Buffy didn't turn to see if Willow followed her order. Uttering a silent apology to Tara, she pressed her sword tip under Tara's chin. "I'm really tired of you," Buffy said conversationally.
A mocking smile twisted Tara's lips. "Are you now? Too bad you cannot do a thing to stop me." Not even the threat of steel dimmed Ethan's arrogance. He met Buffy's glare and she flinched – because it was Tara staring at her with hatred burning in her blue eyes. "In fact, although I have enjoyed playing with you and Rupert, I have grown exceedingly tired of you." Tara raised her hands in a series of tight jerks. Sweat stood out clearly on her face and dampened the hair of her bangs. "Ssalmani-ia ana pagri tapquida duppira…" The stutter was still missing, but Ethan/Tara's delivery was anything except smooth. The words carried an odd cadence, moving fast, so fast the words stumbled together one minute and then turning comically slow and dragged out the next.
"Will!" Not daring to look behind her, Buffy changed her grip on the sword hilt. If the jammer didn't work, she'd have to take matters into her own hands.
"I'm trying!" Willow's response came as Buffy heard more footsteps in the hallway. They were out of time. "But it's not working."
Obviously not, since Tara was still chanting. God, Buffy didn't want to hurt her; she just didn't have a choice. Pulling the blade from Tara's throat, she raised the sword. "I'm sorry." Buffy tried to see past the evil blazing from Tara's eyes. "Tara," she pleaded one last time. Please don't do this. Stop him.
A crossbow fired, followed immediately by another. Shouts of pain echoed in and out of the room. Walsh gave a loud cry of triumph.
Buffy heard them only dimly. Tara's voice had steadied and smoothed. As she chanted, Buffy's skin grew cold. So cold. The metal hilt amplified the chill against her palm until she opened her fingers in automatic reaction. "Tara." Buffy was a California girl, born and bred. She'd never experienced snow except for one magical Christmas, but she recognized the warning signs of trouble as her muscles jumped and jerked in racking shivers. Her arms and legs felt leaden and uncooperative. The arm, still raised as if holding the sword, dropped to her side.
It didn't matter. Nothing mattered. She'd known Ethan was too strong all along. He was just proving how pointless it was to fight back. Her eyes fluttered closed, snapped open, fluttered closed. She was so tired now. At least the cold had faded. In fact, Ethan must have stopped with the spell or turned on the heat because Buffy was toasty warm.
"No!" Willow's strident cry pulled Buffy from her torpor.
Tara was in a heap on the floor, blood seeping from her nostrils. What was happening? What had she missed? Was Tara…? Was she dead? Still dazed, Buffy looked frantically around the room. Three camo-clad bodies lay lifelessly near the doorway with crossbow bolts protruding from their chests. Two more soldiers – and their gun muzzles – peered cautiously around the doorjamb.
It was hard to focus. Whatever Ethan had done with the spell lingered; it mixed (badly) with an adrenaline rush and a need to jump into action. Buffy's concentration bounced around like a pinball smacked by the flippers. She struggled to stay in the moment.
Ethan was gone, or at least no longer walking around in Tara's body. Giles and Joyce were keeping the goons at bay. Now what? "Giles, we need to find a way…" Shattering glass interrupted her. A round black object (a ball?) rolled across the floor. Smoke snaked from one side. Crap. Staggering forward, Buffy gripped the grenade and threw it toward the door.
It exploded halfway there, brilliant light blinding her as the room filled with a noxious fog. Buffy's lungs burned. Her ears rang. "Down! On the ground!" The voice emanated from the dense white cloud. A single shot rang out and then the command was repeated. "Down! I want to see all of you on your knees, hands in the air!"
That wasn't happening. Buffy had no plan to surrender again, except, her knees weren't cooperating. They threatened to give out, thanks to Ethan and his stupid magic. She clenched her jaw and tightened all her muscles. The fog hadn't thinned, but thankfully, Buffy was a Slayer. Blinking, she managed to make out a shadow sliding through the smoke and threw her stake.
A pained grunt prefaced the dull thud of a body hitting the ground.
