Transformations - Chapter 16

They had more or less staged a breakout for Giles from the hospital, trailing angry nurses as they went, and now the five of them, plus Joyce Summers, sat despondently in his front room, quite unable to think of a single other workable plan. Unfortunately, despite what Xander had said, no Plan B existed, nor any Plan A, neither.

Wesley had insisted on brewing tea, puttering about Giles's kitchen until the incessant rapid clatter drove him nearly frantic. He had to concentrate quite hard on a round of deep, steady breathing merely to keep from snapping at the younger Watcher. The effect of the painkillers he'd been given had begun to ebb, and while Giles supposed that was for the best in terms of the clarity of his thought, it meant that his head and hand had begun to throb with an irritatingly syncopated rhythm. He wanted nothing more than to lie down in his own bed and sleep out the week, preferably with Buffy beside him.

None of them, least of all the junior Watcher himself, drank Wesley's tea.

Moira prowled, keeping to the shadows, and Joyce appeared to watch her anxiously--she did not seem to have decided whether the other woman was friend or foe. Wesley limped with nervous energy between the fireplace and whatever shadow Moira currently occupied, until Giles told them, more testily than he intended, "Em, Wesley, do please settle."

"Sorry." Wesley dropped abruptly into a straight-backed chair. Even with the brace on his leg, he somehow managed to sit with annoyingly correct posture. The creases in his trousers appeared sharp enough to cut paper.

Willow edged a little closer to Giles on the sofa, and squeezed his uninjured hand a bit tighter, casting up at him one of her wide-eyed, troubled looks. As he had at the hospital, Xander stood behind Giles, with one hand on his shoulder, their solidarity expressed by touch. From their positions, the three of them might have been posed for a family portrait.

It took all Giles's effort merely to remain upright. He kept waiting for some measure of his strength to return, but it did not, to this point, seem willing to oblige him.

"I suppose--" Joyce said, turning her teacup round and round on its saucer. "That it would be out of the question to even consider calling the police?"

"Joyce..." Giles began.

"I know, I know. Getting them involved would just get them killed. The police can't fight vampires. That's what Buffy always tells me." She set cup and saucer carefully on the coffeetable. "But what are we going to do, Rupert? Can Willow or I fight vampires any better? Do you really want to endanger Xander in that way? What do his parents have to say about it?"

At her words, Xander's hand tightened abruptly on Giles's shoulder, but the boy said nothing.

"We can fight vampires, Ms. Summers!" Willow told her.

"Rupert," Joyce continued, as if she hadn't heard them. "You especially are in no shape to be fighting anything, and Mr....umn...Wyndham-Price hardly looks any better. That leaves you, Ms..."

"Bannister-St. Ives," Moira said. "Call me Em. Or Moira. Whichever you prefer."

Wesley started to say something, then fell silent.

"Wesley?" Giles said wearily. "What is it?"

"Ma'am," he began again, addressing Moira. "On that unfortunate tape, the one we watched shortly before Miss Del Ciello was lost..."

Moira stepped into the light, saying nothing. Her face, even to Giles's experienced eyes, which had witnessed her in all emotional weathers, appeared devoid of human feeling, utterly terrifying. No wonder Joyce regarded her with trepidation.

"Which tape was this, Wesley?" Giles asked.

"It was a recording that Helena Penglis made, just prior to her...ah, her...death."

Giles freed his hand from Willow's, bending forward to lift the television remote from the coffeetable. A click or so and Helena's voice came into the room, "Em and I were two decent people, and we fought the good fight. We deserved better than this at the end. That's all."

The screen dissolved to snow. Giles glanced at Moira, and saw his old friend with her hand to her throat. Grief filled him until he couldn't speak: for the woman Helena had been, and the horrid creature she had become. And for his Buffy, helpless in that creature's hands.

