Disclaimers: I own nothing. Gary, the Cat, the Paper, etc. all belong to CBS and TriStar. Buffy, the Slayerettes, the vampires, etc. all belong to Joss Whedon (grr, arg). No infringement is intended, and I promise not to hurt anybody much (more than necessary <g>). The idea is mine, however, and it would be appreciated (and lawful) if you ask before doing anything with this story.
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Papers, Predictions, and Prophecies
by Jayne Leitch
"Gary!" Buffy pounded on the door to the man's hotel room, worry making her want to break the door down. "Gary, if you're there, open up! It's Buffy!"
There was no answer, and the Slayer looked down at the Cat, which had followed her all the way from the school. "Is he in there?" she demanded, ignoring the fact that she was talking to an animal. *Hey, I've talked to a ventriloquist's dummy and an invisible girl before. What's a cat?*
The green eyes stared up at her, and the beast opened its mouth, silently meowing.
"What a help." Buffy sighed, frustrated, then glanced around furtively. The hallway was empty. She turned back to the door, taking hold of the handle firmly in both hands. She took a deep breath, then yanked the handle down viciously, hearing the lock snap. Looking around one last time to be sure she hadn't been spotted, she opened the now unlocked door and went inside.
"Gary?" The room looked lived in, but nothing appeared to have been moved by force. The bed was rumpled and unmade--and empty--and the pillows strewn from one end of it to the other. His suitcase, when she checked, was still in the closet, and some clothes still inhabited the dresser. "Guess he didn't leave to avoid the prophesy thing," Buffy muttered, glancing around for anything suspicious. "So, where <is> he?" She stood up, closing the dresser drawer--and saw a newspaper sitting on a chair.
"The Paper's here?" The Slayer's eyes widened, and she rushed over
to it, picking it up and scanning the masthead. "Sunnydale Press...<tomorrow's>
date." Stomache knotting in anxiety, Buffy looked down at the front
"Body Found In Factory
--Unidentified man was murdered, police say
"An unidentified male was found in the main loading dock of an abandoned factory off Coulter street early yesterday afternoon. The man, who carried no ID, was found seated bizarrely in a chair, his hands and feet tied to the arms and legs of it. Police Chief Robert Humphrey said that the police were tipped off to the man's situation by an anonymous caller. 'He informed us that he had seen the man through a window, tied to a chair,' Humphrey said. 'The caller did not give his name, but police would like to find him, as it turns out that he may have witnessed the murder taking place.' Police describe the murdered man as being approximately six feet tall with dark hair, wearing jeans and a leather coat. If anyone knows of this man, you are urged to go to the police and aid in identification."
Buffy looked up from the article, her eyes wide. She saw the Cat, sitting on the bed, watching her. "Not Gary." The Cat angled its head, and she folded the Paper closed, keeping it in her hands. "But he--he said that what he reads in the Paper can be fixed. He does it all the time--is that what I have to do?" She paused, almost expecting an answer--then she straightened, her mouth drawing into a firm line. "If he's at the factory, it's vampires. And if it's vampires...it's the ritual." Her mind made up, she turned and walked over to the phone, quickly punching in the library's separate phone number.
"Come on, Giles..." Buffy waited as the phone rang time and again,
then slammed the receiver down. "You picked a great time to go out
into the real world!" Taking a deep breath, she picked up again, this
time dialing her Watcher's home phone number. "Ringing, ringing...machine!--Giles?
It's Buffy. This whole ritual thing, it's happening <tonight>.
Angel and Drusilla and Spike have Gary at the factory. I'm going over
there now. Look, <don't come> unless I'm not back by night.
If I can get Gary out, I'll be fine. If not..." she paused, then
finished, "Whatever. Not before nightfall, okay? 'Bye."
She hung up, then opened the Paper again, rereading the article. "Here
I go." With one last look at the Cat, she stuffed the Press into her
backpack, then raced out of the room, trying desperately to ignore the fear
that was pounding at the back of her mind.
* * * * *
Buffy reached the factory a little under an hour later. The warm afternoon sun shone down bright and hot, and the Slayer breathed a sigh of relief that there would be no vampires waiting for her <outside> of the building. *It's just <inside> I need to worry about,* a niggling little voice told her. *Not to mention <who> is inside.* Firmly silencing the voice, she walked around to the back of the factory, to a broken window she--and Angel--had used to gain entry a few times before. *Before he turned back,* she remembered bitterly. *Because of me...*
"Get a grip," she said out loud as her steps faltered. "So he's back to being the boogeyman. That doesn't mean people have to die. I can at least stop that from happening." Buffy took a deep breath, then continued around the wall.
She reached the window and hoisted herself over the sill, being careful not to make any unnecessary noise while avoiding the shards of glass still sticking out from the old wood. Landing softly on the other side, the Slayer paused to take a stake out of the special "holster", as Xander called it, under her light coat. *Helps to be prepared.* Carefully checking the shadows for Spike and Angel's henchmen, she eased down the hall and toward the main loading dock. *Where all the action is...*
Buffy knew the layout of the factory by heart, and took as many abandoned or supposedly sealed-off halls as she could. *I really need to thank Giles for getting me the plans for this place. Not even Angel knows about most of these corridors.* Eventually, she ended up right where she wanted to be--on a catwalk that wound around the walls of the dock, about two-thirds of the way to the ceiling. *Let's see what we can see...*
The room appeared empty, with broken crates and boxes scattered all over, and a bizarre table and chair set placed carefully on the conveyor belt that ran through the middle of the room. All the furniture was wooden, which made Buffy shake her head in amazement. The table was set nicely, with a complete dinner set on each side. The plates and cutlery sat on a pristine white lace tablecloth, meticulously even and proper. There were candelabras set at either end, each sporting three thick, white candles. But the crowning glory was the centerpiece--a large crystal vase filled to the brim with dead roses, a doll's decapitated body jutting awkwardly from the middle.
Buffy shivered, staring at the sight. *I'm guessing Drusilla designed that bit of elegance. Martha Stewart, move over.* Then she realized something, and frowned. *Hang on. Four places? Spike, Dru, Angel...Gary.* She shifted uncomfortably, then decided, *Well, it looks like nobody's here right now. I should <move>.*
Taking a deep breath, the Slayer ducked under the railing and dropped, landing silent as a cat on the floor, some thirty feet from where she'd been. *Gotta love that genuine Slayer build. All the looks, twice the strength.* Still holding her stake up and ready, she crept quietly across the room, heading for the doors that led to closed-off rooms. *They're keeping him in one of these,* she told herself when she came to the row of portals. *Now, which one...?*
"Well, lookie what I've found." Buffy spun around, finding Spike sitting a few feet away. "A Slayer, come for a visit. Funny, I don't remember sending out invitations."
"I RSVP'd myself." She couldn't see any other vampires, and as the chair-bound Spike was, he didn't pose much of a threat. "Gee, you've got some primo grease on those wheels, Spike. I hardly heard you coming."
The vampire nodded modestly, never taking his eyes off the girl that was slowly advancing on him, stake raised. "Yeah. Well, maybe your hearing's going. After all, you <are> getting up there in years. Slayer years, that is. Did your Watcher ever tell you just how long one of you girls' average lifespan is?" He raised his eyebrows, pretending to think hard. "Let's see. The Slayer < I > snuffed out--the first one I did, you know--was...sixteen? Seventeen?" He paused, looking at her with wide, surprised eyes. "Gosh, that's how old <you> are, isn't it? What a coincidence."
"Yeah, well I don't plan on being 'snuffed out' any time soon, so you can just put that 'tude back in your mouth, Fang-Boy." She was almost close enough to drive the stake home, and he wasn't moving back. *What is he <doing>?*
"Oh. Too bad." Spike actually appeared sad for a moment, then he looked back up at her. "But you know, I think your hearing <is> going. 'Cause, not only did you miss <me> coming," now he spun his chair around and started wheeling away, "You also missed <them>."
Buffy's eyes widened, and she turned quickly back the way she'd been.
She had a quick glance of two deformed demon faces before something hit
her head hard, and she saw blackness.
* * * * *
Gary looked up anxiously as the door to his room was opened and a vampire came in. He watched it warily as it growled in his direction, then it stepped aside and allowed another vampire to enter--dragging Buffy in with him. The vampire deposited her a few feet away from the speechless Gary, then left with the other vamp, slamming the door shut and locking it behind them.
Shocked, Gary pushed himself away from the wall and crawled over to the unconscious Slayer. "Buffy?" He touched her shoulder lightly, then checked her pulse. It was strong, but there was a huge purple bruise beginning to show on her temple. "Come on, now, Buffy, wake up." He turned her over into a more comfortable position, and shook her arm gently.
"Mmm..." The girl stirred, and her eyes fluttered. "Uh--oohhhh." She swallowed thickly, then reached up a hand to gingerly probe the injury. "How bad is it?" she asked, remarkably clearly.
Smiling a little with relief, Gary answered, "You're gonna have a big bump."
"Wonderful. Maybe I'll have a bad hair day to go with it." Finally, the Slayer opened her eyes, then pushed herself up slowly. "Ouch..."
"Careful, now." Gary supported her a little, then leaned back. "Why are you here?"
"I saw the Cat at school, thought you might be in some trouble, went to your hotel room." Buffy gave him a weak smile, then continued, "I had to break the lock. If the hotel charges you for it, call me."
"Oh, that's okay, I can--" Gary caught up to the conversation and gave her a look. "You broke the lock??"
"I had to get in." She took a deep breath and went on, "I found the Paper, and it said they...um...found you--tomorrow--here, in the factory." Her smile faded, and she finished, "I called Giles, and came here. I didn't mean to get caught." Frowning fiercely, she looked away and muttered, "I was so <stupid>! As if Spike was just going to chat with me about the merits of wheelchair oil!"
Gary raised his eyebrows, then told her, "It wasn't your fault--"
"No?" Buffy turned her head and looked at him, eyes so full of sorrow and anger that he instinctively pulled away a little. "All of this is my fault. <All> of it. Not just letting myself get caught." She exhaled sharply, then drew her knees up to her chin, sitting in a ball. "You'd think I would have learned something by now, huh."
Gary watched her for a second, then tried again. "Look, you have a lot to deal with. You--you're the Slayer, and you have school, and friends, and--"
"And all of it distracts me from Slaying." Shaking her head, she closed her eyes and began rocking back and forth a little. "Before I found out I was the Slayer," she began intensely, "I was one of the most popular girls at school. I was still in LA then, and I'd just gone into grade nine when, one day, this guy I'd never seen before came up to me and told me that I was the Chosen One. I had to fight vampires until I died, otherwise they'd take over. And that's it, really--the only way to quit this job is to die. Which, actually, I did once."
