DL 2.10

Aug. 13th, 2005 02:09 am
[identity profile] eee1313.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] dancing_lessons_archive
Episode Ten: Casualties

by Alkibiadhs
46 & 2 by Tool
The Dogs of War by Pink Floyd

Shoutouts: First of all, a gigantic, spectacular shoutout to AurelioZen, without whom none of this would have been possible. Second, mad props to georgevna, cousinjean, and the rest of the DL crew, whose commentary and hardass criticism made this much much better than it ever deserved to be. Finally, big love to my girlfriend, who had to put up with a lot of missing out on me while I labored over this thing.


*

Officer Benjamin Grant was having a bad night.
This was not a particularly uncommon experience for him. It wasn't easy being a cop to begin with, but despite the occasional horrors he'd witnessed in Boston, nothing had prepared him for the experience of life in the Sunnydale PD.
Several weeks ago, a mere two days after being given his job as a detective, he had been assigned to investigate the worst display of mass carnage he had ever witnessed. The Bronze nightclub had been brutally attacked, and its patrons had been slaughtered to the last child.
Well, almost the last, he amended. But both the Bronze attack's sole survivor and his family were now missing, and their home had been destroyed. It had not taken very long for Benjamin Grant to come to the conclusion that there was a connection between the two events, and that there was a further connection between them and the staggering number of missing persons cases currently under investigation.
Of course, the reason Grant had reached that conclusion was that the missing persons cases were not being investigated. Even the Bronze murders were being systematically left alone. Worse, they were being buried. How many had died in the shootings at Columbine? Twenty? Thirty? Nearly a third of Sunnydale's tenth grade had been annihilated under mysterious circumstances in a single night, and the story hadn't circulated out of the local papers.
A more trusting man might have begun to question his coworkers about these things. How was it even possible to bury a story like that, one might ask. Or more innocently, he might have asked about the progress of any one of the dozens of cases being meticulously ignored by his colleagues.
Grant had not done so for three reasons. First, because he believed that if the department so much as suspected him of being a whistle-blower, he might not be able to continue his investigation, and he was too new to know who to trust. Second, because he believed that if he was prevented from investigating, there was no one else who would do so, and the victims of the Bronze disaster deserved better. And third, because he was a proud, stubborn bastard when he wanted to be.
In a way, the realization that he would have no help in his investigation had been liberating. He had enjoyed feeling out the situation, reaching his own conclusions. It was surprisingly easy to do so once you accepted that almost everything the Sunnydale police claimed was true about its spectacular backlog of unsolved crimes was a lie.
Tonight, however, was a bad night. Tonight, his conclusions were being confirmed.
***
Grant's method had been simple: pick a missing person, and stake out their usual haunts. He had chosen Melanie Davis because...well, he had chosen her because in her photograph she had been pretty in a sad sort of way that reminded him of his ex-wife. Grant chose not to think too hard about what that might imply.
After two fruitless nights of investigating, he found her walking down a nature trail she had jogged along every day for the past three years according to a neighbor. There was no moon in the sky, and though it was not quite pitch black, it was very dark, dark enough that Grant had to call her name to be sure.
"Melanie? Ms. Davis?"
The woman turned, and he shined a flashlight at her. She blinked in the light, and smiled at him.
"Yes, I am. Who are you?"
"Ben. Ben Grant. I'm a detective. Listen, you've been in our missing persons files for awhile now..."
She did not respond, simply advancing on him slowly, smiling a smile that seemed now less melancholy than malicious. Grant did not move.
"Have I?" She said finally. "And so you've come to look for me?"
"Your family..." he said, nearly choking on the words. He did not want to be talking to this woman. He wanted to run, or to reach for his gun and fire until she could no longer stand there and look at him this way. Instead, he maintained the pretense. "They're very worried. And it's...it isn't safe for a woman to be walking out at night alone like this. Sunnydale is a small town, but..."
"How gallant," she said, taking a step too close. Grant did not move away. "I appreciate your concern, officer. After all, there are so many dangerous things in the night."
"Things like me," she added.
Her grin made a mockery of her face, and in that instant, he believed.
Despite all his logic, despite all the bodies with bite marks and drained blood at the Bronze, Benjamin Grant had, in some part of his mind, refused to accept what he was seeing. He had treated this investigation as a game, a puzzle. And that arrogance was going to get him killed.
He started to step backwards and found himself knocked to the ground instead. The side of his head ached, and the taste of blood filled his mouth. What had once been Melanie Davis's face twisted into a bestial, fanged horror. The grin did not change.
She kicked him in the gut, and he rolled, ending on his back in a motionless heap. He thought he could hear her chuckling to herself.
The vampire knelt down next to him. "Thank you for coming, officer. I really wasn't sure where my next meal was going to..."
The thing that had once been Melanie Davis cut off with a shriek as officer Benjamin Grant threw the holy water he had been clutching in his right hand directly into her face. She staggered backwards, and he drew his gun, emptying the chamber into her flailing form as he rose to his feet. As he had expected, the bullets did little more than force the creature to the ground, but it was enough--she was simply too injured to fight. With far less hesitation than he'd expected, Grant drew the sharpened Louisville Slugger he had brought inside his overcoat and plunged it into her chest.
He stared at the ashes for nearly a minute before he finally passed out.
***
Riley Finn found that night jogging provided excellent exercise. He found it peaceful, except for the occasional vampire attacks, and those provided opportunities for him to vent his bountiful rage. If he had been of sounder mind, he might have noticed that the battles he had fought of late had been too easy, that the vampires he was fighting were newly risen and incompetent, but he had not noticed.
