Part 5

Tara looked around the airport terminal, somewhat surprised that Buffy or Xander didn’t grab her immediately. Buffy had said she’d be met. Surely they couldn’t be running late, given what was happening. She’d been moving at top speed since that morning, throwing the corrected (well, corrected enough) galleys into the mail on her way to the Marin County airport to catch the first available plane. She looked blankly down at her duffel bag, trying to remember its contents.

I hope I actually have clothes with me. I can’t exactly borrow Buffy’s.

What if something else had happened? What if there had been another attack? What if they were all …


The quiet voice cut through her rising panic, and she turned, jaw dropping when she recognized the speaker.

“Kate, what are you doing here? Where’s Buffy?”

“Shh.” The blonde woman took her arm and marched them through the terminal. “I was driving up from L.A., and she asked me to meet you. I just hope the line was secure.”

“What do you mean?” Tara whispered, almost running to keep pace with Kate’s long strides. “What else has happened? Why were you driving …?” The light dawned. “Lorne was the demon friend Angel was seeing when he was taken? And they took Lorne, too? Oh, Kate, I’m so sorry!”

Kate nodded tightly. Tension radiated from her, and Tara could see the dark shadows under her eyes, but her cop’s facade was firmly in place, and her voice was coolly professional. “Lorne and Angel disappeared two days ago. Yesterday, Willow was taken, which you know about. What you don’t know is that on that same day, Wesley was shot, and Giles disappeared. It all happened at once. Somebody planned this. Do you have other bags?” she asked abruptly.

Tara shook her head, mind whirling from the news of the fresh disasters. “No, everything’s in here. What’s going on? Why is this happening?”

“We don’t know. But whoever’s behind it knows the group, which is why I’m picking you up. Buffy and Xander are doing research. Gunn and Cordelia are watching each other and Wesley, and Dawn’s home for the duration.”

Kate’s eyes constantly swept the area as they crossed the parking deck. When they reached her car, she checked the back seat, trunk and underneath before unlocking the door.

“Wait,” Tara said, and when Kate paused, she stretched her hands over the car and extended her senses. “Clear,” she announced, detecting no magical traps.

“You think this something to do with magic?” Kate asked as they climbed into the car.

Tara nodded. “It almost has to. Look who they took. Willow’s the strongest witch I’ve ever known. Giles used to study magic, and Wesley was a Watcher, too, wasn’t he?”

Kate nodded. “He did most of the research for the agency.”

“Whoever it was knew Buffy would come after Angel and Lorne, so they took Willow and Giles and Wesley, because then she wouldn’t be able to find them by magic.” She touched Kate’s tense arm and said gently, “It probably means they want Angel and Lorne alive, for awhile at least.”

“I know,” Kate said briefly. Then, she frowned. “But Wesley was shot, not taken. He still can’t do any research, but why was he different? Why not either take him or shoot the others?”

“I don’t know,” Tara said, suppressing a shudder at the thought of bullets slamming into Willow’s body.

“Anyway,” Kate shrugged, “they don’t know that we’ve still got a witch on our side.” She managed a brief smile. “You’re our ace in the hole.”

Tara swallowed. Ace in the hole? More like the joker in the deck! She’d never been a major participant in Scooby world-saving. She was more like Willow’s sidekick, a good two steps down in the chain of Slayer activities. And now, for Buffy and Kate to be depending on her, for Willow’s life to rest on her abilities …!

She felt Kate’s eyes touch her. “Lorne said you were strong, as strong as you’d let yourself be. He would think you could do this. I think so, too.”

You can’t do anything. You’re a useless, foolish girl.

Tara shook away the sound of her father’s voice. There wasn’t time for that right now. Her family … her real family … needed her. She must do her best for them and hope it was good enough.

Kate dropped Tara several blocks from The Magic Box and told her to window-shop for 15 minutes then come to the back entrance, utilizing the alleys that crossed the back of the street of shops.

“Shielding wouldn’t be bad, either,” she pointed out.

Tara waited obediently, dawdling along the streets and slowly wrapping herself in spells of uninterest and concealment before taking to the alleys. The back entrance was unlocked, but the Slayer waited tensely in the back room, a hand on her stake until she recognized who entered.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” she said with a quick hug. “Thanks for coming.”

“Of course I came,” Tara said, returning Buffy’s embrace.

