"Has he woken up, yet?" Razor demanded.
"No, sir," squeaked his junior lackey.
Razor threw the lackey across the room, with a roar of rage. "Then get him up!"
"He's not going to wake up," Oliver put in. "He wants to be unconscious. Whatever he's up to, he's doing it with his mind. Using our psychic bubbles to his own advantage."
Razor turned on Leandra. "You," he snapped, pointing at her. "This is your fault. You were the one that wanted him broken."
"Me?" Leandra cried. "I warned you that he was going to kill us all! I've warned you from the start!" She pointed over at Oliver. "Besides, Oliver was the one who picked out that little girl!"
"Razor was the one who decided to torture her," Oliver pointed out. "And Sandy was the one who suggested this whole strategy in the first place."
"Sandy's already been dealt with," Razor growled.
Leandra turned her glare onto Razor. "You were the one who made the deal for the Time Lord with those Vamp-Awayed Losers," she said. "You were the one who wanted him here."
"You hungered after him just as much as I did," Razor snapped back. "Or don't you remember that?"
"Ed was the one who built the blood-sucking machine," Oliver accused. "If not for that, we would have just killed the Time Lord flat out, and none of this would have happened."
"And killed yourselves in the process!" Ed retorted. "Or had you forgotten about regeneration?" He crossed his arms. "And Joe was the one who came up with the ruling the world idea."
"You leave Joe out of this," said Leandra. "He's dead. He can't defend himself."
"Joe died first, because he massacred those humans that nursed the Time Lord, when he escaped," Oliver pointed out. "Joe tortured and killed all those people in LA, trying to find some mystery device the Time Lord had hidden. The Time Lord snapped, and killed Joe. But we've done worse than that, since. Whatever the Time Lord's got in mind for us, it'll be way worse than what he did to Joe."
Leandra glared back at the busted-in door, able to see the edge of the outermost psychic bubble that comprised their prisoner's cell.
"I say we bury him alive," she proposed. "By the time he suffocates, we'll be long gone. Then he can regenerate as many times as he damn well pleases, before he dies completely."
"I second that," said Oliver. "Finish him off before he finishes us off."
Razor slammed his fist down on the table, the wood splintering under the force. "Silence!" he roared.
Everyone glared at him, but said nothing.
"How long do you think we'll last, without him?" Razor demanded of his followers. "How long before you come crawling back here, dying for another taste of blood? Face up to it. The Time Lord was right — his blood is a drug, and we're all hooked. None of us would be able to kill him."
"We could leave him where he is," Ed proposed. "Drain him even more. Keep him unconscious."
"For the last time, he wants
to be unconscious," Oliver groaned. "Whatever he's doing, he's doing it psychically. Using the bubbles."
"Then we should shut off the psychic bubbles," Leandra proposed.
"We can't, unless you want to kill him and cause a regeneration," said Ed. "And if he's tampering with the psychic bubbles, I can't guarantee that they'll contain his regenerative energy the way they're supposed to."
"Then wake him up!" Leandra said.
"We've killed about a hundred people, to get him to wake up, and he's not budging," said Oliver. "He's done playing our games. We broke him, and now he's going to kill us."
"Then we wait!" Razor cut in. "The point of singularity is close. That's the end for him — and he knows it. All we have to do is make sure he doesn't kill us before the critical instant."
"And how are we going to do that?" Leandra demanded. "Break him? Oh, wait, I forgot! We did that. That's why we're in this mess in the first place!"
"We don't need to break him!" Razor snapped. He gave a small smile. "All we need to do is wake him up. Undo whatever he's done psychically. Then distract him until the critical instant has passed."
"He's not going to wake up," Oliver said for the hundred billionth time. "We could kill everyone in the world, and he'd sleep right through it. He wants us dead. He needs to be unconscious to do that. Trust me. He's not getting up for anything or anyone."
"Except one person," said Joe, who had appeared beside them. He gave them a large, feral grin. "Rose Marion Tyler."
Buffy was in conference with the leaders of UNIT and the secret section of the US Army that dealt with the supernatural, when Jack burst through the door.
"The TBVs," he said. "They know about Rose."
"Okay," said Angel, after his fiftieth attempt to get to Cleveland and warn Buffy had failed. "It's not the First."
He pulled off his shoes, and squeezed the water out of them.
"You look like you drove into a lake," Joanna noted.
"I did," Angel replied. "The car went out of control. Wound up in a lake. I'm wet, and the car's been totaled."
"Not the First, then," Spike agreed. "Not its style."
Joanna looked between the two of them. "Non-corporeal, all-powerful evil entity? Why not?"
