Title: More Than Costumes
Warnings: PTSD, Violence, Blood & Gore, Child Neglect & Abuse
Fandom(s): Marvel- MCU/Buffy: the Vampire Slayer
Tag: Episode 2:6 Halloween (Different Costumes AU)
Summary: There is one night a year when you don’t have to be yourself. Instead, you can wear whatever face you want.
For two teens in one mystic hellhole, that single night they look in the mirror and recognize the mask more than the face underneath might have more repercussions than they’re prepared for.
Best of all? The slayer’s got the night off.
For disclaimer information for both writing and cover art see Disclaimer.
FYI- Some of the formatting is still funky on this page, so your patience and understanding is appreciated.
Sunnydale California, La Boca del Inferno, the mouth of hell. Ethan shivered, this was going to be good. He had been planning this trick for years. And for the first time in years Ethan had all his pieces on his board at the same time. It had taken an enormous amount of time for the phases of the moon, needed for his summoning spell, to coincide with the correct day and time of year needed for this beautiful piece of work. Not to mention the amount of times he had to gather more materials and supplies because one item or another mysteriously went bad. But for once all he needed had aligned for this night, this year.
To think it all started decades ago, Ethan had found the spell in an old grimoire he’d borrowed off another chaos mage. Most of the accounts and tributes within it weren’t worth more than a cheap street magician, but this one… this one was gold. An incantation and ritual to ‘allow’ a participant to assume the full power and responsibilities of their costume. Only for a single night, the one day of the year where the barrier between worlds thins enough for even normal humans to feel a touch of the supernatural, Halloween.
It had taken Ethan a rather long time to translate the Latin, the wording was weird in the extreme. Which probably meant that it had been translated into Latin from another language, which made sense. The ancient Romans only promoted chaos in balance with order. It was unfortunate in Ethan’s opinion, but they wouldn’t have been able to appreciate the beauty in Janus’s work.
It would have been one of the savage tribes that created this trick. Perhaps to use on an old enemy, maybe even the Romans. But today Ethan would use this old spell to bring glory to Janus’s magnificence! He would deal the Watcher’s a blow they would never recover from and unleash chaos on the most unbalanced place in the world, the mouth of hell.
The Dingoes Ate My Baby were never going to land a Hollywood record deal, at least Oz never imagined they would and it had never been his intention when starting the band. There was magic in music that could change the world, it had before and Oz clung to the hope that it could change the world again. The garage where the band was meeting was also the storage area of one of the band’s parents. So the lights had to stay off if they wanted the instruments to work, it smelled like mothballs, and there were boxes that occasionally attacked the bandmates. But it wasn’t like The Dingoes Ate My Baby were going anywhere besides the Bronze, so Oz didn’t think about the setting, instead focusing on the heart and soul of his music. Escaping to a place the world and its monsters couldn’t touch. Which meant it took a few minutes for his band members to get his attention.
“Dude, It’s a costume party right?” Darrell asked, fiddling with his guitar, and blowing a breath as his blue poof flopped over his face. Oz was pretty sure his backup guitarist was copying an anime character, but he hadn’t quite caught on that hair didn’t behave the way cartoonists drew it. But Oz wasn’t going to tell him, Darrell had the right to whatever kind of hair style he wanted.
“Yeah.” Oz mumbled, there was a key here he was missing. The sound just didn’t come out right, and if he could just find the right key …
“Why you thinkin’ ‘bout dressin’ up?” Marcus asked from his seat behind the drums, his cleaning cloth in hand. Fingers tapping insanely fast and out of beat against the chrome rim.
Blue hair flopped all over the place as his head shook, “My girl’s already made me promise to do a theme with her. She was cooin’ some shit ‘bout a dude named Darcy.” He shivered, “I wanted to hurl.”
“Aw man, some chick shit?” Marcus moaned.
“Yeah, I was hopin’ to get her into some spandex, man.” Darrell shaped his hands in front of him, as though imagining the look. “She’s got some bod for it. But she wasn’t going for it.” Oz smirked, every boy’s dream: his girlfriend wearing spandex for him. It didn’t happen often enough.
Marcus snickered, “Yeah, that’d be the day. Know the babe’d be a keeper if she wore that skanky stuff just for you.” He whistled.
“Now me I’m thinkin’ more horror story, than bedtime story. Maybe some gore, some fake skin, thinkin’ maybe a zombie, yeah? Like Day of the Dead or somethin’.” Darrell nodded his head along to his friend, gore was always good. “Whatcha dressin’ up as Oz?”
Oz blinked, putting down his guitar, he still hadn’t found that perfect string, and turned to his bandmates. “I wasn’t going to.” They were going to cover at the Bronze, not the Ritz-Carlton, his jeans and t-shirt were fine. Besides, his fate was closing in on him faster than he’d like, he didn’t want to tempt fate.
“Nah man ya have to, don’t leave me hanging up there with this asshole.” Marcus protested, throwing a thumb in Darrell’s direction.
“Hey!” Darrell yelled out, “At least I’ve got a girlfriend dickwad! What’ve you got? Huh?”
“A right hand and an awesome costume!” Marcus got up in Darrell’s face, “You Dude are gonna end up in lederhosen and pig tails with your girl leading you around by the balls!”
Oz twisted back from where he had moved to inspect a faulty speaker, having given up on the missing note for a while. “Hey, Marcus?”
The Drummer looked away from his staring contest with Darrell’s blue poof, “What man? Can’t you tell we’re arguing here?!”
The taciturn teen shrugged, “I just wanted to know where you learned ‘lederhosen’ from.” It was probably the first time in history that that garage in suburban Sunnydale echoed with silence. Quite the accomplishment.
Damn Snyder. The last place Xander wanted to be on Halloween was back at the school. The man was a troll. The only night Buffy gets off from Slaying and the troll ropes them into volunteering, with children. Now Xander had no real problem with kids, but forced volunteering did not make him happy. “Can you believe that guy?! Ugh,” Xander threw his hands up, shouting. “Halloween’s supposed to be fun! And Snyder just sucked most of the fun out of it!”
Buffy nodded and heaved a sigh, dragging her feet. “At least I’m not trying to chaperone anklebiters, and trying to keep them from being eaten.”
A light giggle had the other two Scoobies looking at Willow, but she just giggled again motioning between the three of them. “It occurred to me that instead of being eaten, we’re concerned with what they’ll be eating.” A snort and more uncontrollable giggling had smiles breaking out on the faces of her friends, more at how ridiculous she was being than what she had said. But it brightened the mood, and that was really all she cared about.
Xander jumped through the library doors swinging around to face them, almost running into one of the book detectors on the way, “It’s ‘costume required’ right?” The girls nodded slowly, concerned just a little as to where the seventeen year old boy was taking this, friend or not he was still a seventeen year old male. “Why don’t we go as something together?!”
“I don’t know,” Buffy said skeptically. “I’m pretty sure you’re just trying to get us into spandex.”
What Xander wanted to do was shape his hands against her cheerleader toned body and complain that the costume couldn’t possibly show more than she already did on a daily basis. Instead, he threw his hands up and held in front of him, still trying to walk backwards as the group invaded Giles’s domain. “What’s wrong with spandex? Some of the most powerful female characters in fiction are superheroes. I mean that why they’re called ‘super’-heroes!” Shooting them a look Xander justifies, “besides, what were you thinking of going as?”
Buffy shrugged, “I don’t know,” pausing lightly and shooting a look at their Willow shaped friend, one that greatly concerned the Xander’s inner protector. They were keeping things from him again. “Maybe a noble woman?”
“Oh, no!” Xander flailed. “Oh, hell no! Tell me you’re not trying what I think you’re trying!” Xander grabbed his red head as she walked by, “Tell me it’s not so!”
But Xander didn’t get his response because Willow shrieked, “I’ve got it! We can go as the entourage of Lady Buffy, Princess of Buffyton, and Lady over all … Buffnes?” She petered out at the end, “but the Buffy could be the Lady, I’d be her handmaiden, and you could be a knight!” Xander faced down the begging eyes of his sister-from-another-mister, trying to be strong. “Isn’t that all you ever wanted, Xander? To be a protector?”
He groaned, that was a low shot. Especially coming from Willow. Sure, Xander would like to be a protector, but the likelihood of him ever defending anyone from anything was ridiculous. Xander wasn’t much to look at, and he wasn’t much to help. He was just a kid who didn’t know how to back down. Xander wanted to be a protector, even if it was just for one night, but even he wouldn’t pretend so that one of his friends could do something dangerous. That wasn’t something he was willing to do. So Giles’s voice was a god-send, even if it started a fight. One was gonna happen either way.
“That’s not accurate.” It was the stuffy tones of the British watcher-turned-librarian that saved Xander the misfortune of showing up to school later that night in tights.
Hands on her hips, in all out how-dare-you-defy-me attitude, the red head faced down the librarian. “What do you mean, ‘not accurate’?” Willow probably hadn’t heard that phrase directed at her since kindergarten.
For once the glasses remained on his face, the older man just pushed them up. “Knights worked in the service of a king or lord, yes.” He nodded, “But they had the most disgusting of habits. They often raped servant girls, denied their illegitimate children, had horrible hygiene, and were often sadistic; gaining genuine pleasure from the bloodthirsty brutal wars that were waged in Europe. Not quite what I see as a protector.”
Xander seized the opportunity, “Yeah, no. Not dressing up as a bloodthirsty rapist so that you can let deadhead reenact his youth days.” He nearly winced, almost apologized, but Buffy was already gathering steam and Xander had been taught by his father: never show fear; apologizes never help.
Willow gasped, but Buffy growled, and Giles scowled. “Is this true Buffy? You were trying to lure out Angel?” This time the Junior-year male was almost sure he saw Giles wince before the glasses were off and being polished.
“Really, Buffy? This isn’t exactly healthy behavior.” Giles squared his shoulders, “Attempting to change who you are to garner the attention of an older more dangerous male? Not to mention the fact that said male has already hurt you once, I cannot help but see the red flags that are waving.”
Snarling Buffy snatched Willow’s arm as she marched right back out of the library. “Sometimes a girl just likes to feel pretty! Jerks! Xander, you can forget waiting for us, we might see you later. Might not.” The door reverberated with the force Buffy put into forcing it out of her way, scattering some wide eyed high schoolers too.
Xander turned to Giles, in the end not very sorry that he had ratted out his friend, the glasses were properly angled on one Englishman’s pointy nose, “Red Flags, Giles?”
The Librarian shrugged, “it’s the newest attempt at behavioral adjustment in unhealthy relationships among adolescents. I was just reading about it in the Psychology publishings…”
Oz wasn’t sure how all the costumes in party city could have been ruined. That seemed like one series of freakishly unfortunate events. He had walked through the store and seen the hasty repairs the staff had tried on the burnt superhero costumes, the new tears in the Disney gowns, and the bleached colors of the military uniforms. About the only costumes in the store that hadn’t been destroyed in one freak accident or another were the latex animal outfits. But Oz wasn’t sure how anyone could think that those would look good on anybody.
In the same strange fit of luck that had all the costumes at party city worth wearing destroyed, there just so happened to be a new costume shop in town, just in time for Halloween. Ethan’s.
The store was overflowing with all sorts of costumes from the weird and bizarre, to the cute and cuddly. Letting his gaze roam the racks for options, Oz saw most of the high school looking for costumes. Darius, from the football team, had just scoped out a nice selection of toy guns. While Larry was already in check out with a pirate’s costume. Marcus’s girlfriend Jenna was playing tug of war with that transfer girl, Betsy? Billy? Buffy? Nah, nobody’d name their kid Buffy.
Oz settled in near the superhero outfits, if he had to dress up then he was going to go as someone heroic. There were enough monsters, witches, and trolls in this town without pretending to be one. So he ran his fingers along the electric blue, canary yellow, and crimson red of a dozen different superheroes from a dozen different stories. He picked up a red plastic visor, who needs a … Cyclops. There was a deck of cards and a purple baton, not his style. He picked up and put down the red and blonde wigs for two of earth’s mightiest heroes. They weren’t good enough.
“You going as a super?” Oz turned to see the tall brunette Larry liked to kick around.
“Yeah,” Oz turned back to fingering the costumes, pausing on the purple bow and arrows of the world’s greatest archer.
“Ah man, Hawkeyes is pretty cool. I mean he’s the best sniper in the world, a bulls-eye target at a thousand yards, no one should be able to make that shot!” Oz quirked a lip at the brunette.
“He had to be farsighted. He’d probably have to wear really thick glasses.” He could tell his new friend had never thought of that.
“Yeah, I could see that,” they both snorted. “To be able to shoot without a scope at something so far away, he’d have to see farther than the average. And doing it so often would probably screw with any regular sight he had.” The other boy nodded. “Yeah, you got that right.”
Oz held up the purple and black suit, “You want it?”
He shook his head, “Nah, Hawkeye needs a Black Widow and there’s no way I’m getting Willow into a black cat suit.”
Oz agreed, the red head had been in his advanced courses for years and the only thing she ever wore on Halloween was a ghost sheet. The difference would probably send her into shock. At the back of the rack Oz’s fingers felt something different, it was rough and course where all the other costumes were slick vinyl. He handed the Hawkeye costume back to the other boy and wedged himself into the rack.
At the back were two real uniforms. Made of leather and Kevlar their accessories hung around the hanger top. Bringing them out to the light in front of the racks the two boys were stunned. Someone had spent a lot of time and effort creating what looked like genuine uniforms from The Avengers.
Captain America’s shield was nearly two feet by two feet, large enough that it should have been awkward to carry, but Oz held it, noticing how extraordinarily light the metal was. It had to be some type of aluminum. And The Winter Soldier’s metal arm was segment by segment the most precise piece of work Oz had ever seen. The red star seamlessly melded to the metal, the painted shield surrounding it, dating the costume to the comics after Barnes had been rehabilitated by Rogers.
The costume for the Winter Soldier had the face mask and goggles, the leather pants, boots, and the sleeveless shirt. As for the Captain America costume it had helmet, one piece uniform, boots, and gear belt. All of which contained the padding to imitated muscles. The colors were dark and faded, less like the bright heraldry in the comics and more like what might be found in real life. And looked like they were worn in real life, there were a couple of torn stitches around Captain America’s star and The Winter Soldier’s arm had a singed and smoked elbow with a void vaguely in the shape of one of the Black Widow’s Taser-like spider bites.
“Wow,” breathed the boy behind him. “They’re beautiful.”
Without thinking Oz immediately claimed, “I call Captain America.”
“Whoa, whoa, hold up man.” The brunette waved his arms to stall Oz from leaving the superhero section. “These suits come in twos man, they’re meant for best friends to wear, not random strangers who don’t know each other! People might ask where your Winter Soldier is, and what are you going to say? I let him walk out of the store without asking his name.”
Oz peered into the brunette’s eyes, he might be onto something. “So what’s your name?”
The tall brunette blinked, “Xander Harris. We sleep through English Lit together. What’s yours?”
“Daniel Osbourne. Call me Oz.” Xander blinked again.
“You sure you don’t want to be the Green Goblin?” Oz’s steps stuttered, he should have expected that one.
“There are enough monsters in this town,” which was exactly what he had told his friends when they asked. But Oz, for once in his life, kept talking past where he might have otherwise. This guy, who Larry beat up because he wouldn’t back down, he’d understand. “If I have to pretend, I’d like to pretend to be a hero.”
“Yeah,” was whispered behind him, “I know the feeling.”
His inventory was going fast. Which it should, there were three different spells attributing to Ethan’s good fortune on this All Hallows Eve.
One was simple. A Puck spell was continually running mischief at that other costume story, Party City. It ensured that for the twelve hours between sunrise and sunset on Halloween day nothing went right for the mundane store. Their princess gowns bled color. Their superhero costumes were stretched. Their monster costumes were burnt. Nothing would go right.
Except for the latex. Ethan, regardless of his age, was still a male and the only thing better than a woman in clinging black body suits, was a night of chaos and women in clinging black body suits.
The second spell wasn’t so simple. A heart of an eel, two pinches of dried poesy, and four fingers of ladies glove, were simmering in a camp stove in the back room. Not to mention the burnt mug wart he pressed to the doorway of the shop. A spell of attraction: to the idea of buying from Ethan’s, to the costume’s that were in the store, and finally to the costume that best matched what the customer wanted for the night. Very tricky piece to maintain on every customer that stepped through the doors of the store. But very worth it, Ethan would see his night of chaos.
And the third spell was neither simple nor delicate, it was clever. It showed what was inside, out. So, while Ethan had a certain number of generic costumes to show in his storefront, the costumes each customer left with were exactly what was needed to show what was inside that person, on the outside. Very clever, a customer was not going to be able to resist the attraction of having exactly what they wanted.
It might be why the slayer was willing to lay out her opposition in obtaining her costume. Ethan wanted to cackle, the real ritual hadn’t even begun and he’d already reaped chaos. Nothing made him happier. So he pasted on a smarmy smile and sent through the purchase.
“Here you go my dear.” Ethan said, handing the blond, the slayer, her innocent 18th century lady’s dress. He cackled sharply on the inside, clearly the girl was still fighting the ‘I just want to be normal’ stage that was the bane of any watcher’s existence. Nobody wanted to have to deal with the teenage angst of a super powered Barbie. So really, by selling her the dress of doom, Ethan was still cackling, he was doing the Watcher’s council a boon. Though he doubted he’d ever be able to cash in on it.
He sent the blond and her twittering companion on their way out the door, just in time to see the intentional dismissal they sent to the two boys approaching the cash register. Given the
blasé attitude of the shorty and the hurt feelings of the bean sprout, Ethan was sure there were problems in paradise. Which was perfect for feeding his plans.
Leaning over the counter, smoothing on the charm, “what can I do for you gentlemen?”
Shorty dropped a pile of costume materials on the counter. “These are the ones we want, but you’re selling them used.” Ethan took a good hard look at the material on the counter. It was a peculiar kind of costume, very realistic in design; leather gear in black with mask, boots, and glasses; and a Kevlar suit in a muted red, white, and blue, with helmet, boots, shield, and tactical belt. With a frown Ethan nodded, the kid was right, they were definitely ‘used’, perhaps from a movie set, or some-other-such-thing, but they were also much more realistic than the costumes he had been selling. Which was puzzling, very puzzling.
The spell for summoning, which located the customer’s inner most desire and produced it; should not have been able to produce such life-like costumes. If the boys thought black leather the spell would create vinyl. Ethan hadn’t put enough power into these spells for it to summon genuine articles. Quite strange, indeed.
“You’re quite right gents,” a smarmy smile crossing the mage’s lips. “I’ll sell you both for $60.”
Oz shook his head slowly, “$20.”
He frowned, “These are genuine leather and Kevlar, expensive articles. $55.” Not that it was his expense.
A lip quirked, Xander leaned against the counter off to the side just watching as his new friend negotiated price. “They’re also singed, torn, and faded. $25.”
“It just makes them more authentic! $45.” Ethan loomed over the counter compelling the boy to hand over his money. But it slid off the shorty, like water off a duck. Which it shouldn’t have been able to do, compelling spells were his favorite. Causing all sorts of chaos as he made people do what they didn’t want to. Ethan was rather well known for them, and for it to just slide off was disconcerting. Very disconcerting.
“They’re also clearly costumes and require a lot of repair. $28.” Oz folded his hands across his chest.
The Brit huffed, “You can’t be going together, they’re two opposing characters!” Which just triggered an image of chaos, destruction, and agony these two could inflict battling each other in the night, only to wake in the morning and find their families flattened and their town in ruins, partially their faults. Two best friends battling it out in the night, only to wake up to untold damage and never the same again. It would reap chaos long after the initial spell had ended. Which was beautiful and exactly what he was looking to cause. “Fine. But I can’t go any lower than $30.”
For a moment Ethan thought he had blown his cover. Both teens looked askance at his quick turn over. Tilted heads with squinted eyes, it was creepy. They had clearly spent too much time together. But they took the offer, splitting the price between two pockets and the costumes went into separate bags. A quick pre-prepped spell was slipped into each bag and the costumes were ready for tonight’s party, and the two freaky boys were out the door.
“So what do I say?” Xander probed, stopping on the sidewalk outside the creepy proprietor’s shop. He was going one way and Oz was going the other. He gave a cheeky grin at Oz’s quirked brow, “when my friends ask where Captain America is?”
A tilt of the lips, and the crinkled eye wrinkles gave away his amusement, “the bronze. Playing with ‘The Dingoes ate my baby’.” Then the short, quiet brunette who had negotiated their price to a third what each costume was worth individually, turned and walked away. Nowhere near concerned with what might happen tonight.
A quick look at his watch had Xander hurrying the other way. If he hurried, he could might get Mrs. Summers at the door instead of Buffy. If the mom invited him in to change and hang out then Buffy wouldn’t say no. There was no way Buffy was going to own up to the fact that she hunted the creatures of the dark after curfew on a daily basis, just so that she could tell her mom not to let him in because he ruined her attempt to lure her 400 year old undead ex-boyfriend back to her. Yeah, that was never going to happen.
Ethan sat in his circle, drawn in a mixture of naiad’s blood and chalk, waiting for the sun to begin it’s descent. The fun was just about to start, all he had to do was wait until the very first part of the sun to set below the horizon. Then there were a number of odious items that he would have to do, one after the other. Items of rout that would take several hours, but by the time he was done, at the height of the holiday, all who would be venturing out tonight would be out and oblivious to the chaos that would soon encompass the entire town.
Ethan cackled gleefully, thinking of all the joyous merriment that his costumes would give to him tonight. They would ruin lives and friendships; perfect law abiding citizens would wreak havoc, and the slayer would die.
“You didn’t think you would get away with it did you?” The slow drawl came from behind him and Ethan froze, he had been in a number of perilous situations in previous endeavors to bring his god Janus glory and power. Gaining the attention of the master vampire of an area was not unknown to Ethan, though he had hoped the nature of the Hellmouth would disguise his actions.
The vampire, a bleach blonde of some age, turned the angle of the circle so that Ethan could see him face to face. He was all angles and sneers, a true Master Vampire of skill and age that Ethan knew from his study of the area, could not have been here long. He crouched down just outside the chalk and blood lines where Ethan was essentially held captive. “You would not dare preform a big act of magic in my town without permission, would you Socorer?”
“Ahh, good sir.” Ethan murmured. “I would not dare encroach on the territory of a titled master.” Beseeching eyes were tilted up, “I did much research before I set up shop. How could I possibly seek the permission of a Master who … was not there?” It was a fine line between pleasantly honest and rude enough to be killed for. To rude and Ethan’s head would come off, not honest enough and the vampire would smell it. Fine line indeed.
“Perhaps.” The vampire nodded. “Or maybe you just didn’t look hard enough, hmm?” A pale clawed hand grabbed at his throat, cutting off his words and his air. A rather good way to premept a sorcerer. “What could possibly entice me to save your scrawny, flea infested ass?”
“Sl-ah-reh, slah-reh-ha” The chaos mage gurgled out.
“I’m sorry, what was that?” The blonde undead brought the mage close, smirking, before droping him without a care. The mage lay where he fell, very careful not to move a muscle.
“Th-the slayer. She’ll be va-vulnerable tonight.” Ethan panted.
“How? Why?” The vampire demanded. “What’s going to happen?”
“It’s old.” The Janusite rasped. “The original celebration of Halloween; you are what you where tonight.” There was no reason to go into detail or bore this male with semantics, the bare bones would do it.
“And how would this effect the Slayer, hmm?” Ethan eyed the steel toed boots in the edge of his vision, concerned about their location so near his hand.
“The slayer bought a costume,” the mage smirked. “A noblewoman’s costume.”
The vamp smiled, that was definitely useful news. “That’s good to know, very good to know.” A thumb wiped at the edge of his jaw, riding his cheek. “I need details poppet. How long does the spell last?”
Ethan edged a little away from the deadly hand, rather concerned with the two inches of claw attached to the thumb so close to his skin. “From two hour to darkest, to two hours to lightest.”
The pad of his thumb dug into Ethan’s face, bruising it easily as his eye felt the barest brushes of nail. “Speak sense now poppet, wouldn’t want to make a … mistake.”
“Ten to 5:00 alright? The spell holds from ten to five!” Ethan puffed, not feeling the need to add the information about the out.
The vampire pressed deeper, “Any catches?”
“Spilt blood at dawn and the spell collapses!” Ethan huffed. “The temporary nature of the spell collapses.”
The vampire grinned ferally, “That’s jolly good to know. Jolly good to know.” The blonde left the way he came, through the shadowy exit to the sewer that Ethan hadn’t thought to close; but this time he left with a bounce to his step and a tune to whistle. It really had been stupid of him to leave such a vulnerable opening in his wards over the shop. Nothing to damaging had happened though, it certainly could have been worse.
Ethan slowly climbed to his seat, back in the center of the circle. The likelihood of blood being spilt tonight was given, what wasn’t assured was whose blood was needed to be spilt or who needed to spill it. He just knew it had to happen. If Ethan was extremely lucky it would throw the town into mass chaos for a very long time. He snuck a peek at the clock, it was time to begin.
The candles were relit and the smudged chalk was carefully fixed. No imperfection could be allowed when kneeling before a fickle god. Ethan carefully situated himself directly across from the marble bust of his patron.
In front of the unseeing marble eyes the chaos mage placed the goblet of elf wine, very expensive, and the raw cut of sirloin beef, less expensive. He lit the vanilla incense and sat back on his heels.
“Oh, Janus, god of mischief and chaos.” The sorcerer intoned. “He who keeps in check all order. Give leave your fickle breath to bless this humble servant as he does his best to spread your chaotic will across this mortal coil.” He peeked a look, the incense still sat unburnt. Ethan lightly frowned, perhaps he wasn’t humble enough; but even as he pondered how to immediately boost himself in his patron’s sight, the scent of vanilla wafted past him. It had caught. Ethan rubbed his hands together, with the blessing of his god Janus success was within his reach.
He prostrated himself before his idol of worship and magic, “in your will, I will begin.”
“Dau tan nos tywyllaf
tan ddwy i disgleiriaf golau
edifar y ffordd y gyrrodd y brethyn yn cynnal
gyda holl nerth ofnadwy
dileu pob malltod
ond gyda gwir diniweidrwydd
nid oes golwg
y brenin a glynu
am ffynonellau cysgodion
gan waedu galon
a gwaedu enaid
gwna y ddau rhwyll
ac yn dod yn gyfan.”
Ethan centered himself in the spell until all that existed was the rhythem and chant of the words and the draw of power from his patron, directed toward the mischief he would accomplish that night. Before the sun would rise, all that Ethan was, would be a pool of magic for the origin of the spell.
Across town a vampire of some power and renown chuckled, “Interesting night indeed.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t let you in Xander.” His smile fell off his face in slow motion as the mother of his friend, and not so secret crush, refused to let him into her home.
“What do you mean Mrs. S?” Xander tried to play off his hurt. “Is it like a ‘girls only’ event?”
Mrs. Summers did the unthinkable. She left the doorway and closed the door to better talk to Xander on her front porch. “I’m sorry this has to be so awkward, Xander. I really do like you, but Buffy came to me right before and confessed that she was starting to feel uncomfortable in your presence.” His jaw dropped, shocked and confused. Buffy wouldn’t … “She says your flirting and come-ons are starting to make her uneasy. Buffy willingly admitted that she ignored a lot of it because it was juvenile and studied, but recently she’s begun to feel nervous around you.”
Xander blazed in embarrassment. Sure he’d tried to flirt, but between Buffy fighting his battles for him, which was rather emasculating, and her ridiculous relationship with Angel, Xander hadn’t really done or said anything about it. Xander cared more about maintaining his friendship with Buffy than flirting with her. Eventually the blonde would realize how insane it was for the Vampire Slayer to date a member of the undead. When that day came Xander was going to be standing right next to her, with a badge from every one of her major battles. Until then he was biding his time.
“Now, I know you Xander,” Mrs. Summers went on. “Or at least I’d like to think I know that you’re a good boy. But my first priority must be the protection of my daughter, instead of your feelings.” The older blond leaned over and patted Xander’s hand, her nails digging in just slightly and Xander thought they seemed rather sharp. “So show me you’re a good boy, that you’d never hurt my Buffy, and stay away for a little while.” A not-threat to go with her not-claws and Xander went cold, he knew you couldn’t trust adults, not even well meaning ones.
Xander assumed that most adults meant well, even if they didn’t listen; Ms. Calendar, Mr. Giles, and previously Mrs. Summers, there was also the manager at the hardwood store who discounted lumber on Sundays, and the priest at Michael’s Cathedral on Main Street who fed anyone who could cross onto the church’s grounds after sundown. But that was it, and of those five adults two refused to learn his name, one scorned his presence, and the fourth only thought he was gawky. Sure, part of it was his loud overwhelming Hawaiian t-shirts, the ones he stole from Tony’s closet. And part of it could be that his nose was always in a comic book, or the fact that he slept in class. But never, in his memory, had any one ever treated him as a threat. And now here was a woman he greatly admired not-threatening him.
He casually withdrew his hands from her grasp and tried not to choke. “How long?”
