you sleeping."
"Maybe so, but then I didn't worry about if I'd wake up to find fangs in my throat. Get your own seat."
With a put-upon sigh, Spike moved to the seat behind Xander. "Satisfied?"
The thing with being the Slayer, you were given all these heightened senses and endurance to help you fight the monsters. The fact that these senses were useful in sneaking into the house without your mother noticing or sneaking out of training while your Watcher was still lecturing about how previous Slayers showed ever so much more respect for the process than you did was apparently not considered worth mentioning. The ability to go without sleep, though, was also very useful.
Buffy slipped into the seat behind Giles and leaned on the railing. Tiredness nibbled on the edges of her consciousness, but it was more like the possibility that she might want another double-fudge brownie as opposed to the need for a mochacchino before class.
"You should sleep," Giles said as he steered the bus into the passing lane around a heavily laden flatbed semi truck. "The rest of them are out."
From this angle, she could see the interior of the bus from the driver's mirror. Willow and Tara were still curled up next to each other, looking awfully sweet together. Across the aisle, Dawn and her mother snored faintly in harmony. Xander was slumped low in his seat, though he twitched more than a person who was asleep should do. She glanced over her shoulder in time to see Spike, in the seat behind Xander, turning to look out the window with a very poorly managed attempt at innocence. She waited till he looked her way, then she frowned at him. With a smirk, Spike settled down in his own seat and closed his eyes.
"I'm not that sleepy," she said, turning around to stare out the windshield. She faintly saw the outline of the driver's seat in the glass. The empty driver's seat.
"Even the Slayer needs sleep."
"I hit the snooze button on my alarm clock four times this morning, I got lots." She frowned. "This morning? Or yesterday morning?"
"We are quite on the wrong side of midnight for it to be anything but yesterday morning. This morning is the event that will happen in a few more hours."
"We'll need to trade drivers soon, then."
"The sky has barely turned color, I'm fine for quite a while yet."
Buffy looked to the east, where the mountains would be if there were more light. "How hard is it going to be to find where we're going?"
Giles sighed. "Not that easy. I hope Xander can read a map."
"We can all help navigate."
"Yes, getting hopelessly lost will make it harder for Glory to find us, I imagine. If we don't know where we ourselves are, no one else should be able to, either."
Buffy smacked him in the arm automatically. "We're not that bad." She scooted over so she could see the side of his face and, yes, he was grinning. "Meany."
She was silent for a long time, until Giles swung over into the lane for an offramp. "Los Padres National Forest" was on the sign that flashed by.
"Camping," she observed. "Yay."
"And proud of it, Mr. Tweed." She reviewed what little California geography she remembered from boring classes. Family vacations--when they'd occurred--had involved hotels and beaches and shopping, not woods and mountains and insects. She got a blank about anything regarding Los Padres except "trees--mountains--don't bother".
They exited the freeway and got onto a four-lane highway headed east. Sporting goods stores and outfitters gathered among the usual roadside collection of fast food and gas.
"A couple of more hours," Giles said, "and I'll find a place where we can pull over and stretch our legs and whatnot."
"Whatnot. Another word for potty break?"
"If you will."
She turned around to study the interior of the bus again. All the sleepers were still sleeping. From somewhere--possibly while rummaging through baggage--Spike had found a CD player and headphones. He was nodding his head along with some upbeat rhythm, occasionally mouthing the words.
"You're fidgeting," Giles said.
"Not good at just sitting and doing nothing, you know that." She turned again to look out the windshield. Traffic was beginning to appear, people headed off on their commutes, early-morning deliveries. People with a world they felt safe in, a world that maybe only had one day of existence left to it. Her stomach knotted as she realized how fragile it all was. All that stood between those innocent people out there was one vampire Slayer and her busload of weary fighters, her friends and family. And allies.
"The Watchers' Council," she said.
Giles jumped a little. "What about them?"
"What do you think they know about Glory that they would have told us about if we hadn't thrown them out?"
He was silent a moment. "Not as much as they wanted us to believe, I would imagine, nor as useful. History, most likely, stray tales from dimensional travelers, possibly some writings from the monks who created Dawn or from the Knights of Byzantium."
"And you don't think that would help?"
"From what I've gathered about the Knights, their writings seem to boil down to 'Glory evil, smash Key.' Those monks were no better: 'Run, hide, it's Her.'"
"Then we didn't do the wrong thing by turning the Council away?"
Giles hesitated for quite a while. "I--don't completely trust my recollection of that meeting. The main impression that I have is that if they were willing to put a price tag on information to save the world, then what else do they believe they can make deals on? First your cooperation, then your obedience, then your soul. And then your life. We did not make a mistake."
She nodded. "It's just--I'd hate to think I hadn't done everything I could."
"It isn't in you."
"I don't believe you are capable of not doing everything in your power to stop a threat."
From the angle of his head, he was looking at her in the mirror. But when she looked up to smile back at him, the mirror was empty. He brought his head back down quickly and focused silently on the road.
Glorificus stood on the sidewalk in front of the Summers house and studied it thoughtfully in the darkness just before dawn. "Well, if you *like* Arts & Crafts I suppose it's OK. But I think my closet is bigger." She waved her hands, and her minions scurried forward. "Make sure nobody leaves, guys, OK? We're finishing this thing tonight."
The lock only lasted a couple of seconds. The small robed figures poured into the house and spread out, searching for the occupants. Glory sauntered in through the front door.
"And the decor, really, would just a little bit of sparkly and velvet have killed them?" She settled herself on the couch and waited happily for the shouts of outrage to begin from the occupants of the house. And waited. Busy footsteps going back and forth upstairs was all the sound she heard. "Um, guys? Where are my victims? I expect some cowering mortals in front of me, tout suite."
Dreg came down the stairs slowly. "I'm sorry, most holy, but the house is empty. There's no one here. I think they must have left quickly, there are clothes laying all about."
"Left?" Glory jumped to her feet. "Left? How dare they run away!" She stomped upstairs to do her own investigation. She looked into all the bedrooms and peered into the closets. "Frump," she muttered, turning away from Joyce's clothes. "All right, now this is annoying. Where the heck did they go?"
"The car is still in the driveway, delectableness," another minion volunteered. "The mother has been ill. Someone must have helped them."
She waved Dreg over. "Send somebody over to the boy and Anyanka's place, see if they're there. And check to see where the red-headed witch is."
"At once, most holy."
She checked the other bedrooms again, looking at the disarranged belongings. The minions poked around, looking for any clues as to where everyone had gone. Glory was looking through Buffy's make-up drawer and sniffing the various perfumes when Dreg came running in, carrying a notebook.
"Most holy, most holy, look at this!"
"Does it tell me where they've gone or who the Key is?" she asked petulantly.
Dreg bounced. "Yes, it does."
Glory stared at him, then yanked the notebook out of his hands.
"'Journal of Dawn Summers,'" she read. "'I'm so sick of it all being my fault. Running, hiding, hurting, crying, it's all my fault. They were probably happy before I got here. Some big evil would show up, Buffy would kick its butt, then they'd go party. Mom wasn't sick, Giles wasn't a vampire--'" Glory glared at Dreg. "Why am I reading the self-centered whinings of a teenaged girl?"
"Keep going, Glorificus, you'll see."
She sighed. "'If I thought it would do any good, I'd give myself to Glory and be done with it. Tara got hurt because Glory thought she was me. I don't want to see that anymore, other people hurt because I'm . . . the damned . . .'" Glory looked up, smiling. "'Key.'" She leaned down and hugged Dreg until he gasped in pain and breathlessness. "Dreg, I could kiss you, except, yuck. It's her, that little girl is the Key!"
"But how?" Dreg wheezed.
"I don't know how! I don't care! We catch her, we'll squeeze it out of her--gently though. It's tomorrow morning she needs to bleed. And even if she isn't the Key, we'll grab her and torture her until the Slayer coughs up the real one."
She paused and looked around the room again, frowning at the signs of quick departure.
"Perhaps the neighbors know where they've gone?" Dreg said. "We shall bring them to you that you may interrogate them."
Glory perked up at the thought, then shook her head. "There might be a quicker way, but hold that thought. Where are the Knights?"
"The Knights, splendid and pretty one?"
"The Knights! Gregor and the boys! I haven't seen hide nor hair of them for the past few days. We find the Knights, I bet we find the Key. And we'd better find her first. Round 'em up and let's go, there's nothing here."
Dreg scurried out to collect the others. On her way to the door, Glory spotted a pair of Buffy's strappy high-heeled sandals on the floor. "Oh, pretty. And just my color." When she compared them to her feet, however, the shoes were too small. "Hmph. Probably her little sister's anyway. Little girl shoes." She dropped them, kicked them under the bed, and followed Dreg.
Five o'clock in the morning. The towns along the highway were appealing to the outdoorsmen and women who were headed into Los Padres National Forest. It wasn't one of the busier parks, so the kitsch-level wasn't quite as horrible as it was around Yosemite or Yellowstone. The sky to the east had lightened to the point that it was possible to tell the mountains from the darkness, and Giles felt a creeping nervousness that said it was time to turn over the wheel and get under cover.
Just ahead was a gas station with attached restaurant and store. Several cars were parked in front even at this early hour. A quick check of the gas gauge showed it was time to stop.
Giles glanced into the driver's mirror. Buffy was still behind him, but her head rested on the railing and her eyes were closed. "Buffy," he said softly.
She sat up straight. "I'm awake, Mom." She blinked, looked around, then turned to check the interior of the bus and its occupants.
"I'm pulling in up ahead," Giles said. "We need more petrol, and the rest of you need a break."
Buffy stretched with audible popping sounds. "Oh, yeah." She looked out the front window as Giles turned the bus into the parking lot. "Starting to get light."
"Yes." He knew he sounded abrupt but felt he was justified.
The bump of the wheels going over the small rise into the parking lot jostled the sleepers. Groans and noises of "Huh?" soon followed. Giles found a parking spot in the RV section of the lot.
Xander blinked hard as he peered out the windows. "Where are we?"
"On our way into Los Padres National Forest," Giles answered. "Just about time to switch drivers, too."
"Coffee," Xander blinked. "Food, hot food. Bathroom. Not in that order."
"I'm sure the diner will have everything you need."
Xander reached over the seat in front of him to shake Anya's shoulder. "Come on, honey, time to get up."
"Uh uh," she muttered, curling in tighter on herself. "Have good day at work, love you, night night."
Fighting a smile, he wobbled to his feet and went around to convince her to get up.
Willow leaned over and kissed Tara's forehead. "Good morning, sunshine," she whispered.
Tara blinked for several seconds, staring at Willow in what looked like confusion, then she smiled and relaxed. "Green rocks with speckles."
"Is that a good thing?" She helped Tara sit up. Tara whimpered when she tried to use her damaged hand for balance. "Oh, yeah, that probably hurts, let me get you something." She reached under the seat for her bag of herbal remedies.
"Potty," Tara whimpered.
Willow sat up fast. "What was that?"
"Do you need to go potty?"
Tara thought a moment, then nodded once.
"You said potty. And meant it." Willow grinned at the others. "She said potty!" The others stared at her. "Which may not be as exciting for the rest of you as it is for me."
Buffy smiled. "It's OK, Will. We're all still asleep." She went over to Dawn and her mother. "Hey, sleepyheads. How do you feel?"
Dawn was sitting up, but her eyes were closed. As Buffy watched, her head began tilting forward, then jerked up. Joyce rolled over painfully and tried to sit up. Buffy took her arm and helped, reminding herself that Slayer strength was not always appropriate. Joyce got her legs over the edge of the seat and considered standing up.
"I think I'm going to need that darned walker," she sighed.
"Right," Buffy said. "I'll go get it." She turned and found it at her side, held by Spike, who had appeared with more than the usual vampire stealthiness. "Um--thanks."
"No problem." Spike retreated back up the aisle, leaving room for muddled humans to get to their feet.
Joyce unfolded the walker, then frowned at how awkward it would be to maneuver on the bus. "This isn't going to work."
"I'll help you off, Mom. Dawn, wake up, we're going to get some breakfast."
"Sleep," Dawn muttered, still with her eyes closed.
Xander came down the aisle, guiding a wearily blinking Anya in front of him. "Do we have time for a real breakfast? Sitting down with pancakes and sausage and orange juice?"
"Probably--" Buffy glanced at Giles and saw him look out the windows to the east, a disturbed look on his face. "Do we?"
"If you don't dawdle."
"Dawdle? Over food?" Xander said. "I may not wait for the waitress to put it on the table."
Buffy and Xander got Joyce down the steps and leaning on her walker, then the group headed for the restaurant. The humans did, at least. Spike was already lighting up a cigarette as he climbed down the steps, and Giles got out to pace.
"What's got you so wound up?" Spike asked.
"Oh, not much. Sunrise is in an hour, and they're off having a leisurely meal." Giles glared at the eastern horizon.
"Relax, mate. We'll be on our way soon enough. Besides, I've rigged up a nice dark crypt under the seats in back."
"Lovely. Hiding under the seats. How dignified."
"I've hidden in worse. Me and Dru had to hide under a pile of corpses during World War I--or was it the second one? Well, it was France, and there were lots of corpses." Spike waited for Giles' new appreciation of gory vampire adventure stories to ask for more details--under the guise of old Watcher instincts, of course--but Giles was still staring at the horizon. He moved closer. "This is the closest you've been to the sun yet, isn't it."
Giles nodded silently.
"It won't be light enough to cause damage until the sun's really coming up, though you may feel a bit itchy. That wears off as you get older." He glanced towards the horizon himself. "But, yeah, you can feel it coming. Turns into a macho game, though, how long you can stand to be out in it."
"How close have you come to ..."
"Oh, I've gotten singed lots of times." He took a long drag on his cigarette. "Closest I've ever come to real damage, I was barely five years turned."
Giles finally looked away from the lightening sky. "You misjudged the time?"
"Was saving Angelus' poncy neck. Running up an alley to the carriage as the sun cleared the buildings. Would have finished me except the ponce was just that little bit tougher, he was able to get me into the carriage and get us out of there. I was weeks healing from the burns."
The analytical Watcher had possession now. "How old was he then?"
Spike ran the calculations in his head. "About the same age I am now. Huh. You never think of yourself as being the same age as your father." He shook his head, dismissing the thought. "Don't worry, I'll make sure you're under cover in good time."
Giles nodded, careful not to show how grateful he was for the reassurance. "There is one other thing." He glanced around the parking lot. "I'm getting rather hungry."
Spike glanced toward the restaurant. The Scoobies had been seated at a table next to the window and looked out occasionally. "There's the stuff Red brought from the hospital."
Giles made a noise of disgust. "Back to baby food after having tried steak."
"Stake is what you'll get if Slayer finds out you had an attack of the munchies. Plus there's the whole I'm still supposed to be chipped thing."
Giles walked casually into a shadow of the bus cast by one of the parking lot lights. "They'll be quite a bit, yet. Odds are I could be back before they even notice I'm gone."
"This isn't the Hellmouth, Ripper. Most places in the world, people find a body, they make a lot of fuss. And if someone finds a body with its throat ripped out, even the Scoobies can make the logical leap towards one of the pair of vampires lounging about the area."
"When did you get this cautious? William the Bloody would have strolled over to that mini-van" he nodded at a family vehicle parked at the gas pumps "and drained the lot of them, then offered autographs to the gathered crowd."
Spike paused to smile at the mental picture, then shook himself. "Not with a Slayer sitting down to breakfast next to a window that looks out over the entire parking lot."
"Oh, yes, you would have, you'd have been thrilled at the opportunity for a good fight. Hell, you'd probably have gone after the mini-van in order to get the Slayer into the fight."
Tempting, tempting image. And a lovely way to announce his chip-free status. Positively Wagnerian in drama potential. If only ... "Yeah, I probably would. Except I don't know the area and it's too close to dawn to find a good bolthole, and--and here's the biggie--we've got work to do. You do remember Glory, don't you, Ripper? The slutgod you were going to send Dawn to hell for in order to stop?"
"Bugger," Giles muttered. "And that makes sense, worrying about Glory first, but ..." He looked towards the mini-van, where a toddler was wobbling along on chubby bare feet under the sleepy supervision of his mother.
"Fledges," Spike sighed as quietly as he could. "I never gave Dru this much trouble." Because Dru would have already been over there cooing about the luscious little baby and how adorable he was and how she longed to eat him up. Which was why Angelus kept both Dru and William on a short leash until William became old enough to have something approaching sense.
He went over to Giles and nudged him with his shoulder. "It's a lovely plan, Ripper, but we can't. Not now and not here. When this is all done and we're back in the 'Dale, we'll go out to the truckstop by the freeway and have a spree."
Giles finally sighed deeply and turned away. "We'll have to eat it cold. It's disgusting cold."
"I've got some whiskey to wash it down with."
The family with the mini-van climbed back into their vehicle and drove away, unaware of the predators that watched them leave.
The waitress in the diner, Brenda Ann, had an accent straight from the hills of Arkansas. Tara stared at her as she talked and pouted when she was gone. Everyone else was too tired to do more than eat and blink, though Xander blinked faster the more coffee he drank. They ate quickly, and Brenda Ann brought a lollipop for Tara when she brought the bill.
"We should get some stuff for the road," Buffy said after she paid the bill with her mother's credit card. "I don't know if there are going to be any stores where we're going."
"Road trip food, yeah," Xander said, bouncing slightly.
"And water and such." Buffy frowned. "I wish he'd told us we were headed into the wilderness."
Joyce maneuvered her way past a rotating rack of postcards. "Do we know where we're going yet?"
"Nope." Buffy spotted Giles in the general store portion of the business looking at maps. "Time we found out."
Giles glanced at his watch when he saw the others approaching. "That was quick."
"You said we were in a hurry," Buffy said. "So, maps."
"Yes, maps. Xander, how are you at map reading?"
Xander shrugged. "I was never a boy scout, but I've never gotten lost."
Buffy left the two of them going over the route and went to peruse groceries. Anya, apparently well conversant in Xander's tastes, was loading up on crunchy carb-laden things and power drinks. Joyce was tsking over prices but handing Dawn cartons of juice and milk.
"Not much in the way of solids," Buffy observed.
Joyce nodded to the other end of the cooler. "Did you see the price on the lunch meat? Tourist prices."
"Beggers and choosers, Mom. I don't think parking the bus at a grocery store is a good idea."
"Make Giles pay for it," Dawn said, balancing cartons. "He's dragging us out to the back of beyond." She lost control of a container of orange juice, but Spike appeared at her shoulder and caught the carton.
"Hand them over," he said, and Dawn gratefully passed over her awkward load.
"Do you know where we're going?" Joyce asked.
"Not a clue, love. I'm just hoping for buildings. I am not the wilderness sort."
"City boy," Dawn teased.
Buffy moved away, unsettled by how easy her mother and Dawn were with Spike. A pit bull on a leash was still a pit bull. Still, it was kind of nice to have a pit bull you could depend on to savage people you didn't like.
"How soon will we be ready?" Giles asked. Xander wandered over to Anya, still perusing the map.
Joyce pointed Dawn towards some packages of lunch meat. "I'm ready. Buffy, grab some of that water, please."
Buffy hefted one of the cases of bottled water. "I see all your shopping instincts are still in order."
The clerk at the counter was so delighted at the big order that she didn't even frown as Tara ran the fingers of her good hand through the windchimes hanging nearby. Willow untangled her fingers gently from a fragile ceramic chime. "When we get home, we'll get some to put in the window, ok?" Tara smiled and put her head on Willow's shoulder. Willow saw Buffy watching with a sad look, and she put on her resolve face. Buffy smiled and turned away to help carry groceries out to the bus.
Xander got behind the wheel and practiced maneuvering the bus around the parking lot, then over to the gas pumps to fill the tank. The rest wandered around the lot, taking a last opportunity to move around before continuing their journey. Spike strolled over to Dawn, pulled a package of batteries out of his coat pocket, and handed it to her. "Here. I ran down the ones in your CD player. Since when do you listen to The Clash?"
She palmed the batteries casually and tucked them into her own pocket. "Since I stole that CD from you. You think I'd pay money for that stuff?"
Spike snorted his amusement as he lit up a cigarette. Dawn glanced around to make sure no one was in easy eavesdropping range. "I was, um, watching you and Giles through the window while we were eating. The two of you seemed, well, close."
He studied her through the smoke. "What do you mean?"
Her blush would have lit up a room. "Well, what I mean is, you and him--he and you--are--have been . . . dammit, I'm a woman of the 21st century, I can deal."
He was half-curious as to how deep a flustered hole she could dig herself into but decided to spare her. "Niblet, you want to get past this point and say something that makes sense? And the answer is yes. Why?"
"Would you have killed him that night in the front yard?"
"I'd have put him down like a mad dog, Niblet."
"Even though the two of you are . . ."
"Yep." He couldn't help smiling at her inability to say the words. Not that he intended on giving her details about his sex life.
"The shagging, that's just what vampires do to pass the time. That and fight. But the Glory thing, that's business. Ripper knows how he thinks it should go, and he knows I disagree. I'm going to stop any plan that involves you getting hurt. Make no mistake, Niblet, he'd have killed me if it came to it that night at your house. I'd have killed him if there was no other way. Just business."
"Just to keep me from getting hurt? Why?"
"Don't be dim."
She looked down to hide her grin as she fingered the stolen batteries he'd given her.
As he piloted the big vehicle down the highway, Xander wondered if he needed a commercial driver's license to drive the bus if it wasn't being used as a commercial vehicle. Well, if the cops pulled him over to check his license, they'd have bigger problems with explaining the blacked out windows, the girl with the broken hand and the inability to form coherent sentences, and the obviously sick woman who should be home in her own bed. Plus the guys under the seats in the back. Maybe he could explain it as a field trip for an institution for the chronically weird.
Maybe Willow could do a Cops-Be-Gone spell or something.
The vampires hadn't gone into hiding just yet. Spike was lounging in the seat behind Dawn, arguing quietly with her over who caused what scratch on a CD. Giles perched nervously in one of the seats back in the blacked-out section, watching the lightening sky. Buffy went to sit in front of him.
"I think I speak for everyone here when I ask, Where are we going? Can we know now?"
He nodded distractedly. "Yes, certainly. We'll be taking some side roads before we reach the park itself. That will take us into the mountains, to a convent of St. Eugene."
Anya turned from her position in the seat behind Xander. "There are Eugenians in America? Since when?"
"Early 1800s, I believe. Their early records are spotty."
Joyce frowned. "I've never heard of a St. Eugene who had a monastic order."
"That's because he was a demon," Anya explained. "His followers mostly stay in the Pyrenees in Europe. I thought there was only the one monastery in France."
Giles shrugged. "I heard of them from a Brachen demon who came into the Magic Box late one night last summer. The convent is apparently a sanctuary for, well, esoteric folks of all species. It's become something of a waystation for creatures who mean no harm who are traveling through this area."
"Out here in the boonies?" Buffy asked. "I'd think they'd be more comfortable in cities."
"In LA and San Francisco they can hide from people, but the smaller cities are more difficult. Plus the Hellmouth discourages them from coming closer to the coast."
Spike looked suspicious. "Eugenians don't much like vampires. You think they'll let us in?"
Giles studied the back of the seat in front of him. "I visited them once or twice, before . . . I'm hoping they'll make an exception. If nothing else, if we cause no trouble they shouldn't object to us."
Xander snorted. "Trouble, like being chased by a hellgod?"
"I'm hoping the sanctuary aspect of the place will be more than just tradition. Aside from that, there is the problem of finding us." His frown became more pronounced. "It's quite late."
Spike glanced out the windshield.. The sky over the mountains ahead of them was definitely pink, tending towards sunny. "Right. Been lovely chatting, folks, Ripper and I are getting under cover now." He got out of his seat and headed into the back. Giles followed, and they slid under the seats to either side of the aisle. Four minutes later, the edge of the sun appeared through a gap in the mountains, sending sunlight into the bus.
Even in the darkness under the seats, Giles winced in pain at the increased brightness. Spike glanced at him, then slithered out of his duster. "Here." He tossed it over.
Giles made no pretense about pulling the duster over his head. He peered out under the edge. "This is bloody unfair. You're only under here to keep me company, aren't you."
Spike shrugged. "Till the sun gets a little higher, no telling how the direct light is going to come in. I'm under here for a bit yet." He managed not to snicker too loudly on the look on Giles' face. "Look, Ripper, I've been a vampire for a century and a quarter. You're not even three months' turned. Fledgling mortality rates are high for a reason."
"It's still unfair."
"Kids." Spike lost his grin. "I wish you'd told me it was the Eugenians we were headed for. Does this place have much contact with the mother house in France?"
"Occasional letters back and forth. Why?"
Spike studied the bottom of the seat above him. Several decades of hardened gum dotted the metal. "You know how Angelus was about convents and such. We spent a few months in France once, and we toured the Pyrenees so himself could make a religious pilgrimage of sorts."
"Angelus attacked the monastery of St. Eugene? When?"
"Before he got souled, of course. But we had a great deal of fun there one night, before one of their sorcerers drove us off. We didn't make a point of introducing ourselves--well, the poof did, but his ego was always bigger than his brain--but we might not want to say the words William the Bloody around our hosts."
"Lovely," Giles sighed. "Damn, this made a great deal more sense when I thought of it. At least we're moving. And there's less than twenty-four hours to go. If we can just make it past dawn tomorrow ..."
"Yeah. Just." ***
Glory placed her foot carefully on the ledge around her big bathtub to avoid the blood spatters. Gosh, but who would have thought a skinny pizza delivery guy would gush so much when he got his throat cut? Still, nearly all the blood landed in the tub and not on the walls. The spots on the floor would come off easily enough. She'd have to remember to have tile installed when she got home.
"Wave harder," she told Dreg, who stood next to her with a bundle of burning herbs. "I need to get a clear picture." She peered down into the pool of blood.
"You do remember that you're blocked from scrying out the Key yourself, don't you, your lusciousness?"
"Duh, I know the rules. But I bet I can find the Slayer, and where the Slayer is, the Key will be."
Images formed in the blood, but they were blurry. Wheels turning, a highway, but when Glory tried to focus on details, they faded off into a red mist.
"Stupid wimpy blood." She petulantly stabbed the body a few times with her ornate dagger. "Dreg, go get somebody else. That annoying woman across the hall with her yappy dog."
Dreg peered into the tub. "It hasn't clotted yet, most holy. Perhaps they're shielded from scrying."
"Maybe. I'll try for Gregor and his band of merry men." She ran the tip of the dagger through the still-liquid blood, clearing the images. "Come on, Greggy, show me that tattooed face."
The image appeared with depth and clarity, a man in armor surrounded by Knights of Byzantium. The man was studying a map as someone wearing a monk's robe instead of the typical armor pointed to a spot.
Glory reached down to push on the body in the tub, forcing out more blood. "Give me sound, fella, just a bit more."
The voice faded in. ". . . our scryers cannot see the Key itself, General, but they have shown that the Slayer and her entourage will be at this location at dawn tomorrow. That puts the Key far away from where the Beast needs it. The gate cannot be opened, and the world will be safe."
The general threw the map at an underling. "Our order does not exist to play hide and seek with the Beast, Brother Maynard. Our order exists to destroy the Key. When I asked you and the clerics three days ago to scrye the future so that we could pinpoint the Key's location at the crucial hour, it was not to check to see if the Slayer had tucked it away somewhere safe. It was so we could find it and destroy it. We have not traveled this long since then not to finish our holy mission. Tell the troops to saddle up, we must reach this convent of St. Eugene before tomorrow's dawn."
Glory leaned back and beamed in delight. "I love guys who give speeches. So, where's this convent?"
Dreg looked at the other minions, who all shook their heads. "I don't know, most glorious of gods."
"Hmph." She leaned down to poke the corpse again, but no more blood came out. "Go get Mrs. Hooper across the hall. Bring her dog, too. I've got a convent to find."
Anya proved an efficient navigator. The first side road off the highway passed a few farms and ranches. Dawn kept her nose plastered to the window, watching for horses; Willow distracted Tara by pointing out new lambs.
Buffy settled into Xander's old seat, careful not to trip over the duffle bag underneath. She leaned against the window and stared out at the scenery. A tractor pulled some piece of arcane farm machinery through a field as the driver waved at the passing bus. Vampires liked cities, Buffy mused. It must be nice to live where the night was full of cricket noises and frogs instead of screams and death.
She was thinking of the fireflies at her aunt's house as she drifted to sleep.
The jerk of the bus coming to a stop woke her. There were trees outside the window, and the sun was much higher. "What's wrong?"
Joyce grinned back over her shoulder. "Good morning, sleepy head. Bathroom break."
"Oh. Yeah. Good idea." Her bladder was awake and agreeing with the plan. She looked outside again. They were on a dirt road now, surrounded by forest instead of farms. "So. Bushes. Who remembers what poison ivy looks like?"
Dawn raised her hand. "I do! Campfire Girls!" She went still. "Or, you know, I . . ."
"I don't care how you know," Anya said. "So long as you know."
Xander pulled open the door. "So, ladies to the right, gentlemen to the left?" He and Anya left the bus.
Buffy started to follow, then went to the back. "Guys?"
Spike poked his head out from under the seat--on the opposite side from where Buffy remembered him bunking out at dawn. He raised his scarred eyebrow at her when she looked perplexed from one side of the bus to the other. "What?"
She gestured vaguely over her shoulder. "The rest of us--nature calls. Stretching our legs and--stuff. We won't be gone long."
Spike gave a smile that was more than a little pleased. "Thanks for telling us. We can go through everybody's bags now without being caught."
Buffy craned her neck, trying to locate Giles, checking under the seats on the other side of the aisle in case he and Spike had switched places.
"He's asleep," Spike said, almost moving to get in her way.
"What, and he has nightmares if he's all alone?"
He shrugged. "Didn't want him getting knocked around and out into the light, the way Harris does his kamikaze routine on these roads."
