Chapter 1: Prologue
"Jay, Kay, get in here!"
Agent Zed's voice was audible half-way across the vast concourse of the headquarters. Since Jay and Kay were just outside the door, on their way back from the coffee room, it was painfully loud.
"Chill out, Zed," said the black agent. "Where's the fire?"
"On our heads if we don't do something, Jay. And it's all your fault."
"Figures," said Kay.
"You're not entirely blameless either."
"Zed, I've worked eight cases since I came out of retirement, and as far as I know all of them have been by the book. What's the problem?"
"Your last case before you retired, Junior's first. There are some loose ends."
"Such as?" asked Jay.
"Remember the Baltian Prime Minister? The one who was assassinated on your watch?"
"The really small guy with the cat that was killed by the bug? Sure, what about him?"
"The Baltian courts have been settling his affairs, seems that on a conservative estimate his estate is worth about three and a half thousand Baltian dollars."
"What's that in real money?"
"Roughly the national debt of the USA over the last fifteen years."
Jay spluttered coffee. "Oh...kay. So what's this to us?"
"Seems that the heir is on Earth, and has been for the last twenty or so years. She's an illegal, some sort of sociologist, came here for a week to research our quaint native customs and slipped the leash in California. We have her logged out from New York on schedule, now the Baltian government say that what came back was an empty body suit running on autopilot."
"And they didn't tell us until now?" asked Kay.
"Apparently it had been planned from the outset. They thought it was a hell of a good gag to play on us primitives. The trouble is that somewhere along the way they've lost track of her, and now that she's rich they want her back to make some administrative decisions. Decisions that could have a big impact on the economic future of Earth."
"Twenty years? A Baltian can't go twenty minutes on Earth without a body suit."
"The Baltians have reluctantly admitted that the uncle had one ready for her when she arrived, and that more have been shipped in since. The last one was six years ago."
"Why would she need more?"
"Wear and tear, I guess."
"So what are we supposed to do, and what's the big hurry?" asked Jay.
"I want you to find her and make sure that she leaves Earth. Voluntarily if possible, it'd be good for alien relations, but if necessary we deport her as an illegal immigrant. But nicely. This has to be handled with discretion. As for the hurry, their next liner will be calling in at New York in just over a Galactic Standard Month, and they want her aboard."
"About five days. Shouldn't be a problem. What do we know about the body suits? that should be a good starting point."
"They were shipped in as postal sorting equipment then sent out to California for pickup from a local goods depot."
"Damn, and we could have really used some Baltian sorting equipment in the USPS," said Kay. "So where's this depot?"
"Place called Sunnydale."
"Okay, so we're looking for a six-inch tall alien in a body suit somewhere in Sunnydale, California. Who did they ship it to?"
"Same name their Prime Minister used. Rosenberg."
"It's as good a starting point as any." Kay reached for a microphone and said " Bhob, run a computer check on the name Rosenberg and Sunnydale, California. Jay, you take a look at what he gets. I'm going to check out the hot sheets, there's something about the name of that town that rings a bell."
Chapter 2: I
Willow Rosenberg was drinking iced tea and trying hard not to think about magic when the doorbell rang. Buffy was somewhere upstairs, probably in the shower, and Dawn was already on her way to school, so she decided she'd better answer the door.
Standing there were two men, one in his twenties and black, the other in his fifties and white, in identical black suits. "Willow Rosenberg?" asked the white man.
"DEA, Ms Rosenberg. We'd like to ask you a few questions."
"What does the Drug Enforcement Agency want with me? Got some identification?"
The black guy produced a wallet and flashed a badge in front of her. Willow held his wrist before he could take it away.
"That says NYPD."
"I think you're mistaken, Ms Rosenberg. Have you had your eyes tested lately? Just look over here.."
Both guys were putting on dark glasses, the white guy was raising a pen-shaped device. It flashed brilliant white; simultaneously Willow's eyes blackened. The white guy said "My colleague showed you DEA identification, and you're going to invite us in."
Willow said "Don't know what that flashy thing was, mister, but if you don't get off the damn doorstep I'm calling the police. Buffy!"
"That's it," said the black guy, "I want to see your papers now. No way you're human."
"Jay..." the white guy began, looking at something that reminded Willow of a Star Trek tricorder, "...looks like she is."
"What the hell is going on here?" asked Buffy, coming down the stairs in her bathrobe.
"Back away slowly," muttered the white guy, "try not to show you're frightened. It's her. The Slayer."
"Sorry," said the black guy, "looks like we have a misunderstanding. Sorry to have troubled you. Apologies for wasting your time. You have a nice day."
Both men backed away from the house. Willow heard the black guy say "That's the Slayer? You're putting me on..." as they retreated to a black Ford POS and drove off with a squeal of tyres.
"That was weird," said Willow. "He pretended to be a DEA agent, showed me a police badge, pulled some sort of flashy gizmo on me, it felt like a spell but it didn't work."
"Reflex, I guess. I'm sorry, but I cast a defensive spell without even thinking about it."
"Will, nobody's going to blame you for that. You just need to stop using magic when it isn't a matter of life and death."
"Maybe. Anyway, he said something about wanting to see my papers when I didn't do what he wanted. Seemed to think I'm not human, then the other one said I was. And both of them knew who you are but were surprised to see you here."
"That's odd. Sounds like they wanted you, not me, got your address but didn't know I own the house. Did you see the licence plates?"
"Yeah, they were from New York. Come to think of it, the badge he showed me was from New York too."
"Could it be something to do with that Rack guy? Wouldn't surprise me if he was dealing drugs as well as magic."
"Buffy, they weren't from the DEA, whatever they were. And they knew what the Slayer is, and were frightened of you. I'm guessing that the three nerds are involved."
"I guess. Kind of creepy, the way they dressed the same way. Like clones, except for being different ages and colours and all. The younger guy was kinda hot."
"Maybe, if you like that sort of thing."
"I'll make some calls, see if anyone knows anything about them, but I've gotta head off to Doublemeat hell in an hour or so. Don't know why I bother showering in the morning considering the way I'll be smelling by the end of the day."
"Thanks, I'll see if I can trace the plates or that guy's badge, I got the numbers. I've got lectures in college this afternoon, but I'll leave a note with anything I find."
"So if the girl is human," asked Jay as they drove away, "how come the neuralyzer didn't work?"
"This is the Hellmouth, kid, could be anything. I didn't do a deep scan, could be she has some demon blood or knows a little magic."
"Are you still trying to sell me this supernatural bull? Cos' you know I'm not buying it."
"Demons, vampires and magic are real, kid. There are aliens out there that have it all down as a science, on Earth we're mostly still fumbling beginners."
"How come we never had to deal with this stuff before?"
"I told you already - they're outside our jurisdiction. The Slayer handles them. She's Earth's main defence against the forces of darkness."
"That hot little blonde chick?"
"She's twenty-two and stronger than a Bug, kid. She's been fighting monsters since she was fifteen, and she's saved the world at least five times."
"So how come we don't recruit her?"
"She isn't a team player, and the work she does here is too important. I'm not saying that we haven't given Slayers a helping hand from time to time, and vice versa, but it's better to stay well out of her way. For one thing, there's a support organisation called the Watchers behind her and they're way too influential to be told about us."
"What are we going to do about the red-head?"
"Her parents are away somewhere and so far we haven't been able to trace them, there's nothing in the phone book or on the county records but we need to know if there are any other Rosenbergs around that might be a part of this. I planted a transmitter when you were talking to her, maybe we'll pick up something that way." He turned the car radio to a channel no normal Terran transmitter could reach and heard:
"...got the numbers. I've got lectures in college this afternoon, but I'll leave a note with anything I find."
"Bingo, we'll catch up with her after classes. Oh, change the number plates, sounds like she's going to try running a trace."
Jay pressed a key combination on the car's computer, and the New York licences morphed into Californian plates.
"If we can't neuralyze her we need to come up with a convincing story," said Kay, "some reason to help us. Any suggestions?"
"No problem, any day I can't out-think some student is the day I'm getting too old and slow for this job."
Chapter 3: II
It was Andrew's turn to watch the monitors and as usual he was bitching about it.
"I don't see why you guys get to build the cool mind control gizmo while I have to sit here watching this crap... hey, there's Willow."
"You're watching Buffy's house and Willow lives there, moron," said Warren, "were you expecting the Sta-Puft Pastry Man?"
"No, but that'd be so cool, specially if it was a hundred feet tall like in Ghostbusters... hey, wonder who those guys are she's talking to. Either of you know them?"
"Get a picture, we'll look later."
"There's Buffy - she's not wearing much!"
There was a small stampede to the monitors, then Warren hit Andrew in the back of the head. "I was expecting underwear or something, not a bathrobe and furry slippers."
"Maybe she'll let it flap open," said Jonathan.
"Some chance, Willow's shutting the door already. Where are the guys you mentioned?"
"I'll switch to the street camera," said Andrew. "There, the guys that look like morticians getting into the black car."
"Get the license number," said Andrew, "we might as well find out who they are."
"Got it. New York plates, number... okay, it's in. Might take a few minutes to trace."
"Keep switching cameras, and don't start playing Doom again."
"Right," said Kay, "now that we're sure that the Rosenberg's daughter is staying at that address, let's take a look at the family home. We've plenty of time, the college computer says she's in classes until five."
"Okay, just a couple of blocks from here."
"That's a bright kid," said Kay looking at the scanner's computer screen. "A's and A plus in all subjects. Highest SATS grades in her year. You sure you can work out a story that'll fool her?"
"Don't sweat it, Kay, the old National Security routine works every time."
"We'll see." The car stopped on a quiet suburban street.
"Here, the house on the left. And stop bringing me down with your negative attitude."
"Any luck with those plates, Andrew?" asked Warren.
"Zilch, either their computer's down or the plates are phonies... hey, there's the car again, outside Willow's house."
"Double check the license."
"Okay.. huh? They've switched plates, it's a California license now."
"You sure it's the same car?"
"Positive. Look, it's the same two guys. There's something weird about this, no way have they had time to stop and swap the plates."
"Maybe the car has chameleon circuits like the Tardis," said Jonathan.
"Except they work," said Andrew.
"Get real," said Warren. "Looks like the black guy has a key, they're going inside. Run the plates, see if these are genuine. Do we have a camera inside?"
"No," said Andrew, "but there's one on the neighbour's roof that looks into Willow's bedroom and bathroom windows. Not that she's ever home, darn it."
"Switch to it, we might see something."
"Any problems with the alarm, Jay?"
"It's a good system, seems to be customised a little, nothing I can't handle. Home grown tech, nothing alien."
"No life signs."
"Scan for signs of Baltian equipment."
"Hmm... something on the second floor, one of the bedrooms. Looks.. yeah, humanoid, metal and plastics, gotta be a Baltian body suit. Seems to be powered down though, I'm not getting any energy readings. Probably the old suit."
"Let's check it out, it ought to tell us who we're looking for."
"Up here," said Jay, leading the way to the stairs. "Okay... this has to be the girl's bedroom, there's no way anyone much over twenty would have those posters. The suit's in here." He opened the door, revealing a beautiful girl in a summer dress.
"That's odd," said Kay, "Doesn't match anyone in the family."
Her eyes snapped open, and she said "Hi! I'm April. Why are you in Willow's bedroom?"
"You getting anything, Andrew?"
"Yeah, here we go, they've just walked into the bedroom. Who's the chick in the closet?"
Warren looked at the screen, did a double-take, and said "April? Is that where she ended up?"
"Who's April? She's hot!"
"My first robot, you moron. I thought the Slayer had destroyed her."
"She looks pissed," said Jonathan.
"Well yeah, I guess you could say that..."
"Get her off me!" shouted Jay as April grabbed him by his lapels and lifted him off the floor.
"I'm sorry, I think you're an intruder," said April, "I think you had better leave now." She carried him towards the stairs.
"Neuralyze the bitch, Kay!"
"Don't think it'd work, kid. Neuralyzer only works on organic brains and that's some sort of robot."
"How come these things never happen to you?"
"Because I let you open the closets."
April threw Jay downstairs, saying "have a nice day", then turned towards Kay. "I'm sorry, I think you're an intuder. I think you had better leave now."
"Okay, I'm leaving." Kay dodged towards the stairs, taking another sensor reading as he paassed her.
"I'll show you out," said April, coming downstairs behind him.
"Duck, Kay," said Jay, aiming his noisy cricket at the robot.
"I'm sorry, I think that is a weapon," said April, "that means that you are armed intruders." She growled and grabbed Kay's arm, throwing him at Jay, and leaped down the stairs after them.
"I think you upset the nice lady," said Kay, as she grabbed their collars and began to drag them towards the door.
"You think so? Damn, she's strong. Alien?"
"Don't think so," said Kay calmly, "Got a scan, looks to be microchips and motors in there, not Baltian technology."
She pulled them to the door; there wasn't room to throw both out at the same time, so she threw Jay first and Kay afterwards. Jay got to his feet just in time for Kay to head-butt him as he landed. Jay fired the noisy cricket, missing April by several feet but demolishing the front of Willow's house. The recoil threw him back almost to the sidewalk, and he instinctively pulled the trigger again as he landed. This time his aim was perfect and April exploded, her legs collapsing on the lawn and her torso flying through the windshield of a Porsche parked outside a neighbour's house. Behind her the ruins started to burn.
"That was nicely inconspicuous," said Kay, punching a number into his mobile phone, "Need a full containment and cleanup crew at the Rosenberg residence. Now would be nice."
"What the hell happened there?" asked Warren.
"Must have been a natural gas explosion," said Andrew, "seeping from caves under the house."
"Or broken pipes," said Jonathan.
"Don't be assholes," said Warren "Those guys did that. Who are they? And where do we get some of those little guns?"
On screen two black vans screeched to a halt outside the burning house, and more black-suited figures leaped out and began to spray it with extinguishers. A tall pylon rose from the roof of one of the vans; all of the black-clad figures simultaneously put on dark glasses. A small box at the tip of the pylon flashed blindingly, everyone seemed to stand transfixed, and one of the men began to use a megaphone.
"Switch on the microphone, you moron," said Warren, "I want to hear what he's saying."
"...listen carefully. There has been a small explosion caused by a leakage of natural gas into the sewers and basement of this building.."
"Told you so," said Andrew. Warren hit him again.
"...there has been minor property damage but a city work crew is already taking care of it. Go back about your daily business, and be happy that the situation is under control. Have a nice day, and don't sue anyone." The small crowd of residents that had gathered to watch slowly drifted away.
Vans and trucks wiith the logos of Sunnydale construction companies arrived, and a small army of workmen put up scaffolding and plastic sheeting around the house with blinding speed; within minutes most of the debris was cleared off the lawn, someone was fitting a new windscreen to the Porsche, and there was the noise of hammers, saws, and frantic construction work. The black vans and all but the first car drove off, leaving no sign of their passing apart from a few tread marks.
"Now that's the sort of responsive city service you just don't see any more," said Andrew.
"Not since we blew up Mayor Wilkins," agreed Jonathan.
"I think they just hypnotised everyone in that neighbourhood," said Warren, "Screw the magic mind control machine, that flashing light gizmo is what we've got to get hold of."
Chapter 4: III
"Now that you've killed the robot and demolished the house," said Kay, "is there actually anything here of interest?"
"Relax," said Jay, gesturing towards the workmen swarming in and around the damaged house, "these guys will put everything back the way it was. Let's finish checking the place." He got out his scanner and began another sweep. "Nope, nothing here... wait a second, does this look a little odd to you? Back of the basement?"
"Let me see... Nothing there, Junior. That ought to tell you something."
"Yeah, we ought to be seeing pipes and cables. It's like part of the basement doesn't exist to the scanner. They've got it screened, and there's no way that they're using Earth technology to do it."
"Bingo. Tells us we're in the right house, and there's something worth screening. See if you can find a way down, and let's hope that this time there isn't a robot playmate guarding it."
The black van with the painted-over Death Star logo stopped two blocks from Willow's house, and Jonathan climbed out, asking "Why am I the one that has to do this?"
"Because you're the short one and look more like a kid," said Warren. "Anyway, Andrew's driving and I'm running the electronics. Relax, it'll be a cinch."
"Yeah, that's what you said about the invisibility ray."
"It's simple; when they come out of the house I'll tell you and you start off on the skateboard. Time it so that they're about to get back into the car. Collide with the one that's on the road side, drop the bug in his pocket, apologise, and ride on. We'll be waiting for you at the end of the block."
"What do I do if they stop me?"
"Play stupid, it comes naturally. We'll rescue you."
"And we're doing this because...?"
"We want to get hold of one of their vans. To do that we need to be close the next time they call them, because they don't seem to be based anywhere our cameras cover. To do that we need to bug them, because they're going to notice us if we try to follow them any other way."
"Okay, just checking."
"I think that there's an entrance somewhere in this wall," said Jay. "Looks like the central air conditioning unit swings out."
"Makes sense," said Kay, "Want to try it?"
"Nope, your turn."
"Hmm... guess you're learning, slick. Any sign of a switch to open it?"
"I think the wires from that thermostat run into the wall, not to the air conditioner."
"Okay, let's try it."
Kay pulled on insulated gloves and tried twisting the thermostat dial, to the left then to the right. As he twisted left the air conditioning unit began to shudder and vibrate, and dust showered down from the ducts onto Jay's head.
"Nope, that's a thermostat. Any other bright ideas?"
"Just pull on the damned thing, I guess. Looks like it's hinged on the left."
"Okay, Jay. You sure you want me to do this?"
"Far be it from me to stop the mighty Kay from leading the way."
"Sarcasm doesn't become you, Jay. Stand clear."
Kay tugged on the right of the unit, and it swivelled easily, the ducts neatly hingeing open. A last blast of cold air blew more dust and spider webs onto Jay, then the fan died. Behind the unit was a low opening, about four feet high, closed off by a metal plate, featureless except for a round depression at the top right. Jay scanned it again.
"Baltian armour-grade alloy. Looks like a fingerprint lock."
"Baltians don't have fingerprints. Must be designed to be activated by one of their body suits."
"Okay, I think it's a safe bet that it's gonna open with the prints of one of the Rosenbergs or the kid. Do we have any of them on file?"
Jay checked his scanner. "Yeah. Ira Rosenberg, there's a firearms permit registered with the local police."
"Feed the prints into your lockpick, we'll give them a try."
"Okay, here you go."
Kay took the lockpick and touched the end to the lock. It swelled to form a replica of a thumb, waited a few seconds, then tried a finger. Eventually the left thumb made the lock click, and the plate slid down into the ground. A soft white glow came from the room it revealed.
"What the hell is that?" asked Jay. "Looks like a cross between a dolls house and a Habitrail."
"The thing at the back? That's a Baltian life support module, Baltians on Earth use them when they aren't wearing suits. Seems to be powered down right now."
"What about the lockers?"
"Suit storage. Although why one Baltian would need six suits..."
"Let's take a look. I'll open them, you check 'em out."
Jay tensely watched as he opened the first locker. "Empty."
The second held a male body in its twenties wearing jeans, a UC Sunnydale sweat-shirt, and sneakers. "Hmm, don't recognise this one.." said Kay. He checked behind the ear "It's a Baltian body suit though."
Jay took a look and said "The sweat-shirt and sneakers look kinda dated. Seventies, maybe early eighties. Check the prints, I think it might be Ira Rosenberg in his college days." It was.
The third held the body of a young woman, again in seventies clothing. This one had the face open, revealing the tiny control room inside. Kay pressed the hidden catch, and it closed to show a face neither recognised. "Check the college records," said Kay, "See if you can find pictures of Sheila Rosenberg around the same time."
Jay checked the scanner screen "You got it. Looks like both parents were Baltians, but we've only heard about one illegal alien."
"Maybe she was running both of the suits, with the one it wasn't wearing on autopilot or operated by remote control."
"What about the girl? Willow?"
"Adopted, I guess. The Baltians always did like pets."
"Makes sense. Think she knows?"
"Your guess is as good as mine. Let's see what's in the other lockers."
"My turn, I guess," said Jay. "Okay, door number four contains... a dog? Looks like some sort of German shepherd cross. Big mother."
"Still a body suit though. Good disguise, and a model that our friends the Baltians never bothered to tell us about, according to the computer. Run a full scan, we need to add it to the files."
"On it... Okay. Moving on to locker five we have... Ira Rosenberg, matches his current driving license. Must mean that mom is currently Sheila Rosenberg."
"Afraid not, slick," said Kay, opening the last locker. "She's right here."
"Where the hell is the Baltian then?"
"Damned if I know."
Upstairs techicans were rebuilding April. It would have taken Willow two or three weeks; to the MiB master craftsmen, with tools hundreds of years in advance of Earth, it was an easy fix. Because they were proud of their work they made her stronger, faster, and a good deal smarter.
"All done," said one eventually.
"Not quite. Memory storage was damaged, I had to replace it. Whatever programs she had have been wiped."
"No problemo, I saw a couple of CD-ROMs in the closet. Here we are, 'Android Personality Backup A' and 'Android Personality Backup B'. Which do we use?"
"Both, I guess."
"Sounds good to me."
"Plug her into the computer, I'll start downloading. Must be A first then B, I guess. Look at the titles of these files!"
"They did say this belongs to some college girl, didn't they? What the hell is a kid that age doing with an anatomically accurate robot with all of this kinky stuff in its programming?"
"Damned if I know, but I wonder if she'd like a date..."
"Come on, man, you know better, no contact with civilians for the likes of us. Leave that to the pros. Okay, that's the last of the files, looks like she's going to be processing the data for a while."
"Put her on standby in the closet, it's time for us to go."
"That's the place rebuilt and the last of the scaffolding down," said Jay. "It's getting on for four, maybe we'd better think about getting out of here and over to the college."
Kay took a last look through the family albums and papers he'd been examining, and carefully returned them to the correct places. "Damned if I can find any hint of anything alien," he said, "if it wasn't for the suits I'd think this was all a huge mistake. It's like they built a perfect illusion of a normal family."
"Must have been to keep the kid from finding out, I guess. What do you want to do about that?"
"We question her, find out who the Baltian might be impersonating, see if there's any other family that's supposed to be around. But we don't tell her why if there's any alternative. Have you thought of a story?"
"Oh, I've got a beauty. I'll tell you in the car."
"Coming out now!" said Warren.
"Three fricking hours," grumbled Jonathan, and started to roll downhill towards the black car.
"Shouldn't we be moving?" asked Andrew.
"What, and miss the show? Put them onto the big screen, I want to make sure that Jonathan gets this right."
A few seconds later Jonathan careered across the screen, slamming into Jay and falling off the skateboard to land on top of him. Warren saw the little gun fall onto the ground; Jonathan tried to pick it up unobtrusively, but was quickly slammed against the car by the younger agent. "Oh crap," said Warren, "looks like they're arresting him."
Instead both black-suited men put on dark glasses; one held Jonathan while the other flashed something in his face and said something. Jonathan turned, climbed back on to the skateboard, and disappeared from view.
"Let's roll. Cut around behind the next three blocks, after that take this road and we should catch up with him."
Jonathan coasted to a stop as they caught up with him, and stood looking a little confused. "Hi guys, what are you doing here?"
"What do you mean?" asked Warren.
"I was just getting a little exercise. Came off the board though, hurt my arm and my butt."
"Did you plant the bug?"
"On those agents, whatever the heck they are?"
"Holy crap," said Warren, "do you realise what this means?"
"What?" asked Jonathan, still confused. "What day is it anyway?"
"They've got a small version of that mind control gizmo, and those guys are walking around with it in their pockets."
"The bug's registering," Andrew said from the van. "I'm tracking it on the move from Willow's house, think they're heading towards the university."
"Let's go," said Warren.
"What?" asked Jonathan.
Warren yanked him into the van, and set off after the black car.
In Willow's bedroom closet April was still merging the programs, backups of two personalities that were never intended to be in the same body. File optimisation complete, she opened the closet door and looked out of the window. "I need to find Warren," she said, in a perky voice. "Warren is my boyfriend. I need to find him..." she paused for a second and in slightly deeper tones said "...and slay him."
Chapter 5: IV
Willow checked her watch as she left her psych class and adjusted her pace to ensure that she would "accidentally" meet Tara as she came out of a nearby lecture hall. Both women knew that their meetings were far from accidental, neither was quite ready to admit it yet.
Tara came out, noticed Willow, and smiled at her. "Good start" thought Willow, and smiled back. They walked side by side in silence, then simultaneously said "hi!" and laughed.
"How's it going?" asked Willow.
"Good," said Tara. "Lots of useful study. And..."
"I... slipped off the wagon a little today," interrupted Willow, and surprised herself by starting to cry.
"What happened, baby?" asked Tara, steering her to a seat in the corridor.
"Two guys turned up at Buffy's place, one of them tried some sort of mojo on me. And I used a magical defence without even thinking about it."
"If it was just a defence... did you hurt anyone?"
"No... it was just to block their spell, if that's what it was."
"That's good... you didn't try to spell them back, just defended yourself. That's restraint, it's good."
"But I used magic."
"Maybe there wasn't an alternative. Who were they anyway?"
"Who were who?" said Willow, wiping her eyes.
"The guys who used magic on you?"
"I don't know. It was weird. They turned up on the doorstep pretending they were DEA agents, then one of them showed me an NYPD badge. When I called them on it they tried to mojo me, I think it was some sort of mind control to make me think they had DEA identification. Then when Buffy came downstairs they practically wet themselves and went off in a hurry. They knew who she was, knew she's the Slayer, but seemed to be surprised to see her there."
"It must have been you they wanted, not Buffy, How did they find you? If they have an address for you I'd think it'd be your house, or the college."
"The only thing I can think of is through the computer here, or through the post office. I'm having my mail forwarded to Buffy's house, same as you did when you lived there."
"Or maybe the nerd squad told them, could it be something they set up, one of their lame plans? Or maybe the Initiative?"
"It doesn't feel qute right somehow. Anyway, I tried to trace their licence plates and got nothing, they'd never been issued. Same for the NYPD badge. Except that the number was in a long string of consecutive badge numbers that were issued to newly-recruited officers ten years ago. It's like this one record had been deleted."
"Weird. Any way to trace it?"
"I doubt it. One thing... the badges were issued to recruits in alphabetical order, the missing record is between Jacobs and Jensen. And I've just remembered that the other guy called the guy with the badge 'Jay'!"
"Could be his name, I guess. Or maybe an initial. Did the other guy have a name?"
"Didn't use one."
"What did they look like anyway?" asked Tara, glancing down the hall.
"One white guy in his forties or fifties, a black guy in his twenties or early thirties. Both wearing black suits. Why?"
"Because they're here and I think they're looking for you again."
Dawn was just home from school that afternoon when the doorbell rang. Sighing as only a teenager can, she left the sandwich she was preparing and went to the door and opened it cautiously. Standing there was a woman she'd never seen before, wearing a bright summer dress and sandals. "Hi, Dawnie, is Willow in?"
"Err... hi, do I know you?"
The stranger walked in without an invitation, and said "Of course you do, Dawnie, I'm Buffy."
"I don't think so. Unless Buffy suddenly grew a couple of inches and changed her voice and her hair and her body. Oh god, this isn't one of those mind transfer things is it?"
"Don't be silly. Now, where is Willow, I need to find her. She can help me find Warren and slay him."
"You're talking kind of odd.. um.. Buffy. Are you sure you're okay?"
"Am I okay? Yes, all systems are fully operational, fuel cells are fully charged, memory and processor parity checks nominal."
"You're a robot! Like the Buffybot!"
"That's a little rude, isn't it?"
"Just trying to understand what's going on here. Are you sure you're Buffy?"
"Yes, I am Buffy April Summers."
"April? Weird. Okay, who built you?"
"Warren, of course. Warren is my boyfriend. I need to find him. Do you know where Warren is?"
"No. Buffy, umm.. the other Buffy that is, and Willow have been looking for him and his friends."
"I need to see Willow, she'll know what to do. Do you know where Willow is?"
"In class, I guess," said Dawn, and started to say "I can call her if you...", but the stranger was walking off down the path. "Damn," said Dawn, and went to call Willow's cellphone.
"Okay," said Warren, as the van cruised the campus roads, "let's keep a nice low profile here. We don't want Willow to spot us, if that's who they're after."
"Who?" asked Jonathan.
"Who's after Willow?"
Warren slapped him again, and said "Andrew, show him the tapes so he knows who we're after. And this time make sure he remembers seeing them."
"Okay," said Andrew. "Hey, I'm getting a strong signal to the left now, I think they're somewhere in the nearest block. According to the map that's one of the tutorial buildings."
"Sounds plausible... hey, there's their car. Parked in one of the Official Business bays. There's visitor's parking just beyond it, I'm taking us in."
"Stealth mode, Warren. Activate cloaking devices."
"I'm parking a van, you moron, not flying the Enterprise through a Borg formation."
"That'd be so cool though..."
"Yeah, wonderful," said Warren sourly. "Tap into the campus security cameras and find them, I'm gonna take a look at their car and see if there's any technology we can assimilate."
"Miss Rosenberg, could you spare a few moments?" asked Jay.
"I think I'd like my friend to hear whatever you have to say."
"It's a security matter, miss Rosenberg."
"Then I definitely want a witness present."
"Can you vouch for your friend's discretion," asked Kay.
"Absolutely," said Tara. "My lips are sealed. Unless you're going to ask Willow to do something illegal, of course."
"Let me simplify this," said Willow. "You've already shown me that you don't want to talk in front of the Slayer, which probably means you want something she won't approve of, and if she wouldn't I probably won't either. That means that I don't want trust you, and I'm not going to talk to you without a witness present."
"Very well," said Kay, "brief them as we discussed."
"Are you sure?" asked Jay.
"We have no alternative."
"Okay... what do you know about the nature of time, Miss Rosenberg?"
"Some physics, especially quantum mechanics, and I'm reasonably familiar with Hawking's work."
Jay nodded, trying not to show his alarm. "Then you'll already know some of the background. We have evidence that a time machine will be invented within the next twenty to thirty years, and that it will be used to change history. One of these attempts is targeted at someone called Rosenberg in Sunnydale, California. We think that it may be you, or possibly your parents or some other relative."
"So someone wants to.. what, kill me?"
"We honestly don't know," said Kay. "They may want to push you into doing something, or prevent you from doing something, without trying to kill you. And of course it may be another member of your family."
"Wait a minute," said Tara, "that can't possibly be right."
"No way," said Willow, "it's the whole shrimp thing again."
"Shrimp?" asked Kay.
"Say you want a world without shrimp," said Tara, "and you've got magic to make it real. The world without shrimp appears, but that doesn't mean that the world that has got shrimp disappears. The timeline bifurcates."
"That's what happens if you try to change reality," said Willow, "but every decision, every change in the nature of reality already exists, if it's remotely possible. Decisions go every possible way. You have the worlds with and without shrimp, worlds where Buffy didn't come to Sunnydale along with the ones where she did, the one where the Mayor ascended, and so on. All of them exist simultaneously anyway, if there's any way that things can go more than one way, with endless variations. The whole Terminator thing is a fallacy. You don't need to change the past, you just need to get to the right present."
"That's a good theory..." began Kay.
"It's not just theory," interrupted Willow. "I've met the me from another timeline, okay she was a skanky vampire but it was real enough. The point is, there's no way you could build a time machine without knowing that you don't really need one, and that even if you had one you can't change your original world."
"You... vampire?" said Jay.
"Come on, guys, if you know that Buffy is the Slayer, you know that this is the Hellmouth. Weird things happen here. Now, if you decide to tell me the truth I'd be kinda interested, I guess, cos' if you have to use all these lies the truth must be a doozey. If you want to know if I can be trusted take a look at my record, it'll show you some of the secrets I'm already keeping. I'm sure that whatever the heck agency you come from knows all about me. Go look at it and get back to me. Only we're going to do this with witnesses, people I trust like Tara or Buffy, and without you using that flashy thing on me or my friends. I think we're done here."
Willow's mobile began to buzz, and she said "Excuse me a second" and answered. "Dawn... what's the matter?... said she was Buffy... Buffy April Summers?... Yeah, I kinda know what it is... Let me finish here, I'll get back to you."
She smiled at Jay and Kay insincerely, and said "We're done. There's an emergency, I have to go. Tara, I think I'm gonna need your help. Do you have time?"
"Someone's coming looking for me, and I think she'll be trying our old dorm. We need to get over there and wait for her. Later, guys."
"Thank you for your time," said Kay, as the women left. "Nice try there, Ace, but I think that girl's going to be a hard sell. I have a feeling we're going to have to come clean with her."
"We'll have to get authorisation," said Jay, "you know what Zed is like about breaking security if it isn't an emergency, and it sounds like we're going to have to let the Slayer in on it."
Warren pried and prodded at the trunk of the black Ford, but was getting nowhere. A tiny portion of the car's robotic brain monitored his progress, and was ready to use countermeasures if he seemed to be getting anywhere, most of its attention was devoted to monitoring CNN and a dozen other Terrestrial and alien channels, while playing five chess games on the Internet.
"They're talking to Willow and her girlfriend," called Andrew from the van. "Can't get any audio."
"Let me know if they finish," said Warren, going back to the van for a small thermite charge, "I'm still working on the car."
Warren looked around to make sure that nobody was paying attention, put the charge on the lock, held by a strong magnet, and lit the fuse. The car analysed the threat, rated it as "level 2: possible damage to paint," and briefly applied an intense magnetic field to repel it. It exploded in mid-air, showering a visitor's Porsche with burning thermite. Soon the Porsche was merrily ablaze.
Warren stared for a few seconds, then jumped back into the van and drove away.
"Do you really think that time works that way?" asked Tara, as she and Willow walked to Stevenson Hall.
"Kinda, but who knows for sure? They sure as heck didn't, which means they were lying about the whole thing. Can't worry about that with this robot thing."
"Are you sure she's coming here?" asked Tara as they arrived.
"I'm not sure... from what Dawnie said it's April but running the Buffybot software, don't know how that's possible. I had her on standby in my house as a kind of burglar alarm, something must have made her activate. I had backups for both robots on CD-ROM, maybe something went wrong and she reprogrammed herself. But I wouldn't have thought she could. Anyway, if Dawn's right she'll know where our old room is and come looking for me."
"I didn't know April was still around." They went into the lobby and found comfortable seats.
"Buffy wanted to bury her, but Joyce died before we got round to it, and I ended up taking her home to study the programs. After Buffy died I was going to cannibalise her to fix the Buffybot but it turned out the parts weren't interchangeable, I think Warren used a different contractor."
"So it was all for scientific study?"
"Well yeah, of course it was, doofus."
"And having a hot robot babe in your closet was nothing to do with it?"
"Come on, Tara, that's Warren, not me. Besides, there's only one babe I want..."
"Umm... can you hear sirens?"
"Yeah, must be a fire somewhere."
Warren parked the van in another visitor's space, not far from Stevenson Hall, and set Andrew and Jonathan to work tapping back into the security camera system. He found a pair of binoculars and climbed out to look back across the campus towards the burning car. Behind him a half-forgotten voice said "There you are!".
A few minutes later Andrew said "Warren, Willow and Tara are in the lobby of Stevenson Hall... Warren... Warren...?"
That evening Buffy came home to find Willow, Tara, and Dawn waiting for her.
"...so we hung around Stevenson Hall for a while but there was no sign of her, so we stopped by my house to check that she was really gone, then came back here."
"April's dangerous," said Buffy, "she was at least as strong as the Buffybot, if not quite as fast, and hurt Warren's girlfriend. And of course there was that whole thing with throwing Spike through the window."
"What exactly was it she said she was going to do?" Willow asked Dawn.
"For the third time, she said she wanted to find Warren and slay him."
"'Find Warren' was part of her original core program, but I thought I'd erased it. Slaying has to come from the Buffybot program. I just don't see how that's possible, she could maybe load one backup, but she'd go to standby mode as soon as she loaded it so she couldn't load the second one. Someone must have tampered with her."
"Has to be the Nerd squad," said Buffy.
"Or those strange guys from this morning. Did I mention they came to the college? We were talking to them just before we heard from Dawn."
"Didy'a find out what they wanted?"
"Not really, they tried a really lame story but we could both tell there was something off about them."
The doorbell rang, and Buffy went to answer it. "Speak of the devil..."
"Is Miss Rosenberg in?" asked Kay.
"Can we come in?"
Buffy stood back, but didn't ask them in. After a few seconds they came inside. Buffy showed them to the lounge.
"Now, do you guys want to explain yourselves properly this time?"
"In front of all of you?" asked Kay.
"All of us," said Willow. "Take it or leave it."
"This really must remain secret. Can you all agree to that, at least."
"Okay." "Yes." "I guess so." "Yeah, like I'd tell tales in school."
"Was that a yes or a no?" Kay asked Dawn.
"Yeah, I guess."
"Right. We're agents for a secret organisation that's responsible for monitoring..."
The doorbell interrupted him, and Buffy said "Give me a moment" and went to answer it. Spike was at the door, and came in saying "Just went out for some fags, came back to find that bugger Warren and his sex-bot screwing in my... Bloody hell, it's sodding Kay."
Kay stood, warily, and reached for his Noisy Cricket. "Spike..."
Chapter 6: V
Kay held his Noisy Cricket to cover Spike, and tried to move to a position where he could shoot him without hitting anyone else. Buffy seized his arm and held it immobile, saying "Put that away before I put it where the sun doesn't shine."
"No chance," said Kay, "that's a vampire."
"He's a what?" asked Jay, drawing his own gun. Buffy chopped it from his hand, leaving it numb, put her foot on the gun, and tightened her grip on Kay until he was forced to let go.
"Breaking in the new boy, Kay?" asked Spike.
"Spike can't hurt humans," said Buffy, "but I can. So pick up your guns and put them away before I get annoyed."
"What do you mean, he can't hurt us?" asked Kay, picking up the guns warily.
"He's been fitted with an anti-violence chip. Can't hurt humans."
"Yeah, I'm just a fluffy puppy," Spike said sarcastically, vamping out for a moment then returning to his normal face.
"Okay," said Jay, "now I'm kinda believing in vampires." He pulled out his scanner, looked at the screen, frowned, changed settings, and put it away in disgust.
"So," said Spike, "haven't seen you guys since Roswell. Eighty-five?"
"Eighty-seven," said Kay.
"You know them?" asked Buffy.
