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A Little Yellow Bird

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This story is No. 3 in the series "The New York Contingent". You may wish to read the series introduction and the preceeding stories first.

Summary: A spirit animal requests Willow's assistance -- his friend is dying. But they don't want her to heal him . . .

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Miscellaneous > Surprise CrossoverMediancatFR13111,07214384,56611 Jul 0911 Jul 09Yes
This would be the next part of “Interim,” only it’s way too long. So this falls between chapters 6 and 7.

Of course, Willow and all Buffy characters were created by Joss Whedon. The crossover characters I will disclaim at the end.

Oo-OAD-stogue; Si-NEW-be-us.

>represents telepathic communication.<

X X X X X

Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick.

Huh?

Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick.

Someone's tapping on my window. At 3:30 in the morning?

Wait a minute. I'm on the third floor of a building that doesn’t have a fire escape.

Suddenly I'm a lot more awake. I don't have a ledge or balcony anyone could be standing on. Still could be an enterprising burglar, but if so, boy howdy did they pick the wrong apartment.

I got out of bed and threw open the curtains, ready to cast a spell at a moment's notice.

I didn't see anything.

The tick-tick-tick was louder now.

I didn't see anything. I wondered about invisible floating witches or demons, and then I suddenly realize that me? Not so much awake as I thought. Anyone with that much power who wanted to hurt me would have smashed through the window.

Or they could do like I did back at the Sunnydale police station and simply come through the wall. Noticeable, yeah, noticeable, but effective if you're more interested in results than staying hidden.

The tick-tick-tick sounded different now. Almost angry. Finally, I looked down and saw, out on the windowsill and barely visible in the darkness, a bird.

I laughed and shook my head, and then the bird tapped again. It took a second, but I finally heard a pattern in the taps. Nothing fancy. SOS. Three long, three short, three long. Or is that the other way around? The bird kept alternating until I finally let it into the room.

"This had better be good," I said, whispering instinctively even though there was no reason to do so. This place has thick walls -- kind of mandatory if you're going to have people over talking about world endage -- and it’s not like Kennedy doesn’t know what I’m talking about, anyway.

Speaking of: When Slayers slept, they slept deep. Kennedy hadn’t so much as stirred.

I took a look at my new guest. A little yellow bird, like a goldfinch. I checked its aura -- not my specialty, but Tara taught me a few things -- and it's magical, you betcha. It flew somewhat clumsily into the room.

It chittered annoyedly. "Am I supposed to be able to understand you?" I asked.

To my surprise, the bird stopped chittering and nodded its head vigorously. It's not just magical, but intelligent. "Were you sent here as a messenger?" The bird nodded again. "Are you actually a giraffe?"

And, I swear to whatever goddess you hold holy, the bird glared at me. "Hey," I said, "I had to make sure that the nodding wasn't instinct. So you're smart, huh?" The bird nodded once. "And did you seek me out specifically?" The bird nodded . "And you need me to follow you?"

As the bird nodded again, I realized that this could take all night. "Hold on a second," I said, and went to the bookshelf. The bird fluttered over awkwardly and perched on my shoulder; when he saw what I was looking at, he chirped excitedly. Apparently it can read English.

Talented bird.

The spell doesn't take more than five minutes. Helpful when the subject of the spell cooperated, in this case by letting me pluck a small piece of down from its head.

"And now," I said, "Say something. Let's see if this worked."

The bird chitters, and this time I understood it. "I am Ouaod'Stogue," he said. "And a friend of mine needs your help."

"That's it?" I asked.

"I'm in a hurry," Ouaod'Stogue said. "My friend is dying."

"What are you?" I asked. "And me, not so much with the healing spells."

"I'm a spirit," he said. "Not an evil one. And my friend doesn't need healing; he just needs your help to do something."

"A bird spirit?" I asked.

If you can say a bird sighs, Ouaod'Stogue does. "This isn't my original form. Cenubious and I were frozen in our current forms because we pissed off the wrong demon lord."

"You want me to try to undo the change?" I asked. I've come a long way since it took me three years to figure out a way to derat Amy. "And -- Cenubious?"

He shook his head. "No. I've gotten used to it by now. And Cenubious is my friend."

"Give me a moment," I said. "You'll forgive me if I'm not exactly all trusting about a little yellow bird spirit." I thought. I wasn’t going to call Dr. Winchester at this time of night. Let me see. If it's 3:40 here, Giles -- who was back in England this week -- should probably be awake now. I may know a lot more than I used to, but I still can't exactly whistle up spirit names off the top of my head. And they're not nice enough to put out a directory.

Stupid spirits and their lack of consideration.

It took three rings, but finally Giles picked up the phone. He sounded awake. Good. "Hello?"

"Giles, hey. I need your help with something. Have you ever heard of spirits called --" want to make sure I pronounce this right -- "Ouaod'Stogue and Cenubious?"

"I suppose it was too much to hope for that you called simply to exchange friendly greetings in the middle of the night," he said. "What do you need? It's not another apocalypse, is it?"

"No. I would have called in the local Slayers for that. I'm being visited right now by a little yellow bird who calls himself Ouaod'Stogue. He says he has a friend named Cenubious. Do they sound familiar to you?"

A moment of silence, then, "Actually, yes. Give me a couple of moments, if you would." I heard him put the phone down -- poor technophobic Giles, still hasn't mastered the art of "hold" -- and then I turned back to the bird. "It's not that I don't trust you --"

"Sure it is," Ouaod'Stogue said. "I can't really say I blame you. A lot of spirits want to end the world, or rule it."

"Ah, here we are," Giles said after another minute or so. "I believed I'd heard the name before. The two spirits are well-known and mostly benign. About sixty years ago, they crossed a demon lord who was more powerful than they and found themselves cursed into their current animal forms."

"Good. Mostly?"

"Mostly," Giles confirmed. "They consider themselves protectors of children of all sorts. At times, their methods for protecting those children have been, um, rather questionable."

"Questionable how?" I ask.

"They kidnap children to save them from their parents. In many of these cases, the parents were later demonstrated to have been at least borderline abusive. Until their curse, they always returned the children once the parents were dealt with. Since then, though, there have been more disappearances, but not a single child has been returned. It was thought that they might have turned vicious, but there has been no proof one way or the other. Generally trustworthy unless you've been abusing children. What kind of assistance does this one need?"

"He claims that Cenubious is dying and that he doesn't need me to heal him."

"You can probably trust him."

"Probably?"

"I cannot offer guarantees," Giles says.

"Yeah, 'cause think how silly that would be. 'Supernatural advice guaranteed or your money back! Because most supernatural advice that goes bad usually ends up with the practitioner dead or disabled, and really, how easy is it going to be to get your money back then? Though, probably, not impossible."

"And if I ever get into that particular line of work, I shall consider it," Giles said wryly. "Is there anything else you need at the moment?"

