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Part one of two

Episode Thirteen: Plans of Attack

by Ehann
Fire and Rain by James Taylor
Dust In the Wind by Kansas

Note: This chapter was very difficult to write. The tragedy and turmoil suffered by those in New York and Washington has made it very clear to us all what’s truly important and what’s not. This effort is therefore dedicated to the victims and families of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Speaking as a New Yorker, I need to say thank you to all the people who emailed thoughts of support and compassion during this horrible time for us. Blessed be.
Shout Outs: Thank you to the Beta crew: Adjrun, Aureliozen, Cousinjean , Fenwic, Georgevna. Especially G, since I blatantly stole hunks of dialogue from her. Also, thanks to Fiona77 for inspiring me to fix my favorite scene instead of tossing it in the trash heap.


***
Darla wandered through the casino, dressed in her stolen clothes. Before she’d left the ladies room, she’d traded in that awful outfit she’d been wearing for something tight and red. Warm blood coursed through her veins. It felt wonderful to be full again. Nothing satisfied like a dumb cowboy. Years ago she had a motto: Young, dumb, and full of-
Her head turned as the bald guy hit at the slot machine. Piles of blue chips spilled out and the man shouted with joy. Disgusting, really. So excited over money. Although…she didn’t have any money and she needed to be back in Sunnydale to take care of Vlad. This is all his fault anyway. I wanted to just kill them, but no. Hostages. There’s an original idea. She snorted and rolled her eyes. She watched Baldy some more.
All right, now he was just being stupid. He’d turned around to chat up the girl who’d begun playing the adjacent machine. His bucket of winnings sat on the floor unguarded. He leaned over the girl’s shoulder, probably trying to get himself a peek. Dirty old man. Darla moved before she even intended to. The pail full of winnings hung on her elbow, tugging at the sensitive skin there. She kept walking, taking herself farther away from Baldy the perv.
***
They had just gotten back from the meeting with Brixton. All except Faith, that is. She’d asked to be dropped off at the mall to do some last minute shopping. Giles leaned back against the warm brick. Last minute, indeed. She was just at the mall a few days ago. Ah, well. The girl might as well take some pleasure out of this pitiful excuse for a Holiday season.
Giles had shooed his younger friends inside while he took a few moments for himself. He just wanted to enjoy the sunshine on his face for a few minutes. Sometimes, it seemed so very wrong for the sun to be shining while all manner of evil was afoot.
He idly observed the few persons milling about on the sidewalk. A woman with a baby carriage walked down the sidewalk She looked lost and bewildered. Her hair was dirty and she smelled like she needed to bathe. As she passed in front of him, he realized with dawning horror that there was no baby in the stroller. Nothing but a pink receiving blanket that had a small bloodstain. Giles closed his eyes. This was the daughter of the old man from the meeting. Giles said a quick prayer that the baby was indeed dead, and had not been turned as some sick prank.
When he opened his eyes the woman had vanished from view. Just like all the other lost souls, he thought. This situation was bad and getting worse. Giles suspected that the numbers of new vampires were rising more rapidly than even he had thought. We have to finish this soon, he thought. Otherwise they won’t even need a plan, they could just overwhelm us with sheer numbers. Even with two Slayers in top form, they weren’t able to keep the rising vampires under control.
We’ll be lucky to come out of this alive, Giles thought grimly. He turned his back on the sun and entered his store.
***
Dawn was floating. She couldn’t feel her body; couldn’t even tell if she was breathing. She felt like she was made of light. She realized then that she could ‘see’ even though she wasn’t using her eyes. And then she remembered what she was supposed to do. She concentrated on the fact that she wasn’t human. Thought about being the key. Tried to make a portal open.
Nothing. Man, she’d been at this for, like, hours.
Use the green light Dawn.
It was strange to have Willow’s voice in her head. At the same time though, it seemed perfectly normal, like she’d always been there. Dawn focused on trying to make the green come. It wasn’t working and she was getting really frustrated. Who would’ve thought that meditating is not easy.
Focus, Dawn.
I’m doing the best that I can, Willow. I’m trying! God, I just want to go home!
Something within her jumped, and ripping pain laced through her body. Unable to hold the trancelike state, she fell back to earth. Her ears popped painfully and she felt dizzy. Her body jerked and she opened her eyes. She stared directly into her living room.
Well, sort of. The portal itself was only as big as Giles’s briefcase. And it…it wasn’t exactly stable. One second, there was her living room, plain as day. The next second, the window of her portal opened into nowhere, swirling with silver and green stuff. It flickered between the two scenes, like TV reception gone horribly wrong. The outer edges of it pulsed in time with her breathing.
