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

Episode Eight: Wrecking Ball

by adjrun, fenwic, and eep

***

Faith trudged down the center of Main Street, pulling Xander along with her. She wished he really was stoned instead of magically drugged. At least potheads can walk without help.

He half-stumbled alongside her as they passed the Espresso Pump, nearing the Sun Theater. She shifted her balance underneath the weight of his arm, dragging him forward with each step. Her eyes continuously scanned the road ahead of them, and her ears strained to hear anything besides Xander’s breath.

That was something new. A noise on the asphalt -- not shoes. Too hollow to be shoes. Faith looked over her shoulder.

A vampire. Tall, at least six-three. Gnarled face. Cloven hands. Hooves. That scar cutting through its face.

Faith felt sick. Her head swam once around in a circle, and she thought she’d collapse then and there. She shivered.

“Kakistos.”

Her voice was barely a whisper, but he heard her. She knew he heard her. He grinned, showing pointed teeth and bloody gums.

“Slayer.”

Every hair on her body stood on end. She swallowed back bile.

Kakistos ran at her, his fangs ready to shred her to ribbons. Faith stood frozen, staring at the monster that killed her first Watcher, the only Watcher who cared about her until -- Xander!

She shoved him away from her, sending him faltering towards the curb until he fell to the street in a heap. She pivoted on her heel just as Kakistos reached her, ducking and spinning out of his way. The vampire turned, ready to attack again. Faith put her fists up, ready for a fight. He lunged at her. She dodged, sidestepping his advance, then slammed her elbow into the back of his head as he passed. She reached for a stake… and it wasn’t there.

Shit! Xander’s pants!

As the vampire buckled to his knees, Faith raced towards Xander, skidding to a stop next to him. She flipped him over, his arms flopping around him like wet loafs of bread. She reached down and grabbed a stake from his waistband, then turned to face the vampire again, only to receive a cloven fist to her face.

Kakistos stood in front of her, leering, his eyes filled with bloodlust. He grabbed her wrist and twisted it backwards. Faith held onto the stake and rammed one knee up into the creature’s groin. He howled and dropped her hand, and she jump-kicked to slam the tip of her boot into his head.

He reeled backwards and Faith ran at him, her sweaty hand clutching the stake. She swung once, connecting with Kakistos’s shoulder, tearing his flesh open. He growled and punched her in the neck. Faith gasped as the air knocked out of her chest, and the stake clattered to the ground as she doubled over in pain. Kakistos threw another punch, this time connecting with her temple.

Faith fell to the ground and Kakistos pinned her with his foot. She grunted as she struggled to free herself from under his weight. He sneered at her as she flailed at him with her fists, bashing them against his calf. She turned her head to look for a weapon, but they all lay where she left them at Xander’s side.

Kakistos followed her gaze. “Your friend?” he sneered.

Faith barely had time to react as the vampire slammed his foot into her ribcage. She instinctively tucked into a ball when her ribs snapped, screaming through clenched teeth as the vampire kicked again, this time nailing her at the base of her skull. Faith’s vision blurred blinding white, then dark.

She heard Kakistos’s hooves clicking away from her, somewhere towards Xander. Her head throbbed, but she shifted onto her stomach and crawled towards him. A few feet away, Xander grunted. Her sight came back in bits, the edges of her vision flashing white. But ahead she made out shapes -- one lying flat, the other bending over.

“No.”

She pulled herself up onto her knees and lurched forward, hurtling herself at the vampire. They collided and Faith clamped onto him in a headlock. Her momentum rolled them over Xander’s body and onto the ground. She was on top. Then Kakistos. Then Faith. Her hands scrambled for something, anything, to use as a weapon. Finding nothing, she grabbed his scarred, meaty head in her hands and twisted as hard as she could, waiting to hear the familiar snap. The vertebrae popped and the vampire lay still beneath her.

She stood, her head spinning in every direction, and picked up her axe. Then she marched back to the vampire, sweat pouring down her face. She bent over his paralyzed form and stared into his still-moving eyes. “You’re not dead yet,” she said, her words more fact than wonder. “I can fix that.”

Faith knelt next to Kakistos and held the axe up for him to see. “I’ll never get tired of watching you die.” With that, she raised the blade and sent it slicing through his neck. The vampire’s head rolled to one side, then exploded into dust as its body did the same.

She let out a deep breath and straightened, her hand pressing into her broken ribs. “Damn it,” she spat, crossing back to Xander, his eyes as glazed as ever.

“Let’s go,” she said, pulling him to his feet for the second time that night. “I’ve got to get us out of here.”

***

“Faith? Faith, is that you?”

She wanted to cry.

“Faith, look at you!”

She froze on the sidewalk. That was probably a blessing, as she couldn’t decide if she wanted to run to him or away from him.

He skipped down the steps of City Hall and approached her, arms outstretched. “My girl! Look at you, all grown up. You look a little rough-and-tumble, don’t you? Well, that’s nothing my Faith can’t handle now, is it?”
Her eyebrows arched uncertainly, her mouth twisting into that uncomfortable shape that just might become a smile if she tried hard enough.

His arms wrapped around her in a hug, pushing Xander away from her. Her hand reached out to grab her Watcher’s hand in her own even as the hug grew tighter.

“I’ve missed you so much,” he sighed in her ear, planting a kiss on the top of her head. “I always knew you’d make me proud someday.”

He pulled back and Faith stared up at him, still unsure of how she should react. His face looked the same. Same smiling eyes, same welcoming grin, same infectious laugh. The Mayor hadn’t aged a day. Then again, why should he?

She felt a hot tear slip down her cheek and immediately felt ill.

“Faith, sweetheart, why on Earth are you crying? There’s no reason to be upset,” he said, bending slightly to look her in the eye. “Come on, now, where’s that big grin I know you have. I always said you should smile more. You’re really lovely when you smile.”

Another tear fell down her face and her bottom lip began to tremble. She shouldn’t cry. He’s the enemy. He wanted her friends dead. He wanted everyone dead. But it was so good to see him again…

The Mayor folded his arms over his chest. “Now, now, stop that. You’re a big girl, there’s no need for tears.” He stood next to her and wrapped an arm around her shoulder. “Come on, let’s go get you a tissue. I would give you my hanky, but, well, I don’t want your germs. No offense.” He smiled at her, then broke into his laugh. That wonderfully funny laugh that never failed to make her smile, even now.

“There’s that grin!” he crowed as Faith sniffled back her tears. “Let’s go inside.” The Mayor began to guide her away, but after two steps she came to a screeching halt.

He looked at her. “What’s wrong?”

“I -- ” Faith looked behind her to where Xander stood planted on the sidewalk, his arm stretched out in front of him. His hand still clamped onto hers, and her arm extended backwards toward him.

“Oh, come now,” the Mayor sighed. “If the boy doesn’t want to join us, just leave him here.”

Faith looked at the Mayor, her eyebrows pinching together until a wrinkle formed over her nose. “I can’t.”

“Pffft,” he replied, waving a hand in the air. “He’ll be fine.”

“No,” Faith said, turning back to Xander. She tugged at his hand. “Come on, Xander,” she pleaded.

“Xander?”

Faith stiffened at the change in the Mayor’s voice.

“I should have recognized him. He’s one of the Slayer’s little friends, isn’t he?”

She turned to him, her eyes wide. “No, he’s my friend now. Really, Xander’s great. You don’t have to worry about him.”

