Buffy was leaning against Willow, feeling protected and safe. Her body was still getting used to working again, and her slayerness was getting used to being "with" her, and adjusting. She was doing okay, but she could've done without battling Freddy Kruger. Even though she had been dreaming, she still came out of it exhausted.
Since she and Willow were connected, she felt somewhat tuned to the magickal side of things. She had nowhere near the skill that Willow had, but it was there. And likewise, Willow had some slayer ability still in her. Her reflexes were still sharp, and she was still pretty tough physically.
But they didn't dwell on that. To them they were just two freshman college girls who happened to be in love. Sure they were special in ways other people weren't, but that didn't mean that they didn't want to be normal every once and awhile, and have a good time. Just like they were trying to do now.
"Great song." Buffy said into Willow's neck.
"Oz said the band was trying different stuff."
They were silent for a little bit after that, and went slowly to sit down on one of the couches. Buffy got as close as she could. She needed comfort. No matter how hard she tried, her thoughts always seemed to drift toward the negative end.
"Nice of Giles to give us time off."
"Yeah…more like forced, but…"
"Buffy? What's wrong?"
"I just…I feel like I've missed a lot." Willow gave her a puzzled look. Buffy's mind wasn't sending out clear thoughts. "You. Look at you. Bad ass Wicca, trained by a Goddess, independent, subbed as a slayer…"
"How come I don't like the sound of this?"
"I missed that. I wasn't there for you. You didn't need me to do those things. What good am I?"
"I didn't hear that, but I'll answer anyway, cause I don't want you to have depressed thoughts. I. Need. You. The world needs you. The world needs me too, now, and I'm scared. You think I planned on all that happened?
"I did what I had to do, because I didn't have a choice. But I can't do it alone anymore. I need someone who's been in the business of world saveage, and knows how to deal. Someone who understands what it's like, and can support me."
"Who, Superman?" Buffy teased.
"I don't need him to sweep me off my feet. You've already done that."
'That was pure sap…'
'I'm not finished.'
"And I need someone to love me."
"Who might that be?"
"I think you know her."
"Absolutely." They kissed. "She's you, you know."
"I help. It's what I do."
"Nobody does it better." They kissed again, and knew they wanted to go.
"You're sure you're okay, now? You're not faking it?"
"You tell me." She let her mind be completely open, and Willow smiled. She was the only one who could relieve Buffy's depression with just a few words of reassurance. "Let's say bye to Oz and go home."
Giles, Xander, and Cordelia were trying to figure out what had been keeping Angelus so preoccupied. The magick shop had been ransacked twice in the past week, done after the shop had closed for the night. He was preparing for something, that much they were sure of.
Despite Buffy's attempts, Giles basically told her to take a long overdue rest/vacation from everything. She and Willow had been through a trying ordeal, and they were both emotionally and physically drained. They needed time, and unless it was absolutely necessary, he wouldn't ask, or let them, fight.
It was basically the information gathering stage anyway. The quiet before Angelus brought them their next crisis. While they were trying to piece things together, Wesley was on his own, gathering information from underground sources in town. He had no desire to go back to England, or be anywhere near the Council.
Giles looked over at Xander and Cordelia. They seemed awfully distant, and now that he thought about it, they had been distant for awhile. On the surface they seemed the same, but he could see it in their eyes. With everything that had been going on, he hadn't noticed it. Oz, Buffy, and Willow probably hadn't either.
"Are…are you two all right?" Xander and Cordelia weren't the easiest people to read, particularly because they both hid behind their different personalities. Xander, the jokester, and Cordelia the detached, mean, and untouchable one. He figured the direct approach was the best way.
"Fine." They both said quickly, giving what Giles knew was an automated response.
"Uh huh." The last two words were spoken in a tone that said, 'I don't want to talk about it.'
He saw them share a look, and then look down at the newspapers they were reading.
Somehow he got the feeling that he couldn't help them with this. Not by himself anyway. He'd talk to Buffy and Willow tomorrow. He wanted to see them okay, not distracted. That was something they couldn't afford. It made them more susceptible to attacks. But mainly, he wanted to see them happy. He felt like a father to them, and he'd help any way he could.
Hearing a knock on their door, Willow untangled herself from Buffy's embrace, and slumped out of bed. She wrapped a sheet around her body.
"I have to answer it. Just keep my spot warm." Willow smiled at her. Buffy frowned, and she almost ignored the door. Then the knocks came again. "Patience."
She opened the door. Giles was standing outside. "Giles!" Willow blushed.
"Ah…hello…" He said, turning the same shade as Willow
"Buffy! Giles is here!"
"Hi Giles! How you doing?" Buffy called quickly from inside.
"Um…fine. I…needed to talk to you two about something…" He stuttered.
"Great! Well, we'll just get…meet you at the lounge in the main hall."
"I'll just…go wait…"
"Bye, Giles!" Buffy said, as Willow shut the door.
Willow faced her, and they both started laughing.
Later, Buffy and Willow entered the lounge, seeing Giles sitting in a chair over in the corner. They walked over and sat down next to him.
"So what'd you need to talk to us about?" Willow asked.
"Does a demon need to be pummeled?"
"Not yet. It's about Xander and Cordelia actually. Something seems to be troubling them."
The three of them saw Oz spot them, and he made his way over.
"Hey." He said.
"Xander and Cordelia." Buffy said.
"We've been so wrapped up in stuff…and I knew that something was bothering Xander, I just didn't have the time to…" Willow trailed off.
"Cordelia's really good at pretending to cope. I never would've guessed...tutor!"
"Huh?" The three of them asked.
"Tutor. Is on his way over here. I didn't do the assignment."
'Now it's my fault?'
'Then I'll make you do the assignment later. No distractions till you're done.'
"Buffy…" The older student was saying.
"Oh…hi…almost done it…I swear."
"I hope so. It's for your benefit."
