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

Episode Fourteen: Reclamation

by adjrun, cousinjean, & hold_that_thought

***

They all worked too hard. They scarcely saw their loved ones. But Kent loved his work, and he loved this old building. Yes, he shared a cramped office with both Worthing and that mad Miss Gordon (and mad Miss Gordon's collection of Phantom Of The Opera memorabilia). Yes, he'd finally been chosen for a short field assignment -- only to return home with two black eyes (and no leftover per diem despite the weak dollar). But Kent believed in the Council. And he had never wished to be anywhere but here until --

"My God," said Worthing, as they gaped at the sight before them.

Here had gone to hell.

They'd spilled out of a corridor and emerged at the top of the grand staircase where all corridors met. Emerged into smoke and sulfur. Into alarms shrieking, and colleagues slaughtering one another on the very spot where they'd stood just weeks before and smiled for the annual group photo. Now they stood surrounded by the smell of destruction and the noise of chaos.

Another explosion shook the world and jolted them off their feet. Windows shattered and lights blew out, showering glass and golden sparks on the great hall below. The chandelier swayed, a dark, heavy pendulum. Then emergency lighting kicked on. Its harsh glare and twisted angles shaped the carnage into a ghoulish shadow play.

Kent saw the brightest minds he'd ever known collapse in on themselves. Scholars and scientists reduced to a black mass of inhumanity, flailing at each other with swords and fists and -- Brrrzzzzt! He dove, narrowly avoiding a sizzling shaft of energy. Magic.

"Oh, balls."

Before he'd quite recovered, Kent bashed into a wall, held there by a deceptively small forearm.

"Maria?"

In the midst of the melee, bodies banging into them from all quarters, and he thought he saw Worthing go down. But Maria Sanchez had him in her sites, now, and even when she was sane, the woman was freakishly strong.

She snarled at him. "Be still! And choose."

"Maria... Have a care. There's something -- Yow!"

His hand flew to his eye. She'd eased back her arm just enough to throw her elbow! In that moment he took great comfort in the thought of her brain gushing from her nose. He shoved her, but she thrashed and clutched his shirt. His footing a thing of the past, they tumbled down the stairs, taking a host of Watchers with them.

Tender flesh slammed into marble floor, and after a stunned moment, during which he was stepped on and tripped over, they scrambled to their feet. Oh, to hit her. Hard. But as he pulled back his fist, her head snapped left. He blinked, then followed her gaze and saw Mr. Travers, charging through the front doors and into the courtyard, sword aloft. Like a hound on tasty new scent, she raced after him.

"Maria!" Kent glanced around for Worthing. Not finding him, Kent pushed his way through the mob, ducking arrows and elbows as he went. "Damn it, mind the eyes!"

***

Bones. Willow really didn't want to meet the demon that had to be summoned with a small bowl of bones. But she was willing to face a million icky bone-loving demons if it meant helping Buffy. "I'll need all of you for this," she said.

"What about Magnus?" asked Lydia.

"Him too."

The others knelt in a line on either side of her, Niamh immediately to her left and Lydia to her right. Magnus, his hands bound, looked like he wanted to resist until Giles put a hand on his shoulder and gave him the hairiest eyeball Willow had ever seen. Suddenly she wasn't so sure Giles had been joking about that whole human sacrifice thing.Suddenly she wasn't so sure Giles had been joking about that whole human sacrifice thing.

Checking the spell once more, Willow arranged the salt, bones, and oil, then began the chanting. "Haatu thlik mnetlak serrah. Haatu gnawe benlaak venoh. Haatu thlik mnetlak serrah. Haatu gnawe benlaak venoh...."

The rest gradually took up the chant; uncertainly at first, but with increasing confidence until their voices came together in unity. Willow didn't know how long it lasted, how many times they repeated the ancient summons. She lost all track of time as she became one with the spell. The room grew thick with power and energy. It coursed through her, spoke to her, threatened to overwhelm her in its immensity. This was a magic older than time.

Maybe Niamh was right. Maybe this was beyond her.Then the familiar surge of power rushed through her body. Up her spine, down her arms, out her fingertips. Willow picked up one of the candles and used it to set the oil aflame. A pillar of fire sprang up in front of her, impossibly large for the small amount of oil she'd used, so hot she feared for a moment that it might have singed off her eyebrows. A bead of sweat rolled down the side of her face. Panting, she opened her eyes. Black ash lay in place of the bones, but there was no demon to be found.

"Take heart, Willow," Niamh said beside her. "It was a valiant effort."

Willow said nothing as she reached out and grabbed both Niamh and Lydia by the wrist. Before the magic left her body she threw back her head and repeated the chant, drawing on Niamh's power and Lydia's untapped Slayer potential and using their strength to amplify her own.

This was going to happen, damn it. This Aton weasel couldn't hide from her forever.

Beside her, Niamh gasped. "What are you doing? Stop it, it's too much!" She tried to pry Willow's fingers open, but Willow was too lost in the spell, her power locking them together. But she snapped out of it when Niamh screamed, a blood-curdling howl. The smooth, delicate wrist in Willow's hand thickened and felt rough and scaly.

