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Part one of eight

Episode Fifteen: Into the Breach

by georgevna, fenwic & eep

Silver Bells by Bing Crosby
I'll Be Home for Christmas by Connie Francis
When the Lights Go Out by Oingo Boingo
Blitzkrieg Bop by The Ramones
Search and Destroy by The Stooges
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas by Judy Garland
Happy Christmas (War Is Over) by John Lennon

Shoutouts to all the incredibly talented writers who have worked on this story. Special props to adjrun, AurelioZen, Ehann and cousinjean for the betas, hand-holding, and encouragement. We are deeply indebted to all the real authors out there we've ripped off, from Aaron Sorkin to Tolkien and everyone in between. Huge love to our families, especially mama fenwic for inspiring a great character, mama & papa eep for love and support in times of great upheaval, and to mr. georgevna for supporting his wife's ambitions, even if they are centered around a tv show about a young girl who kills vampires. Massive smooches to Baby G for being the coolest kid in the world.

Thanks to all the loyal readers for waiting patiently. There's more to come!

Finally, we offer big love to one another. The three of us are really enjoying working together on this epic chapter.


*
"Anybody want a refill?" the waitress asked. When seven cups were held out in reply, she simply left the full coffee pot on the table, with a bowl of Half-&-Half packets. "That should hold you." She disappeared into the kitchen.

"Think she's pissed off?" Dawn asked. "I mean - we've been here a long time."

"We're the only people in here! We'll tip well," Buffy responded. "Tipping makes everything better."

Xander smiled across the maps and to-do lists that cluttered the table. "You almost sounded like Anya just then, Buff."

They sat in a booth at Murray's Diner, one of the big ones in the corner with an L-shaped orange Naugahyde bench that extended down two sides of the table. Xander and Giles sat at the inside corner, so that they could work on the maps together. It made sense until Xander had to excuse himself to the bathroom - which required Faith, Dawn and Willow to slide out of their end of the bench to let him out. Buffy sat on Giles's left, with the priest, Father Sanchez, beside her.

They had been there since five-thirty. Buffy had called them all around four a.m., after she'd spoken with Father Sanchez. She had been starving, and insisted on meeting somewhere where they could eat. So they had caravanned - Buffy, Dawn, Faith and Willow in the SUV; Giles, Xander and the priest in Giles's car. They drove north of town for forty minutes before they finally found a truck stop far enough from Sunnydale to still stay open all night. The Watchers and the priest had the beginnings of a battle plan worked out by the time they got there. Now two hours later, as the sun finally rose through the fake snow sprayed on the windows, they were wrapping up.

The stacks of sketches - maps of a battlefield that was, for now, just a field - were sticky with maple syrup and translucent with grease, but Buffy felt good. For one thing, she'd eaten a tall stack of blueberry pancakes and a side of bacon. She had gotten out of Sunnydale, if only barely, for a little while. And they had a plan, an actual honest-to-god battle plan. This time they were going to do it right. They weren't waiting for the last minute, and they had some great ideas. Now all they needed were enough people willing to join the fight.

Buffy yawned. She was hoping to get in a couple of hours sleep before the meeting. "Okay, Dawn - you're on flyer duty, okay? We'll drop you off at the copy center on the way into town, if that's alright."

"Yeah, I'm good. I'll make them run the one announcing the meeting first, so we can plaster the town with dead trees."

"Dead trees are better than dead people," Willow noted. "Besides, those trees are long dead. If we don't make copies out of them, someone else will."

Giles spoke up. "That appears to be everything. We really should get back to Sunnydale." He tried to stand to encourage the others along, but ended up pinned between the bench and the corner of the table.

Buffy stopped him. "No. There's one more problem.... It's about Spike."

Giles knitted his brows and sat back down. "What about him? I'm sure he was successful in getting Dracula moved to a less convenient location, after the rumors we heard last night."

"No, it's not about that. Though I called him just now, when I went to the restroom. He got Dracula all moved in to his swanky new home - the abandoned Lucky's Supermarket on Southard Street." Buffy smiled. Her boyfriend had the weirdest sense of humor. "We should be able to keep a closer eye on Count Euro-trash there."

Dawn tried to keep the worry out of her voice, and failed. "So, then, what's your problem with Spike?"

Buffy took her sister's hand across the table and squeezed it to reassure her. "I don't have a problem with Spike. What I mean is - what do we do about him? We can't let people know he's a vampire, but he can't fight as well if he's always worrying about not getting all bumpy. And I don't want him to get hurt out there if someone, y'know, doesn't understand."

Giles frowned. "Buffy, we have an alliance with Dracula. The people are going to have to understand that some vampires are fighting on our side. I know it's awkward, given your relationship with Spike - and having just gone through your ordeal with Riley. You're scared of losing Spike if the crowd becomes too zealous, or you're worried what people will think of you when they realize you've been dating a vampire." He paused and rubbed his temples. "We'll cross those bridges when we get to them. Right now we need him in the battle. I can't imagine how we could keep his nature a secret."

"I can!" Xander piped up.

No one paid attention, because Buffy was so clearly furious with her Watcher. "You think this is about Spike being my boyfriend? This has nothing to do with that." She shifted away from Giles, almost knocking Father Sanchez off the end of the bench. "Look, you have no idea how hard it was to stake Riley - I almost couldn't do it, because of Spike. Spike being able to control his demon, Spike being able to choose to be good."

Buffy paused and frowned down at the red ribbon she had pulled off the napkin dispenser. She concentrated on ripping it into little strips. "Last night - that wasn't Riley. I hurt Riley a lot, and he was bitter about that - but the vampire wasn't just bitter, he was going to kill me. And once I finally calmed down, I realized that - that wasn't Riley. Riley would never have tried to harm me, no matter how much he hurt."

She looked up at the pained expressions on her friends' faces. "But - the vampire Riley almost killed me last night. Hell, Faith could tell you that a LOT of vampires have almost killed me lately. And it's because I've been hesitating. Because I've been second guessing whether it's right to stake them. Because of Spike." She and Faith shared a half-smile.

"Spike is different, Buffy." The priest spoke up for the first time in forever. He had been animated and extremely helpful when they were mapping out the battle, but since the food had been cleared away he'd mostly stayed quiet and listened. Buffy looked at him - what little was left of his black hair was cut very short, his face looked careworn and fierce, but ... wise. Giles-y. She still couldn't quite process that this was the stinky homeless guy Spike and Dawn had told her about. "Through some series of miracles, Spike is different. Unique."

