[identity profile] eee1313.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] dancing_lessons_archive
Part four of six

Episode Eight: Wrecking Ball

by adjrun, fenwic, eep, and cousinjean

***

Andy's back hurt.

With a groan, he straightened. Then he reached heavenward and stretched -- twisting right, left, and then right again before he hunched over his kitchen table and resumed packing the oversized duffel. Despite his aching back, he felt ready. It was the first time he'd felt anything but lost since he’d left Sunnydale last Christmas Eve.

The things that happened that night still tormented him. He had always imagined that, whenever Armageddon came to pass, he'd be leading the charge. Onward Christian soldiers. He had volunteered for the front line, for the holy water and the torches. But when the legions had burst forth out of the darkness, snarling and ravenous, he'd stared into the face of evil and fled.

The others had rushed forward, and the things they’d done… the things they'd had to do to destroy them... They had killed or been killed doing God's work. Andy had done neither. He’d backed away and watched the fate of the entire town unfold from a safe distance.

Many miles and many months. But no distance was ever really safe.

So he'd returned to Sunnydale the same way he'd left it: wretched and forsaken. More so, because he'd hoped to leave hell behind and found that it had gone with him. Hell stuck to his shoe like chewing gum. Coated all his belongings with the stench of cowardice and failure. Hell had seeped into his pores and mutated his cells until the only thing that felt right was to come back to the source. To come home.

He lived in the same building he'd lived in before. Same odious woman next door in the same muumuu, chain-smoking Parliaments and yelling at her cats. Same Italian food place on the corner with the paper lanterns and peeling paint. Same grocery store, post office, church.

He'd gotten his old job back. That hadn’t been difficult. Most of the people who’d left when he did never came back. Sunnydale still needed men with his experience. Needed them so much that even though he was forty-two years old and just moved back to town after six months away, he'd been working overtime since his return and his back hurt.

Everyone on the crew knew about him, but they never said anything. They didn’t notice him at all except to stop telling their war stories whenever he approached, their silence as damning as any accusation. No one ever behaved badly. Charlie was especially kind. He hated that most of all.

But none of them, not even Charlie, shared his mission. Because no one saw what he saw now.

Vampires. Everywhere! At the post office, the Italian restaurant, church. Home. A different breed this time, more insidious than ever before. Impervious to sunlight, garlic, crosses. And only he could see them. Only he possessed the divine gift of sight.

Alarmed, he’d sought out the Slayer at that pagan curio shop where she and her people loitered. He'd walked in just as the Slayer and her War Hero lover emerged from a back room, arguing... Andy had knocked over a display of candles, running out of there. Blocks away, he'd finally stopped to catch his breath and process what he'd seen... the teeth, the eyes, that glow... Vampire! The Slayer's own! She could be one too -- turned by the demon in her bed with no one the wiser.

He shuddered, terrified and just a little thrilled. That's when he'd known he must act.

He had devised a plan that spared him the horror of actual contact. He could save the town -- save himself -- and do it from a comfortable distance.

He’d taken off work to ready his gear and supplies. The modifications had been simple enough. Copper, the means to melt it, the proper tools...

And wood, of course. He needed wood.

Now everything was ready. Andy grabbed the duffel and marched out of his apartment, crossing the wide boulevard and entering the complex on the other side. Nobody noticed him climb the stairs all the way to the roof.

He unzipped the bag and removed his rifle and a box of ammunition. He gazed at the bullets -- tiny soldiers ready to go where he pointed so that he wouldn't have to. He loaded the gun and waited.

Four-thirty. The little white truck pulled up. Like clockwork. Neither rain nor snow nor creatures of the night stayed Dirk-The-Hunk courier from his appointed rounds.

Andy settled the rifle against his shoulder and cradled the stock in the opposite hand. His finger flicked the safety.

Odious neighbor appeared. Like muumuu-wearing, chain-smoking clockwork.

Andy leaned forward, shut one eye, and put the other to the scope.

He watched Dirk grimace, no doubt bracing himself for his daily dose of fawning and poodle-facing.

The muumuu fluttered to him, its wearer mooing and cooing and running her hand down his arm.

Andy set the crosshairs on the garment, on a vulgar pink flower that blossomed right over the heart.

Dirk sorted the mail -- lightning fast -- slamming the boxes with a bang before he --

Andy took a breath, then slowly let it out, saying a little prayer before he --

Bid her a hasty farewell.

Squeezed the trigger.

***

Buffy pulled into the empty parking lot in front of the Do Re Mi Preparatory Academy. Awfully hoity-toity name for a preschool. And why the hell were people making their little kids go to school in the summer, anyway? That, in and of itself, was evil.

She got out and approached the front entrance, hoping someone would be inside to let her in. No such luck. A note on the glass told her that the school was closed until further notice. She tried the door anyway. Locked. Naturally. But that was good. She'd have to worry that it was a sign of apocalypse if anything actually went easy for her, and she really didn't need one of those right now.

Forcing the door would be easy, but not without breaking something, and the last thing she wanted was to add to the property destruction. So she circled the building, looking for another way in. Windows all locked tight. These days even preschools were mini fortresses. Should that be comforting or sad? She was just debating whether to go up and try the roof or just go ahead and break a window when she felt a hand on her shoulder. With a gasp she spun around, fists raised. Then she relaxed and sighed. "Jonathan!"

"Sorry!" He had his hands raised in surrender.

"You really should know better than to sneak up on me."

"I didn't mean to. I mean, I wasn't even trying, and besides, don't you have super Slayer hearing or something?"