"Understood. Promise." He walked away, and she saw Giles giving her a look. "Going back to the very important subject of our friends, we were going to talk to Xander anyhow, so…"
"We could split up. Oz go with Buffy and talk to Xander, and I'll talk to Cordelia."
"You want to talk to Cordelia alone?"
"Brave." Oz said.
"I'll go with you, Willow." Giles said. He might not have been able to help them alone, but with Willow it would be easier. He was the parental, backup support, type of person. "They're both at Xander's now, I think."
"Then that's where we're going." Buffy said.
They got up and started to head off campus, walking a few feet behind Giles and Oz.
"He was checking you out." Willow said.
"Yes you are. And I like it."
"Well, can't really blame him…"
"I'm yours…but remember, public place."
She grinned at the look of shock on Willow's face. She was easy to unravel, but it was still fun. They linked arms, and Willow relaxed.
As the two of them sat in Xander's basement, they were together and alone at the same time. He and Cordelia sat up against the headboard of his bed, silent. They reasoned that if they didn't acknowledge the situation they both found themselves in, they could pretend there wasn't a problem.
It wasn't about being useful to their friends, or contributing, they knew they could do that. Xander proved that to himself when he shoved a knife through the "Freddy demon's" back a week or so ago. And Cordelia had surprised herself when she was there for Willow during Buffy's absence, and was actually comforting.
No, the problem was with the way their lives were going. They were stuck in a rut. More like rooted in a rut. Xander was jobless, and didn't have the grades to even get into Sunnydale's college. Cordelia was also jobless, but she did have the smarts to further her education, she just couldn't afford it.
Most people would say it's their own fault, and to a point, they'd agree. They wanted to do something with their lives, something productive, they just weren't sure how or what. And that was a minor problem. The biggest ones were denial and lack of self-esteem.
They wanted to be able to open up and deal together, but…they were scared to. Both were afraid to admit they needed help. Especially to each other. They faced one another slowly, debating whether or not to speak. Then their friends came down.
Before they had time to say and anything, Buffy and Oz already started to drag Xander off the bed, and Giles and Willow were doing the same to Cordelia.
"What are you doing?" Cordelia asked, her voice raised.
"Things to do. Hurry. Long day." Willow said.
They got outside, and the two groups, went in opposite directions. Xander glanced over his shoulder.
"We'll meet up with them later. Got things to do first." Buffy said.
Buffy and Oz took Xander to the miniature golf course outside of town. He was suspicious, because they knew he was the only one who really enjoyed doing eighteen holes of trying to get a golf ball in a frog's mouth. But he went along with it. One reason was because they were already halfway through the course, and two, because he was winning.
"So, Xand…are you trying to steal the 'Quiet Award' from Oz today or what?" Buffy asked him.
"It's a recognition I'd like to keep." Oz said.
"I knew it."
"Knew what?" She asked.
"That you had another reason for bringing me here."
"No I didn't. Okay, it was partly to figure out what's been going on with you, and to spend quality time with a friend I haven't seen in two months."
"There's nothing going on."
Oz lined up for his shot. "Benefit of minimal talking is learning to read people."
"Do you see where he's going?"
"I can handle it."
"Handle what? Speak to us."
"You can't fix my problems."
"No, but we can get you to want to fix them for yourself. What are they?"
"Self esteem." Oz said, as he hit the ball, and it went over to the other side of the windmill.
"Is he right?"
"If he is?"
"Then I don't understand why. You have no reason to -"
"Oh come on, Buffy. Look at my life."
"You may think it's hard, but you're just out of high school. Things are tough. I know."
"How? You don't know what -" Buffy looked at him wide-eyed. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean…"
"Maybe this was a bad idea."
She lined up to take her shot next. She swung, and she and Oz started to walk towards the hole. "That's it? You're just gonna give up on me?"
"That's what you want, isn't it? Fine. We'll just finish and go -"
"I have low self-esteem okay? I've been fired from every job I've gotten since graduation, I've been hospitalized, my family could care less about me, Cordelia's in the same -"
"Xander…" A light bulb went off in her head, and she smiled. It was so simple.
"Here comes the pity."
"No pity. Just understanding. Cause I know what you need."
"To open up." Oz said.
"Isn't that what I'm doing?"
"Not to us. Cause as close as we are, we can't help you."
"Cordelia." Oz stated.
"No that would just -"
"Look, you're right. I don't know how hard it is for you. You and I are in two totally different situations. But Cordelia does. Cause she's going through it too."
"What happened to her isn't your fault."
"You love her don't you?"
"Well, yeah." Xander said.
"And she loves you back. You two are the only ones who can...I could tell you all day how worth it you are, how you'll get a job, how you're a great person and you have no reason to doubt that you'll lead a good life, but it wouldn't make a difference.
"You'd think I was saying it because I'm your friend, then you'd smile, maybe even say you'd try, but it wouldn't go anywhere. Cordelia's always been honest with you, and if you two love each other, you can help each other. I know this for a fact."
"How would we do that? We'd just make each other more depressed."
"You'd give each other the kick start to get moving. A reason not to give up." Oz said.
"I don't know."
"How do you feel now?" Buffy asked.
"It can only get better then. What have you got to lose?"
Xander seemed to be thinking about it.
"Let's finish up." Oz said.
Walking around the mall, Cordelia, Willow and Giles were shopping. Actually, Cordelia persuaded Giles to give her his credit card. He was a little more than worried at this point. She had about five bags full of stuff, and finally decided to stop because her legs were cramping.
She said she had to use the bathroom, so she made her way there, leaving Giles and Willow to wait for her. That had been ten minutes ago.
"I should go in there." Willow said.
"Well, we did bring her here in order to -"
"Can I help it if she's not the easiest person to talk to?"
"Perhaps you should try now. Before my bill gets any higher."
Willow made a face at him, and went inside.
She found Cordelia sitting on the tiled floor, crying. The bags were at her side. She looked up at Willow through tear-filled eyes.
"You don't really want to sit on the floor, do you?"
"Why not? I should get used to it now so it isn't a big shock later."