"Well, while the First is certainly big on torture, the destruction of the world, shattering all hope by preying on your conscience, and creating vast, unkillable vampire armies," said Spike, "the First's always bloody showy about it. King of the big gloat."
"Whoever's directing this is being sneaky," Angel said. "Directing events, actions, and people from behind the scenes. If the First is involved, it's not the one calling the shots."
Joanna crossed her arms. "Okay, then," she said. "So. 'Bringer of Death', the army of unkillable vampires, the destruction of humanity, and the Amulet — all of which points directly to the First as our primary suspect — are all red herrings. Whoever's calling the shots, they're powerful enough to screw with everything and everyone. And they don't want us to tell Buffy it's the First that's behind it."
"Whoever this is," said Angel, "they probably want Buffy to work out that it's the First, for herself. So she'll believe it."
"Except it's not the First," Spike said. "We're all agreed on that."
"What I want to know," Joanna cut in, "is what force, out there, is bad enough that it's hiding behind the First Evil?"
Kennedy thrust the newspaper down in front of Willow. "I don't know very much about history," she said. "But I'm pretty sure that the Native Americans of Cleveland didn't know ancient Babylonian."
Willow picked the paper up, and studied the headline Kennedy was referring to. "'Babylonian artifact discovered in Steven's Bakery basement," she read. Looking at the picture, which showed the stone foundation of the basement, including one stone containing cuneiform writing. Willow frowned, skimming the article. "'…stones taken from strictly local sources'?!"
"Giles is down at the museum where they brought the stone, taking a look at it, now," said Kennedy. "He was trying to read the text from the picture, but he said it was weird. Like… it was written in cuneiform, but the words weren't Babylonian."
"What were they?" asked Willow. "Code?"
Kennedy shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine."
Dawn rushed past them, her head down in a stack of papers, muttering under her breath. She stopped, as she noticed Willow and Kennedy.
"Have you seen…?" Dawn started.
"Buffy's already gone," Willow and Kennedy said, in unison.
Dawn swore, then darted off down the corridor.
"Well," sighed Kennedy, "that's whatever Dawn's trying to do out the window."
"At least we're being more productive than we usually are when Buffy's away," Willow said. "We're looking at stones."
Xander half ran through the corridor, stopping beside Willow and Kennedy. "Please tell me…" he started.
"Buffy's already gone," Willow and Kennedy said, in unison.
Xander tossed the folder he was carrying over his shoulder. "Well, that's the end of that," he said. He sat down beside Willow and Kennedy. "Reading something fun?"
"Cuneiform writing in a local basement," said Willow. She turned the paper so Xander could see. "Giles is checking it out."
Xander squinted at the headline. "That's sounding dangerously close to this organization doing real work while Buffy's away," he remarked.
"She's left already?" Faith asked, appearing in front of them. She stomped off, muttering, "Well, that's just great."
"I guess leaving to go defend your pretend-sister in England while the rest of the world is being destroyed makes you pretty unpopular," said Xander.
"It's not my fault that no one does anything around here unless Buffy tells them to," said Kennedy.
"No, it's all our faults," sighed Willow. "We all kicked Buffy out, when she was about to find the Scythe. We all fell into that trap Caleb and the First set for us, because we didn't believe her. And now, we've got Buffy stuck doing a job she doesn't want to do, because if she isn't here, the whole organization falls apart."
"All that aside…" Kennedy started.
They were all interrupted by the sound of revving, which reverberated around the room. They looked up, but they were still in a corridor in the center of the Slayer Institution, far away from any roads, cars, or windows. They looked at one another.
"We should probably look into that," said Willow. "Phantom car sounds. Not a good thing."
"With Buffy in England?" asked Kennedy. She laughed. "Yeah, right! We're not looking into anything!"
Willow sighed, but nodded.
"I just hope Buffy's fake family appreciates what she's doing for them," said Xander. "Because if they don't, we sure could use her help over here."
"No way," Buffy told Jack. "She hasn't met you, yet. If you stick around, she might see you, and I've gone through the whole meeting-before-you're-supposed-to, end-of-the-universe scare thing before. You're staying far away from the Powell Estates."
"And if this is a trap," Jack countered, "then you'll lead the TBVs right to Rose. And there's no way you'll be able to defend her, when you're unarmed and civilianized."
Buffy grabbed one of the decorative needles out of her hair, then threw it at the side of the building. It thudded into a crack in the cement, right smack in the middle of the "D" in the grafittied, "BAD WOLF".
