Part 15


The Library

Sonya sat in the darkest corner of the library, alone with her thoughts. Was Buffy right about her? Was she really in love with Xander? But how could she have not realized it before now? All of these thoughts swirled around in her brain, each demanding attention. But she pushed them to the back of her mind for now. They would keep. She needed to figure out how she was going to deal with the other life-altering piece of information that she'd been given today. If things went according to plan, soon she might lose a huge chunk of who she was. She might lose the feeling of being the Slayer, something that she had always relied on to help her get through life in a wheelchair. Logically, Sonya knew that saving the world was more important than her feelings of insecurity, but it still hurt, nonetheless. If she wasn't the Slayer, then who was she? Just some crip with a chip on her shoulder the size of Australia, that was who. And someone nobody liked being around.

Sonya sighed, burrying her head in her hands. "What am I going to do?" she muttered to herself dejectedly.

Then she remembered something Buffy had said to her the other day...

"Almost two years ago, I was run over by a truck. I was in traction for months, a wheelchair and braces after that. It's taken me a long time to get back to the woman you see before you..."

Suddenly, as if a light bulb had gone on in her brain, Sonya finally got it. She realized that other people were strong, even without Slayer powers. Buffy had fought her way out of a wheelchair all on her own. And Xander risked his life to save the world every night without extra powers to help him. Even Giles was strong, in his own bookish way. After all, he had to deal with both her and Xander on a daily basis, didn't he?

Sonya smiled a little, wiping away the tears from her damp cheeks. If they could be strong, then so could she. She might not ever get out of this damn wheelchair. She might not ever get Xander to love her as much as she loved him. And she might not ever have her old, pre-accident life back again. But Sonya would be damned if she was going to throw away the rest of her NEW life by being a bitter recluse like she had been for the last year. "It's time for everyone to meet the new and improved Sonya Parker," she vowed to herself. As she wheeled herself out of the library, Sonya felt like a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. It was a good feeling.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



After school, Buffy headed home. She had to dust off her old, stylishness and pick out a cute, yet able-to-fight-in outfit for the Bronze. She was stuck between two choices when the doorbell rang. Buffy glanced at the bedside clock -- 4 o'clock. She wasn't expecting anybody, but maybe Xander had found time to sneak away.

She ran down the steps and pulled open the door with a big smile on her face. The smile froze and then disappeared when she saw who was actually there. "What do you want?"

"I've been trying to figure out what to say the whole way here," Sonya said, looking uncomfortable, "but in all that time I couldn't come up with anything better than this. I'm sorry I've been such a bitch to you, you didn't deserve it, and is it too late to ask you for a favor?"

That left Buffy speechless for a moment. She had a mean, childish urge to slam the door in the girl's face, but she didn't. Instead she silently pulled the door open wider and stepped back so that Sonya could wheel herself inside and into the living room. Buffy followed her. "What kind of favor?"

Sonya hesitated. This was harder than she'd thought it would be -- and considering the fact that she'd known this would be extremely hard, that was saying a lot. "Well...let's just say you were right the other night. I'm turning into a bitter, mean-spirited person that nobody wants to be around, and I've got to change that. I figured the best way to start would be with the outside. This says a lot for how closed off I've been, but you're the only girl I really know, so I thought maybe you could help me."

Buffy raised an eyebrow. "You want me to give you a makeover?"

"Well, I wouldn't word it exactly like that," Sonya muttered defensively, "but if that's what they're calling it nowadays, then so be it."

For a minute, Buffy just stood there, a million thoughts crowding for space into her brain. Part of her wanted to help Sonya. The girl needed a friend -- and Buffy knew that more than anyone. But another part of Buffy was still ticked off at the way the girl had treated her, and for the way Sonya had helped Giles keep Buffy away from Xander. And then there was the part that she didn't even want to admit to herself -- what if she made Sonya into someone Xander could fall in love with? But Buffy knew that if what she and Xander had was real, she had to trust him. And Sonya was a person sitting before her asking for help. What if Buffy's mother had turned Buffy away when she took that step?

"I'll help you," Buffy finally agreed. Buffy stepped forward and examined the girl. Sonya wore no makeup and serviceable clothes. Her long, brown hair was bound up in a bun and held by boring, black bobbypins. "If you trust me..."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~


When Joyce got home from work, she came in the house to hear the sounds of two excited girls laughing and talking in the living room. Joyce walked into the living room to see it turned into a makeshift beauty parlor. Clothes, makeup and assorted paraphenalia were scattered all over the place, presumably for the benefit of the brunette in the wheelchair.

"Hi, honey," Joyce said with a smile.

"Hey, Mom!" Buffy said, grinning. "This is Sonya."

Joyce walked fully into the room, putting on her best hostess smile. "Hello, Sonya. It's nice to meet you." Joyce tried her best to sound normal, but it was hard looking at the girl in the chair. That could so easily be Buffy. Then a little maternal pride crept into her heart. Trust Buffy to be caring and kind enough to pick this girl as a friend.

"Hi," Sonya said quietly.

"What are you girls up to?" Joyce asked. "Hot dates tonight?"

"Well, sort of," Buffy said. "I'm going to the Bronze with this guy I just met, Oz. He's really nice and he plays in a band." She glanced at Sonya. "Wanna ride with us?"

"Yeah," Sonya agreed, "that would be good."

Joyce's brow wrinkled in confusion. "Oz? But what happened to the boy from the other night? Xander? I thought you really liked him, and he was sure sweet on you."

Buffy blushed and stammered. "Um...things didn't quite go as we planned. I don't think it's going to work out."

Walking over, Joyce gave her daughter a hug. "I'm sorry, sweetie. He was kind of special."

Buffy shrugged. "Yeah, I thought so, too, but what can you do?" Then she noticed the guilty look on Sonya's face and decided that rubbing it in anymore would be unkind. She changed the subject. "So, Mom, what do you think of our outfits? I gave Sonya a complete makeover."

"You two sure have been busy," Joyce said, her eyes going over the room. It was a shambles, but the girls looked good. Buffy had her hair pinned up away from her face and tied with a white ribbon. She wore black leggings, a longish, purple, silk shirt, a big, silver cross on a chain around her neck and a pair of clogs. Sonya looked good as well. Her hair hung about her shoulders in loose curls that framed her face -- obviously newly cut judging from the pile of brown hair laying on some newspaper in the corner. Her face was delicately made up to show off her delicate cheekbones and clear, blue eyes. She wore an ankle-length, black skirt with red flowers on it a cute, tight red sweater with big buttons, and chunky, red sandals. The skirt wasn't very flowy, but that was OK because that way it wouldn't get caught in the wheels of her chair. Sonya also had a cross hanging around her neck.

"Very nice," Joyce said with an approving smile. "You do good work, Buffy, but I'm sure you had a good base to work with." She glanced again at the necklaces and then asked, "Are those the new fad?"

"Um...yeah, Mom. Very in this season," Buffy said. Luckily, she was saved from further comment by the doorbell. "That's got to be Oz!"

She ran to the door, and, sure enough, it was Oz. He stood there in slacks, a shirt and a jacket, but no tie. Buffy looked at him with a smile. "Wow -- I've never seen you so dressed up."

"Needed the pockets."

Letting him in, Buffy said, "Do you mind if Sonya rides with us to the Bronze? Your van is big enough for her chair, right?"

Unflappable as always, Oz just said, "Sure." They went into the living room and did the introduction thing. Joyce was gracious, and Sonya actually smiled. Oz did a double take when he saw her. "Nice threads," he said. She blushed.