"Right." She studied him for a few moments, then straightened. "Be back in a bit."
"Right." Spike disappeared under the seats again.
In every lecture she'd ever heard, protectiveness was not high on the list of vampiric qualities. Just as well, or there'd be solicitous sires waiting over every fledgling's grave, making her job all the harder. So was it just a Spikey thing, that he stayed close to Giles, looking after him? Maybe it was part of what kept Spike with Dru all those years, maybe he just liked having someone to look after. Whatever it was, she was an idiot for ever allowing herself to think "that's kind of sweet" on the subject.
Business in the bushes was conducted quickly. Several napkins and tissues from Joyce's purse prevented the need for leaves and the identification of possible poison ivy.
"Boy," Willow said, "I hope we have a mom with us every time we're on the run." Tara tugged on her arm, pointing to several flowers on a nearby bush. "Yeah, those are pretty. Buffy, can we walk around a little? She might be a little less restless if we do."
"Probably not a bad idea. I'll go find Xander."
She found Xander checking the bus' tires and radiator. "How's it look, road warrior?"
"Tires are good, the thing seems to be holding up well." The look on his face contradicted his easy tone of voice. He glanced at the bus, then gestured for Buffy to follow him.
A couple of hundred feet down the road, around a curve that hid the bus, Xander stopped.
"How good is vampire hearing?" he asked. "Can they hear us here?"
Buffy glanced back down the road. "I don't think so. Not unless they were really trying. What don't you want them to hear?"
Xander stared at the tread patterns his boots made in the dirt surface of the road as he shuffled his feet. "The chip's out."
She almost said "what?", but all her breath had been knocked out. "When?" she whispered.
"Probably not too much after Giles got turned, I think."
"But--that's been weeks! He always swore--are you sure?"
Xander's smile was twisted. "Oh, yeah. I'm sure."
"What did he do?"
"I caught him playing with one of those Knights of Byzantium one night on patrol. We . . . chatted. I haven't told you before now because he threatened to go after Willow if I did."
"Why didn't he just kill you--no offense," she added quickly.
"None taken. And he said it was because we couldn't afford any distractions with Glory still around."
Buffy stared at the trees around them. At least this explained the odd feeling she'd gotten from Spike the last few weeks. He no longer held himself like a vampire who had to scrounge his food second-hand, who feared his natural prey instead of hunting them. The barely restrained rage and frustration had been replaced with a master predator's swagger and confidence.
Other realizations hit. "He's been in my house! He's visited my mom, he's been wandering around smirking at us and thinking about food."
Xander nodded. "He'd be starting on the buffet except for Glory."
"I trusted him to look after Mom and Dawn, and he's William the Bloody again, without the leash." She paused. "I trusted him."
Xander frowned. "Vampire without a chip, Buffy. Sworn lots of times to shishkebob our internal organs while we're still watching. You can't trust him."
"Except I did. If it was just about Glory, he wouldn't have stopped Giles hurting Dawn. He promised to look after Mom and Dawn."
"Only because he's trying to stay on your good side."
"And that's why he let Glory dig a hole in his skull?"
"It's just that we have the same enemy right now. Buffy, he's back. The Spike that blew into town, took over, wreaked havoc--"
Buffy grinned just a little. "Had his butt kicked multiple times by me . . ."
"Who's been killing for weeks now and laughing at us while we think he's still harmless . . ."
She nodded and stared at the dirt for several moments. "We still need his and Giles' help with this."
"Do we? I know where we're going, we know the plan is to just avoid Glory until dawn tomorrow. We've got them trapped in a contained location, we won't get a chance like this again."
He could be so ruthless, sometimes. So practical. Buffy remembered the hyena thing, and the moment she'd looked into Xander's eyes and seen the predator. The pack defender that still lived in her friend had seen a threat to his group and was calmly planning the destruction of that threat. And she couldn't deny he was right in his way.
"Not until we finish Glory," she finally said. "I can't risk losing allies when we're this close to finishing this. The two of them, their knowledge and their strength, they might make the difference."
Xander nodded in resignation. "And after?"
He lowered his voice, abruptly diffident. "If you don't want to deal with Giles, I could . . ."
She hoped her look of fond disbelief wasn't too offensive to a male ego. "I think it would be kind of hard to sneak up on a vampire who used to be a Watcher with a stake."
"Which is why I'd cheat. Crossbow, grenade--rocket launchers are always in fashion."
"And what about Spike? What would you do about him?" She frowned at the quick look of fear and dismay that went across his face.
"I would cheat harder," he said firmly. "Very much harder."
Buffy hugged him briefly. "We'll deal with that when we have to. Not now. We should get going." She took his arm and led the way back towards the bus. "How much farther?"
"Another thirty miles, maybe. I don't know how bad the roads will get or how hard it'll be to find them. But not much longer."
They came around the curve of the road to find everyone but Willow and Tara back on the bus. Tara was crouched down drawing in the dry dirt of the road.
Xander put a hand on Buffy's arm. "He was serious about going after Willow. Please be careful."
"I won't let him know I know. Though I'm not sure how," she added truthfully. "Hey, Will. What did she find?"
Willow blew an escaping strand of hair way from her nose. "Rocks. But she recognizes poison ivy and knows it's bad, so that's good." She crouched down next to Tara. "Come on, baby, time to get on the bus. Time to go."
Tara handed her a pebble. "The meadow blue water. Bright darkness and red." She straightened, then looked at Buffy. "Seeing and red. Not long now." She tugged on Willow's hand, pulling her towards the bus.
"Does that mean something?" Buffy asked Willow.
Willow shrugged. "I don't have the faintest idea. I'm coming, sweetie."
Buffy looked at Xander, who shrugged in turn. He gestured for her to precede him up the steps. "After you, m'lady. And tell Dawn if she suggests singing 'Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall' again, I might hand her over to Glory myself."
"I think I'd help." They shared one more concerned look, then reboarded the bus.
The last road to the convent was marked at the turnoff with a weathered wooden shrine shielding a statue of a figure in a hooded monk's robe holding a chalice. Anya hopped off the bus to investigate.
"It's St. Eugene all right," she called. "You can just make out the extra set of arms."
She climbed back on, and Xander put the bus in gear.
The new road was rough and narrow, forcing them to go slow. "Did anyone notice if this thing has a spare tire?" Xander asked as he nursed the bus across a wash-out filled with large rocks.
"Yes," came an English voice from the back.
"And a jack?"
There was silence from the back, and Anya shrugged. "If we wait till after dark, two vampires would make a good jack."
Xander laughed. "Vampires, no toolbox should be without one."
They opened several windows to let fresh, outdoorsy air in. Buffy leaned out for a better view of the passing trees and the mountains beyond.
"Mr. Bus Driver!" Willow yelled. "Buffy's sticking her head out the window!"
Buffy turned and glared. "Mom, Willow's a tattle-tale." She stuck her tongue out at Willow.
Willow pouted. "Buffy's being mean!"
Xander scowled into the driver's mirror. "If you kids don't settle down back there, I'm going to pull this bus over and make you all walk."
Dawn grinned. "Somebody's letting the power go to his head."
Joyce tried to look stern. "Buffy, don't be mean to Willow. Willow, no one likes a tattle-tale. Play nice, both of you."
The two put on their best innocent faces until she turned away, then they both stuck their tongues out at each other at the exact same moment, causing identical giggles. Tara gently touched the corner of Willow's smile, making Willow turn and hug her.
Buffy watched a moment, thinking only how nice they looked together, then she turned back to the scenery outside the window. The air was cool, smelling the way those pine-scented cleaners wanted you to think was outdoorsy. When she'd first arrived in Sunnydale, she'd thought that was clean air, especially after Los Angeles. At night in the cemeteries, away from the streets, she'd been able to smell the grass and the trees, but even then there was the underlay of the town- -and the death and the blood and the dust. It was surprising how long it took her to learn to hold her breath when a vampire went poof.
Another deep breath of the forest air dispelled that thought. Sunlight. She didn't get out in the sunlight enough anymore. And, boy, was it nice to look at something other than buildings and tombstones and monsters. There was even still snow on those mountains in the distance. When was the last time she'd been in snow? Oh. Yes. She blinked fast, dispelling more thoughts and memories, of a slow walk through a miraculous dawn, of cool fingers entwined with hers, of a tall figure that, despite all sense, made her feel safe.
Cool, clean air, smelling of trees, the sound of tires crunching over the dirt and rocks, snowy mountains in the distance--an armored figure on horseback a hundred yards away, watching the bus go by.
Xander hit the brakes. "What!"
"No! Keep going, keep going!" Buffy ran to the back windows of the bus, which had not been painted over. "It's one of those Knights of Byzantium guys! He's out there, watching!"
"Here?" Giles said from under the seats. "That's impossible! They couldn't possibly have followed us, not if they're on horseback!"
Spike scrambled out from cover and went to the back window, shielding his face as well as he could. "Where?"
Buffy pointed. "Back there, by that big dead tree."
Spike squinted to see. "Can spot a mouse at a hundred yards in the dark," he muttered, "damned light makes it hard. Yeah, there he is. He's riding off. Do you see any others, pet?"
Buffy scanned the landscape. "I don't see anything. What was he doing?"
"Might have been a scout. But how the hell they could have found us--" A jarring pothole knocked him off balance. He caught himself against the window, then yanked his hand back, swearing.
"Are you all right?" Buffy asked.
"Yeah, yeah." He shook his hand, which was smoking just a little, then put a couple of fingers in his mouth. "Where the hell did the bastard go," he muttered, peering out the window.
Buffy stared at him. Would the old Spike, the pre-chip Spike, have dismissed a brush with sunlight so simply? Would that Spike have come on such a dangerous trip? But that Spike had come to her, his mortal enemy, in the first place to propose an alliance against Angelus.
A wise Slayer, one who had read and learned the handbook, would slip out that stake that was nestled in her sleeve and slam it into the back of the vampire who was paying more attention to what was outside the windows than to anything else, especially the Slayer at his back. It was a little insulting, being that dismissed Slayer. Sure, she wasn't supposed to know he was fully back in the game, but he didn't have to make such a point of the fact that he trusted her . . .
He looked over his shoulder and caught her watching him. He started to smirk, but it faded. "What?"
"Manchester United and dog racing, right? That's why you're here?"
He met her eyes easily. "No. You know why I'm here." He looked at her a moment longer, then headed back up the aisle. "It was one of those Knights all right, Ripper. How could they have tracked us?"
With much rustling and muttering, Giles sat up between the seats, wincing slightly at the brighter light. "They do have magical resources, but they're determinedly anti-technology. They couldn't possibly have kept up with us, even if they had known where we were going. And I only thought of it--" He glanced at his watch "--a bit over twelve hours ago."
Willow turned over the back of her seat to join the conversation. "There's divination, scrying. They might have read the future."
Giles frowned. "True divination requires a great deal of power."
"Could you have done it?" Buffy asked Willow, who thought a moment, then shrugged.
"Does it matter how they did it?" Spike said. "They're here, they're onto us. What do we do?"
Xander had been splitting his attention between the road and the debate. "Mark this down as a sure sign of apocalypse, but I agree with bleach-for-brains. What do we do?"
"How much farther?" Giles asked.
"According to the directions you gave me, another three miles."
Giles looked at Buffy. "I say we keep going. The place has walls, and the Knights may respect its sanctuary."
She shrugged. "I don't have any other ideas. We keep going, Xander." He nodded and put all his attention back on the road.
Willow frowned at Giles. "If this is holy ground, won't you and Spike have trouble?"
"I don't think so. It might be uncomfortable in their chapel, what with the crucifix and such, but the grounds themselves should be safe." He glanced at Spike for confirmation.
"Never stopped me," Spike said. "And the poof quite enjoyed strolling convent grounds. He'd challenge me to see if I could get as close the altar as he could." He remembered his audience. "Though that's probably not something that we want to discuss where we're going."
"No," Buffy agreed. "Probably not." She went back up to sit behind Dawn and her mother.
The sound of bells led the wandering Scoobies around the last curve in the road. A small valley opened up, with fields of crops filling most of the space and an old Spanish mission occupying the rocky area at the head of the valley. An olive grove shaded the buildings.
"Oh, this is pretty," Joyce said, looking out. "How peaceful."
Buffy grimaced. "I bet they're really going to appreciate us showing up."
Spike squinted through the painted windows at the people in the fields. "Not all of those are human."
Giles craned his head up as far as he could while staying out of the sun. "The last time I was here, a family of Minoto was here, waiting for word on relatives in San Francisco."
"Minoto? Scaley sorts with stubby tails? That could be what's out there, but they're all wearing hooded robes."
"Minoto don't like the sun."
"Fascinating as this National Geographic special is," Xander called from the driver's seat, "what do we do? Just drive up to the front gate and say hi?"
"Essentially," Giles answered. "Be careful of the chickens. Buffy, the Mother Superior is called Sister Agnes Gabriel. She knows--knew me, she would be the one to talk to."
Buffy sighed. "How much do I tell her?"
"Everything. With the Knights so close, we don't dare put the convent in danger without warning them."
Xander drove carefully through the old wooden gates, watching for livestock trying to throw themselves under the wheels. The adobe walls surrounding the courtyard were bright with whitewash, and the gates themselves, while old, were in good repair. Directly across the courtyard were the open doors of the chapel, heavily carved in the original mission style but also well tended.
There didn't seem to be a parking area, so Xander just stopped the bus in the middle of the courtyard. A group of nuns gathered at tables in the shade under a grape arbor at one end of the courtyard got to their feet, staring. One of them came forward.
"Buffy, you're on," Xander said, opening the door.
With a deep breath, Buffy got out of the bus, trying to avoid the chickens now regathering around the wheels. She didn't have a lot of experience with nuns and wasn't sure if she was supposed to kiss a ring or anything.
The woman coming towards her had a dark weathered face under the wimple that covered her head. It seemed like a nice face, except for the surprise and confusion there now.
Buffy put on her best smile. "Hi, I'm looking for Sister Agnes Gabriel."
"I am her," the nun said.
"Hi. I'm Buffy Summers. Rupert Giles said you might be able to help us."
A little more friendliness appeared on the sister's face, along with a little more suspicion. "You know Rupert Giles?"
"Uh huh. Known him for years now."
Sister Agnes looked at the bus. "Is he with you?"
"Yes, he is, and that's kind of a long story."
As she tried to think of a place to start that would explain the situation without alienating the woman, Sister Agnes looked at her closely. "You're the Slayer," she said softly.
"You know about that? Oh, of course you would, Giles said this place was a sanctuary for demons, so you probably know about all sorts of weird stuff. "
Sister Agnes smiled and touched Buffy's cheek. "Calm, nina. Tell me why you're here."
Buffy took a deep breath, held it for a moment, then began to talk, never taking her eyes from the nun's face. Sister Agnes frowned at mention of Glory, then again at the explanation for Dawn's presence, both in the world and at the convent.
"If we can just stay out of her way until after sunrise tomorrow," Buffy said, "then the world's safe, and we can work out the rest of what to do about Glory. But we've also got these Knight guys after us, and I think they followed us here, and we're very sorry about that."
Sister Agnes thought for several moments. "Where is Mr. Giles?"
Buffy remembered Spike saying that the Eugenians didn't like vampires. Well, technically speaking, neither did she, what with the job title and all. She thought of trying to talk her way around the inconvenient truth, but Giles himself had recommended being straightforward. And she really hated the idea of lying to this nice lady who didn't look at her like she was crazy or bad or a freak.
"There's kind of a problem with Giles. If he comes out into the sun, he'll go poof. And we kind of need him unpoofed."
Sister Agnes crossed herself. "He's--he's a--a vampire?"
"Yeah. And we have another one with us, too."
"Two vampires? But--you're the Vampire Slayer."
"Like I said, it's part of a long story. Look, if you don't want us here, we'll more than understand. Being around us right now isn't the safest thing, and I don't like dragging innocent people into this. But we need a place to hide until after dawn tomorrow. Do you know of someplace, hopefully close by?"
The nun studied her. "You're exhausted, child. How long have you been up?"
"Everybody keeps harping on how I need to sleep. I got some sleep on the bus, I'm fine."
"Of course," Sister Agnes smiled. "How many of you are there?"
Buffy started ticking off fingers. "Me, my mom and Dawn, Xander and Anya, Willow and Tara, Spike and Giles. Nine of us. Too many, I know."
Sister Agnes patted her shoulder. "We have lots of room. Lots of beds, if anyone wants to get some rest. You said your mother and one of the girls were ill?"
"Well, Mom's doing a lot better, and Tara's not too bad, except for her hand and her mind--and you're going to let us stay?"
"No one who has asked for sanctuary has ever been turned away."
Buffy hadn't known how tired she was until she finally had a reason to relax. She wobbled, but Sister Agnes pulled her into a hug before she could do anything so unSlayer-like as fall over. Buffy hugged her back, grateful for the thick cloth of the nun's habit, which absorbed tears before anyone had to notice them.
The nuns were kindness itself as they helped their visitors get settled. Spike and Giles stayed on the bus, of course, but everyone else was grateful to get off. Tara clung to Willow's hand but accepted being led to the lodgings. The nuns themselves occupied the second floor of the building; several guest rooms of varying sizes were on the ground floor.
"We have a family staying with us," explained Sister Elizabeth, who was in charge of housing. "They're staying in the first room on the left. We have two more big rooms, you can divide them up as you wish. The wash room is at the end of the hall." She bustled off, leaving them to it.
Willow shrugged. "Guys on one side, girls on the other?" She frowned at Xander. "Except that puts you in with Spike and Giles. Maybe not."
"No, maybe not," Xander agreed. "I can sleep on the bus or something. Summerses on one side, everybody else on the other? Always assuming that our breath-challenged comrades intend to do anything so mundane as sleep tonight."
Joyce looked at Buffy. "How long are we going to be here?"
"I don't know. Till sometime tomorrow, at least. Xander, do you mind not having a real room?"
He tugged on an invisible hat. "De nada, senorita. I'll just curl up in my serape in some corner of the courtyard."
Dawn laughed. "With the chickens?"
"OK, so maybe Clint Eastwood never had to deal with chickens in 'Hang 'Em High' or anything. It's still a perfectly good metaphor. Like I said, there's always the bus. So, Summers women in one room, witches and Anya in the other?"
No one quibbled, though a couple of glances went to Anya. "What?" she said. "I'm going to be wherever Xander is. Keep the vampires away from him."
"I don't think they're going to try anything, Anya," Buffy said.
"Well, no, not trying to bite him or anything. But if they get bored with each other, I don't want them seeing Xander off by himself."
Dawn was the only one who snickered. Various degrees of thoughtfulness and/or dismay went across the other faces.
Xander shook himself hard. "So not an image I ever wanted anywhere near my brain. But--wherever I curl up, Anya, you're more than welcome to curl up with me."
Anya smiled. "And if we want to have sex, we can throw Willow and Tara out of their room."
"Sure," Willow said brightly. "No problem."
Xander turned to Buffy. "We need to unpack the bus, right?"
Buffy didn't head for the bus, though, once they were outside. She stood in the courtyard and looked around. "Do you mind coming with me while I look around?"
"Not at all."
They walked past the bus towards the gate. From inside they heard Giles' voice: "I already captured your King's Bishop, you can't use it to put me in check!"
"No, you didn't, that was my Queen's Bishop," Spike countered. "You just can't remember which pieces you're imagining."
"I'm not the one cheating at visualized chess, you are!"
Spike laughed. "And you sound so damned shocked, too. Fledges, they're so gullible."
Xander managed not to laugh until he and Buffy were out of the front gate. "Cheating at chess, that's evil. So, we're scouting the terrain, huh?"
"Pretty much." Buffy looked out over the valley. "This is beautiful. Only the one road, right?"
"I think so. There might be some trails behind the convent."
They walked around the walls. The olive grove sheltered a small graveyard, with weathered wooden crosses.
"Kind of a nice place to end up," Xander mused, looking at the trees and at the mountains beyond. The leaves rustled in the slight breeze, and a bird chirped on the far side of the grove. "Could do a lot worse for yourself."
Something of a professional judge of cemeteries, Buffy looked the area over. "This has been here a long time. And it doesn't look like anything has ever disturbed them."
"That's the way it is in most of the world, Buff. The dead sleep quiet." A sudden rustle came from behind a tree. "Or not."
Buffy pointed out an ancient olive tree a few yards away. "Over there."
They crept towards the tree. The edge of something moving peeked out from around the trunk. Just as they started to look around, a figure jumped out and growled at them. A small, grey- scaled figure with a stubby tail, two arms and legs, and a faintly dinosaur-ish head. With sharp teeth, that were bared in a fearsome snarl as clawed hands waved at them.
Buffy and Xander jumped back, reaching for weapons they hadn't thought they'd need.
The creature froze, then began to hiss quickly, bouncing a little.
Buffy blinked. "Is he--he's laughing at us!"
Xander cocked his head, then put his hands up, fingers curled into claws, and growled back. The creature jumped, then ran away squeaking.
"Xander, you scared him! Meany!" She punched him in the arm.
"Ow! Well, he tried to scare us. Or she, or it."
"No, I think he was a him. At least, I think those were little him parts I saw, since he wasn't wearing anything." She saw the way Xander was looking at her, as if deeply interested in her observational habits of the genders of demons, and she smacked him again. "Come on."
"Ow. Slayer bully."
There were trails in the rocks behind the convent, but anything less nimble than a goat or a deer would kill itself trying to navigate them. The wall continued unbroken around the entire convent, with a barn on one side with two placid cows and a sleeping horse. The only windows were small and high up on the wall.
"The place was designed defensively, I'll say that for it," Xander said, knocking on the rock-hard adobe.
"I thought you didn't remember any of that soldier stuff anymore."
He shrugged. "I don't have the instincts, really, but a lot of the theory is still there. And I do read things other than comic books, sometimes. Giles hooked me up with this Sun Tzu guy, fascinating stuff. I wonder if there's a way to get up on top of the walls."
Buffy grinned as she followed him into the courtyard. It was always fun--and maybe more than a little intriguing--watching Xander being Competent Guy.
Wooden stairs led up to a walkway near the top of the front wall. The parapet came up to Xander's waist, and he crouched down to peer over thoughtfully. He stood up, nodding. "I can work with this." He saw the way Buffy was smiling at him. "What?"
"Nothing. It's just--you're cute when you're being all smart and capable and stuff."
"Well, better too late than not at all, I guess. Anything else you want to take a look at?"
She blinked, feeling just a little put down. "Uh, the church, I guess. Might as well be thorough." He gestured for her to lead the way.
As they crossed the courtyard, they saw movement in the shadows of the doorway. Buffy put a hand on Xander's arm. "It's the little guy from the graveyard. Don't scare him."
"OK, but if he eats your face, don't blame me."
Buffy walked slowly towards the doorway, waiting for the little demon to stick his head out again. One big green eye in a scaley head peeked around. She immediately crouched down. "Hi, there, little guy. We won't hurt you." She reached a hand out. The creature eased his whole head out of hiding, watching her. "Yeah, hi. Do you understand me?"
Xander shook his head. "I saw 'Jurassic Park,' it's always the cute little ones. He's gonna eat you."
"Hush, you. Never mind him, little guy, he's a big meany." She started to straighten, and the creature squeaked and ducked back inside. "Oh, hey, wait, I'm sorry."
"Meany," Xander said.
With a rustle of long skirts, Sister Agnes came to the doorway, the little creature hiding behind a fold of cloth he clutched to himself. "What scary people did you see, Baynar--oh, silly boy. These are friends, they aren't going to hurt you." She picked up the scared little demon and carried him out. "This is Buffy and this is Xander."
"I'm sorry we scared him," Buffy said. "Baynar is his name?"
"Yes, it is." Sister Agnes patted Baynar's back as he hid his face in her shoulder. "He's a Minoto. He's here with some of his clan. He doesn't speak very good English, and he hasn't seen any humans except the sisters and me. It's all right, Baynar, they're not going to hurt you. Buffy, Xander, come a little closer, let him smell you."
Buffy went up first, speaking quietly and holding out her hand. Baynar looked around suspiciously, then stuck his head out and sniffed at her hand. He cringed back a little when she reached up to touch him, but he didn't hide. Buffy grinned, then stuck her tongue out at Xander. "He likes me."
Xander sneered back. "Girls always smell nice. It's just a trick to make men turn their backs on you." He turned to Baynar. "Hey, little dude. Don't bite, OK?" He held up his hand, fingers tucked away in the best approaching-a-wary-dog procedure. Baynar sniffed, then looked suspiciously at Xander. He growled quietly. Xander grrr-ed back. Baynar blinked, cocked his head, then growled again, adding a little claw swipe. Fighting a grin, Xander growled right back. Baynar hissed and bounced a little, then gave a bigger growl. Xander waved both hands at him, fingers clawed. Baynar hissed some more.
"Uh, Xander?" Buffy asked. "What are you doing?"
"You just stay out of this. We're monstering. Gonna prove who's scarier, him or me." Baynar gave a really good growl, showing teeth. Xander pretended to cringe, then growled back. Baynar nearly bounced himself out of Sister Agnes' arms.
Buffy shook her head at the nun. "It must be a guy thing."
"I think so." Chuckling, Sister Agnes put Baynar down. "Go find your mother, nino. She'll need help putting the tools away." The little demon ran for the gate, but not before growling one more time at Xander.
Buffy nudged him. "Don't let Anya catch you being good with kids. It'll make her start thinking things again."
He just gave her an enigmatic little smile and headed into the church. Buffy started to demand an explanation, but respect for the premises kept her to a little huff of frustration.
Two small windows and a modest bank of candles provided the only light in the church. Xander and Buffy stood for a moment, letting their eyes adjust. Sunbeams from the windows fell on the crucifix above the altar at the far end of the room. In front of the altar stood Joyce, leaning on her walker as she gazed up at the carved figure.
Buffy moved forward. "Mom? I thought you'd be resting."
Joyce shook her head absently. "Too stiff, I needed to move around. Isn't it beautiful? Most of the paint and gilding have faded, but it's a gorgeous piece of work. I think it must have been carved in Spain. It might even be the original."
Buffy looked only briefly at the agonized face of the tortured Christ. "It's very--realistic." She saw movement from the corner of her eye and glanced over to see Xander bowing a knee briefly and crossing himself. He looked a little sheepish but more challenging when he saw her watching.
"Mom cared more when I was a kid," he said briefly. "It sticks with you. Couldn't hurt."
"Nope, couldn't hurt."
Joyce hadn't noticed anything. She made her way over to a side altar, exclaiming at various carvings and statues. "And here's the Virgin, not quite so old, a very nice example of a primitive style. Not very skilled, but they cared a great deal when they made it. Oh, and this--" She stopped in front of the candles. "This must be St. Eugene."
The figure in the monk's robes was obviously inhuman, this time. The hood was thrown back, revealing a head with curling ram's horns and long ears. Even with the fangs peeking out, the smile was benevolent. The upper set of arms were held out in welcome, and the lower set held an ornate chalice in outstretched hands. The chalice itself was made of gold and full of water.
Sister Agnes reappeared. "Yes, this is St. Eugene. His chalice is said to have the ability to show the future, but the real chalice is in France. This is just a copy. The old records claim miraculous powers for this cup, but I haven't seen any." Her smile showed no disappointment in the fact.
"What kind of demon was he?" Buffy asked carefully.
"A Wilnith demon. I don't think the Holy See recognizes him anymore, but we have always been well served by him." Sister Agnes looked over the candles, picking out spent wicks and guttered candle ends.
Joyce looked around again. "So lovely. I'd like to sit here and just look for a while, but I think I need to lie down for a bit." She smiled at Buffy. "And you needn't say I told you so."
"Wouldn't dream of it. Need any help?"
"Just your company."
Xander gazed up at the demonic but gentle face of St. Eugene. "I think I'll stay put here a bit. If you don't need me for anything."
"Nope," Buffy shrugged. "We'll call you if we need you."
He nodded, then found a seat on one of the narrow pews.
"Is he Catholic?" Joyce asked quietly as she and Buffy headed for the doors.
"I don't know. I should know these things about my friends--shouldn't I?"
"I wouldn't worry about it, sweetheart. It probably just never came up."
It disturbed Buffy, though, that she didn't know something so basic about Xander. It hinted at hidden depths, and the strange things that might live there.
The rooms they'd been given each had three beds, plus a table and chairs. In the Summers room, Dawn was fast asleep on one bed, Bear tucked in close under her arm. The duffle bag of clothes was on the table.
Buffy dug in the bag to find clean clothes. "I don't suppose they have showers here."
"A bucket with holes in the bottom, maybe. They probably only have a well."
"Oh, gosh, I just thought--outhouses, you think?"
Joyce nodded under the bed, where a porcelain pot rested. There was one for each bed. "Think of it as camping."
"There are reasons I didn't join the Girl Scouts, you know."
Joyce found some fresh clothes for herself. "Let's go explore the washroom before a nap."
"When do we eat? Should we donate our food, do you think?"
"We can ask Sister Agnes."
The washroom wasn't as musty and nasty as Buffy had feared. The stone floor sloped towards a drain in the corner and a long stone sink ran along the back wall. And in the sink was a squalling Baynar, being forcibly washed by a bigger version of himself.
Joyce hesitated at sight of the demon. Buffy patted her shoulder reassuringly. "It's OK, Mom. The little guy is Baynar, one of those Minoto that Giles said were staying here. Sister Agnes introduced Xander and me to him."
The larger demon peered over its shoulder. Or her shoulder, as the case seemed to be. "Hello," she whistled in passable English. "You are the humans in the bus?"
"Yes, we are," Buffy answered. "I'm Buffy Summers, and this is my mom, Joyce Summers."
Baynar bounced and whistled. The larger demon nodded. "My child says he saw you, Buffy Summers, with a male human. I am Savlin." She turned back to Baynar, who was pointing at Joyce's walker. "Baynar would like to know why you have metal legs, Joyce Summers."
Joyce blinked. "I've been sick. My legs don't work quite right yet, but I'm getting better."
