Timeline - for PRLG, right after "Quasar Quest, part 2." For BtVS, shortly before "Lover's Walk." But Angel doesn't figure heavily into this. The prologue, incidentally, occurs during "Wherever You Are." This fanfic is rated TV-14 for language, violence, and some sexual suggestion. Well, it does take place in Sunnydale. "Solidify" is by Sheryl Crow in reality, but the lyrics seemed appropriate. A cybercookie to anyone who guesses just who else from the PR universe I kind of threw in.
Thanks go out to: miko, for clarifying some of the Gingaman plotline ahead of schedule; AleXander Thompson, for his wonderful Buffy transcripts that kept my continuity straight; Spartacus and Catherine Lee for looking over the first draft of this; the folks on a.f.p-r for their discussions on how to explain around the PRLG plotholes; and you, for reading this. Let me know you did and I'll be even more thankful. :) (Translation: Please send feedback!)
"So what's the big deal?" the smaller of the two boys crouched in the bushes muttered to his partner. "We've been sitting here for half an hour and I don't see nothing."
"Trust me, Max," his companion assured him. "It's almost eleven-thirty. She's been coming out here every night this week."
Max rubbed absently at his neck. "She better be. You sure we're not sitting in poison ivy? Cause if I break out again, Benny, I swear--"
"Shh!" Benny elbowed him, pointing. "Here she comes!"
The tall redhead strode towards the water's edge calmly, confidently, her movements as smooth and mercurial as the rippling surface of the lake. She walked like a model striding down the runway, almost as if she was perfectly aware she was being spied on. As she reached the lake, she kicked off her sandals, dipping a toe into the water as if to test it.
"Yeah, yeah, the water's fine, honey," Benny muttered from his vantage point in the bushes. "Go ahead, take a swim. Nobody's gonna see you."
She decided it was sufficient, and after a quick glance about, began to shed her clothes. Instead of hastily shuffling out of her jacket, tank top, and shorts, she took her time, letting each garment drop to the ground. With the last of her clothing discarded on the grass, she dived into the dark water, going under for a moment before resurfacing, her red hair glistening water-slicked against her skull. She treaded water for a few moments, humming some unknown tune before stopping and squinting. If Max didn't know better, he could have sworn she was staring right at them. Almost as if she heard his thoughts, she smiled, her green eyes fixating right on them.
"You two can either watch," she called, "or you can join me."
Both boys froze at that invitation. "No way," Max whispered. "She can't."
"I can see you just fine," she purred, leaning back a bit in the water to give them a better look. Her red hair floated about her in the water like a cloud as she gave them a teasing smile. "Are you two men going to get in here, or am I going to have to swim all by myself?"
Max sat back on his heels, confused. Benny was already stripping off his shirt, murmuring, "Thank you, God, thank you, thank you, thank you..."
"What are you doing?" Max hissed as Benny stood up, stripping down to his boxers. "Isn't this a little too weird?"
Benny glanced over at the woman again, who was floating on her back in the water. "Too weird? There's a naked woman who wants us to go skinny-dipping with her, and all you can say is 'too weird?' Maxie, you can go back and hide under your bed, but I'm not going to pass this up because it's 'too weird.'" He started off, but paused. "You coming?"
Max thought about it. As he did, the woman began to hum again, an odd, eerie melody that she seemed to be making up as she went along. The music seemed to wrap around his brain, smothering the small part of him that was telling him it was wrong. Desire flamed in him all of a sudden, and he began pulling off his shirt.
They thundered into the water at the same time, swimming out towards her. "That's more like it," she commented, letting a slight Germanic accent slip into her voice. As they reached her, the smile on her face became sharklike. "Catch me if you can!" With that, she dived beneath the surface.
"Hey!" Benny cried. "Where the hell'd she go?"
"Probably gonna steal our clothes," Max snapped, treading water and casting about for any sign of the beauty. "I told you this was a bad idea."
"Yeah, well--" Benny stopped, an odd expression on his face. "Whoa! Man, was that you?"
"What are you talking about?" Max cried as something smooth brushed against his legs.
Benny was chuckling. "Guess she's not gonna steal our clothes, huh?"
She surfaced between them, this time only up to her chin. "Believe me, boys, it's not your clothes I want." As Benny and Max grinned, her eyes suddenly flared crimson. "I'd much prefer your lives."
With that, a huge webbed claw punched through the surface of the water, grabbing Benny's head and yanking him under. Max screamed, but he was cut short as a tentacle lashed out of nowhere and coiled around his neck. The woman and the two boys disappeared beneath the surface in a churning, frothing whirlpool of scales and blood. Within a few moments, the struggles subsided and the bubbles faded. It was all over.
Several feet away, up the hill, an old van was parked on the shoulder of the turnpike. The man leaning against the van watched the carnage from afar with jaded disinterest. He lit a cigarette, taking a long drag before blowing out a cloud of blue smoke. "Any time now," he murmured, checking his watch.
As if on cue, the surface rippled, and she rose up from the lake, the water cascading over her hair and shoulders as she stepped onto the shore and gathered up her things, nonchalantly striding towards the van with her clothes in her arms and a satisfied smile on her face. "Have a good swim?" he asked, his voice muffled by the cigarette between his teeth.
She ignored the jibe, her manner all business. "Satisfying." With that, she opened the door and climbed in.
He paused, eyeing the clouds that had suddenly appeared out of nowhere. "Storm be brewing, people," he annnounced as he flicked the cigarette away and opened the driver side door. "Let's move out."
The young man groaned, cracking his eyes open to meet the bright sunlight streaming in through the window. He winced at the sharp pain in his head, shutting his eyes tightly and rolling over again. The last time he'd had such a hangover was the morning after his twenty-first birthday. Of course, he hadn't been on active duty then.
Mike Corbett opened his eyes again, suddenly awake. Sunlight? On the space station, there was a decent artificial weather system, but the last time he checked his quarters were on the lower level.
He sat straight up, blinking as his surroundings came into focus. Instead of his quarters on Terra Venture, he was lying in bed in someone else's bedroom, with the sunlight pouring in from the window beside his bed. Sitting up, he could glimpse through the window the trimmed lawns and neat sidewalks of a suburban street. For a few seconds, Mike just stared around him in utter confusion, wondering where he was and how he had come there.
As he rubbed the sleep from his eyes, memory finally surfaced. The previous night was a montage of blurry images - being roused and helped out to a car, trying to stay awake during the drive, being ushered into an apartment. He somehow remembered having the strength to get a shower before collapsing into bed.
"So it wasn't a dream," he mumbled hoarsely. "Damn."
His pants and a clean black t-shirt were draped over a nearby chair. Groaning, Mike swung his legs out of bed, forcing himself to stand up despite the stiffness in his back and legs. He stretched, trying to ignore the complaints in his muscles, and got a decent look at himself in the mirror. Mike made a face as he gingerly touched the bandaged cut on his forehead; it was still a little tender. For the most part, he looked like a punching bag, but it was mostly a few scattered cuts and bruises. Considering what had happened, he was lucky.
Snapping himself back into reality, he pulled on the clean clothes, relieved to find that they fit, and then his old sneakers that had been left by the bed. Kai would have had a fit if he knew that Mike had gotten away with black Nikes instead of the regulation shoes, but no one had ever noticed when he reported for duty.