Then they were off. Buffy let Sonya sit in the front seat so that she could be buckled in securly, and Buffy held their purses -- bulging at the seams with crosses and stakes -- in her lap during the drive. In what seemed like only a few seconds, they were there.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Giles sat in the passenger seat of Xander's jeep, holding on for dear life.

"Tell me why your seatbelts don't work, again?" he yelled over the wind.

"That's what you get when you buy used, I guess," Xander called back.

Giles thanked his lucky stars that Sonya had given up on her insane wish to come along as Xander careened around a corner with barely a pause at the stop sign. She probably would have ended up another car crash fatality.

"So," Xander yelled, "the plan is that you hide in the back, and then when Willow, Spike and the gang show you'll guide people out the back door while Angel and I put the fear of God into the vamps, right?"

"Yes, I believe that's the best plan," Giles managed. "I wonder if my heart has stopped," he muttered when Xander sped through a yellow light. "Oh, wait, there it goes."

An eternity later, Xander pulled into a parking space at the Bronze with a squeeling of the brakes. Giles had to forcibly let go of his death grip on the dash board, and the Watcher wobbled a little as they crossed the parking lot.

"Oh, look," Xander said, seeing Oz's zebra-striped van. "Looks like the Dingoes are playing tonight."

"Oh joy," Giles muttered. Then the two men went inside the club, hoping that they were prepared for whatever would come.

 

 

16


The Bronze

The lights were low inside the club, as usual. An all-girl band had possession of the stage and alternated between screaming lyrics to a pulsating beat and crooning love ballads with only a guitar for accompaniment. The dance floor was about half full, and plenty of teenagers clustered at tables and around the bar. The Bronze wasn't packed out, but it was doing good business for a Thursday night.

Buffy, Oz and Sonya sat at a table in the corner. Buffy marveled at the intense look on the other girl's face. The Slayer was stretching her heightened senses to their fullest, searching the face of every newcomer to the club for tell-tale signs of vampirism.

Oz, on the other hand, was studying Sonya. Buffy elbowed him in the ribs and whispered, "You're *supposed* to be hanging all over me, remember?"

He looked at her and said mildly, "Let the hang-age begin." Then he put an arm around her shoulders.

By the stiffening of her shoulders, Buffy could tell that Sonya had noticed. *Good* Buffy thought *that means she won't be suspicious of Xander, and that's why we're doing all this, right?*

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Xander walked into the club wearing jeans and a leather jacket. It was a bit warm for the jacket, but Xander wasn't making a fashion statement -- he had weapons hidden up his sleeves, in the pockets and in his waistband. Giles had made himself scarce as soon as they'd entered the Bronze. Xander was glad not to be seen hanging around with the oldest looking dude in the place, but somehow he felt better just knowing the Watcher was at his back.

People clustered in the doorways, so Xander had to push past them to get into the main room of the club. "Excuse me!" he said in an annoyed tone. "Why do people always lurk in doorways?"

"Well, why do other people always have to be rude about it?"

Xander found himself looking at Cordelia and rolled his eyes. *I remember the last time she was about to get eaten* he thought disgustedly. *Next time I think I might just let it happen.* But, good guy that he was, he couldn't just not say anything.

"You know, Chase, I don't think this is the place you want to be tonight. You might want to take your girlfriends and go to the mall or something. Things may get a little hot here tonight."

Cordelia curled one side of her mouth up in a sneer. "The hotter the better, in my opinion. And the mall is so five years ago. Like I would be caught dead there after prime shoe-shopping hours are over!"

Xander shook his head and continued on his way. When he finally got to a relatively clear space by the bar, he stopped and scanned the room. He found Buffy immediately, almost as if he was connected to her like a magnet. Then he saw Oz. The guitarist had his arms all over Xander's girl! But before Xander could go ballistic, he remembered that Buffy had a plan, and deduced that this must be it.

"A cover date," he muttered. "She could have at least warned me."

Just then Buffy noticed him, and gave him a tiny smile before pretending not to see him again. Xander felt better, and continued scanning the room, starting with the other person sitting at Buffy's table. His jaw dropped -- both literally and metaphorically. It was Sonya, and she looked actually stylish -- AND she was sitting with Buffy...WILLINGLY. Would the weirdness never stop?

"Hey, anything happen yet?"

Xander jumped and looked around to see Angel standing there in his normal attire of black pants, white shirt and a black trench coat. "How many times have I told you not to do that?" he demanded. "You scared me to death."

"Sorry." Angel did his own scan of the room. "So, what was it that had you so distracted?"

Xander grinned. He could actually feel the goofiness on his face, if such a thing were possible. "She's here."

"Oh, really? I take it you mean your hypothetical Jane." Angel looked at Xander with interest. "So, point her out to me already. I'm breathless with anticipation."

Xander gave Angel a look. "You're always without breath, Dead Boy. You'll have to come to terms with that one of these days."

"Always the cut-up," Angel replied. "Now, where is she?"

"OK," Xander said, "but you have to look casual. Look over to our left, at that table in the corner. The one where Sonya's sitting for some unknown reason. Buffy's the girl sitting next to the short guy. Oz is her cover date so no one gets suspicious. Isn't she smart?"

Angel looked in the direction Xander had directed him and finally located the proper table. Sonya looking more spiffy than he'd ever seen her, a short guy with red hair and a girl in purple with blonde hair. There was something familiar about her. Angel stared harder, willing her to turn around. There was something about the way that hair draped down her shoulders.

"It can't be," he whispered.

"Can't what?" Xander wanted to know, but Angel ignored him. Then the girl turned her head, laughing at something Oz was saying. It was Buffy Summers! She was in Sunnydale. If Angel had a working heart, it would have stopped beating. She was more beautiful than he remembered. He had checked up on her a couple of times over the years, so he'd known that her legs had healed, but somehow he hadn't expected her to look as lovely and vibrant as she had before. All thoughts of the spell flew out of his head. He just had to talk to her... Angel started walking toward the table.

"Uh... Angel, what are you doing?" Xander asked, pulling on the sleeve of his trench coat. "You're blowing our cover, man!"

Angel kept walking, pulling Xander a couple of steps.

"Stop! What's going on?" Xander demanded, pulling even harder.

Angel finally stopped and looked back at Xander. "Let go," he said firmly.

"Why?" Confusion built up in Xander's eyes. Angel had never acted like this before!

Then Angel looked back at the table. Oz and Sonya were sitting alone. Buffy was gone. "Where'd she go?" he asked Xander.

"Who, Buffy?" Xander looked over to her empty chair and shrugged. "The bathroom or something, I guess."

Angel pulled himself free of Xander's grip and tried to get a hold of himself. "Sorry about that, man. Just a shock, that's all."

"Huh? Buffy was a shock? I mean, I know she's gorgeous and all, but..."

"I'll tell you about it some other time," Angel replied. "Now, you take watch here, and I'll go over there." He made a vague gesture and vanished into the crowd.

Xander moved over to an unoccupied space of wall and waited. He didn't know what was up with Angel, but he guessed he'd find out eventually. He glanced again at Buffy's empty chair. As soon as Buffy got back, Xander decided he could use Sonya as an excuse to go over there. It would be a challenge to his acting abilities, but he was going to do it anyway.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



In the old factory on the other side of town, several vampires and the three members of the Order of Taraka bided their time. Nathan the sorcerer stood before a small fire.

"Better keep a good watch on that thing, boy-o," Spike warned. "Fire and vampires do *not* get along."

