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

Episode Eight: Wrecking Ball

by adjrun, cousinjean, and fenwic
Note: Massive thanks to JRS for help with coding on this part. --cj


*

The police were beside themselves.

Nobody wanted to use deadly force on a bunch of kids, especially not after word got out that they'd been drugged. But every time they tried to reach the overpass, Dawn would block them with a portal. At least they'd managed to cordon off both the road and the highway underneath, so no more innocents were getting hurt.

It hadn't been too hard for Buffy to convince them to let her through. Though, getting past the police had been the least of her problems. Getting to Dawn without spooking her into keying out again? Whole 'nother story. So she moved in stealth mode, treading lightly and sticking to the shadows. If she could sneak up on a nest of vampires, then surely she could take her baby sister by surprise.

As she neared the bridge -- and the edge of the streetlight's range -- something whizzed towards her head. Buffy reached up and snatched a hard rubber ball out of the air.

"Where'd it go?"

"That was our last ball, dude."

"So go get it."

"You knocked it over there, you get it!"

"But it's dark over there, man!"

With a groan, Dawn slid off of the guardrail. "I'll get it. You guys are such wimps." She shook her head as she headed in the direction of the ball. "All of the scary things were run out of town months ago. The only thing you're gonna find lurking in the shadows is --"

"Me." Buffy stepped into the light, holding up the ball.

"Okay, that's a little scary," said Dawn.

"Oh, you haven't seen scary yet."

Dawn simply grinned, oblivious to the trouble she was in. "Buffy, check it out!" She held her arms over her head and spun a pirouette.

"Dawn, where's your walker?"

"I threw it away. Don't need it anymore."

"You --?" Buffy stopped, took a deep breath. No point in losing her temper. "Dawnie, you're sick, okay? You've been poisoned."

"But I feel fine."

"Hey lady, give us back our ball!"

"You're not fine," Buffy continued, ignoring the group of boys. "The stuff in your system is making you feel good, but it's killing you. And you're going to re-injure yourself if you keep this up."

"No, you don't get it." Dawn started to back away. "I haven't felt this good since before the wreck. I'm not in any pain, Buffy."

Buffy forced herself not to follow. "No, you don't get it. You're going to die." She looked at the other kids, about a dozen teenage boys, all a little younger than Dawn. "All of you are going to die if we don't get you some help!"

The boys formed a line in front of Dawn. One of them brandished his hockey stick like a club. "We said, give us back our ball."

Dawn put a hand on his shoulder. "Kevin, it's cool. She's my sister."

"Kevin?" Buffy held up the ball. "You want your ball back? Then you have to let me talk to her."

"She's with us," said another boy who looked like he'd already taken one beating tonight.

Kevin slapped the stick against his palm and took a step forward. "And I'm thinking we can just take back our ball."

"Believe me, kid, you do not want to mess with me."

Kevin faltered, and glanced back at Dawn. "Sisters, huh?" He looked Buffy up and down. "Do you have freaky superpowers too?"

Buffy folded her arms. "As a matter of fact."

"She's the Slayer," said another of the boys. "She kicked Dracula's ass." Oh good, a townie. Maybe he'd show some sense. "I bet we could still take her," he added.

Well, so much for that. "The only 'taking' will be me taking all of you to the ground if you so much as--"

"Buffy!"

Buffy turned to see Dawn standing on the guardrail. "What are you doing?"

"Just go, okay?"

Buffy took a step towards her, but the boys all moved to block her path. "Dawn, get down!"

"We were just having fun. It's not like we're hurting anybody."

"Not hurting ..." Buffy squeezed her hands into fists. "Dawn, do you have any idea what you've been doing up here? You've been dropping cars in front of the Bronze. People are hurt, maybe even dying because of your stunt. One more, and you could even kill Spike. Do you understand that?"

"I just keyed them out of the way ..." Dawn shook her head. "No. We're only playing. We're having fun."

"Or we were until you showed up," said Kevin.

"Go away, Buffy. If you don't, I'll key out of here and you won't be able to find me until I want to be found."

"Dawn, if you do that you'll die!"

Kevin puffed his chest out and got in Buffy's face. "Maybe you're the one who's gonna die, Slayer."

Buffy put her hand on his chest and shoved him back. "I warned you," she said as he stumbled and fell on his ass.

He scrambled to his feet. "Bitch!" he hollered as he started to charge her, but several pairs of hands held him back.

"Dude, your nose!"

Kevin stopped, and wiped his nose. His hand came away bloody. He looked around at his friends. "Josh, Mike ..." He pointed. Two other boys also had heavy nosebleeds. "What's hap--" Before he could finish, Kevin collapsed. Josh and Mike followed suit.

"Oh my God," said Buffy, kneeling next to Kevin. "We need an ambulance!" she called back to the waiting cops.

One of the boys turned to Dawn. "You. You can get us there. Open up one of those things to the hospital."

"I ... I don't ..." Dawn could only stare at the boys on the ground.

The other one seized her wrist. "Do it!" he screamed.

"Hey!" Buffy jumped up. "Don't touch her!" She grabbed his shoulder, but he struggled and yanked out of her grasp. He stumbled backwards into Dawn.

She screamed. Her arms flailed as she tried to regain her balance. Buffy dove for her, but she wasn't fast enough. Her fingers grazed Dawn's tee-shirt as she fell backwards off the bridge.

"Dawn!" Buffy screamed, leaning over the rail, grasping at air. She watched in horror as her sister fell. Then a portal opened up beneath her. As Dawn passed through it, Buffy climbed up on the rail, and jumped.

***

He watched.

A hand shifting, restrained by loops of wire at the wrist. Fingers clutching the arm of the chair under its palm.

A swallow. Throat working under chin tucked almost to chest. After all, not all the blood from a bashed nose runs down the face.

Ah. There it was - the wince. The sudden recognition of pain and instinctive reaction to it. In the next moment came awareness and forced stillness, attempting to feign oblivion by a far too overt lack of motion.

Too late.

Giles took a step forward. He held the length of pipe behind his back. Not hiding it. Merely enjoying the sensation of steel in his grasp, the strength of it, the way the metal stole heat from his hands. “Hello. I’ve been waiting for you.”

