TITLE: Reading the Signs, 2/2
RATING: Mature audiences (language, sex, spot of violence)
LENGTH: This part, 7300 words.
PREVIOUS PART: Here.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Joss Whedon and Co, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats
SUMMARY: AU Season Seven, diverging from canon after "Selfless" (and following my fics "Left Hand," "Black Veil," and "The Edge of the Blade," although you needn't have read them). Along with the special guest star, Giles and Anya are in Arizona, ready to collect the last Potential. Here we go round the prickly pear at five o'clock in the morning...
"Snake’s not a problem," Oz says. His shoulders twitch, as if he’s holding back words or change. Giles felt that same twitch when he caught Oz’s shoulder at the doorway, testing that he was present and real.
For a moment Giles remembers howls in the high school library and wonders if he should draw the curtains against the moon. No, it’s too late for that.
Anya pauses in her hospitable bustle – still wearing that fluffy white robe she’d found, she’s put the kettle on for the tea she always carries in her luggage for them, and now she’s looking for mugs in the kitchen cabinets. "A rattlesnake out of season’s not a sign?"
"No, it is." Oz almost smiles.
Giles flattens his hands on the tiled surface of the breakfast bar – or whatever Americans call this bloody kitchen feature. He can’t discern if the surface is real stone or false. Can’t discern many things – "But a sign of what?"
As the kettle begins to whistle, Oz shivers, then runs a hand over that blue-tipped hair. It appears for a moment that his skin is rippling, something trying to get out – Giles thinks again of transformation, of failures of containment – but Oz’s voice is calm. "Two days now – white owls everywhere in the daytime. A pack of urban coyotes downtown. Outside Raul’s home yesterday, a saguaro wreathed in rattlers."
"That’s a very disturbing list of omens, but not an answer or explanation." Anya turns off the kettle, and the whistle-become-scream stops.
In the silence Giles can hear... nothing, nothing beyond nothing, dead fire, dead world.
When Anya begins to pour the water into the mugs, however, he blinks himself back into focus. "Oz, in our experience of the current enemy...how to put this? The First Evil is incorporeal, able only to project the dead, and no research or experience suggests that it can, er, possess animals."
"Might not be possession," Oz says mildly.
"Ah. It could be the First disturbing the natural order, perhaps? The animals react to the darker changes?" Giles needs to move to think, he needs to connect – he goes to Anya. One hand rubbing her back for comfort, one hand on the mug she pushes toward him: "Which further might mean that the First’s shifted its focus from Sunnydale to Arizona, at least temporarily."
She wraps two fingers around one of his belt loops. "Did you see anyone earlier, honey, while you were in the bathroom?"
"Sounds like a weird plumbing evil," Oz says, then takes the remaining mug. Eyes down, he begins to dunk the teabag.
"Rupert’s been tormented by the First for a couple of months. It takes on the face of dead friends or lovers or whatever and plays mind-games, often in the bathroom," Anya says. "So, honey, did you?"
"No." Giles dunks his own teabag, watches the water darken. "Perhaps we should call Kay again. Or, wait, we’ve got the charm she gave us, that might be our protection."
"Whatever the bad shit is, it’s close," Oz says. "Everything’s... spooked. Hence, snake without a sweater on your doorstep."
Giles considers and discards several wordings of one simple question. "Oz, are you, er, spooked as well?"
"Sure. But I’m still volunteering to fight." This time when Oz smiles, he looks older than his years – which impression the pierced ear, the new tattoos on his forearms, and that blue hair oddly enhance. "Sometimes you can’t run any more."
Anya pats Oz’s hand at that, one of her charmingly awkward efforts at reassurance, but doesn’t say anything.
It’s quiet here in the foothills, well above the city. The silence lengthens and in Giles’ mind seems to twist as it reaches. If the First is nearby, why is it silent....
Buzzer goes off nearby, loud and angry, and Anya’s in Giles’ arms in a heartbeat, the two of them moving at the same time, clutching each other – then Anya rests her head on his chest and says, "Washing’s done. Time for the dryer."
He has the strangest desire to laugh, but with a kiss to her hair, he lets her go. "Right, then. Time for the dryer. Shall I?"
"No, I’ll get it." She looks at Oz. "I promise we’re only jumpy because of the apocalypse. Usually home appliances don’t scare us."
This time both he and Oz do laugh.
When she’s off in the bedroom, however, the silence comes back. He thinks again of Saint House, and of the First’s perversion of all things desert – "‘Our dried voices, when We whisper together Are quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass Or rats’ feet over broken glass In our dry cellar,’" he murmurs, mostly to himself.
"T.S. Eliot," Oz says. "Not cheerful, really."
