Everything either belongs to Joss or it should, no infringement is intended and no profit is to be made. When you get right down to it I'm not really worth suing anyway unless you want a share of an underpaid civil servants wages and it just wouldn't be worth the hassle trust me.
Hyperion Hotel – Los Angeles – December 2003
'What in the hell?' Buffy exclaimed, walking into the Dining Room. The tables were all pushed to one side of the room and one the other side girls were sat on the floor either next to crates of bullets loading assault rifle magazines or they were stripping down and oiling the rifles themselves.
'The first batch of AK-47's finally arrived' Wesley explained. 'We're making sure they're in good working order and getting mags ready for them' he told her walking past the slayer carrying another cardboard box full of empty magazines.
'Couldn't you do this somewhere else?' Buffy asked.
'That's what Andrew said' Wesley replied, 'and I'm afraid this is simply the most convenient place size wise, and we've got rather a lot to do.'
'Define "a lot" please Wes?' Buffy told him with a frown.
'Two hundred rifles to strip and reassemble, two thousand magazines to load' Wesley replied evenly. 'We shouldn't be here too long' he told her making no effort to define how long that actually meant.
'They're in decent condition anyway, I've seen plenty of AK's that were in shitty condition, you could buy one in Africa for fifty bucks' Ashton the mercenary noted from where he was sat cross-legged on the floor looking down a rifle-barrel. 'Emil sells good quality merchandise, he has great word of mouth advertising' he noted. 'Plus he knows that even if he's not certain you'd kill him he knows for fucking sure we would' he added giving a nod to his counterpart Perković who was showing another girl how to strip down a Kalashnikov, many hands make light work. The big Croatian looked up and nodded in agreement, if Emil tried to foist defective weaponry or ammunition on them he would soon receive a visit and at the very least it would be his face, not his door they'd be pounding on, after all they'd beaten him up before.
Buffy looked around, shaking her head. 'What would the cops say if they came in and saw this?' she asked.
'To my way of thinking Willow would look them in the eyes and say "these are not the droids you are looking for" and they'd go away again' Xander offered appearing behind Wesley with another cardboard box.
'Or we could just fight the buggers off' Wesley joked. 'I mean if the ATF turned up with Armoured Personnel Carriers we'd soon sort them out too if it came to it' he continued. 'Of course a memory spell and a glamour to hide all the guns would be a tad less high profile' he admitted. 'Put the box down over there' he told Xander, 'the girls will help themselves to magazines when they need them.'
Buffy sighed. 'Just get all of this crap out of here and put somewhere else as soon as you can' she told them.
'Oui Slayer-Chef' Xander replied, trying to keep a straight face.
Buffy turned to Ashton who put down the rifle in his hands and held up his hands palms outwards in a quasi surrender 'You told me to get the girls to start calling you that, it must have caught on' he told her.
'It sounds better when you do it, less…. insolent' she told the mercenary while giving Xander a look.
'I'm well practised at not making officers think I'm being insolent Slayer-Chef' Ashton replied which could have meant anything, his voice and face were utterly unreadable though he was not being helped by the smirk plastered all over Perković's face nearby.
'Great now even the hired help disrespects me' Buffy complained.
'Look on the bright side' Ashton responded, 'we might get killed and then you wouldn't even have to pay us' he told her wryly. 'You pay for our services, respect is earned' he told her.
'What's this?' Xander asked. 'Warrior Zen? The Tao of Mercenary?'
Ashton laughed. 'If you're looking for hidden depths try Perković' he said. 'He's the one that could have made something of himself with a better break, I only ever wanted to be a soldier.'
Buffy frowned realising she really knew hardly anything about them. 'So what's your hard-luck story?' she asked the Croatian. 'Unhappy childhood?' she asked.
Perković looked up at her. 'It was good till Serbs come to my hometown and kill my family' he answered emotionlessly. 'Seige of Vukovar you may know?' he queried before continuing. 'I join Croatian Army to fight them, when war ends I cannot do anything else but be soldier, no qualifications, so join Legion.'
