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Who Do You Think You Are?

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“Such is the will of GOD!” Buffy cried, her tone an unholy union of authority and anguish. Giles opened his eyes. She was sitting bolt upright in bed, trembling. He sat up and put his arms around her.

“Another nightmare?” he guessed.

“The same one,” Buffy said, already calming a little. “What time is it?”

“Five-thirty,” Giles told her. “You’ve only slept a few hours.”

“I should be out there,” Buffy said worriedly.

“Doing what exactly?” he countered reasonably, “Other than attracting the attention of the police.”

Buffy knew he was right, but it didn’t change what she was feeling. “I made a promise,” she said. “I told those vampires whoever killed any of our people last night was going to die. But one of them killed Jane anyway. And it’s still walking around. I don’t even know which one it is, let alone where to find them. Just another bluff, another bluster. A threat I can’t make good on. That’s not good enough. That’s not going to convince Milton Crowne or anyone else that the Council can’t live without me or that they can’t live without you because of me. I have to do better than that. I have to! I won’t let them take you away from me!”

“They aren’t going to,” he assured her fiercely. “In the first place, they can’t. I’m never going to leave you, damn the Council and their Proceedings. But more to the point, from what Quentin has told us of the last meeting, it is only Julian’s opposition that has kept the Recommendation from being Rescinded this long and Milton was among those willing to oust him from his Seat because of it. No, the more I think about it, the more certain I am that my father is right, regardless of his bloodless way of putting it. In all likelihood, my Striking will never be put to a vote, and if it is, we shall win, thanks to Milton.”

“Which just makes it suck even worse that I can’t keep my promise,” Buffy said, insisting on clinging to her guilty misery. Giles knew the dreams she was having weren’t helping, which only compounded his regret for his part in causing them. Worse probably than the parts of his past she was struggling to come to terms with were the implications of that past for the present and future which she seemed to be struggling not to. Giles held her close, saying soothing words of love, stroking her hair. With everything else she was going through, Buffy didn’t need the burden of too deeply understanding the fact that they were still serving, and at the same time in danger of crossing, an organization with a long and well documented history of having people murdered.

****

The shop door opened with a politely insistent tinkling of bells. “Blesséd be!” Ms. Waddle called with automatic cheerfulness, a half second before looking up from her work.

“It’s raining again,” Ms. Caramel said grimly, locking the door behind her. “Looks like it's going to storm all night.” With her dour face and black umbrella, she looked like one of a cue of nannies waiting to be blown away by Mary Poppins.

“Well then it’s good we’re in out of the weather,” Ms. Waddle tried to mollify her. Her expression remained skeptical.

“It’d be a fine night to be meeting at The House,” Ms. Myrtle chirped, somehow present without having arrived per se.

“Well we can’t even begin to approach that subject under current conditions,” Ms. Caramel pointed out sourly. “In fact, I doubt if anything worthwhile is going to get done in the next ten weeks. We might as well really be shopkeepers.”

“Oh I wouldn’t say nothing is getting done,” Ms. Waddle countered, her perpetual smile taking on a slightly mischievous quality. Not from what I saw when I read Her energy this morning. I would say She is well on Her way to becoming what we hope for Her to be and ought to be pretty noticeable so in another ten weeks.”

“You don’t mean—!?!” Ms. Myrtle twittered excitedly. Ms. Waddle nodded, smiling more than ever.

“Well I’ll be sure to say ‘Mozel tov’ when we finally get to see her in a few months!” Ms. Caramel bleated contemptuously. “Her physical state is not the issue. If anything we could have wished for that to advance more slowly, to give us more time to have an influence on Her as She is… becoming more Herself.”

“Oh for Gaea’s sake,” Ms. Waddle countered mildly, “It’s only seventy days. She hasn’t even begun to uncover Her own history, nor is She likely to confined to a prison. It’s not like She’s going to emerge and directly take up Her ‘rightful place’ as a Mother in Her own House without the need for guidance.”

“Perhaps not,” Ms. Caramel conceded grudgingly. “But if She feels Herself suddenly in desperate need of guidance at this stage, I don’t believe we have yet given Her enough reason to turn to us. Mark my words, as soon as She realizes precisely what is amiss, we’ll be lucky if she even seeks the ‘guidance’ of Her Rabbi before delivering herself into the hands of some learned and licensed white-coated glorified abortionist who can ‘explain’ to Her oh so subtlety that She must do what She is expected to want or be accused of succumbing to the demands of patriarchy! She is enough Her mother’s daughter yet to fall for that I assure you!”

Ms. Waddle laughed lightly. “Dear Sister,” she said, “Give me a little credit. I certainly hope I’m witch enough to prevent that.”

****

Somewhere in Eastern Europe there is a monastery, though whether it is a Christian monastery or the other kind is open to debate. Certainly the Pope holds no sway there, nor the Patriarch. The Archbishop of Canterbury has never even heard of it. The locals say it has been there for two thousand years. That is a bit of an exaggeration. The monks say that they are all brothers. That is no exaggeration at all. There is one woman there. A mother of many, many sons. She looks good for her age.

They do a lot of chanting, these brothers, these monks, and when any other sound escapes their lips it is because they have something very important to say.

“It is as certain as it can be now that the problem of the father is resolved,” one brother said to a few others, or at least, he said something very similar, in a very different language. His brothers nodded. Time passed.

“Mother cannot leave this place,” another brother noted at length. There was more nodding. No one needed to say that that meant they would also stay. They knew each other well enough to know that. What they had done would create ripples. Would create rumors. One day soon The Beast would learn of It. And she would come.

****

The sounds of screaming, gunfire and things breaking terrified April. She ducked down under the steering column, but she stayed put and kept the engine running. Faith had told her to wait. She waited. Sirens wailed. Alarms sounded. When Faith raced from the building, half dragging a man in an orange jumpsuit, flames could be seen in the doorway behind her. She was wearing her black leathers with the executioner’s hood.

“—you still didn’t have to kill him!” the man, who had to be Dr. Ericson, could be heard to complain.

“Button it, Doug,” Faith said impatiently, shoving him into the back seat and climbing in after him. “I just saved your ass. Again. Hit it, Blondie,” she added, meaning April. The car lurched forward into the street. Doug didn’t say anything for a while. There was nothing to say. There was blood on his jumpsuit. There were bodies in their wake. And Faith had saved his ass. This time not from herself. At least, not directly.

“Where are we going?” he asked resignedly. Before Faith or her little friend could answer, the car lurched suddenly to a stop. An armored car was blocking their path. A second, third and fourth instantly hemmed them in on all sides.

“By the Authority of the Watcher’s Council of Britain!” commanded a darkly disdainful voice amplified by megaphone, “Surrender the Slayer or prepare to die!”

“Oh God!” April wailed, “Oh my God!”

“Hush,” said Faith calmly. “I’m trying to think.”

“Hand me a gun,” Douglas said firmly. “I’m a pretty good shot.”

Faith handed him two fully loaded semi-automatics that she had taken off cops who were no longer breathing, but she warned him to sit tight for a minute more. “This isn’t the firing rage at the country club, Doc,” she said grimly. “These targets shoot back. They want me alive, not either of you. We need a strategy.”

