Willow spun the book around and pushed it across the table at Giles. "Does this help?" she asked as she pushed up the sleeves of her fuzzy black sweater.

Giles read the passage she'd indicated, then shook his head. "No, I don't think so, but I can't be certain."

"Tell me again, what are we looking for?" Oz looked up from a thick volume.

Giles shook his head. "I'm not absolutely certain, but there must be some way to counteract Hamuntep's Conundrum. If so, we need to find it immediately."

"I don't want be Ms. Pessimism, but what if there isn't one?"

Giles kept reading. "That's not the way it works, Willow. Spells and rituals are created; that means they can be undone. There is a way to stymie it."

"Is today's topic the Little Rascals?" Xander asked as he and Cordelia came through the door. "Because I know I heard Stymie mentioned."

Oz tossed his book down and picked up another. "We're trying to find a way to stop... you know."

"Hamuntep's Conundrum?" Cordelia asked, walking to the table and studying the cover of a book. She looked up to see everyone staring at her. "What?" she demanded. "I know how to dress, so I can't have a memory?" Willow, Oz and Giles dove back into their books.

"Excuse me. Still not up to speed here," Xander said.

Giles took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "It's hard to say, because the ritual is so old, but it appears that almost all the conditions have been observed. Although I'm not sure about the importance of the new moon."

"Three nights from now," Oz observed, then explained, "I'm pretty aware of the phases of the moon."

"There now," Xander said, sitting down and locking his hands behind his head. "Was that so hard? So what's the skinny?"

Willow shrugged. "We're not sure, but it looks like the old enchanted-weapon scenario."

"What?" Cordelia frowned.

"Oh, you know, find an enchanted weapon, kill the arch-demon, stop the ritual in its tracks," Willow said matter-of-factly.

"That's the best plan?"

Giles put his glasses back on. "There is a counter-spell, but it is extremely long and complicated. No one here has the knowledge or strength to perform it. Besides which, I don't know of a reliable copy, and trying to perform a corrupted version might do more harm than good."

"Thus, the enchanted-weapon scenario." Willow folded her hands and nodded.

"So... do we already have one?" Cordelia asked.

"I'm afraid not." Giles got up and walked to the cage. "The only mystical weapon in Sunnydale that would meet the criteria is the enchanted sword used to stop Acathla."

"Ouch. Talk about robbing Peter to pay Paul." Xander got to his feet. "Bell's about to ring. Another day of classes to attend."

"Should we come by after school?" Willow asked Giles as she separated her school books from the volumes of ancient lore.

"Yes, yes, that's a good idea." Giles buttoned his shirt collar and snugged up his tie. "I'll try to locate and procure a weapon."

"You can do that?" Oz asked.

"Oh, yes," Giles replied. "I'll have it Fed-Exed."

The four students left the library. Willow noticed that Xander had Cordelia's backpack slung over his shoulder in addition to his own, and that Cordelia held her arm at an odd angle.

"Are you okay?" she asked.

Cordelia looked pissed-off. "We rumbled last night. We lost. I think it's just a bruised shoulder." She tried to roll the joint and winced. "I'll get over it."

"Anyone we know?" Oz asked.

"Isn't it always?" Willow observed.

********

Buffy tossed her last pair of socks into the duffel bag and looked around the room. "I think that's all my stuff," she said to Cooper. He nodded. Marla stood just inside the door, arms folded.

"How are you going to get home?" she asked.

Buffy shrugged. "Same way I got here. The bus."

"Do you have the money for a ticket?"

Buffy stopped cold. "No. I didn't even think of that."

"Wait here." Marla left the room. When she returned, she crossed to Buffy and pressed a wad of bills into her hand. "Here. This should be more than enough to get you wherever you need to go."

Buffy stared at the crumpled cash. "Marla, I-I don't know what to say."

"Don't say anything. I've seen so many children come through here, going God knows where. I'm just glad to see one going home."

Buffy stared at her, wordless, a lump in her throat. Cooper coughed and shuffled his feet.

"I'll, uh, drive you to the bus station when you're ready."

Buffy turned to him, chin up. "I'm ready now."

*******

The shelter's car, an old Ford Taurus wagon, pulled into the bus station parking lot. Cooper turned off the ignition and they got out of the car. Buffy looked at the building, back at Cooper, back at the bus station.

"Well," she said, "here we are."

"Uh-huh."

She turned to Cooper. "I don't know what to say. 'Thank you' just doesn't seem like enough."

He forced a smile. "'Thank you' is more than enough. Now, go, catch your bus."

"Tell Marla I said 'Thank you', okay?"

Cooper's smile was more genuine this time. "I think the hug said it for you, but I'll reinforce it."

Buffy looked at the building, picked up her bags and took a few steps toward it. She stopped and turned to Cooper. "See, this is me, going into the bus station to go home."

He shook his head and waved her away.

It was someone else who walked into that building, stood in line, purchased a ticket. When the attendant asked her destination, it was someone else, someone with a weird, far-away voice who answered, "Sunnydale." Someone else walked through that station like an android on Zoloft, but it was Buffy Summers who found herself standing on that expanse of asphalt, staring at the bus, willing herself to board, and unable to do so.

C'mon, she told herself, you can do this. You have to do this. Nice try, but her feet weren't buying.

A hand dropped on her shoulder. She turned. Cooper stood there.

"It seems I'm forever coming up behind you," he said. A piece of paper stuck out of his shirt pocket. Buffy squinted. It was a bus ticket. Cooper shrugged. "I've been needing a bit of a vacation. Mind if I ride along with you?"

Buffy's breath caught in her throat. "I'd like that very much."

"Well, then," Cooper said, walking across the macadam, "let's get on the bus. I understand it's a great way to see America."

"What about Marla?"

Cooper tossed his answer over his shoulder. "Who do you think gave me the money for the ticket?"

*******

Cordelia grimaced and blinked back tears of pain. She had babied her shoulder all day, trying to rest it as much as possible, but she couldn't really dog it at practice. Most of the cheers were harmless, but the just-performed pyramid had been pure hell. She knew the arm would be good as new in a day or two, but that hadn't helped during those long minutes on the bottom of the formation, blinking the sweat out of her eyes and biting her lip. The up-side was that only one cheer remained after the pyramid. The down-side was that it was the "call-out", which ended with ever girl doing a cartwheel into a walkover. As captain, Cordelia was the last in line, a line which was even now growing shorter as each girl did the required maneuver.

Great, Lacey would be in front of me, the brunette thought. Lacey executed a flawless cartwheel, followed by a deep back bend and a lovely, controlled walkover. As her feet touched the ground, they slid apart in an effortless-seeming split as Lacey thrust a fist skyward.

Go time. Cordelia pushed off. She could compensate somewhat for the shoulder during the cartwheel, but the walkover was a different story. She was at the apex when the shoulder collapsed. She didn't go crashing to the ground; rather, she tried to finesse the fall into something approaching a roll. Even as she sprang to her feet, she knew it looked awful.

A whistle blasted. "Okay, girls, that's enough for today. Let's hit the showers." Ms. Hollis tucked the whistle inside her sweatshirt as the squad filed into the locker room.

