This is set in my non-canon, but canon-esque series following Uncontrollable and Unmentionable. If you haven't read those first, please do, or this won't read nearly as well or make much sense. Unknown begins a few weeks after the end of Unmentionable, around the beginning of season five.
Author's note: Picks up immediately from the end of Part XXXII
Author's second note: Wordy. Long. But there are some big scenes in here, and we're moving forward, so I hope everyone will bear with me.
Dedicated to: ginar369, omslagspapper, Illusera, The-Darkness-Befalls, Austexfan, kerry220, Annamonk, CailinRua, AGriffinWriter, and DidiSummers. Thanks for taking time to review. I know the chapters are heavy, and I know I'm wordy, but I usually am going somewhere with all this.
Direct Quotes are obviously not mine, but belong to the fabulously talented and creative people who wrote them. In this case, some of season five's dialogue will be used.
Disclaimer: Nothing of Buffy belongs to me, except my sincere admiration. However, this story is all mine.
Buffy stared, then stepped forward, pushing Travers back with her presence if not her hands. Spike took the hint and backed further into the shadows to increase the distance between them. "A test, huh? Hmm. Now is really not a good time for me to take a test. I mean, kind of in the middle of a lot of stuff. I have my holiday shopping to think about, my mom isn't doing so hot, I'm in college, and oh- that's right. I don't work for you anymore!"
"Just because you don't have a Watcher, and you refuse to follow commands, doesn't mean you are free from basic Slayer responsibilities that this Council requires."
"Are you sure? 'Cause that sounds an awful lot like not working for you." Buffy retorted with a sassy, freezing grin.
"Perhaps we could step inside and discuss it. And you could introduce me to your friend."
"He was just leaving." Buffy jerked her head and Spike paused then slipped away without speaking. With her acute hearing, she could tell he was heading around the back of the house, and she figured he'd probably wait out of sight or make his way in through the kitchen door. "And you're not welcome in this house."
Travers controlled his mounting anger with a simple extortive phrase. "Are you sure you'd like any passers by to hear me discussing your Slaying abilities, or lack thereof?"
Is he trying to get me to punch him? Is that like, the only official way to fire a Slayer without killing her? If so, why didn't someone tell me about that before? I could be on a nice moonlit beach in Tahiti right now, instead of worrying about people gutting my boyfriend because I didn't stop them.
"I don't like you." Buffy finally said in a barely controlled voice.
"I'm not here to be liked, I'm here to monitor your progress. Now, your test." Travers' eyes were lazy, his face set in a sub-smile, condescending marginally reaching the required level of civility. "Discussed inside, or out here in the street?"
Out here in the street meant that if any scabby little snitch was around, Buffy was going to get pegged as the Slayer, and the hunting her down thing was going to get a lot easier for the bad guys. Just because they hadn't become brazen enough to prowl around in nice little neighborhoods yet, didn't rule out the fact that they could.
Letting him inside was too risky. What if Spike had gone in? What if Travers just needed a little more time to realize there was something familiar about the goth guy with the British accent? Buffy assumed Travers at least knew what the Slayer of Slayers looked like, even if they'd never met in person.
The less time talking to this bastard, the better. "Just tell me the time and place." Buffy finally spat.
Travers as surprised enough that his haughty facade cracked and showed it. Buffy at least had some satisfaction from that. "Don't you want to know how to prepare?"
"I'm-" She chose her words carefully. "I'm the one who's been doing this job for five years. I'm not going to get more prepared."
"Time. Place. Tell me now." Buffy repeated with a note of menace in her voice.
"Very well." Travers shook his head for the stupidity of the girl. Always headstrong. And damnably correct about the fact that she was prepared better than any other Slayer in history, and with none of the usual Council approved methods. "The high school- the one you destroyed."
"Oh, the one over the Hellmouth I closed, the place where I saved everyone?" Buffy crossed her arms and looked proud of herself.
"Shouldn't it be at high noon?"
"I see you haven't learned any respect or decorum."
"I see you're still an annoying idiot. Wanna do more insults or do you have someplace to be?"
Travers frowned. "Goodnight, Ms. Summers."
Buffy stormed into the house, slammed the door, and clenched her fists as she emptied out her frustrations in a huge groan. "Ugggghhhhh! Why isn't he a demon? Then I could kill him. I still might kill him. Why isn't there some law that says if someone is that annoying you can ki-mmm." Buffy found her tirade shortened by a fevered kiss with cool lips and hungry, roving tongue. "Why? Hi. Are you okay? What?" Buffy managed to ask when he pulled back, breathless and mildly dazed from the sudden onslaught of kissing.
"Did you hear yourself out there? I was listenin' through the door!" Spike punched the air. "Bloody fuck, you were on fire, the best goddamn banter I've ever heard! I wish I could've seen his face! He stunk like he was mad, did he look like he was about to burst a big throbbin' vein in his neck? 'Cause he was." Spike fairly cackled with proud glee.
Buffy managed a smile. "I reeeeally do not like that guy."
"I know." He became more grave. "You said you'd take the wanker's little test."
"Well- I don't know if I'm actually going to." Buffy shrugged. "But I figured the sooner I got rid of him, the better. Did he recognize you?"
"Pretty damn sure I've never met him, so I doubt it. Was in the shadows, and I covered up quick. I don't think he heard much of the conversation, or heard my name. Weren't doin' any snoggin' the last few yards, so we're safe there, too." He snorted. "Fairly certain he didn't cotton on to who I was, now I come to think of it. He would have screamed and wet his tweeds if he knew who was standin' behind you."
Buffy wasn't comforted. "He must have seen pictures of you. There are pictures of you in lots of the Watcher-y books."
Spike rolled his eyes. "Bloody well should be. I killed and hunted their Slayers, the bookish set oughta be wary of yours truly, put the word out. But Watchers are still ordinary mortals, Luv, nothing extra in the senses, not like Slayers. I doubt he can 'sense' a vampire. Even if he could once, how long do you reckon he's been sitting behind a desk, playing his pipe and watching the rats dance?"
"I didn't think like that. Anyway, for all we know, he totally recognized you, but he played it cool. The main thing is, he went away. I didn't need him around right now." She threw her head back and closed her eyes. "Or at all... My life is back into the sucking phase."
