Section 6: The War

Part Fourteen

Buffy was in the mall, headed for Everyday Woman to pick up some kind of outfit for her mother when she felt that tiresome tingle that meant a vampire was prowling nearby. She immediately zeroed in on the cowboy headed up the same escalator she was headed down. Turning around, she went back up the escalator.

As she got off she looked around and noticed the the cowboy, and the girl he was with, about to round a corner. She sprinted after them and saw them entering the arcade. Girl was obviously a moron or she would’ve figured something was up when she saw the cowboy BEND THE GATE … Buffy followed them into the arcade.

Cowboy turned around in front of one of the video games. “Sorry, babe,” he told the Slayer. “I’m taken at the moment. Come back again later.” He raised his hat and the girl glared at Buffy.

Yeah, well, fuck politeness. Buffy snarled, “Get out, now,” to the girl and threw herself at the cowboy, slugging him in the face. He staggered but stayed on his feet. The girl screamed at Buffy, then turned and saw the cowboy in full vampface mode and screamed again. She fled.

“That wasn’t very nice, little lady,” the vampire told her. He came at Buffy, but jumped backwards when she drew a stake. “Whoa! You must be that Slayer we’ve heard about.” Buffy said nothing, feinting with the stake and sweep-kicking at the cowboy’s feet. He went down and Buffy was on him. He hit Buffy in the face, bloodying her nose, but the Slayer jumped on him anyway. Flexing his body madly to avoid his fate, he threw her aim off enough that the stake plunged into his shoulder and not his heart. He yowled anyway and cursed. “And that hurt like hell!”

Stakeless temporarily, the Slayer slammed her fists several times into the vampire’s wounded shoulder. She almost muttered, “Now tell mommy where it hurts,” but decided it wouldn’t fit her image. Smashing the cowboy’s head into the floor, she rolled off and went for the stake lying under a pinball machine. The vampire got to his feet a bit unsteadily and scrambled for the exit. Buffy caught up, though, and plunged the stake into his back.

Thirty seconds later Buffy was sprinting through the mall and got to the clothing place right before it closed. She got her mother’s outfit and hurried back to the food court.

Life was good. Death was better.

*                              *                              *

Cordelia and Xander carried their egg into the library. It hadn’t been too hard deciding to pair up when Mr. Whitmore handed them their egg assignment; in fact, the only trouble they were having was deciding on a name for their “child.” Xander argued for Xander, Jr., but Cordelia put her foot down. She wanted a girl.

“Okay, then,” he told her as they entered the library, “How about Xandra?” Good compromise. She liked it and smiled at her boyfriend. God. Xander Harris, her boyfriend? A year ago she wouldn’t have given the “geek” the time of day and now she couldn’t think of a man on earth she’d rather be involved with. Not even James Spader. Within limitations, she was deliriously happy.

She looked ahead and saw the limitations. Buffy was looking through the library’s card catalog. Buffy had been THRILLED — seemingly really — by Xander and Cordelia’s relationship. So there wasn’t a problem there. It was more concern for Buffy, worry about her, and so on, that was getting in the way. On both their parts. Xander especially didn’t like being relegated to JUST “Research Boy.” All too well she understood how protective he was of Buffy. To an extent, she felt the same way.

She called out jovially, “Hey, Buffy! Why weren’t you in class?”

Buffy looked up at the pair. “Vampire issues, what else? Nailed a cowboy-vamp last night and wanted to check and see who I’d dusted. Why are you carrying two eggs?”

Xander bowed. “I want you to meet our child, Xandra,” and pointed at the egg. Handing Buffy the other one, he said “And THIS is your precious child. Name’s up to you. Though I’m kinda partial to Xander myself —” Cordelia elbowed him.

“Mr. Whitmore’s assignment,” Cordelia continued, “Take care of the egg like it was your own child. Almost everyone got a partner —”

“I didn’t,” Buffy guessed. “Good. No one to check up on me. This thing,” she said, picking up the egg, “goes into the fridge soon as I get home.”

“Some comparatively good news, Buffy,” Giles said as he left the rare books cage and placed a book on the table. “You appear to have killed one of the Gorch brothers — Lyle, in fact, by far the more dangerous of the two. As a pair they slaughtered an entire Mexican town back in 1886.”

“Charming demons,” Buffy said tonelessly.

“That was before they were vampires.” All three teenagers gaped at this. “Fortunately, with Lyle dead, Tector won’t be able to do much. He should be a rather easy kill. So you should be pleased, Buffy.”

Xander said jovially, “Yeah, Buff. Another big bad vampire goes bye-bye. Cheer up!”

Buffy gave a fake smile. “This better, Xand?” She resumed her normal emotionless expression. “Just not something to be happy about. One goes down, there’ll be a couple more along in a day or two. Which I’ll kill.”

Buffy went all Mr. Spock when it came to Slaying. “Okay, fine,” Xander said. “But do you mind if Cordy and I take a little pleasure in there being one less bloodthirsty demon stalking the Sunnydale night?”

“That DID come off a little harsh, didn’t it?”

Xander did his best Paul Reiser impression and held his thumb and finger an inch apart as he said, “A little.”

“Sorry to interrupt,” Giles said — “Why are you carrying eggs?”

*                              *                              *

The next day, in the library, Giles noticed that Buffy seemed even more drained than usual, if that were possible. Xander and Cordelia seemed their normal chipper selves. They were in the library because health had been cancelled. Giles asked Buffy how her patrol had gone the previous night and was answered by grunts and monosyllables. Even for Buffy, this was unusual behavior.

Xander was shelving books along with Giles while the two women sat on the lower level. For some reason, Cordelia did not seem particularly happy with Xander, though she didn’t seem inclined to explain why.

Again Buffy answered with the simple word, “No.”

Xander piped up, “Apparently Buffy has decided the problem with the English language is all those pesky words.”

Peevishly, Cordelia said, “Speaks the NONcandidate for father of the year.” She cradled her and Xander’s egg protectively. “You know what he did last night? Here I am, trying to be a good mother and all, and you know what he did?”

Buffy looked up wearily. “What?”


From behind Giles, Xander said, “Less fuss, less muss. This way, we drop little Xandra, she doesn’t become mop material.”

Cordelia just glared up the small stairway. Giles turned to Xander and said, “Technically that would be cheating, yes?”

“No! It’s like a short cut. You know, when you run a race?”

“That would also be cheating,” Buffy said with a trace of humor — enough to give Giles hope for the future. He sighed and went back to shelving books.

*                              *                              *

Late that night — around 2:30 or so — Jenny Calendar was enjoying a long soak in the tub to relax her back when she heard something … MOVING? In the main pouch on her wheelchair. At first she thought it was just a bug, but if so it was the NOISIEST damn bug she’d ever met. And there were also sounds of a cracking egg, too.

She peered at the chair to take a better look when something soft and slimy and bigger than any bug had a right to be leapt at her. She flinched and then scrabbled to get it off, but it made directly for her back! OUCH! It was inserting something into her spine, it, it …

It dropped off into the water? Blessing the goddess for that little stroke of luck, Jenny reached for the armbars and effectively spun in place, sloshing water all over the floor, but at this point not really caring all that much. The little creature — which looked like nothing she’d ever seen on Earth, except maybe a deshelled horseshoe crab with purple-gray tentacles — was swimming around on the bottom of the tub and trying to climb out. Jenny decided not to give it any extra help and quickly grabbed the shampoo, squirting it around the sides of the tub. Every time the creature tried to slither out, it fell back in.

She scrambled from the tub just in time; it had been about to climb up her body to get out. She couldn’t let it get away, but it didn’t seem willing to drown, and the soap in the water wasn’t poisoning it either. But if THAT wasn’t — maybe something else would?

Reaching underneath her bathroom cabinet, she grabbed a bottle of ammonia and poured it into the tub. Good guess! The scrambling sounds in the tub ended. She drained the tub and waited until she could see the creature’s dead body, which she shoved into an old but zippable makeup bag. Rapidly she dressed, picked up the bag and got into her chair, where she tried to call Rupert. No answer either at home or the library, so she tried Buffy. The Slayer picked up on the first ring.

“Buffy!” she said. “I’ve got something over here you need to see. It’s —”

Buffy interrupted. “A little purply gray slimy thing?” Jenny stammered out a yes. “I just killed one myself. Came out of the eggs we got for Mr. Whitmore’s experiments. Definitely not natural.”

“No. This is something Rupert needs to see — but no answer at home or the library. Thought maybe he was teaching you something, but —”

“Nope. Patrolled alone tonight.” A commotion at the other end. For a second Jenny panicked but then Buffy spoke up again. “That was my mom. I told her that you called needing my help with something, and that’s why I was fully dressed at 2:45 AM. I’ll be right over to … take a look at the little problem.”

“Right.” Jenny hung up the phone and listened to the pouch. Nothing. As she waited for the Slayer a thought occurred — WHY had the creature dropped off her body?

*                              *                              *

Cordelia carried little hard-boiled Xandra gingerly, wrapped up in layers of tissue in her backpack. Buffy approached, pushing Ms. Calendar from the direction of the teacher’s parking lot. Without preamble, she said to Cordelia, “Who’s got the egg, you or Xander?”

“I do. Why?”

“Bring it to the library.” They saw Xander sitting down on the side walls of the steps in the distance and Buffy called out, “Xander! Library! Now!” and walked off towards the entrance. Her boyfriend recognized the tone in Buffy’s voice and immediately got up.

Cordelia said, hurrying after Buffy and Ms. Calendar, “Why do you need our egg?”

Buffy muttered, “Let’s just say that his little act of infanticide may have saved your life.” The Slayer was in such a hurry that Xander and Cordelia had to run to catch up as she pushed Ms. Calendar into the library. She called out, “Giles! Giles!” in a coldly efficent voice, and five seconds later Mr. Tweed emerged from his office.

“Here I am, Buffy,” he said. “No need to raise your voice. What is it?”

“This,” she said and slapped two icky-looking things onto the table. “These attacked me and Ms. Calendar last night. I smashed mine and she dumped ammonia all over hers.”

“Oddly, though, it tried to attach to my back somehow — and failed. Just dropped into the water,” Ms. Calendar said.

“So she and I talked about it for a few hours. We’re guessing it’s some kind of parasite,” Buffy told them.

“Where, where do you think they could have come from?”

“What we’re about to find out.” She gestured impatiently for Cordelia’s egg, which by now she was only too glad to hand over. Taking a stake, she tapped all over the egg and dumped the little fragments onto the table. Inside the egg — boiled dead monster. Buffy looked up at Giles and said tonelessly. “Well, that’s where. Those eggs Mr. Whitmore handed out in health.”

“Yeah, but where’d he get them?” Xander said. “Was Aliens ’R’ Us having a sale?” Giles and Ms. Calendar looked annoyed and Buffy just ignored it, but Cordelia squeezed her boyfriend’s hand to let him know that the humor hadn’t gone ENTIRELY unnoticed.

It hadn’t been a very good joke, but any humor was good these days.

After examining the slimy little creatures for a minute, Giles looked up. “I may have the right books actually in my office. Bring one of the fledglings in, and we’ll look for it. Jenny — if you could hide the other two for the moment, please?” Ms. Calendar nodded and deftly scooped the creatures off the table and shoved them in her makeup pouch.

Xander turned with an annoyed expression on his face and walked towards the door. “I know when I’M not wanted,” he said sadly.

Determined to lighten things, Cordelia responded as she walked up to him, “Then why’d it take me so long to ger rid of you last — what WAS that?” She’d stepped on something crunchy. Kneeling down to pick it up, she realized it was a busted egg. Unable to speak, she showed them in quick turn to Xander and Ms. Calendar. The computer teacher muttered a curse word and began praying to some obscure goddess with twelve heads — or so Cordelia guessed.

Xander shouted, “Buffy!” and ran into the office with Cordelia a pace behind. Buffy was lying on the ground, seemingly unconscious, and Giles stood over her with one of his large books in one hand — and a LIVE slimy thing in the other. He looked up as the two teenagers charged into the room. Saying nothing, he threw the book at Xander and dropped the creature onto the ground. It crawled towards Buffy.

Xander dove for it and Giles tackled him. Surprised, the two began struggling and the creature crept onto Buffy’s clothes. Taking a deep breath, Cordelia grabbed at it and yanked it off. Tentacles shot out at her, which she barely avoided. She ran out of the office and dumped it in Ms. Calendar’s lap; SHE’D been immune —

The computer teacher was startled but grabbed on with both hands and squeezed. Cordelia ran back in the office to help Xander, who was losing the battle. She struck Giles in the back of the head twice, allowing Xander to take action again. Buffy was moaning and Cordelia went to check on her. The Slayer shook her head and saw the fighting, did a quick doubletake, then went over to separate the combatants. She then picked Giles up and felt his back, then carried him out of the office and into the books cage.