Cordelia opened her locker. These lockers were different than the ones upstairs. The fronts were a wire mesh, designed to keep sweaty practice gear from either turning into a facsimile of six-month old French cheese or stiffening into a piece of modern art. Cordy decided to skip the shower. Would anyone in detention notice freshly-washed hair? Hardly. It would take more than Herbal Essence to cut the other herbal essence that wafted around her fellow detentioneers. She threw her clothes into her backpack, tugged the zipper closed, and shut the locker.

"Skipping the shower, Chasey?" Lacey sang out. "Makes sense. You already stunk out on the field."

"Ooooh, well crafted, Lacey. Do you have it written down on your hand so you can remember it?" Cordelia's scorn radiated like heat.

"Yeah, well, at least I don't have to spend the next hour doing penance for my sins. Y'know, I didn't realize that dating Xander Harris was a punishable offense. Although I think it should be." Lacey's laugh was echoed by a scattering of giggles from the other girls.

"Cordelia! Lacey! My office, now!" Ms. Hollis was leaning against the door frame, but she didn't look relaxed. She stepped aside to let the two girls enter, then took a long look around the locker room before closing the door.

"Okay," she said, stepping past the girls, "care to tell me what this is all about?"

"Ms. Hollis, I just think it's not right for our squad to be captained by someone who is in detention." Lacey put all the indignation she could muster into the last word.

Ms. Hollis nodded. "Is that all?"

Lacey glanced at Cordelia, then turned her attention back to the teacher. "I also think that if someone is going to be captain, they should be able to do all the moves." She smirked in Cordelia's direction.

Ms. Hollis lowered herself into the desk chair. "Well, Lacey, those are some pretty serious allegations." She turned to Cordelia. "Lift your arm."

"Excuse me?"

Ms. Hollis flipped her hand in a lifting motion. "Raise your arm. Above your head, please."

Cordelia took a deep breath and lifted her arm. A slight wince was the only outward indication of the pain.

"When did you hurt it?" Ms. Hollis asked.

"Last night. I misjudged a door and banged into the jamb."

The teacher nodded. "Take some Advil and ice it tonight. Now, about the other..." She stood up in a quick, fluid motion, and both girls took a step back, acutely aware of her physical size in the small office. "Detention is a serious matter. However, I've looked through the student handbook, and detention can be awarded at this school for anything from chewing gum in class to packing a sawed-off shotgun." She leveled a steady gaze at them. "Miss Chase was elected captain last spring. I see no reason to rescind that decision. Now, I suggest that you two reach an accommodation. I'm not asking you to be best pals, because it's obvious even to a blind man in a dark room that there's some bad blood here. But I will demand that you be civil to each other for the sake of this squad. Understood?" The girls nodded. "Now, get out."

She didn't have to say it twice.

*******

Oz glanced up from his book and caught a glimpse of Willow. He stared, transfixed. A lock of red hair had fallen in front of her face and she was twisting it around her finger as she read. Oz remembered the first time he'd ever seen a movie where they did that camera trick, the one where they pulled the camera back while zooming in on one character. Oz loved that trick. It captured the sensation that raced through him whenever he looked at Willow. He almost got dizzy when she jerked her head up from the book.

"Giles, I think I've found something." She waved a frantic hand at the librarian.

He crossed the floor and leaned over her shoulder, reading the passage she pointed out. Finished, he straightened and rested his chin on his hand.

Willow said, "I guess we know the significance of the new moon."

"Which is?" Xander demanded.

"It's when they complete the ritual," Giles said.

"What sort of ritual?" asked Oz.

Willow made yuck face. "One involving human sacrifice."

Oz nodded. "Question withdrawn."

**********

The detention room was quiet. Most of the detainees slouched in their chairs, a few snored. Mr. Bergstrom, the teacher who'd apparently drawn the short straw, had his feet up on the desk, reading a book. Cordelia sat in the back corner, next to a window, writing. The book report was due in two weeks, but she had decided to get it done now.

Her hand began to ache. She put down her pen, flexing her hand, and looked out of the window.

It was a gorgeous day. The sky was so blue it was painful, the grass so thick and green it looked like a lush mattress on the ground. Harmony crossed the lawn, Aura trailing behind her. Both of them were laughing as they got into Harmony's convertible and drove off, blond hair flying.

Cordelia blinked and looked down at her notebook. Great, the ink was smudged. How did water get on it?

********

"I'm going for a soda," Willow announced. "Anyone want?"

Xander and Oz declined. Giles didn't bother to respond. She pushed through the doors just as the bell rang. She heard a door open somewhere down the hall.

She took a moment selecting a soda. The can clunked into the tray, and she picked it up, popping it open as she turned, just in time to see Cordelia step into the alcove.

Willow had experienced many changes in the last two years. She had seen more horrible things than she could've imagined, had experiences she'd never forget, but the strangest thing still seemed to be that she was on some sort of speaking terms with Cordelia Chase. Not that they were friends, exactly. There was still the whole dating Xander thing, and she was impossibly gorgeous. Look at her now, in those black spandex shorts and white tank top. Probably hadn't even changed clothes after cheerleading practice, and she still looked stunning. Still, Willow should probably say...

"Hello, Cordelia. How's detention going?"

"It sucks. Thanks for asking."

Haughty as ever, Willow thought. "Giles told us what you did in Principal Snyder's office. Thanks."

Cordelia stuck her money in the machine and pressed a button. "For what?" she asked.

Willow shrugged. "For sticking up for us. The old Cordy would have denied knowing us."

A puzzled frown settled on the brunette's face. "I wasn't sticking up for you. I was sticking up for myself. And what's with the 'old Cordelia'? What are you talking about?"

"Well, you're different now. For example, you're standing here talking to me." Willow offered a smile.

"Yeah, about that, why are you still here? School got out over an hour ago."

"Oh, well, we're still researching in the library."

"On the..." Cordelia made an indefinite hand gesture.

"Yeah, on that." Willow pointed at Cordy's arm. "How's the shoulder?"

"Hurts."

"I hope it gets better. Are you coming to the library?"

Cordelia looked past Willow, down the hall, then re-focused on the redhead's face. "Is Xander there?"

"Yeah." Willow looked into the other girl's eyes. "Is something wrong with you guys?"

Cordelia ran a finger around the rim of her soda can, an act which appeared to take total concentration. Willow waited. Cordelia finished examining the can for flaws and, finding none, raised her eyes to meet Willow's. "Can I talk to you about something?" she asked.

Willow blinked, startled. "Sure," she said.

"Not here." Cordelia grabbed her by the arm. "Outside." Once they were out the door, she hustled Willow across the lawn to one of the benches.

Cordelia took a deep breath. "You're Xander's best friend, right?"

Willow shrugged. "Since we were munchkins." No big news there. Cordelia clenched her fists and stared at the ground between her feet. The silence stretched out to awkward lengths. Finally, Willow said, "Is that all you wanted to ask me?"

"Willow, this is really hard for me. It's not easy to talk about this to someone who is, technically, a geek." Cordelia looked at Willow and raised an apologetic hand. "No offense."

"None taken. It's the age of the geek."

Cordelia took another deep breath. Willow wondered about the possibility of hyperventilation.

"I know that it's hard for other people to see what I see in Xander."

Willow shook her head. "It's not hard for me."

"No," Cordelia said. "It's hard for you to see what he sees in me."

Willow squirmed. "My personal policy of conflict avoidance requires me to remain silent."

"I know about the 'We Hate Cordelia' club."

"You do?" Willow's hands flew to her face. "I'm so embarrassed."

"And you did try to kill me."

