"Buffy! Buffy!" Giles came running out of the flat, waving the cell phone in his hand. He puffed his way over to her, parrying attacks with the small blade in his other hand as he went. "That was Angel. He found Lindsey. We have the removal spell."
Relief made her weak, but only for a moment. She rabbit-punched her opponent in the head, sending him staggering backwards, and turned to Giles. "Great. Let's get this over with. Getting so tired of these guys."
"I'm afraid I have to fetch a few things from the shop first." Gesturing to the ongoing battle on the front walk, he said, "If you could clear me a path?"
"Oh sure, leave me to do the dirty work while you go have shopping fun." Buffy barreled through the fight, knocking the monks aside like rag dolls and towing Giles along behind her. "Bring me back a smoothie!" she said as he jumped into his car.
He gave her a tight smile. "I shall return as quickly as possible," he said through the small, open crack of the window, and then roared down the street.
After he'd disappeared around the corner, Buffy fell back into the rhythm of battle, Spike at her side. Willow helped from the sidelines, casting protection spells and undoing any magic the monks attempted. She also maintained glamours to hide the battle and keep the neighbors from alerting the police.
Buffy had called Dawn as soon as it had become clear they was going to be under prolonged attack, and told her to stay away until she received the all clear. Since then, wave after wave of Shamaya had found them, giving them hours, and sometimes only minutes, to catch their breath before being forced to fend for their lives once more.
Despite being utterly exhausted, Buffy was doing her best to prolong the fight with each opponent, as was Spike. Every time the tide began to turn against them, the monks would activate their self-destruct buttons, and as much as Buffy didn't want to get dead, she wasn't happy about being responsible for the deaths of so many humans who were possibly nice little old men under other circumstances.
Finding herself back-to-back with Spike, she said, "How you doing? You want to step inside for a breather?" Willow had created a bubble of protection around herself, which she could maintain indefinitely. She could hold others inside it as well, but only for short stretches of time.
Spike looked up at the slowly fading stars. "Sun'll be up soon enough, and then I won't have much of a choice. It'll be back to the cellar for me. You go on and take a rest, I'll hold them off."
"With any luck this will be over by then," Buffy said. She squinted around her opponent towards the end of the street. "I hope Giles gets back soon. And I hope whatever he's got planned works."
"Hope so too, pet. Go on now. The group's starting to get a little thin; we'd better give 'em a break before they go Jonestown on us."
"This is ridiculous. I have never had to work this hard to lose a fight before."
Spike laughed. "It's a new one, all right."
Buffy made her way over to Willow's protective bubble. "Knock knock?"
"What's the word on the mean streets?" Willow said.
"The word is…" Buffy stared over Willow's shoulder, aghast. "Dawn."
Willow nodded. "Yep, it's almost dawn."
Behind her, a wizened old monk dragged Dawn forward by the hair. "Cease this resistance," he said, "and she will come to no harm. Abomination though she is herself."
"Hey!" Dawn said, twisting to glare into his gnarled face. "Watch who you're calling an abomination!"
The monk examined her, eyes narrowed. "The Key made flesh. Our brothers profaned most grievously." Four more men appeared behind him, chanting softly, and Dawn began to glow a pale green.
Buffy could feel Spike at her back, coiled fury poised to spring into action. "Plan?" he said into her ear.
She looked to Willow, who stared back, ashen. Willow's desperate, apologetic expression told Buffy all she needed to know – there were no witchy tricks up her sleeve. She turned her head and spoke in a low voice so only Spike would hear. "I'll try to buy some time. Maybe if I play along, you can get Dawn away from them…"
Spike squeezed her elbow to let her know he understood, and Buffy dropped her weapon and raised her hands. "I'm ceasing. Let my sister go."
"Buffy, no!" Dawn said, beating her fists against her captor's deceptively iron grip.
"It's okay, Dawnie." Buffy took a reluctant step forward. "Everything's going to be fine." The monks continued to chant, and Buffy took another step. "Let her go," she repeated.
She nodded at the chanters. "Tell them to stop. I won't fight you anymore, I swear."