The Slayer’s newfound ease and relaxation were nowhere to be seen this visit, and when they reached the main body of the shop, Tara saw that Xander looked even worse, haggard and hollow-eyed. If … the unthinkable … happened, Buffy would focus on her duty and carry on, no matter how painfully, but after Anya’s death, Xander wouldn’t be able to endure Willow’s loss.

“Willow isn’t dead,” she told him.

“She isn’t?” Hope mixed with doubt in his eyes. “Are you sure?”

“I felt it when she was taken. I would know if she died.”

He looked at her a moment, opened his mouth to say something, then nodded and a tiny amount of stiffness left his shoulders.

“Have you found anything new?” Kate asked.

“Not really. We’ve been looking all night, but …” Buffy gestured at the stacks of books that covered table, chairs, and floor. Dawn looked up from one of the volumes and waved feebly.

“But we don’t know where to start,” the younger Summers finished. “We thought it must have something to do with Angel being a one-time vampire, so we’ve been looking at everything to do with vampires, but none of that really fits anymore.”

“And how would Lorne tie in?” Kate finished. “Anyhow, what about Halloween? That’s three days from now. Could that have something to do with it?”

Buffy shrugged. “Most occult types ignore Halloween. They think it’s trendy.”

“Not witches,” Tara said diffidently. Her face grew hot as everyone looked at her, but she continued, “Kate and I were talking, and I think Angel and Lorne might have been taken for some kind of magical purpose. Anyway, if it is a witch or warlock, Halloween might be significant. It’s still real for us, the night when the barrier between the worlds of living and dead grows thin.”

“How much thinner can the barrier get?” Dawn asked. “We’ve got demons, vampires, anything else you want around all the time.”

“But they’re not really dead. Well, vampires are dead, but they don’t have souls. The actual soul is somewhere else. I’m talking about the barrier between the souls of the living and the dead.”

“Angel was a vampire,” Buffy said thoughtfully. “Then he got his soul back and then he became human. So, he’s got all kinds of ties to the world of the dead.”

“And Lorne is psychic,” Kate added, “With links to the Powers.”

“Okay, we refocus,” Buffy decided. “You guys look for stuff about the dead and Halloween, and you,” she looked at Tara. “Can you …” She waved her hands in what were supposedly spell-casting gestures.

Tara nodded and knelt to unzip her duffle bag. “You work on what. I’ll see what I can find out about who.”

She was relieved to find that she had, after all, packed jeans and shirts and underwear along with what looked like all of her socks. However, the clothes were stuck every which way into the bag, their primary purpose being to serve as padding for the other items.

The Magic Box had the basics: herbs, crystals, books, etc., but there were other things Tara had thought she might need, and with those tools, it was best to use the ones that keyed to her energy.

She had found the blue glass bowl lying beside the road in a ditch, amazingly unbroken, and the prettiest thing her 6-year-old self had ever seen. She’d hidden it away instinctively. The plates they used were thick and white, and the blue bowl would have been seen as frivolous.

The Tarot deck had been rescued from the pile of her mother’s things that had been burned at her death. Even now, the memory of what had been lost, the Book of Shadows, the cord that told her measure, made Tara’s eyes burn, but at least this had been saved.

“How did you get that on the plane?” Kate demanded as Tara withdrew the last item.

She smiled, laying the athame gently on the table, only the black handle showing beyond the sheath. “Illusion spell. Security thought it was an eyelash curler.” Kate looked vastly disapproving, and Tara shrugged. “I couldn’t risk it being lost or stolen.”

This she had made herself under her mother’s direction, using an old chisel for the iron. It had taken a long time to make since they could only work on it the nights when her father and brother went to the men’s prayer meeting, but it had been done eventually, and her mother had made the carved handle.

“What are you going to do?” Xander asked.

She held up the deck in its wrapping of white silk. “If magicians are involved, they may be shielded or watching for spells, even though they took Willow and Giles. I’m going to use this to try and get information sort of sideways about what’s going on. Then, I can focus in.”

While the others returned to their reading, Tara found a clear place on the floor at the back and seated herself cross-legged, spreading the white scarf out on the floor. After a moment, Dawn crawled over to join her.

“Is it okay if I watch?”

“Sure,” Tara said. “But there’s not a lot to see.”

She closed her eyes and began to shuffle the deck, letting her mind roam over the situation at hand.

Willow, Angel, Lorne … What’s happening? What is the best course to take? Still me, guide me, show me the way …

She opened her eyes and nodded to Dawn who was watching her anxiously.