"In my defense, I would point out that I was under a spell at the time."

Cordelia looked at her. "And the thought never crossed your mind any other time?"

There was a long pause before Willow said "Maybe you should ask another question."

Silence stretched out again. Man, this is like being in a Beckett play. A bad Beckett play, Willow thought.

"Sometimes I... I wish we knew Buffy was gone forever," Cordelia blurted.

Willow blanched. "How can you say that?"

Cordelia's face hardened. "I know it's selfish. God, do you think I'm proud of it? It's just that... All Xander does is obsess about her. Where's Buffy now? What's Buffy doing? Is Buffy all right? And then he looks at me, and what I see in his eyes is 'You're not Buffy.' It was bad enough when she was here, but now that she's gone, he's turned her into... into..."

"A mythical figure?" Willow ventured.

"Yeah. And I get treated like a real-life inflatable doll."

"Ick." Willow hunched forward. "I didn't need that visual."

Cordelia stood up and started pacing in front of the bench. "Worse, it bothers me. Why don't I just dump him and move on? I've done it before. I've done it to guys who treated me a lot better. I've done it to guys who are way cooler. What's wrong with me? What's wrong with him? Why is it always 'Buffy, Buffy, Buffy?'" She threw up her hands in frustration.

Willow's voice was quiet. "Because he's stupid."

That merited a quizzical look from Cordelia. "Excuse me?"

"It's true. He's my best friend, but sometimes he's an idiot. He never sees what he has, only what he wants. It's part of Xander. If it bothers you, maybe you should break up with him."

Misery seeped into Cordy's voice. "I can't."

"Can't?" Willow frowned. "Why can't you... Oh. Oh my gosh, you don't mean you're..." She couldn't bring herself to say it.

"What? No! Don't even think that." Cordelia flopped down on the bench. "I just... can't. When I see him, my stomach gets fluttery. He makes me laugh, when he's paying attention to me." Her voice rose to a semi-wail. "Fifty cool guys at this school would worship the ground I walk on, and I'm in gridlock over Xander Harris. Why?"

Willow offered her best consolation face. "Because love makes you do the wacky."

For some reason, this sage advice was not what Cordelia wanted to hear. "Love? No, that can't be it. Xander... and... me. No. It can't be. It just can't... Could it? Is this how all those guys felt when I... y'know?"

"Treated them this way?" Willow shrugged. "Probably."

Cordelia crossed her arms over her stomach, as though in pain. "But... But this feels awful. I must be a terrible person."

"You can be, but we know you have a good heart." Willow shrugged. "I think."

Cordelia stood up. "Willow, if you ever tell anyone about this... talk, I will kill you."

Willow drew her thumb and forefinger across her lips. "Consider them zipped." Yeah, she thought, I'm going to tell someone about this weirdness.

Cordelia walked away from her, across the lawn toward the school.

Willow shook her head. "And I thought the undead made life complicated."

*******

"You've got nine other fingers. You might give that one a rest."

"Huh?" Buffy snapped out of her trance.

Cooper spoke more slowly. "I said, you've got nine other fingers. Ease up on that one."

Buffy glanced down at her hand. The nail on her right thumb was getting pretty ragged. The cuticle, best left unmentioned..

"Nervous?" Cooper asked.

"Wow, how does anyone ever hide anything from you?" Buffy asked. There was more of an edge to her voice than she intended.

Cooper extended a bag of Hershey's Kisses with Almonds. "Here. Probably not the healthiest thing in the world, but I doubt if fingernail clippings are any better."

"Thanks." Buffy unwrapped a Kiss and popped it into her mouth, closing her eyes in bliss.

"I think you should try to relax," Cooper said. "I know this is going to be tough, but it's not going to be as bad as you're imagining."

Buffy swallowed and fixed him with a level gaze. "No," she said. "It'll be worse."

*******

Bob Snyder pushed open the glass door of the video store and blinked in the harsh fluorescent light. One advantage to being bald; you didn't have to worry about how your hair looked when a phone call wakened you out of a sound sleep and demanded to see you. Snyder wore a khaki topcoat and polished cordovan wingtips; several inches of blue-and-white striped pajama showed in between. The store would be closing in fifteen minutes. One bored clerk was wiping down the counter. Snyder looked around. The store was empty save for a single patron browsing the foreign film section. Snyder quick-walked down the aisle until he was a few feet from the other man. The principal began to look through the boxes on the opposite rack.

"I can't believe this is your idea of an inconspicuous meeting place," Snyder hissed.

"Please. When was the last time you remember anyone you saw at the video store?" A faintly metallic rasp colored the other man's speech.

Snyder didn't look at him. He didn't want to see that face again. "But, the foreign section?"

"Guarantees privacy. Tell me, what's your favorite Bergman film?"

"Bergman?" Snyder sounded like a man being strangled.

"Personally, I love The Seventh Seal. All that symbolism of the chess game with death. What a load of horseshit." A grinding sound wheezed from his throat; Snyder realized it was a chuckle.

"Listen," the bald man said, "you called me. I was sound asleep. Let's dispense with the small talk. What's wrong?"

"Well," the creature rumbled, "the time of the crossing is growing near. As the new moon approaches, our power increases. The time for the crossing is close, but unseen... factors are arising."

"Wh-What factors?" Snyder stammered.

"My sentinels tell me that Rupert Giles visited the home of the Slayer's mother this evening."

"So?"

"Do not underestimate Giles. He may seem harmless and dithering, but he is a dangerous man. I don't believe he could stop us, but he could make things complicated, something which I wish to avoid."

Snyder thought for a moment, his fingers flipping through the boxes automatically. "May I make a suggestion?" he said at last.

"By all means. I welcome your input. You are our liaison in this matter."

"Doesn't--" Snyder cleared his throat. "Doesn't the ritual require a sacrifice?"

"Indeed it does, and we have already... Are you suggesting... ?"

"Would that present a problem?" Snyder resisted the urge to look over his shoulder.

"None that I can think of. It would be unorthodox, but that might be so much the better."

Snyder allowed himself the smallest of smiles. "Then I would say that whenever you can kill two birds with one stone, do it."

"It does possess a certain... poetry."

"I'm glad you approve. Now, can I go home and get back to sleep?"

"There is another item, one which avoids so elegant a solution."

Snyder's blood ran cold. "Yes," was all he trusted himself to say.

"My 'people' are reporting disturbances."

"Disturbances?"

"Yes," the creature rumbled. "The sense of a presence."

Snyder's throat was dry. "What does it mean?"

"There is no way of knowing. It is simply contact. But it is unusual and disturbing. How would you feel if you found someone eavesdropping on your conversations?"

"If there's nothing to be done, why are you telling me?"

"Because it would be most upsetting if we discovered that someone we thought was our friend was, in fact, spying on us."

Snyder felt the blood drain from his face. He turned and hurried back down the aisle and out of the store. The other customer stood there, perusing the selections. He finally reached out and picked up a box.

"Rashomon," he growled. "What an excellent choice."

*******

Willow Rosenberg was sound asleep. Soft moonlight filtered through the curtains. Without warning, her eyes snapped open and her body went rigid. A low, rumbling growl, far too deep to come from the normal Willow, crawled from her throat.