Travers kept his eyes resolutely closed and his head bowed.

“Oh, come now, no faking.” Giles slammed the pipe down on Travers’s thigh, just above the kneecap. The resultant cry came as a voiceless gasp of inhalation. Little shuddering hitches. An exquisite hint of a sob.

“You took your time, coming to. Either I hit you a little harder than I anticipated, or your skull’s a little thinner.” He smiled. “I’d imagine it’s the former.”

“Rupert?” With effort, Travers lifted his head, almost meeting his gaze.

“Still feeling a bit disoriented? Understandable. A blow to the head will do that to you.” He tilted his head to one side, savoring the irony. “As I’m well aware.”

“You - no, it can’t. What have you…?” Travers shifted in his chair. “Oh dear Lord.”

“Travers!” Hardcastle bawled, from his hogtied position on the floor. “He’s off his nut!”

With that, the room exploded into sound. He caught snippets: “Let him go!” - “What’s wrong with” - “The Council will never” - “Please, I won’t” -

A broad picture window arched across the front of the room, stars popping into view above the trees. Giles crossed over to it and struck his steel pipe against the glass. Cracks spidered out from the blow; shards scattered across shrubbery and driveway, clattered over a parked car. Again and again, he smashed the pane into brilliant fragments, leaving the window framed in jagged glass like transparent fangs in a gaping maw. He turned back to the room, again heavy with silence.

“You.” Giles rapped Hardcastle on the noggin, knocking him out. “No talking.”

A hint of movement across the room. A cleared throat. He swung around, pointing with the pipe. “Magnus, unless you want me to bash your mouth through the back of your fucking skull, I suggest you shut it right now.”

And the audible clack of teeth as his mouth slammed shut.

“Now, humor me for a moment, will you? I’ll take your silence as assent.” Giles sauntered around the room, choosing a Watcher at random. He set his foot on the man’s sternum, pushing him flat on the floor. “You. Let’s start simply. How many vampires have you fought?”

“I… one.”

“One. My initial vampiric encounter on the Hellmouth, there were nine. At least. And that was first day on the job. What about demons?”

Wincing, the man shook his head.

“Injuries in the field? Before today? Anyone?” Again, silence. He sighed. “Oh, come on, not even a quick cosh on the noggin? No, I’m afraid paper cuts and carpal tunnel don’t count.”

He strolled back to Travers, tapping the length of steel up the man’s arm in light little bounces.

“Have you ever been tortured?” Thwack! Hard against his wrist. At Travers’s high keen, he giggled. “Oh, this doesn’t count. I’m too… angry, really to be any good at it. But by someone truly proficient?”

No one spoke. This time the blow came to Quentin’s right knee.

“How many of you have watched a loved one fall in battle?” Right arm, just below the shoulder. “Have wept over a lifeless corpse that a demon ripped forever from your grasp?”

Silence. Left hand at the knuckles, with an audible crunch.

“Has any of you stood at the mouth of Hell, and faced down an apocalypse?”

Nothing.

“You don’t know, then. You have no idea,” Giles said, spinning away in disgust. “And yet you’ve judged me, as a Watcher, and chosen to retire me. How can you judge? By what criteria can you possibly measure me, my proficiency, my ability to do the job? The only thing that matters - the only way to gauge my methods - is this: my Slayer is alive. The rest is utter bullshit. Nothing.”

Across a shin. Again, on the backswing. Again.

“Quentin?” Giles asked. “Would you prefer to answer, or just keep whimpering?”

With effort, Travers lifted his head. “I had the guardianship of an active Slayer, yes.”

“What happened to her?”

“She died, of course.” He stated it simply. “Unfortunate. But it’s what Slayers do.”

Giles shook his head, disgusted. “You bloody…”

“Slayers are ephemeral - each existence, by the very nature of its task, brief.” His voice gained power, authority. “The Council is the constant. It is the structure that must be maintained.”

“And the loss of a single life doesn’t matter.”

“No.”

“And the loss of thousands of single lives, over the years?”

“Sad. But the cost of the war we wage.”

“What about the life of an individual Watcher?” Giles took a step closer, now looming over his victim. “Is that also meaningless?

Travers swallowed, and looked him in the eye. “Yes. All that matters is the Council.”

Giles raised his pipe.

“Rupert, please,” Travers pleaded. “You don’t want to do this. There’s something wrong with you.”

“Oh, I’m well aware of that. I’m acting quite irrationally.” He nodded. “I appear to be hyperadrenalized. I have heightened levels of aggression and anger, with a diminished pain response and a chemically induced sociopathy. Rather like PCP, but without the pretty pictures.”

“So, you know.” He leaned forward, as best he could. “You’ve been affected.”

“Oh, yes. I’ll probably have quite the bit of muscle strain tomorrow. That is,” Giles continued, ice seeping into his tone, “assuming my brain hasn’t liquefied.”

“Rupert, the toxin. You would never - ”

“I know that.” He smacked Travers again. “I’m insane, not stupid. But there are three things you’ve failed to consider, in your infinite wisdom. First, you brought Ethan to Sunnydale and then let him escape. Second, Ethan is responsible for my current status. And third, this condition will eventually result in my gruesome and horrible death. You saw the pictures. You know this to be true.”

He stopped for a moment; then stated it simply. “You’ve killed me, Quentin.”

“No.” Travers shook his head.

“You’ve all killed me. I stand before you, a dead man. All this? Merely… getting a little of my own back.” A thought struck him. A lovely, delicious, poetic thought. “Quentin, I’ve a question for you.”

He set his pipe carefully by Travers’s feet and circled around to the back of the chair. Hands on the man’s shoulders, Giles whispered in his ear. “Can you be a Watcher, if you’re blind? You can’t see… so you can’t Watch, can you? Have to go on forcible retirement.”

“No. No, Giles, please no.” Travers shook his head frantically, trying to delay, to evade. Giles grabbed a fistful of his hair, snapping his head back.