The monk holding Dawn studied her, blinking owlishly. "Your honor binds you," he said at last. "I regret that we must erase a Warrior of Light such as yourself. But it is the law. The pure word of the infinite cannot be defiled."
"Not much consolation, really."
"I fear not." He uttered a harsh command, and the chanting stopped. The glow emanating from Dawn faded a little. The monks she'd been fighting with Spike came forward, surrounding Buffy and separating her from the others. "On your honor, Slayer. Come peaceably."
"Right." As the old men wrapped their claw-like hands around her arms, Buffy glanced back at Spike. Seeing that he was prepared to attack, lack of plan be damned, she said softly, "Dawn comes first."
Spike ground his teeth, the muscle in his jaw twitching wildly, but nodded. Over to the side, Buffy could hear Dawn struggling and crying. She tuned the sound out. She had to focus, to be prepared for an opening.
And if she couldn't find one... She'd done it before, hadn't she? Sacrificed her own life for Dawn's? For the space of a moment, Buffy marveled at herself. Was she really willing to die for somebody she didn't quite remember? To be the hero she'd insisted she wasn't any longer?
The answer was an immediate and resounding yes. For Dawn – yes.
The monks marched her past the circle of Willow's wards and glamour, and though Buffy dragged her feet, she couldn't come up with a plan that would save both her and Dawn, especially now that she couldn't even see the others anymore. She could only hope Spike and Willow were on top of it. "Where are we going?" she said, hoping that talking would distract them from walking.
No such luck. The one who answered spoke without effort, neither breath nor pace flagging. "Far enough your associates cannot interfere."
"Makes sense," Buffy said. "So. What is this word you're so het up about? I mean, if I have to die for something I didn't even do, it would be nice to at least understand why."
That got them to stop. The monks looked at each other uneasily, though whether it was because they didn't want to discuss their secrets or because they felt guilty over killing her, Buffy couldn't say. "Shri Lindsey violated the knowledge given to him," one said at last.
"The infinite is not for the uninitiated," said another. "We do not speak of it."
"Are you talking about God?" Buffy said. "A god? The God?"
There was more consideration, and then one said, "God is but an aspect of the infinite." They began to move forward again. Part of Buffy was interested to actually hear the answers. The bigger part of her was too focused on surviving. She wasn't keen on getting reacquainted with Heaven up close and personal just yet.
"Can't we remove the tattoo somehow? Just get rid of it? No harm, no foul?"
"It is not for others to witness. Merely viewing the word has defiled it."
A second monk added, "It can only be removed by the will of Shri Lindsey. He has made it clear that is not his intent."
Buffy dug her heels in, dragging them all to a stop. "But he has. Will. His will. He will his will." She grimaced, and tried again. "He agreed to let the tattoo be removed. He gave my Watcher the removal spell."
Again, there was much foot-shifting and eye-meeting between the monks.
"If she tells the truth…"
"There can only be one outcome for such desecration –"
"Is not the taking of an innocent life –"
"Defilement requires a blood sacrifice –"
"Should not Shri Lindsey pay it?"
"He is not here."
The argument ground to an uncomfortable halt. The monks looked at each other and then at the ground, avoiding her gaze. Buffy recognized it as the opportunity she'd been waiting for – if only she could be sure Dawn was safe.
Knowing she had little time to act, she shifted her stance. Before she could make up her mind, Giles made it up for her by squealing around the corner and straight at their small assemblage. Buffy leapt towards the car, the monks scattering in her wake.
Without slowing down, Giles threw open the passenger door, and she grabbed hold of the frame, almost wrenching her arms out of their sockets, and tumbled inside.
"The ones back at the house have Dawn," Buffy said. "They were threatening to re-Key her if I didn't go peaceably."
"So Willow said."
"You have the goods?"
"Yes." Giles turned on his high beams, and squinted through the windshield as they penetrated the glamour. "I see them. Looks like a détente. Duck down and hold on."
He wrenched the wheel, and with a loud screech of tires, his tiny car went juddering over the curb and across the yard. Buffy knocked her head against the dash as he threw on the brakes, and then slammed back against her seat, stunned.
"In the flat, quickly," Giles said. "Before they realize you're here."