*******

She was fighting. Who or what, she didn't exactly know, but there were a lot of them. They must be vampires, because she had a stake, and she was killing them with it. She stabbed the last one and stood, breathing heavily as the dust settled around her, vampire dust, thick on the ground, crunching under her shoes, powdering her hair and caking in her nostrils.

He walked through the ankle-deep powder, miniature clouds rising with each step. He stopped, out of arm's reach, hands deep in the pockets of his long black duster. The dust drifted down like snow. He reached up with his right hand and began to unbutton his shirt.

"What-" she began.

"Shhhhh." He pulled the placket of his shirt to one side. She could see it. The wound. It was black and bloodless, and she knew that there was a matching one in his back. She felt tears trickling down her cheeks, meandering through the dust in ashen tracks.

"That's what it comes to," he said.

"Angel, I-" His outline began to waver. He looked around, searching for something. It was cold, but not winter cold. She felt cold inside, empty. Her eyes met Angel's.

"It's beginning," he said.

********

Buffy gasped and jerked upright. Eyes wild, she looked around. Cooper watched her, his finger holding his place in the magazine he'd been reading.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

She wiped at her mouth with the heel of her hand. No drool; that was good. She shook her head. "I don't know. I must have gotten a chill."

*******

Xander scanned the student lounge as he entered. Willow slouched on a sofa, sneakered feet propped on a coffee table as she read. He crossed the lounge and vaulted over the back of the sofa, sending Willow airborne as he dropped down beside her.

"Whatcha reading?" he asked. She held it up for him to see. He made a face. "Don't you ever read comic books?"

Willow's eyebrows went up, but she didn't look away from the book. "Being a nerd is a full-time job."

Xander slouched on the sofa. "You're an inspiration to us all."

Willow's voice was elaborately casual. "How's Cordelia?"

Xander shrugged. "She's fine, I guess. Haven't seen her today."

Willow started to speak, hesitated, then closed her book. "Xander, who's your best friend?"

He rummaged through his backpack. "You are, you know that. You'll retire the undefeated champ."

She looked down at her hands. "So, if I told you something you didn't want to hear, you'd listen anyway?"

"Why? What's wrong?" He looked around, then ducked his head. Armpits, OK. His right hand crept down slowly. Fly up, check. "Do I have something in my teeth?"

Willow looked over at him. "Xander, why are you treating her so badly?"

Xander was indignant. "What do you mean? I haven't done anything to her."

"That's kind of the point."

Xander shook his head. "Signal's still scrambled on this end, Will."

"Do you remember how I felt when I found out that you and Cordelia were dating?"

"Oh yeah, throw that up in my face again."

"Well, at least I was jealous of someone who was there."

Xander shook his head, frustration darkening his face. "Okay, could we clarify, because I left my secret decoder ring at home today."

Willow's voice was quiet. "We all know you've got a thing for Buffy, but at least you never used me while you were waiting for her to notice you."

Xander's mouth dropped open. "Are you saying that's what I'm doing to Cordelia? Using her? Will, are you hearing yourself?"

"I know, it creeps out a part of me, too, but it's not right. Even Cordelia deserves better than this. Remember when you were about to turn into fish boy? Didn't she stand by you then? What about the way she told off her friends? She may not be perfect, but she's getting better, and I'm not sure we can say that about everyone on this couch."

Xander nodded. "Oh, I get it. This is some sort of X chromosome sisterhood thing." He turned on Willow. "You know what, Will? You're the last person I thought I'd have to defend myself to."

Willow's nostrils flared and her lips compressed into a thin line. "And you're the last person I thought I'd see acting like a jackass."

Xander cupped a hand behind his ear. "Excuse me, did you just use the word 'ass'?"

"Only in its proper context and as part of a compound. Don't change the subject."

There was a moment of silence, then Xander asked, "Will, are we fighting?"

"I think we are."

Xander cocked his head toward his best friend. "And you're defending Cordelia?"

"I guess I am." The stubborn look on Willow's face seemed to say 'in spite of all I hold dear.'

He shook his head in disbelief. "Well then, I guess the end of the world is near, because that's got to be a sign of the apocalypse."

*******

Giles lifted a stack of books from the return bin and placed them on the counter. He glanced at the spine of the top volume. A Concise History of the Russian Revolution. He leafed through it and spotted a torn page about two-thirds of the way through. Shaking his head, he set it aside to repair later.

******

Cordelia slammed the refrigerator door and sighed. She hated going to the grocery store, but there was nothing in the house to eat, and she just didn't feel like calling Domino's again. A quick trip to the store wouldn't kill her.

******

It was just past full dark when the bus pulled in to the Sunnydale station. The door hissed open and the passengers began to disembark. Buffy stretched, yawned, and went to retrieve her duffel bag from the baggage compartment. She hefted it up and turned.

Cooper stood alone, hands in the pockets of his pea coat. As she looked at him, Buffy realized how short he was, and how tired he seemed. Of course, the bus ride had beaten her up pretty good; she could only imagine how he felt.

When he noticed her watching him, he pasted a smile on his face. "Well, Anne, you ready for this?"

The Slayer cleared her throat. "Before we... Before I... There's something I should tell you. My name isn't Anne. I mean, it is, but it's my middle name. I-"

Cooper raised a hand. "What do your friends call you?"

She swallowed. "Buffy."

He nodded and made a mocking, stiff sort of half-bow. "Well then, Buffy, where do you wish to go now?"

She blinked, surprised at how fast tears formed. "Home. I want to go home."

*******

Buffy stopped, heart in her throat. When they'd turned the corner and seen her house, sitting there in the middle of the block, it had hit her like Mike Tyson on meth. Now she stood under a spreading oak tree, so close and yet so far.

Cooper looked at her. "I take it we're almost there."

She nodded. "Yeah, we are."

He pointed at her house. "Is that home?"

"Yeah. 1630 Revello Drive."

He shrugged, settling his shoulders inside his jacket. "Well then, I guess this is good-bye." He extended his hand. Buffy looked at him, an average-looking man with thinning hair and a lined face, and shook her head.

"Sorry," she said, pushing his hand aside. "Not to be a drama queen, but that won't get it."

She hugged him, turning her head so that her cheek rested against the soft, faded denim of his shirt. Her eyes shut tight as she squeezed him. He froze for a moment, then lowered an awkward hand to pat her on the back.

She released the embrace and stepped back, wiping a tear from her cheek with the back of her hand, and that's when it hit. Buffy got a quick impression of a dark, hulking form as it struck Cooper, knocking him aside and turning on her. It didn't seem to be a vampire, so maybe it was demonic, or some sort of monster called to the Hellmouth. Didn't really matter.

"Okay," she said as the creature advanced, "I guess this is original, but flowers and candy would have been nice." She ducked a looping swing and drove two hard rights and a left into the creature's midsection. It was unfazed. She jumped back, out of reach, then leaped up into a whirling spin kick that caught it flush on the side of the head. It tilted sideways, then righted itself. Uh-oh, she thought. That kick would crack a concrete block. This is bad news.

She began to circle, trying to stay out of its reach and find a weakness. She darted in under its guard, landed a couple of solid punches to little effect, and moved back out of range. It was big and strong and solid, but it didn't seem terribly quick or nimble. Though her focus was on the demon, she was dimly aware of Cooper getting to his feet behind the creature.

She dodged a straight right hand and kicked a rather hard and scabby knee. Her attacker staggered and emitted its first sound: a hissing groan. Good, she thought, you can hurt it. Quickness was her advantage. She feinted with her left hand. The creature responded. You're mine, she thought as she launched her right. That's when everything went horribly wrong.

