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Stranger, Take My Helping Hand

Chapter Text

It is not in the nature of foxes to be storytellers, though they may lie when it suits them. Rather, they share what they know to be real – real enough, as a fox sees it. Where and how to bite. What pieces to eat first. The sounds to make to warn off others from the danger they themselves are in. And if it is the case, when to cry out not with warning but with a promise. To call out to each other what creatures to follow along after, and what might well be promised to them for having followed.

Foxes are clever creatures. They are clever enough to know when they are not the swiftest or the strongest, or even the creature most capable of fully understanding the world.

What might well be promised, for some very clever foxes of a very careful place, is a rare meal always worth the chance it might come. A rich meal, a meal for days to come; soft, sweet, the gentle meat torn and gorged upon, swallowed down still warm. The creature most capable, the creature which feasted first – as is meant to be, here in this place, this creature is always to feast first – sits back from the meat, having had its fill.

A gentle feasting for this one, though no less complete; not the pieces but the blood.

A strange feasting, to the foxes; a creature feasting on those much like itself.

When the creature feasts on those not entirely like itself, its eyes shimmer and its fangs shine. When the creature sits back, to let the foxes and ravens and all manner of other hungry beasts come and take their turns, its eyes and fangs slide away until its next hunt and the next feast.

The foxes which follow along after the creature are not given to curiosity about from where it might have come. Foxes have long memories, but not long enough to carry the creature’s arrival. Foxes live in the long moment, with no great intentions for what might yet come to pass and what has since come before. As they know the world, as they see it to be real, the creature is simply what exists, much like snow and much like trees.

Sometimes the creature sings. Not as a fox might sing, though sometimes it comes close enough to fool them – a suitable lie, as a fox might see it, as a fox might sing back to be certain and unknowingly play to the lying of things. Sometimes the creature speaks, as the other ones like it speak. Never to the other ones as they speak to each other, stomping their boots and rattling their guns. This one speaks to those only it can see, to call out their joy and sorrow and pain, sounds even a fox can understand. Sometimes the creature runs, spinning through the breaks in between the trees, along the empty roads and through the ruins, a happiness from being placed in the world.

The creature is careful in its hunts, being alone. This suits the foxes. That is as fits the world, being careful when hunting alone. It is swift in its hunts. This suits the foxes as well; quickly killing for the best meals.

What does not suit the foxes is the day the creature disappears, and with it, the soft, sweet, gently eaten feasts.

But foxes lie as it suits them, and believe that one day it might yet return to them.

Chapter Text

Buffy wasn’t a thousand-brown-M&Ms-in-a-brandy-glass kind of person, but she had to admit, it was pretty nice knowing she could make requests like that and they’d be seen to. Not that she would. It was just nice knowing that she could.

Her rider for speaking engagements wasn’t a huge Van Halen-level tome of precision requirements, so many ampules of such wattages every dozen feet. She wasn’t set on becoming a diva at her age. The biggest item on her list was vamp-friendly lodgings for three nights before and two days after the event itself. It made travel easier for both her and Spike, giving them the feeling of settling in somewhere. More like the long business trips she’d always imagined having back when she was a kid and less like she was on a rapid-fire slaying mission like those she’d done for a few decades. She and Spike could get in without a hurry, get some rest, prepare a little, and afterwards, have some time to themselves before heading back home.

Deciding which engagements to agree to these days was as much a question of where they’d be going as the event itself.

“Look, we can do Sacramento and the car museum anytime,” Buffy explained, dicing the garlic with a little flourish to the knife. “All I’m saying is it’s nice to see the Bay Area on an invitation.”

“Tourist kitsch, the whole lot of it,” Spike grumbled. “There still a man at the Haight-Ashbury corner that charges tourists to make him move so they can snap a picture of the sign? Or is it a lady nowadays?”

“Yes, yes, Mister I Was There A Century Ago And Drugs Were Better Then.”

“I was on the East Coast, thank you, and I wasn’t even stoned for most of it.” He leaned back against the kitchen counter. “So, what’s it this time? Speech?”

“Yeah. Graduating class of 2069. It’ll be me, a Pulitzer novelist I keep meaning to read, and a former US Ambassador to France.” She slid the garlic off the knife into the pan and began stirring gently.

“Nice get.”

“I’m glad you think so.” She sighed. “I really should just go pick up one of her books. I mean, if I’m meeting her, I figure I should have some idea what she’s done.”

“Your book tour’s still on for next year?”

“It’s not really my book since –” He threw her a low sound and a look decrying her modesty in her accomplishments. “Yeah, it starts in January. Don’t worry, the League’s got that covered. But I’m thinking I’ll make an appearance for San Francisco. And maybe Berkeley, if there’s a stop there and the university’s nice about this one.”

“Ah, so it’s not just you liking the city itself, it’s you wanting the bigwigs to wine and dine you.”

“There’s a certain charm to people trying to make sure you have a good time.”

“As though that’s not what always happens when the great and beautiful Buffy Summers comes to town.”

“You be quiet and let me have my fantasy.” He laughed and took a swig of wine before Buffy grabbed the bottle and added a good splash of it to the pan. “You do know what me giving a speech means,” Buffy said, trying to get back to a serious tone.

“I do, love. So long as you let me know when they’re coming.”

Tossing off a rousing speech to a squadron of warriors and mystics before going into battle was one thing, and she could still do that without a whole lot of stumbling around her words. Those circumstances tended to narrow the focus enough it was easy to know what needed to be said. Standing up in front of a large auditorium and delivering a predetermined set of words was another black kettle of beasts altogether.

UC Berkeley had helpfully suggested a few topics, and she’d gotten a few ideas down by the time Samina and Alenka came over four days later. As per usual when Buffy wasn’t the only Slayer in the house, Spike kept his distance – respectful, certainly. Cautious, that too. Wary, even, in the right light. It might be his house, but they were still Slayers and he was still a vampire. Some things weren’t ever going to change. He’d driven off before they even rang the doorbell, although not before he’d made a pot of tea and set out snacks as a truce offering.

“Responsibility isn’t necessarily cliché,” Alenka said around a mouthful of finger sandwich. She was forty-nine, held down a day job in Burlingame as a mortgage officer, and spent her weekends volunteering for the local US forest service clearing hiking paths in the mountains. “Collective responsibility, that’s something you can really tease out for at least eight minutes. Or the other one you had, about understanding your needs? The idea you had on asking for help had a solid start.”

“You’re here now, aren’t you? I could talk about you two helping me write the speech.”

“You’d be veering a little too close to postmodern.”

“I know,” Buffy sighed. “Maybe keeping fear your friend?”

“That’s not a bad idea.” Samina leaned back and threw an arm over the back of the sofa. She was sixty-two, dyed her shoulder-length gray hair like an oil slick, and had worked as the local League manager for the past thirty-five years. “I think my commencement speaker was…I think something about dialogue and open discussion. But someone being open about fear, especially someone like you, would carry a lot of power.”

“As long as it sounds fresh. Fear’s not a bad thing. It’s something that you need to make friends with. If it goes away, that’s not always good.” Buffy paused to consider. “Almost never, really.”

“I think we’ve got it,” Samina grinned.

“Okay! Fear. And your experiences therewith.” Buffy nodded. “Not your greatests or your worsts, but your experiences. Inviting it in without letting it take over.”

“There’s definitely at least eight minutes’ worth of subject material right there.” Alenka flipped to a fresh sheet on her notepad. “Now, to begin, what do you mean by making friends with it?”

“You got a while? That’s what this’ll take.” A while, and then some. Spike didn’t come inside until well past midnight, when he was certain Samina and Alenka were asleep. Knowing him, he’d probably listened to their breathing through an open window. Buffy waited up to greet him when he came slinking into their bedroom, curling up under the covers and wrapping her arms around him.

“How long’s it they’re gonna be staying?”

“Day after tomorrow.” She kissed him. “After that it’s just emails and phone calls unless something really big comes up.”

“Get it right the first time,” he retorted, kissing her back.

It wasn’t a big enough house he could avoid them entirely. The best he could do without predetermined scheduling and coordination was mostly avoid them, sticking to his solarium during the day and heading off at night. There weren’t any drawing sessions scheduled that night, though he went off anyway.

“Where’s he headed?” Alenka asked. The three of them had spent the afternoon out around downtown, going over the concepts of courageousness and perseverance in a new setting with more caffeine options, and came home in time for Spike to pointedly not say goodnight before leaving.

Buffy shrugged. “Santa Rosa, maybe. They’ve got a couple demon bars there.”

From the touch of alcohol on his breath and the echo of smoke in his hair when he finally got home, he’d hit up all three of them. “You saw how they looked at me?” Spike growled in her ear. “Guess a soul doesn’t go as far as it used to.”

“It goes plenty far.” Buffy pulled him closer. “They’ll be gone tomorrow. You can even sleep through it if you want.”

He didn’t, opting instead to keep lurking in his solarium through the morning. It was exactly the sort of pointed lurking he’d perfected decades ago. The kind that said he wasn’t just standing around, he was letting them know he was paying attention and waiting for them to make their move first. He at least had the manners to say goodbye to them – from across the room, in a tone that said he was doing it under protest.

“That went well,” Buffy remarked after they’d gone. “Another month and I’ll have something worth editing.”

“Glad you got so much out of it,” he said, voice clipped and tight. She let it slide. Right now, it wouldn’t be worth the effort it took to be petty. She was more interested in keeping her mind on the necessary preparations and making sure she could say everything she needed in under ten minutes while staying fresh and engaging. She could easily regale the crowd with another set of anecdotes about her more dangerous adventures, but she suspected it’d be better to save those last few she had in reserve for the book tour.

Meanwhile, Spike’s own trip preparations were a well-practiced routine, the most elaborate part of which was writing up extra instructions for Izzy regarding the indoor plants. Everything else was done below the radar. No phone calls, no posts to message boards, not even a group text. Most of what he did, she didn’t see. She didn’t even lurk around and watch from the sidelines. All she knew was he headed out to the town’s small nest and asked a few questions, and the rest of the vamps took it from there.

The way Spike had explained it to her, ages ago, was that was easier for them this way. Safer, also. Stay beneath notice by not leaving any sort of trail. Keep below the radar of anyone who might be paying attention by moving carefully and sticking to the community. Word spread fast through the nests, fast enough to keep pace with playground rumor and high school gossip. Someone showed up at their house five days after he’d gone out to talk.

She didn’t need her hearing aids to know the vampire was approaching; she’d just felt their presence, the skin along her arms shivering and rising. Spike was already outside by the time she got to the front yard. He was standing on the front step, barefoot, watching the other vampire standing on the little patch of lawn, a respectful distance from the house. Her bike was waiting for her just at the edge of the road.

“You’re met with grace,” Spike intoned.

“You’re met in kind,” she replied. She was about Spike’s height, with light brown hair, jeans and a t-shirt. Something about the way she made Buffy’s skin shiver felt familiar, even though she couldn’t recognize the vampire’s face. “I was…” She didn’t finish, peering around Spike to look at Buffy.

Spike didn’t turn around. “Buffy, this is Rowan. She’s –”

“We’ve met,” Buffy said. Maybe a bit more curtly than she wanted it come out, but she’d rather be curt than see a curtsy. “You don’t need to bow or anything,” she went on, just to be safe. “You’ve still got my blessing.”

“Yes. Right.” Rowan stayed where she stood. “Of course.”

“So tell me, what’ve you heard?” Spike asked.

Rowan nodded. “There’s not any news like you asked for. I’ve heard nothing. There’s been talk on the Oakland side of a split, if Kehati’s gang can find themselves a suitable new place. There’s been no word from Gerhard and there’s going to be a new nest down the peninsula once the harvest season picks back up. There’s nothing of note out of Berkeley, but they’ll be glad to have you, should you come.”

“Any nest worth mentioning’d be happy to have me. You went down to ask them that yourself?”

“Bandit came up from Santa Cruz.” She pulled her shoulders back. “He came up looking for Jamal.”

“He’s gone missing like Gerhard?”