“You think you can kick your way through the windshield of one of those things?” Douglas asked.

“Bet on it,” Faith said firmly. He could hear her smile as she added, “Get your guns cocked, Pops. I’m about to surrender!”April looked if possible even more frightened and confused, but Doug was grinning and nodding his approval. He quickly explained the plan to April, and Faith nodded back, satisfied with what he understood, then added a few words of further explanation. It was Doug’s turn to nod in agreement.

A minute later, Faith climbed through the sun roof, holding her hands above her head. She could almost hear their assailants fractionally relaxing, letting their guard down just enough. She jumped into the air and landed with both feet on the more or less bulletproof glass. It was exactly the right amount more and less than bulletproof. The front passenger let off a panicked pistol shot that lodged in and weakened it. Before he could get off a second shot, Faith was standing in his lap. She smashed his skull with his gun while it was still in his hand and kicked the driver right in his gawking face at the same time. In no more than a second, both men were dead.

A burst of machine gun fire strafed the upper half of the surrounded car. Despite the crashing and banging of glass and metal, they were warning shots. The enemy expected Doug and April to be lying flat in the floorboards, expected to be able to threaten Faith with their destruction, to bargain with her for their survival.

People forget how thin the floor board of a car actually is. And how hard some girls can kick. Rolling on his back, Doug shot up through the not-at-all-armored bottom of the machine-gunner’s vehicle. Someone screamed. It was impossible to be sure that he had killed anyone, but the hail of bullets that ripped through the bottomless car all the way down to the pavement came only from two directions. Doug ended his roll in the ditch on the other side of the enemy vehicle, still clutching both guns, a full second before the surviving driver finally got around to flooring it.

Faith swung the back door open and let April in, pulling her to the floor as bullets started flying through the lack of a windshield. The driver in motion swung around in the middle of the street and rammed into them with as much speed as he could build up on the four second journey, which was not a lot, but enough. April lay flat on the floor but was still thrown painfully forward against the driver’s seat. Faith leapt into the air and let the windshield come to her, easily breaching it with both feet. As she flew past the driver, she grabbed him by the head, snapping his neck.

There were now two vehicles, one heavily armored, between Faith and the forwardmost armored car, the one captained by Sir Walter Megaphone. But the right-hand assault vehicle was backing up to pull alongside once again. Sirens blared everywhere. Police were approaching from both ends of the street, shouting through their own megaphones for all the combatants to surrender. Bursts of machine gun fire held them at bay.

While the British were thus engaged, the Ericsons regrouped. April scrambled from beneath the second vehicle and was let in as before, Doug close on her heals, making the most of the machine gun cover, perfect target that he was in his orange jumpsuit. He laid his pistols on the floor and pulled the cargo doors firmly shut. A cop took a shot at him even though they were still in the middle of their last verbal warning. He missed, but not by much. More bullets followed, ricocheting harmlessly off the back of the truck.

There were in fact two bodies on board Dr. Ericson noticed. The one slumped forward in the passenger seat had an Uzi in his lap and an exit wound in the top of his head. The awe Doug felt was the bastard child of horror and euphoria. He didn’t have time to feel it long. Gunfire from the one well positioned Council vehicle was flying through the not-a-windshield-anymore. Douglas wretched the repeating weapon from the dead hands of his vanquished enemy and, using the body as a shield, returned fire. April stayed low, but it was hard to stay low enough. There were ricochets.

Faith got behind the wheel, which at least was still partly screened by glass. She swung the truck around and rammed the cops, who had both a lighter vehicle and less firepower. She screamed in rage and pain as she stomped the accelerator, but the forwardmost police vehicle was pushed out of the way, leaving her room to weave between a second and third, rarely keeping more than three wheels on pavement. Faith sped up and headed for the desert. One of their two remaining assailants, the megaphone mobile, was stopped by the tangle of colliding cop cars in their wake. The other rolled over trying to leave the pavement to go around. A few miles out, the Ericson vehicle left the road more successfully, bouncing into the night, it’s lights out, while police screamed by on the pavement.

A very few minutes after going off-road, Faith stopped the truck behind a paltry screen of scrub oaks and pulled off her mask. “Alright, Doug!” she said with vicious enthusiasm as she watched him carefully lay the body of the man he had killed on the floorboard. “How does it feel to finally pop your cherry?”

“Didn’t anybody ever teach you when to shut the fuck up?” Doug countered sourly.

“You sure as hell di—” Faith’s voice caught in her throat. April had not made a sound for as long as either of them could remember, and now they both saw why. “Holy fuck!” Faith said, sounding half shocked and half angry. The girl’s face and chest were ripped open by gunfire. Her blood covered the floor of the van. She was dead.

“Stupid bitch!” Faith said bitterly, shaking her head and sniffing back tears. Doug felt like he should put his arm around her or something, but if she was about to have a meltdown, he was frankly already too close. “Fuck it,” she said after a moment. “Miles to go.”

“We have to get rid of this truck soon,” Doug said, relieved she was ready to change the subject. “But I don’t think we want to try to walk from out here.” As much as Faith was obviously very deeply affected by her friend’s death, as much as that was actually a pretty fucking awesome sign for her mental health, this was no time to grieve and grow and have breakthroughs. This was a time to keep moving and not die.

“No fucking way,” Faith agreed. “That’s not why I stopped. You gotta drive, Doc. I broke my goddamned legs.”

****

For what seemed like the hundredth time that hour, Orlando’s ‘phone’ ‘rang’, though in his opinion that was not an accurate description of either the device or the noise by which it incessantly summoned him. He was growing tired of the ‘modern’ world. He longed for the peace and solitude the Citadel.

How odd it seemed to remember so fondly his life of training and study yet not to relish in the least the task he’d spent his whole life preparing to perform. The glorious and noble sacrifice of death in battle for the cause of righteousness he had been prepared for. The bitter sweet reward of surviving his holy task and living out his life with no more purpose than a tree which turns its face to heaven and stands in patient solitude waiting to fall, that he had likewise been prepared for. This prolonged circling of the enemy, being ‘too valuable to the overall strategy’ to be the one to cross swords with her, this he had not prepared for, had not anticipated.

The name of The Order not withstanding, intrigue was not, at least in Orlando’s view, a significant or worthy part of what it meant to be a Knight. He was aware, however, that his was not the only view of the matter.

“I’m in,” the voice on the other end of the line said quietly, perhaps a touch smugly.

“Meaning?” Orlando prompted thinly. That his brother in arms had ruthlessly seduced the poor woman he judged best positioned to allow him to get close to the true Slayer and determine to what extent she might be involved in the fulfillments of prophesy at hand was hardly news. The tactic, effective though it might be, turned Orlando’s stomach, but the General had been reasonably clear in his tacit approval of it, saying only, ‘Everyone has his own way.’

“She’s asked me to move in with her,” Brian clarified, “She’d marry me if I would but suggest it.”

“Then you had better do so,” Orlando advised, “before this sudden whim is changed as suddenly.”

