The demons were new in town and just what Spike had been looking for: tough, hostile, and spoiling for a fight. It was all the excuse Spike needed.
He’d been patrolling his territory for some time, moving restlessly through the demon areas looking for something worth fighting when he stumbled across them in the small playground. He recognized them, of course, there weren’t that many demons with no mouths. They were a breeding pair of Szynmrll.
Szynmrll generally kept to themselves - not being able to communicate outside their species pretty much assured that - but when they moved into an area, they tended to clear out anything they saw as hostile - which pretty much included anything not human normal. Spike had seen some damn strange demon alliances formed to clear out large packs of them from a territory. Humans weren’t their natural prey but they killed a lot of humans who strayed too close to their nests. No one had ever been able to figure out what or how they ate, if they ate anything at all, and the Szynmrll certainly weren’t talking about it.
The Szynmrll went on alert the moment they sensed him and immediately went into battle readiness, moving further apart so that they could come at him from both sides. Spike concentrated on the female, keeping a wary eye on the male but otherwise ignoring him. The males were the egg carriers and a breeding pair moving into a new territory meant that the odds were good the male was pregnant. If so, the male would hang back in a fight to protect the eggs it carried.
Spike grinned triumphantly as the pair shifted position, the female moving forward aggressively while the male circled around, always staying slightly further back than the female. His own movements cautious, Spike deliberately waited until the pair was almost directly across from each other on either side of him then charged the female.
Running directly at her, he spun away at the last second, dodging the claws that were her main weapon and using the momentum of his turn to bring both hands around and down in a single smashing blow aimed at her vulnerable side. She was quicker than he anticipated and was already turning away from him as he struck, causing the blow to land on her scale-armored back, the force of it staggering her but not doing the intended harm.
Spike kept moving as she stumbled forwards a step, leaping and aiming a spin-kick at her back. The demon had caught her balance almost instantly and spun around, her clawed hands closing around his booted foot and Spike found himself flipped in mid-air.
Snapping into a ball, he went with the spin’s motion and landed crouched and ready, bouncing back to his feet before she could close on him. He danced backwards, checking that the male was still hanging back and changed tactics. As the female charged him, her claws swiping viciously at him, Spike waited ’til the last second, then dropped to his back on the ground, kicking up savagely with both feet.
The risky move caught her by surprise and his feet connected solidly, sending her flying over his head to crash into a picnic table, the impact shattering the wood table and leaving her scrambling as she tried to get to her feet. Spike flipped upright and closed on her again, only to have to leap aside to avoid another swipe from her clawed hands.
Keeping a wary eye on her mate, Spike let himself fall back towards the swing set, maneuvering carefully as she scrambled to her feet and came at him. Judging his moment precisely, he turned and leapt for the upright metal pole supporting the swing set. His hands closed around the cool metal and he swung around in a circle, meeting her head on, the full weight of his body behind the kick that caught her squarely in the chest.
He dropped to the ground as she sailed backwards to crash into the jungle gym, the metal bending beneath her weight before she crumpled to the grass. She rolled and tied to get to her feet, moving more slowly now and Spike was on her before she was halfway up, smashing her back with a savage kick to the head.
She fell back against the jungle gym, still half upright, and Spike rained blows down on her, feeling bones crack beneath his fists. Sensing movement behind him, Spike turned and swung, his fist connecting solidly with the male’s jaw. The male’s own intended blow went wild, the claws missing him entirely, and Spike kicked out, his foot landing hard in the male’s stomach and sending him crashing to the ground.
Turning back to the female, Spike saw she was still moving, struggling to rise, and he grinned ferally. A kick to the head dropped her back down and he reached down and grabbed her around the neck with both hands. Szynmrll had bony growths on either side of their necks and couldn’t be killed by Spike’s usual method of breaking his opponents’ necks. Planting one foot in the center of her back, he hauled upright on her neck with all his strength until a muffled crack sounded as her spine snapped.
Dropping her like the carrion she would soon be, Spike immediately turned back to the male. The kick to the stomach had dropped the male onto its back, where its eggs sheltered under the bone plates lying under the scaly outer skin, and the male had been slow to recover. Spike was on him in two steps, his foot swinging out to connect in the exact spot where the bone plates met, leaving a vulnerable gap. The demon shuddered in pain as the kick landed and Spike kicked it again and again, until it lay still on the grass.
