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Slayers and Trollhunters (Buffy/Tales of Arcadia Crossover) (Complete)

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Chapter 1: The Hammer of the Troll Gods

Starfox5

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Disclaimer: I do not own Buffy the Vampire Slayer or any of the characters in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer franchise. I do not own Tales of Arcadia or any of the characters in the Tales of Arcadia franchise.

Summary: Jim Lake has already enough on his page dealing with Gumnar and Angor Rot, and now he is told to recover the Hammer of the Troll Gods in a town named Sunnydale?

Author's Note: This story is set in an Alternate Universe, where the events of Buffy's fifth season happen at the same time as the Trollhunters' second season in 2017, roughly 16 years later than canon Buffy.

Cover:
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Chapter 1: The Hammer of the Troll Gods

Trollmarket, January 11th, 2017

"Dodge, Jimbo!"

Jim Lake Jr. didn't hesitate and dropped to the floor, then rolled to the side at Toby's yell. A tennis ball barely missed him - and vanished in a portal.

Jim rolled to his feet and launched himself into a roll forward. The same ball missed him again, coming from another portal. That meant…

He rolled over his shoulder, then raised his sword - and caught the ball on the edge of the blade when it appeared in front of him. "Hah!" he exclaimed as the remains fell to the ground.

Claire, standing in the centre of the room, frowned. "You're supposed to dodge, not strike the ball."

That was true, of course. But constantly dodging got old. And he didn't look good dodging, either. "I did dodge," Jim replied, taking a few deep breaths. They had been going at it for a while. "It's time to switch again."

"What?" Toby looked up from where he was sitting on the ground next to his new hammer. "Already?"

"You need training as well, Tobes," Jim told him. And he could use a break.

"Alright." Toby stood, grabbed his hammer, and flames appeared around the hammer's head. "Let me show you how to hit a home run!"

"Toby!" Claire protested. "We're training dodging. We don't have unlimited tennis balls! I only have…" She turned and blinked.

AAARRRGGHH!!! smiled at her before swallowing the last of the balls she had brought. "Tasty."

"I guess dodging practice is over?" Toby didn't sound unhappy about it.

"Practice is over, I'm afraid. Something important came up."

That was Blinky! Jim turned and saw him standing at the entrance to the training hall, looking serious. "Did Angor Rot strike again?" He gasped. "Did Strickler do something to Mom?" If the changeling had, Jim would…

"Not quite. Please follow me; I shall explain everything as soon as we're in a more suitable location," Blinky said.

*****​

"I need to recover a troll hammer?" Standing in Blinky's library, Jim Lake Jr. couldn't keep the surprise out of his voice. There were dozens of hammers made for trolls in the Trollhunter's armoury.

Blinky frowned slightly as he drew up to his quite impressive height and crossed two of his four arms over his chest. "The Hammer of the Troll Gods is no mere 'troll hammer', Master Jim. It is a powerful enchanted weapon that dates back to the earliest records of trollkind. Why, some scholars claim that it possesses divine power! Not that has ever been proven, and the sources cited for it are either mythical or questionable - Salacious the Solequent remains the most dependable of those, and he is known to greatly exaggerate in his 'Histories of Trollkind' - but it most certainly isn't a mere enchanted hammer, such as Tobias wields." Blinky nodded at Toby.

"This is a kick-ass magic hammer!" Toby protested.

Jim suppressed a wince. As did Blinky. Jim could tell. Toby had been so proud of getting the hammer - Jim wasn't aware of all the details, but he knew that there had been quite the tension for a while, after Claire had taken Angor Rot's Shadow Staff, until his two friends had worked things out. Mostly worked things out.

"Of course it is - and a very powerful weapon in its own right. Versatile, too," Blinky quickly said. "I was merely comparing its history to the quasi-mythical Hammer of the Troll Gods."

"Ah." Toby nodded, still a little stiffly, but he seemed to be OK.

"I wasn't aware that the trolls had a pantheon," Claire cut in.

Now that Claire mentioned it… Jim couldn't remember hearing anything about troll religions. Or churches or temples. And as the Trollhunter, he surely would've been told about such things, right?

"Well, it's a complicated matter, actually," Blinky said.

Jim silently sighed. When Blinky talked like that, and not with his usual enthusiasm, odds were, whatever he had to say was bad news. Of course, enthusiasm often meant the same.

"Yes?" Claire, as usual, wasn't about to leave her curiosity unsatisfied.

"Whether or not trollkind ever had a pantheon remains a question often hotly debated by scholars," Blinky explained. "Today, and for several centuries, at the least - close to about three millennia, conservatively estimated - trollkind hasn't had a pantheon. As you undoubtedly noticed, trolls aren't particularly religious. Which has been both a boon and a problem when interacting with more religious humans, actually. The lack of a pantheon of our own certainly helped with keeping relations civil when interacting with humans - back in the time when trolls weren't living apart - but the unwillingness to convert to human faith tended to provoke frustration and even aggression." He looked at Jim with a smile.

"Uh, yeah, of course." Jim smiled and nodded several times. He wouldn't have fooled Señor Uhl, but Blinky beamed in return, and Jim felt a surge of guilt for deceiving Blinky. The troll had done so much for him...

"But you may have had a pantheon in the past, then," Claire pressed the point.

"Indeed, Fair Claire!" Blinky boomed. "Or, to be more precise, certain troll communities - or tribes, back in those days - might have revered their own gods. Although that might also have been a mere translation error - trolls do tend to hold powerful people in great esteem, as you might have noticed. Gatto, for example, figures in many expletives, although mostly by those who do not expect to ever meet him, since a slip of the tongue could put your life at risk when uttered in his vicinity."

"Well, anything could put your life at risk near Gatto, I'd say," Jim commented. Toby nodded emphatically in agreement.

"Quite, correct, unfortunately." Blinky coughed into one of his fists. "But, anyway" - he raised his index finger - "while the hammer's divinity is a matter of scholarly disagreement, a Scandinavian community of trolls held the Hammer in very high regard. It was a ceremonial weapon, the centre of many traditions in their village. You can imagine how much they were affected when it was stolen by a blackguard named Olaf a thousand years ago."

"Wait, wait, wait!" Jim stood. "It was stolen a thousand years ago?" He cocked his head. "And I'm supposed to find it now? Didn't any of the Trollhunters before me get this job?"

"An excellent question, Master Jim! With a very good answer, of course: The Hammer of the Troll Gods disappeared with Olaf when the latter ran afoul of a human witch and was banished into a hell."

"A hell?" Toby asked.

"Yes. It's not quite clear in which hell he ended up in - unfortunately, the witch, a Viking maiden named Aud, disappeared shortly after the deed, and the other humans in her village didn't know any specifics about her curse."

"I have to go to hell?" Jim blurted out.

"We have to go to hell?" Toby added.

"Not quite! No, no - despite some of the more colourful comments by the more xenophobic trolls you may have overheard, no one would be as mad as to send the Trollhunter to hell!" Blinky shook his head. "No, you have been called to return the Hammer of the Troll Gods since it appeared a few days ago here in California, actually."

"Oh." Jim wasn't sure if he should be relieved that he didn't have to go to hell or annoyed that he was still stuck with this task. But he was the Trollhunter, sworn to help trolls, so he better got on with this. "And do you know approximately where the hammer appeared? California is quite large, as you might know."

"Yes." Blinky's smile vanished. "It appeared in Sunnydale."

"Sunnydale?" Jim had never heard of that place. "Where's that?"

"It's at the coast," Claire told him. "Near Santa Barbara."

"How do you know that?" Toby asked.

"My parents are looking into colleges, and Sunnydale has a campus of the University of California," Claire said. She frowned a little. "They didn't say so, but they hinted that a small town might be safer than Los Angeles."

"Ah." Jim nodded. That made sense - of course the Nuñez would want their daughter to be safe once she went to college. She would be a good - no, a great - college student, too, he knew it. Then he blinked. But that would mean that she'd leave Arcadia Oaks? And Jim wouldn't be able to follow her.

Blinky cleared his throat. "Well, I fear that in this case, your parents might be mistaken. In fact, they would be clearly mistaken."

Jim looked at him.

"It's not?" Toby asked after swallowing a snack bar.

"It's the location of a nexus of sorts that's aligned with particularly negative magic," Blinky replied.

"A nexus?"

"Well, the exact nomenclature depends on which scholar you quote," Blinky replied. "It had many names amongst different magical traditions. Nexus is a neutral term, albeit it's slightly misleading if not as grandiose as its more common name."

Jim tilted his head and waited.

Toby didn't. "And what is its more common name?"

"Boca del Infierno," Blinky replied.

Jim was learning Spanish. That meant…

"Hellmouth?" Claire blurted out. "Sunnydale has a Hellmouth?"

Oh.

Toby gasped, then asked: "What is a Hellmouth?"

"Again, the definitions vary according to which lore you consider correct, but, essentially, it's a path or gateway to a hell," Blinky said.

Jim felt his stomach sink. "We have to enter hell?" As if the Darklands weren't bad enough.

"Not quite, master Jim - all Hellmouths were sealed long, long ago by the combined efforts of the strongest wizards of their age."

Jim sighed with relief. That was good news, for once. If he had to… he blinked. "There are more of those things?" he blurted out.

"Yes, but, as I pointed out, they were sealed long ago." Blinky smiled.

"So, no trip to hell! Whew!" Toby wiped imaginary sweat from his brow.

"Quite. The worst you'll have to contend with are the demons attracted to the dark energy the Hellmouth is leaking," Blinky said.

"Demons?" Jim hadn't meant to raise his voice that far. "What kind of demons?"

"Oh, mostly vampires, a number of the more common demons as well… the odd dark wizard trafficking with such creatures…" Blinky nodded.

"Vampires are real?" Toby shook his head. "We'll have to fight Dracula?"

Jim was about to tell him that Dracula wasn't real when Blinky shook his head. "No, Tobias, Dracula hasn't left his ancestral lands last I heard. Although since trolls traditionally kill all demons near our communities, my information might not be as up to date as we wish. However, while there is a possibility that Dracula might've travelled again, it's very unlikely."

Dracula was real. Vampires were real. Demons were real. Jim snorted against his will. "So, we only have to deal with vampires. No sweat!"

"Indeed." Blinky smiled at him. "Although the Fair Claire will have to be careful when using magic - very careful. Magic used near a Hellmouth tends to get, well… tainted is a fitting if not completely exact term."

"You mean Claire could turn evil?" Toby gasped again.

Claire glared at him. Jim did as well. Claire, evil? That was impossible. She was the strongest girl he knew!

"Not if the right precautions are taken. Which, mostly, can be summed up as not using magic," Blinky said.

"My armour's magic," Jim pointed out.

"So's my hammer!" Toby added.

"And my staff."

"Ah, those should be safe to use - in fact, a Trollhunter has fought on a Hellmouth in the past," Blinky said. "But magic that goes beyond using enchanted items is a little… tricky. And dangerous. Mainly dangerous, actually - casting spells is significantly more easy on a Hellmouth, which makes the tainting effect of its energies so insidiously dangerous."

"So, no spellcasting, got it," Toby said. "Is there anything else we need to know?"

Blinky cleared his throat again. Jim felt his stomach sink even deeper. "Yes. There is one more thing. One very important thing, to be exact. The Slayer."

'The Slayer'? Jim looked at Claire, then at Toby. They didn't seem to know anything about this 'Slayer, either.

"The Slayer?" Claire asked, cocking her head in that cute manner of hers that made Jim smile and sigh when he wasn't discussing lethal dangers.

"Also known as the Vampire Slayer. A creature in the form of a human woman or girl who has been fighting demons - mainly vampires, hence the name - for millennia. Unkillable - if you manage to kill her, she will simply possess another body of the right gender and age and return. Supernaturally strong, fast and skilled, she has been the scourge of demons wherever she went."

"And she's in Sunnydale," Jim said, in the driest voice he managed.

"Exactly. She's been there for a few years, actually. Which, now that I think of it, seems to indicate that this particular Hellmouth might be a little more troublesome than I presumed."

"But she's hunting demons and vampires, right?" Claire cut in. "That means she's an ally, right?"

Blinky winced. "Well, to be fair, in the past, there have been several misunderstandings with the Slayer. She doesn't seem to be willing to differentiate peaceful trolls and man-eating trolls."

"Or Trollhunters," Jim said.

"Well, I have hope that you being a human Trollhunter will stay her hand. At least temporarily. Although it would be best if you never crossed paths with her and merely recovered the Hammer of the Troll Gods."

"Yeah, fat chance of that," Jim muttered.

"And how can we find the hammer?" Claire asked.

Blinky sighed. "That might be a bit of a challenge. Whoever took it will be hiding such a powerful and famous weapon lest others try to wrest it from them before they can use its power for their own. Fortunately, I managed to acquire something that should help you with this task."

*****​

The Magic Box, Sunnydale, January 11th, 2017

"There!" Buffy Summers smiled as she took a step back and looked at the result of her work - her shiny new hammer, now put on display in the Magic Box. "Perfect!"

She ignored Anya looking pointedly at the hole in the other wall. Who could've known that the hammer would be too heavy for the plaster to support it? Besides, next to the damage Olaf the Troll had caused in the shop before Buffy had taken him out, this hardly counted!

"It looks nice," Willow said.

Buffy glanced at her bestie. "Really?" That had sounded a little… restrained.

Willow bit her lower lip for a moment. "Well… the concrete support looks a little odd, and staring all day at the weapon that almost crushed my friends and me into red paste will be a little weird - and would possibly cause some trauma if being nearly crushed wasn't a regular occurrence for any of us…"

"Speak for yourself; I don't get almost killed on a regular schedule!" Anya interrupted her. "I'm a respectable businesswoman now."

Buffy clenched her teeth. Just a little. This was still Giles's shop. Her Watcher's shop. And her training location. With her weapons. Hers, especially with Giles on his way to England to find out what the Council knew about that demon skank.

But she forced herself to smile. Giles had picked Anya to help him run the shop, after all. And Slayers weren't good sales clerks, anyway, as she had found out one unfortunate afternoon when Giles had had to leave to deal with his car trouble, and Anya had been unavailable due to Xander, leaving Buffy in charge.

Still, Anya better didn't get any ideas!

Willow frowned at the other woman - perhaps they hadn't fully settled their differences? - and went on: "Yes, Anya. I was merely pointing out that while I totally understand the urge to display a trophy won in battle - it's a rather atavistic thing to do, but at least a hammer isn't some poor animal's preserved body, though it's actually just its skin, the rest is all fake - it looks a little… out of place. And I'm not saying that because of the concrete blocks supporting it, which do clash a little with the rest of the shop's furniture, or because of the hole in the wall behind us, which we do need to fix before Giles returns from England, and which usually Xander would do, but he can't right now, what with his arm injured by that demon whose hammer this is."

Well, Willow was back to normal - she was babbling a mile a minute.

"Don't remind me! My Xander hasn't been able to give me orgasms as usual. Well, we did find positions that he can do even with his injuries, but he's still unable to use one hand - and he's good with his hands." Anya complained.

Buffy once more clenched her teeth. She wasn't jealous. Xander and Anya were a great couple - proof that you could find happiness even when fighting demons for years - but she really didn't need the reminder that Riley had left her for some stupid army thing in some stupid jungle or desert. And only because he hadn't been able to handle that she was the Slayer and not some bimbo in need of being protected by the big tough soldier.

"Well, it's also a warning for any demon trying to cause trouble here," she said, flashing her teeth. Letting demons into her place felt wrong, no matter how much Giles might need their money, but this way, they would know that this was the Slayer's shop. Sort of.

"Wait. Are you saying that this isn't for sale?" Anya asked.

Buffy blinked. "Of course not! This is my trophy!" She had taken it herself! After getting hit by it. It was hers.

"But think of the money we could make selling it! Besides, without me, you wouldn't have gotten it!" Anya protested.

"What?" Buffy stared at her. "I beat Olaf. You and Willow just banished him back to whatever dimension he was sealed in after I knocked him out!"

"If I hadn't banished him in the first place, he wouldn't have been able to be summoned when Willow messed up her spell," Anya retorted.

"Hey!" Willow protested. "I would've been fine if you hadn't distracted me!"

"See? I should get a cut of the sale!"

"We're not selling my hammer!" Buffy told them, baring her teeth.

Anya shrank back, and even Willow looked a little intimidated.

Satisfied, Buffy nodded and turned to look at her trophy again. The concrete blocks did look a little, well… 'brut', Mom would probably say.

"Word to the wise? Never try to take a Slayer's weapon," she heard Willow whisper to Anya behind her back. "They get possessive."

Buffy scoffed. She didn't get possessive. But what was hers was hers. And she'd won this weapon fair and square.

"So…" Willow said after a moment, "do you know any handyman?"

Right. They still needed to fix the hole. And, maybe, dress up the stand for the hammer a little.

After all, trophies needed to be displayed in their best light or something. Maybe she should ask Mom about this.

Or not. Mom would tell Dawn, and Dawn would needle her with hammer jokes. Break your sister's favourite toy once, and they never let you forget it. And she hadn't even been the Slayer at the time!

Wait. That hadn't happened, anyway - those were fake memories, she reminded herself. Those monks had been good at messing with everyone's head. But even if she hadn't broken Dawn's pony, Dawn was still her sister. Key or not. And she'd slay anyone trying to hurt her. Especially skanky blonde demons with the worst attitude since that French Queen or something.

*****​

Trollmarket, January 11th, 2017

"So, we need to travel to Sunnydale and recover the Hammer of the Troll Gods," James Lake Jr. said.

"And find it first," Toby cut in. "Don't forget that." He held up the 'Divine Compass'. The lunchbox-sized metal contraption made of brass clockwork and crystals was not quite as heavy as it looked, fortunately.

"That's a two-hour drive," Claire said. "One way. We'll have to find an excuse for our parents to make the trip on Saturday."

Jim nodded. There was no way they could go during the week - Señor Uhl would crucify them. Well, not literally, of course. And nothing summed up his situation at school better than the fact that he had to add that qualifier to such thoughts now, with Strickler being the principal. Who was magically bound to Jim's mom so he couldn't shove his sword through the evil changeling's chest since that would kill them both.

He clenched his teeth at the thought.

"We could tell the school we're sick and go to Sunnydale while your parents and Nana think we're at school!" Toby suggested.

"Really." Claire narrowed her eyes at Jim's friend. "And somehow intercept the calls they'll make to check with our parents?"

Toby frowned, but his head. "It was just a suggestion."

Claire pressed her lips together - Jim was sure she wanted to call it stupid. But she didn't.

"While time is of the essence - no one can even attempt to divine what the current holders of the Hammer of the Troll Gods might attempt to achieve with its power, especially on a Hellmouth - I do agree that faking illness and trying to deceive both the school and your families wouldn't be a promising course of action."

"Yeah. Strickler would investigate at once. He'd visit me," Jim said, grimacing. The evil changeling visited far too often already. How could Mom like that creep?

"But even over the weekend, we need a good excuse," Toby said. "We can't go to Sunnydale and search for the hammer and be back in time for lunch and dinner."

"We can use the Gyre!" Jim said. It took them in no time across the world - hopping over to Sunnydale would be easy!

Then he saw Blinky wince. "Ah, Master Jim, your suggested course of action would run into a few difficulties, I fear. Mainly that there is no Gyre station in Sunnydale. The closest location the Gyre could make a stop is actually here." He smiled.

"Great." Jim sighed. "So we'll have to take the bus?" If he tried to drive there with his vespa… well, Claire could sit behind him, but there was no room for Toby, and the drive would take longer, too.

"I fear public transportation might be the best choice unless you know a trustworthy person with a car," Blinky said.

"Yeah, right, I think we can drop that idea," Jim said. "But even taking the bus won't give us a lot of time - and we still need an excuse for our parents."

"What about a camping trip? We say we're going camping over the weekend!" Toby smiled.

Ah… camping with Claire. A single tent, a nice lake, a fire to sit around, arms wrapped around… Jim smiled at the thought.

"My parents wouldn't let me go camping without a chaperone," Claire said.

Right. Claire's parents hated him, Jim reminded himself.

"And they didn't let us into the boy scouts," Toby said.

"They did let us into the boy scouts," Jim reminded him. "We left after the snickers incident."

"Which we don't talk about!" Toby quickly said when Claire looked interested.

"I guess we have to use the old double-blind trick," Jim said. "Or triple-blind trick, in this case."

"Oh?" Blinky leaned forward. "I haven't heard about this ploy; I don't think so."

"Oh, right!" Toby smiled.

Claire, though, was frowning and crossing her arms, so Jim hastily explained: "I tell Mom I'm staying with Toby. He tells Nana he's staying with me. We're free to go wherever."

"And I tell them I'm with you?" Claire asked.

Jim blushed a little, then remembered Mr Nuñez's likely reaction. "Uh… we could have a study session or something?"

"They'll still check up on us," Claire said.

That was unfortunately true. Although… "In-person, or by calling?" Jim asked. "Because remember how I faked a call - a video call - to school when I was shrunk?"

"Oh, yes!" Toby smiled. "We fake them out - claim we're somewhere else while we reroute calls. Although where would we be?"

"At your place, Tobes," Jim told him. "Your nana is great, but she's the easiest to fool into thinking we're in your room while we aren't." Toby's Gran hadn't even noticed AAARRRGGHH!!! when the troll was visiting, after all. He turned to Claire. "Can you use the staff to portal us back and forth if we need to?"

Claire looked unsure for a moment, then glanced at her shadow staff. "I haven't made a portal that far… It should work, in theory, but…"

"You're still learning to master a very powerful magical artefact," Blinky said. "A very dangerous artefact as well, given its origin. I would caution against planning to depend on it for a mere deception. Especially on a Hellmouth. I think we can make do with our current resources - I have just the thing for this." He perked up.

But, Jim couldn't help thinking, given their usual luck, they probably would have to depend on Claire's new staff.

*****​

Arcadia Oaks, January 12th, 2017

"That's a camera," James Lake Jr., sitting on Toby's bed next to Claire, said, looking at the rather bulky and old-fashioned camera Blinky was holding up. Very old-fashioned - the thing looked decades old.

"Indeed, Master Jim - it's one of the most advanced human tools in Trollmarket. Why, I had to barter quite a bit to acquire it - a collection of gourmet socks from a noted traveller - and yet I believe that, if not for Vendel vouching for us, Bagdwella still wouldn't have parted with it, despite her well-known weakness for French socks. Using this, we will be able to hide your absence from your parents."

Jim narrowed his eyes a little. "I thought the point was that we needed to make our parents believe that we're still in Arcadia Oaks when travelling to Sunnydale. Not to provide photographic evidence that we left."

"Oh, but the point isn't to use it on the weekend, but beforehand!" Blinky beamed at him.

"You want us to take pictures of Arcadia Oaks?" Claire asked.

"Pictures of anything that catches your fancy!" Blinky confirmed. "With the exception of Trolls and Trollmarket, of course."

Jim still didn't get the plan. "Do you want us to photoshop us into those pictures? Because if you do, that won't work with old cameras."

"Yes, photoshop needs digital pictures," Toby joined in, fidgeting on his chair. "But we could use that to send pictures to our parents."

"That's not the plan, is it?" Claire shook her head.

"Very perceptive, Fair Claire!" Blinky nodded. "No, as you undoubtedly are aware, cameras - of the traditional type used in Trollmarket; the digital variant proved to be a little too flimsy for our uses - require the pictures to be developed in darkness. Quite fitting for trolls, actually, though the flashbulbs took a while to get used to; using them to scare others that they were facing daylight was quite the rage a few decades ago. Oh, you should've seen Vendel's face when… but I digress." He coughed into his fist. "No, I believe that should you spend today and tomorrow - after school, of course, albeit recess would serve as well, though it might alert Strickler - taking pictures with this camera, you would have the perfect alibi to spend the weekend developing them in the darkness of this room." He gestured around it. "Since daylight would ruin the pictures - a disturbing yet familiar parallel to trolls, I have to say - we could safely keep Tobias's grandmother from entering."

That sounded like it might work, Jim thought. Might. "And what about food?" he asked. Toby's nana generally fed them on the hour.

"We would have to take food with us when starting the development, of course."

"That still leaves lunch and dinner," Toby said. "Nana's quite firm on me eating well."

AAARRRGGHH!!! nodded. "Good food."

"Yes, yes, we're aware. However, I believe we can, ah, convince your grandmother to make an exception this weekend," Blinky said. "Especially if you are available to talk through your phone over a speaker."

"Well, Tobe's nana is of a similar age as the camera," Jim commented. No one laughed.

Blinky even nodded at him with an encouraging smile. "Quite so, Master Jim! And, although this is in no way or shape something to be ashamed of, I assure you, Tobias, her eyesight isn't the best."

Jim had the sudden thought of Blinky trying to pass as Toby - or even Claire.

"If our ruse should fail, we can still attempt to use a life-like - more or less - decoy and have you talk through it while we move it. Life-like."

"I doubt that that would fool Nana," Toby said.

"Oh, but it would as long as we can keep her from taking a closer look at it. As with many special effects, or so I've been told by trusted sources, it's all about the lighting." Blinky beamed again.

Jim had a bad feeling about this. But it was the best plan they had come up with so far. He didn't like lying to Mom, but Strickler had fooled her. And Jim couldn't tell her the truth. Certainly not with Strickler there to influence her.

And taking pictures with an old-fashioned camera sounded like fun - they could drive around, Claire sitting behind on his vespa, and enjoy the sights without having to deal with delivering troll parcels or rooting out gnome infestations… "So, I guess we'll have to make people believe we just discovered our love for old-fashioned photography."

"We might even start a trend," Claire said. "Could you imagine Mary with an old-fashioned camera?"

"She'd break her arm trying to take a selfie," Toby added with a chuckle as he hefted the camera. "This thing is heavy."

"Sturdiness is a good trait if you want trolls to handle it," Blinky reminded him.

"Not fragile," AAARRRGGHH!!! added.

"But, with this settled, there's another thing we will need to discuss," Blinky went on.

"Yes?" Jim leaned forward.

"Demons."

"Demons?" Jim repeated.

"Demons." Blinky nodded. "As you undoubtedly are aware, demons are defined by their lack of souls."

Jom looked at Claire and Toby. They looked as surprised as he did. "Uh…" He raised his hand. "We actually weren't aware of that."

Blinky turned his head. "You weren't?"

"No." Jim shook his head. "I mean… we didn't know demons were real until you told us about the Hellmouth."

Blinky looked surprised. "Oh. It seems matters have greatly changed since the days of Deya the Deliverer. Her chronicles clearly state that all humans were aware of demons - although they mistakenly claimed that trolls were demons as well, which, as you know, is patently false, seeing as we demonstratively have souls."

"You mean the ghostly things in the forge?" Toby asked.

"Yes, Tobias, although I would counsel you not to call the souls of the Trollhunters of the past 'ghostly things'. They may take offence, and while souls are very limited in the ways of how they may affect those still dwelling on the mortal coils, they aren't quite completely unable to express their displeasure with those they feel insult them or their honour. The often warped tales of ghosts taking vengeance are commonly based upon such events."

"But didn't you just say not to call them…?" Toby sounded confused.

"I said that those tales were warped, didn't i?" Blinky interrupted Toby. "Suffice to say that one should tread lightly among the souls of the dead."

"So… Angor Rot is said to destroy the souls of those he kills, isn't he?" Claire added.

Right. Jim clenched his teeth and tried not to grimace. Angor Rot. The legendary troll assassin feared by every, well troll. And by one Trollhunter.

"So it is said. But we digress." Blinky nodded at the. "Back to the subject at hand: Demons. Demons are creatures originally from other dimensions who came to earth - or were banished to earth in some cases. Or who still live in other dimensions but visit earth through various means. They are soulless and often evil."

"Soulless?" Claire asked.

"Indeed. The absence of a soul is the defining criteria when judging whether or not a creature is a demon." Blinky nodded

"And how do we test for that?" Toby leaned forward, both hands gripping the edge of his chair.

Blinky smiled at him. "By relying on knowledge and expertise, of course!" two of his hands pulled thick tomes from his bag and put them on the table. "These works contain information on dozens, hundreds of demon species so you can identify them on sight!"

Toby stared at the books as if they were evil themselves. Claire, of course, looked interested - even eager. But Jim was concerned about something else. "You said that demons were often evil?" That sounded, well… like mistakes waiting to happen.

"Yes. While the vast majority of demons live to spread pain and misery - and to feast upon humans, incidentally - not all demons share those particular traits."

"So we can't just smash anyone who looks like a demon?" Toby summed up the problem.

"Well…" Blinky tilted his head to the side and back. "...usually, those demons who wish you ill give their intentions away by attacking you. Though they might also flee if they consider themselves outmatched."

"So… we can't tell?" Jim sighed.

"No without surety, though most troll scholars advise striking if in doubt about a demon's intention."

Troll scholars, Jim thought, not for the first time, are a rather bloodthirsty lot. "Well, we only need to recover the troll hammer," he said,

"The Hammer of the Troll Gods, Master Jim."

"Right. Can't forget the divinity." Jim smiled weakly.

"Precisely!" Blinky either missed the cues or ignored them, as he beamed at Jim with all his eyes. "While the existence of such gods is, as I explained before, a matter of debate, it would behove us to be cautious about it."

"Watch out for angry ghosts - souls," Toby said, "and angry troll gods. Got it."

"Very good, Tobias."

"No problem."

"So, what kind of demons are we likely to encounter?" Jim asked. Claire was still looking at the books, and he had no doubt she could study them until the weekend, but he knew neither Toby nor himself would manage.

"Well, according to my information - which, as I found out today, might be a little out of date, I have to caution you, so take this with a grain of ground limestone - the most common demon species found on earth are vampires."

"Well, those will be easy to spot," Toby said. "Sunlight fries them!"

"Quite." Both Blinky and AAARRRGGHH!!! looked rather uncomfortable at Toby's comment. "Though this might prove to be a little difficult to arrange, should you engage them at night."

"We won't," Jim said. "We'll need to be back home by nightfall. My mom's suspicious enough already."

"In and out before anyone notices or suspects," Toby added.

"My parents would kill me otherwise," Claire said.

"Ah, in any case, vampires may be faster and stronger than humans - although only rarely, in the case of older specimens, coming close to a troll's strength and toughness - they have significant weaknesses. Sunlight burns them. As does fire - set one alight, and they will burn to ashes within seconds. Also, do not breathe in the ashes; as tasty as they might appear, they are harmful to human lungs."

Tasty? Jim didn't want to know.

"A wooden stake to the heart will also destroy one, as will beheading them. Holy water will burn them like acid. And holy symbols will repel them."

Well, that was practical advice. Jim nodded. "So, we could use a holy symbol to see if someone was a vampire?"

"Indeed!"

"Unless they recoil from the preaching weirdo," Toby said. "What would you do if someone stuck a cross into your face?"

So much for that idea. Jim sighed. "So, vampires. Other demons we'll have to read up. Quite a lot to deal with. And we can't forget about the Slayer." Even though Jim would like to.

"Nor about the witches and halfbreeds, of course," Blinky said, smiling.

Jim blinked. "Witches and halfbreeds?"

*****​

Sunnydale, January 13th, 2017

Buffy Summers was busy whacking training dummies - sturdy wooden ones - in her training room in the back of the Magic Box when she heard the distinct sound of a, well, Xander insisted that it wasn't a car. But she knew what it meant.

She gave the training dummy another kick, then rushed to the backdoor and pulled it open before the dummy stopped rocking back and forth.

"Giles!"

Giles was back! There he was, standing a few feet from the door. She beamed at him but managed to refrain from hugging him. That wouldn't have gone over well - her Watcher was fragile. Compared to her, at least. But he wasn't getting any younger, either. And he was British and not much of a hugger.

"Where's your luggage?" she asked. Shouldn't he have a suitcase?

He coughed. "I left it in the car. I just stopped here on the way home."

She kept smiling even if she wanted to wince. Duh! She should've thought of that. "I could've picked you up at the airport."

"My car was waiting for me," he replied with that dry smile of his.

"And what about car thieves? Someone could break into your car and steal your stuff. I mean, it's not much of a car, and no self-respecting car-thief would be caught dead trying to bust it, but still! Sunnydalers aren't exactly known for having common sense."

"If my perfectly adequate car is seen as a 'junker' by the larcenous-inclined population of the town, then I think it should be safe, shouldn't it?" Giles smiled, a little toothy, and muttered something about 'petrol-guzzling yank cars' under his breath.

She pouted. "You have an answer for everything, do you?"

He tilted his head in return. "I try. That's part of my duties, after all." He frowned. "Well, it was part of my duties. As my former colleagues reminded me this week."

She scowled. "The stuffy old goats being stuffy? Colour me surprised!"

"Buffy!" He coughed again. "Although I cannot dispute that Council is very old-fashioned and quite set in their ways - probably too set in their ways."

"I know," Buffy told him.

"Indeed, you do."

"But come in!" she told him. Then she winced - this was his shop, after all. Inviting him into his own building… can you say faux-pas? I knew you could!

She coughed and held the door open. And tried not to look at his smile when he walked inside.

"So, what's the what?" she asked as soon as she closed the door. "What does the Council know about that skanky demon?"

The way Giles deflated with a sigh wasn't of the good. Not at all. In fact, it usually meant bad news was coming.

"They didn't know anything about her, did they?" She had known it! Nothing good ever came from the Council. Well, apart from Giles.

He took a deep breath, glancing around for a moment, before looking at her. "The Council has information about this demon. However, they are unwilling to share this with us unless certain conditions are met."

Buffy caught herself growling through clenched teeth. A skanky demon was after Dawn, and the Council had 'conditions'? "What do they want?" she spat out.

Giles looked grim. "They are sending a delegation to, ah, review your work as a Slayer. If they are satisfied, we will receive the information we seek. Or so they say."

Buffy stared at him, then kicked out with her left leg and smashed the target dummy next to her to splinters.

*****​
 
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Chapter 2: Sunnydale
Chapter 2: Sunnydale

Sunnydale, January 13th, 2017

The Council was coming to Sunnydale? To her town? To review her work?

Buffy Summers would stomp them into the ground for their presumption! She'd kept the town safe for more than four years! The Hellmouth, too! She'd stopped apocalypses! She'd killed vampires that had been around for hundreds of years!

"And those arrogant, stupid, old men think they can set conditions for revealing the information we need?" she spat.

"That is what they said and - apparently - believe," Giles said.

She scoffed. "Well, they're wrong! They haven't done anything in years, and now they think they can dictate terms to me? Judge me?" Buffy hissed the last words.

"To be fair, the Council has been covering other Hellmouths, although those aren't nearly as dangerous as the active one here. Still, they did this without a Slayer," Giles pointed out. "So, I don't think you can honestly call them inactive."

"I can certainly call them inactive!" Buffy protested. "'They're inactive! They're useless!'" She nodded. "See? Works like a charm!" She beamed at him.

Giles didn't look impressed. Obviously, she needed to work on her delivery. Or something. With a sigh she hunched over. "Alright, they might not have done nothing at all. But they haven't done anything for me - for us. Why should we do what they say? We've done fine ever since they fired you!"

"For a certain definition of 'fine', I would say," Giles replied. "Although I do agree that we've beaten every challenge that presented itself without any support from the Council. Sometimes we did it despite their 'help'."

"You mean Wussley, don't you?" she asked with a grin. Giles might like to present a stoic and understanding facade, but Buffy knew that it really annoyed him that he had been replaced by Wesley Wyndam-something in her last year of high school.

"That pillock certainly wasn't very helpful," Giles said. "Quite the contrary."

"Oh, you make with the cursing now! That means you're serious!" She snickered at the narrowed eyes her comment caused but quickly dropped her smile. Things were serious after all. Some skanky demon wanted to kill Dawn! "And yes, we've done well without them! Especially when we didn't follow all the stupid rules in their stupid book. Like 'The Slayer always works alone'," she added in the most stupidly overdone English accent she could manage.

Giles cleared his throat. "Well, the book was written centuries ago and not meant for, shall we say, special cases such as you."

She frowned at him. "'Special cases'?" She cocked her head. That didn't sound like a compliment. More like 'Special Ed'.

"Slayers who weren't raised by the Council. Kendra is a better example of the average Slayer."

"Brainwashed robot, got it." She nodded.

Giles winced. "I wouldn't go that far. Sheltered, perhaps."

"She couldn't even talk to a boy without going to pieces," Buffy reminded him. And the other Slayer had tried to poach her Watcher, too, with her talk about books! "And I beat her easily. So much for the Council training." She bared her teeth at him.

"Well, yes. Although you also already were amongst the more experienced Slayers at the time."

"Which is another point against following Council rules," she retorted. "They aren't really good for surviving, you know?"

"I am aware of the average lifespan of a Council-trained Slayer. And of her Watcher," he said, smiling wryly.

"So, why should we listen to them?" She spread her hands. "We've done fine without them!"

"The only reason for acquiescing that I can see is that they have information we need."

To save Dawn. And probably the town or more. "You just had to remind me of that," she complained.

"That is amongst my duties."

She rolled her eyes. "Yeah, yeah. But why should we dance to their tune for information? Negotiating with terrorists is un-American!"

"We don't have to," he said. "But I am not aware of any alternative sources for the information kept in the Council's archives."

"We could break in and get it ourselves! Hop on a plane to Merry Old England, sneak into the dusty old headquarters and search the archives. Their security is probably centuries out of date." Willow would be able to handle anything.

"Their security is actually very much up to date," he corrected her. "They mostly recruit amongst veteran soldiers or police officers, but they also recruit from those in Her Majesty's Secret Service - and they generally know all about securing buildings against intruders."

"The Council's got James Bond? Why do they need a Slayer?" That was so unfair!

"James Bond is a fictional character," Giles replied.

"I knew that." She pouted. "But I guess that means the mission to England is not going to work?"

He smiled gently at her as he shook his head. "I'm afraid so. They would, at least delay you long enough for reinforcements to arrive, and I would rather not have you be forced to kill humans to escape. And if the police gets involved..."

Well, that just meant she needed a better plan. There was no way Buffy would submit to the Council. She was the Slayer. "Well, then we have to beat the information out of them once they're in Sunnydale." She nodded. Firmly.

Giles stared at her. Then he started polishing his glasses.

"Not a good plan?" she asked.

"I think that this proposal needs a little more work," he replied.

Which meant it was totally a bad plan in his opinion. Well, she wasn't the planny girl. Unless it was an attack or assault. She sighed. "Why can't things be easy? For once?"

"I've found that the older we get, the more complicated life tends to become."

"Shouldn't that mean things should be 'complicated' for the Council? They're way, way older than me! They're practically ancient!"

And Giles was frowning at her. But it was the truth! It was… She cocked her head. Someone was coming.

The door to the shop was opened. "Buffy! We need… Giles! You're back!" Anya stood there, flashing a brief smile at him. Followed by a frown. "It wasn't my fault!"

"Hello, Anya." Giles's smile faded and was replaced by a slight frown. "What wasn't your fault?"

Now he was looking at her? Buffy frowned back. "It wasn't my fault! At all!"

"Nothing broke in the shop before you arrived!" Anya said.

"What? That's not true!" Buffy protested. She was sure Olaf had wrecked something before she and the troll had had it out.

"What happened?" Giles asked. He wasn't looking at Buffy, any more, though - he was walking towards the shop area.

"Uh…" Anya said. "We - that is, Willow - accidentally summoned a troll."

Giles stopped. "A troll?" Then he sped up, and Buffy was sure that he'd have pushed Anya to the side if she hadn't given way. "Dear Lord!"

Buffy hastened after him. "It's not as bad as it looks," she said. "Xander can fix it, but the troll broke his arm, so he can't fix it. Right now, that is."

"I've run the numbers," Anya added. "The profit lost from reduced sales due to the damaged interior is less than the cost of hiring a carpenter to fix the damages instead of waiting for Xander to heal up."

Buffy blinked. That sounded like… "You're exploiting Xander to make a profit?"

Anya looked at her as if Buffy were dumb. "I'm maximising my investments. That's good company policy. All the books agree to keep costs as low as possible."

"Wow." Buffy turned to Giles. "You should, maybe, turn down the Capitalism Ho! thingie, you know?" Especially amongst impressionable young former Vengeance Demons who had last been amongst humans when Vikings were role models.

Giles gaped at her. "What… I didn't!"

"You told me to read up on running a shop," Anya said, "when I had too many questions for you."

Buffy frowned at Giles. "Really? Too many questions for you?"

"Buffy, as much as it might surprise you, I have a degree in folklore and ancient history, not in business administration," Giles replied.

She blinked. "Why would that surprise me? I know you're all about old and mouldy books… Oh, that was sarcasm. Right." Her Watcher was great but surely had his faults.

"Giles has an annoying tendency to assume that others know when he's being sarcastic," Anya chimed in.

"That's because people usually do," Giles replied with a thin smile. "Though it might take them a while in some cases."

"Hey!" Buffy pouted at him. "That's not my fault. Blame my education for that. And my Watcher!"

"Yes!" Anya added.

"And what would be your excuse?" Giles asked her.

"My superior didn't sufficiently instruct me," she told him without a break.

Giles sighed. "Why didn't I stay in England?"

"Because you love us? And because you're needed here, and not in Old Rainy?" Buffy told him with her best charming smile.

He didn't quite return her smile, but it was a start.

"In any case, we should gather the rest of our intrepid group and discuss the news I brought." He looked around. "Although, perhaps, in less damaged surroundings. This seems to be a little…" He trailed off. "I don't remember buying a hammer."

"Oh!" Buffy perked up, "That's mine! It's the trollhammer I took from Olaf the troll, which Anya had banished to hell and then recalled by accident."

"That was Willow's fault!"

But Giles wasn't listening, Buffy realised. He was walking towards her hammer. "Dear Lord! This is…"

"...my hammer!" she reminded him as she quickly walked up to his side and stood next to her trophy.

He glanced at her, then back at the hammer. "This is an impressively powerful artefact according to my preliminary impression."

Buffy nodded. "More importantly, though, it's mine."

"She won't share! Imagine how much money we could get for it!" Anya added.

Buffy glared at her - as if she'd sell her hammer! - but Anya ignored her.

Typical.

Giles took a step back and shook his head. "Well, I would like to examine it thoroughly, but I fear we'll have to focus on our problem at hand. Did you schedule a meeting with the others?"

"Scooby meeting at six!" Buffy told him. She grinned at the slight wince Xander's name for their group caused.

*****​

"So… the old men from the Council are coming to 'inspect' me," Buffy summed up Giles's somewhat lengthier explanation. "And they don't want to hand over their information about the skanky bottle-blonde demon unless I pass."

"The demon that beat you," Xander added with a grim expression. Well, a grim expression for him. She glared at him for the reminder she totally didn't need, and he held up one hand - he still had one arm in a sling. "Just making sure we're all on the same page here!"

"The Council's coming to test you. That's bad. " Willow looked concerned.

"Yes, I know," Buffy nodded. The presomthing of the old men!

"Unless it's something physical," Willow went on. "Do they test your vampire slaying rate? Because it's exceptional! I've compared it to all the data we have on other slayers' careers, and you've beaten them all."

"Well, Buffy's been around longer than most other Slayers," Xander said. Buffy could've done without that reminder as well.

"I didn't just mean the total numbers, but also the rates of vampires killed per night," Willow explained. "So, if they're here for a performance review, then you should be OK."

Buffy couldn't help feeling that her bestie's priorities were a little off. "It's not about killing vampires," she told her.

"It isn't?" Willow looked surprised. "But I had the impression that the Council is a very 'the end justifies the means' organisation, meaning they should excuse pretty much everything as long as you kill demons and stop apocalypses. That's a bad thing, actually - such a stance generally backfires after a bit, and the Council's been around far too long for not suffering such consequences - but it should be a good thing for you!"

Giles cleared his throat and polished his glasses. That was a double-bad sign. Sign of something double-bad? "Ah… while the Council certainly is ruthless in fighting the forces of darkness, as evidenced in their treatment of both Slayers and Watchers as expendable, they do not value efficiency in battles above all."

"Oh?" Willow perked up.

Buffy did not.

"They are as much or even more concerned with their authority over the Slayer," Giles explained. "Buffy may be the most effective Slayer on a Hellmouth in history…"

Buffy nodded with a pleased smile. It was good to know that others knew what you did. Most of the time.

"...but the Council doesn't tolerate insubordination, as I've personally found out when I was replaced as your official Watcher," Giles finished.

"But… Buffy wasn't insubordinate!" Willow protested. "She did everything she had to!"

"And without punting Wesley into the ocean," Xander added with a grin. "No matter how much he deserved it."

Buffy sighed. Willow and Xander were the best friends a Slayer could wish for - loyal and brave above all - but they didn't see the real problem. "They want me to submit to their authority," she told them.

"In exchange for information about our enemy." Willow nodded. "Which we need to protect Dawn."

And to kill that skanky demon. "Which they should give us," Buffy reminded her friends. "Or we should make them give it to us," she added with a growl.

"How?" Xander asked. "You think they have a suitcase with the books in question with them?"

"The information will undoubtedly be copied - the Council is generally loath to part, even temporarily, with the books from the Council's archives," Giles said. "And as much as I wish it were different, I don't think their delegation will bring the information with them to Sunnydale. They have enough veterans from MI6 amongst their ranks to ensure proper procedures for such things."

Stupid James Bond Watchers. Or would that be M-Watchers? Buffy clenched her teeth. "And Giles already told me that we can't just fly to London and break into their headquarters." Which was decidedly unfair. If the Council could just come into her town, she should be able to return the favour. Which wasn't a favour at all.

"So, no 'we have ways to make you talk'?" Xander pouted exaggeratedly. "And there's a sale on dental drills!"

"There is?" Anya perked up. "Where?"

Everyone stared at her. Xander cleared his throat. "I was joking, Anya."

She glared at him. "One doesn't joke about such things!"

Buffy wasn't sure she wanted to know what Anya wanted drills for.

"We can't torture people!" Willow spoke up, frowning at everyone else. "Well, I mean, we could, but it wouldn't be right. And not just because it's morally wrong and evil and a crime, but because torture doesn't really work. People say whatever they think you want to hear."

"And they tend to hold grudges after being tortured," Giles added with a tight expression. "Completely understandable, I might add."

Buffy frowned at him - that had been Angelus, not Angel.

"So, we can't steal the information and we can't beat it out of them," Xander said after a moment. "That leaves passing their inspection."

Buffy clenched her teeth again. She wasn't good with tests. Unless it was something she was good at. Like beating up bad guys.

*****​

"I'm back." Buffy announced as she entered her home. "Dawn? Spike?"

No one answered her. She suppressed a gasp. Had something appended? Had the demon skank attacked them? She rushed to the kitchen - the back door wasn't damaged. And the front door had been locked. But where was awn? And Spike? "Dawn! Spike!"

She checked upstairs. Empty. No! The demon must have… She froze. Steps. From below.

She rushed downstairs, Mr. Pointy in hand, rounded the corner into the hallway...

"Oi!" Spike retreated from her, hands held up. "Watch the stake!"

"Spike!" The door behind him led to the basement. "Where's…" She cocked her head. More steps. And there was Dawn! Coming up the stairs. "What have you been doing in the basement?"

"Nothing," Dawn replied with a sniff. "Are you done with your ultra-secret meeting?"

Buffy glared at Spike. He glared back. "Oi! I didn't complain about being left out of your planning session."

He hadn't. Well, not by his standards. "You're - after me - the best fighter we got," she told him anyway.

"And we need the best fighter to protect me, blah blah blah," Dawn cut in, pushing past them towards the kitchen. "Did you bring dinner? I'm hungry."

"I was about to make dinner," Buffy told her.

"Oh, goody. Burnt mac'n'cheese. Can't we skip the whole thing and order pizza right away? We don't want Mom to find out you wasted all her food when she returns from the hospital, do we?"

Buffy glared at the brat, then at the chuckling vampire. She could cook perfectly fine. Fine-ish. She hadn't burnt the macaroni last time, anyway. Just… browned them. A little. "We're not going to eat mac'n'cheese," she told Dawn.

"Of course we won't," Dawn shot back. "But what does that have to do with your plans to set fire to another innocent dish?"

That's… "We're having a salad!" Buffy announced.

"Are you feeling fat again?"

"What? I'm not fat!" She had never been fat. Or felt fat. Not since she had become a Slayer - staying slim was one of the best perks of being a Slayer. One of the only perks as well, except for being supernaturally strong, tough, fast, and… Alright, there were some perks.

"So why do you want to starve me?" Dawn huffed and crossed her arms.

"I don't want…" Buffy shook her head and sighed. "Fine. Pizza it is."

Dawn went from pouting to smirking in an instant. "Great! I want pepperoni, anchovies, salami, peanut butter and pineapple on mine!"

Buffy stared at Dawn, but her not-quite-natural sister seemed serious. Even Spike was looking a little queasy, and he ate British cereal with cold blood for breakfast. She felt like throwing up just from hearing this. Oh… her sister was being a brat again. Fine. She smiled. "I don't think that any pizza delivery offers that combination."

Dawn's smirk grew more pronounced. "Oh, but they do! Devil's Pizza offers it! And they deliver in the evening, too!" She held up a menu.

They did? In Sunnydale? Buffy narrowed her eyes. "I'll go and fetch the pizza." And she'd check the place for demons and other bad magic. And if she found something...

"They have black pudding!" Spike had grabbed the menu.

Definitely demony, Buffy thought. Then she blinked. "Wait… you never told me what you've been doing in the basement!"

"Nothing!" Dawn replied. But she was lying - Buffy knew her too well for that. The memories might have been magic, but they weren't, well, wrong.

She frowned at Spike.

He caved. "I was just showing her some moves."

"Moves?" She narrowed her eyes. "Were you putting the moves on her?"

"What?" Spike stared at her. "Of course not!"

"He means fighting moves, dumbass," Dawn cut in.

"You were teaching her how to fight?" Buffy wasn't quite sure how to take that. On the one hand, Dawn was in danger, and knowing how to fight could save her life. She wouldn't be able to beat or even hurt a demon Buffy hadn't been able to hurt, but the demon skank's minions weren't so tough. On the other hand, Dawn wouldn't learn enough to defend herself in a few lessons. And Spike teaching her? That was like… like… Well, she couldn't find the words, but it wasn't a good thing.

"Just a few tricks," Spike replied.

"Like where to stab a c..." Dawn was cut off by Spike putting his hand over her mouth.

"I showed her the vulnerable spots to stab," he said.

Buffy blinked again. "You showed her…?"

"Not like that!" he protested.

"Oh, you've got a dirty mind, Buffy!"

*****​

Arcadia Oaks, January 14th, 2017

"Alright!" James Lake Jr. looked around, then lowered his voice. Toby's nana had weak eyes, but her ears were still good. "You're sure you can develop the pictures?"

"Worry not, Master Jim - I've studied the texts detailing the process most intently and thoroughly. Photography does not hold any secrets for me any more. Why, I would even go as far as claiming that trolls possess a natural affinity for developing photos due to the fact that it is done in the absence of most light, an environment for which we are uniquely suited. Compared to humans, at least; some demon species might be as adapted to it as we are." Blinky nodded with a wide smile. "Rest assured that this part of your mission is in good hands."

AAARRRGGHH!!! nodded. "No worry."

"I've told Nana that we can't come out for the whole day without ruining days of our work," Toby added. "It'll be fine."

"This will certainly help." Blinky nodded. "And I must confess that I am curious about the pictures you took. While this is primarily a ploy to allow you to travel to Sunnydale for your mission without raising suspicion amongst your guardians and other authorities, there's no reason it cannot bear fruits as a perfectly legitimate venture as well. Why, some of my friends might be very interested in pictures showing Arcadia Oaks in daylight since they are only familiar with the town at night."

If Jim had known that in advance, he would have made a bigger effort with the pictures.

"That's a good idea!" Claire, of course, was all for it. "

Jim nodded with a weak smile. "That's ah, a good idea, Blinky. But let's go over the pictures together before we show them to others, alright?" Maybe they should have been a little more serious when taking pictures over the last two days.

"Oh, yes," Claire chimed in. "I'm sure your friends wouldn't be interested in our, ah, selfies."

"Oh? You managed to get a self-timer to work? Marvellous!" Blinky beamed at them. "You have to show me how to work it! My last attempt, unfortunately, destroyed my camera."

"Push too heavy," AAARRRGGHH!!! added.

"Quite. I overestimated the durability of my camera and underestimated the force exerted by my rock." Blinky nodded with an almost wistful smile. "Which, incidentally, led to my forays into the art of photography coming to an end before they could get started."

"Ah." Jim hoped that Blinky would show a little more restraint - and common sense - this weekend. If he wrecked Toby's room, their ruse would be exposed. "And the speakers?" He looked at the boxes next to the door.

"All set up, master Jim!" Blinky said. "We can just place the phone in front of this microphone, and Tobias's grandmother will hear your voice as if you were standing next to her. Separated by a door, and slightly muffled, I mean."

"Good." It looked like everything was set up, but Jim couldn't help feeling that they had forgotten something.

"Well, we need to go if we want to catch the bus," Claire said, holding up her staff. With a glance at Toby, she added: "We can't portal right on top of the station, after all."

Toby frowned in return. "It's still not long from the patch of forest behind the stop."

"It's a way."

Jim rolled his eyes. It looked as if not quite all the tension between his two best friends - his best friend and his, hopefully, girlfriend, he reminded himself - was gone. Well, they'd work it out. They'd better work it out, or that two hours bus trip would be a major pain.

"I think everything is set," Blinky said. "And in an emergency, do not hesitate to call us. We might be unable to come to your aid, given the distance and the presence of sunlight barring our way, but our counsel is at your disposal."

"Thanks. I hope we won't need to call you," Jim told him.

"Just make sure no one notices that we're gone," Toby added.

"I shall endeavour to do so," Blinky replied.

AAARRRGGHH!!! nodded.

Then Claire opened a black portal in the middle of the room, and they left Toby's home.

And arrived, slightly higher than expected, in the middle of the forest nearby. Jim landed in a crouch - all that training in the Hero's forge had really done wonders for his reflexes. Claire landed with all the grace and elegance of a ballerina. Toby… landed.

"Ooof!"

"Sorry."

"Yeah, sure."

"Let's go!" Jim said. "I think I hear the bus." He didn't, actually. But it got them moving.

*****​

Sunnydale, January 14th, 2017

"Ah! Finally!" James Lake Jr. stretched and rolled his neck and shoulders as soon as he had left the bus. "I was getting cramps in there."

"And I was starving," Toby added. "I should've packed more food. I had to resort to my emergency bars."

Which were also known as Mars bars. Jim looked around and frowned. "It looks… pretty normal."

"What did you expect?" Toby asked, making a beeline for the vending machines at the bus station. "Vampires walking around in daylight?"

Jim frowned at him, now, but his friend was already stuffing coins into the machine.

"Well, Arcadia Oaks looks very normal as well, and we know it's built on Trollmarket," Claire pointed out. "A visitor wouldn't find it strange."

"It could also be that our views are skewed since we grew up in Arcadia Oaks," Jim replied.

"What?" Toby gasped. "You think we're the weirdos?"

"I don't think so," Claire told them. "Although I do feel a little out of place when I visit Los Angeles."

"So… we are the weirdos."

"I think everyone else agrees that the people in Los Angeles are the weirdos." Jim shook his head. "In any case, we're here to find the Hammer of the Troll Gods, not to conduct a survey about local weirdness."

"We might have to do that," Toby said. "You know what Blinky said: We won't find that hammer lying around in the open. It's probably deep down below us, in a magically sealed cave. What does the Divine Compass say?"

Right. The Compass. Jim looked around - the bus had left and so had the other passengers. He reached into his backpack and grabbed the contraption.

"Cops six o'clock!" Toby hissed.

Jim jerked and whirled around but couldn't see anyone.

"My six o'clock!"

Jim turned around again. There was a patrol car slowly driving towards them.

"Act normally," Toby whispered, then smiled widely. "Fancy meeting here, Jimbo!"

"Toby, shut up," Claire whispered back.

And then the cops arrived, stopping right where they stood. The driver looked at them through the open window. "Are you lost, kids?"

"What? No, no," Jim replied. "We're just stretching our legs a little - we just arrived by bus."

"Oh?" The cop narrowed his eyes at them. "What brings you to Sunnydale?"

Wasn't that a weird question?

"We're looking at the college here to find out if we should move here after high school." Claire smiled at the cop. "Los Angeles is a little…" She shrugged. "My parents would be happier if I moved to a smaller town, and Sunnydale has the closest UC campus."

She's such a good actress! Jim's smile slipped a little, though, when he was, once again, reminded of the fact that Claire might leave for college.

"Ah." The cop was all smiles now. "Smart of you. We've got a campus, yes. You can take the bus; it goes there."

"Is it a good campus? You aren't called in for many incidents, are you?" Claire asked.

"Not any more than we're called for incidents at Sunnydale High," the other cop answered.

Jim noticed the driver glaring at his partner before turning back to them and smiling again. "It's a good campus. Frats do some stuff, but that's the same everywhere."

"Thank you, officer!" Claire beamed at them.

"You're not staying overnight, are you?"

"Oh, no!" Jim said. "We have to be home in the evening!"

"Good, good." The cop waved, and the patrol car left.

"That was… kind of weird?" Toby asked. "Am I the only one who feels like this was weird?"

"A little. On the other hand, we could've been runaways," Claire said. "The police might patrol the bus station for that."

Jim nodded in agreement. That sounded logical. He checked for witnesses, then pulled out the Divine Compass. "Now let's find the hammer!"

*****​

"'Deep below, in a magically sealed cave'?"

Jim could hear the smirk in Claire's voice. His friends really needed to work this out, whatever it was.

"Hey! We could still be headed towards the entrance to the cave system below the town," Toby told her. "It's just that it is hidden in plain sight."

"In the centre of the town?"

"Exactly!" Toby nodded. "The last place anyone would think to look! Just look how innocent everything appears - no one would think that this town was built above a Hellmouth!"

"No one visiting Arcadia Oaks would think it was built above Trollmarket, but that doesn't mean every shop is a front for Gunmar's allies," Claire replied.

"Are you comparing Trollmarket to a Hellmouth?"

"What? No! It was just an example to show that we can't just assume everything is a facade."

Jim would've rolled his eyes, but someone had to keep focused. And the Divine Compass wasn't exactly easy to use - the thing pointed at the hammer - at least he hoped it was pointing at the hammer - but that didn't mean it had a needle that pointed the way; the whole device was pulling into one direction, and keeping it from leaping out of his hands was a little tedious. Blinky claimed this was a traditional troll compass, but Jim was sure that people would stare if a contraption the size of half his head was floating through the central shopping avenue in Sunnydale.

Probably.

"The hammer could be hidden above ground," Claire speculated. "Perhaps in a bank vault."

"Those are underground," Toby told her.

"Just one floor," she said. "Not a sealed cave deep below."

Jim cleared his throat. "Could you keep it down a little?" he asked through clenched teeth. "I think we're getting closer - the pull is getting stronger."

"Oh! The entrance to the caves must be near!" Toby looked around. "See any bridges?"

"See any banks?" Claire shot back.

"See any… Magic Boxes?" Jim asked, staring at the shop in front of them.

"A magic shop?" Claire blinked. "It doesn't look like they're selling props for stage magicians."

Jim agreed.

"But they wouldn't be selling magical items and ingredients openly, would they?" Toby asked. "I mean… that would out every customer as a witch!"

"Being a witch isn't illegal in California," Claire told them.

"But still…" Toby shook his head. He lowered his voice. "Perhaps this is a trap? Any wanna-be witches who want to buy materials for spells enter - and they don't leave."

Jim didn't think his friend was right. People disappearing in the middle of town in broad daylight would surely catch attention, wouldn't it? On the other hand, selling actual, real magic stuff would also catch attention. Or was that a Hellmouth thing?

"They might be hiding in plain sight, catering to tourists and New Agers, and only sell the real magic… merchandise to those they know," Claire speculated.

That made sense. But Jim wasn't about to dismiss Toby's theory. "In any case, they've got the troll hammer in there." The compass was tugging at his grip quite strongly. He belatedly turned it off and stashed it in his backpack- it would be better not to enter the shop with a magical compass active. Especially if Toby wasn't too far off the mark.

"So… we just stroll in, pretending to be tourists, and look around until we find the hammer, then grab it and run like hell?" Toby asked. "Because if we do that, I have to remind you that I'm not too good at running."

Jim frowned. His friend wouldn't beat any speed record any time soon, but he had gotten better at sports. At least at running away. Still, it wouldn't be enough to get away from an angry shopkeeper. Especially not if they could curse you. "And we don't have bikes."

"We could get bikes," Toby suggested. "Getaway bikes, like in GTA. Only bikes instead of cars."

"You want to steal bicycles to steal the hammer?" Claire asked. "I can portal us away easily!"

"Yes," Jim said. "But we don't know the lay of the land here. We wouldn't know where we could safely hide and how to get back on the bus home without being seen. And if they have cameras in the shop…"

"Right. They would have cameras." Toby frowned. "We'll need masks. Oh, no - the cops already saw us! If we get spotted, there'll be a manhunt. Definitely needing masks!"

"I think they'll be able to identify us anyway if we check out the shop first, then return with masks on," Jim pointed out. "But more importantly, we can't get caught on camera doing magic."

"So we split up. One checks out the shop, the others get inside afterwards, grab the hammer, run out, around the corner, and poof! Portal away!" Toby said. "Fast in, fast out."

Toby really had played GTA a little too much, Jim thought.

"I don't think we should rob the place when the owners are present," Claire said. "If they have the hammer, they probably can do powerful magic."

Toby grimaced. "They could turn us into frogs! I don't wanna be a frog!"

"If they don't see us, they can't curse us," Jim reminded the others. "We'll have to sneak in after the shop closes, which will be…" He cocked his head and squinted. Opening hours until… ten at night? Did they serve vampires inside? Wait. They might actually do that. Shit.

"We can't wait so long," Claire said. "We'll have to be back at eight in Arcadia Oaks."

"Right. We need a better plan," Jim said. "Uh… return tomorrow, when the shop's closed?" He didn't like it, but they couldn't stay overnight. "That way we can scoop out the place today and look for cameras."

"Good idea," Toby agreed. And Claire was nodding as well.

"So, let's go. Remember: We're tourists looking for souvenirs," Jom told the others. "Harmless teenagers who have no idea about magic or monsters."

Toby and Claire nodded with firm expressions. Good. They could do this. They would do this.

Jim turned and started towards the shop's entrance, right behind a group of older men and women. But when he reached the door, the last of the men turned, closed the door in his face and flipped the 'open' sign to 'closed'.

What the hell?

*****​

"The shop's closing for today. Please leave the premises."

Buffy Summers clenched her teeth at the presumption of those jerks! This was Giles's shop. And her training room! The Council couldn't just close the shop! "Hey! You can't do that!"

"That's an outrage!" Anya, standing behind the register, obviously shared her opinion. "Who's going to reimburse us for the lost sales? Saturdays are prime shopping days!"

Travers - she remembered the creepy head of the Council - turned to look at her. "You know why we're here, Miss Summers. His is much more important than catering to shady practitioners and delusional tourists." He addressed one of the goons. "Nigel, see that the shop's empty of bystanders."

Buffy wanted to throw the lot of them out, as Giles would say, but if she did that, they would take their information about the skank demon and leave. So she clenched her teeth as the Council goons escorted the other customers out. She saw a group of teenagers outside, barely older than Dawn, all but pressing their noses against the window, and winced. That wouldn't help the shop's reputation.

"Quentin, that was unneeded, I'll say."

Giles had arrived! Buffy beamed at her Watcher.

"On the contrary. We can't do business with an audience around. We're on a Hellmouth - anyone here could be a spy for our enemies," the old man retorted. He looked around. "I do hope that you're keeping track of any suspicious purchases."

"Of course," Giles replied, very stiffly. Like the time Buffy had asked him how to clean soda from a book. Which had been a purely hypothetical question. Mostly, anyway.

"Good." Travers looked around again, frowning - sneering - when he spotted the broken parts.

"We had a troll attack," Giles told him.

"I beat the troll, and we sealed him back in his dimension," Buffy added with a toothy smile. "We've already called on a carpenter to fix stuff."

"We have?" Anya asked. "I hope you don't mean Xander; his arm hasn't yet healed. If he can't use both hands to give me orgasm, then he can't repair the shop yet, either."

"Anya! That was far too much information! Of a personal nature, I mean!" Giles started furiously polishing his glasses whale the Council goons tittered and tattered or whatever.

"What? It's true!" Anya retorted. "I mean, his penis still works perfectly, as does his tongue, but the foreplay suffered. You should know that if you were having sex!"

Buffy closed her eyes and tried not to kill Anya. Or to blurt out that she hadn't hired the former demon. Her review wasn't off to a good start, that was sure.

*****​
 
Chapter 3: The Diversion
Chapter 3: The Diversion

Sunnydale, January 14th, 2017

"What do we do now?" James Lake Jr. asked after the weird men had closed the shutters of the shop, hiding the interior from view.

"Those people must be demons or working for demons," Toby said. "Or some evil cult here to do an evil magic ritual. Or..." He gasped. "...they are here to get the hammer!"

Jim drew a hissing breath. They couldn't let anyone take the hammer - how would they find it ever again? And what if they did find it, but in another state? Or another country? They had barely managed to find a way to travel to Sunnydale without their parents catching on; there was no way they could travel to another country unless a Gyre station was close. Jim had no idea how many such stations existed - but they couldn't be too many since there weren't too many trolls.

"We can't assume that they are evil," Claire said, "just based on their behaviour."

"They kicked everyone out and closed the shutters - they have something to hide," Toby protested. "They might want to talk to a vampire inside who would be burned by the sun."

"We do the same so we can talk to Blinky and AAARRRGGHH!!!," Jim pointed out.

"That's not the same," Toby protested. "And we know there aren't any trolls here. Just demons and vampires."

"Which are demons," Claire corrected him.

"But a special class of demons."

"Tobes, Claire!" Jim spoke up. "We need a plan. We can't plan without information - we need a way to find out what's going on!"

"I think I have an idea!" Claire suddenly smiled at them. "Come, we need to hide!" She started for the side alley next to the shop.

"Now we need to hide?" Toby asked as he and Jim followed Claire.

"Apparently," Jim replied. Claire was brilliant - if she had an idea, it probably was a good one.

They crouched down in the alley, behind a dumpster. A very weird-smelling dumpster - and Jim had spent a long time in Trollmarket, where socks were considered a delicacy.

"What's the plan?" Toby asked.

"I caught a good look of the interior before they closed the shutters," Claire whispered, pulling out her staff and flicking it so it assumed its full size. "I can open a small portal to a corner there, behind the counter, and stick my head through. That way, I can eavesdrop on them."

That was brilliant! Jim beamed at her. But it was also very dangerous. "But if they see you…" He had a brief, horrible vision of some monster ripping her head off and her headless corpse collapsing next to him and Toby.

"If they see me, I will pull my head back and close the portal," Claire replied. "I'll open it under the counter so they won't be able to sneak up on me from behind me."

"But you'll be unable to see them, either," Toby pointed out.

"That's OK," Jim said. "Safety first."

For a moment, both his friends looked at him as if he was stupid. Then Claire nodded and closed her eyes. "Alright, let me picture the location in my mind."

Jim held his breath. And looked around. No one was watching them.

Then she created a small portal - barely bigger than a head. A human head. She looked at him, and he forced himself to smile encouragingly at her even though he wanted to hug her.

She flashed a smile back at him, then turned and stuck her head through the portal. Jim had to suppress a shudder, seeing her like that, especially from the side.

"Do you think we can claim we're working on a magic trick if someone comes by?" Toby asked.

"Next to a magic shop?" Jim shook his head. "This isn't Arcadia Oaks. We have to assume that people visiting the shop know about magic. Better safe than sorry."

Toby nodded and put his hand into his backpack. He would be gripping his hammer, Jim knew. Just as Jim was gripping the Amulet of Daylight. If anything happened, they would be ready.

He just hated that he couldn't hear what Claire had to be hearing right now.

*****​

"...really, who thought it was a good idea to set up shop in an actual shop where anyone could wander in? Secrecy is paramount, I'll remind you! No one may know about the Council's work!"

Buffy Summers gritted her teeth and refrained from telling off the stuffy Brit. Having a magic shop was a great cover!

"It provides both a cover as well as an income," Giles replied. "After losing my position in the library, both were needed. And I assure you that our secrets remain safe."

"Yeah!" Buffy nodded. "We've dealt with every spy. If there had been any spies, I mean. Which there haven't. No spies here."

"Really." The old geezer looked at her with such a dubious expression, she wanted to bash his head in. A little, at least.

"Yes," Anya spoke up. "We would've had much higher profits if we catered to more people. We lost about half the customer base of our predecessors, too. We don't even sell most of the things we loot from demons even though all of it is taking up valuable storage space."

Buffy winced. Anya meant well - probably - but she wasn't really helping.

Travers looked like he had bitten into a lemon. "You loot the demons you kill? And you keep the…"

"...merchandise?" Anya was still not helping.

"...the contraband?" Travers turned to glare at Giles. "All of it should've been transferred to our vaults, not… hoarded in your private business." He spat the last words. "The Slayer has a sacred duty, and we shall find out whether or not you have profaned it."

Buffy glared at the man. "'Profaned it'?" Someone was using the dictionary today!

"It means treating with disrespect," Travers explained.

"I knew that!" she shot back. "It's just not a word real people use in conversation. Not if they've been born in the twentieth century, at least!"

"I see dear Rupert hasn't bothered to correct your educational deficiencies, either."