"Nope. Nothing else. Thanks and I think I'll go see what the little yellow bird wants."

Ouaod’Stogue chittered, “Are you done?” I could still hear his chirping underneath the translation my spell was providing. Birdspeak was longer than English, let me tell you. It was like one of those old comedy routines where one guy jabbers away in a bad parody of Chinese or German for thirty seconds and then the translator turns and says, "No."

“I think I can trust you for the moment,” I said. “Give me a couple of minutes to get dressed and let my girlfriend know I’m leaving and I’ll be ready.”

He rolled his eyes, and if you don’t think it’s weird to see a bird roll their eyes then hoo boy are you jaded – and said, “Okay. But please try to make it fast, okay?”

“Hey, you woke me up in the middle of the night. You’re just lucky I’m not one of those girls who insists on putting on all her makeup before going out.” I said it mildly, because despite the spirit’s sarcastic attitude the worry was clear in his voice.

I woke Kennedy up and explained what was going on, and where I was going. She was instantly awake and ready to follow me.

“No, honey,” I said. “I already called Giles. He says the spirits are on the level. Let Buffy and everyone else know what’s going on. How long should this take?”

The bird chittered, and “A few hours at most” came out.

“If I’m not back by 8, send in the cavalry. Now get some sleep.”

“Like I’m going to sleep now,” she grumbled, but, trusting me to take care of matters, she didn’t try to stop me from leaving again.

“Okay, I’m ready,” I said. “Where to?”

Ouaod’Stogue flew back to the window. “Follow me.”

I cleared my throat.

“What?” he said impatiently.

“I can’t actually fly. Well, not without some special ingredients I don’t have with me.” Or power taken from big books of dark magic, but I wasn’t going that route again, nosirree bob I wasn’t.

“Right.” He flew awkwardly over to the door and perched on my rubber tree plant.

“Also,” I said, “I maybe might want to carry you through the streets, because the people in the neighborhood, yeah, blasé, but not so much that they’d ignore a – what species are you anyway?”

“Spirit,” he said tersely.

“You know, for someone who wants my help, you’re not being very nice,” I said. “Maybe I should just go back to bed.” I took off my jacket and began to walk back towards the bed.

Ouaod’Stogue sighed. I didn’t realize birds could sigh, but he did a pretty good job of it. “I’m sorry. Cenubious is usually the one who deals with people -- of course, he doesn’t need a spell to talk with them. He’s got telepathy. All I can do is chitter. I apologize.”

It hadn’t been the most gracious of apologies, but Ouaod'Stogue was trying, and I supposed that was the important thing. "Good enough," I said, redonning the jacket.

Ouaod'Stogue flew over to my shoulder, and I gently took him in my left hand. As I reached to open the door, he said, "I honestly don't know. I don't think I am any known species. Ever since the demon transformed me, I've just always thought of myself as a little yellow bird."

Once we walked outside, Ouaod'Stogue fluttered free of my grip. "The gateway's over here," he said.

"Whoa. Gateway?"

"To our pocket dimension," he said. Then he settled to rest on a nearby rail and said, "I didn't tell you that, did I?"

"No. It doesn't matter, but I really would like to know these things. Is there anything else you haven't told me?"

He counted on his wing. "Cenubious is dying . . . we live in a pocket dimension . . . with a number of the children we've saved over the years . . . did I mention that the children haven't aged?"

"Again, no," I said.

"Children are happier," he said. "And they're certainly happier than they were when they were with their parents."

"Anything else?" I asked. I didn't approve of kidnapping kids. Even if Cenubious and Ouaod'Stogue had apparently taken them away from abusive parents, there had to have been another solution.

Different species, different moralities. And they didn't hurt the children, from all accounts.

Still.

“So where is this gateway?” I asked.

“Over in the park,” he said. There was a decent-sized park near a couple of blocks away – not Central Park-sized, but not a dying lawn and a rusty playground set, either. There were a couple of nature spirits there I consulted every once in a while, and vampires tended to prowl there at night (though, you know, not so much anymore now that Slayers were roaming the area).

I’d never noticed a gateway before, and I’ve always liked to think I’m pretty well attuned to such things. I mentioned as much to Ouaod'Stogue, who chirped, “It’s not like we leave it open all the time – only when we need to travel here. And we haven’t been doing that for a while.”

This time, though, I could feel it the second I took more than two steps onto the grass. It didn’t knock me over or anything, but I didn’t have to go “looking” for it, either. Definitely let out more energy when open than closed.

He led me about a hundred feet in, stopped, landed and said, “It’s a bit off this way, in that little grove of trees.” The ground was kind of muddy, but even at my girliest I’m not like Cordelia, and anyway, these boots were made for walking, not showing off.

“Do you want me to carry you?” I asked. “I mean, your flying –“

“I think I do pretty good for a spirit who had to make it up as he went along,” Ouaod'Stogue said. “And I don’t crash into things nearly as much as I used to.” In the course of our fairly short walk over here, he'd already crashed into a lamppost, a fire hydrant, and had narrowly avoided smashing into a parked car. I feared for his head.

“That’s a no?”

“That’s a no,” he confirmed, then rose and flew off.

And now the magical energy was unignorable. (Is that a word? Well, it should be.) I pointed to the general direction of the gate and the bird confirmed, “Yes. That’s exactly where it is. Glad you can sense it; I’d hate to have to look for a new witch now. Not with Cenubious in such bad shape. One thing, though. Duck.”

“You’re not a duck,” I said.

“No,” he said, trying to avoid rolling his little birdie eyes. “I mean, the gate’s only really big enough for children to go through. You’ll wind up having it smash into your chest.”

“Maybe I should crawl,” I said.

With his wings, he gave the best shrug he could. “They’re your pants.”

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that when you’re going out to fight the forces of darkness, you don’t do it in your good clothes. The people at the local Target must have wondered why I kept coming in to get cheap t-shirts and sweats, but so far they’d kept it to themselves. It might not be the funnest thing in the world to get these sweatpants all muddy, but if that’s the worst thing that happens tonight, it’ll believe me be somewhere in the top ten percent of nights I’ve spent kicking bad guy ass.

(Okay, mostly watching other people kick bad guy ass. But I have my moments.)

I dropped to my knees and crawled through the gate. I felt a disturbing and distinctly icky sense of nothingness when I passed through, but that was quickly replaced, and I stood up.

Things looked . . . Different. For one thing, it was day. For another, it was kind of . . . Weirdly colored. Everything was bright and crisp and well-defined, and the colors were vivid and intense.

Even Ouaod'Stogue seemed to have become a brighter yellow. And when I looked at myself --

“So is this your home dimension?”

“IIIII II II III IIIII I II,” he said. “IIII II I. IIIII III I IIIIII. IIII.” That last chirp was practically spat out; I didn’t need my now-nonfunctioning translation spell in order to figure out that he was cussing.

“Can you still understand me?” I asked.