Savlin whistled to Baynar, who asked something in return. They talked for a few moments, Baynar getting increasingly vocal, until Savlin said something sternly and the youngster went motionless and silent.
"What did you tell him?" Joyce asked.
"I told him that if he did not behave that I would let the Slayer eat him."
Buffy went very still. It took a moment for Joyce to find her voice. "The--the Slayer?"
Savlin hunched her shoulders. "I know, I shouldn't tell him scary stories. If he has nightmares it is my fault. And the Slayer is far away." She picked up a towel and wrapped Baynar up as she pulled him into her arms. The little demon wrapped his arms around her neck, silent until Savlin tickled him into helpless hisses. Savlin nodded at Buffy and Joyce as she left. Baynar waved at them over his mother's shoulder.
Joyce put a hand on Buffy's shoulder. "Honey?"
"I'm the boogeyman," she said bleakly. "I am what mommies threaten their kids with. The monster that hides under the bed."
"Honey, not you. Your job. And from what you've told me, some of those demons deserve to be frightened of you."
Her forehead unkinked a little. "Yeah, I guess so." She looked the way Savlin and Baynar had gone. "I wonder how many other kinds of demons are out there who are scared of the Slayer and shouldn't be. I mean, there must be others out there who just want to be left alone, who don't want to rampage through the world and kill people. If I'm supposed to be saving the world and all, they're a part of it, too."
Joyce made her way to the sink and investigated the water taps. "I've always wondered--you're the Vampire Slayer. Why do you have to go after all of those other things, too? Why isn't there a Demon Slayer as well?"
"Oh, trust me, I've wondered that too." Buffy joined her at the sink. "Giles just humphed and said I should be glad the job description didn't include dragons."
Joyce nearly dropped the soap. "Dragons?"
"Really. Standing order from the Council. If there are dragons involved, call for backup. They've actually got people who specialize in dragons."
"How often are they needed?"
"I didn't ask. But isn't it freaky that they had to think of it in the first place?"
Joyce stared at her a moment, then went back to washing. "You're teasing me."
Buffy crossed her heart and held up her right hand. "Not. You can ask him." The frown reappeared. "Or, you know, maybe not."
"Maybe not." Joyce leaned over to kiss Buffy's forehead and continued washing.
Just before sunset, Willow left the sleeping Tara and went out to the courtyard, her spellbooks under her arm. No one seemed to be moving around; they were either resting from their day's work out in the fields or getting dinner ready. Anya had headed off wherever Xander was, and all the Summerses were napping. A perfect opportunity to go consult with a vampire sorcerer.
She paused at the bus' open door, listening for the sound of anything she didn't want to acknowledge, much less interrupt. All she heard was faint singing, and she smelled cigarette smoke. Spike, at least, was up.
She knocked on the open door. "Guys? You awake? And decent?"
There was a faint laugh. "Honest answer, Red? Never."
"OK. If I come in there, am I going to see things that will scar my young mind forever?"
"Only in a good way."
She sighed. "Vampires."
Spike appeared, barefoot and pulling on his t-shirt. Willow tried not to notice that his black jeans, while zipped, were not buttoned. "What can we do for the Red Witch today?"
She glanced at the setting sun. There were enough shadows from surrounding trees that no direct light fell on the bus, but it was still quite bright out. She put on her most cheerful smile. "Can Giles come out and play?"
Spike snickered then looked towards the rear of the bus. "Oh, Ripper, your little friend Willow is here for you." The reply was in something that sounded like Old High Temple Sumerian, making Spike laugh out loud.
"Willow," Giles called, "if you'd like to come in, I can promise that I, at least, am decent. It's still a bit bright out for my taste."
Willow accepted Spike's hand for the high jump to the first step. He sat down at the top of the steps and pulled out another cigarette as she went to the darkened rear of the bus. Giles was sitting next to the window with the heaviest paint.
"What can I do for you?" he asked.
She sat across the aisle and put her books on her lap. "It's the reversal spell. I want to make sure I've got it right. I don't think we'll have a lot of time to get it off."
"No, you're right. Let me see what you've got."
As she handed over her books and notes, Willow noticed Giles wasn't wearing his glasses. The little concentration lines between his eyebrows as he perused a text were still the same, but his attention seemed sharper without the lenses. She thought about the Lois and Clark tv show she loved as a kid and how the villain had mocked Clark Kent's disguise of eyeglasses. She understood it now.
Giles must have heard her slight snicker. He looked up quizzically. "Yes?"
"Oh, sorry, nothing. I was just thinking how different you look without your glasses."
He started to reach towards his face, then chuckled. "Yes, well, I can't say I miss needing them." He smiled at her before going back to work.
What pretty eyes he has, she thought. She'd noticed his eyes first, in those days when she was still allowed to have a crush on a guy. The eyes, closely followed by the smile.
She shook herself firmly and concentrated on what he was beginning to explain about the spell that would bring Tara's mind back to its proper home.
At the front of the bus, Spike watched them as he smoked. Red seemed to have no fear of Ripper, leaning close to him as he pointed to various places of the text they were working on. As she brushed her hair out of her face, Ripper's eyes followed the gesture, then lingered a moment on her hair before dropping back to the book. Or maybe he was looking at the pulse in her throat.
She began nodding enthusiastically, talking and gesturing. Ripper smiled proudly, letting her babble for several moments before tapping her on the knee and bringing her attention back to the book. He turned to another section of the book to point out a passage. The pages of notes on the spell slipped out and fell to the floor.
From the chapel, bells began to ring. Willow gasped and looked at her watch. "Oh, it's getting late."
Spike took a last drag on his cigarette and tossed the butt out the door. "Call to Vespers," he said. "Sunset."
"The bells will wake up Tara, she'll wonder where I am." She scooped up the notes and hurried off the bus.
"I'm going to go stretch my legs," Spike said, getting to his feet. He headed back to find his boots. "You ought to come with me, you've been cooped up in here all day."
Giles looked nervously at the windows. "It's still awfully bright."
"Sun's behind the mountains, you shouldn't be in any danger. Besides, it's good for you. Builds character."
Giles walked slowly towards the front of the bus. The remaining sunlight prickled on his skin, itching and stinging. But the feeling was fading. "How close can I get?"
"Depends," Spike said. "I wouldn't be too eager to go experimenting. You okay?"
Giles nodded, stepping cautiously out the bus door and onto the ground. The blue sky above made him wince; outside the gate was a patch of bright sunlight that burned his eyes just to look at.
People were starting to appear, heading for the chapel for evening prayers. Among them was Xander, who spotted the vampires by the bus and wandered over.
"Going to join us?" he asked in a friendly way. "Oh, wait, no, vampires and churches, two great tastes that don't taste great together."
"I didn't know you were Catholic," Giles said.
"Maybe I'm not. Maybe I just like places where the evil things can't go."
Spike nudged Giles. "Let's go for a stroll, Ripper, take a look at the place." He smiled at Xander. "Say hello to your little scaly friend for us, mate. Cute kid." Xander glared at them and went into the chapel.
"What cute kid?" Giles asked.
"I'll tell you on the way."
The patch of direct sun had faded, and Giles felt stronger with every passing minute. His eyesight sharpened as the blinding light gave way to rising dark. "This feels good," he said, feeling the night breeze starting to build.
"Not much for the country," Spike commented. "Too quiet."
They strolled around the walls, checking the terrain. When they reached the barn, Giles paused to look at the animals.
"What?" Spike asked.
The cows and the horse moved nervously, watching the vampires anxiously. Giles stepped closer to the horse, which sidled as far away as it could.
"My family has a farm in England," he said softly. "I went back last summer, during the usual slow time in evil activity. I rode for hours, with nothing to worry me except for possible gopher holes and where to stop for tea." He reached towards the horse, which stomped and pulled harder on its rope. "There's a horse there I raised from a colt. He'll run from me now if he can, won't he."
Spike leaned against the barn wall, far from the animals. "Angelus rode whenever he could. He was Irish country gentry, probably rode before he could walk. Somehow he always found these nasty brutes, as vicious as him, and he'd go riding for hours. About the only living thing he'd ever show any patience with, his horses. Darla thought it was all too human of him, and Dru was terrified of the beasts."
"Horses are for pulling things, not for sitting on. Never saw the sense in trying to break your neck by jumping over a fence that was put there for a purpose. Disgusted with us all, he was." He tugged Giles away from the animals. "But he always found horses that didn't mind what he was. And he'd come home and go on for hours about how the fields and woods looked in the moonlight and how one of us should go with him and see. Closest he ever came to poetry, talking about riding."
Giles continued walking. "Warwickshire is lovely in the moonlight."
They continued around the convent, studying the approaches. The convent bells rang again, and they heard the worshipers leaving the chapel.
Spike stopped in front of the gates. "Do they lock up at night around here?"
"Yes, they do. There are coyotes around here, and the sisters worry about the chickens. They'll close up the barn, too." Giles blinked as Spike shifted into game face. "What?"
"Shift, your sense of smell will be better. The country smells are messing me up."
The world changed colors when he let go of his human face. The plants in the field pulsed faintly, and Giles could almost see the evening breeze. He breathed deeply, tasting the smells. "Horses. Multiple horses. And sweaty people."
"And metal that's been out in the sun all day. They're not coming fast, but they're coming." Spike grinned, licking his fangs. "Come on." He headed down the road.
"Why?" Though Giles followed anyway.
"Ought to tell Slayer how many of them there are."
"Oh, makes sense."
"And I'm not eating out of a baggie tonight."
"Oh, yes. Even better."
The convent's dinner was served immediately after Vespers in the lamp-lit common room of the dormitory. The meal was chicken soup, supplemented by cheese and bread donated by the Scoobies. The cook, Sister Teresa, went around with her soup pot, making sure everyone got enough. Tara was fussed over by Sister Mary, the herbalist, who praised Willow's choices of remedies for the pain of Tara's hand and the distress in her mind.
Savlin, Baynar, and two other Minoto sat near one end of the long refectory table. Baynar kept leaning forward so he could peer around his mother and wave at the new people. Dawn waved back and made faces so that the little boy would giggle and duck back behind Savlin. The other two Minoto adults were less comfortable in the company of strange humans and watched out of the corners of their eyes, occasionally speaking softly with Savlin.
Joyce talked happily with Sister Agnes about the history of the convent, occasionally asking Anya for additional historical information.
Xander turned down yet another offer of more soup from Sister Teresa, then leaned closer to Buffy. "Do I look like I'm starving? She's like my Grandma, 'Eat, Lexi, you're too skinny.'"
"No, I think you've just been adopted by a bunch of Aunts. I think we all have." She grinned as Dawn failed to keep Sister Teresa from either refilling her bowl or patting her head.
Loud knocking came from the front door. Sister Agnes looked up and frowned. "Who could that be? Everyone's here--" She looked at Buffy, who grimaced.
Sister Agnes firmed her shoulders and got up to investigate. Buffy followed quietly.
Spike and Giles waited at the open front door of the building. Both of them looked a bit rumpled, and Spike was bouncing on his toes. Giles smiled slightly and nodded to the nun. "Good evening, Sister Agnes."
It took her a few moments to find her voice. "Good evening, Mr. Giles. I was--very surprised to hear about what happened to you."
His smile became sadder. "It was rather a surprise to me as well. I am sorry we've had to bring such strangeness to your doorstep. Things are, however, developing rapidly."
Buffy came up to stand beside Sister Agnes. "What's going on?"
"There's a troop of Knights of Byzantium, they're probably ten minutes away."
She went into first-things-first mode. "How many?"
"More or less," Spike added.
Sister Agnes frowned. "Should we be worried? Maybe they don't mean any harm."
"The man riding in the lead has the look of a zealot about him," Giles said. "They're fanatic about finding and destroying the Key before Glory gets hold of it. I doubt they're willing to be reasonable."
Buffy peered over Giles' shoulder and saw that the front gates were closed. "Is it too late to get on the bus and make a break for it?"
"They're on the only road, and we'd be trying to fight a running battle at night."
"Are you sure it will come to a fight?" Sister Agnes asked. "Surely they'll respect sanctuary."
Spike shrugged. "They might. Miracles are your business. But I think it's more likely that I'd be able to step into your chapel without flinching."
Sister Agnes crossed herself. Both Spike and Giles averted their eyes until she was done. "What do we do?" she asked calmly.
Giles smiled at Buffy. "Do you think Anya knows much about the proper conduct of sieges? I confess, all my knowledge is theoretical, but it should be quite exciting."
They carried torches as they rode into the valley. Every other soldier in the disciplined column of riders held a flaming torch in his left hand. At the rear of the column, a group of hooded, robed figures each carried their own torch.
They deployed in front of the convent gates, silent except for the jingle of armor and horse bridles.
"What," Xander said up on the parapet, "no pitchforks?"
Spike, standing on the other side of Buffy, leaned against the wall and snickered.
Out of the silent crowd of soldiers rode a man without the chainmail veil, his elaborately tattooed face bare.
"That's their leader," Giles told Buffy.
"Not a reasonable looking guy," she said.
The man stared up at the people on the parapet. "I am General Gregor of the Knights of Byzantium. I am here for the Key."
Spike leaned over the wall. "We already have one," he said in a dreadful French accent.
Xander giggled helplessly.
The General glared. "What?"
Xander pulled himself up. "Yes," he called, "it's very nice." His bad French accent was much worse than Spike's. Spike was leaning against the wall himself again, laughing.
"Stop it, you two," Giles snapped.
They were all distracted by the sound of the gate creaking open. Down below, Anya and one of the nuns had pulled the gate open just far enough for Sister Agnes to step outside.
General Gregor turned his horse to face her, and he bowed. "Sister. Forgive me for disturbing your establishment. I hope we can conclude this business without too much fuss and my men and I can leave you in peace."
"Or pieces," Spike muttered. Giles smacked him hard in the arm.
Sister Agnes stopped a few feet away. "General Gregor, this is a place of sanctuary. The person you refer to as the Key has sought shelter here, and we have granted it."
The General lost what affability he had. "There is no sanctuary from the Beast, sister. Our only hope is to destroy the Key and prevent the Beast from destroying the world."
"What you are proposing is the murder of an innocent person!"
"What I am proposing is the preservation of the billions of people on this planet. One life, mistakenly created, is irrelevant."
Both Buffy and Spike growled at the phrase "mistakenly created." The General glanced up at the people on the wall, then back at the nun.
"Will you give me the Key?" he asked.
Sister Agnes pulled herself up to her full height. "No."
The General pulled on his reins, making his horse stamp fretfully. "Sister, as devout as your faith and intentions may be, I cannot forget that the patron saint of your order is a demon. It is well known that you protect demons of all sorts." He glanced up at the wall again. "Including vampires. I can only conclude your primary loyalties do not rest with humanity and that your sympathies lie with the Beast."
"How dare you!" Sister Agnes gasped. "St. Eugene served the people of his community--the *human* community--faithfully for decades! We have given shelter to all species, protected all who would ask against evil."
"There are two beings within your walls that prove otherwise."
This time Giles growled. Buffy poked him. "Is he wrong?" she hissed.
His eyes were flickering yellow. "He is about Sister Agnes."
But Sister Agnes needed no such defense. "By their works shalt thou know them. None within our walls have offered harm. You, however, bring up armed troops and threaten an innocent being who has claimed the sanctuary Holy Church offers to all who ask."
"Your saint was rejected by the church, sister." The General gave the title more of a sarcastic sneer. "I don't think the Holy Church will be too concerned about what happens here."
Sister Agnes glared right back at him. "I don't recall seeing your order mentioned in the Holy Calendar either--General. Don't try to hide behind orthodoxy with me."
General Gregor drew his sword. Giles went into full gameface and growled. Buffy debated grabbing his arm--and kept debating. She had a feeling that debate might take a while. But Gregor looked up at the vampire above him and lowered his sword.
"You have one hour," he said.
Sister Agnes hadn't flinched back one footstep. "For what?"
"To give me the Key."
"And when we do not?"
"We shall take it." He looked back up at the people on the wall. "We shall destroy the Key and stop the Beast. No matter what."
Buffy leaned over the wall to glare down at him, cursing the fact that she had to go up on tiptoe to get over far enough. Stupid tall male creatures. "We are all trying to stop Glory, here, General. There's no need for this."
His sneer was very visible in the torchlight. "A Vampire Slayer who stands with two vampires has no moral right to judge our holy mission!"
"Yeah?" She pulled herself up higher on the wall, then felt someone tug up on the back belt loop of her jeans, giving her a boost. "All you and your stupid knights have done is kill helpless crazy people! I don't see a lot of moral high ground under your feet, mister!"
His horse stamped again. "One hour!" General Gregor yelled, then rode back to his men.
Xander glared after him. "Can we taunt him a second time?"
"I think we've pissed him off enough," she said. She saw both of his hand on the top of the wall, wondered who was still holding her belt loop, then turned to glare at Spike, who immediately let her go and put both hands innocently in the air.
"I'm all for taunting," he said, watching the Knights. "I get a distinct whiff of hamsters and elderberries."
"We can wave our private parts at their aunties," Xander added.
"If you two don't stop that," Giles snapped, "I shall throw you both off this wall." He was still in gameface as he glared at the soldiers.
Spike tipped his head thoughtfully. "Might be worth it. Could do some damage." He glanced at Buffy. "I mean, before--"
"Don't bother," she said quietly. "I already know it's out."
Spike went still, then raised his eyes slowly to look at Xander, who flinched just a little before staring back. "Balls of steel, boy," he said softly. "I thought it would take you a lot longer to run for the Slayer's skirts to hide behind."
Xander smiled just a little. "I was thinking of opening the back door of the bus and letting the sun shine in underneath those seats, myself. But somebody said you might be useful for just a little bit longer."
Giles glared at Spike. "Why didn't you tell me he knew?"
Spike was still looking at Xander. "It's between me and the boy, Ripper. Didn't concern you."
"I beg to differ!"
"Look, enough with the testosterone!" Buffy snapped. "We've got bigger problems. We've got a small army out there that just threatened to kill us all. I think chip vs. no chip can wait."
Spike lowered his eyes to her. "You're taking this very calmly, Slayer. Have to admit, I'm surprised."
She wouldn't meet his eyes, just looked out over the gathered soldiers, who had dismounted from their horses and had planted their torches in the ground as they prepared themselves. "It's just--I hate myself for this, but all I can think is--just as well."
Sister Agnes walked back through the gate, head held high--at least until the gate closed behind her. Then she fumbled for her rosary and pulled it up to kiss the cross as she whispered an urgent prayer.
Buffy ran up to her. "Sister Agnes, I am so sorry. I can't believe him." She swallowed hard. "If you want to throw us out, I understand."
Sister Agnes patted her shoulder. "Nina, I am not throwing you out. I will not be the first head of the order to refuse sanctuary, no matter if there is an arrogant dog in armor at our front gate threatening us." She smiled at everyone who was gathering around. "It's not the first time someone thought threatening us would make us give in."
Anya looked worried. "And how many times have you been burned out?"
The nun's smile faded just a little. "No times, here. Back in France--one or two times." She shook herself. "It doesn't matter. We will not give you to him."
Buffy looked at the small crowd around her: the Scoobies, who had been on the run all day only to have their refuge threatened by someone who was supposed to be on their side, and the nuns, who didn't deserve to have their peaceful world messed up like this. And they were all looking at her for a plan.
She shrugged. "Anybody got any ideas?"
Xander looked around the courtyard. "There's enough room to turn the bus around. Someone could yank the gate open and we could make a run for it. Maybe take a few of those Knights with us."
Buffy nodded. "That might work as a last resort. Anybody else?"
Giles gave her a very serious look. "The simplest thing seems to be to turn us loose." He nodded at Spike.
Willow blinked. "'Us?' Are they demons?"
"Oh, yeah," Buffy said. "About that ..."
"Oh, don't you dare," Spike interrupted. "I've been waiting for ages for this." He smiled at Willow. "They're human. But the chip's not a problem anymore."
"Not a problem? What do you--Oh!" Willow gasped in horror and pulled Tara back a couple of steps.
Spike grinned in delight. "Thank you, Red."
Willow looked at Buffy and pointed a shaky finger at Spike. "Spike! Grr again! All bitey, evil, rip our heads off suck our blood out again!"
"Will, it's OK--"
"No, it's not! Bottle! Into the brain! It's not OK!" She turned and glared at Spike. "I felt sorry for you after Glory hurt you, you rotten, non-chipped, evil vampire, you."
Spike was still grinning. "Red, relax. You are far too cute to kill."
Joyce moved forward. "And the rest of us?" Dawn was right behind her, trying not to cling to her arm as she stared at Spike.
All the laughter left Spike's face. "You and Niblet have nothing to fear from me, Joyce. I swear."
"How long have you had the chip out?" Dawn asked in a very small voice.
"Since before your mum got sick this last time, luv."
She blinked, obviously thinking about everything that had happened since then.
Anya poked Spike in the arm. "How is this fair? You get to be all demony again, and I don't?"
Buffy cleared her throat. "I don't think we have time for that right now. We've got a bunch of wacko fanatics out there threatening to bust in here and lay waste to get to Dawn. What do we do about that?"
Willow made sure to keep Buffy between Tara and herself and Spike. "Sister Agnes, I don't suppose you have any hidden rooms or anything we could hide in?"
Sister Agnes shook her head. "We've never needed any such thing. The only trouble we ever had was with a troop of cavalry at the turn of the century--the last century, that is. They thought we might be hiding some bandits, and they weren't quite sure what to make of St. Eugene." She shook herself. "No, there's no place to hide here."
Buffy frowned at Giles. "I don't want to turn you and Spike loose on those guys. They're supposed to be the good guys, and you're . . ."
His smile was ironic. "Evil demonic killers?"
"You don't have to sound so pleased about it. If only there was some way we could sneak out of here, some secret door through the wall or something."
Giles blinked. "A door . . ."
Buffy stepped closer. "You know about something?"
"Possibly . . ." He shook his head. "No, it's insanity."
Buffy pointed at the wall. "Insanity is that guy out there who would rather kill Dawn rather than just make sure Glory doesn't get hold of her. What have you got?"
Giles glanced at Willow, then studied Buffy. "It could be very dangerous. More dangerous than simply fighting General Gregor."
"We create our own door to slip through--to another dimension. We could hide there until General Gregor leaves and until after dawn so that there's no more danger of Glory opening her portal."
Buffy stared at him in shock, but Willow's eyes went big in excitement. "Another dimension? A whole other world? That would be so neat! How do we do it?"
Buffy put her hands up in a T. "Hang on, hang on. Another dimension? You want us all to open a portal and jump to someplace like--" She looked at Anya. "What were those places?"
"Oh, the land without shrimp, and where it's always Wednesday and like that?"
"Yeah. Isn't that dangerous?"
Giles shrugged. "So is walking through Sunnydale at night, but you do that all the time. And in an hour, it's going to be quite dangerous here. It's not something I propose lightly, but it is an option."
"It's not that easy, is it? How do you open a portal?"
"It depends on where you're going. Anya, I believe you've been to the most different places of any of us."
"Well, yes, but I was a vengeance demon, it was part of my job. I don't really know any spells for portals." She turned to Spike. "You said you've been in another dimension. How did you get there?"
He shook his head. "Wasn't by choice. And if you lot come up with a plan that involves portals, count me out. I'll take my chances with the Knights of the Round Table out there."
"Some of the other dimensions are very pretty," Anya said. "In the Wednesday land, the sun is pink."
"That's lovely, pet, I'll pass."
Giles waved a hand impatiently. "Fine, fine. I've looked at several portal spells, I know the basic construction. Anya, do you remember their proper names, the places you've been?"
"I think so."
Giles looked at Sister Agnes. "The last time I was here, sister, I saw a copy of the Guide to the Higher Planes in your library. May I borrow it, please?" The nun nodded and went into the convent.
"All right," Buffy said, "we know we can do it. We still don't know if we should. Just how dangerous is dangerous? Spike, why don't you want to go?"
He gave her one of the most evil glares in his repertoire. "I'd rather not go into it, thank you very much."
She started to ask again, then realized she'd pushed him as far as he wanted to go. He'd just admitted in public that there was something in the universe that he wasn't willing to face. Asking him to explain just might make him demonstrate what he was capable of unchipped.
"Giles, what are the dangers?"
"Other than the dangers of the land on the other side, the portal itself is supposed to be, well, very disorienting and stressful." He glanced at Anya, who shrugged.
"Depends on the person. Some people suffer severe hallucinations; for some people it just hurts a lot."
"Just?" Buffy blinked.
"I never had any problems, but I never went through as a human." She glanced at Joyce. "I don't think your mother should go. Neither should Tara."
Willow pulled Tara close. "What would it do to her?"
"Dru didn't talk for a full year after our little trip," Spike said softly, staring at the dirt just in front of his boots. "And it wasn't just because of where we ended up." He looked at Joyce. "Don't go if you don't have to."
Joyce thought for several moments, her arm around Dawn. "The important thing is to get Dawn somewhere safe."
"Mom--" Dawn started.
"Honey, they won't bother me if they come in here. I'm just an old, crippled lady--" Noises of protest came from several points in the group. She blushed a little. "Anyway, you're the one they're after. We just need to tuck you somewhere safe for a little bit. I'll be fine here with Tara and the nuns."
"I'll make sure no one comes near you," Spike said firmly.
"Thank you, Spike."
Buffy counted on his fingers. "Me, Dawn, Giles--Willow?"
Willow shook her head. "I'm staying with Tara. If you had a camera, though, I'd say take pictures for me."
Anya looked at Xander, who glared at Spike. "I'm staying," Xander said. "Not going to leave everybody here with just that one to look after them."
Anya shrugged. "I'm staying with him."
Willow frowned. "Hey, Mr. Macho Manly Guy. It's not like we're helpless here, you know."
Xander finally smiled. "So I want to stay and watch you give General Whozit a hard time."
Buffy looked around the group. "That's just me, Dawn, and Giles, then. Are you sure? Gregor didn't seem like a reasonable kind of guy." She hated the idea of leaving her friends and her mother to a fanatic.
"You need to come with Dawn," Giles said. "To make sure she's safe."
She started to say he could look after Dawn, then recalled what had nearly happened on the front lawn. He nodded at the look on her face as she remembered she couldn't blindly trust her Watcher anymore. If he was reminding her that he couldn't be trusted, didn't that mean she could trust him? But there was no way to be sure, other than going with him.
Sister Agnes came back, carrying a large book. "Oh, thank you, sister," Giles said. "Anya, Willow, I could use your help."
As the magic folks compared notes, Buffy went over to Joyce and Dawn. "You'll be careful?" Joyce said.
Buffy tried to laugh. "As careful as I can. I mean--it's not like a road trip to Aunt Darlene's." She saw Dawn's scared eyes and hugged her. "But I can't think of anything else that doesn't involve lots of people getting hurt."
"Like siccing Spike and Giles on those guys," Dawn said.
"Yeah. Mom, I'm sorry, I never would have let Spike in the house if I'd had any idea--"
Joyce patted her arm. "Honey, if he meant any harm, he's had lots of opportunities."
"God, don't remind me." She wrapped her free arm around her mother. "I think I'm scared."
"I know I am," Dawn whispered. "But I'm glad you're coming with me." They stood there awhile and just hugged.
Xander watched everyone for a few moments then headed for the bus. Spike sauntered after him and leaned against the door, smoking one of his last few cigarettes. Xander came back down the steps, carrying a duffle bag. He paused on seeing the vampire.
"Would that be the interesting smelling bag that was tucked under your seat?" Spike asked, blowing smoke rings.
"Yes, it would."
"They don't know you have it, do they."
"This will be fun."
"Then you can lead the way. For some reason I don't like having vampires behind me."
"Afraid I might start thinking about how those loose trousers do nothing for your ass?"
"We don't need you here, Spike. If I stake you, no one will care."
"Oh, you may not need me, but you want me."
"You're right. I dream of you, Spike. I dream of a shoebox with the words 'Spike's Remains' written on top. That's how I want you."
But Spike only smirked. "See? I knew you wanted my body."
Xander snarled then headed for the parapet on the wall.
Buffy watched Xander cross the courtyard, followed by a too-pleased-looking Spike. Who just might be looking for some private time in which to show his opinion of being outed, chip wise.
"I'll be right back," she told Joyce and Dawn, and followed Spike.
Up on the parapet, Xander looked over the top of the wall at the invading force. The horses had been tied up farther down the road, and the soldiers were lined up in front of the walls. Spike settled down on the parapet and peeked over the top himself.
"Crossbows and swords," he observed. "A couple of spear chuckers, too. Then there's those guys in monks robes to the side. They'd be laughable if I didn't know they were willing to cut crazy people's throats without qualm."
"Hopefully we won't have to worry about that." Xander unzipped his duffle bag.
Buffy came up the stairs, careful to stay below the top of the wall. "So, guys, what are we doing for fun tonight?" She frowned at Spike's grin, then she saw what Xander was pulling out of his bag.
A military-style assault rifle. Xander turned it in his hands, inspecting it, then he reached into the bag, pulled out a long clip of ammunition and shoved it into place.
"Oh, my god," Buffy whispered. "Xander . . ."
"Yes?" He didn't look up from the bag.
"How--where did--you can't--"
"Why not?" He settled back on his heels, the rifle across his legs, and looked at her. "Not all of us can be Slayers or witches or vampires. Fortunately, we don't have to be."
Spiked leaned over to look into the bag. "What else you got in there?" He started to reach in, and Xander slapped his hand.
"Xander," Buffy tried again, "these guys have, what, swords, crossbows? You can't use a gun on them."
"There's one of me," Xander said, "and thirty of them. Even on rapid fire, they've got us out gunned."
"In the middle ages," Spike said casually, "the church forbade the use of the crossbow against Christians because it was such a devastating weapon. Only fit for use against heretics and infidels. Don't feel sorry for the men with the crossbows, Slayer."
"But guns are nasty."