Buffy sighed. "I know that. I always knew that. But even with everything I know about vampires, the wavering almost got me killed. We're about to confront people with all this information, and ask them to turn around one day later and be prepared to stake a vampire version of their husband. Or their kid. Or their mailman - whatever. And they need to be able to do that without hesitating." She stifled a yawn. "Trying to explain Spike would only make it harder. They need to know that vampires are beyond hope, that they have to be dusted. Otherwise, we'll get them all killed."

Father Sanchez gave her a warm smile. Giles muttered "of course," and shook his head. No one else said a word.

Finally Dawn broke the silence. "Mailman?"

"Okay, so I got carried away." Buffy rolled her eyes. "Work with me here. What are we gonna do? Will? Could you do some sort of a spell so that no one can see him get demony?"

"I have an idea!" Xander broke in.

Willow frowned. "No, Buffy, I can't." Off Buffy's crestfallen look, she explained. "Well, for one thing I'm supposed to be going to the Hellmouth to put that slo-mo spell on the Master so that Faith can stake him. For another, the 'demon hiding' spell would make Spike invisible. Which might be useful in a smaller fight, but it's gonna be crazy out there. He could get, y'know, decapitated, or set on fire by accident."

Buffy nodded. "Oh...." With an exaggerated sigh, she turned to Xander. "Okay, I give up. Let's hear your idea."

Xander grinned. "Alright, prepare to be dazzled...."

***

"Bleeding hell, Giles! Not this again."

"Yes, this again. And stop that!"

"What?"

"That. That... imitating Spike."

"Oh," said Xander.

They'd just pulled away from Murray's. Still high off the meeting, Xander hadn't noticed that Giles put everyone else into Buffy's car until after they drove off. Before he knew it, the two of them were zipping down the road in the convertible. At the moment, Giles held him captive in a conversation he didn't want to have. Xander hoped he'd take the tangent and run with it.

"For five years you've been exposed to a perfectly serviceable British accent that you never saw fit to imitate..."

"Giles?"

"But now every other word is 'bleeding' or 'sodding'. Good Lord. Even Dawn-"

"Giles."

"What?"

"Are you jealous of Spike?"

"Certainly not."

"Because you know you're the #1 British Guy in our hearts, right?" He waited.

Subtle as a house afire. But he was right, of course. "See to it that you don't forget."

Red light.

"Speaking of Britain-"

"We weren't speaking of Britain. We were speaking of our hearts... and... uh... blueberry pancakes, I think."

Vraaaaaam. Giles had thrown it into neutral again. He got used to the right side of the road years ago, yet couldn't remember that Red & Sporty had automatic transmission. He muffled an oath, shifted back into 'D', and they were off again.

"Speaking of Britain-"

"No."

"Xander..."

"How can you bring this up again? Now?"

"It's time for you to move forward with your training. There's only so much I can do for you here."

"Are you serious? You do everything. And it's all about here. Right here. Tomorrow night-"

"Yes, yes, of course. You've had the best field training possible. I recognize that. The Council recognizes that. In fact, they're considering sending apprentices to Sunnydale as part of the requirements."

Xander snorted, "Internships on the Hellmouth. Now I've seen it all."

Giles pressed on. "Conversely, you have everything to gain by going to England. The Council has resources you can't begin to imagine. Why, the library alone-"

"You're drooling."

Giles coughed. "They've experts on every topic, on every subtopic...."

"Sounds thrilling." He fiddled with the radio. Giles slapped his hand.

"Not only that. It's England. And the whole of Europe. There's so much for you to see and experience."

"There's plenty for me to see and experience right here."

"But this is an opportunity-"

"Look. Tomorrow night-"

"Xander!"

Startled, Xander looked at him.

Giles sighed. He didn't mean to yell at the boy, but he had to get him thinking about the future. Any future. He'd noticed the change in him. The sense of purpose that masqueraded as hope. Xander concentrated all his energies - his entire life - onto one night. And one night only. If he went into battle with no thought for the morning after....

No. Giles had to change that. He needed Xander to think about the many days yet to come. He needed Xander to think about-

"Willow." The simplicity of it awed him.

"What?"

"Willow will go with you." By rights she should. And he should have realized that long ago.

"Say huh?"

"The same resources that are available to you are available to her. Well, you may not wish to attend a weekend seminar on the mandrake root.... But you could if you wanted."

"Willow..."

"There's even less that I can do for her. She has enormous potential, some of it already realized. But she needs guidance. And discipline."

For a moment, Xander felt his throat tighten. No argument there.

When he spoke, he sounded younger than he had since summertime, "What about you guys?"

"We'll be all right, Xander. I promise." He'd already seen to that.

But Xander was bewildered. This felt too familiar. This felt like... like... "Giles? Why do you want me to leave?"

Giles stole a glance at him. Poor boy. Will he never realize his true worth?

"So that you can hurry up and come back home."

Xander looked away, stared at the road ahead. Then, "Okay. I'll talk to Willow."

Giles exhaled. Good. Good.

They drove the rest of the way in silence.

When they finally arrived at the shop, Giles pulled up next to Xander's car. The young Watcher got out and shut the door. But he had one more question.

"What about Faith?"

"I'll look after Faith, of course. But while you're away the Council will send a Watcher officially assigned to her."

"Just make sure-"

"-she isn't evil," Giles finished. "Yes, the Council has a 24-hour hotline for that now."

"No. I was gonna say, just make sure it isn't Wesley." With that he got into his own car and drove off to make his first house call.

***

Xander knocked on the steel door. "Hey Charlie, you home?" he called.

He heard shuffling inside the apartment. "Who's there?" Charlie called from behind the door.

"It's Xander Harris. I used to work with you."

The door opened a crack and Xander saw his former foreman's face behind the chain lock. "What do you want?"

"I need to talk to you. Can you step outside for a moment?"

"How do I know you're not one of them?"

Xander sighed. "Charlie, look around. If I were a vampire, wouldn't I be smoking like a Hibachi?"

The foreman looked Xander squarely in the eye, then glanced up to the sky. White clouds rolled across the blue plain above, and sunlight streamed down on the town. Charlie grimaced at his own mistake. He shut the door to undo the chain, and opened it wide. "Sorry about that. Just kind of on edge."