Nathan nodded. "I know. Don't worry. I just need it to see how the plan is progressing." He looked at Willow. "You did fulfill your part of the bargain?"

"They'll be there," Willow hissed. "I made sure of that."

The fire cracked merrily, and the vampires stood back. Nathan whispered a few words and black-hued magic flowed from his fingertips into the flames, turning them black as well. Then a clear blotch formed in the center of the flames. It spread until figures could be seen in it. It was the Bronze. The blotch focused on several faces in turn: Buffy Summers, Alexander Harris, Angel, Rupert Giles and Sonya Parker.

Nathan nodded. "They're all there." He ended the spell with a gesture, and the fire was orange again. "It's time for you to spring the latch closed on your trap."

"Ready?" Spike asked Willow, his impatience showing. Their vampire minions, clustered about the walls and doorways, muttered their readiness.

"Yes, lover, it's time," Willow replied, running her finger up the sleeve of Spike's black coat. "I'm ready to enjoy my party now."

Spike nodded, and all the minor vampires headed for the door, followed by Kate Smith and Gillian Layne. Spike looked back where Nathan stood motionless. "Ain't you comin'?"

Nathan shook his head. "This is where I work best. I cast the spells while you make the kills. There's enough fun to go around."

 

Part 17


The Bronze

The line for the bathroom was long. Buffy suffered through it until it was her turn, and then afterward stopped by the bar to get a soda. She had just handed the bartender some money and was wondering how much profit the Bronze actually made since most of its patrons were high-schoolers who couldn't drink, when she sensed someone standing by her side.

She looked up and saw a tall, handsome man with a sad, serious face. He had reddish-brown hair slicked back with gel, but in an attractive way. His eyes were surrounded by thick lashes, and he wore understated, but becoming, clothes. His skin was also very pale. He was staring at her. Buffy began to feel a little creeped.

"Excuse me," she said moving by, hoping that he was just waiting to get up to the bar. Instead he followed her. Buffy swallowed nervously, and gave herself a mental pep talk. *You're in a public place, and Xander is here, not to mention Sonya and Oz and maybe even Mr. Giles. Everything will be OK. And you are a strong girl. You have a cross around your neck if this guy is a vamp. And if anything happens that you can't handle, all you have to do is scream.* She glanced at him again, this time focusing on his intense eyes. Something in them made her relax a little. Suddenly, she didn't think this guy meant her any harm.

"Can I help you with something?" she asked, stopping a few feet away from the bar.

The guy just stood there for a minute, looking at her. At first it was kind of flattering, but the longer he stared, the more Buffy felt like she was in the bathing suit portion of the Miss America contest.

"Who are you?" she finally exclaimed.

That seemed to get his attention, and he finally spoke. He had a sexy voice, the kind that would melt butter. "My name is Angel. I'm a friend of Xander's."

Buffy's face lit up in a smile at the mention of Xander. "Yeah, I saw him a minute ago." Then she remember that she wasn't supposed to act like she liked him, so she stifled the smile. "You know, if I cared." She bit her lip and wondered why she was failing so miserably with her charade with this guy.

Then the name sunk in. This was Angel -- the vampire with a soul. The idea was kind of interesting, but it seemed a bit tragic to Buffy -- being immortal and having to live with the guilt of killing humans. She wondered if he ever got to date, then dismissed the idea. She didn't know what would be worse -- being an immortal and having to watch one's lover grow old and die, or being mortal with an immortal lover one couldn't grow old with. The whole thing sounded kind of sucky now that she thought about it. Buffy decided the only way one could really fall in love with a vampire would be not to know he was a vampire at first, because once love hits, that's it. The thought of love brought Xander back to mind, and she glanced over her shoulder to see where he had gone to. He was standing by the wall, looking over toward Sonya. Then Buffy wondered how much he was liking the makeover. That made her frown.

Angel's voice brought her back to the conversation at hand. He was actually smiling. "Don't worry. Xander told me. Your secret's safe with me."

"He told you?" Buffy asked, surprised. "I guess he really trusts you."

"We watch each other's backs," Angel said. He paused and then said, "You've healed really well."

"What?" Buffy looked at him sharply. How did he know about her accident? He seemed to sense her change in demeanor. "Look, I've got to go, but keep an eye out tonight, OK? I wouldn't want you hurt, and I know Xander wouldn't either."

Buffy nodded, her eyes still suspicious of him. "Don't worry. I can take care of myself now that I know what kind of creeps I'm dealing with."

He winced at her vampire reference, and then turned and melted into the crowd. Buffy watched him go with a puzzled expression. She still wanted to know how he knew about her accident, and why the vampire would care. Then she turned and looked at Xander again. Setting her cup down, she headed toward him with a sense of purpose. Sonya's back was turned -- it was the perfect time.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



*Buffy and Xander, who would have thought it* Angel wondered as he got away from the blonde as fast as possible. She made him feel weird inside -- those types of feelings he used to have back in his adolescence. But she liked Xander, and Xander -- Angel's pseudo-little brother -- liked her. Angel couldn't think the word 'love' for some reason. Angel shoved the inexplicable feelings down deep inside. The reason Buffy was important was the spell -- there was no other reason Angel should be thinking about her. Speaking of the spell ... Angel scanned the room, hoping to see Giles. He had to find the Watcher and finish explaining the plan. Giles might want to make sure Buffy got to a place of safety...

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Xander couldn't believe Sonya's new 'do. It was amazing what a little makeup, a haircut and some new duds could do. She actually looked almost happy as she sat chatting with Oz and scanning for vampires. Oz's face was unreadable, but Xander figured the guy must be having a good time, too, or he would have been long gone looking for Buffy right now.

Thinking of Buffy... *Where did she get to* he wondered. Suddenly he felt a fingernail running along the back of his neck. He shivered and turned to see Buffy standing there.

"What are you doing?" he mouthed, glancing back to see if Sonya had noticed. She hadn't even turned around.

Buffy was backing up, and then she ducked into a little, enclosed alcove and pulled the curtain shut. Xander grinned. Then responsibility set in. He couldn't fool around now. Willow and Spike would be there soon. But the temptation was almost unbearable. *Angel, Sonya and Giles are here watching* he rationalized. *I can take five minutes. What's five minutes compared to a year of slaying...*

Double checking Sonya again, Xander moved casually over to the alcove and ducked inside.

"You're insane!" he whispered, pulling her close for a kiss.

"I know, I'm sorry," Buffy mumbled against his mouth. "I just had to." She pulled back and looked at him. "I met your friend Angel. He gives me the wiggins."

"You met Angel?" Xander repeated. "Weird. He's not usually one for socializing." Xander shrugged. "Don't worry about him. He's not real good at human interaction. I guess it comes from killing all those people a long time ago." When Buffy shuddered, he hastened to add, "Don't worry, he's a completely different person now."

"I hope so," Buffy replied. Xander couldn't help it. He leaned in for another kiss. Xander couldn't help a lot of things when it came to Buffy.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Sonya sighed. The Bronze was active for a school night, but no vamps as of yet. And no Xander. She looked around. And now no Buffy. She'd caught a glimpse of Angel earlier, but the broody vampire had vanished. That was where she liked Angel best -- there for backup but nowhere in sight.

"So," she said, glancing at the quiet boy across from her, "how did you meet Buffy?"

"Over a book," Oz replied. "She's not what you expect."

Sonya looked down. "No one ever is."

"True enough." He leveled his gaze on her. "Not even you."