The Mayor shook his head. “I don’t know, Faith. If I recall correctly, he was the one shouting orders on the day of my Ascension. I don’t think you can trust a boy like that. You need a friend who’ll take orders from you.”

“No, I don’t. My friends now… They listen to me, but I listen to them, too. We’re all equal.”

“No one is equal to my Faith. You’ve forgotten a lot since we were last together, haven’t you?” He made a clicking noise with his tongue. “Shame, really. You were doing so well last time I saw you. I half expected you to challenge me for the top dog position around here. And I would have been darn proud of you if you had, you know that, right?”

Faith nodded. She felt guilty for nodding.

“But now, you’ve changed. And I guess it’s time that I changed, too. Because really, we’re not the same people we once were, are we, Faith?”

She watched as his face began to twitch, then turn pale green, then dark green and scaly. She backed away from him. “No,” she whispered.

“Oh, come now, Faith. You wanted to be there when I ascended. Now’s your chance for the encore presentation.”

The Mayor began to swell in front of her as his body stretched upwards. His forehead sloped downwards, his eyes turned black, and his body mutated into a long reptilian form. A moment later he towered over her in his snakelike demon appearance.

“Isn’t this amazing? I have all the power in the world, Faith. I can do anything.” The demon brought its giant head down to look her in the eye once again. “Even eat you and your friend.”

“NO!” Faith screamed, turning to run. Xander trailed behind her, barely keeping up as the Mayor’s menacing laugh filled the night air.

The body of the giant snake whipped in front of her, blocking her path. Faith looked up to see the demon towering above her, his chuckling still resonating in its huge skull.

In an instant she grabbed Xander around his waist and heaved him up over her shoulder. Running with him wouldn’t be easy, but it would be faster than dragging him behind her. She made her way towards City Hall, racing up the marble steps and through the doors. She entered the lobby, tilting slightly to one side under Xander’s weight, and made her way to the stairwell.

A crash behind her caught her attention, and she turned to see the demon battering his way into the building with his head. She shuddered and bolted up the stairs two at a time, hoping the debris from the now smashed entryway blocked his view of her. She turned on the landing and stopped to settle Xander in a dark corner. Hopefully she’d get up the stairs before the Mayor figured out where she went.

Faith sprang up the last flight of stairs and found herself exactly where she needed to be. The open walkway overlooking the lobby acted as a type of balcony, and from here she saw everything below -- including the demon Mayor slithering around on the marble floor.

“Hey!” she screamed. “Up here!”

He looked up only once, then struck, his body rising up the two stories until he faced her.

“I thought you’d want to get a good look at me,” Faith said, “because I’m going to kill you now.”

She did a handspring off the railing and launched herself into the air, flying at him. Before he could move away, Faith landed on his head, grabbing onto him by digging her hands under his scales.

The demon roared, and with her free hand she pulled a stake from her pants and slammed it into his eye. He roared again and shook his head, hoping to toss Faith from his skull. She dug her hands in deeper, her fingers sinking into the soft flesh under the scales.

He continued to shake her, slamming her into the walls again and again. Plaster fell from them, and soon a thick cloud of dust swirled around his lashing tail. The chandelier above swayed from side to side, its cable fraying with every added shake of the building.

Faith gritted her teeth and held on as the demon beneath her flailed. The chandelier wires snapped. She knew she only had one shot. Twisting her body around, she slid over the demon’s forehead, her feet coming to rest in a hole that she figured must be a nostril. She stared into its one good eye.

“Hey,” she called as she pulled one hand out from under his scales. She pointed at the ceiling. “Heads up!”

The demon looked up just as Faith let go. As she fell to the floor below, the chandelier rocketed downward, planting itself firmly in the demon’s gaping mouth. The Mayor’s sharp teeth sliced through the electrical wire, sending jolts of electricity shooting through its body.

Faith landed in a tuck and roll, coming to rest on her back somewhere amid the debris. Just as she found her bearings the demon’s tail slammed down towards her, the flesh sizzling with heat. She rolled to one side, barely escaping as the electrified snake demon smashed the floor tile to bits.

She jumped up and raced for the stairwell, dodging the convulsing body of what was once the Mayor. Fourteen steps later she found Xander right where she left him, sitting comatose on the landing. Faith led him up the stairs, past the balcony and into the maze of hallways. She knew this building like the back of her hand, and she knew how to get them out.

Getting them out of this dimension, however, that was something else entirely.

***

Vampire. She knew just from looking at him. The gait, the way his head bobbed, and the bumpy forehead didn’t help either.

“So I take it you’re here to try to kill me, too,” Faith called out.

The vampire stopped half a block away. The streetlight lit him from behind, casting a long shadow towards Faith’s feet.

“Come on, let’s get this over with,” she said, reaching for the crossbow. She loaded a bolt and raised the weapon to her eye, training it on the vampire’s chest. She pulled the trigger and it zipped through the air, but at the last second the vampire reached out and caught it, then snapped the bolt in half.

Faith looked up over the crossbow and raised an eyebrow. “Huh. Reflexes. I guess this one’s new and improved.”

She loaded another bolt into the crossbow and raised it again. The vampire marched towards her.

The trigger snapped again and a second arrow whizzed towards the vampire. He knocked this one aside with his fist.

“Damn,” Faith muttered, trying to load a third bolt. The vampire continued to stride towards her, and Faith’s hands began to sweat. Her fingers slipped on the bolt and it fell from her hands, clattering to the ground. “That wasn’t really working, anyway,” she grumped as she grabbed stakes from Xander.

She stepped forward to face the vampire. Instinctively, she scissorkicked him in the face, sending him stumbling backwards. Another kick, then a roundhouse, then a boot firmly planted in his chest. The vampire dropped to the ground but rolled back on his shoulders, then flipped himself up onto his feet. He growled once, his yellow eyes flashing at Faith.

“Xander!” she gasped.

The vampire grinned, a row of sharp teeth gleaming from his smile. “Hey, Faith.”

She stared into the face of her friend, her Watcher, and now a vampire. “But… Huh?” She looked back to where Xander stood. Vamp Xander took that moment to clock her in her jaw, sending her back a few paces.

“That’s right, Faith,” the vampire said slowly. “There are two of us. The good one’s there -- ” he pointed behind her, “and the bad one’s right here.” His fist came up again to hit her in the face, nearly spinning her around.

“How?” she asked, baffled by the sight of Xander as a vampire.

“How slow do I have to speak before you get it? This isn’t your home, Faith. Bad things happen here, in case you hadn’t noticed yet.” He kicked her legs out from under her and jumped on top, straddling her chest. “Then again, you never were the smartest girl around, were you?”

Faith punched him in the face, but he only laughed. “That felt kinda good. Will you do it again?” His arms darted forward to grab her wrists and he pinned them to the ground. He shifted his weight on top of her. “I always wanted to get us like this again,” he sneered, leaning down to lick her neck. “I think I need to taste you again.”

Vampire Xander drew in a breath and grazed his teeth along her neck.

“No!” Faith shouted, slamming her head into his. The headbutt caught him off guard. She rolled him off her.

Then she jumped on top of him, one knee pressing into his neck. A stake poised above the heart, and just as she was about to press it in, he morphed out of game face. Now she sat above Xander, just plain Xander, no pointy teeth or yellow eyes.

