[identity profile] eee1313.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] dancing_lessons_archive
Part two of eight

Episode Fifteen: Into the Breach

by georgevna, fenwic & eep

Faith crossed the town square on the way back to the Magic Box. In each hand she held a brown bag from the local doughnut shop. Two dozen assorted -but mainly jellies - and five cups of coffee in little cardboard holders.
Normally Faith wouldn't have been so keen on doing a doughnut run-especially during the middle of a meeting. But when Willow started talking about how Dawn might be the weapon they've been looking for, and then Buffy started yelling, well, that was enough for Faith. She'd been around enough people yelling in her past. Lately it made her on edge.
She shifted the bags in her hands and continued the march back to the store. She should have been there twenty minutes earlier, but hopefully the group would understand her tardiness. Not too many cute guys were left around anymore. She had to take advantage of spending time with them when opportunity arose.
A grin spread across her face as she thought about the Jae. Kind of a simple name, but it worked for him. He was about five ten, not too tall, but tall enough. Broad shoulders, black hair, and beautiful almond eyes. Faith guessed he had some Asian ancestry. And what a smile.
Faith felt ridiculous being so excited over a boy she just met. She had no real reason to think he was interested in her. He was polite earlier, not flirtatious. But talking to her about the merits of the glazed doughnut over the powdered doughnut for fifteen minutes, well, that could have meant something. She had to wonder if he might be open to going out sometime. After all, there's not too much competition these days, she thought with a rueful grin.
What's the point? her brain automatically shot back. It won't matter once this is all over.
Faith pulled her head back in shock. Where had that thought come from? Everything would be fine after tonight. She and the rest of the gang would lead the town to victory, and then the mayor would hold a parade for them.
The Mayor. Faith shook her head violently as the image of Richard Wilkins III formed in her head. He was smiling. He always smiled at her, back before. "No!" Faith muttered to herself, lurching down the road. Thinking of what happened two years earlier would only shake her up. She had already lost her first family, as messed up as that one was. Faith wasn't about to lose her new family tonight. Still, kind of a messed-up little group, she thought with a smile.
Richard Wilkins III smiled back at her in her head. Faith returned the smile, but not a smile of camaraderie. Over time the smile she reserved only for him faded to a wistful remembrance. She wouldn't admit this to anyone, not even Xander, but she still missed him. He had loved her. Faith still didn't know whether or not her own mother loved her. Why would I know? she thought with a scowl. I haven't seen her since I was fourteen. And she certainly didn't work too hard to find me when I left home.
Upon making the left turn towards the City Hall, Faith saw something virtually unknown the Sunnydale these days. An entire family stood on the sidewalk, talking to a police officer. A dad, a mom, and three kids. A whole family. And they were smiling.
Faith watched them for a moment. Her mouth turned down in a frown and she sniffed. Families. Kind of a rare thing. Sunnydale or not.
She hunched her shoulders and continued onward. What was the point? What would happen after tonight? No one talked with her about plans for life after the Master was taken care of. Would everyone still want her around? Would she continue training with Xander? Would Giles want her to move out?
Will I be sent back to jail?
Her throat tightened at the thought. She quickly listed all of her options if that happened. The list was short: run away or go back. And running away wouldn't be right. Not after trying so hard to prove herself over these past few weeks. She'd have to go back if they told her to. And why wouldn't they? There wasn't a reason for her to stay. I'm the Slayer built for fighting, that's all.
She made the right turn onto Randolph Street. The Magic Box loomed ahead of her. She squared her shoulders and tried to look cheery. After all, she couldn't think about what would happen next week anymore. She needed to think about tonight.
Faith shifted the weight of the bags in her hands and swung open the door. The bell rang cheerily, as it had done every day since she first returned to Sunnydale. But now something was different. The store was quiet.
"Hey!" Faith called into the empty room. "Where'd everybody go?"
Xander ran out of the training room pulling on his jacket. "Hey." He saw the bags and cups. "Oh. Yeah. Here." He eased two cups out of the holder and relieved her of one of the bags.
"Where'd everybody go?" she repeated.
"The meeting broke up."
She walked to the counter, set down the her load. "I can see that. Off taking care of things?"
Xander half nodded, half shrugged.
"So the doughnuts and coffee are all for nothing?"
"No!" He indicated the cups in his hands. "Buffy's waiting for me out back. Giles is in his office."
"Well, what am I supposed to do now?"
"Actually, we have an assignment for you, too."
"What'cha need?" she muttered. "One gopher at your service."
"You'll handle me?!?"
After riding all the way to the school in silence, Buffy finally uncorked.
"You'll handle me!?! Where do you get off telling Giles that you'll handle me? You're not the Watcher of me!" She slammed the car door and stomped onto her old stomping grounds. Sunnydale High, still extra crispy, but surrounded by crews from the Sunnydale Fire Department, the Department of Public Works, and Xander's old construction company.
He groaned and ran after her. "Hey!"
Then something made them stop and look around. All activity had come to a halt as firemen and utility guys stood and stared at the bickering generals.
She glared at him. "Later," she hissed. "We have to check out your big hole in the ground."
With that, she stalked off toward the back field.
"It's a trench," he muttered as he followed her.
And what a trench it was. As she approached the west end of the school, she could just see where the trench began - about a hundred yards in a line off the end of the building. She walked to the trench's starting point and gazed down its path. It was several yards wide, exactly six feet deep, and ran in a giant arc toward the opposite end of the school.
The crew chief ran up to Xander and shook his hand. "Well, Boss? How's it look?"
"Good, Jimmy. Looks real good."
The crews had been up since dawn and had much to show for it. The Mother of All Trenches was finished - pending Xander's approval - and the guys now dug smaller trenches around the back of the building.
Buffy noticed one of those giant backhoe things parked off in the distance. It must've done the major digging. Next to it sat a couple bulldozers and several trucks - some of them military.
She began walking the length of Xander's big hole in the ground. He and Jimmy trailed after her - Xander pointing things out and giving further instructions, while Jimmy nodded and scribbled notes on a little yellow pad.
"Did the colonel bring all the-"
"Yup, right over there." He pointed at the military trucks.
"And you gave him-"
"Yup. Every box that Wal-Mart had left. The shiny, round red ones, just like you said."
"Well, any color will do."
"Alls they had was red."
"Good." He smiled. "Happens to be my personal favorite."
Jimmy looked pleased.
They reached the arc's peak and stopped. On the other side of the trench, the treeline began. For the hundredth time in the past few days, Xander looked from the trees, to the trench, to the field, and back again. "You understand what I need in the trees?"
"Yup, that's next."
Then he looked back at the school. "You walked the field like I asked?"