She looked around at everything but Oz. Sonya was still amazed that he had just figured everything about vampires out. Then she muttered, "I've got to go check in with Xander and Giles. I'm supposed to help Giles get people out the back when the bad guys get here. I guess that's all I'm good for nowadays..." She turned to go.

"You're good for more than that," Oz said to her retreating form.

Sonya heard him, but couldn't think of anything to say, so she said nothing. She moved along in her chair as best she could. Most people moved out of the way to give her room when she came by, but some gave her dirty looks or pretended not to notice. She kept close to the wall and tried to hurry. Then two guys were standing right in her way. Sonya gave them a pointed glare, and they started to move, but not very fast. Then she heard a man's voice. The voice was familiar, even if she couldn't make out exactly what it was saying.

A female laugh tinkled out of a curtained alcove right next to her. Sonya felt her heart drop. She knew those voices. *Just go on, Sonya* she told herself. *You don't want to know.* But it was too late. She already knew. Her hand trembled as she reached out and pulled back the curtain. There they were, Xander and Buffy, locked with their arms around each other, but staring at her like deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming 18-wheeler.

"Sonya..." Xander managed, reaching out his hand. Buffy let go of him, and stepped back guiltily.

"You liar!" Sonya tried to yell, but it came out in a tiny, gasping voice she hardly recognized. "You're both liars!"

Buffy blushed and looked at her shoes. "Yeah, we are."

Sonya's chin started to tremble, and she felt the tears build up in the corners of her eyes and spill over.

"Sonya," Xander said, "let me explain."

She fixed him with her coldest glare. "Leave me alone." Then she wheeled herself away from there as fast as possible, not caring whose feet she ran over. She pushed her way into the handicapped stall in the bathroom and locked the door. The heard of girls checking their makeup at the mirror were silent for a moment, and then they left, muttering about some people's rudeness. It was only then, when she was alone, that the sobs came. Painful, gut-wrenching sobs.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Buffy felt like a traitor, guilty for what she had done and angry at Sonya for making her feel guilty. It was Xander's white face that scared her the most. And it was all her fault.

"Xander... I'm sorry..."

"I am, too." He looked at her with a wealth of pain and hurt in his eyes. Then he walked away.

The girl band began to scream lyrics at the top of their lungs. The sound served to mask Buffy's crying. After a moment or two, she mastered herself enough to go wash her face. She didn't know what was going to happen, but now wasn't the time to fall apart.

When she walked into the bathroom, she heard the sobs coming from the stall. Immediately, Buffy knew who it was. She knocked on the stall door quietly. "Sonya?"

"Go away! Leave me alone."

"I want to say I'm sorry."

There was a click, and the door to the stall swung back. Buffy looked into Sonya's tearstained face. "Yeah, right," the girl spat. "You wanted to flaunt it in my face."

"I didn't!" Buffy protested.

"What I don't understand is why you did all this for me." Sonya gestured to the sweater and the skirt and her newly cut hair.

"Because you deserved to look pretty," Buffy said. "You're a good person underneath all that anger. I wanted you to have a chance to show that."

"So you could gloat all the more when you took it away from me?"

Buffy sighed. It was time for the truth. "Xander and I never stopped seeing each other. Yes, we lied -- because you and Mr. Giles gave us no choice."

Some kind of understanding sparked in Sonya's eyes. "You love him, too, don't you?"

Buffy nodded.

"And here I thought it was just some fling. I didn't think it was real."

"Well, it's real -- at least for me."

Sonya managed a tiny smile amidst her tears. "I think it is for him, too. I've never seen him like he is when he's with you."

"I hope so..." Buffy got two paper towels from the dispenser, wet them, handed one to Sonya and used the other to wipe her face. "I'm going to go back out there. I want to try and talk to him again, but maybe I should wait. Those vamps should show up soon."

"If they're really coming," Sonya muttered darkly.

"You think they aren't?"

"It's been so long... maybe they were just distracting us while they went after what they really wanted."

Buffy shrugged, not knowing how to respond. Finally, she said simply, "You coming?"

"In a minute," Sonya answered. "I've got to finish getting myself together."

Buffy nodded, and then went outside. The door swung shut behind her as she stepped into the unusually empty hallway. She looked around and saw a window open. Did they leave windows open in places like this? Then Buffy felt a shooting pain as something crashed into her skull. And everything went black.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Giles hovered in the back of the Bronze. He calculated the shortest distance from the main part of the club to the back doors and made sure the door was unlocked. Then he loitered by the inside bouncer, on the look out for familiar, pale faces.

Just when he thought Xander had been wrong or that Willow had been misleading him, the front doors burst open with a loud crash and Spike and Willow walked in, followed by a good number of vampires, a normal-looking brunette and a dark-haired girl with an arsenal strapped to her back. Giles moved back into the shadows before they could spot him, and readied himself for the rescue mission. Then he noticed something that made his heart race. Rings on the fingers of the two, non-vampiric girls -- rings bearing the symbol of the Order of Taraka. But where was the third? Giles knew these assassins always moved in threes.

"Oh, no," Giles moaned. The trap had been sprung. He had to find a way to warn the others.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



"Hey, man. Wanna dance?"

Xander pushed the unknown girl off of him with a brusque refusal, and continued pushing his way through the dance floor. He didn't know where he was going. Weird emotions were seething through him. Anger, fear, guilt, love... Everything was all messed up, and he didn't know how to fix it.

Suddenly, the music stopped. Xander looked up and saw the lead singer of the girl band held by her throat. He followed the hand back until he met Willow's yellow eyes. She had her vamp face on. She threw the girl down, and took the microphone. "Hello, everyone, I just wanted to take a minute to welcome you to our little party..."

 

Part 18


The Bronze

"Shit!" Xander cried, trying to push his way past the screaming crowd and reach the stage where Willow stood. As he knocked people over and elbowed his way through the masses, Xander scanned the room for other possible danger zones. His eyes immdeiatly landed on Spike and a group of vamps who were already catching some of the teens on the edges of the crowd and starting to feed. Meanwhile, Willow had grabbed the band's drummer, a blonde girl with eyes as wide as saucers, and snapped her neck brutally. She giggled as she let the lifeless body sink to the floor. Things here were quickly spiralling out of control and Xander just didn't know what he could do about it by himself. Where were Angel and the others when he needed them, anyway?

Finally, Xander managed to make his way to the stage and was about to take the battle to Willow when a hand grabbed his shoulder and pulled him around. Xander thought it was Angel or someone for a minute, but was surprised to find a fairly normal looking young girl with longish brown hair and a sweet smile. He assumed it was one of the frightened teens from the crowd, though why they'd be trying to talk to him was a mystery. "What is it?" Xander asked, concerned. "Are you alright?"

The girl smiled. "More alright than you're going to be, sweetie."

Xander was confused. But before he could ask her what she meant, another girl walked up to her side. This girl wore all black and had an entire arsenal of weapons strapped to her sides. Xander gulped, dropping into a defensive stance. "Who are you?"

Rambo-chick grinned and suddenly her right hand had changed shape, elongating and turning into a whip of sorts. "Your worst nightmare," she said simply.

Xander didn't wait for her to attack, instead he took the offensive and lunged forward, barreling into her midsection and tackling her. Once they hit the ground, Xander jumped to his feet first, though she quickly followed suit. Xander lashed out with a kick to her side and followed up with a snap kick that caught her in the jaw, snapping her head back sharply. But before he could press the attack, the brunette walked over to stand beside her friend and grinned. Suddenly, her face began to change shape, her forehead sloping and her mouth and nose elongating into a snout. Hair began to grow all over her body as she almost doubled in size, her jeans and tshirt ripping open. Soon, she was huge, covered in hair and growling in the back of her throat. Her eyes glowed with a yellow light.

