To Apprehend Air
Two days after LMPTM, Spike’s soul is stolen. But that’s OK; they can get it back, right? Simple. How hard is it to hop dimensions, anyway? Or storm a castle…
Rating: PG-13 for a little swearing and some fairly graphic violence.
Length: ~18,800 words (in three chapters of approx. 8000/8000/3000)
Other Pairings: Anya/Xander is around as well.
Warnings: Discussion of canonical attempted rape, otherwise none in particular.
Extra Note: Thanks to pj_krystofer for checking and fixing my French.
Chapter Two: Aether, Born of Shadow
Aether, the bright clear air of the upper sky, the air beyond our reach, belongs to a legacy of darkness. He is born of Shadow and of Night, who were in turn born of Chaos.
It didn’t take long to set up the circle. Anya mostly still remembered how it was done, even if she needed to look it up to check the specifics, and Andrew had a worrying amount of magical paraphernalia on hand. Once they’d smeared some blue-glowing gunk on Spike’s forehead, which proved he had been victim of a vengeance spell, Anya quickly took control of the proceedings.
They sat in a triangle, Amulets of Return round their necks – a hand round the pendant and some sort of vocalisation the only things needed to activate them; very handy. Buffy had a sword and Spike had an axe, while Anya promised she had some paralysing crystals hidden and ready for use, since she was fairly sure her preferred weapon was a skillet, which wasn’t useful without the element of surprise anyway.
“Besides,” she said. “I’m going with you in an advisory position only; I fully intend to run and hide from as much fighting as possible.”
“Anya,” Buffy replied, scrunching up her nose. “That makes no sense.” They were going on what was essentially a slaying mission – defensive fighting was almost certainly inevitable.
“Well,” she conceded, “I also have a knife hidden down my pants. But I nearly always do stabbing wrong, so…”
“Omigod, it’s hard, right?” Andrew piped up from the corner of the room. Everyone ignored him.
At last, Anya began the spell.
Buffy had experienced enough magic to know that everyone’s casting had a different feel to it. Even if she was most familiar by far with Willow’s bright and strong approach, the odd spell or meditation she’d done on her own had always been what she’d found most comfortable, and that didn’t surprise her. Anya’s magic, though, was more disconcerting than she’d anticipated. It was as forthright as might be expected – the world of the basement turning off like a light and the travel through dimensions like stomping up some slightly-too-steep steps – yet at the same time she was struck by the sense of something very, very old. Whenever Willow did a spell on her, it gave Buffy a rush, a spinning sense of awe at the shiny new thing she was uncovering; with Anya Buffy felt like she knew where she was going, like she’d done this journey so many times that she didn’t even need to pay attention. It was kind of nice, actually. If dull.
When they arrived, they seemed to appear without any ceremony at all. Yet, as she inhaled, Buffy found herself nonetheless invigorated by the not-cool not-warm air of whatever outside this was. Her house felt so stifling these days, full of people constantly asking her to do things, and as the portal cracked into nothingness behind them she was filled with the strange sense of freedom.
Though, there was possibly something to be said about what she could do with that freedom… “This is it?” she asked, looking around at the dissapointingly monotonous scenery.
“This is Arashmaharr,” Anya confirmed, brushing dust from her jeans and sounding ever so slightly nervous.
They were on some sort of plain, the ground flat and dirt-like beneath their feet, outside something Buffy thought she should probably call a castle. A wall rose in front of them, curved and constructed from blocks of grey stone, leading up to battlements, while there seemed to be nothing else for miles, just black sky above grey-brown ground, lit by who knew what.
“This is the place where demons are spawned?” Spike commented, casting a glance down the stretch of the wall: it looked like it kept on going, probably in a great long ring. Presumably he was thinking along the same lines as she was, that the place looked like one big hell dimension cliché, and not one that was going to have easy-access.
Anya started walking down the length of the defences and they followed her as she replied, “It’s the outside; what do you expect? Demons like to make statements too, you know.” It was only now, as Anya trotted along, that Buffy realised that the other woman was wearing really inappropriate shoes, stiletto boots beneath her jeans, leaving a join-the-dots trail in the soft ground. How 2001, she thought, a little enviously. “It’s much nicer inside,” she continued, “but I couldn’t take us there because then D’Hoffryn would have known and we might as well have summoned him to your basement.”
“But, Anya,” Buffy asked, looking at the wall running as identically before them as it did the way they’d come. “Where are we going?”
“There should be… Aha!” Immediately Anya stopped, running her hands over the stones of the edifice. Her well-manicured hands (curse her) smoothed over the bumps and ridges of grey, feeling the mortar and the edges of rock until, quite suddenly, her hand disappeared up to her wrist, the illusion of stone appearing where it should have been. “It’s a good thing it’s peacetime,” she commented, pulling her hand out and looking over her shoulder. “In the 1500s there was no way in at all.”