“Holy shit.” She took a step closer to it.
“Dawn, stay back.” Willow said. “Try and hold it, but don’t go near it.”
“I don’t even know how I’m doing it, how am I supposed to keep it here?”
“Try.” Willow yanked open the training room door and called, “Um, guys, you need to see this!”
In a moment, they all stood in the threshold, gawking at the portal.
Buffy found her voice and pushed past Xander to see her sister. “You okay, Dawn?”
“Um, yeah, I guess.” Dawn couldn’t take her eyes off of it.
“That’s incredible,” Giles whispered. “Willow, do you really think it’s safe to be this close?”
Willow gave him a look. “I don’t know. I hope so. Should we stick something through it?”
“Why don’t we wait and see how this turns out,” Giles suggested. “We don’t want to overstrain her abilities.”
Spike’s eyes widened. “You … you doing all right, there, Little Bit?” His knuckles ached and he realized he’d been gripping the molding with his full strength. He let his hand drop to his side.
Dawn said, “I feel funny. Like I’m itching all over. And I think I might faint . What should I do?”
The witch thought a moment and then said, “Visualize it closing in your mind. You know…use your imagination. But not too much!” She crossed her fingers, just in case.
“Okay…I think” Dawn muttered. She closed her eyes and hoped that it didn’t suck her in. She imagined the oval edges drawing into each other…then into a small circle…finally into just a pinprick of green light…and then closing with a-
“Ow!” she yelped as her ears popped again. “That’s getting old, real fast!”
It snapped shut and Dawn felt rather than saw everyone jump at the noise. She opened her eyes, afraid of what might be there…Nothing. Just the training room, exactly the same as it always was.
“I did it,” she said in wonder. She looked for Buffy. “I did it!”
***
“All right,” Giles said crisply. “It’s four o’clock. Sunset is in forty five minutes.”
“Man,” Xander said. “Winter just sucks with the short days. Hey, Willow, when do they start getting longer again?” He stopped carving and turned the finished stake over in his hands, examining it closely.
Willow sighed and flounced into the chair next to him. “In a few days,” she said. “The twenty first is the Solstice, that’s the shortest day of the year.” She fell silent for a moment then looked up. “Giles? Buffy?”
The two were chatting by the register. They looked up at her words.
“Um, we know the Master is probably gonna try to open the Hellmouth sometime soon, right? I mean, the only reason they’re making such huge numbers of vampires is that they don’t want us to be able to stop them right?”
Buffy shrugged. “Yeah, that’s the sitch so far, Wills. The Master has a real problem with coming up with any original ideas.”
Willows eyes widened. “The Solstice. It’s one of the major Pagan holidays. If he’s going to try to make a move on the Hellmouth, wouldn’t he try it on like, an important day or something?”
“Oh, dear Lord. I don’t know why that didn’t occur to me. It makes perfect sense, Willow.”
“Giles, not one of us is at the top of the game, these days,” Xander said. “If it’s Willow who’s out-thinking you, well that’s all good. Now if it was me…that’s when you start worrying.”
Spike moved out from behind the counter. He prepared the day's receipts as he spoke. “What’s it to be, Watchers? You want Buffy and me to go catch a fresh one for you tonight, or what? Find out the particulars, and all that?”
“So much for a quiet night at home,” Buffy said. She moved over to stand next to Spike. “Good thing we work together, huh? This is our quality time.”
Spike opened his mouth then shut it. Not now, he told himself. More important things. “Any time with you is quality, Buffy. For me, anyway.” He tried not to feel annoyed.
“Buffy listen,” Giles said. “Go home. Have dinner. You and Spike get a few hours of sleep. Willow and Dawn can go home with Xander. They’ll be safe enough together, and give you a bit of a rest.”
Spike somehow kept his face neutral. He was going to have to give Giles a big sloppy kiss tomorrow, though.
Buffy said, “Xander, Will, you sure you don’t mind?”
Xander smiled. “No big, Buff. Matter of fact, I’m pretty sure that everyone will be happier, ow!” He rubbed his rib, where Willow jabbed him.
Spike acted before Buffy changed her mind. “Bloody hell, look at the time. Early days and all. Have fun with the Witch and the Watcher, Niblet.” He pecked Dawn on the cheek and wrapped his arm around Buffy’s waist.
“Spike.” Buffy said suddenly.
His heart fell. “Yeah, baby?”
“You better find something to cover yourself with. Hate to get home and find you all dusty and stuff.”
“Right. Good thinkin’”. His eyes searched the store for an appropriate cover.
