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Petals Scattered

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This story is No. 3 in the series "Lone Flower". You may wish to read the series introduction and the preceeding stories first.

Summary: After "Becoming", Buffy doesn't head to L.A... and Whistler? Meet Yachiru....

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Anime > BleachVatharaFR15114,48729508,0512 Nov 082 Nov 08Yes
Petals Scattered

A/N: Several months after "Petals in the Wind", and assumes certain people survived the Winter War. Still don't own Bleach, BtVS, or any other mentioned canons. Warning for possible brain breakage.

--
Bus. Phone booth. Bus. Phone booth.

Bus. Leaving soon. To L.A. - and why not? There wasn't anything left here. Kendra was dead. Snyder had expelled her, on top of setting her up for murder. Her friends were all in the hospital, which was her fault for not being fast enough, strong enough, smart enough to track down an Angelus who smirked and vanished every time she grabbed for him - except this last, when he'd tried to end the world. Her mother had told her not to come back, and Angel-

Closing her eyes, Buffy tried not to hear that awful sucking whoosh as her friend was sucked into Hell.

So. Sunnydale was done. Los Angeles - it'd been two years, but she still knew it. The streets, the people, the little out of the way places that wouldn't ask too many questions. All she had to do was pay the fare….

But there was a phone booth.

Slowly, aching, she stumbled inside.

Card, still in her pocket after all this time. A string of digits, engraved more firmly on memory than paper. Numb, she punched in the numbers.

"Urahara Shouten!" a bright voice yawned. "We're not open yet, so if you leave your name and number-"

"Urahara… taichou?"

Dead silence. "Who is this?"

"Buffy Summers," she whispered. "I… Angel… Acathla…."

And all the sound in the world vanished, as hot tears streamed down her cheeks.

--
"Are you certain I can't talk you out of this?" Juushirou sighed as the three of them approached the senkaimon, hell butterflies fluttering overhead.

"A place that's so spiritually screwed, you've got silent permission from Yamamoto-Genryuusai to go down there without a gigai or a limiter?" Kenpachi Zaraki's grin was all fangs. "Been itching for a chance to see this."

"Yeah! Field trip!" Yachiru bounced on her captain's shoulder, butterfly even darker black against her pink hair.

"Field trip?" Juushirou murmured.

"Eh… she's been visiting Kurosaki's sisters," the captain of the Eleventh shrugged. "Karin can handle a regular Hollow, easy, but Yuzu still sees 'em a little fuzzy." Zaraki's visible eye crinkled in wicked glee. "'Sides. If Kurosaki doesn't have to sprint across town all the time, he's got no excuse to steer clear of fights."

Well, less excuse, maybe. Juushirou had no doubt the young Vizard often lay awake nights coming up with new reasons to be elsewhere when Zaraki was looking for a good brawl. "Just remember. Part of that permission hinges on it not being obvious we were ever there." Given that the Commander-General still hadn't found any reason for the restrictions relating to Sunnydale, beyond vague references to something called the Powers That Be. No one had a full picture yet, but the little the Archive had spoke of something… not so much actively evil, as casually cruel. A force that had no authority and no power over Soul Society itself, but claimed influence over anything touched by demons on Earth. Including the Slayer.

But the Slayer is not a demon. Kage-hime is not. She is youkai. Even if she did not fall under the dominion of her own kind, she would be ours. Not Yomi's. Never Yomi's.

Which meant the PTB were not only cruel, but liars. Caution was in order. Definitely.

And here he was, about to step through the senkaimon with two of the least subtle shinigami in all of Soul Society.

Then again, given what Kisuke had found on Acathla… well, he might be calling in Ichigo as well, if all went wrong.

With a final sigh, Juushirou stepped through.

Faintly salt air, warmer than that of Karakura, still in the thin gray light before dawn. A taste of diesel smoke, as a bus pulled away from a shabby station. And tucked beside that station, a glass booth, with a familiar reiatsu huddled inside.

Carefully, Juushirou opened the door, seeing the phone dangling carelessly off the hook. "Buffy?"

Slowly, a tear-streaked face lifted from dirty knees. "…Ukitake-taichou?"

"Kid's in shock," Zaraki growled. Yachiru peered over his shoulder, wide-eyed and silent. "Anything left that needs killing?"

"No." Green eyes started sliding closed. "I killed him."

To the Gates with dignity. Juushirou picked her up bodily; she was shinigami, she'd warm up even if he didn't have a physical body here. Carefully wrapped his own reiatsu around hers, warding off the venom of the Hellmouth. It seemed much worse than the last time he'd visited; roiling, razor-edged, and angry. "Tell us what happened."

"She put his soul back," Buffy whispered. "Why did she do that? I was going to stop Angelus. She knew that. Gypsy revenge… it's not fair. I sent Angel to Hell, and it's not fair…." The girl buried her face in his haori, weeping in ugly, gasping sobs.

"Any of that make sense?" Zaraki rumbled.

"Not yet," Juushirou said grimly. "Buffy, we're here. Let's get you home-"

"I can't!" A heartbroken wail. "I t-told her about the Slayer, because Acathla… Angelus wanted to end the world, and he had Giles, and I had to stop him. And she said - she said, if you leave, don't come back…."

Juushirou held very still, fighting down a surge of incandescent anger. Sougyo no Kotowari?

Sleet, his zanpakutou reported of the young one's inner state. Pain.

Zaraki's eye narrowed, and he jerked his head upward. "Let's find a rooftop."

Wise. Before he did something someone else might regret.

A few minutes - Sunnydale wasn't as amenable to roof-hopping as Karakura - and they'd found a quiet refuge. Which grew quieter, as Buffy mastered herself, and wiped her eyes. "What happened?" Juushirou asked again, gently.

Buffy took a deep, shuddering breath. "Angel's soul." Reddened eyes looked up. "It wasn't permanent."

Juushirou winced. Oh, this is going to be bad….

--
It felt like deliberately walking into fire, Buffy thought, but she told them. How it had started with the Judge, and a moment of pure joy on Angel's face after they'd rescued each other and he'd believed, finally believed, that he wasn't to blame for Angelus' crimes….

How he'd been a little brusque and sarcastic after she'd woken up, but she'd let it slide. They still had to hunt down the rest of the Judge-pieces, and her friends were worried after not hearing from her. She might have noticed something off, but she hadn't checked his spirit-ribbon. Hadn't even considered it.

And then - the little details. And not so little detail of his attacking Willow. Which on the one hand could have gone better, who knew the jerk would be smart enough to pick up SWAT-style body armor to block Willow's pencils, but on the other- no. He'd attacked Willow. It didn't get much worse than that.

Only it did, Ms. Calendar's uncle was dead, and Ms. Calendar-

She wasn't just a helpful technopagan teacher. She'd been sent here to watch Angel. To make sure he suffered.

And she'd failed. Like Buffy had failed, after they'd blown up the Judge, unable to kill the demon with her friend's face.

All the people he's killed since then… my fault.

Focus. Her captain had asked for a report. And she was going to give it to him. No matter how badly she'd screwed up.

High points. Don't want to be here all day. He's got to be busy. Despite everything Aizen had thrown against them, Soul Society had won… but the losses had been incredible. The shinigami were going to be working overtime into the foreseeable future just to keep up with the current rate of Hollows. Even a captain couldn't take too much time off.

Besides, a bored Yachiru is a bad idea.

So. Angel's stalker-ific tendencies, complete with lying to her mother about a tryst that had never taken place. (Tryst? Oh yeah, that was a 'Shirou-memory popping up again, she'd never considered having a tryst in her life.) And god, it had hurt, having her mother believe her vampire ex-boyfriend over her. Disinviting Angel. Ms. Calendar's close call leaving school that had ended with her in the hospital with a broken… well, almost everything, Angelus had been gleefully determined to inflict maximum pain on his Gypsy parole officer before he killed her. If a passing demon hadn't distracted him long enough for Jenny to pull herself inside the school….

Giles' face at the hospital. Her own heart-stopping terror at finding Giles' trunks of weapons ransacked, and her desperate race to save her Watcher from the inferno he'd started. Der Kinderstod, the restless school ghosts, the fish-men….And Acathla.

"It was Amy," Buffy said wearily. "She went as Phoenix. She came with Drusilla and her goons to the library. They beat up Xander and Willow, killed Kendra, took Giles… Cordelia was smart, she knew she couldn't fight them so she ran…." A deep breath. "I was in the hospital, finding out who was missing… and that's when Ms. Calendar said she could cast the spell again. I said no, wherever Angel's soul was, it didn't deserve to get dragged back into this mess. She said it was her duty to the Kalderash tribe; that if Angel had his soul back, he'd let Giles go. I said, screw duty, and screw the damn tribe. I was going to save Giles by going through the damn vampires. And I did. Xander got Giles out, while Spike helped me take out the minions… weird, a vampire that actually liked the world enough to stop it from ending…." Her shoulders slumped. "I wasn't fast enough. Angelus saw me shunpou when I got Giles out of the fire; he set a trap so I'd be so far away from the school, I used up everything trying to get to Kendra before she died. I was still tired, and - Angelus opened the portal. We fought, I almost had him, and-" She couldn't stop a sob.

"Ms. Calendar recast the curse," Juushirou stated.

"I felt his soul pulled in, it was so white, it wasn't fair…." The tears were falling again; not good for a report, but she couldn't stop them. "Acathla was already awake. Whistler told me only Angel's blood would close the door. One blow to send them both back to Hell. I h-had to.…"

A gentle hand stroked her hair; like her Mom had, when she'd been down with a fever, before the Slayer had come between them. "Death is lighter than a feather; duty, heavier than a mountain. You did your duty, and you did not break."