The she-wolf took a step forward, using her greater size to intimidate Xander. Lashing out with her claws, she swiped at him. Xander jumped out of the way, but was just a little too slow. The edges of her claws caught him across the chest, leaving five bloody gouges running across his body. Xander winced, trying to ignore the pain. He could hear Willow laughing from the stage, but ignored it. He had all he could handle with the two girls in front of him.

The girl in black cracked her hand/whip at Xander, managing to wrap it around his throat. It pulled tight, dragging Xander to the ground as the life was slowly choked out of him. He clawed at the whip, trying to get it off of him. The girl just laughed cruely. "This one was all too easy," she told her partner as Xander began to slowly pass out from lack of oxygen. But before he could succomb to the darkness, Xander managed to reach a hand into his boot, pulling out his boot knife and crawling to his knees. Xander took aim and threw the knife, watching with satisfaction as it embedded itself up to the hilt in the she-wolf's side. The creature howled, taking a step back and looking down at the knife in shock. Xander knew that the blow wouldn't kill the creature, but at least is took her out of the fight for a little while.

The woman in black saw what he had done to her friend and hissed angrily, drawing the whip tighter around his neck. Her other hand began to change shape as well, turning into a dagger with a viscious looking serrated blade. Grinning, she began to advance on Xander's weak form. But by that point, he was already losing consciousness...

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Giles stood motionless for a minute. Willow was up on stage -- he could hear her over the microphone -- but Giles was, for once, stymied as to a course of action. With the Order of Taraka here, things had just gotten more difficult. He needed to start getting the innocents out the back door, but he also needed to warn the others. Then Angel was there, standing next to him.

"I've got to tell you something," Angel said urgently. "It's about the spell."


"And Sonya," Angel added, "she's probably a target, too."

"Sonya's here?" Giles questioned. "Bloody hell! I thought she'd come to her senses and stayed at home."

"Sonya?" Angel looked at Giles askance.

Giles nodded. "You're right. Of course, she wouldn't."

"I'll warn the others, but there's something else," Angel said. "It's about Buffy."

"Not you, too!" Giles exclaimed. "What is it about that girl that has everyone so befuddled?"

Angel was speechless for a second. Then he continued. "No, I mean that she's vital to the spell."

"No, only a potential Slayer can..." Giles' eyes widened as the full weight of the vampire's words impressed itself upon him.

"Buffy is a potential Slayer. She has the correct genetic makeup for us to use in the spell. The Essence will come to her this time. It only skipped her because of a debilitating accident," Angel explained. He kept glancing into the other room. He needed to get in there, but Giles had to know this first.

Light dawned in the Watcher's eyes. "That's why her name sounded so familiar at first. I couldn't place it at the time, but... Buffy Summers was to be Slayer before Sonya!" Giles grabbed the sleeve of Angel's trench coat. "If you see her, get her to me. I'll get her out of here."

"Right," Angel said. "I'm going back in there. I'll get word to Xander and the others about the Order."

"Be careful," Giles warned. "The two girls wear the rings, but the Order always travels in threes, and I've yet to see the third. It may be a nasty surprise."

"Anything Willow and Spike have planned is a nasty surprise." Angel turned to go. "Don't forget to waste the vampire guards outside the doors before you rush the innocents outside."

"Of course..." Giles started, but the vampire was gone.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Sonya came out of the bathroom when she heard unusual noises coming from the main part of the club. It had only been a couple of seconds since Buffy had left. Sonya expected to see the other girl still in the hallway, but she wasn't there.

*Must have been running...* Sonya thought.

Sonya heard soft footsteps from behind her and spun her chair around, coming face to face with a vampire. He growled at her, obviously thinking that she would be easy pickings since she was crippled. Sonya grinned, her hand pulling a stake out of her purse. The vamp paused when he saw the stake, but decided to attack anyway, rushing her and knocking her chair to the ground.

Sonya grappled with the vamp, using her slayer strength to keep him at bay. After a moment, she saw the opening she needed and plunged the stake through his heart. He burst into dust.

Gasping, Sonya turned away from the dusted vamp and looked over to where Giles should be posted. He wasn't there. The back door burst open, and Giles stumbled in covered in vampire dust. When he saw Sonya, some of the worry vanished from behind his eyes. He was holding an empty crossbow.

"There were two guards, but I dusted them," the Watcher quickly explained, helping Sonya back into her chair.

"Right," Sonya nodded, all business now. The tactics drilled into her by her Watcher moved front and center in her brain. "You move faster than me. Go in and start leading people out here. I'll watch for more vamps at the door and herd the sheep outside."

Giles nodded and moved into the main part of the Bronze. Soon Sonya had all she could handle in getting the scared kids out the back door without making too much noise and alerting the other vamps.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Oz watched Xander squaring off with the two girls, but he didn't think he'd be much help there. Then he saw Spike and his vamps attcking the teens, but Oz knew that he couldn't win a fight with almost a dozen vamps, either. Oz was definitely feeling a bit out of his element here. But then he saw the redhead, Willow was her name if he remembered correctly, slowly killing off the band, one girl at a time. Maybe he could do something to help them. Oz pulled a small water gun from the purse that Buffy had packed and grinned, making his way to the stage. The crowd had thinned out by now, which meant that Giles and Sonya were doing their job well, and Oz reached the stage in no time, jumping up and facing Willow. "Leave the band alone," he demanded, raising his gun.

Willow raised an eyebrow, her hands still wrapped around the bass guitarist's neck. "Why ever would I do that? I'm having too much fun."

Oz didn't reply, instead he aimed his water gun at her face and fired, a stream of holy water shooting out and hitting her right in the eyes. Willow screamed, dropping the band member and raising her hands to her face, which was now smoking. "You son of a bitch!" she yelled after the smoking stopped, removing her hands from her blistered and burned face and glaring at Oz. "You'll pay for that."

She tried to lunge at Oz, but he simply raised an eyebrow and sprayed her again, causing her to fall back and scream again.

Willow didn't try for a third time. Instead, she jumped off the stage and ran out of the Bronze. "Let the Order of Taraka deal with them," she muttered, trying to ignore the painful agony that was her face. "I never signed up for this torture." Willow kept running, making her way back to the Factory.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Nathan watched it all from his window in the black fire. Things were going well. His girls were doing their stuff, and the body count was rising. He began to whisper words from the language of the ancient Druids -- his ancestors. He could feel their power growing in his body. It whipped around his robes with an unnatural wind.

As he gazed at the fire, he felt like he was at the Bronze himself. He repeated the ancient words to the strengthening spell over and over again. Kate and Gillian fought with a renewed ferocity.

Nathan ended the spell, and a coughing spasm wracked his thin body. It almost doubled him over. The sorcerer reached into the inner folds of his robes and pulled out a small leather bag filled with a blue powder. He took a pinch of the powder and tucked it under his tongue. As his saliva moistened and dissolved the powder, the coughing spasm stopped and he felt strong again.

That was the only drawback to his awesome power. The physical human body wasn't meant to hold that much magic. It burned it up from the inside, and certain measures had to be taken.

