The library had transformed over the course of the last six months. Strange how that worked. Nothing had changed aesthetically—the tables remained, the books were shelved, students remained conspicuously absent, and the only occupant was a middle-aged librarian who looked more ragged by the day. He was poring over books, which was normal…but the life in his eyes had all but drained. More and more these days he resembled a trauma victim, both in appearance and action. It was the sort of sore that never scabbed over, and though he often pushed off offers for help with the insistence that he was fine, his eyes betrayed the truth.
Willow suspected Giles had never given much thought to what would happen if he lost Buffy. She knew it had been a recurring nightmare of his—a year and a half might have passed since she and Xander stood at his side in a dream-induced reality wherein he was forced to look at a grave bearing Buffy’s name, but she remembered well the torture on his face. However, nightmares were reserved for fears people couldn’t face in the daylight, and though she knew that Giles knew the dangers that came with being a slayer, he’d put so much faith into Buffy, never allowing himself to venture near a place where he might have to admit she wouldn’t always be at his side. All watchers’ stories ended in sorrow and heartache, but like those before him, he’d assumed things would be different for him. He might not have believed it logically, but he hadn’t allowed himself to explore the alternative.
It had hit Giles the hardest, and that was saying something. Their lives had all been up a certain creek since Halloween; knowing Buffy was out there somewhere—knowing she was running loose and killing was worse than a grave marker bearing her name. It meant a creature of unspeakable evil had stolen their friend’s identity, and was doing god-knows-what with it. It meant knowing Buffy existed even if she wasn’t alive. It meant knowing she might turn up one day with a demon’s grin and finish them all off for good.
And now this business with the dead slayer—Kendra, or whatever her name had been. Buffy had killed one of her own kind. It wasn’t just a nightmare anymore.
Willow expelled a deep breath and rounded the corner of the check-out desk, where Giles sat absorbed in one of his books. He did that a lot these days…well, more so than ever before. As though an explanation for Buffy’s ailment lay in the pages and all it would take to cure her of her disease was dedicated reading.
“Hey,” she said calmly, holding up the shopping bag in her hand. “Fresh supplies from the magic shop. These are the last ingredients Ms. Calendar said she needed to do the you-know-what.”
Giles’s eyes remained on the page for a long second before he tore his attention away. “Yes,” he replied. “Jenny should be here momentarily.”
Willow smiled and set the bag on the counter, shrugging off her backpack and letting it fall to the floor. “Is Angel coming? He said he wanted to be here…but I don’t know exactly what he expects.”
“I’m assuming he expects what we all do,” the librarian reasoned.
“I’ll tell you as soon as I work it out.” Giles offered a bland smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “I’ve heard word from the Council. It seems Buffy and Spike took out the last operatives we had in the New York area last night.”
The bitterness in his voice was hard to ignore. “Friends?”
“One of them was. Thomas Kent. He and I went to school together.” He winced and closed the book he’d been reading. “The other was Clarence Reed. I knew him, but not well.”
“And the other slayer?” Willow ventured.
Giles nodded. “She and her watcher are set to arrive in New York sometime tomorrow. With any luck, their services won’t be needed.”
She didn’t know why she was surprised; Giles had confirmed as much the other night, but it seemed perfectly reasonable to Willow that if gypsies could infuse Angel with a soul, the least they owed Buffy was attempting the same thing. She knew those closest to the matter might be inclined to disagree—or those who viewed the picture on a larger scale, but to her, Buffy was a friend worth risking everything to save. She wasn’t just a footnote in a watcher’s notes. She was Buffy, and how anyone could want her dead rather than saved left her more than just a little rattled.
As though reading her mind, Giles cleared his throat and said, “You have to understand, Willow, the Council stopped considering Buffy a slayer the second she accepted Spike’s blood into her body. Their wants and our wants are not the same.” He paused. “We don’t even know if giving her a soul will improve her odds of survival. If the Council ceases their campaign against her, there’s no telling what impact having a sired slayer will have on the demonic community.”
“So…what we’re doing now…”
“Our best shot,” he said. “Our only shot.”
“And even if we get this done before the new slayer gets a chance to take Buffy out, or be taken out, she’s not our biggest concern.”
