Something in the shadows shifted and Giles swung around defensively. Buffy appeared from the darkness, her hands held out before her in a gesture of surrender.
“Just me,” she said. She edged closer and glanced down at Giles’ friend lying unconscious and bound in the centre of the circle. “Everything going okay so far?” she asked.
Giles cleared his throat, his eyes shifting away from her toward John. He’d completely forgotten she was there, and now he was just grateful to her for not mentioning what she must have just witnessed.
“Yes. All I need to do now is recite the invocation,” he said.
Buffy stood by him and patted his shoulder. “He’ll be fine, Giles. This Asmoth is about to get the stuffing kicked out of him.”
“And Spike…?” asked Giles.
“You want me to beat the crap out of Spike? ‘Cause I’m all good with that.”
“You know what I mean.”
“He’s holed up at Xander’s place with everyone else, waiting for the call.”
“Does he know why?”
“All I told him was that if he played nice we’d give him a chance to go up against the new demon in town. He seemed happy with that.”
“Yes,” Giles agreed. “It’s probably best if he doesn’t know everything.” There was an awkward moment as they both came to the realization that they were stalling.
“Do you want me to…I don’t know, hold a candle or something?” asked Buffy.
Giles smiled at her. “Thank-you, but that won’t be necessary,” he said. “In fact, it would probably be safer for everyone if you got as far back as possible for this.”
Buffy backed away until she was once again lost in the shadows. “Good enough?” she asked.
“Yes…yes, that’s fine,” he muttered. The spell book lay open on the dinner table and Giles grabbed it, quickly skimming through the invocation before stepping back into the circle. He frowned a bit at the unusual wording, but figured it was just one of those languages that didn’t translate well into English. One last check to make sure everything was in order, and then he adjusted his glasses and began the recitation.
“I invoke thee, Glax the Ungoodly. Here are legs and arms and torso and worthy brow to house thee. Take them, and visit upon us the magnificence of your ungoodly presence.”
From her dark corner, Buffy’s nose wrinkled up in distaste. She could only hope the demon they’d summoned wasn’t as pathetic as the spell made him out to be. In any case, they were about to find out; she felt a vibration in the air, which was quickly followed by an odd humming sound. Inside the chalk circle the air was shimmering as if it had become super-heated. She heard Giles gasp and saw him stagger back a few steps. Curiosity brought her out of the shadows to get a closer look.
John’s body was writhing, bucking on the floor, straining against the shackles. It was as if his skin was charring—cracking and curling up at the edges. His eyes had turned a deep, jaundiced yellow and he began bellowing in a language that Buffy knew wasn’t human in origin.
“So…?” asked Buffy uncertainly.
Giles turned to look at her and his eyes went wide. He shouted: “Buffy! Behind you!”
Buffy spun on her heel, already kicking out at Asmoth, having sensed the demon behind her. The tall, wraith-like creature caught her foot easily in his clawed hands and twisted her so she landed hard on her back.
She rolled away as his foot came down. It was close enough that she felt the breeze against her ear. She was on her feet in a heartbeat and she held out her hand, instinctively aware that Giles had thrown her a weapon. It landed, unseen, in her hand, and in a smooth arc she heaved the weapon towards the centre of Asmoth’s body, hoping it was a blade and not a bludgeon he’d tossed her. Thankfully, Giles had been on the same wavelength as her—he’d thrown her a weighty double-edged sword. The heavy blade ripped through the ancient demon, nearly severing his body in two.
The shrieks that emanated from Asmoth’s large, gaping mouth were so high-pitched and deafening that Buffy, Giles and the newly-summoned Glax all collapsed to the ground, shielding their ears as best they could. The screeches slowly became deep, booming roars as Asmoth realized he’d been tricked. With a sickening lurch, he threw himself at Buffy, but only the top half of his body obeyed. He still managed to dig his claws into her leg, though, and he started pulling her towards him.
“Buffy—finish it!” Giles called out, finally understanding that Asmoth was trying to save himself by making her his next power source.
Buffy didn’t need to be told twice. Actually, she really didn’t need to be told the first time. Her weapon was already poised, and before the words were out of her watcher’s mouth, the sword plummeted down into the demon’s skull, embedding itself firmly between his eerie, vacant eyes.
The howling roars ceased abruptly. Buffy yanked the sword out of Asmoth’s skull and he toppled to the floor with a thud. As she and Giles watched, the demon’s body shrank and dissolved, as if his flesh was being sucked back into the void he’d come from. Within seconds there was no trace of him.
“Handy,” said Buffy. “Don’t even need to vacuum. You gotta love the ones that clean up after themselves.”
“Are you alright?” asked Giles.