Willow yelped and fell sideways onto her rear, releasing her hold on both women. Lydia lay collapsed beside her, still conscious but looking drained. Willow turned to see Niamh in a similar state. Willow started to think she'd imagined the transformation, until she noticed the others. Giles was already on his feet with a crossbow pointed at Niamh. Magnus gaped at her in shock.

Then Niamh began to laugh.

***
She could see him. Quentin fought through the crowds of brawling Watchers about twenty yards ahead of her. This man who thought he could control everything and ended up ruining it all. But she had him in her sights now and Maria wouldn’t let him get away.

She surged through the mass of shouting bodies. The thought flitted through her head that half of these people weren’t fighting for the correct reasons. To be sure, she could hear large crowds of people shouting both pro and con Travers and Giles propaganda, but to her right, Roberts and Tanaka from Antiquities beat on Meyers from Containment. Roberts shouted something about the broken Dagger of Furis. Ahead of her two special ops Watchers screamed at each other about weapon requisition processes. An argument that ended abruptly when one pulled out a gun and shot the other through the head.

Maria shrugged it off with annoyance. They needed to focus on the important issue. The time had come for Quentin Travers’s downfall. She spotted him, further away from her now, separating Brar and El Fadil who were attempting to throttle each other.

A badly thrown incapacitation spell careened in her direction, but missed when she ducked at the last second. The spell hit Roberts behind her, leaving Tanaka to face off Meyers man to man.

Quentin kept moving further and further away from her. Barrelling through the crowd seemed to be the only option. Maria was a small woman, but she had a mission to accomplish and she forced her way past fight after fight. An abandoned sword she scooped off the ground helped her clear a path.

Maria was about fifteen feet from Quentin when she hit a dead stop. Crawford. One of Quentin’s supporters. With a gun levelled at her.

Crawford grinned. “Going somewhere, Sanchez?”

***

"Maria! Ma--! Oh."

Smoke and magic thickened the night air, like liquid. Objects pulsated and mushed together. The ground undulated, chucking people into moving trees as the Council's best used their powers to hurl havoc and devilry at each other. Those less gifted made do with traditional weapons.

Once, his last year at university, Kent had tried out LSD. Once. This was like that.

Red lights chased yellow lights chased blue. When his hearing caught up with the rest of him, he comprehended the source: the police and the fire brigade. Their cars and lorries clogged the street. Their men struggled with the enchanted gate. Rescuers swarmed up ladders only to bounce off the clever wards that had kept this place safe for centuries.

Kept them...

Guns. Magic. Bodies.

Safe.

Just like Sunnydale.

For the first time it struck Kent that, other than William the Bloody, he'd never really seen a vampire. That all the violence he'd ever witnessed had been done by people. Watchers, mostly.

"Travers out!"

Kent shook himself and turned toward the battle cry. Once again, he weaved through a madding crowd. Absorbing errant blows, he wedged his way past tweed and lab coats, fatigues and blacks. Stayed low, avoided engagement. When he reached pockets of space, he straightened, peering through the smoke for Mr. Travers. Straining against the pandemonium for --

"Giles in!" "Revolution!"

Elbows and shoulders at work now, as was the hope that if he could just stay standing, just get through...

A great burst of energy and he was there. But everything was not all right.

***

Maria stood frozen, staring at Crawford, the sword dangling at her side, a revolver pointed at her heart. All around them fists bruised skin, weapons broke bones and magic ran rampant. For long moments they remained still. The eye at the center of the storm.

He broke the silence. “Drop your weapon.” She hesitated but he shifted his grip on the gun and she realized that a sword wouldn’t help her right now anyway. Her sword clattered to the ground.

Part of her knew this was bad. That a situation in which a gun is pointed at you could end very poorly. But the larger, louder part of her just didn’t care. “Are you going to use that?” she asked. Her eyes wandered past him. Quentin had moved toward them, trying again to separate Brar and El Fadil who had restarted their fight.

“You were always the smart one, Maria. But I guess you missed the chapter on traitors and what happens to them.”

“This isn’t treason, you daft git. It’s a revolution. You know as well as I do that Travers has been a poison to the Council - weakening it bit by bit.”

Crawford smirked. “And Giles is the antidote?”

“No.” A serene smile curved Maria’s mouth. “Giles is the future.” She gestured at the hysteria that raged all around them. “Do you honestly believe this would have happened had Mr. Giles been in charge?”

His smirk turned into an incredulous laugh and Crawford shook his head. “Do you honestly believe this has anything to do with bloody Giles or Travers? They didn’t cause any of this, Maria. It was your doing. You with your fucking fliers and hate-mongering. You are Black Death. But I can stop you.” He had lowered the gun while speaking but now brought it back up to train it on her.

Before he could fully aim it Maria’s foot came up and knocked the gun out of his hand. She dove for it but Crawford yanked on her leg, dragging her backwards on her stomach. She struggled to turn over, and landed a kick to his side. It only slowed him for a second and a moment later they both scrambled for the gun.

Her fingers grazed the handle when he grabbed her shoulders and flipped her onto her back. Thick hands closed around her neck and slowly cut off her air supply. Maria pulled at his fingers, trying to peel them off of her neck but his grip was too strong. She tried to buck him off but he outweighed her by at least fifty pounds.