He was beginning to realize that it was not healthy for him here. Not because of the monsters--Riley felt confident that he could handle whatever the supernatural might throw at him--but because it was becoming clear that he simply did not belong. At first, he had assumed that the vampire sleeping with his former girlfriend was plotting something, something from which he would have to rescue her. But he had watched them together. Much as he hated Spike, the integrity of Buffy's affection for the creature could not be denied. So long as that was true, Riley could do nothing. More, it seemed that neither the Slayer nor her friends felt it was any of Riley's business anymore.
Having accepted that, what he should have done was to go to the magic shop and reinstate the friendships he'd given up when he left. He should have offered his services to the "Scooby Gang" and helped them in their fight once again. Even distracted as he was, he could tell that something bad was on its way. Something bad was always on its way in Sunnydale, after all.
Failing that, he should simply have left, joined another strike team, taken on another mission. Either way, he should have accepted Buffy's happiness and moved on with his life.
But he couldn't.
It simply wasn't fair. He was the good guy. He had done everything he could to be good enough, all his life. For his parents, his teachers, for Maggie and the Initiative, and for Buffy, the first girl he'd ever truly loved. And he had been more than good enough. Riley had excelled in every academic subject he had ever studied. He tried as hard as he could to be helpful, loyal, and supportive to those he loved. And if he had to, he could break an opponent twice his own size and strength in half with his bare hands.
In return, the Initiative had turned him into a freak and very nearly killed him, the government saw him as a pawn, and the girl had left him for the walking dead. He deserved better.
It was with these thoughts circling his mind that Riley failed to notice the prone form of Sunnydale's most dissident police officer, tripped, and very nearly fell on his face.
***
At nearly midnight that same night, a vampire crouched on the roof outside the Slayer's window and looked at the stars.
Spike was in a brooding mood. He often had trouble sleeping at night, but tonight was particularly bad. Tonight was the night of the new moon, and despite the tip he and Faith had received two weeks ago, there had been no sign of the Order of Aurelius, aside from the slowly increasing level of vampire activity. Even that, however, was far lower than it had been when Spike had first arrived in Sunnydale.
Of course, at the time, I was leading the Order.
He had probably thwarted their plans to resurrect the Master by killing their translator. There wasn't anyone else for miles who was remotely qualified to be reading the books of Aurelius, at least not one who had mysteriously vanished. Giles had been extra cautious of late as well, although the Watcher wasn't sure if he himself was capable of translating the books.
Buffy, for her part, had shown no sign of slowing down in her slaying duties. She had taken out a good number of vampires in the past few days. Perhaps whatever Giles had said to her had straightened her out.
Or maybe it was just that when someone's tryin' to rip out your throat, it's a bit harder to give 'em the benefit of the doubt.
Given all of that, Spike should have been content, but he wasn't. He still wasn't sure if Buffy was capable of the kind of ruthlessness she needed to do her job any more. Given the tiniest bit of moral ambiguity, she might falter, and if she did, she would die. Worse, despite all logic, he couldn't bring himself to believe they'd truly balked the Order's plans. There was something in air. His soul was demon. It could sense evil in a manner as inexplicable as it was undeniable, and there was evil at work tonight
It felt good.
At one time, this might have bothered him, but Spike had come to accept who and what he was. There was and would always be a bit of a monster in him. He could control it, use it to do good, but he could not deny that a part of him relished the thought of the conflict he sensed.
Spike relaxed his mind, closed his eyes, allowed himself to simply feel. Usually, such meditation would calm him, but he was wired, and vampires' senses are sharp. And there was someone behind him.
Without a thought, Spike turned and leapt through the open window in one motion, switching to game face as he did so. He growled as he toppled his target to the floor.
"Tightly wound much?" it said.
He let is face shift back to its human features and opened his mouth to apologize. Buffy put a finger across his lips.
"Shh," she told him. She shifted beneath him in a way that made him forget his embarrassment. "It's okay," she continued, her right hand toying with the muscles on the back of his neck. "You've got me right where I wanted you."
He kissed her then, and for a time, whatever darkness waited for them that night disappeared.
***
"There should be a cage."
Darla scowled. Not for the first time, she wished she could afford herself the luxury of killing the creature before her. The demon, which called itself Aton, was of a line so rare not even Dracula knew of its origins. It was tall, seven feet at least, and ancient robes covered its body so completely that only its long, leathery claws had been seen by any of the vampires, and that only while it pored over the Aurelian texts.
And for that alone it should be killed. The Books of Aurelius were sacred--no one outside the Order--demon or human--ought to be allowed to read their mysteries. Unfortunately, there was no one left in the order who could, and they were running out of time. Despite Dracula's tricks, and despite their continued success at recruitment, they were not ready. The vampires they'd given unlife to were simply too new to face the Slayer, particularly given that there now seemed to be two of them, plus a powerful witch and, of course, William. If the Master did not rise soon, they would be found, and Darla was not fool enough to believe that the Order would survive the ensuing battle without him.
"There will be no cage," Darla replied evenly. "The Master must believe that we have faith in him."
Aton turned towards her. Its hood obscured its face so completely that Darla wondered for a moment whether there was really anything behind it.
"You were raised once with a similar spell, were you not?"
"I was."
"In a cage, no doubt?"
Darla felt her features begin to change as she let out a growl of frustration. A familiar mist coalesced between her and the demon.
"I must advise you to have a care with your tone, Aton." Dracula's voice merely hinted at the steel behind his calm. "Darla's memories of her time with Wolfram and Hart are not pleasant ones."
"Perhaps," the creature replied, "I was simply curious."
"I warn you not to provoke her," Dracula's tone hardened. "Or me."
It seemed to Darla that Aton was grinning, although its face remained obscure. "It is my role to spread chaos."
