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

Episode Fifteen: Into the Breach

by georgevna, fenwic & eep

*
Willow, Faith and Dawn crept along the round tunnel towards the light. The walls fell away and they found themselves looking down into the Master's lair. After relying on flashlights for so long, the candlelight seemed almost blinding. Candelabras filled the abandoned church, casting odd shadows on the remaining stones in the floor. Still, beyond the columns on either side the light failed; the pit in the floor where the altar once stood was too deep for the light to reach. The wall beside them, at the back of the church, had caved in. Dirt and rocks spilled onto the steps which had somehow survived when the wall collapsed.

They climbed down the stairs side-by-side, scanning the room for any trace of the Master. When they reached the center of the space they stopped, instinctively standing back-to-back, forming a triangle looking outward. Dawn stared into the darkness between the arches across from her. She could sense Willow's fear, and the frustration rising in the Slayer to her left.

"Come on out, fucker!" Faith yelled into the cavern. Still they heard and saw nothing.

Maybe he isn't here after all. Maybe he … maybe he got scared and left. Dawn tried to breathe the way Willow taught her, tried to stay calm. It was harder with the electricity spell, which Willow had cast just after the fight in the tunnel. Dawn's skin tingled and she felt sure the ends of her hair were flying straight out.

Breathe. In. Out. In. Out. Calm. Breathe. In. Out….

She didn't have to conjure images of Doug's house now. She was scared. The hard part was keeping the fear from overwhelming her.

Willow grabbed her right hand, and Dawn heard her whispering inside her head. "Remember - wait until he's in position. We'll never get him through the portal if he sees it first."

Gee, thanks, that's a calming thought…

"Dawnie, I can hear you, remember?" The Willow-voice in her head chuckled. "Just let me and Faith mess him up a little first, and then you're on. You'll be great. You can do this." Willow gave her hand an extra squeeze.

"What are you waiting for, asshole!" Faith's shout echoed in the still air.

"I was waiting for you." The voice was at once melodic and nasal, silky and full of hatred. It came from… somewhere. Dawn spun around, but there was no one there but Faith and Willow.

"Well now I'm here," Faith sneered. She shone her flashlight into the darkness beyond the stone arches, desperate to find the Master and get a jump on him. "So let's get on with it, okay?"

"I wasn't speaking to you yet, Slayer." The voice was almost a snarl. Dawn couldn't help it: she turned around again, trying to figure out where he was. The Master paused, and calmed his voice. "No, you know who I was waiting for, don't you, Witch?"

Dawn could feel Willow shaking, and but she kept her voice steady. "I burned you before, and I'll kill you before you use me again."

The voice chuckled softly. "Use you? Is that what you tell yourself? Is that what you tell your friends? 'Oh, it wasn't me, it was the Master! He used me!'" The falsetto dropped and the voice became cold. "Oh no, dear. You used me. I was trapped here without a body, waiting around in the ether, and your pain and hatred sucked my spirit in. You used me to give you power…. Not that I minded."

And suddenly, he was there. One hand grabbed Willow's right shoulder, the other clamped over her mouth before she could say a single word of the spell she'd prepared. "May I have this dance?" He spun around out of Faith's reach, bashing Willow's head against a stair. As her limp body fell to the ground he snickered. "Maybe later, then."

Dawn screamed - and found herself staring at a swingset in Los Angeles, close to the old house. Helluva lot of good it would do to send him there…

Faith hissed in her ear - "Not yet!" Somehow, the portal snapped shut.

The Slayer sprang across the floor, landing just in front of the Master. She kicked him twice in the head, hard - but he didn't flinch. She brought the stake up, aiming it at his neck, hoping to weaken him. He blocked the blow and grabbed her by both wrists.

"A stake! How quaint!" His fingers tightened like vices. Her right wrist had barely healed, and now it was throbbing in pain. She aimed a kick at his crotch, but he jumped aside, nearly tearing her hands from her arms. "I'd heard you do pretty good knife work, Slayer. You should stick with what you know best. Leave the hero schtick to the good guys."

She cried in pain and fell to her knees. Her fingers loosened - the stake dropped from her hand. Somehow the Master caught it in the air. He held it to the light, admiring the scroll work. "Pretty thing, isn't it?" Suddenly he howled in pain. The holy water in the wood began to eat into his fingers. In his rage he slammed his knee viciously into Faith's face, and left her sprawling unconscious on the floor.

***

Buffy's muscles ached. Buffy's bones ached. Buffy's mind ached. But she had to keep going.

The battle raged on all sides, vampires slashing and hissing and biting anything they could. She kept fighting as well, stabbing and punching and hacking away at anything with a set of fangs. The only question left was who would give in first.

By now she sported multiple injuries-her forehead bled from where a vampire clawed her, and her left knee ached something terrible from a kick it received earlier that night. Possibly a sprain, but definitely not a dislocation. She'd work it out.

She fought two vampires at the same time. Both arms flew at the demons, her hands connecting with their heads and chests. Her right palm slammed into one vampire's chest, sending it sailing backwards. Her left hand chopped sideways at the other, hitting the vampire squarely in the Adam's apple. It gasped in pain, and she took the moment to punch it twice, beating it to the ground. It fell on its knees and Buffy easily planted her stake in its heart.

Just as the vampire dissolved into dust the other came back at her, growling in fury. Buffy ran to meet it, jumping in the air and raising her good knee to meet its face, shattering the nose and knocking out its front teeth. The vampire's head tipped backwards as the Slayer landed, and she raised her hand axe and sliced off its head.

All around her the people fought against the vampires. Strategy went out the window and rage fueled the people's actions. They stabbed at the creatures, trying in vain to hit their hearts. Everyone was tired, and they made too many mistakes. All around the field the vampires killed Buffy's troops, grabbing them by the shoulders and sinking their teeth into their necks. Or they just tore bodies apart, limb from limb, and drank straight from the gaping wounds.

They needed to regain control of the fight.

Buffy raced back towards the trenches, dodging vampires and body parts on the way. She leapt across puddles of holy water, trying not to notice that they were tinged with just as much blood as dust. They were going to win this fight.

Ahead a woman screamed, beating at a vampire with her fists as it pinned her to the muddy ground. Buffy veered to its right and kicked it in the head. The vampire rolled off the woman's body. Buffy leaned over her and sunk her stake into the vampire's heart, then stood up and pulled the woman from the ground as the vampire dust began to settle. Tears streaked her face, and bruises spotted her neck and arms.

