Author: Jennifer-Oksana (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Spoilers: 5th Season BtVS, 2nd Season AtS
Summary: So if politics makes for strange bedfellows, how about the end of the world? An AtS/BtVS crossover featuring Spike/Buffy, Buffy/Angel, and some speculation. Also part of my old movie series, but that's not so important.
Archive: List Archives, all others ask permission
Disclaimer: Joss does the owning, Mutant Enemy does the producing, FOX does the money, and UPN/WB do the showing. None of the above have a damn thing to do with me, so don't even think about it.
Even before the phone call, it had been a notably bad week.
On Monday morning, for no particular rhyme or reason, the car battery had decided to die. We got jumped three different times, and yet every time we switched off the car, the battery refused to retain a charge. That had ultimately meant two hours at K-Mart (oh, excuse me, no, they're BIG K-Mart), waiting around not only for a battery (bad enough), but also for a long-overdue--and by long overdue, I mean ten thousand miles overdue--oil change.
Gunn and I were thus forced to enjoy the ambience at BIG K-Mart, and then fight traffic all the way back to the office, only to be greeted by Angel's sulkiness at the price of car batteries for classic cars.
If that hadn't been bad enough, Cordelia had decided that she was sick and tired of her post-Daisy non-life and that it was time to get back in the saddle. Oddly enough, one of us had to accompany her in the saddle across Los Angeles whether we liked it or not.
A letter from my mother arrived Wednesday, informing me that my father was going to rewrite his will again. I had a feeling that I wasn't in this version at all. She also told me that two of my best childhood friends, Renee and Christopher, had just had their second child, and my girlfriend from school, Susanne, had finished her D. Phil at Oxford.
By the way, had I had lunch with that Reidinger girl yet?
I considered writing back and telling her that I was required to stay single until after my new novel, "Colin Price's Journal" (Bridget Jones for male Singletons) was out on the best seller lists. Either that or I was gay and servicing my undead employer after work. But I decided it would be a bad idea, mostly because my mother would believe that I was gay and then try to fix me up with boys who were not undead and from proper families.
All in all, at least the phone call fit the general horror of the week.
I was watching CSI in blessed solitude when the phone rang. I was sure that it was either Cordy or a telemarketer, and I truly didn't want to answer it. But I did, considering that it might be Angel about a case and he never left messages on the machine.
"Hello?" I asked. "And if it's Cordelia, I'm not going anywhere tonight."
"Wesley?" someone asked. I didn't quite recognize the voice, though I should have. "Is that you?"
"Yes, it's me," I said. "Who is this?"
"This is Buffy."
I almost fell off the couch in surprise. Buffy? Why, by all that was holy and much that wasn't, would Buffy ring me?
"Buffy? Buffy Summers?" I asked, sure it was a joke. "Really?"
"Yeah," she answered, sounding a little exasperated. "Really."
"Oh," I said. "I'm sorry. I'm just a little surprised that you would be calling--"
"I need your help," she said. "I need a research guy."
The world had ended somewhere between the 7:30 Friends and CSI. There was no other logical explanation for what Buffy had said.
"Me?" I asked, trying to get back onto the couch. "What's wrong with Giles?"
"He went back to England, remember?"
Oh, hell. That was right. Angel had mentioned Giles' leaving in passing, along with Buffy's miraculous resurrection. Damn.
"What about Willow?" I asked, determined to know what disaster had occurred. Buffy had to be desperate. "I should think you have more confidence in her--"
There was huffy silence on the other end of the line.
"Look, Wesley, if you don't want to help--"
"It's not that," I protested. "I should just think that I'd be the last person on earth you'd ask for help. And I would like to know if the world's just ended and you want me to put it right again."
"Not quite," she said. "But it's really important, and Angel cannot know."
Something was rotten in the state of Sunnydale.
"Why not, precisely?"
"He's sorta mad at me--not mad, upset--cuz Spike and I--"
Oh, bloody hell. Buffy? And Spike? Had she gone mad while she'd been dead? At least it explained Angel's mood for the past month. It didn't make me want to help her, but something was obviously terribly wrong, and I did have some long-standing obligations to the girl.
"I see," I said evenly. "I suppose Angel doesn't need to know. So what's the problem?"
"Willow's gone insane, like in the evil, black magic sort of way. She wants to do things. It's like she's gone power-mad. It's really bad. Tara broke up with her and ran off. And she's just--dark," Buffy said very quickly. "And I need someone who knows about book things to help me. No big. But it has to be a book person, and you're the only one I got."
No big. Of course not. Willow was powerful enough to bring back the dead and now she was insane and/or evil. No big. I wished I had the same sort of suicidal optimism as a Slayer (or Angel, for that matter) sometimes.
"I see," I said again. "Willow's become a very powerful witch recently, has she not? I seem to recall she was the one who brought you back to us."
"Uh, yeah," Buffy said. "Look, I don't have to--"
"Actually, you do. If you're desperate enough to call me, you're desperate," I said. "I need details, Buffy. I'm not trying to be obnoxious, but you and Angel both have a maddening way of missing vital details when you explain a potentially Apocalyptic situation."
"Hey, who said anything about an Apocalypse?" Buffy said. "This is Willow we're talking about here. She's my friend. She's not the big bad raining down fire and destruction on the world. She's sort of in upheaval right now. It's not--it's--"
"What do you need, Buffy?" I asked.
"Have you heard of something called the Book of Siona?" she asked. "Before she left, Tara told me that I had to keep Willow away from it. I looked in the books that Giles left in the magic shop, but none of them were it. And like I said, I'm not real strong on the research, so it was hard finding out the four-one-one on this Siona book."
I almost laughed, but then I realized that the situation wasn't really a laughing matter. Had I heard of the Book of Siona?
"Willow wants the Book of Siona?" I said.
"That's what I'm guessing. I'm trying not to ask her directly so she doesn't get suspicious that I'm on to the whole dark magic thing," Buffy said. "So you've heard of it?"
"Of course I have," I said. "It's an extremely famous book of Druidic magic that was written down by Irish monks in the 6th century during their entire saving-knowledge-for-Western-civilization thing. The legends surrounding it are ludicrous. Some say that St. Patrick himself wrote the prayer or spell he used to expel the snakes from Ireland in the book. Others say that the words of Christ during his fostering in Britain have been preserved in the Book of Siona and can raise the dead when recited properly."
"So book full of powerful freaky Christian mojo," Buffy summarized. "Where is it?"
"It's been missing since Henry VIII ordered the Catholic monasteries plundered in the 16th century," I said. "The common assumption is that it was lost."
"Well, you know what they say about assuming," she said. "Can you find it?"
She wanted me to find the Book of Siona. Two generations of Watchers had tried to find the damn thing without success. My father would probably sell my soul to five different parties to get it. And Buffy wanted to know if I could find it.
It was a good thing I worked with Angel. I was used to being asked for five impossible things before breakfast.
"If it's possible, I'll do it," I said. "Is there anything else while you're on the line?"
She paused a moment. "I heard you came to the--I heard you came to Sunnydale with Cordelia. For the. You know. And that you kept Angel okay," she said awkwardly. "When he was not okay."
"I did my best," I said softly. "He deserved nothing less."
She paused again and I could tell that she couldn't say the things she wanted to say, not to me.
"Yes," she said crisply. "Well. I wanted to say thank you. For helping him. He says that you've turned out to be a pretty cool guy after all and that you guys, you and Cordelia and your other friends, you're like his family. And I. I think that's good. So thank you. For being his friend."
I was the one who was quiet for a moment after that. I tried to imagine being dead, being resurrected, and all of the various and sundry pain this woman had suffered over the past year of her life. I couldn't.
"I'm glad to help," I said genuinely. "Don't worry, Buffy. I'll do everything in my power to locate the Book of Siona and keep it out of Willow's possession. And I'll keep taking care of Angel, too."
"I didn't ask--" she began.
"You didn't have to," I said. "Is that all?"
"I think so," she said as something broke in the background. "Dawn! Be careful!"
The phone was abruptly hung up and I was left staring at the receiver in something that might have been utter shock. That had been Buffy on the other end of the line. Buffy, whom I'd assumed had forgotten my existence. And she had wanted my help. Granted, it was because she was fighting with Angel, Giles was in England, and Willow was evil, but still. It wasn't something I'd ever expected to have happen to me.
I put the phone down and the shock and euphoria came crashing down. How the hell was I supposed to find the Book of Siona? It was famous, true, but only among rare book collectors, Watchers, and other people who were all far more competent than I was at finding and concealing things like that.
Bloody hell. I was going to have to call my dad and ask him whom he'd go to in Los Angeles for rare books. Then he'd ask why I was interested and what book I was after and when he heard it was Siona, he was going to mock me. At least I had the Slayer card.
"Father, I know that it's a ludicrous item to locate," I rehearsed aloud. "However, I have been charged by the Slayer to find it for her, and I cannot very well turn her down."
That should shut him up, at least for the duration of the phone call. Nothing could really shut my dad up. I imagined that it would be quite a shock at the funeral when the mourners were saying their last farewells and he popped out, complaining about the paucity of flowers and the lack of filial grief.
I needed to call Gunn. If I couldn't clue Angel into my current Buffy duty, I would need some help just in case the book was being held by burly demons or, God help us, Wolfram and Hart. Of course, if they did have it, I was going to involve Angel, promise to Buffy or no.
I sank into my couch and felt for the phone. The Book of Siona. I remembered one of my tutors at Cambridge had been avid about the topic (and Early Irish Studies in general), a pleasant woman in her early fifties.
"Now, while I'm not one of those who believes in the mystical elements of the Book, to recover it would be invaluable for Irish Studies," she'd twitter. "If only to see what Patrick had written in it--"
Gunn's voice sounded tired. "Yeah?"
"Gunn, it's Wesley," I said. "I've got a little extra work we need to do that Angel can't know about."
"More planning in case of Angel disaster?" Gunn asked.
"No," I said. "Buffy called. She needs my help, and I think I'm going to need yours--"
As I quickly explained what was going on, my mind kept going back to why Willow had fixated on the Book of Siona. There were at least five or six tomes that were more useful to a practitioner of the dark arts, and all without being lost. There was more to the story, and Buffy wouldn't--or possibly couldn't--tell me what was going on in Willow's head.
That was a particularly chilling thought. Willow had been responsible for Buffy's return, which mean that Buffy was in substantial debt to Willow. Some magical sects would even say Buffy's life belonged to Willow, which was something I couldn't contemplate if Willow had gone dark.
"Your Sunnydale friends are bad news," Gunn said, cutting through the din in my head. "Can't they ever have down time?"
"What's that?" I asked sardonically.
"Apparently a myth," he said. "So tomorrow you're going to call your dad and we're going to go talk to moldy old book guys, right?"
"And not tell Angel about it. Or anyone likely to tell Angel about it," I said.
"So Fred and Cordy are out?"
"Right," I said. "Do you think we get some sort of cosmic overtime for this?"
"You kidding me, Wes?" he asked. "We'll be lucky if we don't get our asses kicked."
I laughed. Not because it was funny, but because it was true. The good fight seemed to be the fastest way to find yourself in traction or with an IV drip of morphine in your arm or with demon sex virus-infected girls or--
Suffice it to say, don't get into the hero gig for the glory or the money. Proof forthcoming.
My father was surprisingly polite to me about the Book of Siona. He only informed me that I was attempting the impossible twice, and once I mentioned the words "Slayer" and "favor," he was all advice and help. Of a sort.
"Do you think she'll put in a good word for you to the Council?" he asked as he pored through his dusty lists of scholars, librarians, booksellers, and thieves to contact in Southern California.
"Miss Summers has as little love for the Watchers as I do," I began, before realizing it wouldn't do to start a row with my father while he was doing me a favor. "But one never knows."
"That's right," my dad said. "If I were you, I would start with one man and one man only. Georg Milanis. He's a cracked old coot, but he's got knowledge of obscure and rare volumes that no one in your generation could ever duplicate. He's not far off from you, either. His operation's based in a little seaside town called en--enchan--enchi-- oh, damn, it's spelled E-n-c-i-n-i-t-a-s. You puzzle it out. I can't pronounce a word of Spanish, you know that."
Best let it be. "Do you have a phone number for him?" I asked.
"Of course. It's the American country code, and then 760 555 1851," he said. I almost sighed. Georg Milanis lived almost in San Diego, which made it harder to slip away unnoticed. Then again, he could be in Palm Springs. Or Vegas. There were worse things than being ninety minutes from the best.
"Thank you, Father," I said formally.
"Always glad to be of us to the Slayer," he said before hanging up.
But at least I had someone to contact, which was much better than noisily blundering across the Southland on my own and alerting everyone around me--especially Angel--that I was on assignment for Buffy.
I yawned--I needed to start getting more sleep at night--and decided that eight in the morning was as good a time as any to call Mr. Milanis and get the process started.
The phone rang six or eight times before someone finally picked it up.
"Georg Milanis," a woman's voice informed me. "How can I help you?"
"Is this Mr. Milanis?" I asked stupidly.
"No," the woman said icily. "Georg's not in yet. But I can help you."
Damn. I'd said the wrong thing already. Unfortunately, I was tired and stupid that morning and forged ahead brashly.
"Yes," I stammered. "I'd like for your firm to locate a rare book for me--"
"Well, at least you've got the idea of what we do here," the woman said. "Does your book have a name?"
I closed my eyes and threw out a prayer to a few nameless deities. Well, here went nothing, and the worst she could say was no.
"Don't laugh," I said. "I'm trying to locate the Book of Siona. Have you heard of it?"
She didn't laugh. That was encouraging.
"The Book of Siona? That's all?" she asked, sounding indifferent and even slightly bored.
"You have it?" I asked, stunned. No one I'd ever spoken to about the book had discussed it without mentioning that it probably didn't exist anymore first.
"No, no," she said. "But--oh, hell, it's too complicated. Could you come down here for a meeting? This isn't the sort of transaction one likes to discuss over the phone."
"Of course, Ms--"
"Dunn," she said. "And you are?"
"Right," Ms. Dunn said. "How's today for a meeting? Do you need directions? Where are you located?"
That was fast. Almost too fast, but I was too grateful to pay it much notice. Powerful magical objects and their acquisition aren't things you want to drag out anyway, for fairly obvious reasons.
"I'm off the 10 in Los Angeles," I said.
"Okay. Take the 10 to 5 South, ride it down to Encinitas Boulevard, make a right, and then make a left onto 101. We're right before D Street, between the two antique shops, and near the little theatre and the comics shop," she said as I fumbled about for a pen. "Did you get that?"
"Yes, er--just a second," I said, finding the pen and scratching down the not-so-complex directions.
"Georg will be delighted to meet you," Ms. Dunn said. "It's so rare that we find collectors interested in the esoteric occult, which is Georg's specialty. I believe we've worked with you before--?"
Not likely. Perhaps Dad, though-- "My father, possibly."
"Ah, of course," she said. "So when will you be here? Noonish?"
Gunn was going to be pissy about it, but I wasn't in the mood to delay when the opportunity was being given so freely. Besides, taking care of Buffy's errand posthaste was probably the wisest course of action for everyone involved--especially the part where Angel would be none the wiser about it.
"Of course, if you'd like," I said. "I'll see you then, Ms. Dunn."
She hung up without anymore preamble. I promptly called Gunn, who actually sounded quite glad that we were going on a drive to San Diego.
"Nice day for it," he said. "I'll see you in twenty."
We were past Long Beach before my cell rang. I answered it very reluctantly, knowing that it had to be--
"We've been frantically trying to reach you, Dude," Cordy said snarkily, revealing that she was spending her spare time with Coen Brothers movies. "Where are you?"
"Busy," I said, trying to dodge.
"Is busy somewhere nearby, perhaps? Cuz Angel's being a real pain in my ass and he really wants to know where you two are."
I considered lying, and then realized that she wouldn't believe me anyway.
"We're on our way to San Diego, I'm afraid," I said. Cordelia whined. She didn't make any words. She just made this high-pitched whining noise I'd rarely heard from her before.
