Each Proud Division
Copyright September 2003
Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.
There had been little time for planning and none for practice, but the raid began smoothly all the same. Tara blew the gates with a spell she and Jonathan had worked out — he didn't have that kind of power, while her magicks were deeper but gentler, but the ease and effectiveness of their collaboration had surprised them both — and the two Slayers were inside and boiling through the guard post while the echoes of the detonation still reverberated through the caverns behind them. The interior courtyard was cleared within seconds, at which point Cordelia sheathed the yellow-green-spattered claymore and fell back to cover Tara, while Joyce forged ahead through the fortress corridors with a double-bladed axe. It was a woefully uneven match on a physical level: there were hundreds of the ratlike Ptarmiiki, and they attacked with the heedless ferocity of a hive mind, but none was taller than three feet and their weapons were all flint-tipped wood; the single Kevlar vest Jonathan had been able to procure (don't ask) was more than adequate to protect Joyce's torso, and the axe tore through wooden shafts and furry bodies with equal celerity. Tara, with Cordelia's protection, was able to follow Joyce at a fast walk, maintaining a steady chant all the while. Mystical energies flared and sizzled in pyrotechnic splendor against the shield provided by the chant, and Cordelia loosed an occasional arrow from the compound bow, covering Joyce's flanks and watching for surprises while she protected Tara and herself.
"Every time somebody uses this line in a movie, I want to give them such a smack," Cordelia noted conversationally. "But I have to say it anyhow: people, this is too easy."
Speak for yourself!, Tara thought but couldn't spare a moment to say. Joyce simply kept pressing the advance, chopping and slashing with tireless fury. Every time the stream of reinforcements increased, she redoubled the force and savagery of her assault, looking for all the world like the Frazetta cover art for some feminist Conan, and leaving an unbroken trail of bloody, smashed bodies. (Not blood, actually; whatever comprised the Ptarmiiki's circulatory fluid was almost exactly the same color as antifreeze. That, and the recognition that these weren't truly intelligent creatures, were all that made it possible for Tara to bear such a slaughter.)
Most of the bristly warriors understandably treated Joyce as the main threat, but every now and then a smaller group would charge the two women following. One such did so now, and Cordelia dropped all three of them (nockdrawloose, nockdrawloose, nockdrawloose) while she continued her earlier train of commentary. "Oh, sure, this creepoid swarm is certainly icky enough, and the whole underground-ant-farm thing just cries out for a giant can of RAID —" (nockdrawloose, and a Ptarmiiki that might or might not have been able to take Joyce in a rear strike fell screeching and thrashing) "— but there's nothing here that really calls for two Slayers. I mean, overkill much?"
Joyce cut through the last of the horde facing her, and for a moment there were no more scrambling to replenish the inner defenses. "You're talking to yourself," she said to Cordelia. "She can't stop the chant long enough to answer you, and I …" She brushed back from her face a clump of hair matted with demon gore. "I don't care enough."
Cordelia sniffed. "Quick tip, Momzilla: once you pass a certain age, PMS just starts to come across as crabbiness."
Ignoring her, Joyce said to Tara, "These interior gates should be the last barrier between us and the queen. Can we do without the shield long enough for you to summon another of those breaching spells?"
"Puh-leeze," Cordelia said. "Granted, this expedition desperately needed a fashion presence, but that's not all I'm good for. Hold this." She tossed the bow and quiver to Joyce, and drew the sledgehammer from the sling she had rigged across her back. She hefted it, took a stance before the gates, and paused to tilt a challenging eyebrow at Joyce. "Sure you know which end goes where?"
"I'll work it out." The older woman nocked an arrow with casual ease. "Although I don't doubt that you've handled many, many more shafts than I have."
Tara stumbled in the chant — for a second she was afraid she would choke — and Cordelia stood for a frozen moment before producing a tight, dangerous smile. "It's not the number that counts," she murmured. "It's the quality. Stand clear!"
