Chapter Thirty Four
Dawn pointed at herself, and mouthed the word, "Me?"
"Oh, that's just…!" the driver gave an annoyed laugh. "You knew the whole time, and never said anything, didn't you? And I thought the Professor was bad."
Dawn blinked. "I… huh?"
"Nothing," said the driver, flipping off her sunglasses. "Don't worry about it. Least not for another few years. All I can say is, when I get home, someone's
going to lose all her Nitro-9 holding privileges." She squinted at the area around her. "Where is this?"
"That depends," said Faith, crossing her arms and interposing herself between Dawn and the stranger. "Who the hell are you?"
"Call me Ace," said the driver. She glanced at the library around her, then grinned back at Dawn. "Oh, wait! I know this place! Slayer Institution! Am I right?"
"Yeah," said Faith. "And right now, you're invading. Which means you're under arrest, and if you don't come quietly, you're going to be in even more trouble than…"
"Not again," Ace muttered. She put up her hands, in surrender. "All right. Whatever you say. I know the drill. Just take me to the person in charge, and we'll sort this whole thing…" She frowned. "Who is in charge, now, anyways? And when is now?"
"2004," Dawn chimed in.
"Buffy's in charge," said Kennedy. "And she's not here."
Ace seemed mildly surprised by this. "Dawn's sister? Huh. Never knew she'd been head of this thing."
"'Had been'?" Dawn clarified. "So… whenever you're from, she's not head of the Slayer Institution anymore?"
Ace shot Dawn a wink, placing a finger against her own lips — a signal to keep quiet. As if the two of them had played these kinds of games a thousand times before.
Then Ace turned back to Faith. "Look, I dunno what you're up to at the Slayer Institution at the moment," Ace told her, "but you're sending out some trans-temporal, telepathic signal, here, and it's destroying my friend. So if you could just show me where to place the Nitro-9, I'll get rid of the problem, leave you all alone, and ride back to nine years from now."
Willow looked up. "Telepathic what?"
"Signal," said Ace. "Across time. I know it's from here. You opened up some great big portal, a day and a half ago. Blondie set up a trace on my bike and I followed it through."
Willow's eyes widened. "That portal…"
"'That portal', as you call it, is killing my friend," said Ace. "Shaun's about to go spare. I'm
about to go spare. So, if you don't mind, I'd like to get on with destroying whatever's making my friend regain her memory, give the Professor a good kick in the backside for causing her to lose her memories in the first place, then get back to my normal time before Blondie sets off on another one of her little 'schemes'."
"Wait, wait, wait," said Dawn. "Who's this 'Professor' you keep talking about?"
"You know," said Ace. "The Doctor." She glanced around the library. "He's got to be around here, somewhere. Or my friend wouldn't be remembering."
Everyone stared at Ace. She faltered.
"Oh, no," she said. "What trouble's he in, this time?"
Dawn sat down by Ace, handing her a cup of hot chocolate. Ace almost didn't notice, for a few seconds, then blinked, and glanced up at Dawn. "Yeah, thanks."
"We're trying to find him, you know," said Dawn. "If that helps." She fidgeted with the sleeve of her shirt, as Ace sipped the hot chocolate, fishing for something to say. Screw it. Might as well blurt it out. "You know me in the future, huh?"
Ace gave a sigh. "I did used to be better about this kind of thing," she assured Dawn. She stared at the hot chocolate. "Out of practice, I guess."
"So you really do
know me?" Dawn confirmed. "We're, like, friends or something?"
Ace shot Dawn a grin. "Let's just say, you and me, Key-Girl, we got something in common." She clunked down the hot chocolate onto the table in front of her. "Highly manipulative parental authority figures we can't live with or without."
"Buffy," Dawn sighed. Then frowned. "Hang on. You've got a world-saving overprotective sister, too?"
"More of a genius mastermind universe-saving father-figure," Ace said. She stared off into the distance. "For a long time, I thought he was dead. And I thought... it was my fault."