"At least you got a five minute break." Spike pulled her along with him into the kitchen. "I'll make my dinner, you get your weapons. We're still hunting aren't we?"
Buffy squared her shoulders. "We'd better. Not like we get the night off. I better call Giles'. If I can remember Mom's room extension..."
"Just ask the switchboard to put you through the room number." Spike said. "An' don't forget to tell Hacker Girl what thought you just hatched while we were walkin' home."
"I hope they're still there..."
"People from all over town. Not just any one area." Willow scrolled down through the admissions records. "Ooh. That's not good. Big spike in the admits to the psychiatric unit. But it's like a revolving door... no one stays for long according to the release records on the same people. I guess their families take them home. Hmm. That's interesting."
"Uh-huh." Tara replied absently.
Willow turned from her laptop. "You're the best listener on the planet. When I get the 'replying but not listening' thing, I know something is wrong."
"I don't know if it's wrong. Or right. I think it's bad." Tara scribbled something again, moved astrolus orbitus over the wrinkled charts one more time, then sat up with a frown. "I think I need Giles to check this."
"I'm pretty good at this magical and mathematical stuff, Baby. Resident nerd." Willow came and sat beside her, and they shared a momentary grin. "Even if I never was trained on how to use that 'music of the spheres' doohickey."
"It's not so much knowing how, it's making it work." Tara smiled. "It takes a slow, steady power. Yours would probably blow it right thorough the floor."
"Not a good thing in a dorm room." Willow peered at the charts. "Okay, so that's the celestial equator-"
"And that's the zenith of the winter solstice-" Tara gently picked up another piece of parchment, so fine it was translucent, and layered it on top, "and when you look at these two together, on that night-"
"Oh my gosh." Willow pulled back, then bent down again. "What is-?"
Tara followed Willow's fingertip. "That's the dimensional void. Th-that's the magical universe's equivalent of the old map where the earth is flat and it says 'Here be dragons'. This is the edge of the known dimensions, edge of the known worlds. And here-" Tara grimaced and tapped the uncharted spot, "there probably are dragons. Or worse. We don't know, 'cause we're talking about unmapped dimensions."
"And they line up perfectly at the zenith." Willow pointed.
"Like if someone could just get high enough and had the right kind of power-"
"They could reach through our world- and into someone else's?" Willow breathed. "This is bad."
"If I'm right."
"I'm sure you're right, that all makes sense!" Willow gasped. "So- that's," She paused to gulp, "really, really soon. Before the end of the year even."
"If you move the astrolus around," Tara demonstrated with a shaking hand, "you can see that the dimensions kinda do a Venn Diagram thing, where they stop meeting perfectly and begin to overlap until it falls away and they don't touch anymore. This demon has a window, or I guess a doorway, to another dimension, but it'll get smaller and smaller until the New Year and then, poof. No more door."
"She might not even know she has that time. She might think it's all or nothing, has to be when they're perfectly matched up. Like the Key and the Lock. Ooh. My tummy's all wobbly now." Willow winced. "Also, on a side note of horror, is this same stupid thing going to happen every year? It's going to put a cramp in holiday planning. With the near doom and all."
"It's this year. The universe is huge." Tara blushed and laughed at her statement of the obvious. "I know, duh."
"You never make me wanna say duh. Unless it's in a 'My girlfriend is so amazing. Duh, she's my goddess' kind of way." Willow squeezed her hand.
Tara's cheeks turned a deeper rosy color. "Ditto. But, um- the point being, the universe is huge, and it takes a long time for any dimensional points to intersect twice. I jumped around from the earliest B.C. times has on his chart to 3000-"
"What if we go poof on the 21st? I don't suppose that year 3000 has a guarantee, does it?" Willow said grimly.
"The rest of the universe keeps spinning around." Tara pointed to the astrolus as it danced across the parchments. "But there was no other time when these two points come together. There was only one other time in thousands of years when this void area touched any point on our realm, twenty something years ago. That was when this Glory demon must've gotten put here- and she must have been waiting all this time to go home."
"Going home sounds good. Maybe she just wants to open the door, jump through, and leave us alone?"
"Or, while leaving us alone, the dimensional backdraft blows our planet out of alignment somehow, it crashes into the sun, or it's sucked into her dimension, or it gets sucked into our dimension, or-"
"I get it, I get it. There's no easy fix, is there?" Willow put her head in her hands. "Wobbly feeling is growing."
"We'll get a lead eventually, right? Maybe if Buffy passes that test that annoying boss guy will start helping out with whatever information we need?"
"Lead? Lead! That's right, I got something! Baby, I got something- something-ish anyway." Willow raced back to the laptop and pointed excitedly at the screen. "More than half of the people in the psych unit were found wandering around in the district below the Cordette Zone."
"Oh, sorry, right, that's what Xander and I used to call the swanky neighborhood where Cordelia and all her rich friends lived. It's up in the hills, the houses are huge and there are ritzy penthouse apartments and spas and stuff. A lot of the people that were admitted to the psychiatric unit have notes on their files that say where they live, and where they were found, because most of them were brought in after they were 'found wandering in an altered state' according to their admission paperwork. This demon must let them go in that sub-Cordette Zone. Which makes sense. It's not all bustle-y with the nightlife, and there's a park and just a few rich people shops, and- and I'm babbling, aren't I?"
"You could always do real estate if this wicca-slash-evil-fighting-genius thing doesn't work." Tara smiled. "So Glory's somewhere over there?"
"Or at least that's the area she uses for her mental ward catch and release program."
The girls exchanged a look of growing excitement, mixed with growing fear.
"We know when. Ish."
"We know where- sort of."
"Now if we can just figure out how to stop her." Tara looked at Willow hopefully, "Did you guys ever fight demons from another dimension before? Because I'm betting that's what she is. N-not that I'm an expert."
"Not anything major. Ooh! Maybe she's not from the other dimension. She could be like Angelus. The one who wanted to open a portal to suck the world into hell."
"What is it with demons and dimensional sucking?" Tara shivered.
"Beats me." Willow sighed and began pulling up a map of the city to get a better idea of where Glory's victims were concentrated. "Whether this Glory chick came from there, or she just wants to see what kind of evil mayhem she can create, we still need more answers.
Tara nodded, and paced, picking up their kitten and cradling it for comfort. "I think she's from someplace else." She finally whispered.