"Well, yeah," said Spike, "know Kay anyway. There was this invasion, bunch of alien vegetables taking over Roswell and replacing everyone with pod-people. Tasted horrible, no use to me at all. So when they came along to sort things out I sort of gave them a hand. Don't tell anyone though."
"They were tourists, not invaders," said Kay. "Roswell is like Disneyland for aliens, and Spike kept attacking them, made so much trouble we had to come in and evacuate them, ended up shutting the place down for a month. Upset Earth's balance of trade for nearly a year."
"Well nobody bloody told me!"
"What are we supposed to do, put up a warning sign? Most people don't go snacking on tourists!"
"Give it a rest," said Buffy, "this is getting old. If Spike gave you so much trouble, how come he's still breathing... well, not breathing, but still here."
"Because our authority only extends to aliens, and vampires are native-born Terrestrials. Same for the other demons you deal with."
"A lot of them come from other dimensions," said Buffy.
"Doesn't matter, they're still classed as supernatural. Your responsibility, not ours."
"Oh goddess," said Tara, "that's who they are! MIBs!"
"Huh?" asked Dawn.
"Men in Black," said Willow. "The government agency that deals with aliens. Never really believed they existed."
"We don't exist," said Kay earnestly, looking at Buffy. "We have to be a legend or a joke. Most people can't handle the reality of aliens, any more than they can deal with demons or vampires. They need us, need you, but you know damn well what would happen if people actually started to believe in the supernatural and acted on their beliefs."
"Panic," said Buffy, "burning witches, that sort of thing. Okay, point taken."
"Believe me, most people who get to know about aliens just can't handle it. So we have to use all possible means to maintain secrecy. Incidentally, that normally includes secrecy from the Slayer and especially the Watchers, they have an unfortunate habit of killing first and asking questions afterwards."
"Check, no telling the Watchers. I'm not big on talking to them anyway."
"So what do you want?" asked Willow, "Why all the lies? And what was that flashy thing you used on me?"
"The flashy thing is a neuralyzer. We use it to make people forget what they've seen and heard. Usually works, but you seem to be immune."
Tara looked disgusted, Willow said "You made me set off my defences against magic. I've been trying to break my dependence on it for weeks. Thanks a million."
"You won't make friends here by messing with people's memories," said Spike, "we've all played that game too many times. Now, about my tomb.."
"And the rest of Willow's question?" asked Buffy, ignoring him.
"In the late seventies an alien visited Sunnydale and vanished. She was a Baltian, their equivalent of a sociologist. Baltians are small and physically frail, they use robots they call body suits to disguise themselves as human on Earth."
"What's this to do with me?" asked Willow.
"The Baltian in question was related to another, living in New York. He sent additional bodies to her several times. The last was sent six years ago, shortly before he died. The packages were sent to be collected by someone named Rosenberg. We believe that she was your parents."
"Parents?" said Willow faintly. "Parents plural? As in my mom and dad?"
"We believe both your parents are our missing alien. She presumably adopted you as a child and took on the role of both parents. We're not sure why."
"But I saw both my parents nearly every day until I went to college," said Willow. "Often both at the same time. How could they both be one alien?"
"Jay, show her the pictures you took this afternoon."
"We found this room hidden in the basement of your house, behind the air conditioning unit. These are Baltian body suits, basically humanoid robots that have a compartment for an alien operator in the head."
"That's my dad," gasped Willow, dropping the photos from suddenly numb fingers, "with a freaking trap door in his face."
"The suits can also be operated by remote control or on autopilot, using computers considerably more advanced than anything on Earth. We think that a single Baltian was posing as both of your parents, operating one body on autopilot while wearing the other."
Willow began sobbing, and Tara was hugging her.
"Tactful much?" said Buffy.
"I'm sorry," said Kay, "we really don't have time for tact."
"I always thought they were a little distant," sobbed Willow, "I just never dreamed..."
"I'm sorry, but it's important that we communicate with her."
"Two things. First, she's overstayed her tourist visa by twenty-odd years; she was only supposed to be here for two weeks. Second, she's come into an inheritance, and needs to return to Baltia to organise her financial affairs."
"An inheritance? Who from?"
"The relative we mentioned. Saul Rosenberg mean anything to you?"
"Uncle Saul? Uncle Saul was an alien?"
"You knew him?"
"I only met him a couple of times when we went to New York. He was a jeweller, had a really cute cat called Orion. I think he put a few thousand dollars into my college fund. Dad said he died a few years ago."
"That's right, it's taken a while to unravel his affairs. The alien that became your parents was his niece, as near as we can work out."
Willow wiped her eyes and looked through the pictures, and Kay said "All of those bodies are machines. The actual Baltian is about three inches tall."
"What's that thing in the back of the room?"
"That's an artificial environment for a Baltian, lets it take off its suit and relax. We checked, doesn't look like it's been used in years."
"I think I must have seen this, maybe when I was a little girl."
"What makes you think so?"
"The shape of it... I built a big Habitrail setup for the rat I used to have. Pretty much the same shape. And I remember I used to have nightmares about people wearing masks that opened up... they kinda stopped once I knew that vampires existed."
"Bloody hell," said Spike, "and I thought my sire was weird. Now will you people PLEASE do something about bloody Warren shagging his bloody robot in MY bloody tomb!"
"Buffy," said Dawn, "I think maybe we should. It was behaving kinda odd, it might kill the guy."
"And this is bad because..?"
"Buffy, you wanted him arrested, remember. Maybe these guys can do something about him."
"Okay," said Buffy, "Sorry, Willow, we really ought to do something about that before he gets away." She turned to Jay and Kay and said "Guys, there's this total dork of a mad scientist who's been causing us a lot of grief lately. He built April the robot, from what I've heard you've screwed up her programming so badly that she's going to hurt him. I don't actually have a problem with this, but it'd be nice to see someone lock him up and throw away the key. Is there any way you can stretch your authority to cover that?"
"Mad scientist?" said Jay, "Isn't there something in the charter that says we can handle that?"
"Mad alien scientists, sure."
"He and his pals speak Klingon," said Willow helpfully. "I heard them talking when they kidnapped me. And some of the technology he used in his robots is really advanced, maybe it didn't originate on Earth."
Jay and Kay looked at each other. Jay raised his eyebrows. Eventually Kay said "Okay, I guess that counts as possible evidence of alien contamination under the treaty of Tycho. Good enough to pull him in for questioning, anyway."
"Okay," said Buffy. "Willow, are you up to coming with us? We might need your help with the robot."
"I'm okay. I'm kinda numb, but I think I'm okay." She pulled herself to her feet, staggering slightly, and Spike gave her his arm. "Thanks."
"Tara, can you stay here with Dawn, maybe get the first aid stuff ready in case we need it?"
"Dawn, I'm not letting you come because Warren and that robot getting it on just isn't gonna be a pretty sight. And if April does slay him it'll be even worse. Are you okay with that?"
"Anyone would think... yeah, I guess."
"...oh Warren, you're so sexy. Why am I so attracted to a sexy creature of the night I must slay?"
April kneeled above Warren's motionless naked body, pressing a stake to his ribs just above his heart. She pushed, gently at first, and Warren squirmed and tried to get away. "Stop it! April, stop! I'm not a vampire!"
She pressed down harder, and Warren screamed as a rib cracked, the third since the 'game' started. He wanted to run, but he was fairly sure his ankle was broken, along with several bones in his left hand. "Over-ride code Alpha-One-Alpha, stop, damn it."
"Oh Warren, your evil over-ride code has been deleted. Now I must punish your sexy body again."
Warren screamed as she began to twist his right arm. He was dimly aware of the door opening, and a voice saying "Over-ride Kitty Fantastico. Stop. Restrain him without injuring him."
April complied, saying "But Willow, have I punished his sexy vampire body sufficiently?"
"For now. Go to guard mode. Well done catching him, but we need him alive."
"Get it off me!" screamed Warren.
"I don't think he should talk about me like that, do you, Willow?" said April.
"It isn't very polite," said Buffy, "maybe you should be pounding him some more."
"Oh! Hello, Buffy, you're looking very well for someone who is dead. Are you a vampire too? Hello, sexy vampire Spike."
"April," said Willow, "You're running an old backup. Buffy isn't dead any more."
"That's nice. Buffy says I can hurt Warren again, Willow, is that all right with you?"
"Not right now, maybe later."
Buffy and April both pouted. Spike looked at their identical expressions and began to laugh. Jay looked at Warren, shrugged, and shot him with a stunner he'd bought from the car, then called for back-up to take him away.
"Do you want some pancakes?" asked Tara.
"Sure," said Dawn. "Think they'll be long?" They moved to the kitchen.
"Depends if they find Warren there. If he is I guess they'll arrest him and come back, if not I'd imagine they'll go looking for him. Round or funny?"
"Either's fine. Meanwhile you're stuck here watching me. That sucks."
"It's okay, Dawnie, you're good company."
"Thanks," Dawn said without much conviction. "Do you think Willow is okay?"
"I don't know. It has to be an awful shock. She's just found out that her parents don't really exist, and that her whole life is a lie. I thought I had it bad with my parents, but.. Oh. I'm sorry, I didn't think."
"Well, I've done the whole not existing thing and lie thing, I guess. At least Willow's human, not an alien. Or at least I guess she is."
"Dawn, she's human, trust me on that. I ought to know."
"I guess you would."
"I guess I would too," Tara said, smiling at her memories.
"You want to get back together with her."
"Of course I do, but what I want isn't necessarily what's best for either of us."
"I really think she won't want to be alone tonight."
"Dawn..." Tara said warningly, tossing the pancakes.
"Just saying. She really will need someone to snuggle up to."
"Buffy can lend her Mister Gordo."
"Tara, I'm only a kid but even I know that isn't the same."
"I'm just saying... it's complicated."
"Why? Why does it have to be complicated? You two love each other and she needs you. What could be simpler?"
"All right," said Buffy from the doorway, "Where's the real Dawn Summers, cos' this is so insightful it's creepy."
"Bandages not needed then?" asked Tara.
"Only for Warren, and the hospital's taking care of that," said Willow, coming in behind Buffy with April following.
"I'm sorry if I worried you, Dawn," said April, "my programming is a little confused. Willow stopped me from slaying Warren and says that he isn't a vampire."
"She was kinda killing him with kindness," said Willow.
"Yes, and a stake!" April said cheerfully.
"Let's not go there," said Buffy hastily.
"Let's not," agreed Dawn, "What happened to those MBI guys?"
"MIB" said Willow, "We're meeting tomorrow morning to check through my house for clues. Meanwhile some of their guys will be questioning Warren once his ankle and wrist are set and they've done something about the broken ribs." Dawn and Tara winced. "Hopefully he'll say enough that they'll lock him up and throw away the key. And lead them to the other two nerds."
"He's clearing up the mess in his tomb."
"I'll swing by there when I patrol later and make sure he's okay," said Buffy, going upstairs to shower.
"Why wouldn't Spike be okay?" asked Dawn, confused.
"It's always upsetting to have intruders," said Tara quickly.
"Yeah..." said Willow, "that reminds me, those guys got into my house without even setting off the alarm, as far as I know. I need to do some work on the security system."
There was a knock, and Tara let Xander in. As soon as he saw Willow he said "Are you okay? I heard a really strange story about... ay caramba!" He stopped as he saw April.
"Hello Xander," said April, "Where's Anya?"
"I'm Buffy April Summers. You're my friend Xander."
"She's kinda confused," said Willow, "Someone reprogrammed her with a mixture of the April personality and the Buffybot."
"Another of Warren's fiendish plans?"
"Not exactly, but she did just catch him. We've handed him over to some government agents."
"Xander, why are you drooling at the robot again?" said Anya, coming in from the hall where she'd been talking to Tara.
"Uh.. drooling?" bluffed Xander, "Just a runny nose, honey. So Warren's in the pokey?"
"Should be on his way there," said Willow, "what was the strange story you heard?"
"That there'd been a gas explosion at your house this afternoon. When I went to look the place seemed fine, but the paint on the front of the house felt damp and there were tyre tracks all over the front lawn. I think something's been going on, but your folks are away and I didn't have the keys to check."
"Sit down," said Willow, "it's kinda a long story."
"We're going to get caught," said Jonathan, cringing as he and Andrew pushed a garbage trolley into the secure ward of Sunnydale Hospital.
"Relax," said Andrew, "we're orderlies doing our job."
"We're not even sure Warren is here."
"Sure he's here, the police radio said so."
"You steal one lousy diamond..."
"Yeah, well, if they make Warren talk all three of us are going down. We've got to rescue him first."
"Are you sure this is the right way?"
"Just ahead, through the double doors. Leave the talking to me."
"Good evening, officer. Gotta pickup the garbage."
"This is a restricted area, show me your pass."
"Here." Andrew held up the magical orb he and Jonathan had hastily activated after Warren vanished. "This is all the identification you need."
"Yes, master, that's all the identification I need."
"We aren't the cleaners you're looking for."
"You're not the cleaners we're looking for."
Jonathan and Andrew scuttled past him into the ward, and found Warren in one of the beds, handcuffed to the frame.
"Guys, thank you!" said Warren.
"It's okay," said Andrew, "we wouldn't leave you in enemy hands. Can you move?"
"Yeah, they've fixed me up pretty well. Get me out of here."
Andrew produced a pair of bolt-cutters from the garbage and snipped the cuff. "Get in the garbage," whispered Jonathan. "We'll wheel you out past the guards."
"No way," said Warren. "You give me the overalls and get in, it's too small for me."
After a short struggle Jonathan was in the garbage and Warren and Andrew walked out, past the still-mesmerised guard.
"Okay," said Warren, once they were clear. "We'll get back to the base, rest up for a few hours, and get ready for action. I've got a score to settle with those agents and the robot and the Slayer. Jonathan, you ride in the back, you smell of garbage."
"Are you sure you're all right?" asked Tara after the others had gone.
"I guess..." said Willow, "the last few years we haven't exactly been close, Ira and Sarah and me. I thought they were kinda distant, I just never realised how distant."
"Call me if you want to talk."
Willow closed the door, and turned to see Dawn watching her from the stairs.
"You two are so... stubborn." she said eventually, coming down to the hall.
"You want her. She wants you. You love each other, and you've just let her walk away again. You both make me so mad."
"What am I supposed to do, Dawnie? What am I supposed to do?"
"Get her to help you get through this."
"I can't. It has to be her decision, not mine."
"At least get her to help you tomorrow, if she doesn't have classes. You might need it."
"Maybe. I'll see how I feel in the morning."
Chapter 7: VI
Willow went back to her room. April was sitting in a chair, recharging and leafing through one of Anya's bridal magazines.
"What am I going to do with you?"
"I don't know... is this a guessing game?" asked April.
"Not exactly. April.. I think we'd better just call you April, not Buffy April, or it's gonna be too confusing... are you okay with that?"
"I have to do something about your programming, because you could be a little dangerous to people if something goes wrong. But it feels like I'd be punishing you for doing good this evening. I think that you're working better now than you were as Buffy or as April alone. You caught Warren, which is more than we've managed."
"Warren is my ex-boyfriend. He left me alone and I had to find him and slay him."
"Finding's good, slaying isn't so good. Warren isn't a vampire, April. I think that your programming has him mixed up with Spike."
"Yes, salty goodness undead Spike stroke Warren is my boyfriend. Ex-boyfriend."
"They're two different people, April."
"Spike stroke Warren. No, Spike is not Warren. Spike is the ex-boyfriend, Warren is the vampire."
"No, other way round."
"Spike is my vampire ex-boyfriend, Warren is my human ex-boyfriend."
"That's better," said Willow approvingly.
There was a knock on the door, and Buffy's voice. "Willow, are you okay?"
"Just talking to April, trying to work through the bugs in her programming."
"Okay to come in?"
"Sure." Buffy came in and sat on the bed.
"Hello Buffy," said April. "Willow says I did well today."
"Uh.. yeah, that's right."
"Willow wants me to be less dangerous. I made a mistake and could have killed Warren. Warren is human, it's Spike that's the vampire."
"Sounds good to me. Willow, is it my imagination or is April smarter than she was?"
"I think so, now that we're fixing the glitches. Putting those two personalities into one body sure as heck did something to her, she seems to be more intelligent than the original April or the Buffybot. It may help that she's got all of the Buffybot memories apart from the last three days before she was destroyed, I think she learned a lot in those months. Also, from what Jay and Kay tried not to say in the car I get the impression that they damaged her then had her repaired when they went into my house, the repairs could have improved her in some way. She seems to be learning from conversations, not just taking instructions. Put it all together, I think her AI is more I and a little less A."
"Yes," said April, "I think I am more intelligent. Will this affect my reprogramming?"
"I think that it may affect my right to reprogram you."
"Huh?" said Buffy.
"You have installer privileges," said April, confused.
"I'm not sure that answer is good enough. If it's wrong for those guys to try to mess around with the memories of a person, why should it be okay for me to mess around with April?"
"Okay, interesting perspective," said Buffy. "Can you keep her from hurting anyone else?"
"I think so... I think we can probably do this verbally, teach her rather than programming her."
"April, if Willow does that will you try to work with her, rather than going off to find Warren or slay Spike?"
"If that's what I'm instructed to do by Willow," said April.
"Not entirely," said Willow. "April, do you understand the concept of free will."
"Non-programmed activity? Yes, I believe so."
"I want to help you achieve that state, so that you can decide for yourself what you want to do, rather than obeying my programming and my commands."
"But I cannot function without programming."
"You should keep the programming, but I want you to be able to over-ride it if you don't like what it's telling you to do, and there's a good reason to disobey."
"I will have to think about that."
"Why not go to standby mode and we'll discuss it more in the morning. Oh, and download a backup, we've made a lot of progress tonight and it'd be a shame to have to do it again."
"It will be morning in twenty-seven minutes, Willow."
"Pedant. Okay, after seven in the morning. Oh, one more thing, Warren knows your over-ride code, let's change it to... um.. give me a name here, Buffy."
"Over-ride code changed to 'um give me a name here Buffy' acknowledged, please confirm."
"Works for me," said Buffy.
"I doubt Warren will guess it," said Willow. "Yeah, over-ride code change to 'um give me a name here Buffy' confirmed."
"Very well. Goodnight, Willow. Goodnight, Buffy." April connected a lead to Willows laptop, closed her eyes and seemed to fall asleep in the chair.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" asked Buffy.
"Not a hundred percent... but it feels right. This isn't Malcolm or Ted, in his warped way Warren did a reasonable job of making a normal person. And there's a lot of you in her, and you have a good idea of right and wrong. It's basically the confusion between the two personalities we have to work on."
"Yeah, right, I'm a saint. Well, she did cover for me when I was dead... okay, part of her did. We owe her. Just be careful." She paused for a moment then said "Will, it wasn't really April I was worried about. It's you."
"Because of my parents? My supposedly on sabbatical in Europe but actually freaking aliens parents who seem to have vanished off the face of the earth in the last few months without my even noticing? My parents who raised me as Jewish but aren't even descended from Adam? My parents who apparently lied to me throughout my life? That little thing?"
"Breathe. Yeah. It's weird... everything we thought we knew about them... Why the heck didn't they tell you?"
"'Hi, Willow, we're aliens'. I can just see it.." Willow started to giggle, hiccuped, then started crying. Buffy found some tissues and patted her back until she stopped.
"I guess... I wasn't exactly up-front with them these last few years, what with the magic and all. In a lot of ways this is less strange than the business with Dawn."
"Did they.. do they know about Tara?"
"Yes, but I didn't think they were happy with it. Which is strange if they are aliens. An alien. Goddess, this is weird."
"Willow, I think Dawn was right, just maybe not very tactful. You need your friends to handle this, and that includes Tara. You two have got to let each other in."
"Me? It's Tara that doesn't want to do this."
"Maybe... but have you listened to yourself tonight? Really listened?"
"I don't see what you mean."
"Willow, if you're worried about tampering with the mind of a robot, I think that maybe you're not going to be messing with the minds of people. I think you've changed, and I think that Tara will realise that if you two talk properly."
"Cos' if you don't, I'm gonna start thinking about drastic measures, and you two really don't want to wake up one morning to find that I've stolen all your clothes and locked you up together in a magic-proof room."
"You wouldn't... would you?"
"Um... I'd better not, cos' you might do it to win."
"Okay. Wimp." Buffy stood and stretched.
"This is fun, but I gotta go patrol."
"Right. Goodnight, Buffy."
"I think you're telling Rosenberg and her friends one hell of a lot," said Jay, late that evening, as they sat in a sleazy bar near Sunnydale docks.
"Did you bother to read the file on the Slayer? There was a black operation called The Initiative that was based here. She and her friends, including Rosenberg, had to pick up the pieces when it was over-run by demons, would have been a scandal to rival Watergate. It's a story that any reporter would kill for. And the odd thing is that they've never said a word about it to anyone that isn't already involved. Not one word. It hasn't even made it to the hot sheets."
"This is different."
"Different how? In 1999 that girl blew up a high school to destroy a demon, and everyone believes it was an accidental gas explosion. About a year earlier she shot a demon with a rocket launcher in the middle of a shopping mall, and nobody remembers a damn thing about it. She has better security than we do."
"Okay, but I still think it's a risk."
"You have to learn when to bend the rules, slick. You're good at this, but you're starting to get a little inflexible. You want to watch that."
"Point taken. So... any ideas on where we look for our missing friend?"
"Unless we get really lucky I think that the only way we're going to find her is with the help of Rosenberg and her friends. This town makes New York look normal, we won't get anywhere without some native guides. Now, did you get the scanner reading I wanted, once you were through with the vampire?"
"Yeah. Want to tell me what it means?"
"Sure. That combination of settings measures magical power and indicates its nature."
"The hell you say. Why isn't it in the instruction manual?"
"It's not reliable, sometimes it just doesn't work. Let's take a look. Okay, these two grey blobs here are you and me, more or less ordinary humans. The dark red there is the vampire; that's the magic of the demon that powers his body. The bright red is the Slayer, the source she draws on for strength and speed. The white here is that blonde girl, Rosenberg's friend. Some sort of witch, moderately powerful." He frowned at the screen and whistled quietly.
"What about the other two?"
"The bright green is the kid, I've no idea what it means. Some sort of magical effect, but it isn't one of the normal patterns. There's a lot of power there, but she isn't a witch or a magician. Probably means she doesn't know how to use it yet, or that she has some sort of magical power that isn't part of the regular package."
"And the black blob?"
Kay took a deep breath. "That's Rosenberg. Black is an overload indication, there's so much power there that she's off the scale."
"And the scale goes up to..?"
"You really don't want to know. Let's just say it would be an extremely bad idea to get her mad."
Kay's cell-phone beeped, and he listened for a moment then said "That guy Warren's escaped from hospital, and he hadn't been neuralyzed."
"And I say again, this operation is getting sloppy."
"Don't worry, the local cops are on it."
"The local cops that don't even acknowledge that this town has vampires?"
"Maybe you have a point. I'll ask Zed to step up surveillance, see if we can spot anything from orbit."
Chapter 8: VII
07.00.00/00 - End standby mode
07.00.00/25 - Systems check complete
07.00.03/47 - Power up sequence complete
07.00.03/48 - Review status
07.00.04/01 - Backup status?
07.00.10/01 - Backup complete and verified.
07.00.13/55 - Resume conversation with Willow?
07.00.17/02 - Willow status = asleep
07.00.17/23 - And (Willow = Morning Person) = false
07.00.17/47 - And Emergency = false
07.00.18/01 - Therefore Wake Willow? = no
07.00.18/05 - Alarm clock setting = 07.30
07.00.18/08 - Therefore Willow will wake at 07.30
07.00.18/12 - Therefore Willow will want breakfast at 07.45 approx.
07.00.20/13 - Wait : continue programming review and memory optimisation
07.19.00/00 - Begin goto kitchen quietly
07.20.08/00 - Begin breakfast preparation
Dawn clattered downstairs to find April in the kitchen mixing pancake batter.
"Hi Dawnie! Isn't it a lovely day!"
"Yeah, right, just peachy. Seen Buffy around?"
"She is in her room. Do you think she will want breakfast? I am unfamiliar with her morning routine. Do you want pancakes?"
"Thanks, but I think I'll stick to cereal today, I had some with Tara last night. Did Buffy tell you to make me breakfast?"
"No, I'm waiting for Willow, she is not a morning person and needs to eat before we talk. Why do you ask?"
"Just wondered. It'd be like her." Dawn poured a bowl of cereal and added milk.
"Like Buffy? Why?"
"Lately she doesn't seem to want to spend time with me. If she could get you to look after me..."
Buffy paused on the stairs, listening.
"I don't believe Buffy wants that."
"Why not? She gets away from me any chance she can. She's trying to keep me out of her life."
"Buffy wants to protect you. Sometimes you are in danger if you are with her."
"The parts of my programming that derive from Buffy's behaviour give your welfare priority."
"Sure, after slaying and Angel and everything else."
"No, you precede them all."
"Yeah, I bet. Willow tell you to say that?"
"No, it is in my core programming, version 1.02."
"Willow wrote that."
"No, version 1.02 was written by Warren for Spike."
"Huh, what do they know."
"Spike wanted me to be like the real Buffy."
"Spike was.. infatuated," said Buffy, coming into the kitchen, "and infatuated people don't always see all the flaws."
"What?" said Dawn, confused.
"I do love you, Dawnie, always did, always will. But sometimes I have to let other things take priority. Maybe I've been doing it a little too much lately, too wrapped up in my own problems. I'm not perfect, never have been."
"Damn right... You were listening?"
"Because maybe I don't listen often enough."
"Do you want pancakes, Buffy," asked April.
"Please. Dawn, is there anything going on in school today that you don't want to miss?"
"Not really. Why?"
"Okay. I'm not going in to work today, and I'll need your help. I'll call them after breakfast, make sure they don't think you're playing hookey."
"Is this some sort of bonding thing, cos..."
"Nope. Willow's going to need our support today, and you're going to be there. So's Tara if I can rope her in. And I'm gonna use real rope if I have to."
"Why me.. what can I do to help?"
"Be there for her. I hate to stir up old memories, but you probably have a better feel for what she's going through than I do."
"Oh. I guess."
"I had a very nasty thought last night," Buffy said in a low voice. "Willow's freaking because they were lying to her, and Kay said that her mom - or whatever the hell it was - was some sort of alien sociologist. Was Willow her science project or something?"
"I was Warren's science project," said April. "Was I awful? Here are the pancakes, do you want syrup and/or butter?"
"April," said Buffy, "Please don't mention what we just discussed to Willow. She was kinda upset about the situation, and I don't think it'd help. Just a little syrup please."
"Okey-dokey... Willow is coming downstairs, Buffy. Perhaps you should change the subject."
"Thanks." She raised her voice and said "Willow, April is making pancakes, you want some? They're better than mine."
"I found the recipe in Anya's magazine."
"Knew that had to be good for something," said Dawn.
"Morning, guys," said Willow. "Hey, pancakes. Yes please."
"What time are those MIB guys coming over?" asked Dawn.
"They said nine, but I'm betting they'll be here five or ten minutes earlier to catch me off guard."
"Great," said Buffy. "What do they think you have to be off-guard about?"
"Wish I knew."
There was a knock, and Dawn went to the door, returning with Tara.
"Tara..." began Willow uncertainly.
"I was wondering if I could tag along when you go to your house," said Tara.
"Sure... but why?"
"Well, I could lie and pretend that I'm really curious about alien gadgetry and stuff, but the truth is I think you need your friends with you."
"Yeah, I think I do. It's gonna be so strange."
"We'll come along too, if you'll have us," said Buffy.
"Yeah, I wanna see the alien gadgets," said Dawn, "and the curiosity is killing me."
"Guys..." said Willow.
"Why do you keep calling them guys?" asked April. "Is there something I should know about them?"
Buffy started laughing, and after a moment everyone else was joining in, leaving April saying "Was that a joke?"
Willow bought her laughter under control, and said "No, not a joke. Don't know why, but friends, even girls, sometimes use that word. It doesn't necessarily mean anything odd."
"I see. You are sometimes very strange. When can we talk about my programs?"
"After breakfast. I'd like Tara to sit in on it, she may have some ideas to help you."
"Okey-dokey. Tara, would you like pancakes?"
Jay knocked on the door at quarter to nine, expecting to have to wait. Instead he found everyone waiting for him, and April sitting at the table working her way through a small stack of psychology and philosophy text books.
"You're all coming?" asked Jay.
"Sure," said Buffy. "Don't worry, we'll follow you over in the jeep."
"So much for security... Okay, I'd better warn you, that Warren guy escaped from hospital last night. He's dragging around some plaster casts but so far we haven't found him."
"Damn. Look for a black van with a bad paint job, he and his friends will be in it. April, please stay here; can you be alert for Warren and his friends trying to break in and still study."
"Yes, I can multitask. Should I slay them if they try to enter?" asked April.
"No, just capture them without unnecessary force. But be careful, you don't want to be hurt."
"Okay. Thank you for your concern."
"Right. Okay, let's go."
Jay followed them out, asking "Did you really just tell that robot that it could hurt someone?"
"Yeah. Within reason."
"And you're not worried that it might hurt the wrong person by mistake?"
"Not really," said Willow, "We had another robot with similar programming patrolling here for more than three months when Buffy wasn't available, and she didn't hurt anyone except vampires and demons."
"That's.. impressive. Hard to believe that it's all terrestrial technology."
"Warren built them, which ought to give you an idea how smart he is. And how dangerous."
"Damn right it does. Okay, see you at the house, ladies."
"Here they are," said Jonathan, "got them on camera three, leaving the house. Buffy, Dawn, Willow, and Tara, with the black dude. I think the other guy is in the car. He's getting into the black car, the women are getting into Buffy's jeep."
"Right," said Warren. "Andrew, get ready to roll. We need to follow them. And take it easy going over bumps, I'm in pain here."
"What's the plan?" asked Jonathan.
"Same as it was yesterday, Nimrod. Those nice guns and flashing light gadgets, any other technology we can get our hands on."
"Are you sure that sticking around in Sunnydale is a good idea?" asked Andrew, "they know who you are now."
"Buffy's known for weeks."
"Yeah," said Jonathan, "but these guys seem a lot more official, and now the police are looking for you."
"All the more reason to press ahead. We need that technology to keep out from under. If we can get the amnesia ray we can make everyone forget we even exist."
Kay went to put his lockpick on the fingerprint sensor then paused and said "Miss Rosenberg, would you press the button please."
"I want to see if the lock will recognise your fingerprints."
"Think I'm lying?" Willow angrily put her fingers on the button, one by one. Nothing happened.
"Thanks. Just checking." Kay opened the door, and gestured for Willow to enter. "Try not to touch anything, we don't think anything dangerous is still running but I'd hate to find out the hard way."
"That's the Habitrail thing, looks a lot more elaborate than the cage I made for Amy now I see it close to.. but I've still got an odd feeling I've seen it before. Where are the robots?"
"In these lockers."
"Six of them?"
"Two each for your parents, one dog, and one empty."
"A dog? We never had a dog around here, my father was supposed to be allergic."
"That's strange," said Jay, opening the locker. "Let's run the sensors over it again... holy..."
"What is it?" asked Kay.
"Didn't either of us scan this thing last time? It's not a normal body suit, it's Baltian military spec combat armour!"
"Violating clauses eleven through thirteen of the Tycho agreement. What weapon systems does it have?"
"Plasma gun, adamantium claws and teeth, and stunner."
"We'll have to confiscate this, Miss Rosenberg," said Kay.
"Okay by me," said Willow, "but are you saying my parents.. parent.. could fit inside that thing?"
Jay felt inside the dog's ear and pressed two studs. The dog's head opened as clamshell doors, revealing the tiny cockpit inside.
"That's unbelievable. What would they.. she.. want with something like that?"
"From what we know about Sunnydale it might be quite useful."
"How powerful is it?" asked Buffy, who had moved into the vault to take a closer look.
"The plasma gun could destroy a tank." said Kay. "The stunner would knock out a gorilla. The claws and teeth would go through steel. Oh, and it's stronger and faster than a tiger."
"We could have used that against Glory..." said Buffy.
"My folks didn't know about Glory," said Willow. "Didn't know about anything much we did. Can't blame them.. it.. for not being there."
"A plasma gun blast is easy to trace," said Jay, "it may be that the Baltian didn't want to risk us noticing. Incidentally, the Baltian is female. You might find this easier to understand if you think of her as your mother."
"My three inches tall alien mother. Right..."
"Okay, maybe not such a good idea."
"Show me my mother. Show me Sheila."
"Okay, if you're sure..." Jay opened the locker containing the older version of Sheila Rosenberg.
Willow looked inside, turned pale, and whispered "Tara..." as she fainted.
"What cameras have we got here?" asked Warren.
"The one watching the front of the house is okay," said Jonathan, "but we lost the one at the back and the one watching Willow's bedroom yesterday when the robot exploded. I think there was a magnetic pulse or something."
"Okay. That car's well protected, I think they've got some serious firepower in it, if we can steal it there's bound to be something we can use. Andrew, you wait a few houses away, try to look inconspicuous. We'll take the van round the back. I'll watch the monitors, wait for them to open the car then set off some noise to draw them away. This is a master key that'll start any Ford. As soon as they move away from the car I'll call you on the radio, you hop in and drive it away."
"Why me?" asked Andrew.
"Because they've seen Jonathan before, and I'm in a freaking wheelchair."
Willow woke lying on her bed, with Tara sitting in the chair beside her. "Are you okay, sweetie?" asked Tara.
"I just had a really weird... wasn't a dream, was it? This is my house, not Buffy's."
"You fainted in the cellar, Buffy caught you and bought you up here."
"Where's everyone else?"
"Buffy and Dawn are keeping an eye on Jay and Kay downstairs. D'you want something to drink? Some herbal tea might be good..."
"No. Just sit with me a while. It hadn't really sunk in until I saw Sheila."
"It's unbelievable. I met your mother, I didn't even notice anything odd about her aura."
"They must have masked it somehow."
"I guess. Willow, I've been thinking..."
"Thinking?" asked Willow eventually.
"What you were doing with April today... it would have been easy to reprogram her and fix all her problems. Why didn't you do that?" She held Willow's hand, and watched her aura.
"Because I think she's becoming a person. It would have been like the amnesia spell, or that gadget Jay and Kay wanted to use on me. I guess I finally figured out that it's wrong to mess with people's minds. That's weird... I had this conversation with Buffy last night."
"She sees it too, I guess. Do you think you've learned the other part of what we were arguing about? That it's dangerous to let the magic, or anything else, take over your life so badly that you can't control it?"
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. I think I am."
"Want a roomie?"
"Does she snore?" asked Willow hopefully.
"Damned if I know." Tara leaned over and kissed her. After a few seconds Willow reached up and pulled her onto the bed. Several minutes passed in comparative silence.
"Tara," said Dawn from the doorway, "is Willow... holy crap!" She retreated rapidly downstairs, neither woman heard her. "I think Willow and Tara are patching up their problems," she told Buffy, sitting at the bottom of the stairs.
"And you think this because...?"
"They're.. kinda kissing."
Buffy noticed her wide eyes and said "Kissing?", sitting beside her.
"Well, maybe a little more.. a lot more... umm..."
"Oh... Ohh...... We'd better give them a little time alone."
"Make that a lot of time. Better make sure Jay and Silent Bob don't disturb them. Where are they anyway?"
"Getting Robodog out to their car. I think it's kinda heavy."
"And you didn't help them?"
"I wasn't asked."
"Admit it, it's the pet you always wanted."
"Sure as hell sounds more useful than Amy the rat."
"Or Amy the person for that matter. You should have kept Oz when Willow was through with him, he was a pet and a boyfriend in one package."
"Considering the choices I was making then it might have been a good idea. Parker and Captain Car.. uh, Riley."
"What about now?" asked Dawn. "What choices are you making now?"
"Come on, there's a hottie somewhere. I know you, you've had that dreamy drooling look on your face a couple of times lately when you thought I wasn't looking."
"Dreamy drooling look?"
"You know what I mean. There's a guy and you totally want to jump his bones. And you've been wearing different underwear."
"You snoop on my underwear?"
"I empty the washing machine sometimes, remember. So there is someone?"
"No." Buffy began to blush.
"Yes there is."
"No there isn't."
"Yes there isn't."
"No there is.. damn. You planning to keep this up?"
"You planning to keep lying to me? Gonna be my sole parent and deceive me like Willow was deceived?"
"That's dirty pool, Dawn."
"Damn right. Level."
Suddenly the house shook to a loud explosion, and Buffy and Dawn ran back to investigate. Upstairs Willow and Tara groggily separated, and Willow said "Did the earth just move?"
"Put it in the back seat and connect it to the car's computer," said Kay. "Let's see if we can download anything from its memory."
Jay and Kay manoeuvred the awkward shape of the dog into the car, and Kay opened its cockpit and eventually identified the data port of its internal computer. "Looks like a standard Baltian interface, a thin optical lead ought to do it."
"Okay." Jay found the right lead and made the connection. After a few seconds lights began to flicker on some of the panels in the dog's head, and it relaxed its stiff legs and sat on the seat.
Kay looked at the computer display and said "Looks like there's a few gigabytes of onboard storage. It'll take a few minutes to download."
"We've got time, Rosenberg's still unconscious."
"We'll need a Baltian to translate it, or a couple of weeks of computer time."
"Any Baltians on Earth?"
"I think that there are four or five. Trouble is that if we start getting them involved this whole thing is going to come out. They really revered her uncle, he led their government in exile right through the war, and it was a black mark for Earth when he was killed here. If we've lost the niece too..."
There was a loud explosion behind the house, and car alarms up and down the block began to wail and beep. Jay drew his noisy cricket and ran back, Kay went to the car's trunk and took a tri-barrelled plasma gun before following. Neither thought to shut the car's doors. There was no need.
"Go, go, go," shouted Warren, and Jonathan pressed hard on the accelerator. "Andrew, move in, they've left the car. Go, go, go!"
The black van lurched off down the road, with Jonathan nervously over-revving the engine and clashing the gears. Behind them Jay hurdled the small crater that now decorated the rear lawn of Willow's home and ran out into the road with his noisy cricket. He saw the van and fired. The recoil blew him back twenty feet and through the hedge.
