WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Willow and Kennedy held each other tight, looking horrified. “It can’t be,” Willow gasped.
Kennedy shook her head, still unable to believe this could happen to them. “You want us to go . . . to Cleveland?”
Grinning, Dawn turned from them to see what Giles’ reaction would be. The Watcher, looking perturbed, yanked off his glasses and began rubbing at some nonexistent spot. “There’s a slayer there, living on top of a known Hellmouth. You can get her away from there until she’s trained, and at the same time scout out the situation.”
“Yeah, but it’s Cleveland,” Kennedy said.
Willow nodded. “We were kinda hoping our first assignment would be, maybe, the beaches of Brazil, or Alcupulco.”
“This is not a vacation, Willow, it’s an assignment.”
“And we should go happily, because . . .” Kennedy pretended to consider it. “Because you pay so well?”
“You are being provided with housing, food, expenses, and training.”
Dawn turned to Xander, who sat beside her on a couch in the building’s living area. With a wink -- or he could have been blinking, since Dawn couldn’t see his other eyelid behind the patch -- Xander addressed his friend the witch, and her slayer lover. “What are you guys complaining about? We’re going to Indiana.”
“And we’re going nowhere,” Rona added, from where she and a handful of other slayers sat in one corner. Beside her, Chao-Ahn was engrossed in a book called “English for Dummies”.
“That’s right,” Vi added. “This place is roomy, but it’s been a week and we haven’t been out at all.”
“I have arranged a visit to some local museums, to give you a break in your training.”
Rona gave Giles what could only be described as an evil eye. Vi rolled her own eyes, while Chao-Ahn rifled through the book, looking for the definition of “museum”.
Four new slayers, who had somehow arrived in Chicago before Buffy’s band could even get settled in, looked on in confusion. Guided by Giles’ small but far ranging group of contacts, the new slayers were finding their way to Chicago at the rate of one or two a day. Although Dawn had tried to give them an orientation of sorts, there hadn’t been time to cover the personality quirks of watchers or Scoobies.
One of them would end up strangling Giles, Dawn thought. He’d been paranoid ever since they got here, although that was hardly surprising considering how many potentials and slayers he’d seen die in the previous months. Just the same, she was glad to be getting out for awhile -- especially since she’d been wondering, ever since Buffy left that morning, just what her purpose was here. Tour guide for new arrivals?
Andrew burst into the room, and bounded up to Giles. “Mr. Giles, I defragged the hard drives and double checked the firewalls -- there’s no spyware.”
Giles blinked at him.
“And I put up a really cool X-Men screen saver.”
“Well, you put me in charge of the computers while Willow’s gone, and --”
“Never mind.” Giles had turned slightly red.
Dawn rubbed her face to hide a smile, and reflected that Giles’ next big project would probably be to figure out where he could send Andrew. Ever since telling the story of how Anya had died to save his life, Andrew had been tripping over himself to be helpful, as if trying to make up for her loss. “We should be going, Xander.”
“Right, let’s get this road trip -- um, tripping.”
What followed, unsurprisingly, was a flurry of hugs and handshakes, and promises to be careful and stay in touch. Willow and Kennedy left to prepare for their own trip, while Xander shouldered his and Dawn’s bags and headed for the parking garage. It turned out the Watcher’s Council had provided this place with a small fleet of vehicles, and Xander had chosen a van, since there might be four of them plus belongings on a long journey back.
But Dawn held back a bit, until Andrew left to hover around the slayers and she could take a minute alone with Giles. She had come to think of him as a member of her own family, and knew he felt the same as she did about one subject. “Giles -- have you checked the map?”
He nodded, and to her surprise leaned forward to kiss her on the forehead. “As we suspected, she’s heading toward California. What she expects to accomplish, I have no idea. Perhaps she just has to satisfy her curiosity.”
Dawn nodded. “I know the feeling.” Then, to keep from choking up again, she turned to follow Xander. They had a lengthy drive ahead, but she was looking forward to contributing in her own small way, and it didn’t seem like a very dangerous mission.
Buffy was dreaming. She hoped.
Spike and Angel stood before her, in Sunnydale’s northernmost graveyard, the one nearest her home. All this, she told herself, was now in a big hole in the ground, which held Spike’s ashes. But there the two vampires stood, staring at each other, trading --
Much to Buffy’s surprise, Angel wasn’t very good, and she realized she’d never heard him sing in real life:
You don’t know what I’d do for you
I’ve gone through hell and more
This guy’s just no good for you
He just treats you like a --
Spike shoved Angel over a nearby tombstone, and proceeded to demonstrate that rocking baritone voice she’d heard before.
