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DeadWar: Burden of Proof

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  • DeadWar: Burden of Proof

    Disclaimer: If the characters in this novel-length story were my property, I'd probably need to write it much faster so I could turn a profit.

    Ratings/Warnings: PG-13 for violence, mature themes, and character death.

    Characters/Pairings: Ensemble; contains some Xander/Illyria content.

    Beta: Many thanks to frogfarm

    Summary: Willow and Harmony engineer a "girl's night out" in an attempt to make peace between Illyria and Dawn. But the outing turns serious due to a sneak attack by Amy Madison.



    We each wear a mirror, to be sure we will never forget what the damned look like. Until now, we held them only to ourselves. But that is all changed. Now we are not the cast-out, the despised, the unclean anymore...you are.
    --Star Trek Invasion!: First Strike
    , Diane Carey


    Light the candles. Place the offering. Try not to twitch.

    They were going to kill her. She was going to kill herself, trying to keep up with them. So many curses, so little power. One moment on top of the world, the next in the abyss beneath.

    The year before her mother stole her body, Amy had read Marlowe's Doctor Faustus for an English report. In the end, he couldn't give the magic up. The demons had carried him off to hell, screaming and crying, begging even to be turned into an animal so his soul would cease to exist when he died. But he couldn't give it up. She'd thought he was nuts.

    Now Amy was here, in her little shop of curses, and her hands were shaking, and there was a vein throbbing under her eye. And she understood.

    "Korsheth, I summon thee, this sacrifice in token of what I truly offer thee. Come thou before me and I will give thee more, for power's sake."

    She understood.
    ****
    "Amaunet!"

    The small sound Illyria made in her throat struck Xander as oddly delicate, for her, and he looked up. She'd turned her face from the television.

    "You are no different from the archeologist," she said before he could ask what was the matter. "I understand now why you enjoy this series. You are pleased to see gods suffer."

    Xander paused the DVD. "Illyria, it's not that Apophis is a Goa'uld. The Tok'ra are the same species--"

    "As the colonel fondly points out whenever the opportunity arises."

    "--and Daniel always shoots him down, if the Tok'ra don't do it themselves first. It's that Apophis is a System Lord. He's a brutal dictator. He's killed millions, maybe billions of people. Daniel can't believe someone like that could feel love, but even if he did, he's still a complete monster."

    "He is their god."

    Her tone was adamant. Xander forced himself to press on anyway. "No, he's not. That's the whole point. He's a fraud. He uses his claim to be a god to justify doing whatever he wants to the people he rules."

    "And SG-1 uses his claim to justify doing as they please to him." She reached out to the remote, allowing Apophis to finish an agonized moan, and Xander flinched at it before he could stop himself. "I believe I understand your concept of justice now. I will not argue the matter. I simply point out that only the Jaffa is honest about what they are doing. He admits that his god is suffering and revels in it. The rest deny that his suffering exists." Illyria threw back her head and uttered a thoroughly bone-chilling wail.

    "See, I know you're faking that."

    "As are all the actors. But their lies create the reality they wish to express. This is what your kind desires to see--the gods brought low."

    Someone thumped uncertainly on the door. "Xander? You two okay?"

    "We're fine, Will! Illyria was making a philosophical point."

    "Darn," came Dawn's voice. "Thought you'd figured out how to kill a hellgod." Willow's response, muffled by the door, sounded grouchy.

    "She is like the Jaffa," Illyria murmured. "I offer her kindness and she hurls insults back in my face."

    Xander reached out and, when Illyria remained still, placed a hand on her shoulder. "Same reason, you know. Glory tried to sacrifice her and destroy the world. She's afraid of you. Not that you'll walk up and crush her skull or something like that. That you're only pretending to be nice to her."

    Illyria was silent for a long moment. "The problem is the same," she said, finally. "Whatever I do she reads as falsehood."

    "If I could tell you what to do about it, I would." Xander paused. "I was going to say we raised her that way, but we didn't. We might've tried, but it didn't take."

    "You speak of phantasms as if they were solid."

    He pointed at the television, where Teal'c was now standing at Apophis' bedside. "So did you. The monks had us to work with. They followed us like a pattern. I don't think Dawn ever bought the lines we fed her about vampires and demons....hell, why should she, when we let Spike babysit her? I don't think it's the same thing with her at all."

    "That she would compare me to Glorificus is insulting."

    Xander chuckled. "You're definitely nothing alike. I'm trying to say Dawn distrusts you the same way she'd distrust a human. She knows you have real feelings, she just doesn't believe you're showing them."

    "Then there is no way to persuade her otherwise?"

    "Not with words." A notion slipped around the corners of his mind. "I'll say something to Willow. Maybe what you need is girl time."

    "Girl...time?"

    There was nothing at all uncertain about her tone, but the hesitation between words made Xander want to laugh all the same. "Don't look at me--I haven't got a clue."
    ****
    "It's not about the cutting you," Harmony opined. "It's about power."

    "Explain." Illyria looked up at her imperiously, seated on the bed as if on a throne.

    Why'd she let Willow talk her into this? "When you're having a manicure, or your hair done, or whatever, the beauticians serve you. It's their job to make you look your best. They know, like, the ultimate look for everybody, whether you're a summer or...I'd say you're a winter, actually...."

    "Cold and grim," Illyria stated. "Unforgiving as the teeth of frost. Yes...I like it."

    Well, she couldn't very well contradict Smurfy on that. "Um...yeah. Not really what I meant...your complexion...never mind. The point is, when you're having a treatment, it's their job to, well...worship you. And to make you look gorgeous, like a goddess should, so everyone will worship you. Don't you watch those razor ads?"

    "I can modulate the shell as I desire. What need have I of human servants for that?"

    Harmony tried not to snicker. "You can fiddle all you want, but it's soo obvious you don't know what looks good to us. Not that blue-and-bondage is unsexy, or doesn't suit you, but there's so much else you could do, and all you ever go with is that or Fred-in-a-tee-shirt."

    "You have done this?"

    Harmony threw up her hands. "It's been oh-so-long. But yeah, back when I lived in Sunnydale, when I was human, I always did this with my girlfriends. It's great fun, I swear. And you'd be an awesome subject, what with the sitting-perfectly-still thing you do sometimes."

    Illyria's eyes flashed. "I am no one's subject." Uh-oh. Was she going to--? "Nonetheless, your talk intrigues me. I shall go."
    ****
    "It seems so mundane," Giles mused.

    "A court case?" Kate shook her head, trying not to smirk at him. "Rupert, sometimes you act a little...sheltered. It's not all TV drama, but these things do sometimes get wild."

    "In a way, I suppose I am. Not that I'm unaware--the Council did have its resources for these types of things--but this type of battle was always secondary. Demons were not to be allowed to reach the defenses of mundane society, not if it could be avoided. Always best to keep the good fight one of melee weapons and the occasional magic spell."

    "And see where it got you."

    Giles threw up his hands. "Indeed. See where it got us. But also, it still feels like a betrayal."

    "Rupert, it is. They betrayed you. You tried to drag their institution kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century, and they didn't like it." Kate drummed her fingers impatiently on the wall. The waiting was the hardest part. "Right now, their girls feel tough. They're going out and kicking butt, and there's nothing wrong with that in and of itself. Some of them would make good cops."

    Giles chuckled softly. "Buffy would certainly have vetoed you. 'Donuts and corruption,' she always said."

    "She never felt the need for a sugar pick-me-up on midnight patrol?" Kate responded with a scowl. "You'll excuse me if I dislike her a little. But I was saying...those girls are being led around on strings by Wyndham-Price and his cronies. That's not power. They're being used, the way it sounds like the Watchers' Council always has used Slayers. Until you. I'm sorry I didn't understand that when we met. Hell, you're practically Mr. Rule-of-Law, but you were offering me a job in some sort of...shadow government that sounded like it hadn't changed since feudal times, at least."

    "A...government?" He began to polish his glasses. "I confess I never saw the Council in that light."

    "A police force. An intelligence agency. None of those things exactly. Are you really telling me you didn't see it?"

    "The metaphor of choice has always been that we were fighting a war. That could be considered governmental, after a fashion, I suppose."

    Rupert was so earnest. Sounded like a romantic at heart. How'd he manage to get so old with that idealistic streak intact? "A war with one soldier on your side and a dozen armchair generals." She snorted. "The closest analogy I'd make...the Slayer was the sheriff, in the tradition of the Old West. She brought law where there wasn't any. And that wasn't a bad thing."

    "But ultimately there has to be more to the rule of law than the Sheriff and her deputies putting holes in the chests of bad men?"

    That was better. Kate reminded herself again that they were the ones on the same side here. "That's it. Obviously I had my share of tangles with the bureaucrats; I don't idealize the red-tape bleeding-heart ideology some people want to slap onto police work, but there's a tension there, sort of a give-and-take. We push them not to ignore the victims' needs; they push us not to make more victims ourselves."

    "I don't understand what role you're placing the Council in, then, if not as bureaucrats."

    "That's a hard question to answer because there isn't any role for what they tried to do. I think...they tried to freeze the situation as the Old West forever. One Sheriff riding the countryside for all eternity, shooting the bad guys without any oversight except themselves, and no support at all. And now they have a few thousand sheriffs, looking for bad guys to shoot. But there's nothing beyond that. I think...did Angel ever tell you about the zombie cops?"

    Giles made the most disgusted face she'd ever imagined. "He did. He seemed to think you approved."

    Ouch. She had that coming. "Not really. Angel was so enthused about bringing them down, I just had to puncture his bubble. I told him the crime rate had just shot back up, which it had. I won't deny I think there's something to that, that 'tough on crime' isn't an evil thing...but if innocent people are being gunned down by the 'zombie pigs from hell', no, something's not working there. Wyndham-Price's Slayers just bombed a damn nightclub. Should some of the demons in it have been in jail? Maybe even strapped into Old Sparky? Sure. But after the courts say so, or at worst because they were caught in the act and someone had to stop them. What do you think would've happened if the LAPD had bombed Caritas?"