“You would have me swear a false vow?” Brian asked dryly. “Before God? You should know me better.”

“Sin is sin,” Orlando pointed out grimly. “If one is to sin in the name of expediency, then I should think he would choose whichever sins are likely to be most effective.”

“I would gladly sacrifice my own soul to do the will of God,” Brian informed him piously. “But before sacrificing my word of honor as well, I require some proof that there is truly a need. It is not by her whim but by my own design and (dare I say) the grace of God that this woman finds herself so eager to… compound our entanglement with knots. She is carrying my child.”

“Brother!” Orlando half gasped half scolded. He’d never understood or cared for Brian much. Though he was a Knight and the son of a Knight of Byzantium, going back no less than forty generations, just as Orlando was, he had not been reared in the Citadel School and had spent little time there before the age of eighteen. Though he had now lived within the walls almost as long as Orlando had been alive, his ‘way’ still seemed suspiciously Western and what he meant by any of his various and too frequent uses of the word ‘honor’ was unfathomable.

“Sin is sin,” Brian echoed. It was hard to tell if he was amused or offended. “And I am as honor bound to my sins as any Knight who ever lied or killed in the service of Our Lord, Brother.”

“The General is keeping a very close eye on the situation,” Orlando said coolly, changing the subject. “He is making arrangements to be prepared, if need be, to sail for California with three hundred horse.”

“Ah,” said Brian appreciatively, “Now that’s what I call reconnaissance in force! What happened to ‘we have to be more subtle than the enemy’?”

“The enemy has not proved to be particularly subtle,” Orlando replied grimly and informed him of the night’s events.

“Well I’ll be—! Amazed,” Brian replied, amused at himself.

“So I fear,” Orlando replied. “So I fear.”

“Well, if she is coming here,” Brian replied, as if he could have missed Orlando’s meaning, “we’ll know soon enough. Then the ball will be in the Slayer’s court. And I will be here to see which way she jumps.”

“Surely she will not defend the Key of the Beast!” Orlando insisted.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Brian said. “Those prophesies are pretty ambiguous if you ask me. Besides, from what I’ve read, a Slayer is like a sheep dog. If you whistle for her just right, she’ll defend pretty much anything.”

****

The tinkling of tiny bells startled Xander from his near stupor and impelled him to his feet for at least the tenth time that night. The fast paced world of retail had no time for his confusion and grief. “Can I help you?” he asked tiredly, without really looking up.

“I hope so,” said a horrifyingly familiar voice, but with a strange new uncertainty. Pulse pounding terror gripped Xander as he looked up to see exactly the impossibility that he had heard. Angle looked grim and acutely uncomfortable, like his old, old self, Mr. Cryptic Wiseguy. “I need to know,” he said, “where I can find Buffy.”

When the boy rushed and dove and thrust his hand under the counter, Liam assumed he was reaching for a panic button. He kept speaking, trying to explain, not really worried by the threat of arrest. The sudden glint of metal in Xander’s hand brought him up short. He rushed forward without thinking, centuries of invulnerability having robbed him of the instinct to duck and panic in the face of handguns. The first shot was high and wide, the work of a terrified novice. Liam didn’t let him get off a second. He leapt over the counter and crashed solidly into the young man’s chest, knocking the air from his lungs and the gun from his hands. “Xander, it’s me,” he tried to explain, fierce frustration in his voice.

“I know,” Xander grunted, struggling to free himself, or at least to free a hand to attack with. “That’s why I’m gonna kill you, you son-of-a-bitch!”

“You’re not listening,” Liam grunted back, as if having to struggle just as fiercely to counter him. “Feel!” he demanded, pulling Xander’s hand tight against his chest. “I’m not a vampire!”

“AH!” Xander screamed in disgust and horror. Then the total shock struck him. “Holy shit!” he cried, his own heart nearly stopping as he felt Angel’s hammering.

“It’s me!” Liam repeated. “Just me! I’m not a vampire.”

“You’re still a murderer!” Xander shouted, wailed almost. What the kid felt was mostly grief, Liam realized, mixing up with fear and confusion into a kind of synthetic but very passable anger. “I’ll kill you!” the boy repeated (though clearly powerless at the moment to do any such thing) adding, of all the things he could have added in support of his main point, “You broke Willow’s heart!”

“I didn’t!” Liam insisted, knowing exactly what he meant. “I wasn’t ever there! It was Angelus! I am not Angelus! You might as well call Rupert Giles Eyghon!”

“Bullshit!” Xander insisted fiercely. Liam began to worry that he might actually be too simple for this. But then, it probably didn’t matter. The boy didn’t have to comprehend what he was being told to repeat it. He didn’t have to believe it either, for that matter.

“I have to get a message to Buffy!” he reiterated. “You have to tell me where she’s gone.”

“Fuck you!” Xander said. “I’m not telling you shit!”

“Something is happening,” Liam tried again to explain, still having to hold the boy down, trying to bruise him a little as possible. “Buffy may be in danger. She definitely is if she’s with Giles and his so called ‘Council.’ They’re different than you think! They are not who they say they are!”

“Look who’s talking!” Xander accused bitterly, panting, still struggling.

“You don’t understand,” Liam repeated for what felt like the millionth time. “There’s a ritual, a test their planning to put her through, one they don’t necessarily plan for her to survive!” He took a deep breath and repeated exactly what Mrs. Post had told him. “It’s called the ‘Rite of Cruciamentum.’”

“Bullshit!” Xander grunted again. “Like you give a shit about Buffy. You’d better get your ass out of town, because if your still here when Buffy and Giles get back, they’re gonna kill you! And if they don’t I will!” Xander finally got a hand free and punched Angel right in the mouth.

Liam grabbed the boy by his collar and half lifted him off the floor. He shoved him backwards, off his feet. “You don’t understand,” he said with the gentle patience of a martyr. “I don’t blame you! I’m sorry,” he added quietly, bowing his head as he turned with somber dignity and walked towards the door. In the doorway her turned back. “But just remember,” he began in a tone of wise, gentle warning as he began to raise his head to meet Xander's gaze, “Buffy is in grea—”

Xander shot Angel in the face with the gun he had recovered from the floor. His glowery forehead exploded exactly like it would have done in the movie Scanners. He fell forward, laying face down in the pool of blood that soon began to spread. Second after endless second, it spread and kept spreading around the body, quickly at first, because his heart was beating, then more slowly, because it wasn’t.

Blood. Around the body. Blood. Not dust. Blood, around the body. Of the man he’d just shot. And killed. Xander emitted a high, half-strangled sound of hysteria that might have met some definitions of a laugh. This would probably be a pretty good time to panic. ‘Run!’ his brain was screaming at him, in fact, ‘What are you waiting for? Run!’

He couldn’t run. Where would he run? Even the Sunnydale Police could not possibly stand where Xander was standing and fail to figure out that he had done this. His worst enemy was laying face down in the floor of the store that he and only he was working in, shot with his boss’s gun that he and only he could have pulled out from under the cash register, and which had his fingerprints all over it.

