[identity profile] eee1313.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] dancing_lessons_archive
Part one of six

Episode Eight: Wrecking Ball

by adjrun, eep, and fenwic
Insanity by Oingo Boingo
(General Madness)
Green Eyes by Coldplay
(Spike & Buffy)

Shoutouts: adjrun: To all the readers, who put up with our delays and missed deadlines. To cj, for not killing me over said missed deadlines. Thanks to the betas and the feedbackers. fenwic & eep: A tip of the hat to the writers who continue to inspire us (fenwic ripped off Aaron Sorkin again). Thanks and hugs to the readers (especially bit and AngelChicken.) who've encouraged us, challenged us, and poked us in the back. Props to the beta team -- especially the new kids. Big Love to our families & friends, who just don't get it, but love us anyway. Last and most...love, adoration, and admiration to cousinjean for cracking the whip (which she hates doing), and supporting us to the point of coming aboard to write! (Which was our sinister plan all along...). cousinjean: Ginormous thanks to adjrun, fenwic & eep for including me in the planning stages, for not getting all offended when my efforts to hurry up this chapter extended as far as horning in and stealing scenes from them, and for pouring their hearts and a good deal of their sanity into making this chapter the best it could be. Most of all, much love and thanks to our readers for your patience and support.


*


Two boys sat on dirtbikes, staring at an empty house. Their poses mirrored each other: slouched back in their seats, one Adidas-shod foot propped on the asphalt, fingertips of one hand loosely resting on a handlebar. The only thing odd about them, the only thing making them different from any two bored boys in a long stretch of summer, was the intense glare each directed at the house in front of them.

Nothing about the house seemed to deserve such malice. It was typically ranch-style, gray with white trim, big picture window, stuck in the middle of a placid suburban street. The lawn was maybe a shade over-manicured, the roses too precisely trimmed. A flowering cherry had pride of place on one side of the arrow-straight cement path that bisected the yard. No leaves or pollen or little tree bits littered the grass underneath.

If it did, Mike thought, she probably lectured the tree for a half-hour. Scared it into submission. And then ratted the tree out to its mom.

Josh rode up, braking hard at the last second. Just enough to leave a four-foot skid mark. No big deal, really - wouldn’t make even semifinals of a skid contest. But it was the principle of the thing.

Mike nodded a greeting. “Mrs. Holitney’s gonna have a fit when she sees the tire tracks in front of her house.”

“Well, we have to make sure she doesn’t notice.” Josh grinned back. “Where is she, anyway?”

Kevin leaned forward on his handlebars. “Volunteering. Community center, I think. Other old bats. Whatever, she doesn’t get home on Wednesdays ‘til late afternoon.”

“And the neighbors?”

He pointed around the street. “Working, working, won’t notice, working, on one of those Alaskan cruises, working, for sale and nobody’s in it.”

“Cool…”

“So we’re good,” Mike said. “Um, if we still wanna.”

Josh shrugged his backpack off his shoulder. “You kidding? You know how much trouble he’s in?”

For a moment, nobody said anything. It felt weird not having Brandon there, cracking them up with his Dr. Evil impression and bitching about his little sisters. But, no. Yesterday, he’d brought the Wrath of Holitney down on himself. The whole summer was blown.

“You talk to him, Mike?” Josh asked.

“His mom. She wouldn’t let him even come to the phone.”

“And?”

“Grounded. The whole summer. No friends, no computer. Not even any X-Box.”

Josh shook his head slowly. “Harsh…”

“But it was an accident,” Kevin protested.

“Like Mrs. Whore-litny cares.” Mike got off his bike and let it fall on the sidewalk. “It was her stupid prize Prince of Who-Gives-A-Shit rosebush.”

Kevin’s bike landed near Mike’s. “She’s such a bitch.”

“Yeah. Bitch.” Josh snickered and pulled his hockey stick from the straps on his backpack. Swinging the stick like a ninja blade, he hopped the ornamental fence and took a whack at the first of a row of flowers. The head of a bloom soared in a slow arc across the yard.

“It’s like T-ball!” he whooped, taking aim at a second plant. “T-ball with roses!”

“Snapdragons. Um, I think.” Kevin shrugged. “Weeding is a Saturday chore.”

“Who cares? They’re flowers.” Thwack! “And now, they’re ex-flowers.”

“Lemme do one!”

They took turns beheading flowers, seeing who could knock them farther across the yard. Kevin started keeping score - two points for across the walk, five for getting it into the neighbor’s yard - and Josh took the early lead.

Mike took the plastic gasoline can from his backpack, and lugged it to the center of the front lawn. He poured letter after careful letter: “B” into “I” into “T”. Two weeks ago, his dad had sploshed gas on the lawn while filling up the lawnmower, and it left this massive yellow patch. Dad was really pissed, said he’d have to reseed or get a patch of turf. Mike giggled. Give it a day or two, and Mrs. Holitney’s lawn would spell out what she was in three-foot letters of permanently dead grass.

“Whoo! I won!” Kevin yelled. “Thirty-two to nineteen! Whooped your ass, dude!”

“I woulda had you if it wasn’t for that stupid tree.” Josh kicked over part of the ornamental fence.

After screwing the cap tightly onto the gascan, Mike looked up. “Um, guys?”

“Yeah?” Kevin asked.

“I don’t know if you - I mean, it’d take a lot of work, but…” He pulled a hacksaw out of his backpack. “The tree? We could - ”

“Oh, dude,” Josh said. “Yeah. Definitely. We’ll take turns. Kevin, you stand watch for now.”

Mike stood under the tree, a little uncertain how to go about it. But he supposed it was pretty straightforward - wood was wood. It’s not like it had to be close to the ground or anything.

The saw blade rasped across bark.

Yeah, this would take a while.

***

Spike yawned. He’d spent four solid days resting, convalescing, being coddled and pampered and cooed over. Nice, perfectly warmed blood, ten solid shots of Tabasco on top, brought to him every four hours on the dot. Ice cream or pudding cup on demand. Pillows fluffed, covers tucked in, a little telly purchased so he could laze in bed watching History Channel and TV Land. Thick stack of violent books (plus that one stupid Trollope he’d been meaning to read for literal decades) on the nightstand. A perfect setup for the beloved invalid.

He wanted to kill something.

Four interminable days, cooped up like a veal in its bitty little pen. And he was just about ready for that bolt through the head, thank you very much. Put him out of his misery. So he’d gotten out of bed two days ago, torn half his wounds open, and bled all over… everything. That was no reason to lock him in this lace-edged cell until he was ready to claw through the wallpaper.

That’s it. He had to bust out.

He pushed the comforter into a crumpled little mound by his feet and slid his legs off the side of the bed. Good. Sitting was possible. Using the abs didn’t hurt even a tick; his arms felt a bit shaky, but no twinges.

Standing, not fun. But still within doing.