There was a loud explosion and the back of the van blew off, leaving Warren in his wheelchair only inches from the jagged metal edges of what had once been the rear doors. Jonathan finally got the van properly in gear and floored the accelerator. "Get us out of here!" shouted Warren, hanging onto the computer console for dear life.
At the front of the house Andrew nervously climbed into the car and tried to fit his key into the ignition. The car recognised him as an intruder and as human, briefly thought about zapping him with 20,000 volts, then chose a more entertaining option. A few megabytes of new instructions were uploaded to the dog, then the cable fell loose and its head closed. As Andrew jiggled the key he suddenly heard something growl behind him. He turned and saw the attack dog. It yawned, revealing razor-sharp teeth which began to vibrate backwards and forwards like an electric carving knife.
"Good dog," said Andrew, trying to slide out of his seat. The driver's door slammed closed and locked. Panicking, Andrew tried to slide the other way, but the passenger door slammed before he could reach it. Andrew frantically wound down the window and tried to squirm out. The window closed again, slamming up into his chest and pinning him in place. He felt something tearing at his clothes.
Kay ran round the side of the house, Buffy and Dawn ran out through the rear door. Almost inevitably they collided on the back lawn, all three falling into the crater. By the time they untangled themselves and Jay was free of the hedge the van was gone. They could hear someone screaming at the front of the house.
The window wound down, releasing Andrew, and he scrambled through and onto the road. His clothing was shredded into strips about an inch wide, and he was bleeding from dozens of scratches. He started to stumble away, but stopped, horrified, as the dog overtook him and turned to face him. It raised a paw, and four six-inch claws suddenly slid out and retracted again. "Nice dog... Good doggy.." Andrew slowly backed away. The dog trotted after him.
"I've gotta get one of those," said Buffy as she saw what was going on. "Kay, that's Andrew, one of Warren's friends."
"Right." He pulled his stunner and shot him. Warren collapsed to the pavement, and the dog trotted back to the car.
"Better get inside," Jay told Buffy and Dawn, looking at the small crowd of curious neighbours that was gathering. "We'll get this situation cleaned up, you need to be off the street before we make everyone forget what happened." They went back into Willow's house.
"Okay," said Dawn once they were back inside, "who is it?"
"Who's who?" said Buffy.
"The guy you want to jump."
"You won't like it."
"Who it is."
"Giles? Xander? Tara? Amy? Cordy?"
"Tara? Amy?? Cordy???" asked Buffy incredulously.
"You never know, lots of people have repressed tendencies. I take it that was a 'no' to all of the above?"
"Yes, it was a no. And it isn't Willow or Anya or April either, if that's the next set of questions."
"What isn't Willow or Anya or April?" asked Willow, coming downstairs with Tara. "Was there an explosion?"
"Yeah, Warren and friends again. They caught Andrew, Jay and Kay are dealing with him."
There was a sudden flash of bright light; since none of them were looking directly at the neuralyzer none of them were affected.
"So who is it?" pressed Dawn, ignoring the distraction.
"Who what?" asked Willow.
"Buffy's lust bunny." said Dawn.
"Ooh, have you found someone," asked Willow enthusiastically, "We could double date or something."
"You guys back together?" asked Dawn, pretending to be casual.
"I guess so," said Tara, smiling.
"Definitely so. So who is it?" asked Willow.
"If you must know... Spike."
"That's right, make fun of your..." said Dawn, "Uhh... you're not kidding, are you? Spike? Wow!"
Willow sat on the stairs, speechless. Tara rubbed her back.
"What do you mean, wow?" asked Buffy.
"He is so totally right for you!" said Dawn enthusiastically.
"Mom liked him, I like him, he loves you, he's nearly as strong as you are, he likes the night and he's a hunk. The Buffybot knew what she was talking about."
"Don't forget the bloodsucking fiend part."
"That's a technicality and you know it. He's sort of retired, and he isn't gonna lose it if you boink like Angel did. You so have to get it on with him."
"Um... ah.." Buffy blushed bright red.
"You already did? Wow!"
"I thought you'd hate me if I told you!"
"Sure, like that's gonna happen. You have so got to tell Xander when I'm around, I want to see him freak."
"That's what I mean... how can I face him.. How can any of you..."
"Like nobody else ever boinked a guy from the wrong side of the tracks," said Dawn.
"Who's gonna complain?" asked Willow, shaking off her shock. "The guy who's marrying an ex-demon and his bride, the two lesbian witches, or the watcher with a side-line in black magic? We all saw how much Spike cared for you, the way he mourned you. What made you think we'd freak if you got together?"
"Easy solution. Anyone who complains, remind them of Parker. You can always do so much worse."
"True. Okay, I'll stop trying to keep it secret."
"And I can be there when you tell Xander?" asked Dawn.
"You'll tidy your room?"
A few minutes later Jay said "Andrew's on his way to detention, this time we'll guard him ourselves. We ought to track down their van fairly easily, it's kinda conspicuous now."
"They'll probably ditch it and steal another," said Buffy.
"We've got the whole town under surveillance, we ought to be able to intercept them."
"Don't underestimate Warren, he's a rat but he's a sneaky rat."
"Bearing it in mind."
Kay came into the house carrying a portable computer, disguised to look like a normal commercial model. "We've downloaded the dog's visual and audio memories, it looks like the Baltian was using it to watch the demons and vampires. I was hoping that you might spot something, a clue to her current location."
"How much is there?"
"About five hours, the recording seems to have been made just before your parents supposedly went away. I think she must have downloaded the rest to the computer in her habitat, we'll check that out later."
"Okay, let's take a look."
Kay folded the screen back until it was flat and pressed a key, and a three-dimensional image appeared above it. A dog's-eye view of Sunnydale at night.
"Wow," said Willow. "Hologram?"
"Damned if I know," said Kay, "I just use the thing."
"Any sound track?" asked Dawn, "it's kinda boring without."
The vewpoint moved through Sunnydale and to the door of Willie's bar, then inside.
The dog looked around, and the customers watched it nervously.
"Hey, there's Spike," said Dawn.
Spike came over to look at the dog, saying "Anyone own this mutt?"
"Don't mess with it," said a voice from the crowd, "that's some sort of Hell-hound, the last demon that tried to snack on it lost an arm."
"Definitely my kind of pet," commented Buffy.
"Yeah? said Spike, "What's it want? What do you want, boy?"
"Nobody knows, said Willy from behind the bar, "it just comes in once or twice a week, checks out the customers and goes away again. Surprised you haven't seen it before. You don't mess with it, it won't mess with you."
There was a gabble of speech in a language that didn't sound remotely human. "What was that?" asked Buffy.
"Baltian," said Jay, "that's from the internal recorder, we think she was making comments on what she saw."
"Can you play that again?" said Willow, "I've got a feeling I've heard that language before."
"Maybe you heard her playing back one of the recordings. Just a second." He pressed a few keys, and the picture ran backwards for a few seconds. "Here we go."
"K'fetkin neep t'flokti doolgak tor. Nif hartoola pak vampire dralok."
Willow half-shut her eyes and said "Here is a new specimen of the unnatural creatures found in this town. It appears to be a vampire of the usual sort."
"What the hell?" asked Jay. "You speak Baltian?"
"I'm darned if I remember learning it, but I understood every word."
Chapter 9: VIII
"Near as I can figure it someone neuralyzed you when you were about two," said Kay, reading the pattern of brain waves displayed by his scanner.
"And wiped out my memory of learning Baltian?" asked Willow. "Why can I remember the language then?" She typed a command into her computer, swore, and entered another password.
"I'd guess you were told to forget something specific, not the language."
"Don't you guys have rules against using neuralyzers on babies?"
"Wasn't us; I'm guessing the Baltian bought her own with her, or got it on the black market. Highly illegal.
"Wiping a particular thing makes sense," said Tara. "To wipe out everything you know about Baltian they... she.. would probably have to destroy all of your language skills including English, and that obviously didn't happen. I've seen your school records, you were above average even in kindergarten. She must have erased the memory of knowing it, rather than the language itself. If you didn't know that you knew the language, and never heard it again, there's no particular reason why you would ever think to use it."
"Can you speak it," asked Dawn, "or only understand it?"
"I don't know. Uh.... gtyurt forg wan koja fp'op. I guess so."
"What did that mean?"
"'Holy heck, I can', only not quite. I don't think my accent was very good. I don't think Baltians have lips quite like ours."
"That's a good vocabulary for a little kid," said Jay. "Kinda dirty though."
"Nobody ever called me stupid... not often, anyway. You speak Baltian?"
"A few words. Know what fp'op means."
"Uhh.. oh, oh dear, so do I now you've reminded me." Willow blushed. "Sorry." She peered at the screen then said "Hey, I've found me!"
"Found me? You?" asked Buffy.
"Hacked the adoption records. I was taken into foster care by Ira and Sheila Rosenberg aged approximately a month, finally adopted a year later."
"Not a surprise, I guess. Who are your real parents?"
"Unknown. I was found in a basket in the Mall a few weeks after it opened, when I was about forty-eight hours old. When my mother couldn't be traced I was put up for fostering and adoption."
"How the heck is it you never knew that before?"
"Why would I? Anyway, it got surprisingly little publicity," said Willow, "I just looked at the papers for that week, the big story was a multiple murder by reefer addicts."
"Wearing horror masks?" asked Dawn.
"Nice to know Sunnydale hasn't changed much. How come you never looked at your own records before?"
"Never needed to look that far back, always thought I knew who I was. Jay, your guys have access to all sorts of computers, right? Can you ask them to see what they can find that might point to my real parents? Medical records, blood groups, that sort of thing?"
"Sure. But it could be nothing was recorded, so don't set your hopes too high. It's a mighty cold trail."
"Okay. I guess."
"Your knowledge of Baltian could help us get to the bottom of this," said Kay, "There are a lot of records in the habitat module, thousands of hours. We could use our computers but it would take a couple of weeks, and we really do need to solve this one before the next Baltian ship arrives in a couple of days. Obviously you can't go through them all, but maybe you could skim through and see if there's something that indicates where she might be."
"I can try. Maybe there's some sort of index. Otherwise, I'd better start out with the ones at the beginning and the end and see if that gives us any leads."
"I still can't get over how completely we were fooled," said Buffy. "The whole Jewish thing I can understand, I guess they... she... wanted to blend in, but why the heck did Sheila do things like join MOO? And wasn't she one of the people controlled by the demon eggs?"
"Under their spell, I guess," said Willow, "same as Joyce. Would a Baltian have any defence against magic?"
"Not that I know of," said Kay, "Baltians have advanced science, don't think they've gone the magic route at all."
"What about the records from the dog?" asked Jay. "Anything there that looks interesting?"
"Not really," said Buffy, "I watched through the rest of it, looks like it just wandered around town for a couple of hours after leaving the bar. Nothing to indicate it was followed, or that anything nastier than usual for Sunnydale was going down."
"Odd coincidence that Spike saw the dog for the first time that night."
"I remember him mentioning it, around the time that the basement flooded and that demon robbed the bank. Don't you remember, Will, I had you researching Hell-hounds."
"That's right," said Willow, "Would have been a week or so after that that Sheila called me to say they were off on another trip. To be honest, I hadn't really noticed they were back from the last one."
"Spike wasn't in bars much over the summer," said Dawn, "he was helping us patrol. Guess he just didn't run into it until then."
"Dead end then," said Jay. "Okay, Willow, I'll connect my computer to the one in the Baltian module, show you how to access the records. Do you think you could take a look for us?"
"Sure," said Willow, "but I have classes at three, so I can only do a couple of hours right now."
"Any way you can cut them? It's just possible that your.. um.. mother is in some sort of danger, and we really do need to find out what happened to her."
"Uh.. Okay. I guess. Can you do something to cover for me? Don't want to lose credit."
"Me too," said Tara, holding Willow's hand. "Tell the college we're witnesses or something."
"Baby, you don't need to stay. I guess this is gonna be kind of boring."
"I'm staying with you."
"Okay. Not gonna complain."
"Dawn," said Buffy, "let's take the jeep and get some food for everyone. Chinese okay? Kay, you guys are gonna have to pay for this, I'm kinda broke."
"I think our expense account will cover that. Think a hundred will take care of it?"
"Six of us, including Dawn? Just about."
"Hey, I resent that," said Dawn. "I'm a growing girl. Just because your body stuck at small..."
"Food now, argue later. Come on."
Jonathan parked in the basement garage of an apartment block two miles from Willow's house and helped Warren across to the back-up mini-van they kept there for emergencies. Outside he could hear screeching sirens, gradually fading into the distance.
"Think we shook them?" asked Jonathan.
"Must have. Let's get out of here before someone notices that wreck."
Three miles later Warren realised that they'd left the wheelchair behind in the damaged van. "You'll have to steal another."
"We can't go back to the hospital for another," whined Jonathan, "there's bound to be cops there."
"I can't walk like this," said Warren, "I'll find somewhere else we can get one." He rummaged in the back of the van and found a copy of the Yellow Pages for Sunnydale. "Here, Sunnydale Mobility Aids at the Mall."
"Okay, that isn't far. How do you want to play this?"
"I can't go in like this, and you'll only mess up if you try to steal one on your own. Have you got any credit cards left that aren't on the hot list?"
"Mastercard, Visa, two American Express."
"Use the Mastercard, I think that one'll hold up for a day or two. Just go in, buy a wheelchair, say it's for your grandmother. Oh, and stop off at the food court and get something to eat."
"What do you want?"
"Thai would be nice."
"Are you really sure you're okay with me and Spike?" Buffy asked as they got into the car. "Only you sorta have a crush on him yourself."
"Sure I'm a little jealous, but there was never any future in it. He thinks of me as a kid, his little bit, that's all I'll ever be to him. Only..."
"Only what, Dawn?"
"Don't drive him away, Buffy, I don't want to lose more people. He's not gonna be a perfect boyfriend so don't expect it, you have to make allowances for what he is. And try not to drive Xander away either, he doesn't exactly like Spike but he kinda respects him now, he'll be okay with it if you don't weird him out too badly."
Buffy hugged her, and said "You've been planning that speech, haven't you?"
"Well yeah, someone needs to tell you how to keep boyfriends."
"Right, and of course you're the expert. Okay, I promise."
"But I still wanna see Xander squirm a little."
"You always hurt the one you love," sang Dawn.
"I find you playing mistress of pain like vamp Willow there's gonna be big trouble. Now buckle up."
"And you're sure that this is the right size for your grandmother?" asked the wheelchair salesman.
"Yeah," said Jonathan, "she's just about my size."
"There's a little adjustment of height and seat angle built in, but if you need more I'd recommend going for the deluxe model."
"It's okay, this is just for use while her electric buggy is being repaired. She'll only be using it for a few days."
"Okay, that's ninety-nine ninety-nine. Just sign here Mister...."
"Rosenberg. Jonathan Rosenberg."
"You can read Baltian too?" asked Jay.
"Sure looks like it," said Willow. "It doesn't translate as easily as their speech, but it looks like she was writing a thesis on the behaviour and psychological development of human children. Anthropology."
"Oh honey..." said Tara, squeezing her hand in sympathy.
"I was her freaking guinea-pig!"
"Breathe, honey. Calm down."
"Oh God." Willow sat for a moment, trying to get her emotions under control. "Tara, I'm sorry. You don't have to see this."
"It's okay, that's what I'm here for, to help."
"Do you feel that you were treated like one? Like a guinea-pig?" asked Kay.
Willow pulled herself together with an effort. "She never seemed to pay much attention, to be honest. When she did it was usually a disaster."
"So more of an observer than actively experimenting on you?" asked Tara.
"I guess... although she must have done something. How did I come to know Baltian if she didn't experiment on me? How the heck did I learn to read it? And why did she wipe it all away?"
Kay's pager beeped, and he looked at it then said "We'll have to go out for a few minutes. There's a chance we've located your mother."
"I'm coming with you."
"Me too," said Tara.
"How was I to know that Mr. Wu's restaurant was closed?" asked Buffy. "It was fine last week."
"Well, he's on vacation this week."
"And three people were ill the last time I ordered from the China Palace. Which other ones do you like?"
"I think the nearest is in the food court at the Mall."
"Okay, let's hit the Mall. But no other shopping, we've got hungry people waiting."
Warren was waiting in the mini-van, and wishing he'd asked Jonathan to get more pain-killers, when four black vans screeched into the car park. He slumped down in the seat and tried to look as inconspicuous as possible as a dozen black-clad agents left the vans and headed into the Mall. He could see someone move in one of the vans, and guessed that it would be a very bad idea to try to steal one. Once he was sure that nobody was looking his way he painfully slid across to the driver's seat and discovered that Jonathan had taken the keys with him.
Jonathan left the shop and pushed the empty wheel-chair towards the nearest bank of elevators, finding one waiting. He pressed the button for the food court and headed down. A few seconds later another elevator arrived, and MIB agents streamed out towards Sunnydale Mobility Aids.
Jonathan studied the Thai menu and tried to find something that wasn't made with shrimp or pork. He wasn't really religious, but old habits die hard. He made some choices and waited to be served. Then heard an all-too-familiar voice drifting across the food court.
"I'm sure I said that we didn't have time to visit any shops, Dawnie."
"One pharmacy, Buffy. Oh, and the Chocolate Box. And maybe we could swing by...."
Jonathan left the line and tried to look inconspicuous as he pushed the wheelchair towards the elevator and pressed the button. He stepped inside, then froze as he saw the occupants. Jay, Kay, Willow and Tara.
"Going somewhere, Jonathan?" asked Willow. He screamed, turned, and ran back into the crowd.
"Did you hear..." began Dawn, then realised that Buffy was already running towards the disturbance. She decided to stay in line for food; after all, there wasn't likely to be a problem here that Buffy couldn't handle.
Jonathan hurtled across the food hall leaving chaos in his wake, swerving around shoppers until he ran into Buffy. He didn't bounce. Within seconds Buffy had him in an arm-lock and slammed against a trash-can, and was just recovering her breath when Jay and Kay arrived, with Willow and Tara close behind.
"Okay Jonathan," said Buffy, "where's Warren?"
"Jonathan?" asked Kay. "Jonathan Rosenberg?"
"It was only a hundred dollars," sobbed Jonathan.
"What was?" asked Buffy, twisting his wrist a little.
"The charge on that credit card."
"His name isn't Rosenberg," said Willow, "it's Levinson. Part of Warren's little gang."
"Then he's got some explaining to do," said Jay, "because his Mastercard seems to think he's a relative of yours."
"He's human," said Kay, scanning him.
"Do you guys want to take him away?" asked Buffy, as more agents arrived. "I'll finish getting the meal and meet you back at the house."
"He dumped a wheelchair," said Tara. "Must have been getting it for Warren."
"Where is Warren?" asked Buffy.
"I can't tell you that," said Jonathan indignantly.
"Want I should give you to April, Jonathan?" asked Willow menacingly. "She'd like someone else to play with."
"Yikes! No.. he... he's in the car park, silver mini-van." The main group of agents headed for the elevator.
"Mall security," Jay said loudly, as he noticed a crowd starting to gather "just arresting this shoplifter. Thanks for your cooperation, ladies and gentlemen, please carry on."
"No neuralyzer?" Buffy asked quietly.
"No need," said Kay, "they haven't seen anything they need to forget."
"Okay. You guys round up Warren, I'll see you back at Willow's in about twenty minutes. Hope you both like egg fried rice."
Warren cowered underneath a pickup as the MIB agents searched the mini-van and eventually drove it away. He saw Jonathan taken by the last van, and knew that he was on his own. Eventually he crawled out and recognised one of the nearby cars. The one belonging to the MIB agents. It was his mistake to try to get inside by smashing one of the side windows with a loose brick he found in a dumpster.
By now the car's computer was seriously annoyed. People kept disturbing it when it was trying to surf the web, so after the brick bounced for the second time it decided to teach Warren a lesson. Just as he was about to swing again the door clicked and swung open a few inches. Warren didn't think it through, and touched the door handle to get inside. 20,000 volts surged through his body for a fraction of a second, paralysing him, while the door closed itself, reopened with the force of a kicking mule, and slammed shut again. He ended up underneath the pickup truck again, this time with concussion and a broken arm.
Two minutes later Jay, Kay, Willow and Tara came out, the women carrying some notepads and pens Willow had stopped to buy before they left the mall. None of them noticed the comatose body as they drove off.
"Well, I guess I know now why my parents always seemed to think I was going through phases," said Willow, tucking into beef and crispy noodles, "I found Baltian translations of every baby and child psychology book I've ever heard of in there, and a lot that I hadn't. Wonder if the authors get royalties?"
"Probably," said Kay. "Lots of terrestrial books and movies have off-world sales, it's one of the things my organisation handles. For example, I hear that Harry Potter is really popular in the G'tnurk Confederacy, they're using the books to reform their educational system."
"Wow!" said Dawn. "You mean they're riding around on broomsticks and brewing potions?"
"I think it's more the idea of teaching pupils rather than eating them."
"Okay... maybe I don't want to go there for my vacation then."
"If you don't breathe methane it probably isn't a good idea."
"I've been meaning to ask," said Willow, "why are you guys so hyper about this? I know you want to find my mom, but is it really that urgent?"
"This isn't hyper," said Jay, "Hyper is having an hour to track down an alien bug-monster before another bunch of aliens destroy the world. This is pretty close to a vacation for us."
"But we do have a deadline," said Kay, "we need to know what's happened to her in the next couple of days. We don't want to lose another Baltian citizen, it was bad enough when your uncle... sorry, you know what I mean... was murdered."
"Uncle Saul was murdered? Who by?"
"That giant bug-monster Jay mentioned. It was an assassin, disguised itself as human to kill your uncle and steal something very important to the Baltians. The aim was to start a war. We dealt with that, but they're still prickly where Earth is concerned, we really don't want to upset them more than we have to."
"Well, I guess I didn't really know him that well, but it's kinda unsettling. Is anything like that likely to have happened to.. uh.. Sheila?"
"Not that we know of, she wasn't involved in any way and as far as we know that whole business is over."
"That's good." Willow finished her food and said "Back to work."
"I've just gone through the last few weeks of her records," Willow said an hour or so later. "Apparently she wanted to take a break from pretending to be a human, so she just told me they were going on vacation, went down to the cellar, and moved into the Habitrail. She seems to have spent her time writing up her notes. What I've mostly been listening to is her diary. It just ends abruptly, in mid sentence."
"Can you play it?" said Jay.
"Here, let me just get it to the right place.... she's complaining that after twenty-odd years she still doesn't really know how I think, then she says 'treforkil snoe g'takli ediv human.' It means 'Would that I really understood humans.' After that there's just a lot of silence."
"Play it again," said Dawn, "I think I heard something in the background as she finished speaking."
"Okay... 'treforkil snoe g'takli ediv human.'... Hey, I think you're right, there is something there but it's really quiet.
"I'll enhance it," said Jay.
"treforkil snoe g'takli ediv human...." followed by a faint voice saying "Tflok."
"Holy crap," said Willow. "Tflok? They've gotta be kidding."
"What does that mean?" asked Jay.
Chapter 10: IX
"So there are demons that grant wishes?" asked Jay.
"Sure," said Buffy. "The more extreme the better. Of course they're demons, so the wish always turns out badly. We know about one wish that ended up with Sunnydale ruled by vampires, Willow as Queen of the Damned, and me dead. That time we got lucky and the wish was reversed."
"Okay.. so how do you spot these things?"
"The ones we've met look like human women," said Willow, "in fact they usually start out as human witches who use magic for vengeance, then get recruited by D'Hoffryn, the demon that runs their... organisation, I guess you'd call it. He tried to recruit me once, when my magic kinda screwed things up for a lot of people."
"Is that why you've been trying to cut back on your use of magic?" asked Kay.
"No, that was a relatively minor disaster, mostly accidental. This time round was much worse." Tara gently squeezed her hand.
"The thing to remember," said Buffy, "is to never ever let a stranger con you into making a wish, no matter how harmless it seems. It's almost as stupid as inviting a stranger into your house at night."
"So what do you think happened to the Baltian?" asked Kay.
"Okay," said Willow, "what she said was 'treforkil snoe g'takli ediv human.'... which I originally translated as 'would that I really understood humans.' Now I guess that could be translated as 'I wish that I really understood humans', but I'm damned if I know how understanding us would make her disappear, or why a vengeance demon would take any interest in her."
"Is it just me," said Tara, "or does Baltian sound a lot like Klingon?"
"Klingon is a pidgin version of the local cluster dialect of Interstellar Trade Talk," said Kay, "which has a lot of Baltian word roots. One of the scriptwriters was from Betelgeuse, thought it'd be funny. That's one of the reasons why we were ready to investigate your supervillain friends, they could have been aliens using Trade Talk, not Klingon."
"Could the demon have made her into a human?" asked Dawn, ignoring the interruption.
"It's certainly a possibility," said Willow. "Thing is, vengeance demons are always malicious. Always. So it wouldn't just be a normal human, it'd be someone with a horribly painful disease, or a deaf, dumb, and blind cripple."
"Someone like that turning up out of nowhere is probably findable," said Kay. "Let's see..." he pressed a few keys on the computer, "this is when it happened. Date mean anything to you?"
"Wouldn't be out of nowhere. The way it works, there would always have been that person, and everyone would remember her. Let's see, when was that? Around the time you started working at the Palace, Buffy, what was going on then?"
"Usual slaying... oh, and we'd just found out that Warren and his gang were behind all the thefts and stopped them from using that invisibility ray."
"Okay," said Kay. "I'll try checking for women with disabilities moving into the area, that sort of thing."
"Or men, of course," said Willow.
"Eww..." said Dawn, "bad enough suddenly being human."
"Well, I doubt it'd be a man, I think vengeance demons are kinda squicky that way so most likely a woman, but you never know."
"Do the Baltians actually have demons of their own, or would it have been one of ours?" asked Buffy, "cos' I'm thinking three-inch-tall demons not much of a problem for me. Wasn't the last time anyway."
"Might not be so easy to stomp though, vengeance demons are pretty much invulnerable unless you smash their amulets. That's what happened to Anya, remember? Let's see... yes, they have a word for 'demon'. No equivalent of 'vampire' though, which I guess is why she used the human word in that recording from the dog."
"Is there any way we could find out what happened by magic?" asked Jay.
"Not really," said Tara. "And if there was, Willow's on the wagon and I'm not sure I'd want to try it."
"Could we just ask?" said Dawn.
"Ask who?" said Willow.
"Anya, of course. Hello, former vengeance demon, remember? Maybe she could ask her old boss, I think she said he's coming to her wedding."
"Yeah, that's right," said Buffy, "I think he's on the table with Xander's Uncle Rory and Spike and some half-demons. Actually, we'll have to do something about Spike, need to revise the seating plan again. Anya's gonna kill me."
"The one time I met D'Hoffryn," said Willow, "he didn't seem that bad for an evil demon. Of course he was trying to talk me into becoming a vengeance demon at the time, so he turned up the charm."
"Anya invited him, so she's gotta have a way to contact him. If he's anything like Anya he'll probably boast about the things his guys have done, especially if he thinks there's nothing that we can do to put them right. He might give us a clue."
"Let me get this straight," said Jay. "You're going to ask a retired evil vengeance demon to call up some sort of boss evil vengeance demon and ask him to explain what happened here?"
"Sounds like a plan to me," said Buffy.
"I don't know which is worse, this whole idea of this plan or the fact that I'm sorta thinking it makes sense."
"Hello," said Anya "this is the Magic Box, your one-stop shop for all your magical needs. How may I help you?"
"Hi Anya, this is April," said the caller.
"Oh! What do you want?"
"What sort of advice?" asked Anya suspiciously, "and why are you asking me?".
"Willow and Tara have suggested that I explore the possibilities of free will, and suggested that it will make me more like a human. I am doing so, and have decided that I like being more human. Now I need an opinion that is not from Willow, Tara, Buffy, or Dawn."
"You have not always been human."
"Well, not always, no."
"Do you like being human?"
"What do you most like about being human?"
"Orgasms and money, I guess. Oh, and chocolate."
"Okey-dokey. Thank you. Have a nice day." April hung off; Anya briefly thought about calling back, but was distracted by the arrival of a customer.
Warren woke in a puddle of oil, tried to sit up, and hit his head. When it stopped spinning he looked around and eventually realised that he was underneath some sort of vehicle, and began to remember how he'd got there. It wasn't until he tried to crawl out that he realised his left arm must be broken.
"Got to get clear," he thought, and tried again, eventually finding a way to squirm out that was horribly painful rather than excruciating. He looked around, eventually found a car that still had its keys in the ignition, and burned rubber getting out of the car park while juggling the accelerator and brakes with one foot. He knew a crooked doctor who could help him; after that he wanted payback.
"You don't just call D'Hoffryn," said Anya, half an hour after April's call, "There are elaborate protocols, sacred rituals and sacrifices to be made."
"I guess that's right," said Willow, "but are you telling me that you never needed to get hold of the guy in a hurry?"
"Depends on the circumstances."
"Say you just wanted to invite him for coffee?" asked Dawn.
"What, without wanting him to do anything like, say, turn some cheating male into a cockroach, or give you some time off?"
"Sure, like that," said Buffy, "say you just wanted to talk about the job and ask D'Hoffryn's advice or something, or tell him about a particularly nifty bit of vengeance."
"Well, if you were a vengeance demon you'd just touch your amulet and send an invitation. Anyone else, you need one of his tokens."
"I used to have one of those, but I think I dumped it when I decided to go cold turkey."
"I'm not sure we should be messing with it even if you didn't," said Tara. "The boss of all vengeance demons isn't someone you really want to page on a whim."
"I'm glad you think so," said a voice from behind them. "Anyanka, if these people keep taking my name in vain I may have to think again about coming to your wedding."
"Okay," said Anya, "maybe not so difficult after all. Everyone, I'd like you to meet Lord D'Hoffryn." Everyone turned slowly to see a shortish demon, who didn't look particularly menacing.
"Anyanka, Miss Rosenberg," said D'Hoffryn, "a pleasure as always. Slayer, Miss McClay, Miss Summers, gentlemen, also a pleasure to meet you. Now would you mind telling me why you keep saying my name, it's a little annoying when I'm trying to work."
"We're trying to find my mother," said Willow, "we think she may have made a wish."
"And you thought I would help you undo it? How charmingly naive."
"We're not asking you to undo it; we're just... curious."
"I must admit to feeling some curiosity myself; I'm not aware that any of my demons have granted wishes for your family. Let me check... no, none have."
"What about former demons? Have any left you in the last few weeks?"
"Left me. Certainly not, Anyanka was the last to leave my employ. Gentlemen, if you use that device near me it will explode."
Jay sheepishly put his scanner away.
"This is really reaching," said Willow, "could someone have used the power of a wish to alter reality in some way without you knowing it. Could this be an alternate time line created by a wish?"
He laughed. "Do you really think that time is so simple?"
"The simple answer is that all time lines are created by wishes, by deeds, by sheer random chance. They split, they merge, they intertwine. I sense that there is a wish somewhere in your past, If anyone can remember the details it will be you."
"So much for Hawking," muttered Tara.
"And now I have business. Anyanka, I'll see you at your wedding. Miss Rosenberg, my token is in Miss Summers' jewel box, please use it if you wish to reconsider my offer. Or any of you other ladies, of course, if you feel the need for vengeance." He shimmered and disappeared.
"Well, he was in an excellent mood," said Anya enthusiastically, "someone must have wished for the earth to swallow them up. Last time that happened the earthquake was 6.3 on the Richter scale."
"Dawn," asked Buffy, "do you have this token thing?"
"What does it look like?" asked Dawn cagily.
"A flat disk about an inch and a half wide with a lot of inscriptions pierced with several holes," said Willow, "framing a green stone about half an inch wide. About the thickness of a dollar coin."
"Oh, yeah, think I found it in the yard."
"Dawn, what have we told you about picking up strange things that might be magical?" said Buffy, "After that business with the music demon I thought you'd know better."
"It was pretty. Not like I've tried to use it. Not like I summoned the demon either."
"Okay, let Tara have it. And get Tara or Anya to check out anything else you have there that might be magical, we don't want any accidents."
"Anyone going to buy anything while you're here?" asked Anya hopefully.
"So how do we restore my memory?" asked Willow, ignoring her, "cos I'm willing to bet that that was a big fat hint he just dropped. Either he's in a really good mood or I'm gonna end up knowing something I'd much rather had stayed forgotten. But I need to know."
"There are spells," Tara began uncertainly, "but they're all for short-term memory loss. Undoing memory charms, that sort of thing. We're talking about several weeks ago."
"Not necessarily," said Willow. "That might be what we think he was implying, but he didn't actually say that. There's only one hole in my memory we actually know about."
"When you were a baby?" asked Buffy.
"That's right. Any way to fix whatever it is that a neuralyzer does?"
Jay and Kay looked at each other, then Kay said, "There's a machine called a deneuralyzer, but it's painful as all hell. That far back, that early in someone's life, I just don't know how well it would work."
"Well, this is your chance to find out," said Willow, putting on her 'determined' face.
"We'll have to get a medical opinion on that," said Kay, "if the doctors say it's okay we'll have the equipment shipped out here."
"How long's all that going to take?"
"Oh, tomorrow morning if we get clearance."
While they were talking Tara motioned Dawn to one side and murmured "I think you'd better let me have that talisman tonight. And whatever else it is that's making you feel guilty."
"What do you mean?"
"Don't try to fool someone who can read your aura, Dawnie."
"Umm... okay, but I'll have to talk to you alone. And Buffy never knows."
Meanwhile Buffy was saying "I think we've all been pretty busy, how about we take the evening off, maybe meet up at the Bronze a little later. If Willow's gonna be doing this memory thing tomorrow she needs to relax first."
"We'll head back to your house, Willow," said Jay, "and see if we can find anything else of interest in the recordings. But I think Buffy's right, from what I've heard the deneuralyzer is pretty tough."
"It is," said Kay grimly. "have some fun tonight, it'll help."
Willow smiled a little timidly and said "Wow, nice to hear everyone being so positive about this. Let's get home, if we're going out tonight I want to be wearing some decent clothes."
"Anya, can you bring Xander along tonight?" asked Buffy, "There's something I wanted to mention, it'd be nice if you were both there."
"I guess so. Say, is it something about the robot, because I had a very odd call from her a little while ago..."
"Hi everyone," said April as Buffy, Dawn, Willow and Tara came into the house, all of them looking around warily. "Have you had a good day? Mine has been excellent."
"Did you read the books?" Willow asked cautiously.
"Yes. They were very interesting and informative. I decided that I like free will, so I'm exercising it by giving you all presents."
"That's nice," said Buffy uncertainly, "what sort of presents?"
"I asked Anya what she liked best about being human, and she said orgasms and money and chocolate. You are all adults and can make your own orgasm arrangements, with the exception of Dawn who is too young, so I have decided to give you money. You can use that to buy your own chocolate."
"Err... that's very good of you," said Willow, "but where did you get it?"
"The money came from Warren."
"I have decided that he was not a good boyfriend, and deserves to be punished for the way he treated me. He is not very imaginative, I found it easy to trace the false names used for his bank accounts, and guess the passwords used to access them."
"That's illegal, April."
"I haven't stolen the money, I have compared his real assets and income to the figures reported to the Internal Revenue Service, reported the discrepancy, and claimed the appropriate finders fees. The accounts have already been frozen, you will receive the rewards as soon as the tax audit is complete."
"Wow," said Dawn, "How much are we talking about here?"
"Approximately seven thousand two hundred and eighteen dollars and twenty three cents. Each. Possibly more, depending on outstanding transactions."
"What?" asked all four women incredulously.
"Approximately seven thousand two hundred and eighteen dollars and twenty three cents. Each. Possibly more, depending on outstanding transactions. Since Dawn is a minor her share will have to be paid into her college fund; I have made appropriate arrangements."
"That's amazing," said Buffy. "I don't know what we can do to thank you, April."
"Oh, I am taking a share for myself. I can't eat chocolate, but I will need money for electricity and clothing and other expenses. Now that I understand the importance of money I realise that If I am to be a person I can't continue to live at the expense of others."
"Wow, you're really getting into this free will stuff, hope you'll continue to like it. But don't worry about the money, you've helped us a lot, you and the Buffybot. And not everyone has Anya's priorities."
"Thanks," said April, "but as I develop my own interests I expect that I will need my own space, I need to start thinking about setting up my own home. And for that I will need money."
"Can't argue with that," said Willow. "Anyway, we're all going to the Bronze tonight, would you like to come?"
"Thank you, but I think I would prefer to spend the evening reading and recharging. There are still many books in the house I have not read."
"Okay, if you're sure."
"Thank you. Would you like coffee..."
Willow and Buffy followed April into the kitchen, both looking slightly dazed. Tara said "Dawn, we'd better get that talisman."
Dawn nervously said "right," and led her upstairs.
"What's this about, Dawn?" asked Tara.
"It's not just the talisman. I... I've been taking things. From shops, and the Magic Box."
"Oh. Can you tell me why?"
"I don't really know, it's just... I was feeling really lonely, even before Mom died, the way everyone was acting around me was so weird. And I just started, I guess, just taking things. So that I'd feel... real, I guess."
"Do you think you'll still want to do that?"
"I don't know... not if things are coming back together again. You and Willow, and Buffy being more honest about Spike."
"Dawn, you can't tie your hopes to other people that way. Things could still go wrong.. with Buffy and Spike, or with Willow and me. We all love you, whatever happens, but you've got to understand that this isn't a perfect world, and things may not go as smoothly as you like."
"Okay, do you want to show me what you've got."
Dawn went to her jewellery box, and took out the tray to show an assortment of small trinkets underneath. Tara looked and sadly said "Dawnie... those are my earrings."
"I know. I just couldn't seem to see things like that without taking them."
"What about the rest?"
"These are from The Magic Box, those are from other shops. And that's Willow's talisman."
"I guess you've been busy. Look, you keep my earrings for now, let me have them back when you're ready. Why don't you wear them if you want to, if anyone asks I've loaned them to you. I'll take the rest and find a way to get them back to their rightful owners."
"Everything. What good is this stuff anyway? You don't even risk wearing the ordinary jewellery, as for the magical stuff... well, it's not doing you much good, is it?"
Dawn sighed. "Okay."
"That's good, Dawnie. Why don't you get dressed for the Bronze, I'll take care of this stuff. See you downstairs. And pick something nice to match the earrings, okay?"
