The rain didn’t stop. Giles looked up into the boiling cloud cover and briefly wondered if it was just the bad timing of the storm that had been threatening for days, or if the violent opening of the dimensional portal had set it off somehow. But, at the moment, being wet was the least of his worries. He looked around the north quad, just the day before green and buzzing with training and laughter. Now all he could see was an army preparing for battle. So many girls, still so young, yet grimly determined to protect what had become home and family to many of them.
“Rupert,” a female instructor rushed up to him. One of the surviving watchers who’d returned to help him rebuild the Council. “Willow and young Tilly have filled us in on what happened. They’ve gotten everyone pretty well organized.” She seemed to read the worry in his eyes as he glanced around at the girls. “Miss Rosenburg ordered us to move everyone except the upper class to the other side of the compound. Russel and Jenkins are there doubling up the room assignments and turning the gym into living space. No one under sixteen is allowed to approach this area.”
Giles lowered his gaze, Buffy’s plea of, ‘I’m sixteen years old, I don’t want to die’ echoing in his head from the distant past. What kind of man was he? Preparing young girls for a life of battle.
When he looked back up, his eyes where hard and focused, his guilt having been swallowed down as years of practice had taught him to do so well. “Good. Have there been any further incidents?”
“No. But Willow says something like this must have been building here for a long time. We are organizing the slayers into four hour shifts. That way no one will be over-burdened.”
Giles nodded, “Carry on. Where is Miss Rosenburg?”
“Still up studying the site of the incident.” She pointed.
“Thank you.” He started away, then turned. “Make sure everyone is given sufficient rain gear. I don’t want an infirmary full of slayers with pneumonia from this bloody storm.” Giles hurried off, not seeing the affectionate smile his attention to the simple well-being of the girls had elicited.
“It’s still there, just dormant and out of phase with our visual perception.” Willow spoke without waiting to see who had come up behind her. She knew.
“Any ideas on how we can seal it?”
The redhead sighed and turned to look into his eyes. “Not a clue. All I know is this must have been placed here as a kind of booby-trap, and it’s been here for a while.”
Giles frowned. “As in how long? Has it been dormant since before we took possession of this campus? Or is it an attack on the slayers?”
“If I had to guess… maybe a year. It’s definitely meant for us. I was right before when I guessed about it feeding on power. Plus, the few tests I’ve managed to do so far tell me it really likes our kind of power. Watch this.” Willow faced her barrier and directed a small stream of energy toward the portal. The tear snapped open for a moment, then disappeared the instant she stopped the flow of power. “I’m guessing it could suck enough out of the slayers to take one through every now and then, but it really thought the banquet cart had arrived when you wandered by.”
“I felt it… just before it opened.” Giles rubbed the back of his neck wearily. “It almost felt like when Ethan and I used to…”
Willow offered him a knowing and sympathetic smile. “I know your energies never really recovered from… well, being put through the Willow blender.” He placed a comforting hand on her shoulder and the witch nodded, once more acknowledging she was sure of his forgiveness. “But it’s all still there. You’ve opened yourself up as a conduit many times and there are reserves still within your reach. This thing had a Big Gulp in front of it and you were the straw.”
Giles rolled his head back and stared up into the rain pounding down on him. “I should have reacted faster. I’m always putting everyone around me in danger.”
Willow gently placed a hand on his chest to bring his attention back to her. “Hey. Not your fault. Don’t start talking like that or… I might have to slap you back to your senses while Dawnie’s not around to do it.” This earned her a tiny smile. “How is this doing?” she tenderly caressed the bandages she could feel under his shirt. “And the others?”
“I’ll be fine,” the Watcher mumbled, jumping a little as Willow probed his wounds. “They’re preparing Andrew for surgery. Dawn stayed with him. I fear she may hold herself a bit responsible for his injury.”
“Gee, I wonder where she could have picked that habit up from,” Willow snorted sarcastically.
“You promised you were gonna stop doing that!” Rona frowned at Willow as she walked up with Tilly.
“Sorry,” the witch smiled. “I was showing Giles what we’ve learned so far.”
“This is for you.” Tilly handed Willow a note, then turned to Giles. “You shouldn’t be so close, Mr. Giles. It needlessly puts you in danger. I’ve organized extra guards for you while there is trouble in the compound.” The Slayer pointed behind him and Giles turned to look.
“Six more,” he sighed. “Tilly, I still have you and the entire place is on alert.”
“Obliviously, I was not enough. You are one that we cannot afford to risk.”
“I’ll have you know I was risking my life for this damned world long before any of you were even conceived. I don’t need all this focus when there is more to lose here than my pathetic excuse of an existence.” His outburst completely deflated under the unphased gazes of Willow, Tilly, and Rona. Whipping off his glasses, he tried to sponge some water from his face with his damp handkerchief. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled.