Buffy frowned, then noticed the obvious lack of protests from her Watcher. She turned to pout at Giles. "Giles! Tell him you did that!"

"I did what I could to complement the American educational system," Giles told the old geezer.

"That's not a very strong defence," Travers replied.

Buffy agreed with him, which was a first. "Giles!"

"My dear, you are far from stupid or uneducated, but through no fault of your own, you didn't receive a classical education."

"A classical education is way overrated," Anya cut in. "They've got most things about Vikings wrong, anyway. I never wore such a stupid helmet."

That caught the attention of the entire Council. "You claim to be a Viking?" Nigel blurted out.

"Of course not!" Anya protested. But before the guys could relax, she added: "I stayed at home; I didn't go raiding. Sheesh, you claim to be educated?"

"And who are you?" Travers asked, glancing from Anya to Giles and back.

"Anya. Anya Christina Emmanuella Jenkins," she told him. "And you wouldn't believe how expensive it was to get an ID! I had to ask Willow for help. It used to be simple, back in the day - no one asked for identification or paper trails. As if I had a birth certificate - they hadn't even invited those things back when I was Aud! And there was no IRS asking stupid questions about where you got your money from, either!"

"Rupert. Who is this… creature?"

"I'm not a creature!" Anya protested. "I'm fully human ever since I lost my powers! A thousand years as a vengeance demon, one of the best, and then one little mistake ruins my career! Can you imagine?" She shook her head.

Everyone stiffened. Well, more than before, they were Brits, after all. Travers was clenching his teeth - Buffy could see his jaw muscles twitching. "First werewolves and vampires, now vengeance demons! Are there any demons you actually slay instead of working with?"

"Hey!" She glared at the jerk. "I kill plenty of demons! I'm out almost every night, hunting them. And if you knew how many designer clothes and shoes I ruined slaying demons, you wouldn't question me!"

"The Slayer isn't supposed to care about material things! Hasn't Rupert taught you anything?"

"Hey! Immaterial things don't pay the bills!" Buffy protested. "And I've got a lot of bills to pay!" Mom would ask questions if Buffy had to ask for new shoes every week.

"Oh, yes!" Anya chimed in. "Money's the most important thing in the world! Don't you know how many nice things you can buy with it? If only Giles gave me a raise for all my hard work..."

Giles was polishing his glasses something fiercely, Buffy noted. That was a bad sign. Not that she needed one to see how things were going - the expressions on the Watcher-guys were bad enough.

"Let us now interview the various… associates… of your little 'gang' here," Travers pressed out. "And conduct an inventory of the shop. Who knows what treasures have been hidden here for dubious purposes."

"Hey! Making a profit is not a dubious purpose! That's the foundation of capitalism!"

Anya still wasn't helping.

*****​

James Lake Jr. jerked when Claire suddenly pulled her head out of the portal and closed it with a wave of her staff.

"What did you hear?" Toby asked.

"Are you alright? They didn't see you?" Jim leaned forward.

Claire shook her head. "No, I pulled out before they could see me."

"What did you hear? Did you find out where the troll hammer is?"

Claire shook her head. "I didn't hear anything about the hammer - but this is the Slayer's shop! And it's full of magical items taken from demons! She's working with demons and vampires to kill and rob demons!" She looked spooked. "And even worse - she's working with Aud!"

Jim blinked. "Aud? Wasn't that the witch Blinky had mentioned? But…"

"The witch who had banished Olaf to hell? A thousand years ago?" Toby gasped "That Aud?"

Claire nodded, and Jim felt his stomach sinking to the floor. "So…" He tried to compose his thoughts as he spoke. "We're… No, we can't discuss this here. Let's go somewhere else." Somewhere safer.

His friends nodded. They left the side-alley and took a sharp turn so they wouldn't be visible from the shop, and kept walking until they found a café - the 'Espresso Pump' it was called. As soon as they had a table and some drinks, Jim took a deep breath and said: "So. The Slayer, that millennia-old demon killer, is working with demons and with a thousand-year-old witch. And they kill demons to loot their stuff. And they have a shop where they sell magic items."

"They said they wouldn't sell most of their loot, but…" Claire trailed off, glancing around.

"They're probably lying. Evil guys do that. They must have killed Olaf to steal the hammer. The witch probably knew he had it, so they summoned him and took it from him." Toby shook his head. "How did the demon look like?"

"I didn't see her," Claire replied. "But she said she was 'fully human' and lost her powers."

"Sounds like Strickler," Jim snapped. And Strickler lied about everything.

"And who were the old guys?" Toby lowered his voice.

"I don't know." Claire bit her lower lip. "They spoke about some 'Council' - it sounded like they had been working with the Slayer but recently parted ways." She wrinkled her nose. "They were angry that the Slayer kept the loot for herself - to 'pay the bills'."

Toby snorted. "I wonder what kind of money they make."

"The Slayer mentioned designer clothes and shoes," Claire said.

"Really?" Jim blinked. "That sounds…" He wouldn't say normal. But… "So very Hollywood?" His friends laughed at his joke, but not for long. "We need to get the hammer before they sell it. Or before those guys take it." They couldn't travel to England to take it back.

"Or before the Council and the Slayer gang start a war," Toby said. "Imagine a gang war with magic and demons!" He shuddered.

Jim imagined it. Fireballs flying everywhere, buildings getting wrecked, people screaming… "We can't let that happen."

"What? You want to go between the Slayer and her friends and some mysterious Council? They must be very powerful, or the Slayer would've killed them, right?" Toby looked at him.

"Maybe," Jim said. They didn't know - but it sounded possible. "Blinky didn't say anything about that. Or that the Slayer was working with demons."

"That must be a recent development," Claire said. Then she gasped. "If the Slayer has been on the Hellmouth for years, perhaps she was corrupted by it - Blinky warned us about that."

"He mostly warned you," Toby told her. "Jimbo and I are fine since we only use our kick-ass weapons."

"I'm not using spells - I haven't even started learning them," Claire replied, glaring at him.

"Hey, hey!" Jim held his hands up. "We know." He glanced at Toby. "And we need to focus on our mission."

"I say we portal into the shop, grab the hammer and portal out," Toby said. "Quick in, quick out, and no one's the wiser!"

"We would have to wait until the shop is empty," Jim pointed out. "And if this is the Slayer's shop…"

"...then she might be living there. Not to mention that we don't know what kind of spells protect the 'merchandise'. And we need to find the hammer, first - they won't have on display."

"It wasn't in the window," Toby said. "I checked."

"Right." Jim took a deep breath. "We can't wait until the shop is empty - and we can't be sure that the shop will ever be empty. Or close before we have to go home. So, we need to lure them out."

"Lure them out? How?" Toby asked. "Place some bait for them?" His eyes widened. "We're not using my hammer as bait! I need it!"

"We're not using your hammer as bait," Jim said. "Well, not like you think." He grinned with more confidence than he felt. "We know the Slayer and her friends kill and loot demons. So, we will make them think there's a new group of demons in town - demons with kick-ass magic items. They hear about us and come for us. And while they look for us in another part of town, we strike at the shop." He looked at Claire. "Do you think you can disguise us as demons?"

She hesitated a moment, then nodded. "Yes. There are many human-like demons. But I'll need makeup and some props. Theatre makeup - we'll have to dye our skin, I think."

"Good." Jim stood and looked around. "Let's find a costume shop."

*****​

"Green skin?" Toby sounded rather disgusted. James Lake Jr. didn't feel very enthusiastic, either, come to think of.

"Yes," Claire said. "That's how Deathwok Clan Demons look like. Green skin, red horns and eyes, and scales on the forehead." She nodded firmly and slightly narrowed her eyes at them. "It's the easiest disguise we can do that will still mark us as demons according to the books I've read."

"Dyeing our skin green isn't what I'd call 'easy'," Toby muttered. "We'll have to walk around like that."

"That's the point, Tobes," Jim told him.

"We'll also need costumes," Claire went on. "The Deathwok Clan Demons are noted hunters and warriors." She looked at Toby. "They wouldn't be caught wearing a knitted vest."

Jim's friend frowned at her, then smirked. "Or purple t-shirts?"

She blushed slightly. "All of us will have to be in costume."

"Me too?" Jim asked. "I've got Daylight, after all." And without the magical armour, he wouldn't be able to do anything.

"Your armour should be enough," Claire told him.

"It worked for Romeo," Toby added.

Jim blushed a little, remembering the play. And the… well… He glanced at Claire, who was blushing as well, and smiled, looking away. Then he cleared his throat. "So… skin dye, red, uh, contacts, and horns and scales. And costumes. That will, ah, cost some money." His allowance might not cover it.

But Claire smiled. "It won't cost too much. I've done this before for a play. We won't have time to make our own costumes, but we can pick the cheapest and improvise a bit - it helps a lot that we already have props."

"My hammer isn't a prop!"

"I didn't mean it like that."

Jim cleared his throat again. "So, let's go to that shop - Party Town, you said?"

"Yes." Claire nodded. "It's the only costume shop in the town according to my search."

"And we can grab something to eat on the way," Toby added. "It's getting close to lunch." He patted his stomach. "Walking is hungry work."

Jim nodded. He was feeling a little hungry himself. Before he could suggest the Doublemeat Palace they had seen on the way, Toby's phone rang.

"Yes?"

Jim leaned in, as did Claire, and he could just make out Blinky's voice "Tobias? Your grandmother would like to talk to you. Can you talk?"

"Uh, sure."

Jim looked around. No one was paying attention to them. Then again, a teenager talking on the phone to their family wouldn't be suspicious, would it?

"I'll connect you to the speakers, then. How did this work again? Ah. Blast it! Just a moment… I just need to… thank you, AAARRRGGHH!!!"

"Pleasure."

"Ah… now we should be set. Please test it, Tobias."

"Nana?" Toby asked - loudly. Jim winced, but except for a man frowning at them, no one paid attention.

"Ah… try now, Tobias."

"Nana?"

"It works!"

"What did she say? I couldn't hear her," Toby said.

"Oh… I see we have a slight problem with this setup. But do not worry, I will act as a relay!" Jim heard Blinky say.

Sighing, took a step back while Toby started talking about lunch with his nana. They forgot to test if they could hear someone through the door when talking to them over their phones. Mom would say that this was typical for teenagers who didn't listen, anyway. If she knew about it. Which she wouldn't. Jim might feel bad about lying to her - and he did - but it was for the best. Who could say what Strickler would do, should Mom know the truth about the monster?

"Alright. Nana left the food outside," Toby said. "And I'm now even more hungry than before. Spaghetti with meatballs! We're missing out!"

Jim sighed. "Let's hit the burger palace."

"Doublemeat Palace," Claire corrected him. "It has the best ratings in town - at least in our price range."

"Don't remind me," Jim said, sighing again. Between the bus ticket and the costumes, his savings would be gone.

He could almost understand killing and looting demons now. Almost - he wasn't wasting his money on fashion, after all.

*****​

"This sucks. I can't be seen like this!" Toby complained.

"It was the cheapest costume. The cheapest costume in your size." James Lake Jr. felt very grateful to Merlin for crafting such a fine-looking armour for him. Otherwise, he would have to wear what amounted to fake-fur lined speedos with boots as well. "And no one will recognise you, anyway. You'll be wearing demon makeup."

"But I'll know it's me, his friend said. "I can't even wear a t-shirt? Or a sweater?"

"We don't have the money for it," Jim reminded him. Apparently, the costume shop exploited its monopoly. Skin dye was at a premium. "And the other costumes wouldn't fit a demon warrior."

"Conan the Barbarian killed demons. He wasn't a demon. And I don't look like him."

"Even better. People won't realise it's a costume?" Jim smiled at his friend, but Toby didn't look any happier.

Jim glanced at Claire, but she wasn't helping, either. She was still blushing and not looking at anyone as she cradled the bag with their supplies and her costume in her arms as if it would hide her.

Well, the cheapest 'female warrior costume' wasn't much more, ah, covering, than Toby's 'barbarian costume'. Of course she would be embarrassed as well, thinking about walking around like that, and...

Then he remembered that they would have to dye their skin, too - what would be visible, at least. Which would be mostly his face, in his armour, but for his friends…

He blushed even worse than Claire. This would be bad. Very bad.

Now he really understood the Slayer's desire to loot demons.

*****​

"And those are the reports." The Councilman - Spencer or something - wasn't even trying to hide his sneer as he looked at the book.

Buffy Summers couldn't help sneering herself as she answered: "Yes, exactly." The nerve of the man - she had bled for these reports. Well, usually not literally, but giving a report - or, worse, writing it - was torture after a patrol, when all a good Slayer needed was food and... well, the other thing was a uniquely Faith thing. That was her story, and she would be sticking to it. Especially when talking to old men from stuffy old England who wouldn't know sex if it bit them in the butt.

"They lack crucial information."

"'Crucial information'?" Buffy frowned. "The numbers are correct, and I even included the times of kill - mostly." It was hard to remember exact times, after all, when you were in the zone. Or taking a slight detour for a midnight snack. Or chatting with Willow on the phone… Oh, she could've used phone records for that; Willow might be able to whip up some app to track slaying times. "What else do you need? An essay about their fashion?"

To her surprise, the man nodded. "As you should be aware, a vampire's clothes give important clues for determining its age as they have a strong tendency to stick to the style that was popular at the time of their death."

Buffy gasped, then turned. "Giles! You never told me vampire fashion was important!"

"That's because when I once did mention fashion, I was treated to a long and impassioned but ultimately frivolous speech about shoes and how important they are for patrolling," her Watcher replied from where he was going over the books with Anya and the head old geezer.

"Frivolous?" She frowned. She had been serious!

"In any case," Giles went on, "I hardly believe vampire fashion is an important part of any report. The most dangerous vampires we have to deal with almost all adapted to modern fashion with the exception of Drusilla, and the fledglings rarely deserve any notice."

"Well, there were those vampire cowboys," Buffy cut in. "We identified them thanks to the clothes!"

"And in that case, you did mention their attire. But anyone trying to discern a vampire's age and, therefore, its potential for danger would be horribly misled when encountering Spike or Darla or…" Giles trailed off.

Buffy still glared at him. Angel was different!

"Someone mention my name?"

Buffy tensed. What was Spike doing here? He was about the last man, vampire, whatever she wanted to meet during a review. She turned and saw that the vampire was stepping out from the door leading to the basement, and behind him was Willow.

Her besty smiled her embarrassed smile as she looked around. "Hi, everyone! Uh… did the Council Review start without us?"

"Yes," Buffy said. And who was guarding Dawn?

"Told ya so," Spike said. "Anya wouldn't close the shop for anything else."

"I didn't close the shop - they did!" Anya protested.

"Isn't that presumptuous?" Willow frowned. "The Council doesn't have the authority to do that, do they?"

"That's what I said!"

Buffy clenched her teeth. The Council didn't have the authority, not de ju-something, as Giles would say, but with the information Buffy needed to save and protect Dawn, they could throw their weight around. Facts on the ground, as Riley said.

She buried the memories she didn't want to go into right now. "Yes, yes - but what's done is done, and we really should focus on the crucial things."

"Such as your appalling lack of detailed reports." If Spencer's upper lip drew up even more, it would probably cover his nose and suffocate him.

"Look, you can't really expect me to give detailed notes about every fledgling I slay," she replied. And think of the environment - if I have to add six pages every night, we'll have an entire forest de-forested just for the fledglings."

"That's another point: Your vastly inflated figures," Spencer said. "Approximately six fledglings per night? Ridiculous!"

"That's not ridiculous!" Buffy protested.

"Yes!" Willow loyally agreed. "Those are correct numbers and they correlate with the missing person reports from the police as well as the obituaries!"

"You work with the police?" Travers sounded shocked.

"Of course we don't," Buffy told him. "They're useless."

"But they're so useless, their systems are very easy to hack into and access their data… err. Hypothetically, I mean." Willow blushed.

"Oi, don't tell me you thought those were made-up numbers?" Spike laughed. "Bloody hell, this is an active Hellmouth. Vampires barely need more than a coat of dust to rise here. Why do you think so many of them come to the place where the Slayer roams?"

"Of course you would say that," Travers sneered. "But a vampire - especially someone as infamous as a member of the Whirlwind - cannot be trusted." He turned to glare at Willow. "Nor can obvious criminals."

Willow gasped. "Criminals? You are one to talk! You violate many more laws than I do with your policies!"

"Ours is a sacred duty - and a charter that predates most modern countries!"

"Yeah?" Willow pouted at him. "But the modern countries are the ones defining what's legal and what's not! Times have changed! And…" A beeping sound interrupted her. "Oh, sorry - that's my alert. I'll just…" She gasped at her phone's display. "Buffy! According to the news feed, there are costumed robbers attacking the park near Sunnydale High!"

Buffy was already running. 'Costumed robbers' was Sunnydale press and police speak for 'demons'.

She was glad for the distraction - she really needed something to vent her frustration right now, and a few dumb demons would do nicely!

*****​

"Help! Help!"

"Run! Run!"

"Mommy!"

"Run, Kelly! Run!"

James Lake Jr. felt bad at seeing the people who had gathered in the park fleeing from his friends and himself. That he and his friends would be scaring people who had done nothing wrong was something they had overlooked when planning this distraction. But they were committed - and they didn't have an alternative, anyway. And it wasn't as if the people were actually hurt. A little running was good for their health as well.

He saw one middle-aged man trip and take a dive on the gravel path and winced. Well, if they could run, he amended.

"Waaagh!"

"No! Not the Climbing Pole!"

"Dexter! Don't! Come!"

Jim looked to the side just in time to see Toby come down on a climbing pole, part of a climbing park, smashing it with his hammer. "Die!" Toby yelled, raising his hammer to crush the remains. "Die! Die!"

Jim winced - obviously, the training Toby had done in the Hero's Forge hadn't been enough to overcome his trauma from the P.E. climbing tests.

"Tob-Torgan!" Claire snapped.

Right, they had code names, Jim reminded himself - he really wasn't cut out for this kind of thing. He might've even forgotten to hide his face with a scarf, as Claire and Toby had done, if he hadn't had a helmet.

"What?" Toby hissed back. "I'm just playing my role! And I'm saving lives - think of all the poor children who would've fallen to their death from this torture device!"

"It's a children's playground, and you're wrecking it!" Claire put her hands on her hips, and Jim had trouble focusing - that was a very skimpy barbarian costume, indeed. Barley more than a fur bikini. And didn't that make him remember those movies he had…

He shook his head and cleared his throat. "Focus, guys! To-Torgan - don't wreck anything else!"

"But we need to play our roles!"

"Then go and… whack a tree or something!" Jim replied. Those grew back. He turned to Claire. "And keep an eye out for the Slayer."

She nodded, a bit jerkily. "And the police. The Slayer said they were useless, but… we can't trust her." She opened a portal and disappeared, appearing higher up in the tree next to them.

Jim winced - that was actually the greater danger. Monsters he could handle. But he couldn't kill the police. Or hurt them. And if he got arrested again, and in Sunnydale… Mom would kill him. And then Mr and Mrs Nuñez would kill him for dragging Claire into this. And then again for making her wear a skimpy costume… He was doomed. Why couldn't the Slayer hurry up?

"Waaagh!"

Toby smashed a smaller tree to cinders. If they started a fire by accident… this distraction had been a bad idea. But they were committed. As Draal said, once you were committed, you had to carry it through. Alright, he had been talking about attacks, but the same principle applied, more or less, to such deceptions.

He sighed and waved his sword. At least everyone had fled the park. No civilians left any more. Now all they needed was the Slayer to finally arrive, and…

...something was charging him from the side! The Slayer! Jim gasped and whirled to face the threat, bringing his sword up, but he was too slow - she ducked below his swing, sliding over the ground, then kicked out, hitting him in the chest with enough force to send him flying.

He hit the ground hard, rolling a few yards, and had trouble breathing. If he hadn't been wearing his armour, he would've been dead. He gasped - he couldn't let that monster hit Toby!

Jim snarled and jumped to his feet, brandishing his sword. "Slayer!" he yelled as loud as he could and charged her. He had to keep her focused on himself until Claire could get them out.

*****​

Damn, that was a tough demon! Buffy Summers had hit him right in the chest with her best kick, and the thing was charging her again. Though and dumb. She bared her teeth - she was the Slayer. And no demon would kill kids on her watch! Especially not with the Council watching!

He was telegraphing his blows, too - with the sword held high, he couldn't… He could! She hissed and dived to the side when the demon flicked the blade and turned an overhand slash into a stab at her. She did a perfect combat roll followed by a somersault and landed facing the monster. "So, I guess you decided that the climbing pole was your personal enemy, huh?"

The demon - the green skin she could see through the helmet was a perfect giveaway - looked confused. Score one for combat quips! Then he shook his head. "Huargh!"

Buffy blinked. From a demon able to take one of her kicks and keep fighting without any sign of being hurt, she would've expected a bit more of a roar. "Wow, you sound like the third understudy for the main act. Is that why you carry such a big sword? To compensate?"

"Wha… you…" Ah, there was the teeth-baring she was used to.

"Slayer!" he yelled again, his voice almost breaking.

Was he a teenage demon? Did demons have their voice change growing up?

Buffy shifted into a modified Muay Thai stance. This time, she would dodge his sword and then put the hurt on him. She waved to him. "What's the matter, big boy? Chicken? You sound like one!"

She kept smiling even though another demon appeared behind this one. Green-skinned as well, but… "Dear Lord!" she yelled. "Did you eat all his demon-food and outgrew your armour?" That was a green lardball!

"Waaagh!" the fat demon screamed, brandishing a flaming hammer as he stepped up to the armoured demon's side.

Two against one - but she was the Slayer. And the fatso demon wasn't wearing armour. She'd take him out first, then use the hammer to crack the other's armour…

But before she could execute her plan, a third demon appeared, straight out of a portal! And that one wasn't wearing armour either! "What's this, first the tin demon, then the flaming blob, and now it's the skanky barbarian demon? Is that a wonderbra you're wearing?"

"Oh, you!" The she-demon from bikini hell was glaring at her.

Yes! Making your enemy angry was the first step to defeating them!

"No!" Ah, the tin demon was a spoilsport. He must be the leader of the group - the others were his minions.

But three against one… She had to kill the she-demon first. The fat one might be tougher. But as exposed as the barbarian queen was, Buffy would be able to nail her with a stake, then follow up with a kick to…

A black portal appeared in front of the demon group, and Buffy jumped to the side, then dashed forward to flank the demons while their view was blocked…

She blinked as the portal disappeared, and with it, the three demons. "Hey! That's cheating!"

Three demons running from her? Her reputation amongst demons must be much better than amongst the Council!

She shook her head and turned as she heard the others arrive. Willow was panting - Buffy would have to make her step up her exercise. They had driven to the park, after all. Xander had come with an arm in a sling and the other holding an axe. Giles was holding a crossbow, trained on the bushes that might conceal demons. And behind them were most of the Old Evil Men Squad.

And all of them had missed how she had just driven off three demons.

*****​

As they stepped out of the portal, James Lake Jr. shivered a little. They hadn't spent time in the in-between shadow dimension; they had stepped directly through the portal into the side alley next to the magic shop, but the knowledge of what it was like… Brr.

"Alright," he said, taking deep breaths - fighting the Slayer even as briefly as he had done had been something. "Let's make this quick."

"In and out," Toby added, adjusting the scarf covering the lower half of his face.

"There might be some people still there," Claire cautioned them.

"They'll run," Toby said.

"Let's hope so. Otherwise, we'll have to subdue them and lock them up somehow," Jim said.

"I can store them in the shadow dimension," Claire offered. "They won't be able to escape."

Jim felt a cold shiver down his spine, but he nodded. It was still better than beating up humans. "Alright, as a last resort." Let's go in and get the hammer."

Claire nodded as well, and he didn't need to see her mouth to know that she had that determined expression that made her look so…

And there was the portal. Jim went through first, of course - he was wearing the armour - and...

...stepped out right in front of a woman who screamed and scrambled back, throwing a chair over.

"Oi!" Hands off the fans!"

Jim whirled to face whoever had said that, Toby all but rammed him from the side coming through the portal.

Jim stumbled, unbalanced for a moment, and a man in a leather coat tackled him into the wall with enough force to crack the plaster and rattle Jim's head.

But he had taken worse blows in training. Snarling, he hit the man with his free hand - he couldn't use the sword on a civilian - and pushed him back.

To his surprise, the blond man was grinning like a loon. "This is perfect! I can't hurt humans, but demons? Fair game, and the Slayer will be grateful for saving the Watcher's shop!"

He looked eager to fight them. Worse than the Slayer herself!

"Is that normal?" Toby asked, activating his hammer.

And the man backpedalled. "Whoa! Flaming hammer? That's not cricket, boys!"

"Alright, To-Torgan, drive him out of the shop!" Jim ordered.

That, somehow, angered the weird man even more. Instead of fleeing out the door behind him, he snarled. "I might as well take you lot with me, then! It's been a few decades since I killed some Deathwok Clan!" He turned to glance at the woman hiding behind him. "But you better run, Missy - those are cannibals!"

Damn. They were facing a hero or something. Sacrificing himself to let the woman get away? Jim glanced at Claire. She nodded, hefting her staff. Jim turned back to face the man…

...and caught a cauldron to the face that had him reeling.

"Ji…!" Claire yelled.

And the man laughed. "Hah! And the witch didn't want to sell them because they were a cliché!"

Jim shook his head, regaining his bearings, then had to duck when the maniac threw another, smaller cauldron at them.

Toby had jumped to the side and rolled a little more than planned, coming up next to the counter, but now they were flanking the guy, and if Jim could lure him into a charge, Claire could portal him.

But then a young girl popped up behind the counter - and behind Toby - with a baseball bat.

"Duck!" Jim yelled.

His friend dropped down, but he wasn't fast enough - the bat caught him on the shoulder in a glancing blow, and he dropped his hammer.

"You daft bit! What are you doing here? Run! They'll eat you!" The blond man screamed and charged at Toby - much faster than a human could move! Jim dashed forward, swinging his blade, but knew he would be too late. "Toby!"

Then a portal opened up right in front of the blond, and he vanished into it. Claire had done it!

"Ow. What hit me?" Toby asked as he got up.

A young girl who was now running to the door in the back, Jim noticed. Well, that was what they wanted, anyway.

With the girl and the blond man gone, and the woman having fled already, they could finally search the shop for the hammer.

*****​
 
It's Checkpoint! Nobody ever does Checkpoint fanfic! You mentioned Nigel already, but don't forget Phillip! Always rolls with the punches, that one.

I don't know much of anything about these Arcadia people, but it doesn't take a detailed evaluation to see they're getting in over their heads. The portals are a good trick and Claire's been keeping them afloat, but the sense of being in a too-high-level area is really coming through; basically everything else they have is barely keeping them alive.

This is a goofier side of Buffy's personality than I've been acquainted with lately; it's enjoyable, and it fits well with the cross, but by the post-Riley era of S5 she was starting to really get into what eventually became the 'General Buffy' personality. She got a 1430 (of 1600, not 2400, though that part is weirdly counterfactual because it happened in 2015 and not 1999) on her SATs, so testing well isn't actually something she's bad at. Or at least not always. I like to think a lot of the ditzyness she displayed was a deliberate affectation, but since TV doesn't include the inner monologue a 3rd person limited perspective does that's up for some debate.

Does Spike's chip work through what he knows in this, and not through some kind of detector-gizmo? His own expectations were contradicted by the chip several times in canon, most notably with Buffy in S6 (the mechanics of how the chip could possibly be doing this detection from inside Spike's head are pretty dubious though.) Or do the Arcadia kids actually not count as human?

The canonicity of any kind of large or even medium scale demon looting by the Buffy gang is probably not too well supported, especially considering the financial straits Buffy was in during S6. I can dig it anyway though.
 
It's Checkpoint! Nobody ever does Checkpoint fanfic! You mentioned Nigel already, but don't forget Phillip! Always rolls with the punches, that one.

What's Checkpoint?

I don't know much of anything about these Arcadia people, but it doesn't take a detailed evaluation to see they're getting in over their heads. The portals are a good trick and Claire's been keeping them afloat, but the sense of being in a too-high-level area is really coming through; basically everything else they have is barely keeping them alive.

Well, they're not quite that bad. It's mostly inexperience and faulty intel. On the other hand, they would mop up the floor with most vampires - Toby got a fire hammer, Jim's sword is aptly named "Daylight", and Claire can crowd control with her portals.

This is a goofier side of Buffy's personality than I've been acquainted with lately; it's enjoyable, and it fits well with the cross, but by the post-Riley era of S5 she was starting to really get into what eventually became the 'General Buffy' personality. She got a 1430 (of 1600, not 2400, though that part is weirdly counterfactual because it happened in 2015 and not 1999) on her SATs, so testing well isn't actually something she's bad at. Or at least not always. I like to think a lot of the ditzyness she displayed was a deliberate affectation, but since TV doesn't include the inner monologue a 3rd person limited perspective does that's up for some debate.

Oh, part of it is certainly an act. But partially internalised as well. And I think her first year in college did dampen her self-view somewhat after her great SATs. But mostly, I like to keep her more bubbly than the depressing version we saw post-Season 5. More early Buffy.

Does Spike's chip work through what he knows in this, and not through some kind of detector-gizmo? His own expectations were contradicted by the chip several times in canon, most notably with Buffy in S6 (the mechanics of how the chip could possibly be doing this detection from inside Spike's head are pretty dubious though.) Or do the Arcadia kids actually not count as human?

The chip's not magical, so it can't detect demons in this story. It's all Spike's perception.

The canonicity of any kind of large or even medium scale demon looting by the Buffy gang is probably not too well supported, especially considering the financial straits Buffy was in during S6. I can dig it anyway though.

I wouldn't say it's organised looting - but with all the demons of the week, they are bound to have picked up a lot of odds and ends in four years.[/QUOTE]
 
Gunmar's name is misspelled in the summary, which I assume is a typo as it's spelled correctly later in the actual story. Does the armor have a helmet before they gather the stones to use eclipse mode?
 
You know, Checkpoint! ... I guess a sign of doing too much research is you start to memorize the episode names.

Doh. I looked for a series :p Forgot the episode name.

Gunmar's name is misspelled in the summary, which I assume is a typo as it's spelled correctly later in the actual story. Does the armor have a helmet before they gather the stones to use eclipse mode?

Damn. Fixed that.

And yes, I assume the armour came with a helmet from the start.
 
Chapter 4: The Hospital
Chapter 4: The Hospital

Sunnydale, January 14th, 2017

"Ow! Ow!"

"Just hold still - it doesn't look broken," James Lake Jr. said as he checked Toby's shoulder. But it would bruise something heavily.

"The girl's gone," Claire said. "Out the back door. "There's a training room there - with a smashed wooden dummy."

"What girl?" Toby was still rubbing his shoulder.

"The girl that hit you with a baseball bat," Jim told him.

"She must have been a demon! She snuck up on me and almost killed me!" Tony exclaimed. "A little to the right and she'd smashed my head in like… like a watermelon in an anime beach episode!"

Jim shook his head. "Well, she didn't hit you as hard as a troll would've done." If that had happened, Toby's shoulder would've been pulped. "Now, let's look for the hammer! We can't stay too long!"

"And stop rubbing your shoulder - you'll smear the makeup!" Claire told Toby.

"It hurts!"

Jim shook his head again and started to search the shop. They would have a basement, wouldn't they?

"Here's a hammer!" Claire exclaimed, pointing at a hammer mounted on the wall in the back part of the shop. Freshly mounted, Jim noticed - they hadn't even fixed the wall.

"Great! Let's get it and get out," Toby said. "I need some ice pack."

"Wait!" Jim snapped as Claire reached out for the hammer. "This might be a trap! No one would leave the Hammer of the Troll Gods in the open like that!"

"But it looks like the picture in the book," Claire objected.

"Then it's a trap - or a decoy!" Toby added. "Plant a fake hammer, thieves take it, miss the real one."

"Easy to check," Jim said and pulled the Divine Compass out of his backpack. It pulled towards the hammer. "But it seems to be the real hammer," he mumbled.

"Then it must be a trap. There has to be some curse on it. Or it's like Excalibur, stuck in the stone!" Toby shook his head, then winced and grabbed his shoulder again. "Ow!"

"That wasn't Excalibur but the Sword in the Stone," Claire corrected him.

"Can you tell if there's a curse on it?" Jim asked before they could get into a discussion - or argument. Blinky had been teaching her about magic, hadn't he? She'd read books, at least.

Claire wet her lips and looked at the hammer. "Not without casting a spell."

And they were on a Hellmouth; Blinky had warned them against doing any magic.

"Well, we can't just leave it here." Jim took a deep breath. "I'll take it; my armour will protect me." Merlin had forged it, and there was no way some curse could beat his magic. At least Jim hoped so.

"Jim…" Claire shook her head. "I'll check. One spell won't hurt."

"You know what Blinky said," Jim objected. "And if there's a curse on it, we'll still need to deal with it."

"But we would have an idea about its protections," Claire said.

"We're also running out of time," Toby cut in. "Let's just knock it over with a pole and see if that triggers a trap."

"We didn't bring any pole," Jim replied. "But there's bound to…"

"I saw a pole in the training room!" Claire said, whirling and dashing to the back of the shop.

"Do you think they have an ice pack in the shop?" Toby asked in a low voice. "My shoulder's really hurting. If I get that girl…" Jim glared at him, and he sighed. "I won't hurt her, don't worry. But, really… she tried to kill me!"

"Well, what would you have done in her place?" Claire asked as she returned. "Here!"

Jim caught the pole, a little awkwardly - but he didn't drop it nor his sword.

"That's not a pole. That's a quarterstaff!" Toby said.

He was right, too, Jim saw at once. But it would do. "Good enough."

He stuck one end under the handle of the hammer and lifted it. Or tried to. The hammer didn't budge.

"It must be stuck to the wall with magic!" Toby whispered.

"Or it's just really heavy," Jim replied before Claire could get ideas. "Let's see if physics was right."

"Physics? Oh, leverage!" Toby exclaimed.

"Yes." Jim took a step towards the hammer, then stuck the staff between the hammer and the wall, down between the two mounts. Now all he would have to do was to pull strong enough to dislodge the hammer.

"Wait! Let us help!" Toby said. "More weight is more force, right?"

"Right." Jim nodded. "Everyone, grab the staff."

They ended up with Toby in front, then Claire, and Jim behind her. Which was very distracting. At least he was wearing armour. If he were wearing a barbarian costume… "Alright!" he snapped. "Pull!"

And he pulled with as much force as he could manage. For a moment, he felt the hammer starting to move.

Then the staff broke, and everyone fell on Jim.

*****​

"Yes, there were three demons - green-skinned humanoid demons," Buffy Summers explained, again, to the others. She was aware that her smile was too toothy to be considered friendly, but she didn't care. "You can see where they smashed the climbing pole." The remains were still smoking, after all.

"Three demons? And you let them escape?" Travers probably sneered even when he was unconscious. Buffy had half a mind to find out.

But that would make her fail the test. Review. Inspection. Whatever. So she kept smiling. "All of them had magic weapons, but I was about to take them down when they fled using a magic portal thingie." She ignored Giles's wince. 'Thingie' was a perfectly fine word - she used it all the time!

The other guy, Nigel, scoffed. "How convenient." He looked around. "For a serious demon attack, there's a suspicious lack of blood. You claimed to have fought armed demons yet suffered no wound? Nor did you spill the blood of any of your enemies?"

"Are you calling me a liar?" Buffy spat. She could show him how she spilt blood! With a very personal demonstration!

"The traces on the ground certainly indicate a battle," Giles said. "You can see where heavy steps left marks on the soil - if you care to look instead of letting your prejudices and preconceptions form the base of your argument."

Yeah, go get them, Giles!

"Really, Rupert - this is, or was, a children's playground," Nigel replied. "Of course the brats will leave tracks."

"You have no idea about kids or tracks, do you?" Buffy asked.

"Kids don't destroy climbing poles, either," Willow cut in.

"No matter how much we might want to," Xander added. "Might have wanted to, I mean."

Nigel rolled his eyes. "And the Slayer's 'friends' vouch for her - how very convincing."

"You really are prejudiced," Willow told him with a stern face. "That's not a good attitude for anyone conducting a review. With such preconceptions, you'll be unable to get an objective result."

"I think that's their goal," Xander stage-whispered.

"Oh."

"Look, you must have run into the fleeing families," Buffy said. "They didn't run from me. I saw the demons here - green-skinned, with a scaly forehead, wearing armour. Both the tin can variety and the skanky leather bikini armour."

"Bikini armour? Really?" Xander blinked with a slightly goofy expression.

"Behave, buster!" Willow whispered.

"Sorry."

Giles cleared his throat. "Anyway, green-skinned humanoid demons with scales on their foreheads - that indicates Deathwok Clan demons."

"Yes." Travers nodded. "And it's telling that the Slayer didn't recognise them on sight."

"Oh, for…!" Buffy started to say when her phone started vibrating. "Oh. Sorry - I have to take this call. My Mom's in the hospital, you know."

She ignored the muttered "Another problem" from Nigel, but it took an effort not to crush the phone. "Yes?"

"Buffy!" That was Anya - and why was she whispering? "Deathwok Clan demons are attacking the shop! Spike fought them, but they teleported him away, and Dawn ran away! They're looting the shop!"

Buffy gasped. Dawn? What was Dawn doing at the shop? Had the brat sneaked out of their home again? And… Spike was gone? "The demons are attacking the magic box!" she yelled, already turning to rush back. "This was a distraction!"

They lured her away and then took out Spike to get Dawn! Of course, the demons wearing skimpy armour would be working for the skanky bottle-blonde demon!

Buffy clenched her teeth as she ran all-out. They wouldn't get her sister! She'd kill them all!

She jumped over the fence surrounding the park, landed on an ugly car - though not Giles or one of the Council's - and jumped off. While the car alert sounded behind her, she ran down the street, cutting across the crossing and ignoring the cars honking and braking. Dawn! She had to save Dawn! And for that, she had to kill the damn demons!

*****​

"Oof!" James Lake Jr. was glad he was wearing armour able to deflect a blow from a troll - both Claire and Toby were lying on top of him.

"Get… off… squashing… me!" Claire muttered.

"I think I have a splinter in my hand!" Toby returned.

"Get… Off!"

Jim helped Claire out and pushed Toby off them.

"Thank you." Claire sighed, smiling at him. And lying on top of him. In her skimpy demon costume.

Jim regretted wearing armour. And then he was glad again he was wearing armour. "Anytime," he managed to say.

They smiled at each other for a moment.

Then Toby broke it. "I think I made my shoulder worse," he said. "And we didn't budge the hammer. It must be magically stuck to the wall."

Claire got up and recovered her staff. "No. It moved a little. But we can't transport it like this. I can't even push it into a portal."

"Perhaps it's like the Sword in the Stone," Jim speculated as he got up. "Just… on the wall."

"It is magically protected," Claire objected to his plan before he could voice it. "And there might be bad curses."

"Are there good curses?" Toby asked, still holding his shoulder. "Ow."

"That depends on who got cursed," Jim quipped. Or tried to. "But we…"

The front door being smashed open interrupted him. He whirled and gasped - the Slayer was coming right at him! Damn!

Jim brought his blade up - in the cramped conditions of the shop, the Slayer couldn't just…

But she could. Right before she would have impaled herself on his sword, she jumped to the side, into the wall - but feet first. Then she launched herself off the wall, cracking the plaster, and flew over his swing, landing on the counter in a crouch. Jim started to turn, but she was already in the air again, and this time descending on him.

One hand swatted his sword to the side. The other came straight for his throat. Jim yelped and ducked, but her blow clipped his helmet and sent him reeling back. Before he could recover, a kick caught him in the chest. He flew back, his breath knocked out of him, then crashed into the wall and barely managed to catch his fall with both hands.

"You won't get my sister!" the monster snarled.

"Jimbo!"

That was Toby!

The Slayer turned to face Claire and Toby! No! Jim forced himself up. "Your fight is with me!" he wheezed, summoning his sword and facing the Slayer again.

The demon sneered at him, cocking her head sideways, then rushed him. Just before she reached him, though, a portal appeared in front of Jim. Yes!

Then the Slayer appeared over the portal - she had jumped over it at the last moment! And she'd flipped in the air, coming at him feet-first.

Jim raised his left arm in time to receive her and still was knocked into the wall again - then barely managed to whip his head to the side to avoid her follow-up punch that went through the wall. The brick wall!

This was too much. So much power in such a small frame - they couldn't fight her here. "Run!" he yelled, scrambling away from the monster.

"Run where?" Toby yelled back, trying to heft his hammer with one arm. "There's more of them coming!"

Claire was already creating another portal.

But the Slayer was turning towards them. "No!" Jim yelled, throwing himself at her.

She turned to deflect his blade - but he rammed his shoulder into her, smashing her through a display case into the shelf behind it. Too close for his blade. He struck with his gauntlet - and she caught his punch! And smiled at him.

"Surprise!"

His eyes widened as she pulled her knees up and placed the heels of her boots on his chest.

"Not agAAHHH!"

He was launched backwards head over heels, clipping another display and sending it crashing to the ground before he slammed against the counter.

"Jim! The portal!" Claire was standing at the portal. No, inside.

Jim snarled, grabbed the wrecked display and threw it at the Slayer. The woman ducked to the side, and Jim dashed towards the portal. The Slayer whirled and launched herself at him, but he flew through the portal a moment before she reached him.

He smashed against a trash container, crumpling its side, and rolled over a dirty floor, in pain from all the blows he had taken, but he didn't mind for the moment as he lay there, panting.

His friends were safe. He was safe. Even though they had fought a monster that hit harder than a death-roll of Draal!

And Blinky had some explaining to do. How were they supposed to recover a hammer they couldn't move?

*****​

"Did you see them this time?" Buffy Summers snapped as she turned to the Council guys. "Three demons, magic items, portals!" She gestured towards the wrecked back of the shop. "Right here!"

"That seemed to have been a portal, judging by the way the last demon disappeared through it," Travers said. "And they did look like Deathwok Clan demons."

"You let them escape again," Nigel commented.

"'Let them'? I'd like to see you catch a bunch of teleporting demons!" she shot back.

Nigel sniffed. "You just have to be faster - you always had them despite your failure to anticipate their moves."

"Really?" Oh, she wanted to show him how she could anticipate his moves - and his screams!

"Yes. If you had had proper training, this wouldn't have happened."

"I've met Kendra, who had 'proper training', and I easily beat her." Buffy did her best to sneer at the idiot. "She wouldn't have survived against this demon, much less all three!"

"Indeed," Giles - looking slightly rumpled, she noticed - added. "Kendra, for all her training, had trouble adapting to the conditions on a Hellmouth. Demons are much more dangerous here - something most of our manuals fail to note."

"And you didn't think to mention that?" Nigel scoffed.

"I mentioned preliminary observations in my reports. Unfortunately, I was fired before I could compile more solid evidence," Giles retorted. Yes! Full broadsides! Or something.

Buffy beamed at him. Then she noticed his frown.

Oh, right. She kinda had wrecked the shop. Oops.

"That wasn't me!" she quickly said. "The demons were looting the shop and broke things." Technically true - even though much of it was broken by their bodies, thrown by Buffy.

"There you are! Why… my shop!" Anya exclaimed.

"I believe it's my shop," Giles remarked. "Even though there might have been some misleading events happening lately."

This wasn't the time to quibble over such things. "Anya! Where's Dawn?" Buffy asked.

"She ran," Anya replied. "Did you call her?"

Buffy blinked. Right, her cell phone. She pulled it out of her pocket and silently sighed with relief - it was still intact. Mostly - there was a crack in the casing, but that had been there before, if not as large. She quickly dialled 'Dawn'.

"Buffy?"

"Dawn! Where are you?" Yes, she was alive and well. Until Buffy was through with explaining to her why she should stay safely at home, at least!

"Did you get the demons?"

"They're gone. Come back to the Magic Box!"

"Don't order me around! Where is Spike?"

"Spike…" Buffy pressed her lips together.

"They sent him through a portal!"

Oh. He was… well, alive was the wrong word. "We don't know. Yet. Come back!"

"Don't nag me! You were the one who ran away, leaving the shop!"

Jeez, she was such a brat! Buffy had been much better behaved at her age. "Just come! Those demons are still around. They're cannibals." She heard Dawn gasp through the phone and grinned without humour. That should scare the pain in the butt straight. At least for a bit. "Dawn?"

"I'm coming." Sullen and pouting, no doubt, but she was coming.

Buffy ended the call and noticed that everyone was staring at her. "What?"

"Completely distracted by her sister." Nigel shook his head and…

"Are you writing this down?" That was so unfair!

"Really, Quentin, I believe we have more important things to worry about than your silly inspection," Giles said, pointing at the green blood the three demons had left.

"More important than the Slayer's ability to do her duty without distractions?"

"Yes. I first thought this was blood, but…" Giles held up a handkerchief. "The consistency doesn't match what we know about Deathwok Clan demons."

Buffy stepped closer and leaned in, sniffing the handkerchief. "That's not blood. That's... " She blinked. "...makeup?"

*****​

"Alright! We need to get rid of the makeup, and quickly!" James Lake Jr. said. Posing as demons to lure a demon killer away hadn't been a good idea, he had to admit.

"Not here," Claire replied, making a point of looking around in the side alley they had landed in.

"Where is here, anyway?" Toby asked.

"An alley I saw a cat in on the way to the centre of the town," Claire told him.

Ah. That explained how she had been able to open a portal leading here. There weren't many cats in Arcadia Oaks. Only those who spent the night inside. He shook his head. They had more important things to worry about. "So, back to where we changed the first time?" No one had seen them in the abandoned warehouse near the bus station.

Claire nodded and flicked her staff, opening another portal for them. Once inside the warehouse, she quickly stepped behind the broken machinery that had served as a screen the first time, then threw a pack of wipes over to them.

Right. No peeking. No thinking about Claire stripping behind the… Jim clenched his teeth and was glad that his face was still covered with green makeup. That hid his blush somewhat.

"Careful with that," Toby told him. "My shoulder's hurting. A lot."

Right. Jim nodded. "Don't worry."

"I am worrying. Can you at least change out of the armour?"

"Good idea."

*****​

"...and that's when we had to retreat," Jim finished his report to Blinky over his phone.

"And then you killed me!" Toby complained for the tenth time or so.

"I didn't," Jim replied. He had been quite careful - but there was only so much you could do when wiping the skin over a bruise when the lightest touch hurt.

"You're still alive," Claire said. She was back in her regular clothes, something which filled Jim with both relief and regret.

"Barely."

"Enough," Jim told them. "Blinky? What's up with the hammer? How are we supposed to recover it if we can't even move it?"

Blinky replied in that cheerful voice of his that so often brought bad news. "Oh, I believe there was a misunderstanding. The hammer has a powerful enchantment on it which means only those deemed worthy by the Troll Gods - or whoever cast the spell so long ago - may lift it. But the trollhunter always qualifies! You were chosen by Merlin's amulet, after all - there's no better judge of character!"

"We couldn't move it even when we used a staff for leverage," Jim told him.

"Oh. That's the misunderstanding - my fault entirely, I'm afraid. I didn't think to mention what was obvious to me. Quite the oversight, in hindsight, so to speak."

"What didn't you tell us?" Jim asked, grinding his teeth. Blinky was great, but sometimes, his tendency to ramble could grate on anyone's nerves.

"Oh. You need to pick it up with your own hand - the hammer wouldn't be able to judge you otherwise."

Jim blinked. "And what about the potential curses on it?"

"Magical defences? Traps?" Claire added loud enough so Blinky would hear her.

"Traps was my idea!"

"Oh. The hammer should be protected against curses. I believe."

That wasn't very reassuring, in Jim's opinion. And, judging by their expressions, his friends agreed.

*****​

"What do we do now?" Claire asked after Jim had ended the call. "They know that we want the hammer. And that we tried to lure them away."

"And that we're wounded. Well, I am," Toby added.

"They won't fall for the same trick again," Jim agreed. "And we need to find a doctor to check if you've broken something." This was a mess.

"You said it wasn't broken!" Toby protested, looking afraid.

"I said it didn't look broken - but Mom's the doctor, not me," Jim corrected him. "Though I know that you can break bones, or get hairline fractures, without it being obvious. Until they heal wrong and leave you in permanent pain…" He trailed off when he saw Toby's face. Damn.

"We can't go to a doctor here!" Claire protested. "They'd call our parents."

"Right." They would have to take the bus back to Arcadia Oaks. And then make up some excuse for an accident. "We could say you slipped and fell from your bike and then have Mom check you out." He didn't want to try Trollmarket; troll medicine tended to have some side effects.

"Won't she notice that the wound is' older than that?" Claire pointed out.

"Right. And she would check you out if you go to the hospital in Arcadia Oaks," Jim said. Damn it. If only he could tell Mom the truth - but Strickler would… Jim silently cursed. "Maybe we can make a detour to Los Angeles and get into a hospital there with a fake name and address? Portal out once they're done, no one the wiser?"

"Why would you want to do that in Los Angeles?" Claire asked.

"It's a big city, and the doctors are unlikely to walk into us on the street?" Jim shrugged; it was a spur of the moment idea.

Claire shook her head. "We could do that here; we won't be back after we get the hammer."

"But we don't have the hammer yet," Jim told her. "And the Slayer might've contacts at the hospital to know about demons seeking treatments. Or a victim being treated."

"Yes, that makes sense," Claire agreed. "The Slayer has been in the town for years; she must have undermined the authorities. We can't trust anyone here."

Well, it wasn't as if they could trust anyone with the truth about trolls, anyway. "So… how do we get a fake ID?" And in an hour or so - it was already afternoon, and they had to be back home at eight.

Claire stared at him. "Why do you think I would know that?"

Jim almost blurted out that she was smarter than him, that was why, but managed to turn it into a shrug. "It was just a question. What do you think, Tobes?"

"Huh?"

Toby looked rather pale, Jim noticed. "Tobes?"

"Sorry, not feeling so well," his friend said.

"You don't look well, either," Claire pointed out.

Pale, not very responsive, recently hurt… Jim clenched his teeth. He didn't know what those symptoms meant, but it wasn't good. "We have to get you to a hospital, Tobes. Right now."

"But…" Claire looked at him and shut up. "Right." She nodded. "Then we need another disguise. And quickly."

*****​

Buffy Summers leaned forward and took another sniff at the handkerchief. "It doesn't smell demony," she said. "Just old spicy… Oh." That was Giles.

She ignored his expression and sniffed the green stuff on the corner. "Nope. Nothing demony. Demon-like." She shook her head. She wasn't the best at sniffing out demons - alright, she was the worst; not even having twigged that Angel, Mr 'It's not you, it's Angelus', was a vampire - but she would notice the stench of demon blood. Probably. "It does look like makeup."

"Let me take a look at it!" Willow - when had she arrived? - looked eager. "I can analyse it and find out what it is."

"Why would a demon wear makeup?" Xander asked.

"To disguise themselves, of course," Buffy told him. Duh!

"A demon would disguise itself as another demon?" Xander frowned.

"But Buffy doesn't sense anything demony," Willow pointed out as she stoppered the vial with the samples. "So… what if they weren't demons, but trying to pass as demons?"

"What? Thieves trying to rob the place and framing innocent Deathwok Clan members for it?" Anya sounded livid.

"The Deathwok Clan demons are notorious slavers and man-eaters," Giles told her. "They are hardly innocent."

"They haven't tried to rob me, though!" Anya retorted.

"This is my shop," Giles said in a slightly tight voice.

"But I work here, and all the books I read agreed that workers identifying with their employer is a good thing!"

"Not to the point that they think they own the place."

"That wasn't in the book!" Anya protested.

And the whole bickering wasn't looking good for her review, either, Buffy realised. Damn.

*****​

"We need help!" James Lake Jr. exclaimed as soon as he and Claire, carrying Toby between them, entered the lobby of the Sunnydale Memorial. "We were attacked by some weird people wearing costumes!"

"Ah." The receptionist, a middle-aged nurse, looked. "Exsanguination?"

"Ex-what?" Jim asked. He blinked behind the thick-rimmed glasses. He wanted to brush the hair hanging into his eyes back, but that might dislodge his wig.

"We think he's got internal bleeding," Claire replied. She didn't have any trouble wearing her wig, of course. "But we didn't find a wound - he was hit with a club or something - it happened so quickly…" She shook her head, sniffling.

She was a great actress, Jim noticed again. Although Toby really looked bad - Jom knew his friend wasn't a good actor.

Two nurses were already wheeling a gurney in. "Blood loss?" One asked as they lifted Toby onto it.

"Check blood pressure. I see no wound."

"He's going into shock."

And they disappeared with Toby through the doors. The nurse turned back to them. "I need your friend's name for the records," she said.

"Tony - Antony - Smith," Jim told her. "We're from L.A., checking the college here, and we got turned around somehow and…"

"Address?" she interrupted him without looking up.

He gave her the address of the Antony Smith they had found on Facebook. He hoped the guy wouldn't get into too much trouble - but since he had posted that he was 'on a cruise in the Caribbean, so long suckers', he shouldn't have much trouble proving that he hadn't been treated here.

As long as none of the staff here checked Facebook.

The nurse didn't even ask for his student ID or something. Just marked the name and address down. Then she smiled professionally at them and pointed to her left. "Alright. You can wait there in the lobby. The vending machine is stocked, but I wouldn't recommend the coffee maker there."

"Uh… about his insurance…" Claire started to ask.

"We have a fund for accidents and attacks," the nurse flashed another tired smile at them. "Don't worry about it. It's covered."

Jim blinked. Free treatment? For 'accidents and attacks'? That was…

Claire nodded. "Thank you, ma'am. We'll wait."

But the nurse was already staring at her screen again.

Jim followed Claire to the couch in the corner of the lobby. "Free healthcare?" he whispered.

Claire looked as confused as he was. "They must have lots of attacks on a Hellmouth. Perhaps this 'Council' is behind this, covering up the attacks so the town doesn't attract attention?"

"Well, if it avoids any trouble with insurance companies…" Jim shook his head. "But there would be follow-up costs. Rehab, therapy…" Something felt off. He stood up and went over to the vending machine. "Want anything? My treat."

"No," Claire said. She was looking at the floor.

He sighed and bought two Mars bars, then went back to his seat. "For Toby," he said when she glanced at him.

"Ah." She nodded.

Jim leaned back and closed his eyes. This was all his fault. If he had been a better Trollhunter, if he had had a better plan to deal with the Slayer, Toby wouldn't have been hurt. They should've prepared better. Not gone in all half-cocked. He sighed.

"Toby will be OK," Claire said in a low voice. She didn't sound very convincing, though.

Jim nodded anyway. "He's tough." He had fought trolls, goblins, changelings… he wouldn't die to a girl with a baseball bat. He couldn't. Jim gritted his teeth.

He balled his hands into fists. Toby had to survive.

*****​

"And those… intruders… defeated Spike - a member of the whirlwind?" Travers narrowed his eyes at Buffy Summers.

She met his glare with one of her own, then glanced at Dawn, who was sitting in a corner with Willow. Her sister looked pretty down - but Buffy couldn't do anything about that right now.

"Yes." The female councilwoman nodded. "I saw it from the door. He attacked them, trying to hold them off so we - I and the Slayer's sister - could escape - and he vanished in that… portal."

"That doesn't sound like the actions a vampire would take." Apparently, Travers didn't even trust his own woman - well, female minion, Buffy corrected herself.

"Indeed. I was as surprised as you are, sir," the woman - what was her name again? Lydia? - said. "But he did throw himself at the demons and told us to run. My interest in his, ah, career, might've appealed to his vanity."

"Perhaps." Travers sneered. "In any case, he's gone now. If they sent him away, he likely appeared outside in sunlight and burned.

Buffy pressed her lips together. Spike, gone? She doubted that. The vampire was a pest, but he wasn't a pushover. And yet… portalling a vampire into the sun would be a very easy way to destroy them. As would be portalling a Slayer a mile or two up in the air, she reminded herself. Those probably-not-demons were even more dangerous than she had thought. "They'll return," she said. "And we need to be ready for them. They must be working for the demon we told you about," she added with a glare.

"We have no proof of that," Travers replied, glaring back at her. "We'll continue the review."

Oh for… She clenched her teeth. She couldn't tell them that the fakey demons were after Dawn - the key Miss Demon-Skank wanted. That would endanger Dawn. "Look," she said instead. "We're having a crisis here."

"A crisis? Whether those intruders were demons that you were unable to identify or humans in disguise, you drove them off. At least you claim so. Do you have so little confidence in your work that you fear they will be back? And that you cannot handle them?" Travers raised his eyebrows. "I might almost suspect that this was an elaborate ruse to make us hand over the information."

She gasped. "You'd think… you honestly think I would do that?" Although, on second thought, it did sound like a nifty idea.

"If we'd done that, we'd hired real demons!" Willow still wasn't helping.

"This is beyond the pale, Quentin!" Giles spoke up. "Are you seriously suggesting this was a hoax?"

"I notice an obvious lack of victims and damage after two supposed attacks," Travers replied. "That, and the apparent fact that those 'demons' were disguised humans, does strongly hint at this being a setup."

"Indeed," Nigel the toady chimed in. "And you calling attention to the disguises is one of the oldest tricks in the book to divert suspicion."

Buffy shook her head. Those Council-geezers obviously had too many James Bondy-types in their Council if they were thinking like that! "I didn't hire them, and neither did any of my friends!" she spat. "And whether they were demons I couldn't smell…"

"Which certainly is a failing on your part," Nigel cut in. "Any Slayer should be able to sense a demon."

She glared at him; it wasn't her fault she wasn't good at sniffing out demons. "...or humans in disguise, they were dangerous. You saw that yourself!" She pointed at maybe-Lydia. "They could teleport!"

"Yes!" Anya nodded vigorously. "And if they could easily get in here to steal our goods, imagine what they will do once they set their eyes on your vaults!"

That finally seemed to make the Council guys listen - Buffy could see them exchanging glances.

"Yes!" Xander nodded as well. "If we could hire those people, why wouldn't we have hired them to break into the Council's archives?"

And now the Councilfolks were glaring at them again. Good going, Xander! With such friends, Buffy didn't need any enemies. Or something.

"Nigel," Travers said.

"I'll inform headquarters so they'll increase security," the toady said.

Which meant Buffy's new alternative plan to get the information wouldn't work anymore. Well, no big loss - she hadn't yet worked out how to make the not-demons teleport her around.

"Dear Lord!" Giles shook his head worse than the time Buffy had totally-accidentally mixed up his register cards. "Quentin! We can't afford to play stupid power games! We are facing a demon of unprecedented power, which might have access to a trio of powerful practitioners and experienced thieves. Thieves wielding powerful magic artifacts. I don't need to tell you how dangerous such a group is by itself. Now imagine if they are working for the demon we're fighting!"

Go, Giles! He would've totally convinced Buffy if she hadn't been on board from the start.

Travers, though, was frowning. "I'm afraid that this incident only makes the necessity to thoroughly review your operation here more obvious."

Buffy really wanted to hit the old man. Perhaps taking him hostage would work? Probably not; Giles had been vocal about that when she had mentioned it.

*****​

"Mr Miller? Miss Garcia?"

Oh! James Lake Jr. blinked and looked up. A doctor - well, he looked like a doctor - was smiling at him and Claire. "Yes?"

"I'm Ben. Ben Wilkinson. I'm here on my internship and I'm the physician who was treating your friend. One of them."

"How is To-Tony?" Jim nodded, then controlled himself. He couldn't risk dislodging his wig.

"He'll be fine." Ben smiled. "It wasn't life-threatening. He did have internal bleeding, but we could treat it, and he'll recover without a blood transfusion."

That was good, wasn't it? Jim smiled.

"But he was so pale," Claire said. "And shivering."

"Yes, but we stabilised his circulation with an infusion. We'll have to keep him for a few more days until he's healed from the surgery."

That wasn't good! Toby needed to be home at eight! And… "Surgery?" Jm asked, a little more loudly than he had intended.

"We had to fix the bleeding." Ben shrugged. "It was a simple procedure - they let the intern close up the incision afterwards," he added with a grin.

Jim forced himself to smile at the joke. Claire managed a giggle, but Jim could tell it was fake. "So," he went on, "we can't, uh, transfer him to a clinic in our… L.A.?"

"Well, you could, though that will take some time - probably a day at least. Then a day to transfer him…" Ben shrugged. "You wouldn't really gain any time that way."

"Ah." Then they would have to spring Toby from the hospital. "But he's safe now, right? This is just procedure? My.. dad's a doctor, too," he lied.

"Ah!" Ben's smile grew a little. "Yes, it's mostly procedure."

Good. That meant they could take Toby from the hospital and get him home. "Thank you," he said.

"Thank you so much!" Claire added.

"It's my job," Ben replied. "Well, my internship."

"Can we see Tony?" Claire asked.

"Well, he's still asleep, but in a few hours, you can see him. Where are you staying?"

"With friends here," Claire said. "My mum's best friend from college moved to Sunnydale. We'll be back in a few hours, then."

"Ah." The man smiled at them, then turned and left.

Jim sighed. "We need to get Toby and get him home," he whispered.

"But not right now," Claire whispered back.

"We can't leave him here for long. What if the Slayer is looking for us? Toby's helpless!" Jim replied.

"Yes." Claire nodded. Then her eyes widened. "But… what if she's moving the hammer?"

"Oh." Jim clenched his teeth. That would render everything they had done so far pointless. "I'll check. If the hammer's moving, then she isn't looking for us right now. Let's go outside."

They went out of the hospital, and Jim looked around. No one was looking their way. Then he pulled the Divine Compass out of his backpack and activated it.

And gasped. It was pulling towards the hospital! The hammer was inside the clinic!

*****​
 
Chapter 5: The Review
Chapter 5: The Review

Sunnydale, January 14th, 2017

"Jim?"

James Lake Jr. shook his head. "It can't be." It wasn't possible - but the Divine Compass was pulling straight towards the hospital in front of them - and not towards the magic shop.

"What can't be?" Claire asked in a whisper.

"The Hammer of the Troll Gods is in the hospital," Jim told her.

She gasped. "But…"

"The Slayer must be in the hospital. Hunting for Tobes!" Jim clenched his teeth. The Slayer had almost kill… almost beaten them before. But… they couldn't let her get Toby!

"We can't fight in the hospital!" Claire hissed. "All the patients… and the nurses and doctors… We can't risk them!"

"We need to get Toby out. We can't wait until he wakes up." Jim took a deep breath. "I'll… distract her. Lure her out so we can fight outside, where no others will be endangered." Like Toby. Or Claire. "You get Tobes out. Drop him… near the bus station. There's a patch of forest."

"And then I'll come back for you." She stared at him.

He nodded. "Right." He looked around as he gripped the amulet. No one was watching them in this corner near the hospital's parking lot. "For the glory of Merlin, Daylight is mine to command!"

The armour appeared around him, and, a moment later, he felt the familiar weight on his body. Familiar and comforting. And Daylight appeared in his hand. For a second, he felt as if he could take on anyone and win. Gunmar. Angor Rot. The Slayer.

Then reality asserted itself, and he clenched his teeth again. But no matter the odds, he was the Trollhunter - he knew his duty. And defending the helpless and infirm was pretty much the heart of it. He gripped the Divine Compass with his left hand - easily now, with the armour enhancing his strength - and nodded at Claire. "Let's go."

She returned the nod and opened a portal.

They appeared in a dark room. "Storage room," Claire whispered. "I checked it while we waited."

So smart… He flashed her a smile, then activated the compass. "Left."

"Toby's room is to the right."

"Good." That meant the Slayer hadn't found him. "Text me as soon as he's safe."

"Yes."

With a bit of luck, Claire could get Toby out without Jim having to engage the Slayer. Still… better safe than sorry.

Claire opened the door, looked and left and right, then stepped outside.

Jim followed her. The corridor was empty. And the compass pulled to the left. He took a deep breath and let it guide him.

He moved down the corridor as he had been taught - without making noise. Or barely making noise. It wouldn't have fooled Draal, but it would, or so Jim hoped, fool the Slayer. And it meant he could hear...

...Footsteps! Around the corner! Coming towards him! He gasped - he had to hide! There! A door! He dashed forward, opened it and slid inside the room. Just before whoever was coming turned the corner. Whew!

"Who're you?"

Jim froze. That was… a child? He turned slowly. Yes. He was in a patient's room. And there was a little boy, sitting in a bed covered with comics, staring at him.

"Uh... " Think, Jim, think. What would an armoured man be doing in a hospital? "I'm with the… ah… Wish Foundation." Mom had mentioned that once or twice. "Aren't you Kevin Anderson?"

"No." The boy shook his head. "I'm William. William Fawley."

"Oh. Sorry. It seems they sent me to the wrong room." Jim forced himself to smile. "You didn't order a knight in shining armour, did you?"

William shook his head. "I didn't know you could do that! How do I do that?"

Right. The Wish Foundation was aimed at terminal kids. Jim grimaced. "The Foundation calls you. We've got a special system… a lottery… to decide where we go. Sorry."

William's face fell. "Aw."

Jim kept smiling. "So… Bye! And get well soon!"

Then he was outside again. Whew! But the compass was pulling to his left now - to the direction from where he had come. And where Claire was going. No!

Jim quickly made his way back. If the Slayer was… but how was she carrying the giant hammer without anyone raising a ruckus? Had she so much control over the hospital's staff?

He was past the storage room when the compass suddenly pulled to the left again - towards another door. Another patient's room. Not Toby's.

Jim licked his lips. What to do? Wait? Hide? Challenge the Slayer? Claire might need more time to transport Toby - he was asleep still, and she would have trouble moving him.

And what was the Slayer doing in the room? She would have realised at once that - he glanced at the sign - Mrs Miller wasn't Toby.

He shook his head. No choice. He slowly, carefully opened the door a gap, having to tighten his grip on the Divine Compass, and peered inside.

And stifled a gasp. The Slayer wasn't there. Only an old woman.

And Ben the intern. At whom the compass was pointing.

But this was wrong. Ben couldn't be the hammer - that was impossible. Blinky would've mentioned that. But… did Ben have the hammer? Hidden somehow, by magic?

Jim's phone vibrated, interrupting his frantic thoughts. Claire! She had gotten Toby out of the hospital! That meant he had to leave now.

"Is that your phone?" Jim heard Ben ask the patient.

"My phone?"

Jim clenched his teeth, held his breath and closed the door. He had to leave now! Before Ben - or anyone else - saw him. Back… and out of the hospital. He quickly moved towards the lobby, then reconsidered. People were there. He'd have to dismiss the armour - and they would see him. There was a camera in the lobby, too. Perhaps the side entrance…

He heard loud voices. "...and the bed was empty! He was still unconscious - he couldn't leave by himself!"

Oh, no! They had found about Toby! Jim stopped, then turned. The storage room! He dashed back, towards the room they had used to enter the hospital. The voices were coming closer - they were headed his way!

He ran faster, no longer caring about how loud he was, and reached the storage room ahead of the other people.

He leaned against the door, fished out his phone and frantically sent a text to Claire.

Stuck in Storage Room, portal me out!

Sent. He slowed his breathing, then held his breath when he heard the voices right outside the room.

"I heard steps, yes. Loud ones."

"Here?"

"Yes, doctor. We should check the rooms."

"Are you crazy, Miller?"

"But, doctor…"

"Not by yourself! What if it's an addict trying to rob the pharmacy? Or… you know."

"Yes, doctor. I'll call... security."

Jim clenched his teeth. So, the hospital was in with the Slayer. They were calling her. Where was Claire?

Wait. The Slayer couldn't get here quickly enough to beat Claire. Not unless she was already in the building. Or if something or someone was delaying Claire…

But before he could work himself up, a portal appeared in front of him. "Jim?"

"Claire!" he whispered.

A moment later, he was in the small patch of woods near the bus station. And Toby was there, on the ground, snoring. And wearing hospital scrubs and bandages. "Tobes…"

"He's alright. Or should be," Claire said. He glanced at her, and she bit her lower lip. "But I didn't find his clothes."

"I noticed." At least they had kept his hammer safe. Jom was sure Toby wouldn't worry about his clothes - he had half a dozen spare sets.

"And the ground here isn't… He can't rest here," Claire said.

Jim nodded. "But… where can we take him?" The hospital was out of the question. And they couldn't take him to a hotel, either. Break into an empty house? How would they find one? They weren't trained burglars!

"We…" Join swallowed. "We need to get him home."

"With him like this? We'll be stopped in the bus!"

He drew a deep breath. "Can you… make a portal home?"

Claire looked at him. "I'm very familiar with it, yes. But…"

"It's too dangerous?"

Claire shook her head. "I can do it. I just have to focus."

"Ah. But do you have the energy?"

"It's a matter of mental focus. Concentration."

"Ah." And she was already tired - Jim could see the signs. She looked a little frazzled. And she moved a little… well, slowly. If she opened a portal to Arcadia Oaks, she would be unable to do much afterwards. And if the Slayer found them… "Go back with him."

She glared at him in return. "And leave you alone here? No! My portals are our best defence against the Slayer. And our best way to escape her."

He cringed at her expression. "But…"

"No. If you stay here, I'll stay here."

Well… He sighed. They needed the hammer. "Alright. But let's get Toby to safety."

"Ok."

She took a deep breath - he saw her chest heaving - and flicked her staff. A portal started to open, but it wavered, growing and shrinking rapidly instead of forming at once.

"Fair Claire?"

That was Blinky's voice! "Tobes got hurt! We're sending him back!" Jim told them..

"Good gracious! We'll need to get him to a Healer! Or a Doctor!"