"NO FAIR!" she squalled. "Why didn't you take me?"
"We're on business," I said mildly.
There was another audible pout. "I hope business kicks you in the head, you traitors," she said. "That's SO mean to go on a drive like that without me--"
Yes, it was.
"What was that?" I asked. "I--c--an--hear--y-- Delia?"
Gunn was trying very hard not to crack up. That was all the encouragement that I needed. Cordelia was hollering at me anyway.
"Wesley! Don't you dare preten--"
Oops. Too late.
"That was *wrong*, yo," Gunn said, laughing. "She's gonna make you pay for that later."
"I know," I said with an impish grin. "But it won't be later for a while and I think that I have a right to enjoy my trip down."
He grinned back. "I think you're right."
He accelerated to a cool eighty-five miles per hour and I closed my eyes and let the sun hit my face. Sometimes, Southern California is far preferable to anywhere else in the world and that was one of those times.
Encinitas, when we got there, proved to be one of those posh coastal towns tourists imagine that all Californians inhabit (not understanding that far too many poor fools swelter inland, where rent is affordable). I caught my breath at the view from the offramp. Gunn, one of those blind natives, shrugged.
"So where are we turning next?" he asked.
Georg Milanis's establishment was a tiny shop between two antique places and across the street from the aforementioned comics store that Gunn stared at longingly.
"We can stop there after our business with Mr. Milanis," I said.
"All right," he said sadly, following me into the shop. The air was redolent with the rich, dusty smell of old books and sunlight. It was extremely quiet--to the point where the sound of the door closing made us both jump.
"Hello?" I asked. "Ms. Dunn? Mr. Milanis? Are you here? Hello?"
What happened next was unusual even for us. A dark-haired blur flew out of the back room, howling like a banshee, heading directly for my face with her feet. I ducked--only to discover that one of her feet had ducked right along with me.
As I crumpled up in pain on the floor (why must it *always* be a gut injury?), Gunn tried unsuccessfully to ward off the blurry dark-haired thing that was behaving like a stuntperson from the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon set. He was finally laid low by a swift kick to the head and an unfortunate collision with a bookshelf. We were thus both on the floor, gasping for breath and hoping for mercy when the blur revealed herself to be an Asian woman in her late twenties holding a sword.
"Who are you?" she shouted, holding the tip of her sword at my throat. "Who sent you? What do you want?"
I gulped nervously.
"We're your noon appointment," I gasped. "We were coming to consult with you--"
"Are you with that girl?" she asked. "Or is it someone else? Is there some other mage out there looking for us?"
"Look, ma'am, we're on the level. We ain't dark magicians or whatever you think we are," Gunn said. "We don't want to hurt you."
"So why are you interested in the Book of Siona?" she asked suspiciously.
"I, um--I've been asked by the Slayer to keep it from a powerful enemy of hers, a practitioner of dark magic," I said. "I was told you might know its whereabouts."
"Who told you?" she asked.
"My father," I said. "He said that Mr. Milanis was a cracked old coot, but the best in the field. Of course, I hadn't quite expected assault, per se--"
The woman's martial pose softened. She looked at us, then away, and then at us again.
"Oh, my GOD," she said with a sigh. "I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. Oh, my God. Did I hurt you?"
Gunn struggled to his feet.
"Nothing we haven't bruised before," he said. "Hi. I'm Gunn. And you're--"
"Dr. Malaysia Dunn," she said, offering her hand to him. "And you must be Mr. Wyndham-Pryce. I can't begin to tell you how sorry I am. Really."
Gunn helped me to my feet with minimal wincing. I managed a smile.
"Your name is Malaysia?" I asked. "Really?"
She smiled a weary smile. Obviously she was far too accustomed to the question.
"Yes, really," she said.
"Is your family Malaysian?" I asked lamely.
"No," she said. "I'm from Kansas. My dad--bless his rambling hippie heart--named me for the two prettiest words he ever heard, and my mom only spoke Vietnamese and TV English at the time. So I'm Malaysia Mescaline Dunn."
Malaysia Mescaline Dunn noticed that I was holding my stomach and made a sympathetic face.
"I am so so sorry," she said. "It's just that ever since that crazy girl blew into the shop last week, I've been super-paranoid."
I already knew exactly whom she meant.
"Red hair, slender, pretty?" I asked. "About this tall? Looks very sweet until she unleashes her dark side?"
Malaysia blinked. "You know her?" she asked.
"Sounds like it, huh?" Gunn said. "So you don't got the book, but everyone's asking you, hmm?"
Before she could answer, there was another very loud noise.
"Melly!" someone shouted. "Are they back?"
Malaysia blushed and turned toward the back. "No, Georg, it's all right. They're friends. You can join us now," she said.
Her eyes fell on the disturbed books. She hurried over to them and quickly stuck them on shelves, face burning.
"You really must ignore anything he says," she said. "Georg's a bit--well, the word really is cracked--"
Georg was about seventy-five, with a thick thatch of white hair and small, suspicious eyes with no real color except dark. When he clumped into his disturbed shop, he glared at us as if we'd been the ones doing the assaulting and not his ninja assistant.
"I don't know you," he told me sourly. "But your kind are all the same anyway. Might as well have the word Watcher stamped into your forehead--"
"Ex-Watcher, actually," I said in that faint tone all good Brits have when they're embarrassed and disgusted at the same time. "You would be Mr. Milanis. You come very highly recommended--"
He ignored me. "Ex-Watcher? What, did you get your girl killed?"
"Georg!" Malaysia hissed. "Mind your manners!"
"I was, um, sacked, actually," I said, forcing a smile. "The girl, as you so eloquently dubbed her, demanded she be reinstated with her previous Watcher. I was rather unceremoniously let go at that point."
Georg laughed. "Good for her and good for you," he said. "Can't stand Watchers. Arrogant bastards, all of 'em. Hide one little girl so she can save the world? Preposterous. Especially nowadays. Downright suicidal. People have a right--"
"Georg, he's not here to hear you ramble," Malaysia said. "That's what you pay me to do. He wants to know about the Book of Siona."
"I don't have it," he said.
"You know who does, though," I said.
"Of course. That's old Francois Moreau. But he's in seclusion in Burma now with that damn thing. Won't sell it, either. His heirs would--greedy bastards--but the old man won't die. He was supposed to die ten years ago, but did he? Of course not. Francois is too damn stubborn to die when people want him to. But at least that's some comfort for us mere mortals, boy," he said, peering at me. A strange glimmer of recognition was dawning in his eyes.
"How's that?" Gunn asked.
"Burma's a lot further from your witch than Encinitas," Georg replied. "She can't get herself the book 'til he dies, understand? And you know Francois. Contrary as anything. Won't die."
I found that I was actually relieved at the news. Southeast Asia was a tad far afield for Willow, and it was obvious that this old man Francois had ways of protecting the book from others. Buffy would certainly have to be satisfied with this and we could forget the entire incident ever occurred.
"Thank you so much, Mr. Milanis," I said, offering my hand to shake. He shook his head.
"I do know you," he said, sounding awed. "You work for the souled vampire."
Gunn and I exchanged a look. How had he known that?
"Yes, well--" I said.
"Don't interrupt," he said. "Where's your seer? The girl?"
"We left her in LA to babysit the vamp," Gunn said.
"Is she pretty?" Milanis asked. "Nothing worse than an ugly girl cursed with the sight."
"No, sir," I said. "Cordelia's quite pretty."
Milanis assessed me with a look and shook his head again.
"You don't need to sir me, boy," he said. "Do you have any idea--no, of course not. Wouldn't be fitting."
I was confused. So was everyone else.
"Georg?" Malaysia asked. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, you overprotective valkyrie," Georg replied. "Go fuss at the books for once."
Malaysia rolled her eyes and did what he said.
"Mr. Milanis?" I said.
"I'm not going to be your Obi-Wan, boy," he said. "That's someone else's job. But I'll help you out. If Francois dies or if he's thinking of selling the book, you'll be the first to know, all right?"
"Thank you," I said.
He looked at me and shook his head. "Your father's generation is all fools," he said. "Whole damn world's going to hell."
Before I could ask him what he meant, he'd apparently lost interest in me and the Book of Siona.
"Melly! Where on earth is my copy of Norwich Manuscript 19B?" he asked, stumping away. Gunn and I were very shortly left alone in a room full of books worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"That just happen?" he asked me.
"Apparently," I said. "I've got the bruises to prove it. You still want to look at comics?"
Gunn nodded. "Now more than ever," he said.
After more comics than I ever dreamed possible and a long surreal conversation about Wolverine vs. Gambit, we got lunch at a local hamburger joint and headed back up for Los Angeles. Except for chatter about nothing, we didn't speak. I was trying to figure out what Georg Milanis had been talking about.
We were in hideous gridlock on the 5 when Gunn finally asked.
"What was the old guy talking about? Who'd he think you were? How'd he know about Cordy?" he asked.
"I don't know," I admitted. "I suspect there are some prophecies about Angel where Cordelia and I are mentioned--probably you, too. I've never seen them, but that doesn't mean they don't exist."
"So you've got prophecies to fulfill?" Gunn asked.
"Most likely," I said.
"Damn," he said. We were quiet the entire way back to the hotel. We'd only been gone six hours, so of course all hell had broken loose in our absence.
Fred was sobbing in a corner, there were papers strewn all around the hotel, and a suspicious stink rising over the entire mess. Something had been burning. Cordelia and Angel were having a row in the back and sitting in the middle of it, looking strangely calm, was a blonde woman that I only vaguely recognized. Then the reality of who she was and what that probably meant hit me dead on.
"You're Tara, aren't you?" I asked nervously, making my way through the debris while Gunn hurried over to see what was the matter with Fred.
"Yes," she said. "I came at a bad time, didn't I?"
I looked around and grimaced. "It would appear so," I said. "Are you here for Buffy? Has Willow gotten--?"
"Willow's already as bad as she's going to get," Tara said. "I had--I had to go. She's not the g-girl I knew."
She looked like she was about to cry, so I did the only thing I knew was right. I hurried across the lobby and offered her a handkerchief.
"What can I do to help?" I asked.
I had met Tara all of once, and then only briefly, at Buffy's wake. She had not been particularly remarkable. Cordelia had hissed that she was Willow's girlfriend and I'd smiled sadly and politely at her, but that was all. Not long after meeting everyone, I'd been caught up in a long, rambling discussion with Giles about England and Watcherhood and any number of things that hadn't meant anything, not to mention a brief, nasty conversation with a brief, nasty ex-vengeance demon. I didn't remember anything else I'd said to anybody in Sunnydale except for the things I'd said to Cordelia.
This left me at a bit of a disadvantage in trying to help the woman, though. But I would do my best.
Tara was tired. Her eyes had large, dark shadows underneath them and I felt sorry for her. If anyone looked like the hopeless, it was her. I understood; I was tired, too, and bruised from the ass-kicking I'd taken in San Diego.
"I need to talk to Angel," she said. "But he's been busy since I've walked in. There was some sort of--"
"Where the HELL have you been?" Cordelia shouted at me, interrupting us. "Why did you turn off your phone? Who's she? Where the hell have you been?"
Cordy's clothes were filthy and fire-damaged and her eyes were hard as steel. I decided to deflect some of her rage, as the Book of Siona and Willow's defection to the dark side surely weren't going to help her general mood.
"Cordelia, I'm sure you remember Tara," I said pointedly. "Willow's girlfriend? You pointed her out to me at the funeral yourself."
Cordy stared at Tara, seemingly unable to place her. When she finally did recognize her, her expression softened, but not nearly enough.
"We don't need any more bad news from Sunnydale," she said curtly. "We've got quite enough of our own to deal with."
She turned back to me crisply. "Fred and Angel accidentally turned our lease into a charbroiled fragment. So we've had to ransack the entire damn hotel for anything resembling a lease agreement. We could have used some help, or should I say *I* could have used some help, as those two couldn't find their own asses in the dark without someone to guide the way."
Cordelia moaned and began massaging her neck and temples fitfully, rolling her head back and forth. Realizing I had a way to soften some of the further blows, I stood up and began kneading the back of her neck. And yes, it is possible for a man to give a woman a massage without wanting something sexual, though probably not a foot massage.
Of course, Cordy knew exactly what I was up to, but I really hadn't expected her not to know. She's hardly stupid.
"You're so not off the hook," she said. "Get the shoulders while you're at it, okay? So where did you go, really?"
"Promise not to make it a big deal?" I asked, working on a knot at the juncture of her shoulder and neck. Soft tissue shouldn't usually crackle, so I was digging in fairly deep. "Especially not to el jefe?"
"El jefe? El--oh. The boss," she asked. "Oh--no, I won't tell him. By the way, never use that term again. Ever."
"Gunn and I were assigned as outside agents by Buffy to find a lost book because Willow's practicing dark magic," I said. "And if it makes you feel better, business did end up kicking us in the head."
Tara gaped at me. "Buffy called you about Willow? Really?" she asked.
"I still don't believe it, either," I said wryly. "We don't need to worry, anyway. After being assaulted by a woman named Malaysia, I was informed by an ancient prune that the Book of Siona is in the possession of a very contrary old man in Myanmar, which he persists in calling Burma. So unless Willow is willing to make a journey to Yangon, we're all in the clear."
"Wesley?" Angel asked very clearly from right behind me. "Why is Willow interested in the Book of Siona and why are you involved? Oh, and can you reconstruct documents from fragments? We had an accident."
Well, chalk another victory up to me in the keeping secrets from Angel category. I think I'd managed to keep this one a grand total of sixteen hours--four hours longer than usual.
But then again, when a powerful witch goes bad, keeping secrets only leads to injuries and pain, and I'm against both of those, possibly because I'm a mere mortal who seems to have a giant subliminal target painted on my stomach.
"Buffy called last night," I said. "Willow is dabbling in some very dangerous magic--Tara here probably knows the rest of the story better than I do. Basically, in the absence of a research team and in light of your recent estrangement, I got the call to do the dirty work."
"He got his ass kicked as usual, too," Cordy added helpfully. Then, noticing that I'd stopped massaging her shoulders, she whimpered. "You're not rub-bing."
I needed to get that copy of The Big Lebowski away from her before she started threatening to cut off my johnson.
"Recent estrangement?" Angel asked. "What did she tell you?"
"Not much," I lied politely. "I understand that Spike's in the picture now."
"That's an understatement," Tara mumbled. We all looked over at her in surprise, having temporarily forgotten her existence. "It's just that Spike is, like, her Yoda in all things life and death. I think it's sort of ridiculous, myself."
Angel visibly warmed to the topic.
"Yeah," he said. "I'm sorry, we kind of lost you in the search for the missing lease. You're Tara, right?"
She smiled ruefully and shook her head.
"Actually, I'm Willow's purse. She's enchanted me to move and look like a real girl, but I'm there to make Willow look good and give her something to hold. She thought Tara would be a good name for me, but I've found it's easily forgotten. I probably would have been more memorable if my name were Malaysia."
We all looked at her with surprise. From her posture, soft voice, and general demeanor, I don't think any of us would have guessed that something sharper was lurking under that mild surface.
"Wow," Cordelia said. "I think you and I are totally going to get along. You can join my 'Willow's a Big User' club if you want. If you really feel bitter, you could also join Wesley's 'I Hate Vengeance Demons Who Compare Me to Humbert Humbert' club. That one's fairly popular around here."
Tara looked at us and stifled a smile.
"This is a new experience. Scoobies who enjoy talking about other Scoobies to those not in the group," she said. "Not something I'm, um, used to."
Cordy snorted. "What are you talking about? We're the original outcast Scoobs. They hate us because we're prettier than they are. And not hopelessly--Gunn, what are you two doing?"
Gunn and Fred were in the corner together, secretively hunched over something. I noticed that Fred was no longer lachrymose. In fact, she was giggling like crazy. That was probably not a good sign.
"Nice tux," Gunn said coolly.
"Oh--shit!" Cordy shrieked. "I knew they were somewhere!"
"What?" I asked, alarmed.