He nodded his head.

“Good. I guess I’ll have to save my questions for your friend. Assuming he’s in a condition to answer questions.”

“III I IIIII,” Ouaod’Stogue said, then gave up. He took off flying, and since he was obviously irritated he was going pretty darn fast. Good thing working with a vampire slayer for the last nine years or so has improved my physical condition. I’m not going to be benchpressing any dump trucks, or anything, but I actually have a vague approximation of muscle tone. So, while it wasn’t fun time in pocket dimension city to have to charge after him, I wasn’t dead on my feet.

I did notice that I wasn’t seeing any of the children that were here, supposedly.

The scenery was that of a suburban neighborhood -- rows of houses, scattered trees, something that looked like an old-fashioned lemonade stand (with no lemonade), and a baseball field that obviously saw heavy use. There were parked cars as well, but no sign of animal life besides Ouaod'Stogue and myself.

Eventually we came to a stop in front of a small red wooden structure.

On top of it sat a medium-sized white dog with a few black spots. He grinned a toothy grin when he saw me. This was the dying Cenubious?

>Here’s the dying Cenubious sitting in front of the tall adult human,< came a voice in my head.

“So that was a yes?”

>That was a yes,< Cenubious said. Ouaod'Stogue fluttered to a rest behind him. >Good job, little friend.< More chittering. >Ouaod’Stogue says you’re the most powerful witch he could find.<

“I have some power,” I admitted. “What do you need me to do?”

He hopped down and landed on his hind paws -- and maintained his balance. >Impressed?<

“Most dogs can’t really walk on their hind legs.”

A return of the toothy grin. “>I’m not most dogs.< Ouaod'Stogue walked forward and chittered some more, and Cenubious held up a front paw. Then the little yellow bird-spirit sat down. >He wanted to come with us. I told him he’d done enough for the moment. Would you like to see the neighborhood?<

He started walking, yes, still on his hind legs. I followed him, saying, “You know, you don’t seem like you’re dying.”

>I’m using up all of my energy to keep this place and myself intact,< he said. >I’ve passed the point of no return. That’s why Ouaod'Stogue was trying so hard to find someone like you.<

“Are you going to tell me why you need me?”

>I’m not dying right this second.<

We walked around the area for about twenty minutes. The spirit told me that the pocket dimension extended for several miles -- including a wilderness area, a small mountain range, an “ocean,” a small desert, and at least three schools. “I thought this was supposed to be a children’s paradise,’ I said. “While I’d be kind of in paradise in school a lot of the time I doubt a lot of children would see it that way.”

>Not a paradise,< Cenubious said. >Just an improvement on what their lives were. They have problems here -- but their parents aren’t beating them up every day, or neglecting to feed them.<

We came back almost to where we started. Cenubious surprised me by walking up to the back door of the house and kicking it several times. A small, nearly hairless boy wearing a yellow striped shirt opened it. “I know it’s not sup--” the boy began, then stopped. “Cenubious? What’s going on?”

>Usually, we maintain the fiction,< Cenubious said, and must have been speaking to me alone, >that this spheroid-skulled child is my owner. Unfortunately, we’ve gone past that now.< Then he “spoke” to the child. >It’s getting to be time,< he said.

“Can’t we take you to the vet?“ the boy asked. “Oh. You don’t mean that way, do you? Is that why she’s here? Nice to meet you, ma’am.”

“Nice to meet you too,” I said,

“Cenubious? I can understand her.”

“Why wouldn’t he be able to understand me?”

I didn’t need to finish the question. >Because you’re real,< Cenubious said. >All of the other adults here are made-up. The children aren’t normally aware of this. But since my powers have been fading, they’re aware that the adults aren’t really speaking. My ‘owner’ has been aware of this the longest.<

“I’ve been keeping up appearances,” the boy said. “As best I can, anyway. Trying not to frighten the other children.”

“You sound very intelligent,” I said.

“Me? No, ma’am. I mean, I’m not the worst kid in school or anything, but I’m far from the smartest. This is mostly just what I’ve picked up over time, that’s all.”

>Gather the other children togetherAt the baseball field. Bring everything.<

“Even the football?”

>Yes. Just in case.<

The boy ran off. Cenubious and I walked back into the backyard, where Cenubious hopped back up on the small house. Ouaod'Stogue flew in and perched next to him, chittering.

“>Not yet, little friend,< Cenubious said. >Now. I suppose you’re all wondering why I asked you here . . . .<

“It would be nice to know,” I said.

>Come with me,< Cenubious said suddenly.

“Um--”

>Climb up. It will hold you.< Ouaod'Stogue obligingly flew down and landed on the ground, albeit in a fashion reminiscent of The Greatest American Hero.

Feeling not unlike a fool, I did so. My legs came close to brushing the ground. “So what do we do now?”

Flashing that toothy grin, Cenubious said, >Hold on.<

“Hold on? Hold on to wha—aaaaaah!” I was jerked backwards as we rose into the air; only by clutching frantically to the top of the structure did I stop myself from landing in a Willow-sized heap on the ground. “What are you doing?”

>FlyingI need to show you something.< Cenubious sounded grim, now. >Look down.<

“That’s a big nope,” I said. “Falling to my death is not in my immediate plans.”

>I wouldn’t let you fall to your death,< Cenubious said. >No one dies here. Please.<

I looked down, clenching the structure even more tightly, and saw the outline of Cenubious’ pocket universe. The residential area was dozens of blocks around; I saw the schools, a hospital, and a couple of streets’ worth of shops. Over to one side, I saw the “ocean;” it covered the western third of the universe. To the south, was a mountainous area – not high, but high enough to have a ski resort. Beyond that was a desert, which covered a couple of square miles.

The wooded area was primarily to the east. “It’s beautiful,” I shouted, and it was. It showed the kind of power Cenubious had, to create it.

>Thank you. Too beautiful to -- please hold on!<

I gripped hard enough that, had I been Supergirl, you would have seen my fingerprints permanently etched into the wood. (Yes, I know, but that’s comic-book-science.) Cenubious removed one paw and pointed into the distance.

Holy mother goddess. What was that?

It wasn’t a bird. Not unless the birds of the pocket universe were eight feet long, bloody red, and had leathery wings. And claws. And could shoot fire from their mouths. And since none of that spells “haven for children,” I’m thinking probably not.

>I have to ask you for a favor,< Cenubious said. “>I used to be able to fend off these attackers. Now, I need to use all of my energy simply to fly.<

“What is he vulnerable to?” I asked. Casting a spell while perched on a three-foot high wooden structure, in a pocket universe, without any material components (they’d blow away in the wind), not exactly ranked “ridiculously” on the easy meter. So I’m hoping, maybe air. Or water.

>Iron and steel.< Well, terrific. I’ll just conjure some of that out of thin air and we’re good to go. What do I look like, a mine?

Time to go back to ol’ reliable. “How about telekinesis?”

