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Posted August 31, 2011

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Fan Fiction: Voices Like Thunder

Title: Voices Like Thunder

Author: Jedi Buttercup

Disclaimer: The words are mine; the worlds are not. I claim nothing but the plot.

Rating: PG-15/M.

Summary: B:tVS/Falling Skies. Despite all the pain and hardship, the uncertainty, the death Buffy had dealt, the things they'd learned about the Skitters and their masters' superiority complex-- they'd done a lot of good, and for the first time in awhile it looked like there might be a lot more after that. (Life After the Apocalypse, Slayer Style, among the Massachusetts Militia). 19,300 words.

Spoilers: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Falling Skies crossover, set after the Season 8 comics and the Season 1 finale, with spoilers for both.

Notes: Includes canon-typical violence, injury, OC Slayers, low-key Buffy/Kennedy femslash, and the canonical survivors of the Second Massachusetts Militia Regiment, among them: angsty kids, foul mouthed soldiers, misogynistic gun nuts, and one very determined ex-professor. Written piecemeal for the 2011 TwistedShorts Fic-a-Thon. Title from Revelations 6: "And I heard a voice like the noise of thunder...."

Cover Art by Jedi Buttercup


Buffy collapsed to a seat on the bloody tile in the abandoned house's kitchen, pressing her face to the grimy knees of her jeans, and wept for the first time since the sky had fallen.

She'd hoped, just like everyone else, when the massive ships had appeared over every major city worldwide. Hoped, but planned for the worst: the only sentient thing she'd ever heard of that came from the stars was a Queller demon, and that didn't bode well for whatever else might be out there. She'd called Scotland, San Francisco, and L.A., asked everyone to put the word out, and packed up a couple of SUVs to visit one of the baby slayers' houses out in the countryside. But it hadn't been enough.

Not everyone at the Cleveland House had wanted to go with her. Not everyone had been at home when she'd called, either. She'd only managed a few minutes of conversation with her sister before the circuits had overloaded and cut off all cellular communication. Kennedy had rounded up six of the juniors with nowhere else to go, plus Andrew; they'd packed food, weapons, clothes, and keepsakes, waited long enough to be sure no one else was coming, then climbed into a pair of SUVs and headed out of the city. They hadn't got very far on the crowded highways before the aliens had done whatever they did to kill all the electronics – just far enough to miss the bombs when they fell.

Downtown Cleveland had disappeared. So had Dayton, according to a guy in fatigues they'd run into the next day while hiking along the road in search of a safe place to shelter. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base had been wiped completely off the map. There hadn't been any word yet about what had happened in the rest of the country, but it was a safe bet things were pretty much the same everywhere. No more industrial centers. No more military. No hope of rescue.

Just eight Slayers, a cook slash Watcher scribbling forlornly in a notebook as they traveled, and whatever supplies they could carry or salvage. They'd found other refugees, even traveled for awhile with a larger group – but they'd seen fewer and fewer people every day, once the green-skinned skittering things had started dropping in shuttles and attacking everyone they found out in the open. After that, all bets had been off. Too many people saw a group of girls with one guy as a soft target, and Buffy was sick of hurting other human beings when they could be fighting the creatures who'd done this to them instead.

Detoxing from coffee and chocolate had been nightmarish. Breaking the heels on her last pair of stylish boots had brought a lump to Buffy's throat. Weathering the girls' first monthlies without any meds – after living together for so long, the younger ones had mostly synced up – had kept them holed up in a park with pit toilets for days, making trips to every convenience store for miles for products that would be worth more than gold by the time the year was out. But they'd persevered.

They'd mastered campfire cooking, and filtering their drinking water. They'd learned where to apply pressure, where to twist and where to stab to take down the individual alien creatures. They'd thought they'd been doing well. But no living being still on Earth, no matter their heritage or powers, could stand up to the aliens' two-legged robot weapons – as little Mellie had found out first hand.

Buffy hadn't let herself cry through any of that. Not when her nails broke. Not when she found fleas in her hair and hadn't had a bath in four days. Not when they'd all shared out a handful each of dry Cheerios for dinner because they were out of food and hadn't found an unguarded store in days. Not when Danielle had crept back to them with a gunshot wound and a hysterical story about how Mellie had been taken by the aliens to be harnessed. She hadn't succumbed to the temptation to blame Kennedy for summoning her to deal with a few leftover issues from the grand Slayer Army days, ensuring she wasn't with Dawn and Xander when the capital-A Apocalypse finally came. She'd just gritted her teeth, pulled her Mom panties up, and got it done. Like Sunnydale all over again.

But this... she sniffed and wiped the back of a dirty, bruised hand across her cheeks, staring at Mellie's cooling body on the kitchen floor. They'd found her. They'd rescued her: they'd hunted like proper Slayers for the first time in weeks, charging in to carry off all the zombified children they could reach, including Mellie, before the aliens could stop them. There'd been mechs, but they'd lost them, running fast enough to make spots dance in Buffy's eyes from weariness. Then they'd broken into a house with a sharpening block full of knives and started cutting the parasites off the children.

Started – but stopped. Because if a Slayer couldn't survive it....

She didn't know where Andrew had taken the rest of the kids. Didn't care, either; if she couldn't save Mellie, what could she do for any of them? It was Chloe all over again, and worse: because this time, hers had been the hand wielding death.

Shoe soles squeaked as someone else came into the kitchen. Gradually, Buffy became aware of body heat at her back; a head of dark hair at her left shoulder, and an arm reaching around to apply pressure to her right hand.

Her fingers spasmed, and the knife finally fell to the floor.

"What do we do now?" Buffy asked, plaintively.

"We keep going," Kennedy replied, firmly and quietly. "We've come this far. We can't give up now. The others are still out there, and we've got five more girls to take care of."

"Okay," she said, sighing. "Okay."

Then she climbed to her feet and started looking for a shovel.

Voices Like Thunder

"Confront them with annihilation, and they will then survive; plunge them into a deadly situation, and they will then live. When people fall into danger, they are then able to strive for victory."
--Sun Tzu

The week after they found the Fifth Massachusetts Militia Regiment, Andrew Wells turned twenty-eight.

It wasn't the first birthday to pass among their little group since the world had ended. Buffy's had been only days after the Skitters landed, and Danielle's had been just a few weeks after that – they'd given her the last of their Twinkies for a cake. But it was the first chance they'd had to let down their guards all at once since they'd finally left Ohio, and more than that, the first time they'd felt like celebrating since the Skitters had taken Mellie.

It was amazing what a few solid meals and the chance to sleep through the night could do for a person. Buffy had almost forgotten what it felt like to not be exhausted, and Andrew, the only one of the Cleveland survivors not supernaturally gifted, had kept moving on sheer willpower alone. He was all skin and bones, with dark smudges like makeup gone wrong under his eyes, and spent more time writing his stories down than telling them aloud anymore. But he'd remained irrepressibly cheerful since the start, wielding optimism like a shield against the darkness around them. Buffy didn't think the other girls could have kept going without that.

She was determined to do something really special for him in return. She couldn't give the baby Slayers back their childhoods, wouldn't want to dull their reflexes even if she could... but she could let them bask in Andrew's reflected joy for one morning. For a guy whose crippling self-esteem issues had turned him into Evil's finger-puppet more than once back in Sunnydale, he was surprisingly resilient as an adult, still able to find wonder in the small things in a way that had long since withered in Buffy. She'd kept an eye out at every house they stopped at and every half-packed abandoned car they'd passed for weeks, hoping against hope that something would jump out at her. Not literally, though. She'd had enough of that from the Skitters.

She crept into the tent her team had commandeered just after the crack of dawn, smiling lopsidedly down at the puppy pile of teenagers wrapped around their vulnerable center. They'd done that with Danielle for a whole week after she'd dragged herself back bleeding from the ambush that took Mellie, and on the day they'd nearly lost Andrew because he couldn't climb out of Skitter range as quickly they could – well. They'd all claimed him as their Watcher, and decided he needed them to guard him in his sleep, and that was that. Buffy knew they were perfectly safe with him, whatever their new militia friends might think. He'd sooner try and molest Angel – if the vampire was even still alive – than he'd ever touch one of the girls under his care.

He was also just a little too well-trained these days for her to even consider dogpiling them all to wakefulness the way she wanted to. The goal here was celebration, not to wake him up swinging. She watched them a moment longer, then started softly singing Happy Birthday, growing louder and louder until Andrew twitched and flailed an arm like a school kid looking for an alarm clock.

"M 'wake, I'm awake," he murmured, then slit his eyes open. "...Buffy?" He blinked as he actually registered what she was singing, then struggled to sit up, an incredulous smile breaking over his face. "What? Oh, hey!"

"Hey," Buffy replied, smiling back. Then she waggled the object held in her hands, an awkward shape wrapped in carefully salvaged pieces of comic-printed newspaper. "Good morning, birthday boy."

The Slayers had all wakened the moment he'd moved; they sat up with him, all eyes on the present as Buffy held it out to him.

"Wow, Andy. Happy Birthday," Erin said, brightly.

"Happy Birthday!" the other four chorused with her.

"I wonder what she got you?" Danielle said, curling up with arms around her knees and head on Andrew's shoulder.

"You mean you don't know?" He raised his eyebrows at the youngest Slayer, then smiled up at Buffy as he took the gift. "You've been keeping secrets, Buffy."

"Yep," she smiled back at him. "Go on. Ken will be here with your breakfast in a minute, and I want to see you open it before you get all distracted."

"How'd you talk her into that?" he asked, looking impressed.

Buffy snorted. "Like I said, before you get distracted," she said, gesturing at the gift again.

He sighed, clutching it close, and gave her a winsome look. "Can't I just savor it for a minute before I wrap the paper off? Right now it has the potential to be anything. World peace, a working computer, my old demon flute from back in the day...." He sighed.

Buffy's smile saddened a little. "Nope, not any of that. It is something I think you'll like. But if you really want to just sit there and, you know, anticipate, I could take it back and give you an empty box to cuddle...."

"No, no! I'm good," he exclaimed, hunching over the gift as though to protect it. Then he chuckled, and ripped the paper off. He gasped, then looked up at her, lifting a still-sealed package of dry erase markers in one hand and a personal sized write-on wipe-off board in the other. "It's... Buffy!"

"I kind of miss your Big Board, you know," she laughed. "I thought you might, too."

He struggled to his feet then, and held his arms out, wrapping her up in a bony hug. "Thanks," he whispered in her ear. Then he whooped, and turned back to the others, enthusing about just what he'd use the new Little Big Board for.

Another set of warm arms wrapped around Buffy as she watched over them, smiling.

"One more day," Kennedy murmured to her.

"One more day," Buffy agreed.

However many they had left – as long as they were still alive, their charges would live.

Buffy had learned several new things about herself since the world had ended.

...Well, maybe not so much new, or learned, as stopped pretending they weren't true.

First: she wasn't really, deep down, so much with the wishing to be normal. She hadn't been normal since she was fifteen; she wouldn't know how to cope if she was no longer a Slayer. What she didn't want was to be The Slayer, the One Responsible Girl in All the World.

She'd thought she'd come to terms with that after Sunnydale, what with being Slayer General and all. But, see: vault thefts, Twilight, the end of magic. Slayer, Comma, The; the buck stops here.

Second: every romantic relationship since Angel had flourished mostly when her partner made her feel stronger. Selfish, but true. Each one crashed and burned after her vulnerable side was exposed. Her desires and fears were ultimately rooted in that feeling of empowerment... which had little to do with her partner's gender.

