PART TEN: 24th to 25th September 2004
Chapter One: Seeing the Sights: Slayer Style (...this wasn't on the tour!)
Buffy crouched behind the rim of a fountain. It wasn't as famous or extravagant as the Trevi or any number of other fountains around Rome, but she wasn't here for sight-seeing, and just as well, seeing as all the sights around here seemed to have disappeared.
"I'm sure this is the piazza," she whispered to her companions.
Angel was squatting on one side of her, Dawn on the other and Spike the other side of Dawn. They were all scanning the square over the marble lip, but coming up blank.
"It's just a brick wall, luv."
"Faith told me he can cloak the palace." Buffy frowned though, not entirely sure this wasn't the wrong place and exactly what it looked like.
They'd gotten turned around more than once between the club and here, chasing demons carrying Andrew down one street only to be headed off at a crossroads and chased down a completely different street by demons carrying big battle-axes.
"Spike, does that look familiar?"
Buffy glanced at Angel, wondering what he'd spotted.
"Bloody hell," Spike grinned nastily. "Yeh, I remember when the narcissistic bastard had it sculpted too. All the way to Berlin Dru was saying how good his bloody muscles looked in marble."
"I think they're talking about the statue," Dawn mumbled.
It was the first time she had spoken since they'd all rushed out of the club. Dawn was blaming herself, feeling bad for letting Andrew get snatched right in front of her. Maybe that was the reason Buffy was sacrificing prophecy-foiling time to save him. Dawn shouldn't have to feel guilty when this was all her fault.
She should have figured out the prophecy sooner. She should have come up with a better plan than waiting until the last minute. She should have been more open to spying on her girlfriend, and manipulating her into giving up secrets.
Eavesdropping and reading her private journal were as James Bond as she'd been able to get, though, and it was hard to manipulate a person when that person was in Japan and you weren't.
Oh yeah, it was so much easier to have phone sex with them instead and ignore their evil side until it bit her on the ass. If she hadn't been so focused on Faith, she would have figured all this out so much earlier.
Then again, if she hadn't been so focused on Faith she might never have figured it out, or cared enough to, at all. Probably what Troy had been hoping for when he'd introduced her to Toni.
There were so many statues all over the city that Buffy hadn't taken any special interest in this one. Now her eyes started at the bare feet and worked upwards. Halfway up the sheet she recognized it. She‘d never looked at it from this angle before, but now it was obvious.
"Oh, eww! Are you telling me that's Troy? I thought it was hot!"
At least, that meant the brick wall wasn't just a brick wall. She focused on it again irritably.
Andrew had been kidnapped twenty-four hours before Faith was to be impregnated with Troy's prophetic baby. She hadn't needed Quantiaro to tell her it was a stalling tactic. She'd had only one idea on how to turn this to her advantage, though, and that was why they were crouching outside Troy's palace.
If Buffy could contact Faith and tell her Andrew was missing, presumed kidnapped by demons, then surely the other slayer would rush to join the rescue mission. After all, she was all about the good deeds now, and not in just a sarcastic way anymore. She'd have to come.
Which meant Faith would be with her, not Troy, jeopardizing his plans for tomorrow and he would have to release Andrew to call off the rescue. All Buffy had to do once they had Andrew back was convince Faith they needed a two slayer guard to the airport so that Angel and Spike could escort a shaken Andrew back to the States.
Angel would call ahead, and once they were all on board, his pilot would ‘accidentally' take off before Faith knew what was happening. By the time she'd landed in LA and managed to get a return flight to Rome, the equinox would have been over for a day at least.
It was a perfect plan, or would have been if Faith was answering her damn phone! She tried again, hitting speed dial one, but had even less joy this time.
"She's turned it off!" Snapping it closed, she stowed it back in her handbag. "She never turns it off."
"Maybe she's busy," said Dawn.
"I know she's busy; and I know exactly what she's busy doing! But, trust me; she never turns it off even when she's doing that."
"Call her a lot during nookie, do you?" Spike asked innocently.
"No but... but..."
Dawn quirked an eyebrow at her. "But but?"
Buffy scowled, feeling like she was getting ganged up on. "But I know her habits pretty well by now. Her turning it off is definitely a bad sign."
"Maybe she just wanted some privacy," Angel said quietly. "It can't be easy for her."
"What?" she asked absently.
She was trying to force her eyeballs to see through the brick wall to how many guards might be stationed on the entrance. If Troy was expecting them he might have put more than the usual two minions out front. She didn't fancy popping through the phantom brick wall and coming face to face with half of his personal army.
"Having you so prominent in her life again."
Her next response was anything but absent as she snapped her head around to look at him, barely keeping her voice down. "What?"
"It took me a long time to understand how much she needed you to like her." Angel's whisper was a deliberate reminder. "And, deep down, how anxious she was for you to forgive her."
"Yeah, that wasn't really the vibe I was getting."
There had been a lot of vibes, but anxious for forgiveness had never really been one of them. Even now Faith would rather get her absolution from Troy, not trusting Buffy's brand to get the job done. Nope, she was only good for clocking up more sins if their little affair was anything to go by.
"It can't have been easy for her seeing you again. Not knowing how you were going to react, whether you'd let go of the past, let her in..."
"Love her back?" Buffy cut him off, recklessly sarcastic.
"No! I, uh..." he faltered, frowning big as he stared uncomfortably across the plaza. "It just must have been a tough year for her. Facing her demons."
"I never asked her to follow us to Cleveland. It would have been way easier on everyone if she'd gone her own merry way."
"Like I said," he murmured, antagonizingly, "having you riding her all year can't have been easy."
"I have not been riding her!" She went red as she realized what she'd said, but couldn't help adding, "Honestly, we're just friends."
"Not to put a dampener on this heart to heart," Spike mocked, "but aren't we supposed to be rescuing someone. S'only Andrew, but still..."
"Yeah," Dawn agreed. "And I'm getting a cramp."
"Okay," Buffy forced herself back into the moment. "I'm obviously not going to get ahold of her by phone, but the plan's still solid. I'll just knock on the door and ask to speak to her."
"Going to knock on the brick wall first?" Spike asked.
"If I have to. You three stay here and keep an eye out for danger and stuff."
She didn't wait any longer. The conversation had made her edgy. It was difficult to talk about Faith and Troy doing it without giving her jealousy away. It was even more of a minefield to talk about Faith with her two exes. And Angel's little trip down Faith and Buffy lane had stirred up ill feelings that she should be completely over by now considering... It was just easier to walk through a brick wall than deal with it.
Skirting the fountain, she walked in a straight line towards the blank wall. It grew fuzzy. She concentrated on seeing what she knew was there, hoping it would make it clearer, and high up the wall became a corniced roof decorated with vicious-looking gargoyles.
Bingo, the illusion was fading more with every step.
She could see the steps now; and then the archway bordered by only two of the funny-uniformed guards. They stared straight ahead, their weapons at ease, as if they hadn't noticed her yet.
So far, so good.
She was five feet from the steps when she heard the shifting of heavy stone above. Thinking something was about to fall on her, she made to dart under the portico but the guards were instantly alert, their rifles pointing at her.
She slowed but didn't stop.
"Mr. Athanasia is not accepting visitors this night," one of them barked.
