Rupert Giles got off the connecting flight from LAX at the Sunnydale International Airport (which was accurately named so long as one considered a single weekly flight to Tijuana 'international') at four o'clock on a brisk December afternoon, along with two dozen other cramped and jet-lagged holiday passengers. He was moderately certain that he was the only one who noticed the Cthuhloid baggage handler snatching suitcases from the belly of the plane with its tentacles, at least until he heard a small girl whisper "Daddy! Look at that!" and Daddy mutter, "Goddam cheap demon labor."
Buffy had warned him that Sunnydale was changing. She hadn't mentioned into what. Giles squinted up at the winter-white blaze of the California sky and the vista of red-tiled roofs sloping up towards Kingman's Bluff and the reservoir in the buff-colored hills beyond. So very different from the muted greens and greys of the countryside around Bath. He stood on the tarmac, torn between equal and opposite nostalgias. He hadn't seen this view since Xander's wedding--Good Lord, had it been three years already? Buffy and Spike had invited him to their post-elopement reception, of course, but he'd been up to his ears in the Robson affair at the time.
The terminal hadn't changed; it was still the bright, warm, Mission-style building he remembered. Inside the Christmas rush was in full spate: plastic holly decked the halls, harried parents dragged cranky children into the arms of doting grandparents or marginally civil exes, and everyone appeared to have been outfitted by mad aunts obsessed with cross-stitched reindeer. The tinny carols playing in the background appeared to be the same mix featured in every shop, airport bar, and restaurant he'd had the misfortune to frequent since leaving Heathrow. Giles searched for a familiar face amidst the sea of regrettable Christmas finery. Surely if Buffy couldn't make it, she'd send Xander or...
In the kaleidoscope of red and green and white, one figure stood out like a lump of coal in a Christmas stocking. A small wiry man in black Levis and denim jacket was striding towards the gate, a wolf among rayon-fleeced sheep. The newcomer vaulted the nearest row of plastic chairs with exuberant, athletic grace, sauntered up and looked Giles up and down. A faint, amused grin creased his lean face. "Cheers, Rupert. You look chock full of holiday spirits."
"Spike?" Giles blinked down at the sandy-brown crop, grown out just long enough to hint at irrepressible curls. "Good Lord. What happened to your hair?"
"Ran out of SweetN'Low," Spike snapped, raking a hand across his shorn head. "Bloke acquires a pulse and an expiration date, and you want to know what conditioner he's using. That's the unquenchable thirst for knowledge that's sustained the Council of Watchers down through the ages."
"I see your vital capacity for heavy-handed sarcasm remains unimpaired," Giles replied drily. "Is Buffy about? If I hear 'Carol of the Bells' one more time I shall throw myself on the Trans-Siberian train tracks."
"She's meeting us at baggage claim." Spike started off down the corridor, tucking his thumbs in his belt and making no offer to carry Giles' luggage. "Needed a bit of a sit-down, and wouldn't admit it, the silly cow."
He'd never before heard the phrase 'silly cow' uttered with quite such besotted affection. "She's well, then?"
If there was a trace of worry in Spike's eyes, the vampire wasn't holding still long enough for Giles to analyze it. "Doctor says she's healthy as a horse. Been running herself ragged. Fair warning, don't badger her 'bout being knackered; she's been a proper Red Queen of late." He rounded on Giles and stabbed a belligerent finger at the taller man's nose. "No badgering her about anything else, come to that."
Giles gazed witheringly upon the finger until Spike reverted from wolfish to sheepish and took it away. The vampire breezed through a pair of swinging doors and gestured in the direction of the little corral of chrome bars and velvet ropes surrounding the baggage claim area. "See for yourself."
Buffy was seated on a bench, watching the bags trundle down the conveyer belt with an expression which suggested that she harbored a faint hope that one of them might entertain her by attempting to eat the other travelers. For a second the last eight and a half years fell away, and she was again the round-cheeked, bright-eyed girl he'd cornered in the High School library. The illusion broke as she levered herself to her feet, one hand supporting the weight of her belly. Even eight months pregnant she was determinedly resisting the motherly look--her hair, almost as dark as Dawn's these days, was piled atop her head in a mass of soft curls. She was wearing something floaty and elegant in chocolate and rose, and stylish if flat-heeled pumps. Giles had no idea if Dolce and Gabbana made maternity wear, but if so he had no doubt that Buffy would track it down, probably at seventy percent off.
She looked up as the two of them walked in, a dazzling smile breaking across her face. "Oh, Giles, it's so good to see you!"
In the last three years phone calls and e-mails and snapshots had whizzed back and forth between Sunnydale and Bath, slices of Buffy caught in digital amber, but none of that was anything like the warm, human, Pantene-scented girl--no, young woman now, by anyone's measure--flinging herself joyfully into his arms. If current circumstances made the patented bone-crushing Slayer-hug a little more awkward than in days past, it was no less enthusiastic. Recovering his breath, Giles murmured, "My dear girl, you look..."
"The word you're searching for is 'fat.'" The sparkle in Buffy's eyes belied her tone.
"Radiant," Giles corrected, and meant it. Something thumped him smartly in the stomach mid-hug. Giles looked down in startlement.
"Sorry! Baby-fu." Buffy released him from with an apologetic grin and patted her stomach. "He takes after his father."
Spike raised an eyebrow. "He takes after who, now, Little Miss Violence-Is-the-Answer?" He hefted one of Giles's trunks off the roundabout with a surprised grunt. "What the fuck are you packing, Watcher, cannonballs?"
"You did ask me to research your artifact," Giles said with a bland smile. "I took the liberty of bringing along a few volumes I thought might be useful."
"This is why I always wait for mystic tomes to come out on DVD." Buffy held out an imperious hand. "Here, Spike, let me take one of those."
"Take the one Rupert's lugging," Spike said, jerking a thumb at Giles's modest carry-on. "Where's your manners? The old goat's getting on in years, you know."
Buffy's eyes narrowed to ominous sea-green slits. "You're managing me again, William. Stop it."
"Then have a mind for the sprog and stop talking like an idiot," Spike advised, hitching one of Giles's suitcases up under one arm, grabbing the other in the same hand, and hoisting the trunk over the opposite shoulder with no visible effort. Whatever else the transformation he'd gone through had done, it hadn't affected his strength.
"I try to keep the conversation on your level, honey," Buffy replied sweetly. "Give, Giles. I'm pregnant, not feeble."
Giles opted to salve his Slayer's pride and handed over his carry-on. Buffy did cut a rather athletic figure for a woman as far along as she was... of course, it was impossible to tell exactly how far along she was, considering the circumstances; who knew what the normal in a case like this? He suppressed a twinge of curiosity. He was not, he vowed, going to turn this visit into a clinical study, and bother Spike for bringing the subject up to begin with.
After a brief wrangle with security over the trunk, during which Giles devoutly wished that it were made of sapient pearwood rather than high-impact plastic, they made their escape. Buffy and Spike continued their bickering all the way out to the curb, bumping shoulders, brushing knuckles, exchanging playful, proprietary little pokes and punches. Spike dropped the luggage in the loading zone and a kiss on Buffy's forehead, his big hands spanning the globe of her stomach and sliding around her waist in a brief protective caress. "Back in a mo', pet."
He took a step off the curb, flung his jacket over his head, and dashed out into the parking lot, vampire speed racing the sun. "Big dope," Buffy muttered, in the tone generally reserved for goopy pet names.
"He's still vulnerable to sunlight, then?" Giles asked, unable to restrain his curiosity any longer.
"Yep. And he still lives on blood and he can still go fangy and he still heals really fast. Fred says--" Buffy broke off and darted furtive looks to the left and right, checking to see if Spike was out of earshot, and grabbed Giles's elbow. "Quick! Before he gets back."
Alarm shot through Giles, vague fears he hadn't realized he possessed boiling to the surface. Buffy drew him conspiratorially close. "I thought he meant Ritz, or maybe Saltines, but it turns out that was one of those tragic cookie-biscuit mixups, except I can't figure out what it's mixed with, and I promised! I absolutely have to find some by tomorrow, if I can find out what they are and you're my only hope, Obi Wan, so spill!"
Utter confusion displaced fear, a not-uncommon occurrence where Buffy was concerned. "Buffy, what--"
"Christmas crackers!" she hissed. "I wanted to give Spike a traditional English Christmas, because it's our first one...well, not our first together, but it's our first together-for-good. And when you decided to visit--I'm making plum pudding," she announced with the grim determination of a kitchen Sibyl. "I got a goose. Did you know that goose is, like, twenty dollars an ounce? No wonder the Cratchits were welfare cases! I just need to get crackers."
The thought of Buffy cooking Christmas dinner was more alarming than the thought of Buffy bearing Spike's demon love child--only marginally so, but still. "Crackers are party favours. Several import shops in Los Angeles sell them. Er...you're making a pudding?"
Buffy wilted, then straightened with a glower. "If I can stake three vampires in ten minutes without breaking a nail..."
"Quite so," Giles said soothingly. "Mere pudding will quail before you. It's just that traditionally the Christmas pudding is made weeks in advance--"
"Week-old pudding?" Buffy wrinkled her nose in disdain. "Ew? I don't think so. I'll whip some up Christmas morning. And--shoot, crackers! I don't have time to drive to LA. I'll have to have someone pick them up and FedEx them." She frowned and nibbled on a thumbnail. "Maybe Anya's got a contact..."
"Anya doubtless has contacts, but still, it's rather short notice. Perhaps this once," Giles suggested, "Spike wouldn't mind if you skipped the crackers?"
Buffy's expression grew visibly more off-with-their-heads. "There will be crackers. Also? Eggnog and mistletoe and carols and presents, and everything is going to be perfect."
The stubborn jut of her small pointed chin admitted no argument, and Giles was saved from further comment by the arrival of DeSoto pulling up to the curb. Spike hopped out, only slightly singed, and flung open the boot--it was cluttered with assorted weapons, tools, petrol cans, and blood coolers, and still had room for all the luggage and a dead body or two. To Giles's surprise the car's interior, though still redolent of whiskey, cigarettes, and ancient sins, was reasonably clean.
They spun out of the parking lot and onto the access road to the freeway with something less than Spike's usual casual disregard for the laws of traffic and physics, doubtless in deference to Buffy's delicate condition. Light poles and palm trees flashed by outside windows unsmudged by whatever ungodly mixture of paint and axle grease Spike had used to use to keep the sun out. Apparently Bloody Vengeance Inc. was doing well enough that Spike could afford necro-tempered glass.
"I don't suppose you've discovered anything more about this mystery weapon?" Giles asked.
"Not a lot," Buffy admitted. "Willow went out to look at it last week, and she felt nada magicwise, but they hadn't finished excavating it. And maybe she wouldn't anyway, since the vampire thing interferes with the magic-sense-y stuff. I just know it's powerful, and it's..." Buffy's lashes lowered over eyes grown stormy with doubt. "It's important. Incredibly important. I can feel it pull all the way down in my bones every time I get near it. It... it's meant for me, somehow, or I'm meant for it. It calls to me, Giles. I just have a feeling that if I really listen, I'm not going to like what it has to say."
"Not big on weapons that hold conversations," Spike muttered, swinging into one of his last-minute turns at, for him, a very moderate speed. "Tend to be one-sided."
A faded wooden sign emblazoned SHADOW VALLEY VINEYARDS loomed up and disappeared in the rear-view mirror. Giles didn't remember the name, but Sunnydale, even post-Hellmouth, was full of unexpected nooks and crannies of space and time--had they ever seen that mansion of Dracula's again once he'd left town?
Shadow Valley, at least, appeared to be perfectly normal, no different than any of a hundred other small California wineries. It hadn't been a going concern for some time: the buildings were boarded up and the fields were sere and unirrigated, studded with the gnarled grey leafless stumps of grapevines. A bulldozer stood sentinel, its long dark shadow pointing accusingly eastwards. Spike pulled up as close as possible to the construction trailer set up near the old offices and laid onto the horn. The trailer door opened and a large burly man leaned out and waved. "Mr. and Mrs. Summers-Pratt," he said, in a surprisingly respectful tone. "Glad you could make it. I know it's a bad time of year."
"More like a bad time of day," Spike grumbled. He ducked under his jacket in preparation for another mad dash to shade, which didn't seem to faze the large man in the slightest. Giles glanced at Buffy, who smiled her brightest.
"Giles, this is Vinny Chavez--he's a friend of Xander's from the construction days. Vinny, this is Rupert Giles. He's kind of an expert on....well, everything. Except synchronized swimming."
"Pleased to meet you." Vinny held out a large calloused hand. "Come on, the wine cellar's over behind the trailer."
"Does he--?" Giles whispered as they followed Vinny across the dusty ground.
"Know about me and Spike?" Buffy nodded. "I told you, Sunnydale's changing."
Vinny produced a flashlight and an impressive set of keys, and led them through a pair of old-fashioned iron-bound wooden doors and down a shallow bank of stairs. The workmanship changed abruptly halfway down, as though the winery had been built upon the foundations of a much older building. Plaster and lathe metamorphosed into unmortared stone, granite speckled with mica and quartz, set so closely a knife-blade couldn't have passed through the joints. The steps cut into the rock beneath their feet dipped in the middle, as if worn down by centuries of passing feet. The cellar itself was mostly empty--the wine was long gone, but a few discarded racks lay stacked in a corner, shrouded with cobwebs, and a pair of huge empty tuns dominated the opposite end of the room. On the far wall a section of plaster had been ripped out, exposing bare rock. The beam of Vinny's flashlight passed over the crevice, and something glittered that was definitely not gold.
"It's still stuck in there pretty good," Vinny said. "We got that Guntaeg demon guy Mrs. Harris recommended to come in and eat away some of the rock, but he got indigestion or somethin', said the axe was bad mojo, and walked out. The thing is, we're already behind schedule. This is all supposed to come down by the New Year. If this is some kind of archeological site, we gotta report it, and there's a million fucking forms to fill out, and we're screwed. But that thing, it doesn't look like any Indian or Spanish artifact I ever heard of. And if it's connected to all that weird shit Xander used to get into, we don't want any part of it. A lot of the guys are superstitious, and living around here I can't hardly blame 'em, but the last thing we need is the rumor to get out that the site's jinxed. If you guys can..."
Buffy strode--more of a waddle in practice, but a stride in intent--over to the crevice, and Giles followed. On closer inspection it looked as if there'd once been a hollow there, and at some point someone had closed it up. There was a faint, fading tingle of earth-magic in the stone. It must have been incredibly powerful, once, if a mage of his limited ability could still sense it after all this time, but it was exactly the sort of magic Willow was no longer attuned to. Within the hollow was a battle-axe in an improbable shade of fire-engine red, its blade still wedged firmly into the stone. Its haft ended in a sharpened wooden stake.
Giles frowned. The stake in the handle argued that it had been designed for killing vampires; otherwise a metal spike would have been more efficient. "Is that blade stainless steel?"
"Looks like. Not exactly high on the ancient-o-meter," Buffy agreed. "I think that kills the idea it might be a valuable piece of Sunnydale's prehistory. No forms for you, Vinny! Still...shiny." She reached out, stroking the axe's handle. There was an eager, yearning light in her eyes as her fingers curled around the haft, and a second later the axe was sliding out of the stone as if the granite were butter. A slow, delighted smile spread across her face, and she made a few experimental passes with the blade. "Whoa. Look at that balance! Not an axe girl as a usual thing, but this is wicked cool."