“One at a time, then.” Giles cupped Travers’s cheek with his hand - gently almost, like a lover. Brushing his thumb along the fragile skin underneath the eye, then the surprisingly soft lid. “Out, vile jelly…”

He began to press down.

“Giles!”

***

Spike and Acosta didn't speak more than necessary. They focused on the task at hand and got the job done. There were no fatalities, thankfully. Spike couldn't bear the thought of Dawn having that on her conscience. He'd helped those who could climb down by themselves, and carried the ones who couldn't. Almost done, also thankfully. Never mind what he'd told Acosta earlier; the smell of fresh blood was getting to him.

He'd just helped a truck driver unpin his legs from beneath a bent steering column and was lowering the bloke down to Acosta and some others when a bright flash of light warned him another portal was opening up. Spike almost dropped the trucker, but managed to keep hold until the others had him. He was preparing to jump himself before another car could land and bring the whole thing crashing down, but curiosity compelled him to look up.

It wasn't a car falling from the sky. It was his girl. No, wait -- both his girls.

"God, no."

It felt like slow motion, like he should have time to get to them, but all he could do was watch. A thud, a creak of metal, and a tinkling of glass knocked him back into real time as the stack of vehicles bucked and shuddered, almost throwing him off. But he held on, and held still until the structure settled; then he started back up. "Please," he whispered as he climbed. It was his mantra, his incantation, his prayer. He called their names as he neared the top.

They didn't call back.

He stopped below the topmost car, afraid to go farther, afraid of what he'd see. He shook all over. Finally, he swallowed. "Buffy? Please ..."

A groan answered him. Spike blew out a rush of air and hauled himself up.

Moaning, Buffy put a hand to her forehead. "Ow. Serious ow."

Spike grinned. "If it hurts, then you're alive."

She opened one eye and peered at him. "Says the dead guy who whimpered like a little girl when I pulled his Band-Aids off the other day."

Spike's smile widened, but then he glanced at Dawn and his face fell. Buffy caught his expression and turned to look. "Oh, God."

Spike scrambled to Dawn's side as Buffy got to her knees beside her. "She's breathing," he said.

Buffy stroked her face. "Dawnie? Can you hear me?"

"We need an ambulance!" Spike hollered down to Acosta. He squeezed Dawn's hand, and shook his head. "Not again. Come on, Niblet!"

"Please, Dawn. Open your eyes."

Nothing.

Spike shut his eyes tight, then opened them and stared at Dawn's prone form. "When I find who did this, I'll kill 'em."

"Get in line."

"We need to get her down." Spike started to lift Dawn, but Buffy grabbed his arm.

"We shouldn't move her. She could've re-broken something."

"Pet, if they come up to get her we could all fall down."

Buffy's hand fell, and she gazed helplessly at her sister. Then realization flashed behind her eyes. "Didn't Acosta say they were sending a helicopter?"

