MsGiles - 20 Feb 2004
*** Prologue ***
Deep darkness full of anxiety began to clear, replaced by an impression of dust and shouting. Tara slowly began to realise that the noise and confusion were outside her head. People fighting, running around, a huge fuss. And then Willow, furious Willow, angry face, power boiling off her like steam. For a second of awful doubt she tensed, and then understood: Willow was defending her. Looking beyond Willow, she saw Glory, and the fear came back.
The struggle and the shouting continued. She could feel Ben and Glory flickering, like a film played too slowly. There was a great light, and when it faded, she saw them all grouped around the tower, struggling with the dazzle in their eyes, trying to understand the sudden stillness. Spike, wounded and smoking in the dawn light's edge, dragging himself into the shadow. There was Giles, looking somehow predatory. Buffy, lying very still. There were others, too, in fact there seemed to be crowds of people. Too many people. Tara pulled back, wanting to move away from the chaos, to leave the area, to go where it was quiet.
Memories were coming back to her, crowding out the fighting she had just witnessed, crowding out the memory of Buffy, falling, and her friends powerlessly watching the fall. And Dawn, had that been Dawn, at the tower top, dressed for amateur theatricals? The rising sun was warm on her skin: just another sunny day starting. It had been warm then, too. She had been sitting on a bench, waiting for Willow. They had been arguing. Why had they been arguing? It had gone.
Willow was concentrating on something at the base of the tower now, parts of a robot. On impulse, Tara walked away from the crowds and the noise. She got round a corner, and no-one had noticed. In the distance she could hear Giles' voice, urgent. Behind it, a gradual rising moaning murmer, many voices with the note of panic running through the sound. She did not look back, but walked until she found a back street, and then walked in the cool shadow, letting her mind drift, absorbing the darkness. Sirens began to punctuate the distant crying. Tara walked on, a quiet figure in an empty street. She remembered Glory, now, finding her on the bench. If her mind had been taken, what had happened since then? How long had elapsed? She turned quickly and began to walk back. The streets seemed rather similar, and she had been away for a while. She could no longer see the tower rising above the warehouses. She walked faster.
As the brightness faded, Willow found she couldn't bring herself to approach Buffy, lying so still, though she felt perhaps she should. She could feel, somewhere deep, that her friend was gone beyond her calling. She went instead to the fractured bot, lying in bloodless pieces at the base of the metal tower, and began pushing the pieces together. It had fought well, she thought, with the part of her mind that was still working. They ought to keep it. She could mend it. She was good at mending things. Making things right. Patching the holes in the fabric of the universe. Buffy was gone, through a hole she hadn't been able to patch. Too little, too slow. The big exam, and she had fluffed it. Nothing left but broken stuff, inanimate, meaningless. Nothing left to fix. It couldn't be so! She thought. Not that quick. I didn't get a chance, I can't fail yet. The exam isn't over, it can't be. I'll get the answer, I swear I will. In the meantime, there was the bot. Perhaps I can answer this one.
"I'm not sure if I can fix this," she said out loud. Tears prickled her eyes, dripped on the torn cabling, risking short circuits. The bot seemed so pathetic, lying there, unmoving. After all that, it didn't seem right to fix it, somehow - it didn't seem right to fix anything. The world was saved, but it was not whole. Willow shook her head, wiped her nose, and looked again at the connections. Perhaps motor functions could be returned, and the neck joint taped. Who would have tape, or bandage? One thing at a time. She began to tease apart the nest of wiring. It wasn't as bad as it looked, when you got down to it. She should mend it, in case the fighting wasn't finished yet, in case they needed its strength. Yes, she could mend it, get it back on its feet. She couldn't mend Buffy just yet, but she could mend her mechanical copy, at least.
She turned over the head, and it opened its eyes and looked at her, disconcertingly like Buffy. It smiled, and seemed about to speak. She fumbled in its hair, and found the shutdown, before it could start. She didn't feel up to that degree of cheeriness, just yet, especially not from a disembodied head. Warren's first effort at a robotic girlfriend had turned depressed and obsessive, and it seemed that in designing this simulacrum for Spike, he'd gone to the other extreme. The Buffybot was irrepressibly optimistic and enthusiastic, a version of Buffy who had never experienced heartbreak and disillusion, and was forever the bouncy would-be cheerleader that had been Buffy at sixteen. Tenderly, Willow brushed the dirt away and untangled the blond hair, before starting to make some connections.
High above Willow and the bot, Dawn hung in the warm light, grip frozen to the network of scaffolding and girders. As the dazzle in her eyes faded she became aware of her height above ground, the slight swaying of the tower in the morning breeze. She could see Giles at the bottom of the tower, a worried face mouthing words which didn't make sense. She shut her eyes, and could see Buffy, running away from her, running out of reach, into whatever it was - the strange light, the thing their blood had released. She gripped harder. The metal under her hands was solid, and wet. She was bleeding, still. With the realisation, came the pain, and her eyes came wide open. She saw Ben, on the ground directly below. He seemed to be looking up at her, but he wasn't moving. "Get down," Giles was shouting, "You need to get down. Dawn, can you hear me? Can you move? Dawn, if you can move, try and climb down to the beam below you. Don't let go with both hands at once!"
She felt the structure shift under her, as she extended a wobbly leg. Fear made her dizzy, and the knowledge that she didn't want to follow Buffy, whether right or wrong, didn't want to die. Was Buffy seeing their Mum, in heaven? Buffy would certainly go to heaven, Dawn thought, with just a tinge of resentment. She didn't think that she, Dawn, would, especially not after that last thought. Bad Dawn, too weak, failing to fight off Glory, failing even to knock out Ben. Dawn, the liability, the one trailing behind, trying to keep up. "Why didn't they make me the older sister?" she thought. "Why didn't they make me a Slayer, then I could have defended myself?" She had a vision of an alternative Buffy, strong Dawn's annoying younger sister, and it gave her enough strength to let go, carefully, with one hand, and lower it to the bar below. The next time she moved her foot, it slipped, and she fetched up in an angle of steel and bolts, but with both hands still holding on. Ignoring the frantic shouts of advice from below, she lowered herself through a crazy lattice of shorter bars, found footing on something nearly horizontal, and paused to look down. Silence. Where was Giles? At that moment, the horizontal bar suddenly wasn't any more, her hand was grabbing air, something hard hit her knee, and she was falling. Then she was down.
Strangely, the ground seemed soft. And it seemed to be gasping. She sat up. "Ouch," said Giles.
Above them, the tower hummed faintly in the breeze, living a strange, creaky life of its own. All around them, dusty people sat on the ground and wailed softly, making vague gestures with their hands. They seemed to see other, more distressing, realities. They didn't seem to see the structure looming above, or to be aware of Giles and Dawn, struggling to their feet, or of Willow, deep in a mess of circuitry. They were the casualties of a war, and the war was over. Giles and Dawn, helping one another up, stood a moment, infected by the strangeness of the noise, and the sheer number of people left mindless in the wake of a god's passing.