She didn’t even pretend to misunderstand, she just stretched back into her chair. Lounging and taking her time, completely in control of wrecking his world. “Let’s say three weeks. Three weeks where you stay away from my daughter, no classes, no after school study sessions, and definitely no talking to her. I’ve already spoken to the Principle and things will get sorted out at school so she’ll be set. Come Thanksgiving, if Buffy feels differently than we’ll see.”
Xander knew now, where Buffy got the darkness that hid inside her. The urge that occasionally made her want to play with her prey, chase them around the cemetery a time or two. The shadows that often mirrored what she hunted, the ones that she ignored. And Xander had the distinct feeling that Hank Summers was a lot more than ‘in the Army’; Buffy Summers had to get her taste in men from somewhere. Only so much could be attributed to teenage angst and bodice rippers. Never before had Xander thought how much of Buffy’s behavior was because of being the Slayer, and how much she had gotten from her parents.
He slowly nodded and backed off the Summers’ porch. There was no mistake here, and nothing waiting for him on this doorstep. “If it’s done, then I promise you won’t see me Mrs. Summers.” The woman nodded solemnly, but she couldn’t hide the pleased light in her eye. Not from someone who was waiting for it. Joyce Summers was not who she pretended to be, and one day that was going to come back and bite Buffy in the ass.
“I really am sorry about this Xander. I was rooting for you.” There was a sad smile on her lips and a softening of her eyes. The teen nodded, but he didn’t believe her. And he suddenly didn’t believe that Buffy and Giles were passing anything by this woman. Not damaged and replaced pieces of her wardrobe, not slipping out after curfew, not anything. Because this woman, she didn’t miss a thing and Xander didn’t know any type of magic that would change that.
He stepped off the porch and went to sling his bag across his shoulders, headed to Sunnydale High’s looker rooms to change, but he caught movement in a window above the porch. At the end of the hall on the second floor there was a reading nook above the front door, and who was sitting there but Buffy and Willow. The blond wiggled fingers at him and then turned to willow. Xander didn’t know what they were saying but he saw them close together giggling. His oldest living friend and the girl who professed as his protector, laughing at his humiliation. He knew the joyful laughter on Willow’s face, he’d seen it often since kindergarten, but the malicious enjoyment on the blonde’s, that was newer knowledge, he’d just seen it in her mother’s eyes.
So he turned from the house, hurt and angry, embarrassed for being called out by his crush’s mother on his feelings. By the obvious notice Mrs. Summers had taken, that Buffy was about as far out of his league as Cordelia Chase. And humiliated by the lies his friends, his friends, had told about him. Xander turned from the house, pointing his feet toward Sunnydale High; he only looked back to see his friends still laughing.
“Did you see his face?!” Buffy snorted, “He looked like someone had just shot his puppy!”
Willow giggled and snorted from her position on the window seat, watching Xander slowly get smaller in the distance. “Or like someone said Hostess was closing, the end of all Twinkies!” Both girls took a moment to imagine his face. The horror and sorrow that would line his eyes and crease his lips. Then they burst into laughter at the vision.
“Oh,” Buffy gasped clutching her stomach. “To see his face when that announcement comes out! It’ll be hilarious.” The blonde walked back to her cup on the vanity before the mirror, pouring a little more red into the disposable dishware. “You want some more?”
Willow hiccupped and giggled, “Me? Nah, I think you g- hic-gave me a little too much to begin with.” She giggled and leaned before losing her balance and toppling to the floor. “Se-hic-ee? Too much and Willow’s a naughty, silly girl.”
Buffy snorted, stalking over to her drunk friend. “You’re already a naughty silly girl Willow, remember?” Buffy smiled slyly.
“Oh,” the red head’s hands smacked into her mouth and her eyes went wide. “That’s ri-hic-ght, we l-lied!” her eyes darkened just a little. Wetness creased her corners. “Ma-maybe we shouldn’t have done this.” A flush rose to her cheeks.
The blonde flipped a negligent hand, “It’ll be fine, Mom knows Xander, probably realized already that it was just a game.” Willow shook her head.
“I don’t know Buffy, we lied to your mom about Xander. We told her that he was pressing you for sex!” Suddenly the room was spinning around her, and the bottom of her stomach was in her throat. That happy floaty feeling that Buffy promised would help her wear her new costume tonight, that was burning rubber to leave.
“We said he was ‘pressuring me for a relationship I’m not sure I want.’” The blonde’s voice came from within her closet as the clothes she had been wearing hit the floor. “First Willow, that doesn’t exactly sound like me.”
The red headed genius had to agree, considering that Willow had told Buffy what to say.
“And second,” the slayer continued, a sway to her hip in the line of the dress as she settled it around her. “If you ever want to get the musicians attention, you’re going to have to leave Xander behind.”
Willow didn’t know if she could do that. “Buffy I don’t know about that. Xander, he’s all I have and I’m all he has.” But big blue eyes stared into the red heads, the slayer, perfectly balanced in the sexiest pair of period shoes willow had ever seen, cupped the mousey girls face in callused palms.
“You’ve got me Will, and soon you’ll have that musician. If you follow my directions. Besides,” The blonde continued steering her friend into the closet to change. “High school is all about growing up and growing apart. You’ll find that special someone, preferably with guitar calluses and a lack of Hawaiian shirts. And eventually Xander will too, maybe even someone who’ll get him out of Hawaiian shirts.”
The girl genius snorted, rolling her eyes. “It would take a power stronger than Cordelia Chase to get Xander out of Hawaiian shirts.”
At the base of the stairs below the two conniving teens Joyce Summers gave a small secret smile at the plans of the two girls. They had goals, plans, and aims to achieve them. Joyce couldn’t be prouder.
The best Oz could figure was that the costume, which was much more like a real uniform than any outfit he would have gotten from party city, was made from some type of tough tear-resistant fabric, like real Kevlar. It was mostly a muted blue, suspiciously easy to miss in the dark of night, intersected by two thick lines, laying like arrows and angled down from his chest beneath the iconic star, which laid in an almost reflective white. A shining target in the middle of a commando’s uniform. The helmet, also a dark blue, was rubbery and bounced when he tossed it. Not that he’d thrown it at the wall to try it or anything.
The entire thing, even the boots, was designed and fitted for someone several sizes larger than Oz. He wasn’t trying to win any contests. He was just walking a very fine line between pretending to not be himself while doing something intrinsic to his identity. So he didn’t try to make it look good, he made it look … Oz-ish. Putting on the too long pants he tucked them into the too tall boots, buckling both as tight as possible. He added a layer of foam between his undershirt and the uniform top to give the appearance of muscle, where Oz was only skin and bones. Then he rolled up the sleeves, tucked gloves and weapons into the tactical belt, slung the shield across his back and let the helmet dangle from his fingertips as he packed up his van.
He tried in vain to ignore the solemnity that blanked the town as Oz drove through it to get to the Bronze before dark. An atmosphere he was trying very hard not to take too seriously. Never in his life, or the lives of his family in this town, had the monsters ever been out on the night of Halloween. Not even the monsters in his own family.
He remembered asking, when he had been little and the promises that adults made had not seemed so frail and brittle yet. Before he had started to view his own actions, his choices, as insufficient, as a lost cause. Asking why his parents didn’t dress up, why none of the adults did. It had been his great-grandfather, a man still well formed and commanding, who had sat him down on the living room coach and explained about magic, faith, and gods.
Halloween had been a night of revelry in ancient times, when men of power would invoke the spirit of the masks they wore to protect innocents of the things that went bump in the dark. But there was a catch, the men in masks had to retain enough of themselves to control their baser sides. If there ever came a time when these chosen men could not control themselves; then they would turn into the monsters whose appearance they wore.
Now, thousands of people dress up in the appearances of heroes and villains each year on the night the barrier between worlds is weakest. They don’t remember the first masks that became skin, the first shapeshifters. They are supposed to honor the memory of the first mistake, the first slip, by wearing the appearance the monsters they had once hunted. It was why only the young went out into the night, safe from monsters for a single night. While the adults, especially those who took what wasn’t theirs, never went out. Cursed to relive the pain of the people they hunted.
After that Oz would never put on the wolf mask that had always been tradition. The mask that he’d been told over and over had been his father’s, and his grandfather’s before him. At the age of eight Oz had known that it wasn’t fun, it wasn’t laughter, it wasn’t a game. People died every month because one of their ancestors had worn the mask of a wolf and lost himself. No matter how much his mother promised, or how much his father scowled; Oz knew, they were monsters.
There were wolves in the world. That was a fact that Oz knew. He knew they hunted innocents and that they hurt them. He knew that those who were hunted are never quite innocent again. And Oz wished sometimes, that he had the energy to do more than watch with bitter eyes as each month the promises of the last were broken anew. When did a promise become something to hate? Sometimes he hated how the very words filled him with anger and hatred. He hated how, having been raised that family was above everything, Oz couldn’t even bring himself to look his parents in the face for the shame that filled him at what he knew they did.
Oz didn’t know what he expected from them, maybe honesty, maybe a promise they wouldn’t break. But he was being ironic, sarcastic maybe, and in a small portion of his heart Oz yearned when he put on the Captain America costume. He was within the grasp of the most treacherous time of his life, the beginning of the end of himself. The moon hung haunting him, reminding that around every corner was the nearing time of his death. Because Oz wasn’t a monster, but he would soon turn into one.
So he donned the costume of a man who kept his promises, who made it his job to save people, who was hope idolized. And Oz tried not to think about all the promises he was going to break once the rest of his life began. Praying that for just one night, he wouldn’t have to be himself. Praying that for a little while he could be the man he saw in the mirror.
The padding was uncomfortable. It was hard and every step Xander took made it shift just a little more out of place. It added about twenty pounds of fake muscle and filled out the costume across the chest. The metal sleeve, which, ingeniously, was a series of thin metal rings that connected together and moved smoothly, covered Xander’s entire left arm from shoulder joint to fingertips. The entire costume was hot, itchy, and uncomfortable.
But Xander looked up and he didn’t see himself. Or rather he saw a character that showed more of who Xander really was than he had ever willingly shown the world before. Gone was the bright and busy prints that distracted from bruised skin. The uniform was tight, not really constricting, but it showed the girth of Xander’s stomach, which is that he lacking one. The dark color threw the dark circles under his eyes into sharp relief.
The leather top braced Xander’s ribs from where Buffy had bruised them much earlier that day. He had padded the bandages, but it was no match against slayer strength, especially when she hadn’t known to watch for injuries. Xander hadn’t gotten these ones from demons, at least not the supernatural version.
Lank hair hung down into Xander’s face, shading his eyes and shadowing him in a way he never allowed for school. A purposeful image had been maintained over the years. A busy, boisterous, boy who had never grown up, never learnt from his mistakes, and just barely stayed awake in class hid something far different. For one night of the year, for once in all his life Xander didn’t want to hide. He didn’t want to pretend to be happy, especially since this afternoon. For the first time in Xander’s memory, he looked in the mirror and realized he didn’t recognize himself anymore, if he ever had. Because the boy in the mirror, the man in the mirror, looked nothing like the boy from the hellmouth.
Tonight he would follow the rules he had explicitly agreed to. He would not talk, walk, or smile with Buffy Summers. He would keep his distance and if she asked after his strange behavior he would have a ready excuse: your mom told me to stay away. He would guide his charges in the hunt for candy. He would carefully watch the bright costumes that covered bruises and stitches, they were wearing their knowledge on their sleeves. No child that knows of the wolves in the world would willingly wear their shape, even for a night. So they choose costumes with smiles and laughter, to hide the tears and blood.
But there would be no blood tonight, Giles had promised. Slayers got the night off. Best to make the best of it.
Darrell showed up to the Bronze as the Big Bad Wolf. The costume was ridiculous, he was covered head to toe in fur lined pants and vest with a paper Mache wolf’s head hat. It would have been appropriately frightening, if you ignored the tuft of blue hair from under the cap and the fact that the pants kept falling down. And he tripped over the enormous paper Mache paws that covered his shoes. So, not that frightening.
His girlfriend, Amy, made a way better Little Red Riding Hood. And Oz was able to admit that she made a red riding hood worth running after. Her heels were high and her skirt was short. Her short brown hair styled in curls to grace the curve of her neck, drawing attention to the most vulnerable part of her body. The stilettoes drew eyes to the length of her smooth legs. The sway of her skirt hem outlined her gorgeous ass, while her short red cloak and hood draped her delicate shoulders.
The echo of the silence told better than any descriptions Oz could express, the effect Amy had on the boys practicing their upcoming music for the Bronze’s Halloween cover. She led him in by the loops on his belt.
“I’ll be waiting on the dance floor honey,” She winked, pursing her lips. “Just in case you need encouragement. You’re biggest fan is here.” Amy sashayed out of the room, leaving three dumbstruck silent boys and their visions of …making music with one hell of an interesting instrument.
Oz twisted to the side, breaking out of the daze. “I thought your biggest fan was your mom?” A drumstick flew from across the stage set. Followed by a roll of tape and a shoe, none of which hit their mark on the guitarist. “Besides, I thought you were supposed to go as some chick flick character.”
“Yeah,” Marcus hummed. “I could definitely see you flickin’ some chick, but this,” and he motioned to the oversized wolf costume. “It don’t seem like you’re too upset about having it her way.”
The wolf head tipped back and their third member appeared from underneath the paper mache monster. “Dude,” a thumb was thrown back to right-stage wing. “Did you see that smokin’ hot outfit? You’re out of your mind if you think I’ll complain about that. Even if she ain’t gonna put out, least I can enjoy the view.” Darrell leered.
A raised eyebrow, “Can you even play in that shit?” If the ridiculous costume inhibited the drummer’s playing, Oz didn’t care if Darrel was the big bad wolf and he was Grandma; he wasn’t gonna let the drummer wear it. But the suit checked out, a little creative seating worked out the few moves Darrell wouldn’t be able to perform because of the claw-feet-shoes. Which was better than Marcus’s Zombie costume, the fake skin hanging from his fingers and hands kept getting caught on the guitar strings and messing up the warm up rhythm. If it happened one more time Oz was gonna cut it off himself.
It was realistic, Marcus’s zombie costume. Lots of bloody drips on torn clothing, the skin hanging from fingertips and hands flapping like real skin pieces. Make up done in pale, to take away his tanned skin, with green layered on top to give the dead and haggard look. The entire put together was too good for Marcus to put it on himself, given the fact he never wore make up, and under pressure he admitted to asking his mom for help. Which gained him the ragging and tease that he had been trying to avoid.
“Too late,” Darrell snickered in response to Marcus’s complaint that he was hopping they wouldn’t see it as the lights dimmed. Getting in one last word before the set began.
There were people all over the dance floor and only the brightest and boldest costumes came through the darkening of the club. Oz could just barely make out the Amy with her bold red hood standing next to the Wicked Witch of the West with her bile green face make up, at least he sincerely hopped it was face makeup. There was fork-tailed demon in red and a guy Oz knew was on the Sunnydale football team dressed as Frankenstein’s monster. And many more than Oz could see or imagine from his place on the stage.
But as the music swept him away Oz had a single last thought before burring himself in chords and strings, notes and melody: if he couldn’t be who he wished he was, then he wished he could stay like this forever. Simple music and melody, no monsters, deadlines, just music; a magic all on its own.
For a moment as Xander watched the other High Schoolers gather for forced volunteerism, he wonder what he was doing. Blackmailed with suspension or expulsion from Sunnydale High if he didn’t show up. But what was the alternative? Hours of pretending to be happy when he was really so tired that the words swam in front of his face, or hiding bruises, breaks, and sprains when not running for his life from nightmares stronger, faster, and hardier than he was?
Was it worth it? When the end of the day meant trudging back to an address where broken glass littered the floor and if he was lucky his ‘parents’ wouldn’t notice he was back. Xander leaned back against the column, watching the teens gathering in front of the high school. He was bitter and brooding, as much as he didn’t want to have anything in common with fang face the former flame, Xander felt no desire to pretend to be happy. And in his costume, his character of the night, there was no need to pretend to be happy. Among the friends meeting up tonight there would be no Slayer Scoobies, if there ever would be again.
A taffeta ball gown was attempting to make its way toward his shadowed corner. A taffeta ball gown topped by a brown wig and leading a white sheet with black lettering. Two females that Xander didn’t want to deal with, and as of earlier that day, was not allowed to spend time with. Two females who had once been the reason for his getting up in the morning. You can’t just stop feeling that, but the ache that sat in Xander’s chest, dried his throat, and pooled water in his eyes ensured that Xander wasn’t sure if they were worth the effort anymore. They had taken the one bright spot in his life, his friendship, and ruined it. Even if their relationship healed, and Xander wasn’t sure it would, it would never be the same.
A chill went down his spine, there were eyes watching him. A discrete gaze around showed that most of the chaperoning teachers had eyes on the upcoming confrontation. Changes like the kind Mrs. Summers made were purposefully discussed quickly. Sunnydale High was not a large school; it had a high fatality rate and drew from a relatively small sized pool of possibilities. There were six other high schools in the Sunnydale metropolitan area and all were private; four were religious, one was by invitation only, and the last was run and attended by only a certain … suspicious segment of the population.
By necessity alone, all the teachers at Sunnydale High would have found out that Mrs. Summers had asked that he be removed from all of the classes he shared with her daughter. Xander still wasn’t sure how that was going to work out, given the fact that there were only so many options for the alternatives he could be put in. Now they were all watching. First to ensure he obeyed the rules, and second to see the fall out from the rupturing of one of Sunnydale’s most infamous relationships.
Xander stretched forward from his lean, entering the circle of light from a post outside the bus circle. Ensuring he was clearly visible to all the watching eyes. It took a moment or two for the taffeta dress and brown wig to distinguish themselves into the personage of Buffy Summers. A young woman Xander was not supposed to be in contact with. That ache in his heart flared up and settled in when the first thing he saw was the laughter in Willow’s eyes and the sneer on Buffy’s. These girl were supposed to be his friends, his best friends, and they were laughing at him.
Faster than Xander could see it, a small pale fist whipped out. A slight turn of the body geared against this confrontation was enough that even with slayer strength and aim, it was glancing off his body. “That’s what you get loser, for outing me to Giles!” Brown eye squinted at the taller teen, her righteous anger filling the atmosphere.
Xander gasped, trying to hide just how bad that hit had hurt already bruised and taped ribs. He wasn’t allowed to speak to Buffy Summers, wasn’t allowed within fifty feet of Buffy Summers; but he couldn’t allow her hurled words to go unanswered. “You don’t even know do you? Do you have any idea what you did? I was trying to look out for you Buffy! You’re my friend!”
“Hmpf.” She snorted, “For my side it looked awfully presumptuous and controlling. We might have known each other going on two years now, but it really doesn’t mean anything.” Buffy skated her eyes, dismissively over his costume, over his body. “Did you ever think that maybe regular guys just don’t do it for me? You’d certainly never compete, Xander, so stop trying.”
“Harris!” echoed around the bus drive and through the massing of kids and parents. “Get your ass over here!” Buffy arched a brow at his lack of response and as Xander stalked away from the devastating duo, he heard the light laughter of his previously good friends. There were limits and boundaries every good relationship needed to work, some bounce back from crossing them, but Xander didn’t think this one would.
“That was kind of mean, Buffy.” Tentatively came from underneath the burka-like costume. Head to toe veiled in a white sheet with the mass produced ‘Boo’ printed across the front, Willow wasn’t exactly the most courageous or bold of people. Xander had been her best friend since Kindergarten, she didn’t want to lose him; on the other hand, Buffy was her first girlfriend, and she was going to get Willow her guy. If she could follow the blonde’s instructions. Willow couldn’t afford to lose Buffy’s friendship.
“Please, Willow. He needed to hear it.” A slayer strong arm grabbed the front of the ghost costume and Willow nearly had to job behind Buffy to keep the drape from tearing. Which might have been Buffy’s intention. “If we’re going to get what we want: Oz for you and Angel for me, then we need Xander out of the way. He’d only complicate things, besides we can fix things later once we have our guys well in hand.”
Where this take charge, brutalizing, Machiavellian came from, Willow didn’t know. But it was her goal at the end that Buffy was working towards, which Willow wanted. And Xander had never not forgiven Willow when she asked; so she figured it would be the same now. It just might be awhile before she asked it of Xander.
Buffy stopped them in front of the routes. A mess of tangled strings on a map of the town indicating which teen was taking what kids to what houses. The blonde slayer needed a route for her and her friend that would take them as close to the Bronze as possible. Which would hopefully be where they would find their prey. They knew Oz, at least, was there and likelihood was high that Angel would be lingering in the vicinity to stay in the loop of supernatural affairs. So it would accomplish both goals if the route went by the bronze and they just happened to be seen by their love interests. Otherwise Buffy would have to find a reason to head toward Angel’s mansion in the deserted section of town while still wearing her costume. A little bit more difficult, but nowhere near impossible.
Low and behold there were two routes that weaved in and out of the neighborhood that had been built just north of the Bronze and just south of Last Seasons’ Cemetery. An old brownstone ghetto, not a place Buffy would normally want to be. Admittedly, with very little evidence of demonic activity in that area, the neighborhood wasn’t even on the patrol schedule and pattern. In fact, it would be the first time Buffy would even be in that neighborhood. It was curious, but not that strange. Sunnydale was a large town and Buffy, even with Giles, Willow, and Angel to help her, was only one girl. There were bound to be places that she’s never been to.
“There!” The blonde said, pointing to the set of strings that her and her friend needed to be assigned to. She tugged to ensure the red head’s attention. “Those are our routes. Let’s go get our rug rats.” The slayer continued tugging, searching in the area for the teacher in charge of assigning routes, so that she could threaten –ahem, persuade the teacher to give them the routes they needed.
There were dozens of ankle biters milling around outside the school, giggling and screeching. Zipping around as though they had somehow managed to eat the Halloween candy they hadn’t even set out to get yet. The group milling before Coach Flinstock were an assorted bunch of fairy tale creatures. There was a purple fairy in satin and a pink fairy in tulle. The required witch and wizard, complete with a child-sized broomstick for one and a fluffy beard for the other. Two Disney princesses, one blonde and one brunette, Xander had never learned the character’s names, and an assortment of ghouls, ghosts, and monsters. But looking down at the list of names and faces Xander cracked a smile for the only other comic book character in his little troupe.
A small, tiny almost, costumed Flash Gordon. His big blue eyes peered up at the teen from a red rubber helmet, spreading a gap toothed smile for him. “You’re the Winter Soldier.”
Xander grinned, squatting to better face his troops for the night, happy for the moment to play pretend. “I am. I’ve been issued direct orders from Fury and Captain America himself to escort you miniature adults on this dangerous mission.” Chuckles and smiles went around the adults as they encouraged their brats to expend their energy on the costumed volunteer.
But Flash Gordon wasn’t quite ready to trust this stranger, even if he was the Winter Soldier for the night. “Winter Soldier never goes anywhere without Captain America; where is he now?” Xander busted a gut laughing. How much of his conversation that afternoon had focused around where his other half would be tonight? About what to tell people?
So Xander leaned in close to the tiny superhero and whispered the secret. “Captain Rogers is undercover working at the Bronze, keeping people safe. But you gotta be able to keep it a secret.” A finger to his lips, “shh.” A serious nod from the little face. A delighted grin on the mother’s face.
It only took a few minutes for the kids to be ready to go. A few wiggly scratchy hugs and one monster’s whining ‘’ mom!’’, then Xander’s colorful troops were off.
“Now, for extra candy you can try the old ‘you missed me’, but that’s iffy.” Xander threw a smile at his troops following behind with smiles and laughter, their joy, for all his gripes and sorrows, was infectious. “That one should only be attempted for chocolate.”
The route was a simple loop through the most populated subdivisions and past a few of the kid friendly stores that had been solisitated for the chaperoned trip. They were clever and cute. Chocolate was a big rush for the little devils and they were all properly impressed by miniature cakes shaped like shoes that the department store was giving out. While a lot of them were pretty bummed that Mrs. Johansen had given out floss and toothbrush kits. Which Xander totally agreed was a bummer.
There were only a few houses left on their route back to the school when something went wrong. It wasn’t a sound, though there would be screams later, that pricked Xander’s concern. He spun on his heel, reaching back to count the heads among his trick or treating troops. His hand landed lightly on the gargoyle that had been following in his heels all night. All his ducks were in a row, their teeth and faces covered in the residue of candy. Flash Gordon trailing much slower than Xander thought he’d even be able to go. He was certain that there were more wrappers in those bags and bowls than there were pieces of candy. The kids were tired and starting to crash from all their candy, and something hellmouthy was about to happen.
Xander had only a moment. The rubber mask under his hand turned hard and scaly as a pulse hit through his body, hit through everyone out tonight for Halloween. Pain blindsided him. A burning ache that started in his gut and injected fire into his veins. Searing his muscles and organs, his nerves cried out for relief. His fingertips numbed, tingled, burnt, and then numbed again. His vision was doubling, going hazy, wavering at the edge of fading out entirely. There was a sudden weight. Xander heard the tearing, crunching sound, wet with blood and torn tissue, before he actually felt the pain. Between one breath and the next it circled his arm. Completely engulfing the limb and tearing the socket.
Xander watched through tear drenched eyes, kneeling on the street, as one little kid after another became what they dressed as. A little girl’s fairy wings fluttered behind her. A demon’s teeth ground together. The little wizard yelped as frantic terrified people stepped on his too-long beard.
The pain increased, tripled, and converged in his chest, on his rapidly beating heart. It pumped hard once, twice, then skipped; Xander had one thought. The Slayer had the night off.
Buffy led her trail of ducklings through the route from the school maps. Moving East of the high school through the commercial district, where the brats following her went from one cheerful store assistant to another. Then north of the Bronze, but not before stopping in to see if Angel was there.
She had tried to persuade Willow to sneak a peek at her boyo, but the bookworm was both painfully shy and ridiculously responsible. She had corralled the little brats into playing a waiting game on the sidewalk just outside the Bronze so that Buffy could go in. So the Slayer had walked into the one place in this godforsaken town she might get a break, both as the Slayer and as a teenage girl, to look for her Prince Charming.
The club was packed with flesh and people had really worked the idea of a sexy Halloween. Buffy was pretty sure she was the only female there with more than was required covered. She even saw Amy the mouse, from her chemistry class, rocking a slinky barely there skirt and shirt, complete with red cloak. She clearly wasn’t concerned that she had lost the dress to Buffy.
The Slayer snorted, a barely there girl would hardly be able to move in a dress like this, let alone shimmy in it. No, the temporarily brunette was positive, she was rocking the crinoline and taffeta. Unfortunately, the other thing Buffy was positive about, was that Angel was not at the Bronze. There were a dozen wannabe vamps in classic drapes from every century; but no authentic Irish Master Vampires. Which meant she was back to guiding the little brats in search of more sugar and zigzagging through the neighborhood behind the club.
For all the times that the blonde slayer had slayed in Sunnydale; better yet, all the times she had slayed in the alley beside or behind the Bronze, Buffy had never been to this neighborhood. It was oddly configured, the neighborhood contained four square blocks of area but the off shoot roads to all the other buildings and homes required you come back to the main drag, Gates Way, to leave. All residents and guests entered under floral embellished iron gates on one side, and left through floral embellished iron gates on the other. Directly north of the Bronze was the Southside Gates, which included two blocks of brownstone townhouses and apartment buildings. Then the one way drag, Gates Way, across from which was the Northside Gates. A slightly nicer selection of still very old buildings, and the neighborhood park.
There was something weird about the neighborhood, but for all her experience with the paranormal Buffy couldn’t quite figure out what it was. The hair at the back of her neck went up and her heart started to pound in a way that didn’t even happen when she was patrolling at night. A cold sweat coated her palms and she had to keep wiping them on her dress. Nothing had ever gotten her this keyed up, this afraid. But nothing stood out, nothing caught her attention. Just the hair raising feeling of fear.
Buffy didn’t see scaly demons, or blood-dripping witches. There were parents out trick or treating with their kids, older couples supervised from their porch seats, and several other groups like hers wove in and out of the residential buildings. Still the feeling of fear built. As though someone were watching her, as though that someone were waiting for the best possible moment to strike at her. But there was no one there. No one watched her, the parents and supervising adults were all pleasant, and Buffy didn’t sense anything with her Slayer senses, just her human ones.
Her kids went up and down the blocks hooting and hollering, raising a ruckus, but none of the parents minded. Candy and affection were spread out amongst all the children, all of who were having a good time. Buffy stayed on the sidewalk, well outside the property wards of any of the residences and practically in the middle of the road. When the brats asked about it, Buffy mentioned the stiff material of her costume or made a vague comment about the length of the day and her increasing age. They didn’t question it, but after a while, Willow did.
“What’s going on, Buffy?” Willow the friendly ghost asked, her attention mostly on the group she was chaperoning. Keeping track that none of her little minions didn’t attempt to go where they didn’t belong.
Her wig itched, it was heavy atop her head. Her dress was restrictive and tight, it might have been just in her head, but Buffy felt breathless. Her eyes darted from one house to the next to the next, taking in adults, dogs, and statuary before moving to the next. “There’s something about this neighborhood, Will. I don’t like it.” The currently-brunette slayer started walking towards the exit gate. “I’ve got to get out of here!”