Jimmy nodded.
"How many paces?"
"A hundred and forty seven."
"You're sure?"
Xander turned to him, stern. "This is crucial. You walked it yourself? To this point? And you took big steps?"
"Yes, Sir!"
He nodded, looked back over the field. "Good. A hundred and forty seven. Okay."
They continued walking along the trench to where it ended on the east side of the school and then met up with the other crew chiefs out front. Buffy planted herself on a charred bench and watched him. They'd created an onsite war room by stretching plywood over sawhorses and covering it with maps and plans. Xander stood surrounded by hardhats, army officers and Sunnydale's bravest. Even in such company, the expertise he brought to the table commanded respect. Construction Guy, Soldier Guy, and Guy who's been through this way too many times.
He can really handle himself, she admitted. And all of this.
Then she remembered to be pissed. But he can't handle me.
She jumped up and walked off, just as the power meeting adjourned.
"Round two," he muttered as he ran after her again. "Buffy! Buffy, c'mon!"
She stopped and turned. Arms folded, chin out. Fighting stance of a different kind.
But he jumped right into the ring and came out swinging. "Look. Dawn's been working with Willow for a while, now. You knew this was coming."
"Then I-"
"We need you topside. You know the school, and you know the people in this town. You've been training them. They trust you, Buffy. You're a leader. You always have been."
"But Dawn-"
"None of us want Dawn back on the Hellmouth, but it's the only way." She looked pained. A pain he knew well. "I get that you wanna be by her side - don't you think I get that? Every time you head into an apocalypse, don't I call shotgun? But I was standing right next to Anya, and she died anyway."
Buffy looked away, her anger diffused. Xander didn't let up. "Sometimes it's not the right place to be. Sometimes I'm not the right guy for the job."
She persisted. "But I'm the Slayer."
"No. You're one of the Slayers. And you're not the right Slayer for this job."
That was unexpected. "What!?! Xander! Listen to me-"
"No, you listen to me. You've been training for what you have to do. So has Faith. We're gonna need clear thinking down there, do you understand? Faith will protect Dawn with her life, even though Dawn isn't her sister. And she will destroy the Master, even though he never drowned her."
He watched his words sink in.
"But Faith-"
"-has been training with the Special Ops guys and they are a perfect match! She gets how those lugheads think." He reached out, put a hand on her shoulder. "She got that from you."
She frowned up at him. "Did you just call me a lughead?"
"Faith can play on a team, now. She trusts them. They trust her. That's what she got from you."
"And you," she whispered.
He bent a little at the knees, tilted his head to one side, and looked her in the eye. "This is what I'm sayin'. Dawn is part of the team now, and she'll be fine. Willow's working with her as we speak. And Faith will do her job. You know how I know? Because I've done mine."
She looked at him for a second, then stepped in and hugged him.
He hugged her back, rested his chin on the top of her head. "I'm not the same Xander Harris who blew up the chem lab with his junior-year science project."
She laughed into his shoulder. "Oooh, but you are!"
"Well, yeah." He stepped back and grinned at her. "But now I use my power for good."
They walked back to the car in silence.
Then, "Hey!" Buffy stopped in her tracks. "Did you just handle me?"
Xander didn't break stride. "Just using my power for good."
Dracula was not having a good day. Two nights ago, William had come to the castle with the information that Darla's troops were planning to attack him before dawn. After Dracula's demeaning visit to the Master, he had no trouble believing that his sister was planning her vengeance. So he had gathered up his family and fled into the night. Fled - here.
He looked around in disgust. The supermarket had been gutted, leaving nothing but a large room with fluorescent lights, a dirty linoleum floor, and walls painted only above the line where the display cases had stood. Bolts in the floor spoke of shelving and aisles long gone. Brown paper covered the floor-to-ceiling windows at the front of the room. They faced east, and the morning sun struggled to filter into the room.
There was not a stick of furniture in the great room. Off the tiny hallway in the back of the store an office held a dilapidated desk; a counter remained in what had been the employee break room. No chairs. No comforts of any kind. William had brought them here, and Dracula berated himself for having followed him without question. He felt quite sure that William had fabricated the entire story to humiliate him by stripping away the trappings of his power.
Dracula stood in the corner of the shop floor furthest from the windows, fuming. And suddenly, there he was. William.
"So, Vlad, you settled in yet? Making yourself at home?" That smirk. It made his blood boil and filled his mind with images of torture... William turned to address a pair of minions who stood near the back. "C'mon, goons, I've got a job for you. There's supplies in the car, bring 'em in here." They stared at him blankly. "The car's out back - in the shade?" Still they did not react, waiting for a signal from their master.
Dracula stood unmoving, and raised an eyebrow. "Supplies?"
"Yeah - blood. Pig's blood, of course. The hospital's holding on tight to its supply of the good stuff. You didn't think we'd let you starve here, did you? Believe me, nobody wants your boys going out to fight on an empty stomach."
The blood was carried in, and placed in the break room. William and Dracula retired to the small room that had once served as a manager's office, and William laid out the plan. Poring over maps of the town's underground network, he explained briefly: They would go into the tunnels and flush the Master's army out into the open through the few remaining exits, onto the battlefield.
"And then?" Dracula frowned at William.
"Then we fight, mate. Me, you, and your family, against the Master's forces. With the Slayer and the townspeople. And if any one of your people harms any human, you'll all die. I'll make sure of that."
"'We fight' hardly constitutes a winning stratagem, William. If I am to go along with this campaign, I shall need to know all of the details of the battle plan." He paced back and forth in the tiny office. "How are the Master's forces to be contained? What is to prevent this from becoming a rout?"
William paused to light a cigarette, and inhaled deeply before continuing in a haze of smoke. "We have a few tricks up our sleeve - but you don't need to worry your pretty little head about that. Just get them above ground, and kill them. Then take your minions and get out of town. Think you can remember all that?"
He arched an eyebrow and took another draw from his cigarette. It was more than could be borne. Hissing like a snake, Dracula lunged and pinned him face-first against the wall. "Insolence! I am your elder and better. Why should I listen to you? Why should I allow myself to be further insulted by you?"
William chuckled, and in a flash he had escaped Dracula's grasp. Before he had even registered the movement, Dracula found himself on the floor with William's knee between his shoulder-blades. William pulled his head off the ground by the hair. "This is why you should listen to me. You've gotten soft, Vlad. When was the last time you hunted or killed anything that wasn't human? You can't beat me in a fight." He stood up, and watched as Dracula pulled himself up from the floor.
Dracula shook with rage, but chose another tack. "He will not come out. The Master. He has begun the ritual, and he will not leave until the Hellmouth has opened."