"Unarmed?" Buffy inquired. She yanked the needle out of the wall, and showed it to Jack. "Pure iron." She tucked it into her hair. "I've also got three daggers, a hatchet, five pure-iron piercing things, and a sword."
Jack stepped back, looking her up and down. Spending a little too much time checking out her ass. She cleared her throat, and he moved on, looking for hints of weapons. And seeing none. He raised an eyebrow at her.
"First thing I learned, with the Doctor," said Buffy. "How to hide weapons."
Jack grinned a wicked grin. "If you're good, I'll show you where I hide my Compact Laser Deluxe pistol."
Buffy gave him a small sigh. "When the world's not ending, Jack." She reached into her pocket, and handed him a crumpled piece of paper. "While I'm getting the Tylers to safety, you check in on this guy. He's kind of weird, and I don't want him getting involved in something too crazy for him to understand."
Jack flattened the paper along the outside of the building. "Clive Finch," he read. He glanced back at Buffy. "Isn't he that UFO conspiracy nutcase who runs the 'Have you seen the Doctor' webpage?"
"Just check in on him and his family, and make sure they're okay," said Buffy, ignoring him.
"You've been working with a UFO nut to spy on the Doctor through history?" Jack asked.
Buffy looked away. "I just…" She winced. "There was this thing that happened, in 2003, involving other-worlds and stuff, and I got curious about Mr. Big-Ear-Leather-Jacket."
"You haven't told this Finch guy that the Doctor's an alien, have you?" asked Jack. "Or that you know him?"
"Of course not!" said Buffy, hands on her hips. She hesitated. "I think, right now, Clive's kind of more convinced that the Doctor's some immortal… god-type thing."
"God-type thing, huh?" Jack's smile grew, his eyes twinkling, and Buffy guessed that Jack was thinking some very undivine things about one particular individual that, in his mind, did approach divinity.
Buffy pushed him down the street. "Just go check on my friends, already!" she said.
Jack stumbled, caught his footing, then glanced back at Buffy and winked, before heading off.
"And if you die a bunch getting there, I'm going to get really mad at you!" Buffy shouted after him.
"I… I don't… where's Buffy?" Audrey asked, plastering herself against the wall.
"Buffy's not here, right now," Dawn said, trying to soothe her. "But it's okay. I'm her sister, and they're her friends. If you're not comfortable with us, that's cool. We'll leave."
Audrey's eyes lingered on Willow. Her hands were shaking.
"It's just a memory spell," Willow explained, once again. "We think it could help us find the Doctor."
"And you want us to find the Doctor, right?" asked Dawn. "Because then we can rescue him."
Audrey's breathing grew faster. "I… I don't… where's Buffy?"
Xander added another little tick to his mental tally, as the conversation repeated itself, over again. For the thirty seventh time.
"This isn't getting us anywhere," Sam muttered to Xander. "Whatever she's willing to tell Buffy, there's no way she'll be willing to tell us."
"Welcome to life in Cleveland without Buffy," said Xander. "Our motto: 'You want frustration? Come and get it!'"
"Audrey, if you don't want us to do the spell, we don't have to," Willow cut in, breaking the cycle. "But I promise, it's not going to hurt. And if it does, I'll stop, right away."
Audrey hesitated. Then, with another glance around, just in case Buffy had shown up, she nodded at Willow.
Willow sat down amongst her arranged items, and crossed her legs. She gestured for Audrey to sit in front of her, and Audrey, with some hesitation, did so.
"I'm just going to root your memory into the essence of the Earth," Willow said. She handed Audrey some dried flowers, with a comforting smile. "It'll ground your thoughts a little, and make your mental landscape easier to sift through. Then you can try to remember where you were when you last saw him. Okay?"
Willow closed her eyes, and began chanting, spreading the leaves and twigs before her. Her breath was filled with power, a glowing shimmer rose up from her hands, and — as she touched the flowers in Audrey's hands — spread to Audrey.
Then a crash.
And a sudden swirl of wind, roaring through the air, as a great big split opened in the air between Willow and Audrey, a tunnel of blue light, sucking at everything nearby — save for the two encased in the spell.
"Will!" Xander shouted. "Call off the spell!"
"I'm trying!" Willow shouted back. "But I'm not the one causing this!"
A small tendril of light stretched through the portal — as Dawn felt herself lose her grip on the nearby railing, and fly forwards, into the portal, unable to find something to grab onto. Sam lunged for her, just barely managing to jerk her away before she got sucked through. But Dawn could still feel herself being dragged in, her arm touching the blue edge of the portal, brushing against the light… and colliding with another hand, coming through the other side…
A spark blazed across their vision.
