Chapter Notes:

Still behind on review replies, but hoping an early chapter will earn me some forgiveness.


Chapter 50: Puppet Masters

July, 2001

“You know you don't even have to ask. Of course I'll watch her,” Tara said as she led them through the back door.

Buffy followed her toward the kitchen. “It's just, once the sentries show up--”

“I'll do the strengthening spell, and then I'll be focused on Dawn's opponents only. I told you, you don't even have to ask.”

They stopped short at the sight of Giles adding a length of rope to Whistler's restraints, creating a leash that wrapped around both the demon and the scythe at his back.

“Didn't I put Dawn in charge of the hostage?”

“I offered to see to him for her.” Giles looked up. “Part of me is still desperate to talk you out of this.”

“I know,” Buffy said quietly.

“It's far more dangerous and far more serious than your previous break-in. I believe my worry is justified.”

“It is. But if you're going to actually try to talk me out of it--”

“No.” Giles stepped close to her and took her in his arms. “I think I'll go with you, instead.”

Buffy welcomed the hug. “Thank you. That means a lot.”

“Do you really think I'd let my slayer go to war without my support?”

“Not anymore.” She pulled away and took the other scythe from the table. She led Tara, Giles, and the hostage into the dining room, calling ahead of her, “Gear up, everyone! It's time to storm the castle!”

Angel leaned on his sword as he brought one foot up to a dining room chair to secure the dagger sheathed at his ankle. He straightened and shook into his demon face. “I'm ready.”

Henry rolled his shoulders stiffly, unaccustomed to the feeling of having an axe strapped to his back. He fidgeted with the machete in his hand. “Um, yeah. Me too.”

Dawn looked skeptical. “Are you sure you can handle this? 'Cause from the look on your face, I'm wondering if you really were left by the stork.” She stepped close enough to him to study his eyes. “If you aren't truly the son of two bad ass brawlers, Nephew, now's the time to say so.”

Henry's gaze drifted to Doyle, then to Buffy. He clenched his jaw. “I'm in. All the way. I can do this.”

Buffy joined Dawn in gathering weapons from the table, slipping stakes and daggers into their waistbands. “No impulsive Spike stunts, Junior. Save the stupid shit for the professionals.”

Henry looked offended. “I'm not going to do anything stupid. What do I look like? Some kind of... Never mind.”

Dawn picked up her sword. “Like some kind of vampire for whom impulsive stunts are named?”

“Nothing personal, Henry, but I don't think anyone here has any delusions about you being 'a chip off the old Spike' on the battlefield.” Tara's friendly chuckle was cut off as her packed satchel was tossed into her arms. “Oof! Thanks, Doyle.”

“Close together, everyone.” He waved for the group to step closer to him.

Angel got close to Henry as the group gathered. “Just remember that you're half Aurelian, kid. Part of a powerful line. Aurelians only need to know three things to survive: Use your head, trust your instincts, and--” Angel's gaze drifted to his ex-girlfriend.

Henry smirked. “And don't cross Buffy?”

“Exactly.”

“Did my dad never get the memo?”

“He ignored it,” Buffy said. “As well as his own advice. He kept pissing me off, long after he stopped planning to kill me.” Her voice dropped to a whisper as she lifted her eyes to Angel's. “And he's still pissing me off.”

“That's what he does,” Angel answered quietly, locking his eyes with hers. “Even he knows it.”

She shook her head, stopping the implied conversation from developing further.

“Come on, Firecracker. The party's not leaving without you.” Doyle gestured for her to come stand near the rest of them.

The general surveyed the army she'd put together. Angel, in game face, already taking a position at Henry's side. Henry, trying -and failing- to hide the state of his nerves, again drawing the worried eye of Dawn. Dawn looked very much like a young slayer, strong and confident, hiding any doubt about her own abilities, her focus on the success of the mission. Tara, close beside her, a bag of books and prepared spells slung over her shoulder, showing no evidence she minded crossing this particular ethical line. Giles, holding the hostage's leash, his forehead creased with concern and hesitation, but willing to help. Doyle, calmly putting is own eternal status on the line for a friend of a friend, without a second thought.