"I know, but..." she began, still advancing.
She wasn't sure if it was the loud bang or the bullet whizzing past her head, but something sure stopped her then. At this close range, if it hadn't only been a warning shot it would have killed her. She backed off a little with her hands up.
"Come on, you know me. I'm Faith's friend."
"Miss Lehane is not accepting visitors tonight."
"I know," she said again. "But I really need to speak to her." There was the sound of grating stone again. "Can you just tell her I'm here? See if she can see me for five minutes? I'll wait here while you ask."
"Buffy, look out!"
The shout came from Angel, but she could hear Spike running over – he breathed when he ran, Angel didn't – and she looked up to see where the danger was.
It was right above her. Monstrous faces with animal bodies. Short stumpy wings like chickens miraculously kept the things airborne.
"Since when are gargoyles alive?" she demanded as Spike skidded to a halt next to her. "And since when can solid stone fly?!"
Spike had a more practical question. "Don't suppose you got any gargoyle-killing weapons on you?"
"Strangely, no." Her eyes were on the skies. "I have a stake."
"They'd probably just blunt it."
Ten masonry monsters were flying around up there and now they were getting themselves into formation. That couldn't be good.
"We should get out of here," Spike said, also looking above them.
"I think Andrew might actually be in there. Why else the stone-faced security?"
"Then we'll go that way." Spike pointed at the now fully visible archway.
"They have guns."
Spike eyed up the two guards. Above them a whistling noise began as the gargoyles started jetting towards them.
"I can take a couple of bullets and you can knock ‘em down before they reload."
Normally, she hoped, Buffy wouldn't expect Spike to take a bullet for her, but tonight she was desperate enough. She was about to say yes when seven or eight more guards appeared in the archway and began to fan out.
"Can you take that many bullets?"
Before he could answer Buffy tackled him out of the way and the first gargoyle smashed into pieces exactly where they had been standing. The rest managed to pull up and banked around for another shot.
"Well, that's one down," Buffy quipped as they dragged each other back up and started running away.
"Get down!" Angel shouted and they both dove across the rough flagstones again.
Buffy saw Angel swing Dawn to her knees just as a couple of the gargoyles hit the side of the building. One was pulverized as it took out a chunk of the building. The other lost a stone wing and fell to the ground a little distance away.
That still left more than she wanted to deal with.
Scrambling back to her feet, trying to ignore the grazes on her hands, knees and one other place that should have been protected by underwear but wasn't; she ran to check Dawn wasn't hurt.
"I'm fine," Dawn promised, picking bits of brickwork out of her hair. "Let's just get out of here."
They darted into the closest side street – a nice narrow one thankfully so the stupid stone animal-birds wouldn't be able to fly at them en-masse.
"I don't think we're contacting Faith this way," Angel said.
"Nope, we definitely need a new plan," Buffy said as they ran down the alley. "But we have to get in somehow, because I'm pretty sure Andrew's inside."
As they ran full pelt back out onto the main road with a couple of gargoyles in tow, Dawn grabbed her arm, "No, he's not."
"How would you know?"
"Because he's over there!"
She was right. On the far side of a wide crossroads, Andrew was being carried over the heads of two running Goran demons.
Buffy raced diagonally across the busy road. Tires screeched and horns honked all around her. From behind she heard Angel swear as he followed and Dawn squeal as Spike picked her up without warning to run with her.
By the time Buffy had reached the opposite corner, the Andrew-laden demons had disappeared.
"Son of a...!"
She stopped to catch her breath and swallow her heart back down as the others caught up. Movement above caught her eye. The two pursuing gargoyles were wheeling about high above the street.
"I think they've given up on attacking us now we're on the main road," Angel said, following her gaze.
"Yeah, I think now they're the aerial surveillance team."
"My view sounded more positive."
Buffy gave him a quick grin, checked Dawn hadn't lost any limbs in a traffic accident on the way over and then led them the way Andrew must have been taken.
"Lots of doors," Dawn said.
"Yeah. Your point?"
"They could have taken him through any one of them."
She was already thinking that. This road, like pretty much every other one in Rome, had doors coming out of the woodwork. Big and small. Glass, wood and metal. Big-studded doors that could lead anywhere or nowhere were prominent in this area along with arches, lots and lots of arches. It could take all night just to search this one road.
She sighed. "Time to start shaking hands with doorknobs, I guess. You two take that side of the street. Angel and I will check this side."
"What exactly are we looking for?" Dawn asked as they crossed over.
Buffy shrugged. "Any clue that a bunch of demons just ran through it with Andrew."
This road was single-laned and narrow. The occasional car passed them but most of the traffic was pedestrian and the other two were still close enough that she could hear Dawn mumbling sarcastically about the vagueness as Spike cheerfully pushed or pulled every glass-plated door in a row of shops, totally in his element.
She and Angel were a little more covert about it. Taking turns at checking shadowy doorways as they carried on a conversation.
"The thing is, if we don't stumble across them through one of these doors, I have no idea where they might be keeping Andrew."
"Think. Is there anywhere he's tried to discourage you from going? Somewhere he might be using as a lair?"
"He has a gigantic palace in the middle of the city! I think that's probably his lair."
"Good point. But Andrew's not there."
Buffy shook her head. "This would be a lot easier if Troy didn't own the whole town."
"Not the whole town."
"Well, it feels like it. I feel like I'm caught in Troy's web even though I did my best to stay out of it. My apartment, my job, my girlfriend..." My other girlfriend, she added silently. "They're all in some way under his control."
She'd let herself get sucked in because she'd been too busy being sneaky, wriggling her way back into Faith's affections behind his back. She didn't admit this out loud though.
"You've been an idiot."
"A woman comes into your life you've never met before and suddenly you're a lesbian. Didn't that strike you as odd?"
"I... I..." Buffy spluttered, really not sure on what angle to approach the statement. "I'm not a lesbian. I still like guys -- none currently, it's true -- but I'm sure the potential is still there."
"So you're not a lesbian and yet you still started sleeping with this complete stranger," said Angel. "Didn't that at least ring one warning bell?"
"No! Because it wasn't like that."
Spike called over, chortling. "So you've really been shagging a bird all this time?"
Buffy ducked her head as she and Angel passed some people walking the other way, but eventually she nodded. "Yes. You don't sound too bothered."
"Why would I be? Better'n some other bloke. Unless... not some women's rugby player, is she, pet? Face like a bulldog, built like a brick..."
"No! Toni is beautiful and... and the embodiment of... of female perfection."
"Except for the fact that she's been lying to you and working towards The Immortal's plans for world domination," Angel said gruffly.
"I just meant she's hot," she muttered, wrinkling her nose. "Anyway what's eating you, Grumpy?"
"Ignore him," Spike teased. "The ol' man's just jealous."
"I am not jealous!"
"Admit it, you can't stand the thought of Buffy wanting to shag a bird rather'n you."
"It has nothing to do with that," Angel said hotly. "I just think it's peculiar."
"That's me," she murmured, feeling like she wasn't actually needed in this conversation anymore.
"Really? I thought all men liked girl-on-girl?" Dawn asked, sounding more innocent than the question should deserve. "Or are vampires different?"
"That's his Catholic upbringing," Spike supplied cheerfully.