"Castor and Pollux blow me to Bermuda," Giles murmured. He probed the stone with one hand, to ascertain for himself that the weakened rock hadn't simply given way under the pressure of Slayer strength, but no, the hole where the blade had been was sheer-sided and perfect.
"If you guys want to get it out of here, I never saw anything," Vinny said. "Consider it an early Christmas present."
They started back up the stairs, Buffy clutching the axe awkwardly in front of her belly. "You want me to get that?" Spike asked.
"No!" Buffy snatched the axe out of his reach, and then blinked, startled by the vehemence of her own reaction. She looked down at the axe, then extended the haft to Spike. "Sure. Go ahead. Carry it. Let's just get out of here."
Buffy remained engrossed in examining the axe on the drive home, setting it on the seat between her and Spike and then picking it up again and again, testing the heft, running her thumb along the blade. Spike was uncharacteristically silent, keeping his eyes on the road and only now and then shooting a faint worried glance in her direction.
"You're certain I'm not inconveniencing you?" Giles asked, as the silence verged upon the awkward. "I could get a hotel..."
"Don't be silly," Buffy said firmly, setting her new toy aside for good. "With Willow and Tara out of the house there's the whole basement open, and Dawn's going on a skiing trip with the latest boy toy--"
"Hope he's better than the last one," Spike put in. "Utter wanker. Fainted on me."
Buffy rolled her eyes. "Well, you were in game face and threatening to saw his bits off with a dull knife if they came anywhere near your precious Dawnie. It's a wonder any of her boyfriends last past the second date. Ooh, and Giles, you've got to see the nursery! We're fixing up Dawn's old room--"
"My office," Spike grumbled.
Buffy poked him in the ribs. "You should have thought of that when you knocked me up."
If there was a smugness lottery, Spike's grin had just won the Powerball. "Didn't hear you complaining during the process."
Giles shuddered. "I'll just fling myself out the window now and avoid the rush, shall I?"
The house on Revello looked much the same--Spike's sleek black Triumph Bonneville snuggled up to Buffy's Jeep in the driveway, the huge old oak still stretched its knotted branches up to the second floor windows, and Joyce's roses in front of the porch were in full bloom. Giles studied the lush velvety petals in red and pink and gold scattered across the winter-faded lawn, in the mood to read portents in the sidewalk cracks. He watched Buffy as she went to unlock the front door. Once upon a time he'd harbored dreams of seeing her transcend the Slayer's lot--seeing her grow past girlhood, seeing her find love, and life, and purpose beyond the confines of the graveyard.
In a way, all this dreams had come true, though he wasn't certain if his younger self might not consider the manner of their fulfillment nightmarish. Even now he couldn't say that he entirely approved of Spike, but at the same time, it couldn't be denied that the vampire was a large part of the reason that in another month, Buffy Summers would tie the record for oldest living Slayer. And the two of them were happy together, in their odd way.
Inside the fruits of Buffy's determination to have a perfect Christmas were much in evidence. Real mistletoe dangled from a nail above the arch leading from the kitchen to the dining room, stockings hung by the seldom-used chimney with care, and cards were arrayed on the mantlepiece with military precision. There was a tree in the living room, filling the house with the scent of pine, glittering with tinsel and fairy lights. Save for the few things which had survived the basement flood several years back, the ornaments were all new. Giles admired it while Buffy stowed the axe in the weapons chest and Spike took his bags down to the basement. Miss Kitty wound inquisitively around his legs, demanding tribute, and Giles reached down to scratch her ears.
Buffy's cell phone rang as she was closing the chest. She dove for her handbag and dug frantically through stakes and lipstick. "Hello? Dawn? What are you doing there? I thought--well, sure, I guess. Giles is here, and I was going to put him in Willow's old room. He can sleep on the couch. Uh, that would be a 'because I say so?' Yes. No. Totally, unconditionally no. Do not be like that, Dawn. I hereby declare a being like that moratorium. OK. Spike'll be there in half an hour."
"Niblet change her mind and dump the undeserving bastard?" Spike asked, emerging from the basement.
"Mmm," Buffy said. "Not quite. Apparently there was a ticketing malfunction. Or maybe she's looking more than usually like a terrorist today, I'm not sure. She's at the airport. With Boy Toy."
"Brill. Least she's brought me a snack for my troubles," Spike grumbled. "All right, I'll go get her. You two can fondle your fancy new pigsticker."
He took shameless advantage of mistletoe placement, and the two of them kissed as if they were settling in for a long winter's nap, slow and warm and thorough, Spike's hands laced across the small of her back, Buffy's resting lightly on his upper arms, her thumbs stroking the hard bulk of his biceps. And then Spike was off, defying the winter sun one last time, and the man who was no longer a Watcher was left looking at the woman who was no longer a Slayer.
"It's beautiful," Giles said with a gesture at the tree.
"Dawn decorated it." Buffy pulled one of the fragrant green branches through her fingers and smiled wistfully. "You know, our old decorations weren't this pretty. They were all mismatched and I think every set was missing at least one ornament, and there were all these weird mutant ones Dawn and I made in school when we were little--a moose and a speedboat and a lobster..." She looked up, the stained-glass shimmer of lights playing across her face. "I can't wait till our tree looks like that again."
He could see the tired lines under her eyes now, concealed by artfully applied makeup. "Buffy..." Giles laid a hand on her shoulder. "Are you well? Truly?"
Her right hand drifted to the ring on her left, toying with the delicate gold band--it was a lovely thing, with three tiny perfect diamonds in an antique setting. Giles would have bet any amount of money that she still had the hideous silver skull ring it had replaced laid away in velvet somewhere. "I'm...I get tired so easily now. The doctor says it's normal...at least, he thinks it's normal." Her smile turned rueful. "It's hard to tell."
Giles looked away, torn. "Is this child really what you want?"
Buffy wrapped her arms around herself, and the added bulk of pregnancy only emphasized how tiny she really was. "What time of day is it? Sometimes there's nothing I want more. Sometimes..." She looked down, spread her hand across her stomach. The fingers trembled ever so slightly. "Sometimes I look in the mirror and I don't know who's looking back."
He sighed. "I've never asked, Buffy, but surely after Spike's... transformation, the two of you were aware of the possibility that..."
"That the cold dead seed wasn't? Yeah." She levered herself carefully down onto the couch. "We were really careful for awhile, but then... We slipped up once or twice, and nothing happened, and... we just got careless, and nothing kept happening. So we figured that whatever Spike is now, he and I just weren't mixy in the baby-making department. And then one night we, um, tried something different." Her fingers drifted to her neck, and a sated, reminiscent smile touched her lips. "Turns out that we're mixy as all heck."
Giles decided he didn't want to ask. There were no scars save the old, faded ones, and that would have to be enough. He coughed. "Since you told me that you were...expecting, I've consulted every text I could find, looking for..."
"A prophecy?" Buffy shook her head. "Not counting on one. I think Angel used up all the prophecies about vampire babies with Connor. Spike and I are on our own. I think I like it better that way."
"He still burns in the sun," Giles mused. "And yet his heart beats, and he has to breathe now?"
"Twelve beats a minute, like clockwork," Buffy confirmed. "Body temperature seventy-two point six degrees, and he can hold his breath for, like, an hour or so." She went a little pink across the cheeks. "Absolutely not that I've timed him. He's not human, Giles. He's definitely still a vampire. Just...not dead."
Obviously, Giles thought, with a glance at her stomach. Alive, but not human. Very, very far from human. In England the fact of Buffy's pregnancy had been unsettling, but distant. Now, confronted with the reality...had this been any other day, any other girl, he would have been fascinated. An entirely new species of demon was coming into the world, and he would absolutely not quote Yeats. "You're certain, then, that the child... er... takes after its father?"
Buffy turned to regard him, a tawny light in her eyes--perhaps it was only a reflection of the tree lights. "His father. He's a boy. I've got pictures, from the ultrasound. He's got fingers and toes and he sucks his thumb, and we're going to name him William Henry after his grandfathers, and--and he's got a heart rate of thirty-four beats per minute. Like clockwork." She took a deep shuddery breath. "I'm not scared because this baby is a demon. I'm scared because it's a baby. I'm not all human either, Giles. Not really. Not anymore. You should remember that."
Pride, love, pity, apprehension--he wasn't the only one struggling with what to feel. "Buffy, you are without doubt," Giles said with utter conviction, "the most human person I know."
She smiled, gratitude making the tears well up where fear couldn't, and hastily wiped the glittering drops away as the doorbell rang. "That can't be Spike back with Dawn already," she muttered, heaving herself to her feet and reaching for the front door knob. "Who on--Dad?"
Hank Summers stood on the porch, wearing an expensive if rumpled suit and a goofy grin, hand in hand with a well-groomed, poised young woman whom Giles supposed must be the fabled Linda. Hank beamed in at his eldest daughter. "Merry Christmas, honey!" He held their clasped hands up, displaying the brand new matching rings. "Say hi to your new mom!"
"Dad!" Buffy repeated, catching hold of the doorframe with one hand. She turned a fixed, glassy-eyed smile on Hank Summers's companion. "And Linda! And... you're married! That's...great! Really...great!"
Good will towards men drained from her father's face. "Buffy. You're... oh, God. Oh, God."
"Congratulations, Granddad," Buffy said weakly. "Surprise?"
Linda looked from one Summers to the other. "I think her surprise wins, honey."
In the course of a life spent in pursuit of the forces of evil and the defense of mankind from same, Rupert Giles had been in numerous situations best described as dire. He had fought vampires, battled demons, and faced down hellgods, and he would have gladly abandoned his current position on the Summers' comfortable couch for the most peril-fraught of his past confrontations. Linda, his co-spectator for the Ultimate Summers Smackdown, perched on the opposite end of the couch, maintaining an Emily Post smile and a white-knuckled grip on her cup of coffee.
"I can't believe you didn't tell me!" Hank was pacing distractedly back and forth in front of the fireplace, narrowly missing a collision with the Christmas tree on every second turn. "For God's sake, Buffy, I know I haven't always been there for you, but - but - this!" He waved a hand wildly at her less-than-svelte figure, almost sending an entire row of Christmas cards toppling. "What the hell have I done to deserve being kept in the dark about this?"
"I was going to tell you!" Buffy had retreated to the depths of the old brown armchair, her arms folded defensively above her swelling belly. "I called! Lots of times! The first time you were in a meeting, the second time you were just about to leave for Outer Slobovia or something, the third time you started ragging on Spike - "
"Oh, no, young lady, you're not going to make this one my fault!" Hank came to a halt, paling as a horrible thought struck. "Please tell me you went to a sperm bank. Please."
Buffy drew in a deep breath, huffed it out, and curled her fingers in a manner which suggested that she was sorry she'd put the axe away. "I'm going to get you some coffee." Linda glanced surreptitiously at her near-full cup. "More coffee, I mean. Warmer coffee."
She struggled out of the armchair like a breaching whale, and fled (for one of the less speedy values of fleeing) in the direction of the kitchen. Hank rested his forehead against the mantelpiece with a strangled moan. For a long moment there was silence, broken only by the uncomfortable creak of furniture and the occasional inquisitive mew from Miss Kitty. "So pleased to meet you at last, Mr. Giles," Linda said gamely, extending a hand. "Buffy's told me so much about you."
"Has she?" Buffy's current policy of tell-whether-they-ask-or-not still made Giles uneasy after a lifetime of ingrained secrecy, but he had to admit that on many occasions it simplified matters. "I'll assume it's all flattering."
Hank shoved off the mantelpiece and rounded on Giles, jaw jutting aggressively. "How long have you known about this?"
Giles had no great degree of respect for Hank Summers. One had to grant that he was brilliant at his job, whatever it was, but he'd never impressed Giles otherwise. The man didn't read for pleasure, for God's sake. Still, he rather thought that getting into a fistfight with her father was not the best way to increase Buffy's store of Christmas spirit. "Not long at all," he said diplomatically. "I'll just go see if Buffy needs help with the coffee."
The kitchen bore further witness to Buffy's quest for holiday perfection: the whole place smelled of cinnamon, vanilla and burnt sugar. Half a dozen platters of Christmas cookies (the first in line painstakingly decorated; the stragglers garnished with a scant lick and a promise of icing) crowded the counters, along with several pies and a tipsy-looking fruitcake. Buffy was perched on a stool at the kitchen island, systematically demolishing a plate of gingerbread.
"I've been reasonable," she said, plucking another unfortunate gingerbread man from the platter. She bit its head off with a snap and proceeded to dispose of the body. Cheeks still bulging, her lower lip wobbled, and the brightness in her eyes threatened to spill over. "More than reasonable. Uber-super-ultra reasonable. Haven't I been reasonable?"
Giles was beginning to see what Spike meant about the moods. "On many occasions. Your father's a bit of a tosser, but you must admit he's had a shock. Why on earth haven't you told him?"
Buffy paid no attention. "Dad divorces Mom? I don't say a word. Utter silence on the Buffy front. Dad goes traipsing off to Europe and misses Mom's funeral? Peachy-doodle. Dad takes three months to mosey over to Sunnydale and take custody of Dawn after I die? Fine and also dandy. Dad moves in with a - with her -" Buffy gave her latest victim a vicious shake before sentencing it to summary decapitation. " - who's six years older than I am tops, and do you hear me object? You do not. But he shows up on my doorstep and has the nerve to introduce her as my new mom?"
The tremor in her voice had far more behind it than Hank Summers's unfortunate choice of words. Giles pulled up a stool and tried to gauge whether or not a foray into the gingerbread was likely to cost him a finger. "Surely that's not why..."
Buffy unscrewed the lid from a jar of marshmallow fluff, plunged a gingerbread man into it head-first, and chewed morosely. "He's never liked Spike." She regarded the dwindling supply of cookies. "Do you think I should bake a mince pie? For tomorrow, I mean. I've already made pumpkin and apple. The skins just make it rustic, right? What exactly is mince, anyway?"
"A mixture of suet, beef, apples, and currants. Buffy, I hardly greet Spike's presence in your life with loud huzzahs. You told me."
"That's different." Another cookie soldier bit the dust. "Even after everything, he's my Dad. We used to...we used to be close." She sniffled. "You know the absolute worst thing about Linda?"
"Which would be...?"
"She makes Dad happy. Oh, God, there's the doorbell again." Buffy slid off her stool with a grunt, and headed for the front door. Giles followed, ducking the mistletoe.
Dawn was in the foyer, divesting herself of her carry-on luggage. "Buffy! I am an airline goddess!" she proclaimed. "They completely overbooked our flight, and the next one, and they were practically begging people on hands and knees to take comp tickets! And I? Totally played the Christmas Orphan card before I let them bump us back to tomorrow morning! Look!" She waved a handful of brightly colored pasteboard at her sister. "Dinner for two at the Blue Lantern, and six hundred dollars worth of plane tickets if I fly in the next year! I am so going to Disney World!" She turned to hang her coat up and her eyes went wide - Giles barely escaped a trampling as Dawn launched herself across the living room, a comet of long legs and glossy chestnut hair.
"DAD!" she shrieked, wrapping her father in a bear hug. "You came!"
"Of course we came, sweetie," Hank wheezed. "It's Christmas, right? Which reminds me, there's presents in the trunk of the car, if - " He broke off, staring over his daughter's shoulder at the gangling form which slouched in the doorway. "What the hell- ?"