***

“Giles!” Faith yelled again, from the doorway. “What the fuck are you doing?”
He looked up at her. Slowly, and with a weird little smile at the corners of his mouth. “I’m poking out a man’s eyeball. Why, what does it look like I’m doing?”
“Ew…” Xander said, following her into the room. “Okay, couldja not do that?”
Faith stepped over a couple of tied-up beat-up Watcher types, trying to close in a little on Giles. Xander did the wingman thing to her right. Flanking her, but giving her room to fight if she needed. Yup - boy knew the drill.
Giles kept staring at her. Cold, and thinking. Thinking things that a white-hat guy didn’t think. Finally, he nodded and pulled his thumb out of Travers’s face. “Very well.”
“Faith?” Travers called. He mighta been hyperventilating a little. “Faith, you have to-”
Thunk. Hard on the back of his head. Giles had knocked him out cold.
“Wow.” Xander looked around the room at all the hog-tied suits. “It’s Mr. Giles, in the conservatory, with the lead pipe.”
Giles shook his head. “This is a drawing room.”
“Yeah, I was…” Xander made a see-saw gesture with one hand. “It was a reference to a game… thing.”
“Of course. Clue. You guessed wrong.” He swung, straight up from the hip in an arced blur, to clip Xander’s skull right above the ear. “You’re out of the game.”
“Okay, ooow!” Xander put his hand up to touch the welt on his head, almost like he couldn’t believe it was actually there. He glared at Giles, all whatcha-do-that-for. Then his knees buckled and he caved over, flumping onto a duffel bag by the wall.
"Hey!" Faith yelled. "Knock it off. We gotta get you to the hospital."
"Oh, God, not again." Giles rolled his eyes, and pitched his voice to a whiney falsetto. "Giles, this isn't like you, Giles, toxin, so on, et cetera, please stop hitting me…"
She crossed her arms, put a little challenge into her tone. "How about Giles, there's a cure?"
"You're lying."
"No, Lydia. Willow. They got it figured." She took another step towards him. "And, hey, Ethan was behind it, so you nailed that one."
He just stared at her, holding that damn piece of pipe. "It's a ruse, to get me off guard."
"Ask Xander, he knows the details. Well, not now. Not since you made with the Little Bunny Foo-Foo and bopped him on the head. But, you know, when he wakes up."
"If."
"Huh?"
"If he wakes up. Look at the facts, Faith. You have wretched luck keeping your Watchers alive. Your first Watcher, torn into bite-size morsels by Kakistos. Your pathetic little hero-worship of Gwendolyn Post, brought on by a wee bit of ego-puffery and some Greek history. Wesley Wyndham-Price? You actually attempted killing him yourself, if I recall. Something about a blowtorch?" He sniggered. "You go through Watchers like Kleenex."
"Shut up." She shot a glance behind her head, to Xander. Hell, she couldn't tell from here. He was fine, though. Of course he was.
"Xander just took a severe blow to the head. Who knows, I may have killed him. I conked him rather hard." Giles took a step towards her, now. He kept shifting his grip on the pipe, catching her attention. Making her shift focus: his face. His hand. Xander, behind her. It threw her off. "Who'll be your next Watcher, do you think? How long before you manage to kill that one? Do you get a gold pin, if you go through a certain number of Watchers? Because, really, Faith, it's the rare skill at which you excel."
"He's-" Damn, she had to check. She took a step back, another, kneeled quickly by Xander's side. He was still breathing. A quick glance at Giles - hadn't moved. Then back to her Watcher, shaking his arm. "Xander! Wake up. Come on..."
"Unnh?" he muttered. Something cracked across her shoulder, knocking her on her ass. Giles stepped back.
"Still with us? Pity. Well, I'll take another whack at it, shall I?" He raised the pipe for another blow.
"Dammit, Giles!" She popped back to her feet and took a swing at him. He danced away, laughing.
"Ah ah ah - don't aim for the head. Don't you remember? Another knock to the head could turn my brain to pudding."
"I..." She forgot. She couldn't - she didn't want to hurt him. She had to take him down. But not-
"Oh, here's a fun game. Either you stand back, ease off, and I bash Xander's head in. Or you take me down with a quick pop to the head. And scramble my brains permanently." He smiled, swinging the pipe at her. She blocked it with an arm.
"Ow! Fuck!"
"Or you wait too long to do anything, and my brain melts to gazpacho."
He struck again; she caught it right below the elbow. Stung like a mother.
"Come on, hit me," he goaded. "At least I won't be dead. And you can have loads of fun spoon-feeding me and changing my didies."
"No." He hit her again. She deflected the blow.
“Or let me take one good swing at Xander.” His eyes widened, daring her. “One, good, melon-splitting swing, and I'll go right to hospital like a good little boy.”
"No!"
"Choose!"
"No!" Faith shouted. "It's a stupid choice!"
He stopped. Looked at her, his eyes getting impossibly colder. "Well, you would know."
"What?"
"You. Would know," he repeated. "About stupid."
"Giles..." Was he saying what she thought?
"Come on, Faith, a detailed battle plan for you is go, fight, kill. Anything more complex than point-you-at-the-monster, and you're stumped. By all rights, you should've been dead long ago."
"This isn't you." Faith shook her head, fighting back the sting in her eyes. "It's that shit in your system talking."
"You'd like to think that, wouldn't you?" He kept hitting her. Swinging at her with that goddamn pipe. Back, and forth, in smooth arcs. And the whole time, smiling. "But let's face it. Planning isn't your strong suit. Thinking isn't your strong suit. And fucking, no matter your expertise, isn't really a pertinent Slayer skill, is it?"
She moved a half-step late to catch the next strike; it clipped her across the ribs. Stop him. Grab the pipe. Get the -
“Do you know how close we came to just having you killed in prison? I regret it. Regret that pang of philanthropy, or conscience; it would've been simpler to start over with a new girl. A better girl.” He sighed, his voice separating and clipping the words - sharp and cold, like needles of ice. “And I wouldn't have to pretend fondness for you to keep you in line.”
It rocked her back, harder than that goddamn pipe.
“What?” she asked. He couldn’t mean…
“It galls me, you know. Asking about your day, looking like I care about the answer. Buying you presents like you matter to me. Actually having you in my home.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “I haven’t felt safe with you there. Ever. But since we can’t stick you back in jail, it's the most effective control for a vicious creature like you.”
Faith couldn’t move. Couldn’t make her arms work. The steel pipe smashed across her shoulder, knocking her to the ground.
“You don't really think I care about you, do you? That I consider you my daughter?” He burst out laughing. “Oh, no, Faith, no. Don't you see? You're a murderer. A killer. You should be rotting in jail for the rest of your life. But in a sick twist of fate, you were chosen as Slayer. Necessary muscle.”
“Stop it.” Her vision was blurring; hard to see the pipe coming at her.
“A handy weapon, so we don’t have to risk the people who matter.”
“No.” He didn’t - not - fight him -
“Face it, Faith!" Giles stood over her, raining down blows. "Get a daddy-figure who'll pat you on the head, give you a lolly, you'll do anything, won't you? Fight evil, or become it, as long as papa tells you you're his special girl.”
“Shut up…”
“You're no one's special girl, Faith. I don't give a rat's ass about you. None of us does. You're just an easy tool. The expendable one."
Faith couldn't see through all the damn tears. All she could do was keep her arms up to protect her head. Just taking it, blow after blow.
"And if you die?" Giles asked. He sounded triumphant, cold, his words battering at her harder than the steel pipe. "It doesn't matter. Not really. You'll always be the backup."
"Stop," she whispered.
"You'll never be good enough."
"Please..."
"You'll never be Buffy."
He stood over her. The pipe rose. Up. Up. She should - do something. Hands up. Block. Something. Not moving. Couldn’t. Maybe… maybe better not to?
"Faith!" Xander, yelling at her from across the room. She searched for him, found him; he tossed her something underhand. She reached up on automatic pilot. Caught it.
Taser.
Giles stood above her, pipe held high on an upswing. She rolled to her knees. Hit the switch. Stuck him hard with it, right under the ribs. He spasmed, muscles locked tight. The steel pipe slipped from his fingers, hit the parquet and bounced off in a series of clangs. He looked down at her, stunned. And then his expression changed, set back into the face she didn't know. That she could hate.
Faith zapped him again.
The second jolt dropped him like a sack of potatoes. She caught his head inches from the floor. Eased it down gentle to the hardwood. Now, knocked out, he looked like Giles again. He wasn't - not yet, not quite, had to get him the cure - but looked it. Her breath was coming all ragged and sobby. He didn't mean it. He didn't mean it. He didn't mean any of it. Okay. Stand. Get him out of here, to the car. "Xander? You good?"
"Ugh." He got up, wincing. "I'm seeing three of you, but that's kind of a good thing."
"'Kay. Let's go."
"Just a sec." Xander leaned down over one of the Watchers and started working the wire free from his wrists. "Hey, Magnus? Whichever of you are conscious right now? One of your delegation had a literal meltdown at Starbucks, which ended in him lying in a puddle of his own brain. I don't know which of you got exposed, but… you should get to the hospital, get the cure."
The Watchers didn't mean jack to her. She kept hauling Giles to the car. He wasn't heavy, it was just that the foot taller thing made him drag on the ground and knock into stuff. Out of the Watchers digs, down a couple steps, across the driveway to Xander's car. Goddamn back door was locked. Smash out the window?
"Hey, I got it." Xander came trotting up.
She rolled Giles into the back seat. Tucked his knees in. Shut the car door. He didn’t mean it. "He didn't - there's no nosebleed. So there's time, right?"
"Yeah, we've got time," Xander answered. "We'll get him there."
"Right. Let's go."
"You okay?"
"No." Fuck, was she still crying? She swiped at her eyes with the heel of one hand. He didn’t mean it.
"You hurt?"
"No." She swallowed, trying to clear her throat. "Be wearing long sleeves tomorrow, no big."
"Hey. C'mere." He pulled her into his arms into a gentle hug. "Just a little longer. We fight the good fight, save the nice people, do our shiny happy hero thing. And later, after it's over, we'll fall apart and cry and scream and throw stuff, okay?"
"Yeah."
He pulled back a little, took her chin in his hand. Gave her a smile. "We just can't fall apart yet. Soon. But not yet.”
Giles didn’t mean it. She knew that. That didn’t make it not true.