“Nothing’s happening to me,” Tara reassured the younger girl. “I’m forming the question in my mind. Now, let’s see what the cards have to say. The first one covers the situation. It sort of describes what’s going on.”

She lay the card on the scarf. “The Ace of Wands reversed. Confusion. Frustration.”

“Got that right,” Dawn muttered, and Tara had to smile.

“The next card crosses us. What are the obstacles we face?” She paused, looking at the card she had laid over the first. “The Magician. Normally, that would mean that any obstacles we face could be overcome with hard work. But I don’t know, it may be literal.”

As she spoke the last word, the cards flew from her hands. For a moment, she thought she’d fumbled them and would have to start again. Then, she rocked back on her heels with a gasp, and Dawn yelped as the cards began to whirl through the air, spiraling, swirling, drawing intricate patterns.

“What’s happening?” Buffy demanded sharply as she skidded to a halt, drawn to the back by her sister’s cry.

“I don’t know,” Tara said breathlessly. “But, it’s okay. They don’t want to hurt us.”

Despite her initial surprise, she was sure there was no danger, feeling only warmth as she watched the dancing cards. She held out her hands, and the squares of pasteboard fluttered around them in what felt like a caress before spinning away and dropping to the floor. Most of them scattered on impact, but 8 cards joined the first two Tara had laid out, completing the Celtic Cross spread that she had begun.

“I’m betting that doesn’t usually happen,” Xander said.

Tara shook her head. “I’ve never seen it before.”

“We don’t have time to worry about the deeper meaning behind it all,” Kate said tersely. “The important thing is, do you think that was friendly?”

“Yes. I’m sure of it.”

“Then what do they say?” Buffy asked.

Trembling, Tara leaned over the spread. No interpretations now. It was the literal stuff they were after.

“A magician’s behind this,” she said, tapping the card of obstacles. “I’m sure of it.”

Buffy nodded. “Okay, what next?”

“This card, the High Priestess, is what will happen in the near future. You’re already doing this, using magic to find them. It’s an indication we’re on the right track.”

“Good to know, but I need new stuff.”

“I know,” Tara whispered, feeling useless. “I’m trying.”

Buffy took a deep breath and calmed. “It’s okay, sorry. I’m just nervy.” She touched Tara’s shoulder. “What else?”

“This is what’s beneath the situation. What’s causing it. The Chariot, reversed. It means envy, greed. Someone greedy for something that they haven’t earned. From a literal sense, it may mean someone not local, someone who’s traveled.”

“This,” she went on, “is what’s past or passing away from us. Temperance, reversed. That’s good. We’re on the road to a solution.”

Everyone relaxed a little. It felt good to have some sort of verification.

Tara nodded to the card on located to the right of the original pair. “This shows new influences. What the plans are.”

There was a pause. “Death,” Tara said as calmly as she could. “Normally, this isn’t really a bad card. It just means change.”

“But you think it might be real,” Buffy said flatly.

“I think so. The cards started flying when I said something about literal meanings.” She watched everyone’s faces set and felt the despair in her own heart. “We don’t know who’s going to die,” she offered desperately. “Of if anyone is. Whoever took Angel or Lorne may be planning to kill them. We can stop it. It’s not set in stone”

“Whoever’s going to die,” Xander said dangerously. “It isn’t going to be Willow.”

“What about the rest?” Kate asked impatiently.

“Okay. This card is me. Or us. Our situation as we see it. The Moon. Basically, it’s a card of magic. It’s all around us. This one is what surrounds us. Influences and attitudes that maybe we don’t see.” She frowned. “I’m not sure about this. The King of Cups should be a person, but I don’t know who.”

“What kind of person?” Xander asked.

“Emotional, sensitive. Artistic, maybe. Negative qualities would be devious or liking to manipulate.”

“Sounds like our wizard,” Buffy commented.

Tara shook her head. “Maybe. It doesn’t feel right, though. We already know about the wizard. This would be someone new.”

She tapped the next card. “Our hopes and fears. The Star. New life and renewed energy. And finally,” she nodded to the last card. “The ultimate outcome. The Tower. Old things broken down, making way for new.”

“What does it mean?” Dawn whispered. “Is it good?”

Tara shrugged. “It’s change. It can be either. I’m sorry,” she added to Buffy. “I know that wasn’t a lot of help.”

