Career Change Series
Part 4 - Desperate Times

written by Riani aka Two Ladies of Quality




The bartender at the Bronze didn't recognize Buffy, but he didn't ask for ID when she bought a beer. She must be looking old these days. Not hard to imagine, what with everything that had happened. Her baby sister who wasn't really her baby sister, Riley leaving, her mom being so sick . . .

She took her beer to a corner table before anyone could see the tears that got away from her again.

Giles. Gone. Turned. Evil.

Trying to kill Dawn.

Only stopped because Spike was a weird kind of vampire.

No more teasing Giles about his clothes, no more making references to American culture that he always said he didn't get but which she figured he knew more of than he let on.

No more knowing he was backing her up, with sword or ax or chainsaw or weird languages or dirty tricks or magic or just a shoulder when she got tired.

She blinked as a glass was put on the table in front of her. "Looks like you could use something a little stronger than beer," Spike said, putting his own glass of whiskey on the table as he sat down across from her. "And, yeah, I know it's a felony to buy intoxicating spirits for underaged people, but, hey, I'm evil."

Buffy couldn't meet his eyes. She poked at one of the ice cubes in the glass. "You knew."

"Knew what?"

"About Giles."

"Well, yes, considering he was with me when he woke up."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"Oh, right. 'Lovely evening, Slayer, by the way, your Watcher's been drained and turned into a vampire.'"

"It'd be better than finding out by him . . ."

"Trying to kill your sister. I agree. It's a classic, though, most people only find out their loved one's changed when he comes to kill them." He took a drink. "Don't think there is an easy way to find out."

"How did it happen? Who did it?"

"Dru. Lovely parting gift from her last visit."

Buffy glared at him. "Would that be the last visit where you threatened to kill her to prove your love for me?" She looked away. "I knew it was your fault."

"Right, it's my fault, everything's my fault. Get it out of your system now, Slayer, because we don't have time for the sturm und drang. Dramatics," he added at her puzzled look.

She drained half her whiskey in one shot, then coughed for a few seconds. She glared at Spike, expecting him to be laughing, but there was only a tired smile in his eyes. "What did you mean, he was with you when he . . . woke up?"

"I came back to the crypt one morning and found him lying on the floor, Dru's smell all over him. Saw what she'd done."

"Why didn't you stake him?" She winced at the following image: her Giles, being staked.

"I liked the idea of him as a vamp, pet. I'm evil, remember?"

"Then I'm going to have to."

"Yeah, he told me about your deal. He talked about you a lot the first few days."

"He did?" And she actually smiled.

"Well, when he wasn't going on about hunting and such like." Spike could have kicked himself for the way her smile faded away. "I don't know what he would have done if he'd been left to his own devices, either run completely amuck or stayed up to meet the sunrise."

"Fledglings will do that?" She was fascinated in spite of herself. "I thought they were all just jump up, grr, kill."

"You don't become a Watcher without being strong willed. No common fledgling, he. There's still quite a lot of Rupert Giles in there."

Buffy played with the glass. "Then why did he go after Dawn?"

"No soul, pet, and no chip. He is the ultimate practical man, and he was doing it to help you."

"*Help* me?"

Spike shrugged. "No Niblet, no Key, Glory takes her toys and goes somewhere else, you're free to take care of Joyce and yourself."

"He said that?"

"Well," he said with a smirk, "he didn't really say it, as he's currently got some healing from a broken jaw and fractured skull to do. But he's said similar before--and I understand wanting to make things easier for you." He stared at his own glass rather than meet her eyes.

"Am I supposed to be flattered by that?"

"You're supposed to deal with it as a reality and move on."

"Great, now I've got two psychopaths trying to prove their--affection by doing horrible things. I should have staked you a long time ago."

"Yes, you should have," he snapped, leaning closer. "Never leave functioning enemies behind you."

"So what's your excuse?"

"You know my excuse." He shook himself. "But you can't stake me now, Slayer."

"And why not?"

"Because I'm the only thing holding Ripper back. He wasn't going to kill her right there on the front lawn, he had a plan. He was going to give her to a lesser fiend from a hell dimension to take away and dispose of out of Glory's reach, just in case killing her here released the Key in a way Glory could use. I found his notes. He's doing magic, Slayer, black, dark magic that would condemn a mortal sorcerer's soul, and he's making arrangements with devils."

"He was going to . . ."

"He is possibly the most practical, ruthless creature I've ever met. Probably the best Watcher to ever come along, though you'd never get the Council of Wankers to admit to that."

Buffy barely heard. "Black magic."

"Don't get much darker than summoning fiends and offering deals. Well, there's the sacrifice of a sentient creature, but I don't think he'd rule it out if he thought it was the way to go."

"Giles isn't like that--" She broke off, eyes horrified as the reality sank in. "But Giles is dead."

Spike cursed the indoor smoking rules and the bouncer who would stop him lighting up, the human bouncer he couldn't fight, not and keep his cover. Vampires as a rule didn't hang out with the families of their victims; this kind of thing was what Angel should be sitting through, he was all redemption boy these days. Spike wanted to take Buffy's hand, comfort her, try to ease her pain. And the demon alternately howled in disgust at his weakness and chortled at the Slayer's grief.

Buffy stiffened her spine. "So, I've got a dark wizard vampire out there who is trying to kill my sister. Battle plan looks obvious to me." And the cost of that battle plan was equally obvious--if she killed what was left of her Watcher, Spike didn't put good odds on what that would do to her mind.

When a vampire sighed, you knew he meant it, since he had to work for it. "You can't stake him either, pet."

It was still the Slayer looking at him, not the girl. "Why not?"

"It was a bad plan, but it was a workable plan. If we're going to stop Glory, we're going to need the Watcher's brain, and that's still all there."

She sagged, resolve drained away. "I know," she whispered. "Everyone was kind of hoping he was off working on some super secret weapon or something, and he'd show up at the last minute to save the day. But he's not. He's just gone, and we're all that's left."

This time he did take her hand. "Buffy, he may be gone, but he's still working. The vampire Ripper"--Spike paused, wondering what Anne Rice would make of that as a title-- "has as little intention of letting Glory drop us all into hell as Rupert Giles the Watcher did. That's why we need to talk. We've got to come up with a plan that works, something that keeps Ripper from casting any more black mojo and keeps you from . . ."

"Keeps me from what?" She debated pulling her hand away, but left it be and didn't ask why.

"Burning yourself out trying to carry all your heavy loads by yourself."

"You're a weird vampire, Spike."

He raised his scarred eyebrow at her. "And you're just working this out now? No wonder they give the Slayers Watchers."

She did pull her hand away, so she could cover her eyes. "Yeah, well, I don't seem to have one anymore, do I?"

"Don't see him, if you'd rather not. I can do the go-between thing."

"No . . . no, I think I'm going to have to. So I can make my gut believe . . ."

"It's going to be a couple of days before he's up to sociability."

"Willow and the others said it was a nasty fight." She didn't sound upset, more like a fellow professional asking about something work-related.

"Yeah, it was, and it was due. He may have the brains and the magic on me, but I've still got the age and experience on him. I'm not his Sire, so I've got to be a bit more hands-on in teaching him respect. And I'll do it every time he forgets."

"Until he beats you."

Spike grinned. "If he beats me, it'll be because he's finally better than me. But that'll be a bit, yet."

"You must really love having someone around you can beat up that won't trigger the chip." She was studying the last ice cubes in her whiskey glass and didn't see the fleeting smile on his face.

"Oh, yeah, it's not bad. And don't think he doesn't enjoy finally being able to get some good licks in on me."

Something lewd in his tone made Buffy look at him suspiciously, but she shook her head. She let her mind go blank for several moments, letting all her grief and confusion drift away. Then she pulled the Slayer back over her mind. "Call me when he's better. We've got Glory to settle before anything else."

He took her hand before she could stop him and raised it to her lips. "Universe has got a grudge against you, love. Everything else can wait till we've got Glory settled and your Mum on her way back."

She only let herself enjoy the comfort for a moment, then pulled away. "Later." She blinked as he stood when she did.

"Later, Slayer."

Spike watched her walk away, and he saw her nod at a couch near the stage. He hadn't even seen Red and Harris when he'd come in, too focused on the Slayer, but she'd brought back-up. Smart girl.

Red looked nearly as grief stricken as Buffy, but Harris only had eyes for Spike, dark, angry, hating eyes. Spike stared back, telling his demon that there was work still to do but, yes, there were certain names that were high on the list of People who Needed to Find Out The Chip Didn't Work Anymore. Harris didn't back down, only breaking the gaze when Willow nudged him. And he didn't look back as he escorted the witch out after Buffy.

***

"Should we be doing this here?" Xander asked Buffy.

"The Magic Box is a public place, it's safer," she answered, keeping watch on both entrances.

Xander traced a pattern on the top of the counter. "I don't know if I can do this, Buff. My brain is yelling 'Evil vampire,' but my--my gut is going 'Except-- it's Giles.'"

"I know."

After a moment, he put his arms around Buffy, who rested her head for just a moment on his shoulder. "You're nice to lean on," she said. "You've got good shoulders."

Xander blushed, and Anya, behind the counter, fidgeted unhappily. "My shoulders," she muttered. "Mine to lean on." But she didn't say it loud enough for anyone to make a fuss over.

At the table in the corner, Willow and Tara were holding hands. "We've got protection spells up," Willow said. "He won't catch us again."

"Thanks, Will."

"Though he is good," Willow mused further. "I mean, if he's doing summonings and negotiating with dark powers and expecting them to listen to him--" She broke off as Tara nudged her arm and shook her head.

Buffy wasn't listening anymore. Straightening from Xander's hold, she stared at the door. "Vampires. Two of them." She glanced at Xander, who drew back into a corner, where two loaded crossbows waited. Buffy pulled Mr. Pointy out of her pocket.

The knock on the door startled everyone. "Uh, come in!" Buffy called.

The door opened slowly. Spike scanned the whole room, marking everyone's location before stepping in. "Evening, folks."

"Spike, you knocked."

"Formal occasion, pet." He glanced around once more, then gave Buffy a questioning look. She stared at the doorway behind him, then nodded. Spike nodded to someone outside, then stepped in and to one side.

Giles appeared in the doorway and paused, likewise scanning the room. He wore blue jeans and a pullover under his leather jacket; behind the glasses, his expression was slightly apprehensive. Tara and Willow only met his eyes briefly, Tara looking nervous and Willow uncertain. Xander looked back for a moment, then divided his attention between the two vampires, his hands resting pointedly near the two crossbows.

Then he looked at the Slayer. She stared at him, her jaw muscles tight. "Hullo, Buffy," he said softly. Buffy blinked rapidly, then turned away.

Giles nodded to himself before looking at Anya. "Hello, Anya. I do apologize for abandoning you and the store like this."

The ex-demon stood back against the shelves behind the counter, out of the easy reach of vampires. "The distributors keep asking where you are. And then there's the bank. Life does go on, you know--well, at least for some of us."

Giles couldn't help laughing. "I've always admired your work ethic." He reached under his jacket. "This should make things easier." Out of the corner of his eye he saw Xander put a hand on a crossbow and the two witches raise their hands. He pretended not to notice and pulled out a legal-sized envelope. As he handed it across the counter, he noticed the cash register--and the cross leaning against the cash drawer. Anya saw his gaze and raised her chin unrepentantly, then took the envelope.

"I've already sent copies to all the distributors and I called the bank," he went on. "You should be able to take care of anyone I missed."

"What is it, Anya?" Xander asked tensely.

She stared at the document she'd pulled out of the envelope. "Formal transfer of ownership and the lease of the Magic Box to me," she whispered. Then she frowned. "For the price agreed upon." She glared at Giles. "What price? I've negotiated with vampires before, what am I agreeing on?"

Giles blinked, then smiled again. "That was just a bit of legal misdirection. No price needed between us, Anya."

"I don't think so." She grabbed her purse and pulled out her wallet. "I have fifty dollars. Xander--"

Willow cleared her throat. "Um, in situations like this, one dollar is traditional, just to show that a transfer of something of value took place."

Anya held out a dollar bill. Giles hesitated, then accepted. She picked up a pen and added the words "the sum of one dollar" to the transfer statement. "There, everything legal and aboveboard. Except that dead men can't sign contracts. Stupid mortal laws. Thank you, Giles." She smiled brightly and almost leaned forward to hug Giles, catching herself partway.

"You're welcome," Giles said. "One less thing to worry about. I'm sure you'll do well. And thank you, Willow." The witch went pink with pleasure.

Xander didn't take his hand off the crossbow. "I'm sure you're glad to be rid of the place. Running a store would probably get in the way of the carnage and the whole plotting world destruction thing. Isn't that what all the unsouled, unchipped vampires want these days?"

Giles glared at him, and Xander flinched, but he didn't look away. After a moment, Giles took breath to speak. "I have no interest in the destruction of the world. That's why I'm here."

"So the whole screaming, mayhem, blood in the streets thing doesn't get you off, unlike some undead people we could mention." Xander glared at the smirking Spike and missed the expression that flickered across Giles' face. The Ripper look, they'd come to call it, a flash of viciousness and unholy glee.

"Personal proclivities aside, I don't particularly want to see the world overrun by hellbeasts and demons as Glory rips open the dimensional walls and saunters home."

Buffy turned slowly. "And to stop that you were willing to kill my sister."

Giles met her eyes without flinching. "Yes, I was. It would have solved everything."

"Everything except for the fact of you killing my sister." He nodded in resigned acceptance. Buffy clenched her fists. "You're not even sorry, are you."

"I did regret the grief you would feel, but I felt it was necessary."

Now she believed he was a vampire. "Were you always this ruthless?"

The look he gave her was calm. "Yes, actually, I was." He glanced around the room. "Where is Dawn?"

"As if I'd tell you!" Her heart ached at the familiar scolding glance he gave her.

"There are other beings looking for her. The whole point of this is to make sure Glory does not get her hands on the girl."

"She's somewhere safe."

Giles glanced around the room, obviously wondering who was doing guard duty if everyone was here. His eyes fell on Spike, who leaned against a bookcase.

"I would take the Slayer's word for it, Rupert," Spike said quietly. "Don't worry yourself about Dawn."

"I most certainly shall worry myself about the location of the magical crux of this upcoming apocalypse--"

"Leave it."

The humans in the room shivered as the vampires glared at each other. Buffy took a cautious step back, feeling rage and violence rolling off her former mentor. Spike never shifted from his casual pose, but his eyes were not something anyone who might be considered prey wanted to see. She heard a very faint growl from one of them, refusing to admit that it could be Giles who was acting the part of the wild, vicious demon.

There was no Sire-Childe dynamic between the pair of them to force Giles to submit to Spike. The memory of the fight on the lawn, though, still twinged in his mended bones. He could gain the upper hand any time he wished, just by setting off a binding spell before he made his move. If he went that route, though, he'd best be prepared to go the whole way and finish Spike.

He fondled that thought a moment, staking Spike, being free of him and his assumptions that he was the dominant one. Free of the companionship, the guidance in this strange new world, the respect from the others that having Spike behind him brought. Yes, he had power, and those vampires who knew him walked carefully around him. But he had no illusions that he would be perceived by anyone else as anything but a fledgling that was getting above himself.

For a while, at least, he still needed Spike around. Knowledge and magic were one thing, a century of experience was something else. For now, they were stronger as a partnership than apart.

He remembered the night before, when Spike had appeared in his bedroom and Giles hadn't thrown him out. The partnership had its perks.

He glared at Spike a moment longer, then carefully shifted his gaze just enough to show he was conceding the point. The notetaker in his mind jotted a memo to investigate wolf psychology.

Spike did nothing more than smile very faintly in acknowledgement of his victory. Giles turned away from the other vampire and looked at Buffy. "How is Joyce?"

Buffy blinked for several seconds, catching up with the change. "Um, OK." Giles gave her a painfully familiar look that said 'I know you speak English, could there be a few more words to that explanation, please?' She would have smiled at the familiarity if she hadn't been so close to crying. "They're going to let her try walking in a couple of days. The speech therapist says she's doing really well."

Giles closed his eyes and nodded. "Good, that's very good."

"See? Told you it would mend itself," Spike said quietly. Giles glared at him, but he just smirked.

Buffy looked back and forth at the two of them. There were sub-texty things going on, things that made her think of stuff she'd read in the books about how vampires related to each other. The two--the two vampires looked at each other the way two people who knew each other pretty darned well would look.

Giles muttered something too low for any but vampire ears to hear, Spike snickered, and Giles turned back to the Scoobies. "We have work to do. What do we have on Glory?"

There was little new information. Giles let it be cautiously known that denizens of other dimensions were interested in the outcome of the situation. Both Buffy and Spike twitched at that, but Willow leaned forward in fascination.

"So there are creatures in other worlds who keep an eye on things here? Do they keep watch? How do people find out the stuff about other dimensions, anyway?"

"Travellers, mostly," Giles told her. "Though few of them are willing travellers. Creatures come through as the victims of spells gone wrong, and scholars quiz them on the conditions of the places they come from."

"But you could go there willingly, right? They're not all icky nasty hell places, are they?"

Tara looked at her lover's eager face and frowned slightly. She took one of Willow's hands and held it in both of hers.

Giles smiled at her eagerness for knowledge. "I've never been to any myself, but from what I hear there are dimensions that are not inherently inimical to human life."

Spike pulled out a cigarette and toyed with it. "Still not nice places to be," he muttered. "And the trip is never fun."

Willow turned to him. "You've been to another dimension?"

"Yep."

"What was it like?"

The cigarette went to paper shreds and tobacco leaves in his fingers. "It's not in the tour guides, Red. Leave it at that."

Willow tried not to pout too obviously as she turned away.

"Most dimensions are smelly, nasty places," Anya spoke up. "Most of them don't even have chocolate."

"The horror," Xander murmured.

Giles glanced over to give him a smile at the quip, but the familiar easy tone was not matched by what was in the young man's eyes. Xander stared back at Giles with profound distrust and disillusionment. Xander couldn't hold the look long, and he shifted his gaze to Spike. Hatred was all that burned in the human's eyes then. Giles noted the way he leaned against the wall, his arms relaxed against his sides, hands less than four inches from the two loaded crossbows on tables on either side of him. His hands flexed occasionally, staying limber.

Gary Cooper, wasn't it, in "High Noon"?

"What else do we have on Glory?" he said, turning to the room. "For what it's worth, I believe we only have a few more days before the alignment occurs. If we can hang on till then, we should be home free."

"If," Anya murmured.

"Are we going purely defensive?" Buffy said, "or do we go after the bitch?"

"In her own form, she is fairly invulnerable. If we could find her human disguise . . . She was bound to a human form so that when it died she would likewise be destroyed."

Willow played with her hair. "I suppose it's too much to hope for that her human form's lying in the terminal ward at Sunnydale General."

Giles snorted. "No, I believe those who bound her thought that being human might teach her lessons in humility and compassion." Perhaps he should have tried to make that sound a little less cynical, he told himself as the children shared looks of dismay. But Spike was smirking knowingly, and Willow, interestingly enough, looked more thoughtful than outraged.

"So, um, we're looking for someone young?" she volunteered.

"Adult, though perhaps not much older than you folk."

"Even if she is invulnerable," Buffy said impatiently, "do we even know where she is? She must have minions and all that, and they have to sleep somewhere."

"Some sort of rallying point, yes," Giles mused. He glanced at Spike. "Perhaps a job best suited for you or myself."

Spike shrugged. "Send the lads out, let them have a look around."

"Good idea."

"The lads?" Buffy repeated suspiciously.

Spike grinned at her. "Just a few minions we've got sitting about."

"Setting yourself up as the new master of the area, are you?"

"There's probably things going on that you don't want to know about, Slayer."

"I see your lads out bothering people, and they're going to get staked. You tell them that."

Spike shrugged. "Fact of life on the Hellmouth, you could run foul of the Slayer. Cleans out the stupid ones."

"Vampiric Darwinism," Willow mused.

Buffy glared at her. "Can we save the thirst for knowledge thing for later, Will?"

"So where do we stand?" Xander asked quietly from his corner.

Giles glanced at Buffy before answering. "Spike and I shall begin inquiries into the location of Glory's headquarters. It would be very useful if we could get more information on the alignment we're waiting for, as well. Was there any reference to what specific form Glory was placed in?"

Willow shook her head. "The chronicles only refer to an infant. Kind of hard to track an infant."

"It seem so irresponsible of them," Tara said quietly. She blinked at the looks she got. "To create these human lives as the vessels for all this power. Couldn't they have turned Glory into a--a rat or something? And turning the key into a girl--poor Dawn."

Buffy leaned against a counter. "I don't think I'd care so much if the key were just a coat rack or something."

"Which is precisely the point," Giles commented. "Still, it would be nice to know where we could find Glory when she was in her vulnerable human form." The silence that greeted him reminded him that squeamish humans were in the room. Though Anya only looked thoughtful and Xander--Xander had the disturbed expression of someone who sees the absolute logic of a proposition and hates himself for it.

Spike straightened from his post at the wall. "Is that it for now?"

Buffy shrugged in frustration. "I guess so." She stared at Giles for several moments, then grabbed her jacket and headed for the door. "Wills, I'll be home in a couple of hours."

As the door closed behind the Slayer, Anya smiled at everyone in the room. "If that's the end of the meeting, then I have to close up the shop. My shop."

"I take it that's a hint," Giles said, amused.

"Yep," Xander said, "time for all the living and the dead to go home."

Spike smirked at him. "What, not going to invite us to stay for the milk and cookies?"

"Nope."

"I am not feeling the love here."

Xander rested his hand on a crossbow. "We can fix that," he said with a smile.

Giles put a hand on Spike's shoulder. "Spike, don't annoy men who are very good shots when they have crossbows to hand."

"Good point."

Xander blinked at Giles with a surprised, flattered look on his face, but he turned away before Giles could ask what he was thinking. He heard the young man's quiet mutter, though: "And it takes being the evil undead to let me know these things?"

Anya watched them all, her arms crossed. "Why are none of you going home yet?"

Tara smiled at her. "Because we hate to leave you, Anya."

"That all very nice, but I want to go home and play with Xander. Don't you want to go home and play with Willow?" The two witches blushed but didn't deny it.

Spike grinned at Giles. "So, Ripper, shall we go home and--"

"Do be quiet, Spike." He turned so his glare and muted smile would not be seen by the children. "Good night, everyone."

"Good night, Giles," Willow said with a smile. Tara nodded, not quite meeting Giles' eyes.

Anya ran her hand over the deed to the store. "Good night, Giles. And thank you for the store."

"You're welcome. I'm sure it's in good hands." Giles looked at Xander again. The young man seemed about to say anything, but he looked down at the floor. Giles waited a moment, then nodded to himself and headed out the door. Spike followed without acknowledging any of the Scoobies.

Out on the street, Giles took off his glasses and returned them to their case in his pocket. "That went better than I expected."

"Harris is not a happy boy," Spike observed, lighting a cigarette.

"No." Giles spared a moment for nostalgic sympathy. All Xander's male companions and role models disappointed him in one way or another. Though all men learned that eventually. "Willow was a pleasant surprise. She's a dear girl."

"That she is."

Giles heard the thoughtful tone of voice and glared at his fellow vampire. "Leave Willow alone."