“What’s the point of it now?” Spike asked, looking again over his shoulder at the dimension’s empty expanse. “Seems a mite too convenient to be true, if you ask me.”
“Principles, Spike, principles.” Rolling her eyes at their blank faces, Anya shook her head. “No one wants to live in a prison, so we’re allowed to freely come and go into the countryside. And, no,” she added, with more than a little exasperation, as if she’d explained this many times before. Buffy had no idea who to. “We can’t just teleport… Or they can’t just teleport. I couldn’t just teleport.” For a moment Anya frowned, clearly unsure how she wanted to rephrase her comment, before she let it go. “Arashmaharr is the focus of a vengeance demon’s teleportation: we – they ‘teleport’ from here to Earth, by which I mean, obviously, they cut through a portal, then they come back so they can go to another place – but they can’t move from where they started here.”
“Anything else we need to know?” Buffy asked, amused and finding herself suddenly – oddly – enjoying being the one without the information. No one ever seemed to have any credible information these days and uncertainty was so not fun in her world.
It seemed that Anya was taking the question seriously, tilting her head to her shoulder and considering it. “We’ll blend in fine in the low town, looking like humans – lots of demons can pass and there’s always the half-breeds. We’re gonna have to sneak into the castle anyway, so…” She smiled, breezily. “No, I don’t think so.”
Eyebrow raised, Buffy looked at Spike; he looked back and shifted his axe in a way that clearly said, Low town? She shrugged, wondering what exactly they’d let themselves in for, before turning back to Anya and holding up a hand in the direction of the wall. “Then lead on, I guess.”
They walked through the wall Harry Potter style, with the illusion giving way to a short passage built through the stone that looked like it wasn’t leading anywhere, until they found themselves out of the other end and in…
A city. Not a city Buffy recognised – not that she had much experience – but a city nonetheless, with high rise apartments above them faced with fish-grey concrete and covered in what looked like satellite dishes. They stopped before the street corner, where a connected building, covered in rust-coloured panels, projected a dozen signs, Japanese characters running up to the roof in a harmonised glow of neon, yellow and red in the night sky. A proper tarmac road started in front of them, a drain and cigarette ends by her feet by the lamppost where they stood, and a bug-like European city car was parked up the pavement outside a bar on the other side. (It announced it was a bar on the sign; the window was full of French adverts for alcohol. Buffy assumed it was a bar.)
“Welcome to the Earth Quarter,” Anya said, smiling at Buffy’s stunned expression and peeling off her jacket in the heat that Buffy suddenly realised was warming her face. City heat, on the suggestion of a breeze, like there should be smog above them. It was so unlike the non-climate outside the walls.
“Bloody Narnia, more like,” Spike commented, looking up at the lamppost.
“What is this place?” Buffy asked, as a motorbike brummed down the main road at the end of their street. “I was expecting, I dunno, a castle maybe, with some guards. This is…” Civilisation. She didn’t want to say that though, so she looked helplessly at Spike, who seemed to be taking it in his stride, now peering interestedly at the adverts in the bar’s window.
Her eyes sparkling and her shoulders visibly relaxed, Anya replied, “This was where I lived for eleven-hundred years.” Wow, she really did look happy to be here. “I mean,” she explained, “it’s pretty simple really. Vengeance demons were always old money, even when I was younger, and we invest wisely. It’s only natural that our world attracts a lot of trade from other dimensionally-transient demons.” She was still using ‘we’, Buffy noticed, wondering whether it should bug her more. It should imply she was dangerous, that her allegiance lay elsewhere than Buffy’s camp. But now they were here, Buffy wondered whether it didn’t just mean that, to Anya, this place felt like home.
“So where do we go?” Buffy asked, unshouldering her scabbarded sword momentarily and taking off her own jacket, to fold it over her arms.
Again Anya smiled. “We catch up with an actual old friend of mine,” she said, crossing the road towards the bar and beckoning them to follow. “Come on!”
Since she’d never left America, Buffy didn’t really know what French bars were supposed to look like, but this one seemed nice, if a bit run down. The unassuming doorway led them to a small parlour, with wicker chairs and wooden tables clustered on a tile floor, while the back wall was dominated by the bar proper, built out of beech with matching stools in front of it. It wasn’t busy, but a couple of bulky blue-grey demons were hunched at the bar, dressed in old man clothes, and one of the tables had a group of guys around it, maybe mid-twenties, on various points of the human/demon spectrum as they smoked, drank and played cards. A fan whirred lazily above their heads and there was a TV in the corner by the door, with a game of what Buffy assumed was demon soccer taking place on a yellow pitch.
“Bonsoir!” came the call from the back of the room, a swing of the kitchen door accompanying the man who walked through it. At least, he looked like a man, in a shirt and slacks with mid-toned (Middle Eastern?) skin and an incongruous haircut of vertical black spikes, framing his face to his shirt collar. Buffy thought they might be spines. “Qu’est-ce que vous prenez?”