She threw herself out the door and sprinted for the house. A sideways glance revealed that Giles had stopped the car inches from Dawn and the monks, all of whom were curled on the ground in various protective poses. Spike already had a hold of Dawn's arm and was pulling her towards Willow.
"Into the kitchen," Giles panted as he came through the front door behind her. "The spell is mostly prepared, except for the few final ingredients. It shouldn't take but a minute."
"Hurry," Buffy said, resisting the urge to run back outside and make sure the others were okay. She had to trust that Spike and Willow could manage without her.
Giles dumped his supplies onto the counter. "Light the candles if you please. And then expose your hip. I'll need to paint it with the salve."
"Tell me this is going to work," she said as she lit the candles.
"Do you trust Mr. McDonald to have your best interests at heart and to not have lied about the spell?"
Buffy hesitated. She didn't want to believe Lindsey would willingly hurt her. But then, he'd been the one to do this to her in the first place, never mind lying about it to her face. The backs of her eyes began to burn, but she blinked the feeling away. She was not going to shed any more tears over that – snake.
Giles paused to cover her hand with his. "Whether he lied or not, we shall fix this, Buffy. I promise."
Seeing the naked concern and the warmth in his eyes, Buffy suddenly realized just how deeply Giles cared about her. She'd known it before, or been told so, but never quite believed it. Not like this. "You loved me," Buffy said, surprised, and more than a little awed. "Really loved me."
He gave her a small, tight smile. "I still do, my dear. I haven't shown it as I should, I confess, but there is nothing past tense about my feelings for you." He squeezed her hand, then hesitated, hovering a moment before deciding against whatever else it was he wanted to say. Giles went back to his preparations, and Buffy swallowed back her tears.
She'd spent all this time running, feeling like she couldn't belong to these people.
But maybe she hadn't needed to. It was a sobering thought.
Giles mixed and incanted, reading from his notes. When the candles flared incandescent white, he gestured to her bared hip. Buffy turned so he could slather on the gloppy red mixture.
When the tattoo was completely hidden, Giles removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes with the back of his clean hand. "Now comes the moment of truth. Are you ready?"
"Ready or not, let's get this over with."
"Very well." He replaced his glasses, and held a hand over the caked-on sludge. "Sud'dha."
Buffy gasped as her skin began to burn. "Giles? Ow?"
"It should only last a moment," he said, expression worried. "There. Look!"
She looked. The red mixture had melted clean away, and along with it, parts of the markings on her hip.
"Is the pain gone?"
Buffy nodded. "And so is some of the tattoo. I'm guessing the parts Lindsey added to the original one."
"I would agree. I suppose Spike could verify…" he added, lips thinning.
"Erm…" Buffy blushed, trying not to recall the erotic images that had plagued her since Spike's admission. "I guess."
"You rest. I'll see what's happening out there and fetch him in if possible."
She got to her feet. "Dawn…"
Giles nodded his understanding, and led the way to the still open front door. He peered outside. "Dawn seems to be safe," he said.
Buffy stepped around him to see for herself. Spike, Dawn, and Willow remained clustered inside Willow's protection bubble, the monks milling around it, including the ones she'd escaped earlier. She strode towards them.
"Hey! Sham-yam guys! Your super-secret sacred word is all gone, so can we call it a day?" Tugging down the waist of her pants to expose her hip, she turned to Spike for confirmation. "Good as old?"
"There is still the matter of blood atonement."
She leveled a glare at the monk who'd spoken. "And how about it not be me who pays it?"
"You know, fawn works really well in a pinch as a substitute for human sacrifice," Willow said. "Have you thought about using a fawn?"
Buffy stared at Willow.
"I'm just saying," the redhead mumbled.
"How 'bout it? Would that work?" Buffy said, arms folded across her chest.
The monks closed ranks and conferred amongst themselves. Giles touched her shoulder. "Since everything seems to be under control here, I'm going to ring Angel back and let him know the spell was successful."
Buffy nodded, and then said to Spike, "It's almost sunrise, Mr. Death Wish. In the house with you, and get Dawn inside too. Before these guys get spell happy again."
"Sure thing, Slayer. Say, you remember that time we sha...ook a house down around us?"