“No,” Buffy frowned. “No, it did help. We know it’s a wizard and that we need to focus on magic.”

“It might be someone left over from Wolfram and Hart,” Kate offered. “They used mages. Except why take Giles and Willow and shoot Wesley? Why was Wesley different? That’s important. I know it is.”

“Wes was mostly into research. He wasn’t really a mage,” Buffy suggested.

“Then, why do anything with him at all? No, they wanted the mages out of the way, but they wanted Willow and Giles with them.”

“Maybe it’s because Willow and Giles are close to Buffy,” Tara said. “They would be better hostages than Wesley. Not that you would let anything happen to Wesley,” she added hastily.

“Then why not take me?” Dawn said. “After all, that used to be my main job description. Dawn Summers, hostage at large.”

Buffy smiled a little, her hand dropping to her sister’s hair. “Along with general pain.” She frowned, her eyes growing distant. “It’s almost like they just wanted Wesley out of the way, but it was personal with Giles and Willow.” Her gaze sharpened and she looked at Xander. “A wizard, motivated by greed and envy, who has a history with Giles and Willow, maybe especially Giles. Sound like somebody you know?”

Xander blinked. “That guy … the guy who did the Halloween costumes and turned Giles into a demon? Ethan Rayne?”

“That’s it. That’s who. I know it.”

“Who’s Ethan Rayne?” Kate asked.

“Leftover from Giles’ misspent youth.” Buffy started pacing back and forth, eyes snapping. “He was always jealous of Giles and always trying to get power, just for the hell of it. He didn’t care who he hurt. And he loved to gloat over stuff. He’d want an audience.”

“Okay,” Kate agreed. “He sounds like a good pick. But an audience for what? What’s he doing?”

“And where’s he doing it?” Dawn added.

“I can use a sort of dousing spell to try for where,” Tara said.

Buffy shook her head. “Won’t that let him know something’s up?”

“I’ll be looking for Willow, not the wizard. And it isn’t a normal dousing spell, just something we cooked up when we were together. It’s very … personal. I don’t know that anyone else could sense it.”

She wasn’t embarrassed, as she had thought she might be, about bringing up her and Willow’s history, and Xander didn’t even blink at the reference. The situation was too serious for something so petty, the sense of time passing almost palpable. Angel and Lorne had been gone for two days; Willow and Giles for one. Anything could be happening.

“Do you have a U.S. map?” Tara asked.

Some rummaging produced a map from the glove compartment of Kate’s car, and it was spread on the table.

“What if they’re not in the country?” Dawn said worriedly. “Or even in this dimension?”

“We are seriously overdue for a break. Let’s hope for the best, okay?” Buffy answered.

Tara spread her hands over the map and closed her eyes. “Aradia... Hear my words …”

It had been a long time since she had called the dancing light, but it came swiftly, with a sense of warm friendliness. She opened her eyes slowly to watch it hovering over the map. The light circled and wavered, then settled over California, moving slowly down the outline of the state until it stopped directly over Los Angeles.

“I can narrow it down more with a city map,” Tara said. “But I guess we know where we’re going.”

*                              *                              *

“I was going to keep everyone asleep until it was all over, but what fun would that be?”

The voice was familiar, but sounded like it came from far away and wasn’t terribly important when compared to the throbbing in his temples.

What the bloody hell?

Even asking the mental question increased the agony in his head, and Spike decided the issue could just sod off until he got over what felt like the sire of all hangovers.

“Poor Ripper,” the voice spoke again, almost fondly. “Bit of a headache?”

Ripper. Slowly, painfully, Spike’s eyes opened, his brain struggling to make connections. He was lying on the floor, staring up at the ceiling, and for an instant’s gut-wrenching panic, he thought the Initiative had him once more.

They aren’t putting another chip in me. I’ll finish myself off first.

But, no. The smug, British tones and the name Ripper didn’t go with Soldier Boy’s group. Then, what …?

“Ethan Rayne,” another voice from his past said, sounding as if it was speaking through gritted teeth. “What do you think you’re doing?”

And it all came back: Phil getting him hired by the wizard, Spike’s discovery of the nature of the magical supplies in question, the fight in Caritas, and finally being captured with the aid of his second-in-command.

That’s it. I work alone from here out.

Spike did his best to push himself up on one elbow without moving his head in the process. The room spun, blurred, and then resolved into a large, circular chamber, the walls of which contained recessed cells, reminding him again of the Initiative. Evil mastermind types used the same set of blueprints for their lairs, it would seem.