The brunette Slayer had compared the subterranean warren to an ant farm, but Tara knew that the Ptarmiiki were more like termites: while their constructions were elaborate and impressive in their detail, the materials and techniques were primitive. The gates they faced were stone and wood interlocked with mindless ingenuity and cemented with hardened secretions from the worker drones; even a normal, strong man could have battered them down in twenty minutes of determined work. It took Cordelia three swings, the last one shattering the crossbar on the far side with a boom almost the equal of the spell that had gained them their initial entry.
A fresh wave of Ptarmiiki erupted from the sundered gates, and Tara felt a stab of fear: too many, too fast, and neither of the Slayers was armed for a mass assault! Cordelia smashed half a dozen with the sledgehammer before the other two women realized that Joyce was simply walking through the swarm, disregarding them as they streamed past her. "Workers," Joyce said dismissively, not even bothering to look back. "Save your effort for where it matters."
Inside, the remaining warriors had gathered in a protective ring around the queen. It was the probing of her sensing spells that had sparked and coruscated against the field Tara had worked to maintain (though she had allowed the Slayers to believe she was shielding them from more aggressive enchantments), but now the pressure of the queen's awareness began to reach the level of actual threat. Tara forced more determination into her voice, more power into the chant, and Cordelia said, "Only a few dozen left, this shouldn't be too hard —"
Joyce knocked her from her feet with a clothesline sweep of her arm, and was diving for Tara in the same second. They went down together, Tara losing her breath and her concentration as she hit the packed earth of the chamber floor, Joyce twisting on impact to draw and loose from her back, and something went past them with a chittering shriek to slam into the broken gate.
Tara sucked in air, frantically snatching for the scattering threads of the chant, the force of the queen's alien consciousness looming over her like a gathering wave. Even surprised and in the clutch of near-panic, a dry detached corner of her mind realized what was happening: the consorts, the queen had sent the winged consorts to the upper reaches of the inner chamber, and Joyce had glimpsed one of them swooping down in an unexpected attack from above.
Then the shock of the moment had passed, and they were moving again, Joyce loosing two more arrows and Cordelia coming to her feet to hurl the sledgehammer at the queen (she missed, but two warriors were crushed) before snatching out the claymore and meeting the final charge in a slashing whirlwind of focused ferocity. Tara was the last one to rise, both because she was slower and weaker and because her contribution didn't require her to be standing, and her voice steadied and grew sure as the power of the chant and her own mental discipline beat back the oppressive domination of the queen's awareness.
Without planning it, the two Slayers had switched roles, and with what small attention she could spare, Tara felt a dim surprise at seeing that they operated in much the same way. Joyce drew and released with the same relaxed skill Cordelia had shown, transfixing the consorts in mid-flight before they had any hope of coming in close enough to use the deadly barbed tails, then switching her aim to the warriors on the ground; Cordelia, for all her earlier banter, sheared through the fighters around her with the same awful lightning fury with which Joyce had wielded the axe. Two different women, with two different backgrounds, from two different corners of reality; but, perhaps, the things that drove them weren't quite so different as it had seemed …
It ended even as she watched, the last warriors falling to sword and arrow, and Cordelia stalked toward the queen with the dripping claymore held steady. Larger than its mindless servants, the monarch stood as tall as the women and might possibly have weighed as much; trapped, shorn of its defenders, it drew itself up in the last extremity of desperation. Tara cried out, too late, as the retractable venomed talons shot forward, but Cordelia cut them away with a negligent backhand stroke before they could touch her, and a fifth of a second later the queen's head was bouncing in the opposite direction.
The former prom princess glared down at her foreshortened adversary for one more moment; then, as if becoming aware of the other eyes on her, she turned back to her companions. "So, are we done now?" she asked. "Can we go now?"
"Almost." Joyce looked to Tara. "The males, right? The ones I shot down?"
