Buffy came down the second floor steps slowly, a thoughtful look on her face. She walked into the family room and stared at the bright red scythe hanging over the mantle.
"Ah, Buffy, there you are," Percy said as he entered the room. He stopped at the expression on her face. "Are you alright? Everything well with Dawn?" he asked gently.
"Hmm?" Buffy said distractedly. "Oh, yes, she's fine."
Buffy continued to stare at the scythe. "Was it really you?"
"I'm sorry?" Percy looked confused.
"Was it really you? In my dream." She turned to face him. "Were you there, in the classroom? Did you offer to take that needle for Travers?"
He looked up at the scythe and then back at Buffy before nodding and answering softly, "I serve the Slayers."
Buffy studied him for a moment and then turned back to look at the weapon. "Things sure do change fast in my life," she observed conversationally. "So, tell me, what were you and Giles talking about downstairs?"
"I think that's best for the two of you to discuss directly."
"Dawn's upstairs convinced it's all her fault and he's downstairs convinced it's all his, and I'm here in the middle wondering how any of us are going to get through this without cracking from the guilt and stress." She reached up to touch the bright metal handle. "I'm the Slayer. It's my job to get us through, to protect them."
"This isn't just a slaying job. You know that."
"He's evil, that's what I know. That, and that it's my job is to kill evil things."
"Buffy, for Rupert and for Dawn, it's not a job. It's personal."
Buffy turned to stare at him. "You're damn right it's personal. And I'm going to take care of it personally. You just keep the two of them safe and out of the way, okay? That's your job."
"Buffy? Is that you?" Giles called out from hall. "Have you seen… ah, there you are Percy," he said as he entered the room. "Can we go upstairs to talk? I think it's time we decided what we're going to do tomorrow, and we should include Dawn. I'd like to consider having the Council move her to England."
"Good idea. She won't want to go, but I want her far away from here." Buffy turned and shot a glare at Percy. "She'll be safe and out of the way there, and that's what I want."
Percy nodded as they moved towards the steps, Giles in the lead.
Carrie stood in Dawn’s room, staring at the sleeping girl, a look of concern on her face.
“She ate about a half an hour ago. They’ll need to manufacture a new TV dinner category for her. ‘Hungryman dinner’ just won’t cut it anymore,” Xander said as he came up from behind, slipping his arms around her waist and nuzzling her neck.
“Tell me you didn’t feed her that crap.”
“Giles’ nutritional dictatorship be damned: she wanted pizza rolls, she got pizza rolls. How’s she doing?” he asked. “She looks like she’s finally getting some rest.”
“Yeah, she drifted off about ten minutes ago. Even though she hides it well, she’s still in quite a bit of pain. I think she doesn’t want to worry anyone, especially Buffy.”
Dawn winced in her sleep and shifted uncomfortably in her bed.
“Hear that?" Carrie said when Dawn whimpered. "I can’t be sure if he’s still reaching her or if there’s permanent damage. I’ve done everything I can do for her.” Carrie shook her head sadly and let out a long drawn out sigh.
“What is it?” Xander whispered gently to her ear.
“I don’t know. I like to think I’m not… I’m not a violent person, Xander, but this…” Her hands clenched to fists. “I want just five minutes alone with this guy and my favorite scalpel.”
“I know the feeling.” He pulled her tightly to him, hugging her soundly. They stood for a long moment, holding each other.
Xander finally pulled back and motioned to the door. “I’m gonna go check in downstairs. See how the ‘Band of Brothers’ is doing on the evil sorcerer front.” He gave a half-hearted salute that brought a faint smile to Carrie’s lips, which quickly gave way to a look of stony seriousness.
“Get this guy, okay Xander?”
He nodded seriously and reached out to touch her cheek. "I will."
A movement of black crossed the attic window, drawing Carrie’s attention away.
“Did you see that?”
“What?” Xander turned back to look.
As Giles reached the bottom of the steps, a loud thump sounded from upstairs and all discussion halted.