“Buffy!” the red head hissed from beneath her sheet. Having a difficult time choosing between taking care of her friend or her charges. “You can’t just leave those kids! You’ve got to wait!”
“I can’t, Willow.” The costumed slayer panted. “I’ve got to get out of here, got to get out of this dress!” She was tugging on the fabric, as though to rend it, when her rapid pace brought her and her friend through the gate and into refreshing relief.
“Buffy, we have to go back to the kids! They’re our responsibility.” Willow tugged to go back, but the only thing Buffy was doing was putting more space between her and that awful unnatural neighborhood. The tug of war took the girls further from the gates, but still in sight of the kids.
In sight of the neighborhood, but not within it. First Buffy thought it was the best compromise, sure she wasn’t right there with the kids, but it shouldn’t be necessary, there were no vampires or demons out tonight. Then she felt the pulse hit. A single thought rang in her head for just a moment before attention strayed elsewhere: I had the night off!
A tearing, burning sensation ran across her scalp as a white light spread out in a wave, hitting all those near her. It clung to her skin and penetrated her friend. She was just in view to see a Gargoyle’s wings flap. But of greater attention, Buffy saw the white light hit the entrance of Gate Way and be repelled. Where the white wave hit wrought-iron a cascade of gold sparks showered the area. Buffy watched as the great embellished iron gates swung shut and locked tight as though hit by a great gust of wind. Those ornamental floral embellishments interwove to create a lock no one was getting through. That old neighborhood, the one that had so offset Buffy, the one that had never needed the services of the Slayer; the oldest neighborhood in Sunnydale, was locked up tight and preparing for siege.
But she was having difficulty remembering why that was important. Magic shut the great gates. She had been trying to get out of those gates anyways. But, to be shut by … Magic . . . sorcery . . . devilry. The brunette spun around. She was lost, terrified; the things of nightmares had come alive and she had nowhere safe to go. The girl in the taffeta dress, who used to be known as Buffy, turned hoping that someone who could help her would be in the area.
“Buffy! What do we do!” A wail went up and the 18th century lady turned, she screamed. The Lady Buffy couldn’t decide if she was more horrified by the fact that it was a ghost, or that it was a ghost of a nightwalker. Either way, it didn’t take much to convince her to run away. The noblewoman, who had been a vampire slayer who wouldn’t even run from her death, turned and ran away from the temporary ghost of her best friend.
The building was dark, shadows covered the floor and the walls as lights flashed. The crowd crushed in, they wore the faces of actors and actresses, monsters and angels, heroes and villains. They laughed and called out in abandon, no care or worry of their lives could touch them on the most magical of all nights. Oz would use that. He would use that atmosphere, with his music to play the crowd. He’d lure them in, teach them to sin. There would be no morning after, no thoughts of consequences once Oz wove his spells; but with music there was hardly ever a need.
Oz could feel the vibration run through his bones. The tempo of the song guided his fingers. The thrill of the bass settling in his soul. This was all that was Right and Good in his world. If nothing else, music wouldn’t change, one the four universal languages.
A pulse swept through the crowd, visible in the pattern of change that swept through the crowd in its wake. There was a split second of recognition, knowledge that something wasn’t right. Oz had no time for thought or reaction, just the certainty that this, whatever was going to happen tonight, was going to change his world.
He could feel the magic searing through his body, boiling in his blood. There was sudden and agonizing pain. As though hot pokers were stuck in his legs, injecting fire in place of his blood. His muscles seized and cramped, and finally tore, even as Oz blanked out. The pain just too much.
Bucky Barnes came too panting. He knelt in the middle of the street, sweat dripping off his body as muscles spasmed and cramped. He didn’t know where he was or how he got there. Though not a stranger to amnesia or blackout, there was usually a reference point. Something that at least felt familiar. But there was nothing, in the specific, that Bucky could point out and say ‘that, I know that.’ So instead he fell back on long long held training.
Shelter. Shelter came first. The Winter Soldier gazed around his immediate surroundings attempting to determine the enemy. What he saw were short creatures out of bedtime stories, or occasionally, nightmares. The Winter Soldier had enough experience with Dr. Strange to know that the smell of burnt ozone in the air combined with the static sensation that arched through the connection between flesh and metal meant magic had happened tonight. Probably fairly recently.
The Avenger kept a constant scan on his surroundings as he hobbled forward, he needed a safe spot to hole up for a minute. To get his bearings and adjust to his body, something was off about it. Even as he walked, tripped, hobbled, stumbled past plastic bowls of candy and bags of sweets his body got used to the weight, his muscles got stronger, and the spasms relaxed. He needed somewhere to regroup.
But everywhere the soldier looked was chaos. Pirates, clowns, vampires, superheroes; for every villains the soldier saw there was a storybook hero that matched. As he ran past in the shadows he kept track of who looked seriously hurt, honestly terrorized, and who looked more annoyed, more irritated than in danger. Many in the subdivisions and housing areas were more annoyed. In danger more of breaking a nail than losing their life. The pests they fought were small little creatures, or small little heros, neither of which were honestly doing any fatal damage. Just messing up the lawn, a little more work at fixing fences and poles tomorrow, then attempting to save lives. It was once he reached the commercial and business zones that he slowed up and took his time.
Here there were scorch marks on cement, indicating a ridiculously high temperature flame. They were still hot to the touch when he bent to feel them, even though whoever had made them was gone long before the former Soviet assassin arrived on the scene. Then over there was melted glass, that might have been a window display. Left and right the Winter Soldier saw crashed cars and evidence of fighting. He could hear screaming and running. Every once and awhile he found someone stuck between two forms, dead because whatever had happened hadn’t worked quite well enough on them.
By the time he heard the bells, Bucky had resurfaced through the training and he was pretty sure he knew what had happened. Some spell had been cast on Halloween and everyone who had gone as a costume had changed into them. There was no other explanation for the nightmares he was seeing in the streets. The only question that remained, one that he didn’t really have time to answer at the moment, was: was he a character? Or had he been dropped in for some other reason?
A scream snagged Bucky’s attention from his forward momentum and he changed tracks on a dime. Up ahead he could see the latex clad form of a woman being pushed against a brick wall.
“Get off me! Get off me! Get off asshole!” she kicked and flailed, fighting the male decked out in ruffles and lace. There wasn’t much organized style, no training and what grace came through the movements was innate, not nurtured. Well, not nurtured for anything other than high heels and miniskirts, Bucky rephrased.
“chu Chu, now be good puppet,’’ the blonde ran his hands over her body, digging and clinging. “It don’t ‘ave to hurt.’’
The pirate, and as crazy as that sounded to Bucky he had certainly dealt with weirder, wouldn’t let go of the woman. So Bucky jogged over to … help him along. There was an urge deep inside that simply wanted to punch this guy in the face and crow to the heavens of his strength. Which was stupid. First he’d never do that, he’d spent too many years getting beat up, and beating people up, to glory in it. Second, a punch to the face rarely carried enough force to knock a guy out without also killing him.
So Bucky slid metal fingers up into the pirate’s armpit and pressed roughly against the shoulder joint while pulling away.
“’ey, that’s not very nice mate!” Lace-and-ruffles had to be stupid, because even as he let go of the woman and yelled at Bucky, he was taking a swing with his free arm. Even without armor on his right shoulder the blows were shrugged off like a typically annoying bug. It wasn’t worth his time. A single fingertip to a vulnerable pressure point and Bucky was one annoying bug down.
The damsel in distress, as Darcy would call her, was strangely calm. Decked out in a black latex body suit complete with fluffy cat ears and tail. She scowled at him. Which, the Avenger thought, really wasn’t that nice, after all he had helped her out. The Winter Soldier turned to leave, in the distance Bucky could hear the howling snarl of something really big and really bad approaching. He didn’t want to stick around to find out what it was.
“Xander?! Of all the people I had to be rescued by, it had to be you dweeb!” She shouted as he turned to walk away.
Bucky scowled right back, “I don’t know who ‘Xander’ is, but if you’re so upset about the rescue I can wake Jack Sparrow up and you can take him out yourself.” The Winter Soldier slowly walked backward, he didn’t want to be around when whatever was approaching got there.
The beautiful brunette, and seriously you had to be a supermodel to be able to pull off a latex body suit, gestured up and down his body. “What do you mean you don’t know who Xander is?! You’re Xander!” She grabbed at him.
Bucky blinked, a quick gaze into a nearby car mirror and thought yes, the body was one he recognized, but also not the one his memory said should be there. Well, that answered one question. But honestly, was the girl deaf and dumb? They shouldn’t still be standing here!
“I still don’t know who Xander is, and we really can’t do this here.” Bucky tried to get her to let go, but she clung, transferring her grip from leather to Kevlar back to leather as he chased her fingers around his uniform. “Stop, stop. Stop it!” He snarled finally just grabbing her fingers, silencing her long enough that the snarling growl from behind them echoed in the quiet.
The winter soldier spun, Putting himself between the civilian and the threat. And a threat it was. Great paws with talon like claws broke cement where they landed on the street. Fur the color of gunmetal and steel covered a snarling muzzle with more fangs and teeth than a mouth should reasonably hold. Even as the former Soviet assassin watched, looking clues as to where the monster would move, the body beneath fur and fangs and claws continued to grow and change. Which, by Bucky’s estimate, really couldn’t be good.
There was no time to acclimate. There was pain, agony, and then there was a snarling roar even as the spots left his eyes. Steve had no time to adjust. It was mad dash to sling his shield over his head and in front of his body just in time to ensure the monster pouncing ate metal and not flesh.
It was too close for Steve to get a good look. There was a wall of grey in front of his face that smelt of blood and flesh. Musty and putrid, it might have made one of his younger comrades gag or panic but Steve had smelt the burning of the cremation ovens, walked ankle deep in blood. It would take more than bad breath to disarm Captain America.
But the beast was strong. It had four clawing feet, eager to rip into his soft belly while Steve lay on his back. Even as Steve fended off the attacking jaws he saw the bulking of muscle under fur-growing skin. Clothes tore as seams ripped and muscle and bones slid into new positions. Here was the wolf of monstrous nightmare, the villain of a hundred children’s fairy tales. And it was attempting to make a chew toy out of Captain America.
Steve took offense at that, he really did. It might have only been a beast, savaging and clenching from hunger. But it had gotten slobber all over his new uniform… Steve froze for a single moment as the thought penetrated his mind. This wasn’t his new uniform.
He could smell the gunpowder residue and there was a tear in the forearm of this suit. This wasn’t new, it wasn’t clean, and it wasn’t what he had worn in his last battle. Which, added to the fact that he couldn’t remember how he got here, meant bad business and big trouble.
There was a sudden scream from the general commotion surrounding Steve and the giant wolf. The Captain could tell that the two were fighting amongst musical instruments on an elevated platform, a stage, a stage at a bar, the smell of alcohol was prevalent in the air being blown towards them. Not to mention the flashing neon lights and ridiculously skimpy … costumes? Steve’s attention was taken to the dance floor same as the wolf he was fighting off. Narrowing in on the woman in white struggling against her male captor. She gave her attacker a fierce right hook, dislodging the male enough for Steve to see blood running from her neck to stain her dress.
With a reverberating snarl the great beast leapt from his crouch on top of Steve to the bleeding woman on the dance floor. The Avenger would have watched as the two predators, two animals, only one of which was in fur, fight over their prey; but he had bigger issues to deal with. Including the pressure coming through his suit near his ankle.
The World War II veteran blinked, for the first time stunned in a fight without the use of near fatal force. Attached, rather persistently, to his calf was a zombie. Rotting flesh peeled back from white bone as the skull underneath was exposed. Teeth coated in old blood tried to tear through the Kevlar-like suit from Stark Industries; but honestly, things more deadly than Zombies had gnawed on him without getting through it.
Captain America reached out to pull his gun and shoot, but something stopped him. A tug and pull on something inside stayed his hand. So he lashed out with his right foot. Swung around and crossed over his left leg, the right slammed solidly into the side of the zombie’s head. Now if Stark was to be believed then this thing would just get up and continue coming after him. But it didn’t, it leaned back as though confused and looked up at Steve. The zombie didn’t reach for him or try to steal a second nibble, which Steve thought was good enough.
The soldier resisted simply pooping up. Instead, he crawled to a far corner where the stage met the wing of backstage and a curtain. Slowly, he inched up, ensuring no one and nothing that wanted to eat him, of which the number was startling high in this town, lurked around the corner. Steve needed a minute before he returned to the fray to try to bring order to chaos.
But right now he hurt, ached in a way that brought back memories of the flu. Like growing bones or the healing of muscles after a hard fight with the Avengers. Is chest was tight like his lungs couldn’t expand properly. He was still seeing spots from whatever took him from a comfortable couch and a Disney movie in Manhattan to … hell.
The super soldier couldn’t determine the local language at the moment, more screaming than talking going on; but it was hot. Hot but not humid, a dry area, maybe near a desert he thought. Steve just vaguely smelt lightning and sulfur over the blood and dead flesh he was surrounded by. So, magic; which really wasn’t that surprising, and occurred way more frequently than he would like.
The area immediately surrounding Captain America was free of horror stuffs, but further afield things were getting heated. A man with a mask revved a chainsaw, a swordsman was furiously fending off a red eyed opponent, and he could here gunshots in the alley next door. Wait, a masked chainsaw killer? Two master swordsmen locked in battle? And Steve thought, the beast that tried to him could have easily been from the Grimm’s Fairy Tale “Little Red Riding Hood”. Added to that would be the befanged idiot ‘necking’ in the middle of the dance floor, who could easily be Dracula.
So these were storybook characters. The question Steve didn’t have time to answer was: were these characters come to life, pulled from their stories, or were they costumes that became their characters? But Steve couldn’t wait in a corner trying to decide, he had to get out there and help. Steve had hidden himself in a defensible corner to wait out the pain, not the night. So, with breath easily reaching his lungs and his muscles strengthening as though they had never been weak, he headed out into the sea of monsters, aiming lightly toward the distant chime of a church bell.
Hey, so this was pretty hard to get out. I knew where I wanted to go, just not how to get there. Which brings me to my question, or rather the statement that implies a question. I don’t know anyone in real life who can be my sounding board for stuff like this, and I’d really appreciate anyone willing to try. I need someone willing to allow creative flexibility with characters, setting, and timeline. Someone who is fairly good at returning messages and who doesn’t mind the bizarre.
If Steve had the time, he might have made a list to throw at Stark later, if he lived through this, of all the improbable things that he encountered as he followed the cracked-cement trail of the hound from hell. First on his list would be Zombies, followed incredibly closely by Vampires, and not the type with plastic fangs, and thirdly was definitely going to be this son of a bitch that was making him run full tilt through a town he somehow knew, and yet didn’t. As if that made any sense at all.
He knew which cracks in the sidewalk were caused by the fiend he was following, and which had already been there. He had the vaguest sense of losing a something in one of the alleys he passed, and of recognizing the face under the costume of one of the monsters he fought off. It was disorienting and gave Steve the faintest idea that nothing was really what he thought it was. So the Captain shrugged it off and followed the path the puppy had left.
The Army veteran knew when he was closing in on it because the volume and smell suddenly increased. Clearly whoever had lost their pet hadn’t been taking good care of him to begin with. Steve had the ridiculous compulsion to wax on about teeth cleanliness, fur gloss, and behavior training. The Captain shook it off, cursing Darcy for making him sit through the Dog Show earlier that week.
The snarls and growls coming from up ahead were creating tremors in the air, breaking windows and definitely cracking pavement. The American Icon slowed up as he approached the battlegrounds. It was never a good idea to go charging into the fray without intelligence. A quick look from around a corner assured the veteran that he was coming up behind and up wind of the hideous monster he had just tracked across twelve blocks. That naughty puppy was going to cost his owner a large chunk a change in damage reparations.
Debris from previous fights, the Captain saw melted glass and scorched cement from high temperature flames, restricted the view. What wasn’t restricted by rubble was restricted by the sheer mass of his opponent. Weighing in at what was likely several hundred, if not thousand, pounds; standing at least ten feet tall at the shoulder on four paws; and as wide as a semi-tractor trailer. Steve knew the beast had cornered some other victim of this ridiculous night, if only because he could see their shoes.
The Winter Soldier was pinned down. A non-combatant at his back and one nasty son of a bitch at his front. They were stuck between the broken glass of one store front and the collapsed rubble of another. And each step the monster took crushed asphalt beneath its feet. He had no back-up, no real plan, and no fucking idea how he where he was.
Bucky needed an assist, someone who could jump in at any moment and tip the balance. Like Steve. The Winter Soldier could really use Captain America at any moment now. Hell, he’d also take a silver-lined newspaper to hit this idiot with, but neither of those things were going to happen.
He leaned back to where the cat-girl still clung to his leathers. “When I say run, run as fast as you can as far as you can.”
As one the two men, who still weren’t aware of each other took a deep breath. One- they settled their feet, shoulder-width apart. Two- they griped their weapons, the iconic shield for Captain America, a jagged piece of metal for the Winter Soldier. On three they charged.
“Run!” The Soldier just barely remembered to yell as he charged the hellhound from the front, hoping surprise would work in his favor.
There was a single moment before contact where both the Avengers knew they weren’t facing this enemy alone. But the battle-craze nearly blocked it out other than as a peripheral, ‘that other guy’s probably a help’.
One red-white-and-blue foot vaulted from rubble to a backward facing joint. A glove covered hand grasped deep in gunmetal fur pulled the Captain’s body along. A flip landed him right where he wanted to be; right at the vulnerable joint where the spine meets the shoulders and Captain America slammed the edge of his shield in that very sensitive place.
The Winter Soldier charged from the front, wielding his jagged steel pipe like a sword and plunging it straight into the beast’s neck. Angled lightly into the chest for maximum penetration the steel pipe tore through muscle and skin, drenching the former Soviet assassin in blood.
Either man alone would not have been able to take the beast without some heavy artillery. But both soldiers met over the carcass of the beast with a rush of elated victory. Manic Grins made of adrenaline and survival softened into chagrin, oh, you again, and pleased accomplishment.
In the distance a bell tolled the midnight hour.
“Oh, that is just disgusting.”
She wore a cat suit, in latex, complete with ears and a tail. She wasn’t Natasha, it was the first thought that popped into his head. Sure she was beautiful, and boy could she pull off latex, but there was none of the weird impression of deja vu that hinted at the magic this night was steeped in. Steve watched Bucky and felt an odd double recognition, first that the man in front of him was The Winter Soldier, and then the second recognition that he was someone else too. Difficult to describe.
Even if she wasn’t a member of his team, Steve could admit the girl might have had a point. Bucky had stabbed up with the makeshift sword and he had slammed down with the shield and they were both covered in blood and pieces of the nastiest puppy Steve had ever had the displeasure of encountering. Regardless of the blood, Steve grinned down at his friend from where he stood on the beast’s shoulders, he couldn’t help himself.
“Fancy meeting you here Buck, who’s the dame?” The former Soviet spy was very close to rolling his eyes at his ridiculously irreverent friend. A couple years ago, and about a million fights before, Steve might have said something about ‘protecting innocents’ and Bucky might have replied with statements of ‘risk assessment’ and ‘acceptable casualties’. But they were both more together than they ever had been separated. So Steve made a quip about the woman in the cat suit and Bucky replied with a one liner about:
“Strays, you know how Tony appreciates talent.” Which opened a whole new can of worms. Bucky spun to face the woman, “Didn’t I tell you to run?”
“Hey, I’ve got talent. This town requires knowing when to run and when not to.” A hair flip that might have been more seductive if either of the super soldiers saw her as anything more than a liability. “Besides I’ve made it this long in this town.”
A sharp look from the shield-wearing soldier, “Twice you’ve made reference to this town as if you know it. Are you saying that you know who you are? That you’re from here?”
“So are you, you know. I’m sorry to say I even go to classes with you freaks.” She said folding her arms across her chest. “Well, the ‘you’ that isn’t a buff, hot monster killer.”
“Well, let’s pretend that us two,” Bucky gestured between the two of them with the makeshift sword before turning back to the woman, who they still didn’t know the name of. “Have never been here before, don’t know where we are and get confused often. Then you don’t have to worry.” He tried inciting a response from the female standing on the sole piece of uncrushed sidewalk.
But Steve heard something. In the background of the fight his comrade was having with their stray, behind the sounds of other fights, of crumbling buildings and screaming non-combatants, Steve could just pick up the sound of baying hounds. Sure, Steve had followed and killed one overgrown puppy across a town he didn’t know; but he wasn’t stupid. This wasn’t one dog coming after them, it was dozens. And these ones didn’t sound like anything he’d ever heard. “We’ve got to go.”
“Captain?” The Winter Soldier at the fore again grabbed the arm of their stray as they moved past her. Threatening to gag her if she made to much fuss.
“No,” The veteran murmured to his partner, wedging them into an easily defensible position at a nearby corner that still held a street sign. “I need her.”
“W-what do you want?”
“Take a look around.” He gestured to the signs, “figure out where you are, then show us the way to the nearest church.”
“Church?” She scoffed, “What you think God’s going to save you? Because I gotta break it to you buddy, there’s no God in this town.”
A knife appeared very close to her throat, a warning for her attitude, “Just show us the way to the closest damn church.” Snarled the Soldier.
A finger pointed first one way then the next, turning corners and ducking villains out on the prowl. The closer they came to the church, to sanctuary, the more people they saw. The closer the church, the louder the howling got, and the vague echoes of screams followed them.
A line had formed for entrance to St. Alexander’s Church of Salvation, slow going. Each adult held the arm of a resisting little unnatural creature, some with wings some with scales. They tugged and tugged to get away, but a parent’s desperation for their child is a strong force.
Steve watched the front, carefully gaging the length and speed of the line while Bucky held their stray. It had to have been 50 people long and still growing; and the howling was getting closer. The law-abiding officer wanted to stay in the line, obey the rules; it was the Brooklyn Hellion who knew that sometimes the rules were screwed. He stepped out of the line, bypassed the attendants of the church most of whom held the hands of little children, scared and confused. Some he saw were restraining older children, siblings, even in one case a child’s parent it looked like, angry and belligerent.
There was some commotion from those waiting in line that costumed thugs were getting ahead of those who had waited. It was all talk, the clock was past midnight and most of these people had worked all day and looked forward to working tomorrow, after what should have been a fun night with their families. Instead they were exhausted from running down their loved ones. They didn’t have the energy to start a fight let alone finish one.
At the head of the line was an older gentleman in priest’s garb anointing each attendant with oil, murmuring a prayer over their heads. The Priest’s current recipient, a be-fanged miniature, thrashed, snarled, and cursed before going limp in his father’s arms. It wasn’t a wonder that those cursed being held in line wanted to escape. If Steve was anyone other than some kid from Brooklyn, he might quail a little too.
The Captain interrupted before the Father could continue to the next in line. “You need to get these people off the streets.”
The older man blinked, “Young man, I know this night has shaken all of us, but if you could trust in your faith-“
“Listen Father, my partner and I just took down a wolf the size of a small bus; but the creatures coming? I don’t think they’ll be as manageable.” Captain America reached out a hand, leaning it on the Father’s shoulder. “Trust me, whatever or whoever orchestrated tonight wanted mass casualties. You willing to say a hundred people died because you wouldn’t move them to safety?”
Slowly the old man nodded, “If you think it is so important, then take the first step.”
A challenge then, but to prove what? If he was ‘evil’ or whatever the church recognized as bad intent, then he probably wouldn’t be able to cross the threshold. Of course this was an assumption based on video games and horror movies watched with his friends. Granted his closest friends were three assassins, a Nordic god, and Tony Stark of all people, so maybe the assumptions weren’t too far off. He heard the crunch as Bucky took a step forward, tossing their stray out of his way.
Cautiously the Winter Soldier moved forward, evening up with the Priest and his helpers, and his Captain. Taking a long look at his longtime friend and listening closely for the ever closer moving pack of wolves, before moving across the threshold.
Over the threshold The Winter Soldier went and for a moment, nothing happened. Then he started to spark, first one than another and another until the Winter Soldier was covered in miniature lightning bolts. In the flicker of these painful flashes of light Steve could just make out an image.
There was a boy; spiked hair with charming brown eyes, Hawaiian shirt flopping about in the unfelt wind. It flickered in and out over the Winter Soldier as both physical and spectral gritted their teeth. They mirrored each other; jaw clenched, shoulders tense, and eventually eyes screwed shut as the power of the Cathedral’s faith attempted to pull the two apart.
The power surged and the lightning bolts would flicker before slowing once again. Steve felt like eternity was stretched into the single moment he watched his friend suffer. But he could hear the hounds baying on the wind, he could hear the sudden quiet as other be-spelled persons tried to hide from what sounded like a hunt.
Suddenly Bucky collapsed panting for breath, his knees gone from beneath him. Steve stepped forward automatically. He needed to go to Bucky, needed to shore up his friend’s strength. But he stepped over the threshold and its power held him in its grasp.
His life flashed before his eyes. Each moment more than just an image, the veteran could feel the fluid in his lungs from pneumonia, the heat of Bucky against his back. He could feel the ache and burn of bruised and broken ribs on a weak body. His heart echoed with the furious determination that had him snarling at his enemy, “I could do this all day.”
But that fury didn’t burn in his heart for just his memories, it burned for a second set too. There was hatred and shame in a set of blue eyes both familiar and strange. Those eyes had watered, knowing the family he had once loved made water run red from stolen blood. His ears had burnt with impotence, at the screams that would run through the house that had once been a home, unable to save them, unable to do anything but keep count.
A different set of lungs ached as smoke filled them, a hitch in heartbeat as nicotine hit it.
An offended snarl, “don’t you get sick of the smell?”
A bitter laugh, “I could do this all day.”
There was one body for 2 minds. One heart for 2 souls. Both ties indelibly together by blood and tears, pain too strong for even the power of faith to cleanse. He hit the ground hard, rocking his bones, hurting in a way he knew it should, but also that it shouldn’t.
Darkness closed in. He was… tired, in a body that never felt weary. But it felt weary now.
Bucky trembled, there were memories in his head that weren’t his. He sat against the corner wall of the cathedral, Steve tucked unconscious between him and the wall in a small nest of blankets. He didn’t remember being moved, though he remembered entering the parish property and given the extensive injuries on a number of the cathedral attendants Bucky could guess that Steve and he had taken too long crossing through the gate. Whatever they had tried to dodge had clearly found them anyway.
Crouched as he was in the far back corner of the Sanctuary Bucky and Steve were out of sight to the majority in the room. So Bucky trembled. Flesh fingers clumsily pried at a hidden latch among the metal plates of his left arm and into his hand felt for the ridiculously small tablet Stark had made on a bet. Smaller than the size of his palm it held maps, GPS, and more apps than Bucky knew how to use. More important were the photos that should roll as soon as he entered the pin.
There would be team photos, battle pictures, photo-bombed video from Clint, but most important: Steve and him. Because Bucky had too much experience not knowing who he was, but never had he had too many memories.
He remembered the feel of fists pounding his flesh because he was noticed, but he didn’t know if it was because of a missed shot or a lost beer. He couldn’t remember the feel of his mother’s kiss, both sets of memories assumed she was too busy. He could feel the bite of loneliness in a building full of people, when Steve had never left his side. His heart ached with shame of incompetence, when Steve had refused to believe failure existed. He could feel the weary ache of standing after being pushed down one time too many. He could feel the ache in his chest that something was wrong, he just didn’t know what.
He scrambled to find and tug on that hidden latch; but it wasn’t there. It was always there. Bucky breathed in deeply, grasping at straws as the world darkened around the edges.
His name was James Buchanan Barnes. Steve called him Bucky.
He was a member of the Avengers called The Winter Soldier, under the command of Captain America.
Once a demon under the command of Hydra, now a hero under the aegis of Captain America.
Steve Rogers was more necessary to his survival than breathing.
There was a minute shift and a slight tensing in the body next to him before it relaxed again; Steve was awake.
“I don’t like this.” He knew Steve heard him when the body shifted to listen to his answer. “I have this crazy thought in my head that I’m not real.”
“You’re real Buck; we’re real.” Steve leaned into him. Propping himself between the wall and his comrade. “I’m just thinking that between yesterday and tonight we might have become … displaced.”
“I don’t know what I like better: the thought that I was make believe or that I’m possessing someone.” His frown could be heard in the veteran’s voice.
“We could look at it that way,” Steve agreed, wincing as he straightened, just one more sign they literally weren’t themselves. “Though I’d remind you, this isn’t even the first time an Avenger has become .. displaced.”
“or?” the assassin asked with an I’m-not-buying-it look.
The American icon shrugged, “That girl, Cordelia, she said she went to school with the boys whose bodies we’re .. borrowing,” he hedged. “How many teenagers would have been able to survive tonight? WE survive tonight, and they can have the body back tomorrow.”
“I’d be careful about the agreements you make on a night like tonight.” The Priest suggested as he walked up to their little nest of blankets. “You might be held to them.”
He wore the robes and fashions of his station. Black cloth with white collar, a cross and rosary of wood hung from his waist and two full trays in his hands. He crouched down, kneeling with no barrier between his knees and the hard stone floor. “I thought you might be hungry.”