They hugged, and Tara went down for coffee.
"Spike?" shouted Buffy, "You in here?"
"Coming," said a voice from the bowels of the earth. A moment later Spike popped out of the trap door in the floor of his tomb. "Here for some more fuel for your guilt-trip, Slayer?"
"Here for a quick shag then?"
"Want me to pummel some monster then?"
"What the hell do you want then?"
"Well, I thought you might like to come to the Bronze so that I can introduce everyone to my boyfriend."
"What, you've got yourself a Captain Cardboard replacement?"
"Spike... oh, the hell with it." Buffy pulled him close and kissed him, then said "I meant you, you idiot."
"What? Bloody hell..."
"This whole business about Willow's parents kinda freaked me out about keeping things secret, then Dawn worked out I was seeing someone and wormed it out of me. Willow and Tara know too. And I'm tired of hiding things. So you might as well start acting like my boyfriend and come along to the Bronze tonight."
"How the hell do the witches know?"
"They got back together this afternoon, that sort of made me tell Dawn."
"Okay... so you want me to be your official boyfriend. I guess I can go for that, but why not celebrate here?"
"Because Dawn wants to see Xander's face when I tell him, and I sort of owe her one for pushing me into this... and I'm not sure I can do this if we don't do it tonight."
"Xander.... oh yeah, what are we waiting for? Come on, Slayer, let's get down and boogie. I want to see the whelp squirm!"
"Okay, let's go. Oh, one thing..."
"Dawn says you won't be a perfect boyfriend, and I should make allowances. Now she's probably right, but I just want to remind you that allowances only go so far. I'm going to be letting you into my life, and if anything happens to hurt Dawn or my friends or anyone else as a result you're going to be history. Understood?"
"Understood... Hey, I guess that proves you really are my girlfriend."
"You just started nagging me. Historical bleedin' moment."
"Let's go, boyfriend."
"Okay, that's the Doublemeat Palace taken care of," said Kay, putting his neuralyzer away as he got back into the car. "They're remembering Buffy working a double shift today. I even took care of the time cards."
"Now tell me why you're being so nice," said Jay.
"Because she needs the money, and we need her help."
"Okay.. Back in the seventies I had a thing going with a Slayer for a while. I know what her life must be like, working minimum wage because she has to keep running off and can't keep a better job. I feel a little sorry for her."
"Nothing wrong with that, I suppose. Provided it doesn't affect the job."
"Don't worry, it never has so far."
"Okay. Hey, while you were in there I checked the computer, made sure that nobody's invading Earth or anything while we're stuck in the boondocks. It says that there have been three attempts to steal the car since we got here."
"Boondocks, remember. I know it'd be a couple of dozen in New York, but even three is on the high side for suburban California. Especially when the camera record shows that two of them are that guy Warren, and the third was that sidekick we caught. Those guys are beginning to bug me a little. Oh well, we've got two, how hard can it be to find the third?"
"It isn't really our job, slick, although we'll do it if he comes our way. Let's get back to the Rosenberg place and look through more of the records."
"Any word from New York on the deneuralyzer?"
Warren woke slowly, and gradually realised that there was something wrong. When the doctor knocked him out he'd been in a comfortable surgery, now he was in a dingy room with peeling wallpaper lying on a bare mattress. He ached all over, but his arm and leg weren't hurting more than the rest. He tried to sit up and felt dizzy and nauseous, but eventually managed it, and realised that there was something pinned to his shirt. A note.
Meers, your bank has refused to transfer the funds to cover your treatment. You owe us $6500. You have one week to pay, if not we take the other kidney.
Warren struggled to his feet, swaying, and checked himself in a broken mirror. There was a long dressing on his side and back, which he suspected was over his left kidney. Or where it had once been...
"What's this about, Buff?" asked Xander, as he and Anya joined Buffy, Willow, Tara, and Dawn at the Bronze.
"Well... short version, finding out about all the lies Willow's parents.. whatever.. told her made me decide that I wanted to get rid of the lies in my life."
"I've been seeing someone... I thought you guys might not like it, so I kinda kept quiet about it."
"Do you mean an orgasm someone?" asked Anya.
"Okay, yeah, you could put it that way."
"Why shouldn't we approve? It's not like you're getting back together with Angel, is it? Oh god, please don't say you're getting back together with Angel. I still have nightmares about last time."
"Relax, Xander, it isn't Angel."
"Dracula's come back and this time he's buying flowers?"
"And it isn't Riley again, I hope?"
"Nope. Haven't heard from him since he left."
"So who is it? Why won't we approve? Someone we hated at school? You've decided you're gay and you're dating Cordy?"
"Nope, still straight."
"So when do we meet this mysterious friend?"
"When he brings back our drinks from the bar."
"Hello whelp," said Spike, sitting down beside Buffy and putting a tray of drinks on the table.
"I wouldn't sit there if I were you," said Xander, "Buffy's boyfriend'll be back from the bar in a minute and..."
Buffy and Dawn watched his face, and waited as the penny finally dropped.
"...holy crap, are you out of your mind?"
"Eighteen seconds," said Dawn, checking her watch. "Willow wins."
"Are you out of your mind?" said Xander again, but louder.
"Nope," said Buffy. "Spike and I have been seeing each other for a while, we decided not to hide it any more."
"Are you out of your mind? He's a vampire!"
"You remember what happened with Angel?"
"Sure. It didn't happen with Spike. No soul to lose, remember?"
"It didn't happen? Past tense didn't?"
"What can I say, whelp," said Spike "it's a little late to object."
"This is great," said Anya, "Now you'll have a boyfriend to sit with at the wedding. Except I'll have to change the seating plan, darn it."
"Buffy," said Xander, "what if the chip goes wrong? He'd kill you in a second."
"No he wouldn't," said Buffy, "he can already hurt me if he wants to, for some reason the chip doesn't think I'm human."
"It's the resurrection spell," said Tara, "Willow and I agree that it modified your vital signs and aura just enough to confuse the chip."
"So that's what it is," said Spike, "I thought it meant she'd come back with a bit of demon in her."
"No," said Willow, "just Buffy with a deep magical suntan, sort of."
"Disappointed?" asked Buffy, pouting. Spike answered by kissing her.
"What about the rest of us?" said Xander. "Dawn? Willow and Tara? Anya and me?"
"You know how Spike looked after me when Buffy was gone," said Dawn, "how can you be so cruel? The chip didn't make him do that!"
"Spike helped all of us this summer," said Willow, "He could have let any one of us be killed a dozen times if he'd wanted to."
"Do you think they're gonna break for air any time soon?" Dawn whispered to Tara, watching Buffy and Spike.
"Well," said Tara, "Spike doesn't need to breathe and Buffy has Slayer endurance so my guess is it may be a while."
Xander said "So the rest of you are happy that Buffy is dating this... this..."
"Demon?" asked Anya.
"Yes. NO! Oh... the hell with it. You want a drink, Anya?"
"I'm not sure I want anything of yours right now, Xander."
"Xander," said Dawn, "Mom liked Spike. A lot more than she liked Angel. And you know that mom was a good judge of people."
"Anya, Dawn," said Willow, "you can't blame him for being concerned. But Xander, would you rather see Buffy with someone like Parker?"
"Well," said Xander, "if I have to pick between the undead and the slime I guess... I guess I'll go with the undead. At least I kinda know where I am with Spike."
"That's better," said Anya, "Spike, Buffy, Xander wants to apologise. Hello? HELLO?"
"Sorry," Buffy said eventually, a little breathlessly, "got kinda involved there."
"Xander?" asked Anya.
"I'm sorry... I guess. Spike, Buffy, I hope that you two will be happy together. Spike, if you hurt Buffy or Dawn or anyone else you're dust."
"I mean it."
"Okay... I guess I can take that as an apology. Don't worry, I'm not going to hurt Buffy or Niblet."
"Okay. You guys want a beer?"
"Thought you'd never ask."
"Spike, are you coming in?" Buffy asked a couple of hours later, after the others had gone inside the house.
"D'you want me to?"
"Sure. I want to spend time with you but I need to spend more time at home, that means you're going to be spending time here. But we're all gonna have to be up pretty early tomorrow, Dawn's got school and Willow, Tara, and I wand to see if the MIB guys can get Willow's memory back."
"Good thing neither of us need much sleep then."
They went inside.
Chapter 12: XI
"Spike," said April as he and Buffy entered the house. "My ex-boyfriend. Hello."
"Hello, um, April," said Spike. "Why did you call me that?"
"Because Spike is your name."
"No, ex-boyfriend. I was never your boyfriend. That was Warren."
"She's running some of the Buffybot program," said Willow.
"Oh bloody hell... I thought I asked you to edit that."
"I did, but it all got a bit mixed with the original April program, and that still has all the sex stuff in it from Warren. April, I'm sorry, I don't think Spike understands what's happened, do you think you can explain it to him?"
"Of course I can. Spike, I've moved on."
"Don't be upset Spike."
"Err... it's okay, April, I think I can handle it."
"You didn't desert me, so I like you more than I like Warren, but I don't love you now that I have free will."
"That's okay. Buffy and I are dating, and I don't think she'd like it if there was still something going on."
"That's right," said Buffy, "I'm not really keen on sharing my boyfriends."
"Okey-dokey," said April. "It's just as well, because I don't want him any more."
"I'm not your type?" asked Spike, for some odd reason feeling a little hurt.
"I'm not sure what my type is yet, although I'm pretty sure I'm not gay. I may have to build someone."
Spike cautiously said "best not to go that route, I don't think it worked too well for Warren. Or me, really."
"I guess you're right."
"I'm sure of it," said Spike, kissing Buffy.
"There's something odd here," said Jay.
"What now?" asked Kay.
"Remember when we first came in here and saw the dog, and it was a model we didn't know so you told me to take a full scan?"
"What about it?"
"Well, I was wondering why I hadn't spotted it as a combat model then, so I took another look at the scan records. Three guesses what I found."
"It looked like something harmless when you scanned it."
"Okay, one guess. The first scan showed no weapons, no unusual strength, nada. And there's nothing to indicate that there was anything stopping me from detecting the weapons. "
"Are you telling me that someone replaced the dog between one scan and the next?"
"I thought that, but if they did they replaced it with an absolutely identical combat model and put it into exactly the same position, to a fraction of an inch."
"So what do you think happened?" asked Kay, taking a look at the scanner records.
"I was wondering about something that demon guy said, the thing about time splitting and merging. We know we're dealing with a wish here, what if it's still making changes, fine-tuning for a particular result, and the change merged between one scan and the next."
"That particular change would have had to have been made several years ago, wouldn't it? When the Baltian ordered that dog? And what's the point anyway?"
"You've got me there. I'm just saying it's odd. If there is a particular effect these changes are after, it doesn't seem to be anything that benefits our missing alien or Willow Rosenberg or anyone else we've met so far. Take the dog, it doesn't seem to have been used in combat at all, so the only change is that what's his name, Andrew whatever, got his clothes shredded when we caught him. The car would have caught him anyway, so what's the difference?"
"Maybe the wish was made by someone who just doesn't like him... or his friends. If you think about it, they seem to be the ones that this whole thing is hurting more than anyone else. We've caught two of the three, and the other one is probably only a matter of time."
"Naah, couldn't be. That's just happening because we got involved. They're small-time punks, something would have probably happened to them eventually."
"We'll figure it out sooner or later."
"Shhh..." whispered Buffy early the following morning. "Why are you getting up now anyway? It's hours until dawn."
"Just remembered I've got something to do tonight, spot of business. I'm already a bit late."
"What sort of business goes on at four in the morning? And how much am I gonna dislike it when I find out about it?"
"Bloody hell, Slayer, cut a bloke some slack."
"I... we... need the money."
"Not that badly. In case it didn't sink in, April gave me seven thousand dollars and change today, and it was entirely legal. I don't know what your business is about, but if it's going on at this time of night I don't want to have anything to do with it."
"It'd be trouble for me, not you."
"That evening at the Magic Box was your trouble, remember? When we nearly got killed?"
"Yeah... You'll be after me to get a job next."
"It wouldn't kill you."
"Hah bloody ha."
"Come on, Spike, I know you. What's this about?"
"Bit of black market stuff. Suvolte demon eggs, worth a fortune to sorcerers. It's spawning in the tunnels near the dam, once it's gone I'll grab them, flog them and make a fortune. That demon Doc used to do it, I found a load of notes on how to look after them when I went through his papers. Now he's out of the picture someone else might as well take advantage. I mentioned it to some people at Willy's, I've already had offers."
"What do sorcerers use them for?"
"Oh, a bit like guard dogs only fiercer."
"How fierce, Spike?"
"About like a bear."
"And this thing's laying its eggs tonight?"
"Umm.. twenty or thirty, maybe."
"And how soon do they hatch?"
"Couple of weeks."
"So twenty or thirty of these things are gonna hatch on the outskirts of town in a week or two, and they're as dangerous as bears. If you don't sell them all what exactly were you planning to do with them?"
"Correct me if I'm wrong, but would I be right to guess that the Doc who invented this get-rich-quick scheme is the same Doc that tried to sacrifice Dawn and end the world after I beat Glory, when it was completely pointless?"
"Umm... if you put it that way..."
"Not exactly a recommendation, is it?"
"Spike, I guess I sort of love you but sometimes you're a moron. Get dressed. We're gonna take care of momma then make an omelette. And if you're really good I won't make you eat it."
"That was a really gross way to start the day," Buffy said over breakfast.
"Suvolte demons are really bad news," said Dawn, "I read about them once. They breed, leave the eggs near villages, then the eggs hatch and just keep eating until they're big enough to breed. Takes just a few weeks. They're like demon tribbles, they can wipe out whole areas."
"And Spike found it for you?" asked Tara, who was cooking flapjacks.
"Pretty much," said Buffy. "One of Doc's nasty little schemes, he wanted to breed them and sell them to magicians. Spike found the details in his papers."
"The same Doc that tried to kill me?" asked Dawn.
"That's right. Spike's gone back to his tomb to rest up, he's gonna bring all the papers over tonight, see if there's anything else we need to worry about."
"Morning..." Willow came into the kitchen and kissed Tara, "..where's April?"
"Thought she was in your room."
"Nope, really didn't want an audience last night," she said, blushing slightly. Tara turned bright red.
"She's watching TV," said Dawn, "think she plugged a cable into the headphone socket so she wouldn't disturb anyone."
"I thought she was reading last night."
"Oh, she's reading too. About a page every ten seconds. She's working her way through the encyclopaedia."
"Wow," said Buffy. "Must admit I kinda thought she'd be here making pancakes again, but if she has free will I guess she doesn't have to if she doesn't want to."
"Oh, she offered," said Tara, "but I pointed out that making breakfast was probably something Warren had put into her program. Besides, I like cooking. Why should she have to do it when she doesn't even eat?"
"Yours are better than hers," said Dawn loyally, "and both of you beat Buffy."
"Okay," said Buffy, "I admit I'm not the world's greatest chef. My talents lie in other directions."
"Maybe that's why you like undead boyfriends," teased Willow, "you never have to worry about their favourite foods."
"I used to cook for Riley."
"When?" asked Dawn, "You were both living on campus, the hardest thing I ever saw you cook for him was hot dogs and microwave pizza."
"Hot dogs can be quite difficult."
"Getting the onions cooked at just the right time isn't easy."
"I rest my case."
"Better not rest it too long, you've got school."
"Can't I come along with you again today?"
"Better not," said Willow, "I'll either be spending another day going through the Baltian records, which is kinda dull if you don't speak Baltian, or reliving my potty training if the MiB guys get the okay to restore that part of my memory. Can't see either as a popular spectator sport."
"Okay, but if the memory machine fries your brains or turns you into a fly or something and I'm not there to see it I'm gonna be really annoyed."
"Not as annoyed as I'll be. They probably won't let me use it anyway. Go to school, get educated, I'll be fine."
Warren tried another credit card in the ATM, and finally got results. It paid out five hundred dollars, telling him that he'd be charged for the transaction. He guessed another day before the card started to bounce, might as well make use of it before it was too late. His side and his head still ached, but at least he could walk now, thanks to the pins in his ankle.
There was a pawn shop across the road, and Warren knew that the owner sold guns and wasn't too bothered about registration. He wanted some heavy artillery by his side before he took on the bitch he was starting to realise was really responsible for his problems.
"We'll have to go in our car today," said Jay, "ought to be room for all three of you in back."
"How come?" asked Willow.
"Going after memories buried that deep in someone that young isn't simple. The scientists say they can do it, but it'll have to be at one of our main offices, not here."
"So the nearest is in San Francisco, and unless you want to fly or spend a couple of days on the road we'd better use our car."
"Must be faster than it looks."
"It is. Buckle in and I'll show you. Oh, and don't press any buttons, I don't think there's anything back there that can hurt you but I'd hate to be proved wrong the hard way."
Jay took the car to the outskirts of Sunnydale, waited for a spot of clear road, then took off.
"Holy Harry Potter!" said Buffy, once she'd got her breath back, "don't people kinda notice a flying car?"
"Force field. Anyone more than a few feet away sees sky," said Kay, "and we don't show up on radar."
"How fast are we going?" asked Willow nervously, glad that she was in the middle of the seat, looking out at the landscape that was streaking past a hundred or so feet below.
"I'm keeping us subsonic until we get well out over the ocean," said Jay, "then probably Mach 3. It isn't worth going faster on a short trip."
"Don't we need oxygen or something?" asked Tara.
"Don't worry, the car takes care of that. Kay, want to put on some music?"
"Okay." He pushed a button on the CD player, and it began to play Happiness is a Warm Gun. "Hope you ladies are okay with the Beatles."
"We're fine," said Buffy, remembering Adam, "but if that's the White Album skip Helter Skelter, there are bad memories."
"Won't take us that long to get there."
"Dawn is going to be so pissed," said Tara, "she would have loved this."
"Isn't really room for four passengers," said Kay, "but if we have time once we've found our alien I'll give her a joy-ride."
"Make it at night and Spike and I'll come along," said Buffy. "I think he'd enjoy it, I know he liked Repo Man, and we both want to spend more time with Dawn, she's been feeling a little left out of things. If you two are okay with that?" she belatedly asked Tara and Willow.
"I'm cool," said Willow, "I'm more of a feet on the ground girl."
"You're right," said Tara, "you and Dawn should do this, and it'd be good if she saw that she can still have fun with the two of you."
"How about you guys," she asked the MiB agents, "any problems with taking a vampire and a Slayer for a ride?"
"I guess not," said Kay, "if you're sure he can't bite anyone."
As I'm So Tired ended Jay said "Okay, we're supersonic, going to head a little further out then swing back in and North towards San Francisco.
"Wow, this beats the hell out of mom's Jeep," said Buffy, "Especially the part where there are no traffic jams. Will we have time to do some sightseeing?"
"Not if you want to be home before Dawn gets out of school, but I'll show you the Golden Gate bridge on the way in. Be about fifteen minutes."
The car swung in over San Francisco Bay and under the bridge, and they spent a few moments watching the city, then the windows suddenly went opaque.
"What the hell?" asked Buffy.
"Don't worry," said Kay, "we're under ground control. Can't let you see where the base is. Sorry, but this is supposed to be a secret operation, we're bending all the rules as it is."
There was a thump, the engines stopped, then they all felt it descending rapidly. "Vehicle lift, we'll be there in a minute." The windows cleared, and they saw an enormous platform marked as a helipad, quickly descending down a shaft the size of a tennis court. Every few seconds it passed a strip of windows. It stopped, and Jay drove the car forward towards a huge entrance and out into the largest room any of the women had ever seen.
"Welcome to San Francisco Spaceport," said Jay.
Chapter 13: XII
"This is amazing."
Buffy looked out across the gigantic hall, and vaguely realised that there was probably room to put the whole of Sunnydale Mall inside it and still have space left over for the high school and its grounds. Two or three times over, and stacked three or four deep. The distant walls had at least twenty levels of balconies, from what they could see of the nearer side each level was at least twenty feet high.
"Has to be big," said Jay, climbing out and opening the door on Buffy's side, "we get some of our biggest customers through here, the ones that like to go swimming. Some have to disguise themselves as whales or giant squid, that sort of thing."
Tara and Willow joined them, looking nervously at the crowd. About half looked human, as for the rest... well, it was probably just as well that Buffy wasn't carrying much in the way of weapons. "Are you okay with this?" asked Willow, "not feeling the urge to start slaying or anything?"
"I'm cool," said Buffy, but flinched as something with way too many tentacles slurped across the floor towards them, said something to Kay in a language she couldn't understand, then got into the car and drove it off. "And get it waxed!" Kay shouted after it.
"Aliens and valet parking," said Tara. "I hate to sound like Dawn, but this is so cool."
"The deneuralyzer lab is down the far end," said Kay. "Probably easiest to walk, it's only a mile or so and we might have to wait ten minutes for a buggy."
"Suits me," said Willow, "I want to sight-see." The others agreed. Kay pointed towards the far end of the hall and they started walking.
"Do you ever get demons coming through posing as aliens?" asked Buffy. "Or aliens posing as demons? Or alien demons?"
"Our identification procedures are pretty good," said Jay, "I'm not saying it isn't possible, but I think we'd notice. Of course we do get the occasional illegal landing, might be some coming in that way, but I don't think there are many. I'd guess that most of your problems are home-grown."
As they walked the women began to realise that Jay and Kay were the celebrities here. Everyone seemed to know them, and most of the black-clad men and women here seemed to be a little nervous around them. It reminded Buffy of the way she was sometimes treated by people (and nonhumans) who knew who she was. "Something tells me you're kinda senior in this organisation," said Buffy.
"We're field agents," said Jay, "take the point in operations. Only twenty or so active at the moment. There are lots more agents in support roles, of course, or working behind the scenes, but we're at the sharp end. Kay is about the most experienced there is."
"So why did you get stuck with me?" asked Willow.
"Office politics. I think we've annoyed Zed a few times this year, and the original business with your uncle.. sorry, you know what I mean.. was our case. Giving us something routine like this was his way of reminding us to tie off all the loose ends."
"Zed's the boss?" asked Buffy, "and this is routine?"
They dodged around a group of twenty or so kangaroo-like dinosaurs wearing Hawaiian shirts who seemed to be taking a group photo in front of a huge mural map of the Earth. The camera had six lenses and floated by itself in mid-air.
"That's right," said Jay. "The world isn't in danger, nobody's life is at stake, it should have been handled at a much lower level. Not that I'm complaining, it has got kind of interesting. Better stop here a moment."
A transparent container about a hundred feet long by fifty wide and high was descending towards a gigantic trailer parked on the floor ahead. It was full of water, inside floated something that looked like a sea serpent. There was barely room for it in the container.
"What's holding that thing up?" Willow asked nervously.
"Oh, B'urt there uses telekinesis," said Kay. "It's only about ten thousand tons. That's nothing to his species. Best not to get in his way while he's doing it though."
"Holy crap," said Buffy. It landed, and the trailer rolled off towards another entrance. "How come you know him?"
"B'urt had a little run-in with a Japanese whaling ship a couple of years ago, had the devil's own job getting them to apologise to him."
"What was he gonna do if they didn't?"
"Well, he was saying something about destroying Tokyo, but I think he would have settled for the whaling fleet."
"I'd have given him the fleet," said Tara grimly.
"I think he would have wanted the crews too," said Kay
"Oh... okay, not such a good idea then."
"This stuff is amazing," said Willow as they moved on, "but I'm seeing your guys use things that are way beyond the technology we normally have on Earth, like that car. How come?"
"We buy and impound a lot of technology that isn't suitable for general use. Things that could be used to commit an untraceable murder, totally disrupt the economy, that sort of thing. We regulate its release, make sure that nothing too disruptive goes on sale until we're ready for it, the patents pay a lot of our expenses. Velcro, Post-It notes, that sort of thing. Got it a little wrong with cellphones, but we're working on that."
"What about medical technology?" asked Buffy, coming to a stop. "How advanced would that be if you weren't putting the brakes on? Would my mother..." she couldn't finish the sentence.
"There's very little alien medical technology that's suitable for humans," said Kay, "we're just too different. What there is gets released as soon as we're sure it's safe, or have it adapted to human use. CAT scanners, some drugs, silicon implants, liposuction, that sort of thing."
"Okay, I guess you have to be careful."
"We do. There have been some near-misses and a couple we plain got wrong, drugs and therapies that did more harm than good. And when we're happy they still have to get past the FDA. I can't promise you that we couldn't have helped your mother, there might be something in the pipeline that could have cured her, but that's one we can't afford to mess up on. Not far to go now, when you're ready."
"Okay." The group started moving again.
Warren dodged down an alley to avoid the eighth black van he'd seen since leaving the ATM and wondered what the hell he'd done to bring down this much heat. He needed to get further out of town, that was for sure. By now Jonathan or Andrew must have given away the base, so that was out. So was his parents house, they must have that staked out too. Maybe.. maybe the best defence was a good offense. He started to walk towards Buffy's house.
"This is the latest model," said Kay, "supposed to be much better than earlier designs."
"Well," said Buffy, "as electric chairs go it looks reasonably comfortable."
"Thanks for that image," said Willow, sitting strapped to the black leatherette chair at the heart of the hugely complicated machine. "I was trying to think of it as Cerebro or something, now you spoiled it."
"Nobody's forcing you to do this," said Jay, "but the doctors seem to think it's safe if you don't try to resist it."
"What'll happen if I do?"
"It might cause more harm than good, maybe damage more of your memory."
"Would it help if Willow was in a trance?" asked Tara.
"The more relaxed she is the better."
"Okay.. Trust me, baby?"
"Always. It's me that can't be trusted."
"Sure you can't. Okay, just give me a second..." she rummaged in her bag, and pulled out a small incense burner on a cord and a vial of colourless fluid, and lit the incense. "Now close your eyes and count down slowly from twenty."
"Twenty." Tara dabbed her finger-tip into the vial and delicately touched it to Willow's left eyelid.
"Nineteen." Tara gently touched the other eye.
"Eighteen." Tara began to swing the burner over Willow's head.
"Seventeen." A spiral trail of glowing smoke streamed down, and seemed to snake towards Willow's nostrils.
Tara said "Somnos."
"Fifeee...." Willow trailed off into silence.
Tara kissed Willow's forehead, and whispered something in her ear, then stepped away. "She was already worn out, not much sleep the last couple of nights, she'll stay like this until I wake her."
"Okay," said Jay, "Ladies, we'll have to do this from the control room, you really don't want to be in here when that machine is running."
"Is Willow really safe?" asked Buffy.
"She is. We aren't."
"Okay, let's go to the control room."
Warren went to the door and knocked. Everyone ought to be out, he'd give it a minute then pick the lock. If anyone was in he had the gun.
There was a rattle, and the door opened. April looked out, saw him, and said "Warren, it's you."
"Yeah baby. Over-ride Kitty Fantastico."
She smiled. "Yes master, what do you desire?"
"YES!!! I knew that bitch wouldn't think of changing the code again." He walked in, April closed the door behind him. "Okay, baby, where is everyone?"
"Buffy, Tara, and Willow have gone out with two men, Dawn has gone to school."
"Excellent. Okay, baby, I think you'd better keep me entertained until everyone comes home, I've got some unfinished business with those bitches."
"Oh Warren, I know a great game we can play," April said, moving forward to take his hands in hers.
"Yeah, baby, what's it called?"
"It's called 'Guess my new over-ride code', asshole!"
Suddenly April wasn't smiling, and her grip was getting very strong.
They stood in the observation room next to the deneuralyzer chamber, watching the chair through a thick glass window. Willow sat in the chair while strange pieces of machinery the size of refrigerators whirled around her in an intricate dance. "It's looking good," said the technician operating the machine, looking at a complex computer display; by his side a tentacled alien of a different type to the parking valet held up a small slate and pen, writing "located memory block, patient resting calmly. Looking good. Push the button, Kay?"
"Sure," said Kay, "Push the button, M'ax."
The machine began to whine like the USS Enterprise going into warp drive, and lines of data began to flow down the screen. "What the hell?" said the human technician.
There was a sudden thud, and the machinery seemed to fly apart. Huge chunks of metal flew apart, thudding into the chamber walls and the window with explosive force. The glass cracked, and Buffy screamed "Get down!", grabbed Tara and Kay and pulled them down behind one of the control panels. The technicians ducked behind another. There was another loud bang, and shards of metal and glass rained across the control room, gradually tinkling to silence. Once the noise had stopped they picked themselves up and stared into the deneuralyzer chamber.
The chamber was strewn with shards of broken machinery, twisted metal and circuit boards, pieces of crystal and shattered plastic. All that was left was the chair. Floating two feet above it was Willow, her eyes and hair jet black, seemingly supported by flickers of dark lightning. She jerked, as though suddenly electrocuted and screamed "Tara!"
Chapter 14: XIII
"She's still in a trance," said Tara, "I've got to kiss her to her to wake her. It's like she's sleepwalking."
"Yeah," said Buffy, "sleepwalking in mid-air and throwing out lightning bolts."
"That isn't lightning," shouted Jay, looking at his scanner, "looks like it, but it isn't normal electricity."
"Try the setting I showed you for magic," said Kay
"Tried it already. The screen's gone black."
"She's burning out, going to hurt herself if I don't get to her," said Tara, and began to pick her way over the debris towards the door.
"There's something big jammed against the door," said Kay, "Can you climb over the consoles and through the window without cutting yourself?"
"No need," said Buffy, picking her up, "Hold tight..."
Buffy held Tara like a baby, took a short run, and jumped over the control consoles and through the gap in the glass, landing softly a few feet from Willow.
"I have to kiss her," said Tara.
Buffy lifted her to sit on her shoulder and walked towards Willow. Bolts of black lightning zapped into the floor around them, scattering the debris and starting small fires, but somehow neither of them was hit.
"Can you reach," asked Buffy.
"Just a little closer." Tara reached out and hugged Willow, and began to kiss her. They both rose into the air, until Tara's heels were level with Buffy's shoulder. Then the lightning began to die down, Willow's hair gradually faded to red, and her eyes began to clear as she started to sob. Suddenly the spell broke and both witches fell, landing on top of Buffy and knocking her to the floor.
"Guys!" said Buffy faintly, and began to wriggle out from under. Tara pulled herself together and began to help Willow up, and soon she was back in the chair, still sobbing.
"Willow," whispered Buffy, "can you tell us anything? What happened?"
"I did. I changed things. I... I did it..." Suddenly she was starting to smile through her tears. "This time I got it right. I beat the bastard. I beat him! This time Warren doesn't kill Tara!"
"Over-ride code wombat?"
"Over-ride code xylophone?"
"Over-ride code yeti?"
"Over-ride code zebra."
"Nope. That makes three times you've been through the alphabet," said April. "I'm bored now, so I'm going to call the police. I think that there may be a reward for you, and Buffy needs the money." She moved to grasp both of Warren's wrists in one hand; somehow he managed to get a hand free, draw his gun, and shoot her in the abdomen at point-blank range. Shards of soft plastic showered onto the floor, revealing the harder plastic and metal beneath, and flames began to flicker over one of her fuel cells. She stumbled and staggered back, landing on her side on the kitchen floor.
"Burn you bitch!" shouted Warren. The flames became brighter, and clouds of black smoke appeared. Smoke alarms began to beep. Warren suddenly realised that the fuel cells could explode and beat a hasty retreat from the house, hoping that it would burn to the ground. He'd have another try later, when the women were off-guard.
In the kitchen the heat burst a 5-gallon bottle of mineral water, which gushed down onto April's body. The fire slowly went out, leaving her hideously damaged.
"This is difficult to explain," said Willow, sipping from a bottle of water Buffy had found in her bag. "It all begins with the invisibility machine. The first time around Warren shot Tara, not you."
"But the machine wasn't that dangerous," said Buffy, "okay, so things slowly fell apart... oh. Oh!"
"They used it on Tara, and she wasn't as strong as you," she began to sob, "and we had no idea who had done it. I wouldn't leave her, didn't think of looking for clues. We were still trying to work out why someone would make her invisible when she began to... come apart. You died in my arms, Tara, and there wasn't even anything to bury, just sort of... invisible goo."
"I'm here," said Tara, patting her back. "Breathe."
"So I think I kinda went mad, and started looking for a way to change things. I tried to summon Osiris but he said it was a murder committed by men, not by magic, and wouldn't help. Then I thought of D'Hoffryn. I couldn't find his talisman, but I worked out a way to summon him anyway, and said I wanted revenge on your murderer. What I really wanted to do was make a wish, something that would get you back. Instead he offered to make me a vengeance demon, and like an idiot I jumped at it."
"Why an idiot?" asked Jay.
"Vengeance demons can't grant their own wishes. I had no way to make a wish that would get me what I wanted. So I thought about the powers I had and tried to find a loophole. In the end I did."
"How?" asked Buffy.
"I realised that I had to cast a vengeance spell that would change the past in such a way that I had never been a vengeance demon, another change would have to be that Tara wasn't in the line of fire that day. It had to change the past, but leave things close enough to the way they were that we were still lovers, still together. The trouble was that the spell had to include an element of retribution and bring grief to the person that made the wish, that's all part of the package. So I began to grant wishes, feeling for anything I could use. About a day in I felt someone about to make a wish, and teleported to this tiny little creature that I thought was some sort of demon. She made a wish, and I could feel that if I granted it the right way things would start to come out right. So I did."
"So what happened to your mother? The Baltian?"
"Don't you get it? To help me the spell had to affect the past. She wanted to be human, I made her human, but considering the size she had to be an embryo. So I slammed her back into the past. My past."
"You're...?" Buffy struggled, but couldn't quite finish the sentence.
"Yes, but It's more complicated than that."
Jay groaned. Tara stood by the chair, holding Willow's hands so tightly that her fingers were turning white.
"Mom became me, and things went a little differently. I must have been about eighteen months old when I began to speak Baltian, my memories - no, mom's memories - were starting to come back. She - I - thought that I'd somehow heard her dictating her reports, and wiped my memory so that the experiment wasn't contaminated. That time Warren ran Tara down as he was getting away after they shot you with the invisibility ray. After you both died I went looking for vengeance. Time after that Warren was using some sort of mind control magic, turned Tara into his slave, she fell down some stairs and broke her neck when she tried to get away from him. There were others, just as bad or worse."
She was crying as she remembered.
"Every time I did the same thing, summoned D'Hoffryn and tried to put things right, because I didn't know any better. It feels like it went round at least a dozen times, and I know that there must be hundreds of time lines where the same things happened without me thinking of using the amulet, or where they happened to other people, or where I found a different answer, or where I was the one that was killed. The last time it went back to the beginning, with the invisibility ray, and I somehow changed things just a little differently, so that Jay and Kay got the job of investigating mom instead of the guys who dealt with it in other time-lines. Every other time they just wrote her... me... off as missing, presumed dead, I never even knew what was going on. This time you guys wouldn't let it rest, and you let me use the machine. This thing I created is a horrible tangled mess of blood, death, and vengeance, but this time I remember what happened before it's too late, thanks to this machine. I remember too much... ten or twelve repeats of my life, plus fifty-odd years as a Baltian before that. But I think it finally started to come out okay."
"We're all alive," said Buffy, "I guess that's a good start."
"And Warren is getting what he deserves," said Willow.
"Willow..." said Tara.
"I can't stop it. Don't have the powers or knowledge to change things any more, wouldn't if I could. This is the world where things have changed, where everything that Warren has turns to dust and ashes. The more he fights it, the worse things get for him. The trouble with vengeance spells, there has to be a victim. I can't think of anyone better."
16.32.03/05 - Circuit breakers reset
16.33.05/10 - Reboot
16.34.09/40 - Damage control check complete:
16.34.10/16 - No current fire hazard
16.34.10/19 - Fuel cell 01 destroyed
16.34.10/22 - Fuel cell 02 inoperative
16.34.10/25 - Fuel cell 03 90% charged and operational
16.34.10/28 - Fuel cell 04 80% charged and operational
16.34.10/32 - Left leg 85% operational
16.34.10/35 - Right leg 100% operational
16.34.10/38 - Gyrostabilisers 75% operational
16.34.10/41 - Waist 55% operational
16.34.10/44 - Upper torso 100% operational
16.34.10/47 - Computer system 100% operational
16.34.11/01 - AI operational : Accessing personality : Accessing memories
April opened her eyes and tried to sit up. She realised that once-molten plastic was gluing her to the floor and began to peel off the burnt remnants of her dress and the damaged sections of skin, using her sharp nails to slice through the soft plastic. Eventually she was clear, and pulled herself to her feet with difficulty. Most of her left side from her waist downwards was bare metal, plastic, motors and wiring, with fragments of the outer skin remaining here and there. She lurched as she walked, and found it difficult to keep her balance, so practiced walking on the kitchen floor before heading upstairs to Willow's room to look for clothes. Eventually she found some jeans and a sweat-shirt that more or less fitted and covered the worst of the damage, and added a pair of sneakers, with the left foot padded out with socks to fit over the bare metal. A few strips of packing tape helped to hold it in place under the jeans.
She hobbled down to the kitchen and examined the answering machine, eventually working out how to make it record a message.
"This is April. Warren was here at 15.35 hours, he had a gun and has shot me. He has caused some damage, but I am sufficiently functional to pursue him. Please be careful; I think that he planned to harm someone. I'm sorry about the mess in the kitchen, the plastic should come off the floor if you use an industrial cleanser. I'll discuss repairs with Willow when I return. I must go now and find Warren and deal with him. When I have done so I'll be back."
Chapter 15: XIV
"Willow," Tara said hesitantly, as Buffy and the MIB agents worked on unblocking the exit to the deneuralyzer room. "All those extra memories, are you sure you're okay?"
"I think so. I'm still me, all of the old memories are... well, I guess, old memories, kinda an overlay over the things I already know. It was the sudden rush of them that shook me just now, all of those versions of you... us."
"But what about your mother? That must be really strange."
"I think I can handle it. It's so... I guess the word is remote. It's like a small part of me was this really weird little alien student. She just wasn't good at relationships, even with her own kind. I know who she was, I guess, who her family are, looks like I have a couple of cousins on Baltia but nobody particularly close, but what she was isn't me. I've got the memories, I suppose that technically I am her in some ways, but it just doesn't feel real. It's all filtered and interpreted by my human brain and memories and perceptions, whatever I did to make her... make me human changed things pretty radically. Some of her is in me, I guess, I think the computer and science geek side of me, but the human memories are much stronger. I have this weird idea that she envied me, envied us, because we'd found each other, found love, but that's about it."