Dawn released her father from the Grip of Death and bounced back to the door, grabbing the looming figure by the wrist and dragging it inside. "Dad? This is Shawn. We met at Anya and Xander's wedding. Shawn, you know my sister, and this is my Dad, and his, uh, girlfriend Linda, and oh! Mr. Giles! This is so cool!"
"Hey," mumbled Shawn, hands in pockets and eyes on the toes of Hank's shoes.
Hank took in Shawn's scuffed Addidas, Shawn's low-slung jeans, Shawn's faux-gangsta hoodie, and Shawn's enormous, curling horns. Giles felt rather as if he were watching a slow-motion gasoline explosion. Hank's face reddened, and his eyes narrowed, and though he did not literally swell at the seams, his expression made it certain that all in his path would be shortly laid waste. "No. Oh, no. I put up with this from Buffy because I have to, but you're still a minor, and -"
"And what?" Dawn's eyes all but glowed as she transformed from thwarted ski-bunny to Teenzilla. She faced her father with squared shoulders and a disdainful hair-flip. "You're going to tell me who I can date? God! That's so like you, disappearing for months and then acting like you own me! Last time I checked, you're not my legal guardian."
"I may not be your legal guardian now, but I'm the one paying your way through college, and if I decide to contest - "
"Dad, just stop it!" Buffy wailed.
"Hank, calm down," Linda said. "Remember your blood pressure." She gave Buffy an apologetic grimace. "Maybe we'd better get a hotel room. You weren't expecting us, and you've got other guests - "
"Oh, no. No, no, no, no, no." Buffy's expression of tearful entreaty morphed into grim, holiday-cheer-fueled determination. "It's Christmas Eve. You're family. No way are you staying in a hotel. I can put you in the basement and Giles in Dawn's room, and Dawn can sleep on the couch. Shawn? Sleeping bag." She glared around at all of them, fists on her hips. "Now. We're all going to sit down and listen to carols and have cocoa. Any objections?"
The front door slammed open, and Spike dashed inside in a cloud of smoke, staggering under the load of Dawn's luggage. "Why no, I haven't quite burned to death, ta ever so for asking," he growled. He kicked the door shut, dropped the bags with a thump, and slapped out a lick of flame along one shoulder. He looked around at the variously furious, sulky, and miserable faces and broke into a wide, irritating grin. "Ah. No place like home for the holidays."
Brandy made everything better.
Or at least, that seemed to be Spike's theory of conflict management, judging by the generous amount with which he'd adulterated the eggnog. Giles was a Scotch man as a rule, but Spike's (lack of) taste in whiskies ran very far from single malts, and Buffy had at least purchased an inoffensive domestic brandy for her adventures in setting puddings ablaze. One of the presents in the boot of Hank's car proved to be a hamper of tamales from Linda's grandmother - fortunate, given that most of Buffy's culinary energies were focused on the dinner of Christmas yet to come, and her plans for tonight's meal were somewhat nebulous.
Throughout dinner, Hank glared, Dawn sulked, and Buffy sniffled. Indeed, the only person at the table who could be said to be enjoying himself was Spike - domesticated the vampire might be, but a demonic love of strife still ran strong in his nature. In the space of half an hour, he inquired of Shawn whether his family had stopped eating babies yet, opined that Giles had so far done a piss-poor job of re-infiltrating the Council's ranks, and feigned shock that Linda wasn't up the duff herself, given the weight she'd put on since he saw her last. Giles would have cheerfully throttled him, now that throttling might conceivably do some damage, save for noticing that every argument Spike started served to distract Hank from haranguing Buffy. (Distracting Buffy from haranguing Hank merely required waving another tamale under her nose.)
"So, Dad," Spike said at last, settling back in his chair and stretching booted feet out beneath the table, "I feel we've been remiss. Let the lines of communication slip. What about us coming up for New Years'? Doss down at your place, have a bash-up with champagne and funny hats - I could bring some of my poker mates along. Christ knows your friends are likely to be a pack of colossal stiffs."
Hank diverted his glare from Buffy to this far more attractive target. "We've already got plans."
"Yeh? Pity, that. Weekend after, then?"
Buffy said, "That's enough, William," in the Voice of Connubial Doom.
Spike raised an innocent eyebrow, but the gravity inherent in her employing his given name was not lost upon him. "Just doin' my part to bring the family together."
"Well, stop it." Buffy turned to Giles with a determinedly chipper smile. "So, any brilliant Watcherly ideas about the axe thingy we found?"
Giles took a contemplative sip of eggnog. "It doesn't match the description of any of the mystical weapons I'm familiar with," he admitted. "I assume Willow's done an internet search?"
Buffy grimaced. "Sort of. She was just in town for a few days, visiting her parents for Hanukkah, and besides..." She waved a hand. "She has this whole fresh new start thing going with Angel's operation in L.A., and I didn't want it to look like I was trying to poach her back here or anything. Mostly we talked about whether it would be too Ross Gellar of her to ask Fred out, assuming Fred even swings that way, which? One of the sweet mysteries of life."
"Ah," Giles replied, feeling more than usually out of the loop. Willow's e-mails of late had been unfailingly chatty and upbeat without, he now realized, revealing anything about her personal life. "In that case, perhaps I'd best get started as soon as possible."
"Great idea," Buffy said, springing to her feet with enthusiasm if not alacrity. "Dawn, the sleeping bags are in the basement, and while you're down there, you can get the sofa bed set up for Dad and Linda."
"Yay, domestic servitude," Dawn grumbled. "And to think I could have been living it up at the Blue Lantern."
"We'll all help," Linda said, all but dragging Hank after her. "It'll be fun."
Spike draped an arm around Shawn's shoulders (with some difficulty, as Shawn was a good six inches taller than he was) and propelled him into the living room. "Let's you and me have a chat about sleeping arrangements," he said amiably, "demon to demon." Shawn threw one terrified glance over his shoulder at the rest of them, and shuffled off to meet his fate.
Buffy heaved a sigh as soon as they were all out of sight, retrieved the axe from the weapons chest and beckoned Giles upstairs.
Dawn had moved into Buffy's old room when Buffy and Spike took over the master bedroom. As evidence of her newfound maturity, the NSync posters which had plastered the walls of her old room had been replaced by Andre 3000 and Belle & Sebastian, and the remembered mountain of stuffed toys had been reduced to a molehill. His suitcases and trunk were already piled beside the bed.
Buffy laid the axe across Dawn's pillow, surreptitiously toed a tangle of ski-trip reject skirts and blouses into the closet, and employed a little Slayer strength to force the door closed. "There you go. Clean sheets and unlimited access to Dawn's laptop if you want it - sorry, it's only dial-up in here. All the comforts of a really crowded home." She sat down on the edge of the bed and rubbed her eyes, all the weariness of the day drawing her shoulders down. "I love my family. Really."
Giles knelt beside his trunk and ran deft fingers over the lid, pronouncing the word which unlocked it. "If you didn't, they wouldn't be so trying."
She smiled, small and rueful. "I guess. Sometimes I wish I could lock them all away in a vault and only take them out on special occasions." Buffy laid a hand on her belly. "And it's just going to get worse. I just wish I knew if... I wish... I miss Mom." Absently, she reached out to stroke the candy-apple red blade beside her. "Of course, if she were still here, she'd probably be down there beaning Spike with this axe."
Giles extracted an armful of leatherbound volumes from the trunk and began stacking them on the corner of Dawn's desk. "I brought several compendiums of ancient mystical weapons with me - Mycenaean Ceremonial Axes, Fancher's The Labrys In Myth and History - but the weapon itself presents several contradictions. The stonework of the chamber you recovered it from is almost certainly pre-Columbian, but there's no tradition of ironworking in this area until the arrival of the Spaniards. Much less steel of this quality - you see the striations in the blade, just here? The technique's reminiscent of... and I'm boring you to tears, aren't I?"
"But in a good way." Her eyes softened. "It's really good to see you again, Giles."
Moments like this were why he kept his glasses around to polish. From downstairs came an indistinct rumble of male annoyance, and then Dawn's shriller tones, "Newsflash, guys, I'm not Buffy! When I date someone, it's not some star-crossed apocalyptic thing, it's a date!"
Buffy groaned. "That's my cue. Yell if you need me. Everyone else does."
She grabbed an armful of nightclothes from Dawn's dresser and swept out. Giles seated himself at Dawn's cramped little study desk. His heart's desire was to watch Buffy grow old, but getting one's heart's desire was not always easy. Spike had once accused him of running away from the inevitability of Buffy's third death, and whatever had changed for her in the last few years, there was no sign that she was anything but mortal still. He had regrets - who didn't? But what would have been accomplished by his remaining in Sunnydale, really? He could barely put up with his own relatives. With a sigh, he turned back to his books.
He kept an ear out for smashing furniture or cries of anguish from below, but apparently the combination of food and alcohol had finally produced a postprandial stupor sufficient to overcome even the Summers' family's combative instincts. And soon enough the thrill of the hunt absorbed his entire attention. Scenting a clue in one reference, following its tracks from chapter to chapter, flushing it from cover as it went to earth in one obscure legend after another and finally pinning it writhing to the page - perhaps the jobs of a Watcher and a Slayer were not so different after all.
Where to begin? The design - no clues to the axe's origin there; the bloody thing looked like a fantasy replica from the Franklin Mint. The mere fact that it was steel meant a probable origin within the last fifteen hundred years, but there were isolated examples of serendipitous production of steel going back far earlier. The manufacture - on close examination the gleaming surface revealed tell-tale watered-silk markings. Pattern-welded meteoric iron, perhaps, though he couldn't be certain without a metallurgic analysis. It was a technique more often found in sword-making, but if this were truly a weapon forged for a Slayer, an axe was far more generally useful in fighting vampires.
And that was another question - if it had been forged for another Slayer, long ago, for what purpose? Why had it been abandoned, hidden away in a fastness unmentioned in any of the Watcher's diaries he had access to? Of course, just because he couldn't find a reference didn't mean one didn't exist. The Council's library was impressive, but not omniscient. Before the fifteenth century its records grew spotty; before the fifth, downright incomplete. How many of those lacunae, he wondered a trifle bitterly, were due to the relentless erosion of history's tides, and how many to the fears of men like Travers, who'd gutted the shelves of so much information on Slayer origins?
Now, that was a thought. If the axe was connected to the dubious demonic origin of Slayers in some fashion, perhaps references to it had been deliberately hidden or destroyed, by Travers or some earlier Council head. He fired up Dawn's laptop, impatient with the creep of the greybar across the screen. If he must use the beastly machine, was it too much to ask that it work quickly?
He paused to examine a faded color plate in Aufwiedler's Egyptian Enigmas. It depicted the familiar story of Ra battling the Chaos Serpent, Apep, but in place of the usual god-figure was that of a woman crowned with serpents. It was uncannily reminiscent of Buffy facing down the Ascended form of Mayor Wilkins. So many stories in so many iterations, scattered across worlds and time. Bridget and Brunhilda, Inanna and Kali, how many girls down the centuries had been conflated and confused with the creatures they fought? If he cross-referenced the Council's threadbare pre-Christian records with contemporary, possibly Slayer-related myths, look for mentions of an axe, or... it wasn't anything like a scythe, was it? Never mind, translation was an inexact science.
Absorbed in his search, Giles scarcely noticed Buffy and Spike passing in the hallway on the way to bed. The soft murmur of their bedtime conversation, muted by the sturdy old walls, gradually faded and was replaced by occasional amorous laughter and a leisurely, rhythmic thumping, the provenance of which he resolutely forbore to speculate about. In time, even that quieted.
Fingers brushed his shoulder, cool and insubstantial as air. Giles straightened with a start, assuming that Buffy had returned, or perhaps that Dawn had come up for some forgotten item of clothing. But when he turned, there was no one behind him. A glance at the Chococat clock on Dawn's night stand told him that it was well after midnight. Giles held his breath, listening. The house lay dark and silent, the stillness of this digital age unbroken even by the tick-tock of passing time.
A chill crawled across his shoulders, raked icy claws down his spine. He reached out, fingers closing around the haft of the axe. Slowly, he turned.
In the doorway stood Joyce Summers, just as he'd seen her last, thin and tired from the chemotherapy. Not the way he'd wanted to remember her, nor the way she'd have liked to be remembered. "Joyce?" he whispered.
The figure in the doorway stepped into the hall, raised a hand, and beckoned. A second later, he heard the scream.
Giles was charging down the darkened hall before he realized he'd risen from his chair. Pain stabbed his shoulder as he slammed into the door of the master bedroom (bloody hell, he was getting too old for this) and burst inside, axe at ready. The room was pitch-dark behind the heavy blackout curtains Buffy had installed as a precaution against the morning sun, and smelled of sex and beeswax. "Incendio!" Giles shouted, and the banks of candles he knew had to be clustered all around the room burst into flame.
Buffy, wrapped in a deep crimson robe, was backed up against the headboard of the big four-poster bed, her eyes wide with shock and the sheets clutched up around her breasts. Spike crouched naked at the foot of the bed, fangs bared, his eyes glowing a feral yellow beneath his ridged brow - if he'd possessed a tail, it would have been lashing. Candlelight splashed gold across lush curves and lithe muscle, transforming the familiar faces into icons of some pagan fertility goddess and her wild consort.
Spike whipped around with a bone-chilling snarl at Giles's entrance, ready to spring, then back again. Across the bedroom, in front of Buffy's vanity mirror, was the figure of Joyce Summers - not the weary, prosaic spectre Giles had seen in the hall, but the strong, vibrant woman he'd...never mind that. The shimmering apparition raised one imperious hand, pointing at Giles. "It is not for you," it said - Joyce's voice, but somehow richer, stronger, resonant with power. "It is for her alone to wield." She turned back to Buffy. "If you still have the will."
"Mom," Buffy croaked. "Please - "
"Not her, pet," Spike growled.
Joyce shook her head, her face sorrowful. "I'm so disappointed in you, Buffy. So disappointed."
And she was gone.
Buffy flung out a hand. "Mom!"
"Buffy!" Footsteps pounded on the stairs, and a sleep-frowzled Dawn almost knocked Giles over for the second time that day. "Buffy, what - Ew, ew, ew!" She slapped her hands over her eyes. "Spike, get some pants on!"
The vampire shook off his game face, blinked down at himself for a moment, then swore sulphurously and grabbed for the wodge of clothing thrown over one of the bedposts as Hank stormed in, yelling, "What have you done to my little girl, you - "
Spike, halfway into a pair of blue silk pajama bottoms that made it abundantly clear exactly what Buffy saw in him, snarled, "Shut your festering gob, you useless twat, or I'll rip your fucking tongue out and - "
Oh, for... "You're not helping, you sodding great prat," Giles snapped. Both Spike and Hank rounded on him, snorting like bulls. "If the shoe bloody fits, bloody wear it!"
"Stop it, stop it, stop it!" Buffy screamed. The room fell instantly silent. "Get out, all of you!"
Spike looked ready to protest, but Dawn grabbed his wrist and dragged him out into the hall. Hank and Giles followed, but as they started to leave, Buffy called out, "Giles. Wait."
He waited. "Shut the door," Buffy ordered. She untangled herself from the sheets, pulling her robe more tightly around her, and swung her legs over the side of the bed. For a moment she sat there, shivering, then tucked her feet into fuzzy pink slippers and shuffled across the floor to the place where the likeness of her mother had stood. She knelt clumsily on the thick carpet, running one hand across the richly patterned wool, and looked up. "You saw it, too."