Dawn nodded. Giles looked her hard in the eyes. She looked back. She seemed to be coping, he thought, poor girl. She needed somewhere safe, until they could work out what had happened. And she needed bandaging. It might be wise to avoid the hospital for a while, but first aid was needed. She looked so pathetic, in her torn fairytale gown, covered in dirt and blood. Giles took off his glasses, and wiped his eyes. There was a lot of work ahead, and all he could feel was failure, sitting on him like a dead weight. So much effort, so much struggle to postpone the inevitable. He hadn't even started to mourn Buffy yet, he realised, but he felt sorry for his own lost dreams. The world was saved, but not his Slayer. He could picture the Council, offering smug sympathy, welcoming him back to the fold. He was going to have to contact them, and soon. It made him want to hit something. Or somebody. He turned at a noise behind him, and Anya, startled by his expression, forgot the rant that had been preparing to pour out and said simply,
"Buffy isn't moving"
Anya sounded panicky. Dawn wasn't a bad kid, and Xander was fond of her, but Dawn opened the gate, and she should have gone in and shut it, once the ceremony got past the point of no return. They all knew she was the Key, not a real sister. Buffy had let her emotions get the better of her judgement, again. It was obvious what should have happened. Why had it all gone wrong?
"Perhaps we could use a defibrillator on her? She doesn't look too damaged."
Xander put a reassuring arm around her. "Anya..", he said. He couldn't think how to go on. It shouldn't have happened. Maybe it hadn't happened, he thought, maybe it's an illusion of Glory's, or maybe time will wind back. Maybe we're asleep, and it's all our worst nightmares merging together. Maybe. He tried to concentrate on Anya. She was crumbling at the moment, she needed him. He turned towards her, and found she was glaring at him.
"Don't just stand there! Xander, stop dreaming and do something! Don't look at me like that!"
"Xander, Anya!" Giles pushed Dawn forward, detaching her small hand's grasp on his coat. "We have to move out of here. Anya, take Dawn back to the house and bandage her up. Stay with her, don't leave her alone. Xander, help me carry Buffy.
"What are you going to do?"
"We'll go to the Magic Box, if we can get there unobserved. I'll have to make some arrangements," Giles wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. "I rather think we don't want to end up talking to the police, and I don't know if you've noticed, but there seem to be quite a lot of them. They're cordoning off the area."
Willow looked up from the bot after half an hour's intense concentration, and realised Tara wasn't there, watching. Wasn't anywhere. The morning was bright, and the dust was settling. The police and ambulancemen were taking their time to come over to the tower, and she decided that that must be Glory's doing. Come to think of it, she could feel the faint hum of magic, mingling with the thrum of the breeze among the girders. No-one would be noticing the tower or anything around it any time soon.
Where was Tara? Why had she gone? Should she go looking for her, or get the bot up and away? Why had all the others gone off and left her there, working away in the dust? She wanted to cry, again, but instead she made the final connections, tightened some bolts, and wrapped a torn piece of brown habit around its neck, to hide the join. Then she restarted it. It fizzed a little. "Hi," it said, happily. "Who are you? I am .." It paused, and shut its eyes for a moment. "I have performed an illegal operation," it went on, " and I am shutting down. Please make further repairs and restart. Your current settings will be lost. Goodbye." It smiled warmly, and shut down.
It was another half an hour before Willow and an unsteady robot set off across the lot, and began to negotiate their way through the remnants of the distressed wipees. They were nearly past the stripy tape before a group of ambulancemen spotted them and called out. One came over. "Over here, girls. This way for the free rides to hospital" He took Willow's arm in a firm grip.
"We're fine, thanks." Willow told herself to relax, and smile. "We were just passing through. Nice day for a walk. I'm just showing my friend the sights."
"Hey, you're speaking and making sense! That's good! You came to the right place for sights, that's for sure. Your friend. She OK? She looks a little wobbly to me"
"She .. she .. the noise upset her a little. Who are all these people?
"Don't ask me who turned 'em loose. You know anything?" he was tall, slightly bald, and looked hot in his emergency gear. He narrowed his eyes against the sun, as he looked at Willow. She gave him her best wide-eyed-innocent, and held tight to the bot.
"And you, can you speak?"
"Hi" said the bot, brightly. "I have a system malfunction"
"She's a programmer" Willow said, quickly. "She loves the jargon"
"I require service" said the bot, smiling enthusiastically. "Are you a qualified operative?"
The ambulanceman's eyes narrowed further, and the cheerfulness left his face. He nodded, once.
"This emergency area is closed to the public, and the way out is over there" He looked over to the gate, and went back to the knot of vans and dayglo vests.
Luckily they got beyond the gate and into some dumpsters before something gave, and the bot froze, again. Willow leant it behind a dumpster, hidden from the road, and thought about Tara. A location spell maybe? Unfortunately she felt all magicked out still by the confrontation a couple of hours back. Maybe try deduction first? Had Tara said anything before she left? Fatigue came over her, and she sat on the ground, and leaned against the wall. She thought about Glory, and about Tara as she had been when Glory damaged her mind.
Needles of guilt began to prickle. She shouldn't have taken her eyes off her friend, once she had her there. Why had she been so obsessed with the bot, with putting it back together? She looked over at the thing, leaning rigidly against the wall, a look of insane contentment on its face. It was the last she had of Buffy, that was why. Even if it was a skewed portrait, originating as it did in Spike's filthy stew of a mind and filtered through Warren's dodgy fantasies of femininity, it did have something of Buffy about it. She had to treasure it. Maybe one day she would hate it, because it reminded her that Buffy was gone. But at least Tara was back. Where was Tara? Anxiety got the better of fatigue, and she stood up, and began check through the connections. Something improved, and when she rebooted the bot again, she got through to the default character settings.
"Hi," it said, happily. "I'm Buffy. I have many hardwired capabilities, and I can also adapt to your preferences. You may run setup to make me your personal friend by saying 'Where've you been all my life, baby?' You may reset your preferences by saying 'Cut me some slack, sugar'. For further information, please consult the online manual. You may access this by saying 'What is it with you?' What is your name? You look cute."
"I'm Willow, and I'm going to be looking after you for a while. Can you walk?"
"Hi, Willow. I don't feel that good, but I seem to be walking OK. This is really cool! Unfortunately your warranty has expired. I need to point out that my manufacturer accepts no responsibility for this unit, or for any damage it may cause. Could we hang out?"
"OK then, follow me. Don't cause any damage."
They moved off, Willow walking more slowly than she would have liked to allow the bot to keep up. It staggered a bit, but kept going, giggling slightly and clutching Willow's arm.
