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

Episode Eight: Wrecking Ball

by adjrun, fenwic, and eep

***

Shannon held a tube of lip gloss between her teeth as she turned the steering wheel of her boyfriend's car. She usually just walked to the grocery store, but with Jim gone on business for a few days the car was all hers. As she pulled up to a red light, she took the tube from her mouth and twisted off the cap. She leaned over to see her reflection in the rearview mirror, and slicked the gloss on her lips. Then dropped the tube into the empty ashtray by the gearshift.

She settled back into her seat and sighed, running through a grocery list in her head. She needed to pick up more paper towels and she was almost out of orange juice. Cinnamon Life was on sale, two for one. The real question was dinner: did she want to make real food, or just heat a frozen pizza?

Shannon drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. What was up with the light? How long could the red last?

What else? Boca burgers, some veggie lasagna, one of those Caesar salad mixes, garlic bread. Zucchini, yellow squash, some of those big tomatoes. Oh - and more olive oil. Might as well get some Ben & Jerry's.

The stoplight clicked over from red to green and Shannon pressed the accelerator. What's the fastest way from the Vons to Blockbuster? Take Main over, or loop back on Garner Drive?

The road in front of her suddenly jerked to the right. The scenery spun clockwise while the car was pushed in the opposite direction. The sound of breaking glass and crunching metal filled her ears. Her vision went white as her face filled with the inflated airbag. As quickly as it happened, it ended. She sat dazed in the car, the airbag deflated in her lap, the engine smoking under the bent hood. Blood trickled from her nose. She turned to the right and saw the grill of an SUV where the passenger window should have been. Shannon wiped the blood from her upper lip.

A face peered at her through the driver's side window. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I think so."

He opened the car door. "Come on, let's get you out of here."

Shannon clicked the seat belt open and took the man's hand. He guided her past a car stopped in the intersection - his, most likely - and sat her down on the curb. "I'm going to call an ambulance, just in case."

Shannon nodded and took in the scene. The car had been pushed sideways and now faced ninety degrees to the left. The SUV had minimal damage, of course, but Jim's car was totaled. He would never loan her his car again.

The driver of the SUV ran up to her, hysterical. "Oh my God, I'm so sorry! Are you okay?"

Shannon nodded again. "Yeah, I think so."

The woman's face was ashen. "I don't know what happened. The light was green, I swear, and then it just started blinking red. There wasn't even a yellow. And then you were just there."

Shannon wiped more blood from her nostril. Her neck hurt a little. "Okay." What else was she supposed to say?

The man returned, cell phone in hand. "An ambulance is on its way. And the cops are coming, too."

The woman looked at him, her face weary. "God, there go my insurance premiums."

"What the hell happened with that light?" he asked her.

"You saw it, too?"

"Yeah, it just went red all of a sudden," he said. "I had to jam on my brakes to keep from hitting her."

Shannon looked back at his car and noticed the black tire marks on the pavement behind it. Maybe the woman wasn't just a bad driver.

"I'm so glad you saw it, too," the woman sighed. "I thought I was going crazy."

Shannon looked up at them and her eyes grew wide. "Look at that," she said, pointing behind them.

They turned and followed her gaze to the traffic light. It blinked randomly: green, red, green, yellow, green, red, yellow, red, green, red, yellow. Sometimes two colors at once.

"What the hell?" the man breathed.

A car horn blared from the next block, followed by tires screeching. Then another horn honked and the sound of glass and metal breaking ricocheted off the downtown buildings. Two cars collided at the intersection to their right, and a third car plowed into the accident, the light above it flashing like a strobe light at a dance club.

In the distance, sirens wailed.

***

Long evening shadows hung over the front of the house. Spike appreciated that, as it meant his usual dash from SUV to front door could happen at a casual stroll. Not that he couldn’t dash now, if need be; he was back up to - well, not one-hundred percent, but certainly mid-nineties. He gave a quick thought to forgoing the blanket; but decided on prudence, so he wouldn’t smell like the backyard barbecue or one of Dawn’s curling iron mishaps. The last thing he needed was Buffy worrying about his health. He’d end up wrapped in a blanket on the couch, pillow under his feet and a perfectly warmed mug of blood in his hands. Sod that. The only way he was headed for the couch was if it involved being wrapped in a Buffy, with perfectly warm naked skin in his hands.

So, tarpaulin firmly in place over pate, refusing to limp (just in case she was watching), he sauntered from car to house, and through the front door.

Place was empty. It jarred him a bit, the quiet. Chez Summers had been such a three-ring circus of late, he’d come to expect the chaos even though he’d bitched nonstop about it. Silence was foreign. Welcome, but foreign.

And then the silence was shattered by a clatter and bang from upstairs.

“Buffy? You here? Anyone? Horribly clumsy burglar?”

“Aaaahh!!” His beloved’s dulcet screech. “Wait! Stay downstairs a minute. You’re early!”

“Shop was dead. I think your employers scare the customers off.” He folded the tarp and tossed it in the cupboard under the stairs. Not about to give her reasons to get brassed off, either. “Where’s Dawn?”

“Away. She seemed to think that she was gonna have trouble sleeping here tonight.” He heard something thudding on tile. She was in the bathroom, then. “Some line about ‘the two loudest people on the planet’ and ‘sexathon’ and ‘no way, no how, I’m taking my sleeping bag to Xander and Willow’s.’”

“It has been a solid week, Love, that we’ve done without.” He stood at the bottom of the stairs, one hand on the newel post.

“It has been seven days, nineteen hours, and twenty-some minutes.” Buffy appeared at the top of the staircase. “Were one to be obsessed by specifics.”

“You’ve got a dress on.” He took a step up towards her. “What have I done merits a dress?”

Lovely, too. Sort of cranberry colored strappy thing, showing lots of golden shoulder and dipping just a bit low in the front. A nice ruffle around the hem at her knees. Legs and feet bare, hair loose - she was vibrant and shining and exquisite.

“You, bucko, have done nothing - yet - to earn me-in-a-dress.” She shrugged. “I just felt all scruddy and gross after my day of home improvement, and felt the need to get pretty.”

“I hate to tell you this, Pet, but you passed pretty about five exits back.”

She beamed down at him. “And bingo, you’ve earned the dress. Oh! Hey! Room’s done.”

“Is it?” He felt a rush of - well, an odd mix, really. Equal parts anticipation and apprehension, with a good shot of glee on top.

“Yup. Stay there. Gimme a minute, you can come up to see it.” She whirled and headed back down the hall, out of sight. “Also, after your surprise, I thought maybe we could do something datelike.”

“Datelike? What, mini-golf and a corndog?”

“Try reservations at Anselmo’s and maybe a little dancing.”

“That would be an actual date, then, wouldn’t it?”

“Not unless you wear the suit, it’s not.” She came to the top of the stairs again. “Okay, you can come on up.”

Spike sprinted up the stairs, taking them about eight at a time.

“Eager little pup, aren’t you?” Buffy said. “Now, close your eyes.”

He complied. She took one of his hands and, walking backwards, led him down the hall.

“You’re peeking!”

“I’m not!” Well, just a little.

“You are so peeking. Fine.” She stopped him with a hand placed on his chest, and moved to stand in front of him. “Put your arm around me.”