    "Your Rodney King riots would pale in comparison."

    "Uh-huh. And they should have. That's not law enforcement. That's...zombie cops. That's what they're trying to make their Slayers into. You...you want something more, even if you don't understand what."

    The courtroom doors opened. Giles paled as if staring into an abyss. "I'm suing my colleagues for the unlawful seizure of a hotel. I never thought.... What do you think it is I want?"

    He looked so lost she gave him a friendly slap on the back. "The rule of law, Rupert. You want to close the frontier."
    ****
    "I love your body paint. But are you sure it won't smear?"

    Illyria gave the masseuse a quizzical glare. "There is no--"

    "It's a new formulation," Willow interrupted. "It won't even run in a sauna. You have to use a special soap to get it off."

    Careanne just nodded. "I can't imagine wearing anything like that, especially in public. But it works for you, hon." She pointed Illyria to the table.

    "Unwrap the towel," Harmony whispered in Illyria's ear. "Don't worry, you're gonna love this. I swear it." She demonstrated, climbing onto the next table over. Willow moved on to the last table, leaving Illyria's other side as the only spot for Dawn.

    "I will hold you to that oath," Illyria muttered darkly.

    "So where were we?" Dawn asked, ignoring Illyria and her misgivings. "You said you didn't trust the Powers?"

    "Willow said she didn't trust we were getting the whole story," Harmony adjusted. "But why? Mmm."

    "Well," Willow said, "for one thing, what happened to the visions? Surely someone ought to be having them."

    Illyria's eyes went wide for a moment as Careanne began to manipulate her spine. "I....perhaps the Powers do not trust me. They have turned to some other where I cannot overhear. Is it wise to discuss these matters here?"

    "Never met anyone with so much tension in her back," Careanne said with a smile. "Hon, what you say here stays here. Not that I understand a word you girls've said so far."

    "Like lawyer-client privilege," Harmony put in, smirking self-importantly. "Willow, what's it matter anyway? If the Powers aren't being honest with us, and the Slayer dreams aren't clear enough, aren't we stuck out of the loop?"

    "Not necessarily," Willow explained. "There are other resources."

    "The prophecies are all scrambled," Dawn reminded her. "They're--ohh, that's good--they're all being fulfilled out of order by different Slayers."

    "All prophecies are made by someone," said Illyria. "The Powers are not alone in having access to information."

    "What, you're suggesting we free an Old One and ask it?"

    Illyria blinked. "Hardly. I cannot imagine any would deign to speak to me...as I am. Let alone the rest of you."

    "Uhh. Wait, Willow," Harmony asked, "are you saying we need to go over the Powers' heads? Because...well, where exactly is that?"

    "There's a theory in quantum computing," Willow said, "and I'm not sure I know how to explain it. There's a certain way that computers can be linked together, and they solve problems faster than conventional circuitry alone can explain. It has to do with parallel processing, but...ummh...you're not getting any of this, are you, Harm?" The vampire was squinting at her.

    "Go on," Harmony said wistfully. "It's okay."

    "You are dull of mind," Illyria stated abruptly. Willow let out an angry gasp. Dawn practically snarled. But Harmony just sighed.

    "Illyria, that was--" Willow got no further.

    "You are all dull of mind," Illyria expanded. "Yet together you solve problems you could not have imagined answers to alone. Each of you contributes some small portion. Even you," she said with a glance at Harmony. "Imagine that there are more of you, Harmony. Many, many more. And you are talking with your other selves, each of whom can see the problem you are dealing with. Each of you suggests an analogy, or a slight adjustment, or an alternative phrasing. Most of these will be wrong, but more of you are testing them as soon as they are suggested. No matter how slow-witted you are, the many of you will be faster than any one could be alone. Enough of you working together could grasp the problem, and solve it, faster than the red-haired witch could do alone."

    Harmony blinked. "Well...er...duh. Of course enough people could do that." She hesitated. "Even if they're all me?"

    "Yes." From Illyria's tone, the answer was self-evident.

    "But there's only one of me."

    "In what Willow would call 'quantum superposition' are all possible variations on an atom. Each atom carries some small information, and each version is made to 'talk' to the others, of which the number is...beyond human comprehension. Only very simple quantum computers have been devised so far, and yet they have answered questions that would take your laptop eons to compute."

    Harmony gulped and began to rub her temples for a moment before her masseuse tapped her on the shoulders. She put her arms back down. "I think...I think I sort of understood that. Thanks. You make it sound like office gossip."

    Dawn shivered. "Did you just explain quantum computing to Harmony?"

    "In some limited sense, perhaps."

    "I think my head hurts," Harmony mumbled. "No, not...you don't have to rub it!"

    Tessa chuckled. "It's my job, miss. I may need a good head-rub myself later."

    There was a giggle from Dawn. "We all might. But Willow, we don't have a quantum computer."

    "Nope." Willow's regretful sigh turned into a moan as knuckles pressed into her back. "I don't think even I could build one with all the Watchers' funds. Nobody's figured out how to get enough elements to stay in quantum superposition yet. And really, for the kind of questions we're asking, I'm not sure the best quantum computers that have been imagined yet could do the job."

    "Then what's the deal?" Harmony asked.

    "I think I have a shortcut." Willow turned her head to look at Dawn. "One of the interpretations of quantum mechanics says those alternate versions of the atom exist in multiple universes. And I happen to know...that interpretation's the right one."

    Dawn reared back so fast she fell off the table with a thud. "Ohmygawd." Her head popped up; she stared at Willow, wide-eyed. "You wouldn't...I thought we broke you off the weird experiments...I..." She spun to glare at Illyria. "This is your idea. You talked her into...into experimenting on me. Using me."

    "Dawnie, no..."

    "I have only now heard the suggestion, and you accuse me?"

    "You're willing to--what, burn out my brain?--so you can use me as the Key to contact other universes."

    "She didn't say that," Harmony insisted. "Um, did she? Did you?"

    "Ladies," Careanne pointed out, "this is kind of ruining the whole point of the exercise here. Do you want to come back later? We can reschedule you."

    "Return to your places," Illyria commanded. "Allow me to handle this. Dawn...come aside with me."

    "Illyria...." Willow sounded troubled.

    "Trust me." Illyria put out her hand as if to grasp Dawn by the shoulder, then seemed to think better of it. She held it out for Dawn to take instead. "This must end. I mean you no harm." With her other hand, she picked up Dawn's towel and offered it to her. "Will this ease your mind?"

    "Nuh-uh. Not really." Dawn gave Harmony a pleading look. Harmony only huffed at her grumpily. Willow flicked her fingers toward the changing room. "Fine." She wrapped the towel around herself. "If I get turned into a ball of energy and used up, don't bother looking for me."

    "What purpose would that serve?" Illyria's expression deepened into a scowl that Dawn realized she'd never seen before as they entered the small space. The Old One generally expressed anger more forcefully. "I have said this before: I am home. I ruled from here. This place was mine. I need you for nothing."

    "You gonna get a towel?" Illyria lifted an eyebrow at her and simply crossed her arms. "All right, you don't need me, so what is it you want? There's no point in pretending to be my friend."

    "Pretense is of no interest to me. What I want...." Illyria trailed off into muttering for a moment. "When I was whole, when I was...sane...I was sufficient unto myself. I feel, now, the need for...companionship. Conversation. If that is what you call friendship...then yes, Dawn Summers, Key to All Realities, what remains of Illyria the God-King would be your friend." Her mouth rolled around that last word as if it were a rotten fish she was being forced to swallow.

    "This is not happening." Dawn wanted to curl up into a ball and hide her eyes. "What, you expect to hug and make up and be BFFs?"

    "I expect that you will realize your potential. I desire to witness your apotheosis when you accept who and what you are." Illyria studied Dawn's face carefully before proceeding, tentatively. "Hugging...is optional." After a brief pause, there was a faint, expectant upward tug to one side of her mouth. "Not humorous. I will try harder."

    Dawn's eyes widened. "You were trying to make a joke?"

    "About you? Never. I believe I understand and...accept that you remember nothing of being the Key in its true form. You perceive that state of being as nonsentience, as becoming a tool to others. I too would find that unsatisfactory, for either of us. Nonetheless its power is a part of your being, awaiting reclamation. You should reclaim it. Anything less is unworthy of you." She finished with a sigh. "But about the embracing, yes, I intended to break tension between us with humor, and evidently I failed. That, I am gradually becoming inured to. Hugging, I still find distasteful."

    "You'll have to get over that if you want to have a relationship with Xander. Physical contact, you know...good?" The pained expression on Illyria's face at that almost made her burst into nervous giggles. "Look, I'm sorry, okay? If you really mean what you're saying about me and the Key, then I guess you're trying to be nice. I just don't associate Keyness with anything that doesn't scare the hell out of me. But I've done things...worked spells...and maybe you have a point. And I'm sorry you give me the creeps, but you do. I don't know if we can ever be friends like you want. Especially if you only think we can be friends after I've...apotheosed? Apotheosized?"

    "I don't believe there's a verb derived from that term."

    "Yeah, or any other verb we use around here." Dawn shook her head and offered her right hand. "Okay. You're trying to be Ms. Nice Old One. I can go with that. The rest we can work on. But personally I want to get back to my massage."

    Illyria shrugged and shook her hand in an unexpectedly unforced manner. Her palm was just short of painfully hot. "I agree. It was...pleasant, despite the intrusion on my personal space. But about Willow's proposal--"

    "I'll think about it. But no more talking about it for now, okay? This was supposed to be a night out, not a freaky discussion of Willow's latest power-mad scheme. Now let's get back before Willow or Harmony or one of the masseuses decides we're having naked fun time."

    Illyria lifted one eyebrow. "I am naked. Talking with you could be considered 'fun'." She got up and strode toward the door.

    "And you think you can crack jokes with an attitude like that?" Dawn started to shake her head in disgust.

    Then Illyria opened the door and called out, "Naked fun time is now over. I wish to resume my massage."

