"Anything new about Dawn yet?"
Joyce looked up, surprised at hearing the entire question in Buffy's own voice. Gazing at the group, her eyebrow lifted, the only indication of her further amazement at the arrangements.
Giles now had hold of Willow's hand, and Xander was being supported by Buffy. The young man looked worn, his shirtfront torn and tucked haphazardly into his pants and his eyes a bit glazed. Anya and Tara were orbiting like satellites, flitting around the edges but never really connecting with the group.
Giles answered the only question he read in Joyce's expression. "Xander tried to break the bond prematurely, so we're all disconnecting a bit sooner than we expected." Buffy eased the tall figure onto the seat beside her mother, and tucked herself under his arm again.
"Xander hurt himself trying to do too much too soon," she explained to her mom from a cozy-looking position, her head resting in the hollow of his chest.
"Trying to break the bond before it happens naturally is like ripping an arm or a leg off of yourself," Willow elaborated. "It causes physical pain. Then, with Xander being the Heart, and more susceptible to emotional turmoil, he did the emotional equivalent of pouring salt in the wound by having a..." The witch paused, sensing Xander's unwillingness to cast Anya in a bad light in front of Joyce and Tara, especially.
"We broke up," Anya announced without emotion. "He needed them more." She looked Tara straight in the eye, and the blonde witch got the message. But she'd deal with it later.
"Yeah," Willow mumbled, not missing the silent exchange. "Anyway, we need to stay connected with him so he can recover." She pulled Giles gently to the row of seats, and took the one on the other side of Xander, pushing up against him and taking his free hand. The Watcher draped his arm over the back of Willow's chair, casually resting his fingers on the other man's neck.
Like a battery recharging, Xander visibly perked up. His eyes cleared and his posture straightened. The arm around Buffy was now more holding than draped. It was gradual, but it was clear that there really was something to all the physical contact, and that it could help heal an injured Part of the Unity. "Doctor," the young man said, suddenly.
"But you seem so much better," Joyce said with surprise. She'd been watching the process, fascinated.
"No." Xander shook his head and pointed. "Dawn's doctor."
The whole group turned and pinned their eyes on the man in the green scrubs heading towards them.
Quentin Travers managed to wait until seven a.m. before calling the emergency meeting of the Watcher's Council. Whistler had gone wherever it was Whistler went, and the older man was just as happy to be rid of him. He was having enough trouble dealing with the idea of a dark Unity, and dealing with the annoying little demon on top of that was beyond the limits of his patience. The war council was in full swing before he reappeared.
"...have to send someone back to America to monitor the situation," one of the older Watchers was saying when Whistler arrived.
"And whatcha gonna have 'em do if she goes atomic on ya?" Whistler asked, seeming to materialize out of thin air. "Send a telegram? Throw a committee at her? 'Cos I've seen all the tact and charm youse guys have with yer Slayers, and I'm guessin' that if ya use that style with this girlie if she freaks, yer gonna haveta be scrapin' bits of yer 'monitor' off the sidewalk."
"And what do you suggest?" Travers asked icily. "Pretend it's not a problem? You wouldn't have come to me if you thought as much."
"Ya keep this stuff up, I'm gonna regret talkin' to ya more'n I already do. Look, as much as I really do want the good guys to ride off into the sunset on this one, I still work for Balance. I let youse know 'cos I'm s'posed ta. Not 'cos I think there's anything youse guys could do ta control her. She's already stronger than yer best Slayer, since she's the basic model here, and Unity's the upgrade. She's smarter than all of ya put together, although I don't think that'd take much, myself. But she also feels way more than most folks, and her feelin's could send her over the edge." He stared down every Watcher at the conference table, one at a time, as he continued. "I think ya oughtta leave her be. They're all basically good people, at heart. The Slayer does her job 'cos she has ta, but the other two kids are just along 'cos they *care.* Ole' Rupert stayed in the game even when youse people gave him the shaft, 'cos he cares, too. I'm sayin' she might get angry, and she might go wacko for a while, but she's on the good side, in the end. And if youse guys are even thinkin' about killin' her if she goes bad, think again. She's too much for ya. Let it go."
None of the Council members would meet his eyes. They hung their heads, and if Whistler didn't know the group better, he'd think they were ashamed. He knew them well, however, and looked around at them in disgust. "Sometimes I really hate this damned job," he muttered, and stormed out.