“Faith,” he croaked. “Don’t!”

She eased up on her knee. “Why?”

“You kill me, you kill him,” the vampire Xander rasped, pointing at where Xander stood.

Faith looked from one Xander to the other. “Is that true?”

Xander flashed back into his demon form and pushed her off, sending her sprawling onto the ground. He grabbed her from behind and pulled her arms between himself and her back, pressing his mouth against her neck. “You’ll never know, because I’m going to kill you now.” He paused, stopping to smell her hair. “You don’t deserve to live, anyway. You let your feelings get in the way of your work. Me? I’m all work.” The fangs pressed against her neck once again, but Faith shifted slightly, twisting her wrist to press the stake up and into his body.

It was a lucky shot, and Vamp Xander turned to dust behind her. She spun on her heel. “Xander?”

He was still there, only now he looked nasty, like he might heave. She raced to him. “Xander!”

He leaned over and vomited twice on the ground, his body shaking uncontrollably.

“I think the drugs are wearing off,” Faith said, patting his back.

Xander spat onto the ground. “You think?” He looked around. “Where are we?”

Just then the dark street dissolved around them and they were back in the Magic Box. Travers, Ethan, Jhabwala, Magnus, they were all there.

“Damn, it’s like some scary Wizard of Oz,” Faith muttered.

Travers strode forward and shook her hand. “Congratulations. You passed your test.”

Faith pulled her hand away. “Great. Can I go now?”

Travers looked at her, somewhat taken aback. “We were going to go over your results with Mr. Harris now.”

She nodded and scratched her head absently. “Then I’m gonna go home.”

Xander looked at her. “You okay?”

She nodded back. “Just … tired.”

“Very well. We’ll schedule you next test with Mr. Harris,” Travers said.

“The next test?”

“You didn’t think this would be all, did you?”

Faith’s face fell and she trudged towards the door. “Xander, call me later,” she instructed over her shoulder. “Oh, and one other thing.”

He looked at her as she stood in the doorway.

“Brush your teeth, dude.” A tired smile spread across her face as she marched out the back door and into the sun.

***

Just before six o'clock, Erik shut down his computer and left his office at Gage Whitney on Race Street. As soon as he hit the lobby, he shed his jacket and loosened his tie. It was a very warm evening.

Lily, a flight attendant, strolled out of Sunnydale Metro's only terminal and straight to her beloved Jeep. She put her bag in the back, then took off her pumps and tossed them on top. She had a four-day break and planned to spend all of it barefoot.

After a workday that began at dawn, Tommy walked through the saffron-yellow building that housed his software company, hitting lights and shutting off equipment as he went. He set the alarm. He locked the door. Then he hopped on his bike and roared out of the parking lot. All done for the day.

Around town...

Rick swung by the store to pick up baby food. Darren stopped for Krispy Kremes and a lottery ticket. Nora needed condoms. Karen sipped her Dr. Pepper, then hit the gas, screeching her way out of the drive-thru. Randi flipped open her cell phone to let the baby sitter know that she was running late. They all headed home.

Julie turned left off of State Street. Kevin ran the light at Campbell and Cedar, his music blaring. Heading home.

Jeff pulled his Mercedes into the garage. Tommy pulled off his helmet and tucked it under his arm.

Then sauntered down the driveway to the mailbox.

Roger jerked it open... Liz peered inside... Raymond reached in with one hand...

Everyone pulled out the mail and flipped through it.

Power bill... VISA... Chad got a postcard from Vegas... Monica got a postcard from Toronto. She didn't even know that Eileen and Matt had gone to Toronto... Catalogs... "Urgent: Dated Materials Enclosed." More bills.

And then, behind the thin piece of cardstock with a picture of a missing girl on one side and a coupon for carpet cleaning on the other, the TV Guide.

Many noted that it was Friday and frowned. Cutting it a little close there, fellas.

Rob wanted to check out the week's NASCAR race... Harry wanted to check out the week's Trek Marathon... Amy wanted to check out the week's E! True Hollywood Story...

Everyone wanted to check out something. Everyone.

Stopped in the middle of the driveway. Paged through the magazine. Yanked out the "Subscribe Now!" cards with an annoyed sigh and - ow - paper cuts. Still looking for ... #Ooooow.# Wait...

Red splotches all over primetime. Spreading quickly. Everyone.

Flipped the magazine over. Stared at the bloody handprint on the back cover. Felt the sting, then gaped in horror at the handful of deep cuts from fingertips to wrists. Bloody, sticky mess. They screamed.

The mail fluttered to the ground. Blood ran off the tips of sliced fingers and onto letters and bills, Toronto and Vegas. Blood ran onto invitations. Pottery Barn. Pictures of a missing girl.

And onto all of the TV Guides and the bloodstained razor blades still stuck to the pages.

***

“So how goes it over at Casa Summers?” Willow asked.

“They are so noisy,” Dawn groaned. “All day long she’s hammer, hammer, hammer. And all night long they’re… Well, you lived there, you know.”

Willow looked wistful. “Yeah. Lucky them.”

Dawn pretended to act shocked. “Willow! Shame on you!”

Willow grinned and waved a hand. “I’m just kidding.”

“Sure you are.”

“No, really,” Willow said. “I’m not a horndog, I swear!”

“You want a corndog with hair?” Xander said, jumping into the conversation.

Dawn laughed. “No. She was just asking how the remodeling is going at home.”

“And?”

“It’s fine,” Dawn said. “Just noisy.”

Xander nodded knowingly. “Buffy and Spike, huh?”

Dawn frowned. “Is it wrong that the main reason I want to go to college is to get some peace and quiet?”

Willow laughed. “Yeah, right. Like you’ll find that in the dorms. There’s always someone going at it -- ”

“Okay, that’s enough of that,” Buffy interrupted, steering her little sister away from Willow and across the floor of shop to Giles. “Hey, do you think you could to my sister for a few minutes without mentioning sex?”

Giles blinked a few times. “Yes, I’m quite certain I can.”

“Good.” Buffy patted Dawn on the arm. “Stay here.”

They watched Buffy flit back across the room to where Spike stood discussing guitars with Oz.

“What was that all about?” Giles asked.

Dawn rolled her eyes. “Buffy still thinks I have totally virgin ears or something. Like I can’t even talk about sex, and she has it all the time in the next room.”

Giles winced in disgust. “Please stop, Dawn. There are some things I don’t need to know about Buffy. Or you, for that matter.”

Dawn folded her arms. “Fine. Whatever. Like you were a good kid when you were her age.”

“I say, don’t bring me into this.”

The bell above the shop door rang. Travers entered, followed by the rest of the Council delegation. The chatter around the room ground to a halt. Faith slid in from the training room and took a place with Xander and Willow. Lydia climbed down the steps from the entryway and took a place at the table.

“Thank you for coming tonight,” Giles said to the group. “Do come in, make yourselves comfortable.”

Travers took a seat across from Lydia as the other Council members arranged themselves around the room. Spike perched on the ladder to the loft with Buffy standing between his knees, and the rest of the Scoobies hung back near the counter.

“I hope this is important, Rupert,” Travers said. “It’s a long drive from the villa, and while the California countryside is rather attractive, I feel I can speak on everyone’s behalf when I say we’d all rather be resting than sitting here.”