The next thing they all knew, they were on the floor. The spell was over. The portal gone. And Audrey was trembling in a corner, looking at them all suspiciously.
"Okay, what just happened?" Xander asked.
Willow shook her head. "I… don't know," she confessed. "It was like… her mind was… linked. To someone else. Someone… in serious pain."
"And the portal?" asked Dawn.
"I've got no idea," said Willow. "Except… I know I wasn't the one opening the portal. It was already there, just... inside Audrey's mind." She glanced over at Audrey. "I guess it's back in her mind, now."
The sound of a motor zoomed past them, and they looked around. Once again, nothing.
"I really, really wish Buffy was here," said Willow, with a sigh. "She'd know what to do."
Buffy thanked her lucky stars, the moment she heard Rose's laughter echoing through the apartment door. She'd half expected Rose to be out somewhere really far away, in some massive amount of trouble, while gangs of vampires were ripping the Powell Estates to pieces, leaving Buffy to choose between rescuing Rose and rescuing Jackie.
But, lucky for her, they were all together.
Buffy grabbed the doorknob, about to force the door open, but stopped herself. Right. No Slayer stuff. This was her safe-place, her Slayer-less place, the one location where she could forget her destiny and her legacy and her duty, and be normal.
She knocked, instead.
The door was flung open by Jackie Tyler, who swept Buffy into the room with an excited cry of, "I didn't know you were in town! You should have told me — do you want some tea? Course you do. Looks like you've been wading through all the mud in London, getting here."
And so on, and so on, the warm chattering of friends and words and the rush of smiles making Buffy forget, for just a little while, everything that was happening in the outside world.
Rose, talking animatedly with a black boy about her own age who was sitting across the table, glanced up at Buffy. And gave her a large grin — one that showed just the merest hint of hesitation, as Rose tried, like always, to work Buffy out.
"And meanwhile, on the telly, the alien jumped out of his space ship, right? Laser gun in hand, and then he blasted all the other…" the boy trailed off, as he realized Rose's attention had wandered. He glanced over at Buffy. "Who're you?"
"'S okay, Mickey," said Rose. "She's the one I told you about. Who beat up Jimmy."
The boy slouched in his seat. "Oh, yeah, right," he muttered.
Rose took the boy's hand in her own — giving him some comfort — then turned back to Buffy. "Did you fix whatever had gone wrong, back in America?"
"I—" Buffy started, when she heard an inhuman howl rip through the air, outside. The shriek of cold, merciless laughter echoing through the stairwell, outside the apartment. The little tingly sense Buffy felt in her mind, whenever vampires were around.
Rose glanced towards the stairwell, a frown emerging on her face. She got up from the table. "That's odd."
"What's odd?" asked the boy.
"Didn't you hear that?" Rose asked him. "'S like there's something outside…"
Buffy intersected Rose before she could reach the door. The laughter was now echoing down from above them, in the stairwell, and Buffy hoped that meant the vampires had overlooked them.
"I'm sorry about this," said Buffy. "Really, really sorry. But you guys are in mega trouble, staying here. I've got to get you to safety."
"What d'you mean?" asked Rose. She tried to extricate herself from Buffy's grip, to look out the door. "What's out there?"
"Just… people," said Buffy. "Bad people. And they're looking for you."
Jackie emerged from the kitchen, a tea pot in her hand. She paused, as she heard the rush of footsteps and evil laughter echoing down from the apartment stairwell.
"Jimmy's gang," Jackie muttered. She shoved the tea pot down onto the table. And turned to Rose. "I told you they'd be after you, if you went out with that boy," she scolded, "I warned you! But you just had to run off with someone dangerous like Jimmy, didn't you? Now, look! You've landed us all in a mess of trouble!"
"You're the police?" Rose asked Buffy. She thought a moment, then shook her head. "No, not police. You're… MI-6, aren't you?"
"Huh?" asked Buffy. Before realizing that, whatever MI-6 was, she was better off letting Rose believe she was part of it than telling the Tylers the truth. "Oh. Yeah. MI-6. Totally."
The boy stumbled to his feet, his eyes wide, his hands shaking. He swore, grabbing Rose as if pleading with her to protect him. "I knew Jimmy was bad, Rose. But I never knew he was wrapped up in something like that."
Buffy glanced at the clearly terrified boy standing before her. Just great. If he was this scared of a gang of thugs, he'd be totally useless against actual vampires. "Who're you?" she asked.
"My boyfriend," said Rose. "Mickey."
Buffy stared at the boy. "Him?" she cried. She looked back at Rose. "After you chose Mr. Gang-Guy-Abusive-Boyfriend, you moved onto Mr. Geeky-Shrimp-Can't-Defend-Himself? Seriously?" She shook her head. "You've got almost as bad a taste in boyfriends as Dawn!"