Again he obeyed. He even put a bit of drama in it, pulling her tight against him.

“Good. Now, eyes shut.” She put her hands over his eyes. “Walk.”

He shuffled forward as she walked back on her heels, the balls of her feet resting on his toes. The dress had a zip down the back that ran all the way from beneath her shoulder blades down to the curve of her ass. His thumb rubbed over the pull. He gave a quick thought to pulling it down - to hoisting her up against the wall, tugging those dainty little straps off her shoulders, nuzzling at the softness of a breast. The skirt now brushing the front of his jeans would ruck up around her waist, between their bodies, and he’d laugh at her half-hearted grumbles about ironing it later. Letting her slip down the wall a bit, to sink down on him…

The surprise. The room. The room that she’d worked her ass off for three days straight on; so that he’d barely seen her, except when she’d fallen nigh-comatose into bed next to him. The room that she’d co-opted friends into helping, with shared screams and giggles and exhaustion.

The room that was theirs. Not hers. The room that meant another step forward, that meant he was there in her life, something leading towards permanence.

Oh God, he hoped she’d been kidding about the pink. Oh God, he hoped he liked it. She’d know if he didn’t; she’d see it, and that mischievous twinkle in her eye would snuff out. She’d try to pin her smile in place but she’d lose the joy behind it.

“Forward. Forward. Okay, turn left. No, your other left. Reach out, find the doorknob. Good! And, in we go.”

At her direction, he took a few more steps, and then turned. By his reckoning he stood in a corner, facing into the room itself.

“You ready?” she asked, her hands still planted over his eyes.

“Nah, think I’ll head downstairs, grab a soda.”

“Ha. Funny.” He felt her take a step back, taking her hands from his face. “Okay. When I say go, open your eyes.” A long pause. “Um, go.”

The first thing he saw was Buffy in front of him, her fingers crossed and a look of hope on her face.

His gaze shifted beyond her, ran along medium gray walls with lighter trim and mouldings. Thick gray curtains on the windows, pale cream carpet under his feet. The bed - “What’s this wood?”

“It’s, um, dark-stained cherry. The bed, and the dresser, and the armoire. It’s like, a set.”

“Yeh.” It came out gruffer than he intended.

He shifted to get a better look at the bed behind her. A tall four-poster, draped with tied-back gray sheers. A matching satin bedspread with a subtle matte stripe, piled high at the head with silk throw pillows.

“See, not red and black, but burgundy and gray. So it’s almost your color scheme, but without the creature of the night cliché.”

More of a claret than a burgundy, said his inner booze connoisseur. A lovely, deep, wine-red covering a chaise longue tucked into the window nook, picked up in the throw pillows at the head of the bed and the sheets he could see underneath. Red glass candle holders with lit votives ran in a line across the dresser, flanked by a pewter pitcher and bowl, and a vase of cream-colored flowers.

And for a final touch, draped over the end of the chaise was the quilt. Her quilt. The quilt he’d given her. Like she’d made the room to fit around it.

“So? You like?”

He couldn’t talk. He couldn’t make words. He couldn’t - he had to - “It’s … almost perfect.”

“Almost? What don’t you like? It’s the wall color, isn’t it? Did I go too dark? I thought you’d -”

He took her head in his hands, cupping the base of her skull, and hauled her close against him. He kissed her - hard, heady, swirling, delirious kisses.

Lovely thing, the zip. Quick. All that perfect back, exposed in a moment. He ran a hand down her spine and reveled at her instinctive press into his body, at the moan caught in her throat. Her dress puddled on the floor, and the lacy scrap of her knickers soon followed.

He broke off the kiss and pulled back to look at her. She swayed towards him, her eyes unfocused. He shifted his grip to span her waist, picked her up, and tossed her halfway across the room.

Buffy landed on the bed and bounced a little, her breasts doing a mesmerizing little jig. She lay there, getting her breath back, and then propped herself up with her elbows. He stood and looked at her: splayed across the satin, hair tousled, skin radiant in the candlelight. Waiting for him.

“There, now. Perfect.”

“Really?” A flash of provocative grin. “Because, from my viewpoint? It’s entirely too clothed.”

He ripped his shirt off over his head. “That better?”

“Well, it’s half better.” She rubbed one bare leg against the other, and he had to swallow hard. She did it again just to torture him. He retained just enough sanity to realize that he’d look a right berk if he were starkers, with his trousers bunched ‘round his ankles. He knelt to attack his shoelaces.

“Hey?” Buffy said, her voice packed with righteous umbrage. “Where’d you go?”

“Hard to get the jeans off with the boots still on, Pet.”

“But I wanna see!” She peeked over the edge of the bed at him. “Mmm, Spike feet. Sexy…”

“And when did you develop a foot fetish?”

She caught her bottom lip in her teeth. “I like seeing any part of you naked.”

He shot to his feet.

“Good.” Buffy sat back on her heels, challenging him. “Now, your belt.”

Spike raised an eyebrow and smirked. He slid his thumbs along his waistband: first away from the buckle, then back in.

She ran her hands up her thighs. Slow, like syrup, like time had slowed down just so she could tease him a little more.

He pulled the belt end loose, eyes locked on hers, and yanked the notch free.

Her turn. A lean back - this long, sustained movement all the way down to the bed, her fingers shifting slightly on her hips as she stretched backwards.

The first button on his jeans, undone.

For her, the legs thing again: a languid brush of her right foot along the other calf. And a hand sliding up to her belly.

Every other stupid button in a single jerk.

That hand, fingers trailing up her torso, between her breasts.

Spike shoved his pants down and stepped out of them, in one fluid movement.

“There,” she whispered. “Much better. So pretty.” Her knee lifted again and she let her leg fall open.

He closed his eyes, fighting down the urge to just jump, impale, spend himself in her, and start over. Knowing his audience, knowing the effect it had on her, he placed his hands on the coverlet and crawled slowly towards her. He watched her as he moved, gauging her reaction. His lips skimmed up her calf, along her thigh, up to her hip. Not touching. Hovering just a hairsbreadth away from connection, from caress, pulling back as she moved to make contact.

She moaned. “You know, you could just stay down there…”

Spike chuckled, and she shuddered at the soft breath in the hollow of her hip. He let his lips trail higher and higher, working in a serpentine pattern across her belly, until he saw her chin lift and her eyes flutter closed.

Then he blew hard into her bellybutton.

“Ack!” she screeched. “Hey, no fair! Tickles!”

She grabbed a fistful of hair and yanked him up the bed. He grinned down at her, completely unrepentant.

Buffy scowled at him. “You suck, Spike.”

“Eventually.”

He bent down to kiss her, letting his body press hers into the mattress. And there it was: the completion of an electric circuit. The spark and hum, deafening him, blinding him. The whole world was the feel of her skin, holding her, her moving against him. Once more he had to stop. To rest his forehead against her throat, and take slow breaths until he could see again.

Buffy took advantage of his regrouping and rolled them over, towards the head of the bed. She sat at his waist, pinning his hands down against the covers. “I think I’m due a little payback, buddy.”