"That's who has my daughter?" Joyce asked, troubled. "She seems-- She doesn't seem--"

"That's who she was Mrs. Summers, not who she is now." Wesley told her gently. Giles felt rather amazed by his delicacy; the younger man was continuing to surprise him. "Mr.--ah--Rupert, if I might--?"

Giles passed him the control, and Wesley scanned backward through the video, his brow furrowed, his lips moving soundlessly. "Ah! Ah! Here!" he said at last, and pressed the button for play.

Again, Helena spoke: "Oh, yeah. Emmy got hurt, and I came unglued. But even after that--for a while anyway--it still wasn't too bad. I teased Em about the way she gimped around on crutches all those months, limping along after me when I went on patrol. I'd tell her what good bait she made--and that was true, the vamps came after her like bugs to a lightbulb..."

"This is gonna help us how?" Xander asked.

"Hush, hush. It's coming," Wesley insisted.

"Really, she could see inside my head," Helena said on the tape. "That's what made her do it. She always knew where I was going, even when I didn't know myself. She knew she couldn't let me go out alone anymore, the way she sometimes had after I was grown up and fully trained. It was then she first started using the magic--there are spells, you know, that can help us do this, that can bind demons, or blind them, even increase a human's strength, until she can nearly hold her own with a Slayer. At least until after the party's over."

"There!" Wesley said, with triumph. "You see? As--er--Helena described, we use magic to increase our strength, and then--"

"Wesley," Giles said, a bit more sharply than he intended. "Moira, a word?"

Xander had to help him rise, and his progress down the corridor was very unsteady indeed. Giles was nearly grateful when Moira caught up to him, and her hand slipped in beneath his elbow, offering support. They shut themselves in the downstairs lavatory, locking the door.

Moira stood silent a moment, gazing at him, a world of bleak emotion in her emerald eyes.

"I hate to ask this of you," Giles said.

"Which, Rupert? The magic, or that I should fight Helena?"

"Both, I suppose. The latter more than the former."

"Rupert, I'm very much at sea. I know it won't truly be my Lena. I abhor what she's done to you, and fear what she might do to Buffy, yet...I can't say that if I look upon her face I'll be able to stand true. It's terribly weak and emotional of me, I know."

"Not at all, love." Giles placed his good hand on the back of her neck and drew her close; their foreheads touched. He no longer felt desire for Moira, but something deeper, and more tender: she had been, after all, his friend of thirty-one years. They'd shared grief, and exhilaration--and a most wonderful son.

"You know," he said, "I half wish that we'd met at Oxford, for the first time, when we were twenty-five. We might have had a lovely life together, Em."

"'Isn't it pretty to think so?'" she murmured, quoting Hemingway.

Giles smiled. "Yes, isn't it." He kissed her cheek, tenderly, as befit an old friend. "I shan't force you to fight, but I would be eternally grateful, should you perform the spell."

"Spells," Moira said, pulling back, suddenly all business. "There are two: one to mask the effect of your injuries. Notice that I say 'mask,' Rupert. There will be no healing, and when the enchantment has run out its time all your hurts will be back in full force, along with anything you have done to exacerbate them. The second spell does, as Helena said, increase one's physical strength nearly to Slayer-level. My question is, on whom do I use it?"

"All of us," Giles told her.

"All? Even the boy and girl? Even Wesley? He's likely to injure himself worse than the vampires."

"All," Giles insisted. "Xander and Willow have fought alongside Buffy and I for three years now. And Wesley--you know that Wesley will insist on tagging along, quite as determined to prove himself as ever."

"He did perfectly well in his weapons training," Moira mused. "If he can only get over that bloody self-consciousness, he might almost be useful."

"That he might," Giles agreed.

Moira gazed at him for a few moments. "You know that this is dreadfully dangerous, don't you, Rupert? With your injuries, perhaps even fatal? Magic of this sort takes a tremendous physical toll."

Giles only returned her look.

"And, even with bolstered strength, we shall still be fighting against some extremely deep odds. We are five, and they far more numerous, perhaps more than fifty."

