Clocks of the Long Now
Chapter 31: Boldly They Rode
Fandom: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Warnings: Graphic violence, adult language, sexual situations, character death, rabbits.
Disclaimer: The characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are owned by Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Fox studios and maybe various other entities that I am unaware of but totally respect and admire. This story is not meant to infringe upon anyone's rights, only to entertain.
Chapter 31: Boldly They Rode
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
- Alfred Lord Tennyson
It was close to dawn when Kennedy's troops returned to All Hallows, a band of red sky cresting over London’s horizon like a wave of blood.
She let Rhonda carry the case.
This was all about professionalism. Generals didn’t do grunt work. That’s what the Rhondas of the world were for. Kennedy needed to play it loose, be ready for anything. She kept telling herself these things, hardly noticing how she was practically glued to Rhonda’s side, and how her eyes were drawn to the briefcase again and again, like fish on lures.
So much power there.
It got her thinking about “Thunderdome” again, back in the old Sunnydale days. Buffy and her best buds had tricked them, of course; used them as bait for the Turok-Han. Every Potential could’ve easily been slaughtered that night, and the Slayer knew it. But it was the show that mattered. Buffy needed them to see what strength looked like, and that show of strength was more important than any single one of their lives. The courage of that calculation still captivated Kennedy, all these years later.
Strength, Kennedy knew, wasn’t the willingness to sacrifice yourself for a cause. That was just martyrdom; surrender by another name. The willingness to sacrifice others was much harder. It required wisdom and toothy grit, and displayed the sort of heroism they never tell you about in storybooks. In order to write history, you needed to dip your pen in the blood of inferiors.
This was real morality, stripped of all its fairy tales and fantasies. This was the morality of Truman, of Hiroshima. It was this same morality that lurked in the nondescript briefcase, the one gently swinging in Rhonda’s undeserving hand.
Yes, Plan B was messy. But the show would be spectacular, and the entire world would be her audience.
She thought of all the little bureaucratic pissants who tried to sweep the ashes of Sunnydale under the rug, and all those suckups and parasites who pretended L.A. didn’t nose-dive into Hades right before their beady little eyes. They thought they could put the lid back on Pandora’s box, but their day was quickly drawing to a close. Tonight, Kennedy would show them her strength, and the world as they knew it would end.
The good doctor Stark was waiting for them in the chapel, still perched catlike on the dead hag’s altar. Another one of her 'pets' was with her now, its snakelike body entwining the woman’s nudity like ghastly lingerie. The tableau forged a disturbing symmetry with a bas-relief of the sorceress Lilith etched into wall behind them. It depicted the witch on her hands and knees, being degraded by some sort of reptilian fiend.
“Welcome back,” Nancy crooned. “Was startin’ to worry about you, sugar.”
Kennedy took a wary glance around the chamber. “Where are my soldiers?”
“Soldiers?” she sneered. “You mean, those smelly ol’ things? Why, we sent them away of course.” She jerked her hips once and gasped, suddenly orgasmic. The monster snaked its catlike head over Nancy’s shoulder, mewling in approval. “We needed our -unh- privacy –ahh,” she added breathlessly.
Kennedy tried to swallow her disgust. In the space of a day, Nancy Stark had fallen from madness into something altogether more obscene. Filled now with the Slayer’s demons, the albino’s new powers manifested themselves in increasingly horrifying ways. She seemed somehow able to dream things into existence. It wasn’t magic - not in the Willow Rosenberg school of thought, at least. Whatever tidbits of mysticism Kennedy had picked up along the way told her that Nancy was breaking some very old rules, if not playing a different game entirely. “Doctor Stark,” she said, trying to maintain a civil tone, “forgive me for saying so, but I’m not sure this is the best use of your time.”
“And why’s that, darlin’?”
“It won’t be long before one of the Council’s seers becomes aware of our presence here. If we lose the element of surprise-”
The freak tittered and shook, eyes glazing over with ecstasy. “Oh there’s gonna be a surprise, alright. Big, big surprise...”
Kennedy suddenly pictured herself leaping to action, and plunging a stake through Nancy’s twisted little heart. “Then we need to strike today,” she said. “Preparations must be made. We need a plan of attack. We need to be-”
Stark levitated from the altar. She seemed less human than ever, her white limbs spread like the wings of a ghostly bird. A black wave shuddered at the edge of her shape, and a moment later her pet monster was dead, its body shriveling and blowing apart like dead leaves.
“Ready when you are.”