Giles realized he was still holding the axe, and set it down, leaning the haft against the bedstead. He pulled up the vanity chair and sat, hands laced between his knees. "Yes. Buffy... Spike may be right. It wasn't necessarily your mother. It could be an illusion, a trick..."
"You said that once we closed the Hellmouth, the First Evil wouldn't be able to make a comeback in this dimension for a long time," Buffy said sharply.
"Quite so. But there are other powers capable of deception."
"And there are real ghosts, too," Buffy countered. "Cordelia's pal Dennis. That couple Spike and I ran into in Vegas. She said things - she knew things I haven't told anyone, even Spike." She sat back on her heels and wrapped her arms around herself, her face taut with distress. "If it really is Mom... Giles... are you - are you disappointed in me? For quitting?"
"Buffy, I..." He shoved his glasses up his nose, at a loss what to say. "I suppose I'm disappointed for you, at times. I think you deserve better than..." he gestured at the heavy curtains, the banks of candles, all the amenities of life with a vampire. "But I trust your heart is in the right place. I always have. It's not as if you've abandoned your duties - there are other Slayers now, and you still attend to, er, local concerns - "
"Right. Local concerns." She huddled on the carpet, staring past him. "There's only one real vampire gang left in Sunnydale, did you know? Besides Spike's. Plus maybe a dozen freelancers. And it's more Sharks and Jets and Crips and Bloods these days. The percentage of mysterious wild dog attacks in downtown Sunnydale? Way down. The graveyard's not the happening vampy scene anymore. That would be the social clubs. There's a seedy one one over the Fish Tank, and a swankier one over the Ice House uptown. Totally not safe, of course. Three people died in them this year, and I dusted the vampires that killed them. Or Spike did. After I, you know, became The Amazing Expanding Blob Woman.
"But if people don't die? I look the other way, and they know it. Everybody's happy, right? Because losing a couple of moronic suck junkies a year has to be a great trade for dozens of innocent bystanders with their throats ripped out. Doesn't it?" Buffy shuddered. "I can't kill them all, Giles, no matter how many I slay. I can never kill them all."
He reached out and laid a hand upon her bent shoulders, feeling the tremor running through her body. "No one expects you to."
"But I used to try," she whispered. "I can retire from being the one and only Slayer, but I can't retire from being me." Her fists clenched, and she straightened, swiping the back of her hand across her eyes.
She clasped his hand for a brief awkward moment, and climbed laboriously to her feet. "I have to get dressed," she said, making a shooing motion. Her eyes were damp but resolute. "I have to find her."
It was a chilly night by California standards. A breeze plucked fitfully at the leaves still clinging stubbornly to the trees, and the moon was almost full, a tarnished coin mounted against an indigo velvet sky. Giles found Spike on the front porch. One shoulder propped against the stone pillar, the vampire stared off into the night, thumbs tucked into the waistband of his pajama trousers. Moonlight silvered his unruly hair to a semblance of its old bleached whiteness. The cigarette dangling from his lips glowed in mockery of the Christmas lights that blinked and sparkled along the eaves.
Giles strolled across the porch and halted, a scant step behind him. Spike exhaled a long plume of moonlit smoke. "It's all bollocks," he said. When Giles said nothing, he elaborated, "Whatever she said about herself, up there."
"What about what she said about you?" Giles enquired.
One bare shoulder lifted and fell. "Probably true." Spike took another drag on his cigarette. "That ghost, that thing, what it said to her - I don't know what it was. But it wasn't Joyce."
Giles snorted. "What, because the real Joyce always liked you, and would doubtless shower her blessings on your union with Buffy?"
"If the lady knew about Buffy an' me, she'd be first in line with a stake in her hand." There was an ashtray within easy reach on the porch railing, but Spike ground his fag out on the stone. He tossed the butt into the rose bed - one-fourth of the Scourge of Europe, reduced to littering. In a bizarre way, Giles could almost pity him. "I killed a bloke last May," the vampire said without preamble. "Warren Meers. Errand boy for Wolfram & Hart. Sent Buffy and the sprog to a prison dimension." Spike's voice was placid, but the riptide of rage and - yes, fear - running beneath was strong enough to drown a man. "For good, I thought."
Ah. Well. Scratch the pity. Giles ignored the cold ache in his gut and slid a hand into his trousers pocket - he'd picked up a stake on his way through the living room, not because he'd expected Spike's revelation, but because it was always best to be prepared for any eventuality. "Did you indeed?"
"Tore his throat open and drank him dry. Don't regret a bit of it, either. Not this one."
The knot in Giles's belly tightened, along with his hand on the stake, but his voice remained steady. "Am I to congratulate you for this admirable restraint?"
"Up to you, Rupes." The vampire turned to face him, his eyes chips of old ice in the moonlight. "The only difference between you and me, mate, was Grandsire took your bat away."
The stake was at Spike's heart in an instant. "I sincerely hope you're not making the comparison I think you are," Giles said, soft and dangerous. "Because that would be extremely unfortunate."
Steely fingers braceleted his wrist, grinding the bones inward. Giles gasped and the stake clattered to the porch floor. "Have a care," Spike said, just as softly. "In my current delicate condition, you'd be lumbered with an inconvenient corpse instead of a tidy pile of dust. Come on, then, Watcher. Tell me how it's different." Beneath the sneer was a note of genuine and desperate inquiry. "I gave the bastard his chance to walk away, safe as houses. He didn't take it. So I took him. Why's that any worse than what you lot's done when some baddie brasses you off?"
Giles studied the defiant twist of the vampire's lips, the furrow of his brow, half worry and half anger. And the eyes - full of love and fear and bravado, so many emotions it would be easy to overlook the ones that were missing. Jenny... "Angelus was a monster. Warren was human."
"The two aren't mutually exclusive." Spike thrust Giles's hand away with a scowl.
"It's just different, you git!" Not the strongest of moral arguments. Thank God Spike hadn't been around for the fiasco of Buffy's attempt to kill Faith; Giles didn't think he had an answer for that one. He struck his fist against the pillar and winced. At least it distracted him from the oncoming headache. "Christ. I need a fag."
Spike cocked his head with the little half-frown that meant he was trying exceedingly hard to fathom the reactions of the souled, collected his cigarettes from the porch railing and tossed the pack to Giles. Unfiltered Marlboros. Lovely. Giles extracted one - only one, he promised himself - from the crumpled cellophane, and accepted the vampire's wordless offer of a light.
He puffed the vile thing to life with a sigh. "Does Buffy know about this?"
"'Course she does. That's the whole point, innit? Slayer knows, and didn't stake me. And now I find she's been fretting over it ever since." Spike raked a frustrated hand through his disordered curls. "Knew something wasn't right with her, but I thought she was just worried about the baby. I want you to tell her she's all right. She won't listen to me."
"You want me to condone her decision not to kill you?" Giles said with an exasperated Spike-wards jab of his cigarette. "Has it occurred to you that perhaps she's right to fret?"
"No!" Spike spun away to pace the length of the porch. "Yes. Bloody hell, I don't know! I need this shite spelt out for me, remember? I'm not telling you all of this for my health!"
"Your health is the least of my concerns." Giles shoved his hands more deeply into his pockets - hands that were not entirely clean of blood - and stared out over the darkened lawn. He should have been expecting something like this, but he'd grown complacent. They all had, over the last few years. Spike aped humanity too well, even when bellowing threats and spiking his eggnog with blood as well as brandy. If he'd fallen prey to the comforting illusion, how much more susceptible must Buffy be?
"You're cogitating, Rupert," Spike said, retrieving his smokes and lighting up another for himself. "Trying to make out your chances of killing me, some way Buffy won't find out. Just leave it out. We've still got a ghoulie to deal with. Once that's done..." He arched an eyebrow. "Take your best shot. I'm not going to kill you no matter how provoking you get. I catch you at it, I'll break your kneecaps, but have your fun - I respect a bloke who goes after Angelus with a baseball bat."
"I'm ever so grateful," Giles muttered. God, he was tired. "If it's not Joyce," he said, "then the question is, what is it?"
The front door swung open, and Buffy stuck her head out. "Oh, ew, Giles, not you too! Put those things out and get in here and make yourselves useful!"
"Coming, pet." Spike stubbed his cigarette out obediently, and Giles followed suit.
The house was warm and fragrant after the chill of the outdoors. Dawn was making a game attempt at research; books littered the coffee table like fallen leaves, the tomes Giles had brought with him mingling with volumes borrowed from the Magic Box and never returned. Hank and Linda were staring at a grimoire as if worried it would bite them, and Shawn was in the kitchen brewing coffee. Giles wanted nothing more than to pull Buffy aside and ask her what she knew about Spike's confession, but this was far too public a venue. He sat down with a sigh and dove into the nearest pile of books.
When the clock on the DVD player blinked from 12:59 to 1:00, Dawn was dozing off in the armchair, her cheek pressed against the arch of Shawn's horns as he snored beside her, wrapped up in the sleeping bag. Buffy was sucking on a candy cane and paging through Gauntlets, Greaves, and Gorgets: Magical Armor Through The Ages with an earnest frown. She'd propped the axe up against the couch beside her, and every now and then she reached out to touch it, as if seeking some kind of reassurance from the unresponsive steel. At the other end of the couch, Hank and Linda yawned in chorus, shooting longing glances towards the basement stairs and bed. Spike (who claimed that he'd broken his reading glasses in a fight with a renegade Polgara demon the week before, and was thus exempt from research; Giles strongly suspected that he was simply too vain to wear them in company) contented himself with massaging Buffy's shoulders, fetching Buffy glasses of warm milk, and making helpful comments on everyone else's failure to turn up anything useful.
"Buffy, are you certain you can't recall exactly what the...manifestation said to you?" Giles asked, for perhaps the third time. He was still reluctant to call it Joyce out loud - say it three times, and it might be so. "It could be extremely important. It can't be a coincidence that it appeared on the same day you retrieved the axe from the vineyard."
"Not exactly. Just general j'accuse." Buffy's cheeks hollowed insouciantly around the peppermint, honing it to Mr. Pointy sharpness, but there was a wariness lurking in her eyes. "You got the gist, so what's the big? Books, many. Magic axe. Dead Mom. Connect the dots."
Dawn came to with a start and wiped a thread of drool from her chin. "We did," she grumbled. "They make a big scribbly thing. We're not getting anywhere, and Shawn and I have to be back at the airport in six hours!" She rubbed her cheek. "Oh, bleah, why didn't you wake me up? Now I have horn face."
Buffy scowled, one hand tightening on the haft of the axe. Shawn slid down into the puffy Goretex embrace of the sleeping bag until only his horns were visible.
"She's right, honey," Hank said. He scratched his unshaven jaw. "Whatever you saw, it's gone now. Can't this wait till morning?"
"Point you may have forgotten," Spike drawled. "She's your ex, yeh? Lady might hold a grudge. Fancy waking up to Fruma Sara choking the life out of you? If so, off to beddy-bye. Otherwise I recommend burning the midnight etcetera."
"Did she say anything that might pertain to the axe?" Giles intervened, before matters could escalate. "I was hoping to find some references to Slayers using this type of weapon in the past, but - "
For the second time that night, icy fingers trailed along the back of his neck, and across the living room, on Joyce's old desk, a stack of papers slid to the floor, knocking over a pencil-holder en route. The whole mess clattered to the floor, and Buffy laid her forehead against the flat of the axe-blade and groaned. "And I just got all the bills sorted out!"
"Don't worry, I'll get it," Dawn said with a sisterly eyeroll. "You can't bend over anyway."
Giles got up and knelt to help as Dawn scooped the papers into a marginally less untidy heap. Something caught his eye among the bills and warranties and grocery lists - a battered old spiral notebook, the cover only nominally attached to its spine. A very familiar notebook. He eased it out of the pile and flipped through its stained and crinkled pages to a feverishly detailed ball-point sketch of Sunnydale as seen from Kingman's Bluff, surrounded by rambling, nonsensical equations. "On the other hand," he murmured, "perhaps interrogating the text from a another perspective might be more productive."
Dawn peered over Giles's shoulder. "Hey, that's Mr. Tanner's notebook. I forgot we still had it."
"What's that?" Hank asked, with grudging interest.
Giles turned another page, this one all scribbled over with arcane ravings. "Daniel Tanner was a local wizard, specializing in urban geomancy. He was of some assistance to Buffy in closing the Hellmouth."
Buffy frowned. "And we still have his notebook. Yay us. But it's just a bunch of crazy maps and notes on traffic flow and stuff. It's nothing to do with ghosts."
"Quite," Giles murmured. "But I'm not looking for ghosts. Or rather, not human ghosts." He turned the next page, and the next. "The man was half-mad when he wrote this, and it's several years out of date now, but all of these maps and equations show the paths and nodes of mystical power which flowed in and out of the Hellmouth when it was active. Ley lines, if you will."
He turned to a diagram of the Sunnydale sewer system, in four different colors of ink. "Mayor Wilkins built this town to be a sort of magical accelerator, to facilitate his Ascension. But you see, here?" He ran a finger down a complex tangle of abandoned irrigation canals, " - and here," he tapped the inky squiggle of Camino de los Dientes, the historic Spanish trail running along the edge of Miller's Woods. "There's an older pattern lying beneath the one that Wilkins built. Several older patterns, very likely - that ancient temple on Kingman's Bluff, the Chumash site beneath the college - each one overlain by what's been built on top of it."
Giles stabbed a triumphant finger at the map. "This is the vineyard. The stonework of the original structure, the cellar area where you discovered the axe, predates modern Sunnydale by some centuries at least. That original building must have been a part of one of these older patterns. If we can reconstruct that pattern, we may be able to find other ruins contemporary with the cellar at the vineyard. And with luck, one of those may contain clues to the makers of the axe and what its purpose was."
The others crowded around, squinting at the diagrams. He'd woken them up, at least. "Wow," Dawn said respectfully. "Too bad Willow's not here. She could scan all this stuff into her computer and do some kind of Matrix-y thing and combine all the layers and - "
"Yeh, well, Will's not here," Spike growled, with rather worse temper than anything Dawn had said seemed to warrant. "So we'll just have to do it the hard way, won't we?"
"Define hard," Hank said, cracking his knuckles. "I may not be a wizard or have superpowers. But I do have a laptop with a state of the art CAD program in my luggage. Let's give it a shot."
For the next three hours, Dawn scanned in pages, and Hank converted jpegs according to Giles' interpretation of the often obscure passages in the old notebook. Dawn's laptop and the computer in Spike's office upstairs were pressed into service to Google for maps of Sunnydale and Santa Barbara County dating back to the turn of the century and further. Transparent layers of street maps, utility grids, and sewer lines flicked to life at the click of a mouse, only to dissolve into more ancient urban glyphs below - centuries of architectural endeavor, human and otherwise, laid out along corridors of power older than time, reduced to pixels to be manipulated.
Whatever it was Buffy's father did for a living, twenty years of late nights and weekends had certainly given him a talent for getting things done. "That's all of it," Hank said, joints popping as he stretched. "Damned if I know what any of it means..."
"Sorry," Buffy said. "Me no sleepy, brain no worky. Call me when you need something hit really hard."