"We're counting on that."
Brushing the filth of the floor from his shirt, Dracula fought to control the anger in his voice. "Then who is going to face the Master?"
William leaned in the doorway, and lit another cigarette. "None of your business."
"Ah, no - that is precisely my business. I have allied myself with the Slayers against him. If he should survive this evening, I will be singled out for his hatred. I deserve to know how he is to be dealt with."
"You don't deserve anything, Drac." He shook his head. "Do you think I'm daft enough to tell you that?"
"You think I would tell him."
"I think you aren't going to have anything to tell."
Dracula took a step toward William, who never took his eyes from his old rival. Dracula spoke softly, sounding aggrieved. "You think I would betray you to him?"
"I give you my word. I am a man of honor."
William snorted. "Honor! Which is why you're so willing to sell out your Master?"
"He is not my Master! I despise him. I want nothing so much as I want him dead. I created him - I should be the one to destroy him."
"Yeah, well that's all the more reason to have someone else do it. I mean, sure, now you say you want him dead, but maybe that would change if you saw him -" William grinned and put an arm around Dracula's shoulders. "He'd look at you with those beady little eyes and say 'Daddy!' and before y'know it, you've made up and are fighting side by side..." They walked back to the main room. "Nah - I don't think you'll be facing the Master. Tell you what though - you can have Darla. I have no problem believing you want that bitch dead."
Dracula stepped away from William and looked at him with disgust. "I hate you, you know."
William laughed. "I get that a lot."
Weapons, weapons, weapons.
Not enough weapons. Faith's assignment was to find some.
They'd already given most of theirs to the cops, holding back just enough for themselves. Giles also kept a few artifacts and sentimental favorites, but other than that, every spare bow and ax got drafted. If it was sharp or pointy they brought it to the police station. She would do one last pass through the shop and then head over to talk to Detective Grant.
His boys were in charge of arming the citizens of Sunnydale. Tough job. Everyone in town had stakes now, but stakes came last. For the housewives, the florists, the mailmen... stakes came after they brought the vamp to its knees with something you could swing, or throw, or shoot. Something with range. Only Slayers started and finished with a stake. Slayers and their friends.
Xander said that the cops had tapped out the armories. Now they fanned out all over town hitting gun shops, sporting goods stores, hardware stores, people's garages, even the local SCA.
"What the hell is that?" Faith had asked.
"The Society for Creative Anachronism."
"A knack for wha-?"
"Anachronism. Those guys who dress up and act out medieval battles?"
Ri-i-i-ght. She had to smile. Xander would know that. "Ya mean The Society for Crazy Ass-"
"Hey!" he protested. "It's very educational."
"Plus," he grinned that goofy grin. "Free beer and eats at every joust." Now a nod and a wink. The Xander hat trick.
Then he beat it outta there. Buffy was waiting... That left Faith to look for weapons amongst the eyes-of-this and orbs-of-that.
It took a whopping 15 minutes for the sales floor to cough up a big, fat nothing. She heard Giles talking on the phone in his office, arranging yet another meeting. Probably the PTA again. She saw how those women looked at him. Faith sighed and went on down to the basement.
She looked around, waited for her eyes to adjust to the dim light. A chill shivered up her spine. Not that basements scared her. She approached the first stack of boxes and dove right in. No, it was the future, and the donut boy, and the meeting, and the yelling, and the passing out and-
The dream.
That part of the Slayer package always bugged her. Why riddles instead of marching orders? The brains of this outfit figured it out, but why did dusting one ugly vampire have to be so stupid-complicated? She was the hired gun. Point her at the bad guy and pull the trigger. Game over. But no, two Slayers and a witch won't do. They have to drag a little girl to the mouth of hell.
Then Faith remembered another dream ...bleed, and burn, and perish. She shivered again and unleashed her frustration on every box she attacked. The Slayers had a supergang, a ton of books and - she took in the next stack of boxes - all this magic crap. Why crawl into their heads and leave gag gifts? While they were sleeping? Or walking. Or-
"Ow! Fuck!" The remains of a crystal ball nicked her finger. She slammed the box shut, kicked it, and was immediately sorry. Damn dreams. Always made her edgy. Dammit! Can we just fight already?
Then her eye caught a cascade of white off in a corner, a tall object covered with a sheet. She walked over to check it out.
When she whipped off the dropcloth she came face to face with... her face. Well, her face looking back at her from a mirror. It was a floor mirror, framed in wood, squared off at the bottom and rounded at the top. It could pivot from where it was bolted on both sides to big wooden legs with feet. The feet connected along the bottom. Sturdy base. It was nice. It was a real nice mirror. The wood was kinda curvy and carved, like one of Xander's special stakes. Nice wood, like the stuff at home only not as dark, except for what was in her room. In fact-
"Hmmm?" She didn't take her eyes off herself. That is, off the mirror.
Giles sighed as he approached her. "I see you've found it. It's just as well, I suppose."
"I found it in a shop some weeks ago... for Christmas."
"What?" Her gaze drifted from her reflection to his. "Oh!"
She finally turned to him, and smiled like a co-conspirator. "Well don't you worry, Santa Giles. I can keep a secret." She went back to looking for weapons. "Dawn or Willow?"
"What? Ah, neither. Wait. D'you mean-"
"I know it's been a while." She opened more boxes. "But I think Buffy's already got one. Hey, if you were a crossbow, where would you be?"
"I don't think-"
"Or an ax? Even a rusty one'll do. Let's kill 'em all with tetanus, Giles! Or is it lockjaw?" She shrugged. "Ah, hell, there's gotta be something useful buried down here." She made for the shelves.
Something in his tone made her stop. Damn, not foot-in-mouth again. "It was for Anya, wasn't it?" She felt bad and sorry and like she didn't want to face him. But she did anyway. She'd been working on that. "You got it for Anya."
"No." Giles took off his glasses and took out a handkerchief. He smiled a sad, remembering smile as he cleaned the lenses. "It wasn't on her registry, you see."
He put his glasses back on and looked at Faith. And waited.
What. It- Huh? Oh. Oh. Oh.
She stared. Then slowly walked back and looked in her mirror. The girl there. The clothes, the hair, the face... all the same. But what she saw now was that years of skipping town on ten seconds notice were officially over. No way that thing would fit in a backpack.
"Well, now you've found it, we may as well take it home today." He stepped toward her.
"Beg pardon?"
"No." Faith looked at the image of her resolve face. "It's for Christmas, right?"
Giles nodded.
"Then not until Christmas." She may not have known it, but she'd just made her first ever promise - and it was to herself.
He smiled. "Very well."
