Monday nights were as slow at Satellite 3 as they were at any other bar, but the main door still had enough people going in and out that Buffy couldn’t say with any certainty who would be the unlucky one to step into place on the spiral’s path at the determined time of 9:25pm. She was the only one who was waiting and watching there, this time, since everyone who had a role to play needed to keep a low profile. Buffy didn’t think she would have any trouble restraining the victim, but the trick was to do it without drawing enough attention that she would be asked about it once she went into the bar.
At 9:20, she called 911, claiming an altercation with a mentally distressed individual. It was suspicious to describe the incident before it happened, but that calculated risk was better than wasting time in a struggle while waiting for the paramedics to take over. Anyway, at this point most of Cleveland’s first responders understood that their recent troubles were supernatural, and that Buffy was among those who were here to help.
Sure enough, the ambulance pulled up as she was wrenching a wad of fliers from a young man who was trying to use them to choke himself, and after he had been secured, Buffy was hailed by an officer who recognized her from the factory. “Are you okay, miss?”
“Fine,” said Buffy, feeling oddly touched. He truly sounded concerned about her.
“Then do you mind telling me what the hell is going on here?”
She dropped her face into her hand for a moment before answering. “My hometown used to just say ‘gangs on PCP’ and expect people to believe it. Cleveland doesn’t go in for that, huh?”
“Don’t get me wrong,” he said, keeping his tone low although they were the only ones left on the sidewalk. “If you’re the reason the killings have tapered off, we’re grateful. But nobody’s going to feel all that reassured when they hear we’re getting hit with random cases of insanity instead.”
Buffy took a deep breath. “One more day. I can promise you, that’s all we need.”
He paused, then nodded and reached into his pocket to hand her his card. “After tomorrow night, I’m going to need a full report.”
She agreed reluctantly, shook his hand, then opened the door beneath the neon sign and entered Satellite 3.
It was a neat place, she thought, feeling a little sad about it. She wished that she and Angel could have come here just for fun, like Spike and Faith did, and all the werewolves. The bartender, a heavily pierced woman she didn’t recognize, smiled at her as she took a seat at the bar. What the hell, Buffy thought, and ordered a strawberry daiquiri. “Does it come with a little umbrella?”
“And a skewer of fruit. You’re gonna love it.” They both chuckled, and Buffy made sure to put down her payment right away, so that the girl wouldn’t miss out on a good tip.
She was halfway through the drink when the vampires busted in.
The first scream rang out and Buffy had to resist every instinct in her body, even though she knew exactly what was going on and that nobody was in danger. She had no weapons on her, even a stake, but she had scoped out the room and formed a plan to break a chair before her mind caught up and reminded her that she was supposed to be as helpless as everyone else in the bar.
She got down from her stool and slid down the wall of the bar as if hiding, trying to see what was going on without leaving her cover. There was a stampede of patrons and staff heading for the exit, and then a large pair of hands reached down to her level and hoisted her to her feet.
It was embarrassingly easy to fake a startled shriek. Angel put a forearm behind her back, cradled her head in his other hand, and leaned her back against the bar, burying his face in the crook of her neck. His lips only touched her for a second, but he kept his head down, making growling noises that seemed a little overdone. She made a mental note to tease him about it later.
“All clear!” shouted Spike from across the bar.
Angel straightened up, tucking a few stray strands of Buffy’s hair back in place. She frowned. “I was just getting into it!”
He smiled, his face still close to hers. “If we kept going much longer I might have lost myself in the part.”
“Well, we did want to make it convincing.” She batted her lashes innocently.
“How about a second take?”
“One slight variation.”
They kissed hard, arms wrapped around each other, until Spike found them there after completing a final check around the premises by himself. “Do I have to separate the two of you?” he bellowed, then stomped away muttering, “May as well be a bloody high school counselor.”
Buffy cast a mischievous smirk at Angel, just to show him that she wasn’t feeling sheepish at all, and he returned it and planted a kiss on her head before they both left the bar to join Spike. “What next?” asked Angel.
“Barricade,” said Buffy. “We need to make sure nobody can get in any way but the front door.” They weren’t sure when Faith would show up -- to make it look natural, she would have to wait for the news to reach her on its own, or better yet, for someone to ask for her help. They would be ready to allow her inside, but it was likely to take a few hours at least.
Spike nodded curtly. “Let’s split up, but you stay together, since you’ll find an excuse for it anyway and mostly I just don’t want you tagging along behind me.”
Buffy and Angel looked at each other, then at Spike, and agreed in unison. They started at the back of the club, where there was a narrow delivery door, easily blocked by wedging a table in front of it. The stage was next: access for performers came from a small backstage area with a door of its own. Angel had to deal with that one on his own, as the lights were off there and they had agreed to not turn any on, for fear that they would be seen from outside and noted as an odd thing for a vampire to need. “This is so Scooby-Doo,” Buffy observed as she peeked around the darkened corner where he had just emerged.
“Like the Scooby Gang?” he frowned, dusting his hands together.
“We got that name from an old cartoon about pulling sheets off of fake ghosts. The characters were always bumbling around haunted houses waiting for something to jump out of the shadows.”
He considered that. “I already jumped out of the shadows.”
She slipped her hand into his and they stepped down from the stage. “Yup. This time we’re the fake ghosts.” Her lip quirked. “And I fully intend to get away with it, too.”
Spike had assigned himself the basement, so the next stop for Buffy and Angel was upstairs. She approached the stairwell with some trepidation, remembering the first time she had seen Satellite 2 and how Nina’s blind faith in the Wolf had chilled her. There was also a possibility, if remote, that a patron or two had decided to hide up there instead of evacuating with everyone else, and Buffy didn’t particularly want to explain the situation to them.
But the room was quiet as the grave -- the kind of grave where the dead stayed dead -- and searching it thoroughly turned up nothing out of the ordinary. Angel finished tapping at walls and came up behind Buffy where she was standing, arms crossed, in front of the black door that Oz had told her was the entrance to the mysterious Satellite 1. She said as much to Angel, then squared her shoulders and tried the knob.