Giles almost jumped when his remaining honor guard softly touched his forearm. “I lost her to, Mr. Giles. The only thing I can do for Katrina now is to protect you as well as she would have. In her memory. She died doing what she had sworn to do, and wishing she hadn’t disrespects her.”
The tall man swallowed hard and gave her a slight nod. “You’ve done a remarkable job organizing our response in my absence. Thank you.”
“Team MGA is ready to go on point,” Rona announced after the moment of silence stretched out. “We’re ready to stand watch until the enemy is defeated.”
Giles smiled at the leader of his elite team. “Tell the rest of Team Si… um, my Avengers,” her grin lit up at his use of their chosen team name, “that I want you all to stick to the four hour shifts like the rest. Move into the nearest building if you like, to be on hand if an alarm is sounded. But I want you rested. Tell the girls to split up and intermingle with the other slayers. I know some out here are untested. Make sure there is a veteran slayer with every group. That should calm any nerves and hopefully prevent accidents. We’re watching for now. No rushing into a battle that’s unnecessary.”
“We’ll get it done,” Rona nodded.
“They were able to contact the coven,” Willow looked up from the note. “Miss Harkness says they are gathering basic protection materials and will be here shortly. Some are staying behind to consult their library. And their most powerful apprentices should be popping in,” there was a bright flash of light several feet away, “now,” the witch grinned. She nodded at Giles and his slayers. “We’ll strengthen the barrier, you see to the troops.”
A hand shot out and snatched the flying cup from the air just before it collided with Xander’s nose. “Nice reflexes,” the young man breathed.
“Glad to help,” Faith grinned. “Not like you got much more to lose or anything.”
Xander made a mock gesture of being hurt at her gentle ribbing, but the affectionate smile on his lips ruined the effect. They both turned to scan the large library for the source of the flying kitchenware. He was easy to spot, sitting at one of the work stations with his head in his hands. The rest of the long, beautiful library hall had been completely deserted.
“Hey, G-man,” Xander said softly as they approached. “Got some frustration you wanna unload on some willing shoulders?”
Faith slid her hip onto the table. “I agree it’s an ugly cup,” she chuckled, setting it down on the hard surface. “Doesn’t necessarily mean it deserves to die.”
Giles slowly looked up at his young friends. His eyes were blurry and his cheeks dark with stubble. The top buttons of his shirt were undone under the tie that hung loose around his neck. His hair stood up in places, a telling sign that he had run his hands through it a couple of thousand times.
“I couldn’t bring myself to throw the book, no matter how useless it is.” His voice was rough, as if he’d been abusing his vocal cords.
“Geez, G,” Faith said with kindness. “Last time we saw you, you were mostly dead. You look worse.”
Giles snorted at her observation. “Thanks ever so much.”
Xander place a light hand on his shoulder. “So, where’s the rest of the crack research staff. Thought we’d find you in here cracking a whip.”
“I sent them all to bed,” Giles replied. “Everyone had been working their hardest for more than two days straight. The tension was becoming rather hazardous.” He picked up the coffee cup. “As you might have noticed.”
“And what about you?” Faith crossed her arms. “How long since you got any sleep?”
“My students are in danger,” Giles said simply. The Slayer gazed at him with a cocked eyebrow, knowing she didn’t even have it start this argument. He sighed heavily. “Old habits. But, I am glad you came. Both of you.”
“Hey,” Xander’s head popped up from a book he had been looking at a couple of tables away. “When Willow does the flashy appearing thing in front of you and tells you that the Big Guy needs help, not like there’s anything else you can do.”
“Besides,” Faith added, “It’s quiet out there. Like the whole demon world is holding its breath, waiting to see if this thing can take the slayers out. I prefer to be at ground zero, and this is it.”
“And I’d rather ground zero wasn’t in the place where I am trying to teach young girls how to survive past their adolescence!” Giles closed his eyes and shook his head slowly. “Sorry,” he murmured.
“I got ya, G.” Faith looked at him with understanding in her dark eyes. “Better you bite my head off than someone who might not deserve it. These kids are lucky to have someone like you looking out for them.”
“And doing a splendid job of it,” the Watcher groaned.
“So,” Xander said brightly as he walked back to the occupied table. “Planning on taking any company on your trip?” Giles blinked at him. “Hey, I’ve earner my Watcher stripes, ya know. All these other tables are loaded with books on portals and the magicks used to open and close them. Everything in front of you has to do with other dimensions and how to determine which one you’re headed to.”
“I thought it would be helpful if I looked into…” Giles began slowly, but his explanation ground to a halt as he stared into eyes that knew him too well. “Four girls were taken before I even knew there was something wrong. If there’s the slightest hope…”
“Didn’t say you couldn’t hope, Big Guy. Just reminding you that you don’t ever have to go it alone. Not anymore.”