Giles adjusted his glasses and consulted the dusty A History of Sunnydale, by Edna Wilkins. "Let's see. The Shadow Valley Vineyard was built in 1914, on the site of the Presidio Del Sol, a small fortress originally intended to protect the Santa Maria Dolorosa Mission. While most of the original buildings were in ruins, there were some extant cellars, and the owner, a Professor Ashton Clarke-Smythe, utilized them in building his own wine cellars."
"So the Presidio must have been built on the foundations of whatever old ruin the axe was stashed in," Dawn said with growing excitement.
"Can you pull up the Spanish Colonial layers, please?" Giles asked. Hank obligingly masked the modern street grid. "The Presidio and the Mission were built between 1786 and 1790, supposedly on Chumash sacred sites - if you'll pull up the ley lines as well, you can see why they would have been considered sacred; they lie directly on a major node of arcane power - or did, once."
"If you can't beat 'em, join 'em," Spike muttered.
"Precisely." You would know. "According to this, the fort was abandoned after only five years, and the mission burnt to the ground in 1857..." Giles raised an eyebrow. "...shortly after the monks discovered a stone passageway of unknown provenance while sinking a new well. The abbot had ordered it sealed. A new chapel was built nearby in 1894, incorporating the grounds of the old mission in its graveyard - it's the oldest church in modern Sunnydale. In 1924 - dear me, it's our friend Clarke-Smythe again - re-discovered the passageway and attempted to convince several local worthies that the stonework was evidence of pre-Columbian settlement by Egyptian seafarers, and that for a small fee he could trace one's ancestry back to the Pharaohs. Alas, the esteemed Professor disappeared before he could make good on his genealogical claims."
"Wait." Buffy's nose was all but quivering as Hank superimposed the modern street grid over the winding sheep-trails of the past. "That's Shady Acres Cemetery, right? There's this big pyramidy kind of mausoleum there. I've been expecting it to cough up Son Of The Mummy for, like, years now. Anya's got a standing order in for tana leaves."
"Yes, Clarke-Smythe had it erected over the site of the passageway." Giles turned the book around to display a grainy black and white photograph. "Classic Egyptian Revival funerary architecture. That's the winged sun-disc of Horus inscribed over the doorway." He made a small tching noise. "Not quite as impressive as the Schoenhofen Mausoleum."
Buffy gripped the axe. "So King Tut's Tomb is built over this mysterious stone passage that's maybe but not certainly the same age as the mysterious stone passage that led us to the axe?"
"In a word, yes."
"Cool beans. What are we waiting for?" Buffy started to lever herself off the couch, but Spike placed a hand on her shoulder and pulled her back down.
"What's this we business?" he demanded. "You're out of the demon-hunting game for the duration, Slayer. You gave me your word on it."
Buffy scowled and blew and errant strand of hair from her eyes. "We don't know it's a demon."
"We don't know it isn't a demon. And if it is, Slayer - " Spike poked her ample midsection with a finger. "'Bout all you're in shape to do is eat it."
Thunderclouds gathered in Buffy's eyes. "Don't you dare treat this like some wacky pregnancy whim. You're acting like I've just gotten a craving for - for - bacon and butterscotch sandwiches or something. This axe belongs to me, Spike. I can feel it. I need to find out what that means. And besides..." Her voice dropped, and her fingers trembled a little on the axe-haft. "I think Mom wants me to."
"We don't know it's your mum!" Spike exploded.
"If this was your mother - " Buffy retorted furiously.
Spike flinched, and a tawny flame flickered to light in his eyes. "Then I'd know for certain it was a sodding demon, wouldn't I?"
Buffy bit her lip, but didn't back down. The two of them glared at each other for a moment, and then marched out of the living room in opposite directions, an exit made slightly less impressive by the fact that Spike had to give Buffy a hand to get her off the couch first. Buffy returned a moment later, muffled up to the nose in a fuzzy hat, scarf and mittens. She checked her handbag for stakes, shouldered the axe and looked at Giles. "I'm going for a walk. You coming with, or not?"
Giles shot a quick look at Hank, who spread his hands with a helpless When does she listen to me? expression. "Of course I will, Buffy. But...do be careful. I'm getting too old for fisticuffs."
She grinned at him. "Yeah, right. You're practically decrepit." A moment later, as he followed her out the front door, she murmured, "Darn it, now I really want a bacon and butterscotch sandwich."
Orion wheeled overhead, chasing the moon down the slopes of the coming dawn. They passed by houses festooned with electric icicles and darkened driveways lined with burnt-out luminarias. Giles couldn't fault Spike's concern, however tactlessly expressed; Buffy didn't slow, but she was starting to puff a little, breath misting white in the chilly air. She might be in excellent shape for a woman eight months pregnant, but she was still a woman eight months pregnant.
"Perhaps we should - "
Buffy cut him off. "Giles, are you happy?" She laid a hand on his arm, with an earnestness undiminished by fuzzy pink mittens. "With your life, I mean. That's why you went back to England, right? Because you're happier there?" Her features pinched with distress when he didn't answer immediately. "You're not unhappy, are you?"
There were so many reasons he'd gone back to England, and he wasn't certain he could elucidate all of them even to himself. But he never could resist that look of entreaty, or the eyes that contained it. "No. No, I'm not unhappy. However frustrating the situation with the Council is at the moment, I'm convinced that the work I'm doing there is important. If Faith and I can gain access - you've no more to learn from me, Buffy. Those girls are another story."
Unease flitted across her face. "I wouldn't be too sure about that."
Giles studied her as closely as darkness and constant motion permitted. "And you? Are you happy?"
She tipped her head back, gazing up at the star-flecked night. "I have been," she said. "Very happy. It's just I'm starting to think I'm not supposed to be."
They walked on in silence for a moment. "Spike told me about the... incident with Warren Meers."
Buffy made an exasperated noise, and her eyes fell to earth once more, her gaze firmly fixed on the place where her feet would be were she able to see them. "Spike's absolutely certain that I could kill him if I had to. That's his idea of romantic. For weird, psychotic vampire values of romance."
"And you're afraid he's wrong." Giles felt as if he were treading among bear traps.
Her lips twisted wryly. "I'm afraid he's right. What does that say about me, that I could kill the man I love - twice?"
"Perhaps that you're an exceptionally brave woman?" They'd come up to the rear of Shady Acres; inky spires of cypresses and the hump-backed silhouettes of oaks loomed high above the rust-streaked iron palings surrounding the graveyard. Streetlights slanted through the fence, so that they walked as if in an immaterial prison, barred with light and shadow. "This isn't just something you can ignore, Buffy. You know that. Even Spike knows that."
"Who says I'm ignoring?" She flourished the axe with alarming nonchalance. "Pretty much a constant source of angst, believe me. Killing monsters is easy. It's loving them that's hard."
"Surely you realize - "
"No," Buffy said sharply. "I don't. That's the problem. Do you think I was surprised at what Spike did to Warren? I know what he's capable of. I've known since Willow went after Glory. He told me then he'd do the same, if it was someone he loved." She stood on tiptoe to undo the latch of the cemetery's side entrance - the padlock, long broken, was only for show. The sagging gate scraped along the ground and jammed in the accumulated drifts of dead leaves. "What happened to Ethan Rayne, Giles? After the Initiative took him away?"
He gaped at her for a moment, undone by the sudden change of subject. "I - don't really know."
"Me neither. Bonus question: how would the police have kept Faith
anywhere she didn't want to stay? Would a judge have any idea what to
do with Daniel Tanner? I'm not saying what Spike did was right. It was
a world of wrong. But it wasn't right that Warren get off scott free
for doing what he did to me - " she placed a cotton-candy pink
mitten on her belly, " - to us, either."
She sighed. "In his weird, psychotic vampire way, Spike was trying
to follow the rules. But when humans mess with magic and there aren't
any rules, it all comes down to who has the biggest guns and how badly
the Slayer is PMSing that day. And that's... wrong. There's got to be
options besides slay or release."
Giles applied shoulder to gate, and it jerked open with a startlingly loud creak. The two of them squeezed through the gap, brushing aside the graceful, deadly fronds of oleander overhanging the disused maintenance road. "It would be lovely if there were some all-wise mystical court where we could press charges. But that's not the way the world works, Buffy. Sometimes there are no easy solutions."
"Then why can't the world work differently?" she cried, rounding on him, axe-blade clutched to her chest. "There's always going to be things in the dark, and I'm never going to kill them all - fine. Got the memo. But can't we at least issue flashlights? When I tell people who I am, what I do, when I tell them there really are monsters - do you have any idea how many of them say, 'Oh, thank God, I thought I was the only one who saw them?'" Beneath the rosy cheeks and sweet new (or was it old?) roundness of her face, her jaw was set and her eyes were hard. She gave the axe a shake. "Maybe this thing was set in stone, but the rules aren't! Somebody made them, once! And we can make new ones!"
From the grounds of the cemetery beyond came the sound of slow, ironic clapping. A young man, or something that looked like one, sauntered out of the shadows. Behind him other dark figures separated from deeper darkness, what had seemed only knotted boles of oak or the flicker of moonlight on grass resolving into shapes that had once been human. "Great speech, Slayer," the lead vampire drawled. "Too bad it's your last."
Yellow eyes gleamed in the night, a constellation of demon stars. Seven, eight - was that nine? "I thought you said there was only one vampire gang left in Sunnydale!" Giles whispered, feeling for his stake.
"Yeah, well, this would be it," Buffy whispered back. She took a fresh grip on the axe and fell into as much of a fighting crouch as she could currently manage. "Tonio, Giles. Giles, Tonio. Kind of a waste of time since Tonio's going to be a pile of dust soon, but hey, Mom raised me to be polite."
Tonio chuckled and waved a pair of vampires to flank them. "I haven't seen you on the streets for an age, Slayer. When Linnet tol' me you were headed here I almos' blew her off. Figured it was too good to be true. Man, you big as a house! Looks like Spike's been fattening you up for us. She's gonna be nice and tender, ain't she, guys?"
The minions snarled appreciative laughter, edging closer. Buffy's lips curled back from her teeth in a humorless smile. "Linnet, huh? I'll remember that."
Tonio's teeth flashed white. "Sure. Just not for long." Then he was barking orders: "Jinny, you watch the gate. Dion, you take the old guy. Lorena, Fitz, and Earl, spread out and keep an eye out for Spike's gang - this could be a trap. Cleo, you and Bullet take the Slayer. Don't get too close. There's enough of us to wear her down."
Behind them, Giles heard the clang of Jinny shutting the gate; no escape in that direction, and he feared that Buffy wouldn't be capable of a real run for it in any case. She'd reached the same conclusion, it seemed, retreating the few steps it took to get her back against the nearest oak. "Get behind me, Giles." There was no hint of surrender in her eyes or her stance, and a few of the vampires looked uncertainly to their leader.
Giles opened his mouth to protest, and then thought better of it. He raised his stake and moved behind and to Buffy's right, cursing himself for not having thought to bring a crossbow. Perhaps he really was getting too old for fieldwork. He rolled his shoulders experimentally, weight shifting without thought to the balls of his feet.
"Chill out and watch the show, boys and girls," Tonio said. "We're gonna make this one last."
Cleo and Bullet advanced on Buffy warily, but Dion rushed Giles with a cocky grin. Giles fell back - he couldn't hope to match a vampire's strength or speed, but few vampires had any formal training in the martial arts; most of them attacked without skill or strategy. Dion was no exception. Giles dodged at the last possible moment, sweeping the vampire's feet out from under him with a kick and driving his stake at Dion's exposed back as the young vampire crashed into the oak. The stake-point penetrated a quarter-inch of clothing and skin before Dion felt the blow and twisted himself out of harm's way with inhuman speed. He scrambled to his feet and backed away, one hand pressed to the bleeding gash in his side.
"Shit, Tonio, he knows fucking kung fu or something!" Dion yelled, much aggrieved.
"Don't be a fucking pussy, Dion!" Tonio yelled back. He didn't, Giles noticed, seem any too eager to take Buffy on himself - his back-and-forth strut brought him no closer to the Slayer at bay. Judging by his baggy jeans and Evanescence T-shirt, Tonio was fairly young to have risen to leadership in a gang, but he was no fool.
Dion shuffled forward again, with more caution this time, and Giles spared a glance for Buffy. It was a worrisome sign of her need to conserve energy that she spent no more of it on quips, but simply settled into a defensive stance and concentrated on separating the head from the body of any vampire who came near her. She was keeping both Cleo and Bullet at a distance, wielding the axe as though it weighed nothing, but the playful exuberance she usually displayed in a fight was nowhere in evidence, replaced by a deadly economy of motion. Her strength and speed might be undiminished, but she was panting hard, and it didn't take Giles's practiced eye to tell that her stamina was doubtful, her balance was off, and her added bulk made many moves impossible. Not to mention that any body blows might prove fatal to the baby, if not to her.
Giles blocked Dion's inexpert punch (and bloody hell, it hurt; technique or no, the vampire's blows had the strength of a rhino behind them). "Buffy, we can't hold them all off indefinitely! You've got to make a break for it - I can - "
Buffy swiped a mitten across her glistening brow. "Hold your ground!" For a second her right arm shook, as if in weariness, and her guard dropped just a fraction of an inch. Bullet lunged forward with a roar of triumph and Buffy recovered instantly. Her axe sliced down in a blur of blood and silver that terminated in Bullet's shoulder. He fell back howling, and Buffy wrenched the blade free and drove the wooden spike on the haft through Cleo's heart on the backspin. Giles could have cheered, though he knew that next time, her faltering might be in earnest.
"Earl! Get in there!" Tonio roared. The most distant pair of yellow eyes, the eighth - or was it ninth? - began to move. "You can get lucky once, Slayer. Maybe even twice. But I got a lot more lives to waste than you do."
"That's really peachy," Buffy gasped through a cloud of Cleo's dust. Behind Tonio, one pair of eyes winked out. "But in the spirit of that politeness thing I mentioned? I know something you don't know."
"What, that you're not really left handed?" Tonio sneered.
Buffy smiled. "Nope. That Spike's been half a block behind us ever since we left home."
A second pair of yellow eyes vanished. Tonio whirled, fangs bared. "Lorena!"
"I can't smell him, boss," a tiny red-headed vampire in tie-dye replied.
The ninth pair of yellow eyes loomed over Lorena's shoulder, and a pair of strong white hands, elegant despite scarred knuckles and bitten nails, cradled her head. "That," said Spike, "would be because some blokes know how to stay down-wind." With one swift brutal jerk he snapped Lorena's neck, and strode through her billowing dust, straight for Tonio. His hand shot out and he caught the younger vampire around the throat, forcing Tonio to his knees.
"You're pissing me off," Spike said, his tone almost conversational. "Thought you were smarter than that."
To the rear, Giles heard a muttered, "Oh, crap," and the sounds of rapidly retreating footsteps on the sidewalk outside - Jinny, getting while the going was good. Dion fumbled to an uncertain halt mid-attack, looking back and forth between Spike and Tonio with puppy-dog confusion; Giles took the opportunity to plunge the stake into his chest.
"We were just having some fun, Spike!" Tonio babbled. "That's all it was, honest - "
Spike sucked his cheeks in consideringly and studied Tonio with narrowed eyes. "Boys will be boys, yeh? I like a bit of fun myself now and again." He raised one booted foot and brought it down with full vicious force on Tonio's thigh. Bone shattered with a gunshot crack and Tonio screamed, eyes rolling back in his head. He crumpled, and Spike kicked him in the head as he went down, once, twice, again.