Nathan looked back at the fire, pushing thoughts of frailty out of his mind. Now was the time for strength, not weakness.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Buffy regained consciousness some time later. She didn't know where she was, but her head hurt, she was very thirsty and she was bouncing. She opened her eyes to see plaid.

"What the..." Then she realized she was staring at someone's back -- someone wearing a plaid shirt. She twisted her head around and saw they seemed to be approaching an old, abandoned factory. They went inside, and Buffy was laid roughly on a large, oak table. She could now see that her kidnapper was a vampire.

"Tie her hands and feet. We must make sure she cannot escape."

The vampire did as he was bid, and Buffy -- weak and losing blood from the wound on her head -- could do little to stop him. She craned her neck and tried to see who else had spoken. A tall, lanky man with a shock of shaggy dark hair and long black robes moved into her line of sight.

"Who are you?" she asked.

His smile made his thin face a mass of wrinkles. Buffy shuddered. Though he seemed young, something about him gave her the feeling that she stared into the eyes of something beyond time itself.

"I have many names," the man said in a calm and almost pleasant voice. "But you man call me Nathan."

"What do you want with me?" The words came out sounding more frightened than she'd intended.

"That remains to be seen." Nathan rubbed his thumb over a ring on his index finger. The ring was silver and had a weird symbol on it that Buffy did not recognize. "A contract has been put out on your life..."

Her chin quivered. Who could hate her enough to do that? Willow's insane, jealous eyes from the fight two nights before came into her mind.

"Move along, Seth," Nathan said to the vampire. "You've gotten her here, now you'd better get back to the club to help the others finish off the rest of the goodie-goodies. I'll take care of this one."

Seth nodded and obeyed orders.

Nathan moved closer to Buffy and stroked her hair with one cold, white hand. She shivered.

"You're a strong one," he muttered, almost to himself, but she could hear him. "You don't know it, but you have the potential for greatness. And your greatness can enhance my own..."

 

Part 19


The Bronze

The screams had lessened. Most of the innocents had been evacuated, and those who hadn't were beyond help. Angel staked one of Spike's minions, and turned to face his next opponent. He heard a roar and whirled around just in time to see a strangling Xander hurl a knife at a huge werewolf. The wolf cringed back, but Xander was beginning to lose consciousness in the deathgrip of the other girl, who Angel knew without a doubt to be one of the members of the Order of Taraka.

In vamp face, Angel picked up a nearby table and charged the werewolf. He bashed the table into its huge skull, stunning the creature and breaking the table. Tossing the ruined table to the side, Angel grabbed the wolf and half-carried/half-drug it closer to Xander. Using all of his preternatural strength, Angel pushed the beast into the girl with the whip-arm, knocking the girl forward and loosening the choke-hold she had on Xander.

When the girl hit the floor, Angel was already charging. He scooped up the knife that had been in the werewolf's side and used it to saw through the appendage that held his friend. The girl screamed as blood came rushing out of what was once her arm. The blood stained Angel's trench coat. He could smell it. That made him hungry. And being hungry, made him all the more angry.

Angel took a few steps over to the writhing girl, took her head in his hands and snapped her neck. A little dazed, Xander got to his feet. He looked a little green when he stepped in the sticky blood.

"What *are* these people?" Xander asked.

"The Order of Taraka," Angel explained, eyeing the werewolf to see if she was going to awaken any time soon. "A group of bounty hunters -- some demon and some humans with special gifts. Obviously Spike and Willow planned to take us all out tonight."

"Anything else I need to know?" Xander asked.

"Only that there's one more somewhere that no one's been able to locate," Angel said. "And with the way our luck's going, that one's probably the most powerful."

Xander touched the bruises forming on his neck. "If these two were the wimps of the trio, I'd hate to meet the powerful one."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



"I'm never going to help you, so you might as well just let me go!" Buffy said. Her show was obviously fake, however, seeing as she was strapped down to a large table and completely at the mercy of the sorcerer who called himself Nathan.

Nathan walked over to her very slowly. "Letting you go isn't an option, my dear, but I do love your show of spunk there. Very brave to challenge me when I've so obviously got the upper hand."

"What is it you want?" Buffy cried. "I don't have any special powers or anything."

A calculating smile curved his lips. "You don't know, do you?"

"Know what? That you're a sick-o who's trying to play with my mind?"

Nathan grabbed her by the hair and pulled hard. Tears sprang into Buffy's eyes.

"You shouldn't call me names. If you make me mad I won't be gentle."

Buffy just stared at him, hatred in her eyes.

"You have powers, my dear Buffy," Nathan said, running his hands down her bound arms with a light, cold touch. "You were to be a Slayer. I would have thought you'd know, seeing as you're obviously involved in that world."

"What?" Buffy whispered, unbelieving.

"It's true. Any one of them could have told you, I'm sure. Sonya only got the powers because of your unfortunate little accident. She stole your destiny from you."

"Why are you telling me all this, and how do you know?" Buffy demanded. Feelings of shock and betrayal slipped into her heart. Could they have known and not told her? No! Mr. Giles, maybe, but not Sonya, not Xander...

"Telepathy is one of my many powers," Nathan bragged. "One look in all your minds, and I knew all that I needed to. And what luck that I realized who you were before the contract on your life was fulfilled." He began to cough and clutched the edge of the table for support. "The latent power in your soul will be enough to make me strong again. Your essence will bind my magic into my body, and keep it there for all time. No longer will I be plagued with this weakness."

He walked over to where his magic supplies were piled and pulled out a large, shiny knife with an ornate hilt. He walked back over and held it out. "This will do nicely." He lowered the blade until it touched the tender skin of her neck. Buffy couldn't move. She wondered where Xander was right now, and wished they hadn't left things so badly.

Suddenly, the door to the factory burst open with a loud bang. Willow -- her face mostly healed but still looking a little juicy -- strode into the room on her high heels and demanded, "What the HELL is going on here?"

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



When Willow was gone, Oz helped the remaining band members off the stage and led them to the door where Giles and Sonya were helping people leave. They were pretty much the last living people in the club -- all the others had escaped, were dead or were undead.

"Now what?" Oz asked Giles and Sonya.

"Where's Buffy?" Giles demanded. "Did you leave her in there?"

"She's not in there," Oz protested. "She never came back from the bathroom. Isn't she out here with you?"

"We haven't seen her," Giles said. His face paled. "Now what are we going to do?"

Sonya looked at her Watcher in surprise. Why did he care about Buffy all of a sudden? She thought back to the last time she'd seen Buffy. The blonde girl had disappeared awfully fast from the hallway in front of the bathroom.

Then a thought struck her. The window in the hall had been open. Before she could change her mind, Sonya blurted all this out, ending with, "I thought she'd gone back to the table with Oz, but ... do you think she could have been kidnapped?"

Oz looked serious. "Either kidnapped, or dead."

"Look," Giles ordered, "whatever happened to her, we can't help her now, but we'd better get in there and help Angel and Xander."

Suddenly, a large number of Spike's gang who had decided the hallway might offer more prey stood in front of them.

"Or maybe we should help ourselves," Oz said, pulling out his squirt gun. Then they all heard a loud roaring sound and an unnatural wind picked up inside the building.

Uncaring, Sonya pulled a stake from her bag and flung it with perfect accuracy at one of the vamps. It disappeared into dust. The other vamps started running.

"Am I that scary?" she wondered aloud.

"No," Oz said, "that's scary."

She looked behind her, back toward the bathrooms, and saw huge, orange tongues of flame licking the walls. Identical flames had appeared in the main part of the club as well.

"Get out!" Giles yelled, herding the two teens toward the door.