It was locked, of course. Buffy wished that she felt disappointed about that rather than relieved, but all she said to Angel was, “If we want to be ready we may need to break this down.”
He hesitated, then nodded. “Let’s wait for the others, though.”
If all went well, the spiral wouldn’t even get this far, and Buffy’s thoughts were still circling around that hope. They would do everything they could to keep the Wolf’s avatar away from the heart of the building at the crucial moment, and then there wouldn’t be any integral components left and the subsequent Apocalypse could be averted. After that, they could figure out how to deal with Nina’s possession.
Buffy turned back into the room and took a folded sheet from her pocket, laying it down on the bar to smooth it out. “We should get to work on this,” she said. It showed the spiral drawn through Satellite 3’s floor plan, each sacrifice’s location marked on it with the time from Willow’s calculations.
Angel agreed, and they made their way back downstairs to where Spike was studying his own copy of the plan by the main door. He gave them a look that suggested he had been waiting too long, and then a gesture that suggested he didn’t want to hear about what they had been up to. Buffy rolled her eyes up to meet Angel’s, and he half-smiled and squeezed her shoulder.
Spike cleared his throat loudly. “Seven thirty-five,” he said, then dropped to a crouch and snapped the paper at them. “Right here.” He took a large piece of white chalk from his duster pocket and drew a large X on the floor corresponding to the one on the page, along with the time.
“One thing to remember,” said Buffy. “This is how we know where not to stand, but if we’re the only suckers in here and the Wolf is getting desperate, it’s a pretty sure bet he’ll try to use us. We have to look out for each other. If anyone starts coming up with excuses to go chill over by the X, skip the argument and go straight to tying them down.”
Both vampires nodded grimly, and they all moved along to the next location, near the coat check. Spike scrawled out another X, then the time “1:52” beside it. Buffy looked around the room, estimating the places where they would put the next few marks. “It’s funny,” she mused. “You would think that the spiral would end up going back outside, or in a spot we couldn’t reach, or something. But it looks like it’s going to curl right around the room and then go up the stairs. Like the whole building was designed for this.”
“It probably was,” said Angel just as she was coming to the same conclusion. She shivered. Facing the Wolf was one thing, knowing that his plan had been in the works since before she was born was another.
Spike went on to pinpoint the patch of floor where he would write “5:45”, and Angel pitched his voice lower to keep the conversation between himself and Buffy. “What I’m wondering is, where did the golden spiral begin? Maybe nobody noticed it until it reached Cleveland, but with the times and locations stretched out, why would they?”
Buffy blinked, considering that. “Geez. It could have been the entire planet. Hemisphere, anyway, or the loops would have to get smaller again.” She shook her head. “One more reminder that we can’t ever save everyone, huh?”
He put his arms around her, and they stood together for a moment, forehead to forehead. Buffy felt her phone vibrate, and broke off the embrace to open a message from Faith: On my way.
“Little early,” Buffy observed. “Seems like, just tactically, they would want to send her in when there’s some daylight to be had. It’s not like a bar needs to be ready to open first thing in the morning.”
“Don’t forget,” said Angel, “Satellite 3’s owner is Wolf-infected. He’ll be desperate to open the doors as soon as possible.”
The thought of Dameon Wolfe made Buffy twitch. “Meddling kids,” she muttered.
Buffy sighed. “Look, when we have the traditional victory slack after this, it’s going to include a cartoon marathon. Don’t fight me on this. Honestly I thought you’d have beefed up more on your pop culture by now.”
Faith soon arrived, announcing her presence by banging at the door and loudly telling someone outside that she could easily kick it in if she had to. Spike rushed over and unlocked it, then stood back to stay out of view for anyone who might be gawking from outside. There was an impressive bang, then Faith appeared framed in the doorway, armed to the teeth. From her vantage point far to the side, Buffy was impressed to see Faith’s eyes sweep across the entire room without giving any sign that she had seen the Slayer and two vampires already in there.
Faith looked back over her shoulder. “If you absolutely have to send someone in after me, make sure it’s a Slayer. And don’t expect me to get this done fast. I’ll text you to update.”
There was a response from the other side which Buffy couldn’t hear, and then Faith took a step forward and the heavy door closed behind her, leaving her face to face with Spike. She held out a sword hilt-first for him, then used it to draw him in closer for a kiss as Buffy and Angel ambled over. Buffy gave them what she thought was a reasonable length of time, then coughed politely.
“Yo,” said Faith, unstrapping a few more weapons from herself.
Buffy noticed for the first time that she had the Slayer Scythe across her back, which was an unexpected but welcome sight. “That’s some artillery,” she remarked as Faith released a buckle and handed her the Scythe.
“Yeah, well, had to make it look like I meant business about clearing out the vamps. Anyway, you never know when you’re gonna get in a fight so I figured none of us should be empty-handed.” She gave a battleaxe to Angel, who frowned at it and then shrugged and accepted it.
“How is it out there?” he asked.
Faith made a balancing hand gesture. “Paranoid but not panicky. Wolfe suspected you guys, y’know. People came out of here with lousy vague descriptions of you, and he still asked me straight off if it was that big guy and blond chick who made a disturbance the other night.”
That was alarming. Buffy had assumed that Angel and Spike would have enough of a disguise in their game faces, but now she realized how distinctive all three of them really were.
Before she could say anything, though, Faith continued, “He knows I come here with my boyfriend, too.” She glanced at Spike. “Good thing you had that wig.”
“Wait, Spike was in a wig?” Buffy practically screeched. “And I missed it?!”
He mumbled something in response, and Angel deadpanned, “It was glorious.”
“To business, people,” Spike growled.
Faith smothered a giggle. “Let’s go sit down. I’ll fill you in on everything.”
They locked the door securely and disabled the alarm with a well-placed sword thrust, and Buffy suggested that they make use of the more comfortable space in Satellite 2. She led the way up the stairs, where Faith halted in surprise. “There’s a whole ‘nother club in here? I thought Satellite 2 was gonna be, like, a little office or something.”