"Who're you saying can't defend himself?" demanded Rose's Boyfriend, standing up and looking like he was gearing up for a fight. "Bet I could take you on in—"
Rose pulled the boy back. "Bad idea!"
The laughter suddenly became louder, and the scraping sound of sharp nails against the wooden front door of their apartment poured through the air, making them all wince.
"Fire escape," Buffy said, grabbing Rose by her arm, and yanking her along. "You, too, Jackie."
"What… what's that?" asked the boy, his voice shaking. "What's…?"
"Andrew," Buffy snapped at him, "stop whining and run!"
She tugged Rose out of the apartment and onto the landing of the fire escape, Jackie following close behind. The whiny boy was muttering something annoyed sounding about his name under his breath. Buffy didn't pay attention to him. She was focused on feeling out with her Slayer senses, trying to determine where the biggest danger was.
A crash of shattering glass from the windows of a nearby apartment, and Rose turned, terror but determination in her eyes, as she slipped her arm out from Buffy's grasp, and rushed back into her own apartment.
"Mrs. Nindekin!" she said.
Damn it! Buffy turned to Jackie and the boyfriend, shouted, "Don't move," and then rushed after Rose. Catching her before she reached the front door of the apartment.
"Mrs. Nindekin," Rose said. "She might be hurt."
Yeah, forget 'hurt'. Mrs. Nindekin was probably already dead — in Buffy's experience. Nothing they could do for her, now.
"They're not after her," Buffy said. "They're after you
. And if they find you, lots of very bad stuff's going to happen. Not just to you. Not just to me. But to…" she stopped herself just before saying, 'the Doctor'. She coughed, and substituted, "…some other people."
Rose glanced over at the door, her eyes worried and fearful, but determined. Then back at Buffy.
"I've got a team together," Buffy told Rose. "We can take care of this. Promise. But you have to be out of the way and safe, before we can."
Rose hesitated. Then, with one last lingering glance at the door, she turned, and let Buffy guide her out of the apartment.
As they ran, Buffy tried to glance through the smashed-up window, see who it was that had invaded the apartment. If any of the vampires she was seeing seemed familiar at all.
But she saw only a glimpse of a black robe. And nothing else.
As Buffy, the Tylers, and Mickey raced across the Powell Estates, a second black-robed creature with sewn up patches for eyes waited, around a corner, ready to strike out. Join its companion — out wrecking the Powell Estates apartments — and destroy the four humans running for their lives.
"No, no," came a voice, beside him, as the image of Buffy Summers appeared out of thin air. She wore a malicious smile, looking on at the running crowd. "Not yet."
The black-cloaked creature hissed in annoyance.
"Oh, they'll die," the First assured him. "All of them, one by one." The First's eyes gleamed, as it sought them out. "First the Slayer — wiped from time. Then him. Then her. And then, finally — finally
— the valiant child. Who will die in battle. So very, very soon."
The sound of a cleared throat echoed through the air, nearby.
The First turned, the smile dripping off its face and fading into annoyance, as it noticed the person standing nearby. "And look who's finally decided to show up."
"You can't kill her," the entity who wasn't the Ninth Doctor replied. He shoved his hands into his leather-jacketed pockets. "Not before she's gone to Krop Tor."
"I can do anything I want," replied the First. "Unlike you — bound by the laws of time."
"Kill her now," the other entity said, "and I won't exist."
The First gave a proud half smile. "And that would just be such a shame for you, wouldn't it?"
"And for you," the leather jacketed entity reminded the First. "When everything I've done for you gets wiped out."
The First pouted at him. "Spoil sport."
The entity in the leather jacket gave the First a hard, cold stare.
"Oh, relax," said the First. "I wasn't going to kill Rose. I just wanted to torture her a little bit." Its eyes shone, as it noticed the discomfort on the other entity's face. "The same way I've been torturing the Doctor. And you still haven't given a word of protest about that."
The other entity said nothing.
"I'm not scared, you know," the First said. "I know you're just bluffing. Trying to pretend you've done something as stupid as that. You'd never actually go through with it."
Once again, silence.
"And, anyways," the First continued, "if I get control of the Doctor, the TARDIS, and the Key to Time, the entire issue becomes irrelevant. It might even help me, if I use it to my advantage." It pointed at the other entity. "Face it. Compared to me, you're just a powerless pinprick on the universe. The Axis is your powerhouse — outside its confines, you can do nothing."
Still no answer.