After a moment, Giles headed upstairs. When he stopped and looked back at her, she still hadn't moved. "Really, Faith. One would think you've never seen yourself before." With that, he went out.
She watched herself laugh. "Merry Christmas to you too."
Dawn groaned as the portal slipped shut on her again. One moment the portal floated in front of her, as large as her mom's bed, and then blip! It was gone, just like when she turned off the TV. A little dot of white remained for a split second and then that was gone, too.
"It's all right, Dawn. We'll just try it again," Willow coached.
Dawn ran her hands up her forehead and into her hair, catching it between her fingers. "Juice break?" she asked hopefully. "I'm getting worn out. I just can't concentrate anymore."
Willow nodded and walked towards the kitchen. "If only I had tried teaching you spells before. That might make this easier. There's a lot of focusing and concentration in spell-casting, too."
Dawn's face lit up. "Really? Magic? You'd teach me magic?"
Immediately Willow realized what she had done. "Nuh-uh. No way. If Buffy finds out..." She shook her head. "She wants you magic-free."
"Oh, come on!" Dawn pleaded. "Please?"
"No way. I'm not going to fight for my life tonight only so Buffy can kill me tomorrow," Willow said with a grin. She got glasses from the cupboards as Dawn pulled a carton of orange juice from the refrigerator.
"This is just really frustrating already. I just can't get this right. I clear my head, a portal opens, and then I think of something else and screw it up." Dawn plopped down on a bar stood and leaned on the island. "It's like that scene at the end of Ghostbusters with the four guys on the roof having to think of their destruction, and Dan Ackroyd messes it all up."
Willow leaned against the kitchen counter. "Just don't go thinking up Mr. Stay-Puft when your big moment comes. Who knows what will happen."
"This freaks me out so much. What end up making things worse? I can't control my brain. If it wants to think about pink elephants or marshmallow men, it will."
Willow smiled almost apologetically. What could she tell the girl? "I know this is hard."
"At least you've been through this before," Dawn said. "You've got experience behind you. This is all new to me. I mean, I'm used to being the one getting rescued around here. First Harmony, then Glory, then Drusilla and Darla. Now the fate of the entire world is resting on whether or not I can pull this off with you guys. If I fail..." Dawn looked down at her glass. "And if I can't think straight enough now to get this worked out here in my own home, how can I do it during battle?"
"Well, there's a chance."
"Yeah?" Dawn asked hopefully.
"Maybe if I do a clarity spell or something. I used to do them before I'd take tests in college. They'd help to keep me focused."
"Can you do one on me? Please? I need all the help I can get here, Willow. You've seen what I can do so far, and it's not impressive. I need to be steady tonight. Please."
Willow bit her lip and studied the girl. "I'll try. But I can't promise anything. And it's almost black moon, Dawn. This could totally backfire and not work at all."
"It's worth a shot."
"I guess it is. What else can we do?"
Dawn shook her head. "I don't know."
Somehow, Willow realized that Dawn wasn't just talking about the spells.
The young men carried the ridiculous chair and dais into the derelict store, while Giles kept a watchful eye on the vampires. Minions lined the room, silent and menacing - a trick they had learned from their sire. Dracula stood apart from the others, with his brides arrayed behind him. Good lord - he's even wearing a cape. Brooding and dark, Dracula glowered at the humans who brought him his throne. Despite the garish setting, it was a tableau out of a Lugosi movie, broken only by Harmony. She stood behind Dracula's right shoulder, smiling and waving at Giles. He smiled back. Poor girl. Dracula sensed the movement and shot Harmony a quick glance. She fell as still as the others, attempting to look stony-faced. As the men carefully placed the dais at the end of the room, she suppressed a squeal, peeping over Dracula's shoulder to wave at one of the workers she recognized.
"Stop that!" Dracula sounded annoyed - and yet, for a moment, Giles wondered if the vampire wasn't as amused by the scene as he was.
The chair was in place. Giles thanked the young men for their help and saw them out. Once they reached the relative safety of daylight, they erupted.
"Aw, man - that was Dracula! Dra-cu-la! Can you believe it!"
Another, holding his back and groaning added, "All I know is he's overcompensating for something..."
Giles smiled, thanked them again, and headed back inside. He needed information from Dracula, and had neither the time nor the patience for the vampire's usual mind games. Predictably, Dracula was already enthroned with his brides at his feet by the time Giles returned. Narcissistic git.
"Rupert Giles. I thank you for this gesture of respect." He voice held a conspiratorial warmth, and he opened his arms in a magnanimous gesture. "The degenerate William is too simple to understand the need for comity and strategic alliance, but you are obviously a man of greater sophistication. I trust that you have come to provide us with more information concerning the battle tonight?"
Giles regarded the vampire carefully. He sensed Dracula vainly searching his mind for weakness, and smiled inwardly. "No... No, I believe Spike has told you all that you need know about our plans."
He saw anger cloud the vampire's face and pressed on. The sooner Dracula understood the situation, the sooner he could end this encounter. "If you wish to survive the night, you will stop meddling in the things that do not concern you. You have my appreciation for your help, but do not insult me by asking for my trust."
"Hey, you can't talk that way to my Sweet Baboo!"
Dracula put an arm on Harmony's shoulder to keep her from getting up. "Silence, Beautiful One... Let me deal with the shopkeeper." He glared at Giles while he petted the girl's hair.
Giles moved closer, until he was only inches from the dais. "You already know what you are expected to do in the battle. We shall take steps to ensure your safety, and you in turn will leave Sunnydale, forever." He could feel the vampire's impatience rising. Good. He paused to carefully clean his glasses. Finally finished, he turned back to Dracula, his voice harsh and cold. "Spike will command you in the battle. You and your followers will obey his orders, or you will be destroyed."
Dracula hissed with rage. "Are you all mad? I, a great commander, have brought you a powerful army - and you would have me blindly follow that traitorous wretch?" He tried to stand, and found he could not. Giles smirked, and waited as Dracula dissipated into a fine mist - and then reformed, still in the chair. With a growl Dracula tried to escape again, first as a wolf and then as a bat. Harmony whined in dismay. Giles stood silent until he once more faced Dracula's human form.
"I did not come here to provide you anything, Dracula. I came here for information regarding the Master. As we both wish him destroyed, I expect you will be happy to comply. But until I am satisfied that you have told me all that you know, you will stay in your chair."
Fear flashed across Dracula's face, quickly hidden in a mask of confidence. He gestured to the silent minions who had closed in around the dais. Three vampires armed with swords blocked the exits. "They will kill you, you know, at one word from me."
Giles looked at him levelly. "And the Slayer will destroy you all if they lift a hand against me."