Spike had been lagging behind, busy with something at the main bar; now he entered and nearly dropped the bottles he was holding two to a hand. “Bloody hell! Why didn’t we ever know about this?”
Buffy thought it best to avoid speculating out loud on that point, but she had been wondering about it herself. Would Oz and his other friends keep this secret from Spike and Faith simply because they weren’t werewolves?
Faith seemed ready to shrug it off immediately, although Spike kept grumbling for a while about nobody telling him that there even was a Satellite 2. The four of them settled down in a comfortable corner with a couch facing a pair of armchairs over a low table, and Buffy felt a pang of nostalgia which Angel voiced for her just a moment later: “This place reminds me of the Bronze.”
“Because all hell is about to break loose?” Faith inquired. “Yeah, me too.”
Spike set down his four bottles on the table, now recognizable as four different kinds of hard alcohol, full to varied levels. “They were all open when I found them,” he informed everyone, “so spare me any lectures about stealing.”
They found glasses behind Satellite 2’s bar, and Buffy allowed a splash of rum to go into hers just because it was easier than arguing about it. Faith didn’t sit back down immediately after they had all been served. “Is this the place where the sidewalk ends?” she asked, following the spiral’s path across the floor with her eyes. The line of chalk clearly stopped at the locked door to the next room.
Angel shook his head. “That’s where the axe is going to come in handy.”
“Sure about that?” Spike swiveled with an arm draped over the back of his chair to examine the door. “If Nina goes in there, she’ll leave it open for the victims to follow. If she doesn’t get that far, we won’t need to either.”
“Yeah, but we don’t know she’ll come in the way we did,” said Buffy. “We can’t just guard this one entrance.”
Faith disagreed, saying that walls were the best thing that the building had going for it, and that they shouldn’t waste any. Spike took her side. Buffy noticed vehemence in her own voice before she realized that she was getting wound up. Angel didn’t contribute as much to their side as she wanted him to.
They all had too much history with each other, she thought. Angel and Spike, Faith and Angel, herself and Faith...with the four of them in a room together, it was a wonder they had lasted this long without tempers flaring. “Let’s go find the secret entrance to Satellite 1,” she said, loudly enough to interrupt everyone else. “Then we can at least put that to bed.”
“Don’t see how that’ll do much good,” Spike countered, “seeing as I’ve just been through the entire basement and--”
Buffy was already out the door and stomping down the stairs, Angel close at her heels. After a short pause, she heard two more sets of footsteps following. She turned to face them in the middle of the main seating area and spoke on impulse: “Let’s split up. Faith, can you come with me?”
As a path to reconciliation, it worked well. Angel and Spike took the ground floor, and Faith and Buffy wandered through the basement with flashlights, saying little to each other until Faith, unprompted, began to relate a story. Apparently she and Spike had gone to visit Nina without informing anyone else of their plans. Buffy held her tongue. They had both survived it, and she didn’t want to be scolding right now.
What scared her about the incident was the same thing that scared Faith: Nina knew that she was hosting the Wolf, and she seemed to be threatening terrible consequences to anyone who vanquished it by killing her. “We have to stay away from her,” Faith concluded. “If you try to fight her directly she’ll either kill you or use you for something worse.”
Buffy sneezed; the dust in the basement’s air was pervasive. “That’s why you don’t want to break the wall down upstairs?”
Faith’s flashlight beam bobbed as she shrugged. “I know it probably can’t make much of a difference, but I feel like if we’re keeping her away from the center, she could end up chasing us into it. So, y’know...wall.”
“Speaking of walls,” Buffy sighed. “There’s no way we’re going to find the secret entrance down here, is there?”
They regrouped in Satellite 2 to find that the vampires had had no more luck. They weren’t snapping at each other, though, so Buffy gathered that Spike had been giving Angel the same information that Faith had just given her. She flopped back onto the same seat she had claimed on the couch earlier, feeling frustrated and weary, and leaned on Angel as soon as he joined her. “The secret door is probably in that adjoining factory,” he said, gliding his fingers through her hair. “But we can’t leave now.”
Buffy let herself doze, knowing it was a safe time for it and feeling the refreshment could do her good. She awoke quite suddenly but without any sense of being shaken out of sleep, and she looked around for clues on what had disturbed her. Angel was still at her side, frowning at her with concern in his dark eyes.
“What time is it?” she asked, blinking rapidly.
Faith and Spike were standing by the closed door to the stairwell, both with their arms crossed tightly. “Seven thirty,” said Faith. “Five minutes to go.”
Buffy’s heart rate quadrupled. “Does anyone feel any weird urges?”
“Not so far,” said Angel. “We thought about waking you up, but if you had stayed asleep it would just mean one less potential--”
He was cut off by a quick tussle at the door. Faith had lunged for the knob, and Spike was holding her back, but evidently using every bit of his strength to do it. Buffy and Angel leaped up from the couch. Angel blocked the door while Buffy helped Spike with Faith, who had started a kind of babbling that was mutating into screams. “Let me go downstairs I have to go downstairs let me go let me go LET ME GO!”
The next time Buffy had a chance to look at a clock, it was after eight. Faith was just barely beginning to calm down, and Buffy had tears in her own eyes from seeing her friend in such a state. Angel looked as nerve wracked as she had ever seen him, but Spike had shown his best side, clinging tightly to his girl throughout her ordeal without giving way for a second. He was still holding her now, but with utmost tenderness, whispering to her as her heaving breath gradually slowed to a normal rhythm.
It finally seemed safe to give them some space, so Buffy stood back with Angel and pitched her voice so that only he could hear her. “I was afraid that…” She swallowed. “The last one took longer to get over it. He only stopped struggling right before he went into the ambulance.”
“Inner coil,” he replied at the same volume. “Everything is happening in a tighter pattern.”
“Then it should be okay by now to go downstairs. I need to make sure we’re still secure.”
She was half worried that she would find the body of some stranger who had forced his way inside while they were dealing with Faith, but the chalk marks by the front door were unmarred and the bar was as quiet as ever. She and Angel did another walk through the building, testing their barricades, and Angel informed her that while she was asleep, Faith had been texting her contacts outside and making up reasons for them to stay outside.