Dawn grimaced. Yeah, she definitely knew that
"Well," said Ace, forcing a smile onto her face. "Tell you what. If you're ever facing down the Daleks in the middle of a massive Time War, and your sister comes up to you and says, 'Hey, Dawn, why don't you go fish Davros out of the jaws of the Nightmare Child, so we can take him prisoner?' You don't believe a word of it, because she's just trying to trick you into getting pulled out of the war and winding up somewhere safe!"
"Huh?" asked Dawn.
"Nothing," said Ace. "He does it for the best, you know. Like your sister." She flicked at the hot chocolate mug, making it spin around and around on the table top. "He doesn't deserve this." Another flick, and a spin. "No wonder my friend's remembering."
"Who's your friend?" asked Dawn.
Ace said nothing, just flicked at the hot chocolate mug again.
"You can't tell me," Dawn guessed. "Future stuff. Buffy used to say that."
Ace gave a grin. "Always wanted to meet your sister."
"You mean you haven't?" asked Dawn. "In the future, Buffy's somewhere I'm not?"
"Well," said Ace, "I'm probably not supposed to say this, but… basically… yeah. You get away from her. Wind up saving the world! With me and the rest of the gang at A Charitable Earth."
"A Charitable Earth?" asked Dawn. "Seriously? What's that, like, a donation group or something?"
"It's 'something', yeah," answered Ace. She leaned back in her chair, her eyes still fixed on the mug. "Something involving charity, billionaires, saving the world, and a lot of explosions."
For a few moments, Dawn waited for Ace to continue, but it appeared that this was all the information Dawn was getting about her own future.
"What happened to your friend?" Dawn tried.
But Ace wasn't going to answer that, either.
"Vampires, huh?" Ace asked, instead. "Never faced down a real vampire, before." She gave a half shrug. "Dealt with some Haemovores, battling Fenric. They're like vampires, you know, but with more of a time-paradox, hell-god twist to them."
Dawn winced. "I've got bad experiences with hell goddesses," she admitted.
"Yeah," said Ace, her voice flat. "Got a bad record with those sorts myself." She stared off into the distance, a haunted look on her face, then snapped herself back to reality. "Well, if the Professor's in trouble, we better find a way to rescue him. What do you say?"
"I think she's one of the Doctor's friends," said Sam. "I vaguely remember him mentioning something about an… Ace… but…" She shrugged. "I don't really know her."
"Elizabeth mentioned her," said Willow. "Remember? When she launched into her crazy diatribe about the Doctor controlling her mind."
"Score one for the suspicious, possibly evil, possibly just completely insane category," Xander replied.
"I find it suspicious that she doesn't know anything about what's been going on, this whole year," Riley chimed in. "Even though she's human. From Earth. And has a working knowledge of military-grade weapons."
"Here's something else for you," said Faith, crossing her arms. "This 'Ace' person — she recognizes the Amulet."
Everyone turned to stare at Faith.
"You mean… the… collapse-the-Hellmouth Amulet?" asked Kennedy.
"She says she helped make it," said Faith. "She and… this other person. Romana… something-or-other. They made it for a friend of theirs. She thought it had been lost."
"This Ace person knew Spike?" asked Willow.
Faith shrugged. "No idea."
"Well, whoever Ace is, Dawn seems to trust her," said Sam. "That's good enough for me, until Buffy gets back." She turned to Willow. "Have you done the spell, yet?"
Willow shook her head. "Tonight," she said. "3 AM. That's when everything lines up enough that I can pull it off."
It was the first chance Ace could get to slip away from everyone else.
And, yeah, it was 3 AM. But that was okay. Audrey would probably be asleep, and Ace could get this fixed up and over with before she even woke up.
Unfortunately… Audrey was awake.
Audrey shuddered away from Ace, the moment she walked through the door. Ace paused, raised up her hands, and said, in a very soft voice, "It's okay. A friend of mine — she thinks she can help you." Ace raised up a small device. "Before she fell into a coma, that is."
"I… I don't…" Audrey started. She swallowed, then tried, again, "Don't understand…"
"Neither do I," confessed Ace, walking a little closer, very slowly. "Not entirely. But I'm starting to think someone out there's playing games with us. And I'd like to know why."
"I don't know," Audrey said.
