"I thought I heard a car," Giles explained needlessly.
Willow nodded, but didn't look up from her laptop. She'd slept maybe an hour last night. He'd had none. Even though Buffy had been there, sleeping in their room, standing guard over Grace, he hadn't allowed himself even one moment of rest. He was too unnerved, too guilty, too determined that nothing would hurt his family.
Taking extra care to baby his stiff back, a reminder of last night's failed exorcism, he crossed the kitchen to look out the patio door. A litany of expletives muttered under his breath as he faced an empty driveway reached Willow's ears and he heard her sigh.
"They'll be here," Willow said. "Los Angeles is two hours away."
"I know how far away it is," he snapped, looking once more before sliding the door shut. Guilt, impotence, rage, despair, loneliness, helplessness; they consumed him. "I called them yesterday. They should bloody well be here by now."
Instantly he regretted his tone, but didn't have the energy to take it back. This whole damn thing had him on edge, dredging up things from his past. People from his past. Help from L.A. People he'd kept at arm's length, people he had used shamelessly to garner information and then seldom gave a second thought. People who reminded him that hell extended beyond Sunnydale.
The scrap of the chair against the tile pulled Giles's attention back to his wife. He saw the flash of pain in her eyes a moment before she turned on her heel and started from the room. He closed his eyes and swore again, this time softer. The last thing he needed to do was push her away, although he was certainly doing his damndest at accomplishing just that.
A lump formed in his throat and he swallowed it. He had to say something. He wasn't sure what she needed to hear, what he needed to say, only that the silence that had entombed the house, surrounded them, was unbearable.
She looked over her shoulder at him, her sad, tired eyes patient.
"I-I'm sure Wesley will have some answers, contacts. It isn't hopeless." Even saying that felt like a lie. Empty. Obvious. Not quite enough. He pressed his lips together, inhaling deeply through his nose, gripping the edge of the island, waiting for…. He closed his eyes and sighed again. He didn't know what he was waiting for. He just wanted it finished.
The soft pressure of Willow's hand on his shoulder broke his silent plea to whatever gods might be listening. Wordlessly she wrapped her arms around his waist and pressed her head to his chest. After a moment's pause, Giles turned into her hold, took the comfort she offered, and hated himself because he couldn't give her the same respite.
They stood, holding each other, rocking slowly back and forth, searching for a small grain of hope until the unmistakable sound of sandals slapping against the stairs interrupted them. Willow pulled away enough to give him a brave smile that lifted her eyebrows. She pressed her small hand on the wrinkles in his t-shirt.
Giles barely had time to lie before Grace walked in on them. The little girl and her Slayer shadow was a welcomed distraction. He bent at the knees and opened his arms to his daughter. Instantly she was in them.
"We're hungry," Grace announced.
"Then we should eat," Giles said, forcing nonchalance into his tone. Right. Teatime. It was important to keep life as normal as possible. With Grace still in his arms he turned and reached across the island to snag his teakettle.
"Anything stronger than tea?" Buffy asked. Neither Giles nor Willow returned her half-hearted attempt at humor as they both set about fixing something no one aside from Grace would eat.
They nibbled at sandwiches, sipped at cold tea, and waited. It was another half-hour before they heard a car pull into the driveway. Already tense with waiting Giles sprang from his chair. It was bloody well time, and he had every intention of telling Wesley that and more. What he saw when he slammed open the door made him step back in shock.
"And they say L.A's tough to navigate."
Giles squinted not at all sure he hadn't lost his mind. Was this some sort of sick, cosmic joke? Every muscle in his body seemed to tense.
The tall, green man in an impressively flashy summer suit rounded the car and extended his hand. "Name's Lorne. And you have got to be the daddy. You've got that protective papa bear vibe coming off you something fierce."
Giles stepped back, blocking the entrance and glared warily at the offered hand. He'd specifically asked Wesley to come. "Who sent you?"
"Things are crazy at the office and Wesley got a little frozen in one spot." At this the green demon, as Giles had now clearly observed, made a sympathetic face. "Those Krthzigbut demons and their personal space. Anyway, he'll be here as soon as he's thawed."
Giles crossed his arms over his chest and widened his stance. Until he got some answers, Lorne was going nowhere near his family. Unless of course Grace happened to slip through his parted legs. Giles grabbed for her, calling no, but she bound ahead drawing up short a few steps out of his reach. He watched the red braids snake down her back as she bent her head back and stare up at the demon. In the distance a telephone rang.
"Clever, aren't you my little carrot cake?" Lorne spared Giles a quick glance. The sympathy Giles saw irritated him. Sympathy at this point was useless. "Things aren't exactly good here, are they?"
"That's putting it mildly." Giles finally relented his stance. Willow and Buffy edged around him, both of them flanking Grace.
"That was Angel," Buffy explained. She sauntered closer to Lorne and looked him up and down. "He said we should expect a tall green lounge singer any time now and that Wesley's on his way."
That assurance eased the knots in Giles' stomach. Despite his original assessment, Wesley wasn't an idiot. Neither was Angel for that imatter, and the Cordelia he knew did not tolerate incompetence. If they accepted a Pylean demon into their fold, then he would give him the benefit of the doubt. For now.
Lorne smiled and flicked his wrist at them in imitation of diva embarrassment. "That was a long time ago, kids. My lounging days are over. I traded them in for agent work."
"You're really green," Grace said, still in awe. "With red horns. Weird."
"We're just gonna go swing," Buffy said as she took Grace's hand. She caught Giles's eye. "If everything here's alright?"
"Everything's fine," Giles assured her then returned his attention to Lorne. "Perhaps we ought to take this inside."
Across the patio hope sparked in Willow's eyes, more than he'd seen in days, and a pang of guilt shot through him. Giles pulled open the door and stood back to let Willow and Lorne pass. With another anxious look back at his daughter closed it behind them.
Already Willow was readying a tray of drinks as he stepped into the kitchen. She listed off what drinks were available, but startled as the air conditioner kicked on. The tray she held twisted dangerously in her hands and clattered on the counter. Giles offered her what he hoped was a comforting smile and put his hand over hers. He looked to Lorne.
"You'll have to forgive us," he apologized. "Considering the circumstances, we're a bit jumpy."
"Why don't you kids tell Uncle Lorne the circumstances," Lorne suggested. "We'll fill in Wesley when he gets here."
Giles nodded and took over the serving duties, listening as Willow detailed her research on Peter and his father.
"The poor little boy," she said, her voice quiet with emotion. "No mother to speak of, moved to Sunnydale a few years ago." She sifted through her stack of files from the center of the table until she found what she needed. "They lived in Halls Pen, a subsidized apartment complex near what used to be The Bronze. Poor attendance in school. Crayton was being investigated for child endangerment when – when it happened."
She took a steadying breath and accepted the tea Giles poured into her cup. He hated that her hands shook. It tore at him. This wasn't his wife and the nervous little girl who played just outside wasn't his daughter, and he couldn't help but feel that somehow this was his fault.
"I don't remember it happening," Willow confessed. She sat down her teacup and studied her hands. "It had to have been in the news. It was so gruesome."
"Gruesome in Sunnydale is relative," Giles reminded her. He frowned and leaned to look out the back door. Grace and Buffy had moved to practicing on the scooter. Lorne remained silent.
