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: This is a "convergence chapter" following multiple characters to a single point. I know it jumps perspectives a lot, but it's supposed to add to that "culminating effect" of everyone reaching a point at once. Forgive the choppiness, please.
Dedicated to: ginar369, omslagspapper, Illusera, Sirius120, Kerry220, The-Darkness-Befalls, Jewel74, kse93, skeezix, xXxblacklilyxXx, Alottalove, Rachel, AGriffinWriter, Annamonk, and DidiSummers. Thank you so much, wonderful readers and reviewers!
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.
The doctors sent them home with explanations and grim smiles. Very beneficial treatment- very taxing treatment. Remember, the medicine is targeting the brain, which controls all other systems of the body. Don't be surprised if she doesn't seem to be herself for a few days.
She hadn't seemed like herself for a few weeks.
Does that mean it gets worse?
"We should help." Tara whispered as the trio left in a black jeep.
Spike blew smoke lazily, now lighting up the menthol he'd been craving for several tortuous hours. "I'll take patrol."
"What can we do to help? It's the middle of the night and we're exhausted. Also, my feet hurt. Looking elegant for eight hours has its price."
"Sitting and worrying yourself into a fast food coma is tiring, too." Xander put his arm around Anya, still wearing her 'encouraging rich people to spend money' outfit of little black dress, pearls, and high heels. Can't believe this girl is mine. I just want to take her home. I just want us all to go home and pretend it doesn't hurt anymore. "I say we pick jobs- but we don't start doing them until tomorrow. Spike- even patrol. Buffy's a wreck. She needs to pass out herself, and you know she'll just sit up worrying all night if you don't go- over there."
He'd like to goad him. Saying it must've killed the boy to admit. But he didn't. Spike nodded. "Librarian isn't in such hot shape, either. An' I don't really need sleep. I could keep watch if I have to."
"You think Glory's going to attack?"
"I mean in case Joyce needs company or help. Or somethin'." He shrugged inside the long black coat, mulish set to his face as he said yet one more un-evil thing. "Imagine the home front's gonna be a bit bleak the next couple days."
"We'll take research." Willow whispered.
"We can bring it over there, then Giles can help, and still be around Joyce."
"The gallery is only open from noon to six tomorrow. I can take that." Anya spoke up quickly. "Then come over?"
"I'll help you at the store." Xander said. "I don't know about art, but- I know how to carry stuff out to the car and -oh- don't you do follow up calls after a big shindig? 'Thank you so much for coming and spending money' calls?"
Anya suddenly grabbed his hand and tugged him to her car. "We have to go! Sounds like a plan! See you tomorrow night!"
"Call if you need anyth- whoa!" Xander found himself practically hurled into the passenger seat. "Ahn, I have my truck!"
"We can't have sex in that." She kissed him passionately.
"What? Sex? Now?"
"It's so hot when you talk good repeat business strategy." She gasped between kisses and crawled into his lap.
"They aren't-?" Tara whispered to Willow, as their friends' car didn't pull away after the pair got in it.
"Oh, I'm pretty sure they are." Willow winced. "Let's go home."
Or at least where the heart is, Spike thought, and headed not to their home, but to where his Buffy was waiting.
The next night...
The queller had gorged. It had the demonic equivalent of a two day bender to sleep off, and when it woke, it felt peckish. It also felt a distinct lack of copious food sources. It inhaled the night air, carrying scents of madness and energy.
A few here and there. Not in a nice package anymore, but it could find a meal sometime tonight. It haunted it's old feeding grounds, picking up scents of those recently departed. Many went far away, a place he couldn't reach. But some, a few, had scents that still hung in the air.
It uncurled and slowly slithered from its vantage point by the hospital, seeking out the owners of damaged minds.
"We can't scry it. I am sorry, Most Unforgiving but Realistic One." The Mage bowed low, wondering if his head would survive the journey intact.
It did. Glory's didn't. Strong fingers curled in tangled hair and twisted, snapped off clumps at the bleeding roots. "How is that possible? It's frickin' bug! You can't find a frickin' bug?"
"I-it's because it consumes the energy and remains of other energies, and its origin is not of this realm. In its home dimension, I would surely be able to-"
"Then send it back!"
"Only your brother can-"
"Then talk to him! Torture him! No, wait." She shook her head. "Tell him if he doesn't cooperate and send bug boy home, I'm going on a feeding frenzy at a daycare."
Jinx shook his head doubtfully. "I don't even think he cares right now, Most Eternal Majesty."
"Then tell him we can play ball! I don't mind if he comes into the family business! About damn time!"
"Reasoning with your brother has never been easy."
"Try." She growled, and bowed her shoulders, tossed back her head, and changed.
Ben stood, confused, frowning. He looked down. "Dude. Can you please talk to her about the shoes?" He slipped out of the high stilettos and went towards his cubby of a room to get out of the silky scrap of a dress Glory had been wearing. "I mean, flats. I'd even take flats at this point."
"You're not staying out for long." Jinx said.
Ben started. "Hey-"
"You killed me? Only momentarily." Jinx smiled and shrugged. "It's forgiven. You are more like your sister than you know."
"Wanna get stabbed again?"
"Hold him back, please." Jinx said calmly, and minions seized his arms and pinned them behind his back. "Gently! Don't bruise the vessel."
"What the hell does Glory want?"
"To ask you to send the queller home."
"if you do not, she'll be forced to quickly take more victims. And she has an urge for children."