"No," sighed Ace. "Course you don't. You're just like Donna. Overwhelmed by memories. Not all of them your own. Not wanting to think too hard, because you'll burn up." She glanced down at the object in her hand. "Don't know what this is. Don't know why you wound up psychically linked through time. Don't know any of it. But Donna thinks this'll help. You."
Nothing could help Donna. The Professor had seen to that.
She handed the device to Audrey, who hesitated, staring at it. Then, in a desperate motion, she grabbed the device towards her.
A light shimmered around her head — a glowing, coursing golden light, like the one Ace had seen, before, appearing around Donna's head every time that Donna got too close to remembering — and then it vanished back into the device, leaving Audrey panting, heavily.
Audrey looked up. Her eyes suddenly clear.
"I know where the Doctor is."
Buffy closed her cell phone, and for a long moment, said nothing.
"Guess that's bad news, then," Jack proposed.
Buffy glanced over at him. "No, no," she said. "Good. Willow's done the spell. The Tylers are all perception-filter-whatevered, and they can go home, now."
Jack opened his mouth to protest, but Buffy got in, first.
"Yeah, yeah, we'll drop the spell the moment that the TBV thing is all taken care of," said Buffy. "I know. No perception weird stuff when the Doctor shows up to take Rose away."
"That wasn't what I was going to say," replied Jack.
Buffy grimaced. "It wasn't?"
"I was going to say — you still look worried," Jack explained.
Buffy folded her arms, scuffing her shoes along the pavement. "I… think you should go back," said Buffy. "Before me. Just… Will says there's this… other someone who's shown up. All suspicious and stuff. They don't know who she is, but… she's interested in Dawn."
"That makes two of us," said Jack. "Lucky I don't mind sharing."
Buffy punched Jack in his shoulder. Very hard.
don't want to go back?" Jack asked, rubbing the injured shoulder.
"I…" Buffy stared down at the sidewalk, biting her lip. What could she say? I've screwed up Dawn's life enough as it is, and she'll appreciate my staying out of her business? I'm sick and tired of hanging around somewhere that everyone either hates me, or is afraid of me — and hearing stories of how the Doctor's getting tortured? I just need a break from feeling helpless and afraid and lonely, for a small amount of time?
Or was she just trying to kid herself that she really was a normal person, with a normal adopted fake-family?
"…I should probably stick around for a little bit," Buffy said. "Just make sure… the Tylers are okay."
Jack examined her, carefully, then nodded. "You're lonely."
Buffy said nothing, but trudged on, eyes glued on the sidewalk.
"That settles it, then," Jack said. He gave her a grin, and a wink. "Can't let a lonely lady stay out on her own."
Buffy rolled her eyes, and was about to snap something back at Jack, when her cell phone rang, again. She checked the caller ID. Willow. Flipped it open.
"Something change from two minutes ago?" Buffy asked.
"Yeah," said Willow. "We know where the Doctor is."
Ace paced the library of the Slayer Institution. It was 4 AM. She was alone, her footsteps echoing across the shadows of night, her eyes staring into the darkness.
"Can't all just be a coincidence," she muttered. "Nothing's that much of a coincidence."
"Suppose you could say that, again," came Hex's voice, out of the darkness.
Ace stumbled backwards, colliding with a bookshelf. Staring at the emerging figure. "You're… but you can't be…"
"Miss me much?" asked Hex. "No, don't answer. I'll know you're lyin'. You lose one friend who's a Shield, and you get yourself a replacement who calls herself a Key."
"It's not…" Ace hesitated. "I remember you, Hex. Every single day."
"Oh, sure, you say that," said Hex. "But you're as bad a liar as the Doctor. You never really cared about me. Not in the way I cared about you."
Ace swallowed hard. Because she knew… that was probably true. "I cared a lot about you," she tried. "You were my friend."
"Just your friend, then?" asked Hex. "Great. All that and I'm still 'just your friend'. I killed myself for you, Ace. And I'm still just a bloody friend!"
Ace didn't know what to say.
"Tell you what," said Hex. "If you really cared so much about me, why don't you do something to show it, now?"
"Tell me about the person," said Hex, "who set up that 'trace' on your bike."
Ace stared. Her mind racing. "You're… not Hex," she said, peeling herself away from the bookshelf. "You're not Hex at all." She advanced towards him, her eyes narrowed. "How dare you!"