He stopped at that thought, trying to gather up the reality of his situation. As far as Kai knew, he was dead and gone. Same for Kendrix, Maya, Damon, and Leo. Leo, who was probably giving himself the mother of all guilt trips right now. His younger brother was anything but a stickler for the rules, but when it came down to it he cared about what mattered. Maybe too much. Mike sighed, wishing he could just call up Leo and tell him he was all right, that he wasn't dead.
Then if that was true, where the hell was he? Mike had grown up in California, and he'd never heard of a town called Sunnydale. Not that he knew every town in the state. But something still seemed off. He remembered what the blonde - Buffy, what a name - had called him: "a Starship Troopers extra."
She hadn't recognized the uniform. With the massive media circus that had revolved around the formation of the GSA and then Terra Venture's launching, you'd have to live under a rock not to recognize it. So if he'd fallen into a portal to Earth somehow, this Earth was one that didn't have either the station or the GSA. Maybe it was some sort of time hole?
His headache was getting worse the more he tried to puzzle it over. Down the hall, he could hear voices and smell something cooking. Sighing, Mike stumbled into the bathroom, splashing some cold water on his face and combing his hair out of his eyes with his fingers before turning towards the stairs. Any speculation could wait until after breakfast.
"Don't you ever knock?" Giles did not look up from the stove as Buffy walked into the kitchen, having entered on her own.
Buffy showed not a twinge of guilt as Xander appeared beside her, with Cordelia in tow. "You didn't lock your door."
Xander spotted the bacon and eggs, and his eyes lit up. "Hey, new diet, Giles? Care to share with the rest of us?"
"Translation: Mind letting Xander inhale all of it?" Cordelia put in. At the wounded look he gave her, she sighed. "Oh, come on. We've all seen you eat."
Glancing at the clock, Giles sighed. "I may just have to." He turned off the stove, scraping some of the scrambled eggs onto a plate, offering some to Xander and Buffy in turn. "I'll pass," Cordelia said as he glanced at her. "I'm trying to cut out fat in my diet."
Xander snorted. "You don't know what you're missing."
"You eat enough for the both of us." As Giles continued to look at her expectantly, she sighed. "Maybe some orange juice. But not the kind with the little bits of pulp floating in it."
The Watcher sighed. "It's not as if there isn't enough to go around." He passed her a glass of orange juice, and she immediately took a seat.
"Oh, yeah," Buffy said, sitting down at the kitchen table. "How's Sleeping Beauty doing?"
"Still sleeping, I believe," Giles said as Xander sat down beside Cordelia. He set plates in front of them and reached for the teapot. "I thought I heard something moving upstairs, but he hasn't emerged yet."
Cordelia frowned. "So any idea who this guy is?"
"Uh, no, Cordy, he didn't give us his life story," Xander spoke between mouthfuls of food as he shoveled it down.
"I meant, like a demon in disguise," she retorted. "You know, along the lines of ugly, hairy, follicle-handicapped, vicious things?"
Buffy couldn't suppress a small smile. "Oh, no, it's not like we ever get any of those around here."
"We can rule out nocturnal demons," Giles answered. "The window in the guest room lets quite a bit of sunlight in, and when I checked it didn't affect him."
"I don't know," Xander said, still speaking with his mouth full. "Maybe some demon sent him or something." As Giles shot him a look, he added, "These are good eggs."
Shaking his head, Giles finished pouring the tea and sat down across from them, a steaming mug in his hands. "I'm not entirely sure. The storm that accompanied his arrival had a rather familiar configuration; it was fairly reminiscent of the energy discharge from a spell of summoning. However, supernatural creatures are often summoned."
"I didn't pick up anything weird about him," Buffy said. "Aside from the fact he fell out of a vortex."
"Not to mention that outfit," Cordelia added. "Talk about a Star Wars reject."
"Starship Troopers," Buffy corrected her.
Cordelia sipped at the juice cautiously. "Whatever, they're all the same."
Giles set down the tea. "Funny you should mention clothing." Standing up, he went into the living room. He returned with an olive colored jacket in his hands. "This jacket looked oddly military. Xander, you wouldn't recall anything from the - er, the Halloween incident - that could corroborate this?"
Xander took the jacket from him, looking it over. "Doesn't look familiar." He turned it over, peering at the insignia on the sleeve. "Hey, there's a logo here: 'GSA.' I don't know what that stands for."
"Greater Soccer Association?" Cordelia suggested. "Well," she added defensively, "I've heard of them."
"Galactic Security Agency," a voice answered. They all turned to see a very tired Mike standing in the doorway. There was a brief moment of tension before he yawned and shrugged tiredly. "That's what it was last week, at least."
Xander opened his mouth to comment, but Cordelia kicked him before he could put his foot in it. Buffy spoke up before either of them could say something tactless. "How long have you been standing there?"
"Couple minutes. Not long." He shook his head to clear it, yawning again. "There enough for five?"
"There's enough for an army," Cordelia observed, shooting Giles a look. The Watcher merely raised an eyebrow in response. "If you sit down now," she added, checking her watch, "you might get some before Xander inhales it all."
Xander shook his fork at her, nearly flicking bits of egg on the table. "I'm a growing boy." She smiled over her glass of orange juice. Shaking his head, Mike pulled up a chair.
Regaining his composure, Giles passed a plate over to Mike. "I - I take it you slept well?"
"Like the dead," Mike answered.
Xander started coughing at that, and was silenced by another swift kick from Cordelia. "Ow! Watch it, Cordy, I kind of like having my ankles intact."
At Mike's questioning look, Buffy shrugged and smiled. "Bad choice of words."
Mike was silent for a long moment before speaking. "I'm not - I'm not a demon or anything. At least, not the last time I checked."
"Hmm?" Xander answered, feigning confusion well through a mouthful of scrambled eggs.
"When the people you're staying with talk about demons and the supernatural like it's an everyday thing," Mike continued, rubbing his eyes, "it's kind of hard not to listen in."
Buffy sighed. "So much for pretending this was a normal morning."
Xander finally spoke without a full mouth. "Hey, somebody had to say it."
"Look," Mike interrupted, "I don't know what's going on or what the hell I'm doing here, but I'm guessing you know a bit more than I do."
"Perhaps," Giles admitted, removing his glasses briefly to clean them - the usual routine prior to an uncomfortable explanation. "Your appearance, such as it was, doesn't rank as one of the more odd occurrences in Sunnydale in the past few years. It's a long story, really, you see--"
Before he could launch into a long and fairly awkward explanation, Xander swallowed his mouthful and cut in. "Vampires are real. A lot of them live in Sunnydale. Buffy kills them. Has a lot to do with the fact the Mouth of Hell's right under this town."
"Okay, maybe not so long," Buffy added.
"Thank you, Xander," Giles snapped, putting his glasses back on. "I think."
Mike's reaction was probably the most profound response one could make. "Oh."
His gaze flicked to Buffy, who nodded, her expression sincere. "It's true. I know it sounds weird, but it's true."
For a few moments, he simply sat there, going over something in his mind. "No," Mike finally decided, shaking his head. "It's not that weird. Not this week." Something else occurred to him. "What's the date?"
"November 22," Cordelia replied promptly. Seeing that the answer wasn't entirely satisfying, she added, "Uh, 1998." Mike winced. "Was that wrong?"
His only response was to groan and put his head in his hands.
Buffy reached over and took the jacket from Xander, inspecting the logo thoughtfully. "Galactic Security Agency," she repeated, turning to Mike. "I'm guessing that wasn't the date on your calendar."