'No qualifications?' Buffy queried.
'Janko here joined up when he was a few years underage right Jan?' Ashton asked with a chuckle.
'Tall for age' Perković replied with the hint of a smile. 'Was fourteen, had not finished school' he explained then looked around, everyone in the room was looking at him. 'Even younger than you when learn to fight' he told the slayer he was showing how to strip the AK with a wink.
'Makes you want to tear up doesn't it?' Ashton asked in amusement observing Buffy's expression.
'Helps explain why you don't mind taking teenage kids into battle anyhow' Xander noted.
'Nah that's because of all the child soldiers we met in Africa' Ashton replied. 'Nothing more vicious than a brainwashed little fucker with a Kalashnikov' he opined. 'Well except maybe a teenage girl with superpowers' he added with a chuckle 'Anyhow you'll never see children in the same way after one of them has tried to blow your brains out. Especially when you have to put a burst through them before they give it another try.'
Perković said something to Ashton in French.
'Yeah' he responded. 'They'll never look at us in the same way again' he agreed snapping the rifle in his hands back together and pulling back the cocking handle. 'You know why they call us the Dogs of War?' he asked. 'It's because we're all sons-of-bitches' he told them flatly, pulling the trigger on the rifle letting the bolt fall onto the empty chamber, the sound seeming to echo in the now quiet room.
Restaurant – Los Angeles – December 2003
Connor caught the hint of a smirk on Stephen's face as he looked over the menu in dismay. 'It's in French' Connor noted with mild alarm. 'I can't read French.'
'I could translate' Stephen offered helpfully.
'He'd feed you snails and frogs legs' Emily warned. 'Let me do it' she advised him.
Dawn looked the menu over too. 'I'm better with ancient languages, ones that nobody has spoken in at least a thousand years' she admitted. 'I'll take some translation help' she said. 'From Emily I mean' she added.
Stephen frowned. 'I'm not puerile enough to do what you're all suggesting' he declared.
Emily threw him a look.
'Okay so I thought about doing it' Stephen admitted, 'but I'm not petty enough to actually go through with it' he told them.
'He used to be but I've been training him' Emily confided.
Stephen ignored the comment and having decided what he was going to eat looked over the wine list despondently. He'd love a bottle of a decent Red to go with his chosen meal but they'd almost certainly ask to see proof of age, it was almost barbaric he considered sadly.
Connor looked terribly nervous and it wasn't because of the menu. Stephen had basically cajoled him into asking Dawn to join Emily and himself into going out to dinner and he felt awfully out of place, the jacket and tie wasn't helping matters much either. As far as he knew he was only there because Emily had told Stephen she didn't want them to go out alone again and the choice of dinner companions was strictly limited by the fact that Connor was the only guy he knew the same age whereas Dawn was there because she was again the same age but not one of the slayers, Stephen liked to keep a professional distance from the slayers, and besides which they revelled in yanking his chain and it annoyed him.
In reality neither Connor nor Stephen knew that it was all a plot by Emily to get Dawn and Connor together because she thought they'd make a nice couple and besides which she really did want another couple to go out with sometimes so it wasn't just altruistic matchmaking on her part. What Emily herselfdidn't realise was that she had been carefully manipulated into this course by Illyria who had been making off-handed comments in her presence designed to lead to this result.
Somebody could of course have been manipulating Illyria too, but it was unlikely anything from higher-power downwards had the guts to risk it given the consequences if she found out.
After the waiter took their order, again in French, they started to chit-chat about things, mostly gossip from work naturally although Emily interjected some stories about how she was getting on at school which was proving to be very strange for her since she had never really associated much with people who didn't know magic and demons existed. It was Dawn that really broke the ice by asking about the boys little adventure to Madame Dorions which caused Stephen to both wince and cower at the glare he immediately got from Emily as soon as the subject was raised, Connor just laughed at the others discomfort and that relaxed him enough to start enjoying the evening himself.