Ben looked stunned and then shook his head. "She's lying. She doesn't eat children, they don't have enough strength to do what she wants, and their energy isn't matured."
"Nonetheless..." Jinx smiled and spread his hands.
"She needs them to build some tower, right? You think parents are going to just sit back when their kids start acting crazy and trying to go lift scrap metal? No. No, she's evil but she's not dumb." Ben rationalized. "Children missing- massive manhunt. And when they find them- they won't be let out of their parents' sight, or they'll be put in some lockdown hospital ward."
"That didn't seem to stop the queller from taking them." Jinx never lost his smile.
Now Ben let one of his own slip. "I summoned the queller. I summoned him here." Puzzled silence. "The hospital's psych ward is quarantined until a CDC team inspects it. Not in use. All new patients are being taken over county lines to a new facility. Queller can't get them. They're not in 'range' for him. Or her. Glory won't be able to use them." He finished with a gleam of dark triumph in his eyes.
Jinx, momentarily annoyed, recovered his poise. "Master Ben, you're very clever. Truly. You've become a master subverter, ruthless, even -"
"Stop talking." Ben ordered abruptly, eyes narrowed and angry.
Even speaks with the imperiousness of his sister. Fool. "You forget one little thing." Jinx pointed out, almost apologetically.
"Your sister is evil. Pure, beautiful evil. If she wants to eat a thousand children, just for the fun of it- she will." Ben's face blanched, and Jinx considered he may have won a point. "Now. Will you cooperate?"
Ben's jaw flexed, mind whirred. In his mind, cooperation with her, even at the expense of others, was never the better option. She'll kill billions once she has that tower. Once she has that Key.
I'm not really stopping her. Just stalling her. Wasting her time. Hey- if she wants to waste it, too, let her.
"Let her waste her time on them." He finally growled from the bottom of his throat, tore his arms free.
He turned to stalk off, only to have his form repossessed.
Glory shook herself in one svelte shiver. "Guessing the conversation didn't go well?" She demanded, realizing she was standing facing away, hurrying back to the little cell he called a room.
"No, Most Understanding One. He knows your time is short, and his is short, but you two are bound together. He comes to accept the choices are death for both or life for both."
"Then why the fuck isn't he helping me?" Glory screeched, stomping her foot, the heel grinding through the floor as if sticking a straw in a soda.
"Perhaps- he doesn't wish to die by his own actions, nor destroy by his own actions. But if inaction claimed him...? Heh. Just thinking." Dreg, ever eager, suggested, then realized perhaps her words were rhetorical in nature. Glory's look scathed him. "I should not think. I should obey?" He asked placatingly.
"Uh-huh." Glory glared. "So- I'm hungry, and I guess we still need queller bait?"
"We need to pick up his trail. We, your faithful servants are out each night, trying to find it. We know he struck the hospital, so we're trying to work our way out from there. If we station some of our number with your newest victims, and some at the other end of the trail, assuredly we will find the queller somewhere in between."
"Uh, guys? I've got some stuff."
"That's not one of my books, is it?" Giles didn't look up from his own reading.
"Internet." Willow turned her screen towards the group, placing it on the coffee table. "We've been looking in occult stuff, but this was on an astronomy website. I figured, hey, if it looks like a meteor, the rest of the world probably called it a meteor. And, voila." Willow gestured to the screen, and Xander, Tara, and Giles leaned closer to see. "The most recent meteoric anomaly was the Tunguska blast in Russia in 1917." Willow recited. "Some witnesses claimed the meteor was hollow."
"Hmm. Maybe with a chewy demon center like ours." Xander mused.
"How far back does this list of anomalies go?"
"Pretty far. Back to the Queller Impact in the twelfth century."
"The what?" Tara asked.
"Queller. I-I don't know why they call it that, it didn't hit a place called Queller or anything. It landed just outside of Reykjavik in Iceland.
"Hey. Wait, I just saw..." Xander trailed off, frantically flipping pages of the book in his lap. "Queller. Quell ... here, here! 'Primitive people used to believe that the moon was a cause of insanity. Sometimes they would pray to the moon to send a special meteor to fix the problem the moon had caused. These meteors were expected to quell the madmen." He slammed the book shut triumphantly.
"Quell the madmen?" Tara looked alarmed. "Quell as in- take the madness away, or as in-"
"If it's a demon that bothered to come all the way from some other dimension, then it's probably not a humanitarian mission. It must get something out of it." Giles sighed. "Such as food."
"On this other website- like a conspiracy theory, crazy people saying cows stole their cars kind of website- there were other mentions of meteorites more recently- small, isolated ones, and they were saying the government covered up radiation or something coming from the meteorites that killed people. Um. They also said the meteors could have been UFOs. Maybe that was kind of a pointless website."
"Hang on." Xander shook his head. "Something coming from the meteorite. As in a madness eating demon?" Xander shook his head. "That's sounding pretty true, Wills." He got a sudden sour look on his face. "Great. The nut cases are right. "
"Maybe. But- that's rumors and urban legends." Willow said, before she considered the situation. "Oh. Right.
"We know half the urban legends have their foundation in the demonic, or at least the mystic, things the world prefers to ignore. We are in fact, the 'nut cases'." Giles chewed the stem of his glasses. "Willow- see if there have been any reported deaths in the last few days."
"We would have heard about it." Willow began typing away regardless.
"Would we?" Tara asked softly, gentle voice issuing a regretful challenge.