They drove in silence across the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge. The Institute loomed over the far banks of the Charles like a horrible tidal wave. It was one of the colossal ironies of this world that Tara and Willow had chosen to nest their headquarters so close to their enemies’ heart. Boston stood as a shining monument to Man’s triumph over Magic, the birthplace of the New Humanist Party that was swept to power in the aftermath of this world’s Hell-A meltdown. But after their crushing defeat in Chicago, Willow Two had arrived at the conclusion that the best tactic would be to hide their armies in plain sight, a stone’s throw from the person most capable of destroying them. They even rigged the college’s application process to steer the most powerful and promising young mystics their way. That is, if they didn’t already have their hearts set on Brown.
Formerly Boston University, The Institute was a matter of some controversy in this world. Commandeered by the New Humanist Party two years ago, the school was converted into a full-time reservoir of “Supernatural Counter-Terrorism.” Though the politicians dithered and dissembled about what actually went on there, rumors of illegal magical research swirled in the media. At first there were mass protests, cries of “we can’t stoop to their level” and “we’ll be no better than the terrorists.” But ultimately, people seemed to come around to the idea that, in order to fight an army of witches and warlocks, a little covert witchcraft here and there might be a necessary evil.
And that’s where Rupert Giles came in. Mr. Necessary Evil himself.
“Is it me, or is this plan just a little bit crazy?” Oz wore the same old hooded expression, but something about his tone said he was deeply spooked. “I mean, this is Giles we’re talking about here.”
“Dogboy’s right,” said Harmony. “I mean, we worked really, really hard on training that Loser Army of yours. And what do we get for it?”
“Suicide mission,” Anya murmured.
“Right! Suicide mission. You know, I got killed once, and trust me when I say not as fun as it sounds.”
“It’ll work,” said Tara. “It has to.” She shot Willow a hard look.
They slid noiselessly off the bridge’s black throat and made the slow turn onto Beacon Street. The old campus gates presented an ominous welcoming committee; a sprawling mesh of barbed fences, checkpoints and guard towers. Tara’s glamour seemed to do the trick as they wove their way through the maze, the guards all smiling and waving them through. “Welcome to Boston, Mr. President!” one said. “Can I have your autograph, Ms. Jolie?” asked another. Cute.
Willow marked the scenery on the way in. An array of squat hi-tech facilities were scattered around the foot of The Towers like a pyre, their windows staring blankly at them as the car crawled to a stop in an empty parking lot. She sat staring at the fortress for a long moment, drinking in its long, savage geometries. Wondering if Harmony, of all people, was right.
In many ways, Rupert Giles was the most dangerous opponent imaginable, and the only mortal being to defeat her in personal combat. The man could work some powerful mojo; a fact Willow had once learned the hard way. The Watcher had access to many ancient secrets, and was full of all the wily and ruthless intellect that made Houdini a very rich man. Cunning, dispassionate and brilliant, he was a born illusionist.
But, he was no Artist. There was no creative spark; none of that raw, congenital instinct which turned tricksters and dabblers into great sorcerers. His magic was mote purely from books, picked word-for-word from the recipes of real Artists. Giles knew the maps of Magick, but Willow Rosenberg knew the territory itself. She was a native childe. She lived it. Tonight, the Amateur would show the Master how this game was really played.
"Okay,” she said. “Showtime.”
Rupert kept his watch from atop the atrium’s grand balcony, marveling once more at the majesty of Her design. The Institute’s central headquarters had been built to specification, a model of modern supernatural engineering. Her architects had been a diabolical consortium, indeed. A league of fiends cast out of Hell, they’d mastered the art of defensive magic in order to evade the many terrifying enemies they’d accumulated over the centuries. Rupert's dealings with them had been a private matter, of course. Strictly classified.
No need to frighten the children unduly, he thought.
Willow was close, now. He considered the dizzying logic at play. Willow was close, and he knew she was close, and she knew that he knew. And he, of course, knew that. He prayed the vicious circle ended there.
The girl was danger incarnate, with an innate mastery of the Dark Arts that seemed to know no bounds. She had grown quite powerful over the years. So powerful, in fact, that she’d apparently learned how to slip the bonds of Death itself. This was a theory he was anxious to put to the test.
Willow no doubt thought she had the upper hand. Maybe she even knew Ethan was here, skulking through the black bowels of the Institute’s sanctum like some fairy tale monster to make pacts with all his favorite devils. The warlock was a sly old bastard, to be sure. But he wasn’t nearly as quick as Rosenberg, nor as cunning as that conniving little succubus, Tara Maclay. He wouldn’t last five minutes with them, face to face. Rupert found it difficult to imagine anyone who might. They were too damned fast.