"Maybe I'll keep the Doctor alive, somewhere deep inside his mind, after I'm done taking over the universe and getting everything I want," the First mused. "Just so you can hear him screaming out in pain — for all eternity. Unable to do anything to stop it."
The entity raised his eyebrows, then turned, and walked away.
"What? Still no begging?" the First shouted after him. "Not even a tiny little plea for mercy?"
The entity stopped. Glanced back over his shoulder. "No," he said. "Not to you. Not to anyone. Not ever." Looked back in front of him. "Not when I know what it'll mean." Then disappeared into the air.
"How did they find her so fast?" asked Willow, cradling the phone with her shoulder. "No, wait, don't tell me. They followed you."
"Maybe," came Buffy's voice over the phone. "I dunno. I couldn't get a good look at the ones in the apartment over, but…" a pause, then, in a lower voice, "whoever's coming after us, they don't really seem all that interested in catching
"You think this is a distraction?" asked Willow. She frowned, thinking through the events that had been going on, recently. "From what?"
"I was hoping you could tell me," said Buffy. "Nothing weird going on, in the States?"
"Nothing," Willow confirmed. "Like, really nothing. We figured the vamps were all in England, hunting down Rose."
Buffy said nothing, just gave an annoyed sigh.
"Or…" Willow paused, hesitated. Then spoke, with more confidence, "or this isn't about Rose at all. It's about you."
Buffy said nothing for a few seconds. Then, "Huh?"
"Well, we're pretty worthless, here, when you're not around," said Willow. "Maybe they just wanted you in England, so they could wipe us out without getting any resistance."
Buffy swore. "You've got the army guys there, right? And the pure-iron guns?"
"Yeah," Willow said. "But if the vamps are about to pass that singularity point, none of that stuff's going to cut it."
"Will, if they pass that point, we're all dead no matter what," said Buffy. "Even I couldn't stop them, then."
"I still think it'd be better if you came back," Willow replied. "You've gotten the Tylers into the safe-place, now. Can't you just leave them there?"
"Not until the Sandcastle Skyscraper Zingbat thing," said Buffy.
"The Sancrazzil Sycsacramter Zignabat Spell, you mean?" Willow said.
"Yeah. Until you use that to make sure Rose and the others are hidden, I'm staying here," said Buffy. "Protecting her is way more important than everything else, right now."
"More important than finding the Doctor?" Willow asked.
Buffy took in a sharp breath. Hesitated. For a long moment. "This is… bigger than all that," she whispered. "Bigger than even the world. The moment Rose gets involved, we turn a normal apocalypse into some great-big-time-ending catastrophe."
"You were the one who involved Mr. Time-Altering-Protect-The-Doctor-No-Name in this," Willow pointed out. "If this turns into a time catastrophe, that'll be what did it."
"Which is why I'm staying here," Buffy replied, "instead of sticking with you guys in Cleveland. To stop that from happening." She sighed. "How long before you can get that Sandcastle Zingbat thing to work?"
"Not until the astrological signals all line up," said Willow. "I told you. You're still going to have to wait a few more days until we even get our chance. And that's assuming the spell works."
"It'll work," said Buffy. "I know you can do this, Will. And I know—"
But whatever Buffy was going to say next was cut off by Giles, racing into the room, a seriously worried expression on his face. He glanced at Willow — on her cell phone — at Xander, who'd been discussing things with Sam, and then at Dawn, who was leafing through files and papers.
Whatever Rose was a distraction for, Willow figured Giles was about to explain it to them.
"Call you back," Willow told Buffy, and flipped the phone closed.
Everyone looked over at Giles, who opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again, when nothing came out.
"Verdict on the stone tablet, G-man?" Xander asked him.
Giles took off his glasses. "Yes," he said, cleaning them on his shirt. "The… ancient Babylonian tablet. Discovered in Cleveland."
"It's some ancient warning about the end of the world," Kennedy guessed. "Or something else having to do with our current situation."
"Not… precisely," said Giles.
They waited for him to go on, but he didn't. Just put his glasses back on his face, and looked over at Dawn, uneasily.
"Did you at least break the code?" asked Willow.
"It wasn't written in code," Giles confessed. "It's… really quite puzzling, actually, but it I believe — and I'm not precisely certain how — but the cuneiform is only a transliteration. Babylonian letters to form… English words."
Everyone stared at him.
"English?" Kennedy asked. "Seriously?"
"Modern English," Giles agreed. "On a tablet that's been buried in the ground for about four thousand years."
"Well, what did the stone tablet say?" Willow asked. "Maybe that'll answer our questions."
Giles looked over at Dawn. "It said, 'Hey there, Dawnie.'"