Maria’s hands searched the surrounding ground, trying to find a knife, a rock - anything that could help. Desperate to find any opening, she clawed at his shirt, his chest, even as she weakened by the moment. Fingers found a pen in his breast pocket and gripped it as tight. Using all of her remaining strength she jabbed the pen in the only place she could reach - his shoulder.

The pen didn’t do any real damage, but it loosened his grasp on her throat and allowed Maria to shove Crawford off of her. Once again she lunged for the gun, but Crawford slammed into her and she tumbled across the ground. She rolled to her feet.

And found they were right back where they started. Crawford had the gun trained on her. The only difference was that he looked a hell of a lot angrier now.

***

Willow got to her feet and helped Lydia. Straightening her top, Willow looked uncertainly from Niamh to Giles. "Did I miss something?"

"She transformed," said Giles. "Just for an instant, but I could have sworn-"

"I saw it too," said Magnus.

Willow stared down at the giggling Watcher. "Niamh's possessed?"

"No, you foolish child," Niamh gasped. She got to her feet, still laughing. But she didn't sound like Niamh anymore. Her voice deepened and took on an otherworldly quality, at once hollow and so frail that Willow had to strain to hear, and so booming that it resonated all through her. "I underestimated your power, but clearly I gave your deductive abilities too much credit."

As Niamh spoke, she grew about two feet in height. Her long black hair receded, replaced with short, grizzled gray tufts. Her porcelain skin undulated and took on a greenish, mottled tint. When the transformation was complete, Niamh McCollough was gone. In her place stood a hulking demon draped in scarlet robes, its skull visible between the patches of mossy, pocked skin that hung in strips on its face. It smiled at the group, blood-red teeth clicking menacingly. But that was nothing compared to its vacant eyes. No, vacant wasn't the right word. They were deep chasms of pure nothingness, a complete absence of space and time and everything that gave order to the universe. Its eyes held the true meaning of chaos. Willow lowered her gaze and swallowed. Between that and the rotten, sweet smell that accompanied the demon, she had to fight hard to keep from getting sick.

"I am Aton," the creature announced.

"That was gonna be my next guess," grumped Willow.

Magnus closed his mouth and regained his composure. "What have you done with the real Niamh?"

"There is no real Niamh," said Giles. "Is there?"

Aton smiled. "Very astute, Rupert. Perhaps you really should be in charge of the Council. But then you might bring some real order and then where would I be?" As it spoke, its talons constantly clacked together.

"You've been with us all along," said Magnus. "Toying with us…"

"And what an amusing pawn you've been."

"This certainly explains what is happening to the Council," said Lydia. "All this time, your chaotic energies building up…"

"And the portal was the spark that ignited them," Giles concluded.

"Like an evil gas leak?" asked Willow.

Adjusting his glasses, Giles nodded. "Precisely."

"Okay, so, the evil gas went kaboom." Willow turned to Aton. "How do we clean it up?"

The sound of rustling fabric filled the room as Aton's shoulders rose and fell. "Kill me, I suppose."

"Gladly," said Willow, her irritation with the monster's nonchalance overriding any fear she felt. "But first you're going to tell us how to fix Buffy."

"Simple. Kill her."

"That's not a fix."

"No. But it would be better for her. Her essence is inextricably linked with that of the Primitive. You cannot extract one without destroying both."

"Maybe I can't. But I'm betting you can."

Aton smiled, its teeth and claws clacking. "And why would I do that, child?"

"Because it might get me to rethink that whole killing you thing."

"Except that you must kill me to restore sanity to the Council. Either that or release me so that I may go and take my energies with me. Quite the quandary. Whatever shall you do? I'm in terrible suspense. But I suggest you decide quickly. Neither your Slayer nor the infected Watchers have the luxury of time."

Willow held up a hand. "Hold."

Aton froze. The air around it thickened and solidified.

"How about you just shut up while we make time?"

"What did you do?" asked Magnus.

"Barrier spell. I've never tried such a tightly controlled one before, but hey! It worked."

Lydia came to stand beside her and examine the demon. "Will it contain Aton's energy as well?"

Willow shrugged. "Hope so. We should figure out a back up just in case. Look for a way to teleport him to someplace safe where we can still work with him. Giles, do you think a truth spell might work on this guy?"

"It certainly wouldn't hurt to try. Barring that, perhaps we can still find a method of inducing him to reverse the spell on Buffy."

"Listen to you people," said Magnus, rising to his feet at last. "You have an opportunity to kill this creature and stop the madness that is happening outside, yet even now you're placing the Slayer's life above those of the entire Council."

Willow wheeled toward Magnus. "Buffy's not just the Slayer. She's my best friend, and she has friends and family and people who love her and need her! Not just to fight the demons, because hey, doing a pretty good job of that myself here. But because she's part of our lives. She makes us better." She shook her head. "I guess I shouldn't expect someone like you to get that."

He only shook his head. "It's base selfishness. This is everything I stand against."

"And that's why you failed, Uncle," said Lydia. "The sanctity of human life extends to the Slayers as well. If you've forgotten that, then you've forgotten the reason for the Council." She folded her arms, hugging herself. "It makes you no better than Aton."

Magnus looked at her with pity. "I pray that someday you'll understand my reasons, Lydia."