"It makes sense. A dimension so ancient we don't have any information about it, that it's something so ancient there's no name. Her realm doesn't have a name, she doesn't have a name, she doesn't use words and actions, she uses thoughts..." Tara shivered.
Willow rose again, arms reaching for her, pulling her close, the little ball of fur purring between them. "You don't have to worry." She whispered.
Tara nodded, but the fear didn't leave her eyes. She was the one versed in the old magics, and apparently something special. A conduit, a channeler, the mouthpiece for those without a voice... "I'm good, aren't I?" She finally whispered. Not a demon, no demon blood, and- and not evil. She can't make me evil. She can't mess with my mind and make me tap into something ancient, using my voice for whatever voice she's missing. Can she?
"You're the best. Ever. And you're strong. Strong like an amazon, Tara. And you make me strong. I won't let anything happen to you." Willow whispered. "No one messes with my girl. If they tried- there'd be a whole new kind of hell to pay."
"I'll meet you here, right at five, okay?" Xander repeated for the tenth time in the short car ride.
"I heard you. Multiple times. I will close the gallery at five. But after the test thing is done, I better come back. I'm falling behind on the books, what with closing so much lately." Anya fretted and picked at her sweater. "How long do you think it'll take? Sunset's between five and six, so-"
"I don't think she'll actually be doing the tests. Maybe just beating information out of him." Xander gave a nervous laugh. "Maybe I can help." They'd all be there. Chosen One their collective ass. Travers would have to get used to the fact that the Slayers' Handbook was basically used for decorating the bookshelves with this particular girl.
"You'll have to, since he's technically a human and Spike can't injure humans. Also, Buffy probably will stop after a few punches. It's Giles I'd like to see. He's the ruthless one."
"Only under the influence of band candy." Xander's laugh was slightly more relaxed.
Anya considered, then shook her head. "No... He can be ruthless whenever someone's a real threat to Buffy, or one of us. Or Joyce, now, I guess. Trust me, I did a thousand years of people watching. I may not get when you're supposed to shut up or why it's rude to say what you know everyone else wants to say, but I know the inside parts of people. It's why I fell madly in love with you, even though you were sort of dorky."
"I mean by pop culture standards, not heart and mind standards. By those standards you were bachelor of the century, and I snagged you."
"You did, Ahn. Sure did." Xander pulled up beside the gallery and put the truck in idle. "I'm not sure I like leaving you here alone."
"Barely!" He was much edgier after last night's middle of the night round of phone calls. The net is closing. Makes you wonder how many innocent people are going to get caught in it. Innocent on the front lines people. People like us. "Why don't we go get coffee first? Seriously, Joyce wouldn't expect you to be over here at the dawn's early light."
"I'm working early and late so I can go be a hospital visitor in the middle of the day when Joyce is most likely to be awake." Anya explained proudly. "That's considerate. I read it on the visitor information bulletin the hospital people have on the inside of the elevators.
Well, you can't argue with that. "You're awesome, babe. Awesome to Joyce, awesome to me. I'll meet you here at-"
"I know!" Anya hopped out of the truck, then grabbed onto the door. "Wait!"
"What? What is it?" Ever in pre-panic to full-fledged panic mode these days, Xander nearly leapt from the truck.
"Your lunch!" Anya reached into her oversized handbag, pulled out a couple of auction catalogs, a soap opera magazine for Joyce, a hairbrush, and finally a brown bag. "It's apples and peanut butter sandwiches. We were out of jelly."
"You. Are. The. Greatest." Xander put the vehicle in park, leaned over and kissed her deeply as she stretched to reach him. "I love you, Anya."
His fingers lingered a little longer in her hair, traced all the way down her cheek.
Anya beamed, but then looked scared. "I love you, too. That was more romantic than usual. They do that in movies, before the guy gets on the train to join the army."
"What movies have you been watching?" Xander cocked an eyebrow.
"Old black and white ones with Joyce. You're not leaving are you?"
"No. Never. Nuh-uh, no way, no how. Also, nope. Go in there and be a good capitalist, 'kay, Babe?"
Leave her? No. Never. The opposite. He was stuck at the light at the intersection where the jewelry store sat. Closed of course. But that didn't matter.
Xander cranked the wheel and changed course.
"Hey... It's me!"
"Mom? Dad?" Drunken relative no one mentioned would be in town?
"I'm in here."
Xander entered the living room cautiously. Three days worth of newspapers piled in and around an armchair. A figure in pink pajamas and a silk sleep mask sprawled on the couch, orange juice- probably not just orange juice, in hand. "Hi Mom."
"Hi Hon." She kissed the air vaguely in his direction. "C'mon, buy a vowel!" She suddenly hissed at the television.
"Wheel of Fortune has reruns?"
"They do this early. Why are you here?"
"Gee, thanks. I thought you might've missed me since I moved out."
His mother blinked blearily.
"You did remember I moved out, right, Mom? Weeks ago?" More blinking. "If you didn't notice me, did you notice I stopped paying the rent?"
"Ohhh. That's why the checkbook looked different." A look of realization briefly crossed her face.
Xander cleared off a space on the armchair. "Maybe you were just sober when you looked at it for a change." He muttered.
"I said 'It must make a nice change'. You two wacky kids on your own again. Let the second honeymoon begin."
"Don't sit there. That's your father's chair."
"Well, he's not in it, so-"
"He doesn't have to get up this early. He has a good job."
"I like my job. I'm good at it." Xander gave a forced smile. "I was dropping Anya off and thought I'd stop by before I go to work, that's all."
"You never just stopped in before. You want money?"
"Mom. I lived here. It's hard to 'stop in' when you live in the place. You did notice I lived here for almost twenty years, minus a couple months in the summer, right?" More bleary blinking. Why do I try?
"Hey. Mom." He leaned over, now siting on the floor. Let's try to make this a special moment, even if half the cast is drunk and hungover at the same time. "Mom, I remember you telling me about Great Grandma Harris, and how Dad was the oldest grandson, and how, when she died she left her engagement ring to you and Dad to give to me when I was ready. Well..." He let out a deep breath and smiled proudly. "I'm ready."
"Not until you meet the right girl." She slurred, sitting up, pushing her eye mask off her tangled bangs.