Giles first idea was to leave the plot on the side furthest from the road, but by the time he and Xander had gathered some robes to wrap Buffy's body it was too late to get through the barricades. While they were close to the tower they were safe, but as soon as they moved out of its shadow they could see some of the police looking at them, starting to come over. They hastily retreated, and were again invisible and ignored.
"Holy Moly!" muttered Xander. "This is crazy"
"There is no need to panic." Disapproval and doubt mixed on Giles' face. "We seem to be concealed while we stay here, at least"
"And how long is that going to last? We can't just sit here like ducks, waiting for the mojo to wear off. And this thing contravenes all safety regulations. It's an accident waiting to happen, and I don't want to be here when it gets bored"
"I think perhaps subterfuge is called for"
"Digging our way out would take way too long. And we haven't got a vaulting horse."
"Xander, instead of talking nonsense, could you go over to one of the ambulances and steal it?"
"Why didn't you just say so?"
Giles settled back into the reducing shade, as Xander, running at a low crouch, managed to get about halfway across the lot without being spotted, dodging behind the debris which littered the area. He was taking stock of his position from behind a small rubble pile when a group of Glory's ex-construction team broke away from their would-be helpers and staggered in a helpless, distressed way towards him. He froze, unsure what to do, as the emergency staff followed them over. "um ..hey." He smiled weakly.
"Hey, don't worry now, you'll be safe with us. We'll get you to a place where they can take care of you. Another one, Frank!" Two bulky men took his arms, and helped him towards the waiting ambulances. Sizing them up, he played vague. A brief anxious glance over his shoulder towards Giles, and Xander was packed into the van with the group of distressed people, many of whom were feebly trying to climb back out again.
"Take it easy, guys. That's my foot .. Ah! Sit down, please. Ouch! Sit down! Now! Ow!
The level of noise and activity in the van rose, as the two men heaved the doors closed and locked them. One slapped the van side, and it drove off, siren activating as it hit the road.
By the time they got to the hospital, Xander had retreated to a corner of the van and was keeping as quiet as possible. Partly this was due to the discomfort of being in close contact with so many people, but partly it was because some of them were talking, and it sounded like he should listen.
"Go back, go back, lost" "Nice shoes, people" "Hurting. Stop hurting." "Bye bye witchgirl" "Fiery the angels fell" "You call that a skirt?"
The words seemed to have a connection to Glory, but what it was, he couldn't fathom. The people seemed harmless enough, though. Harmless but lost. Would they ever get back, from wherever it was Glory had taken them? In his corner of the van, Xander began to think over what had happened. They'd failed: it seemed Buffy was dead. The world hadn't ended, though, so in a sense, they'd succeeded. It didn't feel like success. It felt like the bottom had dropped out of everything, like the whole of his life up until now had been leading towards one big failure.
The packed crowd in the van faded, and he was seeing Buffy. He thought about Buffy. When he first saw her outside the school. How different she had seemed, even before he knew she was the Slayer. How kind she had been to Willow and him, how she had accepted them as friends even though they were obviously losers, and even though the smart set had been hanging around her. He'd never thought they had a chance, but she'd just accepted them. She had seen their value, unlikely as it seemed. She had seen his, Xander's, value, his specialness, even though he could never defend her, and fell over his own feet whenever he tried. He wasn't sure if even Anya respected him, as he had felt Buffy did. Some bright quality had gone out of his world, he realised. He had been convinced they would save her, because they always did, and it was difficult to get used to the idea that they hadn't.
It was a little like the time he fell off the scaffolding, he thought. He couldn't move, thought he was paralysed for life. In the end, he hadn't been badly hurt, but for an awful moment he had lain there, unable even to turn his head, scared beyond coherency. It was like that now, his body was moving, but his mind lay there, stunned. He tried thinking about Anya, usually a subject guaranteed to fill him with a distracting mixture of annoyance, warmth and desire, but his mind seemed to slide away from her, and on to Buffy, again. He saw her smiling at him, shining like a goddess, and tears filled his eyes. The person next to him saw the look on his face, and rested her hand on his arm, recognising his distress even through her own confusion.
Then the van halted, the door opened up, and they all started spilling out onto the forecourt of Sunnydale hospital. Xander found himself moving again, and he remembered Giles, and that he was supposed to be getting back to the tower. He probably shouldn't go into the hospital, he thought, because they might sedate him. On the other hand, if he tried to run and got caught, it would be the police station. Luckily the chaos of the situation was in his favour, as all his fellow patients started making vague but determined efforts to get away as soon as they were out of the van. He played along, drifting through the crowd until he got near the corner of the building, and then he ran for it. A couple of blocks away, he stopped. No-one was chasing. What had all the talking in the van been about? Those poor guys were still channelling Glory. Must get back to Giles, with an ambulance. Ambulance!
He walked back, and looked around the corner. The officers were trying to round up straying patients, helped now by hospital staff. A couple of the vans stood open. He strolled around, looking as casual as possible, went up to the nearest, got in, checked the keys were in there, drove off. He heard a shout, followed by other, more garbled shouts and cries. He looked in the rear view mirror, and saw gratifying confusion. With luck they would count him the lesser priority, and he could return the van later. He couldn't resist turning the siren on, as he turned into the back streets. "Buffy!" he shouted over the noise, as he rattled back towards the tower.
Giles thought he could just make out Xander's face, pressed against the back window, as the van drove off. He sighed, sat on a block, and resigned himself to waiting, for the moment. Some while passed, and the level of activity died down, as the remaining wandering people were persuaded or coerced into vans. The camouflage on the tower seemed to hold, or at least, no-one was coming over. Giles began to see occasional minions lurking round the edge of the site. They gathered, until there were about fifteen of them. They were almost as disoriented as Glory's ex-construction team, though better at hiding, and would cluster in small huddles, only to disperse and run around, before huddling again. They kept their distance from the few police who'd stayed to monitor the perimeter, and who seemed content to eye them suspiciously. Several brown-clad bodies lay near Giles' feet, and he watched them cautiously. Xander did not return, and some more time went by. Giles found a loose scaffolding bar, and gripped it firmly.
After a while he became aware that the minions' huddling and scurrying was drawing nearer the tower. No-one had challenged them, and they seemed to be growing a little bolder. As they approached Giles, they scuttled low and then raised up to stare, like scrofulous meerkats. When the nearest was a few meters away, Giles stood up, leaning thoughtfully on his bar. The minions ducked and scuffled round together, then all turned to stare at him. One raised a small piece of cloth that, if not white, was at least slightly less brown than its other garments, and waved it warily. Giles leaned the bar against the tower, within reach, and waited for them to get nearer.
"What happened here, then? Looks pretty quiet, now" Over at the barrier, the arriving cop let his eyes drift over the empty lot.