“I - no, Buffy, wait, I need to…” Too late. She pressed warm kisses along the line of his collarbone, adding the occasional soft nip of teeth. Trailing towards the center, the little divot at the top of his sternum and oh, oh fuck, he was bent like a bow, every muscle in his body clenched, taut, tight, as she kissed her way up his throat. Sucked on the skin over his Adam’s apple, and up to the base of his jaw. “I-”

With a last attempt at coherent thought he got a knee up and flipped them over again, his fingers clutching the bedspread, taking it with them to cover them both. Buffy’s eyes narrowed. She hooked a foot behind his knee and bucked her hips, rolling them over in the same direction. She kept them moving, over and over, till they fell off the foot of the bed, rolled up in layers of coverlet.

Spike’s back was the first thing to hit the floor, and yet somehow he ended their spin on top.

Buffy looked up at him. “Oof.”

“Yeh.” He worked an arm free and gently pushed the hair out of her face. “You’ve got us wrapped up like a burrito.”

She wriggled underneath him. “Well, this was a dumb idea. Now I can’t move.”

“Sure you can.” He shifted his hips a little. “Your knee, Love, just a bit to the side.”

Then forward, and in, and he was there, he was. Oh, she felt... And he’d missed this so. Never again to be without, to be away for so long. Never. She moved up to meet him. Somehow her arms were wrapped around his neck and he was close, almost there, almost -

“Mmm, oh, oh God, Spike…”

“There Love, I’ve got you, I’ve -”

She pulled him closer - almost fierce in her embrace. Holding him. His hand found her hair, cupped her neck, pulled her up to kiss her. Again, and again; and she broke, sighing her orgasm into his mouth.

That was all it took: that little sigh, and her fingers clutching his shoulders. Clutching him. He was gone, lost, shaking in her arms, falling into her.

When he could string together a rational sentence, he pushed himself up on his elbows. Looking down at her, running a thumb along the line of her jaw, he murmured. “So, date you said. Any specifics in mind?”

Buffy nodded. “Yeah. Doing this about eight more times. Maybe ordering pizza.”

“Mmm, I can handle that...”

“So really.” She stretched beneath him. “Do you like the room?”

“I told you. It’s perfect.”

***
A. C. Hinchey reached for the book on the end table. The last George R. R. Martin book clocked in somewhere around nine hundred pages, but she could finish it off in a few hours. At the rate she was going, she could probably polish off War and Peace in the time it took most people to read the latest issue of People magazine.
She smiled and bent the cover open. She loved reading. It made her feel so free, so far away from Sunnydale. Reading was her escape, her school, her time machine. She could never read enough.
At least that damned phone had stopped ringing. All morning long her boss had kept calling and leaving messages on her answering machine: "A. C., are you sick? Why haven't you called? Was there a problem with your car and you couldn't make it to the office? Was there a family emergency? You know, you really should call if you'll be taking the day off. A. C., if we don't hear from you tomorrow we'll be calling your family emergency contact. A. C., please call; people are worrying about you."
Thank God the machine ran out of tape.
A. C. blinked hard. The light from the windows faded quickly once sunset began. She reached for the lamp at the side of the chair and twisted the switch, causing a small circle of light to pool around her. Piles of books lay at the foot of the chair. Yesterday afternoon only two books had sat there, but just a little over twenty-four hours later the number had increased to somewhere past forty. At first she counted, treating the books she read like notches on her bedpost. Except that her bedpost sat untouched in her bedroom, along with the bedsheets and pillows. A. C. couldn't stop to sleep now -- reading book after book was far too entertaining.
She raised her hand to her mouth to wet her finger and turn the page. Her tongue slid between her teeth and she absently noted how it seemed a little bigger in her mouth. Her finger touched the tip of her tongue but nothing happened. A. C. tried to wet her finger again, but her tongue was too dry. She swallowed once but her tongue seemed to stick to her soft palate. She lifted a water bottle off the table, but it was empty. She should get up and have a drink. When was the last time she ate? Oh well, that would have to wait until she was done.
A. C. turned another page and the edge of the paper sliced into her thumb. She flinched slightly and stared at her hand. Tiny nicks covered the skin of her fingers and palm, and little traces of dried blood dotted the wounds. A few of her fingers swelled from the paper cuts she amassed. She should probably put some antiseptic on those so an infection didn't set in. Later.
She moved on to Gaiman, dropping American Gods on the pile at her feet next to Neverwhere and Good Omens. She stared at the pages, her eyes roaming back and forth across the words. Her eyes hurt now, and blinking only added to pain. A few hours ago she'd pulled her contact lenses from her eyes and flicked them off into the room somewhere. She'd find them later.
She turned another page.
Her stomach had stopped growling a few hours ago.
She turned another page.
She blinked again, the eyelids scraping across her irises.
She turned another page.
Vonnegut, Tolkien, Heinlein, Rice, Snickett...
She turned another page.
Her fingertips rubbed raw on the paper.
She turned another page.
Light poured in from the window.
She turned another page.
The phone began ringing again.
She turned another page.
She turned another page.
She turned another page.
***

This meeting had started way too early.

Like, eight in the morning. Sure, for normal people that might’ve worked; but for her, early early early - especially with the extreme lack of sleep she and Spike had gotten the night before. Now it was a little after noon and Buffy felt wired on four buckets of coffee and two donuts.

She didn’t even know why she or Faith had to be there. Sure, nice gesture - like Lydia and Xander wanted them to have input during this big meeting with El Grandissimo Stuffedshirto. But a lot of it they’d already covered; Travers just had to rubber stamp. And then they all started gabbing about specific seminars they’d all attended in Watcherland, or clarifications of new routines and training exercises that she’d never heard of. Or quibbling about details of correct recording procedures in a Watcher’s Diary. She’d learned, after a “Huh? What?” got her a twenty-minute explanation, that shutting up and zoning was the way to go. Now they engaged in a heated debate about the merits of the Flurgenglurgen Technique, or something.

Even Willow had more to add to the conversation than she did. She’d come in around ten, when Giles opened the shop, and immediately got caught up in something about focusing aids and the properties of specific crystalline lattices, blahbiddy blahbiddy blah. And Giles was listening in, judging from the muffled snorts and “Stupid git”s and other even crasser things she occasionally heard from behind the counter. So enough people were paying attention. Buffy sure as shootin’ didn’t need to.

She slouched in her chair, sucking the blackberry filling out of a third jelly donut. Then, just for a change, she squished the donut so the filling spooged out, and lapped it up. Faith, across from her, busily licked all the frosting off a maple bar.

“Is there any reason why both of you need to eat donuts all ooky-like?” Xander, shifting in his seat, looked either uncomfortable or repulsed. “I mean, most people just take bites of the thing. They don’t squeeze the guts out or give it a tongue bath.”

Buffy shrugged.

“Maybe it’s a Slayer thing.” Faith tore off a chunk of maple bar and popped it in her mouth.

“Right,” he scoffed. “Speed, strength, prophetic dreams, cruller evisceration.”

“Let’s not forget the flexibility.”

“And the total hotness,” Buffy offered.

Faith gave a slow grin. “Damn straight.”

“Which brings up another question.” Travers firmly commandeered the conversation. “We have an unprecedented situation, wherein we have two functioning Slayers. Why do you never spar against each other? It would seem a valuable training tool.”