"I did meet the right girl." He said slowly. "That's what being ready means in this case." The blinking thing had to stop. "Mom! Wake up for five minutes. Have you even been to bed yet?"
"I slept on the couch."
Closer to the fridge, right. "So, can you hold on for five more minutes before you pass out this time?"
"Don't speak to me like that! I'm your mother."
"I know, and I love you. I'm your son, and I met the right girl, so I'm asking if you'll give me Great Grandma Harris' ring."
Well, he got his wish. The blinking stopped. Replaced with a myopic stare. "No."
"But- But I'm the only son." Xander cried.
"Not my fault." Mrs. Harris stretched and sipped her "juice". "Your father has a low sperm count." She spoke into her glass.
Wince worthy. "Eww. Could have gone forever and then some without that. Thanks, Mom." He shook it off. "Whatever. I know you'd rather pass it onto your other kid- but, oh look. It's just me."
"And you're waking the hardworking people trying to sleep!" Mr. Harris shambled out in shorts and an undone bathrobe, stinking of last night's booze and a couple cigarettes, reaching for his first of the day right now. "What the hell does he want?"
"He met some girl."
"It's Anya! You know her! You gave her fruit punch and made her help with the laundry!" Xander cried, trying to refrain from pulling out his hair. He turned to his hopefully somewhat more sober father. "I wanted Great Grandma's ring, Dad. I want to propose."
"What is it with you people and no?" Xander demanded angrily.
"You're too young."
"I'm twenty! I can vote and serve my country, I can get married."
"Your mother and I waited until I could put a down payment on this house."
"And look how great that turned out."
"Don't you speak to your father like that! He's always put a roof over our heads and food on the table."
"And beer in the fridge, I know!" He calmed himself with a supreme effort. "I'm glad. I'm glad you waited, glad you're happy, glad, glad, glad! I'm the class clown, family clown, but I'm serious now. Mom. Dad. I want to Anya her to marry me."
His father turned his back on him, mumbling, "Not gonna give you the ring to try and show off to some one night stand."
"It's Anya!" Xander slammed his hand against the wall, making both his parents wince. Good. "It's Anya! We went to prom together! We LIVE together! We've been together for over a year, heading towards two!"
"Okay, so you've been together for over a year. She's your second serious girlfriend. You'll break up." Harris Sr. shrugged dismissively.
"Did you knock her up?" Mrs. Harris was suddenly, annoyingly wide awake.
"Of course not!"
"If you knocked her up you can't have the ring anyway, your great grandmother would be ashamed."
His brain felt like it was about to leak from his ears, and instead words exploded from his mouth. "Shut up!"
"Don't tell me to shut up, boy! Just 'cause your mother and I don't wanna give you thousands of dollars to throw away on another failed relationship, or failed whatever, you think you can get lippy with me?" Mr. Harris turned with the speed and frightening intensity of a man often used to using his temper as his weapon. "God damned failures your mother and I have had to sit through, I-"
"I said- SHUT. UP!" Xander didn't back away as he usually did. He poked his father in the chest and then stepped back, facing them both, shaking his head. "You know, you think I'm a failure? Maybe. Yeah,why not, let's say I am, and let's figure out why, shall we?" He didn't pause long enough to let them speak, years of words he was never eloquent enough to put together suddenly bursting out, driven by a new awareness of life and the people that you want to spend it with. "I think it's because you're the failures. You failed at marriage and you failed at raising a son and when I didn't turn out to be a quarterback or the star pitcher, you failed me." He gave a mocking smile, all fax apology and hurt under the humor, just like it always had been. "Gee, I'm so sorry. I'm sorry you never took me outside to practice catching or pitching or whatever it was you wanted, Dad. I'm sorry you never stopped drinking long enough to teach me your definition of 'success', Mom. Yep. I'm a failure as your son." He nodded and crossed his arms, eyes turning hard. "But I'm not a failure. I'm a good friend and a good boyfriend, and a-a good man, and I'm braver than most other guys my age- forget the fact about saving the world, I'm not afraid to tell the girl I love that I want to grow old with her!" His chest heaved. His parents were stunned. "Okay, so I was a little wigged, but then I mean- hey. Let's look at what I know. I know not to give up one someone, I know not to 'fail' someone and just stop putting the effort in! I know how to love someone even if they're not my idea of 'perfect'. But Anya is. She's perfect for me. And I think- I could-" His torrent of words slowed down temporarily, looking for some kind of understanding in his parents' eyes, and finding none. "I think I'd be a good husband."
What am I fighting them for anyway? Do I want to put a ring on her finger that I had to pry out of them?
"You know what? You're right. You keep the damn ring. I'll go buy her something, I'll buy her something she deserves, that I had to get for her myself, 'cause that's what non-failures do." He began to march from the room, only to find himself turning, more words he hand't planned to say suddenly gushing out. "She's amazing! I love her. And she has no family. None. Except me. No history she's proud of, no trinkets to hand down, and she doesn't always fit in, but she's smart, and she's funny, and beautiful. She loves me and- and it'd be really nice if I could give her something that says I not only want her to marry me, but I want her in my family. Although God knows why I'd do that to someone I love!"
This time he stormed from the room and didn't look back. He went up to the attic.
"Xander!" Mrs. Harris finally whimpered, stricken and confused in her alcoholic haze.
"It ain't up there." Mr. Harris shouted.
"That's fine!" He shouted back. "I wouldn't take it now, anyway. Great Grandma would be ashamed I had to fight for it!"
He pounded down the stairs, boxes teetering above him, making it impossible to see. He smacked into his father, grabbed the boxes, and kept going.
"What've you got? What are you taking?"
"My comic book collection!" Xander shook off his hand. "You seriously think I'd take something valuable of yours? I think you already drank that."
Xander ducked the punch neatly, side stepped and appeared on the other side of his father, who looked openly bewildered. "Oh yeah. I forgot to mention I'm not the kid that they beat up anymore. I'm the kid who hits back. Actually- correction. I'm the grown up who only hits if he has to."
He left the house. Halfway down the walk he realized he left it for good. "Nothing I need in there anymore." He grunted and pushed the overflowing boxes into the passenger seat.
"Haven't seen you in awhile. You must have a lot of issues to catch up on." The proprietor of the local hobby and comic shop greeted Xander as he unlocked the front door of the store. "Sorry to say, I'm not open for another couple hours."
