The safe house on the outskirts of Edinburgh was way too crowded. It reminded Buffy of that last year in Sunnydale with too many Potentials under her roof. It was a small two-story house with not enough bathrooms for thirty or so people. Thirty or so. She used to know exactly how many, but there used to be more only yesterday and she could not think about the new total and why it was new and what that meant because if she stopped and let herself think about it then she'd…
No. Gotta focus on the now. On the immediate threat. Live in the now. Be the now. Now, now, now…
Most of the girls had hunkered down for the night—sharing beds, crashing on couches and making pallets out of blankets spread on the floor—while Buffy and her friends turned one of the upstairs bedrooms into command central, Slayer strength carrying the oval-shaped maple table and matching chairs up from the dining room. It was a minor hassle, rearranging the furniture, but the upstairs room provided privacy and a closed door. Pretty much the only working plan Buffy had going was 'minimize the panic'. Privacy and closed doors were central to that plan. So she and her friends brainstormed upstairs (and tried to act like they had a clue what they were gonna do) while the girls—mostly Slayers with a few Wiccans tossed into the mix—slept down below.
Good for them. Rest up. Gotta get that beauty sleep.
As for Buffy, dozing on the bus had only reinforced her belief that sleeping mid-crisis (or crisis-adjacent) was the baddest of bad ideas. At times like this, nightmares and Slayer dreams blended together in her mind until she couldn't tell the difference between what her subconscious was terrified might happen and what was destined to happen. Prophecy and fear skipping down the hall of her mind, hand in hand—just another perk of monsters being large and in-charge in her world.
Spike's cameo in her dream hadn't helped with her non-clarity. She couldn't decide what was more disturbing—the dreams where she killed him, the dreams where she killed everyone she cared for including him, or the dreams where she killed everyone else but him while he watched. It seemed like the sort of question where you ticked 'all of the above' and wished there had been a 'none of the above' option. Worst of all, she couldn't keep her awake-world from going all askew by standing beside him, brushing her arm against his, looking into his eyes and knowing the difference between reality and nightmare—she couldn't do that because he wasn't here.
And oh. Wow, bad train of thought is bad and so not helping. Breathe. Focus. Breathe and then focus on slaying the monsters.
Except the monsters weren't demons this time, she thought with a sigh, hugging her arms around her. Plus there was that niggling voice in the back of her mind whispering that they, the Slayers, were the monsters in this equation. In a line-up full of normal human beings and Slayers, Slayers were the ones most likely to trigger the demon radar. One of these things is not like the other...
And her? She was the worst of them all. 'Cause she was in charge. Their leader. Where she directed, they followed. So everything they did—good or evil—well, that was on her.
Go team, go. Okay, gotta focus. Gotta keep the troops in line so they don't hurt people. Gotta keep the troops fighting so they don't die. Gotta be a way to do both, right…?
Too bad that stupid niggling voice didn't answer—not that she expected to like the answer but any answer would have been better than none—and it wasn't like she could ask anyone else, you know, out loud. For one, she wouldn't know where to begin. For two, well, imminent death kinda took priority over all her moral tilt-a-whirling (bonus point for extra credit: sharing her moral tilt-a-whirling was a big no-no in her 'minimize the panic' strategy). For three, she'd have to explain about the dreams—the dreams where she kept killing all her friends—and talking about that? Awkward and also impossible to explain since she didn't understand what it meant. Especially when she factored in the whole prophetic-dreams thing on top of the imminent-death thing on top of her recent-trip-to-the-future thing—conclusion: she had way too many things.
And the only solution for that was to go into Buffy default-mode: less with the talking, more with the doing (aka hitting things).