He didn't lift his head. "Nope."
Giles waited a few moments before breaking the confused silence that followed. "I suppose that we all have quite a bit of explaining to do. That is," he added, "if we have any hope of figuring out what's going on."
The reaction was not very promising. Xander immediately dug back into the eggs. Cordelia became suddenly interested in her nails. Buffy looked up at the ceiling. Mike did not lift his head and appeared to be deep in concentration. From Giles' experience, the young man was most likely wondering what crime he'd committed in another life to deserve this kind of mess. Giles had pondered that several times himself.
Buffy's ceiling contemplation was brief, since no one seemed all that eager to jump in. "Okay," the Slayer decided. "How about we discuss after breakfast?"
No one had any cause to argue.
"This is IT?"
Sticking his head out the window like a dog panting for air, Malik peered at the landscape in disbelief. Considering he was driving the van that was cruising past the rather worn "Welcome to Sunnydale" sign into town, it was surprising that the vehicle was moving in a straight line.
A hand shot out, grabbed a fistful of his dreadlocks and yanked him back into the cab. "Dammit, eyes on the road!"
"Owowowow! Knock it off, woman!" He recovered fairly gracefully, pulling over beside the curb before anything worse could happen. "And I use the term lightly," he added as she loosened her grip. "'Sides, Lori, you got to admit. This does not look like the place."
She did not answer, but opened the door and stepped out into the cool early-morning air, her eyes scanning for something that only she could see. For a few moments, she was silent as the other four occupants of the van stepped out as well. "You've got a point," she muttered reluctantly, looking disparagingly at the tame-looking scenery. "Although..."
"This is it," a voice interrupted. The petite girl grinned, her smile a baring of teeth. "We're almost on top of the focus. Can't you just taste it?" she squealed, spinning around with arms wide as if to embrace everything around her. "We're going to have a blast."
"Someone's had too much caffeine," Malik muttered.
But Lori was shaking her head, lost in her own thoughts. "Don't underestimate her," she responded quietly. "Not after the stunt she pulled in Cleveland. She's as valuable as any of us."
He nodded, lowering his voice. "So what's the plan this time, babe? Get a packed house, feed, and split before they catch on?"
She chuckled at that. "They never catch on, you know that. But here...I think we should take a different approach."
"What happened last night?" Oz asked as his girlfriend stumbled towards the front doors of Sunnydale High, trying to balance the ten or so books in her arms. Sighing, he reached over and took a good portion of the stack from her hands, hefting it with more ease than she. "Other than the usual?"
"Oz, you don't have to carry all that!" Willow exclaimed, pouting a bit. "I can do it quite well by myself, thank you very much."
He smiled fondly at that as they reached the front door. "Yeah, but now you get to open the door for me."
Before she could act, the door swung open. "What took you guys so long?" Buffy asked.
"Buffy, I was going to open it," Willow pouted. "And we're not that late."
"I know." The Slayer shrugged as the two teenagers entered the building. "But I'm so used to being the one late for everything that I just wanted to say that."
"Like I was asking Will, what did I miss?" Oz asked as they followed Buffy down the corridor.
"Same old, same old," Buffy answered. "Patrolled, staked a few vamps, although Giles didn't find any prophecies to worry about. Although we know that electrical storm couldn't have been natural."
Oz raised an eyebrow. "That storm shorted out the power at the Bronze for half an hour. If it wasn't natural, what caused it?"
"We don't know," Willow confessed. "But then it opened up this weird gray vortex in the middle of the library and this guy fell out."
"On the Hellmouth, that can't be a coincidence," Buffy added.
Something occurred to Willow. "You find anything out about Mike yet?" At Oz's questioning look, she explained, "The guy who fell out of the vortex."
"Aside from the fact that he eats like Xander, not much. That's kind of what Giles called everybody down here to discuss." Buffy paused as the meaning of Oz's uncharacteristically wordy statement sunk in. "The power went out for half an hour? How long was it before the rioting started?"
Oz shrugged. "Forty-three seconds. Must be a record." He stopped at the doors of the library and looked at his girlfriend expectantly. "Willow?"
Grinning, Willow pulled the door open as Buffy took some of Oz's burden. "Forty-three seconds?" Willow repeated as they walked into the library. "Wow. Either not a lot of people were drunk or they were so smashed it took a while to figure out the power was gone."
"It was after one a.m.," Oz reminded her.
"I'll take 'too smashed' for $200, Alex," Buffy quipped as Giles came out of the office. "Where do you want these?"
"Anywhere will do," Giles responded, wiping his brow. "They still haven't fixed the air conditioning system."
"Don't remind me," Cordelia moaned melodramatically, emerging from the stacks with Xander in tow. She fanned herself with a magazine, flopping into a chair. "November never seems to go below seventy-eight. It feels so gross in here!"
From their slightly disheveled states, it wasn't just the lack of air conditioning that had raised Cordelia's temperature. Giles raised an eyebrow, and Xander looked a little embarrassed. "Well, uh, it is kind of hot in here."
Out of the corner of her eye, Buffy could see the strange expression on Willow's face. She seemed disappointed, but almost...relieved, in a way. Buffy made a mental note to ask her friend if something was wrong. Willow had gotten over Xander a while ago, as far as anyone knew.
Mike emerged from the shelves on the other end of the library, where the few non-occult references were housed. He was flipping through the 1997 Almanac and looked thoroughly perplexed. "This doesn't make sense," he muttered. Giles cleared his throat, and Mike looked up, dazed. "Oh."
"Sorry," Buffy apologized. "Thought you'd like to know people were staring." As Willow cleared her throat, she added. "Oh, yeah. Mike, meet Oz. Oz, this is Mike, uh--"
"Corbett," Mike repeated for the third time that day. "How many people know about this?"
"Historically, the Slayer and her Watcher worked in secret," Giles started. "But from time to time, others have found out. It actually has been rather helpful."
Oz smiled ever so slightly. "Giles can't get rid of us."
Mike chuckled and turned his attention back to the almanac, looking somewhat perplexed. "What do you mean, it doesn't make sense?" Willow asked, bringing them back to the subject at hand.
Sighing, Mike ran a hand through his hair, setting the almanac down on the table. "It's not that I don't understand what I'm reading, it's just that a lot of things here didn't happen in 1997. Not for me, anyway."
Before anyone could react to that, another voice interrupted. "New blood?"
Everyone but Cordelia, who was still fanning herself, turned.
Leaning casually against the doorframe, the speaker smiled lazily. Mike managed to keep himself from staring, but he couldn't help giving her an appraising look. The girl standing there reminded him somehow of Maya, but any reason why she would completely escaped him - aside from the fact that she was gorgeous.
As he caught himself, he didn't notice that she was sizing him up as well, nor did he notice the appreciative look she shot Buffy. The blonde rolled her eyes.
"Nice of you to join us, Faith," Giles greeted calmly, without a trace of sarcasm.
"Could have used you last night," Buffy added as Faith strode over to join them.
The casual smile faded from Faith's face at that. "I - kind of had some personal stuff." At the concerned looks on Buffy and Giles' faces, she added hastily, "Couple of drunks in room 8 decided to come party with the girl next door."
"Didn't get very far?" Xander asked.
Faith snorted derisively. "I'm not their idea of the 'girl next door.'" Even Willow managed a small smile at that. "Like I said, who's this?"
Buffy sighed, pointing at people in turn. "Okay. Faith, Mike Corbett. Mike, Faith." She folded her arms. "Introductions done."