"And I pray I never understand." She turned away from him and started toward the library shelves. "If I remember correctly, this library contains a compendium of transportation spells."

"And I'll locate a truth spell," said Giles. He started to go, but halted and pointed his crossbow at Magnus. "Bellingham, you're with me. You might as well make yourself useful."

As they moved toward the stacks, Willow went to the window. A full-scale riot raged in the yard below, and showed no signs of letting up. Bodies dotted the landscape, unmoving. Willow hoped they were only unconscious. "Hey, guys? Let's focus on finding that teleportation spell!"

Behind her, the air exploded. It was more of a loud 'pop!' than a boom, but the blast threw Willow against the window. As she slid to the floor she was pelted with fragments of clear crystal. She covered her head with her arms until they finished raining down on her. When she chanced a look, they melted to nothing. Pure air.

Her barrier.

Willow looked around. The eruption had thrown the others into the stacks, and now they each struggled to stand amidst fallen books. Everybody looked unhurt.

In the spot where she had contained Aton now stood Niamh.

Except, not Niamh. Her features peered down at Willow from atop Aton's scarlet robes, but they looked sharper, more androgynous. Her skin was a pure, velvety white, and her black hair had returned. But it was more than black. It was the total absence of color, a flowing void whipping around her head of its own accord, as if blown by a fierce wind that touched only her. The eyes remained the same, piercing windows into infinite chaos. Willow stared at her, awestruck. As she remembered to breathe, she suddenly understood the meaning of "All will love me and despair."

"Did you really believe you were dealing with some common, lowly demon?" this new being asked. Its voice, like its eyes, remained unchanged.

The others came forward. Giles took off his glasses. "None of us believed there was anything common about Aton," he said, "but clearly we were mistaken as to your identity. I don't suppose you care to enlighten us."

"I have many faces, and many names. Have you not yet guessed this face's name?" It looked at Giles and smiled an almost affectionate smile. "After all, you once served me so well, Ripper."

Giles squinted up at the being. "I… I don't understand. I never…"

"Perhaps not in my name, as did your dear friend Ethan. But in your chaotic youth you served me nonetheless."

As he took a step back, he paled. "Janus."

Lydia looked at him. "The Roman god of transitions?"

"No. Well, yes. But Janus fooled the Romans into thinking he was a benevolent power who brought them order and civilization. Meanwhile he basked in their worship while he spurred them on to wars and destruction. He feeds on chaos, and in turn creates in us a chaotic nature."

"You're too modest," said Janus. "I take no credit for humanity's capacity to create chaos. I merely take advantage of it. Although I do step in to stir the pot myself on occasion when my acolytes aren't up to the task."

"Okay," said Willow. "So you're not a demon, you're a god. Ooh, scary!" She rolled her eyes. "Like I've never killed one of those before."

Aton--Janus, whatever--turned that creepy smile on her. "Glorificus was not of this dimension, and she was weakened by her human form. You will not be rid of me so easily, child."

"Wanna bet?" She raised her hands and opened her mouth to incant, but Giles stepped between her and Janus. "Giles, what are you doing? Get out of the way!"

"Willow, no. Janus is right, he's too powerful."

"We don't know that until I try."

"And get yourself killed? How will that help Buffy? How will that help any of us?" He turned to Janus. "If you leave, your energies will dissipate and the Council will return to normal, correct?"

Janus nodded.

"Then go. We won't fight you, and we won't summon you again."

"But Giles!" Willow stepped forward. But before she could protest further, Janus threw back its head and laughed.

"Leave? With all this delicious chaos to feed me? Why would I do such a thing? Besides," the god turned its eyes on Magnus, "there is still the matter of my payment."

Magnus's eyes widened with fear. Lydia moved to stand in front of him. "Haven't enough people died here today?"

"No, not really."

Willow had enough. "Move," she commanded, and an unseen force pushed Giles out of her way. She raised both hands. "Hold!" She channeled all of her power into the command. The air around Janus once again thickened, restricting the god's movements. But it dissipated just as quickly, and feedback from the spell knocked Willow off her feet.

"Impressive," said Janus as Willow struggled to stand. She felt blood trickling from her nose and wiped it away. "But not impressive enough."

"You guys get out of here," she said.

"Willow," said Giles, "this is lunacy!"

Her head snapped toward him. "Leave!" The door flew open behind her.

Giles slumped, defeated. Motioning for the others to follow, he started toward the door. Lydia and Magnus gave her and Janus a wide berth as they made their way around the room. As they reached the window, the door slammed shut.

"Please, stay," said Janus. "I insist."

"Let them go," said Willow.

"But I so rarely get to play to an audience. And the more participants, the greater the odds for chaos. I like chaos. Or haven't you been paying attention?"

Willow closed her eyes. "Athena, great goddess from days of yore."

Janus tsk'd at her. "Calling on my own family to help you? Yes, that's likely to succeed."

Ignoring it, she finished the imprecation. Then she opened her eyes and lobbed a volley of magic energy at it.

Janus raised an elegant hand to deflect the blast, sending it toward the window. Giles dove and tackled Lydia out of the way a microsecond before the wall behind them exploded outward and rained onto the courtyard below. As Willow stared in horror, the floor where her blast had hit crumbled beneath them. Giles rolled out of the way, but Lydia slipped. Screaming, she fell.