"Quiet? You're kidding. When we turned up, this place was crawling. Strange thing is, they were all as cracked as your granny's mirror. Like a bomb in a mental hospital, it was." The other cop shook his head. "Maybe it was a bomb in a mental hospital. Who would do something like that?"
"It's a sad world out there."
"Did you see something move just then?"
"Heat haze. Don't let it get to you." They turned and looked out over the road instead.
"We crave words with your illustriousness"
"I see," said Giles "Be quick about it". He reached for the bar. The spokesminion backed slightly.
"O powerful and tweedacious one," it began.
Giles raised the bar.
"We're up shit creek without a paddle, your knowledgeableness" said the minion quickly. "You help us, we help you. We place your foot on our heads, metaphorically speaking"
"You'd betray your god?"
They looked sheepish. "The magnificent one has lost her ineffable powers. Metaphysically speaking, we're stuffed. In addition, we have no contract with her. We are freelance minions. Glorificus offered good rates, and excellent torture."
Giles took this in, and, with an effort, refocused his mind on the job in hand.
"How could you possibly be of use to us?"
They went into a huddle. After a while the spokesminion came out again.
"We don't know. We crave your intellectual glowiness on the subject. We are minions. We are nothing, dust on the heels of fate, motes blown in .."
"Shut up." said Giles. There was a smelly silence. "Stand a bit further away," he said.
An ambulance roared into view, and drew up by the tower. Xander jumped out.
"Reporting for duty! What are these doing? Are they attacking you, Giles? Back, you scum!" He waved his arms, and they threw themselves to the ground, wailing, "Spare us! Spare us, O mighty armed van-bringing one!"
"We are not fit to change the dirt under your wheel! Your vehicular magnificence shakes the earth!"
"You can't worship Xander. Get up"
"What are they up to, Giles? Why are you talking to them?
"They say they're finished with Glory, and they'll help us in return for getting something else to worship. A place in our dimension."
"Hey, they could start a cult. There's bound to be a homicidal guru-in-waiting lurking somewhere round here"
"What are you talking about?" Giles scowled, but let it go. "Oh, never mind. Take charge here, Xander. Get these .. these minions .. to comb the area, pick up anything incriminating. Bury everything under the tower. Meet me at the Magic Box. Don't take your eyes off them for a moment. Take this."
Giles gave Xander the bar, turned away, and went to where Buffy's body lay, wrapped in hessian robes. Tenderly he picked her up, and carried her to the van, putting her gently on the gurney at the back. There was a spare yellow vest, and he put it on. Moments later the van tore off, light flashing, leaving Xander with the little group.
"Hi ho hi ho then, guys."
"Get moving fanboys, or you'll be worshipping Jabba the Hutt"
Confused glances all round. Then they jumped into action, just in case this was bad, and because the habit of absolute obedience is hard to break.
Anya got Dawn back to the house with a combination of threats ('I think someone's after us') and promises ('there'll be chocolate!'). She knew something of the business of caring even if it wasn't her forte - you don't go through a thousand years of disembowelling people without knowing a bit about how they fit together. She patched Dawn up. Only a flesh wound, when it came down to it. Clean it, bind it, have a glass of water. No reason to feel queasy at all.
Dawn lay on the settee, a thin line of red showing through the white bandage that wrapped her from hip to armpit. A couple of painkillers, and her panic had eased enough for her to sleep, but it was a restless sleep, and she shifted and moaned, fingers fluttering around the wound. Anya made coffee, and sat watching. She wondered about Buffy's decision, and why she had made it. The key, the thing Dawn really was, probably wasn't corporeal at all, never had been. And then, she wasn't even a good fighter. Weak, whimpering and time-consuming. Xander wouldn't agree, of course. But then Dawn idolised him, and his fragile male ego couldn't resist that. Anya humphed into her coffee, and wished she could think nicer thoughts, sometimes. It made it so hard to be a wonderful girlfriend, when things kept making her cross. But she kept trying. She was always trying. If Xander were here, he would make his favourite joke. Anya smiled, not because the joke was funny, but because it made her feel safe and happy when he did predictable things like that.
She got up, and went over to Dawn. The red stain was growing. Alarmed, she shook Dawn awake, and took her off to the bathroom again, pale and silent now, to refix the bandage. Only a flesh wound.
"Are you Ok, Dawnie? Speak to me."
"I feel strange. It hurts."
"It's bleeding too much. Is there something wrong with you?"
Dawn nodded her head "I've been cut. It doesn't feel right."
"Try lying in bed for a while. Rest up."
With Dawn in bed this time, Anya came back to the chair in the living room, and a cold cup of coffee. She began to worry about Xander, and why he wasn't back yet. A variety of possibilities presented themselves:
1) he'd been arrested for murder 2) he'd been shot resisting arrest 3) he was in a locked room being questioned and tortured 4) the tower had fallen on him 5) Glory had managed to come back somehow, and was systematically killing everyone who had stopped her leaving 6) He'd met someone else who was nicer 7) he'd accidentally fallen into the hellmouth
The last was a bit improbable, she knew, but the chance was always there, when you lived on a hellmouth. Perhaps they should move. It wasn't as if they owned property, or had kids in school. Kids. She wondered about her biological clock. Was 1100 too old for kids? She'd have to ask Hallie what she thought, next time she saw her.
There was a moan from upstairs, and she went up to check on Dawn. The flesh wound was bleeding again. Anya began to feel a little nervous: this shouldn't be happening. Was Dawn a haemophiliac? She cleaned the wound again, and changed the bandage. Dawn was awake now, and clearheaded, though pale.
"Would you like a drink of water?" A nod. A drink.
"Dawnie are you a haemophiliac?"
"A who Philly Ak?" said Dawn weakly, looking alarmed. "What's that? Is it a sort of key? Is somebody chasing us?"
"You should pay attention when you watch ER. All those nice doctors. Have you ever cut yourself before, and not been able to stop it bleeding?"
"What? No" said Dawn, then "Is Buffy alright?" Somehow she knew the answer, but she couldn't stop herself asking, anyway.
"Tricky," thought Anya. "One for diplomacy, this." "No, she's dead," she said.
"Oops," she thought. "That came out wrong. Dawn looks shocked. Try again."
"She's fine. But not in an alive kind of way"
"There," she thought, "that was better, surely."
Dawn's face was full of untellable grief and guilt. She looked down at the wound. "I should have died"
"Um," thought Anya, "true. But think supportive."
"Yes. But you didn't, so cheer up," she said. Dawn began to cry. Anya patted her hand.
"Have some more water"
Unexpectedly Anya began to cry as well. She got them some tissues, and drank the water. After a while, Dawn began to doze again, wandering in restless dreams that made her whimper.
Tara was lost. She realised the impossibility of that. Lost in Sunnydale? You just walked, and you came out somewhere you knew in ten minutes or so. She had been walking for nearly an hour, and nowhere looked familiar. An awful thought struck her: maybe she had lost part of her memory permanently. She remembered so many other things, how would she know what was missing? It felt as if it was all there. If it wasn't, though, she wouldn't know. It was a chilling thought, and it stopped her noticing Glory, standing in front of her, looking pissed, until she nearly walked into her.