“What a family,” she murmured, her gaze drifting back to Angel and Tara, her stalwart friends through the long weeks since the tower, now ready to not only go into a fight for her, but to watch the backs of her son and sister for her. “'We will stand with you,'” she quoted. “I'm grateful not to be alone in this, everyone. Thank you.”

Dawn shifted her grip on her sword. “This is what Time Scoobies do, right? The impossible?”

“Damn straight. I'm not going to count any higher than 48. We've waited long enough.” She took up a position in front of the group. “Let's go piss off some gods.”

Doyle brought forth his Bracken features with a shake of his head. “Hong Kong, here we come. Tara?”

Tara took his hand and murmured a few words. In twin flashes of blue and white, the farmhouse at William's Folly was deserted.

*~*~*

The people crossing the street adjacent to the alley cowered in fear when a flash of light brought an armed group -including at least two demons- to stand before them. They watched as a petite blond woman led the group down the alley, stopping at a door to an empty warehouse. She swung her weapon, and the padlock securing the chain across the door fell away. She looked over her shoulder at her compatriots one last time before opening the door and leading them inside. The thorny-faced demon at the back of the group closed the door behind them.

“Holy crap.” Dawn raised her sword. In the middle of the empty space a glowing white doorway suddenly appeared, flanked by two human-like creatures, one male and one female. Their skin was painted in swirls of green and gold, and their white robes were embroidered to match.

The male addressed Buffy. “A Militantis Vindex does not come for guidance.”

She stepped forward. “No. I come to cross the gateway. Don't make me hurt you to do it.”

The female said, “In due time, demon, you will have what you seek.”

Buffy shrugged. “Sorry, I don't play by your rules. What I seek, I need now.”

“Shed your guilts, Vindex. The nightmare ends when you allow it to,” the male said.

“No,” Buffy said again. “The nightmare ends when my mate is allowed to come home.”

“We cannot allow you to cross uncontested.”

She raised her scythe. “I expected as much.”

From the shadows around them emerged at least a dozen towering grey demons, armed and marching.

Giles dragged the hostage to a pile of pallets by the door, keeping the second scythe safely out of reach of the enemy.

Henry gulped at the size of the monsters, his gaze flicking between the breadth of the shoulders and the shine on their axes.

“You didn't mention the sentries were seven feet tall,” Angel grumbled.

“I've dealt with worse,” Buffy said with a shrug.

“Have I mentioned I hate China?”

“This won't be like last time, Daddy,” came a voice from behind them.

Drusilla sauntered through the astonished group to Buffy, leaving the door open behind her. “Home is in the bloodline?”

“Thanks for stopping by, Dru,” Buffy said as the first demon took a swing at her. “Suit up!”

As the fight began, Tara stepped back from the crowd, pulling a small cloth bag from her satchel. “One with the weapon, one with the soul,” she murmured, untying the drawstring. “For the cause of the future, may the righteous find their strength.” She pulled a handful of powder from the bag and blew it at her comrades. She watched as their swings took on greater force, their weapons catching the light from the gateway as they more easily found their marks. She touched her own hand with the powder, and retied the bag. She slipped it back into her satchel, and lifted her empty palms. “Ok, so who's going to have a heavy weapon today?” She spotted a demon making a move toward Dawn, and focused on him. “Here's our first volunteer.”

Drusilla hissed and growled at the demon before her, then abruptly kicked him away from her, sensing something more pressing going on behind her.

Henry's body hit the warehouse floor from the force of an oversized boot making contact with his ribcage. He held his machete in front of him as a shield as he tried to scramble to his feet. A strong hand from his left jerked him upward, just as a voice approached his adversary from his right.

“Be in me,” the vampire said softly, drawing the demon's eye. “Be in me.”

The demon swayed slightly, but was otherwise still, his eyes locked with hers.

Angel released his grip on Henry's left arm. “Thanks, Dru. Down!”

Drusilla knocked Henry back to the floor, falling with him, out of the range of Angel's swinging sword. They rolled away as the headless body landed, coming to their feet in time to see two more demons headed straight for them. She gave Henry a shove. “To your mother, little William.”

He backed away as Angel and Drusilla stood together to face the advancing demons. He bumped into something, and turned around, finding himself facing another large, grey-skinned monster. “Bloody hell.”