"Wingman…"

"No, no, he was treated already; he just needs to sleep it off!" Jim blurted out. Claire was still struggling to open the portal.

"Fair Claire, focus on us, not the location. I dare say you're more familiar with us than with Tobias's room."

Claire nodded, Jim saw, and closed her eyes, clenching her teeth.

And the portal stabilised. Jim let his breath out, quickly scooped up Toby, and stepped to the portal. "Blinky?"

AAARRRGGHH!!! appeared on the other side, and Jim handed Toby over. "He'll be fine," Jim said, stepping back. "He just…"

The portal closed abruptly, and Claire sagged, sinking down to her knees while propping herself up with her staff.

"Claire!" He reached out for her, then stopped. "Are you...?"

She smiled weakly at him. "That was more difficult than I thought. I should've aimed for Blinky straight away."

She closed her eyes. "I need a little rest."

He caught her before she hit her head on the ground and gently lowered her down.

*****​

"...and we've got a system to track suspicious deaths - I've automated the procedure with a quick script - in both the local news and the government, well, the police systems. That way, we catch most fledglings on the first rise, which has reduced the number of deaths by exsanguination by fifty per cent. The other fifty per cent are mostly due to vampires moving into the town from other areas and the odd vampire who is raised in someone's backyard - sometimes, vampires are quite cunning, but it's hard to control the bloodlust - although I think it would be more precise to call it bloodthirst, but that has also recently acquired certain implications, at least in teenage and tween slang. Anyway, so, while there have been vampires who flew under the radar and managed to raise more of them - we caught a number of them thanks to truancy reports; vampires really shouldn't try to turn students since students missing class due to undead-induced sunlight allergy tend to get noticed - the local schools have been tracking student numbers much better since we killed Mayor Wilkinson since now they rely more on state subsidies for schools. His funds are still used to cover health costs, by the way, and unless we're running into another financial crisis or health costs rise beyond the predicted values, the investments should keep the fund afloat. I wonder if the mayor used a dark ritual for those predictions since I have been checking his investment history, and it was almost perfect - just varied enough to avoid the federal investigators. Not that I would ever contemplate doing a magic spell for financial gains, even though more funding would be really useful for battling the demony threats to mankind."

Buffy Summers had to hide a grin when she caught the expression on the old geezer - Philip something - interviewing Willow. She was babbling most excellently today. On the other hand, Buffy suspected that this wasn't an act - her bestie liked to show off, even though she didn't like that she liked showing off, and… This was getting complicated. Anyway, Buffy knew Willow liked tests, and this was like a big test. Hugely important. More important for their future, arguably, than the SATs - which were like the last tests Buffy had done good at, not counting the test against that Ranger squad the Initiative had arranged.

She buried the memory. That way lay Riley, and Buffy really didn't need to think about Mr 'I let vampires suck my blood because you won't pamper my fragile male ego'. Why were all the men in her life so… so… bad at being good supportive boyfriends of a Slayer?

"So… you have infiltrated the entire local government?" Philip asked.

"Yes? I mean, no - are you a cop? Do I need a lawyer? I mean, sorry, I know you aren't a cop, but it just seemed the thing to say - too many television shows, I guess; my parents did warn me about that, but they also warned me about a variety of things that turned out to be harmless and failed to warn me about a variety of things, usually demony, that are very dangerous, so... " Willow took a deep breath. "I wouldn't call it infiltrating the government, actually. I'm merely… exercising my rights of self-defence and information access. After all, we need this information to do our job. Only we're not getting paid for this, either, which seems a little unfair, seeing as we're responsible for keeping the biggest demon population on the continent in check. At least reimbursing us for the hardware costs would be a big help."

"Hardware costs?" Philip sounded as lost as he looked.

"Yes. I run a dedicated rig for this, with a battery pack ready to supply power in the case of a blackout - some demons might cause a blackout for nefarious purposes, you know? They haven't so far, but it's best to be prepared, don't you think?"

"Yes."

"Right." Willow cleared her throat. "Anyway, where was I? Right! Buffy acts on the information gathered, which means the efficiency of her patrols is way higher than if she just randomly patrolled the cemeteries - I've run the numbers, and the data doesn't lie. See? The increase in slayings and the reduction in deaths is clearly influenced by the introduction of this tracking system!"

"I believe my dear colleague is a little overwhelmed," Giles, leaning against the counter, commented - low enough so only Buffy's ears would pick it up. Which, of course, he knew. She flashed him a smile, which returned with one of his own.

At least this review was going well. Probably. She cocked her head and tried to focus on the interview in the back.

"So… I mostly do what needs to be done. Carpenting, other repairs, playing bait, axe-support... " Buffy knew Xander was shrugging without having to see him.

"So… are those training dummies your work?"

"Yes. I also carve stakes. I know, in a pinch, any piece of wood will work, but properly carved stakes just work better. I've got it down pretty well now and make most stakes in my workshop, but I also like to carve to, you know, relax. Something soothing about creating a weapon to kill more vampires."

And now Xander would be wearing that dopey smile with only a hint at bloodlust - the good kind of bloodlust, in Buffy's opinion. Too bad she couldn't see the Watcher's reaction to that.

"Miss Summers?"

She suppressed a sigh. And now it was time for her test. With Travers, the not-teacher-but-still-teachery guy from hell. Or London. She couldn't help it. "Yes?" She cocked her head to the side and beamed at the old geezer with the best obviously-fake smile she could muster.

He frowned in return - as did Giles - but didn't comment. Instead, he gestured towards a small table that usually served to display scented oils and now had two mismatched chairs placed there. "Shall we sit down?"

She didn't want to. Sitting down when she wanted to lash out, show the man that she was the Slayer felt wrong. But this wasn't a battle she could win by punching people. Probably not. "Yes, we shall."

"You've been patrolling quite irregularly," he said as soon as they sat.

"Of course," she retorted. "If you patrol regularly, the enemy will adapt to your pattern. That's basic tactics." Riley had said so as well.

Travers stared at her for a moment, then looked at his notes. Buffy resisted the urge to crane her neck to try and decipher them. They didn't look like they were written in a neat hand, anyway. "You spend a lot of time in college."

"Yes. A good education is worth a lot. Didn't you just criticise my 'lack of classical education'?"

"Psychology isn't exactly necessary for a Slayer."

She sniffed. "On the contrary. Insight into how people behave is very useful. And do you know how many demony plots we discovered at school or in college?"

"All those that you've reported," he shot back.

"I've reported all the demons! And the witches. And the warlocks."

"Yes. Without much detail, though."

Hadn't they gone over that before? She narrowed her eyes. "Do you still think I'm making this up?"

"Your numbers are, even taking into account that you're on a Hellmouth, far too high compared to all other Slayers on record."

"I'll say, Quentin! Are you accusing me of falsifying my reports?" Giles butted in.

The two men glared at each other. "I'm merely pointing out how unusual those numbers are."

"That's the Hellmouth for you." Buffy bared her teeth at both. She was the Slayer - this was about her. "Apocalypse Season round the clock."

"Your flippant attitude isn't helping," Travers said.

"It's gallows humour," she shot back. "It's how people - some people - cope with constant fighting and lethal danger." Go, psychology course! She leaned forward. "Do you know why so many Slayers die so soon? Even or especially those trained by Watchers their entire life?"

Travers couldn't resist. He leaned forward as well. "Training can only go so far in preparing them for their duty."

She scoffed. "That's only half the reason. The other half is the constant fighting with no rest. After a while, it gets too much. Fighting demons night after night, no rest for the not-wicked, no reward or relaxation, just the next mission, the next fight to look forward to? No one can take that."

"Slayers fight to the last! They don't give up!"

"The hell they don't!" she spat. "They don't give up like dropping their stake and baring their throat - but they stop caring whether they live or die. Subconsciously, they want it to end. And that's when and why they die. Every Slayer has a death wish after a while." Spike had told her that a while ago, but it made sense. And her college books agreed.

Travers was staring at her. Hah! But so was everyone else in the shop. Willow was sniffling. And Giles looked like she had hit him. With all the power of a Slayer.

Damn.

*****​

Claire was looking better, James Lake Jr. noticed. She wasn't looking good, though. Well, she was always looking good, of course - she was so beautiful, it hurt sometimes - but she was still looking tired. Just not exhausted anymore. She needed more rest.

But it was the middle of the afternoon - they only had a few more hours until they had to take the bus back. And Jim doubted that Claire could open a portal to Arcadia Oaks in her current state. Though a little more rest wouldn't hurt. They could stay a little longer, sitting on the bench here, in the park.

But Claire suddenly gasped. "Oh, no! We forgot to ask Blinky about the Divine Compass!"

Oh. Right. "Well, we were a little busy, what with Tobes and the portal," Jim said. "Let's call him." He grabbed his phone from his backpack and dialled the phone they had left with Blinky.

"How does this work again? Master Jim? Can you hear me?"

"Yes, Blinky," Jim said.

"Master Jim! What happened? Do you require assistance?"

"Yes. I mean, the talking kind. Information. We aren't fighting," Jim replied. "But… when I used the Divine Compass at the hospital, it pointed at an intern, not at the hammer."

"Oh. Are you sure? Maybe the… intern? … was standing between you and the hammer?"

"Yes, I'm sure." Jim rolled his eyes. As if he'd make such an obvious mistake. "It moved when he moved."

"Oh," Blinky repeated himself. "Well, the Divine Compass, as the name says, points at anything divine in origin or nature."

"Ben the intern is a god?" Jim blurted out.

"No, no." Blinky chuckled. "The times of gods walking the earth are long gone. But he might have a divine ancestor. Although that would've had to have been a recent, ah, event, for the compass to pick it up. The, ah, touch of the divine, as such is sometimes called, rarely last for more than one or two generations."

"Well, it was as strong or even stronger than the call of the hammer," Jim told him.

"That's very curious. Oh, I wish I were there and could take a look myself. But I think this is a mystery for another time. You need to focus on recovering the Hammer of the Troll Gods, Master Jim."

"We're, ah, working on it. How's Toby?"

"Tobias is still resting, but his wounds haven't opened during transit, and they don't look too severe."

"Good." Jim smiled. At least his friend was safe.

He glanced at Claire. If only he could say the same about her… He sighed. "So… we still have to get the hammer, but the Slayer and her friends - and allies - are now forewarned."

"I think that's an accurate, if not entirely encouraging, summary of the current situation, Master Jim."

"And another distraction won't work," Claire added.

"As Draal would say: Never count on your enemy making the same mistake twice."

Jim pressed his lips together. He knew that quote - and that Drall added: So, make sure that your first shot hits. "Yes. So, I was wondering if you had any ideas. Because I'm kind of out of ideas - other than 'charge in, grab the hammer and portal out'." And he knew that the Slayer was too quick for that to work.

"Perhaps a magical way to immobilise the Slayer? Long enough for you to acquire the hammer?" Blinky asked.

Jim smiled. "Yes, exactly!"

"I'm afraid nothing comes to mind, Master Jim."

Jim stopped smiling and sighed again. Blinky was a good friend, a great teacher, an invaluable source of crucial information, but his manner of addressing certain topics or sharing said information at times left something to be desired. "So, what can we do?"

"We're running out of time," Claire said. "But I have an idea. We..." She suddenly gasped. "Oh my God! I completely forgot about the prisoner!"

Jim slapped his forehead - he had forgotten about the blond man himself.

"The prisoner?" Blinky asked. "I do not recall you mentioning a prisoner."

"We, uh, were attacked by a blond man, a friend of the Slayer, in the shop, and I, kind of, trapped him in the… shadow dimension." Claire looked embarrassed. About as embarrassed as Jim felt.

"I see," Blinky replied. "Well, it might be a little distasteful, but if your 'prisoner' is a friend of the Slayer, or a valued ally, then you might offer them an exchange."

"The hammer for the prisoner." Jim nodded. It did feel a little dishonourable. More than a little, actually. But it might get them the hammer without anyone else having to be hurt. Or killed.

*****​

"The welfare of the Slayer is the duty of the Watcher." Travers sounded as arrogant as ever, in Buffy Summers's opinion.

"As you pointed out earlier today - several times, I might add - I was removed as Buffy's watcher years ago," Giles said. "And replaced by a pillock," he muttered under his breath, low enough so only Buffy could hear it. In a normal tone, he added: "And while I was officially her Watcher, I did my best to follow instructions and rules laid down by this Council. None of them covered a Slayer's mental health. Apart from how to watch for signs of demonic possession, corruption or Doppelgängers."

"That's because no one so far has had to deal with this," Nigel cut in. "No Slayer or Watcher has ever reported such a… condition."

"It's called post-traumatic stress disorder," Willow snapped. "And it has been well-documented since World War One. Look it up! It was called battle fatigue at the time." Buffy's bestie even bared her teeth at the Watchers before she turned back to Buffy with that horrible horrified expression. "I'm so sorry I missed that - I should've realised what was happening to you! My parents are psychologists! I grew up on this!" she all but wailed. "I'm such a bad friend!"

Buffy hugged her - again - and patted her on the back. "It's OK."

"Yeah, Wills, it's OK," Xander added awkwardly. At least with his broken arm, he couldn't hug Buffy as well. Not that she minded hugs - but in front of everyone? She was supposed to be the perfect Slayer and impress the Council. Not act like...

"No, it's not! And now you're comforting me, even though I should be comforting you!"

Buffy felt tears stain her shoulder and suppressed a sigh. That was exactly why she hadn't told anyone else about this. She didn't want her friends to… to think that…

"So, Buffy, you're not going to kill yourself, right?"

...that. Buffy glared at Dawn, who was sitting behind the counter, playing with some oversized marbles or something. "No, I'm not," she spat as Willow's grip on her tightened. "I've got too much to fight for." Like Dawn.

"A laudable and very Slayer attitude." The woman watcher, Lydia, nodded with an approving expression.

"Nevertheless," Giles cut in, "It's clear that the Council's instructions and doctrine never covered a Slayer's mental trauma. It's past time to change this." He looked at Buffy. "I'm sorry for missing this, Buffy."

She gritted her teeth. She was the Slayer - not some broken girl. "Yeah, yeah, I got it. And we'll talk about this. But we're currently having a crisis. We've got a skanky demon bitch from hell trying to kill us all."

Giles met her eyes for a moment, then nodded. "Very well. But we will address this afterwards."

"Therapy. Buffy needs therapy," Willow mumbled. Loudly.

"Therapy? For the Slayer?" Philip sounded shocked. "That's… that would expose our most guarded secrets to an outsider. An American outsider!"

"Hey! American here!" Buffy told him.

"You're the Slayer; that supersedes nationality," the Watcher replied. "Well, it should. And we haven't yet completed our review. We should..."

He was interrupted by the shop's phone ringing.

*****​

James Lake Jr. held his breath, and not just because the payphone they had found near the bus station smelt a little, and went over his planned speech - well, not really a speech; just what he wanted to say - once more as he waited for someone to pick up the phone. Perhaps…

"Magic Box, How may we help you? We're currently forcibly closed, but we can do orders and will be able to sell you whatever you want come Monday." That voice far too chipper to be real.

He cleared his throat. "I want to talk to the Slayer." Firm and clear. Now to...

"Buffy, it's for you!"

That went easier than he had expected.

"Yes?"

"Is this the Slayer?" Jim asked.

"Who is this?" It sounded like the Slayer. Probably.

Jim took a deep breath. "We have your friend. The blond one. If you want him back, give us the hammer." Just like in the movies. He looked at Claire, who was standing right next to him, close enough so she could hear the Slayer, and she flashed him a smile.

"Spike? You've got Spike?"

Why would Jim know the man's name? "The blond guy who fought us - tried to fight us - at the shop," he clarified.

"Prove it!"

Oh. "How?"

"Let me talk to him."

He blinked. "We're not exactly letting him out to answer the phone," he told her.

"Ah."

"But we have him. Safe - for the moment." Just like the movies, Jim told himself.

"Let me guess: If you don't get my hammer, you will drop him in the sun in front of the shop so I can watch him burn?" The Slayer sounded rather… cynical. Or sarcastic. It was hard to tell over the phone. Especially this crappy payphone. He heard a cry of 'Buffy!' as well.

Just like the movies, he reminded himself. But seriously - burning the man to death? Who did the Slayer think they… Right. They thought they were evil demons. "And let you save him? No," he said. "You'll just never see him again." He clenched his teeth. This had to work. They couldn't exactly keep the prisoner forever. Or for any length of time.

"I want proof that he's still alive," the Slayer told him. "And no cutting off body parts of him!"

Jim winced at the image that conjured. "I told you, we won't let him on the phone."

"Well, duh, of course not."

Jim blinked. The Slayer must be trying to confuse him. Keep him distracted or something. "Unless you have an acceptable way to prove that we have him - unhurt for now - you'll have to trust us."

"Hah! Trust you? I know what you want!"

Of course, she did - Jim had told her. "The hammer. Of the Troll Gods," he clarified.

"Yeah, right."

"The hammer for your friend, Spike. We'll make the exchange in an hour. In the park where we fought for the first time. We'll be in disguise. Come alone." He hung up.

And sighed. "Do you think they'll come?"

Claire bit her lower lip before she answered. "I don't know. They wanted proof that the man's still alive. And we can't give them that."

"Yeah." They couldn't risk the prisoner escaping. "We'll have to hope they'll come for... Spike? What kind of name is Spike?"

Claire frowned. "A nickname, I'd say." Then her eyes widened. "I think I've read that name before."

"Yes?" Jim was confused.

"I have to call Blinky," she said, pulling out her cellphone.

"Let's move away from here, though," Jim said. "They might find out that we used the payphone." He wasn't sure if payphones were in the phone directory, but better not take any chances.

"Yes." Claire still started calling as soon as they were walking away. "Blinky?"

Jim couldn't hear Blinky's reply. Which was a good thing - he wouldn't be distracted while keeping an eye out for the Slayer. Or her friends. He couldn't exactly walk around in armour here, which meant they were vulnerable. Especially with Claire distracted by her phone call.

"Yes, we're fine."

"No, I'm not tired any more. Not much, at least."

"No. Yes, look - I need to know: Was there a 'Spike' mentioned in the books you gave me to read?"

"I've read all of them."

"Of course I did!"

"Yes."

"Do you remember the name? Spike. No, I don't know if that's English or some demon language."

No one was looking at them funny, at least.

Then he noticed that Claire was paling.

"William the Bloody? A member of the Whirlwind?"

Jim stared at her.

Claire shook her head. "Jim! We've captured a vampire!"

"A vampire." The blond man was a vampire? Jim shook his head. That… explained a lot, actually. His speed and strength, at least. But… "He didn't look like a vampire," Jim pointed out. "He didn't have the demon face Blinky told us about."

"He's over a hundred years old - he probably doesn't need to change his face," Claire said. "But, Jim - this is an infamous vampire. He's over a hundred years old! He and three others terrorised Europe as "the Whirlwind". He's like… Angor Rot!"

Jim felt his stomach drop. Angor Rot was terrifying. And they had his vampire version trapped in Claire's shadow dimension? "Shit. And we just offered to exchange him for the hammer."

"It's worse than we feared!" Claire replied. "The Slayer is working with a monster! William the Bloody must have killed thousands of people!"

Jim pressed his lips together. That was a far more terrifying name than 'Spike' - 'Spike' sounded like a dog's name. A yappy bulldog with a spiked collar. 'William the Bloody' conjured up images of a monster covered in blood. Standing knee-deep in blood. He shuddered. "We can't trust the Slayer. Not if she's working with such a monster."

"No, we can't. We need a plan to get the hammer and get away," Claire said.

"And we need it quickly," Jim added. "We've got… fifty minutes left."

*****​

"Guys, we need a plan. We have fifty minutes to get ready to recover Spike and deal with the fake green cannibal demons!" Buffy said, not quite slamming her hands on the table. The flimsy thing still creaked - they really needed a decent planning table-

"Deathwok Clan Demons," Willow said.

"Whatever - we know they are using makeup to hide their true appearance. They even announced they'll come in disguise." Buffy gritted her teeth at the arrogance. "Anyway," she went on before anyone could interrupt again. "We know they can create portals both to transport themselves and to transport - or capture - others. At least one of them is also heavily armoured and as strong as a vampire, at least. And they have magic weapons. But we can deal with those - I had the big guy on the ropes. The portals are the big thing. If you don't pay attention, you'll find yourself falling or running into one of those - and you're gone. At the same time, they can use them to flee anytime they choose."

"A succinct analysis," one of the Council guys cut in. Nigel, that was his name. "But do you also have a solution for this problem?"

She frowned at him. Hadn't he paid attention? This was the planning session! "The obvious solution is to take out the skimpy bikini witch," she said.

Willow made a pouty face. "We don't know if she's a witch - or even a human. She could just be wielding a weapon that lets her create portals."

"Right, sorry," Buffy amended. "The skimpy bikini… woman? Lady? Enemy?"

"I don't think using the correct nomenclature is important," Philipp spoke up.

"On the contrary," Giles objected. "Finding out what - or who - we're facing is of utmost importance when preparing for battle. Knowing whether we are facing demons trying to frame another demon species or humans trying to pass as demons is of critical importance."

"Well, no human can stand up to the Slayer," Philipp said. "They - at least one of them - proved to be too strong for a human."

"A mixed group of humans and demons?" Nigel frowned.

"Or a very clever group of demons," Xander cut in. "But one supernaturally tough enemy doesn't mean all of them are. I mean - look at us! Especially me and my broken arm."

"I almost killed one of them!" Dawn piped up. "Got them good with the baseball bat!"

Her little sister - and the Key the skanky demon wanted, Buffy reminded herself - sounded far too bloodthirsty for comfort, in Buffy's opinion. But that didn't mean the Council guys' had the right to go all condescending on her!

"We don't know if you did any lasting damage," Giles pointed out. "Some demons are regenerating - they can be wounded easily but will quickly recover."

"Well, he didn't seem to recover!" Dawn protested. "He squealed like a pig!"

"Guys!" Willow spoke up. "I just checked the Sunnydale Memorial records - they report that a patient admitted today has vanished. A patient with a bruised shoulder and internal bleeding. The description - especially the weight - matches the, uh, person Dawn struck."

"Internal bleeding? Yes!" Dawn cheered.

Buffy really had to talk to her about what was appropriate for a non-Slayer Summers. The last thing she wanted was for her little sister trying to hunt demons because she was jealous of Buffy. She cleared her throat.

"And he was human?" Nigel asked. "Not near human? Can we trust the staff's competence and integrity?"

"Well, most of the worst stooges of the mayor have been replaced," Willow said. "And while the doctors are quick to label vampire and demon attacks 'barbecue fork stabbings' and 'animal attacks', they haven't put down any demon as a human patient without adding some codes."

"As far as we know," Giles reminded them.

"Yes. But they had to do surgery here, and the doctor who filed the report seems quite diligent. None of the double-speak we know from other reports," Willow retorted.

Buffy cleared her throat. "So we know we're facing at least one human. That changes things." She grinned. "I've got an idea about how to deal with that pesky little portal girl!"

*****​
 
Chapter 6: The Meeting
Chapter 6: The Meeting

Sunnydale, January 14th, 2017

"Alright." James Lake Jr. swallowed. "We need to handle this meeting without getting jumped. Ambushed. And without the vampire attacking us when we release him."

"We could do it from afar - open a portal for the hammer, they drop it through, we give them the vampire," Claire suggested. "We don't have to be there in person - we could leave a phone."

Jim frowned. That had worked in a movie, hadn't it? Well, he thought it had worked. "But what if they don't trust us to give them the vampire?" He wouldn't trust demons, either. "Or try to trick us with a fake hammer? Or a hammer with a curse on it?" He shook his head. "No. I'll have to be there in person. But you'll be ready to open a portal next to me." Claire opened her mouth to protest - he knew she would - and he interrupted her. "I can take a blow from the Slayer. You can't. You need to keep away from her."

She glared at him. "Don't try to tell me that you'd be distracted trying to protect me."

He shook his head again. "I won't." He thought it, though.

She pressed her lips together for a moment - they were moving in that cute manner he had seen before, he noticed - and then sighed. "Alright. But you won't hesitate to get out, hammer or no hammer."

Jim nodded. "Of course." Then he sighed. "And now we need to talk to the vampire. So we can be sure he won't make trouble during the exchange."

"Yes." Claire nodded with a very stern expression. She looked around. "Let's get out of sight of any witnesses."

They were old hands at dodging spying eyes and quickly ducked into the next side alley, where Claire opened a portal.

And then they were in the shadow realm. Or shadow dimension. The… in-between, one of Blinky's books called it. All Jim cared about was that it was dark, empty and way, way creepy. And that you had to fly around with magic, jump of some of the floaty bits, or you were stuck.

Like the vampire floating there and glaring at them. "You!" he snarled.

"Yes, us. You're Spike, right?" Jim said with more confidence than he felt. At least he hoped so.

"William the Bloody," Claire added with a glare. She looked angry, but Jim could tell that she was more nervous - she was gripping the staff a little too hard, and the way she, ah, floated...

"You… You're humans!" The vampire sounded outraged.

"We're in disguise," Jim lied. Well, technically, they were still disguised with wigs and sunglasses.

"Hah!" Spike scoffed. "I can smell your blood!"

"Yeah, right," Jim said. "None of us is bleeding."

Spike snorted. "You think so."

"You couldn't smell us before?" Claire, looking angrier, asked.

"Too much patchouli and incense. Plays havoc with the nose," the vampire replied, shrugging. "So, what are you? A bunch of thieves? You look rather young for assassins. Then again, assassins stupid enough to go after the Slayer rarely get old - as the Order of the Taraka found out when they sent three of their best after Buffy. None of them came close to hurting her. I would've demanded my money back - if I'd have paid them in the first place." He snorted.

"You've sent assassins after the Slayer?" Jim blinked. That was… if this was true, this might be a way to split their enemies up. On the other hand, if the Slayer heard that Spike had tried to kill her, Jim and Clair's hostage would be worthless.

"That was before I got… well, became a white hat." The vampire flashed his fangs at them in a twisted grin. "So, what is it? Thieves or assassins? Just so I can tell the Watcher to note it down correctly after the Slayer finishes kicking your ass."

"We aren't thieves!" Jim protested. "We're here for a hammer that doesn't belong to you!"

"Olaf's hammer?" Spike shook his head. "You've got guts attacking the Slayer for her trophy. Not much brains, but guts, I'll give you that."

"Says the vampire we captured!" Claire spat.

"Come a little closer, and I'll show you how captured I am!" Spike retorted.

"I could just open a portal and send you to the beach!" Claire bared her teeth. "See if you can burrow into the sand before you burn to ashes!"

"Oi!" Spike looked a little taken aback. Maybe even a little frightened. At least to Jim. "Think of the children! All those brats annoying the family at the beach, when, suddenly, a burning man appears next to the? And not the festival type. You really want to traumatise children?"

"Right." Claire clenched her teeth, then grinned. "I'll drop you on a hill I know. Perfectly empty."

"That's only if you make trouble," Jim cut in before the vampire could reply. "All we want is the hammer. We'll trade you to the Slayer for it."

He really didn't like the smile that appeared on the vampire's face.

"And you think I'll just let you trade me like a piece of meat? You really don't know me. As if I'd let the Slayer see me like that!"

"It's that or a place in the sun," Claire told him. She was bluffing - Jim hoped so, at least. Spike was a vampire, but killing him in cold blood… No matter what Blinky had told them about soulless demons, Jim didn't think he could just execute someone like that.

The vampire narrowed his eyes, then grinned. "Really? Then why didn't you send me out into the sun in the first place?" He cocked his head sideways. "You didn't kill me then."

"We didn't realise who you are. What you are," Claire retorted. "Sending a human into the sunlight wouldn't have done anything."

That made Spike frown. Jim hoped the vampire was unnerved enough to comply with their demands. "So, play nice and you'll get back to your 'friends'. Don't play nice, and it's burning time." He smiled. "We only want the hammer."

"And why do you want the hammer?" Spike asked.

"That's none of your business," Jim told him. They couldn't tell the demon who they were - that would lead the Slayer right to Arcadia Oaks.

"On the contrary." The vampire flashed his teeth. "You're working for the skanky bitch, aren't you?"

"What?"

"Who?"

"Oh, don't give me that. The skanky demon bitch with the bad perm." Spike scoffed.

Jim glanced at Claire - she had read all those books, hadn't she? But Claire didn't seem to know who the vampire was talking about either. "We don't work for her," he said.

"Of course you'd say that."

"In any case, it doesn't matter," Jim said. "We'll trade you for the hammer, and then we're done with all of you."

"And you will cooperate!" Claire added.

"Make me," Spike replied with a grin.

Jim sighed. "If you insist."

*****​

"Alright. I'll be at the meeting." Buffy Summers tapped the map of the park spread out on the shop's table. "Here. And I'll show them the error of their ways," she quoted one of Giles books.

"Don't do anything foolish! They have Spike!" Dawn said. Lydia nodded in apparent agreement.

"They want to trade him for my hammer," Buffy told her little sister. "They won't kill him."

"Unless this meeting is merely a ruse to lure you and the hammer into a trap," Giles pointed out.

"Of course it's a trap!" Buffy retorted. "They lured us away, put on makeup to frame other demons, then tried to steal the hammer. Only a fool would trust them after all that."

"The vampire is expendable," Nigel said.

She glared at the Council stooge. "No one is expendable." Other than such a toady, maybe. Spike was an annoying, arrogant undead pain in the butt who would slaughter them all if he hadn't been chipped, but he was hers. And if anyone killed him, it would be Buffy.

"You're risking everything for a demon?" Travers asked.

"No. We're using this meeting to get them," she corrected him. That they would also use it to get Spike back was not a problem at all, of course.

"And how will you evade their trap?" the stuffy old man went on.

"I'm glad you asked." She gave him a fake smile - the kind of smile she used to aim at a certain principal - before nodding at Willow and Tara. "Willow, Tara - you'll have to counter the skimpy demon-wannabe portal girl and keep her too busy to open portals everywhere. If we're lucky, she'll be at the meeting, but I don't think so. She's not as tough as the armour guy, so they'll probably have her hiding somewhere with a line of sight on the meeting." She looked at Xander.

"Sniper nests." He nodded. "I'll mark the most likely locations."

Buffy smiled. Xander's magic soldier memories came in handy in such situations. "Good."

"Are you seriously risking the loss of a major artefact?" Philip asked, sounding shocked at the thought.

"I'm not going to lose my hammer," Buffy told him. "I'm going to use it." Let's see how the tin can thief liked it when she pounded him to paste despite his armour!

Giles cleared his throat. "Buffy. We have good reasons to suspect they are humans."

She knew that tone. She turned towards him, frowning - not pouting! - and sighed. "I'm not going to kill them. Just pound them a little. But the armoured one is tougher than a human."

"And how are your… witches going to deal with the enemy witch?" Nigel asked. "Counter magics such as those we observed would require great familiarity with the arts."

"We can shield Buffy, "Tara piped up, then ducked her head when everyone looked at her.

"And you can use this on the skimpy portal girl." Buffy grinned and held up a canister.

"Oh, that brings back memories!" Xander grinned. "Evil. I like it."

*****​

James Lake Jr. swallowed, then wet his lips, before walking the last few yards to the meeting spot. It was five o'clock - the sun was setting now. One more hour until they had to take the bus home. He wasn't quite sure what he feared more: Meeting the Slayer to exchange a vampire for a hammer or missing the bus and having to face Mom.

He took a deep breath. He was the Trollhunter, and he had a task to do. He resisted the urge to glance over his shoulder at the roof on which Claire was hiding, ready to open a portal to him. The Slayer would already be watching the park - she had eyes everywhere in town. Jim hoped their disguises held so they could take the bus afterwards. If not… Well, they'd have to cross that bridge once they got to it.

He passed the remains of the playground - the police had used some tape to cordon it off, but there didn't seem to be any investigations going on. The Slayer must have had it shut down. At least they wouldn't have to bother with the police. Civilians would be back in their homes anyway after dark.

He blinked. This wasn't Arcadia Oaks, where people knew without knowing why that staying out after dark was dangerous. But this town was built on a Hellmouth so it might be the same. He snorted - it was almost familiar ground, then.

Ahead of him was the meeting spot he had chosen - top of a hill, good visibility. He stopped amongst the closest trees and took out his amulet. No need to take a stupid risk.

"For the glory of Merlin, Daylight is mine to command!"

As always, the armour made him feel better. Stronger. Tougher. He nodded and continued his walk.

"Jim!" He heard Claire's voice in his earbud and reflexively checked if his phone was still in his backpack.

"Yes?" He answered. The phone was still there. Of course it was - if it wasn't, he wouldn't hear Claire!

"I just spotted a car pulling up in front of the northern entrance. It's the Slayer! And she's carrying the hammer!"

"Right." He wet his lips again, then took out the Divine Compass. Yes - it pulled towards the north.

"She's alone, or so it seems… wait! There's a group of men - the Council, I think - following her at a distance."

Damn. Had they asked the Slayer to come alone? They hadn't. But was she trying to make it seem as if she were alone, and those men were the ambush force, as Draal would call them? "Are they armed?"

"I don't see… one has a crossbow!"

"Thank you." He stowed the compass again.

"Jim."

"A crossbow won't get through my armour," he told her. A normal crossbow wouldn't - he had found that out in the Hero's Forge. A magical one, though… Well, he could dodge crossbow bolts as well. Something else he had found out - learned - in the Hero's Forge. "Anyone else?"

"I don't see anyone else," Claire repeated.

"Good." He straightened. It was time.

There came the Slayer. Dressed in a turtleneck, a short coat, tight black slacks and ankle boots, and barely topping five feet, she looked like a college girl lost in the woods. Well, if you ignored the huge hammer slung over her shoulder and the sneer on her face.

She walked up the hill and stopped about ten yards from him.

He nodded at her. "Slayer."

She returned the nod. "Kidnapper. Or do you prefer 'thief'?" She cocked her head sideways. "How about 'coward'? Or discount knight? That armour looks like you got it from a costume shop."

Jim was the Trollhunter! He was wearing armour crafted by Merlin himself! Wait… she was trying to make him angry! He wouldn't fall for that - he knew better after all his training. "Are you done?" he asked.

"Not really. I've got a list of insults - I had to fill the time waiting for this meeting, you know?"

He clenched his teeth. She was trying to distract him. He wouldn't fall for it. "You've brought the hammer."

"I don't see Spike, though." She narrowed her eyes at him. "No Spikey, no hammer."

He snorted. "Portal."

Next to him, a portal opened, facing his side. "You wanker! Cut me loose! Let's try this again, without the witch helping you!"

Jim glanced at the vampire. The ropes had held.

"Spike?"

"Slayer! Fancy meeting you here."

"Cut the crap, Spike. We're here for you. Did they beat you up?"

"No!"

"We had to subdue him. He wasn't cooperating," Jim explained.

She glared at him. "I don't like people who beat up my people."

"Your people? I'm no one's pet!" Spike protested.

"Not the time, Spike!"

Jim cleared his throat. "Let's get this over with. Hand the hammer over, and I'll hand over the vampire." He stepped to the portal and reached inside, grabbing the vampire's collar.

And the Slayer smiled. Nastily.

*****​

Buffy Summers grinned. The stupid wanna-be demon knight had fallen for her trap. "Now," she whispered into her mic.

The guy froze for a moment, his hand still on Spike's collar. Buffy's grin widened, and he flinched. But he didn't act, then.

"Got her!"

And then it was too late. Buffy rushed him. He tried to bring his sword up, but she ducked under his swing, rammed the hammer into the ground and kicked him in the chest hard enough to send him flying.

He grunted and rolled over his shoulder but didn't lose his grip on his sword. But he was too far away to keep her from grabbing Spike and tearing him out of the portal dimension whatever and dropping him on the ground.

"Oi! Careful, Slayer!"

"You can take a fall," she snapped, turning to face the tin can boy.

Who, she noticed, was tapping his ear and… whispering. "Portal! Claire, Portal! Claire?"

Buffy smiled at him. "Sorry to be a spoilsport, but your portal cruise has been cancelled because your girlfriend is currently puking her guts out!" CS was nasty even if you didn't have a Slayer's nose. "You're not going to teleport out of here." Not again.

"You… Claire!" Oh, he sounded angry. Perfect! That would make him make mistakes, and allow Buffy to…

The guy charged her with a scream, and Buffy barely managed to jump to the side when he brought his blade down, leaving a small crater in the ground.

"Oh, did I hit a nerve?" She twirled her hammer while he whirled to face her.

"Watch it!" Spike complained. "That almost hit me!"

Buffy would have told him to suck it up - he got himself captured, didn't he - but the tin man was in her face trying to slice and dice her. And make Buffy fries. Or something.

And she met him blow for blow. The hammer was great - almost weightless, but all mass! She slapped his blade away, then swung at him, and clipped his shoulder.

Once more, he flew several yards back, hit the ground and rolled over his shoulder. Buffy turned with the blow, a full rotation, and dashed towards him, hammer held high.

She brought it down, but he managed to roll to the side, then scrambled away, avoiding her follow-up swing. "Hey! I thought you wanted the hammer?" she yelled as she lifted the hammer out of the small crater she had left in the ground.

He was glaring at her, crouched, with one hand on the ground. Good. "What did you do with Claire?"

"Took her out," she told him. "And now it's your turn!"

He whipped his arm forward, throwing earth and sand at her - as if she hadn't seen that coming! She blocked it with the hammer, moving to the side, to avoid his lunge, and swung at his back.

This time, he flew into a tree, smashing into it with a nice, cracky noise. But the only thing that had broken was the tree - he shook his head and was up by the time she reached him. And he roared. Kind of - she'd heard much better roars.

Still, she had to parry a few more wild swings - one even came close to cutting the tip of her ponytail! - and he avoided her next blow. "Stop dodging!" she snapped.

"You wish!" More wild swings. He was losing it. Good. Combat quips for the win!

Now all she had to do was move him into the right spot for a good old-fashioned hammering. "You know, that's two of you taken out by my friends - I have a reputation to maintain."

Yes. Another wild swing, and… She jumped back to avoid a stab at her stomach. That hadn't been a wild swing! "Oh, tricky! Almost good enough - but not quite!" She singsonged. "My turn, now!"

"We've got the witch secured. She's human," Willow reported.

Buffy grinned and drove the tin boy back with a few lazy swings of her hammer. "And we have your girlfriend. You're all alone now. Why don't you give up? You don't stand a chance anyway!"

"The hell I will!" he snapped. He swung at her, and she parried with the hammer. For a moment, they stood, matching strength, then she pushed, and he gave way, his feet digging into the ground.

Buffy grinned. No one beat the Slayer! And no one escaped her three times! Now all she had to do was…

"Buffy! There's an army storming the park!" Willow yelled through the earbud.

She blinked. What?

"Knights! On horseback! And on foot!" Xander added. "It's like Braveheart!"

Yes, she could hear a great many people running towards her. Snarling, she kicked the tin boy in the shin and then whirled his unbalanced body to the side with a twist of her hammer. "Brought an army, huh?"

"What?" He blinked as if he didn't know.

"More of you tin can warriors!" He tried to bring his blade up, but she was quicker and stepped on his arm, pinning it to the ground, then raised her hammer as the first knight appeared on the hill. "Stop, or I'll turn him into a pancake!" she yelled.

"They're not with me!" tin boy yelled.

They stopped. "Slayer," one of them said.

"Yes, that's me. And you are?"

"We're the Knights of Byzantium."

"Not the Knights of Ni?" she quipped. There were dozens of them. And they had bows and crossbows. And lances and swords. What the hell - did anyone invent time travel without telling her? Or was this some SCA stuff that Xander had been talking about?

They didn't laugh, either.

"The Key is the link... the link must be severed... such is the will of God," the leader guy said. And everyone else repeated it.

She gasped. They wanted to cut Dawn apart? "Over my dead body!" she spat.

"What are they talking about?"

She ignored the tin boy. The knights were about to charge.

*****​

Key? Link? Severed? The will of God? All said with one voice? James Lake Jr. gasped as he understood. "They're brainwashed!" he yelled.

A moment later, the Slayer dropped down on him as half a dozen arrows flew overhead. Before Jim could react, she gripped him and pulled him up.

Then he felt several bolts strike his back, bouncing off the armour - she was using him as a living shield! "Let me go!" he yelled, flailing at her.

"Tell your buddies to back oW!" she yelled back as he connected with her head.

"They're not my buddies!" he protested, kicking out and dislodging her grip on him.

More arrows missed them as they both stumbled back.

Then the half a dozen knights charged, and Jim barely managed to turn to face them in time to avoid being impaled on a lance.

But he could deal with a charge - a horse and a knight weighed about as much as an average troll and were about as fast. And Draal was anything but average.

Jim leapt over the tip of the lance, cut it in two as he came down, then struck the rider with the flat of his blade as the man rode past. The knight was thrown out of the saddle and crashed to the ground, and Jim landed, ready for the next.

And found himself caught between the foot soldiers and the other riders, who - minus one the Slayer had unhorsed - wheeled. They wouldn't charge straight through their own, would they? He remembered their creepy creed about God's will - of course they would!

And he was caught in the middle, with the Slayer at his back. "I'm not with her!" he yelled. "I just need the hammer."

"You won't get the key!" the Slayer shouted, a fraction of a second later.

Jim turned his head, trying to keep the Slayer and the knights in his field of view.

"What is the key? The hammer?" he asked.

"The Key is the link... the link must be severed... such is the will of God."

And the knights charged again. Jim wheeled to face the two coming at him - three went for the Slayer, but that exposed his back, and he felt another arrow strike him.

Once more, he dodged the lance, then cut its tip off, but just as he turned to strike the knight down, the second knight struck him. Jim was lifted off his feet and thrown back, but, again, Merlin's armour saved his life.

He rolled over the ground, ending up prone - and the foot soldiers attacked with swords and maces. And it was all Jim could do to fend off their attacks without killing them.

He rolled back to avoid the first blows, rose in a crouch and parried the next, then kicked the closest attacker away, into another, and both soldiers tumbled to the ground. Jim cut off the head of a mace aimed at his head, whirled to drive his foot into a sword-wielder who had flanked him, and disarmed the next.

Someone screamed. Not near him. "Don't kill them!" he yelled. "They're mind-controlled!"

"Tell them not to kill me!"

"The Key is the link... the link must be severed... such is the will of God."

That was beyond creepy. And here they came again. Yet again, Jim found himself the target of half a dozen soldiers and had to struggle to fend them off. At least the riders were hanging back, and the archers couldn't shoot without hitting their friends.

But there were so many of them! Jim weaved and dodged and parried, and tried to knock them out - but they were humans. If he hit them too hard, they'd die. Or get internal injuries like Toby.

So he gritted his teeth and let his armour take the blows while he tried to disarm them instead.

One sword went flying. An axehead followed. Both knights drew daggers while he fended off a spear. A crossbow bolt struck his helmet, sending him reeling for a moment. A knight exploited that and hit his leg with a mace. His armour held, but he was still sent to the ground, slipping in the torn grass.

"Such is the will of God!"

A knight tried to cave his chest open with a maul, and Jim rolled to the side, then swung his blade. The man screamed as the blade cut into his legs and fell over.

The others didn't let up. One of the knights he had disarmed jumped on Jim, grabbing his arm. Jim shook him loose, but two more used the opportunity to strike his side. And one hit the knight instead, burying a pick in his back.

Jim rose, covered in blood, panting. Still surrounded. The Slayer was fighting - he could hear the screams. He had to escape. Break through the line. Outrun the knights on horseback. He just…

A shrill scream cut through the noise of the battle.

"Where is my key?"

*****​

Buffy Summers froze for a fraction of a second. No. No! That voice… The skanky demon was here! The monster who had taken everything Buffy had thrown at her and had thrown Buffy around like a ragdoll in return! She whirled, kicking one of the knighty guys away and tried to spot the demon.

"Give me my KEY!"

Screams and a flying body, half-torn apart, showed her where the demon stood. Where the demon was advancing. Towards Buffy.

"Slayer!"

And the skanky blonde had seen her! The demon grabbed two knights charging at her and threw them away, one of them smashing into a mounted knight with a sickening crack and all went down in a tangle of limbs. The sound the horse made…

"Buffy! That's Glory!" Willow's voice sounded in her ear. Shrill - her friend was panicking.

"I know," she snapped.

Another knight charged the demon, but his lance slid off her back, tearing her dress.

"My dress! Did you know how much that cost?" Momentarily distracted, the demon-woman turned and buried her fist in the horse's head, smashing it to the ground, then went after the unhorsed man before he could get up. She gripped his throat and lifted him up like some slutty Vader impression.

Buffy gritted her teeth. She had to… But last time, the monster had beaten her like a drum.

"Let him go!"

Buffy gasped - tin boy had come down with a case of suicide wishes. He charged the demon, sword raised high, and slashed at her arms.

And the demon let go of the man, cradling her arm. "That hurt!" the skank complained. For a moment, Buffy felt hope fill her. If they could hurt the demon, they could… Then she realised the demon wasn't bleeding. No.

"I'm going to rip out your spine!" The blonde demon lashed out at the boy, who was lifting the man up, and both went flying downhill. "I'm going to crush you slowly! No one hurts me and gets away with it!"

Buffy had to step in. She was the Slayer. But this was going to hurt. "Don't you want your key?" she yelled. "I'm right here!"

The demon stopped, teetering on her high heels for a moment, then turned. "Slayer! Where is my key!"

"Right here!" Buffy held out her hammer. "Come and get it!" If she could lure the demon to go after her, she could run and lose her.

"That is not my KEY!"

Before Buffy could react, the demon was in front of her. Then she was staring at the sky. And then came the pain. Everything hurt.

"Such is the will of God!"

She could move her arms. Could get up. Had to get up. Hammer? There. She grabbed the shaft and forced herself to stand. Her ribs hurt. Breathing hurt. Screams. There were screams. A body hit the ground next to her, blood splashing the grass from a shoulder missing an arm.

People were screaming.

"Buffy! You need to run!"

Willow was screaming into her ear. Buffy smiled, spitting out some blood. "No can do, Wills. She's faster than I am. Get… get Dawn and run. Drive. Not Giles car. Far away."

She stumbled towards the demon, who was ripping the knights to shreds. Literally. Her red dress was torn, but blood covered her.

The tin boy was getting up as well and he didn't look any better than Buffy. Hah! Slayer powers beat armour!

She laughed, then winced as she took another step towards the skank. "Run, Wills!"

"No. No. Oh, no! Buffy! Don't!"

At least the stupid review would be over. A few more steps. She could swing the hammer and… A horse went flying past her, crashing into a tree trunk.

"You! Get her out! Here! Hold still!"

Wills wasn't making sense. Get who out?

"Oh, Glory?" Buffy yelled, raising her hammer.

The skank turned, still holding a knight by the throat while two more tried to skewer her with spears. "Slayer!"

And Buffy struck her in the face with the hammer.

The demon stumbled back, releasing the knight, then fell down on her knees. "That… MY FACE!" she screeched. Buffy had hurt her!

Behind her, tin boy rose and brought his oversized sword down on the demon's head. Buffy heard the crack.

"MY HEAD!"

A knight followed up with a mace, but the demon caught the weapon before it could strike her. "NO MORE!"

Then the knight lost his head. And half his shoulder.

And Glory stood, snarling, spitting mad.

"I'M GOING TO KILL YOU ALL!"

Buffy snorted, even if it hurt. As if the demon wouldn't have done it anyway.

Then she was falling.

The last thing she saw was Glory reaching for her, screaming with rage.

And Buffy hit the ground. Solid ground. Concrete.

*****​

James Lake Jr. hit the ground - the concrete - and barely managed to keep standing. That had been… A portal! Claire! He whirled. "Claire!"

"Jim!"

There she was. They were on the roof she had picked for her spot, and she was standing between two women - one of them was the Slayer's friend. And… was she crying? A man was standing behind her, holding a medical spray bottle. What had they done to her?

"Hold it, Buster!" the redhead told him, holding out her hand. Next to her, several daggers floated in the air. And she was holding Claire's staff!

The other woman was rushing forward, to… the Slayer? There was the Slayer, on the ground, next to the vampire!

Jim shook his head and focused on Claire's captors. "What did you do?"

"Saved you, duh!" the man said.

"They hit me with tear gas," Claire said.

What? Jim gritted his teeth and clenched his hand around the hilt of his sword. They hurt Claire?

"We were kinda tired of you portalling away whenever things didn't go your way," the man went on. "So… can't open a portal if you can't see, right?"

"Buffy's hurt, but it's not life-threatening," the blonde woman said.

Tear gas? Jim could smell some faint… aftertaste? "You hurt her."

"Barely. Should we have clubbed her over the head?" The man looked far too confident for someone with an arm in the sling and within charging distance. And on a roof. "Hey! We also brought this!" He raised the bottle. "Perfect for rinsing the stuff out. With a little witchy magic added."

Claire was still sniffling, and tears were running down her face. "You only did this so I could save the Slayer!" she spat.

"And your friend," the redhead added. "Who was only in danger because you attacked us! This was your stupid meeting!"

"We didn't attack you - you attacked us!" Claire retorted. "With a vampire!"

"You tried to rob us!" the redhead shot back. "And you scared the children in the park!"

"The hammer doesn't belong to you!" Jim snapped.

"It is mine! I won it fair and square!" the Slayer protested.

"The Hammer of the Troll Gods belongs to the trolls!" Claire spat.

"Oi!" The vampire - Spike - spoke up. "I hate to interrupt this debate, but can we get a move on? The demon bitch is about finished with the knights, and we're too close to her for my taste."

Jim whipped his head around. The hill! Yes, he could make out a red figure on top of it. And lots of people on the ground around her. Dead people, he realised.

"I hate to agree with Spike, but he's right. Let's move to a safer spot," the man said.

"Not the shop!" the Slayer said.

"Careful, Buffy!" the blonde exclaimed. "You're still hurt."

"I can move." The Slayer stood. "Let's go to… Spike's!"

"Oi! Why should I put you up?"

The Slayer turned to look at the vampire. "Because we just saved you, duh!"

"You…" The vampire closed his mouth and glared at her. "Fine! Come on!" He turned towards the stairs behind them, then looked over his shoulder. "But no messing with the telly!"

The telly?

"And no tricks!" the redhead added with a scowl that looked more cute than intimidating. "I'm keeping an eye on you!"

Jim would have dismissed the threat - she didn't exactly look dangerous - if not for the daggers floating next to her. And the fact that the Slayer didn't look like the monster she was, either.

"Alright. Let me call… Oh, no!" the Slayer gasped.

"What?" The redhead gasped as well.

"My phone! It broke!"

"Oh."

"Can you call Giles and tell him to meet us at the crypt?"

"Oi! I don't want the watcher in my home!"

"He put up with you for months in his home!" the Slayer retorted.

"He had me chained up in his bathtub!"

"Well, of course!"

Chained up in his bathtub? Jim looked at Claire. She looked… she hid it, but he could tell that she was spooked. Like himself. They were in the hands of the Slayer and her group. At least Toby was safe. And Jim still had his armour and sword. If he needed to, he could hold them off while Claire escaped.

As long as he found a way to hold off the Slayer, her vampire, the witch, and everyone else.

*****​

The vampire was living in a crypt. An actual crypt on an actual cemetery. Jim would have gawked if he weren't trying to find a way out of this for Claire and himself.

"Welcome to my humble abode," the vampire said, sitting down on a stone coffin. He sounded as honest as Steve claiming that he hadn't stuffed Eli into a locker.

"Stand in the corner! And no funny business!" the redhead snapped.

"We're not at school any more, Willow," the man with the broken arm whispered.

"Oh… I didn't mean it like that!"

But Jim was already moving towards the corner. Towards Claire. She was still in tears, but she was alive. And whole. He hugged her, despite the armour. "Jim… I'm sorry," she whispered. "They surprised me. One moment I was watching you, the next I was coughing and crying..." She sniffled again. "And they took my staff! I couldn't do anything!"

"It's OK," he tried to reassure her. He hadn't exactly covered himself in glory, either. "We'll get through this."

He didn't know how, yet, but they would. Even if he had to sacrifice himself for her.

The Slayer sat down on the coffin, still carrying the hammer as if it weighed nothing, while the vampire moved to block the door. That left… the hole in the ground? Jim didn't really want to enter a vampire's basement. Or sub-basement.

"So!" the Slayer said, and Jim looked back at her. She was smiling in that nasty way of hers. "Let's talk!"

*****​
 
Chapter 7: The Talk
Chapter 7: The Talk

Sunnydale, January 14th, 2017

"Let's talk." Buffy Summers ignored the pain she was feeling. She'd gone through the wringer, but she could deal with that. Had done so before - far too often.

She narrowed her eyes at the two thieves and kidnappers. The boy was still in armour, and the girl was wearing not very stylish clothes, but at least it was better than some fur and leather bikini. She bared her teeth at the two, who cringed. "Who are you? And who are you working for? And why do you want to steal my hammer?" She twirled the trollhammer to make her point. And suppressed the wince and groan the move almost caused - that demon-bitch had hurt her, again. Nothing broken, but she'd need an excuse for all the bruises she would be soon showing.

The two exchanged a glance. They looked really young. Barely older than Dawn, Buffy thought. So young, and already thieves...

"You said that the hammer - the Hammer of the Troll Gods, you called it - belongs to the trolls," Willow cut in.

Both of them winced. "It's not yours!" the girl said.

"I won it fair and square from a troll! Once you try to flatten me with it, you don't get to keep it!" Buffy retorted.

The boy gripped his sword harder and clenched his teeth.

"And you aren't trolls!" Buffy added. "You're too small, too human, and too… soft."

"Soft?" The boy glared at her.

"I fought Olaf. He had skin like a rock - if rocks had skin. You're no troll!" So there! Buffy smiled toothily.

"And you're not sunlight-challenged," Willow added. "I first thought the green makeup might be a magical makeup to resist sunlight - and that would've been a game-changer for the vampires!"

"And a rip-off of Robocop," Xander said.

Buffy didn't need to look at her friends to know Willow would be pouting at being interrupted. "Anyway, the fact they are both not wearing the makeup any more is proof that it wasn't magical sunblock!"

"Unless they removed it because the sun was setting," Xander said.

"That would've been reckless - what if we used a mirror to point sunlight at them? Shot them high enough so the sunrays would still reach them?" Willow asked.

"Oi! You can do that?" Spike asked.

"Well, theoretically," Willow said. "If we levitate someone high enough, it should work."

"Letting them fall from such a height would generally be enough to do them in, anyway," Buffy said. At least it would stun them long enough for her to finish them off. "Anyway, you're no trolls, so the hammer isn't yours. Not that it belongs to trolls anyway since it's my hammer." And it could hurt Glory, so Buffy needed it.

"Of course it belongs to trolls! It's a religious artefact, lost when your witch Aud banished Olaf to hell!" the boy said.

"A religious artefact? Buffy, we can't just take a religious artefact from people! Or trolls."

Buffy clenched her teeth and frowned at Willow. There was a time and place to discuss how to treat foreign cultures, but it wasn't when they were staring down a pair of thieves who had attacked them - and kidnapped Spike.

"They aren't trolls, Wills," Xander pointed out. "They'll probably try to sell the hammer to the highest bidder."

"We wouldn't! We're here to return it to its rightful owner!" the boy blurted out. "We aren't thieves!"

"I'm its rightful owner!" Buffy retorted. "See? I can wield it!" She twirled it around again. "And you look and act like thieves. Sneaky, sneaky, thieving… thieves."

"You Watcher would be proud of you for your eloquence," Spike said.

She glared at him. "Kidnapping victims should be grateful, not mouthy."

"Oh, I'm willing to show you exactly how grateful I am." He leered at her.

Her eyebrows went up. This wasn't the time to discuss that, either! Not there ever was a time to discuss… whatever Spike was talking about! She turned back to glare at the couple of thieves. Thieving couple. "Anyway, who do you work for?" She shook the hammer for emphasis."

"We work for the trolls," the boy told her.

"Prove it!" she snapped. Anyone could claim that.

"Well, I…"

Willows phone going off interrupted whatever the boy had been about to say. Buffy's Bestie took the call. "Yes?"

"Giles!"

Buffy cocked her head. Giles? What happened? He hadn't been with the Council. She gasped. Dawn!

"Is everyone OK?" Willow asked.

"Apparently, Nigel and Philip were wounded in a scuffle in the park," Buffy heard Giles answer. Who cared about the Council! "Everyone else is fine. How are you? I couldn't reach Buffy!"

Buffy winced - she had forgotten to inform the others about everything!

"Oh, she broke her phone fighting Glory," Willow said.

"Glory? What?"

Buffy winced again - she didn't need Slayer hearing to hear Giles this time.

"Oh, she's OK. A bit, ah, battered? Bruised? Beaten up?"

"Way to go with the supportive talk," Buffy grumbled.

"Sorry!"

"Where are you?"

"At Spike's," Buffy said loud enough for the phone to pick up.

"At Spike's? Why would you…? Never mind! I'm on the way!"

Great. Buffy hoped Giles wouldn't take his car.

*****​

The Slayer was evil, James Lake Jr. knew. She might act like a normal girl - joking and grumbling - but she held the Hammer of the Troll Gods easily in one hand, and the way she glared at Claire and himself… He suppressed a shudder. She wasn't human, that was certain. And the things she and her friends joked about! Killing people and getting hurt… the massacre of those knights hadn't fazed them at all; they must be used to such carnage. Well, William the Bloody was amongst those friends!

Though compared to that monster who had attacked them, even the Slayer looked sort of harmless. Only in comparison, of course.

"So, who are you?" the red-haired witch - Willow - asked. "And where did you get those items?" She held the staff up. "It's incredibly powerful!"

Jim could see the greed in the girl's eyes. And he could see the fury in Claire's eyes. She wanted her staff back. And Jim feared that she wouldn't agree to leave without it. Not that it was sure that they would be able to leave, anyway.

"She asked a question!" the Slayer snapped.

"I'm not going to tell you anything!" Claire spat back. "Not to friends of William the Bloody!"

"I see Spike made an impression," the man with the broken arm said with a grin.

"I can't help that I'm famous!"

"That's infamous," the Slayer said. "And Spike isn't exactly a friend."

"Oi!"

"He's more like an… ally?" the redhead said. "Uh… co-belligerent?" She tilted her head to her side.

"Rabid dog we keep on a leash?" The man's grin widened.

"Oi! I'll show you who's a dog, you wanker!"

"Oh? Really? Come on, take your best shot!" The man smiled and tapped his chin with his good hand. "I won't even try to dodge!"

The vampire growled and balled his fist, but the man remained unfazed. If he could take a vampire's blow, he would have to be even more dangerous than William the Bloody!

"Enough!" The Slayer stood - jumped down from the coffin - and glared at her friends. Or minions. "Spike's... Spike. Our relationship is none of your concern," she added with a glare at Claire and Jim. "You, on the other hand, are a concern!" She pointed the hammer at them. One-handed.

Jim tensed.

"So, once again: Who are you, and who do you work for?"

"They're Claire and Jim," the redhead said. "At least those were the names they used, and since that was in a high-stress situation, I think they are probably their real names. Although it's not implausible that they were trying to fool us."

"Naw, those are their real names. See how they twitched?" The vampire grinned.

"Claire and Jim." The Slayer nodded. "Now we're getting somewhere."

Damn.

"And who do you work for? It isn't Glory."

Could he reveal their secret? That would endanger everyone. On the other hand, they already said the hammer belonged to trollkind and that they were working for trolls… "We work for the trolls," Jim said. He noticed Claire drawing a sharp breath, but she didn't say anything.

"Anyone can claim that! We need proof!" The Slayer scoffed. "And of course you'd say that if you wanted to sell the hammer to the highest bidder."

"You'd know all about that, wouldn't you?" Claire retorted. "Looting demons and selling their belongings!"

"What? We don't do that!" the redhead protested. "Even though Anya wants us to!"

"And even though I could really use more money for new clothes and shoes, what with the Council not paying us and slaying being hell on my wardrobe."

"Buffy!" The redhead frowned at her.

"What? That wasn't a bad joke!"

"Yes, it was!"

"You want to rob demons because you want new shoes?" Claire sounded as shocked as Jim felt. This was…

"Hey! Don't knock it until you've tried it." The Slayer frowned at them, and Jim took a step in front of Claire. Of course, she immediately stepped to the side to face the Slayer.

Then the Slayer sneered at her. "Besides, you have no leg to stand on to diss my fashion choices, Miss leather and fur bikini!"

Claire blushed like a tomato. "That… that was a disguise!" she sputtered.

"Oh, that was a very cunning disguise, what with exposing more skin than a tanning booth when sessions are half-off!" The Slayer chuckled.

"We had a tight budget! Because we don't rob people and demons!" Claire blurted out.

"Wow. Another shady employer exploiting teenage labour? Is this a theme or what?" the man with the broken arm asked.

"Yes, it's called capitalism," the redhead replied.

"You're discussing politics in my absence?" a voice with a British accent cut in.

Jim turned and saw that a middle-aged man had just entered.

"Giles! What kept you?"

"The fact that the police are looking for a mass murderer."

*****​

"A mass murderer?" Willow asked with a gasp.

"They are investigating Glory," Buffy Summers told her. "Right?" She turned to look at Giles.

"Dozens dead - many of them dismembered - in the middle of the town apparently is more than even the Sunnydale Police Department is willing or able to cover up," Giles said.

"I wouldn't bet on that." Xander shook his head. "They've ignored everything else, haven't they?"

"They went after me for the robot creep. And for the attack in school!" Buffy protested.

"That was on the order of the Mayor, I believe. At least the second part," Willow said. "Otherwise, they'd have blamed… well, they blamed wild animals for Principal Flutie's death, remember?"

"To be fair, he was eaten. Just not by wild animals," Xander said. Buffy looked at him - the hyena spirit possessions were still a bit of a sore point for him, but he looked fine. Apart from his broken arm.

"You've had your principal eaten as well?" the boy - Jim - blurted out, then grimaced, pressing his lips together.

"'As well'?" Willow was already going through her smartphone.

"The cops here aren't Scotland Yard," Spike said. "They know that this isn't a normal mass murder case and that they don't want to find who killed all the idiots. So they won't actually look for Glory."

"How would they cover up dozens of dead people? In the middle of the town?" the girl asked.

"Drugged bikers gone wild?" Xander shrugged. "Gang war? Suicide cult?"

"They acted like a cult," Buffy cut in. "And they were attacking Glory even though they were totally outclassed. So… suicide cult fits."

"Except for the fact that they didn't kill each other," Willow pointed out. "Though that's easily fixed in a report. If you don't actually do a real autopsy, you can attribute most wounds to the same melee weapons the knights used."

"So, business as usual," Buffy said with a sigh. Sunnydale didn't really change, not even after the Mayor had been dealt with and after the Initiative had been... She gasped. "Do you think there's another government conspiracy? The Mayor kept everything covered up, and after we killed him, the government stepped in, but they pulled out, so is there another government agency active?"

"You've killed the Mayor?"

Buffy glared at the boy. "He was trying to eat my entire class!"

"And he would have destroyed much of the state," Willow added.

"And I would caution you to stop admitting to questionable actions in front of our guests," Giles pointed out in his dry scolding voice that sent Buffy back to school. Mentally, at least.

"Right." She nodded. "Back to business. You claim to work for trolls and want to steal my hammer."

"The Hammer of the Troll Gods," the girl tried to correct her.

"It belongs in a museum!" Xander wasn't nearly as funny as he thought he was.

And everyone shared Buffy's opinion - even the two wanna-be thieves glared at him.

Except for Spike, who chuckled.

Giles cleared his throat. "You claim to be working for trolls? I find that hard to believe. Trolls have been insular for centuries, ever since the last war between them and humanity drove them underground."

"That wasn't a war between trolls and humans, but between Gunmar and his brainwashed slaves and trolls with the help of humans," the boy said, bristling.

"Really?" Giles pushed his glasses up with his index finger. "And you base this on what exactly?"

"I've studied the matter!"

"You've access to records detailing the troll wars?" Giles looked sceptical. And interested, of course - if he ever looked at a woman as he looked at rare books, Buffy would organise a wedding.

"We're not telling you anything! You'd just try to steal the records!" the girl spat.

"Says the thief!" Buffy countered.

"We aren't thieves! We're working for the legitimate owners of the hammer!" the girl retorted. "Recovering stolen property isn't theft."

"Only if said ownership can be proven," Giles pointed out. "And, so far, you've failed to prove your claim, I believe."

The two kids looked at each other, then at Buffy and her friends. Hah! Couldn't prove their claims, could they?

"You're just trying to find the trolls so you can loot their homes," the girl said with a glare. "We know what you do!"

"Then you're ahead of us. We usually don't know what we're doing," Xander replied.

"The Slayer and her friends, amongst whom I have the honour to count myself, protect humanity against the forces of darkness," Giles said, standing straight. "Unless your employers wish humanity ill, they have nothing to fear from us."

"Prove it!" the girl challenged him.

"And how would you wish me to prove our intentions to you?" Giles asked.

That had them stumped, Buffy could tell.

*****​

How could the Slayer prove their intentions after everything that they had heard? James Lake Jr. was at a loss for words.

"Handing my staff back would be a first step as a gesture of trust," Claire said before Jim could come up with something.

"Yeah, right. And you send us all into the sun or ocean or something?" the Slayer retorted

"I'm not sure if that would actually work. I mean, the actual sun, not sunlight. The ocean, however, would totally work since we're on the coast," the redhead added. "Although I don't know how far the staff can reach and what its limits are." She held the folded staff up.

Claire made a step forward, but Jim put his hand on her shoulder. They were outnumbered and, as much as he didn't like to admit it, outclassed. At least without the staff. He could hold off the Slayer - though only for a few minutes, at most - and he might even kill the vampire pretty quickly if Daylight was as deadly for vampires as it was for trolls. But that left the witch, the other witch who hadn't said anything yet, and the two men. Without her staff, Claire was just a normal girl. He couldn't protect her against that. He couldn't even hold everyone off while she escaped because she couldn't run, not with the Slayer and her friends blocking the way out of this crypt.

So, fighting wouldn't save them. That left talking. And while the things Claire and Jim had overheard were very disturbing, the fact that the Slayer hadn't just used their obvious advantage to overwhelm them might mean that she wasn't as bad as Jim feared. Gunmar and his allies certainly wouldn't have hesitated to crush them.

Unless she liked to play with her victims. Which could be very much the case for a millennia-old demon.

"So?" The Slayer stared at them.

"What Buffy means," the redhead said, "is that leaving aside proposals like 'hand over the hammer', how can we prove to you that we aren't the bad guys?"

Judging by the look the Slayer sent to her friend, that wasn't quite the meaning she had meant, or so Jim thought.

"And why do you think we're the bad guys, anyway?" The Slayer actually pouted. "Not counting Spike's presence."

"We heard you discussing your plans!" Claire blurted out. "With the Council."

"Our plans?" The Slayer looked surprised.

"We have a plan?" the man with the broken arm added. "Why doesn't anyone tell me these things?"

"We have one… I think. Do we?" the redhead sounded honestly confused. "Does ambushing them count, since we did that and now don't have to any more, so we don't actually have it as a plan any more?"

"We had a perfectly good plan, and then Glory came and wrecked it," the Slayer said.

"Together with a few dozens of knights," William the Bloody added.

"Children…" the older man - Giles - said with a heavy sigh.

"Who are you calling children? I'm three times your age!" the vampire complained.

"Then act your age, Spike," the man retorted.

"The… their a- auras a-aren't evil." The blonde witch spoke up, apparently surprising everyone.

"Huh?"

"I've b-been studying th-their auras ever since we a-arrived here. It's not t-tainted or c-corrupted."

"So they're no demons. We already knew that," the Slayer said. "They could still be working for a demon."

"No." The redhead shook her head. "If they had fought for a demon, that would leave traces in their aura. Unless this is the first time they are working for a demon. Or they don't know who they are working for."

Jim bit his lower lip. This could be a ploy to make him reveal their secrets. But why would they pick such a ruse, trying to pass as good people? They could just capture them and then use Claire as leverage to make Jim reveal everything… especially after Jim had tried to exchange the vampire as a hostage for the hammer.

If the Slayer was evil, they wouldn't let them go anyway. But if she wasn't, and this was just a misunderstanding… He raised his chin. "I'm the Trollhunter."

The Slayer blinked. "You hunt trolls? You said you worked for them!"

"You want the Hammer of the Troll Gods to hunt trolls?" the redhead asked.

"No!" Claire snapped. "We work for trollkind."

"Then why call yourself Trollhunter?" The Slayer shook her head. "That's not how it works. I'm the Slayer; I slay vampires; I don't work for them."

The redhead coughed. "Well, we sometimes work with them."

"Those are exceptions! Angel and Spike don't count!"

"Oi! Don't compare me to the poof!"

"You don't compare to him!"

"What?"

The older man cleared his throat. "The Trollhunter is a legendary figure of troll lore. The protector of trollkind - and, according to some legends, also a protector of humans against man-eating trolls."

Jim nodded. That was right. It seemed that at least one of the Slayer's group had heard of him.

"However, the lore is very clear in that the Trollhunter is a troll, not a human."

And they were back to glaring at him.

"The Trollhunter is chosen by the amulet Merlin crafted. It chose me, as the first human Trollhunter, when my predecessor was killed," Jim explained, tapping his armour. "I've done my best to help trolls and humans ever since. With the help of my friends."

Claire stepped closer to him, laying a hand on his armoured shoulder. The others were looking at him with various expressions - mostly doubtful. The Slayer, though…

...she was looking at him with pity?

*****​

"So, like, the Trollhunter gets killed, and the next one is chosen?" Buffy Summers narrowed her eyes at the boy.