His right knee buckled. Crap, maybe not. Well, too bloody bad, he would get out of this room if he had to scoot down the hall on his keister.

Britches. Couldn’t get out of this sodding room without britches, unless he wanted all and sundry looking at his danglies. And while he didn’t much care, the fact that his legs still looked like they’d been trolled through the Amazon for piranha-bait? Apt to get him sent right back to bed. He shuffled over to the closet, fell against the door to open it, and yanked on the first thing that looked remotely denim and dark. Got lucky, first try. Good thing the “dark” section of the closet was pretty much his. Prize in hand, he limped back to the bed - he wasn’t so much of a moron as to try the stand-and-balance method when neither standing nor balancing were certainties.

Spike had just gotten his jeans tugged up over his hips when he heard the soft padding of feet down the hallway. With a hiss and a grimace he shot to his feet.

“Hey, baby, you awake?” Buffy eased open the door, looking loving and solicitous. Until the instant she saw he was vertical. Then her hands slammed to her hips and one eyebrow shot up. “What are you doing?”

Spike focused on doing the last button of his jeans. “Getting up. Getting out.”

“No. Back in bed.”

“The only way I’m going back in that bed is if you strip off and keep me there.” He managed a halfhearted leer.

“Spike, you’re still recuperating.”

“Loud sex’ll help with that.” He rubbed his fingers back and forth along his waistband. “Patient’s state of mind crucial to speedy recovery. Endorphins, and whatnot.”

She clearly didn’t buy the act. The foot-wide swath of bandage around his torso might’ve had something to do with that. “Back. In. Bed.”

“Buffy…” He fought to keep his voice low. Rational. “Can’t stay here any more. I can’t. Too much eyelet lace and crocheted pillows and tasteful lavender accents and fluffy little teddy bears for just the one eye. I swear, you keep me in here, I’ll start beheading the stuffed animals.”

He sank back on the bed. “Please, Buffy. I need a smoke, and three fingers of bourbon, and to feel like myself again. That’s all.”

She sighed and crossed over to stand in front of him. Fiddling with his hair, straightening out what he imagined was killer bedhead, she said, “Okay. Tell you what. I check your wounds, see for myself that you’re on the road to all better. If I like the looks of things, you can get up.”

“And if not?”

“I dose your blood with Vicodin and keep you knocked out for two more days.” She punctuated the threat with a soft kiss.

“Great. There’s an option,” he muttered. “They’re healed up, mostly. Closed over. No worry of pulling something open. Just the bangs and bruises, now.”

“Yeah. Like I’m gonna take your word on this one.” Buffy grabbed the first aid kit off the dresser. She scissored through the bands of gauze on his chest and, with a sympathetic grimace, pulled back the bandage. “Huh. You’re right. This looks way better.”

“So I’m free?”

“Yeah, I’m not even gonna bandage this back up. How’s the eye?” She picked carefully at the surgical tape, and then drew back the wad of cotton covering the wound. “Gleh.”

“Hey,” Spike said, surprised. “I can see out of it. A little. Fuzzy, but functional.”

“Well, keep the patch on it anyway. ‘Cause I don’t wanna look at it.” She shuddered. “It’s ooky.”

“So it’s agreed?” he asked as she stuck the tape back over his eye. “I’m a free man?”

“Fine, yeah.” She scowled. “You know, not too long ago the thought of being in my bedroom was a wet dream for you. And now you’re all ‘Ack, get me out of here!’”

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself.” He pulled her close, between the vee of his legs, hands girdling her waist, and nuzzled at her belly through her shirt. “And, again, let me state for the record, I am still open for one activity in this room.”

“Mmm, tempting…” Buffy murmured, tilting his chin up for a gentle kiss. And then another. And then a long, slow series of swirling, melting kisses that made Spike completely oblivious to another set of approaching footsteps.

“Oh, hey, Buffy, how’s…” Willow trailed off as Buffy slowly pulled away from Spike. “Spike’s mouth?”

“Mouth, skilled as always. The rest of him? Healing nicely.” Buffy grinned. “As far as I can tell.”

“Good. Yay. Well, sorry to cut the test drive short, but Xander’s here with the U-Haul.”

“Today’s the day?” Spike asked.

“It was today, unfurnished, or two weeks, furnished.” Willow leaned against the doorjamb. “So we’re scrounging what we can off Buffy, and then raiding IKEA.”

“Cheap Scandinavian furniture as a design choice. I like it,” Buffy said. “But really, you should wait. We love having you here.”

“Speak for yourself.” Spike limped over to the dresser and pulled out a black tee. “Nothing personal, Love, but sardines in the tin have more space than we.”

“It’s a bathroom thing, isn’t it?” Buffy winced. “The one shower? I should’ve done a schedule. I thought about doing a schedule, but then that seemed a bit control freaky. And the hot water issues…”

“Whoa, Buffy,” Willow said. “It’s the shower, it’s the lack of privacy, it’s lots of things. None of which have anything to do with the fact that you’ve been great, and I don’t feel unwelcome. But Spike’s right. Six people, in one house? For weeks? It’s amazing that we haven’t voted someone out already.”

Buffy slid her hands in her back pockets. “I just hate the thought that you’re uncomfortable here, or that I’m pushing you guys out.”

“I know that. And it’s not like Xander and Oz and I won’t be over here all the dang time. I’ve just - I’m getting antsy for a space that’s mine. My room, with my stuff. Where I can go in, and shut the door, and it’s all me.” Willow grinned. “And the furniture I’ve borrowed from you. Speaking of which…” She pointed a thumb towards Joyce’s old bedroom. “Packing. Bedroom set. Downstairs. Truck. Whee!”

As she headed down the hall, Buffy turned to Spike apologetically. “Gotta go. I’m gonna help haul mattresses and heavy stuff.”

“I’ll help,” Spike offered.

“You mean, in a moral support, absolutely no lifting anything kind of way, right?”

Spike ignored the blatant warning in her tone. “Nah. I want to throw stuff at Xander’s head. And when I hit him, blame it on lack of depth perception.”

Buffy matched his grin, and he continued. “Oz is heading out, too?”

“Yeah, he’s gonna crash on their couch for a few weeks and then find a place to live.” She shook her head, amused. “He may try to get the band back together, and get a house with them again.”

“So, we’re back down to you, me and Bit.” Spike couldn’t keep from smiling. “Good. I’m a selfish man, I know it. But… good.”

Buffy started to leave, but paused and turned back in the doorway. “This is still kind of my room, isn’t it?”

“Well, yeh. It is your room.” Spike looked around. “Hence the rampant girlyness of the place.”

“No, that’s not what I mean. It’s my room. Not ours.”

“So?” He was still clearly missing some crucial element of this conversation.

“So, we should fix that. Have a bedroom you feel more comfortable in.”

“What, you want a room all black and red and wrought iron?” Spike teased. “Ooh, there’s a thought.”