Buffy looked confused for a second, and then remembered that Asmoth had clawed into her leg and she should be in a lot of pain right now. But she wasn’t. She looked down at where her leather pants had been ripped and found only faint red marks where the demon’s claws had torn her flesh. Odd.
“I’m fine, see? Don’t even need a Band-Aid,” she said.
“You’re sure you’re not hurt?” asked Giles in disbelief.
“Yep. Although he did ruin my favourite pants.”
The sound of rattling chains behind them reminded them that their job was only half finished.
Giles turned around to see how John was doing and a weighty, mottled fist slammed into the side of his head, knocking him to the floor. Buffy dodged out of the way as Glax made to grab her. The chains dangled loosely off his wrists, no longer attached to the leg shackles.
“Strong demon you picked, there, Giles,” she remarked as Glax shuffled after her, his legs still caught up in the chains.
Giles ignored her and lunged for the phone, quickly keying in Xander’s number. “Xander, get Spike over here… Yes, now!” he barked and dropped the receiver.
By now Buffy and Glax were locked in a deadly struggle. Giles watched anxiously from the sidelines, wincing at every grunt and moan.
“Try not to hurt him, Buffy,” he said.
“And what am I, chopped liver?” she answered between blows. “And don’t blame me—you’re the one who bought the chains. Where’d you get them, ‘Chains ‘R Us’? Was K-Mart having a two-for-one sale?”
“Please, Buffy,” Giles said and jumped out of the way as she bowled Glax over, tumbling with him until she ended up on top, pinning him to the floor.
“You could stop with the back-seat slaying and give me a hand,” she said. “I might be strong, but I’m not that heavy. If you want your friend to remain damage free, I suggest you get your butt over here and take a seat.”
“Yes, of course,” said Giles. He hesitated only briefly before joining her on top of his be-demoned friend.
Glax snarled menacingly at the two humans straddling him and let loose what was most likely a string of obscenities in his native tongue. Then he started bucking like mad. It took every ounce of energy they had to contain him.
After several long and bruising minutes, the front door at last burst open, and Xander, Spike and Willow rushed in.
“Spike! Am I ever glad to see you,” said Giles. Then, under his breath he added: “I cannot believe I just said that.”
Spike smirked and slowly circled the struggling trio on the floor. “Nice of you to save me a piece of the action,” he said. “Now, if you’ll get off him, I’ll take care of him for you.”
“Thanks, Spike,” said Buffy, “but this one’s mine.” Ignoring Giles’ worried hiss, Buffy clamped her hands hard around Glax’s throat and squeezed.
“You might have told me you had it under control,” said Spike. “I’ve got better things to do than hang around all day with your lackeys, you know.” He was all ready to turn on his booted heel and sweep gracefully out of the apartment when he was overcome by a strange sensation.
Buffy’s hands loosened their grip as the demon withdrew and John’s features returned to normal. Her attention turned to Spike, whose skin was glowing a hot yellow, cracking and curling like John’s had done earlier. But unlike John, Spike seemed to be enjoying it. His face was a picture of euphoric bliss.
“Yes…oh God, yes!” he shouted, and he vamped out—or at least he tried to. His body was visibly vibrating as Glax fought Spike’s resident demon for control. Everyone in the room took a step back as he started flailing about. For a moment it looked as if Glax might win the battle, but Spike finally bested the invading demon.
Spike stood bent over at the waist, his hands on his knees, trying to get his energy back in the aftermath of his internal tug-of-war. “That was…that was…Did you see that?” he said, a big, boyish grin spreading across his face.
“It was riveting, Spike. You had us riveted. You should think about turning it into a one man show and taking it on tour,” said Xander. “Anywhere but here.”
“Ha, bloody, ha. Joke all you want, but that was…” Spike stopped and looked perplexed. “What exactly was that?”
“That was Glax,” answered Giles. “And I owe you a debt of gratitude for dispensing of him.”
“I’ll remember you said that,” said Spike.
“I have no doubt you will.” Giles’ eyes were drawn once more to John, who was sprawled unconscious on the floor where Glax had left him. Aside from the red welts on his throat, he looked like his old self again. Giles retrieved the little box with the syringe and brought it over to his old friend, kneeling on the floor by his side. He looked up to find he had an audience and caught Buffy’s eyes.
She understood at once and gave him a tiny nod. “Okay, everyone. Vamoose. Show’s over; time to go home.”
“But—we just got here,” said Willow. “Don’t we get to take part in the post-slayage pizza extravaganza?”
“Not this time,” said Buffy, herding the group through Giles’ front door. Willow craned her neck as she was all but shoved out the door, trying to figure out what was so special this time. Then, just as the door was closing, she got that spark in her eyes and she grinned knowingly.