"Spike," Buffy said, as squelch began to replace crunch. "Stop it." Spike abandoned his handiwork, the fangs and ridges melting from his face like frost before the sun. In an instant he was kneeling before her, his face buried against the swell of her belly, his arms wrapped around her hips. For a long moment the two of them stood locked in a fierce and desperate embrace, Madonna and blood-stained child, motionless save for Buffy's fingers stroking through matted curls.
At length Spike drew a shuddering breath and stood. Bullet had managed to pull himself to his feet, and was already staggering off into the trees, leaving great ragged black swaths of blood in his wake. Buffy exchanged a look with Spike, who shook his head. She walked over to the gurgling, mangled heap of meat that was all that Spike had left of Tonio, swallowed hard, and raised her axe. Spike caught the haft in one hand. "No," he said. "Leave him be, too. He knew the rules. Lesson's got to be passed on."
Buffy looked ill, but her voice was firm. "Jinny and Bullet can do that. And this? Not a lesson I want to teach."
Spike hesitated, then gave a curt nod and stepped back. Without further ado, Buffy brought the axe down straight and true, and Tonio was one with the ashes of Nineveh and Tyre. Spike looked down at his dust for a moment, then shook himself, settling his leather jacket on his lean shoulders, raking fingers through his disordered hair. "Right, then. Let's find your pyramid."
He strode off towards the distant ranks of tombstones. His boots left bloody footprints on the grass. Giles knew the next words he spoke bore a fatal weight, but he couldn't hold them back. "There is always Faith."
Buffy shook her head. "She has her own monsters to deal with. I can't keep asking her to babysit mine." She shouldered her axe and turned away, following in the footsteps of her monster, and Giles, with foreboding in his heart, followed after.
Shady Acres was not only Sunnydale's oldest cemetery, but its smallest. It hadn't accepted new burials for thirty years, which meant that even in the heyday of Sunnydale's reign as Vampire Central, Buffy often left it out of her regular patrol schedules. The only vampires who rose there now were those few whose sires took the trouble to spirit the bodies away and bury them for a private and traditional awakening. Which meant, in turn, that neither Buffy nor Giles were as familiar with its winding, overgrown paths as they were with the larger and newer graveyards in town.
The groundskeeping staff, moreover, was minimal, and disinclined to waste effort on a site so rarely visited by the living. Off the main road through the cemetery, the ground grew uneven, the grass hummocky and weed-ridden. In places the oleanders over-arched the pathways completely, forming caverns of rustling green night, while tombstones rose around them like ghosts from the dark earth.
Spike threaded his way through the forest of stone, his night-sighted eyes picking out the easiest path for the humans to follow. Buffy walked at his side, slowly now, and leaning on his arm a little more heavily than Giles liked to see. The battle had obviously taken a heavy toll on her strength. The two of them talked together in low whispers - no secrets, only inconsequential couple-talk. Buffy smiled, and Spike stroked her cheek, and Giles ached for her.
"How long will it take them to regroup?" he asked at last.
"There's a dozen, two dozen lone vamps in Sunnydale still," Spike said. "'Sides the ones working for me. Mostly feeding off the willing at the Ice House. Every few months one of 'em'll get bored and decide to go back to doing things the old-fashioned way, and they'll sire two friends and they'll sire two friends and so on, and we've got a new gang in Sunnydale." He snorted. "Day comes one of 'em's smart enough to lay low and play along till they've built their strength up, then we'll have trouble."
Buffy's eyelids were starting to droop, and she laid her head against Spike's shoulder. "But not tonight." She yawned, and pointed. "There it is."
The Clarke-Smythe Mausoleum rose above the rabble of lesser tombs, a sheer-sided pyramid of dull brown stone enclosed in a palisade that matched the fence around the cemetery - an iron warp held together by a weft of dead vines, streaked with rust the color of old blood. The same vines wrapped the mausoleum itself it in a strangling embrace, their tiny rootlets digging into the crevices of the stone. A single dead tree guarded the doorway. Above the door, carven into the stone of the lintel, was the winged disc of Horus, clearer than it had been in the grainy old photograph. The mausoleum was bare of any other inscription, and the door painted a prosaic gun-metal grey.
Buffy licked her lips and walked up to the threshold, resting her palm on the flaking old paint of the door. "It's probably locked," she said. "They usually are, unless some vampire's broken it open to nest there." She pressed tentatively against the door, and it swung inward on noiseless hinges.
Inside the mausoleum the shadows clung like cobwebs, too thick for Giles's human eyes to penetrate, though Spike and even Buffy seemed to have no trouble. Giles fished a miniature torch from his coat pocket and shone it around the interior - the circle of light danced across dead leaves, old condoms, rude graffiti, and a steel plate in the middle of the floor. Giles dropped to one knee and ran a finger around the plate; the metal sat flush with the stone, and if there was a seam, it had long since been clogged with dirt. He took hold of the handle and gave it an experimental tug. It was like trying to pull the floor itself up.
Spike shouldered him aside and took hold of the handle with one hand. When his initial effort produced no results, he raised an eyebrow, took hold with both hands and heaved. For a second nothing happened. Spike bared his teeth, vamped out and heaved again, muscles cording in his back and shoulders. A vein in his forehead throbbed, and his breath came in explosive snorts. The plate shivered, groaned, and rose with a heavy grinding noise, and Spike staggered back with a grunt, dropping the plate to the floor with a clang that shook the whole mausoleum. "Bloody hell," he gasped, bracing both hands on his knees. He wiped sweaty tendrils of hair off his forehead and looked up at Buffy. "That would have been a job even for you, love. Someone doesn't like visitors."
Giles shone the torch down the hole, and Buffy peered in. A staircase descended into the Stygian depths, made of the same dull brown stone as the pyramid itself. Halfway down the steps, the stonework changed, to the same unmortared granite they'd seen in the wine cellar.
"Let me go first," Spike said.
"No," Buffy gripped the axe tightly. "I need to do this."
She started down the stairs. Giles looked at Spike; Spike shrugged and started after her, still in game face. Giles followed, keeping the torch low so it wouldn't inadvertently blind them.
The tunnel walls were close and cool, beaded with moisture when he brushed against them. Giles was not unaware of the Freudian implications of caves, but if this one embodied a woman's sex, the woman must be a vampire, a vagina dentata in truth.
"Wait," Buffy whispered. "Giles, turn off the flashlight."
Giles did so. The darkness was instant and absolute. He thought of Faith, alone back in England, of the four girls the Council held and the two they didn't, and whether it would really make any difference if he never returned, if this darkness swallowed him up.
Buffy's hand caught his and squeezed, small and warm and mitten-fuzzy. "There's a light."
An irreverent Over at the Frankenstein place popped into his head, but Giles said only, "I think you're right." Below them the faintest of red washes was painted across the darkness, a sfumato of crimson. "It must be a torch. There must be a bend in the tunnel." He switched the electric torch back on, and the three of them proceeded down the ancient stairs. Faded hieroglyphs leapt out at them and vanished again, random, unconnected signs: scythe, blood, mother, grain. The stairs angled sharply to the right, and the torchlight was plainly visible now, outlining a doorway at the bottom.
It was a torch. Two torches, in fact, one to either side of the doorway as they entered the room at the bottom of the stairs. The room was all but bare - if it was a tomb, it was a tomb long stripped of its finery. Crumbling wicker baskets, dingy-looking bundles, and undecorated clay amphorae lined the walls and clustered at the feet of the huge columns supporting the roof. An upright sarcophagus leaned against one wall. A stone slab inscribed with hieroglyphs might have been an altar, or a coffee table. Opposite the stairs was an archway curtained in rotting tapestries whose patterns the years faded into illegibility. There were few other furnishings, not even the trash which might have indicated the room had once served as a vampire's lair or a homeless man's squat.
Buffy hopped down the last two steps and looked around, her face a study in dismay. "This is kinda...bare, isn't it? I was hoping for a library of mystic tomes or a blind seer over a fumarole or something."
"Look upon my works, ye mighty, and be bloody unimpressed," Spike muttered. "Least when I lived in a hole in the ground, it had flair." He picked up the nearest amphora, shook it, and upended it. A handful of worn coins tumbled out, ringing merrily against the stone floor: glinting gold, green-tinged bronze, and silver gone black with tarnish. The vampire picked up a gold piece, spun it in the air, caught it, and held up his hand - the coin had vanished. With a grin, he pulled it out from behind Buffy's ear. "Trip's not a total loss. 1898 double eagle," he said. "Haven't seen one of those in awhile."
"Good heavens, you two, this is extraordinary! Just the existence of this place is find enough!" Giles bent to trace the hieroglyphs on the altar - something about blood, and the moon, and a scythe. Did that signify the axe? But then, why...? Perhaps it was some sort of code? Had he remembered to pack his Pocket Guide to Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs? "It's very likely that no one's seen this room since Professor Clarke-Smythe's disappearance, and before that - "
"Someone's got to live down here," Buffy pointed out, tugging her mittens off and stuffing them into her jacket pockets. "Torches don't burn by themselves. Usually." She lifted the lid off the nearest basket. "Oooh, sparkly!" She pulled out a stone knife, its hilt wrapped in complex weave of leather strips and its blade inscribed with curious symbols; a pair of ivory chopsticks; and a necklace of raw amber. She held the necklace up, and the torchlight caught on the tiny jeweled insects caught in every bead. "Oh, it's gorgeous!" she breathed, eyes wide, and then, "And totally non-axe-related. And probably cursed. Spike, put that coin back. We've just barely got you un-undead and the last thing we need is a vampire in hock to Davy Jones." She dropped everything back into the basket and nodded at the archway. "Maybe there's something clue-shaped through there."
Buffy reached for the tattered curtains, but before her fingers met the fragile old cloth the tapestries twitched and parted. A woman stood in the archway, clad in a gown of silk very nearly the same dull brown as the stone around them. Her unbound hair cascaded over her shoulders in Medusa-coils of grey and white. Her face was old, but her eyes were far older. "Well," she said, looking at the three of them. "I wasn't expecting this." Her blade-bright gaze skimmed over Giles and lingered upon Spike's face. "Though I suppose I should have. Destiny abhors a vacuum." She tapped Buffy's axe with a long-nailed finger. "I see you've finally found our weapon. Well, don't just stand there. Come in. There's tea, if you want it."
The woman turned and disappeared through the curtains. After a brief stunned moment, Buffy dove after her, and Spike followed, stiff-backed and bristling with suspicion. Giles hesitated at the threshold. There was something in the woman's eyes that made the back of his neck prickle - a challenge, or a threat. And yet, having come so far...
He stepped through the tattered veil. The room beyond was small and close, almost oppressively warm after the chill outside. A copper kettle hissed above the coals glowing in the tiny hearth, and an oil lamp flickered on a wooden table. A small cot fought for wall space with more bales and bundles and trunks - some locked and latched with leather and iron, some gaping open, spilling an entire Portobelo Road's worth of gewgaws across the stone floor: Chinese shawls and Navajo blankets, tortoiseshell combs and Melmac plates, Roman glass and Nubian shell necklaces, an indiscriminate mingling of trash and treasure. The smell of the place was not uncleanly, but it spoke of long habitation. Giles exchanged a look with Spike, who was taking in deep confused lungfuls of air - the vampire should have scented this.
In the center of the room (there was little space anywhere else), Buffy braced herself and stared about. Spike drifted to her side, a silent, wary shadow at her shoulder. "Who are you?" Buffy demanded. "And what do you mean, this is your weapon?"
"Who am I?" The old woman hobbled over to rummage through a disintegrating wicker hamper. She pulled out cups and saucers, fragile gold-edged porcelain and chunky salt-glazed mugs, and began to arrange them on the table. "I haven't needed a name for a very long time. I'm the last of my kind. As for what I am - " She nodded at the axe. "You pulled it out of the rock. I was one of those who put it there." She gave the blade a little pat. "But we made it for someone like you."
"A Slayer, you mean?"
"Not just any Slayer." The old woman picked up a Peter Rabbit teapot. "Do you take sugar?"
Buffy's knuckles whitened on the axe-haft. "Really want answers more than caffeine at this point."
"Here you go," the old woman said, as if she hadn't heard. "And it's not poisoned, or drugged, or magical. Just tea."
Giles took the proffered cup of tea; it was redolent of spices he couldn't quite identify, a whiff of Samarkand and Damascus, of cities as old as mankind, and of realms and long dust. He took a polite non-sip and set the cup aside. The old woman cocked her head at him, sharp, unnerving eyes probing into places he'd rather remain unprobed. "The scythe, then," she murmured. She pulled up a rickety stool and sat down, lacing her hands in her lap, like a little girl given a piece to recite. "It was forged centuries ago, halfway around the world, to kill the last pure demon that walked upon the Earth."
The painting of the snake-crowned girl battling the Chaos Serpent flashed into Giles's mind - Ah! Of course! - but the old woman was still talking. "What do you know about the Shadow Men?"
"You mean those three old guys in the whirligig dimension?" Buffy shrugged. "Not my favorite boy band."
"So you know that they created the first Slayer." The nameless woman took a sip of her own tea, gathering her dun-colored robes about her. "They left this world to guard the source of the Slayer's power, but they had followers and students. Sons. Uncles. Brothers. Those they left behind became the first Watchers." She set her teacup down, and adjusted the wick of the oil lamp. Shadows leaped high against the walls. "Have you ever thought about the first Slayer?"
"When she's not trying to kill me?" Nervous finger-taps on the axe-haft. "Can't say I have."
The old woman made an impatient noise. "That shadow of a shadow who stalks your dreams? No. I mean the girl. The flesh and blood girl whom the Shadow Men bound to the earth and violated with a demon's power. Sineya. That's all the Watchers remember, and if that was ever really her name, who knows? Do you ever wonder who she was? Whether she had hopes and dreams and plans? A family? A mother, a sister?" Her eyes, ancient as stones, flicked to Giles. "A father, who thought he knew best when he gave her over to the beast?"
Her voice dropped, her words an incantation summoning up the past. "We were those mothers, those sisters and aunts. The women left behind when the Shadow Men took our daughters, our sisters, to fight in their never-ending war." Those stony eyes had grown polished and hard as the gems littering the floor at their feet. "As they became the Watchers, so we banded together, across the years and the miles, to become the Guardians, sworn to help and protect the Slayer. We forged the scythe in secret. We kept it hidden - "
"Whoa. Time out. I don't get it," Buffy said. "You wanted to help Slayers? Then what's with the hiding?" She hefted the axe. "Seriously, if this was made to kill pure demons? I could have used this puppy a few years ago when Mayor Wilkins went Full Monty Python on us. And I'm betting I'm not the only Slayer in the last thousand years who could really have used a V8. Why the Excalibur bit?"
The old woman waved a teacup at Giles. "Because we forged our weapon not to fight the long war, but to end it. We thought that slaying the last pure demon would accomplish that. That the Shadow Men - the Watchers, by then - would lay their weapon aside. Let the Slayer rest, at last, and come home." She stared blindly down an endless corridor of years. "But it didn't take long for us to realize that there would always be one more battle to fight, one more demon to slay. And one more reason for the Watchers to hold on to their power."
"I think you're being just a trifle unfair." Giles restrained a tarter response with some effort. "Laying aside one's weapon is no guarantee that one's opponent will oblige by doing the same."