“Nuh uh. No way. I’m not living in a Cher catalogue.” She thought for a second. “Tell you what. Why don’t I fix up Mom’s old room? It can be like a really late anniversary present.”

“You got me a present, Pet,” he reminded her.

“Yeah, which my sister proceeded to wrap around a bus. This time, I’d like to try something slightly more permanent.” He could see the idea grow in her head. “I need something to burn off energy while the Council’s here, anyway. Keep me from wringing their necks like chickens. So I’ll fix up the room, and you can see it when it’s done. It’ll be a surprise. It’ll be fun!”

He still wasn’t sold on the idea. “Not too girly, though, right?”

“It’ll be our bedroom.” She walked towards him and looped her arms around his waist. “Trust me.”

Trust her? “Always.”

***

Buffy took a moment, standing in the doorway of the Magic Box. Watchers swarmed all around the table in the back, seemingly oblivious to her entrance, dancing attendance on Quentin Travers. Bringing him this report and that file and the reference located in the Whosits Grimoire, it looked like. Her brand spanking new “Official Watcher” sat at the front table with a white-haired, bearded fellow that she vaguely remembered being attached at Quentin’s shoulder yesterday. With all their British-follow-the-rulesiness, she supposed that made him important. Underlings at the back, or whatever.

Her friends stood behind the counter, an island in the chaos. Xander went back and forth between filling out some form and answering a barrage of rapid-fire questions launched by Quentin and his entourage. Faith chewed on her thumbnail, staring at a spot on the opposite wall, and looking a little like she was drowning. Willow made a pretense of dusting, but when she tried to come from behind the counter a navy-suited toady almost plowed her over. She saw Buffy at the door, shot her a quick wave, and rolled her eyes at all the commotion. Buffy gave a “What can ya do?” shrug, and grinned back.

Okay, which battle first?

Whoa. No. Not a battle. She’d promised Xander that she’d be on her best possible behavior. Which meant Cool, Calm, Rational Girl. No matter how much she wanted to bop their heads like bongo drums. So who was less likely to test the temper? She looked from Lydia, to Quentin, to Lydia again. Total tossup. Fine, she’d go with who was closer.

Buffy took a few steps towards the corner table, near enough to hear their conversation over the din. Lydia bent over a legal pad, jotting down notes as the other man spoke.

“I assume that she’s well-versed in the Roegher method, which is a necessity for this exercise?”

“I’m not certain of Buffy’s competence with meditation and focusing techniques, actually,” Lydia murmured. “We’ve tended to emphasize combat.”

“That should be remedied immediately.” The man shook his head, disapproval dripping from his tone. “You’ll have to run her through some preliminary diagnostic exercises.”

Buffy broke in. “Or, you could ask me.”

“Ah, Buffy!” Lydia stood up quickly. “I’d like you to meet Magnus Bellingham. Magnus, Buffy Summers. The Slayer.”

The man gave a slow nod and a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Miss Summers, it’s a pleasure.”

“Let’s hope so.”

“We were setting up some preliminary training schedules.” Lydia said. Then she looked at Buffy, and flinched. “Which I thought we could finalize at a later point, when you and I have room in our schedules.”

Buffy nodded. “I think I could manage that.”

“I wanted to pick his brain while he was in Sunnydale.” Lydia’s speech came slightly faster than normal. “Magnus is an expert on the mental disciplines and exercises for the training of the truly proficient Slayer.”

“Peachy,” Buffy chirped. “‘Cause I’m the expert on me.”

The man, still seated, looked up at her. Amazingly, he seemed to be able to look down his nose at her even when she was taller. His eyes were pale, icy blue. Disconcertingly so. Like he should have some sort of cold-vision laser beams that shot out of them and zapped little mouthy blonde girls. But Buffy was a master of the staredown. She had multiple black belts in staredown. And really, this guy had nothin’ on the Glare of Dawn. So Buffy met his gaze, letting her awareness and amusement of a pretty damn juvenile tactic show.

After a long moment, he smiled. “Well, Lydia,” he said. His voice was soft and warm and totally a front. The real man showed in the cold intensity of his eyes. “Not very reminiscent of yours and my relationship, is it?”

“Your relationship with Lydia?” Buffy asked. “Aren’t you, like, three times older than her? No offense, but… ew. Multiple levels of ew.”

“Oh, dear. No, Buffy. Magnus had care of me from the age of five.” Lydia seemed strangely bashful with this information. “He… he was my Watcher.”

“You had a-wait.” Buffy started over. “You? You were a…?”

“Potential. Yes.” A quick, tight smile. “Never called.”

“Whoa. That’s…” Buffy shook her head. “Whoa. Trippy.”

“I’ve therefore held Magnus in high esteem,” Lydia continued. “And find his counsel invaluable. He is rather a father figure to me.”

“Now, Lydia,” he said. “I’d like to think that you take my advice because it’s correct, not because of any residual personal fondness.”

“Of course, Magnus.”

Buffy fought to get back on solid footing. “I don’t get it. Why didn’t you say anything?”

“I’m not sure,” Lydia said. "I… I didn't want to use it to establish a false sense of camaraderie. After all, I'd merely trained in the Army. I'd not fought in the war."

She seemed flustered: one hand played with her necklace, and the other tapped the pen she held against the legal pad. She looked sad, lost. Buffy knew that there was something she should say, some way she should reach out. She opened her mouth. “Uh. Huh. I… look, hey, there’s Willow! I should…”

“Of course,” Lydia said. “We do need to schedule time for those, er, schedules?”

“Absolutely!” Buffy backed away from the table. “We’ll totally get on that. Um, bye!”

She kept retreating. The moment she thought, “Hey, wait, steps coming,” she’d hit them. One half-stumble, half-stagger, with a thud, a flail, and a full twist later, she caught her balance. Well, that was an attention-getter. Even Faith had left off the million-yard stare to smirk at her. And the matchy-suited drones had frozen in place.

Travers looked up from the table. “Ah, Miss Summers, there you are. Please, have a seat.”

“What’s up, Buttercup?” She turned a chair around and straddled it, resting her forearms on the back.

“Charming as ever.” He cleared his throat and pulled a file off the stack in front of him. “We’ve asked you to come in for a reason. It’s time to discuss the vampire.”

“Vampires?” Buffy asked. “There aren’t any. L.A., yeah, we dusted a few, but not Sunnydale. The last trouble around here was that mud thingy, and Faith fought that.”

“I’m not asking about patrol tallies. I’m asking about your… personal connection.”

“William the Bloody?” An underling added.

Buffy felt a hot flash of anger surge in her gut. “Whoa. This is about Spike?”

“Precisely,” Quentin said. “You’ve entered into an immoral liaison with an exemplar of the very evil you’ve sworn to destroy.”

“Hey, I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we talk about your sex life instead? Or is that going to be a really short conversation?” Buffy put her head down on her folded arms and took a long breath. “I just… really don’t want to discuss this with you.”