“No. Bandit found Jamal and they had words, and Bandit’s moved on again. He’s the one who told me about it.”

“You didn’t come here just to share gossip about a breakup.”

“If a breakup’s all the news I’ve heard, that’s all the news I’ll give. I’m sorry there’s nothing more substantial.”

Spike nodded, almost satisfied. “Thank you. Mind if I drop in sometime?”

“As you said, any nest worth mentioning.” She finally smiled.

“As I did. Very much appreciate you coming to call. The Slayer’s happy, too.”

“She is?” Rowan blinked.

“Of course I am,” Buffy said. Rowan’s eyes went wide, and she stood her ground.

“It’s very kind of you to say. Slayer, Spike. Good night to you both.” She nodded at them, went off to her bike, and pedaled back to town.

Chapter Text

Much as she didn’t want to admit it, Buffy honestly enjoyed packing. She’d done enough to get it down to a science and could throw a suitcase together for just about any contingency without even thinking. The thinking came when she wanted to, and right now, she was ready for it.

And it was – travel insurance, really. Making sure she was prepared, hoping she wouldn’t need it, and having it anyway because unpacking some things that’d gone unused was a nice feeling. So, nestled in with the socks were a couple vials of holy water. Along with her carefully selected jewelry that Spike’d helped her pick out, there was a tasteful emergency silver cross. A sachet of herbs from the backyard that, when lit on fire, could stink-bomb out demons and leave humans alone that doubled to keep her shirts smelling fresh. The Scythe was staying at home, but she wasn’t going anywhere without some knives and at least one throwing axe. There might be détente, and she wasn’t saying it wasn’t a good thing; she was just being prudent. It paid to pack a couple extra pairs of underwear and spare socks. The adjustable ultrasonic whistle for incapacitating any number of demons and shapeshifters was just another part of the peace-time arsenal.

The most effort Spike put into packing was folding up a suit.

It was about an hour and a half’s drive, two with rest stops. Two and a half, with rest stops and traffic. Spike’s music playing with the windows rolled down wasn’t a bad way to spend an evening. Early May breezes were coming through the hills, warm and gentle. She leaned her elbow out the window and tilted her head back against the headrest, closing her eyes to take in the smells of grass and dust and the last of the day’s heat coming off the road. California in a nutshell. Or a nose-full, as the case might be.

They’d decided on the long route, around the Bay instead of over, and weren’t far past Cotati when Buffy felt herself relaxing. Something about the movement of a big vehicle was always nice, with Spike’s preference for Don’t-Fuck-With-Me American cars being great for delivering that. The movement, and feeling secure in what was coming: she’d practiced her speech for the last two weeks and was ready to shift her concerns from its content to her delivery.

City streets gave way to small roads. Small roads gave way to bigger ones, then to highways, more city streets, and back to small roads. Vineyards, orchards, open pastures with strands of trees shaking their long leaves in the wind.

“Hey, what’d the Australian trees say to the Italian gardener?”

“Do I want to know?” Spike asked.

“They said eyyy, you clipped us.” He didn’t respond. She rolled her head over to look at him and grinned. “You clipped us? Eucalyptus?”

“I’m this close to driving us into that ditch over there,” he deadpanned.

Buffy laughed and went back to watching the scenery glide by. There were always a few flashes of water she tried to catch before they got out to the actual full-on view of the wetlands and the Bay. She didn’t see them much these days, and they were always beautiful this time of night: seemingly soft, always moving, the lights from the cars and far-off beacons bringing out each ripple on the surface.

They slid through Richmond, the whole East Bay sprawl crawl screwball city brawl – each urban center feeding into the next without any boundaries in between them. All those twentieth century sci-fi writers had gotten the whole megalopolis idea right; it was just that almost none of them had ever gotten the placement correct. “And this is why we need zoning regulations,” she groused as they made the turn for Berkeley.

“That’ll be progress, love,” he said. She knew he missed the good stink of old car engines, what with almost everything on the road these days being electric. No more of the solid sounds and smell of industry. “Can’t fight off the inevitable. Stop it before it starts, sure, if you know what you’re doing, but who’s got that much forethought these days?”

“People who’ve seen enough.”

“Fair point.”

Berkeley itself didn’t come with any big announcements. A couple of signs didn’t count. It mostly came with a shift in the size of the buildings and the shapes of the people; a more even ratio between the human and demon populations. Some places were better at that than others.

The university had put them up in one of the city’s nicest hotels. They had a suite that was almost an apartment, with a little kitchen and a separate living room. It was also about Buffy’s bedtime when they got checked in and unpacked the car, though Spike was ready to head out for a while. He always checked out the local nests to see what was happening in the region. Usually he came back the next morning all full of bubbly news and gossip, so-and-so moved out of their old nest to live with their new girlfriend or this other vampire’s starting to make trouble in the local demon community but the vamps are going to sort out their own. That kind of stuff.

She woke up relaxed, refreshed, and to Spike pacing the room.

“How’d last night go?”

“The nest’s gone.”

“Uh-huh.” She yawned the painful early morning yawn of caffeine neediness. Spike had stopped pacing and that cut through the morning fog. Because Spike didn’t go still. “Hang on, they’re what?”

“Went t’check out the one near People’s Park. Hear what’s happening right from the source. So I get there, and it’s bloody gone. All the soddin’ vamps. Just gone. The building’s still there, only there’s not a single soddin’ vamp around. Went inside to see – and there’s no dust. Not a damn thing to say it’s some territory squabble. No clues. No smells. It’s like they just up and left.” His hands were almost flapping in the air around his face. None of this was ordinary for Spike and all of it was bad. “Ran all the way back. No word if they moved to the Northside nest. Best call over there.” He ran a hand down over his face, then looked steadily at her. “They took their rats. Not a good –”

“Gone?” She threw off the covers to go to him.

He started pacing again. “Could be that it happened that fast. Could be nothing big. Could just be they’ve all gone…” He shook his head. “Didn’t hear a bloody thing. Not even a hint of a rumor. Either no one’s saw fit to tell me or no one saw it coming. Don’t know which is worse.”

“Whichever way it is, I can’t help you without something – oh, thanks.” He handed her a cup of tea that, for hotel-stocked options, was pretty good. Two sips in and she was feeling more herself. “So do you need a plan of attack on this, or…”

He had his hands wrapped around his own mug of fresh-spun haema. Also on her rider: in-room dining options for Spike. “Gonna make a few calls, see if it’s just me being out of the loop. That’s another problem, but least it’s easy enough to fix.” A nasty smile tugged at his mouth. “Might just need to remind everyone who’s doing the asking here.”

“Which shouldn’t be too hard.”

“Not hard at all.” Spike downed the mug, chugging the machine-spun blood, then flopped down into a chair. He didn’t speak, staring at the wall, and Buffy watched all his worries and fears pass over his face until he said very quietly, “Didn’t smell like they’d been dusted. Everything was there except the vampires. Just gone. Them and their rats.” He sighed deep and long and trying not to be worried. “And who the hell’s gonna worry about a few vamps leaving? Who’s keepin’ track of them?”

“Whoever counted on them for whatever valuable jobs they were doing in the community.” He jerked his head around to glare at her. “No, I’m not making light of this, don’t make that face at me. What I’m saying,” she took a sip of tea to steady herself, and thank goodness he’d stopped for milk on his way back, “I’m saying that this isn’t necessarily a panic situation. A concern situation, yes. They’re not where you thought they’d be. You don’t know where they are. So, concern. Panic, not yet. Take stock and assess and see what’s happening. Make those phone calls like you said. The other nests in town – they’re going to have people around. You call them. I’m meeting with a few people from the local League for lunch today, I can ask them if they know anything.”

Chapter Text

Nobody from the League knew anything.

“They were all there last week.” Lani shrugged. “I’d like to think if anything genuinely worrying had happened to them, I’d have heard something about it by now.” She was twenty-three, with buzzcut hair dyed hot pink, and working to wash out her voice’s round Midwestern vowels with the Bay Area’s whole flatness.

“Wouldn’t that be nice.” Buffy sipped her bubble tea. Metal straw, ceramic mug – all the better to keep it cool while waiting for her meal. “I know sometimes it’s no news is good news, but this is weird news. If vampire rapture was a thing, this would be evidence for it.”

Felicity leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table. “Didn’t you say they took the rats?” She had her hair in bantu knots and wore the sort of jewelry once only seen on middle-aged mothers that somehow, in the last couple decades when Buffy hadn’t been paying attention, had become the look of the hour for the early thirties set.

“Yeah. All the cages, all the food, the whole set-up.”

“Then it could just be that this nest decided they’d like a clean start somewhere else and didn’t want to bother with the work it’d take to get a new breeding colony off the ground.” Felicity leaned back, shaking her wrist to resettle her bracelet.

“I’m at as much of a loss as you are,” Samina said. “We keep an eye on the nests, of course, and if there’s any territorial disputes or other sort of trouble we’re generally alerted to it before it becomes a problem for any bystanders. Of any species. This kind of disappearance…I think it may genuinely be unheard of.”

“Nesting behavior isn’t exactly well documented,” Perry offered. Soft-faced, with hair almost as curly as Spike’s, he was a crack shot with every firearm and projectile weapon he’d ever handled. “That they do it, yes. That they’ll settle in and integrate into the community? Sixty years ago, it was unheard of.” Sixty years ago had barely been before his time: Sixty-two, retired from active field missions for the last nine, he was back to the time-honored Watcher duty of watching from the sidelines and offering words of encouragement. “Maybe this is completely normal nesting behavior – up and leaving because it’s time to move on – and we don’t know because we never thought to ask.”

“Doubtful,” Samina placated. “But possible.”

“You’d have to find a vampire who had nested, who’s been around a while, is willing to be interviewed and trust the League with this very sensitive information they’d probably keep to themselves.” He shrugged. “Good luck finding one of those. Did Spike tell you anything?”

Buff shook her head. “He was surprised by this. I don’t think he’s heard of it either, and he’s…well. Spike.”

“That’s true,” Felicity agreed. “In that case, who knows? Right now, vampire rapture is as likely as anything else.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” said Lani. “For most vampires, it’d be the opposite of rapture.”

“Is there a word for getting bodily dragged into Hell?” Buffy asked. “Because it’s a word I definitely could’ve used a few times. Oh, hey, lunchtime.” Sebastopol might be a town of genuine character and charm, and she and Spike might have a lot of fun in the kitchen, but there were some things beyond both her town and her kitchen. A well-layered bowl of phở was one such thing. It put worries out of her mind for the time it took to eat, and she couldn’t ask much more than that from a bowl of soup.

When they started their desserts, Buffy eagerly dug into her banana pudding and only half-listened to Perry tell a joke involving an octopus and a spear gun – the punchline of which she lost the second the hairs on the back of her arms stood up. She and the other three Slayers all whipped their heads up and looked around while Perry was struck silence.

“There it is.” Felicity pointed over Buffy’s shoulder. She turned around to peer through the slatted fence surrounding the patio. “It’s not – oh. Sorry, Buffy. They’re not even trying to hide.”

“At least they’re not coming over to bow at us,” Buffy sighed. The vampire in the daysuit was standing in plain sight, making no effort to hide or get out of anyone’s way. Look at me, you can’t miss me, I’m standing right here watching you watch me.

“They bow?” Perry asked.

“Sometimes,” Lani muttered.

“Usually,” Buffy grumbled.

“Well, to you, sure,” Perry teased gently. “Us ordinary humans, not so much.”

“You’re not missing anything.” The vampire stayed there for the rest of their meal, only walking off when the check came. Maybe they didn’t want to bear witness to the time-honored Slayer ritual of arm-wrestling for the right to pay the bill.

“It was great to see all of you,” Buffy told them, massaging her sore victory hand. They made to split to go their separate ways, except Samina lingered on, dawdling to spend a moment alone with her.

“Listen, Buffy…” Samina sighed. “You’ll need to hear this, and I’d rather you did from someone you know instead of finding out by surprise. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you earlier, but believe me, I only just found it out myself.”

