Patrice groaned in pain, weaponless, on the top of a building in Topeka. Her wrists were shattered, and so was her chance to kill this Slayer.
She wasn’t worried about her long-term prospects as a member of the Order; she’d had too many successes to have one failure, even a spectacular one as this, cost her everything.
But the healing, the effort to get her out of jail, they would cost her. Her next few jobs would be reimbursed expenses only.
Here came the police, up the fire escape. She’d already heard them discover her backup pistol in the alley below, with her fingerprints all over it, so they had charges and evidence, and plenty of witnesses.
At least, for the moment, they had witnesses.
Well, she’d learned her lesson. From now on, she wasn’t going to try to go after Slayers.
No, she’d stick to safe victims, like demons.
X X X X X
The First Evil, gathering its energy from the In-Dark, was not pleased by the lack of success of the two assassins from the Order of Taraka. The one, the woman, was so badly injured she would be worthless. The other one, the male, had also failed, but was now back on the trail of his potential victim. Still, they had both underestimated the Slayer, to their detriment.
Many, many beings had underestimated Slayers throughout history, up through Glorificus, who, in terms of sheer power, should have been able to destroy the Slayer and her allies in under a minute, and the only reason The First was allowing that long was because the Slayer’s ally the witch was rapidly approaching Power level herself.
More and more, it was beginning to seem to the First like it might have missed its best opportunity, early on, before the Slayer had any allies except for the one normal human – and she would have been incapable of fighting off a single Bringer, never mind assisting the Slayer against an army of them.
That had been the First’s error. Now the Slayer was traveling with six others, four of whom could be of significant assistance in a battle. The Watcher, the wolf, the shapeshifter and the witch were all capable of inflicting considerable damage.
Linda Griffin had thirty Bringers with her. There would be at least twenty or thirty others at her selected gathering place by the time the Slayer would get there, and it had ordered every one remotely in range to proceed there at top speed, ignoring all other objectives and doing whatever they had to to get there.
In the meantime, it would quickly suggest to Linda Griffin, when she landed, that she attempt to recruit local demon hit squads, as well. The more they had, the better its chances.
It was almost time to bring in Caleb.
If the attack in Utah was a failure –
He would be brought to California.
By that point, there would be no choice.
X X X X X
Flattop Jones was mad. The broad had swiped his tommy gun, crushed his rod, emptied his wallet, and left him trussed like a pig headed for slaughter.
Lucky for him, the first person to find him – the man whose car he’d been chucked behind -- had been too nice for their own good. Instead of screaming for the cops, the man had untied him and only then had taken out his cell phone to call them.
Flattop couldn’t let the man do that. He whacked him over the head with a sap the Slayer had missed, took the phone and the man’s cash – leaving the wallet itself -- and drove off in his car, after tying him up.
He should’ve killed the man, but Flattop hated to kill someone when he wasn’t being paid for it, and besides, the man had set him free.
He’d have a couple of hours in this car, and with this phone, before he had to switch off. He called a source of his, who promised to have a pair of replacement pistols waiting for him at a drop somewhere on the outskirts of Topeka. Then, at the next rest stop, he broke the phone at the hinges, smashed it beneath his boot, wiped it clean, and tossed the pieces into separate trash cans.
There would be no replacement tommy gun, though. That, he was going to take back from the woman who’d stolen it from him, and then he was going to use it to end her life.
He would have cooled down by then, though. Anger made you stupid. Yeah, he was boiling at the way the Slayer had treated him – instead of killing him, she’d just tried to embarrass him and leave him helpless.
Her mistake, and one she wouldn’t live to make again.
X X X X X
Daria was glad to be back on her bike, by herself. She was more social than she’d once been as Daria – hell, there were hermits who were more social than that – but she still appreciated time that she could be alone.
Reading would’ve been her first option, but this was a pretty good second choice, just her and her thoughts. Yeah, she was good at torturing herself – both halves were pretty damn good at that, come to think of it – but she wasn’t doing that, now. She had no reason to.
She was not the reason Amy and Jane had been kidnapped. (She might’ve been the reason they were on the trip in the first place, but that wasn’t the topic at hand anyhow.) She was not the reason her parents and sister had been killed, no matter how much Willard Jay Harbaugh and the First tried to convince her she was. (And speaking of, why hadn’t the First showed up as him yet? It wanted her pissed enough to chew nails and spit out rivets, that’d’ve done it. But no. Not that she was complaining. Hell, let the bastard spin its wheels. She was hardly going to advise it otherwise.)