“What was that?” Buffy looked anxiously up. Another loud thump was followed by a crashing sound. Giles bolted up the stairs with Buffy rushing close behind. Percy moved to the front door and threw it open, yelling for the Council soldiers.
“Watch out!” called Carrie from somewhere out of view and Xander came plummeting down the attic steps, colliding with Giles. Both men began tumbling roughly down the first floor's steps. Buffy gripped the hand railings and lifted herself up, managing to avoid being caught up in the chaos, and continued up the second flight of stairs to the attic room.
“Unwanted company,” Carrie pointed nervously, backing away from the rogue Slayer standing in a defensive stance between an unconscious Dawn and Buffy.
“Carrie, go help Xander and Giles,” Buffy commanded and Carrie hurried downstairs. Buffy took a step forward, fists clenched. “Get away from her!”
“Step aside.” The young girl ordered.
“You can’t have her,” Buffy growled.
“My sensei requests her presence,” Katako said plainly. “We will settle this at a later date, false one.”
"Your sensei is dead." Buffy rushed forward. “And we’ll settle this now.”
Buffy swung as swiftly as she could, but the strikes were easily blocked by the Slayer. Buffy recovered quickly to try for a series of quick jabs and a reverse leg sweep, but Katako dodged her easily.
“It is not our time yet. Step aside,” Katako ordered as she held her defensive stance. “All we require is the girl.”
“Over my dead body!”
“If it must be so…” Katako attacked.
“Seal the perimeter.” Percy barked out orders to a pair of soldiers. “Alert Code Alpha!” Another crash from upstairs interrupted his orders. “Just lock the bloody place down. Now!” One soldier ran back outside as the other leapt over the fallen men at the base of the stairs and hurried up to confront the intruder.
“Giles, you okay?” Xander rolled off of the Watcher.
“Been better,” Giles grunted. “Where’s Buffy?”
“Probably facing off with Ethan’s new and improved action figure. Katako's back.”
"We've got to help her," Giles groaned, wincing in pain.
"Are you two okay?" Carrie came rushing down the stairs to kneel next to Xander.
"We're fine. Where's Katako?"
"Buffy's fighting her. She wants Dawn."
“Why would she be helping Ethan?” Xander asked gasping as he struggled to his feet, Carrie helping support him.
“Brainwashing,” Giles growled, accepting Xander's helping hand with a groan. “Or perhaps he’s found a way to manipulate her…”
“What are you guys doing standing around? Come on!" Willow came rushing in from the outside and hurried up the stairs. "If we can recapture her, maybe we can reverse the spell!”
“Hasn’t any of you heard the phrase ‘Fools rush in’?” Percy yelled after her. "Let the professionals handle it!"
"Percy, it's Buffy up there," said Giles as he began pushing himself up the steps. "You wait for reinforcements."
“What can I say? It’s the Scooby way.” Xander started off after them.
Carrie went after him. "Guess I'm a Scooby too then."
Katako blocked a textbook flying at her as if under its own will. As it fell to the floor, another book took to the air, heading straight for her head. The Slayer managed to block it as well but searched with frustration to find her invisible assailant.
“Way to work it, Hedwig!” Buffy smiled and gave the air around her a thumbs up.
“These spirits will not stop me!” Katako said firmly, not noticing the dress floating up behind her until it wrapped over her head. Buffy took advantage of the chance to attack, planting a couple hard kicks to Katako’s midsection. The dark Slayer grunted with each blow and tore the dress from her head in time to catch Buffy’s leg with her third attempted kick. Katako grinned and sent her elbow to Buffy’s torso and then followed with a closed-fist strike with the back of her hand to Buffy’s face. Buffy fell, her leg still caught in the powerful grip of the Slayer.
“I grow tired of these games.” Katako sighed and with powerful heave, lifted Buffy and casually threw her through the closet door. She struck the wall head first, collapsing in an unconscious heap as the contents of the closet spilled down upon her.
