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Part one of three

Episode Three: Breaking Ground

by adjrun & cousinjean
Never Is A Promise by Fiona Apple
(Faith & Anderson)
Strong by Robbie Williams
(Lydia)

Shout-outs: To georgevna, who even though life got in the way still managed to contribute a scene and lay some excellent groundwork. Big thanks to the entire crew for fast beta turn-arounds, and to Fenwic, AurelioZen, JRS, Abby and anyone else we AIM'd with who let us bounce ideas off them, helped us shape this chapter, and cheered us on. Big, BIG thanks from cj to adjrun for stepping up to help write this chapter, for being Big Idea girl, and for talking me down when it got too stressful. Love and thanks also to our readers for your patience, understanding and support. And big thanks from adjrun to cj. This could've been a nightmare; it's been a joy.


*
Faith scuffed her feet along the sidewalk, just to hear the scritchy sounds her boots made on the pavement. She passed under the fuzzy yellow glare of a streetlamp, and then cut across the street to the Shady Rest cemetery. Anderson trailed her by just a step or two. He’d been lagging behind all night.
She spun around to face him, walking backwards. “You gonna catch up? Or just stare at my ass all night?”
He shot her a big grin. “Stare at your ass.”
“Huh. Then you’ll love this.” Faith leapt up on a waist-high grave marker, which put her backside at approximately eye-level. She scanned the cemetery for signs of a struggle, new graves, big walking dead guys with pointy teeth. It was probably sacrilegious or something, but… “I don’t wanna walk through the whole damn graveyard, and I can see everything from this spot.”
“You’re right. Excellent view from here.” Cool. He was still gawking at her ass. She gave it a little wiggle, just to keep him interested. He walked up behind her and ran his hand up the back of her leg. It was nice. Weird still, having a guy that was touchy, and not just in the grab-your-tits way. But nice.
He turned, leaned back a little on the grave marker, and looked up at her. “After this. You want to grab a burger, maybe catch a late -- ”
“Sh.” Faith held up her hand, and her voice dropped to a whisper. “I hear something.”
Anderson nodded. Faith’s gaze sharpened. It had been a rustling. Leaves, or branches. And maybe a groan? There. Movement in the bushes.
She jumped off the marker, her feet moving the moment they hit grass. Stealthy, quiet, but fast. She slipped a stake from her jacket and paused - just for a heartbeat, to soar on the adrenaline rush, on that second of anticipation before the attack. And then a quick shoulder through a hole in the bushes to face --
Two kids, necking in the underbrush. They hadn’t heard her coming. The way they were going at it, they wouldn’t have heard Slipknot blasting full volume.
“Hey,” Faith said, testing her theory. Still nothing. The kids slurped at each other like ice cream cones in a heat wave. Anderson walked up behind her, got an eyeful of teenaged spit-swapping, and chuckled. She stepped forward and nudged the nearest foot with the toe of her boot. Even that couldn’t get through. In fact, Moron Girl was working at the front of Moron Boy’s button-flys.
That was it.
“What are you, stupid?” Faith yelled.
The teenagers broke apart, glassy-eyed and flustered. The boy made little fish faces, while he worked to get what was going on - hard to do when all his blood was in a different body part than his brain. Moron Girl snapped out of her hormone daze a little quicker: Faith caught a flash of embarrassment as the girl pulled her shirt back down over her breasts.
But then the girl got angry. She looked up, all teenage rebellion and defiance. “It’s no big deal. The vampires are gone.”
“Really.” Faith crossed her arms, and planted her feet in her best don’t-fuck-with-me stance. “Every single vampire. In the world. Is gone. Did I miss that memo?”
The girl sighed, one of those pouty, sullen, rolling-eyed sighs that made Faith want to boot her in the face. “No. Duh. But there aren’t any vampires in Sunnydale. Hello, we killed them all.”
“Okay. Using small words here. Vampires? Like the Hellmouth,” Faith said. “They come back.”
“Sure, the dumb vampires.”
“Well, we got enough dumb people in Sunnydale for them to snack on.”
“Not to mention the fact that you’re trespassing.” Anderson nodded towards a sixpack of Coors Light on the grass. “And minors in possession of alcohol. Cops love to cite teenagers for that one.”
“Fine. Whatever.” The girl stood up, brushing leaves and dirt from her jeans. “Come on, we’re out of here.”
The girl pushed her way out of the shrubbery and turned back to wait for her boyfriend. Hold up a minute. Moron Boy wouldn’t look at Faith. And that baseball cap went on pretty damn quick. She grabbed the kid’s arm as he passed her. “Billy? Billy Fernandez? Your mom’s the high school principal.”
The boy, shamefaced, nodded.
“Jesus Holy Christ on a toothpick! She got grabbed by the vampires last year. Was in the hospital for, like, weeks. And you! You fought in the battle. If your mom found out about this? She would ground you until you died of old age. You know better than this!”
“Hey, mind your own business!” the girl snapped. She took a step towards Faith, but Billy touched her elbow to stop her.
“Tonya. C’mon. Chill. Let’s just…” He put his arm around his girlfriend, and started to walk away with her. Then he looked back at Faith. “It’s easier. To pretend like it didn’t happen. Or that the world is safe now.”
Faith looked at him for a long moment. “Yeah. I get that.”
The kids headed back across the graveyard towards a housing subdivision on the far side. Faith watched them until they hit the sidewalk.
And back to patrol. “Great. I can just see my report tomorrow. What’d I do? Catch two high-school kids with crap beer playing Touch My Monkey. I feel like a frickin hall monitor.”