This time Giles smiles. "No, not really." He leans back against the kitchen counter. As he cradles his mug: "How long have you been in Tucson, Oz? And working for Raul?"
"Couple of years. I got tired of the road fast – came to Tucson to hear a band, met Raul, thought I’d like to learn the trade. So I’m learning. Play in a band. Bartend at Club Congress on Sunday nights." Oz looks out the window – the hillside is lambent with moonlight now, Giles sees, the tall, twisted saguaros and shadows reminding of something he can’t put his finger on. Oz shivers again. "But I guess I really was waiting for something to change. A sign."
"I understand." Giles takes a drink of his tea – a peppermint mixture which Anya prefers in the evenings. He’s grown accustomed to it.
Oz sips as well. "Speaking of change – you and Anya? New thing?"
"No. Well, er, in some senses."
Giles thinks back. Xander and Anya had just begun dating by the first time Oz left – he remembers that odd Halloween, with himself and Anya outside the enchanted house, Oz and Willow and Xander and Buffy inside. He’d like it if a fucking chainsaw could cut through some evil now, actually.
And he remembers again his and Anya’s visit to Sunnydale. On the last night, he’d taken a beer and a fleeting chance for escape – that Andrew boy had begun a truly horrifying game of charades with the Potentials – to the front porch. Xander had found him there, and joined him on the steps. The two of them had sat, not speaking, for a time before Xander said, "You and Anya...."
"Yes, Anya and I." Giles glanced at him. "I should be sorry, I know."
"But you’re not. Okay, fair enough. Anya and I were done." Xander looked forward, not meeting Giles’ eyes. "But you get, right, how totally, molto hinky in retrospect this makes your whole ‘beware marriage, young man’ speech the night I announced the engagement? And, y’know, it seemed kind of hinky at the time."
"I’m not entirely sure I’d use that word. But... well, yes, I didn’t think you were prepared for marriage. But I didn’t consciously... I wouldn’t have said that, if I had understood my own... um, feelings for her, although I didn’t realise how much....anyway, I am sorry. About that, at any rate." Giles took refuge in his beer.
"So you weren’t consciously trying to steal my girl?" Xander was grinning by that point.
"No. I wouldn’t vouch for my subconscious, however." Giles took another drink. "And whenever did you learn Italian?"
Xander had still been laughing when they went back inside and were dragged into the game.
Now Giles looks at Oz, who’s performing a familiar, if silent, inquiry. "Anya and I are, um, together now. Committed. It’s just that the past couple of years have been complicated, Oz. You’ve missed–" Dear God. The enormity of what has changed renders him silent, too.
Moonlight and lengthening shadows, Anya humming to herself in the next room while the dryer starts – And Oz says, "How’s Willow? Tara?"
This, Giles feels, requires more tea before he can frame an answer. As he puts the kettle back on, however, Anya returns, bearing Kay’s charm, and Oz repeats the question.
She hesitates for only a few seconds. "Willow had a horrible time last year, including going all dark when Tara was murdered by an evil nerd. She’s doing better now, though, except for the current potential end of the world happening. Which at least this time she’s not causing, so, a plus!"
Oz doesn’t react at first. He just gazes at her as if he’s waiting for more. Then there’s a deeper ripple under skin, an almost inaudible growl, more vibration than sound, and the tattoos on Oz’s arms darken, thicken into fur–
"Don’t wolf out, it won’t do Willow or anybody any good," she says matter-of-factly. Before Giles can stop her, she goes toward Oz, takes his now clawed hand and wraps it around the charm. "Breathe, okay? And stay human. You’ve worked hard to get yourself under control, don’t screw it up now."
And Oz breathes, and rag and bone and feather rustle like good desert grass, and Giles knows the danger-moment is past.
It’s been a long time since those days in the library. He thanks all the gods there are for that.
The three of them sit for a while, drink more herbal tea, and discuss the plans for the next couple of days. Oz says he’ll follow them to Nogales in his old van tomorrow – "Ease into the wartime gig," he says, "watch you work" – and then to Sunnydale afterward. They agree that he’ll keep the Potentials’ swords safe tonight, and he says he can talk Raul out of a few crossbows as well.
When Oz leaves at last, Giles locks the front door. From outside comes that howl again, deep and feral and sorrowing: neither a bad nor good sign, simply a mark of mourning. Yet Giles still feels the break in comfort, the edge of the next day’s work scratching at the last hour of his and Anya’s nominal holiday. That sodding refrain won’t leave him – Here we go round the prickly pear....
Obeying Watcher-instinct despite the lateness of the hour, he makes one more call to Margarita Garcia. Her family’s voice-mail picks up; he leaves a message asking her to call him tonight if she has any questions, and in any case check in with him in the morning before their appointment.