"Lydia!" Giles lunged just in time to catch her by the wrist. Willow ran to help him.

"Interesting," Janus was saying. "That one might have actually hurt. It seems I continue to underestimate you, witch."

Willow ignored the god as she and Giles pulled Lydia up and dragged her back from the edge. Shivering, Lydia looked around the room. "Magnus?" She looked out at the yard and screamed, "Magnus!"

"Well," said Janus. "I suppose that takes care of my sacrifice."

Willow stood up. "Get out."

Janus nodded. "Yes, I believe I will before you get your strength back. This has been fun. And also educational." It fixed its gaze on Giles. "But first, Ripper, if you ever tire of the restrictions of your do-gooder lifestyle, I have a place for you in my court."

"No thank you," Giles said flatly.

"My acolytes have a great deal of fun. You should think about it. It's the least you could do after killing Ethan. He was my most faithful servant, after all."

Willow looked at Giles, shocked. "But Spike said he--"

"Willow!" He cut her off, but it was too late. Lydia pulled away from him in horror.

When they turned back to answer Janus, the god had already gone.

***

Mr. Travers. A few men stood by his side. A few more covered his back, but they were surrounded. Choice piece of meat among a pack of rabid dogs. Still wielding his sword, Mr. Travers lunged. Parried.

And spoke. "It's a spell, you fool! Fight it!" Called each attacker by name. "Nathan, please. Listen to me!"

Kent rushed to join his company. But big hands grabbed his shoulders and pitched him aside. He rolled to a stop against something soft. Lifeless. Scrabbling to his knees, he turned away. So many lost. Best not to look...

"Henry?"

No. No. Nevernevernevernever --

But never was now. Worthing lay dead beside him.

The wail bubbling up from his gut sounded more like drowned laughter when his body finally released it. A sputtering convulsion that bent him in half. I can't breathe. I can't... can't...

Click.

He looked up to see a rifle pointed at Mr. Travers.

Kent thought suddenly of the Slayers. Holding back the Hellmouth. Losing people to the madness every day, while the Council that was sworn to...

Click.

Crying out, he flung himself forward. Blood rushed to his head as his body capsized, then toppled over a burly shoulder and slammed into the ground. Staggering up - Crack! -- his head snapped back and down he went. Again.

The wet and sticky covered his eye, but he could still see the rifle, the butt of it glistening with blood. Then the barrel pinwheeled and Kent felt gunmetal on his cheek. He thought: It's cold.

That's when the heavens exploded. The blast drummed his ears. Rattled his bones. The stars caught fire and fell out of the sky -- bits of brimstone dotting the courtyard with a boom and a sizzle. The man with the rifle jerked, then crashed down on him. Kent whooshed out a breath. That he drew another soon after was a fact, but never a memory.

The acid trip had been like that, too.

***

“Enough,” Crawford sneered. Maria knew she was out of options.

Just as she braced herself for the piercing explosion and the silence that would follow she heard two things simultaneously: a man shouting “No!” and the gun firing.

She found herself knocked to the ground, gasping for breath. Must be dying. But she felt no pain. Well, her throat hurt and she could feel bruises forming but not the white hot life-consuming pain. She sat up and checked herself over. No blood. She looked up at Crawford who stared open-mouthed at the ground beside her, the gun still smoking in his hand. Her sword lay just to her side and she scooped it up, pointing the tip at Crawford’s throat.

“Put it down.”

The gun dropped to the ground but Crawford gave no other indication that he had even heard her. She followed his gaze and saw what made him still. Quentin Travers lay dead on the ground.

Maria felt a smile spread across her lips and opened her mouth to gloat when an explosion from the building blew them off their feet seconds before everything went black.

***

sirens

His alarm blaring and got to get up. Big day. California. Handpicked to assist with the Slayer's reviews and got to get up and fly to California. But his head felt so heavy and his chest felt so heavy. He pushed aside the blanket.

body

And it was still so dark out and his head... His head… Then breathing became coughing and coughing became pain. Everywhere. Alarms. Alarms. Crying.

Kent forced his eyes open and squinted at the sky, saw a golden bird fluttering down out of the black. He waited, too depleted to move as it wafted from side to side before alighting on his chest. His vision dimming, he grasped the half-sheet of yellow paper with both hands, and read:
Travers out -- Giles in!

Brave New World!
Brave New Council!

***

Maria inched toward consciousness. Was she alive? The last thing she remembered was Crawford pointing a gun at her and Quentin throwing her out of the way.

She began to move parts of her body. Toes - working. Legs - mobile. Arms - attached. Fingers - wrapped around the hilt of a sword.

Sword?

Everything rushed back to her. “Oh God,” she rasped and opened both eyes, fearful of what she might find.

The first thing she saw was her sword, the blade thankfully clean of blood. But then she saw the still body beside her: Quentin, whose lifeless eyes stared up at the sky. A red blossom of blood spread over his chest and trickled from his lips.

Tears stung her eyes as she gently closed his. All my fault. True, she and Quentin had never been the best of friends but she didn’t want him dead. Not really.