Buffy grinned tightly. She wasn't going down without a fight. The sword was easy to retrieve from the floor. So… She was armed and had a whole lot anger to work through. Crouching, she inched her way forward in the direction of the door. Buffy would take them out – and then go find their grenade-tossing buddies outside. She made it three steps before gunfire boomed and echoed in the hallway. Buffy dropped flat on the ground and began carefully crawling toward the desk. "Mom? Giles?" More gunfire drowned out her shaky "Will?"
Three equally shaky replies answered. "What about Tara?" Willow whispered just loud enough for Buffy's enhanced hearing to pick up. "Is she OK? Something happened when I turned on the jammer signal."
Tara. Hurriedly changing direction, Buffy slithered toward Tara's still form. The other girl still hadn't moved. She lay deathly still on the floor. Oh, God. Reaching out, Buffy pressed a hand to Tara's neck – and blinked by tears of relief when a barely-detectible and thready pulse beat beneath her fingertips. "I think so," she called back.
It grew strangely quiet in the room as Buffy gently stroked Tara's neck and cheek. No more gunfire or shouted orders. No more explosions. She checked Tara's pulse one last time (still there) and then stood. The smoke was clearing. Buffy could clearly see Walsh and Englemann and the body of a soldier down right inside the doorway. A stake protruded from his chest.
Swallowing against sudden nausea at the dark red stain on the man's uniform and the floor beneath his body, she crept toward the door. Nothing moved. The air felt alive with energy – or tension. Buffy wasn't sure. The only certainty in her mind revolved around the knowledge that something wasn't right. Again. Where was the rest of Walsh's army? She'd only taken out one of the two lurking in the hallway. Add in the three Giles and her mom had killed…
Buffy's mental math faltered. The soldiers hadn't turned to dust. They hadn't been dead. They'd been alive. It was real blood on the floor, and she was responsible. The room wavered under her feet, but Buffy couldn't blame Ethan or magic for her fuzzy head. Or the cold sweat on her body or the sudden urge to vomit. Averting her eyes, Buffy completed the tally of bodies. Simple addition said four soldiers were out of the fight. That left at least one in the hallway. All of the grenade throwers from outside. And who knew how many more. The underground facility had been massive.
She continued her journey to the door and paused. Her sword versus a gun still wasn't good odds.
"Buf!" Willow's triumphant cry was shockingly loud. Buffy spun so fast she stumbled over one of the dead soldiers. "The cameras are working again."
The words blended with the thundering beat of Buffy's increased heart rate, and it took a second for their meaning to penetrate. The cameras. Working. "What do you see? Are there more soldiers? Where's Faith? Ethan?" She fired the questions off in a rush and then remembered that the cameras might not protect her if her headcount had been correct.
There had been one more gunman at the door. She'd seen two muzzles, not just one.
When Willow's eyes widened and she gasped suddenly, Buffy froze. For the second time that night, a deep voice said, "Nobody move! Not one fucking inch."
That might be hard to accomplish. Buffy's heart pounded so fiercely it shook her entire body. She tried to steady herself; fought to slow her breathing; struggled to find a way out of this latest mess. Unfortunately, she was all out of last-minute heroics. The soft squeak of rubber on the floor indicated the soldier had advanced into the room.
Years as a Slayer identified the soft, sharp slide of a blade leaving a scabbard. Closing her eyes on Willow's panic, Buffy imagined each of the soldier's next moves by sound alone. Cut the plastic bags on Walsh or Englemann's wrists. Hand over the knife. Let the now-freed member of the pair help the other loose. The scene was so clear.
If Buffy didn't do something right now…
Praying the soldier was distracted as he helped Walsh, Buffy tensed and prepared to move. She opened her eyes and sucked in a slow, deep breath. This was it. Right here. Right now.
One. The internal count helped Buffy focus.
Two. All she had to do was spin and jump into the last remaining soldier. And avoid getting shot. Simple.
Three. With a hoarse scream of defiance, Buffy put her internal plan into action. She pivoted flawlessly on her left heel. As if she'd practiced the maneuver a thousand times, she threw herself across the room.
The soldier raised his arms. Buffy saw his finger twitch on the trigger.