"My prom pictures," she said between clenched teeth. "Give those back. Not that there's anything wrong with me going to prom. Not a damn thing."
Of course not. Oh, no. Nothing embarrassing at all about Cordelia's prom, no.
"Angel's kinda cute in a tux, too," Fred said. "Yum."
Tara was bewildered, evidently not having any knowledge whatsoever of the rather complicated web of relationships and former relationships between certain members of the group.
"What's going on?" she asked.
"Family taunting," Cordy said quickly. "Gunn! I spent all damn day looking for a lease and I'm so not in the mood!"
"But you're so *pretty*," he said. "And I recognize your date from somewhere. Where oh where have I seen him before?"
"You knew that I--we--give me the pictures!" Cordelia shrieked, racing across the room frantically. "Give me that! Give it to me now!"
She started grappling with him, ignoring that he was several inches taller and many, many pounds heavier than she was. Instead, she was going for his eyes with her fingernails and screaming loud enough to put him off balance. Angel was soon forced to get involved, leaving Tara on the couch with me hovering about nervously, not entirely sure what to do.
"Are they naked prom pictures or something?" Tara asked, still clueless.
"No," I said. "It's simply that she's embarrassed about her prom date."
"Who was her prom date?" Tara asked.
"I was," I said, settling down on the couch. "Would you like something to drink? I think we only have water and coffee, but it's better than nothing and they'll be at it a while."
Tara blinked. "Oh," she said. "Could I get a glass of water?"
I stood up and got the water, trying not to feel embarrassed or annoyed about the noisy corner discussion on one fairly innocent datelike thing that consisted mostly of two or three dances and a few botched compliments. It was a quietly known and accepted thing that there had been a very awkward period between Cordelia and myself. We didn't play it up, everyone else left it alone--and all of the sudden, it was a joke, because apparently, my sex life wasn't already joke enough.
"So," I said, sitting back down and handing Tara her water. "Willow. What's happened?"
"Buffy didn't tell you?" Tara asked.
"Buffy told me she'd gone evil, but not big bad evil, but sort of big bad evil, and you'd left and told Buffy not to let Willow get the Book of Siona," I said. "The word insane came up. And the words dark magic."
Tara nodded stiffly. "She's a powerful witch," she said, grimacing. "I really hate using the word witch, but that's all I've got to describe her. See, the women in my family have always, um, appealed to other forces, but not like Willow. It's one of those Craft things that's really hard to explain."
Angel, who now had a small tear at the collar of his shirt, sat down across from us.
"The old gods, is that who you mean?" I said, remembering my childhood dressings-down from my family. "They don't like us much."
"That's how my mother put it," Tara agreed. "Watch out for them, she told me. They're powerful and they're willing to be pressed into service for humans, but they hate us for abandoning them. It's not safe to call on them. And Willow, you know, sh-she's not. From a family that knew. Not that it makes it easier, the magic, I mean, but--"
I knew exactly what she meant. The memories were almost palpable--my father scowling as I failed to light a campfire 'the proper way,' my venerable Grandmother Wyndham-Pryce preaching to me about Christian charity while working a protective charm into my school uniform after the third time a bully had snapped my glasses in two, and all of the other variable and random things one learns in a family that practices magic.
"It's harder to understand what the fuss is about," I said. "She never had a Second Cousin Herbie who accidentally charmed his warts into sausages."
Tara giggled. "Yes. That's exactly it," she said. "And she's a natural at it. There hasn't been anything to make her cautious. So when she raised Buffy, she had to work with a few very dark forces."
"Osiris?" I asked. She nodded mutely. "Oh, dear. He's a bit dodgy, to put it nicely."
Angel nodded. "I've heard of Osiris, Wesley," he said politely. "Drusilla had quite a fixation on the old gods that one might construe as, well, vampiric. Dodgy isn't the word. Dangerous would be the one I'd use. Or possibly insane. That's putting it nicely."
Tara gulped. We both remembered that it had been her girlfriend who'd been working with Osiris and tried to look less disturbed. Angel rushed in with his attempts to make up for the awkwardness.
"But Willow's steady. She could handle it," he said. "I know her."
Tara shook her head.
"You knew her. It was too much, too soon," she said. "And I know that's really vague, but she hasn't done anything that evil yet. Except she did enchant me to forget once when we fought and when she told me--that was when I had to get out. I didn't leave, but I kept seeing little things. You know? You always know when you're being stalked. It's just a feeling you get in your stomach."
Angel looked queasy, so I took over. He didn't handle discussions about stalking well.
"When did you discover she was interested in the Book?" I asked.
"The day before I left," Tara said. "We had a confrontation. She told me that she was sorry, she told me she'd change. But I--she changed my memories. Glory took my mind away and I can't--it was something I couldn't handle. I told her so. She got angry, but she didn't get angry, not in the way people get angry. You know how Willow is."
I didn't, but Cordelia, who had joined us (cradling her prom pictures triumphantly, I might add), piped in.
"Passive-aggressive," she said. "And then afterwards, cute face?"
"Yeah," Tara said. "But she told me that things were gonna change. She got this look on her face that wasn't cute at all and--"
She paused. We were all watching her intently, trying to envision a really angry Willow. It was harder than one would imagine. Cordy's rancor aside, Willow was one of the good guys, part of the group, and Tara was--was--
Willow's purse. At least to us.
"I think she didn't expect me to say no," Tara said. "I didn't want to. If she hadn't changed my memories, I would have gone back. She's--Willow loves me. She's Willow. But she went in my head and when I said I wouldn't come back, I thought she might again and I was afraid. I had to go."
She looked down at her feet, hidden under a beautiful batik skirt. She didn't know what to say. We didn't, either. We might have sat there a very long time if it weren't for Cordy's suspiciously well-timed vision.
"Oh!" Cordy whimpered.
"Cordy?" Angel asked.
"Vision," she said. "Oh! OW!"
Gunn and Angel rushed to her side and Tara looked at us like we'd grown extra heads.
"What's going on?" she asked. "What's wrong with her?"
"She has visions," I said. "But she's not supposed to carry a burden like that, so they're extremely hard on her."
"He's dead!" Cordelia said. "His heart stopped."
"Who?" Gunn asked.
"This old guy," she said, rubbing her left eye fitfully. "He wasn't in Los Angeles. It was too hot. He was speaking French. On his porch in Yangon. Where's Yangon? He was on the phone to someone. A woman. She was talking real fast in French. At least I think that's what it was. I couldn't tell."
Gunn and I stared at each other with the uncanny look of people who've had the same thought at the same time and know exactly what the other's thinking.
"We've got to call Milanis," I said. "It can't be a coincidence."
"No," Gunn said. "Though that Malaysia chick is probably going to freak out to hear you call her again today."
"It's not Malaysia I'm worried about," I said. "It's Georg. He's obviously got some way to get to the book, and what if the call was what killed Francois?"
"Are you thinking what I think you're thinking?" Gunn asked.
"It's a horrible thought, but after Malaysia's description of the young woman in the shop, and then this vision, we can't rule it out."
"What are you two talking about?" Cordy asked fretfully.
"Your dead man was the one who owned the Book of Siona," Gunn said. "At least we think so."
Tara had gone chalk-white. "You think it was Willow, don't you?" she asked. "You think she called this guy in Yangon and whispered something in his ear and he died?"
"No!" Angel said. "Right?"
Trust Angel to make a difficult situation downright impossible. Obviously, the idea of Willow as murderer wasn't one any of us fancied, but I wasn't exactly the one telling me that she had become deeply interested in powerful relics and doing some sort of vague evil. I was merely the person who was supposed to keep the Book of Siona safe from her and that was what I was trying to do.
"Well, I--" I began. The phone rang. Thank God. "Will be getting that. Just a moment, please."
"Hello?" I asked, trying to avoid everyone's eyes.
"Do you make a habit of being a harbinger of doom?" Malaysia Dunn asked acidly. "I was just on the phone with Francois's niece. He's had a heart attack. He's dead."
"I know," I said.
"How did--oh," Malaysia said, pausing. "Your seer. So what do you propose we do?"
"Me?" I asked. "I think we should continue on the course of action previously agreed upon."
"That's what I thought," Malaysia said. "Unfortunately, Georg absolutely refuses. He says that someone's killed Francois, and the best thing is to convince the heirs to burn the book."
I gulped. "Burn it?" I asked. The idea made the skin on the back of my neck crawl. The Book of Siona, with passages from St. Patrick himself? A book nearly fifteen hundred years old? With untold knowledge and magic waiting to be wielded by--
"The heirs refuse, of course," Malaysia said. "Georg knows that as well as we do. He's going to go to Myanmar and see what he can do to keep it out of the country, and then take it if there's no other course of action. But he doesn't want the Book."
"I couldn't imagine why not," I said dryly. "Tell Georg I wish him luck. By the way, did the niece mention who was talking to Francois on the phone when he had his heart attack?"
There was a small pause. "She didn't mention he was on the phone. I'll be sure to tell Georg to ask her, if you'd like," she said mechanically.
"That would be good," I said. "Is that all?"
"Yes, that's all," she said sarcastically. "I suppose you're used to a cavalcade of disasters happening all at once, but around here, it's a little unnerving."
"I'm sorry," I said automatically. "I'm just busy in the middle of another disaster relating to the Book and so--"
Click. I set the receiver down and turned to face the public.
"Who was it?" Cordelia asked.
"Georg Milanis' assistant," I said. "Francois died of a heart attack, as we'd known."
"Was anyone else involved?" Tara asked.
"Malaysia didn't know," I said. "She didn't know that he'd been on the phone when he died. But I'm assuming that he died before your vision, Cordelia. Francois' niece had called from Myanmar to tell Georg, and Georg was simply furious about it."
The timing was more than a little suspicious, I suddenly realized. Why would the Powers send Cordy a vision of a dead man? What was the point? Malaysia or Georg could have just as easily sent us the news without Cordelia needing four extra-strength Tylenol for redundant information. The phone call, the woman on the phone, was very important.
"Do you really think it's Willow?" Cordy asked, rubbing her eye. "I mean, I can buy that she's gone wacky with magic powers--magic seems to make everyone ultra-wack--but is she evil enough to kill some random guy for a book? And how would she have known that this Francois guy had the book? I mean, you only found out today and I doubt either the old guy or the Melatonin chick--"
"Malaysia," I interrupted politely.
"Whatever--I doubt either of them would randomly tell Willow where to find your Book of Siona," Cordy said. "So I think someone else killed him."
Everyone else nodded.
"Of course, that doesn't change the fact that the Book of Siona is on the market," Angel said. "Or that Willow wants it and that someone may want her to have it."
"Who would want that?" Tara asked.
"Anyone who wanted to have a powerful witch in their pocket," he replied. "Or someone who might want control over Buffy. Even if Willow hadn't brought Buffy back, she's the Slayer's closest friend. But the rites involved with resurrection--"
His voice abruptly stopped, as if he remembered the Buffy who'd come back was not quite the woman who'd died, and in any case, was in love with someone else. Fred's eyes momentarily softened. I'd forgotten that Fred had a serious weakness for Angel's pain.
"I love it when we make a situation that should be simple much, much more complicated," Gunn said. "Don't you?"
"What do we ever do that's simple?" Angel asked. "So what are we saying here? Is it time for a road trip to Myanmar? And where is Myanmar, anyway? Is it one of those Eastern European countries that used to be part of the Hapsburg Empire?"
I laughed. "It was Burma," I said. "One of those Southeastern Asian countries that threw off the name of the oppressor when it broke away from colonialism."
"Oh, Burma? Really? I've been there. I hate Rangoon. You ever been there? I had a few bad breaks in that part of world," he said. "Darla loved it. She really bought into the entire Orientalist movement of the day and was almost giddy while we were on the road to Mandalay--"
He realized that we were all staring at him, and that perhaps, he'd given us a little too much information.
"To be honest, I think the heirs will sell," I said, subtly changing the topic of conversation. "I think you're right. I think someone wants Willow to have the Book of Siona. Tara, do you have any idea who might have put the idea in her head?"
Tara shook her head. "She knew lots of people online I didn't know," she said. "I don't think it was anyone we knew in Sunnydale. They wouldn't have any idea where Myanmar was, let alone the Book of Siona. I mean, I'd heard of the Book once or twice, but I'd always heard it was lost. It was like a fairy tale."
She caught my eye again and I had the same strange buzz of memory as before. I could hear my Cousin Fiona, nestled across the room on a rickety cot, whispering about the story her sister Mary had told her about a book so magical that anyone who looked at it with improper intentions would automatically burn up and be sizzling ashes before the cover was even open.
"The wicked king's men who tried to steal it from its rightful owners at the monastery were nothing but dust," Fiona told me triumphantly. "But Father John, who was the head of the monastery, knew it was only a matter of time before they'd come back--"
"So he wrote a desperate letter to his French cousin, who was a monk," Tara continued, shaking me out of my reverie. "And Brother Jacques, which was the monk's name, rescued the book in the dead of night, and took it to France--"
I shivered. Had I been talking aloud? I must have been.
"And then Jacques' fellow monks took it to Canada a generation later," I said. "Then it was never to be seen again. Or that's how I always heard it."
"No, that's not where the story ends," Tara replied. "My mother always told me that when the Acadians were forced to leave Canada, the guardian of the Book fled with them and that he had it buried with him, but that his grieving widow took the book from the coffin and read the words to bring him back to life. Then the guardian reared up from his grave, dashed his terrified wife to the floor, and then fled, howling. And the book was never to be seen again."
Everyone was staring at us.
"That was weird," Gunn said. "How'd you do that?"
"Do what?" I asked.
"You guys knew exactly what the other one was thinking, didn't you?" he said. "It was weird. You just picked up each other's story."
"Strange," I murmured. "I think we both know the story, though Tara knows a more complete version than I do. I hadn't realized I'd said anything until I heard her. I was remembering something."
"Me, too," Tara said. "Every time I look at you, I start remembering things that I didn't know I knew."
I nodded, finally crossing the room and sitting down. "I think the Powers really want us to solve the mystery of the Book of Siona, besides keeping it from Willow and whoever wants her to use the Book for ill."
"How come you two don't get the blinding headaches?" Cordy complained. "I'd be all good if I could suddenly remember things like that. But I get the big head-breakers. No fair."
I might mention that Cordy was still dirty from the ending lease burning fiasco and the subsequent after-burning search. She had been ditched, she had been visioned, and now she was being upstaged. To say her temper was frayed would be like saying the sky was blue.
"I think maybe memories hurt less than future visions from someone else's head," Tara said shyly. "You know?"
"Probably," Cordy said, looking sour. Then she looked at Tara again and her expression changed notably. "Hey, how do you feel about going out tonight? The Three Stooges and their sister Dot aren't going to get much further in explaining this than 'Big Bad Shadowmen are giving Willow the odd how-to during her wacked out power-crazed stage.' And I am tired of Wesley and/or Gunn doing the ass dance so that some damn girl will look at them."
Tara looked startled. "You want us to go dancing?" she asked just as Gunn protested:
"I do NOT ass dance. I don't even know what it is, but I don't do it."
"What-ever," Cordelia said smugly, realizing the time had come to revenge herself on the prom picture thief. "I can even demonstrate. It's really scary. I can't go anywhere without one of these two shaking that ass--"
Whereupon Cordy demonstrated in breathtaking detail what an "ass dance" looked like and sending Tara, Angel, and Fred into gales of laughter.
"It's funny cuz it's true," Fred said apologetically before howling with laughter again. Angel, who couldn't do any sort of dance if his life and ours depended on it, was practically rolling on the floor.
"So anyway," she said casually, smiling at Tara. "Let's go out. I don't know if you know any places, but one of my ex-friends gave me a good working knowledge of every place worth going to in LA, plus a good relationship with the bouncers, so our cover is gratis."
She stuck her tongue out as she helped Tara to her feet, hustling her away from the rest of us as quickly as possible. I don't quite think Tara expected to be wined and dined after revealing Willow's shiny new evil streak, but then again, it's LA. One expects the unexpected.