"Oh, thinks she's so clever?" said Hex, with a cruel smile on his face. "Well, you're right. I'm not Hex. Just using his form."
"To get me to betray my friends?!" shouted Ace.
"Sort of," said Hex. "Actually, I was hopin' to get you out of the way. The Doctor's in my hands, see, and I don't want you trying any heroics when I finally manage to kill him, and destroy whatever future it is you came from."
Ace narrowed her eyes at the specter in front of her. "If this is you, Fenric, I'm way past this."
"See what I mean?" said Hex. "In your future, you don't even know who I am." He gave a malicious smile. "But you will, Ace. In the new, changed future, everyone will."
Ace gave the fake Hex a dangerous expression.
"And you know something else?" said Hex. He nodded behind her. "With my servants all around — you probably should have kept a closer eye on that bike."
Ace spun around, and noticed that there was something very — very
— wrong with her bike. She ran towards it, pushing buttons, trying to compensate, but it was malfunctioning in a way that even she didn't know how to fix, and… damn it, what the hell could she…?
A boom of an explosion, and when the light died down, the library was untouched.
But both Ace and the bike had vanished.
The first thing they discovered, upon finding the site that Audrey described, was the rest of the Babylonian rock carving: Bike broke. Stuck in the stone ages. Remember for future, and get help. Ace. P.S. Tell your sister: happy endings.
No one quite understood what this last statement meant.
"We've combed the area a few times, now," Dawn explained to Buffy, as they drove over to the place Audrey had described. "But there's nothing. Like, really nothing. Even Audrey was kind of confused."
"But you know the Doctor's there?" asked Buffy.
"Audrey's sure," said Dawn. "Positive. I mean, some stuff's still kind of scrambled in her brain, but at least she isn't insane anymore."
Dawn stopped, and parked the car in front of a tree-filled forested area. She glanced over at Buffy, who glanced back at her.
"Any caves around?" Buffy asked.
Dawn opened the door, and climbed out of the car. "See for yourself."
Buffy tugged on her winter coat, then went out to join the others, already out there, searching. Audrey, standing nearby, had a pensive frown on her face, her eyes staring into the distance.
"Maybe it wasn't here," she told Sam. "I think it was, but… maybe I got it wrong."
"We're searching this area, and all the areas surrounding it," said Sam. "If he's anywhere close, we'll find him."
They turned, as they heard Buffy approaching, and Sam's relief showed on her face.
"Just joining the search," said Buffy. "No need to give me the special treatment or anything." She glanced over at Audrey. "I heard you got better."
"I… yeah," said Audrey. Her face still bent in confusion. "It just hurts to think of… certain… stuff."
"Well, we're glad you're okay," said Buffy. She grabbed the flashlight and flare gun that Sam was offering her, then turned back to Dawn. "Let's go."
They searched for days. Searched until Buffy thought her nose was going to fall off from the cold. Searched until they decided that Audrey had to have gotten mixed up, and called it off.
Buffy sat on a rock, nearby, her head in her hands, staring at the ground.
"Aren't you cold, just sitting around like that?" asked Dawn.
"No," Buffy lied, biting her lip to keep from shivering.
Dawn hesitated, then stepped forwards. "We are going to find him."
Buffy didn't answer, just kept her eyes fixed on the ground.
"I just… need to be alone," said Buffy. She hugged her arms. "For a bit."
Buffy was lost.
It wasn't her fault. She'd just had a lot of things on her mind, when she'd started walking, and hadn't thought to bring a flair gun, or a flashlight, or anything. Now it was dark, and Buffy was still out here, with frozen toes and numb fingers, trying to think about something other than how much nicer it had been to search for people in California, where it never got this freaking cold.
Buffy turned, peering through the darkness. She thought… she could feel something. A twinge, just on the edge of her senses…
She rolled out of the way just in time to avoid the hands that grabbed for her. Springing to her feet, she braced herself for combat, checking in with her Slayer senses, again, but the unseen attacker was too fast for her, and swung her by the arm, impacting her with a nearby tree.
Then… a scream from her attacker.