>That could work.<

At this point, it had better, because Cenubious wasn’t going to be able to land this thing before the red demon caught up to us.

Fortunately, the demon wasn’t being subtle; it didn’t need to be. It fell in behind us and accelerated, following all of Cenubious’ moves like it was reading his mind.

>No; he’s just that good. Unfortunately.< A blast of fire missed us by inches. I looked down and saw that one of my shows was on fire. I kicked it off and swore. Curse you, red demon.

There’s nothing up here for me to throw – except my clothes, my purse, myself, and Cenubious. None of which sounds productive.

So I turn around, and boy is he scarier close up than he was a distance. And at a distance, you know, not exactly a fluffy kitten. So, the telekinesis will have to be on him.

Wings? Flapping. Hard to target. Have to be even closer.

Body it is. “Can you go lower?”

>I’m not going to put the children at risk,< he said firmly. >And he won’t fly into the trees. I’ve tried.<

“Over the ocean.”

A brief return of the toothy grin. >Yes. Of course.<

In the meantime, the blood-red demon opened his mouth to breathe fire, again. Concentrating, I closed it. He was surprised, and after about ten seconds began coughing and choking, and fell away.

Cenubious, in the meantime, was speeding towards the “ocean.” Below and behind them, the demon was recovering, and speeding towards them. He was moving up and down, and side to side, presumably to avoid me getting a fix on him.

Well, I got news for you, buddy: Your wings might be moving too fast, but your body isn’t. But right now, it was time to throw him off.

We were almost at the ocean. Cenubious was gradually lowering us until we were no more than 100 feet up.

>I’ve refined your plan a bit,< Cenubious said, and before I could ask him how, plummeted until we were hovering about ten feet over the water. I could have jumped in and not been hurt.

The blood-red demon had been surprised, but had rapidly recovered from his shock (it was no assumption that it was a he, and never you mind how I could tell) and was diving towards us.

Suddenly, Cenubious said >When,< and began moving us rapidly forward and to the left. I was startled, but quickly took control of the demon’s plunging body – he was already pulling up, anticipating that Cenubious would use this maneuver, but not, apparently, that I would – and made him crash into the open at nearly full speed.

The blood-red demon was in a fix, all right. He struck with a mighty splash, and by the time Cenubious and I were speeding back to the residential neighborhood he still hadn’t managed to struggle to the surface.

“Assuming he’s still alive –“

>He is,< Cenubious said. >He can’t swim but he won’t drown.<

“Won’t he come after us?”

>Not while we’re on the ground. He considers the air his territory.<

“Then why not simply don’t fly?” I asked. Shut up, you. It made sense in my head.

>Because this is my universe.< His voice sounded faint.

“Are you all right?” I asked.

>That used up more of my energy than I hoped it would. I’d say I have very little time left.<

We landed in the backyard. Ouaod’Stogue and the yellow-shirted boy were waiting. “They’re all waiting,” the boy said when he landed.

>Thank you,< Cenubious said. >Give me a moment.< The boy moved away and sat leaning against a nearby tree. >Now, as I was saying before I was interrupted . . . <

“Yes?”

>I showed you my universe.<

“And a nice universe it is, but I’m not getting the point.”

>I need someone to maintain it.<

Ah. So that’s what this was about. The tour, the flight -- he wanted to convince me to protect his children.

>You are the most powerful magician Ouaod'Stogue was able to find. Probably one of the most powerful in the world. Without me, this universe will collapse within a matter of hours after I die. Ouaod'Stogue can’t do it himself. He will try, if I perish; and he will die as well. I don’t want this to happen.<

“Understandable. But I have a life I don’t want to, can’t, give up. I have responsibilities, and friends, and people I love, and you can’t just take me away --”

>I was never going to take you away. I couldn’t force you to stay even if I wanted to. I was hoping you wouldn’t want this to die.<

“I don’t,” I said. “But I don’t have the power to maintain this universe from the outside.” It would take all of my energy, or close to it, and I’m not just talking magical energy, but personal energy, and I can’t make that kind of sacrifice. If I were by myself, then maybe I’d try, and that’s only a maybe, and from inside, not outside.

>And you’re not going to stay here.<

“I can’t.” Then I had a hunch. “I wasn’t just the first magician Ouaod'Stogue targeted, am I?”

>No. And the gateway doesn’t normally open on a park in New York City. Usually, it’s California.< Yeah. The trees should have been a clue, but me, usually concentrating more on the forest. There had been a few redwoods in there. And, of course, no deserts on the east coast, unless you count the desert of Maine, which I really don’t. >I couldn’t have an evil witch, or an uncaring one, or even one who didn’t like children.<

Talk about being put on the spot. But really, this wasn’t a choice. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t.”

He sighed. Then he said, >Then I guess we’ll have to go with plan B.< Then, putting the dog dish sitting nearby under his arm, he said to the yellow-shirted boy, >Lead the way.<

And we marched, yes marched, down the street, over a vast grassy area, and to a baseball field. The little boy led the way, followed by Cenubious, with Ouaod'Stogue fluttering along awkwardly behind, and me bringing up the rear, trying real hard not to pluck the little yellow bird spirit out of the air and carry him, for his safety. The only reason I didn’t was because I was sure it would offend his dignity.

It didn’t take long before we were in the middle of a sizeable and fairly well-maintained baseball field. There were quite a number of children there. None of them looked unhappy to be here, but still, kidnapping, never good, despite the good intentions. Still, these children were probably better off than they would have been with their parents.

Still: Xander’s parents were abusive and negligent, mine and Oz’s were absentee, Buffy’s Dad wanted to forget she existed, and Tara’s were downright evil.

And we turned out pretty good, because, in Buffy’s words, “We’re family.”

These children had never had that chance, because Cenubious had never allowed them to grow up. They had manufactured “blood kin” who loved them, not actual families who actually did.

Also: the little yellow-shirted boy had mentioned how much experience he had. I wondered how long many of these children had been here.

Ouaod’Stogue settled in to perch on my shoulder.

The boy said, “Excuse me!” He could barely be heard above the tumult of the chattering children. “Quiet please! Quiet!” he said after a few seconds.

Cenubious walked forward and cleared his throat, and all of a sudden all of the children quieted down and faced him.

>Children. This is Miss Willow Rosenberg.<

A chorus of hellos, mostly enthusiastic, though one little girl in the front, wearing a blue dress, said, “She doesn’t look so great to me.”

So, I’m not impressive in sweats, a somewhat muddy t-shirt and one sneaker. I hadn’t realized this was a popularity contest anyway.

>She is great,< Cenubious said, giving me an unexpected ego-boost, not that I need it, because, you know, a Willow full of herself is a Willow who ends up casting dark rituals, and memory spells, and trying to run people down with an eighteen-wheeler. >Great in magic. In fact, she is the most powerful single magic-user on Earth.<

My eyebrows rose. I certainly wouldn’t have said that. >Don’t be so modest,< Cenubious said, apparently to me and me alone, since none of the children reacted.