Speed was not the only element at play. Speed was a game for the young. It made the earth quake, made legions fly before your righteous wrath. Speed bore you through the gates of Hell on a glorious blaze of lightning.
But speed, Rupert had learned, also made you reckless and careless. Speed was the mother of mistakes. The Englishmen were old and slow, but they were also cautious and fastidious and precise. In certain contact sports, age had its benefits. Or, at least, he prayed it did. He’d find out soon enough.
It was fait accompli that the Witch had devised some way past the building’s many wondrous defenses. That much he was certain of. But the Institute’s traps were not the only arsenal at his disposal. In life as in chess, sometimes the best defense was a good offense.
She’d likely put the pawns into play first; a Vampire and a Werewolf, of all bloody things. A wry grin crossed his face. Was the Mummy on holiday, my dear child? he thought. These two would be mere distractions, if not cannon fodder.
The demon Anyanka would present a somewhat more difficult challenge. The hag blamed Rupert for Xander’s death, every bit as much as she blamed the Slayer. While the Institute would protect him from her more invidious talents, the monster was still ancient, and still filled with the treacherous strength and knowledge of the damned. When it came to her, cautious deterrence would be the order of the day.
But the real threats were the witches themselves; that coven of two. They were deadly enough on their own, but together they were an unholy terror, something to make empires tremble. If Rupert had any hope of surviving the night, he knew that the oldest rule of all would have to be rigorously applied.
Divide and conquer, old chap. Divide and conquer.
There was a noise then, howling up from the well of the atrium like flames. Theirs would be a grand entrance, one for the scrapbooks. The odor of sulfur and morning dew gusted in his nostrils, a sharp wind from Heaven or Hell or both.
Aha. He grinned again, his mistake suddenly blaring back at him in large neon calligraphy.
The architects, in their fits of mad genius, had bound the Institute to her master’s essence. While other mortals risked a hundred deaths at her every brick and stone, Rupert Giles was rendered immune to her many deadly charms.
The price of this immunity was indelible: upon entering each night, he must leave a shard of his immortal soul in escrow for the wraiths who powered the building’s defenses. It was all very legalistic; a sort of safety deposit on a particularly diabolical lease. Apparently, the Witch had conducted a bit of under-the-table negotiation, and bribed her way into a sublet. It seemed terribly unsporting of her.
And brilliant, he thought.
Alright, my darling, fiendish little girl. Show me how brilliant you are...
They stood together in the well of the lobby, the columns of the Towers looming over them like the sides of mountain trench. Tara held out the Scepter of Thule like a loaded pistol, her bee-stung lips a quivering hair-trigger as they crept further into the Institute’s womb. A huge statue rose like a horrifying tree in the center of the hall. Willow recognized it as a half-human aspect of the Loa tradition; a terrifying figure with serpents for arms that seemed to welcome them into its embrace. A series of long ramps spiraled out from its base, leading off into the building’s dark, hive-like innards.
“Okay this place looks, like, really big,” Harmony squeaked. “How’re we supposed to find her?”
“I can feel her,” Willow said. “She’s somewhere beneath us.”
“Somewhere beneath us, she says.” Anya flexed her sword arm, eyes jet black in the atrium’s sparse blue light. “That’s helpful.”
“It’s a start,” Tara said. “Besides if Giles is-“
Before she could finish, a sight cut them all dead. A group of people had appeared about twenty yards away, seemingly out of thin air. The silhouettes hovered motionless in the shadows, apparently aware of their presence as well. For a long moment, no one moved a muscle. Willow could hear their hushed, weirdly familiar voices echoing across the chamber.
“Well,” Anya whispered, “the good news is, there’s five of us and five of them.”
“Maybe we can get in a game of hoops,” Oz muttered back.
Instinctively, Willow took a few steps towards. One of the figures followed suit, matching her almost step for step, its head craning at her curiously.
“Luminos” two voices sang out in unison. A pair of hands ignited, each woman revealing the other with an arc of golden light. For a thunderstruck second, a pair of matching redheads stood gawking at each other. “Whoa,” they murmured.
“What is it?” came a pair of voices from beyond.
The Willows studied one another suspiciously. “I don’t know,” said one.
“Some kind of trick,” said the other.