At the heavy thud of boots, the young Japanese girl turned to face a pistol inches from her face. She ducked, spun swiftly, and knocked the gun from the stunned soldier’s hand. The CoWboy recovered quickly, charging her with his utility knife. Katako dodged the skillful swings of the blade, and caught her attacker’s wrist, breaking it with a sharp crack. The soldier screamed in agony and fell to his knees, clutching his wounded forearm.
“Sincenia copeia!” Willow stepped up into the room and aimed a glowing hand at Katako, sending a bolt of light colliding with the rogue Slayer.
Katako stumbled back a few steps then, with a shake of her head, straightened, smiling. “Not this time, witch! My Master knows of your skills and has protected me from such magic.” The Slayer stated proudly as Willow frowned and began to mumble another spell under her breath.
Giles appeared behind Willow. He looked around the room frantically.
“Buffy!” Giles dived past both women toward the motionless lump lying in the ruins of Dawn’s closet. He tossed aside the clothes covering her face, gasping when he saw the blood pooling beneath her head. He gently ran his fingers along her skull, taking care not to move her head anymore than necessary.
"Ow!" Buffy opened her eyes. "Damn it, that hurt."
"Don’t move. Are you…" Giles started nervously.
“I'm still here…” Buffy winced, ignoring his instruction as she struggled to free herself from clothes and hangers, “…though I wish I was in Cabo San Lucas. I really need a vacation from retirement.”
Sighing, Giles helped to free her. “I know the feeling.”
“I hear Hawaii is beautiful this time of year,” Xander said, rushing in to tackle Katako.
“Forget me. Help them!” Buffy cried, looking past Giles' shoulder.
“You cannot win this. Stand down!” The Slayer spun to avoid Xander’s attack and followed through with a powerful elbow to the back of his head, spinning him around to fly past Willow and down the steps again.
“Xander!” Willow gasped and sent a ball of reddish light shooting toward the Slayer just as Giles charged. The projectile rammed into Giles’ back, exploding on contact and sending him crashing into the dresser beside Dawn’s bed. He sank to the floor as the smell of burnt flesh and smoke filled the small space of the attic.
“NO!” Buffy screamed and lunged toward the Japanese Slayer.
Ethan stood at the very edge of the rocky outcropping, staring intently into the night-blanketed cityscape below. He closed his eyes and reached out in deep concentration. He didn’t notice the atmosphere around him slowly begin to warp.
“The vial. Use the vial.”
“Giles!” Buffy yelled, thrusting out wild punches and kicks. “Willow, is he alright?”
Willow dove forward, pulling Giles into her arms, examining his wounds. “Giles? Come on, Giles, don’t do this.” She turned him over to face her.
“Do what?” he asked, bewildered and Willow sighed in relief. “What did I do now?”
Carrie scurried in to retrieve the wounded soldier, pulling him back to a corner of the room. The man moaned and passed out.
Katako connected first with Buffy's jaw, cheek and then sent her flying backwards with a blow to chin. “The Fates have designated a proper time for this, false one, and this is not the moment.”
“You don’t get it. I couldn’t care less about the Fates.” Buffy panted as she forced herself upright again. “You aren’t leaving with Dawn.”
"I will…" Katako stopped speaking, closing her eyes, a look of intense concentration on her face. She nodded to herself and retrieved the vial from her pocket. Popping off the stopper, she splattered the contents to her torso. She raised her hands up, her voice boastful, “Now you will suffer the wrath of my Watcher!”
Everyone froze in anticipation.
Nothing happened and as Katako heard the rushing of footsteps up the stairs, she frowned, looking at the vial in confusion.
“Kinda lame wrath if you ask me. Maybe you’d be better off just running away now?” Buffy suggested, still breathing hard.
“I don’t understand. He said it would protect me. He said it would help me,” Katako said helplessly.
“Your Watcher is dead and you’ll soon join him if you don’t get out now!” Buffy threatened.
A trio of heavily armed Council soldiers rushed up the stairs, charging into the room one after another. As they caught sight of Katako, the men collapsed to the floor unconscious. A fourth soldier entered and diving over his colleagues, managed to barely grasp the Slayer's arm for a second before passing out as well.