Unsatisfied, Faith turned to stare at Giles.
"Well, ah, Mike just seemed to drop in on us during the storm last night," Giles explained. "In a manner of speaking."
Cordelia translated. "Vortex opened up, he dropped out." Faith nodded, seeming unsurprised.
Mike shook his head. "Nothing surprises you people, does it?"
Willow, Xander, and Buffy answered in unison. "No."
Faith leaned against the table, almost sitting on top of it. "So what's the sitch, B?" she asked. "We gotta stop some demon from taking over the world?"
"The same thing we do every night, Pinky," Xander put in. Then he paused at the lack of reaction. "That joke doesn't work as well backwards, does it?"
"Not unless you're dyslexic," Cordelia shot back. "Oh, wait a minute..."
"Nothing so immediate." Giles answered the question, ignoring the two teenagers. "We're mainly trying to discover how, exactly, Mike ended up in Sunnydale. The storm that preceded his arrival had a somewhat familiar configuration."
Faith eyed the pile of books on the table with more than a touch of disdain before straightening up. "Sounds like a blast, but I've got stuff to do."
Giles was removing his glasses as he spoke. "Now - now, Faith, I honestly don't think--"
She didn't slow her pace a bit, calling out to Buffy as she walked out. "Patrol tonight?"
Buffy smiled. "Major slayage as always."
Faith strode to the door, opened it, and then paused, turning to Mike. "See you around, Corbett." With that, she was gone.
"All right," Mike began. "What, exactly, was that?"
"That was Faith," Buffy answered. "Slayer number two."
Beside her, Xander seemed to be in a trance. Cordelia nudged him, and he jumped in surprise. "You know, I think I might just try the stake-to-the-throat idea," the May Queen mused.
He grinned playfully. "Promise?"
Giles cleared his throat. "At this rate, I'm ready to start swinging about a battleax. Can we please return to the topic at hand here?" In the resulting silence, he nodded. "Good. Now about that almanac--" He stopped, recalling their conversation at breakfast. "What was the date before you landed here, so to speak?"
"November 21," Mike answered. "2006." Even Oz seemed mildly surprised at that, albeit only momentarily.
A few seconds passed before Xander broke the silence. "Sooo...that's eight years from now." He glanced over at Willow, half expecting her to correct him.
"Guess that explains the outfit," Buffy commented.
"I'm sorry," Cordelia interrupted. "But I do not want to live in a future with that absolute lack of fashion sense."
"So you're from the future," Oz repeated.
"Not from this future," Mike corrected. "Half the stuff that I know happened in 1998 either didn't happen or turned out completely different."
"It - it could just be inaccurate editions," Willow offered. "You know, when they make mistakes like spelling the Prime Minister's name wrong and flipping pictures around and, uh, that sort of thing."
Mike shook his head. "I doubt it. This is too far off." At the blank looks he got, he added, "According to my history: the Unabomber was some religious nut named Bill Gates, Monica Lewinsky had an affair with Newt Gingrich, Saddam Hussein aimed missiles at the '95 World Teen Summit and managed to blow himself up instead." He paused before finishing. "...and a bunch of aliens tried to nuke my hometown in '98. Same old, same old."
"I'm going to go out on a limb here," Xander guessed, "and say we're not dealing with typos."
"From what you're telling us, it sounds as though you're describing an alternate timeline of sorts," Giles proposed, starting to pace.
Willow pursed her lips thoughtfully. "Alternate timeline? Like alternate dimensions on Star Trek?"
"Possibly," Giles answered. "There are a few vague records of attempts to create temporal or spacial folds that result in - ah - interdimensional travel, I suppose. But that can only be achieved by either a supernatural force or someone with experience in complex magical arts."
"I fell into a crevice on an unknown planet," Mike put in, repeating himself from the previous night. "I don't know a thing about magic, and I'm still not completely buying what you told me at breakfast."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Xander interrupted. Cordelia elbowed him.
Mike continued, ignoring the jibe. "But everything that happened was so bizarre--" He trailed off helplessly, staring at the tabletop.
"What were you doing on some unknown planet anyway?" Buffy asked.
Mike's gaze remained fixated on the table. "We followed a girl through a portal on the moon."
"Ooookay," Cordelia added skeptically, "so what were you doing on the moon?"
At that, Mike closed his eyes and sighed deeply. "Looking for Jimmy Hoffa," he replied sarcastically before shaking his head. "It was a final training exercise, all right?"
It was Giles who broke the long silence that followed, putting a reassuring hand on the younger man's shoulder. "Perhaps you should start from the beginning."
The Mayor did not look up as his next meeting entered his office. The curtains were appropriately drawn, plunging the room into darkness. "3:32 p.m. You're late."
Closing the door behind him, his visitor finally removed the long hooded coat and gloves, tossing them on the chair. "Evening meetings are more my style."
"If there's one thing that bothers me," Wilkins answered casually as he finished sorting papers, "it's a lack of cleanliness. But tardiness is right below that on the scale."
Trick chuckled. As bizarre as the Mayor of Sunnydale was, he liked the man's style too much to be put off by him. "It's not easy to cross town in a winter coat and gloves and still be...inconspicuous." He inclined his head at the air conditioner, which was blaring full blast. "I'm guessing this is important, enough to risk my life going out in broad daylight."
"Touche." Wilkins began to pace. "Under normal circumstances, my friend, I would have waited til sunset. But something rather last-minute has come up, and I'd like some of your men to look into it tonight."
The vampire did not sit down, but sought out a dark corner of the room, shadowed enough so that he could take cover if someone *accidentally* threw the curtains open. "I'm listening. What?"
"That brief electrical interference last night, to be exact," the Mayor explained. "The last time I saw a storm of that configuration, it usually accompanied a summoning, or a demon escaping its prison. Now I don't know about a summoning, but I don't have any sacrifices scheduled until a week from now. Besides, I've just been informed that a very important guest is coming into town. Anything more just throws off my entire itinerary."
Trick raised an eyebrow. "So somebody on your list got a little impatient."
"Maybe." Wilkins folded his arms. "And if that's true, I want it dealt with."
"I thought you always kept your campaign promises."
"Of course I do," Wilkins declared as he crossed the room and pulled the bottle of Scotch out of the cupboard. "But only if my clients keep theirs. Really, a man can't adequately govern without some form of organization. And since the eye of the storm was almost directly above the Hellmouth..."
Grinning, Trick shifted into his game face, his eyes like pinpricks of yellow light. "Then I'd better go renew my library card."
As Faith slammed the vampire's head into the concrete, she heard a familiar grunt and the faint hiss of the undead becoming dust. "Kind of late, aren't you, B?"
Buffy spun to block the next vampire's punch as Faith finally ceased her pounding and drove a stake through the half-conscious vampire in her grasp. "You missed a really good story."
For once, Faith didn't waste any time in dusting the next vampire that came at her. "Uh-huh. When Giles pulls out the books, it's time to go slay."
Turning, Buffy punched and staked the last one, leaving just the two of them in the alley. "Kind of. But I don't think they're going to find anything in Giles' books. They'd do better in the sci-fi section."
"Sci-fi?" Faith tried and failed to hide her interest. "Okay, B, you got me curious. Spill."
Buffy stopped and looked at her oddly. "Why are you so interested?"
"He's kind of hot, and I'm bored."
Buffy could only stare at her. "What?"