She was not the reason for most of this. Neither she, nor Daria Lynn, nor Faith.
So she had no reason to think about “what she could have done” to make things better, except as a counterfactual, intellectual exercise. And, fun as alternate histories were – Daria liked Harry Turtledove and Faith had been a huge fan of Marvel’s old What If – thinking about what could have happened wasn’t going to be very helpful right now.
That would have been the best thing (for it) the First could’ve done: not had Jake, Helen, or Quinn give her hell, but simply showed her what she could have missed, if.
Nothing to be done about if now.
Back to now.
X X X X X
Willow sat next to Amy Barksdale in the back seat, with Cameron Kim driving and Wesley sitting next to her. Wesley wasn’t showing any signs of a concussion, and believe you me, Willow had figured out what those were in the years of dealing with head injuries to Giles, Buffy, and Xander. That just left him with a nasty bruise, and boy would it be a bad bruise, but it wouldn’t leave a permanent mark, unlike the scar down Tara’s left arm, which was long and nasty and would never go away.
Willow had asked Tara if she wanted to maybe hide it with magic, because, you know, they could do that, and Tara had said no, because that was a little too close to purely personal gain, and she preferred not to be selfish with her magic. “And anyway, it looks kind of cool,” she’d said.
Her choice, Willow had said, and had let it go, although just for kicks had been studying cosmetic spells. Maybe she’d surprise Tara with it for her next birthday.
Anyway, they were all, even Amy Barksdale for the outsider’s perspective, trying to figure out what the First Evil might have meant when she’d told Daria that “she was supposed to die in Sunnydale.”
“It looked like Glorificus at the time,” Wesley said. “Therefore, we are assuming that it is discussing the hellgod herself.”
“Well, we’re first making the assumption that a manifestation of ultimate evil is actually telling us the truth in the first place,” Amy said.
“Yep, we are,” Willow said, ”’cause assuming it’s lying through its teeth, why? What would it get by lying to us?”
“We’re spending time thinking about what it meant instead of figuring out how to beat it?” Cameron said.
Right. There was that. “Good point,“ Willow said. “But I think we can do both.”
“Besides,” Wesley said, “Strictly speaking, it’s no more possible to defeat the First Evil than it is to defeat the wind. The most you can do is reduce its influence and protect yourself and others.”
“That wasn’t exactly what I meant, boss,” Cameron said. “It still might be a waste of time trying to figure out a vague sentence when we could be doing more practical things.”
Amy Barksdale said, “I agree with you that I think the First is jerking us around, but I don’t know what else practical I could be doing right now. I can’t become any animal I want, I can’t do magic, and I don’t have years of training in obscure magical beasties. If Daria were here, I could try to comfort her, assuming she needed and wanted the comforting. As it is, I’m more or less limited to color commentary.”
“You’re good at that,” Willow said.
“Thanks, but I wasn’t fishing for compliments. I was simply saying that while I agree that the First Evil can’t be trusted, there’s no harm, right this second, in trying to hash out what it might have meant, if it were telling the truth, because right now there’s not a whole hell of a lot else we can do.”
“Okay, then,” Willow said. “Wesley, you were saying something about making assumptions?”
“Yes. As the First had assumed the form of Glorificus, ‘she was supposed to die in Sunnydale’ was presumed to refer to her. But I can’t see how where she died would make any difference to the First.”
“Well, by killing her in Lawndale we guaranteed that Dawn wouldn’t be anywhere near it,” and then explained, for Amy and Wesley’s benefit, “Cameron here impersonated Dawn for most of the trip from Sunnydale to Lawndale.”
“And thus, that there was no chance of Glorificus opening her gateway home.”
“Could someone else come through this gateway?” Amy asked.
Wesley said, “Yes. That, I believe, was the fear about allowing Glorificus to return home, was that demons and other creatures from various dimensions could use it as well, and come through in our world -- or Glorificus’, for that matter. But the First is not a creature, by those standards, and its home dimension, called the In-Dark, is inaccessible to anyone save itself.”
And, anyway, it would be trying to find the Key and use it if that was its ride home,” Willow said. “Assuming it doesn’t know where it is already.” And, given that it knew anything the dead did, and that Cameron, Buffy and Spike all qualified, it probably did. Willow explained her reasoning, and everyone agreed.
“So let’s expand the pronoun. The First wasn’t talking about Glory, and it wasn’t talking about Dawn,” Wesley said.