Giles made a wry face. “Spike, must I do everything for you? Show some initiative, man.” There was a linen closet back by the training room so the Slayers could shower after a workout. He pulled out a heavy towel and tossed it at the vampire. “Will this do?”
Spike felt the need to kiss Giles again. It was becoming odd. “Perfect, Rupert.” He and Buffy headed for the back door. The DeSoto was parked in the alley. “We’ll be hunting vampires some time after eight.” Spike called. The door shut behind the couple.
“Xander, can we get pizza?” Dawn asked.
“We can have it, but it’s gotta be the frozen variety. The problem being the lack of live delivery boys.”
“Oh. I forgot about that.” Dawn looked down, ashamed that such a simple fact of life had slipped her mind.
“Hey,” Willow said softly. “We all forget sometimes.”
“Of course,” Giles added. He laid a hand on Dawn’s shoulder. “It’s perfectly normal.”
“I guess. We should go, before it gets any later, huh?”
“I’ll lock up,” Giles said. “I’ll be at my flat if you need me.”
***
They barely made it through the door. Spike flung the towel across the room somewhere. He had his hands up the back of Buffy’s shirt, pulling it up and over her head. She kissed him desperately. She grabbed his arms and pulled. Together they dropped to their knees, still locked together.
Buffy’s hands tore through Spike’s hair. She tugged until his head tilted back and she rained kisses along his neck and throat. He leaned back until they toppled over onto the living room rug. Spike rolled Buffy under him. He tried to remove her bra by using the clasps but finally just growled and ripped it from her body. She arched her back into his touch. The sheer need overwhelmed her. There was no fighting this.
She twisted her fingers in the collar of his black shirt. It peeled away from his skin, revealing the muscular shoulders and chest. Buffy felt like some primal force possessed her. She rubbed her face against his shoulder, inhaling his scent. She raked her nails down his back, drawing blood.
He hissed in pain, even as the scent of blood stunned him for a second. He raised his head. His eyes flickered from blue to yellow and back. His face contorted as he fought for control. He won the battle and stared defiantly down at his mate. “You. Are. Mine.” He ravaged her mouth again and somehow slid her jeans down her legs. Buffy kicked them the rest of the way off. Her hands worked at his belt, fumbling in haste. She wanted…she wanted. Her body was on fire, and there was only this.
He growled as he filled her and Buffy cried out. They were wrapped so tightly together it was impossible to say where either one left off. Quickly, they found a rhythm, and worked it. When the climax came, it swept over them both at the same instant. Buffy’s gasping breaths were the only sound in the room.
They fell asleep like that, still wrapped up in each other, for the world had fallen away and there was only this.
***
Giles turned the key in the lock and pushed open the door. It stuck so he shoved harder. Finally it gave and he lurched off balance, whacking his head against the frame. He rubbed the sore spot and looked down to find what was caught in the door. A green shopping bag had somehow gotten wedged under there.
“Faith,” he called. “Are you home?”
“Yeah, over here,” her voice came from the living room.
Giles carefully stepped over the package and shut the door behind him. He made sure it was locked and then found the Slayer. She was sitting on the floor in the middle of an enormous pile of boxes and wrapping paper. For a moment Giles was confused because there wasn’t enough space for her to be wrapping these gifts. She kept picking up boxes and inspecting the contents. Then she tossed the box back to the floor. Ah, he thought. She’s taking inventory.
“Have a good time at the mall?” He cautiously made his way over to his armchair and sat.
“Kinda, I guess. I never thought that spending money would be hard.” She started piling up boxes in different stacks until she had five mountains circled around her. “I was thinking,” she began suddenly.
Giles waited. And waited. Finally, just as he was about to remind her about meaningful pauses, she spoke.
“I bought something for you.” She looked intently at the ground.
He sat back in the chair. She still wouldn’t look at him. “For…for Christmas?” Was she embarrassed?
“Um, sort of. Here.” She shoved a box into his hands. She chewed on her thumbnail for a second then yanked it out of her mouth like it was hot. She chewed on her lower lip instead. “Go ahead, open it.”
Giles pulled the lid up and carefully removed the tufts of tissue paper. There was something…there. He lifted the object out and stared for a moment. It was a sterling silver ornament. The top of the ornament had holly leaves engraved in it and 2001 was emblazoned on the front. “It’s beautiful,” he said honestly, and finally Faith met his eyes.
She let out the breath she’d been holding. “Cool. Um…”
“Yes?”
“It would be nice if…if we had a tree to hang it on.” Her words came out all in a rush and she was staring at her feet again.
Giles paused, still holding his gift in the air, letting the light play off the surface. “Well…” He grinned. “Real or fake?”