Rather than being an easy target, the creature ducked. Her punch whistled over its head. As she spun off-balance, she heard its second sound: a grating rasp that was obviously a laugh. It had fooled her. It was both quick and smart. She had only a moment to register her danger before the blow landed. Slayer quickness enabled her to shift her weight so that she took it across the ribs, but that was little comfort. The breath was driven from her lungs and she heard a distinct cracking sound. She also learned something else about the demon. It had claws.

She dropped to her knees, one hand on the ground, the other going to her side. The creature gathered itself and struck.

Cooper flung himself between them. The noise she heard as the demon's clawed hand connected with his torso was sickening, a wet, snapping, ripping sound. She tried to scream his name, but she couldn't breathe. Cooper dropped to the ground in front of her, landing on his back, arms flung outward.

The demon snarled. Her breath was just coming back. Her legs were still rubbery and weak.

She was going to die.

The creature stopped, head tilted. It sniffed the air, turned its head. Buffy could swear it was listening for something. Then it turned and ran away, leaving her kneeling on the sidewalk, Cooper's stricken form before her.

She bent over him. Nausea rolled through her stomach like a wave. There really was no wound on Cooper; rather, it was as though a great ice-cream scoop had plowed through his midsection, leaving a gaping cavity. The former contents of that cavity were splattered on the sidewalk and strewn through the grass.

But he wasn't dead. Yet. His eyes blinked and his lips moved as Buffy gasped over him.

"C-Cooper, I'm... I'm so... sorry," she said, cursing the inadequacy of the statement.

He turned his eyes toward her. Bright arterial blood streaked his chin and throat. "It's okay... My fault..." His voice trailed away.

Buffy sobbed, each convulsion sending a wave of pain through her own damaged body. "I'll get help," she cried, blinded by her own tears.

His lips pulled back in a ghastly attempt at a smile. "Too... late... I'm g-gone." He drew in a deep, shuddering breath; blood bubbled in his mouth on the exhalation. "You... You go... now."

"No. I can't."

It required a supreme effort, but he reached up and took her hand. "You... here... There's a... reason... Don't... waste it... I'm gone... Anne." He released her hand. His head fell back on the grass and rolled to the side on a limp neck.

"Cooper!" Buffy screamed, and the bolt of agony that it sent through her tore her attention away from him. She brought her hand away from her side and looked at it. It was smeared with thick, black blood. She struggled to her feet and staggered away, away from home, into the dark, dangerous night.

*******

With great care and skill, Rupert Giles placed the strip of tape along the tear in the page, binding the two edges together. The world might end in two days, but he still had a librarian's job to do. Ironic, but fitting. The world did not stop just because evil was afoot.

The doorbell rang. Giles set the book aside, got up from the table, and crossed the living room. He opened the door. "Can I h--"

They crashed through the door, bearing him to the ground. He struggled, but there were three of them. Within moments he was choked unconscious, bound, and carried from his home, carried out like a sack of potatoes.

********

Cordelia slammed on the brakes. Great, she thought, one minute you're driving home, the next drunks are wandering out in front of your car. The figure that had lurched out of the dark didn't run away, but leaned heavily on her car and staggered around to the passenger window.

Cordelia hit the button to lower the window and leaned over to yell at whoever it was. The vagrant had fallen beside her car. Great. A small, feminine hand gripped the top of the door and a face came into view.

Cordelia was stunned. "Buffy?"

The Slayer's face was the color of sweat socks after a three-mile hike. Her eyes focused for a second. "Cordelia," she gasped. "Help me." She collapsed back to the street.

Cordelia slammed the transmission into park and jumped out of the car. Buffy was struggling to get up as Cordelia knelt beside her. Grabbing Cordelia's jacket, she pulled herself into a sitting position. "You've got to get me off the street."

Cordelia looked down at the hand holding her jacket. "Gross! You're all covered in blood."

Buffy's voice was grim. "I know. Most of it's my own."

Cordelia disengaged the Slayer's hand from her jacket, then ran to the trunk. Shoving aside bags of groceries, she found the blanket that she kept there. As she spread it on the back seat, she muttered under her breath, "Great. I'll never get this out of the upholstery".

"Come on," she said, squatting to get a shoulder under Buffy's arm. She levered the shorter girl to her feet and guided her into the car. Buffy gasped and winced in pain as she brushed the B-pillar. As she eased Buffy back into a reclining position and arranged the blanket, Cordelia said, "It's a good thing I keep this in the trunk. Maybe it'll keep out the worst of the stains."

Buffy winced again. "I'll try not to bleed out on your back seat. I'd hate to ruin your interior while dying."

Cordelia dropped the tranny into drive. "Do you want to take me to your house?"

"No!" Even through the haze of pain, panic edged Buffy's voice. "You can't do that. It'll be waiting."

"Huh?" Cordelia twisted around in her seat, frowning. "What are you talking about?"

Buffy swallowed. "Can you take me to your house?"

Cordelia shrugged. "I guess."

********

The door to the Chase guest room opened and Buffy and Cordelia entered. Buffy was wrapped in the bloodstained blanket, and Cordelia was simultaneously supporting her and trying not to touch her. They crossed the room and Cordelia helped Buffy lie down on the bed.

"Great," said the brunette, stepping back. "Now I'll have to burn those sheets."

She left the room. Buffy groaned and tried to shift to a more comfortable position, but found that any position was pretty painful. Cordelia came back in, first aid kit in hand. She knelt beside the bed. Buffy helped her peel back the blanket, then the jacket. Cordelia looked at the other girl's shirt, plastered to her side with her own blood.

Taking a deep breath she said, "This is going to hurt."

"Do it," Buffy said through gritted teeth.

As gently as possible, Cordelia peeled the shirt away. Buffy gasped as the material tugged free of the three long, nasty-looking gashes across her rib cage. Blood, both fresh and dried, covered the area, and it was already mottled with bruising. Cordelia picked up a bag of cotton balls and a bottle of hydrogen peroxide. She looked at the wounds, then back at the implements in her hands. This was emergency-room trauma. She had a first-aid kit. Pale and shaking her head, the captain of the Sunnydale High cheerleading squad began to clean the area as best she could.

"I don't know, Buffy. These look pretty deep. Do your ribs hurt?"

Buffy hissed, "Gee, how'd you guess?"

Cordelia shook her head. "I'm not sure, but I think some of them are broken."

"Worry about that later."

Cordelia tossed away a saturated cotton ball and noticed blood on her hand. "Gross," she exclaimed. "As soon as I get you cleaned up, we'll call Willow and--"

Buffy grabbed her hand. "You can't do that. Promise me you won't do that."

Cordelia winced, trying to pull her hand away. "Okay, okay, I promise." Buffy's grip relaxed. "Geez," Cordelia said, rubbing her hand, "see if we miss you next time."

Buffy said nothing. The Slayer had passed out.

*******

The Slayer shifted in her sleep, and the sharp jab of pain jerked her awake. Inches away from her nose she saw wallpaper, strange wallpaper. A moment of intense panic swept over her before she remembered all that had happened. With great care, she eased over onto her other, uninjured side.

By the soft, diffuse glow of a security light on the lawn, she could see the room. An armchair was pulled up against the door. Cordelia was curled up in the chair, feet tucked underneath her, head resting on one arm, asleep.