Cordelia knelt by Xander, who said, “Man! He just wouldn’t go down!” She helped her boyfriend to his feet and they went out to see what was happening. Giles was throwing himself against the walls of the cage repeatedly. Looking around, Buffy saw Ms. Calendar still holding the angry little fledgling, and with a disgusted look on her face took a pen, threw the creature down on the table and impaled it.

“There,” she said, “was that so hard?” Ms. Calendar seemed a little hurt, but Buffy didn’t notice.

“Now what do we do?” The Watcher — or whatever controlled him — had settled down, but still said nothing.

“We look for something called a bezoar in these books.” Confused looks all around. “Oh. He mentioned it before he clocked me. Then you three get out of the building and get away as far and fast as possible.”

“Buffy —” Xander began.

“No!” she said firmly and methodically. “You know the rules.”

“Hello!” Cordelia said. “What about the unaffected students? We could —”

“No time. First priority is keeping you all safe.”

Grumblingly they started looking up the bezoar.

*                              *                              *

It was all over later that afternoon. In finding out what a bezoar was they also discovered why Jenny Calendar had been immune. Baby bezoars took over nervous systems — but needed their victims intact. Ms. Calendar didn’t qualify by its rules. BIG stroke of luck, actually — Buffy might have taken her own egg as just a fluke, or a specialized demon attack. But twice was enemy action.

Buffy went down into the cellars of Sunnydale around noon and discovered the hole leading to where the mother bezoar was trapped. After fighting off a number of possessed students and teachers — some of whom would leave with broken limbs or ribs, but what choice did she have, really — she jumped into the pit where the creature was and killed it with a handy pick.

Everyone collapsed to the floor as Buffy crawled out of the pit. The babies fell off, dead, and she ran upstairs to make sure Giles had pulled through.

He had. Once he regained consciousness she tersely explained what happened. “And I didn’t have to kill anyone,” she told him. “Broke a few arms and legs, but that’s acceptable.”

“The time was, Buffy, when you wouldn’t consider ANY amount of pain to the innocent acceptable.”

“Times change, Giles.”

Part Fifteen

Tector Gorch stalked around the graveyard calling out his brother’s name. Where was Lyle? He shouldn’t have been missing for this long. Almost like … he’d abandoned him.

But he’d never do that! Him and Lyle, they were brothers! Lyle’d never leave him. Well except for that time in El Paso, but hell, Tector’d deserved THAT.

Naw, this was different. He was even a little concerned. Something must have gone wrong. Couldn’t have been a victim, but then who? Ain’t no one strong enough to take down Lyle Gorch.

A voice behind him said, “She’s not here, mate.” Tector spun around. There stood a little blond with hair like a sissyboy. He was a vamp, though, and stronger than Tector’d ever been. He limped up to Tector, dragging his left foot a bit.

“Who ain’t here?” Tector said a little suspiciously. “Who you talkin’ about?”

“The Slayer.” Tector still looked puzzled. The British dude sighed. “The Slayer’s the one that killed your brother.”

What? He started to stomp off. “Let’s get her!” Sissyboy stuck out an arm and clotheslined him; then he reached down and helped Tector to his feet.

“If you want to get yourself killed, then by all means go charging blindly forward. If you want DEFINITE revenge, though, come with me.”

“Why you need me?”

“Honestly? I don’t. But you’re strong and you’ve also got a reason for hating the Slayer — almost as strong as mine.” Almost? She killed his brother!

“All right. Deal. Need someone to do my thinking for me anyway.” He stopped for a second. “What’s your name, and how’d the Slayer do dirt to you?”

Blondy looked up. “Name’s Spike. And the Slayer killed …” his voice softened for a minute — “my beloved Dru. Now, are you with me?”

“Damn right!” They walked off towards town. Tector couldn’t help but ask, “What happened to your leg?”

Spike sighed. “Do you always ask this many bloody questions?”

Nodded Tector, “Yup.”

“I’m beginning to regret this already …”

*                              *                              *

Things were quiet for about a week. Then Buffy had a prophetic dream —

Buffy tossed, turned, and eventually woke up. She turned on the light, but when she reached over to her table to get a drink she found the glass nearly empty. On her way to the bathroom, though, she noticed a disjointed and angry song coming from behind the door. Opening it, she heard the song more clearly — and suddenly found herself at the Bronze, not in her bathroom.

At the first table to the left she saw a large cup of capuccino, not drunk from, and a placard: RESERVED FOR WILLOW ROSENBERG. She grieved inside for a second; then a small monkey jumped up on the table and said, “She should have been here for me. Instead I’m alone.”

Buffy just stared at the monkey oddly as she walked past and almost smashed into her mother’s back. Her mother turned around and said, “You’re not ready, Buffy. You’re missing too much.” Mom dropped a plate onto the floor and Buffy moved again, past the empty table. The placard had been overturned.

Smiling for a second, she turned and saw Angel. But as she walked towards him Drusilla walked up and stabbed him with a stake — and they both collapsed into dust. Faintly he said, “You could have …” and the words echoed around the room until the volume hit a crescendo.

The song had changed to Queen’s, “Another One Bites the Dust.”

Stepping forward, Spike carried a Dustbuster with which he cleaned up Angel and Drusilla’s remains. He sneered in Buffy’s direction and said, “It drove me mad. Sauce for the goose —” Spike pressed a button on the vacuum and the dust blew in Buffy’s face. He said, “Happy Birthday, Slayer.”

Coughing and choking, Buffy woke up again and looked around. Then the Slayer thought that she should tell Giles about this as soon as possible.

She got dressed. Used to be she paid more attention to the clothes she put on — though she’d never been Cordelia at her worst — but now, as long as people didn’t laugh and point and it gave plenty of room for movement for Slaying purposes, she’d wear it.

Then the Slayer went into the bathroom — just a bathroom, this time — and washed her face and brushed her hair. She looked in the mirror. Presentable. Picking up her Slayer bag, she went downstairs.

Buffy kissed her mother good morning. Joyce Summers looked up at her daughter and said, a little sadly, “Buffy, I don’t know what’s gotten into you. No time for clothes, no time for makeup, no time for boys — if you didn’t spend time with Xander and Cordelia you’d have no life at all.”

Perkily, Buffy kissed her mother again. “Yeah, but just think of the money you’re saving on clothing bills!” Then the Slayer said, a bit coldly, “No time for breakfast. Got to get to school. See you tonight.” And she left.

*                              *                              *

Jenny Calendar motored across the campus grounds. She saw Buffy in the distance and called out to her. She had to slow her down a bit; Xander, Cordelia, and Giles were all inside planning Buffy’s birthday. The celebration would be later that night at the Bronze — and a bit subdued, given the cirumstances, and Buffy’s recent personality shifts.

The Slayer slowed down a bit. Jenny had learned to recognize that Buffy acted differently when she was the Slayer from when she was their friend Buffy. The Slayer was cold and businesslike. Buffy was joking and cheery. Seemed lately that the Slayer was showing up more and more often, Buffy less and less. Maybe this party would break her out of that.

She called again. “Buffy!” The girl stopped.

“Yes, Ms. Calendar?” she said a bit impatiently.

“It’s just that you have that all-business look in your eye and Rupert’s not quite ready yet. Is there anything I can help you with?”

“Depends. How are you at dream interpretation?” Damn, damn, damn. If it was one of those prophetic dreams there was no way she had the knowhow to interpret it. Still —

“Willing to try; what was it about?” So Buffy described her nightmare. Jenny’d been right; she couldn’t really understand it. But it sounded very frightening. One part she zeroed in on — “So you think Spike might still be alive?”

“Don’t know. But if he is, we’re going to have trouble.”

“There’s the understatement of the century,” she said as they slowly made their way into the school. “You killed his girlfriend right in front of him.”

“Yeah, well, he did the same to me,” the Slayer said flatly. “So no advantages there. I was thinking more like he seems to have some sort of plan. If the dream is right.”

Once inside, they noticed Xander, Cordelia and Rupert exiting the student lounge. The trio stopped and Buffy and Jenny caught up to them in short order. To cover up the muttering, Xander came up with one of his typical lines: “Hey Buff! I feel a pre-birthday spanking coming on!”

Cordelia slapped him on the shoulder. “Yeah, YOU if I catch you anywhere near Buffy’s rear end.” She and the Slayer made their way to an empty table, followed shortly afterwards by the other three.

Catching Buffy’s weariness, Rupert said, “Buffy, are you all right? You seem a little fatigued.”

“Had another nightmare. Drusilla and Angel killed each other and Spike threw their ashes in my face. He also said something about ‘sauce for the goose.’”

“That, that would speak to revenge all right. But are you even sure Spike is alive? From what you told me —”

“Based on the dream, he has to be. Guess I wasn’t liberal enough with that insecticide.”

“It is safer to believe that he is alive. If he is — with the motivation he has for coming after you — well, the results could be catclysmic.”

Xander — who had surprisingly stayed quiet during the exchange — piped up with, “Again with too many words! Couldn’t you just say, ‘we’re in trouble?’”

Rupert and Buffy said at the same time — Rupert’s voice annoyed, Buffy’s almost lifeless, “Go to class, Xander.” Jenny felt a little sorry for the young man. Ever since Buffy’s recovery he — and occasionally Cordelia — had been the only ones to try and lighten up an increasingly somber Buffy. They almost always failed. Honestly, if it hadn’t been for Cordelia always supporting him, she thought that Xander too might have succumbed to the quiet, pervasive despair that loomed around them. Even now Jenny noticed Cordelia squeeze her boyfriend’s arm as the two said their goodbyes and walked away.

The conversation wound down and Jenny felt a preternatural chill pass through her. Something was going to give, and give soon. And throughout the day the chill simply grew colder and colder …

*                              *                              *

Buffy helped her mother with the dishes. Mom got up and took her plate to the sink, saying as she did so, “Mall trip for your birthday on Saturday. Don’t forget.”

Smiling wanly, Buffy said, “Miss space on a mom-sponsored shopping expedition? Not likely.”

Mom answered, “Hmm. So, does 17 feel any different than 16?” She walked over and hugged her. “Sometimes I don’t think you’re a teenager, Buffy; it seems like you skipped right from 15 to 50. I worry about you sometimes —”

“I’m fine. Really — and you know what? I woke up this morning feeling — well, mature. Levelheaded.”

Skeptically, Mom said, “Oh really?”

“I now possess the qualities one looks for in a licensed driver.” If she could drive, then the Slayer wouldn’t have to wear out her shoe leather quite so quickly. Wouldn’t be as tired fighting the bad guys either.

Her mother was now definitely disbelieving. “Buffy …” And right as Buffy was ready to respond, her mother continued, “No. Now, no protesting! I said I was worried about you, and I am. You don’t quite seem like my daughter anymore. You’re not ready, Buffy; you’re missing too much.” Buffy stared at her mother. And right on cue —

— the plate dropped to the floor. Well, if she’d needed any more proof, there it was. Spike was a’comin’ with a big plot.

Well, she’d be ready.

*                              *                              *

Spike could sense Dalton walking in behind him in the deserted warehouse. “Do you have the package?”

“Y-yes,” the bespectacled vampire said. “But —”

“Just put it on the table with the other gifts.” Dalton nervously put it down on the table — in the middle of a lot of other boxes festooned with ribbons and bows. Tector Gorch walked up behind him as Spike collapsed into a chair. Damn this bloody weak leg! Stronger than ever and he couldn’t walk for more than twenty minutes without becoming exhausted. He’d’ve killed the Slayer for that, if nothing else was available.

Tector said, “Hooboy, a party! Whose birthday is it?”

Wearily, “Drusilla’s.”

The cowboy was puzzled. Not that that was particularly surprising. Tector Gorch was strong, angry, determined — and stupider than an entire truckload of rocks. “Ain’t she the dead bird? The one the —”

His next words were never spoken because Spike was on his feet choking him within seconds. “Take care, mate. Do not speak of my dark princess so disrespectfully again, or I won’t care HOW much use you can be.” Then, because despite the disrespect it was a fair question, he went on, “It seemed a form of poetic justice, really, to bring down the Slayer on the anniversary of my Dru’s birth. A tribute to her brilliant, lovely, twisted magnificence. Do you understand?”

Gorch nodded, though as long as the moron didn’t insult Dru again he quite frankly didn’t care whether he understood or not. Brains he may have lacked, but guts were a different matter. As Spike let him go he gasped and choked out, “So, what you got in mind for the Slayer? ’Cause Lyle and I, we used to do this thing with nails, heated up in a fire, and —”

It occurred to Spike that it was possible that Gorch could teach him a few things about torture. Still — “No, inventive though that sounds, no amount of physical torture could pay the Slayer back for what she has done to me. No, I have something far more lasting in mind.” Gorch wisely said nothing.

Spike continued, “Whom the Gods would destroy — they would first make mad.”

Part Sixteen

Giles saw Buffy come into the library with that calm, businesslike demeanor he’d almost come to dread. Before — before Angel’s death — she’d occasionally joke and laugh. Now, no one-liners and very few clever quips. This was what the Slayer was supposed to be, but he found that he INFINITELY preferred the old Buffy.