Faith winced. “We thought about it.”

“Considered it.” Buffy shook her head. “And, no.”

“Big fat honkin’ no,” Faith added.

“No to the power of no.”

“No with a side of no, and an extra order of no. We, heh, get a little competitive.”

“More than a little,” Buffy said. “Besides, I kick her ass, and she starts crying…”

“You kick my ass? Yeah, in Scrabble. In a fight? I’d…” Faith stopped, and looked down at her hands. “I’d get pissed off, take it too serious, and we’d both end up bloody.”

“Me too. I mean, with the serious.” Buffy smiled ruefully, recognizing her own weird rush of panic and memory -- the sharp ratchet of a handcuff closing the terrifyingly easy slide of knife into flesh the clasp of hands around strange metal filigree her own fists pounding down hatred disdain fear loathing on her own face -- mirrored in Faith’s expression. “There’s too much history of the badness type. The last thing we need is a reminder of how well we fight each other.”

“Yeah.” Now Faith looked relieved - glad they both got it, both felt the same way about Travers’s lame-ass idea. “Anyway, it’s way more fun to hit on Xander.”

Xander choked a little on his coffee, and then grinned apologetically as he wiped dottings of French roast, extra creamer, off the files in front of him. “And those training sessions with me are going just peachy, Sir. Peachy.”

“Well, I believe that covers the essentials.” Quentin snapped a file closed and pushed himself away from the table. “Barring unforeseen delays, we’ll be heading back later this afternoon.”

He seemed to be waiting for a response from her.

“Um,” Buffy said. “Yay.”

“What, is that all, Miss Summers?” he asked, not even trying to hide his amusement. “I thought that, certainly, I’d get a colorful offer for transportation to the airport, and multiple derogatory references to my posterior.”

“Take ‘em as given.” Buffy waved a hand dismissively and let a yawn slip free. “I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night.”

“Difficulties with insomnia?” Lydia asked, instantly in Attentive Watcher mode.

“Heh. No.”

“Ah.” And now it was her Watcher’s turn to blush. “Ah.”

The bell at the front door jangled, signaling customers. She swiveled around to look. Well, not customers.

“Cheese it, Rocky, it’s the cops!” Buffy swung out of her chair and crossed over to greet him. “Well, cop, singular. Lieutenant Grant, what brings you around?”

“Buffy. Faith.” He stopped at the top of the steps and looked around the store. “Everybody. Great. I think - I think we’re going to need your help. Something’s happening. Of the things-beyond-our-ken variety. And that’s pretty much your area of expertise.”

Travers cleared his throat. “You have a liaison with local law enforcement? They’re aware of the Slayer?”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “Hello? Dracula, the Master, great huge apocalyptic war on Christmas Eve? Live in the now, Q-bert.”

“Ah. Yes. Of course.” He still managed to look incredibly disapproving. Like she had broken the Slayer Code because she hadn’t gone up against four master vampires, thousands of minions, and the Hellmouth opening, with a teeny cross pendant and a toothpick.

“…only sent him a report as fat as the Riverside bloody Shakespeare…” Giles muttered, slamming a drawer behind the counter. “Carping about it six months after…”

“Who’s the suit?” Grant asked, nodding in Travers’s direction.

“Boss. Big boss.” At his wince, she grinned. “Yeah, exactly. So, what’s up?”

“Have you noticed anything odd in town lately?”

“Not so much, no. But we’ve been busy, with all the hoop-jumping, for….” Her eyes flicked to Travers, and then back to Grant. “Faith? You patrolled last night, yup?”

“Yeah. Hit every cemetery in this little burg, and it was deader than Xander’s sex life.”

“Hey!”

She grinned. “Sunnydale’s vamp-free, these days.”

“I - this isn’t vampires. And it’s not random killing, either. It’s…” He paused and rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s something I’ve never seen before.”

“Go on,” Lydia prompted.

“We’ve been having a weird rash of incidents the last couple of days. Vandalism, petty theft, assault, malicious mischief. It’s been building. Getting worse, more incidents, more violent.”

“Demons?” Willow asked.

“No, these are regular people - some of them a little dodgy, but most of them model enough citizens - just blowing a gasket, somehow.” Grant reached into his jacket pocket, pulling out an envelope. “And now. Do you remember, about five days ago, how a preschool teacher snapped, and poisoned all her students?”

“Yeah,” Buffy said. “It was sick. All over the front page.”

“But we’d assumed that she’d just had some kind of psychotic break, as I recall,” Lydia added.

“Yeah, we thought she’d just cracked her melon, as well. Until yesterday morning, when we found her in her cell. Like this.”

He handed Buffy a Polaroid. In it, a woman lay sprawled on the floor of a jail cell. Her skin was mottled with a patchwork of constant, tiny bruises. The woman’s face turned towards the photo; blood and dark gobs of tissue ran from her nose and the corners of her eyes to pool around the back of her head. Her eye sockets gaped up, empty red hollows.

“Okay, that’s sixty-seven kinds of gross. Nuh-unh, Xander, you don’t want to see this.”

He snatched the picture from her. “Hey. I’m more than capable handling something a little icky-” he glanced down at the photo “- and then needing to sit down and put my head between my knees.” Turning a lovely green-tinged shade of white, he reeled his way to a chair.

“Aw, Puddin’.” Willow rubbed his back in comforting circles. “What happened to her eyes?”

“We’re not sure yet. It’s something, some toxin. The coroner said something about how her neural tissue had,” Grant checked his notes, “lost molecular cohesion.”

“So,” Faith took a look at the picture, “what? This toxin turned her brain into Jell-O?”

“No, it turned her brain into Kool-Aid. Hers and a couple others.” He shrugged. “She was the first, but -”

A heavy pause weighed on the room; then Buffy finished his thought. “The first of how many?”

Grant nodded. “Exactly.”

“Ethan.” Giles’s voice was ice over iron. He stood behind the register, one hand gripping the counter so hard Buffy thought it might shatter; his face hard and still, emotion beyond rage in his eyes.

Then Grant asked, “What-than?”

“Ethan. It has to be. Ethan Rayne.” Buffy crossed her arms to keep from punching something. “Son of a bitch.”

“That’s not possible, Miss Summers,” Travers expounded. “He’s absolutely incapable of doing any independent magic. We have very strict safety measures in place.”

“Then they’ve stopped working. Because this has his name written all over it.”

“In eight-foot high flashing neon letters,” Willow added.

Grant shook his head like he was still trying to make sense of the conversation. “Who - or what - are you talking about?”

“Ethan Rayne.” Buffy turned to face him. “He’s an old… well, pain in my ass. A chaos worshipper with a sick sense of humor.”

“Think, the Anti-Giles,” Xander said. “Or Bizarro Giles. He has a habit of coming to town, and making people act all nutter-butters.”

“And the Council, in their infinite wisdom,” Giles yanked his glasses off his face and began a vicious polishing of the left lens, “decided to take him out of prison and bring him on a nice jaunt to Sunnydale.”

Travers gave an impatient sigh. “And I reiterate, it’s impossible for him to be our current culprit. There’s no way he could free himself from his magical constraints.”

“Then somebody did it for him,” Buffy said.