"Don't say that…"
"These," Cordelia said rifling through the clothes in the bags, "aren't me anymore. I'm a worthless, has-been, waitress."
Willow got down on the floor next to her. "The clothes were never 'you.' You're a person. Clothes don't make you who you are."
"Ghandi. He didn't wear anything spectacular, wasn't rich either. But he was a great man."
"You know just how to wield that knowledge talent of yours, don't you?"
"Had to prove my point somehow."
"Well, I'm not Ghandi. I'm me, and I have different needs."
"You need to have everything?"
"You just think you do."
"I know that sounds selfish, it's just…I've had everything my whole life."
"Must be hard to revert."
"Well, what do you have?"
"A couple pairs of disgusting shoes…"
"You know what I mean."
"I don't know. A job, crappy as it is, friends I guess…"
"I know I do. A "Faith-esque" apartment, can't forget that, a lousy Honda,"
"What about intelligence, looks, acceptance letters from very good colleges,"
"Are we forgetting the fact that I have barely enough money to live off right now?"
"There's ways to get into colleges, and you know that. What about Xander?"
"What about him?"
"You have him too, don't you?"
"Sorta. We're kinda…in the same life place right now."
"So why aren't you talking to him about it? Maybe that's what you need."
"And make him feel worse? I mean we all knew he was going to end up…damn it. I didn't want to say that."
"He convinced himself a long time ago that he was going to be where he is now."
"Well that's just stupid. No wonder he -"
"And he blames himself for you ending up like him."
"He does? It's not his fault."
"Don't you think he needs to hear that?"
"I want to talk to him…but I'm afraid."
"He went out with me because I was popular and…"
"You think that's why he loves you?
"He loves me?"
"Yeah, I do."
"He's with you because you're you. Not because you had money, or school status. He's still with you, and guess what? High school's been over. You need each other right now. That's obvious."
"Well, whatever you decide to do, at least you'll be doing it together. It's good to have someone who understands and supports you. First-hand knowledge here. Now come on, and get off the floor."
They walked out of the bathroom and over to Giles.
"Is everything all right?"
"Yeah." Cordelia said.
"Ready to go?" Willow asked.
"Almost. I just need to return this stuff."
"Oh, Cordelia you don't have to -" He started.
"Thanks, Giles. I mean it. But…I don't need this."
Later, at the Bronze, the two couples were dancing. Xander and Cordelia, Buffy and Willow. Oz had to go lock himself in the mausoleum, it being the first night of the change. There was no band playing that night, just a DJ.
"This next song, is by Dave Matthews' Band, called 'Best Of What's Around'."
A few seconds later, the song started.
Xander and Cordelia looked at each other, seeing the things they didn't want to say.
Buffy smiled at Willow, who smiled back, and then they looked over at their friends. Xander leaned in and kissed Cordelia, and they followed suit.
'Buffy…' Willow thought.
'Willow…' Buffy thought.
'Xander…' Cordelia thought.
'Cordelia…' Xander thought.
Xander and Cordelia stopped dancing, and so did Buffy and Willow.
They were all waiting. And it was about to happen. Buffy and Willow held their breath.
"I need you to help me." Xander and Cordelia said at the same time.
Buffy and Willow gave themselves a mental high five. They looked over at the door where Giles was standing quietly. They gave him a thumbs up, and waited for the next song to start.
The beach was nice at night. Kind of cold, but it gave the four of them an excuse to wear jackets. Something you didn't get to do very often in Southern California. They had a basket full of food. Well, it used to be.
Buffy sat up against Willow with her eyes closed, and Xander and Cordelia looked at her with an amused look on their faces.
'You're being stared at.'
Buffy opened her eyes and caught her friends' gazes. "What?"
"Nothing…nothing at all." Xander and Cordelia said in rambling defense.
She sat up. "I like Willow warmth. And we had to sit through you two feeding each other grapes, you know." She looked at the empty soda cans around them, and noticed a bottle sticking out of the basket. "Is that champagne, Xander?"
"No. It's ginger ale. I took the label off." Cordelia gave him her best 'you're impossible' look.
Willow had to keep from laughing. It was nice to see them in rare form again. "So, things are better…with you guys?"
"Ooh! Yeah. I'm working at the Bronze now."
"Really? Doing what?"
"Bouncer." Buffy cleared her throat. "Does the Slayer have something she'd like to say?"
"I just…never thought of you as a bouncer before, is all."
"If it's about the lack of muscle, believe me, I'm making him bulk up." Cordelia said.
"Before my maleness gets attacked some more, allow me to explain. Most people refuse to take the job, because…most people die."
"Which leads me to add - why did you take this job?" Willow asked.
"Hey I can handle the run of the mill vamps, and because I was so enthusiastic, they're willing to pay me a nice chunk of change."
"I'm happy for you. Really. Just promise me, because I know how important this is to you, that you'll arm yourself?" Buffy said.
"To the teeth. Promise."
"And I called most of the colleges I applied to. They said I could take the summer session, and they're sending me financial aid things, and I'm learning to save my money, so…" Cordelia said.
"That's great. So which one are you going to go to?" Willow asked. Cordelia looked down at her lap. "I shouldn't have asked that. Being quiet now."
"She's just not sure…yet." Xander said, looking at Cordelia to make sure he was correct. She nodded. "So…Buffy, how are you feeling?"
"Good. Almost a hundred percent even. I can take on anything the Hellmouth throws out."
Just then, they all felt the sand move underneath their blanket. They all jumped off, and watched as oddly colored, red spiked snakes slithered out from the blanket. They made their way to the ocean, quickly.
Xander rushed to one, and stepped on its head, killing it. He picked it up, and the rest allowed the ocean to carry them away.
"Caught one." He said.
"What were they?" Buffy asked.
Cordelia sighed. "Not again."
Buffy faced her, and noticed Willow and Xander fidgeting. "Again?"