"Willow?" Buffy said, into the phone. "Willow!" She swore, as she snapped her cell phone shut. "Damn."
She glanced over, and found everyone else staring at her. Not saying a word.
(Had they been listening? Damn it — what had Buffy said? Hopefully not anything too revealing.)
"Jackie," said Buffy. "There should be kitchen stuff in the next room over. You can make tea." That'd make Jackie feel right at home. Buffy pointed at the boyfriend. "Andrew. You go stand by the door and see if—"
"That's not my name," said the boyfriend.
Buffy blinked. "Oh." She hesitated. Trying to remember what Rose had called him.
"You don't even know what my name is!" the boyfriend accused.
"Of course I do!" said Buffy. "It's…" She paused, thinking furiously. Damn it. She didn't
remember. She had way too many other things to think about, right now. "Andrew," she said. "Go stand by the door and make sure no one's trying to force entry."
"It's Mickey!" shouted the boyfriend. "Mickey Smith!"
Buffy wanted to hit her head on something. "Does it matter? Just go stand by the door, already!"
Mickey muttered something under his breath, but — thankfully — trudged off to do what she said. Thank heavens for small mercies. If he'd turned out to be whiny, complainy, cowardly, and argumentative — Buffy figured she'd be pretty much screwed.
"And you," said Buffy, turning on Rose. But stopped, when she noticed Rose's severe expression.
"I'm not moving," said Rose, "until you tell me what's going on."
Buffy faltered. She must have said something, over the phone, that Rose picked up on. Rose had always been the one closest to figuring out Buffy's game right from the start.
"Look, it's complicated, okay?" said Buffy. "But I'm good for beating up… gang members and stuff. With my… MI-12 buddies. So I'll totally be able to—"
"MI-12?" Rose asked.
Buffy froze. "It's… not 12, is it?"
"Six," Rose replied.
Buffy grimaced. "Okay. Yeah. So, not them."
"Then who are you?" Rose asked. "What's happening? What's it got to do with me?"
Buffy opened her mouth to answer, then realized she wasn't sure what to say.
"Are you even from America?" Rose asked.
"Of course I'm from America!" said Buffy. "Fly into California, and my home's the first crater on your left."
"The day we met, you knew my name," Rose continued, "before I even told you. You recognized my mum. You knew us — all about us — before we ever knew you. Have you been following us? Is this something to do with Jimmy — or is there something else?"
Okay, now Buffy was in for it.
"I'm just… Buffy," said Buffy. "You know. Human. Fighting for good. That kind of thing."
"Human?" Rose stared at Buffy. "What do you mean, 'human'? Was that optional?"
"What are you?" Rose persisted. "Who are you? What do you do? You brought me into all this. You could at least tell me something about yourself."
"I'm just… I'm…" Buffy squeezed her eyes shut. "Look, I'm just a normal, dumb-blond who wound up stuck doing a job she hates because some super entity told me that if I didn't, then some war would break out in the distant future and gazillions of people would die. I've been hunted down since I was a teenager, like I'm some kind of trophy animal you can hang on the wall and brag about. Every romance I've ever had ends with nothing but death and heartache, every friend or family member in my life gets dragged into my work. And, oh, by the way, in case you wanted to know — I've died at least three times, so far — and, even now, there's still a part of me that feels dead inside. Does that help?"
Rose said nothing.
"Basically, I'm a wreck," Buffy summarized. She threw up her hands. "A complete melt-downy wreck. My friends hate me. My work-colleagues are scared of me. Even my own sister's shoving me away and I'd…" Buffy's voice cracked. "And I'd do anything for her."
Rose's severe expression softened.
Buffy slumped against the nearby wall, forcing her emotions beneath an indifferent mask. "And here you are. With your mom. And your normal lives. You guys invited me in, and I just…" Wanted to pretend. Wanted to have a mother-figure in her life, again. Wanted to have a sister who didn't hate her. "I don't know."
Rose said nothing for a few long moments. Then came up beside Buffy, putting a hand on her shoulder, empathy in her eyes.
"You wanted a home," said Rose.
a home," Buffy retorted. "It just happens to be inside a giant crater."
Rose examined Buffy, carefully. Her mind trying to puzzle it all out. "Who else did you lose?" she asked. "When your home got destroyed?"
Buffy swallowed. Looked away. And didn't answer.
"Mum gets like this," Rose clarified. "When she talks about Dad. Part of her just… doesn't want 'im gone."
"Spike," Buffy confessed. "His name… was Spike. He was a hero."