“You’re right,” Buffy told her after she’d gotten the news. “I’m glad I learned that from someone I knew.”

After a meal like that, she’d usually saunter around to wherever she was going. Given the news, she found herself trudging before she stopped and readjusted to a stroll. It was good to know, good to be braced, and frankly, if she hadn’t agreed to the invitation, she’d probably never have found out about this. They weren’t exactly ships passing in the night, except these days, they were closer to that idiom than anything else she could think of. She’d wanted to make it to the campus and see the gardens. Instead, she turned just at the foot of the hill, heading for the museum. Which she might’ve done anyway at some point. She liked museums.

She took in everything the museum had, just to make a point to herself. Then she lingered in the special exhibition gallery for a while, taking in his commitment to learning a new medium, vaguely reassured he was only one of a solid dozen artists in the show – half of them local, all of them notable in their own ways. Maybe the other eleven weren’t on his level of notoriety, and that was fine. She hadn’t met a lot of people that could match Angel for that. Match him for solid painting technique, though? That they could do.

Which was the point of the exhibition and the whole reason it was here. An ongoing discussion about rehabilitation and art as ways and means for people to express themselves. She didn’t look too closely at the individual placards. Even with her glasses on, the text was tiny enough she’d had to get up close and squint. On her way out, she scribbled out a note in the comment book for the need for large-print placards and went to head back to the hotel. Except she nearly bumped into the artist of the hour on her way out, his arms full of a box of paper that he very nearly came close to dropping.

“Oh!” She stepped back. She’d just assumed the Slayer alarm was a vampire working in the back offices somewhere. Which, from the box Angel was carrying, he probably had been. “Sorry about that.”

“No, no, it’s fine, nobody got hurt. There’s…” Angel looked like he couldn’t decide whether to sprint out of the room or melt into the floor. He settled on a blank, “Hi, Buffy.”

“Yeah. Hi.”

“It’s nice to see you,” he offered.

“You too.” She nodded, looked around the lobby, and back at his face. Still that same old handsome face. “Your hair looks good.” Honestly, it did: slicking it down instead of gelling it up was a good look for him. Very twentieth-century movie star.

“Thanks. I’ve got a new barber.”

“Well, they’re doing a good job.”

“I’ll tell him next time I see him.” He hefted the box in his arms. At least he had something for his hands to do. She just had her bag to fiddle with.

“I liked your landscapes,” she said.

“You did?”

“Yes. The way you did the moonlight on the trees was nice.”

“Thank you. Oil’s a new medium for me, I’m still figuring out how to get it to work, but…thank you.” He didn’t exactly smile. The corners of his eyes went soft instead. “It means a lot to hear you liked it.” He hefted the box again. “Is this the part of the conversation where I offer you some coffee so you can turn me down and leave politely?”

“I think it’s the part of the conversation where I say I’ll take some tea if you’ve got it and leave if you don’t.”

“We’ve got tea. We’ve got at least four different kinds.”

“Then I’ll see what you’ve got without making any commitment to drink it.”

She followed him past the red-letter Staff Only sign, where he dropped the papers off, making Linda in the back offices so happy about not having had to get up from her desk she kept clicking her mandibles and didn’t mind Buffy tagging along to the little galley. Once there, he filled and plugged in the electric kettle, then handed her the box of teabags. At least four was right: she remembered Mom’s galley and how the extra miscellaneous teabags all migrated into a single box just like the one she had in her hands. It was closer to at least ten. She flipped through the little squares, and finally pulled one out from near the back of the box. “I’ll take this one.”

“Jasmine?” Angel asked, almost concerned.

“Yeah. Why? Something wrong with it?”

“Nothing. No reason. It’s just – it’s a strong scent. That’s all.” He pointed. “Mugs are over there.”

Buffy opened the cupboard and smiled: the world had changed beyond the telling of it, but art galleries big and small all over the world still had boxes of mismatched teabags and cupboards full of a hodge-podge of mugs. She picked the one that looked most like a teacup, with flowers around the sides and up the delicate handle, and a tiny blue ring around the rim. Angel poured the nearly-boiling water and she understood what he meant by it being a strong scent. If it was this big a smell for her, it’d be filling the whole building for him.

“Thank you,” she murmured, dipping the bag up and down. She almost wanted to say Spike didn’t much like jasmine green tea, either, but held back. He poured himself a cup of haema from a thermos in the fridge, and joined her at the table.

“Why are you here? I mean,” he shook his head, “What business brought you to Berkeley?”

“I’m giving a speech at graduation.”

“Congratulations.”

“Thanks.” She hesitated a moment. “If there’s room in the auditorium I’m sure you could come hear it.”

“Maybe I could,” he said. “I don’t have much planned this week. We had the big reception this Monday, so. My nights are free.”

“How’d that go?”

“Pretty well.”

“I’m glad to hear it. It’s a good show. You should be proud.”

“Working on it,” he smiled. And like every time she saw that smile, she found herself smiling back

Buffy set the teabag down on a little plate and took a sip. For a back-of-the-box bag, it made a pretty decent cup. “So you’re in town just for the show?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, there’s something I do need to ask you. I know you haven’t been here that long – a week?”

“About ten days now.”

“Have you seen any of the nests? Talked to any other vampires in town?”

“I –” He paused, then considered, and took a long sip of his haema. “You know, I did, when I got in. I spent two nights in the one in Southwest Berkeley, down on Addison and Sixth, before I got a hotel room. I wanted to get back in touch with them, except when I called to invite them to the reception, nobody was there. I figured I got them at a bad time, only they didn’t pick up the next time I called, either. I didn’t…did something happen?”

“I don’t know yet.” She took another sip. “I hope not, and that’s all I can say. If you hear anything –”

“I hear anything, I give the League a call and they’ll call you.”

“I was going to say, you can call me, but that works too.”

She sipped her tea, he drank his haema, and they didn’t have much more to say to each other. Which was fine. He told her about the other artists in the show that he’d met and gave her a personal guided tour. She told him about the plans to open a new League center in Lagos and expand the medical clinics in San Francisco and Singapore. They said their good-byes while keeping sufficient personal space between them, he went back to work, and she walked out into the afternoon sunshine.

She took the streets slowly, window-shopping and people-watching her way back to the hotel. The last time she’d been to Berkeley it was in the middle of winter, right around the usual semester break. It hadn’t been an empty city, by no means, but there’d been a lot fewer students around, which significantly lowered the average pedestrian’s age. She moved through the crowds, along the sidewalks, enjoying the sight of everyone mingling together. Men and women of all shapes and species – guys holding hands, demons hanging out, enough of everybody that nobody was particularly remarkable. Not even her. Just lots of people out enjoying the sunshine.

She canvassed the stores as she went along, trying to see what’d linger on in her mind to be worth it to come back and buy later. She went ahead and splurged on a dress she could wear for dinner parties, something sea-green that she knew would set off her eyes and have Spike working over internal rhymes for days to come. With the morning on her mind, she stepped into Moe’s and bought him a fresh notebook and a thirdhand copy of Barroom Brawling Your Way Across Europe to cheer him up. They didn’t work, though not for her lack of trying. He hadn’t made any progress on finding what’d happened to the People’s Park nest, and the rest weren’t anywhere, either. No one had answered the phone from Martinez to Fremont, the whole length of the sprawling East Bay megalopolis.

“Tried callin’ a couple local contacts. No one’s heard a sodding thing.” His voice was tight, and he wasn’t meeting her eyes. “Not a good sign.”

Don’t bring up Angel, don’t bring up Angel. “Do you think they’re –”

“If it was big enough for ’em to hear it, at least it’d give me a place to start looking. This doesn’t even get me that.” He flopped down on the couch next to her, staring up at the ceiling, and put in the effort to huff out an angry breath. “I’ll head out tonight, look around, see if I can’t crack a few heads to get a little something.” He shook his head and jumped back up, pacing the room, hands flying. “The whole blasted mess doesn’t fit together. Who’d want to go after vamps and not dust the whole lot? That I can figure. Might not like it, but I can figure it. Whatever this is – what’s the bloody point? You can’t eat us, you can’t use us for anything, only thing anyone’d be able to use this many vamps for –”

“Spike, if someone was trying to perform a Sarpadian Reclamation, we’d have heard about it by now.”

“Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. Can’t move that much obsidian without landing yourself on some government watchlist.”

“So at least it’s probably not that.”

“Hardly a comforting thought.”

“Look, I saw a couple of vampires out today.” Which was technically true. “I know that doesn’t mean much, but it’s something. And anyway, Perry’s going to look into it and get back to us, Samina’s going to help him dig around. Maybe they’ll come up with something.”

“Right, that’s gonna help.” He laughed. Not happily, which didn’t help Buffy’s mood; he could’ve at least given the League the benefit of the doubt. “Pet, if there was something like this, I’d have heard of it. Trust me. Never one for nesting, but there’s stuff you learn. Things you hear. I’ve never heard of this –”

“And because you’ve never heard of it, it’s never happened before, ever, in the whole long and gory history of vampires?”

“Fine,” he growled. “I’ll wait and see what they dig up.”

“Thank you.”

“Still heading out tonight.”

“If that’s what you need to do to feel better.”

“It is.” He looked away and ran a hand through his curls. It never failed to astonish her just how much they moved under his fingers. She was about to offer something soothing and encouraging when he snapped his head up and said, “You want to go out for dinner? Could stay in and cook up something simple, or we could head out someplace, really enjoy ourselves.”

“Maybe,” she said. “I hadn’t thought about it, but if you want, we’ll have dinner out.” She’d been kind of hoping for an evening in, make a quick grocery run to throw something together and then practice her speech again. But Spike’d been cooped up all day with nothing but bad news. So dinner out it was.

Not right away, though, with a couple hours left until sunset, they had time to waste, which they spent getting ready. It meant being right about his reaction to the sea-green dress, and him doing her hair in a four-braids-into-one piece while she sat and read her speech aloud to herself alone in the mirror one more time. It meant her helping him put on his face while he sat with his eyes closed for better ease of eyeliner application, and him inspecting her handiwork with the help of his phone.

“You have a place in mind?” She asked as he took a selfie. “Or did you want to go wherever our feet take us?”

“Yeah, I did.” He’d read about a fairly new mod-Cal restaurant that didn’t cook anything from more than a hundred and fifty miles away from the kitchen, up to and including the salt. It didn’t take reservations, which meant a ten-minute wait to be seated. Ten fairly pleasant minutes of sipping a cocktail at the bar and deliberately not looking at the giant mirror hung up on the far wall. It was way too weird to glance at herself at what was essentially through Spike, but still having to look around him to see her reflection. Practical metaphysics always gave her a headache.

When it came time to order, they listened to their waitress Anjali deliver the day’s specials – a fish, a meat, two vegetarian dishes – and Buffy was about to ask for her to repeat that fish one again when Spike asked, “And for those of a more sanguine persuasion?”

“Tonight it’s rabbit,” she answered without any squeamishness. Just a brief pause right before she opened her mouth, the sort that said, I’m fine with vampires so long as they don’t actively remind me they exist. “Humanely raised, ethically butchered.”

“Sounds delightful. I’ll take an order of that, if you please.”

“Of course.”

“And could you do me the favor of having it killed out here at the table?”

“I’m sorry, could we what?”

“Just so’s it’s at peak flavor.” Delight flittered over Spike’s face. Just for a moment. A chance for a bit of wicked glee at someone else’s expense didn’t come to him much these days, which was the only reason Buffy didn’t kick him under the table.

“I’d, um.” To Anjali’s credit, she recovered fast, diving behind professionalism and putting on her Problem Customer voice. “I’m afraid that under California state sanitary regulations, we’re not able to accommodate such a request. But I assure you, all sanguine meals are butchered to order.”

“All right. That’s fair, can’t argue with it. You know they’ll do that in Seattle, yeah?”

“Then I’m very happy for everyone in Seattle.”

“I’ll start with the beet carpaccio and then have the mushroom-fava risotto,” Buffy cut in.