"Why?" Spike asked pointedly. "I've had my eye on Red for quite a while. Exercising a prior claim, are you?"

"If you will. And we don't have time for those kinds of games just now. Besides, Tara would not give up easily, and I honestly have no idea of how much she's capable of."

Spike shrugged. "Wouldn't mind a matched set of pretty young witches around the place. Stupid hellgod," he muttered. "Why couldn't she bugger off to LA or something and bother somebody else? There's so much fun to be had, and we've got to save the bloody world again. Didn't you ever get tired of it?"

"Well, I must admit, the responsibilities can be daunting, but we have a sworn duty to protect the world . . ." He trailed off as he contemplated the inherent illogic of that statement coming from the mouth of a vampire.

Spike looked up at the night sky. "Oi, if you're readyin' a lightning bolt up there, it was him what said it!"

"Oh, yes, thank you, Mr. Save the World for Manchester United and all the rest."

The blond shrugged and grinned. "So, we're off to set the minions on the trail of the hellbitch, are we?"

"It seems the logical step." Giles looked around the empty street. "But not just yet. I'm hungry." He checked his watch. "Early, yet. Where would be the best hunting, the park or the college?"

"Park. Too many people out and about on campus just yet. Somebody's bound to scream, and then there's the Slayer tappin' us on the shoulder and going 'Wot's all this, then?'"

Giles chuckled as they strolled down the street. "And how many bobbies did you run afoul of?"

"Well, there was that poor sod who was sure he'd found Jack the Lad when he interrupted me having dinner on a whore in Whitechapel. But Dru convinced him of the error of his ways."

"Jack the--oh, the Ripper."

Spike glanced at him with a raised eyebrow. "Always wondered about your choice of nom de guerre, mate. Role model?"

"Not in the slightest." Giles picked up the pace, trying to leave behind the memories that both thrilled and repelled him. Demon summoning, along with the drug- and music-crazed sex, was one thing, but there was more than one memory of uncomplicated happiness that he didn't want to have cluttering up his mind just at the moment.

The park was quiet to mortal senses, but the vampires heard the movement of large creatures among the trees and bushes. Spike changed to his vampiric face and tested the wind. "A couple of necking couples over by the band stand, there's a drunk under the hedge over there, and --" He took a deep breath, tasting the air. "Horses? Who the fuck is riding horses around here, at this time of night?"

"Cordelia mentioned there used to be a bridle path through here, though it's not used much anymore."

"Hate horses," Spike muttered. "God damned things stepping on you and flicking their tails at you."

"Not one of the horsey set, were you?" Giles observed. "Not enough money or not enough social standing?" He smiled faintly at the glare he got. "Perhaps we can agree that if you don't bring up my youth I shan't bring up yours." He nodded at the hand gesture he got. "Agreed."

They walked through the park, ostensibly two men out for a walk, though they paid more attention to other people than was typical. Spike caught sight of a middle-aged woman in a waitress' uniform walking slowly along the path ahead of them. "How's that, then, Ripper? Chock full of home cooked goodness."

Giles' eyes were already flickering towards gold. "She'll do. I'll be picky some time when I'm not so hungry." He started forward, then turned his head quickly. "Slayer."

"Fuck." Spike locked on the location of Buffy's scent. "You go ahead, I'll distract the Slayer."

"Are you sure? You haven't eaten yet either." But the ridges were already shaping out of the human flesh.

Spike frowned at the way the demon was so quickly overriding Giles' control. He kept forgetting how young a vampire the ex-Watcher was. "I can wait. Go on. And mind the drips, you don't want the Slayer seeing what you've been up to."

Giles nodded, his attention more on his chosen victim than on his reluctant mentor's words. But little of the predator showed as he followed the woman around a curve of the path, perhaps just an extra spring in the step or the way he held his head.

Spike headed in the direction of the Slayer, fortunately the opposite direction Ripper had taken. He found her a hundred yards off, looking thoughtful but aware enough of her surroundings to feel a vampire approaching.

Buffy scanned the area before focusing on Spike. "So what brings you to the park, Spike?"

"Memories of meals past." He fell into step next to her. "Find anything interesting tonight?"

"Nope, nobody stupid enough to come within reach when I'm in a bad mood." She smiled at him brightly. "Till now."

He settled on his feet more evenly and smiled back. "I've got no objection to a bit of rough and tumble, if you're in the mood."

"Nah, beating you up is starting to be fun, and that's just a little too euw."

"Oh, but you'd make a great dom, love. Fit you up with some nice tight black leather, braid your hair back, give you a riding crop." He shivered happily. "There's an image that's going to keep me happy for hours."

Buffy shuddered in disgust. "Leave me out of your fantasies, Spike."

"Too late," he murmured.

She glanced at him and took a step away. "So . . . where's Giles?"

"Oh, he's off somewhere. I am not my brother's keeper."

Buffy blinked at a sudden thought. "So, is he really like your brother, since Dru, um . . ."

"You might want to go a little easy on the family metaphors, love. Considering how Dru and I got along."

"Oh, yeah, euw, never mind."

Though why Spike was sparing her the brutal truth about how vampire clan members related to each other, he wasn't sure. The look on her face if she figured out just how close Spike and her ex-watcher had gotten would be such a treasure.

They heard it at the same time, someone coming along the path.

"Vampire," Buffy muttered. She stepped out of easy reach of Spike and pulled a stake. Spike said nothing, his sense of smell already identifying the person approaching. He got ready to conduct a getaway, just in case.

Buffy went still when she saw Giles coming around a thicket of bushes. He didn't seem surprised to see her. "Hello, Buffy," he said easily. "Have you ever thought of changing your shampoo? It's really quite identifiable. That should have occurred to me before, you do hunt creatures who rely a great deal on their sense of smell."

Spike kept himself from smirking. Clever Ripper, put the Slayer off guard with a bit of the old-fashioned amiable babble. And maybe she won't smell that faint whiff of blood coming off you. No obvious spots, but you should have dumped that handkerchief you've got in your pocket. Not that discretion and tidiness were a normal concern of vampires after a meal.

Buffy stared at Giles, trying to force her mind away from memories of sharing patrols in this very park, making herself remember what vampires strolling through the park were normally up to.

"Having a pleasant evening stroll?" she asked, still clutching her stake.

"Yes, thank you, and yourself?"

"Nice quiet night, then I ran across people acting suspiciously in the park."

Giles glanced at Spike. "I didn't do anything," Spike protested.

"Somehow I doubt that."

Buffy glared at both of them, shifting her stance to keep watch equally. "Me, too."

Giles looked thoughtfully at Buffy a moment. "Spike, would you mind letting me speak to her alone?"

"I mind if she stakes you."

"I shall endeavour not to give her cause."

Buffy tapped her stake impatiently against her leg. "Isn't that kind of up to me, guys?"

Giles smiled at her. "Yes, it is."

Spike shrugged. "Whatever. If you're dust I get your car." He headed off into the darkness, lighting up a cigarette.

Buffy watched him go. "He listens to you."

"When it suits him. Little has changed in that regard."

"But in all the other regards . . ."

He shrugged.

They looked at each other for several moments, Giles standing at ease with his hands in his pockets, Buffy fidgeting with her stake.

"We had a deal, Giles," she said softly.

"Yes, we did."

"We'd make sure that when we died we stayed dead, and if it was too late we'd make sure . . ."

"I know."

She raised the stake, still watching him. He didn't move. "You're not even going to try and stop me?" She was poised to strike, breaths away from doing her job.

"No, I will try to stop you. I don't want to be destroyed," he added in an almost academic tone of voice.

"No, you wouldn't. My Giles, though . . ."

He nodded. "When I woke up . . . it was a near thing. I rather resent being grateful to Spike, but if I'd been alone . . ."

He wasn't looking at her anymore, but off into that other world only vampires saw.

"I've met the newbies," Buffy said softly. "Not known for their self-sacrificing tendencies. Not likely to decide they don't want to be vampires after all."

"But I remembered, you see." He glanced at her, then away again. "I remembered my calling, my oaths. I remembered you. But that's all they were, memories. The drives, the urges -- they came from somewhere else. The first week was painful."

Buffy clenched her jaw. "But you managed to get over it well enough to decide to sacrifice Dawn to some hellbeast."

He met her eyes again, and he became a different man, a being she'd seen traces of over the years. She realized why Spike called him Ripper. "I don't want to see the world destroyed. I will do my best to stop it."

"No matter what?"

"No matter what. We do what we have to. That's why we're here." His smile was the one he'd given her before, the one of shared sacrifice and weary understanding. She remembered Acathla and a choice that had come close to killing her.

"You're--you're a vampire. Vampires like blood and death and carnage."

He looked away from her. How much of this uncompromising face was demon and how much was an old self she'd never wanted to think too closely on? "Your point?"

"If you want to save the world, it must be for some nefer--nafer--"

That smile was back. The patient, amused smile that had gotten her through the SATs. "Nefarious?"

"Yeah. Some twisted purpose of your own."

"Spike didn't."

"Spike's weird."

"Yes, granted. I will confess that elements of my current psyche find Glory's plans--appealing. But the greater part sees the error of that view."

Buffy shook her head. "This isn't--how can you sound so you?"

"As opposed to the typical mindless fledge that crawls out of the ground? I'm not quite sure yet. It's a fascinating study."

"Is that all this is to you?" she snapped. "A fascinating intellectual experiment?"

"This is what I am now, Buffy. I can crouch in the corner and wail to the heavens or I can try to understand my new condition."

"Your new condition." She stepped away, and the Slayer lived in her eyes. "What did you have for dinner, Giles?"

His return gaze was calm. "Ask me again and I'll tell you."

She took a deep breath, but before she could ask Spike came around a bush at a run. He studied the two suspiciously, then shook it off. "Come here, you two, quick."

"Spike," Buffy frowned, "I'm not--" But Giles had already gone, and she wasn't going to be left out.

They followed Spike through a small grove of trees--Buffy hyper-alert for any possibility this was a trap.

"Up here," Spike whispered, crouching behind a bush.

Giles sniffed the air. "Horses, again."

Voices from the clearing ahead. Buffy peeked through the shrubbery. Three men, two horses. Two of the men wore metal armor with tabards, and chainmail veils over their faces. The third man wore the rags of the street.

"What's with the medieval recreationists?" Spike said.

"I've seen these guys before," Buffy whispered. "They attacked me, said something about me being the enemy."

Giles glared at the men. "These are the ones who attacked you?"

"Well, it was three last time, but they're dressed like it."

"How interesting." The voice was more parts Ripper than Giles.

Spike smirked. "Think a chat's in order, mate?"

"Quite likely."

"Um, guys . . . maybe we should find out what they're up to first?"

Giles began to straighten. "Oh, I intend to."

"Wait," Spike said, as one of the men in armor pulled out a sword.

Words became clearer. "So bright, so bright," muttered the ragged man. "Going home, not long now, going home."

"Do you agree, brother?" said the man with the sword.

The other nodded. "Yes, this one is lost."

The sword moved, and cut the ragged man's throat.

Two cold hands clamped down on Buffy's shoulders, and another went over her mouth to stifle her yell. She struggled but couldn't break free of the grip of two vampires.

"He's dead, Buffy," Giles said into her ear. "It's too late, he's dead."

Spike leaned in. "And these guys accused you of being the enemy?" If he sounded slightly admiring, no one commented.

The men in armor knelt beside the body, obviously in prayer. One gestured over the body, then they stood.

"May your soul know peace," said the one with the sword as he cleaned his weapon, then sheathed it.

Buffy started to climb to her feet, Spike not far behind her.

"Humans, Buffy," Giles said. "What do you plan to do to them?" Behind her back he glared at Spike and tapped his head. Spike grimaced and mouthed a foul word, but he settled back.

"We can't just let them wander around killing people!"

"I understand. I just wanted you to think about your options."

She gave the standard Buffy-accepts-something-obvious pout. "Can I at least ask them what the heck they think they're doing?"

"Oh, I think questioning is quite within the parameters." Giles straightened easily, attracting the armored men's attention. They drew their swords as he approached.

He stopped out of range and looked down at the body. "And what did this poor gentleman do to offend you so?"

"He was a lost one. We released him from his torment."

Buffy appeared at Giles' side. "By murdering him? And how do you know he was in torment, anyway?"

"His mind had been taken by the beast, we gave him mercy." The soldiers began circling. "You consort with the Slayer," the spokesman said to Giles. "Are you protecting the Key as well?"

Giles couldn't help glancing at Buffy, who glared back at him. "I'm doing my best to keep the Key from Glory."

"The Key must be destroyed. The Slayer stands in our way."

"Well, yes, that's her job. And I understand her reasons."

"I beat three of you guys all by myself," Buffy added. "There's only two of you now."

The soldiers glanced at each other, chain mail masks swinging, then they firmed their shoulders. "No matter. Our duty is clear."

Buffy heard a disturbing noise from Giles. Part chuckle, part growl. A quick glance over her shoulder showed Spike had vanished. She didn't know what he could do with the chip, but she didn't trust him. "Look, guys, Knights, as for me, I don't want to hurt you. But I'm not going to let you get to the Key. Can't we just focus on stopping Glory?"

"Our mission is to prevent the beast from ripping open the portal. Destroying the Key will fulfill our mission. We will offer any sacrifice for the cause." His partner straightened purposefully.

"Pretty big talk for someone who's outnumbered," said a mocking voice behind the soldiers. Spike stepped out of the bushes, hands in pockets but looking no less dangerous for it.

The soldiers glanced at each other and moved back to back, obviously ready to fight to the end.

"OK, time out!" Buffy yelled. "All you testosterone junkies just relax." Giles gave her a hurt look. "Deal, Giles." She took a careful step towards the soldiers. "I don't want to hurt you. I just want you to stay out of my way." The body on the ground caught her eye. "And I want you to stop killing innocent people."

The soldier's sigh sounded sincerely grieved. "We granted him a merciful release. The beast had stolen his mind and made her will his. We freed him from her slavery."

Giles studied them. "There was no option but killing him?"

"It is rumored there are ways to steal a lost one's mind back from the beast, but that is sorcerer's work."

His companion moved uneasily. "We should not be speaking with these. The Slayer is our enemy."

Buffy made a frustrated noise. "No, I am not! Unless you start swinging a sword at me again! We're after the same thing here, guys."

"Can't we all just get along?" Spike said plaintively.

"Shut up, Spike."

"Yes, do," Giles added. Spike smirked and flipped Giles off.

The first soldier let the point of his sword drop an inch. "Our mission is to destroy the Key. You protect the Key. There are no options."

Buffy loosened her shoulders and took a step away from Giles for maneuvering room. She saw him flex his hands casually and almost ordered him out of the battlefield. The knot in her gut tightened a half second later as she remembered why she shouldn't worry about her Watcher anymore.

She focused on the soldier. "We're not going to attack you. If you want a fight, you're going to have to start it."

The second soldier readied himself, but the first soldier lowered his blade completely. "We are out-numbered, Brother Ferdinand."

"Brother John! Our holy duty--"

"Is to fight the beast, not throw our lives away in impossible battle. Against the Slayer, perhaps, but not against her teacher and her vampire as well."

"Oi! What do you mean, *her* vampire!"

"Shut UP, Spike!" Buffy glanced automatically towards Giles, then forced her mind out of old habits. "You can't keep killing off the poor crazy homeless people. That's got to stop."

"It is more merciful to release them."

"Yeah, well, maybe he had some family somewhere that wouldn't agree."

Giles frowned. "They may be right, Buffy," he said softly.

"I don't care. They're people, if they're sick they need to be in the hospital! If you don't stop," she said to the soldiers, "you'll find out that it's not just the Key I'm protecting."

The soldier stiffened. "Is that a threat?"

Buffy cocked her head in surprise. "Well, duh. I've got people who keep an eye out for these kinds of things, and if I find out about a bunch of homeless guys showing up with their throats cut or something, I'm going to know who to come looking for. Call it good and go home and tell your boss."

"You have no right to give us orders."

"Yeah, I do. I'm the Slayer, and this is my town. Get the hell out of here."

The two soldiers hesitated, then backed towards their horses. They mounted and galloped away.

Spike sauntered over, grinning. "You're hot when you're threatening dire physical harm, Slayer." He put a hand to stop both Buffy's and Giles' reply. "I know, 'shut up, Spike.' Not original." He met Giles' annoyed look and only grinned harder.

Giles turned his glare in the direction of the soldiers' departure. "I found very little on the Knights of Byzantium, other than what we already know. Their sole purpose is the discovery and the destruction of the Key."

Buffy stepped closer to the corpse of the ragged man. "Poor guy. Just 'cause he was a little nuts . . ." Spike joined her and began going through the dead man's pockets. "Hey, stop that."

He ignored her. "What was that about the hellbitch taking his mind?" he said.

"It's one of her powers," Giles said. "She draws strength from devouring the minds and intellects of others. Apparently the mindless ones become her servants."

Spike settled back on his heels, a wallet in his hands. "This guy wasn't homeless before Glory got to him." He flipped it open to show several credit cards, pictures, and a wad of cash.

"Give it here," Buffy ordered. "And don't you dare take that money."

"He doesn't need it anymore, pet."

"I don't care, that needs to go to his family, give it here."

Spike sighed hugely and handed her the wallet. She was too busy looking through the various cards to notice him pulling off the corpse's watch and wedding ring. Buffy paused on one card. "He worked at Sunnydale General, he was a therapist over there."

"He's been wandering around like this for quite some time, given the state of his clothes," Giles observed. "I imagine his family has given up on him by now, this being Sunnydale."

"So I can have his wallet back," Spike said. He mostly dodged the kick Buffy sent his way.

"No," she said firmly. "I'll give it to the police, say I found it in the park."

"And if you think the cops won't take their share . . ." Spike muttered.

"Jerk." She started to walk away, then paused to give Giles an uncertain look.

"We'll be in touch," he told her. "We'll leave messages with Anya on what we find regarding Glory's location."

"OK," she said. She let herself look sadly at her mentor for a moment, then firmed her shoulders and headed off.

"Buffy, one thing," he called after her. She looked back over her shoulder. "I took the Orb of Thesulah from the shop. I'm using it as a paperweight again. I wouldn't waste time trying to find another one."

Buffy stared at him, licking her lips. Willow had torn the shop apart, looking for the Orb and accusing Anya of selling the thing. Anya had sworn she hadn't, though she admitted it was because no one had asked. It wasn't like there had been a pressing need to worry about vampires and their souls.

"If you were to find one," he went on, "don't bother using it. It would be far kinder of you to simply kill me. I doubt I'd survive long if you gave me Angel's curse."

"We weren't . . ." she started, but she knew she'd never mastered the art of lying. "It was just a thought."

He smiled ruefully. "I understand. But not a good one. Your Giles is gone. There's only me left."

She let her grief show for just a moment, then tucked away again everything that distracted her from her job. Without a word she turned and walked away.

"Make a lovely cricket ball, that Orb would," Spike said as he joined Giles. He was counting a thick wad of cash.

"Where did you get that?"

Spike nodded over his shoulder. "Didn't show the wallet till I'd taken my cut. Figured the Slayer would go noble on us, and I left enough for her to find so she could feel superior."

Giles shrugged. "It's getting late, I'm tired." They went on their way, leaving the body for whatever scavengers or city clean-up crew happened to come along first.

***

Hector Stevenson, the man killed in the park, had last been seen at the hospital several weeks before. Sunnydale being what it was, it was difficult to get a comprehensive list of missing people to compare to the growing list of mentally damaged folk who were appearing. When the available information was correlated, no one area showed a higher number of missing people being discovered crazy.

Spike sent Sammy, Fred and the girls out to look for centers of demonic activity. He himself took Willy's, looking for both information and more opportunities to re-establish his reputation as the vampire most likely to rip out your hipbones and use them as a planter.

Giles debated going with him, but he knew that was the bloodthirstiness talking. He made a promise to himself that if he checked four volumes of dark lore for mentions of Glory, then he would go out and find something to beat up. It was the technique that had gotten him through Oxford.

He was halfway through the third volume, which described Glory's influence over the mentally ill and brain damaged, when he remembered something from before Joyce's surgery. She had seen Dawn's dual nature, had known the girl wasn't her daughter. But as opposed to the other people who had seen Dawn for what she was, Joyce had recovered her wits. Perhaps she remembered that time, perhaps she remembered something of the influence Glory wielded over those whose minds were in altered states.

He hadn't seen her since the one visit anyway, and he did want to find out how she was doing. It was research, so he wasn't violating his personal bargain. Such sophistry had also gotten him through Oxford.

Once he determined that Buffy wasn't visiting her mother, Giles didn't bother sneaking down the hospital corridor to Joyce's room. He paused in pleased surprise in the doorway.

"Joyce, you're up."

Joyce looked up, startled, from where she sat in a chair near the bed. The magazine she'd been reading slipped from her fingers. Giles crouched swiftly to pick it up and return it to her.

"'Art & Auction,'" he read. "Keeping up with the business, are you?"

"Giles," she said, blinking at him. She looked at the doorway uncertainly.

"Are you expecting someone?"

"Oh, no, I'm just . . . hello."

He smiled back at her but remained crouched at her side, trying not to appear too intimidating. "I was wondering how you were doing."

She looked uncertain, then nodded slowly. "No, I don't suppose . . . that Buffy tells you." Her voice was much clearer, but she was obviously searching for the right word or making sure of how to pronounce it. "I'm . . . doing better."

"That's wonderful." He patted her hand and pretended not to notice the way she almost pulled away. He wondered if Buffy had spoken to her about him. "Buffy told Spike that you were going to be working on walking."

Her smile was tired. "I can stand by myself, but I'm still a little wobbly. I'm going to need a--a--oh, what is it, what the old ladies use." She held her hands out in front of her.

"I think you call them walkers here."

"Yes, a walker." She frowned as she said it. "Just like my grandmother."

"We call them Zimmer frames in England. I had an old aunt who said she was going out for a Zimmer race when she went out with her friends."

Joyce chuckled. "If I keep up with my exercises and physical therapy, I should be able to graduate to a cane in a few weeks. I may not even need that by summer."

"That's very good. And I shall dare your wrath and say 'I told you so.' Have they said when you'll be released?"

The frown reappeared. "Not very long. A day or so. Xander's been building a ramp on the front steps."

"You don't seem pleased."

"Buffy's been talking about leaving school to stay home and take care of me. I don't think she's been going to class, she's taking care of the house and Dawn and checking things at the gallery. She shouldn't have to do all that, she should be in school."

"I'm sure it won't be for long, only till you're reliably on your feet again. And it's better than planning your funeral."

Joyce blinked at him. "You used to be more tactful."

"Oh, um--yes, I suppose I was. But it's true." He saw her glance at the door again, as if afraid of--or hoping for-- an interruption. "I was wondering something, though, Joyce."

"Yes?"

"Before your surgery, you were able to perceive that Dawn was . . . different. Do you remember?"

"I don't--" She frowned in thought. "It's very blurry. I wasn't sure what was real. Why?"

Giles had long ago stopped underestimating this woman, so he told her the truth. "One of Glory's abilities is to steal the higher functions of people's minds. We've seen more and more damaged people. Most of them seem able to see Dawn's true nature, and they also seem to share an awareness of Glory. I was wondering if you remembered a connection to Glory, or at least an awareness of something of power."