“He’s right,” Faith hopped off the table. “You get your chance, we’ll be right behind you.”
Giles looked up at them with tears pricking behind his eyes. He couldn’t be more proud of the people these two had grown into. All he could bring himself to respond with was a curt nod.
“Now… About getting you into bed for a while.” Faith took his arm and gave a tug. “Red and her gaggle have the protection mojo working full blast. There’s time for you to get some rest.” She glanced over and caught Xander trying to suppress a snigger. A quick rewind of what she’d just said revealed what he’d found funny. “Not this time,” she told him with a smirk. “I like to make sure he’s at full strength before I play roll the Watcher.”
The Slayer laughed at the look on Xander’s face. Clearly he was working hard to decide how truthful she was being. Giles rolled his eyes and pretended not to know what they were insinuating. He let Faith take his arm and steer him towards the doorway.
“Mr. Giles!” One of his guards burst in a moment before alarms sounded throughout the compound. “Something’s coming through,” she panted. “It’s big.”
Glancing gratefully at the others, Giles sighed, “No rest for the wicked.” The three Scoodies hurried out the library doors and where surrounded by a protecting formation of slayers as they quickly made their way to the north quad.
The entire group slid to a halt as one upon entering the quad. Giles made a mental note that he really should come up with a new system to quantify what a slayer meant by ‘big’. The thing forcing its way through the rift was at least a story tall and nearly as wide. If some mad scientist had crossed an elephant with a giant squid it would never have come out so hideous. There were limbs flailing everywhere, emerging from a stout, stalky, seemingly impenetrable body. The thing howled angrily when it hit the magickal barrier, though from where Giles couldn’t place as there was no discernible head, and hurled its massive force against the blocking energy.
“Stand ready,” he heard Kennedy’s voice cut through the maddening sound and quickly spotted her in front of a group of slayers preparing to fight this monster, Rona and her team right behind her. Even from a distance, he could tell she was watching the witches that made up their first line of defense carefully.
Faith and Xander left his side to join the impending fray, but before Giles could move, his guards pressed in close around him. He felt helpless having to watch as one young witch collapsed when the strain grew too much, blood streaming from his nose. In an instant, Kennedy ordered slayers forward to pull him from harm’s way. Then an older women fell, and another.
“Coven retreat,” Kennedy bellowed as Faith gave her a reassuring nod. “You’ve done enough. Let us show this big pile of ugly what kind of hornet’s nest it’s stumbled into.”
The remaining witches quickly followed the order, leaving the barrier unattended and falling back to offer support if needed. Everyone held their breaths as the behemoth hurled its bulk at the faltering magick again and again.
The stillness of the wait was surreal. Moments that seemed to stretch on forever. A shroud of silence descending, even as the great beast howled. Then the magick shattered into shards like a giant pane of glass and the moment of peace shattered with it.
Slayers swarmed forward, attempting to overwhelm the creature with their greater numbers. They moved as one unit, attacking and dodging the thick, heavy limbs. When one slayer was swatted away another took her place instantly. It had the beauty of a choreographed dance, one laced with blood and pain.
The Head of the Watcher’s Council looked on from his cocoon of guards at the ready. Pride swelled in his chest at the sight of this well oiled machine of strength and steel. His slayers moving with fearless confidence, sure in their training and abilities. Rupert Giles looked on with fear and bile in his throat. He could feel every hit his young students took. He held back his tears at every girl who hit the ground and did not spring back up.
A lanky slayer landed hard near his group and didn’t move. He ordered his guards to get her and pull her out of danger. They all shared a glance and nodded as one. Two peeled from the group to help retrieve their fallen sisters as the remaining four pressed in closer to protect their charge.
Too many. Too many girls where falling away. They couldn’t seem to inflict enough damage to even slow the monster down. Giles stepped forward, the command to retreat forming in his mouth, when he heard Xander’s sure voice echo from across the battlefield.
“Slayer’s down!” the young Watcher commanded. Faith, Kennedy, and the others instantly hit the ground and rolled quickly away from the thrashing limbs. As soon as they were out of the line of fire a volley of large, wooden bolts flew in to strike the beast. A few found soft flesh and ripped a pain-laden growl from their target, but most just bounced off. At the other end of the quad the bank of Roman Scorpion crossbows were all ready being reloaded. “Hit ‘em again,” Xander shouted. Another volley of bolts was fired, to little effect.
“Time to bring this fight forward a few centuries,” an older Watcher rolled up beside Xander in a sleek wheelchair. He raised his arm and the unmistakable sound of the bolt actions of the line of .50 caliber rifles atop the roof behind them sliding into place sent hearts into throats. The Watcher threw his arm forward and the ring of gunfire was deafening.