“She is still a force with which to be reckoned, if what I’ve heard is true.” Giles exhaled deeply, adjusting his glasses on the bridge of his nose. “This particular slayer has already made a name for herself. She was called just after Buffy was sired, you see…and she’s already burned her way through two watchers. The first one was killed by a vampire called Kakistos, and the second was a little, how to say…mad. Needless to say, the girl…Faith, I believe that’s her name…the Council is beginning to think she’s cursed. This third watcher they have sent to her is a textbook example of someone too young to be in the field and more concerned with climbing up than doing his job properly.”
“So we have a maybe-cursed slayer and a corporate-ladder climber as the defendees of the world?” Willow licked her lips. “I want Buffy back.”
A tragic smile befell the watcher’s face. “As do I.”
An hour later, the library was a different place.
“Here,” Willow said, handing Jenny Calendar the purchase she’d made at the magic shop. “I was lucky to get this one; they only had one left in stock and their next shipment doesn’t come in until next week. Apparently, people use these things as paper-weights so they’re a big seller.”
The teacher’s lips twitched. “Town like Sunnydale, this happens a lot.”
“What’s that?” Giles asked, emerging from his office.
“The last piece I need in order to conduct the ritual.” She held up a small, glassy ball. “Orb of Thesulah.”
“People use them as paper-weights,” Willow repeated.
“Ah,” Giles said, his cheeks tinting slightly. “I see. Well, err, are we about ready to commence?”
“We’re waiting on Angel.”
“And Xander?” Jenny asked.
“He volunteered to wait with Mrs. Summers,” Willow explained. “We don’t know what Buffy will do once it…once it happens. She might call here or home, a-and since Mrs. Summers is still on the side of the wiggins with the whole ‘my daughter’s a vampire’ thing, we thought it’d be better if someone were with her.”
Jenny’s eyes filled with contrition. “How is she doing? Joyce?”
Willow and Giles exchanged a glance. They had gone along with Xander and Angel to speak with Buffy’s mother after the turning. Giles had known it would be the most horrible hour of his life, but he hadn’t been prepared for the woman’s heartbroken outrage. She had screamed and slapped him, wept and sent a lamp crashing into the wall. Then she’d ordered them all out and told them never to shadow her doorway again. Obviously, it hadn’t taken. Willow had gone by every day since then to bring her flowers or cookies, and though she could be mistaken, she often thought she smelled Giles’s aftershave in the living room.
“Better,” Giles said, though he obviously didn’t quite believe it. “She seems better, anyway.”
It was likely fortunate Angel decided to make his appearance then; over the past few months, Willow had grown especially apt at detecting the cue to a long, uncomfortable silence. Any time the conversation veered to Buffy and her whereabouts, or the people she’d left behind, guaranteed at least one or two, and that was being conservative. Talking was one of those things no one liked to do anymore.
Not since Buffy left.
“Ah,” Giles said, looking up. “Here we all are. Ready?”
Jenny whirled around. “Angel. I didn’t hear you come in.”
“We never do,” Willow supplied softly. “He’s all with the stealth.”
Angel didn’t respond. His eyes had settled on the ritual preparations Jenny had set out on the tables. “I take it we’re ready,” he said.
Giles nodded and stepped forward. “According to the transcriptions Jenny uncovered, the three of us will form a triangle that cannot be broken. We need you to read the Latin. I’m deferring to your advanced age in the hopes that, while your schooling is bound to be older than mine, I’m hoping it might likewise be a tad more thorough.”
“So you’re hoping Angel is more Giles than you are right now?” Willow summarized.
“I suppose so.” The watcher sighed and turned his eyes to the vampire. “Do you have any idea what we might expect once the ritual is conducted?”
“Providing we’re successful,” Jenny added. “Like I said, I’ve never heard of a restoration ritual succeeding with this much distance between the witch and the target. I would have suggested we fly out east, but…”
“But what?” Willow asked.
“But Buffy and Spike haven’t exactly been stationary,” Angel explained. “They’re in New York now, but given the amount of attention they’ve received from the Council, not to mention what happened with the other slayer, they might wisen up and decide to get out of Dodge before we could even book a plane ticket.”
“Which I’m willing to do if this doesn’t succeed,” Giles confirmed, his eyes stony. “Whatever we have to do to get her back is worth it.”
“Agreed,” said Jenny. “But for the moment, this is our best bet.”
Willow wet her lips and shot Angel a glance.
“All right,” the vampire muttered. “What do you need me to do?”
Her chest had ripped open.
Buffy’s eyes shot open, a harsh gasp clawing at her throat.