“Ah!” he screeched and dropped the gun at last, the instant he realized he was still holding it. Instinctively, he kicked it under the counter, to hide it, which was silly because it solved nothing. The gun was not the problem. It belonged in the Quick-Mart. It lived here. Under the cash register. It would be missed if it went missing.

What he needed to get rid of was the body.

****

“How many vampires are left in this accursed city?” Wilhelmina asked, with grave impatience.

“Forty-two that we could find alive,” her chief minion replied, “Twenty who say they’ll come and a dozen more wavering. Honestly, I expect about fifteen. Less if they gather in advance and see how weak we are. At least,” he tried to reassure her, “we should have the element of surprise.”

“Perhaps,” she mused, “but I will be surprised if the ‘elements’ of that plan have arisen in time. More likely we are in for a siege.”

“We haven’t nearly the force for that,” he pointed out grimly.

Wilhelmina was quiet for a moment, then she said decisively, “Call upon the reluctant half again, and anyone else you think might need stiffening. Give them a little bit of St. Crispin’s Day. Only make it crystal clear that I will give them reasons far more compelling than honor and glory to regret being safe in their beds this night, even if the Slayer doesn’t.

“Meanwhile send a call out to every corner of Britain. Bloody Hell, call Paris! What’s a tunnel for?! This is a matter of survival. If we don’t stand together against this Slayer, and I mean the blessed lot of us, she will kill us all.”

****

“Well?” Bonner demanded without looking up as Hastard entered the room.

“Nothing,” Hastard answered grimly. “The survivor from the roll over is still in CCU, the other driver hasn’t said anything but ‘I want a lawyer’ and Mr. Megaphone has even less to say than that. Not a scrap of ID anywhere. Not a passport, not a license plate.

“They’re pros.” Bonner agreed. “But at what?” A statewide police data base search and a quick browse through the world wide web and every periodical index they could think of for, ‘The Watcher’s Council of Britain’ and ‘The Slayer’, had turned up nothing but the kind of rumors and urban legends that could have made the Fortean Times: the kind of Illuminatus bullshit that only the most ‘inquiring minds’ would want to know about. The Council was supposed to be something like a British Skull and Bones, the Slayer some kind of supernatural hero or menace. The two were linked, but sources differed as to how.

“They’ve got serious hardware,” Hastard observed, “not military issued, at least not British or Israeli or anything obvious like that. Either they’re some kind of Mafia or mercs or some kind of spooks that want to come off that way.” After a pause he added, “Do you think it’s time to call in the Feds?”

“No,” Bonner answered firmly. It was a gut reaction but there were reasons for it. None he cared to share, all running along the lines of ‘what the hell is she?’ and ‘Who else would be behind something like this?’ And what if Douglas Ericson didn’t kill Zack Mallet?

“This is bigger than us,” Hastard argued.

“Bigger than us?” Bonner demanded, “Are we the goddamned Arizona State Police or aren’t we? Is this still a sovereign state or isn’t it?”

Hastard looked at him at once skeptically and sympathetically, transitioning to comprehending and accepting. It was a look that said that, although he still thought calling in the FBI was the right thing to do, although he considered defending the honor of the Sovereign State of Arizona to be the lamest possible excuse not to do it, he understood Bonner’s fear that all of this would end in his being told by some asshole in a gray suit and black, shiny shoes that he didn’t ‘need to know’ what was really going on, that everything about this case (including the identity of his friend’s murderer) was classified and not to worry his local yokel head about it.

The truth was, if whatever was going on was half as strange as it felt or half as international as it clearly seemed to be, chances were, the Feds would swoop in on their own any day and take over. But in the name of getting a few personal answers first, Hastard respected Bonner’s decision not to invite them in.

****

They dumped the bodies of the two Englishmen in the desert. Doug had stolen enough clothes off of each of them that at least he was no longer wearing a neon orange sign that screamed ‘fugitive!’ They kept April in the back, rolled up in the bloodstained carpet so that at least a casual glance through the window was not enough to prove they were transporting a dead body. Faith lay next to her, quiet, but not asleep, stoically bearing her pain. Doug drove.

At an all-night gas station in the middle of nowhere he stopped and pulled around behind the building, where the one clerk on duty was parked. “This wreck looks like hell,” he explained. “We gotta ditch it before we hit any traffic or roadblocks. Plus we need to get some cash. I left my wallet in my other life.”

Faith silently handed her father a loaded handgun. Doug slipped it into the waistband of his pants and let his oversized shirt hang down over it, silently praying that his victim would not be the heroic type. He had never killed an innocent person. With his own hands. Yet. At least, not unless it was in the process of fighting something else that was killing them already. He wasn’t anxious to start.

The girl behind the counter looked about eighteen. There was no reason why she shouldn’t be, but it startled him. Doug found himself looking at teenage girls a little differently since he’d been reminded that he was the father of one. Nevertheless he flirted with the girl, easily, expertly. He used his bruised and swollen face to his advantage, making fun of himself for what he implied was a heroic but futile fight for love. She was blushing and grinning in seconds. When she assured Doug that she was neither married nor engaged, he professed not to believe her, playfully demanding to inspect her fingers for rings. When both of her hands were splayed flat on the counter, he shoved his gun in her face. “Keep ‘em there,” he said, “I’m coming around.”

“I’m a virgin,” the girl said, trembling, near tears. Guilt stabbed Doug in the heart. The kid was terrified and she had every right to be.

“I’d keep that to myself if I were in your shoes,” he advised with cool bravado. “But your secret’s safe with me. This is strictly business, kid. I’ve got about as much going on in my personal life as I can handle right now. But don’t think you can fuck with me either. I’ve already killed once tonight.”

Doug stood behind his cringing victim and inspected the area around the cash register for anything that looked like a panic button. Not seeing any, he had her turn around and open the register. She put the cash in a plastic grocery bag, all but the change, which he told her not to hassle with.

“Where are the cameras?” he asked. She told him there was only one and pointed it out. She screamed when he shot it through the lens.

“Chill,” he warned her, making his voice sound very hard. She was weeping unceasingly now. Doug had to talk himself out of getting mad at her. He had a desperate human being on his hands, a dangerous animal, and Doug resented being afraid even more than being feared.

“Keep your hands where I can see them,” he warned yet again as he marched her at gunpoint out onto the floor of the store and towards the restrooms. There was one window in the ladies room, but he judged it too small and too high for her to get out of. He made her go inside and lock the door. Then he stuck a toothpick in the key hole.

He’d forgotten to ask her for her car keys, but he found them in her purse under the counter. Along with half a box of condoms. Doug grinned and shook his head. Tactical virgin. He stood by his opinion that that was bad strategy when faced with any actual rapist, but some people might happen to draw the line there he supposed.

He dumped her purse on the counter and searched through everything just in case, but he wasn’t surprised enough to be disappointed by the lack of narcotics. He felt weird leaving almost twenty dollars in her purse, something he never would have done in his previous life of crime, but he would have felt guilty taking it. The store owner, on the other hand, was either insured or a moron. Doug wasn’t a kid anymore. He stuck the bag of cash inside his shirt, did a little quick grocery shopping and grabbed half a dozen cartons of cigarettes before he turned out the lights and locked the door.