At the moment, the group brainstorming project was all of them—her, Giles, Xander, Dawn and Faith—squeezed into the-master-bedroom-turned-command-central watching Willow do her mystical-voodoo-meditation-turned-recon-walkabout on the commandos. Classic research pow-wow except more magic and less books—but still chocked full of her feeling useless as she waited for answers. Giles had reached out to some of his secret-and-scary contacts he knew from back in the days of the Watcher's Council, but the 007s-for-demons didn't have a lead on the commandos. Andrew and Kennedy had been sent out to get food and supplies—her second working strategy was keeping the two people who ran roughshod over her nerves far away. She took a deep, calming breath. So far, the second strategy seemed to be working.
Buffy stood near the window, watching the dark midnight of the sky begin to fade. The sun was coming up. Behind her, Xander, Giles, Dawn and Faith all sat around the table while Willow oom'd within a circle of candles and relics on the floor.
"I see—I see—I see it now," Willow murmured, breaking the silence and causing everyone to jerk out of their dazes. Her voice had an eerie, otherworldly quality to it—like she knew all the answers to the mysteries of the world and would share them if asked the right questions.
Buffy exchanged an urgent glance with Giles. They'd been waiting for Willow to surface from her mystical jaunt for the last two hours. The situation had started to look hopeless. More hopeless. Extremely bad with the lack of hope.
"See what?" Buffy stepped closer to Willow, stopping at the edge of the circle.
"Uh, a symbol," Willow said, her eyes still closed. Her face scrunched up as if she were inwardly squinting. "It's a… tattoo?"
"So the bad guys have tats. Big whoop. Who doesn't?" Faith snorted, pulling her sleeve up to show the black tribal tattoo circling her right bicep. She sat straddling a chair turned backwards, her arms hugging the backrest with impatient fingers tapping against the polished wooden tines.
Buffy held up her hand, taking control of the room. "Is that how they keep tracking us? Through this tattoo? Can you stop it? Maybe scramble their signal?"
"Or fry it sunny side up?" Xander's hand slammed down on the table in a resounding slap. He sat leaned back in his chair, feet propped up on the table's edge. "Anyone else starved? How long does it take Andrew to do a donut run? Back in my day, you didn't keep the folks plotting to save your bacon waiting for the brain food." His expression softened, eyes distant as he recalled with fondness: "Ah, bacon."
Buffy shook her head, torn between amusement and exasperation, but didn't comment.
Dawn snickered from her seat next to him. "Did you see the look in his eyes when you handed him those huge wads of cash? We're lucky if he even remembers we exist. Twenty bucks Andrew's at the nearest comics store geeking out over limited edition issues."
"Hey, I've seen enough spy flicks to know it's cash only when you're on the run from a paramilitary organization out for blood," Xander defended. "And there's a comics store near here with limited edition issues open at five in the morning?"
Giles cleared his throat and, rising from his chair, pushed Xander's feet off the table. Xander protested with a yelp.
Giles ignored him and leaned against the edge of the table with his arms crossed. "Willow?"
Willow opened her eyes and looked up from her position on the floor where she sat Indian-style. "Are we talking tattoos, breakfast food preferences or comics? 'Cause no thank you, I asked Kennedy to bring me back a bagel with strawberry cream cheese, and they're not my first, second or third reading choice but I'm non-judgmental of the fans. I say read what makes you happy. And, you know, do what makes you happy. And love whoever makes you happy. Basically everyone should go be happy doin' and readin' and lovin'. Not necessarily in that order. Or concurrently," she finished, giving Giles, Xander, Dawn and Buffy a supportive nod.
Giles smiled in spite of himself. "I meant do go on about your vision."
"I knew that," Willow explained with a tinge of good-natured defensiveness, standing up and brushing pieces of floor dust off her slacks. "I just thought we could use a moment of levity. Lighten up the dire mood around here."
"Levity has achieved liftoff. Go team," Buffy said with a shadow of a smile before nodding grimly. "But focusing on the problem is also key in the sense of extremely necessary."
"Hey, I just got back from a serious mindbendy vision quest. Give a Wicca a sec to readjust to mortal time and space."