Anderson laughed. “What’s next? Peaceful Vale, or Sunnydale City Cemetery? Not that it matters all that much.”
“That’s the problem. It’s boring. Every night, the same damn thing. Cemetery, nothing. Cemetery, nothing. Cemetery, big fat heaping wad of nothing.”
“Well, look at it from the flip side,” he said. “You really want the vampires to come back? People dying, risking your life every day?”
“No!” She stared at him, a little freaked by what he’d suggested and how defensive it made her feel. So she tore into him. “You think I want people dead? That’s sick.”
“Faith, I didn’t mean… This slowdown is a good thing. People are safe. That’s all.” He backed away a step. She watched him get puzzled, and careful, as he searched for the right words. “You - you okay? I didn’t mean to piss you off.”
“Nah. Nah, it’s cool. It’s just… I’m a Slayer, y’know? I got a purpose, hardwired into my system. And I feel like I’m running in circles.” Faith let out a yell, trying to burn off her frustration, her jumpiness. “I wanna hit something!”
Anderson kept pressing. “But you’ve been patrolling since, what, February? And your toughest battle was a mean squirrel. I know, I know, pushing a little. But it hasn’t bugged you like this before.”
Faith shoved her hands into her jacket pockets and turned away. She looked at the ground in front of her, picked a blade of grass and tried to stare it to death. “Miss Priss thinks maybe - I’m not needed here. ‘Superfluous.’ Something about resources, and effectiveness, and blah blah go somewhere else.”
“Do you want to go?” He sounded so fragile all of a sudden. “Somewhere else?”
“No! I…” She shrugged. “I want to stay in Sunnydale. But it kind of isn’t up to me.”
“Why not? You’re the Slayer,” he said, walking to stand in front of her. “You’re a hero.”
A hero. Not exactly. Not even close. “It’s complicated. I - I owe people, I gotta toe the line. It’s important.”
“Why?”
“It just is, okay?” She was this close to screaming at him, and he just didn’t get it. She didn’t want him to get it. “Can we - let this go? Please?”
“Yeah, sure.” He took a breath and nodded. Then a quick smile, and she knew it was all good. “Just remember, nobody tells Wonder Woman that she’s been reassigned.”
“Duh,” Faith said. “Not Wonder Woman, for one.”
“Sure you are. As close as anyone gets in the real world. You save people.” He hooked a finger in the waistband of her jeans and pulled her to him. “Plus, you’d look really hot in the outfit.”
“Hmm.” She leaned in and kissed him.
“Besides,” he said. “I don’t want you to go.”
Anderson looked at her, his eyes soft but intense, and the hint of a smile on his lips. The serious face. It had been making an appearance more and more often these days. She didn’t really know how she felt about it: she wanted to run away, and spin around like a little girl in a party dress, and scream at him, and jump his bones all at the same time. Confusing. Messy. So until it made more sense, she stalled. And changed the subject.
Faith pulled away from him and took off across the grass. “Come on. I’ll race you to the kiddie playground.”
“This is a win-win for me!” he yelled, chasing after her. “Even if I lose, I still get to look at your ass!”
***
Trudi Yerkovich shifted the brown paper bag and the Pyrex baking dish in her arms so she could ring the doorbell of her best friend’s house. As she waited for the door to open, she took a quick look around. The baskets of petunias hanging on the porch needed a good soak, the front lawn looked shaggy, and weeds had a decent foothold in the rosebed. Heck, the only reason the porch light was on was because it was on one of those timer dealies. She pushed the bell again and looked down at the half-dozen plastic-bagged newspapers scattered at her feet.
Still no answer. Well, this would never do. Trudi pushed the door open and carried her stuff across the living room to the kitchen.
“Jan? Jan, honey? You here?” she chirped, as she turned the oven on warm, slipped the baking dish out of its carrying case, and stuck it in the oven.
“In the basement.” Jan’s voice sounded hoarse. Ragged. Trudi made a mental note to pick up some of those natural honey cough drops before her next visit.
“Okay, then. Give me a sec, I’ll be right down.” But first, she was going to gather up the papers outside. Once Jan got a hold of herself, she’d hate the thought of a messy porch.
One quick tidy-up later, she grabbed the paper bag she’d brought with her and set it at the top of the basement stairs. Then she headed down to face her friend. What she saw brought her up short – made her put her hand to her mouth and blink back tears. It was worse than yesterday. And much worse than last year, when Jan’s husband Sam had died of a coronary. Then, Jan had cried, and leaned on her son’s arm, and drank a little too much gin. But she’d gotten better. Of course, that time, she’d had her son.
This time, Jan sat on the edge of a wooden box, wearing only a nightie and a thin cotton housecoat. She’d lost weight in the last ten days, and the skin on her arms sagged like a boiled chicken wing. Her hair matted in sweaty gray-blonde clumps and her face was blotches of red and gray, the hollows under her eyes like bruises. But her eyes were the worst: dark, and hard, and angry, and not quite human any more. For a moment, Trudi wondered if her friend was still sane.
She forced a cheery note into her voice. “Where are your slippers? You should have slippers on, it’s freezing down here. That’s bare concrete. You’re going to catch a chill.”
Jan ignored her. “Do you have it?”
“Come on, let’s run you through the rain locker and get some food in your stomach. You’ll feel a million times better.”
“Do you have it?” Jan demanded. “The stuff? The magic?”
“I – yes, I. It’s at the top of the stairs. But Jan, I,” Trudi paused to consider her words carefully. “I’m just not sure this is a good idea.”