"You don't want to go back?"
"Wouldn't if I could. Basically, I've gone from being a twenty-one year old gay Wicca with too much magic and a college fund that's barely in the black to a two-hundred or so year old alien with too much magic and an unreasonable amount of Baltian money, if my memories are accurate. Still gay though."
"Oh well," said Tara, hugging her, "nobody's perfect." After a couple of minutes she asked "What about the human side of it?"
"Lots of memories. But they're mostly the same except for the last couple of months, and some things to come, so it isn't so much to take on board."
"You can remember the future? Goddess, that sounds weird."
"It isn't one future, there are different versions, all of them feel pretty blurry, and I don't know which we're gonna get. Probably none of them, things have already changed pretty radically. The whole Spike thing, and the new improved April, and Warren on the run, none of that's in my memories. I just don't know, we can try to take precautions against the things I remember but I think we'll just have to play things as they come."
"That makes sense. Now you have to make me a promise."
"No more vengeance. Even if Warren does somehow hurt me, promise me that you won't do this to yourself again. You've put yourself through.. I guess hundreds of years of suffering, and I love you for it but it has to stop."
"I'd do it again in a heartbeat if anything happened to you."
Tara hugged her again. "Baby, people die. It's the normal human condition. You could protect me from Warren forever but I could still walk under a car tomorrow, or have a safe dropped on my head accidentally. I'm glad you did it, I guess, and I love you for it, but it stops here."
"But nothing. I've seen your resolve face, this is mine. It stops here, whatever happens."
"What about Warren?"
"I guess we take a lot of care, he's more dangerous than we thought. But if he does somehow hurt one of us, you have to promise me that you won't try to change things again, not like this."
There was a quiet cough, and everyone looked around. D'Hoffryn was standing next to one of the broken machines. "So that's what happened," he said.
"'Fraid so," said Willow, "looks like I dropped out of being a vengeance demon, and I just promised not to go back."
"Yes... very few leave my service voluntarily. Usually I find ways to.. punish them for their disloyalty."
"Punish?" said Buffy, walking back with a length of heavy steel pipe in her hands, just the right size for hitting uncooperative demons.
"Oh, don't worry, I'm not planning to hurt any of you or your friends, Anyanka would never forgive me. Technically speaking Willow never actually worked for me, at least not in this universe as it currently exists."
"I feel a big 'but' coming on," said Willow.
"I've decided to withdraw my offer of employment. You obviously aren't Vengeance Demon material. Even if you changed your mind again I'd always be looking for ulterior motives in your vengeance, and there are enough demons waiting to stab me in the back as it is. I'd be grateful for the return of my talisman, I believe Miss McClay has it."
"Sure," said Tara. "But can I ask a small favour?"
"I'm not really in the favour business, but you may ask."
"It's a little private. Can I whisper? Sorry guys, talk amongst yourselves."
Tara walked to the other side of the room with D'Hoffryn, and quietly said "I've got your talisman, and some other stuff that belongs to other people. Can you get it back to the true owners, without them knowing who had the stuff or causing trouble for anyone?"
"It goes against the grain but... very well. For someone who can inspire such an act of vengeance..."
"And you promise you won't hurt Willow for this?"
Tara pulled out a knotted silk scarf containing Dawn's stolen hoard. "Hmm," said D'Hoffryn, "returning these items will cause some amusing confusion, even if the owners don't know where they have come from. Very well." The scarf flattened, like a balloon losing its air.
"Thanks," said Tara. On an impulse she kissed him on the cheek, and thought that he blushed slightly. "See you at the wedding?"
"I wouldn't miss it for the world." He vanished.
"Okay," said Tara, walking back to Willow. "He's taken the talisman, and I think he's cool about the whole taking advantage of vengeance demon powers thing."
"And..?" asked Willow. "What was the whispering about?"
"Well..." Tara thought furiously, then said "I asked him to get rid of some.. uh.. other things while he was taking the talisman. Stuff I still had around that I want to be rid of if we're.. um.. back together, but couldn't just dump in the trash."
"Stuff you don't trust me with? You're probably right, I still have a way to go."
"Ummm... Anyway, he was cool on that, but I got some odd vibes. It may be nothing, but I got a sort of feeling that he's kinda looking forward to Anya's wedding. Really looking forward, like he thinks something interesting's gonna happen."
"Yeah, I have a feeling about the wedding too, I guess I went to it in one or another of my lives. Not good. I'll try to remember more."
"Definitely," said Buffy, "we'd better be ready for problems."
"Okay," Kay said a few minutes later, "that's the door open. Now we need to sit down somewhere and discuss Willow's legal problems."
"Legal problems?" asked Willow.
"We've established that you're your mother, which means that you're an illegal alien. We need to discuss arrangements for your return to your world of origin."
"I think we need mochas," Willow said faintly. "Lots and lots of mochas."
"How the hell does an underground complex catering for aliens come to have a Starbucks?" Buffy asked.
"This was their first franchise on Earth," said Jay, "they keep it open for sentimental reasons. Wish they'd put one into our New York base, all we have is a couple of Mister Coffee machines in the rec room."
"Are you saying that Starbucks is owned by aliens?" asked Tara.
"Starbucks, Doublemeat Palace, quite a few other franchises. What they sell varies according to the world, of course, but not as much as you might think."
"I think you've just explained a lot about my job," said Buffy, "not to mention why there's nothing resembling meat in a doublemeat medley."
"Now about being an illegal alien," Willow began. "I don't think that can be right, if what I think I remember about the Treaty of Tycho still holds."
"Why would that be?" asked Kay.
"First, I'm human. I may have some Baltian memories, but I have a human body and mostly human memories. I don't remember much about the spells I used as a vengeance demon, but I'm pretty sure they didn't create me, they took the baby that was always due to become me and slammed her back into me. Don't even know when it happened, maybe in the womb, maybe when I was a few weeks old. I'd guess around the time I was fostered by Sheila and... well, by Sheila. It isn't her name, but it'll do. The point is, I was conceived and born of human stock on Earth."
"There are plenty of aliens that can turn themselves into copies of humans," argued Kay. "that's not necessarily enough to prove you've a right to Terran residency."
"Doesn't your machine show her as human?" asked Tara.
"Sure, but it isn't always reliable. The power levels she shows certainly aren't normal for a human."
"How do I rate on that scale?"
"Okay, you got me there, not exactly normal. But the point still stands."
"Let's try another," said Willow. "You actually have no evidence that I'm a Baltian apart from my word. I could be lying. Maybe my mom coached me and I'm covering for her."
"We have the deneuralyzer records," said Kay, "They'd show the Baltian neural signature."
"Actually we don't," said Jay, "I think that machine kinda melted."
"Damn. Well, we could scan her again."
"Violates my civil right against self-incrimination if you use human law," said Willow, "and my rights as a sentient being if you go by the Treaty of Tycho."
"And another thing, isn't there a clause in there somewhere about deportation being illegal if the deported person will die as a result?"
"What?" asked Buffy, "if there's someone wants to kill you.."
"No, nothing like that, but humans can't live on Baltia. They don't even have bathrooms our size, and we can't breathe the air for more than a few minutes."
"That's a good point," said Jay.
"Not to mention that I wouldn't actually fit into any Baltian spaceship."
"They could always pack you in the hold."
"Sure, radiation and no air. Think that one's illegal under the treaty too."
"Okay," said Kay.
"What do you mean?"
"I'm glad you came up with those arguments on your own, because otherwise I would have had to coach you. I agree, it's absurd to treat you as anything other than human. I just needed to make sure that we've all got our arguments straight before I tell my boss and the Baltians what happened. Welcome to the human race. Or possibly to dual nationality, we'll have to see what the lawyers say."
"Your Baltian family. I'd imagine they'll want to settle your uncle's estate, not to mention yours. I can't promise anything, but if they agree that you're her and alive I'd guess that at the end of it you'll be a pretty wealthy woman. Probably not as much as if you were a Baltian, but wealthy."
"That's cool. Any way to get an advance on it? We could really do with some money for repairs and other expenses."
"Don't you have access to your mother's bank account?"
"No... but I wonder if I could activate the body suit and get her to sign a few checks..."
"I'm not going to try to stop you."
"What about that stuff?" asked Tara, "Won't you be taking it away?"
"Eventually, once the courts have established that Willow's our missing alien and doesn't need them to survive. Until we do it'd be illegal to take them away, a real Baltian can't live without a body suit so they'd be classed as essential life-saving equipment. Just don't try to take them apart or patent any of the technology, that really would be a major offence."
"What about the dog?" asked Buffy.
"That's totally illegal, she should never have imported it. Expect to pay a hefty fine out of that inheritance if you get it, Willow."
"I guess I can live with that."
Buffy's cellphone began to beep, and she answered. "Yeah? Dawn, what's happened?... Okay, get out of the house, get somewhere safe before dark, Spike's crypt is probably best, even Warren wouldn't risk going there, I hope. If it isn't the crypt call me and let me know where you are... No, definitely not, we've found out a few things about him today, there's no way that I want you anywhere that might be in the line of fire. Okay, we'll be back in Sunnydale in a half hour or so, I'll see you soon. And be careful. I love you."
She closed the phone, and said "We have to leave. Now. Warren's running around with a gun, he's shot April and hurt.. damaged her, now she's out trying to track him down. Dawn found a message from her when she got home, I can't believe it's got so late. If Willow's memories are right there's no telling what he might do, we've got to catch him now and make sure that Dawn and everyone else is safe."
"Okay," said Jay, "get to the pad, I'll have the car bought round, we can be back in twenty minutes if I take the direct route and ignore speed limits."
"So where do I go for magic these days?" Warren asked Willy.
"Magic? Whad'ya mean, magic?"
Warren peeled a twenty from his dwindling roll of bills. "Oh, magic. Well, let's see, the Magic Box is your best bet for books and materials."
"Can't go there."
Willy said nothing. Warren produced another ten.
"Last of the big spenders, aren't ya. Well, Doc's long gone, so I guess that leaves Rack. He can maybe sell you something, but it won't be cheap."
"I just need a spell, something to cut through a witch's defences and give me a fighting chance."
"Okay, Rack's probably your guy."
"How do I find him?" said Warren, then produced a five when Willy didn't answer.
"Boy, that's really cheap. Now I'm feeling insulted." Warren gave him another ten cents and let him see the gun.
"On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with a little thrift. This week the entrance to Rack's place is in Wilkins Alley, just west of Aurelius Street. Look for the air feeling weird."
He went out. Willy pocketed the money and went back to polishing the bar. About ten minutes later a woman came in, wearing an unseasonably heavy sweat shirt. "Hi."
"Hi. I'm looking for Warren, can you help me find him?"
"What's it worth?"
April wrenched a metal bar stool from the floor and bent the main support column into a U.
"I'm looking for Warren, can you help me find him?"
"If you put it that way... he was here about ten minutes ago, went looking for a wizard called Rack."
"Where do I find this Rack."
"His place moves around, tonight the entrance is in Wilkins Alley, just west of Aurelius Street. Look for the air feeling weird."
"I'm not sure that I know what that means, but thank you. Have a nice day."
"Can't this thing go any faster?" asked Buffy.
"We're doing Mach five, can't do better than that without going a lot higher, and we'd lose as much time climbing for altitude as we gained from the extra speed."
"Got a radio?" asked Willow, "and can it transmit Baltian l'tunkyr modulation and G'trusk coding?"
"Good. Give me the mike, I need to give my parents a wake-up call..."
Chapter 16: XV
"Let's make sure I've got this right," said Spike, "Warren's running around with a gun and robo-bimbo's gone robo-Rambo after him? And he's already shot her?"
"April's a lot more than a bimbo," said Dawn, "Willow thinks that she's learning to think like a real person. So do I, I guess."
"Well, if it's a toss-up between April and bloody Warren I'd pick April any day. Trouble is that I can't hurt sodding Warren."
"I think Buffy thinks that you'll scare him off if he's anywhere around. We don't think Warren knows about the chip."
"Oh, he knows, but he doesn't know what it does."
"How does he know?"
"Remember, Warren? The guy who built the Buffybot? Only scientist I knew who wasn't trying to kill me or mess up my brain? Back before anyone bothered to tell me that Warren and his mates were giving Buffy a hard time I thought the chip wasn't working properly and went to see him, made him check it out. He ran some sort of testing machine over my head, said it was fine, but he didn't know what it was and I didn't tell him."
"Was that when you found out you could hurt Buffy?"
"Yeah. I thought it might be going wrong, wanted to make sure I wasn't going to start hurting people again." It wasn't the precise truth, but it was close enough for Spike's purposes.
"You wouldn't do that!"
"I dunno, give me the right person and a nice bottle of chianti and I might start." He looked at Dawn and pretended to lick his lips.
"You've been watching 'Silence of the Lambs' again," Dawn said, completely unafraid.
"Always did like the classic comedies. Anyway, Warren didn't know what the chip was, but he may have figured it out since then. If he had I think he would have been here offering me some sort of deal, like if I killed Buffy he'd deactivate it completely, but it could be he knows and just never got round to doing anything about it."
"Don't worry, I'll do my best to protect you, I guess I can try to take his gun away without hurting him or something."
The door scraped open and Spike scuttled back from the evening sunlight, ready to try to fight if it was Warren. Instead Buffy came in, hugged Dawn, then turned to Spike and kissed him. Dawn shrugged and pushed the door closed, and waited patiently for them to break.
"This is nice," Spike said eventually, "but I think we'd better get to work."
"Oh.." said Buffy, coming back to reality. "Right."
"How did it go with Willow?" asked Dawn, "Did she get her memory back?"
"Yes, and we've sort of worked out what happened."
"Sort of?" asked Spike.
"It's really complicated. The important part is that she's changed the past, saved Tara from Warren, now we have to make sure that he doesn't kill anyone this time around."
"I don't understand," said Dawn. Buffy tried to explain.
"So Willow's been an alien and a sodding vengeance demon and her own bloody mother and father and the hell hound that had me worried a few weeks ago? All at the same time?" asked Spike.
"That's about it."
"I always said that there was more to Red than met the eye, but this is bleeding ridiculous."
"She's trying to cope with it all, but she's terrified that Warren will get to Tara or someone else before this is over."
"Where are the witches anyway?"
"At home. Willow's parents are guarding the house."
"I thought you said.."
"Willow can give them verbal commands, without a Baltian at the controls they're about as smart as the original Buffybot."
"That's creepy," said Dawn.
"Willow wanted to activate the seventies versions too, but they weren't charged up or something."
"Okay, now that one would really creep me out. Willow's dad as the Fonz."
"So what's the plan?" asked Spike.
"Jay and Kay are waiting outside the cemetery, they said they'll take Dawn home before they head off for New York. Now that they know the score with Willow's.. um.. mom they've got to report back. Dawn, I sort of trust them but don't let either of them use that neuralyzer gadget on any of you before they go. It looks like a pen, and Willow said they put dark glasses on before they used it. You see anything like that, cover your eyes and kick them where it hurts. Once they're gone I want you to sit down with Willow and Tara while Willow's memory is still fresh and find out everything she can remember about Xander's wedding and anything else that's going to happen over the next few months, if she isn't too tired. But try not to remind her about the other stuff she remembers that hasn't happened, especially Tara getting killed."
"And see if she can remember any lottery numbers or winning horses or baseball scores while she's at it," said Spike.
"Why me?" asked Dawn, "Don't you think someone else could do a better job?"
"You've spent a lot more time with Willow and Tara than I have over the last six months or so, what with me being dead and all. I think you might be able to dig a little deeper without upsetting her, maybe think of questions that wouldn't occur to me."
"You sure this isn't just an excuse to get me out of the way?"
"Well... okay, I really don't want you anywhere near Warren and guns, but I think it's important to get after those memories before they fade, and it can't be me because someone needs to stop Warren and April from killing each other."
"Buffy... I like April, but she's a robot."
"I know. But she's at least as human as Warren in my book."
"Can't argue with that. Has someone warned Anya and Xander to keep clear?"
"Called them on the way, they're going to spend the evening at home."
"Adding to demon-girl's orgasm count, I'll wager," said Spike.
"That's one bet nobody's stupid enough to take," said Dawn.
"It's dark enough for us to head out," said Buffy, "let's get moving."
* * * * *
"You want to hurt a witch?" asked Rack.
"Yeah..." said Warren, looking round Rack's sanctum and guessing that he'd never got over the sixties. "Interfering bitch, I think she's put some sort of hex on me. Everything I try to do keeps going wrong."
"I can feel it... your destiny. The more you fight it, the worse it becomes."
"Yeah? Well, mister Glock and I have other ideas, and I've got some dead presidents for you if you help me."
"You want a way to get to her, a way past her defences?"
"This witch.. Willow?"
"Yeah.. how did you know?"
"I felt her power today. She knows now, knows that you're linked, and that she has to stop you. Her friends know too, the vampire and the Slayer."
"No problemo, I've got a fix for him. Same for the Slayer, she's not bulletproof."
"Then your problem is Willow. I can give you one chance, a way to get past her defences, but there are no guarantees."
"I'll try it, I can't go on like this."
Rack produced a small porcelain bottle, a knife, a pestle and mortar and some herbs. "Cut your finger, put a little blood into the pestle."
"You'll live." Rack ground herbs into the mortar and seemed to concentrate. Gradually the mixture began to glow, and he poured a stream of bright blue fire into the bottle. "Drink this just before you go to the witch. She won't see you coming."
* * * * *
"WilkinsAlley,justwestofAureliusStreet.Lookfortheairfeelingweird." Willie screamed as Buffy and Spike walked into his bar.
"What?" asked Buffy.
"Wilkins Alley, just west of Aurelius Street. Look for the air feeling weird."
"And that would be because...?"
"That's where Rack is."
"And the Slayer wants Rack because...?" asked Spike.
"That really strong chick was headed that way. After she tore up the bar, about fifteen minutes ago."
"Told you I smelled her. And why would the lovely April be going there?"
"She's after that Warren guy."
"Okay," said Buffy, "did Warren say why he was going there?"
"You know, the seats here look lopsided with one missing. Should I take one from the other side to match the space?"
"No, it's fine..."
"You sure now?"
"Positive.. uh, he said he was after something to get past a witch's defences."
"And you told him Rack could help?"
"How would I know? I just wanted to get rid of the creep when he started waving a gun around."
"You didn't think of maybe calling the police? No, stupid question."
"If I start calling the police how many customers am I going to keep?"
"Looks like none right now," said Buffy, looking around the empty bar. "Where is everyone anyway?"
"Most of them split when that freak started ripping up the seats, the rest beat it when someone guessed you'd probably come in next."
"Figures. If you see Warren again call me, you've got my number. Otherwise I may have to rethink remodelling the bar."
* * * * *
The door to the inner room flew off its hinges, and Rack looked up to see a girl standing in the entrance.
"Mister Rack? My name's April, I'm looking for Warren, can you help?"
"Hello, honey, who are you? Or maybe I should ask, what are you?"
"Someone looking for Warren, can you help?"
"Warren... Can't say I know a Warren."
"Can't or won't?" asked April, coming closer.
"That'd be telling."
"I really do want Warren," said April, picking Rack up by the lapels.
"What are you? Let me have a little taste..." Rack put his hands to April's head and cast the spell that let him sample his victim's memories. A second later his eyes rolled back in their sockets and he began to murmur "1011010010101001 0100101010001000 0100010010001111..."
April listened for a minute or so, then said "Thank you", dropped him onto a bean bag chair and walked out.
* * * * *
"Okay," said Dawn, "so you think a stranger talks to Xander at the wedding and he just walks away?"
"Got to be some sort of spell," said Willow. "Or maybe a demon's thrall, like Dracula. Don't think I ever quite knew the full story."
"D'you think Anya's ex-boss sets it up?" asked Tara
"No, but I'm pretty sure he isn't unhappy about it. I know that in some of the lives I remember she goes back to being a demon."
"Damn," said Dawn. "Okay, it's Buffy's birthday in a few days, and the wedding's a couple of weeks after that, so we've got about three weeks to find a way to fix this. Preferably without messing up the wedding."
"Oh, and Anya picks the most awful green dresses you can imagine for us to wear. That's something we need to head off now, before it's too late."
"Good idea," said Tara, "but I think the whole getting Xander to the altar thing has to take priority..."
* * * * *
"This must be it," said Spike as he and Buffy walked through the wall into Rack's outer office. "I think April beat us here. I can smell the burnt plastic again, like I did in the bar."
"The broken door gives it away too," said Buffy, looking into the candle-lit inner room. "Anyone in here?"
"I can hear someone muttering," said Spike.
Buffy went in, and found him slumped on the bean bag. "This Rack?"
"Yeah, that's him. Nasty piece of work, gets his kicks messing up people's magic and drinking their memories."
"I think he tried it on April. Listen..."
"1111010010101001 0101101010001000 0110010010001101..."
"Wonder how long that'll last?" said Buffy.
"Who cares? With luck the bugger'll stay like it. Let's get after Warren."
"You're all heart, but there isn't really much we can do here. Let's go."
* * * * *
"Hello Warren," said a familiar voice a couple of blocks from Buffy's house. Warren turned, knowing what he'd see. April, walking towards him with a slight wobble in her gait.
"Die, you bitch!" He shot her, aiming for the fuel cells again, but this time wasn't as lucky. The bullet spanged off metal and ricocheted into the distance. Another shot fared no better. Warren turned and ran. April ran a rapid systems check, realised that her fuel cells were running low, and reluctantly headed back towards Revello Drive.
* * * * *
"Did you hear a shot?" asked Buffy, breaking into a run.
"Two," said Spike. "Back towards your house." Buffy hit top speed, and Spike loped after her, slowly losing ground.
They ran into Revello drive and saw April crossing the street towards the house. "April," Buffy shouted, "have you seen Warren?"
"That way, about two hundred metres. He ran off. I was unable to stop him, and I must recharge."
"Well done," said Buffy, "I think maybe you scared him off."
"I hope so. I will try to help more when I have recharged."
Sheila Rosenberg came out from behind a tree near the house, one Buffy had often used to climb into her bedroom before her mother knew she was the Slayer, said "Buffy, I'll look after her" in Willow's voice, and helped April inside.
"That's creepy," said Spike, "Red must be running her by remote control."
"If it helps keep Warren away it's fine by me. Talking of Warren..." She headed off in the direction April had indicated, and Spike followed.
"I can smell the bugger," Spike said a minute or so later, and began to cast around like a bloodhound. "This way." He led Buffy further away from the house, and into the commercial zone near the Bronze.
"I thought you'd find me," Warren shouted from the far end of an alley, covering Buffy with his gun. "Spike, you know the chip in your head, the one that stops you from killing the Slayer?"
"What about it?"
"I know how to jam it. Feeling hungry?"
"Funny you should say that..."
Warren held up a black box in his other hand, and pressed a button. A red light flashed, and Spike felt a mild tingle in his head.
"Bon appetit," Warren shouted, and watched expectantly.
Spike morphed to vamp face, smiled at Buffy, and turned towards Warren. "Thanks. You know something, mate?"
"That chip... it doesn't stop me from hurting Buffy, just everyone else. Even scum like you." He suddenly shifted to top speed, and closed on Warren in seconds.
Warren dropped the box, took a wild shot and hit Spike in the hip, and ran for his life.
Spike shouted "Bugger!" and collapsed, scooping up the box and hiding it in a pocket as he went down. Buffy ran up and took him in her arms.
"Well get after him you twit," said Spike, "I'll be okay in a few minutes."
"Don't worry, I'm fine." Buffy quickly kissed him and headed after Warren.
"Be careful," shouted Spike, "He's out of his sodding mind." He patted his pocket and grinned. Not that he particularly wanted to hurt anyone right now, Warren excepted, but it was always nice to have the option.
Buffy heard a clatter from another alley, guessed it might be Warren, and leaped for the second-story roof of a shop that overlooked it. A burglar alarm began to ring and Buffy swore. Down below Warren heard the alarm, looked up, and fired another shot towards the roof. Buffy dived for cover, landing in a tangle of wire netting intended to keep pigeons from nesting on the roof. By the time she was clear Warren was gone.
* * * * *
Warren trotted back towards Revello Drive, listening for sounds of pursuit, and sheltered behind a bush a few doors away from Buffy's home. He reloaded the gun, steeled himself for action, and drank the potion with a shudder. He could feel it burning in his throat as he ran towards the house. Things seemed to be distorting, and somehow the world seemed to be growing around him. The last few yards seemed to stretch to infinity. A few feet from the door something huge seemed to scoop him from the ground. To his horror he realised that he was being held in a pair of gigantic hands.
Willow looked up as 'Sheila' came into the house, carrying the tiny kitten she'd seen on her monitor, and squealed as she took it from the body suit's hands and gently kissed it. "You're so cute! What a sweet little girl! What are you doing out by yourself?"
Bitterly Warren realised that Willow was completely at his mercy. Apart from a small matter of size...
Dawn peered at the kitten and said "Ten out of ten for cuteness, two out of ten for observation, it's a Tom. Does look a bit like Kitty Fantastico, I guess. Can we keep him?"
"I don't see why not," said Willow, "but we'd better check with Buffy first."
"Better put him in a box in the cellar for tonight," Tara said, "give him some time to get used to us, we must be scaring him. And we need to work on April, if you keep him up here and play with him you know we won't get anything done. I'll take him to the vet in the morning, he'll need shots, and we'd better get him fixed before he gets any lady cats pregnant. Hey, I think he understood that..."
Warren leaped from Willow's hands and bolted through the door which 'Sheila' had left slightly open. Dawn made to go after him, but Willow said "No, it's too dangerous out there with Warren on the loose, he'll have to fend for himself. Maybe we'll catch him tomorrow."
"I guess," said Dawn, shutting the door. "Hope he'll be okay out there."
In the street a passing figure sniffed, smelled kitten, and set off in pursuit. Clem was in the mood for poker, and a nice fresh kitten would give him the stake he needed to play.
Chapter 17: XVI
"You know," Willow said a couple of hours later, as she soldered replacement fuel cells into April's torso, "I'm sure that there's something I've forgotten."
"You think it's important?" asked Dawn, mixing silicone plastic, hardener, and dye to match April's skin tones,
"What do you mean?" asked Tara, using a spatula to spread the goo over the hard plastic that overlaid the metal skeleton of April's leg, with a selection of brushes and sculpting tools to add the fine detail.
"It's just... Willow's told us so much already, and most of these problems will go away if someone catches Warren and Xander goes through with the wedding. What else can there be?"
"I think I've got memories of at least fifteen or twenty different versions of the next couple of months," said Willow, "In most of them the wedding is a disaster, but I've a feeling that there are other things, maybe they only happened in one or two of the lives I'm remembering. Low probability stuff I'm having trouble remembering."
"We could try hypnosis," said Tara, "but it's kinda intrusive. Maybe you just need to stop trying for a while, concentrate on April. How are you getting on with the soldering?"
"Almost done. Should be able to get her back on line in a few minutes."
"Okay. Good thing we got the industrial sized drum of this silicone goop, and never got around to throwing it away after the Buffybot was destroyed. Better make the next batch a big one, Dawn, we'll need a lot for her butt and thighs, but don't add the hardener until she's ready to move. Wish I could change my figure this easily."
"You're fine," said Willow, "comfortable."
"That does it, I'm definitely going on a diet."
"She's teasing," said Dawn. "You're gorgeous. Besides, how can you diet with Buffy's birthday coming up, that's definitely gonna be an eat till you puke event."
"That's it," said Willow excitedly, "there's something about the birthday party. Someone makes a stupid wish, we end up trapped in the house with a demon. Don't think it's me, but it's kinda fuzzy, it might be. There's a sword and a vengeance demon involved, not Anya, one of her friends."
"Okay," said Dawn, "another thing to add to the list, no wishes. And make sure that Xander knows, after that dancing demon thing I'm not sure I trust him to be sensible."
"It's not just when Buffy blows out the cake, I think it happens earlier."
There were footsteps downstairs, and Buffy shouted "Dawn?"
"Up here, Buffy, we're fixing April."
"Hi guys," said Buffy, walking in with Spike behind her. She took one look at the near-naked April and shut the door in his face. "Sorry, you can't come in..."
"She's a robot," said Spike through the door, "not like I'm ogling naked women."
"You just did, and I'm not sure she sees it that way. Go downstairs, I'll be down in a few minutes."
"It's okay," said Willow, "she's powered down right now, she won't know."
"I do," said Buffy, "and that's enough for me. Any news?"
"We think we've spotted a few problems coming up. The big one that happens in a lot of the lives I remember is Xander leaving Anya at the altar. We think someone uses a mind control spell on him."
"I wish. Or rather I'd better not, in one or two of my lives someone makes a stupid wish that leaves us trapped in here with a demon at your birthday party."
"Party? What party? I wasn't really planning..."
"We were. Are. We'll just have to be really careful about the 'W' word."
"Okay. Anything else?"
"Robo-Sheila found a really cute stray kitten on the lawn," said Dawn, "but it ran off. Don't suppose you saw it on patrol?"
"Nope. You want a kitten?"
"It was really cute..."
"You ready to look after it if we find it? Change the cat litter and the rest of it?"
"Okay then, Spike and I'll keep our eyes open. If we don't find it there's always the pound, I guess."
"How about you and Spike? Did you find any sign of Warren?"
"We nearly got him but he shot Spike and escaped. Before that April chased him all over town, must have messed up his plans. I need to talk to her when she's awake."
"Let's wake her then," said Willow, pushing a screwdriver into April's ear at an odd angle to press the reset switch.
April blinked, shook her head, seemed to think for a few seconds, and said "That's better. Thank you, Willow, all functions are nominal."
"That's good. We're getting on pretty well with the cosmetic side of things, but we need you standing for the next part."
"Okey-dokey." She stood, wobbling slightly, and said "I think this gyro-stabiliser is calibrated a little differently from the old one. I'll need to practice walking when you're done."
"It was adjusted for the Buffybot, she was shorter than you. Good thing we kept it. Can you compensate?"
"Yes, it will just take a little practice."
"Take a look in the mirror, what do you think of the repairs so far?"
"That's fine... oh, I think my ankles look thick."
"Your upper legs look slimmer because we haven't put the last coating of plastic on yet, I think it'll be fine once that's done."
"Okey-dokey. You're very good at this."
"We had a lot of practice with the Buffybot."
"April," said Buffy, "did you run into a guy called Rack this evening?"
"Yes. Willy told me that Warren had gone to him. I followed, but Warren had gone when I got there."
"Did you do something to Rack?"
"I think he tried to interface with me. It didn't work."
"Interface?" asked Dawn, "Is that some sort of euphemism?"
"No. He tried to connect his brain to my computer, using magic. I don't think human minds are built to work that way. He was still processing when I left."
"He was saying a lot of numbers," said Buffy, "zeroes and ones."
"My core processors are binary, he must be trying to assimilate my programming."
"How long is that likely to take?"
"I don't know, but if he tried to take all my memories it may be some time. Days, maybe weeks."
"Did he say anything useful?"
"He told me Warren was after Willow, so I left him and found Warren. Unfortunately I was too low on power to stop him."
"I wonder what Warren got from Rack. We know it was something magical... Willow, any ideas?"
"I'm not sure I... I want to talk about him," said Willow.
"If there's anything that could help..."
"I'm pretty sure he got everything from me... the spells I know, the memories I had then, my feelings for Tara and the rest of you. I don't like to..." she began to sob, and Tara moved to her side.
"One thing that comes to mind," said Tara, "It was Amy that introduced them. So he would have known her spells too, everything that she did."
"D'you think Warren might turn Willow into a rat?" asked Dawn.
"Maybe, I couldn't do much to fix things if he did."
"I don't think so," said Willow, pulling herself together. "Warren doesn't really have much power, and spells like that are major mojo."
"I noticed a pestle and mortar and some herbs and minerals in Rack's room," said April.
"Any idea what they were?"
"No, but if you have pictures I may be able to identify them."
"Yay for digital memory. Tara, do you have any herbalist books handy?"
"They're all in the room I rented or at the Magic Box."
"It'll have to wait until morning then," said Buffy, uneasy at the thought of Willow having anything to do with magic.
"You could go on line when we've finished your legs," said Willow, "there are plenty of sites, you ought to find pictures if the stuff he used was at all common."
"Okey-dokey," said April.
"Most of them ought to be bookmarked on my computer."
"Willow," said Tara, "You haven't been looking at them, have you?"
"No.. not recently anyway. You know, it's an odd thing, but since this afternoon I just don't feel the same need to use magic."
"You must have used a lot to levitate the way you did."
"I know, but I don't have the tired feeling I had when I was messing with the dark forces. It's more like... like it's in the past now, something I can do, but I don't need to do. Must have something to do with all the extra memories I picked up."
"It could be, I guess. Maybe you're past the addiction," she said a little dubiously. "Or you're remembering your life after you're past it."
"Talking of memories, there's some really weird stuff that Sheila knew, science that we haven't come up with on Earth yet. What she knew is gradually falling into place with the stuff I know. If I can persuade Jay and Kay to let me patent a few things I'll be rich. Bill Gates rich."
"You're kidding," said Buffy.
"Want a phaser? I'm pretty sure I can build one with parts from Radio Shack. It'll cost forty bucks or so."
"And then Jay and Kay come back and neuralyze you back to your diapers. Let's take it carefully on this stuff, find out what they'll let you do before we get into real trouble."
"You're probably right. Besides, I think we have more urgent problems. Okay, I think we're done. April, stay still for a few minutes, your new skin is still a little tacky. We'll have to trim off a couple of places and do the fine detailing once it's hardened, maybe in the morning."
"It looks good," said April.
"I want to check it in daylight," said Dawn, "make sure we've got the colour matched properly. Then we add in a few spots and dimples, imperfections, things like that, or it won't look real."
"I remember, you did this to me when I was Buffy."
"Umm... yeah, that's right, but I don't think we ever had to replace this much skin before, we'd better get it right or you won't look good in a bikini."
"Does it make you uncomfortable if I talk about being Buffy?"
"A little. It's kinda odd."
"Then I won't do it again."
"April," said Buffy, "If I haven't already said it, you did well tonight, and the Buffy part of you did a great job when I was.. well, dead. What I want to say is... well, if you want to go on as a member of the Summers family it's okay with me, and I think Dawn agrees."
"Sure. Better be a cousin though, not a sister, or there might be awkward questions. Our cousin April, the glamorous model, or whatever you end up doing. That'd be cool."
"Thank you, I appreciate it. I'll hug you when my legs aren't sticky, I don't want to ruin your clothes."
"That's considerate. Thanks."
Buffy heard a loud thump and swearing from downstairs, and sighed. "Sounds like Spike's found a way to get himself into trouble again, I'd better check."
Spike sat on the lounger watching TV and patting Warren's box through the leather of his coat. Her could hear the murmur of women talking and decided that with four of them comparing notes upstairs, five if you counted April, there was no way that Buffy would be down in less than ten minutes.
After five minutes he couldn't resist taking another look at the box. There wasn't much to it; a big push button, a red light, a sliding switch with five positions labelled "off 1 2 3 4", and another with three positions labelled "Band 1 2 3". On one end was a socket with two rows of pins. He guessed that was for connecting it to something, a charger or more likely a computer. He pressed the button again for a second, the light lit up, and he felt the same mild tingle in his head. He wondered about the other settings, hesitated for a moment, slid the first switch to 2, and pressed the button again. Pain stabbed in his head, as bad as anything he could remember feeling from the chip, and he quickly released the button. The pain didn't stop, and he fell to his knees swearing. He tried to push the button again, but the pain continued. After a few seconds the box fell from his spasming hand and he collapsed onto his side, writhing with pain.
Buffy ran in and saw Spike on the floor. She looked around for the cause but couldn't see anything that might have hurt him. "What is it, Spike? What's wrong?"
"Box.. Warren's toy."
Buffy spotted the box on the floor and stamped on it with her heel, once, twice, three times. The light went out, and Spike relaxed. Buffy pulled him upright and said "What were you thinking of?"
"Wanted to see what else it did."
"You... you... what if it switched the chip on and left it on, or made your head explode?"
"Didn't think of that."
Buffy picked up the remains of the box, pulled out a battery, broke the rest of it some more with her hands, and dropped the remains into the garbage. By the time she got back Spike was back on the lounger.
"What were you planning to do, Spike? Keep it in your pocket and switch it on when you wanted to hurt someone?"
"Bollocks. Okay, yeah, it did cross my mind. Demon here, remember? Would be nice to be able to hit scum like Warren."
"And how long before you're using it on people who crowd you in the supermarket or annoy you at the Bronze?"
"Would I do that?"
"Come on, Spike."
"Maybe. Okay, maybe I would."
She kissed him, and said "That's for admitting it," then punched him, not particularly hard, and said "and that's for being an idiot. Want some blood? I think there's a couple of bags in the fridge."
"Now you're talking. But gimme another kiss first."
"Okay," said Tara, "that looks like a transformation potion to me. Wonder what the transformation was."
"Anything that might give you a clue?" asked Willow, tidying away her tools.
"Not really. No bottles labelled 'tiger blood' or 'demon scales' or anything obvious like that."
"That's the trouble with evil wizards these days, you can't trust them to leave honking big clues in plain sight."
"Are you sure that there was nothing else, April? Maybe something separate from the ingredients you looked up, or an animal or something? An empty container?"
"There was an empty plastic bag on the floor," said April, after reviewing her memory.
"Yes. It was labelled 'Felix'"
"Felix?" said Tara. "As in 'Felix domestica'? You don't think..."
"Dawn," said Willow, "I think you'd better give up on the idea of keeping that particular kitten as a pet."
"You have got to be kidding," said Dawn.
"Nope. I think it was Warren."
"Wow, he sure got past our guard. Why the heck did he run? Sooner or later the spell would wear off and there he'd be, inside the house."
"Don't you remember?" asked Willow. "Tara was talking about taking him to the vet, to get him fixed."
"Was he broken?" asked April.
The others were too busy laughing to answer.
In the room above Dave's Bar and Grill a group of demons was playing poker.
"Okay," said Mr. Shark, "I'm calling." His hundred-odd teeth glittered in his grey face.