He takes the mobile with him when he goes into the bedroom in search of Anya.
Anya’s neatly folding clothes from the fresh pile on the bed, and after he puts the mobile on the nightstand on his side of the bed, he joins her. The clothes are warm and sweet-scented, soft in his hands, and sharing the mundane task with her is a strange sort of happiness.
What’s even more enjoyable is the sight of Anya after it’s done, when she falls backward onto the empty bed, the tie of her robe loosening so the naked beauty of her is half-revealed, all cream and blonde-streaked brunette in a sea of terrycloth and linen. "I’m strangely tired," she says, "although we haven’t really done much today. And if you dare tell me to pick up that damn sword–"
"I won’t tonight, darling. Still some holiday left." To please himself, he rests his hand on her exposed lower belly, his thumb teasing at her curls.
She shifts lazily, her legs falling open, her eyes closing. "That feels nice."
"I want you to have nice things," he murmurs. "And please pretend that was even remotely eloquent."
Smiling, she curves her upper body around so she can kiss his other wrist. "In my experience, smooth talkers are often jerks. ‘Cause they don’t mean it, you know?"
When he gets into bed a few minutes later – no First in the bathroom tonight – he doesn’t say anything. But he gathers Anya into his arms, and they fit together so well, legs entwined, his hands exploring her naked back, her nose rubbing against his chest. He’s getting hard again, despite their earlier activities – he needs her so badly, the strength of her reminds him of what’s real.
She says in a voice he can’t read, "Rupert, Rupert–"
"Be quiet tonight, love. I want you to know I mean it." He stops her mouth with a kiss, long and wet and languorous, then slides his thigh between hers, presses up, enjoying how she melts for him.
He’s deep and safe inside her when it turns midnight. Doesn’t let either of them come until after the bedside clock turns over to 12:01 and a new day, although he couldn’t articulate why.
"Next right, darling," Rupert says.
"Got it." She conscientiously puts on the blinker so Oz knows the turn is coming, waits, makes the turn. Sighs.
She very much wants to be back in bed with Rupert, wrapped up and needed and silently loving, and also, twice well-shagged. (This is one of the good British words Rupert’s taught her.) That was a safe space, and he managed to make it mean more than a day. She just wishes...
But no, it’s stupid to wish because the holiday’s over, she tells herself firmly, as she’s been telling herself for the past forty-five miles of desert. Just another workday, with today’s job to be collecting Potential Number Twenty-Seven on Rupert’s list. The last Potential, which she refuses to take as a sign.
However, it’s annoying how her palms are sweating – don’t they know it’s cold outside? Cold in the car, too. Sun’s gone behind a cloudbank, and there are shadows everywhere.
She tries to take a deep breath, fails, then says, "It’s not possible to get claustrophobia in a moving car, is it?"
"Many things are possible." When Rupert shifts in the passenger seat, the Nogales map crackles. "No, sorry. Do you want me to drive the rest of it?" He wants to, she knows, but he’s got something else to worry about–
"No, no, we’re almost there. Just navigate, and wait for Margarita."
He mutters something and turns to look out at the passing desert.
This isn’t good. He’s been anxious – snappish, attractively glowering – since before breakfast in that cafe back in Tucson, with Oz, Kay, and Raul. He barely touched his breakfast burritos, which is unlike him because he does enjoy his food and is especially fond of salsa-drenched egg and sausage. Instead, he made obsessive notes in his notebook about Raul’s Nogales connections (in case of unspecified disaster) and asked Kay about large-scale warding techniques and told Oz at least five times the directions to the Garcia house.
She couldn’t do anything to help him, either. Her own conversation with Kay, resulting in three wearable charms she’s now got in her handbag, won’t address what’s bothering him.
The last Potential should have called by now. This is an awful, awful sign.
With a glance at the rearview mirror she checks on Oz in his big, brightly painted van. He seems undeterred by the dust the rental car is kicking up on this half-paved road and by the twisty-turns. They left Interstate 19 a few miles back – according to the address on the double-checked maps, the Garcias don’t live in the town of Nogales itself, but on an acreage northeast of it – and are winding through brown hills.
Scrubby desert trees keep appearing at the roadside, and when a stray branch rattles against the side of the car as they pass, she thinks of another climb through trees to an isolated house, thinks of the First, thinks of fire.
Her hands slide on the steering wheel. She holds on anyway.
Rupert’s mobile goes off, and he’s got it before the downloaded Eric Clapton can even get to the fourth word of "Layla" – "This is Rupert Giles. Good morning, Margarita...."