From there, it was a long six hours to wait for the next scheduled suicide. Buffy found some food in the kitchen that passed for breakfast. Angel went backstage and cleared his mind with some tai chi. Faith rested. For a while they all played cards and talked about whatever helped distract them from the real reason they were there.
Spike was next. He was even harder to restrain, but Angel made up for that by having no compunctions about hitting him to keep him down. His recovery time was faster than Faith’s, too, which was the only upside that anyone could find at this point.
“Do you think the next one will be me or you?” Buffy asked Angel quietly as they sat on the stage waiting for Spike to recuperate.
He shook his head. “Maybe Nina will show up first, and then we can all get out of here. As long as we can keep her out of the building, we’ll be safe.”
“There’s one more victim before the sun goes down.” Her eyes followed the chalk line. “Right about here, actually.”
Angel immediately slid down from the stage. “Let’s sit somewhere else.”
Another voice answered him. “Yeah, it’s not like there’s a shortage of empty tables.”
Buffy jumped -- the voice had come from behind her -- but its familiarity kept her from feeling afraid. “Willow?!”
She slid down beside Angel, and they both turned around. It was Willow’s astral projection, which explained how she had gotten behind them silently. Buffy pouted in disapproval. “I thought you were putting the brakes on the magic pop-upping.”
“I am,” Willow replied. “This is just to tell you to open the door.” She pointed to the main entrance.
“Who for?” Angel asked.
“Me.” The projection vanished, and Buffy and Angel looked at each other and then rushed to follow the instructions.
Soon, Buffy had her arms around Willow, the real Willow, the three-dimensional flesh and blood Willow, and Angel was securing the door with locks and furniture once again. “Gimme an infodump,” Buffy demanded, releasing the witch with a final firm hug. “You didn’t even tell me you were on your way!”
Willow shrugged, a half-heartedly apologetic gesture. “Couldn’t risk the Wolf finding out. I’m going to try something, but you infodump first. Where are Spike and Faith?”
They brought her upstairs, where Spike was indulging himself at the bar and Faith was keeping a close eye on him. Both seemed to have mostly recovered, although Spike was still sporting a few bruises from Angel’s efforts to keep him away from the spiral, and both were just as surprised by Willow’s arrival as Buffy had been.
“So only one at a time of you was affected by the mind control?” Willow asked once they had brought her up to speed. Her relief was evident when they all nodded. “Good. That was the main thing I was worried about. Okay, so I don’t have time to explain this all in detail, but…” She reached into the floppy satchel she was carrying on her shoulder and pulled out a clear glass ball. “Look familiar?”
Angel took a quick step back. “Is that an Orb of Thesulah?”
“Not exactly,” she replied, and slipped it back into the bag. “It’s related, though. The Wolf isn’t a soul, so I had to make a few modifications and it’s still a shot in the dark but honestly why would I not try it if there’s any chance at all?”
“So that’s why you’re here?” Faith asked. “To shoot in the dark?”
Willow’s posture seemed to sag a little. “I felt bad leaving you all to it. I’m part of this one. And I...I kind of made a promise.”
Somehow, all four of them had the sense to not ask her who the promise had been made to, but Buffy could narrow down the possibilities with ease. Maybe this was what Oz had been so secretive about lately.
Her remorseful attitude already dissipating, Willow was back to business. “I can’t cast it until Nina is inside the building. And then she’ll probably try to attack me, or she’ll bring along someone to sic on me, so I need you brawny types to watch my back.”
“On it!” said Buffy cheerfully. “And if the spell doesn’t work, we’ll nominate someone to be your bodyguard until this is over.”
“No,” Willow responded, suddenly sounding suspicious and looking at her like a complete stranger. “If it doesn’t work, you nominate someone to kill Nina so this ends immediately.”
Angel turned away as if overwhelmed. Spike was the first to answer, his voice rough: “We’d better explain you the plan, Red.”
Willow’s posture and tone showed clearly that she didn’t recognize any room for compromise. “There is no other plan. Once she gets this close to the center, there won’t be time for anything except my spell. You won’t have a snowball’s chance in a Hellmouth of dragging her away afterward.”
“So don’t cast the spell.” Buffy had spoken before thinking, and it came as a surprise even to herself, but she didn’t second guess it. “Just help us prevent her from reaching home base by the end of the countdown, and we can try to restore her soul once the commotion dies down.”
“That’s not how it works!” Willow snapped.
Spike’s retort was right over her words. “Who died and left you their Senior Partner possession manual?”
Faith’s phone rang loudly, and she muttered, “Ah, shit,” before answering it and demanding more time. “Yeah it’s fine, I’m gonna get the vamps real soon, just don’t let anyone -- what? No! No don’t come in!” The front door and the wall around it reverberated, and Faith ran toward it, still arguing into the phone.
Her voice, the banging at the door, and the ongoing insults that Willow and Spike were hurling at each other were all devoid of interest, Buffy realized. The one thing that she really cared about was going back to the stage, just to sit down there. At the moment she was unarmed, but, confident that she would know what to do when the moment came, she turned to drift in that direction without saying anything.
In the next breath, Angel had caught up to her and was trying to pull her back away. She was too strong for him, but he gasped out, “Help!” and Buffy’s feet began to drag, as if through thick mud.
She looked down to see that an unnatural blue mist was swirling around her ankles. “Willow!” she grunted. “Cut it out!” But her friends were yelling back and forth at each other and not speaking to her at all, just ganging up to keep her away from the stage. Buffy screamed in frustration. She was so close, but she knew that close wouldn’t cut it this time.
The front door to the club burst open. Buffy looked up in sudden hope; maybe this would be enough of a distraction for Angel and the others to loosen their grip on her. People were coming in, lots of people, and she thought she knew some of them, but didn’t care enough to look closer and think any more about it. She still couldn’t struggle free of the binding mist, or the arms holding her. “Angel,” she sobbed. “If you love me how can you do this to me?”