The four figures considered the past few days. Thanksgiving. Black Friday rush at the gallery. The opening of the exhibit and all it entailed on Saturday, combined with Joyce's treatment. And now... a day spent catching up on the rest of their lives, shopping, cooking, laundry, research, patrol, schoolwork, studying, and comforting each other and visiting Joyce.
Willow typed more quickly.
"Just two. Some guy found in the woods near his house. Unknown cause, police and medical examiners looking into cause. Recently hospitalized. Oh, and an elderly woman suffering from Alzheimer's was found by her neighbor." Willow squinted at the screen. "She was released from the hospital a couple days ago. But- that happens. With old people." Her voice dropped, eyes dropped, uttering a lie. In Sunnydale, death was totally PC, and didn't do age discrimination.
"Only two deaths in a four day time period, in a town this size? Even with nothing unusual about a city, Willow, that's odd in and of itself." Giles reminded her.
"I didn't check the coroner's office, I checked the news." Willow realized, and her hacker's fingers swiftly made inroads to another confidential website. "Let me- Oh. Oh my God!" Willow's hands abruptly stopped typing, cheeks paling.
"Sweetie?" Tara scooted closer.
"That man in the woods. He must've been one of Glory's victims."
"Because there were over a dozen more people who died. All in the hospital."
"Will, that man came out of the hospital. Those people were in the hospital." He hesitated, looking uncomfortable, avoided looking at Giles. "Sometimes people don't make it in a-" Xander shook his head.
"I'm not stupid, I -"
"I didn't say you were stupid! God, Will, I'm like an intelligent dung beetle next to you."
"Shh! Don't you dare wake Joyce!" Giles hissed warningly, silencing them.
Willow and Xander looked contrite, and nodded. Willow swallowed and spoke in a calmer voice. "All these people were on the same floor, same ward. With the same thing. 'Unknown cause, possible cerebral fluid infection/hemorrhage, combined with other unknown cause and aspiration of fluid'." And I'm not even done scrolling down." She whispered in a horror-stricken voice.
"What the - in English?" Xander demanded, looking lost and mortified at once.
"Something they don't know about killed all of these people. All these people. The ones in the... it was the mental ward. Thursday night, or Friday morning."
Giles mused after the shock had abated. "Cerebral fluid. Or hemorrhage. Aspirating. It sounds like the brain is definitely involved. People one would consider 'mad'."
Xander looked grim. "They got pretty well quelled, didn't they? And that's what this 'queller' does."
Willow silently gestured for Xander to hand her the book he'd quoted a few minutes ago, and flipped through until she found the page he'd been reading. "Let me look at the dates of these meteor events, and then look at the history of this demon." Willow looked between the text and the laptop, opening yet another window on the screen. "The dates are vague from that long ago, but they're close enough to be a match, I guess. Like-like maybe it happened after each one of the meteor events. It says in the Middle Ages there were these sweeping plagues of madness. People were losing their marbles everywhere. But then it would suddenly subside."
"So something emerged from the meteors ... and quelled the madmen." Giles nodded slowly.
"Meteor go boom, crazy guy goes bye-bye." Xander summed up.
"Xander's book made it sound like this queller thing had to be summoned. People prayed to the moon, or whatever. So ... who summoned it?" Tara asked.
"Who else? My money's on Glory, our resident out of dimension visitor. Maybe she's having her buddies over for an end of the world party."
"Or to clear her trail." Giles proposed. "Glory creates a plague of madmen, the demon kills them, destroying the link to her."
"But Glory hasn't been active in this dimension for long. Not twelve centuries long." Tara shook her head.
"Her followers may have been. Or there maybe have been others who created madness, and wanted it destroyed. Those telepathic demons that can cause madness. Practitioners of the black arts. Witch hunters even, who knows?"
There was a moment of bleak dismay and silence. "I'm not even done reading this report from the coroner's office. The hospital probably has more." Willow doggedly began typing yet again.
"All those people in the psychiatric unit couldn't be her victims. Not solely her victims." Giles sank back in the armchair, plate of untouched leftovers beside him. "Or, to put it in another mathematical way, 'All Glory's victims may be the queller's victims, but all the queller's victims may not be Glory's."
"G-Man. You saw me in high school. For the love God, use small words and nothing more complicated than measuring and money math."
"There may be more of Glory's victims that the queller hasn't gotten to, because they're not in the hospital. Also, there may have been patients in the hospital who were in the psychiatric unit for other causes. Did the queller kill them as well, or is he simply choosing those affected by Glory? Does the cause of madness have to be something cosmic, or can it be organically occurring? If so, that would put a lot more people at risk."
Willow and Tara exchanged worried glances.
"How would we even tell? Those people are dead now." Xander asked, once he'd processed that statement.
"We just have to be very alert. Cautious. We have to deal with this threat, but we can't let our hunt for Glory slow down either." Giles rubbed his temples.
Willow's voice came out much smaller and more hesitatingly than it had in weeks. "Do we- do we have to tell Buffy about this?"
"No, I mean, I know we do, I get it, but..." Willow looked piteously at them. "She's going to go into a guilt coma. All those people..."
"Yeah. And we were right there. In the hospital. They day before. The day after. We're there all the time!" Xander's face fell. "Man. Guilt. Huge guilt."
"We can't do anything about it until they get home from patrol anyway." Giles said resignedly. "I'll tell her." She'll be crushed. She'll feel like a failure. But she'll continue to fight. We have no other choice. "Go on, Willow. Keep reading the coroner's files. What else does they say?"
"What can I do?" She paced, clutching a pillow. He reclined in their bed, candlelit, white and umber tones.