Anya would be happy about this except she can read the almost immediate stillness in him, the concentration. He says "Yes" and "No more than twenty minutes or so away" – which is wrong, they should be a lot closer than that – and "Yes. In a bit" and "Thank you. Goodbye." Then he ends the call and stares straight ahead at nothing.
His absence is scaring her. "So," she says with her best cheerfulness, "that was Margarita?"
"No, I don’t think so." At that, he seems to come back to himself. His hand goes to her shoulder, begins to circle – although she doesn’t know who the gesture’s supposed to comfort. "I believe I was just speaking to the First."
Screaming won’t do any good, she tells herself. She manages, "No code word?"
"No code word. Which could be an excited sixteen-year-old’s memory lapse, but I don’t... It doesn’t smell right to me. Er, not in a literal sense."
"Bad signs. Sure."
"But if it’s the First, Anya....oh, Christ..."
She knows why he can’t finish his thought, and she fears she knows what’s in his head. She can’t forget the weeks after Buffy jumped, how pale and drawn and empty he was. She can’t forget the vision of Buffy that taunted him in Saint House. The lying Evil thing called him a failure, and despite what’s Anya’s told him over and over, on some stupid, probably untouchable level he believes it.
Margarita has to be dead. Rupert’s a Watcher, and the death of any Slayer (actual or Potential) gets to him – it’s like his own private hairshirt, which she knows all too well is a horrible thing to wear, the welts never heal right. But pain won’t change what he figures is his duty.
Another branch against the window, a rock rattling off glass as they hit a patch of stones in the road. A thousand years of her own evil duty, done without thinking. She’s damn well thinking now.
Very deliberately she tightens her fingers on the wheel. Very deliberately she slows the car down. Going forward, not back – "Okay. You’d better call Oz, tell him we need to pull over."
"Look, I know this is probably a trap, and if we had any sense at all we’d be halfway back to Tucson already. But we good guys don’t have any sense, I know we’re going in there, and so I think it’s a better idea if we actually plan this." She clears her throat. "Sorry, honey, I got a little shrill there. I hate that."
His index finger strokes her cheek. "And yet, Anya, I love that," he says, then, "If you’d just pull over–? Oz will stop."
When they get out of the car, the wind from the north’s like a cold-edged blade, and ridiculously she wants to cry. But she brushes her hand over her eyes and blows her nose, and then Rupert catches her hand and links fingers, and they walk back to the open door of the van where Oz is waiting.
"What’s wrong?" he says, without bothering with a greeting.
"Evidence suggests that the First just called instead of Margarita," Rupert says. "The problem ahead is less the First, who’s mostly lies and smoke, than it is the minions of his we’ve met."
"Like I said last night – Harbringers, commonly known as Bringers. Eyeless robed guys with killer instincts and extremely big knives," Anya contributes. She shivers away the memory of a knife at her back.
"It’s possible too that one of his damned human servants, a false clergyman named Caleb, might be near. We, er, locked him in a burning house a few months ago, but the intelligence we have is that he escaped," Rupert says.
"Bringers. Fake preacher. Okay," Oz says. There’s a definite growl running underneath his words.
Rupert’s fingers tighten on hers, even as he says, "Oz, I realise that you didn’t...you were just coming to observe this time, but–"
"Is a sword enough, or should I think crossbow too?" Oz says. It’s interesting, Anya thinks, how he combines mellowness with a certain controlled rip-out-your-throat quality. "Because... sounds like the window of observation just closed."
"Sword should do it. And thank you," Rupert says. Then, keeping hold of her, he puts his free hand on Oz’s shoulder and incants the words they learned last time they walked into the First’s trap, almost singing them into the desert morning. "Love each other, give, forgive. Touch each other, see truth, fight until journeys end and the new world begins."
Something unseen rustles in the brown grass across the road. Something unseen rattles. The wind blows cold and sharp like a blade.
She can’t take any more, and she lets loose a scream at the world. "Okay, okay, we get the signs already, Evil’s here! We’re going to fight it, so would you just stop signalling already?"
But Rupert spins her into a hard, close embrace, safe and warm like in bed just after midnight, and Oz laughs with no growl and catches hold of her free hand, and she feels a little better. The words just seem to rise up into her throat – the three of them say together, "Touch each other, see truth, fight."
They stand together like that for longer than they probably should, not as long as she needs. Then, quietly and quickly, they make their plans for several eventualities, splitting up responsibilities for each one. Rupert makes a brief phone call, too – Kay told them she’d be free this morning.
Anya retrieves the new charms and brings them to the van. Setting her back to the wind, she dips each twist of rag-and-feather in a plastic baggie of dragon’s blood Kay made from her father’s palm trees and whispers "evil be vanquished and good be real."