Buffy frowned at the out-of-the-blue question. "No? When did that happen – was I kicking the crap out of you? Again?"
Spike gave her a half-hearted smile. "You could say that."
"Why? What's up?"
"S'nothing important. Tell you later," he said, and motioned for Dawn to follow him.
Keeping a careful eye on the Shamaya, who were still conferring, Buffy said, "How you doing, Wils? I think you can ease back on the protection now. I have the feeling we're about done here."
"My mental muscles are starting to get a little noodle-y." Willow closed her eyes and exhaled, and bubble around her faded, along with the glamour.
"So when exactly were you involved in human sacrifice?"
Willow's eyes shot open. "Me? Sacrifice? No – it was just research. A whole 'what if' thing. You know me, knowledge girl." She busied herself with packing up her supplies.
Sighing to herself, Buffy refrained from reminding Willow that, no, she didn't actually know her habits. Seemed like everybody had amnesia about her amnesia today.
The sun crested the horizon, bathing the battle-scarred front yard in a gentle, rosy glow. The monks continued to argue, gesturing back and forth until, as one, they stiffened. They turned to face Buffy. "The blood price has been met. Our apologies, Slayer." They bowed and shuffled off, stopping to collect the bodies of their fallen comrades as they passed.
"Well that was… weird. Was that weird?" Willow said.
"I'm thinking yes? And I'm also thinking who the hell cares so long as I can sleep for the next twenty-four hours."
Yawning, Willow said, "Right there with you on that." She pumped her fist in the air half-heartedly. "We won! Woo!" she said between two more yawns so large, Buffy could count all her teeth.
"With a side of hoo," Buffy agreed, and trudged inside after her.
"Of course he's got to bring it himself. Got to ride in and save the day, all white knight in shining armor. Got a bit of hero complex, that one," Spike said.
"Of course," Buffy agreed automatically, her mind elsewhere. Spike had been grumbling over Angel's imminent visit for two days now, and she'd heard everything he had to say on the topic. Multiple times. She no longer felt any guilt about tuning him out when he went into anti-Angel mode.
Taking a deep breath, she squashed the acidic, panicky feeling that had been threatening to overtake her ever since Giles' announcement that Angel had found the solution to her memory loss. She'd finally come to terms with that loss and begun to build a new life. A good life, with family and friends she could trust. And sure, most of them were the same family and friends she'd trusted before the amnesia, but still – it would change. Everything would change. Who was to say it would be for the better?
From everything she'd heard about her past, Buffy kind of thought she was better off without those memories.
She set a freshly whittled stake on the growing pile next to her, and brushed the shavings off her clothes. Angel was due any minute, and she figured she probably ought to freshen up. It didn't do to meet your past looking like something the cat had dragged in.
Buffy was just coming back down the stairs when the doorbell rang. The others all looked at her, Willow and Dawn smiling hopefully, Giles offering her a small nod of encouragement, and Spike doing both before turning to scowl at the front door.
"I guess I'll get it," she said to herself, the butterflies in her stomach morphing into alien babies that were threatening to claw their way out through her insides. Throwing her shoulders back, she raised her chin and opened the door.
Angel stared down at her. His dark eyes searched hers, burning with emotions she couldn't identify. "Buffy."
"A-Angel. Hi. Um... come in?" Buffy wasn't completely comfortable with the idea of inviting him in and giving him access to her home, despite her invitation. Spike had re-earned her trust in the past few months; Angel had not.
"Hi." Angel reached out to brush her hair back from her face before stopping himself and dropping his hand. "It's good to see you." He shifted uncomfortably. "I'll just…" He motioned inside, and Buffy nodded and stepped out of his way.
Before she could close the door, Xander appeared on the doorstep. "Well. With how awkward that was, this'll be a piece of cake." He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close.
"Heard big things were happening, and figured I should be here. Couldn't miss a momentous occasion like this." He pulled back to smile at her. "Besides, someday I want to be able to tell everybody how I helped save the world – or at least your memories – and my story will be far more believable if I was actually here."
"Seriously, though. I'm here for whatever you need. Moral support, the inevitable donut run, help holding down whoever it is you suddenly remember you have a grudge against so you can punch them…"
Buffy chuckled. "And if that turns out to be you?"