"Come on," Buffy muttered. "We're going to end this. Get as many people to follow as you can."

The woman nodded and ran from person to person, pointing to Buffy as she took off for the trenches once again. Buffy trained her sight on the weapons where a small group of people guarded them from the vampires. A horde of the creatures surrounded the people, punching and biting at them. One broke through the human wall and ripped the lid off a crate, pulling out a semi-automatic rifle. The vampire loaded a clip of shells into it, ready to turn the weapon on the people.

Buffy dashed to the vampire and stopped behind it, kicking the hand holding the weapon. The monster's arm flew straight up with the force of her kick, sending it almost completely over its head. Buffy snatched the gun from its hand, flipped it to grab the stock properly, and fired a single shot into the back of the vampire's head, blowing it off completely. The headless body exploded into dust and Buffy turned to face the rest of the vampires. "Duck!" she called out to the people. As soon as they dropped to the ground she fired shot after shot into the monster's bodies. Sometimes she hit them in the head, killing them instantly. Mostly she injured them enough to incapacitate them. As the vampires fell, the people crawled forward to stake them.

The people got up from the ground and turned to find the Slayer tearing through the crates. "I need a runner," she called over her shoulder. "Someone needs to get a message to Giles and Xander for me."

A young man stepped towards her. "I'll do it. What should I say?"

"Have them get everyone to circle in the vampires. I don't care what they have to do to make it happen, but get the vampires as close to the middle of the field as possible. Tell everyone you see on the way. Tell them these are orders from me."

The man nodded and took off running.

"What are you going to do?" someone asked.

Buffy flipped the lid off another crate and smiled at its contents. "I'm taking them all out."

***

Xander punched another vampire in the face. Its head turned with the punch, but nothing else happened. I need to start working out, Xander thought, watching as the vampire smiled and felt its jaw. Then Xander's eyes widened as the vampire readied its own punch.

He ducked under the swinging arm and threw himself at the vampire, catching it in a bear hug. They rolled on the ground, the vampire hissing as they splashed through a puddle of holy water. The vampire kicked them away from the puddle and they rolled twice more, landing with Xander pinned underneath it.

Xander grabbed the vampire by the shoulders to push it off him. As soon as his hands touched the body he recoiled in disgust-something under his hand was mushy. He glanced down to see the soft, rotting muscle of the vampire's upper arm oozing between his fingers. The holy water ate the skin from its arm and shoulder, leaving only a mass of dripping, dead muscle clinging to the exposed bone. Xander swallowed the bile that filled his mouth and shoved at the vampire again.

The monster leaned down to bite his neck, but Xander's left hand still clenched a stake. He pushed the stake into the monster's side, and when it reared back to scream, Xander flipped them once again. This time they landed Xander-side-up, and he staked the vampire without a problem. As the body underneath him disappeared, he fell to the ground in a heap. He sighed and pulled himself up again.

"Xander! Xander Harris!"

He looked up. A young man ran across the battlefield, waving his arms. "Way to call attention to yourself," Xander muttered as he jogged towards the man.

The man spotted him and met him halfway. "Message from Buffy," he panted. "Get everyone to circle the vampires. I've been telling everyone."

Xander nodded. "I'm on it." He turned and ran north to a group of people fighting together. He sized up the situation-about twelve vamps on seven people. He hoped he'd get there in time to help.

***

Buffy watched the field from her vantage point by the trenches. All around people fought back, beating the vampires toward the center of the field. Small bursts of napalm exploded here and there, sending up howls of pain from the vampire victims before they melted away. Gunshots rang out across the field, and Buffy could only pray that humans held those guns.

Behind her people worked to arrange the weapons crates into a pile. It stood nearly twelve feet tall, good enough for what she needed. The Slayer turned and pulled her weapon from its box.

A man approached. "Um… You sure you know how to use that thing?"

Buffy grinned. "It's not that hard. Pull the trigger, big boom. This isn't the first time I've used one."

She left the bewildered man behind and began to climb up the pile of crates. "When I give the signal, you fire," she told four people standing nearby. They all nodded and watched as she continued her climb to the top.

It was an awkward climb at best, lugging the hundred-pound weapon alongside her. She also had to be careful that the crates wouldn't shift under her weight. She finally reached the top, carefully placing the weapon on the flat surface of a wooden box before climbing up. She stood and looked at the field below. The vampires were even closer together now, pressing inwards as the troops tightened their circle. It was almost time; just a little closer and it would be perfect.

Buffy waited, trying to estimate the size of the circle the people formed. She hoped it would be enough. Buffy hefted the rocket launcher onto her shoulder. "Now!" she shouted to the people below.

They raised their hands above their heads and fired off the flare guns they held. Eight streaks of colored smoke streaked through the air to Buffy's left, the sound of the screeching flares echoing through the night sky. Her gaze zeroed in on the field, watching as all eyes turned to the explosion by her side. She peered through the target and pulled the trigger.

A small bomb shot out of the rocket launcher's cannon, whistling as it sailed through the air and into the crush of vampires. With a thunderous crash it detonated in the middle, sending up a huge spray of dirt and vampire parts. Buffy watched in glee as the troops below drove into the surprised vampires, taking them out as quickly as possible. She jumped down from the pile of crates and ran towards the melee, ready to kick some ass.

The fight was theirs again, and it was going to stay that way. They were already winning.

***

The battle was almost over, and perhaps they had actually won. Dracula had not fought a campaign such as this in many many years - outnumbered, overmatched, and against his own kind. It was exhilarating.

He surveyed the field. He had fought his way from the building to the edge of the fire through the crush of the Master's forces. He had hacked and slashed and sliced their necks until a blizzard of ash filled the air. He had rushed against them and thrown them into the river of fire that circled the northern half of the field. When he had reached the trench he had turned around and herded them like sheep towards the townspeople and their hoses of holy water.

And now he stood alone. The tide had turned against them, and then back again. What was left of the Master's forces made a last desperate stand some distance away. The fighting had shifted towards the southern half of the field now that the holy water had run out. He scanned the distant groups of people. He saw many in orange. His family was still largely intact. But he did not see her.

He wiped his sword carefully. With all but the cleanest blows, there was some blood - and the accumulation of ash from adversary after adversary could blunt a blade, even scratch it. He glanced at the sky. He still had an hour before dawn. He searched the field for an opponent.