Besides, Cordelia was right. It was a tad late to launch into research concerning parties that might be covertly assisting Willow get her hands on an ancient book. We were all bruised or tired and we were better off going home and--
"Hey, English," Gunn said. "Sorry to wake you up from memories of your Cousin Jonathan or Aunt Eunice or whatever, but you need a ride home, right?"
I breathed in deeply and nodded. "Yes," I said. "I'm sorry, it's been a long day and I'm not quite myself."
"I see that," Gunn replied. "What is it, man? Is it that girl? Do you know her from somewhere or something?"
"I suppose it's the surprise of speaking to someone who knew what the Book of Siona was without a five minute lecture," I said, being only slightly evasive. "It reminds me of things."
"Yeah," Gunn said. He turned to where Angel and Fred were slowly cleaning up the hotel. "We're going! See you tomorrow!"
"We should probably help," I said as we walked out of the hotel. "Or at least offer to take Fred home."
"Please," Gunn said. "That would be mean. She likes Angel to take her home. She likes Angel, period, whatever little thing went down between you two at Halloween notwithstanding."
He stopped. "Did I just use the word notwithstanding?"
"I think you did," I said. He made a face.
"You're rubbing off on me," he said disgustedly. "Next I'll be asking for chips when I want fries at the In and Out Burger. Speaking of, you good for a drive-thru run on the way?"
"When am I not?" I asked rhetorically. "Two Double-Doubles with bacon and may the angels weep at the grease clogging my arteries. And a generous order of chips, of course."
We got into his car and drove off, heading for In and Out and my flat.
"What was it like, growing up in a family that was all magic and shit?" Gunn asked three blocks down the road. "Was it straight out of a movie?"
I sniffed. "Not exactly. It was--" and I suddenly had no words-- "It's almost inexplicable. I can only explain it as a series of banal anecdotes."
He wouldn't accept that. "How is it different? Is it inexplicable the way being British is? Or being rich? Or having a big family around all the time? How is it different?"
"It's a little like old money," I admitted. "Mostly it's the things you're told before you're old enough to understand them, the things cousins or siblings or younger aunts whisper to you at night."
Gunn shook his head. "Man, I forget sometimes you're from outer space," he said. "That's how far away that all is to me. Younger aunts. You're out of Masterpiece Theatre."
I accepted that as we passed through the strip-mall wastelands of Los Angeles. The lights were painfully bright, though all they lit were slightly run-down payday loan places and liquor stores next to manicure places where the manicurists didn't speak a word of English and Rite Aids offering Award-Winning Thrifty Ice Cream. I'd never ceased to be amazed at the tawdriness of the city when it was compared to the beauty of the nature surrounding it. How could people be so daft? How could they cover something so beautiful in ugly, tacky things?
I didn't say another word the entire way home, except for a mumbled thanks for the ride as I got out of Gunn's truck. He was slightly annoyed because after all of the careful mental preparation, he'd asked for chips instead of fries at the drive-up window, and thus he hadn't noticed the silence. I waved good-bye, suddenly feeling old and exhausted as I climbed the two flights of stairs that led to my flat.
There were so many questions to answer. I couldn't remember a single one of them.
I laid down and tried to read, but all the words kept running together shamefully and I couldn't tell whether I was reading Raymond Chandler or Helen Fielding. Considering that they shared uneasy shelf space together, that was justifiable, but the truth was I needed sleep. Getting your ass kicked is an incredible soporific.
I set the book down (to my surprise, it was a dog-eared travelogue about viewing saints' relics in Europe called Magnificent Corpses), yawning noisily. It was most definitely time to call it a night.
But before I did.
I dragged myself out of bed and over to the phone. Without any sort of drama, I unplugged it and took the receiver off the hook for safekeeping.
Then I promptly went back to my bed, set my glasses on the bedside table and was asleep before I had time to turn off the light.
I dreamt, of course. One doesn't have a day like I'd had without the necessary significant dreams to back it up--and I've always been one who dreams. I knew I was in for it the minute I saw Becky Ann sitting in my father's burgundy leather wing chair, snapping her fingers to the beat of an eerie faux-jazz composition one only hears in David Lynch movies.
Becky Ann, to share a bit of ancient Wesleyan lore, was my first lover. She was nineteen, I was seventeen, and every other detail is sacred only for myself, probably because they're completely unmemorable. In dreams, she speaks only in song lyrics and gives me clues to puzzles that I didn't know were troubling me. She's better than the dreams about the closet under the stairs, but only by a smidgen. Oddly, every time I see Becky Ann in a dream, she looks different. The real Becky Ann was a tad short and rather plain except for her eyes.
The dream Becky Anns are a little different.
That particular night, she had the same eyes, but she was done up like a drag queen, with purple glitter caked about her eyes and a burgundy gash of a mouth pouting at me. The hair was wild, glittery, and bright red.
But it was Becky Ann. I always know when it's her.
"Photographers snip-snap! Take your time, she's only burning," she informed me gravely. "This kind of experience is necessary for the learning."
"Hello, Becky Ann," I said tiredly, sitting down on the large lizard that would serve as a decent chaise lounge. "How have you been? What do you know about the Book of Siona?"
"Baby's on fire--and all the instruments agree that her temperature's rising," she replied. "But any idiot would know that."
Finding out the answers from my subconscious has never been an easy proposition. But then Becky Ann snapped her fingers and I noticed that Buffy was standing behind her, surrounded by a halo of flame.
"Buffy," I said. "Are you all right?"
She was being burnt alive, of course, but in my dreams, that doesn't necessarily mean death, or even pain.
"All the vampires walking through the valley move west down Ventura Boulevard," she informed me. "The good girls are home with broken hearts. And I'm free falling."
"Good for you," I said. "Becky Ann, this is about the Book, isn't it?"
She looked at me, clearly frustrated. There aren't many songs about books and according to the ironclad rules of my subconscious, she had to talk in song lyrics.
"Oh, Ramona," Becky Ann said. "If there was only something between us, other than our clothes. Something in our sky, something in our blood, something in our skies?"
Buffy's skin was turning black from the fire, but she was still smiling at me.
"It's the heart's filthy lesson," she said stoically. "Falls upon deaf ears. Tell the others."
I rubbed my temples fitfully and the lizard chaise tried very hard not to move and accidentally throw me into the very large abyss that had opened at my feet. Becky Ann looked at me placidly, having recovered her composure.
"Another heart has made the trade," she said. "Forget it. Forget it, forget it. I don't understand how a heart is a spade, but somehow the vital connection is made."
"Someone else is helping Willow," I told myself, burying my face in my hands. "There's a connection between us. There's a connection between me and Tara and Willow and the other one, and that's because--"
I looked up and noticed that a strange pattern was burning itself into my hand, an elaborate Celtic-looking curlicue that sizzled and stank of searing flesh.
"Any idiot would know that," I muttered to myself. "It's not Willow I have to worry about. It's the other woman. We know about Willow. I have to find the other one."
Becky Ann clapped and smiled at me. "Remember to let her into your heart, then you can start to make it better. Don't be afraid. You were made to go out and get her. The minute you let her under your skin, then you begin to make it better."
"Thanks for the advice, Becky Ann," I said. "It would help if I knew who she was."
"You know that it's a fool who plays it cool by making his world a little colder," she replied. "You're waiting for someone to perform with. The movement you need--"
"Is on my shoulder," I said. "I do know the lyrics to Hey Jude very well, don't I?"
Becky Ann hates when I get snippy about the answers she gives. She looked at me sourly, snapping faster.
"If you don't know me by now," she said snappishly. "Then you will never never know me."
She stood up. The chaise lounge followed her as she leapt into the abyss that was now growing larger and dragging things into it, like Buffy and a bookshelf of pornography I hadn't realized was there.
There was so much detail that I missed.
"Sat on the fence, but it don't work!" she called as she pulled the entire world into the abyss with her. The lizard tried to keep us from falling, but Buffy's charred skeleton got her hands around its ankle and down we went.
"Wait, not that way!" someone called. I knew the voice. I looked up and--
"Good God," I whispered. "What did that mean?"
The ceiling didn't have an answer. Neither did I. I simply knew that there was some sort of connection between myself, Tara, Willow, and this mystery woman (I knew for certain it was a woman). I didn't know anything else. Or I did, but it was all coded in clues I needed to interpret.
I went back to sleep and I didn't remember the next set of dreams.
When I got back to the hotel, I had a few theories bubbling in my brain about what the dream had meant and who was connected to whom. Everything stopped cold when I saw Tara in the middle of the lobby, being intently examined by Angel and Cordelia.
"Decide to sleep in?" Angel asked as I hurried over.
"Sorry," I said. "What's going on?"
"This thing materialized on Tara's hand," Cordy said, grabbing Tara's hand and shoving it into my face. "Do you have any idea what it is?"
"It was in my dream last night," I said without even looking at the design. "Whatever Willow's become connected to leaves a mark. A calling card."
"So now you're having prophetic dreams? Okay, feeling a little annoyed over here," Cordelia said.
"It's not prophecy. I already knew the information," I said. "I just couldn't digest it consciously. Besides, you don't want to have my dreams. All the people talk in song lyrics, and Buffy was on fire."
Tara blinked. "Buffy was on fire? Was she wearing a big white dress in your dream, too?"
"I didn't notice her dress," I said gravely. "I was too busy talking to Becky Ann."
"In my dream, she was burning and Willow was dancing naked around her, calling down the moon," Tara said. "Which seems to suggest--"
"I'm connected somehow," I said. "Do you think it could be the phone call from Buffy?"
"Usually, stuff like this takes physical contact," Angel said. "And it couldn't have been through Tara because we've all at least shaken hands, haven't we?"
I nodded. "It suggests I've been in contact with our--"
"X-Factor?" Cordy suggested. "MacGuffin? Glowing briefcase?"
"Cordelia," Angel said mildly.
"Well, we don't know what it is, and it's the 'thing' that makes all this mumbo-jumbo possible," she replied. "We don't even know if it's real and instead of doing what we should be doing--marching ourselves up to Sunnydale and giving Willow a good slap upside the head--we're talking about dreams and Buffy being on fire."
Tara looked wounded. "You think Willow--"
"I don't think anything," Cordelia said grimly. "But if she didn't want this crazy Book of Siona thing, we wouldn't be researching weird symbols appearing on people, or talking about Wesley's dreams, or fighting with weird book dealers--who, by the way, left a message for you, Wes--and I just think Willow should be called on the shit she's pulled."
She looked apologetic in her posture and expression, but her eyes gave away that she meant every word she said.
"So you think she was the woman on the phone?" I asked.
"The woman on the phone who probably killed the man who owned the Book of Siona," I said. "That was what your vision was about, was it not?"
"Yes," Cordy said grudgingly. "I don't think it was Willow. But I think it's a bad idea to let her off the hook."
Tara slumped. "It's so hard," she murmured.
"Yeah, it is," Cordelia agreed. "But there has to be a moment when you tell yourself the truth. And the truth is that while we should find the psychos who are helping Willow, she's the one we have to stop."
I gently picked up Tara's hand, which made Cordy grimace.
"Things are a tad more complicated than that, Cordy, and you know it. We all know it," I said, letting go. "I should call Mr. Milanis. He's probably got the latest news of the book."
I walked away and found the phone, dialing the office number for Georg. The phone rang exactly half a ring before the other end was picked up.
"I told you to call sooner," Georg hissed into the receiver. "The heirs have already sold the book for a sum I didn't think was humanly possible. They can't give me any other information."
"Oh," I said inanely.
"That doesn't mean I didn't get more information," Georg said dryly. "You've got an overdeveloped sense of disaster, boy."
"It does well enough in my line of work," I replied. "What do you know?"
"I know that Francois' so-called heart attack was no such thing," Georg said. "I was talking to his bubble-headed little niece on the phone when she called back to tell me that the Book of Siona was no longer on the market, and she said that he'd died of something 'very unusual' without giving any details."
I tapped my fingers on the countertop lightly. Corroborating evidence was not what I needed right now. I needed to know what exactly the man had died of to get a clue what sort of spell had killed him.
"Did Malaysia mention the woman on the phone Cordelia saw in her vision?" I asked politely.
"She did, and I've tried to get the record for you," Georg said. "Unfortunately, this is Burma we're talking about. The records aren't going to get to you in nearly enough time. Signs should be manifesting now, anyway."
I was thoroughly confused. "Signs?"
"You've heard the legends of the Book of Siona, right? Lots of ugly English guys burning up when trying to touch it with impure motives and the such? Madness?" Georg asked.
"Well, that's all legend, but like any good legend, it's the truth exaggerated by an imaginative drunkard who needed a little cash," Georg said. "People have spontaneously combusted while using the book--but that's only when they weren't properly sanctified to use it. I suspect some idiot tried to read one of the spells, offended the god he was praying to, and they responded by obliterating him."
"How is that a sign?" I asked.
Georg chortled. "All right, enough with the dull history lessons," he said. "I hope you don't believe in that nonsense legend that Jesus was fostered in Britain or Ireland. He wasn't. However, he, or one of his early disciples, did stray into the Indian subcontinent early in the Christian era and brought back all sorts of Eastern mysticism along with a few Christian principles. And you know what that leads to in a place as cosmopolitan as the Roman Empire."
I sighed. "Unscrupulous magicians turning the powerful spells into things that Roman housewives and their slaves used unwittingly?"
"You know your magical history," Georg said. "Oddly enough, this sort of thing got very popular with the Romanized Britons and lingered even while the Empire was tearing itself to pieces. Patrick probably brought it with him to Ireland without knowing the danger of it."
"Do you know anything about the signs we might be seeing if the book is close?"
There was a short silence. "Nagas," he said.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Nagas," he said again. "They're a Burmese dragon, used in Indian lore as well. Dragons are big everywhere, and if you've never noticed, in the ancient world, they were all wyrms, which nagas tend to resemble more than the later stylized dragon."
Click. More things made sense in my head.
"Mr. Milanis, can you think of any way to track the Book?" I asked distractedly, trying to figure out how Osiris, Southeast Asian mythological monsters, and a Celtic book of adulterated and Christianized magics fit together into one legendary manuscript. I admit, my very unhelpful brain kept surfacing with Beowulf fragments instead.
"Not in particular, though I may have just the manuscript you need to counter whatever's in Siona," Georg said. "I'll have Malaysia bring it up your way as soon as she gets in. We have your address, don't we?"
"No," I said, hastily giving him directions. "Thank you for your help, Georg. We'll keep in touch."
He chuckled. "Good luck keeping on top of things. Keep an eye out for Malaysia today," he said, hanging up. I set the phone down, feeling strangely exhilarated. I had absolutely no idea of how to proceed and for some reason, that didn't bother me the way that it should.
"What's going on?" Angel asked. I grinned at him.
"We're in trouble," I said cheerfully, not quite sure where the fatalistic optimism had come from. "The heirs have sold the Book of Siona, and there's no way to track it except for signs of nagas that should be appearing any time now--which, with our luck, will be five minutes before Willow and the brigade of howling fanatics who've maintained knowledge of the ritual in the Book of Siona for two thousand years arrive."
"Wesley?" Gunn asked. "Why are you smiling about that?"
"Things can't possibly get any worse," I said. "This is as bad as it can possibly be. So all we have to do is take care of the huge problems we have in front of us and we're in the clear."
Everyone looked at me and nodded slowly, almost ready to back away. Then sanity decided to slap me upside the head and I gasped, feeling dazed. But I finally had some idea of what to do.
"They'd be on the Internet," I said, almost to myself. "Nothing obvious. Nothing that would have anything to do with the Book of Siona. Myths. It would be reconstructing ancient cultures or something that Willow would find irresistible--"
"Wesley?" Tara asked.
"These people, the ones who bought the Book of Siona to bring it to Willow," I said. "We have to find them because Willow's working on the assumption she's doing this by herself. And that's not the case."
Angel nodded. "Hey, Wesley?" he asked. "The Book of Siona was in Myanmar last we knew, right?"
"Yes," I said. "Why?"
"Have you ever heard of the Soldiers of the Daityas?" he asked. "Because I think it might be important."