This bozo’s soul is boring and dull
A dose of NoDoze wouldn’t phase him at all
You know I’m the one who makes your blood flow
So dump him now and we’ll go on with our show --
Angel leaped at his nemesis, and they wrestled for a moment until Buffy came between them, giving two powerful shoves to force them apart. Staring at them in a rage, she said --
You don’t have a heart, between you two
All you ever gave was hurt and heartbreak
One of you just left, again and again
and the other one just caused me pain
When Spike started to protest, she raised a hand to stop him.
I’m tired of fighting
You may be good at sex but you’re better at biting
Neither one of you can be
In the place I want to see
No more monsters, no more night
No more slayers sent to fight --
Buffy stopped short, staring at the tombstone Angel had tripped over.
As she watched, a shadow covered her mother’s grave, and she looked up to see a small, balding little man wearing a seedy gray suit. He held up two yellow squares and grinned at her, while a very tall man wearing military camouflage crept up behind him.
“The cheese sings to me.”
Buffy opened her eyes, and almost vaulted out of her seat, before she remembered she was on a moving bus. She glanced around, but night had fallen, and she saw no sign that the few occupants of the Greyhound had noticed her startled awakening.
Wow. What a weird dream. It had been realistic enough to make her wonder if it was one of her prophetic slayer dreams, but what was the chance of that? She’d detected no threat, just -- weirdness. Extreme weirdness.
That cheese guy seemed awfully familiar, though.
“That was fun,” Cheeseman announced.
“Yes, we should take it on the road,” Sweet replied. “Buffy lost her rhyme, though, for a moment . . . she seemed very close to wresting the dream back away from us.”
“A talent slayers have. Don’t let it concern you, I know her limitations.”
They stood in the same silver throne room, in front of something the teenager girl who called herself Ozma informed them was a magic mirror. This was more or less how Sweet usually spied on those he used his powers on; but for Cheeseman, who hovered on the edge of his victims’ dreams, it was a unique experience.
Cheeseman rubbed his chin. “The slayers are separated from their leader. But there’s no one, demon or vampire, near enough to this bus route to attack her.”
“Never mind that. If your plan works, it will wipe them all out at once.”
“Yes,” came Ozma’s sweet voice from behind them. “And my newest guest is here to hear your request.”
The two demons turned in time to see -- something -- enter the throne room. No more than a shadow, it swept across the large space, leaving everything dull and lackluster. It was as if all the lights dimmed in the wake of a black, wispy smoke. Sweet shivered despite himself, and he noticed Ozma slip her bare arms under the gauzy layers of her gown. Maybe, he realized, this form was more her than he had assumed.
“I am here.” It could have been one voice, or many speaking simultaneously, in both high and low tones -- if this was one being, it could be its own chorus.
Cheeseman, with a nervous glance at Sweet, took a step forward and bowed. “I come to you in supplication, oh great one. I wish to --”
“I know what you wish,” the voice declared. “I know all.”
If I had a dime for every being that gave that line, Sweet thought, but he didn’t dare say that out loud.
A long silence followed. Cheeseman, head still bowed, glanced back at Sweet, who quickly shook his head. His intuition told him speaking right now would be a grave mistake.
“The slayer will go to Los Angeles,” the voice suddenly said. “She will take others away from there.”
“Yes, great one,” Cheeseman said.
“More slayers will come, but then they will also leave with one of their own. Once they have left, you must not allow another slayer to enter that city.”
“Yes, great one.”
“You promise this, and we will give our assistance.”
We? Sweet raised an eyebrow.
“I promise, great one,” Cheeseman said.
“The supplies you need will be sent to you from the Wolf, Ram and Heart. When they arrive, you must go in body, to a gathering point. There the key must be turned, by a slayer’s second blood. You must have a mystical energy source to engage the transformation. Do this, and if the incantations are correct the bodily essence of the slayers will cross back over, under your control.”
“Yes, great --” Cheeseman looked up as the lights suddenly brightened.
“He is gone,” said a somber looking Ozma.
I bet that one wouldn’t even hum a chorus, Sweet thought.
“You deal with the power of gods.” Ozma glanced only a moment at Sweet, then turned to Cheeseman. “The Senior Partners rarely come to this plane of existence in person. Something besides your plan brought that one here. You’re part of some much greater scheme, and I fear you may be caught in the crossfire.”
“I’ll take that chance.” Cheeseman gleefully rubbed his hands, which for once carried no cheese. “If it will give me an unkillable army of slayers.”
“It will.” Ozma turned her still troubled gaze on Sweet.
“Sounds like a hell of a show,” Sweet told her, although for once his bravado was mostly fake. “Perhaps you’ll join me for a waltz afterward?”
“Perhaps. If there is any reality left to dance on.”