The dinner was excellent, although Stephen did mention he thought it suffered for the lack of a bottle of wine and they were considering dessert when Connor froze and started surreptitiously sniffing the air. 'Vampire' he mouthed to Stephen who himself muttered something obscene in response.
Dawn watched Connor with interest, his entire demeanour, even his physical presence almost seemed to change before her eyes. Whereas a second ago he was smiling and joking there was the look of the hunter about him, his eyes were everywhere as he slowly cranked his head around to try and spot the source of the scent. His eyes locked on a couple that had just been seated on the other side of the restaurant and he indicated them using his knife to point.
'I've got a stake in my purse' Dawn whispered.
'Me too' Emily whispered back, 'and the ceramic knife I take to school' she added. She always carried them, you never knew when they'd come in hand.
'Collapsible sword' Stephen said quietly tapping the right sleeve of his jacket.
'We wouldn't have even bothered to ask' Dawn responded with a grin. 'Most people think you wear it to bed.'
'He doesn't' Emily told her.
'How do you know?' Dawn asked in surprise. She was fairly sure they weren't sleeping together, she had only just had her fifteenth birthday and perhaps more importantly Giles hadn't killed Stephen.
'I walked in on him when he was getting undressed for bed after a night patrol once' Emily told her. 'No sword but he was wearing Snoopy boxer-shorts.'
Stephen went bright red as Dawn choked down laughter.
'Spring-loaded stake' Connor told them, remaining focused and tapping his left wrist, 'hunting knife under my arm and a dagger on my right leg' he continued, 'and a Taser in my jacket pocket' he added.
'Show off' Dawn told him sticking out her tongue.
'Well I feel underdressed' Stephen remarked in response to Connors arsenal.
'Not even with the Peanuts styled underwear?' Dawn asked him, causing him to flush again and glare at Emily who stuck her own tongue out at him in response.
'The girl's human' Connor told them, 'the guy is the vampire. I guess she's the dessert.'
'What do we do?' Dawn asked.
'Here's an idea, someone goes outside and telephones the restaurant on their mobile, I mean cellphone, and asks to speak to him, and when he goes to answer it we can dust him when there's not so many witnesses' Stephen suggested.
'Or I could just follow him to the bathroom, which is where it looks like he's headed, and dust him in there' Connor replied with a smirk.
Stephen shrugged. 'Or you could do that' he agreed unable to fault the logic. 'I'll wait outside and keep anyone from coming in. I'll babble in French they'll think I'm staff' he said, getting up as did Connor. 'Ladies' he said with a slight bow.
As they followed the vampire Dawn watched them. 'Is Stephen always that formal?' she asked the English girl.
'No he puts it on a bit in company' Emily replied. 'When it's just the two of us he's much more chilled out' she told her. 'I think he worries about people not taking him seriously because of his age. He wants to be a good watcher, not let down the family honour.'
'He's a huge improvement on his Dad if you want my opinion' Dawn told her.
'So what do you think about Connor?' Emily asked.
'Well there's certainly a lot of the "under the fathers shadow" thing going on around here' Dawn replied knowingly. 'He always seems out of place somehow.'
'With his upbringing who can blame him for that' Emily replied. 'I think he likes you' she added.
Dawn grinned. 'I think he liked the cavegirl outfit I wore to the Halloween party more' she replied.
'The fact you nearly killed him by making him fall down the stairs was the giveaway was it?' Emily asked with a giggle. 'Stephen teased him mercilessly about that for a fortnight or so, it's the only time Connor's ever been clumsy.'
Dawn smiled, she hadn't really thought of Connor in those terms, as a potential boyfriend or anything, but it did feel good at the time to have a quite literally stunning effect on the guy. 'Connors followed him in' she said.
'We might need to leave in a hurry' Emily warned reaching for her purse for some money. 'I'll pay, you can pay me back later' she said, getting out a few notes.
'Right' Dawn replied. 'This is like going somewhere with Buffy' she said, 'only we actually got to finish the main course before the vampires showed up' she continued. 'I think she attracts them.'