Oh God, what is happening to me?
There had never been pain like this. Never. Death itself had seemed simple, even serene, and she was a girl who should know, having notched the death-board twice in her time. The Master’s fangs had pierced her neck and the rest had been left to a puddle of water. Then not even a year later, Spike had made a harvest of her throat before spilling his own essence into her mouth, and though waking as a vampire had been painful in its own way, it had nothing on this.
Flesh ripped from bone and her body split in two. Something in her chest was angry, scratching and ripping at a heart now half a year dead, preventing her useless lungs from heaving an even more useless gulp of air. It spread from her fingertips to her toes, slashing through nerves and leaving her tingling with the worst sort of numbness she’d ever known.
Fuck, fuck, fucking fuck.
Somehow, she managed to sit up, forcing the brunt of the pain from her chest and into her gut, which rumbled in a way it hadn’t rumbled since her heart stopped beating. Buffy managed another gasp at that, her legs swinging over the edge of the bed, her eyes straining as her body wore away. The apartment. Yes, she was still at the apartment. And Spike was in bed beside her.
Spike…Spike, was he all right?
Buffy tossed a glance over her shoulder, where her man lay sleeping soundly. He slept through anything, her Spike. At least he was all right.
Then another wave crashed over her, and Buffy went tumbling to the floor.
“Oh, fuck,” she gasped, crawling to her knees. Even words seemed to hurt. “Oh, Jesus.”
Spike made a small sound and shifted, but didn’t awaken.
Another ripple of pain sent her to the ground again. Buffy mewled pitifully, bracing herself on all fours. There was nowhere to go, but she couldn’t sit still. She had to try to outrun it—she had to move, else she conceded defeat. So she moved, crawling slowly from the bed on which she’d oh so recently collapsed in orgasmic bliss in the arms of the man she loved, and into the living area where their sexual romp had begun. The apartment was laughably small, but at the moment the trek seemed endless. Her knees hurt and her hands wobbled, and every inch she moved sent a thousand shards of agony through her trembling body.
Something lived in her chest. Something screamed and tore. Something wanted out.
Her hands touched carpet at last, and there she collapsed.
Spike was miles away now. She willed him to wake, but he did not. She swore he’d sleep through the apocalypse, and had even joked once or twice about starting one up just to test her theory. He hadn’t found it very amusing—said the world was too much fun to kiss goodbye, at which point she’d assured him her jests were all in good fun. No way would she give this up. Ending the world and ceasing to exist had zero appeal. She’d wanted eternity—an eternity of discovery and games, of fun and experience. An eternity with him.
Buffy gasped again and rolled onto her back. The ceiling seemed so far away.
My kingdom for a stake.
Scenery faded and colors clashed. The world was about to black out.
And then she felt it. A force of energy smashed into her breaking chest, exploding on impact and sending millions of shimmering tremors through her veins. Her fingers tingled. Her head felt light. She heaved a gulp of air and all fell still again.
She didn’t realize what had happened at first. The pain began to fade, easing off her like a satisfied lover. The ceiling remained where she’d left it, though it looked closer now. Blurs focused and furniture took shape again. She was on the floor in her apartment—in the apartment she and Spike had seized from its inhabitants. She was just a few feet away from her mate. She was…
Buffy rolled over and gasped again. No, no, no. This was wrong. Everything was wrong. This wasn’t where she was supposed to be.
These hands. The walls. This body.
Not real. This isn’t real. None of this is real.
Buffy looked up. The scenery didn’t change. Nothing changed.
A dream. Is this a dream?
Her gut twisted again, and this time she couldn’t fight it. With a nauseating gag, she vomited on the floor. Once, twice, again and again. She couldn’t stop. She needed to expel it. She needed it all gone. All of it—as though by emptying her stomach, she would wipe her sins away.
Not real, not real. This can’t be real.
She trembled as the waves subsided.
The carpet was soaked in blood.
Tears stung her eyes and her stomach trembled again.
Dreams didn’t feel like this. Dreams didn’t leave this taste in her mouth. Dreams didn’t hurt.
“Oh, God.” Her voice broke and she fell back to the ground. Blood clung to her skin, but she didn’t care. She couldn’t move.
This was an all new pain. One she couldn’t outrun, though she would try.
As soon as she gathered the strength to climb to her feet, she’d leave nothing but a memory behind.
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