She said, “We needed proof? We got it. At home, my … mother … just repeated the phrase from the dream and dropped a plate.”

“Well, I can see how that would be a little unnerving.”

“Unnerving? Not at all. This is good news. It means the dream was a prophecy, and Spike IS alive.” Giles, who had been pacing, sat down on the edge of the table.

As the door opened, he said, “Well, Buffy, I would hardly consider that good news.” Coming through the door were Xander and Cordelia.

In unison, they said, “Happy birthday, Buffy!” But as Buffy looked up at them they saw she had on — well, her game face. The glee ceased and Xander said, “Oh, man. On your birthday?”

Buffy answered him, “Time, tide, and vampires, Xander.”

The boy sighed. “Yeah. So, what is it this time?”

Taking a cue, Giles said, “You know that dream Buffy had last night? Well, part of it came true.”

“Which means Spike is still alive, and plotting against me. I just wish I could figure out what the dust in the face meant. And why Willow’s absence seemed to mean so much …”

“Why can’t the powers that be give up on all this prophecy nonsense and just go Western Union?” Cordelia asked. “It’d be a LOT easier to defend the world then …”

“Because, Cordelia, if everything was in plain English then it would simply be a race to see who could read fastest. This way —”

Sighing, Cordelia interrupted. “I know. Brains matter. Hello! I was indulging in a little wishful thinking!”

“Um, yes. Buffy, you have been part of a prophecy before and it didn’t come true. The Master —”

“And I killed him. I know. But that didn’t have an entirely happy ending either.”

Giles got up. “Well, unfortunately, drawn-out revenges are rarely Spike’s style. He tends to be — blunter and more direct. It’s possible I may have missed something. I’ll do some research and find out. Meet me back here at 7:00? We can map out a strategy.”

“And until then?” she said calmly.

“Go to classes, do homework …”

“Right. Be Buffy.” She grabbed her bag, and with a visible effort her face shifted. Smiling and whistling, she left the library.

Cordelia looked after her. “I don’t know about her. It’s like she’s two different people …” Wistfully, “Guess that kills the party, eh?”

Smiling at his girlfriend, Xander said, “And you put ALL that effort into the chips and dip, too …”

Firmly, Giles said, “Wrong. A party like this may be just what Buffy needs. I assume you all have noticed the way she’s been acting recently?” Nods all around. Good. If they’d ALL noticed … he’d better make sure. “WHAT exactly do you think is wrong?”

“She’s in full schizo girl mode,” Cordelia said. “When she’s Buffy, she’s our friend, sarcastic, emotional — and way tired.”

Xander broke in. “But then there’s Buffy the Slayer — who can’t think of anything but Slaying. She barely even cares about us.” He sounded rather bitter.

They’d seen the same thing he and Jenny had. “Her recovery may not have been as complete as we’d hoped. It seems that she needed to be the Slayer, she needed to Buffy, and this is the way she found to be both.”

“So, you thinking multiple personalities here?” Xander said.

“I am scarcely an expert on mental disorders — and it doesn’t seem quite so extreme as all that. Still — I think we need to keep a careful eye on the situation.”

The two agreed strenuously and left, in quiet, earnest discussion. Giles sighed and went into his office to look up information on Spike. Dearly, dearly he hoped Buffy would be all right. Knowing that the feeling was irrational did not prevent him from thinking that somehow this was all HIS fault. That he should have been a better Watcher to Buffy. Not for the first time he cursed the necessity of having the Slayer be one so young.

He ran his hands through his hair and was greatly surprised to find it neither falling out nor gray. Buffy wasn’t the only one who seemed older than she had a right to be. More and more he was starting to feel like 42 going on 70 himself …

*                              *                              *

The Slayer was walking through the halls towards the library when she heard someone calling her. “Buffy!” She turned. It was Jenny Calendar. Brilliant, caring, and nearly useless in a physical fight. The computer teacher told her that her Watcher had to meet her somewhere else and offered to drive her there. So they set off in Ms. Calendar’s van.

On the way, she smelled that familiar vampire scent as the van turned a corner. Curtly, she said, “Vampires by that truck. Stay here,” and when Ms. Calendar stopped Buffy charged towards the demons, which were unloading something from the truck.

Seeing the same vampire who was at the tomb of Du Lac carrying a box, she said, calmly, “Thief,” and punched him. Then the truck’s engine started. No. They weren’t leaving, they were dying. The Slayer grabbed the truck’s door handle and yanked it open. A foot lashed out at her, but it felt like a tap more than a serious blow. Quickly she took hold of the foot and pulled the vampire out onto the pavement. He tried to get up and she knocked him down again and quickly staked him. Behind her — she ducked as another vampire, on the bed of the truck, snatched at her. He missed and she rapidly leapt up and punched him in the chin, putting all of her weight behind the blow. Staggering backwards into a box, he recovered just in time to see the Slayer’s foot catch him in the face, twice.

This knocked him off the other side of the truck, and she jumped off on top of him, battering him repeatedly against the wall. Careful — she was almost enjoying herself there. She took an arm and threw him into the truck, then reached up, smashed a crate with a fist, and staked him with the splinters. Extending her radar, she cursed when she realized that the other vampire was nowhere to be detected. Damn, damn, damn.

As the Slayer walked back towards the van to get Ms. Calendar, she nearly tripped over a box. It was surprisingly heavy. She picked it up and called out the computer teacher’s name, quietly. The van door opened and she slowly exited. She said, “Buffy? Are you —”

“Undamaged, thanks. Now — where’s Giles? Inside the Bronze?” Ms. Calendar said yes. “Good. I have a package for him.” She hefted the box on her shoulder and together they entered the building. As they approached she suddenly shot out a hand and stopped Ms. Calendar. “More than one person inside. Might be trouble. Stay here.”

Ms. Calendar tried to slow her down but it was clear she didn’t know what was going on. Flinging the door open, the Slayer threw the package to one side and rapidly walked towards the nearest body. The lights came on and two voices yelled “Surprise!” Then they stood there and gaped in openmouthed horror. Xander and Cordelia? Party favors? Good God, Buffy’s birthday. Then —

She shuddered. She was holding her Watcher by her neck. Quickly she released him. “Are you okay, Giles?” she asked.

He choked and coughed, but sputtered out, “Good Lord! What —”

Ms. Calendar rolled in behind her. She said, “I didn’t get a chance to tell her. There was just a vampire attack outside.” She went over and picked up the crate. “The creeps were carrying this — whatever it is.”

“Seems everyone wants to give you presents on your birthday, Buff. Face it. You’re popular.” The Slayer looked at him in annoyance and took a deep breath. Buffy walked over and hugged her friends — and then apologized.

“Sorry about the timing, guys.” Buffy said with a grin. “But I REALLY appreciate that you thought of a party for me.” Then the Slayer walked over to the box and laid it down on the pool table. “Now, on to business.” Xander and Cordelia exchanged a sad look. She suppressed her annoyance. This was important. Their friend could come back later.

She went over to the table and ripped the box open. Inside there was a twisted, bizarre-looking arm covered in armor. Turning to her Watcher, she said, “Giles, what is this?” The arm shot upwards, aimed at her neck. She dodged backwards calmly and evaded its grasp, and it flailed wildly about until she shoved it back into the box and — somewhat imperfectly — slammed the lid shut. Rattling continued for a few seconds, but the arm wasn’t trying to menace them any more.

Cordelia gasped. “What WAS that?”

Looking up at her Watcher, the Slayer said, “Well, Giles?”

“I’m, I’m not sure,” he said. “There are very few legends of disembodied arms …”

“Now THERE’S a man who’s never seen Evil Dead 2,” Xander commented.

“That was a hand,” Giles snapped. “But this, this — unless —” His face paled. “Oh, dear Lord, he wouldn’t.”

“Wouldn’t what?”

“The Judge,” Giles whispered. “This is the Judge.”

*                              *                              *

The Slayer travelled alone to the docks. While they were right — she couldn’t take a long time off to get this thing as far away as it needed to be — she could certainly take a couple of hours and go dump it in the ocean somewhere. That seemed to be the solution to a lot of their problems, unfortunately — just toss it in the ocean. It seemed their answers were becoming more and more stopgap as they went along — just put it aside for now. This meant that some other Slayer might have to deal with it in a few years. Nothing to be done, really.

She bypassed the cargo ships and went down to where the speedboats were tied up. Not bothering to rationalize, she tossed the crate into one of the boats — in which the idiot sailor had stupidly left his keys — and made ready to get in and take the thing down the river and out into the ocean.

Just in time, her vampradar kicked in. She whirled and a vampire tackled her, knocking her into the water. When she tried to rise to the surface, the vampire held her down. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the vampire with glasses leap awkwardly into the speedboat and pick up the crate. Vampires didn’t need oxygen as much as she did; this one’s job was obviously to hold her in the water as the other two escaped with the crate. She couldn’t let that happen. Drawing a stake, she struggled and stabbed the vampire several times before hitting the heart. Finally he became silt and she shot up onto the docks.

The dude with glasses was running for his life with the crate — the third was standing on the pier waiting for her. She didn’t even break stride … but the other one was too far ahead. Damn.

The Slayer sighed and took off after him, quietly, so that he wouldn’t notice. Eventually he led her to an abandoned warehouse. She could sense a large number of vampires inside … and loud music playing. Straining to hear it, she could barely make out the sounds of the Don Henley song, “The End of the Innocence.” Then Spike said, “Places, people! Time for our guest to make her appearance!” Quietly Buffy crawled to a side entrance and wrenched open the door. The music was still blaring. With a shock she recognized “Another One Bites the Dust” — again, as from her dream. She snuck up on a dancing vampire and staked him through the back. Another one bites the dust, hey hey.

Spike’s voice rang out again. “Hello, Slayer!” and all the other vampires, on cue, yelled out “Surprise!”

Part Seventeen

Giles looked up from his books and sighed. Cordelia was searching for information on the computer, with Xander alternately hovering over her shoulder and skimming through one of the books. Jenny had her laptop plugged in and was also looking up information on the computer.

Cordelia said, a note of exasperation in her voice, “Judge Dredd, Judge Judy, Judge Wapner, ‘Judge’ Koch …”

“Well, HE’S a demon,” Xander said without looking up.

“But nothing on a demon called the Judge,” the cheerleader went on, ignoring her boyfriend. “Any luck, Ms. Calendar?”

“I’m afraid that the ‘Dread Machine’ is living up to Rupert’s fears at the moment, Cordelia,” she said. “I’m having no more luck than you are.”

“Well, I have found a few things,” Giles told them.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Xander said, “Well, THAT’S good luck.”

Checking the boy’s face for signs of sarcasm and finding none, Giles simply answered, “It strongly depends on your definition of good luck, Xander. Once fully reassembled,The Judge cannot be stopped by any weapon forged — and his touch can burn the humanity out of anyone. No human has been known to survive the touch.”

“Well, then we’re safe,” Cordelia said. “I mean, with Buffy dumping the arm somewhere in the river, they won’t be able to put him together.”

Gritting his teeth, Giles brought a fist down on the table. “We tossed Eyghon into the ocean. We put the Judges’ arm in the ocean. We escape a murderous android by the skin of our teeth. Buffy breaks the arms and ribs of the innocent stopping a prehistoric monster. Has it occurred to any of the rest of you that our escapes are getting more and more threadbare? That the measures are becoming stopgap?”

Jenny rolled up. “Rupert, I —”

Ignoring Jenny, he went on. “Doesn’t it feel to anyone else like we’re fighting a holding action and getting slowly pushed backwards? Earlier in Buffy’s career — well, there were some narrow escapes then, but they lacked this sense, this sense of emotional desperation that I feel now. We won and life went on. I retired to study and you teenagers went off and had lives. Now — now —”

“We still have lives, G-Man,” Xander said quietly.

“Not in the way you used to. I can sense it. Xander — your jokes are fewer and farther between.”

“Because I’m not getting the same reaction I used to. You, Buffy, you all used to laugh, or groan. Now all you do is act irritated. EVERY time. I see what you mean.”

Jenny said quietly, “Rupert, we all know what the change was. We all know when things essentially stopped being fun. It may have taken us a while to catch on, but it all started going downhill the night Willow died.”

Knowingly, bitterly, Xander added, “She was really the strongest of any of us, wasn’t she? Stronger than Buffy, stronger than me, stronger than Angel. She didn’t have Slayer strength, Watcher knowledge or vampire skills. And she helped anyway. She was my best friend and even I didn’t see how strong she was.” Cordelia came over and put an arm around him. He smiled up at her and squeezed her hand.

With a humorless laugh, Cordelia said, “It’s like — like she was the center. The nail that held the house together. And when you take out that nail —”

“The house hasn’t collapsed yet,” Jenny said. “We’re still here and still fighting.”

“But how many more shocks can the structure take, Jenny?” Giles said.