"Huh, it doesn't bother Faith." All eyes turned to her curiously. "She had a Catholic upbringing too," she explained. "And she doesn't have a problem with girl-on-girl."
Dawn gave her a suspicious look. "And how come Faith is relevant to the topic of your sex life all of a sudden?"
"All of a...? Oh, uh... She's not," Buffy remembered quickly. "Nope, no relevance. The religious thing just sparked two usually unrelated synapses in my brain, that's all."
"It has nothing to do with that," Angel insisted, scaring her for a moment until he added, "I haven't been Catholic in over two-hundred and fifty years. Obviously this woman has done something to Buffy."
Buffy wished she was so sure of that.
She was checking a wooden door in a particularly deep archway, pulling hard on the knob to see if it would open, when instead of going onto the next, Angel followed her in.
"Um, hello?" she turned to raise an eyebrow at his sudden closeness.
Looking over his shoulder she saw one of the dumpy black and white police cars coming quickly up the road. Spike already had an arm slung casually around Dawn's shoulders in an act of innocent pedestrianism.
The cop car slowed right down as it drew up to their doorway and a flashlight beam was coming their way. Before her face could be illuminated by the bright light, Angel kissed her.
It was familiar and at the same time weird. It hadn't been that long since she had kissed him last, about a year, but in that year she'd obviously grown really use to kissing girls instead. The sheer man-ness of his mouth made it feel strange, but kissing Angel had never been on her list of things that she disliked doing so, for the sake of not blowing their cover, she kissed him back.
It was clear pretty soon though that the flashlight wasn't leaving and when the rapid Italian started she pulled away. Angel sighed and turned around to the face the car, answering the cop in fluent Italian that Buffy's translating skills couldn't keep up with.
"Someone called in some vandalism down this road," he explained to her after a few moments.
"We haven't vandalized anything."
"They want us to turn out our pockets for spray cans."
"I don't have any pockets!"
Angel spoke to the cops again while showing them his pockets were empty and then took Buffy's handbag from her.
"Hey, I never said..."
"Do you have time to get arrested tonight?" he asked gruffly.
"No, but..." she began helplessly.
The cop snatched the bag for a look before she could finish. He started exclaiming angrily, causing his partner to open and hop out of the passenger door, already reaching for his gun, as the cop with her bag pulled out a beautifully sharpened stake.
Buffy was already running, mourning her keys, purse, not to mention the designer handbag itself could wait until later. Angel ran at her side.
"Good going!" She huffed.
"They weren't going to let us go without checking."
"So now, instead of being suspected for spraying graffiti – which, hello, is everywhere – I'm now guilty of carrying a dangerous weapon. Thanks!"
The cops had chased, but soon realized they were never going to catch the two of them on foot. A look over her shoulder showed them racing back to their car, but another car was coming up behind them on the single lane street making turning around or reversing impossible.
They were safe, as long as they didn't get spotted by them again. Spike and Dawn were waiting near the end of the road.
"We saw that!" Dawn said accusingly.
"It's not like we asked to get stopped by the police!"
"I meant the smoochies."
"I didn't ask for that either."
Spike was smirking. "So did Prince Charming wake you from your Big Gay Fairytale?"
She averted her eyes from Angel. "No."
Angel looked away too. "I wasn't trying..." He shot her a quick, sheepish glance. "...Not even a little bit?"
"I... uh..." What was she supposed to do, lie?
Angel cleared his throat, looking anywhere but at her, and then spotted the door Spike and Dawn had stopped by.
"Hey, look, English graffiti... inviting us all in?"
The door was of the big, studded and arched variety. They were all mentioned by name in bright blue, still wet, spray paint.
Angel grabbed the large iron doorknob but Buffy stopped him from turning it.
"Hang on. When I can tell it's a trap..."
"We're going to have to fight at some point tonight." He still sounded embarrassed. "Now seems like a good time to me."
He wasn't taking no for an answer, so Buffy stepped back and let him go for it. He threw the door inwards, shifting to game face with a growl as he leapt through. Buffy caught a glimpse of glowing eyes but wasn't quick enough to shout a warning.
A green stream of power shot from them and then... and then... she was having trouble understanding this, but then... Angel was a statue!
Not just standing motionless, but as solid grey granite as the gargoyles had been.
"Oh my God!"
"Stay back!" Spike pushed Dawn away so hard she went to her knees again before he leapt through the doorway with a fearsome roar.
Buffy still didn't – couldn't – understand, but instinctively she went to help Spike.
"I said bloody-well stay back. I've only got a two minute window here!" He yelled as he grappled with the beast.
It was the size of a mountain lion but with a hunched back and the face of a screeching woman. She stood as still as Angel as Spike rolled around with it, getting torn up by its claws but managing to stay away from its mouth and, maybe more importantly, its eyes.
Dawn was up again and clinging to her, and so for her sake, Buffy moved out of the sight of the yard. Her heart beating hard as she hugged her back, still wondering what the hell had happened to Angel. And then, a familiar triumphant yell came seconds after the sound of bones breaking, almost drowning out the pitiful squeal of a creature dying in pain.
Buffy went cautiously through the doorway. The creature was dead. Spike was inspecting the long tears in his coat with dismay.
"Only got this tonight!"
She didn't give two craps about his precious coat! Angel was still all statuesque.
"What the... hell?"
"Gorgon." Spike gave the scaly thing a kick. "Old Rock-for-brain's should be right as rain now it's dead."
"And yet he's not." Dawn had stopped being clingy now, sure as ever that Spike had saved the day, but she was still close enough to feel her trembling. "Why isn't he?"
Buffy stepped forward, running one hand over his rock hard bicep and the other over his stony, vamped-out expression. He looked surprised, which, considering, wasn't a surprise. He felt warm, a first for as long as she had known him.
Guilt was surging around inside her. If she hadn't been so honest maybe he wouldn't have insisted on going through the stupid door. Driving through the guilt and the terror at seeing him like this was the urgent need to keep moving, to find Andrew, to get to Bracciano, to save Faith.
That piled more guilt on top of what was already there.
And then she remembered something from all the reading of Greek myths she'd done recently.
"Sunlight! To make him flesh again, the Gorgon has to be dead and Angel has to be bathed in direct sunlight."
"But won't that kill him?" Dawn asked. "Stone or dust? That's not much of a choice."
"Relax." Spike smacked Angel's face a few times and then stabbed two fingers into his hard, open eyes. "We'll come back with a blanket just before dawn for Pebbles here."
"You're not taking this very seriously," Buffy accused.
"And, what? You're surprised? I killed the critter responsible; that's good enough for me."
"Do you think he's still, like, conscious in there?" Dawn reached out gingerly to stroke Angel's fangs. "Like he can hear us and feel us doing this?"
"I really hope so." Spike, grinning, pulled Angel's nose and then kneed him in the groin. He hopped back, clutching his knee. "Ow!"
Speaking directly into his ear, Buffy raised her voice. "Angel, we have to go, but we'll be back before the sun comes up, I promise. Just..."
"Don't go anywhere," her sister finished for her, smirking.
Buffy shook her head. "That was unnecessary."
They were in an empty courtyard. Other doors led into it but a quick check proved them all to be locked. Only a gate leading to a dark passageway was unlocked. Spike set off that way, obviously determined to be the first into any more danger. Dawn followed close behind him. Buffy gave Angel a quick, regretful kiss on the cheek and then followed, closing the gate behind her.