"Could've fooled me." Eyes closed, Buffy broke her head. "I feel all broken."

"You're still here."

She had to laugh, awful as it sounded. "No weapons, no friends, no hope," Buffy quoted. "Take all that away, and what's left?" The Slayer straightened her head, and looked Juushirou in the eye. "I told him, me."

"And then you kicked his ass." Zaraki nodded, visible eye alight with savage glee. "You keeping this one, Ukitake? 'Cause if you're not, I want her."

"Uh-huh!" Yachirou smiled proudly at her. "No wimps in Eleventh!"

Erk. That was so not what she'd been thinking about when she'd called. Even if Buffy wasn't sure what she'd been thinking.

"So Whistler claimed to be a demon, sent to keep a balance between good and evil?" Juushirou had an awfully thoughtful expression on his face, as he set her down on the roof and started taking off his haori. "Zaraki-taichou… may I borrow your lieutenant?"

The two terrors looked at him. "Ooo," Yachiru grinned. "Snowflake's got a plan…."

--
Whistling a jaunty tune, Whistler strolled down one of Sunnydale's shadier alleys, enjoying the last crackles of mystical static as the Hellmouth settled back down to normal. Apocalypse averted. Angelus back in his box. All in all, a good night's work. Pity about Angel, the Powers That Be had had plans for that vampire down the road. Still might; condemned to Hell didn't always mean dead. He should know.

And best of all, one Slayer slammed down hard enough that she'd forget this whole inconvenient independent gig and fold like a good little servant, ready for the Powers' program-

A black-and-pink blur hit him somewhere close to light-speed, casually denting a few walls with his spine before dropping him in a heap and reaching for the hilt of her sword. The scabbard, Whistler noted through the starbursts in his vision, had training wheels on it.

"Look, Snowflake! Told you; it is a demon!"

Pink and black and bouncing, oh Powers; a mini-shinigami brat high on sugar, and what was a shinigami doing in Sunnydale-

"Now, that's an odd thing to ask, child of Yomi." The white-haired shinigami following at a more reasonable pace frowned, his own hand near his hilt. "I'd think the proper question would be, what are you doing here? Or anywhere in the mortal realm, given you and yours were driven from this world ages ago. And I sense no summoning spells twisting this night."

Damn, I said that out loud? Whistler thought. Portal. Portal would be the smart thing to do; and forget taking the time to pick a location outside Anywhere But Here. Humans might be physically weaker than just about any demon, but human souls had a wellspring of power nothing born of his lineage could match without mystic weapons and a hell of a lot of cheating. That was why there was a Slayer. That was why the PTB didn't give the shinigami too much grief when they traipsed all over Earth; shinigami hunted Hollows, and Hollows thought demons were almost as tasty as human souls. And any time it looked like Soul Society was getting its act together and starting to clean house, particularly when it came to why certain spots on Earth twisted people up so much in life they went to Hollows after death - well, shinigami were human. It was easy enough for a balance demon to make sure a little subtle aid got to the latest crop of bad apples when they patrolled on Earth. Heck, he'd pulled off one of those gigs just a few months ago….

Though come to think, he hadn't heard anything about Aizen's little band of minions in a while. Granted, the PTB's semi-omniscience couldn't reach Soul Society or Hueco Mundo, but… they couldn't have beaten him. Could they?

Naah.

Anyway. A portal would be smart, for him - if you didn't count having to explain yourself to the PTB afterward. Which Whistler kind of did. He was not going to be the guy who let the shinigami find out just how much power the PTB's messengers didn't have. "Listen up, Snowflake. This is a restricted area. By order of your Council of 46. Take the kid and get outside city limits before the pair of you wind up facing the giant flaming turkey of death. Get my drift?"

"Is he talking about Kikou-ou?" the hyperactive pink ball of death wondered.

"Yes, little one. I think he is," Snowflake agreed.

"Oooh." An innocent, ruby-eyed blink. "But doesn't he know Berry-chan an' those two captains broke it?"

"No," Snowflake observed, humor glimmering in hazel eyes, "I think he doesn't."

Wait, wait, wait- what? Soul Society's own execution device, the creation that had kept generations of shinigami toeing the Powers' line for two thousand years - gone? Broken by a pair of-

Oh. Damn. That was the problem backing the black hats; you never knew what they'd do. "Fine," Whistler shrugged it off, "whatever. I'm sure your Council's come up with something else for souls that break the law-"

"But there isn't any law," Snowflake said helpfully. "I'm sure, if there were a law against shinigami going anywhere on Earth in performance of their duties, it would be taught at the Academy. And I don't remember anything like that mentioned when I was there. Do you, little one?"

"Nope!" Pink death gave Whistler a chillingly cute smile. "But I heard some demons bleed green. Think he does?"

"One way to find out…."

"Are you nuts?" Whistler yelped, dodging a sword. "Attack a balance demon? The Council's gonna see you fry!"

"That's odd," Snowflake mused, apparently content to watch his charge clumsily almost-skewer the demon. "I was under the impression the Council thought we were the force maintaining balance in this world. And others." A black-clad shrug. "Not that what they might have thought matters all that much. Given that they're dead."

Sword. Very near throat. Not moving, not yet… damn, this kid was going to grow up to be a classic sadist. Kind of cute, if it weren't aimed at him. "Say what?" Whistler said innocently. Good, good, bad guys taking out the top leadership was Step One in a good Take Over The World plan… only in this case, the top leadership apparently hadn't told their ignorant minions not to trample on the Powers' turf. Not good.

"Of course," Snowflake stated, as if it'd just occurred to him, "if there were a good reason for us not to perform our sworn and sacred duty, I'm certain the captains would be most interested to hear it."

"Spiritual instability," Whistler smirked, falling back on the old lie. "Hang around here long enough, you'll set the whole Hellmouth off. And then where would we be? So get the heck out of town." He glared downward. "And take the Pink Menace with you."

"Meanie!" said menace scowled, and stomped on his toes. "Stupid hat!"

Auuugh. Whistler tried not to yelp. Really. Demon or not, he was going to be feeling that one for days.

"How long is too long?" Snowflake asked, concerned. "We can't just abandon restless spirits here. If we came back in gigai, and only left them for konsou-"

"Any long is too long," Whistler cut in. "Gigai, shmigai - you couldn't be here a day without making the 'Mouth go pop. So scram! Right now!"

Silence. Hazel and ruby traded glances. "Mean-hat's a really bad liar, huh?" the menace said cheerfully.

"Yes," Snowflake said levelly, "he is."

Which was all the warning the balance demon had, before an iron grip pinned his throat to the alley wall. "Now," Snowflake said, cool and sharp as a drawn blade. "I suggest you change your story. The truth would be a good option…."

--
Bruised, aching, and dizzy, Whistler picked himself out of the alley and tried to piece together what had just happened. He had the oddest feeling he was missing something….

Oh. Right. One of those allied groups of demons Spike had been talking to had run into him, taking their panic about the almost-end of the world out on one of the guys who'd stopped it. Typical. Didn't their mommies teach 'em not to shoot the messenger?

He'd given them what-for right back, though. You did not mess with the Powers' guy.Something fluttered by, and he flinched-

Paper. Whistler rubbed his eyes, and reminded himself not to be an idiot. Even if the early morning shadows had made paper look almost shinigami black.

Shinigami wouldn't be anywhere near the Hellmouth.

Dusting off his hat, Whistler went on his way.
--
"So." Leaning back against the ornamental brick chimney, Zaraki eyed the youngster wrapped in a captain's haori. "Exacto knife?"

"Never been without an extra stake since," Buffy quipped. "His neck went on forever… and usually this is where people turn green and ask me to stop talking. Except Xander. But he was already having one of the worst days ever."

Zaraki snorted.

"Right. Forgot who I was talking to." The Slayer had a wry smile on her face, same as Renji got around stick-up-his-ass Byakuya. I'm gonna act like it doesn't matter, when it really, really does, 'cause it hurts too much when you don't care. "You don't mind ambush tactics and beheadings."

"What, instead of girly stuff like clothes and funny shampoos?" Zaraki said brusquely. "We got Yumichika for that. I figure he'll help get Yachiru straight on everything she wants to know about that stuff when she gets older." Way older. Maybe after he was dead older.

…Nah, then he'd never be able to scare the hapless twerps that came looking for a date.

Tilting his head, Zaraki let Buffy see him studying her. "People got a problem with somebody who likes killing?" Seemed like that was going around. Ichigo'd needed a good thrashing before he went all-out the first time, that was sure.

"I kind of have a problem with it," Buffy said gingerly.

"Get over it," Zaraki advised. "You'll live longer. And have a hell of a lot more fun."

Green eyes narrowed skeptically. "What, not going to give me the 'Slaying is a noble duty' line?"

"Some mystical weirdness tags you as the demon, and you're supposed to be all solemn an' serious about it?" Zaraki tugged on his ragged haori. "Least I knew what I was getting into when I killed this guy. Though nobody clued me in on the paperwork."

The honest disgust in his voice won a faint smile from her. "Trade you for schoolwork," she offered.

"Pfft," he waved it off. "Got out of it the first time. Ain't going back."

"Huh?""Too much reiatsu an' no good with kidou," Zaraki shrugged. "The old man dragged me up through the ranks without that sissy Academy. Good thing, too. Guys tell me you get in trouble for killing instructors, just 'cause they can't take a good hit."

"…Right," Buffy said slowly. "That's in the fuzzy part, but I think I remember that."

"Fuzzy part?" Zaraki scowled. How the hell did a human kid remember something that happened well over a century ago?

"You know about the spell, right?" At his nod, Buffy went on, "It kind of gave each of us a copy of the other's memories. For him, not so big. For me - unless it was something about Aizen, or Kaien, or a couple other things… if it happened more than sixteen years ago, it's fuzzy."