Uncomfortable silence hung heavy in the room for several long minutes. Finally the older Watcher who'd spoken before cleared his throat. "So, whom should we send to the States?" he asked, as if the interruption hadn't occurred. "Quentin, you're the most familiar..."
Buffy jumped up swiftly from her cocoon in Xander's grasp, while Joyce rose slowly beside her. The three remaining members of Unity formed in a semi-circle behind, giving the personification of their Body both physical and emotional support. Anya and Tara moved in as well.
"Mrs. Summers?" the middle-aged man asked, looking at Joyce. With her nod, he proceeded. "You daughter had some pretty bad injuries. There was head trauma. Her larynx will be several weeks in healing, and she'll be unable to talk during that time. She had a couple of broken ribs, and we had to remove her spleen. I've never seen such widespread damage done by an attacker before - if I didn't know it was improbable, I'd say whoever did this to her did just what they had to do to cause the maximum suffering without killing her. There was neither rhyme nor reason to the injuries, no pattern like we normally see in an attack. There were internal injuries where the skin covering them wasn't even bruised. We see some strange things in this hospital, but I think your child now tops my list."
"But she'll live, right?" Joyce asked, her voice shaky. He nodded, and she looked around at the people who cared for Dawn who surrounded her. "Can we see her?"
"She's still out right now, but you can go in a couple at a time. Once she wakes up, she'll be groggy for quite a while, since the only way we can guarantee she won't try to talk is to keep her sedated. Still, she'll know you, and once we decrease the dose, she'll be able to write notes."
Joyce looked over at the quartet who had rescued her child. "Can five of us go in at once?" she asked. "We won't be boisterous or anything, but I think it's important." She saw him eyeing the group curiously. "They're family," she explained.
He shrugged. "Just be quiet. Rest is the healer she needs most right now."
Quentin Travers sat uncomfortably on the wide-bodied jet with Andrea at his side. He'd never told the Council how much he feared flying - admitting his own weaknesses would have left him vulnerable, and in his position of authority, he couldn't afford that. Andrea knew, though.
She'd been chosen for this trip because she had medical training, and the Council decided that Unity needed to be examined, both together and separately, to see if there were weaknesses they could exploit if need be. Of course, the story would be of a far more innocuous purpose for the checkup. But Andrea would do as she was ordered, just as they all always did. The only thing she'd ever done to subvert the Council had been aiding Quentin with his fear of flying without letting the others know his secret.
She helped him because they'd been close - very close - once. She was considerably younger than he, and when she first joined the Council, she'd looked up to him - after all, he was the Rising Young Chieftain, the Golden Boy. He was being groomed by those in charge to be one of them. Little did she - or he, for that matter - know that the job he so coveted consisted mostly of making difficult decisions and taking unwanted assignments like this one. And often, covering the Council's collective butt. All they both saw at the time was the potential for glory and power.
So she had been blinded by the stars in her eyes, and he had seen her willingness to do whatever he wanted as another path to power. No one was more surprised than young Travers when, after a few months of the relationship, it was Andrea, and not he, who held the reins. He had begun to care about her, far more than was safe.
They slept together, but were never truly lovers. He managed to pull away from the relationship before allowing himself to fall that way. For his was a world where love was a greater weakness than airsickness. It could get him killed, or worse, her.
And the most amazing thing was that she understood. By this time, she'd spent enough time with the Council to understand the dynamic, the danger of any weakness. She let him go, willingly, although not very happily. Still, they remained close, although even the honorific "friend" was a dangerous label to carry in their line of work.
Sometimes he envied the simple Watchers. Those who merely reported to the Council, and were trained by them, but who never dealt with the actual body in more than a formal way. They had lives - they didn't fear that all their enemies were sitting beside them every day, seeking ways to move their own agenda forward, caring not who was in charge as long as they really wielded the power. They had their Slayers, or Slayers in Training. Some even had wives or husbands, and managed to produce new generations of Watchers. Some, like Rupert Giles, even developed backbones and stood up to the Council, finding a better way to exist. The American ones had always been the toughest to keep up with.