No sharp crack announced he'd fired. No bullets slammed into her body. In fact… Buffy crashed into the man without incident and they tumbled to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs. The gun clattered to the floor next to them. Taking advantage of the situation, Buffy slammed the heel of her hand into the man's ribs, listening to the crunch of bones with satisfaction. She untangled and rolled to her feet in the next instant and took a defensive crouch. This was going to be a very short fight or she wasn't the best Slayer on the block.
But the soldier never moved. He lay where Buffy had left him, eyes staring blankly at the ceiling.
"Fuck, B. Never thought you'd hit a guy after he was down. Don't seem real nice," Faith commented from the doorway. Her chuckle seemed forced, and Buffy finally tore her gaze away from the (now that she'd looked closely) dead man on the floor to see Faith leaning heavily against the doorjamb. "I always knew that Nice Slayer shit was a lie."
Buffy stared, still too stunned over the last few minutes to feel much insult at the comments. Then Willow streaked by. "What happened? Why are you bleeding?" And Buffy's numbness wore off.
God, Faith was bleeding, and not just a little. Her jean jacket was dark at the shoulder, and more blood streaked the front placket and Faith's hands. Buffy took a step in their direction then stopped. What if Ethan had recovered from the jammer? What if there were more soldiers? She resumed her walk across the room with less speed and more caution. "What happened out there?"
"Red's toy kicked ass." Leaning on Willow, Faith set a intercepting course with Buffy. "Ethan dropped like a rock 'bout ten minutes ago. Freaked the rest of the boys out, and they forgot to keep an eye on the Big Bad Slayer." Her grin was all teeth and dimples. "So I reminded 'em why they needed all the guns in the first place."
Reaching out with a free hand to clear Buffy from their path, Willow murmured an approving, "I keep telling you how good you are." The comment made Buffy want to gag – but Willow had a point. Faith had done an amazing job and had probably saved all their lives. "Is that when you got shot?"
It was a story Buffy wanted to hear, too. Just not now. Tuning out Faith's continued boasts, she ducked out of the office and peered up and down the hall. There were more bodies here. Unconscious probably since there was no blood or obvious wounds. There was also no sigh of the Duo. Walsh and Englemann had gotten away.
Buffy couldn't raise even a modicum of interest. Things at least seemed fine for now. They needed to make a run for it while the coast was clear.
"Let's go." Buffy's blunt announcement garnered disbelieving looks and absolutely no movement. "I mean it. Giles, Mom, get everything packed up. Will, you help Faith." Even in a hurry, Buffy was smart enough to know it would be impossible to separate the two of them with Faith wounded. "I'll take care of Tara."
Too slowly for Buffy's liking, the gang began their assigned tasks. Giles stacked the few remaining weapons into the duffel while Joyce gathered trash. Willow and Faith staggered to the desk for her laptop. Breathing a little easier, Buffy knelt at Tara's side. Only the faint rise and fall of the other girl's chest indicated she was alive. Her skin was ghostly pale and her face was creased with some horrific emotion even in unconsciousness.
Gently, Buffy shook Tara's shoulder. "Tara?" A slight change in breathing pattern was the only response. Fantastic. "Tara!" This time, Buffy shook with a little more force.
"Ohhh!" With a moan, Tara flinched away, and Buffy dropped her hand as if burned. When Tara opened her eyes, the pupils were pinpricks. Guilt squeezed her chest when she saw blood begin trickling from Tara's nose again.
This was all Buffy's fault. Tara never should have been here. She should never have had to contend with Walsh's goons or Ethan's mind meld. "Come on. We have to go," she whispered. She needed to get everyone to safety, and then she could figure out what to do with Walsh and Englemann and the lab sitting under UC-Sunnydale. Lacing her arm with Tara's, Buffy helped the other girl to her feet, keeping their connection when Tara swayed.
It was time to get the Hell out of here.
Unfortunately, their progress back to the cars was glacial. Even before they reached the main building, Buffy was almost carrying Tara, and Willow staggered under Faith's increasing dependence on her help. Only Giles and Joyce moved easily, and had assumed front- and rear-guard positions. Shutting her mind against fatigue, Buffy walked on autopilot. One step. Two. The glass windows of the administrative office finally appeared ahead. Thank God. They were almost back to the kitchen.
Then the windows lit up. Lights reflected from the glass and bodies materialized from the shadows. "Freeze! Sunnydale PD! Nobody move!"