Gary nodded. He'd heard most of this during the first meeting he'd gone to at the library, but Buffy had stayed quiet during the whole tale. He wanted to hear her own version of her life.
"So, I was only gone for a minute," Buffy continued, her eyes still closed, "But I was still, in the eyes of destiny or whatever, dead. So a new Slayer was called. Her name's Kendra. Anyway, she showed up here one time, which was kinda wiggy, because I'm supposed to be the only one." Now she paused, and opened her eyes. "She told me that she'd been sent to a Watcher when she was really young, so that she could train and be ready to take over if--when--I died. She hadn't had <anything> other than Slaying, for her whole life. No family, no school. She wasn't allowed to have any friends, or even <think> about talking to boys." A smile played over her mouth, and she continued, "She was so focused, so completely into the whole thing, that I felt...like I was slacking, or something. That somehow, I wasn't living up to expectation.
"Kendra left a while ago, but I still think about her a lot." The smile faded. "And then...it was my birthday, and I started having dreams. About Angel." Again, she paused, and looked curiously at Gary. "Did Giles tell you anything about him?"
"Angel?" Buffy nodded, and Gary answered, "He...told me you were good friends."
"He understates things." The Slayer averted her eyes. "When Angel first showed up, he was annoying. I only saw him once or twice a week, and he'd always bring me some kind of doom and gloom warning. I didn't even know he was a vampire until I'd known him for a couple of months." Starting to remember that time, she began smiling again, wistfully. "Then we started hanging out together, pretty much because it's hard to hang out with people you have to ditch halfway through the night because of some kind of duty thing, 'cause they don't know about Slaying and they'd only get hurt. We did friend stuff, he gave me his coat when I was cold..." She trailed off, then cleared her throat and went on, "Pretty soon, we were into...boyfriend-girlfriend stuff. You know. We got really close, and...on my birthday...there was this demon." Now the smile was gone, and Buffy stared at the floor as she spoke. "He was called the Judge, and Drusilla had him brought here so she and Spike could bring him to life and destroy the world. We had <no> idea how to stop it. All any of the legends said was, 'It took an army to take him down', and, 'No weapon forged can stop him'. So, Angel and I...came here to see if we could find out where Dru and Spike were going to take him to start the whole armageddon thing. We got caught." Taking a deep breath, the Slayer raised her eyebrows. "We saw what the Judge could do. He'd put his hand on you, and if there was any goodness in you, it was burned right out. Literally. He tried to get his hands on me, but Angel dropped some stuff on his head and we got away.
"He took me back to his place. I'd been hurt--it was just a scratch, really, but we'd had to crawl through sewers to get out of the factory, and it was pouring rain when we came above-ground--and we didn't think it was safe for me to be out alone at night. He gave me some dry clothes to change into, and it all hit me at once, and I realized that this time, I might actually, <really> die...and there was Angel." Slowly, Buffy looked up, meeting Gary's eyes. "Both of us knew we shouldn't. He's a vampire, I'm the Slayer...but lately, it had been so hard to leave, and I'd been having dreams..." She trailed off, then whispered, "We were more than good friends, Gary. We made love."
Gary jolted, startled at the calm, quiet statement. His eyes grew wide, and he pictured Angel, the cruel, vicious monster that had attacked him twice--and he looked at Buffy, alone and so very small. "Oh, Buffy--" he broke off, remembering Angel's cold, calculating greeting that night outside the Bronze. * "Hello, lover." Oh, Buffy...* He looked up, and saw tears in her eyes.
"The gypsy curse that had been cast had a special part that said that if Angel ever experienced true happiness while under the curse, it would be lifted." Buffy continued. "The next morning, I woke up and he was gone. The next time I saw him--" The tears spilled over, and she buried her face in her knees, "He was changed. He said--horrible things--" she broke off, and began to cry in earnest.
Gary immediately slid over to her and wrapped his arms around her, not sure what he could say. *My God. And she's been carrying all this around for weeks since it happened...* She shook against him, and he held her tighter. *She was only sixteen. How hard has it all been on her, knowing...?* "Hey, it's okay. You're okay."
"No." The girl pushed him away and looked at him, her tears frozen on her face. "No, it's not okay. I'm the Slayer. I'm supposed to kill vampires, not fall in love with them!" Ignoring his shocked expression, Buffy stood up and began pacing the small room. "But I wanted to have a normal life. I <never> wanted to be the Slayer! I wanted to go to school, and be a cheerleader, and have friends and a boyfriend. I didn't want to have a destiny; I wanted to be like every single other girl my age who worries about homework and boys and dances, and doesn't think past what she's going to wear to school the next day!" She suddenly whirled around to face Gary, and she clenched her fists at her sides until her knuckles were white. "I thought I could have all that! I had friends, I had school, I had homework--all I needed was the boyfriend. And I took one, and I didn't think about what could happen! And it's <all my fault>!"
"Buffy..." She'd started crying again, and Gary stood up and walked over to her, drawing her close again. "It's not your fault, Buffy. You couldn't have known about the curse."
"I knew it was there. I knew that if we got close, <something> would happen. I <didn't think>. And now Angel's evil, and he's taken us captive, and we have to find some way to get through this ritual." Again she pulled away, and shook her head. "I can't make any more mistakes. I have to stop him."
"Buffy..." Gary stood there, helpless. "You can't take the blame for all this. Yes, you're the Slayer--but you're also human. You make mistakes, that's how you learn to be better at being the Slayer."
"No! I can't do that!" Buffy began pacing again, moving her hands around irratically. "I can't afford to make mistakes. I have to make a choice to save people, or let them die. It's <all> up to me. The fate of the world; the fate of my friends. I choose wrong, and they're gone. There is <no way> to make up mistakes with me, Gary. I have to be right all the time."
Gary blinked. *No. That's wrong.* "And what about me?" The question made Buffy pause. "What about my mistakes? I--I get tomorrow's newspaper, Buffy. I know if--if someone's going to be mugged in the park, or hit by a car, or if someone's going to--to be stranded in a bus shelter for hours because the bus is in a traffic jam, and just have a miserable day. And I have to choose which people I help, 'cause I know I can't get to all of them, no matter how hard I try."
Buffy had stopped pacing and was staring at him, but he didn't care. "How do you think I feel about making mistakes? When I get to a hit and run just a little too late, and all I can do is get the victim to a hospital and hope she doesn't die? When I have to make a decision whether to save one little girl on a tricycle who's going to die at age six, or a whole planeful of people that could be injured <or> killed?" The words poured out of him, and he didn't even know where they were coming from. They just came. "I don't know what <could> happen every day. I know what <will> happen, if I don't go and stop it. And I go, and I try, and I don't even get a thank-you from most of the people who's lives I've saved. And since I <keep> things from happening, they don't even know what would've happened. They just think I'm some kind of crazy person who runs around, shoving people around. I'm not a superhero, Buffy. I didn't want to be the Guy that Gets Tomorrow's Paper. But I do, and I have to be. And--and you know what, I accept it. Because without the Paper, the world would lose an awful lot of good people, and that's on <my> shoulders." Now he stepped up close to the teenage girl, looking down into her eyes intensely. "I was Chosen, Buffy, same as you. And both of us make mistakes. And both of us have to live with them. Even when we're involved."
Buffy looked back, her eyes wide, her mouth open in shock.
They stood like that for a while, each looking into the others' eyes, each breathing heavily with pain and anger--and resignation. There was barely a foot of space between them, but neither moved. It was a standoff, and neither knew why it was happening.
After a time, both eased off, then turned their backs on each other. Gary walked stiffly to one corner of their prison, Buffy to another, and they sank onto the floor. Resting.
* * * * *
Giles looked up from his book as the door to the library swung open. "Buffy?"
"Nope, just us." Xander announced as he and Willow entered. Giles sighed, and ran a hand through his hair. "You haven't heard from her either?"
"Oh, no." Looking back up at the students, the Watcher explained, "She left a message on my answering service. Gary Hobson is at the factory, and she's gone to free him."
"What?" Willow's eyes grew big, and she sounded panicked. "She said she thought Gary was in trouble, but she didn't say anything about vampires! How long has she been gone?"
"Since...approximately, um, two o'clock." Giles glanced up, speaking almost reassuredly. "I'm sure she'll be fine. She is the Slayer, after all, and we--we all know she's escaped worse fates than this...ritual..."
"Oh, <that's> comforting." Xander leaned against the table, staring intensely at the older man. "We should go. Help her out. <Stop> <the> <ritual>."
"I'm not sure we can." Standing up and starting to pace, Giles informed them, "I've been working on translating the specifics of the ritual, and, jumbled though they may be, one thing is clear. The events, once they have been put into motion, cannot be stopped. Not even by the ritual's combatants."
"Combatants? Buffy has to fight?" Willow sat down miserably. "Of course she does. Nothing can be solved without violence on a hellmouth."
"Yes. Well," The Watcher shifted his pattern slightly, and continued pacing. "I've read that the ritual--known as the Acath-a mach, the, ah, 'Demon-proving'--must be performed on evil ground--"
"The factory," Xander supplied.
"--Or simply the hellmouth," Giles suggested. "If so, then it could happen anywhere in town. In which case, finding them might prove...difficult."
"If she's fighting vampires, though, she'll be at the factory." Willow stated firmly. "Especially if she's fighting Drusilla or Spike."
Giles started at Willow's glaring omission, then thought, *Of course. She wouldn't think of him as being an enemy, not when his change has been so recent...* "Yes, you're probably right," he agreed out loud, "But even so, once the ritual has begun, it cannot be stopped. So, even if we were to show up in the middle of the--the fight, we could do nothing."
"So that's all this is?" Xander asked. "A fight?"
"Well--yes." Giles walked over to the table and pulled the Foresight Papers closer so he could read. "But...I'm not sure whether it is a fight to the death, or merely a stalemate that is required for judgement."
"Judgement." Willow raised an eyebrow. "That's Gary's part?"
"Yes. He is made to watch the battle, and then..." The Watcher trailed off, and then finished, "I don't know how he is to determine the worthiness of the combatants. The book doesn't say." He pushed back a wave of helplessness, knowing he had to stay calm for Xander and Willow's sake.