"Then do so elsewhere," Dracula told it. "We have your translation."
"But you will need me to perform the ritual."
"I can do it without you," Darla said. She was uncomfortable with Dracula's intervention. It was helpful, but at the same time, it ate away at her authority. And she did not have to wonder whether or not the elder vampire knew it.
"You can work the spell," Aton admitted, "but you will need me, nonetheless. Particularly," it added, "if you have no cage."
"As you will, demon," Dracula told it. "But you will depart, immediately, once this is over."
It nodded. "Of course."
***
Drusilla studied her work.
Six mortals and six vampires stood in a circle around her, bound in chains. At their feet, a circle had been carved into the stone floor. Soon, she knew, their blood would flow into the circle, twist its way in intricate shapes into the center, where it would mingle, and then...oh, it would be beautiful.
"You must be such happy little children," she told her captives, pacing slowly around them and inspecting them one by one. "You're going to make it all better. Everything's gone all rotten, see. Gran doesn't like me very much, I know it. And I know another secret, do you want to hear?" She raised the head of one of her human captives, holding her by the hair.
The woman moaned. "Please...I have a son...he's only four..."
Drusilla slapped her, knocking the woman unconscious. "Naughty child! Now you'll never hear my secret! Do you want to know?" she asked a bound vampire, who wisely nodded.
She leaned close, speaking in a loud stage-whisper into the vampire's ear. "The prince has no fun at a tea party and must have all the little cakes for himself."
"We're so lost," Drusilla continued, "all of us. We say we have a plan but it's all tiddlywinks and dried flowers. We need grandaddy back. We need him, or it's all dust. It's all dust!"
She screamed the last word, falling to her knees in the center of the circle. "And my sweet William," she said with a sob, "how I miss my William."
***
"Are you all right?" Riley asked.
"If I said 'yes', how much credibility would I have?" Grant replied.
"Not a lot," Riley admitted. "You've got a hell of a bruise on the side of your head. Might be a concussion."
"I fell."
"Now you're lying to me," Riley said. "That's going to cost you in the credibility department."
"Son," Grant told him, "You don't want to know what happened."
"Mind if I take a guess?"
Grant shrugged.
"Okay," Riley paused for a moment. "I found you lying unconscious in the middle of the night, clutching a wooden stake and covered in ashes. I'd have to say you just slew a vampire."
There was a long silence. Finally, Grant asked "Who are you?"
"Riley Finn. Who are you?"
"Benjamin Grant. I'm a cop."
"Should I be calling you 'officer'?"
"I'm off duty. Way off."
Riley nodded. "This the first time you ever met up with a vampire?"
"You seem awfully casual about this," Grant told him.
"I'm kind of hard to surprise." Riley paused for a moment. "So," he asked, "you came out here looking for trouble, didn't you? I mean, you were prepared."
"I was...I'm not crazy. I had reasons."
"I'd just advise you to be careful, officer. Vampires are a little out of your league."
"I told you," Grant said, "I'm off duty. Call me Ben. Or Benjamin. Not," he added, "Benji. And it's my job to protect people."
"I thought you said you were off duty."
"No one likes a smartass, son."
Riley looked a bit ashamed at that. "I'm sorry, it's just...this town is cursed. I don't understand how civilians can live here at all."
Grant studied him. "Are you military?"
Riley nodded. "Sometimes."
"What branch?"
Riley just smiled at him.
"You could tell me, but then you'd have to kill me?" Grant guessed.
"Something like that."
"How long have you known about all this?" he asked.
"About two years now."
Grant stared at him for a moment. "Why haven't the people been warned?"
"I can't speak for the government," Riley said.
"All right," Grant sighed, "why didn't you warn them?"
Riley shook his head. "People wouldn't believe me. Would you have, if you hadn't seen it yourself?"
"I'm still not sure I believe it," Grant admitted. "But that isn't the point. People are dying and...worse than dying. Somebody has to do something. The police won't even talk about it."
"I thought you were the police."
"I'm new."
"Look," Riley told him, "Somebody is doing something about it. I can take you to them, but tomorrow, okay? You need to go home. It isn't safe out here."
Grant wasn't convinced. "How am I supposed to contact you?"
"I'll find you."
"You'd better," Grant replied.
"I'm not going to disappear on you," Riley told him. "Trust me."
Reluctantly, the detective agreed, and Riley walked him to his car.
***
In a cavernous room lit only by a single torch, Darla began to chant.
She had the scrolls in front of her, but she did not need them--almost as soon as she began, she could feel the magic taking hold, making her its vessel. The preparations had been perfect, the translation immaculate. Now, like a thing alive, the magic worked its will.
Within the circle of power, Drusilla drew an ornate dagger from her white robes. Slowly, she knelt before the first of the sacrifices, cutting deeply into the vein in the vampire's left calf. Heedless of its screams, she moved on to the Master's next gift, and the next, cutting each in turn as Darla continued her chant. Above, Dracula and the thing called Aton observed the proceedings in silence.
As the screams began to fade, the torchlight dimmed, until finally there was no light at all, and no sound but the words of the spell.
***
"I'm not bloody doing this."
"Spike, it's the middle of the day, we need to go to the magic shop, and there is no sewer access in my house."
"Yes, love, I realize, but we could just take my car."
"Your car," Buffy told him, "is ugly. Besides, I like to drive."
"You do, at that," Spike agreed, with a smirk implying he was not talking about cars.
Buffy stuck her tongue out at him.
"Hey, guys," Dawn said, entering the kitchen. "Big Slayer meeting this morning?"
"Mm-hm," Buffy replied. "Giles wanted us all to compare notes or something."
"Can I come?"
"Yeah, we were just about to take my car over to the magic shop," Spike told her.