It was like high school all over again, and Buffy’s mind froze. Spike, the bastard, suddenly seemed in his element, pulling his wallet out of his back pocket as he crossed the floor, to the unoccupied side of the bar. “Bonsoir! Ah; j’ai seulement des dollars américains – c’est un problème?” His voice rumbled round the words, in an accent far better than her own. She was impressed, to say the least. A big least.
The barman said something in return and Spike nodded, flicking his wallet open. “D’accord. Un pastis et un Coca –” For a moment he turned his head over his shoulder, addressing her, “– you don’t drink while you’re working, do you, love?” She shook her head dumbly and he glanced at Anya. “What you on for, Anya?”
Apparently the ancient and well-travelled members of their party were trying to show Buffy up, because Anya made her request directly to the barman: “Un verre de vin blanc, s’il te plait, Thierritz.”
The barman made another remark, sounding surprised, but soon he and Anya were chatting away like the old friends they probably were, Spike paying for the drinks that were soon in front of him before he brought them back across the room. Not knowing what else to do, Buffy took a seat at one of the free tables, accepting her Coke and watching Anya talk animatedly in French, nonchalantly blending in with her surroundings. “She never said she could speak French,” she commented to Spike, who sat down opposite her and sipped from his peculiarly yellow drink.
“Ah,” he sighed in appreciation. “Haven’t had one of these since ’55… I doubt you Scoobies ever asked her.”
“Huh?” she replied, taking a moment to parse what he’d said. “Oh, yeah, I guess not.” With only a slight hesitation she took a sip of her Coke, trying to work out if it tasted funny when it hit her tongue. It was nowhere near as sweet as she was used to, and the fizz felt sharper, if that was possible. The ice and lemon looked OK though, and she’d seen Thierritz, if that was his name, pour it out of a profile bottle from the fridge. Maybe it was imported from somewhere strange. “What about you, though?” she continued, looking up to Spike again. He smirked at her. “When did Mr. Tough Stuff cram his irregular verbs?”
Spike shrugged, looking far too pleased with himself. “Well, if you’ve been kicking around as long as I have, you tend to pick up a few things.”
“Uh huh,” Buffy replied, trying to hold back her answering grin. She couldn’t help it. Now that the awkward conversing part was out of the way, she was struck by the feeling that she was on holiday somewhere expensive, like the Riviera, sitting on unfamiliar furniture in the back alley they could just about afford, drinking unfamiliar Coke from an unfamiliarly narrow glass, with an unfamiliarly limited amount of ice clacking away inside it. That was probably a bad thing, but part of her didn’t care. “What are they talking about?”
After another swig of his drink Spike leaned back on his chair, making a display of listening in to the conversation at the bar, picking out words hidden beneath the other table’s hubbub. Such a show-off… “She’s trying to pull in a favour to get us snuck into the castle,” he said. “Wherever that is. Though now they’re going off on a tangent about Marseilles, I think.”
She nodded, more than willing to let Anya have her tangents. They were on a schedule, of course they were, but Spike seemed relaxed here, pulling out his cigarettes to light up facing away from the table. She felt relaxed here, like this was the first time she’d sat down in months.
Was this what it was like to get out of Sunnydale?
After a few more moments of chatter – and loud complaints as a hand of cards apparently came to a dissatisfying close – Spike’s gaze wandered to the TV. She tried to watch herself, head craned over her shoulder, but sports held even less interest to her than usual when you replaced the pretty men with tentacled slime monsters. “So,” she asked Spike’s chin, “is France really like this?”
Distractedly Spike dropped his gaze to meet hers. “I suppose so. It’s been a while, but you could sell me on it.” There was a convenient ash tray on the table between them, into which he tapped the grey end of his cigarette. Look at her – whatever Spike was, being all Euro-chic. Though, did they actually smoke this much in Europe? “Course,” he continued, “who knows what’s come and gone? Some countries – ” His eyes met hers and he shifted in his chair, concentrating now on their conversation. “Some countries, you go away for ten years and you can barely recognise them when you come back.”
“Really?” she replied, drinking more of her Coke and finding it not nearly so unsettling now she was halfway down. “How come?”
Spike shrugged. “They change. You change. You forget things you should’ve remembered and remember what’s better forgotten.” And just to prove he was really ancient, he smiled wryly. “It’s a strange old world.”
“When I picture you travelling around,” Buffy mused, wondering how carefully she should choose her words. “It’s always about the rampaging. I can’t imagine you, like, taking in the opera or whatever.”
“Well,” he replied, taking it fairly evenly with another drag of his cigarette. There was a glint in his eye that suggested he’d picked up on the ‘picturing him’, but was going to let it go. “For the first twenty years, at least, that’s all I wanted to do. I reckon that’s all most of the vamps you meet want to do.” He shrugged. “After that you realise, no matter how bad you are, people are still gonna be there tomorrow, so you might as well see what else they’ve got to offer, before you kill them.”