***

"Are we in a helicopter? This is so cool!"

"Dawn, hold still. Don't try to move." Buffy pushed her down on the gurney.

Dawn pushed back, undeterred by either her neck brace or her sister's strength. "But I want to see! Ow, stop it!"

It took the combined strength of Buffy and both EMTs to restrain her. There wasn't enough room in the helicopter for Spike, so he would have to meet them at the hospital. Too bad, because they could really use his help at the moment. After a few minutes, Dawn stopped struggling.

"Wanna see," she mumbled as she lost consciousness.

"Feisty little thing," said one of the techs as she strapped her down.

Buffy eyed the restraints. "Is that really necessary?"

Glancing up at her, the tech nodded. "Don't know how long the sedative will last. She's hurt, but she's not feeling it." She sat back and shook her head. "PCP's got nothing on whatever they put in that water."
"Tell me about it." Buffy leaned back and gazed out the window. The town looked so peaceful from up here. Pretty, even. You'd never imagine anything major was happening below. At least, not until you noticed all the fires. She sighed.

"Here we are," announced the pilot as they started to descend.

The medical team Buffy expected to be waiting for them when they arrived consisted of one haggard-looking guy in scrubs. He leapt on top of the gurney and started examining Dawn as the techs rolled them both inside. Buffy followed close behind. When they pushed Dawn through a set of double doors, a nurse stopped Buffy from entering. She was about to argue when Spike called her name.

"How is she?" he asked as he ran up to her.

"She woke up for a minute in the helicopter, but they had to put her under. She's still feeling the effects of the wacky water."

"But she's gonna be okay?"

"I think so."

"And her legs?"

"They don't know yet."

"Bloody hell." Spike rubbed a hand over his face. "She was doing so much better."

"I know." Buffy watched through the windows in the doors as the doctor did his work. Spike's arm settled around her shoulders, and she leaned into him. "Weren't we just here?"

"Seems that way."

Buffy rested her head on his shoulder for a moment. Then she straightened up. "I should call Dad."

"Already tried. Phone's are still out. There's no getting through to him just yet."

She dug out her cell phone and turned it on. No signal. With a sigh, she put it away.

"Buffy!"

She and Spike both turned to see Willow and Oz hurrying down the corridor.

"What are you guys doing here?" asked Willow. "Did you find Dawn?"

Buffy nodded. "She's in there."

"Oh." Willow peeked into the room and cringed. "Is she gonna be okay?"

"She'll live," said Spike.

Oz nodded to Spike. "Hey, man. You guys holding up?"

"So far."

"What are you doing here?" Buffy asked. "Is Giles ..."

Willow waved a hand. "He's fine. Mostly. Not too sure about his victims, though."

Buffy's eyes widened. "Victims?"

"Oh, he didn't kill anybody. He just kinda terrorized the Council. Faith and Xander got to him before... Anyway, he's here, but he's okay."

Buffy rubbed her forehead. "Could this night get any more hairy?"

"It's about to get a whole lot better, actually." Willow beamed. "We found a cure."

A ton of stress disappeared from Buffy's chest, just like that. She pulled Willow into a hug. "Will, I love you. Thank you." She pulled back. "You're sure it works? You tested it already?"

Oz raised his hand. "Guinea-wolf, right here."

"Lydia's showing the doctors how to administer it as we speak. We already mixed up a big batch for Ben to give out to the police, so they can spread it around town. Oh, look!" Willow pointed to a nurse carrying a beaker into Dawn's room. "Looks like they're about to give it to Dawn."

"Thank God," Spike muttered.

"Tell them the less-surprising news," Oz said.

"Oh, right." Willow grimaced. "We know who did it. I mean, we have proof. Magical proof, nothing that will hold up in court, but good enough for the Council."

"It was Ethan," said Buffy.

"Right. He left a magical signature, almost like a fingerprint. He could've covered it up, though. It was really clumsy for a sorcerer of his caliber."

Buffy shook her head. "Look around, Will. This is his best work. Of course he'd want to sign it."

"Lucky for --" A scream cut Willow off.

Spike's hand clamped tight around Buffy's arm. "What're they doing to her?"

"She doesn't want to be cured." Buffy rushed into the room, with Spike and Willow right behind her. "Hold her legs!"

"Thanks," said the doctor.

"No problem," Buffy told him, but as she held her screaming sister down, all she could think was how much she hated Ethan Rayne.

***

Andy's head hurt, but he felt inspired. Almighty. Vengeance had invigorated him and he hungered for more.

He wanted the War hero and his Slayer whore and he'd finally found them. Their friends stood by, but Andy decided that one got close to depravity at one's own risk.

His eyes roamed over the area until he found the perfect perch.

He swaggered down the street, swinging the duffel and whistling as he went. Months since he'd been cast out, but he had overcome his demons. Literally. Soon he would be clean. Soon he would be covered with glory.

***

"Woo hoo! We're the one-two punch, me and you!" Xander hit "one" and "two" with quick air jabs, bouncing on the balls of his feet like Ali.