Dawn blinked. "Why not take the SUV?"
"Because I have to ride in a sodding box in the back!"
"It's better than running around with a blanket over your head shouting obscenities," Buffy pointed out.
"Although much less funny," Dawn added.
"You Summers women are all alike, you know that?"
"That's why you love us," Buffy replied.
"Well, yeah." Spike smiled at her. "I do, at that."
"Good." She kissed him. "Now, into the box!"
***
Giles was in a very good mood.
Business was good, his Slayers seemed relatively sane, and having Xander to help him with his duties as a Watcher had been helpful. Giles was aware that his skills as an instructor were not up to the same levels as his own teachers back in England, but Xander had been an apt pupil, showing far more ability for academia than he ever had in High School. Most of all, the business of the wedding was overcoming the usual paranoia of life on the Hellmouth. Anya's bliss was evident, and although it had frightened a couple of customers away, he wouldn't have traded it for anything.
Giles's contentment was not enough, however, to make him overlook the facts. Things had been quiet for too long. In Sunnydale, that was never a good thing.
"Anya, how are we doing?"
"Three statuettes, one crystal ball, and fourteen bags of newt's eyes. Oh! And a fertility doll. You know, if we didn't shut down every Saturday morning, we could make a lot more money."
"You are paid by the hour, you know," he told her.
"You see?"
"I don't see that there's a reason for concern. I did just give you a raise, and besides, Xander is making enough for both of you."
"But we're getting married Giles."
"I thought that was all taken care of?"
Anya looked amazed that she needed to explain herself. "The wedding is, but marriage is a door to a whole new world of expenses. We're going to have to get a house, and children, and they're more expensive than you'd think, Giles. I looked it up."
"You're planning to have children?" The thought of Anya as a mother was truly fascinating.
"Well, of course," she replied. "I haven't talked to Xander about it yet because he starts to breathe funny whenever I mention them. But I want them." She paused for a moment, choosing her words carefully. "I haven't had the most positive existence, Giles. I had one bad relationship and spent a thousand years as a vengeance demon. Then when I became human again, the first thing I tried to do was go back to mass destruction. Until I met Xander, and the rest of you...I don't think my life meant very much. And I think that's because before that I didn't know how much life could mean. But now I think I do, and knowing that...I want children. Does that make sense?"
"I think that's very profound," he said.
"So you see why it's important that..."
"But," he added, "I'm not going to leave the shop open. We have to discuss battle strategy and our researches into the occult, and we can't have just anybody..."
He trailed off as Riley Finn and a man he had never seen before entered the shop. Riley looked uncomfortable but otherwise healthy. The other man, however, looked as though he had been through hell. He looked to be around Giles's age. His black hair showed no signs of grey, but his skin was weatherbeaten and tough-looking except where a nasty bruise had covered much of the right side of his face. He wore a dirty tan overcoat, a white shirt, corduroy pants, and a very ugly tie. Giles could only assume he was a policeman.
"Riley," he said, finally. "Hello. Who is this?"
"Hi," Riley said. "Giles, Anya, this is Ben Grant. He's a detective."
"Hello, officer!" Anya said brightly. "We are very pleased to meet you."
"Charmed," Grant told her, actually managing a smile.
"We don't do anything illegal here," she added.
"Good to know."
"What can we do for you, officer?" Giles asked.
"I need to know everything you can tell me about vampires and this town."
The Watcher looked at Riley, who shrugged, then back at Grant. "Well," he said, "How much time do you have, exactly?"
***
Deep underground, a man awoke.
He was naked, but this did not bother him, for he was not ashamed of his body. There was no light, but he knew he was beautiful. He remembered this. He could not recall what else he might be, or how he had come to be here, but he would. He was certain of that.
Above him, a torch flared to life, illuminating his surroundings. He was standing in the center of a circle, it seemed. A circle carved in the stone floor of a cavern.
"Master?"
He turned to see the speaker. The honorific was familiar--he had called himself by it once, it seemed, but he could not remember. The woman who had called to him was blond and pretty. Her name, he recalled, was Darla, and he had known her for a very long time. There was another woman in the room with him, a brunette. She was Drusilla, and there was something distasteful about her. Above him...
Above him stood another man he knew, Tepes, and something else.
"Master, can you speak?"
Darla's voice again, but he ignored it. He was fascinated by the creature in the red hooded robe. It called itself Aton. It called itself Aton, but it had another name, and he knew it...
"Master, do you know us?"
Yes. Yes, he did. The man began to feel fear.
"Darla," he said.
"He remembers," she said proudly. She looked at him carefully, almost greedily. "Master, I never knew you had been so..."
"Restrain him," Aton said. Darla looked up at it, bewildered.
Drusilla spoke up. "Grandaddy's head is all full of light, Gran. It's awful. Make it stop."
"Unholy ones," the man growled. "Thou shalt be cleansed."
He leapt at the one called Drusilla, catching her by her hair. He held her firm and began to speak in a language which had not been voiced in millennia. Drusilla screamed. Trying to come to her compatriot's aid, Darla got within three feet of the man before her knees buckled and she, too, began screaming in pain.
"What is happening?" Dracula demanded.
"You did not use a cage," Aton replied.
"Tell me how to stop this or I will have your cursed hide for...urrk." Dracula's threat was cut off as Aton's claws gripped him implacably by the throat.
"Do not threaten me, princeling," the creature hissed. "I promised you my help, and you shall have it. You would be unwise to make me regret my generosity."
Aton dropped him then, and turned its attention to the man in the circle. Drusilla and Darla were no longer screaming, as they had lost consciousness. The man, too, had stopped speaking.
"Aton," he said.
"That is not my name," the thing replied.