    Dawn went crimson. Her jaw dropped. "You freak!" She leapt up and ran for the door. "There was no naked fun time, you...you...!" Illyria just looked at her.

    Willow was smirking. Harmony wasn't even trying to suppress a fit of laughter. The masseuses merely looked confused.

    "I'll get you for this, you know," Dawn muttered, and resumed her place on the table. While laughing her ass off.

    Maybe Illyria wasn't so bad.
    ****
    Xander watched the lawyers go. "You're completely serious about this, aren't you?"

    Anne regarded him coolly. "Terrorists blew up a building around me. People died. Weren't you friends with Clem, once upon a time before you went all paranoid?"

    "I...I don't know that I'd say we were friends. Maybe...kind of. Yeah, I guess."

    "He's dead. He's gone. Miss him?" Anne began to scribble in her notebook. "Yes, I am completely serious. I'm going to go to court, and I'm going to testify against some Slayers for murder, arson, and anything else we can get them charged with. I'd think you'd want that too."

    "But they were...you're...I'm not going to be able to finish that sentence in any acceptable way, am I?" Xander reached up to wipe his hand across his face. "I'm just saying, isn't this in a general sort of way what Slayers do? Buffy burned down her gym at Hemery before I ever met her. Should they've charged her with arson?"

    "Maybe they should have." Anne lifted a finger to cut off his response. "I know, I know. Standing alone against the vampires, the demons, the forces of darkness....Xander, this isn't my war, and it wasn't Clem's. We're just caught in the crossfire. Look at me. Yes, I'm a vampire. I am not a force of darkness. Not any more."

    "You know, I never bought that line with Angel." He sighed heavily and leaned across the table. "But I did with Anya. Somebody called me on that one just lately. So I'm not sure it's my place to argue about it."

    "If you know someone who wants to bring charges against me, then they should," Anne said calmly. "Joan wasn't...I did things as Joan...that's not the point. The point is, there are actions people have to be held accountable for. My job at the shelter is about helping people. Not fighting demons. I've had to do that a few times, too, but it's not what I'm about. If that's what a Slayer's job is--fighting demons without any concern for who needs help or who's doing the hurting--then I'm not on their side. Not just because I'm a vampire now, though it does sort of change your perspective. I'm a person first, before I'm anything else, and when I see other people who need help, I try to give it to them. I don't care what 'kind' of person."

    "You make it sound like we should have been looking for a way to..." Xander searched for a moment. "...to 'fix' vampires instead of slaying them, a long time ago. But--"

    "Xander, you don't have to apologize to me for anything you did helping Buffy in the old days. I've seen it firsthand, remember? I've been the naive idiot, and then after that I helped fight back a few times too. A shelter's a place of public accommodation, you know. Vampires don't have to stay out if you can't make them. You did the best you knew how to do. It's just that, if you needed proof that 'the best you know how to do' isn't always the best possible thing, well...Chanterelle."

    "What's it...?" He shook his head. "I feel silly for asking. But I guess you got what you wanted after all. You're a vampire with a soul. Did it...was it because of the shelter thing? And do you like it?"

    "Like it?" Anne snickered. "It's not all it was cracked up to be. You try being immortal and stuck in a wheelchair. No, don't say it--I know I'll get better. There are some things you just shouldn't have to live through, though, like a beheading. And the diet's kind of restrictive. I had a head full of Anne Rice, Xander. I figured vampires spent eternity angsting prettily and having lots of sex."

    "Angel would have something to say about that."

    "I feel bad for him. Angst isn't such a great thing when you're the one having it, even when it's stupid. Angel's angst isn't stupid teenage misery. I was Joan for a couple of months, and I did things I'll never really be over. He was Angelus longer than a human lives. Sure, we pick at him for dealing badly with it--and sitting around brooding probably isn't a healthy way of coping--but we also don't really have a clue what it's like. I never knew the right way to push him. You can't just tell a depressed person, 'It's not so bad, get over it and be happy.'"

    "Yeah. Been there, tried that." He glanced up at her puzzled expression. "Buffy, after we raised her. We thought we'd pulled her out of hell and expected her to be grateful. But you can't just let them mope around the rest of their lives, either, right? I mean, wrist-cutting, poison, gun barrel in the mouth...they do those things."

    "Sometimes."

    "I never really thought of Angel that way."

    Anne rolled her eyes and looked away. "Of course you didn't. Big bad spooky vampire, come to steal away the girl you wanted. And of course she can't resist him, 'cause vampires are supernaturally sexy. If he was out of the way, she'd have been yours?"

    "One word: Angelus." Xander flushed, angry, yet a little ashamed too. "I can't claim the purest of motives. I wouldn't try. But I saw his ugliest face, up close and personal. Angel is not a nice guy. He wants to be, and I give him credit for it, but that doesn't make it real."

    "Funny that you've noticed that." She peered intently at him. "I thought I had you pegged. But you're absolutely right. You know what the strangest part is? I don't think he knows it. He does want to be. He wants to believe in his own purity, wants it so bad. Maybe that's what makes him different."

    "Different?"

    "From me, from Spike, from Harmony, from Drusilla...from most of the other vampires I've met. We're not the same, but you can usually see where the differences come from. The things we want to do, and don't. Angel's so...extreme. It's as if he's two completely opposite people, unless you know exactly what you're looking for, and even then sometimes the pieces don't all fit together. I wonder what made him the way he is, sometimes." Anne halted for a moment, then began to laugh softly. "Well, I know I'm still me. See, whatever else Angel is, he's the vampire he always told everyone didn't exist. He's Lestat. He's this new Edward guy. And he comes up to you and he tells you, all completely earnest, 'Real vampires are nothing like that.' But he is like that. So of course I'm going to be fascinated by him, even when I'm saying I shouldn't be."

    "Huh." Xander studied her face for a moment. You'd never know, if you didn't already. Unless she changed. "I wonder why we believed him. 'Vampires aren't like me. They can't ever be like me. Oh, and I'm a vampire. But don't take me for an example.'"

    "Well, there weren't any others like him, then." Anne fiddled with her notebook. "Still a good question, though."

    "You're wrong, though." Xander chuckled. "Angel's nothing like Edward Cullen. He doesn't sparkle in the sun."

    "Wait. Edward sparkles?" She buried her face in her hands, trying not to laugh. "Let's just wake the rest of the Old Ones and get it over with."
    ****
    "We discussed this!" Harmony hissed at Illyria.

    Illyria looked thoughtful. "I'm no longer certain I desire it. I can regrow the hair, but not the time spent having it chopped away and bound."

    "It's worth it, I swear. I tried for months to get Fred to do it, and I'm damned if I'll give up on you either!" Illyria just frowned. What now? "Hey, remember how you used to beat up Spike all the time?"

    "Indeed." Illyria grinned widely.

    "If the new look isn't good, you can do that to me. Weekly." It'd never happen.

    "Interesting. We have a deal." This time, when Harmony took hold of Illyria's hand, the goddess allowed herself to be led.

    Dawn, already seated, looked up and grinned nastily. "Any suggestions? I was thinking she'd look good with a bob."

    Willow tapped her chin thoughtfully before shuddering. "Somehow I don't think that would work. Lizzie?" She glanced back; her hairdresser appeared equally appalled.

    "Ladies," Harmony bubbled, "Illyria's never had her hair done professionally before. It shows, doesn't it? Now, I agree with Willow--a bob would be way too perky. Like Wednesday Addams grinning at you or something. But I'm sure with a little thought we can make her look...um...positively divine." She flashed Illyria a grin.

    A trio of unoccupied stylists broke away from their chairs to surround the God-King, whose eyes went wide. Harmony'd never seen her look this intimidated before. "She's so flat," one of them pointed out. "Who did these streaks, though?" "I don't know, but they work." "Yeah, but it's so...so lifeless otherwise." "Curls? No, still too perky. But if we can give it a bit of a wave..." "She does need some body. And a bit of a trim--it's too long, it's dragging her down." "You don't think maybe a braid--?"

    This was going to be wonderful. Harmony practically danced over to the seat Donna was holding open for her. "I think I've introduced her to a whole new universe," she enthused. "I don't think she realizes how deprived she's been."

    Donna paled. "Deprived? Girl, what have you been doing to your hair? I've never seen a case of curling-iron damage this bad." She held up the burnt ends of Harmony's locks. Damn. She'd forgotten all about that.

    "I fell asleep," she lied. "In the sun." Okay, not all a lie now. Will should be proud. "I was trying to curl it myself because my schedule has been so tight these days."

    "Your hair needs curling like a fish needs a Hummer," Donna opined. Okay, she was right. It was still an opinion, though. "Don't ever try that again, Harm. Seriously. It looks more like you lit it on fire."

    Harmony grinned weakly. "Kinda did. Bad cord?"

    "Willow," Dawn moaned, "not now, okay?"

    "But these genetic markers," Willow enthused. "They sort of confirm a theory I had. See, except where you have an isolated population, everybody's really breeding with everybody. So, you know, we're all a little descended from Julius Caesar by now. And I got to thinking, if demons have really been mingling with humans for all these years--and they have; for some reason we can mostly interbreed--we all ought to have at least a few stray genes. Or most of us, anyway. Some of us maybe more than others. It could explain people like Bethany or Gwen Raiden, because natural mutation, you know, not that fast, and--" Sometimes Dawn would've jumped right in, but today she just got this sickly look.

    A magenta-gloved hand came down on Willow's shoulder. "The Key has spoken," Illyria...well, snarled. "She has no interest now in serious discussion. Direct your conversation elsewhere."

    Willow--Willow, who could probably blast Illyria into the next state if she tried--flinched away. "Sorry."

    "Do not offer me your contrition. Offer her."

    "I...Dawn, I'm sorry. I am ruining your night, aren't I?" Dawn made an exaggerated pouty-face. "Aw, geez, Dawn. It's just, I never got into the whole hair-makeup-fashion thing. Mom always said it was anti-empowerment. At least, I do it sometimes but I don't talk about it. I got started babbling and didn't notice you were uncomfy."