Huh. That shed a whole new light on the situation. "Better keep that quiet," Zaraki advised. "The old man's been around long enough, people break out into cold sweats just thinking about the kind of blackmail material he's got stashed in his head. If that bastard Aizen had had any clue some of it was in your head…."

"Kidnap and torture Buffy time. Got it." She swallowed hard. "He is dead, right?"

"Danced on the grave," Zaraki assured her. Yep, definitely a brain in that pretty blonde head. He'd bet a good brawl with Ichigo she'd already figured out some of what Ukitake was up to.

"He trained you." Buffy scrunched up white silk around herself, thinking. "He's keeping an eye on Urahara and Ichigo… Urahara's training him, since Ichigo's not usually in Soul Society, but his badge is under Thirteenth Division authority, and if his physical body died…."

Oh yeah. This kid was definitely fun to watch. "Couple other things come in where Kurosaki's concerned," Zaraki said. If she didn't know about the whole Vizard deal, he wasn't going to spoil the surprise. Watching a Slayer go to town on a Vizard promised to be the best show in a century. "But yeah. He's no healer, and he ain't got manners enough to keep him an' Yamamoto from killing each other. Pretty much a given Ukitake or Kyouraku'd get him. Least 'til he was ready to make lieutenant."

"So Captain Ukitake's got a reputation for handling the tricky students," Buffy said dryly. "I'm guessing a Slayer might qualify?"

"Enough youkai in you to take on vampires in your own body?" Zaraki grinned. "Hell, yeah."

She blinked. "You mean, this is kind of official?" And glanced up, just in time to duck as Yachiru jumped giggling onto his shoulder.

"Surreptitious, true, but legitimate," Captain Ukitake stated, holding out a hand for his haori. "Master Genryuusai won't be pleased to hear what we've uncovered, but I suspect it will be critical in days to come." He looked between them. "I hope we didn't keep you waiting long?"

"Good company," Zaraki said with relish, and jerked a thumb at Buffy. "You know this kid scored a demon in L.A. with a broken mirror, once? And got a master vamp with a pencil."

"Was kind of out of options," the Slayer mumbled, slightly red.

Straightening his uniform, Ukitake nodded. "We need to talk to Giles. Would he still be at the hospital?"

Swallowing hard, Buffy nodded. "Xander got him out, so… I don't know how much Angelus hurt him. Even if it wasn't too bad… Willow got hit pretty hard. And her parents - well, they kind of don't notice things. A lot. Giles wouldn't let her wake up alone."

Ukitake nodded again. "Have you decided what you will do?"

Buffy winced. "I can't go home."

Zaraki scowled. "Why the hell not?" He might not remember ever having a mother, but he had Yachiru to clue him in on the whole parent thing. Family didn't do that to each other. Unless your family was Kuchiki, and even that had gotten better after Ichigo smacked some sense into Byakuya's thick head. "Hit her reiatsu with enough of yours so she can't miss the damn vampires, and work from there. She doesn't like it, she can just suck it up."

"It may not be that simple," Ukitake observed.

"'Cause Stake-chan's part youkai?" Yachiru asked cheerfully.

"What's that got to do with anything?" Zaraki growled, glancing at the girl bouncing on his shoulder.

"Icchy's sister Karin read me some bedtime stories!" she chirped, not at all put off by his scowl.

"Nothin' with unicorns and fairies in it?" Zaraki asked suspiciously.

"Nope! Swords an' blood an' nasty evil youkai. An' sometimes, the really nasty ones can't come in places they're not invited, either."

"Say what?" Buffy eyed them both, momentarily snapped out of her post-combat trauma funk. "If the bad guys could keep out a Slayer just by wanting to…."

"Nonhumans wouldn't evoke the same prohibition," Ukitake stated. "If our research is correct, the very fact that a creature uses youki - or jyaki, in the case of demons - is a standing invitation for anything with like power to respond in kind. But a human soul has its own kind of power. And powerful youkai - and Kage-hime is very powerful - must abide by certain codes of conduct when dealing with them. Those vary, from kind to kind, but a youkai like Kage-hime, powered by the untamed forces of nature, is bound outside the limits of human civilization. And there are few more potent symbols of the human realm than a threshold." He met Buffy's gaze. "You are still human, more or less. I have no doubt that you are physically capable of entering your mother's house. But without her permission, the youkai within you is weakened. Given you are already wounded…." He shook his head.

Buffy's gaze dropped. "I'm not hurt."

Enough was enough. Zaraki cuffed her lightly across the back of the head; just a little tap, less than he'd use on Yachiru. "He ain't saying you're bleeding, idiot," he growled, while the blonde was still reeling. "You need off the front lines. Before some smug bastard blows into town and gets lucky."

"Two weeks?" Ukitake suggested.

"Better make it a month," Eleventh's captain judged. "Give her at least a chance to get pushed to the wall for shikai. Anybody needs to be able to pull a sword out of thin air to skewer some bastard's ass, she does."

"Yay!" Yachiru cheered. "New recruit!"

"I- but- not dead yet-"

"Keep complaining, I'll fix that." Zaraki glowered. "Why didn't you just go shinigami and slice and dice him, anyway?"

"Drusilla," Buffy muttered, rubbing the back of her head. "She could do things to spirits. I saw her. Usually they just brought her information; that's where half her visions came from. But given how much Giles said she knew about Angelus' curse, and the fact that people seem to be using Orbs of Thesulah as paperweights around this town - snow-globe Slayer-spirit was not my first choice for getting out of school permanently." She blanched. "I might not have even gotten out of school. Paperweight for Snyder; talk about fates worse than death…."

"Wise," Ukitake nodded, and took her hand. "Come."

"Ah, where are we going…?"

The white-haired captain winked.

--
She's not coming back, Joyce thought blearily.

A small, traitorous thought, but somehow the alcohol couldn't drown it. She'd already picked up the kitchen from their struggle - one-sided as it had been. When had Buffy gotten so strong?

Two years ago. When she started accidentally breaking doors. When she burned down the gym. When she tried to talk about vampires.

Behavior which might not have led to the divorce, but definitely didn't slow it down. Which had led to Buffy's weeks in an asylum, before the therapist had pronounced her sane. Well, one of them had. Another had mysteriously disappeared.

In a puff of dust?

She was a good mother. She was. She tried. She couldn't have sent her daughter to a madhouse for telling the truth. Could she?

The world couldn't be that cruel. She wouldn't let it be.

And this whole lunacy that her daughter had to be out in the night hunting vampires, that she had no choice….

Well. She'd have a long talk with a certain Summers girl about that. Just as soon as she came home.

Why wasn't Buffy home? The sun had come up hours ago. Surely any… vampires… wouldn't be out now. Would they?

There was a knock at the door.

Joyce leapt to answer it, and sighed. "Buffy. Where have you been? We're going to have a long talk, young lady, just as soon as I get a lawyer to make sure that detective doesn't do anything stupid-"

"I love you," Buffy whispered, still outside. "I know I don't say it much, but - I do."

And collapsed, like a bridge bent too far.

--
Ow, Giles thought eloquently, resting his eyes as he sat by Jenny's bed. Casting the curse had exhausted her, but from the minor divining charms he could cast, had apparently done no more harm to her soul than a life as a Gypsy already had. Which should have warned him. Truly.

He'd summoned demons for his amusement. Who was he to judge?

A man who does not summon such creatures, anymore. Save to stop them. Let alone drag an unwilling soul from wherever it may reside to torment both it and the demon it chains.

Jenny had done it to save his life. At least in part. He truly wasn't certain how he felt about that.

Don't think about it, Giles told himself firmly, watching over the sleeping Gypsy. You're injured. You're exhausted. And Buffy is still nowhere to be found. This is no time to be casting stones over who's bollixed up whose life worse.

Blame-casting was quite a moot point, after all, until Buffy reported in. Now that the drugs were beginning to wear off, he was rather worried. He'd tried calling Mrs. Summers, only to get a shrill and, he thought, somewhat alcohol-soaked tirade about bodies on school grounds and detectives harassing her daughter before the woman had slammed the phone down with enough force to rattle his teeth.

Another hour, Giles thought, and he'd sneak past hospital security to go looking - doctor's recommendations be damned. He knew firsthand the sort of damage Angelus could do to a person. And while Buffy must have stopped Acathla, he had absolutely no reason to believe she'd done so unscathed-

The back of his neck prickled, like a gathering storm.

For a moment, Giles only held his breath. Braced himself, and limped over to the window.

"Giles!" Buffy surged in, catching him in a careful hug. "You look awful."

"Yes, well; rather better now than last night…." Words died in the Watcher's throat as he took in the sword, the sandals, the unmistakable black outfit. No.

"Not dead!" Buffy said quickly. "Just - out. Honest."

"Though I think we've given Mrs. Summers quite a scare," Captain Ukitake said with no little satisfaction, stepping through the open window effortless as a rising tide. "I believe she and the ambulance should be arriving shortly."

"Ambulance?" Giles exclaimed. "Buffy, what-"

A mountain, crushing him. The sharp edge of a guillotine, pressed to the nape of his neck. The sure, unshakable conviction he was about to die.

"Ah, hell. Sorry 'bout that," death rumbled.

Ukitake's hand brushed Giles' shoulder, and the stifling pressure retreated. "What on earth?" the Watcher croaked.

"Watcher Rupert Giles," the white-haired shinigami said formally, "Captain Kenpachi Zaraki and Lieutenant Yachiru Kusajishi, of Eleventh Division."

"Hi!" Yachiru waved, grinning.