Jan sobbed. Or it would’ve been a sob, but it sounded more like dry branches scraping against each other. “The coroner ruled it an accident today, Trudi. She’s gonna get away with it. She’s gonna kill my baby, and get away with it.”
David Blumenfeld, age 34, son of Samuel (deceased) and Jan Blumenfeld, had been found ten days earlier behind the wheel of his still-running Honda Accord, which at the time, had been parked in his closed garage. The alcohol level in his blood was .18, and the carbon monoxide level was lethal.
Two weeks before that, David had come home from work early with a bout of what he assumed was the stomach flu. He found his wife, DeChelle Blumenfeld, naked on their bed, with her legs wrapped around another man’s neck. Divorce papers had been filed within two days.
“Sweetie,” Jan said, “I know you’re upset. But she had an alibi. Thirty people said she closed down the Mallard Room that night.”
“Sure. And it’s just a coincidence that that Mike Turner she’s shtupping is tooling around town on a brand-new motorcycle? She paid him, Trudi. She paid him, and he killed my boy.” Jan’s hands clenched into rigid fists in her lap. “I want her dead. I want them both dead.”
She stood and tugged on the box behind her. It didn’t move. Trudi rushed over and helped her drag the box into the center of the basement. The darn thing was heavy.
“It was Sam’s Great-Uncle Ephraim’s,” Jan said. “He came over from Czechoslovakia before the war. When he passed on, we handled his estate. All these boxes, on this side? His. So when I went on that genealogy kick a few years back, I went through his stuff to look for personal papers, birth certificates. And I found this.”
It was a carved wooden box, reminding Trudi of a casket. Well, a casket for someone who shopped at the husky man’s store. Jan pulled open a series of complicated-looking latches and shoved up the lid. Inside was… was kind of hard to explain. It looked like some kid had molded a rough sculpture of a man out of flesh-colored Play-Doh. It had hands, but no fingers; feet, but no toes; the basic shape of eyes and nose and chin on a bald, earless head. Weird symbols had been gouged into its forehead, and the marks had been colored in black.
“So this is the golem?” Trudi laughed, suddenly nervous. “Well, that was silly. Of course it’s the golem. It’s not like you’ve got two of these things lying around.”
“This is it,” Jan answered. She stood near the golem’s head and reached down to stroke the face. Like it was a pet.
“Hon, you know, this might not work,” Trudi said. “I only took the two classes in magic, and that’s because my scrapbooking class was full.”
“We have to try. Please. It’s killing me.” Jan clutched the edges of the box, her fingers like talons. “It’s eating me up inside. I can’t – I can’t live like this.”
Trudi made a decision. “Okey-dokey. We’ll go though with it. On one condition. This thing has to know if DeChelle really did it. Because if she didn’t, then, no matter how much we hate her, I won’t help kill her.”
“Can you do that?”
“Yeah.” Trudi shrugged. “Well, I think. There’s some stuff I add into the mix.”
“Fine.” Jan’s eyes looked even more intent. “It won’t make any difference.”
Trudi grabbed her bag from the top of the stairs, and pulled out various items. “Candles are fire, you can get these lit… We put this special water in this bowl, and then you’re gonna need to put some of your blood in there too. Yeah, there’s a special sacred knife thingy I bought, just let me find it. Not too much blood, just a couple drops. And then, did you bring David’s hair? Good, just drop that in the bowl, and I dump this stuff in it. Careful! The red powder might make you sneeze. Now, stir it clockwise with your index finger, three times, and breathe on it three times. Okay, good. I hold the bowl at its feet, and you stand at the head, with the knife. You have to carve – eek! Where is that piece of paper? Here it is. This symbol in the thing’s forehead. It’s the letter ‘aleph’, and it’s got to be perfect.”
Jan stood over the golem, carefully pressing the symbol into the clay. She finished, and stood back. “Is that good?”
“I don’t – ”
The symbol flashed, and turned black like the rest of the writing.
“Yeah, I guess so.” Trudi handed Jan a few sheets of paper, stapled together, and pulled out a similar sheet for herself. Except for some plastic wrappers and the Magic Box receipt, the bag was now empty. “I don’t speak ancient Hebrew, obviously, so I used one of those Internet translator gizmos on it to make sure it was right. You’re the pink highlights, I’m the yellow. And we just sound it out phonetically.”
The two women made their careful way through the incantation. It took long minutes, and Trudi found herself getting strangely exhausted. During a pause in her section, she looked up at her friend. Jan looked like she was praying – putting all her rage, and pain, and helplessness into her words. Maybe, even if this didn’t work, it’d be a good thing. Venting, or something.
They flipped to the last page – all pink, so only Jan spoke. Trudi splashed the contents of the bowl over the golem: once, twice, three times. There was a flash, and all the candles blew out.
The two women stood there in the dim light of a bare overhead bulb.
“Did it work?” Jan asked.
“I dunno.” Trudi took a step back from the box. “It follows you. Tell it to do something.”
“Get up.”
The golem stood.
“Oh, Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” Trudi gasped. Her knees gave out and she sat down hard on a box of old baby clothes. She looked up at the thing. It was tall: maybe eight feet, almost touching the basement ceiling. It turned to face Jan, its blank features following her unconscious step toward the stairs.
Jan grabbed the golem’s arm, her fingers sinking slightly into its skin. “My only son was murdered ten days ago. You will go, and you will find the man who did this, and you will kill him. Then you will kill the woman who paid him. Do you understand me?”