"The Soldiers of Who?" Gunn asked. "Why does this already sound like something I don't want to be involved in?"
Fred shivered and Cordelia sighed.
"I'm not well-versed in Asian mythology," I said apologetically. "Results of a typical Western education, I suppose."
Angel nodded. "When we were in Burma--Myanmar--we were specifically targeted for attacks by this group. It was mostly locals, though the soldiers technically only had to swear allegiance to the Daityas and their High Priestess. I don't know if it was a genuine cult from the area. Personally, I got the feeling that it was like most cults--bits and pieces put together with the goal being power."
He looked contemplative as he tried to articulate the memories. Everyone else looked bored, which is a fairly typical situation in our line of work.
"The problem with all these cults is that they're almost impossible to link together," Angel said, thinking aloud. "Tara, Willow called on Osiris when she brought Buffy back, right?"
"And the Book of Siona deals largely with Christianized version of Celtic myths, right?" he asked me.
"Well, we believe as much--"
"But the Daityas are Hindu," he said, summarizing his dilemma with vexing simplicity. "And the only reason we've thought about them at all is because the Book of Siona is in Burma. So I'm now officially confused about what we should do next."
Everyone stared at him, open-mouthed. Sometimes, Angel is a mystery, a conundrum, and a large, frightening mass of unsorted information all in one. He'd also managed to stop the conversation cold.
"You forgot about the nagas," Tara said gently. "Also, don't most magical artifacts that powerful have a way of getting exactly where they're supposed to be?"
"Yes," I said. "Not that anyone's ever done research into the topic. It's just a feature of powerful items. Magic gravitates toward magic, or some such rot."
Tara smiled at me sadly. "I've seen that. My mom had a familiar, a robin. The bird always flew into the kitchen, which was sanctified, and my dad would go crazy. But my mom knew, because you know--it was obvious. If you th-thought about it."
I nodded, feeling very itchy suddenly and discreetly scratching my arm. Gunn noticed and looked at me oddly.
"Yo, Wes, you okay?"
"I'm itchy," I said distractedly, scratching my nose intently. "I'm all right."
I then proceeded to scratch my leg and the back of my neck frantically for an overly quiet audience. I was scratching the palm of my hand when suddenly, a lightning bolt of a thought seared across my embarrassed brain.
"The old gods are working together," I said, fingernails raking back and forth across my palm. "That's the connecting link. They're basically powerless now. Somewhere in the Book of Siona is a ritual that will give them greater power among humans, perhaps even widespread worship."
"How do you know that?" Cordelia asked.
"I just guessed, but it seems reasonable to me," I said, tackling an itchy eyebrow. "Tara, were any other gods besides Osiris invoked in the raising ritual?"
"Nu," she said. My eyes went wide. I knew Nu.
"She's a barrier between chaos and order," I muttered. "Angel, daityas. Do you know more about them?"
"They were demons," Angel said. "They challenged Vishnu and the other old Hindu gods."
"Who defeated them?" I asked.
"A warrior goddess. One of the incarnations of Shakti/Devi. Her name was Durgha," Angel said. "She rode a tiger and she's often identified with Kali--"
Oh, God. It was coming together with a dull thud in my head.
"We have to find Buffy immediately," I said. "She's in danger."
"Isn't Buffy always in danger?" Cordelia asked snappishly.
"Yes, but this is even more dangerous than usual," I said. "Angel, can we get a hold of Faith as well? I have a feeling this is a danger to all the Slayers, not just Buffy."
Angel nodded. "I can find a way," he said.
"What's going on?" Fred asked suddenly. "I'm not really strong on any sort of mythology and you're all talking shop."
"It doesn't matter," Gunn said. "All it means is that there's going to be some demon to be chopped into pieces. The sooner, the better."
Fred rolled her eyes. "Do you ever get confused about all of that? Because some demons are bad, some are good, some are all over the place, and we kill a lot of them," she said. "I think knowing names might give me a better insight into why we do what we do to demons."
Gunn shrugged. "Because they're evil and ugly?"
"Don't play stupid," she said, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose. He smiled at her.
"But it's so much--"
We were interrupted by a very loud knock on the hotel door. Cordy, who looked ready to pull her hair out, leapt up and ran for it.
"I'm coming!" she cried, running across the room. Angel looked at me quizzically.
"What's up with her?"
"Boredom and a feeling of being upstaged," I replied promptly. "She is vision-girl, after all, and Tara and I seem to be taking that away from her."
"Yeah, I guess," Angel said. "So do you have any insights to the bigger picture, because right now, we're just rambling."
I shook my head ruefully. "Until we can figure out who Willow's connection is, we're all stuck."
If Cordy hadn't returned with Buffy following along behind her, we probably would have had the time to look depressed and bicker, but as it turned out, Buffy was following Cordelia, so everyone sat up very straight very fast.
"Buffy," Tara said, sounding surprised. "Is it Willow? What's going on?"
Buffy had lost weight since I'd last seen her. She actually had the exact look of a skeleton wearing skin, but given her circumstances, I decided not to notice it. Her eyes were too bright and she was giving us all the look of death, particularly me and Tara.
"I told you not to say anything," she told me curtly.
Cordelia, who was standing next to her, gave me a look that reminded me how much she still disliked the Slayer.
"Because keeping secrets about super-powerful friends who've gone psycho is so smart," she told Buffy. "Get over it. He didn't tell us anyway. Tara did, and she wasn't under orders. So grow up."
Buffy's expression went sour. "Cordelia, have I mentioned how much I haven't missed you in Sunnydale?"
"Trust me, it's mutual," Cordy said. "So what do you want? You're eating up our valuable time trying to get this book that was in Myanmar not hurting anyone before Willow went all cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs and you're not even grateful."
"Willow's gone," Buffy said. "I went over to her place this morning and she wasn't there. The place is trashed, but I found a few things. Also, Xander poked around and found her online journal. It was locked, but we figured out the password."
Tara looked distressed. "She's gone?"
"Into thin air," Buffy said. "We looked everywhere. I don't know how she got out of Sunnydale, but she's nowhere in town. Spike's shaking down the demon population for me. He's supposed to call if he gets news."
It was Angel's turn to look distressed. Cordy was looking daggers at Buffy and Tara was twisting her hands in her lap. That left me, Gunn, and Fred to actually coax some information from Buffy before we all found ourselves mysteriously dead, and Gunn and Fred didn't know Buffy.
That meant it was up to me. Fabulous.
"Buffy, what was in the online journal?" I asked. "Can we access it here?"
She looked at me hardly and then shrugged. "I guess. We have the password. It's heartofgold.onlinediary.com and the password is imaminer."
Funny. I would have never imagined Willow as a Neil Young fan. Perhaps it was just a cover, something made up because it was unimaginable. Or maybe she liked Neil Young.
Cordy turned on the computer and did the dull work of connecting to the website, all the while giving Buffy dirty looks. In terms of brooding, Angel had gone to plaid, and Tara was absolutely silent still, which meant the comfort level in the room was slightly below the level of a Siberian blizzard.
"We've made some interesting inroads into the case," I said, feigning pleasantness. "Which is most impressive, given that we have no real knowledge of the contents of the Book of Siona. However, we are fairly certain that a cabal of ancient gods is working together--"
"Yeah, ones I never heard of," Fred interjected. Buffy looked confused and I realized that Buffy had never even heard of Fred, let alone been introduced.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I've been exceptionally rude. You've never met Gunn or Fred. Buffy Summers, this is Winifred Burke, and this is Charles Gunn."
"Hi," Buffy said flatly.
"Hi," Fred said. "You're that Slayer girl, aren't you?"
"Yeah," Buffy said.
"You're awfully little," Fred said. "Do you ever have a hard time fighting all the demons? Because I've fought a couple with Angel and they're kinda big. If Angel hadn't been there, I probably would have been eaten."
Buffy looked at Fred as if Fred were some form of monster to be destroyed. I took a deep breath and prayed that some sort of miracle would happen to avert the probable disaster.
"They were Griblisk demons," Angel said. Miracle accomplished.
"But those are easy to kill, aren't they?" Buffy asked.
"Well, except for the part where they look like Hwang-Ku demons, which is what we thought they were until they swarmed over Cordy and Fred like a pack of frat boys," Angel said. "Then--"
We all looked at each other and burst into laughter.
"It was like a Three Stooges movie," Gunn said. "I never saw Cordy so mad in her life except for yesterday with the prom pictures."
"Well, it was her t-shirt from the Madonna show," Fred said primly. "And besides, you try being pawed by slimy demons. It's not fun."
That particular digression was cut off by Cordy herself.
"Hey, found the journal!" she called. "And okay, I'm sorry. You'd think Willow, being queen of the computer nerds, would know that you don't put white text on a lavender background. That's just an eyesore. Anyway--oh, shit. Check this out."
We all crowded around the monitor. Tara read the first sentence and started to cry (very quietly, but there wasn't much she could do about hiding tears in such close quarters). Buffy, who had apparently read it before, sighed and flopped back toward the couches.
<<I hope Tara chokes on her "personal space." I miss her so much, but she needs to learn a lesson.
My friend called today. She told me that we have the Book and that soon, we can bind the Daityas to bring up and control Durgha. I'm so excited. Buffy can rest now. It's so awful, you know, that she has to work so hard. But Durgha has ten arms and rides a magic tiger, so I figure she can do some Slaying while Buffy gets some time in learning to handle taking care of Dawn and the house.
My friend knows about the journal and says I shouldn't write in it just in case but who's gonna know? Tara? Right. She's such a baby that even if she did tell people she was worried about me, she'd choke on the next sentence and get all stuttery. And nobody else Buffy and everyone knows has any knowledge of computers.
I can't BELIEVE Buffy called Wesley Dork-boy to help her with the "Willow Problem." Talk about scraping the bottom of the barrel. I would have called Giles and offered him anything to come back and save the day. But Buffy's stubborn. God, I wish Buffy weren't so stubborn. I might have to do something about that...>>
There was more, but it was mostly self-serving and everyone was feeling uncomfortable by now anyway.
"Willow's a fucking bitch," Cordy said. "I always knew she was too nice. It's always the quiet ones. They pretend they're nicey-nice, but give 'em a little power and BAM!"
"Cordy," I said.
"Well, it's true. One time, there was this nerdy girl at school who went invisible, and what was the first thing she did? Try to kill me. Just because I didn't notice her. The unpopular and lame are just as evil as the attractive and popular, they just hide it better."
Tara had gone white as a sheet, but she didn't try to defend Willow
against Cordy's tirade. She gripped the edge of the desk and quickly wiped away the tear tracks on her face.
"Keep looking to see if we can find out any more about Willow's friend," Angel said. "She's the important one. She's probably the one who took the book and killed Francois, and she may be part of the Soldiers of the Daityas."
Cordy, who had apparently glanced over at Tara since attacking the unpopular, nodded silently. They hunched over the computer, and I managed to look graceful when I handed Tara a handkerchief.
"Thanks," she said softly.
"Would you like a glass of water?" I asked.
"That would be nice," she said, loosening her grip on the desk. "I'll come with you. I think they can handle what they're doing okay."
We walked across the room quietly, Tara dabbing at her eyes occasionally.
"Willow's wrong, you know," she said. "About you, I mean. You're totally different than she thinks. And Buffy, too. You might have been a big jerk when they knew you, but you're not anymore. You're a really good person."
I didn't know what to say. I swallowed hard and looked away.
"She's wrong about you, too," I said back. "You know that, don't you?"
"Yes, I do," Tara said. "You know that she's wrong about you too, right?"
I looked down at my shoes. They were scuffed. My father would be appalled at their scruffy condition.
"Nine days out of ten I do," I admitted, looking up at her. "It's hard to--"
I had another one of those moments just then, as intense as a waking dream. Tara could feel it, too, and we both stared at each other wildly, not quite sure what to say.
"I'm glad I don't have Cordelia's job," Tara finally whispered. "Did you feel that?"
"Like an electric current buzzing through my nerves," I said. "That was odd."
She nodded. "I got this weird feeling that something malevolent passed through the room. Like it was listening."
"Exactly. But not really to us," I said. "What do you think it was?"
She shook her head nervously. "I don't know, but it wasn't good."
"Do you think it could have been a paranoia demon?" I asked, voicing one of my darkest fears. "Because this was the feeding grounds for one for over fifty years. And apparently, I'm especially paranoid, so I don't really want to face one--"
To her credit, Tara didn't burst into laughter at my anxiety.
"Maybe," she said. "But I think it's probably one of those daitya things."
I straightened up and nodded. Of course. There was no reason at all to imagine that the demon had returned besides morbid, ridiculous terror on my own part.
"Yes, you're right," I said. "Let's see if the others felt it, shall we?"
"It must have been horrible," Tara said. "I'd hate to have been here with a paranoia demon around."
I nodded. "It was one of the worst experiences of my life," I said. "I've got quite enough self-doubt without a demon who preys on it hovering about and laughing."
"I know exactly what you mean," Tara replied. "Come on."
We walked back to the computer, where Gunn had taken over scrolling through entries. Cordelia was standing above him like a harpy, eyes narrowed, arms folded, and foot tapping.
"The next time I see Willow, I'm going to punch her in her arrogant fucking mouth," she growled. "Fucking bitch."
"Cordy, she said mean things about everyone in her journal," Angel said. "You're blowing things out of proportion."
"I am not a vain, clothes-obsessed flake with delusions of grandeur," she said icily. "At least I don't dress like Blossom ten years after the show was even partially cool."
"How's the searching going?" I asked, cutting into what would undoubtedly be another vitriolic attack on Willow.
"Not great," Angel said. "We haven't gotten much about this friend of hers."
"But good reading," Gunn said. "It's kind of fun to hear all of these private thoughts out in public."
Tara blushed and I stuttered out why we'd hurried back to the computer.
"We just felt one of those weird surges of electricity," I said. "You know, the kind that mean that mystical forces abound? Did anyone else feel it?"
Gunn and Angel shook their heads, Fred shrugged, and we all looked over at Cordy.
"Clothes-obsessed," Cordy growled to herself. "I'll show her clothes-obsessed."
"Apparently, that's a no," I said.
"We should ask Buffy," I said. Tara nodded and we walked over to the couch, where Buffy was staring out into space. I felt another stab of sympathy. There was something hideous and awful about the idea of bringing someone back from the dead. It was unnatural, and even though the world was better off with Buffy alive, I couldn't help but think it was a terrible idea.
"Buffy?" Tara said. "Buffy, did you just feel something weird?"
Buffy's hands were folded limply in her lap. She continued to stare into space as if she didn't hear us.
"Buffy?" I said. No answer. It was getting downright ridiculous, so I leaned over and grabbed her shoulder gently. "Can you hear us?"
Buffy's head fell to one side. I jumped back four feet with what might have been a girlish shriek. Tara gasped and we stood there, frozen in dismay. Finally, Tara dropped to her knees and touched Buffy's neck delicately.
"She's breathing. There's a pulse," she said.
I took a sigh of relief. At least she wasn't dead. But then the true import of the situation hit me and I immediately felt queasy. Oh, God, what had just happened?
"Cordelia, could you call an ambulance?" I asked, sounding distant and faraway even to myself. "Something has gone quite wrong."
Anyone laboring under the assumption that Angel was over Buffy in any way, shape, or form, was quite promptly disabused of the notion immediately after that. He practically flew across the room and freaked out when he was unable to awaken Buffy.
"We have to get her to a hospital!" he cried. "Why isn't someone calling 911? She needs a doctor! She's catatonic! We have to do something!"
Everyone stared at him, agog. A hysterical Angel was the last thing the situation needed, but nobody seemed to have the wherewithal to shake some sense into him.
"Buffy!" he shouted, shaking her again. "Buffy!"
To our surprise, Fred stood up and grabbed Angel's hand. Her eyes were very wide and although she wore a heartbroken expression, there was a certain resolve in her posture one didn't usually associate with Fred.
"Stop it!" she said loudly and firmly. "That's not going to help her. Obviously, that witch girl is responsible for this and the only way to help Buffy is to find her and make her reverse the spell."