"Yes, you'd see it that way," the Guardian replied. "But we take a longer view. You look to treat the symptoms. We wanted to cure the disease."
Buffy stiffened, and Spike's hand ghosted to her shoulder. "That's what Mom said," she whispered. "Years ago, when - that I was just treating the symptoms." Her eyes went huge. "You said that you were - sisters. And mothers. Was Mom...?"
"Your mother, one of us?" The Guardian shook her head, a little regretful. "No. Though we've always had our eyes and ears in the world - in the Council's ranks, even."
"But I saw her!" Buffy burst out. "It was Mom! She led me here! I don't understand - "
The Guardian cut her off. "Once I might have let you find me in your own time, but I don't know how much time I have left. I really am the last, and I'm old. And very, very tired. When I sensed that someone had taken the axe at long last, I sent out a call, of sorts. To help guide you here. It would take whatever shape your mind gave it - whatever would seem most urgent to you." Buffy made a small wounded sound deep in her throat. "I'm sorry," the Guardian said mildly. "But you can blame your own subconscious for any unpleasantness. The important thing is, you're here, and you have the scythe. One way or another, that can only mean an end is truly near."
"An end to what?" Spike said. It had been so long since he'd spoken that everyone started.
"Why, everything," the Guardian said. "Haven't you been listening? The Watchers left nothing to chance. They pinned the Slayers down with prophecy. The Pergamum Codex ring a bell?" At Buffy's pinched expression, she gave a satisfied nod. "But no prophecy can predict all ends. Sooner or later, we knew that a Slayer would outlast her fate - and for awhile, that Slayer would be free. Free to use the scythe to do what it was intended to do: not just to kill, but to cleanse this world of demonkind. To end the Shadow Men's war. Forever." Her gaze fell to Buffy's middle. "The problem is, you didn't find us soon enough. Or we didn't find you. And now Destiny's got its hooks in you again."
The look in Buffy's eyes was a peculiar mixture of hope and sheer terror. "No, it doesn't," she protested. "Look. I gave the Slayer-demony-spirit-thingy what it wanted - to live in the world, through me. It gave me what I wanted - power to fix the Slayer line. And he," she nodded at Spike, "agreed to let a crazy woman glue his heart back into his body with Mohra blood. We both made choices. There was no destiny involved. This baby is just - an unexpected side effect. An accident. Tell her, Giles - you looked for prophecies, and nada. I'm fate-free Buffy."
"Of course you chose." The old woman leaned forward, prompting a protective growl from Spike. "We shape our own destinies, even as fate thrusts them upon us. The question is, what are you going to choose now?"
Buffy folded her hands across her belly, her eyes dark with distress. "Wait. This cleansing thing. How does it work, exactly? Do I get to pick which demons? Because I'm kind of attached to some of them."
Spike scowled. "Doesn't sound very discriminating to me."
The Guardian smiled, a not entirely pleasant expression. "Magic seldom is."
The vampire met her eyes with studied insolence. "Seems to me," he said, "that the Slayer's part demon herself, by some people's yardsticks. How's that work, then?"
"That I can't tell you," the old woman said. "All we know is that if she takes the scythe, the time will come when she'll have the opportunity to use it."
It was hard to tell in the ruddy lamplight, but Giles thought that Buffy had gone a sickly skim-milk color. "I don't see," she said low-voiced, "How this is any different than what the Watchers wanted from me. How it's any less hard."
"Be fair. We had no way of predicting any Slayer would take up with someone like him." The Guardian eyed Spike. "At least, not for long. Usually the Watchers deal with these situations with great dispatch." She gave Giles a thin smile and turned back to Buffy, her face stern, but not devoid of compassion. "It comes down to this. You have the chance - and it may never come again - to save generations of Slayers from fighting an endless, hopeless war. And to save countless innocents from dying in that war. Or... to bring a demon line that's been extinct for millennia, clinging to a half-life through the destruction of those same countless innocents, back into the world for good." The patience in that worn and ancient voice was somehow far worse than any accusation. She took a demure sip of tea. "Think about it."
The pop and crackle of coals settling was the only sound. At last Buffy took a deep breath, turned to the Guardian, and said, "Do you have a bathroom? I really, really need to pee."
The old woman's face creased in a reminiscent smile. "Of course you do." She slipped a tea cosy embroidered in gold and purple pansies over the pot, and gestured to a door half-hidden in a corner. "Through here - I'll show you. When's the baby due?"
Buffy shot her a grateful look. "Next month, in theory. But the doctor isn't sure - "
Eyes narrow, cheeks hollowed, Spike watched the door close behind them. "Guess even mystical birds go to the loo in flocks." He eyed the nearest ratty chest. "Think we should have a recce through this lot? See if she's hiding a few more WMDs?"
"It's always best to know what one's dealing with," Giles agreed. Presuming the Guardian was telling the truth, it would explain a few peculiar incidents in the Council's history - but that was a rather large presumption. This was all a bit too simplistic, wasn't it? The bad father, the good mother, all dovetailing so very neatly with Buffy's doubts and fears and weak spots. But then again, destiny was often brutally simple. They needed more information. He strolled over to the fireplace and hefted the poker, getting a feel for its weight and balance. "I must say you don't seem terribly worried about Buffy's decision."
"You hinting I ought to be?" Spike crouched to fiddle with the padlock on the chest.
Giles studied the curve of his back, calculating the angle of shoulder blade against spine. Firelight lent the vampire's pale flesh an illusion of ruddy life - but no, that was no longer an illusion, was it? Spike's heart might beat glacier-slow, but it beat. Would a poker through the chest kill a creature such as he was now? And how swiftly, if so? "I suppose you could make a claim that destroying all demons would disrupt the Balance again."
Spike's eyes acquired a sardonic glint. "I've stood by her side in the mouth of Hell, Watcher. We held the Balance in our hands." He cupped the padlock in his palms. "Balance isn't just men on one side and demons on the other. It's what we do, and what we don't, and why. Every one of us, every day. You could wipe every demon from the face of the planet tonight, and the evil that men do'd be more than sufficient, long as there's choices in this world." A twist of those steel-strong fingers, and the lock clicked and fell open in a shower of rust. "Which makes this a bit of an opportunity for you, dunnit?"
"Indeed. Adding to Buffy's crushing burden of guilt is always something I look forward to," Giles snapped. Spike blinked. "Oh, for God's sake, do you think I'm enjoying this? Either she'll kill you, or she'll spend the next twenty years killing herself by inches because she hasn't killed you. Is it any wonder I contemplate killing you myself?"
The vampire scowled, strongly-arched brows echoing the shadow-slash of his cheekbones. "You ever considered the possibility she's better off with me than without me?"
"If I hadn't, rest assured you wouldn't have lasted this long." Giles gave the coals a particularly vindictive poke. "Most people in this world know what's right, and what's wrong. But day to day, year to year, they compromise. They accept what is, and set what should be to one side - admired, but unpracticed. Oh, they always have reasons. Perhaps some of the reasons are even noble ones. But most of them are merely selfish. Buffy," he said softly, "does not compromise. It's what I most admire about her. And it's what is most endangered by her continuing association with you."
Spike's lip curled. "Ah, there we have it. Daddy's little girl's too good to fuck an honest killer, but it's fine and dandy she take advice from a dishonest one. You ever work up the balls to tell her what became of Ben?"
A distant, analytical portion of his mind informed Giles that given what had happened to Warren Meers, it was probably unwise to provoke Spike too far. He told the distant analytical part of his mind to stuff it and swung the poker with casual menace. "It's precisely to protect her from having to make those kinds of choices - "
"Bollocks! She'd already chosen. You just didn't fancy her choice." Spike rose to his feet with liquid-metal grace. He caught hold of the poker, held it steady, hearth-glow reflecting in his pupils like the fires of hell. "You look me in the eye and tell me: if it'd been Meers that killed your Jenny, 'stead of Angelus - "
"If I had, I'd regret it," he countered, still holding hard to the poker. "And that's the difference between us, Spike."
Spike glared up at him, the muscles of his jaw working. "Said I needed it spelt out for me, didn't I?" He wrested the poker from Giles's grasp without apparent effort, and rammed it into the heart of the fire. A maelstrom of sparks flew up, wreathing him in transient light. "Look, I can see what's come of what I did - Will's gone away for good and Buffy's miserable. I'm not entirely thick. You think I'll ever do something like that again?"
Desperate and defiant, at once begging for reassurance and scorning it. And what exactly had Willow to do with all this? Giles sagged against the fireplace and squeezed his eyes shut, but darkness was no refuge. "Yes, Spike, I do," he said. "I'm not going to deny you've... made accommodations, over the last few years. But whatever changes you've made are imposed from without, not compelled from within. And as long as that's the case - "
A bitter bark of laughter cut him off. "You want to know why I killed Meers, Rupes? What he did to Buffy and the sprog, yeah. But beyond that? To see if I could. Because I wasn't bloody certain any longer." Spike spat into the coals. "Not much to you, maybe, but it scared the piss out of me. Still does."
Giles shook his head, fighting off a mad urge to laugh. "And does Buffy know that?"
"What do you think?" Spike sat down on the nearest bundle and gave the top layer of detritus in the trunk he'd opened a desultory going-over. He held up an elaborately jeweled chalice, squinted into the bowl, and tossed it aside. "You've got one thing wrong, Watcher. If I've changed at all, it hasn't been for her. It's been for me. So's I can be... worthy of her."
Christ, that was a hair too fine for splitting, and he was too tired to raise the axe. Giles rubbed the bridge of his nose and frowned at the door through which Buffy had vanished. "Shouldn't they be back by now?"
Instantly suspicious, Spike froze and cocked his head, listening. "Don't hear 'em. They have been gone a bit, haven't they?" He closed his eyes and took a deep breath of stuffy, smoky air. "Can't track her, but I can track Buffy. Come on." He shoved a chest bound in shedding cowhide away from the door, sending the handwritten score of La Traviata, a postcard of the Eiffel Tower postmarked Paris 1934, and a rusty pair of rollerskates flying. "Once more into the breach."
The passage beyond the door was clad in the same facade of dun-colored stone as the rest of the complex, chipping away here and there to reveal the native granite beneath. The ceiling of the corridor was so low that Giles felt the constant urge to duck. Cold tongues of air licked their ankles as they passed by the gaping mouths of side passages. Torches flickered sporadically in the distance, flaming will-o-the-wisps seeming to recede with every step.
The susurrant murmur of water in the sewer pipes far below grew louder. They entered a circular chamber aglow with a hundred guttering candles, ranged along the side of an ancient claw-foot bathtub. Blue and ochre tiles framed frescos of dark-skinned, kohl-eyed women bathing along a papyrus-lined riverbank while reed barges floated past in the background. The room was as empty. Spike lengthened his stride and plunged into another darkened tunnel-mouth.
They passed bedrooms and libraries, sculleries and sitting-rooms, all piled high with boxes and chests and the dust-shrouded ghosts of furniture. A spinning-wheel stood guard beside a huge floor loom warped with a half-completed tapestry. Its design, if any, was lost in years and darkness and tangled thread. Once a hundred women had lived here, loved here, died here. All abandoned now, left to mice and the long slow wearing of the years.
The plainsong of falling water gave way to Buffy's voice, distorted by distance and echoes to unintelligible murmurs. Or unintelligible to human ears, at least; with a muttered curse, Spike broke into a run. "Wait!" Giles called, but the vampire was gone. Giles lunged after him, tripped, and stumbled against the wall in the dark. Spike's racing footsteps faded as he scrambled to his feet again, and reached out blindly, fingertips brushing the damp stone on either side. Step by cautious step he felt his way down the corridor. The darkness was crushing; he could almost imagine it a physical thing, a curtain of smothering black velvet. Giles found his breath coming faster despite his snail's pace.
Ahead he heard Spike's voice, raised in greeting or challenge, cut off by the sound of a blow. For a moment there was silence, and then Buffy's voice again. He was close enough to make out her words now: "...what does 'cleanse' even mean? And what counts as a demon? Werewolves? Half-demons? Do they only get half-cleansed? Do their demony parts go poof and leave them all human? Or do their demony parts go poof and leave a gooey pile of viscera?"
He had only to follow Buffy's voice and avoid breaking his neck, but the relief Giles felt at the first amber blush of torch-glow was almost embarrassing. The tunnel jinked sideways and opened into a niche containing a tall brazier - beyond it was the ante-room they'd first discovered. He'd come full circle; there were the stairs leading upwards to the pyramid tomb.
After the stuffy, somnolent warmth of the Guardian's rooms, the outer chamber was bitterly chill. Buffy stood before the altar-cum-coffee table, arms cradling the axe as it rested across her belly. The flat of the blade was smeared with dark blood. Spike lay spreadeagled across the altar itself, eyes closed, arms draped limply off the sides, t-shirt rucked up to expose his pale torso. Blood seeped from a wound in his temple, and Buffy stared down at him, her eyes wide and dark as the pit itself.
The Guardian stood at Buffy's shoulder, sere old fingers stroking her hair. "My dear, dear child. So many questions. I wish I had answers for you. All I can tell you is that however hard this choice may be, when it's over you'll never have to make another like it."
"It won't end the fight," Buffy whispered, her lashes brushing the curve of her cheek. "Nothing ends the fight."
"No," the old woman agreed, her expression tender. "But it won't be your fight any longer. It will be ours, as it should have been all along. And it won't be fought by children any longer." She looked up at Giles, standing in the doorway. "Ah. You're here. I suppose that's fitting. We were all there at the beginning. We should all be here at the end."
Giles made his way to the altar. He could see the rusty manacles encircling the vampire's wrists now, the length of chain between them looped through an equally rusty eyelet set into the floor beside the altar. Should he be hoping Spike could break them, or not? He simply didn't know enough about what was happening here to judge.
Buffy walked slowly up to the great sandstone slab with its ranks of incised hieroglyphs, and laid a hand upon its weathered surface. Blood. Moon. Daughter. Death. "What does it say?" she asked.
The Guardian shook her head. "It's the story of the First Slayer, and it's far older than I am. The last words she spoke, before the demon stole them all. That pesty little man who came here earlier wanted to remove it, take it to some museum or other. Or sell it to the Watchers. I couldn't allow that, of course."
"Clarke-Smythe?" Giles asked. "What became of him?"
"Oh, he's still about," the Guardian said with a vague wave of her hand. "Somewhere. I save everything." She turned towards Buffy. "Well, my dear?"
Buffy gazed down at Spike. "Happy, or good," she whispered, almost too softly for Giles to hear. "I always figured those were the choices you got when you were the Slayer. And I always picked good. Or I tried to. And then one day I picked happy. Not bad. Just happy. Was that really so awful?" She looked up at Giles, her eyes troubled. "When you go home at night, I want you to be happy, Giles. If I can't, be happy for me, OK? Whether it takes brand new sports cars or twenty-year-old Scotch or forty-year-old albums or a girlfriend whose age I don't want to think about."
"Buffy - "
"Hush, Giles. It's too late for all that. I thought I'd need time. Time to decide. But I guess when it comes down to it, I've already decided." She reached down, cupping Spike's face in her hand, thumb stroking the line of his cheekbone. "Spike. Open your eyes."