"I don't like leaving him like that."
"He'll be fine. If he can survive as a puppet, he can survive as a statue. All he's gotta do is stand there."
"A puppet?" Dawn asked, a giggle in her voice.
Buffy only half listened to Spike's response about demon-muppets. Worrying about getting back to Angel on time and concern over what they might come across next was taking up her thoughts. She'd lost her one and only weapon to police custody too. All they had now were their hands and Spike's fangs. When they finally did catch up with the Gorans, it was going to be a hard fight.
She'd faced a bunch of them with less though, she remembered. She and Xander had had to use what lay around them and their own natural improvisation skills and they'd gotten out of Troy's warehouse alive.
Not that she'd be able to pull the pregnancy card again. She wasn't entirely sure now why they'd fallen for it the first time. Felacio should have known Faith was the one by that time, but he must just have been so scared of making a mistake that he wasn't prepared to take the chance.
The passage was short. Two minutes later they were back on another main road.
"Well, that was pointless," Dawn said, looking around at the traffic, mildly calmer after midnight.
Angel had been stonified for nothing! At least if they'd found the lair where they were keeping Andrew his sacrifice would have been for something. Now they were back to square one. Square one happened to be on the Piazza Venezia, almost directly opposite the huge white war memorial monument thingy – it glowed in the moonlight.
"Demons coming up fast," Spike said.
Buffy saw them. They weren't Goran but something taller, less wrinkly and more armed. Their skin looked like red chainmaille. Maybe it was red chainmaille, but if it was it covered them from head to foot. Great! That should be a joy to punch.
"We need to avoid them. They're just a distraction." She started to run straight across the square. "Come on."
"Hard to avoid them when they're chasing us!" Dawn shouted.
She was already lagging behind so Buffy caught one of her hands and Spike grabbed the other. Dawn yelled as her toes practically scraped along the ground.
They ran around the corner and across another road. Even when it looked like they'd lost the demons, Buffy didn't slow down, wanting as much distance between them as possible.
When she finally had to stop, under the portico of one of the Capitoline museums, her lungs were burning. She leant against a pillar to get her breath back. Dawn plonked down on her butt, panting so hard she started retching. When a few of the cocktails she'd illicitly consumed at the club came up, they all moved down a dozen yards without comment. Buffy felt like puking herself, although more from the situation than the running.
"Andrew," Spike said.
"What about him?" Buffy asked wearily, leaning face first against the cool stone.
"He's over there."
"I don't care," Dawn said, still on the ground.
Buffy felt the same, but pushed away from the pillar with a groan anyway. Sure enough, there was Andrew.
The Gorans holding him had been running towards them from the street, but stopped, obviously shocked to see them right there. They gathered their senses fast though and started running again. Andrew's wails for help drifted back to her.
"There's only six of the buggers," Spike started running. "I'll handle em."
She ran too, not prepared to lose Andrew again when he was so close, but a scream from behind had her skidding around.
Dawn was surrounded by the red armored demons. They weren't a distraction, they were the security! Time to charge back that way. Buffy went into them like a punching, kicking tornado and came out the other side with more than a few bruises, but also a Dawn, so it was okay.
"I can't run anymore, Buffy!"
"Yes you can!"
There weren't many tourists out at this time of night, but she could clearly hear the tramp of the many feet marching up the steps towards them. It had to be more demons. Buffy would have sighed if she'd had any breath to spare. Instead, she scooped Dawn over her shoulder and ran after Spike, wishing Dawn was still fourteen and so much easier to carry. She was still skinny enough that she weighed barely anything, but she was too tall; meaning she seesawed back and forth with every step, putting her dangerously off-balance in her haste.
All but throwing Dawn over the high metal security gate, she followed quickly and, leaning back against the wall, she signaled for Dawn to be quiet. Hopefully they'd gotten out of sight in time. After a few moments the loud footfalls of the demons faded back the other way. She picked Dawn up again.
By the time they'd reached the steps down to the forums, Spike was back in sight. At the bottom and just running up the Via Sacra away from them, but in sight at least.
"Please don't run with me down all these steps!" Dawn begged.
Buffy didn't think she could anyway so after a few she stopped and let Dawn down.
"One minute to catch your breath," she said, needing it for herself too.
She kept her eyes trained on Spike's progress as best as she could through the ruins.
"Where do you think they're going?"
"Don't talk, breathe." Buffy rubbed a hand through her sweaty hair and thought about it. "Either the Colosseum or the Palatine. Both would be perfect and, plus, Troy probably owns both of them."
"I have every right to be bitter, and besides, it's your little boyfriend we're saving."
"He's not my boyfriend! Hello, Christian!"
"First time I've heard you mention him in weeks."
"I've been... busy."
"Yeah, well, you hardly mention Toni now you're spending all this time with Faith!"
"Okay, if you're not gonna just breathe, we have to run again."
Dawn's voice came out jiggily as was pulled down the steps. "You started it!"
"I don't want to talk about Toni."
"So it's really over between you two now?"
Was it? Should be and would be didn't always meet smoothly in the middle. How did she explain to Dawn that knowing Toni had betrayed her didn't automatically make her want to reach for break-up button anymore than all the alarm bells ringing before had. Once, a few months ago, she was sure it definitely would have, but now... now she felt exactly the same as she had the night Riley had identified Spike as the Suvolte dealer.
Hurt, disappointed, a little disgusted at letting herself be lulled into a false sense of security, but mostly just torn between her gut telling her this was wrong, evil, unforgivable, a solid line she couldn't cross any more and live with herself. While her head was saying ‘Really? Is it that bad? Am I really surprised? Am I totally shocked that he's revealed himself to be less than saintly? I mean, come on! He's a Vampire! It's not like I went into this without a clue. And he can turn the grey around me into multicolored stars, which is nice, and, hello, he's hardly a slouch in the shirtless department.'
In the end she'd walked away from Spike because she'd been doing him for the wrong reasons. He was never going to be perfect boyfriend material. He was just a way of main-lining the multicolored stars.
But she wasn't with Toni for the wrong reasons. Toni was perfect girlfriend material. She wasn't ashamed to be with her and, yes, even needed her a little, but in a much more healthy way than she'd needed Spike. Plus, shirtless Toni was even yummier than shirtless Spike. And the multicolored stars... well, she could get more than enough of those from Faith and, anyway, she quite liked the normal sparkly white ones Toni could induce with ease.
They were nearly at the bottom of the steps and both seriously out of breath. The towering Tabularium covered them in shadow but soft lamp light picked out the cobbles of the Sacred Way and the pale marble columns around the ruins of the forum.
"What if she's not evil?" She asked suddenly.
"Toni? I thought that was already decided."
"Maybe. But what if she's not really evil, just... led astray? Or just a tiny bit evil?"
"Define a tiny bit."
"Well, what if she kicks kittens for fun but doesn't want to end the world?"
"Would you seriously date someone who kicks kittens for fun?"
"No, I guess not," Buffy said morosely, before adding with more strength, "But Toni doesn't kick kittens!"
"So stay with her. Maybe she can be rehabilitated. Like Faith. And Spike. And Angel."