A pleased smile curled along the rogue Slayer’s lips. “You were saying?”
Buffy maneuvered around the bodies of the fallen soldiers, quickly sending a succession of strikes at Katako’s head. The Slayer pivoted fast, striking again at Buffy’s jaw. The force sent Buffy hard to the floor, next to Willow and Giles, and a spurt of blood trickled from her freshly split lip.
Katako turned around and quickly scooped up Dawn. Heaving the taller girl over her shoulder with some difficulty, she picked through the fallen soldiers towards the steps.
“Dawn, wake up!” Buffy yelled as two more soldiers rushed into the room only to collapse unconscious at the first sight of the rogue Slayer.
“What the hell?” Buffy struggled back to her feet, following the younger Slayer down the steps.
Percy looked up from where he was crouched next to Xander as Katako rushed past, Buffy hard on her heels. He turned back to the young man. "I need to help. Can you get up?"
"I think so." Xander winced. "Help me." Percy slipped his hands under Xander's arms and pulled him up.
"Okay, I can make it from here," Xander hissed painfully. "Go help Buffy."
Percy propped him against the wall. "Be careful," he said as he turned to run down the steps.
"You too!" yelled Xander as he began hobbling slowly after him.
"Stop her!" Buffy cried as she ran out of the house.
Katako spun around, glancing nervously down at the glowing charm on her chest. With frustrated jerk, she flung Dawn to the ground.
"Dawn!" Buffy ran toward her sister. Katako stepped between them and with a few strides, leapt and kicked, sending Buffy flying into the bushes.
The sound of more invisible soldiers came from all around her and she raised her arms, waiting. Nothing reached her. The grass surrounding the Slayer became indented with the shapes of the fallen soldiers. Katako grinned and lifted Dawn to her shoulder again as Percy charged out of the house.
“Percy! What’s wrong with the CoWboys?” Buffy cried.
“It’s Ethan. He’s using our own magic against us.”
Percy looked up to the attic window and yelled, “Willow!”
“What’s going on?” Willow cried out as she ran out onto the front lawn.
“Break the covert spell,” Percy ordered. “Retract the magic.”
Willow shook her head. “It doesn’t work that way. You have to ask permission from the spirit guardians of…”
“Short version, Will!” Xander barked as he limped onto the porch beside her.
“No go!” Willow yelled at Percy.
“Alrighty then, open for suggestions,” Xander shook his head, leaning against a porch post. Willow closed her eyes and began to chant.
Carrie and Giles came out of the house. Carrie immediately went to Xander, checking his leg and Giles ran towards Buffy.
"Sod it!" Percy cast an anxious gaze toward the eerie imprints of his fallen men then to Dawn dangling limp over the retreating Slayer’s shoulder. He charged after the escaping girl.
He was nearing the pair at the end of the driveway when Katako swiveled hard on her heals and sent something airborne, spinning and shimmering through in the chilled night air towards him.
Percy stumbled, managing a few more steps before his legs buckled and he collapsed to the ground.
Carrie rushed off the porch, running rapidly towards the fallen Watcher.
“Percy!” Buffy yelled out, clawing her way across the damp grass. Giles reached her and helped her to her feet and they both stumbled down the driveway.
Carrie was the first to reach Percy, quickly pressing her hand against the crimson pulsing wound. “Don’t move. Just stay still,” she urged him gently.
Buffy moved past the two to search the street for signs of Dawn as Giles crouched next to them. Seeing the knife buried in his friend's abdomen, he cursed. “Jesus… hang in there, Percy. Help is on the way,” Giles looked up anxiously. "Willow!"
On the porch, Willow opened her eyes and began fumbling for her cell phone. She spoke hurriedly into the receiver.
“See? What…what’d I tell you, Rupert?” Percy grinned, grimacing. Giles caught Percy’s bloody hand in his and held it tightly. “Fools rush in.”