“That leaves Anya, Tara, Daria, Buffy, and me,” Willow said. “If we’d never left Sunnydale neither Cameron nor Dr. Vaughn would have been with us.”
“Yeah, but it wouldn’t have called Daria she. It was talking right to her. It would have said you.”
“Good point, but any of the other deaths could have thrown things off kilter,” Amy said. “Right? I don’t know who all of these people are, exactly, but I’m guessing you’re all more or less friends. Who knows which death might have benefited the First somehow?”
Amy was right. If Anya had died, it would have thrown Xander into a funk and would have upset everyone else; the same was (she hoped!) true of her; and Buffy and Tara, well, Buffy’s death would have sent everyone over the edge, and Tara’s death would have definitely put Willow on tilt. “You’re right,” Willow said. “I tend to think it would have been Buffy or Tara because of,” she sighed, “Because of me.”
“Why because of you?” Amy asked, with slight skepticism. Well, Willow supposed to someone not fully versed in everything that was going on, it might have seemed slightly egotistical, and maybe it was. But in terms of sheer power, Willow was at or close to the top of the list in terms of Sunnydale denizens now that Glory was gone. That didn’t require arrogance, simply an acknowledgment of the facts.
“Because if Tara or Buffy had died, I would have done almost anything to get them back,” Willow said.
“Would this include methods perhaps best not explored?”
Willow wasn’t particularly fond of that phrasing. There wasn’t much that couldn’t be safely explored if you knew what you were doing. Still, this wasn’t the time to get into a fight over wording. “It would include some methods requiring a good deal of power and knowledge, yes.”
Wesley stiffened slightly, but didn’t argue. “Hmmm. Perhaps up to and including resurrection?”
“Hold on,” Amy said. “You can bring people back from the dead?”
“It’s possible, but extremely hazardous,” Wesley said. “Both to the one resurrected and to the one doing the resurrecting. We’re not talking about simply reviving someone as a zombie, which is much easier and less dangerous but does not actually bring the person back to life.” After a second, “And no, we are not talking about George Romero-type zombies. Those are, properly speaking, ghouls, and no sane and very few insane casters bring them back. And, in any event, that is well off the subject. Willow, does that include resurrections?”
“Maybe. I wouldn’t know unless it happens, but I can certainly see trying to do something like that.”
Cameron said, “If just bringing someone back from the dead was enough, then the First would have gotten its way a long time ago. Even if you don’t count the way I was brought back to life, there has to be someone in the past who was brought back using some of these spells, right?”
“Odds are, yes,” Wesley said. “And that’s a good point. However, I can think of one type of being who has never been brought back to life after dying, until quite recently.”
“Slayers,” Willow said, not as a question.
“Yes. No Slayer in recorded history was ever brought back from the dead until Buffy a few years ago.”
“How about witches?” Willow asked.
“Witches are a lot more common,” Wesley said. “No offense. While I don’t know for certain – perhaps we could ask Mr. Giles to look the matter up for us – I think it statistically far more likely that a witch or two has been resurrected in the past than that a Slayer has. If a witch returning to life were sufficient for the First’s purposes, it would have accomplished its aims a long time ago.”
“So, Buffy,” Cameron said.
“So,” Amy said, “If the First Evil told Daria the truth in the first place; if the she in question was not in fact this Glory, and was instead one of the other shes who happened to have been around; if the First wasn’t simply trying to find ‘the Key’; if it’s not Dr. Vaughn, or Cameron, if it’s not Willow or one of the other women; if it’s Buffy; and if the First wanted Buffy brought back to life and wasn’t planning to capitalize on her death for some other reason, then, and only then, have we come up with the answer of what ‘she was supposed to die in Sunnydale’ means. Right?”
“Well, when you put it that way, it does seem as though we’ve gone out on a limb,” Wesley said, a bit sheepishly.
“Out on a limb? From where we’ve gotten, we can’t even see the tree,” Amy said.
“Is it better than what we had before we started?” Cameron asked, a bit pointedly. Right. She hadn’t been in favor of the speculation in the first place.
“Well, we thought about it,” Willow said. “And we came to a kind of conclusion, I think, you know, that we can at least be pretty sure that the First wasn’t talking about Glory, Dr. Vaughn, or Cameron Kim.”
“That seems reasonable,” Amy said.
“Then I have one more if,” Willow said. “If we’re right, and yeah, I’ll give you it’s a big whopping series of ifs, but if the First wants Buffy dead and assumes I’d do whatever it took to bring her back to life, why? What would it gain by that?”
No one had an answer for that. She hadn’t expected one.