"Come to bed?"
"You're gonna wear a hole in the floor. An' that'll just send you hurtling down into the bowels of the earth. Hear it's not so comfy."
"People are dead! People in the double digits!"
"You can't bring 'em back."
"Why do you think I'm so upset!?" She threw the pillow at him, then followed it with her own body, lurching up the mattress, into his arms. "We were right there!" Buffy hissed furiously. "She's been in town this whole time, and we can't find her. We can't stop her. We can't-"
"You listen to me." He shook her shoulders roughly, suddenly. "This is a god from the black end of the universe, the hell dimension so bad they don't even want you to know its bloody name. Or hers. And what do we know? We know her name, we know the time, we know how, and with what. We know what she is, what she's not. All those poor sods that bought it, Slayer, you know now, and you'll do your best. You're finding out in a few months what the universe hid for billions of years. Why do you beat yourself up about what you couldn't have known in one night's time?" He knew exactly why. He knew it was rotten and unfair, and the universe liked to hurt his beautiful girl. He knew it was his job to make it better, even if he was also privately kicking himself for not somehow magically stopping it from happening.
"It's my job." Buffy whispered, eyes wide and bright under his sudden onslaught. "I'm supposed to make everything okay, keep people safe."
"You're so busy keeping me safe. Maybe you can't do your job properly." He took her guilt, and made it his.
"It's not like that!" Buffy cried, eyes narrowing slightly, angrily.
"Feels like it sometimes. Between me and your mum-"
"I can't do everything at once, and neither can you! Why are you-" Her words slowed.
He smirked. "To hear you say it. Say it for once. That it's not your fault." He sighed and rubbed her back. "It's your job to protect. It's my job to help. We do the best we can with what we got, Slayer."
"Never seems to be enough. Sometimes I just wish-"
He saw it happen. A split second. Light going out of her eyes, pretty lips left half-open and the voice stilled. "Don't say it." He whispered urgently.
"What?" She hadn't been able to name her wish. She didn't know what she'd wish for exactly. Just for the madness and the pain to stop, she guessed.
"Don't say it. That you wish it was over."
Her cheeks flushed guiltily. Stupid psychic vampire. "I wasn't going to say-"
"All Slayers have it, Buffy." Spike cut her off a second time. "The gift. Death. You make it with your hands, night after night. And you're good at it. And you see it." His voice spun around her, wrapped her in silk bonds she couldn't break, couldn't look away from. "See the look of peace you give, a still body. Or the explosion of dust and then nothing. Oblivion. Where there's nothing to think about. Nothing to be responsible for. Nothing to fight." She relaxed against him with a sudden shudder, head hot on his chest, eyes so dark and tired.
"You never stop being afraid of it." Buffy murmured. "Death, I mean. It's the - nothing part- the- quiet, stopping part- that you suddenly feel curious about."
"There's nothing. That's right. Nothing." His arms tightened on her.
There's no him. There's me. And there's him, away from me. Not leaving him. He's not leaving me. Without Spike- there is nothing.
She went on a blurry high speed trip down memory lane, removing him from every recent equation, even some from a year or two ago, when they were enemies.
A sob choked her as she swallowed it. "I've seen what nothing looks like." She whispered.
"Have you?" So have I. It's you apart from me. I'd give you peace, Heart. Never know any myself, not without you beside me. Can't give a man the only thing he's wanted, just for a little stroll through paradise, then throw him out in the dark. He'll go mad. I know what madness looks like. I know what this "nothing" looks like.
Both of them depend on her, but I love her too much to let her know that she's the one who'd keep me afloat when she's drowning.
Buffy raised her head. "It's life without you. Nothing would mean anything. Nothing would be the way it was. And life would have already been over, months ago. Years ago, Spike." She swallowed. "I'm not like the other Slayers. They had a look of peace. They had to get it, in that second after the kill, when everything is still?"
"Just like that." He nodded at his wise girl, so smart under the suntan and smiles, so deceptive when she showed it. All part of what made her incomparable. "I was a bloody fool to think that you would ever-"
"Think about it? Maybe I thought. But when I did, I saw that look of peace. It's not death. It's not running away. It's not even about whether or not I fail or I fight. It's just being with you." She laid her head to his silent chest. Felt cool hands stroke her spine. "That's all. That's peace." Take the look of peace. It's something.
A million times better than nothing.
"My peace. My heart." He smiled as he closed his eyes. "My heartbeat." Arms locked over her back, her legs threaded through his, the small bass thud and rush of her tireless heart against his hollow. "Peace isn't about nothing. Or everything. It's about that right thing, Slayer." The right woman. Right man. Right odds, maybe.
"We don't do wrongs and rights." She mumbled, comforted by his touch, by his voice.
"I do. I do one right thing. One purely good, beautiful right thing. I do loving you and fighting with you. For you. Not leaving you. That's my right thing. You're my right thing, Buffy."
And suddenly, all the wrong things either of them had done, the mistakes they made, drifted away.
There was peace.
She had no peace. Not Sunday. Not Monday. She had moments of lucidity, but they were painful. Her Monday treatment left her in agony, despite it being a short one, despite the promise of lab reports being back in the morning and a call first thing on Tuesday.
Her ranting was devastating to hear. It was almost- embarrassing. Not for Joyce, who was unaware of her surroundings half the time, but for those around her.
"Joyce would be so upset if she- knew we heard her say things like that." Tara, ever sensitive, pointed out.