When she ties the first one around Oz’s wrist, the strand brushes the bottom of a tattoo she can’t make out, and he jolts and mutters something she can’t understand. She doesn’t think it’s bad, though.
When she ties the second around Rupert’s wrist, he catches her chin in his other hand and then kisses her. It’s sweet and fierce, and for just that moment she feels as safe as she did the night before.
The moment lengthens and twists together, safety and goodness and love, when Rupert ties the last one around her wrist, murmuring his own words of protection.
She holds onto all those moments when the rental car works its way up the last hill to the Garcia home. And then they top the last rise, and she catches her breath.
The house is a big adobe structure, which would be golden-brown in normal light; an oversized wooden door marks its centre. It’s like a mirror-image of Saint House, where it all began. There’s even a gravel forecourt without cars. Marking its half-circle are fallen urns and their broken cactus contents.
"‘Here we go ‘round the prickly pear at five o’clock in the morning,’" Rupert says absently, and it’s the saddest thing she’s ever heard, she doesn’t know why.
They pull to a stop before they get to the urns, with Oz right behind them. Wind is cold inside, colder outside, and the clouds are here, lowering almost to the ground.
Rupert gets their swords out from the backseat, and then puts her new one in her hand. "There you go, darling," he says.
She closes her eyes on bad memories. She makes the choice again to stay, to fight. She opens her eyes again. "Okay, honey."
Oz is here, his own sword loose in his hand, blue hair moving gently in the wind. He’s sniffing the air – "Fresh blood. Lots of it," he says, then slips off toward the side of the house as planned.
"Well, at least the spilled blood makes carrying big-ass swords on a visit look more rational," she says as brightly as she can.
Rupert half-smiles – but part of him’s already in the house, she thinks. Without speaking, he leads her over the gravel, past the broken green-and-thorns, to the dark, heavy door.
He pushes the doorbell, then says quietly, "You will take good care of yourself for me, yes?"
"Yes. And you’ll take good care of yourself, right?"
Before he can answer, the door swings open. It’s dark behind dark there, even when the pretty, long-haired young girl on the threshold – just like the picture of Margarita Garcia in the files – giggles.
The girl’s not touching the door, Anya notes with sinking heart. Her palms begin to sweat again.
"Hi! You must be Mr Giles and Miss Jenkins," the Margarita-figure says, and it’s so false, so wrong, all bad notes chiming together. "Come on in. This won’t take long."
From nearby comes a wolf-howl, deep and wild.
Oz’s howl means he’s where he’s supposed to be without undue interference, Giles thinks. Good omen in a bad world.
He has grown used to reading the First’s moods and faces, and yes, even without other corroborating details, he’s certain that this fresh-faced young girl is a mask worn by grinning evil. The house smells wrong, blood underneath smoke. But somewhere there is the real young girl, or the cast-aside body of the young girl, and it’s for her that he steps across the threshold into the Garcia house.
Unlike the first time he walked into one of the First’s traps, however, he has a sword in his hand, and good magic around his wrist. Unlike the first time, too, he understands just how important to him the woman at his side is. He takes care to block Anya from any random attacks in the dark.
He can’t do anything about the heavy door swinging shut behind them, however. Can’t do anything about the past.
The entryway is cold. In the dimness he can make odd details – a conquistador’s helmet on the wall, a stack of mail and a single key on the narrow table below it. The figure of the young girl trips lightly ahead of them. She says cheerfully, "So am I going to learn to carry a sword? Because it’s kind of awesome that you guys show up with weapons in your hand."
"I knew it would look weird if this were a normal visit," Anya mutters.
He touches the small of her back, reminds himself to smile later. Then, "As we’ve told you, Margarita, it’s a difficult time. Can’t be too careful. And, er, where are your parents?"
"This way." The girl-figure leads them further into a darkened room. Grey morning light outlines drawn shades, but everything within the room is indistinct, fogged – Except there, a corridor filled with light.
And except there, in the corner, arranged in an armchair in an obscene parody of life, a youngish man. Cut throat. Blood, blood everywhere.
"That’s my dad," the Margarita-figure giggles. "Dead as a rat in a trap."
In a blink, the Margarita-figure becomes Buffy, arms crossed, indulgent smile on her face. "You know, I was going to drag it out a little more, play with you guys – but you know who the real rats in a trap are, right? You know who’s really dead." The First’s smile broadens. "Right, Dad?"
There is nothing to say, no way to help the dead man, no way to reason with evil. He can’t let the First know how near to the heart that cut has gone. He looks at Anya instead. "Keep going, darling."