"I will be thy death, old one."
"You haven't the strength. You will simply die. Again," it told him.
He began to speak again, in different words and a different language, and Aton moved, crossing the cavern to where the man who had once been the Master stood. The creature knocked him unconscious in one vicious blow.
Behind Aton, a mist solidified.
"I suggest you turn him now," Aton said. "He will not give you another chance."
"Thank you for stopping him," Dracula said, "I must admit, I do not understand what occurred."
"That," Aton replied, "is because you understand nothing of the Master, or even the Order of Aurelius. And do not thank me, princeling," the demon added. "I was too late." With that, Aton stepped back into shadow and was gone.
Dracula was deeply unsettled. Whatever Aton had been, it was more than a demon scribe. It spoke as though it had known the Master when he was human. There could be only very few beings who could make that claim. And what had it meant 'too late'? Too late for what? Dracula frowned.
"Well, 'Master,'" he said to the prone figure beneath him. "What secrets have you been hiding all this time?" The Prince of Darkness tilted the man's head back, bit down, and drank.
***
Deep underground, a man awoke...
"Agh!" The Slayer very nearly drove the SUV through the magic shop wall.
"Buffy? You all right?" her sister asked.
"Fine. I just thought I saw something."
"Like your life flashing before your eyes? You know, brakes have replaced bricks as a preferred method of stopping."
"Yeah," Buffy agreed. "Sorry. Now c'mon, we have to go get my boyfriend out of the back."
***
Deep underground, a man awoke...
"Ow! Fuck!"
Faith looked around wildly for a moment before realizing there was nothing there. Well, nothing except a little kid and his mom across the street. The woman was giving her a dirty look.
Great. Now I've got to deal with the guilt of being a potty-mouth on top of everything else.
For just a second there, she had seen something. It had been important, whatever it was. But now...
Whatever. Probably just stayed up too late dusting vamps again.
Faith continued on her way.
***
The day was getting off to a rough start.
"Well," Spike said, getting to his feet, "Look what the cat dragged in. What are you doing here, mate?"
Grant and Riley were standing with Giles near the counter. Riley didn't say anything in response. Finally, Grant spoke. "Why is he in a box?"
"Skin condition." Spike told him. "Giles, who is this?"
"He's in a box because he catches fire," Anya told him from behind the cash register. "Ben, this is Spike. Spike, Ben Grant."
"So he's the vampire?" Grant asked, looking at Giles, who nodded.
"Okay, I'm already lost," Buffy said. "What's going on here?"
"Who's he?" Dawn asked.
"Detective Grant is with the Sunnydale Police Department," Giles explained. "He's had a rather unpleasant experience with a vampire, and Riley brought him here for an explanation."
"How much did you tell him?" Buffy asked.
"I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't pretend I'm not here," Grant told her. "He told me a lot. You must be Buffy. The Vampire Slayer."
"That's me," she said.
The door opened. "You can all relax," Xander said as he came in, "for the Xan-Man has arrived, and he is ready to kick some monster...hey! What's with the law enforcement?"
"Am I wearing a sign?" Grant asked.
"It's the tie," Spike told him. In a bored voice, the vampire continued. "Xander Ben, Ben Xander. Ben's met a vampire so Giles told him about our little hobby. Everybody up to speed?"
"Hey everybody," Willow smiled as she walked through the open door. "Hey Riley. Who's this?"
***
It took about an hour to settle the confusion. Grant's presence initially worried Buffy, whose experiences with Sunnydale's police had hardly been positive, but when Grant explained how he'd come to be there, she could not fault Riley for bringing him. A little of the truth in Sunnydale could be much more dangerous than none at all. Faith, for her part, had been indifferent, until Grant mentioned the missing persons cases.
"Hey, that kinda rings a bell with something I've been thinking about lately," she said. She stood up from the stairs which led to the shop's loft, where she had been lounging.
"Yeah?" Xander asked. "What do you mean?"
She sat down at the table next to him. "Well normally, there aren't that many unexplained disappearances in Sunnydale. I mean, people think there are, 'cause they're not on the force, but when I was working with the Mayor, they always found the bodies and closed the case. The just never told anyone about it. Still works that way, am I right?"
Grant nodded, grimacing. Faith smirked at him.
"I've been cuttin' down vamps right and left the last two weeks, and I dunno...I'm good, but I'm not perfect. These kills...they've been wicked smooth. It's too easy."
Buffy nodded. "I've noticed it too. I figured I was just lucky, but..."
"Sounds like somebody's building an army," Xander said. "Damn."
"Well how do we stop it?" Willow asked. "I mean, we don't even know where they are."
"It's probably too late already," Spike told her. "If they're really building their numbers, and they're not complete sodding gits, then what we've been seeing lately has just been the ones who didn't want to stick with the order."
"How many missing persons cases have accumulated in the past several weeks, would you say?" Giles asked Grant.
The detective shrugged. "I don't know. A lot. Maybe a hundred."
The Watcher turned to his Slayers. "And how many vampires have you slain in the same time."
"Maybe fifteen?" Buffy offered.
"Twenty-three," Faith said evenly. Behind her, Buffy made a face.
"Leaving about sixty," Giles said flatly.
"And the way..." Dawn said. "The way it happened with Doug's father. He came back for his family. If more of them have been doing that."
"You're saying we could have sixty vampires plus however many immediate family members they have?" Grant asked the girl. She nodded. "Then it's worse than that," the detective told them. "A lot worse. The number of missing persons cases on file isn't representative of the number of cases there actually are in any police department. And in this town, if the cops can bury a report, they do it."
"What's the worst case scenario here?" Xander asked.