Willow released a sigh, straightened her shoulders and strode over to the table. She grabbed a pen and started sketching on a blank sheet of paper (blank save for the dirty doodling in the margins—evidence of the current non-progress of the brainstorming and Faith having a hidden artistic side expressing her well-known raunchy side). Willow drew a long horizontal line down the middle of the sheet of paper, then an incomplete half-circle starting a few inches in from the far right of the line. The line curved up and then down, not quite meeting the line again, leaving a small gap between the line to form an incomplete half-circle. Above the line and the open joint of the half circle, she drew a star.
Picking up the paper, she tacked it onto the wall and stepped back, presenting the sketch with a grim flourish. "I give you the source of our commando problems. This is how they're tracking us. How they broke through the mystical barriers protecting the manor. How they're flying so far under the radar that radar doesn't even know they exist."
And the hits just keep on comin', Buffy thought, swallowing the bile in her throat before murmuring, "Twilight."
"Oh, sod it, buggerin' bollocks, bloody hell, you fuckin' bastard…"
"You sure you know what you're doing?" Connor asked, leaning over from the passenger seat to watch Spike fiddle with some wires underneath the blue Volvo's dashboard.
"Kinda busy here," Spike grunted, trying to get the wires to spark and fire the engine of the older model car. He struck two exposed wires together then cursed again.
"Can't we just rent a car or take a bus or something? I'm thinking we dismissed the not-illegal travel options a bit too quickly earlier when we jumped right to stealing the first car we saw," Lara said, climbing into the back of the car and squeezing in between the front and passenger seats to get a better look at Spike's progress, her right shoulder bumping into Connor's. Frowning at Spike sprawled down below and growling at the wires, she said to Connor, "I don't think he knows what he's doing."
"Shut it," Spike growled, glaring at their skeptical faces peering down at him where he lay on the floorboards of the car. "Can't focus with you two nattering on."
"Uh-oh," Lara singsonged. "Sun's coming up."
Spike rolled his eyes and continued testing the wires, stifling a groan when he jabbed his back against the seat lever. Damn, he hated bullet wounds.
"You know, traveling with vampires really sucks," Connor noted. "You ever think about how limited your life is by the whole sunlight allergy? Or unlife, I guess. Whatever you call it. Talk about an in-your-face existential crisis—always defining yourself by what you're not. Can't get a tan. Can't watch the sunrise or sunset. Can't…"
"Can't travel cross-country during the day without mega-tinted windows?" Lara suggested, fiddling with an errant strand of violet hair that kept falling across her forehead. "Which this old car doesn't have so looks like Spike's gonna have to get in the trunk."
Spike rumbled his annoyance, but didn't respond. Shame of it all, he was out of practice with boosting cars. Just goes to show it had been too long since he'd nicked anything worth a felony charge. Even the RV he'd stolen a few years back when Glory was on the rampage had the keys hidden in the visor—why anyone would think that was a good place to keep a set of keys, he didn't know. Morons a-plenty in this sorry world. Too bad the owner of this Volvo wasn't that brain dead—would've made his getting back to Buffy a hell of a lot easier.
Growling in frustration, he jerked two ends of wires together and, wonder of wonders, finally got a spark. The engine roared to life, sending vibrations through the body of the car and setting off victorious whoops from Connor and Lara. Spike settled for a smirk and a quirked eyebrow that said 'told ya so'.
Grinning, Connor slapped Spike on the shoulder, giving him his due, then jerked his thumb at the trunk. "In the trunk where the sun don't shine."
Spike eyed him in suspicion. "You even know how to drive? Or don't they teach that in hell dimension secondary school?"
Connor's grin widened to bare his teeth. "Better hurry up before the dust settles."
"I could drive," Lara offered from the backseat.
"You even know where we're going?" Spike interrogated Connor, hand on the door as he got ready to make a dash into the back. He was cutting it close, but that was nothing new—hell, it was the way he lived, wasn't it?
"Yeah," Connor drawled. "Willow gave me the address, remember? And if we get lost, I can just Google-map it." He held up his Blackberry as proof of competency.