And now it was Kennedy shoring her up inside. Buffy doubted things would end any better with her than they had with Satsu, if she reached out. But there was no benefit in pretending that failure'd had anything to do with Satsu being female, now that survival was more important than labels.

The First Slayer had told Buffy that love was pain; that she forged strength from that pain; and that it led to her gift. And therefore the third thing: what she really excelled at, then as now.


Forget waitressing and counseling and trying to be three dimensional. Buffy was good, really good, at just one thing: the one thing that might save them. She was a killer.

And she was going to keep killing, so long any Skitters were left to pose a threat.

Buffy and her small team of Slayers slowed to a walk as they approached the resistance camp, careful not to leave any blatant tracks that might lead a Skitter to them. They'd been out foraging for two days with only a few sacks of canned food to show for it, but at least it was more than they'd picked up on their previous run. The Skitters in their area had started to get smarter over the last couple of weeks; they didn't split up any more, and they brought more and more mechs along every time they attacked.

Alien necks were easy for a Slayer to break. Two legged metal death machines? Not so much. And quick as her girls were, they weren't fast enough to outrun energy fire or bullets indefinitely. One of these days they'd walk into another ambush if they weren't careful, and the rest of the group would be easier pickings without them. Buffy'd lost too many people already; she wasn't about to let that happen.

"Summers!" their leader called, poking his head out of his tent to wave her over. "You're back! Good; Colonel Porter's got updated orders for us."

She handed her bag to Kennedy with a nod, then hurried forward into the tent, brushing dirty strands of blonde hair out of her eyes. She hadn't had a shower in far too long, and clean clothes in longer than that – unlike the lucky Second Mass, the Fifth didn't have any generators to heat water or run low tech equipment – but they were all so grimy these days, she didn't think the major or the colonel would mind.

Buffy had heard of the guy who'd taken charge of all the survivors he could find on the East Coast; who hadn't, these days? She hadn't started out in one of his groups – when she'd brought Andrew, Kennedy, and their handful of baby Slayers out of the wreckage of Cleveland they'd joined a group in Ohio for a while – but they'd been with the Fifth Massachusetts for a couple of months, ever since the Skitters had found that first camp and orphaned them all over again. Colonel Porter was like the Messiah to these people; when he told them to jump, they jumped, and she couldn't blame them. It had kept them alive so far.

"I saw you had some bags; how's the food situation?" the major greeted her as she entered.

"Enough to stretch things out a couple days longer," she shrugged. "The area's pretty picked over. But I saw a community garden another quarter mile out; it's half gone to weeds, but there should be some ripe fruit in a few more days."

"Good; good," he nodded, then turned and gestured to the sharp-eyed, grey haired man with the military bearing standing next to him. "Now, Summers – this is Colonel Porter; and Colonel, this is Summers, the leader of that group of scouts I was telling you about. I know she doesn't look it, but she's taken down a Skitter bare-handed and her aim's better than any two men in the rest of the unit, and the other girls are nearly as talented as she is."

The Colonel looked a little skeptical at that, but held a hand out nonetheless for a welcoming shake. "Ms. Summers, I'm pleased to meet you," he said.

"Likewise," she replied, gripping his fingers just tight enough to confirm Evan's praise, if he was paying attention.

He was; she saw his eyebrows raise a little, and he nodded thoughtfully. "If you're really all the major claims you are, I have an important task I'd like your group to take on," he said. "The Second Mass have a guest staying with them right now who's managed to figure out a way to take down mechs with one shot – but no matter how quick they work, they won't have enough of the new bullets to equip everyone for the assault planned a few days from now. We need people with dead-on aim who can take care of themselves when the Skitters eventually notice just who's doing the most damage and start targeting the shooters. Do you think you can handle that assignment?"

"Mech killers? And you want to let us use them?" Buffy perked up, feeling more alert than she had outside of a fight in days. "Definitely count us in."

Before the aliens had dropped out of the sky and torn up their world, Buffy would never have considered picking up a gun, but times had changed. Magic was no use against the aliens, not after what had happened under the ruins of Sunnydale a few years back, so that left only muscle and reflex to fight the invaders with – and whatever weapons they could get their hands on. She'd learned; all the surviving Slayers had, and found that their instinctive facility with weapons fortunately applied to guns as well as blades or bows.

"Glad to hear it," Porter replied, shaking her hand firmly. "I'll send you with a guide first thing in the morning. Don't let Weaver give you guff; I'll write him a letter to make sure you're provided with the new bullets. And in a few days, we'll strike."

"Sir, yes sir." Buffy shared a predatory smile with him, then took off to go tell her team the good news.

The universe, as ever, seemed determined to harsh on their parade, though. Only a few hours later, the eight of them stared over their shoulders at a hellstorm of mechfire behind them. Porter had been determined to get them out to make sure the attack on the structure succeeded, but hadn't been willing to abandon the camp himself while any civilians remained behind.

If Buffy hadn't been wounded in the initial exchange – if they'd salvaged more than one bike – but even after the death of magic, she didn't dare think the W word.

They'd get there, or they wouldn't.

But they wouldn't let Porter's sacrifice go to waste.

Buffy limped to a halt half a block from JFK Memorial High School, where she'd been told the Second Massachusetts Militia Regiment had made their home, and tried not to wilt too visibly in front of the others. They'd known they were going to be late; at least half a day too late to participate in the assault Porter had talked about, if the other regiment had even survived long enough to attempt it. Finding the entire school empty in front of them, though... it felt like a giant's fist squeezing her chest.

Andrew pulled up behind her on his bike, surrounded by the squad of junior Slayers. Kennedy brought up the rear, gazing around at the too-quiet fašade of their hoped for refuge.

"The Skitters found them," Andrew said, heavily, staring at the collapsed ruin of a metal monstrosity a few paces in front of the barricades set up around the school.

"I guess the mech killers worked," Buffy acknowledged, eyeing the holes punched through its shell. It was the first time she'd seen one damaged by anything less explosive than a grenade – but it had sure taken a lot of them to put it down, and she remembered Porter saying they were only going to have a limited number of those bullets. "They wouldn't have attacked with just the one, though."

"No... but wouldn't there be a lot more damage if the Skitters had broken through?" Kennedy asked, approaching the barricades to look over them to where the defenders must have crouched.

She'd hacked her thick, dark hair short a week after the power had died, unwilling to spend the time it would take to keep it neat, bound up, and tangle-free with only boiled stream water and bar soap to wash with. It made her jaw line look less square and stubborn, and gave Buffy a better view of her hopeful expression as she checked out the scene. "I don't think they died here," she added, optimistically.

Buffy considered that. "Okay. So one of the other runners must have got through, after all. If they knew it was coming and bugged out ahead of time...."

"Then we can still join them," Andrew said, letting out a whooshing breath of relief.

"But where would they have gone?" Zahra asked, exchanging a worried glance with Danielle. "The Major didn't have time to tell us where all the rendezvous points were before the Fifth was attacked, and Colonel Porter only gave us a map to here."

"Excuse me... did I hear one of you ladies mention Colonel Porter?" A weary voice spoke up out of nowhere, and Buffy half jumped out of her skin before she zeroed on where it was coming from. A beat-up old truck was parked a little way down the road, with what had looked like a body slumped over the wheel; she'd been kind of mentally blocking that out, like they'd all learned to do in the weeks right after the Skitters had first invaded to preserve their own sanity in the face of so much death. But it wasn't a body: it was a weary older guy with graying hair wearing a ball cap and a uniform, just lifting his head to look toward them.

"Who's asking?" Kennedy asked, stalking over from the barricades for a better look. She still projected a better stern face than Buffy did, though she usually let Buffy do the actual leading.

"Captain Weaver," he replied, straightening up as though waking up from a long nap – or a post-battle stupor. "Are you the reinforcements from the Fifth?"

"Some of them," Buffy said, approaching cautiously. "The camp was blitzed pretty hard just as we were leaving, and we had to go the long way around." She gestured at her bound, blood-stained leg. "The really long way around. Did the Fourth make it?"

He winced a little at her explanation. "I'm afraid not. And the Second lost most of its fighting men last night – including my second in command. While the seven – eight? – of you are welcome," he said, gesturing up the street at the rest of the Slayers, "I'm not sure it'll make much difference for any of us."

Buffy exchanged an alarmed glance with Kennedy. It sounded like they were right about the civvies getting out – but with most of their fighters gone, and probably their weapons and ammo with them, how long would the survivors last against the Skitters? Weaver seemed to have a pretty bleak view of the situation – and he'd been the guy on the ground. He would know.

Kennedy chewed her lip for a moment, staring at Buffy, then turned back to Weaver and lifted her chin. "Maybe not. But we kind of have a motto in our group. If nothing we do matters? Then all that matters is what we do." She held the pose for a moment, then shrugged, a little sheepishly. "Besides, we don't have anywhere else to go. Do you know where the rest of your people went?"

Weaver studied her a moment, then sighed. "No; but I have an idea. Tom would've sent them out the back way with the lady doctor, and I have a fair map of the area. How's your group at scouting?"

"Good enough to make it to Boston from Akron after the Skitters hit our group there," Buffy shrugged.

He raised his eyebrows a little at that, nodding thoughtfully, and some of the bleak heaviness cleared out of his expression. "All right, then. Maybe there's a little hope for us yet, after all."

The last thing left in Pandora's legendary jar. Had anybody ever thought to ask her what it had been doing in the same storage as a bunch of evils? After everything that had happened since she'd first picked up a stake in L.A., Buffy thought she had a pretty good idea.

She smiled wanly at Weaver anyway.

"Let's find out," she said, and gestured to the other girls to circle up.

Several shots rang out, one after another, splintering the center of a makeshift target set up downwind of the refugee camp.

Buffy had offered to show off her aim for the leader of the Second Mass mostly to back up the tattered letter of introduction Colonel Porter had sent with her. The militia had lost so many fighters in the aborted attack on the Skitter structure in Boston that every man, woman, and teen capable of holding a gun steady was being drafted for patrols, but after the way the remnant of the Seventh had reportedly betrayed them they were a little leery of new faces. Buffy had hoped that proving her creds to Captain Weaver would help her little group of reinforcements integrate more smoothly, and he must have pretty much guessed what she was up to because he'd invited half the camp to view the demo.

One of the kibitzers gave a low whistle as Buffy lowered her handgun, the guy who'd been introduced as the chef. Between the long hair, scruff, tattoos and attitude he stood out from the rest of the pack; Buffy missed Faith more sharply than she had in months as he grinned in admiration and gave her a slow clap of applause.

"That'll get her done, all right," he said, nodding to her. "Just how many Skitters have you killed?"

She raised an eyebrow at him. "Every one I laid eyes on between here and Cleveland," she replied, as she reloaded the weapon. "Mostly with bare hands, though, before we hooked up with the Fifth."

"A woman after my own heart!" he exclaimed, grin widening. "Are the rest of your girls that deadly?"

"I don't know, Kennedy, are you that deadly?" Buffy smirked, stepping away from the firing line as the other Slayer walked up to take her turn with the gun.

"You know it," Kennedy smirked back, casually falling into a firing stance and ripping off the new clip even faster than Buffy had. More chips of wood flew away from the center of the target... but nowhere else, as she proved her aim to be just as supernatural as Buffy's.

"Damn," the guy commented as Kennedy passed the gun back to Buffy. "Finally, some useful females around here."