"Come on, B," Faith added. "He's got a nice ass, you've got to admit."
"I didn't really stop to check," Buffy answered, laughing in disbelief. "You're kidding."
"Look at the menu again," Faith pointed out. "You got Angel, sure, but the Hellmouth is the only thing this town's got going for it."
"That's not exactly how I'd put it." Buffy would have said more had not someone stepped from the shadows behind Faith. "Took you long enough."
She was speaking elsewhere, and Faith turned, turning serious she saw who it was. "Speak of the devil. Um, figuratively."
Still focusing on Buffy, Angel didn't take offense. "Sorry," he apologized quietly. "I had a few things to take care of."
"Doesn't everybody?" Buffy murmured.
Faith cleared her throat. "Earth to Buffy. Either give me details or we go find something to stake."
"What? Oh, yeah, Mike." Turning to Angel, she explained, "We got a really weird story out of the guy from last night, and I don't think Giles' books will cover it."
Angel frowned. "That's a first."
"Giles thinks he's from an alternate timeline," Buffy began as the three crossed the street, heading towards one of the many cemeteries in Sunnydale's city limits. "Last he checked, it was 2006, and a lot of stuff that happened for us didn't happen for him."
"So?" Faith asked.
Buffy sighed. "Three words: Monica and Newt Gingrich."
"That's four words," Angel corrected, smiling slightly.
Faith made a face. "That was an image I didn't need."
"Anyway, it's kind of a long, weird story why, but he was on this space station, ended up on some other planet, fell into a pit, and landed here." She paused for only a beat before adding, "Where are they already?"
It took the other two a second to realize what she was talking about. "I don't know," Angel answered. "You'd think we would have been attacked by now."
"It's been a slow night," Faith added. "Like I said, I'm bored. Patrol's been quiet."
Angel turned to meet Buffy's gaze. "Too quiet."
It didn't take a psychic for her to know what he was thinking. "Oh, God," Buffy cried, "not again!"
Something had gone wrong. Something had gone terribly wrong.
This was not his world. It was not his resting place. And he remained in energy form, as insubstantial as the mist. He clenched a fist - what passed for a fist - in frustration. Where was this place, and how had he come here, instead of transferring his life force? He should have been free and at full strength again, not a specter in some unknown place.
But the power was still with him. He simply lacked the substance to complement it. Which meant that something must have interfered in his attempt to escape from his prison. Casting about, he suddenly sensed what he was looking for.
It was not far away, a mile at the most, and it emanated great power. Dark power, a wellspring of it, taking in power and letting it sift through the cracks at the same time. Its energy was muffled, like a portal that had been temporarily shut but ready to burst open at any moment. But as evil as it felt, and as muffled as it was, its influence had been great enough to interfere with the transfer and pull him here.
But not just him. He was growing more and more aware by the minute, and he suddenly knew. The host he had chosen was also nearby. If not for the faint connection he had established, he would not have known.
Awake, his chosen would probably not agree to it so readily. But there was no other way. The mergence of life forces had already begun, and he would see it finished.
He had waited too long, and come too close, to let it go now. Right and wrong be damned; his enemies had to pay. No matter what it took.
With that, the Defender faded from sight.
"Next up...middle name?"
"You really need to know that?" Mike asked. At Willow's nod, he sighed. "Oh, hell, I'll forget a fake one anyway. Edgar." Xander started chuckling.
Sitting across from the laptop that Willow was working at, Cordelia asked loudly, "What are you laughing at, Xander LaVelle Harris?"
It was Mike's turn to snicker as Xander wandered over to peer over Willow's free shoulder. "That's it, mock my parents' cruelty. What're you up to?"
"Making some fake IDs," Willow answered. "If Mike's going to be here for a while, he's going to need identification, medical records, that kind of stuff. Oz knows someone who can do the IDs," she added, anticipating Xander's next question. "I'm just filling in the records."
Xander turned to Oz hopefully, but the musician was already shaking his head.
Willow glanced up from the computer. "Date of birth?"
"March 15..." Mike broke off, realizing something. "Wait, I'd have to push it back eight years. March 15, 1973."
Cordelia perked up. "'73? Maybe you should make the food runs for us." She glanced over at Xander as she added, "You could get us more than just donuts."
"You wound me, Cordy," Xander answered, turning back to Willow. "And you make him legal? Doesn't our long-time bond of friendship mean anything to you, Will?"
"Give her a break," Mike told him. "She's not making me anything. I'm twenty-five." To Willow, he added, "You're sure you can get away with this."
It was Giles who provided an answer. "I don't see why not," the Watcher said as he emerged from the book cage. "The police in Sunnydale regularly seem to ignore the implications of the high murder rate here. I doubt they'd bother much with background checks."
"Well, I'm going to be thorough," Willow declared. "Okay, place of birth."
Mike thought about it for a minute. Angel Grove was nowhere on the map, so he couldn't put down an honest answer. "Ummm...Northridge. We lived there a few years."
"Mike and Catherine Corbett."
"Mother's maiden name?"
"You've got to be kidding."
"O'Donnell," Mike answered as the doors to the library were violently kicked open. "Oh, shit."
Giles looked up to see half a dozen vampires swarming into the library. "Not again," the Watcher murmured as he snatched up the nearest cross he could find. Cordelia shrieked and dived beneath the table as the vampires attacked.
Mike turned in time to see a fist headed straight for his face. He didn't have time to dodge, and the vampire caught him in the shoulder, sending him flying into the railing. Dazed, he stumbled to his feet as someone grabbed him by the shirt, lifting him into the air.
He looked up to see a twisted parody of a female face, now shriveled and warped with glowing yellow eyes. "New in town?" she purred, opening her mouth to reveal gleaming fangs.
It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what she was up to. "None of your business," Mike gasped, slamming a knee into her stomach. Surprised, she lost her grip on him and stumbled back a step, lunged for him again, and promptly exploded into nothingness.
Cordelia was standing there, having staked her with a pencil. She scowled at the pile of dust on the floor. "Slut."
Xander was grappling with another vampire, who hadn't noticed that the teenager already had a stake on him. With a grunt, he managed to twist around in time to drive the stake through his attacker's heart. The vampire's fangs were just about to sink into his flesh when they - and their owner - turned to dust.
"Stake through the heart," Mike muttered as he ducked another punch, delivering a roundhouse kick to his assailant's gut. "Got it." He made a mental note to thank his parents for letting him and his brother take martial arts in the first place, if he ever saw them again.
Clutching the laptop to her chest, Willow suddenly found herself backed into a corner by another vampire. Before he could pounce, though, Oz smashed a chair over the vampire's head. It barely fazed the vampire, but it distracted him enough for Willow to snatch up the splintered chair leg and stake the vampire with it.
Giles was suddenly beside Mike, fending off a vampire with a wooden cross. "This is ludicrous," the Watcher muttered as he shoved a stake and a bottle into Mike's hand. "We're eventually going to run out of chairs if this keeps up." Having said that, he turned to face a new attacker.
Mike caught a glimpse of the bottle's label. Holy water. It figured.
Something grabbed him from behind, and the stake slipped from his grasp. Still holding on to the bottle, Mike elbowed his attacker in the gut, breaking free and turning to face the vampire. The stake was out of his reach, so he dashed the bottle in the vampire's face.