From the other side of the high, wide shoulders, he heard Buffy's laugh. “Come on, Junior! Relish the fight! I know you've got it in you!”

Henry ducked as a large fist came in his direction, and came back up with his machete already in motion, slicing through the thick leather armor, into the demon's gut. The demon growled in pain as he doubled over.

“Hey! Thanks, kid!” Doyle said, as the large grey head lowered into his range. He punched the injured demon in the temple, knocking him to the ground. “Firecracker! Got you another one!”

“Henry, kill that guy for me, will you?” Buffy called from a few feet behind Doyle. “I'm kinda busy.”

The machete went through the demon's neck, sending a spurt of blood arcing through the air. He jumped out of its path. “Ugh!”

Buffy's laugh was heard again, then came to a sudden halt. “Dawnie! Catch!”

Dawn, having had her sword knocked out of her hand, caught Buffy's scythe as it was tossed and swung it at the extended arm of the demon before her, separating it from its owner. “I gotta get me one of these!” she exclaimed, lifting the weapon for another swing.

“Keep dreaming, human!” Doyle called over his shoulder as he and Buffy pummeled the demon before her with bare fists, ducking as two, much larger fists came down on them. He didn't duck far enough once, and went flying back toward Tara with a yell.

“I could use a little back up, here!” Buffy called. “Something big and sharp would be nice!”

Henry pulled the axe from its straps at his back as he tossed his machete to her. She caught it in mid-jump, both she and the machete airborne at the same time, bringing the blade down on the demon's shoulder as she came down. The demon jerked back at the impact, and she kicked him off his feet before he'd regained his balance. The machete went through his neck as he went down, its bearer instinctively jumping away as she withdrew.

Henry was jerked from his observation by a shout from behind him. “Watch your back, kid!” He turned toward the sound of Doyle's voice, and caught a glimpse of him slamming his fists into a demon who had approached Tara while she was focusing on defending Dawn from another onslaught.

Henry ducked low under the swing of the axe Doyle had been warning him about, dropping his weight to his hands and sweeping one leg out at his adversary's feet, trying to knock him off-balance while he was still swinging. It was a mimic of a move he'd seen his father do, and it worked, save for the fact that the demon was falling faster than Henry could roll out of the way. Angel grabbed him by the shoulders and yanked him clear just in time to avoid his leg being crushed.

“Follow through,” Angel advised as he beheaded the prone demon. “Sweep and keep moving in the same direction.”

“Never stay still,” Henry said, climbing to his feet again. “Got it.” He looked around, realizing the warehouse had suddenly grown quiet. “It's over.”

Buffy jerked the machete from the forehead of the last demon to land at her feet. “Not yet.” She surveyed her troops as the group gathered once again before the gateway. “Is everyone ok?”

They all turned and looked at each other. Save Giles and Whistler, who'd stayed out of the melee, and Tara, who only looked tired, they were all bruised and dirty, with minor cuts and scratches. A deep gash in Buffy's right side was the most serious injury, and the one drawing the most attention from Drusilla.

“Mmm! Slayer blood in China... She smells like dreams and magic.”

Buffy took her scythe from Dawn's hand and nodded for the girl to retrieve her own sword. “Dru, behave yourself.” She addressed the worried looks of the others, most of whom were as intently focused on the blood seeping through her shirt as Drusilla. “I'm fine, guys. Really. Getting staked in the same spot was way worse.” She turned to face the pair flanking the gateway. “What else you got?”

The male glanced at the female. She shook her head and disappeared. After a moment's hesitation, he followed suit.

“Ok, then. I'll take that as a 'nothing.'” She tossed the machete to Giles. “Dru, stay with Whistler. Don't go anywhere, and don't touch that scythe. If he tries anything, kill him.”

Drusilla frowned at being given an order, then her expression brightened. “Leave the blue-eyed cherub?”

“With you? Oh, hell no. Spike would kill us all, starting with his third slayer. Giles, give her the leash.” Buffy watched as Giles handed off the rope, taking care to avoid eye contact with the vampire as he did. “Everyone else, let's make some history.”

She led them through the gateway. They found themselves in a large room with no doors or windows. The walls, marble floor, and ceiling were pure white and glowed softly, lighting the large, ornate, round table in the middle of the otherwise empty space. Buffy said loudly, “You know why we're here.”