She pulled out a printed page. "I've got the police report, but it's pretty sparse. It's like no one really cared. Crayton Barnabas was found in the living room, dead from an overdose. Peter Barnabas, age five, was found drowned in the bathtub." Her voice faltered and Giles took over.
"Long story short, the boy and his father are haunting Grace. We tried an exorcism a few nights back."
"You've tried scrubbing them out, shouting them out, and it isn't working. Is that problem?"
Giles pushed away from the table and ran his hand over his head. While he didn't appreciate Lorne's flippant approach, his words about summed it up. "It should have worked. We, we did everything perfectly. At the very least, the little boy should have found the light. We did everything but take him by the hand and lead him to it." Weariness settled itself over him.
Lorne seemed to consider the information and then clapped his hands together. "Let's call in the little princess and see what we can do, shall we?"
Willow nodded and slipped out from behind the table. Giles watched her for a few seconds and then turned to Lorne. "I won't have you frightening her," he said quietly. "She's seen too much as it stands."
Shock, indignation, concern, empathy all rolled across Lorne's green face. "You'd think after all these years Wesley would have filled you in. No worries, Papa Bear. We're just gonna sing a song and then work from there."
Giles did not waver his glare. He wanted no mistake made. Lorne shifted in his seat and leaned closer to him.
"She sings, I read her vibe, tell you what's the what and hopefully we can figure out how to fix it. No harm, no foul." A sudden bright smile lightened his eyes and he nodded toward the sliding door. Grace ran across the yard and toward them. "Now smile before you freak her out."
She filled the room with youth and the smells of summer. "I did it," Grace exclaimed. "Did you see? Did you? I made my scooter jump this high." She spread her arms in impossible width and grinned expectantly. Behind her Buffy made exaggerated but assuring gestures that it had only come off the ground the tiniest bit. Giles still rolled his eyes.
Grace's smile landed on Lorne but never even wavered. "Did you see, green man?"
"I think I felt it when you finally touched ground, amazing Grace," Lorne assured her. He extended his hand to her, and to Giles' surprise, she took it without hesitation. "Your mommy and daddy have been telling me what a pretty voice you have. They said I might be able to persuade you to singe for me."
Grace shrugged. "What do you want to hear? Daddy knows about every song in the world, and I know prolly about a hundred." She scowled twisted her lips into an endearing pucker as she thought. Giles's heart swelled.
"Do you know Melancholy Baby?" Lorne asked. He winked up at Willow. Buffy snorted. Giles grunted.
"How about Dear Prudence?" Grace asked. She looked over her shoulder at Giles, obviously waiting for him to get his guitar. Giles excused himself and went to his study. This was ludicrous. A vibe reading demon. He sighed as he picked up his guitar case and flipped open the latches. Ludicrous or not, it was their only option at the moment. Until they knew more, his hands were tied.
By the time he returned to the kitchen Grace had cozied up on Lorne's lap and Willow and Buffy wore identical grins as he spread some L.A. gossip. For a second, it was as if everything was as it should be. Excepting the green demon in his kitchen. Giles cleared his throat and pulled out a chair, settling himself down enough to strum a few chords. A fuzzy warmth ran through him as Grace slid off Lorne's lap and bounced to his side. She pressed into his arm and leaned her lead on his shoulder. Giles inhaled the scent of kid and sun block then on impulse planted a quick kiss on her hairline.
"Shall we?" he whispered. Grace nodded and they started the song. For a few blessed moments, Giles could tune out everything but the sweet pitch of his daughter's voice as it mixed with his guitar. Anyone listening would think they didn't have care in the world.
When the last chord ended he felt her squeeze his arm and he opened his eyes.
"How was that, Daddy?" she whispered, adorably shy.
"Beautiful, sweetheart," Giles managed. He glanced at Lorne, who seemed to rouse from thoughts of his own and gave a solid round of applause to the little performer.
"Call me in a few years. We'll write up a contract," he suggested, but the smile didn't quite reach his eyes.
Giles steeled himself but kept his expression as neutral as he could as he suggested Buffy and Grace go back outside. He felt Willow's small hand wedge into his and he gave it a small squeeze but kept his eyes on Lorne.
Lorne took a deep breath and then seemed to meld into the chair as he exhaled. Finally, he sat up straight and wagged his finger toward the back patio, indicating Grace. "There's a lot going on with that little girl."
Giles felt a muscle in his jaw tick.
Lorne sighed again, as if gathering his thoughts. "I didn't sense anything demonic."
Willow's relief was palpable and she leaned into him. Giles waited. There was always more. He was rewarded for his patience.
"Two entities have attached themselves to her. One of them, probably the little boy, is the weaker one. He's benign. A little confused, a little scared, but otherwise harmless. It's the other one who's causing all the problems." Lorne leveled Giles with a direct stare. "Let's just say I wouldn't want to be around when he wakes up."
Giles measured his words carefully. "Do you know how we can defeat this thing?"
Lorne's eyebrows shot up. "Oh, you can't, Gentle Ben." Giles felt his heart stutter and he clenched his fists.
"What?" Willow blurted out. Her look was one of pure terror.
"It's all up to the little nipper," Lorne continued. His red eyes met Giles's with an unwavering stare.
Giles felt the veins in his neck throb and for a moment saw the room in a wash of red. When he finally found his voice it shook with rage. "She's a five year old child. I've seen what this bastard can do to her. I am not letting her face it alone. I can't."
Lorne held up his hands palms out as if warding off physical blows. "I'm sorry," he apologized.
"Impossible," Giles growled leaning across the table. He braced his weight on his knuckles.
Lorne looked like he'd rather be anywhere doing anything else other than this. "Look, I know you're scared. You should be. But one way or the other, she has to face this. She won't be alone, but you won't be able to help her. No matter how hard you try." He shrugged helplessly. "I'm sorry."
"When?" Willow managed. She'd sunk to the nearest chair but her hair hid her expression.
"Can't say for sure," Lorne said. "But when it happens, it's gonna be fast and furious."
Willow cradled her forehead in her hand, digging her fingers into her temples, hoping to obliterate the migraine that hovered over her. Across from her Giles poured over texts with an intensity she'd rarely seen. Next to him sat Wesley Windham-Pryce looking a little frost bitten around the edges, but more worn from the relentless research Giles had insisted they do. He wouldn't accept what Lorne had told them, but something told her there wasn't an alternative, and it chilled her to the bone. Still, they couldn't give up, and researching was comfortable, methodical. Except for now.
Reaching the end of her patience, Willow pushed back her computer away from her and stood.
"I'm gonna call it a night." She squinted at the clock and corrected herself. It was well past three a.m.. She crossed the room and took a very sound asleep Grace from Buffy's arms. The weight of the little girl was negligible in comparison to the one in her heart. Willow held her daughter closer; savoring the deep sigh Grace gave as she snuggled in tighter to her chest.
"I'm comin' with," Buffy said and pushed herself off the couch.
Willow stopped next to Giles and waited for his attention. Reluctantly he pulled himself away from a passage and looked up at her. She searched his weary, red-rimmed eyes, hoping to see the reassurance she needed, and very much wanting to be able to say just the right thing that would drive away the desperation she saw in their cloudy green depths. "I love you," was all she could manage.