"Yeah, I know how you feel," Xander replied as Charlie joined him on the sidewalk.

"So what's going on?" Charlie pulled the door to behind him.

"You still in touch with the guys from work?"

Charlie nodded. "The ones who are still alive, yeah."

"Great. We'll need them all. And is there anything left at the construction site? Machines, tools, that kind of stuff?"

"Uh, yeah, probably. Why?" He looked at Xander sideways and frowned.

"Look, I'm on the level here. Call the guys, tell them there's a meeting over at the amphitheater down near the docks, at noon. I'll explain all of this then.... Oh, and can I borrow your truck while we're at it?" Xander asked. "I've got some stuff to pick up...."

***

Willow huddled in a dorm room, the curtains drawn and the lights out. Two other girls sat with her on the floor, both clutching their knees to their chests.

"We were going to go home for Christmas," Nicole explained, gesturing to the brunette girl at her left. "But the bus station has completely shut down."

"My mom and dad don't have a car in the city, so they can't drive up here to pick me up," Cheryl added.

"At first we were worried that we'd have no place to stay over winter break. But when we came back to the dorm, all of the R.A.s were gone. So we just decided to camp out here until we could figure out a way to get home," Nicole explained

"And then all of this started...." Cheryl said, her voice trailing off.

"I'm afraid to go outside anymore," Nicole whispered. "We just sit in here all day and night, hoping that they won't find us. All we have left to eat are cold Pop-Tarts."

"Did you hear what they did to Chloe? She was found in the alley behind the movie theater." Cheryl's voice lowered to a whisper as she leaned in towards Willow. "They tore open her throat and her wrists. Completely mutilated her."

Willow grimaced. "That's horrible."

"It's better than what happened to Darcie," Cheryl insisted as Nicole chewed on a strand of her hair. "She's one of them now."

"Willow, what are we going to do?" Nicole broke in.

The young witch smiled. "We're going to stop them. But I'm going to need your help. Do you know if there are any others from your Wicca group around?"

Cheryl's brow knitted as she thought. "Amanda lives here in town. Maybe she's okay. Why?"

"I need you to call her," Willow instructed. "I need you to cast a spell."

"What?" Nicole scoffed. "We can't cast spells. That's all pretend."

Willow was taken aback. "No, it's not. This is real stuff here."

"I don't think so," Nicole snitted, rolling her eyes. "I just can't believe you. Here we are, being preyed on by vampires, and you stroll in here telling us we can stop them by spell casting? Whatever. This is nuts."

Cheryl looked at Nicole in amazement. "You don't believe in this?" she asked.

Nicole laughed. "Of course not! This was just something I did to tick off my parents. The crystals, the herbs, the self-blessing candles? Hello, not real."

"It is real!" Willow snapped. "How can you not believe in this? You believe in the vampires that march up and down these hallways at night, killing your friends and making monsters out of the others, right? How can you believe that's happening without believing in the good that counteracts that? That's what we can do here-some good!"

Nicole's face fell. "Even if I do believe it, I don't have the skills to make it work. I can't cast spells."

"You can if others help you," Willow said.

"There's more power in more people," Cheryl agreed.

Willow took Cheryl's hand in hers, then held out her other hand to Nicole. "Come on. I'll teach you."

Nicole looked down at the girls, her arms folded across her chest. She swayed nervously back and forth.

"Please, Nicole," Willow pleaded. "People's lives depend on this."

With a dramatic sigh, the girl sat down with the others. "What do we have to do?"

Willow smiled. "It's just a chant, really, but it needs your total concentration. Just follow my lead." She shut her eyes and began to chant, repeating the verse upon its completion. With every repetition the others caught more words. Soon they recited the spell from memory.

Suddenly a jolt shot through their arms, as if electricity traveled through the circuit formed by their linked hands. They all stopped their whispered incantation and opened their eyes. "Did it work?" Cheryl asked.

Willow grinned. "Yeah... it did."

***

Father Sanchez felt tired. Since he’d started the overnight training sessions on campus, he’d gotten used to staying up all night - but he usually slept through the daylight. That wasn’t going to happen today.

Buffy had dropped him off on campus, and he hurried to the auditorium where the nightly meetings were held. Most of the people who had attended last night were there already, along with several dozen others. Jonathan had been busy on the phones.

Father Sanchez sent the boy to the copy center to pick up Dawn’s flyers. While they waited for him to return, some of the volunteers pored over a map of Sunnydale, dividing up the residential areas. The blue-haired grand dames of Sacred Heart Parish - Mrs. McGready and Mrs. Danvers - had brought coffee and donuts. The three-egg breakfast he’d eaten at Murray’s sat in his stomach like a rock, but Father Sanchez still ate a donut. He knew better than to offend Mrs. McGready and Mrs. Danvers.

Eventually, Jonathan returned with the flyers, and one hundred and thirty people took to the streets of Sunnydale, going door-to-door to spread the word. Jonathan called them “Sanchez’s Soldiers.” Father Sanchez scowled and ran a hand over his bald forehead, as if he could smooth away his less-than-charitable thoughts.... Jonathan worked hard at the training sessions, and had done a lot of people a lot of good. Jonathan had a heart of gold. Jonathan was a nice kid.

Still - “Sanchez’s Soldiers”? What was wrong with that boy’s head?

***

Nine-thirty in the morning, in the projects. Father Sanchez used to know people here. He used to run a community center around the corner that offered daycare and job training and referrals to drug and alcohol clinics. But that was in another lifetime. He didn’t know anyone here now. He had opted out of that. He had abandoned them in favor of curling up in a little ball with a bottle of whiskey.

He had known about vampires for a long time. In fact he’d seen his first vampire in a dilapidated courtyard in this very complex. The people who lived here were easy targets, and nobody would miss them. He sometimes wondered why he had been able to accept vampires, but had suffered a breakdown over the Mayor turning into a snake. Maybe because it had been daylight. Maybe because the thing had seemed unstoppable. Maybe because he had run screaming from the stands and left children to face the monster alone.

He shifted the heavy satchel holding his supply of flyers to his left shoulder. None of that mattered right now. The meeting was in two and a half hours, and the people who lived in the Richard Wilkins Urban Residential Park had a right to be a part of this.