The golem looked down at Jan. The symbols on its forehead flashed an incandescent white, then faded back to black. The thing turned and walked up the steps. Trudi and Jan followed it. It crossed the kitchen and the foyer and pushed against the closed front door, the wood groaning under the pressure. Jan darted in front of the thing and turned the doorknob. It stepped back and faced Jan. She opened the door and made a little shooing motion.
“You kill them,” Jan repeated. “You kill the hired killer, and the one who hired the killer.”
Trudi worked to get her breathing under control. She felt like she’d run a marathon, and her heart beat faster than the time that semi’d almost hit her on the Interstate. She leaned against the wall and stared after the thing. Jan touched her elbow, and she started.
“Thank you for this,” Jan said. She stepped forward and hugged Trudi. “Now maybe I can sleep.”
“Hey, what are best friends for?” Trudi smiled and patted Jan’s back to reassure her. “Now. Let’s get you in the shower, and change those clothes. There’s some nice taco casserole warming in your oven. You’re going to eat some of it, while we wait for that thing to come back.”
***

The first day there had been weird.
Faith didn’t want to say anything, because Buffy had too much to deal with. But it was weird.
The last time she’d been upstairs in the Summers house? She’d been walking around in Buffy’s skin. Before that, holding her mom hostage. Scaring the crap out of Joyce, threatening to kill her. Meaning it. And now, Joyce was… was proof that you couldn’t always make it up to people after you hurt them. Sleeping in Joyce’s old bed? Weird. Beyond weird.
But Buffy said, “Please” and Buffy said, “Anderson can help you” and Buffy had that look in her eyes like somebody had ripped open her stomach and given her two handfuls of her own guts. So here Faith was, housesitting. The cat, the mail, the plants out back. This morning she’d even run the vacuum around and swiped the table with a dustrag. Amazing what bad habits a girl can pick up living with a stuffy old British guy.
And for the last two weeks, she’d screwed her boyfriend in Joyce Summers’s bed. There wasn’t a word to express the weird.
Faith heard the toilet flush and the faucet turn on and off. A few seconds later, Anderson shuffled in from the bathroom, idly rubbing a hand across his belly.
“Damn,” he said, with a sleepy smile. “I feel like I’ve been rode hard and put away wet.”
Faith snorted. “Well, yeah. That was the general idea.”
He flopped down on the bed next to her. Faith rolled over on her side and propped herself up on one elbow. She looked at him, lying on his back, with both hands tucked under his head and that half-smug, half-stunned look on his face. Sandy blond hair with a fat rippley wave in it. Hazel eyes, strong jaw. Round bunches of muscle in his shoulders, biceps, calves. His ass, too, even though she didn’t have the best view of it right now. “You know, you’re not bad just walking around. But damn, you’re pretty when you’re naked.”
“No fair,” Anderson replied. “You said what I was gonna say.”
She scootched over on the bed and snuggled up – half next to him, half on top of him, just the way she liked. He ran his hand up and down her back, slowly, enjoying the contact.
“This is nice,” she said. Against her cheek, the skin over his ribs felt smooth and warm. She nuzzled his chest, planting soft kisses.
“Waking up with you is nice, too. Amazing.” His voice got that careful, serious tone in it. “You could stay over at my place sometime. Whenever you want.”
Faith looked up at him. “I can’t. Giles.”
“I think he knows we’re having sex, Faith,” he said, laughter in his voice. We’re not fooling him.”
“He worries.” Faith shook her head. “I don’t want to let him down.”
The puzzled look again. Like the answers that she gave him didn’t make sense. They probably didn’t. To him. But if she opened her mouth to start making connections for him, nothing came out. Because then everything would come out. Damn. Part of her hadn’t even wanted him to come over for this. She knew how weird it would be to have him here, in this house. But the questions would’ve been a bigger deal, and the hurt on his face would’ve sucked. And she would’ve missed him.
“You’ve got that look again,” Anderson said.
“Huh?”
“The look. That means that you’re thinking about something serious, but you’re not going to tell me what it is.” He traced a finger down the side of her face, then across her jaw. “And when I ask you, you’re going to pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.”
“It’s just…” Faith looked up, searching for the right words. “What’s done is done, okay? It’s in the past. And I don’t wanna go over it again.”
“But it’s not in the past. It’s bugging you,” he said. “Come on. I’ve told you everything about me. How Beth Pritchard broke my heart three years ago. What I had to do in Bosnia. The bike wreck when I was seven that gave me the scar on my chin.”
“Did I ask you to?” Faith retorted. “Did I sit down and say, ‘Hey, share time’ and then run off when it got to be my turn?”
He flinched. Which made her feel guilty. Which pissed her off more.
“No. I just – I know that you’re holding something back from me. I know that something’s hurt you.” Anderson swallowed, hard. “You’re this amazing woman, and you’ve been through something, and I want to help. To shoulder some of this for you, so maybe it won’t hurt so much to think about it.”
“Let it go, okay?” Damn. He was trying so hard to be calm and reasonable. Faith shifted her weight to straddle him and ran both hands up his torso. “I don’t want to think at all right now.”
He put his hands over hers, looped his fingers around her wrists. Not pinning her. Just delaying her. “I feel like – like I don’t deserve you.”
He didn’t. He really didn’t. He deserved someone happy, and innocent, and Little Mary Sunshine.
“How long’s it take to reload this pistol, soldier?” Faith sat up, and rocked her pelvis against his crotch. But even as he tensed underneath her, he kept pushing.
“God, why won’t you talk to me? Do you think I can’t handle it?”
Faith broke away from him and wrapped a sheet around her torso. She knelt on the bed, suddenly distant, untouchable. “Anderson. You got two choices. You can shut up about this. Or you can get dressed and go.”