Soul Society's very own "Kill! Crush! Destroy!" mob, as Buffy had once put it. Vainly, Giles tried to keep his eyes from crossing as they focused on bell-tipped spikes of berserker hair. "I take it you learned about Acathla, then."

"After the fireworks, sure," Zaraki said sourly.

"Not much fireworks," Buffy shrugged. "Just big ugly demon statue - we really need to borrow a pile-driver, or something - and gaping mouth of Hell…." She looked down, gray.

"Buffy?" Giles asked softly.

"Ms. Calendar's efforts were successful, but ill-timed," Captain Ukitake said levelly. "Angelus had already woken Acathla."

Meaning Buffy would have had to…. Oh. Lord.Yet something still nagged at him. "Ambulance?" Giles asked again, pointedly.

"It should look like an ordinary coma," Juushirou said casually. "I will be arranging with the Kidou Corps to provide certain… precautions. I would suggest you speak with Mrs. Summers to determine more ordinary means to protect Buffy's body. Perhaps she might be convinced to change her decision about allowing a Slayer in her house if you explain the ease with which demons can infiltrate a hospital, as opposed to crossing a private threshold."

Giles stood very still, dissecting the pure, righteous rage under that polite calm. "You told your mother?"

"Like talking to a brick wall, just a little more blonde," Buffy quipped. "Try not being the Slayer - like I haven't already? Like I didn't run as far and fast as I could?"

A brave façade. But he could hear the quaver in her voice. Oh, Buffy.

"If you do take mystical precautions, I must advise you to be subtle," Juushirou went on. "The memory erasure should hold, even on a demon, and it did seem that Whistler was heading out of town - but the very fact that an agent of what our Archives name the Powers That Be was here, directly involved, is ominous."

"Powers that be what?" Zaraki scowled, beating Buffy to the question.

"Legendary forces on the side of humanity against the powers of evil," Giles supplied. "Supposedly, they helped create the first Watcher's Council. Though I can't help but believe they would be disappointed at some of the traditions that have since arisen."

"Not so disappointed as you might think," Juushirou said dryly. "The Powers That Be are demons."

Giles stared. Polished his glasses. "…I'm sorry, what?"

"They are not of this world," the shinigami captain said bluntly. "They are not of our world. They are not youkai. And they are most certainly not powers of Heaven, or they would be noted in our records as having the right and duty to command the forces of the Court of Pure Souls. They do not." A slow, angry breath. "If the Archives are correct, they are, in fact, unfriendly forces with whom we negotiated a sort of truce, to gain time to create Seireitei."

"That Mean-Hat demon said they had plans for Stake-chan." For once, Yachiru didn't look happy. "An' that we'd better not stick our noses in, or she'd be disposable."

"Given that," Juushirou said levelly, "and given they are on record in our Archives as claiming dominion over all human encounters with demons, and all those with demon blood - and that they include in that the Slayer, who we know is not a demon - what would you say that they are?"

"Deceptive, at the very least," Giles stated grimly, while Buffy was still gaping. The Powers claim-? He didn't want to believe it. But this was Juushirou Ukitake, who had never lied to him. "Not a characteristic associated with the forces of good."

"Got that right." Zaraki punched a fist into an empty hand. "What?" he said at Giles' incredulous look. "Bad strategy. Makes sense to lie to your enemies. If you gotta. Which sometimes you do, not every bad guy's got sense enough to just come out an' get killed in a straight fight. But start lying to people you say are on your side? If you're lucky, it just gets messy. If you're not - blood flying all over the place can be fun, but it ain't exactly good for staying on the same side, long-term."

"They're not on the same side," Buffy said, the dazed grief in green eyes sparking into the first hints of anger. "Whistler said he was a balance demon. You can't keep a balance if evil wins. Or if good does."

"So we better train you hard!" Yachiru said brightly. "Right, Ken-chan?"

"Damn straight," Zaraki grunted. "Only going to get worse from here."

"Worse?" Giles and Buffy said as one.

"How long do Slayers normally live?" Juushirou said pointedly.

Giles had to look aside.

"The longer Buffy is successful, the more experience she gains, the more likely she is to not die at the hands of a random enemy. As most Slayers do. Meaning it is far more likely she will tip the balance in our favor," the white-haired captain stated. "If the Powers That Be are bent on maintaining the balance as it currently stands, it is likely they will… arrange for interference. As they did this time. But not in our favor. If we're fortunate, it will only be advice to our enemies - which can be more than damaging enough, at a critical moment. If we're not…." He shook his head.

"We?" Buffy said warily.

"Whistler believed he had the right to threaten us with Kikou-ou, simply for visiting Sunnydale." Hazel eyes were hard. "No one has the right to corrupt Soul Society's justice."

"Says the guy who busted the phoenix in the first place," Buffy quipped.

"With help," Juushirou said modestly. "Rukia's crimes merited punishment, not execution. Certainly not the obliteration of her soul."

"No arguments here," Zaraki grinned. "One of the best fights ever." He eyed Giles. "Figure you can keep a lid on this place for a month?"

"We did so last year, more or less," Giles nodded, finally putting the pieces together. "Buffy. Running from your problems rarely solves them… but sometimes, a strategic retreat is a wise course of action. Use your time to its full."

"Oh, we will," Juushirou smiled.

"I don't like that smile," Buffy muttered. "That's a 'pop quiz' smile. A 'test you haven't studied for, mwah-hah' smile. A 'Friday afternoon detention and you're mine, mine!' smile. That smile, is not of the good." She held up hands to ward him off. "Step away from the Dark Side, Captain…."

"Why, Buffy," Juushirou said innocently. "You sound as if you think I'll be primarily responsible for your instruction."

"Um…."

"No, that wouldn't be appropriate at all," Juushirou said firmly. "How would I be certain what I'd taught you, and what I only thought you remembered? I will advise you, certainly, but when it comes to your training - no."

"Then-" Mouth still open, Buffy eyed Zaraki. Who was grinning, all fangs, Yachiru giggling in glee. "Oh no."

"Eleventh Division has our close-combat specialists," Juushirou said practically. "They know how to fight. Specifically, they know how to fight dirty. They know how to deal with things bigger than they are, faster than they are, and more mystically inclined than they are."

"Didn't say meaner," Yachiru pointed out, leaning an elbow on Zaraki's shoulder.

"Heh. The old man's smart enough to know there ain't anything meaner," Zaraki smirked.

"With the possible exception of a few Espada," Juushirou agreed. Glanced back at Buffy. "Not to mention, the vast majority of them can take a Slayer's punch, and live to tell about it."

"Just have to make sure you don't get paired up with the newbies," Zaraki nodded. "Old man's right. You want to squeak through some training without getting noticed? You'd better be in Eleventh. So? You in?"

Buffy swallowed. Looked at her Watcher.

She's suffered enough. We all have. Given a month, even a week - I may be able to explain the Slayer to Mrs. Summers. At the very least, I owe Buffy the attempt. "It will likely be one of the hardest summers of your life," Giles said bluntly. "But I believe you can do it."

"Okay." Buffy exhaled. "Tell the guys I'm… well, not good, but…."

"I will," Giles assured her.

"Good," Juushirou stated. "Then we'll-"

"Wait. Just a minute," Buffy said hurriedly. "Amy. What are we going to do about her?"

"A work in progress," Giles assured her, trying not to let Ripper show through in his voice. He wasn't quite certain he'd succeeded. "Telekinesis aside, the fact that she used witchcraft along with empathic projection in that contretemps on Valentine's Day leaves her open to certain… repercussions. If, perchance, there should happen to be a worker of magic who had legitimate claim to inflict them."

"You're going to be careful, right?" Buffy crossed her arms, worry clear on her face. "I didn't like being a rat, and I don't want to come back and find out we had to buy you a hamster wheel."

Yachiru's eyes widened. "Were you a pretty rat, Stake-chan?"

"Ah… actually, I don't know." Buffy smiled ruefully. "Oz was too much of a gentleman to bring it up."

Chuckling softly, Juushirou opened the gate.

Giles watched them step through, formal screens closing and vanishing behind them. "Godspeed."

Lingering just one moment more, he dropped a kiss on Jenny's cheek. Then straightened, feeling every twinge of burned skin and strained muscle. Right. Children to console, a Slayer's mother to explain to, and a telempathic witch to call down karmic justice on.

It was going to be a busy month.

--
Soul Society, Buffy decided, following dazed in Captain Zaraki's wake, had been done big and impressive by people who liked things big and impressive, ancient Japanese style. Maybe it didn't register so much on Juushirou - he'd grown up here, after all - but for someone who'd spent all her life in California? Yeah. Whoa.

If anybody stares, Zaraki had warned her in an undertone like far-off thunder, you stare right back. We're Eleventh. Nobody hassles us. He'd paused. But stick close. 'Til you can pick out Twelfth on sight, I'm not taking any chances. Winding up in a lab's no way to get trained.

Well, she was pretty sure she could pick them out, uniform or not. They had the same kind of nervous, fanatical gleam in their eyes Chris and Eric, Sunnydale's would-be Frankensteins, had had. The look people got from poking into Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, and doing things that would bring the FBI, the CIA, OSHA, and probably PETA down on their heads. Combine that with the better senses of a Slayer, and intimate knowledge of the kinds of crud and goo that would not wash out of clothing… eww.

Her mom might not realize it, but there was a reason a lot of her outfits ended up in the trash after a few months. And it had nothing to do with anything going out of style.…

Well, maybe a little. Sometimes.

Two wrong turns and a mishap with Fourth later (a bump, growl, and dropped medical kit; she'd probably terrified the poor medics more by offering to help), and Yachiru bounced on her captain's shoulder. "We're home!"