"Ah… Sort of?" The boy shrugged.

"You just wake up with the armour on? Or an amulet on your chest?" Or did that go into your chest, like with Iron Man?

"Not exactly. The amulet chooses, but it won't, ah, move by itself."

She leaned forward. "So, someone hands it to you? Check if it takes?"

"I, ah, picked it up."

"Picked it up?" She was in his face now.

"From the corpse of my predecessor, actually. Kanjigar the Courageous. But I didn't know it at the time - it looked just like stones and rubble."

"And then someone came by, some oldish mentor type, and told you all about duty and fate and fighting the darkness?"

"Uh… Kinda? It was a little more complicated." He shrugged again.

She knew it. "Someone tried to kill you?"

"Well… a few, yes."

Buffy shook her head. "Welcome to the club. What's the average life expectancy of a Trollhunter?"

"It, ah, varies." And he was looking away. Typical.

"Worst case?"

"Uh… six hours? That was Unkar the Unfortunate, though..." The boy smiled. Weakly. "Kanjigar lived for a long time. Long-ish?"

Of course, they wouldn't tell him! "Did they tell you that you come with an expiration date now? "

"Well, it kinda comes with the territory? You know, always fighting to protect others... " He shrugged again. "Can't be lucky all the time."

"Jim!" the girl protested.

He turned to smile at her. "Hey! I'm not going to die anytime soon."

He was lying, of course. Buffy could tell. "Welcome to the club," she told him.

He snorted, but the girl glared at her. "Don't joke about it! Jim doesn't jump into a new body when… if he dies!"

Buffy frowned at her. "What are you talking about? That's not how it works!"

"We've read about the Slayer. An immortal demon possessing the bodies of young women since time immemorial," the girl told her. "How long have you been wearing this one?"

What the…? "That's my body!" Buffy protested.

"Same as it's your hammer?" The girl sniffed.

"That's not how it works!" Buffy clenched her teeth and suppressed the urge to show the little girl her place. Her, a demon? "The Slayer spirit doesn't possess you like taking you over!"

"Only in special circumstances. Which are very rare and very special."

"Not helping, Will," Buffy spat. "Anyway - you get the power of the Slayer Spirit. But the mind?" She tapped her forehead. "That's all you." Mostly.

"Oh." The boy stared at her. "That's…"

"Rough, I know." She snorted without humour. "I've been beating the odds for years. I should have died years ago according to the statistics."

"Technically, you did die," Xander pointed out. "We brought you back."

Now the two were staring at her. Buffy rolled her eyes. "CPR. Some really icky and ugly master vampire tried to drown me."

"Ah."

"You were dead enough for the Slayer Spirit to count. Or something," Xander insisted. "That's why Kendra was activated."

Kendra. Who had lasted close to a year.

"You aren't the slayer any more?" the girl asked.

"I am the Slayer," Buffy corrected her. "It's just that there are two of us now."

The two teenagers looked at the others in the crypt, and Buffy sighed again. "She's not here." And if Faith returned, it would be the last mistake the other Slayer would ever make. "Anyway, so you get told about your duty, then sent into battle, and then the training starts so you'll last a little longer?"

"Ah… actually…" The boy trailed off. "It's not quite like that, but… sorta?"

"Thought so." She glanced at Giles, who looked stricken. "And you've been a good little soldier?"

"Someone has to protect the trolls and humans, and I've been chosen." He stared at her.

Oh, boy. They got him good. Had she ever been that naive? "So, you gathered some friends, and now you're fighting demons for trolls?"

"He didn't gather us - we chose to help!" the girl spat. "That's what friends do."

"Yes!" Willow, unsurprisingly, agreed.

Buffy shook her head. "I didn't know there were more of us. It seems like a theme."

For a long moment, no one said anything.

"So," Buffy went on, you were sent here by trolls to recover the trollhammer."

"Hammer of the Troll Gods," the girl insisted.

"Whatever. I'm not very religious." Buffy waved the correction away. "And the trolls stay safely home?"

Giles coughed, but she ignored him, focusing on the two teenagers.

"They can't exactly travel on the surface," the Trollhunter replied. "Sunlight kills trolls."

"Oh, I know the feeling," Spike butted in. "Did you try covering a car's windows with duct tape?"

"How would you see enough to drive?" the girl asked.

"I managed. Of course, I could stay in motels during the day. And eat the staff." Spike chuckled, then looked around. "But that was back in the past."

"Yeah... Moving on." Buffy eyed the two kids. "So, while you don't seem too bad and Tara vouches for you, I don't exactly trust your handlers." She narrowed her eyes again.

"Blinky's a good troll!" the boy protested.

Buffy blinked. "'Blinky'?"
"Must be Californian trolls," Spike said, shrugging.

*****​

"Blinkous Galadrigal," James Lake Jr. said. He frowned - what right did they have to make fun of Blinky?

"And you call him Blinky." The Slayer stared at him, then started to grin and glanced at the older man who had joined them in the crypt.

The man raised an eyebrow at her. "I know you're trying to come up with a similarly endearing nickname," he said with a faint smile.

"It's not fun if you like it," the Slayer complained with a pout. She turned back to Jim and Claire. "So! This Blinky is your Watcher. He trains you, gives you missions - like 'recover the trollhammer from the Slayer who won it fair and square' - and has you write reports?"

"We didn't know who had the hammer," Jim protested. "And no, I don't write reports." Paperwork? As the Trollhunter? He suppressed a shudder. Mom had told him often enough how horrible all the paperwork at the hospital was, and he wrote enough reports for school.

"No reports?" The Slayer blinked. "Giles! See, it is entirely possible to drop reports!"

"Without detailed reports, future Slayers might lack the information they need to deal with a threat," the man replied, then grimaced and coughed. "I mean…"

"If the Council weren't some stuck-up evil old men trying to control everyone." The Slayer nodded.

"You don't record what you do?" the redhead asked, almost shocked. "But… that means… what about history? Your history?"

"Blinky writes the reports," Jim said. At least he thought that that was the case. "He has a library full of books about trolls."

"And we can read them!" Claire added.

"Who would want to read them?" the Slayer muttered before beaming at the older man. "Giles! You always complain about my handwriting! And you rewrite everything anyway. Wouldn't it be faster and more efficient if you wrote the reports in the first place?"

"I would still need your information," Giles replied. "And, I'll remind you, that's how we usually do the reports: You tell me what happened, and I distil your meandering words into intelligible information."

"I think I've just been insulted," the Slayer said.

"Meandering means…" the witch started.

"I know what it means, Wills." The Slayer cleared her throat. "Anyway! As I said, you look like you're of the non-evil types. Not the brightest, but not slimy backstabbing evil demon types."

Claire was scowling at the Slayer but didn't speak up, for which Jim was grateful.

"But I don't trust your Watchers," the woman went on. "You wouldn't be the first innocent Slayer-like teenager manipulated and exploited by shadowy men from the shadows."

"'Shadowy men from the shadows'? Seriously?" Claire blurted out.

"Hey! The Slayer was created by the shadow men. Or something like that," the Slayer told her.

"That wasn't my point."

"But it was mine. And you keep distracting me! Anyway - I want to talk to your Blinky."

"That's difficult. He's not here. He's far away," Jim said.

"Not too far away. He's in California," the witch said. "And close enough for you to travel to Sunnydale."

"What?" Jim stared at her.

The witch explained. "You both got a local accent. You aren't runaways - you would've been better prepared for this if you were. So, you're still in school. Which means you can't be travelling too far to arrive in Sunnydale. Your parents probably don't know what you're doing, because… girl and two boys, travelling alone? Not many adults would let you do that unsupervised."

Claire winced at that. Jim hoped he didn't blush.

But the redhead was still going on: "Of course, it's a very sexist and frankly insulting view, and totally ignores that if you were intent on having sex, you'd be easily able to find opportunities at home unless your parents utterly deny you any freedom and privacy. Your parents could be the exception, of course, but they would be pretty rare, and even supposedly liberal and smart parents can be very short-sighted and traditional in the worst sense when it comes to sex."

"Is this about your parents not allowing you to come camping with Jesse and me?" the young man asked.

"We were ten! There was no way anything like that would happen!" the redhead protested. "They should've been aware of that!"

"I think it was more the fact that we were ten and going camping, not the unsupervised part - I mean, unsupervised was the problem since we were ten and going camping by ourselves, not because they thought we would… Where was I?" The man blinked.

"Halfway to offtopic land. Population: two," the Slayer told him. "So! Your Watcher, me, talking. Capisce?"

"We can call him," Claire said.

"Trolls have phones?" Giles asked. "Fascinating. I would have suspected that they were rather more conservative with regards to human inventions. Did they lay a phone line to their subterranean habitats?"

"Wow, even trolls are more adapted to modern life than Giles!" the young man said, chuckling.

"I've been using a cell phone for years," Giles protested.

"To make calls," the man replied. "You don't use it for anything else. That's unnatural!"

"No, that's Giles. And old people," the Slayer said. "But we can start with a phone call."

Well, it was better than nothing, Jim thought as he dug out his phone.

*****​

Buffy Summers tried not to make it obvious that she was listening in when the boy dialled. Trust, but verify, as Giles would say - and she didn't trust the kind of people or trolls who would pick a teenager and turn them into a "chosen warrior".

"Master Jim?"

'Master Jim'? Buffy blinked. That was… weird. Or kinky. Ew. She buried the thought. After bashing it to death with a shovel.

"Hi, Blinky!"

"Tobias hasn't woken up yet, but his vitals are well. Are you on the way back?"

Ah. The third one of the trio. The one Dawn had almost killed, apparently.

"Uh… something came up," Jim said. "Well, lots of somethings, actually. But there's one thing that's kinda most important for now."

"Are you and the Fair Claire well?"

Fair Claire? Buffy glanced at the girl. Well, she was pretty, but her style needed some help. And that stripe in her hair… Fairly pretty, maybe. For a kid.

"Yes. Well, now. Mostly."

"Mostly," the girl added with a deep frown.

"That sounds a little concerning. Oh! Can you talk freely?"

Ah! There came the sneaky part. The voice had almost fooled Buffy so far, but no more!

"Uh, yes. Pretty much. But we're kinda in… negotiations."

"Negotiations?"

"With the Slayer. And her friends."

"Master Jim! The Slayer is a very dangerous demon! You need to extract yourself and the Fair Claire from the premises at once!"

She wasn't a demon! Why did they get this wrong? Buffy narrowed her eyes at the phone.

"Uh… that's kind of the problem, you see, we're kind of stuck…"

"Stuck? What happened?"

"The Slayer and her friends captured us, took my staff, and they think you forced us to fight for the trolls so they want to talk to you," the girl cut in.

"What? Captured? How? And… talk to me?"

"Put him on speaker!" Buffy said. The boy did. The girl glared at her again. She ignored her. "Blinky?"

"Blinkous Galadrigal. Are you the Slayer?" The voice sounded a little tinny. Not a good speaker on that phone.

"Yes. And I'm not a demon possessing the body of a girl! Whoever told you that was lying! Or stupid! Or both!" They had to deal with the important things first!

"Oh. That is… well… You would claim this even if it were true, though, Lady Slayer."

She rolled her eyes. "It isn't true! Note that down! The Slayer spirit doesn't take over a body - it latches onto you and fills your head with memories and skills and makes you stronger!" Giles muttered something about being glad that the Travers wasn't here, but she ignored that as well.

"That's fascinating. But did you just call to correct the information in my library?"

"What? No! We've got your two child soldiers here," she told the troll. "And you have the third, who got almost killed for attacking us."

"We aren't children!" the girl protested. The boy nodded a moment later. "And Blinky didn't force us to do anything."

"Yeah, yeah, Been there, done that. Look, I know the drill."

"The drill?"

Right. Trolls. "I know the score."

"The score?"

Buffy clenched her teeth and growled. "I know how that works. You go all 'fate this, chosen that, demons here, fight!', and the boy fights or gets killed. Or fights and gets killed."

"The amulet of Merlin chose him."

"And the Slayer spirit chose me."

"Then you understand that those decisions are out of our hands."

Buffy glanced at Giles. The troll sounded a lot like him. Well, not the actual voice, but the way they were so 'reasonable'. "Is this a librarian thing?"

"Pardon?" The troll sounded confused. Giles looked confused, Buffy noted.

"The way you talk. All reasonable-like and 'it's not my fault' and stuff," she explained.

"I like to think that common sense, logic and reason aren't limited to librarians. Although I'm not a librarian - I'm a scholar. Of some renown, I would hope, at least amongst trolls, though there are a few who would disagree."

"They just don't like it that we're friends," Jim cut in. "And that I'm a human."

"Well, that, and my rather mixed efforts at training you."

Definitely a Watcher-type, Buffy noted to herself. "Yes, yes. Anyway, you sent the kids to steal my hammer, and that almost got them killed. And while we know they aren't evil, we don't know that you aren't evil. You could be very evil - the kind of smooth, talky evil that manipulates teenagers into doing dirty deeds for your…" She blinked. "I mean, actual dirty deeds, not the…" She felt her cheeks grow warm. "You know what I mean, I mean, what I didn't mean!"

"Uh… I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage here, Lady Slayer."

What? "Whatever. I mean, you could be the kind of manipulative evil that convinces teenagers to work for your evil plans without them noticing."

"What? Preposterous! I'm a loyal troll!"

"Yeah, well… trolls? The last troll I met wanted to eat babies!"

She heard the troll gasp. "You met a gumm-gumm?"

"A chewing gum?" Buffy asked. "Like those balls you used to get from those vending machines?"

"No. A gumm-gumm is a troll working for Gunmar. They, uh, generally have an inclination for the consumption of humans."

"Bad," a very gravelly voice added.

"Yeah, bad," Buffy agreed. "So, we can't trust you over the phone. And we don't want to give the girl her teleporting staff back if she's unknowingly working for evil trolls."

"We're not working for evil trolls! We fight them!" Jim blurted out.

"I earned that staff!" the girl protested with a glare.

"And I won the hammer fair and square. So?" Buffy retorted. "Anyway - we want to check you. For evil-ness."

"Check me?" the troll sounded confused.

"Yes," Buffy confirmed. "So, you get your stony butt over here so Tara can check if you're evil or not!"

The troll remained silent for a moment. Then he started to talk. "I, uh, am limited to travelling at night, and while it's already night, I also lack transportation."

"You don't have a trollmobile?" Buffy asked.

"The gyre doesn't stop at the Hellmouth."

"He actually has a trollmobile?" Xander sounded delighted.

"It sounds more like a troll train," Willow added.

Buffy silenced both with a glare. "So, you can't come to Sunnydale?"

"I'm afraid I cannot. Not feasibly. I would have to learn how to drive first. And travel at night. Although I might disguise myself and take the bus?"

"No!" Claire blurted out.

Buffy glanced at them. They looked pale.

"Blinky! You can't drive!" Jim said.

"But I can learn. It cannot be too hard, can it? Every human is doing it."

The kids were grimacing. Buffy sighed. "So, we'll have to come to you, then. To sort this out." And, perhaps, get Dawn away from Glory.

"The Slayer, coming to Trollmarket? Oh, dear!"

Now he really sounded like Giles.

*****​
 
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Chapter 8: The Road Trip Part 1
Chapter 8: The Road Trip Part 1

Sunnydale, January 14th, 2017

"You want to visit Trollmarket?" James Lake Jr. blurted out. The Slayer, in Trollmarket? "Vendel's going to kill me!"

"Vendel?" the Slayer asked. "What's that stand for, Vendelicious Vendorian?" She cocked her head sideways.

"What? No!" Jim shook his head. "Vendel is… That's his full name. He's sort of the mayor of Trollmarket."

"That's not entirely correct," Blinky's voice sounded through the speaker of Jim's phone. "Vendel, son of Rundle, son of Kilfred is a Troll elder and a community leader within Heartstone Trollmarket."

Jim sighed. So much for keeping crucial information from the Slayer.

"Blinky!" Claire hissed. "You didn't have to tell them everything!"

"But I thought we have to build trust!" Blinky protested.

"Trust, but verify," Claire replied with a glare at the Slayer - and at the redhead.

"Oh, don't mind me. Besides, Giles probably knows that already. Or will, once he consults his books," the Slayer told them. She didn't seem to be in pain at all, despite the blows she had taken, Jim noted.

"Oh? A fellow bibliophile?" Blinky asked.

"I actually worked as a librarian for several years," Mr Giles told him. "Unfortunately, I had to change professions after a series of unfortunate events."

"We blew up the school," the young man, Xander, said.

"Xander! You make it sound as if we wanted to blow up the school!" the witch protested.

"Well, I did!"

"We only did it because it was the only way to defeat the Mayor and save most of California!"

"Save most of California?" Claire asked.

"Please, elaborate on this!" Blinky chimed in.

"The mayor of Sunnydale was trying to sacrifice the entire class of our high school to turn into an elder demon and wreck the state," the Slayer replied. "We blew him up, but we had to sacrifice the school to do so."

"The school, as in: the building, not the students," the witch added. "We didn't blow up any students. I think."

"Way to be reassuring, Wills," the young man said.

"I'm just being honest."

"He was trying to turn into an Elder Demon?" Blinky sounded… shocked? "But the only way to achieve that would've been the Ritual of Ascension! And that would have taken… it's inconceivable!" Blinky's voice sounded through the speaker of Jim's phone.

"Yes, he had been working for a hundred years on that," the Slayer replied with faked - or so Jim thought - boredness. "We foiled his plans and managed to stop him from killing everyone in revenge. Welcome to the Hellmouth, where apocalypses happen every year."

"Great Gorka Morka! And with Heartstone Trollmarket so close to the Hellmouth!"

Jim groaned. And Claire hissed. "Blinky!"

"We already knew you weren't from far away," the redhead told him. "I told you so. In fact, I think I could find you easily just checking the school registers." She smiled at them.

"Again: You're not being of the reassuring and comforting type right now, Wills."

"But I am! Telling them that I could find them but didn't should show that we're not the bad guys!"

Jim sighed. Not only had the Slayer and her friends captured them, but they could, apparently, find their families anytime they chose to.

"So, you want to visit Trollmarket?" Blinky asked.

"I said so, didn't I?" The Slayer rolled her eyes.

"And you have taken the Trollhunter and the Fair Claire hostage."

"We captured two thieves that tried to steal my hammer and took one of my… took Spike hostage to trade him for the hammer," the Slayer replied.

"That does sound quite incriminating if you word it like this."

"Blinky! We just did what you told us to do!" Claire protested.

Jim nodded. "Yes. And you said that the Slayer was a demon!"

"And she's working with William the Bloody!" Claire added.

Blinky's gasp was easily heard through the phone's speaker.

"Spike's… changed," the Slayer said. "Besides, he wasn't called William the Bloody because he killed so many people."

"Oi, Slayer! That's a secret!"

"Shut up, Spike!"

"Oh, yes!" the young man said. "I love that part."

"What part?"

"William the Bloody stood for 'William the bloody awful poet'," Mr Giles explained. "Please pardon my language."

"Oi! I was going by Spike ever since I died! I earned that name!"

"We know, Spike," the Slayer replied. "Anyway - visiting. Your trolls."

"Well, it seems this is an offer we cannot refuse, should we wish to resolve this conflict amicably," Blinky said. "Vendel should understand."

"Really?" Jim asked.

"Eventually. I hope."

"Great," Claire mumbled. "I bet they'll blame us."

Jim had to agree with her.

"Well, you tried to steal my hammer!" the Slayer said. "So… where are you from?"

Jim sighed. There was no point to attempt to hide it any more. "Arcadia Oaks."

*****​

"Arcadia Oaks?" Buffy Summers hadn't heard of that town, city, whatever.

"It's a small town - smaller than Sunnydale - north-east of Los Angeles," Willow supplied. "About two hours from here."

"In Giles's car?" Xander asked.

"By bus," Willow replied as Giles cleared his throat.

"So," Buffy said, "If we take a real car, we'll be there in an hour?"

"There, or in jail," Xander said.

"The cops will never catch me!" Buffy was joking. Mostly.

"And who amongst us shall be going on this trip?" Giles asked. "We do have responsibilities here, as you know. And one rather urgent issue. Which is part of another issue."

Ah, the review. "I haven't forgotten about the Council," Buffy told him. "What happened to the guys, anyway?"

"They were beset by those 'knights' and driven out of the park," Giles replied. "In hindsight, that was fortunate for them - I assume, given their attitude, that they would have engaged Glory as well, otherwise."

"Really?" The old guys, attacking Glory? Buffy didn't bother to hide her doubts.

"Contrary to appearances, all of the Watchers Council's inner circle have extensive experience in the field. However, they have never or, at best, rarely worked on an active Hellmouth, so while they are personally brave, they tend to underestimate the threats present here," Giles explained.

Well, that made Buffy feel a little less annoyed with them. Just a little, though. "I guess we can talk to them before we drive off."

"Do we have to drive?" Willow asked. "Apparently, the boy who was hurt was already in Arcadia Oaks, so…" She looked at the two teenagers. "I think that means you can travel much faster than by car."

Buffy blinked. "Hey, yes!" She turned to frown at the two. "You said you couldn't easily travel!" And 'Blinky' had said so as well!

"We can't. To-Tobes was an emergency," the boy explained.

"You were able to open a portal to Arcadia Oaks?" Willow gasped, then stared at the staff in her hands with the same expression she looked at a particularly annoying and difficult homework assignment - a sometimes disturbing mixture of happiness and greed.

"It took a lot out of Claire," the boy added.

"I wouldn't have been caught by you otherwise."

Oh, the little witch was a sore loser. Buffy sniffed. "So, you can't just portal us home?" She turned to look at Xander. "No E.T. jokes."

"But…"

"Nope." Buffy shook her head. "Anyway, let's talk to the Council, and then we set out for Arcadia Oaks."

"Who amongst us is going?" Giles asked.

That was a good question. Buffy pressed her lips together. She didn't want to leave anyone here with Glory on the warpath. But Mom was stuck in the hospital. And they couldn't fit everyone into a car. After Buffy herself, Spike was their best fighter. And his reputation would make the meeting with the trolls more difficult. Not to mention his attitude. And he was familiar with Sunnydale, but not Arcadia Oaks, so… Anyway, he'd stay and watch out for Mom. Giles had to come to talk to this Blinky. And Buffy doubted that she could keep him away from new ancient books, even if they were written in troll. Since the trolls had magic, Buffy needed magic as well. That meant Willow. With the two teenagers, that made five. She could fit five into Mom's car. And Dawn into the trunk? Better rent an SUV, then, or the brat would never let her forget it. And Buffy wouldn't let Dawn alone in the same town as Glory was.

"You, me, Willow. Little sis. And our two guests," she said.

Fortunately, her friends understood her reasoning - they all nodded.

"Alright. Now, Willow, can you go and rent an SUV with space for six? And enough trunk space for supplies? I'll go and talk to the old, useless men."

"Buffy!" Giles protested.

"Oh, come on, Giles!" She pouted at him. "You were thinking the same thing. Quite loudly!"

He sighed. "Just don't tell them that to their face."

"Yes," Willow chimed in. "Let your enemy save as much face as possible, but nothing else."

It sounded like a quote, but Buffy wasn't about to ask for an explanation. "Let's go before we break the kids' curfew."

"Hey! It's not a curfew," the boy protested. "It's our cover story."

"Sure." She grinned, and he frowned at her.

"I want my staff back," the girl said,

"Once we're sure that you're not some stooge for some evil demon," Buffy told her.

They wouldn't have been the first.

*****​

Travers had seen better days, Buffy Summers noticed as she arrived at the Magic Box. The old man didn't seem to be hurt, but his clothes looked rumpled - she could see at least one tear and some stains. And his minions looked worse. Nigel had an arm in a sling, and a bandage around his forehead, while Philipp's right leg was laid up, with his pants cut and soaked with blood.

Well, it wasn't as if Buffy looked ready for a night out in town. She was sure her bruises were coming along nicely - she could practically feel them growing - and she hadn't had time to change her clothes, either.

"Miss Summers."

"Mr Travers," she replied. "You've met the Knights of Bizarro?"

"The Knights of Byzantium," he corrected her. "An ancient order dedicated to fighting Glory."

"You knew of them?" She frowned.

"We weren't aware that they were still active," Travers replied.

"Well, a lot of them are now inactive," Buffy told him as she sat down at the small table. "Their weapons and tactics weren't very effective against the demon."

"Based on what we observed, I concur."

He was far too compliant, she thought. Where was his arrogance? "Though they were all 'This is the will of God, blah blah', while they attacked," she said. "Perhaps they were mind-controlled."

"While not impossible, I think indoctrination is far more likely to be the cause of their suicidal determination. The order is a religious order, after all." Travers frowned. "It might even be possible that this was the entirety of their forces, though I suspect they would have kept some out of the fray. Although I doubt that they are a factor in the current situation any more. If they had better means to fight Glory, they would've deployed them."

"Yeah. Spears and lances and swords didn't work out very well for them." Buffy shrugged. "I and the tin man could hurt her, though." But not as much as Buffy had wanted.

"We've noticed that as well."

Buffy leaned forward. "But did you also notice just how dangerous this demon is?" she asked. "She took some of my best blows, and swings from that magic sword of the other guy, and we literally barely scratched her. And she massacred dozens of people in the middle of the day!" Well, early evening, but it counted. She shook her head. "We can't play twenty questions with her - we need to know her weakness at once." She stared at Travers. "No more games. No more review. You saw what we face."

Travers sighed, which made him look about ten years older. Which probably put him at a hundred or so. "Yes, I suppose we did see what we came here to find out."

Philipp gasped. "Sir!"

Travers ignored him. "This threat is more dangerous and more urgent than we thought."

"I'll say," Nigel mumbled.

"So…?" Buffy prompted him.

"Glory isn't a demon," Travers said.

"What?" Buffy blurted out. Not a demon? The skanky bitch was so a demon!

"Glory is a hell-god."

Buffy blinked. "A hell-god? Not a goddess?"

"All our sources agree that Glorificus, apparently its commonly used name, was a god, not a goddess," Philipp added. "Despite its female form. Although there are also claims that it could possess human bodies of either gender."

"Great," Buffy muttered. "It's the invasion of the body-snatching hell-gods."

Nigel chuckled, once, then winced.

"And what about the key she wants? He, it, whatever," Buffy asked as nonchalantly as she could manage.

Travers cleared his throat. "Our sources are much less detailed about that. However, based on several accounts, it seems that Glorificus was banished to this dimension by his rivals in his home dimension. There's the theory that this key is the key to its prison, so to speak."

"And the knighty guys want to destroy the key to keep the demon-skank here?" Buffy frowned. That made not much sense. She was all for banishing demons back to hell where they couldn't massacre fashion or religious orders any more.

"So it appears. We can only surmise that, based upon the order's willingness to die to keep the heel-god from the key, that the consequences of Glorificus acquiring said key would be detrimental to our world."

"You mean she'll start an apocalypse with it," Buffy translated the Watcher-speak.

"More or less, yes."

"Great. Well, been there, done that. Not letting Gloy get the key, noted." Buffy sighed.

"And how will you achieve that? While you fared much better than anyone else in the recent confrontation, you failed to do significant damage to the hell-god yourself and had to be saved by timely magical intervention," Travers commented. "By your earlier opponents, nonetheless."

Buffy waved the comment away. "Oh, we came to an understanding. They're not going to fight us any more." At least not if they knew what was good for them. "And we're going to visit the troll underground to hash out things and stuff."

"You what?"

*****​

"Look, you've got my credit card. And a deposit. Both checked out. I mailed you a scan of my license. And of my passport, even though you don't require that according to your terms of service. What else do you need to rent us a car?"

The witch - Willow - sounded exasperated as she talked on the phone. James Lake Jr. wasn't sure whether he should be amused about that or not. On the one hand, it was nice to see the smug woman being frustrated. On the other hand, she was a powerful witch who could turn him into a rat if the comment he had overheard about stubborn bureaucrats had been correct.

He glanced at Claire, who wasn't even trying to hide her smirk, and sighed.

"What do you mean, you have reservations about handing over a car at night? It's barely evening!"

"You're closed? Then why do you even accept calls?"

"Oh, you…" Willow glared at her phone as if it were responsible and huffed. "They don't do business after sundown, apparently. But they couldn't tell me that straight away? Or put it on their website? Really!"

"It's Sunnydale. They don't want other towns to wonder about the special rules," the young man, Xander, said. "So… next agency?"

Willow sighed. "That was the second. The first didn't take my calls."

"Oh." The young man grinned. "I guess that means Plan R?"

Jim frowned. Plan R? He hadn't heard about any 'Plan R'.

Neither had Claire or Willow judging by their expressions.

"I'll ask my uncle Rory for a car that can fit us," Xander said.

"Oh!" The witch perked up, "I forgot about your uncle! Yes, that should do nicely."

"Though I might have to come with you - Uncle Rory is a big fan of personal responsibility," Xander added.

"He is?" Willow stared at him. "He gets caught drunk driving every year, or so you told me!"

"Oh, yes. But I mean that if he loans us a car, he expects me to be with the car to keep it safe so he can hold me responsible," Xander explained.

"Ah." Willow nodded. "Well, then ask for an SUV with enough room for sevenn and some light luggage."

"Luggage?" Jim asked.

Willow frowned at him. "We don't know how long this will take. I'm not going to wear my clothes for days!" She blinked, then sniffed at her blouse, then gasped, coughing a little. "I need to change now!"

"Got a little too close to the CS cloud?" Xander asked.

The pout she sent at him in return was answer enough.

"So, let's get the car, then go and get your clothes, then meet up at Casa del Summers?" Xander cocked his head sideways..

"Do we have a choice?" Claire replied.

"Well, you might have a better idea?" Xander grinned at them.

Claire's expression told Jim that whatever idea she had wouldn't be received well, so he quickly stepped in. "No, that sounds fine. As long as we don't lose any more time. We have to be back at eight at the latest."

"Oh, curfew, how have I missed you… not." Xander shook his head. "I guess there's some good to having neglectful parents."

"Xander!" Willow frowned at him.

"Sorry, Wills. Let's go. We wouldn't want our guests to be late."

"That depends on whether the stupidheads of the Council are still being stupid," Willow replied. "Which I wouldn't put past them, actually."

"We'll find out soon enough." Xander gestured towards the main road. "This way. It's not far to walk." He looked at them. "And keep your eyes peeled for trouble. Sunnydale after dark isn't safe."

Jim swallowed his first retort. What did they think they were, naive and stupid? "We're familiar with threats that lurk in the shadows," he said.

Xander blinked. "Right. You probably would be, what with trolls having a lethal allergy to sunlight and an appetite for humans."

"Trolls don't eat people!" Claire protested. "They are people just like us - just different!"

Jim nodded. "Gumm-Gumms eat people, and they are'0t regular trolls. They fought a war over this."

"Sorry," Willow said, actually blushing. "But the only troll we've met was Olaf. And he definitely wanted to eat babies." She scowled. "We should've killed him."

That did sound like a Gumm-Gumm to Jim. But did the timeline work out? He would have to ask Blinky. Once they were back in Arcadia Oaks.

Which reminded him of the fact that, for all the talk about 'guests', they were still effectively prisoners. And guiding the Slayer and her witch friend to meet the trolls.

Vendel would have a stroke.

"So, how's Arcadia Oaks?" Willow asked as they walked down the road.

"It's not on a Hellmouth," Claire replied.

"We know that," the witch told her. "I meant the town itself. What are the schools like? I've been checking the websites and social media, but they aren't very distinctive. Mostly average, I'd say. But that's why I'm asking."

"Average fits," Jim said, shrugging.

"Nothing special?"

"It's a perfectly normal town," Claire told them. "Just with trolls living underneath it."

"Trolls and gnomes. Oh, and don't let your cat out at night," Jim said. "Some trolls eat them."

"Cats?"

"Cats and socks is a common dish," Jim said.

Willow grimaced. "Poor kitties. That's almost as bad as Kitten Poker!"

"Kitten Poker?" Jim asked. What was that?

"Oh." Xander grinned. "Did you know that many demons consider kittens a delicacy? And play poker as well?"

Jim blinked. They couldn't mean what he thought they were saying...

"Those poor kitties!" Willow repeated herself. Then she frowned. "So, both trolls and demons like to eat cats?"

It was Jim's turn to grimace.

*****​

"And why do I need to go with you?"

Buffy Summers rolled her eyes. Her little sister was being a brat. As usual. "I told you," she said, holding her temper in check - they were in public, walking to Willow's house - "it's not safe for you without me."

"Oh, really?" Dawn sighed theatrically. "Newsflash, Buffy: Not everything is about you!"

"But this is," Buffy told her. "There is a hell-god - or hell-goddess - after me, and she'll try to kidnap you to make me surrender." It wasn't really a lie, she told herself. Glory couldn't get her hands on Dawn. Everyone agreed on that. Dawn would agree as well - if she knew she was a mythical key turned human so Buffy would protect her.

"And what about Mom?"

"Mom's taken care of," Buffy said.

"She's in the hospital!"

"And if she were out of the hospital, I'd drag her with us." So there!

"So, I have to go to some backwater town because of you?"

"No, because of some hell-goddess who just massacred dozens of people!" Buffy snapped.

Dawn drew back with a gasp, but she quickly rallied. "I dealt with the last demon who attacked us!"

"That wasn't a demon - it was a human boy in disguise," Buffy told her. Dawn wasn't a Slayer. Not even a Scoobie! Buffy couldn't let her think she could take on demons!

"He had a magic weapon, and they stood up to you!" Dawn retorted with a deep pout.

"I wasn't even there," Buffy replied with a glare.

"Because they outplayed you." Dawn grinned. "And I outplayed one of them, so there!"

"You got lucky and had to run!"

"And I hurt one of them - after they fooled you and captured Spike!"

"And then we captured them." Buffy scoffed.

"On your third try or something."

"Second."

"Second, third…" Dawn shrugged. "Well, it's probably a good thing I'm coming with you. Someone needs to do the thinking for you."

Buffy sighed. After clenching her teeth. "Reverse psychology won't work on me," she told her. She was taking psychology courses at UC Sunnydale, after all. Granted, her prof had turned out to be some evil mad Frankenstein, but the psychology courses had been solid.

Dawn scoffed. Then she grinned. "Well, I'm looking forward to visiting the troll kingdom! All those huge burly trolls…"

Buffy gave her a flat stare. "That won't work either."

"Are you sure you can protect me and do whatever you need to do if I'm with you among trolls? They did take Spike hostage already, right?"

Buffy grinned - Spike wouldn't easily live that down - but sighed soon afterwards. "And they now know better than to try that again."

"And what if you're wrong? Like you usually are?"

"I'm not wrong. And if I were, I'd beat everyone up." That was what Slayers did.

"Is that your solution to everything?"

"Yes. And what's your solution to everything? Whining?"

And there came the scowl. "I'm not whining! I'm debating!"

"You're whining. I know a whine when I see it," Buffy told her.

"You mean when you hear it," Dawn replied. "You can't see whining."

"Of course I can! I see you, I see whining!" Buffy smiled sweetly at her little sister.

"That's not how it works!" Dawn protested.

"That's so how it works. Who has the supernatural supersenses? You or I?" Buffy snorted.

"Who keeps making up words?"

"I'm not making up words!"

"You do, and you don't even notice. Our education system at work." Then Dawn perked up. "Hey! If we stay a few days, does that mean no school?"

Buffy almost said 'No' but reconsidered. "Yes." She couldn't send Dawn to Sunnydale by herself. "We'll say you're sick if we have to."

"Great! Let's go! Come on, slowpoke!"

Buffy blinked as her sister sped up, not quite jogging towards Willow's house. "Hey!"

"Come on! Where's your Slayer speed?"

Buffy clenched her teeth. Her sister was such a brat! Almost as bad as the Council, who were probably still complaining about Buffy's plan. Which was perfectly sound! If Jim's sword could cut Glory, and the hammer, which was totally Buffy's, but was related to trolls, could hurt the skank, then it totally made sense to talk to trolls. Perhaps they had more anti-Glory weapons.

Or a way to keep a little brat of a sister from getting herself killed. Or captured. Or… whatever Glory would do to her key.

Buffy clenched her teeth. Glory wouldn't get Dawn. Buffy would kill the hell-skank. As soon as she figured out how. Although…

She blinked. Did Willow have visitors? There was an ugly van, straight out of the seventies, parked in the drive. She could already smell the pot, and she was still two houses away. Hippie relatives, maybe?

Then she saw Xander pushing a suitcase into the van

Oh, no! This was their ride?

*****​

"You were supposed to rent an SUV!"

Even though it hadn't been his fault at all, James Lake Jr. winced when he heard the Slayer complain.

"I can smell the marihuana from here!" The Slayer shook her head and made a face while she glared at the van. "And there's 'Love Mobile' sprayed on the sides!"

"I'm sorry, Buffy!" Willow grimaced. "I tried - but the rental agencies aren't open for business after dark." With a pout, she added: "And they didn't say so on their website, which should be fraudulent!"

"Can they do that?" the Slayer asked.

"This is Sunnydale, dummy," a younger girl muttered behind her. Jim's eyes widened when he recognised the girl who had hurt Toby.

"Great," he heard Claire mumble next to him - she must have recognised the girl as well.

"That's no excuse!" The Slayer shook her head.

"Well, if they open at night, they'll have trouble finding staff," Xander said. "Or keeping staff."

"But if you didn't rent the car, where did you get this… thing?" The Slayer pointed at the van with an expression of disgust.

"Well…" Willow trailed and glanced at Xander.

"Remember my uncle Rory?" Xander grinned. "Only decent member of my family?"

The Slayer didn't seem to be impressed. "The one you said I should never meet after noon because he would be drunk then?"

"Exactly. Good uncle Rory had a car for us."

"Didn't you mention that he has a beautiful convertible?"

"He had one."

"Oh."

Xander shrugged. "He probably wouldn't have loaned it to us anyway."

"Why not?"

"I used the last car he loaned me to run over a vampire," Xander replied with a shrug. "The vampire didn't like it. Uncle Rory didn't like it either, though."

"Was that when you told us that you could dust a vampire by running over their head with a car?" Willow gasped. "Your uncle must have thought you had done a hit and run!"

"It wasn't a hit and run - I had to hit it several times until I caught its head."

Jim grimaced at the images this conjured in his mind. And at the grin on the man's face.

"Yeah, those vamps just don't want to hold still until you've broken a few limbs. But… Why this?" The Slayer shook her head again. "Didn't he have a normal car?"

"None that would seat six of us," Xander said.

"He had an old chevy," Willow added, "with benches back and front, but he said that was going to be a project car."

"Project car?" The Slayer looked confused.

"That's when you get an old car and restore it to mint condition as a hobby," Jim said, then pressed his lips together when everyone turned to look at him, Or glare at him.

"Yeah, what Mr Armoured Knight here said." Xander nodded. "Of course, the last project car Rory actually finished was when I entered high school, so…"

Buffy sighed. "But this thing doesn't look like it would be able to overtake Giles's car!"

"Oh, don't let the beaten up appearance fool you: The engine's top-notch," Xander said. "It's a German car, and they love their Autobahn."

"How fast is it?" The Slayer didn't look convinced.

"Well… if you push it, you can reach eighty-eight miles."

"And how long will it take you?"

"Ha ha ha, good joke, Buffy." Xander snorted. "It's a good car. With character."

"And after two minutes in it, every cop will think we smoked marihuana."

"That's 'Mary Jane' if you're driving this van, Buffy!" Xander smiled despite her glare.

"And does anyone think of the kids?" the Slayer asked.

"The kids?"

She rolled her eyes and pointed at Jim and Claire. "Their parents will think they spent the day smoking."

Claire gasped. "Oh, no!"

"That is if their parents even know how pot smells," Xander said.

"My mom's a doctor," Jim said.

"And my parents… I can't take the risk!" Claire shook her head. "This is a catastrophe."

"We don't have time to get another car," Willow protested. "We'll have to find a solution for this… Uh... " She checked her watch. "On the way?"

"The younger girl - Dawn, Jim remembered - sighed. "Really? All you need is some perfume to mask the smell."

"And why would you know that?" The Slayer glared at her.

"Because I've heard it at school?" The girl's smile didn't fool Jim.

It didn't fool the Slayer, either. "We'll talk about this once we're back home."

"Says Miss 'I'm going to spend the night clubbing and return in the morning'." Dawn scoffed.

"I'm the Slayer, I'm patrolling!"

"In the Bronze?"

"That's where most vampires come to hunt!"

"And it's the only club in town teenagers can enter," Dawn retorted. "Though it's a wonder they don't card you everytime you show up at the door."

"I'm a regular!"

"Exactly." Dawn's grin showed more teeth than a goblin.

"What…? Oh, you brat!" The Slayer huffed. "Whatever, let's go. We just have to drive fast enough so we can shower and change at a motel there."

Both Xander and Willow grimaced, and Jim had a bad feeling about it.

"What about Giles?" Willow asked.

"We can fetch him at his home."

*****​

"Dear Lord, are you planning to go undercover as drug dealers?"

Giles's reaction was exactly what Buffy Summers had expected. She smiled at him. "It was that or breaking into a garage and boosting a car. Apparently, no rental agency is open for business after dark in Sunnydale."

"That was to be expected, of course, but still… Where did you find this relic from the seventies?"

"Careful, G-Man," Xander cut in. "People might think you lived through the seventies. You won't score with younger women if they think you're in your seventies."

"Xander!" Giles glared at him. "I'm not interested in 'scoring' with younger women."

Buffy nodded - Giles was her Watcher, after all, he had duties. Then she blinked. "Wait! Does that mean you want to score with Mom?" She glared at him. Mom and Giles had been acting weird a while ago.

"Buffy! I can assure you that I don't have designs on your mother, nor on any younger woman. My love life is both satisfactory and private." Giles flashed his teeth before polishing his glasses.

Those were mixed signals. He flashed his teeth like that when he was annoyed, but he polished glasses when he was flustered.

Buffy had a bad feeling about this. Mom and Giles, that… that wasn't right! Almost as bad as Mom and Spike! Or Mom and… whoever. Giles was her Watcher!

"So, no chance of getting a British stepfather?" Dawn piped up with that fake innocent grin that didn't fool anyone.

"I-I… did say so already, didn't I?"

Well, except for Giles, apparently. "Anyway," Buffy told him, "Get in. We need to be in Arcadia Broke in an hour."

"That's Arcadia Oaks," Willow corrected her.

"Whatever, I know the way, let's go!"

"Ugh, this smell… I'll have to shower after this."

"Already planning, G-Man," Xander told him as Giles climbed into the car. "Willow's looking for a decent motel as we speak."

"I've found two so far."

Buffy started the engine. "Hey! Jim or whatever your name is!"

"Yes?"

"What's a good hotel in Arcade Oats?"

"Arcadia Oaks."

"Whatever. Motel, hotel?"

"Uh," the boy replied. "I don't actually know - I mean, I never needed a room for anything…"

"We're not looking for a love motel," Willow said. "Just a decent hotel."

"Discreet if possible," Giles added.

"And not too expensive," Xander said. "We've got a budget. Some of us do, at least."

"We should have enough money for a decent set of rooms," Giles said.

"Didn't you ask the Council for money?" Willow asked.

Buffy slapped her forehead. "I knew I forgot something!" She should've asked for money. And for Giles to get his salary back. This was all Glory's fault!

"We're not paupers yet," Giles said. "The Magic Box is covering most of our regular expenses, and I have some reserves, should the Council remain obstinate about providing us with the finances needed to deal with extraordinary threats."

Buffy felt relieved - and guilty. Giles shouldn't have to spend his own money for doing the right thing and helping her. "This is all about control," she muttered. "Since they can't control me by force, they try to leverage information and money."

"A short-sighted plan that we shall address once the current crisis has been dealt with."

Buffy nodded, smiling at Giles before focusing on the road again. They were almost at the highway. "Oh," she said. "That's another thing: Are you getting paid, Jim?"

"Uh… no?"

Figures, she thought. "So, not only did the trolls make you a child soldier, they don't even pay you for your work!" she spat.

"That's… double-bad!" Willow added. "Exploitation!"

"The trolls are our friends!" Jim protested.

"And they can't actually pay us money since they don't use our money," his girlfriend said.

Buffy rolled her eyes. "Was I that naive when I was their age?" she asked Giles.

"No, you were just stupid," Dawn cut in.

"Naive?" The girl was glaring at her; Buffy saw it in the rear-view mirror.

And they were finally on the highway. Buffy floored it.

"Ah… Buffy…"

"Buffy!"

"Careful!"

She ignored the complaints. If she listened to them, they'd never arrive at Arcadia Troll or whatever it was called. Besides, the van was accelerating more slowly than Giles's not-car. "Don't give me that," she told the two kids. "They are underground, aren't they? And they make stuff, like your armour."

"That was made by Merlin," the boy replied.

"Merlin? Really?" Giles looked like a cat that had just smelt fish. Fresh fish.

"Yes, really," the girl told him.

"Anyway, if the trolls can make stuff, they can sell stuff. Or give you stuff to sell. Like gems or that?" Didn't underground miners find gems in those games?

"Trolls aren't dwarves," Xander said.

"That's a cliché," Willow protested. "Both for dwarves and trolls. You can't just assume they are like Tolkien described them."

"Yeah," Dawn cut in. "Just like vampires aren't like Tom Cruise."

Tom Cruise? Oh, that awful movie that totally mis-pictured vampires! That stupid stuff made teenagers easy prey for vampires smart enough to play up the sex angle. Buffy blinked. "Don't tell me that you 'have heard that at school'!"

"Of course not! I heard it from Willow!"

"What?"

"Willow?"

"Me?" That was Willow.

"Yes. You had a rant about it in the Magic Box. Then I asked Spike. He told me all about vampires."

Buffy froze for a moment. "All about vampires?"

"Yes. You just told me that they're soulless monsters who want to kill me. Spike told me what that meant."

She was going to kill the vampire. Slowly. "And what does it mean?"

"They're soulless monsters who want to eat me, and not in the good way. And they have the memories of their human body."

'Not in the good way'? Definitely going to stake Spike, Buffy thought.

"Well, I would think that personal experience would offer more information about the matter," Giles said.

"Oh, yes! He told me about his turning."

"He did? Our records are lacking a few details. Could you…?"

"I'm not going to tell you about Spike's turning!" Dawn spat. "Ask him yourself!"

"He has proven to be somewhat recalcitrant regarding the subject," Giles said.

Buffy heard the girl explain the meaning to the boy. She would've known that too. "Anyway, vampires bad. Stay away from them," she said.

"Only try to stake them if you can't run," Xander added. "And always carry holy water and a stake with you."

"Dawn doesn't have to carry that because she's not going to leave the house after dark for the foreseeable future," Buffy corrected him.

"Hey!" Dawn protested. "That's illegal!"

"Curfews aren't illegal," Buffy retorted.

"They should be!"

"Well, depending on the exact terms, one could argue that strict curfews could be too strict," Willow added.

"Dawn's not going to end up as vampire chow," Buffy said. "And she can't defend herself."

"Spike could be my bodyguard. He's cool enough for the Bronze," Dawn said.

New plan. Buffy would interrogate Spike, find out everything that he had told Dawn, and then kill him.

Right after Glory.

*****​
 
Chapter 9: The Road Trip Part 2
Chapter 9: The Road Trip Part 2

Arcadia Oaks, January 14th, 2017

James Lake Jr. had had quite the experience with travel. He had been chased by angry trolls and worse on his bike. He had travelled on the Gyre. He'd been on a Vespa, being chased by a Stalkling.

He could say, with certainty, that being in a van driven by the Slayer was the scariest experience of them all. That the van had managed to hold together until they had reached Arcadia Oaks was a miracle. And a testament to German engineering, according to Xander.

That they hadn't been stopped - or, more realistically, chased for a while - by the police was also a miracle. Or the work of Willow's hacking. Perhaps both.

The trip had been nerve-wracking - the Slayer drove as if everyone had superhuman reflexes - though, Jim had to admit, it had had some good sides as well. Mainly that Claire had clung to him for the entire trip.

And they had arrived in Arcadia Oaks without having an accident.

"The next right, Buffy, there's the Arcadia Inn," Willow piped up.

"Alright. See? We've arrived with time to spare!" The Slayer smiled as she took the next turn, cutting off a sedan and ignoring the honking.

But as they parked, the engine whined for a moment, then stopped working.

"Uh…"

"Buffy? What happened?"

"It seems whatever spirit possessed the car has finally passed on to the afterlife."

"Giles! This isn't my fault! Xander said this was a marvel of engineering!"

"That doesn't mean it can travel at the speed of sound for hours!"

"Buffy wrecked another piece of technology. News at eleven!"

"Dawn! See if I ever let you drive!"

The girl scoffed. "It's a course at school! And who do you think Mom will let drive her? The girl who had a crash and just wrecked another car, or the girl who hasn't?"

"Neither was my fault!"

"Uh… guys? Shouldn't we do something about the smoke coming from the engine?"

"Oh, no!"

"I've got it!" Xander jumped out of the van, then ran to the engine. And more smoke rose when he opened the hood. If you could call it a hood when it wasn't an actual hood - Jim wasn't an expert on cars. Only on Vespas.

But he knew enough to know that an engine smoking like that - that wasn't just oil; that was plastic burning - wouldn't be easy to fix. Or quick.

"So…" He looked around as he got out of the van as well. "What now?"

"Now we shower, then we sneak into Toby's room, and then we go home," Claire stated.

"We need you to lead us to this 'Trollmarket'," the Slayer said. "Tonight."

"We'll sneak out once the parents think we're asleep," Jim said.

"Oh, right. Your parents don't know about your nightly activities." The Slayer shook her head.

"If they knew, we wouldn't have had to organise a cover story about developing pictures," Claire told her. Jim could tell that she was still angry. Well, she still hadn't had her staff returned.

"And they probably wouldn't let you risk your lives fighting trolls," Xander added.

Jim winced. Mom would… she'd freak out.

The Slayer sighed. "You need to tell your parents. Otherwise, they'll find out in the worst way possible. You'll come home and find your mom chatting with a monster."

Jim winced again.

The Slayer stared at him. "Seriously? You too?"

"My mom's…" He couldn't say, wouldn't say 'dating'. "She's friends with a teacher who's a changeling troll."

"An evil troll?" The Slayer frowned.

"Yes."

"And why is he still alive?"

"I can't kill him - he's magically bound to Mom. Whatever happens to him, happens to her," Jim blurted out.

"Dear Lord! That's a hideously evil spell."

Jim turned to the older man - Giles. "Do you know it?"

"I'm familiar with the basics, yes. I've never cast it, of course."

"Can you break it?"

"I… I don't know, actually." The man put a hand on his chin. "I would have to study several tomes to find out more about the details of the spell."

Jim started to smile. If this led to Mom being free of Strickler's spell, then it would all have been worth it!

Willow raised her hand. "I volunteer!"

"We're not in class, Willow."

"Ooops!"

"The engine's a write-off," Xander said. "Might as well sell it for scrap."

"So much for German engineering," the Slayer muttered. "And you?" She turned to Claire. "Do you have some new trollish neighbour? New pet with horns?"

Claire pressed her lips together.

The Slayer rolled her eyes. "Not you too. What is it?"

"Her baby brother was replaced by a Changeling. The changeling's working with us, but…" Jim shrugged.

The Slayer glanced at her sister. "I see. I'm sorry." She took a deep breath. "But you really should talk to your parents. It's not going to turn out well otherwise."

"My parents wouldn't understand what's at stake! They'd call the police, and that would just make things worse!" Claire blurted out. "They wouldn't let me out of the house if they knew! They can't know!"

"That's not exactly a bad thing," Xander cut in. "You're pretty young - far too young to risk your lives like that."

"Says the guy who started fighting vampires when he was younger than they are," Dawn said, scowling. "And without magic armour to protect him." She scoffed. "Is everyone here a hypocrite?"

Giles cleared his throat. "Well, those were… exceptional circumstances."

"Didn't you explain to the Council that without Willow and Xander, Buffy would've been killed several times?" Dawn shook her head. "You want to see Jim here get killed because his magic support is under house arrest? Or in the loony bin?"

Well, she has a point, Jim thought.

*****​

Staring at his reflection in the bathroom mirror, James Lake Jr. sighed. There was a bruise on his chin, which would only grow worse during the evening. Mom would want to know what had happened, and he'd have to lie about falling down or something. He didn't like lying to his mother. Almost as much as he didn't like being good at it. But he couldn't tell her the truth. That would cause a catastrophe.

Sighing, he opened the door to the hotel room. And froze.

Dawn was sitting on the bed, grinning at him. "Finally finished in the shower?"

"What are you doing here?" he asked.

"Waiting for you to finish, duh." Her grin didn't falter. "This is my room, after all. You're just borrowing it."

"But I locked the door!"

"It's not a very good lock."

Jim saw her eyes wander down to the towel around his hips and he blushed. "Uh…" he said. Her grin widened. He cleared his throat and went on: "Could you…?"

"Turn around? Of course!" She flipped on her side and looked at the wall. And at the mirror mounted there.

"That's…" She was the Slayer's little sister, Jim reminded himself. Throwing her out of the room - especially only wearing a towel - could only end very, very badly for him. On the other hand, staying in the same room with her, only wearing a towel, would also end very, very badly for him.

Then the door was opened, and Claire entered. "Jim, are you… Oh!"

She blushed.

Jim blushed harder.

"Didn't they teach you not to barge into someone else's room?"

And Dawn just killed Jim.

"What… what are you doing here?" Claire snapped.

"I was just showering, and she was on my bed. When I got out, I mean," Jim babbled.

Dawn giggled. "Relax, I'm not after your boyfriend. I'm just enjoying the view. And waiting for my own shower."

Jim used the distraction to grab his clothes - well, the clothes borrowed from Xander, since his own stank like a pothead's after sitting in the car for over an hour - and retreated back into the bathroom.

Two minutes later, he hadn't heard any screaming or sounds of fighting, so he opened the door and entered the room again. Claire and Dawn were glaring at each other. Well, Claire was - Dawn was smiling at him as soon as she noticed him.

He cleared his throat. "So, uh… thanks for taking our side in the discussion." Claire glared at him, but he tried to ignore that.

"Your side?"

"I mean about telling our parents," he explained.

"I only pointed out how sis and her friends are being hypocrites." Dawn scowled. "She goes out every night to risk her life and then freaks out when I want to go to a club? Screw her!" She stretched out on the bed. "Case in point: If she'd been able to take Spike with her, they'd leave me here with him while they go visit Trollland."

"Trollmarket," Claire corrected her.

"Anyway, you're my age, so you know all about stupid parents and other authority figures. And that telling them makes stuff worse."

Jim wasn't sure that he agreed - but telling Mom right now would make things worse for sure. And Claire didn't disagree, either. Well, he had met her parents. Her father would probably lock her up in her room to keep her safe. And her mom would summon the army. He nodded at her. "Well, thanks anyway."

"Except for almost killing our friend," Claire added.

Dawn grinned. "Almost only counts with hand grenades and horseshoe throwing."

"Did, uh, Spike tell you that?"

"No, Xander did." She shrugged. "He's alright when he's not going all "me protect you, rah-rah".

Jim had a vague notion what she meant and didn't want to ask to clarify. "Right. So, we have to go now, so we can be back home in time."

"To sneak out again." Dawn giggled. "See you later."

They left the room and headed to the stairs. Claire shook her head. "She's the Slayer's sister, alright."

Jim made an agreeing noise.

"But her advice doesn't help us. Unlike the Slayer and her friends, our parents aren't going out to hunt vampires," she went on. "If we tell them…"

Jim nodded. "Yes. We can't." But he couldn't help thinking that he was the Trollhunter until he died, but Claire and Toby could stop risking their lives anytime they chose to. Or were forced to.

And he felt guilty that he was hoping it would never come to that.

*****​

Even after a lengthy shower and new clothes, Buffy Summers was still smelling like a pothead. Not that there was anything wrong with smoking marihuana. Other than it being illegal, of course. But the smell! Almost as bad as the stench of cold cigarette smoke clinging to your clothes after a night of patrolling with a stupid vampire trailing you.

Sometimes, Slayer senses sucked.

"Does anyone else feel nostalgic?" Xander asked as they waited at a bus station. "Teenagers sneaking out of their room after curfew…"

"No," Dawn said, far too quickly.

"Not particularly, no," Giles said in the dry tone he sometimes used when he was too polite to tell you that he didn't care for your idea.

"Is it nostalgic if you remember, but don't feel a specific urge to do it again? Or a special fondness when remembering?" Willow asked.

"No," Buffy told Xander.

He sighed. "Well, I tried. So… Trollmarket? Anyone else getting Lord of the Rings vibes from this?"

"According to Council scholars, Tolkien wasn't familiar with actual trolls or goblins when he wrote his works," Giles said. "Although he was aware of the general lore and myths surrounding them."

"Could they sue his estate for slander?" Xander asked with a grin. "For making them the evil bad guy's minions?"

"I doubt that." Giles wasn't amused. Buffy could tell.

And so could Xander. Sighing, he asked: "So, what can we expect from those trolls? They don't live under bridges, right?"

"Apart from the, ah, biological facts such as their stone-like biology and that they turn into stone, and fatally so, when in sunlight, not much is known about trolls. Their appearance is said to have a lot of variation, though it's generally humanoid."

That sounded good. Buffy didn't want to make nice with some icky giant stone spiders or whatever.

"And culturally? We don't want to offend them accidentally," Willow asked. "Or willfully," she added.

"Based on what I recall and made a few notes about on the way here despite your best efforts to distract me, they have a warrior-like culture, though that could've changed since the time of Merlin," Gillies said.

"We distracted you?" Dawn said. "What did I do?"

"It wasn't anything specific. Just your usual, ah, antics," Giles replied.

"Focus," Buffy cut on before her sister could derail the whole info-dumping with her whining need for attention. "Any taboos we don't want to violate?"

"We should've asked Claire and Jim about this," Willow said.

Buffy shook her head. "We can't trust them. And revealing what we know about them would grant them an advantage."

"I think they already know that we don't know anything about trolls," Xander said. "Seeing as we didn't even know who the Trollhunter was."

"They don't know how much we don't know," Buffy retorted. "Besides, loose lips sink ships." She blinked. "Does that mean that loose lips destroy relationships? I guess kissing others would be like cheating…"

"It's a saying from the war," Giles explained, "To caution people not to talk about secrets, such as convoy routes for ships."

"Ah!" Buffy nodded. That made more sense than relationships. Kind of - both kissing others and gossiping could run a relationship as well, couldn't it?

"So, we know that we don't know, and they don't know how much we don't know?" Xander asked with a grin.

Giles sighed.

"And there's nothing else we know?" Willow asked,

"Unfortunately, no." Giles shook his head. "The main library of the Council should have more information, but my personal library doesn't contain many books on trolls. It also wasn't a topic of great interest when I studied."

Buffy snorted - as if Giles had ever stopped studying!

"Well, the internet is full of trolls and how to handle them," Xander said.

Buffy glared at him. "Not funny."

Dawn chuckled, of course. And ignored her glare.

Buffy sighed. Not again. "Let's hope the kids arrive soon."

"Kids?" Dawn snorted. "You sound like Mom."

"I do not!" Oh, the brat!

"You do!"

"Children…"

Buffy glared at Giles, but she couldn't tell him off for confirming that she wasn't old. "We've been doing this for years," she said. And they were out of school.

"We don't know how long Claire, Jim and Toby have been doing this," Willow pointed out. "Though I could check their records and see if they show a suspicious change in behaviour at school…"

"Bad Willow! No hacking to satisfy your curiosity!" Xander said.

"But it could be important information. What if they have years of experience as well?"

"They should've been more competent in that case," Buffy said. "And if the troll amulet chose Jim when he wasn't even a teenager, then we'll have words."

"Words?" Willow asked.

"Words emphasised with violence,"

Buffy didn't like the whole sending children to war thing here.

And Dawn rolled her eyes again. "How mature of you, Buffy!"

*****​

James Lake Jr. waited outside Claire's house and tried not to fidget. Mom hadn't suspected a thing when he had returned in borrowed clothes - she hadn't even noticed, tired as she was from her shift at the hospital. He had told her the story they had made up, about Toby having a minor accident, while he made a quick dinner, but he wasn't sure if she'd really listened, other than asking if he was OK.

Which… wasn't really out of the ordinary, Jim had to admit. Mom being tired from work happened before and didn't have to be tied to the curse on her. He still worried, of course.

Just as he worried for Claire. Her parents weren't working on the weekend and wouldn't be as tired or distracted. And without her staff - the Slayer's friends still hadn't given it back - she couldn't easily portal out of her room. Nor did she have magic armour to protect her in case of a troll, goblin or Stalkling attack. Or if Angor Rot found her.

He looked around. Still no sign of an enemy. Or their supposed allies from the Slayer's circle. But where was Claire? The lights had gone out on the living room ten minutes ago; shouldn't that mean her parents were asleep by now? Right, not exhausted from twelve-hour shifts in the hospital.

"Jim?"

He looked up. Claire had opened the window and was looking down at him. Just like in the play, he realised - and had to suppress the urge to serenade her. Or something.

"Claire!" he whispered back.

She smiled, then climbed out of the window. She lowered herself down before jumping and landed gracefully on the lawn.

"Are you OK?" he asked anyway.

"Yes. Let's go!"

They quickly went around the corner, where Jim had parked his Vespa.

"How's Toby doing?"

"He woke up. He's grumpy that he can't be with us when our visitors visit Trollmarket," Jim told her as he handed her the second helmet before dismissing his armour and sword - the police took a dim view on armour in traffic.

And he liked feeling Claire's arms around his waist and her hugging him from behind while they drove.

"He had surgery! He almost died!" Claire hissed.

"You know him."

She huffed at that. "And that's all the fault of that girl."

"Well, she thought we were demons trying to eat people," Jim pointed out as they took the next corner on their way to the hotel.

"She should still apologise," Claire said.

Jim made an agreeing noise, though he was more than a little torn about this. Toby was his best friend, but Dawn had just tried to defend herself and her friends. And Claire was more than a little mad about the whole thing. "Well, AAARRRGGHH!!! is taking care of him," Jim said. "So he'll be fine in a few days, tops." He had to be, or school would get complicated. If they needed to get a doctor's waiver for PE, they might ask about the fresh scar from surgery. Mom certainly would ask.

"He will," Claire said, and he felt her hug him a little harder.

Smiling, he almost missed the turn to the hotel's parking lot. He didn't miss the green portal in the middle of it, though. Immediately, he brought the Vespa to a stop and dismounted.

"For the glory of Merlin, Daylight is mine to command!"

Claire stepped up next to him.

"Claire."

"It's a portal. I know about portals."

But she didn't have her staff, Jim knew. "Stay back, though - I'm taking a closer look." He moved forward, hoping that she wouldn't follow him.

The portal looked like one of Claire's, only green. Bright green. A least from this angle. Jim had to move a little further to look through the portal. Clenching his teeth and hefting his sword, he stepped around it, and…

...looked through the portal at a grinning Dawn.

"See? It works!" He saw her eyes widen. "Oh! Hi, Jim!"

"Dawn, put it down!" That was the Slayer behind her.

"But I can use it!"

"That doesn't mean you should use it," the Slayer shot back.

"What? You're using my staff?" Claire had followed Jim and was glaring at the girl.

"No one else was using it," Dawn shot back. "And I can use it!"

"Give it back! The portals aren't supposed to be green!" Claire stepped up to the portal, and, for a moment, Jim was afraid she would try to grab the staff through it - and who knew what would happen if that closed her portal with her halfway in it and out of it.

Then Claire stepped through the portal, and Jim quickly jumped after her.

*****​

Sometimes, Buffy Summers could kill her little sister. This was one of these times. "Dawn! Put the staff down! You don't know what…"

And the Trollhunter and his friend stepped through the portal - into an already crowded hotel room. Great.

"Give me my staff!" the girl demanded.

"What? No! Only after we reach Trollmarket!" Dawn retorted. "That was the deal! Besides, it likes me!"

"Technically, we didn't have a deal, though it was certainly implied that we would return the staff once we talked to the trolls," Willow said.

That didn't help their relations with the locals, Buffy would bet. Yep, witch-girl was fuming, and the Trollhunter was frowning - and the guy was usually quite easy-going. Unlike most others, he hadn't been ready to murder Dawn for her song choices during the road trip here, and if that wasn't easy-going, then nothing was.

"It likes you? You think I'm stupid? It's my staff. I won it from Angor Rot!"

"But it likes me - I can use it easily. Even Willow had trouble getting it to work!" Dawn retorted.

Wait. Buffy turned to frown at Willow. Her Bestie was looking quite guilty. "Willow! We agreed: No messing with the potentially dangerous artefact!"

"I wasn't messing around," Willow tried to defend herself. "I was just checking how it works to keep it safe."

Yes, she had been messing around with the staff. But then, why hadn't she managed to get it to work? Buffy suddenly had a sinking feeling in her stomach. "Uh, Willow… You didn't get it to work. But Dawn did."

"Yes?"

"Yes!"

"I don't care - it's my staff."

The witch girl really needed to chill and stop being so possessive about some magical items, in Buffy's opinion. But she had bigger problems to worry about. A portal staff, working for the key that the skanky demon goddess needed to go home. "What are the odds that Glory felt this?"

Willow paled. And Giles - Buffy checked with a glance - was polishing his glasses. Even Xander grimaced.

Jim and Claire, and, of course, Dawn, looked confused. "Why would she notice this? We aren't in Sunnydale, and Claire used the staff before. Didn't you?" Dawn asked.

"I've been using it for some time. Training with it," Claire said.

"See? No problem."

"But the portals weren't green," the Trollhunter pointed out.

"I didn't do that!" Dawn blurted out the same way she always did when she had done something. "That was the staff's fault!"

"It wasn't! It never did that for me - or for Angor Rot!" the girl retorted.

"Well, perhaps you didn't know how to do it?" Dawn replied. With a huff.

"And you do?" Claire narrowed her eyes at her.

"I told you: the staff likes me."

"That's ridiculous! The staff isn't a sentient item; we checked," Claire said.

The Trollhunter nodded in agreement, Buffy noticed.

But… "Wait! You have sentient items?" Buffy looked at her hammer. "Hi?"

Why was everyone staring at her like she had gone crazy? Better safe than sorry! It wouldn't do to insult her hammer by accident.

"My sister, the Slayer." Dawn shook her head. "Anyway, portals are safe."

"Uh…" Willow bit her lower lip. "We don't know that. You really shouldn't use the staff, Dawn. If Glory's feeling this…"

"Why should she feel this? She didn't feel Claire's portals before!" Dawn frowned at them. "Why are you guys acting so weird? Just because I opened a portal?"

Damn. Buffy knew that tone. Dawn was onto something, Onto them. "It's not normal for the staff to do that. I mean, green portals," Buffy told her. "Hand it over to Claire so we can go to Trollmarket."

"Wait! Do you seriously think that monster might have felt this? And might come to Arcadia Oaks?" The Trollhunter looked… worried in that kind of 'I'm going to slay something' way. At least as far as Buffy could tell. Well, she'd feel the same if she was in his place.

"We don't know that," Willow said. "But we don't not know that, either."

"That's why one generally shouldn't experiment with unknown magic," Giles commented.

Willow had the grace to blush.

"It's not unknown, and I wasn't experimenting!" Dawn, of course, didn't. "It's easy to handle."

And Claire looked mad. "Hand it over! We need to talk about this with Blinky!"

"Hand it over, Dawn." Buffy glared at her sister.

For a moment, Dawn looked so mulish, Buffy was half-afraid that she would try to open a portal to elsewhere and run. But she pouted and handed the staff over - to Buffy. By throwing it at her.

Buffy easily caught the staff, of course, and handed it over to Claire before the girl went off the rails. "Here!"

Everyone except for Dawn ignored Xander's 'my precious' comment when Claire cradled the staff to her chest for a moment.

"Uh, thanks," Jim said.

"No problem," Buffy lied.

"But we still have to talk about this… Glory," the Trollhunter went on.

"And why she would feel my portals, and not Claire's," Dawn added, narrowing her eyes at Buffy.

Damn.

*****​

Claire had her staff back. That was a very good thing in James Lake Jr.'s book - ever since she'd lost it, she'd been quite different from her usual self. He wouldn't have called it obsessed, but… Claire had been nursing a grudge. And quite stubbornly at that.

Now, though… He glanced at her, seeing her smile as she held the staff, and couldn't help smiling as well. She was happy.

Jim didn't want to know what Claire would've done if she'd lost the staff for longer than a few hours - or permanently. Would she have asked for a replacement magic weapon, like Toby's fiery hammer? That wouldn't have been too bad, actually. Even though he'd worry even more about her if she couldn't get away from danger by stepping through a portal - or by making the threat falling through a portal.

Well, that wasn't a problem now. Or a concern. Things could go back to normal.

"We don't have time to discuss magicky stuff. We have an appointment with Blinky the troll Giles, and we don't want to be late!"

Oh, right. Jim set his jaw at the Slayer's words. They were to take the woman and her friends to Trollmarket. So much for normal. "Blinky will understand if we're late," he told her. "And it's not late for him."

"Right, like vamps, this is closer to noon for him." The Slayer nodded.

Jim didn't like the comparison - vampires were demons; trolls were people, and it was important for the Slayer to keep that in mind - but she was correct with regards to troll time.

"I can open a portal to Blinky's study," Claire said.