Angel paused for moment, crackling with instability. Fred, however, stood her ground, refusing to break eye contact. Finally, he nodded, eyes dark and empty.
"You're right," he said in a dangerously flat voice. "Tara, how do we find Willow?"
Tara, surprised he'd noticed her, began to stammer out a response.
"I'm n-not sure," she said. "Th-there's a c-couple of locating spells, but she's s-so powerful she might be able to evade--"
"Do them," he ordered curtly, turning back to Fred. "You and I are going to take Buffy upstairs and you're going to watch her while we figure out what to do next."
Fred nodded, a bit crestfallen. She almost spoke, but Angel ignored her and promptly rounded on me.
"Wesley, call your rare books connection. Find out where the Book of Siona is," he said icily. "I don't care what you have to do or who, but find it. Then call Detective Ramirez and find out about Faith."
I didn't even have time to nod before Angel strode over to Cordelia and Gunn to give them their marching orders. I collected myself and turned back to Fred, whose lips were set coolly despite the recent shocks to her system.
"You have to ignore him," I whispered to her. "He gets like this whenever Buffy--"
"I don't care!" she hissed at me. "It's fine. I'll do what he wants."
I decided I didn't want to be Angel's apologist any more and turned to where Tara was looking at Buffy. I realized with a shudder that Buffy's eyes were still open. I caught Tara's glance and we both gave each other a little half-smile.
"At least the other shoe's finally dropped," she said.
Before I could agree, Angel had thundered back across the room in all of his cross, irrational glory.
"I'm not *paying* you to gossip. Let's get going," he said, lifting Buffy's limp body over his shoulder. As he turned from us, both Tara and I watched her open eyes staring at us blankly, bouncing away. The effect was grotesque and we both sighed with relief as Angel swooped away with Fred trotting behind.
"So what do we do now?" Tara asked. "Any ideas?"
"Don't cast the finding spell," I said instinctively. "It won't find Willow and it'll let her know that we're looking for her. I'm going to call Milanis and Ramirez, and then we'll go after whoever's responsible for this."
"It's those soldier dudes Angel was talking about earlier," Gunn volunteered from his post at the computer. "We found a link to a website in Willow's journal and did a little tracing."
"Yeah, cuz she's not the only person who can trace computer stuff," Cordy said snarkily. "They're based out of Norwalk--we think, anyway. We're working on the address."
I took a quick breath of relief--better the devil one knows--and hurried over to the phone to call Georg. In keeping with the spirit of the day, he answered the call in a supremely bad mood.
"Damn you Watchers and your disaster-prone behavior," he said acidly. "Where you go, trouble follows."
"What's gone wrong now?" I asked despairingly. I didn't think it was possible for more to go wrong, but obviously that wasn't true.
"That damn Book of Siona, that's what's wrong," Georg said venomously. "You've chased off my assistant! Now tell me, where will I find another one that looks as good as Melly? Nowhere, that's where! Attractive women who know a damn thing are rarer than a sensible Watcher in rare books and you know it!"
"What's happened to Malaysia?" I asked. "Has she been hurt or threatened?"
"Melly? Hell no. It's just that damn book," Georg snapped. "She's gone cracked over it. Apparently, her family's a bunch of damn cultists who had prophecies about some magical book and she's gone off half-cocked because she's now sure it's the Book of Siona."
Oh, bloody hell.
"Do you have any idea where the Book is now?" I asked desperately. "Or Malaysia?"
Georg snorted. "You're damn right I do," he said, sending a burst of adrenaline through my nerves despite the good news. "But it's not going to do you any good. A group of them damn cultists bought the Book, bunch of crazy damn kids calling themselves the Soldiers of the Daityas."
Right. Of course. At least there weren't any new players in the game. Of course, this information didn't fill me with elation, but I was saving precious time by learning this without doing the research.
"The Soldiers of the Daityas," I said evenly. "They're based out of Myanmar, aren't they? At least a century old?"
"They think they are," Georg said. "Damn fools. The original soldiers were killed off a hundred years ago by a pack of vamps."
I sighed. Nothing like Angel's tendency toward revisionist history to liven up an afternoon and then promptly shoot us in the foot. Maybe for an encore, Georg would tell me that the Soldiers of the Daityas were demons. Or invincible.
"So what does Malaysia want with the Book of Siona?" I asked, feeling an ulcer build right under my gunshot scar.
"Revenge, knowledge, the general thrill of possession scholars get from owning something rare," Georg said casually. "But she isn't going to get a damn one of 'em."
"Why not?" I asked, surprised.
"Don't you remember?" he asked. "The Book of Siona doesn't do anything for someone who hasn't got sufficient mystical power to touch it--and Melly's as unmystical as they come. So her and her damn-fool cultists aren't going to be able to do a damn-fool thing with that damn book until they can consecrate themselves a priest with actual power. And you'll have The Ritual of St. Bridget before that can happen."
I felt slightly light-headed and dizzy, like I'd been spun around and then told to walk a straight line.
"I beg your pardon?" I asked.
"I have a copy of the Gospel of St. Patrick that contains a pretty useful ritual for stopping chaos and evil. A binding. It'll take a hell of a sorcerer--maybe even a couple of 'em--but even if them dimwitted sons-of-bitches do have a priestess, this ritual will take the air right out of her," Georg said. "I have a copy heading your way right now by courier."
It was the first good news I'd heard in a while, even if we were a little uncertain about our necessary Hell of a Sorcerer.
"Oh, thank God," I murmured.
"So what was your disaster, anyway?" he asked incuriously.
"Your damn cultists have the Book of Siona in their possession along with a powerful witch to wield it," I said. "They've put the Slayer in a trance."
Georg made a small, disdainful noise. I couldn't disagree with him.
"Have fun cleaning that up," he told me.
"Thank you, Mr. Milanis," I said sincerely and sourly.
"Don't thank me," he said. "Just do your job and save the world."
He hung up without another word and I set the receiver back in its proper place, aware that everyone was staring at me expectantly and I had yet to call Detective Ramirez about Faith.
"Well?" Cordelia asked.
"Milanis' assistant is our missing link," I said. "She's been helping Willow, and she and her flunkies probably forcibly--or perhaps not--took Willow to Norwalk this morning."
"That Malaysia girl is part of the Soldiers?" Gunn asked. "Man, we should have known--"
"How do we stop the Soldiers of the Daityas and revive Buffy?" Angel interrupted. He was still in full intensity brood mood, and I suddenly couldn't resist sharing my new information with the group.
"Well, last time, it was a pack of hungry vampires that stopped them," I said dryly. "Do you think it might possibly work again?"
Angel managed to look abashed.
"They annoyed Spike and Darla," he said shortly. "It was a long time ago. I don't know if the part where we were involved really matters."
"No, because it never matters when something you did in the past is connected to a current case," I said pleasantly. "Excuse me, I'm going to call Detective Ramirez now."
Angel gawked at me, but he didn't have time to say anything as I made the call and Gunn and Cordelia headed him off at the pass. That was rather pleasant, actually. The conversation with Ramirez, however, wasn't. After a bit of maneuvering, he rather bluntly informed me that it would take a few hours and it was illegal.
He didn't say he wouldn't do it, of course. Just that I was breaking the law. I told him I was aware of that, but that it was necessary.
"So now what?" Gunn asked. "You still haven't told us what your scholar guy said on the phone."
"He says we'll need a ritual to face Willow, Malaysia, and the Soliders," I said. "He's sending it to us by courier and it should be here any minute. We're going to need a powerful sorcerer to perform the ritual--or maybe more. He assures me the process will be successful."
"Except for the part where we need a sorcerer," Cordy said. "Unless you're thinking of taking on Willow and a pack of crazy cultists who hate Angel."
Everyone decided to talk at once right then, and the room got rather loud until Tara destroyed the beautiful din by screaming at the top of her lungs.
"HEY! SHUT UP!" she shouted. The resultant silence was deafening. We all stared at her as she stood there shaking. "I can do it."
"Tara?" Angel asked.
"I can do the sorcery part," she said. "You've all kind of been awkwardly avoiding the part where I do magic."
Angel grimaced. "I wasn't sure if you wanted to do this," he said. "You're aware that we may have to kill her?"
Tara looked vaguely nauseous, but very slowly nodded.
"I don't want to," she said. "But if we have to--"
Angel nodded restively. He turned back to me, the frustration of not being able to make a move clearly wearing on him. I caught Gunn's glance and raised an eyebrow. Gunn nodded, rolling his eyes. It's not easy working for a manic-depressive sort of vampire with no patience for plans.
"We'll try to prevent that," Angel said. "Gunn, Cordy. What do we know about the cult stronghold? Can we get maps, schematics, anything off the net?"
Cordy snorted. "Do you know how hard that would be? I'm not--oh, hell," she said. "I'm doing my best, Angel. Can someone go and do surveillance instead?"
"That's probably not a good idea, considering that I'm sure Willow's expecting us," Angel said.
"And Malaysia will definitely be expecting us," I said. "I keep expecting the phone to ring and--"
The phone rang.
"Oh, you so made that happen," Cordy said. "You know that, right?"
"I know," I said as Gunn rolled his eyes at both of us and lifted the receiver.
"Hello, Angel Investigat--Detective Ramirez. Yes, that's me. Yes, sir. You did? Thank you--oh?" Gunn said, nodding. "Yes, sir, I will tell him. No, sir, we don't quite know what's going on. Yes, we're working on that--yes, it is that end of the world type stuff. Yes, sir, we'll try to get through this one without blowing up another building."
He paused and his expression turned somber.
"We're taking this very seriously," he said. "And we'll keep you updated."
Gunn hung up and shook his head. "Well, your other Slayer's down for the count, too. The doctors say it's catatonia. They're freaked out and Ramirez sounds sorta edgy, too."
"That's a new situation," Cordy said sardonically. "So what are we doing here? Waiting for a courier to bring a spell while Buffy does a Sleeping Beauty, I try to hack a computer site and Angel breaks things because he's super impatient?"
"Do you have a better idea?" Gunn asked.
"How about--" and Cordy suddenly winced. "How about I have a blinding vision instead?"
With that, she clutched her head, eyes closed tight.
"Cordy?" Angel asked. "What's going on?"
"There are way too many of them!" Cordy whined. "She can't do the ritual with all of them milling around--too many people, too much stabilizing energy, you can't bring down walls like this--"
"Cordy?" Angel said again.
"She has the Book. It burnt up five of the soldiers already. They think she's a goddess of some sort," Cordy said, eyes suddenly open, but definitely not focusing on any of us. "Malaysia doesn't like it one bit."
"Willow," Tara breathed. "Is she okay?"
"There are too many people," Cordy repeated. "The warehouse is huge, but there have to be about five hundred people there. All armed with submachine guns."
"That's rather un-culty of them," I muttered to Gunn. "They should have robes and knifes instead of guns, shouldn't they?"
"They have those, too," Cordy said. "It's freaky. She doesn't like it, but she wants to bring Durgha to us."
She tilted her head and stared at us reproachfully, her hands still holding her head on.
"Malaysia knows something about Durgha. Malaysia's--oh, my God."
"Cordelia?" Angel asked.
Cordelia, rolling her head from side to side now to get rid of the inevitable post-vision headache, whimpered slightly.
"I don't know. I know a lot of other things, but I don't know why Willow's upset," she said. "It's not good. But we're right about the Norwalk location."
"That's--" and even Angel's façade of bravado crumbled. "You all know we're pretty much screwed, right?"
"More or less," Gunn said. "Unless someone here has a way to become invulnerable to bullets, magic, and whatever other toy surprises are waiting for us in the warehouse--and I don't even think Buffy could manage that."
Tara's eyes suddenly went huge.
"Wait," she said. "I think I have an idea."
"No way," Gunn said, flopping down on a couch. "There's no way that's going to work."
Tara shrugged, but it was a steely sort of shrug. She wasn't going to take no for an answer, that much was certain. The rest of us were arranged on other pieces of lobby furniture, trying to figure out a way to convince her that Gunn was right.
"Maybe it won't," she said. "But it's a lot better than blowing up a warehouse, and we're completely out of options--unless you want to combine our essences into a super-being like Buffy and the gang did to beat Adam."
She had a point. I'd seen the ritual they'd used to do that and there was no way we'd be able to do it--not to mention Angel, being undead, wouldn't be able to join us in the spell. Speaking of Angel, he wouldn't agree to any plan that left Buffy or Faith catatonic, so blowing up the Norwalk building was right out.
The idea was still too chancy, too likely to blow up in our faces. I didn't like it, Gunn didn't like it, and Cordelia had refused to even discuss it. She was hiding in the back room, surfing the Internet frantically, trying to find a way that six people could overtake five hundred well-trained cultists.
"Angel? Wesley?" Tara asked, her eyes searching our faces for some sign of commitment. "What do you think? Are you willing?"
Angel looked at her for a long time.
"I'll do it," he said finally. Gunn looked at me over their heads and shook his. No, he mouthed at me. No.
I didn't know what to do. Gunn and Cordelia were completely against the plan, but we'd need them if we were to be successful.
"Is there any other way to do it?" I asked. Angel and Tara looked at me, clearly disappointed. "I think the idea has merit. If the Soldiers are as conservative and traditional as their actions suggest, I think they may agree to single combat between their priestess and ours."
"But that's not what we're after," Gunn said. "We're trying to set up a really awkward ambush and I don't think either Willow or Malaysia is stupid. And this plan requires one of them to mess up."
"We're going to follow the plan," Angel said mildly. "There's no other way."
"No," Gunn said.
His eyes locked with Angel's and nobody dared say a word. Tara stayed very still, twisting her hands in her lap back and forth. It made me slightly nauseous, because her joints bent so oddly that it gave me the impression of the bones being ready to break. I couldn't stop watching, despite the fact it was almost painful to watch her.
"I don't know if we should simply launch an attack without gauging Willow's state of mind," I said, unable to look at Gunn or Angel. "Do you think it's possible she'll stop the ritual if you tell her that binding Durgha is the same thing as binding the Slayer?"
Tara's hands twisted again.
"I don't know," she murmured. "I don't even know if she'll meet with us alone. Did we find a way to contact them, by the way?"
Cordelia chose that moment to emerge from the back room. "Just called Xander," she said. "Willow took her cell phone with her."
"You've got the number, right?" Angel asked Tara. "Call her."
She shook her head.
"No," she said. "We can't rush into this. We want Willow to call us. We want this to happen on our terms--"
Her eyes met mine and another one of those suspiciously convenient moments of connection hit me like a sack of bricks. There was something disconcerting knowing that Malaysia's crazy cult had something to do with that connection, rather than the powers. But I wasn't going to stop exploiting a tool simply because its origin was rather dodgy.
The door opened.
"Is Mr. Wyndham-Pryce here?" an Airborne Express deliveryman asked. "I have a package sent C.O.D. from a Mr. Georg Milanis."
Of course. The end of the world might overwhelm us all, but Milanis wasn't going to lose his best assistant due to our insane friend and problems without getting a little revenge. I smiled faintly and paid for the very expensive shipping bill.
"He made you pay for the courier?" Gunn asked when I walked back to the group.
"It's payback," I said simply. "Georg was very fond of Malaysia."
"Wow," Cordy said. "That's petty."
"Yes, it is," I said, opening the package with shaking hands. The box seemed to be fastened with an ungodly amount of duct tape and finally, Gunn simply handed me his Swiss Army knife with the unspoken injunction to get on with it already.
The ritual wasn't even in a book. It was in fairly good condition, protected for the moment in a very non-PVC bit of plastic sleeving. Georg must have been upset about sending the ritual that way, and sure enough, at the bottom of the package, there was a note.
<<Don't you dare send this back to me in any form but whole and from your own hands. Tomorrow if possible. Good luck. Georg.>>
Typical. I started reading over the ritual, wishing a painful death on the near-illiterate who had copied it onto the sheepskin. The Latin was horrid, and there were inkblots throughout the copying.
"No wonder this ritual's never been noticed," I said. "A six-year-old could have made a better copy."
Tara glanced over my shoulder and made a sound.