"So we can't do <anything>?" Xander sounded angry, and the British man couldn't blame him. "We just have to sit here and wait to find out if Buffy's worthy? Worthy for what?"
"Again, I don't know." Sighing heavily, Giles shook his head and indicated the book. "All it will tell me is that the worthiness of the fighters must be proven before the...<something> arises. If either one is not, then it will not happen."
"Well, that's good then, isn't it?" Willow speculated. The two men looked at her, and she explained, "If Buffy's worthy, but her opponent isn't, then shouldn't that mean that she'll kill him?"
"Perhaps." Giles took off his glasses and began polishing them, trying
not to look either student in the eyes. "However, it may not be as
simple as all that. You see...Buffy's opponent, as far as I can tell...is
* * * * *
Gary looked up as the door to his and Buffy's makeshift cell swung open and two vampires swaggered in. He recognized them as the two that had brought Buffy in, and jumped when they came directly over to him and hauled him roughly to his feet.
Buffy was just as surprised by their sudden entrance, but moved more quickly, scrambling to stand up and moving to confront the demons. "Let him go--"
"Not this time, lover." The voice made the Slayer freeze, and Gary couldn't help shivering a little as Angel stepped slowly into the room, then stood a few feet away from Buffy. "Now, be a good girl, and <move away> so my boys here can take Mister Hobson and get him ready for his part in the ritual."
Buffy stayed perfectly still. "But I want to be a bad girl. They have so much more fun." She moved like lightening, lashing out with her foot at the vampire, aiming her clunky heel right at his head.
But it wasn't fast enough. Angel jerked back, reaching out at the same time and grabbing the foot, then yanking viciously. He pulled the Slayer off-balance and she fell, hard, her head striking the cement floor with a dull thud.
Gary looked down at her anxiously, willing her to get up--but she lay still, her body going limp. He looked up at the dark vampire, his eyes flashing. "She's seventeen! How can you--"
"Cool it." Angel interrupted easily, turning to walk back out the door--then pausing and turning back. He watched Gary intensely for a moment, then stepped in closer, looking him straight in the eyes and smiling lightly. "Don't tell me," he stated softly. "She told you about us."
Gary glared back, struggling slightly against the arms that held him. "You're a monster."
The smile grew, slowly, and soon the vampire was grinning like a Cheshire Cat. "She <did>," he drawled, his eyes lighting up. "She told you all about poor, tortured Angelus, product of a gypsy curse, doomed to be outcast because of his sins." He took a step closer, and Gary fought the urge to move back. "But I bet she didn't tell you how she didn't even <try> to avoid him. She knew what he was--what <I> am--but she decided that little somethings like demonolgy and destiny weren't all that important. Not to what she wanted out of life." He moved in even closer, and his voice dropped to a low, intense whisper. "Man, did she get what she wanted. Friends, school, a boyfriend...and when they finally got together--" He chuckled and closed his eyes, as if savouring the moment. "--It was magic. And she <still> didn't know what the hell she was doing with it! She had <everything>..." His eyes snapped open again, and he continued conversationally, "She was <great>, you know. A natural. And all that Slayer flexibility--"
Gary leapt forward at the grinning vampire, blind rage alone allowing him to break free of the two that held him. All he saw was Angelus' face, grinning manically, laughing at a girl who had had everything she'd ever wanted crumble right before her eyes. *And she couldn't stop it! She has all that power, her entire destiny at her fingertips, and she couldn't stop it--*
It hit him with as much force as the vampire's fist hitting his face, and Gary fell to the side, tears streaming out of his already swelling eye. *Just like I can't stop this. I knew all about what was going to happen, and I didn't stop it...* He could feel the two other vampires grabbing his arms and dragging him out of the room. *I can't stop this...*
It was his last thought as the supernaturally strong punch caught up with
him, and Gary lost consciousness.
* * * * *
When Buffy woke up, she was tied to a support beam in the factory's loading dock. Her head throbbed with pain, and she vaguely remembered an aborted attack on Angel, and two vampires taking Gary away...
She looked up, and saw the vacationer halfway across the room from her, sitting in a large, throne-like chair, his wrists tied to the arms, his feet to the front two legs. His head was bowed, but after she looked at him for a moment, he raised it, and turned to meet her gaze.
Buffy gasped as she saw the ragged bruise around his eye. *Did Angel do that...?* Gary nodded weakly in her direction as if answering her question, then looked away again.
The Slayer felt immense anger boiling to the surface inside her, and she wanted to lash out at whatever happened to get to her first. *We argued. We could've tried to find a way out of the room, but instead we fought. Another thing I did wrong...* She took a deep breath and looked away from Gary, glancing around the dock, trying to ignore the instinct that wanted her to break out of the chains that held her and seek out an opponent.
Other than herself and Gary the dock appeared empty, but Buffy could hear voices trying to speak softly from somewhere behind her. A large, vaguely rectangular space had been cleared in the very center of the room, marked off by crates on two sides and the conveyor belt, stripped of its dining setup, on the other two. The beam that Buffy was tied to was at one end, another beam was directly across from her on the other. Gary's chair was right in the middle of the left-hand side, flanked on either side by meticulously lined-up crates. A white line had been painted on the floor, running from Gary's feet to the conveyor belt opposite him, neatly slicing the rectangle in half. Around the sides of the rectangle--on the tops of crates, in a line on the belt--were placed thick candles, half of them white, the other half black. They weren't lit, but Buffy had the impression that at some point that night, they would be.
Buffy realized with dread what was set up--a fighting ring. *Is this the ritual? I have to fight?* She began testing the strength of the chains around her wrists, waving her hands in an attempt to loosen them to give her enough leverage to break free.
"Ah-ah." There was the sound of small, rubber wheels squeaking on the cement floor, and Spike rolled around to face the Slayer. "No breaking free until the ritual." He paused, rolling his eyes in exasperation, then continued, "Angel wants everything to be <just so>."
"Yeah? What if I don't want to be a part of the ritual?" Buffy answered sharply, straining even harder against the chains. "And what if Gary doesn't want to, either? Does free will not enter into this thing at all?"
The vampire snorted. "Right. The Chosen Ones have free will. Gotta remember that one for my comedy routine."
"That wouldn't be stand-up, would it?" Buffy hid a smile as Spike spun his chair around to face Gary, who looked back defiantly.
"Shut up." The command was short and bitter, and Buffy silently congratulated Gary for the insult. "I'd kill you myself, but the logistics just aren't happening. You're needed, mate. Be thankful." The vampire cast the Slayer and the other man a glare, then turned and wheeled out of the room.
Buffy watched him as long as she could, then she looked up at Gary, raising her voice and repeating, "'The Chosen Ones'?"
Gary blinked, as if he hadn't caught Spike's words. "This wouldn't have anything to do with the ritual, would it," he asked, sounding not at all questioning.
"Probably not." Buffy pursed her lips, thinking over what the phrase could mean. "Maybe about the Paper--"
"Buffy." The Slayer immediately stopped speaking, and stiffened her back against the beam. "How <wonderful> to see you again. And how <nice>, to know that you've been spreading around gossip about us. Good to know teenage girls are just the same, be they Slayer or not."
"Angel." Desperately keeping her tone level, Buffy strained her eyes until she could see the familiar shape in the shadows at the other end of the room. "What, are you into bondage now?"
The vampire chuckled, the cruelty in the sound making her shiver. "All you had to do was ask, lover." He stepped into the light, smiling intensely. "So," he asked conversationally after they looked at each other for a moment, "Ready for this?"
"It would help if I knew what 'this' is." *I'm not giving him a thing. Not one single win.*
"Oh, it's really simple." Angel crossed his arms and began pacing. "The ritual involves a fight. Between us." He paused, looked up at her, and smiled wider. Then he returned to pacing. "And we get judged." He now turned to Gary, who was watching the vampire warily. "That's where you come in, Gary--do you mind if I call you Gary?"
The Chicagoan nodded his head sarcastically. "Whatever you want," he answered coolly.
"Good. So, Gary," Angel began stroking his chin thoughtfully, "I'm not really sure just <how> you're supposed to judge us, but you better do it right, 'cause there's a <lot> riding on this. Okay?" Gary nodded, and the vampire seemed satisfied. He turned back to face Buffy. "That clear things up for you?"
"Absolutely." The Slayer raised her eyebrows, elaborating, "We fight, I beat you to a bloody pulp, Gary decides you're not worthy, we go home."
"Ah--not quite." The smile grew to a grin, making Buffy uneasy. "See, there's one little catch. I fight with a knife, you fight with a stake. Both of us have equal opportunity to wipe out the other one--not to mention, Mister Adjudicator over there." He gestured to Gary, who jumped. "The trick is, we have to try our damnest to kill each other--but we can't actually do the deed. Not until the ritual's over, anyway."
Buffy frowned, confused. "And just how are we to know that the other one's gonna work with the rules? I mean, who's to say that if I get a <really> good shot at you, I won't just take it?"
"There's the thing. That is what the ritual's all about." Angel sighed, his smile dimming a little. "See, if we're worthy, neither one of us should be able to get the drop on each other. And, if either one of us <isn't> worthy--" He paused, shrugging carelessly, "--Then one of us dies, and the ritual's over. It's like the whole snake-eats-it's-own-tail, chicken-or-the-egg thing. Only with fighting and blood and death." He raised his eyebrows, the smile gaining strength again. "Interesting, no?"
"No," Buffy replied dryly. She frowned, thinking. "So...one of us dies, and the ritual's over?"
Angel shook his head, sighing mightily. "You haven't been <listening>, lover. Somebody dies if that somebody isn't worthy. Otherwise, the ritual ends when judgement is made." Looking up at her, he tilted his head to the side, his smile growing smoothly over his face again. "I'm gonna enjoy this. Weapons, violence, mano e Slayero..."
Buffy forced back a wave of anger and fear as the vampire turned his back
on her and began strolling nonchalantly to the opposite end of the factory.
*Great. Just what I need...* She glanced nervously over at Gary,
who met her gaze with worried, hooded eyes. *Bet he wishes he never
took this vacation.*
* * * * *
Chuck Fishman, part-owner and seemingly full-operator of McGinty's Pub and Restaurant, dropped his head in his hands and began muttering to himself, completely oblivious to the looks the chef and kitchen staff were giving him. "Oh, man. Oh, <man>. This is <so> not what I was thinking about."