"I'm never telling her." Anya said staunchly. "She already knows sometimes she acts loopy when she's feeling her side effects. Unless she asks. Then we'll tell her. Because best friends aren't supposed to lie."
"Could we work on being less talky-more sneaky?" Xander called from a few yards ahead.
"Shh!" Willow slapped his arm.
"This is the noisiest recon mission ever." Anya sighed. "I liked my plan better. Why don't we just pretend to be nuts and see if something leaps out at us?"
"Because we have no idea what the leapy out thing looks like, or how to kill it."
"We should really have Buffy with us." Anya said fretfully, not out of selfishness, but genuine concern.
"We can't ask Buffy right now." Willow murmured.
Footsteps in the dark. Silent soldiers without a clear mission. "C'mon. What's the next address?" Xander asked.
"Montrose. 720 Court Street." Willow read off her list. "He wasn't dead, and he was released a few days ago, so I guess he's still a possible target for this thing."
"What are we going to do if we spot this thing heading for a visit?"
"Raise hell and call Buffy. Or Spike."
"Call him? He's patrolling, too."
"Well, then raise hell and scream. You know Spike. If there's trouble and yelling, he's usually nearby." Xander shrugged, and kept walking.
Spike kept walking. It wasn't hard to get into the morgue. Not fun, but not hard. Not for someone like him, anyway. Nonetheless, he was delighted to be leaving the place. The stuff on them- left a stink a mile wide. And their faces- frozen under that slimy shield of glass, frozen in screams.
Red was right. Unknown causes to the medical community, not so much to the Scooby set. Soon as he got a look at these bodies, he could tell the fluid coating their mouths and setting their faces to stone in slime wasn't "cerebral fluid" or any kind of "hemorrhage". Just paralyzing, suffocating, stinking venom from something not of this world.
"Bastard." Spike inhaled the night air, trying to clean out his nose, but the putrid scent remained.
"Just as well, you rottin' mess." Spike let out a low snarl as the scent wafted on cold night breezes. "You must be quick and deadly, able to blend in, or not be seen- but the nose knows." Spike figured it wasn't the demon itself that gave off this scent. Must be the poison it secreted when it fed, or when it was hungry, drooling. Spike supposed heightened vampire senses could follow it easily enough, but human noses must have a more difficult time. The hospital had been a likely place for a little beastie to feed, scent of its killing ooze somewhat hidden by layers of antiseptic and hospital grade air purification systems.
The queller must've decided his food source had dried up, or his luck had run out, and the little monster was hungry again. Spike left the hospital grounds, his hands shoved in pockets, flexing and flipping over a small silver square in one, a long switchblade in the other, a scowl deepening on his shifting face. The demon snarled and sniffed, senses keener in his vampiric form.
"Gonna bring the missus home a little prezzie. A head on a spike might be nice." He ripped off a piece of rusted rebar from the decrepit building he was passing and twirled it with wicked expertise. "Haven't done that in ages." The snarl turned into a grotesque smile. Haven't had anyone I think of as missus in awhile either.
Fresh bloodlust and lovelust drove him faster and further in a frenzied hunt.
She should be hunting.
He should be researching.
She was washing dishes leftover from feeding their own little army.
He was processing an insurance claim, he never seemed to stop filling them out.
Both of them tried as hard as they could to tune out what was echoing down the stairs.
"I said no beets! I wasn't informed this would be in my salad! No, I am not vegetarian and I don't want to eat this."
"I'll go." Giles and Buffy said as one.
"It's my turn." He murmured and ran up the steps. "Joyce?"
"You -sound- hrm, a bit restless. Perhaps if I-"
"Don't turn on those lights! My eyes, Rupert, I've told you-"
"I'm sorry, Darling, I wasn't going to! Be calm. No reason to upset yourself." He tried to soothe.
"No reason? No reason?! What about this damn tumor pressing onto part of my brain?"
"Mom?" Buffy couldn't stay down there and listen to her screaming.
"Buffy." Joyce's face changed. "Buffy. Oh, Rupert. I'm so sorry. I don't know why I said that. I'm sorry. I'm so ... I'm just so tired. And it hurts."
"It's okay!" Buffy replied automatically.
"We understand." Giles assured.
They put her back into bed again.
"Would you mind letting me sleep in here by myself tonight?" Joyce said, then blushed as Giles coughed and looked down at his shoes.
Buffy looked at the door. "Oh- I- uh, the oven timer's ringing." She made up on the spot. "Gotta go. Love you, Mom." She fled.
"I keep forgetting that she knows, but that you still have 'a room'." Joyce smiled up at him, hand on his cheek as he lowered himself onto the edge of the bed. "I'm sorry. I feel hot, then cold, and I can't get comfortable... Tossing and turning, sweating, and shivering- I'm sure it's not fun to sleep next to the human tornado."
"If that tornado is you, call me a -a what is the word? Storm chaser?"
She laughed softly, he bowed his head to hers, and pressed lips across her brow. "I don't mind at all, if that's what you'd like. I might even go back to my flat, if you'd like. I haven't been home in a few days. I've learned the hard way that messages pile up." He smiled grimly. The smile gentled. "Though you know I'd stay all night here. I'd rather."
"I think you should go home... have a glass of wine..." Joyce kissed him and he saw some of the old twinkle in her eyes, "and dream a little dream of me."
"I'd do that regardless." He pressed his lips to hers lingeringly. "Buffy's here. She'll call me if you decide you'd like me to come over."