"Yep," Xander agreed, stretching up to check on the soldiers. "I'm hoping they agree. I put a few shots into the ground in front of them, they should decide they're a whole lot too close and back the hell off." He gave Buffy a tight smile. "And hopefully nobody gets hurt." The smile went nastier when it turned to Spike. "I wonder if I can get wooden bullets."
Spike smiled back. "Not for a modern gun, pet. Pressure in the breech is too high. Kind of fun to watch people try, though."
"Bet a bullet to the head would put a crimp in your day, though."
"It's been known to make a mess."
Buffy retreated, leaving them to their blood-thirsty barbs. She wandered over to the portal discussion, which had moved to the tables under the grape arbor. A lamp had been brought out to provide light for human eyes.
Anya glanced up at the wall. "Why is Spike bothering Xander?"
"Because he's Spike." Anya shrugged agreement and turned back to the papers on the table. Buffy pulled up a bench to sit down. "Xander's brought a gun."
Anya nodded. "He keeps it in a locked trunk in the back of the closet."
Willow blinked in horror. "Xander has a gun?"
"An M-16, I think. He was telling me about it one night while he was cleaning it. I didn't care, but Oprah says you should pay attention when your man is talking about something important to him."
Giles glanced towards Xander. "Not a bad plan. It might convince the Knights to keep their distance."
Willow blinked. "But--why would he bring it in the first place?"
"If I had an M-16, I might have brought it. As it is, I brought a sword." He gave Willow a sad smile. "There is someone out there who has hurt us in the past and is looking for us to hurt us some more. This is a case of using any means necessary to protect ourselves."
Willow looked at Tara, who sat beside her, rolling an orange back and forth and humming. "Yes, it is."
Buffy looked at the papers and book, frowning at the odd symbols. "So what have you got?"
Giles arranged the papers for her. "We've found a location that should be safe for all of us. It's a place Anya has been, so we can prepare for the conditions. We just need to go over the words of the spell a few times and we'll be ready to go."
"How long will we be gone? And is this going to be one of those an hour here is like a day there things?"
"I don't believe so. It has to do with the proximity of the dimensional planes in relation to--" He broke off at the look on Buffy's face. "They're close enough that the time flow should be very similar."
"I want to ask how, but it would be like all those times you tried to explain physics to me, wouldn't it."
Giles managed not to laugh. "I'm afraid so. Though Willow would be happy to tutor you, as always."
Willow bounced. "This is so cool, Buffy! And it makes sense. The hard part is to make sure you have the proper name of the dimension and you know what language to use in the spell. The language itself partially invokes the dimension, and the rest of the incantation forms the portal." She settled down a little. "And, yeah, it's kind of like physics."
"We can get back, right? I mean, if the two of you are going to be doing the spell to open the portal, won't you need two to open it coming back?"
"Oh, of course we can get back," Giles said. "I want Willow's help for safety's sake. Plus, I don't think I could stop her." Willow grinned back at him. "But I know the spell for a portal that will bring us back here. Which explains why the Council insists all Watchers learn Sumerian, which is one of the earliest human languages to have a magical vocabulary."
Getting both Giles and Willow back on track when there was fascinating stuff to discuss was like pushing a shopping cart with a bad wheel. "When do we go?"
Willow and Giles looked at each other. "Twenty minutes?" Willow asked. Giles nodded. "Twenty minutes."
Buffy blew her hair back out of her eyes. "So what do I pack?"
They quietly spread the word about the imminent departure. When Buffy went up to consult with Xander on the Knights, Spike abandoned his torment-Xander post to track down Giles.
"You're an idiot, you know," he said when he found the other vampire, who was sweeping debris from a section of the courtyard. Willow was shooing the chickens back into their coop, using unladylike language that would have upset the Humane Society.
Giles barely looked up. "No, I'm not. Portal travel isn't done on a regular basis, but the theory is well understood." He glanced around and moved closer. "Though I don't blame you for being leery, if you've had a bad experience. How did it happen?"
"Voodoo priestess in New York. Booby trap in her hougon. She was after vampire parts for a spell. I was for parts, and she sent Dru through the portal as a present for the creatures on the other side. She had a power-sharing deal with them, had to feed them occasionally. I had to go in after her. Dalton and the boys made the bitch keep the portal open, then we chopped her up once me and Dru were back." He studied the darkness for a while. "I kind of miss Dalton. The Judge ate him. I found him in an old bookstore in Manhattan. I called him in for the Du Lac Cross thing." He shook his head firmly to stop the babbling. "Have you ever even seen a portal, Ripper?"
"Yes, I have, actually. In training. They are rather stomach turning, I agree. But Sqaon seems the wisest choice for a place to hide."
"Sqaon? Haven't heard of it."
"It's Anya's land of perpetual Wednesday. Not a term useful for spell casting, so we had to get her to remember its proper name. Excuse me, I need to finish sweeping, then we're ready to go."
Spike nodded and wandered off, finding his way to the bus. Buffy was already there, searching under the seats for something. Spike hesitated, then simply said, "Excuse me," stepped over her and went to the back.
Buffy pulled her head from under the seat and looked at him, puzzled. Still, she shouldn't complain about not having to deal with rude chatter. She found her boots and started to leave, then sat down on a seat to change shoes. "Spike?"
He straightened from the pile of stuff he'd built Giles' hidey-hole from, looking wary. "Yes?"
"Thank you for staying to look after Mom. And for looking after her and Dawn through all this."
Spike shrugged. "No big deal."
"I think it is. I know what you've always promised about what you'd do when you got the chip out. But you haven't done it. You've helped us, instead." She looked at her hands. "I--was kind of relieved, knowing you were looking out for them when I couldn't. I'm not going to ask why, just--thanks."
Spike settled into a seat several rows behind her. "No matter what I ever planned, even when I planned horrible things for you, I never meant any harm to Joyce or the Niblet. I don't know if that's the monks' doing, playing with my memories and all, but there it is. And it's not because I'm trying to get in good with you," he added, just a little bitterly.
"Just because I'm glad you're protecting Mom and Dawn doesn't mean I trust you."
He managed to smile. "Just means you're not stupid. You may never believe that I love you, and you may never love me back. Doesn't change how I feel. And I am grateful you trust me with your family. No one will lay a hand on your mum, not while I can still crawl."
"Thank you." She looked out the window and saw Willow and Giles conferring in the clean spot of the courtyard. "I think it's time. Spike, if this doesn't work, if we get stuck or something--"
"Skip that part, I've got a good imagination."
"Yeah. Anyway, I'm not going to be here to deal with Glory. And she's going to be pissed."
Spike scratched at the healing spot on his head. "I've got some payback scheduled for her. Between me, Red, who's got her own reasons, and Rambo Harris, we should be able to manage something."
Buffy stood up, tested the fit of her boots, and nodded. "Good enough, then." She started to leave, then looked back one more time. "What are you going to do to Xander?"
The old, joyfully evil smirk made a brief reappearance. "Don't know yet. Lovely watching him squirm, though."
"Don't you hurt him."
"I don't think he'd appreciate you trying to fight his battles for him, luv."
God, a guy thing. She did not have time for this. She spared one more glare then left the bus.
Everyone gathered around for last farewells. Xander hugged Dawn, then Buffy. "I'm going to go keep an eye on our friends. They might try to stop this."
"Be careful," Buffy said, of the dozens of things she wanted to. "Keep an eye on everybody for me."
"Sure thing." He kissed her on the cheek and headed back to his position on the wall.
Willow watched Giles looking around fretfully. "What's wrong?"
"I know I'm forgetting something, but what--"
"Ripper! Catch!" Spike, sauntering from the bus, tossed a long item to Giles, who smiled and caught it.
"Yes, precisely. Thank you, Spike." Giles drew the longsword, checked the edge, resheathed it, then buckled it across his chest so that the sword rode on his back. "Buffy, would you like some weapons? I believe we brought a crossbow."
"No, I'm good." She glanced at Dawn, then they went to Joyce, who hugged them tightly.
"Be careful, you two," she whispered.
Dawn sniffled and nodded. Buffy managed not to squish her mother when she hugged back. "You stay under cover, you. Please. OK?"
"OK." Joyce pushed them back. "Best get a move on."
Buffy nodded and headed back. Dawn hesitated, then ran towards Spike, who gave an audible oof when she hit him. He hugged her as tightly as a vampire who didn't want to hurt someone could.
"Look after Mom," Dawn said.
"I will. You mind your sis, now--and Ripper, so long as it doesn't seem like he's--"
"Like he's trying to kill me, right." She looked over her shoulder to where Buffy waited with mixed impatience and uncertainty. Dawn kissed Spike's cheek. "Don't bite anybody."
"Nobody who doesn't want me to. Go on."
Dawn ran to Buffy, who was almost glaring at Spike, then at her sister. Dawn only smiled at her pleasantly.
Giles sighed. "Are we ready?"
Willow hugged Buffy and Dawn. "I'm ready."
"All right, then. Together."
Willow nodded, took a deep breath, and waited for Giles' nod. They began to chant.
The air in the courtyard vibrated, then began to turn. The chickens in their coop squawked loudly.
Out in the Knights' camp, the horses stamped nervously. Xander watched one of the monks run up to General Gregor, who was glaring at the gate. The General listened a moment, then strode to the gate.
"You can just back off there, General," Xander called. "Our hour isn't up yet."
Giles, still chanting, glanced up worriedly, then at Spike. Spike nodded and ran up the steps to join Xander.
The General glared at Xander. "There is foul sorcery afoot, boy! I demand you stop and turn over the Key."
"We have an hour, General. You will get your answer then." Xander glared at Spike but made room for him.
"What is that spell your wizards are casting?"
"I don't know much about magic." He hefted the M16 to port arms. "I know weapons. Do you?"
His knightly order may shun modern technology, but General Gregor obviously recognized it. He stepped back.
Down in the courtyard, the wind had become visible and thick with light. Giles and Willow raised their voices to be heard over the wind. A tiny vortex appeared, slowly spinning larger.
In the doorway of the chapel, Tara watched the portal form. "Giggling stones jump," she whispered, moving forward. Sister Agnes, watching the proceedings next to her, gently took her arm.
"Best stay back, nina."
Tara frowned at the nun. "Pictures tear. Black words eat. The red turns black."
"Go inside, Taracita. This is upsetting you."
Gregor stood below Xander. "Cease this magic. Give us the Key."
Xander flicked off the safety on the rifle. "No."
"Then you give me no choice." Gregor turned to go to his troops.
Xander rose smoothly, put the rifle to his shoulder, and fired a single shot into the ground at Gregor's feet.
Buffy whirled. "Xander, no!"
Spike waved her back. "Warning shot, keep going!"
Xander watched Gregor's face over the sights. "You've got lots of choices, General. You're the only one who can make them. And I already know what my choices are."
A last shout from Willow and Giles, and the vortex bloomed into full life. The wind whipped out across the courtyard, then stillness fell, leaving a swirling silver hole in the air.
Giles turned to Buffy. "We need to go now."
She stared at the portal. It had the same innocent silvery shimmer as that hole that had opened up behind Angel and had made her decide between woman and Slayer.
"Buffy," Giles said urgently.
Dawn tugged on her sleeve. "We need to go, Buffy."
She looked at her sister, who hadn't existed last year at this time. Someone else the fate of the world hinged on and who it was up to her to deal with. This time, though, the choices of sister and Slayer were the same. She took Dawn's hand and squeezed lightly. "Right. Let's go. First one who goes nuts has to do the dishes."
Buffy nodded to Giles, who grinned back. "I'll go first, shall I?" he said enthusiastically.
"Go for it."
He paused just a moment, then dove into the moving tunnel. Buffy looked at Dawn and made sure she had a firm grim on her sister's hand. Dawn nodded back, and they ran for the portal, jumping as one.
Joyce gave a whimper, despite herself. "My girls . . ."
Anya patted her shoulder. "It's not a bad place. Just dark and gloomy and boring. Kind of like high school."
Joyce wiped her eyes and nearly laughed. "Thank you, Anya."
Willow didn't relax. She wiped her hands on her pants legs, checked her notes, then began the chant to close the portal. It fought her for a few seconds, then cycled down to a pinprick before disappearing with a flash and swirl of dust.
"Cool," Willow said, panting.
Xander didn't look down. "Are we done here, General?" he asked, watching Gregor's livid face.
"What was that spell?"
"You'll get your answer when our hour is up."
"You gave us an hour! Are you changing the rules, General? Do we just cut loose now and let what happens happen?" Xander saw out of the corner of his eye that Spike was looking over the wall, grinning down in full gameface.
General Gregor snarled up at them, then stomped away. Xander watched a few seconds, then slid down below the top of the wall to sit and shake. His hand automatically reset the safety on the rifle and set it down carefully, pointed at a wall.
"Oh, god," he whispered.
Spike kept an eye on the soldiers. "I think he soiled his armor. Good job, Harris."
"I shot at him."
"Nah, you didn't come anywhere near him. Just scared him good."
"I shot at somebody."
"You do it all the time with crossbows."
Xander looked up with a glare. "That's at vampires. They don't count."
"Oh! You wound me. So, what do we do when our hour's up? Jump over the wall and set to?"
"No!" Xander sighed. "I don't think, anyway. Keep an eye on them, I'll go consult."
Spike snapped a perfect salute. "Yes, sah!" But his grin ruined the image of the compleat Royal Army military man. Well, the black leather and bleached hair did, too.
Manic Spike. What fun.
He joined Willow, Joyce, Anya, and Sister Agnes. "So. What do we tell him when the hour's up?"
"The truth," Joyce said. "The Key's not here anymore."
"He won't believe us."
Sister Agnes drew herself up. "Then he may come in and search."
"Oh, you don't want that," Anya said. "Soldiers searching for things tend to break other things."
Joyce shook her head. "And he only has our word that Dawn is the Key. He doesn't strike me as the believing sort."
Willow frowned. "But--if the Key's not here and he doesn't believe us . . ."
"If they don't offer us any harm . . ." Sister Agnes said hopefully.
Xander gave her a sympathetic smile. "I think General Gregor is definitely in the mood to harm someone."
"Well, maybe if you hadn't shot at him," Willow muttered.
"He was going to attack, Will. Kind of a bad thing in the middle of spell casting."
"Still, you didn't have to shoot."
"True. I could have sicced Spike on him. He's certainly willing."
"Kids," Joyce said mildly. "That's not helping. Sister, do you want to offer him the chance to search? I don't know what he'll make of Savlin and the others."
"Oh, dear. But, we'll have to let him in, won't we?"
"No," Xander said.
Anya shrugged. "Of course, they'll be annoyed. Soldiers are like that. But annoyed soldiers are easier to deal with when they're outside, not inside."
Sister Agnes nodded once. "So. We know they're going to be upset. We don't want them inside the walls if they're upset. Very well."
"What if they insist?" Joyce asked.
Willow blinked. "They can't insist. They don't have any right to insist."
Xander squeezed her shoulders. "Our Willow, so trusting. Will, they have swords and crossbows and lots of men. They think that gives them the right."
"But that's just--bad guys think like that."
"But you have that gun thing, which is nastier than a sword, doesn't that mean--" She broke off, frowning. "Oh, dear."
"Welcome to the arms race, Wills."
"I'm going to go hug Tara."
Joyce smiled kindly as Willow went to the chapel. "So. When they insist. What do we do?"
Sister Agnes looked at Xander. "You don't think we should let them in?"
"Maybe just their general. Not all of them."
"Can you keep them out?"
He looked at his hands. "I think so."
"Spike can help," Anya said.
Sister Agnes frowned up at the wall. "That's what I'm afraid of." She crossed herself. "We can only do our best and trust in the Lord. I'll speak to them when the hour's up."
"From the wall," Xander said. "Don't go outside."
She hesitated, then nodded.
"I'm hungry," Anya said, looking perplexed. "Is this a usual human reaction to fear?"
Xander went over to hug her. "Humans have lots of reactions to fear, Ahn."
"Oh, I know, but do we have time for sex? I don't think we should, not here."
Xander stared at her, blushing slowly.
Joyce cleared her throat. "Anya, there might be some food in the dining room. We didn't really finish supper. Would you help me in?"
"Oh, of course." She moved closer to help Joyce balance as she maneuvered the walker across the uneven courtyard. Joyce took a step forward, then went still. "Joyce? Are you all right? Xander, Joyce is broken again!"
Joyce shook her head. "No, I'm all right, dear, I'm sorry. I just realized where I am."
"Where are you?"
"I'm in a Mission era convent dedicated to a saint who was a demon, threatened by a small army that dates from the Middle Ages, while my daughters have jumped through an interdimensional portal in the company of a vampire. Our defense relies on another vampire, one young man with a gun, and a witch. My high school yearbook said I was the girl most likely to be boring."
Anya hugged her. "And you're with us, instead. Isn't that better?"
Xander laughed. "Yeah, Mrs. Summers. Congratulations, you're a Scooby."
Joyce smiled at him. "My highest dreams achieved." She headed to the buildings with Anya.
Xander glanced sheepishly at Sister Agnes. "Um, about Anya and what she said. I'm sorry--"
She patted his arm. "She's a lovely girl, and blessed with a simpler view of life. You can always believe what she tells you."
"Oh, gosh, that's true."
"You're very lucky. Most people lie by habit. Your Anya tells the truth. Not everyone can deal with that."
"She's definitely an acquired taste." He blushed again and averted his eyes from the nun's smile. "I'd better get back up there before Spike starts taking potshots at people."
"Call me when you need me."
In the chapel, Tara avoided the shouting and the smell of magic and crawled under the benches to hide. Little gray scaley feet appeared in front of her, then a small muzzle and bright eyes peeked under at her. They stared at each other, then Tara crawled out, careful of her broken hand. The little creature sniffed at the cast, then chirped at her.
"Cotton balls," Tara said. That got her an amused hiss.
She wandered around the chapel, ignoring the large demons that looked like the little one that followed her. The large crucifix made her wince, but she stood in front of the Virgin for several minutes, tracing the curves of the wooden face with delicate fingers. The little demon tugged on her sleeve. She followed him to the statue of St. Eugene.
They stared at the statue for a bit, then Tara reached out to touch the golden chalice in the statue's hands. The water in the chalice began to swirl and glow. Her small companion went up on tiptoes to see in.
The glow faded to darkness, then a picture. A pretty blonde woman sat in the front seat of a car, eyes closed, head shaking, pain knotting her forehead. The lines of her face flickered several times, but settled. The woman glared, then poked the pockmarked demon behind the wheel. "Drive faster. He's getting pushy. I think he's trying to stop us."
"Yes, most glorious."
The little lizard whimpered and fell back. Tara took her hand away. The water slowed and went still.
Willow came through the doorway, looked around. The little demon ducked behind Tara, peeking around her legs at the new person.
"Hi, little guy," Willow said, crouching down. "Are you looking after my girl?" He didn't come out of hiding. She straightened and hugged Tara. "Crazy night. So this is the guy?" She studied the statue of St. Eugene, then ran a finger along the top of the chalice as she rested her head on Tara's shoulder. "Crazy night." She put both arms around Tara's waist, gazing into the still, empty waters in the cup.
Buffy hit gravel and lost Dawn's hand. She rolled to her feet. "Dawn!"
"Here," came the shaky answer. "Oh-h, he was right, that was nasty." Dawn climbed slowly to her feet. "Wow. Ick."
The sky was grey-green and seemed to pulse with occasional pink flashes. Maybe day, maybe night. There was enough light to show they had landed among ruins, half-collapsed stone walls that rose two or three feet. The weedy plant-like things clustered around the walls were yellowish and spiky. And they twitched, even though there was no wind.
Dawn and Buffy moved together, taking each others hand. "Shouldn't there be people?" Dawn asked. "I kind of expected people."
"I'm wondering where Giles is. Giles!"
Dawn hugged her arm. "Don't yell. You don't know what's out there."
Footsteps crunched behind a wall, and Giles came into view. He was still grinning. "Isn't this amazing? A whole new world."
Dawn shook her head. "No songs, no songs."
Buffy reminded herself that perkiness was not a capital offense. "Is everything OK? Nothing about to eat us? Where are the people?"
"Oh. Yes. Potential eating things." He actually reached up to fiddle with glasses he wasn't bothering with anymore. "I haven't seen anything threatening. Haven't seen much of anything, actually."
"Shouldn't there be people?"
"Yes, one would expect people, wouldn't one? Anya certainly wouldn't have come here on business if there were no people."
Buffy and Dawn looked at each other. "Giles, are you OK?" Buffy asked.
"Yes, yes, I'm fine. What about you two? Was the trip through very bad?"
Dawn shrugged. "Kind of like Space Mountain, but with a nastier light show."
"And smells," Buffy added.
Giles nodded. "Good, not too appalling, then. All we need to do now is find a safe place to wait- -oh, how lovely!"
The girls looked up to where he was looking. On a nearby mountainside a large furry something spread out huge orange half-circle wings, then leaned forward and glided away. It didn't flap its wings, just floated.
Dawn buried her face in Buffy's shoulder. "Go home now. Go home now."
"It's not a bat, Dawnie. It's not going to come down here." Buffy glared at Giles. "It better not, anyway."
Giles watched the thing travel across the sky, fascinated.
"Hm? Oh, sorry. I wonder if that's one of the people? Anyway, I found an old building around the corner that has most of its roof. It's quite empty."
"OK, let's go."
Giles lectured on what he'd observed so far, how the ruins suggested the builders were humanoid and how the path was made by something with two feet. Fortunately the building wasn't too far away. It was rather dilapidated, but was nicely empty and not very dirty.
Dawn waited for Buffy's nod, then collapsed on the dirt floor. "How long are we going to be here?"
Giles glanced at his watch. "In our world, dawn is at 6:13 tomorrow. It's nearly 10 now--and, yes, my watch is still working and seems to be keeping the same time."
"How would you know?" Dawn asked. "If time operated on different principles here, it would affect the way you perceive time. It might be faster than what we're used to, but we'd perceive it as normal."
Buffy stared at her. "Tell me again why you're flunking American History?"
Giles looked offended. "You're failing history? With all the resources available to you?"
"Geez, guys, relax. It's been a bad year, OK? And come on, Tea Pot Dome Scandal and all that, not exactly fascinating."
"Still," Giles said, "if you're intelligent enough to discuss theories of time, you can certainly handle a mere two hundred and twenty-five years of history."
Dawn shrugged. "That's just from watching science fiction stuff with Xander. I don't think that counts as learning."
"Xander is a very clever young man and much smarter than he gives himself credit for. As are you, Dawn."
She shrugged again, though she was smiling a little. The smile faded. "How do you think they did it?"
"Who?" Buffy asked.
"The monks. When they put me together. Was it some big communal project, they got together and said stuff like, 'Give her brown hair, and she needed braces when she was twelve, and she had whooping cough when she was three.' Or did they do it by committee, one for school stuff and one for friends and all? Maybe competitions on who could come up with the most twisted stuff?"
Giles leaned against a wall on the far side of the room, keeping partial watch outside. "I have no idea. It's an amazing spell. They could have been constructing it for years, crafting all the elements and making sure everything was ready by the time Glory caught up with them. All of us have memories of you, and you have a fully documented existence. It's a masterpiece of magic."
Buffy sat down next to Dawn. "Would have been easier if the Key had been a rock or something. I could have shoved it in a box in the basement or something." She dodged Dawn's kick for form's sake.
"Howler monkeys. I'm just saying." Something made chittering noises off in the murky gloom. Dawn slid closer to Buffy.
"Should we have a fire?" Buffy asked.
"That could attract as many things as it scares off," Giles said. "Besides, I don't have a lighter or matches." His hand flashed up and drew the sword on his back as he turned to face the door.
Buffy jumped to her feet. "What!" She hesitated about going to his side, because his vampire face had appeared. "What is it?"
"I'm not sure. I heard something, but it was far away. I think it's moved off." Still staring off into the dark, he resheathed the sword. "You two should get some sleep, if you can."
"Huh, yeah," Dawn muttered.
Buffy stared at the man in the doorway, the vampire who sometimes wore her most trusted friend's face. Who had tried to kill her sister. He even caused the twist in her gut that all vampires caused. The Slayer instincts said, "Kill, he's like all the others, it's your duty." But now he was defending them, acting just like the man who had always covered her back. It wasn't fair.
Giles glanced over at her and frowned, then reached to his face. "Oh. Sorry." He concentrated, and the ridges and fangs disappeared. He looked back outside, just a little embarrassed.
Slowly Buffy went to stand beside him on the other side of the doorway. "I thought Anya said the sun here was pink."
"It may well be, above the clouds. We may have arrived at a stormy time. And Anya spoke of cities near the ocean, which I don't think we're near."
"Did it hurt?" Buffy whispered.
"Excuse me?" He stared at her, then turned back to the darkness. "Yes, quite a bit, actually," he said, keeping his voice down to where only a Slayer would hear. "But she was too strong, and I'd left it too late to try and fight."
"Pride, I think. She'd beaten me before, but I was . . . not at my best. I suppose I had some idea of proving myself stronger and smarter than mad Drusilla."
"You don't know?"
"It's very blurry. All I remember clearly is the sound of her voice. And then waking up with Spike."
Dawn cleared her throat. "I don't suppose either of you have a candy bar or something in your pocket, do you? I'm a little hungry."
"Gosh, that's right," Buffy said, grateful for the distraction. "We should have brought some water, too."
"We shouldn't be here long enough to need to eat," Giles said.
"I'm a growing Key," Dawn muttered, "and I'm hungry."
Buffy went back to sit next to her. "Try to go to sleep, and it won't bother you." Dawn laid down and put her head in her sister's lap. "In a few hours all this will be over. Right, Giles?"
"Well, if not over, Dawn's part will be done. If Glory doesn't have her Key at 6:13 AM, she will not be opening any portals."
Dawn snuggled closer. "And my reason for existence will be over."
Buffy stroked her hair. "Your reason for existence will be to take make-up exams for this unannounced vacation and to get a passing grade in the Tea Bag Scandal and all that."
"Tea Pot Dome," Dawn said, hiding her smile.
"See? You're going to be the family historian. Now get some sleep." She stroke Dawn's hair for several minutes, listening to her sister's breathing get quieter. She saw Giles check his watch and frown. "What?"
"The General's hour is almost up."
"Will they be OK?"
Giles didn't look at her. "I don't know."
Xander took a swig from the mug of water Anya had brought him, but he didn't take his eyes from the soldiers below. "Almost time." He nodded at the crossbowmen checking their weapons.
Anya peeked over the walls. "They certainly do look professional."
"Maybe they'll be reasonable." He saw the look on her face. "Yeah, I know."
"Here comes the sister," Spike, at the far end of the parapet, said. Sister Agnes, accompanied by Willow, came up the steps. "You're early, sister." Spike offered her a hand up the last awkward step. After a blink of surprise, she accepted.
"I will not be summoned to my own walls by some fanatic. Where is he?"
Xander nodded towards the soldiers. "Over there, talking to his monks. He's working himself up to a full head of steam."
Sister Agnes' eyes narrowed. "Que lastima. I don't think we'll wait. General Gregor!"
General Gregor jumped, and Willow giggled. "Sister Agnes has been working herself up, too," she whispered.
Gregor scrambled for his cloak and the sword he'd put aside. "Yes, sister?"
"The hour you asked for is almost up. You have words for us?"
Xander snickered appreciatively.
"Yes, I do," Gregor called back. "You know my demands, sister. Give me the Key."
Gregor blinked. "Sister Agnes, one man with a rifle will not stop my warriors from coming in there and taking the Key. It is our sacred mission."
"Your enthusiasm is getting away from you, General. I won't give you the Key, because the Key isn't here anymore."
Gregor frowned. "Brother Maynard said the spell you cast was a portal."
Xander and Spike looked at each other. "Brother Maynard?" Xander gasped.
"If he goes for the Holy Hand Grenade, I will not be held responsible for what I do."
"Hush," Sister Agnes hissed at them.
"Bring it back," Gregor ordered.
"What? General, Glory cannot possibly get the Key in time now. There's no need for this--"
"There is every need! We are here to destroy the Key, and we shall not leave without completing our quest."
"The quest is the quest," Spike muttered. Sister Agnes kicked him.
Anya leaned over to Xander. "Does he know the Key is a girl?"
"Maybe not. Might make a difference." He stood up, keeping his empty hands in plain view. "General, do you know what form the Key is in?"
"It does not matter."
"It does. The Key is in the shape of a girl, Dawn Summers, the Slayer's little sister--*our* little sister. We're not giving her to you. That's why we sent her away. She's just a kid, an innocent kid. A person. You can't just destroy her."
Gregor was silent for several moments, then bowed his head. "It is not right." He looked up, the fanatic look on his face unchanged. "But it is the monks' fault, not mine. I have been charged with the destruction of the Key. It is the sin of the monks, that they placed the Key in the form of a living being that you care for. Their cruelty, not mine. The Key should have been destroyed long ago, and this grief would never have come to you. I am sorry for your pain, but it changes nothing. Give me the Key, or face the consequences."
Xander looked at Sister Agnes, who was staring in disbelief down at General Gregor. She raised her eyes to heaven, whispered something, then crossed herself. "The Key is not here, General. We cannot summon it back."
"You opened a portal once, you can do it again."
Anya leaned over to Willow. "Can you?"
Sister Agnes looked at Xander. "Do we let them in?"
Xander took a deep breath. "No."
"Do we do our best to stop them?"
He swallowed and glanced down at the rifle laying on the parapet. "Yes."
"You won't have to," Willow said eagerly. "I'll put up a barrier, they'll never get in."
"You can't," Anya said.
Willow glared at her. "Yes, I can."
"But you can't."
"I most certainly can, you--"
"If you put up a magical barrier, Buffy, Giles, and Dawn won't be able to get back."
Willow gasped. "But--we don't want them coming back yet."
"And what if they're in trouble and the only way out is by coming back?"
Spike leaned forward. "You said the place was safe."