Giles and Wesley were sitting quietly drinking tea and reading, when Buffy and the others came in. Wesley had learned that Angelus was somewhere underground and that had shocked them, because Angelus didn't seem like someone who would live in filth. They had not gone in search of him yet.
They were waiting for him to show himself. Wandering aimlessly in the sewers looking for him would not have been a very good or smart thing, to do.
"Did you have," Giles started to say when Buffy put the snake on the table, "a good time?"
"Don't hurt him, Buffy." Willow said, coming up behind her.
Wesley was drawn to the snake immediately, and picked it up. "You were actually able to capture one this time. Excellent."
"You can thank me for -" Xander began.
"What's been going on, Giles?" Buffy asked.
"Ah…recently…" He looked up at anyone for help, but they all raised their hands and sat down on the couch. "There have been creatures appearing from time to time…"
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"They haven't been anything terribly life-threatening, and I didn't want to worry you over -"
Buffy's expression softened. "Giles, I know you're looking out for me," She grabbed his hand, "and I appreciate it, really. But I'm not going to break. I'm fully functional, and ready to slay. And if these things have shown up more than once, we need to figure out why."
He smiled at her. "I suppose my parental instincts have been outdoing my watcher instincts lately."
She hugged him. "I'm glad they are. But…I do have a job to do."
"Now that I have a closer look, I believe I recognize this creature." Wesley said.
"And?" Cordelia asked.
Buffy backed into Willow's embrace, and they and everyone else turned to him for an explanation.
"It's a Vyerdin. An ancient, demonic ancestor of today's snake breeds. It hasn't existed on Earth for thousands of years. It poisons -"
"Poison?" Xander and Cordelia panicked.
Xander pulled off his shoe and his sock and checked his foot for punctures.
"Which it releases from its tail. If you only impacted with its head, you should be fine."
"I think I almost had a heart attack."
"Breathe." Cordelia said.
"The next question - what are they doing here after a thousand years?" Willow asked.
"I have no idea." Wesley said.
"I was waiting for the brick wall. Here it is." Buffy said.
"Now, when it comes to demons and stuff, I'm no expert, but it seems like every time we've seen these things, they've come up from under the ground." Cordelia said.
Everyone's brains started working.
"And what's underground?" Buffy asked.
"Sewers?" Xander offered.
"Angelus." Willow said.
"Can we go three for three?"
"Damn." Wesley cursed.
"The Hellmouth." Giles said. "It's at its weakest point directly underneath where the school was, so the Vyerdin are breaking through, and if Angelus is residing in the sewers…"
"He's getting ready to open it." Xander said.
Their adrenaline was going; their hearts were beating faster, their blood pumping, anxiety rising…
"So what do we do?" Cordelia asked.
They just looked at one another. What were they going to do?
In a restricted wing of the Council's complex, Quentin Travers went to report to the founder of the institution. The boss. No matter how powerful Quentin was, his boss' orders were final. And they weren't always "good" orders.
The "right of passage" test that Slayers had to endure, though most didn't, was started by the founder. Except for the current slayer, of course. As much as people over the years of had objected to it, nothing changed, because the test was not to improve the slayer, it was to kill her. Which is what the founder wanted. Rupert had been right when he said it was barbaric, but Quentin didn't have a choice.
What most watchers and slayers didn't know, was that the very forces that they were trying to combat, started the Council. On the surface, the Council seemed to have good intentions, but it was all a sham. The darker forces used the whole idea of enlisting girls with slaying ability, to keep an eye on the enemy, and evil could fool even the most suspicious of people into thinking it was something it wasn't.
When the time came, when evil was to gain the upper hand once again, it could simply shut down the only organized threat to it. The Council. They trained their slayers and watchers to follow orders to the letter. Drones who would follow orders without question. So when everything was brought to a halt, they would simply disband, and no one would oppose them.
But, occasionally, rebellious types would spring up. Normally, they'd be taken care of quickly, but in the case of Buffy Summers and her Watcher, they had proved more resilient. And now that the Great Sorceress had been discovered, and she and the Slayer had joined forces, things had become complicated.
They had not anticipated a struggle, but it was Hell's time to reclaim Earth, and according to the boss, they wouldn't be stopped.
Quentin entered the large, dark chamber, and stood patiently.
"Travers." A deep voice said in the shadows.
"My brethren call to me. The time is near."
"I also understand that you let the man, Pryce, leave with materials to aid the light warriors."
"No, of course not."
"Your tongue is lying. If it hadn't been for your meddling, the takeover would have been quick. Now, the Great Sorceress grows stronger, and the Slayer is powerful once again. Penance must be paid." Quentin was silent, as beads of sweat ran down his face.
"Have you nothing to say in your defense? I have watched over this place for thousands of years - at the request of my brothers in the Dark Dimension. Confined here, paving the way for our eventual triumph. It's so very near, and I will be free to roam this plane.
"Thousands will die in the reshaping of this world. Horrors the human eye will be frightened to look upon. Take solace in the fact, that you, will not have to see it."
Before Quentin knew what was happening, red eyes appeared in the darkness, and less than a second later, he was ash on the floor.
"I don't," Buffy punched the vampire she was battling in the gut, "have time," she kicked it in the head and it fell on its back, "for idiots," she staked it, "like you."
Willow was magically thrusting a vampire in the air, and with a wave of her hand, threw it into a branch jutting out from a tree. "Is that it?"
"You're showing off."
"Am not. Just using what I'm good at. Never thought I'd be able to be good at doing, that, though. Would it help if I said I was just trying to impress you?"
"Okay that was twenty five percent showing off, fifty percent trying to see if I could do it and pushing myself, and twenty five percent impressing you."
Buffy walked over to her, and crossed her arms over her chest. "I only get twenty-five percent?"
"You have all my percents in every other area. Promise."
"Magick is your deal, so I guess I can let you off the hook. What does that mean anyway? Are they talking about fishing hooks, or phone hooks or what?"
"I've always wondered what the heck 'Yabba Dabba Doo' meant." Buffy gave her a strange look and started to laugh. "What?" Willow stuck her tongue out at her. "I like the Flintstones. I know he says it when he's happy. They're three separate words, though. I wanna know what they mean."