'Slayer blood' Emily noted. 'It's supposed to smell extra tasty or something so I've heard' she said.
'I'll have to ask Spike' Dawn responded. 'Oh oh sounds like trouble' she said as a great deal of commotion could be heard coming from the men's restroom. The sounds of things being smashed built until the door burst open suddenly and the vampire burst out running for its life fully vamped out with fangs on display.
It got no more that three feet from the door, Connor in hot pursuit, when Stephen triggered his collapsible sword and slashed it through the air neatly decapitating the creature which exploded into a cloud of dust and ash in full view of half the restaurant and covering Connor in white powder.
Stephen felt everyone's eyes on him as the girls quietly dumped some money on the table and started to head nonchalantly towards the exit.
'Think fast sword-boy' Connor whispered, as he started brushing the remains of the vampire off his jacket.
Stephen held the collapsible sword aloft over his head and summoned the best Scottish accent he could muster. 'There can be only one!' he declared loudly before the two of them made a break for the door.
Hyperion Hotel – Los Angeles – December 2003
The Grossalug, his name usually abbreviated to Groo during his travels on this world looked over the aerial photograph derived map spread out on the conference room table and traced his finger along a trail marked upon it. 'This would be your best route for approaching the castle' he advised. 'It was a trade route years past but has since fallen into disuse. You would be unlikely to run into many using it unlike any of the other paths that would get you so close.'
Stirling scratched his chin. 'Exactly how much of a first impression are we hoping to make?' he asked Buffy.
'Why?' Buffy asked him. She had been walking past the Conference room and had looked in to find Groo, Stirling and Ashton discussing Pylean geography. The Groosalug had an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of his home world and its terrain and was filling in additional detail that Fred and Lorn had missed out.
The elderly watcher looked thoughtful. 'I think you'll find that the clearing there is in mortar range of the castle' he told her. 'Given the girls physical strength we should be able to get a small team with one of our tubes and plenty of bombs for the thing there and blast the bally place to smithereens' he suggested indicating for Ashton who had been hanging back to come take a look.
The mercenary noted the point on the map Stirling was indicating. 'The type of mortars you've got in the armoury can throw a round out to five and a half klicks' he said. 'That spot is well within range' he agreed. 'One tube with say thirty rounds would ruin their whole day.'
'Thirty rounds' Stirling repeated. 'How long to fire that many?'
'Less than three minutes if you want to put some effort into it, but you'd be better off with ten rounds rapid to make a show of it once you've got the range and then throttle back to three a minute, give the observers a chance to redirect fire on targets of opportunity' Ashton answered. 'I'll handle the mortar, Janko could instead but he's a better shot than me so you'd be better off with him sniping from that hill there' he suggested tapping another place on the map, 'him and the South African chick Rika' he added.
'What about Vi?' Buffy asked, she was a damn good shot too.
'I'm sure she could do it but you'd be better off keeping her as a section leader' Stirling told her. 'Her girls are comfortable with her in charge and you'd be better off not breaking up existing formations' he explained. 'Things could get very hectic and you'll want a reliable steadfast group to hold the line, not many of your girls have actually used firearms in combat even if they've been trained with them.'
'I still do not see why you do not simply take the castle' the Groosalug queried. 'Once it falls you have seized the seat of power on Pylea.'
'Because there's tens of thousands of them already on Pylea and Sebassis has hundreds of thousands more he can portal there' Stirling replied. 'With that kind of numerical superiority they could just surround us, charge down the guns and take the place back.'
'And we'd all be dead' Ashton added, 'which sucks because it means I don't get to spend my pay.'
Stirling nodded. 'But if we give them a swift kick up the rear, play hit and run for a while to rouse the populace and bloody their noses while we build up numbers of our own eventually we'll be bleeding them white.'
'And we'll still be alive' Ashton added in a more upbeat manner, 'which means I do get my pay and hopefully an opportunity to get sucked later on.'
The Groosalug looked at the mercenary with distaste. 'Your language is profane and you fight for coin not honour or duty' he stated. 'You are no champion' he added.