Moaning from all around caught her attention. She looked up to see a large section of the East Wing gone, pieces of it now trapping bodies - both dead and alive - in the courtyard below. Watchers unaffected by the blast, and now back in their right minds, worked on moving the heavy pieces of granite off of their comrades. The colored lights and heavy smell of magic quickly dissipated from the air around them only to be replaced by wafts of smoke and the blinking lights of emergency vehicles.

From her left came a strangled sob.

Maria stood up when she saw Crawford approach. His eyes still looked wild despite everyone else seemingly cured of their madness. It seemed he couldn’t tear his eyes away from their fallen leader.

“What have I done?” He moved to kneel next to Quentin but Maria stopped him.

“It’s over,” she soothed. “Others require our help.”

He looked to her with horrified, confused eyes. Clasping his arm, she led him away from death and toward those in need of aide. She prayed this act would be a baby step toward absolution. For both of them.

***

Nobody spoke. In the yard below, rioters were laying down their weapons and making their way back inside. This crisis, at least, was over.

"Why did Spike say he killed Ethan?" Willow asked, breaking the silence.

Giles glanced up at Lydia, and sighed. "He did. But I let him. And I… Spike interrupted. If he hadn't, I would have killed Ethan myself."

"You didn't trust me," said Lydia. She stood at the edge of where the floor had fallen away, hugging herself as she stared out at the scene below. Her hair had mostly fallen out of its bun, and blew across her face. Absently, she pushed it away, to no avail. "You could have told me."

Giles removed his glasses and rubbed his face. He was so weary. They all were. "It wasn't my secret to tell."

"Did you really think that I would take action against Spike?"

"He's a vampire. You're dedicated Council. I couldn't take the chance that you might." He put his glasses back on. "Not for Buffy's sake."

A humorless laugh escaped her. "Protecting Buffy is my job, Rupert. Not that I've been very good at it." She sighed, and dropped her hands to her sides. "You could have told me." She stepped back from the edge and started toward the door.

"Where are you going?" he asked.

"The infirmary. There are going to be wounded who need tending."

Giles got to his feet. "Lydia, wait."

She stopped, but didn't turn back.

"I am sorry about your uncle. Truly."

She half-turned toward him, and nodded. Then she left.

"I killed him," said Willow, still staring at the absence of an outer wall. "You tried to tell me… I was so sure I could win."

Giles went to her and laid a hand on her shoulder. "Ultimately, Bellingham got himself killed. And perhaps I was wrong. Janus left because he was frightened. Of you. Given another chance, maybe you would have won."

"Not gonna get another chance, though. And we're not any closer to saving Buffy."

"We know precisely what's wrong with her, at least." He put his hands in his pockets. "Still, much as I hate to even think it… we should prepare ourselves for the possibility that there is no helping her."

"No."

"Willow--"

"No! Giles, I'm not giving up on her!"

"And I'm not suggesting you do. But we should start thinking about what to do for her if there is no cure. About what she would want."

"What she'd want?" Willow looked at him as though the mere suggestion were a betrayal. And perhaps it was. "She's still in there, Giles. She knows what's happening to her, and she's counting on us. On me!"

"But for how much longer? You said yourself that she's dwindling. How long until there's nothing of Buffy left?"

She shook her head and backed away. "Then that's why we should hurry and find the cure instead of standing around and talking about giving up." She turned and stormed out of the room.

Giles closed his eyes and blew out a long sigh. Then he found a chair and sank into it. For a long time he simply sat, gazing up at what few stars he could see.

Somewhere, he thought he could hear Ethan laughing.

***

Highway 10 stretched from Santa Monica to the city proper. Angel’s Plymouth sped east through the early morning never-quite-dark of L.A., the overhanging streetlights casting the world into sickly amber. Spike hunched in the back seat. His gaze slid past bleached-out asphalt and blank cinderblock walls bordering the freeway, the occasional jagged slashes of graffiti that he couldn’t bother to decipher.

He wished he could keep his head blank, too. Numb. Empty. He’d done a good job of it so far, flipping ‘twixt catatonia and mayhem. Each had its own luxury of mindlessness -- stay still, don’t move, don’t breathe, just keep the bottle moving to his lips and he didn’t have to think. Or lose himself in the movement and motion and the solid thud of fist against flesh and the bright flare of pain and he didn’t have to think.

Because thinking pulled him in. He was balancing on the edge of a black hole, and each individual thought drew him towards the only real thought in his head. The what if she’s dead. She’s dead she’s dead and she’s halfway around the world and she’s dead and she needed him and there’s nothing he can do and she’s dead and oh God what will he do? And fuck it if he’d break down again in the back of Angel’s great metal phallic compensation, so numb. Numb. Don’t think.

“Stay on the freeway.” Cordelia nattering in shotgun. For some reason he’d not paid attention to, she’d hopped into the car at the hotel. Just as Vocabulary Lad sat beside Spike. Apparently El Forehead Grande needed an entourage.

“I was gonna take Western to Beverly-- ” Angel protested.

“Well, don’t.”

“I think I know how to navigate my way around Los Angeles, Cordelia.”

“Yeah?” She smacked him with the back of her hand. “Who in this car lives in Silverlake? Oh right. That would be me. Do you live in Silverlake?”