Tara nodded. "Any w-w-one of them."
Joyce drew a dagger from a belted sheath, and moved to one of the fallen consorts. One quick stroke to open the dorsal space, another the length of the prehensile tail, and several smaller cuts to sever the connections, and Joyce held up one of the terminal barbs, still attached to its poison sac and dripping with yellow-green fluid. "Good thing we didn't need something delicate, like the thymus," she observed. "I'm not up on my demon dissection."
Tara produced a ziplock bag, and the extracted organ was sealed in and stored away. "That's it," she said. "We can g-g-g–" She stopped, swallowed. "We can go."
It was wrong, so wrong, to feel this self-conscious around Joyce. But this wasn't Joyce, no matter how much she might wish it. The three women started the march that would retrace their route and take them back to the surface. Cordelia's chirpy travelogue seemed to have dried up for now; lacking the body armor Joyce wore, she had taken damage to the stylish blouse she had for whatever reason chosen for Slayerwear, and it was clear that this bothered her considerably more than did the small wounds that accompanied the damage. Neon ooze blotched the frilled fabric and streaked her hair, and blood stained the edges of cuts in the material, though the cuts in the underlying flesh had long since closed. She walked with the air of one daring any onlookers to make a comment. When none came, she looked to Joyce and said, "Well, it seems you do still know how to handle a shaft."
Without glancing back or breaking stride, Joyce replied, "And you still have us covered as far as fashion presence is concerned."
Tara, between them, didn't know if this was blossoming camaraderie or the first foundations of blood enmity. She had kept up her part in the raid — in directing it, if it came to that — but dealing with two strange Slayers was a problem of a different level of complexity.
She wondered if Jonathan was having as hard a time as she was.
~ – ~ – ~
There was, Jonathan was positive, absolutely no way Tara could be having as hard a time at this as he was.
Procedurally, the op was moving like a dream. The sensing spell Tara had taught him worked perfectly, tossing up a light show every time one of the vampires crossed the edge of the field; the flash caught the eye, making a stealthy approach impossible, and the effect reinforced the spin he'd given the two Slayers, that this particular vampire brood was mystically charged and he, Jonathan, was nullifying their auras so they could be killed by conventional means. More than that, both women stuck to the plan, mirror-Buffy taking out the vamps with stake and saber and crossbow while the eerily adult Dawn stayed by his side, the long lace sleeves of the tattered Goth dress concealing spring-driven wooden daggers for any stragglers or independent thinkers. Mirror-Buffy fought with passionless competence, making her probably less effective in the spearhead position than her older, more experienced mirror-sister would have been; Dawn, however, was almost certainly the better guardian for an all-too-vulnerable budding warlock, showing considerably more interest in the task than Jonathan could imagine Buffy (mirror-Buffy, he reminded himself again) ever feeling.
No, the problem wasn't in the execution. The problem was that he was scared.
He would so much have preferred to face the hive-rats; they were vicious and carnivorous and there were a lot of them, but vampires … vampires were worse. The intelligence in their eyes when they attacked made it clear that they wanted him, turning danger into something personal. Even though there couldn't be more than a dozen of them, the supernatural menace they exuded sparked a fear deeper than he could ever have felt for a swarm of little furry demons. Only the lethal skill of his protector, and the necessity of preserving the Slayers' trust in him, made him able to keep moving, keep chanting, keep notrunning and notscreaming and notpeeing himself.
No, it couldn't be this hard for Tara. She had true power instead of just clever tricks, and she'd dealt with this … stuff … more than he had. Most of all, though, she was real; she was a genuine good guy, one of the actual Scoobies, and he was an arch-villain masquerading as a hero. (Like when Lex Luthor was the champion of that planet that thought Superman was a villain, before the Multiverse rearranged everything, or when Baron Zemo's son got new names and costumes for a bunch of super-criminals and created the Thunderbolts, only most of them wound up actually trying to be heroes …)
Dawn staked a charging vamp in mid-leap, so close the crumbling fingers almost touched Jonathan's throat before falling into dust around his sneakers. He faltered in the chant and stumbled in his advance, but Dawn's hand on his elbow steadied him, and he recovered himself as the two of them continued to follow the scarred, jaded mirror-Buffy. "You're doing fine," she reassured him. "There can't be more than a few of them left."