"I'm not here to buy. I'm here to sell." Xander moved into the shop before the man could protest and flung his boxes down.
"You're selling? You're selling this?" The man bent down to see some of the merchandise and whistled. "The cover on this one alone is worth a hundred." He delicately picked up one plastic covered book.
"Keep looking through, I'm selling whatever you want to buy."
"You've got some mint stuff in here."
"You know what they say. Early bird. Worm. I'm glad you were here this early." Xander unloaded the second box and stacked issues on the counter. "Take what you want."
"I want everything! This is like- a mecca of comic awesomeness."
"Then I hope you have cash. I don't think the jewelry store is going to take my check. I'm young and stupid. According to some people."
"I'm looking for a ring."
"Oh man... Your girlfriend is making you sell your collection?" This was an often bemoaned situation.
"Nope. That's my old hobby. Reading about saving the world and beating the bad guys." He laughed in a way the owner couldn't fathom. "It's a kid hobby- no offense. I just mean, um- I've outgrown it. Even though it's cool." To read about. I do the real thing now. I don't need to worry about if the hero wins, or if he gets the girl. I'm one of the heroes. We win or we die, so that ends the wondering part. Kinda decreases the cool factor, too. At least I know I'm gonna get the girl.
"I need to look through to make you an offer. Can you come back tonight?"
"It's gonna have to be tomorrow, I'm pretty sure I'm busy tonight." Xander said regretfully.
"Even better. I might even have some buyers ready and waiting by then. I'll write you consignment receipt real fast."
"Thanks, man. Happy reading."
"I think you are reading it properly." Giles and Tara crouched over charts, spread out over the back counter at the gallery. "Which is therefore extremely troubling." He sighed heavily.
"Don't neglect the customers when I'm visiting Joyce, okay?"
"Promise." Tara smiled through her anxiety.
"Don't harass her about invitations or window dressing or anything for the showing. I was a curator. I know about displaying art to its full advantage." Giles said sternly.
"I won't bug her. I want her to get better and come home, too." Anya rubbed her stomach where the more and more familiar pain of worry was gnawing again. "Is she stabilized yet?"
"She was showing signs of improvement, but they won't know how a larger dose affects her until they administer one. They can't do that yet."
"So her treatment schedule's going to get thrown off?" Anya looked distraught.
"I'm sure Willow will ply her multi-colored pens and whip us up a new roster for the gallery and other necessary assistance." Giles said drily.
"Not that!" Anya glared at him as she stalked past to get her coat. "I mean- she'll be sick. Longer." And until she's better, I won't stop thinking about how sick can turn into dying. I hate that part of mortality. If I could still grant wishes...
"But she'll be better in the end. However long it takes to reach." Giles murmured and turned his eyes back to the chart. "Demon from another dimension, or who wants to cross to the other dimension for some reason. More favorable tex-laws for all we know..."
"Giles? Have you slept at all?" Tara asked hesitantly.
"Hm? I think I slept with Joyce this morning. In the hospital bed." He suddenly straightened up, clearing his throat and polishing heartily. "I meant- she was asleep and I- that is-"
"I knew what you meant." Tara blushed and hid a smile. "I'm glad you got a couple hours anyway."
"It wasn't easy. With Travers skulking around the city. Sneaking up on her. Forcing her hand...Smug bastard."
"No language in front of the customers." Anya fixed them with a freezing look before she flounced out of the back door.
"You can't force him not to come with you. I mean, we're all going with you." Willow said with a mouthful of burrito. "But it would be better if he wasn't there, right? If Travers sees him..."
"I know." Buffy groaned. "I could tie him to something. He'd break free though. Plus, he might kind of like it." Buffy blushed and walked more quickly, drinking her smoothie as the two friends trotted across campus during lunch. "I mean-"
"Right." Willow said hastily. "But - the Council knew about Angel."
"Angel had a soul." Buffy said.
"Spike-" Willow shut her mouth hurriedly as Buffy flinched. "Does not have that. No. Spike is evil. Very evil and- demony." She said loudly. Two skateboarders passing them turned to give her a look. "I am better without the talking." Willow confessed with a blend of awkwardness and unneeded guilt.
"It doesn't matter." Buffy shook her head and smiled. "He'll be there, lurking, no matter what. He wants to see what Travers has up his sleeve."
"Why can't it ever be kittens?"
"Not to make you mad, but I suddenly see Travers' point." Willow admitted. "You don't sound very slayer-like, and I don't sound super sidekick-y."
"Well..." Buffy finished her drink and deliberated. "That's what makes us the best. We have the element of surprise." She said staunchly, injecting a little lilt into her voice.
Willow nodded, then paused. "I just hope he doesn't have any surprises for you."
"Good evening Ms. Summers. Ah, Rupert, I expected you'd tag along. I'm not entirely unsurprised to see the rest of you, either." Travers looked around the bent and twisted rubble of the high school halls, the half-circle flanking her. A middle aged man, a mere boy, and three fresh faced girls. "And just who are these?"
"These are my friends." Buffy said coldly.
"I see. And you feel unable to complete your duties on your own these days? Even a test from a non-threatening source? Have you so completely neglected your training that you need to employ civilian assistance?"
"You're being deliberately inflammatory, Quentin!" Giles spoke up angrily.
"If you consider mere questions inflammatory..." Travers spread his hands.
"I can answer them." Buffy said grittily. "Yeah, I think I need my friends. I think they need me. And I train plenty. I have lots of help, and I have the best Watcher in the world." And a vampire boyfriend who has something approaching Slayer strength to patrol with and train with - something no other slayer ever had.
"Am I the only one who wants to call him on the use of 'non-threatening?" Xander whispered to the gang. Tara, Willow, and Anya nodded.
"A Slayer is supposed to operate in stealth and secret. You have failed the first test, bringing your-groupies- with you."
"That's it!" Xander took a step forward and was pulled back hastily by Anya and Willow.
"A teenage boy- that's your defender?" Travers tsked. "Thank heavens I came in time."
"Hey!" This time Anya was the one who had to be held back, suddenly heedless of her worries about the Council's attitude on ex-demons. No one insulted the bravery of her Xander. "He's very defensive!"
Buffy held up a hand, and her friends stilled themselves.