She’s holding it together, although he knows the casual shrug is difficult for her – "Okay. That’s why we’re here."
"Is that why, Anyanka? Not an attempt to redeem yourself, is it?" the First says, and by the end of the sentence it’s not Buffy but a pretty, curly-haired woman Giles doesn’t recognise. He suspects this is the friend Anya lost to D’Hoffryn, however – that’s the First’s method of torment. "We know that you haven’t changed, not inside. Still want to run, still don’t care if other people die."
"I care," Anya says in a tight, small voice. "I may want to run, but I care a whole lot, and just stop yapping, it makes you sound stupid."
And, her sword up, she walks through the image from her past.
The image of her stride and the image of Evil dissolving are like lamps turned on in the darkened room. He has to blink at first, and then he too walks through the false face, Buffy’s now, frozen in rage.
"That’s enough," the First says in Buffy’s voice, "come on!"
But it’s not talking to Giles or Anya. From the back of the house come familiar running footsteps, the flapping of Bringer robes, harsh breathing; light changing, shadows leaping forward.
"Christ, Anya," Giles says, leaping himself now, and at the mouth of the corridor he overtakes her just as the Bringers are in range. "Go low–"
And since they’ve practised this, the manoeuvre where he goes high with the sword and she lunges low is just smooth enough they don’t run into each other. Just smooth enough that the first Bringer gets caught high and low, and staggers back against the next in line.
"Back," Anya says breathlessly, "no room."
Yes, and there are closed doors behind which more monsters might be hiding. With an effort he pulls out his sword – it’s already shining wet – and grabs her with his other hand. She has to pull harder, more blood through rough brown cloth, it’s going to make footing treacherous. "Back," he says.
Buffy’s voice in his ear, in his head. "You can’t do that, stupid Watcher. You don’t have the power. Gotta stay here and die."
But they’re back in the darkened room. Bringers are coming, three of them, leaping their fallen one. He raises his sword. Anya steps up beside him.
From behind the Bringers, Oz howls. It’s warning, it’s sorrow, it’s rage. The Bringers stumble – one crashing against the wall – and at the other end of the hallway light changes, a good shadow with blue edges. The Bringer who’s fallen screams.
The First shouts in Buffy’s voice, "Wolf-boy, you think you can go back when this is who you are?"
"Yes," Oz says in the shadows, and then the light catches the edge of a blade as it’s slicing into darkness. A different Bringer screams. Goes silent.
But the other Bringers are rushing, shadows moving forward, and Giles hears the oddest scratching in the walls. He feels the surveillance of the First, it’s been watching them all along, rats in a trap–
"I know who you are, failures," the First hisses, and it’s not aping Buffy any more. It’s the bad shadow given voice. "Rupert and Anya, come to be lost."
"No," she whispers, louder than the noises in the walls, then trips on the end of her sword. She falls to her knees.
Bringer’s almost upon her. It’s a sword not a knife in his hand, dark in dark. The First says in a weirding voice, incanting, "As it has been written. As it has been written."
Sword in the dark, coming down. He thinks of dead Jenny lying in his bed, he thinks of Anya lying in a sea of terrycloth and linen. The sign of the foul rag-and-bone-shop, nothing but loss.
Then the charm Anya tied around his wrist burns, its magic a shock of the real. Touch each other, see truth, fight.
His sword goes high, deflecting the Bringer’s blade. Anya sends her sword low – the move’s awkward, she needs more practice, but it’s close enough for the apocalypse.
The Bringer sighs oddly when her blade goes in. But Anya says, "I can’t get it out," she’s falling backward, Bringer on top of her.
With nightmare visions of misdirected blades, Giles pulls the Bringer’s body off her. Blood shines on her face, but it’s not hers, thank God it’s not hers.
Blood shines on her sword hand, and it is.
He says, "stay there," and he moves to meet another Bringer, another sword.
As he parries the first blow then lunges, he sees in the corridor more light. Door’s opening, he thinks, where’s Oz – and then he’s too busy to think. It’s steel against steel, and middle-aged muscles in his back and thighs twinging, and his fight against the tremors. Can’t breathe, door’s opening –
And he slices into the Bringer, pushes him back against the wall as he pushes back his guilt. This Bringer screams, then chokes, then falls.
Giles takes another step forward, but he doesn’t see any more living attackers – the third body is on the floor. In the hallway a door is open, however, and he hears a female voice.
From inside the room with the open door, Oz calls, "Hey, Giles, Anya. You guys need to get back here."
Giles turns back first. Anya’s getting stiffly to her feet, cradling her bleeding hand in the other.
"Darling, darling, are you all right?" His arm goes around her, more for his own reassurance than hers, and he kisses her before he inspects her wound. Long, deep cut across the palm and around the thumb, but no worse. He fumbles for his handkerchief, but she stops him.
