'What time did the British coven say they were coming?' Willow asked, not for the first time, as she grabbed Xander's wrist across the table to look at his watch.
Xander yelped. 'A little warning, Will?' he grouched, rubbing his twisted wrist.
'Sorry,' she said, picking up a pen and spinning it through her fingers. 'I'm just a little on-edgy, I guess.'
'They'll be here, Willow, don't worry,' Giles reassured her.
'Did you have a mocha for breakfast again?' Xander asked her. 'Because we've talked about the merits of a decaf lifestyle.'
'No, it's not that,' Willow said, shaking her head. 'I'm just excited to see real, powerful, experienced wiccas in action.'
'Will, sweetie, this isn't a movie or...a school experiment,' Tara said softly. 'This is a strong, ancient spell using magics more powerful than you can imagine. People might get hurt – Buffy might get hurt.'
'Right, I get that,' Willow said impatiently. 'But how many times in my life am I going to get the chance to sit in on something like this, Tara? Aren't you just the teensiest bit excited too?'
'Mostly I'm just terrified,' Tara said, looking away.
Someone rattled the front door handle, knocking when the door didn't open.
'We're closed,' Giles shouted. 'Please call again tomorrow.' He added under his breath, 'Assuming we haven't all been sucked into a magical sinkhole by then.'
'Giles,' came a muffled yell. 'It's me, Anya. Let me in, it's raining out here and I just had my hair permed!'
'Anya,' Xander said, sitting up straight and running a hand through his mussed hair. 'God, I wasn't expecting...do I look okay?' he asked, turning imploring eyes on Willow.
'Xand, it's only Anya,' Willow replied. Off Tara's meaningful look, she hastily amended, 'By which I mean you look fine. Better than fine. Good, even.'
'I wish I hadn't worn this stupid shirt,' he said, gesturing at the disco-dancing Storm Trooper on his chest. 'I look like a dumb kid.'
'Anya knows you, Xander,' Tara assured him. 'You look fine.'
Xander smiled. 'Thanks.'
Giles closed the door behind Anya, who headed towards them while pointedly ignoring Xander. 'I thought I'd come to help,' she explained, glancing around. 'I have some experience with magic, after all, and just because the men in this dimension are infinitely undeserving of mercy, that doesn't mean I want my other friends to suffer. Hello, Willow,' she finished. 'Hello, Tara.'
'Ahn, you look great,' Xander said, standing. 'New haircut?'
'Finally, you notice,' she sniffed, patting her newly-dyed red curls with one slender hand. 'If I'd known it took a break-up to get you to pay me some attention, I woulda done it months ago.'
'Ahn, that's not fair,' Xander began, then paused and raised his arms. 'Whoa, all my little arm hairs are standing up,' he exclaimed. 'What the frick is going on, Giles?'
'That'll be the witches transporting in,' Giles said, his hair beginning to lift gently from his scalp.
'Really?' Willow squeaked, bouncing to her feet with a happy hand clap as her hair formed a fiery halo around her beaming face.
The air began to crackle with raw power, sparks fizzing from some of the artefacts on the shelves. A faint hum started up, growing louder, until they could all feel the vibration in their bones. Then, with a sound like a wet finger on a wine glass, three figures appeared in the middle of the floor. At first they were just a smoky silhouette, then details emerged until three women stood before them, eyes closed, hands joined.
For a moment all was silent. Then the middle figure, a slender woman with a waterfall of black curls, opened her eyes. 'Honest to goddess, I love transporting,' she grinned, blue eyes twinkling. Her voice was warm with a lilting Irish brogue. 'Hi there, Rupert.'
'Mary,' he greeted her with a smile.
'This is Fionn and Iris,' she said, gesturing to her companions, a serious-looking blond and a smiling older woman with greying brown hair.
'You're all most welcome,' Giles said. 'Shall I put the kettle on?'
'Please do,' Mary nodded. 'Sure, but transporting always gives me the worst cotton mouth.' She smiled at the others. 'So you're the Slayer's gang of mates, are you? We've heard all about you lot.'
'Really?' Willow asked, stepping forward. 'What have you heard?'
Mary smiled. 'You must be Willow.'
'You know who I am?' Willow beamed, face about to split. She whirled around, grabbed Tara's arm. 'They know who I am!'
'Where's the Slayer?' asked Fionn, glancing around with interest at the laden shelves.
'Buffy had, ah, pressing business to attend to,' Giles said, pouring boiling water into his best teapot. 'She'll be here very soon.'