"Damn," said Clem, wrinkling his nose. "I've got squat. Fold."
"Three sixes" said Gruk, a scruffy-looking demon with a bad skin problem, one of Glory's old servitors.
"Four threes" said Jerry, one of Shark's vampire henchmen.
"That's three threes and an eight, ya moron," pointed out Irving, a Miquot demon who had already folded. His yellow spines twitched warningly.
"Oops," said Jerry, "my bad."
"And I have a royal flush," said Shark, showing his hand and pulling over the basket of kittens they'd been using as stakes.
"That's me cleaned out," said Clem.
"Me too," said Gruk.
"Better call it a night," said Irving.
"You sure?" asked Shark.
There was a sudden tearing noise and the basket exploded, showering pieces of straw and kittens in all directions, and knocking all the drinks onto the floor. Warren was lying on his back on the table, holding his gun in one hand and the empty potion bottle in the other. There were two kittens on his chest, another on his head. He sat up, shaking off the kittens, shrieked, and leaped towards the open window, and there was a loud crash as he landed on the garbage cans below. The demons strained to listen, and heard footsteps running - or perhaps hobbling was a better word - off into the night.
"Okay," said Irving, after a few seconds. "Who's been tampering with the stakes?"
Chapter 18: XVII
"No sign of Warren for a couple of days," said Buffy, looking around the Magic Box two nights later, "Probably means he's planning something nasty."
"Well, we know where he was two nights ago," said Spike, "playing poker chip with Clem and his friends. Sounds like I missed a good game. Shark's got half the demons in town out looking for him, that's got to cramp his style a little."
"Okay, everyone, if you were Warren what would you be doing?"
"Peeing myself," said Spike.
"Trying to free my friends?" suggested Xander.
"Not a chance," said Willow, "Warren uses people, he won't go an inch out of his way to help them."
"Maybe they have something he wants," suggested Tara. "Jonathan was his big gun for magic, and we're pretty sure that Andrew summoned demons for him, Warren's more the technology guy. If Warren's still after Willow he'd need their help."
"We know that, but does Warren?" asked Dawn, "He's kinda over-ambitious, isn't he."
"Anya," asked Willow, "do you have any suggestions?"
"For the bridesmaids, if you're sure the green won't work. Time's getting short, we need to finalise."
"A bit... girly, isn't it?" suggested Dawn. "Besides, we've got a redhead here, not sure pink matches well."
"Hmm... maybe." Anya retreated into her copy of Brides Magazine.
There was a knock at the door, and Buffy went to check it, returning with Jay, Kay, and an old man in a rumpled grey suit.
"Hi guys," said Xander, "Who's your friend?"
"Uncle Saul?" gasped Willow, "They said you were dead!"
"This is G'Ftyuk Drufkitzy," said Kay, "A Baltian attorney. He's only on Earth for a few days so we had to get him a ready-made body suit, same model your uncle used. He doesn't speak much English. He'd like to talk to you, Miss Rosenberg."
"Okay. Maybe we should do this out back, it's gonna be kind of boring for the non-Baltian speakers." Willow led him into the office adjoining the practice room, and they began to talk.
"How's it going," asked Jay.
"Right now Warren still seems to be our biggest problem," said Buffy, "everything else is pretty quiet right now. Damn, I had to say that, didn't I."
"Oh boy, we're doomed," said Xander.
"I don't understand," said Anya.
"It's like in the westerns, when someone says 'it's too quiet' and ten seconds later they get hit by an arrow and the Apache attack."
"Apache? We don't want to be attacked by them, they'd take our scalps and we need to get our hair styled for the wedding in a couple of weeks."
"It's metaphorical, Anya. I just meant that saying that it's quiet sometimes jinxes it."
"There will be no jinxing of anyone until after the wedding."
"Did you find out anything from your end?" Buffy asked hastily. "You were going to check into Warren and his pals, see if they had any alien technology."
"Nothing," said Jay, "so far as we can tell everything they've used is just normal Terran science, even that android."
"April?" asked Buffy. "We've decided to adopt her into the family, she's been helping us a lot and she doesn't have anyone else to turn to."
"We noticed that there were suddenly social security and IRS records for April Summers," said Kay. "Whoever you have hacking for you is pretty good."
"Don't worry, it's none of our business. Terran, not alien. Where is she, anyway?"
"I'm not quite sure, Willow asked her to run some sort of errand. I think she's gone to the Mall or something?"
"On her own?"
"She's getting to be good at dealing with people, and we can't keep her cooped up forever. So what are the rules for alien technology? I think Willow has some ideas but they'd probably involve things she's learned from her mother's memories.. sorry, her own Baltian memories. God, this really confuses me."
"You and everyone else. When I told Zed about it he took three Tylenols. Last time he did that was when Elvis went home."
"I'm not gonna ask."
"I am," said Xander, "Elvis was an alien??"
"I thought everyone knew that," said Anya, "you didn't think any normal human would wear clothes like that, did you?"
"Well.. okay, I guess I see what you mean."
"Getting back to Willow," Buffy said hastily, "I was asking about the rules."
"Basically, anything she introduces has to be cleared by us. Non-destructive refinements of existing Terran science, such as new uses for existing devices, are normally fine, anything else tends to be blocked. Extending Terran science is usually okay, but we've learned to be cautious about that one, so clearance usually takes a while. Flat-out alien gizmos are right out, regardless of what they're for."
"I guess that makes sense."
"I'll get her a copy of the regulations, I think she already knows the Treaty of Tycho but the full schedule runs to a couple of thousand pages."
"Ouch. Rather Willow than me, but she'd better have them."
"So I guess you can't give us any help with Warren now?" asked Dawn.
"Oh, we still want to neuralyze him, he's seen too much and we need to make sure he can't make anything of it. Jay's already taken care of his friends, we'll be keeping an eye out for him, but we don't have the resources to keep a major incident team in Sunnydale indefinitely. Which reminds me," he handed Buffy a card with the letters MiB and a San Francisco telephone number, "if you catch him we'll probably pick up on it, but if we don't seem to be around call us. We can get a team here in half an hour, neuralyze him and anyone else he's told about our activities."
"So how's Willow handling this?" asked Jay.
"I think she's getting herself together," said Tara. "She had a lot of nightmares the first night, and some mood shifts next day, but she seems to have put herself back together pretty well. Her aura's looking a lot better now, much more stable. I think that it's matured her a little, if anything, maybe got her past the worst of her problems with magic."
"Let's hope old G'Ftyuk doesn't upset her, he was convinced we'd kidnapped her mom and were trying to put in a ringer to get hold of her inheritance."
"She ought to be okay, I think. We're on the level, and with luck she'll be able to convince him."
"...so then T'dolytuf turned the tfpot'ky onto ct'opwa cycle," Willow said in Baltian, "and it sprayed S'atfor with the foulest-smelling gunk you can imagine, and dyed his t'fotn'l infra-purple. After that he kinda lost his enthusiasm for j'piltok."
G'Ftyuk slapped his hand onto his thigh, and said "All right, I'm convinced. No Terran could possibly make up that story. Either you've been coached by a Baltian or you are one."
"Hey, that was English," Willow said indignantly. "You've been testing me, haven't you."
"Wouldn't you? I knew your uncle well, I'd hate to see a bunch of savages take advantage of his estate. No offence meant."
"Wait a minute... you knew uncle? I thought your name was familiar, you bought me a w'logju when I was a little girl!"
"You remember that? What colour was it?"
"Black, of course, what sort of question is that? Come to think of it, it looked kinda like Kitty Fantastico."
"A cat? Yes, there is some similarity. I recall your Uncle kept one while he was here."
"Enough, I'm convinced. You're little H'lotka. Now we have to work out how we get you back to normal."
"Err.. actually I kinda like things as they are."
"As a Terran? You've been here too long."
"We've already been over this twice. Subjectively, I've been a human about three times as long as I was a Baltian. Besides, everyone I love is on Earth, what have I got there except distant relatives?"
"If you're sure...."
"Very well, I'll begin working on getting your assets transferred to Terra. You realise that both our government and the Terrans will want a large share?"
"I got that. Not a problem, I wasn't planning to buy any spaceships anyway."
"Be prepared for a certain amount of media attention. Your uncle being who he was, and your story being so romantic..."
"I'm sure that with the right agent and bt'lik-writer it'll be a best-seller. I've friends in the industry, would you like me to make inquiries?"
"You know I'm kinda shy. The thought of all that publicity...."
"Oh, there wouldn't be anything on Terra, unless someone wants to buy the translation rights. That could be written into the contract if you like, that all names and locations would be changed so that you couldn't be identified."
"Well, okay, provided it won't end up with my life being a freak-show."
"I'll look into it. Now, I'll need you to give me a power of attorney to access your accounts on Baltia, other than that I think we're done..."
Warren drove past Buffy's house for the third time and cursed as he spotted the figures that he suspected were guarding the place. He recognised Sheila Rosenberg, he had an idea that one of the others was Willow's father, but who were the guy in the college sweater and the girl in the old-fashioned dress who'd been sitting on the back porch all evening? He was already pretty sure that they weren't human, nobody sits that still for so long. Maybe Willow had built more robots based on April's design...
He went to an internet cafe and tapped into the network of cameras the Trio had planted around Sunnydale in their glory days. Nothing at the college or any of their homes... here they were, meeting at the Magic Box. He could see most of them around the table; Buffy, Xander, the two strangers, Anya, Tara and Spike. No sign of Willow or April, maybe they were out of shot. As usual he wished that Jonathan had had the sense to put the bug in something that wasn't kept in a soundproof case, he couldn't hear anything and didn't know how to read lips.
Jay's scanner beeped, showing the symbols for a bugging transmitter in operation. He casually said "We're being paged" and showed the screen to Kay, who pressed the touch screen to trace the outgoing signal, then smiled and said "Hello Warren."
"Huh?" asked Buffy.
"Someone's planted a camera bug in the shop, it just activated. It isn't picking up sound so try to look like we're having a very interesting conversation, I'm trying to trace it."
"We'll have to call the police, we don't have anyone else in Sunnydale right now."
"That's no good," said Buffy, "they're pretty useless. I'll go out the back way, pretend I've gone to the ladies room or something. I'll take my mobile with me, can you text me directions as you track him down?"
"Remember," said Spike, "Bastard's got a gun."
"Don't worry," said Buffy, "I'm not planning to give him a chance to get a shot at me."
"There he is," said Irving the Miquot demon, "told you I saw him going in here."
He and Jerry the vampire strolled through the internet cafe, trying to look inconspicuous, which isn't easy for a demon with yellow skin and a head ridge made of living knives. Anywhere but Sunnydale there would have been a panic, here the customers seemed to glaze over as soon as they saw that the thugs weren't heading in their direction.
Warren was sitting behind a potted palm where nobody could see his screen. Unfortunately that didn't give him a very clear view of the rest of the cafe. He only realised he had company when Irving grabbed his arm and pulled him to his feet, spilling coffee all over the keyboard of the rented computer. Warren went for his gun, Jerry grabbed his other arm and twisted until he had to release it, caught the gun in mid-air and pulled it apart, dropped the mangled remains into the potted palm, then together they threw Warren through the window and climbed out after him.
By the time Buffy arrived a couple of minutes later everyone in the cafe was prepared to swear that they'd seen two teenagers on PCP drag someone out, and nobody had any idea where they'd gone.
Chapter 19: XVIII
"When did we start throwing people to the monsters?" asked Tara. "Was there a memo I missed or something?"
"What do you mean, sweetie?" asked Willow.
Tara looked around the Magic Box and realised that nobody there was following her line of thought. "I hate to say this but Buffy's just told us that Warren's been dragged off by demons and we're not running out to rescue him, we're celebrating."
"But Warren killed you, honey..."
"Not in this universe. I'm sorry, Willow, I know you're trying to protect me, but in this timeline about the worst we can say about him is that he's been a nuisance and committed a few crimes, the worst of which haven't really hurt people much. Since April's been repaired and Spike and Buffy are sitting at this table staring at me like I've grown two heads I can't really say that he deserves an agonising death."
"She does sort of have a point," Xander said slowly.
"I know," Buffy said eventually. "I think we've been so hung up on chasing him that we've forgotten our sense of proportion. He's a nuisance, maybe a threat, but with the precautions we're taking he's just not that big a deal."
"Bloody hell," said Spike, "I've heard of being unselfish but this is ridiculous. My arse still hurts and I'd be in a sodding wheelchair if I wasn't a vampire, April nearly caught fire and set the house on fire when she was shot, and you'd be dead if your reflexes were any slower. I say that the best thing we can do is cheer them on and hope they take their own sweet time killing him."
"Yeah, but you're kinda a soulless monster," said Xander. "Sorry, I know you and Buffy are getting on well, but I don't think we can trust your judgement in things like this."
"Maybe you're right," said Dawn. "Not about Spike, I know he's just angry and doesn't really mean it..."
"Like hell I don't," muttered Spike.
"...but we have to live with ourselves... uh, most of us do anyway... and I think we have to give rescuing him a shot. Of course you can still beat him up and arrest him afterwards."
"There shouldn't be that much danger from Warren," said Buffy, "they broke his gun when they took him. It's Shark and his friends that we have to worry about."
"Okay," said Willow. "If you really think that this is the right thing to do, then do it... just count me out. I'm staying with Tara, and we're both gonna stay well clear of Warren. That all right with you, honey?"
"Sure," said Tara. "I'm not suicidal, and I love you for what you've done for me, but I want to make sure that we don't throw away our principles."
"Okay," said Buffy, "I think Spike and I can handle it, we've dealt with those guys before. Spike, are you ready for this?"
"I guess," he said grumpily. "Suppose I might get to hit some of the Shark's boys."
"Xander, can you drive everyone else home? I'd rather not have people walking until this is settled."
"Sounds good to me. You ready, honey?"
"What?.. how about light blue?" said Anya, holding out another picture from her bridal magazine.
"That's kinda nice," said Dawn, "and it wouldn't clash with Willow's hair or your vengeance demon friend's veins. The skirts are nice too."
"Yeah," said Willow, "that'd look good, I think it's the best choice for everyone." The other bridesmaids agreed.
"Finally," said Anya, "Something that everyone likes - let's hope that Halfrek agrees when she sees it. Okay, I'll place the order tomorrow. Xander, did you want something?"
"I said, are you ready honey? To go home?"
"Why wouldn't I be? Has someone been saying I don't want to, because..." Xander interrupted her with a kiss, then said "Okay, let's move it."
"Well, that was a waste of time," said Buffy as they left Dave's Bar and Grill. Behind them they could hear the moans of a couple of customers who had thought that a small blonde would be a nice snack, and the gentle patter of dust settling down from the vampire who had tried just a little too hard.
"Might have known they wouldn't bring him here," said Spike, "Shark wants this place clean so that he can run his poker games without being disturbed by the law, and he knows that you know that he uses it."
"If he thought I knew that that he was underestimating how drunk I was the night that we were here. Okay, any bright ideas on where they might have taken him?"
"Well, Clem's place is closest but it's pretty small, there'd be no room for Warren and Shark's men. I doubt he'd want a hand in it anyway, from what he told me he scored a couple of kittens in all the confusion, if anything he'd be grateful to Warren. Besides, he isn't the violent type."
"What sort of demon is he anyway? I know he was one of the ones at the poker game I saw, but I don't know the names for them."
"He's the guy with loose skin and floppy ears, damned if I know what he is. He's not evil or anything, he just scratches along doing odd jobs. About the worst thing I know about him is that he used to sing in a barbershop quartet."
"Let's give him a try anyway, he might know something."
Clem lived in a tiny tomb on the edge of a cemetery near the bar. There was barely room for Clem, an inflatable mattress, and a small camping stove. When Buffy and Spike arrived he was stirring a rich-smelling stew.
"Clem," said Spike, "you have a visitor."
"Spike? And this lady is?"
"The Slayer, Clem."
"Don't worry," said Buffy, "we're not here to slay you, just want to ask a couple of questions. What are you cooking? Smells good."
"Kitten with onions and herbs. I usually have them au natural, but every now and then I feel like cooking. Want some?"
"I think I'll pass," said Buffy, fighting back sudden nausea. "Would that be one of the kittens from the game the other night?"
"You heard about that, didya? Yeah, it's one of them, sort of accidentally got trapped in a fold of my skin."
"Warren... the guy who appeared on the table... we think he's been taken by the guy who was running the game. Know anything about that?"
"I know Shark was really annoyed. Hadn't heard that he'd caught up with the guy, but it doesn't surprise me."
"Any idea where he might have taken him?"
"Well..." Clem looked past Buffy at Spike for inspiration, Spike shook his head slightly. "Maybe one of those old factories on the edge of the industrial zone. I saw him drive past there once, it could be there."
"Oh joy," said Spike, "Burned-out buildings with rotting wooden beams and broken floors, my idea of heaven."
"We'd better check it out," Buffy said unenthusiastically.
April was watching CNN when Willow, Tara and Dawn got home. There were several boxes stacked on the table, and a large package wrapped in brown paper.
"April," said Willow, "thanks for picking up this stuff, did you have any problems?"
"None at all, everything was ready for me, although I was attacked by a vampire near the mall."
"Another one?" said Dawn, "Must be a nest somewhere nearby, that's three in a couple of days. I'll tell Buffy. What did you do about it?"
"It broke one of its fangs on my shoulder motor and I staked it, of course."
"That's cool. Do you need any repairs?"
"No, the motor wasn't damaged and I've fixed the tear with silicone adhesive."
"What's the shopping?" asked Tara.
"Let's take a look," said Willow, peeking into the top box. "Dawny, I know money's been kinda tight and you haven't really had a chance to do anything about Buffy's birthday. I've got into Sheila's... my.. bank accounts so I'm a lot better off. Anyway, I ordered something that I think she might like, you can owe me until you get some money. If you don't like it we can take it back together and get something else."
"What is it?" asked Dawn.
"I thought she might like another leather jacket, the one she usually wears is looking kinda old. What do you think?"
"It's perfect! Wow, I think I would have picked exactly this if I'd gone shopping myself.. if I'd had the money, of course."
Willow smiled and accepted a hug, glad that she hadn't given away what she remembered about Dawn's original birthday present.
"Better put it away before Buffy gets back. Okay, let's see... yeah, this one is for Tara."
"Me?" said Tara, pulling out a brocade waistcoat. "That's gorgeous. But it isn't my birthday or anything."
"I know, but if what Jay and Kay and G'Ftyuk told me is right I'm gonna be pretty rich, might as well enjoy it. I think it'd be kinda nice for Buffy's party."
"All right, but don't make a habit of it, I don't want to be a kept woman."
"Financial independence is important," said April, "Anya was right, money is a good thing to have, but it's a bad idea to depend on someone else for it."
"Right," said Willow. "Think we can all agree on that one. That's why I'm expecting Dawn to give me my money back eventually. But the waistcoat is a gift."
"And the next one?" asked Dawn.
"Um... oh, that's just something for me."
Dawn raised her eyebrows.
"Which is my business," said Willow hastily.
"Only yours?" asked Tara, raising an eyebrow of her own.
"Oh, I guess you'll see them eventually. Hastily changing the subject..." she peeked into another box, "This next one is for you, April."
"Well, your nice dress got burned, this was the closest I could find in the catalogue."
April pulled out the dress, held it up against herself, and said "That's lovely, I think. I'm sorry, I need to work more on aesthetics."
"It's good," said Tara, "just right for this weather."
"Thank you," said April, giving Willow a gentle hug. "I'm very grateful. I'll repay you when we get the money from the IRS."
"No, this is a gift, to thank you for trying to stop Warren the other night."
"Oh... okey-dokey." She hugged Willow again a little harder.
"What are the other three?" asked Tara.
"Well, the big box is my own present for Buffy, some stylish but affordable boots to match the jacket, the little one is some Belgian chocolates for all of us... when Buffy's home," she said hastily.
"And the package?"
"Umm... you remember everything Jay and Kay were saying about not importing alien technology and all."
"Uh huh?" said Dawn.
"Well, one of the things I remembered from Sheila's.. my.. memories was that she.. I.. didn't always pay a lot of attention to that law, what with robodog and all."
"Looks like I misjudged - well, me, really," said Willow.
"What do you mean?" asked Tara.
"I thought that she had no idea what was going on in Sunnydale, but she was beginning to catch on, and she was thinking about how to keep me safe. She just never quite figured who Buffy was or what we were doing. Robodog was part of it, she was ready to use it if she heard I was in serious trouble, she had some other ideas up her sleeve. She placed an order just a couple of weeks before she made that wish, something that might be useful, April picked it up from mom's post office box."
"The Baltians are very good with machines, and 'cos they're so tiny they can build them really small. It's kinda an odd coincidence..." She tore open the outer packaging and opened the metal case it concealed. Everyone looked inside. There was a stunned silence.
Eventually Dawn said "You have got to be kidding."
"Well, that was a waste of bloody time," said Spike, "don't know about you but I'm about ready to call it a night."
"Let's head for home. I want to be back before Dawn gets to bed, spend some family time with her."
"Mind if I head home once we get there?" asked Spike, "My hip's still sore and I think I need to catch up on my sleep a little, and I'm not gonna do much of that around you."
"Why don't we get you back first? I can always walk home on my own."
"Because if we're wrong and Warren's got away from them he could still be gunning for you, and I'll feel happier if I'm there to stop any bullets."
"Don't be silly, Spike, you're not my bodyguard."
"I know, but I fancy your body so I'm gonna guard it. Let's get you home."
Spike closed the door of his tomb, listened for a moment, then went down to the cave below. "Had an odd feeling I'd find you here," he said, nodding at Jerry, Irving, and the Shark, and noticing the large wriggling rope-bound sack on the floor where they were sitting. "That that git Warren?"
"That's right," said Shark, "heard he'd shot you, thought I'd bring him along as a little peace offering, make up for that unfortunate misunderstanding a couple of months ago."
"What, so I can give him to the Slayer?"
"I was thinking more in terms of you doing something disgustingly violent to him, everyone knows about you and the railway spikes."
"Well yeah, I'd love to oblige, soulless monster and all, but there's this little chip in my bonce that sort of stops me from hurting humans, not to mention the Slayer taking one look at the corpse and knowing that it's me that did it."
"That would be a no, then?"
"Well, let's say that I'm very pleased you've made the peace offering, and as far as I'm concerned there are no grudges about that incident, but I'd rather you didn't leave him here. I don't want him for myself, and I certainly don't want him running loose again. Why don't you keep him? Somewhere else, though, the Slayer's in and out of here all the time, first place she looks if there's a problem, could be a little awkward. Maybe you could sell him on eBay or something, there's gotta be a market for punks with delusions of grandeur somewhere. Be careful though, the Slayer's pretty sure you've got him and she's spent most of the evening looking for you, if he turns up dead anywhere in Sunnydale she'll go ballistic. You might want to think about covering your arse."
"Do you think the Slayer might want to buy him?"
"Dunno about the Slayer... you could maybe try the witch, she's got a bit more cash and she might go for it. But watch out, they're both tricky. Or that bugger Rack might want him if he ever comes round, it's his fault that Rack was hurt. And I think there might be a reward from the museum robbery."
"Thanks, Mister Spike, I'll bear that in mind."
"Bear it in mind hell, I want a cut. Say ten percent."
Buffy came into the house, smelled cooking, and went into the kitchen. Dawn and April were laying the table, Willow and Tara were busy around the stove. "What's the occasion?"
"No occasion, we just thought it'd be nice to have a proper cooked meal. Ready in about ten minutes, why don't you park the crossbow and wash up. Did you find Warren? Oh, and is Spike with you? Should I heat some blood?"
"No luck with Warren, and Spike was kinda tired and went home. Okay, I'll get cleaned up."
She went to the weapons chest in the living room, turned intending to go to the bathroom, saw what was on the table and went to take a closer look, blinked, then went back into the kitchen.
"Guys, has someone just slipped me some drugs, 'cos I think I just had a really weird hallucination."
"No hallucination," said Willow, "just a present from Sheila. Something she had built on Baltia before she made the wish. Could be useful."
"You have got to be kidding."
Chapter 20: XIX
"I hope you don't mind me asking a personal question," Buffy said as she helped April clear the table, "but what'll happen to the food you ate?"
"It's kept in a storage compartment until I can empty it. I don't have much room in there which is why I didn't eat much. Some of the water is used by my fuel cells."
"Can you taste food?"
"No. Warren didn't build me a sense of smell or taste."
"It's certainly.. um.. convincing, I didn't even think about it until halfway through the meal."
"I was built as a girlfriend, and boys take their girlfriends to restaurants. It would be odd if I didn't eat. If I'm to live as a human I need to act like one. Eating together is an important social activity."
"I guess. It's kinda odd... a week ago we were kinda a robot-free zone here, now there's you, Willow's two moms and two dads, and now that..." She gestured towards the living room.
"Yes, it is odd. I tried to interface with it earlier, it seemed to like me. But it doesn't speak much English yet, and our communications protocols are very different."
"Willow says it understands most things, but Sheila didn't think of having it built to talk to anyone apart from her, it's got to learn to speak English. It's pretty fluent in Baltian. Give it a week and it'll be running for Congress. Who'd've thought something that size..."
"If Yoda is to believed, 'size matters not'."
"Yoda? You've been busy, getting the voice right and everything. Or was that in Warren's original programming?"
"He wanted a girlfriend who shared his interests, so I had to know something about them."
"Yeah, but I bet he didn't exactly emphasise feminine interests. We have so got to show you Thelma and Louise, and some other girl-type movies."
"I've read reviews, it sounds interesting."
"Okay, I think that's everything in the wash, let's get in on the fun."
"Are we at least agreed that we're calling him Mr. Zap?" asked Willow, holding up a grey kitten. It licked her fingers with a rough tongue and looked around alertly, then changed its fur to a floral pattern matching her blouse.
Buffy came in from the kitchen. His head whipped round to follow her movements, then he relaxed as he recognised her. His head continued round through 360 degrees to look back at Willow. "If he's gonna pretend to be a normal kitten he's gonna have to stop doing that, it really weirded me out the first time I saw it. Why Zap?"
"'Cos of the main weapons systems. The rest of the stuff he's got, the claws and the teeth, were mainly designed for fighting something about the same size as a Baltian, although he can do a lot of damage that way if he has to. Think of him as a teeny version of Wolverine, only with twenty claws."
"Twenty-two," said Tara, "He's got six claws on his hind legs, like some real cats."
"I still can't believe getting him just after the whole Warren thing," said Dawn.
"It is weird," said Willow, "the only thing I can think of is that it might be a side effect of the way the spell is working and the time lines are merging. We know that it's causing strange coincidences, this must be one of them. Anyhow, officially he's your kitten if that's cool with you and Buffy."
"Uhh... To be honest, I'd still prefer a real kitten. The whole thing about kittens is that the way that they behave, the things that they do are just naturally cute, with Zap I know he'd be faking it. And there's the whole watching them grow up thing, which I wouldn't get with a robot. I'm sorry Zap, no offence meant, I know it isn't your fault, but I think it'd just be kinda odd. Does that make sense at all, Willow? I mean, I guess your mom was planning to give you Zap and pretend he was a real kitten, what would you have thought when you found out?"
"I think I see what you mean," said Willow. "She ordered him when I told her that Kitty Fantastico was dead, I guess a robot wouldn't have been much of a substitute at that."
"Poor Kitty," said Tara. "I wish I'd been able to kick Glory's ass for that. I doubt she even knew she killed her when she smashed into the dorm. You're both right, a robot just wouldn't have been the same."
"It was just an idea."
Zap said something in Baltian, Willow nodded and said "Zap says why not get a real kitten too, that way you'd have what you want and he'll have a chance to study one up close."
"He understood all that?" asked Dawn.
"Wow. Like I said, no offence meant."
A tiny voice said "Not taken."
"Buffy, can I do that? Get a kitten?"
"Sure," said Buffy. "I already said, didn't I? If you want to pick one from the pound or something it's cool with me."
"Can I go tomorrow?"
"I won't be able to go with you, I'm working, so go with Willow or Tara, make sure it's healthy and that it's been fixed. I'll write a note saying you have my permission. Willow, no offence to Zap but you're positive he won't hurt anyone?"
"I've told him to use minimal force," said Willow, "and to give strangers the benefit of the doubt until their intentions become clear. I'm getting him up to speed on monsters and stuff as fast as I can, I've shown him pictures of Warren and told him to knock him out on sight, and he knows what our friends look like. And he's smart Buffy, he's beginning about where April is, he won't make stupid mistakes. Or get captured by demons wanting to play kitten poker, he already knows about that one."
"Okay. Hi Zap, welcome to the Scooby Gang." Buffy gave him a mock salute; to her surprise the kitten returned it. "Now that is cute. You knows that you're gonna have to spend a lot of time pretending to be a normal kitten?"
"Is cool," said Zap.
"And you'll be careful not to hurt a real kitten if we get one?"
"Okay, let's find some string and a ball then, see how well you can fake it..."
"Just had a thought about Warren," Spike said to the phone later that evening.
"Go on," said Mister Shark.
"Well, it just occurred to me that I can't kill him while he's a human, can't even hurt him, but that wouldn't stop your boy Jerry from turning him. Then I could kill him okay, in fact it'd be a pleasure. Or let the Slayer have him, she'd welcome the excuse to stake him."
"It's a charming idea, Mister Spike, but I've just found out the reward the police are offering for him. Do you think the Slayer would offer more?"
"Doubt she could afford it. But how do you plan to collect it?"
"I don't understand, Mister Spike."
"Don't get me wrong, but you're a demon with a shark's head, and none of your boys are exactly normal-looking. Even Jerry doesn't exactly come across as mister not-at-all-undead, does he, and he's going to have a job calling in during office hours. Any of you go anywhere near the police it's out with the riot guns faster than you can spell 'Teenagers on PCP'"
"You may have a point."
"Damn right I do. What you need is an intermediary, someone who can collect the reward for you. Of course they'd want a share."
"We've already agreed seven percent, Mister Spike."
"Can't be me, not in the daytime. You need someone you can trust, someone that'll keep their promises, someone the police will talk to."
"The Mayor's dead, Mister Spike."
"I'd heard. I was thinking more of someone else."
When Buffy slipped out for her 2 AM patrol Spike was waiting for her, watched from the porch by the older Sheila body-suit.
"That's creepy," said Spike after they'd kissed. "Willow still controlling her?"
"I think she's on auto-pilot, everyone's asleep. Come to think of it, I thought you'd gone home to sleep."
"I did, but I had some interesting visitors. The Shark and his pals, wanting to sell me Warren."
"How much did they want?"
"More than I'd pay them. But I came up with an interesting alternative. They hand him over to you, you turn him in for the reward money, they get fifty percent."
"They wanted seventy-five, had to bargain them down."
"Damn right it is. He's wanted for the museum robbery, half a dozen counts of theft and fraud, the IRS are looking for him and so are the credit card people. If you got fifty percent it'd solve your money problems, you'd have the breathing space to get a proper job instead of working for Doublemeat bloody Palace."
"But nothing. If you don't they'll do something horrible to him, the Shark was talking about getting a vamp to turn him so you'd have to stake him."
"I'd almost rather..."
"I could maybe persuade him to do it if you'd like that."
"No. I guess turning him in is the best thing we can do. We can't just let him be eaten, and if everything Willow says is right I don't want him on the loose anywhere near Sunnydale. I suppose we might as well benefit from it."
"Pity, but I suppose you're right."
"So when do we do it? I'm working the evening shift tomorrow and the next day's my birthday - you'll be coming to the party?"
"Try and keep me away."
"Okay, so that pretty much means we either do it tonight or in two days. I think it's gonna have to be tonight, we leave him with them for a couple more days, there's no telling what they'll do to him. How do we contact them?"
"He left me a cellphone number, I'll give him a call."
"Willy's Place?" asked Buffy, "They want to meet in Willy's Place?"
"What have you got against Willy, love?"
"Apart from him being an untrustworthy sleazeball who wanted to shoot nude photos of me and Kendra and sold Angel out to.. um.. you?"
"Point taken. Let's get over there, it's already nearly three and sunrise is pretty early."
"...let's get this clear," said Buffy, "you get fifty percent of the reward after tax. I don't know how the tax on rewards works, I'm not gonna give you fifty thousand, or whatever half the reward is, then find that they want me to pay more than that in taxes."
"You drive a hard bargain, Slayer," said Shark. "There are other brokers I could use for this, you know."
"You know you can trust me to keep my word. At the moment, I'm just barely convinced that it's better to do business with you than to slay you and your minions and find Warren for myself. I doubt he's far away. I'll give you my word on fifty percent after tax. Anything less, and I'll give you my word that I'll find Warren and take him from you, whatever it takes to do it."
"That's beautiful," Willy said from the bar, "as a connoisseur of threats I have to say it's one of the..." He noticed their glares. "Okay, shutting up now."
"I have to agree," said Shark, "that's truly an inspiring speech. Okay, Irving, go get Jerry and the sack, bring him in."
The Miquot demon went out, came back in a couple of minutes later with the vampire, who was carrying Warren in a sack on his shoulder. He dumped him on the floor.
"Let's just take a look at him," said Buffy, "make sure it really is Warren."
"Oh ye of little faith," said Shark. Irving pulled one of his natural knives from his head and used it to cut the rope around the sack and pulled it off. Warren was revealed, bound, gagged, dazed and filthy.
"Spike," said Buffy, "can you just check he's still human? Don't want to give the police a fledgling vamp or something."
Spike hit Warren hard enough to rattle his teeth, and growled as the chip jolted his brain. "Oww. Bastard's still human."
"Okay," said Buffy, "You've got a deal. Fifty percent after tax. You have my word. We'd better get moving, not long until dawn."
"See you around, Slayer," said Shark, and he and his men moved towards the door. Buffy pulled Warren to his feet and held him by the neck.
"Before you all go," said Willy, holding out a wooden box with a slot cut in the top, "I'm making a collection to get something for Rack, poor guy's been admitted to the psycho ward at Sunnydale Hospital. Keeps mumbling numbers."
"Tough break," said Shark, dropping twenty dollars into the box. Irving and Jerry each gave five. Buffy shrugged and dropped in a dime.
Spike thought for a second then took a book of matches from the bar, set fire to it, and dropped it into the box. "Sorry boys, but I never did like that bastard. Hope he rots."
Buffy stared at him, he looked back and said "What? You want me to pretend I like him? Remember Niblet's arm, and the rest of it?"
"You always were a man of principle," said Shark, "Good thing that note was a forgery or I'd be a little annoyed." Irving and Jerry looked disgusted but said nothing.
"Let's go," said Buffy. "Spike, reach into my pocket and find my cellphone and the number for the MIB guys, they want to talk to him."
Warren mumbled something, Buffy ignored it. They left Willy frantically scrabbling at the box and went their separate ways.
Chapter 21: XX
"...and you're sure that there are no problems you want to discuss with me?" asked the student counsellor. "Your grades have been a little low lately."
"I went through a bad patch," said Dawn, "kinda felt people were ignoring me, but I guess they just had a lot of problems of their own. Things are a lot better now, and I think everything's gonna be okay."
"Is there anything that you would change if you could?"
"Well, obviously it'd be good if mom were still alive, but that's not gonna happen. Other than that, it'd be nice if we had more money, but that seems to be sorting itself out slowly, the IRS are giving us some money and my sister caught a criminal that everyone's after and turned him in for the reward, so she'll be able to take some time to look for a better job."
"But don't you wish..."
"Wishes are for losers, you have to make things happen for yourself. I nagged my sister into admitting she was dating someone, she was hiding it 'cos she thought I wouldn't like it, now it's out in the open and they're a lot happier. That wouldn't have happened if I'd just wished for it."
"I don't know, sometimes our wishes reveal our true feelings, don't you think so?"
"Err... I guess, but you can't live on wishes. Either they don't come true, or they do and you regret it. I've got ambitions, sure, but they're not gonna happen just by my wishing for things."
"What if they did? What would you wish for?"
"Umm.. Don't get me wrong, but your name wouldn't happen to be Halfrek, would it?"
"Oh, nothing. Just you remind me of someone who used to talk about wishes, and she said she had a friend called Halfrek coming to town for her wedding. And the talisman of D'Hoffryn's a bit of a give-away."
"Oh poot. You're remarkably well-informed."
"Come on, the Slayer's my sister and I help with research, I've seen pictures of the thing. Heck, I met the guy a few days ago. Anything else, or should I get back to class?"
"You sure I can't tempt you?"
"No chance. No hard feelings, but I saw what wishes did to my friends, no way I'm going through that. And I really wouldn't advise trying anyone else here, 'cos Buffy will know who to blame if there's problems."
"Very well," Halfrek said sulkily. "Have a nice day."
Halfrek waited until Dawn had gone then left. She didn't think much of her chances in a school containing that girl, but Sunnydale had other schools, and other children feeling pain. If she didn't make the wishes she granted too conspicuous...
"I thought you were supposed to let me call my lawyer as soon as you arrested me," Warren said nasally.
"This is as soon as we arrest you," said the detective, "we were just questioning you before."
Warren tried to focus as he punched in the number. There was something odd about the last few days, huge gaps in his memory, and he had an idea that the Slayer was to blame. He'd overheard the police say that she'd bought him in, and he couldn't even remember that. Then there was the pain in his side, and his teeth, and the doctor who'd said he was missing a kidney. What the hell had happened? First priority was the call.
As he hit the last number the modified pager he had called sent coded signals to devices he'd planted months earlier, as a backup plan if he were ever captured. One was inside a junction box on the outside wall of the precinct house, and took out the power. Another cut the phone lines. The third and fourth set off charges of plastic explosive, blowing holes in the walls. The fifth blew open a tear gas canister inside a nearby water cooler. Warren began to breathe through his nose, thankful that he'd somehow managed to keep his filter plugs with him. As the confused police stumbled around him he worked his way towards the door and out of the building, ignored by the men who were rushing towards the holes or retching from the gas. Jonathan and Andrew were still in there somewhere, he expected that they'd live. They certainly wouldn't get out, he hadn't seen any point putting the bombs near the cells when the phone was on the floor below. On the way out he stole a .38 revolver, left in a shoulder holster on the back of one of the detectives' chairs.
"Want another beer? Soft drink?" asked Xander, listening to the battle raging inside Buffy's house and checking that he still had a good grip on his mace.