"No."

"Oh. Really? 'Cause that would be really --"

"What are you doing here?"

He held up a key. "Lieutenant Grant sent me over to let you in."

"Oh." Buffy looked him up and down, taking in the uniform. She had to remember this wasn't the same pip-squeak she constantly had to save from himself. "Good." She started back for the door, then stopped and wrinkled her brow at Jonathan. "How did he know I'd be here?"

"Lucky guess?" Jonathan shrugged. "He said this was where he'd start looking."

"Huh." Buffy smiled. "Great minds ..."

She followed Jonathan back around to the front. Once inside, she let him lead her to the infamous classroom. Crime scene tape still stretched across the door. Jonathan held it up for her as she ducked under. Once she straightened up, the scene before her stopped her cold.

The desks were all pushed out of the way, to make room for the naptime mats spread haphazardly over the floor. Ten of them. Each the canvas for a tiny little chalk outline.

Buffy swallowed against the bile that tried to rise in her throat. "How could somebody do this?"

Jonathan stood next to her, surveying the scene. "I guess you could say that teacher kinda had it coming. With the brain melting, I mean."

Buffy looked at him, really inclined to agree, but instead she sighed. "No. This wasn't her fault. Something made her do this. And then killed her, too."

Jonathan shook his head. "I'm surprised a lynch mob didn't get her first. Remember the last time little kids were murdered in this town? How insane all the parents went? I still haven't rebuilt my Dungeons & Dragons collection to what it was before my mom decided to burn it all in the back yard."

Buffy winced. "Boy, do I remember."

"Hey, didn't your mom --"

"But, hey, we should really figure out who's behind all this. Time's a-wastin'." She whipped out her magical fairy wand.

Jonathan pointed. "Um ..."

She cut him off with a look. "Don't ask." She held it up over the mats and took a deep breath, then hesitated. "Nobody hears about this."

"My lips are sealed."

She nodded. Man, was she glad Spike wasn't here for this. Again, she took a deep breath, rolled her eyes, and chanted, "Bibbity, bobbity, boo."

Nothing.

"Um, was something supposed to happen?" asked Jonathan.

"Glowy lights and tinkly fairy jinglebells," said Buffy, "but only if it gets near something touched by magic."

Jonathan nodded. "Willow came up with that, didn't she."

"You betcha." Buffy started to move around the classroom, waving the wand over the shelves filled with books and toys.

Jonathan wandered over to the teacher's desk. "She fed them the little Milky Way bars stuffed full of Valium. Nothing too magical about that."

"How did she get ahold of Valium?"

"She had a panic disorder. She said she just wanted to make sure they all went to sleep."

"Too bad she didn't bother to make sure they'd all wake up again." Buffy headed towards Jonathan. "I got nothing. See anything suspicious over --" She halted as the star on the end of the wand glowed softly. True to Willow's promise, the wand emitted the sound of soft, tinkling bells. Buffy watched it for a moment. "That's actually kinda cool."

"Yeah," agreed Jonathan. "Hey, is there any chance I could keep that when you're ..." He trailed off at Buffy's look. "Never mind." He looked down at something behind the desk. "There's a whole case of water back here. Guess she got thirsty a lot."

"Probably gave it to the kids," Buffy said, distracted by her wand. The closer she got to Jonathan and the desk, the brighter it glowed and the louder the bells became. "There's definitely something in here." She walked up to him and pointed the wand at his face.

"Hey!" He swatted it away.

"Sorry. Just checking." She waved the wand over the desk, then turned around and waved it over everything stashed behind. As it passed over the water it glowed bright white and the nice little tinkly bells turned into a jarring, earsplitting clang. "Whoa." Buffy tried it again. Same effect. With the other end of the wand, she punched a hole in the shrinkwrap covering the water and pulled out a bottle. It made the wand go off the charts. If there were any charts for this.

Jonathan covered his ears. "How do you turn that thing off?" he shouted.

Buffy handed it to him. "Go stand over there." He moved away from the water, and the wand went silent.

"Cool," he said. "Um, what do I do with it now?"

"Keep it," she said.

"Wow. Really?"

Buffy nodded, looking from him to the water. "I don't need it anymore."

***
Dawn had never played street hockey before. Not that she was playing it now, but it was fun watching. And it wasn't really street hockey -- more like some kind of weird polo played with bicycles and hockey sticks. Still, cool. Kevin's team was behind six points. At first they'd been winning, because Brandon's team kept hitting the balls too hard, knocking them off of the overpass and into the traffic below. Mike was keeping score, and he'd started out deducting a point from Brandon's team for every ball they lost. But then he'd awarded ten points when one of the balls had gone through somebody's windshield and made the car swerve all over the highway. Now the game was less about scoring goals and more about making cool stuff happen below.

That had been fun for about five minutes, but Dawn was getting bored. She wondered where all the kids her own age were. Probably at the Bronze. The only other person not playing the game was Josh, but he was nursing his sore shoulder and avoiding the hell out of her. Dawn sighed. She wished Bryce was there. She wished she knew where his soccer camp was so she could go to him, show up out of nowhere and surprise him and get him to show her what it's like to kiss a real live boy. And anything else he wanted to show her, while he was at it.

A car appeared at the end of the road. Dawn got up to do roadblock duty. She went to the end of the bridge and stood on the center line. The car honked as it approached, but she paid no attention while she opened up a portal. Brakes squealed and tires screeched. Too late. The car disappeared, and the portal closed. With a self-satisfied smile, Dawn resumed her seat on the bridge rail. A truck appeared in the opposite direction. Happy for something to do, she went to take care of it.