"What, now I'm supposed to be a mindreader?" Marissa leaned against the counter beside her distraught business partner, her arms folded, her tone cool. "I ordered the pattern that Crumb told me looked best. And, knowing Crumb," she hurried on when Chuck started to protest, "I asked Robin to choose, and then I asked Oswald. All of them said the same thing--go with number five. Don't blame me if public opinion shut you down again."
"Marissa," Chuck explained tensely, "You asked a bartender, a waitress, and a chef for opinions. Does it sound like they're qualified?--no offense, Oz," he hurriedly corrected himself as the chief cook turned around to glare at him, "But none of them own this place. I <do>."
"Yeah, and I have major stock in 'this place'. And Gary's part-owner, and if he were here, he'd agree with me." Having said this, Marissa sighed and let her arms fall by her sides. "Look, Chuck, it's not even that important a thing, really. I mean, why get so riled up? They're just beer mats."
Chuck straightened up, fixing her with a piercing glare. " 'Just beer mats'? Marissa, in the restaurant business, <nothing> is <just> anything. <Especially> beer mats. They're the foundation of the whole enterprise! Buy the wrong beer mats, and you might as well hang a sign outside the establishment saying, 'Go away'!" Tired of arguing, he slumped down again, his fingers tracing lines in a thin coating of flour on the counter. "I can't believe you ordered them without asking me. Judas!"
Marissa blinked at that, then leaned over, resting her elbows on the counter. "You miss Gary, huh?"
"What?" Chuck looked up, then sighed and looked back down. "I guess just a little," he admitted, grudgingly. "He's been gone what, a week, almost? And it just doesn't seem right here without him making a big deal about whatever he's read in the Paper. Besides which," he added after a moment, "He has better taste than you, and he <would've> asked me about the beer mats!"
Marissa smiled a little, glad that she'd gotten to the root of the problem. "He'll be back in a couple of days, Chuck," she reminded him lightly. "Then you can tell him all about it, and see if he agrees with you. And if he doesn't..."
"I can yell at him for slacking off for so long while I've been working at keeping this place alive," Chuck finished smugly. He smiled wistfully, then asked, "I wonder what he's found to do in Sunnydale? He sounded tired when he called a while ago."
Letting her smile grow into a grin, Marissa answered, "I don't know. Maybe there's a theatre in town, and Gary's been seeing plays every night of the week. Or maybe he found a beach nearby."
Chuck shrugged. "Whatever he's doing, he'd better be having fun at
it. He has been one tense person the last few weeks."
(End of Part Eleven)
* * * * *
Gary watched anxiously as Angel walked across the room until he came to stand in front of the support beam opposite Buffy. The vampire stood straight and arrogant, his head held high and his eyes gleaming with pure, predatory delight. *Of all the things I never wanted to see in my life,* Gary thought, *I never believed that a man completely satisfied with what he's about to do would be one of them.*
He'd wanted to try to talk more to Buffy before this whole thing started, but it looked like that wasn't going to happen. Angelus had turned so his back was against the beam, his arms wrapped around it, mimicking Buffy's stance. Another vampire appeared behind him, and began binding his hands with a thick, heavy chain. As the chain tightened, the vampire began to speak in harsh, rhythmic tones, the words of some language that Gary didn't recognize. Soon, the job was done, and the hench-vamp slunk away, leaving Angel tied at one end of the fighting ring, Buffy at the other. Shortly after that, the chanting stopped, and it was silent.
Gary could hear the air breezing through the room, it was so quiet, and he longed for something to happen, if just so he wouldn't be forced to deal with the lack of noise. He didn't have to wait long; Buffy spoke up irritatedly.
"So what do we do now?"
Angel answered, coolly. "Patience, Buffy. We need to start off on equal footing, so I had to be tied up. As soon as we get our weapons, we can break free and have at each other."
<Weapons>. Gary felt sweat break out on his forehead. He'd completely forgotten about--
There was a muted slapping sound, and suddenly both combatants were out of their chains and speeding towards each other. Gary jumped, shocked that Buffy could have broken free of the heavy chains so quickly. *Then again, she broke the lock on my hotel room door. What's a chain?* He could see a good-sized stake clenched tightly in Buffy's hand, and a gleaming metal knife held at the ready in Angel's.
They met dead centre of the fighting ring, but didn't immediately start the battle; instead, the two combatants circled each other warily, waiting for a split-second's laxness in their opponent's guard that would give them an advantage. Gary didn't notice the first gaffe, but it was apparently Angel's, for Buffy sprang at him so suddenly that the judge started against his bindings.
Buffy aimed a low kick at the vampire's shins, striking out with her stake at the same time. She swung it like a club, the blunt end whistling just past Angel's nose as he jerked his head back, then ducked into her, tackling her around the middle. The two went down, weapons useless as they jockeyed for position, rolling across the concrete floor in a tangled mess of arms and legs. Eventually, Angel managed to grasp a handful of Buffy's hair, and he slammed her head against the floor violently. The girl grunted in pain, the shock apparently giving her opponent the leverage he needed to flip over and pin her down. "Just like old times, lover," he commented as she squirmed under him.
The statement made the Slayer pause--then she managed to wrest her right hand free, and she brought it up to his face, her fingernails clawing across his cheek. The vampire's grip loosened slightly as streaks of red blossomed on his fearfully distorted features, and Buffy pulled her other hand free, planted it against his shoulder, and pushed with all her might, throwing her opponent across the ring. Once she was free, she scrambled to her feet, glaring at him as he picked himself up and touched the already-healing scratches carefully. "You weren't there," she told him between gasps for air.
Angelus looked back, his eyes narrowing. "I remember everything he did, lover," he answered, his grip on the knife so tight his knuckles were white. "It might not have been my name on the time-share lease, but I was <there>. And now that I own the property," he smiled, the deformation of his face crinkling obscenely, "I have access to all his records. Nothing he did while cursed is hidden from me." Angel flipped the knife around so that, instead of holding it by the handle, he grasped the blade in his hand. He looked Buffy squarely in the eyes, holding his weapon up, about to throw it. "<Nothing>."
The Slayer stood her ground, resting on the balls of her feet, ready to dodge the throw--but she didn't have to. Angel abruptly spun on his heel, turning to face Gary, drew his arm back, and threw the knife with as much force as his vampiric strength would allow.
Gary's eyes widened, and then he slammed them shut, anticipating the cut of the blade. Instead, he felt his throne judder as the missile struck into the back rest, mere inches above his left shoulder. Instinctively, he opened his eyes and turned his head to look at the shivering hilt. He breathed a sigh of relief--which caught in his throat when he found Angel beside him, pulling his weapon free and holding it casually to his neck.
Gary glanced up at the vampire, then out at Buffy, who was still standing in the ring, her mouth open in shock. "H-hey, now," he managed to stutter, feeling the cold metal press against his skin. "I--I don't need a shave."
"Really? You look a little scruffy to me," Angel commented, pretending to inspect his hostage's face carefully. "I can do a real...<close> job."
"Relax, Gary." The man jolted as Buffy spoke, his thoughts whirling around his head, making him dizzy. *<Relax>? Are you <crazy>??* "Don't move. He won't kill you; he needs your judgement." The Slayer was slowly approaching the throne, her stake held high, as if she might throw it next.
Gary realized that she was probably right, but the knife was <really> pressing in. "Oh. Uh..." *Do <not> swallow. No sudden movements...*
"She's right, you know." Angel pulled the knife away from Gary's throat--just a little. "I'm not going to kill you. <Yet>. I just thought..." His voice was casual, and Gary got the impression that both he and Buffy were being toyed with. "I just thought I'd up the 'stakes', as it were. You know, turn up the heat on the lovely young Slayer." Suddenly, his face was right beside Gary's, and the human had to force down a shudder of disgust as he got an up-close look at the demon. "Don't you think we could use some more <tension>!"
No sooner were the words out of his mouth than the knife was gone from his throat, and Gary sagged down a little in the chair, relieved. He had only a moment of ease, however, before he felt Angel rip the rope away from his left wrist and pick up his arm. In the next instant, the vampire increased the pressure, there was a loud, sickening *crack*, and Gary sagged back against the wood, his mind screaming pain at him as black dots swam over his vision. He vaguely heard Buffy yell angrily from the ring, and he turned his eyes to the obscenely twisted, broken mass that was his arm. *This is not good.*
Angel was laughing now, his face reverting back to a more human appearance. "Oops!" He stepped away from Gary a little, ignoring the man's gasp of pain, instead focussing on Buffy's reaction. "I hurt your friend, lover," he taunted, raising his eyebrows and angling his head. "What are you going to do about that?"
"Simple." The Slayer's response was cool, and hard as nails. "I'm going to kill you."
The Slayer charged, her stake held ready, and Angelus met her halfway.
Gary took a deep, shuddering breath, and tried to take his mind off the fierce agony of his arm. Glancing away from it, he noticed a flurry of activity around the edges of the rectangle. He concentrated on watching this movement, intent on ignoring the pain. There were two vampires, both with fully deformed faces, lighting the rows of candles surrounding the ring. There seemed to be a set procedure to the act; the vamp would light a match, raise the burning stick above its head, then lower it to light the wick. Then the demon would blow out the match, move to the next candle, and start the ritual again. They didn't look up from their task, not to watch the battle, not to glance over at Gary. They just moved silently around the ring, lighting candles.
Gary had a sickening feeling he knew what was going to happen next. He turned his gaze back to the combatants, who were going at each other tooth-and-nail. They were fairly evenly matched; Buffy kicked out at Angel, who blocked her foot with his arm and swung at her with the knife. She grabbed his wrist and twisted, spinning her body around so she was practically in his arms, at which point she would bend over swiftly and throw him to the ground. Then, just as quickly, he would be up again, starting the moves to another assault.
The pair had just parted from another flurry of activity when suddenly the lights went out, leaving the room illuminated only by flickering candle light. Gary jumped as he heard Buffy shout out in surprise and fury. "What <is> this?"
The fighters' bodies were transformed into shifting, wavering shadows in the sudden dim light; nevertheless, both continued to circle each other carefully, neither letting their guard down. "Part of the ritual, Buff," Angelus replied as he stepped farther from her outstretched stake, his tone reminiscent of a parent exasperatedly explaining something to a child. "Darkness, sacred candles, tricks of the senses...this should be old hat to you by now."