Bucky couldn’t really remember a time when he wasn’t hungry. In one set of memories he was young, cold and hungry sharing blanket with a skinny slip to ensure they both made it through the night. In the second set of memories, memories getting easier to recall with every moment, which was not comforting; in the second set he waited for food that was promised but never came. A meal that was never made, traded instead for a bottle of liquid gold and the afterthought of a sweet bar of sunshine. Neither were filling.
But the bowl was. A hearty stew made with meat, carrots, and potato along with a big yeast roll, a slice of cake and a cup of coffee. Bucky wasn’t sure that even Tony’s miracle kitchen and never ending supply of take-out boxes could compare.
“Why would tonight be so special?” Steve questioned, “For that matter, the girl we brought with us she would say things about ‘this town’, as though it was any worse than any other town.”
The Priest’s crouch became a thump as his ass ended up on the floor. Legs crossed, hunched over with his elbows on his knees the older man gave an ironic smile. “Well, you dive right for the hard ones huh? Not wasting any time with the Minor Leagues?”
Bucky couldn’t help but snarl a little, “we took down a beast the size and weight of a small bus before we showed up on your front steps!” He’d have gotten up to deal with the self-righteous ass, but Steve’s hand was heavy on his chest. Rubbing light circles over his chest leathers.
“No.” Steve said flatly, “We don’t really get pulled in for minor league-type events.”
The Priest rocked a little. A small smirk turning his wrinkled complexion into a mischievous little boy. “The world is older than you think.”
Steve blinked. That was a lot to take in. There were ancient battles, rewritten holy books, and Big Bads of the world-ending variety. He was really going to have to write that list up for Stark, because his ‘computer simulated training scenarios’ were for shit. Clearly they could be more creative in regards to potential apocalyptic situations. “How does the Vatican feel about this?”
The Priest shrugged, “The Vatican has a fairly strict policy of non-interference. I was a member of the congregation before I took up the oaths of the priesthood as was my teacher and so will be my successor. I can communicate with the Vatican, but they have made it very clear that they believe it would be best if the entire area was … excommunicated.”
Steve’s brows went up, “Excommunicate an entire town?”
A wince in the Father’s posture, “The Vatican would draw parallels to Sodom and Gomorrah.”
Sodom and Gomorrah. Historical cities from the old testament that were so awful and so hideous in their actions that the cities was smote. Divine retribution on a scale where forgiveness wasn’t even an option. The evil had permeated those cities to their bones. And the Vatican was wishing the same on a mediocre town in California.
“Sounds like a fun place.” Bucky growled. “Now that the lecture’s over, there a place we could get cleaned up?”
“Father Michael!” her voice should have been shrill, what with the volume she used. But the woman marching her way over to their corner projected better than most drill sergeants. She was fairly small when compared to the standing men surrounding her, but few could match up to the mass and height Steve and Bucky had. “I cannot believe you let them sit in here covered in blood and dirt!”
Steve searched for their stuff as Bucky piled their used dishes and both soldiers clambered to their feet. They were thankful for the rest but they wouldn’t overstay their welcome. If the town was as dangerous, as evil, as the Priest, Father Michael, and the Vatican seemed to think than they were probably going to need to come back at some point. They wouldn’t want to leave a bad impression.
“You left those poor boys sitting in their outfits crusting with blood and dust. Eating in the house of the Lord with no way to clean themselves. Poor boys must be so uncomfortable.” There was tugging and pulling and Steve didn’t know how but somewhere in the process the two Avengers found themselves in the mostly empty emergency locker room.
Steve blinked. He spun on Bucky, “Was that magic?”
Bucky shrugged, stripping off his dirty gear. He’d have rather waited ‘til the end of the night than be worried about putting it back on, but that monster’s blood had seeped into areas that were getting uncomfortably crusty now that it was drying. He stood bare with his gear in hand as he tried to decide what to do with it. “Should we rinse it off in the showers?”
Steve looked up from where he sat unlacing his boots, top off. Smears of rust and grey covered his chest. “Better to put it on wet than deal with itching if we wear it dry.” There one thing done.
A careful handful of soap loosened the stains and a blast from the shower head had both uniforms wet and wearable in short time. In stepped the soldiers, ready to wash and rinse and get back out onto the streets. Bucky stood back to let Steve in, never even bothering with the multitude of other options available. He stood and watched his commander, his protector, his friend, as he washed blood from a ridiculous number of spots.
Bucky never showered alone. When he was new to Avenger’s Tower he hadn’t been trusted to be alone. But after a fight he would suffer flashbacks while in the shower. They were quiet; he’d known they weren’t current. But as the memory of fists and curses and ice took hold, it didn’t really matter if it was then or now. It’d felt real enough. Real enough that after one fight he’d been thrown into a flashback so hard and so strong he’d seized. It only happened once, but it was one too many times. Now, Bucky never showered alone.
“How are you feeling?” Was murmured from under the shower head as Bucky washed with a soapy cloth. “Any weird sensations?”
Bucky would have ignored the question; Steve didn’t really have to ask to know what he was feeling, emotionally or physically. But the original super soldier gave up his hard protective shell. In the tiny space Steve leaned against his oldest, closest friend. “I’m tired Bucky, weak and shaky like I haven’t been since before Erskine.” Bucky would have moved closer, to support the man who rarely asked for it, except there wasn’t any room between them to begin with. The quarters were too close. “I keep feeling muscle twitches and sensation where there shouldn’t be any. Growing pains almost, in my bones.”
Bucky let his head fall forward against his partner, simply resting. “It hurts. The weapon –“
“Prosthetic,” Steve growled, tugging on both arms, flesh and metal, reminding Bucky, on purpose, that just like a flesh arm the metal one was attached to his nerves to. The Soviet assassin hissed unintentually, the contections between the flesh and the metal were raw, every movement hurt them. It certainly wasn’t missed by Steve.
Bucky shrugged, “the connections are raw, the muscles strain, the movements are jerky. My spatial awareness is for shit.” Steve understood what he was trying to get through, the prosthetic was new in this body, and there wasn’t much they could do about it.
“Once we’re washed we can make sure your arm’s fully clean.”
“Steve, I can-“ The complaint was already passing his lips before firm blue eyes pinned his. It was a common argument between the two of them. Even if another member of the Avengers was the one in the shower with him, it was Steve who ensured, piece by piece that the weap- the prosthetic, was clean. It was tedious work. Each layer of scaly metal had to be gently, but firmly, pried up to ensure nothing got behind it. A soft damp cloth had to be run under the scales, but it was easy to get the cloth stuck on the underlying wiring and anatomical scaffolding. Not to mention someone else had to do it. It was impossible for Bucky to reach all of the areas necessary the length of time he’d have to, to finish it.
“No, you can’t Bucky. Even Stark’s SuperLimb Replacement doesn’t move independently of the body.” It was done on purpose. When Stark had brought in the panel of scientists and doctors to help with the design and implementation, mostly the implementation, they had flung around words and phrases like “phantom limb syndrome” and “body dysmorphia”. Things that amputees regularly struggled with, and that the new SuperLimb Replacements, based on the work Stark was doing with the weap- the prosthetic as a template, should minimize.
One of those inherit limitations put on the limb was that it moved like a limb would. So no, Bucky wasn’t allowed to dislocate his mechanical arm to make sure he was self-sufficient.
Strong fingers manipulated the joints of the wea- his prosthetic, ensuring that each piece was clean. Blood was rubbed off. Dirt, dust, and sweat were cleaned off the resilient metal. Callused hands were firm. They knew each pressure point, each limit to how or why the prosthetic could move before inflicting pain, even if Bucky never winced. Steve always knew.
“So, you got a plan Cap?” Bucky murmured as the soft cloth made final rounds.
Blue eyes peered up into hazel brown. “I figure if we don’t want to be stuck like this for however long, we might want to find the source.”
Bucky nodded, “and how would we do that?”
“Cordelia,” Steve said as he absentmindedly patted the warmed metal. “Our stray knew more about this town that the Priest said she should.”
“Which means she’s more involved than the average.”
“Or, she has a better source of information.”
“Either way, we start with Cordelia.”
Plan of attack constructed, they dressed back in their uniforms to go question Cordelia.
Steve slung his body into a chair in front of where Cordelia was clearly holding court with some of the high school students who had been ‘exercised’ , for lack of a better term, by Father Michael , the remnants of their costumes lay in pieces around them . Bucky watched as the sneers the clique attempted to turn on Steve, or whoever they thought was Steve, were turned into mildly confused expressions.
“Dude, Oz-man, what happened to you?”
They might have only existed in this plane for a few hours now, but already they were leaving serious e ffects on the bodies they were borrowing. The sharp pressure that Bucky was sure his body had started the night off with had already dulled to an ache. He knew Steve had been concerned for a while that they would be leaving these bodies in conditions no one would know how to help them ; b ut that was the cost of allowing these two kids to borrow their nature to get through this night.
“Sorry, friend.” Steve said. “Oz isn’t home at the moment.”
The two soldiers would be leaving their marks given the exhaustion Bucky could read in Steve’s posture and the desperate fatigue he could feel in his chest as the weap- prosthetic pulled at muscles unconditioned to handle the weight of a nearly indestructible limb. They w ould be changing a lot more of their hosts before the night w as going to end .
“Hey, Cordelia.” Steve gave her a grin, childish and mischievous, pearly whites shining through the fear and the tension coating the evening like a beacon . If the queen bee had known the veteran to any degree she would have known that he never smiled like that; Bucky would go so far as to say that Steve wasn’t capable of that type of carefree humor. But here he was slouching in the chair across from the teen school queen leveling her one panty-dropping smile. Which normally would have been Bucky’s job, but he didn’t think she’d appreciated the death threats earlier.
“Wh-what do you want?” Cordelia lightly stut tered tensing in the hard plastic chair .
“Information,” Steve replied easily, distracting smile still in place as he lightly stretched in the skintight StarkMesh . Four sets of eyes tracked the line of flexing abdominal muscles, maybe they weren’t as surgically perfect as the last time Darcy had drooled over them in the gym, but they were plenty good enough for this. Cordelia blinked.
“What makes you think I have it?” Her brow raised in mockery, more believable if she hadn’t had to check for drool .
“I think you have it.” Steve leaned forward and Bucky edged lower, amazing how invisible six feet of assas s in could be while still completely visible . “I think out of everyone here tonight, you might be the only one who knows what going on.”
“I promise. I don’t know what’s going on.” There goes the hair flip. Bucky even smelt the wafted aroma of her shampoo from where he stood behind his Captain, which was just weird. What did the girl do, perfume her hair?
” Sure you do.” Steve left his happy image in the dust. Both feet firmly planted on the floor as he straightened from hip to shoulder, one massive immovable wall of near-perfect flesh. “Where’d you get your costume tonight?”
“Party city. My Daddy bought it for me last week, it was just waiting to be picked up. One of the few in the store that wasn’t a total nightmare.”
“Man, the costumes in Ethan’s were way better!” One of the faceless former costumes commented from where they’d gathered around their queen’s chair.
“Sure,” Bucky shifted, arms crossed over his chest, piercing the kid to his seat. “Some might say Ethan’s costumes were killer.”
“Earlier tonight you made several mentions to weird things being normal in this town. Did you k now it sat on a H ellmouth?” Steve continued to interrogate the girl, watching for any slip that she was further involved in this than first guessed.
“Hellmouth?” Cordelia sweat, shifting and crossing her legs , flipping her hair yet again. “I don’t know what that is.”
“Why do you think strange things happen in this town? The violence, the weird traditions, the periods of amnesia?”
“I don’t know why they happen, just that they do.” The beauty queen didn’t do so much squirm ing in her plastic seat as casual repositioning . ” The only thing I know is that everything’s ramped up since last year.”
“Ramped up, how?”
“That Summers Bitch walks into school last fall and the whole town goes crazy. There were mob fights and explosions and any real resident of Sunnydale knows to seek cover when stuff like that starts happening.”
Finally, a light in the dark. And given the tightening of the muscles in his back, his Captain thought so too.
“This Summers broad,” Bucky growled, scaring a shriek out of the few students who congregated around Cordelia but had forgotten he was still there . That was bad situational awareness, no wonder the death toll was so high in this town. It wasn’t like he had suddenly disappeared just because he didn’t take part in the conversation. “Where can we find her?”
“1630 Revello Drive.”
T he quick drying StarkMesh a rmor flexed as Steve and Bucky jogged through the town following Cordelia’s directions. Coasting through the dark, keeping one eye on their partner and the second on the ever deepening shadows; they never stopped moving. Evidence of fighting lay everywhere. Broken glass and rub b le littered the path and at more than one time the two Avengers were required to divert around a destroyed building, a thrown vehicle, or a completely bent street light.
It wasn’t the damage that spooked the two veterans, but the erie lack of bodies, moving or otherwise.
“I don’t like this Cap.” Bucky husked into his ear, visions of the thousand times he’d done this before pressing against the wave of foreign recognition lingering in the back of his head. “there’s something wrong here.”
“Yeah,” Steve replied, continuing to jog around the ruble, “they built a town over the entrance to a hell dimension. Nothing says home like fire and brimstone.”
“No.” The assassin said, lightly pulling on the soldier’s arm for his attention. “ How many warzones have I followed you into in the past years? ”
“ More warzones than I care to count , ” The Captain sighed , “more than I want to remember , too .”
He pointed with a metal finger over his officer’s shoulder at the surrounding detris. “ This look anything like that?”
“A little like battle between the feral brothers, but” The Captain took a slow look around their surroundings. “no casualties.”
A scream ripped through the air. Shrill and piercing it raised their hackles. The two superhero e s from Manhattan were moving before the sound had fully processed. Once more into the dark they ran, over rubble and debri s , dodging broken pieces of normal life the two soldiers nearly skidded onto the scene.
A woman, brown hair done in elaborate poofs and curls that looked as heavy as her dress, a monstrosity of silk and taffeta that had to be hard to move in; was running across the street. A demon followed her. Its horns protruding from its head like a spike used to impale, with blood already dripping from them.
On the opposite side of the street was an ominous scene . A horde stood waiting. Demons and monsters of nightmare held in restraint by a lone figure . A being of impossibly pale skin, fangs a glint in the moonlight caught by augmented vision.
“Finally found you, Princess!” The figure said, his deep voice echoing in the waiting stillness, taking a step forward, the horde under his control contained just behind him. “A fun but tiring night, don’t you think, Luv ?”
A pale hand stretched out toward the young woman panicking in the middle of the street.
“P-princess?” Her hand fluttered to her breast, “ I’m n ot a p-princess.” She protested, t aking a hesitant step back as the man encroached on her personal space.
“N ay , you’re not a Princess,” he said fangs bared and disfigurement plain to see beneath bleach blond hair. “A slayer though, no matter the spell in place, aye, that you are.”
The young woman trembled beneath the October moon like a rabbit cornered by hounds.
Quietly Steve and Bucky got into position. Without backup or proper weaponry they would have to do th is the old way. One distraction and one rescue. They were just waiting for the most opportune moment. Pend ing that the victim could hold out that long.
Their chance window came without warning and attached to a girl dressed in a mini-skirt. She ran onto the scene from the side street and skidded to a halt with wide eyes and a gaping mouth.
They took it.
Moving faster than the eye could follow the two super-soldiers struck without warning. Bucky spun into the blond’s space, striking out with a flesh fist . Blondie snarled, fingers hooked to rake he lashed out and Bucky ducked. His opponent pounced. They rolled. Coming up, the Vampire had a smirk as he dove at the limb he held, not bothering to check it was flesh.
Bucky laughed later. Preserved in his memory was going to be the look on that asshole’s face. Blood dripping from eyes and mouth where cracked teeth were all that remained. He huddled on the ground, in too much pain to see where the two A vengers disappeared to .
Steve stepped with Bucky, shielding the woman with his body as the former Hydra weapon struck. A shoulder into the lady’s corseted torso and Steve was quickly moving her away from the fight. He stepped fast, darting from the light and then into shadow again. Trying to mitigate the exposure they faced against the enemy forces.
Fortunately the lady, and her friend, seemed to shocked trying to keep up with events to be upset enough to draw attention. Now he just had to find the right house.
“ This way .” The Captain heard it as a whisper while the Winter Soldier ran past him. 1630 Revello Drive, two blocks down and a street over. Just far enough to work.
Steve turned to the woman following in their path. Her feet left no impressions in the damp grass and the boards didn’t groan under her weight. “Ghost right?”
“Go through the door and open it.” Bucky hissed, impatient to get out of sight.
The two men split up once the door was opened . The ir fluffy crinkly burden was placed on the sofa. Steve bolted the front door and headed to secure the rest of the house as Bucky head upstairs. On silent feet, the only thing in the house making noise was the young woman panicking in the living room. They were safe for now.
“What do you think?”
Bucky raised a broad shoulder. “Too many windows.”
That had been Steve’s thought as well. Between light and sound, they’d be found eventually. Like rats in a maze, there were only so many options they could have chosen. They’d have to move quickly.
His attention turned to the two women. One in taffeta and silk, the other in ghostly leather and cotton, sitting rather rumpled on the couch.
“Alright we need your help, Ladies. Do you think you could do that?” Pearly white teeth flashed as the patriot unlashed the cowl that hid his face. “My name is Steve, I’m a Captain in the Army.”
Vague was always better, especially in enemy territory. You never knew who you were talking to, or who was listening.
“Lady Buffy,” the taffeta ball gown stuttered. “Of Buffington and Cape Buff.”
Not the weirdest places he’d ever heard, what with space and time travel, but still incredibly odd.
“Okay.” He nodded, still smiling. “My friend’s name is Bucky.”
“No.” Ghostly girl said, fists clenching against her thighs. “No, that’s not who you are! You’re Daniel Osbourne; you’re favorite class is English, you’re favorite book is All Quiet on the Western Front , you’re best class is computer programing and you never stare at Ms. Calendar’s boobs!” She pointed at the star spangled man. “And you! You’re Xander Harris! You love cheese puffs, and eat Twinkies by the boxfull ! You live in your parents base ment! We’ve been friends since kindergarten! ”
Suddenly, in the background to the ghost’s rant there was a noise that had the two men reaching for weapons. Watching them crouch and move silently into position she went silent.
“We’re not them.” Bucky whispered passing her seat on the couch. “Not tonight.”
The intruder was quiet, but it was the type of quiet used by a civilian. He’d never known the fear that sou nd of his tread would get him killed. Which was a little disappointing, because even as he entered the room calling out fo r the woman sitting on the couch Bucky already thought that this was a man who could use a little more fear in his heart. Not all monsters have fangs.
He slid the kitchen knife a hair’s breath from the vampire’s carotid.
“Why shouldn’t I kill you?”
“Who- Xander?!” Fangs flailed a little.
“Not him. Not tonight.” Bucky pressed a touch deeper , his knife kissing the man’s skin . “Try answering the question.”
The throat under his knife moved the barest amount. “My name is Angel. I’m a friend.”
“I can’t imagine accepting friends with fangs.”
“You’re usually very different.”
“So I’m told.”
The vampire was fast, diving for the arm restraining him, the one holding the knife around his neck. He tried futilely to bring it to his mouth, but the Winter Soldier deftly spun out of the way. Pale fingers scrambling for purchase against metal scales.
“That doesn’t really help your case.” Steve said, standing so they now boxed their opponent in. Bucky at Angel’s front, Steve at his back; the hallway walls to either side. A handicap for any other fighter was an advantage for the two soldiers who’d been together for longer than either could remember.
“You should be grateful.” Bucky growled into the hallway. “The last idiot who tried to take a bit out of me was left lying in the middle of the street with a bloody mouth, his teeth missing.”
They herded him into the living room. The girls right where we left them arguing over fashion .
“I dare say, while the French are very risque with their new fashions,” Lady Buffy was saying, “I simply cannot imagine being so immodest.”
“Immodest!” The ghost, Steve still didn’t have a name, fumed. “This is from your closet thank you!”
“Why I’d never-” Lady Buffy gasped, moving away from the ghost sharing her seat like the other girl could give her the plague.
Bucky cut the impending cat fight by shoving the undead between the two, nearly sitting him straight through the ghost.
“So, you’re Angel.” Steve slouched once more in a chair facing his victims, the three on the couch, Bucky at his back. “Which really doesn’t explain anything.”
“I’m Buffy’s … friend.”
“Just how …friendly were you with Miss Buffy?” Both young ladies gasped in outrage.
“That is none of your business!”
“Why not?” Bucky asked. “He might not be telling everything.”
“I just know alright?” the ghostly girl snapped. “ As much as Buffy wanted it, ” the Lady on the other side gasped in outrage at the slight to her name, “Angel kept saying stuff about damning her and penance.”
“And who are you?”
Ghostly girl huffed, arms crossed. “Willow Rosenberg, you know this already.”
“The people whose bodies we’re borrowing might know that, but they’re not here at the moment. All you’ve got is us.” Steve shot Bucky a side glance at the almost-silent sound of skittering nails. “So where’d you get your costume Willow?”
The red head frowned, “At Ethan’s, the new place in town. I got a ghost sheet, because that’s what I always get; but Buffy wanted to be a Lady. And you guys,” she gestured with a flippant hand.
“Yeah,” Bucky said, “we noticed.”
“Wait.” Angel the Vampire, and was n’t that an irony to not-share with Tony, that overgrown child would spend years joking about ‘Angel the un-angelic’, t urned to the ghost. “Why would she dress like a damn 18th century princess, they were awful!”
The red head smacked him, “She did it to get your attention, idiot!”
Both ignored the increasingly angry Lady of Buffington and Cape Buff. And the two super-soldiers watching like it should be a spectator sport.
“It’s those damn bodice rippers.” Bucky murmured to his friend in the stiff accent of his morally righteous Catholic grandmother , an alert ear to the outside as he smirked at the fight brewing between two-thirds of the couch.
“Good God Why?!” Angel sneered, “I hate noblewomen. They just stood there and screamed, never put up a fight.” The Vampire sighed in a forgetful manner. “All they were good for was an easy meal.”
Willow smacked him again, going through him just like last time.
“Next move, Cap?” Bucky breathed. Metal fingers tracing a path of sight from the door to where a small shadow peeked in the living room window. Their time was running out.
“The store.” The vampire said being assertive from the couch between an insubstantial girl infuriated with him and a young woman trembling from terror of him. “That’s the next move. Ethan’s should have evidence at least.”
The Captain nodded his head, a tilt just shy of mocking. “But do you have any skill in the arcane?”
A wrinkle appeared to furrow the vampire’s brow. “Not really, why?”
Steve smiled, “I really don’t think the proprietor’s just going to give us the answer.”
“Giles!” Willow the ghost bounced up, “Giles will help, he said he’d be at the Library, that’s on the way. We can pick him up and keep going!”
The two soldiers readied their weapons as the group spoke. Slowly gathering awareness of the piling bodies on the front stoop.
“Where’s your body, Ghost?” Bucky murmured back toward the sofa, eyes trained on the front door.
Steve’s eyes darted, “Do you think someone can kill you if you’re already dead?”
“No. I don’t know, maybe?” Willow stuttered. “It’s just a costume, right?”
“You wanna find out the hard way ?” Bucky raised a brow.
“Might want to do something about that?” Steve murmured as they slowly moved toward the back of the house. “Though, we really don’t have the time. You’ve got to lead us to the high school.”
“I could do it.” The vampire whispered as his footsteps creaked , holding the very uncomfortable Lady Buffy a few inches from the floor, helping her limit the noise of her shoes and dress. “It’s not like Willow would be able to hide her own body as it is. She can’t touch anything.”
Bucky didn’t want to admit it, but fangface had a point. The girl probably couldn’t have lifted her own weight when she was tangible and she was decidedly non-tangible at the moment .
“Ok.” Steve nodded, a head tilt to the back door. “We move quickly and fast; Willow takes point, Buffy stays between the two of us, and Angel splits off to take care of Willows body.” As they set to move, Steve grabbed a tight hold of the vampire’s collar dragging him down to the soldier’s temporarily shorter height. Eyes to old for their face staring the vampire down. “You will be at Ethan’s when we get there, won’t you?”
Giles had been compiling his affairs. He’d survived countless life-or-death fights from denzions of the Hellmouth, only to be killed because of a mistake from his past. Eyghon the Sleepwalker was coming for his skin and there wasn’t a single thing he could do about it. He’d been arranging his estate since the news that Eyghon was in this reality had reached him . Of all times for his past to catch up to him , in the middle of training a new slayer was not the most opportune.
Though when assigned a slayer, no time was a good time for a demonic possession.
All Giles could hope was that Buffy in all her unconventional spirit, would find someway to deal with the demon . She managed to break more rules concerning the conduct of Slayers than ever previously in record; Giles had checked. But she made it work. She was charismatic. A flick of the wrist and a curl of her lips and both Xander and Willow would be caught, stopped outright, just waiting for her to give their orders. It was unusual, but he had adapted. Someone else wouldn’t.
The new Watcher wouldn’t.
And there would be a new watcher because Giles had no doubt that he was going to die. Eyghon was going to find him no matter how many talismans or artifacts or obscure spells Giles tried, the Watcher would be found. And when he was, his skin was going to be worn like a jacket. A creature of evil was going to wear his face, torment his colleagues and torture his Slayer, and Giles couldn’t do a thing about it.
Buffy would need directions, instructions; she’d need a warning. Especially of certain Council practices.
But Giles would deal with that in the morning. Tonight was Halloween, the only night of the entire year the Slayer had off. As such it was the only night of the year that her Watcher also had off. There was a manuscript on tidal demon mating practices that was hidden in one of the back stacks and he couldn’t wait to get a hold of it. Between that and the glass of port he’d poured himself, Giles was gearing up for a very nice evening.
Which is of course when it went to hell.
The doors into his library were thrown open and the sound of many feet thundered into the room. The Watcher spun on his heel ducking behind the circulation desk to grab his weapon of last choice: A wand.
It might destroy any last chance he had at avoiding the Council’s judgment, but he wouldn’t go down without giving his Slayer every shot he had. Even if he gave his life, Buffy would make it.
Giles straightened from his spot, arm extended with a curse on the tip of his tongue, when he heard-
Willow was floating in the center of his Library.
She was- floating?
The Watcher slowly put down the wand, trying to piece together what could have happened since Buffy and her group had seen him earlier that evening.
“Good Lord, Willow. What has happened?”
“We all turned into our costumes!” The young girl cried, clenching intangible fingers in equally intangible hair to tug.
“Surely not.” Near the double doors was the rest of the group. A red head with a shield was braced against the door jam. Giles only vaguely knew the boy was a student at Sunnydale High School. Though strange that he knew to come here for help, that wasn’t what caught Giles’s attention. Held several inches off the ground and struggling to get away was his charge. He held in the sigh he almost released, this scene wasn’t right.
Xander, or rather the boy he assumed was Xander, a bit hard to tell through the make up and masks, held the Slayer off her feet and pinned against him with his left arm. A left arm covered in some sort of metallic substance. Giles didn’t care what magic was at work, there was no good reason for anyone to be able to restrain the Slayer.
“I’ll refrain from asking how you can hold the Slayer, Mr. Harris, and simply ask that you let her go.” Giles tightened his fingers around the wand at his side. He wasn’t out of the woods yet and things still weren’t adding up.
The boy in black leather, and really Buffy’s friend pulled it off much better than the Librarian would have thought, raised a brow, just about the only aspect of his face Giles could see.
“I’m not ‘Mr. Harris’, and she’s gonna bolt.”
Giles could feel the wrinkles forming between his brows as he tried to make heads or tails of what was going on. “Please, boy, I’m refraining from severally questioning you as to how you’re holding the Slayer to begin with.” He nudged at his glasses back up to the bridge of his nose with the fingers not tightened on the wand .
The masked brunette shrugged, “Ain’t ever had anyone escape that I wanted to keep.”
“That’s ludicrious .” Giles said flatly. “Xander you can barely manage to hit the wood training dummy , and Larry gave you a black eye and three stitches last week!”
The armored boy growled, roughly dropping his package, who proceeded to land in a heap on the floor and not move, and tore off the darkened glasses and mask. It revealed- Xander.
But much like Buffy, the captured Slayer who still sat in a heap on the floor , while nothing obvious stood out, beyond the hideous costumes, they were also clearly not themselves. “Just listen to the damn ghost!”
“Fine.” Giles said, purposefully turning his body to ignore the two males. “What has happened Willow?”
Willow shrugged helplessly where she floated. “We dressed in our costumes leading the kids around trick-or-treating. It wasn’t anything different than previous years . Then there was this bright wave of light and pressure. Next thing I know, I’m waking up to some small demon with horn and tails trying to drag me off to his den.” She frowned, “of course he was only draging my body, not really me, but still kind of frightening.”
The red head turned to the two boys Giles was ignoring, a smile lighting her face. “I’m really glad that you sent Angel back to my body, and I really hope I haven’t been eaten or something.”
“Yeah,” one of the boys said, “That’d be rather inconvenient.”
Giles cleared his throat, “So, you just woke up as a ghost? And you came to me to figure out why?”