"It's a mystery for the ages. Actually, it was the sixties. They were probably all on drugs. Look at Scooby Doo."
"I know what you mean…wait. We got completely sidetracked, didn't we?"
"Uh huh. Side tracking is nice sometimes. But focusing. Must focus."
"Especially because of what Xander and Oz are gonna do. You think they'll be okay?"
"They volunteered, and everybody has to chip in, no matter how much we don't like it. Oz is sensible, and Xander's impulsive. They balance out. I just hope they don't take any risks."
"Giles is supposed to call to tell us what they find out."
"Then let's go play the waiting game."
Xander was standing beside the entrance to the Bronze accepting the price of admission from incoming clubgoers. He figured he must've had five hundred dollars in his pockets. Of course, he didn't get to keep any of it, but holding that amount of money was a thrilling experience for him. Plus he got to card people. He'd know everybody in Sunnydale eventually.
He had a zipped up jacket on. Not because it was cold, but for other reasons. One was to hide his lack of muscular build, so he could retain some menacing demeanor, and two, he was hiding vampire protection materials. Mainly, a couple strands of garlic, a large cross, and a few bottles of holywater.
He thought he noticed people smelling the garlic scent, because they were looking at him with bizarre expressions. He glanced over at Oz, who was similarly equipped, standing in the shadows across the street. This had been a bad idea.
Well, not necessarily a bad idea. Just one that probably could have used a little more planning on their part. They were looking for any sign of Angelus. The guy had to come out to eat, and the Bronze was in the center of town. They were hoping to see him, and then follow him to where he was holed up, get out, and then tell everyone.
That was what Xander wasn't too keen on doing. But he had asked, volunteered, so he had to stick with it. Besides, it was simple reconnaissance. See where Angelus was, try and see what he was doing, and get out. Quick, fast, and pain free. Or so he hoped.
There was no sign of him yet apparently, because he saw Oz shake his head.
And then Xander saw him out of the corner of his eye. Angelus was coming out of an alley, wiping what Xander assumed was blood, off his mouth.
"Damn." He said quietly. But there wasn't anything he or Oz could have done.
Then Angelus made his way toward a manhole up the street. He had to go. But he had his job. Why hadn't he factored that in? Then the manager came out of the club.
"I'm getting complaints from people about a smell. Is that garlic?" The man asked.
"Sorry. Superstitious. Tell you what. I'll go home, get rid of it, take a shower, and come back here."
"Make it quick."
"Twenty minutes tops. Just…don't fire me."
"I like you, kid." Xander smiled inwardly. He was on good terms with his boss. That was a first. He was about to catch up with Oz and follow Angelus, when he felt the manager tap him on the shoulder. "The money?"
"Whoops. Unintentional." He handed over the money and started to run.
"To quote a great man, 'The waiting game sucks.'" Buffy said, as both she and Willow were sitting on their bed staring at the phone.
"Who said that?"
"Beats me. Had to be great, though. Cause this does suck."
"They're fine. I'm sure they are."
"Can you tell?"
"Just that they're not hurt."
"That's good. Wow. Is there a limit to what you can do?"
"I hope so. Being able to do some of things she taught me -"
"Yeah. It's freaky. Mostly cause I can do stuff without even concentrating that hard anymore. Before the year started I could lift a pencil, and the biggest spell I did was barely making a five second duplicate of you."
"That seems like forever ago."
"So much…a lot…has happened…"
Willow was becoming overwhelmed as she realized the scope of what she had been through. And then realized, that this was what happened when you stood between the world and its destruction. In her hacker/sidekick helper position, she had never fully understood. But Buffy knew. All too well. Just another reason for Willow to respect her.
"But we're still here. My mom, you're parents, Giles, is still here. Everyone's still alive. This is the Buffy statement on slaying - 'If you've survived, didn't lose any friends, and manage to stay enrolled in school, you're doing pretty damn good.'
"For someone new to this, you're really good at it. And I still think you’re the greatest person in the world, still love ya, and you get bonus points for being so wiccany."
"It doesn't bother you that you're sharing your slaying with me is it?"
"You kidding? It's a major help. It used to be just me out there, even though you guys helped some. And then it was Kendra, Faith…now it's you. And I'm glad. Really.
"The only thing that scares me is the track record of people who slay with me, hasn't been so good. Kendra ended up dead, and Faith is in comaland. Which…I won't let happen…"
"That goes for me too, you know. If I'm slaying, I take on as much responsibility to watch your back as you do for me."
"I wouldn't want anyone else to be watching it."
"You better not."
They laughed, trying to break the seriousness of the moment, and Buffy brought her hand to Willow's cheek and quickly kissed her lips.
"We've gotta stop having these heavy conversations. Especially with our friends out there. It's not good for my stress level."
"You know what we need?"
There was a knock at the door, and Buffy got up to answer it, leaving Willow's question hanging in the air. Cordelia was standing there, holding a carton in her hands. She came in immediately.
"I was driving Giles and Wesley nuts…I was driving myself nuts…so I came over here. I have ice cream."
"Kind?" Buffy asked.
"Fudge nut brownie."
"That's what we need." Willow said, answering her own question.
"The barrier is weakening. You're progressing well." The cloaked figure said to Angelus in the Master's lair. His ability to connect to the world was becoming stronger.
Around the room, black candles were lit, an eerie, blue flame washing the walls in light. There was a smell of incense in the air, and the Vyerdin were slithering about, looking for escape.
"These things are getting on my nerves."
"Get used to it. When the Mouth is fully opened, a lot of larger 'things', as you put it, will be coming through."
"That's great, really, but while I'm down here lighting candles, Buffy, and Willow, are getting better. Stronger. Not to mention the fact that they're still breathing."
"And whose fault, is that?" Angelus didn't answer. "Your problem is lack of patience. They will die. It's inevitable."