“I’m afraid that isn’t an option, Miss Summers.”

“I don’t get it. Is there something in the Slayer Handbook that says who I can and can’t sleep with?” She glared at him. “Oh, wait, that would be under ‘Personal Life’, and that section wouldn’t exist in the handbook, since the Slayer’s not supposed to have one.”

“No, of course,” he replied. “Mind you, when the Handbook was constructed, your actions would be considered inconceivable. Unprecedented. The mere thought of a Slayer forming romantic attachments with vampires has always been so farfetched as to be laughable.”

“Until me.”

He nodded. “Until now.”

“Can I say something?” Xander crossed over to the table. “I mean, I’m the last person to go, ‘Whee, vampire!’, but Spike’s been a critical member of the team. You didn’t seem to have a problem with him on your previous visit, when he was just helping out. And now his emotional connections are stronger than ever to the Slayer, and the Slayer’s mission.”

“The use of a leashed vampire is comprehensible, though irregular,” Quentin said. “When you’ve trained an animal to a certain task, it’s logical to use it in said task. But though royalty in the Middle Ages might’ve trained cheetahs to hunt game, they never made the mistake of thinking them pets. Your vampire is leashed, not tamed.”

“Spike’s not an animal,” Buffy said, jaw clenched hard to avoid breaking into tears.

“No, he’s worse. He’s a demon. Use of the term ‘animal’ is rather complimentary.”

“He’s helped to avert three apocalypses. He saved my sister’s life - my life, too many times to count. He’s slain hundreds of vampires, dozens of demons…”

“How many people?” a woman asked. Buffy fought to remember her name. Neve, or something.

“None. He can’t. The chip, remember?” Which was no longer in his head. Which hadn’t been in his head for over a year now. But there was no way she would tell these jerks that. They’d kill him, then. No questions asked.

“Ah, yes, the behavioral modification implant? Is it still functioning properly?”

“It’s fine.” It was probably in the landfill now, but Buffy bet it was fine.

“And when the device stops working?” Quentin asked.

“It won’t!” Now Willow came to the rescue. “When we went into the Initiative? They had computer files I accessed. Files about the chip. They fixed up the thing to draw power from Spike’s brain, and it’s made of non-degradable parts. So it’ll run indefinitely.”

Willow sent her a look that said, I am so lying.

Buffy smiled back. I know. Thank you. I love you for this.

“Do you have a copy of this documentation?” Watcher Chicky asked.

“Um, no. Sorry.” Willow shrugged. “File go boom when Initiative go boom.”

“Spike’s good in a fight,” Faith interjected. “And he’s - with combat stuff. Training. He’s, y’know. Helpful.” She ducked her head again, and continued massacring a cuticle.

Quentin sighed. “Be that as it may. No matter this creature’s usefulness, he is still a vampire. A creature of darkness. Eventually he will turn on you.”

“I thought that was why you’d chosen Lydia for my new Watcher. She knows Spike. She knows what he’s capable of. She knows if he’s likely to…” Buffy sought for the right words, for words that she couldn’t even think.

“To revert to past behavior?” Lydia asked, taking a step forward. “Indeed, I’ve monitored William closely since my arrival in Sunnydale. As you know, I wrote my thesis on this particular vampire; and I must say that the current individual is vastly different from his portrayal in Watcher diaries, historical documents, and witness testimonials. It’s fascinating, actually.”

“How so?”

Lydia went into full-on Watcher mode: her voice became clearer, her back straightened, she started to just ooze Britishness. “Well, his infamous behavior occurred while he was the paramour of the vampire Drusilla, a notoriously unstable creature. I’m currently positing a theorem that this difference in behavior - his previous wildness, in contrast with his current heroism - is predicated upon his romantic attachment. That in his overidentification with his beloved, he assumes the morality of said beloved. And Buffy, while he feels himself in love with her, therefore serves as rather a conscience-by-proxy.”

“So, you’re saying,” Buffy paused, putting it together, “that I’m his soul.”

She nodded. “In a sense, yes.”

“Hmm. Intriguing,” Quentin said. “And when his affection fades?”

“His previous attachment lasted well over a century. His passion for the Slayer seems at least as strongly founded.” Lydia smiled, triumphant. “I suggest we cross that bridge when we come to it.”

He thought for a long moment. “Very well. We’ll table this discussion for now. Until the completion of said treatise, Lydia.”

“As you wish.”

A short Asian man bustled in from the back, followed by another bevy of faceless suits. “Ah, Quentin, there you are. I believe the last pieces are in place for the test, pending your approval.”

Wait a minute. One of those new faceless guys was familiar. Very familiar. Extremely, world-of-hurt, god-she-never-wanted-to-set-eyes-on-him-again, familiar.

“Ethan.” Buffy said flatly. And slammed him, face up, onto the table, pinning him there with a hand at his throat.

“Buffy! Spunky as ever. Just full of… spunk.”

She thwacked his head against the table. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t cause you gross physical injury.”

“They didn’t tell you I was coming? Quentin, how thoughtless.” Buffy slammed his head again. “Owww. You do know if she kills me I can’t complete my job…”

“Really, Miss Summers,” Travers said, his voice again dripping amused condescension. “Do you attack everyone who enters this store?”

“Just the ones who piss me off.” Thwack. “Do you have any idea who this is?”

“Well, I should hope so. We brought him here.”

“You what? Wow. Here I thought you were a bunch of self-important, pompous jerkwads, who get their kicks from messing with my life. But clearly, I read that wrong. You’re just idiots.”

“Now, really…” a minion sputtered.

“Morons. Dimwits. Fools. Are you going for the Guinness Book of Records for clueless? Did you all go to Jupiter to get more stupider? Are you angling to get your pictures in the dictionary next to the word ‘dumbass?’”

Travers stood. “Miss Summers, as much as I enjoy watching you exercise your gift for bombast, let me assure you. Mr. Rayne has placed himself entirely at our disposal. Let him go.”

“You trust him?” Buffy asked. “He worships chaos! It’s against his religion to play by the rules!”

“Heh. True.” Ethan giggled.

“Ethan,” Travers warned.

“Fine. It was this, or the pestilential prison with the lifelong lock. This has better food.” His gaze slid from Buffy’s face to her torso. “And scenery.” Thwack. “Ahh! Really, I’ve solemnly sworn to be a good little lickspittle.”

“We know precisely what Mr. Rayne is capable of,” Quentin added, “and have unbreakable safety measures in place. Don’t assume us to be credulous merely because we’re willing to utilize a tool of somewhat suspect morality.”

“Safety measures?” Buffy asked. “What safety measures?”

“Ms. McCullough?”

The dark-haired woman walked over. “Mr. Rayne has a bracelet permanently affixed to his wrist. This apparatus informs us of his whereabouts at all times, and curtails the use of any non-approved activity. It immobilizes Rayne should he attempt any unauthorized magic use, until one of his supervisors releases him from this stasis.” She showed the matching device on her wrist. “In addition, should he attempt escape, or any inappropriate behavior whatsoever, my fellow supervisors or I may activate his bracelet at any time.”

