"If my life was a movie, this would be the part where they drop into slow motion," Buffy said to Spike. "Behold the conquering hero, marvel at her perfect hair in the perfect breeze."
"Heroes," Spike said, a step behind her, his black duster the perfect compliment to her light hair. Four moons illuminated their path across the ruins of an alien city, stripped bare of any signs of life by the Legionary Demons. Behind them, spires rose to dizzying heights, covered with a constantly moving living net of ant-like demons, each the size of a house cat. Stupid but loyal, and numbering in the millions, they destroyed everything in their path. The only way to kill them was to sneak in close to the bivouac and place exploding baits. The demons took the baits back, and then-
An explosion reduced another of the city's spires to rubble, killing thousands of demons.
"See? Movie explosions-"
"Demons dying, Slayer. You like that, don't you? You can send a girl to college, but you can't take the Slayer out of the girl."
"You're just jealous because I killed more of them."
"Why you little minx, I'll have you know-"
She whirled and threw herself at him, complacently knowing that she'd be caught and pulled close: bodies pressing, hands gripping, lips yearning, all that sneaky energy finding an outlet. If her life was a book, it'd be called Buffy Summers and the Naughty Rewards of Being Good.
"Oh, I know," she managed to say. Another explosion punctuated her smug awareness - an exclamation point. Or maybe a three or four.
He was wild, all over her, hands moving, teasing, tugging her to the side, and she could tell he had his sights set on the shelter of a fragment of wall rising from the ruins, but she wouldn't have it. She leaned into him, always in control, forcing him back to camp one well fought step at a time, a well scripted dance tumbling toward a predetermined release...
They were almost to their tent when camp exploded - metaphorically - into a metaphorical hive of activity. She pushed Spike off balance and evaded his grasp, caught between regret and determination. No time for games, this looked like something she needed to be a part of.
"Buffy," he said. His eyes were wild, desire and a spark of anger. Her heart skipped a beat. "Don't-"
"Go find Dawn," she ordered Spike. The spark of anger faded into resignation, and Buffy's heart fell with it. She gave him a parting kiss that he totally took advantage of, but he pulled back the instant she did, when she caught sight of Caridad out of the corner of her eye.
"What's up?" she asked. She fell into step with Caridad, vaguely aware of Spike stalking away, moving against the current away from her.
She wished he'd argued. Stayed for the fight. He should know...
"A group of demons is threatening the camp on the east," Cari said.
"Can't have that," Buffy said, speeding up. Other Slayers fell in behind Buffy and Caridad, and Buffy found herself grinning. Fighting with them was like fighting with herself, dancing with herself, perfectly synchronized. Together, they were a machine for dealing death, and it was going to be a good fight.
If her life was a band, of course it'd be called Buffy and the Slayers.
Dawn's idea of professional attire was a couple of steps down from Buffy's idea of casual sister-visiting wear. "The secret of being a good translator is not to stand out," she told Buffy, reacting to the critical look in Buffy's eye before Buffy could say anything. "Everyone around here is either a Slayer, a Watcher, or a soldier. They're dressed for fighting, I'm dressed for running away. We're practical people here." Dawn dumped her breakfast plates into the bin and turned her own critical eye on Buffy's outfit.
"Hey, this is what I wear on digs," Buffy said, stacking her plates on top of Dawn's. "It's uber-practical. I killed a golem in this outfit, and it didn't even stain. Plus it's cool in the sun-"
"Indiana Jones and Martha Stewart would be proud," Dawn said.
"-and that's just as important when Legionary Demons have eaten every living tree for twenty miles," Buffy finished, following Dawn out of the cafeteria tent. She squinted in the bright sunlight.
"I'm convinced," Dawn said. "Hey Buffy, speaking of practical..." She shuffled her feet.
"Yes, you can borrow my sunglasses," Buffy said, rolling her eyes.
"Thanks, but...I mean, it's about last night. When there's something going on, I've got my own procedure to follow. It's all official, written down in the official handbook and everything. You don't have to send Spike to protect me."
"Spike likes protecting you," Buffy said automatically.