Two Taras jogged forth, threatening one another with their deadly wands. A mob scene gradually formed around them. The Ozzes circled one another, scratching their whiskers thoughtfully. A pair of Anyas exchanged dry insults, while the Hamonies vamped out and kung fu’d. A dull panic began to seep into the air. They’d been inside less than two minutes, and things were already going downhill.
The Willows decided to put a stop to it. “Okay, cut it out you guys,” they said. Eight sets of bewildered eyes blinked back at them.
“Listen, this is obviously some kind of spell,” said Willow.
“A darn good one, too,” muttered the other Willow, practically oozing jealousy.
“The main thing is to stay calm and not go crazy,” said a Tara. “That’s just what he wants.”
“Yeah, but how are we supposed to know who the real we’s are?” asked an Anya. “Real us’s. Whatever.”
“Well, obviously, I’m the real me,” a Harmony seethed, eyes gleaming like lumps of gold. “I mean, look how fat she is!”
“Bitch!” the other screamed.
“Slut!” They began tearing at each other again, fang-faces gnashing like sharks. Chaos ensued, a tangle of identical parts alternately trying to separate them and egg them on. Then, just as the melee neared its breaking point, another party emerged from the shadows. “Luminos!” sung a third Willow, illuminating the bizarre scrum.
“Luminos!” sung a third Willow, illuminating the bizarre scrum.
“Damn,” remarked a newly arrived Oz. “This is getting trippy.”
“Stop! Everyone stop!” The Willows were starting to get anxious, now. Whatever Giles was doing to them, it wasn’t from any playbook they’d ever seen. And, as sucky as it was, they couldn’t help but feel a begrudging admiration.
Learned a few new tricks, have you old man?
The redheads exchanged looks of silent agreement, subtly nominating their Spokes-willow. “Alright,” she said. “Here’s the plan. We have to split up.”
A chorus of opposition rumbled back at her. “Are you nuts?” an Oz asked. “Have you, like, never seen a single horror movie in your whole entire life?”
“She’s right,” said a Tara. “It’s the only way. Otherwise we could end up with some evil doppelganger stabbing us in the back.” They all stood for a moment, thinking this over, and scrutinizing each other through lidded eyes.
“Okay. fine,” said the Anyas. “So how exactly do we do that?”
Before anyone could answer, two more groups arrived, with another four visible the distance. Suddenly, fresh copies were lurching in from all directions, a bobbing insectile horde of them. Hysteria kicked in, full throttle. Random fights broke out as a chorus of identical voices fought to be heard above the rest. Within moments, the lobby had melted into pure mayhem, an ear-splitting rave full of frightened and angry clones.
A woman started running into the darkness, weaving through a sea of faces that looked suspiciously like her own. She found a service elevator near the foot of the Loa statue, slapped the down button. By the time the car arrived, the jumbled voices behind had become a stadium roar. The Taras had begun blasting away with their war wands, the reports shattering off the walls like sonic booms. She ducked into the elevator and pressed “B.” Closed her eyes.
Stay calm. Stay calm. Stay calm. Stay calm. Stay calm.
It’s just a trick. It’s just a trick. It’s just a trick.
Be in yourself. Be in yourself.
Be in yourself.
B. For basement.
B for Buffy. Hopefully.
One by one the voices began to die into the distance. As the last one vanished, Willow Rosenberg felt a warm red wave ripple through her body. She opened her eyes.
And she was alone.
Oz sprinted down a long, dark access ramp, selected at random from dozens. Somewhere behind him, the searing blasts from the Tara Brigade’s Badass Wands of Thule lit up the scenery like the Fourth of July.
Yep. Too trippy. Can’t hang.
Eventually, the ramp opened onto a long, dim hallway, lined with what seemed like a hundred doors. It looked like Freddy Kruger’s wettest dream.
He was standing there, weighing all of his totally awesome options, when a Harmony suddenly came charging down the ramp after him.
“Hey!” she panted. “What the hell’s the matter with you? I was like, screaming at you to slow down.”
Oz eyed her warily. “Hey Harm. Are you... you?”
“Well, duh! Of course I am!” Harmony shot him a disgusted look. “That’s what I was trying to tell you idiots back there. I could totally tell who everybody was.” Oz just stared at her, uncomprehending. “Like, vampire senses, hello! I’m standing there all useful and as usual everybody just ignores me!”
“Ah,” Oz replied, not totally sold on the logic of this. “Well, are the rest of them still up there?”
“No!” she pouted. “Not after those psycho Taras started blowing everything up. You guys all ran in, like, a hundred different directions.”