Not for just any opponent. For her. For Darla, his simpering sister, who forced him into exile and branded him a traitor to his own - when in truth the betrayal was hers alone. It had been his vision to re-establish the glorious Order of Aurelius, to finally subjugate the world to rule by vampires. But she had subverted him at every turn; for she despised him for being immune to her so-called charms. In the end she was jealous of his place in the Master's esteem, and had turned the Ancient One against him….

He saw a vampire kneeling on the ground off to his left, preparing to feed. Might as well fight with this one while he waited for Darla. Dracula approached the vampire from behind. She was dull, and fat. Not a woman he would ever have chosen for the gift of immortality. As he got closer he lost all appetite for a fight, and decided to simply dispatch her. With one quick sweep of his blade, the vampire exploded. The tiny woman she had been about to bite rose from her knees and stared at Dracula for a moment. Then she picked up her stake, brushed the ash of her attacker from her clothing, and turned to find another opponent.

Dracula set out for the southern half of the battlefield. If he stayed near enough to the channel of holy water he could burst onto the fight unseen. Surely Darla was there…. Unless - had she somehow been buried in the Master's own trap? Dracula smiled a little at the thought. It would be like her. The same stupidity that had cost her Angelus. She and her paramour deserved the torment that came from their rashness…. And yet she blamed the Slayer. So like a woman. She blamed the Slayer for her loss - choosing to ignore that the loss came one hundred years before the Slayer was born. No logic, only jealousy. He knew Darla would gladly take him, the Master, and the whole world to Hell, if it meant she could exact her petty revenge.

Dracula tripped over a body and almost fell. He caught himself, and continued toward the southern rim of the battlefield with greater care. The grass was slippery with the blood of the slain humans, but more than that. Here the holy water had gushed out of the hoses, and the field was drenched in it. Muddy pools of it collected in every dip in the sodden terrain. Dracula picked his way through the bodies and the puddles, until he neared the holy water trench. He turned left and followed it towards the battle, being sure to keep several yards between himself and the ditch. He wondered if the Slayer was still in the thick of the fight. He had no doubt she was.

He had sought this Slayer out for the challenge, and the honor of the fight. And because there was no greater victory than to take a Slayer and make her his bride…. He paused and again surveyed the field, taking in the wholesale slaughter of the Master's forces. Dracula realized that dream would have to wait. He could not best this one - or her intriguing pupil. But he could bide his time. Eventually, they would die. A new Slayer would be called. He would take her young, make her his own. He could afford to be patient. He was immor -

A flail cracked against his right ear from behind, and Dracula fell to his knees. His howl of pain was barely audible over the ringing in his ears. But her hated voice cut straight through the din in his head, and he heard her lilting sneer all too clearly.

"Hello, Vlad."

The flail whistled through the air, the cruel spiked ball smashed into the left side of his head. She walked around him, laughing.

"Really, you're pathetic." She raised the flail again, but this time Dracula was ready for her. He swept his sword up and to the left, blocking the next blow in a clang of metal. The chain wound once around his blade. He stood.

"At last we meet on the field of battle, sister. I have longed for this day." As he spoke, he swung his sword down and back up to the right, ripping the flail from her grip. It remained tangled around his sword, and as he struggled to free the weapons, she was upon him. The knee to his groin sent spasms of pain through his body, and then his body was no more.

He solidified slowly some yards away, and realized with a shock that he had narrowly missed materializing in the trench of holy water only inches behind him. There were drawbacks to all of his forms; he would have to be more careful. Still, he smirked as he saw that Darla had not yet seen him. She stood spewing curses at the air, between him and the weapons. Before she realized he was there, he landed a smart blow to her filthy mouth.

Darla snarled. "I should have known you aren't man enough to fight me without your childish tricks." As she spat the words out, she swung her fist - but he anticipated the movement and grabbed her right arm in the air. He swung her around until her back was pressed against him, with her arm pinioned between them. He grabbed the left wrist and held her in place. His lips brushed her left ear as he spoke.

"You think you can play upon my vanity so easily, Darla?" His voice was soft but full of menace. She strained to get away but he tightened his grip until he felt the hard bones ready to snap between his fingers. "I have cultivated my gifts through the centuries, and you expect me to lay them aside, to make it easier for you to fight me?"

"You bastard!" she screamed. She tried to pull her ear away from his mouth and jerked violently in his arms. He simply wrenched her right arm higher behind her back until she whimpered and fell still.

He gazed at her curved neck. He could drain her until she was a walking skeleton, too weak to fight back as he beheaded her…. But he first wanted to savor this moment, wanted to enjoy every delicious second of his victory. He could smell her fear.

"No, little sister. Tonight you shall die at my hand. Perhaps you should have taken the time to learn a few tricks from the Gypsies yourself."

The words infuriated her, as he knew they would. She brought her right foot up - but he held her so close that he knew what was coming. Her heel flew towards his kneecap and met - nothing. Her momentum threw her forward, onto her hands and knees. The bat fluttered around her head.

Dracula flew over towards his sword. The bat form was useful, but had its limitations. He could not see very well, and he could not fight in this body, only flee. He sensed her movement too late. The iron ball whizzed past, barely missing him. He flew higher to escape it, but Darla was too fast. The flail smashed his left wing. He fell to the ground in human form, his left arm crumpled against his chest. He had to get up, fight. Perhaps as a wolf… No. A wolf with a broken leg was even more useless than a vampire with a mangled arm. He needed his sword…. The flail crashed mercilessly into his face. His cheekbones shattered, his nose pushed against his brain. His mouth filled with his own blood. He rolled to his side to avoid the next blow.

The thick orange suit took a long time to get wet, but he could feel the first blush of dampness against his right side. The puddle he had rolled into was not deep, but it did not need to be. It burned like a flame licking his skin.

Darla stood over him and shoved his wounded left shoulder into the mud with her foot. She straddled him and pinned down his upper arms with her knees. She laughed again as she leaned sideways to pick something off of the dead human beside Dracula. A stake. She had a stake. Now the water seeped across the back of his suit; he bucked to keep his skin away from the wet cloth. He was helpless. The holy water burned like acid; his mind was too full of blinding pain for him to make a transformation. There was no hope of escape.

A sickening smile crossed Darla's face. "I've been wanting to do this for three hundred years, you pompous pig! And I have to say - it was worth the wait." She raised the stake for the kill. Dracula closed his eyes and awaited the inevitable.