They held one another's eyes for a long minute, but it was the vampire who looked away first. "One girl. We are ageless and deathless and incomparably strong, and yet you threaten us with one girl."
"Actually, there are two now." Giles knew he was close to getting his answers. The edge left his voice. "You played your hand, Prince, and you played it well. I understand now how you have survived for so long... But we both know that you need us. You can't fight against both the Master and the Slayers and hope to survive. The Master will no longer have you, and so you must cooperate with us or perish at last."
Dracula smiled ruefully. "Well played indeed, Rupert Giles..." He slumped his shoulders, defeated. "What is it that you need to know?"
"The Master. We know that he is not simply an ancient vampire. We know that he has been resurrected time and again for hundreds, possibly thousands of years. We want to make an end of him, forever. I need to know all that you know about his origins, his history, and the ritual you used to resurrect him."
"It seems you know almost as much about him as I do, Watcher." He raised his head to meet Giles's gaze. "For our part, we too had always assumed he simply had the strength of his great age. But when he was raised - as a mortal - he was more lethal to our kind than an army of slayers. He would have killed Darla and Drusilla with mere words if Aton had not intervened."
All the blood drained from Giles's face. Dear Lord... "Aton? Aton was here?"
Spike peered through the blackened windshield trying to find the turn off of the main road. Where's the bloody sign? He had volunteered to drive Father Sanchez - the others had their hands full, and he thought a drive might be just what he needed.
Spike was tired. Tired of Dracula, tired of Harris. Tired of waiting for the fight to start. Hey! Ho! Let's Go! He drummed on the steering wheel trying to get in a better mood. Mostly, he was tired of pretending to be human, pretending his knowledge of vampires came from years of study, instead of a century of carnage. The priest might despise what he was, but at least he knew what he was. Spike glanced at the man, whose eyes remained closed as he seemed to meditate. He didn't know what to make of him. There - the driveway.
Spike pulled the DeSoto to a side entrance on the left of the building. He turned to Father Sanchez. "You got everything?"
The priest started out of his reverie. "Let's see. I'm a priest, this is a crucifix. I memorized the prayer long ago. Yep, that's everything." He looked out the window and saw the sunlight beaming down on the car. "Maybe you should wait here - this shouldn't take a minute, no need to risk catching fire."
"Look, I didn't come along just for your company on the drive - fascinating as it's been. Fact is, there might be some nasties hangin' about in there. My kind always loves this sort of place." Spike put on his best wistful look, and spoke with mock nostalgia. "Not sure why, exactly - there's just something about a factory. No windows, all those lovely corners to lurk in..." While he spoke, he pulled on his gloves. "Anyway, what would I say to the gang if anything happened to you? Our whole plan depends on you getting in there and working your mojo." He draped the blanket over his head. "C'mon then!"
They sprinted to the door, and Spike busted the lock. The place seemed deserted. They studied the framed diagram of the plant's layout, and were on their way.
Their footsteps echoed through the empty hallway despite their attempts at stealth. After a minute, they realized they were alone after all. Spike pulled a cigarette out of his pack and offered one to the priest. "Looks like the Master gathered his whole brood home for the holidays... Gee, I hate missing a family reunion."
Father Sanchez lit his cigarette. "You are not one of them."
"Hey, don't pull that on me," Spike answered, sharply. "I am one of them. I'm a soulless blood-sucking immortal - an 'unholy abomination,' right, Father?"
"That's not what I meant," the priest sighed, exasperated. They neared a corner, and fell silent again as Spike scouted out the lay of the land. There was no one there. The hum of the automated plant's machinery grew louder as they started down the hallway towards the center of the building. Father Sanchez continued, with a sudden urgency in his voice. "Look, I don't care what you are physically - or metaphysically for that matter. I don't care what you were, what you have done in the past. They are evil. You are good. You are not one of them."
Spike stopped, taken aback by the certainty in the man's voice. "It's not that simple, Padre..."
"But it is! Why does everyone have such a hard time with this?" He kept walking, and motioned for Spike to keep up. "I mean, I know why - I had such a hard time with it that I tried to hide from the world and from the understanding for two and a half years. But it is that simple." His voice rose with passion. He had to explain - this vampire who had brought him back from the abyss - surely he would understand. "Evil destroys, hates, erodes, rejoices in pain and chaos and death. Good builds up, loves, protects, rejoices in peace and order and life. Situations get complicated and messy and we're all a mixture of good and evil, but if you break it down, moment by moment, action by action, each is a choice - either good or evil. It's only when you take the long view that it all looks gray."
He paused to take a drag on his cigarette, only to discover it had gone out during his rant. Frustrated, he fumbled to relight it.
Spike saw his opportunity. "So you're saying right now, Dracula is good, because he's fighting against the Master?"
"No!" The priest's eyes flashed. "Don't play dumb, William. Dracula is with us out of hatred, wanting revenge and destruction. That is evil. You are protecting your family, your friends - and thousands of complete strangers - out of love. Because you want them to live. Not just Buffy and Dawn. All of them." He ran his palm over his furrowing brow, and kept walking. "I see it the way you talk to them, the way you prepare them to fight. The way you talked to me when I was a drunken mess and most people pretended not to see me. You care more than you're willing to admit." He paused to look at Spike, and couldn't decide if the vampire's expression was shocked or outraged. "Sorry if that offends you."
Spike's face softened somewhat. "No offense taken, mate. It's just... well, I don't think about it much. Doesn't really matter much what I call myself, now does it?" He took a final drag off his cigarette and put it out against one of the many pipes running down the hallway. "Still, good is a bit of an overstatement, holy man. There's the whole 'no soul' thing...."
"Soul-schmoul," Father Sanchez interrupted, rolling his eyes.
"...and there's - what?" Spike shook his head. He had no idea what to say. They finally entered the cavernous main room. "You are the strangest priest I've ever met."
"Yeah, well, you're pretty odd for an 'unholy abomination'." The priest looked around and saw a catwalk over the center of the room. "I'm going to do this up there. I like the symmetry."
Turning to climb the metal stairs, Spike paused. He shouted above the roar of water churning in the huge tank below him. "Hey, can you really do this much with just the one prayer?"
The priest looked surprised at the suggestion. "It's a miracle that it can happen at all - every time I do this, I do something impossible. It isn't more impossible to do a lot all at once."
Father Sanchez stood in the middle of the bridge and began to pray, chanting the Latin he had learned at the seminary rather than the English translation he'd been using for so many years. He was asking for a miracle, and though he knew it was purely his own superstition, he preferred to ask more formally.