“Fine.” Buffy checked Ethan’s wrist and saw the iridescent metal band. Still suspicious, she let him go and took a step back from the table. “Can I have one? A monitor gizmo?”

“Niamh?” Quentin asked.

She shook her head decisively. “I’m afraid not, Mr. Travers. The inclusion of another monitoring device, or the transfer of a current monitoring device, renders the whole system nonfunctional. We would have to obtain new bracelets, and as they’re quite complicated to manufacture…”

“You’ll have to do without, I’m afraid,” he finished.

Buffy folded her arms. “Then I still don’t trust him. And I don’t want him in my town.”

“I’m afraid he’s necessary,” Quentin said. “It is incumbent upon us to ensure that the Slayer - or, Slayers - under our tutelage meet certain expectations of performance. As the Cruciamentum is no longer a valid possibility -”

“No. You’re not doing that to Faith.”

“Of course not.”

Buffy sighed and relaxed a little.

“The test results would be irrevocably skewed by her prior awareness of the procedure, and the goals of the experiment. We couldn’t obtain an accurate assessment. Therefore, we’ve been obligated to construct another test, and Mr. Rayne’s particular skills are integral to said test.” Quentin shifted in his chair. “If we can’t complete these assessments, this Slayer is an unknown and unreliable quantity, and of little use to us. And if she is of no use…”

Faith sighed. “It’s right back to the pokey for me.”

“Please, Miss Summers - Buffy - this isn’t an ultimatum, nor is it a power play,” McCullough said. “But we must be able to gauge Faith’s progress, and ensure that she’s met certain minimal requirements.”

“And if she hasn’t,” Quentin continued, “it’s best for all if she returns to complete her sentence, rather than perish in the performance of her duties.”

Not an ultimatum, her taut Slayer hiney. God, she hated being threatened. Hated it even worse when her people were threatened. But she couldn’t see a way out. Knuckle under, or see Faith in prison orange. “Okay. Fine.” Buffy threw up her hands in exasperation. “Just - be careful. Really, really careful. Don’t let him out of your sight. Don’t let him run around. Never let your guard down.”

“Buffy, all concerned for my welfare,” Ethan said. “I’m touched.”

“Shut up.” She had to get out of there. Halfway to the door, she spun back around. “Quentin? If you suddenly sprout horns and a tail? Don’t blame me. Also, stay away from candy.”

“And beer,” Willow added.

“And beer. And, um, Halloween costumes.”

“Tattoos.” That was Xander.

“Pretty much, don’t eat, drink, or wear anything when he’s around.” Buffy shook her head. “And God, that’s a scary visual.”

She turned again to go. This time, the thought stopped her at the door. “Xander? Can I talk to you for a minute? Outside?”

Quentin cleared his throat. “If this is Slayer business, Miss Summers- ”

“Nope. Not at all. Not the least bit Slayery. Or Watchery. It’s a thing - carpentry. I’m redecorating a room at home, the bedroom, in fact. Our bedroom. Mine and my lover’s. The vampire. The one that I have amazing sex with. Lots of amazing sex. Whom I’ve had sex with on that table, in fact.” Watching them all jerk back from the table made her fight down a giggle. “Willow? You too.”

“Willow has carpentry expertise?” Lydia asked.

“Paint.” Buffy said.

“Yup,” Willow agreed. “I’m the Queen of Latex. Um, paint. Latex paint. For the painting. Any other uses for latex, I’m completely ignorant.”

Buffy held the door open, letting her friends file out in front of her. A thought hit her and she stuck her head back in the store. “Lydia, you come too. Your thesis - that part about … his favorite color.”

They waited until Lydia had come out into the sunlight, blinking and confused. “Buffy? I’m certain I don’t remember anything in my thesis about William’s color preferences.”

“Yeah, I suck at pretense. Okay. Lydia. I have to know: which is your higher priority? The Slayer? Or the Council?”

“What do you mean?”

“If I need you to keep a secret from the Council, will you do it? Or will you feel honor bound to tell them?”

“I…” Lydia thought for a moment. “It depends on the secret, and the circumstances. But yes, I’d like to think that I’d respect your confidences. I don’t want to fight you, Buffy.”

“I don’t want to fight you either. But you’re going to have to choose sides,” Buffy explained. “If you say the Council, I understand. I’ll be disappointed, but I’ll get it. And we’ll maintain a professional relationship. Or you can choose us, be one of the gang, and we’ll work to get this ugly stuff behind us.”

“If I say yes,” Lydia asked, “you’ll trust me?”

“No. Sorry. Not that easy. But it’ll help,” Buffy said. “You’ll get significantly more benefit in your doubt.”

She mused for a moment; then shook her head decisively. “Right. I’m in.”

“Good. I’m glad. I like you. I want to keep liking you, Lydia, and in there? Earlier? You really helped. But one more thing. If I find out you’ve told the Council about this, I won’t hurt you. I won’t do anything. I’ll just quit. Quit the Council completely. Have nothing to do with them ever again.” Buffy took a step towards Lydia. “You know what happened to the last Watcher I quit on?”

Lydia swallowed. “Fired, I believe.”

Xander snapped his fingers. “Like that.”

Willow shook her head. “They didn’t even pay his plane ticket home…”

“Understood.” Lydia’s mouth firmed. “And in return, you shan’t keep secrets from me, particularly if it affects my ability to do my job. Fair enough?”

“Great,” Buffy said. “Okay, next bit of business. Raise your hand if you think the Watchers can control Ethan.”

Six hands remained resolutely at their sides. Lydia’s hand started up; then she looked around at the others, and her hand sagged back down.

“So what can we do about it?” Xander asked.

“I can cast a tracking spell on Ethan, no problem. But I need kind of a distraction,” Willow said. “A magical one. Can you think of anything?”

Lydia nodded. “I believe… Yes. There’s a device on Giles’s shelves - a Gorobo Ball?”

“Oh, I get it. You drop it, it sends out a harmless pulse of magic static-”

“And while Niamh’s senses are overwhelmed by the pulse, you plant this tracer.”

“Yup!”

“Think you can handle it?” Buffy asked.

“Being clumsy? Yes, that’s within my feeble repertoire of skills.”

“Great. Come back when you’re done.” Lydia turned to go, but Buffy caught her sleeve. “Um. Thanks. For backing me up with the Spike business earlier. I know I’ve been kind of bitchtastic to you lately, and you didn’t need to...”

“What? You were right about Spike,” Lydia said. “And they didn’t know what they were talking about.”

“Yeah.” Buffy paused. “Um, you do know that stuff you said is b.s., right?”

“About you being Spike’s conscience? Oh, God. Utter malarkey. I may write the paper anyway though, just to yank Spike’s chain.” She winked. “And keep the Council off our backs.”