Eyeing a pair of gates that looked like they could stand up to a battering ram, or maybe even Zaraki if he yawned, Buffy took a deep breath. Let it out slowly, lost in the creak of stone and wood opening. Here we go….

Big tough guys. Gangly tough guys. Even some little tough guys. Buffy flicked glances over the scars, the tattoos, and the general rough-around-the-edges attitude, and tried not to let her jaw drop. It's Heaven's own biker gang.

And this was where Juushirou wanted her to be for the next month. Oh, boy.

He knows what he's doing. I hope.

"Captain!" came the throaty roar as they headed into the training grounds. "Lieutenant!"

"Maki-Maki, take everybody not tough enough for a seat inside, then get back out here," Yachiru grinned, sparkling with glee. "Ken-chan's got a surprise!"

There was a lot of murmuring, and one or two fistfights, but the grounds cleared quickly. Buffy blinked, fighting the weirdness of recognizing face after face she'd never seen before. Not like it was hard to pick out Third Seat Ikkaku Madarame's red eyeliner and shiny bald head, or Fifth Seat Yumichika Ayasegawa's glossy purple-black hair, perfect complexion, and feather-decorated eyebrow.

"Captain?" Yumichika lifted an elegant brow. "That's a Thirteenth Division uniform. Is she lost?"

"Case you hadn't noticed," Zaraki smirked, "she's still standing."

Well, duh, Buffy thought. Of course she was still standing. Maybe she was just a teenager, and maybe there was no way she stood a chance of cutting him without even a shikai to her name, but even Zaraki's reiatsu wouldn't crush a determined member of-

I'm not an Ukitake.

But I am a shinketsu.

Whoa. Giles is right. I can do this….

"Tell 'em who you are, kid."

Buffy straightened her shoulders, and looked Yumichika straight in the eye. "I'm Buffy." She glanced over the rest of them. "The Vampire Slayer."

…The last time she'd seen someone light up like that, Xander had stumbled onto a sale on Twinkies with ten extra bucks in his pocket. Buffy cut a look at Zaraki. "Exactly what do these guys know about me?"

"Well… could be that during that whole throw-down with Aizen, the old man had to show off some," Zaraki said with relish. "And while nobody with proper manners in Soul Society likes to talk about youkai much - gives Yamamoto-Genryuusai ulcers - could be you're looking at the guys who helped Captain Ukitake figure out just how far he could push it, to set up something the Espada would never forget."

Oh boy.

"Snowflake told us some of what a Slayer is," Yachiru nodded. "Not everything," her smile turned bloodthirsty, "but I bet we can figure it out!"

Oh, no.

"Most of what the shrimp here's been up against has been physical, not spirits," Zaraki addressed the sharp-toothed crowd. "In gigai, I bet she'd wipe the floor with most of you. But we're not, and she hasn't had near enough time on this side of the line. So. At the end of the month, Captain Ukitake expects her back alive, and mostly in one piece. Outside of that…." He smirked.

Oh, I am so dead….

--
On a rooftop he hoped was far enough away, Shunsui Kyouraku sat down by Juushirou to watch the show. Lack of experience as a shinigami or not, spirits gained power when facing death, and the Slayer had had more close calls than he liked to think about-

Er. Ow. "Are elbows supposed to bend that way?" Shunsui murmured, lifting the brim of his straw hat.

Crack. "Auugh!"

"Apparently not," Juushirou smirked.

Metal rang. Cloth ripped. Two more of Eleventh got yanked out of the circle, cursing. Blood spattered.

"Good," Juushirou noted. "Giles has kept up her sword-training."

"Needs work on hardening her reiatsu, though," Shunsui pointed out. Some of that blood was Buffy's.

"That probably would be hard to practice in a body-" Juushirou paled.

Shunsui's brow lifted. Buffy had one hapless thug in a headlock, had just bound another's zanpakutou in the split-second before a disarm, and still managed to fluidly twist her right leg up and around and back to stomp-

That poor guy folded, without even a whimper.

"And you said she needed to learn to fight dirty?" Shunsui said, incredulous.

Juushirou shook his head. "I suppose dealing with Angelus was - educational."

One way of putting it. "Oh gods. What if she meets my lovely Nanao-chan?"

"Your lovely Nanao-chan already knows that one," Juushirou said dryly. "The only reason she hasn't used it on you is because she knows you're not serious."

"Ruin a man's fantasies…. Damn. She really doesn't know when to quit, does she?"

"She's fought with worse injuries." Juushirou's gaze was intent.

"Yeah, but that's Yumichika-"

"Shh."

Panting, left arm torn, and bleeding from a dozen wounds, Buffy eyed her next opponent. Her gaze went from level to slightly confused, before settling on a frown.

"Do you concede?" Yumichika smiled.

"What? Oh, no. It's just, your hair…."

"Beautiful, isn't it?" Yumichika preened.

Juushirou stifled a giggle. Shunsui eyed him warily.

"Amazing." Buffy shook her head cheerfully, as waiting fighters scowled and muttered. "How do you do it? I mean, you can barely notice the split ends."

Juushirou's giggles got louder.

Reiatsu flared, and onlookers were suddenly scrambling yards back. "What. Split. Ends?" Yumichika said evenly.

"Barely see 'em," Buffy assured him, never dropping her guard. "Of course, that's what the feathers are for, distracting people from looking too close…."

"Oh, she's not," Shunsui breathed.

"Oh, she is," Juushirou snickered.

"My feathers. Are not. A distraction," Yumichika gritted out.

"Of course not," Buffy said with mock sweetness. "Good color palette on those. Yellow, great complement to the purple, just the right touch of 'I don't care what the world thinks' panache. Though I would have gone with a little more blue-red on the other one… then again, it does keep people from noticing that sticky little clump where Yachiru threw her gum at you. Strawberry or cherry? Or maybe watermelon, people make that pink too-"

Screaming like a banshee, Yumichika attacked.

The resulting brawl was short, bloody, and almost entirely one-sided. Buffy crumpled, still gripping her sword. Yumichika-

Had one moment to smirk in victory, before blood gushed from the side of his throat and Ikkaku grabbed him with a yell.

Shunsui blinked. "She tried to take his head off."

"Standard Slayer tactic for anything you're not quite sure how to kill," Juushirou stated evenly. "She knew she'd only get one shot."

"But she could have-"

"Buffy doesn't have the strength to kill someone of Yumichika's power that way. Not yet."

True. Still. "If she'd been up against anyone else…."

"She's a Slayer, Shunsui. Killing is what she does. She needs to be here." Hazel eyes were sad. "Think what would happen if they pushed her that far at the Academy."

A lot of dead shinigami, if luck was bad. "Good call," Shunsui assured him. And winked. "Want to spar later?"

Startled, Juushirou gave him a grateful smile.

So you're dangerous, Shunsui thought. We're all dangerous. How could I be afraid of my friend?

"Hey," floated weakly up to them. "About those split ends…."

"Would you knock it off about the hair?" Ikkaku snarled, pasting on a bandage as Yachiru called for Fourth.

"Seriously… there's a shop in L.A…. shampoos like you wouldn't believe…."

Yumichika made an inquiring noise.

"Aw, no," Zaraki groaned. "You mean we've got two of 'em?"

He really was a good friend, Shunsui reflected. Anyone else would have let Juushirou cackle himself off the roof.

Somehow, some way, Zaraki was going to extract payback. He just knew it.

The Academy's oldest surviving prankster grinned himself then, and adjusted his straw hat. Bring it on.

--
"You son of a-!"

"Whoa," Xander murmured, leaning against the library desk Cordelia was sitting at as Amy threw herself bodily at the inside of the library cage. An odd blue light surrounded the telekinetic witch's hands, binding them together; Giles looked grimly pleased with himself. "And I thought it was just her mother who needed her mouth washed out."

Wide-eyed, Willow inched closer to Oz' wordless comfort. The wind inside her was strong enough to tear the school down, if it came to that. But the cold, purposeful way Giles had arranged for Amy to get sent to the library, then slashed arcane sigils in the air and chanted something far older than Latin….

She knew Giles' spells had nothing to do with any Elder Gods. Armandra's memories weren't so sure.

"Right then," the Watcher said levelly. "Finished? Or would you prefer to batter yourself further? I can wait all day. In point of fact, if you do wish to torture yourself, I can wait all week."

Willow shivered. Oz looked somber. Cordelia….

Cordelia leaned back in her chair, grimly satisfied. Which was even freakier than an angry Giles.

Hanging onto the cage with blue-lit fingers, Amy eyed him. "You're bluffing. A Slayer can't-"

"A Slayer is forbidden from harming humans, yes. Witch or not, mutant or not, you are still human. Which means you are my problem."

Amy swallowed, and let go of the cage. "You… people know I'm here-"

"Ah, yes. In Sunnydale," Giles said lightly. "Where young ladies vanish. Or are found dead within these walls, throats cut, blood pooled about their fallen bodies…." Behind glass, his eyes narrowed. "Were you watching, as Drusilla slew Kendra? Did it frighten you?" His voice dropped. "Did you even care?"

Amy paled. "I was… I was just…."

We should stop this, Willow thought dizzily. Giles doesn't do this! But he'd said they could stay only if they didn't interfere. And as long as they stayed, Giles wouldn't - well, he just wouldn't. Would he?

Xander's face was bland, unconcerned. Like Train Heartnet's, before he pulled the trigger.

"Kendra," Giles said bluntly, "and nearly Buffy as well. Two Slayers' blood on your hands. The Slayer protects the mortal world. The Watcher's Council ensures that world does not interfere." His voice was calm. Cold. "The spell upon you binds you from using your powers to affect us. It does not block your empathy. Do you still believe I am bluffing?"

"Gods… I didn't mean… it was Drusilla! She got inside my head, she-"

"Tane," Giles snarled, and his hand filled with fire.