He walked into the empty lobby of the first of four high rises. After the “incident” at graduation a couple of years ago the City Council had voted to change the name to “Sunnydale Heights” - but apparently they forgot to assign funds to change the signs. Or they assigned the funds, and the contractor forgot to do the work…. He walked over to the bank of elevators. No one had bothered to take down the Mayor’s picture, either, though the glass was long gone from the frame. The smiling face had been incorporated into an elaborate graffiti mural - the artist had added a serpent’s body that snaked its way across the cinderblocks for the length of the wall.

After an eternity, the elevator arrived and took him to the ninth floor. Might as well start at the top. The airless hallway smelled of urine and smoke and alcohol. A bleary light came through the filthy windows at either end of the hall. The place looked deserted, but he could hear babies screaming, deranged laughter, blaring television sets. He wondered whether anything would change if the Master opened the Hellmouth. Would the people living here notice any difference?

***

Two hours and seven buildings later, Father Sanchez was out of flyers. Most of the time, no one had answered the door. He had heard people laughing, talking, cursing at the television - but when he knocked the sound ended abruptly. He slipped the flyers under the door.

In a few cases, the residents had been brave enough to open their doors, though they kept the chains on, and spoke through the three-inch crack. Only a handful of people had unchained their doors and let him in when they’d seen his collar, and the crucifix he carried. Still, he’d left some one thousand flyers behind, and felt pretty good about that. Just because people don’t want to answer their door, doesn’t mean they don’t care. It just means they’re scared. Who wouldn’t be? Surely, some of them would come out.

Father Sanchez found a seat on the bus and looked at his watch. Eleven thirty. He yawned and closed his eyes. He needed more coffee. Coffee and a whole lot of cigarettes. He felt himself dozing off.

The bus stopped again, for the third time since he had climbed on. If they were going to make every single stop he’d never get to the amphitheater on time. He opened his eyes when the person next to him scooted over, accidentally shoving him against the window. The bus was full, the aisle was packed. Every rider clutched a bright yellow flyer.

***

Spike paced in the wings at the Kinko's Copies Amphitheatre of Sunnydale and lit another cigarette. Several thousand people sat on the lawn and listened with rapt attention as Harris outlined the situation for them. The boy sure had grown up a lot in the past year. Giles had meetings of his own to attend, with what was left of the Sunnydale city government. But Xander was doing a pretty good job running the show here - considering how thick-headed these people usually were. He laid it all out: vampires are real, they've taken over the town, they are trying to end the world. The audience hung on his every word. These people had lived their whole lives in denial, but now they were hungry for the truth.

Once he'd gone over the basics, Harris introduced the Slayers. Faith took one look at the crowd and froze up, leaving it to Buffy to lay out the battle plans, including the alliance with Dracula. The audience murmured at the name, but Buffy quickly silenced them. "Dracula is real. He's just spent more time on PR than most vampires." Spike chuckled. In the distance, he heard the Christmas music being piped at warehouse row. The dilapidated buildings on the far edge of the field could easily be hiding vampires, but if any of them tried to make out what was being planned, they'd hear nothing but Perry Como and Bing Crosby tunes.

So he waited, and smoked. Xander had just resumed speaking when a series of distant explosions interrupted him. Thank god. Giles must have gotten some action out of the Public Works people after all. They couldn't undo one hundred years of demon-friendly city planning, but they could at least block off the main tunnels underground. If they could only set this up right, they might stand a chance....

Spike lit another cigarette. C'mon, when is it going to be time for show & tell with Spike? Harris had been maddeningly tight-lipped about his plan. Buffy knew all about it - but when Spike asked her she only grinned. Great. He was a joke. That was all he knew.

Spike let his mind wander. He wondered if the people resented the gang for dragging them into this, instead of quietly making it go away so that they could keep pretending Sunnydale was safe. Between the two Slayers and himself, they had been staking between thirty and sixty vampires a night. They set a record one night last week, when the total was almost eighty. If the vampires were taking over the town, it wasn't the Slayers' fault.

"Spike! Spike, come on out here!" From the tone, Spike guessed Xander'd been calling his name for a while.

"Keep your knickers on, Watcher!" Spike stamped out his cigarette and strode onto the stage. The sun had fallen in the sky just enough and the east-facing bandshell shaded most of the stage.

"Ladies and gentlemen, here's the guy I've been telling you about - this is Spike!"

The audience applauded for no reason Spike could discern. He stopped in his tracks, about ten feet behind Xander. What are you up to, Harris? The young man grinned at Spike, then turned back to the audience. He was enjoying this way too much. Spike glanced at Buffy, standing on the left side of the stage. Her eyes darted away and she stifled a laugh.

Xander spoke softly into the microphone. "Spike is an expert on vampires. He has studied them for years." Xander's voice was low, persuasive - as if he were sharing some vital secret, rather than blowing smoke out his ass. Boy should go into bloody politics. "What's unique about Spike is... he has them all convinced that he is a vampire. In the battle tomorrow night, he'll be fighting alongside Dracula's troops, keeping an eye on them for us."

Xander was on a roll now. "I said this before, but it's so important I'm gonna go over it again. This is all TOP SECRET. This isn't just about tomorrow night - this is about what happens afterwards too, because we're always gonna need Spike on our side. You can never blow his cover! That's why I can't even tell you his real name. If you ever let on that he's not a vampire, you could undo years of his hard work, years of perfecting his disguise, years of hiding from the sunlight so that no real vampire ever suspects the truth!"

Spike glared at Xander. "Now look here, Watcher, I -"

Xander cut him off, "Spike, Spike! I know how modest you are; I know that you don't ask for any thanks...." Xander turned and winked, walking towards him. "But you deserve some recognition. What you have done for the good of mankind - risking your life, going undercover gather information on vampires - it's amazing! Meeting you has been like - like meeting Batman!" Xander had his arm around Spike now, and walked him up to the front of the stage. The boy took his hand, shook it enthusiastically, and declared, "You're a real hero!"

To Spike's disgust, the audience burst into applause again. Xander patted him vigorously on the back - so vigorously that Spike almost lost his balance. The hand he put out to steady himself reached into the sunlight at the edge of the stage.

"Bloody hell, Harris!" Spike howled, as his fingers smoked. In his pain he hadn't noticed that his face had twisted into the demonic visage. The crowd's shrieks and gasps let him know pretty quickly, though. He morphed back into his human face, which brought a second round of gasps. Followed immediately by a fresh burst of applause.