The reply came in the form of many disembodied voices, speaking together. “You do not belong here.”

“Give me what I came for, and we'll be on our way.”

Doyle stepped close to Buffy's side and put a hand on the one that held the scythe. “Do it.” He addressed the blank walls. “She's not kidding around, you know.”

Buffy raised the blade to Doyle's throat and held him in place with her other hand. “You've got two agents on the line, people. This one, and the one I left in the care of Drusilla the Mad. You like playing the odds, right? Play these.”

“You do not wish to destroy this one,” the voices said.

“No, but the other one is a totally different story. It's time for Spike to come home.”

“Time? By whose measure? We do not function in the linear way you do, mortals.”

Buffy glanced at the group around her and raised an eyebrow at the ceiling. “You do realize half of us are time travelers, right? It's not linear for us, either. More like swirls and loop-d-loops. As for mortals... Well, counting the two on the other side of the gateway, you're talking about two agents, two vampires, a questionable slayer-vamp hybrid, and a death-prone slayer ready to try a new way to jump off the mortal coil.”

A teenaged girl appeared across the table from them. She had bright blue eyes, light brown hair pinned up in an overly complicated bun, and a shy, sweet smile. She was dressed very conservatively, in a brown, ankle-length skirt and a crisp, white button up shirt. “Hello,” she said in a distinctly English accent. “I'm to be the representative.”

“You've got to be kidding!” Doyle rolled his eyes toward the ceiling, not moving from the blade being held near his throat. “Didn't you fellas already try the 'familiar face to ease the tension' game by sending me in? It's not gonna work this time, either.”

“We don't know her,” Tara said, frowning at the stranger. She glanced around at the group. “Do we?”

“Hmph. She looks like a watcher. She sounds like one, too,” Dawn observed.

Buffy withdrew the blade from Doyle's throat. She studied the newcomer. “No, not a watcher... Does anyone else think there's something familiar about this girl? ...Were you ever a potential slayer?”

She chuckled softly. “Not that I know of, though I suppose it's possible.”

“Looks a touch like Annie, doesn't she?” Henry murmured.

Angel sniffed. “It's not a coincidence.”

The girl chuckled again. “No, it isn't.”

Buffy gasped. “Are you...? You can't be... Elise?”

She curtsied. “Margaret Elise Pratt. I'm pleased to meet you. You've come for my brother.”

Dawn broke the shocked silence that followed, voicing all their thoughts. “Holy crap... They pulled you out of heaven, just to talk to us?”

“No, Miss Summers. I'm a working agent, and have been for many years. I have never participated in field work, however. There were concerns that I might cross paths with a certain asset, or rather -at the time the decision was made- a potential asset I'd known in life.” She surveyed the group. “I must say, William has done quite well for himself, to have so many willing to fight to return him to your plane.”

“Yeah. Big Bad made good. That's why we're here. Let's just cut to the chase.” Buffy locked her eyes on the girl. “Tell me what they want in exchange. I'll pay the price myself.”

“You have to understand, this is quite unprecedented. No one has ever made a challenge to my employers in quite this way. You've taken one of our own, brought another to your cause, and passed through a gateway that no one of your plane has ever crossed.”

“I need him, Elise. I think you know that. Name the price.”

“When the work assigned to William is completed, he will be returned to you. I believe you know that, as well.” Elise gave her a sympathetic smile. “I understand your need, and wish I could help you. Truly. You must be patient, Buffy. They only wish to make use of his... availability while they can. In good time--”

Buffy tightened her grip on the scythe. “We haven't come all this way to be told 'no.'” She leaned over the table, anger flashing in her eyes. Her voice lowered into a near growl. “Tell your bosses I am not leaving here without Spike.”

Elise vanished.

Buffy straightened up and walked over to one of the walls. “Ok, then. I'll find him myself.” She swung the scythe into the wall, and kept swinging, tearing a hole in the plaster, ripping through the wood frame behind it. The light emanating from that wall flickered out, but a new light source appeared, something glowing faintly on the other side of the wall. Henry stepped up beside her, and swung his axe at the hole, helping her enlarge it. Angel joined them, the pommel of his sword opening the space above their swings. Dawn knelt near Buffy's feet, squinting against the flying dust to rip away loosened chunks of wall.