And next thing Buffy knew, the vampire had let her go, replaced, instead, by a myriad of mitten-covered hands, and a calming but urgent voice, saying, "Don't worry, we've got you, but run!"
Buffy tried to pull away. Turn back. "The…"
"Run!" the voice told her, again, as the many hands yanked her forwards.
Buffy, stumbling on her feet, decided not to question the urgent voices, anymore, and let them lead her away.
"Okay, who are…?" Buffy trailed off, as they approached the fire, and she could see clearly. The group of women, surrounding her. She arched an eyebrow. Women — but unfamiliar women. So… probably not Slayers, then.
The one who'd been guiding Buffy here — the one with the calm but insistent voice — told one of the girls to keep watch. Then turned back to Buffy, and gave her a reassuring smile.
"I'm Ria," said the girl. "And… I know this is confusing, but... yes, vampires are real, and, yes, they're out here, trying to kill you. We've all had to adapt. But I promise, you're safe with us. We've got a car, nearby, and we can get you back to civilization, if you want. Or you can stay here, and help us. Fight back. It's your choice."
"What happened to you?" asked another girl. "Are you all right? Did you escape?"
"She must have," said the third. "You can see that haunted look in her eyes."
The second girl came over to Buffy. "Jeanette," she introduced herself, and offered Buffy a roll of bread. "It's not much, but it's not meat."
"Wait, you're… huh?" asked Buffy.
Ria turned Buffy's head, examining her pupils. "Not concussed," she said, letting Buffy go. "She might be traumatized like Audrey, though. There's always that chance." She led Buffy over to the fire, and coaxed her to sit down. "Whatever happened to you, I promise, you don't have to worry. We've been fighting these vampires for months, now. We're good at it."
"No, no, no, hang on!" said Buffy. "Audrey. You said Audrey. You're…" She glanced around, noticed the haunted yet determined looks in all their eyes. And suddenly realized. "Oh, my God. You're not just the people who rescued Audrey. You're like Audrey. You're… escaped hostages!"
Ria's eyes widened. "You know Audrey?"
A chatter rose up from the girls, and Ria quieted them with a hand gesture.
"Is she all right?" Ria asked. "We were worried."
"Yeah," said Buffy. "Yeah, she was trying to lead me to…" She glanced around herself. "I guess to here. You guys." She turned back to Ria. "You've all been staying here, in the freezing cold, hunting vampires for months, now?"
"We can't kill them," said Ria. "Or even get back into the hideout. But we keep a lookout for hostages and vampire-kidnapping-situations, and try to get the humans somewhere safe."
"If the vampires don't have hostages, then the Doctor can fight back," Jeanette explained. "And if he can fight back successfully, then this entire war will end."
Buffy blinked. Then blinked again. "You… you know where the Doctor is?" she breathed.
"Of course we do!" said Ria. "Why else do you think we've been sitting here in the cold for months? We're trying to rescue him."
"There she is!" cried Jack, approaching the campsite and putting away his Torchwood gizmo. "Track the mobile. Always works." He glanced over at the girls surrounding Buffy. "And who are your friends?"
"I'm Ria," said Ria. "That's Jeanette. That's Heather. And Nadia's keeping watch."
Another girl — Nadia — stepped forward, from where she'd been posted to keep watch, and waved at them.
"We got kidnapped by vampires, escaped, and now we're doing our part to get rid of them and rescue the Doctor," Ria continued.
"Ria's been explaining to me how they've been setting up their ambushes and defenses and things," Buffy explained to Jack. "They've worked out who all the vampire lackeys are, who the big-wig vamps are, and when they come out. They know when the vamps are most likely to bring people in, and where. Where they're likely to be, what they're likely to see, when to post lookouts and stuff. Basically, they've got this down to a science."
"The TBVs have been that predictable?" asked Dawn, coming up behind Jack. "They're not like that around us."
"This is their hideout," said Ria. "We see everyone, here. And, besides, the vampires aren't hiding their tracks around us. They don't care about us. We're not a threat." She gave a bitter laugh. "We're not even armed!"
"Ria and the others can't kill the TBVs," Buffy said. "But I've seen these girls in action. They can take a vamp down. Pretty successfully."
"You guys didn't call for outside help?" Sam asked the hostage group. "Not even backup?"