A weapon whistled through the air, and something fell against his chest. Not a stake, and too light for a body. He tried to open his eyes, but his eyelids felt like lead.

"You lay another finger on my Love Muffin and you won't have any fingers left, bitch!"

That did it. Dracula's eyes popped open in surprise. Harmony stood over him, holding his sword awkwardly. Darla's severed arm lay across his chest, the fingers still gripping the stake. He lifted his head and looked around, but Darla was nowhere to be seen. He turned his eyes back to his blonde bride, that strange and wonderful creature, a glorious vision in orange. "My Beautiful Savior…" he croaked.

Harmony knelt beside him. "Shhhh… shhhh. Don't try to talk, Pumpkin. It's going to be all right. Harmony's here now." She raised him carefully out of the puddle, and tried to lift him. After several awkward attempts, she slung him over her left shoulder. "Harmony's going to make everything all right."

He saw her then, Darla, staggering about the battlefield, howling in pain…. Her right shoulder was a bloody stump…. His head bounced against Harmony's lovely back as she carried him to safety…. Darla tripped and fell and tried to brace herself with her arms - but her right side crashed into another puddle of holy water. She screamed in pain as holy water engulfed her face and splashed up her left arm and into the torn flesh of her right shoulder and onto her dress…. The eastern sky was growing light…. He closed his eyes and surrendered to unconsciousness.

***

Dawn trembled as the Master walked past her to the far side of the room, where the hole had been carved into the stone floor. Breathe… Breathe... Focus. Who knew it could be so hard not to open a portal? Breathe…. Run…. NO!… Breathe…. He's not looking at me. I could run. I could get out of this awful place…. I'd get Buffy, and come back! I would!… No. If I leave I'll never come back. If I leave, he'll win…. Breathe… Breathe… Focus.

He turned his stare on her and grinned. "What's your name, little girl?" As he spoke, he stretched out his arm and beckoned her with waving fingers.

Against her will, Dawn found herself walking towards him. "Dawn Summers," she replied. Despite her fear, there was a hint of pride in her voice.

"Summers? Ah - you must be the little sister! I've heard so much about you!"

Dawn stopped, directly in front of him. She tried to look past him to avoid the malice of his eyes. He has the weirdest teeth.

He leaned forward and whispered in her ear. "You know what I'm trying to do, don't you? I'm almost done. The Hellmouth will open and then your sister, and all of your world, will be in the Hell I was made to bring about…." His sing-song voice dropped even further, and she felt his lips moving against her hair. She shuddered but couldn't move away. "But you won't be there to see it. There's only one more step in the spell, one more sacrifice to open the Hellmouth." He stepped aside and gestured to the right. "I had one all picked out, but… I was feeling peckish."

Dawn looked into the basin carved in the floor, and yelped as she recognized her classmate. Kirsty. Kirsty, who had made school a living hell for Dawn. Kirsty, with a gaping wound in her neck, her dead eyes wide with fear. A portal opened beneath her - this time it was the cafeteria at the junior high. Kirsty's body fell onto the linoleum floor between two tables, and the portal closed behind her.

The Master hadn't seen it. His eyes were fixed on Dawn's face, delighting in her horrified expression. "I was a little worried that I'd acted too rashly, but here you are. I never knew Fate delivered."

Her body remained frozen in his thrall. He leaned in towards her, and circled her slowly as he spoke. "Your sister was chosen, not you…. Or is that why you're here? Did you tag along just to show you're as brave as Big Sister? Well you are. Brave, like your sister. Stupid, like your sister…."

He stopped in front of her again. He gestured past her towards Faith and Willow, unconscious by the staircase. "Those two - a witch and a Slayer - they'll wake up in Hell… if they aren't devoured in their sleep. It's funny, isn't it? You relied on them to protect you. And now, you're going to die. Alone."

Something in Dawn snapped. She could move again, though she didn't - not yet. Her mind became clear. Calm. She still felt fear, but now it was a weapon in her hands. She gazed again at the empty space just behind the Master, and opened the portal. Orange and yellow light glowing off of black stone. The window was small, but growing.

The Master brushed Dawn's hair off her face in a mockery of affection. "Poor scared little girl."

Quietly, Dawn met his eyes. "You don't know what I am…." She caught him off guard, and shoved him across the threshold into the heart of the volcano.

The portal kept growing.

Dawn could see the Master black against the yellow light, standing on a ledge at the rim of the fiery abyss. She turned her face away to avoid the intense heat radiating out of the portal. Panicked, she ran to Willow. Faith stirred and opened her eyes. Thank god. "Willow! Wake up! I can't close it!"

The portal kept growing.

The Master stepped back into the church, fire engulfing his clothes. Faith lunged at him. "You're not gonna come back this time, you son-of-a-bitch!" Ignoring the flames, she grabbed his shoulders. She forced him back onto the ledge inside the volcano, never loosening her grip. Just behind him flames roared up, fed by the infusion of air through the portal. Faith's hands blistered, smoked, burned, but she held on. Finally the Master exploded into ash - black ash that swarmed inside the volcano, until each speck ignited like a firework. His skeleton melted into nothing.

The portal kept growing.

"Willow! Wake up!" Dawn shrieked. Her ears popped and a searing wind whirled around her. Inside the volcano the pressure plummeted; magma heaved and surged like the ocean tides in response. The molten rock reached the ledge where the Master had stood. Red and golden lava poured into the chamber. The stone floor creaked; flagstones popped and exploded across the room. Faith stumbled to her knees beside Dawn, her hands bloody, the skin burned away, the knuckles of her left hand exposed.

"Dammit Willow!" Dawn cried. She grabbed the witch's shoulder, and felt the connection between them. "Willow!" she called.

Willow's voice came from far away. "Dawnie?"

"Willow please come back! I can't close it!"

The witch's eyes popped open, black as night. Grabbing Dawn's arms she barked out a command: "Claudatur porta!" The window winked out of existence, and it was over.

***

Spike strode across the field with two lieutenants and a couple dozen Orangemen in tow. He pointed at the opening where the water trench and the fire trench didn't quite meet.

"Mind the bloody gap!"

Three men peeled off to join the one still on guard there, and the troops moved on. Spike pointed at spots along the perimeter where the fire had gone low, and at skirmishes that looked a bit short on orange. The lieutenants dispatched more men. Spike sent the rest on search & destroy missions. "No one gets out!"