“Right.” She swallowed, suddenly feeling a little sick, the taste of cigarette smoke stale on her tongue. Casual disregard for human life was not something she missed in Spike. Hell, she’d almost forgotten about it completely.
It wasn’t just the callousness, though, it was everything that came with it. It was so – rage-worthy – to realise how much he had to know about the world, how much he could tell her, and still understand that every story would end in a brutal murder. How many bars had he been in like this, appreciating nothing more than the meals it could offer? How many years had he wasted, killing and running instead of…
He squinted at her, working out where her thoughts were going. “And, of course, you leave it longer than that and the killing just gets plain dull.” For a moment his nostrils flared – he clearly realised his faux pas – and then his expression grew intense. “Look, Slayer, I’m not saying I would’ve got there without the chip, not saying the fight and the kill don’t mean anything to me, because they do, but you know that when I’m not doing anything, sitting here with you, I’ve no particular urge to kill humans, right? Not with –” Then he clenched his jaw, cutting himself off, which of course she still knew was code for a narrowly avoided confession of affection.
It was time to worry about the present, she realised, not the past. “I get that,” she replied earnestly, putting her hands on the table, not so far from his, and lowering her voice. The vampire here in front of her, she realised, may have killed thousands (millions?) of people, but all he needed now, to maybe never kill again, was reassurance. And people asked why she wouldn’t give up on him. “I do. And I get, even, that if someone pisses you off then you can think through your temper – the chip taught you that.”
Of course, it wasn’t that easy, could never be that easy. Biting her lip, she paused, allowing her doubts form and shape in her mind as he drank in her expression, wide-eyed. Now that she was out of the house, away from stress and away from – Giles, which it felt like a betrayal to think, but it was true – she could accept that she had some seriously deep-cutting doubts. And that was real issue, wasn’t it? In the end, how could she ever fully reassure him, when she spent most of her time desperate for reassurance herself?
With a sigh she continued, “It’s the more complicated stuff that I’m scared of.” He frowned. “The stuff that doesn’t have an easy answer.” Like Katrina, she remembered, with a frisson of something. “I can’t decide that stuff for you.” She begged him to understand and he seemed to, tilting his head and squinting as he listened. “I mean,” she tried to explain, “saying that I can is like saying that I get it right all the time, which just isn’t true. I’ve – I’ve only enough conscience for one person, you know?”
Still looking at her intensely, he mulled this over. “Well,” he said at last, “moot point anyway, innit? My plans haven’t changed.” He smiled, a little wickedly. “But, say I get petitioned by two women and a baby in the meantime, you’ll give me a consult, yeah?”
The sudden image of King Spike made her snort. Bloody cut him in two, then, won’t we, ladies! “Deal,” she accepted, raising her glass and breathing a mental sigh of relief. With a nod he clinked his glass against it, and the feeling she was on holiday thankfully returned.
Later, when Thierritz had closed up shop for the night, he introduced himself to them properly and welcomed them into his little Fiat. No sooner had Buffy climbed into the backseat and carefully fastened her seatbelt, earning a scathing look from Spike sitting next to her, they left the bar’s alley and were haring across town. Fast.
When she wasn’t looking out of the window, Buffy thought this wasn’t too unlike travelling around a city on Earth. It wasn’t like LA though, because there was no way this place was built on anything like a grid system. Out of the corner of her eye, the urban grey offset by colours and lights and movement did seem familiar, and the traffic wasn’t so strange really, slow up to red lights and then gunning through green with extreme levels of acceleration, but the roads twisted and changed direction all too often, backstreets running in curves way more frequently than straight lines.
“So, um, what’s the plan?” Anya asked, turning round from the passenger seat with expectant eyes. “You do have a plan, right?”
Buffy resisted the urge to freeze. She rarely if ever fought with a plan; it was the Buffy Summers School of Winning – don’t have a plan, be unpredictable, and then there’s no way the enemy will work it out. “Uh,” she said. “I think I was just gonna threaten D’Hoffryn till he gives us what we want.” It was a strategic lack of forethought, dammit. “I can be pretty scary.”
Beside her, Spike snorted, unhelpfully; she poked his leg with the crossbar of her sword. “OK…” Anya replied, unconvinced. “What’s Plan B?”
Luckily, Buffy could think on her feet, even while sitting down – hence why her strategy worked. “Well,” she asked, “how was it you lost your powers the first time? Didn’t bizarro-Giles crush your amulet or something? Can’t we do that? There’s bound to be something large and heavy around. And… And you said he couldn’t teleport, so couldn’t we always trap him somewhere he can’t get out?” She was imagining a well, for some reason. That could be fun. “He’d be able to come and go, sure, but I bet no one wants to be ruled by a king can’t even come to a banquet.”