He looked away and then back to his book. "I'll be up in a bit."
It stung, but Willow nodded. He couldn't even trust himself with that simple reassurance. With a nod to Wesley, Willow adjusted Grace's weight in her arms and followed Buffy up the stairs and into the bedroom they would all share. Quietly, they readied themselves for bed, each one taking a turn in the bathroom while the other stood guard over Grace. Finally, Willow pulled back her covers, slid in between the sheets, and turned off her bedside lamp. Gently, she wrapped herself around Grace's sleep-warmed body.
Buffy's voice came out of the darkness, quiet, intense, and reassuring. "We'll find a way through this."
Willow's voice broke when she tried to speak so she settled for a nod. She knew in her gut that the only way through this lay with her baby.
The morning light stole in the bedroom through the blinds and Grace shifted and stirred within the warm cocoon her parents had made for her. Giles and Willow surrounded her, breathing deeply and evenly, lost in the thick, fast sleep that would leave them more exhausted than they day before. Books lay strewn across the bed, bent at the spine, used to mark pages in other books. The hum from the air conditioner harmonized with the whir of Giles's electric clock, but Peter's urgent call was what pulled Grace from her dreams.
Large eyes opened with a start and she was still for a moment, gathering her bearings, wondering if she'd dreamed his voice. She heard it again and sat up, slowly not wanting to disturb her parents or Aunt Buffy who slept across the room. Grace frowned and cocked her head to the side listening for his voice. It came again, urging her out of bed telling her it was time, and as carefully as she could Grace climbed from the bed and slipped from the room without looking back.
Long shadows reached for her as she crept down the hallway, making sure to keep close to the wall. Grace shivered and brought her hand to the necklace Willow had given her weeks ago. She knew now that her mother had made up the story about it protecting her, but it didn't matter to Grace. Touching the cool crystal comforted her.
She stopped just outside her bedroom door and twisted the knob and flinched as the spring clicked and the hinges squeaked. It wasn't a sound she'd paid much attention to in the past but it cut through the morning stillness and brought with it the threat of waking her parents. Grace held her breath and eased the door open just enough for her to fit through. Peter's voice persisted.
“I'll be there,” she assured him under her breath. She crossed the bedroom, pausing now and again to glance over her shoulder, fearful of being caught. Having made it safely across the room she opened her closet door and tiptoed to turn on the light.
Stuffed animals and games overran the shelves that lined one wall but Grace looked past those and set her sights on one beat up shoebox that she'd hidden in the darkest corner. Once it'd held her favorite pair of red tennis shoes, now it held all her private treasures; an empty cocoon, a rock that probably had diamonds in it, the pink ribbon she'd found in the park, and since the day Peter had given it to her for safe keeping, the Veruvian Orb. She reached back into the shoebox and carefully pulled the Orb from the box.
It looked no sturdier than a glass Christmas tree ornament. Grace's instinct was to treat it as gently as she would a newborn kitten. Deep inside, though it was an immature thought, she knew she held her fate in her hands. If the orb broke too soon, she and Peter would be lost forever.
With her treasure in hand, she left her room and descended the stairs careful to avoid the creaks and groans of the old wood. Outside the patio window Peter waved his arms back and forth and called for her to hurry. Every so often he would look over his shoulder, as if he were expecting someone, and Grace's heart would pound. If Crayton found out about their plan, it would be ruined.
The morning's breeze lifted her red hair from her forehead and sent an involuntary shiver through her shoulders. Grace took a deep breath and then stepped out onto the cold concrete. As much as she wanted to run back inside and dive in between her parents she couldn't. She'd told Peter she would help him and that was what she would do. A Giles never went back on her word. Across the patio the gate eased open and Peter stood, waiting.
Grace's nightgown swirled around her feet as she drew to his side. Grace licked her lips and took a deep breath. “You remember our deal?” she asked and then nodded at Peter's response. “Don't let go of me. No matter what.”
She frowned at Peter's question and shook her head vehemently. Her daddy would know what to do once he found her. He'd bring her back. She was pretty sure he'd know where to look for her, but as a precaution she raised her hands and unhooked the crystal necklace that hung from her neck. She held it up to the morning sun and watched for a moment as it played with the light and then looked back at the gate.
Moments later with her crystal necklace hanging off the fence Grace clutched the orb to her chest and nodded to Peter. She could do this. She was ready. Together they stared down into the pool's murky depths. Water slapped at the pool's edge like dozens of hands reaching for her. Grace blinked away her tears and took a deep breath of courage then took one step off the pool's edge.
Chlorinated water bit and stung at Grace's eyes, nose, and throat and she struggled desperately to reach the surface. Just one breath her lungs screamed as dark terror descended on her. She fought Peter's hold, desperate, not wanting to help anymore only wanting the oxygen that was a mere four feet above her head. Her gown entangled her legs as she kicked, clawed with her free hand, and then screamed.
Bitter water replaced the lost air and Grace's back arched as her muscles spasmed in an attempt to expel what didn't belong. Her heart slammed against her ribs as they spread with effort to find any piece of air. Blind panic reared its head and Grace's struggle to survive intensified for a brief moment and then subsided.
As her muscles relaxed her fingers opened and released the orb. It floated upwards, cutting through the light that slashed through the water's depths until it reached the surface and popped into the air. Below it, just feet beneath the surface, floated a small, motionless body. The morning returned to silence.
Giles snapped awake, instantly alert, instantly terrified. Whether Willow's identical reaction was a response to him or her own intuition he wasn't sure. They sat up in the bed, sharing the knowledge that something was very, very wrong, then struggled from the covers.
“Where is she?” Giles demanded. His heart hammered in his chest and the edges of his vision blurred. He jerked back the blankets. Books scattered, thudding to the floor, but he was already across the room, opening his closet, searching. Grace wasn't there. Somehow she'd slipped out without waking them. Giles shook his head and tore back across the room. There was no comforting thought that followed. She hadn't merely waken up and gone to the bathroom. It wasn't that simple. They all felt it.
“She's not in her room,” Buffy said, grabbing the sides of the door to stop her momentum.
Willow drew up short, her face pale, her lips spread in an open mouthed frown. The sheets she held fell to the floor. “Oh, God."
“Downstairs,” Giles ordered. They would go about this thoroughly, looking everywhere until they found her. It was that simple. He grabbed Willow's elbow and pulled her from the room. “Buffy, you check the study, Willow, the –“
He cut off short as Wesley met them halfway. Wesley had spent the night. In his study. Giles's heart plummeted.
“Is everything alright?”
“We can't find Grace,” Willow managed.
She clutched Giles's arm but he barely felt it. He was grasping for something. Time, he knew, was of the essence. He'd woken up, terrified. Why? What had been the impetus? Had he heard something? A conversation hummed around him but he heard nothing. He pushed his subconscious harder. What had it been?
“If she's not inside then she has to be outside,” Wesley said. “Buffy, check the front. Willow –“
“Outside.” The word barely escaped his lips and Giles knew. Oh, God. Outside. He felt the blood drain from his face and his ears throbbed.
He jerked free of Willow's hold and pushed past Wesley. “Grace!" He took the steps two at a time, nearly falling off the last three steps. Pain rocketed through his thigh as he slammed into the railing, but he ignored it and tore through the kitchen.