"Give me a second," Willow told him. She had turned on the computer and was punching numbers into it. "Um, okay...if we're thinking this recruitment push started two weeks ago, I think the most they could have is five hundred."
"Good lord," Giles said.
"Yeah, well...that's if it started two weeks ago. If it started a week earlier, or a month ago...."
"Out with it, Will," Buffy told her.
"Five thousand. They could have made five thousand vampires."
"Bollocks," Spike told her.
"Spike, it's just statistics..."
"There aren't five thousand. Vampires are predators, and they have to keep themselves hidden. There's not enough food or enough space in this town for that many."
"Not if they're gonna use 'em all as cannon fodder," Faith told him, resting a leg on the table.
"That's pretty bloody sick." The dark Slayer didn't reply, but put her foot back on the floor when Xander nudged it.
"Shouldn't we have been attacked by now, if that's true?" Anya asked.
"Not if they're waiting for something. Or someone," Buffy said.
"Buffy, I told you, we killed their translator. They can't do the spell," Spike assured her. "We checked all over California. Anyone with the background to translate those books is safe and sound. The Master's not coming back."
"Couldn't they just get a demon to do it?" Anya asked him.
"Well they could do it, yeah, but the books of the Order are sacred. Not even other lines of vampires are allowed to read them. They'd have to be completely arrogant, blinkered, and desperate to...oh sodding hell," Spike finished, realizing what he was saying.
"If this 'Master' person is coming," Grant asked, "How long before he sets this army loose on the town?"
"When Wolfram and Hart resurrected Darla in Los Angeles, it was months before she gained the strength to be a credible threat," Giles said.
Buffy shook her head. "That's not good enough. We need to start getting ready now. We need to be ready now."
"But Benji," Spike told the cop, "I wouldn't worry too much about the town. If the Master comes back, he's only going to have two things on his mind."
"And those are?"
"First, he's going to want to kill Buffy and anyone who's with her for revenge," Spike told him. "Then," the vampire added, "he's going to open the Hellmouth."
"The Hellmouth," Grant repeated. "And what does that do?"
"That," Giles told him, "destroys the world."
***
When the meeting ended, Riley took Buffy aside.
"Can we talk?"
"For a minute," she told him. "I've got Dawn and Spike waiting for me."
Riley accepted this. "Listen, I know I've been out of touch..."
"You've practically been in hiding."
"I have been hiding," he admitted. "I've been feeling a little lost."
"I know," she told him. "I wish it didn't have to be so hard for you. Spike and I..."
"Understand," Riley's voice was hard "that if it weren't for you, he would be ashes now."
"Riley..."
"But that's not the issue. There's a lot wrong in my life that I don't know what to do about. But I do know you're going to need help now. And I want to know if you're going to need me."
Buffy thought about it, and nodded. "I do want your help," she said. "But Riley...I don't know for sure, but I think what's coming is going to be worse than Adam. It's going to be really bad."
"I can handle bad."
"I know you can. But I'm going to need to be strong Buffy, and there can't be..." she struggled for words.
"You don't want me to give you any shit."
Buffy laughed. "Riley Finn! You said a swear word!"
He grinned at her. "I guess I did."
She hugged him. "I missed you, you know."
"I missed you too."
The Slayer let go of him and went to re-pack her boyfriend.
***
Xander had just settled down for what looked to be some aggressively boring research with Willow, when he noticed that his friend was nowhere to be found.
"Willow?" he asked.
"I'm fine, Xander," came her voice. She was in the training room. He followed her in.
The young witch was sitting inside a circle of patterned sand. There were candles around her, and there was a book on her lap. She wasn't chanting, however. She was crying.
"You're fine, huh? 'Cause your impression of doing crappy is spot on," he told her.
"Thanks," she said, wiping a tear. "I work long hours at it."
"Will? Come on, what is it?" He sat next to her. "And what is all this?"
"It's a locating spell," she told him. "I did some checking, and I'm pretty sure I know how Dracula's been keeping us from finding him. If I'm right, the spell he's using can be traced back, and if I do that, we can probably...we can..." Her voice caught as another bout of tears came. "I can't do this, Xander."
"What?"
She got herself back under control. "Magic. Fighting evil. Any of this. I can't do it."
"I know you've been having trouble controlling your magic, Will, but come on. I've seen you in action. You could probably take out sixty vampires by yourself."
"But I don't know what would happen, Xander! There's no way I can explain it to you. The things I can do have a price. If I use my powers, I don't know what I might become. I don't know that I wouldn't end up hurting you, or Buffy, or someone else. Just like I hurt Amy."
"That wasn't your..."
"It was my fault!" she shouted. "If I hadn't used my magic, she'd still be alive. Maybe I shouldn't be punished for that, because I didn't know any better, but I know now, Xander. So what am I supposed to tell myself if it happens again? That it was an accident? That there was nothing I could do?"
"Willow..."
"And now if I don't use my power, people are going to die."
She began to cry again. Xander sat down next to her and put his arm over her shoulder so she could lean on him.
"I'm so afraid, Xander. I don't know who I am anymore."
"You're Willow," he told her. "You're my best friend, and I love you."
"I'm so scared," she said.
"Me too," he admitted. "But we're good at dealing with scared, Will. It's what we do."
She smiled. "Yeah," she agreed, "I guess it is."
He held her for a little while, and at the end of it, things seemed brighter.
***
Deep underground, the anguished screams of a damned man faded, and the first sounds of a demon's laughter could be heard.
***
Grant had gone home with Faith and Giles, but neither he nor the Slayer were in any mood to stay in that night. So Grant found himself accompanying this strange girl (who, he reminded himself, was young enough to be his daughter) on her nightly rounds.
"You sure you want to be doing this?" she asked him.