Something in the vampire's phrasing made Gary's hair stand on end, and he began shaking in his chair. Almost speaking to himself, he murmured, "The dream." He could feel a chill creep its way up his spine, and a numbness settle over his wound. *Tricks of the senses.*
Out on the floor, Angel's head snapped around at Gary's quiet words, a wolfish grin spreading across his face. A chuckle broke from his mouth, and he turned sparkling eyes on the Slayer, who's complexion had faded to white at the memory. "A dream? You dreamed about this?" The chuckle grew to a full-fledged laugh, and the vampire threw his head back in mirth. "This is perfect! Everything's working out now!"
"No!" Buffy's terse exclamation echoed through the dark room, and Gary saw the Slayer shaking her head, slowly. "No. I can change what happens in my dreams. It <will> <not> <happen>!" She quickly lunged forward.
The move was frantic, and little more than a blind leap. Gary's heart jumped into his mouth as he saw Angel easily avoid the attack, the vampire grabbing the stake from Buffy's hand, then quickly gripping her wrist in an iron hold. He swung her around so she was enveloped in his arms, her back against his front. Clamping onto her like a vise, the demon closed the circle of his arms with the stake, effectively pinning the Slayer against him.
Angel laughed as Buffy squirmed desperately against him, the ominous sound
making Gary shiver. "Too bad, lover. Guess you're not worthy
* * * * *
Buffy felt only blind rage as she struggled against Angel, her arms held tightly against her sides, her weapon in the hands of her opponent. *This is <not> how it ends. It's not!*
She could see Gary watching her out of the corner of her eye, and she fought a wave of bleakness that threatened to overwhelm her. *Another thing I've failed at.*
Suddenly, she felt Angel lean slightly, as if going for her neck, and she redoubled her efforts. Instead, the vampire's grip simply tightened further, squeezing the air from her lungs and making her gasp. She stiffened as she felt Angelus' lips brush her ear, and her eyes widened as she heard what he said.
"Too bad, lover. Guess you're not worthy after all."
The sound of his voice made her want to be sick. This person--the same person who had only a few weeks ago held her tenderly, lovingly, and whom she had held and loved in return--revolted her, made her feel dirty. She shuddered against him, determined not to lose. "Oh, I'm worthy," she whispered harshly in reply. "At least I don't resort to cheap lighting to get my point across!"
She felt Angel laugh behind her, and then--to her utter shock--he pushed her away, spinning her around as if they were dancing. "I'll give you that, Buff," he said conversationally. "Once more onto the breach, huh?" With that, he tossed her the stake.
She caught it easily, then looked up at his shadowy form, her eyes narrowed in suspicion. "You're giving me another chance?"
"Why not?" The vampire flipped his knife in his hand, then crouched down into a fighting stance. "Bring it on, lover."
This time, however, she wasn't going to go at him without thinking. She matched his stance, holding her own weapon easily in the palm of her hand, the point of it aimed and ready to plunge into Angel's chest. The flickering candlelight cast eerie shadows across the ring, the uneven darkness half-hiding her opponent in bare space. His black clothes melted into the gloom, blurring the shape of his body, and Buffy couldn't be sure of where, exactly, the fatal blow should fall. She felt beads of sweat run down her forehead towards her eyes, but she didn't dare to reach up and wipe them away. Instead, she blinked hard, forcing herself to see through the murky dimness, commanding herself not to lose her senses.
Angel was slowly stepping away from her, moving backwards, closer to the edge of the ring. Keeping her eyes trained on his half-obscured face, Buffy moved with him, matching his movements step for step.
"Concentrate, lover." The harsh sound of his whispered voice drove into her brain, and she shook her head a little, determined to stay focused. "It's dark. You can hardly see me, and having your eyes blurred won't help at all." She felt her hand begin to tremble, and with an effort, she steadied it. "You don't want to make...<another>...mistake."
Buffy's eyes filled with tears, and she blinked hard, trying to keep them from spilling out onto her face. "I don't make mistakes," was her tight answer.
"Really?" Angelus was still moving, still stepping carefully backwards, but the Slayer's attention was so concentrated that she didn't--couldn't--see where he was headed. "What about Spring Fling? The evil frat boys?" There was a pause, and Buffy detected a quicksilver grin. "What about us?"
"There never was an us." Her tears flooded over, and Angel became a shifting, blurred shadow, one of many. "Not you and me. Me and <him>. Don't ever talk like that."
"Why not? Because you don't want to remember?" He wasn't even crouching; he simply walked backwards, as if strolling through a park. "Why wouldn't you want to remember something like that? The romance, the spirituality..." He trailed off, and Buffy froze, sure she knew what he was going to say. "...The way the soul just tore out of my body..." The grin widened, and he asked innocently, "Why wouldn't you want to remember something as great as that?"
He had stopped moving, finally, and if Buffy had been able to see through the tears that clouded her eyes and the shadows that shifted unceasingly around them, she would have known what he was doing.
Angel had moved until he stood right in front of Gary's throne, leading the Slayer so she wouldn't notice his plan. The vampire was so close that, if Gary's feet hadn't been tied to the legs of the chair, he could have lashed out and kicked him; as it was, all the judge could do was watch Buffy's shadowy form advance unknowingly on the looming form of Angelus, and know that the vampire planned to have him killed by Buffy's hand.
"So many mistakes." Angel clucked his tongue reprovingly. "Keep making them, and someone will end up being hurt."
"You're right." Buffy took a deep breath, fighting against the urge to give up right there. Her opponent wasn't even trying to defend himself; he just stood in front of her, his arms at his sides, his knife dangling from his fingers. "Someone will get hurt. You!"
Like lightening the Slayer kicked out, aiming her heel at the vampire's knees. She felt her foot connect a glancing blow, and suddenly the man was down. Without pausing to wonder at how the ineffective strike could have made the vampire fall to his knees, she raised her stake, her eyes searching out her target on his chest. She didn't even notice that the crisp black shirt of Angel's had suddenly become gray, and it didn't register that the vampire's pale complexion was now tanned, and the features twisted into horrified shock.
She didn't hear Angel's soft laugh from behind her until it was too late.
* * * * *
Gary saw the look on Buffy's face as she lashed out at Angel, and he shuddered. The girl's eyes burned with hatred, the emotion so strong that she didn't know what she was doing. But as she kicked out, Gary saw the fury dim slightly, and realized that she didn't want to kill the vampire any more than he wanted to die. Profound sorrow marred her pretty young features for an instant--and then it was gone, leaving only her anger and purpose. In the semi-darkness, Gary realized that Buffy hadn't noticed the lightening fast move that brought Angel out of the lethal path of her stake, and the young Slayer raised her weapon, oblivious to the fact that she was now living her nightmare.
Gary gasped, his eyes widening in shock. *I'm going to die. Buffy's going to kill me, and Angel's going to use it against her to win.* The thought flashed through his mind in an instant, bringing with it a hatred more powerful than Gary ever thought he was capable of feeling. *Bastard!* But no matter how he felt, he couldn't stop the movement of Buffy's arm as she thrust the stake downwards towards his chest, the sharpened wood making a faint whistling sound as it sped through the air.
Suddenly, there was a buzzing of electrical current, and the lights snapped on. The abrupt brightness dazzled both Gary and Buffy, and as the Chicagoan blinked againt the light, he felt the tip of the stake jolt across his chest as the Slayer jumped, bewildered. He squinted up at her, noting the horror that flashed over her face when she saw what she'd almost done. "Oh my God, Gary! I--Angel, I didn't--"
"I'm okay." He wasn't entirely; the point of wood had torn through the material of his shirt, and was touching his skin when Buffy moved. It had penetrated far enough into his chest to leave a bright red slash across his front, and Gary could feel the warm stickiness of blood running down into the ripped fabric of his shirt. He saw Buffy's eyes widen as she saw what she'd done, and he offered her a weak smile. "Don't worry about me, just concentrate on--on him."
Angel was fuming. He stood in the centre of the fighting ring, his demonic visage contorted even further with fury at his failed trick. "Who did that?!" he roared into the factory, his yellowish eyes burning. "Who turned the lights on?"
There wasn't a vampire in the building who would admit to the transgression. However, one being did reply: there was a soft, furry thud as the orange Cat dropped onto the floor from the ledge near the ceiling where the light controls were placed. The animal landed on its feet, then seated itself primly, turning its green eyes to stare at the vampire, lashing his tail idly.
"You." Angelus glared back, a low, fierce growl rumbling in his throat. He flipped his knife in his hand, then took a step closer to the beast.
"Come on, Angel, don't make me sic PETA on you." The sound of Buffy's voice made the vampire freeze, and he swiveled slowly on his heel to see the Slayer standing in front of Gary's throne, her hands on her hips. She'd already recovered from the shock of almost staking her friend--either that, or she'd repressed her feelings until a more appropriate time--and she gazed steadily at her opponent, her chin raised regally, her jaw set. "You don't want to hurt the cat while I'm still ready to fight, do you?"
Angelus snarled, turning his back on the feline. "You're right," he commented roughly, his tone one of serious anger. "Why kill it when I can kill you?"
The Slayer and the vampire moved towards each other, their expressions making it clear to Gary that this time, each one meant business. No matter who had done the most damage earlier, this time, no one was winning without their opponent's death.
They met dead centre of the ring. Buffy went in swinging, using her fists and the stake to pummel Angel's face and chest with as much force as she could muster. Angelus, for his part, blocked as many swings as he could, and even managed to counter with a few swipes of his own. The sounds of battle were accompanied only by the grunts and harsh breathing of the combatants; no one wanted to waste concentration or effort on making snide comments.
Gary watched the fight weakly; he could feel himself slipping into shock from his injuries, and was having trouble focusing on making his decision. *How am I supposed to decide who's worthy?* he thought as a wave of bleak despondence washed over him. *How can I judge people I hardly know?* He noticed the Cat sitting across the ring, the animal's wide green eyes fixed intelligently on him. Through his numbed mind, it took Gary a moment to realize what it was trying to tell him. *I do it every day with the Paper. I have to; otherwise, someone gets hurt, or dies.* With an effort, he shook his head. Still silently communing with the Cat, he continued, *But that...that's different. The Paper makes me save people for a reason, just like Marissa says. This--this is just...just some ritual, some prophesy. <This> is the reason, and it doesn't make any sense!*
The Cat twitched its tail one last time, then rose to its feet and turned away from Gary. The beast trotted off into the shadows of the factory, as if finished with the 'conversation'.
Gary sighed, then turned his eyes resolutely back to the fight.