She waited for Rose to mention something about how Spike was a weird name, or ask how some 'Spike' guy got trapped in a giant crater, or something like that, but Rose said nothing.
"And I needed him," Buffy whispered.
Rose put a hand on Buffy's shoulder. Extending sympathy.
Buffy shrugged it off, stuffing her feelings back down inside of herself. "But… whatever. He's gone, now. That's what happens to the guys I care about. They… go away."
Or turn evil.
Or get kidnapped and tortured.
Or they kidnap and torture other friends, for their own personal gain.
"You'll find someone," said Rose. "Like I found Mickey. You'll find someone that makes you happy."
"Like Mick…" Buffy stared at Rose. This kid who had such an amazing future ahead of her, with one of the most amazing guys in the universe — and she thought she was happy.
When stuff was going on out there that she couldn't even see! Didn't even know! When she was wandering around, living her life like a blind person, not knowing enough to even understand there was something else out there she was missing.
"You're not happy," Buffy said.
Rose frowned. "What?"
Buffy turned to Rose, took her by the shoulders. Looked deep into her eyes. Her fake-adopted sister. "Don't settle for this," she pleaded. "Don't let this be your life. Please. If you had any idea what you could do
, what you could be
Remembering. That girl who'd jumped from universe to universe, determination on her face. The girl who'd told her to never stop trying to save her sister. The girl who, only at the age of twelve, had still been able to fight against the First.
"Dawn," Buffy said. "She's amazing. So amazing. And I tried to push her away from it. Like I tried to push you away from it. And now, you're not even looking for…" She swallowed, pushing back her feelings with a stubborn determination. "Please. Please. Don't accept this as your life. There's more out there. You have to believe me. Just find it. Look for it. Be—"
She was cut off by Jackie, who'd finished with the tea, and had entered the room with teapot in hand, chattering about something completely unrelated. Jackie, who thought Buffy was normal. Who was perfectly happy pretending her world was just as small as she'd always assumed.
Rose gave Buffy a weird look. And Buffy turned away.
Someday, Rose Tyler would meet the Doctor. Run off into time and space. See how much more there was to life than just this. See how important saving people and saving worlds and getting involved could be. Lift her blindness, and understand everything going on around her.
Someday, Rose Tyler would stop being normal.
And for the first time since Buffy had become friends with her, Buffy thought maybe… that was a good thing.
"I'm guessing this means you haven't forgiven Riley, yet," said Dawn, watching as Riley retreated into the back section of the library, away from Sam.
"I'm… working on it," Sam admitted. She sighed, collapsing onto a chair. "We've been having a lot of late-night talks. We're getting over it."
"Buffy had a pretty hard time getting over it, when it happened," Dawn said. "It was all while she was at college, so I wasn't around, but… Xander said Riley pretty much lied to her the whole time."
Sam didn't meet Dawn's eyes. "I know Riley isn't perfect," she said. "I knew that, when I married him. And I knew there was something about the Doctor and the Initiative that he wasn't telling me. But…" Her face creased, in sorrow. "I love Riley. I really do."
Dawn stopped herself just short of saying, 'Better you than me.' Instead, she shrugged, and said, "It does look like he's changed." She grimaced. "Just… when we do find the Doctor… make sure Riley's way out of the way before the two of them meet. Because the Doctor brings out… kind of a really bad side of Riley."
A murderous, gun-wielding, self-destructive maniac side of Riley.
Sam glanced over at Dawn. "What about you?" she asked. "Are you okay?"
"Of course I am!" said Dawn, in a way that — she hoped — didn't sound too defensive. "What's there not to be okay about?"
"Babylonian prophecy tablets," said Sam, "with transliterated English."
Dawn didn't answer.
"It's probably nothing," Sam assured her. "I mean, chances are, this is all just caused by… you know. The obvious."
"What obvious?" Dawn asked.
Sam opened her mouth to answer, but any sound she gave was covered by the powerful revving sound of engines, surrounding them on all sides. It grew louder, and louder, seeming to surround them, and Dawn couldn't quite pinpoint where it was coming from, until…
Dawn turned her head, because she knew. Could feel. It was coming from there. That direction. That place. And as she looked, the air seemed to rip apart, for just a second, and a motorcycle tore through into the center of the library, its brakes screeching as the world sealed behind it.
The driver — long, brown hair, sunglasses, and an 80's bomber jacket — hopped off the motorcycle, turning to the staring people surrounding her.
"All right," she shouted at them, hands on her hips. "Who's the pea-brained idiot that's been sending out that temporally active psychic…?"
The driver stopped, as her eyes landed on Dawn. "Gordon Bennet!" she shouted. "It's you!"