“Technically, I don’t live anywhere.” A nasal edge crept into Angel’s tone.

“Oh, don’t give me that ‘I’m undead, eternity of suffering and penitence blah blah blah I’m right ‘cause I can whine more.’ Because unless you spent one of your brooding decades memorizing the Thomas Guide? Stay on the damn highway.”

Spike watched a great behemoth of an SUV pass them on the left. This blood thing. This demon blood that, according to his currently sulking grandsire, could pull a Blue Fairy and make him human again. He wanted it. The possibility of heartbeat and breath and necessary, fragile life. He just wanted it. Not to run headlong into, as fast as possible. But to show it to Buffy and say, “Look, this is what I can be.” If she wanted it too. Because he -- the moment he’d been told this Mohra ex machina existed, he knew he had to do it. Had to try for it.

And if she was…(don’t think it don’t think it don’t) if he got back, and there was no them to make this decision?

Bugger it. Most like, he’d do it anyway. Wouldn’t he?

“Okay, right at the light. Not the stop sign, you mo, the light. You know, red flashy, green flashy?”

“You want to drive, Cordelia?”

“Yeah, right,” she scoffed. “Like you would ever let someone else get behind the wheel. That’d be fun. Mr. Control Freak, in the passenger seat. I could watch you clutch fist-size chunks out of the dashboard, and then your head would explode.”

“… shut up…”

“Mmm, your brains all over my Gucci blouse. Yeah. Looking forward to it. Now the next left, dumbass.”

Every reason to want to live again. Drivel like -- like better to have five minutes of a world with her in it than an eternity without her. That he’d been pulled too far into life already -- better to just join the living than to have those connections pulled away, like hooks yanked from his flesh. The only plus in the vampire column? Eternity. And he’d done that. Not all it was cracked up to be.

He found it so tempting to make bargains with himself. “If I do this, if I find this Mohra and get the blood, whatever I have to do, she’ll be there at the end.” The conquering hero returns, the girl has to be there with open arms, right? But he couldn’t. This wasn’t about deserving -- if it were, Buffy wouldn’t be chained, or losing herself, or in bloodyfucking London without him and dying.

So, yeh. Not about deserving.

And he didn’t get to earn the happily ever after for his girl.

And fate was a bitch.

So he’d do this. Find the demon, get the blood, all of it. He would. Separate from her. And just, the whole time, every second, every moment, every fiber of his being, he’d…

He’d hope.

“Spike. Spike?” Wes shook his arm to get his attention. “We’re here.”

Spike looked up to see they’d parked in front of their destination. Which was, apparently, a standalone shop built to resemble a vacation cabin, complete with whitewashed front porch and a sign hanging from the eave: Out of This World Adventures.

“Why do I get the horrid feeling that isn’t hyperbole?” Wes mused, stepping out of the Plymouth.

“A travel agency?” Angel turned to Cordelia. “Lemme see those directions.”

“This is it!” she protested. “This address, I double-checked. And we’re supposed to see a … Mukalakaaaah, I give up on pronouncing this one. There. That guy.”

Angel took the paper. “Clearly, that’s Maka-el…qua… You think the place is open?”

“Don’t care,” said Spike. He vaulted from the back seat and up the few steps. Then a quick boot to the door. “Yes. It’s open.”

A pockmarked, sunburnt, beaky young man stood up from his desk as they walked through the door. Clad in an old tee-shirt, khaki shorts, and Tevas, he resembled half a million other unwashed hemp-pushing Veggieburgers slouching around southern California. Save for the slight lilac sheen of his complexion and the head full of porcupine quills.

“Hey,” he offered. “Welcome to Out of This World Adventures, can I help you?”

“So it is a travel agency.” Cordelia made a face at a brochure, which showed a series of exploding polyps. “A demon travel agency.”

“Not even.” The kid grinned. “We’re the premiere pandimensional extreme adventure tour guides. Think Everest is challenging? We’ve got a tour planned to the Ramewer dimension, with four different 20,000-meter peaks that make Aconcagua look like a stroll through the park. Like white-water rafting? We can take you to dimensions with Class-7 rapids - Class-8s, even, but you have to sign a we’re-not-responsible-for-your-grisly-death waiver. Cool, huh?”

She looked supremely unimpressed. “Sorry, if my vacation doesn’t involve beach, sun, sloth and mai-tais -- in that order? So not interested.”

Spike took a step forward. “We were told we could find a bloke here. A seer.”

“Yeah, we’re looking for…” Angel consulted the papers he’d snatched. “Mah-kwa-le…”

“Maqal’qtesheshq?” Quills shook his head. “I’m sorry, he’s out of the office right now.”

“And he’s due back?” Wes asked.

“Dude, could be months. He coordinates travel from a lot of different dimensions, and he just spent a while on this one.” The boy shrugged. “He’s not scheduled any time soon. Can I take a message for you?”

“Well, Spike?” Angel turned to him, a smug expression beating out the usual mix of stroppy and constipated. “This is your deal. What now?”

