Spike rose to his feet and crossed the room to put his bottle on the counter. “These fancy wards you’ve got. Might they work to hide and protect the Key?”
Max sighed. “From her minions, I’m sure they would. From the hellgod herself? I really don’t know. I suspect not. On the other hand, with four adepts—” Giles snorted and Max said, “Don’t underrate yourself. The Council chose to smother your magical abilities rather than provide proper training. You might be surprised what you’re capable of.”
“You were sayin’?” While Giles appeared shocked, then thoughtful, Spike brought the focus back to the important subject. “With the help of….”
Max continued. “If we accept that none of us is anxious to kill the human host, and that Buffy is actually opposed to it….” He shot a look at Buffy who felt uncomfortably as if he was very aware of her weakening iron-clad rule about killing humans. “It would seem that we have no choice but to, at best keep the Key hidden, and at worst, take on the hellgod and hope to defeat her.”
“I can do that if I have the hammer,” Buffy said. “But Anya and Willow are getting along better now and I don’t think there will be any messed up spells to bring the troll back this time.”
There was a long silence. Buffy paled as she realized what she’d just said. She turned wide eyes on Max, who smiled in satisfaction.
“Ah. So that’s it,” he said. “You’re here to prevent some future event that hasn’t gone well for any of us.”
Spike shrugged and put an arm around Buffy. “You might say that,” he said. “And just so we’re clear, I’m here to take care of Glory whatever way I can. If that means killing her host….” He bared his fangs. “Whatever it takes to keep Buffy and the Bit safe. I’ll sort out the right or wrong of it later.”
Max nodded. “I’d expect no less of you. But I feel I should make it clear that I share the Slayer’s reluctance to take a relatively innocent human life if there is any other possibility. And if that is, in fact, what we would be doing,” he finished cryptically, a thoughtful expression on his face.
“We could begin with moving Dawn in here with us,” Buffy said. “If the minions can’t find her, maybe Glory will just go poof when her window closes.”
Max, Giles, and Winston shared a look, that wasn’t lost on Buffy.
“I think what they’re worried about, love, is that she won’t go quietly. She’d probably try to bring the whole bloody county down around her ears just for spite.”
Buffy glared at him and he shrugged.
“It’s what I’d do,” he mumbled.
“That is the danger,” Winston agreed. “We already know she doesn’t handle frustration well—” Spike snorted and Winston gave him a smirk. “Some of us are more familiar with her reaction to frustration than others. But even the rest of us can well imagine what a hellgod temper tantrum might do.”
“So, we need to kill her while she’s in her godly body. And I so did not mean she has a god-like body!” Buffy said. She narrowed her eyes when Giles and Spike exchanged looks, causing them both to clear their throats and agree quickly.
Winston immediately wiped the smile off his face, while Max just wore his normal amiable expression.
Buffy sank back down on her chair.
“Are you two guys gonna tell us what the plan is? Cause it doesn’t sound like it includes slaying and biting, so I’m not sure what Spike and I would do in a magical way.”
“If it were possible to destroy the god magically, I’m sure the monks who are responsible for the Key’s excellent disguise would have done so already. Have no fear, you and Spike will have a role to play. If nothing else, you will be able to whittle down the number of her servants, freeing us to concentrate on her.”
“And the Knights are coming, love,” Spike said. “Don’t forget they want to destroy the Key before Glory gets it—her.”
“Oh, those guys. Yeah. They don’t have much going for them except really out of style outfits and swords, though, do they? I mean, I think they’re all human, just wacko.”
Winston responded before Buffy could.
“The Knights of Byzantium. Their stated purpose is to prevent Glorificus from achieving her goal. As is ours. Unfortunately, their proposed method is to first destroy the Key. So, once they discover what it is….”
“Ah. I see. An unnecessary roadblock to keeping the Key safe.”
“Yeah. They were a big pain in my ass,” Buffy said. “They didn’t bother Glory. She just brainsucked the ones that found her, and killed the rest of them with a wave of her hand. But we had to fight them the old-fashioned way. And they were trying to kill Dawn.”
Max and Winston exchanged glances again.
“I suppose we could….” Winston began.
“We can’t afford to be drained,” Max said. “It might be easier to just send them back where they came from, perhaps with some misinformation.”
Winston nodded. “Max and I will work on a solution to that problem. It shouldn’t be terribly difficult to send them back to their place of origin, convinced they were searching in the wrong place.”
“That would be awesome.” Buffy bit her lip. “I don’t suppose you guys would want to let Willow in on some of this stuff? I mean I know she might get in the way, but—”
“On the contrary,” Winston said. “It is exactly the sort of joint effort she could learn a lot from, while being useful at the same time.”