"That's bad, isn't it?"
"Not necessarily," I said, sounding more confident than I felt. "It could be that the scribe had a bad quill and made blots in blank spots."
"Or the word that makes the spell work could be covered under the really big blot right there," Tara said, touching a fairly prominent smudge. "And that's Latin, isn't it?"
"More or less," I said, feeling quite disgruntled.
"I don't speak Latin," she said. "Do you think the spell can be done in English?"
"We'll see," I said, a little surprised. "You don't know Latin? Really?"
"No," she said. "My mom said that was men's magic, that we had our own special family magic that didn't need dead languages and dusty books."
"So does that mean you can't do this spell?" Cordy asked.
"No, it means I'll need a little help," Tara said sharply. "The words aren't as important as the power and the will behind it. The words shape the action, but it's the person behind the spell who provides the force to make the action reality."
"So you're still gonna call her out and try to fight her mano-e-mano?" Gunn said, sounding disgusted. "You're crazy."
"You're going to help us, right?" Tara asked, still looking at the spell over my shoulder as if she could find any missing words by staring at the blots intensely.
"Of course," Gunn said. "But I think it's a bad plan."
"It is," Tara agreed calmly. "But it's what we've got, and we've got a little time to make it better, don't we?"
Twenty minutes later, we were sitting at the largest table in the hotel as Angel swooped up and down the stairs, checking on Buffy every five minutes and demanding we work faster every time he returned until Cordelia pointed out she wasn't getting any worse and to lay the hell off. Tara was getting a very quick education in Latin pronunciation as I struggled with the translation of the piece.
"Whoever composed this was a halfwit," I muttered. "I've never seen a worse composition, barring something written by an Oxford first-year."
"Well, he shaped the spell, so suck it up and deal with it," Cordy said snappishly. "So when you get Willow out of the main building, do you want us to call the cops to bust the cult psychos immediately, or would you rather we wait? And what about Malaysia? I still don't see a reasonable contingency plan for her."
Tara grimaced. "I don't know what to do about Malaysia. Do you?"
Cordelia shook her head. She had assumed her field marshal/drill sergeant pose, which meant she was going to have a plan laid out no matter what unimportant thing we were working on.
"We don't have enough information to plan. We know that she's got physical skills, but I don't know about her mystical specialties. Georg says she's not, but--"
"What's it matter, Cordelia?" Angel asked.
"I'm trying to decide who's going to go up against her, you or Gunn," she said placidly, as though she formulated battle plans every day. I pretended not to listen and corrected Tara's intonation of the first two lines of the spell while trying to translate a line that was so poorly spelled and blotted that I might as well have been trying to find missing words in the Beowulf manuscript.
"Cordy?" Angel said. "Why don't you let Gunn and I figure that out when we get to that part of the plan?"
"I like having the plan together before we attack things with weapons that may not be attackable," Cordy said. "Sue me. Wesley, have you taught Tara how to speak Latin yet? We don't have time to polish this to Masterpiece Theatre standards, you know."
"Go do something productive, Cordelia," I said, removing my glasses in frustration. There was an inkblot over an important word, and I had no idea what it could be, because the sentence was so poorly constructed I couldn't get it from context. "Figure out the Death Star's weakness or something."
"I already did that," she said. "If the plan fails, we're ready to stop every non-magic person in the warehouse in five easy steps. We're waiting on you two."
"I have the first two lines. It's the next eight that are giving me trouble," Tara said. "Why couldn't the ritual have been in the original Gaelic? Half the problems you're having are probably from a monk translating from Irish Gaelic to Church Latin."
"I know," I said, feeling extremely irritable. "What's giving you problems in the third line?"
"How do I pronounce adigere a patre nostre?" she asked. "And are you sure about this word?"
We were immediately lost in the delicacies of pronunciation while Cordelia and Angel groaned and went back to figuring out ways of containing the cult menace and the Malaysia problem. To be fair, Tara was picking up the pronunciation remarkably quickly. It was simply that we didn't have the time, and the blots were giving me ulcers just by being there.
"Hey, isn't there some sort of magic that can get the blots out of smelly-looking old goathide?" Cordelia piped up as I was explaining to Tara that yes, ae was pronounced as a long i in classical Latin. "Or a home remedy or one of those movie tricks or something?"
I looked at Tara and she looked at me.
"Milanis will have my guts for garters if it doesn't work," I muttered. "But it's worth a shot."
"Don't you love the way grandmas are the same the world over?" Tara asked. "Magic's a dangerous thing until your best white shirt is in danger."
"Precisely," I said. "Though I believe in my case it was a school uniform. Shall I do this so that you can preserve your strength?"
"It's not hard, Wesley," she said with a smile.
"I know," I said. "But you're about to do something rather difficult and I wasn't sure--"
Tara nodded. "Fair enough," she said. "Besides, I've never actually seen you do magic. I'm sort of curious."
I was curious, too. I'd never attempted this spell myself and my grandmother had warned me it required a certain finesse--or desperation, and I certainly had that. I took the hide out of the plastic sleeve and concentrated on it, aware that at least two of the hidden words were vital to the success of the spell.
I closed my eyes for a second, trying hard to drive any self-doubt out of my head. I took four deep breaths, opened my eyes, and started to chant the words I remembered my grandmother chanting as she looked at my blood-and-mud encrusted school uniform.
I could see myself, the astonished schoolboy, watching as the ruined uniform ejected the dirt into the air and lay there, clean as anyone could want, as my grandmother waved the detritus away.
My lips started making the words I remembered, willing the extra ink on the paper to come away and when I looked up, I almost gasped to see the ink doing exactly what I wanted.
I waved the ink to one side and grabbed the paper, almost hooting with joy. The resultant word was a little faint--more a memory of a word than an actual word--but I could figure this out. In fact, just the traces of letters were enough.
"It worked!" I cried, grinning at Tara. "Did you see that? It worked!"
"So what does that mean?" Cordy asked. "By the way, you got the ink all over Gunn."
I looked at Gunn, who was quietly wiping thousand-year-old ink off his face and trying not to grimace.
"Sorry," I said. "It all makes much more sense now."
"Can we finally go, then?" Cordy asked. "Because hello, you've totally ignored the ticking clock to give Tara Latin lessons."
I gave her a killing look, but she had been patient for long enough in Cordelia-terms.
"We're almost ready," I said. "Why don't you gather your weapons and when you come back, then we'll go?"
"Fine, whatever," she said, standing up and heading for the back room, Gunn and Angel following close behind. "I swear to God, though, if Willow comes here looking for us, I will be so not surprised."
"We're almost ready, Cordelia," Tara repeated. "Aren't we?"
"The two words missing words are repeated in other places in the spell. You'll be able to pronounce them with little or no trouble. And you understand the intent, don't you? Apparently, chaos and its minions were defeated by the forces of order, and this spell reminds them of that--provided that the person invoking the spell is associated with the forces of order," I said. "Does that work for you?"
She nodded, reaching for the spell.
"Do you think they've done the rest of the spell yet?" she asked, her eyes tense. "Or would we have known?"
"I think we'd know," I said, standing up and turning toward the door. That meant I got a spectacular view of the destruction as it quite suddenly imploded with a noisy bang. "Don't you?"
Tara was on her feet, ready to spring or retreat at a moment's notice. I wondered where Cordelia, Angel, and Gunn were. They certainly must have heard that sound--
"You know, it isn't very polite to leave someone waiting," a familiar voice said petulantly. "Especially when it's something as important as a fight that's probably going to include some dying, and definitely some maiming."
"Willow," Tara whispered.
"Who'd you expect? Buffy? Spike? Maybe Popeye the Sailor Man?" Willow asked, swaggering into the hotel as well as a small woman with delicate bones could swagger. "Where have you been, love? I've been searching for you everywhere. Malaysia told me you'd hooked up with Team Loser over here, but I didn't believe it until now."
She gave me a contemptuous look.
"So, Wesley, you suck at keeping secrets and helping Slayers. Maybe you should just stop trying."
"Why? The same lack hasn't stopped you," I said, trying to sound as biting as I could. "At least I eventually grew up and took responsibility for my actions."
"Ooh, big words," Willow said. "Look, why don't you go cower in the corner and try not to wet your pants while Tara and I have a talk, okay?"
"How about you hand over the Book of Siona and stop condescending to everyone in the room?" Cordy retorted. "For your information, Wesley's been working harder than anyone to overthrow your little power trip, and you are so going to lose."
"I don't quite think so--"
That was apparently a signal, because about a dozen cultists and Malaysia came streaming into the hotel, howling like banshees with plenty of weapons and fanaticism. The genius behind their plan was almost immediately evident. Knocking the door in had forced Angel to lurk at the top of the stairs, avoiding the stream of bright sunlight illuminating Willow like a halo. That left Gunn and Cordelia with weapons against the berserkers, with Malaysia smirking in the corner, ready to unleash herself the minute she thought it necessary.
"What did you think?" Willow asked, as Tara ducked an axe. "Did you think I'd come here alone, ready to have a fight to the finish? Are you really that naïve?"
"Willow, you don't know what you're doing," Tara said nervously. "Malaysia--"
"Malaysia explained it to me," Willow said. "I know what I did when I 'bound Durgha' to my will. I didn't think *you* would, though. Did Spike call in a panic from Sunnydale because his love muffin wasn't quite muffiny anymore?"
"Not precisely," I said. "So, you've decided to throw your lot in with the old gods, at the cost of your lover, your friends, and the Slayer. What are you getting in return, precisely?"
"Tired of you," Willow said. "God, you're a coward. Apparently you don't fight, but Cordy does?"
Despite being in the middle of a fight, Cordelia almost retorted to that, but was too busy dodging knife thrusts from the soldiers.
"Oh, I'm sorry, I suppose I'm the one who brought twelve hired thugs here in the first place," I said, looking sideways at Tara. She looked slightly boggled and we were thinking the same thing. Where on earth was the Book of Siona? "So come on, Willow. Share a few more examples of your trenchant insight."
Willow blinked. I'd managed to surprise her just a bit, even though that had been pure luck. She recovered quickly, though, and to my surprise, her eyes went dark.
"Wesley, duck!" Tara shouted, pulling me to the ground just before Willow said something in a language I didn't recognize and threw a bolt of sheer force at us.
"Christ!" I swore. "Why didn't you tell me she could do that while I was insulting her?"
"I figured you knew," Tara said. "What's the plan now?"
"Yeah, what's the plan now, genius?" Willow mimicked. Her eyes were still dark and laser-focused on us while everything around us was whirling with action and the horrible sounds that go with axes and swords and flesh being hit with sharp edges.
"I suppose I'll have to ask Buffy that," I said. "Angel, could you go rouse her?"
That got everyone's attention.
"What are you doing?" Tara hissed at me as half the remaining minions moved away from the defensive pair of Cordy and Gunn and toward us. "Are you crazy?"
"And a little desperate," I said. "Much like Angel must be feeling up there."
It took her a second, but she realized what I meant just as the first cultist got within maiming range.
"Jump," I said. Again, she wasn't quite sure what I was getting at, but she got the gist when I launched myself toward Willow and the soldiers were met halfway up the stairs by a game-faced Angel, roaring with anger.
Malaysia was still waiting in the corner, which was a constant distraction. She knew where the Book of Siona was, she knew what the ultimate goal of this parley was, and she knew why Willow was fighting so hard--and she hadn't broken a sweat, not even with Angel pulverizing the soldiers she'd brought along to help.
Willow, of course, was surprised but not defenseless against a flying leap. I found myself in a heap at the bottom of the stairs, feeling like a complete fool.
"Were you even serious?" she asked. "Or was that all part of the brilliant plan?"
"I'd tell you, but--" I paused. "That would be telling."
Malaysia snorted. In the interim, Angel finished killing soldiers and suddenly it was five against two--better odds, I suppose, but something was still extremely wrong.
"Yeah," Tara said, standing up behind me. "We'll tell you something if you tell us something."
"Fair enough," Willow said. "What do you want to know?"
Tara looked at me and I couldn't think of a question. I shook my head slightly, trying to formulate one simple question.
Malaysia laughed, a short, derisive sound that cut across the fog in my head but didn't quite part it.
"Come on," she said. "You have to be wondering where the book is, or why we came to you instead of making you face down five hundred well-armed terrorists in Norwalk. Don't you want to know about that?"
Her eyes were glowing with smug calmness and her smile was malicious in its tight, upturned corners. Asking about the book wouldn't benefit us anything, and as for asking why--
"They wouldn't need the book if they'd already done the ritual," Tara said suddenly. "Oh--"
"Did you just now figure it out?" Willow asked. "The ritual's done. You should have realized that when Buffy did the spacey bit--"
"So where's all the chaos?" Cordelia asked. "Did you do all that so that Buffy could go super-catatonic, because hell, there had to be a better way to do that."
She and Gunn were limping toward us, bruised and slightly bloodied. Cordy was cradling her right arm and Gunn had a trickling cut right over his right eyebrow, but they didn't seem permanently bruised, which was a small mercy. Willow, who I gathered had never been overfond of Cordy, bristled.
"I didn't do any of this for Buffy, Cordelia," Willow said, suddenly a shrill adolescent again. Tara looked a little surprised at the change of demeanor and Malaysia simply snorted. I realized I was heartily sick of Malaysia's attitude. If she had been a decent sorceress, she would have been able to cause all the chaos herself. She had no reason to be smug at all.
"Well, that's for damn sure," Cordy said. "What the hell is wrong with you, anyway? I mean, I know you're scary Wiccan-pagan-evil-lesbian-witch girl now--and your wardrobe sure as hell is STILL scary--but you know what? Get over yourself."
I stopped watching Malaysia, who looked flabbergasted that Willow hadn't changed Cordelia into her component atoms, and glanced up at Angel. He grinned at me.
"You're lecturing me about getting over myself?" Willow asked. "Are you serious?"
"I'm bleeding because you're an egomaniac," Cordy said icily. "I'm totally serious. What the hell is your damage, Willow? What wrong has been done against you? Last I checked, your life didn't suck. Your parents aren't poor, you had a steady girlfriend until you fucked that up, you've got a bunch of friends who aren't old or boring, and let's see, anything else about your life that fails to suck miserably?"
Perhaps it wasn't the best time for a rampaging Cordelia rant against one of her Sunnydale friends, but I decided that if we failed with the spell, I would at least take the wonderful image of Willow gaping like a dead fish as Cordy championed us against her to the grave. I would have kept up the rapt attention if I hadn't been distracted by a sharp kick to the ribs from Tara.
"Now, um, would probably be a good time to try this ritual thing," she said. "Before the real chaos starts erupting, you know, like the hotel cracking in half or Poseidon sending a giant tidal wave to cover Los Angeles or something. It'll still work, right?"
"Cordelia, you have no right--" Willow was saying behind us.
"I see no reason why not," I said to Tara. "It's supposed to bind chaos, not prevent it. Are you ready?"
"Keep Willow from throwing anything at me," she said. "And keep an eye on Malaysia, okay?"
I nodded. "I'll do everything I can," I said. She smiled at me and pulled the crumpled spell out of one of her pockets, murmuring the first words of the ritual practically under her breath. I looked over at Malaysia again. She wore a bored expression.
"Having fun being the henchman?" I asked. "Why didn't the Daityas give you any mystical powers?"
"I don't want any," Malaysia said. "Power corrupts. I'm into chaos, not power. Willow over there can mess with the old gods and their fucked-up ways. I want to watch people go crazy and deal with chaos."
"You're not serious, are you?" I asked, trying to pull myself to my feet and finding myself unable to. I wasn't sure if that was the chaos, some injury I wasn't aware of, or some spell Willow had thrown at me. Behind me, Tara's murmur had risen to a low chant, but between the intense high-pitched confrontation between Willow and Cordelia and the sudden din from Malaysia and myself, it was still impossible to hear. Gunn and Angel seemed similarly transfixed.
"No, I'm serious," Malaysia said. "I was a graduate student, remember? I spent my youth covered in book dust without even tame vampires to fight. I'm all about doing something to make society confront itself."