Jim stared at her. Was she strong enough to do that? After she had nearly exhausted herself today already? The trip had allowed her to rest, but…

"I think we've had enough portals," the Slayer said. "Not that I don't trust you - well, mostly - but we don't know if Dawn broke anything when she played with the staff, and we really don't want to risk catching Glory's attention."

Claire narrowed her eyes. "I'll have to test the staff anyway."

"But perhaps not right now?" Willow cut in. "Best do it away from Arcadia Oaks, just in case that Glory can sense it."

"That's an excellent idea," Mr Giles said. "If Glorificus can sense the staff, this might lure her away from the general population."

"I volunteer to play bait!" Dawn said.

"No!" "No!"

Claire and Buffy glared at the girl, then at each other. Xander shook his head, and Mr Giles sighed and polished his glasses once more. Jim bit his lower lip - this wasn't the time to ask if he needed tips about keeping glass clean.

"I don't think that would be a good idea," Willow said.

"Why not?" Dawn pouted. "It wouldn't be dangerous - I just open a few portals, then we book it."

"And keep the location under observation to check if Glory shows up. Maybe leave some mock-up giant key?" Xander suggested.

The Slayer scowled at him. "Have you seen how fast she is? She might be able to run there in no time. Or teleport."

"But she didn't do that right now, when Dawn was using the staff," Willow pointed out. "Unless she's on the way."

"Right. Let's not hang around and find out," the Slayer said. "Everyone, let's go! We're going to visit the trolls!"

"At least these trolls don't live under bridges," Xander said with a chuckle.

Jim looked at Claire and cleared his throat. "Well…"

"What? Really?" The Slayer stared at him. "How more cliché can you get?"

"Well, most of the 'clichés', as you call them, are based on myth and lore, which in turn are based on facts in many cases, if slightly distorted, when it comes to the supernatural," Mr Giles told her. "Although I don't know how many trolls would've been literally living under a bridge in ancient times."

"They're not living under a bridge," Jim corrected them. "But the entrance to Trollmarket is under a bridge."

"Ah. That makes sense. You wouldn't want to catch a terminal case of sunburn if you forgot the time before you left for grocery shopping." Xander nodded.

Jim frowned. Making jokes about trolls dying in sunlight? That was how his predecessor had died. And right next to a bridge.

"Dying in sunlight isn't funny," Claire told the young man. "Our friends face that danger far too often."

"Well, it's funny if it's vampires," Xander retorted. "The way their eyes widen right before they catch fire…"

"You're friends with a vampire!" Claire said.

"Friends? Spike isn't a friend. He's more like a…" Xander trailed off.

"Troublesome acquaintance who won't take a hint and leave?" the Slayer suggested.

"An ally of convenience who might turn on us in a heartbeat, should his personal circumstances change?" Mr Giles suggested.

"Don't diss Spike!" Dawn protested.

"You don't know him like we do," Willow said.

"I know him better than any of you!"

"No, you don't!"

"You're just jealous!"

"Jealous? What the… That's ridiculous!"

"Dawn! Really!" Mr Giles was polishing his glasses again.

Dawn scoffed. "Spike's alright."

"No, he isn't! He eats Weetabix with blood! Weetabix!" Buffy scowled and crossed her arms.

"Uh… are you objecting to him eating blood or Weetabix? Cause I can't tell," Willow asked.

"Weetabix is a traditional British breakfast food," Mr Giles said. "Though soaking it in blood…" He shook his head.

Jim felt like shaking his head as well. He exchanged a glance with Claire - she looked as shocked as he was at the antics of the Slayer and her friends.

And they were about to introduce them to Trollmarket? Whose idea had that been again?

Right, the Slayer had insisted on seeing the trolls for herself.

*****​

"So, this is the bridge under which the trolls live?" Buffy Summers asked, looking around. It was mostly concrete, spanning a concrete ditch, not even a real river. No ancient, moss-covered stone arches here. What a letdown.

"This is the entrance," Jim told her. "The trolls don't live under the bridge."

"As we already told you," Claire added - the girl was still bitchy even though she got her staff back.

"Well, the trolls live underground, right?" Xander asked.

"Yes."

"Then, technically, they do live under a bridge…" Xander grinned.

Buffy snorted. Mostly at the teenagers' expressions - Xander's comment wasn't that funny.

"Well, where's the magic portal? Or is this some lame-o secret door?" Dawn asked, looking around with a pout.

"It's here. And it's magic," Jim replied. "But, before we open it, we need to tell you a few things."

"More things?" Buffy complained. "This is starting to feel like a school trip."

"Isn't it a little late?" Willow added. "We had two hours to discuss everything!"

"What are we discussing? Stuff like not feeding the trolls?" Xander asked. "'Cause, you know, you learn that in Computer Class these days."

"You should've learned it, at least," Willow told him.

"I did! When I'm riling up trolls, I'm not doing it out of ignorance!" he protested.

"Of course you'd say that!"

"Well, it's true!"

"Children!" Uh-oh. Giles sounded annoyed. "Could we please focus upon the undoubtedly important instructions about troll culture and customs before we start our meeting with another culture by insulting them inadvertently?"

"So, we are planning to insult them?" Xander cocked his head and smiled. "Good to know!"

"Xander, this isn't the time to crack bad jokes. We're facing a very delicate meeting that could spell doom for us - or for our enemies." Giles stared at him. "Please remember that our hosts aren't used to your juvenile antics."

"Sorry, G-Man." Xander didn't sound sorry, but he didn't push further, so he probably was a little sorry, Buffy thought.

"So…" Willow beamed at Jim. "What do we have to know about trolls? Are there taboos? Customs with regards to greetings? Rituals? Dress codes?"

"Dress codes?" Buffy asked. "No one told me about dress codes!" One of the best things - well, one of the only not so bad things - of Sunnydale High had been the very lax dress code for students. You could dress fashionably and didn't have to wear some dumpy frumpy nun's habit. If the trolls had some issues with human fashion…

"There aren't any dress codes," Claire said. "If there were, then we would've mentioned them before we arrived at the entrance so you could change."

That sounded logical. Then again, people weren't very logical. And 'forgetting' to mention that trolls had some aversion to nice shoes was exactly the kind of petty revenge some teenagers liked. Although Jim hadn't struck her as the type to do that, and Claire didn't seem to be so petty, either. Though she did seem to nurse a grudge.

"So, what do we have to watch out for, then?" Buffy asked. "I don't have to bow and scrape to trolls, do I? Cause I don't do well at that, just you know." Slayers weren't made for grovelling. Unless it involved getting shoes destroyed while patrolling reimbursed. The ends justified the means when it was about shoes, after all.

"Well, remember that trolls aren't used to humans," Jim said.

"That must have been fun for you," Dawn commented.

"Uh… well, they've grown used to my friends and me." Jim shrugged. "Most of them."

"Used enough to make you deliver package like a postman," Claire added with a snort.

"Seriously?" Buffy stared at the Trollhunter. "You're their gopher?" She glanced at Giles; her Watcher better not get any ideas about making her fetch him coffee. Well, he didn't drink coffee, and he hadn't let her make tea ever since she had tried to brew some last time, but it was the principle of the thing!

"I'm the Trollhunter," Jim said. "I do protect trolls and help them. Occasionally, that includes hunting down gnomes infesting a shop or transporting dangerous magical artefacts." He glanced at Claire, who blushed a little in return.

There was a story there, but this probably wasn't the time to dig. "So, if you say 'not used', what does that mean? Lynch mobs? Paparazzi?" Buffy asked.

"No, no. Just… muttering and glares. Probably some protests by Vendel. And some complaints about bringing more humans into Trollmarket." Jim shrugged. "Stuff like that."

"So, don't go all 'Rah Rah Slayer Smash!' on them," Dawn said.

Buffy glared at her. As if she would slay someone for mouthing off! If she would, then Dawn would've been slain long ago!

"Is that all? Xenophobia isn't exactly unexpected, especially from a culture hiding from the world," Willow said.

"Well, it's mostly that," Jim said. "Trolls are people - just act normally."

"And don't eat their food," Claire added. "Trolls can eat things that would poison humans."

Jim nodded. "And if they're eating meat, it's probably cat."

One thing trolls had in common with demons, Buffy knew. "So… don't act like American tourists, got it."

"That's… actually a quite succinct summary," Giles said.

Buffy beamed at him. "And if anything goes wrong, just beat them up, don't slay them."

"If anything goes wrong, let me handle it," Jim told her. "I'm the Trollhunter. You're outsiders."

"We don't want you to start a war," Claire commented.

"We don't start wars - we finish them," Buffy told her.

"Well, except for the war against demons," Willow said, completely ruining Buffy's line. "That one the Slayer kind of started and hasn't finished yet."

"You know what I mean." Buffy pouted.

"We do. I think we do, at least," Xander said.

Giles sighed.

Jim and Claire exchanged another glance, then Jim sighed and touched the wall in front of them.

And a magic door appeared.

Neat!

*****​
 
Chapter 10: Trollmarket
Chapter 10: Trollmarket

Trollmarket, January 14th, 2017

"Cool stairs. A little deathtrappy, but cool."

"Going down is nice, but going up? With these troll-sized steps, you better not be old and cranky. Oh my God! Giles! We might have to carry you up. And with 'we' I mean 'Buffy'."

"I can assure you that I am still able to climb even steep stairs, Xander."

"Good, 'cause I'm not carrying you. I'm the Slayer, not the pack mule."

"Unless it's weapons or shopping bags. Then you are the pack mule. And you're as stubborn as a mule, anyway."

"Dawn!"

"I'm just telling it like it is, sis! I've been living with you all my life, after all - I know you best!"

James Lake Jr. suppressed a sigh at the antics of the Slayer and her friends. Couldn't they take anything seriously? Or at least be a little impressed by the entrance to Trollmarket? Instead of treating the magical entrance and the glowing crystal stairs leading down to the village like… like an obstacle?

Or, in Dawn's case, a playground? The girl was skipping down the stairs!

"Dawn! Don't! Stop!" And the Slayer didn't like it.

"Be careful!"

"I'm fine, sheesh!"

"If she slips and falls, I'll portal her into the lake!" Claire muttered.

Jim glanced at her, but she seemed completely focused on Dawn. Which wasn't a bad thing, of course - having the Slayer's sister fall to her death, even if it was her own fault… Jim shuddered at the thought.

"Say, Claire, do you always use the stairs here? Or do you portal straight to Trollmarket?" Willow asked.

"We usually take the stairs unless it's an emergency," Claire replied.

"Ah." Willow nodded. "Saving magic for important things. Tara shares that view."

"Yes." Claire nodded.

Jim nodded as well, if a little belatedly. As far as he knew - and he doubted that he was mistaken - it was mostly that Claire was still learning how to use the staff and needed to build up more of a rapport with or tie to Trollmarket, but there was no need to tell the witch that.

"But it's really impressive," Willow went on. "Was it created by magic? I mean, it's obviously magical, what with the magic flowing door - or was that a portal, actually, and is the concrete solid unless you activate the magic? - but did the trolls shape and tunnel through the earth by other means, or just spell the whole thing into existence? It's fascinating. And also pretty."

"Uh…" Jim blinked as he tried to follow the witch's questions. He jumped down a step to gain some time. "I don't actually know," he admitted. "I never asked." He was the Trollhunter, not Merlin, wasn't he?"

"Oh. Well, that makes sense. Buffy isn't very interested in magic, either," Willow said.

"Unless it's magic related to fashion," Xander added.

Willow giggled, then glanced at the Slayer, who was scolding Dawn at the bottom of the stairs. "So…" She looked at Claire.

"I've been focusing on the staff and spells that are useful in combat," Claire replied to the implied question.

"Ah, yes." Willow nodded. "You would. In your place, I would have done the same. It's nice to know about magical building techniques, but they won't help you fight demons."

"Unless you need to fight in a building or lair. Or need to deal with a trap. Or want to trap a demon," Xander pointed out.

Willow blinked - as did Claire, Jim noted. Which was a little eerie. "You're right! I'm so stupid!" the witch exclaimed. "I need to look into such magic! I should be able to create much safer buildings for us! Or, at least, an underground base!"

"You want to create an underground base?" Claire asked.

"Well, it seems the obvious choice - there's a reason the military uses bunkers so much," Willow said.

"The military has bunkers because they protect against bombs and artillery," Xander pointed out.

"But the Initiative had an underground base as well, and they didn't fear bombs," Willow retorted. "They did that to hide their base."

"'The Initiative'?" Jim asked.

Willow blushed. "Uh… forget I said anything? I'm not supposed to tell anyone about it."

"About what?" Claire asked.

"I can't tell you. Well, I could, obviously - I'm not magically bound or anything - but if I do, there's this NDA, and… I shouldn't say anything about this any more, should I?"

"Probably better, Wills," Xander agreed.

Jim narrowed his eyes. This sounded as if the Slayer had contact with the Military. Or with some secret organisation with soldiers and underground bunkers.

If they found out about trolls… Jim winced. They might've found out about trolls already if they were in contact with the Slayer. And it was all Jim's fault.

Damn. Jim frowned as they reached the bottom of the stairs.

*****​

The troll town looked neat, Buffy Summers had to admit. Built into a giant cave - or was that cavern? Not that it mattered - the houses often looked like caves. Or like the buildings in Flintstones. As much as real buildings could look like cartoon buildings outside Disneyland, in any case. And lit by crystal thingies. Probably environmentally-friendly as well.

And the trolls themselves looked neat, too. No one looked the same, as far as she could tell. All were huge, though, almost twice her height. Or taller. And… well, she didn't know how much they weighed, but it had to be a lot, what with their stone biology.

"Humans! Here!"

"What is the Trollhunter thinking?"

"They multiply worse than gnomes!"

"Someone needs to do something about this!"

"This isTrollmarket! Our town! Not the human town!"

And they were all glaring at them as if Buffy had stolen their breakfast. She blinked. Right. The hammer. Her hammer. She narrowed her eyes at the next troll who glared at them.

He looked away. Smart. Smarter than the average fledgling, for sure.

"I didn't think it would be that bad," Jim muttered. "We should've met with Blinky above ground."

"The Slayer wanted to see Trollmarket, remember?" Claire replied in a whisper.

Buffy snorted. Had they already forgotten about Slayer hearing? Well, she wouldn't remind them - this could come in useful.

"This is great! A whole different culture! A whole different civilisation!" Willow gushed.

"They sell TVs here, Wills."

"What? Oh my God! You're right! They have TVs!"

"I see that the corrupting influence of popular culture has even spread to alien civilisations," Giles commented.

Buffy shook her head. Her Watcher would never change.

"It could be worse, G-Man!" Xander chuckled. "Imagine if they were selling computers!"

Buffy didn't need to look over her shoulder to know that Giles would be polishing his glasses now. Or at least he'd want to.

"I wonder what kind of shows they watch," Dawn piped up.

"Probably The Flintstones," Xander joked.

"We can ask!" Willow said. "But… if they have TVs here, then that means they have reception. Or cable! That means human technology. Well, human as in known to us, since technology is universal, based on scientific principles and all, but it means that they aren't entirely relying on magic, but will be using technology as well."

Jim cleared his throat. "Actually, the trolls just like the static from the old TVs when they're turned on. They don't actually watch TV."

"Really?" Willow didn't sound disappointed. "But they still need electricity for that! That's technology as well. Oh! Do they use magic to power the TVs? Or use magic to power a generator? That would probably be easier but still require more technology. Although they could've scavenged that, I guess."

"No experimenting with powering your home with magic, Wills!"

"Xander! I wouldn't do that!" Willow protested.

"But you are thinking about it."

"I'm planning experiments - provided I can talk to whoever set the TVs up here. The shopkeeper should know. Can we ask them?"

The troll glaring at them through the window of the shop looked anything but willing to help them, Buffy noticed. But asking shouldn't hurt. At least not them - she was quite sure she could take a troll easily since Jim was the Trollhunter, and she could take him easily. "Well, we could…"

"Trollhunter! What have you done? Bringing more humans to Trollmarket? Without our permission?"

Buffy frowned at the rude troll interrupting her. Who did he think he was, shouting at her and the Trollhunter?

"Vendel!" Jim winced. "I can explain!"

Oh. That was the Troll Mayor. And he looked mad.

"You can explain why you led more humans to us?"

"Chill, Mr Troll Mayor." Buffy smiled at him. Sweetly, not the kind of smile she reserved for vampires. "He didn't have a choice - I insisted."

"It seemed the best way to sort out our differences without further violence," Giles added.

"Further violence?" The Troll Mayor turned to glare at Jim. "Who are these humans?"

That was her cue! "I'm the Slayer," she told him.

He gaped at her. "The Slayer? Trollhunter! Have you lost your mind? You brought a demon to us?"

The other trolls - those nearby - shrank back from them, Buffy noticed. Not that she cared. She narrowed her eyes and stepped up right into Mr Mayor's face. "I'm not a demon! I hunt demons!" she corrected him. And she'd hunt him if he kept slandering her like that!

"I can confirm that," Giles said. "Rupert Giles, of the Watcher's Council. Your information with regards to the Slayer seems incorrect. Buffy is not a demon but a magically empowered human."

"And a magically empowered pain in the butt," Dawn added. "But she's not a demon. Unless you let her into the kitchen."

"What?"

Jim cleared his throat. "She insisted on meeting Blinky. After a… misunderstanding."

"They wanted to steal my hammer," Buffy explained.

"Your hammer?" The troll gasped again. "By the Heartstone! It's the Hammer of the Troll Gods!"

Buffy glared at him. It was her hammer.

*****​

This was turning into a disaster! James Lake Jr. clenched his teeth, took a deep breath and put his hand and arm between the Slayer and Vendel. "Vendel! This is a complicated situation! One that could endanger Trollmarket! That's why we need to discuss this with Blinky - in private." Not in public, where all the trolls could overhear them.

"Yeah, Mr Mayor," the Slayer unhelpfully chimed in. "You've got a lot more problems than Olaf losing the hammer to me."

"Olaf lost the hammer to you?"

"Sure did," she replied. "After he tried to kill my friends and eat babies, I put him down, and we banished him back to hell."

Vendel's eyes widened at the claim.

"Her friends include Aud," Claire added. "And William the Bloody."

"Aud? The witch who banished Olaf in the first place? She's still alive?" Vendel sounded much less shocked than Jim had expected.

"Yes. And she didn't like your Trollhunters breaking into her shop."

"It's actually my shop, I believe," Mr Giles said, sounding a lot like Señor Uhl when he was annoyed.

"Yes, you believe that, Giles." Willow nodded with a wide smile.

"We really shouldn't discuss this here," Jim repeated himself.

Vendel looked at the group. "Where's your friend Tobias?"

"He was hurt in the fighting," Jim said. "He's recovering."

"He almost died," the Slayer added. "And it wasn't even me. So, talky-talky sound good to you?"

Vendel stared at her for a moment, then turned his head to meet Jim's eyes.

Jim smiled as encouragingly as he could.

And Vendel sighed. "Very well. I suppose this is Blinkous's fault, anyway. I knew he was up to something - he was far too excited for comfort."

"It wasn't his fault!" Claire protested at once, but Vendel had already turned away and was walking towards Blinky's home.

"Well, if he gave you the mission, then it was his fault. Kinda. That's how leadership works," the Slayer claimed.

"Yes," Xander added, "we blame Giles for everything that goes wrong."

"You do; I blame Buffy," Dawn added.

"Dawn!"

"What? I do!"

"That's not the point!"

Well, Jim thought as they made their way through Trollmarket, perhaps this visit will make us look like the perfect Trollhunters in comparison.

*****​

"Master Jim! And Claire! You're back, hale and whole!" Blinky beamed at them as soon as James Lake Jr. opened the door.

"Unlike their friend, or so I heard," Vendel said as he followed them inside.

"Ah…" Blinky's smile vanished. "Vendel! What a pleasure and surprise - a pleasant surprise - to see you!"

"The pleasure is all yours, I assure you," Vendel replied. "Did you invite the Slayer and her allies to Trollmarket?"

"We're here, you know," the Slayer said. "You shouldn't speak about us as if we're not present." She turned to Blinky and glared at him. "Hello. You're the troll who sent three kids to the Hellmouth, aren't you?"

"Blinky - the Slayer. Buffy - Blinkous Galadrigal," Jim belatedly remembered to make the introductions. Even though he didn't think he needed to introduce the Slayer; her attitude left no doubt who she was.

"Charmed," Blinky said. "And while, technically, this might be seen as an accurate statement, it is also a little misleading."

"You sent the Trollhunter to the Hellmouth?" Vendel blurted out. "Have you lost your mind?"

"That was where the Hammer of the Troll Gods resurfaced after a thousand years of being lost," Blinky replied. "And I thoroughly briefed the Trollhunters."

"Well, yeah, your briefing was a little too briefy." The Slayer blinked, then scoffed. "I mean… you left out a few important things. Like the fact that I'm not a demon!"

"I didn't know that," Blinky defended himself. "I shared everything that we know about the Hellmouth and the situation at hand."

"Well, it wasn't enough," the Slayer retorted. "And you almost got your Trollhunters killed as a result."

"Blinkous!" Vendel shook his head. "How could you do this without checking with me?"

"It wasn't Blinky's fault," Claire protested. "We made mistakes."

"Yes," Jim agreed. "We, ah, jumped the gun." Blinky hadn't told them to commit a robbery, after all. Or to disguise themselves as demons.

"You shouldn't have been on the Hellmouth in the first place," the Slayer told them. "You shouldn't have been the Trollhunter, to begin with!"

And Vendel turned to glare at her. "James Lake Jr. was chosen by the Amulet of Daylight. And, while I was sceptical at the start, he has proven to be an adequate Trollhunter - even though some of his decisions remain questionable."

That was a very mixed compliment, but Jim couldn't exactly be choosy. "Look, no one is without blame in this whole, ah, mess."

"Speak for yourself! I didn't make a mistake!"

"Not now, Dawn!"

"Or then, yes!"

"That's not what I meant!"

Jim cleared his throat. "Anyway, we made mistakes, there was a misunderstanding, but we've talked, and we can talk this out. Without further violence. And we have bigger problems to worry about than who was to blame for the misunderstanding, don't we?"

"Bigger problems than the Slayer in Trollmarket?" Vendel asked, narrowing his eyes at them.

"Yes." The Slayer nodded. "There's a hell-god trying to destroy the country. Or the world - we're not quite sure yet."

"A what?"

*****​

Buffy Summers rolled her eyes. "A hell-god." She looked at Giles; he was the explainy guy.

Her Watcher took his cue. "According to our information, Glorificus, a hell-god, was banished to Earth and is trying to return to his home dimension, though his chosen method to achieve that will have, or so we assume, dire consequences for our own world."

"What sort of dire consequences?" the Troll Mayor asked.

"We're still researching the exact effects that breaking the seal that keeps her from returning will have, but a preliminary analysis suggests that this will also open the Hellmouth," Giles explained.

Typical. It was all about the Hellmouth. Well, they were talking about a hell-god. Or hell-goddess.

"I did some research on the way here," Giles replied. "It is by no means a certainty, but based on our - the Council's - experience with similar, if smaller situations, I am reasonably certain that my conclusion is far from unlikely."

That was a lot of maybes, in Buffy's opinion. Then again, Giles was British, so he liked his understatements.

"So, Glory wants to return to her home by opening the Hellmouth?" Xander asked.

"But…" Jim frowned. "You said you banished Olaf back to hell. Can't you banish her back to her hell?"

"Olaf, for all his boasting, wasn't a god," Giles said. "Not on the same level as Glorificus, at least." He pulled out a thick dusty tome. "Glorificus was banished by two other hell-gods. The power involved in such a banishing is far beyond what Aud managed. Although the fact that we're in the dimension to which the hell-god was banished also plays a role - I dare say that whatever was done to summon Olaf to Earth wouldn't have worked if attempted in the hell he was banished to. Melachus the Younger expands on this a little in his tract about summoning and banishing."

"You have his work?" Blinky gasped and took a step forward. "It was thought lost when the library of Alexandria was burned down!"

"The Council's library goes back to the time writing was invented," Giles told him.

"Great Gorka Morka!" Blinky's expression looked a lot like Willow's when faced with a forbidden book. Which was kinda disturbing, now that Buffy thought about it, seeing as Blinky had six eyes and tusks. And six arms.

She cleared her throat. "Anyway, big mythical magic stuff on Hellmouth means bad things for the countryside. That much we know. And your trolltown is part of that countryside."

"You do not know this for certain, though." The Troll Mayor frowned at them.

"We've already stopped bad guys before they could open the Hellmouth. Or sacrifice California to become a greater demon. You're welcome, by the way," Buffy told him with a toothy smile.

"You claim to have done so."

"Oh, come on, don't be like the mayor in Jaws!" Dawn blurted out.

"Jaws?" The big stony guy seemed confused.

"A horror movie about a man-eating great white shark," Willow explained. "It features a mayor who ignores the danger, so he isn't forced to take action, like closing the beaches. It was very successful, even though sharks aren't nearly as dangerous as the movie makes them out to be, which is a major hindrance to protect the species. The press coverage of shark attacks is a disgrace, to say the least, and..."

"Breathe, Willow," Xander said. "And - not the time."

"Oh. Sorry."

"No worry."

Blinky the troll cleared his throat. "Leaving the claims of past apocalypses aside, I doubt that a demonic creature of such power should be allowed access to the Hellmouth." He looked at the mayor. "And the weakening of dimensional barriers could have unforeseen consequences."

Claire gasped. "You mean it could affect Gunmar's prison!"

"Precisely, Fair Claire!" Blinky beamed at her. "While it is by no means certain that this would allow him to circumvent the need to reconstruct Killahead Bridge, we cannot dismiss the possibility, either."

"Which is a bad thing, right?" Buffy prompted him.

The troll blinked. "Err, yes. A very bad thing."

"Great." Buffy shook her head. "Two apocalypses for the price of one."

"It's the Hellmouth New Year's sale!" Xander still wasn't as funny as he thought he was.

Buffy chuckled anyway. Making jokes was better than crying about how unfair things were. And they were unfair. But she was used to that. But, speaking of unfair… "While it's interesting - and disturbing - to learn what we're facing, that wasn't the reason we came here to talk to you," she said. Not the only reason, at least.

"It wasn't?" Blinky blinked with all six eyes.

"No. We were also talking about drafting kids as Trollhunters!" She frowned at him. "And no blaming amulets for that!"

"But Master Jim was chosen by the Amulet of Daylight. We had no hand in this."

"You can trust us that we would never have handed the amulet to a human," the Mayor added.

"You can say that again," Jim muttered.

Buffy scoffed. "But even if you aren't guilty of that, you are still exploiting them!"

*****​

"Exploiting?" James Lake Jr. shook his head. "Blinky doesn't exploit me!" The Trollhunter had to protect trolls and humans from Gunmar, and Jim was the Trollhunter. And he had proved that he was a worthy Trollhunter!

The Slayer turned to look at him. "So, what's your salary?"

"Salary?" Jim stared at her.

The Slayer stared back. "You know, money. Payment. Dollars. Green stuff that you exchange for shoes and dresses. What are you kids learning in school these days if you don't know what a salary is?"

"You graduated less than two years ago, Buffy," Dawn said, "but you sound older than Mom."

"I'm a college girl!"

"That doesn't mean anything - it's all about the attitude!"

"Is that something Spike told you?"

"No, that's something that's obvious."

"You think we're doing this for money?" Claire blurted out, interrupting the sibling spat.

The Slayer frowned at her. "No, I think you're doing this so your boyfriend doesn't die because he's fighting monsters all by himself. But that doesn't mean you don't deserve money. Do you think the other Trollhunters worked for free?"

Jim gritted his teeth. But just before he could tell the Slayer what he thought about her attitude, Blinky spoke up: "None of the Trollhunters received a salary. It's considered a great honour to be chosen."

"Really? And how did they pay for their food and clothes?" The Slayer scoffed. "Did the amulet only pick rich trolls, or didn't any of them live long enough to run out of money? Because let me tell you this: Being the chosen one is rather hard on your job prospects. 'Sorry, boss, I have to go and save the world so can you tell someone to take over for me?' won't get you good references."

"Do you get paid?" Claire shot back.

"No, but I certainly should get paid. So should Giles."

"I thought you'd ask the Council for money," Dawn commented.

The Slayer scowled at her sister. "I forgot after they mentioned the hell-god thingie. Which is totally understandable!"

"And who's going to put me through college? Mom's going to be broke if she has to keep paying for you!"

"Hey!"

"Children…" Mr Giles spoke up. "We'll revisit the matter with the Council once the current crisis has been solved. I dare say that the recent events will strengthen our position with regards to fair recompensation."

"Unless we fail, and then Buffy won't need any money anyway since all of us will be dead," Xander commented.

"Xander!"

"What? It's true, isn't it?"

"We won't die," the Slayer said. "Not if I can help it."

"Very reassuring, Buffy."

"Dawn!"

Jim wasn't really listening to the squabbling. As much as he loathed to admit it, the Slayer was correct - trying to hold down a job and be the Trollhunter wouldn't work. He wouldn't even be able to go to college, though perhaps he could take correspondence courses or something. He snorted - it wouldn't matter much, anyway, since he probably wouldn't live to graduate high school. Not with Gunmar gunning for him. And Angor Rot. And Strickler.

But he would do everything he could so Claire and Toby wouldn't die. He glanced at Claire and...

...his faint smile died. She was glaring at him. "Uh…?" He grimaced.

"You won't die, either, you hear me?"

"Ah." He nodded. "Of course not."

"I mean it!"

"As long as you don't die." He clenched his teeth as soon as the words had slipped out. He shouldn't have said that. He was an idiot!

Claire recoiled, gaping at him. But after a moment, she grew serious. Very serious. "If something happens to me, you won't commit suicide. Understood?"

It was clear the only acceptable answer was to agree, so Jim nodded.

"Yes, yes, no one is going to kill themselves. But that doesn't put food on the table. And no one wants to keep mooching off their parents forever," the Slayer cut in.

"Actually, I'm sure that a great many people would love to do that," Xander said. "I could name a few names from school."

"But those people wouldn't have been chosen by the amulet, right?" Willow asked.

"The Amulet of Daylight only chooses worthy, ah, people," Blinky said. "Though sometimes they are unlucky."

"Yes, yes, we've heard about Ugg Boots the Unlucky." The Slayer made a dismissive gesture with her hand. "But Jim's still alive, and he needs money. I bet you've lost clothes and other stuff to Trollhunting, didn't you?"

"Actually, no," Jim said. "The armour is magical."

"So unfair…" the Slayer muttered. "Anyway, you still deserve compensation. If only to buy your girlfriend new clothes since she doesn't have self-repairing magic armour. And even if she did, she really needs new clothes." Claire protested, but the Slayer kept talking. "And once you graduate, you'll need money." She glared at Blinky. "You don't want a Trollhunter begging on the streets, do you?"

"Well, of course not!" Blinky protested. "Though money… usually, a Trollhunter's, ah, needs were covered by the community, though I fear that Master Jim doesn't have any need for the goods and services of Trollmarket."

"So you did pay them!" Willow all but cried out in glee. "Just in food and lodging, not money!"

"That's a fair assessment, I believe," Blinky agreed.

"Great. So, how much is that in dollars?" The Slayer asked.

"Uh…"

"You don't have an exchange rate?"

"We don't trade with humans," Blinky said. "The last time we did, humans, ah, mainly had a barter economy."

"Then how did you get the TVs you're selling?" the Slayer asked.

Blinky frowned. "Now that you mention it, I do wonder how they were acquired."

Jim closed his eyes. He hadn't thought about the matter before, but I could imagine how the trolls acquired the human goods they used.

Like they acquired the cats they ate.

*****​

"Scavenging," Mr Troll Mayor said. "You wouldn't believe what humans throw away."

Buffy Summers narrowed her eyes. That sounded a little too glib for her taste.

But before she could say something, Willow piped up: "Oh, yes! That's why you have CRT-TVs - people threw them away once flatscreen TVs became the norm, even though they worked perfectly fine!"

"Ah!" The other troll, Blinky, nodded. "You mean that there are different models, not just brands? I was wondering why the TV in Tobias's house didn't work like the ones down here!"

Willow nodded enthusiastically. "Yes. There are several models, actually - or were, CRT and plasma TVs are pretty much gone."

Buffy cleared her throat. "Not the time, Will. We're talking fair compensation for Trollhunters."

"Do you expect us to procure human money for the Trollhunter?" the Mayor asked.

It was clear that he meant it as a rhetorical question. Buffy nodded anyway. "Yes!"

"Who gave you the right to speak for Jim?" the girl blurted out. She took a few steps, stood in front of Buffy and glared at her, her arms crossed over her chest.

"What?" Buffy replied. The girl was as tall as she was, even without decent heels, which was so unfair!

"'What?' You force us to take you to meet the trolls, make fun of everyone and act as if you knew best and were in charge!" The girl bared her teeth at her. "Newsflash: You aren't! You're just some outsider who doesn't know about what we do and what we have to deal with! So stop trying to bully people!"

Buffy blinked. The girl had guts, but… "That's not what this is about!" She was only trying to help!

"This is exactly what this is about! You act as if we're kids without a clue. We've fought Gumm-Gumms, changelings, goblins, Stalklings, Angor Rot and Bular the Butcher!" the girl spat. "You don't get to waltz in here and order us around!"

"You tell her, Claire!" Dawn chimed in. "Buffy always thinks she knows best!"

"What?" Her own sister! Buffy whirled to glare at Dawn. "That's not true! There's lots of stuff I don't know! Like French! Or Chemistry! Or..." She trailed off. That didn't seem like a good argument.

And Dawn smirked at her.

Giles cleared his throat. "Perhaps you came on a little strongly, though I do think you have made several good points."

Buffy beamed at him. Giles knew best! Except for when he didn't, of course, but this time, he did!

"I agree that the Slayer can't order us around and doesn't know what we do here," Jim spoke up, "that's what we came to discuss here, anyway." Buffy was about to give him a piece of her mind - she had gone through all of this 'chosen one' stuff! - when he went on: "But she has a point: How am I supposed to live my life once I graduate from school? Provided I live to see graduation, of course. But, hypothetically speaking, I can't exactly go to college, and even if Mom accepts that, she'll expect me to get a job, and, well, I kinda have a job already - I'm the Trollhunter."

"Jim…" Claire turned and put her hand on his arm.

He smiled at her in a really sappy way. "I know you're going to college, but that's not really possible for me. I can't leave Arcadia Oaks."

"But…" Claire trailed off, obviously at a loss for words. She shook her head.

Buffy bit her tongue so she didn't point out that Claire had been speaking for Jim just like Buffy had.

"I know the odds aren't good, but I'd like to… you know, have some sort of life outside being the Trollhunter. With you." He tilted his head.

Claire sniffled, and Buffy saw tears appear in her eyes. "I'm not going to leave you!"

"You can't sacrifice your life for me!" Jim told her. "Not like that, and not… well…"

She glared at him in return. "It's my life!"

"Were we ever that bad?" Xander broke the sudden silence. He ignored the glares of the two kids.

"You're barely older than we are!" Claire snapped. "Stop acting like an old man!"

"It's not the years, it's the mileage," Xander replied. "But, seriously, don't do the sacrifice thing. It never helps. Whatever you do, don't die."

"Listen to yourself," Buffy heard Willow mutter under her breath, and she winced. A little. She was in college, not in high school any more. She had years of experience on the two kids. She… Oh God, she was acting like her mom!

"As someone who is quite a bit older than anyone else present - except for Mr Galadrigal and Mr Vendel - I can assure you that planning to sacrifice yourself isn't a recommended course of action," Giles cut in. "And neither is assuming that you won't live long enough to need to plan ahead."

Buffy winced at that as well.

"It's not your decision!" Claire insisted. "It's not anyone's but mine!"

"Yes, quite," Giles told her. "But I do believe you have, or should have, more options than death or, ah, Trollhunting, And I do think that you should take your families' wishes and needs into account."

Buffy pressed her lips together. She had experience with that, too.

*****​

James Lake Jr. looked from Claire to Mr Giles and back, then glanced at the Slayer, who had uncharacteristically fallen silent. Then he focused on Claire. Claire… "Claire." He cleared his throat. "You're smart and talented, and…" He licked his lips. Beautiful. "You shouldn't give up on everything just to…"

"...just to stay with you? Help you save everyone? Fight at your side?"

She was frowning at him. "Uh…" He started to nod.

"That's my decision," she repeated herself.

"Yes, but…"

"No 'but'! I'm not going to leave you! And that's final!" She took a step, then she was hugging him. Despite his armour.

Jim placed his arms around her - carefully, of course. He wouldn't risk causing her pain.

And he ignored how she sobbed softly.

The Slayer cleared her throat, but she didn't say anything when Jim glared at her. The others didn't meet his eyes - even Mr Giles polished his glasses.

"We're doing this together!" Claire said into his chestplate before looking up at him. "And we'll save Enrique!"

"Enrique?" The Slayer asked. "Wasn't your friend called Toby? Oh, wait, he's your..."

"Enrique is her brother. He was kidnapped by goblins and taken to the Darklands, so he could be replaced by a changeling," Blinky explained.

"Right." the Slayer growled. Literally growled. And all her friends looked angry. Livid. And determined. Jim almost shivered. Then the Slayer frowned. "He's still alive? I thought..."

"Yes, he's still alive!" Claire said, releasing Jim to face the Slayer. "So stop acting like we're just kids you can order around! We know what's at stake!"

"Ah…" The witch, Willow, glanced at Xander, then looked at Claire. "How long ago was that? I mean…" She trailed off as both the Slayer and Mr Giles frowned at her.

"If you're afraid that Gunmar's forces might harm Fair Claire's little brother, rest assured that dear Enrique is safe," Blinky spoke up. "As with all children taken to be replaced by changelings, they are not hurt, but taken care of - should they die, the changeling cannot take their form any more. Oh, and they don't notice anything since they are placed in a magical slumber. They don't even age in the Darklands." He smiled reassuringly at them.

The Slayer and her friends didn't look reassured. Or calm. "They kidnap children to replace them with… changelings?" The Slayer spat.

"That's how changelings are inserted into human society. They grow up as humans, never suspected to be anything else than the person they replaced," Blinky went on.

"So the legends of changelings replacing babies are true," Mr Giles said.

"Babies?" The Slayer was growling again. "They're kidnaping babies? First, they eat babies, then now we hear they kidnap babies…" Jim saw the knuckles of her hand gripping the hammer turn white.

He winced. "The Gumm-Gumms do this," he told her. "The trolls don't do this."

"Indeed," Blinky said. "Such practices are limited to Gunmar's supporters, chiefly amongst them the Order of Janus - an organisation of changelings who have infiltrated human society at all levels."

The Slayer looked at Mr Giles. "Great. It's the Initiative 2.0, just that their evil plans have progressed a lot more."

"See? You can't just assume that you know best! You know nothing!" Claire said, scowling at the Slayer.

"Hey!" The Slayer returned her scowl.

"You're a fan of the show?" Willow blurted out, then flushed when everyone looked at her.

"Not the time to talk about TV," Xander said.

"Sorry."

"Anyway," Mr Giles spoke up, "It's clear that there is more afoot than it might have seemed at first glance. However, I remain convinced that neither Buffy nor the Trollhunters should be expected to shoulder their own expenses while they are, effectively risking their lives for everyone else. Not just because forcing them to work without fair recompensation would be exploiting them indeed, but also, and even more so, because it would be a very shortsighted policy."

"Which is why the Council's doing it," the Slayer muttered.

Mr Giles didn't react to the comment. "With so much at risk, one cannot afford to have one's champion be distracted by mundane concerns while fighting the forces of darkness."

Literal darkness, in Jim's case. He caught himself nodding before he realised what he was doing.

The Slayer was nodding as well before pouting at Mr Giles. "And why didn't you say that when I was buried under homework?"

"Your education, my dear, is very important. And you managed to balance both, didn't you?"

"With great effort and suffering!" she replied.

"We all suffered. It's the high school experience," Xander said.

"Well, it shouldn't be!"

"Tell that to the Secretary of Education," Willow said.

Mr Giles cleared his throat once more. "I believe we have more important concerns to address than the state of the American educational system - no matter how deplorable it is."

"I see the experience as a high school librarian left a trauma!" Xander quipped.

No one laughed. Mr Giles sighed. "In any case, we've covered this, and I trust the issue will be addressed as time and circumstances permit."

"Of course," Blinky said, nodding. "It would be extremely shameful if the Trollhunters would be left to fend for themselves while they are protecting us."

Jim smiled at him, then at Claire, who hugged him again.

"Trollhunters?" Vendel asked. Jim looked at him, but the old troll was looking at Blinky.

"Yes," Blinky replied, nodding slowly at Vendel.

Vendel held the other's gaze for a moment then sighed. "I'll look into it."

"Very well," Mr Giles spoke up again. "Now, shall we address the current crisis threatening the world?"

"He means Glory," the Slayer added as if that wasn't clear. "And afterwards, we'll talk about rescuing babies."

*****​
 
Chapter 11: Strategy and Tactics
Chapter 11: Strategy and Tactics

Trollmarket, January 14th, 2017

Buffy Summers wanted to roll her eyes at the surprise she saw on the Trollhunters' faces. Sheez, did they really think she could ignore kidnapped babies? She was the Slayer; saving innocent (and even not so innocent) people from monsters was what she had been born to. And you didn't get much more innocent than babies. Or more monstery than kidnapping and eating babies. "Glory first, then Enrico."

"Enrique," Claire corrected her.

This time, Buffy rolled her eyes. "Yes. Anyway. Glory is a hell-god. Or hell-goddess. She wears skanky clothes, isn't very bright and looks for her key. And if she gets it, she'll open the Hellmouth to get back to her hell-home, and Earth becomes Hell on Earth." There, that was an excellent summary! College-worthy!

Giles just had to clear his throat. "It is also said that Glorificus can possess human bodies, though the exact manner of this is not known. But our sources agree that the hell-god can hide amongst humans in this manner, though it may also be a weakness."

"A weakness?" the Trollhunter asked.

"Depending on the manner of possession, the host body dying might also kill the possessing demon," Giles replied. "That is how it works with vampires and a number of other demons."

"Unless it just means that the spirit jumps into the next body." Buffy gave them a fake smile. "That's how it works with Slayers."

"Or Eyghon!" Willow added.

Giles winced at that, and Buffy saw him briefly squeeze his arm with his demonic tattoo. "Yes, quite. Although, while we aren't certain by any means, the sources we've collected, albeit not as numerous as I would like, do lean towards the former rather than the latter sort."

"You want to kill the human to find out if that kills Glory?" Claire asked, staring at them.

"No," Buffy told her.

"It remains a last resort," Giles said. He ignored her glare. "If the fate of billions is at stake, we do have to consider all means at our proposal."

"We're not going to kill an innocent on the off-chance that it will kill a hell-god," Buffy said. They wouldn't. Although if it meant saving Dawn… She buried the thought. And slew it. "We already found a weakness of the skank." She raised her hammer. "This baby can hurt Glory! And so can your sword," she added, nodding at Jim.

"It barely scratched her when I hit her. And it wasn't a glancing blow," the boy said.

"Yes, but it did hurt her," Buffy said. "Anything else I tried only affected her ugly dresses. So, we need to find out what makes these weapons different and then find a better weapon of the same type!"

"The obvious quality both the hammer and the sword share is that they are magical," Giles pointed out.

Well, doh, that was obvious!

Yes!" Willow chimed in. "Though we need to find out if it's just magic - in which case we need to find the most powerful magic weapon we can, ah, find - or if there's a specific type of magic that's hurting Glory. In that case, we need to learn that magic!"

Willow looked like she had a test to study for, Buffy noted. Very eager.

"While essentially correct, that is simplifying matters a little," Giles said. "Magic is, if anything, not quite as easy to classify."

"Well," Blinky the Troll spoke up, "the Hammer of the Troll Gods is a divine weapon, not merely a magical weapon."

"Many spells call upon gods," Giles replied. "It's not a very discerning quality."

"Yes! Hecate blesses many spells, for example!" Willow said, nodding several times. "As do various other goddesses. And gods."

"But the Hammer of the Troll Gods wasn't blessed or inspired by the Troll Gods, but created by them - according to legend, at least," Blinky told them. "All our sources agree on that," he added.

"It's a legend," Mr Troll Mayor said.

"And the Divine Compass pointed at it," Blinky defended himself.

"'Divine Compass'?" Buffy asked.

"A device that detects divine, ah, origin," the troll explained. "It would not react to mere blessings, such as spells cast or items created with a god's patronage."

"But it reacted to the intern at the hospital," Jim cut in.

"Which, I mentioned before, I believe, means that the young man has divine ancestry somewhere in his, ah ancestry."

"A god boned his great-great-great-grandmother?" Xander snorted.

"Myth and legends are full of such, ah, carnal encounters that resulted in demi-gods," Giles said, polishing his glasses. "The veracity of such legends is generally questionable, though. Scholars aware of the supernatural tend to agree that those events which weren't fabrications, for example, to cover up adultery, were cases of a supernatural entity possessing a human during, ah, intercourse."

"So, if you had fathered a child with your friend during your, ah, experimental phase, it would've been divine?" Buffy asked.

Giles actually blushed. Very faintly, but Buffy had Slayer vision. "Eyghon wasn't considered a deity."

Xander cocked his head with a grin. "So, you would have fathered a Tiefling?"

Giles glared at him. "Please do not consider roleplaying games as valid sources when we are discussing actual supernatural entities."

"Unless the books are written by people who know about the supernatural," Willow piped up. "But despite claims to the contrary, D&D isn't amongst those - I checked," she added, smiling brightly.

"Very informative, Willow," Giles told her in his dry 'I'm actually being sarcastic' voice.

Willow got it a moment later and pouted.

Buffy shook her head. Her friends were great, but they were so easily distracted!

*****​

"You checked if roleplaying games contained actual magic?" Claire sounded as shocked as James Lake Jr. felt. Who could think of such nonsense?

Apparently, Willow could. She pouted. "It wasn't as if it was going to do any harm! And better safe than sorry - imagine if we had roleplaying groups accidentally summoning demons!"

"You thought Andrew had done that, didn't you?" Xander asked.

Willow ducked her head. "I didn't think he could have gotten his hands on a real grimoire…"

"Willow!" Xander shook his head. "Never underestimate a nerd! You should know that!"

"Can we focus on the hell-goddess threatening to unleash Hell on Earth?" Jim spoke up.

"What he said," the Slayer agreed. "You can discuss nerd cred later."

"'Nerd cred'?" Xander asked.

"Like street cred, but for nerds," the Slayer explained. "Gah! Now you have me doing it!"

Mr Giles cleared his throat. "Glorificus represents a formidable threat. He's proved himself to be nigh-invulnerable against attacks and possesses unparalleled strength and speed. He massacred what we presume was most of the Knights of Byzantium in short order."

"The Knights of Byzantium?" Vendel frowned. "The Order still exists? I met a few members of them when they fought in several skirmishes before the Battle of Killahead Bridge."

"Well, unless they kept a few people in reserve, then they might not exist any more - everyone they sent against Glory was killed," the Slayer said.

"Messily, too," Xander added.

Jim nodded with a grimace, unable to suppress a shudder. That had been a horrifying, brutal sight. "Yes," he said, "Glory… she smashed and ripped them to pieces. She didn't fight like we do - I mean the Trollhunters and the Slayer. No technique, no finesse, no tactics. She just stood there and beat them." He felt a hand on his arm - Claire was smiling sadly at him. Jim managed to smile back at her, but she didn't seem to be fooled.

"Yes," the Slayer agreed. "The skank is dumb as a brick and fights like one. No training at all. If we can find a way to hurt her, we can beat her."

"If you can find a way to keep her from using her superspeed to avoid your attacks," Xander pointed out.

"I know a spell for that!" Willow said, beaming.

"While we don't know if the hell-god is as resistant to magic as he is to brute force," Mr Giles retorted, "I fear that it would be prudent to assume so."

"But I wouldn't cast the spell at her - I would cast it at the air around her, thicken it to slow her down," Willow protested.

"But then our blows wouldn't hit hard enough or at all, either," the Slayer said.

"They should, if I limit the spell to Glory's legs," Will replied.

"The spell would have to be stronger than the hell-god, or Glorificus could overpower it and break her shackles through sheer strength," Mr Giles said. "Nevertheless, such a strategy remains extremely chancy."

"We don't exactly have a variety of options," the Slayer countered. "And we need to stop her before she finds her key."

"What is her key?" Claire asked. "If we could secure it and hide it - or destroy it - wouldn't that stop Glory?"

The Slayer glanced at Mr Giles, Jim noted. "Some monks guarded the key for centuries," she said. "If they could've destroyed it and remove the danger to Earth, they would've done so."

"In my experience, religious orders and their members generally aren't very rational," Blinky said. "We - Trollkind, that is - had a lot of trouble with several of them in the past."

"Witches also had a lot of trouble with them. Like the witch hunts," Willow added, grimacing.

"Don't remind me," the Slayer said, scowling as well. "A pair of my best boots were ruined in the fire!"

"Technically, that was a demon plot," Xander said.

"What are you talking about?" Jim asked. He knew trolls could live hundreds of years, but the Slayer? Wait, had she the memories of past Slayers who were hunted as witches?

"Just a demon manipulating people. It's not important right now," the Slayer replied. "Let's focus on Glory."

That was rather evasive, but she was probably right, so Jim nodded.

"My portals should work against her as well," Claire said. "And I can test that from a safe distance."

"Only if she can't sense the portals opening - otherwise, you better get away really, really fast," the Slayer objected.

"I can portal myself," Claire retorted, "as soon as I know if it's not working."

Jim had to bite his lips to avoid blurting out that this was too dangerous. He had to trust Claire. Like she trusted him.

"We'll have to test first if she senses portals. Yours and mine," Dawn said.

Claire glared at her.

Jim suppressed a sigh. They had to work together to deal with Glory. And then with Gunmar. Feuding like this didn't help anyone.

But the Slayer and her friends didn't really make it easy to work together.

*****​

Using Dawn as bait? Over her dead body! Her own dead body, not Dawn's, Buffy Summers clarified in her head. "No one's testing portals until we've got a good plan."

"Quite," Giles agreed. "I would've thought that the massacre Glorificus committed would have made it obvious that we cannot risk provoking the hell-god unless we're prepared to deal with the consequences."

"We need to know if the hell-god can sense my portals - or if it did sense hers," Claire said, glaring at Dawn. "If she did, she might be on the way already."

That was a good point. Although… "If she's on the way, she should be here already," Buffy retorted. "She can run really fast."

"But how long can she run at that speed?" Jim asked.

That was another good point. "She probably doesn't want to wear out her cheap shoes," Buffy speculated. "She was weirdly protective of her floozy dress, too." She glared at her so-called friends when they glanced at each other. She only mourned fashionable clothes and good shoes. "And I can't see her taking the bus to this place. She probably wants a limousine or something. Or a private jet - if you have an airport." That would fit the skanky hell-goddess.

"We don't have an airport," Jim said.

"Then she'll want to drive."

"Do you think she can drive?" Willow asked.

"Driving is rather challenging," Blinky the Troll said, nodding gravely.

"Well, if she needs to rent a car, she won't get one before morning - we found that out the hard way," Xander said. "So, we should be safe until then. As safe as you can be deep underground in a village full of Trolls."

"I assure you that Trollmarket is perfectly safe for visitors. We're a civilised community." Blinky sounded offended.

"They didn't look very friendly when we passed," Dawn spoke up.

"Ah, well, some trolls are still influenced by the persecution we suffered centuries ago," the troll replied.

"Wow, talk about holding grudges," Xander mumbled.

"Many of us lived through this," Mr Troll Mayor told him. "The humans hunted every troll for the actions of a few. Being wary of all humans is merely reciprocating in kind."

"But that kind of mentality will mean the cycle won't ever be broken!" Willow protested.

"Well, the brave deeds of Master Jim and his friends, Tobias and the Fair Claire, have done much to change the views of Trollkind," Blinky claimed.

"Much but not enough," Dawn commented.

"It's, ah, an ongoing process, but I remain optimistic that we shall see more tangible results soon, so to speak."

Buffy shook her head. "We have to deal with the situation at hand; we can't just wait. As long as the trolls don't attack us, I'm good with them glaring at us and muttering."

"It almost feels like high school." Xander grinned. "Makes you feel nostalgic."

"I don't miss that," Willow said with a pout. "I much prefer college!"

"We know, Willow," Buffy told her. "But this isn't the time." She ignored Jim's snort. "Anyway, we were talking weapons. Magicky godly weapons that can kill a hell-goddess."

"We're actually short on divine weapons in our armoury, at least according to my knowledge," Blinky said. "They aren't exactly common."

"You've got an armoury?" Buffy blurted out. Well, duh, of course they would have an armoury. Who wouldn't have an armoury if they could?

"We have a selection of weapons accumulated over centuries, yes," Blinky said. "Although the Trollslayer, of course, uses Daylight, Tobias wields a war hammer from our collection."

An armoury of magical weapons!

"Don't drool, Buffy," Xander said.

She glared at him. "I've got a trollhammer already."

"But it's not enough," Willow said. "Perhaps there might be something better available?" She looked at Blinky with wide eyes. That didn't fool Buffy - her friend just wanted to study more magic weapons. But she was correct that they couldn't just dismiss such a collection.

"I doubt it, but checking won't hurt - provided no one wields the weapons against another," Blinky said.

"If we don't find anything here, what about Gatto's collection?" Jim asked.

"Gatto's collection?" Buffy asked.

"Do we have to sort through what the cat dragged in?" Xander was still not as funny as he thought he was.

"Gatto is a mountain troll of immense size, who holds his treasure in his furnace-like stomach," Blinky explained. "We recovered the first Triumbric Stone from him. And speaking of Triumbric Stones, Master Jim - recovering the third might enhance your blade enough to wound this new menace."

Buffy hoped he meant Glory and not herself. The way Jim and Claire were frowning at the troll, and the Troll Mayor was sighing, this probably had meant to be a secret.

*****​

James Lake Jr. really liked Blinky. The troll was nice, honest, smart, wise - mostly - and had helped him a lot. And just with his work as Trollhunter. Jim would never forget the time they spent building Jim's Vespa.

And yet, sometimes Jim would like to grab Blinky and shake some sense into him. Like right now. Revealing the Triumbric Stones to the Slayer! What had Blinky been thinking? The Slayer and her friends weren't… well, they weren't friends! Just because you had a shared enemy didn't mean you trusted each other with your secrets! Jim was sure that the Slayer hadn't told them most of what was going on in Sunnydale.

"You can enhance your sword with magic stones?" Willow asked.

"Yes," Jim said, struggling not to glare at Blinky.

"It's actually the Amulet of Daylight that is enhanced by the stones, not merely the sword," Blinky added.

This time, Jim glared at him. As did Claire.

"So, we get the third stone to you, you'll be able to hurt Glory!" The Slayer was beaming. "Can anyone wield your sword?"

"No!" Jim blurted out. "It's part of the amulet," he said.

The Slayer's eager expression turned into a pout. "Too bad. We could've swapped." She looked at the Hammer of the Troll Gods. "For a divine weapon, this was rather wimpy."

"The Troll Gods might not be in Glory's league," Xander said.

"Or the Hammer might be more powerful if wielded by a troll," Mr Giles speculated.

"It's said it may only be wielded by the worthy," Blinky said.

The way the Slayer twirled and swung the hammer around couldn't have been more obvious unless she had been whistling while she did it.

"We should test it," Claire said.

"Only if we can check more weapons in your armoury," the Slayer told them. "I need something to hurt the skank with. Are you sure that you don't have better divine weapons?"

"Or ways to enhance this? Perhaps a ritual to bless it?" Willow added.

"That's not, ah, how Troll Gods work," Blinky said.

The Slayer pouted. "I really need a better weapon. Giles! Why isn't there some Slayer weapon?"

"Actually, there are legends about a weapon wielded by the First Slayer to kill the last Old One on Earth - or, more precisely, to send it to a deep slumber and banish it from this dimension," Mr Giles said.

"Really?" The Slayer perked up.

"Unfortunately, the weapon was lost afterwards," Mr Giles went on with a sigh.

"Ugh. That figures." She pouted again.

"Lost?" Willow asked. "Destroyed, or just… lost? Forgotten? Hidden?"

"Placed in a wooden crate amongst thousands of such crates?" Xander asked.

"The records don't say," Mr Giles replied, sending a glare at the man.

Jim wondered - privately - whether this was an act or if the Slayer and her friends were actually discussing potentially crucial information about the Slayer and the mysterious Council here.

"We need to find out more about this weapon!" Willow declared.

"I'll contact the Council and add it to our requests," Mr Giles replied - though his tone didn't sound very optimistic.

"So… weapon testing. And portal testing?" Dawn asked.

"Weapon testing. We have to be better prepared for testing portals," the Slayer said. "We don't want to draw a hell-goddess to Trolltown."

"Trollmarket," Claire corrected her. "But my portals haven't attracted her before - not when I used them here, nor when I used them in Sunnydale."

"Ah, but you didn't use them near Glory - not until you used them to save Buffy and Jim," Willow replied. "Now that she's aware that you're an enemy of hers…"

Claire nodded, although a little reluctantly. It made sense, though, in Jim's opinion.

And the Slayer was correct about the need to test the portals safely - Jim was the Trollhunter; it would be violating his duties if he attracted a danger to Trollmarket. Especially one like Glory.

"And we can use the Divine Compass to keep an eye out for Glory," Claire added. "Or to find more divine weapons. As long as the Hammer of the Troll Gods isn't in the vicinity."

"Indeed. It is drawn to the strongest and closest source of, ah, divinity," Blinky said. "Which in this case would be the Hammer of the Troll Gods, since it's closest and quite strong."

Jim pulled the compass out and tested it. It swung towards the Slayer, as expected.

"Nifty," she commented. "Can we weaponise that? Turn it into a Glory-seeking missile or so?"

"I doubt that a goddess who shrugged off blows with a divine hammer and a sword crafted by Merlin himself would be impressed, much less harmed, by a compass crashing into her at low speeds," Mr Giles said. The Slayer opened her mouth, but he went on: "And I am certain that any payload you might propose to add to the compass could as easily be delivered by other means. Not to mention that we've yet to find a payload that might be effective against her."

The Slayer snorted. "A spell that targets cheap dresses and shoes would probably be very effective."

*****​

This was great! Buffy Summers beamed. And felt more than a little jealous. Trollhunters had all the good stuff! An armoury full of magical weapons of all kinds - and made for Slayers, well trolls, but that just meant most weapons were meant to be used by people with superhuman strength. Like a Slayer.

But the training area itself! Grand, with moving parts that rose and sunk, giant cogwheels driving traps that challenged even a Slayer - it was perfect!

"This is a deathtrap." Xander obviously disagreed as he shook his head. "How many Trollhunters fell to their death in this 'Hero's Forge'? Or were killed by the giant slicing blades coming out of the walls?"

"None, actually," Blinky the Troll replied. "Although Markh the Maimed lost his hand to an unfortunate glitch." He pointed at one of the statues circling the arena. "Though since he had a shield strapped to the stump, he was as effective in combat as before."

Buffy nodded. "Are those all the Trollhunters?"

"Yes." Blinky beamed. "They are overlooking the training of their successors - their legacy."

"And they can be quite critical," Jim added with a smile and a sigh.

"That was just the first impression, Master Jim! They have warmed up to you by now, haven't they?"

"Mostly." He still seemed a little down, in Buffy's opinion.

Though they were talking as if the Trollhunters spoke to them. Had Jim dreams of former Trollhunters, just as Buffy sometimes had dreams of past Slayers? A question for another day, probably. "Well," she said instead, "it's a great idea to see all the Trollhunters while you train." She almost wanted the same for Slayers, but… the sight of so many dead girls would probably not help with training. "Who made the statues? They're great!" She beamed, then blinked at the Trollhunters' expression. "Oh. Don't tell me - the sculptor's dead or gone evil?"

"Ah, not exactly," Blinky said. "Although from a certain point of view, you are correct." He coughed into his fist. "The 'statues' are the actual bodies of the fallen Trollhunters, their stone remains collected and put back together."

Buffy felt her mouth fall open. Those were… dead trolls? Jm was training under the broken eyes of his predecessor's bodies? She had to take it back: This training area was so not perfect!

"Oh, yes - I knew that trolls turned to stone in the sun according to myth and lore, but they do that in death as well?" Willow piped up. "Well, they have to, since I doubt every Trollhunter died in the sun. So… is that a special rite for Trollhunters, or do you, ah, treat all your dead like this?"

"Willow, show some respect," Xander mumbled next to her.

She blushed. "I'm terribly sorry! It's just so fascinating to see a completely different culture with completely different customs and completely different biology - well, the latter should influence and cause the former, of course. This would never have been possible with humans."

"Not without a lot of plaster and very good embalming," Xander added.

"I'll take that into account for my remains," Jim said.

Willow blushed even harder, and even Xander looked sheepish. But Claire, Buffy saw, looked stricken, then angry and hit Jim's side, well, his armour. "Jim!"

"Sorry, Claire."

"No, no, we're sorry - we shouldn't have…" Willow trailed off.

"We shouldn't have joked. It's how we deal with, well, death and apocalypses," Xander said.

Buffy nodded. "It's our coping mechanism. Better than alcohol, not as fun as sex." She blinked and felt her cheeks heat up as everyone - and Giles! - stared at her. "I mean… everyone reacts to stress and deadly danger differently. We joke. We don't have orgies or take drugs or drink. Well, not more than normal. Drinking, I mean, we don't do drugs, and, well…" She grimaced. This was so bad. This couldn't get any worse!

"Don't worry, Buffy," Dawn said. "We all know you're too much of a prude to have sex."

"What? I'm so not a prude!" Buffy protested at once. What was her little sister thinking, going after her like that? "And I've had sex! Just not as a coping mechanism!" She stalked over to Dawn, who was still next to the armoury.

"Does Mom know that?" Dawn shot back.

"That is irrelevant!"

"I'll have to ask her if she thinks that, once she's back from the hospital, then."

"No! That's private and none of your business!" Buffy told her.

"Alright - as long as you accept that my love life is none of your business!"

Buffy stared at Dawn. "What? What love life? I don't know about any love life of yours!" She looked at her friends, but none of them seemed to have a clue.

"I don't have a love life, duh. Not yet," Dawn the brat told her. "But once I have one, I don't want you to mess it up like you did yours!"

"What? I didn't mess up my love life!" She hadn't. Not really. Having a few failed relationships was normal at her age. And as the Slayer, she couldn't date like most others. She knew - she had tried that, after all. For about one and a half dates, but still...

"Right, keep telling yourself that."

Buffy narrowed her eyes. She really had to have a talk with Spike about things to talk about with her little sister. And about things that shouldn't be mentioned.

*****​

James Lake Jr sighed. Audibly. "Can we focus on the hell-goddess trying to end the world?"

The Slayer's expression turned into a pout that made her look younger than Jim. Certainly younger than he felt. "Just because your love life is doing fine doesn't mean you can look down on others who aren't so fortunate!" she retorted.

"What?" Jim blurted out as he blushed. Love life? They… It wasn't like that!

"That's none of your business!" Claire snapped.

He glanced at her and saw that she was blushing as well. Oh.

"I do believe Mr Lake is correct," Mr Giles spoke up. "While some might consider the drama and gossip surrounding teenage relationships entertaining, we do have a rather significant problem to deal with."

"Yes," Vendel agreed. "We've checked that our armoury doesn't hold further examples of divine weapons, and I don't believe that a training session in the Hero's Forge would be productive."

"Oh, don't say that!" the Slayer replied, jumping on a frozen cogwheel. "You can always use training!"

"Use? Yes. But does that mean that you should train right at this moment? No," Vendel retorted.

"Yes!" Blinky chimed in. "We need to plan and prepare for our confrontation with Glorificus. Well, our next confrontation considering that Master Jim and the Slayer have fought her already."

"We have a plan: Get more powerful divine weapons, kick her butt," the Slayer said, jumping down from her perch.

"That's easier said than done," Dawn cut in.

"That's no plan. That's just a wish," Claire pointed out.

"Yes," Dawn agreed. "You can't just say I wi…"

The Slayer interrupted her by putting her hand on her mouth. "Don't say that."

All the friends of hers had tensed as well, Jim noticed. And Dawn seemed to look sheepish instead of mad - though she was scowling when the Slayer released her. "Anyway! A plan has more details," she said. "Where do you get the weapons?"

"We've been looking into acquiring the Triumbric Stones for a while," Blinky said. "And we secured two already."

"Two out of three?" The Slayer frowned. "Then three for three won't help much. You might make a deeper scratch with the blade, but that won't kill her,"

"That's not entirely correct," Mr Giles said. "If the amulet is currently incomplete, then being completed might render it far more powerful - the number three is quite important for magical rituals."

"Oh, yes!" Willow nodded several times. "Many rituals need three participants. Or three components. Or sacrifices. Not that I would do sacrifices, ever. But the odds that the three stones grant the amulet more power than the sum of their parts are good."

"Precisely," Blinky said. "By gathering all three stones, the Amulet of Daylight will grant Master Jim the power to defeat Gunmar - the Eclipse Armour and the Sword of Eclipse."

He was doing it again. Jim suppressed a sigh. Although, to be fair, This was probably information that the Slayer needed for dealing with Glorificus.

"So… You go from Daylight to Eclipse?" Xander shook his head. "That would be a bad idea for hunting vampires."

"I doubt it's to be taken literally," Mr Giles said. "As we know, a solar eclipse is a very important event for magical rituals. This might merely be nomenclature relating to that."

Xander stared at him with a confused expression, and Jim wasn't completely sure that he had understood the man's meaning, either.

"Meaning, it's a magically cool name," the Slayer said.

"Ah."

"That's succinct but not quite correct," Mr Giles retorted.

"It's good enough for me," the Slayer told him. "So, you need the third Triwizard Stone, and we need a few Troll Gods to bless my hammer."

"More or less, though there are a few difficulties," Blinky said. "The thyroid Triumbric stone was stolen from its guardians a long time ago, and we haven't had much luck searching for its location."

"What spells did you try?" Willow asked. "I'm good with locator spells!"

"Ah… we haven't yet delved into such means," Blinky told her.

"Then we can try my spells!" The witch looked eager to help. "I don't need much - I have pretty much all the ingredients with me; I only need a bowl for scrying."

"A scrying ball?" Jim asked.

"No, a bowl - filled with water, the spell will show the location of the stone. If it works, of course - it can be blocked by magic. Although... There are spells that can pierce such protections, but they're more difficult to cast. And more costly," Willow explained.

"And more dangerous," the Slayer added with a frown.

"That, too," Willow admitted. "But not too dangerous. Especially if we're careful."

"Don't assume that any magic is harmless," Mr Giles said. "Or that you can control the danger."

"We can minimise the danger," Willow objected. "The risk is not very large - we're not on the Hellmouth. I'll be cautious! And you can help!"

"As much as I dislike the idea, I fear it's amongst the more promising plans we discussed," Mr Giles said. "Although, while the absence of the Hellmouth's influence makes the spell safer to cast, it also makes it more difficult to cast."

"Can I assist? This is fascinating," Blinky asked.

"I want to watch too," Claire said.

"As long as you don't try to cast anything, OK," Willow agreed - far too quickly, in Jim's opinion.

*****​

"Alright. Now, let's light the candles - clockwise from the bottom. And then the incense in the cups - counterclockwise, starting at the top."

"And be careful. If you mix up the order, the spell will not work."

Buffy Summers gritted her teeth as Willow and Giles, with Blinky and Claire attentively watching, set up the spell in Blinky's apartment. Or cave - she wasn't quite sure what applied. She had a bad feeling about it. Not a bad Slayer feeling, or something - it didn't feel wiggy - but Willow was a little too quick to use magic, for Buffy's taste. And Claire looked a little too eager to learn the spell, too. 'I'm keeping an eye on you' my butt!

But they didn't have much of a choice - it was better to test the spell here and now than rely on it later. And they were on a bit of a timer.

She glanced at the Trollhunter, who also seemed to be a little ill at ease, though he tried to hide it, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed, in full armour. Well, Dawn was pestering him with whispered questions about trolls and his high school - even a saint would be bothered by it.

She considered telling her sister to stop but decided against it. Jim could tell her off himself. And they weren't flirting, either - Jim was staring at his girlfriend as often as he was watching the ritual, and Dawn wasn't acting like she usually did when she had a crush. Good. That would've complicated things. Buffy didn't want to find her sister and the Key teleported into the ocean or something by a scorned witch. They had to work together against Glory, after all.

And Buffy wouldn't get her Trollhammer enhanced enough to smash the demon-skank's face without the help of the trolls and their gods. With all those books here, there should be a way to make the troll gods bless the hammer.

On the other side of the Trollhunter, Xander, one arm still in the sling, held up an old sock. A human-sized sock. "This seems a little… small… for a troll."

"Trolls eat socks," Jim told him in a low voice.

"Really? I thought that was just a tall tale for tourists. You know, like drop bears," Xander replied in a whisper as he dropped the sock into the bowl on the shelf.

"The trolls don't get many human visitors," Jim explained. "You're the first since, well, us."

"Oh. I knew that."

"You did?"

"Actually, no. But it makes me sound less dumb, right?"

"Uh…"

Buffy rolled her eyes. Boys. She leaned against the wall, her hammer at her side, and watched the witches work. Hey, that was… not a rhyme, something else from English Lit.

"And now we start the chant," Willow said, "imploring Hecate to bless us with her magic."

"Actually, only you'll be chanting," Giles told her. "As a test for the spell under local conditions. If that doesn't work, then we can try a collaboration."