"It is! Earth is safe, too, generally." She nodded at the soldiers to prove her point.
Xander nodded grimly. "So no barrier to keep out the arrows. All right, then. Sister Agnes, I'm willing to try to keep them out. But this is your convent. Your call."
Sister Agnes pulled her rosary from her belt, held it to her lips, and closed her eyes. "They're determined, aren't they."
She nodded and opened her eyes, crossing herself. "And so are we. General," she called, "we shall not give you an innocent girl to be killed. Do as you will."
Gregor nodded curtly and turned to his soldiers.
Xander glanced at Willow. "I think there's someone with a better resolve face than yours, Wills."
Willow nodded. "Uh huh. Goddess protect us. Oh, sorry," she added sheepishly, looking at Sister Agnes.
"No need, nina. May whatever good beings there are bless us."
The soldiers outside had found large logs. "Oh, battering rams," Anya said. "Will the gate hold?"
Sister Agnes frowned. "I don't know."
Xander looked over the courtyard for possibilities. "Spike, the keys for the bus are in the ignition. Back it up against the gate. They'll have a hard time getting past that even if they get the gate down."
"Good call, General Gordon." Spike jumped straight from the parapet to the ground and ran for the bus.
"General Gordon?" Xander repeated.
"Royal Army general of the Victorian era," Willow explained. "Supposed to be a good one." She looked over the wall. "I bet I can make them drop those logs."
Xander saw the movement out of the corner of his eye. "Down!" He shoved Willow, grabbing Anya's arm as he hit the deck. Sister Agnes ducked as four crossbow bolts sliced through the air where their heads had just been. The bolts slammed into the dirt of the courtyard.
"Good grouping," Anya observed.
Willow was hyperventilating. "They--they--dear Goddess, they . . ."
"Right, everybody down from here," Xander ordered. "Combatants only up here."
"I'm as much a combatant as you," Willow protested. "You said you didn't remember that soldier stuff."
But he didn't seem fazed at all. "Get off this wall, Willow. You want to do something useful? Stop those arrows when they're coming in over the wall. If you're down there, you can see them coming, but if you're up here they can see you."
She started to pull on her resolve face, but he was already turning away. Anya pushed past her and tugged on Xander's sleeve. He turned to snap, but she interrupted with a quick kiss. "Be careful," she said as she began inching towards the stairs, staying below the wall.
Xander managed a smile. "I love you."
"I love you, too. Don't die."
"Yes, ma'am." He saluted her, then glared at Willow. "Resolve face doesn't work when there are arrows aimed at your head. Get out of here."
She looked at the rifle he was picking up. "But--"
Sister Agnes tugged on her arm. "Come, nina, we are in the way." Willow tried the resolve face on her, but the nun wasn't impressed either. "Willow, if we stay he'll only worry about you. If we go, he can worry about himself. And you can stop the arrows just as well down there."
Xander smiled very briefly at her. "Shoo. And keep your head down."
She stuck her tongue out at him, but she went.
Spike rolled the bus gently back against the convent gates, then shut off the engine. "Get through that, you silly English ka-niggits." He paused briefly, remembering he was English, but at least he wasn't playing medieval dress-up. He headed for the steps back up to the parapet. Anya was hurrying down. "What's up, luv?"
"Arrows. Xander's clearing the decks." Spike frowned up at the wall. "Yes, go help him. Get in the way of arrows that could hurt him far more than you."
Spike blinked, then grinned. "I like your priorities, girl."
"I know you don't want him to get hurt. I've seen you checking out his ass."
She shrugged. "I don't blame you, it's a nice ass. Go."
"Yes'm." She went to the chapel, and he headed for the stairs after Willow and Sister Agnes came down. Once he was on the parapet, he made his way carefully to Xander's side.
"You shouldn't be up here either," Xander said tersely, peeking very carefully over the wall. "Flying stakes, and all."
"Better night vision than you and quicker to duck." He stuck his head up, took a good look around, then ducked down as another flight of arrows came over.
Xander checked the courtyard to make sure everyone was clear. "Good placement on the bus, thanks."
"Welcome." Spike slid a little closer. "Look, send me over the wall, and you won't need that." He nodded at the rifle.
"You'd kill them. We don't need to do that."
"You're going to have to shoot somebody. You know that, don't you?"
Xander didn't look at him. "I know. But I don't have to kill them. Besides . . ."
"Wounded screaming men are harder on morale than dead martyrs."
Spike raised an eyebrow. "True enough. Hard to be sure of just wounding, though."
"I know that too." Xander finally looked at him. "Why are you doing what I tell you? There's nothing to stop you going over the wall and having a feast."
"Nope, there isn't."
He got a knowing grin in return. "Can't watch you being all masterful and decisive if I go over the wall."
"Just don't distract me."
"Wouldn't dream of it."
Down in the chapel, Joyce watched Savlin comfort her scared child. The Minoto were gathered far from the door, whispering together. Joyce wondered very privately what soldiers fanatic enough to kill an innocent girl would make of demons.
By the door, Tara watched the events outside anxiously, chewing her fingers and whimpering occasionally. She squeaked and bounced as Willow and Sister Agnes came in.
"How is everyone?" the nun asked.
"Not too bad," Joyce said. "What's happening?"
"General Gregor insists we bring him the Key, never mind that it's a little girl. We said no. Xander and Spike are convincing him to stay on his side of the wall."
"What's that involve?"
"I'm not asking."
Another gunshot blasted out, and they all looked towards the wall. Xander ducked down as more arrows came flying over. These impacted against the wall, one coming close to the open door of the chapel.
Sister Agnes looked at Willow. "Time for you to get to work, nina."
Willow looked up from hugging Tara. "I think so. Stay back here, baby," she told Tara, then stepped outside. "Bring 'em on," she muttered, smiling just a little.
Xander saw another group of archers getting ready to shoot. They weren't taking the hints of the shots fired at their feet. Right and wrong got packed up neatly and tucked in a mental footlocker. The torchlight made sighting a bit tricky, so he aimed carefully and fired. The center archer yelled and fell back, clutching his shoulder. The whole line turned in confusion, reaching for their comrade.
"Leave him!" shouted Gregor. "Take your positions! The monks will see to Brother Lawrence!" He glared up at Xander. "Fire!"
Xander ducked back down as the archers recovered themselves and drew back their bowstrings. Spike nodded downwards. "You think they'd go away if you took out General Asshole?"
"If I wound him he'll just keep yelling. Anything else and they'll take us all out in revenge. We just need to hold him off." He looked up, curious as to where the arrows were, but Spike yanked him back down before he got more than the top of his head over the wall. The arrows came over in a tight group.
Spike glared at him. "You do know they want to take you out, right?" Xander nodded.
Willow raised her hands at the incoming arrows. "*Incendere.*"
The arrows burst into flames, then impacted into the walls of the dormitory, burning. Flaming chunks fell down onto a chair, which began to smoulder.
"Oh! Fire bad! *Extinguo!*" All the fires went out. "Dispel? No, that would just make them scatter, oh, what's the word for disintegrate . . ."
She saw Spike peek over the wall and say something to Xander, who obviously swore. "Willow! They're getting fire arrows! Get ready!"
"Oh . . ."
Xander picked off three more archers as they prepared, and part of the wave of burning arrows slammed into the wall right below his position. Burning rags soaked in pitch had been tied to the arrow shafts; fragments of the rags came over the wall to fall on the parapet. Spike ducked under his duster to escape the flames, then shook them off. Xander peeled off his jacket and helped put out the burning spots on the wooden parapet itself.
Willow gulped at the dozen or so burning arrows that came into the courtyard. This wave was spread out, and she could only hope she'd get them all. "Disintegrate!" No time for the correct Latin. The arrows exploded, and burning chunks fell down. Small fires broke out on furniture and awnings. "*Extinguo!*"
Sister Agnes and Joyce peeked out. "The dormitory has a wooden roof, but the chapel's roof is tile. We need to get everyone in here."
"Anya's gone to get them," Joyce said. "A couple of the older sisters were saying they'd rather trust in God than have to come out into the open."
"Yes, and God helps them who help themselves. They'll be safer here."
"I'd prefer it," Willow gasped. "This is a lot harder than it looks. Oh, darn it--disintegrate! *Extin*--that's cheating!" Another flight came through before she could finish the spell to put out the first batch of fires, and those arrows hit the walls full force. "*Extinguo!*"
Spike scanned the situation. "Red's not catching them all. There's too many for her. Does that thing have a full auto setting?"
Xander clenched his jaw as he put a bullet into the leg of the soldier running down the line lighting the aimed arrows. "Yes. But I'm not using it." He watched the monks drag the newest wounded man behind the lines to the others. Another soldier took up the torch and finished lighting the arrows. "Incoming. Watch your head."
Anya, hiding in the doorway of the dormitory with all the sisters, saw the flight of arrows come over and be destroyed and their fires put out. "Run now! Get your little habited butts over there!" Sister Dymphna, a quiet soul who looked after the animals, gave her a disapproving look, but hoisted the skirts of her habit like the others and ran for the shelter of the chapel. Sister Beatrice, in charge of the crops, was not a runner, and Anya grabbed her arm to help hustle her along.
Xander rose to fire and barely had time to drop back down as the five archers who'd been holding their shots for just that moment released their arrows.
Sister Dymphna tripped on the step into the chapel and grabbed Willow to keep from falling. Willow saw the wave of arrows coming in too late. Four impacted into the adobe wall of the chapel. The fifth slammed into Anya from behind.
Sister Beatrice shrieked and yanked off her wimple to beat at the flames on Anya's back. Willow stared for a shocked instant, then shouted "*Extinguo!* Repulse!" The next flight of flaming arrows impacted against an invisible barrier rising from the convent's wall.
Xander, just rising to aim for his next shot, felt the rifle barrel bump against something solid. "The hell?"
Spike poked the air. "Some kind of shield. Did Red do this?"
"I thought putting up a shield was a bad idea." Xander turned to look for Willow. "Anya!"
Spike whirled. "Oh, fuck."
Xander hurtled off the parapet, stumbled only slightly on landing, and sprinted towards the chapel doors, where Sister Mary, the herbalist, was helping lower Anya to the ground. Spike caught the rifle he'd flung aside, hesitated, then poked the barrier experimentally. Impervious.
"Aren't you lot just a bunch of lucky bastards," he growled towards the milling, confused soldiers.
"Xander," Anya gasped. "Where's Xander!"
"Here, honey!" Xander dropped to his knees beside her. "Right here."
He took her gently from Sister Mary, wincing at her gasp of pain. The arrow was buried past the metal head in her back, just below her shoulder blade. "Can you get it out?" he asked Sister Mary.
The nun bit her lip, then shook her head. "I think it's in her lung. If we pull it out . . ."
There was blood on Anya's lips. Memories that spoke of prey said that was good, it never took long after they started coughing up blood. He shook himself. "There's got to be something you can do. I mean--no offense, but--you're a nun out here in the boonies, maybe--"
Sister Mary grabbed hold of the hand that was reaching for the alien object stabbed into his woman. "And before I was a nun I was an ER nurse in South Central LA. If I had an intubation team and a surgical suite and the rest, I'd risk it, but . . ."
Sister Agnes, standing with Joyce in the doorway, looked towards the wall. "If we appealed to General Gregor . . . ?"
Xander laughed bitterly. "I've shot about a dozen of his men, I don't think he's going to be real concerned about one of ours."
Willow grimaced. "Maybe if you hadn't shot them . . ."
Xander raised his head slowly, but before he could speak, Joyce said, "Willow, not now. Is there anything you can do with--with magic?"
She shook her head. "I don't think so. We couldn't help you when you got sick, and I wouldn't even know where to begin with this."
"Real useful," Xander muttered. Willow took an offended breath, but Anya's sudden cough distracted them. Xander wiped the new blood from her mouth. "Take it easy, honey. I've got you."
"Hurts . . ."
"I know. Just hang on."
She breathed several quick, shallow breaths. "Xander?"
"I'm dying, aren't I."
"No! No, you're not."
"Yes, I am. People always tell the person who's dying that they aren't, but the die-ee, they know, they always--" She whimpered and coughed again.
"Anya, for once in your life, be quiet. You're going to be fine."
She smiled weakly at him. "You're an awful liar."
He swallowed hard. "You are not dying. You want to know how I know? Because I've still got two more payments on that ring down at Gordman's Jewelry, and you're not allowed to die at least until after I finish paying for it and I put it on your finger."
"Yes, an engagement ring. So, you see, you can't die, you have a wedding to plan."
She was starting to cry. "You want to marry me?"
"Yes, I do." He shifted her closer in his arms and wiped his own wet face. "But I can't do that if you do something stupid like die on me here."
"No, I can't." The tears came harder.
Willow poked him in the shoulder. "Xander."
"Go away, Will."
"Damn it, Willow--" He saw Anya trying to lift her head, trying to look at the other side of the courtyard. "Honey, lie still."
"What are you doing here?" Anya whispered.
Xander looked slowly over his shoulder, to where stood a robed figure whose elegant horns curled back from a fine-featured demonic face.
"D'Hoffryn," Willow breathed.
The demon nodded his head politely. "Ms. Rosenberg. Hello, Anyanka. I promised myself that I would come to you on your mortal deathbed, to say good-bye." He looked around. "But that's not supposed to be for another fifty years. I was expecting to find you surrounded by two or three generations of grieving descendants, not lying in the dirt." His eyes went to Xander. "Oh, yes. The Harris boy. You're still with him, then? That would cut down on a life expectancy."
"You bastard!" Xander yelled. "You're the one who did this to her, made her mortal, made her vulnerable!"
Anya tugged weakly on his shirt. "Xander, don't . . ."
D'Hoffryn raised one eyebrow. "Do you think she'd have come to you if she were still a demon, Mr. Harris? Don't be so quick to condemn me for making her mortal." He stepped closer, and Sister Agnes crossed herself quickly. D'Hoffryn paused. "Very well, madam, I'll come no closer. Anyanka, I planned to ask you a question when I came to you one last time. Though I think I can expect a different answer that you would have given me otherwise. Was it worth it, this mortality? Now that you lay dying, would you do it again?"
Xander braced himself for Anya's answer. The march of time had always frightened her, the swift inevitability of mortal death. He couldn't blame her if she railed against the brief lifetime she'd had as a human woman. The demon was right, if she'd driven out of Sunnydale at graduation time, driven out and stayed out, she'd mostly likely be safe with someone else, working on those generations of descendants, not facing hellgods and monsters and crazy fanatic generals.
Anya looked up at Xander's face quietly, then she smiled and rested her head against him. "Yes. I would." He closed his eyes and held her as tightly as he could without hurting her.
D'Hoffryn shrugged. "I might have known. Silly emotional humans. Ah, well." Willow slowly raised her hand. "Yes, Ms. Rosenberg?"
"How--how did you get in here? There's a magical shield up. Anya said a shield would keep people from coming in here."
"She's quite right. It's a very good shield, my congratulations. Still, there is very little in the cosmos that can prevent me from doing as I wish." He looked at Anya again. "You'll forgive me if I don't stay for the painful conclusion. Farewell, Anyanka." He raised his hand.
"Wait," Xander said.
"You could fix this."
"Fix this, Mr. Harris?"
Xander met his eyes squarely. "You could heal Anya."
D'Hoffryn glanced around at the gasps. "Yes, I could," he said. "But why should I? She is mortal woman, doomed to die, either now or fifty years in the future. Healing her would not prevent that. I sympathize with your pain, Mr. Harris, but why should I grant one woman an exception?"
"Because this is Anyanka, who was the star of the vengeance demons."
"She was Anyanka. She is no longer."
Xander gestured Sister Dymphna over and passed Anya over to her. Anya tried to catch his arm, but he kissed her hand and slipped free. He stood up and walked over to D'Hoffryn, who he discovered was not that much taller than he. "You've got no reason to save the mortal woman Anya, I know that. So make her Anyanka again, and let her live."
D'Hoffryn put his hands into his sleeves and studied Xander closely. "Make her Anyanka again? Give her back her powers? Make her a demon again?"
"What an interesting proposal. You surprise me, Mr. Harris. I don't deny that having Anyanka back in the fold would be a great help. Her replacement as patron of scorned women is woefully pedestrian in her vengeances. Still, we cope. So why should I do such a thing? Simply because you ask me?"
Xander looked over at Anya, who was trying to talk to him but coughing too hard to get the words out. "What would it take for you to do it?"
D'Hoffryn cocked his head, intrigued. "What do you have?"
Xander spread his arms. "What do you want? If I've got it, it's yours."
"No!" Spike jumped down from the parapet. "Xander, you're offering him a blank IOU? This is D'Hoffryn, the being who gives the vengeance demons their powers. You know, manipulation of time and reality? Those powers? And you'll let him have whatever he wants from you? Does the phrase 'deal with the devil' mean anything to you?"
D'Hoffryn glared at him. "This is between Mr. Harris and myself, William the Bloody. Please stay out of it."
Xander nodded. "Stay out of this, Spike. I know what I'm doing."
Spike shook his head. "And that is?"
"Saving Anya's life." He ignored Spike. "So, D'Hoffryn, do we have a deal? You'll save Anya in return for a consideration to be determined later?"
The demon thought for several moments. "You understand that this will involve her becoming Anyanka again, patron of scorned women, vengeance demon, etc.? Not just a little shopkeeper on the Hellmouth?"
"Yes, I do." He glared at Spike, who had started to protest again.
"Very well, then. But she has to agree. I can't force this on her."
Xander nodded and went back to Anya, kneeling at her side.
She was shaking her head and fighting off coughing. The back of her shirt was soaked with blood, and she was very pale. "Don't," she whispered.
"I'm not going to let you die, sweetheart. I won't."
D'Hoffryn walked up behind Xander and held out his hand. Light glowed in his palm, then he tipped over his hand and an ornate necklace dangled from the chain he held. "Your power center, Anyanka. Reach for it and be whole."
She stared at it, obviously torn. "Go ahead," Xander said from a tight throat. "You'll never have to worry about gray hairs and being too old for me to love ever again."
"But you won't love me if I'm a demon," she whispered. "You won't want to give a vengeance demon an engagement ring."
He took her hand in both of his. "But I can't love you if you're dead, either. The rest of it--even on the Hellmouth I can't marry a dead woman."
Spike stepped up quietly. "Yes, you could."
"What?" Xander started to tell him to stop being stupid, but he went still as Spike slid on his gameface. "Oh, god. That's right."
D'Hoffryn sneered. "Vampire is still demon. At least as a vengeance demon she'd have some self-respect. If this one turns her, she'd only be his soulless minion."
Spike smiled slightly. "I think we could come up with an Orb of Thesulah to lend out in a good cause. I'd help her all I could, but there'd be no ties on her. And anyway, isn't this up to the lady? Anya? What do you want to do?"
Anya was fading fast, but she managed to focus on Xander. "I want to go home with you," she whispered. He nodded, fighting tears. "But I'm not going to get to, am I."
"I--it's up to you, Ahn."
She looked at Spike, then at the power center still dangling from D'Hoffryn's hand. "Xander?"
He leaned forward obediently, and as their lips met he felt her reach past him and take the power center. The electrical shock knocked him away. When his eyes cleared, Anya was sitting up, the arrow gone from her back. Then she looked up, and he couldn't help flinching. Heavy, protruding veins traced her face, and her eyes glowed. "Anyanka."
She nodded sadly. "Anyanka." The veins faded, leaving the familiar human face. "But still your Anya, too?"
He started to lean forward again, but D'Hoffryn cleared his throat. "We don't have time for this, Anyanka. We have to go."
"Go?" they both repeated.
"There is a great deal of work for you to do, Anyanka. Your replacement is not only uncreative but inefficient. Besides, this human squabble is none of your affair anymore. Let us go."
Slowly, Anya got to her feet, Xander helping her balance as they stood. He glared at D'Hoffryn. "That's it, you're just going to take her out of here, leaving us behind?"
D'Hoffryn gave him a pointed look. "You demanded I make her Anyanka again. She is. And she has responsibilities to fulfill. You got what you asked for, Mr. Harris. I shall be in touch with you for fulfilling your part of our bargain."
He held his hand out to Anya. She hugged Xander tightly. "I love you," she whispered in his ear.
"I love you, too."
They kissed one more time, then she pulled away and took D'Hoffryn's hand. They disappeared with a bright gold flash of light.
Xander stared at the spot she'd been for several seconds, then looked down at his hands. They were dark with Anya's drying blood. "It's better than her being dead. Isn't it?"
Willow finally found her voice. "Probably."
"Probably." He studied his bloody hands a bit longer, then wiped them on his pants. "Anyway. We've still got a small army outside. Will, can you drop that barrier?"
She blinked at him for a few moments. "Sure, but--it stops the arrows, which I'm quite the fan of."
"Plus it keeps me from shooting out, and I think Anya's warning about Buffy and the others having trouble getting back is legit. Bring it down, please."
Willow started to argue, but Xander was already moving towards the parapet.
Spike followed him silently up to their position on the wall. He watched a grim-faced Xander pop the ammo clip on the rifle, check the contents, then reach into the duffle bag for a spare. He pulled out all six of the spare clips and lined them up next to him, in easy reach.
"You got enough ammunition to take out all of them?" he asked.
Xander slammed a full clip into the breech. "I've got enough to make a fucking big dent in them. Willow! Get this shield down!"
Spike reached out and pushed the barrel of the rifle down. "Let me do it."
"Excuse me?" Some of the focus faded, and Xander blinked at him. "And what do you think I'm going to do that you want to do it instead?"
Spike smiled just a little. "They took your woman from you. They need to pay. Perfectly happy to help. Just keep them off me."
Xander thought about it for all of four seconds. "OK, then. You've got a deal. You make 'em pay, I'll stay here and jot notes in my memoirs while keeping them from staking you."
Joyce watched Xander up on the wall and frowned. There was something in his eyes that worried her. Through all the adventures of life in Sunnydale, Xander had never lost the spark of humor. It may have been overlaid with pain or stress or weariness, but it had been there, if only in the awareness that it was not the appropriate time for whatever quip he'd just thought up.
That was gone now. All that was in his eyes was pain and loss. The optimism that had survived vampires and betrayals and whatever private griefs haunted him from his pre-Buffy life had finally gone under to one too many losses.
Sister Agnes was watching as well. "I didn't know they were to be married."
"Neither did I. I don't think anyone did. He was probably waiting till after we finished with Glory to ask her. I'm worried about him. He's just started having things work out for him, and now this."
"But Anya lives."
"Yes, but--she's changed. She was so wanting a normal life, she talked of children and growing old with him. Now . . ."
Sister Agnes nodded. "If she'd died, he could mourn her. Instead he'll see her and wonder if he did the right thing."
Willow stood nearby, wringing her hands. "I don't want to take down the shield," she whispered. "I know what he's going to do. How do I stop him?"
"Can you mess up the rifle somehow?" Joyce asked.
"I don't know enough about how guns work, all I can think to do is make it blow up, and that would hurt him. What do I do?" She suddenly gasped and went to her knees. The air around the convent glowed white for half a second, then faded. "Oh, oh . . . ow . . ."
Sister Agnes helped her up. "Nina, what was that?"
"Counter . . . spell, those monks--they're trying to bring down the shield." She cried out as the shield flared again.
Xander saw this from the wall. "Willow! Willow, take it down! I can stop them!" Spike poked at the air above the wall and muttered curses.
Willow let Sister Agnes hold her up as she gasped. "Nina, this is hurting you. Bring it down before they rip it from you."
"Must do as he will. You can do nothing for him if you let them injure you."
She hesitated, then nodded. "Disperse," she said, waving her hand. "It's down."
Spike, still poking the air, felt his hand slip through. "We're on." He slipped into his fangs and grinned.
Xander stared at him a moment, then out at the soldiers. The monks had staggered back, holding their heads, but their leader spoke urgently to General Gregor, who straightened triumphantly. Xander took a deep breath, then let it out. "Yipee ki-yay," he said, and nodded at Spike. Spike nodded back.
Xander flipped the selector switch to full auto and jumped to his feet. He sprayed the full clip at the feet of the soldiers, not caring too dreadfully much if he got a little close. With a howl of delight, Spike vaulted over the wall. The screams soon followed.
"My god, he's not," Joyce gasped.
Willow stared in horror. "He turned Spike loose . . ."
Xander stayed as low as he could while still being able to fire over the wall. When he finished the clip, he hit the release and reached down for a new one. A quick-witted archer took advantage of his distraction, and he wasn't completely able to dodge. The arrow sliced across his left bicep, making him swear, but he swapped clips and fired back.
Willow shook her head and ran for the parapet. "Xander, stop it!"
"Get down from here, Willow!"
She took a breath to argue, then she got a glimpse over the wall. Spike was playing. Broken bodies marked his trail through the ranks of the soldiers. He was stalking General Gregor, who had pulled out his sword and was watching the vampire's progress as he exhorted the monks to pull themselves together after the backlash of Willow dispersing the shield in mid-attack.
A crossbowman leveled his weapon at Spike's back. Xander sighted carefully and shot the crossbow out of the man's hands. This brought another flurry of arrows towards Xander's position, which he ducked casually.
"Xander, please!" Willow yelled. She got a half-smile in return, the hyena smile, the condescending look that said she was dealing with things out of her league. "No, not this again."
As she moved, one of the monks pointed. "The Slayer's witch! She's the one." All the monks able to stand began chanting.
"I have had enough of you!" Willow yelled back. "Away!" She waved her hand, and all the monks went flying. "Spike! Get your butt back here!" Spike halted in mid-prowl to stare up at her in disbelief. Three archers took advantage of his motionlessness to take aim. Xander swore under his breath and brought the rifle around. Willow knocked the barrel down and pointed at the archers. "*Scindo*!"
All the strings on all the bows and crossbows snapped, sending parts flying everywhere. Spike ducked a potential stake, grinned, and moved towards the archers.
"Spike! I said get back up here!"
This time the glare was one of annoyance. "Or what!"
Xander saw Willow's hair whip around, which was very interesting considering there was no wind. And her eyes had gone a very frightening color. "I think you want to do what she says, Spike. Get back up here."
Spike hesitated, looked around at the potential victims wistfully, then shrugged. He jogged to the gate and climbed up the rough wood, then hopped onto the parapet, bloody and grinning, still in game face. "So, Red, playing with the heavy mojo, now, are we?" He stopped when she turned to glare at him.
"How many of them did you kill?"
He lost the grin but didn't back away. "I didn't keep count. Hardly my first. Won't be my last."
She glared over her shoulder. "Xander, how could you? Turning Spike loose on humans--"
But Xander didn't back down either. "Armed humans, used to these kinds of fights. Armed humans who put an arrow into Anya's back. I bet they've got spare bows and strings. Who are we going to let them put an arrow into next, Will? One of the nuns? Tara? Give me an option."
"I can stop them with magic, we don't have to keep hurting them."
Spike nodded over the wall. "Brother Maynard and his boys are getting back up. They're going to be ready for you next time. You didn't make any friends by tossing them aside. How are you going to stop them without hurting them?"
She looked out at the soldiers. They were already regrouping, salvaging equipment, getting the wounded and the dead out of the way. She could see Gregor and the monks consulting and glaring up at her. "There's got to be some way . . ."
"If you think of it, tell me." Xander went to one knee, taking deep breaths. "I'm all for options. Ow." He poked at his left arm and winced.
Spike crouched down. "How bad is it?"
"Just a scratch."
"I'm sure it is, John Wayne. I don't know how long the Monty Python Road Show will take to get their act back together. Get some rest while you can, I'll keep an eye on them."
Xander glared at him. "Aren't we the happy mother's helper all of a sudden. Your concern for my well-being makes me deeply suspicious."
"Look, whelp, you barely got any sleep last night, you drove all day, and tonight comes nowhere near the vicinity of restful. Sleep deprivation and automatic weapons aren't nearly as fun a combination as you'd think."
Xander studied him a few moments longer, then careful passed the rifle over. "You know how to use this?"
"I'm no stranger to firearms."
"OK. No potshots for fun."
Xander sneered, then settled in against the wall and closed his eyes. Spike peeked over the wall to check the soldiers' progress back to threat potential before settling down himself. Willow looked at him suspiciously, until he grinned at her and began ostentatiously licking the drying blood from his hands. She sat down on the other side of Xander and fretted.
Buffy didn't know she was asleep until she jerked awake. Dawn was curled up next to her in the corner farthest from the doorway, but Giles was nowhere to be seen. It seemed a little brighter, though the light had a weird pinky tone to it like Barbie's Dream House gone bad.
She got to her feet slowly, doing her best not to wake Dawn, then she walked silently to the doorway. The wind blew louder through the plants, and the temperature was a bit higher. Daytime? Dear god, did Anya say if the sunlight in this place was dangerous to vampires? Buffy hadn't thought to ask. Maybe Giles had miscalculated, maybe the wind that blew the weedy things around had swept his dust away, too.
She told herself the fear in her gut was because Giles was the only one who knew how to get them home. There was no sign of him outside; none of the dirt had the consistency of vampire dust, and she felt foolish for checking. She tried to control her anxious breathing as she listened, then she ran down the trail, to where she heard something disturb the gravel.
He was practicing sword katas, chopping and slicing at an invisible opponent, moving at vampire speed that made the sword edge whistle in the air. He still wore his human face, all his attention focused on the movements.
A knot built in Buffy's throat as she watched. He moved the way a young man would, the way he never had in the time she'd known him. Was he remembering the strength and skill of his youth, or merely enjoying the demonic abilities of his new form? She'd always wished there was a way she could make him stop hurting, take away the twinges and aches that made him move so stiffly on bad days. She'd used them against him, too, on selfish days when his middle-aged human endurance was no match for teenaged Slayer energy.
Watching him now, she realized that he still knew more weapons technique than she did. In hand-to-hand she thought she could take him, but only Slayer speed had ever helped her beat him when they were sword-to-sword. He pulled a combination gut-slash/decapitation so quickly the sword blurred, and he was back two steps from his position before the afterimage had faded from her eyes.