Alone with John once more, Giles opened the little wooden box and pulled out the syringe. He had to concentrate to control the shaking of his hands. Was it relief? Or maybe the remnants of an old, deep-rooted guilt? What did it matter? John was alive—this time no one got hurt. This time they all walked away in one piece.
And yet he could still taste the buzzing rush of the dark magicks like ozone hanging in the air around him, filling his lungs, seeping into his veins. The fact that part of him relished the feeling frightened him.
He slowly filled the syringe with the antidote to the first injection, carefully preparing it. He placed the needle against John’s forearm…and paused.
He remembered the kiss…no, net even a kiss, really…that they’d shared less than an hour before. Now that it was all over, that kiss seemed like a mistake. Giles couldn’t help feeling he’d taken advantage of John’s moment of fear, and he wondered how he would feel once he woke up.
Then he thought how easy it would be to do a quick and painless memory spell. John was unconscious—he’d never know. And better yet, when he woke up, he would have completely forgotten their little…indiscretion. But then he’d also have to alter Buffy’s memory—and he was pretty sure Willow knew, too. She’d have to be dealt with.
That thought—dark and ominous in its suggestions—shocked him out of his magical stupor. One slip. That’s all it would take to send him back down into the realm of Chaos where he had nearly lost himself so long ago.
Before he could change his mind, Giles pressed the needle into John’s arm and slowly depressed the plunger. It took a minute for the serum to take effect, but soon John’s eyes fluttered open.
And when he saw Giles he smiled. Not an embarrassed half-smile, but a full-fledged, hundred-watt toothy grin.
“We did it?” he asked.
“We did,” Giles confirmed. “Do you remember any of it?”
John stretched and sat up. “No. The last thing I remember…” and his eyes lit upon Giles for a second then flashed away, his cheeks pinking slightly at the memory. His smile remained, though, much to Giles’ relief.
“Well…obviously there’s no problem with your memory,” said Giles. “How do you feel?” Giles offered him a hand up, and John tested his rubbery legs like he’d just got off a boat.
“I’ve got a bit of a sore throat,” John replied.
“I can imagine,” said Giles with a dry laugh. “Be thankful that’s all you’ve got. Glax turned out to be more of a handful than we’d anticipated.”
John’s hand went to his bruised throat, and he noticed the busted chains still dangling off his wrists. He looked at Giles in alarm, only now truly comprehending the danger in which he’d put Giles and his friends.
“Don’t worry,” Giles said before John could say anything. “We’re all fine. No harm done—not even to Spike, sadly,” he added.
“It’s really over, then?” asked John doubtfully. Asmoth is gone?”
“Oh, he’s gone, alright—and he didn’t go quietly, either. But if you want further proof, we can take a look at your scars.”
John agreed and after the shackles were removed, he followed Giles into the bathroom. He lifted his shirt and turned so he could look at his back in the mirror.
“Ready?” asked Giles. John nodded, and watched in anticipation as Giles peeled off the bandages. To his amazement, the wounds that had plagued him for four long years had healed almost completely, leaving only thin, pale marks as a reminder. John let out a sigh of relief and he felt the tension go out of his neck and shoulders for the first time in years.
They adjourned to the living room and took a seat on the still-cushionless sofa, eying the mess wearily. It always seemed like such a let-down having to deal with the aftermath, and neither of them had the energy or the inclination to worry about it for the time being.
“So…what happens now?” asked John after a long, companionable silence.
Giles shrugged. “Life goes on, I suppose. Tomorrow we’ll set things straight—try and find some way to send you home.”
John hesitated before making the suggestion they were both contemplating: “I could stay here…with you.”
Giles gave his old friend a warm, sad smile. “If only it were that simple,” he said. “I wish you could stay, John. I honestly do. But you have a home, and there are people there who care about you, and they need you…”
“But you need me too. I could help you here. I know things—things about the future—that could help you. Like, in 2003, Sunnydale…”
“John, please—sometimes it’s better not to know,” said Giles. “I couldn’t do the job I do if I had to second-guess every decision for fear of how it might affect the future. It just wouldn’t work.”
John wanted to protest, but in his heart he knew Giles was right. They sat quietly for a while before he could manage to speak again: “Rupert…I-I don’t know how to begin to thank you for all you’ve done.”
“Don’t be silly,” said Giles. “I’m just glad we had the chance to meet again. You know…when you get back home, you should look me up.”
“Of course I will,” said John. “But it won’t be the same, will it? I mean, none of this would have happened for him, would it?” John had wanted to say so much more, but now that he had the chance, he found himself voiceless—muted by the strength of his emotions. All he could manage was a plaintively voiced, “Rupert…”
“I know,” Giles answered. He took John’s hand, and neither of them said a word as John followed him up the stairs to the loft. This time there would be no regrets.