    Illyria glanced at Dawn. Dawn looked thoughtfully upward briefly, then nodded. "Apology accepted, Will. It's cool. Can you do hats?" Willow perked up immediately. "Thanks," Dawn mouthed at Illyria, who nodded solemnly and followed a hairdresser back to her chair.

    "Is she always like that?" Donna asked.

    "More or less," Harmony told her. "Not usually with Dawn, though. I think she's trying really hard to be nice or something. Maybe." That "naked fun time" thing had been a joke. Hadn't it?

    Of course, Illyria had never joked before....
    ****
    They were all barrelling down the highway in Harmony's car, laughing except for Illyria (who seemed to think it was beneath her dignity still), and the sun wasn't all the way down yet, but Harmony had her hood up and it didn't seem to bother her much. Illyria kept fingering her new wavy locks curiously as if wondering whether she wanted to keep them. Willow'd just gotten a trim, and Dawn had decided she really wanted that bob herself. She peered into the flip-shade's mirror at herself. Yeah, it was hot.

    Harmony began to sing along with the radio--no, it was a CD. Harmony had a Pink CD? "They travel in packs of two or three, with their itsy-bitsy doggies and their teeny-weeny tees." Aw, hell. Dawn felt slightly embarrassed for Harm, who probably hadn't realized what the song was actually about. "Maybe if I act like that, that guy will call me back...What? Why're you looking at me like that?"

    "Harm," Dawn started, "you, uh...you know that song's making fun of you?"

    Harmony hesitated a moment. "You remember that Halloween when everyone turned into their costumes?"

    "Uh-huh. Why, what's that got to do with anything?" Surely she wasn't saying...but Xander'd had soldier memories for a couple of years afterwards...had she been smart before?

    "You know who I didn't go as? Samantha Carter." Dawn blinked. "She was smart and she kicked butt and she never looked like an idiot unless some weird alien disease did it to the whole team. I didn't understand what she was saying most of the time, but neither did anybody else on the show so I didn't feel bad. I picked out this soldier costume at Ethan's and I was going to add a nametag that said 'Major Carter'. But I wanted a gun to go with it, and I couldn't find one. And Dad convinced me I'd look better in this fairy costume he picked out at Partyland, and nothing happened to me at all."

    "It was something Ethan did to his costumes," Dawn said quietly. "I bought this set of vampire fangs and makeup....never mind. You watch Stargate? I'd never have thought...."

    "Totally a good show. Until they brought in the Ori, and that was just sucky. Finish off the bad guys and get it over with, y'know?" The car was suddenly quiet. "I was leader of the cheer squad. I wasn't good at it, but I tried. I had my own gang of minions. Hey, you know who Xander came to on Graduation Day to get the popular girls? Not Cordy. Me. And I got them. What, you think I don't know I'm stupid? I'm stupid."

    "Harmony--" Willow started.

    "I don't want to be stupid. I don't want to be just some bit of fluff. But I'm not one of those girls who could've done well in school if their dads hadn't told them math was hard. Math is hard, okay? For me. So if I want to make fun of myself, I'll make fun of myself. And I'll do the things I like and I'm good at, even if they're dumb. Is that a problem?" Total silence. Dawn was about to try...well, maybe a pat on the shoulder, you couldn't really hug someone driving a car. "It probably wouldn't have done anything," Harmony mumbled. "None of that wormhole stuff is real anyway."

    "It is real," Illyria spoke up, "save in the details. The recent revelation about the gate symbols, that they are a language, demonstrates as much."

    "Great, so I missed out because I couldn't find a toy gun."

    "You shouldn't make fun of yourself," Dawn said. "There are worse things than not being smart."

    "I'm smart," Willow said. "And, hey, wouldn't want not to be. Bet you won't ever destroy the world like I nearly did, though."

    "I won't ever do anything that matters, either."

    "Harm..." Dawn was sure they'd been over this before. Why didn't it ever take?

    "Let's focus on the hats, okay? Willow, find us funny hats. Ooh!" Harmony pointed and spun the wheel left. "Store with hats!"

    Dawn sank back into her seat. It was probably for the best anyway.

    Harmony turned the CD player back on. "Disasters all around...a world of despair. My only concern: will it **** up my hair?"
    ****
    "Your guilt serves no purpose," Illyria said in the same tone of voice that had really begun to grate on Willow's nerves over the last fifteen minutes.

    Willow held the sunhat up to the light. It had a wide, floppy brim. It was also white, but something in it was properly opaque--she couldn't see any light getting through. Although this was a fluorescent bulb, of course, not proper sunlight. Harmony would probably still need matching gloves. "You know what? Yes it does."

    "A spell might make her more intelligent. Your feelings will not."

    Willow shrugged. There were cute little pink flowers all around the head part. "My feelings make me the kind of person who wants to help her if I can. I could probably make her smarter, but I don't know if it would make her any better off. Messing around with people's minds, bad. Even with good intentions. Now lay off. Harm! Come take a look at this!"

    Harmony peeked around the corner, followed by Dawn, and immediately perked up. "Willow, this is great! And it's so thoughtful. Will it work, though?"

    Dawn snickered. "Spike ran through town with a furry coat and a hat with flaps over the ears once. He was all sizzly, but he didn't burn up."

    "It might help wearing gloves," Willow suggested. "You know, the long kind that go up your arm? So your hands don't end up out in the light."

    "Do they make those thick enough?" Dawn wondered. "I mean, aren't they usually silk or something?"

    "It's not so much the thickness," Harmony said. "It just has to be a tight weave, so the light doesn't get in. Vampire survival skills 101."

    Something caught Willow's eye, a spot of dark color in the pile. Grinning, she pulled it loose. "Illyria, look. It matches your outfit." She glanced at Dawn for confirmation--the color wasn't exactly the same, and sometimes that didn't count as matching. Only sometimes it did. Dawn just stared at it.

    Illyria took it from her, studied it dubiously, and seemed to consider turning it inside out before finally placing it on her head. "I require a mirror."

    "Er...we passed one right back there," Willow said as Harmony began to laugh. "What?" A passing salesclerk--the one who'd complimented Illyria on her "tight bondage gear" when they came in--hid her mouth behind a hand as Illyria strode around the end of the aisle and began adjusting the beret in front of the mirror. "It does match, doesn't it? Is it that bad?"

    "No," Harmony giggled helplessly, "I think it works on her." Now Dawn was joining in.

    Frustrated, Willow threw up her hands. "Not gettin' it. What's so funny, then?" Harmony didn't say anything--she just watched Illyria poke at the hat. She looked appreciative, but she was still giggling, too.

    Dawn shook her head in disbelief. "Willow...it's a raspberry beret. You know, 'the kind you find, in a secondhand store'?"

    Willow groaned. "How'd I miss that?"

    "Unfortunately," Illyria said, "I did not walk in through the out door. But I did not have this hat at the time. In spite of the reference, however, I find it a fitting tribute. It pleases me."

    "If Xander asks if you mean to do him any harm," Harmony suggested, "just smile and say yes. No teeth, just a little grin."

    "I mean nothing of the sort." Illyria looked mildly offended. "Are you now going to become upset over him as well?"

    "No, silly!" Harmony made a face. "He'll appreciate it." No reaction from Illyria. "I mean, he'll appreciate it, if you know what I mean. At least, if you get the smile right."

    "Harmony," Dawn said softly, "I don't know if Illyria's ready for that yet. She'll have to practice, at least, or she'll scare him off." She glanced over at Illyria. "Might as well help you get this right. I was being an idiot about you two before."

    "We still need to find you a hat," Harmony said to Dawn, taking Willow by the elbow. "And you two find one for Willow. That beret was a lucky shot. Let's get her something that actually works for once." She led Willow off down the aisle. "This is probably far enough away they won't hear us. Or Dawn won't, anyway."

    "Huh? Wha?"

    "Illyria seemed kinda protective of Dawn all of a sudden at the salon. She was joking about the naked fun time, right?"

    Willow nearly did a spit take. "Oh, Harm! I, um, heh, I think so. I think she's just trying to be friendly again. I was gettin' a little pushy. I mean, I don't think Illyria would see anything wrong with putting the moves on Dawn, but I have no idea whether she'd be interested, and Dawnie sure wouldn't be. Especially not with the cheating on Xander part."

    "Oh." Harmony scuffed her feet on the floor. "I'm being dumb again. And this time it's about people. I usually get that part right."

    "No, no you're not," Willow insisted. "Illyria can be really hard to read, and it doesn't help at all that she can read us right back, especially when she doesn't understand why we're reacting the way we are. Not to mention, the joking is a new thing for her."

    "Do you think she was joking about liking the beret?"

    "Um...I really couldn't tell you."
    ****
    "Like this," Dawn said, and smiled. "The idea is to look mysterious. Like you're hiding something. 'Cause when you say 'harm', you don't really mean 'harm' like beating him up."

    Illyria frowned. "'Harm', then, as in bondage games."

    "Um, yup. I forget what you know and what you don't sometimes."

    The frown remained, deepening. "I am...uncertain that I would desire to participate in such a game. I cannot fathom the appeal of being chained."

    Dawn thought about that a moment. "I guess an empress-type-person wouldn't like being tied up."

    "Indeed not, but...also there is..." Illyria began to look around. "I am the subject of an invocation."

    "Wait, what? Someone's trying to put a spell on you?" Dawn peered around the garment rack worriedly. "What's it doing?"

    "No. Someone is trying to cast a spell by me," Illyria said breathlessly. "To draw on my energy. But I will not permit...I..."

    "That's not good. I mean, how much energy do you still have?" If she didn't have much, it could be dangerous for Illyria. If she did, it could be even more dangerous for the target. Whoever that was.

    "Less," Illyria said. "Something is wrong...I cannot--" She began to sag to the right, her face distorting. Alarmed, Dawn reached out to catch her. Illyria's eyes began to sink back into her skull. Her entire body felt like a bag of warm mush wrapped around a frame of bones. "I will not...I...I 'm Illurra, 'nd...." The goddess flopped in her arms like a broken doll, one that the stuffing was leaking out of.