"But what about Xander?" Sonya yelled.

"He and Angel will have to take care of themselves. There's nothing we can do for them now."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



"Willow, my darling," Nathan said, pulling the knife back from Buffy's throat. "You're early."

"Lucky I was," Willow replied, stalking over to the other side of the table. They faced each other with Buffy between them. "I think the Order would like to know about this. You abandoned everyone else in your group to focus on healing yourself with someone you're supposed to be killing."

Nathan shrugged. "She'll die either way."

"I'm not paying you to make yourself stronger. I'm paying you to kill the five thorns in my side, including her."

"Gillian and Kate will take care of the others," Nathan said, gesturing toward the magic fire. "See..." His voice trailed off as he actually looked at the scene in the Bronze for the first time in several minutes. He saw his girls fallen -- Gillian was dead, and Kate was unconscious, slowly bleeding to death. None of the targets had been eliminated.

"You were saying?" Willow asked snidely.

Nathan howled in rage. His girls were dead -- or as good as. He began chanting the words to a spell that he'd only use for a last resort. The flames in the fireplace jumped in response, and moved through the magic portal he'd created. Seconds later the Bronze was ablaze.


Nathan hit the ground, hard, and looked up at Willow with a deadly glare. "I would have been able to keep him safe, but you broke my concentration. Now the fire is only under it's own control. I hope your Spike knows how to run."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



When Spike saw the flames he knew that he'd stayed too long at the party. He didn't see Willow anywhere, but he knew that the red head could take care of herself. She wasn't weak like Dru had been.

The blond vampire ran for the nearest window, and started smashing it with a nearby chair. Some of his minions rushed over to help. The window was small and raised. Spike had to jump for it. When he grasped the sill, strong hands grabbed him and pulled him the rest of the way out. He looked up to see Seth, one of his best lieutenants.

"Good job," Spike said approvingly. "Bloody great job, actually."

They looked back in the window, but the flames were already touching the other vamps. Several of them exploded as they watched. Spike shrugged at the screams. "Let's get back to the factory. We'll find more hired help later."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Giles, Oz and Sonya stood a few yards away from the blazing building. They could hear sirens in the distance. A crowd had formed behind them made up of escapees and onlookers.

"Where's Xander?" Sonya asked for the millionth time.

Giles just watched. He wanted more than anything to see either of his friends come out, but with each second that ticked by he had less and less hope. Especially for Angel -- fires were deadly for humans, but even more so for a vampire, soul or not.

Then they all heard a loud creaking and groaning noise.

"Uh oh," Oz said under his breath.

Giles echoed the sentiment in his own mind. There was a loud crash as the roof of the Bronze gave way to the fire and caved in.


"Hey, look at that..." The cry came from somewhere in the crowd behind them. Giles opened his eyes and saw two silhouettes approaching out of the haze. It was two men supporting each other as they walked. As the figures got closer, their features became more distinguishable.

"It's them," Giles breathed, sending thanks to the higher powers that had granted them this miracle.

Xander let go of Angel when the pair reached their friends. He leaned down and gave Sonya a hug. "I'm so sorry," he whispered.

"It's OK," Sonya replied, tears clogging her voice. "I'm just glad you're alive. Nothing else matters. But if you ever, ever scare me like that again..."

"That's a real threat, man," Oz said. "I wouldn't test her."

Xander laughed, and then his smile faded when his searching eyes didn't find the one person he wanted most to see. "Uh... guys, where's Buffy?"

 

Part 20


The Factory

Willow and Nathan watched the magic window onto the Bronze until the fire was down to its last embers. Willow did a little happy dance when she saw Spike get out in time, but when she noticed that none of the four remaining targets had perished, she slugged Nathan as hard as she could.

"It's not fair!" Willow moaned, glaring in Buffy's direction. "I wanted the joy of sucking her dry, but now we have to keep her alive." She walked over to the table, her high-heeled boots clicking on the floor. "You lucked out this time. You've been upgraded to hostage. But that doesn't mean we can't have fun with you..."

Nathan picked himself up, and dusted himself off, glaring at Willow. "You act like this is all my fault. Who was the vampire that ran screaming from the Bronze when faced with a midget with a squirt gun?"

"Yeah, well," Willow whined defensively, "you're the one that said your little group was the best around. Now they're dead and the whitehats are still alive. You suck."

The sorcerer rolled his eyes, and returned to his magic supplies.

"What are you doing?" Willow demanded suspiciously.

"Just a little insurance," Nathan replied. He released a pinch of red powder into the air, and it crackled and exploded. "...in case they come here looking for her. A coating of this stuff hurts like hell."

On the table, Buffy tested her restraints. She didn't really see the point. They never loosened. But what else was she going to do? Lay there and cry? She was shocked when the leather strap binding her right hand suddenly gave a little. She looked quickly towards Willow and the sorcerer. Was Nathan looking at her? Buffy stopped moving, but there was a tiny gleam of hope in her heart. If they ever left her alone, maybe she could get free and warn the others about whatever it was Nathan was cooking up.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Five sweaty, soot-covered people reeking of smoke fumes straggled into the library an hour later. Angel and Xander fanned out to check the perimeters, making sure there wasn't another trap, and the other three slumped down at the table. Assured that the missing member of the Order of Taraka wasn't lying in wait for them, Angel and Xander came back and gratefully took seats of their own.

Xander was the first to speak. Sooty streaks decorated his cheeks and forehead, and his shirt was bloody in front. Paramedics called to the scene of the fire had dressed the gouges made by the she-wolf, but the shirt would be considered a definite casualty. His eyes narrowed on Giles, Oz and Sonya. "Now will you answer my question? What happened to Buffy?" He'd been holding his peace a long time -- tending to the wounded and doing what they could to help had taken precedence. But he couldn't keep silent anymore. His heart sank when they exchanged nervous glances.

"Honestly, we don't know," Giles finally said.

"You don't know?" Xander accused. He was unsure how to feel -- grateful that there wasn't proof of her death or scared that there wasn't proof of her life. The latter won out. "What the HELL do you mean, you don't know!" He stood up violently, and his chair flew back, hitting the floor with a crash. Sonya flinched.

Giles took off his glasses and rubbed his head, smearing the black soot around even more. "She was last seen leaving the bathrooms, but she never made it back to Oz."

"Either she got kidnapped, or she's dead," Sonya said in a soft voice. She felt a twinge of guilt, as if she could have done something. "Unless...well... maybe she got scared and ran away."

"No way!" Xander exploded. "Not Buffy! Something must've happened to her." His mind whirled, trying to come up with a possible scenario and grasping at straws. "Maybe... maybe Willow took her! Yeah, that sounds like something she'd do just to piss me off!"

Oz stood. "I'll go call Buffy's house, just in case." Giles gave the boy an approving look as the teen went into the office to use the phone.

The Watcher looked at Xander. "You've got to calm down. I agree that the loss of Miss Summers is quite distressing, but..."

"You're such a liar!" Xander yelled, advancing on Giles. "Quite distressing, my ass! You never cared about her, and you're the one who forced me to quit seeing her!" He grabbed Giles by the collar. "We never would have had to sneak around, if you'd just been a grown up and accepted the fact that we love each other. And if we hadn't had to sneak around behind your back, I could have kept her close to me in the Bronze, and this would never have happened! If she's dead, it's all your fault." He let go of Giles' shirt and the older man fell back into his chair with a loud thump.