In hindsight he would remember that the patio door stood open, but nothing registered now except the open gate and the pool that lay just beyond it. Something small glittered from the fence solidifying what he already knew. Grace.
He hung on the doorframe for a moment, his mind working furiously to deny the proof, and then he plunged forward. Whether he was pushed or not Giles couldn't be sure and didn't care. Cries of where is she, oh, my God, call 911 filled the morning air. People ran around him, behind him, but he didn't pay attention. He was drawn to the pool.
Moments later he stood at its edge staring at something that lay spread-eagle in the corner of the deep end. Pinpricks of fear proceeded denial and then shock. "No," he whispered, struggling for a breath.
From the corner of his eye he saw someone move beside him and then heard a splash. Giles remained frozen, riveted in place by the tendrils of hair that floated out from his daughter's head like a bloody halo just before someone, Buffy maybe, broke the surface with her arm hooked around Grace's lifeless form. Hair that had moments before surrounded Grace's head like seaweed in the ocean now clung to her face, wrapped around her shoulders.
Giles grabbed Grace from Buffy's arms, pulled her by one arm through the water. He lifted her, limp, drenched, and lifeless into his chest. Her head fell back over his elbow, her hair fell back and Grace stared up at him with dead eyes.
“It's okay,” he murmured, holding her close, moving back from the pool's edge, looking for a place to put her down. It was okay. She hadn't been under that long. People who – people who had been under too long were… were gray… and…. No, he wouldn't think that. He didn't dare. He would fix this.
He lay Grace down on the concrete and knelt over her, smoothing her hair from her cold damp face, tilting her head back. Clear the airway, breath, five compressions. He could do this. He would do this. Giles felt tunnel vision kick in and his concentration centered on the manual rise and fall of her chest. Around him people raced, he heard bare feet slapping against the concrete, he felt water drip on him as someone – it didn't matter who – stood over them.
Terror burned through him. It wasn't working. How long had it been? A minute? Ten? But, God, it wasn't working. Grace wasn't responding. She should be breathing on her own. Sweat broke out on his forehead and he redoubled his efforts. One, two, three, four, five, breath. One, two, three, four –
“Giles,” Willow said again. Her voice sounded sharp and frantic to her own ears and somewhere in the back of her mind she felt the hysteria building, pushing against sanity. When he didn't answer she turned to Buffy.
“Oh, God, Buffy,” she said. Her stomach rolled dangerously and she gripped her friend's arm. “Tell me what to do.”
She wanted to be in control, to know exactly how to handle the situation, but all she could see was Grace. Pale, her tiny chest nearly crushed under Giles's ministrations, her hair trailing out haphazardly from her head. She looked back to Buffy, her breath coming in short painful gasps, the edges of her world blurring. Oh, no. She couldn't faint. Not now.
Buffy's fingers dug into Willow's arms with excruciating precision, giving the pain an opportunity to break Willow's desperate fugue. The world came back into focus.
"We need to keep her warm. Get her a blanket,” Buffy said in careful measured tones. She turned Willow toward the house. “A thick warm one.”
In the back of her mind Willow knew it was a busy job, one designed to keep her occupied, out of the way, this far from a breakdown, but she didn't care. She would focus on the blanket and move on from there.
Propelled by Buffy's small push she ran back inside. A warm blanket. She could do that. Giles would bring Gracie back with CPR and she would have the blanket ready.
Willow's blood pounded through her temples as she tore through the kitchen and into the study. She barely registered Wesley holding the cordless phone, as they pushed past each other. She snatched the blanket from the foot of the couch, clutched it to her chest like a lifeline, and then started back outside.
Willow rushed across the patio but stumbled to a standstill as Wesley dove off the side and into the pool. He was swimming? Now? Her baby was dead and he was swimming? Willow blinked. Fury rivaled her confusion and she ran forward, ready to lash out.
An instant later Wesley was up the ladder, his shirt drenched, his hair plastered to his forehead and his glasses gone. He scaled the last few rungs and stepped from the water. He held out his hands to Buffy, waving them furiously before him yelling at her to stop, and a flash of light reflected in the brightening sky.
Willow squinted, horrified at Wesley's insistence. Infuriated that he'd give up hope. Then she saw what he held. Relief and terror. This hadn't been an accident.
“Come on,” Giles grunted. He paused to listen not sure he'd be able to distinguish her breath from his at this point. Grace's head rolled to the side and for the briefest of moments Giles's hopes soared. Had he done it? Had he brought her back? The answer was immediate as Grace's stare remained fixed on the distance.
“Come back,” he whispered ignoring all the signs that they were too late.
Buffy knelt beside him. “Let me take over.” Her wet nightshirt wicked through his shirt, bringing with it the clammy coolness so similar to Grace's cheek.
Giles shrugged her off. He wouldn't stop. He couldn't. One, two, three, four -. He nearly growled with rage as Buffy ducked her head beneath his and covered Grace's mouth with her own. Grace was his daughter. She needed him. He would do this.
“It's better this way,” Buffy said locking eyes with him daring him to challenge her. Her shoulders moved as she pumped Grace's chest. “You won't get as tired.” She nodded down toward Grace's head. “Blow.”
Giles filled Grace's lungs, then sat back on his heels, counting, convincing himself that he wasn't giving up control, that he could and would bring her back. ….two, three, four, five… blow. In the distance he heard someone running toward them, crossing the patio, saying something, but he couldn't spare a glance. Was it Willow? No. Wesley? He pushed the questions from his mind and leaned forward to give Grace another breath.
"Stop," Wesley insisted. “She's not dead." His hands and voice shook and water pooled around his feet, dripped on Giles who was doing his level best to ignore him and concentrate on bring back his daughter. Dear Lord, what was that bastard going on about?
Wesley thrust the orb forward, over Grace, forcing them all to look.
“It's the Veruvian Orb,” he explained, agitated as if they should know the significance.
“For God's sake, man,” Giles said as he struggled to his feet. They didn't have time for this. Every moment counted, the longer it took for them to revive Grace the less her chances of a normal life and here this imbecile wanted them to look at…. Giles stopped, his senses suddenly hitting him full force.
“Give that to me,” he yelled. The Veruvian Orb housed the souls of those who walked with the dead. They merely had to break the orb and Grace would return. His expression rolled from an expectant hope to disbelief when Wesley jerked his arm away.
“I can't.” Wesley shook his head. “Not yet.”
Willow's thoughts collided as Giles struggled to his feet. He slipped on the slick concrete, but his expression told her that he had only one goal. He would get that orb from Wesley if he had to kill him to do it. She wanted him to get it. Get it and break it and get their little girl back but her instincts screamed at her to trust Wesley.
“Give me the orb,” Giles said. The desperation in his voice had given way to something much more dangerous. Wesley backed away as Giles stepped forward.
“Think about it, Mr. Giles,” Wesley started. He spoke quickly, as persuasively as he could given the circumstances. He held the orb above his head, out of Giles's reach. “If we break this at the wrong time you'll lose her forever.”
If he heard Wesley, Giles gave no indication. He took another step forward. He stretched out his arm and opened his hand. “I want that orb.”