"What the hell was that?!"

"What?"

Faith stood glaring at the two unconscious guys on the ground between them.

"One-two?" he offered, his jabs now more air-y than jab-y.

She turned her glare on him.

"What'd I do?"

"So now it's no big deal that they're the victims. Now it's fun to take them out."

"It’s not --“ He laughed and shrugged. “Okay, it is, kinda. But did you see me? With the Robin to your Batman? The Kato to your Green Hornet? The --"

"Dynagirl to my Electrawoman?"

He pouted. "Again with the help calling me a girl. What is it with you and Spike? Always gotta --"

"I said I'd get the big guy and then you just clobbered him."

"I did, didn't I?" He grinned. "Called an audible at the goal line!"

"A what at the huh? What did you call?"

"I said --" Why was she harping on this? "I said, 'I got him!'"

"I was gonna get him!"

"Tie goes to the sidekick, Electra.”

"Xander ..."

"Look." He pointed at the big guy. "That's Chip Carpenter. I went to school with him. He was a tackler."

"You got a thing against football players."

Xander shook his head. "He wasn't on the team so much as he just liked to tackle people. Especially underclassmen-people who sat behind his girlfriend in Driver's Ed and kept getting their watchband caught in her hair."

"So you're blowing off battle plans and ambushing doped-up bullies just to go Revenge of the Nerds on old Biff here?"

"'Battle plans'? Since when do you care about battle plans?”

She stiffened.

“And since when is 'dibs on the big guy' a plan? And who're you callin' a nerd?"

“Knock it off.” She brushed past him and stomped off.

He trailed after her. “Knock what off? What the hell are you talking about?”

She whirled around. “This. Picking fights or making jokes or any of the hundred-and-one things you do to control me when I just wanna be mad!”

“Control you? What one minute of any day have I ever had control of you?”

"You try."

Once again, he understood Giles’s taste for Scotch.

"What the hell, Faith? I mean, I know we've had a day -- no, we've had a week -- but you've been on me from the start and my head really hurts and what the hell?

She blew out a breath. "Stupid tests --"

"But you passed! And the colors, they were flying. Council-tested, Watcher-approved. Grade A Choice Slayer.”

Folded arms. “I'm a steak, now.”

"Yeah!"

Murderous look.

"Nooooo. It’s just…” He shoved his hands in his pockets. “I'm proud of you is all."

She smirked and tossed her hair. “Proud of your one-trick pony?”

"No!" His chin sank to his chest. Always hard. Never easy. But he thought he understood, now.

“Faith, you know he didn't mean those things, right? That was the water talking.”

“Everything he said was true.”

"No. Not everything. And that stuff that was? Isn't anymore. You're --"

"Different?" She scoffed. "So I'm not homicidal. Doesn’t mean I’m a whole Slayer, just half the package. Engine and wheels. Buffy’s the one who came fully-loaded.”

“You think Slayers pop out of the box that way? Not any more than Watchers start out like Giles. But you and me, we do okay. Won a war, didn't we?”

"He said --"

"Evil doesn't always make you Honest Guy. More like Say-Hurtful-Things Guy. I know it sucks, but you know what sucks more? When he actually means it and you actually deserve it. Believe me, I know."

"But --"

"Forget for two seconds what not-Giles said and remember what Giles-Giles has done. Hello? You live in his house.

She looked "so what" at him.

He shook his head. “You don't get it. Basement living? Biblical. Floods, pestilence, famine. But even then I only got to slumber-party Chez Giles if I was wounded. And if there was blood? To the floor with me, Baby. You’re the only one ever invited to set up camp there.” He frowned. “Well, you and Spike.”

"What about after?"

"After?"

"They cured him, right? No more water on the brain? He wouldn't even look at me."

"He was ... He felt bad. Like how you felt when you first got back? How you still feel sometimes? Faith, you're gonna have to forgive him. Just like he always forgives us."

She stared. "That's not… I don't… He's the one --"

"-- who got poisoned. Who did things that make him feel crappy enough without us looking at him like that."

He watched her mull that over. Watched her get sad, frustrated, then --

“Fucking Council! Xander, we have to --"

“Easy, Kids.” Ben Grant approached them. “Your dad loves you both the same.”

Faith started, then clamped down on her temper and managed a "Hey, Grant."

Xander turned to greet him and stopped short.

"Meow! You get fresh with some feline?"

Grant rubbed his chin. "Guido."

Xander nodded. "Guido doesn't need crazy-making water for the claws to come out. Just hint that his marinara could use a tad more oregano and watch the fur fly. He okay?"

Grant frowned. "I don't know; we can't find him. But I'm fine, thanks everyone for asking."

Xander took a step back, hands in the air. "And you look fine, Detective-Lieutenant-Grant-Sir. Sunnydale's finest never looked finer." He saluted.

Grant responded to that with an apologetic chuckle.

Xander continued, "I think this part of town is about as trashed as it's gonna get. Couple lugheads over there, if you wanna call it in."

"Thanks. I've got Levinson on cure duty in this area." Grant reached for his radio. "You two wanna hit UCS? Fraternity row is ... well ..."

"On it. We'll get over there before they start sacrificing girls to reptile-demon-thingies."

Grant and Faith looked at him. "Huh?"

"Nothing."

***

One more block to the Magic Box. Then they’d just get in his car, turn up the radio, and drive to campus in --

"We have to quit."

-- peace. He sighed. "Faith ..."

"Why not?"

“Look, I know that you're a winter and a summer, but maybe I don't want to see you in prison orange, okay?”

"I'd have to do my time, but then at least it'd be over. No more boys' club bullshit hanging over my head."

"No."

It never ceased to amaze him the way her face could change ... Hurricane Faith gathering speed and power and heading for the coast of --

"Xander! What are we doing?! Buffy and Giles quit before and they did okay. Why are they --? What the hell are we doing?"

“It wasn't that okay. Giles didn't quit; he got fired. Council resources ... Council contacts ... gone. Just like that. Isolated on the Hellmouth. And Buffy, yeah, she had to. But without the Council she has no house."