“I –”
She stood up on the bed, stepped over him, and jumped down to the carpet. She was at the doorway of the bathroom before he spoke again.
“Wait. Wait, I’m sorry. Come here. Please?”
She stopped, one hand on the doorjamb. He walked up behind her and turned her around to face him. She wouldn’t meet his gaze. Anderson tugged on the sheet, murmuring soft words and endearments. Finally, she let the sheet go; it slipped down her body and puddled around her feet. He took this as encouragement, and pressed her against the doorframe, a knee pushing between her thighs. Faith let him kiss her neck, her shoulder, run his hands along her hips and cup her ass. And she tried to turn her head off. To forget.
***
In Xander Harris's apartment, Lydia couldn't sleep. Xander would return to Sunnydale soon, and she supposed that shortly thereafter, the Council would call her back to London. Providing Rupert's full recovery, of course.
She pulled the blankets higher around her chin and squinted to make out the clock. Eleven-something. No wonder she couldn't sleep. She was still a young woman, yet here she was, acting like an old biddy. It would be different back in London. There, she had friends. And a life.
With a sigh, Lydia sat up. She might as well face facts -- she just wasn't tired. As she made her way to the kitchen she remembered how excited she had been at the prospect of being on the Hellmouth. She poured herself a glass of Zinfandel -- California wines had always been her favorites -- and pulled the Silk Cuts out of the hiding place in the silverware drawer. She settled onto a chair on the balcony, and tried to let the warm night air relax her.
She took a pull on the cigarette. For some reason, she wanted to stay. Just for a while. She wasn't exactly sure why. Her tenure as Faith's "substitute Watcher" had been monumentally uneventful. A few demons had come back to the Hellmouth to mate -- but that had been months ago, and the girls had barely broken a sweat. She knew as well as Rupert did -- all right, not quite as well as Rupert did -- that eventually, the demons would return. The Hellmouth drew them like moths to the flame.
The cigarette burned at her fingers. She cursed softly as she ground it out, then swallowed the rest of her wine. As she headed back inside, she asked herself just who it was she hoped to convince. She knew why she wanted to stay: she liked these people. She wanted a chance to get to know them, to earn their trust. But there simply wasn't going to be time for that.
Lydia lay back in bed, no more tired than before.
***
The phone rang as DeChelle rooted through the refrigerator. She pulled a can of Mountain Dew off the top shelf, then grabbed the cordless phone off the counter.
“Yeah?”
“Hey.”
“Hey,” she answered, her voice ten times sweeter. “What are you doing, calling me?”
“I wanna see you.”
“I wanna see you too, Baby, but you know we can’t.” DeChelle caught a glimpse of herself in the hall mirror. She grinned – in this light, she could still pass for twenty-five. Hmm. Time to do the roots again.
“We were together before he died.” He had that pleading tone in his voice. “Wouldn’t changing things now be stupid?”
“Yeah, but I’m supposed to be in mourning. It’d be tacky, Mike.” She shifted the phone to her other ear. “Just hold on a bit, okay? Wait until the probate’s gone through. Then I can sell that house and we can get outta this stupid town.”
“Vegas?” he asked.
“Yeah, Baby. Vegas.” She grinned. “You and me, livin’ it up in the high desert.”
“I always wanted to live in Vegas.” Mike paused a moment. “I still wanna see you, though.”
“I know. Me too. But we have to be smart here.” She took a swallow of her soda. “Mike? Baby? You can’t call me again. We can’t tell who’s listening. And we don’t need any extra attention.”
She turned the phone off and set it back down on the counter. Mike was great, really, and he’d do anything for her. Hell, he’d proved that. But sometimes she wished…
Well, never mind that. She had all her eggs in his basket, so she sure as hell better hold onto him. It’s not like David gave her another option. David. It was a damn shame. Yeah, she’d cheated on him. But divorcing her – threatening to call the cops about the embezzlement? That was taking things too damn far. When things could’ve been civilized. Not ugly.
She was doing what was expected of her now. Staying in, living quiet. Keeping herself pent up in a one-bedroom apartment, until she could be done playing the grieving widow. And she was grieving. Really. She was.
DeChelle grabbed a bag of potato chips and another soda – the caffeine had no real effect on her, and she loved staying up late anyway – and settled into a corner of the couch. She was hooked on E! True Hollywood Story, and tonight’s was Herve Villechaize. Classic.
She’d demolished the bag of potato chips, and just cracked her third Mountain Dew plus a half-pint of strawberry sorbet. Poor Herve’d held out for too much money and been replaced by Mr. Belvedere, when DeChelle heard a thud at the door. Startled, she turned towards the sound, looking over the arm of the couch. Was somebody coming over, or was that just a weird sound from the hallway?
Whoever it was banged on her door again.
“Yeesh, buddy? You ever hear of knocking?” She wore only a nightshirt and undies, so she wasn’t gonna open the door no matter who it was. But she wanted to see what the heck was going on, so she got on her tiptoes to check the peephole. Nothing. Just pink. Someone must’ve taped a flyer on her door, or something. Eh. She’d get it in the morning. She took two steps back to the couch, when something slammed into the door.
The front door bent inwards. The wood cracked and tore, screaming like a wounded animal. Then the whole door caved in and most of the frame came with it. The hole that was once her door framed a – a thing. A monster. Big. Pink. A face like – all the features had gotten smudged out or something.