Doyle addressed one of the undamaged walls. “This is the part where it all comes back to bite you.”

Giles approached the table to stand beside him. “I'm inclined to agree. I won't pretend to understand your motivations, but driving her to this can't possibly be in your better interests.”

Tara joined them as the light emanating from the ceiling began to flicker. “If you wanted warriors who would do anything necessary, you've got them. But you can't tease them like this without consequences. You can't tease any of us this way. Either we're a team, or we're not. Make up your minds.”

An elderly woman appeared beside Tara. “The heaven sent witch speaks in my voice.”

The destruction on the far wall stopped at the sound of this new voice. The demolition crew turned to watch the conversation.

Tara and Doyle nodded to the newcomer respectfully. “Guardian,” he said. “I was hoping you'd swing by. I think the retired slayer needs you in this.”

The Guardian returned their nods. She addressed the lit wall in front of them. “She is of my line, and I will take her back. By force, if necessary.”

“She is no longer of the lineage,” the voices replied. “She is above your purview, Guardian.”

“If she is not of the lineage, why does she wield a weapon of the line, with the power of a slayer's demon? Why is her chosen mate the demon of her plane most knowledgeable of the line?”

The voices sounded angry. “The weapons, and the fruit they will bear, are ours to use as needed.”

“The twins,” Tara whispered in realization.

There was a long silence as everyone's gaze drifted to Henry.

“You bastards!” Buffy growled, swinging her scythe into an unmarred section of wall in fury. “You never had any intention of making us agents, did you?”

There was no response.

“Answer me! Come out and say it! Admit we're just tools -weapons- for you to use and abuse until Buffy makes like a good broodmare and gives you what you're really after.” She jerked the weapon free of the wall. “Newsflash, assholes: My kids are not going to be your puppets, and I'm willing to cut every single marionette string on this plane to make sure of it.”

“So this is what stayed between you and their case agent, huh?” Doyle asked the wall. “You never meant to give them the power and support agents get. Use them for what you can get from them and leave them hanging out to dry, besides? That's dirty pool, fellas.”

“They are our weapons,” the voices said. “They will serve their purpose. The vampire will return when his tasks are complete. He will be of his own plane when he is needed.”

Tara glared at the wall. “He's always needed. He belongs with us, and to her. For more than...” She shook her head, clearly disgusted. “To think I thought you were the good guys! Whistler wasn't the only one using us. And he lied to us, besides. The second mission does matter.”

Buffy approached the table with slow steps, deep in thought. “I'm an idiot,” she whispered. “I should have figured this out months ago... Spike and I may be all kinds of useful, and I'm sure there are plans to use us for a thousand little jobs, but big picture? I'm not much stronger than any other experienced slayer, and there's more than one ensouled master vamp available for them to jerk around.”

“Thanks for reminding them,” Angel grumbled, leaning against the broken wall with his arms crossed.

“There's only one thing special -only one unique factor- about me and Spike: That we're together, that we're chosen mates. That, and the 'ethically flexible' witchy company we keep.”

Tara frowned. “Willow's your ticket to parenthood, isn't she?”

“The likeliest one, yeah. And the only time Whistler was ever willing to go out of his way to help us out was when we were discussing alternate ways to get me mystically knocked up.”

“Thanks for the imagery,” Henry said with an eye roll. “Give me a minute to sort out my trauma.”

Buffy gave him a smirk. “The point is, the long game isn't us. It's the twins. So, aside from having us on the same plane long enough to have and raise the traumatized mutant hellspawn--”

“Buffy!” Tara admonished. “Henry, she doesn't mean it that way.”

He shrugged. “That's nothing compared to what she called me when I totaled her posh little Beemer.”

“You wrecked my BMW? I'm going to have a BMW? Dammit, Henry! Don't tell me this stuff!” Buffy, waved away the distraction. “Anyway, aside from the kids, they're just going to use us -together or apart- however they like. We're not going to be agents. We're going to raise them.”

“The hell you are! With the way this is going, I think I should go home and tell my mum I've changed my mind about the family business.”