As Dawn turned a big frown her way, Buffy held her hand up, stalling what was obviously coming next.
"Yes, I have crappy taste in love interests. It's been noted."
"Maybe you should do something to break the pattern."
"Toni was me doing something to break the pattern."
Spike was waiting for them beneath the Arch of Titus.
"I take it you didn't catch them."
"Fast little buggers." Spike's cheekbones glowed as white as the arch as he lit a cigarette. "Can still smell the stink of them though. They went in there. Figured I'd wait for you two to stop gasbagging and catch up."
"Appreciate it." She looked up at the dark mass of the Palatine Hill with all its ancient ruins, underground passages and other assorted nooks and crannies. "I don't suppose that nose of yours can tell exactly what's waiting for us in there?"
Spike sniffed. "Lotta the wrinkly white fella's. Some of them red ones, too, I reckon."
"Trust me; I had my teeth sunk deep into that last bastard. Another one of them shows up, I'm gonna know it before it gets within half a mile."
Buffy glanced at Dawn, really wishing she could leave her behind. She and Spike could move faster alone and if they got jumped, which was a big likely, Dawn was going to make the easiest target. Ideally she'd like her back at Toni's apartment, locked in safely, but she'd been so surprised to find Andrew and his captives only just ahead of them outside the club that the chase had been on before she'd even had a chance to remember her lack of underwear let alone anything else.
At least it was a warm night again.
"Stay close to me," she told her sister, "and do exactly what I say, when I say."
"Okay." Dawn sounded nervous already, which was probably the only reason she didn't argue about the stern instructions.
Spike took point, hopping over the low gate and running up the shallow sandy steps. Buffy let him, trusting his eyes better than her own in the deep shadows of the trees. After helping Dawn over the gate, she kept hold of her hand and followed.
He was waiting at a cross section of paths. Up ahead the path grew broader and led to the more open ground in the middle of the hill. To the left there were steps going down, to the right the path went deeper into the trees.
"Any ideas?" Spike asked as they caught up.
Buffy looked around, not liking any of the options. At night, deserted of the usual hordes of tourists, this place was spookier than any cemetery she'd patrolled. She could feel its age seeping out of the ruins, the blood that had spilled on the hard ground thousands of years ago. She shivered slightly, someone had just walked over her grave, or, more likely, she'd just walked through a ghost!
She shook herself deliberately this time and concentrated on the here and now.
"I doubt they're keeping Andrew in either the ticket office or the museum, so..." she gestured to the right. "Let's just head around the outside and see if we spot anything suspicious."
Spike made to run ahead again, but Buffy caught his arm.
"Stay with us. If we get jumped you have the best weapons on you."
Spike nodded and settled for walking only a couple of paces in front of them.
"So, you and this Toni bird serious then?"
Buffy stopped peering into the shadows at the unexpected question. "Uh, yeah, I guess so."
"You loved her?"
Buffy hesitated over the frank question, but there really wasn't any reason to hedge around the truth as far as Toni was concerned. It was refreshing, actually. "Yes, I do."
Spike was quiet as he registered the present tense. Dawn jumped against her as a bird flew out of the bushes next to them.
"So you're not gonna let recent events talk you into breaking her heart then?"
"I don't know if me dumping her would break her heart anyway."
Spike glanced back over his shoulder, giving her his rare smile. "Trust me, pet, it will."
She smiled softly back, pleased, until it sank in. "Oh, great! Thanks. That makes it sooo much easier."
Spike laughed. "She's been feeding you bollocks since you met. Any other fool might think that made it easier."
"Yeah." Great, she was back deep in the Toni doldrums. "I should just cut her loose, forget about her, concentrate on F..."
"On?" Spike prompted.
Dawn was looking at her intently, almost daring her, in an annoying little sister way, to finish that sentence.
She stuck her tongue out at her before smoothly finishing, "...on finding someone new."
Dawn smirked and went back to concentrating on the shadows. Buffy took a deep breath and blew it out slowly as she did the same. Spike had missed the sisterly exchange and hopefully the skip in her heartbeat too, and continued blithely.
"Well, if you want to try something old instead, I'll give you a helping hand back into the saddle."
Dawn giggled beside her like a ten year old.
As the trees gave way to the knee high hedges of a maze, guilt still fresh in her mind, she decided to let him down easier than Angel.
"Sorry, Spike, but I think if I stop riding Toni I'm just gonna stay out of the saddle altogether for awhile."
He stopped at the entrance to the midget maze and didn't respond.
"You're thinking about me riding Toni, aren't you?" she joked.
Still getting nothing, she laughed, "Okay, snap out of it!"
A fierce roar cut her laughter short.
As Dawn hissed her name in fear, Buffy whirled her away, shielding her own eyes with her arm. The shape had been all wrong for a gorgon, though, and there was no green flash of power. She risked a peek, running her hand feverishly over Spike's back anyway to make sure he wasn't stoned. He wasn't, but his normally sharp blue eyes were glazed and lifeless, making him look it.
"What's happened to him?"
Buffy didn't have an answer yet.
The figure in the maze was still roaring horribly, but it seemed to be safely chained to the earth, giving her time to study it. The first thing she noticed was that it was very naked and very male. Which amazed her a little; really it should have been the way it was tossing its big bull head, complete with big bull horns.
She was still staring as Spike jerked forward into a stiff walk and entered the maze. After watching him make a few turns around the hedges like he was on autopilot, she groaned.
"You've got to be kidding me! A Miniature? This is hardly a labyrinth! It's a foot high! And I can see all the way across it. Jeez, Troy is so lame!"
"The Minotaur?" Dawn straightened up again to see for herself. "Holy crap."
Buffy hopped over several hedges to catch up with Spike. He was sticking to the outer pathways, looping back around when they started taking him close to the hybrid creature waiting in the middle.
She caught his arm and tried to pull him out of the maze, but he just kept going, dragging her with him when she dug her semi-expensive heels in.
"Spike! You're going around in circles! Surely you can tell that? See, we're nearly back where you started. Just step over this bit you can..."
He completely ignored her, totally lost in his maze induced trance. For him the hedges may have been eight foot high as he trudged endlessly around.
"Doesn't the Minotaur eat people?" Dawn asked.
"I'm really hoping he doesn't like the taste of vampires."
Jumping across another hedge, she landed directly in front of Spike and put her hands on his chest.
"Spike? Wake up!" She had to sidestep to keep in his path. "I mean it. I don't want to think what happens when you get to the centre."
"I kill the beast," Spike said woodenly. "Excuse me, Miss."
"Did you just call me Miss?" She stared after him. "Spike! I really don't think it's going to end the way you're hoping, you idiot!"
For as long as she followed him fruitlessly around the silly little maze, Dawn was standing alone at the edge. She hopped hedges back to her, looking around for a weapon of any description.
If she couldn't stop Spike, maybe she could kill the Minotaur herself before he got there. She had to have more of a chance, being the one of them not sleepwalking blindly through a maze a two year old could navigate. Not empty-handed though. The creature was shaking its chains and roaring its fearsome head off. Not to mention it was three feet taller than her and had the body of He-Man and the head of... well, a really fierce looking bull. It even had a gold ring through its nose!
At least she wasn't wearing red tonight.