Quietly, Cordelia whispered, “Things fall apart. The center cannot hold.” Everyone looked at each other in silent acknowledgement, then went back to studying, everyone feeling the hole in the room.

The absence of the nail.

*                              *                              *

Spike walked up to a very surprised Buffy Summers. “Hello, luv. How’s it going?” he said with a cheeriness he did not feel. Tector Gorch was out feeding. While he’d managed to bring in the lion’s share of the packages, he was still having a difficult time getting it through his thick skull that their revenge against the Slayer was NOT going to be swift and immediate. He knew enough to get out when the getting was good, though; Spike had threatened him with dismemberment by dull razor blade and he decided to spend the night elsewhere. Not until extracting a promise from Spike to show the cowboy exactly how to do that kind of torture, though.

The Slayer blinked. “What is this?” she said in a low whisper.

Acting astonished, Spike said, “It’s a surprise party. Why, it IS your birthday, isn’t it?”

Warily, she answered, “Yes …”

“Well, then, there you go!” She still seemed confused. Good. Exactly what he wanted.

“Sorry, Spike, you and me, we’re not exactly on speaking terms. I came here to stop you from putting together the Judge.” Confusion was being replaced with determination. He risked a quick glance up on the catwalk and Dalton nodded and held up a hypodermic, then slowly made his way down the stairs.

“Sorry about that, Slayer, but you’re a day late and a demon short.” Spike bowed mockingly and gestured towards the far end of the room, where two vampires pried open a huge crate. Inside — a tall, blueskinned demon with horns. Impressive. There was no way ANYONE could help but feel the evil emanating from the thing.

Including the Slayer, whose face grew grim. She started forward and Spike’s hand shot out and grabbed hers. “Not a good idea. Its touch would burn the humanity from your bones. And I have other plans for them than mere combustion.” She yanked her hand free but still said nothing. The utter bizarreness of what was going on — well, it was plain on her face. She was having a great deal of difficulty puzzling this out. Especially as to why Spike had just, in essence, saved her life. He had to fight to keep from breaking into a wide grin.

Opening his eyes, the Judge stepped out of the box and looked around at the assembly. His movements were bloody awkward. Maybe he was like a vampire in that he needed to feed. “You!” he growled at Spike and Buffy. “The two of you stink of humanity. Both of you reek of love gone wrong.”

“Well, mate,” Spike told the Judge, “I’m the one that revived you, and SHE’s off-limits for now.”

“I must feed.”

He’d guessed rightly. “Well, then, feed. I’m not stopping you. But the two of us are not on the menu.” Catching Dalton’s eye, Spike indicated that he should stay well back. With the fool’s love of knowledge the Judge would have him down in a cold minute. The Judge wobbled awkwardly around the room before pointing to a recent convert and said, “Her.” The girl bolted, but on a hunch Spike had another one of his minions grab her. To the Judge, “What’s wrong, Mate? I thought you could just zap her.”

“Not yet,” the Judge rumbled. “I am not yet at full strength.” He extended a hand and touched the girl’s chest. She screamed, “No! No!” but could not pull away. The demon’s hand burned into her and she began to smoke and burn; quickly she disappeared into a puff of ash. Spike grinned; he turned to the Slayer and saw a look of revulsion — mixed with, perhaps, just a LITTLE pleasure that another vampire had died? Spike didn’t know, but if it wasn’t there, it would be.

“What, luv?” he told Buffy. “No witty quips about the dangers of secondhand smoke?” This snapped the Slayer out of her reverie and she threw a punch that Spike never saw coming, knocking him down. She got ready to leap on him — but Dalton, who while he had many flaws could not be counted as stupid, rightly took this as his cue and plunged the hypodermic into the Slayer’s rear end. Whirling around, she had the time to knock the scholar across the room with a punch before hitting the floor. Spike and Dalton had CAREFULLY calculated the dosage.

As she struggled to stay awake Spike leaned down over her and said, “I’m glad you liked your party, Slayer. I hope you enjoyed everything — especially when the Judge tortured that girl to death. If you didn’t like that, you will. Just remember who gave you the present you wanted …” Eyes closed, she lay in a heap on the floor. Spike looked at Dalton and said, “Take her to the back chamber and chain her up. The extra heavy chains. I want NO chance of her escaping, do you understand?” The scholar nodded and began dragging away the Slayer’s motionless body.

Turn her into a vampire? Not bloody likely. That would be too simple — and most certainly not painful enough. No, Buffy Summers would stay truly, painfully human during everything that was to follow. He didn’t expect the Judge to succeed — in fact, if the Watcher and his little merry band didn’t shut him down, he’d do it himself. It wouldn’t be revenge unless it caused the Slayer more pain still.

Human. All too human.

*                              *                              *

After six hours had passed and Buffy still hadn’t returned, Giles and Xander went down by the docks to see if they could figure out what had happened. Giles picked up on signs of a struggle — and the remnants of a dead vampire lying on the dock — but no real sign of Buffy. They looked at the various motorboats to see if any of them showed signs of use. Not really, though one had footprints inside and seemed to have been entered, but not used.

Bitterly, Xander thought that they really were coming down if his idea of good news was that Buffy’s body was nowhere in sight. He turned to Giles. “Well, what do you think?”

“No signs of her body —”

“I’d worked THAT out for myself,” he told the librarian. “Move on.”

“And she would have come back if she’d been successful. My best guess is that she took off in hot pursuit of some vampires — possibly they even managed to steal the box back.”

“Yeah, but pursuit for six hours? Something —” he got a nasty feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“The way Buffy has been acting recently, it would not surprise me in the least if she HAD been stalking a vampire for six hours or more. Nevertheless, I believe your fears to be justified.” They tramped back up the docks and headed for Giles’ car. He’d finally had to break down and give the little Citröen an overhaul shortly after he’d come speeding into Ms. C’s like all the demons from the Hellmouth were chasing him. So it was no longer sputtering and making weird noises, but it also wasn’t the laughable little car it’d been previously.

Not that damn much of anything was funny any more, unfortunately. Xander asked Giles, “Where are we going now?”

“Back to the library.”

“What? We have to do something!”

Giles, who had been starting the car, turned it off and glared at Xander. “And what would you suggest we do, precisely?” He snapped. “Go on a house-by-house search of Sunnydale? Run through the streets screaming her name? She has at least a five-hour head start on us, wherever she is. If she’s away for much longer, we’ll start searching known vampire hideouts. But until then —”

“Yeah,” Xander said, gritting his teeth. He knew the point Giles had made earlier intimately. There was NOTHING he could do, Goddammit, but he just couldn’t stand that. Yet he’d have to.

Ah, the thrill-filled life of a *^%*@! Slayerette …

Giles pulled the car out and they headed back to the high school.

*                              *                              *

Buffy Summers woke up in chains — and terrified. Good God, Spike had her! And the Judge was reassembled, and she had no idea why she was still alive. She took a look at the chains binding her. They’d be hard for a normal person to break, but her Slayer strength would — she yanked on the chains, hard, harder, harder still — would be of no use whatsoever? She pulled with all of her strength, and only wound up with bruises on her wrists.

She sensed a vampire behind her and craned her neck around. Spike. “Don’t bother straining on those chains, luv,” he said. “They were specially designed with you in mind. You could stretch for days and the most you’d do is break your wrists. Not that I’d mind all that much on one level, but I’m going to need you intact.”

The Slayer had a sinking feeling. “You’re not going to envamp me, Spike,”she said. “The Slayer does NOT drink the blood of vampires.”

“I’m sure that, given my timeframe and torturing ability I could change your mind. But you’re right. Making you a vampire would be way too easy. Oh no, Slayer. I’m just going to keep you here for a while.”


“Until you join me.”

Part Eighteen

Cordelia Chase jolted awake and looked around. Bleary-eyed, she gazed at the blank computer screen — which Ms. Calendar had probably turned off during the night. Then she checked the rest of the room. Giles was alternating between reading a book and looking at the door, and Cordelia bet he wasn’t getting any useful information out of either. She yawned and stretched, which caught the Watcher’s attention. He looked over at her and made a quieting motion, pointing to Xander slumped over on the table — and then into his office. Silently she got up and looked into the office — Ms. Calendar was curled up on the small couch, covered by Giles’ tweed jacket.

The gazes of the two awake people met and they each allowed themselves a small smile at the spectacle of sleeping loved ones. But Giles most certainly did NOT seem happy. Ever since that way-out-of-character hissy-fit last night, he’d been on edge. She’d have gambled he was up all night. She tiptoed over to him and they began whispering.

“I assume nothing from Buffy, then?”

“No.” God, did he sound depressed! “Worse, nothing we can do either. We DON’T know where Spike would be holing up — he has no pattern there whatsoever. And he never has indulged himself in revenge that lasted longer than the time it took him to torture his victims to death.”

Cordelia swallowed and indulged in a brief prayer. “Anything more on the Judge?” she whispered.

Grimly, he nodded. “Yes. And all of it bad. His power builds the more people he kills. At first he needs to touch his victims, then be close by. Eventually he’ll be able to kill with just a look. And there is still no indication that any weapon forged can kill him.”

She said sarcastically, “Well, these past 24 hours have just gotten better and better, haven’t they?”

“I don’t know how they could possibly get worse.”

Sleepily, Xander said, “NEVER say that, G-Man. Every TV show I’ve ever seen, whenever someone says something like that —”

“It gets worse. On the chance you haven’t noticed, Xander, we are NOT living out our lives on television. The mere mention of adverse circumstances is usually NOT enough to bring them about.” She would have asked what was causing him do be so damned irritable, but she was two steps away from breaking down herself. Giles’ words woke Xander up and he angrily began a retort.

To stop things from growing even more tense — though the anxiety in the room was thick enough already that you could have cut it with a plastic spoon — she grabbed his arm and said, “Look around. Who don’t you see?”

He looked around — and got Cordelia’s meaning in seconds. No Slayer anywhere in sight. Quietly, he said, “Sorry about that, Giles. No news at all, then?”

“None.” He said heavily. “I’ve been up all night waiting, but — nothing.”

“I think it’s time to begin that house-to-house search now, don’t you, G-Man?”

“No.” He sounded dispirited. “Buffy has been out of touch for longer than this before and everything was all right.” If those words were supposed to be reassuring, they were doing a damned poor job of it. Getting up, Giles walked into his office. A few seconds later sounds of a surprised Ms. Calendar could be heard, and a minute later the computer teacher — disheveled, sloppy, but for a second Cordelia wished SHE could look that good in the mornings — rolled out of the office, an expression of extreme confusion on her face.

“Okay, could one of you PLEASE tell me what’s going on?”

“Buffy’s not back yet,” Cordelia told her.

Xander pounded his fists on the table. “And Giles seems to think that’s just fine. What’s gotten INTO him?”

“I’d say denial,” Ms. Calendar said. “Recently, at least, Buffy has been following Slayer rules fairly strictly. She says she’s going to check in, then she checks in.”

“So we’re going to need his help. I say we go drag him out and —”

“And what, Xander? Beat up Buffy’s Watcher?”” Cordelia asked. “Force him to look at gunpoint?”

Angry, hurt, Xander whirled. “Are YOU turning on me now again, Cordy?”

What? No! She’d never — she fought back the tears. Were she and Ms. Calendar the only two sane people around here? A nasty retort fought its way upwards, and gritting her teeth she bit it back. This was NO time to turn back into her old self. The last thing they needed right now was EVERYBODY snapping at each other.

Fortunately, Ms. Calendar retained her poise. “She’s not turning on you, Xander, she’s just pointing out a flaw in your thinking. Right now, we won’t be able to get Rupert to help us short of violence.” She went to the computer and turned it on. Xander took a few deep breaths and came over to hug Cordelia.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”

“I understand,” she whispered back. “You’re worried about Buffy and Giles. Just remember that just because the rest of us don’t want to jump on a horse and go riding madly off in all directions it doesn’t mean we don’t want to do something. We love her as much as you do.”

“Cordelia, Xander, come over here.” The two walked over and looked over the technopagan’s shoulders. She was studying a map of the city. “Now, these are the docks. Let’s take it as an assumption that the vampire’s headquarters are no more than a mile away and try to eliminate buildings that couldn’t possibly be where they’re holing up.”

By eliminating those buildings in more or less constant use, those buildings with no direct access to the sewer system, and those buildings with prominent windows, over the next hour they slowly and methodically omitted every sturcture but six. Three abandoned warehouses, the basement of a burned-out office building, an unused church and a historic monument — the oldest bank in Sunnydale, of which the first floor was the only one being used at the moment.

“So NOW what do we do?” Xander asked.

“Well, it’s daylight. NOW, Xander? We go door to door.” They looked into the office. Giles was buried in another book and reading; odds are even if they jumped up and down and waved he wouldn’t even notice them leaving. Still, Ms. Calendar stared at him until he looked up, at which time she inclined her head and he did the same, barely acknowledging their departure.

