By Sam James
Buffy looked bitterly at the rogue slayer. While the slayerettes were waiting for Amy the rat to return from spying on the mayor's headquarters, they were ambushed by Faith and a mob of vampires. Now Faith had Xander by the neck and was threatening to finish him off.
"Leave him alone," Buffy said. "This is between you and me. It's always been you and me. You wanted me to become like you. Well, I tried being a 'bad girl' for you. What to try being a good girl for me? Or do you want to fight?"
"Come now B," Faith said, dropping Xander. He groaned as he fell down so Buffy knew he was still alive. Using the wall to support her tired body, Buffy moved closer to Faith. Somehow Faith had become stronger than she had been the last time the two had clashed. Buffy hoped it was only that she had fought off several vampires while Faith was fresh. Faith continued, "If you'd rather fight than talk that's 5 by 5 with me. Come and see who the real slayer in town is," Faith teased.
Buffy looked around, Oz was still groggy from being hit. Willow was protecting herself and her boyfriend with light from the orb she carried. Pity Oz couldn't control his change, a werewolf ally would come in hand about now. Xander was a crumpled up body near Faith's feet. Time to bluff.
"Hmm let's see," Buffy smiled. "Who's the real slayer? Is it the one slaying vampires or the one toading up to them? Tough question."
Faith charged, stake in hand, Buffy flipped her into the air, knocking the stake out of her hand. It went right into a vampire's heart, almost as if Faith had aimed it.
Willow's eyes hardened, that was impossible. Faith was a traitor. And yet, while Faith was fighting Buffy, none of the other vampires dared interfere and cheat the ex-Slayer of her kill. And there was one fewer vampire than there was a moment ago.
"What about sleeping with a vampire, hmm?" Faith attacked verbally. "Who here takes vampires out for movies and coffee?" Faith got up and kicked Buffy, knocking her to the ground near another vampire. As Buffy got to her feet she spun around and sent a stake straight into the heart of that vampire. Seeing this, the other vampires scowled and began moving toward Buffy.
"Aww, did you want coffee?" came a voice from the dark. A shape moved forward. It was Angel. "You should have asked me back when I was pretending to like you." He moved back to back with Buffy.
"Retreat," yelled Faith to the remaining vampires. "We'll have this fight later B, when it's just us, one on one like you promised." The remaining vampires slumped out following the turncoat slayer.
"Well, I guess we'll call it a draw," said Willow shakily. She moved her hands and Buffy saw that Willow too had been bluffing. The glow from the orb was really from a flashlight that the hacker had concealed underneath the orb's base.
"Your timing was perfect, as always," smiled Buffy at Angel.
Angel frowned in response. "I'm always afraid that one of these days it won't be," Angel said. "I have nightmares about hearing a fight and coming too late and seeing, seeing..."
"Actually deadboy, don't you mean daymares
?" Xander tried to shift the mood.
"What were you doing so close to the mayor's territory anyway?" demanded Angel. "It's too dangerous. You can't risk yourself until we know how to stop the ascension."
"That's what we were trying to find out," Buffy told him. "Willow?"
Willow grabbed the case with Amy the rat. "All set."
"Then let's motor."
During the drive back to the library, Buffy cued Angel in about using Amy as a spy. Willow fed Amy some cheese and Xander drove while Oz recovered from the fight. Once at the library, Willow took Amy to the computer and activated a word-guessing program meant for paraplegics and others who needed to type as few letters per word as possible. Occasionally she giggled at some of the program's word choices. Clearly, the program's makers had never intended it to be used by a rat to type about vampires, spells, and Latin rituals.
Giles and Wesley had been talking animatedly, sharing a book between them. "Ignorant wuss," Giles said, heatedly.
Wesley stood up and spoke to Buffy, "How dare you go off on an unauthorized mission without my approval," he said in an huffy voice.
"She couldn't go on an unauthorized mission with your approval," said Xander. "It wouldn't be unauthorized then."
Buffy, as had become her recent practice ignored Wesley unless Giles agreed with him. "We ran into Faith with some vamps. Fortunately Angel showed up in time to save the day. The mayor is definitely running the vampires with Faith as his second."
"Oddly enough though Faith staked about as many vampires as you did." Oz pointed out.