    "Willow! Help!"

    "Oh, it's too late for that," said a familiar voice from behind her. "And since you were so nice as to start learning witchcraft yourself...you're next."
    ****
    "Stay back," Harmony whispered, feeling a little hurt. Dawn hadn't called for her. "They may not even know I'm here. You come at them from the other side." Willow didn't even open her mouth to protest. Something she said must've made sense.

    She peeked around the side of the jackets. Something was lying on the floor...a pile of clothes. Not from the racks, though--Illyria's bodysuit was part of the pile. It moved sluggishly like a slushee when you tipped up the cup. And next to her there was a brown-haired little girl of about five or six, Dawn's shirt still hanging loosely on her body. The girl pressed her hands to her temples as if trying to focus, or remember something. "Haamony," she wailed. "Wun!"

    "Oh, this is just peachy." Amy stepped out from behind a circular rack. Her hair and eyes were so black Harmony wasn't even certain there was anything in her sockets. A black pulse rippled the veins beneath her skin, down her arms to her hands and back again. "I just drained the energy out of a god. And a...I don't even know what the hell Dawn's supposed to be. Just a girl, hah! I could snuff you like a candle. But you're not worth my time. I'm here for Willow."

    "She'll eat you for breakfast," Harmony snarled. "If I don't--"

    "Oh, maybe she will," Amy said lightly. "She always was the uberwitch. But I don't think so. And even if she does...you won't have anything to do with it. Guess what power chart I just busted the top of?"

    "It doesn't matt--" Something was way wrong. She looked at Amy and

    shoved her out of the way, snickering, Harmony and a couple of other Cordettes, smacked her up against a locker, sneering at the "dumb gothy bitch".

    Amy hadn't even been that gothy, really. It was just a stupid high-school thing. "God, Amy, I'm sorry. I was--"

    "Mommy still dress you?" Harmony wouldn't have been caught dead wearing that ridiculous fluffy shirt Willow had on, even if it'd matched the skirt, which it didn't.

    "Will, I..." Where was Willow? Shouldn't she have attacked by now?

    Her teeth sank into Brad Koenig's neck as he screamed and flailed.

    Unless she'd left. Saw how powerful Amy'd gotten and just run away and left Harmony and Dawn and Illyria to suffer and die.

    Run away. That's what Harmony'd have

    Harmony was soaked straight through. Not just her clothes. All of her. Her lungs were full of water. Her mouth, her stomach...pretty much everywhere. Because she couldn't drift, not an inch, not a hair. If she fell asleep, and drifted even just a bit, she might bob up somewhere. Somewhere Buffy could see her. Waterlogged like this, she didn't float.

    Terry was still screaming. Not for help anymore. Not even her name. Somewhere above her, out of the pipes and in the pool, the water was frothing and foaming. Boiling, because Terry was in it, chained at the bottom. Chained in the full, scorching sunlight. Underwater, where he couldn't even burn.

    He'd started out pleading for help. There hadn't been any. Vampire healing kept working, trying to keep him together. He'd burned through his blood. He'd thrashed and screamed and boiled until his body was so much cooked meat. It didn't matter. He was already dead. He just kept thrashing. And screaming, until the words were gone, until Harmony's name was gone, until there was nothing left in his mind but an onslaught of uninterpretable pain.

    And when the sun had set, Harmony heard Buffy pull him out and make him feed. No telling on what. All his anatomy was still intact. And an hour later Harmony started hearing words from him again.

    That had been three nights ago.

    Harmony could smell him in the water like roast pork. Three days of cooking. But he still couldn't die, because he already had.

    Harmony was soaked straight through. Somewhere, Buffy might be up there, waiting, watching. Wrapped in something tight and dark to keep the sun out. Harm knew that was the point of torturing someone. If you didn't watch, how could you enjoy it?

    So there was nothing Harmony could do but hide. Terry was a great guy. Terry was a good lay. Terry was probably hopelessly insane by now no matter how much blood Buffy fed him come nightfall. Buffy had to know she was around here somewhere. The moment she showed her face, Buffy would take her apart. And then it would be her boiling in the pool, cooking alive. Or worse.

    Buffy had been a Slayer. She had been stronger than Harmony by who knew how much, but not enough to completely guarantee she could win in a fight. Not any more. Buffy was beyond anything Harmony had seen. Maybe even beyond Illyria, for all she knew. There was absolutely nothing she could do if she stood up to Buffy except hurt and die. And the dying would be the least of it.

    Sooner or later she would get tired of Terry and kill him. She seemed to know where vampires were now even when she couldn't see them. She had to know another vampire was here. There was no reason for her not to drag Harmony out of her little hidey-hole except that she was being patient. She knew there was no way out except past her.

    Except...would even Buffy stand there all day and do nothing but watch? Harmony could hear her speak at night. She could hear Terry scream. She couldn't hear anything from Buffy now. So maybe Buffy had gotten tired of watching and was just coming back at night to see how long she could keep Terry going.

    Harmony was soaked straight through. She knew Angel had run through the surf once to fight under a pier. She knew Terry hadn't started boiling instantly. If she could somehow get past Buffy, she knew there were houses nearby. And a road, with cars. If she could get inside. If she could...hell, if she could get underneath a truck, it'd carry her off. That much sun all around would make her sick and weak before long, but she wouldn't burn to ash. Especially as wet as she was.

    She moved, just a hair. Checked the time on her watch. Just a couple more hours to sundown. Of course, at sundown Buffy would return, if she was really gone. But if Harmony could reach shelter, she wouldn't have to stay in it long. And she
    could reach shelter. She was damn sure of it.

    If Buffy was still there...well, there were trees. Trees meant she could stake herself, if she couldn't get away. She'd take that over Buffy getting her hands on her.

    Terry was still screaming. But she couldn't save him. Maybe she could still save herself, though. There had to be some way to escape Buffy. Some way to not let Buffy kill her. What would she do to not end up like Terry? Anything.

    Anything.


    Anything.
    ****
    "My God, Amy. What did you do?"

    "What every addict does sooner or later, Willow. Sold my soul. For one hell of a high."

    "Oh, I figured that. I meant to them." Dawn was hiding somewhere in the racks. Illyria was still crumpled on the floor, thrashing, trying to rise and fight. She thought Harmony was curled into a ball a little way around the corner. Willow was the only one left.

    She tossed another round of lightning at Amy. Amy shrugged, and the lightning grounded itself off to the right. "Sucked the power right out of them. Illyria was first. She didn't even know what hit her till it was too late. Then Dawn. How'd she get her whole life history mixed up with the magicks, anyway?"

    "Not telling you. And Harmony? What'd you take out of her?"

    Amy laughed sharply. "Take? I gave her something. You have no idea what it's like, holding this much energy. I took hold of her soul and stuffed it back inside like trash into a can. She's used to it. She should be okay in a few hours. The rest of you, probably not."

    "It's going to kill you. Humans aren't made to hold that much power."

    "At this point, Will...I'm too far gone to care. You know that. All I care about is taking you down with me."

    "Amy, how'd you get like this? We were friends, once, back in high school. We were a coven. You frikkin' blessed Buffy for her birthday with me and Michael just before MOO screwed everything up and you turned yourself into a rat."

    "I almost believe you really don't know."

    "I don't know, Amy!" Sweat and frustration rolled off her. No matter what she flung at the other witch, Amy countered it as easily as knocking aside a spitball.

    "Well, in a couple more seconds you won't know much of anything. Or understand it, at least. The way you left me for three years. Only I think I've got something better than a rat. How's this for mixing your mythoi? Goddess Hecate..." Amy smirked. "...do your stuff."

    The power picked Willow up and crumpled her down, twisting, tearing, body and mind and soul.
    ****
    Oink. Snort.

    That was it. That was the end of it. Willow Rosenberg was a dumb beast, and she was going to stay that way. For the rest of her life.

    "Hey, at least you know your family won't have you for din-din."

    Squeal.

    "Always thought Bavmorda had the right idea. Of course, Willow got away from her."

    With this much power, the pact wouldn't even matter. With this much power, she could eat Korsheth for breakfast. And if Willow was right, if it killed her, well, what a way to go!

    She could do anything. The things she and Willow had done, that crazy night at the Bronze...it didn't so much as scratch the iceberg. There was something mixed about that metaphor...so what? The crazier you thought, the better the ideas...the longer it'd take before you got bored again. And she didn't have to do much more than thi

    Amy was on the floor. Her head was throbbing and she was dizzy and she wanted to puke. Mustn't puke. Head wasn't clear, so she needed the words again. Whatever idiot had sucker-punched her was going to get a--

    Harmony hauled her up by the collar of her shirt. "You have no idea what you did, do you?"

    "The hell?"

    Harmony shrugged. She was listing drunkenly to one side. Or maybe that was just Amy's perception. "Well, yeah. That was part of it." Her eyes were red around the edges of the yellow. Her face was wet. But....

    "You can't be on your feet yet. I know...know you've done things..."

    "You do, huh?" Harmony hoisted her into the air. "You know what I've done?"

    "Goddess Hecate, to you I pra--" Harmony's fist smashed her teeth in. "G--" The next blow broke her jaw.

    "I stood up to Buffy Summers and fought her. I lost, but I fought." Amy felt her back hit the floor. Harmony picked her up again. "I stood up to Mayor Wilkins when he was a giant snake demon who made Illyria look like a chia pet. I fought vampires with nothing but a damn baseball bat. I died fighting to save people. I...died...a hero...damn it!" Amy flew through a rack of clothes and slammed against a wall. "I changed the world. I changed the world. And you're gonna change my friends back, or I'm gonna kill you where you stand."

    "Won'...can', nof I'm ded." Couldn't change them back if she were dead.