“What, a member of the Council? Nonsense.”

“Right, because none of you would ever betray the Council,” Faith sneered. “Cough-Mrs.Post-cough.”

“At least call your guys,” Buffy said. “See if he’s there. And then we can question him.”

“No. You can’t,” Grant broke in. “Land lines are down. Some nutball decided he wanted to be a lumberjack - so he took a chainsaw to every telephone pole on Las Alamedas. Cell phone service is iffy, too.”

Buffy glared at Quentin. “Try.”

“Very well.” He pulled a slim device from his breast pocket, and thumbed the power button. “No signal.”

“Of course not. You’ve loosed a maniac - thrown the town into anarchy - why should you wish to offer the least possible assistance.” Giles punctuated his snide comment with a brutal swipe at his glasses. A lens popped free from the frame and clattered across the counter to shatter on the floor.

“Bugger!” Giles threw the mangled glasses on the counter and fought to gain control of himself, handkerchief crumpled in one fist. Finally, he shook his head. “Back in a tick.” Another hissed intake of breath; jaw tense, eyes cold, so controlled he seemed rigid, Giles stalked into the training room.

The room got stuck in that weird Post-Really-Pissed-Off-Person-Leaves freeziness, nobody knowing what to say, or where to look, or how to get unstuck from uncomfortable freeziness. Finally, Grant shifted his weight. “He okay?”

“He… really hates Ethan,” Buffy explained. “And that’s an understatement of the ‘sun’s a bit toasty’ variety.”

Travers lodged a finger in his vest pocket and rocked back on his heels, clearly about to deliver a pronouncement. “The Council will, of course -”

Buffy put a hand up - to stop him talking, so she didn’t have to look at him, because she couldn’t deal with any more ineffective blowhard ordery crap. “Go home. Just… go home, all right? Get on your plane, and…”

“I see.” His face shuttered, again showing the standard mix of disapproval and distaste. He took his attaché case, raised an eyebrow at Grant until the cop stepped out of his way, and headed for the door. The bell jangled as he opened it.

Buffy sighed. “Wait.”

Travers stopped but didn’t turn around.

“If you can, let us know that Ethan’s under control? And if he is? Just get him out of my town.” She paused. “Please?”

A long silence, as she stared at his back. Then, “You’ll have confirmation of Rayne’s status within the hour.”

“Thank you.”

He pulled the door closed behind him. Gone. Finally.

“Okay, first things first.” Buffy turned to Grant. “You need some help out there?”

“Definitely. We’ve got every cop on the streets, but people are just going nuts. And even some of my guys are acting a little edgy.”

“Okay. Faith, you’re crowd control.”

“I’m on it.” She headed for the door.

“Xander, you too. Be careful. Stick together.” He nodded, and followed after Faith.

Buffy turned back to the counter. “Lydia, Willow, try to dig up counterspells, nullification thingies. Some way to stop this. Also, see if you can figure out what kind of mojo made this mayhem.”

Willow nodded, and headed for the bookshelves. “What are you gonna do?”

“I’ll look for whatever’s setting people off.”

“How?” Lydia asked.

“I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go.”

“Oh! Hey!” Willow darted to the front window, to a display of children’s toys. “How about a magic wand?” She pulled out a particularly garish example, lavender with glitter streamers and a plastic star at the tip.

“Um, Will? Have you started feeling a little wacky?”

“No, I - there’s a spell. I can turn this into a Geiger counter. But not for radioactivity, for magic-tivity.” Willow pulled a book from a close shelf, flipping through it until she found the right page. A quick check, a nod, and she waved her hand over the wand and whispered something that sounded like “Gitchee goomie makalaka hey-ho shuwhee.” The whole thing glowed bright lavender, then retina-burning white.

Buffy blinked twice.

“Okay. The closer you get to something magical, the more the light will flash. Faster, brighter. And it’ll make this noise, like tiny little fairy jinglebells. Pretty.” Willow handed her the gizmo. “Okay. When you want it to work, just say ‘bibbity bobbity boo.’”

“You have got to be kidding me.” Buffy looked at her, incredulous. “Bibbity bob-”

“Atcha - ack! Don’t say it in here! Remember, magic shop. It could be like thousands of rampaging Tinkerbells. And a searchlight. Wait at least until you’re outside.”

“Lieutenant?” Buffy wheedled. “Do you wanna do the honors, and get back to us?”

“Oh, no. I work with cops - it’d be worse than being caught in a tutu. I get seen with that? I’m the Sugar Plum Fairy ‘til the day I retire,” he said. “I have to get back out on the streets, to the nice rampaging mobs and crazy people. Let me give you a couple of crime scene addresses, though. That’s a good place to start.”

Buffy scowled down at the silly little wand and trudged towards the door. “Fine. I’ll go hunt the evil magic, looking like a total doofus. That’s my job.”

Willow grinned. “Go get ‘em, Tiger!”

Tucking the stupid thing in the waistband of her pants, Buffy pouted her way into the bright noon sunshine. The next time saving the world involved doing something that looked massively dorky? Then somebody else was saving the damn world.