Joyce folded her hands and stared off into her memories. "I remember . . . frustration. Impatience. Horrible longing. But it could so easily have been my own."

"No awareness of another being?"

She shook her head. "You say other people have seen Dawn and . . . reacted?"

"Yes, Glory has power over people with lessened mental abilities, and they seem to be aware of her search for the Key. They perceive Dawn's difference, but they are unable to do anything with the information."

"I don't care about Dawn's difference. She's my daughter, no matter if monks gave her to me or if I gave birth to her. I just hope I can help protect her."

For a moment, there was no sign of weakness in Joyce Summers. Giles dearly hoped she'd never find out about his plan to give Dawn to the hell beasts--or if she did, that he'd have a great deal of warning. Mexico was said to be a nice place for vampires.

"I'll not bother you any longer," he said, getting to his feet. "I'm glad you're doing so well."

She smiled faintly. "Check back with me in six months, though."

"I will. If only to say hello." As he turned to go, he saw a shelf of plants and cards. Among them was a small stuffed green monster, with horns and claws and as fearsome a snarl as something plush could manage. "Someone has interesting tastes in stuffed animals," he observed.

Joyce chuckled. "He's supposed to protect me."

He could picture Dawn presenting her mother with a fierce creature to protect her when no one else was about. When he took a step closer, though, he smelled Spike.

"I'll be keeping in touch with Anya," he said after the briefest of hesitations. "I hope to get even more good news about you in the future.'

Joyce smiled sincerely. "I'll make sure she has all the latest news. Good night, Giles."

"Good night, Joyce."

As he walked away, he wondered why he felt so annoyed. Was it that Spike had been visiting Joyce without Giles' knowledge? The two of them had spent time together over coffee and hot chocolate before now, so there was no reason why Spike shouldn't come to visit her in the hospital.

Perhaps it was because Joyce was obviously uncomfortable alone with Giles. He paused a moment to be honest with himself. Joyce had only ever known Spike as a vampire, she knew what he was like. Even before the chip, he'd been oddly respectful of her. Joyce had to be wondering about all the ways Giles had changed. Giles himself had to admit to conflicting impulses. The voice in the back of his mind whispered of helpless prey, of pain to the Slayer if her mother was killed.

He hadn't eaten yet, perhaps that explained his bad mood. He glanced around the hospital corridor, assessing opportunities. All the staff were going busily about their rounds, it was too early in the evening to sneak into a patient's room. Perhaps he could go down to the parking lot and wait for a solitary visitor to wander into a dark shadow.

He strolled towards the elevators. As he passed the staff elevator, the doors opened and a man came out pushing a cart of clean laundry. With barely a thought, Giles slipped into the elevator. The morgue was in the basement, surrounded by badly lit corridors and infrequently occupied departments. Dozens of places to stash a drained body.

The darkness was blissful to sensitive eyes, though the smells jangled on his nerves. Chemicals from the laundry, the scent of decomposing bodies drifting from that side corridor. The humans probably didn't notice the smell of decay, at least consciously. Which meant anyone down here would be nicely uneasy already. Less effort to bring the proper level of fear to the blood.

No heartbeats nearby. Giles debated, then headed towards the morgue. If nothing else, he could see if there were any proto-vampires in the coolers.

Two corners from the morgue, he heard voices. " . . . and stop coming to the hospital, damn it," said a man. "I don't want your kind here."

"Well, if you'd bother to speak to us when you're at home--" The voice was not quite human.

"I don't want to speak to you at all! Now go away! You have no business here."

"Her most sparkling sublimity was quite clear, we're to look everywhere."

"There's nothing for you here, there's no reason you need to speak to me. Now leave me alone."

The non-human voice sighed. "Very well, sir."

Giles heard a non-human heartbeat approaching. He paused at the corner and waited.

A gnarled demon with bad skin and wearing a hooded robe crept around the corner. It saw Giles and squeaked as it jumped. "Excuse me," it gasped. "I did not see you--" It frowned. "Or hear you. Or smell you. Ah. My apologies, Master Vampire, I'll just be on my way."

Demons in the vicinity of the morgue were so rarely up to any good. Giles moved to block the creature's way and looked down the corridor. He heard a rapid heartbeat in that direction and smelled anxiety. "What were you doing down there?"

"Nothing, most puissant one, nothing at all that need bother your most undeadness."

Giles glared at him. "That makes less sense than anything Xander or Willow have ever babbled." The demon started to slink off, and he grabbed the creature by the front of its robe. "Who are you, what are you doing down here, and who is that lurking down there?"

The demon actually straightened a little from its obsequious crouch. "Down there? There's no one down there. No one you need to worry about."

Giles smiled slightly and slipped on his fangs. "No one worth worrying about? Generally the best sort to invite to dinner. If they're not worth worrying about."

"Oh, you don't want to eat him, your most frightening pointiness. He is not at all tasty. You should eat me instead."

"That's very generous of you. What did you say your name was?"

"Smirg, my lord."

"Smirg. Nothing personal, Smirg, but I'm afraid I don't find you that appetizing."

Giles started down the corridor, Smirg on his heels. "I understand, my lord," the demon said. "I am unworthy of the notice of such a fearsome creature of the night. Especially such a clever *vampire*, who's thought of *hunting* in the hospital."

Giles turned to glare at it. "What are you doing? I don't need a herald going before me announcing my presence." He paused, then looked from the demon down the corridor. The heartbeat he'd heard earlier was retreating. "You were giving a warning. Who were you talking to?"

Smirg blinked innocently. "Talking to, my lord? Who would I be talking to?"

Growling, Giles grabbed its robe again. "Who was it?"

"I don't know what you're talking about, most scary snarling one. You'll probably just have to kill me."

"I distrust people who want me to kill them."

"Completely up to you, your illustrious bloodthirstiness."

"Why on earth are you talking like that?"

"Like what, most--"

He shook the demon firmly. "Stop that." The demon nodded. "Now, what are you doing down here?" The demon stared at him. "You can talk to answer the question. What are you doing down here?"

"I was visiting the corpses, my lord. I like corpses."

"I think you're lying."

"Most likely, my lord."

"I could hurt you a great deal, you know."

"Oh, yes, I know, my lord."

"And the longer I spend with you, the farther away whomever you were talking to gets."

The demon smiled. "Yes, my lord."

Kill him just on principle? Giles debated for several moments, then let the creature go. "If I see you again, I'll most likely kill you just for the hell of it."

Smirg straightened his robe. "Quite all right, my lord. Good hunting to you." It strolled away.

Giles went down to the morgue to make sure nothing out of the ordinary was going on, but all was quiet. He smelled traces of the man that Smirg had been speaking to, but everything indicated average human.

Annoyed, Giles waylaid a janitor and left his drained body in a laundry hamper.

***

Elsewhere in the Sunnydale night, Xander Harris mused with ironic fondness on the good old days of plain, unsophisticated vampires. How pleasant it would be to go back to those days. But only if he could go back as the person he was now. No way in hell would he do high school over again. Sure, bezoars in the basement and hyenas in the hall, but there weren't any gods wandering around.

His musings didn't distract him from watching for things that go bump in the night as he did his share of the patrol through the Riverview Cemetery. Nice place, Riverview. When it was his turn and if there was enough left to bother with, he wanted to be buried here, with a view of the water.

"Excuse me, young man," said a female voice from the shadows. A middled-aged woman carrying a dog leash stepped out from behind a bush. "Could you help me find my dog?"

Xander stared at her. "That's a new line."

"Excuse me?" She blinked harmless brown eyes at him, her expression a mix of confusion and worry. "Have you seen a dog? A lhasa apso? He just slipped the leash and ran off after something."

"Well, no, haven't seen any dogs. I might smell a rat, though."

"There's no need to be rude." She glowered at him and turned to walk away.

Xander took a step after her, but at least it was a suspicious step. "Where'd you last see your dog, ma'am?"

"He was over by that mausoleum." She turned quickly, the dog leash looped in both hands and fangs showing through her grin.

Xander ducked as she tried to throw the loop over his head. "Yeah, Harris, tell the universe you miss vampires." He scrambled away, yanking the stake out of his back pocket.

The vampire hesitated. "Who are you? The Slayer's a girl."

"Yeah, well, I'm a close personal friend of the Slayer, so there. Gotta say, nice routine with the lost dog bit."

She grinned. "It's not a bit."

Barking broke out behind him. Out of the corner of his eye, Xander saw a small, white, shaggy dog running towards him, little canine fangs bared.

"Oh, now, come on!"

He barely dodged the teeth trying to latch onto his ankle, avoiding the vampire's claws by inches Reaching down, he snagged the scruff of the dog's neck and threw himself back against a tree. "Back off, fangface, or the mutt gets it!" He held his stake against the dog's heart.

"No!" the vampire yelled. "Don't hurt Maxi!"

The dog snarled and wriggled, trying to get free. "Knock it off, dog," Xander said, giving the thing a shake.

"Maxi, stop it!" the vampire ordered. The dog went limp.

"OK, then," Xander said, catching his breath. "Here's where we stand. You're a vampire, and you want to kill me. I don't want you to kill me, and I've got your dog. Where do we go from here?"

"Give me my dog and I won't hurt you."

"Eeenh, try again. I give you your dog, and you jump me."

"Well, you don't think I'm going to let you stake me, do you?"

Xander smiled. "What a happy world that would be, if the vampires let you stake them." There was something inherently wrong with negotiating with vampires. "Alternate deal. You disappear and I let the dog go and I go in the other direction." He saw the way the vampire grinned. "And if you think I won't be watching my back, you're wrong. There's a Slayer around here somewhere, and I don't think she'd fall for the poor doggie routine."

The negotiations were madly interrupted by the arrival of a horse crashing through some bushes and galloping towards them. The vampire jumped towards Xander. Just as he brought his stake up in self-defense, she grabbed the dog from his hold and ran away. Xander ducked behind the tree as the horse ran past. It stopped not far away, tossing its head and pawing nervously. It wore a saddle and bridle, but the reins hung loose.

Xander crept towards it. "Easy, big fella," he said, flashing on memories of old western movies and cowboys. The horse turned its head and looked at him. "That's it, it's your old buddy Xander. Damn, you guys don't look so big on TV. Where'd you come from, huh?"

He reached out very carefully to touch the sweaty black flank. Snorting loudly, the horse jumped away, then reared, lashing out with heavy front hooves. Xander yelped and dove out of the way, scrambling for the cover of the bushes. The horse shook its head violently, then ran off into the darkness.

"Hi-yo, Silver, away." Xander headed back the direction the horse had come from. Not too far along, he heard the sound of heavy breathing and snarls--and laughter? Vaguely familiar laughter, that made his spine crawl. He ducked back into the bushes and crept along till he found the source of the sound. "Oh, god, no."

It was one of those Knights of Byzantium guys, in full armor with his sword out and swinging--at Spike. A Spike who danced with the blade, spinning just out of reach, ducking under the point, circling around to force the soldier to follow him. He was in full game face, and he was having the time of his unlife.

Xander had forgotten how elegantly Spike could move. When he fought demons, more often than not the fight was something close to balanced. This was Spike at play, utterly confident, completely in control of the movements. He used the skirts of his duster almost like a matador used his cloak, flicking a corner into his opponent's face and letting the leather sweep around his legs as he turned. At one point he got behind the soldier, and he kicked the man in the back, just hard enough to knock him stumbling off balance.

"Come on, mate," Spike grinned, "don't tell me you're all done. I haven't had a dance like this in years!"

There was not the slightest flicker of discomfort on his face as he hit the man. Maybe, Xander thought, the Knight wasn't human. But his gut knew better. His gut recognized a personal apocalypse when it stood up and flashed unchipped vampire fangs at him.

Spike, free, unleashed, the Big Bad in name only no longer. Xander only wondered why he was starting with some hapless dude in chainmail.

The soldier got his feet under him and his sword pointed towards the vampire. Spike strode towards him easily. "So your whole raison d'etre is to find and destroy the Key, is that right, mate?"

"We shall find and destroy the Key and save the world from the Beast," came the voice from behind the chainmail veil.

"Well, you might want to go a little easy on the word 'we', there, mate. I think your brothers in arms are going to have to go on without you."

The soldier firmed his shoulders. "When one falls, a hundred shall rise."

Spike grinned, showing all his fangs. "Bring 'em on, I love it when I get my meals delivered."

He dove in, playing no longer. He backhanded the sword blade out of his way and wrenched the weapon out of his victim's hands. The solider screamed as bones broke. Spike laughed again as he yanked the veil from the man's face and pulled him back against his chest.

"Well, you're serious about all this, aren't you," Spike said, looking at the tatoo on the man's forehead. "How about this, I won't let you die with your life's work unfinished."

"What?"

"I'll tell you where the Key is."

The man stared at him, and Xander got ready to charge.

Spike looked around carefully. "The Key that everyone's looking for is . . ." He leaned down and whispered in the man's ear. The soldier struggled wildly to escape. Spike chuckled, yanked the man's head back and sank his fangs into the neck.

Xander froze, staring. He kept remembering things--Spike wrapped up in a blanket and shivering that Thanksgiving, the vampire tied up in his ratty easy chair in the Basement of Doom, the Scoobies sneering with various degrees of cruelty over how low the Big Bad had fallen. His mortal sub-brain was now suspecting that they were all in a great deal of trouble.

Spike finished and pulled away from his victim with a satisfied sigh. "Blessed are the pure in heart," he said, "for they shall see God. Give Him my regards, mate." He dropped the body on the ground.

He stretched happily, then searched his pockets till he found his cigarettes and lighter. He was just lighting up when he paused, then looked around. He sniffed audibly, his search closing on the bushes where Xander hid. He smiled cruelly and sauntered over. "Are we playing hide and seek, then? I thought white hats disapproved of hiding."

The terrified primate in the back of Xander's head screamed at him to flee. Instead, he stood up and stepped out of cover. "Yeah, hiding's kind of girly."

Spike pouted. "What, aren't you even going to run?"

Xander met his eyes. "Not from you."

Spike chuckled with a full-fanged grin. "Oh, this is going to be fun."

Xander moved out into the open, moving away as Spike walked closer. "So, how long have we been among the fanged set again?" he asked.

Spike shrugged. "A few days now."

"I'm hurt. You said I was high up on your list of people against the wall come the revolution. And here you are eating somebody you just met. You're fickle, Spike."

"Well, it's not something you want to hurry over. We've been so close, you and I. You deserve my best effort."

Spike gave no appearance of hurrying, strolling along with his hands in his pockets. Xander kept moving, trying not to have any trees or mausoleums behind him. The plan had been to meet up with Buffy and Willow half an hour after entering Riverview. The girls should be looking for him by now. Then Xander could step back and watch Ultimate Slayer SmackDown and he could take home a little box of Spike ashes, just so he'd know for sure that, ding dong, the Big Bad Vamp was dead.

"You're going to wear yourself out, pet," Spike observed. "I thought you said you weren't going to run."

"I'm not running, I'm maneuvering."

Spike stopped and just looked at him. The fangs and ridges disappeared. "This isn't any fun."

"Well, gosh, Spike, I'm just so sorry that I'm not making killing me more of a blast for you."

"Kill you? What makes you think I'm going to kill you?"

"Hm, let me think. 'When I get this chip out, I'm going to suck your eyeballs out with a straw, whelp.' Or, everyone's favorite, 'When I get this chip out, I'm going to kill you all.' It's kind of been a trend in our relationship, the death threats and all."

"Oh, but if I kill you, then it's all over."

"Yeah, death is kind of like that."

Spike smiled again. "Not always."

A whole new horrible realm of possibilities opened up to Xander. Before he could say anything, he heard voices in the distance. Buffy and Willow.

He took a breath to yell, then a cold hand was over his mouth and a hard arm held him tight.

"We're not done with our chat yet, pet," Spike purred into his ear.

Xander tried to dig in his feet, but Spike had little trouble dragging him into a convenient mausoleum. The little nattering voice in the back of his head wondered why these places were always nearby and always unlocked. Maybe it was one of those super secret vamp-powers, find and unlock mausoleums.

Spike pushed Xander up against the wall, hand still across his mouth. Xander glared and debated biting that hand. Smirking, Spike leaned against him, resting his chin on the hand over Xander's mouth.

"My, what big brown eyes you have, grandma," he said softly. He felt the lips under his palm try to twitch into a sneer. "All the better to hate me with."

Voices came from outside, the Slayer and the witch. The two men went still, listening.

"I don't know, Buffy," Willow said pensively. "What if we mess it up?"

"Oh, come on, Wills. I think you'd look cute as a blonde. We could try a strawberry blonde first, just to see."

Xander closed his eyes in dismay as Spike shook his head. "The fabled Slayer," he said softly, "on the hunt for evil and the right color rinse. The night trembles in fear."

Xander snorted in amusement, though he tried to look disapproving right afterwards. The girls moved off, still discussing colorful things.

Spike removed his hand, but kept his weight on his arms resting on Xander's chest. "I don't fancy Red as a blonde. Too bland. What do you think?"

"She'd be too pale--and I'm not discussing Willow's hair color with you."

They stared at each other, Xander trying to lean as far away as he could, even with the stone wall behind him. Spike smiled genially. He leaned completely against Xander, resting his body against the other man.

"You're warm," he observed. "Comfier than that easy chair you tied me into, too."

"Get off me, Spike."

"I think someone isn't quite understanding the power dynamics here." He snuggled in closer.

Xander tried his damnedest not to twitch. There was not enough cloth between his skin and Spike's. He felt the cold of Spike's body leaching the heat out of his. Then there was the whole casual way the bleached wonder had turned him into his own personal lounge chair. Spike must have been on tiptoe, because their bodies matched all the way from shoulder to thigh. And the blue eyes watched him with lazy hunger, like he was the last doughnut in the box and Spike was deciding if eating him was just being greedy or not.

"Make up your mind already, blondie. I had plans tonight."

Spike grinned. "You're going to mouth off to Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates, aren't you, boy."

"Depends on how soon I get there." He flinched, though, as Spike leaned in towards his neck.

"White knight's not as calm as he wants to think," Spike whispered. He ran the tip of his tongue slowly along Xander's jugular, chuckling at the shiver. "You're afraid of me again. It tastes wonderful." He pulled back to study Xander's face, but he looked less pleased. "Damned hellbitch."

"Huh?"

"If I have fun with you, Slayer comes gunning for me, Glory has an open field on grabbing Dawn and strolling home. Tisn't fair."

"Poor baby. So does this mean you're not going to kill me?"

"Sorry, I know it's a disappointment."

"So I'm just supposed to forget you shoving me around and threatening me and--and licking me."

Spike grinned. "I won't be hurt if you don't want to forget."

"You do know I'm just going to go out there and tell everybody that the chip is gone, don't you?" Xander knew there was some plot going on, but be damned if he could see it.

Spike sighed. "True. Which means it'll be open season on Spike after all." He leaned closer, till his nose almost touched Xander's. "Guess I've got no reason not to play with you after all," he purred.

Xander couldn't help swallowing hard. Especially when Spike ran a lazy finger down his throat to his collarbone. The cold touch burned. "Let me go, Spike."

"Why?"

And nothing came to mind. No reason whatsoever why the unchipped vampire with nearly two years of grudges should let him live. Xander laughed briefly. "I've got nothing. Damn," he sighed. "I would have liked to say good-bye to Anya."

Spike stared at him. "That's it? That's all the fight I'm going to get out of you? You may be a pathetic loser, but I thought there was more spunk in you than that." He threw his hands up and stepped away. "I don't think I want you any more."

Xander didn't think for a moment that Spike meant it. He wasn't about to ignore the opening, though. "Then I guess I'll go home."

He actually got to the door before a leather-clad arm reached over his shoulder to hold the mausoleum doors closed. "I don't remember saying you could leave," said the soft voice in his ear.

Xander turned, and this time he didn't care that he was nose to nose with a smiling vampire who liked to play with his victims. "You're either going to let me go or you're going to kill me. I can't beat you, not in a serious fight, and me trying just gives you a happy. So let's just cut to the chase here, Spike. Make up your mind and stop fucking with me."

The smile was lewd. "I have not yet begun to fuck with you, Xander. Though I'd like to."

"No. Way. Kill me or walk away. Decide, right now."

Spike ran a connoisseur's eye along Xander's neck, then shrugged and took a step back. "Killing you fast would just be no fun. So I guess you win."

Xander didn't believe a word of it, but his escape route was clear. Spike held his hands up and took another step away. Xander put a hand on the latch of the door.

"I always did like the way Red screams."

Xander went still.

"The way she struggled and squirmed when I found her in the dorm that night . . ." Spike chuckled. "Her girlfriend's rather nibblesome, too. Be easy to lure Red in if the lovely Tara was help--"

Xander grabbed the lapels of Spike's duster and slammed the vampire against the wall. "You take one step towards Willow, and I'll--"

Spike grinned at him. "You'll what?" He took hold of Xander's wrist and began to squeeze. Xander tried to pull away, and Spike easily tugged him in close. "That's what I like to see. Thinking of me and Red, that gets your blood going, gets that fire burning in your eyes. I don't want you all accepting of your fate, I want you snarling at me."

"You have no idea," Xander growled, staring him in the eyes. "No more shit, Spike. What's going to happen here?"

Spike relaxed and eased his grip on Xander's wrist. Xander tried to yank free, but Spike didn't let him get away. "I'm not going to kill you, Xander, but it's got nothing to do with being worried about the Slayer. It's got everything to do with not causing any distractions while the hellbitch is out there."

"So if Glory weren't around . . ."

The fangs appeared in a gnarled grin. Cat-yellow eyes gleamed in anticipation. "If Glory weren't around, Demon Girl would be calling around in the morning to find out why you didn't come home."

If anything, Xander felt calmer having it stated flat out. "And when we finish Glory?"

Spike ran his tongue along his fangs. "Watch your back."

Xander nodded. "I'm not surprised. But what's stopping you, really? If I hadn't seen you tonight, I'd have no idea you'd gotten the chip out--and how did you do that, anyway?"

"Oh, please, as if I'd tell you. I told you the truth. Glory comes first. We finish her first. And you can't tell the Slayer about the chip."

"Why the hell not? I'm not going to let you wander around everyone with no leash on." He saw Spike's grin. "That night at the shop. Were you . . ."

"Amusing myself with picturing the looks on everybody's faces if I grabbed someone for a late night snack? Yep."

"My god, you and--and Giles together could . . ."

"Call him Ripper, it's easier on the psyche." His expression became serious. "But we didn't try anything, did we? I've got Ripper convinced--for now anyway--to work with your bunch to settle this. But if you go tell the Slayer about the chip, she's going to get distracted at the wrong time. You're going to need me helping keep an eye on Joyce and the Niblet. You think that's going to happen if Slayer knows I'm back in the game?"

"Not in the slightest." Xander looked at the hand wrapped around his wrist. The long fingers didn't go completely around, but Spike wasn't even trying hard to hold on. "Let me go."

Spike thought a moment, then let go. Xander took a step back and rubbed his wrist, trying to erase the sensory memory of those cold, strong fingers. "So what we're looking at here is a deal. I don't tell anybody about the chip and you don't kill me--right now. Until we get Glory settled."

"That about sums it up. And I keep an eye on Joyce and Dawn while making sure Ripper doesn't get creative again."

"Deals with the devil."