"Better this than sitting in that house and reading," he told her.
She smiled. "I hear you. But that's not what I meant. You could, y'know, go home, sit it out. This isn't your fight."
"They're killing my people. One of them almost killed me. And this 'Master' of yours is talking about ending the world. I'd say it's everybody's fight."
"So you're one of those, huh?" she asked.
"One of what?"
"A hero."
Grant found himself at a loss. "I don't...I mean..."
"Don't worry about it," she told him. "I'm just yankin' you. Anyway, the world needs heroes, right?"
He thought about that. "You don't see yourself that way?"
Faith laughed bitterly. "I haven't always been the safest person to be around. I'm more of a work in progress."
They walked in silence together for a time, and then Grant asked, "This Hellmouth thing, how seriously do you take it?"
"Wicked serious. I've seen it open before. It's not pretty."
"You from Boston?"
"What?"
"Boston. Are you from there?"
She smiled. "Yeah, I grew up there. You?"
He nodded. "My childhood and most of my career. I moved out here to get away from the madness. Thought I could do with a change, you know?"
She laughed again. "Pretty bonehead move."
"Yeah."
Silence again, then, "Do you smoke?"
"I'm trying to quit."
"Got any cigarettes?"
He dug one out of his coat and handed to her along with a lighter. They stopped walking for a moment while she lit it, then continued.
"You know," she told him, "I think you're the first cop I've ever liked." She handed the lighter back.
He smiled. "Thanks."
"You, um...you don't have any plans for Thanksgiving, do you?"
"Well there's...the police do this thing..." Grant stammered.
"No, huh?"
The cop smiled again. "I was thinking football and a TV dinner," he admitted.
"Well Giles and I are supposed to be hosting everyone. I know you don't really know any of us, but...this can be kind of a lonely town."
"I'll think about it," he told her. "Thanks."
"Hey, no problem. But do me a favor, okay?"
"Sure."
"Try not to get killed."
***
Xander was finding it difficult to concentrate.
In part, this was because there was too much information on the Master, and a great deal of it was self-contradictory. Some of the volumes he had found claimed that the Master was a 600-year old vampire named Heinrich Joseph Nest. But there were other, older references to the Master which suggested that he was far more ancient. One volume, a transcription of a demonic text dating back to around AD 500, referred to the Master as a being so old that he had "ascended beyond human features". But if he had been that old 1500 years ago...
It was possible that this was simply a case of several old vampires using the same name. It was common knowledge in Watcher lore that many older vampires used the phrase "Master" to describe themselves. But there were simply too many similarities between the ancient texts and Buffy's description of the vampire she had defeated in tenth grade for Xander to simply dismiss the possibility that the two were one and the same.
Still more confusing, there were several references to the Master having died, just about the time that other books suggested he had been sired. Whatever the Master was, it seemed nothing in Giles's collection was likely to shed any more light on him.
The other problem, of course, was Anya.
"Xander," she reasoned, "That's the third time you've picked that book up. There's not going to be anything in it you haven't already seen."
Xander made a show of ignoring her, opening the book and doing his best impression of dignified scholarship. She moved close enough that she could whisper in his ear. "We have the store to ourselves. There are several activities in the training room we haven't tried in...well, since yesterday." She kissed the back of his neck. "But it's been too long."
"Anya, I have important...." She continued the kisses. "You know, I could use a break."
She kissed him. "You're very easily convinced, you know."
"Only if it's the right girl," he told her, and scooped her off her feet. Anya giggled, delighted, as he carried her across the shop and into the training room. Once inside the door, he very nearly dropped her, instead setting her unceremoniously on her feet.
"Xander, what...?"
Across the room, his body covered in black leather except for his deformed face, stood the Master.
"I don't believe I've had the pleasure," he told them. "Which of you would like to die first?"
***
Buffy's sleep was disturbed by the telephone just after midnight. She answered on the third ring.
"Hello?"
"Your friends were kind enough to give me this number."
"Who is this?"
"You know that, Slayer." The last word was spoken with such pure hatred that Buffy shivered despite herself.
"What do you want?"
The voice on the other end chuckled mirthlessly. "I just thought I should say hello" He paused before adding, "Oh, and I think you should know that your friends are looking rather...unhealthy. They're at your little trinket shop, if you'd like to collect them."
"If you've hurt them..."
There was no reply. The line had been disconnected. Quietly the Slayer hung up the phone, picked it up again, and began to dial.
"Pet, what's going on?" Spike asked, rousing himself.
"Get dressed and get weapons," she told him.
"Why? Is the Master..."
Buffy nodded. "He's back."
***
"This is crazy, Giles."
"I am well aware of that," the Watcher told her, throwing his final stake into a duffel bag.
"You know it's a trap, right?"
"Yes."
"How many vamps you figure?"
"Based on the conversation earlier today, I think it's reasonable to say a lot."
The dark Slayer grinned. "Sounds like fun."
***
There was no light in the windows when Buffy and Spike arrived.
They did not speak. Instead, Spike handed his Slayer a wooden bolt, and she loaded her crossbow. It made a satisfying clicking noise as the pullstring locked into place. Spike's blade emerged from its sheath with a hiss. Silently, they entered the shop.
Once inside, Buffy flicked on the light. There was no one in the shop. There were no signs of a struggle.
"What the bloody hell..."
Spike's outburst was cut off by Xander's limp body being tossed from the training room door into the counter. The young Watcher bounced off and lay motionless on the shop's floor.
A moment later, the Master emerged from the back room, carrying Anya over one shoulder.
"If either of them are dead," Buffy told him, "I will kill you."
The Master's red lips peeled back into a grin. "You've killed me once already," he said, "and yet here I am. I suppose that makes us even."