Doug carried Faith to the clerk's car, a white not-so-late model Ford sedan so forgettable that he could probably drive it as far as he wanted just by changing the plates. She was past the shock and adrenaline, in much too much pain to walk. He set her sideways in the back with her legs stretched out and handed her the money, a phonebook, a Coca-Cola, and a bottle each of extra-strength Advil and Tylenol.

“Kill anybody?” she asked as he got behind the wheel.

“You keeping score?” he asked, sounding angrier than he really meant, still freaked out by the whole situation.

“No contest,” Faith said, her bluff indifference thin and shaky, dropping her eyes.

“Take two of each,” Doug said, turning the motor on and putting the car in gear. “It’s all we’ve got. Find me a clinic or a doctor’s office between here and Phoenix and I can do better.”

They were in no need of hospital or emergency room, Doug explained. They were looking for someplace closed. He had all the expertise he needed to set a few broken bones even if he hadn’t done it in a while. What he lacked was equipment, supplies.

“What about April?” she asked.

“They’ll find her by morning,” he said. “Somebody will bury her. There’s nothing else we can do.”

Doug was relieved to pull out onto the street. They had been here almost twenty minutes. Even this deep into the night, even with the thousand watt invitation turned off, they were bound to have company soon. Faith bitched because he hadn’t pinched any booze, even when he explained about blood thinners and internal injuries. She wasn’t much of a whiner, never had been. Doug knew she was really hurting, but right now there was nothing he could do about it.

“I locked the clerk in the bathroom,” he explained when they had driven far enough that he didn’t think Faith would try to talk him out of leaving her alive. “We have to switch tags before she gets out and reports her car stolen.”

Faith went on quietly counting the money. “Four-hundred and thirty-two dollars,” she reported, though he hadn’t asked. For an aggravated fucking robbery and arguable kidnapping that could have turned into felony murder real quick.

“Goddamn I hate being poor,” Doug grumbled, “I just about forgot how much. Twenty-four hours ago I wouldn’t have copped a petty misdemeanor for four-hundred dollars. Or for forty-thousand probably. I wouldn’t have wanted to risk my license.”

“Oh damn,” Faith said, mildly disappointed, “We left four-hundred dollars’ worth of Crystal in April’s pocket.”

Doug wasn’t sorry. “That shit’s poison,” he said. “And believe me, I know poison. I’d rather steal.”

Faith shrugged. She didn’t see the need to mention that she actually had most of the four-hundred dollars she’d been paid for it tucked in the cleavage of her outfit-so-tight-she-didn’t-need-a-bra. She liked Doug, even if he was her father, and he was good in a tight spot, but that didn’t mean she was ready to open a joint bank account.

****

“I don’t like it,” Andrew said, poking a little hole in the grim silence that otherwise smothered the breakfast table.

“It’s probably just a reflexive attempt to be polite,” Giles tried to argue, mostly with himself, Buffy thought. “At any rate, we have no choice but to make the best of it. Milton was, as you say, quite adamant, and the caterers are already at work.”

“Damn the caterers,” Andrew said impatiently. “I’ve known Milton Crowne since the day he was born, and he is up to something. Nothing good. Perhaps he is taking this whole business a bit harder than I thought.”

Some people would, you know,” said Giles thinly. “Evidently most parents get quite attached to their children, or so I’ve heard.”

“I think most children treat their parents with a bit more respect than pawns on a chessboard,” Andrew countered sourly.

The phone rang. Buffy jumped to answer it, grateful for the interruption, hoping it was her mom. She hadn’t thought this day could be more tense and gut-twisting than her actual wedding day had been, but so far it ranked.

The men kept snarking and sniding all along the razor’s edge between passive and aggressive. She had to say Giles’ name twice to get his attention. “It’s Robson,” she explained, “he sounds… incredibly happy but he won’t tell me why. He says it’s a surprise.”

Within seconds of taking the phone, Giles was indeed both happy and surprised. “They actually spoke to Milton?!” he cried in joyful incredulity, “both Evan and his son?”… “Well, no, of course not,” Giles said, chastened but not very. “Yes, poor Evan. I’m sure he must be terribly disappointed, nasty, nasty business is politics, we’re all terribly, terribly sorry.” … “Yes, I do hope they are able to… come to terms with one another. Well, fathers and sons, you know, it’s always a bit difficult I suppose.” He ignored the snort of mild contempt this elicited from Andrew.

“Why, that’s brilliant!” he agreed loudly, sounding even happier and more excited. “I’ll come right over.” He hung up the phone, laughed triumphantly, lifted Buffy off the ground and spun her around, kissed her on the lips and set her back on her feet, twirling her around once more.

“It’s done!” he declared. “Milton has already spoken with Evan Crowne and his son Jacob! And Jacob has told his father that he advised Milton to give the Seat to Laura Sterling instead of his father because his father is a drunk! And that he is certain from Milton’s relieved reaction that that is exactly what he plans to do! Robson is so sure of it he’s calling a meeting for tomorrow to vote again on Rescinding the Recommendation! God, I never really let myself believe it until now!”

Giles grabbed Buffy and kissed her again, as though he would have liked to have laid her down on the breakfast table and made love to her in celebration. Truthfully, if Andrew hadn’t been there he might have. “I’ve got to go!” he said, still grinning, still bubbling. “Robson and—I need to—to do something!”

He looked as though he might clap or dance a jig, really and truly. “God!” he declared, “I am the luckiest man alive!”

“Well,” said Buffy, blinking bemusedly at the door he closed behind him, “I guess I’ll just stay here then. No, I don’t mind.” Bemused was escalating to annoyed, approaching upset. “Have a great time,” she told the door. “I’ll just sit here alone in a strange city with some ol—with... nothing to do for the next twelve hours.”

“Oh for God’s sake, girl!” Andrew groused, getting up to pour himself another drink, “do shut up!” Buffy rounded on the old man fully intending to stand up for herself, to let him have it with both barrels, verbally of course. But her tongue failed to lash when she saw him. Andrew Giles was crying!

He was nowhere near drunk enough to cry for no reason. He’d only had a shot or so of gin with his orange juice and a little whiskey in his coffee. And by his own standards, he had gone to bed last night practically sober. From the way he’d just spoken to her, and the sullen, jerky, four-year-old way he was wiping at his tears with the sleeves of his pajamas, she didn’t think they were tears of joy.

****

Xander closed the store at twelve on the dot. But he didn’t go home. He drove to Willow’s, parked the white Lexis in the garage and got into the silver one. He didn’t have the keys for the silver one. No way was he opening the trunk of the white one again. No way was he leaving here with what was still in it either. Not yet. He was still too freaked out. Maybe in a couple of days… Whatever, just not yet.

He went inside to look for the keys and was stabbed in the heart with a completely different regret. He wanted to call out to Willow, to hear her voice in return, but she wasn’t there. There was only Sheila. And Amy. And all those little rats. The keys were on the hook by the kitchen door. Right where they should be. The only thing that was.