Anjali collected their menus, smiled again, and slipped away. Spike raised an eyebrow at her.

“What? You get blood, I get vegetarian, it evens out.” She got a snort of laughter in response and took that as a win.

It was, honestly, a delicious dinner. Buffy’s solid food came out plated neat and pretty, and Spike’s pint of blood was served in an elegant ceramic bowl that he used both hands to pick up. He drank it gracefully, almost delicately, in as civilized a method of blood-drinking as was possible. People still watched. Maybe not overtly, although there were side-eye glances from across the room. More than a couple not-so-discreet bathroom trips so people could get a decent look at the civilized vampire. Buffy knew Spike knew what everyone else was doing, and she knew that was why he was making a point to have blood tonight when he could’ve ordered something fatty-salty-spicy and had a cup of haema in their hotel room later. There were all sorts of ways to be watched, and Spike was putting on a little performance. Making a point of being watched, since everyone knew what was happening. Yes, I’m a vampire, what’s it to you?

After dessert, they took a long walk, swinging around through a little park and holding hands. More performance, though at least she got something out of it this time. His hand in hers, still warm from having wrapped it around his after-dinner coffee – full caffeine to her decaf, the bastard – with strong, gentle fingers now wrapped around her own. Not so many glances; definitely a few glimpses.

Maybe everyone knew who they were. Maybe they knew what they were without the who.

Maybe they just thought it was weird a seemingly young man was with a woman of such age.

Let them wonder, she thought, and put a little swing in her step.

Chapter Text

Buffy woke up the next morning five minutes before her alarm, ready and eager to start the day, and alone. Not an unprecedented event or occurrence, except Spike wasn’t in the kitchenette cooking breakfast or in the bathroom taking a shower. There wasn’t a note on hotel stationary and there weren’t any missed calls or texts. Just his absence.

It wasn’t like him to not have called, though it wasn’t something that’d never happened before. Merely unusual. She dialed his cell and got his voicemail – again, unusual, but not quite a worry – and after she left him a message, sent him a text to cover her bases.

She scrambled herself a couple of eggs and made a mug of tea to go with the rest of her breakfast. Her twice-a-week yoga routine became a way to keep herself from compulsively checking her phone. If he called, he called. If he didn’t, or more accurately, when he hadn’t – even after she’d showered and gotten dressed – then it was time to get concerned. The most recent message was still from ten-sixteen last night, letting her know he was heading into one of the local demon bars. Best-case scenario, his phone was stolen, even though would’ve still called the hotel to leave her a message at the front desk. Which he hadn’t. As such, it was time for another text, less politely worded and still attempting to communicate love and fondness, then heading out to meet with Perry. Still fruitless, which at least had become verified fruitlessness. No fruit for anyone, and they had citations to prove it.

“Nest behavior is one of those things where we’ve got to triangulate if we want to figure out anything. What the Slayer said, what her Watcher wrote down, what the local civilians thought was important enough to mention later.” Perry shrugged. Buffy flipped through the folder of printouts and reports Perry had gathered together since yesterday afternoon. He’d highlighted and color-tabbed everything, and she slid her glasses off to rub her eyes. “There really hasn’t been a lot of primary research. Nobody made it a priority. Most of what I was able to dig up is only a couple decades old. Anything past that, and –”

“And nobody asked the vampires.”

“That’s about the size of it. What we’ve got is on modern nests, so if this has happened in the past with the whole nest clearing out like that, we just don’t know. But like you said, if Spike of all…people hasn’t heard of it happening, it’s probably unprecedented.”

“Back to square one.” Buffy looked around his home office – the Watcher Auxiliary plaque on the wall thanking him for all his years of active service, the overcrowded bookshelves – and was about to ask another question when her phone went off.

“What is it?”

“I just got a text. Oh, thank God, it’s from Spike. I was starting to worry.” As text messages go, it wasn’t the most reassuring possible one: I found the nest. Everything’s perfectly all right now. We’re fine. We’re all fine here, now, thank you. How are you? She dashed off a quick reply, Glad to hear it. Where are you and when will you be back tonight? and slid her phone away.

“Is something wrong with you two?”

“Nothing’s wrong, he just didn’t come back to the hotel last night. He sounds like he’s doing all right. Found what he was looking for, lucky him.” She sighed. “I guess I’ll go get to reading.”

She briefly considered taking everything back to the hotel, but Perry’s apartment was all of two blocks from campus. The UC Berkeley library was a beautiful building, exactly the sort of place for getting to mounds of granular research. Sitting down at a free table in the big reading room, she took a moment to close her eyes and take in the smells and small sounds, run her fingers over the edges of the papers and pretend – and yes, there it all was, the stacks and stairs behind her, the little cage off to the side, all the books laid out in front of her, Giles pestering her to get on with the reading. Come now, you can’t expect this all to read itself, his memory echoed. She could always hear him best in a library. She let herself remember his rare happy-proud-victory smile, then flipped open the folder, slid her glasses on, and got to the research.

There wasn’t much she didn’t already know, though some of the details were good to remember. Before nests, it’d mostly been packs. The patterns didn’t change much: vampire settles somewhere new; gets a sense of the lay of the land; decides to head to the top of the food chain and/or local pecking order; climbs their way up on a mountain of human bodies with piles of dust in their wake; only moves on due to a bigger, badder vampire taking over, or a biggest, baddest slayer taking them on, or boredom. Spike had usually gone with the boredom option.

The new research on the development of modern nesting habits wasn’t much of an eye-opener. At least, not for her. Buffy had her own sources, separate and apart from the League, and it was usually a bit more accurate. She skimmed over the heavy history segments helpfully color-coded for her convenience and lingered on the paragraphs talking about the rise of vampire culture. At least, as such a thing could reasonably be considered. Again, there was nothing she didn’t already know, and again, it was all good to remember: the ones left in the world were working hard to make sure everyone thought it’d be worth it to keep them around. Sticking together wasn’t just for humans these days.

Buffy leaned her head back to stare out the skylight, then gathered up the papers to head out back to the hotel. She figured she’d grab lunch on the way, then see about touching base with a couple people. She went with a long walk through campus and one of its gardens first, seeing exactly who her audience was going to be. It wasn’t hard to figure out who they were. The campus was at that very particular time in between the end of classes and graduation when there wasn’t much to do except enjoy the wait, and the students that wouldn’t be coming back were the ones most enjoying themselves. They were everywhere, in the sun and shade, on benches and lawns, up the hills and down the paths, savoring this last moment of true, genuine freedom from responsibilities by not even thinking about the future.

It was definitely worth throwing some fear into them. Didn’t even have to be any particular fear. Just fear. They’d be full of general all-purpose fear soon enough. Better to give them some advice on dealing with it ahead of time, so they’d have it for when they needed it.

Buffy reread Spike’s message, trying to dig out more meaning from the five sentences than what was right on the surface. He had his phone and could send her texts, but it wasn’t like him to be so repetitive. Or, for that matter, so bland in his choice of words. Now that the relief of just hearing back from him had worn off, she had the mental space to be curious about exactly what he meant by everything. We’re all fine here, now, thank you – what on Earth did he have to thank her for? Checking in on him? He wouldn’t thank her just for sending him a message. If he wanted to check in and get her off his back while he indulged in vampire-only bonding rituals, he’d have tossed off something a lot simpler. Something like, I found the nest and we’re all right, more to come later. Asking her how she was doing, that…

A sound Buffy couldn’t quite place twirled around her ears. Everything’s perfectly all right now. He didn’t use perfectly like that. She couldn’t hear Spike saying that. She could almost hear someone else, like a song she hadn’t heard in ages sliding back into her mind. Lyrics without the singer. If she could read the lyrics she’d remember the tune, except she couldn’t figure out the song from that one line.

Her phone buzzed again in her hand. Another message from Spike slid up onto the screen, and when she read it, her stomach turned to ice.

Can’t talk now. We’re going to have company.

Chapter Text

Now wasn’t the time for a panic situation. It wasn’t ever the time for a panic situation, but now was especially not the time. Concern, absolutely, she could do concern. Worry, she could do that too. Going for panic was the best way to make sure nobody else understood the situation was panic-worthy. It meant that as much as she wanted to scream and punch a load-bearing wall to see a roof come down, she had to play the old PBS MathNet ‘What Do We Know?’ game. Of course, there wasn’t any winning that game today. Not with her luck right now.

She checked with Perry, who didn’t have anything new since they’d met an hour and a half earlier. The receptionist at Angel’s museum two blocks away didn’t have anything she could share, either.

“When’s he supposed to get in?”

Joanna shrugged her shoulders and feather crest. “Around noon. You want to leave a message for him for when he gets in?”

“Do you have a number I could use to call him? It’s a little more urgent than just leaving a message.”

“We’d rather not do that. It’s our policy to maintain privacy for our artists.”

“I’ll just bet it is. Okay, then. How about you let him know it’s Buffy Summers who wanted to talk?”

Not a card she liked playing, but what a card to play. She got the surprised face, the muffled gasp, the hasty apology, and the landline phone handed over with the number to call right there. And not a card she liked wasting, either. He wasn’t at the hotel, which meant she didn’t have a choice about leaving a message there for when he got back, whenever that might be.

The wall was looking more and more tempting. Joanna was looking more and more worried, and it was a cold splash of water on a hot day to know at least one person had some idea how bad things felt for her. Spike and Angel could take care of themselves. They were professionals at taking care of themselves, with hundreds of years of practice. Except if Spike said he was going to have company – everyone knew what it meant to say you were going to have company.

Vampires going missing, check. Angel and Spike going missing along with the rest of the Bay Area’s vamp nests and currently in danger, double-check. This not being seen as a problem by anyone else except the lovely receptionist, triple-check.

“Ms. Summers?” Joanna asked quietly, somehow managing to cower while standing up. “I’m not sure what else I can do to help you right now, so if you –”

“I’m going,” Buffy snapped. She glanced, then looked, at the way Joanna was folding her crest all the way down, how she was trying to crawl backwards through the wall to get away from her. “I’m sorry,” she forced out. “I’m not having a good day and I’m sorry for taking it out on you. Thanks for trying to help.” She turned to go, then spun back around. “Actually, if I could – would you mind if I just dipped into your galley for a few minutes? There’s a couple more phone calls I need to make, and it’d be a lot better if I could make them now. It’d be a huge favor.”

“Of course.” Her crest rose and fell in relief ushering Buffy around and back. The galley was as Buffy had last seen it the other day, down to the blinds pulled tight over the window. She didn’t stop for tea this time around, instead jumping right into calling the local League office. Maybe, and this was at least a solid maybe, with Spike and Angel missing there was a chance to get some momentum going.

“You’re sure they’re related incidents?” Lani asked. “They’ve got plenty of enemies. It could be two things at the same time.”

“It’s no coincidence. Believe me. I haven’t believed in those since I was in high school, and don’t get me started on how long ago that was. I’d be willing to believe it’s not as serious as I think it is, and I’m certain these aren’t unrelated. I don’t know why it’s all happening, and I know it’s all from the same root cause.”

“Can’t blame whoever’s behind this,” Lani said. “You’re going after vampires, you’ll want those two accounted for, and –” Buffy pulled in a hiss through her teeth and Lani went quiet. “Sorry. Okay. You met with Perry earlier, you talked with us yesterday, we don’t have anything new, I’ll go get a task force together. I think Myrna and Iona are free, I can get them to start some groundwork. Flatfooting it, get some intel. They can start this afternoon. You called the police yet?”

“Not yet. I was going to as soon as we were done. You need me in on this task force?”

“No. If we don’t want to draw more attention to this – we don’t, right?”

“It wouldn’t be a good idea.”

“So if we don’t, I’m sorry, but you asking around, that’s going to get attention. We’ll get it looked into. Leave the police to me. I’ll get on that right away. Don’t worry. About this, I mean. Fish and Wildlife, too, I think technically…”

“Not the time, please, Lani. Really not the time.”

“Sorry, Buffy. Look, we’ll get on this, you sit pretty and I’ll get back to you tonight.”