“Sort of,” Willow nodded. “But we already know why.” She pointed to the boys out of Giles’s vision,
“They’ve already put together that everyone who changed, and there were a few people in costumes that didn’t, but everyone who changed got their costumes from the new store in town: Ethan’s .”
Giles felt his heart stutter, rubbing in circles over the organ as visions of hot nights in wet London dried his mouth and filled his nose with the burnt ozone of sheer power , “You said Ethan’s ?”
“Yes,” the red headed boy spoke and, unwillingly, Giles turned. Both young men stood braced against the Library doors and his charge still sat in a dazed heap on the floor. “We figured that anybody who’d do this to a town probably wouldn’t just roll over and give us the answers.”
“Willow suggested that you knew more about magic, and might have a solution.” The other continued.
“Yes,” Giles finally responded faintly, still twitching as the memory of warm, knowledgeable, fingers ran down his spine . “I suppose I would.”
The minions cowered back from the master vampire pacing the floor of the warehouse like a lion. He prowled and scowled at each minion under his power as though daring them to break the silence that settled over the building like a sticky fog.
“Who the fuck were they!?” Spike spat blood, not healed yet from the skirmish. “How the hell did they creep up from behind you!?”
He was wearing a pattern into the cement floor as he stalked back and forth, hands clenching and un-clenching as blood dripped down his face.
“She was there! Right in the palm of my hands! AND BECAUSE OF YOU SHE’S LOST!!!”
The master vampire sprayed his minions with the fine bloody mist mixed with spittle, some of the minions, with hunger pains digging into their stomach and the heat of the earlier battle lingering in their eyes, licked at the fine drops as they came near to the assembled.
“What to do? What to do?” Spike halted a spare inch from one of his oldest fledges. Blue eyes near black as sin peered into youth red. They swirled and spun and swirled and spun, each color marveling and splitting one after another getting deeper and deeper and deeper until the fledge could barely remember where he was or if there were other people around. All he could see was the beautiful kaleidescope of blues within the eyes of his most powerful master.
“You love me Dominic?” The blues eyes crooned, Dominic could feel the icy touch of his master against the fragile skin of his face, all his master needed to do was reach out a hooked finger and pull, tear the fledge apart and Dominic would be happy to serve his master. “You’d do me a favor, wouldn’t you Dominic?”
Dominic trembled, his arms and legs shaking lightly, as though the vampire’s very molecules shook under the weight of those captivating blue eyes. He could feel his master’s weight, those strong arms wrapped around Dominic’s own shoulders as fingers like daggers racked through the feather-thin hair at his nape. But still, he couldn’t look away from the blue eyes. “O-of course master, what do you need?”
“Find me the slayer, Dominic-luv.” The blue eyes crooned, the colors swirling and spinning and swirling and spinning as thought the very measure of the world had fallen to pieces while Dominic was distracted and the only thing left was his master and he. “Tell me where she is, Dominic-luv, and she’ll be ours. Wouldn’t you like that luv? To share her with me?”
“Oh yes Master, nothing better.” The fledge barely breathed out.
“Good, good boy.” He barely felt the lightest touch of ice against his cheek. “Go, go find her for me, won’t you?”
Dominic nodded, turning to face the door but the memory and hold of those blue-blue eyes strong even with the rain-grey of the warehouse and the mud-brown of the road becoming more and more solid. It followed him out into the dangerous night, away from the cold warehouse, bringing the memory of his master even as he sniffed out the iron bite of the slayer’s scent.
Back in the warehouse the Master Vampire didn’t even bother to worry about the condition of his fledge on a night like tonight. If the mesmerism would distract Dominic enough to get eaten or beaten, well, there were more where he came from. Spike would just find another fledge to send out. Though, honestly the Master Vampire would be upset. None of his current fledges were truly competent enough to be trusted on their own, they might try eating themselves or something.
“Baby Boy Blue, why send the kitten away dreaming?”
The woman on the balcony of the second floor was enchanting in her old style of dress, she drew the master’s attention away from the fledges left, who shook in their boots both yearning and fearing the sole attention of their god.
“Dru-luv, the waking world’s a distracting place, we wouldn’t want the fledge to forget his mission.”
“So he dreams a little dream ‘til he comes back to us?” She cuddled in to the master’s cold embrace, molding him just so without an complaint.
“Just so.” The master whispered, turning her back from the fledges below.
“Daddy’ll be home soon,” The enchantress murmured as she left the echoing cavern, “You’ll want to do him proud.”
The Body, covered in a ghost sheet, and the only motionless object for miles, must be Willow’s. It also must be safe, because there was no way Angel was getting to it. Locked behind iron and silver gates, that had to have been blessed by a priest because they were telling him off with symbols and drums.
The vampire was getting ready to ease back into the shadows, there was a sewer not to far from his location where a straight walk would bring him straight up outside the damn costume shop and the stupid superheros that were waiting for him. A voice stopped him:
“Hey! What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
A pretty brunette, bow and arrow in hand with a knife strapped to her thigh, she had all the sass and fight of Buffy, when the slayer wasn’t playing pretty pretty princess. Angel could only imagine the sort of fire this petite beauty could unleash. If it were Buffy, she’d be in a mini-skirt and stilettos, showing off her truly luscious body in that body-hugging and skin showing material. There wasn’t more of a turn off than to visit her house and find her in the traditional five layers of fabric. No such thing as easy access when he’d been turned.
“I’m sorry?” Angel stood from his crouch to approach the young woman where she stood just outside the reach of the nearest street lamp. Carefully wiping away the truly indecent images that had inundated his head. Caution and awareness were always the best policies.
“Sorry?” Another voice said with a grumble from his left, disturbingly close when Angel hadn’t heard them approach, “I don’t think men who stare at the dead bodies of girls should say ‘sorry’.” A growl, deep and real, rumbled in the chest of the teenager off to the side, still mostly hidden in shadow.
“Wait! You think I killed her?” Angel held up his hands, “I didn’t! She’s not even really dead, it’s part of this stupid night. Magic and stuff.”
“Magic?” The girl repeated. Her quiet voice echoed down the eerie empty street, the growling of the boy a background to the strange inquisition Angel found himself under, toeing the edge of the light.
“Sure,” the former scourge shrugged, “everybody in town wearing a special costume was turned into their character for the night; we’re working on canceling the spell, but it isn’t likely the warlock is just going to roll over and break it for us.”
“So you could use some help?”
“We could always use help.” Angel said,carefully staying within the edges of the street lamp like prey under the gaze of a larger predator. Which the Vampire would have said was impossible, but he’d had his ass handed to him by humans earlier. He wasn’t making any more assumptions.
“Who’s ‘we’?” Growled the voice from the shadows. A boy, teenager probably, crouched with fangs protruding from his mouth and fur growing down the sides of his face.
“Just some people who know what’s going on.” Angel jerked his head in the direction he came from, if he’d been walking on the surface. “There’s a magician in town who has started some serious problems. The group I’m helping is usually the ones that fix magic problems, and we don’t want to take the chance that this spell could become permanent. What about you two? Who’re you?”
“We’re … guests,” the scary young woman said, never lowering her bow. “And we want to leave, so,” she jerked her bow in the direction Angel said he’d gone, “We’re going to help, and if you’re lying I’m going to send an arrow through your heart.” She grinned pleasantly, “how’s that sound?”
“Sure,” the Angel nodded cautiously as he edged out of the circle of light. It didn’t sound like he had much choice in the matter. “Uh, this way I guess.”
At the back store room of the shop front Ethan’s the proprietor and chaos mage knelt prying the floorboard up Ethan grabbed for his Emergency Magical Shit bag. It wasn’t the first time one of his spells had gotten to hot to stay, there was that time in Mexico City with the Adrenaline Addiction Spell and the other time in Paris when his attempt to raise Janus Cariandus, the last Priest of Chaos, directly interfered with some Parisian Necromancy rituals placed on the catacombs. So, eventually Ethan had learned to be prepared to drop a spell. The spell he’d been doing tonight though, was special.
The Chaos Mage had invested a lot of power into this spell, and the dividends he could reap from the tri-fold nature of the setting was supposed to complete his sacrifices to Janus for at least another year. All Ethan had expected needing to do on Halloween this year was lean back and let the pleasure of the chaos magic ripple over his skin. The high, the pleasure to be obtained from gathering the type of magic this spell unleashed was beyond anything he’d ever gotten as a sleeper for Eyghon.
However, Ethan was well versed in the one truism for Chaos Mages, nothing is predictable. Frankly, not everyone reacts to spells the same way, because of the magic inherit in most souls, not a single spell worked the same way for everyone and a honest practitioner could tailor the spell to fit their clientele. Ethan wasn’t anywhere close to honest and he didn’t mind the ruining a few lives for Janus. After all where was the fun to be had elsewhere?
The proximity alarms were ringing like church bells in his head, frustratingly harmonious and unendingly annoying. It was clear from the impression of the wards that whoever or whatever was approaching the shop was powerful and intended him harm. The magic wall would probably keep them out even if the glass windows and locked doors didn’t. Ethan hadn’t lived this long by taking chances though.
There was a slim chance that whatever costume his former customers had bought from him might have given them enough power to get inside. It wasn’t like Ethan was going to take the time to check every costume to ensure harmlessness. After all, where else would he get his fun?
The power harvesting spell laid out in a ring around the sacrificial alter could be left unattended, it was directly tied to the Chaos Mage’s alter to Janus. The alter set up was what Ethan was upset about losing, but it wouldn’t take much to make a new one. Just more work than the Chaos Mage wanted.
Incense was burning and candle were flickering. The herbs in their offertory bowls were in the right places. Ethan just had to tip-toe around the set up to reach the side door, twist the handle-
And it wouldn’t open. The Chaos Mage frowned, shifting his bag from one shoulder to the other as he slammed his body as hard as he could into what should be the thin emergency door acting as a side exit for the storefront. It wouldn’t budge. Not an inch gave in against the developing bruises of the magician. Ethan Rayne was locked into a cage of his own making.
With the Mayor
Lawrence Horatio wasn’t a fan of his boss and he definately didn’t like his job. If he wasn’t sitting around mortal politics trying not to fall asleep or eat someone, than he was observing supernatural politics trying not to fall asleep or eat someone. He certainly hadn’t realized the high level of bullshit he’d have to deal with when he signed onto this job. It was certainly more entertaining when he’d begun it 200 years ago.
Then mortal politics included gunslingers and hanging was an acceptable form of punishment. Back then eating an offensive or boring magic user had almost been a necessity there were so many of the pests.
Now, between the results of the Witch Wars and the Accords that the Mayor had to enforce, life was so boring. Sure, he could request severance or retirement from the Mayor, but Lawrence wasn’t entirely sure he’d survive it.
It wasn’t so concerning. There was only a few more years before the culmination of the Mayor’s plan. The Mayor would assend and Lawrence’s years of drudgery, boredom, and self-control would be well rewarded. He’d only have to spend the next couple years outside rooms filled with naked flesh and pleasure, waiting with the wine service and cheese plates.
Steam flooded the room. The heat and moisture of the sauna, moaning and groaning of the used bodies and filthy evidence of how the Mayor had spent his evening filled the antechamber the aide was waiting in.
“I’d say that was a pleasant evening, Horatio.” The mayor said as he strolled from the hot bathroom, a spa all on its own, wrapping his naked form in the blue silk robe one of the attendants offered. “Anything exciting on the docket tonight, or are you just basking in my presence Horatio?”
“I’m afraid I have some business of reasonable urgency for you Mayor.” The aide said stepping forward just an inch into his patron’s attention.
“It’s Halloween, Horatio, the one night everyone takes off, even the Slayer. What could possibly be urgent?” The mayor nibbled at the cheese and cracker spread one of his scantily clad assistants offered.
“A chaos mage missed the memo, Sir.” Horatio offered his patron the compiled report and background of the perpetrator both in individual manila folders. “The appearance is that some sort of shape-shifting or mind altering spell was used en-mass on the residents of Sunnydale. The town has already accumulated over two million in damages because of it.”
“And the Slayer? What does our spy say about how the young woman is handling the situation?” The Mayor took a delicate sip of his red wine while he reclined and paged through the report. “Using brute force as usual I assume.”
“As you said, Sir. Even the Slayer had the night off.”
The Mayor of Sunnydale paused in his perusal of both the report and his wine when his aide’s words registered. “You mean to tell me that the Slayer, the thorn in my side, was caught up in this mayhem as well?”
“Yes, by all accounts the Slayer has been rendered as dangerous as the 18th century lady she dressed up as.”
The Mayor snorted, “Be careful boy, some of those women were damn dangerous, and most wielded tongues sharper than swords.”
“Just so, Sir.”
“Well,” The Mayor slid back on his chaise, thumbing through the pictures and papers of the destruction that had already accrued within the city limits. “We’re going to have to do something about this.”
There were two million dollars in damages already and the cost was rising. Businesses and homes were on the verge of collapsing, streets were impassable, and infrastructure was down in at least four neighborhoods. Not to mention the death toll and loss of life among the fodder of the town. The Mayor was certainly going to have to do another draw spell, attract new life into the Hellmouth.
“Hmm. Call for the city lawyer, surely the retainer with Wolf, Ram, and Hart is good for chaos coverage. Arrange for the dispensing of dream-waking potion to the fodder. And,” the Mayor tapped his manicured fingertips against his lips, “see what’s going on with the Slayer. If she hasn’t taken care of the situation in, what time is it, Horatio?”
“Three o’clock, Sir.”
“If the Slayer hasn’t dealt with the mage in a hour, send in someone to deal with both of them.”
“Of course, sir.”
Lawrence Horatio left his boss’s presence with a bow and a to-do list. Already dialing the number for their attorneys at Wolf, Ram, and Hart.
The Mayor was left to his thoughts and the residual magic tingling over his skin from the hedonistic pleasures he’d left in the hot and moist bathroom. As for the business of the Chaos mage in Sunnydale, it would be simple magic to repair the damage done to the city. And perhaps, if he sent them out now, his special teams might catch a few truly interesting specimens of magic.
Whatever reasons the Chaos mage had for his spell, that child might benefit from it even if he squirmed out of the Mayor’s clutches, but the man in charge of the city wasn’t going to let the night pass without also profiting. It’d be practically criminal.
Giles didn’t want to come. Surely the magic of the night would have come to a conclusion in the light of morning; there was a reason demons avoided making plans on All Hallow’s Eve. Even unsolicited magic could occur in highly unstable places on the night the veil between worlds was thinnest, and there are few more unstable places than the Hellmouth. Instead of waiting safely in the Library, those savage thugs had dragged him out into the night, and with every move the duo made he was reminded of how unnatural it was for them to be stronger than the Slayer. What spell had they cast, what power did they barter with to be so supernaturally attuned to the events of the night? So long as he was out, they might as well reset the balance; he would be happy to see everyone return to their proper places, Buffy as the Slayer, Xander the Fool, and the other actors to their state of ignorant bliss.
Honestly, it was possible Bucky might end up stabbing the librarian out of sheer frustration. At every corner and street sign the wrinkles around the man’s lips and eyes got tighter and tighter like a spring winding up.
The librarian cast a sharp look at the Lady Buffy with every conflict that the group came across. The man couldn’t seem to get it through his head that the young woman he knew didn’t currently inhabit the body he was staring at. Neither the Soldier nor his Captain had any time to coddle him. It was an obstacle in their path and another part of their continually shitty night that Rupert Giles couldn’t just agree to go along for the sake of accomplishing his own ends. Instead, he had to complain at every intersection and stoplight that the way they were handling the crisis wasn’t the right way; this wasn’t how they normally worked.
The Winter Soldier was positive that Cap had stopped listening a while back, probably as the magic-user edged dangerously close to becoming a bully in some of his language. He knew Steve would have devoured the old man like a lion would a lamb at even the hint that the group didn’t need the asshole.
“I just don’t understand why the spell would-”
Bucky carefully tightened his finger around the man’s throat, enough to keep him from talking, enough to bruise. They stood in the shadows and the former Soviet assassin leaned in very close, smelling the man’s last meal and the tawdry cologne from this morning that barely clung to his tweed collar. “Are you stupid? Or ignorant? That you would continue complaining about something none of us can change, screaming our location to the enemies in this town that want us dead.”
The Soldier tightened his fingers so the pinch became a hard immovable pressure. But when the Captain’s hand landed on his shoulder and his voice whispered in his ear, “Let him go, soldier.” Bucky did. He didn’t like it. Beyond the frantic rubbing on the man’s neck and the vivid bruises he was sprouting there was no sign that the librarian wouldn’t just start bitching again of the incapability of the men leading him, of the boys whose bodies the World War II veterans were wearing. Giles, in his plaid and tweed with his glasses, scowled at Bucky; and beneath the half mask the Winter Soldier wore, Bucky scowled right back.
“Ethan’s is right up the block,” Willow whispered.
The block that was mostly covered in darkness with only a few lonely streetlamps to break up the shadows. The street was outlined in shrubs and covered in tossed vehicles with too many hiding places to count. It was an all too long stretch of road with little surety of being safe. Ethan’s was at the end of that block.
Bucky wasn’t that worried; he’d walked into worse bars in Brooklyn with Steve than this corner street. Besides, regardless of how they got here this was still fairly tame compared to some of their adventures. There was no gunfire or carpet bombing or aliens involved, for one. It was just some asshole who thought they had sharp teeth and a punch strong enough to knock out their enemy. Well, Bucky’d be teaching them one of the first lessons he and Steve had learned in back alleys years ago – you don’t win a fight by hitting hardest, you win it by getting back up more times than your opponent. Bucky and Steve, they’d learned a long time ago how to take a black eye and keep going.
“Um, pardone moi,” the Lady Buffy whispered from near the back of their group, “Shouldn’t we wait for Monsieur Angel to get back from his task?”
Bucky kept his eyes scanning the darkness, counting the enemy, as Steve twisted ever so slightly.
“It’s not necessary,” the blond war hero smiled. “The vampire’s already here, aren’t you, Angel? Who are your friends?”
The aforementioned vampire, melted from the shadows not far from where their group huddled, looking very much like a protagonist from some bodice-ripper romance. He brought with him a young woman with a bow and a boy growing some serious sideburns.
“Where have you been?!” Willow hissed, standing next to Buffy and carefully protected behind the broad shoulders of the two teenaged soldiers. “What happened to my body?”
The vampire shrugged and Bucky gave a quick once-over to the new members of their gang.
“The body ended up behind a set of gates, safe because I couldn’t even get to it, let alone everything else that’s been out tonight. You’re just going to have to see where you wake up at the end of this.”
If she wakes up at all, Bucky thought. He glanced at Steve, seeing the same knowledge in the tightening corners of his eyes. It wasn’t the time or the place to suggest that the ghostly Willow might stay a ghost after this, but it was a side effect both he and Steve had already thought of.
Just like the burning pain the Winter Soldier had adjusted to with this body’s new metal attachment. Or like the stretch and throb of Steve’s new muscles, growing and adjusting the longer the two soldiers were borrowing the bodies they wore. Not quite their bodies with their serum from their reality, but something that continued growing closer and closer the longer the two soldiers stayed.
It was priority number one to survive the evening, but the thought of possible side effects were weighing heavily on his mind.
“What’s the plan?” the new girl asked, leaning forward and almost giving the Winter Soldier a reason to go on the offensive. Bucky’s sense of smell might never be the same: he was certain people weren’t supposed to smell like burnt rubber.
“Alright Giles, what are we supposed to be looking for?” Steve asked fiddling with his shield and straps.
“If it’s the same Ethan from my youth, than he’s probably tied the spell to a piece of statuary,” the librarian mumbled to the Captain. “It’ll be fairly obvious once found, set up in some sort of circle with incense and all sort of dramatic props.”
“And if it’s not your friend,” the new girl asked, fingers tightening on her bow. “What then?”
Giles shrugged, “Then we’d have to go in and see the mage’s set-up, but I can’t imagine it being anyone but Ethan Rayne. Especially considering the name of the shop is Ethan’s.”
“Okay.” Steve nodded, “We’re going to need all the fighters possible on the front line tonight, especially if Lady Buffy is usually much more … dangerous. They might try to take the opportunity to kill her.”
The curly haired courtier whimpered.
“So Willow is going as look out and Lady Buffy is going to see about destroying that statuary.”
“Now, hold on a minute.” Angel hissed. “We can’t just give the most important task of the night to this Lady! It’ll never happen. Under normal circumstances she’s a dealy force of nature, that’s true, but right now she’s a courtier. She’s shallow, self-absorbed, and weak, just like all the other courtiers were. She doesn’t have what it takes to do the job. Not as a courtier.”
Steve didn’t even bother listening, though Bucky noticed a twitch developing under one of his eyes with every rude word out of the vampire’s mouth. He really was tolerating these assholes much better than Bucky would’ve thought.
“We don’t have any better choice,” the Captain said, not even speaking to the vampire. Instead the leader was training every sense on the block in front of them, and the inevitable battle waiting out of sight. “Lady Buffy is going to have to be as brave as possible and look for the statuary on her own. Well, Willow will be there.”
“I can assist.” Somewhere along the way, the thick-skirted young woman had found a heavy metal pipe that she held two handed and clutched to her chest, not even complaining about the dirt and oil ruining the fabric. “I’ll do my best to accomplish this quest.” She gave a very solemn nod. “I understand the importance of this endeavor. I assume there’s a way in besides the front door?”
“Yeah,” Willow nodded, “there’s a backdoor into the storeroom. We can go in from there.”
“And why do you know that, Ms. Rosenberg?” Giles pushed his wire-rimmed glasses back onto the arch of his nose. “That seems like a very interesting piece of knowledge for such an honest young woman to have.”
The ghost scowled, “I helped Mr. MacGyver unload and shelve books all summer, all these storefronts are designed the same way.”
“Just go,” Bucky hissed at them.
“Following Captain America into battle, Buck?” Steve asked as he slid his helmet back on, adjusting the chin strap. And conveniently hiding his grin, the goof said rehashed the same memory from that run down pub in London everytime they went into a fight.
“Nah,” the Winter Soldier grunted, “just some punk ass from Brooklyn.”
The two veterans casually stood and strolled out onto Main Street with the rest of their group stumbling after them, keeping cover for the young woman in petticoats until they could see she’d turned the corner and was out of sight.
The Winter Soldier grinned with sharp teeth behind his muzzle.
Time to join the party.
Steve was a veteran of enough nighttime battles that he knew the time from the angle of the moon in the sky. Perhaps a ridiculous skill to have, but Steve chalked it up to several lifetimes of experience and thought nothing more of it. Tonight, even though he was far away from home, and the body he wore wasn’t even his own, the soldier looked up to the sky and gauged the time.
“Four in the morning, Buck.” The Captain shook his head as he casually paced toward the costume store. Marking every shift in shadow that didn’t belong to the group following behind him, and a few that did. “How’d we lose so much freaking time?”
The Winter Soldier tapped metal fingers against the knife strapped to his thigh, picked up somewhere during the long long night. “It was already late when we showed up. Maybe nine or ten?”
“Hmm.” Steve hummed. “Sure, the party was in full swing at the bar I woke up at, and the roads have been fairly clear of half-pint monsters. Trick-or-treat hours finish up quick because of early bedtimes.”
“We’re going to come back to that bar, don’t think we won’t.” The masked hero joked, shaking his head at the fact that the guy who can’t get drunk woke up in a bar. “I’d been up three-quarters of an hour before finding the broad in the catsuit.”
“Ah, but the puppy didn’t take long to put down.”
“Nah, but the walk to the church and the … blessing had to take a fair amount of time.”
“Plus the nap, food, and shower.”
“Then the interrogation.”
“Please Bucky,” Captain America said, spinning to see his second-in-command, “we weren’t so rough with the girl that she’ll have nightmares.”
“Fine, the questioning, then what? The jog to the Princess’s house, the fight with the blond blob, and we escaped out the back door.”
“It was a strategic retreat.” Captain America protested. “We had to find a better source of intelligence than a ghost and…and a member of the differently alive with fangs!”
“You need to stop hanging out with Clint.” The Winter Soldier stalled in the middle of the street, waiting for something to take the fucking bait. He cast a side-eye at their source of ‘better intelligence’. “And that plan worked so well.”
“Worked well enough for you to walk into our trap, didn’t ya poppet?” The bleach blond vampire, with a lisp Bucky was going to laugh about later, skulked out from the shadows. His arms were wrapped tightly around a young man with stars in his eyes, the poor boy didn’t even seem to know he was acting as the other male’s shield. “Dominic was so good, pet, weren’t you?”
The boy nodded absently, still smiling like he’d gotten a hit of something illegal. “I was good, Master.”
“Yes, you were, pet. You tracked these fools all the way through town and led me straight to the Slayer.” The blond vampire, the master, cast a roving eye over the staggered cluster of fighters ranging out behind the two veterans. “So here’s the offer: you give me the slayer, little miss princess in pink, and you get to live. Sounds pretty magnanimous to me, doesn’t it, pet?”
“Oh, master, you’re the best.”
“Of course I am, pet.”
“It is a pretty good offer,” The Captain hefted his shield a little higher as his Soldier twirled a broken pipe from the rubble, getting a feel for his new middle distance weapon, “but we’re going to have to decline.”
“Don’t kill anybody!” The librarian shouted from the rocking chair, where he was carefully hemmed in from the front and the back by supernatural and superhuman fighters, safest place to be in a fight.
The Captain bit his tongue as he weathered the push of demonic and malformed bodies pressing against his shield.
The Soldier didn’t bother holding back. He snarled a curse at the self-righteous human. Neither of them were in the habit of leaving enemies behind to stab them in the back.
“They might be innocents in costume.”
“They picked the wrong fucking costume.”
One of the strays Angel came back with, the male, a werewolf given the sudden growth of hair and teeth, snarled; but the Captain could feel the change in the group, their enemy had the upper hand and he knew it. Everybody on their side was pulling punches.
Steve, knee-deep in scales and slime and fangs, spared a thought to the boy whose body he was borrowing. What type of life did he have left after tonight? What type of nightmares would seep into his sleep? Would he remember the cold of the Alps, or the smell of the crematoriums? Would he ever be able to say again that his body was truly his?
The wave wasn’t stopping, the small bodies were vicious and tenacious and each time they were taken out of play, they got up and came back for a second/third/fourth chance. Steve allowed himself to wonder for the first time, would the boy lose his life in a fight he wasn’t even waging?
Lady Buffy crept away from the larger group she’d been journeying with. The two soldiers, though the uniforms and armor they wore were like nothing she’d ever seen before, who had just spent half the night protecting her, had bade her go on a quest for the focus of the evil spell they had all been trapped under. She could still hear them, beginning a very interesting argument about what they had done that evening, as she slowly inched down the alleyway. The ghost, her only companion, had mentioned that there should be a door somewhere close.
It was hard to see in the dark. Clouds passed quickly through the sky, covering and displaying the moon in unpredictable intervals. With only that and a flickering yellow street lamp, the shadows danced around the pair and the Lady couldn’t help but worry that they hid something far more dangerous than rodents.
“Do you think-”
The ghost breathed, but Lady Buffy was already stumbling back into the chill of the ghost’s substance as a growl and crack filled the alleyway from just in front of them. The courtier bit her lip to keep the startled, and disgusted, noise from escaping between her lips. Just as when Lord Tomersail, the smelly much older man, bowed and greeted her at court, when she was not allowed to express how awful she thought he actually was, the Lady Buffy could not move or make a single noise to convey her terror at the sight that greeted her from around the corner.
It slid and shuffled in the main width of the alley, the upper portion of its body covered in naked skin and patches of scales. Two large forelegs with sharp and thick claws protruding from five finger like digits. Its bottom portion was – removed. The bones of its back had been welded into a metal chair with thick sturdy wheels, the type that she saw on the horseless carriages all over this cursed town.
Lady Buffy was petrified. Her hands sweat in her white satin gloves and her chest bruised against her corset from the heaving it was doing. Worse, she had no weapon. Her only companion was an immodest intangible spirit, who didn’t have to worry about potentially being eaten.
There wasn’t even trash in the vicinity helpful enough to be damaging. So she held her breath and clenched her hands tight when the monster turned toward her.
But it didn’t attack. The dips in the flesh of this things face, where the gentlewoman assumed there were supposed to be eyes, there was only sealed flesh. It sniffed and nosed, but other than an awkward swiveling scuttle where its wheeled hind-end was clearly out of control, the disgusting thing didn’t even attempt to find them.
Turning the corner toward the back of the building, the Lady Buffy and her loyal ghostly companion found themselves tripping over a maze of boxes and bricks.
The wreckage of some sort of war had destroyed what little movable space had originally separated the backs of these opposite facing buildings. Instead there were heaps of trash and splintered wood and shattered glass from bottles and windows alike. It might as well have been a maze of knives and hot oil for all that the Lady Buffy would be able to get through it unscratched.
“Where do you think the door is?” Lady Buffy couldn’t even see the back wall of the shop front they were supposed to be trying to get to.
And always in the background was the sound of the battle waging out on the other side of the building, and the ever lightening sky as night started to give way to day.
“It’s over by that large wooden post, where… the slats cover it. Shit.”