Well, without Giles. Without Giles getting them to pay, without Giles socking away money all those years, knowing that the Council didn't give a damn about Slayers. Xander was following his example, but there wasn't enough yet. Not nearly enough.

"I don't care about that stuff," Faith insisted.

"Maybe I do. Maybe I care about them for you. And maybe Buffy and Giles get that the devil you know is --"

"That's bullshit. Look around you, Xander. Your boys were the monsters this week."

"No. Ethan --"

"-- was a tool." She laughed, a bitter sound that made Xander wince. "Their tool. God! Look at you, all 'by any means necessary'."

"You got that much right."

“Would you let them drug me?”

“What? No! That was the whole -- Never. You know that, right?”

“Right. But I'm supposed to stand there and let them drug you. Do you know how it feels watching you drink that shit -- watching it do things to you -- knowing it was meant for me? But you don’t let me do anything about it. You don’t let me --" Her voice cracked and she looked as wounded as he'd ever seen her. "I'm just supposed to stand there."

"Faith ..."

"Don't." She twisted out of reach and he let his hand drop.

He’d hurt her. He wasn’t sure how, only that he had.

He thought he'd learned so much from his mistakes. All the times he'd failed Buffy and Willow and Giles. Everything he'd lost ... He'd taken a hard look at himself and been ruthless in building a better Xander. He'd devoted his life to not failing her and here he was. Failing.

"I can't do it without the Council," he said quietly.

"You mean you won't." Her disdain was a spitball right between the eyes.

“No. I won't. Five years of showing up and not getting killed made me a good sidekick. I know stuff. But Watcher? That's The Show. I have to train, and study, and study some more, and no one’ll work harder for you than me, Faith, but it’s never enough. Everyone helps. And my heroes aren't Daredevil and Green Lantern. They're Giles. Jeremiah Tulley. Xian Hai Sung and a long line of guys who were smarter than me -- wicked smart -- and they still ended up with a dead Slayer.”

"You will, too -- with or without the damn Council. So I guess you better have a pension plan, huh?"

He bit his lip, hard. Pick a fight. Make a joke. Pick a fight. Make a --

"Ow. That really hurt, Faith. Didja mean for that to hurt?"

She looked surprised. "No! I ... No." He saw anger give way to frustration. "I just don't get the big Council love."

His turn to be surprised. "You think I love the Council?! I hate the Council! They almost killed Buffy, do you think I could forget that? They tried to kill her when they thought she was you! Do you think a dental plan and six months of crumpets could ever make me forget that? But more than any monster, they're in a prime position to cut you down and that is not happening. If the best way to protect you from the Council is to be the Council, then it's a no-brainer. Nothing's gonna happen to you. Not on my watch. Not ever."

He reached out, tucked her hair back, then touched his fingertips to her cheek. "I don’t love the Council,” he said softly. "I love Slayers. I ..."

Her chin came up and she looked at him and her eyes were the whole world. He felt like ... like everything and never enough.

“Xander ...”

Then he felt something else. A pinprick of metal and heat behind his left shoulder blade that was interesting for the nanosecond before it set his every nerve ending on fire. He twitched. "Ow."

***

She squinted at him. "I didn't say anything."

"No." He grabbed her shoulders, his eyes suddenly sharp and feverish and boring into hers. "There's an ow. And it really ows."

She felt him dragging her down as he sank to his knees. "What the --?"

"Faith?" His voice sounded pinched and… weird. "Run."

He swayed sideways and her arms wrapped awkwardly around him, easing him to the ground.

"Xander?"

Her right hand came away bloody and she stared at it -- stared at the blood like any second it would eat through her flesh. "Ohmygodohmygodohmygod.” Her gaze veered back to his face, just as his eyes drifted to the side, unfocused. She clutched at his shirt and shook him. "Xander!"

Twing! A bullet ricocheted off the ground a few yards away. She flung her body over his, her face tucked into his shoulder and her arms covering their heads.

Twang! Another. Closer this time. She heard screaming and running and "Get down!" in a voice that sounded like Grant's.

"Go," Xander rasped in her ear. "Get cover."

She raised her head a few inches, hair and tears spilling onto his chest. "No."

Twing!

"Go!" He tried to push her off. "You're gonna get --" He sucked air in between his teeth, and from a million patrols she knew that he was trying to hide the pain. "Faith --”

"No!" She turned and scanned the area. People crouched behind cars, trash cans, and trees. Then she saw Grant and Johnny Cop cris-crossing Main Street, checking for wounded.

Twang! More screaming.

"Grant! Over here! He's hit! He's ..." She looked back down at him. Watched his eyes flicker and then fall shut. Her hands gripped his face. "Xander? No ... Don't you -- Grant!"

Grant and Jonathan finally reached them and pulled Xander behind a car while Faith ran along side, maintaining a position between them and the sniper.

Jonathan took off his jacket and stuck it under Xander’s shoulder. T.J. Hooker looked worried. “Sir? That's an awful lot of blood to not have anymore.”

Grant holstered his radio and turned back to them. “Ambulance is on its way.”

Xander’s eyes snapped open. "Ben. One shooter ... He ..." His gaze swung to Faith. "Where is he?"

"What? No! We have to get out of here. You're bleeding and…" She shook her head. "Uh-uh. We have to go!"

She moved to stand, but he grabbed her wrist. His hand was cold and trembling.

"Faith, Honey ... we ..." He couldn't catch his breath. "We don't have a lot of time."

"I can't!" Can’t stop shaking. Can’t stop crying. Can’t stay here. Can’t let him die.

"Flesh wound, that's all. Really. Don't --” He shivered, then tried to smile. “I need you to concentrate, okay?"

He always said that in training and on patrol. And she always tried. Tried to focus on his voice, tried to ignore the thing inside her that wanted to run, and scream, and kill.

But the thing inside was pissed now, and loud. Way louder than him because he was weak and probably dying and goddammit, they had to get out of here!

"Xander --"

"Where is he, Faith?"

She stared at him, at the hand still gripping her wrist. He released her and without another word, she crept to the front of the car and peered out at the spot where they'd been standing -- marked now by a pool of Xander's blood.