She was floating in a sea of clouds; relaxed, boneless, peaceful.
A female voice drifted by, faint and inconsequential.
'Buffy, that was Giles on the phone,' said the voice, louder this time.
'Buffy?' said another voice; closer, deeper. 'Buffy, love, time to wake up.'
'Aw, do I haveta?' Buffy said, mock-whiny, not quite fully conscious. 'I don't wanna go to school today.'
The second voice chuckled, a hoarse rumble that made her skin fizz. 'C'mon now sleepyhead, 'fore I teach you a proper lesson.'
'Ooh, that sounds good,' Buffy sighed. Suddenly she was wide awake and bolt upright, eyes wide as she met Spike's shocked gaze. 'I mean, uh...coming Mom!' she yelled, hopping out of bed.
Spike laughed, propping himself up on one elbow. 'Many a true word spoken in jest, pet.'
Buffy pulled on her sweater. 'Maybe, but I was still asleep – I didn't know what I was saying.'
'Course you didn't,' Spike said, choosing to let her off the hook. 'Watcher needs you in a hurry, does he?'
'The witches from England must have arrived,' Buffy said, picking up a shoe.
'Right, yeah,' Spike said, pushing aside the covers, standing and stretching.
Buffy glanced over at him and went still. His eyes were closed, arms stretched above his head. Already his face looked better, the bruises paler, the gauntness gone. But that barely registered; all Buffy noticed was the lean, pale, muscled chest just inches from her face. Even with the bruises, cuts and burns, it was the most perfect thing she'd ever seen.
'Feel much better,' Spike said, opening his eyes, catching her looking. 'Must be someone I ate.'
Buffy blushed but smiled.
'Well, best get a move on,' Spike said, heading for the washed jeans and borrowed shirt neatly folded on a chair.
'Where do you think you're going?' Buffy asked, hopping on one foot as she pulled her shoe on.
'Coming along with you, o'course,' Spike replied. 'Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to get dressed, and I'm all for givin' you an eyeful but...'
'Got it, I'm gone,' Buffy said, hurrying away before her body rebelled and refused to leave him.
Giles was the first to spot them as they walked in from the basement door. 'Buffy, thank goodness,' he began, stopping when he saw Spike. 'Spike, I didn't…are you well enough to be here?'
'Feelin' much stronger, Rupes, thanks for asking,' Spike said, glancing at Buffy. 'Ready an' rarin' to go.'
'Your face is still very badly damaged,' Anya told him matter-of-factly. 'You're usually extremely pleasing to the eye, but now I find I don't want to look directly at you.'
'Good to see you, too,' Spike said, bemused.
'What happened to you?' Tara asked, eyes wide.
'I had a run-in with Glory,' Spike said, managing to swagger despite the bruises. 'Turns out she's not so tough.'
'Well, this is great!' Xander exclaimed. 'If Spike can beat her, maybe there's hope for us after all.'
'And there was me thinkin' you were just happy to see me safe and well,' Spike said, scarred eyebrow lifting.
Xander glanced at Buffy, then said, 'Perhaps it's not totally of the terrible that you made it out in one piece. I guess. Maybe.'
For once, Spike was speechless.
'If I may?' Giles put in. 'Are you able to tell us how you got away, Spike? It may prove invaluable to our final battle plans.'
'Interestin' that you should ask me that,' Spike said, hopping up to sit on the counter and settling into storytelling mode. 'There I was, right, in chains, hangin' from the ceiling, beaten and bloody with Glory about to go for the killin' blow.'
Lydia gasped at his words, earning her a smile from the narrator.
'She's just getting set to claw my eyes out – literally – when suddenly, whoosh! Victoria becomes Victor.'
'By which I presume you mean that Glory retreated into her human host, who was a male?' Giles asked, smiling a little at the imagery.
'Yeah. Don't think she meant to do it, though, that's the thing. Like she got sucked back in against her will.'
'Fascinating,' Giles said, eyes taking on the familiar faraway stare as his brain kicked into action. 'This could be crucial; if Glory can be forced into human form we might just stand a chance. Mary, if we weaken her host, what effect will it have on Glory?'
'I couldn't say for sure, there's just not enough information here,' Mary told him, gesturing to the spell scroll. 'It looks as though this spell works to keep the host and Ereshkigal separate, so whatever happens to one won't affect the other. Not a clue if the same is true for whatever magic is binding Glory here.'
'I see,' Giles frowned. 'Why don't you talk us through everything, now that Buffy's here?'