Thick, dark blood spattered from gaping holes that riddled their foe. “Keep it up,” Faith shouted. “Put enough holes in the bitch to bring it down and we’ll make sure it doesn’t get up again.” Both watchers nodded and ordered everything they had to be sent down range. At last the beast released a throaty gurgle and stumbled forward. It rocked and began to topple.
At that instant a bright flash appeared in the quad. Willow had finally found Buffy and brought her home. Just in time for both to be crushed under the avalanche of hideous flesh. Everyone stood, stunned and frozen as they could only watch the impending disaster. He didn’t know how or why, but Giles found himself to be the only one in motion. Having escaped his guards, he moved faster than he ever thought possible, hurtling forward into certain death. Two stood before him. Two he loved far more than he’d ever loved his own life. But there was only one chance. The slim possibility that one could be saved. Without thinking he made his choice, crashing into the girl with enough force to break bones and driving her back and to the ground as the beast fell all around them. Giles’ eyes stayed clenched tight as he held her close and waited for oblivion.
Everything fell silent. He felt the pressure of a great weight pinning his legs, but nothing else seemed amiss. Giles dared to open his eyes and looked down into the smiling face of the girl cradled beneath him.
Her deep green eyes gazed at him brightly. “Glad to see you, too,” Willow grinned with as much voice as her windless lungs could muster. Giles couldn’t help but grin back.
“They’re in there! I don’t care if you have to chop this thing apart to get them out. Find them.” Muffled voices could be heard through the walls of flesh surrounding them.
Giles shouted, “We’re here! Something has me pinned!”
“I hear him. This way!”
“Me too,” Willow said in a small voice just for him. “But I don’t really mind.” At her statement, Giles became very aware of his position lying atop her and couldn’t hide an embarrassed blush. Willow’s giggling at him didn’t help matters.
“I-I’m sorry. I can’t seem to move much,” the Watcher stammered uncomfortably.
“I’m all right, Giles. You’re not hurting me where you are now. I was just teasing you a little.” Her bright smile was more than he could fight. “Besides, if I really didn’t like it, I could always blast us out of here.”
“Of course,” Giles chuckled at himself for the thought never having occurred to him. “Why don’t you?”
Her breath tickled as she whispered in his ear. “Let’s give ‘em a minute. Ken always gets this really cute proud look on her face when she gets to rescue me. Plus, it’s been a while since Buffy’s had the chance to save her Watcher.”
All he could do was laugh and shake his head at his favorite witch. Deep inside the dread began to stir. He had made his choice and saved Willow, but he wasn’t as sure as she seemed to be that his Slayer had reached safety on her own.
Faith slid under his shoulder, practically lifting him on her own from the slick and sticky mess of the dark blood pooling around them as the last of the dead flesh was chopped away. She slipped, almost dropping him back onto Willow when his abused legs protested his weight, but another girl took his other side. Giles looked up to thank the new help, but his voice caught in his throat. Relief spread through him like a wildfire.
Buffy smiled as they hauled him forward, giving Kennedy and Xander room to get to Willow. “Good call using those old rugby moves on Wills,” the blond Slayer told him. “I just barely got out of there with my slayer reflexes.”
Giles groaned with pain when they gently set him down on a severed limb. Part of him felt the need to apologize to his Slayer for not choosing to save her life. Yet, another part of him knew he’d made the only possible choice he could have lived with. At that moment he convinced himself that Buffy was right and he’d known she’d be safe.
“And what’s with all the fire power?” Buffy continued. “Since when do slayers use guns?”
Giles slipped off his glasses, knowing he had little hope of cleaning them as every inch of him was soaked with blood, and tried to form an answer. He didn’t have to when the Watcher in the wheelchair rolled up and answered for him. “Firearms have always been included in Council training. All field watchers must be proficient in every known weapons category. Of course, it was up to the individual watchers to decide the best training methods for their slayers.”
“I-I never thought you needed the extra help,” Giles whispered, not looking up at her.
Kennedy walked up with Willow. “I think he’s trying not to tell you he thought you’d shoot yourself in the foot,” she said in her blunt manner among stifled giggles. Before Buffy could form a comeback, Kennedy threw herself into the arms of the Watcher in the wheelchair. “I missed you, Gerald! You look like you belong in this place. A big wig on campus. Thanks for kicking ass.”
He grinned at his potential, now slayer. “I’ve missed you too, love. I couldn’t be more proud of your behind kicking abilities as well.”
Giles’ eyes were focused beyond the reunion, on where the magick barrier was being replaced by the coven. He felt Xander’s hand grip his shoulder. “Not yet,” the young man whispered in his ear. Then he stood and shouted, “Let’s hurry up with those stretchers. Get the wounded to the infirmary, double-time.” Looking back down, he added kindly, “That includes you and Wills.”The older Watcher gave a defeated smile and nodded.
To Chapter Three