Now alone, he considered heading down into the tunnels when he heard a noise. He turned and saw the shadow of something lurking around the school. He gave chase, pursuing it through a maze of passages before hitting a dead end. Walls all around, with no doors or windows at ground level, and no one in sight.

He shook his head. "I must be tired." He sensed something then, and turned around. "Very tired."

Six vampires stood at the mouth of the passage, blocking the only way out. Not his men. Nor were they fledglings or soldiers. These guys - and the bird, too - were old. Like himself… maybe older. And they looked a bit upset.

Spike tried to look menacing. Then he remembered the clothes he wore. Bugger.

"William," said the tall one.

Spike frowned. Bad enough the family called him that, but from strangers it just annoyed him.

"Lost, are you?" he said.

"How many times do you think you can interfere in these matters before you have to pay?"

Yeh, definitely old, but unoriginal as sin. "Why don't you ask your precious Master?" he sneered. "Oh, wait…" Stall. Stall until somebody comes by. Anybody.

They walked toward him slowly. The passage was long - they didn't bother to raise their weapons yet. Probably won't need them.

"Spike?"

Spike looked up and over his shoulder. A balcony - with a human on it. The short one from the video store. Good old… What's-his-name.

The girl smirked. "I don't think you'll find that one useful."

"Spike," the boy repeated. "It's me, Jonathan."

Spike looked back at his approaching doom. "Well, Jonathan, I'm afraid the tearful reunion'll have to wait. Unless ya got a Slayer in your pocket."

"Nooo… but I have another friend up here."

Riddles. Very nice. Spike grasped at straws. "A witch?"

"No!" Jonathan rolled his eyes. "Don't you know why Xander posted me on the roof?"

Bloody hell. Harris's battle plan was 29 pages long, plus visual aids. How could he- Hang on.

"Yeh… I remember! How many 'friends' ya got?"

"One."

The vampires closed in. The ugly one raised his ax.

"Well?!?" said Spike. "Time's a-wastin'! Introduce her like Xander taught you."

"Roger! On the count of-"

"ONE!" Spike dropped his sword and hit the deck, his arms covering his head.

The six stopped and stared down at him, confused. Then they saw the grenade still wobbling at their feet. On the balcony, the not-useful human smiled and held up the pin he still gripped between his thumb and forefinger.

The blast blew three vampires apart and sent the others flying. Spike grabbed his sword and charged. He finished off Stretch, Ugly, and Smirky with a few quick swings.

He took in the mess and laughed at the wonder of blowing up a blown-up school. Then he looked up at the balcony. Video Store Boy gave him an odd sort of salute before slipping back into the building.

God, he needed a cigarette. "This has been a weird night."

Spike looked up at the sky. Not much night left. He raced out of the passage and around the school toward the south field. He scanned the smoky battleground. The fire hoses trampled into the mud, the bodies lying everywhere, the water sizzling in the trench…

Then he saw her walking toward him.

She didn't look like the Queen of Sunnydale. Not quite the Magnificent Slayer Goddess. Her flaxen hair matted to her head, wet and sticky. Dirt and blood smeared her alabaster skin, and the cuts on her less-than-delicate hands would leave ugly scabs for hours.

She stared at him, longing to believe her eyes. "Spike?"

He went to her and grasped her face in his hands. Then he took one look at the bloodshot eyes and swollen lip and smiled. She was glorious. And alive. He pulled her into his arms and held her close, breathed her in.

To have her… The struggle to be worthy almost choked him some days… But to need her? To love her? All too easy! He laughed into the gloom that surrounded them. Loving her was so natural as to make all other thoughts incomprehensible.

She pulled back and put a hand to his face, while the other ran down his shoulder and chest. "It's really you? You're really here?"

"Where else would I be?" he teased. "We're supposed to be together, you and me. Nothin' to be done about it."

She leaned in and pressed her lips to his. Then both of them said "Ow", and laughed into each other's kiss.

His skin still tingled and his ears still rang, but the hunger was gone. Filled by the woman in his arms and the heady combination of joy and adventure she brought him.

In the back of his mind, he knew that the years, days, hours to come would bring more fear and darkness. But he'd endure a thousand nights of torment for every moment like this.

"C'mon, Pet. Let's find the others so we can go home."

***

Blinded by dust and - he touched his head - blood, Xander stumbled over the field. The faint glow in the east guided him past debris, and weapons, and bodies. So many bodies. Did he know them? He didn't want to look. He didn't want to wonder if the plan was bad, if the training was wrong, if somebody he loved… Wait. Xander rubbed his eyes… Who… What was… No. No. No.

He propelled himself forward, denying what he already knew to be true.

It wasn't part of the plan! Giles wouldn't have been way over here. Alone. He would've been surrounded by people… He wouldn't… He…

No. Awww, no. Please. Not after everything.

He tripped and landed on all fours. Half-crawling, half-reeling, he finally reached Giles. Unconscious. Bleeding about the face and head. "No-o-o," Xander choked. Choked and coughed. He fought for air and collapsed against the still form. Then he struggled to sit up. So much blood. It came from everywhere. How could he stop it? His hands hovered awkwardly, fingers spread wide.

"Giles, please. Please, please, please, pleeeeease?" he sobbed.

Dawn thought she heard Xander's voice. She ran a sleeve over her eyes and peered through the haze. "Xander! Are you there?" No one answered, but she continued to move toward the sound.

Willow followed close behind. She had an arm supporting Faith, who lurched forward in a daze, her hands out in front of her. Willow shifted her grip to keep them both from falling. "Xander!" Willow called. "Is that you?"

They saw him then, sitting on the ground with his back to them. Why won't he answer? "Xander!" Willow called again as they approached him. "Didn't you hear us? Get up! We have to get Faith to the hospital!"

Nothing.

"Xander! Her hands. They-" Willow froze.

Not again. Not Giles.

Scream, cry, vomit, whatever she wanted to do, she steeled herself for what must be done. Maybe this time it wasn't too late.

"Dawn. Find Spike. Tell him to bring his car straight here. Then find Buffy." She eased Faith down next to Xander, and then knelt at Giles's head.

Dawn stared at him, her eyes huge and her lip quivering.

"Now!" snapped Willow. Dawn sprinted away.

So much blood… Willow checked for a pulse. That's when she saw the puncture wounds. The rip in his neck. "No," she whispered. "Oh, no." She grabbed his wrist, but felt nothing. Moved her fingers… searching… willing his heart to beat… There. Weak, but there. She examined his mouth - cuts and slight bleeding around the outside. She gently pushed down his chin - no blood on the inside. The vampire with the big mouth didn't make him drink. She closed her eyes. "Thank you, thank you, thank you."