The vampires chose that moment to attack. They leapt down on either side of the narrow catwalk, blocking their escape. Father Sanchez thrust his crucifix at the woman who sprang at him, and continued chanting as the cross burned itself into her face. The other vampire hurtled into Spike. Taken off his guard, Spike tumbled to his knees. He staggered up and heard his attacker behind him growling. "Warm blood. It's been days. So nice of you to drop in."
As he bent his head over Spike's neck, Spike grabbed his hair and flipped him, slamming him onto the catwalk. "Doesn't anyone realize I'm not bloody human?" he howled, and staked him. As the ash fell through the iron gridwork and into the liquid below, Spike turned to the female. She stumbled blindly, holding her wounded face. Spike prepared to lunge, but she stepped backward off balance and fell from the catwalk. She screamed in agony as her body hit the reservoir of holy water, and dissolved in seconds.
Spike laughed. "Well, looks like it worked!"
Spike threw open the door of the Magic Box, running inside as his coat smoldered over his head. He threw the coat to the floor and stomped out the beginnings of a fire. "Damn," he muttered to himself. "I need to get a big umbrella or something. Leather isn't fire-retardant."
"Thank God you have that nicotine addiction, or everyone would wonder why you always smell like smoke."
Spike looked up at the familiar voice. Buffy stood near the counter, smiling at him. "How'd it go at the water treatment plant?" she asked.
He picked his coat up and shook off the dust from the floor. "Just what you'd expect. Got jumped by a few vampires, we fought 'em off, Sanchez worked his mojo... We're all ready for tonight. Just remind me not to take a bath for a while. Or drink the tap water."
"Spike and Holy Water: definitely un-mixy things."
"Is there a chance we can flush the hydrants when this is all over? Or will I just have to take stock in bottled water until the water supply is replenished? 'Cause I really don't feel like burning up in a few days helping you do the dishes."
"That reminds me..." She grabbed his hand and hauled him into the training room. Once inside, she shut the door and pulled a box from a hiding place behind the floor mats.
"What is that?" Spike said, gesturing to the package in her arms.
"Shhh!" Buffy hissed, eyeing the door. "I don't want anyone to hear us!"
"What's going on?" he asked with a grin. Seeing her looking so nervous amused him. She didn't get nervous around him very often anymore, and he sometimes missed it.
"Here. This is for you." Buffy practically threw the box at him.
"I thought we weren't exchanging gifts till tomorrow. I would have brought yours if I had known."
"It's not for tomorrow. It's for tonight."
Spike tilted his head away from her, watching her from the sides of his eyes. She stared at the floor, a slight flush spreading up her neck and into her face. Something was up.
He pulled the lid of the box and found a mass of black shiny material. It was too shiny to be leather, and too slick to be cloth . . . He unfurled the garment. There, an arm's length in front of him, was a latex bodysuit.
Spike's mouth dropped open in disbelief. He turned to look at Buffy, who appeared thoroughly embarrassed. "Bondage gear!?"
"No! It's not—"
"So this is for tonight, then?" Spike smirked. "Wanting to try a little kink in the bedroom, I take it?"
Buffy turned a bright shade of scarlet. "No! I bought it—"
"For some fun. I understand," he teased. "I just prefer to have a little mask to wear with it. Maybe some handcuffs while we're at it, a ball gag, that sort of thing."
"Spike!" she cried. "It's not for #that.# It's for the fight tonight."
He couldn't help it. He had to keep going. "I don't know if the good people of Sunnydale are quite ready for a man in an S&M getup openly walking the streets. But it might be fun just to see the look on old Drac's face. . ."
"It's so you don't get wet!" Buffy shouted.
Spike stopped, immediately becoming somber. "What's that?"
"It's so you don't get wet," Buffy snapped at him. "I wanted to get you a wetsuit, or a drysuit, or whatever the hell they call them, but the guy in town with the SCUBA lessons is dead, so I had to get you this. I wouldn't want anything to happen to you on accident." She looked up at him, her eyes wide and glistening with tears. "If you get hurt tonight…"
He pulled her against his chest. "Shhh, love, don't even say it. We've been through this before, and we'll be just fine."
She held him tightly as he kissed the top of her head. He felt her in his arms, so small, so fragile, yet so strong. He hoped they were strong enough to make it through the night. #All# of them.
A minute went by in silence. "Buffy?" Spike murmured into her hair.
"Where'd you get that thing?"
Buffy heard the laugh in his voice. "The Purple Onion, on the other side of town."
"I know where it is."
"Oh, do you?" It was Buffy's turn to tease.
"You mean to tell me that place is still open, even in the middle of all this?"
She shrugged. "I guess people need #something.#"
Spike smiled. "So, you up to helping me into this thing later? I'm thinking some Vaseline may be called for."
Buffy rolled her eyes. "As tempting as that sounds, you'll have to grease yourself up all by yourself. I've promised the afternoon to Dawn. But you'll be over before we head out, right?"
"Wouldn't miss it for the end of the world."
Buffy opened up the door and shot him a glare as she left. "You're not funny."
"Not yet. That's 'cause I'm not wearing my funny suit." Spike picked the latex clothing up from the floor and held it against him, striking poses as if he were a male model.
Buffy had to laugh. "I'll talk to you later, moron."
"Yeah. See you around," Spike said with a grin as the door closed.
Giles stood at the front of the store and pulled out his cell phone. Buffy had picked them out and assured him these were the best money could buy. Giles stared at the tiny device - apparently money couldn't buy a readable display. The keys were miniscule, but with effort he managed to dial Buffy's home. No answer. He hung up when the answering machine kicked in. Of course - he was supposed to call her on her cell phone; and - of course - he had no earthly idea what her cell number was. Blast.
He looked around the room. Vampires drinking blood out of mugs, laughing at each other's difficulty managing the task with their exposed fangs. Dracula on his throne, with Magda at his feet, Irena at his side, and Harmony in his lap. They were relaxed, even affectionate. It was a picture few humans had ever seen - Dracula had built and protected his legend carefully. And his interactions with humans had always been those of predator and prey. A pack of jackals may care for one another, be affectionate and playful in their den - but that doesn't matter to the rabbits they tear apart for their dinner...
Hold on. Buffy's cell number was programmed into his phone. He pulled the damned thing out again, searching - Program. Menu. Memory. One. There. Bloody hell. No, I do not want stock quotes. He sighed and resigned himself to the hopelessness of the situation. Redial. Buffy's answering machine.
"Hello Buffy, it's Giles. Please call me on my cell phone when you get this. The number is... is... I hope you have the number. I have spoken with Dracula, and gotten some information that could be of great interest, particularly - " BEEP! The machine cut off.
Disgusted, he hung up, and dialed again. "As I was saying - we were right. Location is critical to the spell. Please pass this on to Dawn and Willow, and call me back."