In spite of everything, Buffy felt a slight smile on her face as she drifted back into sleep.

*******

Sunlight streamed through the window. Buffy half-sat against the bed's headboard. Cordelia came in, carrying a tray. She was dressed in an emerald-green shirt and black houndstooth pants. She put the tray on the table beside the bed. "Here, I brought you some Pop-Tarts, and some cereal. The juice and milk are on the tray."

Buffy scooted up into a sitting position, wincing. "Thanks, Cordelia. I owe you so big."

The queen of Sunnydale frowned. "Are you sure you don't want me to tell anyone? Your mom? Giles?"

Buffy shook her head. "No, it's too dangerous. Something was waiting for me when I got back. Let it think I'm dead." She cocked her head. "Speaking of parents, where are yours?"

Cordelia shrugged and made a 'no-big-deal' gesture. "They're on their fall getaway. It's just me here for a couple of weeks." She picked up her backpack from the floor. "If you want to shower or anything, the towels are in the hall closet. Try not to get too much blood on anything."

Buffy nodded. "Understood. I feel much better."

Cordelia hesitated before she spoke. "It's so weird. When I changed your bandages this morning, it looked those cuts were already closing."

"What can I say? It's one of the Slayer perks. You get the crap kicked out of you on a regular basis, but you're a fast healer."

Cordelia gave her a sympathy face. "I'm afraid you'll still have a bad scar come swimsuit season." She glanced at the clock. "Crap! I'll be late. Gotta go." She dashed out the door.

Buffy shook her head and opened a package of Pop-Tarts.

*******

Oz and Willow were already there when Cordelia pushed through the library doors at lunch. "Where's Giles?" she demanded.

Willow looked at Oz. "That's what we'd like to know. He's not here, and he's not answering his phone. Xander went to his house." She'd just finished speaking when Xander blew in.

"Find anything?" Oz asked.

"I found a lot, none of it good." Xander rubbed his hands over his face. "The place is trashed and Giles is nowhere to be seen."

Willow looked around. "What could have happened?"

Silence, then inspiration hit Xander.

"I've got it. Human sacrifice."

The other three all said "What?" or variations thereof.

"Wait a minute." Willow shook her head. "Giles is supposed to be the sacrifice?"

"I don't know if he's supposed to be, but if you were looking for somebody the spooks might find tasty, can you think of anyone better?"

"Good point," Oz said.

"Well, okay, let's say you're right. What are we going to do?" Willow ran her hands through her hair.

Xander looked around their circle. "There's only one thing to do. We break out the whuppin' stick and go after the bad guys."

There was a second of stunned silence, then Cordelia asked, "Is that smart?"

Xander was very matter-of-fact. "No, no it isn't. It's very foolish. It's quite possibly the stupidest idea ever conceived in the human brain. I just don't see any other way. Does anyone else?"

Willow scrunched up her face. "Don't we need a magic weapon?"

Xander held up a hand. "First things first. Oz, when's the new moon?"

"Day after tomorrow."

"Okay. Proceeding on the assumption that all arcane occult rituals are performed at midnight, that gives us..." He started to calculate, then gave up. "...something over forty-eight hours to find out where they'll hold this ritual and locate a mystical weapon."

Cordelia raised her hand. "Wouldn't they hold it on the Hellmouth? I mean, it does seem to be the underworld's answer to the mall. Everyone goes there."

Willow shook her head. "The Hellmouth is in the library. They wouldn't perform the ritual here, would they?"

Oz scratched his chin. "Does seem to lack a certain zombie ambience."

That stumped them. In the middle of stupefied silence, Xander had another eureka moment.

"I've got it," he said. "The cave where the Master was trapped."

"Do you think?" Willow sounded a bit skeptical.

Xander nodded. "I think. Oh yeah, I think."

Oz looked from Willow to Xander. "Where is this cave?"

Xander shook his head. "I can't tell you where it is, but I can take you. I was there once-with Angel. When Buffy died."

"Wow," Oz said. "Do I feel like I came in in the middle."

Willow laid a hand on his shoulder. "It gets worse."

Xander was still concentrating on his plan. "I'm pretty sure I can find my way back there."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Cordelia jumped up from the table. "Do you hear yourselves? Are you really planning to crash Hell's party?"

Xander's voice was grim. "What other choice do we have?"

"We could tell--" Cordelia stopped before she could say "Buffy."

"We could tell who?" Willow looked puzzled.

"The, uh, the police. It's their job to investigate things like this." Cordelia nodded to emphasize her point.

Xander's voice was very close to a sneer. "Oh, yeah, they've done such a great job with the rest of our major crime wave. And what are you going to tell them, that the boogie man is loose?"

Cordelia looked around. Oz and Willow nodded in agreement with Xander. Cordelia's mouth dropped open. "When did you all get so brave?"

Willow struggled to put her thoughts into words. "We're not brave, at least I'm not. But Xander's right. Buffy and Giles are gone. We're all that's left. That means it's up to us. We're all we have."

Cordelia was indignant. "Well, then, excuse me, but humanity is screwed."

Xander made a face like he'd tasted something very bitter. "Thank you for that rousing vote of confidence."

*******

The candles cast a dim glow around the cave. Under more favorable circumstances, Giles would have found the effect very pleasing. Any appreciation of the motif was forestalled by his present circumstance. The chair in which he was seated was large, well-upholstered and rather comfortable. A nice enough chair, but the shackles around his ankles kept him from enjoying it. The chains were long enough to allow him to stand and move about a bit, but they were securely bolted to the frame of the sturdy old chair, whose weight bespoke a time when good, mature wood, very heavy wood, was plentiful. Therefore, Giles was forced to sit there in an unfunny parody of a man of leisure.

"Are we comfortable, Mr. Giles?" The librarian looked up, craning his neck to see the speaker. The man who addressed him looked reasonably human, but his cheekbones were a bit too wide and high, his chin a bit too pointed, his ears at a minimally unnatural angle. That, and his pupils were vertical.

"Comfortable? That's not exactly the term I would choose," Giles said. He looked around the cave, catching glimpses of shadowy figures coming and going.

"Well, I trust our little arrangement is not too confining. It's bad enough that you're going to die. There's no reason for you to be cramped as well."

Giles's brow furrowed. "Who are you?"

"I also understand that you were recently in a very similar situation, personal peril, held prisoner by sinister forces, that sort of thing," the demon continued. "I apologize for the cliched repetition of that scenario, but if it is any consolation to you, the ending will be different this time, so we can avoid total banality."

"I asked who you were," Giles demanded.

The man leaned down, a movement of disturbing quickness. He hovered over Giles like a great bird of prey. "Come, come Mr. Giles. You know exactly who I am, as I know exactly who you are. Others may see you as an annoying, bumbling school librarian, but I know what a dangerous man you are, you and your little charge."

"You must not know as much as you pretend. The Slayer is gone. None of us even know if she is alive." Giles saw no harm in a little bluster.

To Giles's surprise, a smile crossed his captor's face. It was the smile of a connoisseur, of an oenophile who had just fondled a rare vintage. "You know, this opportunity is just too tempting--" he brought his mouth closer to Giles's ear, close enough for a whisper almost tender in its delivery "-- she's alive. And she's baaaaack!"

"Buffy's in Sunnydale?" The exclamation burst forth before Giles could control himself.