“All right. Thank you.”

Back out in the sunshine, she tried to take a few deep breaths to get back to center. The local demon community wouldn’t be all that forthcoming, even to Slayers, because even if they knew something, they wouldn’t want to care. The fewer vampires there were, the easier things got for the non-bloodsuckers walking amongst the ordinary humans. Buffy could still knock a few skulls around herself, but without any idea where to start or anyone to help out with the skull-knocking, it’d take hours if not days to get to someone who’d give her anything. Plus, Lani was right. If everyone knew she was out asking questions, the people that could answer her would be hightailing it out of here.

Since there wasn’t anything she could do, and nothing she could punch or decapitate, she was stuck with waiting. What fabulous luck. She might as well hurry up and get on with that. Physical distractions always helped the waiting go faster. A lifetime ago, she’d have gone patrolling. Today she settled on a power march. Head up, core tight, eyes forward, purposefully not thinking about missing vampires, she started walking and let the world get out of her way. She wasn’t looking where she was going and rounded a curve on a park lawn when the alarm went off at the back of her skull.

The vampire was pretty close, not right on her heels, but if they’d tripped off that alarm they couldn’t be that far. She peered around, trying to see if there were any dark shadows they’d ducked into, scanning the people out walking. The alarm faded and disappeared: gone fast, out of her range. It couldn’t be that easy to lose someone in a daysuit in an open city park.

“I’m not in the mood for teasing,” she said loud enough to be sure she was heard. She really, really wasn’t in the mood for being teased. Not from a vampire, not from a demon, not from a human. Her declaration got a few people to glance her way. Most of them kept on walking. Old ladies talking to nothing were a pretty ordinary sight in Berkeley.

Buffy looked around again, and there it was, right back at the back of her skull. She couldn’t tell who it was specifically unless it was a vampire she knew as well as Spike. What she could tell was it was the same vampire from yesterday’s lunch. Whoever they were, they were persistent, and clearly following her for a reason. Not a good thing right now.

Let them come.

“What do you want?” She asked, whipping around fast enough to startle the vampire as she stared directly into the reflective faceplate.

The vampire didn’t respond in any meaningful way, just tilting their head like that’d help them hear her better.

“Come out and tell me. I know those things have buttons for talking. Just make this easy for both of us. Help me help you, please. Give me something, anything.” Still nothing. Buffy shrugged and grabbed the vampire by the throat to lift them into the air. Not like they needed oxygen. Other people in the park stopped to stare and gasp, though Buffy couldn’t bring herself to care. “I’m not having what you’d want to call a good day right now, so I’d really like it if you’d be nice enough to not make it any worse than it already is and tell me what the hell it is that you want from me.” She tightened her grip to make her point, held them up another moment, and then lowered her hand to set them back down.

The vampire still didn’t do anything. No moves to show deference to the great merciful Slayer or making with the running away. All that happened was they took two steps back to give Buffy a little personal space. That was it. Two steps. The vampire remained, completely unconcerned with everyone’s stares on the two silent figures. They watched from the darkness and silence of the daysuit, waiting for Buffy to make the next move.

Buffy kept glaring, deliberately turned her back on the vampire and began the long walk back to the hotel. Everyone watched her go, but at least this time, she could tell herself it was because of the weird even for Berkeley sight of a vampire trailing after someone in broad daylight without any hint of subtlety. The vampire kept their distance, staying far enough out of her reach she couldn’t easily punch them. Down the streets, through the hills, until the two of them reached to the hotel. They kept the same distance when they got inside, following not at all discretely up the stairs, through the hallway, and only stopping at the door of the hotel room.

This wasn’t her home, just where she was staying for a little while, and the vampire was still waiting for her to invite them in.

Fabulous. The one polite vampire stalker on the planet.

Buffy bent over her jewelry box and put on her pure silver cross. In the same movement, she stretched her arms, picking up one of her travel throwing axes. Then she turned around, axe clearly visible. “Yes, you can come in. So long as you tell me what’s going on here. I know you can talk through those things, so make with the verbalizing.”

The vampire crossed the threshold, carefully closing the door behind them. They looked around the room, then walked over to the window to test the curtains and make sure they were shut tight. Buffy was about three seconds from asking them to get on with it when the vampire stepped up and put a gloved hand on her face. Her, Buffy Summers, longest serving Slayer in history, hand on her face. The absolute balls, the complete gall to just make the attempt froze her for a moment. The blank faceplate showed only her own face, and all the anger in her eyes.

“What the hell?” She batted the gloved hand away. “If this is some kind of new prostration technique, I’m so not in the mood. Now get on with it and start with the talking. Pronto, posthaste, right this goddamn minute and give me a reason not to dust you right here.”

They took a step back, then another, giving Buffy the space she wanted. Something in their stance, the tilt of their head, struck a note of familiarity – again, like lyrics without the tune. Standing in the middle of the living area of the hotel suite, they seemed like they were looking right at her. Without seeing their face, it was impossible to guess what they were thinking, but Buffy got the feeling the vampire didn’t want to be here any more than she did, except there was something in the way they stood that gave Buffy the impression that they needed to be here.

The vampire started to take off the helmet.

Daysuits weren’t designed to be easily removed. There were clasps and latches, buckles and clamps, that made it almost impossible to take off by yourself. Instead, it was merely extremely difficult, not unlike ancient diving suits and full-plate armor. The vampire reached around to undo the clamps on the back of the neck, then the ones underneath the chin, break the seal all around. Click-clack-unlock, and those black-gloved hands lifted the helmet away for Buffy to finally see –

“Hello, Buffy,” said Drusilla.

Chapter Text

Up came the axe, only Drusilla’s hands were on Buffy’s arms before she could let it fly.

“Now, now, dear heart, let’s not be having any hastiness,” she crooned. “I’ve come much too far for that.”

Buffy pulled a leg up, kicking Drusilla right in the solar plexus. It got her away, flying through the air and right into the wall by the kitchenette. Plaster crumbled as she fell, and Buffy didn’t let herself worry over who’d be paying for the finishing. Drusilla practically leapt to her feet, coming straight at Buffy, her face still human. The axe flew, Drusilla dodged, then snarled at Buffy through blunt teeth.

“Would you listen!” She shrieked. “Would you well listen for once in all your years!”

“I will when you give me something to listen to!” Buffy eyed Drusilla, who wasn’t attacking or retaliating or getting any closer. “What gives with the stalking and the silent treatment? While I’m at it, what gives with the not trying to kill me?”

“Not here for you, selfish girl. Not here for you or any of your nasty poppets. Can’t hear naught but your own thoughts, spinning all pell-mell skelter through your head.” She kept her distance, hands up in supplication and keeping them where Buffy could see them, and a glint in her eye that had Buffy watching her carefully. She’d barely changed since she’d last seen her almost seventy years ago. That was the thing with vampires: the world changed while they remained the same. To be fair, there were a few subtle differences. Her hair was in a single, heavy braid instead of elaborate curls or loose down her shoulders, and she didn’t have on any makeup. “Should keep your promises, Slayer. Or the nasty, wriggling fears will have their fill of you.”

Buffy’s fists didn’t come down. She could still grab one of the throwing knives if she needed a weapon. “You’re here, you’re talking, get on with it. You know what’s going on here? You made all those vampires disappear?”

Drusilla untucked her hair, letting it hang down her back. Casually, almost languidly, she brushed powdered plaster off her shoulders. “What’s happened isn’t my doing. Wasn’t any dream of mine, no spell of my making, no wish I’d cast. We’re too late to stop the goats and the lambs are on their way to the slaughter. All the princesses can do is only ease their pain.”

“You came all the way here from Russia for that? Out of the goodness of your dead heart for, what, stopping part of a tragedy?”

“Ukraine,” she corrected with a sly smile, smoothly pulled the axe from the wall. “Exactly that, dear heart. More than, if you’ll be a good little Slayer and believe me.” She twirled the axe around like she was a cheerleader with a baton. “Got no reason to fight against you now. Better to fight with you. I’m here for Spike, same as you. Best for us both to be here together.”

“You know Spike’s in danger.”

“Much.”

“And you’re willing to help me because you want to help him that badly?”

“I wouldn’t have come if I wasn’t.”

“You think I need your help with this?”

“I know you do.”

“You’ve killed friends of mine, you’ve been in hiding for decades, and now you’re here all ‘help me help you’ because you care? I have no idea what’s going on in your head, but I know you know how I feel about you. So forgive me for not wanting to trust you right off the bats in your belfrey.”

Drusilla sighed, equal parts exasperation and disappointment. Slowly moving across the room, she held the axe out, handle-first, to Buffy. “Take it.”

The shock was wearing off. The alarm was still on, and she could think through it enough to understand this was Drusilla standing in her hotel room. Drusilla, who’d killed a Slayer back when there were only two girls in all the world, who could sweep all through Buffy’s head and pull out every possible secret she had to hide, who had practically vanished from the face of the Earth and hadn’t been credibly sighted in decades. Mad seer, dangerous vampire, offering back the throwing axe all politely, like she did this sort of thing all the time. Who wasn’t here for Buffy, but had come for Spike.

Her phone rang. Drusilla cocked her head. Buffy glared. Her phone rang again.

“Shouldn’t you answer that?” Drusilla asked.

Keeping her eyes on Drusilla, Buffy carefully reached into her pocket and pulled out the ringing phone. “Hello,” she pushed out as evenly as she could manage.

“Hey! Great, I’m glad I caught you,” Felicity said. “I was doing some reading and I came over this one thing from –”

“That’s great, Felicity, are you sure this is the best time?”

“Pretty sure, yeah, since you wanted us to call you in case we found anything. Anyway, there’s this reference to a vampire nest evacuation of a town in Bangladesh in a nineteenth-century Watcher’s diary that I put up against these other demonic –”

“This is great, but Lani said she’d be getting some people together, and I think –”

“Lani?” Felicity sounded taken aback. “What do you mean? She ran out of here a few hours ago, said she had a family emergency or something.”

“Sorry, what?” Drusilla was starting to look impatient. Not a good look. “I talked to her this afternoon. She said she’d be getting Iona and Myrna together to head out for some investigation.”

“I don’t know how she’d do that, since Iona’s still out on maternity leave. Maybe she meant Fiona? I think Fiona might be taking care of it. She said she’d be heading out to the bars and dance clubs, do some research the old-fashioned way.”

“You know, I think she might have meant Fiona,” Buffy said. Now Drusilla was smiling and humming to herself, looking pleased with what was unfolding around her. “That’d be an easy one to mix up. Okay, right, the nineteenth century Watcher thing. I know I said I’d like whatever you have as soon as you have it, but I was right in the middle of something when you called, so could I call you back in a couple hours? I don’t think anything’s going to happen in a couple of hours.”

“Sure thing. If that’s what’s easier for you. Long as I’m waiting, I’ll see if I can dig up a couple more sources.” She didn’t even sound annoyed; instead, glad to help however she could.

“Thank you, Felicity.”

“You’re welcome.” She hung up, leaving Buffy to silence. Silence, and Drusilla, still standing there with the axe held out to her. Drusilla, who hadn’t come here for Buffy, and was willing to stand at her side to help her get Spike to safety.

No, that wasn’t exactly it. They weren’t on the same side. More standing side by side and facing the same direction. Which, with Drusilla, was probably the best she could hope for.

Buffy reached out and took the axe.

“What’s in this for you?”

“Spike,” Drusilla said simply.

“That’s it. Just Spike.”

“Just our Spike.”

“I’m finding it a little hard to grasp you waltzing in out of nowhere and thinking that just Spike is reason enough.”

“Look at you. Gone all cross, not wanting to believe the best of me, thinking you know better. Spike is always enough. Sunshine doesn’t want to trust in old love.”

Stupid psychics. “Still could use a tiny bit more.”

“I want to help, simple and plain. He’s mine still and I’m his, always. The prince doesn’t fight for the princess any longer. He’s sunshine’s champion. He loves a new way now, earned the spark to prove it so. The sunshine’s made him a better man, more than I could. You’ve done…” The only way Buffy could describe Drusilla’s expression was she was looking into Buffy. “You’ve done good to him.”