Giles felt troubled. The more he learned about the Master and his raising, the more he realized that he had never really understood what they were facing. He had... he had asked Buffy confront this monster alone, years ago, because it was her "sacred duty." And now Dawn...
With a sigh he leaned against the window. He had come to Dracula hoping to learn that they were wrong - hoping to find some way to destroy the Master without relying upon Dawn. Instead his worst fears had been confirmed. How could he let another little girl fight what he could not fight? And yet. the world would end without her. Sooner or later, he knew, the Master would succeed in opening the Hellmouth. If they simply staked him, he would rise again, and the world would eventually end by the Master's act.
His ringing cell phone startled him out of his reverie. When he'd chosen "Ode to Joy" as his personalized ring, he hadn't realized they meant "Ode to Joy as played on a telephone keypad." Mortified, he fumbled to stop the tinny music and answer the phone.
"Hey Giles, it's me. You know - 'Star One' on your cell phone?" Buffy chuckled.
"'Star'? Not 'program'?"
"Giles, remind me to give you some training on your cell phone if we're still alive tomorrow. So - what's the scoop from Count Whackula? Did he spill about the Master, or what?" She sounded so confident, happy. Whatever Xander had said to her, it had worked.
"Yes... Anyway, it appears that the Master was raised using the Books of Aurelius - they found a translator after all." No need to tell her about Aton now; he was gone, and they had enough problems to deal with at the moment. "We were right - the ritual was specific to the Master alone. Apparently in his human form, the Master was - "
"He was good. Powerful and good."
"Yes, it appears that as a human he was... something quite extraordinary." He paused and again pondered the story Dracula had told him.
"So - the ritual?"
"What? Oh... Xander was correct - it has to be performed in the area where the Master was last destroyed. In the most recent case, at the Hellmouth." There was another pause as Buffy absorbed this.
"So we do have to use Dawn." Her voice was low, but steady. "I mean, if we want him gone-gone. Forever gone."
"Yes. Buffy - I'm so sorry. Is she...?"
"She's ready." Buffy seemed remarkably calm. What on earth had Xander said to her? She continued, "I'm not sure I am, but she is. We'll see you at the shop. Four-thirty, right?"
"Hey, Giles. We do this all the time. We'll be fine. Just doing our jobs - using our powers for good."
"Yes, yes, of course. Four-thirty then."
Just as Giles hung up the phone, Grant arrived carrying a large box. "Detective, can I help you with that?"
Grant dropped the box to the floor. "There's a couple more boxes in the truck."
They returned with the remaining boxes to find the vampires had already opened the first one. Dracula sat holding a Day-Glo orange jumpsuit emblazoned with "Sunnydale Department of Corrections."
"What is the meaning of this, Watcher? Some further humiliation intended for my family?"
Giles sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "The meaning of this is that we have trained the entire human population of Sunnydale to kill vampires. Things are going to be extremely dangerous for you and your brides this evening. The clothes are for your own protection - to keep our forces from attacking you."
"And William?" Dracula asked, still eyeing the jumpsuit with disdain.
"Spike will, of course, also wear these clothes." Now how do we convince him to do that?
"I have decided." Dracula looked around at his minions. "Yes, we shall wear these garments into the battle tonight." They took this as a command and lined up to pick out their suits.
Detective Grant watched in fascination for a few seconds - until his beeper went off. He glanced at it and turned to Giles. "I've got to go. Are you sure you're okay here by yourself?"
"Go on ahead. I'll only be a few minutes behind you."
Grant started to leave, but turned back. "Thank you, Mister Giles. Thank you for waking this town up."
Giles felt himself blushing and muttered "It had to be done, really. The situation had -"
Grant interrupted. "And thanks for everything you and those kids have been doing for years, while the town slept... even now, I get the feeling I don't know the half of it. Take care tonight." They exchanged a smile, and he left.
When he had gone, Giles turned back to the vampires and announced, "I'll be leaving now as well. Spike will join you at nightfall." He picked out a jumpsuit to take with him.
Dracula regarded him expectantly. "So - you trust me? You are satisfied that -"
Giles shook his head slightly as he cut Dracula off. "I trust that you understand your predicament. I trust that you know that you will die if you betray us to the Master. And I trust that I don't want to spend the last hours before the battle here."
He started towards the door. "Watcher." Dracula called him back. "That was not my meaning. I gave you the information you requested. Release me from the chair."
Giles stifled a laugh. "Oh, the holding spell? That wore off after about fifteen minutes." Dracula rose from the throne, scowling. Giles smiled. "I'm sorry, Prince. I'd forgotten all about it. I'm not much of a witch, you know. Just a shopkeeper."
As he strode out the door, he heard Dracula speaking: "What is it, Little One?"
Harmony sounded desperate. "I can't wear orange without a tan! I'll look like, like, the living dead!"
Buffy unwrapped another bulb from its year-old tissue paper shroud. She examined the gold ball for signs of breakage before attaching a hook to the top. "What do you think, Dawn? Somewhere near the top?"
Dawn took the ornament from Buffy and climbed the stepladder. "Sure. There's too much red up there. It needs another color." She fastened the hook to a branch, but it slipped on the slick pine needles and it ricocheted down the tree.
She grabbed for the bulb, trying to avoid knocking any other ornaments off the tree while Buffy dove for it as well, her hands expertly maneuvering around the strands of colored lights draped across the branches. Despite both of their efforts, the bulb hit the floor and shattered with a distinct, hollow pop.
The sisters exchanged glances, both disgusted at the loss of yet another ornament. They had only been decorating their Christmas tree for an hour, and already three balls were broken.
Buffy picked up the nearby dustpan and broom. "So much for those quick Slayer reflexes, huh?" she muttered as she bent to sweep up the glass bits.
"We just don't seem to have the touch for this that Mom did," Dawn groaned.
"Speak for yourself, klutz. I wasn't the one that Mom wouldn't let in her gallery unsupervised," Buffy said with a grin.
"Hey!" Dawn protested. She opened her mouth for a retort but found there was nothing to say. She climbed down the ladder and crossed the room to a box of ornaments on the coffee table. One by one she unwrapped the baubles, dropping the tissue paper on the floor as she laid the decorations on the tabletop.
Buffy looked up from the floor when she heard her sister gasp. "Dawn? What is it?" Buffy stood up to see what had caught her sister's attention.