"Watch where you're walking, you clumsy oaf. These shoes are new."
Tara stopped dead. "You're not here"
"No? Oh dear me, I don't exist. Poof! Oh, I haven't gone. Sorry"
"I'm not afraid. Why are you here? You failed. I think."
Tara hesitated, going back over the last hour. It seemed probable that Glory had failed to open the portal to her own dimension - after all, the world hadn't ended. It was also clear that Willow had evicted Glory, or most of her, from Tara's mind. So what was in front of her? It certainly looked like Glory, but she didn't seem as threatening as Tara remembered. She was wary, though. The prospect of having Glory plunge her hands into her mind again, of sinking back into despair and confusion, loomed in front of her. To her surprise, she found an inner toughness that hadn't been there before, and she stood straight and looked the apparition in the eye.
"You did fail." Hardly a stammer touched her speech. "You can't take me over again, either. You're finished. You're probably not even real" She hoped it was true.
"Details, details." Glory pouted, and flounced a little. "Not pleased to see me? Oh, I can't be bothered with the smalltalk. Let's just say there's a bit of me left in you, Tara. Can't say I'm over the moon about it. I had enough of that self-righteous no-hoper that I was with before. I can't believe he let that awful Giles kill us. How totally sordid." She straightened, and assumed a fake smile. "So here we are, toots. Gonna play nicely?"
"Go away" Tara said. She walked forward, and went right through Glory without missing a beat. But Glory was in front of her, scowling now.
"I hate that! Stop! Do as I say!"
Tara felt the flicker of Glory's will, then, deep in the back of her consciousness, but it was too weak to actually make her do anything, and she carried on walking. The road began to look a little familiar, and the next corner she rounded brought her to the edge of the shopping district. She felt relief, followed by a twinge of pleasure, not unassociated with a mental image of herself in a cocktail frock. This was such a strange thought that she stopped short, and Glory, behind her, laughed.
"Gotcha, baby. Let's go shop! Have you seen what you're wearing?"
Tara began to get irritated. The raw memory of Glory taking her mind, the loss and the pain that had followed, came to her, and for a moment she was drowned in a rush of anger. She stood, while it washed over her, waiting until the emotion subsided enough for her to speak and move. Glory leaned against a wall, and smiled.
Tara summoned her determination, and got her voice back. "Willow will clear you out of my head"
"a) your witch isn't here, and b) hey, let's get along. Where's the forgiving, love-the-world, back-to-nature girl I had such fun playing with, back in those dear, dead, happy days?"
"You took that girl"
"Well, and didn't I maybe do you a favour? Now, now, don't set off again. You were a wet dishcloth, and you know it. People treated you like garbage, until you found your Willow, and followed her around like a little lapdog. But you know what? Take away Willow and you were still garbage. When I found you on that bench, it was so easy, it was cradlesnatching. You couldn't fight to save your life. Worse than that disgusting Ben." Glory was scowling now. "That was what did for me, sucking up all those sloppy do-gooding minds. Slowed me down. Yuck!"
"Why did you come here, then?" said Tara, sharply. "Why didn't you stay in your own dimension, and leave us alone?"
"Well!" Glory pouted, and twisted one shoe on its high heel. "You obviously haven't SEEN my dimension. No shops, for a start. All white and warm, angelic singing .. urrgh! Absolute hell. Nothing to do, no challenge, no targets, know what I mean? I HAD to get out, find somewhere with bite, with retailing. Bit of R&R. Always worked before. Get in, shop, display a few godlike powers, have fun, get out with maximum damage. Then this one time, I'm ready to go back, and I find some stupid monks have hidden my key. I was SO MAD. And worse, I notice I'm getting infected, losing my powers, getting these feelings. What a NIGHTMARE."
Tara looked at her. All that pain, all those damaged people. For some shopping?
"Well, company's coming. Bye for now, Miss Prig. Love you." Glory kissed the air and vanished.
Tara realised she had unconsciously hunched her posture, and she straightened. She began to walk again, more thoughtfully. At the next turn she met Willow, with the bot following behind her.
"Tara, where have you been? I just stopped to sort .. and you were gone! Are you OK? Tara, speak to me!"
"I'm good, Willow. I wandered off. I just needed a bit of quiet. It's all been so much" Tara felt suddenly embarrassed. Why had she gone off?
"I was just worried." Willow gripped Tara's arms, and looked hard at her. Tara gently detached the hands, and held them. Then she saw the bot, coming from behind Willow to look at the new person.
"Buffy! I thought, I thought.. " She broke away from Willow, and took the bot's hand, joyfully. It stood stoically, and smiled at her.
"Hello. Are you a friend of Willow? You look great. Can we hang out?"
Tara turned to look at Willow.
"It's not Buffy," Willow said, in a low voice.
"Wait, I remember. Spike had a sexbot made to look like Buffy. Back there by the tower, Willow, I couldn't see what happened.. Everything was moving so fast."
"Buffy is dead, Tara. I couldn't do anything about it .." Willow had difficulty saying more
"Dead." Tara repeated the word, shocked. "How could she be? You stopped Glory, didn't you? The portal .."
"She saved us, Tara. She saved Dawn. Then she fell .. there was no more I could do, she was gone. She closed the portal. I couldn't do anything. Nothing."
Tara let the news sink in. If Buffy was gone, everything was different. They were Team Buffy, what could they be without her? "Team Willow," thought Tara, loyally, but without quite as much conviction as she would have liked. She knew Willow wouldn't want to lead. "Maybe that's why she's spent so much time with the bot," thought Tara, 'so Buffy can be still there, sort of."
"So you fixed the bot and brought it out. That was very practical, Willow," she said, gently. "And useful. We'll need it, I expect."
"It's not Buffy. She left us. She left us behind." Willow was crying, now. "and I've left her behind, at the tower, Tara. I've left her behind."
"You are sad," said the bot, "Would you like me to help cheer you up? I have a default database of programmes I could run. We could fight .."
"We don't need to fight you, Buffybot," said Tara, quickly. "We've had enough fighting for one day. Enough fighting for a lifetime." She put an arm round Willow, and took the buffybot's hand. "Let's go home." They started to walk back to Revello Drive.
The sky grew dark, the police left incident tape looped around, but not on, the tower, and peace descended on Sunnydale. In his vault, Spike woke, and wished he hadn't bothered. The broken bones were healing already, and the raw patches where the sun had caught him, but the worst thing was the sense of emptiness. A lack of something in the air, a stillness where there used to be a vibration. Worse than when Dru left him. He remembered all the times Dru had left him, and a sort of maudlin nostalgia crept over him. It was easier, in those days. He'd go on a bender, bite some girls, torture the nicer ones, and get on with being Spike. Maybe go on a hunt for the current Slayer, try his luck. A few years later Dru would get bored and come back to him, she always had. And then they would go out and kill someone special to celebrate.