***

Lou Acosta had already made up his mind that this town was insane, but if he'd had any doubt left this day had killed it. After just over a week of enforced "vacation" (which Lou was supposed to spend pondering why one doesn't kidnap, torture, and try to incinerate a town hero -- even if said "hero" was really a demonic, bloodsucking murderer -- but had instead spent drinking himself into a comfortable stupor) Ben Grant had called him and not only reinstated him, but had given him a temporary promotion so he could make arrests. The town was in the midst of a serious crime wave, and all available personnel were needed to help restore order.

If coffee hadn't been enough to sober him up, then some of the stuff he'd seen today had certainly done the trick. One nutjob had stormed the post office with a machete, screaming something about his TV Guide as he attacked a postal worker; the pet store owner had been held up at gunpoint while all of her animals were set free; bank robberies had been attempted on both ends of town, both of them botched by amateurs. And he just heard a call go out about a bunch of kids throwing shit off of an overpass into traffic.

Couldn't deal with that, though, because he was on his way to a hostage situation at the Super Wal-Mart. Tires squealed as he rounded a corner in front of the Bronze. The street was clear, so Lou hit the gas. And slammed head on into another car.

He sat for a moment, dazed. Then he shook it off and got out to survey the damage. No movement inside the other car (and where the hell had it come from?). Lou hurried around to the driver's side and opened the door. A woman sat in the driver's seat, slumped forward, her face buried in the deflated airbag. Lou put a hand on her shoulder. "Ma'am?"

The woman stirred, blinking up at him. "The ... the girl ..."

"Ma'am, are you hurt?"

"I don't ..." She shook her head, and took in her surroundings. "How did I get here?"

Disoriented. Probably had a concussion. "Sit tight," Lou told her. "I'll call you an ambulance."

"But I was on Keaton Road," she said. "There was a girl in the middle of the street, and I honked and ... and ..." She reached out and gripped Lou's arm. "I don't know how I got here!"

"Lady, it's all right. If you'll just --" A flash of light came from above. Lou looked up to see a hole opening in the sky.

"The fuck?"

A semi drove out of the hole.

"Unhook your seatbelt!" Lou screamed, and as soon as the lady complied he grabbed her and dragged her away from the car. Just as the truck landed on top, flattening it with a sickening, metallic crunch. Lou ducked his face and shielded the woman from flying glass, then looked back up just in time to see the hole disappear and give way to a seamless sky.

***

"Mass hysteria!"

Lydia removed her glasses and set them atop her open book, rubbing her eyes as she waited for Willow to expound upon this latest epiphany.

When she didn't continue, Oz looked up from his book. "Dogs and cats, living together?"

Willow shot him a look. "No, silly. I just remembered something from my psychology class --"

"You studied psychology?" Lydia asked, stretching her arms over her head.

"Yeah, intro. So did Buffy. But, we don't really like to dwell on it." Willow bounced a little in her seat. "Okay, so, it's this phenomenon where, like, whole towns experience the same volatile emotions and everybody just goes nuts at the same time."

"So, you're suggesting that what's happening now is a simple case of mob psychology?"

Willow nodded. "Except, you know, magically induced somehow."

"Sounds good," said Oz, "except, we're all okay."

"Oh yeah." Willow frowned and slumped in her seat.

"And from my own studies of mass hysteria, the phenomenon rarely results in liquefied brain matter." Lydia sighed. "Poor Nigel. Oz, didn't you say that his eyes ..." She trailed off as she realized he'd gone a shade paler than usual. "Um, if you'd rather not discuss it..."

"Nope." Oz buried his nose back in his book.

Lydia put her glasses back on and turned to Willow. "Still, you could be on to something." She shut the book in front of her and reached for another, readying her pen to take more notes.

"If we could just figure out Ethan's delivery system," Willow mumbled.

"I thought we'd agreed to keep ourselves open to other possibilities. We don't know that Ethan Rayne is responsible. The Council has had him under constant watch, and even our own personal Marauder's Maps haven't exposed anything to merit this level of su ... spicion ..." Her voice trailed off as she realized they were both giving her raised eyebrows. She threw her pen on the table. "Well, how the bloody hell do you suppose he's doing it, then?" A cough got her attention, and she smiled apologetically at a customer waiting at the register with an armload of scented candles. "Um, someone will be with you in just a moment." With a sigh she muttered, "We really should have closed shop when Rupert left."

Willow shook her head, paying Lydia no mind. "Cursed Halloween costumes are out."

"Candy?" Oz reached for the bottle in front of him. "'Cause, that was a fun night. I could see him wanting a do-over."

"Mm, maybe. We know he's a potions guy. But do you think he'd repeat himself?"

Oz shrugged as he gulped down his drink.

If they insisted on going down this trail, Lydia figured she might as well tag along. "Perhaps an airborne delivery system, or some sort of visual--"

The bell over the shop door cut her off. She looked up to see Buffy storming in, a look of righteous anger and fierce determination about her whole person.

"It's the water," she said.

Oz sputtered and coughed, his now empty bottle clattering to the floor. He jumped to his feet and raised his hand. "Uh ... which water?"

Buffy stopped abruptly and looked down at the bottle. Cringing, she pointed. "That water."

"What's wrong with the water?" asked the customer.

Lydia got up to work the register. "Um, nothing to worry about. That particular brand has been recalled. Some sort of bacteria. I'd avoid all bottled water for the time being, mind you. You might want to pass that on. Twenty-six eighty-three."