Faith looked positively delighted. “Real!” Duh? “When?”
Giles was tired, but suddenly he didn’t care. How was it possible that this girl, who only a few years ago was callously murdering people, was so happy about the prospect of getting a Christmas tree? “I doubt that anyplace selling trees is open after dark. Besides which, it’s not safe. Shall we do it tomorrow morning?”
Faith’s whole face lit up as she smiled at him. “Sounds good to me.” She sat for a few moments and added, “I got something for Buffy. I saw her looking at it the other day when we went shopping.” She leaned over to a pile and plucked something from the bag. She held it up for Giles to see. It was a black tank top. ‘Chosen’, it proclaimed in gold lettering. “I kind of wanted it for myself, but then I thought that she might…what do you think?” Her fingers tapped on the wood floor.
“Are you sure it’s tight enough for Buffy?” Giles said.
Faith laughed out loud. “Yeah, pretty much. I know enough to save the receipt, Giles.”
“Then she’ll love it, I’m sure.”
“Did I tell you that we had, like, a real conversation the other day?”
“Really? Remarkable.”
“Well, it was after we beat the crap out of each other.”
Giles raised his eyebrows but said nothing.
“You know, we were even for awhile but she…ah, hell. Kind of…uh, won that round.”
“Perhaps you and Buffy can start training with each other after this…situation is resolved. You know, you could learn a lot from her.”
She waited a moment for the strangling bitterness to well up in her heart. Thought about what he’d just said. No bitterness came.
She could stand to learn from Buffy. It was only the truth, nothing more. “Yeah,” she said finally, because he was waiting for some sort of response. “I’m willing if she’s willing.”
Something relaxed inside of Giles. “Did you eat already?”
“Nope. I got all involved with this stuff,” she looked down at her loot, “and I was waiting for you to get home.”
“All right. How does spaghetti sound? With butter and garlic, of course.”
“Yum.”
He stood up, and extended his hand down to her. “I could use some help.”
She grasped his hand firmly and pulled herself up. She beamed at him and said, “Count me in.”
***
Three hours of sleep and a shower later, Buffy and Spike walked their usual patrol route. They each had a few ‘Xander Specials’ on them. Buffy liked to use the scrolled stakes, but she’d made sure to request ones that were Holy Water free. She thought it was a smart precaution. The thing about using weapons, she felt, is that you never knew when you would get disarmed and have them used against you.
Buffy stopped in her tracks, her senses alert. “That way. Come on.” She grabbed Spike and they ran quietly through the graveyard.
Spike cocked his head. “I hear something. Down by the water, maybe we’ll get lucky.”
Buffy grinned, in spite of the circumstances. “Thought you did already.”
He turned his head and gave her a look that made her whole body heat. He took Buffy’s hand to steady her as the ground sloped. The leaves were slick and wet, making the footing treacherous. Then they saw it.
Down by the pond, two people locked in an embrace.
“And yet, something tells me they’re not making out.” Buffy remarked. The stake appeared in her hand and she fingered its scrolling.
The vampire let the body drop to the ground. It turned and Buffy drew in a sharp breath. She knew him. “Life does have a certain irony sometimes, doesn’t it?” she muttered.
Oh no, not that wanker, again. Spike squinted at the water.
Buffy gave him a sideways look. “Think back. Gem of Amarra. The Quad. Middle of the day? Ringing any bells yet?”
Spike closed his eyes briefly. Bloody hell. Bleedin’ fuck. Soddin’… “I remember, love, but I wish to God that you didn’t,” he said tonelessly.
Her expression softened. “It was a long time ago. We’re not who we used to be.” She rubbed the back of his neck and added. “I’ll bet he’s as pathetic a vampire as he was a boyfriend.”
He grinned. “Let’s go get him, then.”
Buffy and Spike split up, each circling around and approaching from opposite sides. The waning moon was barely a sliver in the sky. The light it cast upon the earth was gray and hoary. When Buffy made her move, she wasn’t surprised to see Spike already standing in front of Parker.
“Good to see you again, mate.”
“Um, have we met? I don’t think I know you.” Parker said. He took a nervous step back.
Spike tilted his head to the side. “It was a memorable occasion. Have to say, pillock, I’m shocked you’ve forgotten.” He stepped forward until he was in the other man’s face. “Then again, you always were lacking a bit in brains, eh?”
Parker’s face dissolved into his demonic visage, and he lunged at Spike.
Spike laughed and casually stepped aside. The boy tripped over a black boot and fell face first into the slippery muck.
Clapping filled the air. Parker raised his head and spotted Buffy. His features were human again. “You have to help me, he’s crazy.”