Amy fell backwards, scrambling away as fast as she could.

"Unfortunately for you," the Watcher went on, kneading flames in his fingers, "I have had Drusilla inside my mind as well. And while she can make you see things, make you believe things that cannot be true - she cannot make you do anything. Indeed, given the concentration she needed to inflict visions upon even a bound and tortured opponent, she could not have had you beguiled at the time she killed Kendra." He eyed the witch. "Shall we try again?"

"She… she gave me the stars back," Amy whispered brokenly. "When she touched me… I could see them all again."

"I know it just screams utter geekdom, but you could have gotten a telescope," Cordelia snapped.

"You don't understand!" Amy flung at her. "I was Phoenix! I was everything! How could a petty little worm like you understand that?"

"I understand that Phoenix tried to fricassee us that night," Cordelia shot back. "You wanted to have Earth as a snack, and go on to burn your way through the rest of the universe. Don't," she added as Amy started to shake her head. "Don't even try denying it. We were there. We heard you. If Buffy hadn't stopped you-" Cordelia's fists clenched, white-knuckled. "You think that's worth it? You think that's worth anything?"

"You just don't get it," Amy said, disgusted. "You're a pretty face and pretty clothes and the top of the cheerleaders' cut. You've never been part of anything bigger than yourself."

"Wake up and smell the vampire dust," Cordelia said dryly. "I am part of something bigger."

"No, Cordelia, she's right," Giles said, dangerously mild, rubbing fire across his fingertips. "You don't understand. But I do. The euphoria. The high. You'd do anything for it. And it's harmless. Or at least, no one you notice gets hurt, so it doesn't matter." He looked Amy in the eye. "And then someone dies. And you have a choice to make."

The witch shuddered. "I didn't mean to…."

Flames leapt up, crackling.

"I didn't!" Tears streamed down Amy's cheeks. "Oh gods, I didn't, please-"

Giles shook his hand, and fire vanished. "Get out."

"W-what-"

"Stay away from Buffy. Stay away from all of us. Never go near Drusilla again." Unlocking the cage, he paused. "This is twice you have been complicit in the murder and attempted murder of Slayers. I will not stand for a third. Do we understand each other?" He yanked the door open. "Go."

Weeping, she fled.

Xander cleared his throat. "You know her next class is with Ms. Calendar, right?"

"Just as well." Giles adjusted his glasses. "We need a reason for a serious discussion."

"I'm seeing more of a serious fight," Cordelia said snidely, "but hey, you're adults. You have the right to get arrested for screaming at each other."

"Pithily put, but accurate." Giles sighed, suddenly looking older and tired. "Ask, Willow. I do believe I've used up my reserves of intimidation for the day."

"How could you… why did you… she's just a kid!" Willow shivered. Like us.

"She's a self-confessed addict, Willow. I gave up summoning Eyghon when my friend died. Juushirou had to kill Phoenix to stop her. And instead of being grateful to escape death, at the very first opportunity, Amy sought a way to indulge herself once more. She cannot be trusted." Giles looked toward the library door, sober and thoughtful. "I only hope I've frightened her enough to reconsider her path."

"Cool fire trick," Oz noted.

"An illusion." The Watcher gave them a rueful smile. "I know a few such small tricks, but the time needed to prepare them usually mitigates against their use. The Hellmouth rarely gives fair warning."

Just an illusion. Willow let out a relieved breath, trying not to think about what Amy must have picked up from Giles' emotions to believe it was real. "You said you wanted to deal with Amy before Buffy came back. So…?"

"Ah. It will be a few weeks still, if all goes well," Giles informed her. "With luck, that will be enough time to convince Mrs. Summers that the Slayer's Call is… not a voluntary occupation."

"She's upset?" Oz asked, brow raised.

"Try foaming fury of doom. It'd be closer." Xander winced, rubbing an earlobe. "Think she started adding up how many times Willow and I covered for Buffy. She didn't exactly chase us off with flaming torches, but-" he shrugged, resigned.

Willow's shoulders slumped. "But… we saved people. Buffy saved the world! Twice!"

"Not her world," Giles stated, not unkindly. "Mrs. Summers wishes to believe in a world where the worst things that happen are earthquakes. Forest fires. A failing grade on a history test. A world that would be… fair. For Buffy's sake."

Buffy knows she is going to die, Captain Kyouraku's voice echoed in Willow's memory.

Which wasn't fair. Just wasn't. But after all the vampires, the demons, the rescues, the people they couldn't rescue.…

Some things were beyond fair. Some things just - were.

And that was hard.

Almost as hard as knowing Buffy had left them all behind. "She could have stayed," Willow said sadly.

"Where? In Giles' closet?" Cordelia crossed her arms, glaring at no one in particular. "If my mother said leave and don't come back, I'd pack. Because-" She pressed her lips together, evidently thinking better of whatever she'd been about to say.

"My mother would never throw me out," Willow said defiantly. Though sometimes, I wonder if that's because she doesn't really know I'm there.

"I kind of wish mine would; it'd make some things easier," Xander said thoughtfully.

"Yes; how does go the quest for emancipation?" Giles said thoughtfully.

"Slow. But better with the steady part-time," her friend nodded. "Not all Train's sweeper tricks work in this world, but I still know how to find people, and some of our local bail bonds guys like somebody else to do the phone work. It pays. Not much, but it pays."

"Would kind of expect a happier look with that," Oz said thoughtfully.

"Um. Yeah. Well…."

"She didn't say good bye," Willow jumped in, reading her friend's fumbling attempts not to explain. "I mean, you said she was upset, Giles, and I know Mr. Ukitake's always worried about being away too long but - we were there, she could have seen us."

"Willow, all you would have seen was the floor tiles, before you passed out on top of them," Giles sighed. "I very nearly lost consciousness. Two of Ukitake-taichou's fellow spirits were also present, and they were not being careful about their auras." He rubbed the bridge of his nose. "And upset is hardly the word. She sent Angel, with his soul, into a realm we can only call Hell. She has the memories of a spirit who has sworn to protect human souls, and she condemned one to eternal torment. Combine that with a Slayer's guilt over failing to stop Angelus' rampage sooner…." He shook his head. "Sometimes, Willow, even the best of us hit the limits of our strength. I'm only grateful she had one soul left to call, when she most needed rescue."

"But she didn't call us." Willow tried not to wail. Really.

"Gee, let's see." Cordelia pointed at Willow. "Smacked down by Amy and goons." Xander. "Same, and what oomph he had left, Buffy wanted him using to protect Giles." Who was the next one pointed at. "Tortured." On to Oz. "Taking care of you." The finger jabbed down the hall. "Hospital-bound, and so not in Buffy's good books." A shrug. "And it's not like she's going to call me when she needs somebody to cry on. Face it. As backup, we were pretty much chopped liver."

"I've seen you open dictionaries, I know you're aware of what tact means," Giles muttered.

"Tact is just not saying true stuff. I'll pass. She needed something we couldn't give her, she went and got it. Good for her. She could have done something stupid, like run off to L.A. and hooked up with an evil agent, or something. At least this way we know we've only got to keep the Hellmouth locked down another few weeks. Do you know what kind of havoc graveyard patrol wreaks on my exercise schedule? I didn't get my spot on the squad just by being the Queen of Cool. Though that helped."

Which brought to mind all the reasons Willow had helped Xander start the "We Hate Cordelia" fan club in the first place. But even as she mustered her resources for a blistering verbal counterattack, one thing bothered her.

Why does Giles look grateful?

--
He looks way too smug, Jenny thought angrily. She didn't rise from her chair, as the librarian Watcher waded through the trickle of students left on the last few days of the school year. Getting up would still require crutches, and she was not showing that kind of weakness in front of Rupert. "Finished torturing students for the day?"

"I prefer torture to execution," the Watcher replied dryly. "She helped kill Kendra, Jenny."

"According to Buffy." Who'd conveniently fallen into a coma - out-of-body training her foot, Slayers didn't do that - and so wasn't available to fold under a determined cross-examination.

"And Willow, and Xander," Rupert stated. "Who have no reasons to dislike Amy-"

"That you know about!"

"-Certainly none to accuse her of accessory to murder if that were, in fact, not the case."

Well, yes, they were usually good kids, but- "Oh, come on. How can you believe an innocent girl like that would ever want to hurt anyone?"

"By forcibly reminding myself that whatever I may feel, she is a telempathic witch accustomed to mystical cheating to get her way, even in the smallest matter of avoiding unpleasant homework. And by judicious use of charms against mental influence. Are you using any?"

Jenny stared, open-mouthed. "But… she's just a…."

"I hardly thought I'd be following Xander's advice in this, but-" the Watcher thumped a heavy, colorful bundle onto her desk.

Jenny frowned. "X-Men comics?"

"If you wish to make judgments regarding my behavior, or Buffy's, that is your right. If you wish to scream at me for my actions, I will listen - so long as we do so as adults, off school grounds. But if you intend to believe Amy was merely a hapless bystander - please consider what manner of character she became on Halloween."

"Like Willow and Xander did?" Jenny shot back.

"Train Heartnet was a hero. Armandra likewise, despite her horrific ancestry. Phoenix…." Rupert shook his head. "She was an elemental force who took human form, and the history we both know provides numerous examples of why that is never a good idea."

So it did. "I'll read them," Jenny allowed grudgingly. "I doubt they'll change my mind. I'm angry at you, Rupert." There. She'd said it, not screamed it. Like a responsible adult and teacher, not the rage-driven vengeance of the Kalderash tribe.

"Really? I never would have guessed." He winced, and held up empty hands. "Forgive me, that was uncalled for. We are both angry."

"Only you have no right-!"