"You haven't faced them. It's easy to talk. She's not the same as she was three years ago." He was careful not to lash out at the figure.
"Which is why there will be reinforcements."
"Who's he talking to?" Xander asked in a whisper.
They followed Angelus discreetly and quietly, and were surprised that he hadn't sensed them. But seeing his agitation and distraction now, they could understand why. Needless to say, Xander was shocked when they saw the Master's lair in use again.
"I dunno. You know this place better than I do."
"No idea. We've seen enough."
"Let's go report."
That's when Angelus looked in their general direction, and they heard the figure speak.
"It seems you have company. Although, I wouldn't -" Angelus was already on his way over.
"Xander, Xander, Xander. Don't you ever learn?"
He and Oz opened their jackets, revealing their hidden defenses.
"Yes." Xander said. He poured holywater over the backing up Angelus, and they took the opportunity to run. "We'll tell Buffy you said hi."
Angelus grabbed his face. The garlic, cross, and holywater combination had burned the side of his face.
"I tried to warn you." The figure said. "Impulsive and impatient. I pushed for your release. More and more, I question whether that was a mistake." It vanished.
"I suppose I should have suspected something. Angelus' single focus has always been Buffy's demise. For him to suddenly stop, disappear, was strange." Giles said.
"As you mentioned, your mind was elsewhere." Wesley replied.
"You find that irresponsible."
"I find that caring. I was honest when I said I wanted to see Buffy well when I came here. You and Buffy and her friends have influenced me greatly. I may not understand the depth of your caring for her or any of these kids, but I wouldn't penalize you for it. I envy you, actually."
"The Council doesn't allow for that. You were just following regulations."
"Perhaps I shouldn't have. I feel I've missed opportunities, some more fulfilling type of life."
"Better late than never. You could start now."
"I think I will. I owe you all thanks."
"You've done so much for Buffy and for Willow, and have helped us all tremendously. You don't owe anyone."
The phone started to ring, and Giles picked it up immediately.
"Oz? Are you two all right…good…really?…he went back to…okay then. Thank you…this helps. Get some sleep."
Giles nodded, hung up, and started to dial the number for Buffy and Willow's dorm.
"Great, Giles. Good night." Willow said, and then hung up. "They're both fine."
All three girls took a deep breath.
"So what'd they learn?" Buffy asked.
"Giles didn't say much except that Angelus was in the Master's lair and that he'd talk to us after classes tomorrow."
"The Master's lair? Why there?" Cordelia asked.
"Beats me." Buffy said. But her thoughts betrayed her voice.
'The Master's lair. You don't think…'
'No way…he's dead Buffy. Completely.'
'Still. He could've picked anywhere. So what if the Hellmouth's a little more weaker there…'
'Relax. It'll be okay.'
Willow hugged Buffy to her. Cordelia looked at them.
"Willow warmth again?"
"It's comforting." Buffy smiled.
But just the thought that the only person, well not really a person, who had killed her, could have something to do with everything that was happening…she shuddered, and Willow held tighter.
Willow knew she had been on edge lately. After talking to Giles about what Xander and Oz saw, they were all pretty sure that opening the Hellmouth was Angelus' plan. And that mysterious cloaked figure…for lack of a better term, "wigged her."
She and Willow had set up a slaying schedule. Three days out of the week, they would slay together. And the other four days, they would split up, and try going solo. To hone, and so they didn't get dependant on one another. After all, there were times that they'd get separated. It was a good system.
In all their nights, there hadn't been any major conflicts with Angelus, but weirder things were popping up. Slightly bigger problems than Hell snakes. Which were distracting them from concentrating on how to deal with the big picture of the Hellmouth, how to keep the demons where they belonged, and close their exit permanently.
Tonight was one of her solo patrol nights and she promised Willow, that no matter how horrible she thought she looked afterwards, she would meet her here. In the restaurant. It was a nice place. Not stuffy, but not a fast food place either. All tables, no booths, candles in the center of the tables, and a straightforward menu.
She spotted Willow sitting at a table near the back, looking around. Probably looking for her. She made her way back to her.
"Here I am. Disheveled, but here." Buffy said.
"You look great." 'And you know you do.' "The waiter was starting to get impatient. I think this was my eighth glass of water."
"I suppose a bladder comment might be inappropriate, huh?"
"Could ruin the mood just a little."
Buffy sat down on a chair at the other side of the table. They had originally planned on this being a group dinner, but Xander and Cordelia were into serious "alone" time, Oz was at a practice, and Giles and Wesley wouldn't take a single break, which made all of them feel guilty. But the two men insisted that they all took their moments when they could. While they had them.
Which actually depressed them quite a bit. But sitting down and preparing to order, Willow and Buffy promised themselves that they would push all thoughts out of their heads. At least for a few hours.
They were quiet. Conversation topics weren't coming.
"Big and scary."
Buffy shook her head. "I don't wanna talk about it…but I do. You know?"
"As in you'd like to ignore it, but you know we'll have to deal with it?"
"Well…did you run into anything big during patrol?"
"Not really. Six of those flesh-eating lizard things, though."
"Buffy!" Willow said, worried.
"I have all my flesh."
"How'd you get them all?"
"They don't like matches. Especially the lighted kind that burns them till they keel over."
"And you avoided burning anything else?" Willow's look said, 'Please say you did.'
"Yes. There was carefulness and avoidance. Geez! But…if we can get a chance to actually get to the Master's lair, I say we just go in hard and fast, destroy Angelus' decorating, and then him."
"You think that's a good idea?"
"Well Xander and Oz were down there. They were fine."
"That was before Angelus knew we were onto him." Willow sighed. "But you're right. Let's not talk about this."
Buffy saw the waiter start to come over out of the corner of her eye, and focused to get a better look. The waiter, well, he wasn't the waiter anymore. The Master stood in his place.
"This time, I'll make sure you stay dead." He said.
Then Buffy felt Willow's hand atop hers. She turned around.
"Buffy? You okay?"
She looked over. The waiter was there now.