All the way home, Xander prayed that his parents were already in bed. But apparently he wasn't one of God's favorite people. He waited until ten or fifteen seconds had elapsed without the sound of glass breaking before he risked opening the front door and making a break for the basement stairs. The shouting continued unabated. “—because you’re not my mother you fucking cunt!” his dad bellowed simultaneous with whatever iteration of ‘why can’t you’ or ‘how could you’ his mom was on. He was almost there. The door knob was in his hand. He turned it. He pulled the door open. “Where the hell do you think you’re going!” So, so close.

“To bed?” Xander suggested hopefully.

“Your shift ended half an hour ago!” Tony fumed, “Where the hell have you been?!” He was red in the face and huffing and puffing like he’d been running a marathon. You’d have thought that Jessica would have either leapt to her son’s defense or discretely gotten herself out of the line of fire. No such.

“Were you even at work?!” she demanded.

“Yeah, Ma, I was at work,” Xander snapped, suddenly angry. “I said I was at work, and I was at work!”

“Don’t talk to your mother like that!” Tony shouted.

“You just called her a fucking cunt!” Xander countered, then dodged, because as soon as he heard the words come out he knew he was about the get popped in the mouth. Tony wasn’t usually much of a hitter, even when he was a lot drunker than he was tonight, but drunk or sober, that was the kind of language that would get a kid popped in the mouth. It was almost a parent’s job at that point.

Once again, the horrifying realization leapt out at Xander from a dark corner of his brain. He was almost a parent! With a girl he could be killed or thrown in jail for even talking to. Which pretty much meant that he was breaking up with Willow, only without any way of letting her know about it before him and Cordelia were pretty officially and really, really secretly back together. Xander might not have been a genius, but you didn’t have to be to see that this was going nowhere anyone wanted to be. In fact, he thought, there was a pretty good chance of someone taking a swing at him with an ax before it was all over with. That was assuming he wasn’t already in jail for murder by the time Willow got out. Murder. Oh Jesus Christ! And then there was the scary part. The part where he was almost a parent. A father.

Xander’s own parents were still in his face, his father shouting, his mother crying. At least his dad had given up on popping him in the mouth after the first try. The old Harris follow through(!) Xander turned back in the direction of the open basement door. “I’m going to bed now,” he said, “I’ve got school tomorrow.” His parents screamed and railed at him to stop, but when he left them there, screaming and railing, they didn’t follow. He laid down on his bed without getting undressed and covered his head with a pillow. It didn’t do a lot of good. They went back to screaming at each other, as if he had never interrupted them.

****

At three a.m., in the microscopic town of Persephone (rhymes with Autobahn) Arizona, Doug parked the white Ford around back of the Persephone Sports Medicine Clinic. The place didn’t open until ten, but all things considered, he knew they needed to be gone by sunrise. There was an alarm on the back door but nothing to stop them from breaking the window right next to it. No motion detectors.

Doug jabbed the butt of a flashlight through the glass, undid the latch and helped Faith inside. She cursed loudly for the second or so that she had no choice but to put weight on her legs, until Doug scooped her back into his arms and went searching for the X-Ray machine and the good drugs. He found one but not the other.

“You’re not pregnant are you?” he asked.

“I fucking hope not,” Faith said.

“What the hell kind of answer is that?” Doug demanded impatiently. “You think we’ve got all fucking night to play games?”

“I haven’t screwed anybody since I got my period, alright?” she all but snarled. “How can they not have any fucking drugs in this place?”

“There’s a pharmacy across the street,” Doug pointed out, “If push comes to shove we can hit it quick with the car running. I’d bet my ass they do have motion detectors, even out here, but all we need is a bottle or two of Oxys or Hydros. Anyway, I know they gotta have some lidocaine around here at least. I just can’t find it. I wish I had the instructions for this fucking thing,” he added, glaring at the X-ray machine.

“Aren’t you supposed to be a doctor?” Faith groused.

“I’m not a radiologist,” Doug countered distractedly as he searched the cabinets for film and opened all the doors until he found the closet they were using to develop it. “Or an X-Ray tech. This is going to be a little bit trial and error. Fuck, let me just take a look first anyway.”

“You just want to get me out of this outfit,” Faith teased, trying to distract herself. She was in a lot of pain.

“Not necessary,” Doug said, ignoring the salacious implication, brandishing a pair of shears. “Hold still.” When he pulled Faith’s boots off, her feet were pale and cool. “Can you feel that?” he asked, rubbing her toes.

“Oh, you’re a foot guy, are ya Doug?” Faith persisted. Doug jabbed her right foot with the point of the shears, then her left, satisfied with the curses he got each time. It was no wonder her circulation had slowed a little. The leather clung so tightly to her swollen legs that he had to be damn careful to get the blade in without cutting her. It was tighter than was healthy all the way up come to that. Doug kept cutting, exposing her legs to mid-thigh, well above the huge swollen knots that seemed to make her shins into a second pair of knees. He ignored her commentary on that choice as well. It soon stopped. With increased circulation came increased pain. Faith lost her zest for banter.

Doug fiddled with the machine until he was pretty sure he had some usable pictures, then ransacked the place for drugs again while Faith smoked and wept silently and the film developed. “I found some Benzocaine cream and some instant compresses,” he said apologetically, coming back into the X-Ray room. Faith let him apply both without saying anything. It was better than nothing but not much.

“Fucking fucktastic!” Doug cursed when he got the pictures on the light box.

“You screwed up every Goddamned shot,” Faith guessed.

Doug shook his head. “They’re healing,” he said, grinning with wonder. “It’s like they were broken a week ago! It’s a damn good thing they were bound so tight or I’d have to rebreak them to get them to set right. I’m not even going to do casts he said decisively. I’m just going to splint them up tight and carry you. You’ll be back on your feet in twenty or thirty hours at this rate. Hell, probably faster now that you’ve got some circulation going again.”

“That must be part of it,” Faith mused quietly.

“Yeah, but part of what?” Doug agreed and grumbled at the same time, uneasy once again with the refusal of his daughter’s body to obey the normal laws of physics and biology.

Faith grinned, glad to be the one who knew things for once, then grimaced again with pain. “Part of being the Slayer,” she explained.

****

“You wanted to see me?” Davidson said pleasantly enough but with deep, patient gravity.

“No,” said his father’s first cousin, “I didn’t and I don’t. But this is more important than what I want.”

“I don’t supposed you’ve come to return those things which ought properly to be in my keeping?” Davidson asked knowing damn well what the answer was.

“The world turns,” Bernard said. “The stars are reeling overhead. I think they are safer away from the Six. Besides the threat of destruction, you can imagine what substance those arrogant bastards would make of these shadows.” After a moderate silence he added, “Or can you? Or would you even disagree?”

Davison arched an eyebrow mocking shock and expressing disdain for the implied accusation that he had lost himself in the roll of ‘Equal of the Inner Council’, a challenge Mr. Crowley had once leveled much more directly at his father. “What do you want me to do?” Davidson asked.

“Quit playing power games and Resend this damned Recommendation,” Crowley demanded.

“There aren’t four votes,” Davison informed him, “let alone five, which was the problem when we last voted two days ago if you must know.” There was no reason for his kinsman to know that there could have been five votes two days ago. It was not two days ago.