"But we shan't be depending on that," he told her quietly.

Moira understood him at once. "Rupert? Are you sure?"

Giles glanced down at the white hexagonal tiles that covered the floor, suddenly unable to look at her, unable even to think too deeply about what he contemplated, what he planned to let loose--or about the consequences of that plan. Having awakened the Wild Magic within him, would he be able to put it to rest again? Could he return to his own usual self, or would the part of him he called Ripper again become ascendant? Providing, of course, that his battered physical body even survived.

"Rupert?" Moira said.

"It doesn't matter," he told her. "Anything for Buffy. Anything."

Oh, I'm dreaming, Buffy told herself, thankful that the dueling vamp girls had at last shut up long enough to let her sleep.

In her dream she walked through a forest, a big, dark, spooky forest, like one in a fairy tale, or the one with the mean twisty trees in The Wizard of Oz. The "I'd turn back if I were you" forest where the winged monkeys flew. She kept passing little fallen-down cottages, and lights--that might have been eyes--flashed at her out of the dark. It surprised her to see that she still had on her pretty blue dress, that she'd chosen because she thought Giles would like it. In real life the dress had gotten grubby, but here, in her dream, it still looked nice, the color clean and clear like a summer sky.

The forest got deeper and darker, the branches above her head all twisted together, until it was like walking through a tunnel. She stopped, clutching a stake to her chest, not wanting to go any further, but then she heard Willow's voice in her ear.

"It's all right," Willow told her. "You can keep going. You just have to come out the other side."

Buffy turned, noticing that Willow was wearing her red velvet witch-dress again, only this time it had another part that came up to cover Willow's hair. "Nice hood, Red," she told her friend.

"Do you know what this story means?" Willow asked her, smiling. "It's about the loss of innocence."

"Yeah, like I didn't lose that a long time ago," Buffy told her. "So when does the wolf show up? `Cause I'm here to tell you, this is getting kinda old."

But then he was there, and a shiver of fear ran up her spine. She caught hold of Willow's hand, and tried to back away from the tunnel, but somehow they'd gotten turned around, and were backing into it instead, while the trees got blacker and scarier around them, and all she could smell was this strong, green odor, half forest and half sex.

The wolf came at her out of the blackness, huge and dark, even against the darkness of the trees, his eyes shining green at her. Buffy screamed in terror, but even as she plunged her stake into his heart, she realized the big, bad wolf wasn't a wolf at all, but a man. Things went crazy, tearing apart, the scream of the wind in the branches a hundred times louder than her own cry had been.

Willow went down on her knees, cradling the dying man in her arms, a little circle of stillness around her, while the rest of the world was filled up with tattered leaves and flying twigs.

"Oh, God, Will, what did I do?" Buffy kept trying to see the man's face; she felt as if she knew him.

Blood shone red on Willow's hand from where she'd pressed her palm to the man's chest. "What did you do?" Willow said accusingly. "Buffy, you killed Giles. You killed him. He was trying to save you."

"But--" Buffy didn't understand. "Will--"

"He didn't want to turn into this. He did it for you. Couldn't you see that?" Willow bent down, crying, holding Giles, her Giles, tight. "That wasn't the right thing to do, Buff! You have to choose better."

"Oh, God!" Buffy knelt across from Willow, pressing her own hand to the wound. How could she have not known? Not recognized Giles, the other half of herself? "I didn't know he could do that. I didn't know he had that in him at all."

And suddenly, within her dream, Buffy understood two things: one, that this had been one of those dreams, a Slayer vision, a prophecy; two, she knew what the right thing to choose would be, as clearly as if Giles had laid it out for her himself.

Buffy woke up calm, but was still disconcerted by the shine of yellow eyes across the room. "Maria?" she said, the chains clanking as she rubbed her own eyes.

"Me," a different voice answered.