"Yes, but only to try to keep control of them." Buffy protested.
"Maybe she's up to something we don't know about." Xander put in. "Maybe she thinks she's undercover or learning his secrets only to turn around and stop him."
Giles sighed. "We have the results of the psychological profiles we did on the two of you after Faith escaped from the council's custody." He shot a glare at Wesley who had the grace to look down, abashed. "She's troubled, confused, and unsure of herself. She's crossed the line but may be trying to preserve an escape route to jump ship if it looks ready to sink. And I'm sure the mayor's playing on her jealousy of Buffy."
"Umm, guys, remember, she tried to kill
me. Not me me. It was vampire me, but she didn't know that." Willow protested.
"That brings up another point," Wesley tried to turn the discussion back to the mayor. "Why hasn't the mayor tried to stop us? He's the power in this land. He controls the police. He controls the vampires. And he knows we're his opposition. He went to the trouble to recruit Faith as his Slayer, anti-Slayer strategy. Why not just arrest us so there's no chance of our interfering?"
"Don't give him ideas," muttered Giles.
"He's overconfident," Buffy said. "He's made himself invulnerable and so he thinks himself invincible." No wonder she did so well on the SATs, she thought irrelevantly, the slaying job called on one to use all sorts of fancy words.
"Very good, Buffy," Giles was impressed by her analysis. "But I can't help thinking there is something more..."
Amy gave a squeak indicating that she was finished. Her nose was sore but she had done the job. The computer's screen was full of words which Willow read to everyone. "The mayor will open a door to death and siphon the living essence of everyone at graduation. He will take those energies and use them to bind the Hellmouth to himself. He will become the embodiment of the Hellmouth and have full control of its powers." Willow paused, scared at what she was reading. "He wants the slayer there because her life-energies are so strong. By taking those energies, he will become that much powerful."
"He's as bad as a vampire," Xander fumed. "One sucks your blood, the other takes your life essence. What's the diff?"
Willow took back the keyboard and pressed a few keys, calling up the schedule for the graduation. "There's the opening prayer by Father O'Connell. A speech by Principal Snyder. A few songs from the chorus. The valedictory address by, um me, and then the presentation of the diplomas. I don't see where in this schedule there's room for the mayor to make his move."
"It might not matter," Giles looked over his shoulder at the infernal machine. "You will be speaking right before the presentation?" Willow nodded. "Then perhaps we should make a few modifications to your speech."
"I still think we're missing something," Wesley dithered. "I understand why he wants to have Buffy there to tap into the Slayer's essence. But he must think he has some means of preventing her from stopping him."
"That's what Faith's for," Buffy shrugged. "At least that what he thinks."
"Don't be overconfident yourself," Giles warned. "He may be using magic to strengthen Faith."
"Still, there must be something more," Wesley continued. "He could hardly plan for the two of you to have a fight in the middle of a ceremony and expect everything to continue normally. There must be something else."
The doors to the library were flung open. In stalked Cordelia, more angry than she was the time Xander had gotten mud on her new shoes. She was carrying something red that flopped as she walked. Everyone stared. "Can you believe it," she said, upset. "They expect me to wear something like this? After spending hours doing my hair." She held up the graduation cap and gown for everyone to look at.
"Who decided that the class' graduation color would be blood red?" Oz wondered.
"It's only a hat," Xander said to Cordelia. "You probably have a whole closet full of things that are much worse."
"You moron," Cordelia said. "They expect me to wear this! Hello, that's what everyone else will be wearing. I'm Cordelia Chase. You can't expect me to wear the same thing as Harmony and Aphrodisia, let alone losers like Willow and Anya."
"It's the graduation costume," Willow easily shrugged off the insult that once would have paralyzed her. "Everyone will be wearing them." She stood for a second with her mouth open in sudden realization and then turned to Giles. "Everyone will be wearing one. Including Buffy."
Their eyes met and then Giles walked over and yanked the cap and gown out of Cordelia's hands. He felt a slight magical tingle as he touched the garment.
"Giles, you're not going psycho on us now," Cordelia protested.