DeChelle gasped and jumped backwards. It stepped into her apartment, walking right at her. She threw her soda can at the monster. It hit the thing’s chest, stuck for a moment, and fell to the floor, spraying yellow fizz all over the carpet. She kept retreating, trying to scream. But it pissed her off – all she could get out were these strangled little peeps. Her butt hit the arm of the sofa, knocking her off-balance to sprawl into the cushions. The thing walked towards her – not angry, not stalking, just deliberate. For some reason, that made it scarier. She scrabbled on her butt to the far corner of the couch. It followed her, going straight through the coffee table in its way.
Oh God, oh God. She couldn’t breathe. The thing had its – paw – over her mouth and nose. She opened her mouth to try to bite it and it flowed into her mouth. Pressed against her tongue. She bucked under the weight of the thing, her feet flailing and kicking. Her palms made wet smacks against the skin of the creature’s arm. It pushed her deeper and deeper into the couch. Her chest spasmed – coughing or vomiting, she didn’t know. Please… she had to… breathe…
The last thing she heard was a loud snap. The last thing she saw was the floral-pattern couch cushion. The last thing she felt was the creature’s hand oozing down her throat.
***
With great relief, Giles pulled into his garage and killed the car. He got out and stood for a minute, rubbing his neck and stretching his back and legs, trying to work out the kinks from the long drive. He decided to deal with his suitcase in the morning, and headed inside. The place was dark, quiet. He dropped his keys on the desk and set his glasses carefully next to them, then flipped on a light and squinted around the living room, trying to put his finger on just what exactly seemed to be off about the place. Something ... missing. He went to Faith's room and knocked on the door. "Faith?" He glanced at his watch. Half past midnight. She should still be up.
Then he remembered: she was still at Buffy's. It was the silence caused by her absence that bothered him. He'd gotten so used to the steady beat of the racket she called music streaming from her room. Funny, he never thought he'd miss that.
He shook his head at his forgetfulness and hoped it was due to his being tired and not a sign that he was even more brain damaged than the doctors let on. He poured himself a drink, then propped his cane against the end of the couch and sat down, and tried to rub the weariness out of his eyes. The temptation to feel sorry for himself was curbed by the memory of Dawn lying in her hospital bed. She'd looked so frail. So damaged.
But Dawn would be all right. Of this Giles had no doubt. He knew more than any layperson should about head trauma, and Dawn exhibited all the correct signs. She still didn't speak, but she did communicate -- with her eyes, with the way she responded to pain. She was recovering, slowly but surely. The girl was young and resilient. She would bounce back from her injuries.
Giles took a sip of his drink and set it on the table, then he sunk down far enough to lean his head against the back of the sofa, wincing at the stab of pain in his hip. He closed his eyes and sighed. It was Buffy he truly worried about. The dark circles under her eyes, the premature worry lines etched in her forehead, her collarbone more pronounced than Giles remembered ... he hated seeing her look so haggard and worn. He'd thought these girls had finally earned a reprieve from suffering, but apparently life had other ideas. Cruel, ironic ideas. The little girl had survived being hunted by hellgods and a direct confrontation with the Master, so let's throw something as mundane as a car accident at her and see how she and her sister deal with that.
Even Spike wasn't handling this latest turn of events as well as Giles had hoped. When the vampire had met him at the hospital entrance, he looked close to showing his true age. His hair was an unruly mass of curls, brown at the roots, and he needed a shave. His face looked gaunt, and it turned out that Buffy had to remind him to go have some blood as often as he had to remind her to eat.
Still, they took care of each other, kept each other hopeful. Giles suspected Buffy would be much worse if not for Spike's presence. Perhaps her father would have been enough support -- Giles wouldn't really know. He and Hank Summers had made a point to avoid each other as much as possible.
Giles leaned forward and picked up his drink, but only frowned at the amber liquid. He hadn't been prepared to see Buffy's father there. To see him being a father to her. It had unsettled him. Giles knew he should be glad for Buffy, but knowing what it had taken to get Hank to be there for her made Giles want to bash the man's teeth in with his cane. At least he could be comforted by the knowledge that Hank would stay in L.A. Giles could barely be a Watcher to Buffy these days. If she no longer needed a father figure ...
"Quite a lovely pity party we're having, isn't it, Rupert?" he muttered. He tossed back the rest of his drink, then got up to go to bed. Halfway up the stairs, he stopped. He turned and went back down, making his way to Faith's room. Inside, he turned on her CD player, and set it to repeat. Then he shut the door and headed back upstairs. As he reached his bedroom, he smiled. Much better. It sounded like home again.
***
Jan’s hair was wet from the shower and she’d put on bright red sweats. She was working on her second helping of taco casserole, plus some green beans that Trudi had popped in the microwave.
“There now,” Trudi said. “You look about a million times better.”
She patted her friend on the arm and went over to the fridge to refill her OJ. “You need a refill?”
Jan shook her head, but Trudi topped off the glass anyway. “Good for you. Vitamin C. And there’s a plus – calcium fortified. Strong bones.”
“How long, do you think?” Jan looked up from her plate, her voice barely above a whisper. “Before it’s done?”
“I don’t know, honey.” Trudi fixed herself a plate of casserole. She wasn’t hungry, but she felt all fidgety. And the food would calm her down. “I’d imagine it’ll come back, though, when it’s over.”
“What do I owe you?” Jan asked. “For the… supplies and things?”
Trudi waved her hand. “Oh, you don’t have to…”
“How much?”
“Oh, well, okay, the receipt’s in the bag, I’ll just grab that.” Trudi looked under the sink, where she’d folded the paper bag and stored it with the others. There it was, right on top. And the Magic Box receipt was tucked inside. “There you go. Now, no rush on this, honey.”