***
The redhead at the counter looked up. "Hey, you're back."
Oz smiled at her. "Yeah."
She smiled back. "What can I get for you?"
God, those eyes. So green, like the hillsides lining the Yangtze River. And that hair, cascading in curls around her temples, held in place with two stir sticks. Chopsticks in a giant bowl of coconut curried rice noodles. She's breathtaking.
"One tall mocha, one tall mocha Frappucino, one grande latte, one tall latte, one grande house blend, and a chocolate biscotti."
She nodded and stepped towards the glass case holding all the pastries. "Wow. You really need your coffee, don't you?."
"Caffeinating the troops," he said.
"Sure," she teased. "You're just a closet caffeine junkie, aren't you?"
"No, really," Oz tried. "My friends…"
She punched the order into the register. "I'm kidding, really." She shouted the order to the other barista. "Can I get you anything else?"
His eyebrows raised as he looked up at the menu above the counter.
She leaned forward slightly. "Don't feel pressured," she whispered, the corners of her lips turning up into a grin. "It's not a test."
"Tall chai."
She leaned back to shout the last of the order to her coworker. "One tall chai latte!" She faced Oz. "Is that it?"
"Yup."
"Eighteen eighty-five."
He handed her a twenty. "I'm Oz."
She rang up the payment and the register drawer shot open at her. "That's a strange name."
"Nickname."
"I figure. What, you're a big L. Frank Baum fan or something?"
"No, last name. It's shortened."
"Cool." She handed him the change.
He stared at her for a second and the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. "What's your name?"
"Julia."
"Cool."
A girl in track pants got in line behind Oz. He picked up the biscotti and nodded to her. "I'll see you around."
"Sure thing. Nice meeting you."
Oz stepped to the end of the counter and waited for his chai. His eyes stayed locked on her. He knew what the others would think, her being a redhead and all. But the similarities ended there. Julia seemed so different. She looked older, for one thing. She didn't have the body of a girl; she was much more curvaceous. Painters loved having women like her for models -- fullness of her hips, the breasts swelling against her shirt, pushing the green apron forward. The ties of the apron cinched her shirt around her waist, accentuating the fact that she wasn't the type of girl who starved herself to fit into size two jeans. Her face looked different, too, what with the freckles splashed across her cheeks, and that wide mouth, and the three earrings in her ears.
She's got the patience of a saint, he noted, listening to the customer going on and on with her order.
"I want a grande mocha latte, but half skim, half soy. If you could make that decaf, but add a half shot of espresso to it right before you put in the milk, I'd really appreciate it. Try not to have a lot of foam on it -- I don't like paying for a cup that's half full of foam. And a sprinkle of cinnamon on top, and whipped cream, but only if it's low fat. Is it low fat whipped cr--?"
Her order was cut short by a loud crash. Oz jumped as one of the store's wooden chairs sailed through the front window, sending a spray of glass onto the sidewalk outside. A man in jogging shorts and a blue tee-shirt stood between the door and the gaping hole in the window, his mouth a twisted curl of a frown.
"For Christ's sake!" the man roared to the woman ordering her coffee.
He grabbed a bean press from a nearby shelf and hurled it at the sign above Julia's head. She screamed and ducked behind the counter.
A swipe of his arm sent an array of travel mugs clattering to the floor. The man strode across the store and stopped in front of the counter, his face red with rage. He stared at the woman in the track pants. "You fucking Americans with your damned coffee, thinking you deserve everything your way! What is wrong with you people? Why do you have to make everything bigger and better? And you bloody women, always demanding, demanding! Piss off already, why don't you?"
The woman pressed herself against the counter, trying to lean away from him. He sneered at her for a moment, then grabbed the oversized glass jar of chocolate-covered pretzels off the pastry case and hurled it at the woman. She ducked and the jar sailed over her head, crashing into the cappuccino machine and banging to the floor.
Oz squinted at the man. He looked familiar somehow. Then Oz noticed the small logo on his t-shirt. "Council," he muttered under his breath.
The Watcher raced across the store towards the door and picked a cricket bat off a table. He raised it once above his head and brought it down on a display of herbal teas, sending the wooden shelves splintering to bits. The bat came down again on the wall shelves. Coffee mugs and board games flew across the room.
The woman at the counter ran for the door, crying hysterically as she shoved against the glass. The man saw her and hurled his bat at her, nailing her in the back. The force of the blow slammed her into the door and it swung out in front of her, sending her sprawling onto the sidewalk.
Oz took advantage of the momentary distraction and raced up behind the man. He grabbed his arm. "Hey, come on, calm down!"
He turned, his features twisting, his eyes burning holes into Oz. "Bugger off, you pansy-arsed yob."
The Watcher pushed Oz once, hard, sending him crashing into a wall and slumping to the ground. Oz looked up to see the guy grabbing coffeepots and mugs from what was left of the wall display and throw them through the pastry case. Shards of glass flew as the display shattered. Julia screamed again as the case collapsed on itself, sending shelves of pastries to the ground.
Oz stood up and marched towards the man. He grabbed him by the collar and backed him against the wall. At times like these he was grateful for his control over the wolf. Not only could he keep it at bay, but he could call it up when he needed it. And this was definitely one of those times when he needed the wolf's strength.
The man struggled to free himself, cursing and spitting in Oz's face.
"Julia?" Oz shouted. "Call the cops, okay?"
"Yeah!" her shaky replied came back to him.
The Watcher began to jerk under Oz's hold, and at first Oz thought it was an attempt to escape. But as Oz watched, the man's eyes began to roll back into his head. His body continued to shake, and Oz realized he was convulsing.
"Make that an ambulance!" Oz shouted again.
The Watcher dropped to the floor and continued his convulsions, his body thrashing against the ground. Blood began to trickle from his nose, then faster. In seconds, blood poured from it. His eyelids fluttered open and shut, and his eyes began to leak some sort of mucous.
He made a noise something like a moan, but the blood spitting from his mouth stifled it. A gurgle escaped from his throat, and then a sort of strangled cry. Oz watched in horror as blood gushed from his ears and nose, followed by some sort of grayish-red ooze.
Oz swallowed hard and approached the Watcher, kneeling down to roll him onto his side. Whatever was wrong, Oz wouldn't let him die from choking on his... vomit, or whatever.
When he was rolled on his side, it was as if a dam opened up inside the Watcher's head. A pool of blood and mucous poured from every orifice in his head, and tissue began to leak out of his nose and ears.
"Oh God," Oz said, backing away.
"What's wrong?" the barista yelled from his hiding spot behind the espresso machine.
"Nothing! Don't look!" Without taking his eyes away, he called for Julia. "Is that ambulance on its way?"
"Yeah, why?"
"We're really gonna need it."
The man stopped convulsing, and Oz cautiously tiptoed around him. When he got a clear look, he almost vomited. Not only was the guy's face covered in blood and lord knows what else, but his eyes had somehow liquefied in his skull.
Oz clamped a hand over his mouth and lurched away.
"What's wrong? How bad is it?" Julia said, peering at Oz over the top of the counter.
"I'm pretty sure he's dead. Just... stay there. Don't come out, okay?"
"Okay." Her voice sounded shaky.
Oz picked his way across the floor, sidestepping broken mugs and bits of wood and glass. He reached the door and, with a shaking hand, slid the bar on the sign to read "closed."
***
"I'm sorry."

"I didn't know where you were."

"I said I'm sorry. Know how many people've heard those words from me? And you got them, what, five hundred and thirty-six times. Today."

"You know I can't get downstairs without help."

Spike sighed. No forgiveness to be had. "I'm sorry. I was in the basement. Couldn't hear you over the wash."

"You know the rule. You're supposed to tell me when you go outside so I know where you are."

"Wasn't outside. Was in the basement."

"You know the rule."

His jaw clenched. Breathe... This is exactly what breathing is for. "I know the rules. I'm sorry I broke the rules." The words grated his throat on the way out. Five hundred and thirty-eight.

"What if the house caught on fire? You were cooking."

"Right. Your lunch. A little slack, can we please, for the guy who just made you that chocolate-marshmallow-quesadilla abomination and only nipped downstairs to toss your wash into the dryer." He groaned. "God, I'm Mister-sodding-French."

Dawn put down her fork and leaned back. As if not eating the slaved-over meal bought her more sulk time. Sunshine on a cloudy day, his girl.

"Why can't we go to the Magic Box?"

"According to big sis, you and I have been overdoing it and must needs have a rest."

"You two were 'overdoing' each other last night. Overdid me right over to Willow and Xander's. I don't need rest. I'm tired of rest. I need to get out!"

The particular note she hit on "out" was usually his cue to go have a smoke, but ducking out would surely incur more wrath. 'Sides which, the sun hit every corner of the porch this time of day.

God help him, he was trapped in this house with a big, mean girl.

"And I can't find my good hairbrush."

No doubt the brush was his fault, too. He readied another apology but was cut off by the beeping of the microwave oven. Lunchtime for the vampire. He'd forgotten what with all the recriminating.

"Please," he said as he retrieved his meal, "go on without me. I'll catch up." Then he sat on the counter across from her, Starbucks mug in hand. He had it halfway to his lips when her voice stopped him.

"That's really gross, you know that?"

He raised his eyes, unsure of what she meant until he saw her scrunching up her nose at his mug of butcher's best. He jerked his chin toward her plate. "You're one to talk."