“Will you rise to prevent this… usurpation?” Crowley demanded.

“Is that what you really think it is?” Davidson challenged coolly.

Crowley studied him for a moment. “That depends,” he said finally. “Am I speaking to an Ezarian? Or a Watcher?”

****

“At last, he awakes!” Gronx all but sang. Ben groaned at the sound of her voice and would have cursed, but it seemed like too great an expense of energy. He was exhausted, worn out, wrung dry by Someone's nocturnal activities.

Twice in one week. Four times in a month. After almost a year without an incident. Just when he'd begun to imagine... Just when he'd been finding it easier to pretend... At least he was wearing one of Glory's nightgowns, which, though not pleasant in itself, meant that he had probably neither been seen publicly in a dress nor undressed by any of her pestilent minions. Like Gronx the disgustingly lustful, for example.

“Some breakfast, perhaps? Or dinner, if you prefer, Oh Boyishly-handson-yet-beoming-oh-so-becomingly-manly One...” the ghastly creature continued to blather as Ben cast a contemptuous eye around the hotel suite. It was plush but generic, the median best of anywhere, but not best enough for a major city like L.A. with hundreds of true luxury accommodations to choose from. For Glory, She of the insanely, crassly expensive taste, who could and happily did rely on tribute from her many worshipers to pay her bills, this place probably qualified as 'slumming it'. “...to refresh you after—”

“Where the hell am I, you scabby bitch?” Ben demanded harshly, cutting Gronx off in mid obsequy, both because he actually felt wronged and entitled and because that was the kind of treatment to which these things responded best anyway.

She seemed uncertain and perhaps slightly nervous, not about their location (to which she was indifferent as always) but about his reaction to it. “Oh... um... bird...something? Thunderbird, Firebird, something like that. Phoenix! Yes, yes, Phoenix, that was it.” She seemed pleased with herself, and for a moment relieved. Only for a moment. Ben was not happy with the information he had commanded from her. He was aghast.

“Phoenix, Arizona!?!” he railed. “God-damn-all-gods-and-demons!” Then, his tone suddenly calmer, a more restrained, resigned species of incredulous, “I'm in Arizona? Of course I'm in Arizona(!)”

“So it would appear,” said Gronx in her unnervingly philosophical way, not too bothered by his angst as long as he was prepared to be sufficiently calm about it.

Ben sat back down on the bed with an exasperated sigh, trying to think. “Okay, Phoenix is what? Five, six hours from UCLA? Did I miss...? Is it Tuesday or still Monday?”

“Well...” Gronx looked extremely uncomfortable.

“Wednesday!?!” Ben demanded, becoming angry again.

“Well... it's, well at least slightly, to some degree, starting to be... Friday,” Gronx admitted, her sharp eyes darting over his beautiful hands, alert for the presence of objects that she might need to dodge in the near future.

“Four days,” he grumbled. “I've been gone for four days.” He had had episodes this long before, though not many and not for a very long time. “Fine. So I missed a week of classes. And one make-up Midterm. Damn. Alright. I'll just have to go to Dr. Parks...” Gronx was giving him that queasy look again. “What!?!” He demanded.

“Well...” She quailed, she really did. Ben's gaze sharpened, all his senses primed for bad news, the only kind he ever got from any of these things. This time was no exception. “Not so much four days as... eighteen?” She ducked just a little though he had nothing in his hands.

Ben took a moment to absorb this. That was it. He was going to be kicked out of med-school. Maybe he already had been. He'd already been warned once about his spotty attendance. And his GPA was nothing to brag about anyway since Glory had ruined finals week his very first semester. Finals for this semester were supposed to start in two weeks. There was no way.

It's not fair!” Ben declared sullenly. “This is all Her fault.”

****

“Here,” Doug said, thrusting the motel key into Faith’s grasping hand and getting behind the wheel.

“The second fucking floor?” she demanded, looking at the room number. “Doug, you’re fuckin’ killin’ me here.”

“Stop, bitching,” he warned. “I’m the one who has to carry you. It was all they had. We’re lucky they even let us check in this time of the morning.”

No power in Earth or Hell could have compelled him to explain that there was actually a single, which is to say one double bed, smoking room available on the ground floor. Doug thought he was getting to know Faith, and he was pretty sure she was all talk on the subject of incest and in too much pain to want to do anything about it even if she wasn’t, but there was no sense taking reckless chances, even of misunderstandings or hurt feelings. Besides, he knew himself pretty well too.

Faith’s medical condition alone was enough to make separate sleeping places a necessity rather than a luxury anyway. She was in enough pain without being bumped against in the middle of the night, or the day they were hoping to use for one. Doug was giving her as much medication as he dared, as much as he would have prescribed to a patient whose priorities were killing the pain and staying alive just a little bit longer, in that order. Still she suffered and remained lucid. Her metabolism baffled him. Given the amount of cell division that had to be going on in her rapidly healing legs, she should have been exhausted and ravenous, but she was merely tired and hungry.

Carrying a hundred and something pound girl up a full flight of stairs is actually a little harder than Clark Gable makes it look, but Doug got the job done. He had sense enough to let her unlock the door so he wouldn’t have to waste a hand. He thought he deposited her on the bed pretty gently, but she cursed at him anyway and he actually had to dodge a couple of blows that, if they had landed would have left him seriously dead.

She was lucid, but not sober by any means, and no paragon of restraint regardless. “Chill the fuck out,” Doug suggested, from a relatively safe distance, rattled, trying to shake the image of Lennette’s pulverized remains from his brain. He was lighting himself a cigarette almost before he knew he had the pack in his hands. This was not a smoking room, but he honestly didn’t give a flying fuck.

“Give me one of those,” Faith demanded crossly.

Doug tossed her the pack and the lighter and went to take a shower both because he needed one and to get away from her. But the thought of taking off his dirty clothes made Doug acutely aware that he had no clean clothes. The thought of trying to sleep in what he had on; however, was frankly appalling. Even after thirty hours of pretty rough wear, his underpants were the cleanest thing he had on. His baggy gray pants had been pissed in by another man and his even baggier brown shirt stank of sweat and blood. There was broken glass in all of it. But the towels here were thin and cheap, hardly big enough to wrap up in.

Cursing, Doug left the bathroom and walked back down to the car. Besides a sack full of nutritionally dubious snack foods, he brought up some medical supplies he’d pinched from the clinic in Persephone. When Faith asked for an explanation for his comings and goings, he offered her food instead. The plan now firmly settled in his mind, Doug relaxed a little at last, piled his project supplies on the bathroom counter, dumped his nasty clothes on the floor and turned the shower to hot.

He washed away all of the blood and sweat and broken glass but only a little of the death and fear and chaos. For the first time in over twenty-four hours, he was able to think, not just react. His mind recoiled from its own objective assessment of his circumstances. The world was melting around him. It had melted. Everything he had been running from his whole life had caught up. Dr. Ericson had evaporated like steam and everything he’d accumulated: money, respect, basic physical security was washed down the drain. Doug was Doug again, as ever and always, completely fucked.

‘All right,’ Douglas said to himself. ‘This is your life. Suck it up.’