"You are so overdue for a trip to the Watcher Dome." Buffy tried to convince him to go. Part of assuaging her guilt. "Seriously. I can call you, I can drive Mom to the hospital if she needs to get driven, and Spike'll be back soon. Probably the guys'll check in. We'll call you if we find anything." She frowned. "Why haven't we found anything?"
"The only conclusion I can reach is that Glory's associates either don't go out, or they have some of Glory's apparent mind-altering powers. Perhaps they cannot be 'perceived' unless they wish to be seen. That would explain why Willy and the local demons have only seen them once, why victims keep appearing, but your patrols are fruitless."
"Maybe they just have 'Slayer shields up'. Maybe the guys'll get lucky."
Giles raised one eyebrow. "Slayer shields? You've been listening to Xander far, far too much." He hugged her loosely and quickly. "I really would feel better staying." He hinted.
"I would too. But-" Buffy was firm, "you're losing your sexy for an old guy strut. You could use a night off."
"So could we all."
"All of us are going to be turned into bug food." One brown hooded minion remarked nervously to his compatriot.
"You have to find the bug before it can eat you. And it won't. Not if we're careful. We'll find it, and the others will come, or others will find it, and we'll come."
"It'll be long gone before they arrive to help! You know it'll be us. We can see its trail." He pointed to the tiny drips of cloudy fluid in the grass. "Oh ... It'll eat another of her faithful ones!" He fretted.
"She's telling them to stay in tonight. The queller will have to go right up to their doors, work its way in." The second one sighed. "If there are any left alive in this town."
"The hospital website said patients were being urged to come in for a follow up, and then they were transferred to LA County Hospital. Any new patients were sent there as well."
"How do you remember all this stuff?" Anya asked in a mixture of marvel and misgiving.
"Wait, wait- if patients who were released got readmitted and then they got moved- what's this anti-madness demon going to do around here? Won't it hightail it to LA?"
"Maybe. But if there are victims left in town, it'd probably go after them first."
"I'm gonna call Buff and check in soon. We've been walking for a couple hours and zilch."
"Also, my feet hurt." Anya limped beside her boyfriend.
The queller was used to slim pickings. Used to working for every meal. When it finally found a victim, the fact that the victim wasn't easily accessible meant nothing. It used its pincer like legs and its humanoid hands to scurry up a tree, out on a branch, and then moved to the roof.
Buffy finally gave in and turned on the radio. Soft melodies wafted out. "Nope." She spun the dial until she found blaring salsa music. She winced and then nodded to herself.
"I wish that someone had bothered to tell me that there would be tennis being played!"
Buffy returned to doing the dishes that she'd left sit after Giles' departure. Her notes for finals were spread on the table, but they were meaningless. She'd made an effort to study, but who could study, or do anything, with the noise upstairs?
Ten minutes of calm, ten minutes of mumbling, hearing her mother stumble around, open the window, close the window, to the bathroom, and back. Ten minutes each time of agonizing over whether to go up and help, or would that prevent her mother from settling down and getting back to sleep?
The only solution left, after multiple attempts at both, was to avoid the noise. Block it out.
The water crashed over her hands, the blare of brass and drums belted out cheerfully, and a sudden onslaught of her own sobs finally gave her a mock silence. So noisy, but blocking out everything else to give her a false silence.
You think maybe it'll happen one day. When they're really old. Eighty, ninety. You'll realize their mind is going, and you'll have some horrible guilt ridden discussion with your family about "putting her in a home".
It's not supposed to happen when they're in their early forties. It's not supposed to be because of medicine, or a shrinking tumor that's still big enough to press some button inside her brain that makes her hurt, that makes her ramble and- and forget who you are. Who she loves.
It's not supposed to happen at all.
But if it is- and your daughter is some cosmic big shot- the only one in the world with special super powers- it really shouldn't happen to you.
All the fights in the world, and I can't fight this one for her.
The sobs increased.
Spike's pace increased. That sickening scent was now augmented with random bits, just mere drips, of that sickly slime.
"Little bastard's hungry. Slaverin' away." Spike checked the area, took a moment from his dogged searching of the ground for traces, and looked around him. "Brave, too."
Right up in the residential area.
The nice quiet part of town. He started to run, a gnawing feeling pressing him forward.
Revello was just a few blocks up.
That doesn't mean anything.
Yeah. Coincidences always happen to me, an' it never does me any harm. He rolled his eyes. His foot suddenly skidded in a particularly large patch of the venom that had hardened. The nasty'd turned the corner. Heading up the street, passing the seven hundred block.
The gnaw in his stomach turned into a single sharp clamp as things clicked.
Joyce started awake as the phone jangled. "Buffy?"
A breeze rattled the shade, and Joyce blinked groggily in the direction of the draft. "Buffy?"
Hot latin rhythms and water left running while Buffy mindlessly scrubbed the same dish, over and over muffled the phone, and her mother's voice.
"I don't want to try again, in case we wake Joyce." Willow returned the pay phone to its cradle. "It's is pretty late."
"I hope she's sleeping." Anya said fervently.
"I hope she's sleeping peacefully."
"Do you think we should go check in? I mean, since it's so late?" Tara asked hesitantly.
"Pretty sure Buff'll still be up, waiting for a report. Or just waiting up with Joyce." Xander sighed.
He was still up. Couldn't sleep without her nearby. Yes, he enjoyed a chance to drink a glass of wine while listening to a record on his record player, falling into a light doze on his own sofa without the nagging worry of what was going on around him.
At least that was his reasoning. Even as he slept, something continued to spin in his brain.