Jan dabbed at her lips with her napkin. “Let me get my checkbook.”
“No, no, you eat,” Trudi said, standing up. “Where’s your purse?”
“It’s by the – by the – on the table next to the couch.”
Trudi bustled into the living room as Jan picked the receipt up off the table. “My. Goodness. They charge a lot for this stuff, don’t they?”
“Well, you know, specialty shops. There’s always going to be a markup when you can’t buy in bulk.” Trudi returned with the purse and sat back down at her plate.
Jan pulled out her wallet, unwrapped the rubber band around it, and wrote out the check, logging the amount in her register. Then she held the check out to Trudi, who had a mouthful of casserole. Jan set it on the table in front of her and finished eating.
The golem entered the kitchen. It walked through the door and stopped, about three feet from Jan, completely motionless. Jan let out a startled squeak, and Trudi coughed on a tortilla chip that just about went down the wrong pipe.
“Did you do it?” Jan asked the creature.
The golem said nothing. It just stood there, arms at its sides. But then Jan saw them: fine yellow strands of hair stuck in the clay of the creature’s hands. She walked over to look at them closely. It looked like DeChelle’s hair. It must be DeChelle’s hair.
Jan sagged against the counter. For the first time in ten days, she smiled. “It’s over, Trudi. It’s done.”
“Well then!” Trudi felt a huge surge of relief. She looked up at the golem. “Back in the box with you, mister!”
“Trudi,” Jan said, as her friend started to stand. “Your money.”
“I swear, I’d forget my head if it wasn’t screwed on.” Trudi reached for the check. The moment her fingers touched it, the symbols on the golem’s forehead flashed. It stepped forward. Both women shot a puzzled look at it. It slammed its right hand into Trudi’s face. The impact knocked Trudi’s chair over backwards, her head thwacking against the hardwood floor with such force that it flattened the back of her skull. She died before the golem had time to smother her.
“No!” Jan yelled. She backed towards the sink. “No, no, no. You have to – ”
The golem’s head moved to face her, and again the symbols flashed. Its left hand caught her by the throat and knocked her backwards into the sink. The golem’s arm stretched to keep its hand locked over her mouth and nose. Her heels beat a quick rat-a-tat against the cabinet door. In the same rhythm as her heart, the beats sped up. Became erratic. Slowed. Stopped.
The golem released Jan’s body, an ungainly sprawl across the sink and counter, and turned to go. Its foot landed squarely on Trudi’s face, which became deeply imbedded in the malleable clay. The golem dragged Trudi’s corpse behind it for a few steps, leaving great smears of blood and brain along the kitchen floor. Then her shoulder caught on the wall; with a great sucking noise, the golem pulled its foot free and left the house.
***
Lydia's hand shot out and hit the snooze button. It didn't work. She pushed it again, and still the alarm screamed at her. She raised her head to glare at the clock. It was only five-thirty -- she'd only just fallen asleep. She could have sworn she'd set it for seven. Her hand balled into a fist, and she pounded the clock, punishing it for waking her early. Gradually she realized it wasn't the alarm she heard, but sirens. Very close sirens. She got up and went to the window. As she pulled up the shade she was blinded by the strobe of police lights. When she could see again, she made out at least three police cars and an ambulance in front of the building.
Her first thought was that Mrs. Cho in 2D might have fallen down again, but she didn't see why the police would be called for that. She pulled on some pajama pants and shrugged into her robe, then grabbed her glasses and went to investigate.
As she reached the second floor, she had to shove past a group of neighbors huddled at the foot of the stairs, peeking around the corner. More neighbors filled the hall.
"What's happening?" Lydia asked Mrs. Cho, relieved to see that the ancient woman was well.
"They're back," Mrs. Cho announced.
"Who?"
"The vampires. They come back, kill DeChelle."
"Vampires?" Lydia's heart skipped a beat. "Are you certain?"
"I no see body, but what else? Town quiet since war."
"Yes, but that doesn't necessarily mean --"
"I tell my son, I go home, but he no listen. Leave me here. I go home to North Korea. Communists better than vampires any day."
"You should go back inside, Mrs. Cho. If there are really vampires you'll be safe there."
"I go back to Korea," she repeated, nodding her head for emphasis. "No vampires there."
"Mrs. Cho, I happen to know for a fact that there are indeed vampires in North Korea. The ampire Slayers, on the other hand, both live here. Now which do you think is safer?"
Mrs. Cho frowned up at her. "I go back inside now."
"Yes, very good." Lydia watched her shuffle back to her apartment, then turned and pushed her way through the crowd until she could see the crime scene. A uniformed officer held the neighbors back on both sides as gurney holding a body bag was rolled out of what was left of 2A's front door. Ben Grant emerged from the apartment, looking in wonder at the broken, splintered door jamb. "Detective!" Lydia called when she saw him. She ducked under the police tape.
"It's okay," Grant told the officer who tried to intercept. "I want to question her."
"Me?" Lydia asked, taken aback. "Why ..." Then it dawned on her. "Oh, dear. It was ..." she looked around at the crowd, then lowered her voice to a whisper. "Was it a vampire attack?"
Grant cracked a smile. "Lydia, the fact of vampires isn't exactly a secret in this town."
She sighed. "Yes, of course. I simply didn't want to start a panic. Mrs. Cho is already preparing to flee the country over this." When Grant only chuckled, she prodded. "So? Was it a vampire?"
"Uh, no," he sobered up. "That's what I want to talk to you about. The victim had her neck broken, but here's the weird thing. Her mouth was full of a clay-like substance. The same stuff's all over the apartment. So far we haven't found any fingerprints. I was going to see if you or Giles could come down to the morgue, take a look at the body? I haven't seen anything like this before."