"I'm actually pretty familiar with Scotland 'cause of a family trip a few years back, so I could navigate…" Lara's voice trailed off when she noticed the two men in the front seat weren't listening to her.
Connor pushed at Spike's shoulder. "Move it or lose it. It's my turn behind the wheel."
"Better watch it, Junior." Spike didn't raise his voice, but the threat was all in his tone.
The Volvo rocked on its wheels for the next minute as Connor and Spike wrestled in the front seat, grunting and growling. Spike didn't need much excuse to pick a fight on a good day, so the appealing prospect of a day trip stuck in the trunk of a beat-up car while his grandsire's son played Driving Miss Lara was more than reason enough to get a bit rough. He figured Connor's motive was more basic—show off for the pretty girl by looking all manly. And since Spike had a few minutes till the sun crested over the hill and he was trapped in the metal box all goddamn day, he thought he'd make the most of it by working out some aggression. He groaned when Connor planted his fist against the open wound in his back.
"Okay! Enough!" Lara ordered, jerking open the driver's side door and yanking Spike out by the collar of his leather duster. She jabbed an angry finger in the direction of the trunk. "Get in!" She waited until Spike slinked to the back and lifted the trunk door before turning and glaring at Connor who had moved into the driver's seat. "Move over," she snapped, climbing in and slamming her hip into his with an added dose of Slayer strength.
"Hey," Connor protested as he slid back over to the passenger seat. He quieted down when Lara turned her glare up to full power. "So,uh, you want me to navigate?"
"Does Google maps even work in Scotland?" Lara asked with a snort, watching the trunk close seemingly of its own will in the rearview mirror as Spike shut himself inside. She shifted the gears, then hit the gas, rolling her eyes as she muttered, "Men."
Spike lost track of time locked up in the trunk. He'd dozed off and on for the first hour then after that…
It was the rumbling in his stomach that woke him. Christ, he was starved. Today was Day Three without a drop to drink and the multiple bullet wounds in his hand and back were adding a keen edge to his ravenous hunger.
He strained to hear Lara and Connor, but all was silent. Odd, that. Even odder was the sense that the car was moving at a slow pace. They were within the city limits then or maybe passing through a small town. The slow pace continued for the next half-hour, the car turning left then right. Spike began to wonder if they weren't traveling in circles—or maybe figure-eights—and cursed himself for falling asleep. If he'd stayed awake, he could have tried that MacGyver trick where you mark your surroundings by using your other senses as you're driven off blindfolded.
Blinking in the darkness, he realized he might not be able to tell the where, but he could tell the when. Senses reaching out, he marked the sun making a downturn in the sky. Sunset was approaching.
What the hell? They'd been traveling the entire bloody day and hadn't gotten there yet? How long had they been driving in circles and where the hell were they?
Scotland wasn't exactly a sprawling, vast country. It should've taken them only a few hours to travel to Edinburgh from Oban. The car slowed and came to a stop. He heard footsteps and then a hand banged on the top of the trunk.
"Spike?" Connor called. "You in there?"
He rolled his eyes. "No, I'm not. It's the ghost of Christmas past ordering you to get me a pint of O-neg," Spike snarked back. "Don't be an idiot—of course, I'm in here! Where the hell am I gonna go? And where the hell are we?"
"Uh, we're in Edinburgh and…"
"We can't find the safe house."
"Knew this would happen," Spike grumbled to himself. "Young'un can't even be trusted to use a map."
"I heard that!"
"So? Doesn't make it not true."
Connor banged his fist on the trunk again, insisting, "This isn't our fault. We followed the directions. We Google-mapped the address. We're standing here right where the safe house should be. Only…"
"Only it's not."
"Did spending the entire day with Buffy 2.0 turn you daft?"
Connor slammed his fist on the trunk again. "Spike, it's not here. We've been circling the city for hours, asking for directions, and everybody acts like they don't know what we're talking about. And Willow's not answering her cell. Something's off. We even tried talking to the neighbors next door to where the safe house should be and, well, they were acting weird. It's like—it's like the house just up and disappeared and nobody noticed or seems to care. Like The Wizard of Oz sent a tornado to Scotland and now we're screwed."