'I think he's trying to hurt my feelings' the mercenary responded with a smirk.
'Take a hike Ashton' Buffy told him. She didn't want any trouble and Groo wasn't the type to back down, the mercenary however would just do what he was told.
'Yes Slayer-Chef' Ashton responded straightening up. 'I'll be downstairs teaching little girls to blow shit up if you need me' he told her straight-faced before spinning on his heel and leaving the conference room.
'Quite the charmer' Stirling wryly observed once the mercenary had left. 'Reminds me of a Sergeant I once had, not exactly the most pleasant company at times but I'd hazard a guess that he'll grow on you after the bullets start flying around.
Buffy leaned on the table and drummed her fingers on it absent-mindedly. She was less than pleased with the changes being wrought within the slayer ranks over the last few months and the prospect of the Pylean war was starting to bring things to a head. In particular the sheer ruthlessness, near bloodlust being promoted amongst the slayers who had volunteered for service offworld was troubling.
'You are not pleased with the plan Stirling presents?' Groo asked Buffy.
'Oh the results are just fine it's the methods that I'm not happy with' Buffy replied.
'If you try to play the game with one hand tied behind your back even if you win you'll pay a higher price than you want' Stirling told her. 'This is not a scenario your experience as a slayer gives much understanding of' he continued, 'this is war, not hand-to-hand combat, you need a soldier mindset and you must accept there's a price to pay for victory.'
'The moral high ground you mean?' Buffy replied. 'Turning teenage girls into killers, not slayers' she said remembering what Ashton had said to her before, 'killers' she repeated.
'Ask yourself this' Stirling told her. 'How many Pylean lives, human and demon are worth your piece of mind?' he asked rhetorically. 'That's the bottom line on all of this' he said. 'You have the power at your disposal to overturn the balance of power in the universe, you could save more lives than you could have dreamed of not too long ago, we're not talking merely billions we're talking the populations of a countless number of worlds for all eternity' he pointed out. 'Any remotely moral person would willingly sacrifice their lives in a heartbeat to achieve that. You just need to sacrifice some of your humanity.'
'To become like Illyria' Buffy asked the old man. 'Goal orientated with a defective moral compass?'
'Well she seems to get results and always arrives at her chosen destination as it were' Stirling replied with a smile, 'but the fact you are agonising over these things indicates your moral compass is still pointing firmly north' he told her.
'I wish I was so sure' Buffy responded quietly.
The Groosalug looked out of the window. 'On Pylea there were never the shades of grey I have encountered in the moral ambiguities on this world' he said. 'It was simply right and wrong with no real comprehension of how childlike and simplistic that really is' he said. 'In my travels through the lands I have visited here I tried to remain a true champion but sometimes I was unable to fathom the best course of action' he continued. 'Choosing right from wrong is easy, choosing the least wrong of two possible outcomes is much more vexing. I do not envy your position Buffy' he told her. 'As a leader your task is far more difficult than that of one of your warriors, they simply have to fight the battles not pick which ones they are to fight or how they should do so. I have been both warrior and leader, and I would far rather risk my life as the former than my soul as the latter.'
Buffy looked at him and smiled. 'I know two people from Pylea' she told the Grossalug, 'and if you and Lorne have done nothing else you've proved that you don't have to be born human on this world to be worth saving' she said.
Stirling addressed her. 'If I might be permitted a few words from John Stuart Mill "War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse".'
'Right wing nut-job?' Buffy queried.
'Political and philosophical Liberal' Stirling replied with a smile. 'The ends sometimes do justify the means, and if the ends are worthwhile enough in theory they could justify anything, no matter how "ugly" or abhorrent.'
'I just wish it wasn't me who had the final say' Buffy told him.
'You could always abrogate your leadership to Illyria' Stirling suggested with a chuckle.
Buffy grimaced. 'I'd hate to see the ends that justified those means' she responded.