Not now, though. He didn't want Dru any more, either. Weird. Even that was spoiled. First the chip, then the other thing, the Buffy thing. Love, was it? Or was it just that he'd killed Slayers before, and wanted a bigger rush this time, wanted to own her, make her crawl to him? He'd got obsessed by it, whatever it was. It ate him up, burned worse than the sunlight this morning. This morning. Such a short time ago. He couldn't tell what it had was, that thing that drove him, and now she was gone, and he probably never would know. He had a feeling that he'd lost something important, something that might have taken him places he'd never been, never thought of. Sunnydale seemed suddenly small and unappealing. Travel? But he had no taste for that, either. Find another Slayer, then? No point. Nothing at stake. HaHa. HaHaHa. Shut up, Spike. The vault seemed cold and empty, and for the first time in many decades he remembered how long he had been dead, and felt it.
He put on the coat, and remembered putting it on the previous night, as they prepared to face Glory. Expected to die, really - either killed by Glory, or by Buffy, when Dawn died, or by some apocalypse when the portal opened. That had been easier than this. Death wasn't one of his phobias. He'd been through some sort of death, and part of him hankered to know what the other sort was like, the sort where you didn't carry on walking and talking on the other side of an invisible barrier from all the people and feelings you'd known before. That second death - he'd spent his whole vampire existence skirting round it, trying to touch, feel, smell it, dancing on the edge of the void. It's what drew him to Slayers. Every time he'd killed one, once the rush was over, he'd felt something like disappointment, like somewhere inside he'd hoped they'd win. They never had. Unless you counted this.
He went to the tower first, didn't know what else to do. It still stood, visible and invisible at the same time. He watched there a long time, still as only someone who doesn't breathe can be, barely visible himself in the shadows. Stuff had been cleaned up, who by he couldn't tell. He walked under the tower, as it creaked and hummed, and felt the scaffolding, saw the spot where he had fallen. He had been ready to go out on a blast, showing them how it was done, this fighting business. Now he was here, and she was gone, and the world went on, with the whisper of wind in the warm night.
"I could have killed them all a dozen times, chip or no chip," he thought, and he wasn't thinking of Glory and the minions. "Don't know why I didn't." He did know, though. She would have killed him. More than that, would have killed him like squashing a bug, without seeing him, without knowing him. Without even missing him one tiny bit. He sat on some bricks, and smoked his last, squashed, cigarette. He felt like rubbish.
He went down to The Bronze, but didn't go in, lurked instead, and watched the young people go in and out, the couples lingering in the alley at the back, the girls waiting for their friends. He approached a teenager on her own, grabbed her hand and took the packet of cigarettes out of it, felt the tingle of her shock, the scared excited smell, and found it did nothing for him. He went back to the tower.
The slightest trace of Glory lingered on the air. He followed the trace, to where it led him.
He hadn't intended to go there, so soon, hadn't worked out what he felt about seeing them. He couldn't go in, he knew that as soon as he got near. Just another of the tricks nature played on the vampire: making him a second class citizen, always on the outside, looking in. It was someone else's house now, all invitations revoked. The rush of self-pity kept him from knocking at the door for maybe ten seconds. Tara answered, and the whiff of Glory was so definite that he dived for her, fangs reaching, not even thinking. The chip kicked in and the door slammed at the same time.
"Sod!" He picked himself off the ground when he could move again and lit a cigarette for the warmth, and for something to do. His head hurt, and he wanted to know what was going on. Why could he feel Glory? Were they holding out on him again? He walked out a little into the darkness of the garden, and waited to see what happened next.
Tara went into the bedroom, shaking her head. "I think that was Spike," she said, "I'm not sure he's coping so well."
"Shhh!" said Anya and Willow, at the same time. Dawn seemed to be asleep. Willow beckoned them into the corridor.
"Problem!" she said, in a low voice. "It won't stop bleeding."
"I've bandaged it again and again" hissed Anya.
"A wound that won't heal?" said Willow, "maybe it could be something mystical."
"There are traditions about wounds that won't heal," said Tara, "There was one in the stories of the Grail. The Dolorous Stroke, I think it was called."
"Who was Dolores?" said Anya, "Did she recover from the stroke? Shall I give Dawn aspirin?"
"I don't know, Anya, we're going to the Magic Box to look it up. Keep bandaging. Don't tell Dawn anything, yet. Hold the aspirin." Willow caught Tara's hand, and pulled her out of the room.
"I could research .." Anya put in hopefully, but the sound of the door shutting came from below. She braced herself for more body fluids, but then stopped at the bedroom door, and went downstairs to look for pizza, instead.
Giles had been and gone by the time they got to the shop, but Xander was there, with his little brown-robed group sweeping and tidying up. Willow, Tara and Anya stood in the doorway, shocked, so he came over and explained about the minions, and their lack of a leader. "They need the focus or they go to bits. I keep threatening them with disembowelment, and that seems to keep them happy. They want to worship me, though, and I can't see myself as god material." In fact they were driving him mad, but the need to keep them occupied was taking his mind off his own sense of loss and failure. In addition, being worshipped, even by these dregs of the demon world, made a nice change from being ignored. They were harmless enough when you got used to them. He was even beginning to wonder if you could teach them joinery. He looked over at them. They'd found the catalogue of torture devices (sent free with every set of throwing knives) under the sales desk, and seemed to be drawing up a shopping list.
Willow followed Xander into the room, but Tara remained in the doorway, undergoing some internal struggle. They looked back when they heard her kick the door, and were astonished to see her face contorted by fury.
"Tara?" Willow ran back towards her friend. Tara's face cleared, and she straightened, breathing deeply, and shut the door in a more controlled way.
"It's Ok. She can't ..I've got a hold on it." She seemed to frown at herself. "They're fine. Shut up!"
"Tara, who are you talking to? Who's fine?"
"What's up with you guys?" Willow followed Xander's gaze, and saw the minions, huddled at the far end of the shop and seemingly trying to climb underneath one another.
"It's Glory" said Tara. "I've got Glory in my head"
"No!," Willow stared, "I threw her out!"
"Not quite" Tara grimaced again, and recovered herself. "She's got no power, really. But she's here somewhere. She's not happy that her followers prefer Xander" She grinned, and then winced. "And she keeps trying to get me to go shopping"
"Don't go near Giles" said Xander, "Not when he's carrying cushions."
Willow shook her head. "We'll have to exorcise Glory properly, I suppose. Can you manage for now, Tara? You're not going to go all Ben on us?"
Xander looked puzzled. "Will being fit help? He turned back to the heap at the end of the room. "Unbundle, you lot, or I'm feeding you all into the big meat mincer."