"Huh? Oh." The woman handed over her credit card. "Wouldn't that be on the news?"

"Yes, well. Word's just gotten out, hasn't it?"

The bell rang again. Xander rushed in, followed closely by Faith. "I don't mind telling you, out there is a scary place to be," he reported. "What Grant told us this morning? Happy Meal version. Everything's just been supersized."

"Yes, isn't that interesting? Faith! Can you finish with this customer?" Lydia handed back the credit card and smiled. "She'll be right with you." She slipped back around the corner and told the others in a hushed voice, "Let's not incite a panic, shall we?"

"What, her?" Xander said loudly, staring straight at the patron. "That's Mrs. Bacani. She can handle the truth. How you doing, Erlinda?"

"What's going on? Should I buy stakes while I'm here?"

"No, nothing like that. Just, be sure to lock your doors. And," he added, pointing at Lydia, "what she said about the water."

"Why don't I walk you to your car?" Faith said, hopping over the counter. She escorted Mrs. Bacani out of the store.

"Hey, guys?" Oz continued to stare in horror at the container on the floor. "Any chance we could get back to the cursed water I just drank a whole bottle of?"

Willow gasped. "You drank it all?" She snatched up the bottle and made a disappointed little whine. "I need a sample if I'm gonna figure out a counter spell."

"Got ya covered." Buffy pulled an unopened bottle out of her bag and handed it to Willow. "Found this in that teacher's classroom. The one who poisoned her students? It made that magic whackadoo you gave me go all whackadoodle. Think you can find a cure?"

Willow chewed on her bottom lip as she eyed the bottle. "I'll need my chemistry set."

"Yeah." Oz swallowed. "Um ... can I help with that?"

Xander clapped him on the shoulder. "Hey, don't worry. It takes a couple of days before it starts to eat through your brain. Willow will find something by then."

Oz stared up at Xander for a moment, then shook his head. "Right. Not panicking. I'm just ..." He pointed to the back room. "I'm gonna go chain myself up."

"I hardly think that's necessary," said Lydia.

"Do you need help?" Willow asked him.

"No, I got it." Dazed, Oz headed towards the back. "It's okay," he kept repeating to himself.

Lydia stared after him in wonder. "He's not really going to chain himself up." She realized they were all raising their eyebrows at her again. She was really coming to hate that. "What?"

"You didn't get that far in Giles's diaries yet, didja?" asked Buffy.

Willow leaned in confidentially. "Oz is a werewolf."

Lydia blinked. "He. What? But he ... he's so ..."

"Yep," Xander said, "it's always the quiet ones."

Just then Spike burst through the back door, skidding to a stop as he reached Oz.

"Except for when it's the obnoxious ones," Xander added, earning him an elbow to the ribs from Buffy. "Ow."

Spike looked Oz up and down. "You okay?"

"Yeah, fine. Till the sun goes down. Or my brain melts." He looked like he wanted to say more, but then he just turned and wandered into the training room.

Spike pointed after him as he joined the group, taking his place beside Buffy. "What's wrong with Cubby?" Even as he asked, his eyes scanned the room. "Dawn's not here?" Lydia thought she heard a slight quaver in his voice.

"He drank the evil water, and I thought she was home with you?"

"She was." He stopped searching and met Buffy's eyes. "Seems Her Ladyship has gotten her Key on again."

"What, she disappeared?"

He nodded.

"And I'm just now hearing about this because ..."

Spike pointed to a sizeable knot on his forehead. "Because I dove for her and caught a stock pot with my noggin instead. The good news is I'm well rested now."

Buffy pulled his head down to get a better look at his bump. "You okay?"

"Yeh." He nodded, but Buffy's concerned gaze didn't waver. "I just ... she ... we argued. Said some things ..."

She smoothed back his hair. "What about?"

Spike let out a half-laugh and shook his head. "I still don't know." Then his face grew serious, almost fearful. "We have to find her, Love."

"We will."

Funny how watching them could make one feel like they were the only two people in the room. Lydia cleared her throat. "Where might your sister have gone, then?"

Buffy shook her head. "I don't know, but I don't like her being out there alone with all that's happening, even if she does have her powers back." She sighed. "At least we know she can just key herself out of danger."

"All what's happening?" asked Spike.

"What," said Xander, "you didn't happen to notice all the hell that's breaking loose on your way here?"

"Hello, still daylight? It was all tunnels and alleyways for me. What's going on?"

"It seems that someone has cursed a supply of bottled water," said Lydia. "It has the apparent effect of bringing out the id." Another raised eyebrow from Willow. "What? I took psychology too."

"We need to find out who that someone is," said Buffy. "Fortunately I've got my list of suspects narrowed down to one."

"We have no proof that it was Ethan," Lydia pointed out, though at this point she didn't know why she bothered.

Buffy went to the table where Willow was setting up her equipment. "Can you get proof?"

Willow glanced up at her. "I'll do my best. Kinda focused on a counter spell for now, though."

"Good."

"Uh, Buffy?" Spike picked up Oz's empty water bottle and brandished it. "This the water that's cursed?"

"Yeah. Why?"

"This is the brand Dawn's been drinking nonstop since the accident."

A look of horrified realization formed on Buffy's face. "I'm on it."

She started for the door, but Lydia headed her off. "Hold on. If things are as bad as Xander says, you need to be patrolling, helping to restore order."

Buffy's entire body went rigid. "Did you not just hear Spike? My sister has been poisoned, and she's out there by herself."