Faith said nothing, just stared at the lifeless form. And the young man begging and sobbing. She hunched forward, her wrists cocked back at odd angles to protect her hands. Why is it so cold? Wasn't it hot before? Burning… She shivered. Couldn't stop shivering.

"Xander!" cried Willow. "You have to take care of Faith! She's in shock."

He looked up, stricken. But Willow's words snapped him to like a splash of cold water. He gulped for air and turned.

Faith. Xander looked at her as if she'd just materialized. Her hands… "Faith! Oh god, I'm so… Faith…" He reached out, but stopped just short of touching her. "You're shaking." He yanked off the jacket tied round his waist and moved behind her, wrapping the jacket and his arms around her shoulders. "You're gonna be all right." Please let that be true. "Hold on, Faith. Everything's gonna be okay. I just need you to hold on a little longer… Willow!"

"Dawn's getting Spike and the car. Keep her warm. Do what you can." Willow worked on her own patient. She took off one of her shirts and held it to Giles's head. Then she breathed deep and spoke. She drew energy from the earth. She asked God for grace. A spell, a murmur, a prayer.

Faith didn't understand. Is somebody sick? Somebody's crying. I'm sorry. I tried. I tried, I tried, I tried! Don't cry. Please don't cry. Why is it so cold? Faith didn't understand. She just looked at the body with dry, dead eyes. She didn't hear Buffy running to join them.

"Faith! Oh god, your hands! Faith… Spike's coming." She looked back over her shoulder. "He's bringing the car." Faith still couldn't hear her, hadn't even seen her.

Then Buffy looked at Giles, bewildered. "This is all wrong. This can't be happening."

Willow didn't hear her either. Her arms hovered over Giles, trembling, golden light shimmering in the circle they created. She closed her eyes and implored, "By the power of three times three, as I will it, so shall it be."

Buffy knelt opposite Faith, bent low and whispered in her Watcher's ear. "Giles. It's time to wake up now, okay? I know you're tired. God, believe me, I know, and I'm sorry for being selfish, but we have to go home now, okay?"

***

"Where are you, bitch?"

Darla staggered across the remains of the battlefield. The left side of her face was torn and bloody; the right side had been completely eaten away from her cheekbone to her jaw. In between, a thin film of pink flesh clung to the bones, tattered in many places to reveal the stark whiteness of her skull. Her dress was still damp with holy water and she felt it eating away at the flesh of her breasts. It burned holes into her legs as each step brought her knees in contact with the dripping hem. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered but finding that bitch.

Behind her, the sky was pink, turning to white. Soon the sun would lap at her back and send her at last to the great Nothingness beyond. She didn't care.

The Master's army was gone. Was the Master gone? She didn't know. Maybe not. Maybe he was still down there, chanting and sacrificing. Maybe tomorrow his Hell really would be unleashed on Earth, and the Old Ones would come forth, and humanity would be cast into everlasting torment. It didn't matter. Darla wouldn't be there to see it.

But neither would the Slayer.

And there she was. Surrounded by her little gang of friends. Weeping over the body of that priggish Watcher. Darla smiled. Maybe I did manage to kill the bastard.

With her left hand she brought the gun to her face. The eyelids had been burned away, and her right eye had gone dark, but she could still see well enough through the left. The gun was heavy, one of her soldier boys' automatic weapons. She had it found lying on the field. She got Buffy in her sights, and prepared to pull the trigger. As she adjusted the gun, the strap around her right shoulder slipped down, grazing the bloody stump that was all that remained of her other arm. The rough band against her wound sent a jolt of fresh pain through her body and she lurched forward with a shriek.

She straightened up, and saw that at least one of the troop had heard her cry. Ah - the brat sister, looking straight at her, screaming, "Oh god! What is that?"

"It's your worst nightmare, little girl," Darla muttered. She raised the gun to her eye, and looked through the site. Nothing. Blackness. Darla tried to blink, to clear her eyes, but the shreds of her eyelids only scratched at the tops of her eyeballs. She stepped forward to get a better view.

Still black. And - cold.

She lowered the gun. Darkness all around. Had it happened? Had the sun come up, or had someone staked her from behind? Was she really gone?

She didn't remember it was like this. Last time - last time, there was nothing. She was nothing. But now - she still had thoughts. She still had feeling. Pain. A world of pain was still with her. And cold. She looked around and saw that not all was black. The sky above was strewn with bright stars. More stars, and more brilliant, than she had seen since the world had been electrified. Either she had gone back in time or…

"Or I'm somewhere so fucking remote you can still see the goddamn stars." She growled, and stamped her foot in anger. It slipped on ice and she fell forward. Her left arm came out to break her fall and hit something rough, but yielding. Warm. Alive. As her eyes adjusted to the dim light, she could barely make out the massive shape. The creature let out a groan, a moo, a lowing, which was taken up by hundreds of similar creatures all around her on the ice-floe. The first turned towards her, its tusks gleaming in the frozen light.

Darla morphed into game face and buried her fangs in the walrus's neck, drinking deeply. "Goo goo ga-choo" she thought, as rich blood that stank of fish and oil ran down her parched throat.

***

The DeSoto sped off the battlefield with Faith in the front seat and Giles, still unconscious, lying in the back. Buffy hurried over to her weeping sister.

"What just happened?" Buffy squatted next to Xander. Willow held Dawn in her lap, trying to quiet the girl's gasping sobs.

"She saw something. Some kind of demon." Willow explained.

"Darla," Xander corrected. "I'm pretty sure that was Darla."

"Anyway, that's why she screamed. And then 'poof!' Portal opens, portal closes, no more demon - Darla." Willow stroked Dawn's hand and helped shift the girl into Buffy's arms. "And now she can't stop crying."

"Dawn?" Buffy kissed the top of her head. "Dawn, it's over. We won. You won. We're safe…."

A few minutes passed. The sun rose over the horizon. The few vampires who had been playing dead started to smoke, and scream. All around them, people turned to face the sun, wondering to see another day.

Dawn wiped a sleeve across her face. Her breathing slowed, but was still ragged. "Where did she go? The monster? Where did she go?"

Buffy grinned. "Where did you send her, Key-Girl?"

A tiny smile played on Dawn's lips. "I'm not sure but … I think it was far, far away."