Note to self: If it all goes bad, do not let Giles get his hands on a sword.
He looked up and spotted her, and the remote, inhuman look went away. "Is something wrong?"
"Uh . . . no. I--just woke up and wondered where you'd gotten off to."
"I didn't want to wake you and I was feeling restless." He swung the sword up and into the sheath on his back without even checking.
"What time is it?"
"Nearly 2. Not much longer."
Buffy nodded absently. She kept trying to fall into the old habit of "aimless chatter with Giles", then her memories kicked her with "this isn't your Giles." She couldn't afford to forget the differences between Giles and Ripper. No matter how easy it would be. She glanced up at the sky, where the pink glow had gotten more pronounced. "So is the sun up?"
"I believe so. In any case, the light doesn't seem to be harmful to me, which was quite a relief." His smile was the old self-deprecating one, and she imagined him poking a finger cautiously out into the light to see what would happen.
"If we're staying here until after the sun comes up at home, what are you going to do when you go through the portal?"
Giles started to reach for his glasses again. "Run, I imagine. The mountains to the east of the convent are sufficiently close that there should be shade in the courtyard well after the time of dawn. That should give me time to find proper shelter. Spike says it's character building, to play tag with the sun."
"Yeah, like he's a good role model."
"And then what?"
"What do you mean?"
"The world is saved from Glory's portal, Dawn is safe. What do we do about Glory?"
Giles sighed. "I'm not sure, to be honest. The texts suggest that she is fighting a deadline of her own, that it is more than just homesickness and the desire for her full power that is driving her to open the portal. Being in our world weakens her, and it's possible that she will eventually be weakened far enough to be destroyed."
"How long will that take?"
"I have no idea."
Buffy started to pace. "Even with her weakened, she's still pretty darn indestructible. And she won't go quietly."
"No, she won't. But our first goal has always been the preservation of the world."
"No, our first goal has always been the preservation of Dawn."
He smiled very slightly. "Which is why both of us are here. We can worry about dealing with Glory once we know Dawn and the world are safe."
"And after that? Assuming we do bring down Glory?" She sat on a nearby rock and studied him. "We save the world, but I don't think it's going to be time to party."
The remote look was back on his face. "You'll have to do what you think best. A Vampire Slayer's duty is clear."
"You're telling me to come after you and Spike."
"Neither of us would be surprised if you did."
"And you two would just let me."
"We wouldn't be able to stop you making the attempt. But I would not count on your success being guaranteed."
He'd only ever lied to her when she asked him explicitly. She shouldn't be surprised that he could discuss a campaign against himself so matter-of-factly. He knew her and her sense of responsibility better than anyone. And fighting Angelus, who wore the form of the man she loved and who surgically exploited all her weak spots, was not as frightening as the idea of going up against the mind that had trained her, that knew things she had only ever had glimpses of. Her trust in him had been her refuge, and she kept thinking, "Giles will know how to deal with this."
He relaxed slightly, let the aura of Ripper dissipate. "You ought to get more sleep. Surviving till dawn is only part of what we have left to do." He started back up the trail towards the shelter where Dawn still slept. All Buffy wanted to do was to sit in the weird Barbie light and cry a few frightened, grieving tears, but she followed, instead.
The moon was sliding down the far side of the night. The tide of darkness was at its peak, just turning to ebb into daylight.
And Spike needed to get his inner poet under better control. Normal vampires would say, "Sun'll be up in a few hours," without all the poncy symbolism.
Most of the humans had fallen asleep, since the Knights had gone quiet. But the Knights weren't asleep. They were moving around, checking equipment and the wounded, consulting each other and glaring at the convent walls. Spike aimed the rifle occasionally and smirked as people scurried for cover.
Harris and Red were snuggled up together, asleep, holding hands like innocent kids who didn't throw magic and bullets around. Kind of cute, actually, the two heads leaning against each other.
He shook himself. Damn, but he was turning into a sap.
Down in the courtyard, the only ones moving were Tara and the little demon sprout, though they didn't stray far from the chapel doors. He scowled at both of them and made shooing motions for them to get back inside, but they just waved back. Kids and crazy people, no sense between them.
So here he was, the lone protector of a bunch of humans and a religious establishment against a bunch of fanatics who he might have enjoyed partying with, except for the whole self-righteous boring bits. Like the Poncy Scourge of L.A., if that one were to decide to go on a crusade.
Spike sighed and contemplated the road out of the valley. The chip was out of commission, he was a free vamp again. Why didn't he just take to the open highway and find new adventures? Yeah, yeah, gave his word to keep Niblet and Joyce safe. What business did an evil bugger have, keeping his word? No wonder nobody had any respect for him. He could take the bus and be under cover far from here in the few hours left of the night. And when the next evening came he could be back on the road, south to L.A., west to San Francisco, or even the long haul back east to New York. He missed New York. The city had depth, age, history, had seen much and forgiven more. And it was riddled with tunnels that connected all the important parts of the metropolis, making it heaven for vampires.
"Bugger," he muttered. He wasn't leaving. Not when there was a chance Buffy could look at him with a shred of honest appreciation, not when Dawn was willing to run into his arms and hug him, not when Harris was still the reliable wind-him-up-and-watch-him-snarl toy, not when Ripper was such fun to watch as he explored his powers. In his own twisted, perverted way, he was needed on the Hellmouth.
Still, the full moon rising over the Empire State Building, it was a lovely sight.
He watched the Knights idly, following one soldier as he walked from a supply pile, over to the monks, then to the wounded, then back to the supplies, then back to the monks . . . passing another soldier who was doing the same round, but in the opposite direction . . .
He straightened, actually looking at the Knights, looking at individuals. And speaking of individuals . . . there was somebody missing.
He reached down and poked Harris' shoulder. "Wake up, whelp."
"Go 'way, Mom."
Spike smacked his arm. "Wake up! Something's wrong."
Xander jerked. "What! Where! Huh?" He blinked a few times. "Oh. What?" Beside him, Willow blinked as well, wobbling just a bit.
"Get it together, Harris," Spike snapped. "They're doing something. General Gregor's slipped off somewhere, and there aren't as many soldiers out there as there should be."
Xander squeezed his eyes together and shook his head. "Focus, dude, focus. OK, show me."
He looked over the wall and Spike pointed out the soldiers that were aimlessly moving around, creating the illusion of more soldiers and activity than there actually was. And Gregor was indeed not among them.
"Is there somewhere they could climb in?" Willow asked.
"No," Xander said, "I've been around the whole place, there aren't any trees close enough to the walls, the windows are too small. Did you see any ladders, Spike?"
"No. And I haven't heard any chopping or pounding. Maybe they're running their own scouting party, looking for a way in."
Xander scanned the courtyard. "And this walkway doesn't go around the whole way. Do you think you could get up on the chapel roof, take a look around?"
"Probably, the grape arbor looks like it'd hold me, I can climb up there then jump--"
Willow looked at the two of them as they stared at each other. "What!"
"Stable," the two said at the same time.
As Spike jumped off the parapet and ran for the grape arbor, Willow leaned closer to Xander. "I haven't looked around outside. Where are the stables?"
"Other side of the wall from the chicken coops, across the courtyard from the grape arbor."
"The soldiers could get in?"
"Wouldn't be a hard jump from the roof of the stable to the top of the wall." Xander glared at the soldiers in front of the convent. "Think I should let them know we're on to them?" His fingers flexed against the trigger guard.
Willow shook her head hard. "No, I don't."
Tara and Baynar watched curiously as Spike went to the grape arbor. "You two get back inside!" he ordered as he started to climb. The vines and the scaffolding creaked threateningly but supported him long enough to scramble to the top of the wall and then to the chapel. Tara and Baynar retreated to the doorway but continued to watch. Spike clambered up the chapel walls to the roof, where he could see out over the walls.
One of the Knights yelled and pointed, obviously towards Spike on his vantage point. The repaired crossbows came out and aimed.
"Spike, arrows!" Xander yelled over his shoulder.
Willow peeked over the wall. "I'll make their bowstrings break again." She raised her hand, then gasped in pain and fell back as a ball of green light hit her from the monks' group. Xander caught her and eased her down against the wall, then raised the rifle and considered the monks.
Willow watched, trying to catch her breath so she could tell him she was alright, then a flash of something bright down in the courtyard caught her eye. Light from the one lamp on the table under the arbor, reflecting from a swordblade.
Baynar gave a shrill yell, and the Knight of Byzantium who had appeared from the shadows knocked him aside with a mailed fist. Tara blinked at the soldier, who studied her a moment, then raised his sword.
Willow could do nothing but scream, her mind scrabbling for one of the dozen spells she knew to drive the soldier back. Spike heard her, saw what was happening, and ran for the edge of the chapel roof. The sword kept moving.
Xander glanced over his shoulder, swivelled on his knee, calmly aimed and fired. The bullet caught the soldier squarely in the forehead, throwing him back against the chapel wall in a splash of red. Xander turned back to the soldiers in front of the walls.
Spike dropped to the ground next to Tara. He stared at the body, then up at Xander. Tara, also staring at the body, gave a small squeak.
Spike shook himself and took Tara's arm. "Get inside, girl, and take your little friend." He pushed her towards the chapel door. Sister Agnes and Joyce were there, also gaping in disbelief at the dead Knight. "Will you all just get back inside so he doesn't have to do that again?"
"Actually," said a cold, familiar voice, "no one will move one inch."
General Gregor, flanked by two crossbowmen, stepped from around the dormitory. One bowman aimed at Spike, the other at Xander, who had turned again to aim into the courtyard.
Spike let his demon out and snarled. The soldier aiming at him fired, but Spike dodged the bolt easily. He grinned his best mad killer grin as the soldier quickly reloaded. "Don't know how many of your sort I've killed tonight. Wouldn't mind adding a few more."
"Not before we dropped you, monster," Gregor said.
"And how many men would it cost you to drop him?" came Xander's quiet question. "I've got a faster firing rate than you do."
Spike was still grinning. "It's fun being part of the twenty-first century."
Joyce took a step forward, leaning on her walker. "Spike, Xander, calm down."
Gregor glared at her. "I would step back inside, madam. This is no place for the infirm." He blinked at the number of smothered snickers he heard, and he blinked again as Joyce turned to him.
"I may be infirm at the moment, General Gregor," she said sharply, "but this is very much my place when hostile troops fire arrows at my friends and me."
"Who are you?"
She straightened, one hand barely resting on the walker for balance. "Joyce Summers, mother of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, and Dawn, the young girl you're so desperate to kill. And I don't like you."
Gregor grimaced. "The Key was created in this form magically. It has no mother."
"I remember the day I first felt her kick inside me. I remember giving birth to her, I remember when she first smiled at me, and I remember her first step. And you think I'm going to let you lay one finger on her?"
"Those memories are false. Put them aside."
"No. I believe as much in the memory of holding both my daughters in my arms as you believe Dawn is something evil to be destroyed. I may not be at my best right at the moment, but you will see me dead before you come anywhere near my daughter."
Spike grinned at Gregor. "I'd listen to her, mate. She's no one you want to mess with."
The fanatic's calm still rode in Gregor's eyes. "I shall do what I must to destroy the Key, and I shall pray for the souls of everyone who falls in my pursuit of that holy quest, faithful or misguided."
Willow finally got all her brain cells lined up. Gregor and two goons in the courtyard holding crossbows on everyone but especially on Joyce. Tara and Baynar were hiding in the shelter of Sister Agnes. Spike kept trying to step in front of Joyce, snarling at the Knights, but Joyce's hand on his arm was holding him back.
And Xander . . . She didn't know this Xander face. The soldier look had been weirdly attractive, and she thought the hyena was the most scary Xander could be. But this one--his eyes were focused unwaveringly on Gregor. His trigger finger hung a millimeter from the trigger, vibrating faintly. She didn't know he could be like this, all bound-up violence waiting, waiting for the moment to turn it loose. The faint light from the lamp in the courtyard caught on his face, on the stubble he hadn't bothered with in a couple of days. His pulse vibrated under the skin of his throat, and if he was breathing, she couldn't tell. If she whispered his name, tried to reach through the unemotional warrior to her gentle Xander, she didn't think he'd even hear her.
"Fuck it," she growled under her breath. "Disintegrate," she snapped at the crossbows of Gregor's henchmen. The bows fell apart into their component pieces, and the bolts leaped into the air with the release of energy. Spike jumped in front of Joyce, but the bolts came nowhere near. Willow peeked over the wall. "*Scindo*," she said to all the bow strings over there, and she grinned at the twang and clatter of wood and steel.
Xander jumped but managed to get the rifle barrel away from people and his finger away from the trigger. "Geez, Wills, warn a guy."
"Sorry." She smiled at him, but he wasn't looking at her. He checked over the wall to see what the soldiers outside were doing--aside from swearing--then he came back into his shooting crouch as he scanned the courtyard for more trouble. She noticed his eyes stopped for just half a second on the man he'd . . . then went back to Gregor and his men.
Spike was smiling more broadly now that the stake firing weapons were out of commission. Joyce was actively holding on to his arm. The soldiers to either side of Gregor drew their swords.
Sister Agnes stepped forward. "General, please, hasn't there been enough killing? There's no need for all of this. The Key isn't here, and she won't be back until after dawn, when all of this will be irrelevant." She nodded to the east. "The sun will be up soon. There are only a few hours left, and then we're all safe."
Gregor looked over his shoulder. The tops of the mountains could be seen very faintly as the sky began to lighten. "We cannot depend solely on the dawn, Sister. Our only sure safety lies in the destruction of the Key. Bring it back, and I will give it as swift and painless an end as I possibly can."
Joyce only barely managed to stifle herself, and Sister Agnes shook her head. "No, General," she said.
Gregor sighed and nodded. "You give me no choice, then." He let out a piercing whistle.
Activity exploded in the soldiers' camp outside. The logs from earlier were taken up, and battering ram crews ran to the gate. Xander swore and raised the rifle.
"Please, Xander, no!" Willow begged. "Please, don't."
The military calm in his eyes showed fractures. "They mean to kill us, Will! You know that! Give me an option!"
She raised her hands, then hesitated. She fought back tears, knowing they were down to their last few options. Xander fired down at the battering ram crew, putting bullets into arms and legs so that they dropped the log and had to reorganize
Spike looked from one swordsman to the other. "Who first?" he asked with a full-fanged grin. He raised an eyebrow at Gregor. "Or shall I deal with you first? You know you're going to have to settle me before you get to lay one finger on anybody else."
"Our faith is pure, monster. We shall defeat you."
He chuckled. "I've eaten lots of people who thought their faith was pure. They don't taste any different from anybody else."
Tara's sudden cry interrupted the showdown. "Time! Time!" She clutched at Sister Agnes' shoulder. "Time . . ."
Willow ran down the steps from the parapet. "Baby, what is it!" The swordsmen took their eyes from Spike to follow her progress across the courtyard. "Tara? What is it?"
Tara reached for her, whimpering. "Time, time. Time's up. No more time."
Willow took her good hand and brushed her hair back. "Tara sweetie, what do you mean, time's up?"
Spike jerked his head up, scanning the night. "There's a car coming. I can hear it. Xander! What's on the road?"
Back among the trees at the far end of the valley, a glow grew slowly brighter. The light bounced, and Xander remembered the rough road and how Anya had clutched his arm to keep her balance. She'd squeezed his arm, and he'd flexed the muscles for her without thinking, making her laugh. He shook his head sternly. "Car on the road, inbound!" The soldiers with the logs paused and looked back down the valley.
Tara smiled beatifically. "She's here. Time's up. Glory day."
Sister Agnes gasped and crossed herself. Gregor drew his sword and kissed the hilt. "Lord preserve us," he whispered.
Joyce looked around, confused and wishing she could stay so. "Willow?"
Willow's eyes were big and scared. "I think--Glory's in that car. She's here." She turned and ran for the dormitory.
"Where are you going!" Spike yelled.
"The spell for Tara! I have to get it!"
Spike nodded, then turned to Joyce. "Right, then, into the chapel with you."
"Spike, there has to be something I can do, throw rocks or something."
He raised his eyes to the night sky and muttered about Summers women. "Yes, there is something you can do. You can go into the chapel and stay out of harm's way and not get hurt. Because that's what I promised Buffy, and I keep my promises."
Without a word, he crouched and scooped her up in his arms. Ignoring her outrage, he strode to the chapel. "Sister," he called to Sister Agnes, "would you mind bringing her walker in? She might need it."
He winced as he crossed the threshold, but the pain was ignorable. The Minoto, with Tara sitting next to Baynar, sat on a couple of pews at the far side of the room. All the nuns were clustered in front of the altar, praying and whispering. Spike barely got a glance at that end of the room before the crucifix made him turn his back. Carefully he set Joyce on her feet.
She smacked his shoulder. "Don't you ever dare do that again! I will not be hauled around like a useless bag of old clothes!"
He raised a finger and took a deep breath, then fought back the first dozen words. "You are going to stay in here where it's safe--safer. If you get yourself hurt, I will have to find a way to dust myself, because I will not be here when Buffy gets back to answer to her for why I let something nasty get one finger on you. Do you understand me, Joyce?"
Joyce took a deep breath of frustration. "I just want to help. I never get to help."
He snickered. "Says the woman who saved her daughter's life by taking a fire axe to the back of somebody's skull." All humor went away. "Joyce, if it gets to the point where anything you can do will be of any help, then me and Red and Harris and Gregor and all his lads will be dead, and you and the sisters will be on your own. If you were up to it, I'd hand you an axe all over again, but you're not. You know that. Right?"
"I hate being helpless!"
"I know the feeling. Deal with it." He took the walker from Sister Agnes, who had followed them in, unfolded it, and placed it in front of Joyce. "We haven't lost you yet, Joyce. Let's keep it that way?"
She nodded and leaned on the walker, using it for balance as she made her way to one of the pews.
Outside, Gregor ran up the steps to the parapet and Xander. "Open the gate. I must go out to meet her with my men."
"No can do, General," Xander said, staring over the sights of the rifle at the approaching sedan bouncing along the dirt road towards the convent. "I can't open the gate without moving the bus, and I'm not moving the bus because I'm not opening the gate." He turned his head to smile at Gregor. "But feel free to jump over the wall. I'm sure the drop won't do more than break a bone or two."
"I must be out there! We only have swords and spears, that red-haired bitch snapped all our bow strings--"
Xander slammed the butt of his rifle back into Gregor's stomach, then he glared down at the gasping man laying on the parapet. "You've already cost me my fiancee. Keep your mouth away from my best friend. I don't like you, General. Please keep that in mind."
Willow came running up as Spike stepped out of the chapel. She was looking over her pages of notes with the desperate air of someone who knows she hasn't studied enough for the big final exam. Spike caught her before she could run into him in her distraction. "You either know it or you don't, Red. Panicking isn't going to make it make sense."
She stared at him with big scared eyes. "Buffy's not here. How are the rest of us going to stop Glory when Buffy couldn't do it?"
Spike reached for his cigarettes, discovered he was down to his last one, pulled it out and lit it. "Drown her in our blood, bind her with our entrails, smother her with our corpses, the usual."
Willow frowned. "That's not the kind of uplifting pre-battle speech I was hoping for."
He chuckled. "'Dishonour not your mothers; now attest that those whom you call'd fathers did beget you. Be copy now to men of lesser blood and teach them how to make war.'" He grinned at her. "That better?"
She blinked at him, and he jogged off to the wall.
The late-model silver Lincoln crept to a halt on the edge of the Knights' position. The soldiers stared suspiciously, then glanced toward the wall and their commander for instructions. Gregor pulled himself to his feet to see what was going on. He gave a short whistle, and all the soldiers drew their swords.
Spike settled down at Xander's side, but he said nothing. Xander looked over at him and got a familiar cocked eyebrow in return.
"So, are you really going to let Glory kill all of us without making good on your threats to bathe in our blood?" Xander asked.
"She might not kill all of us."
"True. She might get sloppy and miss a few." He looked down at the car, which was disgorging a half dozen of Glory's wizened minions. "If Buffy and the others had to stay where they are, would they be OK?"
"Don't know the place, luv, got no idea. But I imagine there'd be food problems for someone before long. Here we go," he added, nodding at the car.
The minions opened the passenger door, and one gave a hand to the woman inside. Glory looked like she needed the support as she climbed out of the car and straightened.
"The Beast," Gregor hissed. "Long have I waited for the day to confront it."
"Oh, be quiet, bad dialogue guy." Xander saw Willow hurrying up the steps but only gave her a nod.
Glory took a deep breath and glared at the soldiers surrounding her. "Twits." She reached out, and Dreg was at her side just as her hand came down looking for something to lean on. He winced but smiled proudly.
The soldiers braced for action as she stepped forward. Glory ignored them and looked at the people at the top of the wall. "Where's my Key! Give it to me!"
While the others were debating the best response, Gregor stood. "We defy you, Beast! Our order has existed for centuries for the sole purpose of destroying you, and here is where we make our stand!"
Xander glanced at Spike. "And I thought our Monty Python riff sounded dumb."
Glory winced and put both hands to her head. "Stop it, stop it," she muttered. "Not going to let you--" Her face and body flickered, very briefly taking the form of a man who did not look nearly as good in the designer dress and heels as Glory did.
"That's that doctor guy, Ben," Willow said. "What's he doing here?"
Spike did a double-take. "Didn't you say that Glory was put into the body of a human? I'd say that's the human."
"Oh!" Xander gasped. "Ben's Glory! Or is Glory Ben?"
"I don't think it matters."
Ben reached towards the people at the top of the wall, but Glory flickered back into control. She glared at the observers. "You bunch. You've got my Key, the little girl, the Slayer's sister. Give her to me. I'm running out of time."
Willow glanced to the east, where color was starting to seep into the sky. "The Key's not here. We sent her to another dimension until after it's dawn. We can't get her back till then."
Glory stared up at her, then screamed and clutched her hair. "Why! Why are you doing this to me! I just want to go home! This stupid stinkhole of a world is killing me, I just want to go home!" She looked back up, and there were tears on her cheeks. "Please? Home, is that so hard to understand?"
"If you open the portal to go home, it will destroy our world. We don't want that to happen."
"I am a god! You are stupid puny mortal monkeys in ugly clothes! How dare you decide your world is more important than me!"
Willow blinked. "Because we're like that?" She checked her watch, then the sky again. "Anyway, even if you had the Key, you'd never get it back to Sunnydale in time. The sun would be up before you even got halfway there."
"I can move fast! I can do it! Give her to me, or I'll rip you all to pieces! And you can ask the vampire there what that feels like. Give her to me!"
Willow swallowed hard. "No."
Glory shrieked again, then strode towards the convent gates. A brave young Knight stepped in her way, sword ready. She ripped the front of his chest open in a gush of blood and kept moving.
"Attack!" yelled General Gregor. The massed Knights yelled and charged. Even the wounded rose up and joined the throng towards their most hated foe.
"God, no," Xander breathed.
They only slowed her down. Swords bounced off her. She merely ripped the arms off most of them and snapped a few necks, but one particularly nimble Knight was grabbed, raised high, and broken across her raised knee. Xander tried a shot, but she dodged it easily, though not without a glare and snarl in his direction.
The monks chanted en masse and flung an orange ball of energy at her. She actually staggered, then she changed direction and stalked into the middle of the group. The fountaining blood was a dark liquid in the slowly growing light.
"This is your fault!" Gregor yelled at Xander through his sobs of horror. "If you hadn't defied us, we'd be at full strength and would stand a chance against the Beast!"
Xander tried to contradict him, but the words stuck in his throat. Spike reached past him and grabbed a handful of Gregor's tabard. "You never stood a chance against Glory! If the Slayer couldn't take her, what makes you think your bunch of pansy horse soldiers could?" He looked at Xander. "Do I throw him to her, let her collect the complete set?"
"No," Xander whispered. "Leave him. I don't think a few more minutes will make much difference."
Finally Glory and her minions were the only ones standing before the gates. The little creatures hurried to her, helping her stand. She staggered a little, as if the rampage had exhausted her. Her figure blinked again, and Ben looked up, tears on his face.
"I can't stop her!" he yelled. "She's too strong for me, I don't know how to stop her!"
Spike reached for the rifle, but Xander was already raising it to his shoulder. "No," Xander said.
"Harris, let me."
"No. No time."
As quick and smooth and free of thought as the shot to the soldier who would have killed Tara. As Xander's finger squeezed the trigger, Ben's face started to shift. Glory was flung back by the impact, and all her minions screamed in horror. Then Glory pushed herself up and shook her head. Blood ran down her face. She reached up in disbelief, then stared at the blood on her fingers.
"Ow," she said in offended shock. As one, her acolytes turned and glared at Xander.
Dreg raised his hand and pointed. "He dies last and longest." His companions growled agreement.
Spike tsked. "You're not making friends tonight, Harris."
Xander pulled the clip out of the rifle to check how many bullets were left, then slammed it back in. "Didn't join this gig to make friends. Joined up to save the world."
Her minions assisted Glory to her feet, and she spent a few moments getting her equilibrium back. Then she stomped towards the convent gates. Gregor ran down the steps, drawing his sword.
Spike nudged Willow. "Remember that little spell you and Ripper were working up to get your girl's mind back? Something tells me it's now or never."
"Gods, yes." She ran down too.
He turned to Xander. "Come on, Harris, not much more we can do from up here."
Xander shook his head. "You go down, do what you can. Best firing angle's up here, I can cover the whole courtyard." His glance flickered towards the soldier's body lying near the chapel.
"Mate, the bullets won't touch her, you know that."
He nodded. "Still, it's all I've got. Shallow and macho, I know, but at the end of the day, I'm not much without a weapon."
There was something weirdly calm and peaceful in the boy's voice, something that made Spike nervous. He'd seen it before, though: when all the choices have been stripped from you one by one, you might as well be at peace with what's left to you.
The ancient wood of the convent gates shrieked, then the door flew apart. Glory kicked aside a remaining beam and walked in, trailed by her creatures.
Xander picked up the last clip from the parapet and tucked it into his pocket. "Best hurry, Spike. I know you don't want to miss the carnage."
Spike took a step back, frowning, then leaned forward just enough to run the backs of his fingers along Xander's cheek. He turned and dropped from the parapet to the ground.
Xander smiled slightly. "Yeah, like we've got time for that." He looked the rifle over one more time, blowing carbon out of the breech and checking the seat of the clip.
Gregor's last two soldiers ran up from where they were guarding the chapel doors to join their commander as he stood waiting for Glory. She stopped in front of him and smiled. "By the way, thank you, Greggy. I'd never have gotten here if it weren't for you. Saw you in a vision while you were on your way here to do your fanatic routine."
"Aroint thee, Beast," Gregor snarled, his sword leveled. "Thou shalt not pass."
"I will if I want to. Look, bring me the Key, and I'll think about making this easy on you."
"Thou shalt not lay hands upon thy Key, Beast. Thou shalt be stymied and destroyed, from now until eternity."
She pressed the heels of her hands against her forehead. "Gosh, I have such a headache. Gregor, if you say 'Thou shalt' one more time, I'm going to rip out your heart and wring it dry right in front of you. Stop babbling the holy crap and get me my Key."
"Thy Key is not here. The Slayer's people sent it away. Thou shalt not--"
Glory knocked aside his sword and punched her hand through his armor and into his chest. She fished around inside for a moment as Gregor thrashed, then yanked out her hand, full of a dripping red, quivering, hunk of meat.
"I told you." She squeezed her fist, and blood oozed out between her fingers. "Nobody ever believes me when I say I'm going to yank out bits of them. You believe me, don't you, vampire."
Spike, who had been creeping up behind her, froze when she turned and looked at him. "Uh, yeah, I do."
Gregor convulsed and fell. His last two men gaped, then, with a yell, charged Glory. She sighed and turned back to them, caught the sword arm of the quickest one, and tossed the soldier into his comrade. "Dreg, would you and the others finish them, please? I've got a Key to find."
"Yes, most holy!" The acolytes swarmed the fallen Knights, who only screamed for a few seconds, although the wet noises continued for a bit longer.
Glory looked over her shoulder at Spike. "Where's my Key?"
"Not here. We sent her to another dimension, where you couldn't get your hands on her."
"They must care about you some, they came in and rescued you. If I rip you in half, would they bring her back?"
He laughed. "More likely you'd get a round of applause from some parts of the studio audience. I'm afraid I'm not universally loved."
"I wonder why." Glory looked up at Xander on the parapet and rubbed her forehead, then shrugged and headed for the chapel. "Here, witchy, witchy, witchy. You can get me my Key back. I know you're in there, I can smell your girlfriend. Hiding's not going to hel--OW!"
She put her hand to her nose and glared in outrage at the chapel doorway, which she'd just bounced off of. She poked a finger at the air and met a barrier.
"What the heck is this! I'm not a vampire! This isn't anybody's house that I need an invitation to! Witch, if this is some barrier of yours, it's not going to stand up against me for long!"
Sister Agnes appeared in the doorway. "You're wrong, Glory," she said serenely, "this is someone's home. This is the house of God and of His holy representative, Saint Eugene. You may not enter."
"But I've been in there," Spike protested. "That crucifix gave me the willies, but it didn't stop me from going in."
"You're evil, Spike, but you are not a god. An enemy, not a competing power," Sister Agnes said. She crossed herself. "I wonder if it's a sin to acknowledge other gods as powers in their own right."
Spike shrugged. "First Commandment says 'Thou shalt have no other gods before me.' You wouldn't put that kind of order in there if there weren't other gods about to consider."
"Enough with the holy talk that's not about me!" Glory shrieked. She pounded her fist against the adamant air. "No stupid human god is keeping me out! Let me in!"
Sister Agnes flinched, but did not back up. "Human god and demon saint. The powers here are not the usual ones, Glory."