"Yeah, good thing, since you're oh for two on that score, huh?" a blonde woman halfway across the crowd snarked back before Buffy could come up with a suitably barbed answer.

"Now, now, Maggie, petty jealousy doesn't become you," he sneered in return.

"That's enough out of you, Pope," the graying leader of the Second Mass spoke up, stepping forward to get a closer look at the target. "He's right, though," he added as he reached out to touch the damaged wood. "That is some damn fine shooting. What did you ladies do before the invasion? Cops? National Guard?"

"Sorry to disappoint," Buffy said, shrugging. "I was a school counselor for awhile, and a waitress; Ken was getting her degree in... what were you studying?"

"You know damn well what I was studying, you just thought it was useless," Kennedy rolled her eyes at her. "And maybe a public administration degree with a political focus is useless now, but at least I was getting a degree," she said, chin high.

"Well, however you got your experience, we'll be grateful for it," Weaver interjected, walking back to them as the crowd began to disperse. "Though, Ms. Summers, you might want to talk to Dr. Glass – she's the only real medical personnel we have right now, her and one girl who'd had her first year of pre-medical studies. I'm sure she could use whatever counseling experience you have between missions."

"You'll add us to your patrol schedule, then?" Kennedy asked, hopefully.

"At least the two of you," Weaver nodded. "If all goes smooth, we'll test the rest of your group in a few more days. In the meanwhile, you might want to discuss amongst yourselves whatever other skills you're willing to share, and tell Mason–" He winced. "I mean, Scott. He'll find a place for 'em."

"Will do," Buffy nodded. "Anything else I can help you with?"

"Not unless you know where we can find a half dozen mech skeletons to melt down into bullets," he sighed, scrubbing a hand over his face. "We need to take down that structure. There's no telling what Mason told them; we can't just sit here waiting for the Skitters to come after us again, armed with all those notions of his about resistance fighting."

"He wouldn't tell them anything willingly," a stern-faced woman with long dark hair put in, approaching with a tall, worried-looking teenage boy at her side. "You know that."

"They had Karen. And they were using her to threaten Ben. You think he'd hold anything back with that on the table?" Weaver shot back.

The teenager swallowed, paling with every word, but he was just as stubborn as the doctor. "I think my dad would hold out as long as he could. And it's not like they can harness him; he's way too old. It's only been two days; we might still have a chance to get him back."

"In your dreams," Pope put in, limping up to join the group. "Guy had balls, I have to admit, but they took him away in a ship. He could be anywhere by now."

"But why would they take him anywhere but that structure?" the kid pressed.

"We lost nearly fifty men assaulting that thing, you think you can take it down on your own?" Weaver snorted. "No, Hal. We train. We resupply. We wait until the moment is right, and we find another way."

"Or...." Buffy interrupted, holding up a finger as an idea occurred to her. Fifty men in trucks might not have been able to get close. But a small group of Slayers on foot armed with mech-piercing weaponry? It would be a way to more firmly establish their place with the Second Mass and kill a crapload of Skitters at the same time, even if they didn't get this Tom guy out.

"I bring you that half dozen mech carcasses, load me and Ken and Zahra and Stasia up with all the ammo we can carry, and we find out."

Weaver glanced over at the target, eyes wide in surprise, then back at her. "Are you crazy? Being a fine shot is one thing. Attacking that structure with just four of you...?"

"Best kind of crazy," Buffy shrugged at him. "We fail, you don't lose anything. But if we make it?"

The hope on the doctor's and the kid's faces was almost enough to choke her; the chef's feral grin another painful reminder of the friends she'd lost. What she wouldn't give for Faith right now, or Spike, or – or Giles. But hopefully Spike was with Xander and Dawn in that dirigible of his, safe and sound, and Faith with Angel in whatever stronghold was left of L.A. At least she had Kennedy and Andrew and the girls.

Weaver frowned. "Bring me that metal, and I'll consider it."

Buffy exchanged a glance with Kennedy, then thrust out a hand to shake. "Done."

The Slayer group took a few days to settle, establishing their place among the surviving members of the Second Mass and recuperating from their long, sleepless journey. It gave Buffy's Slayer healing time to work on her wounded knee, Andrew a safe space to sleep his way through the exhaustion induced by the trip and exacerbated by too little food beforehand, and the younger Slayers the opportunity to run their skills past Weaver's critical eye before they needed to put them into practice on the camp's behalf.

The mood in the Second Mass was stressed and panicky, with so many of their remaining soldiers injured and their second in command missing; Buffy didn't want to make things worse with hasty action. She knew they couldn't wait too long, though, or her self-assigned mission would become moot, one way or the other. Either there wouldn't be anyone left to rescue... or Mason's eldest son would break and go after his father before they did. Neither option was a good one.

Unfortunately, the brief spell of enforced downtime had brought something else to the surface that Buffy had spent months trying to suppress, that could cause even more distraction. She winced as she ducked into the small tent she shared with the other senior Slayer, a tiny thing with just enough room for two cots, a couple of duffel bags, and a narrow aisle down the middle – currently occupied by a meditating Slayer who was supposed to be out walking a patrol. She must have made a deal with Captain Weaver, or swapped duties with another campmate.

Kennedy opened her eyes at the sound of Buffy's entry, immediately uncrossing her legs and curling up so as to wrap her arms around her knees. She eyed Buffy carefully, checking for fresh damage from her still damp hair to the soles of her decrepit athletic shoes, then smiled wryly at her.

"So," she said. "Are we ever gonna talk about this?"

Buffy gulped, and glanced briefly over her shoulder back through the open tent flap. "Uh, talk about what?" she ventured.

Kennedy's smile slipped into a thin-lipped, unimpressed stare, and she raised her eyebrows. "You know about what."

Buffy grimaced, then sighed and reached for the zipper, sealing the tent again to keep the convo private. "Okay, so I can guess," she said, turning to sit on one of the cots. "I know I've been a little avoidy since – well, since the other night."

"Since you climbed into the wrong cot by accident when you were half-asleep and woke up warm for once," Kennedy replied, dryly. "It's not like I'm contagious, you know. Or is that the problem? Starting to worry that Satsu wasn't as much of a one-off as you like to pretend?"

Zing. But it wasn't like she hadn't known the subject had to come up sooner or later. Buffy knew she hadn't had the best reaction ever after deciding to put that Kiss of True Love thing to the test. But in her defense, the whole world falling in on them the next morning? So par for her love life course. It wasn't about Satsu being female. It was about Buffy being Buffy.

This last half year or so, she and Kennedy leaning heavily on each other just to get through each day and keep the others moving... okay, so she had started to see what Willow had seen in the bratty Slayer. She doubted they'd ever have grown so close if it hadn't been for the alien invasion and the separation from almost everyone else they'd ever cared about, but there it was. And the idea of changing that, of maybe losing that hard-won rock in an effort to grasp at roses like she always had before... yeah, Buffy was kind of terrified of going there.

"That's not the issue," she said quietly, trying to come up with a coherent way to explain it. "You know I defended you to Willow, right? I'm totally okay with the gay thing. Even pretty okay with kinda sorta straddling that line myself. And you know..." she broke off for a moment, swallowing a lump in her throat as she flashed on a kitchen floor, a knife in her hand, and a head on her shoulder.

"You know I couldn't have made it this far without you. The L word? The other one, I mean? It's relevant."

"Then what is the issue," Kennedy replied, frowning at her. Her expression had softened a little, but not much. "I want to understand, Buffy. But I'm not okay with reaching out and getting shoved back without an explanation."

Buffy bit her lip, staring down at her hands in her lap. They were so ugly, even after her sponge bath; grit and oil had worked their way into the creases of her knuckles, and her cuticles were totally ragged. Just like the rest of her.

"It's like this," she said, quietly. "You know the last time I had sex? I made a new universe, sucked all the magic out of ours, and got a lot of people killed. Too many. The time before that? Before I even had a chance to enjoy the afterglow? Half the Slayer Army stuck their noses in my bedroom, we had that sitch in Japan, and Renee died on Xander. And, for a hat trick, the time before that? I called up all of the Slayers, setting off the whole Twilight mess in the first place, and my not-really-boyfriend put on a magic necklace and burned himself up to save the world."

She stopped there, leaving Kennedy to connect the dots. Angel; Satsu; Spike. Even the one 'destiny' had supposedly set her up with had been fucked over by the universe trying to reproduce itself, and had done something she wasn't sure she could ever forgive him for, mind-controlled or not. Giles. How could she even think of touching her best friend's ex and current pillar of support with that kind of record behind her?

Kennedy snorted, and her response was more exasperated than understanding. "So, what. You think if we push the cots together and start 'conserving warmth' like everyone already thinks we are, things are somehow going to get worse? First off – this world does not revolve around you, past evidence to the contrary. Second – no mentioning Angel anywhere near a bed, okay? That was kind of a traumatic experience, and not just because of what happened afterward. And third – I really want to know how much worse you think things could possibly get. The world already ended."

"But you're still here," Buffy said, in a very small voice. "Go figure, but... I don't want to lose you."

Kennedy sighed, and her shoulders slumped a little, but she unwound at that, leaning forward to take Buffy's small, worn hands in her own. "And you won't. You seriously think I want to do this without you, either? There's been a lot of water under that bridge since the 'Dale. And besides, where would I go? It's not like I have a home anywhere else."

That was true; they'd headed for the East Coast after Akron in the first place because more of the minis had family out here, and they'd started with Kennedy's parents' place. They hadn't been there. Nor had most of their valuables: food and weapons and non-electronic power tools either wrecked or missing, windows shattered and locks broken. If they weren't dead, they were still long gone, with no way to track them. They'd stumbled across the Fifth Massachusetts Militia Regiment not long after that.

And now they were with the Second. Still working together, settled into a working partnership that fit like a worn glove – a little holey, maybe, but comfy and familiar all the same. "And... if we stumble over Willow one of these days, and she bursts into tears and says she still loves you, please take her back?"

Kennedy's eyebrows crept up. "You're one to talk. What if Spike drops down in his dirigible one of these days with Dawn and Xander? Not to mention...."

"No. Don't mention him," Buffy cut her off, abruptly. The criticism was totally deserved; but she didn't think Kennedy could possibly feel more repelled by either of her vampires at this point than she did. She remembered the way they made her feel just fine, and their shapes were still totally lust-worthy, but... baggage. Piled too deep to ever even attempt to unpack, anymore. And all other issues aside, a lot of the Romeo and Juliet appeal had soured since finding out they'd been set up. That all Slayers had, really – she was just the first one to ever cross that threshold.

"Never going there again. And I was resisting Spike just fine in San Francisco," she pointed out.

"Fair enough," Kennedy replied, expression finally warming. "So if I tell you I'm at least as over Willow as you are over your necrophiliac phase?"

Buffy wrinkled her nose. "I try not to think about them that way, you know. Undead, not dead, thank you."

"So not the point," Kennedy rolled her eyes.

"Yeah. So... okay," she said, tentatively. "If you. After we. I mean...."

"No," Kennedy replied firmly. "No, not after. I told you, I don't believe in your morning-after curse. We're going to rescue this Mason guy from the Skitters. Would it help more to go in all tense and irritable, or actually feeling good about our chances?"

Buffy couldn't help it; her apprehension broke at that, and she snickered. Maybe Kennedy was right. Time to take her self-important drama down a notch.

"Sold," she said. "But not because of the benefits of endorphins pep talk. Seriously? That was what you came up with?"