"Let them go," Buffy growled.
"Certainly." The Master shrugged his shoulders, and Anya fell limply to the floor.
"You should have stayed gone, mate," Spike told him.
"Ah, William. I was told you might be here. Did you know," the Master asked, "that you are the greatest disgrace to vampire kind who has ever walked the earth? I'm not certain my imagination is up to finding a suitable way to destroy you. As for you, Slayer...let me assure you. The next time I end your life, you will stay dead. Unless, of course, I choose to make you mine."
"You know what?" Buffy asked him. "You're not a whole lot of fun to talk to. I think I'll just dust you now."
She took a step forward, and the Master placed a boot on Anya's unmoving neck. "I do realize," the Master replied, "that pre-fight banter is a tiresome tradition. But it takes a minute or so for a group of several dozen vampires to surround a building this size, and besides," he smiled, "I thought you might enjoy it."
With that, he brought his foot down hard, causing a sickening crunch.
Buffy fired her crossbow. The bolt was aimed perfectly, and would have easily pierced the Master's heart had the ancient vampire not plucked it out of the air like an errant mosquito. A moment later, Spike was upon him, shouting curses as his blade scythed its way towards the Master's neck.
Laughing, the elder vampire ducked Spike's wild swing and punched him in the gut, doubling him over. A kick sent the blond vampire sprawling into Buffy, and they both toppled to the floor.
The Master advanced on them. "Pathetic," he said. "Really, I expected more of a fight from you two."
Buffy waited until he was almost upon them to strike, lashing out with a low pivot kick that took the Master off his feet. Spike was ready for this, rolling on top of their opponent and landing several blows to his face before being thrown to the side.
Buffy used the time to draw a stake. She raised it, waited until Spike let the Master toss him aside, and struck as hard as she could.
The stake was halfway to the Master's chest when a powerful kick sent her sprawling. She looked up just to avoid another kick from the beefy vampire towering over her. More were coming through the door by the second.
This is it, she realized, I'm going to die. It was comforting to know that at least Spike was with her and that Dawn, for the moment, was safe. Buffy flung her stake into the big vampire's chest, drawing another as he disintegrated. Across the room, she saw Spike behead two opponents. The Master, for his part, merely watched.
***
Willow sat bolt upright in bed.
She was terrified. It was not the terror of the weeks after her magic had gone sour. This was something much worse and much more immediate. Worse, it was unclear exactly what its source might be.
For the first time in weeks, Willow began to chant an incantation. It was a simple spell. Focusing, she tried to reach the source of her anxiety. There was something happening, something...
Red lips. Fangs. Laughter. Something in the Magic Shop. Buffy...
Willow gasped as realization dawned. Oh Buffy, she thought, you should have told me...
***
Buffy had lost count of how many vampires she had killed. It had to be more than ten. She had tried, several times, to fight her way over to where the Master stood patiently observing the melee, but there were simply too many opponents. Given an infinite amount of energy, she knew, she could win this battle. The vampires the Master had brought with him were incompetent and weak. But she didn't have that much energy, and there were simply too many opponents to defeat on her own. Worse, Spike had been right--it was harder to fight when she couldn't stop herself from wondering how culpable her opponents were in any of this; they were dying in droves for the Master, and they were nothing to him. He would pay. If she lived, he would pay. She caught occasional glimpses of Spike, and hoped, vaguely, that he would somehow survive this.
Then, without prelude, Giles's convertible crashed straight through the shop window, mowing down several vampires in its wake. As soon as it stopped, Faith stood up on her seat clutching a crossbow in each hand and began firing. Giles hit a vampire with the car door and beheaded it with an axe.
"Buffy!" he shouted, "Are you all right?"
"Just..." She staked another vampire. "Peachy!" Another one tried to put her in a headlock and she flipped it over, throwing it forward into another of her opponents. Between herself, Spike, Faith, and Giles, she realized, they could do this. At least, they could if the Master continued to just stand there.
The vampires had realized it, too. Some of them were starting to run, which was making her job that much easier. Nevertheless, it took several minutes of slaying before the Master's followers had all either fled or been killed, and in the process, Giles was knocked unconscious. Their leader, however, remained. He was applauding.
"You've improved," he told Buffy. "Thank you for disposing of that pitiable excuse for an army."
"Funny," Faith said, "Most vampires get scared when they're alone with two Slayers."
"I'm not most vampires," the Master replied, "and if you don't mind, I'd rather kill you than talk."
Faith got one step forward before the Master flung the chair he had been leaning against directly into her, knocking the Slayer out cold. He smiled.
"Who's next?"
Spike threw a wooden stake at him and charged. The Master blocked the stake by letting it impale his palm, then dispatched the smaller vampire with a series of punches and kicks Spike would have been able to avoid easily had the previous battle not taken so much out of him.
And I can't beat him, Buffy knew. Not alone. I'm just too slow. And Anya...poor Anya...
"Who's next?" the Master repeated.
Buffy steeled herself, but a loud bang shook what was left of the shop before she could move. In front of her, Willow stood...no, floated, just out of the Master's striking distance.
The witch pointed, and the chair which had knocked Faith unconscious sprang up at the vampire with incredible force, knocking him to the ground. Willow continued to float serenely.
The Master rose, scowling. "Not bad, witch, but..."
"Burn," Willow told him, and the Master screamed. Flames leapt from his clothing and his flesh. Still howling, the vampire leapt through the shattered storefront. The witch dropped to the floor and collapsed. Buffy watched the vampire run, still ablaze, until he disappeared out of sight. She was in no shape to pursue him, but that was all right. He would not return tonight.
Because there was nothing else to be done, Buffy sat in the ruin of the Magic Box and began to cry.

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