"I'll try not to run in terror."
She rolled her eyes and waved him inside, repressing the urge to punch him now. Maybe the old her would've appreciated him showing up uninvited, but this was exactly the type of pressure that had sent her running from her friends before.
Then again, she'd probably be happy he was here, post-restoration. Maybe.
If it worked.
If she agreed to it.
"So," Buffy said when they were all assembled in the front room. "What did Lindsey tell you?"
She still couldn't believe he was responsible for her memory loss, but the news of his sacrifice – his blood atonement – meant she had no outlet for her rage and disappointment, or sense of betrayal. Buffy couldn't hate him, because he'd sacrificed himself to save her life, but neither could she be grateful when it was his fault her life had needed saving in the first place. She couldn't grieve Lindsey when she was so angry, either.
He'd taken the coward's way out, and left her to wonder why with no hope for answers.
Worse, all her feelings for Lindsey had taken a back seat to her apprehension over the memory restoration, which left her feeling guilty and even more confused.
"He didn't exactly tell me anything…" Angel shrugged and handed her a letter. "But I found this in his things… after."
Buffy looked at the envelope in her hands. On the front, in Lindsey's writing, it said 'In case of memory loss, break seal'. Turning it over, she saw the seal had already been broken, presumably by Angel. She slipped the letter out and read it through quickly, then a second time, more slowly.
"To erase the runes…" she read aloud, her disbelief mounting. Buffy looked up, and glared at Angel, since Lindsey was unavailable. "More tattoos?"
"So it says..."
She threw the letter down on the table. "Well, that was pointless. Completely pointless." Flinging her arms wide, she added, "I'm a blank canvas. Totally rune-free."
"Perhaps there is a tattoo you missed," Giles said.
"Nothing. Nada. Dawn and I checked every square inch of skin, even between my toes. No more tattoos."
Angel cleared his throat. When she turned her glare back on him, he said, "That's not quite true. There's one place you probably didn't think to check." He reached for her. "Can I...?"
Buffy shrank back automatically, wondering where on earth he thought she might not have looked. The only place she could think of was – ahem – private, and as low as her opinion of Lindsey might currently be, she couldn't believe he'd have violated her that way. Besides. She'd already checked. With a mirror.
Spike leapt to her rescue, stepping between them. "Get your hands off her. Just tell the girl, Angelus, no need to paw at her."
"Relax, you idiot," Angel said. He shouldered Spike aside, and, tapping at the back of his head, said, "Right here, Buffy. I bet you anything that's where he hid it. Will you let me check under your hair?"
When she didn't answer right away, a flicker of hurt crossed his face. "Or let Giles... or somebody..."
She shook off her misgivings. It was only a quick look, to see if his theory was right. Buffy stepped closer, and turned around and bowed her head. "Well?"
Angel combed through her hair, his touch delicate despite his big hands. His fingers tickled the back of her head, right above the hollow where her skull met her spine. "There," he said. "That's where it is."
The rest of the group rushed forward to see. They jabbered excitedly to each other while Buffy held still, forgotten, feeling like an exhibit on display. She pulled away and crossed the room, positioning herself with the back of her head to the wall, away from prying eyes and fingers. "So that's it? We remove the runes, and I'm back to Buffy one-point-oh?"
"According to this, yes, it should be that simple," Giles said, examining Lindsey's letter. "I suppose another visit to the plastic surgeon is in order."
"Great, I'm gonna have to shave my head for laser surgery to work, aren't I." Buffy wrinkled her nose. "No thanks. Is there any other way? Something magical and poof-y and non-Sinead-O'Connor-y?"
"If there's a non-magical way, that's the best solution," Willow said, her eyes sympathetic. "Believe me, I know all about taking magical shortcuts, and turns out? Not so shortcutty in the long run."
"You'll only have to shave the little bit where the runes are," Dawn added. "It's only, like, a square inch… or two. The rest of your hair will cover it."