With a howl of pain, the vampire staggered back, covering his face with his hands. Mike dropped to the ground, sweeping the vampire's legs out from under him. As his attacker crashed to the floor, Mike snatched up the stake and jumped to his feet, driving it through the vampire's chest. For a split second, he feared he'd missed the heart, but was relieved as the vampire collapsed into dust.
The next thing he knew, someone grabbed him by the shoulders and promptly threw him over the railing. Mike crashed into a bookshelf and crumpled to the floor with a groan.
It was a moment before he managed to lift his head and check to see how bad of a bump he'd gotten. It wasn't bleeding, but it felt tender. Mike cursed under his breath, then noticed that for the moment, he was being ignored.
He staggered to his feet, leaning against the railing for support. One of the vampires noticed him and charged. Mike silently prayed to whatever deity was listening, and somehow managed a wobbly tornado kick. By sheer luck it landed on target, sending the vampire flying backwards. But Mike was knocked off balance as well, and spun around, barely catching himself on the railing before he could flip over it again.
The sight that greeted him was not what he expected at all.
Over the central table, a patch of air was rippling, shimmering and distorting like an invisible wave of heat. The distortion seemed to take on a vaguely humanoid shape, standing right in the middle of the table - right above the Hellmouth. A few wisps of ghostly light shimmered at its edges, intensifying to outline the figure as it turned, surveying the room.
All activity in the library ceased as everyone, human and vampire alike, spotted the apparition. While the figure remained indistinct and faceless, Mike knew the moment its eyes locked on him. An icy chill went through him, and it felt as though its gaze had him bolted to the floor, unable to move. The specter lifted a hand to point at him, and then flickered and blurred away, gone as swiftly as it had come.
The entire performance had only lasted seven seconds.
"What the f--" one of the vampires began, briefly forgetting he was supposed to be attacking Giles. His epithet was cut short as the Watcher shoved a stake through his chest from behind.
The simple gesture automatically snapped Mike back into reality. But as he spun to face his opponent again, he was saved the trouble as Faith punched and staked the vampire. "Thanks," he managed, catching himself on the railing.
"No prob," she answered before turning to deck another attacker.
Down by the office, Buffy was doing a similar favor for Giles, while Angel gave Willow time to hide the laptop. Faith vaulted over the railing, landing almost on top of a vampire. She backhanded the startled vampire in the face, then grabbed him by the lapels of his jacket and slammed his head into the table before staking him. The remaining vampires took one look at the piles of dust and took off running. It was all over in a few minutes.
Stumbling to his feet, Giles literally dusted himself off. "Is everyone all right?"
"We're fine," Oz answered, sinking into a chair beside Willow.
"Oh yeah," Xander groaned, sitting up. "It's not like I need my spleen for anything, right?" Cordelia sighed and knelt down beside him.
Still leaning against the railing, Mike swallowed, trying to get his bearings. "Buffy?"
The Slayer blinked. "What?"
"Now I'm buying it."
"Nothing taken from the office, the bookcage, or the shelves." Willow ticked off the inventory on her fingers as she spoke. "Giles checked through everything. Every cross, every stake, every weird little artifact was in its place."
"You're kidding," Buffy said, jiggling the handle of the locker uselessly. "They have to have taken something."
Willow shook her head. "We looked through everything while you guys went back on patrol."
The Slayer scowled at her locker. "I swear, Snyder deliberately picked out the worst locker in the whole school for me." She sighed and switched back to the topic at hand. "So, any clue on what they were after?"
"Well, Giles is looking into stuff on ghosts," Willow offered, earning a confused look from Buffy. "There was that ghostly thing that appeared last night, and it popped up right over the Hellmouth, and right where Mike landed."
Buffy gave up trying to jimmy her locker open, delivering a swift kick to a certain spot on the door. It swung open easily, and she swapped books and notebooks before shutting it again a moment later. "Mmmm. So, in other words, Giles doesn't know what's going on."
"Not really," Willow explained. "I think he has a clue. He had that look he gets when something seems really familiar to him, but it'll take him a day or two to find it in his books." She frowned. "Then he got the look he gets when he thought he was on to something and he has to start over."
"Really?" Buffy asked.
Willow nodded. "Mike was looking through the want ads when I left."
Buffy nodded understandingly as someone came up behind Willow and wrapped his arms around her waist. The petite redhead almost jumped in surprise before she realized who it was, leaning back into his embrace. "Oz," Willow admonished, smiling, "you scared me."
"You don't look all that scared," the musician answered.
Buffy smiled in spite of herself. "PDA alert, guys. Break it up." Shaking his head, Oz let go of Willow before an administrator could catch them. "So how's the IDs coming?"
"Dropped them off at Giles' during lunch," Oz responded.
The two girls gaped at him as they edged their way to the wall, out of the flow of traffic. "They're done?" Willow asked incredulously.
Oz leaned back against the wall. "The man works fast."
"No way," Buffy retorted. "Nothing gets done that fast in Sunnydale."
"Nothing good, anyway," Willow added. "And I guess this is illegal, technically, but it's still a good thing."
Oz nodded as Buffy checked her watch and led them back into the flow of traffic. "Technically."
The subject was temporarily dropped as they weaved their way through the stampede of students, until finally they reached Buffy's goal. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't this the office?" Willow asked.
Buffy nodded. "Yep. The domain of Snyder." At their confused looks, she added, "Turns out I didn't finish all the hours of counseling I had to get when Platt got killed. And now that they got that new guy, Mr. Stone, Snyder's making me finish it up after school just to satisfy his sadistic tendencies."
As they entered the office, Oz winced. "The excitement continues."
"Yeah, well, if he'll get off my back--" Buffy broke off as she realized just who was sitting in the waiting area. "Mike? What are you doing here?"
Surprised, Mike glanced up from the folded page of want ads he was looking over, and Willow glanced knowingly at Buffy. "Trying to get a job."
Willow looked baffled. "Why?"
Mike sighed, leaning back against the peeling plastic upholstery. "I'm being realistic. We spent hours looking through books that have been around longer than taxes, and couldn't find a thing." He looked down at the floor. "And I can't just leech off Giles until I find a way home."
"What I think she meant was," Buffy clarified, "why here?"
"What can I say? I'm desperate."
"That's an understatement," Oz observed.
"Well, out of the available jobs I can do that don't require heavy background checks, here are a few of my options." Mike ticked off on his fingers as he spoke. "Sanitation department. School janitor. Bussing tables at this club. Taxi driver."
The others shuddered sympathetically. "Ouch," Buffy murmured. "That's it?"
"There's a few more," Mike admitted. "But I'm not going near anyplace called 'Hot Dog on a Stick.'"
"Ah, Miss Summers. Discussing your brilliant future career options?"
Buffy glanced up and grimaced to see Snyder standing a few paces away, oozing insincerity as always. The principal continued as she rolled her eyes. "Sometime today you might deign to make your way to the guidance counselor's office. Of course, it's all up to you," he added.
Buffy blinked. "Excuse me?"
Snyder smirked. "Personally, I think the straitjacket look would do wonders for you."
The Slayer shook her head and shoved past him, storming off towards the guidance counselor's office. Snyder turned back to the others, seemingly unperturbed. "Unless you two are on a careening course towards a padded room as well, I'd suggest you run along home." He suddenly noticed Mike, who was getting to his feet. "Can I help you?"
"Thanks," Mike answered, "but I'll pass." On his way out, Willow could clearly hear him mutter, "Sanitation's looking better and better."
Mayor Wilkins nodded to his guest. "Can I get you a refreshment? Tea? Coffee? Perhaps some milk, if you prefer?"