Snapping its spine in the same manner he’d used on the female, Spike dropped the second Szynmrll, then dropped to a crouch by the body, panting for unneeded breath and feeling the tension flow out of him. There was nothing quite like taking on multiple opponents at once to focus your attention on survival, the fierce concentration of battle eliminating normal, everyday concerns.
“Got that out of your system?”
He looked up and grinned at Angelus who was leaning against a tree and watching him. “Felt good,” he admitted.
Angelus looked at the bodies and made a noncommittal sound which Spike decided was approval. “Never did like Szynmrll.”
“Yeah, I remember. We killed four of ’em, wasn’t it, in Rome.”
“Three but who’s counting.”
Think you are, mate.” Spike answered without offense, then rose to his feet. “Could use a spot of something strong. Fancy a drink?” he asked.
Angelus nodded and Spike grinned at him. “First round of human’s on me,” he said. When Angelus just nodded without even his usual token protest, Spike wondered if the witch’s return had raised issues for Angelus as well. After all, the bint had been responsible for the cock-up that sent his Sire to a hell dimension with soul intact. Bound to be some lingering, or not so lingering, resentment about that.
Who knew? If the witch got out of control again, maybe Angelus wouldn’t even scold him when he killed her.
Home schooling. Really, it had been an absolutely brilliant idea. Spike was a genius and Xander was clearly out of his mind for having rejected the thought. When he got home tonight, he was apologizing to Spike immediately for not having recognized his visionary insight into Xander’s needs.
Perched on a picnic table in the school courtyard, Xander sat with his chin resting on his drawn-up knees watching the between classes movement with unseeing eyes and wondering if the week was ever going to end. Right now he didn’t think he could take even one more day.
The coven had done something to allow Willow to slide seamlessly back into her classes, the teachers all accepting the explanation of a special study session abroad to cover her nearly two month absence. It didn’t hurt that Willow was the smartest kid in school. She could probably have sat at home for the same period of time and still been on top of all her classes. So the fact that she had essentially been in England taking a crash course in ‘How Not to be Evil’ hadn’t affected her standing at all in the eyes of the school administration.
The Willow who’d come back from England was quieter than before, aware that the others had issues about her return. She spent a lot of time with Miss Hartness, the coven representative, and during their research meetings, Willow worked on the computer, trying to break into the Mayor’s files and, Xander suspected, grateful for the isolation of computer research that allowed her to focus on her monitor and not on the uncertain, suspicious and downright hostile looks thrown her way.
Buffy had been the quickest to accept Willow’s return. Although Buffy had been uncomfortable at first, Xander knew how much she’d missed Willow and didn’t begrudge Buffy her happiness at having her best friend back in town. The two of them had spent hours talking after school and Xander could see the results as they gradually fell back into their old easy companionship, walking through the halls side-by-side and sitting next to each other in classes. Willow was putting up a brave front, but he could see the strain as she struggled to fit back into school and the life she had had before she’d left.
Admittedly, none of them were making it especially easy for Willow. Buffy was the only one who was able to accept Willow’s return with something approaching happiness. Giles was struggling to work with her but obviously didn’t trust his own judgment where Willow was concerned. Willow had fooled him before when he’d thought he’d been monitoring her closely. As a result, he was stiff and formal around her and obviously preferring to deal with Miss Hartness.
Oz had gone practically non-verbal, the only outward sign of how miserable he was. He avoided Willow as much as possible and spent much of his time in the music rooms and Xander was just selfishly grateful that Oz hadn’t simply taken off. Willow’s eyes followed Oz sadly but Xander took it as a good sign that she was respecting Oz’s request to be left alone. Oz would talk when he was ready but he was obviously still struggling to come to terms with his own emotions about Willow and Xander had spent several quiet hours with him, listening to Oz play his guitar, the tunes varying from angry to melancholy, the music he’d written for Willow conspicuously absent from his repertoire.
As for Xander himself, Willow being back, being around, being there every day was like nails constantly scratching on a blackboard. Or something equally irritating and pervasive. Every time he saw her, he was afraid and angry and sad and guilty and pretty much every other emotion you could name. He felt guilty that he couldn’t shake his instinctive reaction at the sight of her but every time he saw her, his stomach clenched and nausea rose up and he found himself frantically and uselessly checking that he had all his memories. Even knowing he wouldn’t know the difference didn’t stop him from doing it. It was horrible to be reassured that he felt so torn because if she was messing with him again, he probably wouldn’t. She’d seemed sincere in her apology and Miss Hartness was reassuring about the progress she’d made, but Xander couldn’t bring himself to trust her. Not yet and he wondered if maybe not ever. He missed the Willow he used to know, before death and Spike and magic and betrayal had come between them, but he wasn’t sure if what they had once had could ever be recaptured. The smashed pieces of their friendship could perhaps be glued back together, but it would never be strong and whole again, just a sad, patched facsimile of something that had once been great.