"So not the point. I had some pretty quick explaining to do with the Chinese, why their interpreter suddenly had a vampire entourage. You can get away with a lot because you're Buffy, and everyone wants to impress you, I mean, they're letting you and Spike just go out and patrol, that's really...original Slayer only stuff, you know? But you're also my guest and what you do reflects on me."
"Oh," Buffy said blankly.
"It's sort of important, or I wouldn't say anything," Dawn said.
"Okay," Buffy agreed. "I can do that. Anything else?"
"No, that's it. Thanks, Buffy. I'll see you at lunch?"
"It's a plan," she said. She waited until Dawn was out of earshot before she smirked and said to herself, "Little Dawnie all grown up. Aww."
Dawn turned, hands on hips. "I heard that."
The Chinese Slayers had their own big tent for training, but the sides were rolled up to try to catch whatever breeze there might be, so Buffy could watch them from a nearby rock, her big mug of iced coffee in hand. Every now and then, one of the Slayers would sneak a look in her direction; they knew she was there. She wasn't spying, but she was riveted. Some of their training was familiar, but some of it was as alien as the four moons of this dimension.
"They call this place the hungry prison, and they got here through an underground maze beneath a temple in Beijing," Caridad said, sitting down next to Buffy. "They're fighting for China, not any of the Slayer organizations, but they're Slayers through and through. You should talk to them, most of them speak English."
"I want to talk to them," Buffy said, and then fell silent as the Slayers lined up and began doing a particularly tricky sequence, perfectly synchronized. "Dawn said if you hadn't met up with them, you'd be embracing that strategy called running away right now."
"Dawn's right. More than right. But they're in the same boat as us. They need us, we need them. This is one busy dimension for the demons," Caridad said. "It makes sense, gotta be busy to come up with two different ways to invade Earth from here. Stick around and you'll see how it can get out here."
"Last night was pretty exciting," Buffy agreed.
Caridad crossed her arms. "Last night was peanuts, compared to some of the things we've seen out here."
Buffy stiffened, because there was no yielding in Caridad's posture. There was no glint in her eye that said 'sure, it's hard, but we've got it covered'. Just a hard determination that Buffy recognized. Caridad looked like she was back in Sunnydale.
Carefully, Buffy set her mug down on a nearby rock. "Dawn said it was safe here."
"Dawn doesn't know everything. That's why I snuck out of training early. We need to talk strategy." Caridad stretched, shaking out the tension and casually scanning the area.
Buffy glanced around too, but she didn't see whoever Cari was looking for. She shrugged. "Of course I'll pitch in while I'm here-"
Caridad lowered her voice to an intense undertone. "Good. You're sitting pretty right now, but there's more that you could do. Dawn too."
"No," Buffy said immediately. "Dawn's busy working, and it's not fair to ask her to do anything more. She should have an ordinary summer internship." Buffy frowned. "I mean, ordinary for us. Ordinary like really good letters of recommendation from her summer job in hell."
"That'll make things harder. Everyone likes Dawn."
"Of course they do, she's my sister." Buffy grinned, waved her hand to show she was joking. "I'll just have to stick around to help her, and do what I can to make things better around here. I've got the whole summer free." It was surprisingly easy to offer. She'd had years when being a Slayer wasn't the most important thing in her life, she could afford to volunteer for a summer. "Patrolling and killing evil creatures. Just like the old days."
Cari nodded seriously. "That'll do you some good. You want to be seen helping out, just like you've been doing. And don't spend so much time with Spike-"
Buffy's frown returned. She glanced around, and lowered her voice, even though she was pretty damn sure Spike was still sleeping. The sunlight didn't hurt him here, but he claimed he didn't want to get into bad habits. Buffy thought he was just lazy. "I know he's a vampire, but he's good on patrol."
Caridad shook her head. "That's not what I meant. Spike's a weapon that you're not using, Buffy. The girls like him, he's better at training than any watcher ever was, he knows at least as much about demons, and he fights, too. You ought to let him fight more. Train more. You and Spike, you're the ultimate power couple, and you're not using that."
Buffy was aware that her mouth was hanging open. "Power couple?" This was a perspective on Spike that she'd never heard before. "Power couple. I like it."