Wesley shook his head but kept his focus on Giles. “Break it now and you'll trap her wherever she is.”
Willow gripped the blanket tighter in her fists and pleaded with Giles to listen. He paused and turned his head slowly to her. Her heart broke again at the pain she saw in his eyes.
“You know that, Rupert,” Wesley said, taking advantage of the affect Willow's pleas had on Giles. “Her soul is in here,” he held the orb up so that it caught the light. Pink and gold wisps of air shimmered and swirled within its glass confines. “It's safe in here for now, until she finishes what she's set out to do.”
Giles hesitated, stricken, looking from Grace to Wesley to Willow. He raised his palms in a helpless gesture. “We-we don't know where she is. What she's doing. We don't know anything –“
“It's Peter,” Willow interrupted. She didn't know how she knew with such certainty, but she did. “She said she had a way to help him –“
“That's insane,” Giles swore and then lunged for Wesley. “Give me that.”
“No,” Willow cried out. She grabbed Giles's arm and used strength she didn't know she had to pull him away from Wesley. “Listen to me, Giles. She would do this –“
“She wouldn't kill herself,” Giles argued.
“She didn't,” Willow exclaimed and then pointed to the orb. “She's in there and we can get her back.”
“When?” Giles asked. “How do we know when? What if it's too late?”
Willow clutched his shirt between her fingers and tried to meet his eyes but he wouldn't look at her. In a desperate measure she grabbed his jaw and forced him to meet her gaze. “We'll know,” she said.
Giles felt the fight leave him. He threaded his fingers through his hair and then nodded. He had no choice. He knelt next to Buffy and pulled Grace into his arms, cradling her the way he'd done when she was a baby. She'd been gone longer than any of them wanted to believe. No amount of CPR would bring her back if what Wesley said was true, or if they truly were too late.
“This is where you live?” Grace asked. She dropped Peter's hand and looked around the room they'd entered. It wasn't too large, maybe the size of her bedroom, but it was gloomy. There were lighter areas that bordered on lavender and some places were near black but mostly it was gray. Grace frowned. It felt as if no other colors were allowed, like she'd broken a rule with her pink pajamas. She turned to say something to Peter but stopped. His hair usually a shock of near orange seemed to fade into the background. Even his skin had lost its pinkness. She blinked and a chill ran through her shoulders. He looked like a ghost.
“I told you it was scary,” Peter said. His voice was quiet, guarded, from too many years of doing his best to be neither seen nor heard. Or hurt as he'd thought the saying went. He looked anxiously over his shoulder and then down the long corridor that disappeared into a black horizon. Doors, seemingly too many to count dotted the walls in a random pattern. Behind one of them was his freedom.
They stood for a moment arm in arm and stared at the doors both waiting for the same terrible thing, both trembling with the very real fear of what lay before them. Neither wanted to think about what would happen if they failed. Grace and Peter would be lost here forever in Crayton Barnabas's hellish prison.
Grace took a deep breath. She wasn't a baby. She could do this. Her daddy wouldn't let her down and she wouldn't let Peter down. “It's not so bad,” she lied.
Peter exhaled and shook his head. “He's gonna be real mad when he wakes up.”
“It'll be okay,” she said and gave his hand a squeeze. She knew it wasn't okay. He knew it wasn't. Still, if she said it enough it could be true. She hoped. “I'll keep him busy and you try all the doors.”
“But he keeps changing them,” Peter said. A whine tinged his words. “What if he changes them again and I can't find the light?” Peter asked. His eyes stood out on his thin face in large frightened pools. He lowered his voice and cast a nervous glance around the room. “What if he catches me again?”
“You just run,” she said. “Real fast, like when we play tag. And if your daddy chases you then I'll trip him and he'll fall on his bottom and cry like a big baby.”
Peter giggled at the visual and then put his hand over his mouth to muffle the sounds of his laughter. Encouraged, Grace continued. “And then I'll say, ‘take that, ya big diaper head' and I'll kick him and he'll cry for his mommy only she won't come to hug him ‘cause she's really mad.”
It was big talk, but it bolstered her wavering courage. When she and Peter had come up with their plan they'd envisioned super heroes fighting their nemesis. She'd be the leader and freeze Clayton in place with her laser eyebeams. He'd surrender and Peter would finally get to find heaven. Then, just like Xander did for Aunt Buffy, someone would give her CPR, and she'd go home. And Crayton would stay away. Faraway. At least, that's what they'd planned.
Grace peered around at the cloudy darkness and a new sadness swept through her. No wonder Peter had found her. This wasn't a very nice place at all. There weren't any toys or beds or swings or anything that made childhood worthwhile. “Is it always like this?”
With his giggles subsided Peter shrugged. “Sometimes it's different. Like once this lion head came out of nowhere and tried to eat me –“
“Only it was gray and smoky,” Peter said. He warmed to his topic. “A-and sometimes snakes fall down from up there.” He pointed to the ceiling. “And sometimes he makes it look like our apartment with our table and he just sits there and watches me like he used to before –“
Grace jumped and put her hand over his mouth stopping the words. “Don't say it,” she begged. It hurt her stomach when he talked about it. In her world daddies didn't kill their kids. She waited until Peter nodded before she released him. They held hands again. Silent. Waiting for something. Dreading and anticipating whatever was before them.
A small wave of dizziness washed past Grace and she felt her knees give. For a second she lost her footing but as quickly as the sensation had come it was gone. Instinct told her that whatever it was, it wasn't good. They had to hurry.
The shift in the atmosphere was subtle, as if a wasp had flown past them and Grace's heart jumped as Peter froze. Guilt, terror, all the things she felt when she was caught being naughty filled her small body.
“He's waking up.” Peter's whisper, though barely audible resounded in the room.
Grace stood rooted where she was afraid that if she moved she'd wet herself. She raised her hands to her face with the fervent hope that if she couldn't see then she couldn't be seen but she knew that wasn't how it worked. If there was ever a time she wanted her daddy, it was now. A small, frightened whimper escaped her lips.
“What do I do?” Peter asked. What little color he possessed had faded and he hunched his shoulders forward in an attempt to make himself appear smaller. He jerked his head to the side and jumped at a sound she hadn't heard.
“Y- you find the right door,” Grace said. She pressed in closer to him and squinted at the room. It was changing. She couldn't identify how exactly, but it was different now. She licked her lips and swallowed. “You keep opening doors until you find the brightest room and then you go in.”
“And what about you?”
Grace gave him a simple shrug. It was the only thing she was sure of and right now her only source of comfort. “My daddy will bring me back home.”
Another breeze, this one stronger rolled past them distorting the doors behind it in a ripple of heat and then the shock of an icy after-blast. Peter dropped her hand and when she turned to look she saw him in the far corner of the room wedged tightly against the wall. It was as if he thought he could become a part of the wall.
A distant hum grew louder and the breeze lifted it strength to the force of a storm. Grace knew. Crayton Barnabas was awake and very, very angry.
The wind rose to a furious velocity, it grabbed Grace's hair and whipped it across her face. The hum had evolved into a cacophony of wails. Peter stood rooted where he was, frozen, eyes closed.
“Run, Peter,” Grace yelled. Dread filled her. He wasn't following their plan. He'd never get to all the doors if he didn't start now. She furled her fists and stomped a foot on the floor. “Run.”