"Any idea what kills Minotaurs?" she asked her sister, still scouting around for something sharp, or heavy would do.
"No, but maybe you could ask him?"
"Hello, Mr Minotaur, what can I kill you with today? Nope, don't think that's going to work."
"Not him. Him!"
Buffy looked to where she was urgently pointing her finger.
"Oh, you mean Aladdin."
That was so a comical double-take moment, but Buffy didn't indulge herself. Instead, as soon as she'd spoken, she was sprinting around the maze towards the skinny teenage boy in the shiny orange pants floating cross-legged four feet above the ground.
Realizing he'd been spotted in his shadowy recess beneath the trees, he moved as if jumping off an invisible magic carpet and darted away down the narrow paths that would have made a much better labyrinth to send Spike through.
She followed, only managing to keep him in sight because she was faster. Dawn ran after her and the urge was strong to slow down and make sure her sister was safe, but if she did she'd lose this little miscreant in seconds. She had to trust Dawn could handle herself for a few minutes.
The boy knew the area well, that much was certain. He dodged around thickets of trees and jumped over walls that landed ten feet below without hurting himself.
As he ran down to the Romulean Huts he threw his hand back and a wall of white sprang up in front of her. It would have worked as a stalling tactic if she'd been able to stop herself in time, but as she barreled through, it popped around her and disappeared.
He hopped another wall into the pitch blackness of the corrugated roofed huts. She went right in after him. He obviously hadn't been expecting that, because if he'd been a little smarter, and quieter, he could have stayed in the darkness, creeping around the big boulders and she could have been two steps from him the whole time and not noticed.
As it was, she heard his bare feet slapping smooth rock as he leapt from one to the other and then she saw his silhouette jump back into the relatively more open area beyond.
Her heels weren't exactly high, but they still didn't let her be quite as agile as he was in the dark. She clambered around the rocks, scraping her knees and snagging her dress in what would have been a very revealing way if it wasn't so dark.
Once she'd vaulted the wall at the other end, she noticed Dawn had taken the more sensible route of coming straight down the path.
For all his nimble wiliness, Magic Boy made a mistake. After jumping down another set of steps – which Buffy copied, no trouble at all – he went off the beaten track around a piece of partially restored ancient palace. The ground there was unkempt and steeply sloping and as nettles stung her ankles she could only imagine how his bare feet were bearing it.
It lasted only a moment before he was jumping down onto a level terrace and then bolting away into open ground. To a keen observer it looked like Buffy was easing down the gas pedal of a really fast car as her pace crept higher and then shot her forward, the open space giving room to really open herself up.
When she was close enough, she leapt at him, taking him down in a controlled role that would restrain him but not cause more than a few bumps and bruises. After all, he didn't look much older than fifteen and was as skinny as anything. It was a wonder he could even run on those spindly little legs of his, so she did her best not break them as he wriggled beneath her, trying to get free.
There was something really, really disturbing about bucking about astride a writhing, fighting teenage boy. Especially without panties, she realised, and let go with a distressed grimace.
He'd already hatched his own escape plan, though, and before she could move off of him, he became even skinnier and snake-like. A four foot dark brown snake, to be exact, with diamonds the color of the boy's shiny orange pants patterning his gleaming scales.
Buffy screamed and wrestled with the thing before it could pin her arms and squeeze the life out of her. She hated Shapeshifters. Especially the ones who shifted into snakes. That wasn't playing fair!
With the snake coiled in her hands, she threw it as far away as she could and then twisted into a sitting position. Before the snake could hit the grass it had feet and in the blink of an eye it was the boy running away.
"Damn!" She scrambled back to her feet as Dawn caught up, breathing hard and brandishing a rake.
"Why'd ya let him go?"
"Let's just say he gave me the slip." She grabbed the rake from Dawn's hands and set off after him again."
"Hey, that was my weapon!"
"You can have it back in a minute."
He was aiming for the museum and the outer edges of the Palatine now and it didn't take a genius to figure he was leading her away from where she probably wanted to be in deliberate game of ‘Stall the Slayer'.
It was annoying, but it just added to her determination to pin the sprightly little worm down.
He wasn't making the same mistake as last time, though, staying amongst the clustered ruins instead. Like this, with him picking the directions as he jumped walls, ducked through arches and went up and down steps like he had hover-feet, it didn't matter that she was only a few steps behind him – it was never close enough.
Until he ran along the narrow wall left by some long fallen-down building. Sick of wasting time, and prepared now to break a few of his bones if it saved her some, she brought the wooden handle of the rake around hard into his knees. Off-balance and pin-wheeling his arms, he half-fell, half-somersaulted into the six foot pit on the other side.
He landed in a crouch. Buffy landed in a roundhouse kick, catching him in the chest and hoping to knock back into the wall. Really not hoping that he'd be quick enough to catch her foot and take her other out from under her with some ubercool break dancing move. That's what she got though. She had to learn that move, she decided, yelping as her bare ass met a large patch of flowering thistles.
Throwing herself as much away from the prickly vegetation as towards him, she caught his leg as he tried to leap back out of the pit. Even as his hands hit the ground she felt his legs become one and coil around her arm.
"Oh, no you don't!"
Bringing the rake around in an arc, she smacked his still human head with the wooden end to stun him and then twirled the tool in her hand like an overgrown stake and trapped his half-serpent body with the metal prongs. He became full boy again with the prongs resting, quite satisfyingly, over his privates.
"Okay, one wrong move and your little snake gets it. Do you understand me?" He lay very still. "I said, can you understand me?"
"Good. Now tell about the Minotaur."
"It is a ferocious beast. Half man, half bull, born of an unholy union between..."
"I know all that! I meant what's the deal with Spike and the maze? And if you think you can just stall me with silly answers all night, think about how much damage this rusty metal rake could do to your skinny little chest."
"You are a slayer. You cannot hurt humans."
"You forgot about the loophole."
"The one that says boys who use dark magic for evil forfeit their human rights."
It was a shot in the dark, but even though she could hardly see his expression she knew it had hit home. She gave him another second or two to think it over and then pressed down on the rake.
"I cast a spell using the Minotaur's powers of suggestion to lure you into the labyrinth. The Vampire got in the way. You were supposed to spend all night trying to slay the beast." The boy's English was perfect with an attractive Eastern lilt. "Can I get up now?"
"No. How do I break the spell?"
She flipped the rake and pressed the flat side of the prongs against his throat and chin.
"The spell does not need to be broken. The Minotaur's essence will dissolve once the sun has risen."
She thought about Angel and the very urgent need they had to be back in that courtyard before dawn. Not to mention that Spike wouldn't survive long walking around a maze under the rising sun either.
"I can't wait that long."
The boy smiled, probably knowing all about that already.
She growled under her breath and took a moment to remind herself why decapitating this boy would be wrong.
"I thought Troy didn't believe in using magick."
"He doesn't." Pearly whites grinned at her. "That's why he has me."
"And you are?"
"Marco." "You're M..."
Shocked that this boy was Troy's infamous personal assistant it took a second to realize something was happening to the rake anyway. It went bendy and slithery in her grip.
"Gah, stop it with the snakes!"
She threw the serpent away from her and Marco snatched it out of the air and then flicked it so its head sailed upwards, hissing. Giving her a sloppy salute and another cheeky grin, he climbed the snake like a gym rope. Stepping onto the wall, he dropped the really pissed off reptile back into the pit with her and disappeared from sight.