“Yes, yes, I realize that,” Giles said, waving his hand dismissively. “But this is rather important. You see, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to everything that’s been said over the past week. While I don’t necessarily agree with the Council’s handling of the situation, I feel it is in Buffy’s best interest that I step aside as her Watcher.”

“What?” Buffy said, her voice rising. “But Giles -- ”

“No, Buffy,” he said, giving her his most reassuring smile. “It is for the best. You need someone who can offer you more. And right now, Lydia is that person.” He nodded slightly to her, shushing her with this minimal gesture.

“So we all agree, then,” Travers said, standing up to shake Giles’s hand.

“I’m not leaving Sunnydale, you know,” Giles added quickly.

Travers stopped for a moment, then smiled. “Of course not. But I’m glad you’ve come to your senses.”

Giles smiled at the Scoobies, then Lydia. He cleared his throat, then reached for his bottle of water and took a sip. His eyes focused on Travers. “So I have.”

***

Fourth floor.

Can't... huuh... breathe... Huuh huuh huuh... Oh my... Huuh huuh huuh... can't... heh heh heh... haaah... haaah... Ha! Ha! Ha!

BWAAAAA HA HA!

Selma hunched over, hands on her knees, shoulders pumping up and down. She nearly passed out for choosing laughing over breathing.

Her distress just made Anita laugh harder. They guffawed out of the room and into the hallway, nudging and poking each other. Other staffers bustled past them, too rushed to spare more than an odd look.

"Ssssshh!" Anita hissed, putting a finger to her lips.

"Ssssssshh!" Selma scrunched up her face and waved her hands in exaggerated mimicry.

They succumbed to another fit of laughter, like fraternity brothers at a keg party, bumping into each other and the wall as they lurched down the corridor. Then Anita grabbed Selma's sleeve and they stumbled through the next door on the right.

Once inside, the women worked with remarkable efficiency. With a giggle and a smile, they moved into position on either side of the bed. Anita tossed the pillow on the chair as Selma whipped aside the blanket. Skilled hands - hands trained for so much more - yanked off the sheet completely and flipped it toe to head. Together they caught the bottom edge of the sheet and tucked it under the top of the mattress. Hospital corners, naturally. Then they smoothed the sheet down toward the footboard. They were professionals; procedure came easy to them.

Now Selma waited as Anita pulled the bottle from her pocket. She popped the cap and turned her wrist. With her index finger, she tapped the edge of the bottle lightly, sprinkling the contents evenly over the sheet with the care of a chef seasoning his signature dish. Just so. Then she capped the bottle and returned it to her pocket.

Anita glanced at Selma and the two of them took the top edge of the sheet and brought it up toward the pillow - slowly, so as not to disturb Anita's work. Then the efficient, skilled hands caressed white cotton, coaxing out the wrinkles, but not the itching powder that waited beneath. The fold they created crossed the middle of the bed. Classic short-sheet. Many years had passed since their Delta Gamma days, but they still had the touch.

Selma replaced the blanket, then headed for the door. Anita followed her, pausing only to toss the pillow toward the bed. When it hit the side and tumbled to the floor, Anita froze. Forty-one rooms and she hadn't missed once. She looked at Selma, who was staring wide-eyed at the pillow. "It's a sign," Selma whispered.

Then their eyes met and like a thunderclap, they burst into peals of uncontrollable laughter.

"Ssssshh!"

"No, you ssssshh!"

More laughing and shoulder slapping. Once again, Selma's oxygen intake came into question, but she managed to nudge Anita back toward the bed. Anita frowned, then picked up the flaw in the otherwise perfect picture and brushed off invisible specks of dust.

Selma glanced at the clock on the wall. "Hurry! This one'll be back from PT any minute!"

Anita paid no mind. She fluffed the pillow and put it in its proper place, then gave it one last pat and a smile. Her eyes roamed over the bed. A perfectly made, perfectly laid... trap. The little smile stretched into something close to ugly. That'll teach you to be rude to a nurse.

"Anita!" Selma stood in the hall now, cracking the door open just enough to push her face through. "Come on!"

Anita's expression softened to a smirk. Then she shoved her hands in her pockets and strolled out of the room.

***


On the third floor, patients and orderlies fought a unit-wide battle of bed pans and catheters.

On the second floor, nurses stations lit up as every call button buzzed and every monitor shrieked.

And on the first floor, emergency room staffers braced themselves for another onslaught as the cacophony of multiple sirens drew closer and closer.

***

Flip.

“Seven, no help for the vampire.”

Flip.

“Four. Lotta hearts you got there, Oz.”

Flip.

“Xander gets a jack, for a pair, and-”

Flip.

“Ooh! Wild card!” Dawn wriggled in triumph. “Yay! I love this game!”

Spike smirked. “Brilliant poker face there, Pet. Really. Next stop, Vegas.”

She stuck her tongue out at him. “I’m gonna kick your butt so hard this hand, Spike, I don’t need no steenking poker face.”

Spike took a peek at his down cards. King and seven, each matched in what he had showing. Two pair wasn’t great - not good enough to beat Dawn’s certain three-of-a-kind - but worth sticking it out for the possible full house. And as the biggest pot so far had been a whopping $3.60, he thought he could risk the stakes.

“So who goes?” Dawn asked.

“Pair of aces showing,” Xander said. “So, that’s you.”

“Oh. Huh. Whoops!” She stared at her chips for a long second, scrunching up her mouth and wrinkling her nose. Clearly, deep thoughts were in process. “Um, a dime.” She tossed a white chip into the center of the table. Two seconds later another joined it. “No, wait. Twenty cents.”

“Call.” Spike lobbed in a blue chip, pulled out a red.

Oz’s turn. “Call.”

“Well, I’m feeling lucky.” Xander rocked back in his chair. “Raise to a quarter.”

“Whoa,” Oz said, with one of his trademark hints of a smile. “Did I sit at the high roller table?”

“Yeah, yeah, put up or shut up.”

Spike waited for Dawn to toss a chip in, and then followed her. Just as Oz’s bet joined the pile in the center, Buffy burst through the French doors into the living room. “Okay. Okay. Shopping stage of Project Bedroom? Totally complete. So no peeking. We’re moving stuff in.”

“What stuff?” Spike asked, feigning nonchalance.

“Oh my god, Spike, I found the perfect - heyyy…” Buffy scowled at him. “Stuff-type stuff, nosey boy.”

Willow danced into the room. “Close everything up! Don’t let him peek! Are the blinds closed, so he can’t see the truck?”

“Hello?” Dawn said. “He’s kinda flammable? The curtains have been closed all morning.”

“Poker, huh?” Faith said, leaning on the doorframe. “Almost as fun as spending buckets of Buffy’s money. Way more fun than packmule. Whatcha playing?”

“Xander, King of Not Gettin’ Any.” Dawn smirked. “It was gonna be Xander’s Two-Inch Penis until they realized there was a Dawn present.”

“As well they should.” Buffy shot Spike a glare, even as she walked over and slung her arm around his shoulders. “And couldn’t you guys play for candy, or something?”

Dawn shook her head. “Spike and Xander would eat all my winnings.”

“Hey!!” Xander protested. “… No, wait, that’s a fair cop.”

“It’s her allowance, innit?” Spike pulled Buffy closer, flush up against him. “If she wants to blow it at the poker table, while simultaneously putting splendid cash in the pockets of friends and loved ones…”

Dawn interrupted. “I’ll have you know I’m winning, Loser McLoseypants.”