However, the inhabitants of those cells were strikingly different from the ones Spike recalled seeing in the Initiative. Instead of various demons and the like, these cells contained Angel, Lorne (okay, that wasn’t different), Giles, and Willow.

Spike blinked at the last two. The only surprise at seeing Angel and Lorne was that they hadn’t been killed already, but he hadn’t expected Watcher and witch. Still, there they were, Giles with his glasses off and pinching at the bridge of his nose and Willow swaying from her seat on the floor, seeming dizzier than the others.

“What’s wrong with her?” Angel demanded angrily, nodding toward the red-headed witch.

“Nothing permanent,” Ethan smiled. “She’s on a bit of something extra to keep her from accessing her magic. Rupert, here, away from his books and potions, isn’t a threat, but dear Willow’s natural power is very strong.”

Giles came to his feet, hiding any discomfort, and his smile at Ethan was unpleasant to say the least. “After I get out of this cell, we’ll see how much of a threat I am,” he snarled.

“Tsk. Temper, Rupert. I haven’t offered you any actual harm. And I shan’t … well, not most of you.” His eyes flicked toward Angel and Lorne. “Some of you, unfortunately, won’t be leaving, but the rest of you are only here to keep the Slayer from descending on me like an avalanche. With the two of you here and Mr. Wyndham-Price incapacitated, she won’t have any resources to locate me.”

“What did you do to Wesley?”

Ethan shook his head at Angel. “You certainly are a demanding little sacrifice, aren’t you? Truly, I don’t know how the poor Slayer put up with you. I’m sure her multitude of other lovers weren’t nearly as chatty.”

For one interesting moment, Spike thought Angel was going to manage the shift to game face despite being human, but the former vampire brought himself under control with the ability of long practice.

“Did you kill Wes?” he asked coldly.

“I have no idea,” Ethan shrugged. “As long as he is unable to hinder me, I’m really not interested.”

“Hinder you at what?” Giles asked in the bored superior tones it had taken Spike years to perfect. “You have a new scheme for fake fortune-telling that requires sacrifices? Conning the elderly by telling them you can contact their departed loved ones becoming too difficult?”

Ethan stiffened, “Does the word Ramos mean anything to you, Rupert? If not, perhaps the young lady can clear matters up for you. Or could, if she weren’t feeling a bit under the weather.”

All eyes turned to Willow, whose gaze blearily focused on Spike. “Why is he here?” she asked in a slurred voice. “Is he in on it?”

“Oh, yes,” he sneered as everyone looked in his direction. “I’m masterminding the whole thing. Sitting in this sodding cell is just one more step in my nefarious scheme.”

“He got set up.” Lorne spoke for the first time, casting a wary eye at Ethan, probably afraid of losing his voice again. “He tried to help us.”

Spike stood and staggered to the doorway of the cell, leaning against the barrier. At that moment, a door behind Ethan opened and Phil and the other man who had hired Spike entered the room. Phil recoiled when he saw Spike standing and didn’t look terribly reassured by his former boss’ imprisonment.

You should be nervous, mate. I get out of here, and I’ll have your eyes for tea.

“I’d like to know that myself,” he drawled. “This lot’s nothing to me. Wouldn’t have even known about the whole deal if my boy here,” he grinned, showing slightly elongated teeth, “hadn’t pitched it to me as a supply run.”

“There was always the chance the Slayer might come to you if she didn’t have anyone else,” Ethan shrugged. “And that you would have helped her. Your feelings for her are well-known.”

“News-flash, mojo-guy. I’m past all of that,” Spike snapped. “I’ve not seen the Slayer in years and no interest in it. If you’d kept track, you’d have seen I’m back in the Big Bad business. Just getting paid, for it is all.”

“Oh, I’ve kept up with your career,” Ethan said coolly. “And fascinating it’s been, too. Bit of roughing up, some extortion, but no murder for hire, except in certain instances where your victim was particularly nasty, and absolutely nothing involving women. You even turned down a simple delivery last year.”

He remembered that job, remembered the 16-year-old girl the satyr had wanted him to fetch. Shiny brown hair. Big blue eyes. He’d turned it down firmly, and last he’d heard, an anonymous tip had Mum and Dad whisking her out of the country.