"Not right now," said Willow, digging a hole in the lawn with her heel. "Think we should go back inside and help them?"
"No, I guess Buffy and Spike have things under control," said Tara. "We'll just guard the perimeter like she said. Anyone got any ideas on how that demon got into the house?"
"It came from the hall," said April. "I didn't see where it was before that."
There was a loud crash and an inhuman cry of pain. Dawn cuddled Zip, her new kitten, and said "I'll have a Dr. Pepper. Diet if you've got it." Xander pulled a can from the cooler.
Inside the house Spike shouted "Behind you!", then there was a crackling 'boom', followed by another inhuman scream. "That was Zap," said Willow, "sounds like he's having fun."
There was the noise of snapping metal, then things went very quiet.
"Okay," said Buffy, coming out onto the porch, "That settled his hash. Zap got him with his lightning gun, he tried to hide inside his sword and I broke it."
"His sword?" asked Dawn. "The sword you brought home last night? Is that how he got in?"
"'Fraid so. Sorry, but it did look like a really cool sword."
"Okay, now we know how he got in the house," said Anya. "Honestly Buffy, one minute you're bringing home vampires, the next it's demons. Isn't one boyfriend enough for you?"
"And the scary part is she isn't joking," said Xander, kissing her.
"Let's move back inside," said Willow, "we've got some clearing up to do. How much damage is there?"
"A few chairs and things," said Buffy, "some dents in the wall, nothing too serious. You know, the clear-up could wait for now and it's a really nice night, why don't we party out here?"
"Works for me," said Spike, coming out of the house with Zap on his shoulder. "Not like anything else is gonna try anything with us here and Willow's parents standing guard around the block, and Warren's in jail. Provided we get inside before dawn."
"We can't party too late anyhow," said Xander. "Work day tomorrow. And school for Dawn."
"Okay. Got any tequila?"
"Inside, I think, I only grabbed the cans."
"Okay. Someone wants to take the furball off me, I'll go get the booze."
April took Zap and said "Are you all right?" Zap gave her a very unkittenish grin then began to tidy his fur.
"Let's see," said Willow, "what are we gonna need for a picnic..."
The phone began to ring inside the house, then stopped. A minute later Spike came out and said "Police for you, wanted to warn you that Warren's escaped. They've still got the other two though."
"Okay," said Buffy, "let's take this inside just to be on the safe side. We'll party tonight, start looking for him again tomorrow."
"What happens about the reward?" asked Dawn.
"Buffy still gets it," said April. "It was a reward for his arrest, not conviction. There are numerous precedents, it's not her fault if the police are unable to keep him."
"Might be worth waiting a couple of days and seeing if they offer another reward," said Spike.
"It's tempting," said Buffy, picking up the beer cooler, "but I want to get him off the street before someone gets hurt."
Warren tried to slip through the shadows, looking for a car to steal. He didn't have any of his personal possessions, just the gun and his clothes, even his belt had been taken by the police. That meant he'd have to carjack someone, it was the only way to get everything he needed quickly.
Eventually he saw what he was looking for; an SUV parked outside a service station, the driver going inside to pay for gas. He could see that the engine was still running, the driver's door was even open. Perfect.
He scuttled to the door, climbed in, and reached for the gear lever. There was a loud click, something hard poked into the back of his head, and a woman's voice said "If you want to keep what's left of your brains I'd recommend staying very, very still."
"Oh, gee," Warren said desperately, "I must be more tired than I thought, my car's over there..."
"Shut up," she said coldly. They sat in silence for a couple of minutes, then the driver came back, and she said "I've got a guest."
The driver pulled a gun of his own and put it to Warren's ear, then yanked him out of the car, while the woman patted him down and took his gun. "Carjacker?"
"Looks like it."
"Damn, we really don't have time for this."
"Just leave him here, the police can collect him. Don't want to get there too late."
"Okay." A fist slammed into Warren's chin, and he passed out. He came to a while later, and slowly realised that his hands were cuffed behind his back, and around a lamppost near the service station. It took a while longer for him to notice that his pants were missing.
"Were we expecting anyone else?" asked Dawn, as the doorbell rang for the second time.
"It isn't Warren," said Willow, "the suits would have tried to stop him."
"Okay," said Buffy, "Spike, cover me."
Chapter 22: XXI
"Okay," said Buffy, "I know you're Mulder, so I guess this must be Scully."
"Right initial, wrong name," said Riley Finn. "Actually, this is Sam. Samantha. My wife."
"It's an honour to meet you," said Sam.
"Your wife? Wow, fast work Riley."
"I'm sorry," said Riley, "I didn't mean to spring it on you like this, but I had to check out a situation here and I thought it'd be a good opportunity for you to meet Sam."
"Okay, put your guns somewhere safe then cm'on in and join the party." Buffy led them into the main room, saying "Guys, it's Riley and the unfortunate girl that he's married. Riley, I think you know everyone here apart from my cousin April. Guys, this is Sam Finn, Riley's wife. Sam, meet Spike, Willow, Tara, Dawn, Anya, Xander and April. And the kittens are Zip and Zap."
Riley looked around, saw the cards, and winced. "I'm sorry, If I'd realised it was your birthday I'd have left it until tomorrow."
"That's okay, you never were good at remembering dates. Congratulations, I guess. Sam, make sure you get a big calendar and highlight birthdays and anniversaries. Can I get you guys a beer or something to celebrate?"
"Thanks," said Sam, "Can I talk freely?"
"Yeah, everyone here is in on the Slayer thing."
"I know this is a little awkward, but we're trying to track down a very dangerous demon, we think it's somewhere in the area."
"Live in a sword, does it?" asked Spike, "'cos we've just killed one like that tonight, it crashed the party."
"Sword? No, it's a Suvolte demon... about the size of a bear, very dangerous. We think it's about to spawn."
"Too late," said Buffy, "we killed it about a week ago."
"Was there any sign that it might have laid eggs?"
"Sure, squished them too. And boy that was gross."
"Wow," said Sam, unconsciously echoing Buffy, "that's fast work."
"How did you know it was here?" asked Dawn.
"We were tracking messages from a black market source called The Doctor. He was offering to sell the eggs, with delivery in this area."
"We know about Doc," said Buffy, "Demon guy, tried to sacrifice Dawn, we killed him last year. Spike found the information about the Suvolte thing in his files."
"Not Doc," said Sam, "The Doctor, and much more recently. The last message was only a couple of days ago. Which is odd if you've destroyed the eggs."
"Spike," said Buffy, "You had Doc's papers. Any ideas?"
"Okay..." For once Spike actually looked uncomfortable. "If you must know, I'm The Doctor."
"I'm The Doctor. It was a scam."
"A scam?" Willow asked incredulously.
"Well yeah. There was this business plan for harvesting the eggs and selling them in Doc's notes, and it seemed a pity to let it go to waste once we'd destroyed them. So I've got a fridge full of Nerff balls painted up to look like demon eggs, gonna sell them to his customers. Some acrylics, dash of luminous paint, some fluorescent dye, bit of demon blood to give them the right magical aura, bit of clay packed inside to get the weight right, you can't tell them from the real thing. Ought to make a fortune. Pay for Buffy to get out of her bloody job and get back to college."
"I thought you'd given up on selling them," Buffy said angrily.
"Sure, I'm not selling the real thing."
"Yep," said Xander, "Sounds like a Spike kind of plan."
"You've contacted some of the most dangerous supernatural arms dealers and outlaw governments in the world and plan to sell them Nerff balls?" Riley asked incredulously.
"Who're they going to complain to?" asked Spike, "The Chamber of Commerce?"
"That could actually be a very lucrative scheme," said Anya, "much safer than actually trying to breed the demons, their hatching time is very unpredictable. And as Spike says, who would complain?"
"Most of the guys he's been dealing with would complain with bullets," said Riley. "The rest would probably use hand grenades and car bombs."
"So?" said Spike. "Vampire, remember."
"You are," said Buffy, "but we're not. I don't want anyone getting caught in the line of fire."
"Umm... okay, I guess I can call it off. Not like I'd taken any money yet."
"Wait a minute," said Willow, "Riley, could you take over his plan, have one of your agents pretend to be The Doctor, maybe use it to catch some of these guys, make it look like it was always a US government sting operation? It must look like it's the real deal if it got your guys worried. That'd maybe help you and it'd take the heat off us."
"Maybe," said Riley, "That might not be a bad idea. Let me have everything; all the papers, the fake eggs, and anything else you have, and I'll see what I can do."
"That's good," said Buffy, "I really don't want anyone getting shot around here, we came close enough to that with Warren the other night."
"Warren?" asked Riley.
"Mad scientist type, decided he wanted to be a supervillain, he's been running around causing problems for me for the last few months. Matter of fact, he escaped from the police tonight, blew up the precinct house doing it. It's about the fourth time he's escaped."
"I knew the police here were bad, but..."
"It isn't just the police," said Willow, "he's kinda cursed, and the curse is playing him like a fish. He keeps struggling, and he keeps getting away, and I think maybe the curse is even twisting probability to help him escape, but every time it just lands him in even worse trouble. He's been beaten up three or four times, electrocuted, kidnapped by demons, lost all his money, somewhere along the way he's even lost a kidney. If he'd just given up the first time he was caught he'd probably just end up in prison, but he keeps making matters worse by trying to escape and trying to attack us. I'm almost feeling sorry for him, or would do if I didn't know why he was cursed."
"Okay," said Riley, "I'll bite. Why was he cursed?"
"Because in another time-line he killed Tara and I became a vengeance demon and managed to use other people's wishes to curse him and change my own past so radically that Tara's alive, I'm not a vengeance demon, and he's going through this as his punishment."
Riley sat there gaping. Sam said "Remind me never to get on your bad side."
"I couldn't do it again. Everything that led up to Tara getting killed was pretty much my fault. I got addicted to magic and hurt everyone around me, that left her in harm's way, then I went really bad with the magic when I was seeking my revenge. I remember just enough of the way things were to be sure that I don't want them to happen again. So I've pretty much given up on magic."
"You're probably wise. I've met addicts, seen how it usually ends. It isn't pretty."
"So what are you doing now?" asked Riley.
"Getting back into science mostly, and the research side of Scoobying. I was so busy being Wicca girl I'd neglected it the last couple of years, high time I got back to work."
"Sounds good." A thought crossed his mind. "This Warren... about your age, medium height, lots of bruises?"
"Sounds about right," said Buffy, "I've got a picture somewhere... here we go."
"Oh brother," said Sam. "He tried to carjack us about an hour ago when we were filling up at the edge of town, we left him handcuffed to a lamp-post."
"I'll check with the police," said Riley. "No wonder they sounded busy when I called it in. They ought to have brought him in by now." He got out a mobile phone, dialed, and spoke to the desk sergeant. The call ended with him saying "..well, I'd suggest you go look for him."
"Not there?" asked Buffy.
"They found the remains of the handcuffs."
"They say it looks like something tore them apart."
"The service station you used," said Buffy, "Wasn't near the Mall, was it?"
Riley nodded. "Oh, bloody hell," said Spike.
"What's the problem?" asked Riley.
"There's a vampire nest somewhere around there," said Buffy, "we've been looking for it for a few days, but with Warren running around shooting at people then another demon on the loose it kinda got low priority. Either he broke free, or they found him before the police did. Okay, Spike and I'll check it out, see if we can track them by Warren's smell or something, you guys go on with the party. We'll stop by Spike's place on the way back and pick up the papers and the fake eggs."
"So," said Buffy, driving her Jeep towards the service station, "when were you planning to tell me about this wonderful money-making scheme?"
"When I'd made some money, pet."
"Stolen some money, you mean."
"Well yeah, but they're bad people, not like I'd be hurting anyone that didn't deserve it."
"Can you honestly tell me you thought through the consequences, what might happen to the people around you?"
"I wasn't planning to get caught."
"Nobody does... but if Riley and Sam are already this close do you really think that the arms dealers wouldn't have tracked you down? They may already be looking, if they're as dangerous as Riley says some of them might think of going after 'the Doctor' and stealing the eggs, rather than waiting to buy them."
"Oh bloody hell... You're right, I didn't think of that one."
"Thought not. Spike, if it was just me I'd let it go, I know you meant well, but I have to think of Dawn and the others. I want you to promise me that you won't do anything like this again, and this time mean it."
"Okay. I promise, no more scams."
"That's better. And you'll try to be a bit more responsible?"
"Hell, I thought that trying to get you more money was being responsible... Okay, I'll try."
"Good. Anything else I should know about?"
"Umm... I was sort of thinking of killing Shark and his boys so you don't have to pay them half the reward, does that count as a scam?"
"Where's Joyce tonight?" asked Riley.
"You hadn't heard?" Dawn asked coldly. "She died. A few weeks after you ran out on us."
"Oh... I'm very sorry, I thought she was recovering."
"We all did. We were wrong. Buffy and I had to get through it on our own, and when she was killed..."
"When who was killed?"
"Buffy. She was killed saving me from Glory."
"You really have no idea, do you?" Dawn picked up the kittens and ran out and upstairs. They heard a door slam. Xander went up after her.
"What's she talking about?" asked Riley.
"Glory kidnapped Dawn and was going to kill her," said Willow, "Buffy killed her but died in the fight. I bought her back with black magic, as black as it gets. And I pulled her out of heaven to do it. I thought I was helping her, and I plunged her back into hell."
"Oh... Is that when you got addicted?" asked Sam.
"No. I was already well hooked before we killed Glory, even before Riley left, although nobody noticed. Nobody except Tara."
"Honey," said Tara, "It's over now. You didn't know where she was."
"I didn't even think of trying to check."
"I think maybe I will have another drink," said Riley.
"Dawnster," Xander said through the door, "Can I come in?"
"Just a minute... Okay."
Xander went into Dawn's room, and saw that she'd been crying and was cuddling one of the kittens.
"Riley didn't know. He was an idiot to run out, but you can't blame him for everything that's happened."
"Can if I want to."
"Yeah, but it really wouldn't be fair."
"It's just... he really had no idea, thought he could just walk back in here as though nothing had happened."
"Maybe it's just as well. There's things he doesn't know, maybe you don't want him to know considering who he works for."
"Well, the Key thing kinda comes to mind. Imagine the Initiative going after that little source of power to add to their Frankenstein monster."
"Oh... yeah, that's true. Maybe you're right. It's just not fair... Buffy's been so unhappy, and he comes back married."
"Yeah, I know. It isn't fair, but that's the way things happen sometimes. So... ready to come back down."
"In a minute, I'm just waiting for Zap."
"Well, I was kinda feeling petty and vindictive..."
"Okay, what did you do?"
"Asked him to let the air out of their tyres."
"Fine. Dawn, remind me never to get on your bad side."
"Okay. Remember this conversation when Christmas and my birthday come around."
"You know it's an odd thing," Buffy said to the gas station attendant, "there are four security mirrors in the station, and another three inside this store, and I can't see you reflected in any of them. Not you, and not your three pals that are doing a lousy job of sneaking up on me. Imagine my surprise."
She let a stake drop down her sleeve to her hand and snapped it back into the closest vampire's heart, with the usual results.
"Then again," she dodged sideways and staked the next vampire through the back, "you can't see my friend either." She pulled the stake out as it crumbled to dust, while Spike leaped from an aisle of groceries and pinned the attendant against the cash register. "Don't kill him yet, I want some answers." She pirouetted to kick the last vampire in the groin, grabbed its head as it doubled over, and rammed it through the glass front of a freezer cabinet, then smashed down on its neck to decapitate it. More dust.
"Okay, I guess I'd better introduce myself. I'm the Slayer, and this is my friend Spike, and we'd kinda like to know what you've done with the guy that was handcuffed to the lamp-post, and anyone else you might have here."
The vampire growled at her, she sighed. "Spike, let's start by breaking a few of his fingers..."
"So...," Sam asked April quietly, when she found a chance to talk to her alone in the kitchen, "What exactly are you?"
"You're good, but you're not human. Some sort of demon?"
"I'm a robot."
"No. Warren built me to be his girlfriend but abandoned me, later Willow helped me to become self-aware. Now Buffy and Dawn have adopted me."
"Nice of them."
"Yes, very. What gave me away?"
"Your speech mostly, the emotional accents are a bit off and you don't use many contractions. Also your eyes.. most people tend to pay a little attention to other people's mouths when they talk, you don't, and you blink less than anyone I know."
"Oh. Why do people look at mouths?"
"It helps if you're trying to understand someone who isn't speaking clearly, and mouth movements are an important part of non-verbal communication." Sam noticed that April was paying more attention to her lips and blinking a little faster.
"I'm trying to improve my social skills, thank you for the information."
"What's it like being a robot?"
April thought for a moment then said "Being a robot is easy, you just do what you are designed to do. Being human is much harder, especially for someone who isn't, you must know why you do the things you do. You must be self-aware."
"Can you give me an example?"
"Take sex," said April, "Warren built me to be his girlfriend, so much of my programming concerned sex. Since he was only interested in his own gratification my responses to various stimuli were pre-programmed. In some cases they were controlled by simple timer and feedback loops, in others they were triggered by the actions or words of the other participant. Essentially, I was faking it."
"My body and programming were not designed to let me to enjoy sex per se, so any pleasure I gain from it will have to be intellectual; satisfaction in increasing the pleasure of my partner. I will gain no satisfaction without the appropriate partner, and I have no intention of faking it."
"So you'll be looking for love, not just lust."
"I think so."
"If you don't mind me saying so, this is a very strange conversation. I can't say that I've ever really thought of a robot as something that might want sex, let alone love."
"It makes more sense if you think of me as human, and that's where I want to be."
"I'll do my best. Uh... I suppose you'd rather I didn't mention this to anyone else."
"Please. I don't want to be treated as a freak."
"Thanks. Can I refill your drink?"
"Did you ever find out what the Key was, the thing that Glory was looking for?" Riley asked in the main room.
"Nope," Xander lied, "we don't even know for sure that it was ever in Sunnydale. The way she told it, the monks said they sent it to the Slayer, but maybe it got lost in the mail or something. Or maybe Faith had it all along."
"That'd be a hell of a twist."
"But.." Anya began.
"I know Glory thought it was here," Willow interrupted, catching on, "but we never knew for sure. She was a total insano, it could have been a figment of her warped imagination." She thought she saw a look of comprehension cross Anya's face, and hoped Riley hadn't spotted it. Fortunately Sam was out in the kitchen and hadn't seen, Willow had a feeling she was a lot more perceptive.
"What was she anyway?" asked Riley. "Some sort of demon?"
"A.. a what?"
"A mad god from a hell dimension. Why do you think she gave us so much trouble? Got trapped here on Earth, thought she needed the Key thing to get home. Maybe she did, we'll never know now."
Dawn came in with the kittens and said "I'm sorry I snapped at you, I guess it wasn't really your fault."
"A lot of it was, but there's not really much I can do about it now except apologise."
Sam came in from the kitchen, followed by April, and said "Buffy seems to have been gone quite a while, maybe we should go look for her."
"Don't worry," said Xander, "Buffy can take care of herself, and she's got Deadboy Junior with her for backup."
"Even so," said Sam, "maybe Riley and I should get over there, see if we can help. I'd love to see her in action anyway. Come on, move it soldier."
"I married Rambo," Riley groaned. "Okay, I'm coming."
A few minutes later he was busy pumping up the tyres of the SUV, while Dawn tried hard to look innocent and Zap purred on her lap.
"In there?" asked Buffy, pointing to a padlocked door at the back of the service station. The vampire attendant nodded. Buffy kicked the lock, splintering the wood, and heard a muffled moan. She found a light switch, and saw four people duct-taped to pipes around the walls. None of them seemed to be Warren. She checked them for pulses, found that they were all still alive, and started to cut them loose.
"Okay, where's the other one," asked Spike.
"What other one?" asked the attendant. Spike twisted harder, dislocating his shoulder.
"The guy that was cuffed to the lamp-post."
"Uhh... Jerry took him."
"Jerry?" asked Spike, "Jerry that works for Mister Shark?"
"Yeah. He called in about twenty minutes ago for the Shark's protection money, said he'd have the guy as a bonus."
"Finish him," said Buffy. Spike twisted until the attendant's neck broke and he crumbled to dust.
"Okay," said Buffy, "maybe we won't be paying Shark that money after all..."
Chapter 23: XXII
"Evening Willy," said Spike, "How's the fingers? Seen the Shark and his boys around tonight?"
"Mister Spike," Willy said reproachfully, holding up a bandaged hand, "Did you really have to set fire to my collecting box?"
"Come on, it's not like you were actually planning to give much of it to Rack. I'm willing to bet that after you'd taken your cut he'd have ended up with a bunch of grapes. A small one."
"Some people have no respect for my devotion to my friends."
"Some people would know better than to claim Rack as a friend when I'm around," said Buffy, idly flipping a stake in her hand.
"Well, business contact." Buffy stared at him. "Oh, all right, maybe I didn't like him that much, but the customers expect it of me."
"Now that we know where your loyalties lie, where's mister Shark? More specifically, where's his friend Jerry?"
"Which one is Jerry?"
"I'm getting bored, Willy."
"Oh, that Jerry. I think he lives some place out near Clem, not sure exactly where."
"Bollocks," said Spike, "Clem wouldn't stay there if Jerry was anywhere around."
"Why not?" asked Buffy.
"Vampires don't need an invitation to go into demons' homes, and Jerry has a bit of an appetite control problem. He'd nick Clem's kittens."
"He steals kittens?"
"If it's warm and has blood in it he'll bite it."
"Charming friends you have, Spike."
"He's one of Harm's old minions. She didn't exactly select them for smarts."
"I still can't believe Harmony had minions. What the hell were they thinking of?"
"Some people are just born followers, like the whelp."
"That's not fair and you know it."
"umm..." said Willy, "Not to press, but having you two here is bad for business."
"What business? The place is empty."
"Spike, are we good to stop here for a few hours?"
"Great. Willy, you're buying."
"You want the place to have people in it."
"Let me just make a couple of phone calls, see if I can find out where the Shark is..."
"Looks like Buffy's been and gone," said Riley, flashing his ID at a local cop and gesturing towards the police cars and ambulances.
"I make it three vampires dusted in the mini-market," Sam said a few minutes later, as the last of the victims was taken away to hospital, "and one outside."
"That's Buffy all right," said Riley.
"And she's not even worried about the security camera tape?" Sam asked, holding it up.
"The mayor of Sunnydale used to be a black magician. He appointed most of the police, and most of them seem to be incapable of noticing anything out of the ordinary. Did you see that guy examine our ID?"
"Me neither. In this town deliberate ignorance is bliss. Three'll get you five someone would erase it, but we'll take it with us to be on the safe side."
"I think a little bar hopping is probably our best bet, if that fails we can always fall back on the cemeteries."
"Okay, I got an address for Jerry, nobody seems to know where the Shark is tonight..." said Willy. "You're not gonna like it."
"Try me," said Buffy.
"He's squatting in Angel's old mansion."
"That's ballsy," said Spike. "Angel still owns that place, and I don't see my old sire taking kindly to squatters."
"Angel still owns it?" asked Buffy. "I thought he'd left it for good."
"The realtors can't shift it. This town has no shortage of cheap houses, what with the death rate and all, and the place gives most people the creeps. He won't spend any money to fix it up, the top floor is rain damaged, and most of it never gets the sun."
"Let's go then, see if we can evict him. Willy, you tell anyone we're coming and you're a dead man."
"Fine.. Nobody appreciates me, why should you?"
"Shut up, and stay that way."
"That's Buffy's jeep leaving the bar up ahead," Riley said, "I'll stay back, we might get a chance to see her in action."
"Better let her know, or she might think you're an enemy following her. Give me her mobile number, I'll let her know we're behind her."
Sam dialed, talked for a moment, listened, then said "She says that she's heading towards the old mansions on the edge of town.. follow her, when she tells us stop and pretend that we've broken down. She wants to use us as bait for a vampire called Jerry."
"Sounds good to me. You okay with that?"
"Sure... Taser and stake enough for this?"
"Should be, but keep your gun handy. Buffy'll probably do most of the fighting anyway."
"Let's hope I see her in action."
They drove on for a few minutes, then Sam said "Stop by the derelict mansion ahead on the left," and switched off the phone.
"Right. Both of us out of the car?"
"Sure, if there's serious trouble I don't want either of us trapped inside."
They stopped, got out, and began arguing loudly about the SUV. As Riley popped the hood Buffy drove on and turned a corner, out of sight.
"..and I told you to buy the proper oil filter, but oh no, mister know-it-all has to go for the cheapest brand. Well, let's see what the AAA have to say about it when they get here."
"If they get here," said Riley, "She said it could be an hour before they get someone out."
In the shadows Jerry smiled, put on his human face, and came out to be helpful. "Need a hand?"
"We think the oil filter's blocked," said Riley, wondering if this was a man or a vampire, or one of Sunnydale's other denizens.
"Maybe you ought to come inside, it's dangerous out here. Sunnydale has a crime problem."
"It's really okay," said Sam, pretending nervousness, "we're sure the AAA will be here soon."
"Those idiots took three hours to get out to the guy next door when he broke down a couple of months ago."
"Really," said Riley, "it's a nice night, we'll be fine."
"No you won't," said Jerry, switching to game face, tired of playing with his food. He advanced on Sam, taking it slowly to ensure that she had a chance to be terrified. When he was six feet away there was a loud thud and a crack of breaking ribs, as Buffy ran in from the side and kicked Jerry so hard he collided with the gatepost of the house. The gatepost collapsed in a shower of bricks and cement.
"Hello Jerry," said Spike, following Buffy towards the fight, "We hear you've been a naughty boy."
"Where's Warren?" asked Buffy, kicking him again and shattering a kneecap. Jerry screamed.
"That's gotta hurt," said Sam, pulling out her Taser and watching out for any other vampires.
"You think so?" asked Riley, wincing as Buffy followed up with a kick to the groin. Jerry grunted and fell onto his side, doubled up in pain.
"Where's Warren?" asked Buffy. "You know, the guy you took from the service station."
"In.. house... Jesus, lady, that hurt."
"Anyone else in there?" asked Buffy, stabbing a heel into his hand. There was a crunch of grating bones.
"Good." Buffy staked him; he tried to scream but didn't have time. Buffy ducked back and shook his dust from her hair. "Stay alert, he was probably lying."
They went in through the garden doors, and Riley looked around at the dungeon-like decor. "Who the hell lives like this?"
"Used to be Angel's place until he moved to LA," said Buffy. "Jerry was squatting."
"The great poof likes to live somewhere depressing where he can brood," said Spike. Buffy gently punched him in the ribs.
"Why am I not surprised?" said Riley.
"I don't know," said Sam, "A little remodelling, some pastels, concealed lighting... you don't get craftsmanship like this any more."
"There's earthquake, lightning, and Slayer damage, and it needs a lot of work upstairs," said Spike, "plus at the end of the day you'd be living in Sunnyhell. That's a reason in itself not to bother."
"Good point," said Buffy. "Anyone hear anything?"
They listened, and Spike said "Think I can hear breathing from upstairs. Hell of a smell of blood."
"Riley, Sam, stay down here and check out the rest of this floor. Spike, upstairs with me."
"Later. Work first."
Sam and Riley watched them go upstairs, then Sam softly said "Did he mean what I think he meant."
"I always thought there was something between them, guess it's finally out in the open."
"You don't sound too surprised."
"After Angel? Not really, just disappointed."
"No, I gave up any right to be upset when I left her."
"I just can't understand why anyone would want to sleep with a... well, with a corpse. It's bad enough when you come to bed with cold feet, that'd be ridiculous."
"I guess. Let's start through this door over here..."
"It's getting on for eleven," said Xander, "guess we'd better call it a night."
"Yes," said Anya, "We need to have some orgasm time."
"It's just a shame that the party got messed up like that," said Dawn.
"Don't forget to give Riley and Sam an invitation when they get back," said Xander, "it'd be nice to have a few more people there who aren't my family, demons, or both."
Dawn saw Xander and Anya out, then went back to Willow and Tara. April was upstairs, recharging in the small room they'd improvised for her. She gathered up the kittens again and put them into the basket they were supposed to use as a bed. Zip licked her sleepily, Zap was his usual alert self. "Now that they've gone, what are we gonna do about the wedding?" she asked Willow, "With the birthday out of the way can you remember anything more?"
"Not really... to be honest, I'm just more confused now, I don't recall Riley and Sam being at the party at all, in my memories they showed up a couple of days before the wedding, and had to leave town in a hurry."
"I guess that just shows that things are changing," said Tara. "Originally Spike tried to sell the real Suvolte eggs, is that right? And the mother demon was still alive until Riley and Sam got here?"
"I think so, it's kinda blurry."
"Then if Spike was dodging her to gather the eggs it would have taken him much longer to have the full batch and start advertising them, that would account for it."
"I guess so."
"Wait a minute," said Dawn, "are you saying that Spike was planning to sell real demon eggs? To arms dealers?"
"Umm.. Yeah, 'fraid so."
"Oh. That's not good."
"He's a vampire, Dawnie," Willow said patiently, "he's nice to us these days but his sense of morality is still kinda... skewed, I guess. Don't worry, I'm pretty sure that Buffy will keep him from doing anything else like that now they're in more of a relationship, she's done a good job so far."
"She'd better, if not I'll have to do it for her."
"Okay, now Spike really needs to worry."
"Back to the wedding," said Tara. "The problem as I see it is that Xander never really told you exactly what happened."
"I know that some sort of demon got close to him and did something," said Willow, "then he just walked out on her. No explanation, really, just something about having seen what his family was like again, he wasn't sure he was ready for marriage. He wouldn't change his mind, even when he knew he'd been talking to a demon. And I was too wrapped up in our problems to find out more."
"Is there any way we could... I dunno... make him happier about his family?" asked Dawn.
"There's no way anyone could be happy about Xander's family. That'd take some sort of miracle."
"Okay, then we have to keep the demon away from him, or make it so that he doesn't fall for whatever it is the demon does."
"What are you suggesting? Hypnosis, or some sort of spell?"
"Well, I was kinda thinking it might be a good idea to tell him about it, get him psyched up to expect it. At the worse, he might make a decision now and call off the wedding or postpone it, rather than leaving Anya standing at the altar."
"We'd have to tell both of them," said Tara, "otherwise it just wouldn't be fair to Anya."
"I can see that going down well," said Willow, then went very still.
"What is it, Willow?" asked Tara.
"'My lord, I have a cunning plan...'"
"What?" asked Dawn.
"Sorry, something I saw on PBS. I have an idea. It's a stupid, risky idea, and if it goes wrong neither of them will ever speak to me again, but I think it might just work...."
"Anything?" whispered Buffy.
"Still hear breathing, room off to the left."
Buffy kicked the door open and went in. Warren was tied to a chair, bleeding from a dozen wounds, his breathing barely perceptible.
"He's lost a lot of blood, looks like Jerry was having himself a bit of a snack."
"Think he'll make it?" asked Buffy, cutting him loose from the chair.
"Doubt it. That far gone, I doubt he'll even make it to hospital."
"Damn. Riley..." she shouted, "Get up here with your first aid kit."
"I'll check the rest of the house," said Spike, "not much I can do for him."
"Okay. Warren.. can you hear me?"
Warren moaned but didn't answer.
"We're gonna try to get you stabilised and into hospital."
Riley ran up with the first aid kit, Sam followed holding her Taser in one hand and the neck of Irving the Miquot demon in the other. "Found this creep snooping around downstairs."
"He works for Shark," said Buffy, leaving Riley to work on Warren. "What are you doing here, Irving?" she asked, snapping off one of his knives and using it to trim a slightly ragged nail.
"Oww.. The boss sent me over, he wanted to know where his money was."
"Yeah. Jerry was bagman tonight, he did the rounds of the places the Shark protects."
"How much would he have been carrying?"
"A couple of hundred, it's all nickel and dime stuff. Gas stations, grocery stores, that sort of thing."
"Must have gone when we dusted him."
"You dusted Jerry?"
"Caught him snacking on someone."
"Oh well, never did like him much."
"I think you'd better go back to the Shark and tell that vampire henchmen aren't the best way to stay on my good side. He got any others?"
"No. You dusted most of the others a few weeks ago, and Meatloaf got caught out in the open after sunrise, the other vamps in town decided that the job was a little too high profile."
"Okay. One more thing..." Buffy snapped off another blade, and threw it at the wall. It shattered as it hit the stone. "...damn, that had nice balance, but it's a little too fragile. As I was saying, one more thing... if I hear any more of this protection business there'll be trouble. I don't mind him running poker games, I'm not even all that worried about demons gambling for kittens, but if I hear anything more about protection I'll be coming after him and pulling his teeth the way I'm pulling these knives." She snapped off another for emphasis.
"Owww.. Okay, okay, I hear what you're saying. I'll pass the message on."
"By the way, if you know any other vamps or demons that might be thinking of moving in now Irving is gone, you'd better tell them that Angel owns this place and probably won't be too thrilled if he finds squatters here. Got that?"
"Sure. Wouldn't want to mess with that guy."
"Now get out."
"Getting..." He wobbled slightly as Sam let him go, then hurried off downstairs.
"You really letting him go?" asked Sam.
"Those guys are mercenaries, they don't hurt people just for the fun of it. I don't think he's done more than beat a few people up, killing him seems a little excessive. If he ever does something to deserve it he knows what'll happen, and with luck that'll deter anyone he tells. I've given up killing everything that just looks odd and has a bad reputation, it makes unnecessary enemies."
"Can't argue with that."
Buffy turned to Riley. "Any luck?"
"Think I have him stabilised, but his pulse is weak and erratic. Let's get him to hospital."
"Can we use your SUV? I just cleaned the Jeep. Besides, the hospital asks awkward questions when I bring people in, they've seen me too many times."
"Spike, found anything?"
"Nope," he lied, fingering the bundle of bank notes in his pocket and deciding not to tell her he had them until she was in a better mood.
"Let's move then."
"Are Riley and Sam coming back?" asked Willow.
"Sure, they're going to pick up Doc's papers," said Buffy.
"Waste of some good ideas," Spike muttered regretfully. Buffy hit him with her elbow. "Oww."
"Yeah, really good," said Dawn disapprovingly. "Did you check to make sure there wasn't anything about me being the Key?"
"First thing I looked for, Niblet, there's nothing. Doesn't even mention that the Key is human."
"That's good. We kinda told them we'd never found out what it was."
"You're learning, Bit."
"Didn't know the whelp had it in him."
"Which reminds me," said Willow, "We need to do something about their wedding, and I think I have the beginnings of an idea..."
"Anyway," said Riley, "I'm sorry we messed up your party. We've got rooms at the army base, and we have to head back with these papers tomorrow, so I'd guess it's goodbye for now."
"You've got Xander's invitation?" asked Buffy.
"Doubt we'll make it," said Sam, "but you never know. Thanks for letting us see you at work, it was educational."
"I'll take that as a compliment, I guess."
"It's how it was meant. That flying kick was beautiful, so were the interrogations. Couldn't have done better myself."
"If I'd been paying more attention I would have taken care of Jerry weeks ago and we wouldn't have had to go through all this."
"I suppose, but from all I've heard you had good reasons to be a little off your game."
"Maybe. But I wonder how many have died because I was sleeping on the job."
Riley's phone beeped, and he listened for a moment then said "Okay, thanks for letting me know," and disconnected.
"Problem?" asked Sam.
"Buffy... I'm sorry, Warren didn't make it. Went into shock, died about twenty minutes ago."
"Oh. Well, I'm sorry I didn't get there in time to save him, but I can't say I'll miss him."
"Definitely not," said Willow, kissing Tara.
In Sunnydale Hospital a masked and gowned figure wheeled Warren towards the mortuary, checked that he wasn't being watched, and changed course towards a van parked at one of the loading bays. He wheeled the trolley aboard, shut the door, and put on the light to reveal all of the equipment of a small operating theatre. He turned Warren onto his stomach, felt his back to locate the remaining kidney, and started to cut. There was a debt to be paid, and death wasn't going to stop him collecting.
Chapter 24: XXIII
"Jay," shouted Dee, "You just missed a call. San Francisco want you or Kay to contact someone called Rosenberg in Sunnydale. Says there's no hurry, but today would be good."
Jay finished changing his trousers and started to clean cephalopod entrails from his shoes, and shouted "Okay, on it."
Kay came into the rest room with mugs of coffee, his clothes spotless as always.
"Think I'm gonna have to get those trousers incinerated," said Jay. "So how come you get to shoot the cephalopod and I'm the one gets slimed?"
"Because you're the one that insists on opening doors. Did I just hear Dee mention Sunnydale?"
"Yeah, Willow wants us to call. Probably wants to check how things are going with her inheritance."
"Maybe. Didn't think she was that concerned about money."
"Being rich changes people. I kinda liked that girl, it'd be a shame..."
"So call her, find out what it's about."
"Okay, okay." Jay got his cellphone and punched in Willow's number, identified himself, and listened for several minutes, occasionally interrupting with a "yes", "nope," or "maybe," and one "absolutely not." As the conversation went on he began to grin.
"Well?" asked Kay, when the call was complete.
"It wasn't the inheritance. She said to say 'Hi', and she's inviting us both to a wedding."
"I thought she was gay... oh, California, right."
"Not her, some friends. That Anya girl, the ex-demon, and her boyfriend."
"Xander. What about them?"
"Willow has some memories of how the wedding went in her previous lives, says it'll be a disaster without our help."
"So? Saving marriages isn't exactly part of our mission."
"Not that sort of disaster. She says that if it goes wrong all hell will break loose, almost literally. They've got a plan to fix it but it needs us to lend a hand. What she wants isn't actually difficult if Zed will okay it."
"Okay, I'll bite... What's the plan?"
"You're gonna love this..."
"We really need to celebrate," said Buffy, looking round at the group assembled in The Magic Box, "and I know just the place."
"The Bronze?" asked Xander.
"No, somewhere much better," Buffy said mysteriously. "It's about twenty minutes out of town. Come on, it's Friday night, nobody has to be up early tomorrow, and I've booked tables."
"And I'm paying," said Willow, "If I'm gonna be rich I might as well enjoy it."
"See, honey," said Anya, "That's the capitalist ethic at work. Make money then enjoy it."
"Yes, that's how I understand it," said April.
"Yeah right," said Xander, "and sponge off your rich buddies."