“Oh, well,” Buffy said, “that’s fine then. Poke away.”

Faith moved closer to the poker table, fighting a losing battle against a huge grin. “Xander, King of Not Gettin’ Any?”

“Yeah.” Xander winced and shifted in his chair. “It’s - heh - I didn’t name it.”

“Seven-card stud, deuces wild,” Dawn informed her, suddenly Poker Expert Extraordinaire. Then she giggled. “And if you get a queen, you have to give it right back to the dealer, because Xander isn’t gettin’ any.”

Xander nodded. “They all tell me they just wanna be friends, and head right back to the deck.”

Spike added in falsetto, “You’re such a great guy, Xander, really…”

“It’s way fun,” Dawn said. “We make up all our own games. Spike’s Stinky Blood Breath, Who’s Your Buttmonkey?, Shut the Hell Up, Oz.”

Buffy raised a quizzical eyebrow.

Oz shrugged. “I got lippy.”

She nodded, disbelieving. Then Spike watched her instant transition into All-Business Buffy, complete with hand on hip. “Okay. While I’m gung-ho for midday poker fun, and entertaining the antsy vampire boyfriend? I need free labor.”

“Well, I can’t do any lifting,” Dawn said, with a melodramatic sigh. “I’m an invalid.”

“Xander? Oz? Step to.”

Oz shook his head. “I’m keeping Spike from crawling the walls. He’s this far from doing a complete Peter Parker.”

“Nnnhh!” Xander whined. “Poker!”

“I’ll help,” Spike offered.

“What, blindfolded?” Buffy asked. “I so think not.”

“It’s the principle of the thing. I have to try.” Spike stopped. His arm tightened around Buffy’s waist, almost of its own volition. With his other hand he traced a line along the waistband of her jeans, finding himself unable to look up and meet her gaze. “I’m not used to surprises - rare thing for me, they are, and usually nasty. Apparently I’m not very good at them.”

“Aw, Muffin.” Buffy took his head in her hands and gently pulled his focus upwards. “This is gonna be a fantastic surprise, I promise.”

“Yeh?”

“Yeah.” Her eyes got that warm melty look, the private smile that made his chest ache and his blood run to all sorts of interesting places. “You like pink, right?”

“I - wha?”

“Pink!” she chirped. “It’s like an explosion of Pepto-Bismol in there.”

“Plus,” Willow added, “who’da thought that chiffon and lamé and tulle would be so pretty together?”

“I didn’t even know they made pink lamé,” Buffy said.

Faith got into the action. “The bean bags? Genius. They look like massive wads of bubble gum.”

“It’s like a Barbie Dreamhouse, only, for grownups!”

“That’s it. I’m looking.” Spike stood up. “I’m not sleeping in a room what looks like a giant stomach lining.”

“No no nonono…” Buffy threw her arms around Spike’s ribcage. “Kidding. So very kidding. The bedroom is utterly pink-free, I swear. And, hey! If I get some help from other lazy poker-playing so-called friends of mine, I should have this done by tonight, and you can see for yourself.”

After a nervous glance upstairs, he relented. “Tonight, then. And I’m due at the Box at two, so… what? Just over an hour? Then the cronies will have no excuse, and can help you to your decorating little heart’s content.”

“First day back?” Faith asked.

“Yeh. Giving Giles as little time as possible with the Tweed Brigade. They’re having some massive summit at the villa this morning, but should be infesting the shop around midday.”

“We’ll be in later,” she said. “Me and Xander. Training. And some other test thing, I guess. They keep finding more. Tests.”

Xander looked up. “And you’re kicking ass on all of them, Faith.”

“Yeah. Anyway. I’m… let’s get moving that stuff in.” She took a few steps back, towards the door.

“Definitely,” Buffy said, following. “Spike, no peeking. You peek and I’ll...”

“Scold me?”

“I’ll give you a tongue-lashing that’ll - ” She stopped. “That’ll sound like an incentive no matter how I finish this sentence. Xander, Oz, see you in an hour. C’mon, girls.”

“Bye!” Willow waved as she followed Faith and Buffy out. She stopped a moment to adjust the curtains over the French doors and look suspiciously over her shoulder at Spike. Then she was gone, latching the doors firmly behind her.

“So, poker! Time’s a-wastin’!” Xander said.

“Last card down, Dawn.” Spike gave her the gentle prompt.

Dawn dealt the last round, giving Spike an eight, which did nothing to improve his two pair. They waited a long moment for her to start the bet, as she scowled down at her hand again. “Um. Okay. With the wild cards and stuff? Can you have five aces?”

“Fold.”

“Fold.”

“I’m out.”

“Huh.” Dawn raked the pile of chips towards her. “Guess so.”

“My deal.” Spike shuffled the cards, in a quick ripple and flash. Cut, and shuffled again. “So, in honor of our shiny-haired princess, I’m calling this one ‘Get out get out GET OUT.’”

“You suck, Spike. Sheesh. A girl has one little temper tantrum…”

“One?”

“Shut the hell up, Oz.”

***

Ethan lay on a narrow single bed, fingers laced behind his head, legs crossed at the ankles. Anyone who didn’t know him might think he was resting. Meditating. Daydreaming.

He was plotting, of course.

To this point, everything had progressed swimmingly. His putative and yawningly boring purpose here was complete - his actual task well under way, gathering momentum with every second. A quick glimpse of the local rag hinted of darkness and violence stewing, like the pops and knocks and gurgles of water in the kettle just before the boil. He wanted to hear it scream.

But time now to consider exit strategies. His downfall in Sunnydale had always been a desire to witness the fruits of his labors. To savor the satisfaction of the job well done. So, rather than a prudent departure, and a well-earned vacation in a place both debauched and tropical, he’d stay. And get caught. And get his arse kicked. Hard.

This time, he swore, he’d err on the side of caution.

So, getting away. Not an impossible task, really, but requiring planning. And supplies. His room - his cell - was spare, utilitarian, tucked up in a corner on the villa’s third floor. No convenient window for a hasty departure. Clearly servants’ quarters, back when servants were a viable commodity; and apropos, considering his status with the Council.

His status.

For the buggers with any sense whatsoever, he was a wolf on a rather suspect chain. They kept a prudent distance from him, any acknowledgment of his presence tinged with delicious apprehension and caution. For the idiots - by far the majority - he was vaguely the equivalent of a trained monkey. They clapped and praised him while he wore his little vest and did his little dance. But they also had these constant looks of surprised, edgy disdain, as though he might hurl his feces at their three-hundred-pound Italian wingtips. Fools. As if he cared about inconveniencing them.

“Ethan.”

His eyes snapped open. He’d heard nothing. Felt nothing. Noticed no presence until his name was spoken. That shouldn’t happen.

“Piss off. I’ve done my job, and you’re not to be-” The room filled with the scent of jasmine and rotten meat. Ethan caught a glimpse of red. Tall red. Tall, red, robed and hooded. Oh, fuck.

“Yes?” The voice held a detached good humor.

“Aton.” Ethan threw himself to the floor. “I humbly abase myself before you, most high, most omnipotent, most capricious Lord.”

“Mmm, prostration. Lovely. None of those gentlemen downstairs can give a truly satisfying grovel.” Aton paused. “That may be because they don’t know who they’re dealing with. But ignorance is no excuse.”

“No, Lord.” He remained plastered to the ground.