Hyperion Hotel – Los Angeles – December 2003
'I still can't believe you made us go to Church' Deborah complained, following Giles through the lobby doors. As well as her sisters and Stephen they were accompanied by a number of slayers who had gone with them to the local Episcopalian Church, the closest thing to the Church of England you could get here.
'It's Christmas day' Giles pointed out. 'It's no time to be a heathen.'
Dawn bounded up to them wearing red and green ribbons in her hair. 'So how was it?' she asked.
'Not my idea of how to spend Christmas morning' Deborah replied.
'Stop complaining and go open your presents' Giles told her, the girl not needing to be told twice shot off followed by her twin.
'I thought it was a nice service' Stephen told Dawn. 'I always attended with my father on Christmas day although he stopped making me go Sundays when I was fourteen' he told her before turning to Emily. 'Want to go upstairs and unwrap the present I got you' he asked her.
'If you're going to be in each others rooms that had better be the only thing that gets unwrapped' Giles told them as they headed for the stairs.
'I knew you'd be strict' Dawn told him with a grin.
Giles sighed. 'It's quite bad enough playing the father, I certainly not ready to be thinking about the grandfather role too' he replied. 'Besides which I'd rather not have to borrow Wesley's shotgun and go chasing after young Stephen to haul him and Emily back to the Church we just left.'
'You should see the Christmas dinner Andrew's preparing' Dawn told Giles linking her arm with his and leading him across the Lobby. 'And you won't believe this but Illyria bought everyone, I mean everyone a present, they're all signed from her and Wesley but I don't know if he was involved.'
'Weapons?' Giles asked.
'Berets' she replied. 'In black with that little crossed scythe design that Buffy likes on them as a badge, there's your name written inside and she got all the hat sizes right.'
'Very military I'm sure.'
'If you wear them at the right angle they look pretty cool' Dawn told him. 'And if you care to note there's a glass of Sherry waiting for you on the reception desk' she told him.
'Very thoughtful Dawn but if the service had gone on much longer I would have needed a Scotch' he told her quietly.
'Not your Cup of Tea?' Dawn asked with a giggle.
'Hardly' Giles told her picking up the glass of Sherry.
Dawn broke away and dashed over to Buffy who had entered the Lobby carrying a box wrapped in a bow. 'Where's Spike?' she asked.
'Right here' Spike responded walking down the stairs. 'Someone said you wanted to see me' he said to Buffy. 'If it's about going to that bloody Christmas dinner I am not going to sit there and watch you eat.'
Buffy looked at him. 'Would you just come here' she told him.
Spike finished climbing down the stairs and ambled over. 'You've been more and more morose recently so we thought we should cheer you up' Buffy told him. 'So we got you a present' she told him holding up the box.
'I've been bleeding morose because I can't do things like open sodding boxes' Spike retorted. 'Or eat, or drink, or get drunk or have any fun at all… except for winding up Angel which is the only thing that gets me through the day.'
'That's okay I'll open it for you' Buffy said and holding the box with one hand she pulled the ribbon apart and then opened the box.
A flash of intensely bright light filled the Lobby causing everyone to blink.
'Think it worked?' Dawn asked moving in.
'Only one way to be sure' Buffy replied as Dawn raised her arm and held it aloft over Spike, there was something in her hand.
'What the hell is going on?' Spike wanted to know.
'Mistletoe' Dawn explained, 'and the present was from Willow really' she told him.
Buffy moved forward and kissed Spike gently on the lips. 'For saving the world, sorry it's a few month late' she told him.
'Angel says there's blood in the Fridge, Scotch in the Cupboard and because of the season he won't knock you on your ass until after New Year' Dawn told Spike brightly.
The now once again corporeal vampire just stood there speechless.
'Merry Christmas Spike' Buffy said to him fondly.
Note from the Author:
The story continues in Compelled to Play with Destiny. If you have enjoyed the Compelled Series so far a few seconds of your time to write a review and say so would be much appreciated :-)
For any that may be interested the Compelled Series can also be found (in slightly revised form) on the Twisting the Hellmouth site (link on my profile)
Thanks to all my readers