Angel was snarling openly now; Buffy clearly had the upper hand for this round. The Slayer was in the middle of a ferocious attack on the vampire, her efforts spearheaded by her feet. Keeping her hands clenched around the stake for balance, her leg lashed out, her shoe connecting solidly with Angel's ribcage. The vampire was jolted off-balance, and while he was bent over, she kneed him sharply in the face.
Angelus howled in anger and spun away from her, raising his knife as he moved. Buffy was ready for this, and as his weapon whistled towards her on a decapitation course, she leaned back. The blade whizzed past her face and she reached out, catching Angel's arm and using his own momentum to toss him forward. The shove made him stumble, and as his arms flailed in a useless attempt to right himself, Buffy reached out, took his wrist in both hands, and twisted.
The vampire hissed as his fingers lost their grip on the knife. The weapon dropped out of his hand and fell to the floor, only to be kicked out of the ring by Buffy. "What are you gonna do now, Angel?" she taunted between gasps of breath. "Now that things aren't going your way. Now that I'm in control--again."
The demon pulled himself to his feet, his chest heaving with rage. Fists clenched into white balls at his sides, his entire body trembling with passion, Angelus resorted to his last possible weapon: words. "You--you pathetic little bitch!" His voice was gravelly and hushed, the tone serving to make what he said that much worse. "You have no idea, do you? No <concept> of who you gave yourself to that night!"
Buffy, still crouched in her fighting stance, froze a little. Then, realizing what he was trying to do, she firmed up her resolve and replied quietly, "Try me."
Angelus laughed cruelly, letting his face shift back to human form. "Him. <Angel>. Your <boyfriend>," he stressed the word, making it sound obscene, "Was a spineless freak who wanted desperately to feel loved by someone. Anyone! As long as they didn't know, didn't care about, or had forgiven him his sins." The vampire's volume grew gradually, becoming more incensed with each word. "Hell, he laid the Slayer! And he felt awful about giving in to those wily female charms of yours, too. 'She's just a little girl, I shouldn't take advantage of her, not after what's happened, what's going to happen.' But he did anyway, because the bastard needed to know that somebody thought he wasn't a monster. He used you, lover! And he felt <horrible>!"
Gary jolted upright in his chair as he heard Angelus scream the words at Buffy, his eyes going wide. *He gave in to his feelings. She gave in to hers. They both knew it was wrong, for whatever reasons...* Slumping back, he tried desperately to finish the thought, ignoring the sounds of battle around him, ignoring the pain in his chest and arm, concentrating on the final key... "They felt unworthy. They still do. <That's> the reason for all of this."
He raised his eyes to the fighters, confident that he had the answer. They looked ready to go at each other again; Angel was seething with rage, and Buffy squeezed her stake against her like a lifeline. They locked gazes and began stepping in again--but Gary took a deep breath and commanded with all the strength he could muster, "STOP."
The combatants froze, then turned as one to look at him. Gary felt his cheeks flame a little. "I...I've made my decision," he explained, a little less heatedly.
As quickly as Angel's anger had come, it vanished, leaving the demon standing casually not ten feet from Gary's throne. "Have you now," he said calmly. Sliding a glance over at Buffy, he folded his arms and made a show of being impatient. "Well, let's hear it. Is the delectable Miss Summers worthy, or am I?"
A sudden wave of lightheadedness engulfed the judge, and Gary slumped a little in his chair. But despite the roar of blood through his head, he managed to reply flatly, "Neither. You're both the unworthiest people I've ever seen in my life."
There was a communal pause. Then, Buffy tentatively raised her hand. "Um...come again?"
"Oh, I didn't mean that you're both awful people." Gary jumped at the flip way he spoke, then had the oddest feeling of <watching> his own movement. "You're both incredible fighters. Master strategists, and really good at thinking on your feet." He shivered; suddenly, he didn't recognize his own voice. "But you've completely misunderstood the reason for this whole event. You see, you both hate what happened <that night>. Angel, you're ashamed of how your souled body gave in to the moment." The vampire took a growling step forward, but Gary continued. "The demon in you right now thinks that Buffy was a weakness, and despite your current...philosophy, you believe that while she's still alive, she will be able to get to you. Buffy," now he shifted his attention to the Slayer, who was watching Angelus carefully, "You feel guilty because of what happened as a result of giving in. Angel lost his soul, and you think that the reason <this> Angel is such a crummy guy is because, deep down, he's angry at you for causing his transformation."
His words were greeted silently. The two fighters, who just moments ago had been at each others' throats, now exchanged guilty glances. Gary waited a moment to see how they'd react, astonished at the utter calmness he felt. He saw the Cat sitting on top of some boxes, and quickly looked away. The animal's eyes were shining brightly, as if lit from within.
Suddenly, the dizziness overcame him again, and he realized he was speaking. "The Hellmouth's energy does strange things with strong emotions," he lectured, completely unaware of what he was saying. "An outcast that no one pays attention to will become literally invisible; a little boy who's in a coma can influence people's nightmares. In your case," he nodded at each combatant, "Your feelings of unworthiness made you doubt yourselves. You <needed> to know that you'd be ready for what lies ahead. So, the Hellmouth magnified your present states of mind, and created this method of testing yourselves. <You> felt unworthy; the Hellmouth is letting you realize that you're both prepared."
Buffy looked up sharply. "Prepared for what?"
To his shock, Gary actually chuckled. "Oh, I can't tell you that. You'll find out soon enough. But don't worry; you're ready for facing the challenge. <Both> of you."
The Slayer and vampire took a moment to digest this information; then, Angel sighed. "Such a waste of time," he commented airily. "I always knew I'm worthy for this...whatever it is. < I > am <not> scared of her." He gestured sharply at Buffy.
The girl simply took his bluster in stride. "Okay, so if what you said is true, then the ritual's over, right? We can go home."
"Not so fast, lover." Before either Buffy or Gary could react, Angelus made a sign with his hand, and suddenly two henchman vampires had scampered into the ring and taken hold of her arms. "I don't intend to let <either> of you go."
Gary watched warily as another demon began strolling in his direction. He'd begun to feel like himself again, and was beginning to feel the pain of his injuries as if they'd just been inflicted. "But--but you said that after I made my judgement, w-we could leave..."
Angelus threw his head back and laughed boisterously. "And you <believed> me??" Turning a little so he could watch his henchmen control Buffy, he clucked his tongue in mock disapproval. "Oh, Buffy. You should've told him to know better. After all, if there's one thing Rupert likes to drive into your head, it's--"
"Always eat my greens?" the Slayer interrupted roughly. She was struggling against her captors, but still made time to comment snidely, "Whoops, no, that's the <other> almost-authority figure in my life." Like lightening, she twisted her left arm free and swung her hand around in an open-fisted punch. The vampire she was aiming for, however, ducked out of the way in time, and grabbed her hand.
"Nice try, Buff, but what I was going for was--" Angel suddenly hunched his shoulders slightly and mimicked the librarian's expression perfectly. In slightly British tones, he mocked, "Buffy, you must never underestimate vampires. You must never trust vampires. You must never have tea with vampires, and most especially, you must never <sleep with> a vampire." He raised his eyebrows, and in his normal voice, exclaimed, "Oops! A little too late for that last one, don't you--"
He never got to finish his taunting. At that moment, one of the vampires holding Buffy let out a blood-curdling yell of pain, then fell back, smoke boiling from his skin. There was the scent of burning flesh, then the monster burst into a puff of flame.
Gary looked around wildly, trying to find this new threat--then relaxed a little as his eyes lit upon the catwalk, where Giles, Xander, and Willow stood, each carrying crosses, stakes, and small, clear glass bottles that appeared to be full of water. *Holy water,* Gary corrected, *Judging by the way that vamp just lit up.*
Buffy took her opportunity. As her other captor suddenly found himself mateless, she swung around in much the same fashion she had before, this time connecting sharply with the demon's jaw. Startled, he let her go, but she continued her attack.
Gary's vampire bodyguard immediately crouched down, and watched as the Slayerettes hurried down from the catwalk and moved to join the fight. Xander detached from the others when they got near Buffy, and stood by ready to help if she needed it. Giles and Willow continued on to Gary, the girl raising her cross at the Chicagoan's guardian.
Gary looked apprehensively past his rescuers to see how Angelus was taking the new development. The vampire watched coldly as the Slayer's friends took on his henchmen; then, he shrugged his shoulders and turned away. "There's always later."
As Giles neared Gary's vampire, the demon bared its fangs and leapt forward at him, only to have a bottle of Holy water broken over his head. As he staggered to the side, Willow used her stake to knock him to the ground, where Giles quickly dispatched him. The two humans hurried over to Gary, and set to work untying him.
"How bad is it?" the British man asked when he saw Gary's arm.
"Um...hospital." The visitor tried to cover his pain with a grimacing smile. "I think I'm past shock by this point. Hospital."
"Right." The ropes around his legs fell away, and Gary leaned on Giles as the older man helped him out of the throne. With Willow's help, the three managed to get out of the factory and to Giles' car, where Xander and Buffy soon joined them.
"Are you all right?" Giles glanced up from where he'd settled Gary into the vehicle, looking Buffy over sharply for injuries.
"I'm okay," she assured her friends. "My head hurts a little, and I could use a nice, big slice of pineapple pizza, but otherwise--" she smiled dizzily and all but collapsed onto the Citroen's back seat, "--I'm peachy."
With a little exasperated shake of his head, Giles climbed behind the wheel
and turned the key, then idled while waiting for the other two teenagers to
find their seats. When everyone was in, he headed onto the road, making
a beeline for Sunnydale General Hospital.
* * * * *
Gary lay in his hospital bed, holding the telephone receiver awkwardly with his right hand. One of the nurses--she'd introduced herself as Edith, which struck Gary as being far too ironic--had placed the phone on the swing-table that hung in front of him, without noticing that its position was closer to his left arm than his right hand. As his left arm was currently in traction, Gary was unimpressed with the layout. However, by performing some mild feats of stretching and contortionism, he was soon able to drape the cord over his cast and under his chin, thus allowing himself to hold the receiver to his ear with his working hand.
Dialing had presented another problem, but luckily one he could solve with the help of his traction pole.
Now, as he waited for someone to pick up at McGinty's, he realized just how uncomfortable phone cords could be.
The phone rang five times before someone picked up, and even before the someone spoke, Gary could hear the usual noises of what Chuck had wanted to call Happy Hour in the background. "McGinty's."
"Marissa, hi. It's Gary."