Glory stepped back and glared. "OK, if I can't get in, I bet Ben could, and once he's inside--" She stopped and looked over her shoulder. Spike had shifted into game face and was smiling an anticipatory predator's smile. On the parapet, Xander had the rifle to his shoulder. She glanced at her minions, then back to the two who were just waiting for her to change.
Spike chuckled. "Go ahead, bitch. I was protecting Dawn before, keeping your rats' attention on me rather than her. Sic 'em on me, I'll show you what a vampire who's having fun can do. And the whelp can pick off some of them if he gets bored with the show."
She considered a moment longer, then, with a snarl of frustration, she kicked the chapel wall. The adobe crumbled.
"All right, then," she said with a sudden grin. "If they want to stay in there, they can stay in there." She dug her hands in on either side of the doorway, found the wooden posts that formed the frame, and pulled.
Spike jumped forward and yanked her back, throwing her to the ground. "Red! Get out here! Do it now!" He fell onto Glory and began punching for all he was worth. Her minions charged in to defend their god. Xander opened fire, wounding where he could, taking head shots when there was no other choice.
Willow pushed Sister Agnes to one side and hauled Tara out of the chapel. Tara hung back at sight of Glory, but Willow yanked her forward. "Honey, I'm sorry, but this is going to make you better, I promise. Spike, give me room!"
Spike pulled back. Glory started to lunge up, but Willow's hand on her forehead shoved her back down.
"Stay put, bitch!" Willow snarled in a voice that echoed more than it should. She tugged Tara down and slid her fingers into her lover's hair. "Just a moment, baby, just a moment." Her eyes went black as she began to chant.
Blue lightning flared between the three of them. Spike fell back, shielding his eyes. All three screamed, then were thrown apart by a blast of light. Willow was flung into Spike, and Tara landed against the chapel wall.
Dreg was the last of Glory's minions alive, and he had stuffed his robes into the wound in his belly to slow the blood loss. He crawled to his god, unable to walk. "Glorificus! Speak to me, great and unstoppable one!"
Willow pulled herself out of Spike's hold. "Did it work? Tara! Where are you!" Spike pushed her to her feet, and she staggered to Tara. "Baby, are you OK?"
Tara levered herself off the ground, whimpering. Then Willow reached her, and she looked up. "Willow?"
Willow pushed her hair back with shaking hands. "Tara? You know me?"
"I always know you. I heard you, but you couldn't hear me. I couldn't get to you--"
"So I came and found you instead."
Dreg reached Glory's outstretched hand and took it in both of his. "Most luscious and creamy cheesecakeness, most rich and utterly-free-of-nuts double-fudge brownieness, Glorificus, speak to me."
"Missing," Glory whispered from split lips. "Part of me is missing."
"You're all here, most mighty. A little battered from what those despicable worms have done to you, but you're all here."
"Inside. There's a hole in my mind, and it's dark in there. There's a bit of me missing inside my brain." Slowly she rolled onto her side and looked around. She snarled when she saw Tara and Willow hugging by the wall. "I can take it back, witch. I don't mind seconds. Take yours, too."
Willow raised a hand and tried to point, but she was shaking too badly. "Oh, goddess, I can't . . ."
Glory started crawling towards them. Tara scrambled to her feet and helped Willow up. "Inside the chapel, she can't get us there. Come on, honey, come on."
"Dreg, stop them!" Glory commanded.
With a matchless effort, Dreg struggled to stand, determined to serve his god to the last breath and pulse. He managed one step before something broke inside and he fell. "Glorificus . . ." he breathed, turning his head for one last sight of her.
"Dreg?" she whispered. "But--you can't die. Not until I tell you to."
Spike helped Tara haul Willow into the safety of the chapel, then turned with a grin. "And that's the last item on tonight's to-do list. Now we just hurt you."
Glory barely blocked his fists, but he could still only inflict minimal damage. "Change, damn you," he snarled. "Change so I can kill you."
Xander watched, appalled and afraid, wondering how on earth they could finish this. Everybody was dead except for Glory, the Scoobies, and the nuns, and Glory kept right on surviving, like the grandfather of rats, who lurks in the corners of the basement and watches you in the middle of the night. Not that Xander ever admitted to seeing glowing eyes in the dark there in the Basement of Doom. Maybe Glory was the God of Rats, because she just wouldn't die.
In the chapel, Tara helped Willow collapse into one of the pews. Joyce hobbled up, gasping relief, but Tara only spared her a smile before turning to Sister Agnes. "Sister, what miraculous powers is St. Eugene's cup supposed to possess?"
Sister Agnes could only blink for a few seconds. "You're Tara."
Tara took a deep breath. "Yes, I'm Tara, we weren't formally introduced, thank you for all your help. St. Eugene's cup, what does it do? I touched it before, and I saw Glory in it, on her way here."
Sister Agnes shook herself back into "deal with it" mode. "The actual cup that St. Eugene created shows a person the way of his or her death. You didn't see Glory--killing anyone, you just saw her coming?"
"Yes. Is this cup supposed to be able to see things far away?"
"I--all that's ever been said is that you can see revelations, and sometimes people who are most on your mind. One of the early records speaks of the cup being used to reassure people who were worried about the families they'd left behind when they traveled here to the frontier, but I've never seen any sign of this being so."
"Maybe you never had a witch touching it before." She maneuvered around Joyce and went to the statue of St. Eugene.
Willow straightened as best she could. "Tara, what are you doing?"
Tara didn't answer but put her hands around the cup, resting them on the carved hands of the demon saint. Immediately the water in the cup began to glow. "Please, work," she whispered. "Aradia, protectress, Hecate, seer, show me what I seek. Isis, who transcends, everywhere and nowhere, within and without, show me." The water swirled, showed fragments, Spike beating on Glory, Glory slowly getting her strength back.
Sister Agnes took an uncertain step forward. "I don't think she should be doing that here."
Tara looked up and stared into the statue's stone eyes. "St. Eugene, who served humans and demons alike, who brought solace and protection regardless of species, let me through. Let me see."
Golden light burst forth from the cup, and Tara's hair blew away from her face. "Thank you," she breathed.
In the cup she saw Buffy and Dawn, curled together asleep. Giles sat a few feet away, his sword across his lap. His lips moved, as if he were singing to himself.
"Buffy," Tara called softly. "Buffy, wake up. We need you."
Xander yelled outside, sounding scared. Tara heard Joyce gasp a word Tara didn't think anybody's mother would ever use in public. She focused harder on the vision in the cup, even as her head began throbbing and her vision blurred.
"Buffy, we're losing. Please, wake up. We need you."
She gasped and sagged into Sister Agnes' arms. "Easy, nina, easy."
"Sister, I'm sorry, I know they're not your gods, but I meant no evil, I swear. . . "
The nun helped her to sit next to Willow. "If it were evil you were trying to work, I doubt the saint would have let it work."
Willow brushed Tara's hair back from her sweaty forehead. "Baby, what were you doing? I touched that cup, but it never did anything for me."
"I--I was calling for help. I hope it got through.
In the land of perpetual Wednesday, under a pink and grey sky, Buffy's eyes popped open. "Oh, my god, I just had the most horrible dream."
Buffy sat up, rubbing her eyes. Dawn blinked at her sleepily. "A dream?"
"What kind of dream?" Giles asked, frowning. "The usual sort or something more?"
"I was dreaming about the guys back at the convent. Glory was there."
Dawn squeaked in alarm, but Giles continued to look serious. "Did it seem like something prophetic or just the usual sort of nightmare projection of your worries?"
"It wasn't just a nightmare, but it didn't seem like one of the Slayer dreams, either. More like--something that's already happened. I heard Tara's voice, she was calling for help." Buffy licked her lips. "She said they were losing."
"If Glory has arrived, I imagine Willow would try the spell to get Tara's mind back. I have never been certain of everything that Tara is capable of, perhaps she did find a way to contact you."
"So you think this is real? That Glory's there and they're in trouble?"
Giles checked his watch. "It's not quite dawn. We can't go back yet, regardless."
Dawn sat up. "But--if Glory's there, she could--Mom's there!"
Giles was unmoved. "Spike, Xander, and Willow are there, they'll defend Joyce."
Buffy got to her feet. "I couldn't take her. The guys may not even be able to slow her down."
He gave her a much more adamant version of his usual Watcher look. "What was the point of all this, the running, coming to this dimension? It was to protect Dawn from Glory, to save the world. Surely you didn't think Glory would shrug it off, that after everything she's done she'd just accept that her Key was out of reach. I admit I'm surprised she was able to follow us to the convent, but I knew she wasn't going to sit idly by and let herself be trapped." The cold look faded a little. "I don't like thinking about anything happening to the others, either. But our first priority has always been to stop Glory from opening her portal."
Dawn looked at her own watch. "Dawn's less than an hour from now. Didn't you say she had to be in Sunnydale for her spell to work? She'd never make it in time, we could--"
"I am not going to risk it," Giles said firmly. "You are not stepping back into our own world one second before 6:13 AM. Glory might have some way to open her portal with just you, I can't imagine she doesn't have an emergency back-up plan of some sort. We are not going back."
Dawn looked at Buffy anxiously. "I saw bodies, Giles," Buffy whispered. "Lots of bodies. And Tara was really scared. Spike was laying into Glory, but he wasn't doing enough damage. She was starting to get up." She saw regret was briefly over Giles' face, but it was swiftly replaced by acceptance.
"The possibility is quite real that someone we--that someone could get seriously hurt whom we don't want to be hurt." His brave, resigned smile looked very human. "Occupational hazard, I'm afraid."
Buffy looked away, knowing very, very well that he was right. She'd risked everything to keep Dawn from harm, dragged her unwell mother out of the comfort of her own home, disrupted everyone's lives, demanded obedience to her demands that Dawn's safety come first--and gotten it.
Maybe those monks had put that in her, that blind focus on Dawn's safety before everything else. Whatever the source, she simply couldn't bring herself to risk opening the portal before the deadline, risk Glory getting her hands on the Key after everything they'd done. The writers of the Slayer Handbook would approve. The girl who knew that the Slayer was stronger with friends and family, though, screamed in her mind, "But they're dying! They're covering your ass and they're dying for it! As least give Glory a target that's not so fragile!"
She couldn't stay here, not while knowing her mother and Willow and Xander and Anya and those nice nuns and, heck, even Spike were holding the line for her and losing. But she couldn't go back, she couldn't take Dawn back there yet--
"Goose, corn, fox," she whispered.
Dawn blinked. "Huh?"
"There's a game. You've got a goose, some corn, and a fox, and you have to get them across a river. But you can only carry one thing at a time in the boat. The fox will eat the goose and the goose will eat the corn if they're left alone together."
Buffy turned to Giles. "Please, let me trust you just one more time."
He tilted his head at her in that painfully familiar way. "Excuse me?"
"I can go back there, if I leave Dawn here with you."
He smiled suddenly, proudly. "Instead of the goose alone with the fox, Dawn should be the corn?"
She nodded. "Let me trust you to keep her safe. Despite whatever your brain is currently telling you is a good idea, please be my Watcher again for just a few more minutes, instead of something I'm supposed to kill."
The look he gave her was dispassionate and assessing. "And you would believe me why?"
"I would if you promised."
"I'm not Spike. He was raised on tales of chivalry and noble quests."
"No," Buffy nodded. "You're not Spike. You're Giles. And if you promised, I'd believe you."
"You shouldn't," he said softly. "You can't. Not now."
"I know. But I would. Please? For just a little while?"
He'd only ever lied to her when she'd insisted. He would keep things from her, try to change the subject, try not to say anything at all, but he'd always told her the truth. He studied her for several moments, his thoughts locked behind remote, unhuman eyes. Then he smiled, and the man who'd wielded chainsaws in her behalf with such disturbing glee was back.
"I promise. I'll keep Dawn safe while you're gone, and we'll come back just as soon as the sun clears the horizon and it's too late for any of Glory's plans to work."
Buffy ran to hug him, but not long enough for the lack of heartbeat to register or for the chill in his skin to feel like anything more than someone who had been out in the cold. "Thank you. Now, where do we open the portal so I can get home?"
Blood finally smeared the Hellgod's face as Spike continued pummelling her. She actually seemed dazed by the blows, her head rocking under the impacts.
The violence was soothing after a night of frustration. Even rampaging through the Knights hadn't taken enough of an edge off Spike's anxiety. Having his hands on the creature who meant to sacrifice Dawn--not to mention who had tortured Spike himself--was sweet. Though he could have done with a few more signs of damage. He was causing more harm to his knuckles than to Glory. If he could just get her to change into her mortal, killable form . . .
Over the smack of fists hitting flesh came another sound: birdsong. In the trees of the olive grove outside the convent walls and in the scrub pine on the hills behind, the birds felt the approach of dawn and began to wake.
For the first time in his unlife, Spike heard that sound without a start of fear. "Hear that, bitch? World's waking up to the new day. Morning has broken, but it ain't no portal of yours that's done it."
Glory blinked, and her eyes went to the sky, where the stars were fading fast and air was turning the blue of an exquisite mountain springtime morning. "No," she whispered from split lips.
She looked away from the sky and locked gazes with Spike. "I just wanted to go home. And you stopped me. And now you're stuck with me. Whatcha gonna do with me now, huh, smartypants?"
She twisted, got a knee free, and slammed it up between Spike's legs. He screamed, and the blow knocked him away from her. He lay crumpled on the ground, unable even to draw breath for whimpers.
Vaguely he heard a shout from Harris' direction and words from the chapel in Joyce's voice that she'd ground either of her daughters for even thinking. And the footsteps of Glory, who had gotten to her feet and was coming for him to finish the job.
Xander fought off agonized male sympathy and brought up the rifle. Maybe the damage was cumulative. Glory was knocked off her feet by the impact of the last six shots in the clip.
She scrambled back to her feet and glared up at Xander. "This dress is Versace, you jackass! I am so going to come up there and suck down your brain when I'm done with this." She wiped blood off her arms and headed back to Spike, who was trying to get his arms under him.
Xander hit the release on the clip and fumbled for the last bullet clip. He was exhausted and terrified, but his soldier memories and own sense of duty told him to keep trying until the rifle clicked empty for the last time. Then maybe he could use it as a club as Glory finally turned her attention to him.
Glory reached Spike and dragged him up by his shirt. She reached over his head and began digging her fingers into the side of his neck. "You're not using your head for anything, are you?" Spike reached up for her hand but was unable to pull it free. And skin began to rip.
Bad angle for what he wanted up there on the parapet. Xander paid as little attention as humanly possible to the sight of a vampire in the process of getting his head torn off and ran down the steps to the courtyard. Kind of like lining up a pool shot, and hope she doesn't yank on that hand she's got in Spike's neck. He flicked the selector switch to full auto, leveled the rifle and poured the full clip into Glory's body.
Glory jerked at the impact of thirty rounds of bullets traveling twice the speed of sound. The force knocked her over and made her throw Spike towards the chapel door.
"Get him!" Xander yelled, and Sister Agnes and Tara dashed out to drag Spike inside the protection of the chapel.
"Come on!" Tara yelled once they were inside.
Xander grinned at her across the courtyard. "Good to see you back, Tara."
Glory groaned and dragged herself up. Her dress was a smoking mess from the energy of the bullets that couldn't penetrate her skin. Xander guessed he was lucky he hadn't been hit by ricochets.
Willow joined Tara at the door. "Xander, please, get in here before she gets up!"
"Sorry, Will, got a little more work to do out here yet."
Glory managed to get to her knees. "Oh, gosh," she gasped. "Ow." She managed to focus on Xander. "You *prick*! That *hurt*!"
He shrugged. "Kind of the idea, bitch." He shifted the empty rifle in his hands as she stumbled to her feet. He glanced up at the mountain tops behind the convent. The very tips of the pine trees showed faint spots of color. Not much longer. "You know, you just might want to lay back down and nurse your wounds. A few more minutes, and there's going to be a Slayer showing back up, and I don't think she's going to be pleased to see you."
The vacuous airhead had gone somewhere else. The being glaring at him was every inch the thwarted hellgod with an enemy in her sight. "Bring her on. She can't do any more to me than you can with that pop gun. And once I snack on what's laughably called your brain, I'll be in even better shape."
"About that brain eating thing. The people you eat, you ever hear their voices in your head? 'Cause I'm thinking, maybe you don't want my mind mixing with yours. You know I'll be right there, hanging over your shoulder, criticizing everything and telling you what a loser you truly are."
Glory actually paused and gaped at him. "I do not! Hear voices. I eat you, you go away, and you're--you're just a Twinkie to me. The witch, she would have been good for days. You, I'll probably need a refill in just a couple of hours."
It was kind of like facing off a dead guy in a basement over a bomb with less than twenty seconds on the timer. The world became a simple, peaceful place. "Only one way to find out, isn't there."
"Oh, I am so going to enjoy ripping off your empty head when I'm done sucking it dry."
Glory stomped towards him, and he brought the rifle up to get one last good shot in with the butt end.
Then the wind picked up inside the courtyard, and the dust began spinning. Tiny lightning crackled in the air, and sparks danced.
"God, no." Xander looked to the east, where the sun was not quite putting in its appearance yet. "Too soon, guys, too soon."
Glory grinned at the growing portal. "This'll be them coming back, huh? I bet noshing on my Key would be a big ol' power kick, don't you think? Then I can do some damage. But you first."
Just as she reached for Xander, the portal pulsed into full form, sending a bow wave of wind across the courtyard. Glory and Xander both staggered.
Buffy rolled out of the portal, which closed behind her. She hopped to her feet and brushed off her hands. "Hi, there! Somebody called for a Slayer?"
She stared at Glory the Hellgod in disbelief. She actually looked--battered. Her dress was in tatters, her hair was a mess, and there was blood on her. And it looked like her own blood. She was even bruised.
"Boy," she grinned, "Spike did a number on you. Pissed off vampires hit hard, don't they."
Glory snarled. "He won't hit anything once I finish ripping his head off. And then I start on that little twerp with the gun." She glared at Xander, still standing not far away, rifle poised to block whatever she might throw at him.
Buffy tensed. "Xander, get out of here. You can't take her."
There was no reply from the dark figure that was half lost in the shadows on the other side of the courtyard.
"Xan--" He spared a moment to glance at her, then turned back to face Glory.
Buffy knew that look. She'd seen it years ago when a guy she thought firmly categorized as sweet but clueless had slammed her into a vending machine and given her a look that only said, "Now or later?" She'd met vampires since then who hadn't been able to match the sheer predatory menace of Xander as a hyena.
But there was no time to deal with residual possession. Glory was looking between Buffy and Xander, trying to decide where to begin.
"Xander, get inside! I'll deal with her!"
A smile quirked Xander's lips. "Of course you will, Buff. We've just been waiting for you."
She frowned briefly, wondering about his tone of voice, but Glory chose her target--Xander.
Xander dodged the first swing while slamming the butt of the rifle into Glory's stomach. Glory staggered but managed one good kick into Xander's hip. He fell, swearing.
"C'mere, Twinkie," Glory growled. "You'll do for a snack."
She got her hands around Xander's head, just as Buffy slammed into her from the side. They hit the ground and rolled.
From the chapel doorway, Willow yelled, "Xander, come on! Let Buffy handle it!"
He rolled to all fours, wincing. Over near the bus, Buffy jumped to her feet while Glory actually staggered a little as she rose.
Willow slipped out of Tara's grip and ran out to Xander, grabbing his arm and tugging. "Please, Xander, come inside."
"Will, get out of here--"
"Not without you! You've done enough, let Buffy take care of it from here."
He struggled to his knees, then up. "Yeah, we've got a Slayer. No faux soldiers needed here."
She peered at him anxiously, then ducked under his shoulder to help him to the chapel.
Buffy sighed in relief at having everyone else off the battlefield. This was her job, after all.
Glory was breathing hard. "I just wanted to go home. But you and your rotten band of evolutionary mistakes got in my way."
"It's my job," Buffy shrugged. "Get in evil's way. Nothing personal. No, wait. You hurt my friends, you wanted to kill my sister. I guess that makes it pretty personal."
She stepped forward, and Glory stepped back.
Buffy wondered if Xander would know the perfect spaghetti western reference for this: a duel at dawn in an ancient convent's courtyard. The bird song in the otherwise silence was almost deafening. But there was another sound. Flies buzzing. Buffy finally noticed all the bodies lying around. Why hadn't she noticed the smell of blood? Glory's arms were red to the elbows.
"You did all this?" she gasped.
"Sweetie, it wasn't me who put bullets in those guys--especially not in my guys."
Buffy looked around again. There were really messy bodies, but those were the humans. A bunch of Glory's minions were lying where they'd dropped, precise bullet wounds showing what had killed them. But there was that body over by the chapel . . . "Xander did this?" she whispered.
"Don't worry, he's going to pay for it, the little jerk." Glory twitched, then glanced over her shoulder to the east. The tops of the trees were well lit now. "No," Glory moaned. "Damn it, no. I just wanted to go home!"
She charged. Buffy stepped out of the way, but Glory's wild swing knocked her down. She dodged the follow-up kick and swept Glory's legs out from under her. Glory wasn't fighting, but flailing in rage. Still, she had a god's strength, and Buffy was dodging more than attacking. And not dodging everything. The grazing clip she got on the side of the head rocked her, leaving her open to the punch in the gut.
The light changed. Brightened. Streaks of gold broke through between the trees at the top of the ridge to spread across the small valley, covering the hills and trees on the other side with sunrise. The mist rising from the fields glowed. New day, well and truly begun.
"We did it," Buffy whispered, blinking hard. "We did it."
Glory screamed, convulsed, fell. Her scream dropped from outraged soprano to agonized tenor. The hair cropped itself, and the shoulders became more than a little ludicrous in the ruined dress and lingerie.
Buffy stared in disbelief, until she heard a familiar voice whimpering. She lowered herself to her knees cautiously. "B--Ben?"
The young man turned his head slowly. "Hello, Buffy," he gasped.
"Ben? You? You were Glory?"
"Yeah. Thank you for listening to me and getting out of town."
He laughed weakly. "Yeah. Sorry." He picked at the silky rags hanging on his body. "Imagine how I feel, waking up in high heels and Victoria's Secret all the time."
She fell the rest of the way to the ground. "But--you helped us."
"I tried. My--sister was getting very strong there at the end."
Buffy looked up at the blue sky. There were big fluffy clouds up there, catching red and gold light. "It's going to be a pretty day."
Ben nodded and closed his eyes. "I think so. A gorgeous day."
The air suddenly tingled and swirled. Buffy scrambled to her feet. "That'll be Giles and Dawn coming back." She bounced just a little as the portal popped into the air and began spinning. She heard Ben slowing getting to his feet behind her. "Maybe now that she missed her deadline we can find some way to keep her from coming back."
She turned to grin hopefully at Ben--right into the two-fisted hammer blow that flung her through the air and hard enough into the chapel wall to crack the adobe facing.
"And maybe you won't," Glory growled, watching the portal. "So this is my Key coming back. I need a pick-me-up." The portal blossomed open.
Repetition did not make portal travel any better. Dawn squinted her eyes until she could just barely see which way she was going, because it was better than seeing the things pulsing in the walls. She ran just as fast as she could, desperate to get back to Buffy and her mother. There were footsteps behind her, but more than just Giles' steps.
A golden light appeared ahead, dawn's light. Go to the light. The light at the end of the tunnel. Is sometimes an oncoming train. Dawn stumbled on exiting the portal, a hand grabbed her arm to pull her up, and she screamed when she saw the bloody, bruised, crazed face of Glory.
Glory shook her. "Don't bother, kid. You're mine, and I'm starving." She clamped her hands around Dawn's head. "Shut up! You wouldn't even exist if it weren't for me!"
Dawn felt a dreadful hollow sucking in her head, and the world began to dim. Glory's eyes bored into hers. A strange green haze fell over Dawn's fading vision, and she thought, "She's right, if not for her I wouldn't exist. It almost makes sense, her taking me." It hurt, though, and she whimpered.
Glory suddenly screeched and let go. Dawn fell, gasping. Blinking hard, she saw Buffy, her face blood-streaked, clinging to Glory's leg.
"Get off, bitch!" Glory kicked at Buffy, who grabbed that foot and yanked. Glory hit the ground hard.
"Dawn," Buffy gasped, "get into the chapel."
Dawn started to crawl away, then Glory grabbed her ankle. Gasping in terror, Dawn tried to dig her fingers into the dirt, but the hellgod dragged her closer. Fingernails dug into her leg as the inhumanly strong fingers clamped down. Dawn tried to bat away the hands that clawed at her, even as Buffy tried to get to her feet. Glory kicked at Buffy, knocking her over, then, grinning, reached up to clamp her hand over Dawn's face again.
Until a gleaming swordblade slashed down between them, slamming into Glory's wrist and knocking the arm, regretfully intact, away. Glory yelled in pain and Dawn scrambled away just as fast as she could.
Glory looked up and snarled. Giles leveled his sword, the point just a few inches from her face. "Stop that," he said calmly.
Buffy checked the position of the sunlight creeping across the valley towards the convent. Giles couldn't stay out in this long.
And why do we care? Asked a voice in her mind that wore dramatic face paint and which didn't understand loyalty to anything other than slaying.
She ignored it and got her feet under her.
Glory swung at the sword aimed at her face. Giles flicked the blade out of her reach, then brought it back on point.
"At the risk, of sounding like a silly movie," he said, "you do know that we're not going to let you get away with any of this, don't you?"
"You slugs can't touch me," she snarled. "I did more damage to your punk buddy than he did to me." Her face flickered to Ben's very briefly, and she smacked herself upside of the head. "You stay out of this!"
Giles blinked. "Ben's Glory?"
"Been there, done that," Buffy said.
"Do you have a plan for finishing this?"
She licked her lips. "No."
Glory charged Giles, ducking underneath the swordblade. He barely managed to roll out of the way of the claws that were aimed at his face.
Buffy ran to Dawn, who was still on the ground, staring in disbelief, and she yanked her sister to her feet. "Get in there," she snapped, pushing Dawn towards the chapel.
"Go! Go check on Mom."
Dawn gasped and nodded, then took off as fast as long legs could take her.
Giles spun and slashed at Glory. The blade caught her but did not break the skin. Instead of trying for cuts, Giles began using the sword as a very narrow club, chopping at Glory.
Buffy watched for several seconds, ramping up her perceptions from human to Slayer. Then she dove into the god vs. vampire brawl, landing a kick that knocked Glory straight into Giles' backhand slash. Glory turned on Buffy, giving Giles a clear shot at Glory's head. Glory stumbled, and Giles gave Buffy a tight smile. He'd shifted into game face, but she couldn't help grinning back. Then they moved in again.
Every time Glory tried to shift her attack, either Buffy or Giles countered her. Glory made no attempt to escape, wanting only to cause damage. She managed to get hold of Buffy's arm and twisted, driving Buffy painfully to her knees.
"Aren't you happy you're stuck with me?" Glory hissed into Buffy's ear, yanking on the arm. "I bet you'll come apart easier than a vampire."
"You'll not be finding out!" Giles kicked Glory in the side, and she fell back, but without letting go of Buffy. Buffy yelled as her shoulder was nearly dragged out of its socket. Before Glory could recover, Giles stomped with all his power on her wrist. Glory screamed in pain and let go. Giles grabbed Buffy and pulled her out of reach.
"Will you be all right?" he asked anxiously. She nodded impatiently, clutching her shoulder. They both looked up at a strange sound. Glory was whimpering in pain.
The hellgod sat on the ground, cradling her wrist. From the angle, it was severely broken. She stared at her injury, shaking her head. "You can't. It's impossible. You can't hurt me. You can't." Her body morphed several times to Ben's, and then back, the pain-filled voice shifting as well from male to female.
Giles nodded. "Excellent. She's beginning to lose hold. Let's finish this." He started to move, but paused when Buffy didn't move. "Buffy?"
She stared at her foe, watching the transformations. For moments on end, Ben's face stared at her, and she could only think of him shyly asking her out for coffee. Then Glory would be back, mad and desperate and needing to be stopped. "I don't think I can . . ."
"He's Ben, he's human." She glared at him. "I'm not supposed to hurt humans, that's what you taught me. Can I help it if some lessons took?"
Giles started to argue, then thought better. "Well, then, you hit her when she's Glory, and I'll hit him when he's Ben. Buffy, we can't give her time to recover."
"I know . . ." She stared at his vampiric face. When he'd been a Fyarl, she'd known him by his eyes. It was his voice that confused her now, reasonable, concerned, Gilesian. He hadn't quite gotten the knack of sounding like himself past fangs, but he wasn't far off. She wanted to ask him to change back, but that was encouraging a lie. She needed to see this face and try to figure it out later, how his face could scream enemy while his voice still said friend.
"Buffy . . ." His voice was patient, but firm, sounding like a thousand training and consultation sessions.
She nodded and looked away, unable to listen to that voice from that face. "I know. Let's do it."
They moved. It was Glory, all pretense at rationality gone from her eyes, who rose to meet them, so Buffy hit first. Even a one-handed god still had some power, and she barely staggered as the blow landed. Two more punches brought out Ben, though. He saw Giles' sword coming and flinched, catching the edge on his shoulder instead of in the throat. Buffy grabbed his arms, gasping an apology as she tried to immobilize him. Glory reappeared and wriggled free, headbutting Buffy squarely in the nose.
Giles punched Glory in the belly, bringing his knee up to catch her face on its way down as she doubled over. More blood flowed, but Glory could do no more than gasp in horror before Buffy recovered and joined Giles. They drove Glory to her knees. Giles dropped his sword, the quarters being too close for decent swings. Buffy hesitated a little when Ben surfaced, showing the bruises of the beating Glory was taking, but Giles continued, never blinking as the face beneath his blows kept changing.
Then it was Ben's face that appeared and stayed as he slowly sank to his knees. Buffy managed to redirect Giles' fist as the young human man lay on the ground, whimpering on every breath.
"Enough!" she snapped, glaring back at yellow demon eyes. "He's down! She's gone!"
"No, she's not."