"Don't, Xander!" Sonya cried, tears making tracks in the soot on her cheeks. "It's all my fault, not Giles. I was the one who told him Buffy was distracting you..."

Xander turned to Sonya, his supposed best friend, with new rage and a healthy dose of betrayal in his brown eyes. But he didn't grab her. She reached her hand out to him, but he ignored it. "Why?"

Her face drained of color behind the dirt, and the tears started coming faster. She started to say something, but choked on the words, and just turned away.

Then Oz came out from the office, his face drawn. "Mrs. Summers hasn't seen her. I told her that we got separated and for Buffy to call us if she comes home." He walked over to Sonya, and pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket. She accepted it from his hand and used it to cover her face.

*Buffy is dead* Xander thought simply. Part of him had hoped she'd run, even though he knew she wasn't that cowardly, and now his mind turned to the worst possible outcome. Pain started in his heart and threatened to overwhelm him.

A hand touched his shoulder. He looked up. It was Angel. "If they took her anywhere, it would be the Factory."

Taking strength from his friend, Xander straightened up and latched on to this idea, this last chance. "I'm going, now." He walked to the cage and began stuffing weapons into his pockets -- a new boot knife, plenty of stakes and crosses, cross bow bolts, and he slung the crossbow over his shoulders by its strap. Once armed, he turned back to the others. His gaze was cold when it landed on Giles and Sonya, but he didn't say anything to them. He didn't trust himself to say anything civil, so he bowed to the wisdom of saying nothing at all. Instead, he looked at Oz. "Do you have any more of those squirt guns?"

The boy reached into his jacket and pulled out one that was florescent green. Oz tossed it to Xander who caught it deftly in one hand and tucked it into the waistband of his pants.

Then Xander looked at Angel. "Coming to back me up?"

"Don't go, Xander!" Giles finally said. "We don't even know if she's there. We need to find out for sure, and if she is there then we can formulate a concrete plan."

"I'm going," Xander insisted. He pointed to the beeper clipped to his belt. "If you find out any new information, beep me."

"Wait," Oz said. "I'll come with you."

"Too dangerous," Xander said.

"I want to help."

Angel stepped in. "He can drive the getaway car. Oz can stay outside with the van running, and if... when we find Buffy and get out of there, we'll have an escape route ready."

"Fine." Xander shrugged. "But if he becomes vampire chow, it's no skin off my nose. No offense, man."

"None taken," Oz replied, stopping in the cage for a few weapons of his own. Angel did the same.

The two teenagers had already started for the van, when Giles grabbed Angel's sleeve. The vampire turned.

"I'm going to perform the spell." He gestured to Buffy's purse laying on the table. Oz had kept it all this time. "There's a brush in there with a hair sample, and all we need is something with her genetic code. If the spell works, and she's there, she'll be able to help you. If it doesn't work, we know she's dead."

"What if she's undead?" Angel said quietly.

Giles looked worried but resolute. "That's a risk we just have to take."

Angel nodded, and followed the others out to the van.

Giles looked at Sonya. Her shoulders shook with a suppressed sob from time to time, but she had herself much more under control now. When she looked at him, he said, "I need your help. There's something about Buffy Summers that you should know."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~



Spike walked into the factory and surveyed the scene. Willow was arguing with Nathan -- Spike really didn't like that sorcerer, he seemed to have his own agenda, and Spike felt that he was the only one allowed to have one of those -- and Buffy was strapped to their dining room table.

"Willow, my pet," Spike said, removing his torn, dirty trench coat, "did you get a new centerpiece and not tell me about it?"

"Lover! You're back!" She ran over to him and threw herself into his arms for a spin. Spike held her for a minute, and then put her down.

"You still haven't told me what the girl is doing here."

"Nathan did it," Willow muttered with a dark glance in the sorcerer's direction. "But now we need her, as leverage against the whitehats."

"Bloody hell!" Spike swore. "They *all* got out alive? Remind me to call the Order and file an official complaint. We asked for five dead people, and we got four pissed off whitehats and a new centerpiece."

Willow pouted. "I think we should get our money back. Nathan sucks." Then she smiled. "And, speaking of sucking, I was thinking that it might be fun to add Xander's little blonde slut to our happy family. What do you think?"

Spike looked at the girl consideringly. "The idea has merit, my dear, why don't we..."

"Stop!"

Spike looked at Nathan angrily. "Who do you think you are, ordering me around in my own bloody house?"


Spike began to advance on Nathan who stood between him and his intended victim. "We paid you to kill her, and you didn't, so I'm just going to do it myself, you wanker."

Nathan's black eyes focused on Spike. "Before you do that, there's something you should know."

"What could you possibly say that would interest me?" Spike laughed. "I'm breathless with antici... wait, silly me, I don't really care. I'd rather eat!"

"Do you care that your lover Willow is the one who had Drusilla killed?"

That stopped Spike in his tracks. He looked at Willow. She was gazing at Nathan in horror.

"Yes," the sorcerer continued, "I dipped into her mind with my telepathy..."

"Now I know you're lying," Spike exclaimed with relief.

"Telepathy doesn't work on vampires. It's like the mirror thing -- no reflections."

Nathan was already shaking his head. "That may be true of ESP and other paltry forms of telepathy, but Druidic telepathy is much stronger. If a being has a mind, I can see into it." His eyes closed for a second, and then reopened with confidence. "Right now, you're remembering being one second too late and seeing Drusilla's body crumble to dust before your very eyes." Spike gasped. The sorcerer was telling the truth. He could see into vampire's minds.

Willow shrieked and ran in between the two men. "He's lying, Spikey. I would never have done that. And how generic is what he said? Of course you were thinking about Dru's death. He brought it up himself."

"Yes," Nathan said, "but could I guess that you arranged for Drusilla to find the little boy? In fact, you lead her there yourself, to a place where you know Angel would be patrolling. And then you led Spike there just in time to see her die. You're quite devious when you want to be."

Spike turned on Willow. His eyes glowed and his fangs descended. "Is this true? Is it?"

Willow stepped back. "No, of course not. Who are you going to believe, some incompetent sorcerer, or the woman who's been your partner for over a year?"

"She hated Dru," Nathan said. "She only pretended to like her to keep you fooled. She wanted Dru out of the way so she could rule Sunnydale with you. In fact, Willow doesn't even really like you. She wants Xander to rule with her. You're just a substitute."

Spike lunged for Willow and slapped her. His fingernails made bloody gashes across her cheek. Willow vamped out, getting angry in turn.

"You idiot!" she spat at Spike. "What does the past matter? Nathan is trying to divide us so that he can have Buffy so he can make himself stronger. He's playing you for a fool!"

"The past matters," Spike growled, "or at least it does to me."

While the vampires argued, Nathan turned toward Buffy, pulling the ornate dagger out of the folds of his robes. "That should keep them occupied for a while," he told her with a smile. "At least long enough for me to complete the ritual."

He lifted the knife up, and Buffy closed her eyes and tensed for the blow. Then she heard a thwack. She peeked out from beneath her lashes and saw a crossbow bolt protruding from Nathan's shoulder. The dagger clattered to the floor.

All eyes in the room turned toward the doorway where Xander was standing with the crossbow. From the shadows behind him, Angel was scarcely visible.

Spike yelled, and the ten vampires that had not gone to the Bronze came running in. "Kill him!" Spike ordered. "In fact, why stop there?" His smile bordered on the insane. "Why not kill everyone else, too?"

"Even her?" One of the vamps pointed at Willow.

Spike glared at his former lover. "Especially her."