The warm drowsiness he associated with the pills Andrea had given him started to wash over his mind. They'd go to America - again. They'd find a way to take down Unity, if indeed she lost control. It was all about the end - the means were immaterial. He spent a lot of years selling himself on the idea that to save mankind, some human decency had to be sacrificed. Sometimes, even humans themselves had to be sacrificed. It was the price that must be paid. He was now thoroughly convinced. He yawned, and turned towards the woman beside him, taking her hand before he drifted off to sleep. He didn't see the shock, and then the warm smile, that graced her face.
The group of five that stood by the teenager's bedside was solemn, but hopeful. The respirator hissed and the monitors hummed and chirped, an almost musical accompaniment to the silent thoughts of the onlookers. Bandages were wrapped around Dawn's head, and above the top of the hospital gown they could see the beginning of the ugly red incision that almost certainly trailed the rest of the way down her torso.
*We'll never have to doubt her humanity again,* Unity thought sadly. *So easily broken.*
The quartet stood clumped together, and they were thinking as one, which hadn't happened before when they were divided. It seemed that only the bond could handle the pain, the guilt they all felt. It was too strong for any one person to manage alone. Joyce sniffled softly, and they all looked up at once.
"Dawn, honey," she said, bending down to the comatose girl. "We're all here. Me, and Buffy and Xander and Giles and Willow. We all want you to get better, real soon. We'll get you ice cream, and Xander said he'd play Monopoly with you as long as you wanted. Buffy's already said you could have that blue sweater of hers you like, and Willow wants to watch "She's All That" with you again. And Mr. Giles promised he wouldn't roll his eyes the next time you want to talk about boys. But only once." She hiccupped a little laugh, looked up and smiled tearfully, and the four smiled back at her. "But first you've gotta get well. We'll be here as much as we can. You won't be able to talk at first, but we'll talk to you, okay? Whatever you need, we'll take care of it. But you have to get well." She was beginning to break down again, and finally Buffy pulled away from the others and tugged her mother back to her feet. Joyce tugged loose from her grasp, bending back over and kissing Dawn gently on the cheek. "We love you, baby," she whispered, and then her older daughter escorted her out of the room.
As they left, the machinery sang its never ending rhythmic but emotionless song.
"I convinced her to go home," Buffy sighed, joining the rest of the Unity in the room Xander and Willow had occupied earlier. The other three were sitting pressed together on the couch, as had become usual. "The doctor gave her a prescription to help her sleep, and I thought I'd get one of you to come along while I went to the pharmacy to get it filled." Willow nodded and got up from her place between the two men, taking the Slayer's hand when she reached her side. "Thanks," Buffy sighed in relief. "This has been kinda stressful." She looked over at the men, trying to casually touch without losing their macho veneer, and couldn't help a small grin. "Anyway, Anya and Tara offered to take the first shift, and once mom knew someone would be here with her and that Dawn probably wouldn't wake up until at least tomorrow, she agreed to leave and go get some rest. We'll be back as soon as we get her going." The girls left, hand in hand, and Xander and Giles sat in silence for a few moments staring at the walls.
Then Giles shifted, laying his hand over Xander's openly, to secure the lines of communication. *She knows, you know.* The younger man didn't answer, but raised a questioning eyebrow. *About you, and how you feel about her. She knows. Has for quite a while, I believe.*
*It's not like I've made it the world's best-kept secret. If she finally does know, she's like the last person alive who managed to figure it out. Willow's been riding me about it for ages. Hell, even Angel knew. I bet Amy knows, and she's only been out of the Habitrail for a couple of weeks.* The young man sighed, and for a moment seemed about to pull his hand away. Instead, he relaxed in resignation. *She doesn't care.* He stared at the wall again. *I lost Anya because of the Unity, but I'da lost her soon enough, anyway. Just like with Cordelia, eventually my feelings for Buffy would have driven her away, too.*
*Cordelia left you because you were exchanging saliva with Willow,* Giles reminded him wryly.
*Just a symptom of the deeper disease,* Xander answered in a similar tone. *I loved Willow, too, and I had to see if I loved her more than Buffy. I didn't, but I still loved her. I still do.*
*She is an amazing young woman, isn't she?* Giles said, and Xander gave him a probing look, hearing the tone in the other man's mental voice. The Watcher colored and looked away. *Anyway,* Giles changed the subject back again, *I don't believe Buffy finds you personally repugnant in any way. Actually, I believe just the opposite is true. She finds you attractive, but her experiences with men she's been attracted to have been less than stellar, so she ignores or submerges those feelings. Living in close proximity as we do now, I can't help but believe she'll have to deal with the subject sooner or later.*
*Like you will, with Willow?* Xander asked seriously.