“Crazy in love maybe. But you wouldn’t know anything about that particular emotion would you? Or any human emotion for that matter.” She pulled him up by his polo shirt and shoved him at Spike.
“See, Parker, I’m sure you know that I’m the Slayer, right?”
He nodded.
“And I’m sure you remember how much of an asshole you were as a human, right?”
He nodded again.
“Keep that in mind when you answer my questions. As a human you were untouchable to me. But now…” Buffy let the words play out, holding up the stake for him to see. Her gaze drifted down to admire the artistry of it. “My friend Xander made this for me. Isn’t it beautiful? Yeah, he’s an amazing woodworker. Oh, did I mention? He likes to soak his stakes in Holy Water for a couple of days before I get to try them out.” She tapped her fingernail against the wood. “Now, tell me. Who made you,” she demanded.
“Mistress Darla.”
“Darla? Eww. Spike, what does that make him to you?”
“Absolutely nothin’, love.” Spike tightened his grip on the wanker. Didn’t like him any better turned, than he had as a human.
“When is The Master going to try and open the Hellmouth?” Buffy asked.
“I don’t know!” Parker cried.
Spike growled in his ear and Buffy placed the tip of the stake against his chest. “I asked. When.” She said flatly.
“Really, I mean it, I have no idea. I was Darla’s before she disappeared. She and her creepy girlfriend are gone, so I don’t know what I’m supposed to do anymore.”
Buffy met Spike’s eyes. Spike shook his head almost imperceptibly. The boy was lying plain and simple.
“Fine. You wanna play rough?” She plunged the stake into Parker’s chest.
He screamed then looked around, confused. “I’m still here.”
“Exactly. No one said it would be quick.” Buffy said grimly. She raised the stake again.
“God, all right! All right. I…look, I really don’t know very much.” His eyes flickered between Buffy and Spike. “There’s rumors. The others talk. About what’s supposed to happen on the longest night. They say stuff about the time of greatest darkness when the moon is dark. How the gates will open, blah blah blah.” He dissolved into cackles. “It’s all the same.”
Parker jerked himself out of Spike’s grip. “See? I helped. Now, I’m leaving.” He took a step and then exploded into dust.
Spike drew back his arm and stuffed the stake into his pocket. He looked up, ready to ask Buffy if they were going to finish patrol, but he words died in his throat. She stared at him like he’d done something wrong. “What?”
“You staked him.”
Spike’s eyes widened. “Yeah. What of it?”
“I wanted to take him back to Giles. Wanted him to tell it himself.”
Spike shook his head. “Buffy, we’re not running a twelve step program for vampires. If we don’t kill them now, they’ll kill us, and soon. There isn’t any later. Not anymore.”
“I know, you’re right, it’s just…I knew him. We met his brother today, for crying out loud.”
“I know, love. That was odd, considering.” He placed his hand between her shoulder blades and guided her up the hill. “Speaking of odd, Captain Marvel made it out of the lion’s den alive, it looks like, eh?”
“That’s one of the few pieces of good news we’ve had in a long time.”
“Hey, Darla’s still gone. That’s good news, too. Hopefully, she didn’t make it to Vegas.”
Buffy snorted. “Does anyone ever stay dead? How many times do we have to kill her before it takes? God, she’s getting as bad as Dracula.”
***
“Faith, have you seen Prophecies for the Ages laying around anywhere?” Giles knelt down and checked under the couch.
The Slayer looked dubious. She called from the kitchen, “I’m sure that’s a real page turner, but I haven’t been reading it behind your back if that’s what you’re asking.” She took a deep drink of soda and washed down the last of her garlic bread. She rinsed the plate and put it in the sink. She left her glass on the counter and went in to help Giles search. “What’s so important about it?”
Giles said impatiently, “Didn’t I just say the title was Prophecies-”
Faith rolled her eyes. “For the ages,” she singsonged with him. “I got that. What I mean is, what makes you think of it now, when we’ve been dealing with this for like, two months?”
“It slipped my mind,” he snapped and stood up.
She looked at the floor, her face flushing. Jammed her hands in her pockets.
Giles felt like a heel. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly.
“Don’t,” she told him. She pressed her lips together for a minute. “Maybe you left it at the shop.”
He pulled a jacket out of the closet and headed for the door.
Faith jumped in front of him. “Where do you think you’re going, Watcher man? Last time I checked, it’s like nine o’clock. Feeding time for the locals.”
“Faith,” he said with exaggerated patience, “that book may very well contain vital information about the date and time the Master will attempt to open the Hellmouth. Since all of our lives depend on knowing when it’s going to take place, I thought I’d get a jump on it.” His voice was like steel.