"Right. As planned." Willow looked a little nervous. Which made Buffy nervous. What if this went horribly wrong? Opened a portal to hell? Or to Glory? How exactly had Willow and Anya accidentally summoned Olaf? Hadn't that been a miscast spell, too?

She didn't move from her spot, but she shifted a little so she could jump into action as soon as something demony appeared. The ceiling was high enough - trolls were big - so she could use a nice set of jumping techniques with her hammer. In case it was needed, of course.

Buffy almost wanted a demon to appear. Flattening one would do wonders for her peace of mind. Perhaps she'd do a small local patrol after this - Arcadia Oaks was said to be demon-free, but she was the Slayer; trust but verify. And if she met some of the evil trolls…

"..cate, bless us with your insight and show us the truth!"

Buffy heard a small whooshing sound, and the water in the bowl in front of Willow suddenly started to glow. "It's working!" Willow whispered.

"The spell seems to work," Gile corrected her. "Try to see something somewhat familiar… try to focus on our hotel rooms."

"Alright!" Willow closed her eyes, and Buff pushed off the wall and stepped closer to the bow to catch a glance as well. She was just in time to see the water stop glowing and start… showing a building. Probably the hotel. Definitely, actually - she recognised the room.

Or not. Their rooms didn't look like a rock band on drugs had trashed them. The beds were broken, the suitcases empty, clothes all over the place... Willow made a gasping sound, and the water image shifted showing the wall - and the tv, with a chair leg sticking out of it.

"Did someone break into our rooms?" Xander whispered.

"In response, the perspective shifted again, showing the door to the room. Which was broken and on the floor. Someone had kicked the door open. Someone with superhuman strength, probably. Someone…

Buffy gasped. No! But the pieces fit.

"Glory. She's here."

*****​
 
Chapter 12: The Police Investigation
Chapter 12: The Police Investigation

Trollmarket, January 14th, 2017

Glory? In Arcadia Oaks? James Lake Jr. felt as if his heart skipped a beat. And his stomach dropped to the floor. "Glory?" he asked, looking at the others gathered around the scrying bowl.

"Our rooms are trashed," the Slayer replied. "Unless you have a gang of super-powered burglars, then…" She trailed off. "Evil trolls?"

Jim nodded, feeling relieved. He could handle trolls. Even Gumm-Gumms. "Could be. We need to investigate."

"Yes." Claire raised her staff. "I can open a portal…"

"No!" the Slayer blurted out. "Not before we know if this was the work of Glory!"

"Uh, guys?" Willow's voice cut Claire off before she could say anything. "The night clerk of the hotel… he's sitting there and looks like he lost his mind."

Jim took a peek at the bowl of water and saw the man still at his desk, staring at… nothing. His lips were moving. "Does he have a headset on?"

"One sec…" The image moved, showing the man's head, turning to check both ears."

"No," the Slayer said. "If he's lost his mind, then that might be Glory - we've had a rash of those cases in Sunnydale. If Glory's here…" She looked at Claire. "...then the portal might have attracted her."

"It hasn't attracted her so far. Not until Sunnydale!" Claire protested. "What if it was you that dragged that monster to our town?"

Jim saw the Slayer flinch a little. And set her jaw. He quickly stepped up. "Whether it's Glory, Gumm-Gumms or Angor Rot, we need to investigate." He bit his lower lip, then glanced at Claire. "And we need to save the portals for an emergency."

"Alright," the Slayer snapped. "Xander, Dawn - stay here!"

Dawn opened her mouth to protest - or so Jim thought - but a glare from her sister silenced her. Xander just nodded. "I'll keep an eye on her."

"Good. Let's go!" the Slayer said. "Giles, try to keep up. I'm not carrying you! "

"I can assure you that I'm perfectly capable of keeping up with younger people," Mr Giles replied as they moved out of Blinky's home.

Who, Jim realised, was following them. "Blinky?"

"If this incident is related to trolls or Gunmar, then you might need my expertise, lest you draw the wrong conclusions," Blinky told him with a wry smile.

Jim pressed his lips together. Blinky was great, but he wasn't a fighter. "Stay safe," he mumbled, then moved more quickly to catch up to the Slayer.

And snorted when he realised that, for once, he was hoping that this was one of Gunmar's plans.

*****​

Arcadia Oaks, January 14th, 2017

Despite James Lake Jr's best efforts, the Slayer had beaten him to the top of the stairs leading to Arcadia Oaks. And she looked like she was ready to bash the magic wall open with her bare fists.

He ignored her glare and opened the exit without a word.

"Finally!" The Slayer jumped out, head moving rapidly as she scanned the area.

"Don't… rush… off," Mr Giles said, huffing as he joined them, followed by Claire, who, Jim noted, wasn't out of breath. "We need to stick together."

"Not too close together," Jim said. "Buffy and I will take point. You stay back and be ready to bail us out."

Claire nodded at once. The Slayer glared at him for a moment before nodding with a huff. A moment later, she set off towards the hotel - at a breakneck pace.

"Wait!" Jim snapped. "Don't rush off!"

That earned him another glare, but the Slayer slowed down so Jim could keep up. And, hopefully, the rest of their group. They quickly made their way through the town. As usual, it was pretty much deserted at this time of the night.

Or almost deserted - as they reached the hotel's parking lot, Jim saw a police car parked in front of the entrance. "Damn," he cursed.

The Slayer snorted. "I don't suppose that your cops are as willing to write off any event as 'druggies did it' as Sunnydale's finest?"

Jim shook his head. "No. That'll probably be Darcy's dad. He once arrested Tobes and me."

"Then you better stay out of his sight. He might not believe that you were just cosplaying for Warcraft."

Before Jim could think of a retort - his armour didn't look like cosplay! And World of Warcraft? Who played that game any more? - the others arrived.

"Oh, no! The police!" Willow blurted out. "We should've used fake IDs!"

"Fake IDs? Are you wanted by the police?" Claire glared at them.

"No," the Slayer snapped. "But we need a cover story. And if that was Glory, then she has our names."

"And there's the matter of your, ah, record," Mr Giles chimed in. "They might be suspicious of you once they are aware of it. I should've thought of this possibility." He shook his head.

"Oh, that shouldn't be a problem," Willow said, ducking her head when everyone looked at her. "I've, ah, adjusted Buffy's record in the police system."

She had what? Jim blinked.

"It was so unfair that she had a record, and even though she wasn't convicted, it would prejudice authorities against her - just as Snyder wanted, I bet - so I thought it would be only fair if I cleared her record. And, really, the police have such an outdated computer system and IT security, anyone could've done it!" Willow babbled.

"Unless they compare paper records and computer records and find out that mine don't match," the Slayer said.

"Oh, I made it look like it was a common mistake," Willow explained. "I altered a lot of records."

"We'll have to discuss this once we have the time, Willow," Mr Giles said. "But for now, we should ensure that our stories match, should the police desire to ask us a few questions."

"And we need to look around and find out who did this," Claire reminded them while Willow winced.

*****​

"Alright, we went on an evening stroll after spending hours in the car which broke down… no, better not mention that we came in the pothead vehicle," Buffy Summers said. If Xander were here, he'd say 'Mystery Machine', of course.

"We do need to explain how we arrived, I believe," Giles cut in. "And the van is registered to Xander's uncle, so I do not think trying to obscure that fact would be to our advantage." He cocked his head at Willow. "Nor do I think you should attempt to alter yet another government database."

Willow looked sheepish but didn't object.

Buffy cleared her throat. "Anyway! Xander and Dawn… went to look for the school online friends of hers told her about." She turned her head. "Claire Nuñez and Jim Lake, if they ask. We have no idea why anyone would break into our rooms, other than to try to rob us."

Willow nodded. "Yes. I'll text Xander, so they know what to say once they reappear."

"Texts don't work in Trollmarket," Claire told her.

"I know. But they'll get the message as soon as their phones reconnect," Willow replied.

"And why did you come to Arcadia Oaks?" Claire asked with a frown.

"To check if it's a nice town since Sunnydale isn't, and we consider leaving," Buffy told her. "The massacre in the park spooked us, so we wanted to get out until the culprits are found anyway."

"Sounds like our cover story - we were supposedly looking into going to college in Sunnydale," Jim said.

Buffy grinned. "Great minds think alike!" She ignored Giles's cough. "Anyway, let's go! Those who don't stay back,that is."

She forced herself to smile. Her experiences with the police were… not good. Ungood. The Hemery arson, the robot "murder", the false murder accusation following Kendra's death - who could believe Snyder? - and then the whole Evil Mayor thing… cops generally were bad news.

But this wasn't Sunnydale. This was Arcadia Oaks. She stood a little straighter and started walking. She could do this. Just play the random innocent tourist.

Jim coughed. "Ah, Miss…"

She stopped and turned to frown at him. "Call me Buffy. I think I told you that."

"The hammer."

Buffy blinked. "Right, the hammer. My hammer." It barely weighed anything, so it was perfectly natural that she forgot about it. But if the cops wanted to check it… She clenched her teeth. She really didn't want to let it go. But she didn't want to get into trouble with the cops either. Or have it get stolen by some evil trolls.

She looked around, then went to the closest tree. "I'll drop it here. Keep an eye on it!" she told Jim.

He straightened a little. "OK."

"Good." She dropped the hammer behind the tree, then took a deep breath and started walking towards the hotel again.

One cop was leaning against the car outside as they approached. "Good evening, officer," Giles said in his best English accent before looking at the hotel with a frown.

"Did you rent a room here?" The cop was quick on the uptake. Then again, it didn't take a lot of smarts to make the connection when people approached a hotel in the evening.

"Indeed, we did. Two rooms, actually."

"Louis!" the cop yelled. "The guys you're looking for are here!" He turned back to Buffy and the others. "Please wait here. There was a robbery."

"A robbery?" Buffy gasped. A little - overdoing it was bad, and she didn't know if those cops would fall for her dumb blonde act.

The cop that walked out of the hotel wasn't in uniform and didn't look dumb enough to be fooled by her. He nodded at the cop at the car, then addressed Giles. "Good Evening, I'm Detective Scott. Mr…?"

"Giles. Rupert Giles." Giles nodded. "These are Buffy Summers and Willow Rosenberg."

Buffy nodded at her name.

"And where are Xander Harris and Dawn Summers?"

So, they had checked the forms already. "They went to look at the high school," Giles replied. "The Summers consider moving to Arcadia Oaks, and Dawn wanted to 'check out the school'."

Buffy could hear the quotation marks as she nodded. "Yes. We're from Sunnydale."

Detective Scott didn't frown at them, so Sunnydale's reputation mustn't have spread too far.

"I'm a friend of Mrs Summers," Giles added, a little too smooth for Buffy's taste. "After the incident at Buffy's graduation, Joyce started - finally, in my opinion - considering a move to a town less plagued with violence."

"Violence?" the other cop asked. "Where is Sunnydale?"

"North-west of Los Angeles," Giles replied. "About two hours if you drive carefully." Buffy frowned at the dig at her driving, but he ignored it. "Now… may I ask what happened here to result in a response by the police?"

"Robbery. Someone broke into the hotel."

Buffy forced herself to gasp again. "Did they steal anything?"

"That's what we're trying to find out."

"Oh."

"What do you need to know?" Giles asked, tilting his head slightly. He was really good at talking to cops, Buffy noted not for the first time.

*****​

"Fascinating. The appearance matches the description almost perfectly, but not the sketches I saw. It seems as if the age-old question of who was first, Umbar the Dubious's 'Tale of the Gods' or Jekas's 'Illustrated History of Trollkind', has been answered at last!"

James Lake Jr. pressed his lips together as he glanced back at Blinky, who was bent over the Hammer of the Troll Gods. The tree hid the hammer, but not the troll, and while it was dark, it wasn't exactly pitch black. If a cop glanced into their direction and saw something big move… Well, they would probably think it was a bear, but the cops wouldn't ignore a bear, either.

Not for the first time, Jim wished Blinky would be a little more discreet. It was nerve-wracking enough to think that a hell-god was running amok in Arcadia Oaks. The monster that had massacred the Knights of Byzantium and had shrugged off his best blows, roaming the streets of his home!

If this was Glory, of course. It could be goblins or Gumm-Gumms. Some raiding party. Or a changeling. Or an actual burglar. Arcadia Oaks didn't have a drug problem, but that didn't mean that none of the residents had a drug problem.

"Can you see what's happening?" Claire asked.

Jim looked at her, then at the hotel, then back at her. They were standing together, behind a car parked under the trees, and he couldn't think of any reason why he would see the Slayer's group and the cops - and that was certainly Mr - Detective - Scott - any better than Claire would. But she was probably as nervous as he was, so he didn't point that out and shook his head instead. "Only that they're still talking to Darcy's dad." After all the trouble following Jim and Toby's arrest in the museum, Jim could easily recognise the man.

Claire huffed. "We need to know if that's Glory or not."

"Yes," Jim agreed. But without investigating the hotel, that was impossible. And with the police present, they couldn't investigate. And he doubted that Detective Scott would let anyone mess up a crime scene.

"Oh, look!" Claire pointed down the road - an ambulance was coming.

Right, the night clerk. Jim clenched his teeth. If an ambulance was coming, then this was serious. As he watched, the paramedics entered the hotel. They didn't have a gurney, though, so it wasn't too urgent.

The man they brought out a few minutes later was walking, but one of the paramedics held his arm, and the other opened the doors to the ambulance, and the clerk…

"Do you think he's just under shock?" Claire asked.

"It could be," Jim told her. Mom had told him about her work, and he knew shocked people could look like the clerk. But he couldn't help thinking that this was something else.

He also hoped that Mom wasn't called in. If she went and told him that she was going out… He had told her he was going to bed early after spending the whole day developing pictures, but she might still check on him.

"They still haven't let the Slayer and the others inside," Claire commented as the ambulance drove off.

"Yes. Perhaps…"

"Oh, this is heavier than I thought.

Jim turned and sighed. Blinky was hefting the hammer, turning and twisting it to look at it from every angle. "Blinky!"

"What?"

"Please put it down." The Slayer was very attached to the hammer, and Jim really didn't want to have more trouble with her.

"It's the Hammer of the Troll Gods," Claire said. "And they left it in our care."

"Precisely!" Blinky agreed. "I'm merely examining it."

Jim doubted that the Slayer would see it the same way. "Please put it down."

"Alright," Blinky agreed after a last look. "This is really fascinating. Already, an age-old scholarly dispute has been settled. Oh, if my brother could see this…" He trailed off, and Jim looked away.

They didn't talk about Blinky's brother.

"They're going in!" Claire exclaimed.

Jim turned. She was right - the Slayer and Mr Giles were entering the hotel, together with Detective Scott. How had they managed that? Wasn't it a crime scene?

"I wonder if she's bewitched Darcy's dad," Claire muttered.

Jim winced. But if Willow had done that, wouldn't she be entering as well? Or was she staying outside to deal with anyone else who might arrive?

Or was he overthinking this, and this was standard procedure? For dealing with the victims of a burglary or robbery instead of the suspects?

Well, they would find out soon, or so Jim hoped.

*****​

"What happened to the man?" Buffy Summer asked as Giles and she entered the hotel with the detective.

"We don't know yet," the man replied.

"Was he hurt?"

"That's to be determined at the hospital."

Buffy pressed her lips together to keep from making a comment about how the detective was all grim and professional. Or how the man didn't look hurt. It helped that the man did look like the others she had seen in Sunnydale. Then again, some of the people she had saved from vamps - the bloodsucking type, not the, uh, other type - had looked the same. And if a huge hulking troll had broken into her hotel, and she wasn't the Slayer, she would probably be shocked too.

So this didn't have to be Glory.

"Is that your room?" the cop asked, pointing at the empty doorway leading into Buffy, Willow and Dawn's room.

"No, we just rented it," Buffy replied before she could help herself.

He didn't like it, judging by his brief scowl. Giles didn't like it, either - he was frowning at her behind the other man's back.

She beamed back at him. A little humour would do him good. And the detective as well.

"So, this is a crime scene, please don't touch anything…"

"Dear Lord!"

"Oh my God!"

Buffy stared at the room. It was completely trashed - it looked worse than in Willow's scrying thingie. Furniture, luggage, clothes - everything was wrecked. Shoes! "Oh, no! Those were brand new!" She gasped.

"Did you have any valuables in the room?"

She glared at the man. Didn't he know how much good shoes cost? Not that Glory would know good shoes if they were rammed up her butt, of course. Then again, trolls probably wouldn't, either. She blinked. Trolls… wouldn't they have stolen socks?

She tried to see if there were any socks strewn around. That would be a clue that this wasn't Glory. There were Dawn's socks, one of Buffy's - wait, she didn't remember packing her pink socks; had her sister stolen them again? And there was another pair...

"We took our wallets and purses with us. It was basically just clothes and toiletries left," Giles explained. "Someone must not have liked this."

The detective grumbled something that didn't quite sound like agreement. "Your rooms were the only ones ransacked like this," he said. "Can you think of a reason why that would be the case?"

"I'm afraid I can't, Detective," Giles replied.

"Really?"

Buffy looked up from where she had been staring at her ripped hose - did that count as socks? - and frowned. Were you supposed to interrogate people at the crime scene?

"Yes, Detective," Giles replied in that bland, innocent British manner of his, complete with a shy and confused smile.

"It wouldn't have had anything to do with the drug van outside?"

Oh. That. Buffy had totally forgotten about the van - she had just been glad that they hadn't left any weapons in the room.

"Drug van?" Giles frowned.

"It smells as if you transported a whole harvest of marihuana."

Buffy restrained herself from quipping that they wouldn't have had space for it, not with seven people in the car.

Giles nodded. "The smell was quite persistent despite vigorous airing on the drive up here. But that was, as the proprietor assured us, due to the van's history dating back to the seventies."

"And you travelled in this instead of in your own car?"

"My car doesn't seat seven people, sir," Giles replied.

"And it would probably have broken down halfway to here," Buffy added helpfully. Or not so helpfully - both Gles and the detective were glaring at her. Typical.

"And you couldn't find another car?"

"We tried, but, apparently, no rental agency in Sunnydale opens in the evening. Fortunately, Xander's uncle runs a car shop. Unfortunately, the selection of cars big enough for our party was very limited," Giles explained.

"Ah." It was obvious that the man wasn't buying it, even though it was the truth. "I think we should discuss this at the station."

Buffy didn't think so. They had to find whoever did this - find out if this was Glory's work or not. They didn't have to waste their time talking to a cop.

But she couldn't tell the detective that.

"Is this really necessary?" Giles frowned.

"We have to take your statements."

And try to trap them by questioning everyone. Damn. Buffy frowned. As she had known: Cops were always bad news. Even if they weren't incompetent.

"If we must. But we need another hotel - or another room. It's getting late, after all," Giles said.

"Can we gather our stuff?" Buffy asked.

"No. This is a crime scene."

"But we need our pyjamas! Do you expect us to sleep in the nude?" Buffy protested.

That threw the man for a loop, but he recovered quickly. Faster than Giles, who was gaping at her. "Of course not. We have a stock of suitable clothes for emergencies," the detective said.

"I bet they're all ugly."

He didn't have an answer to that.

*****​

The police station was both better equipped and smaller than Sunnydale's, Buffy Summers noted when she stepped inside. Well, that was to be expected - Arcadia Oaks was smaller than Sunnydale. Or so she thought. Not that it really mattered.

What mattered was that she had to give a statement to some definitely not-Sunnydale cop. Who still suspected her of being involved in something shady, like a drug deal.

And they didn't even have one of those interrogation rooms with the mirrored glass walls behind which the rest of the cops were watching. Though perhaps they saved that for the official suspects? As Detective Scott had told them - when Buffy had asked - they weren't suspects. But the 'not yet' had been clearly, if silently, added, of course.

In any case, she was sitting in front of a rather plain desk in the middle of the detective's office. Waiting, actually - the detective was apparently busy with other parts of the investigation.

And he hadn't even shown them the replacement clothes yet. Probably hoped to be able to lock them up and give them the ugly orange overalls, or what prisoners wore here. Definitely not cute Yummy Sushi pyjamas, Buffy was sure. Though wearing those to prison would probably not be a good idea - she would look like easy prey and would have to stomp half the prisoners, which would make her look even guiltier.

"...security tapes."

Her eyes widened as she caught the last part of a police officer's sentence. Security tapes? Buffy cocked her head and focused on listening in to that conversation.

"Good. Did you watch them already?"

That was the detective!

"Only to confirm they cover the period of the break-in. But I caught something… weird."

"Let's take a look."

Something weird? Buffy hoped it was a troll caught on camera. Even if that would mean trouble for Jim and Claire and the trolls. But they could explain that as some weird costume or cosplay.

"That's the weirdest gang I've ever seen, sir."

"One blonde wearing a red cocktail dress, followed by half a dozen people in cloaks?"

Buffy gritted her teeth. Glory. That was Glory and her ugly freaky minions. Damn. Double-damn.

"Look what she does to the clerk, sir."

"Some sort of electro-shock?" That was the detective.

"Or some pressure-point technique?"

"This isn't a tv show, Parker."

"Sorry, sir. But it is weird. She grabs his head, and he stops struggling or trying to flee, and just… sits there while they ignore him and rob the place."

"Not the weirdest thing I've seen. People react wildly differently to shock. But at least we have a picture of the suspects now. Send out a notice - they might still be in the area."

Oh, no! The police were looking for Glory? This was bad. Really bad. This would be another massacre! She had to do something about this. But how to stop cops from acting like cops? Bribery would only get her into trouble, and if she told them the truth, she'd get institutionalised.

"Did you get anything on our guests?"

"Nothing so far, sir. But Sunnydale…"

"What?"

"The news says there was a massacre. Dozens of people dead - gang members, presumably. Or D&D players on drugs."

"D&D players?"

Buffy winced. Xander and Willow would hate that. And one of their better excuses for carrying swords wouldn't work any more for a while.

"Apparently, they hacked each other to death with swords and axes, sir."

"That's… Dozens dead? What do the local cops say?"

"They only say that things are under investigation."

"Really? They must be swarmed by every news service in California and they won't comment?"

Buffy heard the detective snort.

"If it works for them, sir…"

"But our guests are from Sunnydale. And arrived in a drug van."

"Well, I would have booked it as well if such a thing happened in town. I mean, I would've sent my family away, sir."

Another snort.

"Well, let's be a little more careful with our guests."

"Do you think they are involved in this, sir?"

"Without any information from the Sunnydale police, we can only speculate. But the perps weren't armed - certainly not with swords and axes."

"Yes, sir."

Buffy clenched her teeth together. Glory was in town, and people thought her massacre had been some drug-fueled gang war. Or D&D cult. And they were suspects. If she didn't know any better, she would say that things couldn't get any worse,

She sighed as she heard the detective approach. A moment later, the door was opened, and he stepped in. "Miss Summers."

"Detective." She nodded at him, then faked a yawn. "How long will this take? It's getting late."

"As long as it takes. This is a criminal investigation."

"Shouldn't I have a lawyer then?"

"You aren't a suspect."

"But don't I have the right to a lawyer? I think I do!" She pouted. "I feel like I should have one. You're forcing me to stay up past my bedtime. Isn't that illegal? And you want me to wear ugly sleepwear or go nude. That sounds like some sort of harassment!" She was laying it on more than a little thick, but, damn it, Glory was in town! She needed to get out and hunt the skanky hell-god down before there was another massacre.

"Speaking of bedtimes: Where is your little sister? A patrol car was at the school and didn't find her."

Buffy kept from wincing. This was getting worse.

*****​

"This is bad," James Lake Jr. heard Claire mutter as they watched the police station - from afar, of course.

"Yes," he agreed. The Slayer and her friends had entered the station half an hour ago and hadn't left yet. Which meant they hadn't even started looking for Glory. If it was Glory - it could be something easy. Like goblins. Or Gumm-Gumms. Or…

He shook his head. No, it wouldn't be something easy. This was Glory's work - Jim didn't have any proof, but his gut feeling told him that. His gut feeling and the fact that the night clerk was still alive. Gumm-Gumms would have eaten him, and goblins… well, they wouldn't have just scared him but killed him if they attacked him in the first place..

So, a hell-goddess was tearing through Arcadia Oaks, looking for her key - whatever that was.

"We should be doing something," Claire said.

"Like what?" he asked.

"Look for Glory. We're just standing around here."

"We're keeping watch on the Slayer's hammer," Blinky cut in. "And on her friends, I suppose."

Jim snorted. Blinky was technically correct. But Jim knew the troll was barely paying attention to anything except for the hammer, even though he had toned down his excited commentary a little.

He blinked. What if the hammer was a trap? What if it was sort of like the One Ring, making people covet it? The Slayer was very attached to it, after all, and Blinky seemed fixated on it as well.

Then again, that was normal for Blinky. It might be normal for the Slayer as well - her friends certainly hadn't commented about her behaviour with the hammer. And, he added with a wince, Claire had acted the same about her staff, though that was perfectly understandable given her history. She had earned it, after all.

"We're just standing around," Claire went on. "While a monster threatens the town."

Jim nodded - she was right. On the other hand… "We can't do much against her."

"Having the Slayer around wouldn't change that," Claire retorted. "And I can lure her away," she added.

Jim clenched his teeth so he wouldn't blurt out a sharp denial. Claire was too brave for her own good - and she didn't even have magical armour. Or any armour. Not that that had helped the Knights of Byzantium. But Jim was the Trollhunter; it was his duty to protect trolls and humans alike. Even at the cost of his life.

"We don't know whether or not you attracted her, Fair Claire," Blinky pointed out. "You didn't before when you used the staff - nor did Angor Rot."

But if it hadn't been Claire… "Dawn?" Jim asked.

Blinky tilted his head. "You mentioned that she created green portals. I have never heard of such a phenomenon. Magic items, especially powerful ones like the staff, do not behave like that."

Claire looked angry for a moment, then frowned. "But if she attracted Glory... "

"Then she might have the key on her," Jim said. The Slayer had brought the key to Arcadia Oaks! That was… well, actually smart, he had to admit. Leaving it unprotected on the Hellmouth would've been stupid - and might have doomed the world.

"But why would the Slayer have left the key to her sister?" Claire asked. "She can't really defend it."

"She gravely wounded Tobias," Blinky pointed out.

"Toby is no Glory," Claire retorted. But she looked pensive. "Even if the Slayer didn't want to risk getting caught with it, she had better alternatives. Willow could defend the key much better."

Jim had to agree with that. "And I don't think she had Dawn hold the key for a while in the hotel. Unless the staff was the key?"

"I doubt that, Master Jim. If the staff were the key, then the Fair Claire would've attracted Glorificus's attention long before your excursion to the Hellmouth," Blinky said.

"But…" Claire trailed off. Then her eyes widened. "What if Dawn has to carry the key?"

"A chosen key-carrier?" Jim blinked again. That sounded.... Well, it actually didn't sound too weird.

"It would explain her presence here," Blinky said. "The Slayer didn't strike me as the kind of woman who would drag children into battle - or expose them to danger unless there was no alternative. She certainly took offence at you being chosen, Master Jim."

"Even though she wasn't any older when she became the Slayer," Claire muttered. "Though she might just not trust anyone else with her sister's safety."

Jim didn't think so. And, judging by his sceptical expression, neither did Blinky. "That's possible," he said.

Claire narrowed her eyes at him, then sighed. "It still makes no sense. Dawn didn't act as if she was the key carrier, or what it's called."

"That might have been an act," Jim said.

That earned him a glare. "She isn't a good actress," Claire stated.

"Right," Jim muttered, grimacing. Suggesting that Dawn might be a better actress than Claire wasn't the smartest idea he'd ever had. Claire was still sore about her staff being used by the girl. And about her staff having been taken.

He sighed. "Let's wait a little bit longer."

"While we wait, people will be in danger," Claire objected. "If we find Glory, I can at least use my staff to evacuate possible victims."

And she would expose herself to the hell-goddess. Jim gritted his teeth. He wanted to keep her safe, but… she was right that as long as Glory roamed in Arcadia Oaks, people would be in danger. People whom the Trollhunter had to protect.

"Ah, leaving with the hammer might leave the Slayer with the impression that we might have intended to take it away from her," Blinky said. "And leaving it here…"

"Then you stay with it," Claire told him. "Jim and I can look for Glory." She hefted her staff. "And if we meet her, I can portal her back to Sunnydale if it's needed." She didn't sound as if she had any doubts that it would be needed.

"I see." Blinky nodded. "Although we should attempt to inform the Slayer or her friends, to, ah, smooth over potential differences or misguided assumptions."

Jim nodded. "Yes." He didn't really want to face the Slayer again, hammer or not.

Claire nodded and pulled out her phone. "I'll text Dawn. She can inform the Slayer without revealing us. It'll also tell us if they're still in Trollmarket." She quickly sent a message.

A few seconds later, her phone vibrated. Jim winced.

Claire looked at her screen, then frowned. "They're on the way to the station."

"They are?" Blinky sounded surprised.

"They must not want to look suspicious - the police will know they arrived with the Slayer, and if they don't show up and can't be contacted by phone…" Jim shrugged.

Claire was already typing. "I'm telling her it's Glory and that we're observing the station."

A few seconds later, the next text arrived. Claire shook her head. "A joke about the Slayer being jailbait."

Jim sighed.

"I'm afraid I do not understand the reference," Blinky said.

"It's an inside joke, I think," Jim explained.

"Probably," Claire agreed. "But Dawn and Xander are on the way."

"Good. Then we should be able to…" Jim trailed off. Something had moved across the street. "Down!" he whispered.

Claire crouched behind the parked car at once.

"Oh, no! What is it?" Blinky followed suit, although with less grace.

Jim peered over the hood. Yes, there was a really suspicious figure - who wore such a cloak? In Arcadia Oaks. It was watching the police station.

"They look suspicious!" Claire whispered.

Jim nodded. He had a bad feeling about this.

"Is it only the one?" Blinky asked.

"Might be a scout," Jim replied.

"We could kidnap them," Claire said. "I can open a portal under their feet, trap them in between portals."

Like William the Bloody. "What if they're more dangerous than they look?" Jim asked.

Claire frowned.

"Let's keep observing," Jim added, patting her arm.

Claire sighed but nodded.

The figure didn't move. Didn't fidget. Was it a zombie? Or a robot? Hadn't the Slayer mentioned a robot?

Jim drew a hissing breath. What was next, aliens? He scoffed. Maybe they should take the risk. Check who the figure was. Or what. They couldn't stall forever, after all - sooner or later, the police would look for Dawn and Xander. And then…

Someone stepped out of the station. A cop. Two of them. In uniforms. One adjusted his cap as they walked over to the patrol car parked in front. That left… Jim didn't know how many cops were left in the station. Back when they had arrested Toby and Jim, there had been four including the detective.

"Jim!" Claire hissed.

He whirled, glancing at her. She was pale. And staring straight ahead. He snapped his head around and gasped.

Glory was walking towards the station. "Hey!" she yelled at the cops just getting into the car. "I have to report a theft! Someone stole my KEY!"

Jim could see the two cops sigh and look at each other. After a moment, one of them sighed again and turned towards Glory. He said something Jim couldn't catch, but since he pointed at the station, he probably told her to go inside.

"I said someone stole my KEY!" Glory yelled into his face.

The cop backed up. And the other cop, who had been about to get into the patrol car, stopped and started to walk around it. To flank Glory, in case the yelling woman attacked his partner.

"They don't know," Claire whispered. "They have no idea."

A third cop came out of the station, saying something. Then he stopped and drew his gun.

"You're under arrest!"

The cops at the car were backing off, drawing their weapons as well.

But they were too slow.

Glory moved.

*****​
 
Chapter 13: Revelations Part 1
Chapter 13: Revelations Part 1

Arcadia Oaks, January 14th, 2017

"I said someone stole my KEY!"

Buffy Summers froze for a moment. Glory. Here. Outside the building.

"You're under arrest!" That was the cop from before.

She stood. She had to...

"Hey!" The detective was getting up as well. "Stay here!"

She looked at him. He didn't know. This was… "No. You don't…"

The sound of splintering glass and screaming cut off what she had been about to say. Shots followed.

Buffy moved, rushing out of the office, into the larger office. The windows to the street were smashed, and a body was on the floor, amidst the remains of a desk. The cop who had yelled about the arrest.

Willow and Giles were crouched behind a desk at the back. And outside, cops were shooting.

A scream, cut short. More shots.

"Get out the back!" Buffy told the others as she moved to the door.

"Parker!" The detective knelt at the body, reached for the throat of the man, then shook his head. "Get down, everyone!" he yelled.

Another scream followed. No more shots followed.

Then the door was kicked open, and Glory was there.

"Where is my KEY?"

The demon-skank looked around. "Slayer! Where is my KEY?"

Buffy pushed down the terror that briefly filled her. She was the Slayer. She killed demons.

She cocked her head. "You know, you're kinda fixated on that. Have you thought about expanding your hobbies? Or your vocabulary? It's kinda..."

She was already moving, jumping to the side, before Glory reacted. Even so, the hell-goddess almost caught her with a wild swing that left her fist stuck in the wall.

"Stop!" the detective yelled, gun drawn on Glory. "You're under arrest."

The skank looked at him, pouting as she ripped her arm out of the wall, wrecking more of the office. "You're supposed to help me, not arrest me. The Slayer stole my KEY!"

"You've murdered Parker. You're under arrest!"

"He was trying to arrest me," the hell-goddess replied. "And he ruined my dress!"

Buffy glanced behind her. Willow and Giles were gone. Good. That left only the stupid detective.

"Now, will you arrest her?" Glory pointed at Buffy.

Was the hell-goddess so stupid to think this would work, or was this part of another plan? Buffy couldn't tell. But she shook her head. "What key? I don't have a key!"

"LIAR! I felt it in your room! You have my KEY!" Glory stalked towards Buffy.

The detective started shooting - at the blonde's legs. The bullets hit, but Glory didn't even stop.

Buffy vaulted back, landing behind a desk, faked left and jumped to the right a moment before Glory kicked the desk, smashing it against the wall behind it. If Buffy had been there...

"Give me my KEY!"

Buffy kept moving, jumping over the counter near the door, then dropping down to cut the line of sight before scrambling on all four towards the door. She had to lure the monster out of here before Glory killed more people.

The hell-goddess smashed through the sturdy counter as if it was made out of cardboard and came to a stop in the hallway between Buffy and the door. "No more running!"

Buffy clenched her teeth. This was…

A bullet struck the demon's head, ricocheting into the wall. Buffy heard the detective curse.

Then two whirling blades hit Glory from behind, cutting her dress. "Pick on someone your size!"

Jim. That was Jim, standing there, behind the monster. Buffy wanted to slap him. And not for the quip about her size.

And she also wanted whirling throwing blades that returned to your hand. Jim got the best toys!

Glory whirled. "My dress! Do you know how much that cost?"

"No. And I don't care," Jim replied.

"Freeze!" The detective tried again - he had reloaded, Buffy noted. But everyone ignored him.

"It cost more than… how much did your armour cost?"

"More than you could afford," Buffy said. "Judging by how cheap you look."

Why was Jim glaring at her? Did he want Glory to come after him?

He probably did, Buffy realised. The boy was stupid that way. But she was the Slayer, and Glory was her problem. The monster had killed enough people on her watch. "You want your key?" she snapped. "Come and get it!"

She turned and ran towards the back. Willow and Giles had to be gone by now.

"My KEY! My… my Key?"

Buffy glanced over her shoulder as she reached the door to the back. Glory wasn't following her. She was ignoring the detective and Jim. She was staring at the broken window. No, at something outside. Someone.

No!

Buffy whirled and ran straight at the monster. But before she reached the skank, Glory blurred and disappeared.

And Buffy heard a scream outside. A familiar scream.

Dawn.

*****​

James Lake Jr. whirled. And felt his heart sink. Not again! He had let the hell-goddess kill three cops already - she had been too fast for him to react before they had been sent flying by blows more powerful than a troll's - and now she was… across the street, in front of Dawn.

"Leave her alone!" the Slayer screamed and dashed towards the hell-goddess.

Jim charged after her, even though he knew they wouldn't make it in time. Glory was too fast.

"My Key!"

What?

"Leave her alone!" the Slayer repeated herself.

Dawn had the key? As they had suspected?

"I finally found you!"

Dawn was shaking her head, moving back. "No… no…"

Xander was there, stepping in front of her.

Glory casually, almost gently, slapped him away. The man flew back two yards, hit the ground and rolled another two yards. Then he disappeared into a portal.

The Slayer rammed into the hell-goddess, hitting her in the face with a flurry of punches. Glory moved her arm without taking her eyes off the trembling girl in front of him, and the Slayer barely managed to deflect the blow enough so she wasn't smashed into the ground but merely driven back several yards.

Then Jim reached Glory, Daylight flashing as he jumped and slashed at her with enough force to cut a troll in half.

He hit her head, and she flinched. "Ouch! Hey!" She turned - and Jim saw something flutter in the air between them. Strands of hair, he realised.

"What…?" Her eyes widened. "You… you cut my hair!"

Jim managed to summon his shield a moment before she hit him.

Her fist went through it, shattering it, then caught his chest plate in a glancing blow that still flung him back and made him fall down.

"You'll pay for that!" she screamed at him.

The Slayer threw herself at Glory again, but once more, she was swatted away without the hell-goddess bothering to look at her.

"You know how much it costs to style my hair?"

Dawn was running. Getting the key away. He had to buy time. Jim pushed himself up. "You paid for that?" he muttered as he took a stance.

She bared her teeth, and Jim braced himself. This was it. This was…

A portal opened in front of him a moment before the screeching monster reached him. Glory slammed into the portal.

And bounced back.

No.

Jim blinked.

As did Glory after stepping to the side. "What the hell!" She narrowed her eyes at him. "You tried to lure me into a portal?"

"Yes?" Jim replied.

She laughed. She actually laughed. "You idiot! I'm banished to this dimension! Without my key, I can't leave it!"

Oh. Damn. They probably should've thought about that before trying this. But he saw another portal swallow Dawn. Good.

"I'm surrounded by idiots," Glory muttered. "But at least I have found my…" She blinked again, looking around. "Where is it? Where is my…"

"Die!" The Slayer descended from above, hammer held in two hands, and brought it down squarely on Glory's head.

The hell-goddess actually fell, her face hitting the ground, and the Slayer hit her twice more in rapid succession.

"Give me my KEY!" the monster screeched, lashing out with her arms.

The Slayer fell back, parrying another blow with her hammer, and Jim moved to flank the hell-goddess when another portal opened in front of him.

"Jim!"

Claire! He saw her standing at the corner, staff pointed at him.

"Move!"

He shook his head. He couldn't leave. Not when others were in danger.

Something hit him, and he was pushed into the portal.

He expected to hit the ground, but instead, he was floating in space - no, in the space between portals.

"You damn idiot! What were you waiting for, a written invitation?"

And the Slayer was clinging to him. And berating him.

"If the witch with the staff tells you to go through the portal before the hell-goddess squishes you, you go!"

"But…" he started to defend himself.

"No buts! What were you going to do? Give her an even worse haircut? Were you trying to get..." She trailed off. "Where are we?"

"In the space in-between the portals," Jim told her.

"Spike's prison dimension?"

Jim frowned. "It's not a prison. It's..."

"Oh, I get it! It's another dimension - and since Glory is stuck to the Earth dimension, she can't get to us here!"

Jim blinked. "Yes, exactly." Claire must have realised that and sent them here!

"Good. Now, where are the others?"

The others? Claire! Where was Claire?

Jim looked around. He couldn't see her.

A moment later, another portal opened, and Dawn stumbled through, followed by Claire.

"Claire!"

"Dawn!"

*****​

Dawn was there! Buffy Summers reached out for her, but in this weird space, she couldn't move. She tried swimming, but that didn't work.

"Dawn!"

"Buffy?"

"Claire!"

"Jim!" the girl blurted out. "Let me get us to a solid part."

"Solid part?" Buffy asked, but they were moving already - towards a floating cloud thingie. No, a floating island thingie, as Buffy quickly realised.

But she was close to Dawn now. "Dawn! Are you alright? Did Glory hurt you?"

"No…" Dawn replied, and Buffy felt her heart skip a beat until her sister continued: "No, she didn't hurt me."

"I got her away," Claire said as if Buffy hadn't noticed. "I got the cops away as well, and Xander - to the hospital - but…"

Dawn hunched over. "Xander's tougher than he looks," Buffy said, mostly for Dawn's benefit. And Xander hadn't been that hard. Unlike… Ah. She pressed her lips together. The cop who had been slapped into the station had been killed. And the cops outside… Damn.

Jim stiffened. "They might call Mum in if there are three emergencies."

"I doubt that Glory will head to the hospital," Buffy told him. She doubted that the hell-goddess knew what a hospital was.

They reached the floating island thingie. It felt good to have solid - or probably solid - ground under your feet again. Slayers weren't made to float in weird space.

"I tried to send her away. Glory," Claire said. "But it didn't work. She bounced off my portal. So I took us here. If she can't leave Earth, then we're safe here."

"Good idea," Buffy commented. Safe was good. A space for Dawn that Glory couldn't reach without Dawn's help! It was perfect. Well, she amended after taking a look around, maybe not perfect, what with all the gloom and doom style, but it was better than dying or destroying Earth.

"But I have no idea where the others are," Claire said.

"Or what Glory is doing now," Jim said. "She's loose in Arcadia Oaks!"

"We can't stay here," Claire said.

"Wait! Why can't we stay here? Or at least… Dawn and the others?" Buffy asked. "They're safe here." Claire and Jim looked around, and Buffy pouted. "You kept Spike imprisoned here."

"He's a vampire," Jim replied. "And it was only for a short time. We can't exactly camp out here."

"Why not?" Buffy patted the ground. "I've been on worse camping trips. At least it's not raining. All the time. Remember?" She looked at Dawn.

But her sister was staring at... somewhere in this space. Or something.

"Dawn?"

"She was after me," Dawn said, without looking at them. "That's why you took me with you, instead of leaving me in Sunnydale or sending me to Los Angeles." She turned, and Buffy saw that she was crying. "Why did she think I was the key?"

"Wait… you don't have the key?" Jim blurted out.

Buffy would've glared at him, but she was focused on her sister. "Dawn…" How best to explain the whole mess?

"I'm the key, aren't I?"

And now everyone was looking at Buffy.

"Err…"

"I'm the key. She wants me to destroy Earth. Why?" Tears were running down Dawn's cheeks. "Why me?"

Buffy bit her lower lip, then reached out for her sister, pulling her into a hug. "Well…" She couldn't tell her the truth. Not now. Not with others here. "It's my fault."

"What?"

"What?"

"How?"

Buffy frowned at the stares from everyone as Dawn pushed her back. "The key is energy. Green energy - like a ball. Some monks guarded it. But when Glory started hunting them, they couldn't keep guarding it. And they couldn't destroy it or something. So they decided to make me guard it - by stuffing the energy into you."

"What?" Dawn shook her head. "They…"

"They're all dead," Buffy said.

"So? How could they do that?" Dawn yelled. "Without asking me!"

"Or me," Buffy pointed out.

"Is that why Mum was so weird before her surgery?" Dawn asked after a moment.

"Yes. She must have noticed the green energy around you." Buffy nodded quickly. Dawn seemed to believe her. Well, it was the truth. Kind of. Almost. And it was for the best. This wasn't the time to tell Dawn that she was the key turned human.

"You're the key?" Claire asked as if she hadn't heard them.

"Can others see this energy?" Dawn asked.

"No," Buffy told her. "None of us can."

"But…" Dawn sat down on the ground, breaking eye contact. "Glory's after me. She wants me. And…" She shook her head again, "And she'll kill everyone who's in her way!"

"We won't let her," Buffy told her.

"And you're safe here," Claire added. "We know Glory can't enter this space."

"We'll protect you," Jim said.

"Because if she gets me, it's the end of the world." Dawn closed her eyes.

"No! Because you're innocent!" Buffy blurted out.

But Dawn wasn't listening to her.

*****​

"She almost had me - she was standing in front of me, looking at me…" Dawn shuddered and hugged herself.

James Lake Jr. clenched his teeth as he heard her sniffle. Dawn was the key - had been used as a vessel for the key, to be precise, so her sister the Slayer would protect her. That had to be a shock. He couldn't imagine how he would react in that case.

"She didn't get you," the Slayer said, hugging her sister. "We won't let her."

"But you can't stop her!" Dawn retorted. "She just… she just killed those men! And she was throwing you around like… like…"

"But we did save you. And we know she can't enter this dimension," Claire cut in. "You're safe here."

Dawn made a sound between a sob and a snort but didn't say anything in response. Jim hadn't known her for long - though the road trip back to Arcadia Oaks certainly had felt like an eternity - but he was pretty sure that Dawn being silent wasn't a good thing.

Though there wasn't much he could do. He couldn't even hug her since he was wearing his armour. And hugging her would… well, if the Slayer didn't kill him, then Claire probably would. He snorted at the silly thought.

"We need to find the clothes and bring them here as well," Claire said. "Then get supplies. Maybe a tent. Sleeping bags. Food and water."

Jim nodded. "Good idea." If they could use this space - this dimension - as a base, then Dawn would be safe, and they could…

"You have to kill me!"

"What?" The Slayer gasped as Jim turned to stare at Dawn.

The girl shook her head, pushing against her sister. "I'm the key. If Glory gets her hands on me, the world ends. You have to kill me. Like those crazies said."

"Dawn!" the Slayer protested. "You're… you're being stupid! We can't kill you!"

"Of course you can! You're the Slayer!"

"But… No! You're not thinking straight. You're under shock. You need to rest and… stop being stupid!"

Jim gritted his teeth. How could Dawn say this? That wasn't how it worked! He wouldn't let her die! He was the Trollhunter - his duty was to protect everyone!

"Killing you might just free the key," Claire said. "And make it easier for Glory to get it."

Dawn gasped, looking at them through tear-filled eyes. "But…"

"No dying, you idiot!" her sister snapped. "You'll stay safe - we'll deal with Glory."

Jim nodded, as did Claire as she hefted her staff.

"But how?" Dawn asked, shaking her head. "She… she's too strong. She swatted everyone around, and she… she was just a blur when she moved!"

"We'll figure something out," the Slayer said. "She has to have a weakness. She's dumb as a rock, for one. And we'll get magic weapons to kill her," she added with a glance at Jim and Claire.

Jim nodded. "Yes."

"But first, we'll need to find the others," Claire said. "Make sure they're safe."

Jim nodded again. "Where would they have gone?"

"That's easy - we'll ask!" the Slayer announced as she reached into her pocket. "Ugh…" She pulled out the remains of her phone. "I'll have to sue Glory for a replacement phone."

It was a weak joke, but Jim snorted anyway - then again at her affronted expression.

"My phone works," Claire said and held it up, "but we need to leave this space to get a signal."
"M-mine should work, too," Dawn said.

"You stay here," the Slayer snapped,

"I can't use it here, anyway."

"You can play games on it while you wait."

"Do you know Willow's number?" Dawn shot back. "Miss 'I can't remember the combination for my locker'?"

"Uh…" The Slayer took Dawn's phone, then turned to Jim and Claire. "Let's hop out somewhere else in town and call the others." After a moment, she added: "Xander. We need to check up on him."

"Yes." Jim tried not to look grim.

Claire nodded and raised her staff. "I'll open a portal to… the school. No one will be there."

"Won't she sense it?" Dawn asked. "Or… she sensed me opening those green portals, didn't she? Green, like the key! Oh God! It was my fault that she arrived and killed the cops! If I hadn't played around… If I hadn't taken the staff, no one would've died!"

Jim gritted his teeth as the girl started crying again.

"Glory killed the cops; you didn't do anything wrong - we didn't know she could sense you," the Slayer replied.

"But you thought it was possible!"

"Only after I saw the green portals."

"It's still my fault. All my fault." Dawn sank to her knees, arms wrapped around herself, and sobbed.

Jim didn't know what to do. And it seemed that the Slayer was at a loss as well - she knelt to hug Dawn, but that didn't stop the crying.

"Gunmar has my brother, Enrique," Claire spoke up. "If I had been home, if I had paid better attention to what was going on…" She shook her head. "But I didn't kidnap him. Gunmar's followers did. They decided to break into my home and kidnap him."

Jim nodded. "If I had been there, I could've stopped them. I'm the Trollhunter - I knew such things were happening. But… you can't blame yourself for the actions of others. Glory murdered the cops. She, and no one else."

Dawn kept sobbing, but Jim thought she was calming down. It wasn't much, but it was something.

*****​

Buffy Summers wanted to hit something - anything. Preferably Glory. Her sister was crying, and she couldn't do anything to make her feel better. She could only hold her, which, obviously, wasn't working - Dawn was still crying.

Though she wasn't shaking as much any more. Or talking about dying. Or getting killed.

Buffy gritted her teeth. That was all Glory's fault. And probably the Knights', though they were already dead, and, possible zombie plague excepted, hitting them wouldn't do anything to help anyone. And it would be gross, too. Probably illegal as well.

She sighed. "Just… don't do anything stupid, OK?"

"Like using a magic staff?" Dawn replied.

"No! I mean, yes - but…" Buffy huffed. "I mean, don't talk about dying. Or having yourself be killed. Or…" She couldn't say that.

Dawn didn't answer.

"That's where you say 'Yes, Buffy', Buffy prompted her. She pulled back so she could look at Dawn and forced herself to smile.

Her sister smiled back. It was a weak, fake and tearful smile, but Buffy was taking what she could get.

The snot running out of Dawn's nose, though… She reached into her pocket for a handkerchief and handed it to her.

And while her sister blew her nose, Buffy stood and cleared her throat. "So, let's go round up the others!"

"Right." Jim nodded.

Claire nodded again, then raised her staff, and a portal appeared in front of them. It looked like… "A PE shed?"

"It's the shed with the track and field gear," Claire confirmed.

"Oh! So, you're familiar with it?" Buffy grinned, then glanced at Jim and back at Claire, whose eyes widened before she started blushing.

"We've got PE twice a week, and Coach likes…" Jim trailed off, finally catching up, and blushed heavily.

Buffy chuckled, and even Dawn managed a small snort.

Then they stepped through. "Keep the portal open," Buffy told Claire. The girl seemed about to protest, but a glance back at Dawn shut her up.

She scrolled through Dawn's contact list. Willow and Xander would be down... "Dawn! Why is my number listed under 'PainInTheA..'?"

"Cause it's true!"

"Oh, you!" Buffy clenched her teeth, then smiled - that sounded more like her sister. Who was the actual pain in the butt. But here was Willow's number, right above Xander's.

She dialled Willow's first.

Willow started talking before Buffy could say anything, "Dawn? Are you alright? Is Buffy alright? We can't reach her. We couldn't reach you until now - were you in portal space or too far away to have a signal? We…"

"Willow!" Buffy interrupted her. "It's me. I broke my phone, and Dawn loaned me hers. Where are you and Giles?"

"Buffy!" She could hear her friend gasp, relieved. "Is everyone OK? We're walking towards the hospital. We thought, if anything happened…"

"Xander should be there. We'll come to fetch you," Buffy said. "Did you see the detective?"

"No, but we kind of… We ran from the cops. Does that make us fugitives?" Willow asked.

"I think evacuating civilians in such a situation is the norm," Buffy heard Giles comment in a dry manner. "I hardly think they'll charge us for saving our lives, although my trust in the American judicial system might be slightly misplaced."

"Giles!" Buffy smiled. He was alright as well. "We'll meet you at the hospital. Uh… not at the front door. Is there a parking lot?"

"Yes, there is," Jim said. "And hurry - we don't want to risk Glory finding us here."

Right. No attracting the hell-goddess when you were standing near a portal to Dawn. Wait - the skank couldn't go through the portal! But she could take hostages… "Alright. See you soon, Willow!"

She hung up. "OK. Let's go back, then open a portal to the hospital's parking lot!"

Jim and Claire looked at her before nodding in agreement. What was this about?

But they stepped back into the weird portal space. Back to Dawn.

"Willow and Giles are OK. We're calling Xander as soon as we're at the hospital."

Her sister nodded.

Claire opened the next portal without saying anything, and they stepped out into the darker part of a typical parking lot. Buffy looked around, then sniffed the air. "They aren't here yet."

"Did you just… try to smell them?" Claire asked.

"Slayer senses. Magical," Buffy told her.

"Oh. Can you track a scent?" the girl asked.

"If it's particularly obnoxious." It wasn't as if she had been trained as a bloodhound. And it wasn't as if Buffy wanted to be able to smell everyone - hygiene standards at school had been pretty bad, and they hadn't really improved at college. The number of people who didn't shower after an all-nighter...

But it came in handily at times. Like when looking for cookies. Or tracking down a little sister. Or… She cocked her head, then turned to face the road leading up to the hospital. "They're coming."

"What about Xander?"

"Right." Buffy opened Dawn's contact list again and dialled Xander.

He wasn't answering.

*****​

The Slayer stared at the phone as if she wanted to crush it. James Lake Jr. cleared his throat. "He's probably in surgery and can't answer his phone."

"In surgery?" The Slayer whirled to stare at him, then scoffed. "Right. He would be hurt. But surgery…"

Jim winced when she wasn't looking - he had meant to be comforting, not alarming.

"Let's go and check, then!"

"We should wait for the others," Claire said, shaking her head. "If something happens and we're split up…"

"Alright. You wait here, I'll go look for Xander," the Slayer said.

"You can't take the hammer with you," Claire pointed out. "Someone else should go. Like Mr Giles."

"Giles? But…" The Slayer closed her mouth, and Jim almost expected to hear her teeth grind together. "Giles, then. At least he's got the most experience with hospitals."

"What?" Claire blurted out.

"He keeps getting hurt. He's not a Slayer."

"Oh." Jim pressed his lips together to avoid agreeing.

"Neither are your other friends," Claire pointed out. She sounded tense. Or annoyed.

"And they should get hurt, either," the Slayer retorted, frowning at Claire.

"That's not your decision," Claire told her, lifting her chin and narrowing her eyes.

Jim winced again, not that either of the two others would notice. "I can't enter - if Mom is working and sees me…"

The Slayer sighed. "Giles, then. At least he has that 'worried person of authority' vibe going for him."

Jim had a feeling why Mr Giles would be good at that.

"Say, where's your Giles? The Blinky troll?"

"Blinky? I sent him back to Trollmarket. To the entrance, not directly to his home," Claire explained.

Jim sighed, relieved - and feeling a little guilty that he had forgotten about Blinky.

"Good thinking." The Slayer nodded, then sniffed the air again. "Willow and Giles are coming."

Jim couldn't see or hear anyone. Her nose apparently was as good as she had claimed. He wondered how she had survived high school - some students had really nasty perfumes or deodorants. Or none at all. On the other hand, if the Slayer told you to switch your deodorant, who would dare to disagree?

"There they are," Claire announced. Jim turned and saw Willow and Mr Giles enter the parking lot, looking around.

"Over here!" the Slayer snapped, and the two looked into their direction, then hurried over.

"We can't reach Xander," she told them right away. "He must be in surgery or... sleeping."

"Yes!" Willow nodded several times. "I'll go check."

"We thought Giles should go."

"They might wonder what his relationship to Xander is," Willow retorted. "I can say I'm his friend or girlfriend."

That was a good point. Jim briefly wondered what would've happened if Strickler hadn't been a teacher. He might have set the cops on the monster. But that would've just led to dead cops. Like today. He pressed his lips together.

"Alright. Willow goes in. Keep your phone going so we can get you out if anything happens."

"They don't have no-phone zones, do they?" Willow asked. "Like MRIs?"

"I don't think so," Jim said. "Mum mentioned something about the budget not allowing such a machine."

"Ah."

"You should be fine, Willow," Buffy said. "Though we should've kept some of Riley's gear - they had some nice radios. Not quite Slayer-proof, but they held up much better than a phone." She turned to Jim. "You know how annoying it is to have to keep buying the cheapest phone because stupid demons keep breaking them? Everyone thinks you're poor!"

"As I recall, I suggested buying a cheap phone for patrolling," Mr Giles commented.

"But stuff keeps happening when I'm not patrolling! Or when I am on the way to a club after patrolling!" the Slayer protested.

"I'm going to look for Xander," Willow said.

"And Giles can go join Dawn. I told her that the monks put the Key energy into her, so she's been all down and gloomy," the Slayer.

"You told her?" Willow seemed surprised. "Oh."

Mr Giles merely nodded. "Good thinking."

The Slayer stared at both, then nodded.

Jim had the impression he had missed something, but Willow was already walking towards the hospital.

Though then she turned. "Oh, Riley!" She rushed back to them. "Buffy! We might need to call the Government! This isn't Sunnydale!"

"Oh, right." The Slayer grimaced. "I almost forgot about this. The local cops won't file this as a drug-crazed gang attack, will they?"

Jim stared at her. "They do in Sunnydale?"

"Yes. Didn't I tell you?"

She had, actually - but to cover up an attack on cops…

"You can call the government?" Claire focused on something else.

"Oh, yes, they owe us one since we saved their butts." The Slayer nodded.

"Their entire underground base," Willow added. "And the world, probably."

"Underground base?" That sounded like a James Bond movie, Jim thought.

"We have a working relationship with most of the governments," Mr Giles said. "Though our recent involvement with the American Military certainly didn't hurt. I'll make some calls."

"Thanks, Giles. I would do it, but… Riley." The Slayer grimaced again.

Jim had the impression he was missing something else.

*****​

And there went Willow again. Buffy Summers clenched her teeth as she watched her bestie walk into the hospital. She should be there, checking up on Xander.

"Quentin? I know it's late, but we have a situation."

Oh. Giles had already called... Travers? Buffy hadn't known that he had the direct number of the old geezer. She cocked her head to listen in.

"A situation?"

"Glorificus attacked a police station in Arcadia Oaks, a Californian town north of Los Angeles. He tracked us there when we were evacuating," Giles reported. "There were several casualties amongst the police officers present, at least one death."

Buffy heard Travers sigh. "And the Slayer was involved?" Hey! That made it sound as if Buffy was at fault!

"Yes," Giles replied. "She was giving a statement - in our absence, the hell-god had ransacked our hotel rooms, and the police insisted on interrogating us."

"And they're never around when you need them." Another sigh. "We're on the way to London already. I'll make the calls to our liaison to stop this in its tracks. And this after we already had to intervene about the incident in Sunnydale!"

They had intervened? Buffy blinked.

"Thank you. We're working on acquiring magical weapons which might be able to hurt the hell-god through local contacts here. Apparently, the weapons need to have a rather strong divine component."

"A divine component?" Travers didn't sound optimistic. "I assume a blade blessed by a priest won't be sufficient?"

"I doubt it, but we'll check," Giles told him. "Though we might have found a way to keep the key from Glorificus - the hell-god cannot enter portals."

"I see. Quite logical, in hindsight."

They were chatting far too friendly for Buffy's taste. Far too British, too.

"We'll be looking through the archives."

"Thank you." Giles switched his phone off.

"That was quite friendly," Buffy commented.

"I don't think I want to know what you'd consider unfriendly rather than merely being polite," Giles replied.

"Ranting, cursing, threats, shouting," Buffy told him anyway with a bright smile. "Trying to strangle you? Giving you homework or detention?"

"We're British," Giles retorted.

"So, that was a British argument?" She cocked her head sideways.

"No. That was a pragmatic call to work together for the greater good of us all." He sighed. "We can only hope it'll be enough. But the massacre in Sunnydale made national news, so I have my doubts about this. The police are already aware of our connection to Sunnydale, and should they have reports about a violent blonde woman being involved, they are unlikely to drop the case even if ordered to. Detective Scott didn't strike me as the sort of man to bow to pressure."

"Hey! I'm not violent!" Buffy protested. "And they can't blame me for this!"

Giles looked at her as if she had said something dumb. As did Claire and Jim. Giles cleared his throat. "I was talking about Glorificus's current form, not about you."

"Oh." Now she felt dumb. But she had been blamed for everything that totally hadn't been her fault before. It was all Snyder's fault. And whoever framed her for Hemery burning down.

"In any case, we've set things in motion. Now we just have to recover Xander - if he can be safely moved - and we can retreat into this alternate dimension to plan in relative safety," Giles said.

"That's my plan," Buffy reminded him. "Dawn will be safe in there." Bored to death, probably, but safe. Well, they could get her some books. And a laptop with some downloaded movies and series.

She looked at the phone in her hand. Dawn's phone. Matter of fact, she could check her sister's favourites and start downloading them right now.

A few clicks and swipes, and she was looking at the menu. And blinked.

"Dawn!"

*****​

James Lake Jr jerked when he heard the Slayer hiss her sister's name and drew Daylight. "What's wrong?" He looked around. She couldn't have been attacked inside the portal dimension, could she? Had someone snuck past them? Angor Rot?

No, Dawn was sitting on the floating platform, looking at them. "What?"

"What are you watching?" the Slayer shook her head. "This is…"

"You were in my account? You had no right!" Dawn protested. "That's violating my privacy!"

"And what you're watching is violating the law!"

"It's perfectly legal!"

"Not for minors!"

"Everyone's watching it!"

"And if everyone is jumping off a bridge, it's OK to do it?"

Jim winced. As did Claire. And the Slayer.

Dawn, though, didn't seem to have made the connection. "Don't act like Mom!"

"What? Well, Mom will act on her own once she hears about this!"

"I'll tell her you violated my privacy!"

"It was for a good cause!"

"Children…" Mr Giles shook his head. "While I have no doubt that Dawn's media preferences might be cause for concern, we do have slightly more important problems to worry about." He looked around. "We are rather exposed here, and I would prefer not to attract more attention, given our current situation. Being mistaken for fugitives from the law - a not quite as far-fetched possibility as I would like it to be - could worsen our problems."

"I thought your call solved it," the Slayer replied.

"We'll be calling upon the federal government. Unfortunately, local authorities might not heed its orders and advice as they should," Mr Giles told her.

Jim nodded. They'd had that in civics. And you always saw that in crime series when the FBI arrived and tried to tell the local cops to butt out of a case.

"Heads up!" The Slayer spoke up. "Ambulance coming!"

Jim looked towards the road. There was an ambulance driving towards them. With all the lights and the siren on. Another emergency, then. "They'll call Mom for sure," he muttered.

"They might call my mother, too," Claire added. "This is probably the biggest thing in Arcadia Oaks."

"It is? Wow! And here I thought the small town paradise was a myth," the Slayer commented. "This wouldn't rate much in Sunnydale."

"You sound as if you are proud of it," Claire told her.

"What? No! Oh, look at that!"

The ambulance pulled up, and the paramedics took the gurney out with the patient on it. Though there was someone else with them, wrapped in a blanket. Someone familiar.

"Ben the intern?" Jim muttered.

*****​
 
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Chapter 14: Revelations Part 2
Chapter 14: Revelations Part 2

Arcadia Oaks, January 14th, 2017

"Ben the intern?" Buffy Summers frowned. "You know the guy?" She narrowed her eyes and looked at the man currently walking towards the hospital's entrance. He was young, quite attractive... "Wait! I know the guy! He works at Sunnydale Memorial! He treated Mom!"

"He also treated Tobes," Jim added. "Just today. But what is he doing in Arcadia Oaks?"

"And why is he naked?" Buffy grimaced - she could see the guy's nude legs and bare feet, and the way he wrapped the blanket around himself… it wasn't really cold enough for that! Ew!

"I don't know," Jim replied, shaking his head.

"It's suspicious," Claire whispered with a deep frown.

Well, doh! Of course it was suspicious. Pretty much everything from Sunnydale was. Wait… "Nude? What if he's a time-traveller?"

"I doubt that time-travel works like in an American movie," Giles commented. "But I do agree that his presence here, especially at this time, does lend itself to ask certain questions. Was he abducted? Or is there a more sinister reason for his presence?"

Buffy clenched her teeth. "And what is he doing in the hospital?" Where Xander was, presumably helpless. "We can't leave him alone in there!" Well, Willow was there, but still!

"I agree," Giles said. "Given the circumstances, we cannot take that risk."

"I'm texting Willow!" Buffy announced, already typing out a message to her friend.

"If he's working for Glory, then we can't leave him there," Claire said, hefting her staff.

"We can't bring him into the portal space!" Buffy protested. "Glory isn't allowed to know about Dawn!"

The girl frowned at her. "I wasn't planning to take him there!"

Buffy sniffed at the attitude. "Hey, you did it with Spike!"

"That doesn't mean I would do it again!"

Ah! Spike had been his usual charming self. Buffy grinned - briefly. "So, you can't be seen. I'll sneak in and check on the intern guy."

"Buffy…" Giles shook his head. "Be careful."

"I'm always careful!" she assured him. Then she frowned at his grimace. She was still alive, wasn't she?

"You don't know the layout," Claire told her.

Buffy sniffed. "Seen one hospital, seen any."

"That's not how the saying goes!" Giles tried to correct her.

"But it's how I go! Watch my hammer!" She grinned and quickly made her way to the back of the hospital before there were more stupid objections. Giles couldn't fight off a demon, and the kids couldn't be seen without ruining their lives. So, it was clear that this fell to Buffy.

She saw the backdoor and smelt the lingering stench of stale smoke. As she had expected - this was where the staff went out to smoke so the patients wouldn't call them out as hypocrites.

She had no trouble opening the door - she didn't even have to break it. Just had to slip her credit card into the small gap, then press a little and presto! Clearly, Arcadia Oaks didn't have any problem with blood thieves. Then again, knowing what trolls ate, perhaps their laundry shops and pet shops were more secure than Fort Knox.

She stepped inside - the stench of stale smoke was replaced by the smell of disinfectant - and now she just had to find Ben the intern guy and Xander and Willow. Easy.

Or it should be - Arcadia Oaks' hospital wasn't too big, either. So… the surgery rooms - or whatever docs called them - were in that wing; she could hear the frantic calls for blood and plasma and whatever other stuff they needed. The other wing was the mostly silent one, so that was probably where the patient rooms were. Then again, Xander might be in surgery.

She pressed her lips together and texted Willow for Xander's location. After a moment, she received the answer.

Still in surgery.

Damn. She cursed under her breath. That meant that Xander was hurt worse than she'd thought. Not as bad as the two cops, though - surely not. And Willow would be…

Buffy clenched her teeth. She couldn't go comfort Willow - and get comforted. She had to find Ben the intern, first. He hadn't looked as if he had been hurt much, if at all - he hadn't been on a gurney. So… She looked to her left. Perhaps in one of the rooms? She sniffed the air. She didn't know his scent, alas. And there was too much cleaning agent and disinfectant in the air, anyway.

She'd have to do this the old fashioned way. Sighing, she started down the hall, listening at each room - and for approaching nurses and doctors. Not that she expected many of those to patrol the hallways - not in such a small town, at this time of the night, and with two or three emergency cases to treat.

The first door was quiet. She opened it a gap wide and peered inside. An older woman was asleep in the bed. No Ben.

The next two rooms were actually empty. The fourth down the hallway had a kid in it playing games on his phone with the lights out - she could hear the sounds and his cursing and saw no light shine under the door.

Chuckling, she sneaked to the next door.

Nothing… wait! She narrowed her eyes. Someone was mumbling inside, but she couldn't quite make out the words. She licked her lips, checked once more for nurses, then opened the door slowly and silently until she could peer inside…

...and found herself staring at Ben the intern. Who was sitting on the bed, wearing one of those ugly skimpy hospital paper gowns. And looking directly at her.

"Miss... Summers?"

He sounded shocked. And nervous.

She pressed her lips together and slipped inside. "What are you doing here?" she blurted out.

"I… What are you doing here? Did something happen to your mother?"

"No." She frowned. "We drove up here after we heard about the massacre in the park."

"You left your mother in the hospital?"

It wasn't like that. "What are you doing here?" she asked instead of answering. She glared at him. Trying to make her feel bad for leaving Mom in the hospital?

"I don't know," he said. "I woke up naked in an alley next to a wounded man."

Oh. "What's the last thing you remember?"

"I was in the hospital in Sunnydale."

He had been kidnapped, then. Probably by Glory's minions. "Have you seen anyone who could've done this?"

"No." He pressed his lips together. Had he seen a demon and wanted to keep silent so he wouldn't be sent to the asylum? Buffy could understand that. "But what are you doing here in my room?" Now he was glaring at her.

"I'm looking for a friend of mine. He got hurt." A good cover story was close to the truth, or something like that.

"Didn't you ask at the reception desk?"

"They were swamped with those emergencies. Anyway - I'll be going now. Good night."

He didn't call after her. Probably wanted her gone. Probably thought she was a weirdo. Story of her life, really. Not that that would stop her.

Outside, she texted Willow again. Ben the intern is in 1-5.

Xander's out of surgery.

Great!

He's OK.

Buffy sighed, relieved. Can we move him?

No!

And there went her relief. Damn.

*****​

What was taking the Slayer so long? James Lake Jr pressed his lips together.

"Xander's probably being treated," Claire said. He looked at her - had he spoken out loud? "I know what you're thinking. Your expression is always the same when you're worrying and waiting."

"Oh." He felt foolish. And in front of Mr Giles, too!

Although the older man wasn't really looking at them, he noticed - he was looking at the hospital as well. "It may be smaller than the one in Sunnydale, but I doubt that you can just walk in and immediately find whoever you're looking for. Bureaucracy doesn't work like that."

"It's a decent-sized hospital," Jim said. Mom worked there.

"For this town, yes." The man sighed. "Although without a Hellmouth, I presume you lack the same need for extensive medical facilities Sunnydale has."

"Probably," Jim agreed. "That doesn't mean that they're worse."

"I didn't say that."

"Detective Scott's coming," Claire told them. "That's his car."