A few moments of awkward silence passed. *So,* Giles redirected heartily, *where should we all stay tonight?*
*Coward,* Xander shot back. The two men grinned crookedly at each other, and fell silent again.
Joyce was gone, Amy set up to meet her at the house and stay there in case she needed anything else during the night. Buffy's constant apologies for not being able to stay at home finally earned her a loving "shut up" from her mother. Joyce assured her daughter that she understood that the Unity needed to be together, and there just wasn't room enough at the Summers' house.
The Parts of Unity were bone tired as they traipsed wearily into the hotel nearest the hospital, coincidentally the same one they'd stayed at when the Watcher's Council had been paying. It was well after midnight, and they had reached their limit. Giles stepped up to the desk and asked the price of a suite. When he was told, his eyes flew wide. "Bloody hell! I'm not paying that. How about one room, two big beds?" The deskman's expression was unreadable, but apparently the question amused the older gentleman. Shown the price, the Watcher muttered, "That's better," and pulled out his credit card.
As the quartet boarded the elevator, the deskman, who had been on duty their last visit, noticed they once again were without luggage. His knowing grin broadened. "What are you smirking at?" the bellboy asked, coming out from the back.
"Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice just checked in again," the older man chortled. "I'd love to be a fly on their wall tonight."
The bellboy, all of eighteen, missed the cultural reference. After all, his parents probably were children in 1969 when the Elliot Gould picture about wife swapping had first come out. "Friends of yours?"
The deskman snorted. "Forget it, Mr. Wet-behind-the-ears." Then he imagined once more what must go on in that room, and his wicked grin was with him until his shift ended that night.
Once in the room, the four prepared for sleep. Modesty had sort of gotten lost in the shuffle. Due to their connection, and the fact that not everyone remembered to shower with their eyes closed or not look at themselves in the mirror when naked, they'd all pretty much seen everybody else's everything. Not that they ran around au natural together, but they had to get over the whole embarrassment thing, or they'd have died from it. Xander and Giles stripped down to their boxers, while Willow pulled off her long skirt, wearing just the oversized sweater she had on to bed. Buffy grabbed Giles' shirt (after all, Xander's wouldn't button anymore) and went into the bathroom to change, since her own skimpy tank wasn't going to be comfortable enough for sleeping. Giles had on an undershirt; Xander didn't.
By the time Buffy emerged from the bathroom, the guys were already settled in on one bed, while Willow had claimed her side of the other. "Goodnights" were mumbled all around, and in the course of no more than five minutes, two people were snoring, and the other two weren't awake to complain about them.
The deskman would have been sorely disappointed had he actually achieved fly-dom.
"Why does Buffy always get to pick where we have breakfast?" Xander was complaining as they entered the Magic Box. They'd called the hospital to check on Dawn, gone to eat, then to their separate residences to shower and dress. They met up outside the store without planning, but probably due to their shared rhythms.
"Because she eats even more than you do," Willow explained, "So it's easier to go with her choices, so she won't complain." Before the Slayer could defend herself, Amy interrupted.
"Uhm, guys? You have visitors." Looking up together, they saw Quentin Travers and Andrea waiting.
"Geez, I'm glad I didn't pencil a good day into my daytimer yet," Xander growled. "I hate erasures."
"Travers," Giles said in a similar tone of voice. "I'd like to say I'm happy to see you, but even you aren't stupid enough to believe me. What are you doing here?"
"There are some medical tests the council would like to have done on you four, as well as on Unity. Dr. Fairhope here has been authorized to run them. We'll try to be out of your way as quickly as possible."
"Now would be quick enough," Buffy said brightly. Looking around at her companions and then frowning at the visitors, she asked, "Suppose we don't want to do your little poke and prod game?"
"We already have someone on staff at the hospital here, with medical access to your sister. I don't think you'll turn down our request." Horror at the very idea ran through each member of the Unity. Defeated by the threat, they turned together and went towards the back room, led by Andrea Fairhope. Before he followed, Xander turned and stared with hatred into the older Watcher's eyes.
"I just want you to know how deeply and sincerely you people *suck,*" he spat, before following the rest.