Anya frowned. “I’m not sure D’Hoffryn has an amulet… But,” she conceded, turning back to the windscreen. “I’m impressed by your blue skies thinking. He may have a weakness somewhere, at least here on Arashmaharr. We should find it.”
Had Anya just paid her a compliment? It felt like it, and the conversation was over far quicker than she’d anticipated. Thankfully Spike took up the silence, leaning into the centre of the car while Thierritz accelerated them around another tight bend. “Didn’t you ever hear anything about what he could be weak for?” he asked. “Rumours about the boss, you know – secret love of unicorns or the like?”
OK, Harmony references got you a glare, which she promptly gave him. All that got her, however, was a wink, which was pretty damn sinful from a vampire sat with one leg raised in the air, boot planted against the back Anya’s seat. Wearing jeans two sizes too small. Bastard; now she was just holding back a snigger, because he might as well have been wearing that jewellery he thought made him look like a sex god. Tackiness should not be this charming.
“Not that I remember,” Anya replied, distracting Buffy from her amusement. “But a lot of people thought I was a suck-up, so they might not have told me.”
She couldn’t quite imagine it, but maybe becoming human had made Anya more – well, she was going to think assertive rather than annoying, because that was probably fairer. “We’ll figure it out,” Buffy said. “If there’s anything to figure, we’ll figure it.” She snuck a glance at Spike again; he’d shifted lower in his seat, the poser. “Weaknesses tend to show themselves, one way or another.”
Of course, she thought she was being subtle, but he cheerfully agreed, “Too right,” and turned his head to look at her with a complete lack of sneakiness. He actually smiled as he took her in, the Buffy-shaped weak spot in the World of Spike.
Now she was getting flustered. Stupid lack of soul.
Stupid weak spot…
D’Hoffryn’s castle was in the centre of the city, pretty much part of the cityscape thought it was up a steep, pronounced incline. As they drew closer the streets became narrower, winding and cobbled as they circled up the hill; but everyone in the car assured Buffy this was perfectly normal, and not actually a new demonic torture designed to make her sick as the car shuddered and bounced around the never-ending bend.
Eventually they found themselves in the service entrance, which looked like it had once been a yard of some sort. Now the sturdy metal-mesh gate was swung open between sandstone posts, and the gravelled space housed a small lorry, from which two devil-red demons in jeans and white t-shirts were unloading metal casks of what Buffy presumed was beer.
They waved at the car as Thierritz brought them to a halt; Anya waved back while Buffy fidgeted with her sword.
Unexpectedly, then, Thierritz turned his head between the front seats and addressed her and Spike in English, glancing at Anya. “They do not know why you are here,” he said, his accent thick and a little bit dreamy. “It is best they do not know. Like me they have much to gain from a coup; they will not take the time to make the connection when you have left. But it is best now they do not know.”
“Gotcha,” Buffy replied, and on her nod the three of them began climbing out of the car. “Thanks,” she added to Thierritz before she shut the door. “Merci beaucoup.”
He accepted it with a smile and nod, his expression through the window implying that he had no idea what to say to the Slayer. The feeling was more than mutual.
The delivery demons, busy chatting to each other in a language that could have been anything from Sumerian to Valley slang, for all Buffy could make out, essentially ignored them as Thierritz drove away, so they made their way over to the most obvious-looking way in, a big set of double swing-doors, painted dark blue, set in the side of the imposing, multi-hued stone façade of the castle.
“I never really knew what security D’Hoffryn had,” Anya commented as they crunched over the gravel and in through the doors, which opened automatically to greet them. Buffy assumed magic, because she couldn’t hear electronics. They were so part of some grand scheme of intimidation. “And I guess,” Anya continued, “he might have upgraded in the last four years.”
“Do you know where we are, at least?” Buffy asked, clutching her scabbard’s shoulder strap and looking down the wide corridor. It had utilitarian, pale-painted walls and some sort of synthetic floor, more like they were in a hospital or a dorm than a great demonic castle. It seemed like imtimidation was for outsiders. “And how we can avoid people?”
“Sure,” Anya replied, pointing at a gap in the wall covered by grey-looking plastic flaps. “Through there’s the kitchen, but dinner was a couple hours ago, I think…” She glanced quickly at her watch. “So there won’t be anything going on there now. We’d best keep on this floor as much as possible, ‘cause no one ever really comes here but the servants, then we can cut up wherever we want, to find the armoury, or the throne room, or the movie theatre…”
“You have a theatre?” Spike asked, senses apparently free from danger as he stood relaxed.
“You have servants?” Buffy overrode him, thinking that was more to the point.
Anya blinked. “Sure we do. Vengeance demons have a lot to get done, and D’Hoffryn’s been head of the ruling family here since way before I became a demon.” Under Buffy’s stare she grew defensive. “They get paid! They’re nice.”