"I'm fine, thank you." The tall woman sitting in front of his desk smiled. From his viewpoint and the angle of the late afternoon sunlight behind her, Allan couldn't get a good look at her face. "Besides, anything that clogs up the vocal cords is a bad idea."
Wilkins chuckled at that, settling down in his chair. "Yes, I could see how that would be a problem in your line of work." He folded his hands on the desk in front of him. "Now what would be the purpose of this little visit?"
"As you probably know by now, I've brought my act to Sunnydale." At his nod, she continued, playing with her necklace. "Normally, we breeze through with no trouble. But this is different." She looked up from her jewelry before continuing. "I've heard that you run the show on the Hellmouth."
"Did you hear that?" the Mayor chortled, grinning at Allan. "My reputation precedes me." He turned back to his guest. "Miss Halverson, is this building up to some sort of proposition?"
"I'd just prefer not to have to contend with any of your business practices."
"So you're asking permission," Wilkins finished. "From what I've heard, that's not like you."
"I'm a realist." She folded her hands in her lap. "I could have gone and set up shop on my own, but I'd rather cause mayhem without any complications."
The Mayor smiled at that. "Well, mayhem is just up my alley nowadays. Besides, any sort of confusion you can create - so long as it doesn't interfere with my activities - would be much appreciated."
"Which means you won't be sending any committees to deal with us?"
"You've done your homework, haven't you?" At the look she gave him, he smiled, holding his hands up in a gesture of supplication. "You have my word."
She sighed. "I suppose that's good enough." With that, she stood up. "If that's all, I'll be off. The natives are getting restless."
"Just one of the downsides to not working alone," Wilkins answered, nodding.
Pausing at the door, the woman turned and leaned towards Allan, letting an odd tone seep into her voice. "Sit." Without even realizing what he was doing, Allan violently crashed into a sitting position on the floor. Chuckling, the woman walked out.
The Mayor burst out laughing heartily. "Quite a woman, isn't she?" he asked Allan before dissolving back into laughter.
For the nth time, Allan Finch wondered just how he was going to get out of this line of work.
The manager of the Bronze sat down in his "office," a former storage room in the back he'd managed to furnish to resemble an office. Harry stared at the piles of papers on his desk and scowled. This was great. Just great. The riot damage from Saturday would cost him a bundle. Not only that, but he had no band booked for the week; the group who were booked there had lost their lead singer to another of those gang attacks. And his usual fallback was playing out of town for most of the week. Unless an act fell into his lap suddenly, they weren't going to make up for the repair costs.
"I should've just opened a restaurant," he muttered as someone knocked on the door. Probably Tina, the airhead he'd hired last week, reporting another screwup. "It's open!"
The woman who stepped through the door was definitely not Tina. Not unless she'd dyed her hair red and grown a foot. The redheaded Amazon who stood before him was easily five foot ten, but it wasn't her height that made him gape. It was her eyes that seemed to fix him to the spot, making him feel like a fly caught in a spider's web.
Seeing his reaction, she smirked. "I hear you're looking for an act."
All Harry could do was nod.
When Mike entered the school library, he found Giles engrossed in one of the oldest books he'd ever seen. The Watcher didn't even notice his entrance, and Mike had to clear his throat just to get his attention.
Giles jumped at the sound, nearly knocking his glasses off in surprise. "Sorry," Mike said. "Didn't mean to startle you."
"No, no, it's quite all right." Giles rubbed at the bridge of his nose as Mike sat down across from him. "How goes the job search?"
Mike smiled and shrugged. "I've decided not to pursue a career as a school custodian."
Giles nodded. "You've met Principal Snyder, I see."
"Unfortunately," Mike answered. "He's not human, is he?"
"As far as we know, he's human," Giles responded, his gaze dropping back to the pages of the book. "Although whether or not he is truly evil..." He paused. "The jury is still out on that."
Nodding, Mike sat down at the table. "I had a squad leader like that. Promised myself if I ever had to work under someone like that again, I'd resign or shoot myself."
"I wouldn't blame you at all," Giles murmured.
Mike leaned back, rubbing his eyes. "Only decent option I have is teaching self-defense at the gym downtown."
"In Sunnydale, there's quite a market for that," Giles noted, looking up from the book again. "You're sure you can get the job?"
"I got my second black belt years ago, so yeah, I probably can." Mike sighed. "But it doesn't pay enough unless I want to live in a Motel 6."
He opened his eyes and paused, his gaze traveling to a far corner of the library. A dark-armored figure was standing beside the bookcage, watching them. "What the--"
Giles noticed Mike's discomfort. "Are you all right?"
"Huh?" Mike glanced at the Watcher, then back at the bookcage. There was no one there. "Oh, yeah. Just kind of tired."
"You know, you don't have to worry about getting employment so soon," Giles added as he turned a page. "Even if we don't discover the reason for your appearance immediately, it won't be a bother to put you up for a while. You may have to limit yourself to the couch, but it won't be much trouble."
"Thanks," Mike added, glancing at the empty space where the figure had been standing, "but it wouldn't feel right."
There was a brilliant flare of light above them, and a shimmering hole opened up in space. A figure dived through, a mass of limbs and joints as it tumbled gracelessly down the dusty slope, unfolding at his feet.
"Who are you?"
Anything else he would have asked was cut off as she brushed her hair back from her face and a pair of large hazel eyes met his own. Before he knew what was happening, he was pulled into their depths, entranced by the strange girl who had appeared seemingly out of nowhere.
Then the creatures had appeared, interrupting anything else that could have been said. But even as he fought back, her face lingered in his mind. He was the rational one, the disciplined one, the one with common sense.
And all he could think about was protecting a girl he didn't even know.
When it was over, she turned back to face him, and again those eyes captured his.
"My name is Maya."
As her friends were turned to stone, he heard her stop and cry out, starting towards certain death. Panicked, he pulled her along, an arm around her shoulders, trying to ignore the feel of her skin and her long, unbound hair that brushed against his cheek. They raced through the jungle, trying to escape the petrifying wave that was freezing her world into stone.
The earth cracked open beneath him, and he heard her scream as he was swallowed up.
Mike's eyes flew open, and he nearly fell off the couch in Giles' living room. He sat up, breathing heavily, as his surroundings registered in his mind: couch, bookshelf, coffee table. It had just been a dream. He was still in Sunnydale, light-years away from where Maya might be if it was the same dimension. Not that this was all that comforting.
He wiped the sweat off his face, trying to untangle himself from the sheets before lying back down and staring at the ceiling. What's wrong with me? Of all people to dream about, why Maya? He knew her the least of the five friends he'd left behind. But what was disturbing was that the way she'd mesmerized him in the dream wasn't far removed from how he'd really felt. It was an instant, captivating attraction, so sudden and unreal that it bothered him.
"I knew her for all of three hours and already I'm dreaming about her," he murmured to the ceiling. "Isn't this how stalkers start out?"
The ceiling, quite naturally, provided no answer. Sighing, he rolled over and forced himself to relax. Whether he liked it or not, he probably wasn't going to get a chance to sleep in. Generally, he was a light sleeper, and he doubted he'd sleep through an overworked school-librarian-slash-Watcher's attempts to get ready for work. Besides, the job search would continue tomorrow, and he had to be coherent.
Closing his eyes, Mike took a deep breath and let his mind drift as sleep finally began to claim him.
My name is Maya.