****

“This is going to work out to our advantage,” Spike assured Harmony confidently.

She gave him a doubtful look, a look he had been seeing more and more of lately. “Didn’t we come here to get away from Buffy?” she asked.

Spike laughed. “She’ll be on her way home in a few days,” he predicted grinning. “And in the meantime, she is going to thin out the competition for us. By sunrise, this city will be ours for the taking, all thanks to Buffy Summers.”

Harmony still seemed to have her doubts. Spike didn’t care. She’d see soon enough. What was about to happen was inevitable, or to be more accurate, like the events that made up all good tragedies, it could easily be avoided, but without a doubt it would not be.

Their flight had landed in Paris on time. They’d been lucky. It was a four a.m. arrival. Less than two hours short of disastrous. Damn close timing for a transatlantic, but they had had little choice. Spike was in no shape for stealthily creeping about airline facilities, even now. He was blistered and pustulant, swollen and shuffling and clumsy. He had been burned red and black over nine tenths of his body. His face was only now beginning to peel and reveal (to Harmony’s intense relief) smooth new layers of unscarred skin.

They’d had to kill a couple of baggage handlers to get out of the cargo hold without alerting security, but they were hungry anyway. Spike and Harmony had blended into the crowd as best they could, evaded customs and headed for the nearest Metro station to spend the day. Then things had gotten interesting.

“Catacombs!” a bloodless passerby had hissed in Harmony’s ear, “trois hours!” Harmony had needed all three words explained to her, the last mainly because of the squashed way the undead Frenchman had said it.

Against his better judgment (which had by now pretty much given up on ever being listened to again) Spike had attended the meeting, with Harmony in tow. The atmosphere of tense, dangerous, active dread was unsettlingly familiar. Spike hung near the back and kept to the shadows, ordering Harmony to do the same as the crowd was harangued or cajoled (Spike’s imperfect French made it hard to tell the which) by a cocky little prick who seemed to fancy himself some sort of general.

Spike remained silent and let the little general run his meeting. Imperfect as it was, Spike’s French was not so bad as to conceal the main thrust of the poor blighter’s project. He had received an urgent call from a friend in London. There was a once in an unlifetime opportunity in the offing. A chance to do battle with, to defeat, to devour the Slayer.

“I still don’t understand what all this is about,” Harmony was still whining, hours later, as they sat in another metro station enjoying the breeze from the passing trains.

Spike grinned. “Cool-aid,” he said with grim amusement, knowing damn well she would have no clue what he meant. “It’s all about the Cool-aid.” Sun Tzu had said that the best way to win a war not to have to fight it. Clausewitz had said the best way was to crush the enemy forces in a single decisive victory. Now, thanks to Buffy, Spike got to do both, all in one go.

“Just trust me,” he said, in response to Harmony’s pouting. “By the time this is all over, we’ll be the bloody King and Queen of France.”

There it was, that damned doubtful look again.

“We will,” Spike insisted. “Within twenty-four hours this city will be ours for the taking. “I mean, once these bloody lemmings all clear out, who's going to be left to stand against us?”

****

Three obese older women perched on tiny wrought iron chairs around a tiny wrought iron table at a tiny sidewalk café along one of hundreds of broad, airy, tree-lined Paris streets. Their extravagant rolls of fat quivered obscenely with their slightest motions. Despite the cool and only partly sunny April morning, they wore garishly opaque mirrored sunglasses of the type designed to ward off the blinding L.A. sun. Americans, obviously, of the worst kind.

It seemed an odd trick of the light that the images of passersby were reflected in their gleaming shades while their own mountainous breasts, their pork-pie fingers and the doughy faces of their sisters were not. “Well, ladies,” said the fattest and by far the most smug of the three, shading her mouth with her hand as she spoke in a deep, almost masculine contralto, “I’d say that phase one testing is a complete success.”

“Not quite,” said the tall one critically. Her voice was somewhat more feminine though by no means high. “I can feel my energy draining, like being out in a never ending twilight. And even if I felt like moving, I don’t see how we could possibly feed in these things. I feel like I’m in a moon suit, lead boots and all.” She too shaded her mouth as she spoke.

“But we’re working on that,” argued the third sister from behind a small Japanese fan in a gravelly voice that could only have come from thirty or forty years of chain smoking. “These are still good for traveling in the daytime. And I bet we’ll start to feel better once we get inside someplace. Besides, in a pinch, even with the extra weight, even with a bad case of sun slump, the three of us together should still be more than a match for the average human, plus there are plenty of children and old people running around everywhere if we get really hungry.”

“They’ll do for what we need them for,” the smug, fat sister agreed. “And this is only the beginning,” she gloated. “Now it’s time for phase two.”

“But what, exactly, is phase two?” the tall sister demanded languidly.

“The very most indispensable aspect of any plan for technological development,” the fat sister replied superiorly.

“Research?” her gravelly voiced companion guessed.

She laughed. “No,” she corrected with obvious relish, “Fundraising. We’ll sell these first generation suits to as many suckers as we can get to fork over, for as much as we can get out of them and then reinvest in research. This is only the beginning,” she went on gloating. “I already have plans to reduce the bulk and improve the efficiency of the cooling systems. And with that real skin thing you’re working on and Trina’s neural input processor, we’ll be able to produce a much more direct tactile experience of the daytime world. Do you know what that means?”

“We’ll be able to kill just as well by day or by night,” Trina answered with satisfaction.

“We’ll be able to enjoy killing just as well by day or by night,” Chris added with relish.

“It means we’ll be richer than God,” Warren clarified triumphantly. “And twice as powerful! Every vampire in the world is going to want this technology. They’ll come crawling on their hands and knees begging for it. They will have no choice but to throw themselves at my feet. I am the master of the Sun! There is no way into the light but through me!”

Trina might have shrugged. It was hard to tell. “Through us, you mean,” Chris corrected him earnestly.

“Yeah, yeah,” Warren agreed, “Of course. That’s what I meant. Through us.”

****

Faith waited a long time after she heard the shower stop for Doug to emerge. She was in danger of falling asleep. Which she figured was what he was waiting for. But no way was she going to pass up the chance to laugh at his embarrassed ass in a towel.

Faith wasn’t a child She knew when a guy wanted to fuck her. Which was pretty much always. She didn’t think it was unreasonably sadistic, considering, to have a little bit of fun reminding the white sheep of the family that maybe he wasn’t so fucking pure after all. Not that either them ever thought that in a million years there was the tiniest chance that anything could actually happen. She just liked to watch him squirm.

But when Doug came out, he wasn’t wearing a towel. In fact, Faith had to do a double take to see exactly what it was that was off about what he was wearing. What looked at first glance like a white T-shirt was actually the front and back of a shirt cut out flat from a bed sheet an taped up the sides with seams of white cloth tape of the kind used with gauze bandages. What looked like sweat pants were similarly constructed from a blanket.

He handed Faith a soap dish and said, “Ash tray.”

“You look wicked stupid,” Faith said with a grin.

“Bullshit,” said Doug, smiling back broadly, lighting himself another smoke. “I look like a fucking genius.”