"What did I tell you?" Xander crowed. "The man is a master of disguise!" Xander let the crowd cheer a moment longer before putting up his hand for quiet. "So, Spike, would you care to tell us how you did that? How did you make your hand catch fire? How did you make your face all bumpy? 'Cause I gotta tell you, it sure looked like the real thing to me!"

"Well..." Spike started, at a loss for words. Buffy grinned at him maniacally from the side of the stage. "Um... actually that's a secret." He wracked his brain for something that sounded plausible. "I learned it from - Tibetan monks. Years ago. And I was sworn to secrecy. And... it takes a lot of control, and years of discipline. That's, uh, that's all I'm permitted to say."

The crowd erupted again, and Spike finally smiled. It was a ridiculous story, a preposterous story - but these were preposterously gullible people. They could accept that he was some sort of mystical Zen-master super-spy before they could believe the truth. So be it. He bowed low to acknowledge the applause, and grinned at Harris. The beauty of the plan dawned on him. He could go into battle suited up - but this also paved the way for his entire future with Buffy. He could run around town under his smoking blanket, get carted around in a box, refuse to step out onto a sunny porch, all without raising suspicion.

"Woo-hoo! Spike! SPIKE!" Buffy shrieked. She waved a lighter over her head and bounced on the balls of her feet. "Spiiiiike!" What a ham She was still going to have to pay for keeping him in the dark. He waggled an eyebrow at her. He was just enjoying the musical sound of her laughter, when Harris called them both back to the moment.

***

A scruffy young vampire pushed his way through the crowd; he reached the far end of the hall and collapsed to the floor. "Master, the tunnels are closing!"

A murmur rose from the throngs who filled the underground chamber, and he continued. "Explosions! The tunnels are caving in. They're going to trap us down here forever!"

The Master extended his right arm to help the terrified vampire to his feet. "My boy, where were you raised?"

The young vampire looked utterly confused. "Well, we lived in Stockton 'til I was nine, and then my dad got this job at -"

The Master snarled, exasperated. "Not that, you idiot! When you died, and were raised as a vampire. Where were you when you rose?"

"Right here, Master. In the tunnels."

"So you didn't have a funeral, and a coffin, and your mother's prayers?"

"No sir."

The Master looked around the room. The news that the humans were blocking the tunnels had the place in an uproar. "Silence!" he roared. That got their attention.

"How many of you weren't buried in a cemetery? How many of you rose here?"

Over half the hands in the room shot into the air.

He shook his head, and held his arms wide as if to embrace them all. "My children, you are still so young. The whole world awaits you when the Hellmouth yawns and the Old Ones come forth." His arms dropped to his sides. "Or you can claw your way back to the surface with your bare hands. Most of you missed out on that experience. Might do you some good."

***

"Die, blood-sucker!"

Spike managed a bemused smile and shook his head at the frat boy staking him with a cardboard tube. "That's not the heart. That's the spleen... Try it again."

"Die, blood-sucker!"

"Try to concentrate more on your aim, and less on your battle-cry, mate. You try to stake a real vampire in the shoulder, you won't live long enough to regret it. Here." He positioned the roll over his heart. "If you're not hitting ribs, you're way off base."

He sighed. The afternoon seemed endless. These people weren't supposed to be in the fight. They were just supposed to contain the vampires. Scoobies, Drac's army, and the humans who had some kind of battle skills - they were supposed to do the dusting. Still, these people had to be ready. They had to be ready to fight when their nightmares came to life.

Most people froze the first time they saw a vampire. Spike had seen it in his victims countless times. Some pleaded for mercy, a few even tried to fight him off, but they were always handicapped - not just by their weak bodies, but by their shock. So here he was, morphing in and out of game-face, patiently enduring the same jokes, the same questions, being stared at like a side-show freak. But at least this way these people would have a fighting chance.

A middle-aged woman with a shock of white in her black hair approached him. He put on his game face, which always drew a gasp one-on-one. She didn't even flinch.

"I've seen them before," Erlinda Bacani said quietly. "I was one of the prisoners in their warehouse...." Her voice trailed off, and Spike resumed his human face. "You don't have to put on your show for me."

"Well, what can I do for you, pet?" he asked gently.

"Teach me." Her eyes flashed. "I want to know how you do that - how you fool them. How you make them think you're one of them so that they don't...." She scowled back her tears. "So that they don't try to kill you."

Spike stared at her, amazed. "I can't. It's... it's very complicated. And it's dangerous. 'Sides, it's not necessary. You just need to know how to kill them before they kill you."

She sighed. "Okay. Teach me that, then."

***

Dawn stood up from the table at the side of the stage and stretched. She was the last stop for all those with "no special skills" - which was pretty much everybody. First they went to see Spike, maybe try to 'stake' him. Then Buffy worked with them in groups of ten or twelve, demonstrating defensive moves, talking about tricks of the trade. Strange, it had never occurred to Dawn that a vampire could be staked through the back. That sounded safe...er. At least it hadn't occurred to her before today. Now she'd heard Buffy go through her spiel so many times she knew it by heart.

Then they came to see Dawn, who handed out holy water, stakes and crosses. She'd designed the pamphlets and flyers: "How to Kill a Vampire," "Common Myths about Vampires," "Is My Boss Undead?" She opened another box of stakes and arranged them on the table. Good thing Xander had been obsessed with whittling.

She could see Xander, out on the lawn, talking to a group of burly men - welders and construction workers. Giles was off somewhere with the people who had some experience in archery, fencing or marksmanship. Faith was working with the military and police officers, flipping and being flipped, and having a ball. Dawn sighed, happy. So now everyone in town knew that her freak sister and her sister's weirdo boyfriend were superheroes. And they all thought Dawn was normal. This was pretty cool.

A middle-aged couple climbed the stairs to the stage. The well-dressed woman looked familiar, somehow. Maybe she was one of Buffy's professors? Dawn had gone to class with Buffy a couple of times - back when Buffy had classes. Definitely academic types.

They looked at the line of people waiting to see Spike, and at the crowd gathered around Buffy, before heading over to her table. Dawn smiled cheerfully, and for the billionth time that day chirped, "Hi! Just take one each of the holy water, crosses and stakes. We need some volunteers back here around ten o'clock tomorrow morning. If you are planning on participating in the battle, please try to make it by at least an hour before sunset."