"What? It was worth a try," Kennedy smirked, then stared at her for a long moment, eyes tracing Buffy's face for the second time that evening. "No last minute straight girl panic?"

"No last minute, she's such a screw up, what was I thinking panic?" Buffy replied lightly, giving her partner the same scrutiny. Lean beauty, matured from her Sunnydale days. Warm eyes. Tough hands.

Strong heart.

Kennedy leaned in, and Buffy met her half-way.

It was a decent jog from the new camp to the old school, by Slayer speeds. Far enough the mechs would have trouble tracking them, but close enough that Buffy, Kennedy, and Zahra were able to head out before breakfast and return by noon with the better part of one and a half mech skeletons.

Buffy had promised Weaver half a dozen. And she'd get them – but probably not before their planned four-woman blitz attack on the Skitter structure. There just wasn't time to melt down that much metal in the little electric furnace, or enough spare gas to run the generator that long. They'd need to add cars with siphonable fuel still in their tanks to the list next time a patrol went out for food and other consumables.

The single mech the resistance had downed in front of the school, though? And the leftover pieces from the one they'd been melting down for the initial set of bullets? Those would make a good start.

"Hello the forge," Buffy called as she jogged back into camp, box full of scrap in her arms. "Where do you want all this?"

"Want all what?" the chef guy grunted, popping up out of the sheltered area they'd constructed to help muffle the generator noise.

His eyebrows rose as he took her in; if he'd been working with the mech metal for long, he undoubtedly knew how much it weighed. "Thought we'd left all that behind."

"You did," she said, dropping the box at his feet with a loud clank. Then she jerked her chin over her shoulder toward Kennedy and Zahra, the tallest and most muscled of the Slayer group, trotting in behind her with the whole carcass braced over their shoulders. "That, too."

"Ho-lee shit," he commented, grinning madly at the sight. "Tell me you didn't run that thing all this way without taking the truck."

"Couldn't afford to waste the gas, remember?" Buffy smirked at him. "Cheaper to just feed us a little extra. How fast do you think you can make us a couple of clips each? The sooner we bust your friend out, the better. We can work on collecting more dead mechs afterward."

Kennedy and Zahra slowed to a halt a few paces away, then carefully shifted the weight off their shoulders until they could drop the mech on the grass without flattening anyone's stray arm or foot. Pope limped out of his enclosure to run a hand over the bullet-pocked carapace, an almost lascivious gleam in his eye as he probed the metal wounds.

"First off, he isn't my friend," he said, dryly. "And second – mmm, not long. It took a couple of days to make the last batch, but that was with other demands on the power, and limited shifts working the molds. If y'all help, it'll go faster. You'll have to wait until the custom batch I've got going right now is done, though. Couple of hours. Your friend Andrew brought me some pretty neat stuff."

Zahra sucked in a breath at that. "He gave you that?" she said.

"Gave who what?" Kennedy frowned at the young woman standing next to her. "Is this about that heavy thing he keeps wrapped up at the bottom of his bag?"

"What thing?" Buffy blinked at both of them. Then she turned to frown at Pope.

"Whoa, hey. Don't look at me," he said, throwing up his hands. "Ask your friend. I'm just the guy baking the bullets." Then he ducked back down into the enclosure, whistling under his breath.

Zahra bit her lip, looking torn. "If it's what I think it is – he was saving it. He didn't want to tell you guys he had it, because – well, he thought you'd want to throw it away, or bury it, or something, and he thought it might still come in handy."

"Spit it out, Zahra," Kennedy frowned at her.

Buffy thought she had figured it out, though. Andrew had been badly injured during the final assault in the ruins of Sunnydale, and during his recovery he'd fixated on writing an accurate account of events. He'd been completely shocked when she mentioned breaking the Scythe in her efforts to destroy the Seed of Wonder, and horrified that she'd just left it there when they'd evacuated the caverns.

She'd told him she'd had other things on her mind at the time, and left it at that. He hadn't bothered her again, but she wouldn't be surprised to find she'd talked Spike or someone else into going back with him for it.

"It's the Scythe, isn't it," she said. "The blade was warped, and I broke the haft, but if he found it–"

"There was still some enchantment left in the metal," Zahra confirmed. "He thought bullets made out of it might be at least as deadly as the mech metal ones, at least against living targets. I guess he talked Pope into trying it while we were out."

Buffy wasn't sure how she felt about that. The Scythe had sung to her every time she'd used it; a weapon meant for wiping demons from the face of the Earth. Then again... Skitters were as close to demons as they were ever likely to encounter again, and maybe it was fitting, giving the broken symbol of the mass Slayer empowerment one last gasp of purpose in their efforts to beat back the dark.

"I guess it's worth a shot," she said. Then she smiled at Zahra. "Don't worry, I'm not upset. A little bemused that he never told me about it, but that's Andrew for you. I will want to talk to him about it later, though."

"I'll let him know." Zahra smiled back, then nodded to Kennedy and trudged off toward the chow lines, rubbing her shoulder a little where the heavy mech had pressed into the muscle.

"I bet you're sore, too," Buffy nodded at Kennedy's shoulder. "Need a massage?"

"Food first, then that sounds like a plan."

The first set of new bullets was surprisingly not all that much to look at. The Scythe had been a unique weapon, all dramatic curves and points, deadlier than any other edged weapon Buffy had ever wielded; but the ammo Andrew had asked Pope to make from its salvaged blade just looked... ordinary.

The feel of them, though. Buffy picked one up and closed her eyes, letting a slight smile tug at the corner of her mouth as she felt it singing. Not as much as the Scythe itself had when she'd held it, just a whiff of hungry enchantment, but definitely enough to pierce the tough skin of a Skitter. She closed her fingers around it, then sighed and opened her eyes again, nodding at Pope.

"These will definitely come in handy," she said.

He cracked a grin at her, practically preening at her remark. "Thought so. Don't know what that metal is, but I test fired a round; they penetrate all out of proportion to their size. Mags're there, if you want to load 'em up yourself; there won't be many, though, so you'll want to save 'em and alternate with mech-piercers during the actual assault."

"Good to know," Kennedy nodded, taking the bullet from Buffy's hand and studying it with a thoughtful frown. "It sucks that there's no way to make more of them, and we can't exactly get them back – but every little edge will help. We can't afford not to use them."

Technically, they couldn't afford not to use their full team, either, but Buffy and Kennedy had agreed that if the mission failed, they wanted at least the youngest three Slayers to still have a chance at some kind of life. Zahra and Stasia were both college-aged, but the others were still young enough to tempt the Skitters for harnessing. If worst came to worst, they'd agreed to go into hiding with the kids of the Second Mass; better to split their group than risk the Skitters finding out exactly what gave Buffy's girls their fearsome edge. Fortunately, they'd started to make connections among the miltia kids already, especially Danielle, who was just a little bit older than the middle Mason kid, Ben.

Pope called the three Mason sons the princes of the resistance, and he wasn't far wrong. For all he didn't seem to give a damn about anyone other than himself, Buffy had already noticed he was more honest than just about anyone else there. Kind of like the Big Bad version of Spike that way, and just as gleeful about killing anything nonhuman. The Mason kids didn't appreciate that about him as much as she did, though, so she didn't see much of them while she was helping with the ammunition. She just watched them at a distance, noting how the attention of the rest of the camp strayed constantly in their direction, and added mental notations to her dossiers of the Second Mass as they went.

One of the things she'd noticed was that while the civilians seemed to respect Hal and dote on Matt, they seemed alternately afraid of and worried for Ben. Buffy had heard three separate rumors before her first day in the camp was over about the length of time he'd been harnessed and how much the Skitters had done to him. She'd tasted copper in her dreams that night, thinking about Mellie and hearing Danielle's quiet sobs in the next tent. The second day, though, the youngest Slayer had marched right up to Ben and challenged him to some kind of complicated field game. He'd laughed as they collapsed to the grass afterward, a half-hysterical sound caught between relief and tears; she guessed he probably hadn't been able to play full-strength with anyone since he and Rick had been brought back changed.

Good for him. And good for Danielle. At that age, they were probably still capable of healing from their traumas. It would be up to the rest of the camp to give them that chance.

Not that Buffy was ready to throw in the towel just yet. The Second Massachusets might have had some good fighters, but they'd never seen a Slayer go to war.

By the end of the sixth day after Tom Mason's capture, each of Buffy's chosen team had as much ammo ready as they could easily carry, a couple of clips' worth of specials and the rest all shiny-tipped mech metal. Weaver watched them gear up, then gave them a cautious nod.

"I still think it's suicide to go in so soon, with just the four of you," he said, "Are you sure you want to do this? And that you don't want to take the car all the way?"

"No," Buffy shook her head. "As soon as they notice it, they'll shift forces into position. From what you've told me about your attack, and what happened to the other regiments, I think they put a couple of their own satellites in orbit. They might not be watching us all the time, but they definitely have eyes on their own bases, and I wouldn't be surprised if they're watching approach routes right now in case you try something else."

"So you're just going to run all through Boston?" Weaver frowned at them. "I know you ladies are fast, but if you're going to have a chance at all, you can't afford to attack already exhausted."

"Don't worry about us," Kennedy assured him. "Worry about yourselves – you might want to have everything packed up again and that radio cranked just in case something goes wrong. If worst comes to worst, we'll cause as much damage as we can before we go down, but we can't guarantee they won't track us back here."

"I'll talk to Uncle Scott," Dr. Glass said, approaching them with a small zippered bag in hand. "Here. It isn't exactly a full first aid kit, but there are some things in there you might need if – well, you might need." She swallowed visibly, her expression a mask of worry.

"Thank you," Buffy said, carefully taking it from her. "I hope we don't, but there's no such thing as being too prepared."

The doctor nodded. "And – I just wanted to say, thank you. For volunteering to do this. If I thought I could do any good–"

"You are doing good," Weaver interrupted gruffly, shooting her a sidewise look. "Right here. Which is where Tom would want you to stay."

Dr. Glass didn't disagree, but she looked deeply unhappy.

Buffy smelled romance brewing, and wondered, not for the first time, if Tom Mason would live up to everything she'd heard about him already. He seemed to have inspired a lot of respect among the militia for a history professor who hadn't earned his degrees via the GI Bill, and Dr. Glass practically had her heart in her eyes despite the brief length of time she'd known him.

He sounded like a Giles, actually.

Buffy swallowed back painful memory and shouldered her bag. All the more reason for them to rescue him. She didn't want anyone else to have to lose theirs, too.

They'd all lost more than enough already.

Hal and Maggie scouted ahead of the strike group as far as the high school in Acton.

They were all the soldiers Weaver could spare to tilt at windmills with Buffy's people; and two more than she even wanted, but that was the compromise they'd come to. It was a good twenty five miles from Acton back to downtown Boston where the structure loomed – a significant run, even for Slayers, whose strength and speed were geared more toward sprints than endurance. And the remnants of the Second Massachusetts were another ten miles past that now, camped in a pocket of conservation land. So they'd have had to travel slowly enough for bikes to keep up for at least that initial distance regardless. Made sense to take the car that far, and conserve energy.

Past that, though – the Skitters would have to know which direction they'd gone, and they had every reason to be watching the routes in to Boston for movement. Porter's intelligence had suggested the aliens' aerial sensors only detected groups of six hundred or more people and weaponry bigger than RPG launchers, but the recent attacks proved there was something else at work, too. So custom mufflers or no, the bikes were just too loud for Buffy to be comfortable with. Hal didn't want to listen to her, but Maggie had a little more sense, fortunately.