"Um...Helena?" Buffy's stomach tightened with fear, knowing she was pretty much helpless in her current position. She hadn't had much contact with Vamp Number One, but she'd seen what Helena had done to Giles, and felt how easily the Slayer-turned-vampire had taken her out. Even Maria, who'd turned out to be pretty much an über-vamp after all, when everything was said and done, made it clear that Helena creeped her out.

"I don't like Maria as much as I used to," Helena told Buffy. "I think I might have to turn you after all."

"Uh--" Buffy said. "Bad idea. Two Slayer-vamps? You lose your uniqueness, everyone says, 'Been there, done that.'" She didn't have any idea what she was saying, only that Helena was inching closer and closer, and that she never could see the vampire move. On the ugly demon scale, the ex-Slayer rated somewhere between the Master and the Vessel, which was pretty much as unattractive as a vamp could get. She made Maria, in game-face, look almost perky.

She had bad breath, too--like regular people, vampires still had to breathe when they talked, to force the sound through their throats--and Buffy had ample opportunity to judge, because now Helena was down on the floor right in front of her, her knees touching Buffy's knees, her hands on Buffy's shoulders. She smelled like she'd been eating dog food and washing it down with well-aged blood.

"Gotta say, Lena," Buffy quipped. "Dental hygiene--an idea whose time has come."

The vampire hissed softly. Her cold, clawed hands stroked Buffy's cheek, trailing down along her throat. "Warm. So warm. So sweet, your blood, and so powerful. The old men sent us here to drink you up. 'Drink Me'--does that make you bigger or smaller?"

"Excuse me?" Buffy said, thinking Helena somehow knew what she'd said to Angel, what seemed like ages before--but the Slayer-vamp seemed to be thinking of something else entirely.

"Drink me. Eat me," Helena continued. "Alice down the rabbit hole, bigger and smaller. So many adventures, and everything so strange. We'll go back for them, after. Buffy, sweet Buffy, don't you want to come too?"

"Come where?" Buffy asked, figuring that if crazy Helena was talking, she couldn't be biting.

"Back to Merry England, of course, sweetness. And first we go to the Watchers' Compound in London, and drink them all dry, and then we go down to Cornwall, to Mermorgan Hall, and it's bye-bye to all the aunties. All of Emmy's bad, bad witchy aunties. None of them get turned. Not one. We don't want them to play." Helena raised Buffy's hand, rubbing the palm against her own furrowed cheek. She felt so dead, Buffy could hardly stand it. Angel had felt cool, and still, sure--but nothing like that, not all icky and clammy. Even Angelus hadn't smelled bad, that she remembered.

Helena cold tongue traveled over Buffy's palm, licking her wrist, tracing each of the little veins. Helena's fangs bumped the heel of her hand, and Buffy shivered. This was going to be it, she knew. This was going to be it; the vampire wouldn't be able to help herself.

She hoped someone would catch her and stake her fast. Despite what Maria told her, Buffy didn't think she could stand to be this way, not if she ended up like Helena. Not if she ended up like any of them.

Buffy hoped Giles wouldn't have to be the one to do it. She could imagine him with that wintery look that sometimes came into his eyes. She could imagine him staring down on her with absolute horror, his heart breaking as he thrust the stake into hers. Or, worse yet, not being able to--and her taking him, changing him from the decent man he was to a monster like herself.

"Giles," she whispered, not making any sound at all. "Giles, no."

She shut her eyes, waiting for the bite, thinking of her mom, and of Xander and Willow, and finally holding the picture of Giles in her mind. Giles as he'd been at the prom in his tuxedo, gazing down at her with such perfect pride and love in his face she couldn't imagine how she'd ever been able to turn away, how she could have left him to go dance so close and slow with frowning, broody Angel.

That song stuck in her head:

Wild, wild horses couldn't drag me away
Wild, wild horses, we'll lead them someday

I love you, Rupert, Buffy thought, and tried to get ready to die--but she was eighteen, and it wasn't easy. She would have given anything for time. For just a little, little bit more time.

"Helena," Maria called into the room, "We have a problem."

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