Breathe. Think.

She'd been facing the SUN Theatre. He'd had his back to it. They were fighting. Then he'd pitched forward and --

The memory struck her like an arrow.

Missed the heart.

Her body went rigid with knowledge and guilt and sorrow.

Meant to.

She lifted her eyes with the certainty of a fellow marksman…

He's dropped, Boss.

... to the "U" in the SUN Theatre sign.

Right in the back. It was a good time.

She looked at Xander. Oh. God.

"Do you know?”

Fresh tears stung her eyes.

"Faith, you have to --"

"No! ” she sobbed. “Xander, please! Don't make me leave --"

"-- do your job!"

She blinked. And then she ran.

The world between Faith and the SUN liquefied, objects bleeding together and swaying gently, like an underwater dance.

Shots bellowed from behind as Grant laid down cover fire.

Sound flowed over her, riding invisible currents that curled and collided. A sonic boom. A hailstorm of glass. Bullets hitting asphalt. Xander calling her name.

Everything thick and muffled, except for her feet hitting pavement, her breath blowing out.

She ducked her head and bolted into the theatre.

The guy behind the snack counter kinda knew her. "Hi, Doll. No more shows today on account of the riot in the Fellini Film Fest. But if you want a private screening ..." He winked.

"Stay inside!” She made for the stairwell. “If anyone other than me comes out, duck!"

Stairs, two at a time. A narrow hallway. Projection room on one side, roof access on the other. No signs, but she remembered.

Up one more flight. She flung open the door and ran straight to the now-darkened "U". The shooter got off one more shot before her boot connected with his shoulder, slamming him into the giant vowel. The impact sent the rifle clattering to the street.

She seized his shoulders and hurled him across the roof. He rolled to a stop, then got up on all fours and gaped at her. "You!"

"U!" She sneered, stalking forward and yanking him to his feet. "This ass-kicking is brought to you by the letter --" Whack! She finished the thought with a right hook. "-- the numbers --" Whack! "-- and --" Whack! He stumbled backwards. "-- and a big, fucking bird!" THWACK! Elbow to the nose, breaking it in two places.

He howled and fell to his knees. Then he looked up, smiling at her with bloody teeth. "I did it this time. I saved the town. I did! And now everyone will know the truth about you and your vampire lover!" Defiance gave him the strength to stand and spit at her.

"My who? You think that he --? Ah Jesus, you poor son of a bitch."

Then her hands shot out, crashing his head into her fast-rising knee. "YOU SHOT MY WATCHER!"

Faith grabbed him by the collar and hauled him to the very edge of the building. She bent him backwards, straightening her arms and all but dangling him over the sidewalk below. Only Slayer strength and balance kept them both from tumbling over.

"Faith!"

Grant stood in the doorway.

"I think I'm good here, Benji. Why don't you guys cover the frats?"

"Give him to me."

"Sure. Which piece do you want first?" She gave the guy a shake and he actually squeaked. Nice.

"You let him fall and I'm up all night doing paperwork." He took a step toward her. "C'mon, Buttercup. I thought we were old friends."

She glared down at the shooter. His hands wrapped around her wrists and he looked back at her, all piss and panic, sniveling about his salvation.

It occurred to her that if he fell, she could just forget to let go. What I deserve ...

"Did you see what he did? Did you see?!"

"Yeah, I did." Another step. "Now get outta here. You have to go.”

"The hell I do."

“Faith, he's asking for you."

***

Smelled like a hospital, jostled like a car ... Several minutes spent pondering the opposing sensations finally yielded an answer: ambulance.

OkaaaySoooWhoooooooisit?

The nice man with the soothing voice who seemed really busy would probably tell him if only Xander could open his eyes. Or remember how to speak.

Oh.

A little thought began to take shape within his funky purple haze.

I think I know whoisit ... What happened to me? Are my hands burnt up?

No ... he remembered. The fire had been on his back, but the nice man had put it out.

Thank you, nice man. You shall be handsomely rewarded. Once I'm done being quiet and still. In a week, maybe. Once I --

Yelling and stomping pierced the haze. Then the world bobbed up and down and he swore he heard a swish of leather and hair. No more still. Never any quiet.

"Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!"

What'd I do?

"You don't get to die, Xander! Do you hear me? You do not get to die!"

'Get' to? 'GET' to? Did I stand in line? Did I buy a ticket? What 'get' to?

"Is he gonna die?"

I’m sorry, Faith. I know you hate asking that question.

"I really don't think so, Miss."

"Can he hear me?"

"I really do think so, Miss."

"Xander?"

He'd trade in the funky haze for the burning back if it came with the power of speech.

"Fuck."

Although haze is good.

"Xander, I ..." The anger had fallen away. Nothing in her voice now but fear and something else he couldn't quite name. "I need you to ... I ... I need ..."

Anything. Of all the things she could ask of him, what wouldn't he do, what wouldn't he give up, to give it to her? All for her. He'd cut out his own heart if she asked.

Okay, right now she was yelling at him when he couldn't see, or speak, and with the blood… But she’d leaned in close, he could tell, so just give him a few minutes and ...

Anything.

"Don't leave me," she whispered.

Unh?

"Please don't leave me."

That's it? That's the big --

"Xander?"

Oh, he wanted to laugh. Laugh and laugh.

Don’t leave me? Ha! He had a boatload of "Don't leave me"! Boatloads of boatloads. "Don't leave me" was the blue plate special -- coffee and dessert included. He could give her a lifetime supply -- give her "Don't leave me" until she put up her hands and cried, “No more!”

And then he'd give her more.

Voices and movement and slamming doors jerked him back to his funny Slayer and the nice man she’d put personally in charge of her Watcher not dying. The ambulance took off with sirens screaming and Xander finally stopped fighting the funky haze. It surrounded him, lifting him until he floated high above the pain on a pretty purple cloud. This is where he would spend the next week, he decided.

Then he was suddenly aware of her hand in his -- her breath on his ear.

Asking him… again.

I won’t leave you, Faith. I wouldn't know how. Whatever happens, it won’t be me.
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