“Field report, sir.” Margaret saluted respectfully and stood silently in front of Giles, waiting for permission to continue.
“What is it, Margaret?” Giles asked tiredly, readjusting the ice pack to the back of his neck.
“We have four casualties and three critically injured. Two unaccounted for and presumed dead. All the men who were rendered unconscious with the spell are now awake.”
“Any sign of Katako and Dawn?”
“I’m afraid not, sir. We’ve secured both the western and eastern sectors with no sign of the sorcerer or the Slayer and her hostage. We're sweeping the southern sector now.”
“And what of the north?” Giles asked, ruffling his hair with his fingers.
“We have teams spread out along the forest edge, but the covert spell seems to be rendered ineffective by the characteristics unique to the local landscape.”
“It’s this area, Giles,” Willow explained, coming in from the kitchen with a fresh bag of ice. She handed it off to Giles and continued. “The natural energies of the land are interfering with the magic.”
“So you’re telling me if we want to extend the search into the forest, our men will become visible?”
Willow nodded regretfully.
“Should we proceed, sir?” Margaret asked expectantly.
Giles considered the proposition for a moment. “Willow, do you think you might be able to somehow bolster the spell, counteract the interference?”
“I don’t know, Giles. We have an awful lot going on. We’re kinda overdrawing ourselves in the magicks department, if you know what I mean. The covert spell is fading fast.” Buffy entered as Willow finished speaking.
“Damn!” Giles slammed his fist down onto the desk, catching off guard both Willow and Margaret who quickly exchanged concerned glances.
“Perhaps you should get some rest, sir,” the Council soldier suggested.
“He’s right. It’s been a long night, Giles. Everyone’s tired. And without Percy around to glare disapprovingly at the troops, they’ll be looking to you for leadership.” Willow reached out and gripped Giles' arm, shooting Buffy a significant look. “Why don’t you and Buffy rest for a while? Xander and I will hold down the fort in the meantime.”
Giles bowed his head down and closed his tired eyes. After a long moment, he lifted his head again, and gestured halfheartedly toward the door.
“With the spell failing, I guess we haven’t any other choice. Margaret, call back the men.” Giles saw a look of concern flash across Buffy’s face at the order. “The last thing we need is to risk being noticed by civilians. Daylight is fast approaching. Implement radio silence until further notice. As long as we have the house secure, let’s not take unnecessary risks. We need to move forward with a clear plan.”
“Let me see what I can do about the discretion factor. We may have an alternative,” Willow suggested. “But first, I gotta test a theory.” She turned a worried gaze to Buffy as continued, "If you promise to get some rest."
Buffy nodded grudgingly, mouthing silently, “We will.”
“You can return to your post, Margaret,” Giles removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes.
“If you don’t mind me saying, he’ll be alright, sir,” Margaret reassured Giles.
“Thank you,” Giles slipped his glasses back on and gave the young lady a weak smile. “Now return to your post.”
“Yes, sir.” She saluted. Giles acknowledge her with a nod and the young soldier departed, with Willow following.
Buffy sat on the couch next to Giles and leaned into him. He pulled her in close.
"I'm sorry, Buffy. I know the waiting's difficult, but we have to plan first."
"I know you're right, but, let me tell you, it sucks." She took hold of his hand squeezed it. “Will Percy be alright?” Buffy asked.
“I… I don’t know. They’ve taken him to Scobie Hospital. He lost a lot of blood and they’ve listed him in critical condition.”
“I’m sure he’ll be fine,” Buffy reassured him.
"This is all my fault," Giles said bitterly. “I should have known.”
“Known what? That Ethan would pull a taste-your-own-medicine rabbit out of his hat and whammy the CoWboys? How could you?”
“Because I know how he thinks. I know his tricks, his tactics…”
“Good,” Buffy interrupted. “Then we’ll use that knowledge against him. We’ll get him, Giles. Like you said, we need a plan. We need to regroup.” She sighed and whispered softly. "And while we’re stuck here regrouping, we're not going to think about what he's doing with Dawn…”