So she knew; knew, at least, that he was terrified, but somehow didn't seem to think less of him for it. In a way he couldn't have hoped to explain, that made him even more ashamed. She believed in him. Why? Why would she do that?
"Last one," mirror-Buffy announced. "At least, that's all I see." She looked back to the other two. "Good job, Justin. You just keep up that hexin', I'll handle the sweat-work. So where's this amulet that makes these guys so hyper?"
He stopped the chant; with all opposition gone, it didn't really matter now, and things were about to get a lot trickier. Still, "It's Jonathan," he told her. "I'm the Sorcerer Supreme of this realm, not some feminized pre-adolescent lip-syncher. You need me just as much as I need you, don't forget that."
"Whatever," mirror-Buffy returned, plainly (or ostentatiously) unimpressed. "Just tell me where to go and what to kill, we'll be best pals. Gee, we can even do each other's hair —!"
"Jump," Dawn interjected, not even raising her voice, but mirror-Buffy had already thrown herself forward in a diving roll, and was coming to her feet as the overstuffed armchair crashed into the spot where she had stood. Jonathan hadn't even seen it until the warning was already spoken, but the smaller Slayer must have heard it passing through the air above her; or maybe there was some kind of psychic Slayer forewarning, like a spider-sense …
"All right!" mirror-Buffy cried with revolting cheerfulness, and a parahuman leap carried her past a stretch of broken stairway and clear to the second floor landing of the condemned apartment building where the brood had made its nest. Crashes and snarls and sounds of fists slamming into flesh attested that she had found a fresh supply of opponents, and Jonathan started forward to peer upstairs, hoping to see part of the battle … but a hand in his collar yanked him back, Dawn, and an instant later she had swept his feet from under him, slowing his fall with the hand that still gripped him, and he landed on his back with almost no force as shadowy figures dropped from above to alight around them.
"Stay there," she ordered, and he was only too happy to comply. Three vampires ringed them, demon faces to the fore; beside him, Dawn stood in an odd slanting half-crouch, both stakes out, and she revolved slowly to keep one and then another in the edge of her vision. "So, here we are," she said, still maintaining that slow turning radius. "Who wants the first dance?"
In contrast to mirror-Buffy's alternating boredom and enthusiasm, Dawn's voice held a kind of detached interest. Something about it seemed to unnerve the trio around her, for they hesitated, and one of them sounded doubtful as he said, "She ain't the Slayer …"
"No, she's not," another said with over-forced authority. "The Slayer is upstairs, and even if the others can't take her, they'll keep her occupied for a bit. This one, she's bluffing."
Dawn said nothing, only smiling with what seemed to be real pleasure and amusement, and continued to turn, steadily and serenely.
"She's not bluffing," the third one said. "I'd smell it if she was afraid. Boys, I don't like this —"
"Oh, come on." The smile was gone, and she raked them with scornful eyes. "Three big, bad demons, and one poor, weak woman, and you have to build up your nerve? I'm a victim, people. I've just got these little pointy wood things and you're all strong and slavering and ferocious, do I have to spell it out for you? Kill me, kill him, snack and run while your buddies get chopped up by the Slayer upstairs, that's how it's supposed to work. Doesn't anybody want their teeth in this virgin neck —?"