***

Sunnydale Memorial ICU. The vampire invasion left the hallway a mess, but the rooms remained undamaged. Silence - at once peaceful and eerie - hung over the unit, over the entire hospital. As expected, a rush of wounded flooded the ER right after the battle... but since then, there had been nothing. Nothing but a slow progression of bodies. Only the morgue showed signs of activity now. Most injuries were either minor, or beyond all hope.

Dr. Deborah Petersen's patient was one of the exceptions.

She poked her head into Mr. Giles's room. There were two beds against the left wall and two against the right; a chair next to each bed, and a window straight ahead with the blinds closed. Seven people laid over the furniture like dirty laundry. Only two had been officially admitted, although most of them could've been.

In the first bed to the left, Little Miss Clean Bill of Health slept soundly. Such beautiful hair. She reminded Dr. Petersen of her youngest daughter. Miss Mild Concussion curled up in the chair between the wall and the first bed. Both girls sported cuts and bruises, and the redhead had quite a headache, but they could go home with just a bag full of Tylenol.

Between the far left bed and the window, Mr. 14 Stitches sprawled over one chair with his feet up on another. His head wound only needed 13 stitches, but he'd asked for the extra one to avoid bad luck. He didn't get why Dr. Petersen found that funny.

Miss Miracle Patient occupied the far left bed. By all accounts she should be dead. Or without hands. But her wounds had already started to heal. And mere hours after her friends rushed her into the ER, this girl had woken up, confused and angry, and promised to hurt people if she wasn't moved into Mr. Giles's room. Then she swore she'd go naked if she couldn't wear something besides "this stupid getup." Despite her condition, the staff believed her.

After changing into scrubs, she'd walked into Mr. Giles's room under her own power.

Dr. Petersen shook her head in wonder. The girl - Dr. Petersen looked at her chart… Faith - sat upright on the bed, bandaged from fingertips to forearms. Groggy, but awake. The staff watched her closely, taking care not to hover.

On the right side of the room sat two more members of the remarkable healing club. Mr. Burned Knee & Multiple Shrapnel Wounds perched on the edge of the far bed. He'd shrugged off any treatment - without threatening bodily harm.

The elder Miss Summers took a chair between the two beds on the right. She'd also refused medical care, despite the lacerations on her head and leg. But later Dr. Petersen had seen Miss Summers and the young man in an empty treatment room. Her own cuts already bandaged, she tended to his. Like a seasoned medic, she checked him over, searching for wounds and treating his many cuts and abrasions. But it was more ritual than procedure - as if every battle ended just like this. Even after she'd put away the bandages, her hands ran over his body. Not to diagnose injury, but to reassure herself. To connect. To caress.

But now everyone's attention focused on the first bed to the right. Mr. Giles'd suffered massive head trauma and blood loss. He had a vicious bite wound on his neck and a broken pelvis. A plethora of minor injuries rounded out the menu.

Dr. Petersen and her team had done everything they could. Even if he woke up, his recovery would be long and difficult. She looked at the roomful of army commanders. Not a war they were used to fighting. Except, maybe, for Buffy Summers. Or so Dr. Petersen sensed when she gave her the prognosis. The young woman seemed all too familiar with the fear and uncertainty that saturated hospital waiting rooms.

Dr. Petersen checked on Mr. Giles every hour. He was a strong, healthy man. But if he didn't wake up soon… Dr. Petersen sighed, eased the door shut, and went on down the hall.

Back in Giles's room, Xander nudged away his makeshift footstool and stood up. He looked over at Giles, and then at Willow and Dawn, before his gaze came to rest on Faith. She looked… wrecked. Inside and out. He'd always felt lucky to know such strong, amazing women, but this part made him wish they never left the house. The classic Watcher struggle.

"Faith, why don't you try to get some sleep?"

"No."

"Faith."

"No. I can't sleep."

"Sure ya can." Xander stepped closer. "Look at you, you can barely keep your eyes open."

"I can't sleep."

"Well, I'm sure they can give you something."

"No!"

He drew back, startled.

Faith leaned forward. "You have to promise you won't let them give me anything. You have to promise, Xander. Promise me!"

She reached out to grab his arm, then stopped and glared at her useless hand. She fell back on her pillow, exhausted. "I can't sleep. I have to stay awake, okay? Don't let them-"

"Okay, okay, I promise." He put a hand on her shoulder. "Take it easy, okay? I promise."

She relaxed a little. "You're the one who should sleep. You've been Battle Plan Man day and night for days and days and days."

"Wow." He tried to laugh it off. "That's a lot of 'days'."

She looked at him more closely, couldn't believe she hadn't seen it before. "You can't sleep either. No… you don't sleep. You haven't, have you? Not since-"

"What? Nah. It's not like that."

"It is."

He looked away.

"Xander…"

"No," he admitted. "I don't sleep. I don't like to sleep. It's… big, and hollow, and cold without her next to me. I need her there to make it real. Like an anchor or something so that I don't float away. I know it sounds weird, but it's like… if I fall asleep, I'll disappear. Just… disappear because I fell asleep-"

"-all alone."

He looked at her. "Yeah."

Her eyes drifted over to Giles.

So did Xander's. "And now..."

She nodded. "Giles was… He…"

"He's what you and me didn't get the first time around." Xander looked at her and added, "Or, in your case, the second time either."

Faith frowned and turned to him. "The Mayor? Nothing like Giles. I know that. I know what he was, and what he did. What I did. But-" Would Xander understand? "He got it, y'know? He got me. I can't... Is it twisted to care about someone who was so… twisted?"

"You cared about a monster. He wasn't your dad, but he loved you. Is that any more twisted than caring about a monster who is your dad, but doesn't give a rat's ass about you? You tell me."

She bowed her head, and her hair fell forward. "I wasn't there for him."

Xander leaned in, tried to catch her eye. "You were the best daughter a giant snake demon ever had."

"No I wasn't. I went to sleep and when I woke up, he was already gone. And my Watcher? The first one? When she died - when they were killing her - I ran." She looked back at Giles, determined. "When Giles goes, I won't run. And I won't be in any coma, either. I'm gonna be right here. Because Giles… he did everything, and this is all that I can do now. This is all there is."

And then Xander realized… "Faith. Oh no, Faith…"

On the opposite side of the room, Spike also tried to comfort his Slayer. Buffy sat next to him on the edge of the far right bed.

"Giles-" She stopped.

"-is like family."

"He is family."