Giles and Wesley both ignored the fashionable teen and turned to the less blatantly decorative, but far more useful Willow. "We need to run a few tests," said the librarian. "To find a way to neutralize the spell. The rest of you need to research what will be in the mayor's ascension spell so that Willow's speech can counter it."
"One bright spot in all this," Willow said to Xander. "At least now I don't have to worry about what to say."
"Yeah, Will," her friend replied. "Your speech will be totally magical."
* * * * * * * * *
"Well, Will, any luck?" Xander asked as the two made their way down the school hallway. It was the morning of graduation day.
"No," Willow was in tears. "I told them not to come. I said I'd be too nervous, that I don't want them here. That their being here would make me mess up my speech. But no. They said they had to be here to see their little valedictorian graduate. The one time I don't want my parents involved in my life and they insist on showing up. They're gonna get killed and there's nothing I can do about it."
"Shoulda done what I did," Xander made a face. "I told them there was an error in the invitation and that graduation is really tomorrow."
"And they believed you?" Willow's surprise showed in her eyes.
"Sure, they're used to the school getting the date wrong. I've used that line for every parent-teacher day and they haven't caught on yet."
The two turned and walked into the library. Oz and Buffy were already there. The library looked bare with just ordinary textbooks and encyclopedias. The four had spent much of the previous night moving all of Giles' books out of the library after the librarian had quit his job. In a sense, Giles would be graduating with the rest of the gang.
"So, how did everyone do on their homework?" asked Giles.
"Schools over, we don't actually have... oh, that. Yes, I checked on-line. The high school is insured. Um, do I want to know why I checked?" said Willow.
"And the robes?" Buffy asked.
Willow held up a bunch of the blood-red graduation robes. "Giles and I demagicked them yesterday. They're clean. We even added a minor glamour so they'd radiate some magic that looks like the original spell. No one will know the difference till we make our move."
"I checked too. The bomb's still there. You'd think they'd clean out the basement more often," replied Xander.
"I don't want to know. I definitely don't want to know," said Willow. Xander just smiled.
The slayer stood up. She had forsaken her usual mini-skirt for kevlar armor and her stakes for a sword and an assortment of other weapons. If Snyder could see her at this moment, she surely would be expelled. Fortunately, everything would be covered by the robe. "Ready for action."
"Gee Buff. Going to this school has been dangerous enough. It looks like leaving it will be even tougher." Xander joked.
"I'm ready. I even feel pretty wearing this thing." Buffy responded.
"I say Buffy. For the first time you look like what I always thought the slayer should be." Wesley put in only to be ignored by all.
"Willow, are you sure you'll be okay?" asked Oz. "You'll be up on the podium with the mayor and everything."
"Urp," went Willow's stomach. "We don't have a choice. The counterspell has to have the same range as the actual spell and I'm the only one who they'll let use the microphone."
"Are you sure?"
"Actually, I'd rather face a life or death situation than give a speech in front of hundreds of people. I never thought I'd be doing both at once."
Oz smiled and gave her a hug as Xander gazed jealously.
"Okay, guys. Let's go and save the world," Buffy said.
"Again," added Willow.
Outside, the mayor approached the school.
"I've heard that there might be a bit of trouble," the mayor told the police standing outside the stands. I don't want anyone coming in or out once the ceremony starts. Do you understand? Stop anyone trying to leave."
The policemen nodded.
"Oh, except for Faith here," the mayor put his hand on her shoulder. "She's the student safety coordinator. She'll be my liaison to you. She speaks with my voice."
"Understood" said the police captain. The mayor smiled. The police uniforms had long ago been given the same treatment as the graduation robes.
"Here's a nice sanitary spot for you," the mayor positioned Faith by a tree where she could see both the stage and the audience. "Now just follow the instructions and we'll go out for ice cream afterwards. You can have a cone and I'll have the factory."
"If Buffy moves, I kick butt, right."
"Language little lady. What did I tell you about that? But essentially correct. It shouldn't be necessary but I don't want to ruin my nice little Ascension."
The mayor walked to the podium. Principal Snyder and a red-headed girl who the mayor thought looked somewhat familiar were already seated. He took his seat next to her. She cringed. "Do I know you?" the mayor asked.
"I'm the valedictorian," answered Willow.