“Why is she here?” A boy in a purple striped shirt said.

“Maybe,” a girl in the back said, “She’s the one who’s going to save us.”

Muffled cheering. The girl in the blue dress said. “I’ll believe that when I see it.”

>I’m afraid not,< Cenubious said. >She said no, and I’m not going to force her.<

The yellow-shirted boy looked up and said, “You’re just going to leave us here, ma’am?”

“The universe –“ I began.

As I hoped, Cenubious had read my mind. >It will disappear gradually when I die. If they are still here, they will disappear along with it.<

I moved up close to him. “How long ago did you take the last one?” I asked quietly.

>It’s been about twenty years. I’m not completely sure. Time doesn’t pass in here quite the same way,< Cenubious said.

“The yellow-shirted boy – he mentioned something about having a lot of experience. Do they remember?”

>They remember learning whatever they learn. It’s the reason they sound more like miniature adults than little kids. That they’re not getting any older hasn’t occurred to them. But they remember 1955 as much as they do 1999.<

“Thank you,” I said. Then, to the yellow-shirted boy, “No. I’m not going to leave you here.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” he said to Cenubious.

“Blockhead,” the girl in the blue dress said. “She’s going to make us leave.” She walked up until she was facing me, or would have been if she was two feet taller. “And what if we don’t want to leave? Huh? What then?”

>Then you will vanish when the universe does,< Cenubious said.

“I don’t want to disappear,” came a girl’s voice from the back.

“I’ve got a bargain for you,” the girl in the blue dress said. “A challenge. If we win, you stay here and keep our world intact. If we lose, you can take us with you.”

“What’s the challenge?”

From behind her back, she produced a football. “I’ll hold the football, and you come running up and kick it.”

“Huh?” I couldn’t be hearing this right. They were settling the fate of their universe based on whether I could kick a football? That was right out of –

Holy mother goddess.

If there had been a convenient tree, I would have banged my head against it. Xander was going to kill me for not having figured it out.

You’ve probably figured it out by now, and here’s me, allegedly smart Willow Rosenberg, shooting by all the clues.

I pointed to children in order. “Charlie Brown.” He nodded, startled. “Lucy Van Pelt. Schroeder. Frieda.”

Cenubious was gaping. >How did you know their names?<

“You really don’t know?”

>No idea,< he said, to me alone.

“You’re a fictional character. You’re all fictional characters.” I was still being quiet, because children hearing this? Not of the good, in the least.

>May I go deeper?<

“Can you?” I was still worried about his health.

>I have several hours if I conserve my power. This will not use much. I promise you, I will do nothing to change your mind.<

That concerned, me because up until now, not really considering that as a possibility. “Don’t even try.”

>I haven’t lied to you yet,< Cenubious said. >May I?<

“Go ahead.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever had someone read your mind before. When you don’t know about it, and the mindreader is good, they can be in and out and not set off any alarms, unless you’ve had the forethought to set some. (And, just for the record, I have. Anyone attempting to do more than skim my or my friends’ surface thoughts without permission wakes up two hours later in the middle of the nearest police station, having confessed to any crimes they may have committed in the interim. It was wrong of me to violate someone else’s mind and I will be damned before I let anyone violate mine, either.)

Anyway, if you haven’t, it’s not exactly a fun experience if you’re aware of it, and not a participant. It’s having an operation without the general anesthetic. It didn’t hurt, exactly, but I was aware. And that’s very uncomfortable.

After a minute or so, Cenubious pulled back. >You weren’t kidding,< he said. >I really am seen as a fictional character. I wonder how this man Schulz became aware.< After a brief pause, he added, >Or how he came up with some of his concepts. I have never had any siblings, for instance. Nor has Ouaod'Stogue any friends. There are other animals here, of course, but they are all real animals. Especially bunnies. I like bunnies.<

Cenubious would have never gotten along with Anya. Very much not the main issue right now, I know.

“I think, maybe,” I said slowly -- I was speculating here -- “that he may have picked it up in dreams, and then adapted it into the form of a comic strip. Changing you into an actual dog, albeit an intelligent one. Adding parents in -- loving ones, even if they were never seen. Changing a blood-red demon into your fantasy of the Red Baron. And, of course, creating your family.” I was relieved in a way to know that Cenubious didn’t have any siblings. You know what Snoopy’s brother’s name was? (The most commonly seen brother, I mean.)

Spike. Yeah, that wasn’t a ground I’d been interested in plowing.

“In any event, that’s the only thing I can thing of. I assume adults have never been in here?”

>Not real ones,< Cenubious said.

I turned to Lucy. “Yes?” she asked.

“Do you realize there’s no way I’m accepting your challenge?”

“Whyever not, ma’am?” No, butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.

“Because I know what you do,” I said. “You hold the football, I come running up and kick it, and you pull it away at the last minute.”

She smiled innocently. “Well, ma’am, that’s what makes it a challenge, doesn’t it?”

“Don’t trust her, ma’am,” Charlie Brown said. “She will pull it away. There’s no way to kick it, ever.”

“Hey!” Lucy said. “Whose side are you on anyway. blockhead?”

“I just want to do the right thing,” Charlie Brown said. “She should know all of the facts. I don’t want to win by cheating.”

“You never win at anything,” Lucy sneered.

He sighed. “Yes, Lucy. I know. But I wouldn’t want to win by cheating.”

I moved back by Cenubious and said, sotto voce, “I assume you’re not going to let me simply knock them out and drag them out of here?”

>You’re right,< Cenubious said ominously. >I won’t let anyone hurt them. Even though I trust your intentions.< Well, I hadn’t thought so. For all that Cenubious was fading, fighting him, well, maybe I’m powerful enough, but it’s his universe, so probably this is an experiment I don’t want to try.

“So the only way to get them out of here is to take up the challenge?”

>Or you could wait until I die and try to convince them then. Maybe as the universe collapses around them they’ll be easier to convince.<

Ouaod'Stogue chittered, and Cenubious translated. “Ouaod'Stogue doesn’t think this is likely. I’m inclined to agree with him. You may get a few. I want you, little friend, to promise that you’ll leave.<

Angry chittering. Cenubious didn’t need to translate that. If it wasn’t “hell, no,” or the equivalent, then I’m Grover Cleveland.

>I am afraid,< Cenubious said apologetically, >That the only way to get anyone to leave here is for you to accept and pass Lucy’s challenge.<

Well, poop. I wasn’t the devoted fan of all things Peanutsthat Xander was, but I’d read the strips and seen every animated show. Up to and including The Girl in the Red Truck.

And I knew that Lucy always, always, always succeeded in pulling the football away. Every time. I might not be of this universe, but I was sure as shooting in this universe, and now wasn’t the time to find out I was bound by the same rules all of the inhabitants were.