"Better the devil you know than the devil who wants to rip the world a new one."

Xander thought for several moments, weighing honor and practicality. "Could Giles really have done it? Given Dawn to some creature in another dimension?"

"Yes. He's never told you the half of what he can do. He's not learning new things, he's just getting back into practice. Him and that chaos mate of his must have gotten up to a lot of mischief together."

"I'm not used to being nervous about Giles."

"Don't you worry about him, I've got him under my eye. I don't work the mojo, but I know what I'm seeing."

"So you watch Joyce and Dawn and Giles, and I don't sic Buffy on you."

"That's it. You watch everybody else. We get Glory tidied out of the way, then we can pick up where we left off."

Xander didn't flinch from Spike's leer. "Right, we pick up at the point that says there are no good vampires, and the Slayer's job is to kill them."

"Just like the good old days. You try to kill me, and I don't have to pretend to be part of your little gang."

Xander smiled. "Try to kill each other whenever we see each other, just like God intended. That'll be nice."

Suddenly Spike was behind him again, arm around his shoulders holding him tight against the chilly body. "And you'll have time to work on those reflexes," he whispered in Xander's ear. "You don't want to make it easy for me." A fang nicked his ear and cold lips nibbled on the wound. "You do taste good, Xander Harris. You'll give me a good run when it's time."

Then Xander was alone, with the bronze doors of the mausoleum clicking closed. Shaking, Xander reached up to his ear, then looked at the blood on his fingers. He sat down on the sarcophagus near the wall, apologizing absently to the occupant. He was going to need a few minutes before he could risk seeing anyone.

"Xander Harris, idiot or brave man?" he muttered. "Find out on the next episode of All My Vampires."

***

Three days after her visit from Giles, Joyce Summers went home. Xander drove the Land Rover, as Buffy was bouncing a little too much for reliable command of a vehicle.

She hung over the back of her seat to talk to her mother in the rear. "And we've moved your bed down to the dining room for now, until you can handle the stairs. Don't worry, we packed everything up real careful. And there are nice heavy curtains on all the windows, so you'll have privacy."

Joyce only blinked at her daughter. "That's very nice, dear."

Xander glanced at her in the rearview mirror. "That's what happens when you've got a Slayer for a daughter. She sees a problem, she slays it."

"Obviously." Joyce looked over at Dawn, who sat next to her mother clutching the bags of personal effects and prescription drugs. "How are you, sweetie?"

"I'm fine," she shrugged.

Joyce raised her arm carefully and put it around Dawn. "I know you are. My brave baby." Dawn burrowed in tight, hiding her face from the others. Buffy blinked several times, then took the hand Joyce held out to her.

Xander kept his eyes on the road, letting the Summers women have some privacy. Weird, though, his allergies didn't usually show up till high summer, but here he was all sniffley in the spring.

"Here we are," he announced, turning onto Revello. "La Casa Grande de La Senora y Las Senoritas Summers."

Joyce looked out nervously, remembering the modifications. "Xander, I thought you were putting in a ramp."

He beamed with pardonable pride. "Yep, from the front walk up to the porch."

"But I don't see it."

Buffy bounced out of the car and ran to the back to get the wheelchair. "He did such a great job, Mom! He moved some of the bushes, put the ramp in at a 90-degree angle, then it turns to go up to the porch. You can hardly tell there wasn't a gap in the railing before."

"But--I was expecting . . ."

Xander held Dawn's door for her as she hopped out. "Some plywood nailed any old how to the front steps? Not from the Xander Harris Construction Company."

Joyce looked at him sternly. "It must have cost a fortune."

"A fortune? A fortune? You have no idea how sloppy construction accounting can be. A few dozen yards of concrete, hardly enough lumber to qualify as scrap . . ."

"Xander . . ."

"Honestly, Mrs. Summers, the foreman at the site happened to mention that lost and damaged materials made a great tax write-off, and if said damaged materials disappeared instead of taking up space in the dumpster, he saved money. And he was very helpful with the design when I said I was working on a wheelchair ramp."

"I'm fairly sure that comes under the heading of kickbacks or bribes."

"Probably," he grinned.

Buffy appeared at her mother's side with the wheelchair. Joyce glared at it. "I know the walker's back there. I can manage that."

"You can manage that on level floors . Ramps, by definition, are not level.." She shook the chair pointedly. "Come on, hop on out." A fleeting look of panic went over her face. "Um, if you're up to it, of course--"

"It's all right, honey." In no way did Joyce regret being home mostly under her own power, but her daughters looked older than their years. Even without the Slayer complications, having to take care of an invalid mother was something they shouldn't have to deal with so young. "The chair will be fine." She climbed carefully out of the car and sat in the chair.

"And it's not like you're going to need it that long, right?" Dawn said. "You're going to be walking in no time."

Joyce took Dawn's hand as Buffy pushed her up the walk. "If I keep up with my physical therapy, probably so."

"Can I help?"

Buffy concentrated on turning the chair onto the ramp without jarring Joyce. "She might need someone who can catch her if she loses her balance. I don't think you're that strong, Dawnie."

"I will need someone to help me keep my balance, someone to lean on," Joyce added quickly, seeing Dawn's face close up. "And someone to be stern when I don't want to do the exercises."

"I can be stern," Buffy protested.

"Yeah, right," Dawn muttered. She pouted dramatically. "Dawn, do the dishes, Dawn, do the laundry. I think I need a fairy godmother to get me out of the cinders."

Buffy stopped pushing to glare. "I am not an ugly stepsister!"

"Well, it's not like you're my real--"

Xander, who had been bringing up the rear and pretending not to listen, reached around to put a finger on Dawn's lips. "Ixnay on the e-kay, OK?"

She stared at him. "Huh?"

"Oh, come on, Buff, you never taught the Dawnster pig Latin? Neglecting your sister's education, here."

Dawn pouted. "Considering my education came from--"

"The California Public School System," Xander cut in, "I'm not surprised you've got big gaps in your knowledge." He raised an eyebrow at her, waiting for her to catch up.

She stared at him for several moments longer, then her eyes went big. "Oh. Oh, yeah, education in the public schools, severely lacking." She looked around the empty street and all the innocent houses. "But why make a big deal of it?" she whispered. "There's nobody here."

Buffy looked grim as she likewise scanned the street. "Nobody we can see, anyway. Good catch, Xander."

He shrugged and tugged at an imaginary hat. "Just doing my job, ma'am."

Buffy resumed pushing the wheelchair. "I'm sorry, Mom. I was hoping not to worry you about all that."

"Too late." She looked at the break in the rail where the ramp met the porch. There were decorative posts on the corners and the paint matched perfectly on the railing that came down the edges of the ramp. "Xander, this is lovely. It looks like it's always been here." Bushes to either side of the ramp disguised it from the street.

Xander blushed. "Not much else I can do, but I can build things." He slipped past the wheelchair and went to the front door. "And I can open doors."

Joyce reached out to squeeze his hand. "Thank you. Buffy, wait a moment. I want to look around." She didn't say anything out loud, but she'd doubted if she'd ever see her home again. The grass had been cut, but the girls had let the edging go. Something to look forward to, getting the lawn back into shape. "Buffy, what happened to the hedge over there?"

"Um, over where, Mom?"

"Over there, it looks like something went through it. And there's a hole in the grass."

Buffy stared at Xander, who looked utterly at a loss. "Um, well . . ."

"There was a wreck a couple of weeks ago," Dawn said. "This guy on a motorcycle came through the hedge and ended up over there."

"Oh, my word, was anyone hurt?" Joyce gasped.

"I don't know, Willow said I was a ghoul for trying to see."

"We couldn't decide if we should fix it ourselves or wait for you," Buffy added.

"Well, I didn't like that border anyway."

As Buffy maneuvered the chair to go through the door, she leaned towards Dawn. "Nice save," she whispered.

"It's those mystic Key powers, you know."

"For fibs?"

Dawn smiled innocently.

Joyce gasped when they entered the living room. A banner reading "Welcome Home, Mom" hung on the wall, with Willow and Tara waiting beneath. There were even balloons.

"Oh, girls--and Xander--you shouldn't have."

Buffy leaned down to hug her. "Sorry, we're really glad to have you home."

Pizza was ordered and ice cream was eaten, all the food that hospitals frowned upon. Joyce wandered around the rooms, reassuring herself that all was well. She smiled at a poster board schedule in the kitchen for things like laundry and dishes and bathroom cleaning. A side section was labeled "Number of Times Dawn's Done Buffy's Work."

She reached for the ballpoint pen hanging from a piece of twine tied to a thumb tack next to the schedule, but she couldn't get her fingers coordinated enough to hold the pen properly. "Damn," she muttered.

Tara brought in a pile of plates from the living room. "Is there something I can get for you, Mrs. Summers?"

"No, no, dear, I was just trying to write something, but . . ." She sighed and gestured with her useless hand.

"My great grandpa had a stroke. He used to ride horses, but they said he'd only be able to get around with a cane."

Joyce frowned. "How old was he?"

"72. Six months after he was out of the hospital, he was back on horseback and he rode to the doctor's house so he could laugh at him."

"That's good to know. What happened to him?"

Tara looked at the floor. "Well, um, he fell off a horse a few weeks later, broke his hip, and died of pneumonia in the hospital."

Joyce stared at her for several moments, then began to laugh. "I'll remember to be careful," she said once she wiped her eyes.

Buffy poked her head in. "Hey, Mom, movie choice time, 'Singin' in the Rain' or 'Sleepless in Seattle'?"

"'Singin' in the Rain', I think. I love Donald O'Connor."

"Cool." They followed Buffy back to the living room. Willow sat by the VCR with a video cassette in either hand. "'Sleepless,'" Buffy said with a grin.

Joyce blinked. "But--"

On the couch, Xander clutched a pillow closer to him. "'Sleepless in Seattle,'" he said, forcing a grin. "Great movie. Uh, this *is* the director's cut version where they all get captured by terrorists and Bruce Willis and Arnold swoop in to save the day, right?" He ducked as Dawn swung another pillow at him.

"Nah, it's neither," Buffy said. "Mom picked that old Gene Kelly one. We'll save the uber-chick flick for a time when there's less testosterone in the room."

Willow ejected the tape she'd just put in. "Mean Buffy. But 'Singin' in the Rain' is cool. Debbie Reynolds is cute."

"Is that Princess Leia's mom?" Xander asked, smacking Dawn back with his pillow.

Joyce shook her head as she carefully sat down. "Among other things, yes. This also has Donald O'Connor doing 'Make 'Em Laugh.'"

"Oh, yeah! Plus that whole 'Moses supposes his toses are roses--'" Xander broke off. "Not that I have that big a knowledge of musicals or anything. It might have been on the late show one night." He huddled back in the corner and made a mental note to hang out with more male type people.

The cheery opening of the classic movie began playing, just as a knock came on the door. Buffy started to her feet, then paused, looking around the room. "Everyone who should be here is here. Anya's coming over after closing the shop, right?"

Xander checked his watch. "Which isn't for another half hour, yet, then she'll need to do the books."

Buffy pulled a cross out of an endtable drawer as she went to the door. She went up on tiptoe to get a look through the windows, then settled back on her feet with a thump. "It's only Spike."

She reached for the doorknob. "Buffy, wait--" Xander started.

Buffy paid no attention. She opened the door and stared at the vampire on the porch. "And what brings you by, Spike?"

Spike tried to look harmless. "Came by to pay my respects. And the respects of someone who might not be quite so welcome."

"Less welcome than you? That's kind of hard to believe."

Joyce tapped Xander on the shoulder. "Would you help me up, please?"

He quickly turned from his tense observation of the action at the door. "Oh, sure." When she was on her feet, though, she headed towards the door. Xander followed anxiously.

"Hello, Spike," she said when she reached the door.

Spike grinned. "There you are, all safe and sound and on your own two feet." Then he frowned. "Should you be up?"

She chuckled. "No, not really. Come in, Spike."

"Mom!" Buffy protested, as Xander squeaked.

Joyce gave her daughter the "who pays the mortgage here?" look and stepped back to let Spike enter. She swayed faintly, and Spike leaped forward to catch her elbow. He beat Xander by a hair, and the two men glared at each other..

"Thank you, gentlemen," Joyce said. She headed back to the couch and let those follow her who would. Spike stayed at her elbow, his hand an inch from her arm.

Xander helped her balance as she sat down. Buffy grabbed Spike's arm and yanked him to one side. "Don't be getting ideas, you. Just because she invited you in doesn't mean you're welcome here."

He bit back his first remark. "What's it going to take for you to believe I am no threat to Joyce or the Niblet?"

"Honestly?" She made sure to meet his eyes. "Seeing you dust. How else could I be sure?"

He nodded grudgingly. "You're right. But until that day, I'm on your side on this."

"I don't like having you in my house. I don't like having you anywhere near my mother or my sister."

He glanced over at the others, who were watching the movie while pretending to ignore the tense conversation in the corner. He smiled faintly, though, when he saw that Xander had taken the chair that faced him, and the human was making no bones about keeping an eye on the proceedings.

"I see you haven't fixed the damage my bike made to your front lawn," he finally said. "Sorry about the flowers, I didn't have time to go around them."

Buffy looked away. "You said you were here for him, too. Where is he?"

"Home with his books. He didn't think he'd be welcome near the fam."

She didn't deny it. "Thank you for stopping him," she muttered. "I still don't trust you. If you didn't have the chip, you'd be just like all the other mad killers. You just don't want the world to end and cut off your soccer games."

He took several moments to get his voice under control. "If all I cared about was stopping Glory, the easiest thing to do would have been to let Ripper play out his hand. You think the chip is the only reason I stopped him?"

She didn't look at him. "You want to stay on my good side . . ."

He stared at her a moment longer, then turned on his heel and walked to the couch. He knelt next to Joyce. "You ever need anything from me, you've got it, right, love?"

Joyce patted his knee. "Right. And thank you. For everything."

He paused, wondering what she knew about things he'd done. But if Joyce knew about Ripper's play for Dawn, Spike was certain she'd already have dusted the ex-Watcher. He kissed her on the cheek and stood.

"You're not staying?" she asked.

"Sorry, love, places to go, atrocities to organize."

Joyce glanced at Buffy and didn't say anything else. "Thank you for coming over, Spike."

"Get better soon." He squeezed her hand and headed for the door.

"Good night, Spike!" Willow called around her handful of popcorn. He waved as he let himself out.

Xander let his breath out. "Yay, he's gone."

"What's with you?" Willow asked. "It's just Spike."

"Yeah, Spike, the bleached blunder, the evil dead."

"The chipped evil dead," Tara added.

Xander took his nerve in hand. "Yeah, about that--" He looked at Joyce, who was looking after Spike with a faintly sad expression. A mom-type expression. Spike had laid his figurative sword at her feet, then walked away in the classic fashion. "I've always wondered if there was a battery we were supposed to change in the thing."

Dawn giggled from where she was guarding the pizza box. "I think it's more like the Energizer bunny. He keeps--"

Xander raised a finger. "Don't finish that, I beg you."

Willow shook her head solemnly. "I don't think he's the big bass drum sort, anyway."

Buffy perched on the arm of the sofa next to Joyce. "Mom, what's with you and Spike?" She kept her voice down so that the others could watch the movie.

"He's a nice young man, I enjoy talking to him."

"But he's a--"

"A vampire, I know. I remember Parent-Teacher night. Even if I didn't understand it at the time. And I remember when you brought him to the house and told me he was in a band. He sat in that chair and acted exactly like an uncomfortable guest. We made small talk, Buffy. He didn't seem anything like--" She paused and gave Buffy an apologetic look.

Buffy sighed. "Like Angel, that night he came over and told you . . . Yeah. But that was because he wanted my help, so he behaved himself. He knows I can kick his butt."

"And you still can, can't you?"

"Oh, yeah, I can lay a major ass-whupping on him anytime I want."

Joyce stared at her. "Where did you learn to talk like that, young lady?"

"Um--Willow's a bad influence."

Joyce shook her head. "And then he came over, so broken hearted over Drusilla. He wanted someone to talk to."

"Yeah, after he kidnapped Willow and Xander, which nearly got Cordelia killed. And, Mom, I told you how he was getting all freaky stalkerish over me."

"Yes, that's true," Joyce admitted. "I keep forgetting that. But it was very kind of him to visit me in the hospital."

Buffy nearly fell off the couch. "He did what? Why didn't you tell me?"

"Because I didn't want you to get upset. You have so much to worry about just now."

"Yeah, like the fact that vampires are visiting my mom in the hospital when I'm not there to protect her."

"They never bothered--" Joyce bit her lip.

Buffy's stomach tightened. "They?" She'd been torturing herself with trying to think of a way to break the news to her mother. She didn't know if Joyce and Giles had ever become friends, band candy night very much notwithstanding, but there was a bond. "Was--was Giles with him?"

Joyce nodded slowly, and she put a hand on Buffy's leg. "I'm sorry, dear. I know how much he means to you, how much you've depended on him."

Buffy stared at the weave of the upholstery until she was sure she wasn't going to burst into tears. "That's--gone now. That's not Giles, that's just something wearing his face." She looked up quickly. "If he shows up here, don't let him in."

"No, I won't," she said after a moment. "He's very close to what he was, but--he frightens me a little. Do the others know?"

"Yeah, they know. It's been hard." She watched the TV screen, where Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds sniped at each other in Debbie's cute little roadster. "You know what I like about this movie?"

Joyce pulled her down to sit next to her. "What's that, sweetie?"

"Everything." She put her head on her mother's shoulder, her warm, recovering, home-at-last mother.

It was late when everyone finally went home. Joyce made it to the end of the movie before exhaustion took its toll. Buffy and Dawn helped her get settled for the night, ignoring her complaints about how she should be able to manage simple things by herself. Buffy reminded her that Slayer hearing meant that any calls for assistance would be heard and that Joyce was not to worry about a thing. Joyce tried to give instructions for getting up in the morning and getting ready for school, but sleep silenced her mid-sentence.

Dawn paused at the doorway to watch for a few moments. Carefully she counted the ins and outs of the breath, making sure everything was even and wishing she had super hearing too so she could listen to the heartbeat.

Buffy squeezed her shoulders. "Come on, let's let her rest," she whispered. "You need to get up in the morning."

"I know. I just . . ."

"The hospital wouldn't have let her leave if she wasn't ready. She's going to be here in the morning."

Dawn looked at her. "Promise?"

The two stared at each other, seeing the fear in the other's eyes. Then Buffy nodded firmly. "Promise."

Knowing promises were lies, Dawn accepted it anyway. She silently warned the universe that she was the Key, darn it, and the universe better not mess around with her if it knew what was good for it.

They got ready for bed, but Dawn sat up and stared out her window long after she heard the noises from Buffy's room that were not, nor ever would be, in any way related to snores. Out there in the dark, the undead hunted and an evil goddess searched for her missing Key. An ailing mother had no bearing on that world. What was important was making it through to the morning side of the dark.

She'd changed her clothes before she really thought of it, and the window frame slid up easily. Out in the night she was no longer scared Dawn Summers, counting her mother's breath. Out in the dark she could run, and maybe this time she could get away.

She shimmied over to the convenient tree branch, then down to the ground. Freedom, stupid, risky freedom. Time to see what the night thought of freedom.

She hit the ground and only stumbled a little. Fortunately, no one was around to see her less-than-Slayeresque performance. She thought.

"And what are we up to this bright and shiny hour of the night?" the familiar voice said as she reached the sidewalk.

"I don't need a babysitter, Spike."

"Beg to differ, pet." He fell into step next to her and lit a cigarette. "So where are we off to?"

"*I* am out for a walk. *You* are apparently out for a midnight lurk."

He didn't deny it. "You get Joyce settled in all right?"

"Yeah. She's asleep. At home. In her own bed." To her relief he didn't comment on the way her voice quivered.

They strolled along in silence for quite a while. Twice Spike smelled vampires nearby, but only one dared show its face. Dawn didn't notice when Spike saw the fledgling lurking in the alley mouth. He gave the newbie a flash of yellow eyes and fangs, and it ran instead of challenging the oldest vampire on the Hellmouth. He allowed himself a happy smirk. How lovely to be respected again.

"Spike?" Dawn asked abruptly.

"Yes, pet?"

"Do you remember the first time you saw me?"

"Yep. It was that night Slayer and I made a deal to stop Angelus and Acathla. I was sitting there next to your mum and I saw this scrawny little bint peeking down the stairs, all big eyes and braces on her teeth. Ow!" He rubbed his arm where she punched him. "I felt that, you're getting better."

"I remember that night. I heard the voices and I wondered who that was doing such a bad fake accent." She danced out of the way as he swung in return. "It's as clear a memory as sitting in class or going to ballet class when I was five." She stopped walking. "But the thing is, it never happened. You didn't see me that night and I never took ballet, because I was never five and I never wore braces, because before a few months ago, I didn't exist and you all lived in a completely Dawn-free world, and it's only because of that damned Key that I . . ."

Spike wrapped her in his arms and let her cry against him. "If you got me in a court of law and asked me, I would have to say that you've always been around. I've got too many memories otherwise. Everybody knew the Slayer was different, that she had a mum and a little baby sister to home. You believed in vampires and boogeymen before your mum did. More than once I'd catch you sneaking around and watching me, and you were never scared." He stepped back from her and made her look at him. "Pretty damned depressing, it was, too, that a little bit like you wasn't afraid of the big bad me."

"But you know it's not true," she whispered. "It never happened like that. All that was put in your head by the monks. They rewrote the world. There are papers at school that show my grades from elementary school. The dentist has records of fillings I've never gotten. This world's not real." She pulled away to pace. "Maybe it's still not real. Maybe it's all something I've made up. Maybe I really did go to ballet and wear braces. But maybe if I went home Mom wouldn't be asleep in her own bed, maybe she didn't come home from the hospital, maybe my mommy is really dead and I'm alone--"

He pulled her close again. "Hush, love, hush. Your mum is going to be fine. You just got scared. Happens all the time. It's been rough, but it's over."

She buried her face against the rough t-shirt and breathed the smoke-and-leather scent that had always said protector to her. Buffy had given her lectures on being stupid for trusting Spike, but she had never, ever feared him. Maybe the monks had written that in, too, that here was a safe place, someone to run to if she ever had to.

There was another note to the fragrance now. She thought for several moments and finally recognized it as blood, but stronger than she'd ever smelled it on him before. Maybe he'd gotten a little sloppy over his last meal. She started to lean back so she could tease him on bad table manners, then realized the arms around her were tense and he was staring down the street.

"What?" she whispered. She flinched, just a little, when the ridges and fangs appeared on his face.

Spike growled at the appearance of a hooded figure with a scarred, bumpy face. "Glorificus be praised, is it true?" the creature said breathlessly. "Did I hear right? I heard you say monks, miss, and how they rewrote the world to fit you in. You're it, aren't you. You're the Key."

Spike shoved her behind him. "No, she's not, idiot. It's the Slayer's kid sister, she's fourteen years old, she's no bloody Key."

"Oh, but if the monks changed it so everyone THOUGHT she was fourteen--" The creature suddenly realized that an angry vampire was stalking towards him. "And you're Spike, the Slayer's vampire, and the Key was given to the Slayer to protect, so of course you'd be trying to protect it as well and--oh, dear." He lifted the skirts of his robe and ran like hell.