He knew he and Willow were going to have to talk. She was doing her best to get through the days and Xander recognized that it was hard for her but, as he’d overheard Oz saying to Willow in the hallway - that really wasn’t his problem. As guilty as he felt over his inability to just forgive and forget when it did seem like Willow was sincerely trying to make amends, he needed time. If Willow ever wanted to patch things up with himself and Oz, she was going to have to give them that time.
Which thoughts led to him stopping Willow at her locker and asking if he could talk to her alone. He hated himself for the happiness that sprang to her eyes as she agreed eagerly because he knew he was going to disappoint her.
Leading her to an empty classroom, Xander shrugged off his backpack and sat down on one of the desks, wondering how to start. Willow made the decision for him.
“Xander, I didn’t say it in my letters because I needed to tell you face to face. I’m sorry.” Willow met his eyes squarely. “I kept telling myself that what I was doing was for all the right reasons: to help Buffy, to make us friends again. I was lying to myself as much as to everyone else. I didn’t let myself see what I was doing, see that what I was doing was wrong and that I was hurting you. I can’t ever make up for what happened but I want you to know: I’m really sorry.”
Xander nodded. “I’m really glad that you’re doing better,” he said without commenting on the apology, “what I hadn’t realized was how hard it was going to be to see you again.” He sighed. “I guess what I’m saying is that I’m kind of still at the letter writing stage of re-connecting not the seeing each other every day stage.”
“I don’t understand,” Willow said after a moment and he couldn’t blame her. He’d been less than clear. Trying to think of how to explain it, he decided on the bald truth.
“Willow, sitting here alone in a room with you, my heart is pounding so hard I can barely hear myself think.” Willow’s eyes widened and the color drained from her face. “When I turn around in the hall and see you unexpectedly, it’s a shock. It’s like…,” he faltered, hating the only example he could think of, but forcing himself to continue.
“When Angel came back from Hell,” he continued, “it freaked me out completely. All I could remember was what he’d done to me. When I first saw him, I was terrified. I knew it was Angel and not Angelus and I still couldn’t stop shaking. It was months before I could see him without that knee-jerk reaction.”
Willow bowed her head, her hands clasped tightly, and Xander could tell she understood what he was telling her.
“I don’t think Angel and I will ever be friends,” he continued gently, “but I can work with him now.” He smiled suddenly. “Granted, I didn’t like him before he lost his soul, but that’s another story.”
“So, you need time.”
“Yeah.” He hesitated but knew it had to be said if they were ever going to get past this.
“Willow, when Angel kidnapped me, he’d lost his soul and he didn’t know then about the happiness clause. You don’t have that excuse.”
“I know.” Willow’s voice was so quiet he barely heard her.
He took a deep breath. “And I know it’s none of my business, but you really hurt Oz and that’s not helping.”
Willow looked up, startled, and Xander shrugged. “That’s between you and Oz and I won’t mention it again but I want you to understand what I’m feeling.” Their eyes met for a long moment and Xander could see the pain and acceptance in her green eyes.
“I’ve missed you, Willow, for a long time now, and I hope that someday we can start over. But I’m not there yet and I don’t know if I ever will be. I can work with you, because we both want to stop whatever the Mayor’s planning but I’m not ready to be friends yet.”
There wasn’t anything left to say. Picking up his backpack, Xander quietly walked out of the classroom, leaving Willow behind.
The nightly sessions pouring through newspaper archives and the enormous dusty books containing the town’s records, the quiet clicking of computer keys as Willow tried to find a way around the Mayor’s firewalls, were getting them nowhere. They had learned that Richard Wilkins had been Mayor of Sunnydale for nearly 80 years. Twice he had been elected as his own son assuming the office, re-appearing first as Richard Wilkins, Jr. and then as Richard the III. Comparing old photographs that Oz had dug up out of the archives, it was obvious that Mayor Wilkins the First was the same guy as Mayors II and III.