A sharp yank at her collar cut off her air for one terrifying and disorienting second. Grace clawed at unseen hands desperate for air.
“Run, Peter,” Crayton mimicked. He jerked Grace backwards and off balance only to yank her back up at the last moment. She hung from his hold, her toes barely touching the floor. Grace finally caught her balance and looked over her shoulder at the man who haunted her.
His voice held evil laughter that both infuriated and terrified Grace. She struggled in his hold, squirming and kicking the way Giles had taught her, doing anything she could to get lose. Her feet collided with his shins but he didn't let go. She raked her nails down his arms, digging in, but his hold only tightened.
Grace whimpered and grunted in frustration as she fought, but Crayton just extended his arm and held her like he would a mongrel, just out of range. The lacy edge of her collar scratched and burned the tender skin of her neck, but Grace didn't stop her struggle.
“What's the matter, Gracie?” Crayton asked. She flinched inside when he said her name. She was used to the light way her parents said it. Eat your lunch, Gracie and we'll go to the park. But the way Crayton said it, the way he drew it out, the way his eyes narrowed, it was wrong. “Peterboy not playing by the rules?”
He gave a harsh ugly laugh and then dropped her to the ground. Grace fell with a thud and nearly choked as air flooded her lungs. She pushed herself up and then cried out in alarm as Crayton's shoved his face in front of hers. He moved so much faster here.
“Don't you worry, Graciegirl,” he said. A slow grin spread across his thin face. “I know how to take care of cheaters, don't I boy?” Crayton threw the question over his shoulder then reached down and tweaked her cheek. Grace winced and shrunk away from him as he stepped over her.
“That's right,” Crayton continued. “Tell Graciegirl what happens to cheaters.” He'd locked eyes now with Peter and took a few long slow strides across the room. Peter shrank even farther into the wall inching as far away as he dared. He didn't take his eyes off Crayton.
“Tell her,” Crayton bellowed. Both Peter and Grace jumped as his voice filled the room and then echoed down the hallway. The room mirrored Crayton's rage. Shapes rolled behind the wall, distorting it, reaching from it. Masks of faces in agony pressed outward from it whispering her name.
White terror washed over Grace and she pulled herself into a ball, and pressed her hands over her ears. These were the voices of her nightmares, the voices that woke her up to face whatever Crayton decided she deserved. She screwed her eyes closed refusing to look but unable to get the image from her mind's eye. The whispers rolled through the room, each face starting her name just as the other finished, relentless.
“Stop it,” Grace begged. She pressed her hands tighter over her ears. “Stop it. Stop it. Stop it,” she cried each time louder. She wasn't a super hero with laser beam eyes. She was just a little girl, a little girl who wanted her mommy. And for the first time Grace realized that that might never happen. For the first time Grace Elizabeth Giles knew true rage.
It burned her soul, using the terror for fuel, and she let it escape with a scream. She didn't see Crayton startle and lose his hold on Peter, she didn't see him smile, she didn't know that he fed on fear and anger, and she didn't care. She just wanted to hurt him, hurt him until he cried. With another anguished cry Grace ran at Crayton.
Everything, including Peter was forgotten as she threw herself at Crayton's legs. He stumbled backwards.
“I hate you,” she cried “I hate you.” She clawed her fingers down his cheeks. His blood, slick and cold smeared across her hands. Her open palm met his cheek with a sickening wet splat. Crayton laughed and she fell more out of control.
On the sidelines Peter watched with the sick fascination that little boys had for the gross and disturbing. She was doing it. Grace was beating their monster, just like on t.v., just like she'd said she would. He'd wanted to run just like they'd planned but the fear had been too much. They were just kids and his dad was – so big. But now things looked a little different. Grace had knocked Crayton down and she was hurting him. Just like he'd hurt her. Just like she'd promised. Peter eased himself against the wall and slowly stood.
He didn't remember taking the first step but suddenly he was running. He ran as hard as he could. If Grace could beat his dad then he could find the right door. That was their agreement. All he had to do was run.
Crayton's laughter mixed with Grace's enraged cries followed him, pushed him down the corridor until he stood before the first door. It was ridiculously proportioned and stood tall and heavy against the gray wall. Peter didn't hesitate and grabbed the knob and gave it a twist. It swung open without resistance and hejumped away from the black void it revealed.
Peter stifled a surprised yelp as he stared into Crayton's empty soul. Dark, filled with nothing. An abyss of pain. Pulled by the very real fear of being sucked into that room, Peter went to the next door. Each room behind the misshapen doors was more terrifying than the one before it. Each was a frame of life that made Crayton the man he'd become.
A woman, larger than life, angry, with red hair that stuck out around her head in an unholy halo screamed at him from several rooms. He'd never seen her before, but he knew her words. You're useless. I never wanted you.
In other rooms children taunted someone mercilessly, he could see them crowded around someone each reaching to pull or poke the little boy who huddled in their center. Their faces were ugly, twisted with the pleasure gained from momentary dominance.
More and more people he didn't know, more emotions he didn't understand, terrifying realities revealed as he ran on. Sometimes people begged for mercy and sometimes their screams filled Peter's head. Other times there weren't people at all, just horrifying images of torture and pain. Still Peter continued to run and pull open door after door. He had to be getting closer to the right one.
Behind him intermingled with the cries and screams, he heard Crayton's laughter and Grace's exhausted sobs. Peter stumbled and looked over his shoulder. He'd expected the two of them to be miles away he'd run so far and opened so many doors. But there they were, no farther away from him than when he'd started.
Crayton stood now, his cheeks ragged with deep scratches and stained with blood. Grace lay crumpled at his feet her shoulders moving with each sob and Peter felt his hope disappear. They'd lost. Crayton looked up from Grace and set his dark eyes on Peter and just as suddenly Peter was within arm's reach.
“Good try, Petey,” Crayton said with the mock enthusiasm of a little league coach. He put his cold hand on Peter's shoulder and squeezed. “Maybe next time, ‘eh?”
His fingers dug into Peter's skin, separating muscles sending flashes of searing pain through his arm. Peter winced and tried to twist away from the hurt. Crayton gave Peter a shove and he landed next to Grace with an oomph knocking the wind from himself. Crayton stalked before them his chest puffed with adrenaline and the energy he'd taken from Grace's rage and fear. Peter sat up as much as he dared.
“What door will it be, Johnny?” Crayton asked and then laughed at the joke Peter didn't understand. Crayton glared down the corridor and with the rush of a metal gate being pushed aside the walls compressed and rushed forward. Crayton turned his feral grin back to Peter and cocked his head to the side. “What's behind door number two?” He laughed again, it was hard with insanity, and turned on his heel. Peter knew this game. Crayton would ignore them both now and then he'd spring.
Next to Peter Grace continued to cry. She wanted her mummy and daddy. She wanted to go home. Peter scooted to her side and put his hand on her shoulder. He knew he was taking a risk not giving Crayton his undivided attention, the punishment would be severe, but Grace needed him. She was his best friend. This was his fault. He was the one who'd found her.