This beast. It killed the people in the mental ward. It took every life there. But not every single person there was one of Glory's victims. It takes those who are mad.
What about the woman with Alzheimer's?
Those who act mad?
And didn't Willow said they closed that ward, sent new patients away...
So where will it feed?
On those who act mad.
Act. Not actual madness. Altered. Acting on a different plane, an altered state.
Giles sat up with a choked gasp, as if in mid-breath.
"Only a bad dream. Only a nightmare." He soothed himself.
"Still..." He was in his coat and out the door in seconds.
Joyce laid on her bed, her knees up, her eyes wide, one hand on the tangle of scarf wrapping around her head. The blankets shoved down, her fever rising, her hallucinations soaring.
Or so she supposed, as she argued and hissed at what was confronting her.
"I just didn't know. Those eyes ..." She set her lips grimly. "Those eyes, they're like gasoline puddles!" She sat up slightly, and then flopped back. "Tell me. Tell me because I need to know why, why are you staring at me like that?"
Buffy finally turned off the radio and the water. She turned off the lights as she scrubbed her reddened eyes with the back of her wet wrist.
"What are you asking me? You are asking me, aren't you? Is this a test? And if this counts for the final grade, I need to know now!"
Buffy sniffed in and squared her shoulders. You can't pretend things don't exist. This exists. It's not going away. You better try to deal with it somehow.
The queller licked its dripping rows of teeth, secreting drop after drop of its suffocating fluid. The sweet taste of a broken mind. All the fears coming out as his ruby eyes bored into the defenseless ones of his victim...
"Okay, there are teachers, and they put this on the syllabus, but they do not stare down at you, they do not cling, they do not look down on you..." Failing. Failing. My whole life is a test, was a test, and I'm failing. Wife, mother, strong woman- failing all the tests.
"Mom?" Buffy looked suddenly puzzled. She ranted before. But this sounded like- like a conversation. Or pleading. Arguing. Not just random verbalizations.
"You know there are people who are nice, and they give you presents, even when you are bad." Joyce's voice sounded like it was cracking. Sobbing. But they love me, even if I fail. Or do they? The blood red eyes said no.
"Mom!" Buffy began pounding up the stairs, only to stop halfway as the front door slammed into the entryway wall, hard enough to knock pictures off of it. "Spike! What are you doing back so-"
"That bastard's here!" Spike cried.
"What? What bastard?" Buffy caught him by the arms as he began to rush the stairs.
"Does someone know you're here? Because they should have told you that at the gate. You are not supposed to be here."
"It's just Spike stopping by, Mom!"
"She's not talkin' about me, Luv, come on!" Spike urged and tried to drag her forward.
"Something else is here? How would Mom know? She's been having these episodes all night." Buffy protested.
"We don't have time for this!" Spike cried. "I told you, it's here!"
"Glory? Glory's here? Or Travers? Isn't Travers the bastard?" Buffy tried to still him, looking frantically behind him, expecting to see something charging in after the speeding vamp.
"I need to rest now. I-I don't like the way you're staring at me! Stop staring at me, I don't like it!" Joyce's shout rose to a fever pitch.
There was a hiss and screech, then a gurgle. Buffy forgot what she was asking and finally gave into the force that was Spike when panicked, letting him propel her up the stairs, and crashing through Joyce's door.
A black blur, over and under another, taller black blur, a squeal and Buffy found herself knocked on her rear. "Hey!"
"I got it! I - where the bloody hell is it?" Spike snarled, losing the slick, skittering creature he had tussled with.
"Mom!" Buffy scrambled up, threw herself on the bed, leaning over Joyce. "Spike!" This time the screech was one for help.
Spike bounded up, torn between chasing the creature, and helping Buffy. For a split second anyway.
"It's all over her face!"
"Get it off before it hardens!" The bodies in the morgue suddenly loomed in front of his eyes, and even though he couldn't breathe to begin with, he suddenly felt like he couldn't get enough air. "Get it off her!"
"It's in her mouth!"
"Break it! Punch it, crack it, Slayer!" He almost shoved her out of the way, impatient for action. Rushing for a solution doesn't always save them. "Hurry!"
"I'll hurt her!" Buffy pulled, and her mother's hands scrabbled limply near hers.
"You'll hurt her more if you leave it on!" Spike fastened his fingers behind Joyce's ears and tugged, and Buffy dug her thumbs in over the glassine substance and pushed.
A sharp crack finally gave birth to a gagging gasp, and a hole appeared. "Mom, Mom, you're okay." Buffy soothed in a completely frantic, un-soothing voice, scraping shards from Joyce's face, Spike doing the same to free it from her skull. "You're gonna be okay." She pulled more and more from the pale skin with trembling hands, feeling the stuff hardening, sucking her fingers into frozen flesh.
"It's okay, my baby. It's okay." Joyce, with that innate maternal instinct that even cancer couldn't steal, heard the fear in her child's voice, and pulled her close. She had no idea what happened. A bad dream. A nightmare monster, falling asleep, and waking up with people in her room, soaking, strange trails, and little sharp things all over body.
"Stay here." Spike pushed away from them. "It's still out there."
"Joyce! Buffy?" A fourth voice, breathless and British.
"Thank God. Cavalry. Up here!" Spike hollered.
"Mom, stay with Giles, okay?"
"It's here, isn't it? Joyce, my darling." Giles forgot to ask anything technical at the sight of the soaked, shaking woman on the bed.