Buffy pointed at him. “And that's why we met the way we did, when we did. Whistler needed someone to give you a nudge, make you want to get trained up and willing to fight. Who better than a war-weary, family-hungry Buffy who had just buried her mother?” She addressed Doyle. “You and I have to share the crown for stupid, though.”

“What'd we do?”

“Is there any doubt they could have stopped you from bringing Henry to 2001 if they really wanted to? But they didn't, and neither one of us even thought to question it. Why would they stop you? You were taking the reluctant twin to a time when his father isn't around to push back against his mother's tendency to turn everyone around her into a soldier. We didn't just play right into their hands, we were helping them out.”

“I thought you needed him, and--” Doyle's hand went to his forehead. “Damn. I feel like an idiot.”

“Ditto.”

Henry threw his axe down on the marble floor. “Done with that, then. And I'll be sure to tell Annie to borrow a scythe and off any stranger who rides in on a blue flash.”

Buffy smirked at the wall. “Mission officially blown. You're not getting any agents out of this family.”

Elise reappeared. “You forget. They already have.”

Dawn walked over to Elise and offered her sword. “If you want to stick it to The Man, now's the time.”

Elise frowned. “What man?”

Dawn shoved the weapon into the other girl's hand. “Just take the sword and come home with us. I'll give you a pop culture crash course later.”

She took the sword, frowning again at the weight of it. “I couldn't possibly go back with you. I cannot function as a field agent unless my employers choose to allow it.”

“You may do as you choose, agent,” the Guardian said quietly. “I will see to your reassignment, as best I can.” She sighed. “I should have intervened long ago, with more than dreams and weapons.”

“And who are you, exactly?” Dawn asked, coming around the table to the strange old woman.

“The Guardian of the slayer line,” Buffy answered. “The person responsible for the useful dreams.”

“Oh. Gotcha. One of the real good guys. Cool.” Dawn held out her hand. “Nice to meet you.”

“Higher powers have laid claim to your family, child,” the Guardian answered, taking Dawn's hand not in a shake, but in a gentle, two-handed embrace. “Do you understand what that means?”

“Um, from what I gather, a whole lot of cussing about being 'dancing monkeys' and 'bloody puppets.'”

A snicker went through the group.

“It means, child, that they will be used to achieve goals that are not their own. I had expected they would be given the power of agents to complete the tasks to be set before them with greater odds of success, but as that is not the intention, there is only one thing to be done.” She released Dawn's hand and looked at Buffy. “You know the tasks will come, despite any resistance.”

“I know. And the more we resist, the more disposable we'll become, especially after the kids are born.”

“Bloody lovely. Now I'm my parents' death sentence,” Henry grumbled. Angel put a hand on the young man's shoulder, attempting to comfort and quiet him in one movement.

Doyle furrowed his brow at the Guardian. “Hang on. I think I know where you're going with this. There's only one way you can give them the extra power and support they might need to survive whatever the bosses throw their way.”

“There is.” the Guardian's gaze drifted to Giles. “I was a mortal field agent for a short time, many years ago, before I was named as successor to the Guardianship. I told a witch to teach you, that your importance would be found in another generation.”

“Althenea,” Giles and Buffy whispered together.

The Guardian nodded. “I'd hoped, when the time came, the pair who held the weapons would be made agents of your plane, assigned to support the lineage I'd sworn to protect. Such agency is not to be theirs, after all, but the need for their support exists still.” She turned back to Buffy. “Is the dedication to the Lineage as strong in you and your vampire as it was when you guarded it directly?”

“Of course it is. We'd have done anything to protect the girls.” Buffy shrugged. “We kinda did do anything. You know, with the time travel, and all... Why do you ask?”

The Guardian addressed the wall behind Elise. “Your abysmal treatment of my successor and her chosen family shall be remembered.”

“You have not named a successor, Guardian,” the voices said.

The Guardian put a hand on Tara's shoulder. “I have.”

There was a long silence as everyone turned to stare at Tara, whose eyes were as wide as theirs.

“And I name that family to her aid, for the protection of the Lineage.”

The white room began to shake, violently. Doyle called to Henry and Angel, who still stood by the damaged wall. “Guys? About that door you were making?”

Henry picked up his axe and went back to work. Angel caught Buffy's scythe as it was tossed to him and joined in the destruction. “We're almost through!”