    Harmony's lumpy face was right up in hers. "Is that what you think? Because I will turn you, right here in this store. And then when you can't die, I know how to break you. I've seen it done. I will make you beg to do whatever I want, you hear me?"

    A single chill breath, then fangs, pressed against Amy's throat. If she could just clear her head. Just for a moment. "Can'...can' tak. M'jah." Wouldn't even need to talk, if only...

    There was a moment--one sparkly, shiny moment--that Harmony looked stumped. "No. But you can write." She could. She could write spells. With this much power, maybe she could-- "You took their power. So you can give it to me."

    "Wha'?"

    "You heard me. Give me the power. Write down the spells. If Xander can set a book on fire I can read what you write."

    "Yer seris?" Harmony definitely sounded serious.

    "I'm stupid. I'm not illiterate."
    ****
    "I guess I'm just too stupid to know when I'm outclassed." But there was a tinge of pride in Harmony's voice that hadn't been there before.

    "I would've thought," Dawn said quietly, "that if that much power made Amy nuts...well, more nuts...it'd do the same thing to you."

    "Don't let me ever do that again," Harmony answered. "But I just then had my soul slapped back in. I wasn't exactly feeling on top of the world."

    "I am not a chia pet," Illyria groused.

    "We know you're not," Dawn told her. "Harmony was just...in the moment."

    "I think I'm going back to making sure stuff's kosher," Willow said with a groan. "I don't ever want to eat pig meat."

    "I totally get it," Harmony assured her. "I'm feeling kinda queasy about drinking blood myself."

    "So what you said," Dawn wondered, "that was what, some kind of act?"

    Harm shook her head. "I was a stupid insensitive bitch when I was alive. I wasn't any better undead, not till Willow gave me my soul the first time. But there were a few times...every once in a while...that I did something really, really good. I didn't even realize I'd forgot how good it felt. I doubt Amy meant to remind me."

    "I will keep the hat," Illyria said, apropos of nothing. "The store will still take our money?"

    "A store, not take money? That'd be a laugh." Harmony managed a small, forced one.

    Dawn bent over Amy. "So what do we do with you?" Healing people directly could be dangerous, but together she and Willow had managed to create a sort of magical splint inside Amy's jaw. The bone would set right...given time. And they could understand her answers when they questioned her.

    "Nothn'." Amy shook her head slightly. "Kusheth gave me un day."

    Willow's eyes went wide. "You sold your soul for one day of power?"

    Amy looked at her. "You wouldn've? Jus' wanted t' get bac atcha."

    "I asked you before, Amy. I don't understand. What happened to you? What did I do that was so awful? I took care of you, and I changed you back as soon as I could. I couldn't keep doing the black magic with you because I realized what it was doing to me and the people around me. Surely you see that now."

    Amy's look grew scornful. "Lyr. Don' preten'. Yu know."

    "No. I don't."

    "'Poof'," Amy said, "'she's a rat.'"
    ****
    "In summary, this court finds no legal basis for the claim that the Hyperion Hotel is property of the 'Watchers' Council of Great Britain', and orders that it be returned to the control of the plaintiff, Mr. Rupert Giles, along with damages in the amount of--"

    In the movies, cheers would break out in the courtroom for a victory like this. Giles' lawyer simply shook his hand, and Kate gave his arm a firm squeeze. Gregory, of course, glared at him as he stalked out of the room, but the fellow wasn't such a fool as to make open threats. None of this prevented him--or Wyndham-Price--from keeping the reins on the Slayers under their command, in any case.

    "I believe the question now is, 'Where do we go from here?'" A few things would get easier--assuming everything was where he had left it, which couldn't be taken for a given. And at least there was the issue of morale.

    "We? I'm just here to be supportive, Rupert. I turned down your job offer, so I'm not aware of any 'we' here."

    "For a mere bystander, you seem quite exuberant."

    "Well, there was always the possibility you might want to celebrate with coffee and doughnuts. In which case, you know...old times' sake and all that." Kate rifled through her purse. "I'll just have to buy my own, I guess."

    "As an Englishman, Ms. Lockley, I believe I'm contractually required to drink tea, not coffee, save in dire emergency. And really...doughnuts?"

    "C'mon, Rupert--surely we're on a first-name basis by now. Call me Kate. And yeah. I like the powdered kind. Aha." She pulled a checkbook out. "There it is. If you want tea with your doughnuts, I'm sure I can find you tea."

    "It's hardly necessary, Ms...Kate." Giles checked his wristwatch. "I should be getting back with the good news."

    "Are you gonna make me come right out with it?" Kate pretended to check hers. "The Hyperion will keep another night. What, is there some other woman you'd rather have dinner with?"

    "I did have rather a good time with Sadha Kaur on our interview. Besides," Giles shuddered delicately here, "doughnuts for dinner?"

    "More times than I can count." She snickered. "Sadha Kaur the vampire? Isn't she a little old for you?"

    "She is very well educated. Not to mention shapely." He shook his head, smiling. "Under other circumstances, perhaps we might have made an interesting couple, but actual circumstances dictated it was better to ask her to work elsewhere."

    "Circumstances?"

    "She seemed rather old-fashioned as a Watcher--not surprising, all things considered. I decided to send her to work with someone she was unlikely to damage, and might open the mind of a bit." Reports from Oz hadn't been terribly promising, but the partnership was still young.

    "An old-fashioned Watcher who's also a vampire? Sounds like a bad psychological combination to me."

    "I truly believe she's come to reasonable terms with her condition." Where had he placed his keys? "That was another reason, though, that I thought it might not be best to follow up on any...attraction I felt. It was, I thought, still too early." Ah, yes, there.

    "Then there's no reason we can't have doughnuts together."

    "You are far too fixated on getting those doughnuts."

    "You know how the private eye motto goes. 'So-and-so always gets her doughnuts.'"

    "Not 'always gets her man'?" Giles knew that was a mistake the moment it came out of his mouth.

    "That remains to be seen."

    "Very well. But I would prefer coffee to the monstrosity that you Yanks think of as 'tea'."

    "It's a date. All right, then. I'm buying."
    ****
    "I'm sorry, Amy. I don't know what you're talking about." They were in Harm's car again, headed for the apartment complex. "I never turned you back into a girl till I was out of the dorms, and you know as well as I do that you made yourself a rat the first time."

    "I swear! I was on th' bed, I was a human for 'bout three secon's. You were lookin' away, talkin' some blon' girl...Buff', maybe. I was 'bout to say somethin', you sai', 'Poof, she's arrat,' an' I was gone again."

    "Why were you so nice to Willow at first, then?" Dawn asked. "We thought at first you were just back to being friends. Even after you started getting magically stoned together, you didn't seem angry about anything."

    "You try rememberin' what you ate for breakf'st four years ago t'day. Bein' a rat was all th' same all th' time. Course, that was diff'rent, suddenly bein' human again, but I dunno how long I was a rat th' secon' time. Couldn' hol' onto it tha' long."

    "And you remembered when?" Willow was still doubtful.

    "At Rack's. You weren' there. You'd qui' already." Amy was balled up on herself in the back seat, looking not so different from right after she'd been changed back. "I had to check, wasn' sure I b'lieved it. It might've jus' been a hallucination. But the magicks said it was real. Was 'fraid to mention it t'ya. I couldn' let you turn me back again. Then you killed 'im, an' I knew you'd really done it. Didn' wan' me to find out, but you were too late."

    "Oh, Amy." Willow groaned. "Killing Rack had nothing to do with you. He helped Warren after Warren killed Tara. And I needed...wanted his power, to track Warren down."

    "Huh," Amy scoffed. "I wasn' even sure you loved 'er. I thought maybe you only changed me back t' have someone t'do magic with, cause she lef' you."

    Willow ground her teeth for a few moments, fighting back the urge to lash out. "Amy, I never had that kind of power. I still don't. I can't just say someone's a rat and they become one."

    "Did you ever have your sleep removed?" Harmony asked from the driver's seat. "Lorne did that, and after a while people had to do what he said. Angel and Eve had sex, Fred and Wes were drunk, and Gunn started peeing everywhere. We couldn't stop even after we knew, and Lorne didn't even know he was doing it."

    Amy gave a wry laugh. "I know that feelin'." Harmony glanced back at her, and Amy blushed faintly. "Rats can' hold it. When they gotta poo, they gotta poo, righ' there."

    Dawn winced. "And I always thought you were mad at me."

    "Might've been. But it didn' matter."

    "That affects only empaths who can read destinies," Illyria said. "You cannot do that, Willow, so far as I know."

    "No, but...oh no. Oh, no, no." Willow squeezed her eyes shut. "The 'my will be done' spell. I thought I'd finally heard the end of that without actually ruining anyone's life."

    "It was similar?" Illyria asked.

    "She made Giles blind by saying he didn't see anything," Dawn explained. "I tried to tell her she was under a spell, she said 'You can't be serious', and I ended up cracking jokes about Xander being about to die. I even had to joke about being pissed at her that I couldn't stop joking...er, not that I put it that way, cause Mom would've washed my mouth out with soap. But she didn't have any control either, except that she could end the whole thing once she realized."

    "I did it," Willow moaned. "I said first you were an ordinary girl, and then, poof, you were a rat. I didn't even know I'd done anything. Even afterwards, I didn't know all of what I'd done because it didn't happen every time, but I was sure everything was back to normal."

    "That was how the spell worked," Dawn said, trying to defend her. "Amy, even if she'd known, she'd have had to let the spell end or Xander would've died, maybe more people. Giles would've been blind forever. Buffy and Spike would've gotten married while he was still evil, and I'd be in an institution or something...well, assuming I actually even existed. When it ended, you'd have had to go back to being a rat anyway."

    Amy sulked. "I knew th' whole time. Well, sorta. I couldn' really remember the spells as a rat, an' couldn' have pronounced 'em if I had. Bu' I knew, if I could jus' remember how, I could be a girl again. I knew tha' was...better. Somehow. Only I couldn'. I couldn' do anything. If you'd given me more'n a secon' to explain, I could've told you how."