"In time? For what?" Buffy demanded suspiciously. Behind her she could feel meaningful glances going back and forth.
"In time to prove to you that you cannot rely on a cluster of adolescents, that you are weakening yourself, losing your abilities through your- disregard for proper training, shrugging the duties of a called Slayer." He looked at her gravely. "A Slayer must fight alone, and soon you'll find yourself unable to." And soon you will have to. You won't have the option of a handful of teenagers. Soon you'll find yourself the last one standing, facing down a goddess. You're the only one strong enough and you treat it like a parlor trick...
"That's pure, bloody bullshit." A smoky voice came from above them.
Travers looked up, Tara and Willow gasped,. Xander stepped back and craned his neck to find the owner of the voice, and Buffy suppressed a groan.
Spike perched in the wreckage of the building's burnt rafters, some sort of black swathed, sinister guardian angel, resting on his heels, hands crossed over his knees. His hands moved slowly, and he lit up a cigarette, which provided some light in an otherwise shadowy setting.
"What- who-" Travers squinted. "Is that William the Bloody?" He asked as Spike's face was highlighted in an ember's red glow, his voice showing traces of alarm.
"I told you he recognized you." Buffy muttered. "Spike. Come down." Well. He stayed hidden for five whole minutes. I suppose I should be grateful for that...
He jumped neatly, landed gracefully, a cold smile plastered on his face. "This is the man who thinks you're not good enough? Not doin' it right?" Spike gave him a long, appraising look.
"You're not even attacking him! Don't you know anything about your enemies?" Travers glared at Buffy, and began reaching into his breast pocket.
"She knows I'm no longer her enemy, so she doesn't need to. You could say I'm puttin' in an appearance as expert counsel for the defense."
"Spike speaks lawyer?" Xander whispered.
"Apparently." Giles looked aggravated. "This is all nonsense. Buffy doesnt need to be tested, and she's proven time and again she's capable of fighting, alone or with assistance. Quentin, why don't we-"
"I would like to hear why the Slayer isn't shooting a known murderer, vampire, killer of her forebears." Quentin thundered, cutting Giles off.
"How did he hear about my bear?" Buffy whipped around to Giles. "Did you tell him about that?" She whipped back around to Travers, who regarded her in confusion and contempt, causing Spike to let out a soft, short growl from deep in his chest. "It was one, not four, and Spike didn't hurt it. But it would have been okay if he did, 'cause it was trying to kill us. It wasn't really a bear either, but that's a whole other thing. "
Spike interceded, slowly prowling around Travers, one eye on the human's hand, now concealed under his coat. "I'm not here to hurt anyone tonight. I have respect for the girl. More than you do. An' as you say- I'm evil. I'm a vamp. I've killed slayers, and hunted a lot that died before I got the chance to off 'em. Done my fair share of study. She's the best. The reason she don't kill me is 'cause she don't have to, mate." The cockney in his accent thickened as Spike snorted derisively. "I can't hurt humans these days, and instead of bein' trigger happy, Slayer and I have a workin' truce. More useful to have a vampire on your side than linin' the ash tray.I like the town, I like killin', wanna stay alive. I kill the not so harmless demons, help make this place a bit safer, and everybody's happy. More innocents saved. More word of mouth spreads that this Slayer is the real thing, the elite, able to make the Slayer of Slayers play nice." He blew smoke in Travers' face. "Sure, she could fight alone. She's done it hundreds of times, but she's smart enough to use her resources. Said it from the first time I ever saw her- she's resourceful. An' a resourceful Slayer is a Slayer who wins."
"This rag tag team is what you term 'resources'? A bunch of children, a disgraced, middle-aged man, and a vampire, that which you're supposed to hunt, a being of pure evil?"
"But cooperative evil." Buffy stepped beside Spike and pushed him back gently, confronting Travers. "This bunch of children? We're adults, and if you really cared about age limits you'd pick up your hotline to the cosmic big shots and tell them not to 'Choose' fifteen year olds."
"But a fifteen year old Slayer has powers, and these friends of yours do not."
"You mean the two crazy powerful witches and the ex-" Buffy caught Anya's frantic shake of her head, "expert in demons? The guy who's spent more hours fighting demons than you've spent drinking tea, who's seen more action before graduating high school than you probably have in your life? I'm not even going to go into how Giles is the best Watcher in the world, and how being forty doesn't have anything to do with that. What are you- ninety five?"
Travers bristled, Giles laughed, and then tried unsuccessfully to smother it.
"It doesn't excuse-"
"I didn't ask for an excuse. They're humans, they live in this town, they fight the evil they see. And if you try to stop them, I'm going to have to show you exactly what I can 'do on my own'. You want to test my skills? Let's start with how well I knock people out."
"Perhaps the fact that they are residents of the Hellmouth does allow for some leniency on their involvement." Travers took a controlled step back. "But a vampire? Ms. Summers, I believe we mentioned this the last time you struck up a friendship with one of these creatures- that the Council's position is firm. We do not help vampires, of any status."
"That's okay, then. Seeing as he's helping me. He's helped me before and he can't hurt humans." Buffy said coolly.
"You're showing me you're unable to separate personal feelings from facts. That is something you need to get the job done." Travers warned.
"He's a vampire, and he's someone I need to get the job done." Buffy folded her arms. "How's that work out for you and my 'job'? Nice and rule abide-y?"
Travers declined to speak, simply drawing a small, loaded crossbow from inside his pocket with agility and speed that shocked all of them.
"Steady on!" Spike cried and Giles stepped up, pulling him back, Buffy inserting herself between Travers and the rest.
They locked eyes, and he apologized in a completely unapologetic voice, "I'm sorry, allowing a vampire to roam free, while a Slayer does nothing to prevent it fails every test I could give you."
"Which is totally fine." Buffy's voice challenged, "Because I'm not taking your tests."
"You already are!"
"No, you're just standing around judging her." Tara's voice was steady but soft, breaking the tension. "You haven't asked Buffy to do anything, you just look at everything she does and say she's doing it wrong, because it's not what you want her to do. B-but it's still exactly what a slayer should do. Save innocent people, fight battles, and I-I guess if she's able to turn enemies into allies, that's above and beyond."
Spike eased back to a place beside Buffy, sneering at Travers, head slowly shaking in sarcastic pity. "So what do you do when you've huffed and you've puffed and you still can't make her fall? You piss and moan about her not playin' in your sandbox, and the truth is, you're just mad she doesn't need you anymore."