They watched the detective enter the hospital. He looked ragged. And angry. Well, he had lost three of his colleagues to Glory. "He must have been looking for Glory until now," Jim said.

"Foolish, yet understandable. I've done something similar, in similar circumstances," Mr Giles commented. "I was fortunate to survive the consequences."

His tone clearly implied that he didn't think the detective would be as lucky.

"What did you do?" Claire asked.

The man hesitated for a moment, then snorted softly. "I attacked the Whirlwind by myself in an attempt to avenge my charges."

"Oh." Claire looked impressed. Wait… she had mentioned the Whirlwind. That had been the group of William the Bloody!

And speaking of… "How exactly did William the Bloody become your friend?"

Mr Giles glared at him. "I wouldn't call him a friend. Merely an occasional ally of circumstances. Perhaps a co-belligerent."

The vampire hadn't acted like a mere ally, in Jim's opinion. And he didn't think everyone thought that. Yet… this probably wasn't the moment to pry. "So… how's the weather in Sunnydale?" Jim asked.

That at least made the others laugh. But it didn't make the waiting any better. At any moment, Glory could arrive. And if she caught them, with the portal open… the hell-goddess didn't seem to be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but she knew that Claire was responsible for the portals - and she would take out Claire first. Try to take her out - she would hurt Claire over his dead body. But Jim knew the odds were against him doing anything to Glory before…

He shook his head. He couldn't think like this. That way lay defeat, as he had been taught. "Is there a way to call someone from portal space?" he asked. "Can we get a signal through an open portal?"

"Oh!" Claire smiled. "We need to test it. If I can get a signal through a portal, we can be safe and still communicate - I could open a portal into the air, far above Glory's or anyone's reach!"

Jim nodded. Not that Glory could pass through a portal. But her minions probably could.

"That would be quite useful," Mr Giles commented - which probably meant it was a really good idea. "Although we might need to be on the lookout for aeroplanes or helicopters."

"Not that high," Claire clarified.

"High enough to be out of reach - or, more precisely, sight - for a flying demon could easily be at an altitude at which helicopters and smaller planes travel," Mr Giles told her. "Although the odds for a collision are low, it behoves us to be cautious."

"I can vary the size of the portal as well," Claire told him. "I should be able to make them small enough so none of Glory's allies can pass through."

"Some species of demons are quite small. But overall, it's a good idea which will render us safer than we currently are."

Claire nodded. Jim was about to comment further - they still had to test it - when his phone vibrated. He pulled it out. "Tobes!"

"Your friend is awake?" Mr Giles asked.

Jim didn't answer - he accepted the call, with Claire at his side, tilting her head to look at the screen and listen in. "Tobes!"

"Jimbo! What's going on? I'm stuck at home according to AAARRRGGHH!!!, and I have no idea what happened! The news is talking about an attack on the police!"

Jim winced. That might take some time to explain.

*****​

Buffy Summers was hiding in a cupboard in the hospital, waiting for Xander to be transferred to a regular room - Willow had texted her that he would be under observation until he woke up from surgery - when she heard a familiar voice. Familiar and annoying: Detective Scott.

"Detective! The patient was just admitted!" she heard a woman - a nurse or a doctor - say.

"He helped save another victim, didn't he? He might've seen something that can help us with the investigation, Dr Lake."

Dr Lake? Jim's mother? "He was naked, probably kidnapped, and almost certainly under shock. If he hadn't been a doctor, I doubt that he would've been able to function."

"But he did. Doctor, two police officers were killed, and one is in critical condition, as you told me yourself. This man is one of our only leads. Unless we stop this woman, she'll attack more people."

Yeah, that sounded like the Detective who had been talking to her. And it seemed that he was ignoring the fact that he was totally outclassed and trying to arrest a monster that could tear through any cell he had available. The guy would've fit in well in Sunnydale. Or not - Buffy doubted that any cop who actually tried to arrest demons would survive for a week in her hometown.

"I want to examine him first, to ensure that your interrogation won't do any harm."

"I'm just asking a few questions."

"The man has been through a traumatic ordeal. Making him go through it again is not generally helpful for a speedy recovery."

Well, now Buffy knew where Jim got his stubbornness from. She grinned at the grumbling she heard from the cop.

Then she heard the door being opened. "Mr Wilkinson? I'm Detective Scott. I have a few questions for you."

"After I have determined whether or not you are fit to be interrogated," Dr Lake cut in.

"Interrogated?" Ben sounded nervous.

Then the door closed. Buffy clenched her teeth. She could barely make out the questions Dr Kale was asking about how Ben felt. Why would anyone make such thick cupboard doors? She shook her head and opened the door. The coast was clear.

A moment later, she was at the door to Ben's room, listening - knowing what exactly had happened to Ben would be very useful. Though it would probably take a while for Dr Lake to finish examining the guy. And Glory could arrive at any moment, tearing through the hospital...

Well, she couldn't do anything else right now. Not until Xander was fit to be transported.

"I woke up naked in that alley, next to a bleeding man. I immediately started to render first aid and treat his wounds - I'm a physician."

"How did you end up there?" The detective sounded a little sceptical, at least to Buffy.

"I don't know. The last thing I remember is walking home in Sunnydale." And Ben sounded a little… well, more than a little nervous.

"Sunnydale."

"Yes. I'm working as an intern there, at Sunnydale Memorial."

"There's been a massacre today at Sunnydale. Dozens of victims. Weren't you called to work for such an emergency?"

That was actually a good question.

"When was that? They might've called me when I was already unconscious," Ben replied.

"When did you walk home?"

"A little after six. My shift ended at six."

"Ah. And where were you kidnapped?"

"I remember entering the street leading to my home, and then… nothing."

"Nothing?"

"Nothing."

"That's not unusual for a traumatic experience," Dr Lake cut in. "People suppress such memories."

"I'll need a full report of his injuries," the detective told Jim's mom. "Including bloodwork."

"File a request." And she didn't like the detective, either.

"What about my privacy?" Ben asked.

"We're investigating a double murder, possibly connected to a gang war in Sunnydale," the detective told him. "We need every information about this we can get."

"What about a lawyer?"

"You aren't under arrest."

"That means I can leave?"

"The murderer is still out there. You are a witness."

"But... I need to return to Sunnydale. I need to at least call the clinic."

"I'll inform them," Dr Lake said. "And you're not going anywhere until we've finished examining you."

"You might be taken into protective custody, depending on the results of our investigation."

"But… I didn't see anything!"

"The murderer might not know that."

Buffy heard steps coming towards the door and quickly dashed across the hallway, back into the cupboard.

"What was that? That wasn't… What were you thinking, Detective Scott?" Dr Lake said in a low voice.

"I've got a monster loose in town. And he's the only witness I have available until the other survivors wake up. I know this wasn't exactly proper, but I need more information before more people are killed."

"He said he didn't see anything."

"He said so, yes."

"You don't believe him."

"He must have been unconscious for several hours if he was knocked out at around six and then woke up here half an hour ago. So, he must have been drugged."

"That's why you want the blood test."

"Yes."

"We're working on that."

"Work faster."

Buffy rolled her eyes, as she was sure the doctor did as well. The detective was… well, not as bad as Snyder. But certainly far grumpier than he should be.

And he didn't realise that he was in way over his head.

*****​

"...and now we're waiting until we can recover Xander from the hospital," James Lake Jr finished.

"Wow. This is… We're in deep trouble." Even through the phone, Jim could easily tell that Toby was concerned. "A hell-goddess?"

"Yes. But she can't go through a portal. So, we're going to evacuate everyone to the space between portals," Jim explained.

"Everyone? Nana too?"

Jim winced. Toby's grandmother didn't know about trolls. Like Jim's mom and Claire's parents didn't. "Everyone involved who knows about this," he replied. And tried not to feel too guilty - they couldn't tell their parents about this.

"But… what if the monsters try to take her hostage? Or your mom?" Toby asked.

"We have no reason to assume that your identities are known to Glorificus," Mr Giles cut in. "Though we also have no guarantee that this isn't the case. It might be advisable to inform your parents and guardians."

Jim gasped. "But…"

"It's obvious that Glorificus is aware of Buffy's identity. We need to move her mother from the hospital in Sunnydale to a private clinic in Los Angeles," Mr Giles went on. "If she weren't aware of the supernatural, this would be a lot harder - especially with us being away from Sunnydale."

"But we can't tell my parents! They'll… if they find out about Enrique…" Claire shook her head, sniffling.

Jim reached out and pulled her close, carefully hugging her.

"But if they don't know…" Toby trailed off. "And what about the others? Darcy? Eli? Mary? Steve?"

"We can't tell everyone," Jim said, clenching his jaws. That would expose the trolls to the government. And while he didn't know exactly what the Slayer had done for the government, what he knew made him doubt that the government knowing about trolls was a good thing.

"But if I go away, Nana will worry."

"If Glory doesn't know about us… She hasn't seen us. She only saw me in armour…"

"She saw me," Claire said. She was pressing her lips together, trembling slightly. "Without a disguise."

Damn.

"So Glorificus will be able to recognise you." Mr Giles sounded grim. "Which won't take overly long in this town, with only one school to attend, I gather."

Claire shook her head, and Jim saw that her lips were pressed together so much, they formed a thin, pale line. "And if they find you, they find us," he said. She wasn't alone in this!

But instead of being comforted, she looked as if he had struck her. Oh, no - he was such an idiot! "It's not your fault - you had to save the two cops. And Dawn and the others."

"Yes," Toby valiantly, if not quite successfully, chimed in over the phone.

"I should've worn a mask or something - I should've thought of this!" she retorted, almost wailing.

He took her into his arms again. "No. None of us thought of that."

"And if you had been wearing a mask, I presume that this would've caused more trouble with the local police," Mr Giles cut in. "Nevertheless, what's done is done. Recriminations won't help anyone except for Glorificus. We need to look ahead - and that means finding ways to keep your families safe."

"But my parents will want to keep me safe!" Claire protested.

"A very understandable and laudable stance, I have to point out," Mr Giles told her.

"No! They won't let me fight Glory! Or Gunmar!"

But would that be a bad thing? Jim didn't ask that aloud, of course. But to know Claire was safe… It was selfish of him, but it had a certain appeal.

"I would dare say that your parents will attempt to do so," Mr Giles said. "However, as Joyce found out, to her chagrin, I have to add, certain circumstances are beyond a parent's power to control."

"What do you mean?" Jim asked.

Mr Giles's smile looked rather sad. "Leaving aside the question of whether or not either of you would let your parent's wishes keep you from protecting people, there's the fact that Miss Nuñez is crucial for our struggle with Glorificus." He looked at Claire. "We need you to keep Dawn safe. Trying to keep you safe by keeping you from fighting at Mr Lake's side would endanger the whole world. And since said world includes you, any such attempt would defeat its purpose."

"Oh." That made sense, Jim found, But it might not make sense for parents. They were often unreasonable.

Claire slowly nodded, her expression turning more determined for a moment. "Yes. But they might not understand or even believe me!"

"I dare say that I and the others can help with that," Mr Giles said. "I have some experience explaining the facts of the supernatural to others."

"But…" Jim hesitated. "My mom's tied with that curse to Strickler. If I try to tell her - or take her to safety - then he'll…"

Mr Giles nodded. "I'm aware of that. We shall have to endeavour to find a solution for this particular problem."

Sometimes, Jim found, British understatement felt a little dismissive.

*****​

"Psst!" Buffy Summers whispered as she sneaked into Xander's room.

Her bestie, Willow, jerked, almost falling off the chair she was sitting on. She recovered quickly, though. "Buffy!"

Buffy nodded at her, then looked at Xander. "How is he?" It was a dumb question - Xander had bandages and another cast, this one around his foot. And he looked battered.

"He's sleeping off the anaesthetics," Willow said. "But he's going to be alright. Cracked ribs, broken ankle - he landed on the wrong foot, I guess."

It was a poor attempt to joke, but Buffy still chuckled. Once. "He'll be more annoyed that he's out of the fight than about the wounds, I bet." And about the pain. But that was normal for Xander.

Willow nodded. "But we can't move him until he wakes up - if there are complications and we don't have a doctor…" She hunched over and looked away.

Buffy gritted her teeth. That complicated things. If Glory showed up here… The hell-goddess was dumber than Harmony, but she had known to go to the police. Going to a hospital wouldn't be too much of a challenge for her, although she might need to be told about… She blinked. "Maybe that's why she kidnapped Ben the intern!"

"Huh?"

"Ben the intern. A doctor from Sunnydale. Was knocked out on his way home and dumped naked in an alley here. It must have been Glory!" Buffy explained. "That means she's aware of hospitals. And she has our names! We need to evacuate Mum and the others!" She quickly pulled out her phone - Dawn's, she reminded herself - and dialled Giles's number. "Giles! We need to evacuate Mom!"

"I've already taken steps to that effect," he replied.

"You have?" Doh, of course he would have - planning and being responsible was his thing! "Good. Now we just have to wait for Xander to wake up so we can evacuate him without risking his life."

"And we have to contact and convince the parents of Miss Nuñez, Mr Lake and Mr…"

"Domzalski," Buffy heard Jim add.

"...Mr Domzalski that, for their own safety, they have to enter another dimension for an indeterminable period of time," Giles said.

Buffy winced.

Willow, though, perked up. "Oh! That means we have a doctor with us who can monitor Xander!"

Buffy tilted her head at her bestie. "Willow! That's not the point! And convincing anyone that magic is real takes a long time!"

"It didn't take a long time for us!" Willow retorted.

"You were abducted by vampires and saw me slay them," Buffy pointed out. "That's not the same as listening to Giles drone on about the forces of darkness in your living room with a cup of tea."

A cough sounded from the phone's speaker. "I dare say we will have a slightly more lively demonstration, thanks to Miss Nuñez's portals and the availability of cooperative trolls."

"But that doesn't teach people the dangers!" Buffy protested. They wouldn't realise how dangerous demons and skanky hell-goddesses were by talking to Blinky - the troll sounded as dangerous as a walking teddy bear. Well, those could be dangerous, of course, if possessed, but still! And she wasn't quite sure if the other troll could speak more than a few words.

"Uh… Buffy?" Willow pointed at the tv screen in the room.

"What?" Buffy turned, "Oh." She saw a reporter in front of a familiar park - even at night, she could make out the trees perfectly well.

"...the site of a massacre of unprecedented scope! Dozens of people were literally slaughtered in an orgy of violence! The perpetrators are yet unknown - the Sunnydale Police Department has yet to release even a description of any suspects!"

"I think that should serve nicely to show how dangerous Glory is," Willow said in a small voice.

Buffy nodded. "Then let's go round them up. If we're lucky, Xander will be up and joking by the time we get the last of the parents." Or they'd have a doctor with them who could tell them how to safely move Xander by then.

*****​

"We can't just get Mom! She's working in the hospital!" James Lake Jr protested.

"We totally can take her. I think you mean we shouldn't," came the Slayer's reply. "But alright, let's start with Claire's parents. And Toby's gran."

"Nana," Jim said out of reflex.

"Her first, then."

That hadn't been what Jim had meant, but correcting the Slayer felt pointless. "She's old. We need to be very careful." And she hadn't noticed that AAARRRGGHH!!! was practically a houseguest in her home, which said a lot about her.

"Very well. Let's proceed - the longer we wait, the greater the risk that Glorificus might appear on the premises," Mr Giles said.

"Wait!" Claire spoke up. "You want to just… show up and take them with us? Through a portal?"

"That's the idea, yes!" the Slayer replied through the phone. "Just punt them into your pocket dimension and let us sort things out later!"

"I do believe a little more finesse and caution is called for in this instance," Mr Giles pointed out.

"Fine, it's your job - I'm just the bodyguard girl right now."

Jim sighed. He had a bad feeling about this - the Nuñez would likely want to kill him for endangering Claire - but he didn't see any other way out of this mess.

"So, let's go. But best refrain from using portals, in case that Glorificus might react to them. He has not, so far, but that is no guarantee," Mr Giles said. "And while a hell-god invading your home would be a quite suitable example for demonstrating the dangers awaiting your families, I would rather avoid such an incident."

Yeah, Jim reminded himself, he didn't like Mr Giles's brand of joking about the dangers any better than the Slayer's.

But they walked towards Toby's home anyway, at a brisk pace. Jim called ahead. "Tobes? We're coming. Is there anything we should consider when telling your nana about, well, trolls and demons and hell-goddesses?"

"Uh… what?"

*****​

"Alright," James Lake Jr said as they reached Toby's house. "Careful, and don't shock her."

"I shall try my best, but in my experience, most people do not react to the very foundations of their lives and beliefs being upended without being shocked."

"Just don't, you know…" Jim trailed off.

"Don't be rude or condescending," Claire said.

Mr Giles actually looked offended.

Jim rang the doorbell. Toby had been supposed to wake up his nana, so they wouldn't disturb her in her sleep, but it still took a minute until the door opened a gap, and Mrs Domzalski peered at them through her thick glasses. "Yes? You're Toby's friends, here for an emergency?"

"Yes, Nana," Toby said from behind her. "Please let them in."

"I know Jim and Claire, but not the man."

"I'm Rupert Giles, Mrs Domzalski. I'm a librarian."

"Oh. Toby-pie didn't forget to return a book, did he? Did you?"

"No, Nana, I didn't. But please, let them in - it's important."

"Alright, come in. I don't have any snacks available, though - it's a little late to make any."

Jim didn't know whether it was a good sign or not that she hadn't commented on his armour.

"Thank you, Mrs Domzalski." Mr Giles sat down on the couch. "Now, you might wonder what this emergency is about."

"Is it about Toby-Pie hurting himself?"

"In a manner of speaking, yes," Mr Giles replied. "Your grandson is involved in an important affair, which has caused some consequences for you."

"I don't understand."

"Well, this requires some background. The world is older than you know…"

*****​

"...and ever since that day, the Slayer has been fighting demons," Mr Giles finished. "I presume that you would like proof that magic is real."

But Mrs Domzalski didn't look at him - she turned towards Toby. "Toby-pie?"

"It's the truth, Nana!" Toby told her. "I've got a magic hammer!" He reached into his bag to pull out his war hammer, showing how it ignited.

"And you've been fighting demons with this Slayer?" Toby's grandmother seemed far too calm, in Jim's opinion, for such an earth-shattering revelation.

"No, I've been fighting with - well, fighting evil trolls with Jimbo here. He's the Trollhunter."

James Lake Jr cleared his throat. Mr Giles was a tough act to follow, as Claire would say, but Jim would do his best. "I was chosen by the Amulet of Daylight," he said, touching his armour. "It was made by Merlin, centuries ago. And my duty is to defend trolls and humans alike against the evil trolls under Gunmar." He quickly unsummoned and summoned his armour.

"Oh." Toby's nana shook her head. "I would have never... " She trailed off. "And you got hurt fighting trolls!"

Toby hunched over a little. "Not exactly, Nana. It was a… misunderstanding."

"A misunderstanding?" Jim drew back a little at Mrs Domzalski's expression. He had seen her frown before, when a batch of cookies didn't come out to her standards, or when she passed on some piece of gossip old people cared about, but her current frown...

"Uh…"

"They had incomplete information and posed as demons to fool the Slayer's friends in order to recover a troll relic," Mr Giles said before taking a sip from his cup. "In turn, your grandson was hurt by the Slayer's little sister."

Jim opened his mouth to protest - that made light of Toby's wounds; Jim's friend had almost died! - but reconsidered. The old woman looked angry already. At least it also wiped off the Slayer's grin at hearing this.

"I see. So, you travelled by magic from your room to… Sunnydale?"

"Uh… we took the bus there. Claire hadn't been there before, so she couldn't open a portal to the town," Toby told her. He looked down. "And we had some friends of us fool you into thinking we were in my room. Sorry."

"Friends of yours? That Pepperjack boy?"

"Eli? No," Toby said. "It was my wingman, AAARRRGGHH!!!"

"Argh?"

"He's a troll. But a very good one. AAARRRGGHH!!!?"

"Wingman?" AAARRRGGHH!!! slowly appeared on top of the stairs and peered down.

"Nana, this is AAARRRGGHH!!!, my wingman. AAARRRGGHH!!!, this is my nana."

For the first time since Mr Giles had started talking, Toby's nana gaped. "This… this… You're a troll?"

"Yes." AAARRRGGHH!!! slowly inclined his head.

"And you're Toby-Pie's friend?"

"Yes. Good friend."

Mrs Domzalski leaned back, taking a few deep breaths.

"Nana? Are you OK?"

"You fight trolls like him?"

"Not like AAARRRGGHH!!!," Toby protested. "He's a good troll!"

"But… trolls his size?" she stared as AAARRRGGHH!!! Carefully took the stairs down to the living room.

"Well… sometimes. Sometimes we fight goblins. Or changelings. Or flying monsters," Toby told her.

She shook her head again. "And I didn't know. You didn't tell me."

Toby flinched. So did Jim. "We didn't want you to worry," Toby said.

"This is common amongst teenagers suddenly thrust into such a situation and bearing such responsibilities," Mr Giles cut in. "It's often based on understandable, if - possibly - misplaced, fears about their family's reaction to such revelations." He leaned forward slightly. "Though you seem to be taking the revelation about the supernatural better than most, Mrs Domzalski."

She snorted in reply. "I've seen a thing or two in my life. Magic might as well fit. But to hear my dear Toby-Pie has been fighting trolls and demons..."

"We didn't fight demons!" Toby protested. "Well, technically, we did fight a vampire today, but… does that count?"

"It does, if it was Spike," Mr Giles told him in a dry tone. "However, we didn't just inform you about the supernatural world so your grandson wouldn't have to keep it secret from you any more, Mrs Domzalski," he went on. "There has been a concerning development. A hell-god banished to Earth is currently trying to break the seal that binds it to our dimension. If it succeeds, Earth would be rendered open to invasions from all hell dimensions. We oppose this and have taken great strides in preventing such an outcome, but in the process, our identities may have been compromised - which endangers our families." He sighed. "I'm afraid that we're asking you to temporarily leave your home for your and your grandson's safety."

"You want me to leave my home."

"Temporarily," Mr Giles repeated himself.

"Please, Nana! We can't stay - Glory is a monster! She massacred dozens of people in Sunnydale, and she attacked the police here!" Toby said. "The only place that's safe is Claire's portal dimension - Glory can't pass through a portal."

Jim looked at Claire, as did everyone else present. She had been uncharacteristically silent, he realised.

She nodded. "Yes, Mrs Domzalski. I can transport you to a safe place. We're planning to evacuate all our families there."

"Only until the threat has passed. We need more time to organise a response to Glorificus," Mr Giles explained.

"To save the world."

"Effectively, yes. We already keep the key that would open the seal safe from Glorificus."

"My Toby-Pie is saving the world." She was smiling now - though it looked a little sad. "Your parents would be so proud, Toby. I'm proud as well."

"Nana…" Toby smiled at her and swallowed, Jim saw. He was probably surprised - Jim certainly was. But it was a nice surprise. And Claire… wasn't smiling.

Jim frowned and leaned towards her. "Claire?" he whispered.

She was startled. "Oh! Sorry."

"What's wrong?" he asked while Toby and his nana hugged.

"I'm…" She pressed her lips together. "I'm trying to work out how to tell my parents. And how they'll react."

"Oh." Yes, Jim could see how that was… distracting. And concerning. "Don't worry - they'll probably blame me," he joked.

Judging by her expression, it wasn't a good joke. Or a joke at all.

"So… I don't want to be pushy, but time is of the essence. We have to evacuate two more families. If you would collect the necessities - we can return later to gather more of your belongings - and join us in Miss Nuñez's dimension?" Mr Giles asked.

Toby's nana frowned at him, but it wasn't the frown from before. "I'll get the shovel."

"The shovel?" Mr Giles asked.

"My father fought in the trenches. He said a shovel was the best tool and weapon you could have. We've always had a shovel in our home, wherever we lived." She smiled at them, showing her teeth.

It was a little concerning, in Jim's opinion.

The others seemed to share his views - Mr Giles mumbled something about a shovel speech.

*****​
 
Chapter 15: Revelations Part 3
Chapter 15: Revelations Part 3

Arcadia Oaks, January 14th, 2017

"Just walk through the portal, Nana! It's perfectly safe!" the fat Trollhunter - Toby - said.

Buffy Summers nodded encouragingly at the old woman. She wasn't quite sure that the portal was safe, but it was safer than staying in Arcadia Oaks with Glory on the loose.

Mrs Domzalski looked as if she doubted that but then straightened, took a deep breath and walked towards the portal. Where she bent over and peered through it. Or tried to - Buffy wasn't quite sure whether or not the woman saw much through her thick glasses.

"Hello?" Mrs Domzalski yelled through the portal.

"Come on through!" Dawn replied. "I can use the company."

"Oh? Who are you?"

"I'm Dawn. I'm the Slayer's little sister."

"You're the one who hurt my Toby-Pie?"

Buffy winced. They hadn't thought about that.

"You call him 'Toby-Pie'? And he lets you?" Dawn, unfortunately, wasn't thinking at all. As usual.

"Hey!" Toby protested. "It's a perfectly fine nickname."

"It's not. It sucks. It makes you sound like a demon-snack."

"A demon-snack?" And Mrs Domzalski entered the portal.

"Nana! Wait!" Toby followed quickly.

Buffy moved, but the huge troll with the weird name blocked her path as he passed through the portal - slowly. "Wingman."

"Hello? And you are?"

"Why did you hurt my Toby-Pie?"

"AAARRRGGHH!!!"

"What?"

"I asked why you hurt my Toby-Pie!"

"No, are you hurt? You, the troll, I mean."

"No."

"Why did you yell then?"

"Didn't yell."

"You said 'Argh'. I heard it clearly."

"AAARRRGGHH!!! My name."

"Oh. That's… not suspicious at all."

"The only one suspicious seems to be you, Miss!"

"What?"

"You attacked my Toby-Pie!"

"He attacked us, disguised as a demon! A cannibal demon!"

"What?"

"I can explain, Nana!"

Buffy stopped at the portal and turned around. "I think they're going to be fine. Let's go and collect your parents, Claire!"

"You better explain this! I didn't raise you to eat people, Toby-Pie!"

"Not in the bad way, at least."

Buffy gasped and whirled. "Dawn!"

"What?"

"You can't say that!" She was her little sister! Not some...

"I just did! And don't tell me that it's not important for being a good boyfriend!" Dawn retorted.

"That's not the point! You don't joke about this in front of someone's grandmother!" Buffy stuck her head through the portal to glare at her brat of a sister.

"Says the girl who slept with a guy old enough to be her great-great-great-great-grandfather!"

That was a low blow. Angel wasn't… She clenched her teeth, glaring at Dawn.

At least her sister had the grace to blush. "Sorry."

Buffy frowned. But this wasn't the time to go into that. "Behave! And apologise to Mrs Domzalski!"

"What? For what?"

"Hurting me?" Toby cut in.

"Yes," Mrs Domzalski added with a nod.

"You didn't apologise for scaring me to death!"

"I'm sorry about that."

"I bet you are - I got you good!"

"That wasn't what I meant!"

Buffy rolled her eyes. "Dawn, that was an apology. Now you apologise!"

"Alright, alright. I'm sorry."

She stared at her sister, but Dawn was pressing her lips together in that manner of hers that told Buffy that her sister was being stubborn about this. "Alright. Don't kill each other. We're going to fetch Claire's parents." At least they shouldn't be as much trouble as sorting out this mess might be. "Better close the portal. We don't want to attract Glory," she told the girl.

After a frown, Claire did so.

"So, let's go. Is your home far from here?" Buffy asked.

"What? No. Not really," Claire said. She seemed distracted, though.

Buffy looked at Jim, then at Claire. "Everything OK?"

"My parents are going to kill me," she replied. "Once they hear Enrique was kidnapped, and I didn't tell them... couldn't save him."

"We're going to save him, Claire," Jim said at once.

Buffy nodded. "Yes. Saving people, especially babies, is what we do. We once saved four babies from being eaten by a demon. And we did it with Giles and Mom on drugs!"

"Buffy! We were affected by cursed candy - we didn't take drugs!" Giles protested.

"But you acted like you were on drugs!"

"We acted like teenagers since the candy had that effect," Giles replied. "Although I guess you are correct in a way." Buffy cheered up. "Teenagers do act like they are on drugs on occasion, after all."

She blinked. That wasn't… "Hey!"

But Giles turned away and nodded at Claire. "I think we should go visit your parents now."

"They're going to kill me," the girl repeated herself. Though she did get moving.

"They'll understand," Jim said.

"They won't! You don't know them as I do - they thought you were a bad boy!"

"Well, they did get a bad impression of me, which wasn't their fault - that was Not-Enrique's fault," Jim said.

Buffy frowned. "Maybe you should tell us a little more about your parents on the way. Just so we don't walk into this blindly, hm?" she suggested.

*****​

"...and she's a workaholic. She probably wouldn't remember my birthday if it weren't noted in her agenda. And she's always pushing me to do better in school!"

James Lake Jr winced a little at that description. "But you're top of the class!"

"I know - but she says I could do better." Claire sighed. "And she still resents you for the babysitting mess."

"Babysitting mess?" the Slayer asked.

"I, ah, had to babysit Claire's little brother - who had already been replaced by a changeling. It… didn't go well," Jim explained.

"They wrecked the house," Claire added. "And I got an earful about my friends. And Dad, who's usually easy-going, got all weird about you as well."

Jim nodded - Claire's dad really didn't like him.

"Is he angry about the house or about you two dating?" the Slayer asked.

"Uh…" Jim felt himself blushing. "We… we aren't exactly officially dating. I mean… our friends know, but…"

"We haven't told our parents," Claire said. "Dad will freak out about that, too."

"I do believe your father will have much more serious things to worry about than your love life," Mr Giles commented.

"You don't know him," Claire said, looking down.

"I do confess that my experience with American fathers is somewhat limited, though wouldn't he worry more about you fighting trolls that can wreck a car with one blow - and a hell-god who, so far, has proven to be nigh-invulnerable?"

"He can worry about both." Claire sighed.

Jim reached out to grab her hand. "They'll understand. I worry more about Mom. She's still bound to Strickler with that curse."

"In this case, we might have to delay informing her until this situation has been resolved," Mr Giles said. "Otherwise, we might lead this changeling and his allies straight to us."

"Wouldn't they oppose Glory as well? They live in this world, don't they?" the Slayer asked.

"Well, Gunmar lives in the Darklands, which is kinda another dimension," Jim explained. "But he wants to conquer Earth."

The Slayer snorted. "He needs to take a number, then - he's not exactly the first."

"And yet," Mr Giles cut in, "he might be amongst the most dangerous. The fact that, for centuries, he has had people infiltrating our society marks him as significantly more powerful on Earth than the vast majority of demons. The late Mayor's a good example of the threat such influence represents."

"Yes," Jim agreed. "Strickler alone… he's the principal of the school. He can make so much trouble for us, and the parents trust him. The whole time we're at school, we have to be on our guard."

"Well, that was the same for us in Sunnydale. Our principal was working for the big bad evil Mayor, and we had demon attacks or murders regularly," the Slayer said.

Jim suppressed his slight annoyance at the Slayer trying to upstage their problems with her own. This wasn't a competition. "And how did you deal with it?"

"We, ah, didn't really. He was eaten by the demon that the Mayor turned into, at the end." The Slayer shrugged. "But we'll do better with your evil principal. Promise!"

"First, we'll have to survive my parents," Claire said.

"I'm confident that we will survive them," Mr Giles said. "After all, we do have proof of our claims with us." He nodded at Claire's staff, then at Jim's armour. "And there is a changeling in your home as well."

"And I can lift your couch or car," the Slayer offered. "Though if portals and magic armour and changelings don't convince them, I'm not sure if that will work. But twisting a fireplace poker into a pretzel is always good for a laugh."

Jim silently raised his estimate of her strength.

Then they turned into the street leading to Claire's home and fell silent. Well, mostly silent - the Slayer was typing on her borrowed phone.

"Willow says there were no more sightings of Glory. Or suspicious alerts," she told them.

"This is… both a relief and concerning. While it is undoubtedly a good thing that the hell-god hasn't found more victims, I do worry what Glorificus is up to at this moment."

"Perhaps she's taking a nap to regrow her cheap perm?" the Slayer suggested with a weak smile. No one laughed, and she pouted.

And they had reached Claire's home. The lights were on - so her parents were up. Jim released her hand, and she took a deep breath, then stepped up and rang the doorbell.

Jim stepped back and stored his armour - he'd almost forgotten! Daylight disappeared into the amulet a moment before the door was opened, and Mr Nuñez stepped into the doorframe. "Who… Claire! What are you doing here? You should be in bed! And who are… You!" He glared at Jim.

Jim forced himself to smile and wave back. "Hi, Mr Nuñez. We've got something important to discuss."

"Something important…? No!" The way the man's eyes widened wasn't a good sign. Jim could tell at once. "What did you do to my daughter?" Claire's father bellowed.

Jim froze for a second. What could he say? That it was all his fault? If he hadn't picked up the amulet, none of this would've happened.

Before he could decide, Claire stepped between him and her father. "Nothing! Jim did nothing to me, Papa!"

"What?" He looked at her. "But…"

"It was my decision! My responsibility!" Claire raised her chin

"Claire!"

"And I would do it again!"

"Claire! How… how could you!"

"I couldn't stand by and let Jim do it alone!"

"What?" Mr Nuñez stared at Claire with a dumbfounded expression.

Jim once more had the feeling that he was missing something. It was a pretty familiar feeling by now.

"Javier? What… Claire! Why aren't you in bed?" And there came Claire's Mom. Who also glared at Jim. "You. What did you do?"

"Jim didn't do anything!"

Mr Giles cleared his throat. "May I suggest that we continue this discussion inside? We have a few grave matters to discuss, and I don't think that we should do this in the driveway of your house."

"And who're you?" Claire's dad asked.

"Rupert Giles," Mr Giles replied. "I'm a librarian."

"And I'm Buffy Summers!" the Slayer piped up with a wide smile. If Jim hadn't known what she was, what she could do, he would've been fooled into thinking she was a preppy cheerleader. "I'm studying psychology and working on becoming a student counsellor!"

"Oh." Claire's dad looked confused, but her mom nodded.

"Please, come in." Well, as a Council member, she would know how to be gracious in any situation.

Both Mr Giles and the Slayer winced, which confused Jim. Why would…? Oh. The invitation. And vampires. Right. Something else Jim had to tell Mom.

They all entered the Nuñez' living room. Mr Giles and the Slayer sat down on the couch as if this was a normal social gathering. Well, maybe it was routine for them.

Jim took a deep breath, then sat down next to Mr Giles, folding his hands in his lap. He looked at the floor for a moment, then felt a hand on his shoulder - Claire stood next to him, smiling at him.

His own smile at the show of support vanished at once when he saw Mr Nuñez's expression. Uh.

Claire's dad had sat down in the armchair, but Mrs Nuñez was standing, facing them. "So, what is this about? Why aren't you asleep in your bed, Claire?"

"Mama, I…" Claire started to explain, but her mother cut her off.

"Didn't you think about the danger? We had an attack on the police station! I was just told there were several deaths! And you, you… sneak out of the house, lie to us, and for what?" She glared at Jim. "So you could spend time with him? I told you not to do that!"

"Mama!" Claire took a step forward. "This isn't about Jim!" She narrowed her eyes. "And I'm spending time with whoever I want!"

"Claire!"

Mr Giles cleared his throat again. "As I mentioned before, we have an important matter to discuss. And while it is related to the current subject, I believe focusing on Miss Nuñez's nocturnal activities isn't the best course of action at the moment."

'Nocturnal activities'? Jim stared at the man. He made it sound as if… Oh, no! That was what the Nuñez thought was going on! "We didn't!" he blurted out. "I mean, we didn't do what you think we did!"

"What?"

The Slayer groaned. "Way to go, Giles. You made them think they were doing the nasty. Not that there's anything wrong about doing it as long as you use protection and your partner doesn't turn into a psychotic mass murderer, and…" She trailed off. "Just ignore the last part!"

For a moment, everyone stared at her instead of at Jim. He almost smiled at that. And Mr Giles looked mortified.

"What is going on?" Mrs Nuñez snapped. "I want an explanation. Now!"

Mr Giles coughed. "Your daughter and her friend Mr Lake have been fighting dangerous monsters to protect the inhabitants of this town - and the troll community below." He smiled. "And, according to all appearances, they have been doing quite well."

"Tobes helped as well," Jim added.

"However," Mr Giles went on, "your town caught the attention of a hell-god banished to Earth, which presents a danger to you."

"What?" Claire's dad stared at them. "What are you saying? This is…"

"This is nonsense!" Mrs Nuñez said. "Monsters? Trolls? Gods? What's next, vampires?"

"We were getting to that part," the Slayer cut in, "Giles is a little slow."

"Mama! It's true!" Claire spoke up. "Jim's the Trollhunter - he protects the town and Trollmarket!"

"Claire…" Her mother shook her head. "This is nonsense. You can't honestly…"

"I can prove it!" Claire flicked her staff open and opened a portal in the middle of the living room. "AAARRRGGHH!!! Can you come over for a moment?"

*****​

The troll appeared in the portal. "Come over?"

"Yes, please. My parents are being stubborn," Claire replied.

Buffy Summers glanced at Mrs and Mr Nuñez. They didn't look like they were stubborn any more. Shocked seemed more precise, as Giles would say.

"What… this has to be a trick…" Mrs Nuñez stammered.

"How did you do that?" the father asked.

"Magic," Claire replied, looking very smug.

Then the troll slowly stepped into the living room. Buffy heard the floorboards creak even over the gasps from the Nuñez. "Hello."

"Hi, AAARRRGGHH!!!," Jim replied.

"Mama, Papa - this is AAARRRGGHH!!!, a good friend. AAARRRGGHH!!!, my mother and my father." Yes, definitely smug. Buffy knew the feeling.

"B-but…" The mother was shaking her head.

"Hello?" The father, at least, managed a small, weak smile. Not too bad, in Buffy's opinion, for having their worldview shattered.

"As you can see," Claire went on, "we are telling the truth. Magic is real. Trolls are real. And hell-goddesses trying to end the world are real - and in Arcadia Oaks."

"This is a prank, isn't it? I've seen the videos of such pranks. With dinosaurs!" Mrs Nuñez started to look around. "A costume. You're recording this!" She rounded on Jim. "Is this your idea? Was wrecking our house also a prank?"

"No prank," the big troll said. "No costume."

"Magic is real," Claire replied with narrowed eyes. "And this wasn't Jim's doing - I did this!"

"This can't be real!" Mrs Nuñez took a step toward the troll, then stopped.

"Well, you're worse than my mom," Buffy told her. "She was bitten by a vampire and didn't want to admit the truth." And managed to suppress the experience for far too long, but that was neither here nor there.

Claire's father joined his wife, then took a step closer and reached out to touch the troll's arm. "It's… it feels real. I can feel it moving."

"It can't be real!"

"Oh, Mama!" Claire gritted her teeth. With a flick of her staff, she closed the portal, then opened a new one. Buffy saw - and smelt - a forest behind it. "Is this a trick as well? Go on! Step through the portal!"

Once more, her father was the one to actually do it and went through the portal. "It's… real," he repeated himself. "Ophelia, come!"

Mrs Nuñez kept shaking her head as she, finally, stepped through the portal. "But… this is impossible. We can't… I know this place!"

"It's our favourite picnic spot, Mama," Claire said - in a softer tone. "It's real," she all but whispered. "I'm sorry."

"Sorry?" her father asked.

Buffy bit her lip. "How about we have the confessions in the living room? There could be monsters in the forest." The full moon had been two days ago, so there couldn't be any werewolves or werecats or were-whatevers, but she didn't trust the forest at night. Slasher movies were a warning, not entertainment.

"Yes," Giles, as expected, agreed. "I do think it would be best to continue our discussion inside."

"But…" Mrs Nuñez shook her head before she blinked. "You said we are in danger?"

"Yes, Mama," Claire repeated. "Please come back home."

Mrs and Mr Nuñez did, though Buffy noticed that Claire's mother gave the troll - was his name really 'Arg'? - a wide berth.

"There's more?" Mrs Nuñez asked. She was still looking shocked, but she seemed to be recovering.

"Yes." Claire nodded.

"There's a hell-goddess on the loose in Arcadia Oaks. She killed two cops already - and she killed dozens of people in Sunnydale. You might have seen the news. And she is mad that Claire stole her key from her," Buffy explained before Giles could go on at lengths about history.

"Claire?"

"What?" Claire glared at Buffy as if this wasn't the truth, then shook her head. "It wasn't like that, Mama! If Glory gets the key, she'll end the world to get home to hell. I couldn't let her get it."

"And Claire was the only one who could do it," Jim said. "Buffy and I tried our best, but we couldn't scratch Glory. We couldn't stop her from killing people." He looked down again, hunching his shoulders, and Buffy saw that he was pressing his lips together until they formed a thin line.

Claire was at his side so fast, Buffy almost thought she might have used a portal. "It wasn't your fault! And you did scratch her - twice!"

"That's more impressive than you might think," Buffy added with a smile at the parents. "No one else managed that - and dozens of people tried with swords, maces and spears!"

Somehow, her earnest comment didn't seem to help.

"You fight demons and… trolls?" Mr Nuñez asked.

"Evil trolls," Claire corrected him. "And we do. Jim's the Trollhunter, magically chosen by the Amulet of Daylight. Which was crafted by Merlin himself!"

Judging by the looks Mr and Mrs Nuñez gave Jim, they didn't really believe that.

Jim, though, chuckled. "Well, we are the Trollhunters, but I guess I did start it." He stood and raised his hand. "For the glory of Merlin, Daylight is mine to command!"

*****​

The feeling of the armour encasing him was great. James Lake Jr felt powerful. Confident. Competent.

For a moment. Then he remembered where he was - and what they were about to do - and had to refrain from sighing and hunching over. Claire's parents were staring at him, open-mouthed in her father's case.

"This is the Armour of Daylight," Jim explained. Forged by Merlin himself for the Trollhunter - the person fighting to protect both trolls and humans from the attacks by Gunmar and other evil trolls." And mind-controlled good trolls. But mentioning that wouldn't help right now. He forced himself to smile. "And, ah, a Trollhunter also helps the community with other problems, such as gnome infestations or parcels."

"It's a very respected position in Trollmarket," Claire added, stepping closer to Jim in an obvious show of support. "We've done both."

"But... " Her father looked at her, then at Jim. "Do you have such armour as well?"

"No. I've got this!" Claire raised her staff. "It allows me to create portals, which you have already seen."

"And were you… chosen by the staff?" Mr Nuñez asked.

Jim saw Claire hesitate for a moment before she raised her chin. "No. I chose to help Jim, and I took the staff from Angor Rot, the most feared troll assassin, when we fought."

Both her parents gasped. Her mother held a hand before her mouth. "You fought an assassin?" She glanced at AAARRRGGHH!!!. "Like… him?"

"AAARRRGGHH!!! isn't an assassin!" Jim protested.

"No," Claire said, narrowing her eyes. "Angor Rot is more dangerous than AAARRRGGHH!!!. Far more dangerous."

AAARRRGGHH!!! nodded his massive head in apparent agreement.

"But... " Claire's father shook his head. "Why?"

"Because Gunmar and Angor Rot threaten everyone, troll and humans alike," Claire replied. "And I won't let Jim risk his life alone!"

Jim suppressed a wince. Claire was honest, and it felt very good to hear her declaration of support, but… it wasn't something her parents, any parents, would want to hear. He could already see her father frowning deeply, and her mother…

"This is… I won't allow it!" Mrs Nuñez snapped. "You can't risk your life like that!"

"Too late!" Claire spat. "I've already risked my life several times! Even without the staff!"

"Yeah, my friends did the same," Buffy cut in. "Fought at my side for years despite not having been Chosen like I was. Drove Giles crazy at the start, but there was nothing he could do." She grinned.

"But… It's too dangerous!" Claire's mom blurted out. "I won't allow it!"

"Mama! You can't stop me!" Claire retorted. "And I have to do this! If I don't fight, I wouldn't be safe anyway!"

"This is your fault!" Mrs Nuñez rounded on Jim.

And she was right. If Jim hadn't picked up the amulet, he wouldn't have been chosen and wouldn't have dragged Claire into this. "I'm sorry," Jim said.

"No!" Claire all but yelled. "It's not your fault! I chose this! It was my decision!" She glared at her mother. "And I won't stop! I won't leave Jim alone!"

"Claire!"

"No!"

Giles cleared his throat. "Mrs Nuñez. Your daughter chose to fight evil. I understand your feelings about the risks she takes - I feel the same about my young charges - but I'm afraid there's nothing you can do to keep her from doing this."

"I can forbid this! She's my child!"

The man inclined his head. "And yet, the legalities don't matter as much as the facts. Your daughter will not sway from her chosen course, and I dare say that you would need to imprison her to stop her from fighting." Mrs Nuñez opened her mouth, but Mr Giles went on: "And in that case, you might as well just kill her yourself. Miss Nuñez has made powerful enemies who will take advantage of such a situation."

Jim nodded. "Yes. Gunmar… He's evil. Really evil. He and his followers want to rule the earth and eat humans. If he wins, no one will be safe. I had to kill his son, and he won't forget that."

"And I took this staff from Angor Rot," Claire added. "He won't give up on his revenge just because I stop fighting. Which I won't because if I do, all of us will die because of Glory!"

"Your daughter's talents are essential for preventing Glorificus from reaching the key he needs to tear down the barriers that separate Earth from hell," Mr Giles said. "While I empathise with your plight, the safety of the entire human race takes precedence."

"And we need to save Enrique!" Claire said, then gasped at her own words.

"Enrique?" Mrs Nuñez looked at the stairs leading up to Enrique's room. "But… What do you mean?" She was paling.

Claire bit her lower lip before she answered in a low voice, looking at the floor. "He was taken by the trolls, Mama. And replaced by a changeling. I'm sorry."

Jim held his breath. To blurt it out like this…​

Claire's parents remained silent for a moment. Then her mother spoke up: "What? What are you saying?"

Claire sniffled. "Enrique was kidnapped by the evil trolls and replaced by a changeling. He's safe - the children taken are kept safe because the changelings can only take their forms as long as they're alive - but…" She shook her head, tears running down her face. "But he's in the Darklands."

Her mother gasped, staring at her.

"The Darklands?" Her father asked. He was paling, Jim noticed.

"Gunmar's realm - the dimension he was banished to by Merlin," Claire explained. "We're working on rescuing him, but…" She sobbed once. "I'm so sorry, but we haven't managed to find a way to save him yet."

"But we'll find a way!" the Slayer cut in. "Saving babies from monsters is what we do. When we're not saving the world. Or saving drunk clubbers from being eaten by vampires - and not in the fun way."

"Buffy!" Mr Giles snapped.

"What? I just don't want another misunderstanding!" the Slayer protested. "You know what they thought Claire and Jim were doing - not that there's anything wrong with that if they were doing it. But I really don't want them to think that vampires are nice monsters."

Jim stared at her. This was… He shook his head. Talk about not reading the room.

"Enrique… you say… my Enrique has been taken, and… replaced?" Claire's mom finally spoke. She slowly turned her head to look at the stairs. "That someone… that something else is in his room? That I've…"

"I'm so sorry, Mama! But… there wasn't anything we could do."

"We've got a monster in our home?" Mr Nuñez slowly stood.

"Hey, hey! Careful with the name-calling!"

Jim turned. Not-Enrique stood at the top of the stairs, still in Enrique's form.

"It's not as if I volunteered for this, you know? When Gunmar tells you to do something, you either do it - or you end up dead. Or worse," the changeling said. "But I'm not working for him any more. I changed sides!"

Both Mr and Mrs Nuñez were staring at Not-Enrique. Mrs Nuñez gasped, then sobed.

And Mr Nuñez jumped up and charged up the stairs, yelling curses in Spanish.

"Hey!" Not-Enrique protested, jumping out of the way of the man and sliding down the railing of the stairs. "Calm down! Your son's OK!"

Mr Nuñez whirled, baring his clenched teeth, and gave chase.

"Sis! Help!" The changeling jumped behind Claire. "He's gone mad!"

But Claire wasn't moving. Wasn't doing anything - she was just standing there, crying and shaking her head. Jim took a deep breath and stepped between her and her father. "Mr Nuñez! I understand what you're feeling - I fought Not-Enrique myself - but you can't kill him!"

"You're telling him!" the changeling agreed, clinging to Claire's legs.

"The hell I can't!" Mr Nuñez spat.

"He needs to be alive for Enrique!" Jim blurted out.

That made the man freeze for a moment. "What?"

"As long as Not-Enrique is alive, Gunmar's goblins will care for Enrique," Jim explained.

"Yes," AAARRRGGHH!!! confirmed. "Magic makes it so."

"But…"

"And Enrique won't age and won't even know what's happening - he's in a magical sleep." Jim smiled. "So… He'll be fine until we save him. And we will save him. My word on it."

"Enrique's gone… replaced… And Claire's fighting monsters…" Mrs Nuñez shook her head wildly. "This is… This can't be true."

Claire took a shuddering, sobbing breath. "I'm sorry, Mama! I'm so sorry."

"I'm sorry too!" Not-Enrique said. "Don't kill me!"

"Show them your true form," Jim told him.

"What?"

"Do it!" Jim spat.

"Alright, alright." The changeling sighed - and changed.

And Claire's parents gasped again.

"So… everyone cool now?" the changeling asked. "We're all in this together, you know?"

Jim glared at him and mouthed: 'shut up!'. Fortunately, Not-Enrique finally did. Jim turned back towards Claire's parents. "I'm very sorry about this - this is what the Trollhunters fight against. If I had been better at this…"

"It's not your fault, Jim!" Claire protested.

"It feels like it," he retorted. And Jim knew that if he had been a better Trollhunter, Enrique wouldn't have been taken.

"Whose fault is it, then?" Mr Nuñez asked, holding his wife.

"Gunmar's," Claire said. "He's behind all of this."

"Well, behind all of the Trollhunter stuff. He's not behind Glory," the Slayer added. "And Glory is why we're here. And why you need to move to Claire's shadow dimension thingie for a while. Evacuate and stuff." Jim narrowed his eyes at her - and he wasn't the only one. She frowned. "Hey! I'm just reminding you all why we're here. Not that we forget about the threat to the entire world or something!"

"I can't go! This is my city!" Mrs Nuñez protested. "I'm on the Council. I was already contacted about the attack on the police station."

Jim winced. This was a really bad moment to find out where Claire got her stubbornness from.

"But Mama! Glory is coming for you! I'm all that stands between her and the key - she'll try to take you hostage!" Claire told her.

"Your daughter's correct," Mr Giles chimed in. "Your ideals and willingness to brave lethal danger to do your elected duty do you credit, but, please, think of your family! If you are taken hostage, Claire will be forced to choose between you and the world. And you don't want her to be forced into making such a choice, trust me." He nodded at Mrs Nuñez.

"But… I can't just sit back - hide! - while others are in danger. While Claire is risking her life!" Mrs Nuñez blurted out. And Claire's dad nodded. Damn.

"You wouldn't be hiding - well, not just hiding. You would be helping. You're not the only one we're evacuating, and being stuck in another dimension? Not fun!" the Slayer said. "Trust me, been there, done that. So, you could help the others. Organise. Keep up morale. You know, stuff." She beamed at Mrs Nuñez.

Claire's parents didn't look convinced, in Jim's opinion.

*****​

Claire's parents weren't demanding that Claire had to stop fighting or tried to have her institutionalised. That was already a qualified success, in Buffy Summers's opinion. Better than her own parents' reaction at the revelation that she was the Slayer. Granted, she hadn't had any real proof - well, other than her strength, which her parents had ignored or dismissed as 'hysterical strength' or something - so the comparison wasn't completely fair. Still, better than she had hoped.

"So," she said, giving them her best smile, "how about we move the discussion into the portal space? Before, you know, an angry skanky hell-goddess breaks down the door and starts wrecking the place?" And wrecking them, of course.

"I would advise you to do so as well," Giles added. "It isn't safe here. And we need to evacuate more people."

"More people? How many?"

"Xander, for one," Buffy said. "He was wounded protecting Dawn." For a certain definition of protecting, anyway - Glory had flicked him out of the way like Buffy flicked fledglings out of her way. Well, she staked them, but the meaning was clear. At least to her, and she was the only one who could hear her thoughts… This metaphor had run away from her at some point, she realised.

"But…" Mrs Nuñez was still looking stubborn. And shocked, too.

"Papa! Please," Claire asked with tears in her eyes.

"We can create a cover story," Giles added. "We must, actually, so people do not look for you or ask questions."

"Lying to my constituents?" Mrs Nuñez made a surprised noise. "One thing I swore never to do when I ran for the first time."

"It wouldn't exactly be lying. Your baby suffers from a medical condition that requires specialist care," Giles retorted. "Or a similar story."

"Hey!" The creepy not-baby complained.

Buffy shot it a glare, and it shut up. Which was good. Grabbing and shaking a baby was bad. She knew it wasn't a baby but a monstrous troll, but it looked like one. Slaying it would be worse than dealing with Hansel and Gretel. At least that demon had tried to get Buffy burned at the stake, which made slaying it much easier.

Not that she could slay the thing, anyway. That would doom the real baby. Enrique. On the other hand, roughing up the changeling thingie shouldn't do anything to Claire's brother. At least as far as Buffy understood things.

Which, to be fair, might not be entirely correct, so she better had to check before she started on some aggressive persuasion. And… wait! She bent down to narrow her eyes at the thing. "Are you, like, a troll baby? Or just a small adult troll-thing that looks like a baby?"

"He's a troll, not a thing. A changeling," Jim cut in.

"Yes!" the thing confirmed. "Although most trolls don't think we're real trolls, but half-breeds." It looked down. "If we couldn't change our form, we probably would've been wiped out long ago."

Well, that sounded sad. For a moment, Buffy felt bad for thinking bad of the thing. Then she remembered that the actual baby was kept captive in magical sleep in the demon lands, tended to by goblins. No, there was no reason to feel bad at all!

And the Nuñez didn't look like they cared, either. But Claire and Jim looked like they cared - or had been fooled by the thing. Which was probably the same.

"I don't know…" Mrs Nuñez was still shaking her head. Buffy almost wished Glory would break down the front door. Nothing motivated people to get moving like imminent death by demon. Perhaps they could use that plan for Jim's Mom - Xander would probably call it 'Plan Arnold'.

"Ophelia…" Mr Nuñez hugged her closer. "We have to think of our children."

Buffy bit on her lower lip to avoid making a quip. 'Think of the children'? Really? But no one else seems to have caught that. Jim was hugging Claire - she didn't seem to mind that he was still in armour - and Giles was nodding.

Sheesh. But as long as it got the Nuñez finally moving into the portal…

"We'll need clothes. And toiletries. And… do you have a bathroom in there?" Mrs Nuñez asked. "Beds? A kitchen?"

Uh. Buffy smiled at her. "We're going to raid a camping supplies store. We just wanted to wait until you could tell us if you have a preference."

"A camping supplies store?" Mrs Nuñez asked.

"'Raid'?" her husband added.

"What Buffy means is that we'll acquire the supplies once you're safe for the moment," Giles spoke up. "If Claire's portals can handle the size, we would best rent a few caravans."

Buffy pouted at the way he looked at her when he said 'rent'. As if she would actually rob a place! Besides, borrowing supplies to save the world was, like, the ultimate justification. If she didn't manage to save the world, everything would get destroyed anyway.

And even Giles would have to agree that they really needed the supplies this time - he couldn't call them 'unnecessary luxuries' like he had called those Manolos on sale a month ago!

"Alright." Claire's mom nodded. "Let's pack:"

Buffy grinned. Two down, one to go! Well, two counting Xander. Three if you counted Mom, Anya and the rest in Sunnydale.

But it was progress.

*****​
 
Chapter 16: Revelations Part 4
Chapter 16: Revelations Part 4

Shadow Dimension, January 14th, 2017

"And this is Dawn Summers," James Lake Jr said, gesturing at Dawn.

"My little sister," the Slayer added.

"And the vessel for the key the mass-murdering hell-goddess is after," Dawn said. "So, don't stay too close if a bottle-blonde bimbo arrives. Well, one that's taller than five feet."

The Slayer nodded, then blinked and glared at Dawn. "Hey!" she blurted out, cutting off whatever greeting Mr and Mrs Nuñez had been about to say.

"What? We don't want them to mistake you for Glory!"

"I'm not five foot!"

"I was being generous!" Dawn waved her hand at her sister.

"I'm five foot four inches!"

"Only if you're wearing heels."

"With heels, I'm even taller!"

"Five foot four inches isn't tall at all."

Jim cleared his throat. "So, yes, that's Dawn. You know Toby already. This is his grandmother, Mrs Domzalski."

"Ah, hi!" Tobes waved.

"Hello!" And his grandmother beamed at the Nuñez. Or in their direction - Jim wasn't sure how well she could see in the demi-darkness of the portal dimension.

"Hello," Mrs Nuñez said. "You know about…" She trailed off. "Of course you know, silly of me."

"Oh, yes, I've been told today. It's so exciting!" Toby's nana replied. "Though it'll be rough for the first day."

"We've got camping supplies!" Toby added with a smile.

Jim took a glance at Mr and Mrs Nuñez and could tell that they weren't fond of camping. Or camping in a weird magical dimension. He cleared his throat. "We'll organise some better, ah, digs. A caravan or two. Legally."

"On a Sunday?" Dawn frowned. "With the portals, we can get a caravan easy-peasy. And it's kind of an emergency. Wouldn't saving the world entitle us to, uh, requisition what we need?"

"Not if you claim that you need a new TV and computer," the Slayer retorted.

"You claim to need new shoes!"

"I do! Slaying is hard on shoes."

"Hard on stupidly expensive shoes, maybe. Which wouldn't be damaged if you hadn't worn them for slaying!" Dawn sniffed.

"I can't just count on always having my slay-shoes with me when I have to slay!" The Slayer looked as if she was about to stomp her foot, Jim thought.

"Well, dress more practical and less fashionable? It's not as if you're dating anyway!" Dawn shook her head. "It's just your vanity talking here."

"And your greed!"

Jim sighed and shook his head. The Slayer and her sister were really something. He didn't know what they were, or how to say it politely, but they were something. Although… He looked around. Where was Claire? He would've expected her to comment on the girls' antics.

Claire was standing at the edge of the 'island' floating in this weird space, looking at… the rest of the dimension. He pressed his lips together for a moment, then walked over to her. "Claire?"

She jerked, then turned to face him. "Jim? Do we need to go?"

"What? No, no." He shook his head. "I was just wondering… How are you doing?"

"I'm OK," she said. She didn't look OK, though.

Jim didn't say so, of course. He didn't have to.

After a moment, Claire clenched her teeth. "I've told them about Enrique. They know it's my fault."

"It's not your fault! There was nothing you could've done," he protested. "If anything, it was my fault. If I had done a better job as the Trollhunter…"

"It wasn't your fault!" Claire protested.

"But…"

"No!" She glared at him.

Jim opened his mouth, closed it when she narrowed her eyes even further, then suddenly snorted. "Didn't we go over this already?"

She frowned a moment longer, then nodded with a weak smile. "I guess we did."

"Well, we can decide who was at fault when we aren't trying to save the world or Enrique," Jim said. "The Slayer promised to help us, after all."

"She better keep that promise." And Claire's scowl was back.

"I will!" the Slayer yelled from the other side of the island.

"I really don't like her hearing," Claire muttered.

"Tough!" came the unwanted comment from the Slayer.

Jim looked over his shoulder at her and frowned before turning back to Claire. "Anyway. Don't blame yourself, OK?"

"OK."

She would keep blaming herself. Jim knew it. But he hoped she would blame herself a little less. He changed the subject. "So, now, let's see how we can turn this into a decent camping spot?"

"After we fetch Xander and Willow," Claire said. "They're more exposed, being at the hospital."

"Right. Afterwards." Jim nodded.

"We have to make a list, anyway, so we don't forget anything," Claire added as she put her staff on her shoulder to walk back to the rest of the group.

*****​

"So, how about your mom?" Buffy Summers asked when Jim and Claire rejoined them.

The boy winced. "She's still magically tied to Strickler, the evil changeling. If we take her, he might notice."

"And who knows what he might do then?" Claire added. "If he thinks we're trying to remove his hostage…"

Jim nodded with a grimace.

"Well, that's the plan," Buffy pointed out. "We get your mom to safety, then work on removing that curse. Willow's good at that, and we can get Tara as well. And Giles can probably help as well."

"I will endeavour to be helpful with my meagre skills," Giles agreed.

"Well, you do know… Wait!" Buffy pouted. "You were sarcastic about your 'meagre skills', weren't you?

"I don't want to toot my own horn, but I do believe that I have the most experience with magic in our group." Giles polished his glasses. And not in the nervous way.

Yep, he had been sarcastic. Buffy frowned. "Well, Anya has been a vengeance demon for a thousand years or so, so she has more experience with curses, I think." Mostly the casting, not the breaking of them, but it counted. Probably.

"Her help might be useful, given her experience with Olaf," Giles said.

"'Vengeance demon'?" Mr Nuñez asked.

"Anya was a vengeance demon for a while," Dawn said. "She's now back to being a human. No sweat."

"'A while'?"

"About a thousand years or so, but that's not really important right now," Buffy cut in. She ignored the gaping faces of the parents. "Anyway, we need to get all the parents and guardians and other family members here. We need to get enough tents and stuff to make it comfortable. And we need a curse broken and a baby rescued." She blinked. "Though most of all, we need to keep Glory from destroying the world."

More gaping. Seriously, had they forgotten about this? Buffy had told them before!

"And we need to call Washington to handle the local police response to Glory," Giles said. "Unless I'm mistaken, the state government is trying to handle the matter, and, in light of their ignorance about the supernatural, the likelihood of whatever measures they are taking causing more trouble for us is quite high."

Buffy blinked again as she translated the Giles-Speak. "You want the state cops out before they get killed."

"Amongst other things," Giles confirmed.

"The police cannot ignore this - two officers were killed!" Mrs Nuñez protested.

Right. Not Sunnydale, Buffy reminded herself. Two dead, officers or not, would've barely made the back page of the local news at home.

"Can't they just send Riley's guys?" Dawn asked.

Buffy pressed her lips together. The last man she wanted to see was Mr 'I can't handle you being stronger than I am so I'm going to hunt demons with the army'.

"The armed forces are generally not authorised to operate on American soil," Giles said. "Such a move would attract even more attention from the press and various other parties. I believe a few Federal agents would do best, once read in."

"So, you gonna call the Men in Black?" Buffy beamed as Giles's polite smile turned into a grimace for a moment. She still got it!

"I'm going to call the Council's contact handling these matters," Giles said.

"Right!" Buffy resisted the sudden urge to salute and grin. "So… we'll fetch Willow and Xander, then Jim's mom, then camping gear and stuff. Then Mom and the rest. Or mom and the rest first, if they reach L.A. more quickly than that. Or whatever pickup point we can direct them to."

"I think we should get camping supplies first," Jim said. "Especially camping toilets."

"Ew." Buffy frowned.

"I didn't mean it like that," the boy replied. "But… we do need to be prepared. And we need food and water, too."

"And a way to cook!" the grandmother with the shovel added.

Well, most of that would be solved if they got a caravan or mobile home, or a few of them. But renting them on the quick? On a Sunday? Maybe they should just borrow them.

"There's a mobile toilet at the construction site near the canal," Toby said. "We could take it - no one will be using it right now."

Buffy suppressed a shudder. She'd only use that after a thorough cleaning, but it was a good idea. And they could put the toilet back once they had a better alternative. "Sounds good."

"You want to steal a mobile toilet?" Claire asked.

"It's kind of an emergency?" Buffy told her with a smile. "Or do you want to go behind a bush?" She hadn't seen many bushes on the floating island here.

A moment later, they were looking out through a portal at a deserted road construction site. It looked like something had torn up the street. "What happened here?" she asked.

"That wasn't our fault," Toby commented.

Which, in Buffy's experience with and as a teenager, usually meant it totally was their fault.

*****​

The torn-up road wasn't their fault. James Lake Jr hadn't even heard about the troll trying to hunt racoons with a sledgehammer until the damage had been done already. Literally. But they had more important things to do than explain this to the Slayer. "OK, let's get the toilet." He blinked. That sounded… well, whatever. He started to head out through the portal, but Claire stopped him.

"Wait!"

"What?" Jim looked around at once. Had he missed an enemy? Glory?

The portal vanished. A moment later, it reappeared - and the toilet was straight in front of them. Claire smiled. "That's easier and quicker."

And safer. Jim grabbed the thing and heaved it inside without ever setting foot outside.

"Smart," the Slayer agreed. "That way, Glory can't even hurt us. Well, unless she manages to grab your arms or something and drags you out. Or tears them off."

Jim frowned at her. He could have done without imagining that.

"So, we've got a toilet. How about we raid a Walmart or something?" Dawn asked. "We need more supplies."

"We're not going to steal things," Claire told her.

Jim nodded.

"Then how are we going to get beds and tents? It's the middle of the night on the weekend," Dawn said. "And it'll be dangerous - and suspicious - if you're spending time in a shop to buy stuff the regular way. We're wanted people, remember?"

"Do you think Glory will watch every shop in Arcadia Oaks?" Jim asked.

"No, but the police will be looking for us," Buffy said with a sigh. "Though they'll be suspicious anyway if a dozen people disappear, and then camping gear gets stolen."

"So? That's still safer than braving the housewife weekend warrior shoppers," Dawn said.

"I concur," Mr Giles cut in. "Also, could you keep a portal open for the next twenty minutes so I can make a few calls?"

Claire looked at Jim. After he nodded at her, she moved her staff, and Mr Giles smiled.

"Thank you. I've got a signal now." Mr Giles started to make his call.

Jim noticed that Mr and Mrs Nuñez were also using their phones.

"Oh! Buffy, get me a new phone as well," Dawn piped up. "You can keep my old one."

"You want me to steal a phone for you?"

"Yes? I need a new phone no one knows the number of, so Glory's minions can't track me down. Or anyone else." Dawn smiled widely. "It's for a good cause!"

"You… I can't believe…" The Slayer shook her head. "You just want a new phone!"

"You've got my old one; of course I want a new one. And I need one."

"Better get her one," Claire said. "If only to keep her busy."

Jim snorted almost against his will at the expressions of the Slayer and her sister. Then he remembered that he'd have to tell Mom and sighed.

"What's wrong?" the Slayer asked.

"I'm just trying to work out how to tell Mom," he said.

"It'll work out," Claire told him. "If my parents were reasonable, then your mother will be as well."

Jim pressed his lips together. It wasn't that easy. Mom would be hurt that he hadn't told her. And scared for him. It had been bad enough when she had thought Toby and Jim had broken into a museum for a lark, but hunting monsters that killed dozens of people? "There's something else," he said. "Strickler."

"The half-troll-principal from hell?" the Slayer asked with a frown. "What about him?"

"We need to deal with him as well," Jim said. "He'll notice that Mom's not around any more, and he'll know we'll be working on removing the curse. So, he'll try to stop us. And that could cause a mess."

"You want to tell him about Glory?" the Slayer asked, cocking her head to the side.

"I don't want to tell him," Jim retorted. "But I can't think of any other way to keep him from doing anything to Mom. "And… if he doesn't know about Glory, he might meet her and get killed. Which would..." He swallowed.

Claire put a hand on his arm, and they smiled at each other.

"We could capture him," the Slayer said. "We kept Spike chained up in Giles's bathtub for weeks, once."

Jim wasn't sure he wanted to know any details about that. "He'll find a way to hurt himself to hurt Mom."

"We might have to ask Willow about spells to contain people - and trolls." The Slayer didn't seem very concerned. "It'll only have to work until we can break the curse."

"And what if we can't break the curse quickly?" Jim asked, shaking his head. "I think we have to tell him. He wouldn't want the world to end, either. And he'll keep himself safe that way." Jim didn't really want to do it. He loathed Strickler. The monster had betrayed his trust, fooled Jim's mom into believing Strickler over Jim and was working for Gunmar. But it was for Mom.

And once they had broken the curse, Jim would deal with Strickler personally. Once and for all.

*****​

Arcadia Oaks, January 14th, 2017

Buffy Summers refused to feel like a thief. Even though she was in the process of, well, clearing out the local Walmart's camping section. But they needed the supplies, and they were needed to save the world. And if the world ended, the camping supplies would be lost anyway, so it wasn't as if this would hurt the store.

Willow wouldn't even care about hurting the store, Buffy knew. Her friend was quite opinionated about the store chain's policies. Especially those concerning the environment and wages. Buffy had no doubt that Willow would be enthusiastic about this. Perhaps they should've taken her along - although Buffy doubted that she'd have left Xander, who still hadn't woken up and so couldn't be moved from the hospital.

"Buffy?" Jim asked.

She blinked, then realised that she had been overfilling the water tanks. "Oops! Lost in thought a little, sorry!" She grabbed both full tanks and carried them towards the portal.

"I should be able to create a portal to a water faucet and allow us to fill them easily," Claire said as Buffy approached.

"If we're already here, we might as well take advantage," Buffy replied with a grin, then dropped the tanks off on the other side.

As she stepped out again, Jim arrived, pushing a cart loaded down with cans of all types. And lots of spices. Like Buffy and Claire, he was masked and in disguise. They should've taken out all the cameras in the store, but better safe than sorry, right?

Buffy helped him push the cart over to the portal space thingie; without his armour, he wasn't any stronger than an average teenager. "So… what's next?"

"More water," Jim said. "In case we get stuck over there."