"Are you ready to order?"
Wesley was on the phone when Willow walked into Giles house.
"No one has seen him at all?…are you sure?…well thank you…be cautious…good bye."
Giles heard the last part as he came walking down the stairs, but Willow asked the question before he could.
"What was that about?"
"One of my confidantes, my only confidante, at the Council says Quentin has…disappeared."
"Disappeared?" Giles asked.
Wesley nodded. "And ever since, random watchers have done the same."
"Did you talk to any of them much?" Willow asked.
Giles saw what Willow was getting at, and it made sense. Even though he didn't like to think it. "Quentin's and the watchers' disappearances may not have been so random, Wesley. If someone found out Quentin let you leave discreetly…"
"He could have been killed." Wesley said.
"And whoever did it could be trying to find out where you went. By asking people you knew, and then killing them if they don't tell." She added.
"Oh God…" Wesley said sinking into a chair.
"Don't say 'it's all my fault' and 'look what I've done.' You did the right thing. We've known the Council was dirty, and you should be glad you got out."
"But they're not all bad people…"
"No, they're not." Giles agreed. "But that isn't the issue. Your safety is a priority as of right now."
Wesley just stared blankly. Willow decided to take the opportunity of silence to explain why she came.
"Sorry to change topics a little, but there's another priority now too. I had to fight with Buffy over this to get her to let me tell you…and it's a good thing she has a class right now or else she probably would have tried to stop…well I'm exaggerating just a…"
"Buffy's been seeing the Master." She said, ending her rambling abruptly.
"Visions, dreams, it's really getting to her. Besides Angelus, he's the only one who can…unravel her. It's scary. For both of us."
"I'd imagine it is. I thought we had gotten rid of…"
"So there's a possibility? Cause I was kinda hoping you would tell me it was just her nerves, and I could do the soothing thing."
"There are no certainties as far as the Hellmouth is concerned, Willow. You know that." He ran his hand through his hair. "I should read…"
"I'll assist you. Whatever or whomever may or may not be searching for me, has not found me yet, and there is still work to be done." Wesley said, focusing.
"I'll go to Buffy and try…something. Oh and Wesley? There's no shame in hiding. It's saved me plenty. See ya."
Willow left, as Giles started to leaf through his collection.
"She's right." He said.
"If the need arises." Wesley stated, trying to look tough. Then his expression relaxed into a more worrisome state. "Are there any really good spots around town…that is…if one should…want to hide?"
Xander was lying on his bed, marker in hand, reading a newspaper. The real estate section to be more specific. Cordelia was sitting on the edge, glancing down at it with him.
"Any of these look good? I don't wanna get something too cockroach infested."
"It's up to you."
"Wait. I just had a…why don't we share an apartment? We could split the rent…"
"You really think we're gonna be around long enough to enjoy it?"
He moved the newspaper off to the side, and sat up next to her.
"You don't think we'll win? We always win. You know the saying. Good always triumphs over evil. Buffy and Will, they know what they're doing and -"
"Okay…that wasn't the reason." She took a deep breath. "I've…been making some calls, and there's a job opening up in New York. It's a boutique, and the owner was really good friends with my parents, and she's gonna try and keep it open as long as she can…"
"I'm thinking of going to Columbia."
"So you're leaving again? Only this time you're going cross country?" He got up off the bed, and stood with his back turned to her. "I hate déjà vu."
"Only this time I want you to come with me."
"Look, the only reason I'd even consider not going is because of you. But if you come with me, we can start our lives over. And do that togetherness thing Buffy and Willow are so good at."
"What about them? They're our friends." He asked, turning around.
"Yeah, and I'd miss them. But people move away all the time. I don't want to get away because there's vampires here or anything, but because there's no chance for me to make anything of my life here. And none for you either.
"Their life has direction. They're in college, and I'm sure if everything goes well, they'll get the hell outta here eventually too." She stood up, and grabbed his hand.
"I tried to go it on my own, but I couldn't. It would help if I had someone to back me up. And I know people in New York. Not as many as I used to, but you can get a really good job, maybe take night courses -"
"I need to think."
"We've got time. I wouldn't leave until after the whole Hellmouth thing is over anyway. I'll leave you alone. Just…consider it?"
He nodded, as she walked up the basement steps.
"His ignorance will be his undoing."
Buffy lifted her head up off her desk, to find the classroom empty. And standing by the chalkboard-on-wheels was the Goddess.
"What are you doing here?"
"You're dreaming. I took the opportunity to come talk to you. I don't think we've formally met."
"This isn't that formal either, but hi. Willow said you left."
"Not completely. I've just taken on my more traditional role."
"An unseen guide and watcher. As I told her, I cannot assist you anymore. Directly."
"What did you need to talk to me about?"
"His ignorance will be his undoing."
"Who? The Master?"
"Yes. I realize he is unnerving to you. He is an evil creature, but you should not fear him. He is too single-minded. Much like Angelus."
"What do you mean? Are you saying he's the one Angelus is working with? Positively?"
"Demons, vampires, when they are killed on Earth, lose their body here, so they can no longer be a threat. But they are not completely destroyed. They just wander Hell aimlessly. When vampires are created, these wandering demon spirits are reborn into a host body on Earth."
"So demons are recycled?"
"Much like souls. You can never truly destroy a soul, or a demon. You can damage it, take its energy, but it never vanishes completely."
"And the Master?"
"He's a special case. He had been on Earth quite awhile. So long, that his host body became disfigured and evil just like him. The body became attached to the parasite, so to speak."
"So when I dusted him…"
"He went back to Hell, in the same form that he had in this dimension. And because of that, he has not wandered aimlessly. He has been marshalling forces. He is the one who got Angelus released."
"To get him out. And the rest of Hell. But why couldn't he ask to leave just like Angelus?"
"Because Angelus was not destroyed. He was 'visiting', where as the Master had been sent to Hell properly. He belonged there. The Master needed someone on the outside, to bring him back ritually. And you and Willow are meant to stop it. Once and for all."