The problem was two-fold in the courtier’s mind. The first step was trying to get there, through garbage and debris, and the second step was somehow moving the very heavy looking wooden boards from the door.
“We have to try.” So she hitched her skirts up and started to carefully pick her way through the debris field.
It was slow going. Newspaper and brown paper boxes, as well as some type of white transparent rubber made into jars and pitchers hid the splinters of wood and brick and metal that poked through the fabric of her skirts and petticoats. It was as dangerous as a walk through the docks, except that the danger here was from fairy tale monsters, not beastly men. At least the dock workers didn’t have fangs. At least she was fairly certain the dock workers didn’t have fangs. It would explain much more about Uncle Cylus’s disposition if it was caused by daily dealings with monsters. She might even forgive him for it the next time she saw him.
The back door of the shop was a metal monstrosity obstructed by slats of wood. They were longer than the door was tall and stacked in a messy maze.
“That door is not going to open,” Lady Buffy frowned, lightly blowing at a strand of hair misplaced from her elaborate coif.
“Sure it will,” her ghostly companion grinned, “you’re the Slayer, this should be easy-peasy for you. Just, you know, put your back into it.”
“I realize this is an unusual predicament for you,” she scowled at the other female, “but for all that every other day of the year I am some sort of mystical savior, I am not tonight!”
“What’s the harm in trying?” The ghost shrugged.
The Lady was tired, for regardless of her many long nights at balls and parties, she’d never been so active. She was sore, because dancing lessons didn’t prepare anyone for running from monsters. And she didn’t appreciate being ignored! First that befanged bastard, not that she’d ever use such language, and then that awful librarian, being so rude to the soldiers who’d saved them.
She didn’t want to be here anymore! She was sorry she’d ever yearned for an adventure! She wanted to be wrapped up in the blankets of her bed, with her loyal maid to wait on her and knights to protect her.
Lady Buffy pressed one lily-white palm to the edge of a wood slat baring her way. She ground her heels into the strange hard pavement of the road and pulled with all her anger and frustration and her desire to just leave!
The board gave way. It went flying across the alleyway to crash into the mess of the maze, and the Lady Buffy ended up on her bottom in the dirty nasty alley in a sudden bout of surprise.
“See?!” The ghost crowed. “You’re still the Slayer, you just didn’t know it. Never needed it.”
Lady Buffy blinked, first at the ghost and then at the broken pile of wood at the foot of the door, no longer baring the way. She carefully climbed to her feet and cleared a small section to open the door. She didn’t respond to the specter, because she didn’t want to be the Slayer and there was something about the other female that suggested she wouldn’t take such an opinion calmly. No one could say that her mother didn’t teach her discretion, the Lady Joy was all things gracious and eloquent. Anyone said otherwise could meet her knights on the duel platform.
But the wood obstruction was gone and the door moved when she pulled on the handle. It seemed that for now at least, Lady Buffy didn’t have any choice on the topic of whether or not she was this ‘Slayer’.
She froze upon entering the backroom. It was a small space, probably some form of closet or storage for the merchant’s wares, but it was crowded and dim. She needed a moment to see what was there.
Which is why she doesn’t think when a shape seems to explode from the shadows. She doesn’t see where it comes from, just that it lunged at her and reached out to grab and she just acted. Without understanding instinct took over and her fist, the dainty pale hand that had never seen a more stressful piece of work than the embroidery on her sampler, lashed out and up into the shadowy form before it could reach her.
With a thud it fell to the floor and didn’t move.
“What did I say about finding the Slayer in you?” The ghost peered over the Lady Buffy’s shoulder, “because that was a pretty badass move.”
“Should we leave it?”
“Let’s make sure he can’t leave, it’s probably the owner, that mage Ethan.”
They left him in the corner propped up and tied to one of the pipes sticking out from the wall. The door was closed, for safety, when the two went searching forwards through the store.
“It is likely somewhere here towards the back, correct?” Lady Buffy murmured, “I cannot imagine that he would work any sort of satanism or pagancraft in full view of everyone.”
“Maybe, maybe not.” The ghost replied, searching, as well as she could, for this focus the Librarian had mentioned. “People are pretty blasé nowadays. They’re okay with just about anything.”
“Like streetwalkers?” The Courtier mentioned absentmindedly. “We do not even know what this ‘focus’ looks like.”
“I am not a prostitute!” The ghost huffed.
“You certainly dress like one. Oh,” the Lady said taking a step back from the larger backroom. “I think I found it.”
“Well, it certainly looks like it.”
“How do you think we should break it?”
“Pushing it over might work, just ah – avoid lighting yourself on fire.”
An obvious remark, but one to take into consideration. The bust of the Roman god (for all the effort her tutors took Lady Buffy was not the most studious when it came to remembering all their Latin names) sat in a pool of black silk on a raised table. Surrounding the table in a circle with only a single small space open, was a ring of candles, in many shapes and sizes.
Tiptoeing between the candles the courtier gave a mighty push on the bust. It fell and for a moment she felt rather dizzy. Rather like the night she drank too much of the punch at the Christmas ball. It was a moment before she remembered what she was doing, and that she had to finish the quest. It wasn’t over yet.
There was a small crack in the face of the figure. Lady Buffy needed it to shatter. With a small prayer, she reached deep inside herself for the frustration and anger of being in a place so strange, of being treated so awfully by everyone, of having no respect at all from those of a lower station than her. And she raised the bust above her head and threw it as hard as she could against the tiled floor with a cry.
Normally, The Winter Soldier could go for hours running or fighting and still be in fighting condition, Hydra had made sure of that. It wasn’t the type of condition the Avengers had gotten him used to, where nothing ached or throbbed, but the memories of Hydra haunting his nightmares was proof he could do it.
Tonight, though, he could already feel himself waning. The enemy combatants were never seriously injured enough that they failed to get up, instead they got thrown out of the fight and a new enemy was right there to take its place – one that he’d fought just moments before. Because it was fucking magic, and on a normal day these assholes were children. And who kills children? Not them. Instead, him and Steve were going to go down in history as killed by children. Awesome.
Everything would be different. If they were allowed to kill. If they didn’t have to guard the store. If he was fighting with the Avengers. Things would be so much different.
He wasn’t though, and he was only a passenger in someone else’s body, biding time until the spell was broken – and he could feel his strength failing.
His weapon got a little heavier to swing each time he struck, and each opponent was fended off just a hair slower. His back ached from his posture and if he was so undisciplined as to break from the fight, he might have noticed that his legs were aching and his feet were swollen. That bloody spots and blisters had developed and popped, scabbed and broken again even while he swung at the pests hitting his feet.
All he really wanted to do was lay down and sleep. Just ignore the fighting and the noise, lie down and maybe never get up again. He’d just be one more casualty for the Hellmouth to claim. It wasn’t as though anyone (Buffy) would miss him. He was just the Donut Boy.
The Winter Soldier gave a quick shake of his head and readjusted his grip on his weapon. It didn’t matter who he shared his head with, whether it was the ghosts that haunted him or the boy whose body he was possessing, failure wasn’t an option.
Even as the light narrowed and shadows around the edge of his sight lengthened, where the trembling in his thighs and knees threatened to land him hard against the broken cement of the road. Bucky reached out to grapple against an opponent with no physical form, for just a moment more to win the fight. Just a moment…
Xander came back to his body in a rush of pain and adrenaline. His sight doubled and swam as his knees trembled. Strong, gloved fingers tapped lightly against his ribs from behind him. There was no thought, simply a clean transition from attempting to keep himself standing to leaning back, sharing the burden with the man he trusted most.
Lined up from shoulder to hip with his Captain behind him, Xander could feel the man behind him shake. Xander trembled, everywhere he looked there was evidence of a nasty fight. Small children and younger teens pulled at masks and costumes to show where they were bruised and bloody.
There was a shadow in his mind, around his heart, over his soul, receding slowly in the ticking seconds, as the distance between Bucky Barnes, who followed Steve into trouble, and Xander Harris, trouble magnet, grew further. Perhaps all that Bucky would leave on Xander’s soul from tonight would be a slowly shrinking shadow.
“Ha.Ha-ha. Ha. Hahahaha.” The blond vampire who organized the attack pulled a knife from his back pocket and stalked closer. “You managed to do it. Very impressive, Doll. But now with the night over, you’re mine to do with as I please.”
The knife stopped a breath away, weak human fingers and sweaty palms slipping even as the vampire bore down with all his strength. Xander didn’t have a moment, didn’t have the strength, but most of all he wasn’t going to die. Xander dug deep into where bones burned and muscles were torn, into the slippery shadow that had been the receding assassin and he pulled it over himself like an old comfortable blanket.
No time to think, or wonder at the consequences.
He let his body do the thinking. A step back, two, and each followed by a hacking strike, diverted from the vampire. Help came from the side, his Captain attacking, while the Winter Soldier’s own reflexes had Xander somersaulting, the backwards flip just made it more disorienting for the moment, until they were both in a place to regroup, side by side, trembling, but recovering, and waiting for the next offensive. Praying for their strength to hold out.
“I’d stop if I were you, Spike.” The slayer could feel power coursing under her skin like someone had plugged her directly into an electrical socket. The false dawn looked as bright as midday to her eyes and the assembled masses were just waiting for her direction. The Slayer had returned.
Buffy shifted in the pounds of cloth and crinoline and fake hair. Muscles shifted as forgotten skills and confidence roared back to life with the lifting of the night’s magic. Nothing of it remained, as she looked around the gathered, wrecked costumed residents of Sunnydale.
The memories of the night were becoming more and more vague even as she stood facing off against the one vampire that failed to get the message that she, the Slayer, ruled in Sunnydale; not the useless bag of bones and grave dirt with bleached hair. Sharp fear and pain had dulled, she’d probably forget unless someone mentioned it.
And the overwhelming courage and strength she’d pulled from the very reaches of herself to face the monsters in the dark? That had gone back to whatever hole in her soul the Lady Buffy had pulled it from now that she no longer needed it.
“It’s not very sporting to use these poor innocent bystanders, unless…” She placed a single sharp nail against the Lady Danger Red coating her lips. “Maybe that’s the only way you can get minions? Is it?” She pouted. “And here I thought you’d be a challenge.”
She could see the snarl that wanted to curl back the Master Vampire’s lip and engage in her verbal battle, but the slayer could nearly smell the sweet copper and iron tang of dead blood even as the slow weeping wound in the Vampire’s torso continued to leak the life sustaining liquid. If Master Spike wasn’t careful-
The few real vampires and fledges in the part of the mob gathered around the two enemy combatants were already starting to lick their lips. Dinner might just be on Papa Spike tonight, if the old boy didn’t think fast enough that is.
“I’d be careful if I were you.” A tilt of her shoulders and she could follow the growing glow of the Sun as true dawn started to arrive to Sunnydale. “Might get caught out after curfew, Master Spike.”
It itched to watch her enemy- weak, sluggish, wounded -limp away from the battlefield. It wouldn’t take much. The group were headed toward the sewers, Angel had taken her through them more than enough times for her to know which way to go. The graveyards and cemeteries might be spread out all over town, but there was only one warehouse district. It’d be dark, but a Slayer’s vision was almost better in the dark than it was in the light – Buffy never had to worry about tripping or an ambush or even wearing the wrong color combination going to school. And if she could ditch the wannabe posse, just her and Mr. Pointy, maybe Angel, if he could keep up, and she could easily overtake the group in the sewers.
Sounded like a good idea to her.
“Buffy.” Her Watcher stopped her, just inches away from the entrance to her hunting grounds, and the Slayer would be upset, except –
“We need your help Buffy, you can follow them some other time.”
The rag tag group of four teenagers – one was innocent Xander, a second was Willow’s crush. Giles was bedraggled and gray around the edges while Angel looked about as good as new. The other two teens, a boy and girl that Buffy didn’t know were clinging to each other like it was the only thing keeping them standing, but the boy was huffing, rapid shallow breaths that couldn’t possibly be helping his color and would probably just-
-make him faint, she thought, as his body thudded to the asphalt in a pile of uncoordinated skin-covered bones and weak muscles.
“Man,” Buffy shook her head, and her very fluffy and very annoying hair accessory followed, “guys just don’t come made like they used to, huh?”
The girl was clearly made of sterner stuff, even as she trembled in the crisp October night. Buffy propped her hands on her hips. “I’m telling you sister, you can do better.”
“Yes, thank you for that, Buffy.” If he wasn’t currently covered in blood and pieces of gore, the Watcher would probably be reaching even as he spoke for his glasses and a cleaning cloth. The man was probably going to wear out the coating on his lenses if he wasn’t careful. “But we could use your help.”
Her fingers curved into the creases her elbows made with her arms crossed under her chest. “I’m not cleaning this up. Can’t even remember what happened. Can’t blame it on me. Nuh-uh.”
Giles fingers twitched to his face, “No, Buffy, the only one to blame for this mess is Ethan; where did he end up any ways?”
“Creepy British guy?” Buffy jerked her thumb over her shoulder, “should still be knocked out where I left him in the closet.”
“Mr. Giles,” Willow’s crush (hadn’t he been shorter?) rasped, “if he’s secured, could we leave him?” He shook ragged strawberry curls. Buffy could definitely see the appeal. “I want a bed, maybe forget tonight happened.” The boy shrugged. “I know a ride we can catch.”
Giles coughed, “Meet us at Sunnydale High Library, there should be some emergency supplies there. We’ll be right behind you.”
Willow’s crush wrapped his arm tightly around Xander. The other boy was practically falling on the ground from whatever he’d done tonight. He nodded in a direction down the street, not that it seemed particularly special or important to Buffy, and started leading the other teens (the boy-who-fainted now seemed to be doing just fine walking under his own power) off and away from Buffy and her Watcher, and of course, Angel.
“Hey! Where’d Willow end up?”
“Probably where she started the night.” Angel shrugged as he inched closer into the shadows of one of the surrounding businesses, “She went as a ghost. I hope her body didn’t die during the night.” Angel winced, “Buffy, I’ve got to go, it’s getting a little too dangerous for me out here. I’ll meet you at the library later, if I can.”
“Willow being dead would suck.” Buffy smiled at her beau. “Be safe, and I’ll see you later ok?”
“Buffy, please, is that kind of language really necessary?” Giles crunched over glass and rubbish to the back of the costume shop, where the door was already open and no Ethan Rayne was in sight. The Watcher sighed. “Could’ve guessed that.”
She hated it when bad guys got away, but it was always just a little harder to hit when they looked normal. “What now?”
“Let’s see if we can catch up with that ride.” Giles shrugged. “All we can do. Ethan Rayne is a chaos mage, he won’t be able to stop himself from coming back here; after all, the Hellmouth is a nexus of chaos. Now we just have to wait.”
FYI- The “Rocking Chair” is the safest position in a line because the person in the “rocking chair” is notified of danger by the people in front of them or behind them. I’ve heard it used in military slang, but I think it actually comes from truckers.
Learn something new everyday!
“Why can’t this wait until tomorrow!” Buffy complained as she crouched to pick up another stack of books. They’d probably gone flying when whoever had vandalized the school had ransacked the library. She didn’t understand why she couldn’t go home, she’d saved the night hadn’t she? Even if she couldn’t remember what happened.
“I’m sore Giles, and these are my gym clothes, that dress was itchy and pinched my sides! I cannot believe that you are making me wear these ugly shapeless sweaty clothes outside of fourth block P.E.! Come on, Giles! Have some mercy!”
“Buffy, you’re the Slayer-”
“Yeah I saved the night, can’t I go home now?”
“-so I happen to know that this work isn’t the least bit strenuous for you.” The Librarian thumped his stack of books down next to hers.
“UGH!” Buffy let her head fall to thump against the dusty and dirty cover of The Importance of Gold in the Sorceri of Malaysia. It actually sounded interesting … if she’d been anyone else. Ever. If she died without opening another one of these stupid overrated dry manuals on beating things up, which she didn’t need, it would be too soon.
“The faster you get this done, Buffy, the faster you can get home.” Giles’ voice floated down to her.
“But I want to go home now!”
“I-I’m sorry, Giles,” Willow’s voice quivered, “but I’m not feeling so good.”
Buffy took the dust rag and holy water spray bottle from her red-headed friend’s hands. “Are you okay, Willow?”
“I just think I need to go home and sleep tonight off.” The young genius hugged herself tightly. “I-I don’t know what happened to me tonight, dying-”
Willow bit her lip and gazed, with tears in her eyes, at the messy linoleum floor.
Her Willow-shaped friend had died tonight and then come back! If anyone knew what that felt like, it would be her. She had come back from the dead to finish the Master off and that had left some gaping hole in her once complete chest. It had taken her months to swallow down the screams that wanted to rip themselves from her lips. To even admit to herself, if no one else, that there were times she wished she hadn’t woken up. She’d tried to fill that empty space the Master had left in her, it echoed with pain and chilling cold. Nothing worked, not shopping, not her parents, not Angel. Nothing had helped except a lot of time.
Buffy nodded at the weak picture of her Willow-shaped friend. She wouldn’t let her go through that alone.
“I’m gonna walk Willow home, okay Giles?”
“Hmm, we certainly don’t know what might be lingering outside now that Halloween is over. Certainly. Do make sure Willow gets home safe, won’t you Buffy?”
The Slayer gave a sharp nod, “Of course, she’ll never be safer.”
Buffy wrapped her warm arms around the frail computer nerd. She tossed the extra cleaner to the redhead’s crush as they passed. They left the cares of the world behind them, locked in the library with the Hellmouth.
Willow’s mind had decided to take a vacation without telling her. She swept and scrubbed and stacked and salvaged all on autopilot. There’d been enough past disasters in the library that the young woman knew what she could touch and what needed to wait for Giles, what was safe and what needed a special touch. It was a checklist of options and once it hit the right boxes, Willow knew what to do with it. All on autopilot.
Which was good because Willow couldn’t think. It was weird and uncomfortable to feel the fog at the edge of her mind, lapping at her consciousness like the ocean at the shore.
She was so tired. Running and racing all night, convincing people who didn’t recognize her that they weren’t who they thought they were. She’d dodged bad guys and worried about the lives of her friends. And now she was so tired, tired enough she just wanted to go to bed . . . And never get up.
“The faster you get this done, Buffy, the faster you can get home.”
The fear hit her system like a bolt of lightning. What if she went to bed and never woke up? Regardless of the fact that she could feel her fingers and toes if they were touched, she died already once tonight. What if it was like muscle memory? Her body could just forget that it needed to breath, or it needed a heartbeat, or her eyes needed to blink! How was she supposed to fix this? How do you remind your body that you needed it to live?
“But I want to go home now!”
In- one, two, three. Out- one, two, three. In- one, two, three- the problem wasn’t so big once the redhead could breathe again. She leaned back against an inconspicuous stack in shadows, palm to her chest just feeling the reassuring thump of the bloody organ beneath her ribs. The truth was the problem wasn’t with her body, it was in her mind. In true Hellmouth fashion her body wasn’t tired from running and yelling and fighting, because her body hadn’t been there. Her mind, though? That was really tired and she wanted to go home.
The spell that had caused her temporary death had been broken, and she was once again inhabiting her own skin. Now it would only take time for it to sink in. All Willow wanted right now was to go home. That’s what she needed to do, go home and shower. Maybe sleep for a week and try not to worry about never waking up.
She needed to be around familiar safe things. Things that could remind her that her body was her own, that she’d made it through once more, and that things could have been worse. Willow needed to go home.
“I-I’m sorry, Giles,” Willow’s voice quivered, as she came out from within the stacks and leaned up next to her Slayer, “but I’m not feeling so good.”
The former ghost could feel the smooth hands of her friend gently removing the cleaning supplies from her grasp. “Are you okay, Willow?”
“I just think I need to go home and sleep tonight off.” Willow hugged herself tightly, as though she could keep her from separating again just from the pressure of her arms. “I-I don’t know what happened to me tonight, dying-”
Willow bit her lip and gazed through glossy eyes at the messy linoleum floor.
“I’m gonna walk Willow home, okay Giles?” Buffy was a strong and solid presence against the line of her side. The warmth of the Slayer seeping in.
“Hmm, we certainly don’t know what might be lingering outside now that Halloween is over. Certainly. Do make sure Willow gets home safe, won’t you Buffy?”
“Of course, she’ll never be safer.”
Oz carefully wiped down the library tables with a mixture of salt and holy water. A strange mix of a thick green sludge and what looked like glitter covered most of the furniture of the Sunnydale High School Library. The Librarian, Giles, had handed Oz a can of salt to lightly spread over the mess and a spray bottle with the words “Holy Water, not for drinking” in sharpie on the label.
Oz learned in the moments that followed, that what didn’t shrivel up and dry in contact with the salt, practically went poof when he sprayed the water on it. It was a very interesting effect for two fairly ordinary objects to have on extremely unusual matter. For all that Oz had grown up surrounded by some of the most dangerous supernaturals in the world, vampires outside the house and werewolves inside, he still didn’t know much about any of it. He had ignored, as much as blood and screams had let him, the nature of the people in his town. Now, wedged between a rock and a hard place, Oz was at a tactical disadvantage.
The musician shivered. That was the shape of the thoughts growing in the back of his head now, humming nearly constantly and Oz trembled slightly when he paused to wipe away what the salt and holy water had left. He couldn’t control whatever had taken up residence inside his mind.
Like being the passenger in his own head tonight, each time Oz paused there was new knowledge being fit into his mind. The doors and windows of the room were obvious now; the location of the office in the very center of the room, and he remembered the direction Angel left when he headed to the sewer. He kept the Librarian, Giles, and Buffy, the ‘Vampire Slayer’, facing him at all times, leaning a little farther across the table than would normally be comfortable instead of moving around the table.
He shook a little harder when he realized that the stretch across the table wasn’t as hard to do as it would have been yesterday.
That line of thought listened continually for the now-whisper quiet slip of boots against linoleum, following the other boy across the large room and back again with the broom and pan. It ran a list of uses and purposes and ways to mix his current cleaning supplies, salt and holy water, in ways that might be good protection against things that go bump in the night. Complete with chemical names and restricted substances and how he might get a hold of them.
Worse than that was the awareness of his body shifting. Oz barely noticed that his feet come down softly on the floor with barely a shift or a tap on the linoleum. He didn’t think about the way he settled and widened his stance to keep his balance. The muscles don’t even twitch to catch the bottle the girl, Buffy, threw at him as she left wrapped around the redhead on her way out. The back and forth, gaining in volume, of the argument between the teacher and student, hadn’t been what he was listening to, but he knew when she won, he could have told somebody what she said, why she left, verbatim. And the bottle, the redhead’s holy water spray, slapped snuggly against the boy’s palm. There was no chance of dropping it and no pain at catching the hard throw Oz would’ve fumbled yesterday.
Oz carefully put down his bottle, the girl’s, the canister of salt (he could tell when the door shut and the number of people in the Library went from five to three, just by the shift in the air), tightly shut his eyes and refused to freak out. He breathed.
Slowly. In and out.
Nausea rose from his gut at the throb and strain of muscles and tendons not used to the extreme exercise they participated in tonight. Then it pooled in his mouth for an entirely different reason, as even while he stood the musician could feel an almost involuntary relaxation in his body as muscles and tendons, hot, tired, and sore, healed and stretched. Growing and changing form like they had a mind of their own. Like they weren’t his.
“You know what, Mr. Giles, I think I’m gonna call it a night, too,” Oz choked out from between clenched teeth. He grabbed his backpack, his Winter Soldier, and left the library far far behind him, very very fast.
Xander was pretty sure that Oz didn’t realize it, the redhead was trying pretty hard to ignore the fact that his spray bottle trembled in his hand, but he squarely kept himself between Xander and his Once-Buffy-shaped-friend. Even when the other boy didn’t seem to be paying attention, he moved when Xander moved.
Xander, the snack retriever, would have been impressed at Oz’s ability to do two completely different tasks at the same time. The musician never looked up for more than a moment from cleaning the table, yet he was capable of keeping the Slayer in front of him with only a few exceptions. Xander the goof would have been impressed if he hadn’t realized he’d been doing something similar. Xander knew, without tilting his head up, exactly where everyone was.
He’d been regulated to cleaning up the broken glass on the library floor. The display cases for some of Giles’ more temperamental tomes had taken a beating, with large pieces missing and in dust, very painful and sharp dust, on the floor. The Watcher hadn’t even looked in Xander’s direction when they’d arrived at the library, short the mystery teens of the night, simply gestured to the janitor’s closet they kept all the cleaning supplies in and an offhanded remark that he could do the sweeping. It wasn’t that Xander really cared about what cleaning activity he did, they were all going to suck, but once in a while, it’d be nice if he were asked nicely.
But his body hurt. From his toes to his fingertips, everything ached. He felt like he’d been stretched, taken at the feet and pulled from his wrists. If it didn’t throb in time with his pulse than it flopped like wet noodles. Only the grim grit of teeth kept the high-schooler sweeping diligently.
Back and forth, back and forth, the broom swept up the night. Leaving a visually clean floor for the inspection of the Librarian. Of course, Xander was sure that on hands and knees the floor would be covered in grit left to dig and cut into his skin. Perfect for the next time he failed to dodge the monster of the week fast enough.
Back and forth, and back and forth Xander swept without stalling. The teen was pretty sure that if he stopped the broom would fall from his weak fingers and he’d probably follow it to the floor.
Nerveless fingers clenched tightly around the rod and his vision narrowed, as flesh fingers dug and pulled at a metal covered limb, twisting his body to follow the movement he reached up with warm fingers to pinch or crack or twist, to do damage-
But glittering blue eyes in a freckled face backed him to a locker.
Solid metal pressed into his back as Oz’s forehead met Xander’s shoulder with a dull thud. Black dots sparked from the corners of his vision and Xander could hear two sets of lungs breath wetly in the corridor of the high school.
“Give me a minute.” It was wet and close enough to his ear that Xander could feel the air brush against his skin. “Gotta catch my breath.”
“That might take a while.”
Xander knew exactly how to cup his fingers around the base of the other man’s neck so that his breathing calmed. Knew precisely how to shift his feet so that the other was cradled against his body as comfortably as possible. He knew the exact moment that Oz wanted to move and how he would, so that Xander wouldn’t be in the way.
Standing separately in the hallway, his fingers twitching to feel the other man under them again, watching the light ease into through the windows, Xander’s mind was clear. For all that it was his body touching Oz’s, it wasn’t Xander touching Oz.
“Everything else does.”
There’d been barely enough time to lie down and close his eyes before the alarm was going off. The sun was up and the day was starting and he had to move.
Rolling out of bed, it was a thoughtless move to throw on sweats and stretch. The burn of heavily used muscles doing exactly what they were supposed to was like a drug. The heady pleasure of control rolling through his nerves following the bones and muscles of his limbs, strength coiling ready for the task presented.
It didn’t take any effort to pad down the hall and out, avoiding the other bodies in the house. Then he was free.
The thick slap and thump of the rubber soles of his shoes meeting the cracked pavement of the sidewalk on his territory. The fierce force propelling him forward. The blur of buildings and vehicles, early morning citizens starting their day anew. The crisp scent of the cool temperatures waiting for the rising sun to burn them away with the last of the lingering moisture from the dark of the previous night.
Everything bound together like a narcotic that fogged the mind so that it seemed as though Xander only woke up once he was already at the intersection of Bell View and Hail Mary, almost ten miles away from where he started.
He gasped and panted, curled into himself and gagging as flashes and scenes pressed in behind his eyes. Cracked cement and scorched earth. Melted glass, broken metal, and blood had been everywhere the night before. Xander weakened as the feel of fur and flesh replaced the cotton beneath his fingers.
Sound wavered in and out as moisture beaded on Xander’s brow and his lips puddling on the ground. The teen was vaguely aware of a second presence, of words spoken behind him, but all he heard were a string of consonants and vowels.
Then – DANGER! – the barest brush.
A firm hand grabbed the wound and squeezed tightly, ‘You’re not done yet.’
He spun, catching the nearest wrist in a flesh hand like a steel cuff.
‘Get up.’ The sizzle of man-made lightning shot through his nerves.
He lunged, one step, two steps, three steps.
‘How much can it take,’ the swish of a thick rod through the thin recycled air, ‘do you think?’
His arm pressed in against the throat as cinder blocks scraped against the other’s back.
‘You were built to be punished. ’
And Xander came to, gasping like he’d been hit by a bucket of cold water and staring into worried eyes.
“War, huh, bud.” The barista didn’t make any sudden moves, everything slow and smooth as Xander jerked himself away. “Was gonna ask if you was ok, bes, clear you ain’t.”
A shock ran through his body from shoulders to fingers, a spasm unintentionally moving the muscles of his hands. Xander shook his head, shook out his hands. “Never been to war.”
“May not with Uncle Sam.” The thin reedy man shrugged, carefully moving into the cafe, beckoning Xander to follow, “bes, ta doe’s in ta know, las’ nigh’ a war bys itself.”
“In the know?”
A quirky grin showed straight teeth and a hidden piercing. “Ah, ‘one girl’ can’t save us all, can she?”
Xander twitched again, the spasm moving from where his shoulder connected to his neck all the way down to the fingertips of his left hand.