"Gary?!" The woman immediately perked up, and began barraging him with questions. "How are you? How's Sunnydale? Chuck told me you called a few days ago, but he didn't say you told him what you were doing, so--"
"Marissa!" Gary smiled into the phone, letting the familiar sound of his friend's voice relax him. "I'm--I'm doing okay, Sunnydale's...well, it's interesting." He twisted his face into an expression that screamed, Interesting's <not> the right word. "I've been...pretty busy lately, with the Paper and stuff--"
"Oh, Gary." On the other end of the line, Marissa sounded half-teasing, half-pleading. "Tell me you haven't been slaving away at saving the world." When he didn't respond, she sighed heavily. "You're on <vacation>, Gary," she reminded him archly.
"Yeah, well," He tried not to sound as tired as he felt. "Sometimes it doesn't give me much choice in the matter."
They were silent for a moment. Then, Marissa asked hesitantly, "So? What have you been doing?"
"Um--" Gary smiled a little. "Um, not what you'd expect. Sunnydale's...well, it's interesting." Realizing that he'd just repeated himself, he hurried on, "I've met a few people, and they've been...helping me a little. They sort of already knew about the Paper."
"What?" Marissa sounded intrigued. "How did they know? Do they get a Paper of their own?"
"Not--not exactly." Suddenly, the door to his room opened, admitting Buffy and Giles. "Oh, Marissa, I've got to go, I have company. I--I'll talk to you later, okay?"
Marissa sighed. "I guess." Then, perking up a little, she commented, "You'll be back soon anyway, right? We'll see you then."
"Yeah. See you then." Gary absently made his goodbyes, then went to hang up, forgetting the precarious position the cord was in. Luckily, Giles was able to save him from strangulation.
"So, how are you, Gary?" Buffy perched herself on the edge of his bed, looking him over with guarded eyes. "How's your arm?"
"It's...it doesn't hurt much, but they've got me on medication, so..." He trailed off, glancing from one guest to the other. Both the man and the girl were watching him the same way; eyes hooded, but with intense curiosity written on their faces. "And...how are you doing?"
The Slayer smiled genuinely. "I'm okay. The stuff you said kinda made sense, so I'm trying to work with it for now."
"Yeah, well it wasn't really me talking." Gary squirmed a little as the others' inspection of him became more intense. "It felt sort of like someone was speaking <through>...me..." He trailed off, then furrowed his brow. "Okay, what's going on?"
Giles sighed. "We're simply...concerned. Since you've been admitted, we--Willow, Xander and I--have managed to decipher more of the Foresight Papers."
Gary's eyes widened. "Not another prophesy," he began in dismay.
"No! No, not another one." Buffy rushed to reassure him, her smile growing a little wider. "Trust me, if we'd found out about another ritual or anything, I'd be locked in my room right now. I do <not> need any added aggravation."
"What we found," Giles resumed his lecture, "Was more of an explanation of the ritual you and Buffy already went through. More specifically, your part in it."
"Oh." Leaning back against his pillows, Gary glanced from one to the other. "Well, would you mind filling me in? I'd kinda like to know why my holiday had to be messed up."
"Of course." As if by magic, the Watcher suddenly had a small notebook in his hand, and he flipped the pages quickly until he came to the section he wanted. "The prophesy said that the judge would be one who is 'both'. We were unable to figure out what that meant...until today."
"Apparently," Buffy took over so easily that Gary wondered just how much time the Watcher and Slayer actually spent together. "Apparently, it means that you have the potential to be both the Slayer <and> the vampire. Metaphorically." Her smile withdrew as she looked to Giles to make sure she had it right. When the older man nodded, she took a deep breath and continued, "We think it has to do with the Paper. You said you save people...?"
Gary nodded, considering. "I try to save the people I read about. But sometimes the Paper doesn't tell me everything, and I have to fix stuff that <I've> made happen." His mind flashed an image of Hernandez at him, which he steadfastly ignored. "Sometimes...things don't work out."
Giles looked up, his eyebrows raised over the rims of his glasses. "You mean sometimes people die."
Gary squirmed a little. *I don't like how that sounds. But...* "Well...yeah. Sometimes."
To the bedridden man's amazement, the Watcher broke into a grin. "Well then! That makes sense!"
Buffy rushed to explain. "See, the way we see it--and it's easier to see it this way after what you just said--because you get the Paper, you decide who lives or who dies. You can either save someone, like me, or you can decide to <not> interfere, which means basically you're deciding to let someone die. That's how you're like a vampire, because you're...um...killing them. Oh Gary, I didn't mean it like that!" She put her hand on his ankle and squeezed it comfortingly at his stricken expression. "I didn't mean you're like a vampire, really!"
Gary gave her a look. "Well, that's a relief."
"You see, Gary," Now Giles took over, and Gary was glad for the more tactful approach. "You see, the prophesy used the words 'Slayer' and 'Slain' to describe your persona. We took that to mean that you are, in some ways, like Buffy, and in others like the demons she destroys. You have incredible power." The Brit leaned forward a little, placing his hand on the metal side of the bed for support. "You quite literally decide who gets to live and who you--ah--kill." His look was slightly apologetic, but that made Gary feel not one bit better.
"But--but I wouldn't let someone die!" He pushed himself up with his good hand, inwardly cursing the traction pole. "No matter who they are, I'd try to save them. Because--because, well, who else is gonna do it, huh? I told Buffy in that cell and now I'm telling you, Giles--I don't take lives, I try to preserve them! There's--why, there's just no way I could ever be like a--a vampire!" He turned passionate eyes on his guests, feeling the sting of what they were suggesting. "I believe, and my friends believe that I get the Paper for a reason, and that reason is to help people. And if I didn't do that...well, what kind of person would I be?"
Buffy and Giles had listened carefully to his speech, and when he was finished, they both offered soft smiles. "We know you're a good person, Gary," Buffy informed him quietly. "And we know that you'd never knowingly let someone die. You're one of the more <human> human beings."
"But the Foresight Papers offer quite a cynical view," Giles continued, shifting gears slightly. "They speak of human nature, which is by all accounts rather close to demonic nature. There is an angel and a devil on each of our shoulders, especially those of the Chosen Ones." Both Gary and Buffy jumped a little at the plural form, but Giles didn't notice. "Their capacity for good and evil is much greater than normal humans'."
"We're just lucky the Paper chose you," Buffy finshed, "And not one of the people talked about in the book."
Gary took this in silently. What they said made sense, if he looked at it the way they did. What if what they said was right, and the world was governed by individual actions rather than some master plan? What if one person's choices were all that separated the world from total chaos and destruction? He met Buffy's eyes, suddenly more aware of the burden he shared than ever before. "I understand."
The Slayer smiled. "Good."
Suddenly, the Cat appeared from nowhere, jumping onto the bed beside Giles' hand and making the older man jump. The animal walked in a lazy circle, looking at each human carefully; then it arranged itself daintily on Gary's lap.
"Maybe you're right," the vacationer commented as he began stroking the
feline's soft fur. "Maybe I was...'chosen' for a reason." A
sudden grin flashed over his face, and he looked up at his visitors.
"And that's probably why they didn't choose Chuck!"
* * * * *
Spike watched as two henchvamps collected the candles from around what had been the fighting ring. He watched the fight with Drusilla; at times, he'd had to hold her on his lap to keep her from wandering into the thick of things. *She wanted to help Angel,* he thought bitterly. *Either that or she wanted to play with that Hobson guy a little more.*
"Try not to think too hard, Spikey-Boy." The lofty tones came from the direction of Hobson's throne; Spike spun around to see Angel sprawled on the chair, his leg thrown over an arm rest, his hands laced behind his head. "I can smell the exhaust fumes all the way over here."
The blond vampire tried not to become angry. "It's too bad," he replied in much the same tones, "You went to all that trouble to set the whole thing up, and the Slayer still manages to live."
Angelus sat up a little, and Spike inwardly gloated at his comeback. "That wasn't the point of the ritual," the darker vampire said, his voice barely hiding the contempt he felt. "I wasn't supposed to kill her, just test her."
"Right." *Come on, pull the other one.* "So, do you believe what that 'judge' had to say?" Still watching his sire imperturbably, Spike sensed Drusilla waft into the room from behind him. "All that stuff about shame and weaknesses?"
Angel rose to his feet and began swaggering over to him. "Not for a second," he drawled confidently. "Me? Have weaknesses? He was clearly wrong."
"Really. He sounded right on the mark to me." Ignoring the soft growl that came from the standing vampire, Spike turned his head to look at Drusilla, who had come to stand a few feet away from his chair. "Hello, pet. Where've you been?"
The girl's large, dark eyes looked back for just a moment. "I was eating," she answered laconically, "But Miss Edith became full, and we had to leave." She held up her prized doll, and Spike could see that the whole china face was smeared with blood. Suddenly, Drusilla moved the doll to her ear, and leaned closer as if listening intently to what it said. Then her face broke into a laughing grin, and she turned her eyes to Angel. "She tells me wonderful secrets," she confided. "Secrets that I must never tell Miss Ophelia or Vivian, and certainly not Morgan."
Spike sighed. He never knew when Dru had read Arthurian legend, but it seemed to stick. She'd named her other dolls after everyone except that Lancelot bugger. And Ophelia... "Can you tell us, ducks?"
"Oh, no." Dru glanced at him briefly, only to quickly gaze back at Angel again. "They're <secrets>!"
"Yeah, Spike." Angel grinned at his 'daughter'. "Dru can't go telling secrets all over the place, otherwise they wouldn't <be> secret."
"My Angel..." A few swaying steps took Drusilla to within arms' reach of her sire. "I knew you'd understand."
"Of course, that's not to say that someone couldn't somehow...worm those little tidbits out of you, now, is it?" Angel reached out and traced a finger over the lines of her face. "I have some tried and true methods..."
Spike was ready to laugh out loud. Such blatant manipulation never worked on Dru; her mind might have been reduced to that of a child's, but she was too spacey to be affected by blunt tactics like Angel was trying...
...Except she was smiling dreamily, staring right into Angelus' eyes as if Spike wasn't in the room. "My Angel knows very wonderful tricks," she murmured, "And Miss Edith wouldn't mind if he dragged them out of me..."
The look she gave Angel acted like a punch to the gut to Spike. He watched, eyes narrowed, as she moved in closer. Clearing his throat loudly, he spoke up, "So what exactly was that whole ritual thing for anyway? If it wasn't for you to kill the Slayer, that is."
Angel turned his eyes away from Dru's, the glint of frustrated fire sparkling out at him. "We had to find out if we were worthy," he replied tensely.