Spike nodded. "He's dad. More than that. Watcher-dad. Sharing what your mum never could. He's been a soldier a long time, Love. You knew-"

"No!" She hopped of the bed and stood facing him. "I didn't know. I don't know. You don't understand. Kids are supposed to outlive their parents-"

"Ye-eah…"

"-but Slayers aren't supposed to outlive their Watchers! He's ready for me to die, Spike. Me. That's always been part of it. It was gonna be hard, really hard. And he wouldn't ever be the same, I know that, but he's the strongest person I know and that's always been part of it."

Her absolute certainty forced a sudden glimpse into his own future. It chilled him to the core, but he stayed steady for her - and listened to more of his worst nightmare.

"But this?" Buffy gestured wildly. "I can't do this. I'm not supposed to outlive any of you, but look at the year we just had! This is… What would I do? How lost would I be?"

She couldn't fathom it. Neither could he.

"Buffy-" He stood up and tried to hold her.

"No." She shook her head and put up her hands. There was no comfort to be had. None.

"Buffy, it's okay."

"It isn't. It isn't." Now the tears fell and she allowed herself to be held.

"I'm scared," she whispered.

"I know."

"And I'm tired. I'm so tired."

"I know, Pet." He rocked her slowly. "I'm here."

"Mmmm," she murmured. "Please don't ever leave me."

"Never."

Then he looked over her shoulder at Giles. "Buffy."

She didn't move.

"Buffy." He pulled back and looked at her. Her eyes widened and she turned around.

Giles. His eyes open. Red and feverish, but open, and looking into hers. He seemed confused, as if he knew her, but couldn't remember her name.

She leaned over him. "Giles? Are you in pain? Can you-" She looked over her shoulder at Spike. "When?"

He smiled. "Now. Just now."

Buffy turned back to Giles.

Willow saw the commotion and jumped to her feet. She shook Dawn awake, and the two of them rushed to the other side of Giles's bed. Xander already stood at the foot of the bed, leaning forward, peering at him.

Giles's eyes darted from face to face. Then back to Buffy. He looked sad, and weary.

"It's okay," said Buffy. "Don't try to talk. It's okay."

She looked up at Dawn and Willow.

"I'll get the doctor," Dawn said as she left the room.

"Giles?" said Xander. Then he looked Buffy. "Does he understand you?"

Her eyes hadn't left her Watcher's face. "I think so."

"How can you tell?"

"The look in his eyes. It's the one he gets when he says-"

"'As usual, you lot are bickering and I can't escape. Get out of my flat!'" Spike finished for her.

They laughed then, releasing tension and fear that had built up for months.

No one saw Faith get out of bed. No one saw her walk over to stand behind Xander. Except for Giles. He looked at her with complete understanding. And Faith… didn't understand at all.

She looked at him, at his hospital bed, as if she'd forgotten how he got there. Then she staggered back a few steps, turned, and pushed her way out of the room, dislodging her IV and crashing the IV pole as she fled.

Xander reached the door just before it swung shut and ran after her. "Faith!"

A few turns and several long stretches later, he finally found her where the hallway dead-ended. Behind her, a large window overlooked the parking lot, to her left, an emergency exit with a glowing green sign. She paced.

"Faith."

"Yeah?" Her voice pitched unusually high. Unnaturally high.

"What's going on?" He watched her.

She frowned. "I don't get it."

"What's going on, Faith?" Gentle, but firm, as if approaching a wounded tiger.

"He's not gonna die?" A tiger who wouldn't hold still.

"No," said Xander. "Not if we can help it."

"I don't get it!" She was hysterical and going in circles. Physically and otherwise.

"Well, he's awake and that's good. But the doctor's gotta check him out. This is just the beginning, I'm sure. But he's awake! He's awake now."

She lurched to a halt in front of him, her hands up as if to trying to show him a thing he could not or would not see. Frustration mingled with pain and she screamed at him, "I don't get it!"

Xander grabbed her by the upper arms and shook her. "Faith! I know it seems like every time you care about someone, they die. You think I don't know what that's like? Any of us could go, at any time. But not last night! We lived through last night. And your life is different now. It's different because even if something happens, we're here for you. Like all of you were here for me."

He searched her face for a sign. "Faith… He's not gonna die, do you understand? You took the risk, so don't stop now! He needs us."

Xander released her, and waited.

She shook her head, trying to make sense of it, afraid to believe. Then she lowered her hands and looked up at him. Her lips moved as if to speak but it came out as laughter. The labored cough-laugh of a girl drowning in her emotions.

When she finally let go of the fear, relief and gratitude overwhelmed her. With so much to say, she couldn't stop laughing, and coughing, and sobbing.

Xander went to her then, caught her just as her knees gave way. They sunk to the floor, the two of them, and he wrapped his arms around her while she cried and cried.

***

By noon on Christmas Day, Dr. Petersen finally convinced them that what Mr. Giles needed most was rest: They should all go home.

Buffy decided to stay, but she told the others to go, get some sleep, and have Christmas Dinner just like they planned. Spike didn't want to leave her behind, but agreed that he should take Dawn home.

Faith wouldn't stay as a patient but she didn't want to leave, either.

"Giles wants you to have Christmas," Xander told her. "Believe me, I know."

She looked dubious.

"He'll be okay," said Xander. "He's that lady doctor's favorite patient, I can tell. C'mon, let me take you home. We'll sleep, we'll eat, we'll gift, we'll come back first thing in the morning. I promise."

"You guys'll need your rest if you're gonna take over for me here tomorrow," Buffy reminded her.

Faith reluctantly agreed, and everyone except Buffy left the hospital. Faith and Xander went to Giles's place, while Spike and Dawn dropped Willow off and headed home.

And then everybody slept. Heavy, peaceful sleep. All afternoon and well into the evening.

***

When Xander finally woke up on Giles's couch, he found Faith standing over him.

"I'm thirsty," she said.

He got her some juice and a straw and settled her into his former spot on the couch.

"Listen," he said suddenly, "I've gotta go do something, but I'll be back in an hour, okay? I'll be right back."

"Go ahead," she said. "Just turn on the stereo before you go, okay? And put out some records. Or bring in the boom box. Oh, and make sure all the doors are open. And bring me another drink."

Xander let her finish her list before he teased, "Just call me 'cabana boy'."

Faith liked the sound of that. "Thanks, Pedro. You can go now, but hurry back."

He laughed. "Glad to see you're feeling better, ma'am."

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