The man with the well-manicured salt and pepper beard picked up the flyer about the invitation rule - "The Safest Place is Your Own Home." He glanced at it and folded it into his pocket. "Actually, we just have a question. We're looking for Willow Rosenberg. I thought she was on the stage earlier, but we haven't seen her in hours. Do you know her? Do you know where she is?" He scanned the area around the stage as he spoke.

"Willow? Oh, yeah, she's one of my best friends! She's over there - " Dawn gestured towards a small clump of people seated under a tree. "She's training the witches. She can't do all the spells by herself. Even Willow's not quite that powerful...." Dawn beamed with pride, but her voice died when she saw confusion and sorrow cross their faces.

Without another word, Ira and Sheila Rosenberg left the stage and drove home.

***

He heard the key turn and subconsciously braced himself. Faith burst in, then slammed the door behind her. She was neither angry nor upset. She was just... Faith.

"Giles!" she called. That had become habit. Even if he was in plain sight when she walked in the door.

He'd just poured himself a cup of tea. Now he peeked at the window. "It's after dark. You have the night off so that you can avoid injury and get some rest."

She dropped her keys on the desk, then grimaced, working her sore wrist. "You wanna tell that to the soldier boys and cops who spent all afternoon pretending I'm a she-vamp?" She walked into the kitchen, squeezed past him to the fridge, and dug out a Coke.

"The sessions ended almost two hours ago. Where have you been?"

"The caterers."

"The caterers." He paused. "I beg your pardon, the what?"

"The caterers." Thwap, she opened the can, slurped the foam that threatened to overflow and made her way to the couch.

"Caterers."

"Ye-eah," she said. "The guys who drive by your house and bring you food, instead of, y'know, the other way around? That's what they're called, right?"

He brought his cup into the living room. "You were talking to caterers... Tonight..."

"Yeah."

"Caterers were talking to you."

"Yeah."

"Faith, I don't understand."

"For Christmas dinner!" Did the man hit his head?

Giles waited for more.

"Remember? You said we could have it. Here. I said I'd take care of it. I have."

"Faith, I was just going to make-"

"Christmas goose and glazed ham? When? Somewhere between meeting with the cops, the fire department, the city planning guys and the PTA? After digging trenches to China, but before training little old ladies how to chop off heads?"

"Right, well, Mrs. Martin is neither old, nor little," he muttered, "and she can swing a sword just fine."

"Giles. I didn't want you to have to. I don't want to have to, but I want a real Christmas dinner, so I'm paying two guys to have to."

"Who on earth-"

"Alan and Guido."

"What? Who? Who's bringing us Christmas goose?"

"Alan and Guido. Two gay guys work out of a little shop by the hospital."

"Why don't I find that reassuring."

"And we're not really having goose, we're having pot roast. Pot roast with some chi-chi sauce. Chi-chi potatoes. Chi-chi turkey and stuffing - mmm, they make a killer stuffing, Giles! - chi-chi desert and oh, yeah, some chi-chi vegetable thing. I tried to trade in the vegetable thing for more cherry pie and they squealed about their chi-chi artistic food integrity." She rolled her eyes. "So don't be surprised if we get little squashes carved into swans or something."

It took Giles several seconds to find words. "But how-"

"I told them they didn't have to fight if they cooked for the troops."

Off Giles's look, she rushed to defend her actions. "It's an important job! An army kills on its stomach, right? Or whatever. Besides, Alan and Guido weren't gonna be killing a whole lot of vamps anyway if ya know what I mean, they might as well kill us a pot roast and a turkey." She watched him. "It's okay, right?"

He smiled. What else could he do?

"You're very resourceful, Faith, I'm quite impressed. I look forward to the Alan & Guido Show with great anticipation."

She was happy again.

***

Everyone had the night off. But that didn't mean they would rest. Or avoid injury.

Spike's head tilted back and just off the foot of the bed. It's not where he started, just where he ended up. Her head lay in the middle of the bed, pointing the other direction.

He had her by both hands and - he looked left - a foot. A thin layer of sweat covered them both. He maneuvered his left leg under her and then pulled her right leg around so that she could -

Laugh.

So that she could laugh so hard that the whole bed shook.

He lifted his head and glared at her. "Hey!"

She didn't even try to stop.

"Hey! I'm workin' on something here! And I could do without the laugh track."

"Yeah? Uh, well-" She could barely breathe, for laughing. "You wanna fill me in on the plan? 'Cause you lost me about three exits back." More laughing. Her shoulders shook. She wrested a hand free and slapped the mattress. Over and over.

"I'll fill you in," he muttered.

"No, seriously!" She was not at all serious. "Can you explain to me, please, using small words and visual aids, what we're trying to do here?"

More mattress-slapping. And now, full-blown guffaws. At this point, she couldn't stop if she wanted to.

"Fine!" He dropped her other limbs, let his head fall back. "I'm trying to make you feel better. I'm trying to make you feel good, and you think it's high comedy."

She had the decency to look sheepish. "Ah, honey, no. I'm sorry. I'm-" She glanced over the bed, took in their sprawling, impossible position and was off again.

"Buffy!"

"No, please. I'm sorry. I'll stop." She wound down to mere giggles. "I'm stopping. Really." She got hold of herself, took deep breaths. "See? All done."

He didn't look up.

"Spike, really. Spike?" She propped herself up on her elbows and tried to play. "Hey, I have an idea!"

He didn't move. Just an insolent "Well?"

"Let's do it in the car."

His head popped up. "What?!? Nooo!"

"C'mon, Spike. I've never done it in a car."

"Because you've a perfectly decent house, and a perfectly decent bed."

"But isn't that what young lovers do?"

He looked at her.

"Young at heart?"

He looked at her.

"C'mon!"

"No! No I won't! It's only ever good for the woman. I end up with the gear shift jamming my ribs and the steering wheel getting a little too familiar. Besides." He pouted. "It's cold out there."

"Fine!"

"Fine!"

"Good!"

"Good!"

They fell back on the bed, their heads still pointing north and south, and stared at the ceiling.

He peeked at her.

"Buffy."

Nothing.

"Buffy, c'mon. Come here."

"You come here."