"She's gone enough! Look at him!" Maybe not the wisest of instructions to a vampire. Giles stared down at the bloody human, and Buffy could have sworn she saw him lick his lips very briefly. "Anyway, even if she comes back, she's going to be too weak to do anything. You said it yourself, she's losing control. She won't be able to hang on to the form long enough to do anything. Besides," she added, "the sun's going to be shining in here before too much longer."
Reminded, Giles looked anxiously at the sky and winced. He glanced back at Ben, undecided.
Buffy crouched down closer to Ben. "I am so sorry," she said, trying to find an unbattered part of him to touch comfortingly. "But we had to stop her. We'll find a way for you to control her, I promise. She can't last much longer. Can you hear me?" She shifted position so he could look at her without moving his head. "We'll help you."
Ben might have nodded, he might have been trembling in shock. But he managed something approximating a smile.
She straightened with a wince and reached for her bleeding nose. "Ow." Then she reached for her shoulder. "Ow again."
"You should rest," Giles said quietly. "Get those injuries seen to. And I imagine someone's mother is rather anxious to see her daughter."
Buffy turned towards the chapel door, forgetting her wounds. Dawn and Joyce stood in the doorway, holding on to each other, looking both horrified and relieved. Buffy took a step towards them, then glanced back over her shoulder. "You should get under cover."
"I will. Go on."
She ran to her family. Joyce was incoherent with worry and happiness, trying to hug Buffy without letting go of Dawn. Dawn clung to her sister, not even bothering to try to speak as she cried.
Willow came up carefully, not wanting to interrupt but carefully reaching out anyway to touch Buffy's arm. Buffy looked up and blinked away tears. "Hey, Will," she whispered, taking her hand.
"Hey, Buffy. How was your trip?"
"Kind of dull, actually. How was your night?" Willow stuttered then went silent, but Buffy had already looked beyond Willow to Tara. "Hi. I got your call. I'm glad you're OK."
Tara smiled. "I'm glad it worked. We should pack your nose before it swells too much more."
Buffy almost reached for her nose, but it hurt too much to touch. "Is it broken? Am I going to look like a field hockey player?" Dawn giggled from where she was tucked in tight between her mother and her sister.
Spike stepped forward a little from the shadows, but not too far. "Nah, should be fine, but you'll bruise up impressively. It'll look like you went a few rounds with a god."
Buffy nearly smiled at him, then frowned at the bandage around his neck. "What happened to you?" She looked around the chapel. Xander was sitting in a front pew, staring at the floor in front of his feet and not paying attention to anyone else. She checked everyone again, worried now. "Where's Anya?"
Everyone went very still, then Spike took a slow, reluctant breath. Something outside caught his attention before he could speak, and his eyes went very wide. "What the hell?"
Giles glanced at the encroaching sunlight, gauging the time, then he went over and picked up his sword. He brushed the dirt off the grip, then cleaned the blade with a corner of his shirt. Holding it loosely, he walked back to Ben, who had managed to raise himself a few inches and was pausing to catch his breath.
"A noble soul, Buffy," Giles said. "She sincerely believes in the curative powers of hope. She will offer help to anyone, all they need to do is ask." He shifted out of game face as he gazed down at the battered human. "But sometimes there is no help, no hope. I think you know that."
Ben managed to look up at him. "I can try . . ."
"You can't control her, we've only driven her back. I have no idea how long it will take her to fade away. As you recover, so she will recover. And so she will be back. And she will try to kill my Slayer again, in revenge for everything that was taken away. No."
Ben barely had time to blink before Giles raised his sword and swung down.
"Giles!" Buffy shrieked from the chapel door, but the head was already on the ground, rocking slightly. Blood gushed out of the body as it convulsed and transformed one more time, leaving Glory's corpse laying in the dirt.
"Requiescat in pace," Giles said softly.
Buffy ran up and gasped in horror before she turned away with her hands over her mouth. "Oh, god, how could you? How could you?" The others were approaching, though more hesitantly.
"This doesn't require an audience," Giles called, cleaning his sword again.
Spike came up, looked at the pieces and shook his head. "You had to do this in front of everybody, Ripper? Come on, love," he said, putting his hands on Buffy's shoulders and urging her away. "None of your concern anymore, go on back in."
She pulled away and turned, tears on her face. "You had no right," she whispered. "We could have--"
Giles sighed and resheathed his sword. "Buffy, you are a hero. Your job is to save the world. And congratulations are in order, because, yet again, you've done just that. Well done." His tired smile was sincere. "But every hero needs a cleanup crew, people who will do the jobs the hero can't but which need to be done to make sure the hero's job stays done. I have always been a part of your cleanup crew, and as long as I walk this earth, I shall continue to be so. Whether you want me to or not."
She shook her head. "This was wrong. We might have been able to save him . . ."
"No. If there was enough Ben left to save, it wouldn't be Glory lying here now." He glanced up at the sky again. "I do apologize for leaving this mess for others to deal with, but time is against me." He looked at Spike and frowned. "What happened to you?"
Spike grabbed his arm to pull him towards the bus. "Long night, long story." He hesitated and turned back to Buffy. "I'd take care of this for you if I could, but . . ."
She shook her head without looking at him. After a moment he continued to the bus with Giles. Buffy kept her eyes away from Glory's body, but she couldn't avoid any of the other bodies lying around the courtyard. "It was supposed to be over," she whispered. "Now what do we do?"
Xander hadn't moved from his spot on the pew when all the shouting broke out. From what he gathered, it was all finished, Glory beaten, everyone home, the good guys win again. Yippee. He might care some decade.
The nuns talked among themselves about clean-up and gravedigging and, oh yes, someone would need to go milk the cow and feed the chickens, because things do go on, despite the epic battles that take place. Xander approved, in a quiet corner of his mind that was still acknowledging that the world had relevance to his existence. No matter what, there were still jobs to do.
There was a job he didn't think he could stand to leave to anyone else. Damn, but it hurt to move. Regardless, he pushed against the pew and forced himself to his feet. Baynar, the baby Minoto, came over slowly, squeaking at him.
"Hey, little dude," Xander said wearily. "You OK?"
Baynar glanced towards his mother and the other Minoto, then bobbed a little in apparent reassurance.
"Good. You ought to stay in here a bit longer. It's a bit of a mess out there." He squared his shoulders. "Ought to go help clean it up."
Sister Agnes stopped him before he took more than a couple of steps. "You should rest," she said. "You've had a very long night."
"And long nights are followed by long days. I helped make that mess, I should help clean it up."
Baynar's mother and the other Minoto came forward. "No, you have done enough."
Xander winced, even though he knew it was very true.
The demon didn't seem to notice. "All night you have fought and bled to defend us and this place while we hid inside. It is time for you to rest and let us have a turn at being useful."
Xander blinked at her. "Uh, I'm sorry, but I really didn't do it for you."
"It does not matter. We were benefitted by your work, we owe you a service. Rest. Heal what you can. We shall see to the fallen."
He didn't know how to say what was mostly on his mind. He couldn't just leave them to someone else, those soldiers he'd wounded, the man he'd killed. It was too easy to brush away their existences, especially when the gruesome part was still to be done. A part of him insisted that he see up close the work he had done, the damage he'd inflicted. He owed it to them. Didn't he?
Baynar took his hand and tugged him back towards the pews, chattering to him. Xander stared at him, then looked at Sister Agnes and his mother.
"He says you need to sit down before you harm yourself," his mother said. "He can be a little bossy."
Sister Agnes patted Xander's shoulder. "Rest, nino. There will still be work to do when you wake up."
He thought of the dormitory and the beds, then of the long walk over there and the probability of someone insisting on talking to him, then of Anya's things there in the room.
He wobbled, and Baynar tugged again, more insistently.
"I can't sleep in here," he said.
"You wouldn't be the first," Sister Agnes smiled. "The pews are surprisingly comfortable, and no one will mind."
Finally he gave in to superior forces and followed his tiny demon guide back to the front of the chapel. The world was fuzzing as he stretched out. The seat of the pew was almost wide enough for him to lay flat, but he curled up on his side, as close to fetal as he could manage. Baynar watched him for a moment, then bustled away. He returned dragging a rectangular embroidered pillow, one of the kneelers from under the pew. It was faded and old, but Baynar hoisted it up onto the pew seat. He wiggled his hand underneath Xander's head and tried to lift. Bemused, Xander raised his head and let Baynar shove the cushion underneath. When he dropped his head, he couldn't help sighing in relief, because the cushion was the perfect pillow height and smelled companionably of dust and incense and old cloth.
Baynar pointed at Xander, then at his own eyes. He closed his eyes tightly, then looked sternly at Xander. Smiling, Xander closed his eyes obediently. He opened one a moment later, to find Baynar still watching him. The demon scowled at him and pointed at the open eye.
So the resolve face transcended species. Xander blinked back tears and closed both eyes. The soft darkness rose around his mind. The last thing he felt was a small scaley hand patting his cheek while a tiny voice hissed at him.
The stories were told over a scraped together breakfast in the common room. Willow talked most, describing the siege, the arrows, the loss of Anya.
"He--he made a deal with D'Hoffryn?" Buffy repeated. "Her life for--whatever D'Hoffryn wants?" Willow nodded solemnly. "Well, we'll have to get him out of it."
"I don't know that we can, honey," Joyce said. "He agreed, even after Spike tried to talk him out of it. Anya's life was on the line, and he agreed."
"Was she really dying?" Dawn whispered from where she sat as close to her mother as she could. Joyce nodded sadly.
"I don't care," Buffy said. "No demon gets to use my friends like a bar bet. I'll find D'Hoffryn and get this settled." Sadness replaced the resolve. "He was really going to ask her to marry him?"
Willow nodded. "He said he was paying for a ring and everything."
Dawn licked her lips. "Can't they--you know . . . anyway? She's not dead."
Buffy hugged her. "I don't know, Dawnie. The full-fledged vengeance demon thing might be a bit of a crimp."
"Spiked offered to turn her into a vampire instead and lend us the orb to put her soul back," Willow added. "I think Xander was thinking about it."
"It was that or watch her die," Joyce said softly. "Poor boy."
"It was an accident?" Buffy asked. "They didn't aim at her specifically?"
Willow nodded, but Tara frowned. "I don't think the Knights cared either way, if they hit someone or not." She shivered. "That one soldier--I think he meant to--he was swinging his sword at me . . ." Willow hugged her tight.
Buffy looked confused. "A soldier tried to hurt you? What happened?"
It took Willow a long time to answer. "Xander shot him. Shot him d--dead."
"The one by the chapel?" Buffy whispered.
"I was going to stop him! I was, I just couldn't think--Xander shouldn't have--"
Tara put her finger across Willow's lips. "Sweetheart, there wasn't time. That sword was so close . . . if Xander hadn't, I'd . . ." She put her head on Willow's shoulder, and Willow hid her face in her lover's hair.
"Xander's been through a great deal tonight," Joyce said. "He did the best he could."
"He still shouldn't have sicced Spike on those soldiers," Willow muttered.
"What?" Buffy said. "*Xander* sent Spike out? Against humans?"
"He went all scary, Buffy. He kept saying things like the Knights knew what they were getting into and stuff."
"He told Spike to hurt people?"
"Like Spike would need to be told," Dawn said. She saw everyone staring at her. "What?"
Buffy frowned thoughtfully. "Spike was doing what Xander told him to? He wasn't running wild on his own? Why?"
Willow shrugged. "It was weird, the two of them working together. They seemed to know what each other was thinking. Xander gave orders, and Spike even saluted."
Buffy shook her head, unable to get her head around the concept of Spike and Xander on the same side.
They talked until adrenal withdrawal and lack of sleep threatened to drop them in their seats. Dawn was unashamedly yawning against Joyce's shoulder, and Joyce was blinking and shifting uncomfortably in her hard chair. They silently and unanimously agreed to table further discussions until they'd had a few hours' uninterrupted sleep. At the door of Willow and Tara's room, though, they all paused on seeing Anya's belongings piled on the bed she'd claimed.
"Should--should we pack them up?" Tara suggested. "Or leave them for Xander?"
"We'll pack them later," Joyce said firmly. "After we've had some sleep. We can leave them for now."
Dawn blinked rapidly. "I mean--it's not like she's dead, right? She's still going to want her stuff, right? Wherever she's at?"
"Right," Buffy agreed. She frowned and looked across the hall into the Summers room, which was also empty. "Where is he, anyway?"
"He might still be in the chapel," Willow said. "He likes it in there. I think he probably wants to be alone right now. Oh, god." She bit her lip suddenly. "I remember, a couple of weeks ago, he was going on about not knowing any guys and how if he ever got married I was going to have to be his best person."
Tara tugged her into the room, whispering soothingly. Joyce gathered her daughters as well as she could while maneuvering the walker, and they went into the other room, closing the door behind them. Dawn helped Joyce balance as she sat down on her bed with a grateful sigh.
"I don't think I've ever been this tired in my life," Joyce said.
Dawn nodded. "And I even got some sleep. Though it may not count, because that was in another world."
Joyce shook her head. "You were on a different world. It's so--odd." Dawn tried to think of something to say but could only shrug and nod again.
Buffy stayed by the door, watching her mother and sister. They were safe. Glory was gone, the world was rescued from Apocalypse yet again, and Dawn was safe. They'd won. It got more and more bizarre every time it happened, and she couldn't help wondering how long the odds were getting on the big Slayer Life Expectancy board. She'd beat back the end of the world this time, would the next one finish her? How many more was she going to have to go through until history caught up with her and Faith took on the title of In Every Generation There is Only One.
"Honey?" Joyce said softly. "Buffy?"
"Huh?" She blinked and paid attention again. Joyce was settled back on the bed, with Dawn curled up next to her, already drifting into sleep.
"It's a big bed, if you wanted to get some sleep."
"I should go see if I can help clean up, we shouldn't leave the sisters to take care of all that."
Joyce threw her the tired version of the mom look. "You had a hard fight there. You need to rest. Now come on."
Buffy didn't want to argue further. There was enough room between Dawn and the edge of the bed to settle down comfortably, and Buffy was able to reach over and take her mother's hand while holding on to her sister. Joyce was asleep in moments.
"Don't steal the pillow," Dawn muttered, half-asleep.
"OK." Buffy brushed Dawn's hair back and blinked back tears. "You're still here." Dawn stiffened just a little. "No Key goes poof. I guess we're stuck with you."
"Sorry," Dawn whispered.
Buffy kissed the top of her head. "Guess we'll just have to deal. Oh, well."
Many hours later, Buffy woke up. Dawn and her mother were still deeply asleep, but the Slayer recuperative powers had jumpstarted her system and she couldn't lay still any longer. Sense of duty and certain bodily requirements pushed her up into action, especially when she caught a whiff of herself. She found clean clothes in her duffle bag and went for an exploration of the personal hygiene potential of the convent.
A shower and sleep made the whole Glory battle feel a little more safely historical, a bit less like an aching wound. She went off in search of Sister Agnes to see if there was anything she could do to help clean up.
All the bodies were gone from the courtyard. Cleaner patches marked places where bloodstained dirt and been removed and replaced. There were a lot of those patches.
There was no sound from the bus as Buffy walked past as silently as she could. Were they asleep? Whispering the tales of the night to each other too quietly for any but vampires to hear? She moved a little quicker, not wanting to think thoughts that might lead to decisions she couldn't contemplate just yet.
The signs of battle were still present outside the walls. The Minoto demons were busy digging up dark, sticky looking clumps of dirt and dumping them into wheelbarrows, then shoveling clean dirt into the holes. The bodies were gone from here too. All the Knights' equipment, however, was being sorted into piles by some of the younger nuns, and Sister Dymphna was tending to the herd of horses left behind. Sister Agnes was helping, though her talents in animal husbandry seemed to be limited to brushing.
Buffy walked up slowly, careful not to startle the skittish creatures. She held up a hand to be sniffed by the horse Sister Agnes was brushing. The horse considered her suspiciously and tossed its head once before allowing her to stroke its nose.
Sister Agnes looked up and smiled. "Good afternoon, Buffy. How are you?"
"Still tired. Have you and the others had any rest? Can I do anything to help?"
"I think we have most everything taken care of." She patted Buffy's shoulder. "We spent the night in prayer, for the most part. Nothing like you and the others. We're fine."
Sister Dymphna came up, wiping her forehead. ''There's enough feed in their packs for a couple of days, but we'll have to think of something to do with them. What are we going to do with thirty some war horses?"
"eBay?" Buffy said without thinking. "Never mind," she added at the baffled looks of the two nuns who lived in a place so isolated they didn't even bother with electricity. "Aren't there rangers or something at the national forest?"
Sister Agnes frowned. "Somehow I don't think bringing this to the attention of the rangers would be a good idea. Are there more of the Knights somewhere? A monastery we should contact?"
"I don't know. Giles might--" She was silent for several moments. "Stupid reflex."
"He might know. I'll ask him before you leave. Do you know when that will be?"
Buffy looked out over the quiet valley, wishing she could stay and listen to birdsong and the wind in the leaves for days and days without having to think of everything she'd put aside till "after Glory." She took a deep breath, held it for several seconds, then let it out. "I should say, tonight, but they're all still exhausted. Tomorrow? Do you want us gone sooner?"
"Oh, nina." Sister Agnes wrapped her in a tight hug. "You will stay as long as you want to. You all need time to rest and heal."
Buffy hugged her back and stared over her shoulder at the late afternoon sunlight on the trees. "What do I do now, sister? What do I do about Giles and Spike?"
"Nina . . . I don't know."
"They're soulless monsters. It's in the definition. And they fought as hard as the rest of us last night. I think it's because neither of them wanted the world to end, but . . ." She closed her eyes. "I don't know either."
"Can it wait until you get home?"
"It going to have to, I guess. Xander's the only other one who can drive the bus, and I've still got to get everybody home." Her mind shied away from the whole thing of Xander and Anya and what Xander had done in the night. "Where is he, by the way?"
Sister Agnes sighed. "I told him he didn't have to, but he insisted on helping." She nodded up the slope, towards the olive grove and the convent's graveyard.
Buffy walked slowly up the hill. There were two big spots of dug-up earth. Mass graves. It made sense, she guess, but it bothered her.
Something glittery caught her eye at the larger grave. When she got closer, she saw that the Knights' swords had been planted around the grave, point down. A fancier sword stood in the middle of the line of swords at the top. Xander was at the bottom edge, carefully setting the last few swords in place. Baynar sat at the foot of a nearby olive tree, watching.
Xander straightened and considered his work. "That should do. What do you think?" he asked, looking at Baynar, who chittered and nodded.
"It looks nice," Buffy said, coming up quietly.
Baynar squeaked and went to hide behind Xander's legs. Xander smiled and patted the little demon's shoulder. "It's okay, dude, she's one of the good guys. He's still a little rattled," he added to Buffy.
"A lot of us are." She looked at the other grave. "Is that . . ."
"Glory and her folks, yeah." He reached down for the shovel that was laying under the tree. "Savlin and the others had all the digging and carrying done by the time I got up, so I helped with the filling in."
"We ought to put something up for Ben."
Xander nodded but made no move. He leaned on the end of the shovel and stared at the Knights' grave within its fence of swords.
Buffy wanted to say something about the fight, ask if he couldn't have found some other way. The look on his face, though, said it would only be one more accusation he didn't need.
"I should have been here," she sighed.
"I don't know if it would have been any different."
"It might have."
"Maybe. But you *weren't* here."
She flinched. "I know. I'm sorry."
He sighed and looked at her. "Being sorry makes no difference. You went with Dawn, you had good reason to. You couldn't be here. You left me in charge. I did what I had to."
"Did you? Have to?"
He turned back to the grave. "Seemed right at the time."
"Including siccing Spike on humans?"
His eyes went to some un-Xanderish place. "He offered to go to keep me from opening up on them. He probably did less damage than I would have. He was having fun. I would have been serious." Buffy gave a breath of disbelief, and he smiled at her very faintly. "You weren't here. Shit happens."
"I did what I had to."
"He could ask for anything. Xander, you can't go through--" She stopped at the look he gave her.
"I made a deal. Anya's still alive. I'm not digging a grave for her up here. Whatever D'Hoffryn asks me to do has to be better than digging a hole and dropping the body of the woman I love into it."
Down by his knee, Baynar squeaked and hugged his leg. Xander looked down and patted his head. "Sorry, guy," he said more softly. "Didn't mean to get all angsty in front of you. You ought to go find your mom, I bet she's looking for you." Baynar frowned at him, then at Buffy, then ran down the hill to the convent. "Shouldn't fight in front of the kids," Xander said.
"Yeah." She looked back towards Glory's grave. "I don't think I ever knew Ben's last name."
"At least you knew his name." The wind rustled the leaves above them, and Xander looked up. "Sun's going down. A couple of somebody's are probably just about to make an appearance."
Buffy closed her eyes and shook her head. "I don't know what to do about them." After a couple of silent moments, she looked over at Xander. He was still staring out over the valley and the lengthening shadows. "Yesterday you seemed like you knew what should happen now."
He frowned a little. "Was that just yesterday?" His faint smile was painful to see. "That guy? The world was a simple place to him. Vampires evil, humans good, kill the demons. Today? Not so simple. You're the Slayer, Buffy. What should the Slayer do?"
"I know what the Slayer should do. But I don't know what Buffy should do."
The bell in the chapel began to ring for Vespers. Xander continued to lean on the shovel, gazing off. Buffy hesitated, then took a couple of steps down the slope. "Dinner will be in a little bit. You coming in?" He nodded. She finally continued down the hill.
The sun dipped down behind the western mountains. The birds flew back from their daytime pursuits to settle with gossipy chirps in the branches of the olive trees. Bats flitted through the gathering shadows, snagging unsuspecting bugs. Xander wondered where Dracula was now.
Movement downslope caught his attention, and he chuckled despite himself. "Speak of the devil."
"He couldn't make it," Spike said, strolling up with his hands in his duster pockets. "He asked me to fill in."
"Not surprised. What brings you up cemetery way? Shouldn't you be hanging around Buffy, basking in thanks for looking after her mom?"
Spike sighed, and it wasn't completely a put-on. "Slayer's got a bad case of 'Oh, my god, they're monsters.' She must have had a chance to sit down and read through the Slayer job description and noticed there didn't seem to be many loopholes for soulless vampires who lend a helping hand."
"You can hardly blame her. Especially when one of said soulless vampires is a guy she's depended on for years now."
Spike shrugged and nodded, then started searching through his pockets. "Damn, that's right. Out of smokes. Shit."
Xander did not raise his chin from the fist he had resting on the end of the shovel. "Vampire in nicotine withdrawal. I'm thinking not a good thing."
Spike studied him for several moments. "You're remarkably calm about being alone with the evil undead."
"Sorry. I think my white hat got trampled in the dust sometime back, and I don't feel right about threatening you without having it on."
"Harris, you did what you had to. You kept everyone alive last night. That counts as a good job. And yes, I'm counting Anya in there." He looked away from the surfacing pain in Xander's face and nodded at the Knights' grave. "Nice fence. I like the whole cross effect with the sword hilts and all."
Xander laughed very briefly. "That wasn't the effect I was going for. It just . . . seemed right."
They both looked over at Glory's grave. "Buffy thinks we ought to put something up for Ben," Xander said. "I think I'd just rather leave the whole thing as it is."
"I can't imagine Glory's minions could ask for more that being buried with their god."
Xander looked at him, surprised at the statement, and Spike hunted through his duster pockets again to avoid the gaze.
The bell at the chapel rang again for the end of the service. Dark was settling in seriously, especially under the olive trees. Xander sighed and shouldered the shovel, finally heading down the slope towards the convent gates. Spike silently fell into step beside him. Xander paused at the ruined gates, watched the last of the group of nuns go in to the dormitory for dinner, then turned and considered the car Glory had arrived in.
"What are you thinking?" Spike asked softly.
"I wonder if the keys are in it."
"Thinking of heading home early?"
"Yeah. They're going to want to talk about it and talk and talk and . . ." They shared a glance of male sympathy for the chattering tendencies of women. "I really don't want to talk about Anya. Besides, you and Giles can drive the bus. Hell, Tara can drive."
"And when you hit the highway, which direction will you be turning?" Xander didn't answer, and Spike nodded. "No one would blame you if you went. Leastwise, I wouldn't."
Xander stared down the road. "There's nothing wrong with running, I guess. Except I'd be running from, not running to. Don't even have the excuse I had after high school, looking for the great American road adventure."
"New York's nice," Spike said. "Been a long time since I've seen New York."
Xander glanced at him, and they considered each other for several moments that stretched closer and closer to offer and acceptance and unexpected developments.
Xander finally shook his head and laughed. "Who are we kidding? We're both going back to the Dale. We're whipped."
"Hellmouth whipped. Still, it was a nice thought."
"Yeah, but when the shock wears off, I'm going to remember that you're the evil, soulless, chipless undead, and I'm going to look for my stake and holy water."
Spike grinned. "Good. You were starting to worry me, whelp, being so sociable and all."
Xander gave him a companionable sneer and turned towards the convent. Chattering female voices could be heard. He visibly braced himself, then glanced once more at Glory's car. He shrugged. "It's probably hot, anyway."
Spike nodded. "Probably so."
Xander met Spike's eyes as the darkness deepened. "Thanks for being there last night. It was good to have back up."
"Glad to be of help." He leered to break the mood. "Don't mind in the slightest, being at your back."
Xander smiled briefly and walked away. Spike watched him cross the courtyard all alone, and he thought about New York.
Buffy looked around the dinner table, remembering the same meal the night before. Tonight, Tara was able to feed herself, and she gave Willow smiles that were a distracting mixture of shy and sultry. Willow gazed back and kept forgetting to eat. The nuns didn't bustle around quite so cheerfully, but they were tired more than depressed. Sister Teresa still patted everyone on the shoulder and forced second helpings. Savlin, Baynar, and the other Minoto sat at their usual end of the table. They also looked tired, but they didn't watch the Scoobies with the same suspicion as they had last night. Dawn waved at Baynar, and Baynar waved back, as Savlin looked on approvingly.
Sister Agnes came in, studying the information on a sheet of paper. Buffy had seen her in consultation with Giles in the courtyard at sunset. Neither of the vampires had received invitations into the dormitory, and neither had asked. Buffy wasn't sure if they really needed invitations to the building, but it showed surprising consideration that they stayed out. She wondered if it was Spike or Giles who was being considerate.
She finally let herself look at the empty place at the table. The two empty places, actually. Xander hadn't come in yet.
Anya a demon again. By the number of stories she'd gleefully told, she wasn't what could be called a nice demon. Granted, vengeance demons didn't act unless someone asked them to, but they certainly ran with whatever ideas were presented to them. Buffy wondered if she was going to be called on to do anything about Anyanka. Had Slayers ever gone against vengeance demons before? Buffy hoped no women in Sunnydale got scorned enough to want revenge anytime soon.
Xander came in quietly, wearing clean clothes and with his hair still wet. He didn't look up as he walked to the empty seat on the far side of Tara. Willow caught his hand as he went by and gave him a worried look. He smiled and leaned down to give her a kiss on the forehead. The smile he gave Tara looked less forced, then he tugged his hand free and went to sit down. Sister Teresa made a beeline for his empty bowl and ladled him a large serving of stew.
Buffy watched him a moment longer, then left him to his solitude. She found Joyce watching her, a proud mom-smile on her face. "What?"
"You make a good general, worrying about everyone before worrying about yourself." Joyce nodded at the barely touched bowl of stew in front of Buffy.
She began eating. "I can't help worrying. None of them would be here if it weren't for me." She glanced at Dawn, who was still making faces at Baynar. "Maybe Dawn wouldn't be here either, if it weren't for me. They gave her to the Slayer to protect. So is she my sister because the Slayer happened to be me, who has a mom and friends and all that? Or is she my sister because I happen to be the Slayer? If Faith were the official Slayer, would she have a new baby sister?"
Joyce stroked her hair. "You worry too much about things that don't matter. What-ifs can drive you crazy. I mean--" She frowned at Dawn. "What if I hadn't made it? What would happen to you two without me? You wouldn't be having to nursemaid a crippled mother, but the idea of the two of you alone, having to cope with all that, with Glory on top of it all . . ."
Buffy leaned over to hug her mother tightly. "But you did make it. You are here, and you're getting better and better, and Glory's gone, and we're all still here--or, more or less. Nobody's dead--or, at least, not in the gone forever, never come back sense--" She broke off to keep from crying. That kept happening, every time she thought about Giles.
Joyce kissed her hair. "Not now, honey. Don't try to deal with that right now."
"I'm going to have to deal with it eventually."
"But not right now. Time enough when we get home and get things a bit more back to normal."
Buffy tried not to laugh. "Normal. What's that like?"
"Well, I thought normal might be something like--summer school."
Buffy leaned back fast. "What? Summer school?"
"Or summer semesters, whatever they call it in college. A way to make up those classes you missed." Joyce glanced at Dawn. "Do you think her school will buy having to leave town for a grandmother's funeral?"
"Probably." Buffy gazed at her mother, fighting back another round of tears that was probably as much stress relief as anything else. There had been nightmares she'd told no one about, of finding Joyce dead, of having to bury her mother, of having to make some kind of life for Dawn while still having to save the world. In those dreams she'd envied those other Slayers, the ones without families, without loved ones who needed worrying about.
She heard Dawn laugh behind her, then begin a conversation with Willow and Tara. She even managed to coax a chuckle out of Xander.
"We won," Buffy whispered.
"Yes, we did," Joyce said, smiling that proud smile again.
"It wasn't easy, it cost a lot, but--we won." Joyce nodded. "And that's enough for now, right?"
Dawn reached over and poked Buffy in the arm. "When are we going home?"
Buffy felt a brief wave of dismay that everyone was looking to her for the answer, but that just came with the territory. "Tomorrow?" She looked around and saw nods and shrugs. "Tomorrow." She took a deep breath and let it out, feeling victory and its cost settle into place. "We go home."