His body tensed, so she knew he was affected by the accusation, but it only served him right if he was hurt. All of them were keep her her from the only thing she had ever cared about. The crucial moment was slipping away from her with a sense of impending doom followed closely by infinite loss. She knew then that she had failed, and failed forever. Her knees buckled. Angel’s hand settled on her back as she covered her face and cried.
Dimly she was aware of many voices clashing in argument above her. Some of them came closer, asking if she was okay, but Angel snarled at them to back off, and they did. Then he was cradling her and lifting her, and she rode up the stairwell in his arms, too defeated to protest.
When her mind began to clear, she was on the couch in Satellite 2 again, and unsure of how much time had passed. Angel was beside her, but Willow was in the room too, standing beside a dark-haired man covered in tattoos. Buffy blinked. “Mr....Eric?”
His voice was curt, matching his scowl and stiff posture. “Sorry for busting in like that. We closed up the doors again, but we’re not leaving until this is over.”
Buffy sat up, raking her fingers through her hair. “‘We’?” She tried to gather up her disconnected memories and sync them with the sounds she could hear coming from the main floor. “Eric, did you bring your whole pack inside here? Don’t you understand what’s going on?”
“Perfectly,” he snapped.
Angel raised his hand in a suppliant gesture and spoke to Buffy. “They understand. We’ve been working out a compromise.”
“Oz was supposed to be guarding the entrance,” she muttered in response.
“He is,” said Eric.
So Oz let the pack in, thought Buffy. We probably should have seen that coming. Still, she had to wonder how Oz had known enough to anticipate this situation, before her own team had even known that Willow would be here.
She caught Willow’s eye for long enough to see her look away and blush, as if shamed. As far as Buffy was concerned, that left nothing else to discuss about Oz, but she raised her voice and asked, “I guess this means we’re going with your plan?”
Willow sighed. “I’m just trying to adapt to what we have to--”
“Willow.” Buffy wasn’t angry, exactly, but she was fed up and low on concern over who knew it. “Which plan?”
“Mine. Yes.” The witch turned away from her, skirt rustling. “I’m going to cast the spell as soon as Nina comes close.”
Buffy was tempted to remind her that she had been the one to propose killing Nina in the event that the spell failed, but it would be insane to mention that in Eric’s presence. She kept her question as vague as possible: “Then what?”
There was a long enough silence to prove that Willow didn’t have a good answer ready, and then Angel cleared his throat. “We have a more immediate problem on our hands. For the past three spiral points it’s taken everything we have to make sure nobody commits suicide. When we get to 8:09 I don’t know how we’re going to manage it with a crowd.”
“We’ll handle that,” said Eric confidently.
Buffy pushed herself off the couch and to her feet. “This is ridiculous.” She stalked across the room and unlocked the bolts on the door to the stairs, but when she grabbed the knob it still wouldn’t budge despite the considerable strength she was putting into it. She looked at Willow, whose expression remained blank for a moment before she apologized and made a gesture at the door, which opened immediately. Angel followed Buffy out.
Faith and Spike were waiting at the bottom of the stairwell, just like the bouncers presumably would have on an ordinary night. “You alright?” asked Faith.
“Fine. I need to...” She looked around at all of the werewolves lounging around the club, then up at Angel. “Come with me.”
Together they squeezed through the crowd and returned to the stage, mounting the steps and standing at the center of it this time. Buffy did a rough count of the people she was looking down on and came to a couple dozen, most of them faces that she recognized from the Independence Day barbecue. They were quieting down, facing her and Angel in curiosity over what she was going to say.
She took a deep breath. “Can someone...anyone....tell me why you’re here.”
“To protect our alpha!” rang out one solitary youthful voice. Buffy’s eyes found the source and confirmed what her ears had already told her: it was Jordan. Both of his parents were there, too. She just hoped they’d had enough sense to leave their little girl behind.
A buzz of agreement passed through the crowd. Angel spoke next: “If that’s really what you want, you’ll listen to her.” He pointed at Buffy. “This is more dangerous than any of you comprehend, but if you do exactly as Buffy tells you, all of us might just survive the night. If you’ve got any other kind of intention, or if you have enough common sense to look out for your own safety, leave, and do it now.”
It was satisfying to see the way they all began shifting uncomfortably at Angel’s dire words and fierce glower, but none of them moved for the door. Buffy did the rest of the talking, explaining about the chalk line on the floor and the countdown to the center. She even described how she had felt as the last victim on the spiral’s path, and her certainty that she would have died even without any means to kill herself.
Angel looked startled; she hadn’t told this part to anyone before revealing it to the entire room. Willow was standing near the back, nodding, and Buffy recalled that this had been part of her initial description of the ritual: eventually the deaths would become automatic if the sacrifice was standing at the right spot. “The best thing to do is not be in here,” Buffy finished, “but since you are, just do whatever you can to keep each other away from the chalk of death. Eric, anything you want to add?”
Eric had been watching silently as part of the audience, and looked a little surprised to be called upon. Nevertheless, he climbed onto the nearest chair and announced, “I can’t begin to say how grateful I am that all of you--”
“That’s enough,” Buffy cut in loudly. “I meant anything useful to add, not some Academy Awards crap. Willow, how about you?”
Willow had no need to stand on a chair; she created a pillar of light with herself in the middle, easily drawing the attention of everyone there. “Just this. I’m going to be working with some fairly master-class magic and no, you can’t help, so once I’m on it, get the hell out of my kitchen. When you see your alpha-lady, make sure--”
The front door was flung wide open. Willow’s magic spotlight vanished, as if of its own accord, and reappeared over Nina, who was striding nonchalantly into Satellite 3. Angel grabbed Buffy’s hand and gave it a quick press, then released it. Neither he, nor she, nor Willow, Faith, Spike, or any of the werewolves said a word or moved a muscle as Nina paused under the light and surveyed the room.
Then came the soft words of a chant from Willow, who was otherwise blending into the dark with the rest of the crowd. Without acknowledging her, or anyone else, Nina raised her arms over her head and snapped the fingers of both hands, and two men came in and stood slightly behind her, one to each side. One was wearing a black suit and an expression of intense hatred: the club’s owner, Damien Wolfe. The other was John Howell.