Xander couldn’t help wondering how the campaigns had handled endorsements from a predecessor who couldn’t appear on stage with his successor. Not to mention he was seriously beginning to question the validity of the vote counts. Three generations of men being elected to the same post without a peep about nepotism and vote fixing? Not even Chicago could pull that off. Granted, it wasn’t the issue, but still…
Oz continued to stick around and work with them, a quiet, intent researcher who somehow always found the furthest spot in the room from Willow. Xander hurt for the pain that showed on his face in unguarded moments before the blank mask slid back into place. Willow’s face showed the same hurt and regret as Oz’s as she carefully respected his silence and distance and Xander suspected they were never going to get back together.
Four days of digging had produced almost no useful information. They’d already known the Mayor was other than human, so finding out he was a lot older than he appeared wasn’t exactly the key that was going to solve the mystery of what he was up to. The details were too sparse to be able to determine what ritual he had performed, despite Giles’ and Wesley’s futile attempts to at least limit the possibilities to something less than infinity.
The coven hadn’t been able to provide any more information and they were still just guessing that the Mayor was the “dark force” the coven had sensed. They were seriously screwed if it wasn’t the Mayor because, despite their lack of progress, he was the only suspect they had.
Buffy and Angel had pretty much abandoned research to patrol extensively and Xander had been able to persuade Spike to join them. Spike had clearly wanted to go but was reluctant to leave Xander alone with Willow. Pointing out the number of people in the room with them and the fact that Willow was being supervised by Miss Hartness, Xander had been able to convince his reluctant partner to go kill things instead of spending his nights leafing through books and glaring at Willow. Given the aura of lethal menace Spike could project whenever he chose to, his presence hadn’t helped anyone’s concentration.
When Buffy returned early the third night, Xander had looked up in alarm, worried about Spike, but Buffy looked pleased and he settled back into the chair he had half risen out of at her solo entrance. Buffy had called for Giles as soon as she entered the library, and began describing her encounter with a demon that wanted to sell her some books.
“He was looking for me in particular, Giles,” she finished like she wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not. “He waited until the three of us split up to approach me.”
“The Books of Ascension?” Giles repeated, glancing at Wesley and Elizabeth Hartness, who shook their heads. “I’ve never heard of them.”
“He said that the Mayor would hate for anyone to get ahold of them and he wanted to sell them and get out of town.” She shrugged. “Said he would meet me at the same place tomorrow and bring the books.” She glanced at Xander. “Angel and Spike are following him to see if they can find out anything more.”
“And you say this demon wanted cash? That's very unusual,” Wesley said thoughtfully.
“Demons after money,” Giles said disapprovingly. “Whatever happened to the still beating heart of a virgin? No one has any standards anymore.”
Xander grinned at Giles’ disgruntlement. “Sorry, Giles. American demons are obviously into crass capitalism. What’s Ascension mean?”
“I'm not sure,” Giles confessed.
Wesley concurred. “It’s not really a common term in demonology.”
Miss Warness looked like she was mentally snapping her fingers, searching her memory for something half forgotten, when Willow spoke up.
“Maybe the Marenschadt Text?” she said hesitantly, a wave of crimson sweeping over her face. “I think in the section on genocide, they mention Ascension.”
Giles gave her a sharp look which Willow met steadily, her cheeks flaming but not dropping her eyes. Giles’ lips tightened but he didn’t say anything, moving instead to the book cage in search of the volume. The fact that the book was kept in the cage told Xander it was one of the books on dark magic which Giles felt merited extra precautions to keep it safe.
“What kind of demon was it?” Wesley asked as they waited for Giles to return with the book.
Buffy shrugged. “Short, crappy clothes, in serious need of orthodonture help,” she said, less than helpfully.
Wesley sighed at the worthless description and Xander couldn’t help feeling sympathetic. Buffy’s demon descriptions left something to be desired, despite the fact that she could spend five minutes describing a new outfit in unbelievable detail. From that description, the demon sounded more like a human than anything else. He didn’t get why Buffy was so dead set against the demon study part of her job. She wasn’t stupid, although she sure had the act down when she wanted to, but she disliked studying demons, preferring Giles, and now Wesley, to spoon feed her whatever she needed to know about the demon of the week.
Before Wesley could say anything in response, Giles returned with a leather-bound volume, flipping quickly through the pages as he crossed the room.
“Here we are,” he murmured after a second. “There's a reference here to the journal of Desmond Kane, pastor of a town called Sharpsville. ‘May 26, 1723. Tomorrow is the Ascension. God help us all.’ It was the last anyone heard.”
“Of Kane?” Wesley asked, looking over Giles’ shoulder at the text.
“Of Sharpsville. The town more or less disappeared.”
“So, Ascension possibly not a love-in,” Buffy said lightly to fill the grim silence that followed.