Dawn followed as best she could. The creature was running towards the fancy apartment building next to the park where Buffy said she'd finally caught that snake demon thing.

"Help! Help!" yelled the creature in the robes. More robed figures appeared. "He's going to kill me! The Key, it's h--"

Roaring, Spike jumped, claws reaching for the throat to pull out the betraying voice. The rest of the news disappeared in a gurgle as the creature fell. Spike landed on top of him and punched his fist through the ribcage to crush the heart between his fingers. When he looked up, the rest of the demony mob was almost on him.

"Run, girl!" he yelled at Dawn, who was still coming.

"Take him to Glory," one of the demons shouted, just before Spike ripped his throat out as well. The rest dogpiled onto Spike, dragging him down slashing and swearing.

Dawn froze, watching the fight, watching the blood.

Spike yanked half free and saw her. "God damn it, Dawn! Run!" One of the creatures looked in her direction and died for his interest. The others focused on containing Spike.

She took a step towards him, wanting to help. He managed one more glare at her before a demon smacked his head against the pavement, knocking him out.

Crying, she spun and ran, remembering grade-school races she never ran in and days that never happened when she was happy and safe.

***

Buffy was in the middle of a lovely dream involving Chow Yun Fat and James Spader fighting a duel over her. Poor James was getting his butt kicked. Then her sister's piercing voice broke the happy spell.

"Buffy! Wake up, Buffy, please!"

"Huh, what--Dawn, shut up, you'll wake up Mom. What is it?" She blinked and saw that Dawn was fully dressed and that she was crying. "What's happened? Is it Mom?"

"No, no, it's not Mom." Dawn swallowed hard, knowing she was about to get yelled at. "It's Spike."

Buffy slumped. "You woke me up for something about Spike? Why are you dressed? You're supposed to be in bed."

"I couldn't sleep, OK? I went out and ran into Spike. We were walking along and talking, and--and this scary guy in a robe and a hood heard us and figured out I was the Key, and he ran off to tell--tell Glory, but Spike caught him and--and stopped him, but then all these other scary guys showed up and knocked him out and he told me to run, and I think they're taking him to Glory! We have to help him!"

Buffy stared at her, letting her brain catch up with the super-fast words that had just pored in. "You were out with Spike."

"Get past that! He's in trouble!"

"OK, OK. Scary guy in robes overheard you talking. How do you know he was with Glory?"

"He said Praise Glorificus and knew all about the Key. The other guys were yelling stuff about taking Spike to Glory."

"You're sure the first guy didn't tell them you're the Key?"

Dawn swallowed hard. "Uh huh. Spike made sure."

"How?" Buffy winced as Dawn mutely ran clawed fingers across her throat. "Yeah, that would do it. Why'd they grab him?"

"I think he was keeping them off of me until I could get away. Buffy, Glory's going to figure he knows where the Key is, she's going to try and get him to tell."

Buffy climbed out of bed to get dressed. "We've got to stop him before he can."

"But--he wouldn't!"

"To save his own neck?" She saw Dawn's face and went to hug her. "Dawnie, I know you like him, even though it's stupid, but do you really think he's going to risk getting dusted after a hundred and twenty-some years just to keep your secret?"

"He told me to run," Dawn whispered. "He stopped the first guy from telling."

Buffy put her hands on her sister's shoulders. "One thing about Spike, he's brave, and he's not going to give up at the first sign of trouble. But if it comes right down to it, and it's him or us, you have to remember he's a demon, and demons are real big on the self-interest thing."

"You think he's going to tell."

"I think there's a good chance."

"What do we do?"

Buffy went back to gathering clothes and weapons. "Where were you?"

"Near that park where you killed the big snake thingy."

"The snake thingy that was going off to tell Glory about you." Dawn nodded. "There's that fancy apartment house near there. Yeah, as much effort as she goes to on that look, she'd be in a place like that. How many of them were there?"

"I don't know. Enough to take down Spike."

"Yeah." Buffy looked at the knife in her hand. "I'm going to need some help. And I need somebody to stay here with you and Mom."

"I want to come with you!"

"Oh, Dawn, think. She's looking for you. You can't go anywhere near her. Even Spike knew that."

Dawn plopped onto the bed, fighting tears of frustration and fear. "All I am is a reason for people getting hurt."

"Dawnie, no." Buffy crouched next to her and took her hands. "You're my sister. I love you."

"Only because the monks told you to."

She shrugged. "Maybe so. Doesn't make it less real. You're not Pinocchio, you're a real girl. I admit, I've imagined what it might have been like if it were just me and Mom here. And then I think of all the times she must have sat here alone while I was out Slaying, how lonely and worried she must have been. And I am so grateful those monks gave her you."

"But it's not real."

"What's real? There's probably a dimension somewhere where you never showed up and I'm currently fighting some mutant aardvark or something. Or Riley didn't leave, or I was never the Slayer and I'm writing you letters from Northwestern." She managed a convincing shrug. "But we're here, and in this dimension I have to either go save a stupid bleached vampire's butt or stop him from talking. It's what we've got."

She ducked her head and grinned. "Did that sound as pretentious to you as it did to me?"

"Probably more." Dawn hugged her hard. "Be careful."

"I will. So, who should I wake up first?" She played eenie meenie minie moe in her head and came up with Xander and Anya.

Xander sounded remarkably awake but annoyed. Buffy winced as she imagined what she'd interrupted. "Xander, it's me."

"What's wrong?"

"It's Spike." She winced again, waiting for the standard Xander-dismissal of Spike. But Xander's voice was tense when he replied.

"What's he done?"

"Been taken by Glory's goons."

"Huh?"

A summary later, Buffy asked for Anya. "Anya, do you know how to get hold of Giles?"

"Giles? Well, yes, I do--Xander!"

The phone was yanked to a new voice. "And what do you need Giles for?" Xander demanded.

"I'm going to need help," Buffy admitted. "He's the toughest person we've got on tap. And . . . I know he'll go all the way when it comes to keeping Dawn out of Glory's hands."

He was quiet for a few moments. "The Parkeview, right?"

"Yeah."

"I'll meet you there."

"Xander, no! You can't."

"No, what I can't is I can't let you go out there with just an unchipped, unsouled vampire backing you up."

"He wants to stop Glory as much as we do, I'll be fine."

"That's good to know. I'll meet you there. Here's Anya." He handed the phone over.

"I have Giles' cell phone number," Anya said.

"Thanks. Can't you make him stay home?"

"You are joking, right? The testosterone is running." She sighed. "At least I got a few orgasms before you called."

Buffy decided not to let that thought get too far into her cerebral cortex and asked for Giles' phone number.

She had finished getting dressed before she got the nerve to dial the number. "Hello?" answered the so-very-familiar, slightly baffled voice.

"It--it's me, Giles."

"Buffy? How did you get this number?"

The snap in his voice made her flinch. "From Anya. It's an emergency. It's Spike."

"What's happened?"

She told the story once more. The other end of the line was silent. "Giles?"

"I don't suppose you'll let me deal with this myself."

"Uh, duh."

"Of course not. Damn, none of my people has the least idea of fighting intelligently. Do you need a ride? You're on my way."

"Thanks. I'll be ready."

"Who's looking after Dawn?"

"Anya's calling Willow and Tara, they should be here soon."

"And your mother?"

"Is hopefully still asleep. I'll meet you outside."

"All right."

Dawn had observed the entire conversation. "Do you think you can trust him?"

"I guess we'll find out." She opened her window. "Can you get downstairs without waking Mom?"

"Oh, sure, I'll go out my--Yeah, I can do it."

Buffy heard the fates singing a variant on that old maternal stand-by, "I Hope You Have A Kid Who's Just Like You." But arguing about sneaking out the window would have to wait. "I need you inside, Dawn. Go down the stairs, wait for Willow and Tara."

Not being quite dumb enough to look a gift avoided fight in the mouth, Dawn just nodded and went.

Buffy herself went out the window, bag of weapons over her shoulder. A few minutes later, Willow and Tara ran up. "Glory has Spike?" Willow gasped. "She thinks he's the Key?"

"Her wrinkly guys think he knows who the Key is."

"Which he does," Tara said. "Gosh. But he wouldn't tell."

"He may not have to. If she eats his mind . . ."

The two witches looked at each other. "What are you going to do?" Willow asked.

"Whatever I have to to keep her from finding out."

"But how?"

Tires squealed as a car came around the corner down the street. Willow and Tara grabbed hands when they recognized the red BMW.

Buffy shrugged. "I'm taking help."

Tara frowned. "But he's--"

"Super strong, super fast, and I don't have to worry about something happening to him anymore." Buffy didn't mention Xander. "Hold the fort here, guys."

She ran to the street. The car braked hard but didn't come to a complete stop. Buffy vaulted over the passenger side and landed in the seat next to Giles. They sped off. Willow and Tara watched a moment, then headed towards the house.

"Shouldn't the lights be on?" Buffy said to Giles.

"Yes, I suppose so." He made no move to turn the headlights on, steering smoothly around another corner. The car actually seemed able to keep up with vampire reflexes. "You should have your seat belt on."

"Uh huh. The Parkeview."

"Right."

***

Spike blinked back to consciousness, saw the tousled blonde hair and perfect face, and he knew he was dead. "Oh, my god, Harmony, what are you doing here?"

The woman blinked at him. "No, 'oh, my god, Glory.' Totally different noun. But you're right on the god part."

He finally cleared his vision, but the situation didn't improve. He was in a chair, tied up and held tight by two of the ugly demons in robes. The woman in front of him looked like any of a hundred daft females who spent more time on fashion than anything requiring any sort of intelligence, and the room was furnished on the wealthy line between tacky and gaudy. And Spike would rather be back in that wheelchair dealing with a bored Angelus than where he was now.

"Oh," he said intelligently. "So you're her. Glory. The hellgod."

The demon to his left smacked him hard upside of the head. "You will address her most wonderful amazingness with more respect, vampire." Spike snarled at him and collected another smack.

Glory raised a perfectly manicured finger. "OK, that raises an interesting little point. You're that Nail, Stake, Tentpeg--"

"Spike!"

"Whatever. You're the Slayer's pet vampire--"

"I am not!"

She put her finger over his lips. "Mother's talking. Dreg, why is he here?"

The demon on Spike's left straightened proudly. "Smirg said that he's the Key, most creamy smoothness."

"Uh huh. Dreg, what do we know about the Key?"

"Um, glowing green swirl of power--"

"Other than that. Like its current form."

"I'm most terribly sorry, your dark chocolate truffleness."

Glory blinked. "You've been saving that one, haven't you."

"Yes, most rich delectableness."

She looked at a demon standing nearby. "Go get me some."

The demon bowed. "At once, your mocha almond swirliness."

"And some of that, too." Glory turned to Spike. "What?"

Spike quickly wiped the look of disbelief off his face. "Uh, nothing . . ." He saw the expectant looks. ". . . most bloody goodness."

"Euw. But you're a vampire. Still, euw." She turned back to Dreg. "Its current form, Dreg."

"The Key is in the form of an innocent, most holy wonderfulness."

"An innocent. And what is this, then?" She pointed to Spike.

"Um, he's a vampire, glorious one."

"And are vampires really known for being innocent?"

Spike opened his eyes real big, like one of those wretched Precious Moments figurines Dru liked to steal and poke the eyes out of.

Glory stared at him. "What are you doing?"

"Trying to look innocent?"

"Well, stop it. It's disturbing. You see, Dreg? Innocent and vampires? Don't mix. So what can we conclude from this?"

Dreg hunched down into his robes. "What, pretty shiny sparkling one?"

Glory backhanded him across the room. "A vampire is not the Key, idiot!" She tucked a curl back behind her ear and turned back to Spike. "So, why the heck did Smirg think you were my Key? Were you and the Slayer's baby sister talking about it? And what is up with that, anyway, you playing babysitter to a Slayer's bratty kid sister?"

"Not hardly," Spike smirked.

"Stocking the larder? You fattening her up or something?"

One of the other demons leaned forward. "This is the vampire with the chip, splendiferous one." Spike sneered at him.

"Oh, *you're* him." Glory poked a finger around in Spike's hair. "Gee, blond envy much?" Spike glanced at her hair. "Hey, this is natural, buddy. So there's a chip in your head, huh?"

"Uh, yeah."

"A chip in your brain," she said thoughtfully, digging her fingernail against his scalp. "That's gotta hurt."

Spike gasped as the skin was sliced open. Blood trickled through his hair. He heard a grating sound as Glory kept digging. She was chipping at his skull.

"So, you and--oh, yeah, Dawn, you were strolling along chatting about the Key, hm? You know who it is?"

"N--no, I don't."

Glory drew back her hand to look at her bloody finger, tsked, and flicked something out from under the nail. "Does she?" She reached back to his head.

"She's a kid, what does she know?"

"That's why I'm asking you." He couldn't help the wince as she went back to work. "You've got a thick skull. You and little Dawnie, chatting about the Key. What did you say?"

"Just--wondering." He saw a few small flecks of something fly from his head. Blood ran past his ear and down his neck.

"About what?" Glory cleaned her fingernail again. She peered at his head and turned her hand to get a better angle.

"About--about where it was, what to do about it, how to keep it away from you."

"Oh, now, is that nice? That's my Key, my very own special glowy Key, and I need it to get home." She twisted her wrist, and there was an audible pop. Spike bit his tongue to keep from yelling as he felt his skull break and something sink through. "No ideas on where the Key is?" Glory asked. He didn't answer, and she frowned at him. "Oh, sorry." She pulled her fingertip free. "There you go."

Spike shook his head, unable to speak just yet.

"Well, poo. Oh, dammit, I broke a nail." She peered closely at her fingertip. "Is that brain? So much for the piano lessons, huh?" She held her hand out imperiously, and one of the demons dashed forward to wipe her finger.

"Why'd anybody tell me or the kid where the Key is, anyway?" Spike said. It had been a long time since he'd been tortured for a reason instead of just for fun, but the techniques of misdirection were coming back to him. "I didn't think anybody knew."

Glory patted his cheek. "Somebody knows, pookie. My guys have talked to somebody who knows."

"So why isn't he tied to the chair getting a trepanning?"

She slapped him, knocking the chair over and bouncing his head off the carpet. "Because you are." She grabbed him by the collar and pulled him back up. "So if you don't know, who in that little bunch would?" She poked through his hair until she found the hole she'd made. "How far in is that chip, anyway?"

"It's not in there anymore!"

"Excuse me?"

"I've got my bite back." He jerked his head at the demons. "Ask them, they must have heard. I thought everybody knew by now."

Glory looked at her minions. "Well?"

Dreg consulted with the others. "Most awe-inspiring impressiveness, there have been some rumors that this Spike creature has been feeding on humans again."

"And you still thought he was innocent enough to be the Key? Why can't minions be fanatically loyal *and* smart, huh?" she said to Spike, who thought better of answering. "Any other little tidbits you've heard?"

"He lusts after the Slayer," one of the demons offered.

Glory frowned at Spike. "That scrawny thing?" He shrugged. "Go on, guys."

"He's been seen with the Slayer's Watcher," Dreg said. "The Watcher is a vampire now."

After a moment's thought, Glory walked over to Dreg. "The Slayer's Watcher has been turned into a vampire."

"Yes, most--"

A wave of her hand cut him off. "And when did this little event happen?"

"Several weeks ago, Glorificus."

Slowly she wrapped her hand around the front of his robe and lifted him up so she could look him in the eye. "The Slayer's Watcher, her greatest ally and a threat to me all by himself, was turned into a demon-possessed killer, and you didn't think I'd want to know?"

Dreg bowed his head. "I am a worm, most profound arbiter of my fate. Flay me alive and wrap my beating heart in my skin."

"Not in this dress I'm not, it's de la Rente." She pulled her arm back, preparatory to throwing him through the wall, then hesitated. "He'd know."

"Most holy?"

Glory dropped Dreg on the floor and went back to Spike. "The Watcher. He knows where the Key is, doesn't he."

"The Watcher?" Spike shrugged as well as he was able. "I wouldn't know, me and him, mostly we talk about killin' and--" He barely muffled the shout as she grabbed his face to hold his head still as she poked at the hole in his skull. His left cheekbone cracked under the pressure.

She hesitated, though, before she got much further into his brain than she'd already gone. "If I stick my finger too far in there, your voice could go all woobly along with your memories. So no more brain surgery." She let him go and smiled at his mingled gasp of relief and pain. "Heart surgery, now . . ." The smile never changed as she punched two fingers into his chest and snapped off a piece of rib. "Just got to make room to work."

***

Giles coasted the BMW to a stop just outside the parking lot of the Parkeview Apartments. He jumped over the car door instead of opening it. Buffy stared in surprise but opened her door normally.

"Guess that knee's not bothering you anymore, huh?" she said.

"No, it's not." Giles was more concerned with studying the area than with conversation. He turned his head to scan in all directions, the rest of him still as--as a very still thing. Suddenly he turned as a faint footstep crunched on the asphalt.

Xander stopped well out of reach. "Nice to see you guys."

"Go home, Xander," Giles snapped.

"I don't take orders from vampires." He turned back to Buffy. "I snuck in and took a quick look around, chatted up a janitor. Glory's on the sixth floor. Jorge figures they're a weird cult, cause of the robed people."

"Did he see Spike?"

"Jorge's like the guys at the construction site, he doesn't see anything he's not explicitly told to see. So how are we going to do this?"

Giles went to the back of his car and opened the trunk. "Buffy and I will go inside and see if we can get Spike out of there. You are going to go home."

Xander looked pointedly at Buffy. "How are we going to do this, Buffy?"

Buffy studied the building and the number of lighted windows. "Any people moving around?"

"Middle of the night for normal people, only people moving are the maintenance crew."

"Good. We can go up the fire stairs, sneak up on them."

Xander shrugged and went to peer into Giles' trunk. "Well, three people isn't what I'd normally call a crack hostage extraction squad, but whatever works." He pulled out an ax and tested the swing.

Buffy pulled out a crossbow. "Rescue's not my first priority," she said softly. "Keeping him from telling Glory about Dawn is."

Xander stopped the swing and stared at her. "You're just going to go in and shoot him?"

"He's a threat to Dawn. I can't risk him telling."

Giles pulled out a sword and another crossbow. "I hope you don't mind if I try to get him out of there first. I've rather gotten used to the rotten bastard." He saw Xander watching him with a very thoughtful look, and he wondered just how much reading the young man had been doing in the restricted books on inter-vampire relations.

Buffy studied her crossbow. "I'd rather you two just stayed back and covered me. If Glory grabbed either of you--"

"Thanks for the vote of confidence there, Buff," Xander snapped.

"You know who Dawn is as well as we do," Giles added softly. "But you're not worried about the danger you're in?"

"I'm not in any--"

"You told me yourself, when Glory raised the snake, that you couldn't stop her. You couldn't even slow her down. She's not sure if Spike knows about the Key, but she is sure you do. She knows you're protecting it. By rights you shouldn't be going in there at all."

"Which means none of us should be going."

Xander grinned. "Which means, I think, that all of us are going." He went over and squeezed her shoulders. "Come on, Buff, it'll be like old times, we go in there, we make it up as we go along, we kick some butt, and we get out of there alive--no offense," he added to Giles.

"None taken," Giles said. "I see you've entered into your usual pre-battle inane chatter."

The grin never faltered. "Hey, it's kept me alive so far."

Giles wondered if he'd really heard that slight emphasis on "me".

All the Slayers in the back of Buffy's head screamed at her that people going with her would only get hurt. Those voices had screamed at her for years now. And still Xander kept popping up with the babble and the cocky grin and Giles was there with the determination, and she knew they'd only follow her if she said "No" and tried to mean it.

"OK, then," she sighed. "Let's go."

***

Glory reclined on the couch and nibbled on one of her dark chocolate truffles. "So is he awake yet?"

Dreg peered at the slumped vampire tied to the chair. "I don't know, most holy. How would I tell?"

She sighed and got to her feet. "Like this, dumdum." She grabbed a handful of Spike's hair and yanked.

"Ow!" Spike yelled. "Leave off, you stupid bint!"

Glory crouched down in front of him. "Excuse me?" she asked sweetly, tapping her fingernails on his left kneecap.

"Um--oh. Sorry. Thought you were someone else."

"Like who? You have a lot of people knocking you around?"

He snickered. "More than you could ever believe, pet. Slayer's got a tendency to come around and do the threatening thing."

She jumped to her feet. "You thought I was the Slayer?"

"Don't know what I was thinking." He studied her for a moment, making no effort to disguise his interest. "Must be the concussion. Slayer's got nothing on you."

"Vampires don't get concussions. And, um . . ." She smoothed her dress and made an effort to tidy her hair, then shook herself. "Anyway, before you distracted me with the passing out thing, I was asking you who knew where the Key is."

"As if anyone would let me know anything--"

She backhanded him. "I don't care if anyone would tell you, bleach head, do you know who does know where the Key is?" She smiled as his shoulders began to quiver. "So you ready to talk now?" Then she heard him laughing. "What are you laughing at!"

He raised his head and sneered at her, blood running down from his split lip. "Bleach head? You call yourself a god? Come on, Xander Harris comes up with better lines than that."

Glory grabbed him by the throat and lifted him, chair and all. "Don't you know who I am!"

"Yeah," he coughed. "Glory, god of used to be scary."

She raised a clawed hand up to his face. "I could rip your eyeballs out and smush them under my foot."

He laughed again and shook his head. "No, no, don't go for the eyeballs now, you haven't even broken all my fingers yet. Come on, where's the classic progression of pain? And where's the psychological torture? All you've given me is bad diction and B-movie villain ranting."

She shook him. "Who the hell do you think you are?"

He sneered. "Somebody who was raised by Angelus, Scourge of Europe. Now there's a bloke who knew the potential of common household implements. You're kindergarten class compared to him."

With a shriek, she threw him and the chair against the wall. The chair exploded, and Spike hit the floor in a tangle of ropes, chains, and potential stakes.

"Full marks for freedom, lad," he muttered to himself, "zero points for sense." He scrambled to his feet, tried not to count how many ribs were broken and stabbing into useless-but-painful internal organs, and crashed through the door.

***

Giles took point going up the stairs. Rather, he headed up, leaving Buffy and Xander to follow as they would. Buffy hurried to stay on Giles' heels. Xander was grateful for the construction work that kept him in shape.

"Just a poor human here, folks," he muttered as he jogged up the stairs, only occasionally using the handle of his axe as a climbing staff. "Pay no never mind to me. Stupid Slayers and vampires." Once upon a time he'd taken petty comfort in being younger and stronger than Giles. See where such youthful arrogance got you?

On the sixth floor landing, Buffy shifted her crossbow and grabbed Giles' arm before he could yank open the door. "We can't just go busting in there," she whispered to him. "And since when am I giving discretion lectures to you, Mr. Plan Your Strategy Before You Attack?"

Giles glared at her, and she flinched at the way the angles of his face were shifting. "I understand that your solution to this problem is to dash in and shoot him, but it seems only fair to at least attempt a rescue."

Vampire, Buffy reminded herself. Angry, impatient vampire.

Xander caught up with them, panting. "So what's the plan?"

"We take a peek out the door," Buffy said quickly. "Then we see what happens." Giles muttered unhappily but accepted it. He checked the position of the bolt in his crossbow.