Right. The one drawback of their plan: If anything happened to Claire and her staff, they were stuck outside or inside the portal dimension. "Right. Let's get more water!"

"I can place a portal in the middle of the river," Claire offered.

"Then we need water filters," Jim said. "I'll fetch some." And he was off.

Claire didn't look happy, Buffy noted. She took a step closer to her and whispered: "What's wrong?"

"We're stealing."

"We need the stuff, and we can't buy it without drawing attention," Buffy said.

"We're still stealing. And my parents know it."

"And haven't said a word about it," Buffy pointed out.

"That'll happen later, once they're over the shock."

"By that time, they'll be accomplices for using all the stuff," Buffy said with a grin.

It earned her a glare in return. "That's not the point."

"We'll pay the store back. Once this is all over. And if we remember." Buffy shrugged. "And if not, they've got insurance."

"It's still stealing."

"But for a good cause." Buffy frowned for a moment. It was stealing, but… after having defended their plan, she didn't feel bad about it any more. "Thanks!" she told Claire.

"What?"

"Nothing." Buffy grinned again. "I'll go fetch more water tanks."

"And more propane gas - to cook," Jim told her as he arrived with a cart full of water filters and other survival stuff Buffy didn't quite know. She was the Slayer, not the Ranger. Or a ranger, as Riley would say.

If only they had, as Giles put it, established lines of communication with the local army base, but, apparently, there were difficulties or something. At least so their contact claimed. Something about clearances. The security kind.

Well, it was easier to rob a Walmart than an army base. And the stuff here was nicer too. Army rations… She shuddered.

She returned with two more full water tanks. Jim was stocking up on pans this time.

"We might've been faster just dropping the entire store through a portal," Buffy joked.

"What?" Claire wasn't amused.

"Well, I wasn't serious, but… would it be possible? How big can you make your portals?" Buffy cocked her head sideways as she looked at the girl.

"I…" Claire frowned. "I never tried for one so large."

"Well, it might exhaust you, so wait until we're safe." Buffy nodded at her and went to gather more tanks.

It was kind of fun, she realised. Like shopping without having to pay money and the added excitement of doing something bad. Slightly bad. And Walmart had everything… She blinked. "Right. Clothes. Shoes." They would be icky cheapo clothes and shoes, but cheap was better than nothing at all. And unlike Jim, Claire and the others from Arcadia Oaks, Buffy and her friends had lost their luggage unless they stole it back from the cops. Which might be harder but not impossible, actually.

Buffy snorted - she was turning into a thief. Xander would make a comment about dual-classing or something. If he were here and awake, instead of still sleeping off his surgery… And there went her mood.

Half a minute later, she reached the clothing section, which didn't help at all with cheering her up.

Those clothes were ugly! And cheaper than she had feared. Even Willow would have some concerns, and not just about how environmentally friendly they were or weren't. And Giles…

Actually, Giles's reaction would be funny!

*****​

Shadow Dimension, January 14th, 2017

"Alright. I think we've got the essential supplies handled," the Slayer said. "Food, water, shelter. And a toilet. Wipes until we get a shower. Unless you want to brave a camping shower."

James Lake Jr nodded They could always use more supplies, though. Perhaps more food and water, just in case. Or a spare tent. Maybe one of those mobile showers? Walmart didn't sell them, but they could probably look for one in a speciality store in L.A. They should be able to find one in the internet, and travelling a little…

He took a deep breath. They didn't need any of that. Not now. He was stalling. Stalling, so he wouldn't have to…

"Let's go get your mom," the Slayer said with a smile. "We can fetch Xander and Willow on the way."

"Right," Jim said, taking another deep breath.

"It'll be OK," Claire whispered next to him.

"Can't be worse than my first attempt to tell my parents the truth," the Slayer said.

Jim wasn't about to ask how it had gone. She had mentioned something about an asylum. Mom wouldn't do that. Probably not. They could prove he wasn't delusional. "Let's go," he said, with - or so he hoped - more confidence than he felt.

Since Claire gave him a peck on the cheek before opening a portal, he probably hadn't managed to hide his anxiety. Or she knew him too well.

"Watch your phones, moving portal," Claire announced to the rest of the group. Since no one protested, they weren't in the middle of a call.

Then she waved her staff, and Jim was looking at the back entrance to the hospital.

The Slayer was typing on her phone. Texting. Then she sighed. "Xander's still asleep. I'm so going to tease him for being lazy when he finally wakes up."

"So, portal to Jim's home?"

"Let me first check if Dr Lake is still in the hospital," the Slayer replied.

"How? Are you going to hack their database and check her badge?" Jim asked.

She grinned in return and touched the tip of her nose with her finger. "Nope! I'm going to track her scent."

Jim couldn't say what was more disturbing - that the Slayer could track people with her nose or that she knew his mom by scent.

Or that she could break into the hospital in less than thirty seconds without leaving traces.

Shaking his head, he turned to Claire while the Slayer disappeared into the hospital. "Thanks." She looked confused, so he added: "For being here with me."

"Oh." She smiled. Was that a blush? "You were here for me as well."

It was the least he could do since her troubles with her parents were his fault. Mostly. He knew better than to say that out loud, of course. Claire was adamant that it wasn't his fault. Even though it was.

"So, this is going to suck for you, huh?"

"What?" Jim turned. Dawn had wandered over.

She nodded towards the rear area of the island, where the Nuñez and the others were putting up the tents. Or trying to, in Toby's case. "This is going to put a cramp into your style."

"What?" Jim stared at her.

"You're going to bunk with your parents."

Why would that… Oh! Jim blushed. "It's not like that!" Mostly. Somewhat.

"We haven't…" Claire trailed off, blushing worse.

"You don't smooch?" Dawn frowned.

Jim narrowed his eyes. He wasn't going to answer that. Then he saw the girl smirk - he probably had, somehow.

"That's none of your business," Claire whispered.

"Hey!" Dawn raised her hands. "Just trying to be helpful here!"

"We can handle our own affairs, thank you," Claire told her.

"Oh, your affair?" Dawn held up her hands again. "Just kidding. Sorry, it's a habit. I blame Buffy."

"You blame me for what?"

The Slayer had returned, and Jim hadn't noticed. He clenched his teeth at his oversight.

"Your mom went home already," she said. "Don't know how long ago, but it wasn't too long - her scent lingered."

Jim didn't want to know anything about his mom's 'scent'. "Let's go, then," he said.

"Right. Giles!" The Slayer had a good set of lungs. "We need you to make with the explanations for Jim's mom!"

Mr Giles joined them with a slightly exasperated expression but didn't comment.

"Changing portal!" Claire announced.

"I still need a phone," Dawn said.

"We got you a laptop," the Slayer replied.

"What? And you didn't tell me?"

"I forgot."

"No, you didn't!"

Claire moved her staff while the two girls bickered, and Jim was looking at his room back home.

"Oh! Better not let your parents realise you're familiar with Jim's bedroom!" Dawn snickered. Apparently, teasing them took priority over squabbling with her sister.

But it was a sort of welcome distraction. Jim wasn't feeling as nervous as he had felt a moment ago when he stepped through the portal and into his room.

Until he turned around and saw Mom standing at the door, phone in hand, staring at him.

Damn.

"Jim?"

"Mom?" Jim blurted out before he could help himself.

"Hello, Mrs Lake," Claire said, smiling brightly - and forcedly; Jim could tell - as she stepped through the portal as well.

"Hi!" The Slayer joined them, waving as if this were a normal meeting on the street.

"Good evening, Dr Lake." Mr Giles said.

"Jim… but…" Mom was looking from one of them to the other, then back at Jim. "What… this isn't possible!"

"On the contrary, Dr Lake," Mr Giles replied while Jim still struggled for words. "I'm Rupert Giles. This is Buffy Summers. I believe you are acquainted with Miss Nuñez."

"Claire…"

"It is a little cramped here. May I suggest heading to the living room? We have a serious matter to discuss."

"But…" Mom lowered her phone.

"And you can hang up," the Slayer said. "Your son's back, after all. She called the police," she added with a glance at Jim and the others.

"Already?" Jim's eyes widened. That would make things worse. Detective Scott would follow up on this.

"Jim! I came home and discovered that you were gone! Snuck out without telling me! And there were dangerous criminals roaming the street! They had killed two people already - at the police station!" Mom yelled. "Where were you, at this time of the night?" She suddenly glared at Claire.

"It's not what you think!" Jim told her, taking a step in front of Claire. "We're not…"

"You're not what? Risking your life for..."

"We're here to explain what your son is doing, Dr Lake," Mr Giles cut in. He gestured at the portal behind them. "And as you can see, things are a little more complicated than what might appear a mere youthful fancy. But I really do think that we would better sit down for this discussion."

"Please, Mom," Jim said, looking at her with pleading eyes. And unlike when he had asked for a Vespa, this time, she nodded. "Alright… let's go to the living room."

She didn't take her eyes off Jim and Claire, though, as they went downstairs. And as soon as they sat down, she snapped: "Talk!"

Jim took a deep breath. "The cops weren't killed by criminals, Mom." He saw her grow pale and quickly went on. "It was a monster. And we know because we're fighting the monster." She opened her mouth, but he kept talking. He had to get it out all at once before he lost his nerve. "I'm the Trollhunter. I fight monsters to protect trolls and humans. Monsters who want to kill us all. Claire helps me, as does Toby. We're the Trollhunters. And this is Buffy Summers, the Slayer. She hunts monsters as well. And this is Mr Giles. He helps her. And you're in danger because of this."

Mom stared at him. Her mouth moved without making a sound for a moment. Then she exploded. "This is completely ridiculous! Have you lost your mind?" Her eyes widened, and she gasped. "Is that it? Are you taking drugs?"

"I should've bet on this," the Slayer muttered.

"No!" Jim protested. "I'm telling the truth! And we can prove it!"

"Well, us stepping through a magic portal should've been proof already," the Slayer added, "but I guess we have to do the whole spiel." She stood, grabbed the couch with one hand - the couch upon which Mr Giles was still sitting - and lifted it. One-handed. "I'm the Slayer. Supernaturally strong, tough and fast. I hunt demons."

Mom was blinking. Stammering something unintelligible. Jim stood, moving to hug her. "Mom!"

She felt stiff and tense in his arms. "This has to be a trick. Yes. A trick. A prank - I've heard about those Youtube pranks!"

"And you're up, Jim! Show her the magic armour!" the Slayer said, shaking her head.

Jim frowned at her, but she merely nodded at him with a beaming smile that was probably meant to be encouraging. And she was right. Sighing, he released Mom - not that she was hugging him, anyway - and stepped back. "Mom?"

She looked at him.

He raised his hand with the amulet. "For the glory of Merlin, Daylight is mine to command!"

Jim closed his eyes as the armour appeared in a swirl around him and settled on his body until he held Daylight in his hand.

Mom seemed to be shocked again.

"Jim's the Trollhunter. Chosen by Merlin's magic," Claire added. "And I wield the Shadow Staff." She demonstrated it by opening a portal in the living room.

"But… how is this possible? Magic isn't real."

"Magic is real, Ms Lake," Mr Giles told Mom. "Although the vast majority of humanity ignores it, the world is older than you know…"

*****​

"...and that is why we're in Arcadia Oaks, hiding from Glorificus," Mr Giles finished his explanation.

Jim blinked. After hearing the whole spiel for the third time, it was getting very repetitive. And slightly boring. Not that he would say so, of course. Unlike the Slayer, who had made no effort to hide how bored she was. He cleared his throat. "So, Mom, you see, you're in danger."

"From a hell-god." Mom didn't look convinced.

Before Jim could say something, the Slayer sighed. "I guess we'll have to call on Arg again?"

"AAARRRGGHH!!!," Claire corrected her.

"What I said: Arg."

Jim put his hand on Claire's shoulder. The Slayer was just riling her up. Or she honestly had trouble with names. Either way, it was pointless. "Mom, please. We're telling the truth. You've seen magic."

"I've seen dead patients in the hospital," she retorted. "And I've seen no proof that this hell-god exists."

Yes, they needed AAARRRGGHH!!!. Or Blinky. Blinky might actually be better, in Jim's opinion - he was far more eloquent. And passionate. "Claire, can you open a portal to Blinky's home?"

She closed the current portal - a small one to keep the others connected to the mobile phone cells - without hesitation and opened a new one into Blinky's library. "Blinky?" Jim asked, taking a step closer.

No answer. He frowned and stepped through the portal. "Blinky?"

"Trollhunter." Ah, Vendel was there. "What news do you have?"

"Ah… we found out that Glory can't go through portals, so we are evacuating the key and our families into the, ah, space between portals."

Vendel's eyes widened for a moment, then he slowly nodded. "The Shadow Dimension. A fortunate discovery." Tilting his head, he added: "But I thought your families were unaware of your… calling, Trollhunter." And the eyes narrowed.

Jim smiled weakly. "Well… that's 'were', yes."

"I see."

"So, where's Blinky? We kind of need a troll to persuade my mom that magic and trolls and demons are real. Not that Blinky's a demon, but getting a demon to show is a little hard."

"It wouldn't be hard in Sunnydale or L.A., but your town seems to be more demon-free," the Slayer suddenly cut in.

Jim gasped - a little- and turned. There she was, sticking her head through the portal. "Hi, Mr Troll Mayor!"

"Blinkous is currently checking the runes on the entrances to Trollmarket," Vendel said. "In case your activities lead an angry hell-god to our doors."

Jim flinched. That was his fault for bringing the Slayer - and the key! - to Trollmarket.

"Good idea," the Slayer agreed. "Won't help you if the world turns to hell, but it should keep Glory out. Unless she gets a pickaxe and starts digging, I guess. Then again, she isn't exactly the manual labour type. Unless it's smashing people to pulp. Though that's probably entertainment for her. Anyway! Can you come over quickly and tell Jim's mom that you're real?"

"In the interest of saving the world, I think I can spare the time before I am needed to mediate a dispute over the damage done to furniture by a gnome who escaped the neighbour's home."

Jim was pretty sure that that was sarcasm, but he nodded without laughing. Better safe than sorry. "Thank you."

Vendel inclined his head in return with that expression of his he usually had when Blinky explained things.

Well, good enough.

Jim stepped through the portal back into his living room. Where Mom was staring at him while Mr Giles was talking about myths or something. "Mom? This is Vendel. The Elder of Trollmarket."

And now she was staring at Vendel. And growing pale. And sitting down. Hard.

Jim winced.

"Good evening, Mrs Lake," Vendel said.

"But… this is… this impossible!"

"Great. She's like my Mom," the Slayer muttered behind Jim.

Jim ignored her. "Mom!" He quickly went to her side. "It's OK. Vendel is a good guy. Troll. A good person."

"But…"

Jim turned to smile at Vendel. "You can touch him, Mom. Check that it's not a trick." She was a doctor - she should be able to tell. Vendel frowned, and Jim smiled widely and apologetically at him, mouthing 'please' behind Mom's back.

The troll rolled his eyes and sighed. "I am indeed real, Mrs Lake. You're free to check, although I hope you'll be able to do so without an invasive procedure."

"Ah… but…" Mom was shaking her head, but she was standing up and walking towards Vendel. She reached out with her hand, hesitated a moment, then touched his arm. "It's like stone, but…" Cocking her head, she moved her hand to Vendel's elbow. "It's not rigid."

"It would be hard to move if it were," Vendel commented.

Jim bit his lower lip. Glaring at Vendel would be unfair. He was helping them, after all.

"Three fingers and a thumb… and the muscles are so different…"

"Trolls express a wide range of physiques," Mr Giles cut in. "Mr Galadrigal has six eyes, for example, and four arms."

"What?" Mom turned. "That's impossible!"

"I assure you it's entirely possible," Vendel said. "We're trolls, not humans."

"There are different tribes and clans, though," Claire pointed out.

"Correct. My point stands, though."

Mom shook her head again. "It's unbelievable."

Well, at least she wasn't claiming that it was impossible any more.

"Yes, yes. But as you can see, trolls are real. So are demons. And hell-gods who want to kill you. Well, take you hostage, in your case," the Slayer said. "Which is why we need to evacuate you to Claire's pocket dimension so Glory can't get you as leverage against Jim to make him do something stupid that we have to beat him up for."

"What?" Mom rounded on the Slayer. "What are you saying?"

"What Buffy is attempting to communicate, in her charming if slightly misleading way, is that you are in danger, Dr Lake. Glorificus, as I've mentioned before, cannot be stopped by mundane means. The hell-god killed dozens in Sunnydale, and the police here didn't manage to faze her. You need to join Mrs Domzalski and Mr and Mrs Nuñez on the other side, so to speak. We've prepared a camping site and will do our best to make things as comfortable as we can manage over the next few days."

"Days? I can't go away for days! I've got work! I can't just leave without notice!" Mom protested.

"We can handle that," Mr Giles told her. "We have contacts amongst the federal authorities."

"But… I can't leave my patients. If such a monster is loose in Arcadia Oaks…"

"Mom! You are in danger. And if you go to work, then Glory might attack you there - and endanger all your patients and colleagues," Jim pointed out as he grasped her hands. "Please!"

Mom hesitated again, looking around the room at everyone present. "But what will you tell everyone?"

"That you witnessed an incident and were taken into protective custody," Mr Giles told her. "That's one of the, ah, standard excuses used in such cases. Which are, I assure you, very rare."

Mom looked at him, then at Jim. Jim nodded at her. "Please, Mom."

She finally sighed. "Alright. But I'll have to tell Walter. He'll be worrying otherwise."

Jim grimaced. "Ah, Mom, there's something you need to know about Stricklander…"

*****​
 
Chapter 17: The Camp
Chapter 17: The Camp

Arcadia Oaks, January 14th, 2017

"...and not only is he a changeling - a troll who can change his appearance - but he also put a curse on you, Mom!"

Buffy Summers grimaced - behind Jim's back - as the boy finished his explanation. It was the truth, as far as she could tell, but Mrs Lake didn't look like she believed it. She was as bad as Mom about this, in Buffy's opinion. Well, Mom at least hadn't been dating, say Spike. Ew. That would've been… She shuddered.

"Jim! I know you've got some issues with Walter, but this is…" Mrs Lake shook her head. "A changeling troll? That sounds very farfetched."

"Mom! It's the truth! He wants to kill me, and to keep me from killing him, he's put a curse on you so whatever he suffers, you suffer! I saw it happen with a papercut!"

"Yes, Mrs Lake," Claire chimed in. "And we can prove it." She quickly closed the portal and opened a new one. "Not-Enrique!"

"What?"

"I still need to return to Trollmarket," the Troll Mayor said.

"I'll send you back right after this," Claire replied. "Not-Enrique, I need you here!"

"Finally!" Buffy heard Dawn mutter from afar. "What good is a laptop without Internet?" Really, she was so spoiled!

The little changeling arrived and peered through the portal. "What for?"

"Demonstrate your changeling form," Claire told him. After a moment, she added: "Please." And showed her teeth.

The little monster stared at her, then grumbled something in a language Buffy didn't understand. But it changed into a sweet baby.

And Mrs Lake gasped again.

"The real Enrique is kept prisoner by Gunmar. Well, the goblins working for Gunmar," Jim explained. "As long as that's the case, Not-Enrique can take Enrique's form. That's how Strickler managed to become a teacher - he took the place of a real baby and grew up amongst humans."

"The changeling myth is based on real events, Dr Lake," Giles added. "And you are in danger."

"But… a curse? On me?"

"You are the Trollhunter's mother," the old troll said. "It is only natural that Gunmar would attempt to use you as a hostage."

"I wanted to tell you," Jim said, looking at the floor. "But when I worked up the courage to do so, Strickler had already gotten to you, and… I'm sorry!"

Buffy winced again. She knew exactly how that felt. If she had told Mom the truth about vampires, Spike and Darla wouldn't have been able to get her. Although… when she had tried to tell the truth to her parents, she had ended up in an asylum.

"But…" Mrs Lake shook her head. "This is too much. Everything… I had no idea. None at all."

"I'm sorry, Mom, but… I didn't think you'd be happy about me being the Trollhunter, so I didn't tell you."

"You should have! You're risking your life fighting these… trolls!"

"Not these trolls," Buffy corrected her. "The evil trolls." Why was everyone glaring at her? She was just helping.

"Yes, Mom, but… You already have so much on your plate, with your job and all… I didn't want you to worry even more."

"But I did worry even more! I thought you were… with the wrong kind of friends!" Mrs Lake protested. "You were arrested!"

"Who wasn't arrested a few times as a teenager?" Buffy asked, shrugging. "Even Giles here had a wild youth, and he's as stuffy as you can get."

"Buffy!" Giles glared at her.

"What? It's the truth. We know about your rebel days. Before you returned to the tweed and books!" Buffy grinned.

"I wasn't arrested," Claire said. "But only because I wasn't with Jim and Toby yet."

"You probably would've found a better way to handle the museum," Jim told her.

"I should've realised this! I shouldn't… Oh, God. This is all my fault!" Mrs Lake covered her face with her hands and started sobbing.

"Blaming yourself runs in the family, huh?" Buffy looked at Jim.

"Dr Lake, this wasn't your fault. Teenagers tend to keep secrets from their parents. Your son merely chose a greater secret than normal - and without prior knowledge of magic, you couldn't reasonably have been expected to realise that he had been chosen as a champion for trollkind," Giles said with a gentle smile. "You have nothing to blame yourself for."

"I should've told you right away!" Jim said.

And Giles didn't correct him at all! Buffy frowned at her Watcher before smiling at Jim. "Trust me, you couldn't have told your mom. Parents tend to overreact and ignore reality in such cases. Speaking from experience here as a fellow supernaturally powered fighter. You would've been sent to the asylum or given meds."

"I wouldn't…" Mrs Lake trailed off, then covered her face again.

"Anyway," Buffy said - they didn't have unlimited time. And Mrs Lake had been working a double shift or something, and it was way past midnight. Not the best time to handle such revelations. "Let's pack up and get you to your new camping site. Then we need to fetch Xander and Willow. And probably visit this Strickler."

"Yes," Jim agreed.

Great.

*****​

Arcadia Oaks, January 15th, 2017

"And that's his home address?" James Lake Jr asked, staring at the house in front of them.

"Willow said so," the Slayer replied. "And she's hacked into your school's system. Of course, it's possible that your troll teacher gave a fake address, but that could backfire too easily, so he probably owns the house at least."

That meant it was unlikely that they would be bothering an innocent family. Still, Jim had expected something a little more… "It looks so average."

"Yeah, I'm definitely missing the dark clouds and ominous chanting. Not much of an evil lair." The Slayer shrugged. "Though it's so banal, it's almost evil through sheer… boring-ness?"

"I don't think that's a word," Claire commented.

"I used it, so it's a word," the Slayer retorted. "Anyway. Let's give Mr Evil Teacher the notice that he's not allowed to risk his life against Glory and should stay out of the way until we're done with the skanky hell-goddess and can focus on him."

"I don't think we should tell him our plans," Jim said.

"Well, we won't - Willow's already working on the curse."

Jim nodded, though he didn't know if the witch would have any success. This was a troll curse, after all. And telling Strickler anything grated on his nerves.

"He'll probably assume we'll be working on that anyway," Claire said.

"Right." The Slayer turned to look at Jim. "We can still go for plan 'nab and imprison the creepazoid'."

Jim shook his head. "No." That was too dangerous for Mom. If Strickler was captured, he might kill himself out of spite. Or maim himself. And any spell that prevented that might have weird effects on Mom.

"Alright. Let's go!" The Slayer strode towards the small house.

Since he was wearing his armour, Jim checked once more if there was anyone else around, even though the odds were low at this time of the night, before following her with Claire.

At least, the Slayer had waited for them before ringing the doorbell. The lights went on quickly - far too quickly for Strickler to have been in bed, Jim realised before the door was opened, and he was staring at Strickler, who was dressed in his usual style. The typical style of a teacher you could trust so he could abuse said trust.

"We're looking for a creepy changeling. Is this the right address?" the Slayer asked, baring her teeth in a wide smile.

Strickler raised his eyebrows and looked at Jim. "A new acquaintance, Young Atlas? Might this be the blonde woman the police are looking for?"

Jim narrowed his eyes. Did Strickler have a changeling agent amongst the police, or was he trying to make Jim think he did?

"What? Do I look like a skanky hell-goddess?" the Slayer protested. "Are you blind?"

"This is the Slayer," Jim said. "Buffy, this is Strickler, a changeling who has replaced our principal."

Jim saw Strickler's eyes widen at the introduction and managed not to frown. He wasn't jealous.

"The Slayer? It seems you've been reaching out to rather... questionable allies."

"Says the changeling who called Angor Rot," Claire chimed in.

"Anyway," Jim said. "We're here to warn you."

Strickler didn't seem to be concerned. "Oh? A threat by the Slayer? I'm flattered. Although I fail to see how she could do anything to me without hurting your mother."

"She is right here," the Slayer said. "And if I wanted to, I'd turn you into a pretzel, troll form or not. But that would harm Jim's mom, so I'm not going to do it."

"No, we're not here to threaten you," Jim said. "We're here to warn you that the hell-goddess Glorificus is in Arcadia Oaks, trying to find the key to destroy the world so she can return to her home dimension."

"She's the woman the police are looking for," Claire added. "She has already killed several people."

"And she can kill a troll in seconds. Half a second for a changeling," the Slayer added. "So, unless you have a death wish, stay away from blonde women with bad perms and cheapo shoes."

Jim clenched his teeth and nodded. If only Strickler weren't tied to Mom, Jim would drive Daylight through the monster's head. Wreck that fake smile and smug attitude for good. Ensure the changeling wouldn't fool and hurt anyone else ever again.

"What an interesting claim. And utterly without proof, I assume?"

"Check the news. Sunnydale. Glory killed dozens of people," Jim spat.

"And ask yourself if you can afford to ignore our warning," the Slayer added. "Oh, we've also evacuated our families, so don't bother looking for them." She blinked. "And, no, this isn't some plot against you - we need to keep them safe from Glory."

"And we told Mom about you." Jim glared at Strickler.

"You did what?" For the first time since they had started talking, Strickler looked angry.

"We told her everything," Jim replied. "You won't be able to fool her anymore or use her against us."

And the changeling schooled his features again. "I see. Fortunately, I have other resources at my disposal."

"There's someone else in the house," the Slayer snapped. "I didn't hear them until now."

Jim gasped. Someone who could hide from the Slayer? "Angor Rot!"

*****​

Angor Rot? A tall but slim, almost lanky troll stepped into view. Buffy Summers clenched her teeth. Trolls didn't trigger her slaydar any more than humans did, but this thing… She could sense that it was wrong, somehow. Unnatural.

"The Slayer," the thing said, cocking its head sideways as it stared at her. "I've heard of you."

"I'm flattered," Buffy replied.

"I've never fought one of you, though."

"Obviously not, or you wouldn't be here." She bared her teeth at the monster. She should've brought her trollhammer - one good smash and the thing would be in pieces. Literally, as she understood.

The thing chuckled. "You overestimate yourself." It carried a long blade in one hand, Buffy saw.

That wouldn't save it. Buffy had fought demons with weapons before. That weird fencer-hood. The monster was tough, but she had her trusty blades. And she could improvise. Rip off an arm and beat it to death with it, for example.

She slowly started to smile. Strickler couldn't stop her. And once she was past him, the monster would be confined by the tight quarters inside, where her size was an advantage.

"Stop it!" Jim stepped in front of her. "We're not here to fight."

She almost swatted him aside before she realised it. What was she doing? Sure, the monster needed to die, but not now. They had bigger problems to deal with. Like Glory.

"You've met the Slayer?" Mr Evil Principal asked.

She didn't look at him, though - he didn't really matter. If anything happened, Jim and Claire could deal with him. Probably by portalling him to some lake nearby. No, Buffy didn't take her eyes off the evil troll.

But the monster took its eyes off her and looked at Jim! Buffy almost growled in return. No monster ignored her! Not for long.

"Trollhunter. And thief." It looked at Claire with a sneer.

"I earned this in battle. I didn't steal it!" Claire shot back. Good for her!

"Are you certain that this is the Slayer?" the evil teacher asked.

The monster scoffed. "Who else could it be? The description matches, and I can sense that she's not a human."

"I'm so a human!" Buffy protested. "I pass all the tests!" She was merely stronger, faster and tougher than a human.

Another scoff. But the monster was looking at her again. It wanted to fight - Buffy could sense it. And she'd oblige it, as Giles would say.

"We're not here to fight," Jim repeated himself. Right, fighting would endanger his mother. Then again, if the teacher was just knocked out, that wouldn't be too bad, would it? Giles got knocked out all the time, and it didn't do much to him.

"We're here to warn you about Glory," Claire added.

"And only because you're tied to Mom," Jim spat.

The evil teacher smiled. "Your concern is most touching."

"They can't hurt you, but we can hurt them," the monster said.

This time, Buffy growled. If it wanted a fight, she'd give it one!

"Whoa!"

"No." The teacher - the troll hiding behind a human form - shook his head. "If what they say is true, then they are currently fighting a hell-god. Let them face it - we can settle our own accounts afterwards."

Typical! They wanted her and her friends to save them so they could stab them in the back afterwards. "I think plan B would work," Buffy whispered. One less thing to worry about.

"No!" Jim shook his head. "We're not here to fight. We came to warn you, and we did it. Now we'll leave, and you can go into hiding while we save the world."

"Brave words and bold claims, Young Atlas. But will you be able to back them with deeds?"

"Yes." Jim nodded firmly.

"We shall see." The changeling smiled. "Now, I think this is a good occasion to use a classic: Get off my lawn."

Buffy snorted, but no one else did.

Jim kept staring at the changeling as he slowly nodded and didn't turn his back to them until the door had closed. Then they left.

Once they were across the street, Jim sighed. "That could've gone better."

"Yes," Buffy agreed. They could've killed Angor Rot and captured the changeling.

"It didn't come to a fight," Claire said, missing the point. "And Strickler is now aware of Glory. As planned."

"Let's just hope Gunmar doesn't try to make a deal with Glory," Jim said.

"He'd have to be a moron to do so," Buffy assured him. "And Glory is too stupid to fool anyone."

"We shouldn't underestimate a hell-goddess," Claire objected.

"You've seen her. She's as subtle as a plane crash and as bright as a brick." Buffy waved her hand. "She's all 'Give me the key, rar!' and none of the sneaky."

Jim and Claire didn't look like they believed her, even though they had met her a few times.

*****​

Shadow Dimension, January 15th, 2017

"Finally! I need my Internet connection!" Dawn complained as soon as James Lake Jr, Claire and the Slayer stepped back into the portal dimension - they really had to find a proper name for it.

"Dawn! It's the middle of the night! You should be sleeping, not surfing!"

"Surfing? Who uses that any more? You sound older than Mom! No wonder you want to become a teacher!"

"I don't!"

"You don't want to become a student advisor any more?"

"That was just one possible career I mentioned! And I don't sound old!"

"Of course you do!"

"She's worse than Mary," Toby told Jim and Claire while the two sisters argued. "Addicted to her phone. Well, her laptop."

"As long as she doesn't post pictures from here," Claire said.

Jim looked at her. She blinked. Toby cursed.

"Dawn! You aren't posting selfies to Instagram, are you?" Jim asked as they walked over to the two.

"Of course she isn't!" the Slayer replied at once. "Dawn's a brat but not stupid. Not so stupid, at least."

"Says Miss 'Willow, can you fix my phone?'," Dawn said in a bad imitation of the Slayer's voice.

"That's not true!"

"Well, you did ask me to fix your phone once," Willow cut in. The Slayer narrowed her eyes at her, and she quickly smiled. "And it was a totally reasonable request. Even if I can't fix literally broken phones."

The Slayer huffed and turned back to Dawn. "You weren't posting pictures, were you?"

"I was conducting a disinformation campaign!" Dawn retorted. "Pictures of me, with a fake background. If Glory actually does check Instagram, she'll be on her way to Hawaii and hopefully fall into a volcano."

"A volcano?"

"There are volcanoes on Hawaii. It's part of the ring of fire," Willow replied.

"Willow! Did you help her?"

"It sounded like a good idea. And it kept her busy."

"Hey!"

"That's true."

"Hey!"

Jim sighed. It looked like camping out in this space would be more taxing than he had thought.

"It's like school," Toby commented. "Just without P.E. and Señor Uhl."

"And without Strickler," Jim added.

"Are we going back to school, anyway?" Toby asked. "If we do, then I'll need an excuse for P.E. I still got stitches."

"I don't think we can go back," Jim replied. "We would endanger the whole school."

"But Glory might look for us there anyway," Claire pointed out.

Damn. She was right, as usual. "Then we'll have to keep an eye on it." Something else to do. They had so much on their plate… Jim looked around. Three tents had been put up already, and Mr Nuñez and Mr Giles were working on the fourth. And the mobile toilet had been placed apart from the camp.

"Xander wanted a hospital tent, but he was overruled," Toby told them. "Now it'll be one tent per household. Until we get caravans."

"Ah." Jim nodded. At least it wouldn't rain in here.

Claire scoffed. "Typical. I bet my parents insisted on that."

"Yes?" Toby looked a little confused.

"They think Jim and I are, ah… you know…" Claire blushed a little.

"They think the kids are sleeping together," the Slayer explained, startling Jim. When had she stopped bickering with her sister and walked over? Jim hadn't noticed her approaching. He really needed to pay more attention. And he needed some sleep.

Claire glared at her. "That's no one's business except for us," she spat.

"Yep." The Slayer nodded. "But parents don't get that. No sense of boundaries."

Something the Slayer also seemed to lack, in Jim's opinion. "So, what now?" he asked to change the subject.

"Now we get my Mom and the rest of our friends - and Spike, I guess - put up more tents, ask Willow for some silence spell so we won't hear her and Tara when we want to sleep, then work on breaking the curse on your mom and how to get better weapons to kill Glory."

Put like that, it sounded almost reasonable. And it was also impressive how the Slayer finished that without taking a breath in between.

"Oh, and we work on getting me a better phone, and then organise some caravans," the Slayer added. "I'm not a big fan of roughing it outdoors. That's more the First Slayer's thing."

"The First Slayer?" Toby asked.

"The spirit of the first Slayer," the Slayer replied. "We've met her in dreams."

"Ah." Jim nodded. That sounded like the Trollhunters in Hero's Forge.

"Tried to kill us all, but we worked things out. So to speak."

That didn't sound like the Trollhunters. Then again, some of the training in the Forge was a little dangerous, and Jim had wondered - privately - if that had been used to weed out the unworthy or something. He cleared his throat. "So, let's start?"

"Yes. I need my beauty sleep."

"You sure do!"

"Dawn!"

"What? I'm just agreeing with you!"

Jim sighed. This would be a long night. And a long camping trip.

*****​

The floating island looked pretty crowded now, in Buffy Summers's opinion. Lots of tents covered most flat spaces - other than the area around the toilet - and it was, especially for a Slayer, also very loud when people were waking up. Such as now.

Slipping into loose sweat pants and a matching crop top, she listened. Dawn was complaining to herself about some idiot on Instagram - at least Buffy hoped she wasn't bothering Mom, who needed her rest. Being 'released early' from the hospital, then having been driven to L.A., only to detour to Arcadia Oaks, hadn't been easy for Mom. And that with Spike driving, and Anya complaining, and Tara probably being all meek and quiet. No wonder Mom was still asleep after just a few hours here.

Xander was also still sleeping - she knew the sound of his snoring by heart from long nights researching stuff in the library. Anya was sleeping as well - she wasn't complaining about the amenities any more, so she had to be asleep. Willow and Tara were…

She coughed and tried to ignore what they were doing according to the sounds they made. "Time to train!" she announced to herself and walked to one of the flat spaces not occupied by a tent. And one coincidentally located on the opposite end of the island from Willow and Tara's tent. After all, it was already morning on Earth. And not early morning any more.

Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath, focusing. She was the Slayer. The bogeyman of the undead and other demons. She was Buffy Summers. She opened her eyes and started moving with a kata. Karate to begin. After a few minutes, she segued into Taekwondo, then focused on various Kung Fu styles until she'd worked up a sweat. Finally, Tai Chi to cool down.

"No weapon practise?" Giles asked as he joined her at the end.

She shook her head, then retied her ponytail. "No. The hammer's not very useful against Glory, and I don't feel like breaking Mr Pointy or my favourite sword against her."

"Ah. Sensible, I suppose. Though once we have a weapon capable of hurting the hell-god, you might want to focus on it." Giles nodded.

She liked how he spoke as if finding a divine weapon was a done deal. He might have doubts himself - he probably had; he was such a worrywart at times - but he didn't let them show. "Yes. But first, we need to find one," she said. "Well, even before that, we need to get some caravans. We can't keep living in tents."

"It's been one night so far," he replied.

"I need a shower." She made a point of tugging on her crop top and sniffing her armpits and grinned when she saw him blush and cough as a result.

"Really, I don't believe that…"

"You want me to take a camp shower?" She pointed at the black bags full of water stacked in a corner. "Sure, as long as you're going to hold up a towel to protect my modesty?"

That had him stammering in return. And polishing his glasses. She chuckled, and he frowned. "Really. Was that necessary?"

"Yes, it was," she replied, putting her slippers back on. She rocked the martial arts look. "I needed the laugh."

After a moment, he smiled his wry smile and nodded. "I suppose you did. We all might, actually." He glanced back at the small tent city. Tent village?

"Too many wounded, too many scared people, too little privacy," she agreed. "We really need those caravans, I think." It was weird that Toby's gran was holding up the best amongst all old people. Except for Giles, of course. Buffy wondered what life the old woman had led to take trolls and demons in stride.

"We do, but acquiring them might pose a slight challenge," Giles told her. "By now, the staff of the supermarket you plundered will have noticed the break-in and called the police."

"So?"

"They might grow suspicious, what with us vanishing from Arcadia Oaks," Giles explained.

"We've got cover stories for the families."

"Yet not for us - and we're persons of interest, after Glorificus's attack on the police station."

She frowned but had to admit he had a point. "And because we're from Sunnydale."

"Yes."

"Well, that means we'll have to borrow the caravans without asking, right?" She beamed at him.

"Buffy! You can't just steal caravans!"

"We can. I guess you mean we shouldn't."

He narrowed his eyes at her. "Indeed. This affair will be settled, and we'll have to deal with the consequences of our actions afterwards. Necessity will only excuse so much."

"So, no liberating shoes and designer clothes, got it!" She laughed at his expression. "You need to loosen up, Giles!"

"I believe someone needs to stay responsible." He sighed. "You might not have made the best impression on the residents of Arcadia Oaks."

"Me? I so made a good impression!" she protested.

"Not everyone knows you well enough to know what you are like behind the, ah, facade you like to project."

"Oh." He might have a point again. People in Sunnydale - those who mattered - were used to joking in the face of an apocalypse. And banter while fighting. Or planning. Or any time.

But they were in Arcadia Oaks.

He nodded. "I shall strive to convince our new allies that we know what we are doing."

She nodded, smiling again. "You do that! I'll go check up on Mom."

"And I shall see if the promised contact from the US government has arrived in Arcadia Oaks."

"OK!"

*****​

"And see, this is how you adjust the flame," James Lake Jr explained.

"Ah!" Mrs Domzalski beamed at him. "The last time I was cooking outdoors, we used a fire, not a gas cooker."

"Oh?" Jim cocked his head sideways then reconsidered - he was cutting tomatoes on a board balanced on a folding table, not a kitchen counter, so he had to pay more attention than usual.

"Yes, those were different times." Toby's nana smiled. "I don't miss them. Not often, at least." Before Jim could decide whether or not he should ask for more details, she went on: "It's so nice to find out you like cooking; few young people these days do."

"Well, I had to learn cooking," Jim replied. "Mom's not… She's working hard at the hospital, and she's not the best cook in the morning." A white lie.

"That's very considerate of you. I can also see that you're good at it."

"I do what I can." Jim inclined his head and focused on finishing his task. "I'm not used to cooking for so many people, though."

"Oh, it's easy if you take the longer cooking times into account - or use several pans at once."

"Ah." That was logical, of course. He checked his watch - they should be done soon. They weren't doing much - just a Polish breakfast, as Mrs Domzalski called it. Sandwiches and scrambled eggs. And some hash browns, for those who liked them. And some sausages. Nothing really fancy. But it should feed the group.

"Jim? Ah, hello Ms Domzalski."

"Mom." Jim tensed, then forced himself to smile. "How are you doing?"

"I'm not used to sleeping on the ground," Mom replied.

"We'll get some cots. Or portable beds," Jim told her. "Perhaps a caravan." The Slayer had mentioned them a few times.

"It's fine, Jim." Mom shrugged. "It's not… I'm still adjusting."

"But I can help you with that," Jim assured her. This was his fault, after all. The least he could do was to ensure Mom was comfortable.

"You don't have to. This isn't your fault."

But it was.

"This takes me back so many years," Mrs Domzalski said, breaking the sudden silence. She wasn't looking at them, but at the, well, what passed for the horizon in this dimension. "Though there are no trees to hide between."

Somehow, Jim didn't think she was talking about playing hide and seek. Not with her tone. He cleared his throat. "So, just sit down; we're almost done," he told Mom.

A nice breakfast would be great.

"Oh! This smells yummy!"

And here came the Slayer. Jim looked up and saw her peer at the food. "We're almost done. Just sit down," he repeated himself.

"Ah, then I'll have to hurry with the washing up," she replied. "I just finished morning training."

So that was why she was dressed in a skimpy top and loose thin sweatpants.

"Morning training?" Mom asked.

"Martial arts." The Slayer smiled widely. "Have to keep in shape. Especially when I can't go hunt vampires at night."

"That's right," Mrs Domzalski said as if it made perfect sense.

"Are you doing such training as well?" Mom asked. "Wait, that's silly; of course you have to train if you are going to fight monsters."

"We usually train in the Heros' Forge," Jim explained. "It's, ah, better suited for Trollhunter training."

"Oh, yes!" The Slayer nodded emphatically. "I'm so jealous - we just train in a boring training hall. We don't have moving floors and spinning saws and all those nifty weapons!"

"Spinning saws?" Mom asked, staring at him.

"I need to check the eggs," Jim deflected. He glared at the Slayer, but she wasn't looking at him - she was staring at the food again.

Great.

*****​

"Who wants more scrambled eggs? Or a sandwich?"

"Me, Nana!"

"Here you go, Toby-Pie!"

"Me too!"

"Here you go, Miss Summers."

"Call me Buffy!"

"Don't eat like a pig."

"Dawn!"

"What? You're slobbering!"

"I'm not! And I'm hungry because I was exercising!"

"Don't yell! You're gonna wake up Mom!"

"Who's yelling?"

"Children…"

James Lake Jr tried to tune out the squabbling. "So, how do you like the food?" He asked Claire. "It's really simple, but we were a little limited with the camping cookers," he explained.

"You helped cooking this?" Mrs Nuñez asked.

Jim suppressed a frown - she made it sound as if he had just assisted Mrs Domzalski. But technically, he had helped cooking, just as Toby's nana had. And trying to explain that he had been an equal partner, so to speak, would make him sound stupid. So he nodded.

"Ah."

"Jim's a great cook," Claire defended him.

"Ah."

Jim clenched his teeth. 'No, really' would make him sound desperate. And he wasn't. Just a little stressed.

They really needed caravans. And he needed some time alone with Claire.

*****​

Mom was still sleeping. She looked so vulnerable, in her bed - which was the best folding bed they had managed to get - that Buffy Summers had to clench her teeth to refrain from lashing out. At anything or anyone. Cancer. The kind of enemy she couldn't beat up and slay.

"The doctor said she was alright. The surgery was a success," Dawn said.

"I know," Buffy replied. She'd been there, after all. The surgeon had said so. As had Ben the intern. But hearing and believing were two different things, what with Mom here, asleep, and… "She looks so thin."

"Well, that's one good thing, isn't it?"

Buffy's head snapped around to stare at Dawn. Was she…? Oh. She was smiling but had tears in her eyes. So she was supposed to be joking. Buffy forced herself to chuckle. Then, as Dawn chuckled herself, or tried to, she reached out and hugged her sister.

The key, a small voice whispered in the back of her mind as she held Dawn. The key Glory wanted to destroy the world. The key whose destruction would save the world.

She pushed the voice away. Probably the First Slayer. Buffy would never hurt her sister. No matter what.

They stayed like that for a while, without saying anything.

"Buffy? Dawn?"

Buffy jerked, releasing Dawn and turning to face Mom. "Mom?"

"Mom!" Dawn was less restrained and went to hug her.

"What's wrong?" Mom asked. "Did something happen?"

"No, no, it's just…" Buffy trailed off.

"You were so exhausted, you slept through breakfast!" Dawn blurted out.

"Oh." Mom blinked. "Well, it got really late last night." She smiled. "I'm not a teenager any more; I need my sleep."

Buffy nodded. Mom was old. And vulnerable. "I'll get you some leftovers. You'll like it - it was cooked by Mrs Domzalski and Jim."

"If you like Polish breakfast."

"It's normal breakfast, just with sandwiches. Mostly," Buffy explained.

Mom laughed at that. "Let me get up and get dressed, first," she told them.

"Of course! Do you need help?" Buffy asked.

"I'll manage."

She sounded like Dawn when she needed help and didn't want to ask. But she was Mom. Not a bratty little sister who didn't know better, so Buffy left the tent. And dragged Dawn with her.

Mom was still recovering. And Buffy knew the whole evacuation hadn't helped - the doctors had said so, as did the papers Mom had to sign to get released. But she was safe now. As safe as Buffy could make her. As safe as Dawn.

*****​

"Slayer."

"Spike." Standing at the edge of the island, staring at the shifting world out there, Buffy Summers didn't turn. She didn't have to - she had heard Spike walk towards her. She knew his gait by now. When he didn't want to be sneaky, at least.

"You know, I could get used to this," he went on. "No sun here. Just some magic light and plenty of shadows. Give me some blood bags and a telly with BBC, and I'm set for life."

"You'd grow bored in a week," she told him.

"Not if I can spar with you every day," he replied.

Ah. That was why he was here. She grinned and turned to face him. "Don't you want to spar with the Trollhunters?"

He scoffed. "With the brats? The fat one is too weak and the bird cheats with her portals. The tall one might do, but I don't trust the kid to keep his weapons in check."

Buffy nodded. They hadn't tested what the sword did to vampires, but since it was called Daylight… And Toby might be fat, but he moved quickly - and he had a burning war hammer. Not that Spike would admit to being scared of getting set on fire.

"The brat's a little too dangerous for a friendly spar," Spike said.

"He's a good kid." But a kid.

"Yes, but not experienced enough to hold back if things ramp up a bit," Spike said. "Like a freshly trained Slayer."

"He's got experience," Buffy objected.

Spike pulled out a cigarette and lit it. "Not the kind that makes sparring fun."

She narrowed her eyes a little. What did he mean with that? They were talking about sparring. Fighting. And yet… there was a hint of something else. If only she had more than most of three semesters of psychology.

Not that she wanted to analyse Spike, of course. The vampire was a monster only held in check by the chip in his head. A monster that was very good at passing for a person. Too good. Dawn certainly didn't see him as a vampire, and Buffy didn't think Willow did, either. Not like Xander and Giles. She didn't know what Anya and Tara thought of him.

He had killed two Slayers. Tried to kill Buffy more than once. Killed countless people. He was a monster.

"So, whatcha say? Fancy a few rounds? I don't want to get rusty, staying here. If anything happens, I need to be on top of my game."

She snorted. That was a transparent attempt to manipulate her. But he wasn't wrong. If anything happened - and Buffy knew something would happen - Spike was the last line of defence here. "Alright," she said, nodding towards the flat space nearby, which had served as her training ground this morning.

He flashed her a smile and waved towards it. "After you."

Turning her back to a vampire felt wrong. Unless it was to bait them into attacking her. But this was Spike. If he wanted to kill her, if the chip ever stopped working, he wouldn't ambush her. He'd challenge her.

She also knew that he wasn't letting her go first because of some remnant manners from his life as a gentleman in Victorian London, but she ignored that and focused on the upcoming sparring match. A little violence would be good to relax before they had to work on getting caravans and meeting the Fed.

*****​
 
Chapter 18: The Fed
Chapter 18: The Fed

Shadow Realm, January 15th, 2017

"So… is it straining to keep a small portal open all the time?" James Lake Jr asked as he turned from looking at the Shadows floating in the distance to Claire.

"No," Claire replied. After a moment, she added: "Not really. It's just… like wearing a thick coat. A slight weight you only feel when you think about it."

"You carry the burden of our Internet access on your shoulders, then?" Jim joked.

Claire laughed. "You could say so. Or, rather, Dawn and Willow's Internet access. The rest doesn't seem to be as, ah, in need of around the clock Internet as those two."

"Addicted?" Jim asked.

"Willow's doing research," Claire replied. "And Dawn's 'conducting a misinformation campaign', or so she says."

Jim snorted, then blinked. "Oh. Wouldn't anyone be able to find out where we are by checking which cell tower our devices connect to?"

"I thought so, but Willow claims she has it handled," Claire told him. "Apparently, it matches wherever Dawn claims she is."

Jim frowned. That sounded like… something illegal. Probably. Then again, robbing a Walmart wasn't exactly legal, either. Nor was borrowing a bunch of campers. "Alright then."

Claire nodded, then sighed and stared at the moving shadows. When she didn't say anything, Jim tilted his head and asked: "Something wrong? Other than, well, our problem with Glory? And Gunmar?" He knew better than mentioning Enrique.

"It's just… I feel everyone is counting on me," she said. "I am the only one able to open portals. If I… Without me, no one can enter - or leave - this dimension. Everything, everyone depends on me."

Oh. Jim bit his lower lip for a moment. That… he should've expected that. He should've said something. "Well… I know how you feel," he said slowly. "It's, well, not the same, but very similar for me. I'm the Trollhunter, after all."

"But you're not alone. We can help you - we even delivered packages for you," Claire said, smiling a little.

"And you're not alone, either," Jim told her. "We're here; we'll help you. I'll help you." And I'll protect you. Even if it costs me my life, he silently added.

"Thanks," she said, smiling and putting a hand on his chest.

"We'll get through this," he told her. "And we'll get Enrique back."

And there went her smile. Stupid. Stupid.

"I know," she said.

But she was forcing herself to sound as if she meant it, Jim could tell. He slowly reached out, spread his arms, and she sighed and embraced him.

They stood like that for a while. Long enough for Jim to glance over his shoulder back at the camp, in case someone was watching. It didn't seem to be the case. But Claire's parents still didn't like him.

*****​

"Go away, you… monster!"

"Hey! I'm just here to grab a bite to eat!"

"Go away, or I'll throw you over the edge!"

James Lake Jr winced at the shouting he heard on the way back.

"Oh, no! That's Papa and Not-Enrique!" Claire exclaimed.

They rushed back. Mr Nuñez was standing at the main table, glaring at Not-Enrique and pointing a broom at him. It would've been comical if not for the whole situation with Glory and with Gunmar and Enrique.

"Papa!" Claire blurted out. "What are you doing?"

"Hey, Sis! He's trying to keep me from getting a snack!"

"I don't want this monster near me!" Mr Nuñez replied. "It's responsible for kidnapping Enrique!"

"Hey! That wasn't my fault - I just get my orders, I don't pick the targets!"

"Papa! It's not his fault, and he's helping us."

Jim clenched his teeth. Trying to get involved wouldn't help. But he was the Trollhunter, and dealing with conflicts between trolls and humans was his duty. And Not-Enrique was a troll, sort of. "Mr Nuñez," he said. "We're all in this together. We need to work together to get through this. Not-Enriquez has been a great help - without him, we wouldn't know as much about where your son is being held."

And Claire's dad was now glaring at him. Jim winced while Not-Enrique used the distraction to grab the entire bowl of dried fruit and scamper away.

"Papa! Jim's right! We have to work together!"

"That… that doesn't mean I have to work with that…" Mr Nuñez turned his head and trailed off as he noticed that the changeling had disappeared. "Where did… He took all the dried apples!"

"I'll get another bag," Jim said, hastily making his own exit.

"Wait!"

"Papa!"

Jim clenched his teeth and sped up a little. Not quite running. But he was looking forward to getting back to Arcadia Oaks, even if it meant risking a run-in with Glory.

*****​

Outside Arcadia Oaks, January 15th, 2017

Buffy Summers spotted the guy they were meeting as soon as they stepped onto the parking lot of the small diner that Giles had picked as their meeting spot. Tall man wearing a suit. Like in the movies.

"I'll keep a small portal open," Claire said as she closed the portal behind them, hiding amongst a few trees.

Buffy wasn't really listening - she was looking at the Fed. The federal agent - was that FBI? Or another agency? - didn't look like he had slept well, she thought. He wasn't slumped over or obviously fighting sleep as he sat at the table in the corner, but he looked like he had spent the night in his suit. Which he probably had, she realised. And at his age - he looked to be about as old as Giles - that wasn't a good thing.

She didn't say that out loud, of course, as they entered the diner and headed towards the man. Giles was a little sensitive about his age.

"Mr Moore?" Giles asked as he reached the table. "I'm Mr Giles."

"Special Agent Moore," the man replied. He looked at Buffy, Jim and Claire, and Buffy noticed a slight twist of his lips - the hint of a frown.

She beamed at him. Killing someone with kindness was always nice. Almost as nice as kicking their asses. "Hi! I'm Buffy. The Slayer. This is Jim, and this is Claire. They're the Trollhunters. Well, two-thirds of the Trollhunters."

"Hello, Special Agent," Jim said, nodding.

"Hello." Claire nodded a bit slower.

"Kids." Moore turned to Giles. "I heard you were working with kids but I didn't believe it until now."

"Sadly, You were misinformed. These 'kids' are working with me," Giles told him as he flagged down the waitress.

Oh! Buffy grabbed the menu. Mh… perfect! "I'll have the Beef Burger Deluxe!" she told the waitress as soon as the woman took a step in their direction. "And a large diet coke!"

"Uh… I'll have the bacon and egg sandwich," Jim said.

"Cesar salad," Claire added.

"I'd like the t-bone, medium, with fries," Giles said. Buff resisted making a joke about him ordering chips instead. He still claimed he had never made that mistake.

Moore kept frowning until the woman was out of earshot. "I was read in. The Council controls the Slayer."

"The exact details of the relationship between the Slayer and the Council are private," Giles replied. "Suffice to say that in the field, the Slayer makes the calls."

Buffy nodded. "Though everyone gets to have their say if there's time to debate. We're kinda liberal that way. Californian, you know?" She grinned.

Judging by Moore's expression, he was neither Californian nor did he know. Or approve.

"And we're working with the Trollhunters for this, which is a different group and not in any chain of command," Buffy went on. "Still, it tends to work out."

Moore narrowed his eyes, then stared at Giles.

Giles smiled in return. "Do not worry about the operative needs - we have experience dealing with global threats of a supernatural nature. We require assistance with handling the local authorities and mundane needs."

"I was briefed on the situation," Moore replied.

He seemed to be ignoring Buffy and the others. She narrowed her eyes for a moment, then smiled again. "You're basically cover-up-guy. And speaking of cover-ups, we need excuses for several civilians we had to evacuate. You know, for employers and the cops and so on."

"We can arrange protective custody."

"You couldn't protect anyone from Glory," she told him. "We've got that handled; all we need is you to keep the cops from wasting time investigating us." As if she'd let the guy take her family hostage!

"My agency has a lot of experience with hiding endangered people," Moore retorted.

"And have you any experience with stopping a hell-goddess that can shrug off bullets without noticing?" Buffy scoffed. "And might be able to get a witch or warlock to find her targets?"

Moore clenched his teeth - she saw his jaw muscles twitch. Why had the Feds sent this guy? Was no other agent available? Well, it had been the weekend, but still! "At least we don't send kids into battle!" he spat.

"No one sends us into battle - that's our decision," Claire snapped, frowning at the agent.

"Unfortunately, the supernatural world doesn't always conform to modern views about adulthood," Giles said. "Nevertheless, I understand your concerns, but as I said: We have experience with this sort of situation. And, as callous as it might sound, the stakes are too high for diverting any resource to discussing this. Glorificus represents an existential threat to the entire world. Every single human soul depends on us not failing in our task. Which is why I request your full cooperation, Agent Moore, regardless of your personal views."

"Or biases," Buffy mumbled. Moore didn't seem to notice, though - he was staring at Giles.

"You were read in," Giles commented, "about the scope of our situation, weren't you?"

"I wasn't told that this was the apocalypse," Moore replied.

"That's one apocalypse," Buffy corrected him. "Not the apocalypse."

The man turned to glare at her. "What?"

"What Buffy is hinting at," Giles explained, "is that this is not the first global threat, so to speak, that we've dealt with."

Moore looked taken aback, but Buffy wasn't quite sure that he really believed them. No, she was pretty sure he didn't. Didn't want to, at least.

*****​

"So, you claim to have saved California from being destroyed by monsters."

"Yes, Special Agent." Mr Giles sounded polite and professional even though the agent wasn't either. James Lake Jr wished he had that self-control.

"And yet, no one knows about this."

"You don't know about it. The US Army does - we did have to save their butts, after all," the Slayer cut in. "But you know how it is - need to know. Minions don't get told the big picture." She flashed a wide smile at the scowling man.

Jim took a bite of his bacon and egg sandwich and frowned. He could've made a better sandwich - a little less seasoning would've improved the taste considerably. Although that wasn't really what irked him - it was still a decent sandwich. But the way 'Special Agent Moore' was ignoring him and Claire as if they didn't matter... Agent Moore hadn't even asked what they did and could do. The man would probably ignore the Slayer, too, if not for her needling him. Why had the government sent such a man?

Of course, Jim wasn't the Trollhunter for praise and fame. You did what was right, no matter whether people knew it or not. And boasting… He almost shuddered at the thought of acting like Steve. But a little recognition would be nice.

Especially for Claire, he added with a glance at her. She was crucial for the whole thing they did - without her, they couldn't keep Dawn safe from Glory. Hell, without Claire's portals, all of them would have been killed already; they wouldn't have been able to escape Glory. And Moore was treating her like some little girl of no consequence.

Judging by the expression on her face when she stabbed at her salad, it seemed that she shared Jim's thoughts. He moved his elbow, touching hers, and when she looked at him, he smiled at her. It was the best he could do without talking in front of Moore about how stupid the man was being.

She smiled back, then scowled at Moore. "Do you require a demonstration, Special Agent?"

"Oh, yes!" The Slayer perked up. "We could drop him into the ocean."

"I am aware of the existence of the supernatural," Moore replied with a slight sneer. "I have dealt with such cases before." He tilted his head slightly.

"Oh, that's the reason you're like this!" The Slayer chuckled. "You're one of those 'hunters' who kill a vampire or two and think they are ready for the big leagues."

"Buffy," Mr Gile said, frowning, "There's no need to be confrontational. It's perfectly understandable that Special Agent Moore is sceptical of the scope of the threat Glorificus represents. And no demonstration of your personal prowess or our allies' powers will be able to convince him."

Moore's frown deepened, even though Mr Giles had supported him. "I don't need to believe you to do my job."

"Indeed." Mr Giles smiled politely.

The Slayer mumbled something about wishing Riley were here.

"However," Mr Giles went on, "It would probably not go amiss to make you more familiar with our capabilities, so you have a better understanding of our needs."

"I already know that Miss Summers is able to beat vampires in hand to hand combat," the man replied.

"I can do so much more than that!"

"Buffy is much more than merely a martial artist," Mr Giles said. "As are Mr Lake and Miss Nuñez. Please understand that fighting demons does require much more than merely the physical strength to match them."

"I'm aware of that."

"Intellectually, yes. But I dare say that you don't understand it emotionally. Few do until they are faced with greater and more complicated threats than the average demon."

"Yeah, Riley took a while to understand that it's not about shooting them."

Jim cleared his throat. "It's really not about fighting. Not just, I mean - we do have to fight Gumm-Gumms and goblins and such. But it's about protecting people. Convincing them to work with you, not against you. And to understand your enemy."

"Yes," the Slayer chimed in, nodding emphatically. "It's all about the research before you get to the slaying. You need to find your enemy's weakness before you can take them out."

That wasn't exactly wrong, but not quite what Jim had wanted to say. Before he could voice his thoughts, though, Claire spoke up: "It's about working together, Special Agent."

"I'm here to do that," Moore replied. "I've got my orders and I know my duty."

"But how can we work together," Jim asked before he could stop himself, "if you don't want to listen to us? We've got the experience."

"You can't," the Slayer replied before Moore could.

Which wasn't helpful.

Moore glared at all of them - including Mr Giles. "You're kids," he spat. "You're not even out of high school."

"I'm in college!" the Slayer protested. "Second year! OK, my attendance isn't the best, but I'm passing my classes!"

"This isn't about our education, but our experience as Trollhunters," Claire told the agent. "And as the Slayer," she added with a glance at the woman in question. "You shouldn't just dismiss us because of our youth."

"Indeed." Mr Giles nodded. "And while you have valid concerns about teenagers fighting, it would be foolish to dismiss them merely because of their age. No matter the reasons, they are amongst our most experienced and most powerful members in our ranks."

"They're still teenagers."

"I'm almost twenty!" the Slayer blurted out. "Just four more days!" She blinked, then gasped. "Oh my God! I'm going to have to celebrate my twentieth birthday in… here!"

"Well, the food is decent," Mr Giles commented.

"Giles! That's not what I meant!"

Seeing Moore's expression, Jim suddenly felt a close connection to the man.

"Can we worry about actually important issues?" Claire asked in a clipped tone.

"I concur." Mr Giles nodded. "I feel you should be made aware of the current, ah, political situation in Greater Arcadia Oaks, Special Agent."

That meant Trollmarket. Jim licked his lips. He couldn't betray the trust of the trolls, so that meant only the basics. Enough so the agent understood what more was at stake. "We're the Trollhunters. We defend the local troll settlement against the Hordes of Gunmar, the evil troll leader who wants to conquer the world. He's been banished to the Darklands, another dimension, but works on escaping - and he has agents on Earth. Changelings - trolls that can take human forms and were raised as humans practically from birth." He heard Claire take a deep breath and patted her thigh. "They have infiltrated society, which means you can't trust anyone we haven't vetted."

"What? That old myth about changelings replacing babies is true?" Moore asked.

"Yes," Claire hissed. "My baby brother was taken." She stared at the man - daring him to make light of it, Jim thought.

Moore pressed his lips together. "I see. And do they turn to stone when the sunlight hits them?"

"No. Not in their human form," Jim told him.

"So they're worse than vampires." Moore nodded.

"Yes. They can enter your home uninvited as well," the Slayer said. "And holy water doesn't hurt them. I think."

"We never tried it," Claire told them. "But if it worked, we wouldn't have needed Gaggletacks to reveal their true form. We could just have splashed them with holy water."

"Well, there are other demons who would burn when doused with holy water," the Slayer said. "But it wouldn't hurt to expose them, either. Unless, of course, they hurt you in return."

"Great." Moore spat through clenched teeth. "I'll have to pose as an agent from the counter-terrorism department."

"That would likely be helpful in maintaining your cover, but I fear that should you overtly help us, the agents of our enemies would realise that you are working with us," Mr Giles told him.

Moore narrowed his eyes and shook his head. "Do you have any more good news?"

"Glory might try to kidnap you if you mess up? And drain your brain?" the Slayer suggested.

"Buffy," Mr Giles muttered.

"What? It's true!"

"I'll have to be more careful than planned, then. Use someone else to place the cover stories and act as if I want your families found." Moore sighed. "Great."

Jim felt a slight pang of guilt - they were causing the agent to take a huge risk helping them. On the other hand, that was his job. And unlike Jim, he was getting paid for it. And volunteered. Probably.

"That's why we need to brief you about our capabilities," the Slayer told the agent. "So you can ask for help when you need it."

"If they come after you, we can save you," Claire added.

"What? You'll teleport me to your base?"

"Not exactly teleport, no, but close enough," Jim said.

"It won't help if you're caught somewhere we don't know," the Slayer said. "Glory can move faster than your eyes can track. But if you can run from a changeling or demon and text us, we can get to you quickly." She perked up. "Oh, and we can also hack computer systems if you need your tracks covered."

"That would be illegal," Moore pointed out.

"You're the government; you decide what's legal and what's not," the Slayer retorted.

"That's not how it works," the agent told her.

"I'll reiterate: If we fail to defeat Glory's attempt to gain the key, the world will end. Violating a few laws about computer security shouldn't be a problem," Mr Giles said.

"Tell that to my superiors."

"We will, Special Agent - if it's needed."

"The government covered up a lot more than some hacking," the Slayer said with a snort. "You should worry about staying alive, not about breaking laws."

"Actually, avoiding illegal actions is sound advice," Mr Giles said, "as long as that doesn't endanger anyone."

Moore sighed. "So, what can you do, exactly?"

Jim smiled. "Well, it's mostly Claire here..."

*****​

"...and that's how the portals work," Claire said, pulling her staff back. "I can open one to a place or a person I know."

Buffy Summers nodded. "And she can open it beneath you, so you don't even have to step through it - you fall through it! It gets a bit disorienting when suddenly, below is on the side, and you fall out of a vertical portal, but that's still better than getting your head smashed in by an angry hell-goddess."

Claire frowned at her, but Buffy ignored that. The witch had done this to Buffy, so Buffy got to tell it.

"I see." Moore shook his head. "You could catch a fugitive easily like that if you knew them."

"And if they are relatively close. The greater the distance, the more tiring it gets," Claire replied.

"Thinking of catching criminals that way?" Buffy asked.

"Of course," the agent admitted. "Just imagine how many terrorists we could catch easily."

"Yeah, and then imagine how many terrorists would start working with demons to counter this," Buffy retorted.

"Indeed. While tempting, meddling in politics is far too dangerous. One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, after all," Giles agreed. "If other states start thinking that our organisation has taken sides, they will no longer cooperate with us, which could have fatal consequences for a great many people. And if foreign governments start turning to demons, we might be facing multiple apocalypses. It's not worth introducing magic to law enforcement."

"We could stick to criminals," the agent pointed out.

"And would others believe us?" Giles shook his head. "The danger of upsetting the - limited but working - agreements that allow us to intervene anywhere on Earth is too great. Not to mention that other countries would expect us to help catch criminals as well - and their definition of a criminal might not align with yours or ours."

"Yeah," Buffy chimed in. "And we saw what happens when the government starts meddling with demony stuff. It's not pretty."

"What happened?"

She tilted her head and gave the agent a look. As if she'd spill the beans on the Initiative! "You don't have the security clearance for that. But it was really ugly. If we hadn't stepped in, we wouldn't be here to talk about it. Or not talk about it."

The man scoffed. "So… you can open portals all around the town, and the main suspect won't be able to enter them, but anyone else can. Such as demons working for the suspect."

"Just call her 'Glory'. Or 'skanky hell-goddess'," Buffy said with a smile. The agent wasn't as dumb as she had thought. Just cranky. And a little bit like Riley, probably - he didn't seem to like answering to people who weren't as old as he was.

"The correct name would be 'Glorificus'," Giles added, "but Glory works."

Of course it did! "Anyway, that's about it."

"More or less," Jim agreed. "There are a few more points. If you encounter goblins, remember that killing one of them will make all the others swear vengeance on you. Don't kill the good trolls."

"And how can I tell a good troll from an evil troll?"

"The evil trolls generally try to kill and eat you," Jim told him.

Buffy suppressed a snort at the boy's deadpan delivery. So, the guy could quip.

"And don't trust anyone here unless we vetted them," Claire said. "Detective Scott is vetted, by the way."

"You didn't check more people?" Moore asked.

"We did more checks, but we couldn't really ask to touch police officers and other authority figures with an enchanted piece of iron without drawing attention," Jim replied.

Moore nodded - a little reluctantly, or so Buffy thought. "I see."

"Good. Anyway, you've got our number. We'll be trying to keep our internet and cellphone connections open when we're in hiding, but if we're in the field, someone should get your text," Buffy said. "We'll do our best to help you."

"Although Claire might be exhausted," Jim said. "So, we cannot promise you to always be available to save you."

"I'll take that into account." Moore checked his watch. "Time to annoy the locals, then." He shook his head. "That won't earn the Bureau any goodwill."

"Yeah, been there, done that," Buffy said. "People never understand what you have to do to keep them safe from demons."

"Undank ist der Weltenlohn," Claire said.

Buffy stared at her. "What?"

"Señor Uhl said that once," the girl explained. "It means people won't be grateful, or not for long."

"Story of my life," Buffy muttered.

"Mr Uhl is your German teacher?" Moore asked.

"No. He teaches Spanish," Jim said.

"Ah, he's of German descent, then."

"No, he's Austrian," Claire told the agent. Both Trollhunters grinned.

The agent shook his head and scoffed. "I see."

Buffy really wanted to tell him that she doubted that but held her tongue. He wasn't a scooby and would probably not appreciate the ribbing.

She watched Moore settle his bill - he didn't offer to cover theirs - and leave before sighing. "Alright. That's done. For now."

"And what do we do now?" Jim asked.

"Get some campers," Buffy replied. "I really want a private shower."

The way the two Trollhunters blushed, they weren't a fan of showering behind some thin plastic curtain, either. Well, that should settle any moral scruples that they might have.

"So..." She leaned over the table. "Before we order more food: Do you know a camper and RV dealer in the region?"

*****​

"More food?" James Lake Jr asked, then shook his head; the Slayer ate like a horse. Or worse. "Never mind."

"I don't know of any such dealer," Claire said, sipping from her tea. "But that should be easy to find." She didn't pull out her smartphone, though, Jim noticed. Oh - she must