Hal would never be able to keep up with them. If he tried to follow anyway, they'd just be trading one Mason in captivity for another. And even if Dr. Glass knew how to take harnesses off without killing the kids they were attached to? Buffy doubted stealing a second group of the aliens' slaves would be anywhere near as easy as the first, especially if the Skitters were capable of recognizing who Hal was. Better to have him furious than loose in the streets, complicating their mission to rescue his father more than it was already.

"Believe me," Buffy told him. "I know how you feel. My sister – she was kidnapped when we were younger, held hostage by someone I knew wanted to make a production out of killing her, and I would have let the whole world burn to get her back."

"Did you?" he spat.

"Get her back? Yeah. No world-burnage, though the cost was higher than I would have asked anyone else to pay." Understatement; but the details hardly mattered now.

"Then you should understand how I feel," he said, hands tightening on the handlebars of his motorcycle.

"I do," she replied, as calmly as she could. She'd been sixteen once, too, and just as reckless about her own mortality – which was saying something, given that she'd already been the Slayer at that age, and his world had ended months ago. "But you have to understand this, too: this isn't the way to get your dad back. If it can be done, we'll do it. But we're stronger than you, and faster than you, and you would just hold us back. Do you understand me?"

He ground his jaw, but he must have picked up a little common sense over the last few months, because he nodded tersely. "Then we'll be waiting for you to bring him back. Don't screw it up," he said, sullenly.

"Or what?" Stasia snorted. "Kid, if we screw up? There'll be nothing you can do to us, 'cause we won't be coming back."

Maggie stepped up then, laying a firm hand on Hal's shoulder. "We know," she said. "Good luck. Dusk's falling – if you're going to have a chance at this, you'll need to go now."

Buffy nodded, then turned to the others, holding a hand out toward Kennedy. Kennedy clasped it in hers, then glanced at the other girls; Zahra and Stasia layered theirs on top, forming a cross.

"Let's do this," she said. Then they turned as one and headed toward downtown Boston at a ground-eating lope, the pale blue autumn sky fading to blackness above them.

It was true dark by the time they reached the place where the fighters of the Second Mass had fallen. The bodies were gone – Buffy really didn't want to think about what the Skitters did with the corpses, or why, but they'd done the same thing in every major population center the Slayer group had been through from Akron to Acton – along with their weapons, but their vehicles and other supplies were still there, wrecked and turned over and stained with relatively fresh blood.

They hadn't spotted any Skitter work crews to that point, though they'd had to crouch under a bridge once while a flock of flyers went over. Buffy figured most of the aliens had pulled in close, repairing the damage Mason had done to their base with the mech-metal RPG, but there was no way to be sure, so they'd kept to the shadows as much as possible. It seemed to be working, so they followed the same procedure, only more slowly, down side streets the rest of the way toward the structure.

Finally, they reached the stripped area around the base of the nearest support pillar, staring up at the towering construction. She still didn't see any Skitters – which made sense, if the aliens bedded down at night with the harnessed kids, like Hal said – but there were plenty of mechs patrolling, their humming powerplants and echoing steps providing constant background music.

"You know, we should have known the Skitters were only foot soldiers before this," Kennedy murmured, as her eyes tracked a mech crossing the cleared ground not thirty yards away from them.

"What do you mean?" Buffy frowned at her.

"Look at that thing," she pointed. "Two legs, like one of those – what are the Star Wars things Andrew always compares them to?"

"AT-STs," Zahra piped up. "Scout walkers, only smaller; no room for someone to drive them."

"Right," Kennedy rolled her eyes. "We design things that way because it's familiar to us," she continued, gesturing at her own legs.

"But Skitters have a lot more legs than that," Buffy whispered, as the light bulb lit up in her thoughts.

"I hope their commanders aren't even harder to kill than they are," Zahra winced.

"Well, one way or the other, we're about to find out," Buffy frowned, her stomach sinking as she watched the mech walk away. Anyway she looked at it, this was going to be a tough nut to crack. "I think I've spotted their pattern; but it's pretty tight. It looks like we won't be able to get past without taking down at least a couple of mechs. You've memorized where the power plants are, right?"

"Right," Stasia and Zahra echoed her.

"Okay. We don't have bullets to waste, so we'll have to take them down with just a couple of shots and move on before the rest can converge. Then through that opening, there – Kennedy and I will switch to Scythe bullets after that. You two stay with the mech rounds. Anything important will be up above the hangar levels, so we'll cut our way on up, and reassess when we get there."

"It's going to be rough," Kennedy frowned. "I don't like the odds. I thought the idea was that just four people could get in and out without having to go through their whole damn army."

"Maybe three people still could," Stasia said, speculatively.

"What? No," Buffy stared at her in alarm. She'd already discarded that option as too risky. "I'm not going to ask anyone to sacrifice themselves."

"Look, we all appreciate how protective you've been of us since what happened to Mellie," Stasia snorted, tucking loose wisps of reddish blonde hair back under her ballcap. Then she unslung her pack and started removing ammunition, filling the pockets of her rugged cargo pants. "But put a little faith in us, okay? We aren't new to the Slaying biz, either, and I don't plan on dying tonight. Here."

She handed the half-emptied pack to Kennedy, then drew her handgun, took the safety off, and checked to make sure a round was chambered. "I'm a lot faster than they are; I'll draw them off, and down as many as I can before I go to ground. I'll meet you back at the school afterward."

"Stasia–" Kennedy bit her lip, then shouldered the other girl's bag over hers. "Be careful, okay?"

"Teach your grandmother to suck eggs," Stasia snapped back. Then she exchanged a forearm grip with Zahra and leaned over to press her forehead against her friend's, their pale and olive-toned complexions almost indistinguishable amid the camouflaging dirt and shadows. "Luck."

"Luck," Zahra echoed her, hoarsely.

Buffy swallowed, then gave in. "Kick some metal ass."

Stasia replied with a flashing, crooked-toothed grin, then turned and took off, hugging the edge of the cleared space. She made it nearly a quarter of the way around the circle before 'accidentally' stumbling out into the open; then she shouted as if in surprise and panic and lifted her weapon, firing three shots in quick succession at the nearest mech.

The groans of power plants ratcheting up sounded all around them the two-legged death machine staggered, then collapsed. Targeting lasers powered up, streaking the rubble where Stasia stood with red lines and dots – but the Slayer was no longer there, stumbling back into the ruins. At least a third of the assembled mechs followed after, shaking the ground with their bounding steps.

The chase was on. And – their cue was up. Buffy exchanged solemn glances with Kennedy and Zahra, then took a deep breath and moved.

Buffy craned her neck upward, staring through the dimly lit tangle of steel beams crossing back and forth as far as she could see, and swore under her breath. "Shit."

She wasn't sure what she'd been expecting to find inside the leg of the Skitter structure, but it wasn't the endless steel spiderweb of open space they'd actually encountered. She'd thought it would be mostly solid, with a staircase or some kind of alien elevator to carry the ground-level workers upward, and even worried that whatever space lay beyond the access arch wouldn't allow them passage all the way to the top. She'd forgotten to account for the Skitters' six legs and amazing climbing abilities.

Kennedy scowled upward next to her, checking out the positions of the crossbeams nearest the asphalt level while she and Buffy switched their mech bullets for Scythe rounds. "We can still do this," she murmured, "but it's going to be a bitch bringing Mason out this way, even if he's a hundred percent."

"We might be able to steal one of their shuttle things," Zahra whispered.

Kennedy snorted. "Yeah, and did any of us ever have flying lessons? Horses, I can handle; planes, not so much. And that's before you get into the whole alien factor."

"It can't be that hard," Zahra murmured, but shrugged to concede the point.

"Well, we'll just have to cross that killing field when we come to it," Buffy said, then holstered her handgun again and leapt upward, landing in a crouch on the lowest of the horizontal beams. Kennedy and Zahra followed as she navigated around the angled beam intersecting hers and leapt for what looked to be the next stable point in their deconstructed staircase.

They were about thirty-five feet off the ground, far enough up the angled metal structure that 'down' was no longer centered over asphalt but rather part of the thick metal wall, when the humming moan of returning mechs echoed up through the narrow space; Buffy swallowed, and exchanged a glance with Kennedy. "I guess Stasia's gone to ground already," she said, worry sinking like a stone in her stomach.

Zahra cocked her head, then whistled lowly. "She must have taken down a bunch of them, though. Unless they're guarding her somewhere – it sounds like maybe only half of them came back."

Buffy opened her mouth again to reply – then froze as Kennedy hissed and waved them both to silence. "Shhh. Behind us," she breathed, quietly enough that a normal person wouldn't have heard her.

Buffy braced one hand against the beam under her crouching legs and turned her head – only to swallow convulsively as she saw what Kennedy had freaked over. A handful of yards away, tucked up against the slanting ceiling-slash-wall where the base of several crossbeams met, a slightly concave platform held a Skitter nest. Literally, a nest; something soft had been spread over the hard, rough surface of the curving metal, and on that cloth lay sprawled half a dozen curled up children, each one with the ugly growth of a harness sprouting from their spines. A Skitter sprawled atop the pile, eyes closed, its six rough, slimy green limbs stretched out so as to encompass all of the children in its sleeping grasp.

"Oh, my god," Zahra choked out, making a retching noise in the back of her throat.

Aware now what to look for, Buffy scanned up and down the sloped passageway, making note of other platforms tucked amid particularly dense tangles of metal. There were more down than up, which made sense; going by the example of the few kids the Second Mass had managed to save, the harnesses mostly just healed the kids of any curable defects or illnesses during the first few months and adapted them to the control of the Skitters. They wouldn't be able to actually climb like their masters – or fellow slaves, depending on just what Anne's discovery of the harness inside a dead Skitter really meant – until their bodies began growing new, alien tissue on their own. Like Rick. And Ben.

And at least – she couldn't even guess. Several dozen other kids, here inside just one leg of the tower. If they hadn't tried to get Mellie back – if she hadn't died – she might have ended up living like this, growing into one more arrow in their alien conquerors' quiver. Buffy hadn't let herself really think about it in the months since her whole world had narrowed to just eight souls – but how many other Slayers around the globe had fallen into Skitter claws like Mellie? How many slept like this nightly even now?

And that wasn't the only disturbing question the sight of the nests brought up. If Colonel Porter's plan to blow up the structure had succeeded, how many innocents would have died here? Somehow, she didn't think their reports of this mission would make Weaver feel any better about the dozens of Second Mass soldiers who'd died trying to get their hand-built ANFO charges into place. Damned if they did, and damned if they didn't. This wasn't a clear-cut case, like the vampires she'd hunted before the skies fell; the original child was still in there, under the hardwired mind control that made them into the aliens' puppets. But that didn't make them any less dangerous to face.

Her trigger finger itched, and for one sickly hateful moment she wanted nothing more than to drill a Scythe bullet right through the 'mama' Skitter's forehead; even if she couldn't free those particular kids, she could at least rid them of their controller. But if she did that, they'd lose all chance at completing their mission, and maybe bringing back not only Mason but some valuable intel on the Skitters' masters as well. She dragged her gaze away from the nest with an effort, swallowed past the lump in her throat, and jerked a thumb upward for Kennedy's benefit.

Kennedy nodded, eyes haunted, and turned to lead their upward climb, even more quietly than before.