The demon straightened. "Yes, but not for long, I think. She met one of my associates last night, and if his damage report is trustworthy, she's in terrible shape. She'll certainly be no match for us once our brethren have crossed over," he mused.

With a great effort, Giles tucked this new information away. After all, who even knew if it was true? It was time for a new gambit. "You still haven't told me your name."

An amused chuckle greeted his statement. "Giles, Giles. You are trying so hard, but you are so transparent! Do you have some tiny spell locked in your brain, some little word of control that you hope to work on me at just the right moment? How sweet." He inhaled deeply, like a man savoring a delightful aroma. "Do you know what I love about this world? It's mutability. You can be whatever you want to be. So let's dispense with that stuffy old name I've had for centuries. You can call me... Ralph."

"The demon Ralph?" Giles's spirit sank.

"And why not? That was then, this is now. That old world is gone, and with it, the old me. This is a new world, and I will be a part of it!" The demon's bone-chilling laughter filled the cavern.

"Are you sure of that?"

"I am, Mr. Giles. Indeed, I am!" The demon Ralph patted him on the shoulder. "And you, my friend, will help usher it in."

*******

Cordelia jammed on the brakes and rocketed out of the car before it stopped rocking on its springs. She flew through the front door, leaving it wide open, and took the stairs two at a time.

Yelling "Buffy! Buffy!" at the top of her lungs, she burst into the guest room. Her gaze took in the empty bed, then swiveled to see the Slayer, leaning against the arm chair.

Cordelia blurted, "They'll all be-- Why do you have my junior-high baton?"

Buffy lowered the shiny metal tube. "It was the closest thing you had to a weapon. What's wrong?"

"Giles is missing, and they're going to try and stop the demons. They'll all be killed!" Cordelia was out of breath, her face shiny with sweat. She had gone through cheerleading practice like a narcoleptic on Nyquil, botching routines and flubbing cheers that she had down cold since the third grade. She had skipped detention and raced home because the Slayer had to be told.

And now Buffy was looking at her like she was speaking Urdu. "What are you talking about?" Buffy asked.

Cordelia took a deep breath to steady herself and then let it all come out in a rush. "Giles said that a demon army is trying to cross over into our world, but they need a human sacrifice to do it. Now Giles is missing, and Xander, Willow and Oz are all convinced that he's supposed to be the sacrifice, so they've decided to try and stop it."

Buffy blinked, stunned. "Wow. Thanks for the exposition. Whose idea was it to play Indiana Jones?"

"Xander's."

Buffy shook her head. "Stupid."

Cordelia nodded. "That's what I said, but Willow and Oz went along with him."

Buffy moved around the chair and sat down. "Where are they now?"

Cordelia bit her lip and thought. "I guess they're at the library. I don't know. I'm supposed to be in detention now."

"Detention?" Buffy's eyebrows shot up.

"It's a long story which you'll never hear." Cordelia's forehead furrowed. "How are you?"

Buffy shrugged and shifted her weight. "I'm not up to handsprings, but it's getting better." She extended a hand. "Help me up," she said. "We've got to get to school."

*******

Xander, Willow and Oz were hunched over a pile of Giles's texts. Xander looked up from his book and glanced around at the others.

Oz met his eye. "Found anything that will actually kill a demon yet?"

Xander shook his head. "Mostly stuff that will slow them down. And make them angry."

Oz thought about that for a moment. "So we're like, eyeball-deep in trouble, aren't we?"

Xander nodded. "It would appear."

"Xander?" Willow's voice was very small. He turned to her.

"Yeah?"

"I'm scared."

"It's okay to be scared." The three turned as one, knowing that voice, but not really believing it.

Buffy stood in the doorway. She was pale, hair flat, wearing a sweatshirt and jeans bummed from Cordelia, which meant both were way too long. Xander thought she looked beautiful. "Hey, hey," she said, holding out her hands to fend them off as they rushed toward her. "No hugs, okay? Little problem with the ribs." So the hugs were kept to a minimum, but the questions flew fast and furious. Buffy held up a hand.

"The reunion will have to wait," she said. "Cordelia filled me in on the way over. We've got tonight and tomorrow night, right?"

Willow looked around at everyone, then said, "That's right."

Buffy crossed the library to sit at the table. The others followed. As she lowered herself into the chair, she noticed how the light fell from the window onto the tabletop and how the dust danced in that beam, and she realized how much she belonged here. Hey, she commanded herself, get misty later. "Have you found a mystical weapon?" she asked.

Xander answered. "No. Giles was going to get one. We don't know if he did, so we assume not."

Buffy nodded. "Okay, listen up. I'm really hurting, so I'm going to need your help."

Xander gave her a thumbs-up. "That's why they call us the Slayerettes."

Willow asked, "Are you going to be okay?"

Buffy set her jaw. "I'll be as good as I need to be, but I'm going to have to rest as much as possible for the next couple of days. Here's what I want each of you to do."

*******

Giles had lost all sense of time. The light never varied in the cavern, and his sleep came in fitful naps in the chair. They brought him food at irregular intervals, but it was recognizable food, thank heavens. His watch assured him that he'd been down here at least two days, but that, and the increasingly shabby state of his personal hygiene, was the only proof he had. Activity had continued in the cavern, and had, in fact, increased. He was starting to recognize some of the figures as human, while others were clearly not of this world. Apparently Ralph had managed to call a few minor demons to him to serve as an entourage. They were gathered in a loose cluster a few yards away. Ralph broke away from the group and approached him. The demon held something in his hand. As he drew closer, he held it up for Giles to see. It was an ornate dagger, inlaid with various metals and bearing strange engraved symbols.

"It's almost time, Mr. Giles. Do you feel any trepidation?" The creature turned the dagger over and over in its hands. When no reply was forthcoming from Giles, the creature cocked its head to one side. "What's the matter? Cat got your tongue? Don't be afraid, Mr. Giles. I promise it will be as quick and painless as possible. After all, I'm a demon, not the devil." He threw back his head and laughed. The sound made Giles wince.

******

They gathered outside the entrance to the tunnels just after eleven. Buffy was moving on her own, but still favoring her side. Oz carried four black plastic garbage bags. He distributed one to each of the Slayerettes.

"What's in here?" Willow hissed.

"Water balloons," Oz replied.

"This better work," Xander said to Buffy. "That's a lot of holy water to have on my conscience."

Buffy ignored him. "Cordelia, do you have the--"

"Yes." Cordelia was carrying a duffel bag, which she placed on the ground. Unzipping it, she gave each member of the gang an aluminum baseball bat, swathed in bubble wrap.

"Okay," Buffy said. "Everybody remember your part."

"Don't you have a weapon?" Willow asked.

Buffy shrugged. "I'll improvise."

*******

They filed through the tunnels, Buffy in the lead, Xander bringing up the rear, trash bags slung over their shoulders, baseball bats at the ready. Hey, Xander thought, we look like the evil twins of the seven dwarfs. He realized that the neoprene padding on the handle of his bat was getting wet. He shifted it to the other hand and wiped his sweaty palm on his shirt.

******

Three robed figures approached the chair. Giles had watched throughout the evening hours as about twenty of these acolytes arrived. He presumed that they were human; they definitely deferred to Ralph and his demonic sidekicks.