"Worthy for what?" Spike raised his eyebrows. "Do you even know?"
It was Drusilla that answered. "Whatever it is," she purred, wrapping her arms around Angel's shoulders, "He's ready. Aren't you, daddy?"
"As I'll ever be." Turning one last, triumphant grin at Spike, Angel slipped out of Dru's embrace and disappeared into the shadows. Drusilla promptly collapsed onto the floor and began counting the nonexistant stars in the ceiling.
Spike seethed. *He's taken my pet!* He watched her writhe happily
on the concrete for a moment, then abruptly turned his chair and wheeled
out of the room. *Not for long...*
* * * * *
Gary awoke to the overly pleasant sensation of a soft, comfortable bed, warm sheets, and pleasant yellow light beaming in through the windows.
Unfortunately, the effect was ruined by a particularly plaintive "Mrrow!" from outside the hotel room door.
Sighing heavily, Gary rolled over, minding the cast on his arm and the bandage across his chest. "One day outta the hospital and you're on my case. What's a guy gotta do to get some peace around here?" He really, really wanted to go back to sleep.
He got up anyway.
The Cat padded regally past him as soon as he opened the door, and as he knelt down, he ran his hand over its back. Then he turned his eyes to the Paper.
"More school reforms...this Snyder guy must really hate kids." Sighing again, Gary straightened up and turned the page--then came immediately awake. "Oh, no. No no no no..."
After pulling on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, he was gone.
* * * * *
The school was reasonably deserted, which was normal; after all, it was a Saturday. Gary ran up to the front door, unsure of how he should get in. Visions of locks and alarms and very large police dogs--Gary really despised police dogs--ran through his head, but he forced himself to concentrate on how he could save the lives of those within instead of dwelling on criminal charges.
The front doors were indeed locked, so he ran around to the door Buffy had taken him through the day she'd had her nightmare--the one that led directly into the library through the stacks. Drawing up to it, he paused, his breath catching in his throat.
The lock was broken, the door hanging ajar.
Gary hung back, unsure if he should go in or not. *It could be vampires. They could've come before it got light, broken in, and...* Shaking his head, he wished he'd brought the stake Buffy had left for him when he was in the hospital. *I have to go in. They're in trouble.* Taking a deep breath, he pushed forward through the door.
It was eerily silent. Gary glanced around nervously, trying to see into the shadows that hung in every corner. He felt his hands begin to shake, and cursed his cowardice. *It's Buffy, for crying out loud! Go help her!*
After what seemed too short a walk, he found himself about to enter the main room of the library. Steeling himself for what he would see, he straightened his back, held his cast-wrapped arm out as a weapon...and stepped around the corner.
Gary leapt a foot in the air and landed glaring. "Y-you--I can't--why--!" He took a deep breath, marshalled his thoughts, and proclaimed accusingly, "You planted that article!"
"Yep!" Buffy bounded up the stairs to stand beside him. She was grinning widely, her eyes shining with laughter. "How else were we gonna get you here?"
"You--you could have called..." Trailing off, Gary looked down at the group of people standing below him. Giles was leaning against the table, his arms folded and a tiny smile on his face; Xander and Cordelia sat beside each other, each pretending not to know the other one existed; and Willow stood a short distance away with a boy Gary didn't recognize. Noticing his questioning glance, the boy took a short step forward and nodded politely.
"I'm Oz," he said by way of introduction. He had a shock of unnaturally red hair, and a wide, open face. He punctuated his name with a quick, friendly smile.
"Hi." Gary nodded back, recognizing the name from Giles' explanation a few days ago.
"Ah--I do hope we didn't worry you too much," Giles stated, a brief furrow of worry crossing his forehead. "The--the planted article was Buffy's idea..."
"Oh no, no, it's okay." Gary followed the Slayer in question down the stairs. "Actually, other people have tried that. My..um, my parents tricked me for my birthday."
"Cool." Cordelia turned to face Xander. "And hey, it's good that <one> of our surprise parties worked out."
"That's because we had the good sense to hold this one during the day," Buffy commented. She turned to Gary. "My birthday. Don't ask."
"I won't, then." Shaking his head a little, Gary turned again to face Giles. "So...why is there a party at all?"
"Well," the Brit turned his back on the Chicagoan and hurried to his office, continuing to speak. "Since it is your last day in Sunnydale, we...uhm, yes, we decided that you should have a nice send-off." From this, his speech trailed off into vague mutterings.
Willow continued. "Seeing as the rest of your stay wasn't that great." She glanced apologetically at his arm.
"Oh!" Gary nodded. "You didn't have to..." he added as an afterthought.
"Nonsense!" Now Giles reappeared, carrying a large bakery cake with an involved icing picture of a stake being held by a very bandaged arm decorating the top. "After what you've been through because...well, because of us, I suppose, it was the least we could do."
"Yeah." Oz sat down in one of the chairs, pulling Willow onto his lap. "Heard it was intense," he commented off-handedly. "Sorry I missed it."
"Oz had a gig," Willow informed the assembly.
"Oh." Gary took in the cake, the smiling faces, and the general lack of concern--and set the Paper down on the table, smiling back. "Well...thanks!"
The party progressed easily, and Gary found himself having a fairly good time. Cake was distributed, laughter was on every lip, and it was only when Xander spoke up that things hit a snag.
"Hey," the boy announced through a mouthful of icing, "They're gonna put up some more low-rent housing complexes just outside town."
"Really?" Buffy hardly looked away from her conversation with Willow and Gary. "Where'd you learn that?"
"Oh, nowhere." The boy's carefully casual tone made Gary suddenly very suspicious. "I was just...reading..."
Gary craned his neck and--sure enough--saw Xander flipping nonchalantly through tomorrow's Sunnydale Press. With a quick move, he reached over and yanked the newsprint out of the boy's hands. "You know, you shouldn't be reading that."
Xander spread his hands in a gesture of innocence. "I was just looking for the funnies."
Buffy sighed heavily, then reached out and snagged Gary's arm. "Can we talk?"
"Um...sure." Casting one last look at Xander--and making sure he kept the Paper with him--Gary allowed himself to be pulled off into a corner of the library away from the others.
"Look, Gary..." The normally self-assured girl seemed to be casting about for words. "I...I wanted to apologize for how I acted in the cell. We should've been able to try to find a way out, but I just caused problems. I'm sorry."
"Oh, Buffy--" Gary smiled down at her. "Don't blame yourself. It--it was a tense situation, and, well, neither of us were thinking. Don't worry about it."
Buffy met his eyes, hers searching his deeply. After a minute, she smiled back. "Thanks. For--well, everything." Impulsively, she reached out and gave him a big bear hug.
A little startled, Gary squeezed back. It felt nice to have someone
else who shared his secret, someone else to know what it was like to be chosen.
And Buffy's expression when she pulled away showed that she felt the same.
* * * * *
Gary leaned back against the bar, his beer held carefully in his right hand. "Don't I wish I were."
Chuck sat on the stool beside him, his mouth hanging open in slack-jawed disbelief. "Gary. Reality check. You're telling me that not only did you meet <vampires>, you also participated in a ritual, were almost staked <twice>, and met some supergirl who's half your age??"
"She's not a supergirl, she's the Slayer." Gary set his bottle on the bar. "And this is top secret information, so don't go saying it to anybody."
Marissa leaned across the counter, a rather skeptical look on her face. "Are you sure you didn't black out on the plane or something? This is kind of--"
"Ridiculous!" Chuck interrupted. As always, he had both feet planted firmly on solid ground. "Insane! Wacko! Utterly and completely bull--"
"I'm telling you, it all happened." Setting his left arm down with a thud in front of Marissa, Gary pointed at the white plaster with his good hand. "And here's all the proof you need: a broken arm and a six-inch scar requiring thirty-two stitches." It wasn't as if he hadn't expected this; after all, other than the Paper, none of them were really used to dealing with the supernatural. And vampires were another thing altogether.
Marissa raised her eyebrows. "Well, I guess if you say it happened..." she began dubiously.
"It did. And I'll tell you something else, from now on I'm not leaving this place without at least one wooden stake." Gary gave his friends a serious look. "And both of you should do the same thing, if you know what's good for you."
Chuck threw his hands in the air and turned to head for the kitchen. "I don't believe this. Gar, you are never going on vacation again, it is just too hazardous to the mental health of you and those around you." Still muttering, he pushed open the swinging doors and stalked out of the room.
Gary turned to Marissa. "Do you believe me?"
She took a moment before replying. "Well...you don't lie, Gary, and I've never known you to tell stories like this one." Taking a deep breath, she conceded, "Maybe you did run across some vampires, and maybe there really is some girl out there who can fight them. After all, believing in that stuff is only a pretty small step away from believing in the Paper."
Gary nodded. "Yeah. If it helps any, I wouldn't have believed any of this either, if it hadn't happened to me. It <is> pretty fantastic stuff." He paused, then continued, "The stuff they said about the Paper, and why I get it...it made sense. And they're...they're a lot more used to dealing with this kind of stuff than I am. They believe in <everything>, because they have to deal with <everything>. I just...happened to be something."
Marissa smiled, then reached out until her hand brushed his arm. "A lot happened," she stated. "A lot to make you think about your life. I suppose...if something managed to get you to rethink your philosophy on this whole thing, then it must have been pretty earth-shattering." She was silent for a moment--then, she slid off her stool and squeezed Gary's arm. "I believe you."
Gary smiled and squeezed her hand in return. "Thank you." He waited until she left, then went over to his bag, which still sat just inside the door to the restaurant. Unzipping the sides, he reached in until his fingers encountered the gift Buffy had given him before he left.
Gary pulled out the wooden stake, then held it out so he could look along
its full length. After a moment, he shook his head and stashed the
weapon away again. "My life," he muttered to himself as he hefted the
bag and headed for the stairs, "Is never boring."
* * * * *
--The 'something' that the ritual spoke of occurred in the season finale
of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A large tomb was uncovered by the construction
crews digging at the site of the low-rent housing the Paper spoke of, containing
the demon Acathla. It was said that Acathla, who had been dormant for
centuries, would awaken when 'someone worthy' performed the proper rituals
and ceremonies. Angelus took it upon himself to free Acathla, for
when the demon awoke, it would literally 'suck the world into hell'.
The only person who could stop this from happening was Buffy, and she too
proved herself worthy by doing what she had to to stop Angelus. (See
'Becoming' and 'Becoming 2', as well as the third season premier.)
Email the author: Jayne Leitch
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