Smirking, Lucy walked about twenty feet away, knelt down, and set up the football, the way she always did. She didn’t bother giving me a spiel about how this time, I could trust her, or anything. I knew better, and she knew better.

In the guise of psyching myself up for what everyone seemed to think was an impossible task, I searched my memory for anything that might help.

And then it hit me. Goddess bless you, Xander Harris, for making me watch every special.

Including It’s Magic, Charlie Brown. Featuring the only time Charlie Brown ever kicked the football.

See, Snoopy had made Charlie Brown invisible, but couldn’t undo the spell. And while he was waiting, Charlie Brown happened upon Lucy, in a field, playing with the football –

And he ran up and kicked it.

So what was the only way to kick this football?

Magic.

And guess what good ‘ol Willow Rosenberg’s really good at?

I said, “Okay, everyone clear away and give me a circle.”

At a nod from Cenubious, they did exactly that.

I looked through my purse, which of course had a number of magical components in it. Nuts. Nothing for invisibility. Or superspeed, either. And I had to come up and kick the ball, so ol’ reliable telekinesis isn’t going to cut it, nope, not today.

But – aha!

“I’m waiting,” Lucy said impatiently.

“We’ve got until the end of the universe,” I said. “I’ll be ready in about thirty seconds.” I needed something I didn’t need to cast a big ritual for, because that, maybe, might clue them in, and foreknowledge might be good in general, but here, for them, not so much, not if I wanted to get out of here.

Teleportation was too hard. Superstrength, I could do, but then the only way to kick the ball would have been to kick Lucy, and I’m not going to kick a kid, no matter how annoying she is.

Okay, that left this. I turned and faced Lucy – to her cry of, “It’s about time!--” backed up a few feet, and took out a handful of powder. I suddenly threw it on the ground, yelled, “duplichilo!” and in the intervening puff of smoke, moved about ten feet right of where I’d been, and two feet further back.

When the smoke cleared, there were two dozen Willow Rosenbergs. (I was the only real one, of course.)

“What--” Lucy said, in confusion.

I wasn’t about to let her recover from the confusion. That, and the spell only lasted about fifteen seconds. I ran towards Lucy and the football, and all of my duplicates did as well.

Lucy’s head spun in all directions. She didn’t know what was going on, which Willow was real, or even if any of them were. She pulled the ball back as the first mes got there, and watched them go through each other. ‘It’s a trick!” she yelled, too late.

A dozen other mes had gotten there by the time the real me showed up. She was holding the ball behind her right shoulder at the time.

I kicked it out of her hands hard enough to show everyone that I’d won the challenge; it hit the ground about five feet away. Then I released the spell.

“You cheated!” Lucy said.

“How?”

“It could be argued,” a boy in a brown striped shirt, “That the use of magic is cheating, almost by definition.” Ah. I was wondering when Linus Van Pelt was going to show up.

“What were the terms of the challenge?”

“That Lucy would hold the ball,” Linus said, “And that you would come running up and kick it.”

“Was she holding the ball?”

Linus said, “Yes. Of course.”

“And did I run up and kick it?”

“Yes, but—“

“Then it seems to me I met the challenge.”

“You did not meet it,” he said politely but distinctly, “In the manner in which it was intended.”

“I met it in the manner I intended to,” I said. “Look. You probably set this up because you felt that you couldn’t lose, because no one but no one can kick the ball when Lucy holds it. Right? Of course I’m right. Except I found a way to kick it. So I won the challenge, and you lost, and that means you have to come with me.”

>She’s right, children,< Cenubious said. I’d noticed he hadn’t spoken for a while. Ouaod’Stogue was hovering near him, clearly worried. >You made a promise.<

“We don’t want to leave,” a little blonde girl who hadn’t spoken before said.

>You must. I love this universe, but I love you more. It will not last long after I go. And if I cannot have both, I will at least know that you are still alive.”

“Well, rats,” Lucy said. “So, tell us. You have any idea what you’re going to do with us?”

I hadn’t thought that far ahead, and said so. I knew – and had known all along – that my “ideal” solution was hardly ideal, but hadn’t been thinking about it because the other solution was even worse. Now I had to think about it. There were dozens of children here, some of whom had been here for decades, and who would suddenly reappear in the real world, at the same time, as children -- with one Willow Rosenberg standing conveniently nearby for grilling, scapegoating, and miscellaneous interrogations. (Since I wasn’t yet 4 years old when the last of these children disappeared, I couldn’t have been the kidnapper; but as the only adult present, it would be assumed that I knew something, and the assumption would be right, even if I couldn’t exactly offer any cogent explanations that wouldn’t end me up in Bellevue explaining things to the nice doctors).

Well, hell, I knew the job was dangerous when I took it. “How long will I have after you perish before this universe begins to collapse?” I asked Cenubious.

>Several hours. But I would hope the children would be long gone by then.<

“And how long do you have?”

>An hour. Maybe two. No more.<

That gave me a little more time than I thought. “Can the gate be reopened?”

>Yes. What are you thinking?<

“I’m thinking that Lucy has a point; I don’t have anything set up to deal with nearly a hundred children, some of whom vanished over fifty years ago. I know someone who does -- but I’m betting my cell phone coverage doesn’t quite extend into pocket universes.”

>You’re probably right.<

He had Ouaod'Stogue reopen the gate, and he and I went back through it. I checked the time on my cell when I gout out -- it said 5:51 AM, which seemed about right. I had my idea, but I also needed to talk to a few people first.

Ouaod'Stogue chittered, “Hurry up!” The translation spell hadn’t worn off, here.

“I am hurrying,” I said. “Give me a minute.”

Four and a half minutes later -- not nearly soon enough for the chittering bird spirit, who apparently wanted me, to, I don’t know, teleport around the world collecting the people I needed, rather than setting up a conference call -- I was on said conference call. On other ends were Giles, Buffy, and Kennedy.

I explained what was going on, and then said, “And now, Buffy, I know you didn’t want to throw our weight around to get you out of community service, and I know we don’t exactly have the President on speed-dial or anything, but I think maybe this situation needs some weight, because otherwise, whoa, 75 kids and nowhere to put them -- I really don’t think our basement’s big enough, you know --”

“Whoa,” Buffy said. “Chill, Will. Whatever weight we’ve got, it’s yours. Right?”

“Absolutely,” Giles said.

“I think this is going to be a bit beyond even Woodman & Weld, though,” Kennedy said. “I’m sure whatever help you need, I can get the Kennedy money behind it.”

“Good. That may be a good backup plan. For the moment, though -- we don’t have the President, but,” and I said the rest almost reluctantly, “We do know someone in the government . . .”

Not nearly everything was set up fifteen minutes later, but at least the wheels were in motion. Ouaod'Stogue jumped around as though his feet were on fire, but he could tell, I think, that I was working to try to help the children; that I wasn’t just jerking them around.