"I understand that. I also understand that she wields a potentially destructive force and may currently have no compunction against using it for ill. But that doesn't mean you can neglect your other duties. The town needs the Slayer right now." She looked pointedly at Xander. "Both Slayers."

"Right." He started for the door. "I'll go get Faith, then we can all go."

"I'll catch up soon as the sun's low enough," said Spike.

Lydia nodded. "I'll stay here. Perhaps I can be of some assistance to Willow."

"Fine," said Buffy. "Just find me an excuse to hurt Ethan." She followed Xander out the door.

***

He’d taken his time, waited carefully, culled them from the herd one by one and struck them down. Now, hours after he’d begun the hunt, eleven trussed figures lay on the floor around Giles. Some were still unconscious. Another four or five had the brains to be silent when they’d awoken, and one screamer had been gagged with his own school tie.

By his calculations, there were still one or two Watchers in the villa. And then, last, finally, the sweetest of all: Ethan Rayne. Ethan, whom he’d have to hurt for this. Ethan, whose screams would be music. Ethan, who would reap every last grain of what he’d sown.

Giles pulled the knots tighter, causing Griffiths to hiss and swear. Giles gave them another quick yank. “How many left?”

“None,” the man gasped. “This is everyone.”

Griffiths’s hands were tied together at the small of his back. Giles toed one hand flat against the carpet and stepped on it. “You’re lying. I don’t see Jhabwala, I don’t see Travers. Who else don’t I see?”

“I - nobody! I - ”

Giles eased more weight onto the ball of his foot and twisted. A muffled snap. Griffiths screamed. “Lawson! Lawson, he’s…”

“Very good. And he is… where?”

“Upstairs. Guarding Rayne.”

“Excellent. You’ve been so helpful. Oh, dear, you’ve broken your finger. That’ll sting a bit.” He grabbed the fellow by the shirtfront and hauled him to his knees. “Not like this, though.” Fist slammed across jaw. Griffiths hit the ground, out cold.

“You’ll never get away with this,” Magnus Bellingham hissed at him as he passed.

“Oh, do shut up.” Giles punted his foot right into the man’s gut. “Really, if you’re going to make idle threats, you mustn’t resort to cliché.”

Magnus gasped and twitched on the carpet, making rather the entertaining show. “Sh-yuh-”

“Ah, ah,” Giles warned. “Next time, I’ll boot you in the head.”

Up the stairs. Then a narrower flight to the servants’ quarters. Lawson slumped back in a wooden chair flanking a closed door, ankles crossed in front of him. Ah - another of the young and eager types with just a hint of dissatisfaction about him. Clearly meant for better things than guard duty, and bewildered that this fact wasn’t readily apparent to the higher-ups, he flipped idly through a three-day-old copy of the London Telegraph.

Giles put on an air of superiority and a don’t-question-me-underling expression. “Here to see Rayne.”

“You aren’t - ” He got halfway to standing, when Giles delivered a roundhouse to his nose. Lawson hit the wall, tripping over his chair, and fell to the ground in a tangled heap of chair and pillock.

“I assume it’s locked?” Giles rifled through the man’s pockets as he lay there, befuddled. No key to be found. Of course not. The Council had to make some attempt at security. Not enough to actually hold Ethan, mind you; just enough to make things interesting.

Screw it. Giles kicked the door open. “Dammit! Where is he?”

“What? He’s - no, he’s there, he couldn’t…” Lawson pulled himself to the door opening, and sighed in relief. “What are you, blind? He’s right there. On the bed.”

“It’s an illusion, you daft git.” At Lawson’s gaping fishmouth of incredulity, Giles grabbed his arm and sent him sprawling across the bed, to hit empty mattress. “So not only is he free, he’s able to practice magic.”

“He… where did he…” The Watcher pushed himself up to his elbows. Giles flipped him over and pinned a hand to his throat.

“Did you see him when you started your shift?”

“I looked in, yes, for a quick moment.”

“Did he do anything then? Move, talk, look at you?”

“No.” He shook his head. “No, he just lay there.”

“Stupid.” Punch. “Stupid.” Punch. “Stupid!” Whoops. Apparently, Lawson had lost consciousness. And his face was… well, a tad messy. Giles wiped his bloody knuckles on the man’s shirt, and dragged him down two flights of stairs by the back of his collar and into the drawing room.

“So,” he announced to a room of bound and varyingly-conscious Watchers, “Ethan Rayne is not in his room. He’s not in the loo. In fact, I’ve been everywhere in this charming little abode of yours, and I’ve not seen him. Which means he’s got loose. You’ve lost him. Hell, one of you most likely let him go. I’d like to know who. Any volunteers?”

Silence.

“Please. Speak up. My only other option is to be… methodical.”

He heard soft muttering behind him. Muttering at an alto pitch.

“Ah ah ah, Ms. McCullough. No magic. Do you need to go to sleep again?”

She shook her head and mewled a little, in the back of her throat. She’d taken quite the blow to the head in their previous confrontation - a purple swelling now marred the ivory perfection of her right temple.

“Right then, open your mouth. Do you want me to hit you again? Then, open.” The hard pressure of his fingers at her jaw inched her teeth apart.

“No…”

“Can’t have you talking. Can’t have you casting.” He fed his handkerchief into her mouth. “Better. If I hear you even trying to talk, trying any magic whatsoever? Well, you don’t want that to happen. Understand?”

She nodded, her eyes fixed on him.

“Excellent.” He gave her his best, most encouraging smile. “Would you happen to know where Ethan Rayne has gone?”