In a surge of fear, Buffy realized that nobody was upstairs to block Nina from getting any deeper into the spiral, but in the same moment, she saw Faith and Spike stealthily moving that way. Given their placement on the stage, she thought it was up to her and Angel to provide a distraction, but Eric was back up on his chair and he spoke first. “Nina. We’re here, see, we’re all here to help you. My God, I love you so much, please let me help you.”
Nina giggled, a totally natural sound that chilled Buffy to the bone. She snapped her fingers again, and Wolfe and Howell reacted to it as a cue and shifted out of humanity.
They had the same stance and shape as Nina’s own wolf form, but bigger than any Buffy had ever seen, and that was to say nothing of how they could be doing this without a full moon. Howell was a ruddy brown beast who snapped nervously at the remains of his clothes as they ripped off of him. Wolfe was dark-furred and poised like a coiled spring. Nina barely glanced at either of them, just turned and sauntered toward the stairs.
“STOP HER!” Angel shouted, and every werewolf in the room sprang into action as if waking from hypnosis. Several of them began their own transformations, serving as a reminder for Buffy that some pack members were capable of inducing it at will. Oz could -- where was Oz? But there was no time to think about that. She and Angel jumped down from the stage, taking up the nearest weapons they could find, a sword for her and an axe for him.
By the time they reached the fray, Howell was fighting with one wolf and several brave humans, and Wolfe was holding off no fewer than three fully transformed werewolves. Buffy and Angel managed to slip past them all, though Buffy hated to dodge a battle, especially with Willow nowhere in sight. The stairwell was dark -- the spotlight had apparently gone out -- but Nina was at the top and the door was closed in front of her, so Faith and Spike must have gotten through.
Nina didn’t seem to be banging on the door, just tapping it gently, but her fingertips resounded like a gong, and the foundation shook each time. At her third tap, the door was blown off of its hinges and torn to splinters, and she stepped through the opening without a backwards glance while Buffy wasn’t yet halfway up the stairs.
By the time that she and Angel made it into Satellite 2, Nina had passed through. The door to Satellite 1 was intact, but left carelessly open. Spike was in a crumpled heap on one side of the room, and Faith’s long brown hair showed from behind the bar.
Angel rushed over to Faith, and Buffy knelt at Spike’s side, moving his arm away from his face and checking for signs of unlife. She let out the breath she had been holding when he groaned and fluttered his eyes open. “Think I broke a few...” he began, then jerked his head up. “Faith!”
“She’s alive,” Angel called from the bar. “I think she’ll be okay, she just needs--”
There was the sound of feet pounding up the stairs, then Willow appeared in the doorway. She spent about a second sizing up the situation, then dashed over to Faith and set to work on a healing spell as Spike made his way over with Buffy’s support.
Faith was still unconscious when Willow finished, but she informed them curtly that this was for the best, and turned to Spike, whose arm did appear to be broken. He swatted her away with the other one. “Forget that, Red, we don’t have time.”
“He’s right,” said Buffy. “Where are Wolfe and--?”
The answer came bounding up the stairs before she had time to complete the question. Wolfe was first, and Buffy got her sword back into her hand only for him to ignore her and everyone else completely. He crossed the room in a few leaps and shoved his bulk through the narrow open door, and then Howell was there, following the same path and hesitating only for a second when he saw the defense team huddled together by the bar.
Buffy dropped her sword and touched Willow’s shoulder. “Cast the spell.”
“What?” Willow was panting, making repeated attempts to brush her red hair from her eyes.
“Nina is close enough, isn’t she? Do it now while we’re not under attack. We’ll guard the room for you so nobody can interrupt. This might be our last chance.”
The witch’s eyes were wide with incomprehension. “Buffy,” she said slowly. “I already cast the spell. It failed.”
Angel and Spike both looked up from Faith’s prone form. Their faces showed the same shock that Buffy felt: their best hope was gone. Nina and her bodyguards had already accessed the home base, and now there was nothing between the Wolf and the ritual that would secure him to the material world forever.
Another wolf appeared at the top of the stairs, and everyone flinched until remembering that the only ones left on that side of Satellite 2 were on their own side. The creature stared in their direction, slavering, and then shuddered with visible effort and shrank into a naked man crouching on the floor. Eric lifted his head and spoke in a cracked voice. “Where is she?”
“Satellite Bloody One,” said Spike. “But it’s a bit late to be making nice with the lady.”
“Have there been any casualties downstairs?” Angel asked.
Eric closed his eyes before admitting, “Two. A few more were bitten, but...we already have lycanthropy anyway.” He spat on the floor, and Buffy noticed a red tinge to his teeth. “If her guards are in there with her you should let us handle them.”
Buffy grabbed the countertop to pull herself up, intending to inform Eric that he and his people weren’t going to do anything of the sort, but Angel put a hand on her shoulder and whispered, “He’s right. You and Willow and Faith are the only ones here who are vulnerable to werewolf bites.”
“Ken, Maureen!” Eric called over his shoulder. As soon as he heard an answering bark, he seemed to relax his control over his body, for the fur was growing back and his face no longer looked like it would be capable of human speech.
There was a stampede of paws on the stairs, but before anything came through the door, the sounds abruptly turned into a brief whine and a heavy thump, then silence. Buffy felt the blood drain from her face. She shared a look with Angel and knew that the same realization had reached him at the same time: the next stop on the spiral was on those stairs. The time, which nobody had been watching, was 8:09.
Even the wolf which had been Eric a moment ago seemed frozen in place. The only sound was Jordan Godfrey’s voice on the stairwell: “...Dad?”
Buffy clapped both hands over her mouth to stifle a choking gasp, but she couldn’t look away from the chalk line curving across the floor. The next death would be in here, in less than an hour, and with the door blown away, there was no way to close it off to the next victim.
Angel and Spike stood up at the same time, both taking hold of their weapons. “Well come on then!” Spike shouted as he limped across the room to the door to Satellite 1. Angel said nothing, but he strode with grim determination and no injuries, and got there first, kicking the door from ajar to wide open.