“You mean, I’m good for him.”

“No.” Drusilla shook her head, a soft smile at the edges of her mouth and the middle of her eyes. “I mean you did good to him. From you, good was done to him.”

Buffy let the words roll through her head. She took a deep breath. “They’ve got Angel too?”

“Paired up neatly.”

“You know where they are?”

“Someplace nearby. Not so far. Tucked up in the hills – they’re in there, all of them, crammed tight and not nearly safe.” She lifted up the helmet and put it down, gently, on the end table by the couch before sitting down and crossing her hands over her lap. “They’ve made it into their home, that much I can see, though there’s still strange machines about. No one needed it, so they took it over, turned it into a home so nobody could come rescuing anyone, and it hadn’t got cleaned out before it got locked up.”

Drusilla closed her eyes, tilting her head up and rocking gently back and forth. “It’s full of so many big, fancy machines for tiny playthings. It’s not been used in the last few years, left to dust and darkness. They took it over since no one would be watching there. I’d know it if I saw it. I can’t risk it to look about myself, not with them ready to snatch up any stragglers come to play.”

She looked at Buffy, seemingly genuinely sorry. “If I thought I might be victorious, I’d have gone to seek it out, keep them from doing all their planned nastiness to my family. They’re not doing science there. I’d be locked up in with all the others and couldn’t help free anyone. They’d set me up like the rest. They wouldn’t try such cruelty on you if you’re found sniffing about their mission station.”

Meaning slowly clicked into place. “Okay, that narrows it down.” Now that the axe was away, out came the phone. Big building up in the hills. That was a start.

“What are you doing?” Drusilla asked.

“Trying to find a picture of what you’re talking about. What does this building look like?” One of the biggest problems of working with psychics was that if they didn’t know what they were looking at, it made making sense of the visions that much harder.

“You can see it in there?” She leaned forward without getting up from the couch. “In that little thing?”

“Phones can do that nowadays. So what does this place look like? From the outside.”

“How can it find the pictures?”

“It can talk to other phones that might have it on them. I’ll explain it better later. Again, what’s this place look like?”

“Oh. All right.” She nodded, apparently satisfied with the answer. Buffy blinked, surprised that’d worked. “It’s up in the hills.”

“Got that.”

“Round. There’s a canopy atop the roundabout with no painted horses inside. Some of the same pieces. Platforms and cranks and nothing for children to ride. All the lights and wires of Tivoli and nothing for children. Nothing to make them play and laugh. Massive gears spinning about so fast everything inside gets broken into pieces.” She twirled a hand in the air by her head, round and round. “It broke the pieces of the world until there was nothing left to break. Playthings but no playing. You could see the whole of the cities and all the islands if you stood atop it. You can see where we’re going. Beautiful cities, both of this one we’re in now and the one for Saint Francis.”

“Does this place have – hang on.” Berkeley had done some major science experiments, the kind that people talked about without really understanding everything. The sort of experiments people would describe with things like atom smashing and light slicing. And maybe Drusilla didn’t know enough about modern science to understand phones were attached to the internet, or even that the internet was a thing that existed, but Buffy did. Three searches and a lot of scrolling later, Buffy held her phone out at arm’s length and asked, “Is this it?”

“My goodness, that’s it precisely. How did you manage to find it on that tiny device?”

“It’s a smart phone.”

“Very clever little phone.” Drusilla smiled. “What else can it do?”

“You can play with it after we rescue Spike,” Buffy almost laughed with relief. “We will do that, right?”

“Got to go soon while the night’s still here. Can’t wait for the dawn, or it’ll be far too late to save all the little lambs. They’ll be gone for slaughter. Get our knight and keep him safe.” She shook her head. “There’s not going to be any saving all of them. Must be as it always is.”

“But Spike can be saved if we move tonight.”

“Quite so.”

“Well, good. I’ve got a speech to give tomorrow.” Drusilla opened her mouth, then closed it, nodding. Buffy punched in the address, cued up the directions, and frowned. “It’s just a couple miles away. Convenient. But inconvenient, we can’t drive in. The place is on a private university road. We’re going to have to hoof it up there up the side of the mountain, which means we’re going to have to wait for it to get dark so you don’t have to lug that suit around.”

“Kind of you to think of me.”

“It also means I can get a nap in before we head off. And have something to eat.” She let her shoulders sag down a bit. No longer was she of the age that she could stay awake for days on little sleep and minimal food. Once, she’d made it four days on zero sleep and nothing but a couple of peanut butter cups to defeat and send whatever that demon was, Larry or Lloyd or Lewis, back to his home dimension and stop him from razing half of Canada to ashes. Then she’d let herself sleep. Gone were those days. She wasn’t in her forties anymore. Now, if she was going to be out all night, she needed to rest up for it. “Can you come back here in five hours?”

“Of course.” She stood up and tucked her braid back down into the suit. “I’ll go get my things.” Once her helmet was secured, she wasn’t Drusilla anymore. Just another daysuited vampire going about their business, whatever that might be.

After she closed the door behind her, Buffy took a couple of minutes to collapse onto the bed, arms at her sides and staring at the new hole in the wall. Not her problem. Literally, as per her rider: any damage would get billed to the hosting organization. Berkeley could afford the spackle. And she herself couldn’t afford to turn down any help, no matter where it was coming from.

She plugged in her phone to charge, then grabbed the oils and herbs and permanent marker from the emergency spell kit. When she got up from her nap five and a half hours later, her warnings and wards unnecessary after all, her phone was back up to full battery power and there was a four-hour old message from Lani waiting for her. She’d called the police and the local wildlife office just to cover all possible bases and was heading out with Myrna and Iona, ready to seriously prod buttock and they’d be sure to have something to share tomorrow morning.

If that wasn’t the best thing she’d heard all day, she’d eat her hat.

Not having any such edible hats lying around, Buffy settled for an omelet. Nothing fancy or flashy, just something easy, high-protein, creating the illusion of control over her life for as long as she had the peppers frying, the eggs and cheese stirring in the pan, and the food on her plate. For as long as she could wash the dishes and allow herself another phone call to the League office. Felicity’s report was thorough, and Buffy murmured her way through it until she could politely hang up again.

When she unlocked the door, Drusilla was standing in the hallway with a small duffel, waiting to be invited in.

Chapter Text

Whoever had the wherewithal and forethought and capacity to kidnap both Angel and Spike, and keep them kidnapped, spoke to a level of planning that equally impressed and infuriated Buffy. Incompetent loons could generally be defeated with a few swift punches to key soft areas. Villains that took the time to plan typically knew to factor in worst-case scenarios and be proactive about things. Like making their stronghold someone’s house so vampires couldn’t get in. Using an abandoned campus building as a stronghold said they took their time to organize, which meant Buffy probably had a real battle ahead of her. Berkeley wasn’t Sunnydale, with its utter lack of zoning regulations, but apparently, enough paperwork could make any building get lost, no matter how big or valuable it’d been once upon a time.

It also meant that, no matter how much she wanted to march up the hillside and kick down the front door, they had to take the long way around to avoid detection. A couple of women walking alone usually got attention, but an old woman, no matter her company, could walk just about anywhere. That said, even old women got noticed sometimes, and tonight she wasn’t risking it. So she and Drusilla started out on Berkeley’s sidewalks, moving through the town, skipping past the university entirely. They looped around the big stadium to double back and hit the hiking trails already built into the hillside.

For most of her childhood, Buffy’s main experiences with nature had been filtered through field trips. They’d all been very carefully monitored and controlled, where the worst thing that could happen was falling into a shallow river and coming home muddy. She’d liked the hikes, though. Being out of the classroom made being out in the dirt worthwhile. The trips had been on easy-to-walk paths – trails through fields and streambeds packed down from all the hikers who’d come before. They’d always had a harsh kind of beauty to them. She’d understood, a little bit, they weren’t places that needed humans, not the way gardens and cities did. Sometimes they’d record the number of animals and plants they saw and learn about different environments, and sometimes they’d walk through some old mining or farming area and see the skeletons of buildings and get the harsh lesson that civilization was inherently ephemeral. Then she’d been Called, and nature was bigger and hungrier and filled with more terrifying things than what she’d ever thought to previously imagine.

Now, hiking up the Berkeley hills with Drusilla by her side, on wooden steps embedded into the side of the hill, she felt a quiet echo of those old trips. Even in the dark, Buffy could make out the shapes of the native trees and bushes – manzanita and madrone, live oak and serviceberry. Their familiarity was a comfort, and the smell of dirt on a dusty hillside path hadn’t changed in eighty years.

At a switchback, she double-checked her phone. Thank the heavens for unlimited data and roaming plans. “This says it’s up that way. I think there’s a fence but that shouldn’t be a problem. We’ll circle around and go in through the front.”

“There they are.” Drusilla smiled at the city below them. Buffy had gone with a blouse, loose trousers, and flat-soled boots. Drusilla had also gone with boots, but she’d changed right out of her daysuit into fresh black jeans without excusing herself to the bathroom or telling Buffy what she was doing. “The stars are down. Can you see them? The stars are down. I remember all their names. I thought I’d forgotten, but I remember.”

She turned to look at Buffy, still smiling. “They’re ready. They’ll be listening when it’s time for the animals to go splitting the night.” She whipped her head up to the sky and howled. A real, honest-to-God animal howl, echoing in the dark, and she got a howl right back from somewhere out in the hills beyond. Not quite the same, because hers was high and thin, and what came back was low and round. She howled again, and whatever was out there gave her another in return. “They heard me,” she said, eyes fixed on the sky. “Not the same and they still heard me. Nearly kith, almost kin. I’ll have to change it all for California.”

“Drusilla, please.” Buffy reached out and grabbed Drusilla’s arm. That did the trick of getting her back to reality.

“We’ll hop the fence,” she said, getting back to the intended subject. “Leap it like a hedgerow, watching out for the thorns and shrikes. We’ll make a game of it, you and I.”

“Not particularly.”

She hummed. “It would’ve been nice to have eaten before we set out.”

“What? You had like four mugs of haema.”

“It curbed the hungers well enough, though only just. Nothing from that device was ever living. Naught save fill and nil to give.” She made a small little sound, like a growl or a bark. “Oh, to feast on proper flesh tonight would be richly earned. I shan’t.” Her voice was hard, and she gave Buffy a strong, cold look. “Not without the Generalissima’s permission.”

“If it comes to that, I’ll let you know.” Just roll with it. Roll with it and try to direct her as best she could – Spike had managed for nearly twelve decades; Buffy could handle her for an evening. One evening with Drusilla was like a month of sane nights. “Come on, we’re getting close.” She started walking, and Drusilla kept pace.

“Barely any more to go, yes. I can almost see it. I’ll need to be invited.”

“How exactly were you planning on that?”

“Asking nicely.”

“All right.” Don’t engage if there’s no reason to, just let the crazy go on past.

There was the fence, just like the maps said. Barbed wire at the top with grass and fuzz and feathers caught on the points – thorns and shrikes – that was easy enough to flip herself over, once she climbed up high enough. Buffy probably could’ve leapt it if she had a running start, which wasn’t an option when climbing up a hill in what was supposed to be a quiet sting operation.

Drusilla managed from a standing start. “Show-off,” she muttered, pointedly ignoring Drusilla’s proud little chuckle.

From the fence, it was more of a walk than a hike. The paths were paved, and the parking lots were all flat surfaces. A couple more turns, because this was the Berkeley hills, and then they were coming around the corner to the front door of the old Advanced Light Source building and the brightly-lit parking lot. The place was officially abandoned, but that didn’t mean they’d shut off the electricity. According to the website, the building was decommissioned in 2065, left standing and empty because nobody wanted to tear it down and the local architectural conservation society was still trying to work with the university instead of running ramshackle over it. In the meantime, neither side would compromise, which meant it was basically free for the squatting.