He wasn't sure how it got there but he'd found a hole in the wall just wide enough to let light through. At first he'd thought it was heaven, it was so warm and inviting, but he was quick to realize that it wasn't. Heaven wasn't pink and heaven didn't have dolls and heaven definitely didn't have stupid girls. Still, the room he'd found wasn't at all frightening like the others and in a rare moment of bravery when Crayton wasn't looking Peter had slipped in through the crack.
Peter knew he was different from her, he knew that he wasn't “here” anymore, that his daddy had held him under the hot water until he'd stopped fighting. He knew he was dead, but he was still a little boy and little boys needed to play even if it was with stupid little girls.
He'd come into her room and she hadn't even been scared. Even back then Grace was the bravest person he'd ever known because he definitely would have been afraid if a dead little boy had walked into his room. She hadn't even been afraid when his daddy had found the crack but then back then when they first met Grace didn't know that his daddy wasn't as nice as hers.
Peter grabbed Grace's hand between his and gave it a reassuring squeeze. She sure knew that now. And it was his fault. They were trapped.
“You'd better not be wrong,” Giles said. His chest rose with heavy forced breaths and he glared at Wesley. Grace lay in his arms swaddled in the blanket Willow had found. He adjusted Grace's limp body in his arms pulling her tighter into him. Willow heard the threat in his voice, felt it in her soul.
“I'm not,” Wesley assured him, though his pallor exposed his nerves. “You have to trust me… and Grace.”
Willow clasped Grace's hand between her own and brought it to her cheek. The small clammy fingers brought no comfort and complete desolation pushed in closer. Oh, God, what if Wesley was wrong? She'd convinced Giles to wait, to not call the paramedics, to stop CPR…. A short sob caught in her throat. What if she'd killed their daughter?
“When the essence fades from the orb we break it,” Wesley continued. His voice was measured but he couldn't hide its tremor. “That will pull Grace back into her body.”
“Good as new, right?” Buffy asked.
There was a short pause and Willow closed her eyes offering a desperate prayer.
“Good as new,” Buffy repeated. She grabbed Wesley's arm forcing him to look at her. “Right?”
Giles looked up sharply his eyes dark with pain and fury.
Wesley held his gaze. “Better than if you break it now.”
“She'll be fine,” Willow said not because she believed it but because she needed to hear it. She needed it to be true. She stroked the length of Grace's hair and let it ribbon through her fingers. “She'll be fine.”
Giles cradled Grace in his arms and against his better judgment, against everything that screamed out in him, he waited. He wanted to touch her, to smooth the matted hair off her face but he couldn't. The blanket kept her body warm but her face was cool to the touch. Warmth meant life and he refused to validate that his daughter was for all intents and purposes dead.
Dead. He closed his eyes at the word and rocked his child back and forth. The word punched him in the gut. Dead. Grace was his redemption. Proof that no matter what he'd done in his past, whatever his deeds, he'd been forgiven. He couldn't imagine his life without her. He wouldn't want to live in a world without Grace. She was the best of Willow and him. Every day she reminded him of why he'd sacrificed the better part of his life to fighting evil: of why he still cared. Grace was his hope and without her his world would be empty and he would be lost.
“In cases such as these it appears that the dominant entity, in this case the father, creates his own hell dimension. He feeds from the energy of younger energies thus trapping them in his hell–“
Giles raised his head and glared at Wesley momentarily stopping the lecture. There was no stab of satisfaction when Wesley swallowed and looked away, only the raw hatred that ate at him. Giles flinched from Willow's touch, including her in his fury. He blamed her. God help him, he blamed her. She'd stopped him. She'd insisted they listen to Wesley.
Willow's ashen face crumpled under his scathing mask. A short sob burst from her mouth and she pulled her hand away. He knew he should comfort her. He knew his anger was disguised terror that he was lashing out. But it wasn't in him. For the first time he couldn't put her needs above him. Shamed he looked away and focused on the orb. It's light wavered and sparked. He'd deal with that later, if there were a later. If Grace survived.
Grace had never been so miserable. Why hadn't Peter run like he'd said he would? He'd waited too long and now he was back right where they'd started. He'd given up and now she was stuck here forever. Fresh hot tears bubbled from her eyes and she pressed her face to the cold ground. She'd never feel her daddy's hugs again and it was Peter's fault. She'd never bake cookies with her mummy all because Peter was a big quitter.
“I'm sorry,” Peter whispered in her ear. “But it's not so bad here when he's asleep and maybe we can find another crack.”
Grace turned her face away from him. All his talking was making her tired. Why couldn't he just leave her alone? Her arms and legs ached from battling Crayton. She'd given it her best but it hadn't made much of an impact. In fact, the more she'd screamed and fought and called him every dirty name she wasn't supposed to say, the more he'd seemed to grow, until finally she'd given up. She couldn't fight him.
She was tired; she missed her mummy and daddy and she wanted a nap. Grace closed her eyes and a spinning sensation washed over her.
Peter's voice faded and in its place the rich sound of her father laughing as she and her mother danced. It didn't matter the song, he'd cross the room and join them. It usually ended up with her sitting on the couch watching but Grace didn't mind. She liked how her father always looked into her mother's eyes and how her mother always leaned into his chest. They looked happy and she felt their love.
The cold of the room eased as her thoughts lingered on the way her mother's famous oatmeal cookies smelled and how late at night when she was supposed to be asleep she'd listen for the deep soothing rumblings of their voices. In the farthest corners of her mind she realized somehow that a part of her was slipping away, but it didn't matter. She was safe and warm in the memories of her parents.
“C'mon, Gracie,” Peter begged. He tugged at her arm. She was scaring him even worse than Crayton right now. He could feel her slipping away. He cast a quick glance at his dad. Crayton had given up the taunting and had stumbled off to the other side of the room and now sat slumped against a wall. If he even noticed the two of them he gave no indication. Peter shook Grace harder. They could get away, she could help him open doors, but they had to move now.
Grace whined something incoherent and tried to pull her arm away from him but Peter wouldn't let go. The thought occurred to him that he could do it himself, but that meant leaving her alone. He wouldn't do it, at least not until he made sure she was okay. That's what she'd do for him. The harder he tried to pull her back from wherever she'd gone the more agitated she became until finally she sat up with an angry cry and pushed him away.
“Leave me alone,” she cried. Peter flinched and felt the hot sting of her rebuke. She'd never yelled at him before. Not even when he'd cheated at tag.
“We gotta go,” he said trying to ignore his hurt feelings. “He's almost asleep again. We could both open doors. It'd be faster.”
Grace's chin wobbled and a fat tear splashed down her cheek. “Why'd you wake me up?” she asked. “I was having happy dreams.”
Peter rolled his eyes and tried to explain his plan again. “He's fallin' asleep.”
Grace squinted past him and shook her head. “Is not,” she argued.
“He is too,” Peter argued he felt his cheeks burn. He wasn't a liar. People who lied were bad and he wasn't bad. He'd prove it. He puffed his chest and pointed across the room. “Look over there.”
Peter looked back to Crayton and his skin prickled as his hair on his arms stood on end. Crayton was standing up now. Peter looked desperately back to Grace.
“He was sleepy,” he stammered. “I swear it. When you were sleeping he got real tired.” Peter licked his lips and looked back and forth between Grace and Crayton. Crayton was getting stronger. Peter lunged forward and grabbed Grace's hand.