This time, Buffy couldn’t fight back the giggle. Willow and Lydia headed into the store, and Xander started to follow.

“Wait. Xander,” Buffy said. “I’m in kind of an apologizey mood, so, stay there. I just - I wanted to say… You were right.”

“Of course I was right. Um, about what?”

“About Faith. She needs you. Your protection. More than I do.” She had to look away from him for a moment. “It’s weird, though. I have so many people in my life, that I’m like the first priority. I’m the Slayer, the one they focus on. And I got used to that. It threw me, seeing that you’re not one of those people any more.”

“Buffy, you’re still - ”

“I know. I just - your priorities are straight, here.”

“Okay. And you’re right, too. The Council are a bunch of asshats.”

Buffy grinned. “Duh.”

Willow came darting back out of the Magic Box. “Whoo! That was fun! In a ‘my heart’s dancing the marengue’ kind of way.”

“Didja do it? Did it work?” Xander asked.

“Smoothest caper I ever ran,” Willow replied.

“Good. Great,” Buffy said. “So, what do we need to do?”

“They’re Tube maps. I magicked them into Ethan-maps.” Willow passed a card to each of her companions. “He’s the little glowy white dot in the center.”

“Oooh, gadgety.” Buffy turned the card around in her hands. “He’s in the Magic Box. We knew that. Excellent.”

“Plus, wallet-sized. And laminated. And the map around him moves so you can follow him.”

“Thanks, Will. So, check these. A lot. All the time.” Buffy looked back through the shop window, into the dark recesses of the store. “I know he’s up to something.”

***

Eleven-thirty a.m. Naptime at The Do Re Mi Preparatory Academy for Gifted & Talented Preschoolers. Quietly, so quietly, Miss Emily stood by and waited. Her eyes darted in the direction of every mewl, every flinch, while trembling hands worked an old handkerchief from corner to corner and then back again, like a rosary. Please. Please, I need this.

Finally, the last of the little monsters sighed, rolled over, and drifted off. Miss Emily breathed. Then she settled into her chair and closed her eyes, letting her head tilt back until it came to rest on the chalk board behind her.

Every day, Miss Emily looked forward to Naptime with something akin to desperation. On the rigid Do Re Mi Schedule, Naptime came right after Lunchtime. But after that explosive battle - for which PB& J, carrot sticks, applesauce and milk served as fuel and ammo - the monsters always demanded candy.

On this point, Miss Emily stood firm. As it was, the sugar in the jelly made for twitchy, restless sleep, but candy annihilated Naptime. Candy meant no respite from the hell and bloodshed of her daily war with these creatures. Nothing must come between Miss Emily and Naptime, when - for 30 short, glorious minutes - Miss Emily felt like a human being.

Unless, of course, Lauralee Scott was having one of her days.

Lauralee Scott was a spoiled, self-absorbed little beast. Her vacuous mother gave her free reign of all she beheld. Anything that Lauralee wanted she knew she could obtain by shrieking for it. By clawing into one's lap and yanking on one's hair and screaming blue murder until someone thrust the object of her desire into her sticky, grasping little paws.

Lauralee was the mortal enemy of Naptime. Those precious moments that Miss Emily needed like a man on fire needs water were usually spent keeping the Queen of Monsters from waking the land. Not that the other monsters liked Lauralee. At Collagetime she hogged all the paste - and nobody likes a paste hog. But no one else slept if Lauralee did not wish it, and Lauralee did not often wish for sleep. She wished for candy.

She'd wished for candy today - at the top of her beastly little lungs - and today, Miss Emily had given it to her. In fact, she'd given a piece to each monster and a second piece to Lauralee, when the inevitable demand pierced the air. I need this.

12:02pm. Miss Emily stirred. She opened one eye and saw the little beast and the rest of her kind lying quiet and still on their bright blue nap mats. Then the eye shut, and Miss Emily enjoyed the silence.

The old clock had long since chimed two when Miss Patty, School Founder (and Miss Emily's older, wiser sister), came into the room. Miss Emily again opened one eye and watched Miss Patty fuss over the importance of staying on schedule. Miss Emily listened to her "oh" and "ah" over the "sleeping angels". Watched as she tried to wake first one child and then another. Heard her cry out, and then heard her scream. And scream.

Miss Emily smiled. And the eye shut.

***

A line of dark suits filed quietly into the book-lined study of the rented villa. Faces like pleasantly emotionless masks, demeanor and gesture that spoke only of smooth control. Of ritual and structure and etiquette. With the door firmly locked behind them, Niamh murmured an anti-eavesdropping charm.

Then one man exploded. “This is unacceptable. The way Travers knuckles under to that… that girl. It’s nauseating.”

“Griffiths, really.” Jhabwala looked slightly amused by the emotional display. “Get hold of yourself.”

“It’s antithetical to everything the Council’s stood for.” Griffiths paced back and forth. “Centuries of tradition, crumpled like rubbish at the whim of a spoiled brat.”

“A spoiled brat cohabitating with a vampire,” Niamh added.

“Precisely! It’s an obscene perversion of her calling. She should’ve been removed from her family the moment she was discovered. Before such gross character flaws could be allowed to develop! And, I must say, the selection of Rupert Giles as field Watcher was a glaring error. His… unsteadiness was clearly predictable - visible - despite the strong family tradition in his favor.”

“No one predicted the girl to live so long,” Kim said. “Her death was prophesied. And expected. She was a temporary assignment, at best.”

“But-”

Magnus held up a hand, silencing the younger Watcher. “We admit that errors were made, Griffiths. Let’s move on.”

“But how could Travers have bungled this so badly, and to such an extent?”

“Oh, Quentin has been a figurehead for years, while we worked to place our people in key Council positions,” Magnus said. “It’s been remarkably easy to pull his strings, make him dance to our tune, on internal matters. He’d been perfectly satisfactory. But in recent years, I’m afraid he’s rather botched his dealings with the Slayer.”

Kim nodded. “Truly, he’s allowed her the illusion of too much power.”

“The sooner he’s removed, the better,” added Jhabwala. “To minimize the damage.”

“And we shall remove him,” Magnus continued. “But we must lay the foundation properly, lest this crash down on all our heads. Patience, people; I’ve been assured that it’s a virtue.”

“Right.” Kim looked around the room. “Before we continue, have we any other concerns to address?”

For a long moment, the room remained silent.

“Wait a moment,” Griffiths said, glaring at his mute colleagues. “If nobody will say anything, I will. What about this Rayne fellow?”

Niamh’s expression turned to ice. “What about him?”

“His status, for one. Are you sure you disabled his bracelet?”

“Do you doubt me?” she asked.

“No, of course, I… Then he’s clearly craven, afraid the Slayer will catch him at his, er, activities.”

“On the contrary,” Magnus said, maintaining a deliberately jovial tone. “He’s eagerly accepted his task; and I’ve found his methods ingenious.”