She couldn't have said how long it took them to reach the top; the passageway narrowed further as they went, until there wasn't room for any more nests and the three Slayers had to hand-over-hand their way up through the dense metal maze rather than jumping. But it did go all the way up to the lowest hangar level, as she'd hoped; a barely Skitter-sized gap at the top opened out in the inmost wall of a scorched, damaged flyer bay, probably the one Mason had hit with his mech-metal grenade round. There was plenty of debris for the intruders to hide behind as they emerged, organized into piles, and the illumination level was very nearly as dim as the scattered night lighting below.

Three more clumps of Skitters and their charges, visible from where she stood, told her why: they were the specifically designated repair crews.

"Here we go," she whispered, gesturing them toward what looked like the doorway into the complex proper. Unlike the archways they'd entered through, this one was closed with an actual door, probably auto-triggered by the little box up at shoulder height rather than any kind of knob.

Time to find out if the skinny, storklegged controller beings bothered with electronic locks or scanners. She darted low around the wall until she reached the thing, then stood cautiously to wave a hand in front of the probable scanning mechanism. Kennedy and Zahra positioned themselves at angles where they could fire at anything on the other side without risking a direct shot themselves, tensing as the door opened – then lowered their weapons slightly, peering through into the equally dimly lit corridor beyond.

"I wonder if their planet has a diurnal cycle close to what ours has? Maybe they're all asleep," Zahra whispered.

"We should only be so lucky; you know we've fought Skitters at night before," Kennedy said, then darted through, sweeping her gun in an arc as she checked both directions down the passage and then around the corner at a T-junction just a few paces to their right. "None here, though; and I see what looks like an elevator a few yards down."

Buffy stepped through last of their group, and tried not to jump when the door swished shut abruptly behind her. "We'll probably see more movement on the other levels – this one's under construction."

"Right." They staggered their progress down the hall, covering each other as they moved, then made it to the elevator; fortunately, access to it was controlled much the same way the door had been. That was about where their luck ran out, though. It took them three long minutes of puzzling to figure out how to get the thing to move; the arrow for 'up' was easy enough, but they had no idea which of the other alien symbols indicated 'the floor with the prisoner cells on it' and which meant 'hangar level' or 'fire alarm' or something else equally problematic, and just tapping one of them didn't work; there was an activation button that also had to be hit in turn.

All of the controls were way above comfortable waist height for her, or even Kennedy; it was becoming increasingly obvious that the leadership caste were much, much taller than standard issue humans. And by the time they actually got it to move, they must have triggered something, because the moment the doors opened again they were faced with a mech and a quintet of Skitters, weapons at the ready.

Slayer reflexes saved Zahra as the mech's targeting lasers painted a trio of dots over her heart: she plugged it three times and was halfway through a dive to the floor before it even fired once. She grunted, but Buffy couldn't spare any attention to check on her as Zahra and the mech both collapsed; she was busy firing at the Skitters and executing a dive of her own. So was Kennedy.

The Scythe bullets proved their worth then. Buffy barely managed to tag the three nearest her with one bullet each, and not at all in locations that should have been vital, but each one of them immediately collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut, breath rattling in their throats.

"There'll be more where those came from," Kennedy said. "I think I see stairs. There weren't any on the hanger level – but I'm pretty sure we're above those now. We'll probably be better off using them than the elevator again, at least 'til we're on our way out; I memorized which button lit up first, so I know how to retrace our steps when we're done."

"Good," Buffy nodded. "Zahra, are you alright?"

"Fine," the girl grunted, prodding at her upper left arm with the fingers of her other hand. "Just grazed."

"Just one more question," Kennedy put in, then paused long enough to make sure Buffy turned to look her in the eye. "We can still abort without getting ourselves killed. Probably. But if we go past here... it could be the vineyard all over again."

"I know," Buffy said, licking her lips. "But we won't. And not just because of Mason; there's too much to learn here, and we won't get another chance at this."

"Just making sure you'd thought it out," Kennedy nodded. Then more mech footsteps began to echo down the corridor, and she grimaced, gesturing toward the door marked with the corrugated image of a staircase. Some things transitioned the culture barrier, apparently.

It took them three more levels – and another two dozen Skitters and four mechs, on the level they'd thought might be cells only to discover it was storage – to finally find what they were looking for. Buffy hissed at the sight of a tall, skeletally skinny grey-skinned being standing in front of an opening in the corridor wall, blocked off by a shimmering curtain of air; he had a teenage girl with him, probably the Karen that Weaver and Hal had mentioned, and she was saying something in calm, drugged, reasonable tones to the prisoner on the other side of that curtain. A dish of food in her hand testified to the purpose of her being there; Buffy was cheered to see it, because the fact that the Skitter masters were still trying to wheedle him meant that there was still enough of Mason left to offer resistance.

The alien had started to turn at the sound of the door sliding open, so Buffy plugged him without even checking to see what it intended do to them in turn – they couldn't afford to let him transmit their appearance to the Skitter teams hunting them. Then she lifted her gun to do the same for Karen – and hesitated, unable to fire the shot, images of Mellie and a teenage boy in love she barely knew reproaching her for her intentions.

Fortunately, Zahra was on the ball. She flew out of the doorway quicker than Karen could react to her companion's death and dropped the girl to the ground with a very precise chop of her hand. Of the younger Slayers, she was the one that had had the most formal martial arts training; Buffy breathed out a sigh of relief as she stooped to check Karen's pulse and give a nod of acknowledgement.

"Karen! Who's there? Did Weaver send you?" a hoarse male voice sounded from inside the cell; he'd probably been trying to avoid his water ration, too, though he'd have had to drink something by now to still be alive. Or else screaming. She hoped it wasn't due to screaming, but she wouldn't bet on it.

"Sort of," Zahra said, looking up from the fallen harnessee to smile at the prisoner. "We're from the Fifth Mass – what's left of it – and joined the Second a few days ago."

"The Fifth...? What...? Did Porter...?" The professor rasped, frantically, as he slowly approached the curtain from his side. Buffy could see him now, as she hurried up to join Zahra; he was a lot scruffier than in the picture Ben had showed them, with fever-bright eyes and cheeks hollowed by recent, persistent hunger, but he was alert, and didn't look badly wounded or under any other sort of control.

"We've got to hurry; do you know how they open these things?" she asked, ignoring his questions.

"There's – something to the left of the door," he told her, gesturing with a shaking hand. "When they take me out, it beeps several times; there's a code."

"Screw that," Kennedy said, frowning at the indicated panel as another chorus of humming mech power plants began to approach from somewhere else on the level. Then she punched the mechanism as hard as she could, before Buffy could protest. The curtain sputtered for a moment, then steadied – and she punched again, this time into the wall just beside the panel, which like the rest of the structure had been built from standard salvaged Earth materials rather than the stronger mech metal. The wall caved in, she yanked something that looked like a tangle of spaghetti out – and the curtain sputtered again, this time fading away into nothingness.

Not a moment too soon. Mason tried to shuffle toward her, a mixture of hope and despair in his features that made her heart hurt, but whether from hunger or hidden injury, he was moving at about the speed of a crawl; Buffy shook her head and leaned forward, bracing her shoulder against his stomach, then stood up again, heading full tilt for the stairs as he folded, draping over her shoulder.

Rescue achieved. Now they just had to get him the hell out. Through probably every last Skitter and commander critter currently zeroing in on them.

"Wait," Mason said, roughly. "What – you can't – Karen–"

Zahra snorted and bent, just within his line of sight, to shoulder the blonde girl, too.

"Tracker–" Mason objected again, and Buffy swore.

So now they had amateur surgery before them, too, before they could return to the Second Mass. And maybe ten Scythe bullets left apiece. The mission just got better and better.

Well; they'd faced worse odds before. They would survive this, too.

Kennedy darted to the stairway door, waving it open and taking a long look down inside.

"Shit," she said. "I see lights coming up from below, and–"

Gunfire stitched up the hall toward her position, and she threw herself flat to the floor, the wall spitting sparks above her head from bullet impacts.

"Kennedy!" Buffy gasped, then glanced helplessly down toward the other end of the level's main corridor; there weren't any Skitters visible in that direction yet, but there was a wavering in the quality of the illumination there that suggested approaching aliens with their own light sources, and she could hear the impacts of mech footsteps and the shrieks of angry Skitters. They'd been cornered.

"This way," Zahra gasped, staggering with her burden toward a narrow side corridor several paces beyond Mason's cell. It was still lit only by the dim glow of the overhead lighting, suggesting it might yet be a safe escape route.

Buffy hesitated a second, waiting to be sure Kennedy hadn't been hit and was scrambling after them, then bolted for the gap herself, Mason's bulky frame unbalancing her a little as she ran. She heard a thunk as she staggered a little making the turn, and winced; but he barely groaned. She hoped she hadn't just made things worse for him, but better a headache than leaving him in that cell.

Zahra slowed as they neared another door that looked like the elevator they'd found on the hangar level, but Kennedy didn't, bolting past Buffy and Zahra both to lead them further on. "They'll be coming up that way, too," she gasped by way of explanation, weapon at the ready as she ran.

"Then what–?" Buffy objected.

"Rope. In Stasia's pack," Kennedy panted. "And considering where we came up – we should be near an outer wall." She skidded around another corner that was barely even visible before she reached it, and kept running; Buffy heard three more gunshots before she and Zahra made the turn themselves, and saw three commander types' bodies twitching and bleeding on the ground.

Zahra awkwardly detoured around them. Buffy didn't bother, running right over them with a grim feeling of satisfaction. And beyond that–

"I guess they're not much for air conditioning or pretty views," Kennedy snorted, as she drew to a halt at the dead end beyond. Several doors opened off the corridor – maybe the offices for the jailor aliens? In which case, she was doubly glad Kennedy had run into those three in the hall. At the stubby end, a gap opened in the wall instead, about a yard tall. It was wide enough for Kennedy to stand in from the inside, but narrowed through the thick metal to only two handspans at most, dim starlight reflecting of off water visible below. A window slit, like the archer's embrasures in castles of old.

"I guess glass is harder to salvage than metal," Buffy said grimly. "And their weapons are better than ours; they could fire out of each floor this way if they had to."

"They really don't plan on going anywhere, do they?" Zahra mused. "Never mind. Kennedy, move. Take her; I've got the mech bullets, remember?"

Kennedy moved away from the gap, accepting Karen's limp, harnessed form over one shoulder, but kept her handgun ready as she backed away. Buffy moved to the side, too, lowering Mason to his feet to brace him next to her as he started to struggle in her grasp.

"Wait," he struggled to say, between panting breaths. "Wait – I shouldn't have said. We. We're going to have to leave Karen; they'll track her back to the Second Mass. I can't risk. And Ben. They said–"

Zahra ignored him: she started firing systematically into the sloping walls of the embrasure, punching right through the lower-quality metal they were constructed from in a dotted line. She reloaded twice during the process, shooting as fast as she could, then began kicking at the nearly severed chunk of wall, trying to knock it loose into the night outside.

"There are three more of us with Ben; don't worry about him," Buffy hissed in Mason's ear. "And we'll figure something for Karen. We have to get your tracker out anyway, you said. Worry about you."

He gave her a long, intense look at that, a searching intelligence in his gaze that belied his physically worn state and the stress he must be under. Finally, he nodded, just as the red glow of mech targeting lasers shot around the corner to illuminate the walls of their cul-de-sac. "There's a collaborator not far from here," he said. "She might have something – shit. Gun. Do you have–?"