"We trusted you with the truth of our battles, and you lied to us. Whether you had reason to or not, and I believe even Buffy would agree that crossing a tribe so versed in curses as the Kalderash is not wise-"

Oh, that was a low blow.

"-The fact that you chose to reinstate your tribe's vengeance after it had ended, once again condemning a soul to eternal unhappiness simply to torment a demon…." His shoulders slumped. "The worst of it is, I can understand why you did it. To salvage your place in the tribe. To avenge your uncle. To save me."

Jenny eyed him. "And you're complaining?"

"You broke Buffy's heart." Rupert stepped back. "You are in fact a Gypsy, not a Wiccan, so it seems you are unaware of the Threefold Law. What you do, comes back to you."

"You're right," Jenny said bluntly. "I'm not Wiccan." It doesn't apply.

"Still, you might consider that had your ancestors simply sought justice by dispatching Angelus instead of cursing him, none of this would have happened, and your uncle would still be alive."

And we'd never have met, because I'd never have been charged with watching over a cursed vampire. "Angel saved your lives."

"Often," Rupert allowed. "But given how many Angelus killed… ask Buffy if she thinks it was worth it."

"She's a child." She doesn't love you.

"Much less of one today. To kill one man to save the world… most Slayers don't live long enough to have to make that choice." Anger had burned out, left only ashes of sadness in his gaze. "I prayed Buffy would be more fortunate."

Biting her lip, Jenny got up on her crutches. Crossed the room to him, leaned on one crutch, and offered an arm.

Surprised, he took it.

"I'm still angry at you," she said into his shoulder.

"Of course," Rupert acknowledged.

"We're going to pack up here, find someplace quiet, and scream at each other until we can't talk anymore."

"Indubitably."

"And you're going to apologize to me for getting mad about my trying to save you."

"Hmm."

"Groveling would be good. Chocolate would be better."

"Well, perhaps…."

"And I will think about what you did to Amy. And why."

"Ah."

Long minutes of silence. Not entirely comfortable, but at least it didn't ache the way the Scoobies' betrayed looks had. And the arm around her was warm, and full of comfort. "I missed you."

"I missed you, as well." Rupert cleared his throat. "After the screaming… do you have any suggestions on how to deal with Mrs. Summers?"

She grinned wickedly. "Screaming first, oh mighty binder of demons."

"Hmph."

--
"This," Yamamoto-Genryuusai bit out, "is unacceptable." He jabbed a finger toward Juushirou. "The Kidou Corps concurs?"

"As does Tessai Tsukabishi," Juushirou replied levelly. "Traces of Whistler's energies were found in Hueco Mundo. On some very interesting, and nearly lethal, information on our Karakura allies."

Seated in front of the Commander-Genreal's desk in this very private meeting, Shunsui traded a glance with Zaraki. Who looked even more murderous than usual.

Can't blame him, Shunsui admitted to himself. This raises not fighting fair to whole new levels. But Yama-jii's not going to be happy-

Yamamoto-Genryuusai rapped his cane on the floor. "The man was exiled for a reason!"

"But not for lack of skill," Juushirou stated, not backing down. "Master Genryuusai."

"Hmph. True." The oldest shinigami shook his head. "Those who are too sharp, will cut themselves to pieces, Juushirou. Tread carefully."

"I don't know how much time we have to be careful," Juushirou said bluntly. "Those of us who aren't wounded are stretched thin, trying to cover holes in the roster, rebuild morale, and search for more potential recruits in Rukongai. Which might be easier if we changed how incoming souls were assigned to districts in the first place…?"

Yamamoto-Genryuusai scowled, clouds wreathing a volcano. "Our traditions have worked for thousands of years!"

"Our traditions have been in place for thousands of years," Juushirou replied. "I believe the Kuchiki family might have an opinion on how well they work."

"Well, I'd say we don't need any more proof that youkai have better manners than demons," Shunsui said casually, before Yama-jii could work himself up to explosion level. "When youkai lie to your face, they know better than to get caught." He tipped his hat back. "So what else did you scare out of him?"

"More Yachiru than myself." Juushirou nodded at Zaraki. "She was very helpful, thank you."

"Sometimes you got to find the guy you want to fight," Zaraki said with a great deal of satisfaction. "Everybody ought to know how to scare the hell out of wimpy bad guys."

"Her suggestion involving vinegar, his liver, and a spoon was the tipping point," Juushirou noted. "Er… you don't actually let her do that?"

"Hell, no!" Zaraki looked affronted. "You never know where guys like that have been. So? What'd he spill?"

Juushirou folded his hands together, collecting his thoughts. "In the eyes of the Powers That Be, the Slayer is destined to fail. She is supposed to fail, within two years of her Calling. Or less."

"Kind of strange," Shunsui said with mock lightness. "Given she's supposed to be the one girl protecting the world against demons, and all."

"That's the point. She isn't. That's what those who trapped Kage-hime in the first place intended, I'm sure - but that's not what the Powers make happen." Juushirou met Yama-jii's gaze. "To the Powers, the Slayer is a tool. They send her visions to avert apocalypses, and defend humanity, but they never give her enough information to end any evil permanently. Sooner or later she falls - and any normal humans who might have been inspired by her fight are given a vivid reminder of how helpless they are in the face of the supernatural. After all, if demons can kill the Slayer - as they have killed the current Slayer, Kendra - what chance do mere mortals have?"

"And most people who don't think they have a chance, won't fight," Shunsui realized.

"Wimps," Zaraki grumbled.

"At least their schemes have inadvertently uncovered something of use to us," Yamamoto-Genryuusai observed. "Another shinketsu among the living… we don't usually see more than one of those in a century."

"I know," Juushirou said honestly. "That's why I requested the Kidou Corps' assistance to ward her, until she recovers from this coma. The Hellmouth is no place for an undefended soul."

Shunsui hid a grin. Yama-jii had ordered them not to tell him the whole truth about Kage-hime. So, when it came to Buffy…. Slayer? What Slayer? She's just a shinketsu.

"Hmm. We should arrange to move her," the Commander-General said thoughtfully.

"Interfere with a living soul?" Shunsui said casually. "And that'd be a lot of memories to alter."

"There is precedent." Yama-jii waved away any thought of protest. "But so long as her powers are sealed, yes, we can allow her to remain on Earth." His voice dropped as he thought out loud. "One of these days the Kurosaki boy's not going to dodge fast enough in that body of his, and then that irregularity will finally be done with."

Note to self: Remind Urahara to lay in extra bandages, Shunsui thought.

"Master Genryuusai!" Juushirou protested.

Yama-jii frowned. "There is the world of the living, and that of the dead. They were never meant to meet."

"But spiritually powerful humans have always existed," Juushirou argued. "The Quincys-"

"Were an aberration, nothing more." A hmph. "After this generation they, too, should be resolved."

Lay in lots of bandages, Shunsui decided.

"So. The Slayers are their ninja, who live only to die," Yamamoto-Genryuusai went on gravely. "And their goal?"

Knuckles pale, Juushirou unclenched his fingers. "Whistler claimed it was to preserve the balance between Good and Evil. Apparently, that requires maintaining the current levels of demon attacks on humans." Juushirou hesitated. "But if they are demons… Watcher legends state that the true demons, the Elder Evils, lost their hold on this reality as humans grew in strength. If that's so-"

"Then maintaining this balance - stopping humans from getting an advantage - might be their way of keeping their grip on Earth," Shunsui finished.

"Fits," Zaraki declared. "Down to messing with us and Aizen. Keep your enemies split up an' fighting each other, everything you've got to do gets easier."

"They don't know Aizen's gone," Juushirou put in. "At least, not yet."

Yamamoto-Genryuusai raised a bushy white brow. "That," he declared, "will be useful." He glanced at Zaraki. "Your division's been rather quiet lately."

Which was probably as close, Shunsui reflected, as Yama-jii was going to get to, What the hell are you up to?

"Like Ukitake said," Zaraki shrugged. "Still getting recruits in to get back up to strength. Going to take a while."

"Indeed," Yama-jii said dryly. "Keep the property damage down… Shunsui, Juushirou, what's so amusing?"

--
This isn't funny, Kendra thought, half-dragged in the wake of the buxom blonde in black. This isn't what Mr. Zabuto said Heaven was like.

She was tired, hungry, extremely confused, and not nearly as fast as the gray-eyed blonde who'd grinned drunkenly and literally carried her off from - what had the oddly dressed locals called it, Seventy-First?

Wherever it was, it had thugs just like everywhere else. And she'd been in the middle of flattening her twentieth when a pink-scarfed black blur had whisked her away. What was going on?

Purgatory. Could be Purgatory….

"Captain! Captain!"

Though Kendra wasn't ruling out Hell just yet.

Short, was the Slayer's first impression as the blonde dragged her into an office toward spiky white hair. Angry came second, as green eyes narrowed on her like lasers. Boy was third, and she quickly dropped her gaze.

"Matsumoto?" the white-haired boy behind the desk said warily. "What have I told you about bringing in drinking buddies as prospective students before they sober up?"

"We weren't drinking!" Matsumoto protested, weaving slightly. "Well, she wasn't…."

"I am too young to drink!" Kendra put in, indignant. Not to mention, no Slayer would dare impair herself that way. Not even Buffy.

"Hang around my lieutenant much longer, you'll forget about that," he muttered. "But you do seem sober, so… who are you, and why are you in Seireitei?" His voice dropped. "And why won't you look at me?"

"My Watcher did not approve of association with boys." Though this one seemed a little younger than Mr. Zabuto had prohibited-

"If you won't look a prospective opponent in the eyes, you lose a valuable tactical advantage."

Startled, Kendra looked up.