“So…” Again Buffy looked down the unassuming corridor. “All the vengeance demons live here, looking down on the rest of the city. Who, what, serve you stuff in your big European fantasy castle? Who does that?”
“I dunno, love,” Spike commented, running his fingernails along the blade of his axe. “Sounds a lot like where I went to university.”
“But you’re, like, way old and outmoded,” Buffy dismissed. Was she being unreasonable about this? She probably should have realised that a castle meant a castle, but actually being here felt strange.
“Oi!” Spike’s head jerked up, but she just shrugged.
“Look, Buffy.” Anya sighed. “I know you don’t think much of me, but D’Hoffryn’s kind of the king. We’re kind of in the White House, hiding from the people who run the country.” Buffy wasn’t sure whether she should raise her eyebrow at that; Anya continued impatiently, “Sure they have servants, and big formal dinners and rival groups who would love power to shift. And movie night. But it’s not evil, it’s just how it works.”
But… “Whatever,” Buffy replied after a moment, uncertain that demons who worked to bring pain and dismemberment on the human race wouldn’t rule demons in the same way, but deciding it didn’t really matter in the scheme of saving Spike’s soul and Anya’s life. Even if Willow or someone probably would have something to say about the evils of hereditary monarchies; she should have gone to that class… “Let’s go steal the crown jewels or something.”
They set off, Anya in the lead as she tried to orientate herself and remember the map of the floors above, Buffy and Spike all the while probing her for information that could constitute D’Hoffryn’s weakness. They saw one demon coming out of an industrial-looking laundry (machines weirdly silent apart from the sound of swishing clothes), but she seemed to accept their appearance and walked by them without a second glance, small basket of clean clothes resting between her head and the two wicked-looking horns jutting up from her spine, through a pair of neat holes in the purple tabard of her uniform. Personal washing after-hours, maybe?
“Where do the amulets come from, anyway?” Spike asked eventually, as they reached the other side of the service-floor. “He get them in gross from the jewellers or what?”
“Oh no,” Anya said, looking up a currently-incongruous stone spiral staircase. “They get made in the demonification ritual.” She smiled nostalgically, and Buffy thought it was a bit like when people talked about graduation. “D’Hoffryn chips a shard from the Gaffrynotz Crystal and holds it out, and then you put your hands in the gold, accept the crystal and say the prayer. It’s a very personal experience.”
Buffy looked at Spike; he looked at her. “Gaffrynotz Crystal?” she asked.
“It’s so beautiful,” Anya told them wistfully. “It hangs right next to D’Hoffryn’s throne, all glowy and green… I think the name means ‘crystal-souce of great power’, but I’m not so hot on the old tongue – I guess it might be one of those ‘PIN number’ things to call it the Gaffrynotz Crystal, but everybody does, so…”
Spike shifted in preparation to interrupt, and Buffy bit back her own words, because she assumed he was going to point out how obviously useful this information would have been to have before. What he actually said, however, was, “Company’s coming.” Abruptly his eyes met hers again, putting her immediately on alert, sword out of its scabbard. “Loud and stompy company.” They both looked at Anya, who did not look ready in the least. Spike pointed out, “You might want to get away from the stairs.”
Nervous and silent now, Anya nodded and scurried behind them, brandishing her pouch of crystals.
“How far?” Buffy muttered, not wasting energy by heaving her sword up, but with both hands firm on the hilt as she let the tip rest on the floor.
Axe resting against his shoulder, Spike judged for a moment, before replying. “Couple of flights, maybe.”
There was a chance they weren’t coming for them, then. She doubted it though.
Moments like this, before a fight, were always surreal. Usually they were over before you could get a good thought going, so Buffy didn’t try to plan any moves, even as she let her peripheral vision take in the distances between the walls, the focus of Spike and Anya’s respective fight-and-flight responses, the directions in which she could anticipate them moving.
They could run back down the corridors, she realised, to find a different venue for the fight. But this was as good as any, really, and if they could know they had the trouble behind them when they got upstairs they’d be off and rolling.
The spiral staircase was narrow, so the first demon, when it came, was fed to them like water from a tap. Immediately on seeing its feet appear Buffy skipped three steps forward and lunged. Her sword hit chest, cut through metal armour into flesh and bone, but the impact jarred up her arm. Still, when she retreated the demon fell to the floor, bleeding black; it looked like an orc from the Lord of the Rings films, but with a better outfit. Freaking livery, it looked like – purple and gold. Did those colours still mean something here?
More demons appeared behind the corpse and Buffy had to toss her sword to her left hand, just to give her right a few seconds to stop shaking. She sent a quick thought of thanks to non-sulking Giles of Old, and his insistence on ambidextrous training. Of course, the armoured orc-things had swords of their own, so now surprise was gone it was like a proper mêlée, building up a defensive wall of sword slashes and ducking and weaving to negotiate the confined space. Spike was at her side and Anya, for the moment, was still behind them as she footworked into the corridor, parry-step-slicing deep into the leg of another demon so he fell to get trampled by his friends.