“Perhaps I can help? We have an entire line of tour options for the undead clientele.” Quills pointed out a rack of pamphlets and fliers. “There’s a trip scheduled to Loczkielo dimension. Diving in the Rohkegh Blood Sea, under the tripartite moon, dining on the aortal spray of baby eeshtay seals? Leaves in three weeks. It’s a vampire paradise, man.”

“Look,” Spike said. “Don’t care about the pitch, don’t care about the boss. Looking for Mohra demons. Got a tip your boss could help us out. That’s all. Mohras. Know anything?”

“Oh, dude, sorry. You just missed ‘em. We had eight Mohras here for some trophy hunting.”

“Trophy hunting?” Angel glowered. “Hunting what? Humans?”

“Jeez, as if. Humans, despite what the Schwarzenegger film genre would tell you? Not that challenging a prey item. Usually our clientele go after vampires, werewolves, the occasional yeti. These Mohra, they’re kinda nuts. Using just their hands, they went out in the ocean. Bagged a couple great whites, an orca or two. One of ‘em? Got this HUGE giant squid, dude, musta been like eighty feet long!”

“Huh.” Angel stood there. Put his hands in his pockets. “I didn’t think Mohra were amphibious.”

“They’re not.” Quills turned back to Spike. “But yeah, they took their trophy teeth and tentacles back to their home dimension, like, three-four days ago. We’ll probably get another batch in, like, six months?”

Spike shook his head. “No good. What about, can we book a whatsit, to go there?”

“A tour? Yeah, man, I don’t think so,” the kid apologized. “It’s, we’re just not set up to do that. Mohra isn’t exactly your primo tourist destination. It’s kind of…”

“Inhospitable?” Wes supplied.

“Ugly.” The kid sat back at his desk. “The place is just an aesthetic dump. So, again, no go. Sorry, dude.”

Angel took another moment, then made his decision. “Right, then, we’ll be back in six months.” He headed for the door, Cordelia and Wes instinctively following.

Spike didn’t move. After all this, the singing and the soul-baring and having hope dangled in front of him only to be told to sit on his arse and wait? “No. Not waiting. Not gonna fanny about half a year on this. We’re doing it. You--” he took a step towards the kid, “Hedgehog, your boss. He’s a dimension-hopper, right?”

“Right.”

“So how does he know where to go? Which dimension? Is it instinctive? He have a homing beacon shoved in his duodenum?”

“Well, no,” the kid replied. “He uses a series of complex interdimensional plots, star charts, research on planar movement, Dante’s Inferno--”

“So he has a map.”

“Well,” the boy huffed, “if you want to grossly oversimplify the complexity of interdimensional travel -- ”

“Yeh. I really do. This map. I’ll buy it off you.”

“I don’t -- I, dude, I can’t do that without authorization. It’s intellectual property of the company.” Quills stammered. “I could get fired.”

Spike gritted his teeth. “Fine. A copy. Can I buy a copy.”

“I… I don’t know, I… you sure I can’t book you on a cruise? There are plenty of dimensions where the sun won’t fry a vampire, you could get that tan you’ve always wanted.” The computer at his desk pinged. “I--just a sec, I gotta get that e-mail.”

He swiveled to his monitor and fiddled with a mouse while Spike fought the urge to pace. Pace and throw things. Send a desk right through that picture window, for starters… Torch the sodding brochures.

“Huh.” The kid said.

“Huh?” Spike spun towards him. “What huh?”

“Well, my boss? Maqal’qtesheshq?” Quills waited for nods from the rest of the room. “Like you said, he is a seer, even if he’s not here right now. And he must’ve known you were coming.”

He spun the monitor so Spike could see it. The message read, in its entirety: “Spike: $450. And 5 cents a copy.”

Success. One challenge down. It gave him a bit of a giddy feeling, like the floor under his feet was on a tilt-a-whirl.

“Right. So,” the kid turned to the shelves behind him, and pulled out a three-inch white binder. “There you go! It can’t leave the office, but the copier’s in the corner. And how will you be paying for this? We take cash, local checks, and all major credit cards.”

Spike reached for his wallet as Angel grabbed the binder. “Cordy?”

“What?” she looked at her boss. “Oh, come on! I have to make the copies? Why me?”

“I can’t do double-sided copies.”

She glared at Wes, who replied, “The light gives me a headache.”

“Fine. FINE.” Cordelia huffed on her way to the copier. “You are so paying overtime for this.”

Quills hunched over the credit card machine, carefully punching buttons. Meanwhile, Angel crossed over to Spike to mutter at him. “Spike, what good is knowing where this place is? You have no way to get there!”

Spike rolled his eyes. “Come on, I bet Windbag-Ponce here can open a portal.”

“Lovely,” Wes replied. “But yes, the issue with interdimensional travel is rarely the journey itself; it is rather securing one’s desired destination. I can think of a good half-dozen rituals to punch open a portal, and another twenty if you don’t mind being inside-out when we get there. With the proper coordinates, this junket is less dangerous than a trip through Compton.”

“So, we go to Mohraville,” Spike said. “Mohras got to be pretty thick on the ground there. We find one, do our business and we’re back.”

“I see,” Wes nodded. “If Mohammed won’t come to the mountain…”

The next part? The fighting? That was easy. “Then we go to Mohammed, kick the shit out of him, hogtie him, and drag his ass back to the bloody mountain.”

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