“Okay,” he said when I hung up the phone, “Let’s go! I need to be there when --” he didn’t need to say when, what.

It would be set up by the time I got back. Whatever weight the Council and the people in it had would be thrown around, if necessary. Kennedy even threatened to unleash Natasha Romanoff on anyone who got in our way.

On an I promise completely unrelated note, does anything think it would be a bad idea if I recreated the vampire Willow suit?

Never mind. Ouaod'Stogue led me back to the gate; I crawled through it and came back to find Cenubious sitting on top of the “doghouse.” Which I hadn’t recognized as a doghouse because it only vaguely resembled one; it was the right size and approximate shape, but the top was flattened (if you think I’m going to sit on a pointed roof, you’ve taken leave of your senses. I may not be a boy, but still, ow!), it was about eight feet long, and it was a dull, not bright, red. Yeah, the dog dish, but I assumed that was part of Cenubious’ persona.

The children were all surrounding the doghouse, but they parted to let me through.

Quietly, I said, “Cenubious?”

>Still here. How did you do?<

“Fairly well – I hope.” I went on to explain what I’d done.

There was a more than a trace of anger in his voice, but he clearly wasn’t going to be able to do anything about it. >You brought in the government? The government betrayed these children in the first place.<

“The government is not one entity, indivisible,” I said, “There are individuals who can be trusted. This is one of them. And I may be the most powerful witch on the planet Earth, but getting together enough power to insert 75 children back into society in good places without anyone recognizing would take too long and have the definite potential to lead to bad things, because of all the memory spells and records alterations and things I would have to do, and power may not corrupt by definition but I wouldn’t be willing to take the risk, never mind that I am not going to do another memory spell ever even if my life depended on it. So it’s either this or leave them here, and I am not going to leave them here to be squooshed out of existence.”

>No. I would definitely prefer that not happen. I wish that a better alternative could have been found, though.<

“Me too. But the only ‘better alternative’ involves me coming to live here. And that, was never going to happen. But you did put in a good effort. And I trust these people. Implicitly. They know people who will be able to make this right. As right as they can. And if a single person involved hurts one of these children, they will have to deal with me.” I let Dark Willow show for a fraction of a second, just a fraction, because that’s all I feel safe letting her out for. Goddess save me if anyone calls that bluff, because I’m still not entirely sure it is one.

Anyway, Cenubious, I wasn’t really trying to bluff anyway, I was trying to convince him.

I don’t know if it was the conviction in my voice, the (brief, I swear!) darkness in my eyes, or simply necessity, but Cenubious said, >I believe you will do your best to make sure no one hurts these children. That is the best I can hope for. Please stand aside. Children,< and all the children came to attention, >We are ready.<

“I’m not leaving,” Charlie Brown said. “At least not until –“ he couldn’t finish the sentence. This sentiment was echoed by all of the children.

>It is not something I wish you to see.<

“We don’t want you to be alone, Cenube,” said a girl who could only have been Peppermint Patty.

>I won’t. Ouaod'Stogue will remain here until my passing.< Which was a matter of minutes, if I was any judge. Cenubious was now lying on top of the “doghouse.”

“If you want to say goodbye, now’s the time,” I said.

>She’s right, children.< Cenubious had been devoting most of his energy, apparently, that part that wasn’t being used to keep up the universe, anyway, into maintaining his normal appearance and level of energy as long as possible, so he could avoid worrying the children for as long as possible.

That meant a lot of worrying now, of course, so maybe it would have been better for me if he’d allowed a long slow decline. But then again, it wasn’t my universe.

I stepped back, out of the way; Ouaod'Stogue settled in to perch on my shoulder while the children said their goodbyes. About half of the children came up to say their goodbyes

It ended, not as I expected, with Charlie Brown, who wordlessly went up to the side of the doghouse, laid his head against it, and sobbed for about a minute before Schroeder led him away, but with Linus, who came up and solemnly laid a light blue blanket over Cenubious, covering him from feet to neck. His tail wagged slightly. >Thank you,< he said.

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 1 Corinthians 13:11,” he said.

>Not too soon,< Cenubious said. >Goodbye, my children.< Then, to me, alone, >I managed to convince Ouaod'Stogue to leave as well. I have some final instructions for him and then he’ll follow you.<

“Okay. I am sorry this couldn’t have worked out better for you.”

>As am I. But this is a tolerable second-best. You had better go now.<

He closed his eyes. “Alright, children,” I said. “Let’s go. The people on the other end will have some questions -- you can tell them the truth when they ask. They will not hurt you.”

They grumbled, they moaned, but they left through the gate, one by one, until only Charlie Brown was left. He ran back to the doghouse, dodging me, and hugged Cenubious one more time.

>Goodbye,< I heard the spirit say faintly.

Then he came up and said, “I’m ready, ma’am,” and walked through the gate.

I followed.

What I came to on the other side, in the park, was well-organized. The children were being looked at, fussed over, taken care of, and moved into buses. It seemed like they were being treated well; there was sobbing and sniffling, but none of the children were screaming. There was no police presence save one officer, and the military was all dressed up like members of the National Guard, presumably just in case someone got suspicious.

A soldier bent down to help me, but I said, “No, I’m okay, thanks.”

“Is that all of them, ma’am?” she asked.

“One more,” I said.

“Well, you’ll have to come with me,” she said.

“No, I’m going to wait for them.”

“Ma’am, I’m going to need to insist.”

“I have a good reason for staying.”

“Ma’am--” “Ma’am” sounded a lot different from a 60+ year old little boy and from a trained soldier. From the soldier, it was perfunctory. From Charlie Brown, it meant something. “Step away from the gate,” she insisted.

Oh, goody. Time for “pointless bureaucracy.” This soldier – Lieutenant Ferguson – had apparently been told to “move everyone away from the gate,” and that meant me as well, whether I wanted to move or not.

“No,” Isaid. “Can I speak to your commanding officer, please?”

“Once you step away from the gate,” Lt. Ferguson repeated.

“Oh, for crying out loud,” I said, then, amplifying my voice slightly, yelled, “Sam!”

“Willow?” A voice came from over by the buses.

“Over here!” Samantha Finn and I weren’t exactly best friends, but we chatted, mostly online, about things natural and supernatural. The government was still operating on a “strike-force” basis when it came to these things, but wherever there’s a strike force there’s bureaucracy backing it up, ready to deal with any collateral issues -- like rescuees. Usually that deals with debriefing and restoration of people to their normal lives -- or so I’m guessing! Sam and Riley of course would never ever have told me any of this stuff -- but I was sure they could stretch it to this.

It wasn’t like having the president on speed dial, no sirree; if we’d called Riley to get Buffy out of her community service they would have probably hung up on us, and we’d have deserved it, but cleaning up after a big supernatural hullabaloo was definitely in their wheelhouse.