“Perhaps if I festooned the entryway with someone’s intestines…”

Ethan flinched.

“Oh, not yours.” A low rumble of laughter. “You still have a purpose. I’m pleased with your work, Ethan. It’s truly innovative mayhem.”

“Thank you. I’m glad -” He felt his voice speed up and pushed more ingratiation into his tone. “There’s more to come. It’s still building.”

“Of course.”

“Right. You knew that. Of course you-”

“I know what I care to know. My purpose here is not interrogation, Ethan.”

“No. Not -- did you see?” Ethan sniggered. “Some teacher killed a roomful of kiddies. Isn’t that just horrid?”

“Tragic,” Aton said. “I assume she’ll get what’s coming to her?”

“Oh, she’ll be dead in a day or two. Presuming she doesn’t off herself in some particularly banal prison cliché, the toxin is eventually lethal.”

Another pause. Ethan tensed, his face still pressed hard against the floor.

“Perfect. They’ll be stacking bodies like cordwood.”

“Well, I…There is,” he gulped, “an antidote. Mystical, not medical, but possible. I’m sorry. Anything incurable would’ve been far more... overt. It’s a straight tradeoff: fewer deaths, for more anarchy.”

“And such amusing anarchy it is, too,” Aton said. “Don’t worry so, Ethan. A task was required of you, and you’re completing it admirably.”

Ethan smiled his relief into the carpet. “Oh, trust me. We’re just getting started.”

***

"Faith!" Spike burst into the training room.

Faith lay on the mats, scowling. Her hair fanned out behind her, with Xander's head on top of it, his hands at his lower back.

She'd flipped him. Often and hard. But not hard enough for him to end the session. "Just gimme a minute," he squeaked.

Spike stepped forward and looked down at him, shaking his head. Then he turned to Faith. "Giles said you said we got two cases of Wild Berry somewhere?"

"Yeah."

"Well?"

"D'you mind?" Xander said to the ceiling. "We're training here."

"Yeh? Well training looks a great bit like getting your ass whipped."

Xander scoffed, but his immobility just confirmed Spike's assessment. "Oh, right." Xander tried to deflect. "Like you don't spend your sessions with Buffy flat on your back." Spike tilted his head and made to speak but Xander put up a hand. "Wait! There's no way your answer doesn't completely unman me."

Spike's gaze turned meaningful. "Ain't easy lovin' a Slayer, Harris."

Xander blinked. Spike's eyes slid back to Faith. "Wild Berry?"

"Storage room."

"Try again."

"Left side, middle shelf, with the candles and essential oils."

He frowned.

"What? Where would you put them?"

"Right side, bottom, with the claws and feet."

"What the -?"

"Smelly stuff," he said with a note of 'duh' in his voice.

She rolled her eyes. "Whatever. Now get outta here, will ya? Pencilnecks'll be here any second."

"Again with women telling me what room I can be in."

"Spike."

"Thought that was over with."

"So did I," Faith grumped as she moved to sit up. "Uh, Xander?"

"Unh."

"Hair."

"Huh? Oh. Sorry." He rolled onto his stomach and then went still again while Faith hopped up and grabbed a towel.

"This is just a formality," Xander said into the mat. "A free throw after the buzzer's already sounded."

"Uh-huh," said Spike. He turned to go but Faith's voice stopped him.

"What do you mean 'uh-huh'?"

Xander groaned.

"They say 'formality' and you just believe it?"

Her hands clenched into fists. "Xander..."

"Thanks a lot, Spike. Next time your Slayer's on edge, think I'll poke her with a stick."

"Sorry, Watcher. Just contrary, I reckon. They say 'day'; I say 'night'. They say 'retired'; I say 'fired'. Screwed. Screwed with his bleedin' trousers still on. They say 'formality', I say -"

"Let's call the whole thing off?"

"They say 'Cruciamentum' and I say 'You can kiss my English -"

"Ah, good. You're here." The voice came from behind Spike.

Myong Kim and four others walked into the room. Faith hung the towel around her neck and stepped back as Spike leaned forward and held a hand out to Xander, hauling him to his feet.

Council members Hardcastle, Simms, Griffiths and Jhabwala - Xander had made it a point to learn all the names - strode past them and straight to their respective corners. As per usual they didn't sit, just hovered around the room like boarding school headmasters, all arrogance and tweed.

The exception was Jhabwala, who set his gym bag on a chair, then dropped to do pushups and crunches. He wore nylon shorts and a navy T-shirt with the seal of the Council of Watchers over the heart. Xander frowned. Six months under their roof and he never did score any Council swag.

But he turned his frown upside down and approached Kim, hand outstretched. "Good afternoon, Sir."

"Good afternoon, Mr. Harris." Kim shook Xander's hand, then swung his briefcase up onto the counter. "I'm pleased to find the both of you already here. We'd like to get an early start."

Xander hesitated and glanced at Faith, who was eyeing Jhabwala and chewing a nail. Nobody noticed one last man enter the space until his voice floated over them.

"William the Bloody."

Everyone turned. Magnus Bellingham stood in the doorway, dressed for all the world like a weekend yachtsman. Crisp, cool cottons. Soft, slip-on shoes. No tie. Not a hint that tweed had ever touched his tall, lithe frame. He removed his sunglasses and strolled over to Spike, smiling.

"Fine day, isn't it?"

"Yeh." Spike glanced at the window and raised an eyebrow. "If you go in for that sort of thing."

For a moment, their eyes locked. Then Bellingham glided away, as if he were hosting a cocktail party - others to see to, must mingle. Spike cocked his head to one side. He seemed unsure of what just happened. Then he shrugged and went back into the shop.

Bellingham nodded to Xander, then took a seat, claiming a chair behind and to the right of Kim.

Faith lifted her chin and stepped toward him. "So. Where's the Magic Man?"

"And Mr. Travers?" added Xander.

Bellingham's eyes drifted to Kim, silently ceding the reins. Kim cleared his throat. "Mr. Travers is attending to Council business, but he will be informed of the results as soon as we have finished. As for Mr. Rayne, his participation in the process has been completed. Today we will run standard hand-to-hand and tactics reviews. A mere formality."

Xander looked at Faith and coughed.

Kim reached into his briefcase. "Now, Mr. Harris, if you -"

The sound of the alley door fumbling open drew everyone's attention. A foot slipped inside, then shove-kicked the door wide enough for Oz to slip through. He carried two loaded drink caddies and a small white bag.

"Oz!" Xander went to him and took one of the caddies. He removed a white cardboard cup and set it down in front of Kim. "I asked Oz to make a Starbucks run. The good stuff." Xander shrugged. "I'd've gone myself, but it's kinda awkward seeing as how they once fired - That is... I wanted to be with Faith. I mean... Be here. For this. Early. So I asked Oz..." He stopped and looked around the room. "Coffee. On me."

After a slight hesitation, Hardcastle, Simms and Griffiths each took a cup. Jhabwala sucked on his water bottle instead, while Bellingham demurred with a slight motion of his index finger. "Thank you, but no."

Faith reached for a cup, then made a protesting noise as Xander twisted away. He glanced at Jhabwala, then back at her. "I'm gonna give you caffeine before you beat on a coworker?" he whispered. "Signs point to nuh-uh." She pulled back her hand and folded her arms. Again with the scowling.

Xander sighed and turned back to Oz. "Go ahead and take the extra in the shop. Maybe Willow and Dawn'll want some."