Caridad grinned. "You're both heroes."
"Everyone used to- Back in Sunnydale- Vampires-"
"We're Slayers," Caridad said firmly. "The watchers are right about one thing. With us, it's all about power."
Buffy picked up her coffee and sipped it appreciatively. "You know, this could be a lot of fun. I know Spike's been hoping-" She stopped, suddenly realizing the picture in her head, the one of her and Spike on a slaying spree, a making this hell safe for Dawn and Slayers everywhere, wasn't anything like what Caridad was talking about.
Add one Slayer and stir wasn't going to take care of a problem that already had about fifty Slayers involved. Not even if you added a vampire with a soul.
"I don't think this is gonna work," she said.
"You haven't even started yet. Trust me, Buffy, you can make a difference here. We didn't know it, but we were just waiting for you to get here."
"You were- No. There's not enough sense in this picture you're drawing me. Spike can pine for the long nights of patrolly excitement as much as he wants, I chose next best thing to normal years ago, because I finally had a real choice." She stretched out her legs - and pulled a dagger out of her boot with her free hand. Her smile turned wry.
"Almost a real choice." She flipped the dagger into the air, caught it easily. "Once a Slayer, never without a weapon again. But I chose the golems and the occasional quirky adventure, and school and studying and football games the rest of the time. I left the major fighting to the rest of you, the ones who wanted it, and look at you! You've gone further than I ever dreamed when I was sitting on the mouth of hell, trying to contain the worst of it. You've taken the fight to the enemy. I think that's great, but I'm not The Only One Who Can Make A Difference anymore. Why are you telling me to patrol?"
"You need to get out there are show off a little. Get to know all the girls. Reputation is one thing, but it's not gonna take you all the way to the top. Show that what you can do, then they'll support you. You can't take over as our leader if you don't get out there are do some slaying first," Caridad said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
"Wait, what?" Buffy was aware of the Chinese Slayers chanting as they went through their drills. As the adrenaline surged through her, pulling her Slayer sense into overdrive, each individual Slayer popped into stark relief. She could even feel Spike - vampire tingly like a beacon - and the other Slayers all the way on the other side of camp. "That's just-"
"That's just the way it works," Caridad said, leaning in and taking Buffy by the arm. "Don't worry, you're a natural."
Buffy shook Caridad off. "I'm just here to visit Dawn. That's all, I swear. No taking over planned."
"Come on, Buffy. We all know that's why you're here."
"No. No! Why would I want to take over?"
"Why wouldn't you? You led us to victory in Sunnydale. We all know you you from Slayer meetups or summer seminars, and we've all read 'The Easy Way or the Hard Way', it's the new slayer handbook. You're the legendary Buffy Summers, and now you're here, still rocking that Buffy is better vibe, still demanding our attention-"
"You've read my book? Giles said- I mean, I am not demanding. Anything. I'm not demanding anything."
"Are you sure?" Caridad gestured toward Buffy's 'She Who Must Be Obeyed' coffee mug.
"Hey! Spike got this for me. It's funny because it's not true, just ask Dawn!" When Caridad just raised an eyebrow, Buffy added, "And it's big. A girl needs her coffee. My 'I Dig Archaeology' mug just doesn't hold the caffeine."
Caridad pursed her lips. "Archaeology? Really?"
"My major? You should try it - the majoring, not the archaeology, unless you dig archaeology too."
"I wish. The big plan was college when I turned twenty-one." Caridad bit her lip, then shook her head so hard her hair landed in her eyes. She pushed it away impatiently. "But that's not the plan any more. I can't leave, I'm needed here."
Buffy touched Caridad's arm. "I get it. I really do. But you've got to remember that you have choices. That's what being a Slayer is all about now. Choices."
"I made my choice." Caridad stared at Buffy, the conviction in her eyes gradually fading. She looked away. After a while she cleared her throat. "Buffy, you know you can trust me, don't you?"
Buffy scooted over closer to Caridad. "Of course I trust you, but I'm just here for the sisterly visiting times. Promise."
She didn't think Caridad believed her.