She shook her head.

“Hmm, I almost believe you,” Giles said. “Unfortunately, my judgment is a tick suspect today. Perhaps I should hurt you, just to make sure…”

“Rupert!” Travers stood in the doorway, shocked and aghast.

“Quentin.” Giles rose to his feet.

“What is going on here?”

“I was looking for Ethan.” He smiled slowly. “But you’ll do.”

***

"So how do we do this?" asked Faith.

Buffy looked at her. "Do what?"

"You know, this." Faith waved her hand at the chaos in the street around them. "These are people, B. Not demons. We can't just kill 'em to fix the problem. So how do we help?"

At a loss, Buffy looked at Spike. He shrugged. "First time for me too, Pet."

"I have to admit," said Xander, "it does feel a little like we're out of our depth here. Or it would if, y'know, there were such thing as a depth for us."

"I don't know," said Buffy. "We just help. Just, do what you can, and try not to hurt anybody--"

"Hey!" Faith shouted. She took off after a guy with a crowbar, about to smash it into an electronics store window. He saw her coming and swung it at her instead. She blocked the blow, snatched the weapon out of his hand, and punched him in the face, laying him flat out on the sidewalk as the others caught up to her.

"Much," finished Buffy.

"Asshole," muttered Faith.

"It's not his fault," Xander reminded her. "It's the water, remember? If I didn't have any inhibitions and the cops were as busy as they are tonight, I'd probably be helping myself to a brand new home theater system too."

"Or maybe this loser just never had any inhibitions about looting in the first place."

Xander smiled. "I'm sure he will next time."

"Look," said Spike, "as important as I'm sure it must be to protect innocent home appliances, how is this helping to find Dawn?"

"Or Giles," Faith added. "He hasn't checked in since he took off this afternoon. I'm kinda worried about him."

Buffy nodded. "So am I." With a sigh, she looked up and down the street. Other stores had already been looted. Damaged cars sat piled up in intersections -- the results of traffic lights being tampered with, she supposed. The Espresso Pump was completely trashed. Sirens sounded all around them. At the end of the block a policeman was trying to break up a fight. "Look, this'll be easier if we split up. You guys head towards Giles's place, make sure he's all right. The police and fire departments are stretched pretty thin, so help wherever you can. Spike and I will cover this end of town."

"Sure thing," said Xander. "Uh ... what if we find Dawn?"

"Don't do anything," said Spike. "She's probably skittish. She'd just key away from you and we'd have to start all over again."

Buffy pulled out her cell phone to make sure it was turned on. "Call us if you can get through. If you can't, keep trying. Don't let her out of your sight, but let us deal with her."

"Good deal," Faith said. "Careful, B."

Buffy smiled. "You too." She watched them go until they rounded a corner. Then she looked from the impending fight to Spike. With a nod, he started in that direction. Buffy made sure Faith's K.O. was relatively unhurt, then jogged to catch up with him. As she got closer she could hear what the two men -- both at least a head taller than the cop -- were arguing about. Tall and Skinny was tired of Tall and Beefy's dog doing its business in his yard. They looked like they wanted to kill each other. Over dog doo. Buffy rolled her eyes.

She and Spike reached them just as the cop started to go for his gun. "Whoa, hey!" she said. "Can we help, officer?"

He let go of his gun and held up his hand to ward them off. "Please, Miss, just stay back. I've got it under con-- oof!" Beefy shoved him out of the way and lunged at Skinny.

"Sure ya do," said Buffy. She grabbed Beefy, spun him around and pinned him against the building as Spike caught Skinny in a headlock.

"Let me go, you little bitch!" shouted Beefy.

"Oi! I'll not have you talking to my lady like that," Spike warned. Skinny squirmed in his grasp and tried to bite him on the arm. "Here, stop that!"

Buffy twisted her guy's arm until he whimpered, then shut up. She looked at the cop. "Handcuffs?"

"Oh! Uh ..." He fumbled on his belt. "Here."

Buffy held the guy against the wall as the cop cuffed him. Then she turned him around and made him sit on the ground. "Stay."

"But I--"

"You don't want the nice officer to loan me his billy club."

Beefy shut his mouth and glowered up at her. She ignored him and turned to Spike, still struggling to keep hold of a very twisty Skinny. He really didn't pose much of a challenge for Spike, but Buffy figured he was going overboard to keep from hurting the guy. Buffy looked at the cop.

"That was my only pair," he told her.

"Pet, check my right pocket."

Buffy moved next to him and reached for his pocket, then stopped. "Wait, you mean you --" She glanced at the cop and Beefy, then lowered her voice. "You brought those?"

"Well, yeh. Thought they might come in handy. Looks like I was right."

Blushing, Buffy dug the handcuffs out of Spike's pocket and helped to restrain Skinny. She sat him down next to Beefy and ordered them both to keep quiet.

"Thanks for your help," said the cop, who had the grace not to smirk.

"No problem." Buffy pointed across the street at the would-be looter. "That one will probably also need to be restrained once he wakes up. We're fresh out of handcuffs, though."

The cop failed to suppress a laugh that time, but he recovered quickly. "If I can just get these guys down to the station then I --" He was cut off by a call over his walkie-talkie: all available units to a traffic pileup in front of the Bronze. He shook his head. "I can't --"

"We'll go," Spike said. He grabbed Buffy's hand and pulled her down the street toward the Bronze. When they were out of earshot, he glanced back at the cop. "Was he flirting with you?"