"Better," the white-haired youth stated critically. "Now. Given my lieutenant probably didn't mention it - I am Captain Toushirou Hitsugaya. Captain Hitsugaya will do. Who are you, and why are you here?"

For one of the few times in her life, Kendra yielded to frustration. "I am here because this woman-"

Giggling, Matsumoto still dodged her punch like air.

"-Dragged me out of a fight that I was winning, and took me here. And who I am-" Kendra faltered, remembering hypnotic eyes, and talon fingernails, and the hot pain of death. "I was… Kendra, the Vampire Slayer."

Hitsugaya blinked. Put down his writing brush, and raised a brow at Matsumoto. "You've been-" he visibly bit back brawling, "-sparring with Ikkaku and Yumichika again."

"Yep!" For someone swaying like a willow in the wind, gray eyes were disturbingly clear. "Eleventh has been having lots of fun." She waved a hand at Kendra. "She lived with a purpose on Earth. She's not going to be happy without one here. And we need people who do what's right. Even when it's hard."

"We do," Hitsugaya agreed, gaze thawing a little. "Well. Are you interested, Ms. Kendra?"

"Interested in what?" Kendra said warily. "No one has explained anything since - since I died!"

"Helping people, and killing monsters!" Matsumoto beamed.

Kendra blinked. Looked Hitusgaya in the eye. "Where do I sign?"

"Yes!" Matsumoto snatched her up and hugged her, ignoring Kendra's shocked stiffness. "'Sides, Ikkaku says Buffy still has nightmares 'bout you dying. I bet she'd feel a lot better if you yelled at her. Bet you would, too!"

"Buffy is here?" Kendra blanched as Matsumoto dropped her. "She died?"

"Oh, no! She's fine. Kicking ass, and-" Matsumoto caught Hitsugaya's glare, as the ambient temperature seemed to drop ten degrees. "Eh, heh… maybe you could forget you heard that, Captain?"

"Matsumoto." Hitsugaya's voice had the same resigned tone Kendra had heard in Mr. Giles, faced with Xander's inexplicable antics. "Tell me there isn't another insanely powerful living shinigami currently wreaking havoc in Soul Society."

"Um…."

Hitsugaya sighed, and stood. "Come on."

"Where are we going now?" Kendra demanded, exasperated.

"Eleventh," Hitsugaya said darkly.

Two stomachs rumbled.

Matsumoto's smile bent into a frown. "Captain, did you work through lunch again? Wait right here, I'll be back with some for everyone-" A gust of wind, and she was gone.

"She seems to be a good friend," Kendra said hesitantly. "I wish… I had had more time for friends. For everything."

"The way people have been hopping between the worlds lately, you still might," Hitsugaya grumbled. And gave her a measuring look. "So who is Buffy, and why are the most disreputable brawlers in Soul Society happy to see her?"

--
I'm just not getting it, Buffy thought, in that split second between a blow from Ikkaku's spear and smacking into the training ground's wall.

Ow.

She'd tried meditating. She'd tried working until she was too tired to sleep. She'd tried fighting until she was such a mess that cute, shy Hanatarou from Fourth threw up his hands and actually scolded her. Nothing worked.

There was life in her sword. She could feel it. But when she tried to reach for it-

Ice, and darkness, and blood.

"All right, that's enough," came a growl like boulders scraping together. Ikkaku nodded, and backed off.

Cradling her ribs, Buffy stood. "I can keep going, Captain-"

"Banged your head into this wall a hundred times. Don't think a hundred and one is going to do it." Zaraki looked her up and down, and shook his head, bells chiming. "My guys know better than to cross the old man. Me, though…." His grin was all fangs, humorless as Death. "You know I'm crazy."

He drew his sword.

Run!

Zaraki was stronger than she was. Bigger. Far more bloodthirsty than she could ever be, even when she'd been fighting Angelus for Giles' life. And from the reiatsu rising to strangle her, he had every intention of cutting her to pieces. Slowly.

She couldn't cut him. Not even if he let her; she'd tried before. All she had was speed. And that wouldn't last forever.

Don't think like that! Just run. There's got to be a way out….

Commotion, over by the gate. Reiatsu she could sense even through Zaraki's smothering weight; cool and clean as the breeze over a skating rink empty just for her. And beside Hitsugaya-

Gold hoop earrings. Somber dark eyes. Beautiful, wavy black hair pulled severely back from her face, but allowed to flow like night foam down her back.

Kendra.

The girl she'd tried to save; from monsters, from the terrifying straightjacket of a life raised by Watchers, with nothing but training and Slaying until the inevitable end. The girl she'd failed.

Dead, she's dead, and it's my fault. I wasn't strong enough. I wasn't fast enough. I wasn't smart enough; Angelus got me mad and I fell for it, and she died….

It should have been me.

It was my fault.

I don't deserve to live when she died. I'm the Slayer, and I failed. I failed.

Zaraki's going to kill me, and I deserve it. Everything will finally be over… I'm so tired….

No! Nobody kills me. I won't let him!

"I," said a woman into sudden silence, "not the Slayer."

Sequins and silk; billowing scarf and dress in perfect rainbow-pearl grays and blacks that would have driven Rodeo Drive fashionistas to weeping with envy. The ones that weren't running screaming, from the blood dripping from perfect hems and sleeves. And behind her-

Wolf and woman and ice.

"It was you," Buffy realized, looking at that shifting cold and darkness. "You're why I couldn't reach her."

You are. My chosen child. But do not presume.

Driving into her brain like shards of ice. Buffy winced-

A manicured hand caught her shoulder, holding her up. "You can't blame Kage-hime for all of it," the elegant woman shrugged. "When you've needed to be strong, the Slayer has always been there. It takes time, and courage, to reach beyond what you have become, and reclaim who you are."

"Who I am?" Buffy echoed blankly. "I'm Buffy, the-"

A black-pearl brow lifted."I'm… Buffy Summers," she said slowly.

"Before you were ever the Slayer in this life, yes. Buffy Summers is who you were born, and who you died, and who you will die again," the woman nodded. "If you can't stop him."

"Stop him?" Buffy laughed hysterically. "Hello? That's Zaraki! I can't stop him. I can't even slow him down!"

"Why won't you?"

"Didn't you just-" Buffy stopped.

I don't want to die, she realized. Do I?

"I can't protect you, if you won't protect yourself."

Green eyes widened. "You're…."

"Of course." A knowing, mother-of-pearl wink. "Who else would I be?"

"Kendra deserves a life," Buffy whispered.

"She does," her zanpakutou inclined her head. "Will your death give it to her?"

Buffy swallowed, and shook her head. "No."

"Will it bring Angel back from Hell?"

"No."

"Will it save those you care about, who are counting on you to come back, and fight by their side?"

"No."

"Will you," said the woman of mist and pearl and blood, "let him kill you?"

Looking into eyes of night and fog-shine, Buffy saw them catch fire. "No."

Whirling, she drew-

"Ookamimoya!"

Mist howled around her, writhed in shapes of rage and night and fangs. Slayer strength swung a claymore light as a wooden sword, let her twirl herself around its inertia as she and the mist-wolves cut and harried and bit. She led the pack, she was the pack-

A taste of blood, and all went black.

"Nice puppies," Zaraki said gleefully, as even her hearing faded away. "Would you look at that? One of 'em even managed to bite!"

--
"Oww…." Buffy moaned.

"That is the usual reaction to shikai, more often than not."

Buffy's eyes shot open at that familiar, amused voice. Or tried to; she managed to half-crack one, and hissed as the light set off an even worse headache. Ugh. Fourth cot. Go figure. "Ukitake-taichou?" Her eye almost fluttered back closed. "Gah. Even my hair hurts."

"Zaraki's still grinning, by the way," Juushirou informed her with a wink. "He can't wait until you're rested enough to try it again."

"Oh, kill me now," Buffy groaned.

A soft laugh. "Kendra was very impressed."

"She was really there?" Buffy swallowed. "Can you tell her I'm sorry?"

"Why don't you tell me yourself?" came a familiar West Indies accent.

Buffy opened both eyes, to a familiar, wry face. "Kendra. I'm sorry, I'm so…."

Shaking her head, Kendra moved in beside her cot, sat down, and snapped a finger against Buffy's forehead.

"Ow."

"The Scourge of Europe," Kendra said pointedly. "They did not get the name throwing Tupperware parties. I knew what I was up against."

"You won't look a boy in the eyes, but you know what a Tupperware party is. I'm seriously wigged here." Buffy managed a sore smile. "Everybody treating you okay? Anything I can do to help?"

"I think-" Kendra hesitated, surprised. "I think I will be fine. Not now, but… soon."

"I had to let Drusilla go to stop Angelus," Buffy admitted. "But if I see her again-"

"Do not be foolish!"

"I was going to say, I'm gonna stand off at a distance distracting her, and let Willow fill her full of pencils," Buffy grinned, no matter how much it hurt. "That, or have Xander zap her with a crossbow. Or both."

"Now that," Kendra nodded, "is a plan."

"So." Buffy glanced down on the other side of her cot, where Ookamimoya rested on her own mat. "What now?"

"You learn your shikai, and anything else we can teach you in the time remaining." Juushirou raised a dark brow at her. "But you knew that already."

"Guess I was trying not to think about the hard part," Buffy admitted.

"Understandable." His smile was wry, but warm. "Odd how facing monsters is always easier, isn't it? But you can do it."

"The hard part?" Kendra wondered, confused.

"A few days from now, I go home," Buffy told her. "Find out what fresh hell is brewing in Sunnydale. Who's the new master vamp. Whether or not the cops still want to lock me up for your murder." She took a deep breath. "And then… I talk to my mother."

-End.


--Notes and info:Ookamimoya - "Mist Wolf".

The End

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