“We gotta hurry.” He recoiled in surprise as she planted her feet and jerked her hand away. What was she doing? They had to go.
“I was thinking happy thoughts,” Grace said trying to process. It was nearly impossible with Peter fidgeting before her like he had to use the bathroom. “And your daddy got tired.” It almost made sense to her. When she'd attacked Crayton he didn't try to fight her off, he'd laughed. He'd gotten bigger and scarier. She looked up just as Crayton started forward and fear clenched her stomach.
Across the room Crayton smiled and he lengthened his stride. It was silly but she had to at least try.
“I have a sea shell collection,” she said. She swallowed nervously and watched Crayton draw closer. “And every summer since I was born, Mummy and Daddy and I go to the beach house and spend the day hunting for new shells.”
“What are you doing?” Peter demanded.
Grace ignored his question and closed her eyes. “And this one time, last year Mummy splashed Daddy and then he chased her into the water. They got so wet and we laughed all the way back to the house.”
She dared to open one eye and saw Crayton's smile falter. Her excitement grew and she grabbed for Peter's hand.
“Remember the time my daddy sang for you?” she asked. Peter shifted his eyes nervously back to Crayton but nodded at Grace. “He couldn't even see you but he did it anyway ‘cause you're my friend and he likes to make me happy. And the time we found that flower with the two different color petals?”
Peter's eyes grew wide as Crayton stumbled. “He's getting sleepy,” he whispered but his voice cracked with excitement.
Grace smiled but not because of the news. The warmth returned as she pulled out her memories.
“What about the time you and I played tag and it started raining and we found that frog?” Peter asked. “And your mom named it Peter after me.”
Crayton groaned and fell to his knees. Grace's hopes soared. “We're doing it,” she said. “We're making him tired.”
“Before my dad made my mom leave she used to read me stories,” Peter said. “And she'd do the voices.”
"My mummy does that, too."
As they shared stories Crayton's hell changed. Doors shifted and splintered and finally disappeared until only one remained. It throbbed with hidden light and Grace and Peter held hands and stood before it. Behind them Crayton moaned but neither of them paid it much attention. They'd found the secret.
“You gotta open it,” Grace said when Peter hesitated. A sudden wave of dizziness swept over her and she swayed on her feet. It was time for her to go home but she had to say good-bye. “It's the one you've been looking for.”
Peter reached for the knob but paused. “You can come with me,” he offered.
“Nah,” Grace said with a shake of her head. “I gotta get back home. Mummy and Daddy would miss me too much if I left them.”
Peter nodded and gripped the knob with a big sigh. With one more look at Grace he opened the door. Grace threw her arm over her eyes as light brighter and warmer than she'd ever seen cut through the gray room. It left nowhere for shadows to hide and somewhere behind them Crayton screamed.
Slowly Peter let go of her hand and when she heard the door click shut Grace opened her eyes, peered around the room. Gone were the grays, replaced with a soothing blend of sunset pinks and blues, and Crayton was nowhere to be found. Grace heaved a sigh of relief, sank to the floor, and waited for her daddy to take her back home.
Chapter nine and epilogue
Anticipation hovered over the gathering as they waited for the precise moment. Their eyes never left the orb, watching as Grace's light ebbed. Giles's insides twisted with despair and desperation. Just a second too late or a second too early, and Grace would be lost forever. Next to him Willow held Grace's hand, smoothed her hair from her face, and whispered words of encouragement. Hang on, baby. It's almost time. Mummy and Daddy love you.
Giles held out his hand to Wesley. "Give it to me." He was beyond rash behavior. There was nothing left to do but trust that this would work.
Buffy shot Wesley a questioning glance and at his nod placed the orb in Giles's hand. He held it reverently, feeling the slight weigh, the warmth that came from it. Grace's life force.
In his periphery he saw Willow reach for it, hesitate, then draw her hand back. It was a pathetic gesture and it tore at his heart. He'd shut her out and he was a fool to think he could do this alone. She'd always been his strength, and she'd never been wrong when it came to Grace.
He raised the orb slightly in offering. With only a second's hesitation, Willow placed her hand over the orb. He dared for a moment to look into her eyes, but was shamed by the gratitude he saw within them. Their hands brushed and then heat shot of both their arms. In the next instant, the orb flashed a brilliant pink.
"Now," Giles said. He didn't need Wesley to tell him. He could feel it; Grace was ready to come home. Together they slammed the orb to the patio. The glass crunched under his palm, dug into his flesh, and released Grace's soul. A moment later Grace arched her back, struggling for air. In a dichotomy of frenzied calm, he lowered Grace to the ground and rolled her to her side.
"Call an ambulance," Willow ordered. She pounded on Grace's back until Grace coughed and the water she'd inhaled splattered across the ground. More coughs racked her small body.
"You're okay," Giles assured her again and again. Finally, the coughing ended and Grace moaned. Her eyelids fluttered open. He leaned forward, searching for any visible sign of damage. He held his breath. "Gracie?"
It took a moment for Grace to focus on any one thing, then slow recognition dawned across her brow. Her hand trembled as she lifted it to his cheek. Cold fingers brushed away his tears.
"Don't cry, Daddy," she managed. Her voice was small and breathy, but it was music to his ears. Next to him Willow sobbed in relief. "I told you I could do it."
"So you did," Giles said when he'd found his voice. "So you did."
The surf broke against their ankles and Grace squealed with delight. Giles wrapped his arm around Willow's waist and pulled her against him as Grace's laughter filled their world.
It had been three months since she'd freed Peter, and those that had followed had been brutal. Grace hadn't returned unscathed. Hell had left its mark. Yet, they'd persevered, facing whatever had come at them. It'd been a long fight, the residual nightmares of what she'd faced had still to cease, but they were fewer now.
"You're thinking again," Willow lilted. She twisted in his arms and tiptoed to kiss his chin. When she pulled back, Giles saw that her eyes held just the slightest hint of rebuke. "We declared this a think free zone, remember?"
He managed a smile. Right. He should be so fortunate. "Yesterday she asked me if Buffy really did fight vampires."
Some light faded from Willow's eyes.
"I told her –" He paused and swallowed his emotion. "I told her the truth."
Willow's expression was indecipherable. He waited, hoping she'd say something. Finally, she cleared her throat and looked back to Grace. "I guess there's no point in lying anymore, is there?"
Grace's exuberant cry of delight saved him from having to say what they both already knew. He looked up and despite the dark mood he'd been living under, couldn't help but laugh. She and her puppy had managed to trip over themselves and now rolled and wrestled in the surf. Shue number two, as Grace had dubbed the Lab, was trying his level best to lick off her face. Finally, Grace gave up fighting him and collapsed in a fit of giggles. She sounded like a girl who hadn't a care in the world.
"Oh, Shue," Willow groaned, but he heard the laughter in her voice. She pushed away from his chest and jogged to break up the wrestling match. The surf and the dog conspired against her and she wound up next to Grace, just as soaked and laughing just as hard. She looked at him with sparkling eyes and she held out her hand to him.
"C'mon, Giles," she called.
Giles held back, taking in the sight of his family, amazed at his daughter's resilience, his wife's strength. Then, believing that maybe life hadn't got the better of them, he joined in.
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