"What?" Buffy rolled her eyes, but grinned nonetheless. A jealous Spike was an adorable Spike. "I was kinda too busy to notice."

"I think he was flirting with you."

"I think he was understandably flustered by our creative use of a sex toy to stop the crazy men."

A grin flickered across his face, then he turned serious. "Tool, Love. Not toy." He looked back at the corner. "You think we'll get those back?"

"If not I'm sure we can... get..." She trailed off as a flicker of light in the sky caught her eye. A large portal opened up high above the Bronze. A very familiar kind of portal. "Oh my God."

Spike followed her gaze. "What ... oh." He tugged Buffy's hand. "Let's go."

She nodded, and they both set off at a run.

***

"Well, at least this part of town seems quiet," Xander said as Faith unlocked the front door.

"Hope it stays that way," she said, shoving it open. "Giles!" she called. "You here?" No answer. Faith ran up to the loft. "G?"

Xander went to the living room and opened up the weapons chest. All the heavy artillery was gone. "Wherever he is, he's well-armed."

"Son of a bitch!" Faith called over the loft rail. She jogged back down the stairs. "You don't think he'd be boneheaded enough to go out there himself and get in the middle of all this."

Xander shut the chest and shoved his hands in his pockets. "No, he's not boneheaded enough to be out there. Hence the problem. If he hits his head ..."

"Yeah, I know." She shook her head. "Fuck!"

"Let's don't freak out just yet." He put a hand on her shoulder. "Giles is a big boy. He knows the risks. I'm sure he'll be careful."

She shrugged off his hand and headed for the kitchen. "We have to find him, Xander."

"Right. I know. And we will." He leaned on the bar and stuck his head in the pass-through. "Let's just think. If you were a Giles, where would you be?"

Faith shot him a look as she yanked the fridge open. A look he knew well. The one that said, "Don't be a putz, Xander." He hated that look. "I'm serious. We can figure this out. We just have to get inside his -- don't drink that!"

Faith froze, uncapped water bottle halfway to her lips. "Oh shit, I forgot." She poured the water into the sink and smiled at Xander. "Thanks for the save, Watcher-man."

Xander moved around the wall into the kitchen, and looked in the fridge. A half-empty case of bottled water sat on the bottom shelf. "I think maybe Giles needed it more than you did."

"Oh," said Faith. "Oh, Jesus. You don't think he'd ... I mean, come on. What would he do? He's Giles."

"Uh-huh. Faith, does the name 'Ripper' mean anything to you?"

"Oh, Jesus."

"Exactly."

"Well, what do you think he'll do?"

Xander shook his head and shrugged. Then his eyes widened. "Who's he been extremely pissed off at lately?"

Faith went white. "Mr. Travers?"

Xander nodded. "We better get to the villa."

***

They couldn't see the Bronze. It was hidden behind a mountain of vehicles, piled high as the roof and swaying precariously. The whole thing looked like it could collapse any second, like a house of cards. Big, heavy, metal cards with people still trapped inside.

"Dawn did this," Buffy breathed, her voice a mixture of horror and awe.

"Thought she learned her lesson about playing around in traffic," said Spike.

"Guess it didn't stick." She squared her shoulders, took on her determined stance. "We have to get those people out."

"Right, then. Let's go."

They started for the structure, but another cop headed them off. "Folks, I need you to stay back!" Spike stiffened at the sound of the voice. "This thing might col--" The cop did a double take at Spike, then whipped out his gun and backed away, taking aim at Spike's head. "What the hell do you want here?"

Buffy stepped in front of Spike. "Acosta. I see your bruises are clearing up. I could fix that for you."

Acosta met her gaze and held it for a moment, then cursed under his breath and put the gun away. "I asked you a question."

"We're here to help," Buffy told him.

He laughed. "Him? Help?"

Spike stepped around Buffy and headed for the base of the structure, accidentally-on-purpose bumping into Acosta as he went. They traded glares before Spike turned his full attention on the cars. "I can climb up, hand folks down. You two get 'em to safety."

"You're not going up there," said Acosta.

Spike quirked an eyebrow at him. "You got a better idea?"

"State police are sending a helicopter ..."

"Shh!" Spike sniffed the air drifting down from the pile. He smelled blood -- lots of it. Other fluids, too. Never a good sign. Listening, he could pick out more than a dozen heartbeats, some strong, but others fading fast. He shook his head. "People are dying. They haven't got time to wait for a helicopter."

"Oh, God," whispered Buffy. "Dawnie."

"So, what?" Acosta asked. "You expect me to send a vampire up there to take advantage of bleeding, helpless victims?"

Spike tried to look indignant, then realized he didn't have to fake it. "I'll have you know I haven't tasted human blood in well over a year."

"That's supposed to make me feel better?"

Spike sighed. "It's out of my system, all right? Once you haven't had any for a while you stop craving it."

"Like sugar," Buffy supplied.

"Look, you can help us help them or you can stand there and hate me all bloody useless-like. But I'm going up."

"Spike, wait." Buffy grabbed his arm. "I'm really not in love with this plan. What if Dawn drops another car while you're up there?"

He shrugged. "I'll get squished. But I'll recover. S'why it has to be me."

"We took care of the ... um, car dropping problem," said Acosta.

Buffy turned to him. "How?"

"We found the source. A bunch of kids on the Keaton Road overpass. Got a couple of units out there to set up road blocks, but nobody's been able to get close enough to stop them doing whatever it is they're doing."

Buffy looked at Spike, her face a question. "Go," he answered. "We got it covered this end."

Uncertain, she glanced at Acosta. "You sure?"