"It hurts. Otherwise, I’m okay, we’ll fix it later," she says. "But where did the First go?"
There’s no vision, no hissing voice, no sign of Evil’s presence except the bodies of the dead.
"Never mind. It’ll be back," he says, and they steer each other around the corridor’s obstacles and into a room so bright – windows wide and uncurtained, desert sun pouring in, overhead light shining– he has to blink. It looks like a young girl’s bedroom.
Oz is on one knee, peering into an open closet. "Okay," he says quietly, "you guys can come out now."
Two girls, blood-and-tear-streaked, crawl into the light, just on the threshold of the room. The older one is Margarita – she clutches a reddened butcher knife in one hand, and the younger girl’s shirt in her other fist. That must be Elena, Margarita’s twelve-year-old sister mentioned in the background file.
"Mr Giles? Miss Jenkins?" Margarita says, and it’s real, it’s the voice he heard yesterday.
"Yes, it’s us. Um, you didn’t die?" Anya says. "We kind of thought you must have."
"No. Except those eyeless guys came right after breakfast, I was, like, picking up the phone to call you, and they broke in, and they got Dad and Mom and tried–" She can’t go on.
"You saved us, Rita." Elena says, choking on sobs she’s likely been damming for hours. She doesn’t look at anyone but her sister. "You kicked their asses and you got us in here and locked us in, you saved us, but now what are we gonna do?"
At that question Giles lets go of the million thoughts crowding his mind – have the First’s rules changed, how very like Buffy she is, how patterns are repeated and broken – and hurries forward. "Don’t worry. Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you," he says, and drops to his knees and grasps their shoulders.
The girls are solid. They’re real. They’re here.
The last Potential has been found, and this means something powerful, something good.
Anya’s right beside him, and with her unhurt hand she takes Margarita’s. Oz moves on the other side, his knees touching Elena’s, and makes the oddest, comforting growl. The room is awash with desert light.
"Yep, it’s been a horrible and bloody day, but we’ve got you both," Anya says in her kindest voice, "you’re not alone," and to his eternal embarrassment, Giles has to fight tears ill becoming a Watcher.
"Are we there yet?" Elena says from the backseat, as she’s been saying for the last two hundred and fifty miles. Anya wouldn’t have thought anything was more annoying than Rupert’s penchant for Led Zeppelin IV on endless repeat, but she learns something new every day.
And she looks over at Rupert, who takes his attention from the road for long enough to glance back. That attractive half-smile pulls at his mouth. "Darling," he says quietly, "it’s your turn to answer."
"I haven’t had enough painkillers," she says. "In fact, next time she asks, I’ll scream."
Smiling all the way now, he raises his voice. "Yes, Elena, we’re almost there. Just a few more minutes." After a pause: "Margarita?"
"I’m here, Giles," Margarita says. Nothing else. She’s been taking everything very hard the past couple of days – which is understandable, what with the mourning and the home invasion by Evil and the Slayer-legacy – but Anya’s worried.
Are we there, I’m here.... the words seem to flow together, like they mean something important. Anya looks out the window. Familiar Sunnydale landmarks flash by, all washed by moonlight. The coffee place, full of people drinking their java. The lot where the Magic Box was. Her favourite produce stand.
The marks of the First are here, too, but not as bad as she thought they’d be. Losing Margarita like that must have dismayed it. She hopes, anyway.
She closes her eyes for a second, wishing the throbbing in her hand would go away. She went to the hospital in Nogales and got several stitches and some excellent drugs which wear off far too quickly, and although there’ll be a scar it’s not too bad. She just wishes she’d heal already.
Last night when she said that to Rupert, he’d started laughing like he’d never stop. They’d been happily tucked up again in that enormous, wonderful bed in the Ventana Canyon townhouse – Kay was being generous, and also Anya’s promised to lend marketing help for the Montoya charms, although it’ll wait until after the apocalypse – and she told him he needed to be quiet, the girls were in the next room trying to sleep. But he’d just thrown the sheet over his head and laughed even harder.
She’d dived under the sheet with him – he looked so handsome in the filtered white light even when giggling like a maniac, it took her breath for a second – and said, "Okay, honey, is this hysterics? I can slap you if necessary.... Stop. That wasn’t supposed to be funny. And oh my God, don’t start chewing on the sheet or we’ll have to pay for it."
At which point he had rolled into her, put his arms around her waist, and hidden his face between her breasts, which last bit was enjoyable but very tickly because he was still giggling. It took him several minutes to calm down, but then he’d said, "Darling, I know you do everything with astonishing quickness, but even you can’t heal overnight."