"Sorry I'm late, man."

"Nah, they started early." He took out his wallet and handed Oz a twenty. "What's in the bag?"

"Biscotti."

"Oooh." Xander rubbed his hands together. "Chocolate-dipped?"

"Uh, yeah, but this is for Spike."

"Spike."

"Well, he asked."

Xander tried to convey the epic proportions of this latest betrayal.

"I'll go back."

Now Xander looked at him sideways. "The redhead must be working today."

"She has a way with foam," said Oz, by way of confirmation.

"Y'know, Willow thinks that you're just -"

"I know how Willow thinks." Oz's mouth quirked and he turned to go. "I'll be back."

"Thanks, man. And hey -"

"Dipped," Oz said as he disappeared into the shop.

"Mr. Harris," said Kim, pulling something out of his briefcase and holding it out. "If you please."

"Right. Sorry." Xander walked over to Kim and took the strip of burgundy silk from his hand. He looked down at it and then back at Kim, who gestured to Faith.

Xander's eyes followed the motion and he stared at her. Buffy had told them about this but no one believed that the Council would run the same drill. Jhabwala stopped his warm-ups and moved to stand next to Kim. Faith watched him, then she blew out a breath, tossed the towel aside, and stepped forward. She looked up at Xander expectantly. Gripping the bit of silk with both hands, he went to her, walked around and stood behind her. Then he -

"Faith!"

They both started and gaped at Spike, who had once again burst into the room.

"Mrs. Martin's here. You rang her about a dagger she special-ordered?'

"It's in Giles's office. Now go!"

"Someone's asking for salamander eyes."

"Newt."

"Newt?"

"We do newt."

"What happened to 'too rich for my blood'? And why are we getting more weapons for Mrs. Martin? Next thing you know, the crazy bint'll want to patrol with us. And it's not like fancy knives and eyes of newt have a big markup you know. In fact -"

"Spike!" Xander glowered at him.

"What? I got a business to run, don't I?"

"And you've got chocolate on your mouth."

Spike's tongue poked out and he licked his lips. "Hmmm. So I do. Right then, thanks." And he left.

Bellingham's voice got Xander's attention. "Do you mean to tell me, that this... boutique is run by a retired Watcher, a reformed vampire, and a renegade Slayer?"

"Well," Xander reminded him, "the 'renegade Slayer' is also reformed."

"And I don't really work here," Faith rushed to add. "Just Spike and Dawn. But they've been out of it since she cracked up his car and then he... he..." Her brows drew together and she glanced at Xander. "He had an accident, too. So me and Lydia were helping."

"Lydia?" Bellingham looked incredulous.

"Yeah. Lydia. But --"

"AAAIIIEEEAAAAAH!"

Faith's eyes went wide and her hands went up. Jhabwala had grabbed Kim's coffee and hurled it against the wall. Kim shrunk behind the counter as Jhabwala whirled to face the rest of them. The Council veneer had vanished. Wild eyes and bared teeth took its place and he sneered. "Bloody women. Never know your place. American women especially."

He spat the last phrase at Faith as he stalked a wide circle. "I hate it here. Hate coming here. Hate your food, your bloody McDonald's. Hate your tea, your coffee, your -" He stopped in front of Hardcastle, snatched his cup, and crushed it. The hot liquid flowed over his fingers and dripped onto the mats below. "Your Starbucks. Stupid girl. Coffee comes in fine China! Poured from sterling silver pots! It's served to people better than you after a 10-course meal, none of which comes from a paper bag! This..." Jhabwala hissed as he stormed around the room, accosting his fellow Council members and one by one flinging their cups into walls as they watched, frozen. "This is a sign. The end of the finer things in life. Of civilized society. The end of... the end of..."

Xander edged forward, his hands out in front of him. "Hey there!" He grinned at him. "Why don't we all just calm down? Look, I'm sure Giles has a mug or something in his office. We could pour --"

Jhabwala swung. Xander threw up a hand to block, but Faith moved faster. She grabbed Jhabwala's arm and twisted it behind his back, gave it an extra yank when he struggled. "Only Slayers get to take a poke at Watchers, don'tcha know that?"

He jerked his head around and seethed at her over his shoulder. "Bitch."

"Like I haven't heard that before. You shoulda just said you were getting antsy. Me, I like a man who shuts up and fights." She shoved him across the room. "Why don't you do both?"

Enraged, Jhabwala lunged at her. Faith stepped aside but didn't strike. He swung at her and she ducked. Again, she didn't hit him, just countered his every move.

Her restraint didn't fool Xander. Whenever a vampire got her really pissed, she liked to toy with him for a while, then beat him down before dusting him. He'd seen her do it dozens of times. Not the healthiest Slayer tactic, but better than her past patterns and frankly, fun to watch. Still, this was no vamp. "Faith, try not to hurt him."

"Can I make him cry like a girl?"

"Faith!"

Jhabwala lunged again. This time she let him come, rolling onto her back and using the momentum to flip him hard onto his. Xander flinched. He knew exactly how that felt. Jhabwala struggled to his feet, his shoulders hunched and his breathing uneven. When he spoke, it came out in an ugly rasp. "I'm wasting my time with you."

"You got that right."

Jhabwala stood shaking for a moment. Then he scurried to his gym bag, grabbed it, and ran out into the alley.

Everyone stood silent for a moment, staring at the door. Then Xander squared his shoulders and looked at Bellingham. "Well? Did she pass?"

Bellingham's eyes flicked to Xander.

Kim stepped toward them, sputtering. "What? You think that this... That we -"

"Myong." Bellingham held up a hand to silence the other man, but his eyes stayed steady on Xander's. "Quite right, Mr. Harris. The time for tests is over. Your Slayer has passed."

Xander merely nodded, then went to Faith. My Slayer is pissed, he amended as he took in her folded arms and murderous eyes. What's up with that?

***

In the opposite corner, the Council gathered around Magnus Bellingham. "Simms. Griffiths. Find Mr. Jhabwala and get him back to the villa. Immediately." They nodded and left by the alley door. "Hardcastle. Report to Mr. Travers. Inform him that the Slayer has passed her reviews." Hardcastle also exited via the back way, leaving Bellingham and Kim to their discussions.

"I don't like this, Myong."

"What is that lunatic demon up to?"

"I don't know. That's precisely what I do not like."

"It may have been a mistake, bringing him here. Perhaps we should -"

"No. Now is the time. We have been planning this for far too long; we must move forward. I believe that he will do what he was charged to do."

"I believe that he is toying with us."

"Maybe."

"Maybe? What about Jhabwala?"

"An unfortunate incident about which we will have words."

"You trust him?"

Magnus laughed. "Not in the least. But he will follow through on the main objective. Of that, I am quite sure. He wants to, you see. That's the beauty of our agreement. We want the same thing. And when that goal is achieved, we shall be far away from Sunnydale."

***

She’d divided the books into four categories, each taking a quadrant of Giles’s dinner table. One stack comprised his Official Watcher Diaries during his tenure with Buffy Summers, with the insertion of Wesley Wyndham-Pryce’s careful months of entries. Lydia had given those a quick scan when she saw his name: the poor dear had tried so hard to be on his best behavior here, and his writing showed his stilted attempt to please. He’d been the same in their classes together. Always trying so very hard, and making things twice as difficult in the process.