“That’s right,” Phil said from his position behind Ethan and the other man. “You’ve turned down paying jobs, boss. Talk is, you’re soft.”

“Is that right?” Spike said softly, and Phil blanched.

“Ramos,” Giles mused, obviously flipping through his mental database. “The Bridge-builder?” He stared from Angel to Lorne then back to Ethan with growing horror in his face. “You’re going to use Angel and … this other chap to bridge the gap between the realms of living and dead! Are you insane? Do you have any idea what that could unleash?”

The other man looked at Ethan with displeasure. “Was it necessary to tell them our plans?”

“There’s no point to gloating when no one knows what you’re up to,” Ethan smirked. “Besides, there’s nothing they can do. Only three days until Halloween, and no one knows where they are. Even if the Slayer attempts something, I’ve got wards in place.”

As Ethan and his partner argued, Spike glanced around at the other prisoners. Giles was watching Ethan with an expression of frustrated rage that did not bode well for the other if the Watcher got out of the cell. Lorne was staring at his hands. Angel’s face was expressionless, eyes moving around the room slowly, obviously checking for means of escape.

And Willow was staring at him, through half-closed, foggy eyes. It was on the tip of Spike’s tongue to say, “What?” when he saw that her hands were balled into fists and that she was staring, not at him, but at the entrance to his cell. Even as he realized it, he felt the barrier begin to dissipate. Hastily, he adjusted his weight, making it look as if he still leaned on the barrier.

Come on, witch. Just a little more, and I can break through.

He could make it to Ethan in one jump, Spike decided, and shift to his vampire state as he did so. Phil could go on the backswing. He thought he might just knock his second out for the time being and have a discussion regarding his softness later.

“Watch it!” Phil shouted. “She’s working magic!”

Spike launched against the weakening barrier, but Ethan’s partner glared past the mage’s shoulder and waved his hand slightly. Willow collapsed the rest of the way to the floor, and the barrier instantly firmed back up, bruising the vampire’s shoulder as he threw himself into it.

“I thought she was controlled,” the man said dryly.

“She should have been,” Ethan said through pale lips. “There should have been enough herbs in her to prevent her from being sure of her own name.”

“Apparently, you were misinformed,” the man said. He advanced to the door of her cell and looked at the unconscious witch. “She’s a liability. Kill her.”

“No need for that,” Ethan’s tones cut across everyone’s outraged shouts. “We’ll just keep her completely unconscious from now on. She can keep the others on their best ehavior. After all,” he smiled, “if anyone tries anything annoying such as an escape, she is the one who will be punished.”

Not bad, Spike had to admit. An efficient, non-messy way of keeping everyone in line, something he might have thought up in the old days.

“What about him?” the man jerked his head at Spike. “He’s a vampire. He won’t care about the woman.”

“There are other ways to control him,” Ethan said. “Lack of food, for instance. Vampires are creatures of appetite. It could be an interesting behavioral study. Even if he has reformed to a degree, he doesn’t have the chip. What will he do when he gets hungry?”

Spike kept his face impassive, but his mind began calculations. For reasons he didn’t care to think too much about, he’d stayed on the pig’s blood diet with a few notable exceptions since he left Sunnydale. He was used to the flavor and regulated blood-drinking to the status of nourishment, saving taste sensations for things like spicy wings and good beer. However, he needed the weaker pig blood more frequently than human. He had last fed three days ago, which meant he would be hungry tomorrow, and in three more days …

He could feel the weight of his grandsire’s gaze. Angel was human now, but would know what he was thinking, and would also be wondering how far he could be trusted.

Spike really wished he knew that himself.

“Take her,” Ethan said to Phil, and the mage keyed a button and stepped into Willow’s cell. He picked her up easily enough and exited through the main door.

“Be calm, gentlemen,” Ethan said urbanely. “She won’t be harmed, as long as you cooperate. But I don’t think leaving you all together is such a wonderful idea. Undoubtedly, you’d spend all your time doing nasty things like plotting escape.”

This time, he was the one to wave his hands, and his face was the last thing Spike saw as the world turned black.

*                              *                              *

“Tara? Are you okay?”

She startled awake, looking into Dawn’s anxious face. “I’m fine. Why?”

“You were talking in your sleep.”

Tara straightened up from her corner of the car, trying to remember her disjointed dreams, the only clear image one of her chasing after Willow, who was being dragged away by a giant frog. She thought Anya had been there somewhere, watching with her usual air of alert interest. The ex-demon had looked at her and said … something … just before waking.