“And you decided to follow Normal Guy?”
Harmony chewed on this one for a few seconds. “Well, I figured we’re both all Creature of the Night-y. Could come in handy if we find the Slay Slut first, right? I mean, I know she’s fought, like, tons of vamps and werewolves, but probably not at the same time.” Satisfied with the wisdom of this statement, she crossed her arms and began to blink at him expectantly. “So just, you know, do it, already."
“You know. Do your thing. Fuzz out, so we can get this party started.”
“Okay, like I keep telling you,” Oz said, “it doesn’t really work that way so much.”
“What do you mean?”
“I can’t just fuzz-out,” he explained. “It only happens at certain times of the month. Or when I’m under a bunch of major stress.”
She squinted at him. “Oh. You mean, like that lame-o Hulk guy?”
“Not really-” he started to, then thought better of it. This sort of conversation could go on forever. “Yes,” he said. “Exactly like the Hulk.”
She rolled her eyes. “God, you are just full of useful tonight, aren’t you?” In the next instant, her fangs slid down, game face snapping eerily into place. “Well, let’s get motoring, Normal Guy. Something tells me getting stressed out in this dump won’t be all that hard.”
Rayne slid into the shadowy recesses of the reception hall, eyes sharp on his mark. Ripper wanted the redhead all to himself. There was some history there, apparently.
Poor Mr. Giles and his baggage, he thought. That was one of the many disadvantages of playing the game clean. Everything became so personal.
The blonde witch was left to Rayne, and it was anything but personal. He didn’t know her, and if all went smoothly he never would. The girl was already marvelously disoriented, thanks to Ripper’s prank. Breathing hard, shaking her little stick at every creak and phantom footfall as she trawled for an exit, she reminded him of a fairy tale nymph wandering deeper and deeper into the nightmare forest.
Come along then, luv. The big bad wolf is getting a bit peckish.
“I know you’re here,” she said. “Whoever you are. Why don’t you show yourself?” Her demands echoed off the cavernous walls, never to be answered. Rayne whispered a few guttural words, and felt the Veil of Dagon descend over him. His body began to slide effortlessly up the side of one wall, then out across the ceiling until she was directly beneath him. His arms suddenly felt as heavy as a pair of corpses. When he reached down toward the girl, they looked like the gnarled black limbs of trees.
Then, mere inches from her throat, they stopped. Retreated.
Go on, he willed himself. What are you-
(-doing? You're wasting time, mate.)
He frowned and shook his head. The tentacles of Dagon were squirming around in his brains now, and it was making it a bit hard to stay focused. This pact was a risky one, he knew. The demon drove a hard bargain, and if he didn’t kill Tara soon, it would surely consume Ethan in her place.
As the girl whirled around at a shadow, he reached for her again, his deformed limbs surging noiselessly through the darkness. But this time, the wave of repulsion was even more pungent, slashing at his lungs.
It wasn’t conscience, of course. Rayne had pawned that useless trinket many years ago. And it wasn’t old Dagon either. If anything he sensed the fiend was even more frustrated than he was, growing hungrier by the second.
Come on, lad. You have to-
(-open the vault.)
What? No. Why in the bloody hell would I want to do that?
He felt his strange new body slither sideways, moving under its own volition as it tracked Tara through the room. Rayne tried to think of pleasant things, like the bright sound of her death wails as he tore her body to ribbons. But somewhere in the back of his mind, a deck of cards was being subtly rearranged.
The vault?. Why-
(-didn’t you think of this before? You can lead them there. Seal them all in.)
Doesn’t make sense. The Slayer-
(-is your enemy, of course. Just like Ripper. Think he’d ever let you go, luv?)
The thoughts kept coming, like cold splashes of water. The Dagon was growling inside his skull, now, anxious for its meal. But there were suddenly far more pressing matters at hand. He retreated into a safe pocket of his essence, one of the many he’d arranged for such occasions, and began to chant the Song of Surgat, Keeper of the Keys.
Ia uddu-ya. Ia russuluxi. Saggtamarania. Atzarachi-ya.
Ia zi dingir neenya kanpa. Ia kantalamakkya tarra…
“…Ia zi dingir neenya kanpa. Ia kantalamakkya tarra…”
It’d been about five minutes since Rayne had gone from being his reliably creepy self to full on Exorcist-y. He floated about three feet off the ground, now, his eyes glowing like molten lava. Giles stood a few skeptical feet away from the warlock, with a look on his face that practically screamed dear lord, what have I gotten us into now. And Xander Harris shared that sentiment, big time.