“But - ” Griffiths fought back another burst of temper. “What’s been done? Nothing. The tests are almost in place, the date of our return flight is fast approaching, and nothing.”

“Not nothing.” Niamh crossed her arms. “Trouble is brewing. If you’d paid attention, you’d have noticed.”

“The longer this situation takes to build, the larger the ensuing explosion. Truly, it’ll be,” Magnus selected his word as though choosing a chocolate. “Memorable.”

“Well, perhaps if you would share his methods…” Griffiths pleaded.

“Oh, I think not. It’s better if you don’t know. Easier for you to feign being shocked and appalled.”

“You shall have to trust us, Griffiths.” Niamh took a step towards him. “You do trust us?”

“I-of course. I’m merely… excuse my impatience.”

“No, your enthusiasm is admirable.” She flashed a smile, suddenly softer, almost sweet. “But I assure you, we’re well on our way.”

Magnus smiled. “Yes. We are indeed.”

***

Lydia stood immobile in the courtyard of Giles’s building, staring at his front door. Her eyes flicked to the exit and she actually turned to leave before squaring her shoulders and striding back to the apartment’s entrance. She rested her knuckles for a moment against the carved wood of the door. Then rapped. Once, softly. Lovely. So soft even she couldn’t hear it.

Stop arseing about and knock, you daft cow.

She knocked again. Firmly. The knock of a confident, assured woman. Who was in no way coming to grovel in apology to the man who gets her knickers damp. Whose life’s vocation just got ripped away and dropped in her lap.

It took slightly less than an eternity before she heard his approach, and the metallic slide of the deadbolt. The door swung open. At the sight of her, his mouth tightened, and his eyebrow made an infinitesimal lift.

“Mr. Giles.” She started to wipe her palms on her skirt but stilled the motion. With a nod to the room behind him, she asked, “May I?”

He opened the door a few more inches and then stepped clear. Not motioning her in - just giving her the option to enter, should she dare. Now that she found the whole intimidating act from him, well, rather sexy, it didn’t quite carry the same threat. Oh, she was nervous as ever; just not scared of the man.

“Drink?”

“Hmm?”

He lifted a half-full crystal glass in explanation. Scotch, neat, if she recalled correctly.

“Ah. I shouldn’t, while…” She stopped, and reconsidered. “But I’m going to anyway, thank you. What you’re having.”

Lydia watched him pour from a matching decanter. He seemed quite willing to let the silence stretch past the point of discomfort. She, however, was not. “So, you’ve been rather less than present today. How’ve you been occupying your time?”

“Sitting around. Enjoying my life of enforced leisure. Avoiding the parade of plonkers invading my store. Making a curry.” He crossed back to her, offering the glass. “Here you are.”

“Thanks. Er… I’ve some news.” She perched on the edge of the desk, watching him in the kitchen, and took a sip. Felt the smoky heat slide down her throat and curl in her belly, loosening the knot of tension there. “I should warn you, Buffy’s of the opinion that you’ll find this rather disturbing.”

“Then she’ll most likely be correct,” Giles called from the kitchen. The rhythmic sound of knife on cutting board sped up slightly.

“Apparently, the Council has brought a man with them. Rather an independent contractor, whom they’ve mystically leashed. Someone with whom you have a rather antagonistic history?”

The knife stopped. “Not? No, no of course not, they couldn’t be so idiotic.”

She took a gulp of Scotch. “An Ethan Rayne?”

“Well apparently they could be so idiotic.” Giles grabbed hold of the edge of the counter, his head down, his knuckles white.

Lydia smiled. “You sound like Buffy. She was rather vehement in her dislike.”

“Dislike?” Giles shouted. He took a few quick breaths through his teeth. “I’m sorry. But Ethan’s come very close to getting Buffy -and myself-killed, on more than one occasion. The danger his presence creates cannot be overstated.”

“Well, if it’s any consolation,” Lydia said, “she seemed to be quite enjoying banging his head against the table. Repeatedly.”

“Good for her. He deserves worse.” Giles came back into the living room, poured himself another Scotch, downed it in one gulp, and poured another.

“Buffy was of the opinion that we’d want a means to monitor Ethan ourselves. That the Council were being fatuous to assume he’d submit willingly to their strictures. Therefore we - well, Willow - whipped up a spell.” She fished in the pocket of her skirt, pulled out the magicked card, and handed it to Giles. “Here. Monitoring device.”

He turned the map over in his hands, examining it. “Is this in your official capacity as Watcher? Are you deigning to delegate this responsibility?”

“No, I just think you need it more than I. And you clearly have more information about this individual, so I’m deferring to your expertise.” Lydia stopped for a moment, considering her words carefully. “I didn’t want your job, Rupert. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted the job. From the moment I realized that it was too late, that I wasn’t to be Chosen, I wanted to… to be where I am. But I never wished to take it from you.”

“I… I know that.” A smile flickered at the corner of his mouth. “And I’ll continue as her Watcher, salary or no. Job title or no. You won’t get in my way.”

“I hadn’t planned to,” Lydia said. “I know that you’re a part of Buffy’s life, and would never attempt to alter that. I want my Slayer strong, capable, resourceful. What you’ve helped her to be. In fact, the moment she had me alone, she asked me very specifically where my loyalties lie.”

“And your answer?”

“I’m here, aren’t I? Not dancing attendance on the man who raised me. Not smoothing over Travers’s disgruntlement at our girl’s forthright nature. Here.” In her vehemence, she stepped forward and took hold of his arm. “Rupert. Please. I don’t want to be your enemy.”

His gaze flicked down to her hand, resting on his shirtsleeve. “What do you want to be?”

Lydia stopped breathing for a second. “There’s a loaded question. Colleague, certainly. Friend. And…”

“And?”

She smiled at him. “What do you want me to be?”

***

Ethan sighed, breath escaping from his mouth in an impatient blast. His eyes darted to the back door of the Magic Box and then to the clock on the wall.

“Don’t worry,” Xander said. “She’ll be here.”

Ethan rolled his eyes and lolled his head to look at Xander. “Your little princess has so much going on in her life, we can’t expect her to show up on time for this now, can we?”

Xander felt himself stiffen as Ethan’s tone became overly sarcastic.

“Tell me, Harris, is she still seeing that Army boy of hers?”

Xander looked to the other people in the room, hoping they might tell Ethan to shut his trap. Unfortunately, Niamh, Jhabwala, and Magnus seemed to have perfected the art of ignoring Ethan at all costs. They must have discovered how to tune him out somewhere between Heathrow and LAX. How else could they deal with him every day without wanting to strangle him?

“Oh, that’s right,” Ethan cooed from the other side of the room, catching Xander’s attention once again. “She left him, didn’t she?”

One, two, three, four, five. “I see you’ve been reading her files,” Xander said with a tight smile.