"Who could we call?" Ria asked. "The police don't believe us. Investigators think we're crazy. Our friends and family are all dead. We didn't know about you… Slayer… whatevers. We just thought… there was only us. We did our best."
"I majored in chemistry," Nadia volunteered. "So I started creating some chemical solutions I thought might prove toxic to the vampires. Heather's a biologist, and Jeanette's really great at statistical analysis, so we started figuring out how to cause them damage, and expanded on that."
"And what do you do?" Willow asked Ria.
"You name it, I do it," Ria explained. "I was the first person to actually escape from the vampires." She gestured at the group around them. "This whole thing was my idea."
"I'm pretty sure the Doctor thinks we're all dead," Jeanette added. "I mean, when I was in there, I heard the vampires tell him that no one makes it out of their hideout alive."
"Most don't," Heather muttered. "There've been tons of hostages. Us four and Audrey are the only survivors."
Nadia stared out into the fire. "The only reason I'm still alive is because..." she hesitated, her eyes growing sad, "…at the last moment, I freaked. And ran. And left the Doctor behind."
All the other girls looked away, unease on their faces.
"You guys all left him behind?" Sam demanded.
Ria turned to her. "I've been tortured by some of the most cruel, heartless, evil creatures you could imagine," she said. "The only person willing to defend me or show me any kindness was put through things I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. Have any of you had to deal with something like that?"
Giles coughed, shuffling awkwardly.
"I was scared," Ria said. "Terrified. I ran. But I didn't leave. I didn't turn around and walk away, ignoring what happened. I stayed. I fought. And everyone who's escaped from there agrees — we're not letting those creeps get away with what they're doing."
All the girls chimed in their agreement.
"So why haven't you gotten him out, yet?" asked Dawn.
Ria looked at them like they were crazy. "You… haven't seen this stretch of wood in daylight, have you?"
Everyone shook their heads.
"Those vampires are in something that looks half-way between a huge basement, and a large cave," Ria said. She gestured at the space around her. "And if it were light outside, you'd see… well, nothing. Their hideout doesn't exist, here."
"There's a number of portals, around," Heather said. "We've tried to access them, but they're restricted. The only way to enter that place is to be carried in by someone without a soul."
"We've been hoping the next escapee will be some kind of robot expert," said Nadia. "Robots don't have souls, right? I'm pretty sure that would work."
"This girl, Molly, back at the beginning — she almost got in, hiding in the middle of a big group," said Heather. "But… they caught her. Killed her."
"They don't take in big groups of people, anymore," said Ria. "At least, not all at the same time, or through the same entrance. They've gotten better about smuggling hostages past us — or better than they were when I first got out, at least."
"According to your own story, when you first got out, the vampires weren't even located here," Nadia said. She turned to the others. "Ria got lucky. When the vampires transported their hideout, they transported her, too. And her car."
Lucky. Again, that word. Lucky.
"My point is," said Ria, "the vampires know about us. They're not afraid, but they're worried. We need to play on that worry."
"They're worried you'll get the Doctor out?" asked Sam.
"No, they think we're stupid, defenseless girls," said Jeanette. "They don't think we can actually rescue the Doctor."
"We'll show them," said Nadia.
"What they're really afraid of is that we'll show the Doctor we're still alive," Ria explained to Buffy. "They're trying to break him. The moment he realizes we're still alive, he'll know they've been lying. He might regain some hope. That's
"But none of you good-looking girls can get back in," Jack guessed.
"The vampires all know us," said Heather. "They recognize us. They're not going to pick us up a second time. And right now, they're fixated on getting one person, specifically."
"I don't know who their latest target is," agreed Nadia. "But I know she's not one of us."
"Basically, aside from the robot idea, we're out of options," said Ria. "There's no way that any of us could get into their hideout to rescue the Doctor. And even if we could, we wouldn't be able to fight back."
"I could," Buffy offered.
"I don't like this, Buff," said Xander, the next morning, as they gathered around, trying to work out plans. "I really, really don't like this."
"I'm not jumping with joy myself," Buffy said. "But it's got to be me. They'll probably have a basic physical description, and I'm the only one that fits the bill."