"Just stay there," Buffy hissed, and darted out into the corridor, laying down covering fire as a pair of Skitters led the way.

She'd barely tagged those when a door opened unexpectedly to her left; there must have been more of the tall ones in there, waiting for the appropriate moment to step out. Duh; jail offices, they probably had security cams of some kind–

Before even her impressive reflexes could turn her to face them, though, some kind of energy bolt leapt from the nearest of them, and everything went blurred and heavy and ow

She had an impression of shouting, and more movement; the spang of bullets impacting with mech carapaces; someone else falling to their knees next to her outflung arm, followed by an explosively loud sound above her ear and a splash of warm wrong-smelling blood across her face; and finally a hand, waving in front of her slowly blinking eyes.

"–Ma'am? Ma'am? Are you–? Damn, I think they–"

It sounded like Mason, she thought. Huh. He hadn't stayed where she'd put him.

Then Kennedy was there – she'd never mistake that scent, even under the tang of sweat, slime and gunpowder – levering Buffy up off the floor again.

"Buffy," she tried to say, thickly, but couldn't quite get her tongue to cooperate. She wasn't anybody's ma'am.

"I've got you," Kennedy said, and started dragging her toward the outer wall. She could feel a breeze on her skin now; so Zahra had probably – oh. That tugging feeling – something being tied around her–

"Zahra's taking Karen down first," Kennedy barked after a moment. "You next; we'll bring up the rear. I'm sorry, professor, but you're going to have to climb on your own. And don't you dare let go; Hal's waiting for you. Do you hear me? Your kid and Maggie are waiting for you in Acton."

"I'll manage," he said, a quiet conviction in his voice. "Here's her gun; don't you die for me either."

"Way ahead of you there," Kennedy said grimly. And then there were scraping sounds of moment. Followed by more gunshots. Then a dizzy swinging, a clunk of her head against something hard, and – air. Moving air, with a creepy sensation of great height beneath them. Buffy shivered, gradually coming to full awareness as ruined Boston became visible over Kennedy's shoulder, and tightened her arms around her girlfriend as the feeling returned to her fingers in a wave of pins and needles.

"Flyers," she murmured, as soon as she was sure she could say it coherently. She didn't want to startle Kennedy while she was climbing for both of them, but if someone shot at them while they were swinging out over the rooftops of the damaged city–

"I know, I know," Kennedy hissed. "Zahra's down, she–"

Kennedy broke off, and Buffy winced, as staccato gunfire started up again from below. They were close enough to the rooftops now to see green-skinned creatures moving on them a block or two over from where the rope came down, like great nasty spiders with long-range stingers.

"I gave her Stasia's Scythe rounds, they were in the backpack too," Kennedy breathed. "If Mason – shit." Kennedy jerked, and Buffy cried out in pain as a bullet fired from somewhere below angled up to graze Kennedy's leg and pierce Buffy's thigh.

"Same. Damn. Leg," Buffy groaned; her knee was still a little sore from their last firefight with the Fifth Massachusetts.

"Shit. Can't – I think we're close enough – hold on. Mason, MOVE!"

Gravity took hold; darkness swirled around them, and then they fell, still tied together, impacting on an unyielding surface. Buffy gritted her teeth past the shooting pains from her leg and the newer bruises, thankful for her Slayer healing, and fumbled her knife out of its sheath; the way Kennedy was pinned, she wouldn't be able to do it. There hadn't been time for Pope to cast her a mech-metal kukri yet for Skitter hunting between bullet moldings, but her old one would do the job, for this.

She sawed through the ropes binding her to Kennedy, then stood and staggered free, nearly knocking Mason down as he limped over to aid them.

"That collaborator," she hissed, gripping his arm and clutching at her thigh with the other hand. "Near–?"

The gunfire nearby picked up briefly as Kennedy got up and dragged herself over to join Zahra; then fell off again as they finally took down the nearest group of snipers. They had to go before more boiled out of hiding, and maybe knowing the quarry was temporarily holed up with one of their own allies would give the fleeing group a smidge more space to figure out a way around the tracker and the harness. 'Cause they sure weren't performing even amateur surgery on anyone now, not with two fourths of the rescue party wounded themselves and another missing and the whine of flyers finally leaving the structure–

"Close enough," he said. "I know where, from here. But you're bleeding–"

"I'll take care of that," Kennedy said, storming back and digging into Stasia's backpack of bounty again. She pulled out three more items: an energy bar and a bottle of water, which she shoved at Mason, and then Dr. Glass' first aid kit. "Eat; we can't have you dropping on us if you're supposed to be the guide. Zahra? Get the girl and cover us. Buffy? This is going to hurt–"

She fumbled a bottle out, then poured some kind of cleansing fluid over Buffy's leg; the world erupted in sparks of white fire behind abruptly clenched eyelids. "Fuck," she hissed; or maybe Kennedy did; or maybe both of them at once.

Quick motions tied a length of bandage and absorbent pads in place. Then Kennedy packed the supplies away and pulled Buffy to her feet again, arm braced over her shoulder. "You good to go?"

They were halfway home. Which meant practically there, right? Buffy tried to reassure herself.

"'S'long as you're with me," Buffy breathed.

They moved, heading for the stairwell access and the first steps of their route out of the city.

By the time the three Slayers and their two charges made their way down to the street from their rooftop escape, the dim, steely light of predawn cast the buildings above them in sharp relief. Everything looked still and quiet, but Mason, some color back in his face after half an energy bar, kept glancing upward with a worried expression.

"The ships that went out – you said Hal and Maggie are back in Acton?" he rasped, hobbling along at Buffy's side with one arm around her shoulders.

She was leaning on him, too, the pair of them amounting to approximately one healthy person at the moment, while Kennedy walked point and Zahra brought up the rear with Karen still unconscious over her shoulder. "I told them to lay low nearby; and Stasia was supposed to join them after she led a bunch of the mechs away," Buffy replied. "The flyers shouldn't pick them up; their heat eyes aren't that percept-y. At least, they've never been before."

"I hope you're right," he said grimly, "but it seems equally plausible that they simply haven't cared enough to come after the smaller groups until now. Until we took the fight to them. Weaver only took fifty soldiers after the structure, and split them further after that, but they still caught almost all of us, one way or another."

"Yeah, well, we have a theory about that," Buffy said, quietly. "We can talk about that later, though, back at camp. How much further is this collaborator's house you were talking about?"

"Not – not far. Fifteen minutes, maybe, at this pace." He winced, pressing his free hand in a fist against his shoulder. Strips of dirty white bandage wound around the back of his hand, spotted with blood; he'd been wearing half gloves when they found him, but he'd torn his palms up despite them on the rope climb down from the structure. Buffy'd been too out of it from the overseers' stun shot to see what had happened, but she guessed he'd slid most of the way; he wasn't in any shape to have gone hand over hand at high speed the way Zahra and Kennedy had.

"That where they put the tracker?" She gestured with her chin at the place he was rubbing, a couple of inches below the collar bone. His shirt didn't look torn or bloody, but then, aliens capable of designing things like those harnesses probably had a pretty decent grasp of medical procedure.

"Yes – at least, I'm assuming that's what it is. They were presumably planning to let me go eventually to corral the last of the resistance without unnecessary expenditure of force." He made a sour face. "That's what they said when they took me; they didn't want to use force. I thought they meant with me, but apparently that's their general public policy. According to Karen, all of their violence has been in response to our aggression."

Kennedy jerked to a stop in front of them, rounding on him with a fierce expression. "Our aggression? They attacked first!"

"Right, because our first response was to attempt communication," he said, a deep frown creasing his haggard face. "With radio waves."

Zahra took a ragged breath behind them. "That's how they communicate amongst themselves. They don't talk; they transmit."

"Our initial messages must have been about as pleasant to them as it would be for me to stand next to the speakers at a death metal concert," he snorted.

Kennedy clenched her hands around her gun. "You are not going to stand there and try to convince me they're just misunderstood," she said, darkly. "I don't care if they thought we did attack first, that isn't something you bring along hoping to make allies," she said, pointing at the back of Karen's neck where she drooped over Zahra's shoulder. The ugly, swollen shape of the harness stuck up out of the collar of her shirt, mute testament of the alien's control over her.

"No, I'm not," Mason said, drawing himself up straighter as he stared calmly back. "I'm saying, they consider every violent act they've committed on this world to be measured retaliation for something humans have done. Overreaction, from our point of view, obviously, but... they stopped our sonic attack; they made it impossible for us to use it or any other high tech weapon against them again; and they expected us to concede the playing field. But we didn't. They don't know how to react to that, other than to keep killing us – and they'd really prefer to leave a viable breeding population."

The longer he spoke, the more he reminded Buffy of Giles; it was making her heart ache. Mason had the same force of earnest conviction in his speech that her Watcher had had, and the same knowledgeable way with words. "They just told you that?" she asked. "Why now? Why haven't they tried to talk to anyone before?"

He sighed, some of the starch going out of his spine as he met her eyes. "They wouldn't say. But I can guess. They knew from Karen how much I know about Earth's history of violence; they knew from Rick they would be able to use Ben as leverage; and they knew from their last wave of attacks that the Second Mass was the last human resistance within striking distance of their Boston base."

"Several birds with one stone," Zahra said, voice tight with stress. "Which, speaking of. Guys?" She dropped to a crouch behind an overturned car, glancing up at a wave of shapes cutting through the sky.

The rest of them followed, Buffy hissing with pain as the motion stressed her wounded leg. The flyers were returning. And if they could sense Mason or Karen....

Most of the flyers kept going, back in the direction of the structure, but two swept into a slow arc, turning back to skim closer to the jagged skyline.

"This could be a problem," Buffy said. "How close are we now, professor?"

He popped his head up over the car, scanning the street for landmarks, then gestured toward one particular cross road. "That way. Couple of blocks."

"Crunch time," Kennedy said, glancing between the incoming flyers and the indicated road. "You really think there's something there that can help us?"

"I really do," he nodded. "Something occurred to me while I was – between conversations, in there. It should work. I'm almost positive it will."

"Should? Almost?" Kennedy blinked at him, then shook her head, frowning. "You'd better be right."

"I am," he said. "Now let's go before they get close enough to shoot us!"

He struggled to his feet; Buffy went with him, bolstered by Kennedy's presence as the other Slayer dropped back to wrap an arm around her other side. Zahra grunted and lifted Karen again, and they were off; they reached the shelter of the side street just as the flyers got close enough to fire, but they couldn't turn quickly enough to follow immediately.

The next few minutes went by at a limping run, the streets still alarmingly quiet around them save for the shriek of engines overhead. Mason gestured as they finally reached the right door, then swore under his breath as they approached it – it hung slightly open, and a wide, bloody handprint stained it just above waist height.

"Looks like they've been here already," Kennedy said, wincing as she shoved it open with her boot and dragged the three of them into a precisely decorated, dust-free living room beyond. An upturned tea set, shattered and fragrant with nearly-dry liquid, gave testament to what had happened there.

"Shouldn't matter," Mason panted at them. "Kitchen. Grab any aluminum foil you can find. There should be some in a drawer – this was her house before the Skitters came, and they've been bringing her luxury items ever since they sent her back."

"Tin foil?" Zahra said incredulously, lowering Karen to the couch. "You have got to be kidding me."