“I think you should meet with this demon, Buffy.”
“Yeah? Anybody got five thousand dollars?” She raised her eyebrows at Giles who shrugged.
“Perhaps you can persuade the demon to accept less,” Wesley said encouragingly.
Xander rather thought Spike might already be on that.
The demon wasn’t hard to track. Once he’d left the Slayer behind, he made no more attempt to hide than any other demon who could pass for human at a distance. It was obvious he didn’t have the books with him, so Spike and Angelus kept well back, letting the demon lead them to where he was staying. Which appeared to be near the bus station.
“Disgusting neighborhood this,” Spike commented idly.
“No worse than where we stayed in Edinburgh that time,” Angelus reminded him.
“There was a reason they burned that neighborhood down. It wasn’t just because of us.”
“Good point.” Angelus pointed ahead, “I think we’re here.”
“’bout time.” Spike watched the demon look around furtively then enter a flea-bag motel down the street. He waited a minute, then the two of them followed the demon into the hotel.
The unshaven human behind the counter was watching a small portable TV and drinking a can of beer. He barely glanced at them. “35 bucks for the night. 200 for a week.”
“We just need information,” Angelus said, leaning one elbow against the counter. “Which room is the man who just came in staying in?”
“100 bucks for information.”
Angelus’ hands flashed out, dragging the heavy set man halfway across the counter. “I’m asking politely, then I’m going to get testy,” he snarled. “Which. Room?”
After a brief struggle which got him nowhere, the man said, “Room 14, around back.”
Angelus set him down again. “See how civilized that was? If you call him to warn him, I’m coming back and I will be very upset.”
“Like this dump has phones in the rooms,” the man answered, turning back to his TV program. Spike almost laughed at Angelus’ surprise at the man’s dismissal.
Room 14 was, as promised, around back. Spike didn’t waste time with knocking, just kicking in the flimsy door and stepping inside. A short demon with a fringe of graying hair and two rows of horns on his otherwise bald crown was in the middle of packing.
“Hey, do the words ‘damage deposit’ mean anything to you?” he complained.
“I didn’t hear the manager mention a damage deposit, did you, Spike?”
The demon stepped back. “Master Spike?”
“Well, in that case, damage away. I’m won’t be using the room much longer anyway.” The demon fidgeted nervously and moved towards the bag on the bed. “You know, I wasn’t expecting company. Give me a minute and I’ll have the place tidied up.”
“You have the Books of Ascension?”
“Books of Ascension?” At Spike’s glare, he raised his hands in surrender. “Yes. Are you a buyer? I already have an offer but a bidding war is always appreciated by an honest seller.”
“Let’s see them,” Spike growled.
“They’re not here -” His voice cut off in a gasp of pain as Spike punched him. Hard.
“You’re tough in negotiations and I respect that,” the demon said, wiping a trickle of blood away from his split lip. He turned and opened his bag revealing five large books, then hastily stepped back away from them as Angelus began pulling the books out of the bag.
“Check ‘em out. That is quality merchandise. Worth five grand easy.”
Angelus flipped through the books hastily, confirming they were as claimed the Books of Ascension, at least according to the worn gilt titles on the spines.
“Original editions and everything. Great condition. Okay, that volume is a little worn on one spine, some slight foxing here and there, but otherwise, perfect. Now, the five grand,” he stepped back again at Spike’s glare, “it’s, you know, negotiable,” he finished lamely.
“Not real big on haggling,” Spike informed him in case he hadn’t noticed. “Tell you what, you give us the books and we won’t pull your intestines out and strangle you with them.”
“Now, let’s not be hasty. I’m sure, we…”
“One thousand dollars or I watch while he kills you,” Angelus interrupted.
Spike shot him a glare but Angelus just stared at the demon.
“Fine. One thousand. Cash.” The demon agreed sulkily.
“I’ll be back in one hour with the cash.”
Spike reached over and dumped the rest of the stuff out of the bag, then began stuffing the books in inside. “The books we take now.”
“Those are my security -”
Once more the demon’s voice cut off in a yelp of pain as Angelus slammed him up against the wall. “Are you telling me you don’t trust my word?” he snarled.
“Not at all. One hour.” The demon obviously knew when it was defeated and Angelus let him go, straightening his clothes with mock solicitude.
Heading towards the library with the bag of books, Spike looked at Angelus. “You’re not actually going to pay him, are you?”
Spike shook his head in disbelief.
*A/N - Bits of dialogue borrowed from the episode ‘Enemies’