"Yay," Buffy said. Despite her resistance, shaving her head was the least worrisome aspect. Even the prospect of another round of painful laser surgery didn't bother her. What did worry her was everybody's assumption that she was as thrilled as they to have found a solution, and that she'd be chomping at the bit to get her memories back.
Now that a real solution had been found, Buffy was more unsure than ever. She was okay with her life the way it was. Really.
"Hang on a tic," Spike said. "Do they have to be removed? Can't we just change them? Add more ink and blot them out, like?"
"I suppose," Giles said slowly. "Willow?"
"I can research it."
Buffy shook her head. "Nope, no more tattoos for me. I'm getting them all off, including this one," she said, pointing to now-simplified Celtic one on her hip with sudden determination. "I don't even know why I have it. Do any of you?"
"Sorry," Dawn said. "I don't know when you got it. Or why."
"Anybody?" One by one, they shrugged as she met their eyes.
Except Angel. "You, uh…" He cleared his throat. "You got it after you came back from the dead. You'll remember why soon enough," he said, trying to smile and mostly just looking uncomfortable.
"Yeah. I guess I will," Buffy said. To her own ears, she sounded underwhelmingly unenthusiastic.
Nobody else seemed to notice.
"Are you ready, Miss Summers?"
Somehow, Giles had managed to find a plastic surgeon willing to haul their equipment to her house and perform the procedure there. Presumably a large amount of cash had exchanged hands before the good doctor had agreed.
Buffy was grateful for Giles' sensitivity, and generosity. After the last botched attempt at tattoo removal, combined with her misgivings about getting her memories back, having it done in the safety of her home went a long way to settling her mind. She couldn't deny that having the others nearby was a relief as well.
"Miss Summers?" Doctor McNamara repeated. "Do you have any concerns you'd like to address first?"
She shook her head. She had a plethora of concerns, but none that Dr. McNamara would be able to address. Buffy could hear the muted voices of the others down the hallway, in the kitchen. In a few minutes, if all went well, she'd remember these people and all they meant to her. Remember herself. Her hopes and goals and dreams. Her fears. Despite the tentative peace she'd reached, last night, in the deep of night, Buffy had had to admit she still felt lost. She didn't know what she wanted. Didn't know where she belonged. Didn't know who she was. It was that uncertainty that had finally tipped her hand.
How could she ever know who she was without knowing who she'd been?
"I'm ready," she said.
"Very good. If you could lie down on the table, please…"
While the doctor worked, Buffy zoned out, refusing to think about the imminent upheaval she was sure to experience. She focused on her breathing, slipping into a light trance, until Dr. McNamara shook her out of it. "We're done, Miss Summers. You may sit up if you'd like, but slowly."
Buffy sat up. She touched the gauze at the back of her head. "Is it gone?"
"There is some residual discoloration, but for all intents and purposes, yes. It is gone."
"But…" She fought back the panic bubbling up through her body. But I still don't remember.
Oh, god. It hadn't worked. It hadn't worked, and now she was never going to get her memories back. Whether she wanted to or not, knowing she didn't even have the choice...
Buffy stood. She swayed, dizzy, and the doctor reached out a hand to steady her. Buffy shook him off and rushed down the hallway, heading for the back door. She couldn't breathe. She needed to get outside.
Dawn poked her head into the hallway. "Buffy? Are you okay?"
Snippets of color and sound hit her.
Mommy and Daddy bringing Dawn home from the hospital – can I hold her – going to be the best big sister – I'm going to tell Mom – get out of my room – Dawn's terrified face at the top of the tower – knocking Dawn down, tying her up, going to let the demon kill her -
Buffy gasped. "No –"
Hands up, she stumbled backwards. They were all in the hallway now, crowding her.
Running Angel through with a sword – Spike on top of her in the bathroom – Willow's jet black hair and eyes – Giles leaving – Xander in the hospital a bandage over one eye – wanting to crawl back into the grave -
"No, no, no," Buffy said, hands over her ears and eyes shut tight, but she couldn't stop the images flashing through her mind.
Daddy packing his suitcase – Mommy dead on the couch – leaping from the tower – Heaven -
Hands reached for her. Concerned voices buzzed in her ear.
Buffy shoved them all away and stumbled blindly down the hall. She wrenched the door open, and ran.