"Don't knock it," Mason said, shrugging out from Buffy's arm and gesturing her toward a chair. "The people that used to wear it claiming it would block alien mind control? Weren't actually all that crazy. Well, they were," he grimaced, "but not because of their taste in hat fabric. Radio waves can be blocked or attenuated by anything that conducts electricity; which means, a sheet of aluminum can completely block them out, provided that you use enough of it."

Kennedy pushed her into the seat, then helped him toward the kitchen; as Buffy sank onto the welcome cushions and inspected her bandages, she heard them scraping drawers open and rummaging inside. She was still bleeding, but not too badly; and she had Stasia's pack. She zipped it open, rummaging for the med kit again, then tossed it toward Zahra.

"Give her something to keep her out," she said. "I think I saw pain meds in there earlier. We don't want her waking up partway there."

"Good idea," Mason called back. "Here – what's your name?"


"Really? Okay, Kennedy – wrap as much of this around her as you can. Not just the harness, her whole neck and torso, several layers' worth. As long as she doesn't tear it, it should work as a quick and dirty shield until we can get her to Anne."

"And what about you?" Kennedy replied, rushing back into Buffy's line of sight with a long, narrow, familiar looking box. "If we use it all up on her–? I told you, we're not leaving you behind."

"No, no, I've–" He hissed between his teeth, an alarming sound that brought Buffy struggling upright again to see what was going on.

"Wait, professor–" she said, aghast at the sight of him wrestling his shirt off, exposing a slightly raised, flushed area of skin on the front side of his left shoulder. The swelling was notably cleaner than the rest of his lean frame; he probably hadn't seen a bath in even longer than she had.

"There's no time!" he said, hand shaking slightly as he grabbed a kitchen knife from the counter. "It has to come out before it sinks roots like the harnesses do. And the Skitters will have us surrounded by the time you're done with Karen; we have to be completely untraceable from here."

Buffy looked away, swallowing hard, and distracted herself repacking the first aid kid while Kennedy and Zahra manipulated Karen to a sitting position, passing the tube of paper thin metal around her. She accidentally knocked something off the coffee table as she moved; some kind of journal, written in a looping feminine script, which fell open to a point three quarters of the way through its pages.

"Those nice young men aren't coming back, are they?" she read as she picked it up, then winced and stuffed it into Stasia's pack along with the med kit. It might contain useful intel; every little bit would help. And speaking of salvage; she glanced around, eyeing the knickknacks on the end tables and the mantelpiece.

Her perusal was interrupted as Mason swore, then dropped the knife in a clatter. "Got it–" he said, voice trailing off in a pained grunt. She glanced over just in time to see him take a few steps out of the kitchen, rag pressed against his shoulder, then sway to a stop, eyes rolling back in his head.

"Crap," she swore, then shouldered the pack and got back to her feet. Wounded or not, she couldn't afford to let her injury slow them. Time to kick it up a notch. "Ken, you're going to have to take him. Give me the guns. He's right, we've got to go, and there's no way I can manage him like this."

The humming moan and clanking steps of mechs echoed in through the open door, and Kennedy gave her a distressed look. Then she nodded and tossed both her weapons to Buffy, before ripping off an extra strip of foil to wrap the rag Mason had been clutching against his sluggishly bleeding shoulder. "If he catches an infection from this, remind him later it's his own damn fault," she hissed, then braced herself and lifted him from the floor, slinging him in an awkward fireman's carry.

They headed for the back entrance, slinking out into a still shadowed alley under the cover of a cloudy Boston dawn.

Twenty five miles to the rendezvous in Acton. They'd be lucky to get a tenth that far.

But they were still moving. And as long as that remained true, there was hope.

Buffy stirred out of a painful doze to the sound of a distant, muffled buzz; not the hum of mechs that had haunted the few minutes of sleep she'd managed to catch that day, but a distinctly mechanical, human sound that told her Hal and Maggie hadn't listened to her after all.

At the moment, she couldn't care less – as long as they weren't bringing another flood of Skitters behind them. The hobbled group of rescuers and rescued had made their slow way out of Boston mostly in the shadows of its remaining buildings, breaking line of sight with the flyers' preferred paths as much as they could and detouring at the slightest rasp of noise that didn't come from their own feet. They'd still been unavoidably ambushed once more during their escape; they only had a handful of Scythe bullets left between them after taking down the party of searching Skitters, and the mech rounds were almost gone, too. Eventually, though, their evasive tactics had paid off; they'd picked a bridge with enough space beneath it to nap in and enough cool concrete overhead to shield them from eyes in the sky, then curled up for a few hours to recharge.

That had probably been a mistake on her part. Her wounded leg had stiffened badly, inadequately pillowed against the chill autumn earth; she wasn't going to be any kind of asset if it were bandits rather than the scouts of the Second Mass approaching. But it had probably done Mason some good; she could see him stirring as she blinked her eyes open, the first time he'd been conscious since they'd left that woman Sonya Rankin's apartment in Boston.

He nodded solemnly at her as he got to his feet, one hand pressed against the shoulder he'd removed the tracking thing from, then back out a few feet to look up at the bridge. Kennedy was already standing there, gun in hand, and she gave him a long look before handing him another – a suspiciously familiar looking one, too. Buffy patted at her holster, then sighed, aggrieved, as she realized where it had come from. Not like she'd been using it. But still. She'd cried when Mr. Pointy met its demise; she'd missed the weight of the Scythe in her hands for weeks after its breaking; and her gun was equally hers, hand etched with fanciful symbols by Andrew in one of his artistic phases.

The sound grew closer, and closer – then sprouted another level of engine noise, the throaty sound of an aging, hard-used truck. Zahra perked up at that, darting out to stand next to the others, then started jumping up and down and waving her hands as their imminent visitors grew closer. "Stasia!"

Buffy closed her eyes and let out a heart-felt sigh of relief. Then she braced a hand on the sloping bank and pushed herself creakily to her feet. She'd been half convinced some lingering force of karma was going to even the score on them, punishing them for surviving against all odds by taking Stasia; but if she was here, that meant they'd all made it out. Somewhat the worse for wear, but they'd effectively carried out a raid on the mothership without losing anyone. That was more success than she'd had – than anyone human had had, that she was aware of – in all the long months since the alien apocalypse.

She felt a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth as she reached Kennedy, leaning her weight against the taller girl's shoulder as they waited for their rescue.

Stasia flew down the bank a moment later at full speed, practically tackling Zahra and exclaiming over the bullet graze on her arm. Hal was equally frantic to reach his father; they stood there with fists wrapped in the back of each other's shirts for a moment, reassuring each other they were alive, before Mason pulled back a little and gestured to the harnessed girl wrapped up in radio-wave blocking tinfoil.

"Karen? You got her, too?" he said, lit up as though his Christmas had come early, bringing out the sixteen-year-old she'd rarely seen inside the already experienced soldier. "What's with–? Is that because the harness–?"

"So your dad says," Buffy nodded at him, then at Maggie, looking down from the bridge above. "It's probably better if we don't stay out here any longer than we have to, though."

"No duh," Stasia said, breaking away from Zahra to give Buffy and Kennedy a once-over. "Shit, Buffy, after all that talk about not sacrificing anyone you sure look like you tried your damndest to go out in style."

"Yeah, well, you know me," Buffy smiled back at her wanly. "Haven't met a death that would stick yet; and if you think I'm ready to allow you guys out into the wild without me, you've got another think coming. Like, just for example: totally appreciative of the rescue, but you know I told you to hole up with Hal and Maggie, not come back for us."

Stasia scoffed at that. "Puh-leaze. Like I'd let Zahra bogart all the action."

"I don't think you have to worry about that," Kennedy said, nodding to the abused backpack resting atop their meager pile of gear beneath the sheltering cover of the bridge. "You saved our asses by leaving that with us. Way to be prepared, Slayer."

"Colin Powell said there are no secrets to success," Mason spoke up, brow wrinkled a little, probably at Kennedy's word choice. "It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure."

Hal snorted, still smiling widely as he bumped his dad's shoulder with a fist. "Now is not the time for one of your lectures, Dad. Save it for later, all right?"

Mason flinched at the pressure on his wound, but smiled back at his son. "All right. I do have a lot of questions, though – Buffy? Did I get the name right?"

"I'm surprised you understood that," Buffy grinned at him. "But, yeah. I'm Buffy Summers. And don't worry; we'll be staying with the Second Mass, so there'll be plenty of opportunity to talk."

"Good." He turned, finally, and started up the hill, half leaning on Hal; Maggie came down as soon as they'd cleared the top, skidding down to Karen's position to haul her up. She made a face at the crinkle of the aluminum, and shot a worried look up after Hal that Buffy was pretty sure she hadn't meant anyone else to see, but she shouldered the girl without complaint to carry her up to the truck.

Zahra went for the packs. And Buffy? She yelped as Kennedy picked her up in a stereotypical bridal carry, and couldn't stop herself from giggling as they went up the hill. Relief washed through her in a cool wave; she rested her head against Kennedy's shoulder, and just breathed as they made for the bed of the truck to settle in for the ride out past Acton back to the new camp.

It had been almost exactly twenty four hours since they'd set out when they rolled off the road into the secluded creekside area Dr. Glass had chosen for their camp, the stars just winking into view in the deep velvet of the sky as Maggie turned the engine off and Stasia and Hal coasted to a halt on their bikes. They'd taken the long way 'round to hopefully throw anyone following them off, though they'd probably still have to move camp in a day or two to be sure; but in that moment, the last of the light lingering on Kennedy's profile as Buffy rested against her shoulder, she felt more at home than she had anywhere in months, not even with the Fifth Massachusetts.

What seemed like half the camp came to greet them: Weaver steel-jawed with the tiniest glint of wetness in his eyes, gruffly requesting a debrief after they'd got some sleep; Pope whistling with admiration over the state of their injuries and the depletion of their ammo; Mason's younger two sons rushing up to wrap themselves around him in a way that reminded her of how the younger Slayers treated Andrew; Dr. Glass following more solemnly behind them with open tears on her face–

Oh, there was definitely romance brewing there. Buffy smiled and wolf-whistled with the rest as the doctor wrapped her hands around the professor's face, then leaned up to taste his lips in a kiss that looked like it would have gone on forever if he hadn't twitched when she dropped her arms to wind them around him. Then came the scolding, which soon grew into an invitation for all of them to join her in the clinic tent. Whatever the hour, the doc was a lot more rested than they were.

Buffy wasn't going to argue with that. She limped at the back of the group, arm still around Kennedy's waist, pausing only to accept fervent, careful hugs from Andrew, Danielle, Erin, Persey, and Mason's littlest, the impatient Matthew.

"Thank you for saving my dad," he said.

"He helped save us too, you know," she told him, gently ruffling his mop-top of hair. "Your dad's a big damn hero."

He giggled a little at the tame swear, then let go, running off to join his brothers. Ben smiled back at her as Matt joined him; she nodded to him, then smiled to herself in satisfaction.

"Today was a good day," she murmured to Kennedy. So much for her curse. Despite all the pain and hardship, the uncertainty, the death she'd dealt, the things they'd learned about the Skitters and their masters' superiority complex – they'd done a lot of good, and for the first time in awhile it looked like there might be a lot more after that. The Second Mass were good people.

So had the Fifth been, of course, and their group in Ohio. But they'd struck back today. They hadn't lost anyone doing it. And some tiny part of her that had been unanchored ever since Giles' death was already latching onto Mason.

This time around would be the charm. She was suddenly sure of it.



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