"Whatever. Just... ew."

"So you've said." But not for a really long time. Disconcerted, he turned and set down his lunch. Then he hopped off the counter, wincing as he landed.

"What?"

He blew out a breath. "Nothing."

"Still hurts, huh?" Her eyes drifted to her plate. He'd cut the quesadillas into Dorito-sized bites. Just like she liked them. She took one and popped it whole into her mouth. "Why didn't you take him out?"

Spike forgot about his legs. "What?!"

"That cop. The dead Slayer's boyfriend."

"I know who you mean. And I told you --"

"No. I meant back then." She picked up another piece and nibbled. "Isn't that the M.O.? Kill the family and friends and the happens-to-be-a-cop boyfriends? Don't know how you missed him. Bet you wish you hadn't. Did the one in China have --"

"Hey! I don't deny that I took out my share of families but that was for fun. Lesson the first, little girl: let's not confuse me with your sister's poofing Greek tragedy of an ex."

"I know who to ask. Xander's doing all this research on your dead Slayers, did you know that?"

He knew. In the week since Spike's past had come back with a vengeance and the Council mothership had landed, Harris had spent night after night at the shop, poring over the diaries. And before that, since London, he'd grilled Spike dozens of times about China, New York... other things. The first interview had been agonizing, but Harris wanted details so Spike had told it to him straight -- straighter than he'd told Buffy -- and added what he'd learned since.

When he got to Nikki... Harris had gone green, like he wanted to vomit. Of course. Just like Spike's own nightmares. How could Xander listen to that and not see Buffy on that subway? Faith. How could he not see Giles in Tulley? And himself in Lou Acosta. Spike wondered if, in that moment, the boy had hated him. Hated him as much as he had in the old days. More.

But Xander never flinched, made Spike tell him everything. The old days were the old days, after all. They shared a mission, now. Team Slayer: Doing what we must to make the Chosen Two un-killable.

To make up for the two who hadn't been.

Except, of course, that Spike could never really --

"... listen."

He shook his head and looked up. "What?"

"You never listen." She sighed at him. "Case in point."

She took another piece and bit into it. Licked the chocolate off her fingers.

"Dawn." He glared at her. "What is all this? You're riled, but I've done nothing to you. Is it the boy-o? Hasn't called?"

"He's not in town to call. Which you'd know if you paid any attention. But you don't know anything."

He growled. "What I wouldn't give for a coal bin right about now!"

She ignored him. "You think you do, but you don't."

"Why don't you explain it to me, then?"

"Quesadillas and bright, fresh-smelling whites don't change anything."

"What are you going on about? Change what?"

She rolled her eyes. "Look at us. We play house. We decorate and have barbecues. But none of it's real. We're like The Addams Family. The Freak Show on Revello, starring a universe-mashing clump of energy in the shape of a girl who limps! How lame is that?" She laughed to herself. "'Lame'. I kill me." She laughed again. "And a Slayer with a vampire? You're the abomination, Spike. You're both goin' to hell for sure."

"Wha --? No!" She'd ambushed him and he was too stunned and too hurt to do more than stammer out denials. "Buffy's not... No. And I'm just... I'm --"

"A killer." She picked up her water bottle, pointed it at him. "And you're the big leagues, Spike. Ever met a Slayer you didn't kill? I mean, Buffy's still alive, but that's just 'cause you're taking your time, right? What's a couple years when you've got forever? A couple years of the best piece of ass you'll ever get. Until she gets tired of doing you and then you'll just, uh, do her, I guess."

He flinched. "She -- No. Never. I love --"

"And her friends. Her Watcher. Her fake sister. You'll have to kill Faith, too, y'know. And go through Xander to do it. Four Slayers!" She winked and nodded. "Big man on campus. Campus in hell."

Dawn reached for her plate and picked up two more pieces. "Or you could do nothing. We get hurt all the time. And then we'll all die. So just wait us out and get your four of a kind that way!" For a second he imagined his days and nights without them. "Oh, but that wouldn't be any fun, huh? Since it's all about the blood." She ate with gusto, now. "William the Bloody... Your loser vamp friends come up with that one?"

"No," he whispered. "They weren't my friends."

"Neither are we. Just walking bags of blood, right?" Her teeth tore into the final piece and chocolate ran over her fingers and hands. "Don't think I haven't seen your face, Spike. Whenever Willow has to prick her finger for one of her spells? Or when I had to get all those stupid blood tests? I've seen you. You miss it."

He stared hard at the floor, shaking his head. "No. No..."

"You want it. Super Slayer unleaded, especially. Like when Buffy -- or Faith -- comes in from patrol all cut up? You so want it."

"What?" The ache in his chest rose up, clouding his senses. This had to be a nightmare. "What're you saying?"

"How 'bout my accident? Bones sticking out, blood everywhere..." She smiled at him sideways. "C'mon, you're telling me you didn't have the tiniest little sip?"

"No!" he choked, reeling from her attacks. "Stop that. Please. Just... stop."

He flashed to that night. The not-knowing. The hours and then weeks of waiting and worry. Blood had been the farthest thing from his mind.

He lifted his eyes and began his plea for understanding. "When you're in trouble... when you're hurt... you have no idea what that does to us. You have no bloody clue how I --"

"Awfully convenient how easy it was for me to get your keys. Slip away..." She wiped her hands on a napkin, folded it, and set it next to her plate. "I know I'm Suzy Klutzy, but I think that works for you. Maybe you help it along. Hmm, what can Dawn cut herself on today?"

A hundred years, he'd rough-and-tumbled through bar brawls, angry mobs, battlefields. All manner of demons and their tricks, humans and their gadgets. Buffy'd broken his back with an organ once; Angelus could turn him inside out without leaving a mark. And the hellbitch had ripped into his chest, wrapped her bony fingers around his heart, and squeezed.

A hundred years, he never broke.

"Or are you just that big a screw-up?"

But here in this cozy kitchen, against this girl with her hands clasped neatly in her lap and chocolate smudged on her Hello Kitty shirt... He was defenseless. Her words -- so casually spoken -- beat and stabbed and burned. Yet he could only look at her, destroyed, and wait for the next devastating blow to issue forth from her cruel little mouth.

"What --" He could barely form a thought. "What do you want from me?"

She seemed surprised at his question, and at the distress that had prompted it. Then she smiled her sweet smile and he sensed that he should already know the answer. She shrugged.

"Nothing."

Spike finally turned away, reaching blindly for his mug and dumping it out into the sink. He switched on the tap and willed the whir of the running faucet to drown out the sound of her voice in his head.

He stared at the thin column of water. Then he saw it hitch. And again. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. Some kind of humming. Flashes of light from behind.

He whirled round and his eyes went wide. All around the girl, portals hissed open and blooped shut, like a pop-up video. "Dawn!"

"What?" she responded, irritated. "Oh, that. That's been going on all morning. I think my hairbrush is at the South Pole."

Hisssss. A portal bloomed over her shoulder, big as a breadbox. He squinted into it. Tunnels. The big cavern over the Hellmouth. Then it snapped shut. Bloop!