    Willow shuddered. "That's almost like how Tara said.... Amy, I couldn't have known. I'm so sorry."

    "If you'd bother' to look at the people you were talkin' abou'..." Her face grew red with fury. "D'you know how long a normal rat lives? I could've been wrinkly an' white-haired when you changed me back. I could've died. I could've died of old age." Before Dawn could try to restrain her, Amy subsided, holding her jaw. "It doesn' matter now."

    "It matters, Amy. It doesn't excuse the rest of what you did, but if I had only known...." Willow clenched her teeth. "I am gonna save your butt, Amy. After that we can talk about what else has to be done."

    Amy curled back into a ball. "Don' worry 'bout it. It's over."
    ****
    Willow dashed into the hallway. "Dawn, go into my room, get the books on summoning and binding. Everyone else, hunt through the rooms. We need everyone here. Hurry!"

    Amy slumped against the wall as everyone else began pounding on doors. "Less'n an hour, Willow. You can' help me now. I screwed thiss'n up too bad."

    "We'll get Korsheth here and we'll kick his ass. Or we'll trade him something. Or--"

    "Willow, he's practic'ly a god. Lesser--not Osiris or Hecate or anythin'--but you can' hurt him. An' you've got nothin' he wants that you'd give."

    "Listen to me, Amy. Some kinds of black magic drain you like this. It's like you're in withdrawal, sorta. I shouldn't have to tell you this. But you cannot give up. You can fight this. We can help you."

    "D'rats have souls?"

    "Huh?"

    "Change me back. Make me a rat. Leas' when I die, I'll be gone. Faus', y'know?"

    "Amy, I don't know what you're talking about, but I don't think it works that way with animals."

    Harmony rushed up, Faith in tow. "Hey, I could--"

    Willow winced and cut her off with a shake of the head. "Her soul'd still exist, it'd just not be here. Anyway...remember who you're talking about. We couldn't risk it. Faith?"

    "I'd love to break Buffy's record with gods, Red, but I dunno 'bout this Korsheth guy. Giles and Kate're still out--they went to court together."

    "Be ready anyway. Who else've we got?"

    "Rona came to talk. Xander an' Anne. I think Kate's people went home for the day--they don't live here. Connor's visitin' family."

    Dawn appeared carrying a load of books. "I think this is everything. What do you want to do?"

    "Find a warding circle. We need to ward the whole building. You, Harm, me, and Amy, if I can get her to move. Get the chalks and start drawing."

    "Me?" Harmony squeaked. "I--"

    "You just cast your first spells today, and they were doozies," Willow overrode her. "Trust me, I've been there. Consider this initiation. You can't hurt it as long as you get the lines right. Go, go!"

    "Won' work," Amy muttered. "Same basic laws as the pac'. 's long as I'm here, he can walk righ' through."

    "We're doing it anyway. Maybe I can figure out a way to reinforce it, but we need to get the basics down."

    Faith stared. "Harm did what?"

    "Saved our bacon," Willow quipped. "Tell you when we have time."

    "Well, good for her."

    Xander's head poked out of his room. "Will, Illyria's upset. She doesn't want to help. I'm not sure I blame her, but--"

    "Xander, this all started with a misunderstanding. I'm at least as angry with Amy as you are, but right now she needs our help. The rest we can work out later."

    Illyria strode out into the hall. "She tore out what remaining power and dignity I have. I will not aid her." She spun on her heel and stalked back inside.

    "Damn. Well, we'll do it without her, then." Willow clapped her hands. "C'mon, people, we've gotta move!" Amy had fallen completely silent. Willow glanced down to see her eyes closed, tears trickling down her face.

    "Hey, I read this story once," Xander started. "Guy accidentally summoned a demon. Then he stopped time and redrew the summoning circle on its belly so it kept having to try to reappear there."

    "Nice try," Willow said. "I read that one too, but the circle forced the demon to make an agreement. That's how he stopped time--he made the demon do that. That won't work on Korsheth. Keep thinking, though."

    Anne straggled into the hall, hobbling. "What do you want me to do?"

    Willow grimaced. "I...Amy's in withdrawal. She's out of it, bad. I know you've dealt with people on drugs, but...this is different. I don't know. Is there any way you can...talk her through it, motivate her...something?"

    "In less than an hour?" Anne sighed. "I guess trying won't hurt." She knelt carefully, holding onto the wall.

    "I'm not expecting miracles," Willow said. "I've been through this too, and I know it'll take a lot longer. I just...if we can get her past this first crisis, we'll have more time."

    "Symptoms?"

    "It's like coming off...I don't know, I've never been actually high on actual drugs! Everything's dull. Everything's boring. You don't want to move or do anything."

    "So the magic's like a stimulant?"

    "Kind of. With maybe a bit of hallucinogen, only the hallucinations are real, 'cause you can make the world do what you want."

    "But you do magic now."

    "Partly, it's the type--the black magicks draw off powerful emotions. Rage, hate, greed, grief...sometimes lust, um...the things we think of as dark. You lose it, it's like your emotions are numb. The other thing is, it's not strictly speaking an addiction. Except maybe the way gambling is. Actually you can't really give it up or go cold turkey--once you're open, you're open, and you have to find a way to deal."

    Anne shook her head. "Willow, you're not going to like this. But even with real drugs, sometimes in the short term, you give the addict a controlled dosage. In fact some drugs can kill you if you try to go cold turkey. You have to taper off, or give a substitute, like methadone. How'd she get like this so fast?"

    "Um...She drained out Illyria's power, and Dawn's Key energy. That's a huge amount of power. And then to fix us, Harm made her give her the magicks. So she lost it all, really fast."

    "Okay, that's...well, I'm sure Harm had to do it, but still, that's bad now. If you want Amy to move, or do much of anything...I think you know what you're going to have to do."

    "I...I don't think--"

    "Willow, if you mean to save her, you don't have a choice. Give her something."

    Amy's hands were ice-cold. Willow wrapped hers around Amy's left one. "Amy, listen to me. Twenty minutes ago, you were talking like you could've beaten Korsheth into the ground. We can still do that if we work together, but you've got to focus. I'm going to give you some of my energy." Amy stirred and smiled faintly at that. "You've been so angry at me for so long, and I don't blame you. From what you knew, it seemed like my fault. And maybe a little of it was...if I'd tried harder, if...I was angry at you too, Amy. You nearly wiped me out of existence and replaced me with Warren. But you didn't get me hooked. I did that on my own while you were gone. I had to have my own way. Everything had to be easy. I had to be in control. This is not going to be easy, Amy. And I need you angry. I need you to fight."

    "'ll burn my books...."

    "No. That's exactly the wrong thing to do. The fight's about to start. There will be no book-burning. Before I said you were a normal girl, you know what I said? I said you had access to powers I couldn't even invoke. And you did. Maybe you still do. We need to know what you know, if we're going to save you. We were friends. We can be friends again." Willow bent lower and kissed Amy on the forehead.

    Amy's eyes opened slightly; she raised an arm to shield them from the light. "Sorry," she said. "I still don' swing that way." And she smirked, and sat up. "Wha' have we got so far?"
    ****
    "Does this even matter? Amy said--"

    Dawn kept drawing. It was going to work. It would work. "Willow always finds a way. Besides, Amy was getting really out of it by that point. We'll save her." Harmony gritted her teeth and glanced at the book again, letting out a frustrated growl. Dawn didn't say she wasn't sure they should save her. As long as she could remember-- No. No thinking that way. It was the right thing to do. So they had to try. "I think she's right in the basic sense, but the circles should only part to let Korsheth go to her. He won't be able to go anywhere else or lay a finger on anyone else who isn't directly in his way. That gives us options."

    "For fighting a god?" Harmony snarled and snapped a piece of chalk. "I can't be doing this right!"

    "Keep your cool, Harm. Try. I've been here before, up against a god. At least I can do something to help this time." She glanced at Harm's section of circle. "It's right. Just smudge out that extra bit there. Keep drawing. You can do it."

    "Did Willow mean I'm addicted now? I don't feel any different."

    "She was trying to encourage you, Harm. You managed to cast what Amy showed you. This is simpler, a lot simpler, it's just big. I think you'd have to work with the magicks for a good long while before you got sucked in, and you don't have the bad attitude Willow or Amy had."

    "Willow had a bad attitude?"

    "Yeah." Dawn turned to smile faintly. "She wasn't afraid."
    ****
    "Illyria--"

    "No!" Her hands came down on the coffee table between them, shattering it into splinters. "Do not ask again! She did worse than kill me. She made me weak. I will see her suffer."

    Xander shrugged. "If that's how you want it. You probably couldn't take him anyway."

    Her eyes fixed directly on his. "Do not think to manipulate me."

    "I did have the idea you wanted a challenge. You said killing vampires was boring." Xander met her gaze evenly. "I really do want you happy. I'm furious that Amy hurt you--actually, that scares me a little."

    "That she could do me injury?"

    "That I'm this angry for you."

    "You are not angry enough to stand aside."

    "Korsheth isn't going to punish her for you. He's going to take her because he's a sadistic prick, and he'll work her or torture her because it serves his purposes. Not yours. You don't even know what his agenda is." He suddenly recognized a card he hadn't played. "What, are you friends with this guy? I didn't think any of the Old Ones ever had more than temporary alliances. Is he even an Old One, or some kind of new-generation deity?"

    Illyria blinked. And looked away, thoughtfully. "I know him not. Nor can his...'agenda'...be in more than momentary agreement with mine."

    "Why not?"

    "He desires to rule. He must. So do I."

    "Well there you go then."
    ****
    Willow needed her notebooks. She needed her colored pencils. She needed a plan. But there wasn't any of that. There wasn't time.

    "We're down to the wire, people. These circles aren't going to hold long, not even in seven layers. What have we got?"

    "The 'my will be done' spell?" Harmony suggested. "It sounds powerful."

    "Too unpredictable. Good thought, though. Keep 'em coming."

    "Paragon spell?" That was Xander.