“Can you do anything?” Buffy hissed at Willow, but Willow was no longer at her side. No doubt she had gone to try to save Ken while Buffy was distracted. Buffy cursed. The only person left behind the bar with her was Faith, who was still unconscious. “Someone’s got to look after you,” she murmured, but Angel and Spike were walking headlong into a deathtrap, and she cried out in frustration and left Faith behind.
The Scythe was lying across the bar, and she snatched it up as she vaulted over. Spike was already engaging Wolfe, while Angel dealt with Howell. The wolves had come out to meet them, though, so the door was still open and nobody was inside Satellite 1 -- except, presumably, Nina. As Buffy was deciding on which ally to assist, a trio of howls started up behind her, and then Eric and two other pack werewolves were throwing themselves at Wolfe and Howell. Buffy couldn’t agonize over these decisions any longer. She took the opening and stepped into the room.
Although she didn’t close the door behind her, the first thing that struck her about Satellite 1 was that it seemed much quieter: the snarls and thuds of the battle behind her were muted and easy to ignore. The second thing she noticed was the tiny size and emptiness of the room. There was no furniture or decoration whatsoever, and it wouldn’t have fit much anyway. The white walls were only broken up by the door behind her, one on the opposite wall, and a trapdoor on the ceiling.
The third thing she noticed was that Nina wasn’t there. Buffy tried the door and found it locked, leaving her to wonder whether the Wolf was using it to buy some time, or if this was all part of the plan. They had all assumed that Satellite 1 would be the final destination, but the dimensions in here didn’t match up to any of their maps and floor plans, and she could see that if their chalk line were drawn in here, it would lead to the door she was facing.
Someone stepped up behind her, and she turned with a jerk to see Faith, leaning on the wall and looking like a truck had run her over a few times, but fully conscious. “So this is Satellite 1.” She shook her head ruefully. “You know, this place was swarming with conspiracy theorists. Always wondering if there was a door behind the door behind the door. I only ever wondered why anyone gave a shit.” She gestured at the locked door. “But I’m gonna guess that’s not a mop closet.”
Buffy ushered her deeper into the room and shut the outer door behind them. “Faith, you shouldn’t be on your feet.”
“Don’t think I’m playing cavalry. I can’t fight. But if you go in there alone, the Wolf’s gonna have her way with you and you’re not even gonna know it.”
“If we both go in she’ll--”
Faith raised her voice to a near shout. “Yeah, she’s holding all the cards! We’re screwed, I know! What do you want, to sit on our hands until she comes out again all omnipotent?”
The outburst had cost her; she ended it with her head against the wall, breathing heavily. Buffy thought about Angel, who as far as she knew was still fighting Nina’s henchmen in the next room. If she and Faith didn’t go in now, he would, and then Spike, and Willow, and Oz, and Eric, and none of them had a better chance at ending it than she did. She nodded once to Faith, lifted the Scythe, and smashed the blade into the final door.
It took a dozen more swings before the wall gave way under the barrage. Buffy steeled herself, having no idea what she would find beyond, and then kicked the remains of the door down and stepped onto it.
Behind her, Faith breathed an exclamation of utter fear. Buffy heard herself making a similar sound. Aside from the wall she had just destroyed, there were no visible borders to the space in front of her, just morbid smears of shifting color like a dark fog. At her feet, a walkway extended, fitted with sturdy rails on each side but supported by nothing. Instead of leading anywhere, it curled into itself, completing the path of golden spiral with Nina waiting at the center.
The Sunnydale Hellmouth had been frightening, but most of the time, it simply looked like a library. This one looked like Hell. Buffy tried to forbid herself from thinking about what would happen to someone who fell from this walkway, but it was too late.
“You got this,” Faith murmured. “I’ll shout at you if you’re acting weird.” Buffy nodded, and took the first step.
As she got closer to Nina, she could see that her arms were crossed and her head slightly tilted, looking bored. Her voice carried easily across the space. “I thought it would be Angel.”
“You’re not getting Angel,” Buffy proclaimed, tightening her grip on the Scythe. “Make do with me.”
Nina’s eyes narrowed. “I already have Angel, you stupid girl. I’ve had him since he climbed out of his grave thirsting for blood. You of all people should know that there’s no saving a vampire. If you decide to damn yourself I’m not getting you instead, I’m getting you too.”
Buffy kept walking, slow and steady. If Faith was still behind her, she was too close to see around the curve without looking back, which was not currently an attractive option. “Okay,” she replied to Nina. “Nice to have someone who wants to keep us together, for a change.”
“You know he was still in love with you while I was screwing him? The scumbag. But hey, at least I was getting laid on a regular basis, which is more than you can say. How many times have you seen his dick now? Still just the once?”
At first, the taunt made Buffy flush with all of the bitter memories it brought to the surface. But she was walking down a narrow bridge over a demonic abyss, confronting an eldritch horror in human form, and jabs at her sex life didn’t really compare. In fact, the futility of that kind of approach from the Wolf made her suspicious. “What is this?” she asked. “I have about a billion vulnerabilities for you to exploit, and you decide to go with the expired love triangle?”
Nina’s response was hard, but not loud. “Maybe I just never got over it.”
It was surreal to see her there at the center of the deadly spiral, standing unarmed in her fashionable outfit and childish pout. For a moment, Buffy wondered if she really did see her as a romantic rival, but then it came clear. Angel had nothing to do with this. Flaunting her power and boasting about her plans for world domination would be expected of the Wolf, but wallowing in jealousy was unmistakably human, and that was the side that she wanted Buffy to see.
Buffy advanced another few steps. There was just one coil of the path between her and Nina now. “I guess you think I won’t kill a human,” she said, trying to make it sound threatening.
Nina smiled sweetly. “I’d stake my life on it.”
It was time to stop talking and make her move. She had her weapon ready, she knew exactly what to do, and the clock was ticking. Back in the club, the next victim might be subject to compulsion already. Angel wouldn’t hesitate, Buffy told herself, moving around the next tight curve. Angel was ready to get this done just to spare the rest of us. And now she knew: that was why Angel had been buried in despair for as long as she had known him.