"No worries, Love. He blindsided me last time. Won't happen again. Will it, Lou?"

Acosta scowled at him, but said nothing. Instead he went to handle some bystanders who were getting too close.

"Watch your back with him," Buffy said. "Maybe I should stay to watch it for you."

"We'll be fine." Spike reached up to tuck back a lock of hair that had fallen out of her ponytail. "Go get your sis."

"Okay." She leaned up for a quick kiss. He grabbed her face and held her there for just a moment before letting her pull away. "Be careful," she commanded.

"Ditto."

He watched her run down the street, then he turned back to the pile of cars and Key victims. After taking a second to figure out the fastest route to the worst off, he carefully started to climb.

***

Andy sat back against the railing. A well-earned rest before moving on.

A hundred or so vertical feet afforded him a measure of peace he'd never known on the ground. He'd found sanctuary among the rooftops, and his true calling in executing judgment.

But he wasn't finished yet.

The devil vampire still lived. Still consorted with decent people, loved by the fallen Slayer and the entire town. It gnawed at him, thinking about it and remembering what he'd seen that night.

War. The Slayer's forces had attacked one front, while on another, her general had fallen upon the beasts with fire and brimstone.

Andy should have known back then. Any human would’ve run. To stand and fight in the face of certain destruction? No man would do it! Surely, he would have run ... No man could be expected to --

Andy snatched up his rifle and returned to his position at the edge of the building, the purity of his mission quelling all other thoughts. He scrutinized the street below, then crouched down and set his sites on a young man. Tall, strong. A monster.

And another bullet hit its mark.

***

The shop was closed. The money had been counted, the register balanced, the counters wiped, the displays dusted. Now Lydia leaned against the counter and sipped her tea, wishing desperately for a way to assist Willow. Something to do, anything. To distract her from worrying, about Rupert ... about all of them. And also to take her mind off of the fierce growling and howling in the training room.

"You're certain those chains will hold him?"

"Yeah," Willow said without looking up from her task. "Pretty sure. Um ... there should be a tranquilizer gun in the weapons cabinet. You might want to get that out. You know, just in case."

A particularly vicious snarl from the back, and Lydia needed no more convincing. "It occurs to me that the full moon is still a few days from now," she said on her way to the cabinet.

"Yeah. Good." Willow looked up from her potion. "I mean, it's good because that means it's Ethan's spell doing this to him."

"You still sound awfully certain that Mr. Rayne is the culprit."

"That's because the water has Ethan written all over it." Willow pointed at a beaker. "Literally, I mean. When I did the spell to reveal the potion's components, it also revealed a sort of trace signature, unique to the potion's source. It's like a big ol' magic thumbprint."

"Well," said Lydia as she scanned the weapons, "I appreciate your not saying 'told you so.'"

"I thought I'd leave that for Buffy. Anyway, if I can get this antidote to work, Oz should go right back to normal."

"That's a relief." Lydia took out the gun and made sure it was loaded.

"Mm-hmm," Willow agreed as she measured something into a mortar. "I just hope this doesn't set him back like last time."

Lydia held the gun up to check its aim. "Last time?"

"Oh, you know how it is when the ex shows up in town all hopeful and meets the current. Except there was an extra helping of freak-out on account of the current being a woman." Willow's face fell almost imperceptibly as she shook her head and surveyed her work. "I'd have this already if she was here," she muttered. She glanced at Lydia and put on a rather unenthusiastic smile. "Anyway, Oz had just learned how to control the wolf so it doesn't come out at all, but finding out about me and Tara kinda messed that up for him." Her smile gave way to a look of pure sadness, but then she shook it off. "Um, can you bring me the taggis root?"

"Certainly." Lydia shouldered the gun and crossed to the display of dry goods. As she reached it, someone knocked frantically on the door. "Er, just a moment," she told Willow as she went to check it out. She gripped the tranq gun, ready to use it if need be. "Yes?"

"It's Ben Grant! Need a little help, here!"

Lydia unbolted the door and looked out at him. He pressed a bloody towel to his face. She stood back to let him in. "Lieutenant, what ..."

"Domestic disturbance at Alan & Guido's. Guido took after Alan with a meat cleaver because his meringue didn't set right."

"Oh my God," said Willow. "Is Alan okay?"

"Yeah, so far. I told him to stay put but he went to look for Guido anyway."

"What happened to your face?" asked Lydia.

He removed the makeshift compress to reveal several gashes down his cheek. "When I tried to restrain Guido he clawed my face up and got away." Grant shook his head. "You folks any closer to figuring out what's making everybody act like they woke up with a tall glass of crazy juice this morning?"

Lydia and Willow exchanged glances. "Bottle," said Willow. "Not glass."

"Huh?"

"It seems a supply of bottled water has been cursed," Lydia explained.

"Well, son of a bitch." Grant sighed. "Is there a cure?"

"Working on it," said Willow.

"Good. Let me know soon as you've got something." He winced as he pressed the towel back to his face. "First aid's in the back, right?"

"Yes, of course." Lydia lead him towards the back, but an anguished howl stopped her in her tracks. "Um ..."

"What the holy hell was that?"

"A reminder that the back room is off limits. Here," she said, pointing to the bathroom, "clean yourself up in there." She threw back her shoulders and hefted the gun. "I'll fetch the first aid kit." As she started for the back, Willow called her name. "Oh, right, the taggis root."

"No, forget that. I need an empty dart."

"Why?"

Willow looked up, her face triumphant. "I think I've got it."
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