"Bloody Brigadoon," Spike cursed, slamming his head back against the side of the trunk. "I hate this barmy country."
It was magic. Had to be. Probably a spell Red cooked up to keep them safe. No need to panic. Except…
Where the hell was Buffy?
Faith slammed on the brakes and whipped the crimson Ferrari 458 Italia in a one-eighty degree spin till she was facing the way she'd come on the dirt road near a copse of trees. Shifting the car into park, she ran her hands along the wheel, purring, "Man, I could get used to riding this. Gotta love a sleek machine with all that power revving under the hood, right girlfriend?"
Buffy shook her head, turning away to hide her smirk. "Whatever floats your boat." She climbed out of the car and headed towards the front, calling, "Pop the trunk."
The hood popped up an inch and Buffy hooked her fingers underneath to lift it. She'd barely begun to lift it before Faith's hand slammed down on the hood. Buffy flexed the muscles in her arms and considering tossing Faith out of the way, but settled for a disgruntled glare. "Faith, let go."
"You sure you wanna do this, B? 'Cause I can dig the flash and flare—it's kinda my thing—"
Buffy interrupted, impatience riding her. "Do you actually have a point or are we just gonna stand here arguing and doing our best impression of sitting ducks?"
"My point is this is crazy and I'm pissed and I wanna kill those fuckers for what they did to Si—." Faith gritted her teeth, broke eye contact and took a deep breath before continuing in a low, controlled tone. "I wanna beat 'em bloody then twist the knife into their guts so they know how it feels—how this feels. That's what I want, but I know it ain't right. So I'm not. And what I need to know is—you sure you wanna do it like this?"
"There's a whole lotta things I don't wanna do," Buffy met Faith's gaze with a grim solemnity. "But this isn't about wants—it's about justice. What I want isn't the point. It never is."
Faith smiled wryly, her serious temper fading. "Yeah, I know what you mean. I feel the same way about this magic tat Red convinced me to smack on for the greater good." Faith pulled up the short sleeve covering her right bicep with her free hand, grimacing at the bright yellow Tweetie bird sitting atop one of the swishes of her black tribal tattoo. "This cartoon crap's really messin' with my cool."
"Aw, but it's cute," Buffy said with a smile and an evil glint in her eye.
"Screw you," Faith shot back. "I should've known you'd call dibs on the Roadrunner press-on. Classic Buffy—giving everyone the run around."
"That's the plan." Buffy quirked an eyebrow and nodded at the trunk. "So are you gonna get out of my way or…?"
Faith lifted her hand off the trunk, holding it up in the air. "Alright. Go do your thing. Consider this my last attempt to talk sense into you. Trust me—it won't happen again."
"Aw, Faith," Buffy drawled, opening the trunk and hefting the rocket launcher up on her shoulder. She checked the firing mechanism and ran a hand along the cool metal, then noticed Faith watching her with a fascinated look on her face. "You don't let up, I'm gonna think you're jealous. Admit it—you're just pissed you're stuck behind the driver's seat of the getaway car. You can't stand to miss out on all the action."
"Could be," Faith admitted with a snort. Leaning against the side of the Ferrari, she pulled out a cigarette and lit up, flicking ashes off the burning end and watching them land at Buffy's feet. "Or maybe I'm over the whole kamikaze Slayer look. Been there, done that. Moved on like my parole officer would've encouraged me to if I'd ever gotten parole. Reformed here, remember?"
"Good thing you're not the one pulling the trigger," Buffy snapped, spinning on her heels and stalking across the grass towards the line of trees, the rocket launcher bobbing against her shoulder with each step.
"Damn," Faith breathed, watching Buffy march through the warm orange glow of the setting sun and disappear into the dark shadow of the trees. Faith took a long drag; exhaling smoke, she chuckled softly, "Shit's about to get wild."