"Xander!" Willow looked shocked. He shrugged. "They seem to prefer the threats and the torture" he said. "They find it normal"
The doorbell went, and they all jumped. Spike came in, and stood just inside the door, looking at them. There was a silence, and Tara took several paces back, putting the table between them.
"Gotta warn you.. Glory .." he began.
"We're on it" Xander cut in. "We're ahead of you, Spike. We know about Tara and Glory. Sorry. Bye."
Pity the chip stopped him biting Xander, reflected Spike. If he wasn't so depressed, he'd say, pity it stopped him biting Willow, but for different reasons. He wondered about that last thought. Was it ultimate vampiric evil? Was it a normal male sort of thing? He mentally shrugged.
"So if Glory is around still, why aren't we all scared, or running around, or something?"
"Good question!" said Tara, sharply, and then went quiet while she made Glory shut up.
"Why aren't we killing Tara, then?" He moved forward, hoping for a fight.
"It's OK, Spike," said Willow, stepping between them. "Glory hasn't got much power. She won't be opening any more portals, and we just need to clear her out. We're busy just now, though, we're looking up Dawn's wound. It won't heal"
"Ah," said Spike. "Dolorous stroke. Doc poisoned the blade, then? Or was it magic? Sneaky bastard."
"Don't let us keep you" said Xander, "I expect you have some meaningless hanging about to do."
"Listen up, brain boy," said Spike "There's stuff about wounds that don't heal. There was this bloke Fisher King, who had a wound that wouldn't heal, same as the Bit. It's this old legend crap," he added, when they stared at him. " This Percy was supposed to get the Grail to heal it, but the stupid bugger forgot to ask where it was, so someone else got it"
"Very useful," said Xander, "Did it cure the fishing guy?"
"Ah, yes." said Willow. "Grail." She went to the shelves and got out a large, leatherbound book, gold tooled and fastened with a big clasp. She carried it carefully back to the table, and opened it. Inside it was a flyer, used as a bookmark. She pulled out the flyer, and smoothed it on the table. It said,
'Treasures of the Celts'
"That's ridiculous," said Xander. That won't be the Holy Grail. It's just a publicity stunt to get people into the exhibition."
"I'll go get it and we can find out" Spike was getting irritated again, short attention span kicking in. How on earth Buffy could have counted herself friends with Xander was completely beyond him. She didn't fancy him, he was a useless fighter, he wasn't a thinker and his dress sense was crap. He was a buffoon.
"Always ready to break and enter, aren't you?" said the buffoon.
"That's not a totally bad idea, Xander." Giles had come in quietly, and now he walked forward, in that taking-charge sort of way he had. "Vampires don't set off infra-red alarms, so they're ideal burglars, in some ways." Spike smirked. "But Xander's right," Giles went on, "Spike, you're not exactly the most discreet worker, and we need to keep this quiet. You'll go together."
Mutual glares. As they headed for the door, the knot of minions followed. Spike looked hard at Xander, who blushed and turned to them.
"No! You stay here, or I'll boil you all in oil! We are being discreet here!"
The minions hovered, uncertainly, and reluctantly backed away a little.
"We suffer but obey your every whisper, assertively gifted one."
Tara stamped once, in an unmistakeably Glory-like manner, and they shot to the back of the room in a huddle, and stayed there.
The museum loomed darkly in the shadows beyond the streetlamps, as Spike sidled up the steps and forced a window to one side of the stone portico. Xander stood in some shrubbery, grumbling to himself, and feeling about as un-ninja-like as possible. After about ten minutes there was an unearthly howl, and Spike came hurtling out of the window, not carrying anything. Xander jumped, and ran after him. They paused behind some small trees, and the night went quiet again.
"Covert operations?" said Xander, pointedly. "Caretaker's bastard cat" said Spike, sucking his hand. He frowned at Xander's snort. "Stuff discreet!" he said. He stood up, walked up the steps, kicked the door in and went into the museum to the sound of bells, sirens and the flashing of lights. Xander prudently put some space between him and the cacophony. He watched Spike come out carrying the cauldron, pause on the steps to light a cigarette, and stroll away. Moments later, the police arrived, and ran into the building. Xander watched the incident tape going up, and then walked back to the house by an indirect route, just in case. Spike was already there, arguing with Willow.
"It's not the right one."
"What do you mean, it's not the right one? It had a massive bloody great sign on it!"
"Well, it's not. I think it's a reproduction. They must have been scared to let the real one out. Either that or they've lost it."
"What is it with losing this bloody thing?" said Spike, petulantly kicking the doorpost. "The bloody knights spent the whole of the frigging middle ages chasing it, and now they've bloody lost it again?"
"Hey," said Xander. "Temper!"
Spike threw the cauldron at him.
The night wore on, and Dawn bled through the bandages they put on her with increasing speed. Worse, she was in pain, and whimpering pathetically. A sense of helplessness hung about the house. The atmosphere was tense, bordering on panicky. It felt as if everything they did just seemed to fail. Willow tried to concentrate on her laptop researches. They desperately needed some solutions, and all she wanted to do was crawl in a hole. She was beginning to miss Buffy, as well, with an ache that wouldn't go away.
Xander had returned to the Magic Box to get a couple of books for Willow, and he brought the minions back to the house with him, since they didn't want to be on their own. They were supposed to stay in the cellar, but they kept popping up in the oddest places around the house, making everyone jump.
Giles had gone back to his flat, to look up what he mysteriously referred to as 'contacts'. Willow thought he might want to talk to the Council alone, as well. He seemed subdued, she thought. She hoped it was mostly just British reserve. It was lucky they had him to sort things out. Willow wanted very much to talk to him about Buffy, and she hoped he would be more approachable soon. It was as if he had retreated behind some kind of personal barricade, for the moment. She'd never known him to be very forthcoming, but in comparison to how he was now, he'd been a Care Bear, she thought.
"There might be another way." she said eventually. "It seems to be a mystical wound, caused by something Doc did to the blade, a spell maybe, or poison, as Spike suggested. In the case of a Dolorous Stroke, the wounded person can neither be healed nor die. The Grail was one solution, because of its legendary healing powers. I think there might be another way, though. I don't know how practical it is." She looked up at them all, doubtfully.
"Fine," said Spike, impatiently. "What do we have to steal now?"
"No stealing!" Willow looked at Spike reprovingly. "In another version of the legend, only the weapon that caused it could heal the wound. But it must be wielded by someone pure."
"Getting the weapon should be possible, but finding someone pure? said Xander, "is that pure as in, um, 'virgin'? Because that's, I mean, who .."
Spike rolled his eyes, and went to have a smoke outside.
"I don't know what sort of 'pure'," said Willow, quickly, "We'll cope with that when we come to it. We need Doc's knife, though, since that was what cut Dawn. Did you see where it fell?"