Without any better idea, Buffy was about to knock on the front door when Drusilla grabbed her and pulled her into the shadows. Buffy nearly cried out when a hand clapped over her mouth. “Shush!” Drusilla hissed right in Buffy’s ear. “Poppet’s about to let you in! Believe her and she’ll give you all the pretty lies.” Buffy stopped struggling, then stumbled two steps when Drusilla shoved her back out into the light.

Then she saw the car pull into the parking lot.

Acting casual was a way to look suspicious. Better to be open and friendly. Best of all was to play like this was where she was supposed to be – and oh, she could do that. She could so do that. Back straight, shoulders loose, she didn’t push it by throwing in a wave at the driver to deliberately draw attention to herself, even though the temptation was there. Especially when she saw who got out of the driver’s side door.

“Hi there, Natalie,” Buffy said, making the young Slayer jump and skitter back against the car.

“Buffy?” Short, with straight black hair parted down the middle in a Cleopatra bob, Natalie was maybe a quarter of Buffy’s age and always dressed like she was on her way to philosophy class. She got her composure right back, and Buffy could see from the way Natalie’s body tensed she wasn’t exactly glad to see her. “What are you doing here?”

Worst-case scenario, she and Drusilla could grab her and ply information out of her one way or another, hopefully with limited screaming. Best-case, Natalie spilled everything she needed to hear and invited them both inside.

Keeping her voice pitched from the bottom of her lungs and making sure she maintained a reasonable amount of eye contact, Buffy took the one shot in the dark she had: “Lani told me to come on by tonight.”

“You talked to Lani?”

“Sure did. Just this morning. She sounded kind of excited.” Lani had been concerned and a little stressed, which could be interpreted as excited if someone squinted and looked at it sideways. Focusing on Natalie’s body language to gauge her own lies, Buffy went on, “She said tonight was the night, and it’d be nice for me to be here.”

“Oh!” That did it. The tensing jumped from anxious to happy. Natalie was fully delighted to see Buffy standing in the parking lot of an abandoned science building at nine-thirty on a weekday night. “Oh, she did? Wonderful! Lani didn’t tell me about talking to you, but, well, if you’re here now she must have, mustn’t she? This is splendid. Absolutely, totally. I just need…”

“Let me give you a hand with that.” Make sure they wanted you there, make sure you lend a hand – being helpful with a smile was absolutely one of the best ways to slip inside somewhere. Buffy took two bags and closed the trunk after Natalie filled her arms with the other five. Behind them, she felt Drusilla lurking before slipping off her radar again.

“Thank you,” Natalie grinned.

“You want me to get the door? Do I need a key? She said to come over, but not much else.”

“No, I’ll get that.” It took a little maneuvering and Buffy taking on another shopping bag for them to get through the door and into the building. The place was unlocked, which made a fair amount of sense: there wasn’t much reason to lock it if they had other precautions in place. The two of them went in through the front door and to the lobby, just like if they were going to work. No lights were on inside, but there was enough from the parking lot to get them up the stairs and down a hallway. It felt exactly like walking into one of Dawn’s old favorite puzzle video games. Enough light to see you couldn’t see much at all, empty corridors that weren’t themselves scary except for not wanting to know what was on the other side.

“I’m so glad Lani told you ahead of time,” Natalie went on as she held the door open with her hip. “We’d all been worried, how much longer will we have to keep this under wraps, but now that you’re here – she called everyone earlier, told us tonight was the night, I didn’t think that’d also mean you’d be coming along. I’d been saying, don’t say anything until it’s done, except Lani’s always been a big believer in the whole project. Bring you on board and everyone’s going to follow.”

“It’s what comes from being a figurehead,” she intoned, only half-joking, and Natalie giggled. “That said, right now? I’m just happy to be here.” Buffy tried not to overtly look into the bags in her arms, just sneaking a peek at what was right on top. Mostly snack foods. Some bowls, some plastic spoons, which meant the cool feeling by her left elbow had to be ice cream. Party stuff. Which probably meant they figured this would go off so well they’d be able to celebrate right away. As much as Buffy wanted to go for the whole bad spy movie so to make sure we’re both on the same page, fill me in on everything routine, there wasn’t a better way to out herself as an interloper. There were ways to get people like Natalie to talk, though. There were always ways to make people talk. “There was one thing she didn’t tell me. I mean, she told me this is someone’s home, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Whose house is it? Lani didn’t give me the specifics, and I wanted to be sure to thank her. Or him. Whoever.”

“She didn’t? That’s odd. But I guess it’s for security.” Buffy made a noncommittal sound to encourage Natalie to keep talking. “I suppose that since you’re here now, it won’t hurt. It’s Robert’s house. We really owe it to him – we couldn’t be doing this without someone making it their residence, and he was the one who volunteered.”

“He’s a thoughtful guy.”

“He is, isn’t he.”

“I didn’t think there’d be a party afterwards, though.”

“A party?”

“Well, sure. What else would the ice cream be for?”

“Oh!” Natalie smiled and opened another door, leading Buffy down another dim corridor. Drusilla was off her radar, but there was…there was definitely something lurking just at the edges, a hum she didn’t usually get. Vampires at a certain distance were too faint to feel unless she was really trying, or if there were a lot of them. Whoever this group was hadn’t taken them far, when they’d taken the vampires. “You can thank Stella for that. She likes a serious hit of sugar after spellcasting, and when she asked for some ice cream, everyone else wanted me to grab some for them too. And you know how one thing leads to another.”

“I guess if anything deserves an old-fashioned ice cream social to celebrate, it’ll be this.”

“Ice cream socials and then some!” She grinned at Buffy. “Do you think two bottles of chocolate syrup will be enough?”

“At this point, we’ve got what we’ve got. We’re in through here?”

“Yes. Right here.” Light crept from behind a door that Natalie opened to hubbub and way-too-chipper voices. “Hey! Hey, everyone! Look who I ran into in the parking lot!”

The everyone in question was only twenty-some-odd people. Mostly women, only three guys, everyone in the office that’d been refurbished as a living space – the big glass wall on the far side of the room doing nothing to shake the video game vibes out of her head. The humming was getting louder and deeper, resonating under her skin. With all their eyes on her, Buffy knew it was time to throw in a little wave, keep on smiling, hand off her bags to the nearest convenient set of arms and let the rest of the room do the work for her. Time to use their happiness against them and get them at ease to tell her what she needed. Everyone was dressed casually in working clothes, jeans and t-shirts and even sneakers, like this was a casual working day. Nobody wears funny robes to conspiracy meetings anymore.

“I’m so pleased you’re here with us tonight,” said one of the guys. He gestured to a couch and Buffy let herself be guided along. “I honestly didn’t think you’d be coming for the initial operation. I know we’d discussed it, but I’d thought – no, it’s not important. What is, is that you’re here now.”

“What can I say, Lani made some persuasive arguments. She really pulled something special together.” Buffy had her back to the glass wall, which was a small comfort. The hum was strongest from there, and she didn’t like knowing the why without the reason for it.

“What do you mean, Lani pulled this together?”

“It’s her project, right?”

“You think – oh, of course,” he chuckled. “I shouldn’t be so surprised. It’s quite like her to take on the credit for this.”

“Yeah,” Buffy nodded furiously, “that’s Lani all over. Tell me about it. So when does this show get on the road? We’re not waiting for anyone else, are we? I mean, I haven’t seen Lani yet, so…”

“Just her and Claire. But they said they’d be here by ten-fifteen and if they aren’t, to start without them.” Natalie shrugged. “We’ve got another half-hour to get everything ready. That’s plenty of time.”

“Get a good seat,” someone called from across the room and made everyone laugh.

Buffy joined in with a half-giggle, then twisted around to glance at the glass wall. The resonating was digging into her, through her skin and to her bones, everything put on high alert with the knob turned up to eleven and then ripped off. The last time she’d remembered feeling anything like this, anything close to this, was deep underneath the Hellmouth with all the ubervamps. Even now, vampires didn’t get together in this big a group, this many all together in one spot, unless they absolutely had no choice about it. As if someone crammed them all into one spot for something so big and grandiose it was apparently deserving of an ice cream social once it was done.

People were asking if Natalie had remembered Prudence’s vanilla, Doris’s mint chip, Millicent’s praline, if Stella ought to do a tiny cold spell to make sure none of it melted. Eyes off her for a moment, Buffy got up, feeling shaky in a way that had nothing to do with muscles or nerves; just good old-fashioned concern and worry and fear. She walked across the room and stepped up to the glass wall, looked down and clamped a hand over her mouth.

“It’s really amazing, isn’t it?” A round, dark-skinned woman Buffy didn’t know leaned her arm against the glass. “I swear it takes my breath away every time.”

“Yeah. Breath. Gone.”

Crowded together, penned in together, the space was huge and the vampires were still cowering. They had no privacy, no dignity, nothing but the clothes they were wearing. There were easily hundreds of them, some sitting, some pacing, none of them comfortable in the cavernous room. They were too far away for her to see their faces. Thank God they were too far away for her to see their faces. The alarm noise of their presence was too big for Buffy to hear, only feel. Like coming out of a grave or the sonic boom of a fireworks show: the utter silence of the biggest possible sound deep inside her bones.

“I’m Doris, by the way,” she offered. “I’m glad to meet you.”

Her name barely registered. “How…All…”

“It took some doing, getting the space cleared out for so many vampires,” Doris explained. “Most of the equipment had been cleared out before the building got decommissioned. Converting the space, securing it for when they arrived – that took a bit of time. We’d thought about separate holding chambers, but keeping them all in one spot seemed like the most efficient idea.”

“All in one place,” Buffy echoed, feeling like she was talking out of the bottom of a deep well, and that her stomach was trying to leap out of her throat. She could almost taste the acid at the back of her teeth.

She couldn’t see Spike. From this distance, even if he’d still been bleaching his hair, she couldn’t have made out Spike specifically in the whole mess of bodies.

“It makes keeping track of them easier, certainly.”

“There’s everyone from Berkeley in there. All the vampires. Lani said Berkeley, just Berkeley. She didn’t say…”

“Berkeley, Oakland, Richmond, all the way down to Hayward. I helped bring in the Oakland nest.” A little pride slipped into her voice, which strengthened as she went on. “We wanted to make sure we had enough vampires for all the work we’ve planned on doing, so we decided, get as many as we can to begin with. Now that was the easy part. There was some trouble getting them here, but all in all, we did pretty well. As ever, proper preparation.”

“Prevention of poor performance.” Buffy’s mind kept sliding away from putting numbers to heads as she tried to count them all up. Ten, twenty, thirty, fifty, no, did I get that vampire over in the corner, better not to know.

Especially when one of them – a female vampire she didn’t recognize at all – turned her head to look up in Buffy’s direction, and her eyesight wasn’t too far gone to see how the vampire’s body language went from fearful to fearless. Seeing Buffy, and pointing and shouting, getting every vampire’s attention off their current predicament to focus entirely on the great and merciful Buffy Summers standing high above them.

“Oh, look at this! Everyone, come quick!” Doris called out, and the delight in her tone made Buffy want to rip her arms off. “Have any of you ever seen this before?”

Buffy tried not to breathe too hard. Everyone squeezed in around her, angling for a good view. To a one, the vampires were all focused entirely, completely, on her. Some were on all fours with their foreheads on the ground, others were kneeling with their heads down and arms spread wide, a few were just standing and staring. She forced herself to breathe evenly and not panic as she scanned the vampires far below, looking for tall and broody or light brown curls – the two of them had to be somewhere. Maybe not even in with the general population but someplace even more secure. If these lunatics had put in the work to get all these vampires, then yes, she could believe the worst.

If Drusilla asks for permission I don’t know if I’ll say no.

Buffy looked away from the window. The man she’d been talking to was off to her right, and the other two were in deep conversation with each other over to her left. Perfect. “Robert?” One of them turned to look at her, someone tall with an academic’s pallor and a retro throwback duck’s-ass haircut. “I was hoping – could you show me the way to the restroom?”