Buffy turned to Elise. “It's time to make a decision, kid. Come with us, get to know your brother all over again, and see the modern world.”

She looked around the shaking room with frightened eyes. “I-- I can't.”

“You can. Make the call. Declare yourself a field agent. We'll work out the details later.” Buffy glanced over her shoulder at the Guardian. “We can do this, right?”

The elderly Guardian nodded as she held onto the table for balance.

Tara took the woman's arm to help her stay on her feet. “I've got you.”

Doyle stepped in. “Hang on, Firecracker. You'll still be assigned an agent, whether you want one or not. I don't expect the bosses to let me have the job. Maybe Elise, here. She should stay, plead her case.”

Buffy shook her head. “Too risky. They could throw some stranger at us, and we'll never see her again. Spike would never see her again. Come on, Elise. Join the professionals: Do something stupid and impulsive.”

The tearing at the wall stopped suddenly. “We're through!” Angel called. “Let's go!”

“It'll make Spike laugh,” Dawn encouraged, her volume rising to be heard over the sounds of creaking wood and cracking plaster. “For, like, the next ten years, every time he thinks of it.”

“Spike,” Elise echoed. “I'm not used to... The life William's led, the world you live in...”

Dawn pulled at her arm as more and more of the group filed through the hole in the wall. “You're young. You'll learn.” The shaking grew more violent. Dawn and Elise found themselves holding onto each other for balance. “Come on!”

Buffy watched Tara help the Guardian through the hole just as the first pieces of the ceiling rained down on the large table. She turned back to the teenagers. “Now or never, Elise. And considering they haven't pulled you out of here, I think you've already made the decision.”

Elise broke her grip on Dawn's forearm to wipe her eyes. “Take me with you.”

Dawn snatched the girl's arm back and dragged her across the room, pushing her through the opening in the wall. Before climbing through herself, she picked up Angel's dropped sword and turned back to Buffy, the only person left standing at the table. “Buffy! Come on! I don't think this room is going to last much longer!”

Buffy shouted at the walls as they cracked and crumbled. “This isn't over! If Spike isn't home very, very soon, I'll be back, carrying Whistler in tiny Ziploc bags. Am I making myself clear?”

A chunk of ceiling crashed down on the table, barely missing her hand.

“Enjoy your tantrum, assholes. I'll see you soon!” She turned and ran for the hole in the wall, pushing Dawn through ahead of her.

The group found themselves in an open space that was flooded with white light, with nothing else to see in any direction, save for two doorways, outlined in hazy blue light. They could see nothing but more white light through one of them, and the other gave them a glimpse of the warehouse in Hong Kong, where Drusilla was dancing merrily around the demon corpses.

Henry looked behind Buffy. The hole -as well as the wall in which it had been made- had disappeared. “I don't suppose anyone knows where we are?”

“Standing in the gateway itself,” Doyle answered.

Angel pointed the scythe he still held at the white doorway. “So that's the next stop?”

Buffy moved in the direction the scythe pointed. “Onward and upward.”

“Wait,” the Guardian said. “We have done all we need to do, for the moment.”

Giles nodded. “She's right. We should give them time to make a decision before pressing forward.”

Buffy seemed unconvinced. “The best way to get the verdict we want is to not back down.”

Angel handed the weapon back to its owner. “I'm with Buffy on this one.”

Dawn nodded her agreement. “Me, too.”

“This is why we're here, isn't it?” Henry asked, tightening his grip on his axe. “Let's go find Dad.”

Tara shook her head. “We should give it a little time, guys. We just unraveled what was probably a century and a half of planning in the space of half an hour. I think giving them a few minutes to deal with it would be fair.”

Buffy stepped close to the white doorway. “Alright, but if this starts to close, I'm gonna jump.”

Tara shuddered. “You couldn't have found any other way to phrase that?”

Buffy shrugged. Giles glanced at his wrist watch. Angel and Henry nodded to each other, and stepped close to Buffy, ready to go where she went. Tara gave the Guardian a worried glance, taking some comfort in the older woman's calm demeanor. Elise hung onto Dawn's arm as if to a lifeline, scared of the entire situation. Doyle tapped his foot impatiently on the white marble floor.

They were all unprepared for the bright blue flash, and the feeling of the floor giving way beneath them.





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