They cracked open the door and peered out. The hallway was dimly lit and seemed quiet.

"I hear shouting," Giles whispered.

"So do I," Buffy said. "Xander, did Jorge say which apartment is Glory's?"

The question of which apartment was answered by Spike crashing through a door halfway down the hall. Bloody and stumbling, he scrambled to his feet and started towards the elevators at the far end of the hall.

"Spike!" Giles yelled.

Before Spike could do more than look around, Glory's demons poured out of the apartment. Spike kept moving down the hall, followed by a good half-dozen of the gnarled demons.

Flinging his crossbow at Xander, Giles snarled and charged down the hall, shifting into full game face.

"Shit," Xander breathed, trying to reconcile the sharp-pointed demon face with the reassuring man he'd known nearly a third of his life.

"Uh huh," Buffy said. She shook herself. "Come on! And stay back!"

"Make up your mind!"

"Be careful!"

They followed Giles.

Giles ripped into the trailing pair of demons, grabbing their robes and slamming their heads together. Spike fell against the elevator doors and checked the floor indicator. The lift was down at the lobby floor. Despite Ripper's help, the rest of Glory's mob would be on him in seconds. Ignoring the pain in his broken fingers, Spike pulled on the elevator doors, levering them apart.

He was just reaching for the greasy cables when one of Glory's demons shrieked and jumped for him. Spike missed his grab for the cables and fell, the demon clinging to him.

Giles cursed and ripped the throat out of the nearest demon. "He's in the lift shaft!" he yelled to Buffy and Xander.

A crossbow bolt suddenly whistled past his ear. He snarled at Xander, who was just lowering his crossbow, when he heard the thump of a body hitting the floor behind him. He turned and saw one of the demons, who had been holding an axe. The crossbow bolt had taken it square in the forehead. He looked at Xander again, but the young man didn't meet his eyes.

Buffy grabbed Xander. "Downstairs."

Most of the demons were headed down another set of stairs. Giles reached for one.

"What is taking so long out there?" came a petulant female voice from inside the apartment.

Giles looked up and saw the pretty young lady he'd seen in the Magic Box buying materials to raise a snake demon.

Glory stood in her broken doorway and cocked her head at Giles. "What is it with the vampires in this town? I'm trying to bring hell on earth, here, fella. You know, vampire party time? Why the heck are you breaking up my minions?"

Giles looked down at the broken-necked body in his hands. "I am sorry, but I rather like the world the way it is. Hell really sounds quite boring."

"I know you," Glory said, pointing a thoughtful finger at Giles. "That cheesy little magic shop." She gasped. "You're the Watcher!"

Giles flung the demon's body as hard as he could at her, then sprinted for the stairs.

The lobby was empty of anyone non-demonic when Buffy burst through the door at the bottom of the stairs. Xander was only moments behind her. Across the ornate lobby, the demons were struggling with Spike, who looked even more bashed up but was still fighting as well he could.

"Sorry," Buffy called as she ran over, "but that's our vampire you're demon-handling, and we want him back."

"Probably," Xander added.

"I am *not* your vampire," came a weak protest.

The demons turned to fight. Buffy knocked two out of the way, working her way towards the elevator. Xander laid one out with the flat of his axe, then another jumped on his back, dropping its own axe handle over his head and yanking against his throat. He reached back, got a handful of robe and pulled. The wiry little creature tried to hang on, but Xander got a good grip on the shoulders and threw the demon into a group of its friends.

Buffy made it to Spike's side, kicking aside the crumpled body of the demon that had fallen down the elevator shaft with him. She grabbed his arm to shake him, though not as hard as she might, seeing up close just how bloody he was.

"What did you tell her?" she demanded.

"I've had better days, Slayer, how are you?"

A demon came charging in, axe upraised. A kick to the stomach sent it flying away. "Damn you, Spike--"

Spike coughed, then spit blood. "Didn't tell her anything."

"I don't believe you."

"Then why the fuck are you asking?" He tried to get to his feet, but his leg bent in new places, and he fell back with a groan. He nodded over Buffy's shoulder. "Demon."

She spun and punched; Xander caught the rebound and smacked the demon in the head.

Spike grabbed Buffy's arm. "Dawn OK?"

"Uh, yeah," she managed to answer as she stared at Spike's hand, with the smashed and twisted fingers. "You didn't tell Glory?"

"Said I didn't."

A sudden roar caught their attention. Out in the lobby, Giles appeared, still in gameface, and pulled two demons off of Xander.

Spike laughed briefly before it turned into another gasp of pain. "Well, this should be over soon."

Buffy touched his shoulder. "Spike, why?"

"Why what?"

"Didn't you tell her?"

Different pain flickered through his eyes before a more battered version of his usual sneer appeared. "Gotta stay in good with you, now, don't I."

She almost touched the still wet wound in his chest. A lot of blood had already dried on his shirt and in his hair. His eyes were almost swollen shut, and the familiar angles of his face were blurred. "Why did you let her do all this to you?" she whispered.

"Been though enough, you have," he said softly. "I'm not going to be any part of making it worse."

She looked in his eyes and saw, of all things, honesty. There were other things as well, but she couldn't think of those just now. She found one small unbruised portion of his face to touch. "Thank you."

A small body impacted against the wall above them. Buffy knocked it aside before it could fall on them.

"And that one wraps up the game," Xander announced. "The ex-Watcher knocks it out of the ballpark for the winning run, and the rest of the opposing team scampers away for their lives."

"Do be quiet, Xander," Giles said. Human-faced again, he leaned into the elevator. "We should go--my god, Spike, can you move?"

"Depends on what you want me to move, mate. But I want out of here more."

Buffy moved to one side to give room for Giles to get under Spike's other shoulder. Vampire and Slayer strength got Spike off the floor, but not without muffled curses from the injured.

Xander watched all the approaches for the return of Glory's demons, but he froze when he saw Spike. "Oh, my god," he whispered.

"No god of yours did this, whelp," Spike said, hobbling along on his one good leg. "Least I hope--" He barely bit off a scream as his broken leg bumped against the floor.

Buffy tried to hold him up, but her lack of height was against her. "I'm sorry."

"Here." Xander handed her his axe. "Puny human strength will do for this." He took her place under Spike's shoulder and helped hold him clear of the floor.

"Not puny," Spike said very softly.

"Shut up, Spike."

"Indeed," Giles added, though not without a thoughtful look at Xander. "Let's please wait till we get you to the car before you amaze us with what passes for your wit."

No one tried to stop them as they made their escape to Giles' convertible. Giles passed the burden of Spike's weight to Xander and went to the trunk.

"I'm not riding in there," Spike said firmly.

"I'm getting a blanket so you don't bleed all over the upholstery. I just got all the blood out from the last time." Giles glared at Spike, who managed a passable snicker.

"At least you weren't awake to bitch about my driving."

Buffy watched the night and their surroundings. "Guys, not to say I'm not enjoying the yuck-fest, but could we get a move on here?"

"Yes, you're right," Giles said. He handed her a very large axe. "Hold this, please, I would have sworn there was a blanket in here somewhere."

Xander saw Spike was beginning to sag and adjusted his hold. Grimacing, Spike took hold of Xander's other arm, leaning against him.

"If this is an excuse for you to get grabby," Xander said softly, "I'm going to finish killing you myself."

"I wish," Spike said, eyes closed. "Not that I haven't dreamed of being held in your manly arms--"

"I will drop--" he broke off, finally getting a good look at the bloody mess at the top of Spike's head. "Spike, there's a hole in your head." He tried not to think about how deep that hole looked.

Spike tried to pull away. "Yeah, yeah. Keep it down, or everyone's gonna want one."

"Shut up and hold still. You're bleeding."

"Why, Xander Harris, I didn't know you cared."

"Shut up. God, it's like when I pulled Giles out of the mansion."

Spike managed a snort of disdain. "Not hardly. Glory's strictly amateur hour. Doesn't have anything near Angelus' patience."

Xander swallowed hard. "Not helping with the me keeping dinner down, here."

"Sorry." And if Spike leaned a little more into Xander's hold, neither commented.

Giles finally came up with a blanket from the trunk, and they settled Spike into the back seat. Buffy turned her attention to the apartment house, her thoughts obvious.

"Leave her alone, Buffy," Giles ordered.

"I don't think I have to do what you say anymore, Giles."

"You're not ready yet."

She turned to glare at the creature who looked and sounded like the man she used to trust most. "And when will I be? She's getting desperate, Giles. Who else is she going to grab and chew up trying to find what she wants?"

Giles' grim look was unrelenting. "As long as she doesn't find Dawn, it doesn't matter."

Buffy looked at Spike's injuries. "I don't think anybody else could stand up to what she did to Spike. I'm not saying they're weak, but--could anyone human go through that and not give up?"

"I did."

She turned away, not wanting to go there at all. "So what do we do?"

"Find out when the conjunction is, find out where the portal needs to be opened, avoid that time and place at all costs."

"I should get Dawn out of town."

Giles moved so he could see her face. "And if Glory took one of your friends, someone you'd be less willing to sacrifice than Spike? If she threatened them to make you turn over Dawn?"

Buffy looked at Xander, who was leaning against the convertible, splitting his attention between watching the night and watching Spike. "I won't let Dawn be hurt," she said softly. "No matter what."

Giles smiled faintly. "Good girl. Now, I'd best get Spike home so I can get him cleaned up." He started to reach out to pat her shoulder, but pulled his hand back. "We'll get through this, we always do."

"Paying a hell of a price the whole way."

"That's our job." He shook his head. "Or, rather--"

She smiled tiredly at him. "Good night, Giles."

"Good night, Buffy."

Xander joined Buffy as Giles drove away. "We go home now?" he asked.

"We go home now."

She watched Xander as they walked towards his car. No special talents except his courage and his willingness to put it all on the line night after night. For years now he'd been watching her back, risking everything just on her say-so. And if it came down to a choice between him or Dawn, she'd save Dawn every time.

"Thanks for being here tonight," she said finally. "It helped."

He grinned at her, then toned it down to something apparently more suave. "That's what I'm here for, to help."

He held the passenger door open for her, then went around to get in. Buffy tried not to cry as she thought of him helping her by dying.

***

Giles wasn't wearing the usual padding as he and Buffy sparred in the training room behind the Magic Box, but neither was worried. He neatly dodged most of her blows, and he shook off the ones that landed with no more than a passing wince. Buffy noticed he moved faster without the padding, making her move faster as well. It was good to face her mentor as an equal.

His eyes were colder and more focused without the glasses, and he managed to hold a conversation as they worked. "You and Dawn should get out of town, get as far away as you can. Glory won't wait."

"I can't leave Mom."

"Well, you can't take her with you, she'd only slow you down. Willow and the others would look after her."

She ducked away from his kick. "Not leaving her." She nearly swept his feet out from under him, but he dodged at the last moment.

"And what will you do if Glory's next move is against Joyce? You said you were prepared to sacrifice the others. Are you prepared to sacrifice your mother?"

Buffy stepped out of the fight and lowered her hands. "Glory could do that anyway, grab Mom. Grab anyone to try and get me to bring Dawn back. And I couldn't do that, Giles. She's my baby sister, I got to hold her when Mom and Dad brought her home from the hospital, I got to take care of her. We'd play with each other's hair, and I helped her get back at Sally Ann Consecko, who was mean to her in the third grade--"

Giles moved closer. "And you know it never happened. The memories might seem real, but they never happened. You can't lose yourself in worry and memories now, you need to make plans. What will you do if Glory moves against Joyce in an effort to get to Dawn? Will you trade your sister for your mother or your mother for your sister?"

"I could--send Mom away, send her someplace where they could take care of her but is too far away for Glory to worry about. If we scatter she won't have time to use everybody against me."

"Very good," Giles nodded. He moved around the room picking up discarded weapons. "I know it's difficult to think of these things, but once one has a plan one knows how to react in any circumstance. You can't hesitate."

Then he was behind her, with an arm around her throat and her hands pinned. "Your enemies won't," he snarled. Fangs drove into her throat as she screamed.

Buffy woke, and her hand was checking her neck even as her mind said "Dream."

The clock said nearly five. The sky outside was grey fading to pink. Slayer Happy Hour, the vampires would be scampering for cover and the demons would be retreating into their lairs to avoid being spotted by the innocent humans who felt safe in daylight. Might as well just get up.

Her mind was more on her dream than on morning routines. It wasn't bizarre enough to be a true prophetic dream. No shadows of the First Slayer with her bones and war paint, no guys with cheese. Just her fears finding words and images.

She was going to have to choose. This thing was going to end in blood one way or another, and she'd better have her acceptable losses laid out.

As she got dressed, she found Mr Pointy and carried it downstairs with her for comfort. Her job description was to save the world, but her job title said Vampires first. Her dream had shown her the dangers of forgetting about vampires. She was pretty sure the Slayer's Handbook had a few words to say about calling on the aid of one vampire to go save the butt of another vampire. Stupid Handbook, just as well she never got one. Like that TV show from when she was a kid, about the guy who received a superhero suit from a bunch of aliens who forgot to give him the manual that went along with it. Maybe that show was on cable somewhere, she could relate to that about now.

As Buffy entered the kitchen, she heard sounds from the laundry room. "Dawn? You'll wake Mom."

Joyce came out of the laundry room, wearing her robe and leaning on her hated walker. "It's me, Buffy."

"Mom?" Buffy went to help her into a chair. "Oh, Mom, you've only been home for two days, you're supposed to be still resting, not worrying about the laundry."

"Well, from the size of the piles in there, someone should be." She looked down uncomfortably. "Actually, I was hoping to get a few things done before either of you woke up. I--had a little accident--spilled . . ."

Buffy noticed her mother wasn't wearing anything under her robe, and she suddenly realized just what kind of accident Joyce meant. She called on every ounce of Slayer stoicism not to react to her mother's embarrassment. "You could have called. I'd have heard. I'd have been glad to help."

Pride replaced embarrassment. "I'm never going to get better if I don't do things for myself. But I will let you move things from the washer to the dryer."

"OK. And while we're waiting for the washer to finish, I'll make some breakfast."

"Thank you, dear."

Buffy took a few extra moments looking at the contents of the fridge, trying not to cry. It was just one of those bobbles on the road to recovery. Compared to how she was just a few weeks ago, Joyce was practically ready to run a marathon. They'd had the hospital's resources to depend on, though, before. Now, while Joyce might not still need extensive care, it was up to Buffy and Dawn to see to the needs of an invalid. And that on top of trying to make sure the world didn't end. Again.

She got a grip and pulled out the eggs and ham. Lesser mortals did this sort of thing every day. A Slayer could take care of her recuperating mother and protect the Key. All before breakfast. Which she could cook too.

She took the eggs and a bowl to Joyce. "Here, crack the eggs into this. I keep smooshing them in my fingers, stupid fragile things. Don't worry about any little bits of shell or anything like that. Dawn and I are used to that. I'm going to go get the paper." She hurried out before Joyce could finish her disbelieving look and move on to Lecture on Proper Breakfast Preparation.

Joyce allowed Buffy to do most of the work for breakfast. Dawn appeared with her backpack, kissed her mother, and began eating quickly.

"Slow down, honey," Joyce said. "No one's going to take it away from you."

"Janice is going to stop by and we're walking to school. She'll be here any minute."

Buffy looked up from putting away the milk and frowned. "Willow and Tara walked you yesterday."

"Duh, they have class this morning, they don't have time to come down here and still make their class."

Buffy started to say something, then glanced at Joyce and frowned again.

"When are your classes, Buffy?" Joyce asked.

"Uh, well . . ."

A loud knocking on the door distracted them all. Dawn snatched up an apple as she grabbed her backpack. "That'll be Janice. Bye, Mom, Buffy."

Buffy followed her to the door, making sure that it was indeed Janice at the door. A group of three girls waited for Dawn, all girls that Buffy had seen before. She waved Dawn on her way, reassured at least that the sneaky guys who worked for Glory probably weren't going to bother that many people in broad daylight.

Once Dawn and her friends were out of sight, Buffy went back to the kitchen. "So, Mom, you want anything else for breakfast?"

"No, that's OK. Don't you have class today?"

"Nope, I'm class-free." Buffy picked up Dawn's dishes and dumped the half-eaten eggs into the trash.

"But you didn't go to class yesterday, either. Won't your professors get angry?" Joyce saw the way Buffy wasn't looking at her. "Buffy?"

"I, um--I don't have any classes. I stopped going."

Joyce started to get to her feet, but her body wouldn't cooperate. "Buffy, you dropped out? Tell me you didn't drop out."

Buffy shrugged helplessly. "I didn't have time, I've had too many other things to do."

"Nothing is more important than your education."

Buffy turned and looked at her mother. "*You're* more important, Mom. Dawn's more important." She sighed. "And keeping the world from ending is more important. Kind of hard to concentrate on Cultural Trends in the Modern Novel when I'm trying to figure out what Glory's going to do next."

"But I thought that's what Giles--oh. That's right."

"Yeah. My support system kind of got gutted. It's--not been a good year."

Joyce took a deep breath. "Well, when we get everything straightened out, we'll get you signed back up and you can pick up where you left off. And the doctors said there were home nurses who could come in, you might be able to keep up with a couple of your classes--"

"I am not leaving you alone with some stranger! I can take care of you."

"I don't want to be a burden to you, Buffy." Joyce looked away, blinking quickly. "That's the last thing I want, to be a burden."

Buffy went to her side, crouching down to look her mother in the face. "I can take care of you. I want to take care of you."

Joyce saw lines on her daughter's face, lines of worry and fear and woe. With all the horrors in a Slayer's life, Joyce despised being yet another thing for Buffy to be troubled over.

Buffy took Joyce's hands. "I'm going to take care of you. It's not going to be some stranger, it's going to be me. I'm going to take care of you, and you're going to get better and stronger, and everything's going to be all right, and--"

Joyce leaned over to hug Buffy as hard as she could, cutting off her daughter's tears. "Yes. Everything's going to be all right.

***

Sammy headed downstairs to the lower level of the Sunrise Grove recreation center. It had been a long night, and he was anxious to get to bed. He and Fred and Angie and Pamela had been scrounging for nights for this information, and maybe now they could get back to the killing and screwing and lazing around that made vampiric life worth living. Vampires weren't supposed to have causes and quests, they were just supposed to have fun.

Whistling a Cindy Lauper tune, he knocked on the half-open door of Ripper's workroom. "Come in," came the answer.

"Morning, Ripper," he said as he went in. He checked the floor, just to make sure nothing had been drawn on it that he might accidentally step in. "Oh, hey, Spike. Man, you still look like shit."

Spike, laid out on the couch on the other side of the room, lifted a single finger in mute reply. A bandage still covered the hole in his skull, and the bruises on his face were just past the most colorful stage. He lifted a bottle to his lips and took a long drink.

"Good morning, Sammy," Giles said, looking up from the books and papers on his desk. "You have news?"

"We've got the location," Sammy grinned. "Me and Pam scouted it out tonight. There's a bunch of those hooded geeks and crazy guys building a big-assed tower in the junkyard."

"Yes, finally," Giles said in satisfaction.

"About bloody time something goes our way," Spike muttered. "You got that time frame locked down yet, Ripper?"

"Just about. A few more calculations, I should have it pinpointed."

Sammy shifted uncertainly. "Uh, Ripper? About the whole Glory thing . . ."

Giles looked up again. "Yes?"

"Well, we stopped at Willy's, and there were a bunch of guys there talking about all this and how it's going to be a demon free-for-all when Glory goes home. Why are you trying to stop it?"

Spike and Giles glanced at each other. "Sammy," Spike said, "what do vampires eat?"

"Blood."

"Whose blood?"

"Human blood. Well, except for Louie the Freak, he likes dogs."

Giles frowned. "How in the world does he survive on dog?"

"Don't ask," Spike said. "Sammy, Glory opens the portal, romps on home, unleashes demon Mardi Gras on earth."

Sammy grinned. "Yeah."

"What happens to the humans?"

He grinned harder. "All sorts of stuff."

"They likely to survive all this stuff?"

"Probably not."

"And what do we eat when all the humans are dead?"

Sammy started to speak, hesitated, started to speak again, then frowned. "Oh."

"I've bitten into some of the demons out there. Let's just say, acquired taste does not begin to describe it."

Giles gave Spike a queasy look. "Do I want to know why you decided to see what demon tasted like? What kind of demon?"

"Chaos. I was drunk. Never mind." He frowned at the knowing look that went across Giles' face.

Sammy was still pouting. "So if we want to keep eating, we have to stop the party. Shit. I was looking forward to some balls out mayhem."

"Hey, if nothing else, we might go invade Glory's building site, do a bit of smashing up."

"Yeah," Sammy sighed, "but it's not the same as torching the town and chasing people through the streets."

Spike paused in nostalgic thought. "Yeah, good times. But sometimes you have to take the long view." A noise from Giles caught his attention. The ex-Watcher was scribbling rapidly and muttering to himself excitedly. "I think he's got it. What's up, Ripper?"

"Leave me alone, Spike," Giles said, waving a hand at him. "I've almost--yes, apply that value to d'Grevit's Variant of Planck's Constant, divide by the Section of Ka'aarb, carry the six--yes! Dawn, three days from now, that's the time when the Key must be used to open the portal or lose the chance forever." He sat back and rested his chin on his fist. "Dawn. I wonder if that's why she's named--"

"Ripper!" Spike interrupted.

"What? Oh." Giles blinked at Sammy, then shook his head. "Oh, yes, sorry. I've found the time."

"We guessed," Sammy grinned.

Spike pulled out his pocket watch. "Less than 72 hours to go. Glory must know this too, right?"

Giles nodded grimly. "Yes, she must. So she'll be getting desperate." He looked at Sammy again. "Thank you for finding the location, Sammy, that's a great help."

Sammy nodded. "And on that, I'm out of here. We got anything in the larder for a before bed snack?"

"Check with Fred," Spike said. "I think he went shopping."

"Right. Morning, guys."

"Tah."

"Good morning, Sammy." Giles stared at his figures, running recalculations for accuracy. "Three days," he said once the door was closed. "I'm tempted to say we can do this easily, but Glory will be going on the offensive."

"We'd best tell the others."

"Right." He found his cell phone to call Anya at the Magic Box.

***

Tara didn't think Willow had had any caffeine when she wasn't looking. It was theoretically possible that the bounciness came purely from the gorgeous spring day.

"We ought to just peek into the Magic Box," Willow said, "it's on the way to the Cultural Fair. Maybe pick up some business cards to give to folks, since Anya won't let us run a tab, like Giles did. Then maybe she'd give us some store credit."

Tara smiled fondly. "I don't think the word credit exists in Anya's vocabulary. Unless it's credit card."

"Probably not. Here we are!"

Willow bounced into the shop. At the counter, Anya turned with a bright smile, which immediately faded into the familiar "Oh, people we like who hang out here but who probably won't buy anything" look. A customer was perusing one of the magic books for sale, comparing the text with something on a Palm Pilot. In the back part of the shop, Xander was on a ladder changing a light bulb in the ceiling fixture.

"Hello, lovely ladies," he called. "What brings you to our fine establishment today?"

"Hi, Xander!" Willow called. "And hi, Anya. We're on our way to the Cultural Festival down by the river. Why aren't you at work, Xander?" She gave him a scolding glare. "Are you playing hookie?"