“Great. You can talk to her about it tomorrow night.”
Both men looked at her with raised eyebrows.
“My—our—party? You’re coming, aren’t you? I mean now that you already know each other and aren’t going to get into a fight or something.”
“I would be delighted,” Winston said.
“As would I,” Max added. “But now, perhaps Winston and I… and Mr. Giles… should adjourn to my apartment where we can discuss ways and means and Winston and I can catch up on…things.”
Giles spoke up quickly. “As much as would enjoy learning more about you, I suspect you and Winston will enjoy your reunion much more without the presence of someone who knows nothing about your past.”
“Wow. Giles isn’t insisting on knowing everything and writing it down in his journals. Somebody needs to check to make sure he’s really Giles and not a… robot or something.”
“Trust me, my curiosity is killing me,” Giles said with a rueful shake of his head, “but I’m confident they will fill us in later with whatever we need to know.”
“Thank you, Rupert. I appreciate your understanding, and you can be sure I will satisfy your curiosity as some point.” Winston smiled as he stood up and joined Max at the door. “I’ll find my own way home later this evening.”
“Okay then. You’re going upstairs with Max, Giles is going home, and we’re going to do a quick patrol in case any vamps are stupid enough to be out and about this close to Christmas.” Buffy walked with them to the door. “And we’ll see everybody tomorrow for a Christmas Eve party, right?”
Buffy stood in the bedroom doorway, Spike behind her with his arms around her. In front of them, their guests mingled, talking, eating the snacks Buffy had put out, and drinking from the cooler full of beer and soft drinks, or the bottles of whiskey Spike had set out on the kitchen counter.
“It’s going okay, huh?” Buffy leaned back against his chest.
“It’s going brilliantly, love. You’ve made this little hole in the ground into a real home.”
She smiled her thanks, but poked him with her elbow. “You better not let Max hear you call it a hole in the ground.”
“No chance of that, love. We probably live in the safest place in Sunnydale. Strikes me as the best place to be and not one I want to give up anytime soon.”
Buffy watched as Max and Winston came toward them with a puzzled Willow in tow.
“May we borrow the bedroom for a few moments while we chat with Willow? Rupert will be joining us as soon as he frees himself from the attentions of your mother’s friend.”
Buffy grinned as she watched Giles trying to signal Joyce with his eyes that he needed rescuing from the co-worker she’d brought with her. Finally, he said something and Sue, the assistant manager of Joyce’s gallery, nodded her head. Giles made his way quickly to the bedroom.
“What did you tell her?” Buffy asked, making no attempt to hide her grin.
“I excused myself to use the facilities,” he said. “Please let me in so she can’t see where I’m going.”
Buffy and Spike moved out of the way and allowed Giles to enter the room.
“We’ll just go entertain the other guests and hope they aren’t wondering what Red is doing in here with three blokes,” Spike snickered.
“You guys just better hope nobody else wants to use the bathroom….”
“We won’t be long,” Winston said. “We just need to bring Willow into the fold, so to speak.”
At the end of the evening, and after Joyce had managed to talk Sue out of staying behind in hopes that Giles would take her home, almost everyone had left except Willow and Tara.
Buffy dropped into the big chair and sighed.
“It went okay, didn’t it?” she asked, earning a smile from Tara and an enthusiastic nod from Willow.
“I think it went great.” Willow frowned briefly. “But I don’t know why you didn’t tell me you landlord was… whatever he is. He and Winston weren’t really clear about that.”
“We didn’t know. I mean, we knew he could put up wards, but when you didn’t feel them, I just figured they weren’t very strong. And I haven’t had a chance to find out what the deal was when they knew each other a long time ago. But Winston called him “Master Maxmillian” the first time he saw him, so I think maybe Max was a magic teacher or something.” Buffy cocked her head at Willow. “They didn’t tell you either?”
“They kind of hinted at it, and I can tell Max was a teacher. He’s got that whole ‘I’m going to let you figure this out yourself’ vibe going. Anyway, he said he can tell I’m really strong, and they need me to help them when they try to stop Glory.” Willow beamed at Buffy, who struggled to nod supportively.
“Well, that’s great. So you three, or four, I guess with Giles—”
“Yeah. I’m not sure what they want with Giles, but I guess the more the merrier, even if one of us isn’t as strong as the others….”
Buffy glared at Spike who was trying to cover his scoff by pretending he’d choked on his drink. She stood up and stretched.