"I didn't. But I know who might have." Xander went to the top of the cellar steps. "OK, scab guys," he called, "Talk or suffer." Squeals of fear and (possibly) delight wafted up. He went down the steps.
Upstairs, Dawn shifted and moaned, her eyes wide and unhappy. Anya was pacing between the bed and the window, muttering to herself. Flashbacks to some of the less appealing events of her past kept coming between her and her patient, making her feel ill. She wished with all her heart that the bleeding would stop, or weaken. She really didn't want to see the floor, pooled thick with drying blood, just like .. No! Stop it! She rushed to the bathroom, hands over her mouth.
Willow, who had come quietly up the stairs, knocked gently at the open bedroom door, and went in, followed by Tara. They sat on either side of the bed, and each took one of Dawn's limp hands. "Hey Dawnie!" said Willow, softly.
"It hurts so much," said the invalid, weakly.
"You won't die, Dawn," said Tara.
"The painkillers don't seem to be working much any more," said Willow. "We could get you into the hospital and on morphine, but that would mean a lot of explaining, and probably not a cure, since there's some sort of magic involved. It will be better if we can find a way of healing you ourselves." She spoke calmly, but her words were full of doubt.
"Can't I just die?" moaned Dawn. "Just let me go. You keep saving me, and I wasn't meant to be here in the first place. I'm not the solution, I'm the problem. Glory wouldn't have bothered you if it hadn't been for me. I'm needy and not succeedy, and now Buffy's dead, and everything's gone wrong."
"The world would be ended if it hadn't been for you, Dawnie," said Tara. "We'd all be ended. Glory would have had that portal open before you could say 'knife'. She keeps telling me so."
"Maybe the world should have ended, then," said Dawn. "The world is horrible. If it's just going to be like this all the time, I don't want it." There was a silence.
"One knife!" Xander was at the door, reluctant to come in. "They'd stolen it, of course, the rascals. I shouted at them, and they handed it over. After I pinched them a bit." He held it up. "How's the morale-boosting chat going?"
"Bring it over here," said Willow. He walked over to the bed, and she took the knife from him by the hilt, carefully. The blade glinted evilly, with a greenish tint. Looking at it made the room feel colder. Dawn flinched, and shifted herself as far as possible from it.
"Ah!" said Tara, taking a deep breath. "I know that knife." Willow looked at her, concerned. Tara's eyes were unfocussed, and she had let go of Dawn's hand. She seemed to be somewhere else. Willow began to make a move toward her, and she started speaking again. "She's dying, sure enough," she said, in a voice not quite her own. "You'll all die, I'd say. Despair, you idiots, because your world has changed. You've failed, big time. You've no protector now, and the dark will take you."
There was a moment's silence. Tara sat rigid and unseeing, not moving or responding to their calls, or to Willow's touch. The sound of Anya being sick came from the bathroom, and Xander turned to see if she was alright. Willow went to Dawn, and drew back the covers. A large red stain had spread over the bandage. Dawn looked down, and looked away. She shut her eyes, but a tear squeezed out, and dribbled down one cheek.
"I have to do something," thought Willow, "but I don't know what." She held the blade over the wound. Nothing happened. She sighed, shut her eyes, and tried to concentrate her force. Nothing. "I can't do this," she thought, "no energy." As she was thinking this, she felt a hand over hers, gently taking the knife away. With a shock, she opened her eyes, and tried to hold on to the knife, but it was too late.
Tara was holding the knife now, looking at it as if it was something new, something shiny and wonderful. It trembled, and the blade began to flicker. The whole room seemed to shimmer, and Anya, coming back from the bathroom, held on to Xander. Tara reached out her hand, holding the knife point down, and rested the point on the bandage. They held their breath. No-one seemed able to move.
"Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata."
Her voice echoed in the room. The fabric of the house trembled, and a deep hum vibrated through the air. Wind blew open the bedroom window, and the sashes banged against the frame. Tara gasped, and fell forward onto Dawn, dropping the knife. Willow grabbed it, and threw it into the corner of the room, then jumped up and ran round to Tara.
"Tara! Are you there? Dawn!"
"What the bloody hell was that?" Spike was in the doorway. He looked pleased.
"It's gone." Tara had her own voice again, weak but familiar.
"What happened?" In the hall, Anya let go of Xander, steadied herself and walked up to Tara. "Was that Glory or Tara? Which are you now?"
Willow looked hard at Tara, gripping her arms. Xander moved to pick up the knife, in what he hoped was an unobtrusive way.
"I'm me," said Tara, softly. "She's disappearing. She can't keep separate." She took a breath. "She likes power. And she knew the wound. She made the knife." She stood up and looked at the bed, where Dawn had sunk into a deep, and peaceful, sleep. "But she's lost her taste for killing, I think. She gave in. Faded away." They stood there, watching Dawn. She looked so much better, already. Life seemed to flow into her. In her sleep, she was smiling.
"Let her sleep in peace, now." Willow steered them all out of the room, and shut the door.
They visited the grave on the sunniest of afternoons, and picnicked on the hillside, where the birds sang. Giles had somehow sorted everything out through his 'contacts': it seemed wiser not too ask where he had found a funeral company prepared to deal in clandestine burials. Dawn was well enough by then to walk with them, and they remembered Buffy quietly, as the sun went down. It was a new moon, so they took a chance and left the bot patrolling, and then they waited into the evening so Spike could drop by (at Dawn's insistence, and much to Xander's annoyance). It was a fine, though fragile, peace, a moment's relief from the looming threats that they now faced, and they walked home quietly in the dark.
"And now, some events that will be taking place in and around Sunnydale, this week. Repairs to Sunnydale Museum have been completed, and the acclaimed exhibition of Celtic artefacts opens to the public on Monday. Later in the programme, our reporter brings you a preview of the exhibition. Next, the opera comes to Sunnydale. Stars of la Scala perform a selection of greatest hits for charity in Sunnydale's own sports stadium, as part of their international tour. Our reporter goes behind the scenes .."
"Look!" shouted Dawn, pushing herself off the sofa and sliding to halt on her knees in front of the TV. "There!" She jabbed a finger against the screen.
"Take your finger away, Dawnie, so we can see," said Willow, patiently. She leaned forward, as did Tara. There was something familiar about the small stagehands. They had black jeans, black T-shirts, and haircuts, but there was definitely something slightly .. scabby .. about them. And weren't the eight attendants round the smiling diva grovelling just a little? In fact, a lot?
He came in to have a look.
"What? Ah. Well, what? So I got them an agent. Anyone here have a problem with that?"
"Not me," said Tara. Was that a twinge, a trace of regret? Surely not. She looked down at her feet. Glory was gone, and no-one was mourning her passing. Funny though, she thought, that she'd never realised before what a sense of wellbeing new shoes could bring.