Almost instantly there was the resounding thud of wood hitting face. Buffy knew it well from personal experience. She went cold and her heart stopped before heading up to block her throat.
Skipping over the snake she jumped, gripped the edges of the pit and pulled herself out in a panic. If anything – anything – had happened to her little sister, Troy was going to wish he could die.
"You screamed?" Dawn asked casually when she popped up out of the pit.
She had one foot on the back of an unconscious Marco, a long sturdy tree branch dangled loosely in her hand.
Buffy looked from one to the other in surprise.
"You should play baseball. Meet Troy's little magick monkey, Marco." She frowned down at him. "I thought he'd be taller, and bigger, and not twelve, ya know?"
Dawn shrugged and removed her foot. "Now that you know what he can do maybe you won't underestimate me so much."
"I don't underestimate you, I just worry about you." Marco started groaning and Buffy pulled him up roughly by his shoulder before he was fully awake. "You're a regular bag of tricks; I get it, but try anything else funny and I'll let my sister really go to town on you. She has a lot of pent-up teenage hostility thanks to me. It won't be pretty."
Dawn hefted her branch in case he thought she was bluffing.
"Now, if you can't help us with Spike you can take us straight to Andrew."
"I can not help you."
Dawn smacked him none to gently in the stomach, making him huff and bend over at the waist.
"Dawn, he's no good to us with internal bleeding!"
"But you said I could!"
"I will help you," he said breathlessly as he straightened up.
Dawn's grin grew triumphant.
Buffy sighed through a smile and gave Marco's shoulder a slight shake. "Come on then. You can lead the rescue mission."
He walked calmly in front of them. Making no effort to run or break her hold. He probably hadn't really caved so easy, but if his plan was to lead her straight into the hornets nest, then, well, that was probably where they should be heading anyway.
Dawn walked beside him, making sure he could see the stick, but mostly just shooting him curious sidelong glances.
"So, were you, like, a fetus when you started practicing magick?" she asked.
"I do not understand."
"Well, you didn't get that good in a hurry."
"Ah." He nodded, smiling broadly. "Thank you."
"It wasn't a compliment!"
"Actually, it kinda was," Buffy said and Dawn huffed into silence
They were heading down a slope towards yet more ruins and then into the darkest possible darkness. Tunnels, the remains of grand imperial palaces long since buried by time, that went deep below the hill.
Just before they left the last of the moonlight behind, she saw Marco reach towards Dawn's head. She was about to jerk him backwards hard enough to break his collar bone, but forgot to when he pulled a long thin white candle out of Dawn's ear. She was even more surprised to see its wick already had a small flame.
"Hey!" Dawn jumped to the side, rubbing her ear. "Okay, that was too weird. I actually felt that thing come out."
Buffy, eyes still wide, just said, "You really gotta start cleaning your ears out better."
Marco held the candle up in front of him, but it didn't do more than light up his face and the smallest circle in front of them. In fact, if anything, it made the darkness beyond that much more oppressive. Dawn melted backwards so that she was walking so close their elbows might have been fused together.
Rome had been born here. Wars had been waged. Parties had been held while outside the city walls enemies had been crushed and conquered so that an empire could be built from their ashes. According to the tour they had taken, an Emperor – she couldn't remember which one – had been assassinated while creeping down these very tunnels, by his own people. It made Buffy want to turn around and check behind her all the time. For centuries this hill had been the centre of a dark, if cultured, world. No wonder Troy had a piece of it. It seemed right up his alley.
How long though, she wondered, had he had that piece? Was there a shrine down here in his name? There seemed to be shrines to every other deity somewhere in the city. Is that why he'd taken an interest? Or had he been here at the beginning? That led to a more unsettling thought: Had Toni?
That seemed a lot more impossible, but was it? Buffy knew nothing about her! Not really. She felt like she did, she felt like she knew lots – her favorite foods, her favorite music and movies, her favorite Disney characters and the crappy romance novels she liked to read. It had seemed like more than enough before but now it all just seemed so superficial and meaningless. Where had been the conversations about their hopes and dreams and fears? Had they had those and she just couldn't remember them now?
She didn't think so.
Pre-Japan, even though she knew she was feeling more and more for the Italian woman, Buffy had been keeping herself distant, emotionally speaking. Faith had always been her go-to gal for emotional intimacy, even if she'd never actually been able to go to her for it. Letting anyone in who actually wanted in had been difficult bordering on impossible for the last few years.
During-Japan, Buffy had opened up and let the other woman in, but still, their conversations hadn't been exactly full of the deep and meaningful even then. Maybe it was down to the limited time they had talking on the phone or via web cam. It wasn't as if they ever struggled for something to talk about. Talking was good and easy, it just didn't happen to be about hopes, dreams and fears. Or the future. Or the past really.
She really didn't know anything about who, or what, Toni was deep down... except for bad stuff.
They stopped abruptly and Marco pushed open a wooden door in the wall. The candle revealed the first step in a downward flight of stone stairs. This definitely hadn't been on the tour.
"We're going down there?" Dawn asked, a tremor in her voice.
"It'll be okay," she promised, urging Dawn to stay just behind her – the steps weren't wide enough to go two at a time – as Marco pulled away from her and started to descend.
"There are many passages," he said. "Stay close to me if you do not want to be lost."
No worries there. She already had her hand planted securely on his skinny shoulder again. Almost as soon as they stepped back on to level ground she realised what he meant. The passages left and right of them were nothing more than dark suggestions in the candlelight but she could feel cold air blowing over her arms and under her dress from pretty much every direction as they walked on. That either meant there was more than one way in and out or that the passages down here were the next best thing to endless and created their own draughts.
"Where exactly is Andrew being held?" she asked, hearing a slight echo return to them.
"Beneath the Atrium Vestae."
She practically heard the roll in Dawn's eyes as she asked, "What have you been doing since we've been in Rome?"
Sleeping with Faith, having phone sex with Toni. The important stuff. Out loud, she said, "Planning a wedding."
Dawn said, "It's the House of the Vestal Virgins."
Buffy, still clueless, just shrugged.
They took a couple of right turns, walked down a slope and then went down some more stone steps and through a narrow archway. Up until then the only scent in the air had been damp rock and earth – not unpleasant. As soon as they went through the archway that changed for the worse.
"Cloaca Maxima," Marco explained, like it explained anything. "It is only for a short time."
He walked along the arched wall like it was the floor. Not having the same luxury of skill, Buffy and Dawn had to hop down into the stinky trickle of sludge that ran along the bottom. At least it had been dry recently. Although their shoes were probably getting ruined – a fact that Dawn complained loudly about – it was only high enough to get their toes dirty.
Marco was true to his word and they left the sewer on the opposite side only a minute later.
Several more passages later, Buffy realized with a sinking heart, she'd be hard pressed to find her way back again. There couldn't be much more of the night left either. If she'd let Marco lead her on a wild goose chase, then it wasn't just Faith that was screwed. Dawn was lost down here with her, and both Angel and Spike would be dust if she wasn't there to save them when the sun came up.
She tried really hard not to think all of this was because she'd been stupid enough to bother to save Andrew but the thought was there at the back of her mind all the same.