Mary nodded, tucking a strand of dark hair behind her ear. 'So, we've had a good read over everything and we think we can do the spell, no problems. It also looks like there's some kind of protection charm built in, so that whoever acts as the host should be safe from being taken over permanently. Any damage taken by Ereshkigal shouldn't hurt the host, though their body will take a bit of a beating just from being infused with so much power in one hit.' She paused, looking at them, meeting their eyes. 'That's the good news.'
'Can we just stop there?' Xander interjected. 'There's always a but with these things – for once I'd like to have no but.'
'That can be arranged,' Anya muttered darkly, making Xander pale and Spike chuckle.
'Children, please,' Giles said, annoyance colouring his tone. 'We don't have time for this right at the moment.'
'Sorry,' Anya and Xander mumbled, looking away from each other.
'I'm afraid there is a but,' Mary went on, a smile twinkling in her eyes. 'The scale of the spell is beyond anything we've ever done before, at least in such small numbers. Usually we'd need an entire coven working on something like this but we just don't have enough witches to spare right now.' She looked to Giles. 'Those damned bacchano-pagans have been stirring up trouble back home again.'
'Again?' Giles said, shaking his head. 'Some people never learn.'
'Well,' Willow ventured, 'I could always step in, if you need another body. I have some experience of magic.'
'Willow, no,' Tara said, anguish on her face. 'It's too d-dangerous, you've never handled power of this magnitude before.'
'So, what, you don't think I can cope with it?' Willow asked, annoyance simmering over. 'You think I'm just some second-rate wannabe? Or maybe you just don't want me to grow because you like being better than me.'
'That's not…I don't think I'm b-better than you,' Tara said, blushing as tears sprang to her eyes.
'If I may?' Mary said gently. 'Willow, sure and we'd be glad for your help, but only if you're certain you know what you're getting into. Tara's right, this sorta magic can really knock you for six if you're not used to it.'
'I'm totally ready,' Willow insisted. 'Please, I can help.'
Mary looked at her for a long moment; Willow felt her blue gaze like a laser beam, tingling under the scrutiny. Finally Mary nodded. 'Alright. But trust me, Tara, we'll keep her safe away from the core of the spell. You're right to be cautious – a good witch has to know her limits as well as her abilities.' Tara nodded gratefully, but Willow seemed not to have heard, caught up in her excitement.
'So is that it then?' Buffy asked, trying to sound calm. 'We're all set to get started?'
'Not quite,' said Iris, speaking for the first time. Her accent was cultured and soft, a female version of Giles. 'The spell mentions that the Gateway has a physical form, called an anchor, which is masked from Ishtar – sorry, Glory. We need to channel the spell through the anchor in order to reach Ereshkigal.'
'What kind of form might it take?' Giles asked, frowning.
'The text isn't very specific, so my guess is that the monks can shape it to be whatever they wish,' Iris said. 'It will probably be a token of some kind – perhaps a seal, or a weapon.'
'Or anything else that they fancy, really,' Mary added. 'All we know for sure is that it's invisible to Glory, and that it hasn't existed for very long. Frankly, that doesn't narrow it down much.'
'When I did Willow's spell, I saw the Gateway in my house,' Buffy said, thinking hard. 'That's why Mom is staying with Giles, to keep her safe from it.'
Mary nodded. 'Grand, that helps – so the Gateway's anchor must be something in your home.'
Buffy frowned, wracking her brain. 'Something new…and I saw the energy field in the dining room…' She tailed off, eyes wide. 'The disc!'
'You know what it is?' Giles asked, leaning forwards.
Buffy nodded. 'Mom brought home a piece of art from the gallery a couple months ago and hung it in the dining room, a sort of bronze discy thing with a labyrinth design. It's the only thing we've bought recently - unless the monks made the anchor into a jar of Marshmallow Fluff.'
'That'll be it, then,' Mary said, grinning widely.
'Excellent,' Giles said, smiling in relief. 'Buffy, I'll drive you home to collect it. The rest of you, stay here and help with the preparations.'
'Alright, gang, let's get this show on the road,' Mary said, standing.
'What can we do to help?' Willow asked, bouncing to her feet.
'Don't worry, there are jobs for everyone,' Mary smiled.
'I know what my job is,' Spike said, sliding from the counter and drawing himself to his full height. Everyone turned to look at him as he spoke straight to Mary. 'I'm gonna be the vessel.'
'Spike, I already told you, that's not an option,' Buffy said, seething.
Mary narrowed her eyes. 'Would I be right in thinking that you're a vampire, now?'