“Yes, there’s some very interesting information in there. Do you think she’d mind if I asked her some questions about bondage? She seems the type who’d know whether leather cuffs are really all they’re talked up to be.”

Niamh raised an eyebrow.

Xander counted to ten this time around. “Ethan Rayne, if you say anything out of line to Faith, I promise you a very, very painful consequence.”

Ethan smiled. “How painful?”

“What exactly does that bracelet do?”

The older man’s smile vanished instantly and he slunk back into himself, his pompous attitude shattered. Xander smirked.

Just then the door to the alley flew open. Faith raced in, hair swirling around her face and sticking to her sweaty neck. “I’m so sorry,” she gasped.

Magnus nodded to her and left the room.

Her face fell as she looked at the clock. She bit her lip and made an apologetic face to Xander. “I’m only ten minutes late.”

He crossed to her and took the duffel bag from her hands. “Yeah, but these people are on Council time. According to them, you should have been here ten minutes ago yesterday.” He looked at her and offered a smile. “Don’t worry about it. They can’t do diddly without you here, anyway.”

Kim re-entered the training room with Quentin Travers following closely behind. “Faith, I’m glad you’ve arrived,” Quentin said.

“Wouldn’t want to miss this,” Faith said, the cheer in her voice sounding extremely forced to Xander.

“Well, let’s get started then, shall we?” Travers motioned for Ethan to step forward. He handed a small bottle to the Council Head. Travers looked it over, sniffed it, then passed it to Xander. “If you would, please.”

Xander eyed the bottle. “Drink it?”

“Yes, please.”

He looked at the bottle, then to Travers, then Faith. He shrugged and downed the contents in one gulp. Instantly his face got pale and his eyes closed. He swooned once, then collapsed in a heap.

***

“Xander!” Faith called, crouching next to him.

“He’s quite all right, I assure you,” Travers said, signaling for her to stand up. “Now Faith, your part in this test is to make it through this … obstacle course that we’ve arranged for you. But the trick is to bring Mr. Harris through safely as well.”

Faith shrugged. “No problem.”

“This may not be what you expect,” Travers said as Ethan began to chant.

“Wait, what’s he doing?” Faith asked, pointing to the rogue magician. The walls of the training room began to shift. “What’s going on?”

“It’s all part of the test. Just make it through your trials,” she heard Travers say. His voice sounded distant, muffled, like he was talking into a pillow.

The world around Faith melted away, the colors bleeding together and then disappearing. Everything went silent.

She didn’t like this one bit.

***

It looked like the Magic Box. It smelled like the Magic Box. It felt like the Magic Box. But it wasn’t the Magic Box.

“Damn,” Faith muttered, glancing around the training room. Whatever hell dimension Ethan sent them to was a mirror image of Sunnydale. But something about it sent goosebumps up the back of her neck.

She scanned the room for any nasties hiding in the shadows. Nothing. Feeling a little more secure, she strode across the room to where the weapons were stored back home. She threw open the lid of a trunk against one wall and grabbed several stakes, quickly tucking them into the band of her jeans. The feel of the smooth wood against the small of her back relaxed her slightly. Her hands then reached for the most useful tools -- a hand axe, the crossbow, and a sheaf of arrows.

“Ugggh.”

Faith jumped up and spun around, axe at the ready. Her eyes immediately fell on Xander, lying in a heap in the middle of the room. “Ooookay,” she breathed. “He’s new.” Her eyes swept the room again. What else might have appeared while her back was turned? Nothing. They were alone.

She crossed the room and knelt next to him on the mat. “Xander. Xander!” she hissed. “Wake up!”

Faith pushed him onto his back and groaned. Glassy eyes, red, possibly unfocused… She knew that look. He was definitely stoned.

“Great,” she sighed, pulling him into a sitting position. “Come on, let’s get you out of here.”

She slung one of Xander’s arms over her shoulder, hoisting him upright. Propping him up with her left hand while holding onto all of the weapons with her right seemed impossible. She cursed under her breath and shoved the sheaf of arrows into the band of Xander’s pants. “Sorry, buddy. I hope that doesn’t get too uncomfortable.”

Still not enough hands. She dropped the axe and crossbow to the floor and pulled the stakes from the back of her jeans. Faith turned Xander to face her and grabbed at the front of his pants. One by one, she shoved the stakes between the fabric and his belly.

“Heh.”

Faith looked up to see a grin spreading across his face.

“Oh, geez,” Faith moaned. “Xander, don’t get too excited or things might get a little painful for you.” She shoved the last stake into his pants, picked up the other weapons, and wrapped her arm around his waist. “Come on.”

They hobbled to the doorway and Faith nudged it open with her foot. She peered out into the alley. The sky above was pitch black, like the middle of the night. It was daytime when we left. Damn, this is creepy.

The alley was silent. She guided Xander out into the night air; her eyes swept the scenery, her brain taking inventory of any and all possible hiding places for enemies. So far, nothing.

They reached the end of the alley and Faith ducked her head around the corner of a building. The street was just as deserted. Where is everyone?

Xander grunted, his weight pressing into Faith’s side, nearly pushing her onto the open sidewalk.

“Xander, I know you’re a total mess right now, but you could be a little more careful!” she whispered, turning back to scold him with a scowl.

His back smashed against her, his body pressed as far into her shoulder as he could manage. His eyes, glazed and listless as they were in his doped stupor, fixed squarely on the iron glove clamped around his neck. Faith gasped.

Gwendolyn Post turned her blonde head to smile at Faith. “I see you’ve got yourself yet another Watcher.”

Faith dropped the crossbow and took the axe in both hands, lunging at her arm. The blade hacked into the woman’s flesh above the glove, scraping across the bone on the downstroke. She pulled out the axe, and as she raised it again the wound in Gwendolyn’s forearm began to close up.

“You should know better,” the former Watcher sneered. “The Glove of Myhnegon makes me invincible.”

Faith brought the axe down again, striking harder into her limb. This time she was sure she broke through the bone.

“Now really, do you honestly think you can work fast enough to cut off my arm before I strangle this boy?” Gwendolyn smirked, her mouth twisting into a cruel, tight-lipped smile.

Faith’s eyes darted to Xander. His face was turning red, and his breath came in ragged wheezing gasps. She set her jaw and raised the axe again, this time bringing it down with all the force she could muster. The blade zipped through the air and neatly sliced through the woman’s arm, the skin, muscle and bone cut as cleanly as if it were a flank steak at a butcher’s counter.

Gwendolyn stared at Faith for a moment, her arm spurting blood onto her chest as she cradled it against her. “Another one down, Faith?” she asked, then collapsed onto the ground.

The iron glove around Xander’s neck clattered to the cement and he gasped for air. Faith knelt next to her former Watcher’s body and felt for a pulse. She was dead. Faith grimaced and stood up, kicking the lifeless limb away from Xander’s feet. “Come on,” she said, taking his hand and leading him away from the alley. “We’ve got to find a way out of here.”

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