"I'll come," Lydia said, a bit too quickly. She realized how eager she must sound, and tried to sound nonchalant. "I'm not even sure if Rupert is back in town yet. Besides, I'm already up. No need to wake him."
"Right," he said. "How long do you need?"
"Pardon?"
"To get dressed."
Lydia looked down at her rumpled sleep clothes, and pulled her robe closed in embarrassment. "Thirty minutes?"
"Great," Grant said. "I'll be here."
***
Lydia went over her notes from her visit to the morgue. While there, two more victims had arrived. The manner of their deaths matched DeChelle's in that both were found with the same clay-like substance filling their mouths and throats; though one had suffered a more violent fate than the others. Lydia again forced herself to look at the Polaroids Detective Grant had taken for her, and felt bile rise at the sight of the woman's crushed skull. She put the picture down and closed her eyes, taking deep breaths. Sometimes she was grateful she'd been spared seeing this sort of thing on a regular basis. She really didn't have the constitution for it.
A knock sounded on the Magic Box's front door. Lydia got up to answer it. As she approached, the knock grew more aggressive until it became pounding. Lydia sighed and unlocked the door. "Come in, Faith."
"Y'know, not even Post ever made me get up this early," Faith grumped as she dragged past Lydia, "and she> was evil." She made a beeline for the overstuffed chairs in the reading area and plopped down. "This better be good."
"I apologize for waking you," Lydia said, following her into the shop, "but this is in fact quite bad, or I wouldn't have done so."
Faith sat up a little straighter, worry on her face. "What's up? Is Giles okay?"
"As far as I know."
"Dawn didn't relapse or anything, did she?"
"I haven't spoken to Rupert yet, but I'm sure Dawn is fine. Or, as fine as can be under the circumstances. I called you here on Slayer business."
Faith closed her eyes and fell back into the chair, a whine escaping her throat. "There isn't any Slayer business. Especially not at seven-thirty in the morning. I keep telling you, the town is dead!"
"Yes, well. So are three people."
Faith opened her eyes. "What?"
Lydia walked over to the coffee pot. "As rude as you found your awakening this morning," she said, pouring them each a cup, "trust me, mine was worse. One of my neighbors was murdered last night."
"I ... wow. Sorry."
"I didn't know her," Lydia said, handing her one of the coffees and sinking into the chair facing her. "It was the circumstances of her death I found ... disturbing."
"How'd she die?"
Lydia set her coffee down and got up to hand Faith the Polaroids. "They still have to do an autopsy to determine whether her neck was broken before or after the time of death. But two others were brought in while I was there. They all appeared to have suffocated on this substance."
Faith squinted at the pictures, unfazed by the images they contained. "So ... they choked on Silly Putty?"
Lydia stood behind her and looked over her shoulder, scrutinizing the pictures. "I suppose the consistency is similar. Detective Grant is supposed to call me once it's been analyzed by the laboratory, but I suspect it's something similar in principle to the mucus of a Fyarl demon. Or that of the Queller demon that attacked Buffy's mother last year." Faith squirmed in her seat at the mention of Joyce Summers.
"I suspect that the attacking demon sprays its victim with this substance, and it then hardens. DeChelle's broken neck suggests that either the substance is sprayed with great force, or --"
"Or this is one bad mother that won't go down without a fight," Faith finished.
"Quite."
Faith tossed the photos on the table. "We should call Giles. He might know --"
"I don't think that's necessary."
Faith looked up at her. "Why not?"
Lydia sighed. "He probably had a late night. No need to wake him. This isn't anything we can't handle on our own."
"Yeah, but --"
"Faith, may I be blunt?"
Faith blinked at her. "'Cause you're usually so good at bringing the subtle?"
Lydia sat down at the table, but turned toward Faith. "When you first came to Sunnydale, and then again when you returned, you felt like something of a second banana. Always having to prove your capabilities, and your worth to the team. Am I right?"
Faith fidgeted in her chair, but then shrugged. "Yeah."
"But eventually you did prove yourself. No one here doubts that you are just as capable a Slayer as Buffy."
"I guess."
"Then I ask you: how am *I* to prove myself if we run to Rupert at the first sign of trouble?"
Faith regarded her for a moment, then sighed. "Yeah. I get it."
Lydia smiled, relieved and grateful. "I thought you might. I promise we'll tell him everything when he arrives." As she spoke she turned around to face the table and grabbed a couple of books from the huge stack in the middle. "But with any luck we'll have worked it all out ourselves by then." She held one of the books out to Faith.
Faith just looked at her. "What's this?"
Lydia continued holding the book out. "We need to research." When Faith didn't take it, she placed it on the arm of her chair. "I've already told you what to look for." She turned back around and opened her book.
"Hold up," Faith said, rising from her chair. "I've never really been big into the whole research thing."
"Yes," Lydia said as she skimmed through a book. "You and Buffy have been terribly spoiled. Learning how to do proper research was a big part of my training."
"Well, yeah. That's 'cause you're a Watcher. You look 'em up, I kill 'em."
Lydia looked up from her book. "I meant my ..." She sighed. "Nevermind. Here." She turned to pick the book up from the chair and held it out to Faith. "The sooner you get started, the sooner we'll be done."
Faith's shoulders sagged in defeat, and she took the book. "Fine," she said as she sat down and cracked it open. "But I want you to know, if book-learnin' is gonna be part of my job description from now on, I'm gonna need a raise."
"Duly noted," Lydia said, and turned a page.

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