Hisssss. Over her head, larger now, the mansion on Crawford Street peeking through. Bloop! Hisssss. Next to her, the street outside her father's LA apartment. Bloop! Hisssss. Right behind her. Big as a door, yet he couldn't make out the location. Spike lunged for her hand.

But in one motion, Dawn slipped off the stool and gripped her walker. "Thanks for lunch, Spike," she chirped. Then she slipped through and to the other side.

"NO!" Spike scrambled over the island and launched himself at the portal.

Bloop! Dimensional door slammed shut. Baker's rack loomed. Hands up, head down. Cookbooks, mixing bowls, stock pot... Stock pot.

Pain. Ears ringing. Pain. Shooting behind his eyes. Sharp, crushing, pain.

Then dull fog. And he'd lost her all over again.

***

The street stood empty. No cars in any of the driveways, nobody out jogging or walking their dog or gardening or mowing their lawn. Every house and yard she could see had been vandalized in some way. Broken windows, ploughed up flowerbeds. Toilet paper draping from trees. Dirty words spelled out in yellowed grass on front lawns. Somebody had had their way with this entire street, and nobody was home to protest. It reminded her of the days before the war, and made her shudder.

But that wiggins didn't compare to the one she got as she stared at the empty lot in front of her. A "for sale" sign stuck out of the ground next to a front walk that led nowhere. The tree house still hung defiantly in what used to be the back yard, untouched by the accident that had brought the whole house crashing down.

Dawn didn't know why she'd keyed herself here. Maybe when she'd felt something click inside her, telling her she had her powers back, she'd just thought of the place where it all started. Or maybe it had just been dumb luck. She'd been in such a hurry to get out of the house and away from Spike, it wasn't like she'd put a lot of thought into where to go. But she didn't want to be here. She wanted ... she didn't know what she wanted. She wanted to run, to do a cartwheel, to walk upright without any pain. She wanted to hunt down the bus driver who'd done this to her and ... and what? Something bad, that's what. Something that would show him how it felt, how much it hurt.

Except, it slowly dawned on her that it didn't hurt. Not even a little. Carefully, Dawn let go of her walker and drew up to her full height. She flexed one leg, then took a step. No pain. A laugh forced its way out of her as she took another. Still nothing. Giggling, she executed a perfect cartwheel, then squealed as she jumped around in circles. She had her legs back! Her legs, and her powers. Oh yeah, life was good. Well -- she cast a glance at the vacant lot -- it was good if you weren't the Merritts.

Dawn's eyes drifted back to the tree house -- site of her first and only kiss from her first and only boyfriend; pretty good kisser for a dead guy -- and then to her walker. She felt good. Strong. Invincible. Happy. And yet, she still wanted to thrash something. Grabbing her walker, she stormed the tree and smashed the walker into the side. Again. And again, screaming as she did, watching bits of bark and tree house ladder fly around her, until the walker was a twisted, unusable hunk of aluminum. Then she tossed it aside and fell back in the grass, panting and laughing.

"This is our street," said somebody behind her. She tilted her head back until she had an upside down view of a bunch of kids on bikes lined up in the street. Some of them she recognized from her old junior high school. They were a couple of years behind her. Kevin Schmidt and two other boys were in front, and Kevin looked down at her like he expected a response.

She rolled over and propped herself up on her elbows. Letting her gaze drift nonchalantly over their handiwork, she shrugged. "Love what you've done with the place."

Kevin smiled. It wasn't a friendly smile. "Not as much as you'll love what we're gonna do to you."

Dawn jumped to her feet then, and backed up against the tree. "Believe me, kid, you don't want to mess with me."

Kevin and his buddies all leered at her. "Oh, I think we want to mess with you a lot." He turned to the boy on his right. "Josh, get her."

Josh put his foot on a pedal and pushed off, circling his friends to gain speed before coming up the front walk and into the empty lot. Dawn stood rooted to the spot, watching him charge her. He pumped hard, and the space between them closed fast. A few inches away from ramming her, a portal opened up between them. His friends all gasped as Josh disappeared. Then their collective gaze snapped up as a scream came from the tree house, and followed Josh as he and his bike crashed through a plywood wall and flew to the ground. He and his bike rolled several feet, then he let it go and rolled several more on his own before coming to a stop at Kevin's feet.

Dawn picked up the bike and pushed it over to where Josh lay groaning. She straddled it as she looked down at him. "I told you you didn't want to mess with me."

A wide-eyed Kevin stared down at his bleeding friend, then looked up at Dawn. A grin broke across his face. "Cool!"

Dawn returned his smile. Then she pushed off and rode the bike into the street towards town. She didn't have to look back to know they were following her.

***

The Council had rented a villa on the outskirts of Sunnydale - one of those grand Spanish Revival mansions from the 30’s, with thick adobe walls and a red tile roof. It was about ten minutes north of town on a narrow, twisting state highway that shadowed the coastline. Giles made it in five. Then up a winding, secluded road made almost a tunnel with overhanging trees and shrubs.

He pulled up in front of a wrought iron gate. A guardhouse stood at its flank, the occupant already stepping out to greet him. Council security: read, thug in a Savile Row suit.

“Private property, sir. You’ll have to turn around.”

“I’m well aware of that. I’ve a meeting with Travers.”

“Oh. Mr. Giles. I didn’t recognize you,” he said, clearly confused about Giles’s presence. “I’m afraid Mr. Travers isn’t here.”

“I’ll wait, shall I?” Giles put the car in park and killed the engine. “It’s important.”

“You’re not on my list, sir.” Giles continued to stare at the man - he thought the fellow’s name was Boyd - as though he were a particularly loathsome sort of maggot. After some long moments of this direct scrutiny, the man coughed and shuffled his feet. “I could call up to the house?”

“Yes, I think that might be best.”

Giles stepped out of the car and followed Boyd to the glorified phone booth of a guardhouse. Watched as he picked up the phone and began to dial. And brought the cosh down hard on the base of his skull. The fellow collapsed into the desk, then slid to the floor in a boneless puddle.

After a quick peek back outside to ensure that his literal skullduggery hadn’t been witnessed, Giles dragged Boyd out of the guardhouse, popped the trunk of the BMW, and heaved the man inside. With a length of the fishing line he’d procured (the piano wire was for later), he tied Boyd’s hands and feet; then closed the trunk on this singularly ineffective guard. As a final precaution, he returned to the guardhouse and severed the phone cord.

Opening the gate, driving through, closing the gate behind him, all the matter of a moment. A few cars were parked in the circle of the driveway. He pulled up discreetly behind them and retrieved his bag from the back seat. On his way to the front door, the tires of every other vehicle besides his own received lethal punctures. He refolded his knife and slipped it back into the pocket of his jeans. Barring the unlikelihood that any of these wankers had his gift for hotwiring, they wouldn’t escape that way.

He paused at the front door. A typical Watcher delegation held between a dozen and twenty people, including support staff. Perhaps the tranquilizer gun? He had picked up a backup gun and a brand-new supply of sedative, precaution since Oz’s return. Or the taser. Might be fun to see those prats with a few thousand volts short-circuiting their systems. Then again, the solid thwack of a lead pipe against skull had its own particular music…

But no. He slipped the brass knuckles over his fingers, made an experimental fist. Perfect.

He felt the need to be han

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