Jonathan blinked just before it happened, so his eyes were open for the beginning, otherwise he would never have been able to track the action. Even so, he wasn't entirely sure what he had seen. She moved so quickly that he couldn't tell if she had begun before her adversaries or outraced them the moment one of them started to act. Two of the three were already beginning to shift to dust when she passed above him in a flat lateral leap (just like Bong Soo Han doubling for Tom Laughlin in Billy Jack), to pierce the heart of the last one with an extension that seemed to stretch into infinity. Dawn held the thrust for an extra second, then let her arm fall, and a long shudder ran through her.
She boosted him up one-handed, and her smile was shaky as she faced him from a distance of inches. "Wasn't sure I could take them all and cover you at the same time," she murmured tremulously. "But you played it like a champ, I should have known I could count on you. It's just like I remember, you and me … God, I've missed you so much!" And while he was still trying to process that, she hugged him with an impetuous fierceness that would have taken his breath away even if her arms hadn't threatened to collapse his rib cage.
Mirror-Buffy's voice floated down from the upper floor. "Are you two finished guarding the carpet down there? 'Cause I've laid out four or five more guys' worth of dust up here, and somebody said there was this amulet thing we were supposed to find."
Right, right. Jonathan eyed the broken stairs — no way he could get past that, one or another of the women would have to toss him across the gap like a medicine ball — and made a quick decision. "It's this way," he called up to her. "I can sense it ahead of us, down here and toward the back."
She landed in front of them with the same lightness the vampires had shown, and Jonathan momentarily wondered how much of a link there might be between the undead and their supernaturally-appointed killers. "So, lead," she said, shrugging. "You're supposed to be the head hobbit, you and your stuttering girlfriend. Let's get to it."
Dawn's eyes showed the same dismay Jonathan felt at the offhand callousness of her words; this Buffy was so different from the one (no, ones) they had known … not just hardened, but a little cruel. He gave the now-older little sister a reassuring smile that actually didn't feel phony, and said, "Come on."
He had a bad moment; the direction he had chosen took him to a stripped workshop, nothing remotely like the proper stage-setting, and pulling this off suddenly looked impossible. But, no, there, he saw a flat box tucked under the lowest shelf of a plywood work table, that would do it. He held up his right hand, palm forward, and swept it slowly from side to side like a metal detector working the vertical; following its apparent prompting, he moved to the table and went to one knee, using the movement to hide the withdrawal of the amulet from his jacket pocket, and pulled the box from underneath. Similarly, the "protective" incantation he uttered before opening the box set the subtle glamour in motion, and when he held up the amulet for the Slayers' inspection, ominous light flickered across its surface while the smooth stone of the gem pulsed with an intermittent glow.
It looked pretty cool, Jonathan thought, but mirror-Buffy was either hard to impress or unwilling to show it. "That's all?" she asked. "No butt-ugly statue to hang it on, no fancy altar, no demon guardian? Just shove it in a toolbox and stuff it under some junk?"
He didn't have an answer ready, but Dawn moved to defend him. "Not all fiends have a flair for the dramatic. They're still fiends." And to Jonathan she added, "Good job. Mission accomplished and no surprises."
Mirror-Buffy's laugh was light and disdainful. "Yeah, give yourself a back-pat there, Jason, or maybe Donna here would rather do it for you. We cleaned out a vamp flophouse and found ourselves a nifty little nightlight. So, what do we do for an encore? What comes next?"
Right. What comes next. Like he had an answer for that.
~ – ~ – ~
Warren was slamming down coffee at a rate that had to be bad for the kidneys, and like most Type A personalities he got more abusive as he got more wired. Andrew didn't entirely mind, but he knew to be wary. "Have you figured it out yet?" he asked, very carefully.
"No," Warren said. "No. It just doesn't make sense. The readings don't follow any kind of pattern, the resistance is still increasing even though the rate slowed once we dropped the wards …" He ran his fingers through hair subtly spiked in a way Andrew could never duplicate, no matter how he tried. "I'll get it. I'll find it. There's a scientific explanation for this, and I'll find it."