As they left, Xander pushing Ms. Calendar’s wheelchair, the teacher looked behind them tentatively as if she could force Giles to do more just by staring.

But the Watcher never emerged.

*                              *                              *

They stocked up on vampire goodies. Ms. Calendar kept a hand-held crossbow and a squirt gun full of holy water in the van in case anyone tried a run through the shadows. Cordelia — in peak physical form, strong, athletic, and mostly purged of her fears — and Xander, with his learned combat soldier training, were still no match for more than a couple of vampires and they damned well knew it. Still, Cordy had two stakes and a prominent cross, and Xander had his club, three stakes, and a knife, and they both had a complement of holy water.

The computer teacher drove, of course. The historical landmark building contained nothing but dust on the upper floors, and no way to access the lower that they could see — unless there was a ladder back in the one room out of eyesight, which they doubted. The first warehouse had been stripped floor to ceiling; normally an empty building that large would have had a sizeable homeless population.

Sunnydale didn’t HAVE a homeless population. At least, not one that lasted longer than a couple of weeks.

The abandoned church, the second warehouse and the office building’s shell proved no better — though Xander and Cordelia had had to kill a few rats and drive off one disgruntled feral cat.

In the short drive to the sixth and final building, the third warehouse, they reevaluated their criteria. Their biggest guess was that the lair had been within a mile of the docks. They’d had no particular reason for choosing that but convenience, as they didn’t have the time to check all of the hundreds of buildings that would qualify throughout Sunnydale.

Cautiously they entered the warehouse. At first it seemed as deserted as the others, though not empty, but on closer look —

What the HELL was a table doing in a warehouse? And wrapping paper, and an assortment of crates? including, Xander realized with some horror, the one Buffy had been carrying last night. If it was here — well, at the very least there was one large, fully assembled demon walking about who wasn’t all that fond of people. What it meant about Buffy —

Cordelia pulled his arm and pointed up at the wall, mouth open in shock. Well, there was the proof. In big cardboard letters on a wall of the warehouse were the words “HAPPY BIRTHDAY SLAYER.” But she clearly wasn’t here now — and in fact, the place showed signs that they were cleaning it out.

Noises from behind a stack of shelves. Cordelia and Xander quickly ducked down out of sight and listened to three vampires bitch and moan about the sudden move they had to do. What was the problem? They’d CAPTURED the Slayer, after all. She was hanging in chains in —

But this Slayer had friends. A marginally competent Watcher and two teenagers who’d actually killed a vampire or two themselves, not to mention a crippled woman. Cordelia’d had to hold Xander back from charging at “captured the Slayer,” and Xander returned the favor at the slam of Jenny Calendar. They listened more closely … and found out that Spike was going to KEEP Buffy alive for some reason, and that the Judge was due to attack somplace with a lot of people that night.

“Heard enough?” Xander mouthed. A quick nod of assent from Cordelia. They drew weapons and prepared to attack.

As one they rose and threw holy water at the startled vampires, splattering two badly. They screamed and Xander smoothly staked one before it could recover, then clubbed the other burned one over the head twice. It went down and Cordelia quickly dumped the rest of her holy water on it.

Xander was dodging the other one; the vampire struck him in the face and he went down, but then, suddenly, from the floor he swung the leg at the vampire’s knees and connected, then reversed the club and thrust it into his opponent’s heart.

Then there was one — and he was rolling around on the floor in agony. Okay. They’d been thinking about taking one back for interrogation, but gave that up when they realized that the mechanics of hauling an angry vampire ten miles in a van were more than they could overcome. So they staked it and hustled back to the van to talk to Ms. Calendar.

“Well, that’s where they WERE,” Xander grumbled. “We ran across a few doing mop-up duty and killed them. But we got some info that might cheer you and Giles up.” The two explained what they’d heard.

Then Ms. Calendar asked, “Why do you think this would cheer me up?”

“Buffy’s alive!” No one smiled. “Okay, I’m grasping at straws here. But she IS alive, and where there’s life, well, there’s hope. As for the Judge — I think I know how we can take him down, too.”

“I’m none too keen on committing suicide, Xander,” Ms. Calendar said. “I agree with you something needs to be done— but the three of us together would be lucky to take down Spike, much less a big angry demon who can’t be killed by anything forged by humans.” All set to agree with the teacher’s words, Cordelia hesitated when she saw THAT look in her boyfriend’s eye.

She walked up to him and said, “What did you have in mind?”

“Well, Ms. Calendar, you’re assuming we play fair. I say we forget about stakes and start thinking about other weapons.”

“Such as …?”

“Guns. BIG guns. And I’m just the one who knows how to use them.”

Part Nineteen

Buffy looked around the walls of her “prison.” It looked remarkably like her room, in fact … with the exceptions that there were no windows, no vampire-hunting equipment, and she was chained so she couldn’t reach the door. So far Spike had come up once to see how she was doing and “just to chat.” Right. Like she’d believe that little scenario. She lay on her bed and turned on the radio — which, surprisingly, worked. She flipped around and tried listening to three different stations before giving up. Was this Spike’s plan? Bore her to death? No, more likely keep her and beat on her and try to drive her insane. She’d killed his “dark princess,” Drusilla, so she expected no less than some kind of twisted plot in return.

This bizarre variation on her room had to be part of that. She couldn’t figure out exactly why, yet, but she wasn’t looking forward to it.

One thing she knew — she would NEVER drink any vampire blood. No amount of torture could get her to do that. And if she wasn’t a vampire, she’d never be on Spike’s side. Right? Her Slayer half echoed, “Damn right!”

She wished most of all that Xander, Cordelia, Giles and Ms. Calendar would know that she was alive — if not exactly okay. And if she was alive, she’d find a way to escape.

The door opened and Buffy looked up. Not more, not more … but this time it wasn’t Spike standing at the far end of the room. Nor was it the Judge, or anyone with food. It was someone in a cowboy outfit similar to that of that dude she’d staked back, back …

SHIT. This had to be that other Gorch brother. What was his name? Hector? Tonto?

“Hey there, sweetcheeks,” he said, raising a hat. “I’m Tector Gorch.” The Slayer said nothing. “Didn’t ya hear me? I’m Tector Gorch.” He rushed across the room and the Slayer, constrained by the long chains, couldn’t dodge. He backhanded the Slayer and sent her spinning into the bed. As she got up, he grabbed her and said, “Where I’m from, a lady curtsies when a REAL man introduces himself. Remember that next time.”

It was a cliché, but the Slayer couldn’t resist. She spat in his face. He punched at her again, but this time she was ready, dodging out of the way and kneeing him in the groin before hitting him on the nose. Down he went. She whispered coldly, “And when a REAL man introduces himself, I’ll curtsy.” Then she kicked his groaning form over towards the door.

He got up, furiously, and started for her again. The door opened and a hand shot out and restrained the charging cowboy vampire. “WHAT the bloody hell do you think you’re doing, Gorch?”

“What you said!”

“What part of ‘unnerve her’ DIDN’T you understand?” Spike said angrily as the Slayer stood her ground.

“Ya meant, rip out all her nerve endings, didn’t’cha?” Gorch seemed quite surprised.

“No,” Spike said, slapping the vampire once, “I did NOT. Well then, since you can’t seem to comprehend SIMPLE English, let me put it to you in terms even a numb-brained half-addled halfwitted redneck can understand. Do NOT slap the Slayer around.” What? Okay, now this was making no sense at all. “Unless you’re under my direct supervision.” That was more like what she expected — not like she liked the idea all that much, exactly but — still —

Good Lord, was she grasping at straws, or what?

“Now then, Slayer,” Spike said.

“Now the torture begins,” she whispered. “Right?”

“You’re smart, Slayer,” he answered.

“Well, don’t think it’ll be easy,” she snarled.

“That would defeat the purpose.” He pulled a small device out of his pocket and pressed it. Shock surged through her wrists and ankles.

“THIS is my assurance that you don’t try anything funny. Not strong enough to burn, but strong enough to cause INTENSE pain. Now, for our first number — I’m thinking one of the classics. Sleep deprivation.”

“I can beat that in my sleep,” the Slayer said.

“You’ve kept your wit. Good. You’ll need it to get through the next five days. And don’t think this is the end. Just the beginning, Slayer, just the beginning. Remember that.”

On the way out of the room he pressed then button again. She braced for the pain.

She’d get through this. She had to.

*                              *                              *

The trio came back to the library in the early afternoon. As near as Jenny could figure out, Rupert Giles hadn’t moved from the chair in his office. He was still reading through the books he’d had there four hours ago.

She left Xander and Cordelia to figure out how to actually GET arms heavier than a shotgun. It scared her that the boy knew how to get those, though she figured these days anything was possible. But in California?

So: into the office, which wasn’t locked. No knocking, and fortunately it wasn’t a heavy door. Rupert didn’t look up as she entered, didn’t answer when she called his name, in fact showed no reaction of any sort until she rolled over and knocked the book from his hands.

“What did you do that for, Jenny?” he said in a dull voice. No. She wasn’t going to let HIM withdraw, too. They’d lost Buffy that way — may have lost her permanently — and she would be cursed with a curse worse than Angel’s before she let someone else go down, too. Especially the man she loved.

And she DID love Rupert. Stuffy, repressed, occasionally violent, anti-technological Rupert Giles. And she was fairly sure he loved her in return. But recently — with Buffy’s various mental states and now her disappearance — he’d gone more and more into a shell.

No. NOT on her watch. One thing Rom knew how to be was persistent.

“What did I do that for, Rupert?” she asked. “Well, at least you’re asking questions now. Do you realize how long we’ve been gone?”

He looked at her and began to speak. Then he stopped. “You realize, I have no idea at all. When you returned I would have first said you were only gone a few minutes. B-but that’s not right, is it?”

Smiling, she shook her head sadly. “No. we’ve been gone since eight this morning. Get a better internal clock, Rupert; it’s now 11:45.”

At that, he blinked. “At night?” With a vaguely disgusted look on her face — tinged with care — Jenny pointed to the windows and the sunlight. “Right. Morning then. Answer something for me, Jenny, if you would.” Of course she would. “What is wrong with me?”

“Denial. You don’t want to think about Buffy … not coming back.”

Accusingly he looked up at her. “Oh? And you find something comforting in the thought?” His face fell as soon as he’d said the hurtful phrase. “Forgive me, Jenny, that was TOTALLY uncalled for. Here you are trying to help me out of this funk and all I do is act like Xander on a bad day.”

“No apology necessary, Rupert. What can we do to get you motivated again?”

He said each word distinctly. “Help. Me. Find. Buffy. Stay here with me.” She raised an eyebrow. “I realize the two are mutually exclusive—”

Despite the gravity of the situation, Jenny Calendar laughed. “I think I can find a way to do both. And as far as finding Buffy goes —”

“Yes?” he asked excitedly. Hesitantly, she told him what Xander and Cordelia had discovered — and what they’d done. Hope flashed briefly across his face, alternating with resignation, fear, and a kind of determination. Finally it settled down into his normal face — though it carried the same weariness that all their faces seemed to have recently. “So,” he said. “They have a plan?” He got up — and rubbed his hips and buttocks. “Fell asleep. Um — the legs, not me.”

They made their way to the door — and before Jenny turned the knob he caught her hand. “Jenny. If anything has happened to Buffy I — I may withdraw again. Do not permit me to do so. I do not — grieve — easily.”

She reached her arms up and hugged him. “Don’t worry, Rupert. I’ll take care of you if that happens. But until I get proof positive the other way, I’m going to assume that nothing’s happened.” He looked at her sadly and she kissed him on the forehead. “Poor Rupert,” she said without a trace of sarcasm. “Always having to be strong.”

Then, arm in arm, they went out to listen to Xander and Cordelia’s plan.

*                              *                              *

Giles and Ms. Calendar had very nearly rebelled at the utter absurdity of Xander’s plan, but calmly and rationally he had argued their objections down. This shocked Giles, who’d had no idea that Xander even knew HOW to form a rational argument.

That Xander, of all people, had argued for stopping the Judge first and trying to find Buffy later had been the clincher. They loved Buffy. They could not imagine a world without her. But if they couldn’t stop the Judge, there might not be a world for her to come back to.

Not that any of them would not rather, inside, have been running down the streets screaming Buffy’s name. But they could not. And, they knew that, for whatever God-awful reason, Spike was keeping her alive. And too much was at stake. So they internalized their stress and moved on.

It occurred to Xander that every once in a while this thing called maturity was a real BITCH. No wonder he didn’t enjoy it all that much.

And the plot was absurd. Lift weapons from the local Army base to use against the Judge? But again, Xander was right. The bad guys didn’t play fair, so why should they? And while Giles could fire a shotgun with ease — not much different from the tranquilizer rifle, but with a far stronger kick — rocket launchers weren’t really in his league. Xander was the only one who could fire one and have any hope of hitting the target.

It worked! They actually retrieved a rocket launcher from an Army base by blatant lying and deception! Now all they needed to do was figure out where Spike and the Judge would strike.