Then Margarita and Elena had knocked on the bedroom door because of course he had been loud enough to wake them, and they’d had to go out to provide tissues and peppermint tea. And then she and Rupert had gone back to bed, and he’d kissed his way down her body and then spread her thighs, and in the end she had been the one chewing the sheet so that her pleasure-cries weren’t too noisy–
"We’re here," he says now, which recalls her to time and place, to hurt hand but also her job.
She turns around and smiles at Margarita and Elena. "Okay, you guys. Like I told you, tonight you’re going to stay with Buffy and Dawn, who very much want to meet you and welcome you. They’re semi-orphans, too. Anyway, Rupert and I won’t be staying at the house because we’d have to sleep on the floor, and he’s already sore from swordplay and also slightly middle-aged." He harrumphs. She beams at him, then continues, "But remember you’ve got your cellphones, and we’ll answer even if it’s the middle of the night. My, I mean, our apartment’s not that far away if you need us."
"That’s right," Rupert says. "If and when you need us."
The car comes to a stop in front of 1630 Revello Drive. With a quick look back, she sees that Oz’s van is right behind them. She begins, "Now, don’t worry, the rest of the Potentials are in their various safe houses tonight–"
But the front door of the Summers house flies open, and Buffy and Dawn are jumping down the front steps, hair flying, smiles wide as anything.
Rupert’s gotten out already and opened the back door. Buffy stops for a second to hug him, then pokes her head in the car. "Margarita? I’m Buffy."
"Elena, hi!" Dawn’s right behind her sister.
Anya misses the next part because Rupert’s helping her out of the car, and her hand hurts so badly for a second she has to put her head down and breathe. When she looks back up, Elena’s sobbing big, child-like sobs in Dawn’s arms, and Buffy has her arm around Margarita’s waist and her hand threading through long black hair, saying, "You did great, Margarita. I know it was hard and you’re going to hurt for a while, but you did really, really great. And you’re not alone, okay."
Anya and Rupert have been telling the last Potential that for two days, but when the Slayer says it, it does mean something.
Rupert clears his throat – he’s so emotional, Anya thinks, but he hates to show it – then says, "Right. If you all want to go in... we’ll follow in a bit with the luggage."
After the Garcia girls and the Summers girls go up the steps and inside, already chattering to each other, the front lawn is empty and white. Moon’s over the house already... But then Anya sees a shadow under the old twisted tree. "Honey?" she whispers. "Is that badness?"
"I don’t think so," Rupert says to her, but his right hand takes her unhurt left in a loose grasp. "Oz, are you all right?"
"Yeah. Just..." Oz comes out into the moonlight. He looks ordinary and a little shy, Anya thinks, standing still and kind of pigeon-toed in his Converse sneakers, lost in his oversized denim jacket. Blue sparks seem to come off his hair when he moves, though. "I was thinking, maybe morning would be better."
But the front door opens again, and another shadow slips out. There’s a long, humming moment where only night-sounds are audible – nobody’s even breathing. Then Willow’s down the steps without a word, and she’s in Oz’s arms without a word, and Anya feels kind of like crying herself. The small, nasty grudge-feelings she’s secretly harboured toward Willow dissolve in the moonlight.
Rupert murmurs a good wish for those two.
When they go inside, though, Anya feels so suddenly tired. She leans her forehead against Rupert’s shoulder and blows out a breath. "Well, that part’s over. Now it’s time for the big battles, and Caleb’s still out there, and who knows what we’ll find in the bathroom mirror when we get home–"
"Don’t borrow trouble, Anya," he says, and someone who’s not in love with him might not know that the stern schoolmaster voice is a total (and extremely sexy) put-on. "I’ve got you."
She does love him, however, and she does know. She goes on tiptoe to kiss him, slow and deep, letting them both enjoy it. Then, "Sure, Ruperto."
"Right then," he sort of growls.
But then there’s a familiar, mocking laugh, and from the shadows – he is still predator-quick, even if souled – Spike says, "Ruperto? Ruperto? Oh, this is worth being the bloody porter." His grin catches the moonlight too.
"Sod off, William." But Rupert’s tone is more indulgent than she’s ever heard him use to Spike. "And don’t expect a fucking tip."
"Language, Ruperto," Spike says, still laughing, but he sort of waves as he goes by – not even flipping them off – and turns his attention to the open trunk and all the luggage.
And Rupert gathers her up (with all due attention to her hurt hand) and rests his chin on her head. "What do you think, darling? What kind of signs are we really seeing?"
"Good ones. Good omens," she says.
While the moon rises, they stand in each other’s arms, wrapped up and loving, for as long as they need.