Dawn cradled a handmade ornament in her palms. It was half of a Styrofoam ball, the round side decorated in sequins and ribbon, the glue long since disintegrated and reapplied. A pipe cleaner bent into an upside-down J sprouted from the top to serve as a hook. But it was the flat side that held their attention. An old matte photograph had been pasted onto the ball. In it, Dawn, barely eight, wore a patchwork denim jumper. Buffy, almost thirteen, recovered from the Perm from Hell. In the center of the photograph sat Joyce, her smile huge as she wrapped her arms around her girls.
"Oh God," Buffy breathed as she stared at the photo. "That was taken during our last summer at Grandma's."
Dawn turned the ornament around, holding it as if it were made from eggshells. "This was my Christmas gift to Mom in second grade. I made it in art class."
They stared at the photo, tears stinging their eyes.
"I miss her so much," Buffy finally whispered.
Dawn crossed the room to hang the ornament squarely in the middle of the tree. She looked at it for a moment longer, then spun on her heel. "I'm tired of decorating. What's the point?" she spat as she stomped to the couch. "Why bother with all of this when there may not even be a Christmas tomorrow?"
Buffy watched as Dawn collapsed in a heap. The girl reached for the remote and turned on the TV. Dawn made sure to avoid eye contact with Buffy as she flipped from station to station. With a sigh, Buffy continued to sweep up the last of the ornament, leaving the living room to empty the dustpan in the kitchen trash can. When she returned, she sat down next to Dawn.
The channels were a blur on the TV screen. A gardening show, stock-car racing, the national news, Blue's Clues, a stand-up comedian, a show about history. Dawn didn't bother to even find out what era it was before changing the channel. Music videos, cartoons, syndicated sitcoms they had both seen three times already, a courtroom drama, a real-life courtroom, the operation channel, cooking, a tabloid news show, a nature program...
Dawn threw down the remote in disgust. She was back where she had started, having flipped through all of the stations the satellite dish offered.
Buffy watched as the walruses on the screen screeched and bellowed at one another.
"That one looks like you," Dawn said through her pout, nodding at the TV with her chin.
"Well, that one looks like you in the morning," Buffy replied as an inconceivably fat walrus moved, slug-like, across an ice floe.
A smile began to twitch at the corner of Dawn's mouth. She pointed to one with a muzzle full of whiskers above its tusks. "That one looks like you when you don't wax your upper lip."
Buffy grabbed a throw pillow off the sofa and smacked Dawn in the head with it. "Hey!" Buffy shouted with a grin. "Now that's below the belt!"
Dawn burst into a smile and grabbed another pillow. "No, this is!" With that the pillow came crashing into Buffy's abdomen.
"Oh, you're gonna pay for that one!" Buffy threatened, grabbing one of Dawn's wrists. In a flash she had Dawn pinned to the sofa, face-first, with her hands held tight against her back by Buffy. The Slayer sat on top of her little sister's bottom, rendering Dawn immobile as she tried in vain to kick Buffy in the back. "Okay, what do you say?" Buffy chided.
"I'm not giving in," Dawn muttered into the sofa pillow.
Buffy grinned and pulled Dawn's arms harder. "What do you say?"
Dawn was silent for a minute, then replied with a sigh, "Buffy is the greatest sister in the world and the prettiest girl alive."
Buffy smiled again. "And?"
Dawn rolled her eyes even though Buffy wouldn't be able to see the gesture, what with her face in the sofa cushion. "And you can have all of my chocolate ice cream."
Satisfied, Buffy stood up to let her sister go. "Well, we haven't done that in a while," Buffy said with a grin. "It's like old times."
Dawn made sure Buffy saw her eye roll this time. "Just be glad Spike isn't here. He would have helped me gang up on you." She rubbed her shoulder as she settled back onto the sofa.
"Are you okay? I didn't hurt you, did I?" Buffy used her concerned voice.
"I'm fine," Dawn reassured her. "You don't beat me up like you used to when we were kids. You're not as rough."
"Well, you know. You don't annoy me as much as you used to. Just don't tell Spike about the lip-waxing thing, okay?"
Dawn grinned. "Only if I don't have to give you my ice cream."
"Deal." Dawn's becoming quite the little negotiator.
They settled back onto the sofa, watching the walruses engage in their blubbery dance of courtship. A male and female scooted back and forth on the ice, barking and hooting at one another. Suddenly another male entered the scene, rearing up, tusks aimed at the female. The first male blocked the attack with his own tusks and the two battled, locked in teeth and flab as the female raced for safety.
"That's just like you, Buffy," Dawn said.
Now it was Buffy's turn to roll her eyes. "Didn't we just have this conversation?"
"No, really," Dawn said, turning to her sister. "That's you. Whenever I'm in trouble, you're right there, fighting off the bad guys."
"Oh." Buffy watched the walrus melee on the television. "Except I accessorize much better than that."
Dawn's smile faded. "What about tonight, Buffy? What's going to happen?"
Buffy looked at her sister. "We'll fight. We'll win. It's what we do."
"But what if we don't? What if I don't?"
Buffy stared at her sister's face. Her blue eyes were wide with fear, her eyebrows meeting to form a crease above her nose. She bit her bottom lip slightly as she looked to her sister for answers. Her sister. The Slayer. The one who had always protected her before.
"You're on your own tonight," Buffy realized, making words out of the thoughts that were so obvious on her sister's face.
Dawn nodded, her mouth turning downwards at the corners. "Yeah."
"Dawn," Buffy soothed. "You're not going to be alone."
"Yes, I am." Dawn was on the verge of tears now. "You're not going to be there. And Spike's not going to be there. It's just me. I'm your 'big gun.' What if I don't work? What if I screw things up, and everyone dies because of me?"
Buffy pulled Dawn against her. "That's not going to happen."
"How do you know?" Dawn sniffled, her arms locking around her sister's body.
"Faith is going to be there. And so will Willow. They're going to help you through this. You're not alone."
"But it's all up to me."
"No, Dawn. It's up to us. All of us." She stroked Dawn's hair. "I know how this feels, Dawn. I do. I fought Angelus alone, and it was the hardest thing I ever did. But I got through it. I faced the Master before, and I thought I was alone. But I wasn't. My friends were there with me. I just didn't realize it then. You have to realize this now, Dawn." She pushed Dawn from her so she could look her sister in the eyes. "I may not be fighting right there beside you, but I'm going to be with you. We all are. You just remember that if you get scared in there tonight. We're all going to be with you, okay? We've gotten though six apocalypses already, we can get through one more."
Dawn swallowed and wiped her nose.
"Besides," Buffy said with a smile, "we've got something this time around that we didn't have before. And it's gonna tip the scales in our favor."
"What's that?" Dawn asked.
Dawn stared at Buffy again, then threw her arms around her sister. "I love you."
"I love you, too," Buffy whispered, holding her sister tight against herself. "I love you, too."


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