Spike groaned, his head lolling to one side. He started to sit up, only to fall back with a startled grunt as his bonds pulled him up short. He tensed his shoulders and gave the chains an experimental jerk. A talcum-fine shower of rust fell from the hole where the shank of the eye-bolt pierced the stone, but the links held. Spike blinked, grimaced, and looked around the room, his gaze settling at last on Buffy's face. "I thought we'd agreed to leave this kind of thing for our private moments, pet."
Buffy's teeth worried at her lower lip, her grip on the axe-haft tight enough to make the weapon quiver. "I was supposed to kill you years ago."
"Mutual, love," Spike breathed, curling his fingers around the chains where they stretched off above his wrists. "Woman's prerogative to change her mind, I know, but give a bloke some warning."
"I have nightmares," Buffy went on, her voice trembling in time with the axe. "About the baby. About whether it's got a soul. Whether it's some kind of monster. Whether I'm some kind of monster. And when I wake up?" She swallowed, hard. "It's not a nightmare. It's all real. And the scariest part is..." The tremor became a harshness, a sob bound in too tightly to escape. "No matter what he is, I think I love him. Already. Just like I love you, Spike. I do. I love you so much. And I know you try. I know you try so hard, and I know it's never going to get any easier. And that's why I have to do this."
The axe-blade descended, shearing through the cold air. Before Giles could finish the thought Good Lord, she's actually going to - Spike was in motion, somersaulting backwards off the altar. His boots hit the flagstones as the axe hit the altar, its blade biting deep into the stone and sending up a fountain of sparks. The vampire braced bootheels against cracked flagstones and hauled back on his chains.
The eye-bolt tore free of the stone with a metallic screech, and Spike snapped the chain taut between his manacled wrists. The Guardian retreated to the shelter of the nearest pillar, clutching the folds of her robe and awaiting the outcome of the contest with an expression of keen interest. Buffy clung to the axe-haft - Giles couldn't tell if she were trying to pry it free of the stone, or if the night's exertions had finally left her too spent to defend herself.
His own merely-human reflexes were only now spurring his limbs to motion.
The brazier he'd passed when entering the antechamber was a good five
feet tall, a slender, convolute pedestal rising from a sturdy foot and
topped with a shallow bowl. Two quick steps took him back to the niche;
Giles upended the brazier, spilling blazing coals across the floor.
Spike might yet be flammable, but there was too great a chance they'd
hit Buffy. He hoisted the thing over one shoulder, an ungainly wrought-iron
javelin - fifteen, maybe twenty pounds. Too heavy for extended combat.
He'd have to make this count.
When Giles turned again, Slayer and vampire were locked together in the center of the chamber. Spike must have leaped the altar before Buffy could pull the axe free. Now he was using the chain connecting his still-manacled wrists like a garrotte, holding her snugged tight against his chest, just short of choking her. Buffy scrabbled for purchase on the rusty links, red-faced and furious.
"I'm yours, Slayer," Spike rasped. "Always have been." He nodded down at her belly. "But he's ours. And if need be, I'll fight for him. Against you, even."
Don't make me was written in every line of taut muscle. The vampire's eyes were desolate - Giles had seen such looks before, on the faces of men who knew their wounds were mortal. But Buffy's were a chapbook of love and fear and hope, courage and despair.
If he killed Spike, she would never forgive him.
But if she killed Spike, she'd never forgive herself.
Giles struck. High line advance lunge, muscles screaming in his shoulders and thighs, right for Spike's temple where the bone was thinnest. The brazier was far heavier than even an old-fashioned dueling sabre - perhaps heavy enough to shatter even a demon's skull, splatter demon brains across pavement, if the blow landed true. Time slowed, seconds oozing and stretching until it seemed to Giles that he must be moving at vampire speed. He could count every lash of Buffy's eyes as they widened in shocked realization, and she hooked a foot around Spike's ankle and sent the two of them tumbling. The brazier missed Spike's skull by a hair's breadth. Thrown off-balance, Giles staggered and let his makeshift weapon fall. It hit the floor with a sepulchral clang.
Spike rolled beneath Buffy as they toppled, breaking her fall. Buffy seized the opportunity to grab the loosened chain and yank it away from her throat, jerking Spike forward and slamming the back of her head into his nose. Blood spurted, Spike bellowed, and a second later Buffy had ducked out of his grip and spun around to straddle his waist, belly pressed against his chest. She forced his iron-clad wrists to the floor on either side of his head, pulling the connecting chain tight across his throat. Nose to nose, vampire and Slayer glared at each other.
"You enormous DORK!" Buffy yelled. "What do you think you're DOING?"
"What am I doing?" Spike roared back. "You chucked a bloody axe at me!"
"I was going to cut the chain, you doofus! What did you think I was going to do?"
"After that speech? I'd say whacking my goolies off would be the least of it! Who the sodding hell chained me up in the first place?"
Buffy sat back and released his hands. Her eyes welled up and her lips
trembled. "I'm hormonal! What was your excuse?"
Spike's outrage lasted approximately four seconds by Giles's reckoning. The ice in his eyes melted, the hard line of his mouth softened, and then he was holding her tight, stroking her hair and crooning soothing nonsense into her ear - "There, sweetling, there, it's all right, Spike's got you."
Almost immediately Buffy pulled away and swiped a dusty sleeve across her beet-red nose. "I'm sorry," she mumbled, struggling to her feet. "This is so embarrassing. I just seem to get all weepy, lately."
"It's perfectly normal," the Guardian assured her. She raised an eyebrow at the axe, still half-buried in the altar stone. "But I must say I'm the tiniest bit confused." She broke into a whimsical smile. "It's rather invigorating, after all these years."
Buffy stroked the handle of the axe, regretful. "I'm sorry, but I can't keep it. I don't want you to think I'm scorning it or anything, especially with the waiting for millennia and all. It's just not meant for me. Or I'm not meant for it. Maybe I was, once. But if I take it..." She walked over to the Guardian, gazing searchingly into her face. "You said that it wouldn't be my fight anymore. But it is my fight, more than ever. It has to be. For him." Buffy laid a hand on her stomach. "I'm the grownup now." She held out her hand and Spike took it, pulling her close. "And so is Spike. Scary as that concept may be."
"Right. Bloody Ward Cleaver, I am." Spike held up his hands, jingling the manacles. "Er...don't suppose you've still got the key to these things?"
"You're certain, then?" the Guardian said. Her lined face seemed to have acquired a score more years. "It's not a decision you can undo. And I'd so hoped I was done with waiting."
Buffy pulled her mittens out of her pockets and tugged them on. "Then don't wait. Do something. Put an ad on Craigslist, or - " Her eyes lit up - obviously, she'd been stricken by a brilliant idea, and her next words only confirmed Giles's suspicions. "I'm not the only Slayer any longer. There are others, and the Watcher's Council has its claws into some of them. Giles is working on that, but his persona's been non grata with the Council for awhile now, and it's a tough gig." Buffy took the older woman's wrinkled old hands into her own, and gave them a squeeze. "If you really want to help Slayers? Help Giles."
"Help a Watcher?" The Guardian looked quite as appalled at this suggestion as Giles felt.
"I haven't been affiliated with the Council for several years," Giles replied stiffly. "And in any case, Faith provides all the assistance I require." Still... he caught himself glancing covetously at the carvings on the altar. All that lost knowledge, potentially regained - and the thought of what Faith might have to say on the subject was entertaining, to say the least.
The old woman ignored him, and retrieved a small iron key from one of the boxes. She started to undo Spike's manacles, shaking her head at Buffy the whole time. "You don't know what you're asking. And don't fool yourself that he's not a Watcher, still. It's bred in the bone."
"I know." Buffy shot Giles a look that had nothing of the girl in it. "And I know exactly what I'm asking. Of both of you. Consider this the beginning of a beautiful friendship. You'd be surprised at what working with your mortal enemy can accomplish." Her last word segued into an enormous yawn. "I'm going home before I turn into a pumpkin. Or," she said, giving her tummy a rueful pat, "more of a pumpkin."
"No. No. I couldn't possibly leave," the Guardian muttered half to herself. She shot a distressed glance at the dingy bales stacked about the walls. "What would become of all my things?
Spike grinned. "No worries. I can recommend a very reliable crypt-sitter."
Fairy lights twinkled on the tree, red and blue and gold. The living room floor was awash in wrapping paper and AA batteries, with Miss Kitty twitching in ribbon-induced euphoria in the midst of it all. On the television, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come leveled a skeletal finger at Scrooge. Giles sat in the armchair and held up his tumbler full of Spike's dreadful whiskey, observing the festivities through a glass, darkly. Six A.M. was perhaps a bit early in the day to indulge, but as he hadn't been properly to bed yet, in some respects it was still last night - and none of the others seemed inclined to stand on ceremony.
The journey home had been fraught with unasked questions. Upon arriving back at the house, they'd discovered Hank and Linda asleep on the couch, and Dawn and Shawn engaged in a heavy make-out session under the mistletoe. As Buffy pointed out, after wrestling Spike off Shawn, things could have been worse - it could have been the other way around. And somehow they'd all ended up gathered around the tree, opening presents before Dawn had to leave for the airport. A gift card for a pedicure from Linda to Buffy; the director's cut of Alien from Dawn to Spike, a bottle of surprisingly good Pinot Noir from Buffy to him - the very banality of it all was both reassuring and surreal.
"Ooh, open this one, it's from me!" Dawn shoved a suspiciously tie-shaped box into her father's hands and readied her camera. "Act really surprised!"
"It's... another tie!" Hank exclaimed, with a game attempt at holiday rapture. "It's beautiful, honey."
"Trade you," Spike muttered from the red woolen depths of the most obnoxiously cheerful Christmas jumper Giles had been able to procure from the Heathrow gift shop. With a glower in Giles's direction he added, "I'll get you for this, you tosser. See if I don't."
"Ah, ah, ah. None of that," Giles murmured. "No matter how provoking I get, remember?"
Buffy, curled up beside Spike on the couch, smacked his shoulder lightly. "Oh, stop that, both of you." She bestowed a kiss upon Spike's cheek. "You look adorable." She glanced up at the clock. "Oh! The pudding!" she yipped, and thrashed her way upright. "I'll be right back!"
After a few more rounds of "Socks! Just what I always wanted!" Giles rose and followed her into the kitchen. "Is Christmas pudding supposed to look like this?" Buffy asked plaintively. She pointed to a large enamel pot. Within was a sullen, steaming lump of unidentifiable sludge, smelling faintly of burnt milk. "It won't light. Spike snarfed all the brandy last night, so I used Bailey's Irish Cream. I thought it would be more pudding-y. It's alcohol, but it totally tastes like a milkshake."
"Er...perhaps we should give the pudding a miss, just this once," Giles suggested. He set his tumbler down on the counter and contemplated the row of brand new baby bottles drying in the dish rack, the brightly painted cartoon characters on their sides frozen in eternal struggle. What effect would Sylvester and Tweety have upon an impressionable young demon? He reached into his coat pocket and drew out a tangle of gold, a tiny locket on a chain. "I brought you a Christmas present, but I'm afraid I never got a chance to wrap it."
Buffy held out cupped hands and he poured the locket into her palms. She fumbled with the delicate clasp for a moment and stared at the picture inside. "It's Mom," she breathed, stroking the filigree. "Thank you. It's beautiful. I just wish - " She broke off, her eyes wet and bright. "I wanted so badly for it to really be her. Even if she was disappointed in me."
Giles thought of the apparition he'd seen in the hallway. Had that, too, been a manifestation of the Guardian's call? Or were there, even in a world where magic was a commonplace, still things beyond explanation? He was, he realized, content not to know; all the Summers women had secrets to keep, Joyce not least among them. "About what happened in the pyramid..."
"Over it," Buffy said. She looped the chain carefully over her head, settling the locket in the valley of her breasts. "It's not like this is the first time Spike and I have ever tried to kill each other. We've got making up down to a science."
"That's not what I meant."
Buffy gave the pudding a hopeful poke with a wooden spoon. "Over that, too. I understand why you did it. Just don't let it happen again." She added, almost too softly for Giles to hear, "And thank you."
"For striking?" Giles asked, just as softly. "Or for missing?"
She regarded him steadily. "Both."
Giles tilted his head to one side, quizzical. "But you never truly intended to kill him." He was suddenly unsure if it were a question or not.
If it was a question, it received no answer. Giles reflected that there were depths in the mind and the heart of Buffy Summers that neither he nor Spike would ever truly plumb. Presently she said, "The Shadow Men told me where they got their demon essence from. It came from the same place vampires did. Two lines, separated at birth. And now they're coming together again, back into the world, through me and Spike." Her chin went up, proud and determined. "But not as what they used to be. The Slayer essence changed me. But I changed it, too. And Spike's changed too, in his own way. This - our son - he's something new. And he deserves a chance."
"How many chances?"
They both knew he wasn't talking about the baby. Buffy folded oven mitts around the handles of the pot and hefted it off the stove. "I don't know. How many did you get?"
"More than I deserved," Giles replied. "Point taken. But I can't help wondering how many chances Warren Meers got."
"I don't know that, either. But it's not how many chances you get," Buffy said. "It's whether or not you take them when they're given."
Giles laid a hand upon her shoulder. Almost he could imagine that a second set of immaterial fingers overlaid his own. "Whether or not she'd agree with all the choices you've made," he said, "I think your mother would be proud of you."
Buffy looked up at him with dark and solemn eyes, but before she could speak, Dawn popped her head through the kitchen door. "Buffy!" she shouted, "Hurry up! Our taxi's here!"
The cab driver wore a high-collared coat and a cap pulled suspiciously low over a face that caught all the wrong angles in the pale light of sunrise. He collected Dawn's bags and Shawn's duffle, ferrying them to the curb one by one. "You are Slayer?" he asked, as Buffy came out onto the porch. "There is a Nuk'twal. He works for Checker. Always stealing my fares. You kill him, yes?"
"I kill him, no," Buffy replied. "Tell him...tell him to come to the Alibi Room. And we'll talk about it."
"Talk, talk," the driver muttered. "Killing is better. But if the Slayer says talk, we talk. And maybe then you kill him."
Buffy turned to Giles with an apologetic shrug. "It's a start." Her face lit up. "Oh! Wait a minute!" She ran back into the house and returned with a Tupperware bowl heaped with a generous portion of the ill-fated pudding. "Af'stov gen'tklk," she said hesitantly, and handed it to the startled driver. "Happy Gurnenthar's Ascension."
"Af'stov qehtl?" the driver exclaimed. "Twuchlq matvtlk!"
"You just told him that his wife was a hat," Dawn whispered.
"Whatever." Buffy waved an airy hand. "It's the thought that counts."
The driver stowed the pudding away carefully below the front seat and turned back to Buffy and Spike, beaming. "You are to be spawning, yes?" He wagged a greyish finger at Spike. "And you have not eaten her last lover's brains yet! Very bad luck!"
"Ah, well, it wasn't for lack of trying," Spike said. "He just didn't have many to spare."
Buffy punched Spike in the arm, the driver burst out laughing, and a moment later the cab was pulling out of the driveway, with Dawn waving wildly from the back window and Shawn scrunched down trying to keep his horns from banging the ceiling. "Call when you get there!" Buffy shouted after them, bouncing on her toes. "And absolutely no brain-eating!"
Giles met the vampire's eyes for a long minute. "You will never," he murmured at last, "be worthy of her."
Spike flashed a crooked grin, and wrapped an arm around Buffy's shoulders. "Preaching to the choir, mate."