"I must concur with Xander," Giles put in. "As someone who has… first-hand experience with vampire-induced torture… you shouldn't do this."
"They'll never even pick you up, anyways," said Dawn. "They'll recognize you as the Slayer, right?"
"Not if we get the right one," said Heather. "Some are more telepathic than others. We've got a list. If we locate hairy-eyebrows-geeky-glasses, you're completely good to go. That guy's an idiot."
"Your plan should work," Jeanette told Buffy. "I mean, unless they've added some extra security measures around the Doctor, since I escaped. But otherwise, I'm sure, your plan will work."
"Okay," said Buffy, tucking the last pure-iron spiked ornament into her hair. She turned to Ria. "It's… the right-most green knob on the main control panel, and I twist it left."
Ria nodded. "That'll make the hideout visible and accessible to everyone else."
Buffy turned to Jack. "And you'll know how to disable this… psychic barrier whatever thing around the Doctor, once you get in?"
"Should be," Jack confirmed.
Willow raised her hand. "I can help."
"Remember: there are two psychic bubbles," Jeanette told Buffy. "Directly surrounding the Doctor. I mean, they're called 'psychic bubbles', but they're physical, too. And practically invisible. They repress all psychic signals, they repress regenerative energy, bounce you back if you try to go through them… and they really hurt when you run into them."
"They affect anyone with a soul," Nadia added. "You know. Non-vampire people."
"Those with the delta brainwave pattern," Jack said. "Like us. The vampires' minds run along a different psychic frequency."
"Okay, okay," said Buffy. "Got the double psychic bubble thing. Check. But that's okay, because I'm not going to run into the bubbles. I'm just going to zip in there and twist that knob on the control panel thingy. Like we planned."
"And I want an army of people rushing in to get the Doctor out of there, the second I disable their systems," Buffy told them.
"You got the four of us," Ria said. "I can't speak for the others." She glanced over at Faith, a question in her eyes.
"Whatever you want from me, B," Faith told Buffy. "You got it."
"Ooh! I call setting fire to the extra drained-off blood!" Dawn put in.
"When you see the Doctor, I'm warning you, he won't look good," Ria said, handing Buffy a dagger. Buffy hid it in a holster around her leg. "You're going to want to run over to him and help him, right away. But, trust us. You do that, and you're dead."
"No heroics," Buffy agreed. "Got it."
"And don't eat the food," Nadia chimed in.
Everyone looked at everyone else. Then back at the girls.
"Okay," said Xander. "I… don't want to ask what the food is, do I?"
"It's meat, and it's human," said Jeanette. "They don't tell you that until after you eat it. It's their sick joke."
"That's… what they feed the Doctor?" asked Sam. She swayed unsteadily on her feet, and Riley reached out to help her.
The girls all looked at one another, that same haunted look in all their eyes. "No," they agreed. "That's what they feed us
"What they feed him
is way, way worse," said Ria.
Buffy leaned against a tree, staring out into the distance. Waiting.
"Lie to me," she told Giles. "Tell me… when I get in there, the Doctor's going to look fine, and the torture won't have affected him at all."
Giles hesitated. "Buffy, I can't…"
"Please," said Buffy. "Just… lie to me."
Giles stared down at the ground. "Very well," he lied. "According to my personal experience, torture at the hands of a vampire is a breeze. There's nothing…" He stopped. Cleared his throat. "Buffy, you should prepare yourself for this. What Ria and the others have said about their own treatment is bad enough. And we know the Doctor's been taking most of it."
Buffy said nothing.
"If you're distracted," Giles said, "even for a moment, they'll catch you. Everything will be lost."
"I'm focused," said Buffy. "Prepared. In the zone." She gave a little shrug. "Besides. Whatever they did to him, it can't possibly be as bad as what the First did when it tortured…" She trailed off. Then, in a whisper, added, "Spike."
For a moment, neither said anything.
Then, the patter of footsteps, as a breathless Nadia ran up to Buffy. "Found him!" she said. "Big-eyebrows-geeky-glasses. Dumb as a rock."
"That's my cue," said Buffy to Giles. She gave him a reassuring grin she didn't feel, and then went off.
To meet her destiny.