Travers had not expected this particular, painfully truthful confrontation, and while he was a quick thinker, he did need a second to regroup, enough time for Buffy to say, "I got it from here, guys." Spike faded back, leaving her standing alone, but supported, a combination of both the Slayer and the woman, the only way a Slayer ever reconciles herself to the fight and to life.
"I'm not taking anymore parts of your 'test'. Spike can say it all fancy, about why you're mad, why I'm good, but that doesn't matter. If I'm good or bad, I'm the Slayer. I'm it. I'm trying to do my best, and these-" she gestured behind her, "are the best of the best, so they're part of the package. We're one unit. You don't have to like the way I do my thing. Point is, unless you kill me, I'm still gonna be the one doing it."
"And if you try to kill Buffy," Giles spoke up in a factual, frigid voice, "I will quite happily shoot you where you stand."
A moment's pause. Travers assumed a dour expression and temporarily released his hold on the weapon, placing it back in his pocket. "You're all very theatrical. It's this proximity to Hollywood."
"Theatrical or not, I'm the Slayer, and this is my team. You have a problem with that?"
"Yes. I do. The Slayer doesn't captain her own team, she is the - heart- of one much greater, much more purposeful. The Council needs to command the Slayer, the Slayer does not command the Council."
"This Slayer doesn't want anything to do with the Council, commanded, commanding, nope, not interested. You showed up, buddy, I didn't invite you." Buffy placed her hands on her hips.
"You want to test her..." Willow said slowly, quietly, as if unsure she should speak, but her voice gathering strength in spite of her doubts. "You want to make her think she needs you, that she's failing without you, but you didn't realize- Buffy got it a long time ago, that she doesn't need you. You want her back, but you can't come out and ask."
"He's got control issues." Anya said in agreement. Travers opened and closed his mouth with a snap, unable to form a retort.
"He treated her and Giles like crap." Xander spoke up. "So he knows that even if he does ask, Buffy's gonna say no."
"We could save so much time this way." Anya said brightly. "No offense, I'm just really busy. Buffy, tell the mean old man no and make him leave."
"Sounds like a plan." Buffy smiled. "I don't want your tests. I don't want to play on your team. I don't want to command, be commanded, or any do any other things you're going to say to make me feel like I work for you, when I don't."
"I can overlook rudeness, but I can't pardon ignorance." Travers replied in a carefully bored-sounding voice. "Allow me to enlighten you. I have something very valuable that you need, and therefore -"
"Oh that. We already figured it out." Buffy cut him off.
"What!?" Travers was undone enough to show a single second of genuine emotion. "You can't possibly-"
"Resources?" Buffy showcased her friends with a sweep of her arm and a saccharine smile at Travers,"Wanna tell Mr. Control Freak what we've got?"
Looks passed from one to another, and Willow nudged Tara forward. "There's a time coming wh-when the dimensional void and our dimension line up, the closing of one year, is the opening of another, though in p-parallel." Tara choked out. "Th-that's really useful to a demon who's in town right now, w-waiting for that to happen."
"Yeah!" Willow jumped in, proud to share her girlfriend's success. "M-maybe this demon is from another dimension. Maybe she doesn't want to end our world, but if she's messing around, trying to have two dimensions connect, one opening into the other, the other one is probably something bigger and badder, and it'll swallow our dimension up, or infect it, bleed into it. Or something." Willow trailed off with a shudder.
"Or, the demon in question is seeking to end our world, through some means connected to the other dimension. That part doesn't matter. Effectively, either way, it's an apocalypse, ending life as we know it." Giles removed his glasses. "We know she needs an item called a Key to open the dimension, whatever her purpose, and since she needs a Key, it must be a dimension that's 'locked', inaccessible. From my studies, there's usually an excellent reason that a dimension was 'destroyed' pr made defunct. She's using this realm as a doorway, and we all know that some doors are best left unopened."
" 'Specially with this fruitcake. Unspeakably ancient, so ancient she doesn't have a name, works her mojo up here." Spike tapped his temple. "Bint's messing with minds."
"And we know where. Ish." Buffy rocked her hand back and forth. "A couple mile radius anyway."
"And actually...We do have her name. We know who she is." Giles murmured gravely.
Travers had been silent. Silently impressed and amazed, for there was no way he would ever show outward admiration. He waited a moment. "But you don't know what she is. And all your information is utterly useless without that."
Giles looked nonplussed, Willow and Tara held a conversation with their eyes, while Spike and Anya bluntly demanded "What's that supposed to mean?"
"It doesn't matter what it means." Buffy fired back as Travers' mouth set in a slightly smug line. "I don't care 'what she is'. You seriously think we could get all this together on our own, the name, the area, the time, what she's doing, and what she needs, and not figure out the rest of the puzzle?" Although the part that's left is how to find her, stop her, kill her, and save the world so... Yeah. I do kinda need that ASAP.
"I'm the only one who has the vital information you-"
"No. You're not. We found the other pieces, we'll find the rest of them." Buffy said with way more confidence than she felt. But don't show him that. And really- I'm right. I have too much to lose not to be right. I'll just keep fighting her, whatever she is, until she's dead and this is stopped. I'm not alone, and I'm not helpless. "You know what your mistake was?"
"I've made a mistake?" The gray eyebrows rose.
"You were worried about a vampire. You should have been worried about me. You already sent your hired killers after Faith, not knowing I was the one inside- you caught me- and I still got away. You sic'd an insane vampire on me when I had no powers, and I still beat him. You wouldn't help me when - someone I cared about- was dying." Buffy hurried over that part, not looking at Spike as she spoke about almost losing Angel, knowing full well she'd lost him in another way despite her sacrifices. "I cured him anyway. You try to take away everything from me and my friends and I keep getting it back." She tilted her head. "I think that scares you."
"Preposterous!" He harrumphed, insulted, bluffing as she probed too close to things he wouldn't admit himself.
"I think you were always afraid of me- because you can't control me." She gave him a brief glimmer of a smile. "You realize I'd probably 'behave' better if you stopped messing with me and trying to hurt people I love?" Her eyes did a quick sweep of those around her. Including the vampire.