Someplace with a lot of people. Sunnydale, at night, that meant — the Bronze and the new mall, and at this time of year that was pretty much it. If Mrs. Summers’ gallery had had an opening, or there had been a sporting event, then they would have had more than two places to consider. This was assuming Spike just wouldn’t send the Judge off to roam the streets of Sunnydale. But the people of Sunnydale rarely congregated anywhere outdoors at night.

And — narrowing their options even further — the Bronze was closed. Fumigation time again. So the mall it was.

If they’d had the time, they would have spent longer looking for the vampires’ hideout — but who knew? Spike and his little army of undead kidnappers might be on their way to the mall even now. So they all piled into Ms. Calendar’s van and took off.

They’d been loaded for bear this morning, but tonight they were armed for a whole zoo. Giles had a shotgun, three stakes, and a crossbow; Cordelia had stakes and several vials of holy water (briefly Xander wondered where the Watcher GOT all this holy water); and Xander himself was carrying his club and the rocket launcher. They all had walkie-talkies, purchased earlier in the day.

Ms. Calendar’s van had been warded, so that vampires would be burned like sunlight if they tried to touch the outside. She had a handheld crossbow to pick off any stragglers she happened to see, but she wasn’t getting out.

When they got to the mall parking lot they had a rather substantial stroke of luck — as near as they could tell Spike and the Judge hadn’t gotten there yet. They positioned themselves inside to watch for the vampires to enter.

Twenty minutes later — there they were. Spike limped in with the Judge, flanked by two vampires. Giles reported that four more in vampire face were coming in the bottom. Showtime. Xander walked out and looked across the center of the mall. The Judge — a big, blue-skinned critter with the build of a jock and the face of a deformed troll — walked up to a passing teenager and grabbed him. Within seconds he was ashes.

Sounds of gunfire — and screaming — could be heard from down below. Giles was busy with the shotguns. He’d told the Watcher, head shots only. Get them down fast, stake them later.

Enough was enough, dammit. Xander called out, “Hey, Spike!” He thought he sould be nervous, but he wasn’t. The soldier in him, probably. The blond vampire — and the Judge — turned to look in the boy’s direction.

Blueboy gave a hollow laugh. “Fool! Know you not that no weapon forged can harm me?”

Xander snarled, “That was in the 1500s, asshole,” and pulled the trigger.

Spike yelled, “Scatter!” and dove over the edge of the rail. The streaking rocket flew straight and true … and the Judge exploded. The other two vampires weren’t quite as sharp as Spike — both got caught in the blast radius and went down. Xander peered over the railing. Spike was just dusting himself off. He aimed the launcher downward … and thought better of it. Not only did they want Spike alive — he could tell then where Buffy was — this was no time to go tearing up the mall. He hefted the weapon and ran around to the other side. Both vamps were still down, and soon out.

Dashing down the steps, he looked around. Pieces of the Judge were scattered all over the mall’s floor; Giles and Cordelia were rapidly gathering them up. Didn’t look like there were any vampires in sight either, except Spike, rapidly hobbling towards an emergency exit. Xander rushed after the blond vampire and pointed the launcher at him as he lifted up the access hatch to an aescape tunnel. “Spike!” he called. “Tell me where the hell Buffy is or I’ll —”

“You’ll what, mate?” Spike sneered. “Kill me? If I’m not back tonight they’ll kill her.”

“And I trust you because…” Xander prompted.

“Because you don’t have a choice. She’s alive — and she’ll stay that way as long as I do.” Xander levelled the weapon and made like he was going to pull the trigger anyway. With a startled expression on his face, Spike dove down the tunnel — only then realizing that his opponent hadn’t fired after all. Muttered cursing could be heard getting farther away. God DAMN it all to hell!

He went out to help gather up the Judge’s parts.

*                              *                              *

She was tired. Hell, she was exhausted. But whenever it looked like she was falling asleep, a shock came through the chains, waking her up.

No Spike for a couple of days — which meant no one had hit her. This was faint comfort to the Slayer, who would have almost preferred being hit to this.

Which was obviously the point. She wasn’t starving — they provided her with plenty of food. She was just tired. But there wouldn’t be any gratitude when they finally let her drift off.

On Spike’s side? That was still ridiculous. Never.


Part Twenty

Pieces of the Judge were being express mailed to friends of Giles all over the world, who would dispose of them in various and sundry ways. The pieces were, unfortunately, still indestructible. Giles himself disappeared for a day — he wouldn’t say where — but when he came back the Judge’s arm was gone.

They hadn’t been able to trail Spike, unfortunately.

In their grief over knowing that Buffy was still alive, but in Spike’s hands, they’d temporarily forgotten the one person whose grief would be even greater than theirs — Joyce Summers. Cordelia suggested they tell the woman the truth — maybe it would lessen her pain and anguish, knowing that Buffy was alive, that she HADN’T run away.

It was an agonizing decision. Either they risk getting committed or arrested for putting the life of a sixteen-year-old girl at severe risk — or let Joyce Summers agonize that she’d done something wrong, that her daughter had run away from home.

Xander and Cordelia had gone over while they made their decision to see if they could comfort her. She looked horrible, as though she hadn’t slept in days. She probably hadn’t.

“Xander? Cordelia?” Mrs. Summers said. “I’m afraid I’m not really up for company right now …”

“Sorry, Ms. Summers.” The two had decided to let Xander take the lead, since he’d known Buffy’s mom longer. “We just wanted to see how you were.”

She smiled at that for a second. “How sweet. All the two of you must be going through and — come in, please.” Entering, they took a seat on the living room couch. “Can I get either of you anything to drink?” Both teenagers said no. “Are you sure?” Cordelia reflected that Joyce Summers must be desperately holding on to the forms, because right now she didn’t look like she could even lift a glass of soda. Wearily, the older woman plopped down on a chair. “Have the police talked to the two of you?” Yes, indeed, they had. But it was a damned shallow investigation. They took a look at Buffy’s high school record as a troublemaker, talked to Principal Snyder, and seemed to have come to the conclusion that Buffy was a “troubled teen” who had “run away.”

Ms. Calendar had broken her personal rules about hacking for this, and had checked official police records. They were either clueless or on the take — possibly both — because it said they suspected that drug and gang activity was involved. Despite Buffy’s rep as the psycho girl of Sunnydale, anyone who bothered to look any more closely would know Buffy had never really been involved in either.

This, of course, meant that they put the finding of a “teen runaway” somewhere beyond the back burner.

They both answered Mrs. Summers’ question way in the affirmative. The next question was a bit startling to both of them. “Do either of you think the police might be RIGHT? That Buffy ran away because she was involved in drugs? Or gangs?”

Shocked, Xander said, “No!” Cordelia quickly echoed it. “Why would you think that —”

“Because I don’t KNOW what else to think,” Joyce Summers answered. “I mean, if it wasn’t because of some kind of gang activity, then there are only two choices. Either I failed her as a mother —” She choked back a sob and the two teenagers quickly reassured her that she’d been an excellent mother as far as they could tell. “Or, or, she’s not coming back because she CAN’T. So what would you rather think?”

They KNEW it was option three, so they couldn’t answer the question, really. They had moved in to reassure her, to tell her that none of the options were true, but it hadn’t really worked. It ended awkwardly and Cordelia and Xander promised each other that they would keep a very close eye on Joyce Summers to make sure nothing happened to her. In her mental state she was likely to do something stupid. Neither had mastered the art of silent movement the way Buffy had, but tracking Mrs. Summers wouldn’t be much of a problem.

Cordelia related the visit when the quartet tried to decide whether to tell Mrs. Summers the real reason for her daughter’s disappearance. Giles didn’t see the point, feeling it would cause far more trouble than it was worth. He seemed to have recovered from his bout of withdrawal, though he still seemed very tired. None of them had really been getting all that much sleep, actually —

“If she believes us, then she will see US as the ones who put her daughter in danger. Who knows what she might do then? I would find it particularly difficult to search for Buffy while on the run from the police. And if she does not believe us — then she will believe us seriously deluded. Bad idea, all the way around. We tell her nothing.”

Jenny Calendar said, “Much as it pains me to see a basically caring woman like Joyce Summers in such pain, I’ve got to agree with Rupert. Cordelia, Xander, you’re thinking that it would be good for Joyce to know her daughter’s alive. Alive and being tortured? It might even be better for her to think that Buffy’s dead. And from what you all have told me about Joyce Summers, she seems almost blessed with ignorance. It might HURT her mentally to tell her about it — and she would be almost magically unable to understand it.”

“It’s just — it’s just—” Xander was beginning to wear a hole in the library table, the number of times he’d pounded his fists on it in the last six months.

“She seems so sad. There must be something we can do,” Cordelia said.

“There is. We can find Buffy.”

*                              *                              *

Hank Summers, Buffy’s father, came into town a few days later and also got the grand tour a la the Sunnydale Police Department. He didn’t buy it. No matter Buffy’s troubles, she would NOT have run away. Also, he didn’t blame Joyce. While Joyce Summers wasn’t the best at mothering by instinct, she loved her daughter immensely, and Buffy loved her.

No, whatever had caused Buffy Summers to leave town was most definitely involuntary. Hank Summers knew his daughter that well, at least. And he had to believe his daughter was alive.

Joyce was very upset, of course, and when Joyce got extremely upset she became really polite and courteous, and almost useless. Crises were not her best moments, though this was sure as hell neither the time or place to let her know that. Two friends of Buffy’s — Xander and Cordelia — had apparently made it their business to keep an eye on his ex-wife. For which he was very grateful. Love they may no longer have had, but he certainly cared about her.

This meant that it was up to him to do something about the vanishing. The local cops — a stupid, more lazy bunch he’d never seen — seemed happy to write his daughter off as another casualty in the drug war. Jackasses. The two teenagers — with the assistance of the high school librarian, a depressed looking Brit named Rupert Giles who’d sort of taken his daughter under his wing (any father figuring there, Hank, you think? never mind, you don’t want to think about that.) — had tried to put some pressure on the cops to take a closer look and had been told more or less where to go.

So it was time for Hank Summers to raise some hell. Call in a few out of town lawyers, threaten a few lawsuits. If they didn’t bow to that kind of pressure, he’d start the damn lawsuits. Then? Call in the press. No, he didn’t care that people disappeared in Sunnydale every day. If anything, that was an even better reason for them to LOOK for his daughter a little more closely. Now, were they going to cooperate, or was he going to have to call down national attention on this suburb from hell?

Of course, eighty percent of that was pure bluff, but the Sunnydale PD didn’t need to know that; he did have a lawyer friend of his ready with a lawsuit, but Hank Summers could no more call national media attention to Sunnydale than he could run a four-minute mile.

And, well, it worked, sort of. They reopened the investigation into Buffy’s disappearance, and with Hank — and a now-fired up Joyce — breathing down their necks, they followed a few leads. Buffy hadn’t been seen since a surprise birthday party planned by Xander, Cordelia, Mr. Giles and his girlfriend, a sexy computer teacher in a wheelchair. But really, nothing suspicious there; they’d had a quiet celebration for a couple of hours, and then Buffy had left to go home. He was surprised that her friends had let her go alone, but they said that sometime Buffy liked being alone. Didn’t sound like his little girl — but as of last summer his little girl had changed a lot. Joyce told him it was exactly the kind of thing Buffy would do, especially since —

Well, since her friend Willow, who Hank had never had the good fortune of meeting, but apparently was a good, sweet, loyal friend to his daughter, had been killed by some gang members. Buffy’d hated the gangs ever since; when they’d attacked the school again in October, in fact, she’d fought them tooth and nail. GOOD for his daughter.

She’d vanished on the walk home. No one had seen her after she left the Bronze. While he didn’t tell Joyce, this meant odds were that Buffy was dead. But as long as he didn’t have proof, there was hope. That was the side he showed his ex-wife, and Buffy’s friends, for that matter. Not that he really needed to convince them; the two kids somehow KNEW that Buffy was alive. This was nice to see. They were looking themselves, and having no real luck at it, which REALLY seemed to piss them off.

At one of the local gas stations — prices ten cents cheaper a gallon than back in L.A. — Hank was just about to get back in his car when he felt, very briefly, pain at the back of his skull.

He woke up tied to a chair in some building with no windows. A little skinny guy with glasses was reading through some big thick book and watching him. The man called out, “Spike? He’s awake.”

A blond guy, looked like a punk rocker fifteen years too late, limped up to him. “Good to see you awake, mate,” he said. “Name’s Spike.” Spike? Wasn’t he that gangleader? “You’ve been tramping all over town stirring up the cops and the populace to come look for your daughter, and I for one am getting bloody tired of it. Getting harder and harder to drum up business with all the attention being focused on Buffy. So I’ll make you a deal.”

“And this deal is?” Hank said skeptically.

“Well, the most important part involves me letting you live. After that — agree to give up this pressure, and I’ll show you your daughter.”