“Well, if you and Tara are ready to go, we’ll walk you home.”
“Oh, we’ll be fine,” Willow said, with a casual wave of her hand. “We can make a little safe bubble to walk in so nothing can get us. And if it tries, I’ll throw a ball of fire at it.”
Tara smiled at Buffy and Spike, who was frowning. “I’m sure we’ll be fine. But thanks. You guys are probably tired and want to clean up and get some sleep.”
“Okay. If you’re sure. We’ll see you tomorrow at Mom’s for dinner, right?”
“Oh yes. I promised to bring the pies.” Tara bobbed her head. “We’ll be there.”
By that time, they were at the door that Spike was holding for them. “If you’re absolutely sure—” he started, pausing when Willow glared. “Right then. Off you go. Happy Christmas, or whatever the Wicca version of that is.”
“Jewish Wicca’s don’t have a version,” Willow said. “But Tara does.”
“Good night. Be careful going home.” Buffy watched them walk down the path to the main sidewalk, seeing them pause after they were away from Max’s protective wards and do their own little spell that encased them in a barely noticeable transparent bubble.
“I guess they were right,” Buffy said, leaning into Spike’s side.
“Looks like,” he agreed. “I wonder if they knew how to do that before tonight?”
“You think Max taught her?”
Spike shrugged, pulling her inside so he could close the door. “It’s probably a pretty simple spell. Would have been easy for him to give it to Red as a gesture of good will.”
Buffy nodded. “She was pretty snotty about Giles, wasn’t she? Maybe I should tell her what Max said about his power that the Council just didn’t develop.”
“Let her find out for herself. I s’pect this is going to be quite a learning experience for Willow. Gonna be fun to watch.”
“Are you ever planning to forgive her for saying she was going to set your chip off?”
“Forgive, maybe. Forget, nope.”
Buffy’s birthday came and went rather uneventfully for her. The gang planned to gather at the Bronze, with Winston and Giles assuring them that they would “be there in spirit”.
“I think they just don’t want to have fun with us,” Buffy muttered as they walked in and looked around for their friends.
“I think they don’t count the sort of fun you and the Scoobies have as actual amusement,” Spike snickered.
“You’re here! And you’re just as old as they are… I think…”
He shrugged. “I’m here because you’re here. And I’m not willing to bet on which of us is older. I may or may not have a few years on Winston, but I suspect Max might have me beat by more than a bit.”
They sat down at the big table where Willow, Anya, and Dawn were seated, looking around for Xander and Anya.
“Where’s—okay here they come.”
“Hi, birthday girl. We got slowed up by one of Glory’s scabby little minions.” Both Xander and Anya were panting slightly, although they looked very pleased with themselves.
“He thought Xander might be the Key! Can you imagine that? The Key, a person?” Anya tossed her head, having caught her breath before Xander did.
Buffy paled a little. “Heh,” she said. “So how’d you get away?”
“We double-teamed him. Anya started screaming for you, and I hit him with a piece of broken fence. And then we ran. Fast.” Xander was out of breath again by the time he finished speaking.
“Good on ya,” Spike said, handing Xander the beer he’d just purchased. “Here, you might need this.”
Xander looked at him suspiciously, but took it with a nod of thanks.
Buffy exchanged looks with Spike. “If she’s started targeting my friends….”
“Yep. Way ahead of you, love. Time for some confessions?”
“You’re going to tell them?” Dawn’s question caught them all by surprise. Her gaze was focused on Buffy.
“Is that all right? Everybody’s going to have to start being careful now. Especially you… and Mom, I guess.” She groaned. “I’m going to have to have Max or Winston put some wards on the house.”
“I could do that,” Willow said.
“Probably you could,” Buffy soothed. “But they’re the experts. We’ll need you to be ready to send her off to… wherever you sent her in my time.”
“I sent her away?”
“Well, not forever, but you did buy us some time. So that might be the spell to be working on. That and your bubble. You were able to put up a protective shield around us all that kept the Knights of Byzantium out. Which I guess was just a big version of the bubble you use now.”
“Why don’t I just do that around your house? Then you won’t have to worry about Glory coming after your mom or Dawn.”
“I’ve been kind of hoping we won’t have to,” Buffy admitted. “Since she was coming after me, and I don’t live there now, I’ve been kind of hoping she won’t notice them. But I guess that was too much to hope for. If she’s going after Xander, who isn’t seen with me all that often, she probably isn’t going to overlook my mom or my sister.”
“Well, she’ll know they aren’t the Key, so all she could do is take them hostage until you give it to her, right?”
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