“Battroom all te way at te end o’ te hall. Go take a looksee.”
It was all earthy greens and browns with self-proclaiming eco-friendly paper products. Any other time Xander would probably be making fun of the hoity-toity bathroom supplies, but now he simply sagged against the sink. Looked like he’d smeared ink under his eyes, and his shoulders hunched, and his left hand twitched metal-
His left hand twitched metal fingers. His mouth watered with nausea as he rolled his sleeve up. He watched, as though from some other place, as flesh fingers pressed and scraped and tugged at shiny gray slatted pieces.
There was the distant sensation of pressure on that arm, but not the burn of fingernail scraps or the warmth of pressure bruises blooming. In fact, except for the room-temperature feel of the metal beneath flesh finger pads, there was no sensation of temperature at all. Just pressure and the slowing zing of a shock traveling in the muscle beneath the metal.
Xander clenched his left fist and scrabbling for purchase on the metal plating of the covering. Scraping and clawing and hitting didn’t do anything but turn his right hand into a mess. But there was something shiny on the floor and it caught Xander’s desperate eye. Picking it up and stabbing with all his might at the joint crack where his left elbow used to be, Xander got the split second view of wires and rods and more mechanisms than he knew the names for, before the impromptu tool slipped and shot out of his hand.
“Get it off. Get-it-off. GETITOFF!” Xander grabbed and tried to yank and pull, but the metal arm was not designed to come off.
His knees hit the linoleum tile with a hard thud and he swallowed quickly and then again. Clenching and unclenching his hands, running his palms over the saturated cotton of his sweats. He pressed his sweaty forehead to the cool ceramic of the toilet bowl.
“It’ll be ok,” the barista, still without a name, said as he ran fingers through Xander’s longer than normal hair, petting again and again. Repeating over and over, “It’ll be ok.”
Xander was pretty sure it wouldn’t be.
Oz wasn’t sure he’d fallen asleep because it sure felt like he’d been staring at the same piece of wallpaper the entire time he’d been lying in bed. He’d watched the sun slowly creep through the shadows of his bedroom, painting the prison with a light and warmth that was hard to tolerate after last night. While he wasn’t tired, which was strange in itself, the high-schooler was slow to start his day. Nothing had changed.
Breakfast was on the counter in the kitchen, a large spread that enticed the musician to taking a little of a lot. Sausage and eggs fought for space with pancakes, waffles, and biscuits. Oz added some yogurt and granola on the side and completely ignored his cousins’ faces as he settled at the table.
“What’s wrong with you?”
Oz’s spoon didn’t stall, “What’d you mean?”
The other plunked his ass in the seat across from him and showed a set of sharp teeth. “You never eat with us.”
“Maybe I’m just hungry.”
“Maybe you’re just-” His aunt took a big sniff as she put down the juice pitcher on the table. Leaning over him, her mouth very close to the skin of his neck. “What the fuck did you do?!” Nails, curving and growing as color seeped into her irises, dug into the meat of his shoulder and spun him around, even out of his seat. “Mary! MARY! Your fucking cub did something!”
Mary Osbourne fit in a little too much with the pack on the full moons and not enough at PTA meetings.
“Sniff him!” The woman hauled him from his seat from a grip just under his shoulder and shoved him into his mother. “Your boy went and did something, Mary!” She snarled, “Now, he’s ruined!”
“Heh.” One of the older boys, of his Aunt’s boys, snorted. “I was worried for a minute, then Mom said he was ruined. Well, shit Mom, we all knew that!”
“Shut your fucking face Evan, nobody asked your opinion!” She yelled.
Mary Osbourne, early forties, married young and in love, willingly took the bite to become a werewolf and the only disappointment she had in her life was him, her son. Ever since that one Halloween when he was a kid, when he learned about where werewolves came from and that it was ‘inevitable’ that he takes the bite when he was old enough, Daniel Osbourne was the disappointment of his mother’s life. He never failed to add to her stress.
“Good God, Daniel, what did you do?” She waved a hand to dissipate the smell. “You smell like black pepper and rotten tomatoes! What did you do?”
Out of curiosity Oz pulled his shirt up to his nose and inhaled. The only prominent smell he could pick out was the light sweat he’d started because of the heat. He’d avoided the flowery citrusy body wash in his shower, he didn’t like it anymore and he really missed his cologne.
Oz blinked, certain that he’d never worn or bought cologne in his life, but equally certain he had a preference of scent and brand. He’d probably still be able to find the exact shelf and table in Macy’s blindfolded and deaf. “I didn’t do anything.”
“You’re lying!” Her hand went back, Oz winced and ducked.
The sound of flesh hitting flesh echoed in the suddenly silent kitchen, but the musician didn’t feel the bloom of pain he expected. Oz carefully peeked.
A bright red hand print now decorated his Aunt’s face. No one was moving, her eyes were a brilliant red, her nails black like lacquered wood and long enough to be daggers, and Oz could almost see the heat of the bruise developing on her face. Not a spoon moved or chair creaked. Everyone in the kitchen held extremely still.
“You -you hit me.” His Aunt breathed.
“I didn’t mean to, Hailey,” Mary Osbourne carefully raised her hands and tilted her head back. “I just-”
From his position near the floor, Oz looked right up in between the two women and watched as his Aunt unraveled. With a snarl from between large fangs with saliva dripping from her lips, Hailey leapt at Mary, dragging her down to the floor.
As Oz, and most of the cousins from the kitchen scrambled to get out of the room and out of the way, he could see that his mother was giving just as good as she got. Nothing submissive at all about this fight.
Nothing submissive about him either. Oz hadn’t simply given in to the expectations of his family, that he’d one day join them hunting people for blood sport and the type of pleasure that results from another’s pain. He’d fought that fight with a daily drag of a cigarette, with music lessons and band practice, with class attendance and after-school activities. Now he had a whole encyclopedia of vocabulary that described the way his life had always been.
He had no problem saying-
“Hey, Daniel,” his cousin Evan sang, “what’s so wrong with you that you’re ruined for the family?” He chuckled, “You’ve been thinkin’ for years that you’re better than us, not playing with our food, and now you’re finally gettin’ away. What’s so fucking wrong with our family?”
Oz turned the key in the ignition of his van, but replied without too much thought, the less time he spent with his relatives the better his life.
“I don’t like bullies.”
Homeroom was first and last period, for whatever quality of a period it was anyway, it was barely twenty minutes. Just long enough to hand out flyers on upcoming school events and take roll. After getting hot chocolate from Simon, the Barista/owner of The Common Grounds Cafe, putting Band-Aids on the fingers of his right hand, returning home to shower and find clothes that covered to his wrists but didn’t paint a target on his back, which didn’t exist in his wardrobe, he forgot that his homeroom was with Buffy.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as in the girl who used to be his friend; as in the girl who got him in trouble he didn’t commit; as in the female he wasn’t allowed to be around.
“I know, Xander.” the older woman nodded with a frown. “I have your note here, says to go directly to the office as soon as you arrive.”
“Do you know what classes they’re putting me in?”
“No.” A shake and then the reappearance of the wrinkle between your brows. “But Xander Harris, whatever classes they put you in, do your best! Not that sloppy work you’ve been turning in!”
He gave a light shrug, “I’ll try.”
As far as he was concerned, vampires and demons trumped getting a diploma just so that he ends up like his parents going from one dead-end job to the next. Nobody had to teach him how to do that. He wasn’t worth much else.
It was still early yet, but the secretary nodded him back through the doors of the Principal’s Office and Snyder was sitting composed and judgmental behind his big desk.
“Take a seat Harris,” He said, “I want a word.”
“What do you want Mr. Snyder?” Xander kept his satchel on his lap and slid his left hand, all shining metal, underneath the bag while his right on rested on top.
“What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything.” Xander blinked, his back straightened and his gaze snapped forward, straight into the minor dictator’s own.
“No, not today.” He waved a hand, “I meant to the Summers girl. Had to be a doozy if she whined to her mother. So, what did you do?”
“Nothing.” Xander pressed out from between clenched teeth.
“Huh,” the principle tapped his pen on the top of his desk. “I’m watching you Harris. I don’t care if it is the Summers girl; if I hear you’ve made any of the other girls on campus nervous, you’re out of here. And I don’t want to see you within fifty feet of Summers, for the rest of your career here!”
Xander locked his jaw from moving, from spilling out the meaningless words and defenses that would’ve been second nature the last time the principle and he spoke.
“Now, I hope by now you know that you won’t amount to much Harris. I’d be surprised if you even end up graduating.” Snyder shuffled through a stack of papers before he found the set he wanted. “So, I placed you in whatever class was most convenient,” he paused, “for me. And of course, they had to be suitably removed from Ms. Summers’s schedule, who also doesn’t have the best odds of graduating.”
The paper eventually handed to Xander, the one with Snyder’s signature and the stamp from the secretary, included: Battle Tactics and Social Policies in World War II, Advanced Computing and Programming, Calculus for Advanced Computing and Programming, Advanced Phys Ed for Athletes, Writing and Reading Romances, and German III.
Xander rubbed at his chest, over the thin fabric of the gray hoodie and the t-shirt underneath, trying to get at an ache that can’t be touched. He took a deep breath. Then another. Snyder wasn’t going to listen to his excuses or complaints today, maybe not ever. Xander had no hope of passing these classes starting at the beginning of the second quarter.
“Do you understand, Mr. Harris?”
“Yes, Principal Snyder.”
“Then you have a first block class to get to.”
Yeah, Battle Tactics and Social Policies was on the other side of the building from the principal’s office, and somehow Xander didn’t think that Snyder was going to give him a pass.
A friendly face greeted him in his new first block class, though.
“Sarge.” Oz slouched in his seat tapping his eraser against the top of the desk. “Transferring in?”
“Cap,” Xander responded without thinking. “Snyder though I needed a change of pace.”
“Really.” Bubble gum snapped, “because I heard from Cordelia that Buffy asked her Mom to keep you away from her. What’d you do, Loser, that your girlfriend won’t talk to you anymore?”
“If you think that Queen C really has the best information,” Xander barely spared her a glance, “I kinda wonder how you got in this class?”
“Well they let you in, didn’t they?” Harmony waved pink polished fingernails in his direction.
“Class, class, let’s not be mean.” The teacher, Mr. Nickols, retired from Sunnydale University, pushed his glasses up his wrinkled nose and rearranged his lecture notes. “We have war to talk about!”
He knew the sound of that hiss. Jesse and he had been hearing it for years. Willow wasn’t happy. Xander looked in the direction that his oldest friend would be coming from, across the cafeteria, her hands waving over her head and Buffy standing right next to her with a bored look on her face. The ‘one girl in the world’ probably wanted to be anywhere else but there, waiting for Xander. Well, she was in luck.
“You want me to say something?” The type of luck that Xander normally never had, kept Oz beside him all day, with the exception of Advanced Phys Ed and English Romances, and the boy leaned close to his side.
“No.” Xander shook his head, turning toward the door so that he didn’t have to face Willow’s disappointed face. “Class is gonna start soon.”
Neither boy looked back.
It was a strange day for Xander, besides constantly adjusting the sleeves of his sweatshirt to cover the shine of his new appendage, and trying his best not to think about holding a conversation in German with his teacher, Willow wasn’t in any of his classes. It was the first time they hadn’t shared classes in nearly six years. The red head had been moved ahead once in elementary school, and Xander had been despondent. She’d returned the next day, complaining about bullying and the shorter recess. Jesse hadn’t even realized Willow wasn’t supposed to come back.
No, walking casually back to his locker with Oz, after meeting up after the bell rang, Xander realized that his world hadn’t ended because Willow wasn’t there to feed him the answer in math. It was a good thing the two classes without Oz weren’t back to back because he’d felt jittery and anxious by the end of his English class, knowing that not only was there no one to watch his back, but no one was watching his Captain’s either.
“You have homework in English Romances?” Oz asked leaning against the locker next to Xander’s.
He scoffed. “Mrs. Kepler wants us to get in touch with our inner romantic.” He quirked a brow at his captain, “Like, what does that even mean?”
Oz shrugged. “Maybe she wants to-”
“Xander!” Willow stomped over to the older boy and gripped tight on an arm that couldn’t feel the dig of her sharp fingernails. Could barely feel the pressure of her hand. “Meet up in the library! Now!”
Xander followed behind the stomping red head, Oz following behind the brunette. As soon as the doors closed behind the small group, she spun on her friend.
“What- I- You- Grr!” Raising clenched fists and shaking them at Xander as he moved around the table in the library. Carefully gauging space between the safe seat he had chosen and the area Xander thought Buffy would be coming from.
“Words would be appreciated, Willow.” Xander sat down and tipped back, perfectly balanced for the first time in his life. “Like nouns and verbs.”
The red head obviously gritted her teeth and took a deep breath. “You weren’t in class; I saw you in the cafeteria. Buffy said you started in homeroom, but you were sent to the office before I came in.”
Xander swallowed dryly. “Is there a question in that Willow?”
“She wants to know where you went, butthead.” Buffy wiped her face with a rag as she entered the main room. Her practice over for the moment.
Carefully counting the space between her and him, Xander got up and went to the water fountain, took thirty seconds, and on his return picked a different seat. Willow frowned.
Oz shifted in his seat, even more clearly placed between Xander and Buffy. Ready for just about any move the Slayer makes. A good commander always supports his team, Steve never let Bucky down. Right now it was taking more effort than either boy was really sure they could muster the day after Halloween, or even wanted to, to separate which memories and feeling belonged to whom.
“My class schedule was revised,” Xander shrugged, “Came straight from Herr Snyder himself.” Xander carefully ignored the subtle flinch that the other boy gave.
“New class schedule?” Willow perched fisted hands on her hips. “What classes?” Her eyes were narrowed as he handed over the list, as though he would bother lying to her. Xander was supposed to be her oldest friend, yet it didn’t seem like it took much to convince her differently.
“Almost all of mine.” Oz said from the table and shrugged, “but I don’t have English Romances or Advanced Phys Ed.”
“English Romances, you say?” Giles said cleaning his glasses and crawling out from behind the stacks. “Which one are you studying now?”
“Jane Eyre. Edward Rochester is a Vampire!” Xander pointed a shiny metallic finger, “I’m gonna ask Mr. Leather-and-Broody if he knew him.”
Buffy frowned, crossing her arms across her chest and Willow gasped, “Xander!”
“Don’t worry,” he huffed sitting down next to his old friend, shoulders rubbing with the other boy. “Oz is in the know.”
Giles coughed, “And how exactly is that?”
Here there were options. It wouldn’t last forever, but there was a chance Oz could sit and be a part of this group without being the freakish monster. Oz had it on good authority that he wasn’t the only would-be monster frequenting the high school library.
“We didn’t forget.” Oz gestured between the two of them. “Nothing about last night is gone.”
Some of it was even worse. If he kept growing, he probably wasn’t going to fit his jeans by the end of the week.
“Good Lord.” Giles quickly sat down in an available chair next to his Slayer. “How so? If I may say, those ‘people’ you turned into last night, well, I was rather happy they were gone.”
“Bullshit.” Xander leaned back in his chair on the opposite side of the table, “You were as helpful as-” Xander frowned, “an unhelpful thing.” He pointed back at the Librarian. “You get no say.”
“Hey, now!” Buffy scowled standing from her seat, “that’s my Watcher you’re talking to!”
Neither Xander nor Oz met Buffy’s stance or raised it. The Slayer was a supernaturally enhanced girl with an attitude and the short-sighted belief that all of her problems could be solved by hitting them hard enough. Neither boy could handle taking that type of damage.
They would, one day soon, when bones finally stop stretching and muscles growing, and when they weren’t fighting back the clinging nightmares and dreams of men who don’t exist, be able to take the Slayer. She wasn’t even likely to be a challenge between the two of them. Buffy ran in head first, if she lived long enough the girl might learn what they had, a little research can save a lot of problems.
“We know.” Oz pulled back the loose sleeve of Xander’s left arm to show where shiny plates had replaced flesh. “Not a joke.”
“Come on, Xander.” Willow’s grin wavered on her mouth as she broke the oppressive silence. “Time to put away the costume. I know you like Marvel,” she chaffed her arms. “But it’s not Halloween anymore.”
Xander frowned, “I’m not playing Willow.”
“Sure you are,” Buffy said baring teeth from across the table, “You were spitting mad before trick or treating because I didn’t want you hurt. Now you’re suddenly a superhero? Pull the other one, it’s got bells on.” Buffy laughed dryly and the whole library watched.
Xander fisted his hand and gently, carefully, placed it on the tabletop. “Are you serious? You think I would joke about this? Ethan Rayne replaced my flesh and blood arm with metal. He gave me memories of war, torture, and a love so strong that the world looks washed out now. You think I want this?!” He braced himself, leaning forward, faintly noticing that the wood was splintering under his hand. “I don’t want this, Willow. I figured my friend would know that.”
Oz watched Xander leave, tears pooling in red-rimmed eyes as the other boy avoided even looking at anyone else. There was an itch just under his skin, something that said his friend should never be alone, that he should always be watching his back. The same itch that had him sitting in the back row in the classes he didn’t share with Xander and picking out a table with two open seats at lunch. But Oz couldn’t remember why he thought Xander was his friend. Until the other day in the costume store, where they picked up matching outfits, Oz only knew the other boy as the goofy boy that hung around Willow Rosenberg. Noticeable only because of who he kept company with, that didn’t make them friends.
And Oz had prided himself on his restraint, on his ability to sit back and watch, listen, figure out the whole story before making any decisions. His family had never cared, never waited; they didn’t even know what restraint meant.
He didn’t like the feeling that something else was taking him over. There would be a day, and Oz knew it was coming closer and closer by the minute, when he would not be able to really pull apart what part of him was Steve Rogers, Commander of the Howling Commandos and Captain America, and what part of him was Daniel Osbourne, werewolf pack outcast. It had barely been a day and he’d already been irreparably changed.
Xander Harris and their instantaneous friendship were just the most identifiable symptoms of Oz’s change in priorities.
“It’s Buffy’s fault. That Xander’s schedule was changed today.” Oz said, leaning back in his chair, counting the seconds the itch under his skin would let him stay and not follow. “You did something, just admit it.”
“Me?” Buffy scowled, “I didn’t do anything!”
“You sure?” Oz raised a brow, “Not even complain to your Mom that Xander ‘wasn’t taking ‘no’ for an answer’? ‘Cause that’s what Principle Snyder told all the teachers- Xander Harris isn’t allowed within fifty feet of you. Can barely stay in the same room, definitely can’t keep the same schedule.” He checked the redhead over as he meandered past her. The girl was biting her lip and wringing her hands, watching her friend with worried eyes. “I don’t think you’ll be seeing Xander in homeroom again.”
The skin between his shoulder blades crawled as he walked out the doors of the library. He’d just left a group of skilled and violent people at his back after making them very made at him. That wasn’t how he’d survived being a staunchly human boy in the middle of a pack of werewolves. The man who had rented space in his head last night knew that sometimes it’s safer if your enemy doesn’t know you think they’re your enemy.
Willow Rosenberg had just lost herself a date. Oz didn’t like bullies.
“What assholes.” Buffy huffed. So she made life a little uncomfortable for the boy, so what? He could grow a pair. And that shit about his costume? Give it up. Please, he had nothing on suddenly waking up with the calling to kill Vampires. It was probably just a prop anyway.
“Don’t you think we should say something?” Willow wavered.
“Say what? To who?” The blond shrugged. “If Mom told everybody already then there’s no way she’s going to fix it. She’d march my ass right into Principal Snyder’s office to ‘confess my sins’.” Buffy rolled her eyes. “Not happening. Besides, it’s not like it’s such a big loss.”
“B-but, Buffy!” Willow whined, “You said there wouldn’t be any problems. That it was just a joke! ‘What harm ever came from a joke?’”
“It was,” Buffy shrugged, “now it’s not.”
“If I may,” Giles nudged the frames of his glasses up the bridge of his nose, “Ethan Rayne thought last night would be a very fun joke. But I don’t think any of us found it funny. Especially not if others have found the transition back to be… difficult.”
“I don’t remember any of last night,” Buffy propped her boots onto the table top, regardless of her watcher’s frown. “I think they were lying. What about you Wills, remember much from last night?”
“No.” Willow murmured, chafing her arms, “I know that I was terrified. I remember being utterly scared to go to sleep, worried that I wouldn’t remember to wake up- but, it’s all hazy and distant now. Like I can’t figure out why I was so scared.”
Giles coughed, “The council would be much happier if civilians were left out of any of the details of future events, but, Buffy, Xander has provided a lot of help in the past. Perhaps you should apologize?”
“No.” The Slayer said. “Xander isn’t supposed to be in this, it’s better he gets out now.” She quirked a brow at the redhead near the doors of the library, “You don’t think-”
“No. Uh uh, no way, no how.” Willow gave her best friend her determined face. “I’m in this to the end!”
Neither teenager heard the watcher mumbled as he shook his head, “that’s what I’m afraid of.”
The Cathedral was dark and quiet. The long carpeted aisle led straight to the front and the pulpit, the two large sets of pews separating the walkway from the confessional to the right of the entrance and the dedication candles to the left. The soft light flickered through the stained glass windows, depicting a number of powerful scenes from the Christian holy book. A young man, already walking with a bit of a sway, dressed in a hoodie with his hands tucked into the pouch at the front, deliberately made his way to another male, already seated in one of the front pews. Xander slipped between the two pew ends, avoiding hitting his hips on the thick wood with barely any notice at all, taking the seat Oz offered when he scooted in on the polished wood.
“Didn’t know if you’d come.” The strawberry blond boy said, not turning to his new companion. “Couldn’t see how you’d know.”
“Just did.” Xander murmured. Slouching back as comfortably as possible in the hard wooden pew.
They let the silence and the reverence of the building seep down into their bones where the memories of the night before, and the memories that came from the night before, were burning holes in their souls. The sheer amount of conflict and war that the two men who’d made themselves at home in their hearts had experienced would change anyone, let alone two high schoolers, regardless of whether or not they lived on a Hellmouth. Xander and Oz were now certain of the amount of ‘hell’ humanity was capable of raining down on each other. No demons necessary.
It was difficult, growing up in the modern era, to believe in a higher power with any sort of faith. But the reverse was true also, if demons existed then angels had to as well. St. Alexander’s Church of Salvation looked pretty good in the daylight. Xander would argue it had looked even better last night.
“Are we gonna talk about it?” Xander asked, tempted to prop his feet up on the pew in front of him. Resisting because a number of the clergy were lingering near the altar.
“Talk about what?” Oz didn’t turn or move from his straight back seat.
“This,” Xander flapped a hand, freezing when he saw the light reflect back off the metal plates, before shamefully letting the limb fall. “The fact that I didn’t even know it, but there’s a clock at the back of my brain now counting down to a point where I need to see you. I didn’t even need to ask where you would be, as soon as I thought I needed to see you, I knew you would come here.” Xander huffed, “What are we going to do?”
Neither moved as Xander waited, holding his breath, for Oz’s response. Not quite sure which way he wanted it to go.
“So,” Oz sighed slouching back to match his friend. “We’ve got two choices.”
“Which are?” Xander tapped his fingers on the back of the pew.
“We can try our hardest to ignore or stop what’s happening.” Oz shrugged, “We go back to the things we know are us: video games, music, binge watching bad movies and refusing to get up in the morning. We draw a line in the sand and try to take back the parts of our souls that they’ve already claimed.”
Xander froze, carefully not looking at the other man or the limb that had been replaced with titanium rods, vibranium plates, and the finest of Stark wiring. He wasn’t even sure he could go back. “Or? ‘Cause I gotta tell you, man, these-” Xander wiggled the metal fingers in the other man’s peripherals, “they’re not stage makeup. I thought you knew.”
“Yeah,” Oz said, “but it was worth mentioning. This is the Hellmouth, Buck-”
“Xander.” He snapped before carefully stretching the fingers of his fist and taking a deep breath in, “my name is Xander.”
“I know.” Oz nodded with a frown, “But how many times did you want to call me Steve today?”
This, whatever choice they made; it was becoming clear that it wasn’t going to be easy.
“So, we’re just resigning to living the second lives of Bucky Barnes and Steve Rogers?” Xander leaned his head back against the uncomfortable edge of the wooden seat. “I’m pretty sure I don’t like that plan either.”
“I feel you.” Oz sighed. “I don’t know, Xander. I’m as lost as you.”
Xander huffed, “I broke down outside a coffee shop this morning. Remembering nightmares that never happened, and nearly tore the head off the guy helping me. And I doubt that was the worst of what he left in my head.”
“I keep reaching for a favorite cologne that I’ve never worn, I told off the French teacher in perfect Parisian, and I started a small war in the kitchen this morning.” At Xander’s incredulous look the other teen boy elaborated, “My Aunt took a chunk from my mother’s arm when my mother tried to slap me and got her instead. I came home to my cousins still chortling about it. ‘There was blood everywhere!’” Oz rolled his eyes. “There’s always blood. They’re werewolves.”
“So basically,” Xander mused, “we’re screwed. None of this ended by breaking the statue – the only things that left were Bucky and Steve themselves.”
They sat in silence for a moment. Oz for one, finally examined the fact that was staring him in the face since he woke up that morning. He was different. Not completely, but different enough that it stopped his Aunt, screwed with his mother, and had nearly reorganized his entire life around the other boy. But perhaps it wasn’t fair to ignore the benefits of Halloween.
“There are good sides to this.” Oz murmured into the silence of the cathedral.
“I won’t ever be a werewolf.” He let the thought, once out of his mouth, sit in his ears for a minute. A weight that Oz had spent the majority of his life weighed down by was suddenly gone. As though simply vanished from his shoulders, all the pain, and angst that he had lived with and nursed, making sure he always remembered why he never wanted to be like his family. For nearly a decade Oz had kept the sights and sounds of a dozen deaths on his mind, in the forefront of his conscious, constantly aware of the consequences if he faltered in his hatred of his family for even a minute.
Never before had the musician felt so free.
Oz laughed, gently and lightly, he turned to the dower boy beside him. “I’ll never be a werewolf. Probably won’t ever be a victim again. Xander,” Oz took a deep breath to slow down, but the pure effervescence of happiness that had bubbled up within him was not letting go. “We’ll be able to help, honestly seriously help protect people against the shit that goes down in this town.”
He thought about it. Hadn’t his day yesterday started with a faceplant into the soda machine because he couldn’t protect himself from football players? Hadn’t Angel always been his strongest competition for Buffy because he could help and protect her in a way Xander wouldn’t have ever been able to? Okay, so it still hurt to think about Buffy and Willow at all, but Oz had a very valid point. There was a whole town of people out there that could use the help. Xander didn’t know if it was the memories or too many years reading comic books, but there was usually an everyday villain and an apocalyptic villain. Most of the messes that Buffy got into were the ‘end of the world’ variety.
How had Sunnydale survived for decades or centuries between when Slayers visited the Hellmouth? Someone knew something in this town, they would just have to find out who.
“It’s an idea,” Xander said, and grinned honestly, perhaps for the first time since Mrs. Summers sat him down on her front porch and slaughtered his heart. “So how do we go about-”
It was at least an hour later that Oz stood with a stretch and asked, “Ready to go?”
“Yeah,” Xander nodded before carefully edging out of the pew, he was a little large to fit the way he used to now. “I just got something to do first.”
The man, both old and young, veteran and civilian, human and supernatural at the same time, knelt beside the priest at the benches. He touched cold and numb flesh fingers from one shoulder to the other. “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.”
He didn’t say much else as the priest from the night before, kind smile in place, gently went about his bestowing forgiveness. Xander hadn’t grown up in the type of household that went to Sunday school, but Bucky Barnes had been a devout believer for the majority of his life. Even between mind wipes and being frozen solid the Winter Soldier would kneel at the side of his sleeping space and numbly form the cross.
Now, Xander lived on the Hellmouth. He wasn’t sure how much faith he put in God or Angels or even the crucifixion of Christ, but he knew that there were more things in Heaven and Earth than he knew. Faith was powerful, Xander already knew that, if it could help him it would be worth it, it sure wasn’t going to hurt.
Daniel Osbourne lived a block down and two blocks over from Willow Rosenberg. The neighborhood was full of large houses with big yards, but the Osbournes’ house was the largest in the neighborhood. Always full of noise and laughter, people coming and going. Willow would sit on a swing in the public park across the street and watch for hours, pretending that she was a part of all of that.
She’d daydreamed that Oz would invite her over one day, to talk about homework or a class assignment. That his Mom would ask her to stay, that she’d strike up a conversation with one of the other kids in the house, that one of his Aunts or Uncles would grin and tease him, saying: “This one’s a keeper, Oz. Don’t let her get away.”
He’d quirk a small grin and whisper softly, “I won’t.”
For years Oz had been the dream she’d wished for on nights with shooting stars. Willow had held Xander close to her heart, the little boy with the yellow crayon would always have a special place in her heart, and she’d kept him close to the blood pumping organ in her chest. Before Buffy, the redhead had never actually thought that she could get Oz. She’d always just imagined that at some point she’d convince Xander that the two of them would be happy together, best friends forever.