“How many of them are there?” Buffy shouted, wishing she were taller, to see past the immediate two ranks she was currently engaged with. Still, she could see one demon trying to flank them, so with a side-step she tossed her sword back into her right hand, quick as a flash arcing the blade past faces, dropping back to slip her sword past the would-be flanker’s parry, held in front of his own head, and then stabbing into the other side of his neck on the backswing, pivoting the blade across his throat to block the other swords jabbing towards her left.
Bodies should never work as sandbags, she thought as she stepped back to Spike’s side, and yet they funnelled paths so well: as the corpses fell the breadth of their respective lines evened out, with no ground to purchase other than that in front of them. She could begin working with Spike in earnest, finishing off his axe swings with a stab for those who mis-stepped, relying on him to close up the gaps in some of her more rough and ready attacks. The admonitions amongst the growls and yelling – “Watch it, Slayer!” and “Bloody line!” – well, they were inevitable. But they were welcome.
It was funny; she was almost certain she and Spike had never been in this sort of fight before – the Knights of Byzantium, maybe? No, none of those quarters had ever been this close – but they were doing just fine. Better than fine, in fact, because even if her denim jacket did look like a bad customisation job, slash gashed up the sleeve by a lucky orc, she didn’t feel like she was bleeding. Adrenaline would probably be masking any pain, but, hey, they were impressive.
Still, they were steadily moving backwards and the crowd didn’t seem to be thinning. An alarm was ringing, somewhere, loudly, and it was only a matter of time before a higher-up with a brain worked out where they were and sent more guards in to pincer them. They needed to find another stairwell and get upstairs.
“Guys!” Anya suddenly shouted over their shoulders, just when Buffy and Spike dropped demons across the full corridor’s width. “NOW!” As she yelled she pitched three crystals into group of snarling guards; Buffy could see them, twinkling through strip light. Not waiting for a moment she jumped back, turned and sprinted, ears full of Spike and Anya’s clattering footsteps behind her.
In the seconds it took for the demons to react and follow over the obstacles, one of them, some of them, stepped on the crystals. They had to have done; there was a crack like thunder and gold light flushed down the corridor’s walls. The clamour they were making ceased in a moment and Buffy skidded to a stop so she could look back. Panting, she stared at the now-frozen crowd, swords raised, feet set in pursuit, completely blocking the corridor.
The alarm, unfortunately, clanged on.
“Upstairs,” she half asked, half demanded, looking at the others for assent. “Throne room. He’ll go to his power; he needs to keep it safe.”
“Right,” Spike accepted, nostrils flared
“OK.” Anya nodded, breathing desperately and squeezing her eyes shut as she clearly tried to get herself together. “OK!” she said again, opening her eyes and setting off at a run so they could follow.
They were already tired, but they stumbled back past the laundry and let momentum push them up another set of stairs, standard-issue flights back and forth this time. Abruptly the plasticky flooring gave way to exquisite wood; the smell of soap morphed, giving way to something refined and old, and the stairs they were running up were a curved, sweeping staircase from a hall, vases of flowers in alcoves by their sides. They hit the second storey, alarm still ringing, and their feet were thudding across a tiled floor, pristine white and palatial.
Unerringly, though her run on kitten-heels listed to one side, Anya guided them off the landing and into an antechamber, then through an ornate and ancient-looking pair of double doors, into the throne room.
D’Hoffryn was there, alone, standing on the floor below a wooden dais and looking into what Buffy wanted to call a birdbath, or a font, but knew was probably a scrying pool.
“What in all the hells…?” he asked as she rushed him and then, in a second as he waved his hand, her feet left the floor and she was suspended in mid-air.
She couldn’t move, even as she tried, was fixed in air; couldn’t reach her amulet and take herself home.
She could only imagine it was the same for Anya and Spike.
Super-double-extra-freaking fucking crap.
“Well, isn’t this a surprise?” D’Hoffryn said. He looked at her quite confused for a moment, before pressing a hand to the side of the birdbath’s bowl. The alarm abruptly ceased. They could be grateful for that at least… “I’d been expecting an army of insurgents.”
“I think I’m offended,” Buffy snarked, though feeling a little like she was. But at least her voice worked; that was another thing for the pro column. She could work with that.
She wasn’t immediately sure how, though, so for a few seconds there was silence. D’Hoffryn moved to the wall and muttered into what Buffy assumed was a magical intercom, while she took the chance to look around. It was all very medieval: wooden floor and stone walls and chandeliers with actual candles dripping wax not that far away from where she was held. They were kind of warm.
The most impressive feature of the room, though, was what had to be Anya’s Gaffrynotz Crystal. It seemed to grow from the ceiling itself, vaulted stone becoming opaque alabaster growing more translucent as it descended like a stalactite, that translucence bringing a green colour, like emerald, until, by the ornate golden throne on the dais, it descended, gem-like and glowing, to a ragged point.