He sighed, extricated himself from the tangle he'd created and sidled up her body. She in turn sidled up the bed while he trailed after her until - ow - headboard. He grinned. She rubbed her head and then draped an arm over his shoulder, curled a leg around his.

"I'm sorry I twisted you like a pretzel."

"Twirled me like spaghetti."

"Pulled you like taffy."

She laughed. His favorite sound in the world. He'd endure a world of teasing to hear it. They lay still a moment.

Then he ran a hand down her arm, all the way to her fingertips. "I love these arms, and these hands." Off her fingers, his hand found her hip. "I love this body. This body is home to me."

He moved up and kissed her shoulder. Long, firm kisses in a trail toward her neck. Traveling at glacial speed - it would take him a week to get there. She was sure the wait would kill her.

"Spike."

The hand on her hip slid under her thigh and nudged it a little. Up, and out.

He moved up further and she felt him hard against her. She felt caught. Caught in that wicked place between exquisite anticipation and demanding, urgent need.

The hand she had round his shoulder moved to his neck, while the other one headed south. He grabbed them both and pushed them down to her sides.

"What the-"

"No more taffy." Before she could answer, he moved quickly and pushed all the way inside her. She caught her breath and her legs twitched. She never got used to this, prayed she never would. He didn't release her hands.

"Spike-"

He lowered his head, touching his cheek to hers. Then he used his legs to push hers together, an effort that produced remarkable results. Spike closed his eyes and allowed himself a "hmmph."

"Oh!" she started. "Oh. That's-" She took a breath. Deep and slow, then she exhaled. "Wow."

Cheek to cheek, shoulder to shoulder, bellies, hips, knees. The tops of his feet lay almost flat against the tops of hers.

His lips brushed her ear. "Don't move."

It was harder now he told her. Just as he knew it would be. "I wanna move!"

He raised his head and looked at her. "Don't. Move."

He released her hands, and she held them still. His arms came round and over her head, grabbed the posts on the headboard.

She held her breath, then let it out with a gasp. She knew he was moving. She could feel him inside her, could hear herself breathing. But her eyes never left his, and his face was absolute stillness. He gripped the posts and she felt him push in just a little bit deeper. Then he eased back, but with their bodies fit so tightly together, the pulling sensation was no less intense. And so he moved, deliberate, never quickening the pace. In fact each thrust got longer, harder. She realized he lifted a little at the end of each one. Stroking her ever so slightly from the inside.

It took more stamina for her to stay still than it would've to flail around for hours. The tension made her legs shake. Her fists clenched and unclenched. She had to remind herself to breathe. He gripped the posts again and her chin went up and her eyes squeezed shut and she made up her mind to make no sound.

He spoke again. "Open your eyes."

Still working on the breathing.

"Open your eyes. Look at me."

She did. She opened them wide, and blinked, and blinked and blinked. Her breathing hitched and from the inside out, she felt like a metal coil pushed all the way down. The pressure....

"Oh, god." She closed her eyes again.

One hand released the headboard and caressed her face. "Look at me. Yeh, that's it." His movements intensified. Once again, the whole bed shook.

Her lips parted and her breathing grew louder. He placed his thumb on her mouth and held it there. "Not yet."

He pushed deeper still, felt her, watched her. When her chin went up again, his hand left her face. "I want you to look at me, Buffy. Look at me and say my name."

Her chin came down and her hands grasped his face. "I... love... I... Oh god, oh god."

The coil sprung and she fought to keep her body still, and her eyes on his. "Spike? Spike. Spike!" And then she couldn't stop shaking. She wrapped her arms around his neck and hung on. She felt like she was falling off the edge of the world with only him to hold onto.

So he held her. He knew that feeling all too well.

***

Darla stood in front of the Haklar demon and plunged in her sword. She had to work quickly. The ritual was quite clear - the liver ripped from a living Haklar. The behemoth twitched against the heavy chains that held it, and let out a soft scream - Haklars intimidated their adversaries with their sheer size, and had never bothered to evolve much of a roar. Darla hacked at its belly. Intestines sprang out and fell in bloody ribbons on the floor around her feet. In the end she had to reach both arms into the beast's innards and rip the organ out with her hands.

If Drusilla were here, she'd be doing this. Drusilla had loved rituals and sacrifices more than anything in the world, except maybe those damn dolls. And her traitorous child.

Darla pushed the thought from her mind. Her revenge now lay in the Master's hands; when the Hellmouth opened she would deal with Spike. After she dealt with the Slayer. And Dracula....

She turned to carry the enormous organ to the sacrificial altar. Green blood and black bile ran down her arms and stained her dress. The liver slipped from her hands.

"Darla, don't tax yourself. I'm sure someone else can carry that." The Master smiled, but she knew he was mocking her. He understood her paranoia. He knew that there was no one she could trust to do this for her - she would always suspect they were trying to usurp her place at his side.

She picked the organ off the floor and slung it across her shoulder. This dress was ruined already. She doubled over under the weight, and shuddered when the tip of the slimy thing brushed against the back of her knee.

She missed Drusilla.

***

Xander unlocked the door and went inside. He laid his coat over the chair, and his keys on the counter. Then he went into the kitchen, turned on the light, and opened the fridge. Nothing. Just like yesterday, and the day before. He kept forgetting to get stuff to put in there.

But other things got done today. Big, important things. Recruiting, meeting, training. With Charlie and some of the other guys, he had enough good men to lead the teams. Plus, he'd spotted some talent in the training sessions. He smiled. Since when had he become everybody's Watcher?

He finally found saltines in the cabinet and settled onto the couch with them. He could eat out of the box if he wanted. Drink milk out of the carton too. If there was one.

Except for the table, the place was neat, tidy. He lived like a guest in his own home, like he didn't want to disturb the people who really lived there. Because they had a routine, and they were happy. His own life went forward everywhere but here.

He went back over the day's activities, made a mental list for tomorrow. His head was filled with the business of war. Blueprints, weapons, supplies, strategies - red pieces moved here and there across a map, countering whatever the blue pieces threw at them.

He'd come a long way from the frightened guy who showed up at the party with nothing but a rock. To save the world, yes, but really to save his friends. To save a girl.

Now he planned a war with a cast of thousands, but like before, it was really about one girl.

He stared at her, at the box.