Andrew wasn't so sure. Even though they made a great team, Warren was the clear leader, his talent at manipulating the unconventional physics that emanated from la boca del infierno bringing a much-needed discipline to Jonathan's spell-casting contributions and Andrew's own talent at exploiting the physiology of various demon species; but sometimes there wasn't a scientific explanation, not in Sunnydale, and Warren could get really huffy when the universe declined to match his picture of it. "Shouldn't we, like, concentrate on finding a way to send them back? 'Cause you said they're straining the, the dimensional constant just by all being here at the same time, and …"
Warren rounded on him with the ugly temper that was always gliding just under the surface. "Look, Tinky-Wink, have you spent much time working with tensor calculus? Einstein used tensor calculus to organize his thinking, and that's what I'm applying here. You don't get part of the answer and use it to pound the pegs into whatever slots are handy, you have to understand the whole problem before you've got any hope at a solution." He clenched his hands together behind his head, as if he could force the answer to the front of his brain. "It's here, I know it's here. If I could just get these cosines to balance —!"
"What about finding the one who doesn't belong?" Andrew insisted. "You said that was what messed everything up, so maybe you could, you know, get a hint if we could figure out which one is different."
Warren threw his hands up, sending a stack of printouts fluttering down in a lackluster fall of confetti. "You see these? You see these? They're ALL different, every one of them is a misfit." He recovered himself, sat back down, and started counting them off on his fingers. "Mrs. Summers is the only one who's a mother. Dawn is the only one from the future, or some future anyhow. Cordelia is the only one who doesn't have Summers blood, at least not as far as we know. Buffy is the only one who's never been to Sunnydale. Okay, next round. Cordelia is the only one who got involved with this Angel character, Buffy never met him and Dawn barely remembers him and Mrs. Summers didn't even know he was a vampire. Dawn is the only one who knows all three of the others, but none of them know her. Mrs. Summers, unless Cordelia kicked it after she split for L.A., she's the only one who isn't actually alive now, here. Buffy, Buffy is the only one who didn't become the Slayer after Buffy Summers died." He pounded his fists on the lab table. "They're all different! They're all freaks! This is insane!"
Andrew could have pointed out that insane was the order of the day in this particular corner of Southern California, but right now didn't seem the time for it. He waited, trying to think of some useful suggestion but mainly concerned with not making himself a target. "Even if you … I mean, once you get the answer, we might have trouble controlling them to make it work. Remember at the end of the Final Frontier, where the big floating head has everybody convinced but all of a sudden Captain Kirk wants to know why God needs a starship?"
"Don't mention that movie." Warren sneered at the memory. "Shatner sucks even worse as a director than as an actor. But, yeah, you might have a point. We've got them jumping to our tune right now, but there's no telling how bad Jonathan might screw up the scenario, or even if he plays it right one of them could have a hormone storm and go all mental. When we're ready to reverse transport, we ought to have some way of … enforcing discipline, if we need it." He regarded Andrew with sudden warmth. "Good going, Pink Ranger. Draw up some ideas while I keep massaging the math, I'll give it a look next time I take a break. And make some more coffee, this stuff tastes like week-old gahkkh."
He looked back to the desktop sheet he had covered with incomprehensible calculations, his lips moving and his eyes already looking into some invisible world. Andrew hurried to gather the ingredients for coffee, tingling with relief and determination and the warm satisfied glow of super-villainous fellowship. The lone arch-fiends — Thanos, Darkseid, Dr. Doom — had a solitary grandeur about them, but teams were always cooler, and he had just proven once again that Andrew Wells was a vital member of this team!
Thinking of the coffee, he began to consider whether he could get away with bringing back decaf.
Further Credits: Joyce the Slayer is drawn from a previous story of mine, Point of Focus; 'Mirror-Buffy' is from the Third-season episode, "The Wish"; Cordelia the Slayer is from SRoni's God Save the Queen; and Dawn the Slayer corresponds to the character depicted in Brighid's Beats a Cruel December.