The Slayer refused to back down. “So, basically you want me to step aside and let you get yourself killed?” Shaking her head she told him, “Not happening. Not now, not ever.”
“Faith,” he said calmly. “Move out of the way, or I’ll do it for you.”
Her chin lifted. “I’d like to see you try.” Her voice was steady, but her blood ran cold.
Giles knew when he was beaten. He sighed, and removed his glasses. “Fine. Come with me then?”
For a second, Faith wanted to cry. For one scary minute she’d thought…she’d thought wrong. “Let me get my coat.”
The top was up on the convertible, a fact that Faith was grateful for. She liked the air, no question there, but she didn’t want to have to worry about being attacked from above. “Giles, are you really sure this dumb book is worth coming out here in the middle of the night? It couldn’t wait till the morning?”
“As it stands now, every second counts. The days are getting too short for us to waste any time. It has to be done now.”
“Whatever. It just seems like you’re taking an unnecessary risk, is all. Buffy would flip out if something happened to you, you know.” She looked out the window.
“Yes, I’m…sure she would.” Faith getting antsy about risks? Dear Lord, the world really must be about to end.
“Hey, pull into the alley. Maybe that’ll give us a few extra minutes if they don’t see a car on the street.”
He turned into the narrow alley and before he turned off the engine, Faith was out of the car.
“Give me the keys. I’ll start looking. You watch for vamps.”
“Please explain to me how it’s safer for me to be alone in the car while you’re alone in the store. We will go in together. After all, if something were to happen to you…” he hesitated. “I’m sure Buffy would be quite put out.”
“Fine, come on.”
Giles shut the car door as quietly as he could. He unlocked the back door to the shop and they entered cautiously. “You go up front and check by the register. I’ll look in my office.”
Faith walked slowly up the corridor to the front. The shop was still dark. They might as well ring the dinner bell if they lit up the place like a Christmas tree. She heard Giles shuffling some papers in his office. She got up to the register and slipped behind the counter. She knelt down, searching the bottom shelves for any book that started with ‘Prophecies…’
What was that? Her body went still and she listened. Slowly, she straightened her legs and stood. There. The slightest scraping sound. Where was it coming from? As quietly as she could she eased herself out from behind the counter. Now she was in the middle of the store, looking around. Her gaze flashed on the front window. The streetlights cast an eerie glow out on the sidewalk. Since it was dark out, she could see quite clearly the reflection of the inside of the store in the front window.
She took a deep breath, trying to calm her jangling nerves. The air whistled and then her forehead slammed into the floor. She rolled onto her back and looked up into the face of a vampire. Or maybe it was three vampires. Her vision swam and came back, just in time for her to dodge a kick to her face. She arched her back and did a back handspring.
“That wasn’t nice,” she said. “Giles, get out of here, now,” she yelled. She grabbed the stake in her back pocket except…the vampire smiled and dangled it in front of her. Her lip curled. Moron! She shouted at herself.
She spun and kicked, striking him in the head. He went down and Faith came after him throwing punch after punch. He slammed his head into hers. She dropped to the floor and took out his knees with a sweep kick. She kicked him in the small of the back for good measure, making him howl in pain. It didn’t slow him down for long, though. He was on his feet, and he was pissed. Faith jumped up and grabbed the light fixture, swinging her feet up and shoving him in the chest. He staggered back.
Faith ran across the room and did a somersault over the round table, grabbing a stake off the top. For just a second she stared at it. It was a Xander special.
It felt good in her hand, like it was made for her alone. Her fingers tightened. She feinted, then lunged. He pulled back his body, nearly standing on his toes in the process. His foot lashed out and caught her in the chin. Her head snapped back with the force of the blow, and she blinked, trying to get her bearings.
He backhanded her across the face and she went down hard. She arched her back and flipped, landing on her feet. She saw an opening and went for it, bringing down the stake for a killing blow. He grabbed her wrist before the wood even grazed his chest. He squeezed. Bones crunched and tendons gave; her fingers automatically released the scrolled stake. It rolled across the floor somewhere.
Blood ran down her face in several places and got in her eyes. She couldn’t see anything, and now she was really getting pounded. Punch after punch landed, and she could barely stand up anymore. He spun and his foot smashed into her cheekbone. She fell backwards onto the floor.
Hands grabbed Faith by the shoulders, lifting her. She blearily opened her eyes.
“You’re mine, Slayer.”
Faith’s eyes widened, and she smiled. “I’m mine, you asshole.”