After a moment of wriggling, I found myself able to move again and promptly stood up, keeping a wary eye on Willow. It simply couldn't be this easy--
And it wasn't.
A sudden shock wave rocked through the room and Willow and Cordy, who'd seemed ready to get into a hair-pulling quarrel, were both thrown backwards with great force.
"Don't you love how old gods have timing?" Malaysia asked me. "I found it remarkable. They've got such archaic notions of concepts that were exploded decades ago, but even with those faults, they have timing."
"Which old god is it, precisely?" I asked, wondering how many times the incantation had to be repeated for it to work. "I know Willow's familiar with Osiris--"
"Who knows? Who cares?" Malaysia said, her eyes bright with some fanatic passion. "It's a firsthand chance to witness the interaction between essentialist forces and the skeptical, ironic complexity of social creationism."
Even Willow shot her a look that screamed our disdain of postmodernists. The air trembled again as Willow scrambled to her feet and Tara's voice got louder.
"What are you doing?" Willow asked, raising her hand.
Tara didn't acknowledge her. She merely kept reading, the tone of her voice growing more desperate. The spell wasn't working. I could practically feel her trying to bind the chaos, but she was only one person against a pantheon of old, petty gods. She needed help.
"Angel!" I shouted. "We have to help her!"
"I know," Angel yelled back. "However, there's the part where I'm not much help if I'm on fire, remember?"
"Can't you leap over the stairs or something? You are immortal, after all," I said, trying to reach Tara and offer whatever support I could. "By the way, do you have any idea of how to defeat a god?"
"No," Angel said, moving toward the railing and glancing over the edge. "You?"
"Not at all," I said, listening to car alarms for fifteen blocks go off in shrill, piercing succession. "We don't even have the weapon of a god."
"This is chaos?" he asked. "Seems like everything else we've dealt with, except the magic part's not working yet and it's low on slime."
"Blood is almost as bad," Cordy said, looking at the ruined furniture and rugs. "We're going to have to get a small business loan to cover this damage."
For people about to die horribly at the hand of a random god whose footsteps were making the very air quiver, we were being surprisingly flippant--except for Tara.
"If the building survives," Gunn said, hefting his axe awkwardly. "I guess the spell isn't working."
Tara had sunk onto the stairs, looking at her feet. Willow was laughing, but she didn't sound particularly triumphant. Apparently, dead soldiers, an unhappy ex, and impending divine visitations weren't as fulfilling as she'd imagined.
"We're out of ideas, aren't we?" Cordy asked. "I told you we needed a better plan."
"What were we supposed to do, Cordelia? Dream up a plan?" Angel asked, watching the sunlight nervously.
It was suddenly manifestly obvious what I needed to do. I ran to Tara, grabbed the spell and looked at it. The damn spell needed something to happen before it would work. Georg could have included some context--
"What on earth are you doing now?" Malaysia asked. "You're not still trying to win, are you? I mean, I know you're a professional good guy by trade, but in real life, the good guys do lose when they're outgunned as obviously as you are."
The chaos was bound by divine obligation, I remembered. It wasn't a power thing, per se. The old gods had to honor the contract served on them by Durgha and the other chaos-binders. And hadn't most scholars agreed that St. Bridget was a bastardization of the old Celtic goddess Brigid? Apparently her power had been used to do some chaos-binding once Christianity had been adopted in Ireland.
"Wesley?" Tara asked, eyes bright with anxiety. "The sun has suddenly been blocked by something very big. Whatever you've thought up needs to be done now. Like now now."
I closed my eyes and tried not to get a last minute attack of nerves stemming from heroic inadequacy. The dream--I had forgotten about that dream, but it had to mean something. Didn't it?
I didn't have time to think about it anymore. Outside, the trees were shaking like we'd been caught in a gale, and I heard the distinct sound of a car being crushed, hopefully just to stop the alarm and not with anyone inside of it.
Didn't have time to think.
Why didn't the spell work? What had Becky Ann said in the dream? It had been Hey Jude--but what was the import? It was about connections--
"Wesley, now!" Tara shouted. While I'd been trying to think, Willow had gotten her evil groove back on and was heading toward us, eyes darkened and lips set coldly. "Do something!"
I grabbed her hand. It hurt to do it, something that flashed in my head like a cartoon light bulb. Connections.
"Grab Willow," I said, feeling strangely calm. Either this was going to work or we were all going to be dead within five minutes. There wasn't any time left to worry. "Then say the spell and mean it."
"Do it," I said as Willow came within grabbing range, Malaysia close behind. "Now!"
The sun had gone dim and something that sounded like thunder rattled through the sky. I could smell the ozone smell that marked a summer storm everywhere but here.
It was going to rain, but I wasn't quite sure what.
"Tara!" I shouted. "What are you waiting for?"
The first rush of rain hit the dry, hot pavement. Thunder crashed again, closer this time. For the first time, I could hear someone not in the hotel speaking.
He was speaking Old Norse. That simply was not good.
Tara dug her fingernails into my palm, reached out, and grabbed Willow before she could unleash another spell. Willow screamed.
"What are you doing?" she shouted, trying to free herself from Tara. "Let go of me."
"I don't remember the Latin," Tara said. "Could you help?"
Malaysia had taken hold of Willow and was trying to pull her loose, with little or no result. My arm was numb except for the burning sensation running up and down the muscles and nerves. I heard another high, sizzling peal of thunder.
"Yes," I said, listening to the rain fall, sounding like a veritable deluge. I started to chant the spell, Tara repeating the words a heartbeat later. Her voice was high and clear, cutting through the growing din. I had to keep talking louder to be heard, but Tara's voice was clear through everything.
I repeated the last line of the spell, feeling ten years older than I had a minute ago. Willow was still being held fast by whatever mystical force was connecting the four of us, and she was yanking at her caught hand, shrieking and cursing. Malaysia seemed more patient and prosaic, though when I caught her gaze, she gave me a very dirty look.
The thunder and lightning were close now. Another minute and it would be over, one way or another.
Tara practically screamed the last words of the spell into the storm, which was blowing into the hotel with gale force. I realized, dimly, that everyone else had taken shelter. We hadn't been driven back one step.
I started counting heartbeats.
On the seventh heartbeat, I lost consciousness about half a second after my head exploded in pain. Not the literal sort of exploding, of course, but I probably wouldn't have minded that.
Then there was the blackness and silence that goes with being unconscious.
I was out for a while. It would have probably been more interesting if I'd had a vision or a dream or something, but nothing. The next thing I remember is blinking frantically, trying to focus my eyes.
"Bloody hell," I murmured, feeling dizzy.
"Wes?" Gunn asked. "You finally back with us, bro?"
"I think so," I said. "Bloody hell. I hate getting knocked out. Did we win?"
"Yeah, we did," Gunn said. "I thought we were screwed, but at the last moment, that spell you did worked and there was some serious white light and then--"
He gestured around. With a heroic effort, I managed to turn my head to where he was pointing.
There was no blood, no dead soldiers, nothing. The hotel was immaculate. I didn't understand.
"Did we already clean up the mess?" I asked dazedly.
"I'm saying after the white light flashed through, there wasn't any mess to clean up," Gunn said. "You were still out cold."
"Are you sure we're alive?" I said. "Where's everyone else?"
"Tending the wounded," Cordy said from across the room. "Or, in Angel's case, upstairs being stalker ex-boyfriend until Spike shows up with Dawn. So, congratulations on having the brainstorm that saved the world and stopped scary Willow and scary Malaysia, by the way."
"Thanks," I said. "Where are they? Somewhere not good, I'm imagining."
Gunn shook his head. "They're upstairs. Willow's twitchy as hell. I think she's got some sort of divine punishment going on. Malaysia's gone wacky and we called Georg to come get her."
"And the Book of Siona?" I asked, not quite able to piece together what had happened. "None of this makes sense, Gunn."
"The Book's in the back room, waiting for you to destroy it," Gunn said. "Look, Wes, calm down. It's over."
Over. Was that possible?
I stared at the ceiling, listening to a mysterious sound that I finally realized was rain.
"Wes?" Gunn said. "You okay? Wes?"
It was over. But there was so much left to deal with I felt like we hadn't even begun.
"I'll be fine," I said. "Just give me a second."
Epilogue Three Days Later
"Freak thunderstorm," Cordy said tiredly. "Can you believe that? We were visited by some serious chaos and some scary old gods and it's written off as a freak thunderstorm."
"Sunshine, people believe the simplest explanation," the Host said, refreshing our drinks. "Even if it's totally wrong. So, how are you wacky kids doing?"
"Busy," I said, sipping my martini and watching in horror as a Narchak demon tried to get the crowd to sing along to 'Wig in a Box' with little success. "We're tying up loose ends."
"You mean like the sour-faced ex-witch over there?" the Host asked. "Angelcakes is almost as worried about her as he is about the Slayer, and that's saying something."
Indeed it was. Willow was really our only leftover problem. Malaysia and her "cult," in one of the most anticlimactic discoveries of the entire affair, turned out to be a bunch of gang members and muscle hired by the ten fanatics who'd accompanied Malaysia and Willow to the hotel. Even the dead fanatics hadn't been a problem. The spell, as it turned out, reversed all of the effects of the chaos as if they'd never happened, which meant living fanatics--
Except for the part where they'd been deposited back in the warehouse with their hired (and unpaid) thugs, quite defenseless. The ensuing brawl had been rather spectacular according to the six o'clock news.
"I think she should go to jail, or something," Cordy said, nibbling on cocktail peanuts. "Of course, she hasn't committed any actionable offenses--well, except for the conspiracy and the attempted murders and the assault on the insane post-doc librarian."
"Speaking of your friend Malaysia, is she really crazy?" the Host asked. "Or did she just have a temporary leave of absence from sanity?"
"No, she's gone. Apparently too many years with theory will turn your brain to grape jelly every time," Gunn said, sliding in next to us. "I can't deal with the weirdness down there, yo. I can't tell if Angel and Buffy are going to attack each other or get down."
The Host snorted. "Not as long as Mr. Tall, Blonde, and Vampy is in the picture," he said. Cordelia rolled her eyes.
"Spike," she said contemptuously. "Maybe he can take Willow on an extended tour of places that aren't California--or America. It would solve a lot of problems if they both decided Canada was a better place to live."
"Cordy, honey," the Host said. "You know that's not going to happen. Though it wouldn't hurt if your friend over there got out of town for a while and got some perspective. She's feeling very sorry for herself and your Slayer friend's starting to be swayed by all the self-pity."
"Of course," Cordelia said nastily. "So when are they going to put her on stage so you can figure out why Miss Consequence-Free decided to go evil?"
Lorne shook his head. Cordy and Gunn looked flabbergasted, though I really wasn't surprised for some reason.
"They're not," he said. "Does it really matter why she did the bad things? They've been done and thanks to you guys, the day is still saved. She's even gotten the bonus prize of losing her powers, which she worked hard to gain and improve--though I think it's safe to say in Willow's case, those powers corrupted."
"Well, that's great," Cordy said acidly. "Poor Willow lost her powers after she went power-mad, so let's forgive her for selling us out to a bunch of gods and almost making the world end!"
She took a quick, violent swig of her drink and grimaced.
"Cordy?" Gunn asked.
"I don't know why it makes me so mad that we're treating her--the same way we treat everyone else who's looking for redemption, except that she's not really looking," she said. "I have serious Willow issues, I guess."
She glared at Willow, sitting sullenly between Buffy and Angel. I thought about it for a moment. I didn't really blame her at all, and from the sympathetic silence, I didn't think anyone else did, either.
"It'll come," I said. "When you were the nastiest girl in Sunnydale history, you weren't looking for redemption, either. There'll be a moment and then--"
"I know," Cordy said, watching the quartet wearily. "Should one of us go down and tell Fred the real party's up here? I think it's really mean to let her pine over Angel in front of Buffy."
"How did we let that happen?" I asked bemusedly. It seemed almost comic, worrying about Fred's crush on Angel after the week we'd had.
"We were driven away by the weird mojo," Gunn said. "Hey, wasn't Tara supposed to meet us here? I was going to get her a drink as part of thanking her for stopping the chaos."
"She called," I said. "She's running late. And she didn't sound too keen on coming, really."
We all fell silent, even Lorne, who was keeping an eye on the demon mangling another rock masterpiece. It seemed terribly wrong that Willow was sitting peacefully with Buffy and Angel while Tara, who'd proven herself in a million ways, was still wary about showing up. The silence might have lasted the rest of the evening if the guest of honor hadn't proved us wrong and showed up.
"Wow, you guys are really gloomy," Tara said, sitting down next to Cordy. "What's wrong?"
"Your hair!" Cordy cried. "You cut it off--and it's totally cute."
Tara fluffed her short, jagged cut self-consciously. It was cute and definitely impish. The outfit looked new, too.
"Do you think so?" she asked.
"Oh, completely," Cordy said. "And you went to Sephora, didn't you? I love the new eyeshadow."
Tara smiled, looking less careworn than I'd ever seen her.
"Well, I spent most of the afternoon making some decisions about my life, so I decided to commemorate the occasion by making some changes and celebrating the moment," she admitted. "So, this is Caritas? It's cool."
"Thank you, honey," Lorne said, beaming with pride. "You're Tara, and it's nice to finally meet you, especially with all the wonderful things these kids have been thinking about you. Have a seat. First drink's on me."
"Great," Tara said, grinning. "Thanks. So where's everyone else?"
"They're over there," Gunn said. "They're not much for a good party, apparently. We had to flee back here to avoid the weird relationship vibes. By the way, your next drink is on me."
"You guys are too nice," Tara said, blushing.
"Hey, you helped save the world, and unlike the rest of us, you did it with a minimum of bitching," Gunn said. "If you ever decided to come down here permanently--well, if Angel's dumb enough not to see you'd be great on the team, I know a bunch of vamp hunting kids who'd give you your props."
Tara's blush deepened and she looked over at the table where Willow, Angel, Buffy, and Fred were stolidly watching as a shaggy thing that rather resembled Chewbacca clumped up on stage to sing a Tom Waits song.
"I'll keep it in mind," she said. "Because, um, I've decided. I'm not going back to Sunnydale for a while. Not just because of what happened with Willow, but because it feels like it's a good time to take a semester off and figure out what I'm doing. I kind of ran to college to get away from my family and then I fell for Willow before I turned around twice and now I think it's time to do some soul-searching."
It was surprise, but not a bad surprise. Cordy looked like she wanted to say something, but instead she shook her head.
"Good call," she said finally. "It kinda sucks that you're not going to do your soul-searching around here, but it makes sense. But seriously, whatever you decide, tell us, and not because you're part of the world-saving team. We like you."
Tara smiled again, playing with her hair shyly.
"Thanks," she said. "I--thanks."
Onstage, the furry thing was putting heart and soul into the ballad, singing strenuously and tunelessly about Napoleon weeping in a carnival saloon, but for some odd reason it was touching. Maybe it was the strong drinks Lorne was mixing, maybe it was some empathic vibe the mighty Chewbacc was putting out, but I doubt it.
"Not to sound like a greeting card, but I guess at even the worst moments, it's the bonds we make with each other that keep us going," Lorne said, handing Tara her drink. "Jeesh. Color me maudlin."
Gunn nodded without meaning to and I found myself doing the same thing.
"It's catching," Cordy said. "But you know what? The world almost ended--again. We have no idea what to do about Willow, and Tara's leaving to go soul-search. Buffy and Angel? Still a soap opera with no end in sight. Fred? Still crazy, and definitely in love with Angel."
"And?" Gunn asked.
"And I don't care tonight. Tonight, I'm feeling the love," Cordy. "In fact, I propose a toast."
Lorne poured her another drink. "What to, sunshine?"
"To--" and Cordy paused. She looked at me, she looked at Gunn, and Tara, and the Host, and finally she looked at the strange tableau of Willow, Fred, Buffy, and Angel. A strange, wistful little smile that was much too old for her crossed her face as she looked back at us.
"Time and hope."
We all raised our glasses in silent agreement.
"But I love my arms! That's where my hands live."
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