Travers cast a sudden panicked, blinking glance at Spike as something unpleasant clicked in his mind. "Love?" The disgust in his voice was evident.
The anger in hers was scorching. "Love. I love people. Friends. Family. I know what you love. Power. 'Look at me I can fire your Watcher, I can have you hunted down, I can share information that'll save the world- but only if you do what I say'." She mocked him.
"It must make you sick knowin' she doesn't need you." Spike drawled, twisting the dagger a bit. Well- it's still teamwork for us, she attacks, I snark, I attack, she tag teams. An' I am s'posed to act evil. "That your secrets, holdin' 'em over her head, don't really matter..."
"You are underestimating the value of what I have to say, and I don't have to stand here and listen to this."
"But you didn't leave." Xander pointed out.
"So you must need to tell her, you just want to tell her on your terms." Giles nodded in agreement.
Buffy allowed herself a momentary gloating smirk, to complete the picture, the picture of the Slayer who's never lost the war, in spite of losing tons of battles. Not because she's so good, but because she won't stop trying, and she has the best friends in the world who somehow manage to beat the odds every impossible time, scarred and hurting, but always coming back for more.
"We're wasting time. Even if you don't share your precious information- I'll still kick her ass. And y'know... If I do fail, the world ends. Your power suit is gonna look pretty tacky, burning in hell. Which is where I'm sure you're going to go if you don't do everything you can to save billions of innocent lives."
This wasn't supposed to happen. He needed to give her this information, it was the only chance for her to go in prepared, fully armed. But he had been losing face with the Council for over a year as the Slayer remained outside of their control, without even a proper Watcher keeping track of her. How was he supposed to know that the biggest bargaining chip in the world- Work for us again and I'll tell you everything I know about Glorificus- was going to be scorned?
"No one here wants the world to end." Travers placated in a smooth, undisturbed voice. "Perhaps we could come to some arrangement? Having my information, as opposed to seeking it out yourselves, would save you a lot of time - something you're rapidly running out of."
Buffy looked to Giles. Is this guy confident enough in my abilities that he'd let me go find the missing info on my own? 'Cause I'm actually pretty worried I won't find everything I need to know, and even if I did, I'd be paranoid thinking he has one clue I don't and it'll be the clue. Is he really a jerk enough to maybe end the world 'cause we can't make nice? Am I? Oh man. I miss the days when it was just a house full of zombies or vampires invading the Bronze. So much less think-y.
Buffy paced in a short circle, Travers stood still, contriving to look unruffled.
We're playing apocalypse chicken. Which is so stupid. Passing by Giles she gave him a desperate, searching look. He inclined his head to her, a single, slow nod, and then he held there. Is that a yes? Her eyes asked. His hazel eyes were unwavering. On her. On me. Up to me. They'll go with whatever, 'cause I'm the leader. No. I'm the Slayer.
"Here's the deal." Buffy's suddenly loud, clear voice made her friends jump, and Travers frown. "You tell me what I want to know, you give me back my Watcher- you pay him his salary."
"Oh! Retroactively." Giles blurted out, caught off guard.
"What he said." Buffy agreed. "And then I'll-"
Spike barged in before she could finish making demands. "An' you pay the Slayer some sort of wage. Something commensurate with savin' the lives of every single person on earth- several times running." Spike knew it wasn't the time to jump in- but what the hell. He and the Slayer had their own unique version of "timing", and his girl never thought of herself, she thought of everyone else first. 'Cause she's the Slayer, and she's actually, purely good in her heart, even had enough room in it for someone like me. Ought to get a bloody big reward.
"You need to consider an investment portfolio." Anya hissed. "That's gotta be a really good salary."
"A salary? And a Watcher who's paid? That means you'll be under Council orders." Oh thank God. Success. At least it will be when I tell it.
"Nope. It means you'll have something to do besides watch Masterpiece Theater. What's a bunch of Watchers doing without a Slayer? You'll actually get to help people, instead of sitting around,trying to look important. You might pay me- but I'm the reason you have a job. It goes both ways. So let's just call this a working relationship and save all the power play stuff for issues like 'Do I get three weeks paid vacation, or four?'."
"Vacation?" Travers said blankly.
"I'll settle for some sick time." Buffy shrugged. "Like I said- power plays aren't getting the world saved."
"This Council is not about 'playtime', as you seem to think. This is serious. The Slayer needs someone with expert knowledge and the ability to train her, teach her-"
"I got that." Buffy gestured to Giles. "I'm not saying that Slayers don't need Watchers. I'm saying Slayers don't need people like you. You thought you were taking me on, one on one, and that's how you kept all the other Slayers under your thumb. Sure, I can be strong alone, but having other people to fight for gives me the real strength, even when I don't think I have any left, when I'm falling apart. You thought you'd get a girl you could bully and power trip- but you got a team. People like you-" Buffy faced him down, nose to nose, and the arrogant man actually had to do a quick back step, so quick he almost landed on his rear, "don't play well with others."
Behind her, like a menacing V, were the flanks of her small army, warriors in their various ways.
He knew he'd lost. But even in the midst of concealed anger and bitterness, there was relief. Because he knew they would win. He was a hard man to beat after all. He managed a small smile as he took a more gainly step backward this time. "Your terms are ... agreeable."
Thank God. Buffy was torn between maintaining her "I am Slayer, hear me roar" facade or squealing and hugging her friends. "Good."
"Yes. Would it be possible to go to your flat, Mr. Giles, and we'll share information?" No one moved. He sighed faintly. "While I'm there, perhaps I could use your phone? I'll make the call to get your reinstatement and respective salaries put into effect."
"That quickly? Dear Lord, this is serious." Giles nodded and returned his glasses to his face. "That's fine with me. Buffy?"
"Sounds good." Buffy felt her knees suddenly buckle, the effort of standing up to him with the amount of pressure on her shoulders finally washing over her. And now I fall on my butt and he laughs at me in his smug "I'm better than you" way.
She felt herself rocking back, trying to balance- and finding she didn't need to.
They were her wall. She didn't know who she rested against, or whose seemingly invisible hands were steadying her so discreetly that Travers never knew she was having trouble standing.
Or maybe he did. He gave her a critical glance, her and this unlikely force for good. "You're very lucky, Ms. Summers."
"I know." Buffy said simply as she stood upright and led them from the building.
To be continued...