If he'd had the brains to fight last night like Dawn had, if he hadn't come to Rome with them, if he hadn't followed them to Cleveland like a lost parasite in need of a good home, if he hadn't bought blood to help the First, if he hadn't teamed up with Warren to be the bane of her existence...
"We better be nearly there," she growled, squeezing Marco's shoulder extra hard.
Another right turn, then a left that took them down a sloping passage that was so bendy it was hard to figure out which direction they were going in after a few minutes. They jumped a narrow, fast running water channel and then went under a series of vaulted doorways that probably belonged to a temple a couple of thousand years ago.
The tunnels were looking more lived in now. Although that description was a little strange for the dark, dank, empty passages, there was a weird sense of homeliness about them. They were wider for one and the candle was picking out mosaic friezes along the walls.
Marco shrugged. Or at least she'd thought he was shrugging. Her heart sank into her shit-covered shoes as the shrug turned into a fluttering against her palm and the boy dissolved into fifty fat white moths.
She covered her face and Dawn screamed as they flew into and around them and the candle hanging in the air for several seconds before disappearing.
The candle hit the ground and went out.
"Really should have seen that coming," Buffy deadpanned into the darkness.
Dawn sounded close to hyperventilating so she groped for her hand again and held onto it tightly.
"We're lost underground." Dawn's breathing was still off-centre. "How is it okay?"
Buffy didn't know, so she lied, or hoped for the best at least. "Because Marco might be tricky, but he's not very good at deception. If he just wanted to get us lost he could have ditched us an hour ago."
"Do you really believe that?"
She really wanted to.
She gave Dawn's hand a tug. "Come on, it can't be much further."
They walked on, slowly now that they had no light and no guide.
"What happens if we can't find Andrew?"
Buffy didn't answer, instead straining her ears for any sounds echoing down the long tunnels.
"What happens if we do find him? We all run around in the dark hoping to spot a way out?"
"And what if we find Andrew and find a way out but it's already daylight? Spike and Angel will be..."
"Dawn! We're trying to be covert and sneaky here in case you hadn't noticed."
"That's okay, just less talking more listening."
They walked along in silence for a while. She couldn't help noticing she was without a weapon again – after the last one turning into a snake and everything. Dawn still had her stick, but she was obviously good with it and Buffy didn't like to take it off of her. Andrew was probably surrounded by guards and when they found him -- in the melee that was bound to follow -- she wanted Dawn to have some means of protecting herself.
"Did you hear that?" Dawn whispered.
Buffy had. The faint scratchy sounds could have been rats getting out of their path, but as they walked on, they became less scratchy and more of a low hum.
The hum grew steadily louder. When it was injected with a loud, wet slapping noise, they both stopped, looking at each other in the barely see-throughable gloom.
Buffy walked faster. Sure enough, the hum soon separated into muffled voices. Another sharp slap was followed by an indistinct shout of displeasure.
He hadn't sounded happy, but at least he wasn't screaming. Should they run now that they knew they were going in the right direction, or would they be better off creeping along hoping to surprise the kidnapping demons?
Before she could decide, they were there. Close enough, anyway, to see the lighted chamber up ahead. Andrew was in his underwear, arms apparently restrained behind his back, while a ring of six Goran demons interrogated and goaded him. He didn't look hurt beyond red marks on both his cheeks and a few on his bare chest. As he strenuously defied whatever they were asking of him, another wet slap made the source of the marks clear.
"Is that a fish?" Dawn asked in a bemused whisper.
"Yep." Her nose wrinkled. "Those demons have definitely seized the Carp today."
Dawn frowned at her.
"Never mind. When we rush in, get to Andrew. Hit anything that gets too close to you. I'll take care of the rest."
"Or..." Dawn said, gesturing at the chamber, out of which Andrew was awkwardly running as fast as he could, apparently sick of getting fish-slapped around the room.
"Or..." Buffy agreed.
Obviously Andrew had spotted them and was making the rescue a little easier. She kept her eyes on the pursuing demons, ready to intercept them as Andrew ran past.
Except she hadn't factored in that they were standing in near pitch darkness. Probably totally pitch to Andrew's light-accustomed eyes. They could see him coming clear as day, but he couldn't see them standing there. In a way that made his escape attempt even braver, but it didn't help any of them when he ran straight into Dawn without slowing down.
Knocked over onto her ass, Dawn at least had the sense not to scream and give them away. Andrew did scream, once when he ran into her and then again when he fell face down and hit his head on the floor.
Thinking that he'd better not be knocked out, Buffy went into action, taking advantage of the confusion that leaping out of the darkness offered. Two demons went down, heads knocked hard enough together to crack skull, before they even knew she was there. Dawn and her stick took care of a third, and Andrew – probably accidentally – tripped another, giving Dawn the chance to wallop him too.
It was a short, brutal fight, for the demons anyway.
"That was easier than I expected." She made sure all the demons were truly knocked out and not just playing dead.
"Oh, Buffy, thank goodness it's you!" Andrew wailed dramatically.
"It's me too," Dawn said.
Dawn helped him up.
Buffy walked into the chamber. It was just a round room lit by a dozen fat candles; a dead end. The other two joined her, Andrew rubbing his untied wrists.
He was bleeding now from a cut on his forehead and blood dribbled down the side of his face, but if it bothered him he forgot as he happily said, "Hey!" and ran to his tuxedo and shoes scattered at the side of the room.
"Why did they strip you?" Dawn asked. Her voice sounded much lighter now they'd found him, like they weren't still trapped underground with dawn rapidly approaching.
"Uh, because they were torturing me!" Andrew griped.
"So they took your pants off? What? They were all out of red hot needles to put under your fingernails?"
"Did you not see his Care Bear boxers?" Buffy managed a smirk, despite her worry.
Andrew blushed as he buttoned his shirt. "My mom sent them to me!"
"Okay, fun's over," Buffy insisted as she checked the time on Andrew's watch. "We have to find a way out of here and fast."
It would be light in less than an hour and she knew it would take ages to retrace their steps; that was if they could even retrace them perfectly first time without going outside the edges and getting lost in the tunnels.
Andrew pulled on his black jacket and then kicked the dead fish in the middle of the floor petulantly. As it hit the wall he gave the splattered remains a grim, satisfied look.
"I can find the way."
"Really?" Buffy asked, hopes rising.
"Sure." Andrew plucked one of the candles off the wall. Buffy and Dawn followed suit. "I didn't have any breadcrumbs to drop so I used Euros. They'll be easier to spot anyway in the candlelight."
"You're not as dumb as you look, Andy," Dawn teased cheerfully as they started back up the tunnels.
"Thank you, little one."
Buffy brought up the rear, impressed with Andrew despite herself, but only too aware that now that this little adventure was over, her real trial was only just beginning.
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Part Ten Quick-Jump:
Chapter One ||
Chapter Two ||
Chapter Three ||
Chapter Four ||
Chapter Five ||
Chapter Six ||
Chapter Seven ||
Chapter Eight ||
Chapter Nine ||
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Part Ten Quick-Jump:
Chapter One || Chapter Two || Chapter Three || Chapter Four || Chapter Five || Chapter Six || Chapter Seven || Chapter Eight || Chapter Nine || Bonus Chapter