She watched as Giles swung a tire iron into the vampire’s head. Enraged, Giles swung over and over. It made a dull wet sound as it collided with flesh and bone. The vamp shot his hand up, grabbing the weapon. He pulled it effortlessly from Giles’s hands and raised it to strike.
Faith brought her knee up into his groin. The vampire fell to his knees and a scrolled tip popped out of his chest. Dust drifted and scattered over Faith’s legs.
Giles.
He gently took Faith’s chin between his thumb and index finger. He tilted her face this way and that, examining the extent of her injuries. She was bleeding steadily from lacerations at her left temple. Her right cheek was purple and it was swelling before his eyes. Her right hand dangled uselessly, the wrist bones shattered. He gently wiped the blood from under her left eye and pulled her into a hug. She pressed her cheek into his chest and held on to his jacket with her good hand.
Almost lost another one. “You’ll live,” he said softly, before releasing her.
***
Dracula had reclaimed his castle. In truth, it was the last place anybody would think to look for him…and therefore the most suitable. He sat in the ornately craved mahaghony chair. And he waited. When the time to wait came to an end, he rose from the chair. His scarlet lined cape swept against the stone floor as he moved silently through the castle.
He descended the stairs, his pace quickening. Action, he decided, would be the seal of his fate. Darla and Drusilla had their own private faction…so too, would he. He came to a great wooden door that rose from the floor all the way up to the ceiling. He pulled the doors apart with both hands and entered the room, smelling the fear, before he saw the initiates. They huddled against the far wall, each individually chained and drained nearly to death. Men and women Dracula had handpicked to be of his blood. It was time.
He clapped his hands three times, the sound echoing off the stone. He did not turn, but felt the presence of the three brides behind him.
“Each of you,” he commanded. “Offer them our gift.”
Dracula watched as the brides moved forward and stood in front of three different captives. Simultaneously, they slit open the tender skin at their wrists. The humans drank. It was their destiny to do so.
The dark prince intently watched the ritual. He did not look up and did not see the flash of long blonde hair in the great threshold.
***
“Are the sacrifices ready for the ritual?” The Master asked. He flexed his hands experimentally. The new skin felt good. It felt strong. It no longer tore when he stretched it. Very soon, he thought. The Slayer and her friends would be as gnats to him.
“Yes, my lord,” the minion answered. “All is as it should be.”
“Excellent. Leave me.”
Heels clicked on the stone floor and the Master raised his head.
“Darla. Nice of you to drop by, considering Dracula’s completed all your work.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Yes, I’m sure he’s been busy. How is my brother these days? How many of the Slayers little circle of friends do we have captured? Oh, that’s right. None.”
Darla’s voice dripped with disdain. “Seems to me that someone as world famous as Dracula ought to be able to capture some college children. Has Vlad actually checked in recently, Master? If it were me…well, I’d want to know exactly what he’s been doing all this time. Because the little Slayer gang is still Alive. And. Well.”
The Master’s face grew darker and darker. “Weigh your words carefully, child. You’re implying that my son is disloyal?”
“I imply nothing. I have see with my own eyes. He makes his own army against you, Master. His brides are creating more as we speak.” She looked at him coldly. “Besides that, his inaction caused Drusilla’s death.”
With a great roar, the Master leaped from his chair to grab Darla by the throat. “You lie.”
Her derisive expression faded. “She’s gone, Master. William killed her.”
He dropped Darla to the floor. “William.” He spat. “The Slayer’s pet vampire.”
Darla dusted herself off. “Would have been nice if Dracula killed him like he was supposed to. I wanted to just kill every one of them and be done with the whole mess. But then, who would listen to a girl with no intellect?” She blinked a number of times and smiled. “Of course, I’m sure Dracula has other things on his mind. Trying to play gypsy tricks on the Slayer so he can have her before she dies. Fullfilling his brides. Handpicking people to turn against you. The poor man barely has any time to himself, let alone to carry out his commitments.
“Enough!” The walls reverberated. “Approach me.”
Darla sauntered in front of the Master. She kneeled, and bowed her head.
He bit his thumb and smeared his blood on her forehead. “Rise, favorite one, to do my bidding.”
Darla rose. “Always my Master. What is your bidding?”
“Whatever it takes…to kill the Slayer…you will do it. Whatever it takes…to make sure nothing interferes with my plans…you will see to it.”
“It will be done, Master.”
“Go and fetch all my minions, child.”
When the minions had been fetched and the room was packed the Master spoke. “Let all present hear and witness: Dracula is hereby cast out of my line. None shall shelter him. He is to be staked on sight.” His eyes worked the room, his gaze passing over each vampire, making sure his edict was understood. “Good. Now get out, all of you. Not you, Darla. We have many things to…discuss.