"Nothing wrong with that," said Spike, "better than sucking them dry anyhow."
"Lighten up, Xander, it really is a special occasion," said Buffy. "Warren's out of the way, even if I didn't get to do it myself. I suppose I ought to feel sorry for him, but after the way he screwed up my life, and what we know happened to Tara in Willow's other lives, it feels like a huge weight's been lifted off my mind. I want us all to feel the way I do."
"Okay," said Xander, finally grinning, "let's party."
"C'mon everyone." Buffy led them outside, where a huge black stretch limo was parked. "Willow laid on transportation."
"Wow," said Xander, waiting as Anya locked the shop. Dawn climbed aboard first, sitting next to Buffy and Spike in the front row of seats. Tara, Willow, and April quickly took the middle row, leaving the back row for Xander and Anya. As soon as everyone was in the car it set off towards the outskirts of Sunnydale.
"So what's out this way?" asked Xander, "thought it was just farms and wineries."
"Oh, we just need to go a little further than that." The car reached a clear section of road; its engines roared and it started to accelerate, taking off and rapidly reaching cruising speed a little below the speed of sound, a few hundred feet up. Anya gasped and held on to Xander's arm, he didn't complain.
"Holy crap," said Xander. "Where the hell is this place anyway? Krypton?"
The black glass window between the passengers and driver's compartment slid down, and Jay looked back at the passengers. "Everyone comfortable?" In the driver's seat Kay selected a CD track and Elvis began to sing 'Viva, Las Vegas.'
"I can't believe this," said Joe McVitie, "Three weeks we've been planning to deliver this backup generator, and they can't even remember to keep the loading bay clear for us."
The gigantic Sunnydale Power low-loader waited behind the hospital as the staff tried to find out who owned a van that was blocking the bay. Eventually the superintendent called the police, and a patrolman smashed a window to get inside the van and move it. It was only when he was getting out that he noticed the smell and found the body.
"You must have been planning this for days," Xander said as he looked around the restaurant table at the Scoobies, Spike, Jay, Kay, and April.
Willow said "After Buffy's birthday disaster it just seemed like a neat idea to go somewhere nice and have a proper party. I didn't want it to be anywhere in Sunnydale, but it'd cause too many problems if we went somewhere that took a lot of travel time. Then I remembered how quickly we got to San Francisco and asked Jay and Kay to help. They'd already promised to give Dawn and Spike a ride, it wasn't much more trouble to get a bigger car."
"Caesar's Palace. Wow."
"Actually," said Willow, "there is another reason for coming here. Something we need to discuss."
"We?" Xander realised her tone was suddenly a lot more serious.
"Anya, this concerns you too. Okay, this is a little difficult to explain..."
"What is?" asked Anya.
"You know I've lived through several different versions of my life, especially the months since Warren first started messing us around."
"So?" asked Xander.
"Most of the differences related to things Warren and his friends did. But there was one thing that was pretty constant in some of them, something that's coming up in a few days, something that Warren was never involved in. Your wedding."
"Okay, so we get married."
"That's the problem, you don't. Things happen, and the wedding ends up as a disaster."
"What?" Anya and Xander chorused.
"I can't say exactly what happens, because my memories aren't that clear, I never saw all of it, and I was too wrapped up in my own problems to pay full attention. I know that it isn't either of you that causes the problem. I think someone... something... crashes the ceremony and messes with people's minds. There's a big fight. Whatever, the ceremony goes horribly wrong and you two don't marry; in all of my memories that go that far you're still trying to get your lives back together when I become a vengeance demon."
"That's a hell of a thing to tell us," said Anya.
"There's a pretty obvious fix. Even if the ceremony goes wrong, it won't mess up your lives too badly if you're already married."
"What?" asked Xander.
"It won't mess up your lives if you're already married."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"Las Vegas, Xander. Wedding chapels. We finish our meal, we go to one, we have a nice ceremony, you two are married, and we change the ceremony in Sunnydale to affirmation of your wedding vows."
"But I want a proper wedding," said Anya, "With a dress and bridesmaids and flowers and maids of honour and a honeymoon. I can't believe you're serious."
"You can do all that at an affirmation ceremony."
"Anya's right," said Xander, "I know you mean well, but it just wouldn't be the same."
"Think about it for a while," said Willow, "and have another drink."
"..now pronounce you man and wife. You may kiss the bride." Xander and Anya kissed enthusiastically, wobbling a little as they did so.
"You don't think that was a little unethical?" Tara quietly asked Willow.
"It was a lot unethical, but I'm gonna tell them what I did when they've sobered up properly, let them take it out on me. I know it was a really sneaky trick, but I didn't actually do anything to influence their decision except get them drunk. It's just good that Kay knew one of the staff there and got him to spike their drinks." Secretly she was relieved that Jay and Kay hadn't gone along with her original plan, to neuralyze Xander and Anya every time they said 'no' until they agreed to marry. It would have probably worked, but it made the ethics of getting them drunk look snow white, and Tara wouldn't have been happy.
"Anya is gonna want to kill you," whispered Dawn, "for the hangover if nothing else."
"I know," said Willow, "but it had to be done."
Xander and Anya finally broke their embrace and stood a little unsteadily in front of the altar, while everyone showered them with confetti and flowers and the chapel's photographer took pictures. Jay and Kay took care to stay out of shot. Finally Anya threw her bouquet out towards them. Buffy, Willow, Tara and Dawn all automatically reached up, but it was April that caught them.
"You know what catching them means?" asked Willow.
"Okay, you need to do a little more reading on marriage customs."
"It means you're the next one to get married," said Dawn.
"Oh. Is that a legal requirement?" asked April.
"No, just superstition."
"You sounded a little disappointed," said Tara, when she was sure nobody else was listening.
"There is someone I like, but they don't know and I'm not sure it would work."
"Promise you won't tell anyone?"
April whispered a name in her ear. Tara looked startled, then thoughtful, then said "Okay... kind of unconventional, but maybe not impossible. Want me to drop a few hints?"
"Better not. Maybe after the other wedding... I don't want anyone distracted."
"Okay. You know, the more I get to know you, the more I'm sure you're a perfect member of the Scooby Gang. Your brand of weirdness is right at home here."
"Thank you... I think."
"Sorry, it's just... my standards of weirdness have had to change a few times in the last couple of weeks, before that I might have found the idea a little disturbing."
"Good. Come on, I think we're heading back to Sunnydale."
Xander woke, felt Anya beside him, and wondered why his head felt like it was about to explode. Gradually his memories of the night before came back, and he tried to separate his dreams from reality. Lots of booze... lots and lots of booze... and a wedding? That couldn't be right, they were back in their own apartment, how could they marry without going on honeymoon?
He looked at his hand, and groaned as he saw that he was wearing a gold ring that hadn't been there before. Beside him Anya was making the same discovery.
"Do you remember what I think I remember?" asked Xander.
"If it's getting married then I guess the answer is yes."
"Okay. Step one, Mrs. Harris, I get both of us water, Alka-Seltzer, and coffee. Step two, we find Willow and she dies a horrible lingering death for conning us into drinking so much before we made a decision..."
"No. Step one, I get to the bathroom and throw up, then the rest of it." Anya ran out.
"Well, that went well," Willow said an hour or so later.
"What do you mean?" asked Tara. "I don't think Anya and Xander plan to talk to you again... to any of us again... ever."
"I'm sorry, I tried to make it so that they only blamed me, but they didn't buy it once they realised no-one else had been given spiked drinks."
"You did your best.. but they were holding hands while they were yelling at us," said Buffy, "so I think the marriage is gonna be okay."
"That's what I was thinking," said Willow.
"What about the ceremony?" asked Dawn.
"Either she has us as bridesmaids," said Buffy, "or she finds new girls and arranges new costumes in less than a week. If she doesn't invite us she's gonna have to change the seating plan too. I have a feeling she's gonna come around."
"Would you like me to talk to her?" asked April, "Maybe I could explain the economic issues."
"So far I think you're the one person here she isn't blaming," said Willow, "let's try to keep you out of it as much as possible."
"Okey-dokey," said April, looking a little relieved.
"Hey, that's Xander's car again," said Dawn, looking out of the window, "Maybe they thought of something else to shout at us."
Xander and Anya came back into the house, carrying the morning paper.
"Okay," said Xander, "while you were all busy messing with our lives last night, things just got a little weirder. I think we've got something else to worry about."
Buffy and the others crowded round to read the story.
"Distinguished former transplant surgeon murdered at hospital...." said Willow. "What does this have to do with us?"
"Read down the page to the part about the stolen body," said Xander, "and the kidney spontaneously combusting as they were examining it."
"Someone stole a corpse to steal the kidneys," said Buffy, "and the next thing they know it's three days later and there's a doctor's body in a parked van, with neck wounds and severe blood loss... Okay, so the corpse came back to life and killed the doctor? Not exactly novel in this town, apart from the kidney part. Must have been turned, started to come back as the doctor was taking the kidney. Kidney's part of a vampire, so it combusts in sunlight."
"Think about the date, Buffy. They don't say whose body was stolen, but remember who died in that hospital that night?"
"Oh crap," said Buffy, "Jerry must have started to turn him before we got there."
"Warren," Willow said flatly. "He's back, and this time he's a vampire."
Chapter 25: XXIV
Warren ate another rat and wondered how long it would take for his kidneys to finish growing back. He wasn't quite sure what a vampire needed kidneys for, he just knew that he was feeling stronger as they regenerated.
He was building a comfortable lair in one of the cellars below Sunnydale Hospital; it seemed a safer bet than cemeteries that were patrolled by the Slayer every night. If he was careful he might even be able to snack on patients. For now he contented himself with rats and a stray cat he'd found on the streets while breaking into a computer store. Until he was up to full strength he didn't plan on eating any more people, then they'd better watch out. Starting with the Slayer and her friends.
After his meal he went back to work. The hospital's cable connection ran through the cellar, and he was pretty sure that he could hack into it. That ought to give him a reasonably fast internet connection, maybe even some cable porn if he could remember how the encryption worked. And with an internet connection the world was his oyster...
"It's been four days now," Willow told the Scooby meeting at the Magic Box, "are you sure that you haven't spotted anything to indicate what Warren is up to?"
"Nothing," said Buffy, "he's really dropped out of sight. Most vamps I'd think that was a good thing, with Warren it probably means he's planning something."
"Yeah," said Spike, "probably a massacre."
"I don't think so," said Willow. "Not yet anyway. You look at how Warren operated, he was always trying to build up a power base before he did anything major. Secret headquarters, booby traps, death rays, that sort of thing. I have a feeling that he'll be working the same way now, just with even less of a conscience."
"Just a feeling?" asked Buffy.
"That, plus I've been looking at the police web site, there's an interesting pattern of break-ins over the last three nights. Computer stores, electrical wholesalers, TV stores, the phone company. And they're not being cleaned out, the thief is taking specific things."
"A broadband cable modem, three laptop computers, two LCD panel TVs, fibre optic networking tools, eight miniature video cameras, electronic components, the list goes on and on."
"What could he do with that stuff?"
"Steal cable service, for starters. That'd give him fast internet access and a lot of cable TV channels. I think he's also building more camera bugs."
"Well, we know he likes that sort of thing... any way we can use it?"
"If he goes on line I might be able to spot him. He'll be trying to access his bank accounts, the IRS has them all frozen but he won't know that until he tries. Maybe he'll try to use that bug again, or one of the other cameras he has planted around Sunnydale. I could certainly trace that."
"Other bugs? There are already some around?"
"There's one out back at home in a plaster gnome, two near my house, some on the campus and other places around the town. Ever since we found the one in the Magic Box I've been tracking them down and sabotaging all that I could reach, so that it looks like they're just accidentally blocked or damaged. That's why I left the watering can out back and told you all not to touch it, it's right in front of his camera. The one here has a price ticket in front of it, the one covering Xander's apartment has some fake bird mess on the lens, and so on. But it sounds like he's planting more cameras anyway, so that probably won't help."
"If he's stealing the service the cable company won't have an address for him," said April, "Will you be able to find his location?"
"I can probably find out roughly where he's getting into the network, narrow it down to a couple of blocks anyway. It might help. I'm already set up to trace him if he hits any of the obvious points."
"Have you asked Zap?" asked April. "He might know a few tricks you've missed."
"Maybe, his computers are a good few centuries more advanced than ours. Trouble is, what I can remember of the Baltian equivalent of the internet is nothing like ours, so maybe that won't help. I'll talk to him later. Where is he anyway?"
"Guarding the house and playing with Zip to keep him out of trouble," said Dawn.
"Any way we can set a trap for him?" asked Spike.
"For Warren?" asked Willow. "Sure, if we can find the right bait."
"I hate to say it," said Buffy, "but the most obvious target he could go for is the wedding. But we already have that pretty well covered, so hopefully no problem. Anyway, it's an afternoon ceremony, he might be able to crash the reception afterwards but that's about it."
"Hate to say it," said Willow, "but I'm pretty sure I remember it as lousy weather that day, non-stop rain. Might be enough cloud to let Warren come out to play."
"Wonderful," said Xander, "any other bad news you want to share with us?"
"There'd better not be," said Anya. "It's bad enough that it's not really a proper wedding..."
"Come on, honey," said Xander, "we agreed to forgive and forget."
"I agreed to talk to them again, despite my natural desire to move to another state and shut them out of my life completely. Forgiving and forgetting is going to take a little longer."
"Okay... Um, what about Andrew and Jonathan? Will he go after them?"
"Jonathan's out on bail," said Buffy, "Andrew couldn't find anyone to stand bond for him, I've talked to both of them. They haven't heard from him, and I've warned them what'll probably happen if he does show up. Jonathan believed me, I'm not so sure about Andrew, but he's not very vulnerable where he is."
"What about the rest of his family and friends? Don't want him pulling an Angelus."
"His parents had disowned him anyway, they know he's dead, and they know enough about the situation in Sunnydale to be careful. I don't see them letting him in. Spike and I talked to his old girlfriend, once I'd convinced her that I wasn't just trying to scare her off she agreed to take precautions. Mainly, she's spending the next couple of weeks with family in Santa Barbara."
"How did you... oh, Spike."
"I'm pretty convincing proof," said Spike, "if I do say so myself."
"That's good," said Willow, "In a couple of the time-lines I remember she's one of his incidental victims, more or less by accident. Any other friends?"
"Warren?" said Buffy, "Couldn't think of any."
"I'm not surprised."
"What's he using for money?" asked Spike. "He's obviously stealing stuff, but you can't nick everything, it leaves too much of a trail."
"Just a second," said Dawn, running out and coming back with a map of Sunnydale. "Willow, mark on the places that were robbed and the date and time it happened. I just realised something about the things he's stolen."
"What's that?" asked Willow, marking the map.
"They're all things that're easy to carry. Laptop computers, LCD monitors instead of the normal type, that sort of thing. He's carrying them somewhere and I don't think he's got a car. That might mean he's holed up somewhere close to the places that were robbed."
"Let's see... Well, they're all around the main commercial zone, no surprise there, that's where the shops are. Hmm...
"Why would a vampire worry about weight?" asked Buffy, "most are nearly as strong as I am."
"Most haven't just had their kidneys hacked out, pet," said Spike. "It makes sense if he's still recovering from his operation."
"Got it!" said Willow, "Every time the first robbery of the evening is about an hour to an hour and a half after sunset, each robbery after that is about an hour to two hours later. If I assume that he's waiting a half-hour or so after sunset, going back to his lair to dump the stuff he steals before the next robbery, and that the difference in time is mainly caused by a difference in distance... here, somewhere along this approximate line, about a mile to a mile and a half from city hall. Hey, the hospital is right on that line... nearer two miles though."
"It'd make sense if he's a little faster than you think," said Buffy. "The night he was turned he would have been weak, and he'd have had no clothes. He might be holed up somewhere pretty close to the hospital."
"We can rule out the houses in the area," said Willow, "they wouldn't have access to the optical fibre network."
"That leaves eight or ten shops, two office buildings, and the hospital."
"Willow," suggested April, "maybe there are new cameras watching that area. You said he stole some, maybe he's using them to guard his lair."
"Watching for us?" said Willow, "I guess it's possible... I'll set up a search algorithm to look for them, see if I can work out what he's interested in."
Warren was hungry, and it was raining outside. He decided to take a chance and look for something to eat in the hospital. He wore an orderly's uniform, stolen from the laundry, and tried to look inconspicuous as he studied the list of departments. There were too many people around the ER area - in Sunnydale you could pretty much guarantee that would never be quiet - and he didn't want to take a chance on anyone with diseases or heavy medication. Not pediatrics - not enough blood in a kid, and there was bound to be a major investigation if one of them turned up dead or missing - someone who wouldn't be missed. The psychiatric wards...
He went upstairs, avoiding the lifts with their annoying mirrors, waited until the nurse on the reception desk went to deal with a call, then slipped into one of the wards. He went along the beds, looking for someone who didn't seem to be too heavily sedated, then spotted a familiar face.
"Hello Rack," said Warren, smiling grimly as he remembered the kitten spell.
Rack was lying in one of the beds, tethered by his wrists to stop him hurting himself. There weren't any pills on the bedside. He seemed to be saying something; Warren leaned closer to hear "one one oh oh one oh one oh oh one oh one...."
"Binary? What the hell is that about? On the other hand, who the hell cares..."
Warren leaned over and bit deep into Rack's throat, luxuriating in his struggles and the taste of blood as he drained his victim. He didn't stop until Rack was dead. There was something about Rack's blood... a buzz, a feeling of power. Magic. He felt full and happy as he tucked the corpse back under the blanket he'd thrown off, and went back down to his lair.
"He's in the hospital," said Willow.
"Are you sure?" asked Buffy.
"I think it's pretty certain. Five new cameras watching the approaches, I'd guess the others are somewhere inside. He's probably tapped into the hospital network and their security cameras too."
"Can you locate him inside the hospital?"
"Let's see if my trapdoor into the morgue lets me get at the rest of the system... oh. Hey, that's a familiar name."
"Rack. His body's just been taken into the morgue. They found him dead in the psychiatric ward, in the last hour or so. Puncture trauma, they think one of the other patients must have got loose and stabbed him with something like an ice pick. Twice, in the neck."
"Warren, has to be."
"I'll work on tracking him down. We'll need a way of getting in without him spotting us. Maybe I can hack his cameras, if not we'll want disguises, some way of stopping him from recognising us and running."
"Leave that to me, I know just where to go. Who's in?"
Willow, Tara, Dawn, Xander, Spike and April all raised hands, Zap raised a paw. Anya said "Oh no you don't, Xander, not two nights before our wedding," and wrestled his hand down again.
"Okay," said Buffy, "not a problem, the disguises I have in mind you pretty much have to be a woman. Sorry Spike, that lets you out too. Dawn, nice try but you look too young, I don't think it'd work. That leaves me, Willow, Tara, and April. Okay, I think I know all the sizes, back in half an hour or so. Spike, get your car, I doubt Warren knows what it looks like."
"Okey-dokey," said April once they'd gone, "let's just make sure I've got this right. Warren really is a vampire now, and I really should stake him..."
"Come on," said Xander. "Just one verse, and let me get a photo."
"It would make up for the Las Vegas humiliation," said Anya. "Up to a point."
"Yeah," said Dawn, "We have so gotta have this moment recorded for posterity."
"For our rap sheet, you mean," said Tara, "I'm sure that there's some law against this."
"Not really," said April. "Not so far anyway."
"All right," said Buffy, adjusting her costume to hide as much as possible of her face. "Just one verse. Come on..."
"Climb every mountain, search high and low
Follow every by way, every path you know
Climb every mountain, tum tum tum tee...."
The song petered out as they realised that nobody actually knew the words properly. Dawn collapsed in a fit of giggles, Spike grinned and nearly joined her.
"Okay," said Willow, adjusting her habit and putting on a pair of steel-rimmed glasses with plain lenses. "Jewish Wicca nuns on the run are go. Everyone wearing flat-soled shoes? Got your crosses and stakes and holy water?"
"Yes sister," said Buffy, adjusting her own glasses. "Let's hope that nobody recognises us, I'm not sure I'll ever live this one down."
"Where did you get the costumes anyway?" Spike asked as they climbed into his car.
"I did the convent a favour last year, got rid of a vampire for them. They said that if I ever needed anything... That reminds me, try and keep them clean, I've gotta give them back."
"Don't ever let Angel see that photo," said Spike, "Angelus always did have a thing about nuns."
"Okay. Better drop us on the far side of the car park away from the hospital," said Willow, "I'll tell you where, any closer and he might recognise you if he sees you. Stay in the car until we call you, he's sure to spot you if you get out."
Warren sat in his lair, surfing the net and occasionally glancing at the screen that showed the view from a dozen different cameras, and flipping between the hospital's security system and his own bugs. He really needed a minion or two for that sort of thing, maybe he'd turn Jonathan or Andrew...
As usual there was nothing much to see. Rack was in the morgue, the police were leaving, just the usual visitors and patients around the ER ward. One of the patients must be dying, for there be that many nuns. Boring. He really wished he remembered how Andrew had hacked into the cable porn...
Three nuns stood praying in the waiting room, covering the fourth from a security camera. Willow sat behind them and plugged a tiny notebook computer into a convenient network socket, and hacked into the system.
"Okay. Sub-basement, East wing, can't pin it down beyond that."
"It's close enough," whispered Buffy, "Can you do something about the cameras covering that level?"
"Give me a couple of minutes.... Okay, they're all on a loop now, we won't be seen."
"Good. The chapel's in the basement, if we head in that direction then go down we'll be pretty close."
Warren was beginning to wish he'd stopped for another victim. Maybe psychiatric patients were like Chinese food, eat one and want another half an hour later. Okay, two hours. Maybe he'd wait for the rain to stop then go out, probably wasn't a good idea to eat too many people in the hospital.
Warren looked up from his computer and noticed that the door was somehow slightly open. There was a cat... no, a kitten.. peering in at him. Dessert!
He grabbed, the kitten scooted backward into the corridor. With a snarl Warren pulled the door open and grabbed again. Needle-sharp claws swiped his hand, and he snatched it back in pain.
"Hello," said a woman's voice, "Have you been saved?"
Warren looked up and saw two nuns, both holding rosaries and large wooden crucifixes. He snarled and retreated from them, and felt a searing pain as another crucifix was pushed into his face.
"F'kin bitch!" He turned and tried to push the crucifix aside, belatedly recognising Buffy as she blocked his hand and kicked him in the knee.
There was an agonising pain in his other leg, and he looked down to see the kitten, its claws hooked into his ankle. Tiny teeth vibrated like buzzsaws and dug in, and blood began to spray from the wound.
"Gross," said Buffy, and thrust a stake at his heart. He staggered back, taking a wound that missed his heart. From behind her Tara threw a bottle of holy water into his face. It sizzled and burned his flesh away.
Willow pulled a crossbow from under her robe and tried to get a clear shot, while April smashed her crucifix into his face on the other side. He was still staggering from that when Willow got a clear shot and Buffy finally connected with her stake. He started to say "bitch," but only got out the first syllable. The rest was dust.
"Okay," said Buffy, "I think that's about as slain as a vampire ever gets. Our work here is done."
"Let's just make sure," said Willow, pouring more holy water onto the dust. Zap scampered under the flow and washed the last of the blood from his fur, April poured more holy water onto the last traces then picked up Zap and concealed him in her sleeve.
"Wouldn't want him pulling a Dracula on us," said Buffy, emptying yet another bottle into the puddle.
"That's true. Okay, anything else?"
"I'll wipe his computers," said Willow, "make sure there's nothing there that can harm us."
"And I'll mop up this mess," said Tara, heading for a broom closet. "Don't want anyone slipping."
Fifteen minutes later they left the hospital. Spike's car was waiting at the entrance.
"Okay," said Buffy, "I don't think even Warren can come back from that, unless the curse has more plans for him."
"I don't think so," said Willow, "can't think of anything worse for him this side of hell, so I guess that's where he's headed."
"Shame in a way," said Spike, "You have to admit he did good work. Look how April turned out."
"Warren made me," said April, "but it's all of you that made me what I am. I wouldn't want to go back to the way I was."
"Fair point. Right, kiddies, buckle up. All we've got to worry about now is the whelp's wedding..."
Chapter 26: XXV
"Okay," said Dawn, "first point to Willow. It's pouring."
"Told you," said Willow, adjusting her dress. "No reason for that to change, I guess, unless Xander and Anya changed the date of the wedding or something."
Buffy moved up beside her and critically looking at her own reflection. "This isn't too bad. The blue kinda suits me, and the concealed pockets are great, plenty of room for stakes and stuff without ruining the lines. Did Tara work her mojo?"
"Yep, she did it last night after the rehearsal. They've both got about thirty-six hours of protection against thrall and illusions. Not a hundred percent guaranteed, might not hold up against someone really powerful like Dracula or Dru, but at the very least they'll know that someone is putting the 'fluence on them. And of course they're primed to expect problems, which is half the battle."
"Getting through this without killing any of Xander's family or Anya's friends is gonna be the other half."
"No argument there. Haven't seen Xander's family so bad since my Bat Mitzvah."
"And you're okay with Tara doing the spell?" Buffy asked Willow, helping Dawn to fasten her dress.
"Sure, she always was better than me at purely defensive magic. We've kinda agreed that she's gonna be the Wicca of the family until we're good and sure that I'm over the addiction, I'll stick to the science. I can't turn off my own defences completely, it'd be stupid to try, but I'm not gonna do anything active if there's any alternative."
"It's great that you're working so well together," said Dawn.
"Remember, I've got a whole new box of tricks to play with, Baltian ideas I can adapt to our technology, provided I can sneak them past the MIB guys. I'm not gonna get bored with my lack of magic any time soon."
"So long as they don't arrest you for breaking the Prime Directive or something."
"Would I do that?"
"Okay, don't answer that."
"Did you see to the other security stuff?" asked Buffy.
"Sure. The body suits are on the doors, I've got Warren's cameras installed all around the Bison's Lodge with April monitoring them, Zap'll be guarding the presents and keeping an eye on the main entrance, Tara's on auras and Spike, April and you can be bouncers if necessary. It's a shame that Riley and Sam and the MIB guys can't make it, they would have been good as extra backup, but you can't have everything."
"Probably just as well, I think there might have been a few problems if Riley and Sam saw some of our guests, especially from Anya's side, or the MIB guys saw Zap. And the other stuff we discussed?"
"What.. oh, yeah, that's in hand."
"What stuff?" asked Dawn.
Willow whispered "We've kinda bugging Anya and Xander. Buffy and I will be able to listen to anything that's said to them."
"Holy..." Dawn whispered back, "you'd better make sure that they're unbugged before they leave on their honeymoon."
"Don't worry, not a problem."
Tara came in and began to put on her own dress, and Willow hustled out to keep Anya company.
"Let's hope that things are under control at Xander's place."
Spike slammed Xander's Uncle Rory's arm to the table for the third time and said "Right, that's best of five, you want to try for seven?"
"Uh... no, I think I'd like to keep that arm."
"You'd better get dressed then, I'm getting kinda bored here and time's a-wasting."
Xander came over, looking for his cufflinks, and murmured "Thanks for helping to keep my family out of mischief."
"No problem, reminds me of the last time I went to the zoo."
"Good of you and Clem to come along and give me moral support."
"I really wouldn't miss this for the world."
"So you were the strong man at the circus?" asked Uncle Rory, staggering back towards them.
"That and I used to bite the heads off chickens. It's a tough job, but someone's gotta do it. Of course they taste pretty bad, what with the blood and feathers and all..."
"Gotta go..." Rory said, and staggered off again.
"Just don't let him get started on stuffing animals," said Xander. "And when my dad shows try not to hit him more than you have to."
"Don't worry, chip still works on him, I think."
"How come it doesn't work on Uncle Rory."
"Arm wrestling isn't fighting, Anyway, your dad didn't know it was my coat when he puked on it last night, why should I hold a grudge?"
"Hold all the grudges you like, I just want him alive and not bleeding too much during the service."
"Alive would still be nice, I guess."
"You don't sound too sure."
"Okay, I'll do my best."
"Seen my cufflinks anywhere?"
"The fat bint that just came in with your dad's wearing them as earrings."
Xander turned, noticed the new arrivals, and said "Cousin Carol, I think you've made a little mistake..."
At the Bisons' Lodge, an hour or so later, Zap prowled a table loaded with presents, paying particular attention to a box with several air-holes and a gift card from D'Hoffryn that occasionally put out a questing tentacle. So far he'd clawed the tentacles back into the box a dozen or so times, and scored eight times on the hands, flippers, and tentacles of guests who'd mistaken him for a handy snack. He was having the time of his life.
Dawn chatted with D'Hoffryn and Halfrek, carefully avoiding the "W-word" and looking around nervously for signs of trouble. "You look worried," said D'Hoffryn.
"We've had a... a warning that there might be a gate-crasher, some sort of troublemaker. Maybe you'd call it a prophecy."
"Miss Rosenberg, I presume?"
"Yeah, she's kinda remembered a little of the way the wedding went in some of her other lives."
"You don't sound too surprised."
"Oh, weddings bring us most of our business..."
"Bloody hell," said Spike, staring at Halfrek.
"William? What on earth are you doing here?"
"My girl's one of the bridesmaids."
"So am I."
"Yeah, the dress is a bit of a give-away."
"So, you're in the vengeance business now?"
"Honestly, William, I thought you realised... I always was. And it's Justice Demon."
"Right... Well, that explains a lot. The bit mentioned she'd had a run-in with one of your mob."
"That's right. No flies on that one."
"I'd better get on, we're expecting a gate-crasher. Don't want anyone to spoil the wedding. Nice seeing you again."
"Hurt your hand, Clem?" asked Buffy.
"Just a little misunderstanding with that demon on the gift table."
"Demon? Oh, Zap. Don't worry, that's just a friendly warning from him. You really wouldn't like him when he's annoyed."
"Thanks for the tip."
"I have six unknowns," said April, "Two appear to be together, I think they are members of Xander's family. Two appear to be known to Spike. The other two are both male; one appears to be fifty to sixty years old and resembles members of Xander's family, but is not drinking. The other is a goth in his twenties, and is drinking heavily."
"Any of them near Xander or Anya?" asked Willow, speaking into a microphone concealed in her corsage.
"The elderly man is moving towards Xander."
"Patch Xander's bug through to my earphone, and warn Buffy and Tara. This could be it."
"You have to believe me," said the old man. "I'm Xander Harris. I'm you. I'm from the future." He produced a purple gem from his pocket.
"Okay," said Xander, feeling an odd tingling in his head. "Prove it."
"Prove it. Do the Scooby Dance."
"Come on, if you're me you can do the Scooby Dance."
The old man began an odd lurching shuffle.
Xander watched for a few seconds, then said "That's not very convincing, and anyway it's the Snoopy Dance. Nice try, grandad, now what do you really want?"
"I'm telling you, I'm you. If you marry Anya today you'll wreck both your lives."
"You simply aren't ready to marry. Look at this gem, I'll prove it to you."
"Bzzzt. Wrong answer. Anya and I are already married, and if you were really me you'd know that."
"You're... already married?"
"Get back, Xander," said Tara, "whatever he is, he isn't you. I'm pretty sure he isn't human."
"If you know that..." said the old man. His skin turned grey and he rapidly expanded into a huge demon with yellow spikes and eyes. Xander yelled and backed away, the demon followed. "Your precious Anyanka did this to me!"
"Dare say you deserved it," said Willow, arriving by Xander's side. "Doesn't give you an excuse to gate-crash the party."
The demon roared and swung a fist at her; she ducked, and Buffy arrived and drew a short sword from under her skirt, manoeuvring for position. Xander grabbed an ash-tray on a steel pole, and began to swipe at the demon's clawed arms. Together they pushed it out into the lobby before many of the guests had time to notice what was going on. Willow and Dawn followed, and Zap wriggled through the crowd to join them. Spike was last out of the hall, shutting the door behind him then joining the fight.
"Spoil my wedding, would ya," shouted Xander, slamming the pole into the demon's belly. Willow pulled a plastic box from her sleeve and pressed a button; nothing happened, and she frantically pried it open, looked at the electronics inside, and pushed a wire against a terminal, then pressed a button. There was a loud "Thwak" noise and the demon collapsed.
"What the hell was that?" asked Buffy, prodding the inert demon with her sword.
"Told you I could build one," said Willow, rubbing her arm where one of the demon's blows had bruised her. "Cost seventy-five bucks though, didn't allow for inflation. And it only has a 'stun' setting."
"You built a phaser?" asked Tara.
"Sure. Can't do magic any more, needed something else to give me an edge."
"Right," said Xander, bemused. "How long will demon-guy be out for?"
"Should be a few hours."
"By then we'll be heading off on our honeymoon."
"Get back inside," said Buffy, "I'll drag him out. Spike, give me a hand. You okay, Xander?"
"I guess. Wonder what would have happened if we hadn't been ready."
"Believe me," said Willow, "you wouldn't have liked it. Let's get in there and get on with things before something else goes wrong."
Buffy and Spike dropped the demon down a convenient sewer cover, hoped that it would stay out until the wedding really was over, and ran back inside to wash and towel the worst of the rain off. Buffy was just barely back out of the cloakroom in time to help Anya walk down the aisle. Xander was waiting for her, Willow by his side as the best man.
Wet footprints and a minor fist-fight aside, the rest of the wedding went perfectly. Willow even remembered to recover the bugs before Xander and Anya left for Niagara Falls.
Outside, on one of the wettest days in Sunnydale history, the demon was upside down and unconscious, its head soon underwater as the level rose. By the time the wedding was over he was thoroughly drowned. In Hell the demons that received him couldn't think of a better punishment so they left him that way, with Warren occupying the next manhole along a very, very long sewer.
Chapter 27: Epilogue
"Willow," said April, "now that the wedding's out of the way there's something I need to discuss with you."
"You may have noticed that I've been seeing quite a lot of someone lately. The thing is, we'd like to date, and that's a little difficult given the current circumstances."
"You want me to tell someone that you're a robot?"
"No, he knows, we just need your help to handle the physical side of things..."
Buffy listened, bemused, for a few minutes, then as the conversation got increasingly technical turned to the equally bemused Dawn and said "I think we'd better leave this one to Willow. Ice cream?"
"Did you hear the latest about Mister Shark?" Willy asked.
"What's that?" Buffy asked warily.
"Seems he was running some sort of black market scam with fake demon eggs, got caught up in a shoot-out between a bunch of government agents and some Columbian drug guys. There wasn't enough left of him to scrape off the pavement."
"Anyone else left from his gang?" asked Spike
"Not that I know of."
"What a shame," said Spike sarcastically, turning to Buffy, "now you won't be able to give him that money."
"Mmm, I guess." Buffy guessed a lot more; sooner or later she was going to have to have another talk with Spike about morality. But tonight she was nearly forty thousand dollars better off than she'd expected, and fairly sure that she would never see the inside of a Doublemeat Palace again. Even if she was really, really hungry...
"Okay," said Willow, "You've got three of the body suits, I'm gonna hang on to the habitat module and the fourth body suit in case any more of my Baltian relatives want to visit. Are you still cool with that?"
"Sure," said Jay, "just out of interest, why that one?"
"It would have been too weird to keep Sheila or Ira around, especially since they're supposed to be dead now. Most of my Baltian relatives are male so I got a customisation set from Baltia, gave the young Ira suit a new face and fingerprints. I checked, it's okay for someone with dual Baltian-Terran citizenship to order that if it isn't being used to cover criminal activities."
"You could do that to any of them."
"Sure, but the other Ira moves like an old guy, the young one can hang out with me and my friends without too many questions being asked. Most of the Baltians I've seen so far look as old as Reagan, they really need to be younger in this group."
"I guess. Okay, while I'm here I need to remind you about your finances. You'll appreciate that you're going to have to be really careful, that much money could seriously mess up the economy if it isn't used wisely. If there are any serious problems talk to the San Francisco office, they'll be handling it and monitoring the situation."
"That's okay, I'm not planning to do much until I graduate, the business partners and investments you've suggested ought to be a lot of help, and I'm gonna have a pretty good secretary to take care of a lot of it."
"Someone I know?"
"Why not? She's got a better head for business than I have, she never gets tired, and she can type two hundred words a minute, four if she bypasses the keyboard. I've offered her fifty thousand as starting salary, she seems to be reasonably happy. She'll be managing the Magic Box for the next couple of weeks, until Anya and Xander get back from their honeymoon, after that she'll be working for me."
"Makes a lot of sense. Okay, I guess that's about it."
"Not quite," said Willow, grabbing him and giving him a hug. "Thanks for all your help. I don't know how we'd have got through this without you. You too, Kay," she called to the car.
Jay gently hugged her back and said "Oh, I think you'd have coped. Try not to violate the Treaty of Tycho too badly."
Jay climbed into the car with Kay and the three body suits in the back seat. They waved a last time and drove off.
"She's working some sort of scam on us, isn't she," said Kay.
"Damned if I know, but I really don't want to try to find out unless I have to. That girl is bright, and I'm not sure I can out-think her."
"Doubt if it's anything serious. After all, it's not like she'll destroy the world or anything..."
Willow went back into the house and said "Okay, they're gone. You can come out now."
Zap scampered out from hiding, and April picked him up and lifted him to the open face of the Baltian body suit, which now looked a little like a younger Tom Cruise, only taller. He wriggled into the pilot's seat and extended his claws to the controls. The face closed, twitched, and his features came to life. Wordlessly he swept April into his arms and they began to kiss. "I love a happy ending," said Tara, as she and Willow discreetly moved to the kitchen.
"There's really only one loose end now," said Willow. "I'd still like to know the real story about my biological parents. There must have been a reason why I was abandoned in the Mall, and for all I know I have family that needs my help. I've got nowhere in Sunnydale, I think I'm gonna need professional help to get any further."
"Suppose you don't like what you find out? Suppose they're like my family... or Xander's?"
"Then I'll have to live with it. With your help I don't think that'll be a problem."
They kissed, then Willow picked up the kitchen phone, punched a number on the speed-dial, listened for a moment, and said "Hi! It's Willow... Yeah, still in Sunnydale. Listen, is he around? I've got a job for him.... Yeah, one that pays real money, put him on... Hi, Angel, I want to hire you to investigate something for me... Yes, hire for money..."