He'd been amazed that there was anything about Death In Sunnydale that he didn't already know. Surprise. Here was something new. After they cremate your fiancée, they hand her to you in a cardboard box sealed with packing tape. Inside it, a plastic bag, also sealed with tape. He considered the box with a strange mix of dread and wonder. It looked like the one you got when you joined Columbia House. Sixteen CDs for a penny.

It occurred to him that maybe she should be in something else. Jerkwad Funeral Guy had tried to show him a roomful of urns, but he was sick of urns. He was sick of flower holders and plaques. He was sick of brass and pewter and marble and stone. He was sick. Literally. He'd bolted from the room to go vomit. That was the end of the urn discussion.

And so since Thanksgiving Day, the love of his life had been sitting on the kitchen counter in a cardboard box. Tomorrow was Christmas Eve. Tomorrow he would fight. But not for her, he realized. Too late for her.

Please, don't let anyone else die.

He needed to sleep, but he didn't like to. He feared something. Not the monsters - he had plans for them - something else, something....

He got up and drifted around the apartment. He turned on some music, started some coffee, opened the windows. Now he stood in the center of the room, surrounded by noise, light, and the cold night air. He walked toward the bedroom, stopped at the door, then turned and walked back to the table, a mountain of books and charts and papers. He knew the answer was in there somewhere. Or there would be more wars like this war. More pain like this pain.

So Xander shook his head, sat down, and went to work.

***

"Sorry we're late!" Buffy called, as she and Spike hurried to the table in the back of the shop. They took the empty seats between Willow and Faith. "Did we miss anything?"

Faith smirked across the table, and Buffy wondered if the other Slayer had noticed her slight limp. "There wasn't much to miss, B. No vamps out last night."

Giles leaned against the counter. "Detective Grant confirmed this. Their officers didn't encounter any vampire activity at all."

"What, they knew we needed a break? How thoughtful." Buffy grinned. "And here I was, planning to kill 'em all tonight."

"It's not like that." Willow explained. "We think the Master has summoned them all to the Hellmouth for the Ritual." She was pale, her eyes wide. "I don't think... I don't know if we can stop them, Buffy."

Buffy took her friend's hand. "Will? This is no time to turn into Fatalistic Girl. We're going to need you tonight."

"Sorry. It's just - it's almost the dark moon. It gives me the heebie-jeebies. And it makes it hard to do any kind of white magic. If we don't do this tonight - well, I don't think there would be much I could do to help out tomorrow."

"Which is why we do this tonight," Buffy replied. She'd never gone into an apocalypse feeling this confident, and she wasn't about to let Willow's moon bring her down.

"I might've found something." Xander looked at Giles, who motioned for him to go on. "I did a lot of research into the Master, back before... before he came back. And it was really confusing, because there seemed to be all these different vampires called 'the Master,' but each time there were accounts of him finally being staked. And then another account of another 'Master' rising. The Watcher Diaries always assumed they were different vampires, but last night, I finally figured it out."

Buffy looked at Xander blankly. He continued, "Well - what if there's only ever been the one Master, and he keeps being brought back? It makes sense." His voice rose and his eyes shown with excitement. "The histories always talk about the Master as this ancient creature, who finally gets defeated - and then the next Master on record is always 'made' a few years later. But the new one always looks and acts exactly like the old one did, all prune-faced and Hell-obsessed. Even though he's supposedly a completely different guy."

Buffy frowned and looked down at the table. "Great. So I stake him, he'll come back in a few years. Surprise, surprise. I already figured that out."

Giles spoke quietly. "Buffy, you don't understand."

Buffy looked up at her Watcher. "I don't understand? This guy killed me. A few months later, a bunch of his cronies tried to bring him back - remember? We stopped that, but now he's back anyway. I see the pattern, Giles."

Giles sighed. "Revivification is very rare. I only know of one other vampire who has ever been restored - Darla. From what Wesley tells me, the spell that was used for Darla was specific to her - because the Scrolls of Aberjian contain prophecies directly related to Angel, and only to Angel." Giles was pacing, but he stopped himself. "Even if Darla and Drusilla had gotten the scrolls, it's highly unlikely that they would have been successful raising the Master with that spell. What Xander's research suggests is that there is another spell - one specific to reviving the Master. If we can find out the particulars of that spell, we may be able to prevent him from rising again."

Giles stopped, and his face brightened. He turned to Spike. "You're meeting with Dracula this morning to go over the battle plans, right?" The vampire nodded. Giles smirked, "I think I'll be meeting with him myself to discuss the ritual they used... I just need some time to make a few preparations first."

Xander broke in. "The records don't talk about any ritual, but I can take a guess. Every time the Master is revived, it... well, he's brought back pretty close to where he was last killed."

"So we gotta kill him somewhere he can't be revived?" Faith sounded frustrated. "What do we do? Shoot him into space? 'Cause I think I speak for all of us when I say I don't ever want to see that face again."

"Amen to that!" Buffy laugh bitterly, and Faith joined her. For a second their eyes met -

Deep underground, a man awoke. He lifted his eyes and gazed at the Slayers. His lips did not move, but they heard him clearly. "Kill me. End this before they make of me the Destroyer of the World..."

"Buffy! Buff! Are you okay? Can you hear me?" Spike sounded frightened, desperate. Buffy realized she was on the floor, with Spike bending over her.

"I'm fine... Did Faith...?"

"Yeah, she passed out too," Xander replied. "She's just waking up now." His voice came from the table, where Faith had slumped over. "You guys want to fill us in on what just happened? Freaky double-Slayer mojo?"

Buffy took Spike's hand, and let him help her to her chair. She looked at Faith and nodded for the other woman to speak. Buffy wasn't sure she could say the words.

Faith began, hesitantly. "I - we - saw him. The Master, only ... before they vamped him again. I remember now - I think I saw him before. The day... the day Anya died?" She looked at Buffy, confusion in her eyes.

Buffy mumbled, "Me too. I can't believe I forgot all about it, but it was like it was there and then - not."

Faith continued. "He had just been brought back, human, and he was trying to tell me, tell us something. He begged us to destroy him. To put an end to him before he destroys the world." She stopped, and looked at Buffy. The rest would have to come from her.

Giles asked gently, "Was there anything more?"

"He said..." Buffy's voice was ragged, but she knew she had to tell them. She turned to look at Giles. "He said we could do it... he said 'Slayer, you hold the key to free me from this torment.'"

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