It was very pretty.
D’Hoffryn cleared his throat, drawing her intention back to him. “In the name of almighty Grothnar, what are you doing here?” he asked, looking irritated and yet perplexed.
“Uh…” Buffy said, not sure what to say if he wasn’t up to speed.
And then, suddenly, “It was me,” came Anya’s voice behind her, quavering slightly. “I, uh, brought them.”
“Anyanka?” D’Hoffryn asked, looking past Buffy’s feet as her mind began to race. Very quickly.
What was Anya saying? This was a trick, right, a ploy? Right? This was Anya being quick-witted, pulling her weight the way she’d always said she’d wanted to do. Oh, it had better be…
“Yeah,” Anya replied. There was a light thump after D’Hoffryn waved a hand in her direction; presumably that meant she was back on the floor. “I, uh, heard that you were trying to kill me. Sub-contracted, even. You probably gave me over to a task force, right, didn’t want to micromanage something so unimportant…” She walked forward, under Buffy’s feet, approaching D’Hoffryn at the scrying bowl. “Well, I, um, brought a trade. Yeah. The Slayer and William the Bloody for – ”
“It’s bloody Spike, you traitorous bint!”
OK, Buffy thought. She could parse Spike’s voice; there was no need to panic. He didn’t believe this, was playing up to their crowd of one. Even if he was annoyed about the name thing. He was always annoyed about that.
Anya laughed, nervous and strangled-sounding as D’Hoffryn frowned, casting an askance glance to Spike, behind Buffy in the air. He asked Anya in a stage whisper, “Wasn’t he insane?”
Then Anya’s laugh became a little pathetic. “Oh, sure, um, I took his soul away as well.” There was a chance, though, wasn’t there? There was a chance that Anya’s nerves weren’t about playing up to D’Hoffryn, but because she’d betrayed them both. That wasn’t impossible. “To put them both off balance, you know. And give them a reason to come.”
Oh… Anya would have known that, wouldn’t she? Her weak spot. Her as in Buffy Summers, Spike Protector. She didn’t have many distractions these days.
No, Buffy forced herself to think, it was never good to underestimate the power of coincidence. Anyway, Anya was in retail – or used to be. She was good at working situations.
“Anyanka…” D’Hoffryn whistled, glancing up at their suspended forms with an impressed smile on his face. Buffy remembered what Anya had said that evening, about it being such good vengeance work. “I have to say, I’m impressed. If you hadn’t proved yourself so much a liability…”
“I know,” Anya replied, sounding genuinely wistful. She put her hands in her pockets, looking forlorn, but calm, so much calmer than before.
There was a split-second moment in time when Buffy stopped trusting her. It all seemed to fall into place, that she’d been stitched up, that Spike had been stitched up, because to an unrepentant ex-demon like Anya they were always going to be expendable. She felt her heart break that this was the end, felt so full of anger she thought she was about to combust.
It was that moment, of course, when Anya pulled a crystal out of her pocket.
“This is for Hallie, you bastard,” she said, then dropped and stamped.
They froze and Buffy was falling, spell broken. Spike thumped to the floor behind her.
She would be ashamed later – she would be so ashamed and sorry and grovelling and grateful later – because she had a sword and a power centre to destroy.
The Gaffrynotz loomed large before her eyes as she ran forwards, past D’Hoffryn and Anya paralysed in their conference, up stairs to the dais. It consumed her vision, glowing green and pulsing with an old, old light. Maybe D’Hoffryn didn’t have an amulet, but he made others amulets out of this, bound their power to him as she presumed his power was bound in turn to the original source.
Summoning all her anger against herself, against whatever poorly-supervised team had been in charge of killing Anya, Buffy thrust her sword into the centre of crystal, forcing her arm forward with every ounce of strength she possessed. Magic, Willow had told her long ago, weakened the physical structure of anything that housed it; it was energy in the end, supernatural or not, and it made molecules move faster, irregularly to the point where solids would fracture or melt, liquids would froth and bubble. Wands could be snapped, solid quartz could be crushed under a heel – and, so it seemed, with enough effort, glowing crystal, millennia old, could splinter like glass.
The glow leaked out as the crystal shattered, swelling around her sword blade before dissipating, suddenly, with a brilliant flash of emerald green.
“Oh, nice – CHRIST,” Spike cried behind her. “Oh, God.” She turned to see him fall, axe clattering to the floor.
With a leap she left the dais, the destabilised roof not sounding all too good, and grabbed the paralysed Anya under one arm. Flying with her to the floor she touched Spike’s trembling face, his shoulder, his hand – brought that hand up to his amulet, closed her eyes and muttered, because nothing else would come to her, “There’s no place like home.”
Originally posted at http://seasonal-spuffy.livejournal.com/383515.html