    "Iffy. We'd have a monster somewhere to deal with, and I'm not sure the paragon's powerful enough. Something better?"

    "What about that time-loop spell?" Rona asked. "The one Buffy was stuck in."

    "That'd just make him mad. If anything it's a benefit--he could keep trying until he wins."

    "No. I mean, on us." Oh! Oh, that was good!

    "You're forgetting something," Amy said ruefully. "I'ss a one-person deal. She'd have to spen' time explaining. Anyway, you're also assuming we can still win at this poin'. I wanna live, bu' no' in a time loop forever."

    "Ten minutes," Anne counted. "Xander, any luck with Illyria?"

    "She's planning something, but she's playing it close to the vest. We're gonna have to assume we can't count on her. Sorry."

    "Crazy idea," Faith said.

    "Let's hear it," Willow told her. "Nothing's crazy at this point."

    "Vengeance demon. We summon one. Make a wish against him. I mean, hell, they can change history."

    Dawn shook her head. "Could get really nasty. No guarantees. And we might have to make a case to her. Hey! Enjoinment spell? Amy thought she could beat Korsheth with my energy and Illyria's. We don't have Illyria, but--"

    "Aren't we short a Giles and a Buffy?" Xander asked.

    Willow thought. "Actually, no! We just need archetypes. Mind, Heart, Spirit, and Hand. Faith, Rona, one of you up to be Manus?"

    "That shit sounds freaky," Faith said. "But if I gotta....Rona, you can if you want, but I got more experience."

    "Can we do more than one at a time?" Rona suggested. "Plenty of us. Two Slayers."

    "Only one spirit of the First Slayer," Willow said glumly. "I don't think it would work. Dawn, Amy's still too weak for this. You want to be Sophus or Spiritus?"

    "You'd better be the Mind. You've been in this longer. Also, still think you're smarter than me."

    "Maybe."

    "Hey," Xander said, "I'm perfectly willing to reprise my role as Animus, but I gotta say it: it's not just the four of us this time, and a lot of you are more powerful than me. Does it work that way? The whole strength package, or just that one influence?"

    "It's everything," Willow said, "but the Animus does have to embody that nature."

    "If you're suggestin' somebody who's got more Heart than you," said Faith, "spit it out."

    Xander sighed and looked to Anne, who flinched. "I'm crippled, Xander. I don't think I can contribute any more than you."

    "These days, I haven't exactly been a paragon of--"

    "Xander," Dawn said quickly, "we don't have time to argue. But if you don't want to do it, there is a very recently-re-ensouled vampire here who just proved she doesn't let her friends down."

    "Eep!" Harmony squeaked. "Don't--no, I can't--"

    "Harmony," Xander said, "consider this a long-overdue vote of confidence. I expect you're feeling more than usually full of compassion right now?"

    "Five minutes," Anne said ominously. "You guys are cutting it close."

    "Harm," Faith said, "take the shot."

    Harmony hid her eyes. "Er...Go Team Scooby? Yay team?"

    So did Amy. "I'm so dead."
    ****
    Thunder and shadow.

    The shadow stretched forth an arm and prodded at the outer circle. A moment of resistance, and it parted.

    The second circle lasted only slightly longer. Thickening, deepening, the shadow mounted the stairs, coalescing. Taking form.

    At the landing, lightning flared, revealing another barrier. This one was guarded.

    "You don't know what the hell you're dealing with," the guardian said.

    "No," said the shadow, and stepped forward. "But neither do you."

    A floor higher, Willow gasped and shrank back. The guardian gasped with her.

    "Rack."

    "Hardly," said the shadow. "Consider this image a....convenience for you to know me by. I'd leave and come back as a Franciscan friar if you like...except I believe we're out of time."

    "We bar your way, vile one."

    "Aww. Come on, Strawberry Girl. I'm here for one reason: I have a contract to collect on. Whatever happened to equal rights for demonkind?"

    "Get out," said the guardian, "or get bent." The figure gestured, and lightning flared again. This time the bolts curled around the shadow's form, lashing, constricting, forcing it to its knees. "Go back to hell."

    "Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it. Your kind has made it so." The shadow's form dissolved, became one with the blackness still lingering beyond the lightning's reach, and reformed beyond the barrier, directly in front of the guardian. "So much power. Can't I have a taste?"

    The guardian smiled, and its teeth were daggers. "A taste? You may." It surged forward, maw snapping...and the teeth closed on emptiness. "Dammit!" Upstairs the curse was echoed.

    The shadow smiled back. "I think I will." And strode on.

    At the stairwell's exit, a fourth barrier loomed. This the shadow expected. That the guardian would be waiting, not so much. "We are everywhere," the guardian intoned. "Between all boundaries we wait."

    "This is getting to be tiresome," the shadow sighed. "Let me guess: before time you were created, and beyond all time you stand? No, hang on...I think that's my line."

    Then it struck. Arms lashed out, blurring, multiplying like afterimages that merge back into one, and struck at the guardian's heart.

    The guardian fell.

    "Against a demon zombie soldier robot, I admit such magicks were quite clever. Against me...let's say I know them inside and out." The shadow stepped over her still-breathing body and into the hall. It had no business with Faith.

    Huddled against the wall, away from the center and thus out of the shadow's reach, the three who had been severed from the one slumped, unconscious.

    Korsheth smiled.

    Then a new adversary confronted him.

    "I am Illyria," she said. "Lord of Vahla'hanesh."

    For a moment Korsheth was genuinely startled. "I have heard tales of you," he said. "Though it seems you have come far down in the world, my...'lord'. But what business have you with the likes of little old me?"

    "I claim this one," Illyria answered. "I claim body and soul, to remain in my realm, to do my bidding, to suffer my torment. I claim it by Right of Retribution, which was old when you were spawned."

    "Clever," Korsheth chuckled. "Clever, and extremely out of date. I'm afraid Right of Retribution, while still valid under demon law, was long ago held to be inferior to Right of Contract. The girl is mine. You have no ownership."

    "Before you were," Illyria snarled, "we owned this world. We owned its rule. We owned its children...of which you are one. I smell it in your breath. I was before this world...and whatever you may think of this shape, I still am."

    "Oh my. My breath, you say? Pardon me while I get a Mentos." He popped the image of a candy into the image of a mouth. "Surely you don't mean to stand in defiance of the law. Your court is dust, your throne is ceded, and your day is past. But to avoid undue trouble, I'll make you an offer. One hour a day while time stands. Group them however you like--come in for seven hours at the end of the week, for instance. Do as you please with her. I'd love to watch."

    There was a moment's hesitation. Korsheth was patient. "I agree to your terms," the Old One said. The human attendant by her side began yammering away. Korsheth ignored him. Humans had no place in matters of state.

    "I thought you might. I'm glad we were able to make a deal. I'd hate to have had to call my lawyer; Wolfram & Hart seem a little strapped these days."

    A few more steps. And at the fifth warding, another challenge.

    "I'm sorry. I tried so hard, Amy. I'm sorry. Xander should've...I couldn't..."

    "What's this? A vampire with a soul?" He glanced at the huddled sleepers. One of them was missing. A curious choice for that particular invocation.

    "Take it," the pathetic thing sniveled. "Take mine. Let her go. I'm sorry I wasn't good enough, Amy. I'm sorry."

    Korsheth lifted her. "Allow me to disabuse you. First, in your current condition I'd say you were sufficient to the task, if perhaps not ideal. The task, fortunately, was not sufficient to me. Now, if you'd managed to include the has-been in your little mind-meld, perhaps things might have gone differently, but she seems unmoved by my client's situation. Second, you are far from the first being to make such a tiresome request. In the past we've honored such exchanges, but of late--say, in the last couple of hundred years, they've become excessive and tend to degrade the value of the bargain. While righteousness, innocence, or genuine friendship and love in small quantities can add a certain...spice, in larger amounts they become downright volatile. Warriors of the upper realms and friends from this little pit you call home are always violating our territory, and a few brave souls have even managed to escape under their own power. You are, as the tacky pun goes, very sorry indeed, but you happen to be a friend of a friend of Buffy Summers, who despite her current problematic condition is best known by us for escaping death three times in a row, as well as escaping one particular hell and ruining a very profitable operation. I'm afraid my business model doesn't accommodate risk from such quarters, however small. Did you get all that, you pitiful excuse for a cerebrate organism? Now, if you'll pardon me," and here he flung her against the wall, "get out of my way. Shame you weren't more like Angelus. That might have been interesting enough to accept your offer."

    At the sixth barrier, finally a true surprise. It was unguarded. Korsheth looked this way and that, but no one appeared in his path. There was another vampire crouched next to his client, looking into her eyes, speaking softly to her. Having ascertained there was no danger, he stepped up to the edge of the final barrier and listened.

    "Amy, remember this. Remember it even if you forget your own name. This is how hell works: you don't fight back. Humans don't fight back. That's how hell works. Remember."

    "Such good advice!" Korsheth smiled, showing all his teeth. "Might I inquire where you learned such wisdom?" The vampire simply glared. "She's right, Amy. Fighting back will get you nowhere and will only cause you additional suffering. Now come. Your mother is waiting. I'm sure it will be a lovely reunion."

    He lifted her gently. The pain would come soon enough. And appearances among the little people were important when you had a public image to maintain. A few stragglers from the client's friends descended upon him at that point. "What fools these mortals be." He allowed his avatar to fade away.
    ****
    The power was back on by the time Giles and Kate returned. "These winter storms," Kate muttered. "Bit of a nuisance. I think global warming's making them worse."

    "You should see England this time of year," Giles chuckled. "Could you hurry with the lock? I'm afraid I have a bit of indigestion. Blasted doughnuts."

    "What's with all the chalk dust?" Kate waved her hand in front of her face, coughing, as she opened the door.

    "I'm not certain. Surely the rain should've settled it."

    "I was wondering more why it's here in the first--"

    There was a cluster of weeping Scoobies in the hall.

    "We lost one," said Faith.
    Last edited by Mabus; 08-06-10, 08:43 AM.
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