The hoods were pulled low, shielding their faces as they handcuffed Giles, then released his shackles and pulled him to his feet. They marched him across the shadowy cave, and their destination began to take shape. It was a pile of stones, stacked and arranged in a manner that bespoke only one purpose: it was an altar. The demon Ralph stood beside it, wearing an XXL version of the dark robes worn by Giles's handlers.

The demon grinned that feral smile, and Giles noticed that his teeth appeared to be pointy. "Are you ready, Mr. Giles?" he asked. "It's almost showtime."

Giles kept his eyes on Ralph as he was pushed down on the altar and flipped over on his back. The three minor demons clustered behind their master. They all appeared upside-down from Giles's point of view. One of the lackeys bent down and pulled open the librarian's shirt. Ralph shrugged and his robe fell away. Giles blinked. Here was a fine image to take to your grave- a naked demon raising a dagger over its head as it began to chant.

*******

The Scooby Gang huddled in the mouth of the tunnel. The cavern opened up in front of them. Some thirty feet away, they saw a small crowd of figures in medieval-looking robes clustered around a pile of rocks. Giles was dragged forward and pushed down on the pile, then a big guy in a robe stepped forward. He dropped his robe and stood, naked.

"Ick! Somebody needs to learn shame," Cordelia hissed. Buffy raised a warning hand. The figure began to chant some indecipherable words and raised a dagger above its head.

"Now!" Buffy shouted. Cordelia and Willow reached into the garbage bags and began flinging holy-water filled balloons at the mob. Buffy charged, followed by Xander and Oz wielding their bats.

Where the balloons struck demon flesh there was a flash and a sizzle, followed by a smell like rotten eggs. Cordelia and Willow threw balloons as fast as possible, screaming at the top of their lungs. The sound reverberated off the cavern walls, sounding like the cries of hundreds. Caught between the cacophony, the element of surprise, and the bombardment by an unknown projectile, the human acolytes broke and ran, scattering through the cave's multiple exits. Ralph and his three henchmen stood fast. Buffy, Xander and Oz piled into them. Willow and Cordelia threw the last of the balloons, picked up their bats and rushed into the fray.

Oz and Willow teamed up on one of the demons, Oz smacking it in the chest as Willow's bat took it behind the knee. It went down. Buffy engaged the other two minor demons, knocking one down with a kick and landing two punches on the other, then darting out, gasping as her ribs twinged.

Xander and Cordelia headed for the altar, where Ralph stood. He roared and raised the dagger, but Xander dropped to his knees and, sliding in under the demon's reach, whacked him across the knees. The demon toppled, dropping the dagger, and Cordelia was on him, raining blows on his head and shoulders. Xander clambered up on the altar, where Giles was struggling to sit up.

Oz continued to pound on a demon with Willow's help. Another minor demon decided to come to his brother's aid. Willow turned to face it; but the creature was already too close for a full swing. Willow reversed her grip and raised her bat in both hands, jabbing forward. The demon ran into it at full speed. There was a sound like cracking plastic and a vile fluid sprayed over Willow, but the demon went down.

Buffy fought the last demon, but her ribs were taking their toll. A jab missed its mark, and the creature's wild swing connected with her injured side. She went to a knee, head swimming. The demon raised a claw to strike again, but Willow came to her friend's rescue and cracked it on the back of the head.

"We've got to stop meeting like this," Xander exclaimed as he began to pull Giles off the altar. Ralph struggled to his feet. Cordelia swung at him, but he backhanded her away and picked up the dagger. The master demon turned toward the altar. Buffy began to run, but she was stumbling badly. Ralph grabbed Xander in one hand, clubbing Giles to the ground with the other. He bent the boy over the altar. Xander screamed as his spine curved the wrong way.

The demon growled, "One sacrifice is as good as another, and two is better than one. First you, then Giles." He reared up to strike.

"No!" Cordelia screamed and launched herself through the air. She hurdled over the altar and struck Ralph full in the chest. The was a flash and a smell like bacon. Cordelia screamed, a pain-soaked shriek, but she held on. Ralph staggered backward; the dagger fell from his hand. Buffy staggered forward, snatched up the dagger, and stabbed forward. The blade went past Cordelia's rib cage and sank into Ralph's chest.

A roar shook the cavern and Ralph and the three hench-demons disappeared in a blinding flash. Giles lay beside the altar. Xander was stretched out atop it. Oz and Willow stood, bats in hand. Cordelia was collapsed, burned and unconscious. Buffy was on all fours, head down, blood soaking through her shirt. Giles pulled himself to his feet.

"I'm very glad to see all of you," he said. Oz shrugged.

********

The doctor hung the chart on the end of Cordelia's bed and came into Buffy's cubicle. He looked at Buffy for a moment before speaking.

"I don't know what kind of rock-climbing accident you got into at night, but those ribs need a lot of rest young lady." His tone was tres skeptical.

Buffy made a cross-my-heart sign. "I promise, they'll get it. How's my friend?"

The doctor shook his head. "Hard to say. She's almost completely non-responsive, but her injuries are simply not that serious. No real trauma, just some minor burns which should heal completely."

Buffy digested that information, then nodded. "Can my other friends come in?"

The doctor looked up from making a note on her chart. "For a few minutes. We'll have to move Miss Chase up to Neuro-ICU shortly."

Buffy got up and shuffled to Cordelia's bedside. The other crowded into the small, curtained space.

"What did the doctor say?" Willow asked.

Buffy shook her head. "They'll move her to Neuro-ICU. They don't know why she's not responding."

"We called your mom. She's on her way over, or she will be when she stops crying." Willow's voice held a hopeful undercurrent. Buffy replied with an absent-minded nod as she looked down at the bandages that covered the left side of Cordelia's face.

Giles touched the Slayer's shoulder. "How did you know the dagger was an enchanted weapon?"

Buffy shrugged, a wan smile on her face. "I didn't, really. I just sort of... guessed."

Xander leaned over Cordelia's bed and took her right hand.

Buffy spoke to him. "You know, Xander, she saved my life. I would have bled to death without Cordy."

Oz pitched in. "And don't forget that saving your life thing, too. She really jumped on that guy."

Giles cleared his throat. "She did show a great deal of courage, you know."

Xander's voice was quiet. "I know."

Willow looked around. "What about her parents?"

Buffy looked down at the floor. "She said they were gone on a trip."

Giles nodded, glad for a task to complete. "We'll try to locate an emergency number and notify them."

"So, she was all alone?" Willow sounded puzzled.

Buffy stepped up beside Xander and touched Cordelia's shoulder. "No. She's not alone." Oz nodded, went around to the other side of the bed and took her left hand. Xander raised her hand to his lips and kissed it.

Cordelia's eyes fluttered open. "What...? Why are all of you... ? Where am--" Realization of where she was hit her. She looked down and saw her bandaged hands. Her hand jerked away from Oz and flew to her face. Her eyes were panicky.

"What's wrong? What happened?" She began to cry. "Oh God, oh God, my face. I can't have scars!" Her voice rose into a wail as tears poured down her face. Xander bent down and held her close. Willow stood behind him, waving her hands.

"It'll be all right," the redhead kept repeating. "The doctor says everything will heal perfectly. It'll just take time."

Buffy stepped back beside Giles. "Everything takes time," she whispered to herself.

A door opened and closed behind them. Buffy turned. Joyce Summers was frozen just inside the door of the ER. As Buffy turned, her mother began to run toward them.



END OF "DEUS EX MACHINA