Now she had the opportunity to have something more, and she wasn’t going to let Ethan Rayne stand in her way. Especially not when she could hardly remember what was so terrifying about that night. So she’d pulled herself together and moseyed on through the neighborhood, hoping to accidently-on-purpose run into the other Sunnydale teen.
What she found at the public park Oz liked to frequent wasn’t what she expected. Oh, Oz was there, just liked she’d hoped, but so were several other people. There was Xander seated on the swing right next to him, feet dragging in the dirt. Alone at the top of the slide was Darrel, from ‘Dingoes Ate My Baby’, even from the end of the street Willow could see that there was something strange about the way his shoulders were slumped and twice as she walked up to the playground he spasmed, twitching and flailing like he’d lost control of his limbs. She marked a wide path around his piece of playground equipment.
Across from the sandpit were the monkey bars, where one boy swung from his knees and a girl sat on top. Something about them was marked different to Willow. Like she’d met them before, but when she reached for the memory it was fuzzy and out of focus. Willow didn’t know why they even stood out, besides assuming she’d met them before in some other Sunnydale-esque apocalypse. Though, honestly, most of the kids they meet during those tend to end up dead. By virtue that they were still living, Willow figures she could eliminate that possibility from the list.
Regardless, walking up to Oz and Xander on the swing set felt a little like entering a battlefield. All eyes were on her as she approached.
Hiding her nerves she rocked on her heels, giving Xander her most innocent smile, “How many more minutes until I can use the swing, friend?”
“Since when have you liked swings, Willow?” Xander blinked up at her. “You used to get petrified that you’d fall off.”
“We all grow up, Xander.” Her smile was a little more wooden this time as she rocked back on her heels again. “Maybe I just want to sit and spin?”
Xander shot a look at the swing set just a few feet away, “There are a lot of empty swings, Willow. Why don’t you take one of those?”
“I want this one, Xander,” Willow said stopping her foot.
“Wanting doesn’t produce results.” Oz snorted as he spun back around on his swing.
Xander sighed, “What is it you really want, Willow? And don’t say the swing. Almost ten years we were friends, you never wanted the swing.”
“I would like to talk to Oz, Xander.” Willow blushed, and then pursed her lips when all the other boy did was raise an eyebrow. “Alone. Come on, Xander, you’re not this stupid.”
Oz straightened in his swing. For a minute, as the other redhead looked at her, she felt pinned and dissected until he looked away. She shivered, thinking that it was a good thing mind-reading was just a comic book skill.
“I’m not going on a date with you, Willow.”
“W-what?” Willow’s world completely narrowed to the other boy and his blue eyes. “What do you mean?”
“I mean just what I said. You came by in hopes of asking me on a date,” he tilted his head and looked up at her from his twisted seat, “Or hoped to convince me to ask you on a date. Which won’t be happening either. We’re not going out.”
“Y-you can’t say that!” Willow choked. “Xander do something! He can’t say that to me!”
“Why not?” Oz asked, even as Xander sighed and twisted back around particularly fast in his swing. Forcing Willow to take a step back.
“Listen, Willow,” Xander said. “Consent is a two-way street. Just because Oz is a guy doesn’t mean that you need less consent from you than you do from him. And,” Xander continued when Willow took a deep breath to interrupt. “He’s not obligated to tell you why either. Don’t make this any harder on yourself than it has to be. Just go home, Willow.”
“You’re supposed to be on my side!” Willow ignored the watering in her eyes, the way her nails cut into her palms, and the stuttering painful lurch of her heart. “You’re not supposed to take his!”
“Oh, right Willow.” Xander scoffed, standing from his swing, tall enough to loom over her but without making any attempt to do so. “Like you took my side against Buffy? Like you believed what I said just because you trusted me? Grow up.”
“It was just Buffy,” Willow said, startled out of her upset. “I don’t understand.”
Xander looked at her for a minute, but Willow didn’t know what he was searching for to give him any help. He dragged a hand through his hair and moved to step past her, “If you really don’t, then I kind of wonder when we stopped being friends.”
A lurch had Willow clutching at her chest, as though the heart behind her ribs had suddenly shifted in place. “X-xander? Xander! We are friends! Xander!”
But instead of turning around, of picking her up like he always has when she’d fallen before, her best friend just continued to walk away. Leaving her like so much garbage on the remote public playground with the sun setting behind her.
Oz had parted from Xander with a hug, just up the street from his family’s house, cutting across lawns and backyards to enter through the garage. He hoped to avoid any large gathering of the family by cutting through the den when no one should be there, grabbing a snack from a kitchen that should be empty, before escaping upstairs to his room. This was how he avoided his family on most days. Perhaps Steve Rogers might have found it cowardly, to avoid difficult and possibly dangerous situations with his ever-aggressive relatives, but Captain America had learned in the war that sometimes avoiding the larger, closer, enemy was necessary. Like sneaking behind enemy lines to wreak havoc. He and Bucky, and the Howling Commandos, they had been good at that.
Shaking his head, trying to dislodge the bits and pieces of Steve Rogers that rattled around his brain, Oz almost missed the large group settled in the den. Sitting quietly, alarmingly so, was his entire family. All the Osbourne pack sat facing him.
“Daniel,” His grandfather rasped with a gentle smile. Beckoning him to come with scarred and wrinkled fingers. “We were just waiting for you. You’re Mother and Aunt were just telling me some disturbing news.”
Oz carefully stepped forward. It wouldn’t do to ignore his grandfather, not when he was the logical reason holding Oz’s enemies back. But he didn’t want to get too close either. It would be too easy for the older man to turn suddenly and attack. And that wasn’t Captain America speaking at all, was it? Exactly, how much space in his head was that man going to take up?
“Hmm.” The Alpha of the Osbourne pack commented tilting his head this way and that, while the thirty some-odd eyes of the rest of the wolves pinned Oz to the front like they were waiting for permission to hunt. “Yes, you have filled out a startling amount. Certainly going to grow out those clothes soon.”
Oz didn’t move or say anything.
“Mary, you and Hailey said you smelt pepper and cayenne this morning?”
“Yes, Alpha.” His mother bowed her head, bruising and surgical tape disfiguring her face. Even a werewolf’s healing needed time to work. This morning’s fight was still too close to help. “Nothing at all like what he’d smelt like before.”
“Yes, yes, I agree.” The Alpha said leaning forward to sniff lightly in Oz’s general direction. “Something happened that changed Daniel, on such a level that it even changed his scent.” Yellow eyes peered up at the musician. “You wouldn’t happen to know what it was, would you?”
Trick question. Oz grinned suddenly, baring teeth.
“The same thing that created werewolves.” The Alpha scowled. “I became what I dressed up as, Grandfather. Only a hero instead of the villain.”
He snarled, rising up from his seat, straightening from his wizened hunch. The man Oz stared at had already killed him once, years and years ago, when he’d intentionally ground all of Oz’s hopes and dreams into grave dust. Teaching children to kill. Over the last six or seven years, though, ever since that one Halloween he’d questioned his parents, Oz had been battling the monsters in this house. Last night, he’d even battled ones outside it.
He was still trying not to think about Marcus. There’d come a time later when he wasn’t surrounded by enemies, for his heart to break. This wasn’t the time.
“What are you going to do?” Oz asked. “It wasn’t intentional. I got caught up in the same spell all of Sunnydale did. Ethan Rayne made everyone turn into their costumes.” Oz quirked a brow. “Thought you’d at least appreciate the irony.”
The Osbourne Alpha stepped to the side. “Get out.”
Oz’s heart stuttered. “What?”
“You’re of no possible use to me any longer. You’ll never be a wolf, and because of your paltry affection for heroes, you won’t even be good for magic. Leave.”
“Bought with our money, an investment in a child that can no longer return it.” The Alpha’s face was stone cold. “You deserve to keep nothing from this house. Get out, before I unleash the wolves.”
Oz could feel the growing heat from thirty-odd pairs of eyes, wishing for that go-ahead. Even as he turned and walked out the way he came in, his family- the pack, snarled and groaned. Impatient for the fear and pain the hunt would bring their victim. For the first time, that victim could be him.
Mrs. Summers was waiting for her daughter when she got home. It was early yet in the afternoon, but she had hired a manager for the gallery. With so many things going wrong between her and Buffy, she’d wanted to be sure that she could devote the time needed to her daughter. Not just the free time she had. Buffy was worth so much more than just her spare time.
“So how was your day at school, Buffy?” Mrs. Summers sat on the couch in the living room, sipping at her juice. “No more problems with Xander?”
Buffy sighed, thumping down onto the couch at the opposite end of her mother. “Just the kind that involved showing Willow that Xander wasn’t the end all, be all of the world. The girl acted like because Xander now has a different lunch than us, that she suddenly can’t eat. Of course, he’s also now friends with her crush, that boy Wiz or Wix or Oz or something. And the kid took Xander’s side in this whole mess. Willow’s like double heartbroken.”
“So long as you’re okay, dear.”
“Nah,” Buffy said, leaning her head back. “I like the space now. More make-up and fashion and less Marvel and Superman- God, I thought I was never gonna hear the end of that stupid new cartoon. It’s a cartoon! We’re not ten anymore. Jeez.”
“Hmm,” Mrs. Summer’s hummed. Listening with one ear to her daughter’s rant. “Perhaps now you can get her into something a little more flattering.”
“Yeah, maybe.” Buffy pulled out the pin holding her hair up, “I don’t know. She might be tempted to buy the same stuff at the same places if we did it here in Sunnydale.”
“Why don’t you take her with you when you go to your father’s for the summer?” Mrs. Summers offered. “Or at least take her for a week or so, and then I could come and bring her back. If she’s never left Sunnydale it could expose her to so much to visit LA.”
“I like that idea.” Buffy smiled, “I could call Dad this evening to arrange it, you think?”
“Oh, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind. You’re both such good girls.”
Buffy went to put away her bag, change into something more comfortable, and maybe start on some homework. Her mother thought it much more likely that she’d find her daughter looking at a magazine, or watching television. She’d give it a few before she went up to check on the teenager and start dinner.
It was going to be so nice this summer, to get some extra time to herself. With Xander out of the picture now, all she has to do is vet and approve, or get rid of, that late night boyfriend her daughter doesn’t think she knows about. What else could she possibly be doing so late into the night? Sneaking out the house? Skipping out on homework and assignments? Not even trying to get involved with a sport or after school activity- except for the club that met in the library that is, Mrs. Summers kept meaning to ask about what the club did, but never quite remembered at the right time- all in all, it was unusual of her daughter.
Buffy was a hardy personality, but she was extremely competitive; got it honestly from both sides of the family, Mrs. Summers was willing to admit. If Buffy wasn’t getting that out at school or in some club or sport, then there had to be something else. And that something else had to be a boyfriend.
Mrs. Summers didn’t even want to think about all the perilous things that her daughter could have already gotten into while she wasn’t looking. Now, she hadn’t smelt smoke or alcohol on Buffy those few times she’d actively caught her daughter sneaking in or sneaking out. But every now and then Mrs. Summers would remember a different night Buffy came in bloody and worn. And that was concerning in an entirely different manner.
No, it was good that she was acting now. Before all of this behavior went from rebellious temptation to dangerous habit. No, first Xander and now the boyfriend. All she had to do was catch them.
Mrs. Summers hummed as she entered the kitchen, casually starting the oven and exchanging her cup of mostly fruit juice with vodka for a nice smooth glass of wine. It looked like she was going to be setting a trap. She couldn’t wait.
Rupert Giles relaxed into his armchair. Buffy was safe at home. She’d be out later for patrol, but it was a school night so she wouldn’t dally too long. The library was in good condition, a place for everything and everything in its place, under ward, lock, and key. And as so far as the Watcher knew the only possible apocalypse occurring anytime soon had to do with telling Mrs. Summers that her daughter had failed her math test, again. Which was not actually any of Giles’s problem.
His tea was in reach and a delightful new book on the cosmopolitan centers of alternative earthly dimensions had just come in, and he was all ready to-
Giles groaned. In a rare fit of melodrama, the watcher and education sunk down into the cushions of his favorite reading chair threw an arm over his glasses and bemoaned his life. Whatever it was- demon, apocalypse, angry mother- he didn’t want to deal with it.
The phone continued to ring.
Slowly getting up from his comfortable seat, Giles trudged over to the phone in his kitchen and proceeded to groan again. It was worse. Worse than Buffy panicking over demons, worse than Buffy panicking over her mother, worse than the police reporting his Slayer was in custody. It was the Watcher’s Council, calling to harangue him once more about the audacity of his slayer, the brevity of his reports, some statistical hogwash that had nothing to do with actual Slaying on the actual Hellmouth. He didn’t want to do it.
The phone continued to ring.
“Wait to be connected with the High Council.”
Perfect. Just perfect.
“Rupert Giles,” came the drone of an elderly man through the tinny speaker of the house phone, “You are being called to account for the recent events on the Hellmouth.”
Giles gave one last mournful look to his hot tea and the death of his relaxing evening, before he pulled over a chair and took a deep breath. This was going to take a while. “Which events would you like to talk about, Council?”
“The events that resulted in the Slayer, the Chosen One, so vulnerable you needed to team up with civilians to vanquish the evil!” Giles figured that Lady Abigail Gabbel was the nastiest woman he knew, probably part of the reason she was only one on the council. “An evil you knew! How do we know that you did not collude with the enemy!? I told you Charles, Rupert Giles was not a good choice!”
“Now, Lady Gabbel-”
“Excuse me,” Giles interrupted, “but I did not collude with Ethan Rayne! The man is a nightmare. A nightmare fully capable of conducting magic and reveling in the chaotic outcomes of his craft. I am not. I have not practiced magic in nearly twenty years, not since I swore repentance for my actions. You want to call me incompetent, go ahead! But do not call me a traitor!”
Silence echoed across the phone line for a minute as Rupert Giles panted. Regardless of the fact that he’d just yelled at his superiors, he wasn’t going to take it back. The elders in their sterling white robes gathered and sat in their conference room hundreds of miles away from any hazardous potential. They could aspersions all they wanted- in hell.
“You are correct, Rupert. Since your repentance, you have done nothing to deserve our ire.”
Such a ringing endorsement they gave.
“Rupert, perhaps you could explain what happened. How did the Slayer get in a situation that would lead her to be so vulnerable on Halloween?”
Giles sighed and rubbed at the wrinkles forming on his brow. This wasn’t going to go over well. “Buffy is under particular scrutiny by the principal of the school here in Sunnydale. She was a forced volunteer in the school’s safe Halloween trick or treating trip. How, exactly, was I supposed to know that Ethan Rayne would buck tradition and common sense and conduct a spell of massive proportions on the Hellmouth. Halloween is the one night a year the Slayer is supposed to have off!”
“Why did you let her participate? For that matter,” Lady Gabbel struck, “why does she even attend? There is no use in having the Slayer attend such an institution. Her time could be spent far more productively.”
Giles sat back for a moment. There had been times in his life when he hadn’t understood the Council’s decrees, times when he vehemently disagreed with them. But he had never been so sure that the Council could only see his charge as a weapon, and he could do very little to change it. Simply weather the storm with her in every form they come.
“The Slayer, Elizabeth Summers, has friends and family. A very protective mother who, having once been introduced to her daughter’s future as the Slayer, chose to admit her to a mental institution. Attempting to convince Mrs. Summers that her daughter would live such a short time longer that a high school diploma wouldn’t do her any good, would not do over well.”
“Goodness, Rupert, if the mother is so detrimental to the duty of the Slayer she need not stay in the picture.”
“Kidnapping Buffy Summers would not help, she’s too visible in the community. People would look for her. Her mother would certainly never stop.” Giles held his breath, praying to a deity he didn’t believe in, that none of the current members of the Council knew anything about the ‘Sunnydale Syndrome’. “Besides, the current Slayer is a headstrong and inventive young woman. Our work against the forces of darkness would not be easy if she didn’t cooperate.”
“I detest when the Slayers are born to the uninitiated.” Lady Gabbel complained, her voice distant through the speaker as though she’d moved away from the Council’s phone. Forgetting to mute their end. Giles certainly wasn’t going to bring it to their attention. He needed all the advantage he could get. “They get such ideas.”
“Is it really such trouble?” One of the older men posited. Unlike Lady Gabbel, who was identifiable by virtue of being the only woman, it was nearly impossible to identify all the male members of the Council by voice alone. Still, Giles listened closely. “How long could this Slayer possibly live? Two, perhaps three more years and then a new Slayer to shape and harness to the greater good. As it is Kendra is a good investment, she’s more than obedient. We won’t make the mistake of leaving any of them in the care of their families in the future. Agreed?”
“Aye.” The Council allowed.
“Rupert Giles,” the speaker for the Council had moved closer to their phone. “We acknowledge that as the Watcher in the field you may have more experience in the handling of this Slayer and the situation on the Hellmouth. We are adopting a wait and see attitude. Do not disappoint us.”
With a click, the international call disconnected.
It was the best he could hope for under the circumstances. The Watcher’s Council normally had a no-civilians policy for their plans and a no-freedoms policy for their Slayers. Slumping in the hard-backed chair next to the kitchen phone, Giles leaned across to grab the bottle of alcohol placed within reach for just such an occasion as this. Too much had come from this phone call, Giles didn’t want to deal with any of it.
In Giles’s mission to help Buffy survived to an unusually ripe age for a Slayer, it was clear that the Council was not going to help. To them, the Slayer was a weapon, and it was ridiculous to become emotionally attached to a weapon. Buffy wasn’t a weapon, though, she was a girl- a young woman- trying her best to feel her way through this world like any other young woman. It was unfortunate that she had to balance to completely different lives while attempting it, though.
Kendra was a surprise. Giles could only assume without asking any questions that when Buffy died in the Master’s lair that regardless of the quick actions of Xander, and his success in reviving her, that her death was a true one. Thus bringing to power a new Slayer.
In a different part of Giles’s mind, the part that hadn’t simply played with fire to feel the burn, but summoned a demon because the knowledge was there, was picking apart the implications of two slayer lines. The Council hadn’t told him, first because the Council handed out information like it was painful for them, and second because too many of the traditions, policies, and bylaws of the Watcher’s Council were based around the idea that there could be only one Slayer. If others found out there were two, that it was potentially possible to bring even more into the fight against evil, the Council could fall. People would come seeking answers to why the Council wouldn’t do it. Wouldn’t stack the deck in the favor of the Light.
And it wouldn’t be because they were concerned with the mental health of their Slayers.
Rupert Giles carried his bottle of amber liquid back to the comfortable chair in his living room. He heavily doctored the remaining lukewarm tea in his cup and slouched down again, casually swirling the liquid within delicate porcelain.
It was clear that things were going to get interesting.
He didn’t want to be here. Xander clenched and unclenched his metal fist. Just below the roar of his father’s voice, the teen could hear the quiet click-click-click of the metal plates in his hand flexing with the joints that should have been there. He’d spent most of his time in school today avoiding flinching when he saw the reflection off his new limb. Never realized how frequently he’d used that hand until he was so aware of it.
It pulled at his shoulder, created an ache deep in the bone that Xander couldn’t get rid of. Not to mention that it distorted his shape in the mirror. The shape he’d grown into and was used to, the shape that was his- the metal arm attached to his body looked like someone had stitched it like Frankenstein.
The only thing that kept him from flinching, from crying, from screaming, was that Xander had promised that he was not Bucky Barnes. Regardless of the memories, the nightmares, the instincts, that the super soldier had left behind. Besides the languages and martial arts and weapon skills, besides the insecurities that blanketed Xander now like snow over a body, the teen had promised himself that even if he wasn’t him anymore; he also wasn’t Bucky Barnes.
“I’m talking to you, punk!” Anthony Harris clamped down on the flesh arm, by chance, with a meaty grasping fist and shook like change would come out. “You sleep in my house! You eat my food! You wear clothes I bought! You respect me!”
No. Just no.
Xander grabbed his father’s wrist and holding tight with a metal hand he kept the other man close. Turning, he forced him into the wall outside the kitchen. Finally, he braced his metal arm against the lug’s throat as he shook out the arm he’d grabbed. It hurt. “I’m not your rag doll, asshole.”
It was never his intention to hurt Anthony. There was no redemption in hurting those who hurt you. He knew from experience, though he wasn’t exactly sure how, that it never made him feel better. Never helped. He just needed a moment to push Anthony away, to prove he wasn’t a victim anymore, then he’d have left him alone.
But Jessica ran at him with a scream and with a crash her heirloom hobnail glass vase, that had survived the terrible temper of her husband, broke against his head. It rained pieces, shards, and splinters of blue hobnail glass in his face.
Xander bit his tongue and dared not blink for getting glass in his eyes, but his mother was pounding at his back and screaming in his ear, and his father was bucking under him now. Brave in the face of his opponents weakness. And the teenager, head full of war, and anger, and hate, but still so young, was paralyzed by fear. Fear of losing his sight. Fear of the pain and beating he was taking. Fear that he’d be like them, kept him from moving.
“I’d move away if I were you.”
Slowly, Jessica let go of his shirt and moved back. One step, then another, until she was far enough back that Xander could feel the cool night breeze from the open door across his back.
“Now, you Xander.” And a hand briefly touched his elbow, the metal one, where it was easy enough to break the weak hold. It wasn’t restraining him, though, simply guiding him back into the empty space created when Jessica moved. Far enough back that though his, and Oz’s, it could only have been Oz, back was to the open front door Jessica and Anthony were in front of them.
“Who are you?” Anthony asked, his face red and blotchy where he’d gone from red with anger to red with fear.
“Oz.” He gave a jerk of a nod. “Got anything worth getting? Xander?”
Xander shook off what he could of the glass and made his way, out of his way around his parents, up to the stairs. Grabbing the few clothes and items he wanted to keep and leaving the rest for the memory of a boy who didn’t exist anymore. When he returned to the living room Oz had a bag by his feet and his knife, a really long wicked looking thing Xander was surprised the other teen even owned, still pointed in the homeowners’ directions.
“Ready.” Xander rasped.
“Ready.” Oz nodded, and without a word, both boys left the couple on their living room couch with a front door gaping wide.
“Where are we going?” Xander asked after wetting his lips with a swig of old bottled water from the back of the van.
“Park and public restroom a couple blocks west.” Oz drove steadily in the direction he indicated.
“Vamps?” Xander carefully leaned his head against the passenger side window.
“More concerned with you.” Oz gave a quick look, “A little blood, but I don’t see anything serious. Head hurt?”
“Mmm,” Xander replied, “Sore some, but not a concussion.”
“How do you know?”
“Wasn’t the first time Anthony came at me.” He shrugged, “Didn’t have anywhere to go. Outside was just as bad. At least inside I could hide. What about you? What’re you doing out?”
“Kicked out,” Oz said, ignoring the lump in his throat and the ache in his chest. “If I couldn’t be one of them, then I couldn’t be one of them.”
“Hmm.” Xander sighed, “People suck.”
“Yeah,” Oz pulled into the closest parking spot to the bathrooms, wasn’t like a park monitor was out after dark to give tickets. “Come on, let’s check out that head.”
The door was locked. All of them were locked, family bathroom, men’s, and women’s were all locked. Even though the sign into the park said that everything should still be open. Then again, it was after dark.
The boys broke in.
Oz propped his headachey friend against the wall closest to the sinks, giving the restroom a close look through before going back to where he left Xander.
“Head better, or worse?”
Xander gave a small shrug, “I’m not dying, but I don’t want to do anything either.”
Oz nodded and started pulling at the long sleeve shirt. It needed to come off. In fact, all of Xander’s clothes would have to come off. The glass could catch on any of the fabric folds and hurt him later.
Xander trapped Oz’s hands in the hem of his shirt, his head turned away so that he didn’t have to see the other’s face. “I- I haven’t seen it. Since last night.”
“I understand,” Oz turned so that Xander leaned back against the rim of the sink, facing into the open stalls behind them. Not watching in the mirror.
Ever so faintly, as Oz brushed glass shards off with paper towels and they hit the tile floor of the bathroom, Xander thought he heard something. Just the slightest thump and scrap.
“Oz, hear that?” He didn’t move from crouching at Xander’s feet. Shaking out hobnail glass from clothes, Oz gave a tilt of his head, listening for what Xander heard.
“No.” He went back to brushing his friend’s skin.
Xander straightened, grabbing at clothes, ignoring Oz’s hiss. The sound was back. “I hear it again.”
Oz hesitated. He’d been ready to push and pull the slightly taller boy, and wasn’t that a head rush- Oz, almost as tall as Xander- when he stood and stepped back. This was the Hellmouth and they weren’t in any place close to safe. Anything could be coming. He slipped the knife from his pocket, slid it from its sheath.
They both heard it this time, and it sounded like a tile in the floor was being lifted out. They stood absolutely still.
“You sure this is the place?” Someone said. They didn’t even bother to whisper, their accent echoing on the tiled walls of the public restroom.
“Yeah, yeah.” There was a grunt and a hiss as something, or someone, was pushed out from below. “Sure, sure. Saw de two tasty morsels go in. Didn’t see ‘em come out. Get goin’, Hick.”
“Shut up, Dick.” The first voice, Hick, hissed. “They could hear ya!”
“Pish!” Dick replied, “Livin’ in this town, ain’t they? Easy mark, I’m tellin’ ya!”
Oz relaxed, could feel Xander relax with him. Whatever or whoever they were, weren’t as dangerous as it could’ve been. In a moment of seeming insanity, Oz stepped out from the sinks and made his way down through the stalls to find the whole these two rats had crawled out of.
He found them in the last stall, the handicapped one, several tiles pulled up to open the floor into the sewer system right in front of the toilet. Twisting and wrestling, there was one head and torso already up, but four hands and three legs, and neither of them had their whole body up yet.
“Let me help you with that.”
Oz picked the one vampire, dirty disgusting thing that he was, up by his collar. Heaving him over to the corner, where Xander stood ready with an improvised stake. Might’ve been a plunger handle in another life. Ignoring the squeal of one, he reached back down for the other.
Hissing, Oz shook out his hand, the bastard had bitten him. Luckily, the idiot was still half out of the whole and unlikely to get all his limbs in order to escape before Oz stopped complaining, to Xander’s mirth, about the nasty bite.
“Nasty thing bit me.” He complained, “Don’t know where his mouth has been!”
“Nowhere good,” The vamp against the wall commented as Oz pulled his friend up into Sunnydale proper by his hair.
“What do you think, Xander?” Oz said studying the opportunist rats he’d caught. “Stake ‘em?”
That was what they’d been discussing only that afternoon. Protecting other people by putting themselves in the line of danger. Oz wasn’t sure he was ready for what they’d only been talking about. Was sure that even if he knew it had to be done that it was still going to haunt him like all the other deaths in the past 48 hours. Just one more nightmare in a whole library of them.
Xander nodded, visibly listing to one side. “Only good vampire is a dead vampire.”
“Oh good,” the one by the wall, probably Hick, smiled nervously. Trying to slide past the tired boys. “I guess since we’re already dead, we’ll just be goin’ yeah?”
Xander pressed him back to the wall with his long handled stake. “Finally dead, then.”
“We’ve got cash!” Dick, still on the floor under Oz’s shoe, blurted. “Cash and jewels, an’ a better ride than the van.” He nodded, “Yep, you can have it. All of it, if you let us go.”
“How do we know you won’t come looking for revenge later?” Xander asked. They needed cash. Neither of them had been allowed to leave with much, and even if it wasn’t for food or clothes or gas, it wasn’t safe out after dark in Sunnydale. They’d need a place to stay and money to pay for it.
“Us? Pish.” Hick shook his head.
“Plenty of fish in the sea, yeah.” Dick shook his head, “We can get dinner someplace else, yeah.”
Oz narrowed his eyes, “Dinner.”
“Hehe. He.” Dick swallowed dryly and shrugged, “Vamps man, the loot’s just a perk, ya know?”
“Oh, I know.” Oz nodded and drove his wicked knife into the vampire’s brain. Dead, at least for now. There was only one stake after all.
Hicks went in a squealing puff of dust that had Xander coughing when he handed over the sharpened plunger. And after rifling through Dick’s pockets the musician put a stake through his heart.
“You know,” Oz said, tossing Xander the unfamiliar set of keys as he cleaned the pointy end of the plunger and twisted it back into the rubber base by the mirrors. “I almost asked them to empty their pockets. They probably had some cash on them. But I felt weird asking them to strip when I intended to kill them.”
“Yeah, well, let’s hope they left some in their car,” Xander headed out the doors, “Because I want a bed to sleep in tonight. Even if we have to line all the entrances with salt.”
“We probably will.” Oz sighed, checking both directions as the exited the shelter of the building. “Only place that takes night customers in that motel just outside Kleary.”
They were lucky. Lucky in a way that sent a pit to the bottom of Xander’s stomach, because the amount of cash and wallets they found in the car, the amount of stuff the found in the strange car period, meant that a lot of people had died before Oz and Xander had finished them.
“Suddenly,” Oz said, staring down at a little girl’s doll he’d found under a woman’s purse in the foot well of the passenger’s side seat. It was missing pieces of the yarn that gave it hair and its dress was crusted with dried, flaking blood. “I’m not sorry I killed them at all.”