One other thing they’d figured out was teleportation. Oh, I could do it, but never on a “mass transport” and it always took a lot out of me. They somehow were able to teleport strike forces when and where needed at a moment’s notice. Riley’s had already been deployed, but thank the goddess Sam’s hadn’t.

In the meantime. Lt. Ferguson had paled, seeing that the girl she was casually ordering around knew her CO well enough to call her by her fist name.

She jogged up, saying, “Willow. Hey. What is it?”

“There’s one more being coming through,” I said. “I said I would wait for him.”

“We were ordered to move everyone away from the gate, ma’am,” Lt. Ferguson said. “That means everyone, even her, even if she is a friend of yours.” Stubborn thing, wasn’t she?

“Who’s the field leader?”

“You are, ma’am.”

“Good. I’m ordering you to go help with the children. I’ll keep an eye on her.”

“Ma’am--”

“Are you questioning me?”

A brief hesitation, then, “No, ma’am.” Ferguson walked away.

“I love being able to get military,” Sam said, grinning.

“Don’t give her any more of a hard time,” I said. Hard to fault someone for doing their job.

“I won’t,” Sam said. “So. How’d you stumble into this?”

“Buffy didn’t tell you?”

“Not clearly. All I got was that there were going to be a lot of old kids coming out of a gate, right here, and that they needed our help to make sure everything went smoothly. Old kids?”

“Yeah. About that.” I explained everything, leaving out any mention of anything Peanuts-related because I didn’t want her to think I was loopy out of my skull, or anything.

By the time I was done, Sam’s eyebrows could have brought down low-flying planes. “Jesus. Buffy said you needed a cover-up. I didn’t realize it was that big.”

“And ‘dozens of kids’ is easy?” I asked.

“Easy, no. Manageable, yes. We could have called it a secret government operation that captured, I don’t know, some slavers or something, freeing the kids. But this? How do we explain this?”

“Don’t. Don’t explain it. Just help the children. Find them new lives,”

Sam sighed, “I’ll do my best.”

I smiled. “I know you will. I trust you. And I will be checking up.”

“Don’t you trust me?”

“I trust you,” I said.

“Ah. Right. The children will be well taken care of.” Then, she muttered, “Somehow.”

A voice behind her said, “All the children are ready to go, ma’am.”

“You good to stay?”

“Yeah. The final evacuee isn’t human.”

“Good. I’ll see you later, then.” She smiled, gathered up the soldiers, and everyone left, leaving me alone, if not for long. Kennedy, and Buffy, and the other Slayers came up to keep me company at various times. Even Natasha Romanova and Bull Shannon came, for a brief period, and Giles and Charles called.

I waited, and waited, and waited. Finally, that night, Kennedy came up and said, “I think you’ve waited long enough.”

“He’s coming,” I said.

“Maybe. But not tonight.”

I came and staked out the park for the next week. The gate was still open; I tried several times to enter, but I couldn’t.

Finally, I gave up. The children were safe; that was the important thing.

X X X X X

Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick.

Huh?

Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick.

I got up and looked at the window.

A little yellow bird stood there.

I opened it. “Ouaod'Stogue.”

He chittered and I heard “May I come in?” My translation spell was still working. Good to know.

That question asked by a human, you stand back and see if they can; that question asked by a little yellow bird, you say “Sure!” because if they’ve figured out how to vampirize little yellow birds, we’re all in trouble.

“What happened to you?” I asked. “I thought you were supposed to come out after me.”

“I did. Just longer after you than you probably expected. Cenubious’ last request took longer than I thought.

“Are you okay?”

“I am,” he said, “But I used up most of my available power to complete the request.” He must have seen the worried look on my face, because he said, “I’m not going to die -- not for a long time. But until the end of my life I’m going to be nothing more than an intelligent yellow bird.”

“You can stay here,” I said. Kennedy, Buffy, they wouldn’t mind. Dr. Becker probably would, but he minded the sun going down, so his opinion, not looming particularly large.

“Thank you. But before we settle that, I have something to show you.”

I let Buffy know what was going on -- Kennedy and most of the other Slayers were getting a tour from Bull of the local demon hangouts, and Buffy was holding the fort in the event of any screaming emergencies that needed a Slayer’s immediate attention -- and carried Ouaod’Stogue back to the park.

The gate was still open.

“How?” I asked. “I thought the universe would collapse when he was -- gone.”

“That’s what I’ve been doing,” he chittered. “Follow me.”

On my hands and knees, again, I crawled through the gateway.

When I stood up, I was back in Charlie Brown’s front yard. The universe had shrunk to the point where it wasn’t really even fair to call it a universe anymore -- it extended to the sidewalk in front of the house to the back of the backyard, maybe a hundred feet, in all directions, including, I was guessing, up. I resisted the urge to walk down the sidewalk and see what bumping into the edge of a universe felt like. Disappearing into nothingness, not exactly in my immediate plans.

I walked through the house -- preserved, intact, up to and including the food on the kitchen counter -- and walked into the backyard, Ouaod’Stogue flying along behind me the whole way.

Cenubious’ body lay on top of the doghouse, still covered by Linus’ blanket.

“A shrine?”

He shook his head, and then invited me to come back through the gate. I guess he wanted to be able to communicate with me.

I got a shock when I came out. I was in a hotel room, it looked like, with Charlie Brown, a little girl who had to be his sister Sally, and Linus and Lucy van Pelt.

“Miss Rosenberg?” Charlie Brown said, and then, far more enthusiastically, “Ouaod'Stogue!” The bird spirit chittered happily and greeted each of the children.

Then he said to me, “I wouldn’t have been that long with simply a shrine, and Cenubious wouldn’t have wanted that. I was setting it up as a haven. That’s what used up most of my power. Any of the children can go back there, now, if they have a need. It is a refuge, now, though, not a home. You can also access it at will, and so can I.”

“But he made us promise not to go back there unless we felt we had to,” Linus said. “And so far, the soldiers are treating us fairly well.”

“No problems?” I asked.

“We’re homesick and we’re anxious about what’s going to happen,” Lucy said.

“But so far they’ve all tried to be nice,” Charlie Brown said.

“Good,” I said. “Pass this on. If any of you have serious problems -- and I think with your experience you know what I mean by serious -- you can come through the haven to me, and I will fix it.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Charlie Brown said.

Ouaod’Stogue chittered to me, “We should get going. The people in charge don’t know about the haven and I’d rather they didn’t.”

I said goodbye, we passed back through the haven, and headed back home.

Ouaod'Stogue accepted my offer to stay with me. I have a “cage” he only lives in when company’s coming over, and of course, I had to change what I called him, because Ouaod'Stogue, it doesn’t roll trippingly off the tongue, it just trips over it.

Want to know his new name?

Oh, darn it, you guessed.

X X X X X

Peanuts was, of course, created by Charles M. Schulz.

The End

You have reached the end of "A Little Yellow Bird". This story is complete.

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