'Not just any vampire,' Lydia put in, ignoring the cold stare that Buffy shot her way. 'Quite a remarkable one, actually.'
Spike smiled at her. 'Ta, pet. Nice to have someone believe in me for a change.'
'That's not – I never said I didn't – we are not discussing this again!' Buffy sputtered.
'Look, I don't know what's going on here,' Mary said calmly, 'but it's out of the question, I'm afraid. The spell needs a human host, draws on the body's life energy to hold Ereshkigal here. Won't work on the undead.'
Spike slumped, and he suddenly looked way more injured than he had a minute before. 'Right. Course. The blood is the thing – should've known.' He glanced at Buffy. 'Looks like you get your way after all then, love.'
'But does it have to be Buffy?' Xander asked. 'I mean, could one of us do it?'
'No reason why not,' Mary said with a shrug.
'Okay…so, clearly I had Insane-o-Flakes for breakfast, 'cos for the love of Buddha, I think I'm about to volunteer,' Xander said, mild panic on his face.
'Xander, no,' Buffy said firmly, shaking her head.
'Is this some scheme to impress me?' Anya asked, looking torn between adoration and annoyance.
'No,' Xander snapped. 'But I don't get many chances to be the hero…and God knows I don't have much to be proud of in my life…so I wanna do this.'
'Xander, you can't,' Anya said, stepping closer, hand hovering on the verge of touching his arm. 'What if you don't come out of this in one piece? Or what if you do, but it's a big squished piece?'
'Are you saying you'd care?' he asked gently.
'No,' Anya retorted, but her eyes said otherwise.
'Am I talking to myself?' Buffy asked, arms outstretched. 'Why can nobody grasp the concept that it has to be me? I'm the Slayer, this is my sacred destiny. And much as I'm touched that you guys would want to step in for me, I just can't let you do it. Besides, if anyone has a chance of surviving the process without major damage it's me, right?' She turned to Mary. 'I mean, Slayer strength plus increased healing ability…less likely to use me up and spit me out.'
Mary nodded. 'I'd have to agree.'
'Then it's settled,' Buffy said, the look on her face telling her friends that the decision was made.
'We really need to get started,' Fionn put in, visibly on edge. 'Where are we setting up?'
'Oh, out back, in the training room,' Willow said, leading Fionn through the doorway. Mary and Tara followed, Lydia and Iris carefully lifting the spell scroll in its wooden case and carrying it out between them.
Xander paused, turned to Spike. 'Look, Spike…what happened, with you and Glory…I just wanted to say it's pretty cool. Maybe I was wrong about you.'
Spike's eyebrows shot up. 'Right,' he nodded, thrown.
'Or maybe I was right all along and you're just playing us like the evil mastermind we all know and loathe,' Xander went on. 'I'm not saying I trust you now, and I'll still be watching you every minute of every day. But Buffy trusts you, and I know enough to know that she's usually right about this stuff – even if we don't all see it straight away.'
Buffy smiled, touched.
'Got it,' Spike said with a nod of thanks.
Xander nodded, took a deep breath. 'And while I've got my eloquence on…can you give us a sec? I need to say something to Anya.'
'Sure,' Buffy said, turning to Giles. 'We should get going anyway.'
Xander watched the others walk away, took a deep breath and faced Anya, who crossed her arms and tried to look disinterested. 'Anya,' he began tentatively, 'I am so, so very sorry for what I said the other day. I know it's kinda my thing to open mouth, insert foot, but I should know better. What you said made me take a good look at myself, and be honest with myself for the first time in…way too long.' Xander paused, ran his hand over his face. 'I think that ever since Jesse…I got fixated on one way of thinking, you know? And when Angel turned bad and did what he did, it just confirmed to me that demons couldn't be trusted, no matter how good they seemed to be. But then you came along.' He smiled, soft and tender, and she visibly softened under his gaze.
'I didn't want to think about your past,' Xander admitted, 'because if you'd been a demon, and all demons are bad, then there's no way we could be together. And I couldn't bear to face that possibility.'
'Aww, Xander,' Anya said, smiling for the first time.
'So I promise that if you give me one more chance, I'll prove that I'm worth it. I embrace your past and choose to accept it.' He paused, smiled. 'I really do love you, vengeancy background and all.'
'I love you back,' Anya said, flinging her arms around his middle. 'I missed you, Xander Harris.'
'I missed you too,' he grinned, kissing the top of her head. 'Think we have time to sneak into the bathroom so I can show you how much?'