The surprisingly larger piles were devoted to Giles’s actual record of events. No edits. No elisions. Every detail of every encounter, from the quick slay to the agonizing, grueling battle. When he’d brought them down from his bedroom shelves she’d known the burden of trust this action placed upon her. It felt gratifying. And a bit daunting.

The third section contained his personal journals. These were smaller, leather-bound volumes, each tied closed with a silk ribbon and filled with cramped cursive script. This, he’d said, contained his reflections, speculations, reactions. All the emotions he’d excised so carefully from official and less official record had been saved and documented here. She hadn’t delved into those at all. It seemed a bit like rifling through his underwear drawer - fascinating, but a little unseemly. As though she shouldn’t be curious. And she was oh, so curious.

The smallest pile - just a few dozen sheets of paper in a loose-leaf binder - contained ancillary information about Ethan Rayne. Arrest record, education, anecdotal sightings. Surprisingly little evidence that the man existed. Or proof of a life outside societal strictures. So her crash course in Ethan Rayne was almost completely dependant upon his encounters with Buffy: compelling enough evidence that the man was both dangerous and amoral.

She sat with her back to the kitchen, jotting notes in her own journal. Giles sat across from her, scanning volumes for mention of the man, and flagging pertinent pages. He’d been kind enough to start her in chronological order. She was therefore well-briefed on a malicious caper involving Halloween costumes, and was now working her way through accounts of a demonic possession.

Lydia turned a page. “So he escaped as you fought Eyghon?”

“I’m afraid so,” Giles replied, his voice strangely distant. “We were far more concerned with freeing Miss Calendar from the demonic possession.”

“Naturally. Quick thinking, that.”

“Yes.” A flash of bitter humor crossed his face. “Not on my part.”

“I would imagine,” she said, “that the past coming back to haunt one can be rather disconcerting. And you documented your shortcomings with spectacular thoroughness.”

He smiled but looked away. That strange bashfulness he had, the quick flash of grin as he ducked his head, made him somehow boyish. Did he know how charming it was? Was it deliberate? She rather hoped not.

“Do you still have it?” There was a sudden knot in her throat. “The mark? The tattoo?”

Giles silently rolled up his sleeve and held out his forearm. She took his wrist in her hand, examining the mark closely. It looked unremarkable: a simple, elegant symbol in black ink. She got no sense of foreboding, or power, or magic from it. Tracing the pattern with a finger just made her aware of smooth warm skin, and understated strength. “I don’t sense anything.”

“No. There’s no sorcery in it, now,” he replied. “It’s merely a reminder of the folly of which I’m capable. The damage I can do.”

He smoothed his sleeve down and buttoned the cuff as she resumed her seat. Book open. Back to the task. “There’s no mention of this whatsoever in the official record? No, of course not; you’d have wanted to minimize references to vampiric assistance of any sort, wouldn’t you?”

“Oh, lord. The Council was apoplectic about the merest mention of Angel, particularly so after his unsouled period. Spike’s been welcomed with open arms, by comparison.” Giles handed her another volume. “Ethan’s next appearance. The relevant pages are tabbed. Please try not to laugh too much at my expense.”

Lydia flipped to the first marked page. “I still can’t believe you kept two completely separate Watcher’s Diaries.”

“After they fired me, just the one.” He ran a finger along the bindings of a stack of journals, searching for a specific one. At her pointed cough, he gave the explanation she wanted. “I quickly learned that the Council would disapprove of much of Buffy’s methodology, regardless of its success. So an edited version seemed prudent.”

“And the second one was for?” she asked. “Posterity? Setting the record straight?”

“No, the actual record was to assist future Slayers.”

“Right. Should’ve known your intent was noble.” He sent her a guarded look, and she protested. “Honestly. I’m… what is this? Band chocolate?”

“Relatively common fundraising scheme for extracurricular activities.” He pushed away from the table, stood, and began a somewhat aimless motion kitchen-ward. “Students blackmail their loved ones into purchasing it, and the school uses the proceeds to purchase garish polyester uniforms and silly hats.”

“Ah, right. Of course.” She continued her perusal of the account. “Oh. Oh dear.” Lydia stopped. Read the passage again. Fought back a laugh. “Buffy’s mother? Rupert, you dog, you.”

“I’ll have you know, I was under the influence of a powerful mystical agent,” he protested. “If you were seventeen again, you’d go a bit wild.”

“On the contrary,” Lydia reminded him, “at seventeen my existence was still fairly regimented. With the training, and the seclusion, and the yet more training. Now, at twenty? No. At twenty I still wouldn’t have shagged you on the bonnet of a car.”

He stared at her. Oh lord, what had she said?

“Shagged someone. Anyone. I’m vetoing the locale.”

“So alternate locales are still open for discussion?” he asked, his voice lightly teasing.

“Ahem. I.” She was sure her cheeks were now the color of a nicely ripe tomato. “Where’s that last appearance, again?”

“On the table. There. Again, I marked it for you.”

“Thanks.” She stood, reached across the table, and grabbed the book. She flipped to a random page, trying to regain some seriously tattered composure. It was difficult when the only thing she could focus on were his movements behind her. The opening of a cupboard, a glass set on the counter, the refrigerator door.

She closed her eyes for a moment, then with renewed determination turned to the marked pages. A few false starts - that little gasp of inhalation as he finished drinking spun her right off-kilter again - and then his narrative caught her attention.

“He turned you into a,” Lydia exploded into giggles. “A Fyarl demon?”

“It was damned uncomfortable. Sitting in a Citroen, when you’ve grown a tail? It… pokes.”

“You had a tail?” She put her head down on the table, her shoulders shaking with repressed laughter. “Of course. You were Fyarl! And the mucus!”

“I don’t think I like other men looking at your neck. It’s too much, really.”

“Er…I. What?”

“It’s too lovely.” A finger traced along the hairline at the nape of her neck. She fought back a shiver. He continued, his voice low and strangely warm. “I should be working, and yet I think such thoughts.”

She had to let go of her pencil or risk snapping the thing. And then his hands were combing through her hair, meticulously removing each hairpin and tossing them to the floor. His fingers worked their way along the base of her skull, massaging her scalp as he worked her hair free of its austere knot.

“There. Better. The temptation is hidden, now.” He had leaned down, whispering into her ear. She could feel his breath against her cheek. “Only those who know it’s there will know the lure of it.”

The door banged open. Giles straightened behind her.

“Hey G-man!” Faith yelled. “Ready for dinner?”

“Yes. Definitely. How’d the test go?”

“Didn’t.” Faith pulled some orange juice out of the fridge and took a gulp, straight from the container. “One of the suits went postal.”

“Odd.”

“You’re telling me. I thought you Brits were all reserved and shit.”

“Dinner?” Lydia asked. “Am I intruding? Perhaps I should come back another time…”

“Oh. No, stay as long as you like. We shan’t be here.” Giles grinned. “Her night to cook.”

“Which means, ‘my night to pick a restaurant.’” Faith rolled her eyes. “And that’s a good thing, trust me. Me in the kitchen? There tends to be fire.”

“Well, I’m ravenous. Get your things, I’ll wait in the car.” With that, he headed out the door.

Faith grabbed a jacket and followed. At the door, she turned back. “You wanna come? The fish tacos at this joint are wicked tasty.”

“I. No.” Lydia felt horribly awkward and uncertain. “Anot
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