"Au contraire, mon amie," he said, climbing down the ladder. "My team is ahead of schedule and they let us off early. So I came down to give my favorite girl a hand."

"It's a wonderful system," Anya said. "He works for free, and I get someone strong and decorative to do the boring heavy lifting."

Xander bowed. "We bloom where we are planted. So, Cultural Festival?"

Willow began rapidly explaining all the things on display at the Festival. Tara put in the occasional comment, but most of her attention was on Anya, who had gone to answer the phone. Anya was whispering to whomever had called, and she kept glancing at Xander. She looked very thoughtful when she hung up.

Xander saw her and frowned. "Who was that, Ahn?"

"Someone who you said just this morning that you didn't care if you never heard from again because you didn't give a damn what vampires were up to, so I don't think you want to know."

Willow blinked. "Giles?" Xander muttered and turned away.

Anya lowered her voice. "He says he found out when Glory needs to open the portal, dawn three days from now. And his minions have found where, there's a tower being built in the junkyard by Glory's demons and those crazy people she's making."

"Well, that's wonderful," Willow said. "Now we know when and where we have to avoid." She blinked. "Giles has minions?"

Anya waved her hand. "His minions, Spike's minions, somebody's minions."

"How is Spike?" Tara asked.

"Healing, apparently. I heard him in the background, yelling at Giles and telling him what to say." She turned to watch happily as Xander folded up the ladder and carried it back to the training room.

"We should tell Buffy," Willow said decisively.

"Probably so." Tara swallowed her disappointment at losing a day she'd hoped to spend solely with her lover. After all, this was important.

Willow looked at her closely, then frowned. "Oh, I'm sorry, baby. We'll call Buffy, then go on to the festival, it won't take very long. I wonder how he figured it out," she added. "I wonder if he used magic or the books or--ooh, maybe he called up one of those demon informants of his and asked."

"Honey," Tara frowned, "I don't think you should sound so excited at the idea of calling up demons."

"I don't see why not. How is it any different than going to Willy's and asking about stuff there?"

Tara stared at her, but Willow seemed completely serious. "I'm pretty sure the kinds of demons that hang out at Willy's are different from the demons you have to summon. You generally have to promise them things, and they're a lot nastier."

Willow shrugged. "OK, I know that lending your body to something like Eyghon is pretty stupid, but just summoning one into a circle strong enough to hold it doesn't seem that risky. And you could learn so much."

"But that means consorting with creatures from the lower planes, from the hell dimensions themselves. Those kinds of creatures are truly evil, they offer bargains that you don't want to keep."

"So you don't accept them. We've dealt with evil, nasty things before. The Mayor, he was spooky."

"Yes, I remember you telling me about him, how he wanted to turn into a true demon. Those kinds of forces, they're not the sorts of things you should just play around with."

Willow hugged her. "Honey, it's not like I'm asking you to summon one yourself. I don't blame you if you're scared of them--

Tara pulled away. "I'm not scared of them, I'm scared for you! The powers of evil are a whole different level than the scaly things at Willy's."

Willow blinked, hurt. "You don't think I could handle something like that."

"That's not it at all." Tara put her hands on Willow's face. "You're strong, so very strong. But someday something's going to be stronger. That's what I'm afraid of. And if it's something evil and horrible, it could do--terrible things to you."

"I'm not stupid, I wouldn't try anything I didn't think I could handle."

"Like that My Will Be Done charm?" Tara said very softly.

Willow jerked away. "That was an accident, Tara. And I've apologized for that, over and over. If you and Giles had your way, I wouldn't do anything more involved than--than charm warts off of people or bless the pigs or something. I'm stronger than that."

"I know," Tara nodded sadly. "And I'm not. I never meant to hold you back--"

"Oh, honey, no, that's not what I meant--" Willow tried to take her hands, but Tara stepped back.

"It's all right, I've never tried to kid myself about how much power I have. I--I just want you to be careful."

"I am! I do, I always am. Tara, it's just . . ." She shrugged helplessly. "There's so much I want to learn."

Tara nodded again. "I know." She took a deep breath. "You said you needed to call Buffy. I'll--meet you at the fair, if you have a chance to make it later." She slipped away.

"Tara!"

Willow saw the customer with the Palm Pilot glance up with carefully disguised curiosity, then look back at the book. Muttering nasty words under her breath, Willow went to the table in the rear of the shop and plopped unhappily into a chair. After a moment, Xander took the chair next to her.

"Sorry about that," she said softly. "Shouldn't have done that in public."

Xander chuckled and glanced at Anya. "I don't think you get to choose when you have a fight."

"But we shouldn't have fights! I love her, she loves me, we shouldn't have anything to fight about! We even agree on toothpaste!"

Xander took her hand in both of his. "Willow, loving someone does not mean you'll always agree. You and I don't always agree on everything, but you know I love you. Um, but not that way, you know."

Anya waved from the counter. "I'm not worried. She's gay now, and it's a purely male fantasy that lesbians are anxious to have threesomes with a man."

Willow gave Xander a sympathetic grin. Once he stopped blushing quite so hard and was able to meet Willow's eyes again, Xander scooted closer. "I wasn't trying to eavesdrop, but I heard a little of what she said. You're, uh, not planning on going into the demon raising biz, are you?"

"Of course not!" She blinked a few moments. "I mean, not anytime soon--and I wouldn't do something stupid, like Giles did with Eyghon. But don't you want to know what other dimensions are like?"

He pointed over his shoulder at Anya. "You want to know about other dimensions, there's a lady over there who would be happy to give you the blood-soaked travelogue of several. Willow, hell dimensions, not of the good here. That's why they call them hell." He took her hand. "I don't like the idea of you anywhere near that kind of stuff."

Willow made herself look away from the concern and love in her oldest friend's eyes. "Someday we may not have a choice, Xander. The bad guys don't care what kind of stuff they throw at us. There's going to come a point where we can't care either. And I'd better know what could happen before I have to learn in the middle of a fight. We don't have Giles for the not-so-nice magic anymore."

Xander bit back an obscenity. He looked around the store, at the lollygagging customer, at everything but Willow. Finally he took a deep breath and just said it. "I'd rather deal with him than have anything happen to you, Will. I'd rather do anything than that."

She leaned over to kiss him on the cheek, fighting silly sniffles. "Sometimes I wish you were a girl, Xander Harris." She bounced up from her chair before he finished processing that.

"What? What's that supposed to mean?"

She beamed at him as she picked up the phone and dialed Buffy's number. "Because I like the girls now."

"Hey!" Anya protested. "You just leave his male bits alone, missy! Go play with your own kind!"

Xander buried his head in his arms on the table.

***

Dawn cut her last class, even though she knew quite well that she wasn't supposed to leave campus without having someone to walk with. But she just could not sit in Geometry, working on acute angles and right triangles with that feeling on the back of her neck.

Someone was watching her. Someone had been watching her all day. And this wasn't like that nice-but-squicky feeling she got when she caught Todd Burke watching her during gym class. This was calculating, curious, not really human. Hellmouthy. The monks had given her years of memories on what Hellmouthyness felt like.

More than that, this was her own personal brand of wiggins, this was the Glory brand. There was nothing stopping the hellgod from coming to school. Dawn really didn't want anything like what happened to Spike happening to any of her classmates.

So she snuck out. If she kept moving and stayed on crowded streets, she could get to the Magic Box, and then she could call Buffy while hiding behind Xander and Willow and the others.

She caught a glimpse of it, once, skulking behind some garbage cans in an alley as she hurried down the street towards Main Street. Not very big, but it wore one of those robes the little demons wore that night. It ducked down when she stopped to look, then it peeked very carefully around the garbage can, and she met its eyes. It smiled at her.

She was running when she hit the door of the Magic Box.

Willow jumped up from her chair at the table. "Dawnie, what is it?"

"It's following me!" She ran into Willow's arms, trying not to cry.

Xander grabbed an axe. "What's following you? Where?"

"One of Glory's thingies! Little men or something. It was at school, and I left, and it followed me, and I saw it in the alley, and it grinned at me!"

"I'll go look." Xander gave Dawn a quick squeeze before going to the front door. He leaned out, keeping the axe hidden inside as he looked carefully up and down the street.

Willow brushed back Dawn's hair. "It was at school? Are you sure?"

Dawn nodded, sniffling. "I knew something was watching me. I really did!"

"It's OK, honey, I believe you."

Xander closed the door and locked it, then flipped the Open sign to Closed. Anya started to protest but subsided. "There's nothing out there now," he said.

"It was there!" Dawn started.

"I believe you, too, Dawn, don't worry."

Anya reached for the phone. "I'll tell Buffy."

"The alley, you said?" Xander asked Dawn.

She nodded. "Over on Third, coming down from school. I ran the rest of the way."

Willow smiled and kissed her hair. "Long-legged beastie, you always could run fast." Dawn gave her a confused look, then just leaned against Willow.

Xander stared at the back of the store. "I'll check out back."

He opened the door to the training room, and a short, wizened creature in a long robe peered up at him from where it had been crouching.

Xander grabbed it by the front of the robe, dragged it from hiding and shoved it up against the wall. "Did somebody order a Jawa?"

"That's him!" Dawn yelled. "It!"

"I serve--Glorificus," the creature wheezed. "She will be most wroth at my mistreatment."

"Mistreatment?" Xander pulled it forward, then slammed it back against the wall. "We haven't gotten to mistreatment yet." He held the axe edge against the creature's face. "But we'll get there. You scared a friend of mine. Nice people don't do that. And we don't like people who aren't nice. Why were you following her?"

"I shall not speak! Do your worst!"

Xander stared at the creature. "Anya? Remember when you told me how you pulled that guy's small intestine out through his belly button? What kind of knife did you use again?"

"A knife with a hooked point," she answered brightly. "I think Giles has one in the training room, unless he took it with him when he left to become a vampire. I'll go look."

"Thanks, hon."

The demon shivered and looked over at Willow and Dawn. "I--I will not speak . . ."

"Why were you following me?" Dawn demanded.

Anya came back from the training room. "He took it with him, sorry. But I found a fork!" She held one up. "We can bend one of the pointy bits over, that should work."

"That's my little problem solver," Xander grinned. He turned back to the creature, losing the smile. "So, do I let my ex-vengeance-demon girlfriend turn that fork into an implement of torture, or are you going to talk?"

"I--I--" The creature looked over Xander's shoulder to where Anya had pulled a pair of pliers from Xander's toolbox to bend a fork tine over. She frowned at the angle and bent a little more.

"Got it!" she called.

Xander raised an eyebrow at the creature, who stayed silent. "Honey, you're the expert. I'll hold, you eviscerate."

"I was sent to watch the Slayer's minions!" the creature yelled. "Only to watch!"

"Hey!" Dawn protested. "I'm not a minion, I'm her sister!"

Anya pouted. "You're not going to let me pull out his intestines, now, are you," she said to Xander.

"Sorry, Ahn." He shook the demon. "Watch? Why?"

"To--to--"

"She's still got that fork, buddy. Talk."

"I--we were sent out to watch all of you, to make sure you didn't interfere when Her Gloriousness collects her key."

Willow pulled Dawn closer. "Collects the key? Glory knows where it's at?"

"Yes. Even now Glorificus is on her way."

"Call Buffy," Xander told Anya, who nodded and ran for the phone. He looked around the shop, wondering if they had anything to hold off a god.

"You needn't hurry so," the creature said. "You won't reach the witch in time."

Willow jumped forward and grabbed a handful of robe. "What do you mean, witch!"

The creature blinked. "The witch with you, of course. She is the only new one. All know Anyanka, she could not be the Key. And we know it is not a vampire. All the rest of you have lived in this town for years. That leaves only the witch."

"Willow, don't!" Dawn yelled as Willow ran towards the door.

"She's at the fair!" Willow yelled back. "Send Buffy!" She fumbled with the door lock. "*Foris!* she finally commanded, slapping the lock. The door burst open, and she ran.

***

There were mendi artists and jugglers and tin whistle players and African woodcarvers and hosts of other things that she'd never even heard of back in that small country town. Things that made her rejoice that she'd taken to her heels and run towards the sun, following it until she'd found the eternal ocean, and peace, and truth, and love. Tara raised her face to the sun, hoping the warmth would ease the tears.

Someone was supposed to be seeing these wonders with her. Someone strong and beautiful. Tara wanted to hurry back to the shop, beg forgiveness and reassurance. But the larger part knew she was right to worry. Willow knew no fear, knew no reason why she should ever imagine there were things in the universe that she should beware of. When you've defeated monsters and demons with your wits and your magic, you start to feel just a little indestructible.

Willow had learned magic the way she'd learned computers, as a set of rules and commands that, when put together in the right order, would give a predictable result. The forces of the universe had their own ideas, though, and they weren't always amenable to being commanded. Willow hadn't learned what Tara had been taught: the powers of the universe had opinions and preferences, which might not match your own, and you'd best understand that the powers you're dealing with might want something other than you do and might be stronger than you.

Tara sometimes felt cynical in the face of Willow's simple faith in the essential benevolence and predictability of the universe. She also felt deeply frightened of the lesson that Willow had yet to learn.

She bought a vegetarian hot dog from a stand run by the Wiccan group on campus. The young woman--oops, womyn--tending the booth sneered just a little, but Tara didn't notice. She thought instead about blind innocence in all its forms.

There were belly dancers down by the river. Tara watched them with wistful interest as she ate her hot dog. Finally she sat on one of the benches on the promenade, looking out over the water and trying to think calm thoughts.

The bench settled beneath someone's weight. Delicate fingers took Tara's hand, and she looked up with a tearful smile.

"Yeah, I'm glad it's over, too," Glory said, smiling. "Not your fault, of course, the monks made you want to stay away from me, but, really, it's better this way."

Tara tried to pull her hand free, but the hellgod's fingers didn't budge. "You . . ."

"Me. Well, not this me for much longer, thank me. Let's blow this popsicle stand, then we can both finally get rid of these stupid human shapes."

"No, please . . ." Tara hated herself for crying, but she couldn't think past the fear.

Glory tilted her head. "Oh, sweetie, it's not so bad. You'll be happier when you're just the Key again, really. You can't tell me you like being squeezed into that silly mortal form. All the squishy feelings and weird noises it makes. Me, I can't wait to leave all this behind. Day after tomorrow, we go home!"

Glory hugged Tara enthusiastically, then froze. She grabbed Tara's chin and stared into her eyes.

"You're not the Key," she growled. "How dare you make me think you're my sparkly Key!"

"I didn't," Tara whispered. "I'm sorry, please don't hurt me."

"Dammit, it's one of you!" She shook Tara's shoulders. "Which one of you stinky human rats is my Key!"

"Demeter, Cybele," Tara whispered to herself, "your faithful daughter begs courage."

"Stop that praying! The only god here is me! Tell me!"

"Artemis, Hera, I beg mercy. . ."

Glory took Tara's hand in both of hers, held together in the attitude of prayer. "You're begging the wrong gods, little witch. Beg me for mercy. Tell me where my Key is, and I might just grant it." She began pressing her hands together, watching Tara's eyes fill with tears. "Tell me."

The long hand bones cracked, one after the other, making Tara whimper, but she managed not to speak. She thought of Willow and faith and courage and wished she could see her lover's face one more time.

Glory released her, and Tara cradled her hand against her, crying. "What is it with you people? The vampire won't talk, you won't talk. Do you really think these stupid lives of yours and this stupid world are that important? You're always whining and crying and bitching about how fate has done you wrong, taken away all the important stuff from you. Don't you just want it to end already? I can do that for you, I can make this silly existence of yours be over."

Tara glanced fearfully at the crowd around her, wondering if there was anyone around who could help her. On the far side of the fair, she saw a flash of red hair and eyes she recognized even at a hundred yards.

"Oh, please, yell for help, see what that gets you," Glory sneered. "Nobody's stopping me, I'm going to find my Key if I have to go through every rotten person in this rotten town." She put her hands on either side of Tara's head. "But you are good for something." She saw Tara look desperately towards the food booths. Glory glanced over and saw Willow interrogating vendors. "Sorry, kiddo, there isn't going to be a daring last-minute rescue by your lover in this movie." She leaned forward and put her forehead against Tara's, grinning madly into her eyes. "Say good-night, Gracie."

Willow ran to the Wicca group's food stall. "Becky, have you seen Tara?"

The girl behind the counter pouted. "My name is Sage Mountain Wisdom."

Something snapped in Willow's soul. She leaned over the counter and got as close as she could. "I don't care if your name is Athena Minerva and the stars themselves dance in your navel," she hissed, "have you seen Tara?"

The girl whimpered at whatever she saw in Willow's eyes. "She bought a--a hot dog, she headed towards the river."

Willow turned and dashed into the crowd, fighting her way to the river. Was that--yes, a blonde head at one of the benches, a familiar head--two blonde heads, the other woman with her hands on Tara's face and Tara crying . A big man with biker tattoos got in Willow's way, and she snarled at him. He started to snap back, but he faded back, a stammering apology on his lips. Willow shoved past, not caring what she'd almost unleashed in her terror.

The other woman, Glory, her head back with a blissful smile on her face, Tara no longer crying--a laughing couple in the way, likewise hurrying away at Willow's glare--Tara alone, staring at nothing, Glory vanished into the crowd. . .

Willow fell onto the bench, crying and reaching for her lover. Tara whimpered as Willow nudged her injured hand. "Baby, Tara, oh, please, God, Goddess, anyone . . ."

Tara looked at her solemnly. "I'm sorry," she said quietly. "The rabbits, they tried, but they can't sing." Buffy found them there ten minutes later, Tara rocking over her arm and Willow crying as she ran a lock of Tara's hair through her fingers.

At the hospital, Willow kept hold of Tara's good hand, only letting go when Buffy carefully unwound her fingers so the technicians could take Tara to X-ray. Tara's frightened whimpers at being separated didn't help matters.

Willow watched the doors to the radiology department calmly. "Glory's at that apartment house next to the park, right?"

Buffy rubbed her shoulders. "Uh huh, why--Wills, no."'

"Sixth floor, was it?"

"You can't do this, Willow."

The look she got was calm and frightening. "Why not? You're the only one allowed to go after the baddies?" A crack appeared in Willow's composure. "She ate my girl's mind, Buffy. She has to pay."

"And she will! It's just--we're not up to it yet."

"And when will we be? The deadline is dawn, the day after tomorrow. Glory's going through us one at a time, looking for the Key. It's time to do something to her, instead of picking up the pieces of what she does to us. She nearly tore Spike apart, she took Tara's mind--who's next, Buffy? Xander, me, your mom? Dawn herself? What do you expect us to do?"

"I don't know! OK?" Buffy wiped her eyes. "I don't know."

Willow wrapped her arms around herself. "She laughed, Buffy. I saw it. And it hurt Tara. I tried to get through the crowd, and I saw Glory laughing and my baby in pain. It's got to stop."

Buffy went over to hug her. "I know."

They stood like that until Tara was brought back to the treatment room. Tara was crying in fear and reached for Willow.

"I'm here, baby, I'm right here." Willow took Tara's good hand and kissed her forehead.

Someone drew Buffy to one side as a doctor began prepping Tara's hand for a cast. Buffy started to bristle until she recognized the man in scrubs. "Oh, Ben. Hi."

"Hi," Ben said with a tired smile. "You're here a lot."

"Yeah. We ought to get good customer cards, one punch for each yard of bandage or something. Good for free coffee."

"How's your mom?"

Buffy managed to smile. "She's good. We've got her walking and doing small things. It's hard making sure she doesn't do too much."

"She should be fine, then." Ben glanced at Tara, who had her face buried in Willow's shoulder. "I'm sorry about your friend. We're seeing so much of this kind of . . . attack. Sometimes I agree with the old timers: Sunnydale's cursed."

"Or something," Buffy agreed.

He fidgeted with his nametag. "You ought to just get out of town, take a break or something."

"A break? A vacation? I can't take a vacation at a time like this." She faded off. Maybe not a vacation, but maybe simply being elsewhere for the next couple of days. "I couldn't leave my mom."

"You wouldn't have to. She wouldn't be up to anything strenuous, but she could certainly sit in the car for a few hours. You've got all her prescriptions, and her therapy is as much simply getting up and moving around as anything else."

Her Slayer heart rebelled at the idea of running away, but the strategy drilled into her saw the wisdom in a tactical withdrawal, taking the Key and all the hostages to fortune as far from Ground Zero as possible.

"That might work," she said to herself.

Ben nodded eagerly. "Get as far away as you can for a couple of days, put all of it behind you. Everything will look differently in a few days."

Hope felt strange after so many days of fear. Buffy bounced up to kiss Ben on the cheek. "Thanks, Ben. A few days' break. And then we can deal with everything." She smiled, and it looked close to natural.

"But why can't she come home with me?" Willow's voice protested. "I can look after her."

"It's just for tonight, miss," the doctor said. "Some of the people who have come down with these . . . seizures become violent, and we don't want to risk that. "

Willow continued to run her fingers through Tara's hair. "I don't care, I can take care of her, I can."

"Tomorrow."

There was no shifting them. Tara whimpered and cried when she was put in a wheelchair and pushed away from her lover.

"I'll be back in the morning, Tara," Willow called, trying not to cry. "It's just a few hours."

Ben leaned closer to Buffy. "It might be safer to leave Tara here for a few days. We're set up for dealing with the poor folks like this."

"'Fraid that's not an option." She smiled at him, wishing her life was in a place where she could pay attention to nice young men who did nice things for her. "We'd better go, we've got a lot to do."

"Sure. Don't worry, you'll be fine after a few days away."

He watched Buffy collect the crying Willow and walk away, and he ignored the headache screaming in the back of his mind, a headache that screamed his name and demanded to be free.

"Just a few more days for you, too," he muttered, heading back to the locker room and hoping he could make an escape before Glory broke loose again.

Buffy walked Willow back towards the dorm. "You can come stay over with us, if you want," she offered cautiously.

"No, I--I want to be around her things. Hug her pillow if I can't hug her."

Buffy nodded, but she wished she could insist. She understood how shock could turn people into zomboids, but something in Willow's calm worried her. "I don't think it's a good idea for you to be alone right now."

Willow smiled fondly. "Always the Slayer. Thanks. But I really want to go wallow in Tara-smell for a while."

"OK." Buffy couldn't really argue. She'd slept with one of her mother's sweaters for the first few nights Joyce was in the hospital. "But be careful. It's going to be dark soon."

"I will." Willow hugged Buffy. "Who's with Dawn and your mom?"

"Xander and Anya." Buffy frowned thoughtfully. "Do you think Mom's strong enough to travel?"

"Travel? To where?"

"I don't know yet. It's OK, just a thought. Go, get some sleep if you can."

"Sure. Good night, Buffy."

"Night, Will."

Willow stood and watched Buffy disappear down the sidewalk toward Revello, her smile slipping away. She looked at her surroundings, some older houses on the border of campus, then began walking. Towards the wooded areas in the opposite direction from her dorm.

As twilight gathered, she found a park bench to sit on and observe the world. It was a pretty evening, the light fading in the west, a few stars peeking out, the moon starting to rise in the east, a vampire sneaking up on the right. Well, he wasn't in gameface, but, really, too many Bela Legosi viewings. At least he wasn't wearing a cape as he stalked towards her.