He laughed. “What? Why should I do that? You show me my daughter I’ll move heaven and Earth to get her back.”

Spike leaned into Hank’s face. “Because I’ll show her to you either way. Whether you agree will mean the difference between seeing her alive or dead.”

Was he bluffing? Hank couldn’t take the chance. “All right, I agree.” Spike untied him and they got up and walked towards a door, which led to a hallway with a number of doors. Still no windows, though.

They stopped before one and Spike turned. “One more thing. You don’t get to say a damn thing when you’re in there. No ‘Buffy’s, no ‘My God’s, and certainly no bloody damned ‘I love you’s. Got that?” Hank Summers nodded.

What Hank didn’t know was that Spike, taking advantage of the Slayer’s father’s appearance, had told Buffy that her parents no longer cared about her as part of his psychological torture. So while seeing her might give Hank Summers a bit of hope, seeing her father turn and leave would certainly crush Buffy’s hopes just a little more.

On the way out, they’d knocked him out again, though with some kind of hypodermic this time. He woke up in his car at the gas station early the next morning.

Spike was pleased with the way it turned out, and gave Hank his solemn promise — one he fully intended to keep — that he would not kill Buffy for having killed his girlfriend.

Oddly, to a VERY limited extent, so was Hank Summers. His sudden loss of interest surprised and depressed Joyce, of course, and Hank dearly wished he could tell his ex the truth. But no way could she handle this, no way. Better for her to believe Buffy dead than being held prisoner by a gang. But he had hope. Xander and Cordelia wouldn’t give up. And in his heart, neither would he.

His daughter was alive. And he still firmly believed in one thing:

Where there was life, there was hope.

Spike, of course, knew better.

*                              *                              *

Xander and Cordelia, of course, had difficulty believing Buffy’s father’s sudden change of heart and rapid departure from town. But this shock was nothing compared to the one they got when they went to go meet Giles at some point at the end of the week.

They were met at the front door by a disgruntled Jenny Calendar. “I wouldn’t advise going in there. Rupert is NOT happy, and I honestly don’t blame him.”

“Thanks, Ms. C.,” Xander said, “But there’s something we need to talk to him about. We’re trying to figure out why Buffy’s dad left town.”

“Is it possible he just gave up?” she asked. Irritated nods from both teenagers. “You may be right. Just consider — WE know Buffy’s still alive. He had no proof.” She moved past them out the door. “Excuse me, please. I need to get to class now.” They watched her go and hesitantly walked towards Giles’ office.

Sounds of an argument could be heard from within. They almost never heard Giles this angry. In fact — only two people they knew of EVER made him lose his cool this badly. One was Ethan Rayne. Xander fingered his club, waiting for a rematch.

Cordelia threw open the door. It was the other one. The cheerleader looked at the young woman inside with pure contempt.

And Kendra looked at her the same way.

Part Twenty-One

Xander was first to recover from the shock. “What,” he asked, “the HELL is she doing here?” and looked at Kendra like she were something unappetizing scraped off the bottom of his shoe.

In her famous wandering accent, the Caribbean Queen responded, “I am here to kill vampires!” Then she looked at Giles. “And them? I have no need for allies. I work better alone!”

“No need to worry about THAT,” Cordelia muttered. “If I saw you drowning I’d throw you an anvil.”

“Again, I reiterate, Giles. What is SHE doing here?”

He looked at the two wearily. “She had a feeling that Sunnydale needed protection, so Sam Zabuto sent her here. Since I was already here, I was nominated to Watch her temporarily.”

“Giles!” Cordelia sputtered. “This is the woman that helped Buffy down that long path to craziness she never pulled out of. Agree to Watch her? I’m shocked at you; I would have threatened her life.” Kendra stood by impassively.

“Believe it or not, I do not enjoy this, Xander. I have no great love for this young woman, and if it were not strictly necessary to have someone present to protect Sunnydale, I would like nothing better than to have the three of us dip her in tar, roll her in feathers, and ride her out of town on a rail. Unfortunately —” Despite herself, Cordelia had to be amazed at Kendra’s stone-faced demeanor. Here was her Watcher — supposedly in charge of protecting her life — THREATENING it, and she showed no emotion at all.

The other Slayer smiled briefly, then resumed a serious expression. “He knows that I am necessary, now that Buffy has … failed.”

She never saw the blow coming. Xander punched Kendra in the face, bloodying her nose and knocking her down. He moved in again and Kendra sprang to her feet. Though feeling furious herself, Cordelia moved in to block her boyfriend while Giles stepped in front of his temporary charge.

Turning to Kendra, Giles said, “It is clear that Sam Zabuto has taught you nothing about manners or feelings in the last two months. I thought when I lectured him earlier he’d learned his lesson, but it is excruciatingly obvious he did not. Let me state something to you as plainly and simply as I know how. The three of us loved Buffy Summers immensely. She was a friend and comrade. If I EVER hear you insult Buffy again, the three of us will … will …”

Fire in his eyes, Xander said, “We’ll tie you up, leave you in the graveyard at night, and put a sign over you saying ‘Yoohoo, vampires, come and get it.’ Work for you, G-Man?”

“Stripped of the drama, yes. Now, Kendra. Have we made ourselves clear?”

The young woman nodded. “Quite clear. I do not anticipate much in the way of personal interaction with you two or —” she turned to Giles — “your girlfriend. Still, I shall be cautious.” She looked at the two teenagers. “I have Slayer business to discuss. Should they not leave?”

“No. They may not assist you, but they will be assisting me. They also have their own supernatural business to attend to.”

Disapprovingly, Kendra said, “Very well. On the way into town I caught the distinctive scent of a werewolf. He seemed new, and I do not believe it has killed yet.”

So they talked, brusquely and curtly, about lycanthropes for the next fifteen minutes. Then Kendra left with a vow to capture the beast if possible — or kill it, if not.

*                              *                              *

The first night, hunting in the park, Kendra missed the werewolf. Thank goodness, Giles reflected, that the werewolf hunter also present had missed the lycanthrope as well. He wouldn’t get a second chance; despite Giles’ fears, Kendra made it clear to him that she found those who hunted people for sport or profit — people who were NOT even responsible for their own actions — reprehensible. She had knocked the hunter unconscious and systematically wrecked his equipment.

Of course, in knocking the man out Kendra had sent him to the hospital with a sizeable concussion, so there were still many bugs to be worked out. Her heart, in this instance, was genuinely in the right place — but Giles still feared for the werewolf’s life. It seemed as though Kendra had a far more liberal definition of what might count as a necessary killing than Buffy did.

HAD. And not just because Spike was still holding her captive somewhere in Sunnydale, either. It had all started when Willow had died so tragically — and had come to a conclusion when they’d fallen five DAMNED seconds short of saving Angel’s life.

Buffy had never truly recovered from that latter tragedy, even though for a while it had seemed as though she had. Her behavior had changed greatly. She’d become harder and colder, not caring all that much when innocents had gotten hurt. No active enjoyment of pain — that had NEVER been in her. But she’d been so much more willing to break the eggs to make the omelet. Almost, but not quite, out of control.

Kendra was far more controlled. But she had always been low on the social skills scale, not bothered by causing a little bit of damage to do a greater good. And she seemed to ENJOY hurting the vampires. Buffy had never quite sunk to that level.

To an extent, Xander was trying to upstage Kendra. He was using his experience as a hyena — no longer bothering to hide it, as tragically neither of the two people that he had been concealing it from were around to argue the point — to determine who he thought the werewolf might be. There weren’t really any warning signs; a lycanthrope in human form could be as mild-mannered as Clark Kent or as aggressive as a rugby player. But it made him feel useful. And, who knows, he might actually pick up on something. Between that, and keeping an eye on Joyce Summers, his days were filled.

This was a good thing. While far from an expert on the human psyche — a comment which Jenny had called “a lock for understatement of the millennium” — Giles nonetheless knew the hell Xander was going through. His entire world had, in essence, disappeared, with the exception of Cordelia. How the boy held on to sanity was nothing short of a miracle as far as he was concerned. But somehow he was doing it.

Cordelia was still looking for Buffy methodically, but the two vampires she’d caught either had no idea what was going on or had been threatened with fates worse than death, because even on promise of release neither had talked. Jenny had broken her own rules and scoured computer records from the Sunnydale Police Department’s to the Sanitation Department’s. No real luck, and with the surprising departure of Hank Summers the police department had resumed their accustomed “must be drugs” approach to all the problem in Sunnydale.

Actually, from all Giles could tell, Sunnydale actually had a much smaller drug trade than normal cities its size. The reason, of course, were the large numbers of vampires in town, which made it a rather brutal crime-fighting method, and unworthy of emulation by other cities.

Nothing truly unusual anywhere that computers could pick up, and the situation was sufficiently bizarre for Giles to hope to catch a prophecy here and there about Buffy’s captivity, but no such luck there either. It was almost as though the event hadn’t been foretold. That it was the result of random chance, some unforeseeable occurrence. Giles had heard of chaos theory, but until now had never quite seen it in action.

He did see one thing that frightened him immensely — the world on a balance, with an angel on the other side of the scale. What he could make out indicated the event pictured would come sometime in May. What was terrifying was that, if he read the engraving correctly, ANGEL was supposed to be the one to save the world.

This could prove to be something of a problem, as Angel was, after all, deceased.

Perhaps there were other clues. He examined the engraving more closely …

*                              *                              *

Buffy lay in the bed that at the same time was and was not hers, listening to the local talk radio station. Her father had been in town, seen her, and just left. Spike had tried to tell her that this was because no one cared about her any more; that her mother, her friends and her Watcher had all given up; that none of them even knew she was alive, and in fact were starting to forget about her.

There had been no way Buffy was going to believe that — until her dad saw her and just walked away. He wasn’t a vampire, either; in fact, with so many days with her Slayer sense in constant detection mode, his humanity had shone through powerfully.

And then he’d left. Why? Spike couldn’t be right, he couldn’t …

When they’d set up the video machine, Buffy had actually been grateful for a second, until she realized why they’d done it. She had been forced to watch a succession of movies, which either had themes of despair, apocalypse, or good vampires.

Another attempt at mindnumbing. The Slayer had watched the movies impassively, but at some level the message was seeping through — at least the message she thought Spike wanted her to get. Vampires were good, the end of the world was coming, and there was nothing she could do about it. Nothing.

Was there anything she could do? Spike was trying to make it easy for her to give up. Just go along with it all. In other words, join them and the pressure would be off.

Also, she thought Spike was trying to get her to feel grateful towards him. Three more times Tector Gorch had come in to exact his revenge upon her for killing his brother. Once Buffy beat the crap out of him, but the time after that he caught Buffy asleep and struck her a couple of times before some of the lesser vampires — presumably the ones monitoring Buffy, Spike said there was a videocamera SOMEWHERE in the room — dragged him off kicking and screaming.

Third time had been the charm. Gorch entered, murder in his eyes and a pickaxe in his hand. The Slayer had woken up just in time to avoid having the axe blade crash into her chest. Unfortunately, due to the chains, she couldn’t avoid being hit forever —

Thank God, she didn’t need to. In limped Spike in a towering fury and slammed the cowboy in the back with both fists. He stumbled towards the Slayer, who slammed the pickaxe from his hands and shoved him face-down onto the bed. Then she looked up at Spike, expecting him to call it off. Instead he surprised by saying, “Your call, Slayer. While Mr. Gorch has been a bit of help, recently all he’s been is a bloody damned nuisance. I’ve got a plan he keeps subverting with his desire to rip off your head and use it as a bowling ball. Understandable, true, but somewhat less than helpful. So go ahead and kill him; I certainly have no further use for the fool.” He tossed her a stake.

From his position flattened on the bed, Gorch yelled, “Spike, what the hell are you are doing? Ya promised —”

“I lied.” A brief pause. “Well, Slayer? Are you waiting for Christmas?” Puzzled, she plunged the stake into Tector Gorch, who though struggling like, well, a demon, had been unable to break free. Seconds later he was dust and the Slayer turned to Spike.

“Give it back,” the vampire told her. She snorted and advanced on the head vampire, who simply sneered and pressed the button on the control device in his hand. Hurting, she held it together long enough to throw the stake at him.

He caught it. Damn! The shock ended and she dropped onto the bed in sheer relief. Spike fingered the stake and told her, “There’s gratitude for you. I give you the opportunity to get in a little Slaying and all you do is try to kill me.”

“Seemed the right thing to do at the time.” But, the shock was, she WAS happy that Spike had let her do her job, even for a second. THAT had to be suppressed and buried.

Suppression was something the Slayer was getting horrifyingly good at, these days …

*                              *                              *

Xander was having no luck figuring out who the werewolf was. At first he’d thought it was Larry, but a confrontational encounter with the pre-caveman had led to nothing but the realization that Larry had and probably always would be an aggressive jerk. Of course, he’d derived some personal pleasure from decking the guy, but still —

No progress. He was also worried about Cordy, of course, but she seemed perfectly capable of taking care of herself. She’d killed two — no, three, now — all by her lonesome. Kendra had complained, but Giles had told her bluntly that it had been none of her business. She agreed, but had warned them that she was not responsible for their safety. This was about like telling a monk that he couldn’t have sex with Betty White.