“What did I say?”

“Just one word. Ramos. What does that mean?”

The word was unfamiliar, and she shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“We’re coming into L.A.,” Xander said from his position behind the wheel.

After determining that Willow at least was in L.A., they’d moved as swiftly as possible, but it had taken time to select the weapons and magic supplies they thought they might need, especially since they didn’t know exactly what they were facing. As a result, the trunk of Xander’s car was filled with most of the Magic Box’s herbs, crystals, and the entire contents of Buffy’s weapons chest, except the stakes she carried in her sleeves and a large knife at her belt.

Kate’s weapons were also on her person, the SIG snugly holstered beneath her blazer and a second, smaller gun fastened to one ankle.

Amid much hemming and hawing and dark looks from the Slayer, Dawn was allowed a stake and a stun gun with the instructions that she was not to use them unless completely necessary. Buffy had been torn about bringing her at all, but had ultimately decided Dawn would be safer under her eye than unprotected on campus.

After the sorting of weapons mundane and occult, they waited until almost midnight to leave, and then took a long roundabout route to ensure they weren’t followed, Kate looking for physical tails and Tara for magical ones. Knowing that this had been planned and that the group had apparently been being watched for some time made everyone nervous.

With one thing and another, it was early morning when they arrived in L.A., and all were tired. Tara directed Xander to the Ritz, where they were staying instead of the hotel utilized by Angel Investigations, which Kate felt might be under surveillance.

“I can go in and out and get anything we need,” she explained, “But if they see the whole group, they’ll know we’re onto them.”

Even through his worry over Willow, Xander had been surprised when Tara pulled out her credit card and cell phone and arranged a top-floor suite.

“Social work must pay a lot more than I thought,” he said, looking impressed.

“Um,” Tara said intelligently, mind going to an absolute blank. This didn’t seem to be quiet the time to ‘out’ herself as a romance / horror novelist.

“Tara’s doing it because no one would recognize her name,” Buffy covered smoothly, while Kate raised an eyebrow. “We’ll settle up later. Split the cost.”

Of course, the need for undercover work didn’t explain the troop of bellhops who descended on their car, and the smiling concierge who greeted them, even at the early hour of their arrival, with a beaming smile and outstretched hands.

“Ms. Maclay! Always a pleasure. Your suite’s all ready. Would you like breakfast for everyone sent up?”

She knew she was blushing but couldn’t help it. “Yes, John, thanks. Fresh fruit and continental for everyone, I think, with juice and coffee. Just add it to the bill.”

“Of course.”

He bowed them to the elevator and once inside, Dawn and Xander stared at Tara, who determinedly faced the door.

“Okay. I know social work doesn’t get you that,” Xander said. “What’s going on?”

Tara sighed, but knew it had to come out sometime. Buffy’s reflection in the door looked sympathetic. “I’m a writer,” she said. “I’ve made kind of a lot of money at it.”

“You didn’t let anybody know!” Dawn said in an upset voice. “We would all have totally read your books!

Which is why I didn’t let anybody know.

“What do you write?” Xander asked curiously. “Feminist or witchcraft stuff?”

It was tempting, but the time for lies and hiding was past. She swallowed. “Have you ever heard of Claudia Harris?”

Dawn’s eyes went huge. “You’re Claudia Harris?! Everybody on campus is reading her! I mean you. I haven’t because if I want horror, I can just look out the window, but I don’t believe this!” She flushed suddenly. “My roommate read some of it out loud. Wow.”

Xander shrugged. “Wow what?”

“Pretty steamy,” Dawn explained, looking at Tara speculatively.

Tara saw Xander’s eyebrows go up and stared at her feet.

Could be worse. They could make the Spike connection.

Fortunately other speculation was cut short by arriving on their floor. Once inside the room with breakfast safely delivered, Kate pulled out her own phone and called the hospital.

“How’s Wesley?” she asked tensely. “Awake? Good. I’ve got everybody’s here. Apparently, they’re being held in this vicinity.”

Tara looked up suddenly. “Ask if any of them have ever heard the word ‘Ramos’.”

Kate relayed the message, and listened intently, a scowl settling across her features.

“Okay. Thanks.”

She closed her phone and faced the others. “Ramos opens pathways between one realm and another. To summon him, you sacrifice people who stood for either side of whatever you were trying to open. If you could get someone who embodied both sides, so much the better.”