The walkway had turned her around so that she was now facing the smashed door that she had gone through to get here, though it seemed to be hovering in the borderless space and impossibly distant. Faith was nowhere in sight, but the very second that her eyes took that in, a giant werewolf burst onto the path and came galloping toward her. She couldn’t tell which one it was until a second one came behind it, and the comparison of their colors showed that Howell was first and Wolfe close behind.
There was no way that she would get past anyone on this narrow lane, let alone a pair of raging monsters. Even if she defeated Nina, she would be forced to kill two men, victims of the Wolf as much as anyone else was, or die trying.
Howell stopped short when he was just a few paces away from her, blocking Wolfe from coming any farther either. Nina kissed the air in their direction and then raised her eyebrow at Buffy. “So what are we waiting for?”
Buffy couldn’t say so, but she was waiting for a fight. Anything would do: a slap to the face, a menacing chant, a werewolf attack -- all she wanted was some danger to justify striking back. But it was never going to happen. Nina was best served by inertia, and she already had her final three victims lined up on the spiral.
"Buffy!” The shout had come from the door, and it was Angel’s voice, full of panic. She looked up and saw that he was already coming down the path, and Willow was following. Two more sacrifices for the Wolf.
Without another second of thought she raised the Scythe and plunged the blade into Nina’s heart. The woman made only the smallest gasp as she fell, but Buffy thought she saw her expression flitter through surprise and then a secretive kind of pleasure. She didn’t transform. The Hellmouth didn’t collapse around them. She died as a human dies.
Howell threw his head back and wailed in infinite suffering. Buffy wrenched the Scythe from Nina’s chest and brandished it at him, but he had turned away from her and was attacking Wolfe with wild abandon. Both nearly managed to toss the other over the edge before finally Wolfe cut and ran, causing Angel and Willow to turn back and dash to get out of his way. Howell was in hot pursuit, and the path was cleared for Buffy.
Everyone in front of her had to get through the door before she could, but as soon as her foot cleared the opening, Angel reached out from inside Satellite 1 and grabbed her hand, pulling her onto the solid floor of the club. She let the Scythe slip from her grasp and returned his firm embrace. “Angel, I killed her.”
“It’s gonna be okay,” he assured her, then gave her a gentle nudge to steer her through the next door. “Come on, we have to--”
“Got him!” cried Willow, and Buffy needed no further urging to pick up her weapon again and run to find out what was going on. Back in Satellite 2, she saw Willow immediately, working a magical net over a snarling mass of dark fur. Spike was there too, and Faith, and a lot of werewolves. Frantically, Buffy tried to think about who was missing.
There was a commotion on the other side of the bar, and she recognized Howell struggling against two ordinary-sized werewolves. “Don’t kill him!” she cried out. “He saved me!”
One of the wolves of the pack did seem to hear her; he or she came scurrying out and attacked Wolfe through the net instead. Another joined in, and before Buffy could react to anything that was happening, one had gone for his throat and he was caught in his death throes and reverting to human form. A bloody, naked, middle-aged man lay prone beneath the limp net.
The wolf who had dispatched him stood up on two legs and looked Buffy squarely in the eye, then turned into Eric, likewise naked and making no attempt to hide it. He reeled a little and put one hand on the bar to steady himself, wiping blood from his mouth with the other. “Where...where is...”
Involuntarily, Buffy looked at the Scythe in her hand, its red metal blade still smeared with Nina’s red blood. She didn’t say anything, but Eric fixed her with the coldest look of utter betrayal she had ever seen. His lips moved silently for a moment before he managed to speak out loud: “You said you would help her.”
“Buffy!” Angel called, and she turned, ashamed at her helplessness and her need to get away from Eric. Angel was kneeling behind the bar, out of sight, and she joined him to find that Willow was there too, and that Howell was human. Like Wolfe, he was terribly wounded, but he was sentient, and someone had thrown a jacket over him to hide his nudity.
Buffy felt a sob coming on. “I’m so sorry,” she said to him. “We said we would help you too. And now…Willow, can you heal him?”
Willow was shaking her head. Howell’s gaze was unfocused and far away, but he didn’t seem interested in the question concerning his survival. “Need…” he rasped.
“Yes?” Buffy took his hand in both of hers. “What do you need?”
“Paper,” he finished. “Write.”
Angel found a stack of flyers that had been stacked on the bar, and Willow fished a pen out of the cash register. As Angel helped Howell steady his hand to scrawl his message onto the back of the neon green sheet of paper, Buffy stood up to survey the room.
All of the wolves had returned to their human forms, and most were tending quietly to their wounded. It wasn’t immediately apparent if there had been any other deaths. The room, of course, was in shambles, with glassware shattered and strewn everywhere, and no piece of furniture left upright. Spike was speaking rapidly with Jordan but holding tightly to Faith, who looked like she could barely stand. When she saw Buffy looking her way, she tugged Spike’s sleeve and made him walk her over to the bar.
“We gotta motor, B,” she said in a low tone of warning. “Close to now as you can get.”
“No, I...” Buffy scrubbed at her face and tried to explain. “Howell.”
Angel’s voice floated up to her. “He’s gone.” She whirled around, and Angel got to his feet. “There’s nothing else we can do. Faith is right. These people are going to turn on us as soon as they get their bearings.”
“We locked up the door best we could but it won’t keep them out,” Spike added. “Only so long before someone braves it and finds the body.”
The memory of killing Nina flashed violently through Buffy’s mind. With one tortured glance back at Howell, she nodded and let Angel lead her down the stairs as discreetly as possible. They passed the chalk mark for the 8:09 sacrifice, making Buffy suddenly remember Ken Godfrey. Someone must have moved his body, but his wife and son had been there to see him die when it happened.
She and Angel made it outside first. The taste of the crisp night air made her realize how long she had spent in the building, but the brief interlude in the Hellmouth had been so much worse. This must be what a prison break felt like.
No, she corrected herself. This is what it feels like to take a life and escape justice.