Suddenly, Spike came clattering down the stairs at top speed.
“Right, I’m meant to go so let’s get on with it!”
They all turned to gawk at him. Even Drusilla was stirred from her holy haze. The vampire was a total mess: boots jangling loose, SPF 5000 suit flapping halfway open, helmet swinging in one hand like a bowling ball, eyes all sweaty.
Eyes all sweaty?
"Spike,” Giles sighed. “It’s not that simple. Preparations must be made. This is hardly the time for-”
"Time for you to go, love,” said Ethan. In the blink of an eye, the slippery freak was standing right next to Xander, casually brushing his hands.
"The Vault of Shamesh is open, Ripper. We must hurry, before I realize what I’m up to.”
The old Brits exchanged a weary look, and then snapped into action. This was 'phase two', Xander realized. Now that Bizzaro Rayne was playing for the home team, the warlocks were going to drill some kind of hole between Willow’s dimension and their own. Which, Xander mused, sounded like one whopper of an O.S.H.A. violation.
Earlier, Rayne had poured out a large circle of dark liquid in the center of the chamber. Now, as he chanted, it began to glow like silver fire. Giles fetched a long scepter and a scroll from the retable.
"No!” Drusilla shrieked, freshly enraged by her less-than-saintly surroundings. “You’ll break it! Daddy knows what you’re doing! Bad, bad, naughty things!”
But Xander was suddenly finding it hard to peel his eyes from the other vampire. The look on his face was unnervingly bleak, like a man drowning out on the open seas. He remembered that face pretty well; used to stare at it in the mirror every morning, not so long ago. Their gazes met for a strange moment.
"Where is she?” Xander asked.
Instead of answering, Spike drew closer to the Rayne’s circle. Ripples of dark, spectral matter were beginning to swim out from it’s center. Giles handed the warlock his scepter, and as he chanted the incantation the orb on the end of its long stem began to glow and pulse. The air in the chamber shifted sharply, turning as thin and cold as a mountaintop's. Giles began to read from the scroll.
"Bababararara ante maldada! Bababararara ante gege enene!”
As he spoke the last word, the dark mists in the circle swirled tornado-like, revealing a howling abyss beneath. Mysterious wind roared out of the portal like a jet turbine, almost blowing the paperwork from the Watcher’s hands. Full of horrible curiosity, Xander peered down into its depths.
What he saw there was the kind of Kodak moment that haunts men for the rest of their days. The hole was like a sun turned inside-out, the absence of light. The absence of everything.
Something in the back of his mind clicked on, and he suddenly knew what it was. This was the Now: the face of their enemy. It was what Willow was trying to stop, and terrifying was not the word for it. They hadn’t invented a word for it.
"Ethan,” the Watcher cried, his voice almost lost beneath the portal’s dissonant wail. “What now?”
Rayne turned to Spike. “Take this,” he said, tossing him something small and round. The vampire caught it in one mailed fist, gave it a dubious glance. “The Talisman of Abraxus,” the warlock explained. “It’s so we can find you, mate. Pull you back out, after this sordid business is-"
Before he could finish, the vamp tossed it back. “Sorry, luv. Not taking any more candy from strangers. Occupational hazard.” He tugged the black helmet on, and its growling electronic voice returned once more, suddenly more fierce and alien under the sound of the Now’s howling maw. “Besides,” it added. “Not coming back.”
And just like that, he was gone.
Xander shot Giles a stunned look, but the Watcher was already looking past him at something on the stairs, eyes glazed like a funeral greeter's. Xander took a deep breath and turned to look as well, already knowing what he’d find there.
It only took a glance.
Xander thought, stupidly, he’d seen it all with her. But he’d never seen her beaten. She looked back at him with defeated eyes.
Those eyes would be different from now on, he knew, like a final mile of road vanishing from a map. When you get robbed enough times, one day you just stop holding on to things so tightly.
For years, he’d held open a small place in his heart. It was hard work, prying that old muscle apart, holding out hope that one day his friends would all crawl back inside. And when this happened, everything would be warm and new. They would be a family again. This was the fantasy that kept him going when the giant flaming shit ball of the real world kept screaming at him to stop.
Okay, where are you goin’ with this, Xan-man?
But, of course, he already knew that too. A heartbeat later he was moving, snatching the talisman from Ethan’s hand. “Gimme that,” he said.
He looked at Giles. He looked at her.
Then he jumped too.
Chapter 32: Pistols at Dawn