"Good evening, miss," he said in what he thought was a charming voice. "Can you help me? I think I'm lost."

She got to her feet and smiled her most harmless smile. "Sure. What are you looking for?"

He almost smirked but wiped it off. "The science building? I could have sworn it was near here."

"Oh, gosh, no, it's on the other side of campus. Come on, I can show you. We can take a shortcut through here." She led the way into the trees, managing not to snicker.

Once they were out of view of any passers by, she turned to face her companion, who leered and shifted into fang mode. Then blinked when Willow didn't gasp in shock.

"Where's Ripper?" she asked calmly.

"Huh?"

She sighed. "Ripper? The vampire Ripper? English? Hangs out with Spike, AKA William the Bloody?" The vampire just blinked at her. "Oh, come on, you have to have heard of Spike. Or aren't you in with the cool crowd?" Vampire dweebs. It could happen.

"Who are you?" the vampire demanded. He frowned. "The Slayer's a blonde."

"Slayer, Slayer, Slayer." Willow pulled a stake out of her pack. "She's not the only one out here, you know. Now, come on, do you know who Ripper is and where I can find him?"

The leer was back. "If you're not the Slayer, then you're not super strong. You're just a girl."

She was sighing a lot with this guy. "Do you or do you not know who Ripper is and where I can find him?" She held out her hand with the stake on the palm, and slowly it lifted into the air.

"What are you doing?"

"Never mind." With a magical shove, the stake slammed into the vampire's chest. After a moment, Willow went to pick up the stake and shake the dust off. "Twit." She looked around, glanced at her watch, then headed off in another direction.

***

The evening was just beginning to get noisy at Willy's Bar. No one had died yet and there were no poker games scheduled, so Willy had hopes for the evening. As he turned from handing over a Prestone-and-7up to a Kroxgar, though, his hopes dwindled. Across the bar was a slight, red-headed human girl, smiling in that reasonable way that said someone was going to be in pain soon.

"Oh, uh, you, um, hi." He looked around desperately but didn't see the Slayer. "Um, Birch, Aspen . . ."

"Willow," she said helpfully, still smiling.

"Yeah, Willow. Yeah." He looked over his shoulder again. "So, uh, Willow. What can I, uh, do for you?"

"I need to find Ripper."

He dropped the glass he was polishing. "R--Ripper? Who's Ripper?"

Willow sighed and lost the smile, giving him a look that screamed "Do not even bother." "Ripper," she repeated. "Vampire? English? Hangs out with Spike? You know who Spike is, don't you, Willy?"

The bottles and glasses behind him were beginning to rattle against each other very faintly. "Yeah, I know Spike. He's in here all the time, my buddy Spike."

"Your buddy Spike. Then I've bet you've met his new buddy Ripper."

She was kid, a little girl, a human. And the last time he'd been this scared was the last time Angel had wandered through. "Yeah, I know Ripper."

"Do you know where he is? Where I can find him?"

"You, uh, going to send the Slayer in on him?"

"The Slayer has nothing to do with this," she said flatly. "It's just between him and me."

The practiced weighing of pros and cons and the possibility of personal injury ran through his head. "Him and Spike, they're holed up in the rec center of that subdivision they started on the east side of town. Sunrise Grove or something."

Willow snickered. "Great name for a vampire hangout. Thank you, Willy. I promise I won't tell him you told me."

"Hey, thanks! Uh, can I get you anything? On the house?"

"No, thanks," she grinned, "I'm underage." She walked out.

The fence around Sunrise Grove had long since been breached. From the look of Sunrise Lane, the main street going through the cancelled development, several cars a day used it as a shortcut between the occupied neighborhoods and the old state highway on the other side. Forty years ago, before the freeway, Sunrise Grove would have been a thriving area.

Willow smelled vampires among the unfinished, decrepit houses. Well, not so much the smell of vampires, but the sense of them. A prickling along the nerves that said supernatural things were in the area. One of those witchy things, she imagined.

"Here, vampy, vampy, vampy," she murmured to herself as she walked down the black, desolate street. Maybe she should have brought a flashlight. None of the streetlights here worked, and she was working off starlight and citylight reflected from the scattered clouds. She paused at the crossroad of the main street and a hundred feet of concrete that was supposed to be a road. "It's got to be here somewhere."

"Looking for something, pretty lady?" said a voice from the darkness.

"Yes, I am," she said with no little relief. "I'm looking for the recreation center."

An unassuming man stepped out of the deeper shadows. His blue jeans and t-shirt attracted no comment, but something in the swagger told Willow everything she needed to know.

"I don't think there's anything at the rec center that you want. Any business you have you can settle with me."

She couldn't dust every annoying vampire she met tonight, she had work to do. "No, I really need to go to the rec center. And please don't use the line, 'I didn't order my dinner delivered,' please, that is so passe," she added, seeing him about to speak again. "I need to see Ripper."

The vampire jumped a little. "How do you know Ripper?"

"Never mind. Is he here?"

A half-glance into the darkness told Willow the direction, but he was suspicious when he turned back to her. "What do you want with Ripper?"

"I'm not here to slay him or anything like that. I need his help." She managed not to back up as he approached, but her hand was on the stake in her pocket.

"You're just a human. What kind of help could Ripper give you?"

"Never mind. Is he here?"

He nodded after a moment's thought. "Yeah, he's here. And I bet he'd be real curious why a little mortal girl is looking for him. After you." He gestured down the road.

No way was she going to let a vampire walk behind her. "Oh, I couldn't. After you."

The fangs and ridges came out. "I insist."

They glared at each other a moment, then Willow sighed impatiently and started walking. "Just for your information, I've already dusted one of your sort tonight for annoying me."

"Tough little girl, all worked up and looking for trouble."

Willow turned and found the vampire well within arm's reach. "You have no idea." She remembered Tara crying as she was wheeled away, and her fingers itched for mayhem.

The vampire leaned back a little, though he didn't step away. "OK, then. Just up the street. You can see the lights."

She nodded and strode up the street.

A female vampire lounged at the door of the recreation center. "Why, Sammy, how sweet, you brought take-out."

"Not hardly, Angie. This one's for Ripper."

"He's got you bringing in his meals now? Or does he want her for Spike?"

Sammy looked at Willow. "She came here. I didn't go get her."

"How badly is Spike hurt?" Willow frowned.

Angie studied her. "What makes you think Spike's hurt? How would you know?"

"Oh, never mind." Willow tried to go past, but Angie caught her arm. Willow turned, her hand moving. "*Repello.*" Angie was thrown back against the wall.

"O-kay," Sammy said slowly. "That explains a great deal. You're a sorcerer too."

"Witch, actually. You going to show me the way or do I just go yelling for him?"

"No, that would be bad. You might interrupt him at something, and then he'd get very annoyed."

For the first time, Willow hesitated, realizing that the Ripper she was looking for might not be as pleased to see her as the Giles she remembered. "What kind of things?"

Sammy raised his eyebrows and just looked knowing. "All kinds of things. Come on, then."

Angie got to her feet slowly, growling at Willow, who didn't even look over.

Willow might have been more interested in the arrangement of the newest vampire lair in town if she hadn't had other things on her mind. She followed the vampire with the singularly unscary name of Sammy into the rec center. The place was surprisingly tidy, not decrepit like the ruined factory Spike had occupied on his arrival. Giles' influence? Something reminded her not to think of him as Giles, that the genial ex-Watcher no longer existed. The scary guy who had frozen her and Tara on Buffy's front lawn bore no resemblance to the subject of Willow's younger fantasies--or, at least, no resemblance that Willow admitted to.

Thought of Tara being frozen led to memories of Tara whimpering like a frightened young animal as her broken hand was mended. Thoughts and memories together were overwhelmed by the tearing desire to rip that blonde god-slut to pieces.

Sammy led her down a flight of dark, half-finished concrete stairs. The hallway at the bottom got its light from the open door of a room down the way. Loud electric guitar music came from inside, reminding Willow briefly of Oz. The singer's words were actually understandable, meaning the music was something Giles would listen to. Something about warriors from the land of the ice and snow.

Sammy went to the door and knocked loudly. "Hey, Ripper!"

"Yes?"

"Somebody here to see you."

A curse was lost in the music before the music was turned off. "Who in hell's name would be coming around here to see me?"

Shaking a little inside, Willow stepped around Sammy. "Me."

She barely noticed Giles standing next to a stereo on a bookshelf. The rest of the room devoured her attention. So this was where the missing books from the Magic Box had gone. But there were none of the sparkly gimcracks that the store had sold to tourists and wanna-bes. The implements scattered about spoke of power in use, dark, deep power. Several skulls rested in a row on another shelf, only one of which was human. Old human, dark with age and smoke, smeared with faded runes. The other skulls had horns and spines or strange arrangements of eye sockets. Willow wanted to know what kinds of creatures they had come from and what they were used for.

Giles strode forward, yanking her attention to him. "Willow! What are you doing here?"

From the couch on the far side of the room, Spike was levering himself up to a sitting position. "Red? What the hell?"

Sammy drew back, watching with interest.

Willow took a deep breath. "I need your help, Gi--Ripper."

Giles glanced at Sammy and frowned. "Thank you, Sammy." Pouting, Sammy left. Giles took Willow's arm and pulled her into the workroom. "Willow, what's wrong?"

"Let the girl sit down," Spike interrupted, getting painfully to his feet and pulling over a chair.

Willow stared at Spike as she sat. "They said you were hurt, but I didn't know it was this bad . . ."

He waved off her concern. "I'm mending. Why the hell are you here?"

"Did you come alone?" Giles added. "It's incredibly foolish of you to just wander in here. And how did you find us?"

"I asked. And I kept asking until I got answers. I think I scared Willy," she said with a faintly proud smile.

Giles glanced at Spike in surprise, then knelt next to Willow and put a hand on her knee. "What's happened?"

The words refused to come the fist time she tried to say it. "Glory . . . hurt Tara."

"Bloody hell," Spike muttered.

"How badly?" Giles asked, being as calm as he knew how.

"She--she's at the hospital, Glory broke her hand. And . . ."

"And . . ."

"Glory thought she was the Key," Willow whispered. "One of her demons followed Dawn from school to the shop."

"Dawn's all right?" Spike asked sharply.

"Uh huh. We caught him at the shop, he told us we were all being watched while Glory went to get the Key. Tara's the newest of us, so Glory figured . . ."

Giles nodded. "That makes sense, if you didn't know about how the monks played with everyone's memories. And then?"

"I--I was supposed to meet her at the cultural fair, I went after her, and Glory was there, and . . ." The tears were slipping away from her again. "Glory took my Tara. She took my girl's mind."

Giles pulled her into his arms. "Willow, I'm so sorry."

She shoved him back. "Don't be sorry! Help me make her pay!"

"Excuse me?"

Willow gestured around the room. "Show me! Teach me what I can do to make that bitch pay!" She jumped out of the chair and went to the books. "One of these has to have the answer. I saw it once--" She found the volume she wanted, "Darkest Magic," and yanked it off the shelf. Giles was suddenly there, taking the book out of her hands. "Give it back."

"No. This isn't the way."

"Give me that book."

The temperature in the room dropped, and air currents that shouldn't have existed in a basement began swirling.

Spike took out a cigarette. "Is this the famous resolve face I've heard so much about?" he asked calmly, shielding his lighter from the building wind. He blinked at the look he got from Willow.

Giles grabbed her shoulder. "Stop it, Willow. This won't do any good." He met her challenging glare without blinking. "Magic and emotion do not mix well. You must control the power, not the other way around."

"Thank you, Obi-Wan," Spike muttered.

"Shut up. Willow, what are you planning?"

"To find something to destroy her, the way she's destroyed Tara." She reached for the book again, but Giles pulled it away.

"You're not strong enough to destroy Glory with magic."

The searching winds got fiercer. "Then make me strong enough," Willow snarled.

Giles eyes went hard. "Certainly. Which demon shall I summon so that you can sell it your soul for your revenge?"

Willow blinked, and the winds dropped.

Spike took a deep drag off his cigarette as he watched. "Doubt the little shy witch would be happy to find out what you'd done when she gets back."

"Well, she's not going to get back, now, is she! Glory destroyed her mind!"

Spike looked at Giles. "Not what those Knights said."

"Good lord, you're right," Giles breathed. He shoved "Darkest Magic" back on the shelf and went to his desk to dig among the papers.

Willow reached out slowly towards the book. The answer to her grief was there, the way to transfigure the blades of agony into a weapon that she could against Glory. The leather was soft under her fingertips, strangely warm against her skin. Her hand wrapped around the spine the way it used to wrap around Tara's fingers.

Pale, slender fingers pushed the book back onto the shelf against her pull. "Best not," Spike said softly.

She started to protest, then was distracted by the bruises still discoloring his face. "Xander said you were a mess."

He flinched but didn't move his hand from the book. "Boy's a regular poet, isn't he."

"Don't you want to get back at her, too?"

"Sure, but I'm not going to make myself some slimy creature's plaything for the privilege."

Giles came back from his desk, papers in hand. He frowned at the bookshelf. "Willow, Tara's condition may not be irreversible. Spike and I ran into a Knight of Byzantium who insinuated that there was a magical way to save someone whose mind Glory had consumed. We might be able to get Tara back."

"Get her back?" Willow repeated in disbelief. Spike tugged her away from the bookshelf and back to her chair.

"It's risky," Giles said, "and there is a time factor involved. But time is something I don't think we need worry about for much longer. We'll need to be ready, because things are going to move quickly."

"What do we do?"

He handed her the papers. "From what I gather, Glory's mind syphoning powers are a simple variant on the energy sucking powers of several types of creatures. I wasn't focusing on it as much as I should, because I wasn't anticipating a need for the information, but one should be able to trigger a reversal if you had Glory and her victim touching each other."

Spike snorted. "And the hellbitch will be ever so eager to cooperate with that."

Giles nodded. "And there lies the chief danger. For all the simplicity of the procedure, getting close enough to implement it is extremely dangerous."

Willow scanned through the papers. "What happens if we take too long?"

"Tara's mind, wherever it is stored in the entity that is Glory, will start to deteriorate. Glory doesn't need to feed very often, but she must eat regularly. This suggests that, like any food, the people's minds are consumed completely."

"Tara's at the hospital. I could go get her, then we go to Glory's apartment--"

"Willow, no," Giles said firmly. "We're not up to a frontal attack. Besides, I'm sure Glory will be coming to us before much longer."

"Damn right she will," Spike said. "Glory's running out of candidates for her Key. She came bloody close the night she played pinata with me, she's got to know that picking people off one at a time is bound to get lucky for her. Slayer can't watch everybody."

Giles looked at Willow thoughtfully. "No, you're right, Spike. I think it's time we propose joining forces to Buffy. She could use the back-up." He looked at Spike frankly. "How recovered are you?"

"Recovered enough to deal with anything that might come up."

"I'm serious, Spike."

"So am I." His face showed all his years for a moment. "When it all goes down, I'll be on the front line, never you fear."

"Foolish me," Giles said with a slight smile. "Spike miss a brawl? What was I thinking?" He glanced towards the door. "We'll have to come up with something to tell the others."

"That lot? I'll tell 'em we're going to be gone for a couple of days and to keep their hands off our stuff. I'll be right back."

Willow frowned as she watched Spike limp out. "Is he going to be OK?"

"He should be fine by the time the deadline gets here, so long as he eats properly." He didn't mention that if Spike weren't getting lots of fresh human blood, he'd be in even worse shape.

"This woman upstairs asked if I was brought in as a meal for Spike. How were you going to--" She broke off, obviously remembering she was chatting with a vampire with no artificial restrictions on his feeding habits.

"Don't think about it," Giles said kindly.

She turned back to the papers. "I--I see what you meant, about this being a simple variant. It's just like sharing energy for spells, but Glory doesn't share, she takes, and she keeps taking. The reversal looks easy--except for the getting close enough part you mentioned."

"We can work on that." He glanced at the door again, then crouched next to her chair. "Willow, when I said you weren't strong enough to fight Glory with magic--"

"It's okay, Giles, I know you're right. It's just--I was so mad and so scared, I wanted to make her pay. And keep paying."

He put a hand on her knee again. "I understand very well. But what I meant was, you aren't strong enough--yet."

She stared at him, mouth falling open. "Yet?"

"You are very strong, and you'll get stronger. But we don't have time to get you to that level before we'll have to face Glory."

"But after?" Her eyes went to the shelves of books, of skulls, of odd twisted twigs and cracked crystals.

He smiled. "Soon enough to think of that when we have an after." He stood, drawing her to her feet as well.

"But--you'd show me? You'd teach me? All the things that you said I wasn't ready for before?"

"You only want to become strong enough to keep the ones you love safe. How can I argue with that?"

She would have hugged him, but the memories of Tara in agony scolded her for her happiness. But as Giles conducted her out of the room, she couldn't help looking back towards the books.

***

Dinner was quiet at the Summers' house. They didn't discuss what had happened to Tara or the creature that had followed Dawn from school. Buffy watched her mother surreptitiously, trying to gauge if Joyce was up to a trip. She thought about mentioning the possibility of running for cover, but the expected explanations and protests were too much to deal with just yet. Best to have a destination in mind.

Who could she trust to look after her mother? The place had to be far enough away from Sunnydale that Glory wouldn't bother following. The Hellgod was bound to a specific time and location, giving the Scoobies more room to maneuver.

Once they were finished eating, Buffy pulled Dawn aside. "Would you start the dishes and everything? I've got a phone call to make."

Dawn started to protest, but Buffy was wearing the Slayer look. Whatever phone call this was, it wasn't the "hi, let's chat" kind. She nodded and hurried into the kitchen to make sure Joyce didn't do more than put some light leftovers in the fridge.

Buffy took the cordless phone out onto the porch for both privacy and the chance to keep watch. She hadn't dialed this number in over a year, but the Slayer-memory didn't give things up.

"Thank you for calling Angel Investigations, we help the hopeless," Cordelia's professional voice said.

"Cordy, it's Buffy--"

"Your call is very important to us. We're working on several cases right at the moment, but if you'll leave your name and number or a place where you can be reached, we'll make getting back to you a top priority."

Buffy grimaced. Well, it was after business hours--except Angel's typical clientele were more used to the dark. She waited for the beep. "Angel, Cordelia, if you're there, please pick up. Wesley, you, too--either, if you're there." No answer. "OK, I guess no one's there. This is--"

The phone picked up. "Hello?" said a male voice she didn't recognize.

"Hi, who's this?"

"This is Lorne. Can I help you?"

"Um, is Angel there?"

"I'm sorry, Angel's not available right at the moment. Can I--"

"What about Cordelia?"

The very nice voice became preoccupied. "I'm--afraid Cordelia's not in either. If you tell me how we can help you, perhaps . . ."

It wasn't something she felt comfortable telling a stranger. "Is Angel going to be back soon?"

"Well, to be honest, Angel and the others are--going out of town on a case. But I can take a message."

"Is he going to be gone long?"

"It could be several days. Can I take a message?"

"No," she said after a moment. "I'll call back if I still need his help. Thanks."

"No problem. Thank you for calling Angel Investigations."

Buffy turned off the phone and stared out into the dark. Part of her was relieved: the thought of sending Joyce off into someone else's protection hadn't made her happy. Still, LA was nice and far.

She looked up as a car pulled up at the curb. Giles' red convertible. With Giles at the wheel, Spike next to him and behind--

"Willow," she gasped. She ran down. "Willow, what are you doing?"

"I told them what happened," Willow said calmly. She let Giles help her out of the car. "I wanted Giles' help."

Buffy looked at Giles suspiciously. "Help for what?"

"Going after Glory," Willow said unapologetically.

"Willow, I said--"

"When Angel was dying from that poison," Willow snapped, "you tried to kill Faith, then you made him drink from you. Don't judge me for what I'm willing to do for the one I love."

Buffy bit back what she wanted to say. "But you're here instead."

Giles shrugged. "We talked her out of it."

She wanted to ask how, but decided that could wait. "What are you two doing here?"

Spike nodded at Willow. "Red told us about the demon at the shop. I'm here to help look after Niblet and your mum--if you'll have me."

Her first vampire of choice was unavailable, and she couldn't deny an ally with his own grudge against Glory would be useful. She nodded, then glanced at Giles.

"He says there's a way to save Tara," Willow said excitedly. "A magical way."

"What?"

"Do you remember that Knight who said the minds could be restored?" Giles said to Buffy.

"Yeah, he said--he said it was sorcerer's work."

Giles nodded.

Buffy looked at Willow. "How?"

"It's simple, it's a breaking of the link and a rebinding. The only hard part is getting Tara close to Glory."

"Only . . ."

Willow shrugged. "I'm willing to try it."

Buffy stared at her, torn. "If Glory got her hands on you . . ."

"I know. But it's Tara's only chance." Willow took a deep breath. "I'm not asking permission. But I know you're trying to juggle a lot of stuff, you need to know what I'm planning."

"How long can you wait?"

"Giles says it needs to be as soon as possible."

Giles came partway around the car, obviously trying not to crowd Buffy. "You have a plan?"

Buffy shrugged. "Less a plan, more a panic. Ben at the hospital said I deserved a few days off, and I asked him if Mom was well enough to travel. So I thought--Glory can't do anything without the Key, and if we take the Key out of her reach . . ."

Giles nodded slowly. "That's actually a very good plan. Get everyone Glory can hurt out of her reach, put the Key so far away that even if Glory did gain possession that there wouldn't be time to get back here in time for the alignment."

"You do remember that the point of this is to keep--the Key away from Glory, right? That's my first priority." She looked at Willow. "We can't cure Tara if the world's been sucked into hell."

Willow hesitated, then nodded. "But even hell might be OK, if I had Tara back," she whispered, too softly for vampires or Slayers to hear.

"Spike and I already told the others that we'd be gone a few days," Giles said to Buffy. "I knew matters were coming to a head, and I thought--" He smiled. "I hoped we could be of some service."

Buffy studied first Giles, then Spike. The one used to be the person to whom she'd unhesitatingly trusted her life. She had to keep reminding herself that he was almost as big a danger to Dawn as Glory. The other one--all she could depend on him for were uncomfortable declarations of demonic love and the occasional wistful remembrance of bloody days gone by. And the steadfast refusal to betray her.

Finally she sighed and nodded. "Spike, I need you and Willow to stay here and keep an eye on Mom and Dawn. Between the two of you, you should be able to hold off just about anything."

Spike glanced at Willow, who straightened in determination. "We've got your back, pet."

Buffy met his eyes. "If it all goes to hell, the keys to the Land Rover are in the Mexican bowl on the kitchen counter. I don't care where, just take them some place far away." He grimaced, then nodded shortly.

"What are you going to do?" Willow asked.

She shrugged again. "Looks like it's a roadtrip. I told Xander and Anya to pack up and be ready to go in the morning."

"I'm not leaving Tara--"

"We aren't going to. We'll stop by the dorm for your stuff, then at the hospital for Tara. Then . . ."

Giles moved up to Buffy's side. "Your mother's Land Rover won't hold that many people."

"I know."

"And a destination would be advisable. We can't wander the hinterlands like the Lost Tribes."

"I know."

"May I help you with both problems?"

She stared at him, remembering years of mutual faith and every lesson about the essential untrustworthiness and self-interest of vampires. "I would be very pleased if you would."

Read the next chapter: Glory Night