***
“I can’t believe you were that stupid, Giles. To go out after dark, after a freaking book,” Buffy said. She’d picked up her sister, Willow and Xander so they could drive to Giles’s together. Especially now, there was safety in numbers.
“I told him you’d be upset.” Faith announced. She had eight sutures in the cut at her temple. The part of her right eye that should have been white was bloody and red. The X rays had shown that her cheekbone was intact, although her right wrist was shattered. The doctor had applied a cast, and told her to keep her arm elevated as much as possible.
She wasn’t worried so much about her wrist, that would heal, she knew. But the others…when they looked at her…they cringed.
Buffy shot back, “And you’re no better. You shouldn’t have let him go in the first place. What were you thinking?”
Faith took a deep breath. “I was thinking I didn’t want to beat the shit out of him in order to get my way. I thought he’d be safer if I went with him. He wasn’t going to change his mind, Buffy.”
“She’s quite right, Buffy. I was going either way.” Giles said calmly. He took a sip of tea. “I’m just glad that…that Faith is all right.” His eyes flickered to her face.
The dark Slayer met his gaze, and read the unspoken words. Her cheek quirked and she winced. “Mmmph.”
Spike came in and sat on the floor, next to Buffy. “Dawn’s asleep. For now.” He looked up at Giles in his armchair. “I think the Niblet’s enjoying having that huge bed of yours all to herself, Rupert.”
Xander and Willow were on the small couch. “Okay,” Xander said, “We’re all here.” He addressed the Buffy and Spike. “What gives with the secret agent crap? What’s so important that you have us risk our lives in the middle of the night? Got to tell everyone together” he mocked in a bad English accent. Then he turned to Giles. “And you. You got my Slayer beat up. What do you have to say for yourself?”
Giles opened his mouth but Buffy cut him off.
“The Master’s going to open the Hellmouth. Again. During the Black Moon, after the longest night.” she said. Silence reigned for a few moments and she added, “Anyone have a clue?”
Willow’s brow furrowed. The longest night? Why did that sound so familiar? Oh, maybe because Xander asked her about the shortest day this afternoon-
Oh, no.
“The Solstice,” she croaked. “The shortest day has the longest night. Did you say Black Moon?” she asked
Buffy nodded.
“Giles, do you have a magical almanac?”
Faith piped up, “If he says it’s in the store do I get to smack him?”
Giles said, “Very funny. I have it right here, as a matter of fact.” He leaned down and picked up the top book of the pile next to the chair. He leafed through it, searching for the appropriate date.
Xander asked, “Aside from the willies it gives me, what’s so bad about the Black Moon?”
“Well, the Black Moon is the time for banishing magic,” Willow said. “Removing spells…or removing enemies.”
“We’ve miscalculated,” Giles remarked. “Solstice is on the twenty second of this month, not the twenty first.”
“Whew.” Xander said. “For a second there, I thought you were gonna say the Black Moon is coming on that day, too.”
Giles looked at the younger Watcher evenly. “Actually, according to this, the Black Moon is on Christmas night. At…where is it…eleven fifty nine p.m.”
“Nice of the Master to get us something for Christmas.” Xander said.
“Willow, so what does it actually mean?” Buffy demanded.
Willow pursed her lips and looked at the ceiling. “A ritual started on the longest night, might allow enough negative energy for him to open the Hellmouth during the Dark Moon. It would make sense, because they’d need at least three nights to complete such a powerful spell.”
“So,” Buffy said, “they start on the twenty second, but they finish on Christmas?” She leaned into Spike and said, “If my Mom was alive she’d be so pissed at me having to slay on Christmas.”
“Giles,” Faith said, “did you ever find anything in that book? Anything about this, this ritual or whatever?”
He cleared his throat. “Actually, yes. I had plenty of time in the waiting room at the hospital while I was worrying sick, to pore through this book in exhaustive detail.” He waited a beat and then smiled wanly, “That was a joke.”
“And I speak for us all when I say, totally unfunny, Giles.” Xander told him.
“The point is, I know there’s something in here about the Hellmouth. I think it was the ritual of Uncrossing that manifests on the night of the Black Moon. Obviously, I need to do some research.”
Buffy rolled her eyes. “Looks like we’re here for the duration, guys.”
“Well, we’re all here. I mean, we’re together,” Faith said. “I don’t know about you guys, but after the meeting today…” She flexed the fingers that peeped outside the cast. “I don’t take any of it for granted anymore. You never know when it’s all gonna end.”
Spike looked down.
Giles met her gaze squarely.
Xander took Willow’s hand and squeezed it hard.
Buffy spoke softly, “I know.”

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