“Angel stands for both living and dead,” Buffy said softly. “And so would Lorne with his psychic powers.” She looked at Tara, “How did you know the word?”

“I was dreaming,” Tara said softly. “Mostly stuff that could come from being worried about Willow and the others, but Anya was there. I think she told me.”

Xander abruptly turned away, busying himself with pouring more juice. “So, what’s our next move?” he asked hoarsely.

“We’ll try to narrow the location down more,” Buffy said. “We need an L.A. city map.”

“I’m going to the office,” Kate said. “Cordelia told me which book talks about Ramos. We’ve got maps there, too. I can be back here in an hour or so.”

“Should you go alone?” Tara asked.

Kate shrugged. “If they wanted me, they would have taken me already. If they’re watching the building, seeing any of you would alert them that something’s going on. I’ll be fine.”

“What’ll we do?” Dawn wanted to know.

“Get some rest,” Buffy interposed. “None of us have had much sleep, and we’re going to need to be fresh.”

It was good advice, and all of them tried to take it, scattering to the three different bedrooms that surrounded the main sitting area. Tara didn’t know how the others were doing, but she lay awake, alternating tossing and turning with staring at the ceiling. Worry over Willow and the others twined with memories of the last time she had been at the Ritz. Closing her eyes, she felt Spike’s lips against hers, his cool, strong hands and hard body pressing into her.

When they found the others, everyone would be reunited with their lover, and she would be alone again. It would be nice if there was someone wanting to reunite with her. Nice if he were here, now, although then she probably wouldn’t be sleeping either, as they moved quietly together, not wanting to wake anyone.

Hands sliding down, opening buttons, stroking, teasing. A soft chuckle in her ear …

… “Shh, Love. You don’t want the others to hear …”

… before his mouth covered hers, swallowing her cries as she reached for him …

Tara snapped out of the semi-doze, hastily opened her eyes, and concentrated on banishing the flush of heat that ran through her.

This is not appropriate. You have a job to do. Get your mind off your hormones.

But she definitely wasn’t going back to sleep. Tara sat up and scribbled a note, stating her intention to walk around the block and the time of her departure. Then, she picked up her shoes and stole quietly out of the suite. Kate should be back soon; she would take a quick walk and burn off a little of this excess energy, then come back to the room. Her cell-phone was turned on, so there shouldn’t be a problem.

According to plan, she circled the sidewalk around the hotel, trying to form some sort of helpful plan regarding rescuing the others and coming up with absolutely nothing. Giles had always been the one for making plans, Buffy and the others the ones for carrying them out. She, herself, perhaps the one for carrying the supplies.

Not this time. Tara firmed her jaw. She could do this. She would do it. The others would not be harmed because of her lacking in some way.

She was striding back towards the front entrance of the hotel, head up and eyes determined, when something twitched across her consciousness. Startled, she came to a halt and turned. The usual L.A. traffic flowed along the street, and pedestrians clogged the sidewalk but no one seemed to be watching her. Still, there was something …

Slowly, she approached the edge of the sidewalk, following the tiny thread of energy. As if in a trance, she knelt, brushed away debris, and picked up the tiny object that had been concealed in the gutter.

Tara’s eyes stung with unshed tears as she looked at the tiny wooden mouse that lay in her hand. The anger radiating off the carving was palpable, and it took no special outlay of psychic energy to provide a vision of what had happened, for her inner eyes to see Spike’s boot heel come crashing down on the mouse and the annoyed kick into the gutter when he couldn’t destroy it.

Was I that bad? Did I disgust him that much?

It would seem so. She closed the mouse tightly in her hand, trying to get her thoughts in some sort of order.

You knew this was a stupid fantasy. All that happened was that it finally got proven to you. And anyway, it’s not important now.

As if to underline that last point, her cell-phone buzzed, and she automatically flipped it open.

“Tara?” Buffy said. “Kate’s back if you want to come up.”

“I’ll be right there.”

She thought her voice sounded normal, but before she could disconnect, Buffy asked sharply. “Are you okay? Did something happen?”

“No.” Tara hastily stuck the mouse into her pocket, resisting her first impulse to throw it back into the gutter. Her mother had given it to her after all, and it would serve to remind her of the need to keepe her mind focused, to not give mental house room to silly thoughts. She took a deep breath, composed her features, and headed into the hotel.

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