"Oh, of course," the mayor smiled. "Congratulations." It was not a smile with any menace whatsoever. But of course, he had been a politician for three lifetimes.
Pomp and Circumstance blared from what was left of the school band after its several players had been attacked by exploding cheerleaders at the last football game. The graduates filed in. Snyder had carefully arranged them in alphabetical order but Buffy had cut to the front of the line. A look silenced the objections of those behind her. Having a reputation sometimes came in handy. Of course it did leave her sitting between Harmony and Larry.
After the band finished playing a song that Buffy didn't recognize, perhaps because it was written before 1980, the mayor stood up. Buffy automatically tensed. This must be it.
"I am sorry, but Father O'Connell won't be able to be with us today. There apparently was a break in last night." Faith, from her hiding place frowned. She had been supposed to kill the guy but couldn't. Still the priest understood the necessity to stay out of sight. Especially after she broke his arm to indicate her seriousness.
"Now, I know you understand we are in a delicate position with prayers at graduation. The Supreme Court makes such a big fuss out of this sort of thing." Everyone laughed. "So we have to give all the religions in town a chance to participate, even if it is one that, um, doesn't have a whole lot of followers." The crowd seemed to smile their acceptance. "So please give a welcome to Usidik Lovecraft, priest of the dread lord Cthulu." The enchanted students clapped happily, Buffy, Oz, and Xander a minute behind the others. The audience of parents clapped a bit more uncertainly but they too were gradually falling under the mayor's spell.
The priest stood up. "Dread Lord Cthulu, hear our prayers. Accept our sacrifice." Then he lapsed into a language only understood by the mayor, Giles, Wesley, and Willow. "May the energies of those on the cusp of years fuel the ascension. Accept the sacrifice of our children. Take of them and open the door. Open the door to death. Make of their funeral pyre a staircase for the one-who-rules. May he rise to his destined power and might. Make of Mayor Wilkins a god. Spirits of the dead I summon you. Open the door. Eat of our sacrifice and be sated.
Willow's eyes widened. She didn't understand every word but she had caught enough. "Open the door," she whispered and looked up. Behind the audience a vortex was opening. Ghostly figures seemed visible behind the doorway.
"Willow," Snyder nudged her. "Miss. Rosenberg," he said a little louder. "You're up." His voice was perfectly normal for him, a little irritated and annoyed. The audience was quiet. No one seemed to notice the slowly building vortex. Willow shot a glance at Giles in the faculty section. He had seen it; apparently it was visible only to those who practiced magic.
"Miss. Rosenberg, your valedictory address please."
Willow stood up and walked over to the podium. Time to save the world again. If only she didn't have to do it by giving a speech.
"Eep" she said. It was carried by a microphone to everyone. Faith looked up, instantly recognizing the voice. The witch was doing something. And the mayor was just standing there letting her. Then it hit her. It must never have occurred to the mayor that one of Buffy's friends, let alone the witch, would be allowed to speak at graduation. She could see the plan falling apart. She jumped out of the tree and began moving toward the front.
"Today, we graduate." Willow started. "Graduate. Er, what does it mean to graduate? Um, on one hand we leave behind our former life as Sunnydale students. On the other we move up and onward. We ascend, all of us together."
The mayor frowned. Was that just a coincidental choice of words?
"I remember when I first climbed these steps with my friends, four years ago. A lot has happened since then. But there are some who initially climbed the steps with us who are no longer here. Jesse, you of all others deserve to be here. Dave and Fritz, Emily and Morgan, Rodney, Philip, Theresa. Principal Flutie, Dr. Gregory, Mr. Leshane, Mr. Jones, Jenny Calendar, Miss Frank and Kendra Slayer." Then she switched into Latin. "Spirits of the Dead I summon you for vengeance.
" Grabbing the microphone and ducking around the podium, she then recited the spell that she and Giles had prepared.
"Noo!" the mayor yelled, knocking Willow away from the microphone. But he was too late. The demons that his priest had summoned were now faced by ghosts determined to protect their students and friends.
Buffy shucked off her graduation robe and jumped up to the stage, reaching the mayor at the same time as Faith.
"Hey B, you and I, we have some unfinished business," Faith said. It finally came down to this. She would have to make a choice. She too would have to graduate. Or ascend.