He walked into the library to tell Giles about his frustrating last couple of days. “Hey, G-Man,” he shouted out. “Any progress?”

“All of it bad, unfortunately,” the Watcher answered. “Kendra’s still tracking the werewolf, Jenny hasn’t been able to track down anything on the computer, and I’ve just discovered a prophecy that seems to indicate that the end of the world is at hand unless Angel saves it.” He held up a hand before Xander could say a word. “And I REALIZE the trouble that leaves us in, so don’t bring it up.”

Whoa. Whoa. Deadboy living up to his name, and they need him to save the world. That was just great. “Are you sure?”

“Not entirely. There are hints that it might be —” Giles was interrupted by the sounds of the library door crashing open. Kendra, bloody and wounded, staggered in carrying a large furry creature. Throwing it to the floor, she flopped down herself. “What happened?” the Watcher asked. The Caribbean Queen genuinely seemed upset, almost to the point of tears.

“He — he — he had just broken into a local club and was attacking the people inside. Anger and rage overtook him, and he was about to give in to animal rage. I — I had no choice. I did not want to do it, but I had to! To save lives!”

With a cold, angry certainty, Giles said, “You killed him.”

“I killed him.”

*                              *                              *

That night, Buffy dreamed about a dead monkey.

Part Twenty-Two

Kendra had recovered from the shock of killing the werewolf quickly enough, Giles thought cynically. For a second she’d ALMOST seemed sorry she’d had to do it, but then out came the omelet and eggs metaphors and any pity he felt vanished like a staked vampire.

Giles realized it was unfair of him to be so hard on Kendra, on one level, but on another he didn’t really care. The young woman’s cold cruelty had been what ultimately broke Buffy and left the rest of them to try to put the pieces back together, so tragically unsuccessfully. So now, with Buffy having vanished into captivity by Spike, it had been left up to him to guide a Slayer he disliked immensely through the perils of demon-hunting and vampire Slaying, and he could barely stand the sight of her.

Despite it having been well outside his original purview he found far greater satisfaction in guiding Xander and Cordelia’s search for Buffy — even if they had not yet been successful, at least they had the spare time to try. It was amazing to him how well Xander was handling this. The boy — the man, now — had matured. Unlike Buffy and himself, who had just grown old, this series of tragedies had driven the childish nature out of Xander.

Unfortunately, it had also more or less stripped him of his sense of humor, and annoying as Giles had found that, it was an integral part of his charm. Admittedly, there wasn’t much to laugh at these days; even Jenny’s amused tone was showing up less and less often. Honestly, Jenny and the help he was giving the two teenagers was all that was keeping him sane. Quietly, slowly, he and Jenny Calendar had drifted into a relationship that was far more stable — if a bit less romantic and silly — than the one they’d been building earlier, before the incident with Xander and Ethan Rayne. They were finding out more about each other, about Giles’ secret past — and Jenny’s Rom heritage. He’d been stunned when he discovered that she’d originally come to Sunnydale to watch Angel and assure his unhappiness — but, grateful that she had been willing to share this with him when she had every reason not to, he could not hold it against her.

After the werewolf had been killed, and Cain the werewolf hunter had recovered from his injuries and left town (muttering threats both legal and physical to Giles in an angry, disjointed phone call as he departed), things had been rather quiet. Xander had noticed Amy — the daughter of the witch Catherine the Great — cast a spell on her English teacher, and Jenny had taken care of it by giving the girl a stern talking-to. Afterwards, she’d offered to help her get in touch with someone who could teach her the responsible use of her powers, which left unchecked could turn her into a carbon copy of her mother. Amy had accepted with an alarming alacrity.

Kendra had killed a number of vampires, including a couple of fairly powerful out-of-towners, but Xander and Cordelia’s tactics of capture, threaten, kill hadn’t worked. Either the vampires they caught knew nothing or were too frightened of Spike to say anything. Their tactics were remarkably efficient, however, despite their lack of superhuman strength, speed, or weapons skills. Xander now routinely carried two pistols with him, and while bullets didn’t kill vampires, a well-placed one in heart or head would essentially render it powerless for a LONG time. Still, nothing.

Cordelia. Ah, Cordelia Chase, the one member of their band who still maintained anything of a sense of humor. While her devotion to Xander and the cause was unflagging, her sense of humor had not really passed beyond the insults/self-deprecation stage. It was the only time Xander really seemed happy, engaged in a battle of friendly insults with his girlfriend.

Buffy had been gone well over a month, now. Haltingly, life went on.

Suddenly he flashed on the closing stanza of Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach:

“Ah, love, let us be true to one another! / For the world, which seems / To lie before us like a land of dreams, / So various, so beautiful, so new, / Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain. / And we are here as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight / Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

Clinging. Holding on by their fingernails. Ah, Jenny, let us be true to one another!

*                              *                              *

She’d told them she wouldn’t be able to keep an eye on them if they hunted vampires. Not entirely true. They were amateurs trying to do a job that required a professional, and it was her job to protect them if she could. To do otherwise would smack of spite.

So now — her patrolling on hold for the moment — she observed their sloppy technique and lack of style in bringing down a rookie vampire looking for his first meal. It took the boy two shots with his pistol to hit the bloodsucker in the head, and then the girl staked it. Still, Kendra grudgingly had to concede that they had some skills.

Their luck could not hold out forever, and she planned to be there when it did. Then they would know to leave the Slaying to those who were trained for it. Buffy was as good as dead, and this Spike — who tended to stay in the shadows — was not going to be easy to locate. He was cunning, ruthless, and driven by a need for revenge on Buffy and her friends.

A Slayer having friends. It was so unnatural, so plainly wrong, that the mere concept was as alien as, well, aliens. Leave making clever metaphors to those with the time, talent, and inclination; she had none of the three.

The Watcher was almost as bad. The relationship between Slayer and Watcher was supposed to be a close one, and she and Sam Zabuto meshed well together. He studied and told her what to do, she studied and killed vampires. But this Mr. Giles was arrogant and irritating. He seemed to take her being there as a personal insult instead of treating it as the necessity it was. Kendra knew that he had come to care for Buffy. But emotion had brought down that Slayer and now it was bringing down her Watcher. So he was curt, rude, and gave her what seemed like a bare minimum of information necessary to do her job.

Threatening her life if she insulted Buffy had only gone to show her how far gone Mr. Giles was. There was no need to insult the former Slayer anyway; she had failed at her job, to bring down Spike. All Kendra needed to do was kill the English vampire and the superiority of her unemotional way would be proven.

Of course, he was also calling her in to chase down nonexistent threats. There had been reports of a child-killing demon at the hospital, but when she went through she could not locate the creature. It must have just been the childrens’ imagination. They were notorious for such things, children.

Sam Zabuto had detected signs that another great evil was due to arise in Sunnydale within a couple of months. It was her job to be ready for it when it arose. Until then, she was satisfied.

As expected, the two students got no information out of the newly fledged demon. What could they get? It had been created by a low minion of Spike’s in any event, and could tell them nothing!

Ah well. Time to get back to some REAL Slaying.

*                              *                              *

Spike looked at the monitors. It had been a bloody fantastic stroke of luck to have a turned electronics wizard wander into town, he had to take advantage of it. He’d also designed the electronic shackles currently holding the Slayer.

He took a look in at how dear Buffy Summers was doing. She was in fine physical shape — fine enough that some of the vampires had suggested that as an additional way of torturing the girl. Not a chance in hell. NEVER would he let anyone do that. In fact, he took special pleasure in killing humans of that sort. There was cruelty, and there was sheer sadism.

Plus, his ploys were working fairly well so far. He’d never get a sane Buffy Summers — or Slayer — to join him willingly, and while he knew of spells that would turn the trick, they would not truly serve his purposes.

The sheer torture of it would be that a fully human, magically uncoerced Slayer would ally with him. There were two personalities within the young woman — the normal human being known as Buffy Summers, and the Slayer, a cold, indifferent person interested solely in destroying evil and not caring too much about the collateral damage.

There was not within the girl the capacity for enjoyment of pain, much to Spike’s disgust, but there was a capacity for indifference to it. THAT was what was needed to be brought to the forefront. Keep the Slayer there, and Buffy locked uncomfortably inside, and then pervert her. Pervert the intentions, the goals, the mission of the Slayer.

He looked at his captive pacing in her room. Almost, it was time to bring her another one of his errant underlings to kill. The Slayer did seem quite grateful to get the chance to kill them, happy, almost. And quite grateful to him, too. Good. Off-balance was the key. Keep her not quite knowing which way was up.

Right now, it was anticpation more than anything else eating away at the Slayer. Of course, Spike had locked her radio onto a station that continually played nothing but the light, soothing sounds of the ’70s and ’80s. This was more to irritate her and anger her, making certain the Slayer half of her stayed in the forefront.

Spike was still thinking about what he should do next. Maybe he would have someone re-enact the death of Angel. The only problem with this is that it would also mean re-enacting Drusilla’s death, and there was no way he could bear that.

Of course, he still thought about his dark princess daily, and dreamed of her when he slept. Whenever he almost lost the will to continue — thought about ending it all and going to be with his Dru forever — he looked at Buffy. The Slayer, her murderer. That would mean letting the blonde bitch off the hook, and he couldn’t do that either.

His black goddess spoke to him, sometimes, in his dreams. Maybe tonight she would come up with another inventive way to drive the Slayer mad. Maybe he could reenact it — without Dru’s death? Now there was a thought.

Getting up, he sighed. He had been too long from the hunt. His foot, permanently damaged, kept him from a fast walk and chasing, but nothing stopped him from using deceit. And DRIVING was no problem.

The only thing he had to do was avoid the dubious hunt of the Slayer’s young friends. While they were surprisingly good at killing his offspring, they had no real concept of how to search for a vampire’s lair. And that made them no real problem at all …

They’d find him when he WANTED them to find him. Not a moment before.

*                              *                              *

The ghosts had been possessing people, forcing them to reenact their tragic deaths. Ms.Calendar had tried leading the five of them — Ice Princess Kendra reluctantly agreeing only when Giles made it ABSOLUTELY clear that at least four people were needed — in an exorcism, and it had gotten them chased out of Sunnydale high in a variety of magical ways. Ms. Calendar’s tires had melted into the floor, and Kendra had begun crying uncontrollably.

Most interesting here was when hundreds of snakes had suddenly materialized inside the lunchroom. Xander would have SWORN he’d overheard the king troll mention something about how this was all supposed to end when that troublesome Summers girl had vanished, but that the Hellmouth seemed to be spitting out as much evil as ever. With Giles’ pressure, Kendra had examined Snyder. Pure human. Cordy lost a ten-dollar bet to Xander on THAT one, and Giles didn’t think mere knowledge of the supernatural meant an alliance with vampires.

So Cordy hacked into Snyder’s personal system — while she’d never be half as good as Willow had been, that left a lot of leeway — and found nothing more damning than a few e-mails, from sources more anonymous than she could trace, about needing to keep word about the Hellmouth quiet. A surreptititious break-in to Snyder’s residence — with a merry few minutes spent TP-ing his car and trees, and sticking potatoes up his tailpipe — got nothing more, either, and most definitely no hints of an alliance with the forces of evil.

“Satan doesn’t need allies,” Cordelia muttered, and while Giles and Kendra promised to keep an eye on Snyder, there wasn’t any more they could do. Knowledge of the supernatural was no crime.

It’s just that this was so GODDAMN frustrating, Xander thought as he stood outside the wasp-infested high school. No sign of Buffy in — what — three months now? NO progress in finding her. It was almost like Spike was deliberately feeding them rookies and keeping the experienced vampires well hidden. Even Kendra, better at tracking them, had had little luck picking up any vampires older than a few years.

And he KNEW Buffy was still alive. He’d know if she was dead — if only because Spike would find them and brag about it, if nothing else.

So they trooped on. First thing they had to do was come up with a way to get these ghosts out of the high school.

“Got it,” Giles said. “Or at least I think so. They appear to reenact this one climactic scene over and over again. Why?” Kendra was no help here, as the answer had to do with EMOTIONS. “It ends shortly after the teacher’s representative perishes. So what if the representative survives?”

Body armor! Xander suggested as much, and Giles and Kendra went in to do it over again once Kendra was outfitted with a bulletproof vest. From then on, it went like clockwork, more or less. He was horrified that part of him — a small part — almost hoped that this time the shot hit the head and not the chest. He hadn’t realized he could hate someone as much as he truly disliked Kendra the Vampire Slayer. Not even Snyder inspired that in him. But then, Snyder hadn’t killed or captured one of his best friends.

The ghosts worked out their problems and vanished.

Would that the living could solve their problems so easily.

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