"But how? The Master -"
"He thought he had destroyed you once. Underestimated you. So in ignorance, and assuming he had won easily, he went to claim power. It's always power. But you made him pay for that ignorance."
"Maybe…but he still…that was then."
"True. But the Master has been residing in Hell for a long while. He does not know how powerful you've become, or what Willow has grown into. Even now he ignores Angelus' warnings."
"But if the Hellmouth opens all this other stuff will be supporting him."
"He is their leader. An army, even one of demons, cannot function properly without -"
She was awoken by the bell signifying the end of class.
She returned to the dorm after leaving class, to find a message on the machine. She pushed the playback button.
"Buff, it's me. Could you meet me at the coffee place? Will's coming too. See ya there."
What did Xander want to talk to them about?
Wesley sat in Giles' house reading over the volumes on Hell they had managed to dig up. There were very few, and he knew if he still had access to the Council, he would have gotten a wealth of information out of their resources. But he had to keep reminding himself that the Council was started for an evil purpose, and had fooled them all.
The thought overwhelmed him. The institution he dedicated himself to was run by a dark influence. One that was apparently after him. He started to put everything together. When the Hellmouth was opened, the Council would conveniently disintegrate, following orders, and leaving only one thing standing in the way of the demonic takeover.
Seven people that were three thousand miles across the ocean. Two of them having a destiny to do so, another a werewolf, two others civilians, and two ex-watchers.
He shook his head to clear it. Focusing on numbers wouldn't do any good. Giles had gone to try and speak with the Spirit Guides at Wesley's urging. Normally, the ominous future tellers wouldn't release much information, but circumstances were becoming more and more dire. It was worth a shot. They hoped they'd at least find out when it was supposed to occur.
They had basically put together that the opening of the Hellmouth had to be done through a ritual that had been ordained to take place for quite some time. There had been occurrences of "almost openings" throughout history of course. Most notably the Master's attempts, but they had all been thwarted.
The difference between the ones before and now, was that if the Hellmouth were opened, there'd be no closing it. No temporary sealing it. If they failed to prevent it, and the demons were let free, there was only one option. Destroy it. Or, let Hell's minions pour out onto the Earth.
The destruction could only be done by one person. The Great Sorceress would have to be it. While her fellow warrior and life partner, the Slayer, would be left to battle the leader of Hell's forces and his army. Everyone knew who those two people were. Buffy and Willow.
But they were all hoping it wouldn't come to that. The Opening ritual, while the books they had didn't go into detail, did say it was simple to execute, but preparation was long and tedious. Which explained why Angelus had been so scarce.
As much as they didn't think it was an intelligent idea, storming the Master's lair was turning out to be their best option. And that meant risking a confrontation with Angelus as well as whatever other traps and dangers might have been waiting down in the sewers and the old vampire's sanctuary.
At least it was a simple, straightforward plan. Not very complicated…
Wesley was in the midst of turning a page when the front door flew open. Angelus stalked in, fangs gleaming.
"Rupert should really lock his door."
"What…what do you want?" Wesley asked, standing up.
"Insurance. You'll do fine. And they say you can't find a good policy these days."
"Why?" He began feeling underneath the papers and books on the table for something.
"Seeing as Hell's gonna come to town tomorrow night -"
Angelus grabbed him by the shirt. "That's right. And I can't have Buffy spoiling everything."
"So you're going to keep me alive?"
"As much as I want to kill you, you're no good to me dead. Besides, I've heard somebody else has first crack at you."
Wesley finally grabbed what he wanted. He flung the cross in front of Angelus' face, and the vampire cringed. And then he slugged Wesley in the face, knocking his glasses off, and making him enter unconsciousness.
"I really, really hate those things." He went to pick Wesley up, and then stopped. "I should leave a note."
"Okay. Here's the thing." Xander said once Buffy and Willow were sitting at the table in the corner coffee shop. "Cordy wants to go to Columbia. And that's in New York, and…"
"You want to go with her." Willow stated.
"I'm thinking about it…yeah. But I wanted to hear what you guys thought, before I committed to anything."
"It doesn't matter what we think." Buffy said.
"Just humor me?"
"From a realistic standpoint, this could…be really good for you. And I think you know that. You can get out, start a life, make a career. It'd be safer…somewhat. It is New York, after all." Buffy grinned.
"But from a friend standpoint…we'd miss you." Willow said. "We've known each other forever, and not having you in my life every day…"
"Why do you think I'm up in the air about this, Will?" He asked.
Willow smiled at him, and turned to Buffy. "I didn't mean to exclude you from the friend standpoint, Buffy. It's just -"
'It's okay. You and Xander have history.'
Buffy grabbed Xander's hand. "Xander even though we'll both miss you, a lot," Buffy looked to Willow for the okay for what she was about say, "what we're trying to say -"
"Is that you think I should go."
"Only if you want to, but it's probably the best thing you could do for yourself." Willow added.
"Well…I don't wanna lose her again…"
"And you don't have to. I mean, it's not like we won't ever see each other again."
"She's right, Xand." Buffy said. "It's your life. We'll back up your decision. Right?"
"Right." Willow agreed. She had known something like this was bound to happen, but she still couldn't get her mind around the fact that her lifelong friend would be going away. "Right. Your life, you should do what you want."
"This is one of those 'crossroad of life' things, isn't it?" He asked.
"Looks like it." Buffy said.
He sighed. This wasn't the kind of decision you made lightly. "I don't know…I'll decide after -"
"There you are. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to find you." Giles panted, running up and holding a piece of paper in his hand.
"What's wrong?" The three of them asked simultaneously.
Giles gestured to the paper he was holding as he handed it to Willow. He also pulled Wesley's glasses out of his pocket. They went wide-eyed as Willow began to read.
" 'I've got him. He's safe for now, but if I so much as smell you, and you try to interfere, he dies. Can't wait to see you afterwards. Hell. It'll be quite a sight.' "
"When does this happen, Giles?"