“Sure, it’s right –”

“Robert, honey,” Buffy played to her age, using an old woman’s endearment, “I’m really sorry. I just want to make sure I know the way there and back, and I’d be so grateful if you’d show me the way. I’ve never been here before, and this seems like it’d be a real easy place to get lost in.”

“Ah – okay, sure,” he said. “Hey, Oliver, I’m just escorting Ms. Summers to the, um, restroom.” Buffy stood up straight and deliberately smiled as innocently as she could manage. “Don’t wait up for us, okay?”

“We’ll be fine,” Oliver assured him with a wave of his hand. “We’re just about ready to go anyway.”

“Great. Great. Ms. Summers?”

“Lead on.”

It wasn’t a total misdirection and deliberate move towards isolating the weak link in the security system. She honestly did need to use the bathroom. Not all that badly, but at her age, better to use it when she had the opportunity than risk the chance to regret it. The taps worked, and so did the toilet, and they’d even made sure to keep rolls of toilet paper out where she could grab some before heading into the stall and doing her business.

At this point, Buffy didn’t know whether to call this group of vampire kidnappers fanatics, sadists, or lunatics. She just knew she could call them polite, because Robert didn’t follow her into the women’s restroom. Twenty-three people in the whole building, and they still kept separate bathrooms by gender. It was downright quaint the way they stuck to social morays.

It also made holding him by the elbow and steering him that much easier. Because, after all, she was a small old woman who needed some help getting around.

“So, tell me,” Buffy asked, pulling Robert along gently, “satisfy my curiosity, was moving in and making this whole place your house your idea?”

“No, I wish I’d thought of it,” he said. “I was just the one who volunteered. We’d all discussed it back when we were still figuring out how to pull it off, and I figured, I don’t have a place lined up for next semester – might as well move in here.”

“I imagine it makes for a very easy commute.”

He laughed. “It’s actually been really great for getting my thesis done. Most days there’s not a whole lot of other people around so it’s nice and quiet, good writing atmosphere. I admit, I’ll explore around the place, let myself get distracted…”

“Pretend you’re in a classic video game?”

“Exactly!” He crowed. “But trust me,” Robert’s face and voice took on fake-real-seriousness, “what I’ll usually do is find a nice office with some good natural light, set up my laptop and get to typing, and a few hours later, I’ve got a couple thousand words I can feel good about.”

“Very nice,” Buffy said. “I’m glad somebody’s using it on a daily basis. Say, how did you get all the power back on? The water for the sinks? I’d have thought everything would’ve been shut off after the university closed it down.”

“That was tricky,” he told her. “I had to do it to settle in, to really make it mine and not just a place I was sleeping. You know how the rules for – of course you know the rules for households, you’re Buffy Summers. Anyway, it meant a lot of sly paperwork, a lot of doing things to the letter so nobody would focus too hard on what I was asking them to do for me. It took a couple months, but it’s all in place for the next two years.”

“How very smart,” Buffy praised warmly, guiding him through another hallway. “You’ve really thought of everything, haven’t you.”

“We tried to be thorough,” Robert replied, keeping eye contact while they walked down a flight of stairs. “We knew there’d only be one big shot, so,” Buffy squeezed his arm as they rounded a corner. “Hey, ow.”

“So sorry,” she murmured, relaxing her grip, “could you speak up?”

“Yeah.” He cleared his throat and raised his voice more than she needed to hear someone talk at a reasonable volume right next to her. “Like I said, only one big shot, and why are we heading, ow!”

“Why are we heading where, Robert?” Buffy asked with fake obliviousness, squeezing and relaxing her grip to let him know which one of them was really calling the shots.

“Why are, ow, we heading away from, ow! From the main work area?” His voice got higher in confusion and pain as she steered him towards the door. “We should be heading back to, hey, that hurts!”

“We’re heading exactly where you need to go. Don’t fuss. I can just break your legs and carry you if I have to, so keep on walking like a good little grad student and save us both some trouble.” Buffy knew she probably sounded like a demented homicidal great-aunt, and she didn’t care. Spike and Angel and all the other vampires were relying on her to save them. Robert whimpered, but kept quiet. “If this goes well you’ll even be back in time for the main event, whatever the hell it is.” He whimpered again. “And here we are.” Homicidal great-aunt, deranged game-show host, what a night she was having. She swung the doors open and pushed him out into the nighttime air. “She should be around…”

There was a glimpse of motion against the dark and a catch along her arm. “Oh no. I don’t think so.” Buffy spun and pinned Robert against the outside wall before he could react. In the same movement, she had one of her hairsticks – seven and a half inches of tempered, spiraling steel with a charmingly sharp edge and a fine, cutting point – whipped out of her bun and pressed up against his throat. She could only surprise someone with that trick once, but they also quickly learned the lesson of never underestimating an old woman with gray hair. She pressed a little harder, and Robert tilted his head up to try to relieve the pressure.

“There’s someone out here waiting for us. When she gets here, you’re going to invite her in. Got it?” He nodded. “Good. Because if you don’t invite her in of your own free will, she’ll find a way to get herself invited anyway. It’ll be a lot easier if…” His eyes flicked away from her to somewhere over her shoulder. She pressed her hairstick against his throat a little bit harder as she turned to watch Drusilla saunter out of the shadows and into the light. It was a relief to feel the warning against just one vampire, a clear indication of how bad her night was going. “Ah, here she is. I assume an educated young man such as yourself knows who this is.”

“Please don’t eat me,” he moaned.

“I’ve no want to,” she caroled, walking in closer. “No desire to sully myself with such nastiness. Not even fit enough to waste on leeches.” Buffy felt Robert go rigid against her arm. “You can offer far more than sustenance.”

He looked at Buffy out of the corners of his eyes without moving his head. “What does…”

“Invite her in, you dolt.”

“What, so I invite her in and then she eats me?”

Drusilla clucked at Robert, shaking her head. “Scared little boy isn’t trying to listen. Not without the Generalissima’s by-your-leave.” She shivered and took another step towards Robert, all up in his personal space. “Now, be a dear and invite me in.”

His eyes flicked from Buffy to Drusilla and back. “Why her?” he managed to get out. “Why are you doing this?”

“Because she’s the only person I can trust to be untrustworthy and she’s the one person I know who hasn’t lied to me yet. Now invite her in and tell us everything that’s going on here.” All traces of sweetness were gone. There was only The Slayer, capital T, capital S, coming out of her mouth: commander of armies, Closer of the Sunnydale Hellmouth, the one with whom you do not mess.

“Every…every – oh.” It took a moment for the truth to dawn on him. “Oh, my God, Ms. Summers, you mean nobody’s told you anything?”

“As a matter of fact, no. I bluffed my way in here tonight by offering to help carry the ice cream because I had one too many people lie to me on top of kidnapping people I love and abducting scads of vampires for God knows what warped mission you’re enacting here.”

“If you don’t know what we’re doing how do you know it’s tonight?”

“I’ve got friends in low places,” she said, Drusilla’s mad laughter sounding though the parking lot.

“Tonight’s all passed. It’s already come time for your friends. Invite me in before it’s too late for us all.” Drusilla reached out to run her hands through his hair, and her fingertips down across his cheeks, tracing a path that a tear followed immediately. “Sweet little boy’s full of misgivings and forked paths. Give us a look, pet. I’ll show you what’s yet to come. All you rich fools. This very night, all you’ve prepared. Let me show you.”

“A look…” Robert trailed off as Drusilla stared deep into his eyes. Something passed between them, and he gasped and rushed out, “Yes, I invite you in, you can come into my house, get inside!”

Buffy pulled the hairstick away from his throat and sped after Drusilla, Robert following after, as they ran through the building. Drusilla practically flew down the dark hallways, guided by whatever visions she’d managed to grab onto and use to tell her where to go. She ran this way, that way, turning one corner and another, and they weren’t on their way back to the main lookout point.

Where is she taking – is this the way to the spellcasting –

Buffy and Robert nearly ran into Drusilla when she came to a complete stop, stone-still in the middle of the narrow sterile science hallway. They took a step back from her. Buffy asked, “Drusilla?”

Wrong question: she screeched out, “No!”

Before Buffy or Robert could ask for any follow-up, Buffy felt the hairs on her neck and arms rise. Her eardrums started to ache from the subsonic hum suddenly coming from everywhere.

Robert put his hand flat against the wall, looked at the ceiling. “Do you feel that?”

Buffy didn’t need to answer. Drusilla wailed again, and a second later, they all felt it.

No time to savor the sensation of an earthquake without the ground shifting or the feeling of thunder without the lightning. No time to think about the ripple that ran through the air and made everything look like they were watching the world through clear, icy fire. There was only enough time to run after Drusilla, who was still crying out her distress, run towards the warning alarms, run towards the danger. Just enough brain space left to think, My knees are going to hate me tomorrow, and to think, Towards the danger is where a Slayer goes, and then see Drusilla pull her hands back and hiss at a door handle.

“Holy water,” Robert explained, panting slightly. “Keeps them in from both sides.”

“Oh, you’re all just full of good ideas here,” Buffy quipped, and kicked the door off its hinges.

“It was unlocked,” Robert said, but she wasn’t listening.

All the vampires turned to look at Buffy. All she could do was stare and back up against the wall as they rushed towards her.

“I loved him but I was so hungry –”

“He made me eat her, he forced me, he turned me and forced me so one of us would live, please –”

“Ninety-seven, ninety-seven, I haven’t touched a human in years but all their faces, I remember all their faces –”

“Eighteen in one night, please, we made a game of it, a game –”

“My grandchildren, I didn’t mean to, I didn’t know, it was so long, I’m begging you –”

“Please, Slayer, please –”

“Slayer –”

“Slayer –”

“Slayer –”

The vampires were rushing towards her, falling over each other to get to her, their words crashing together to a solid wall of sound. Their hands on her, eyes wild, on their feet and on their knees, reaching out to her. She tried to look around and couldn’t make out any of them, couldn’t see who she was talking to or who was in front of her. She tried to speak and none of her words carried through the sounds.

Hands were on her legs and Buffy tried to push them back. Hands were on her arms and she tried to push them away. Hands were on her chest and voices were screaming for holy water, for stakes, sunlight, her hands, something, anything, Slayer please Slayer please Slayer –

Buffy deliberately hadn’t put in her hearing aids earlier, just in case. In case of what, she hadn’t known. She’d had a feeling, though, and she hadn’t lived this long not trusting those feelings. Out came the ultrasonic whistle, and Drusilla clamped her hands over her ears as Buffy put it to her lips and blew: loud, and hard, and sudden, painful for everyone. She could register some of it in her jaw, a buzzing sensation and the feeling of there being something in the air just beyond the edges of what she could hear.

All the vampires in the room could hear it perfectly well, clamping their hands over their ears and screaming in pain, which was a step up from screaming out to die. Buffy kept blowing the whistle, drawing out more and more air, while the vampires were falling to the floor. She’d wanted to snap them out of their hysteria, the shock and piercing noise taking them out of their own misery through new pain, making the vampires stop and, for the most part, drop where they were. Anyone in that kind of state needed to hear someone else screaming. This was the best way she could manage to scream back at them. And scream she did, until she’d exhausted all the air she had in her lungs and had to finally stop to take in a breath.

Buffy looked out over the room. All the vampires were hunched over or on the floor, even Drusilla, whimpering in emotional pain and auditory incapacitation, and nobody was bum-rushing her anymore. She’d needed to give the vampires space so they wouldn’t fall into further collective panic and grief, and she’d done that. She’d also given herself the time and space to figure out what was happening.

“Okay,” Buffy announced in her best I’m An Adult Ask Me How voice. “Okay. Are we all done? Good.” She could see a few vampires getting up, and their hands were on other vampires, offering all the cold comfort they could. Buffy looked up at the window, where there were only seven faces staring down in abject horror. She looked at Robert, who was flat against the wall, looking on the scene with frozen dread. All the night’s suppressed anger and worry spilled out when she asked, “You want to tell me exactly what happened here tonight?”

He swallowed and wiped his face. “It worked.”