"Rupert, something upset Buffy." Joyce let herself be gathered in strong, though somewhat shaking arms.
"Yes, something did. Buffy's going to go stake its ass." Buffy patted her mother's arm quickly, and followed Spike. "I love you. You're safe."
"Do you think it's still here? That thing moved super fast." Buffy breathlessly demanded, slinking stealthily into the dining room, mirroring Spike's steps.
"I think it is. Giles was comin' in. He'd have passed it on the stairs." Spike whispered.
From the kitchen there was a scuttling sound.
"Watch it..." Spike reached into his pocket.
Buffy inched along the wall. "Lights." She mouthed. He nodded.
A step. A slink. Her fingers touched the switch.
The queller squealed in pain when the lights came on, dropping from its perch on the kitchen ceiling. It began clawing its way blindly along, barreling towards the bringer of light with a screeching hiss.
"Buffy! Catch!" Spike's knife flew through the air as she went down under the beast.
"Something... bigger!" The switchblade caught in her hand, and she stabbed through the thick black hide, but the creature kept moving, clawing, dripping and spitting its poison on her.
Spike lunged down and hauled the queller back. "Get off her!"
"Hold on to him!"
"What's going on?" Xander's voice came from the porch. "Why is the door unlocked? Buffy?"
"Stay back!" Buffy hollered and grabbed the heavy chef's knife from the butcher block. "Spike! Hold still!"
"Tryin'!" The knife whistled through the air, and he yanked the queller around, softer underbelly suddenly facing the business end of Buffy's lethal throw. With a piercing wail, the queller doubled up, bile and black sludge sluicing from the knife wound.
"Stay the hell away from my mother." Buffy growled as she retrieved the knife and plunged it in again, just under the wraith-like face. Spike dropped the creature. It writhed once, and twitched into stillness. "Is it... is it dead?" Buffy didn't want to check, skin creeping just looking at it.
Spike took the unpleasant task of rolling it over, touching it, giving it a good kick. "Dead."
"Make sure." Buffy tossed the knife to him and left the room, shaking.
"Let me do this part." Tara surprised the vampire with her offer a short time later, once the dust had settled.
"I'll help you." Anya murmured.
"It's not a job for ladies." Spike dumped the black mass down.
"You can't bury that here." Tara laid a hand on his arm. The hand came back slick and foul. "You should shower. All of you. Is Joyce-"
"She's already asleep in the guest room. Giles' room. He got her cleaned up, and he's keepin' guard."
"There're sheets to get washed. The kitchen floor, the hall... the- the ceilings."
"Red said she'd magic it all up."
Tara frowned, then nodded. "I suppose if there was ever a time for a little handy dandy magic, now is a good one."
"You don't want to use it for everyday tasks, but if this starts happening everyday? I'm moving to some war torn place for a little quiet and predictability." Anya groaned.
"Either way, this carcass can't sit around here, stinkin' up the place. an' if I can't bury it, I gotta carry it to someplace I can dump it." Spike kicked the beast, the cause of so much death and pain. Insides spilled outside. When Buffy asked him to "make sure", he had. Thoroughly. Nothing comes after my girl. Her house. Her mum.
"Let me do this part." Tara repeated. "I don't need to touch it. I can just- cleanse it." She smiled gently. "Kinda part of the old ways. Auras. Cleansing?"
"You do reek. I'm having a hard time not barfing." Anya added encouragingly. "Go in and get cleaned up. Then you help Xander and Willow with the household stuff. Someone's going to have to run to the store and buy a gallon of air freshener."
"I have a spell for that, too." Tara stifled a giggle.
"Yes." Tara risked nudging him along, her hands already dirty.
The vampire reluctantly left the two women alone in the back yard.
"What is this place?"
"It's a human home. Nothing special."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm not a mage, but -" A quick incantation. "Nothing magical calls this place home. Probably just an ordinary senile human. The queller will probably have finished by-"
"You're doing so well for being new to this life." Anya praised the blonde witch.
Tara had to agree. A year ago, she was just getting to know Willow. Now she was as Scooby as Scoobies get- preventing an apocalypse and disposing of demons.
The two minions who had finally caught up to the queller's trail froze in the shadows. "Did you hear that? Have we found it?"
"I never did this before, but- it's not hard. It's an ancient power. A simple ability." Tara placed her hands over the still form, and white light flowed from her hands. Her lips moved silently, "Cleanse this earth... Cleanse this earth... We are all made from earth... Cleanse this earth..."
Anya watched as the queller slowly dissolved, its thick black shell replaced with white dots of light, evaporating it all, leaving only grass and fresh earth in the aftermath.
"Did you see that?" One minion turned wide eyed to the other.
"She killed it!" There was no mistaking the insect-like body at her feet.
"Death is an ancient art. Did you catch that?"
"Of course! But that's not as important as the other one saying she's new to this life!"
"That's what the other one said..." A conspiratorial nod of agreement.
"Should we get closer?"
"There." Tara sighed as the last bit was blotted out.
"Wow. You just- swallowed him up. You didn't even break a sweat. You're almost glowing." Anya praised, missing her own magic.
Tara blushed self consciously. "Not like it's something I do. It's just- part of me."
The duo in the darkness risked another glimpse through hedges and over fences. The queller was gone. "She more than killed it."
"Then she swallowed it whole."
"The power is surely in her."
"An ancient power."
"In a new life."
"Oh, thank Her Immortal Evilness." He clasped his hands and let out a fervent sigh of relief. "We've finally found the Key."
To be continued...