At that memory, Mike almost shocked himself back to awareness, but it was too late and he was too tired. He gave up on psychoanalyzing himself and fell asleep.
Seven down, one last option to go. Mike was getting used to the rejections.
"I hate to tell you this, kid," Harry answered regretfully, "but I've got all the help I need."
Mike sighed. "Yeah, well, that seems to be the pattern." He was a little more disappointed than usual; here, at least, was a boss he wouldn't have minded working for. Harry Foster was a big, stocky man in his mid-forties, somewhat laid-back but not above yelling at idiots. He reminded Mike a bit of one of his uncles back home.
"Don't get me wrong," Harry was saying. "Believe me, I'd hire you if I could. I know common sense when I see it." He turned towards the still empty club. "Not unless you can--"
Whatever he was going to say was cut short as he spotted a couple of waiters fumbling behind the bar. "Nick! Tina! What do you think you're doing back there?"
"The tap's jammed back here, Harry," Tina explained as the manager strode over to the bar, with Mike right behind him. "Dumbass here bumped it with his knee, and I can't shut it off now."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence," her co-worker snapped.
"Shit," Harry muttered. "This is the last thing we need."
Mike was leaning over the counter, peering down at Nick's attempts to close the valve. "You're going to break it if you keep that up," he observed. "You've got to pull it sideways, towards her. It should pop back in."
The younger man blinked, confused. "What?"
"Let me show you." Mike squeezed his way around Tina behind the bar and grasped the handle of the tap, jerking it sharply to the left rather than trying to turn it. There was a popping sound, and Mike easily turned the handle, cutting off the flow. "There. You knocked it out of whack, so the valve couldn't close. Happens a lot."
As he looked up again, he realized that both Harry and the waitress were giving him curious looks. "You tend bar before?" Harry asked.
"A little," Mike admitted. "Had to pay for school."
A wide grin spread across Harry's face. But before the manager could continue, a shout interrupted their conversation. "Yo, Harry!"
The lanky, dark-skinned young man was leaning against one of the speakers being set up on the stage, a cigarette clamped between his teeth. "Where's the good plug again?" Standing behind him, inspecting the lights with a critical eye, a tall redheaded woman made a face.
She noticed Mike suddenly, and her brilliant green eyes met his. A slow smile spread across her aristocratic face as she fixed him with her best "come-hither" stare. Oddly enough, it didn't have the desired effect. The cold green eyes and sharklike smile sent an inexplicable chill through him, and he turned away.
"Right side of the stage, Mal!" Harry hollered back before turning to Mike. "What I was going to say, kid, is I might have a job for you after all."
Mike brightened somewhat at that, forgetting about the ice queen on the stage. "For real?"
"Yeah." Harry turned away, gesturing for Mike to follow. "C'mon. We'll discuss it in my office."
Unable to believe his luck, Mike followed the manager towards the back. The redhead watched him go, her eyes narrowing.
"So what are you planning on doing tonight?" Willow asked as the two friends sat in the shade of an oak tree beside the athletic field.
Buffy sighed. "Well, after I'm done in guidance, Giles pretty much has the evening booked. Training, patrol, that stuff."
"The whole evening?" Willow asked, and Buffy nodded. "Wow. What's the occasion?"
"Nothing's happened since the attack," Buffy answered. "So Giles figures that they're waiting around for something big." She sighed, lying back on the grass. "He's probably right. Paranoid, but probably right."
"He's been kind of jumpy lately," Willow observed.
Their conversation was interrupted as Xander and Oz hurried over, lugging a huge picnic basket between them. Cordelia followed, carrying a thermos. "Ladies," Xander grunted as they set the basket on the blanket, "your feast."
"Wow," Buffy exclaimed as Cordelia opened the basket and began sorting out packs. "Where's the army that's going to eat all that?"
"They went for catering, so I had to settle for you," Cordelia answered, pulling out several wrapped packages and handing them out in turn. "Besides, if we're going to take advantage of the 'seniors leave for lunch' privilege, it should be an edible lunch."
"Cordy, I'm impressed," Xander commented. "Is there a spark of the sharing spirit in there somewhere?"
She shoved a steak-and-cheese sub into his hands. "Here, Xander. Put something in your mouth."
"Who's jumpy lately?" Oz asked as he settled down beside Willow.
"Giles," Buffy responded. "He's on a training kick all of a sudden."
Xander reached behind Cordelia and snagged a bottle of Coke. "Still feeling the burn from evil Watcher lady, huh?"
"Yes and no," Buffy answered. "I think it's more the fact that she turned out to be a fake that's making him feel inadequate." Xander was struggling with the cap. "Need help with that?"
"No, I'm fine," Xander grunted.
They sat there while he strove to unscrew the bottle. Several seconds passed, and he had no success. "I can do it," Xander insisted as Buffy opened her mouth to speak.
Without a word, Oz reached over and unscrewed the cap, turning it in the opposite direction that Xander had. "Oh," Xander muttered, dumbfounded. "Thanks."
"Speaking of inadequate," Cordelia began.
He took a swig and shot her a look. "Could you be nice to me for five seconds?"
"In public? No." She smiled. "You know you love it."
In response, he reached over to tickle her. "Xander, stop!" she shrieked, slapping at him halfheartedly as he continued relentlessly.
"So the Bronze is out?" Willow concluded, ignoring the giggling pair beside her.
"'Fraid so," Buffy told her.
Cordelia managed to shove Xander away, sitting up and brushing herself off. "We're going to the movies. That is, if Tickle-Me-Xander can keep his hands to himself."
Xander just grinned. "You know you love it."
Willow looked to Oz. "We're playing up in Monterey tonight," the musician offered. "I'll take you if you want me to."
"Really?" Willow beamed. "Thank you, Oz! Thank you so much!" She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him on the cheek.
"Someone's searching for a social life tonight," Cordelia noted.
Buffy leaned forward, speaking in a lower voice. "Her mom suddenly wanted to be best friends this week."
Both Cordelia and Xander grimaced at that.
"All right!" Giles exclaimed as Buffy delivered yet another vicious kick to the padded target he was holding. She backed down, and he dropped the target on the floor, leaning on the desk for support. "That's, that's enough for now."
Buffy looked him up and down. "Are you okay, Giles?"
"I just need a moment." He wiped his brow. "I'm usually in better form than this. I suppose the heat is getting to me."
"No kidding. It's like an Easy-Bake oven in here."
"Actually, you're hitting a bit harder than usual," Giles continued. "There isn't anything you'd like to talk about, is there?"
The Slayer scowled. "Giles, don't ask me to talk about my problems. Please. An hour with Kidney Stone was enough."
"Kidney Stone?" Giles echoed, chuckling. As Buffy glared at him, he held up a hand. "No, it's - it's quite appropriate, actually."
"Correct me if I'm wrong, but it's kind of hard for me to relax and sort out my problems with a counselor who's that hyper," Buffy went on. "I swear, Giles, he must be on something."
Giles was nodding. "Yes, well, Jerome does hover around the coffee maker in the lounge." He became serious. "But you must give the man a chance. For one thing, his report will ultimately decide whether you stay in school."
"I guess so," Buffy sighed.
"Besides," Giles went on, "from what I've heard, he's coming from a rather unpleasant prior position in Stone Canyon. Something to do with a couple of students continually making life harder for him."
Someone coughed, and they turned to see Mike leaning on the circulation desk. "If I'm interrupting anything," he said, "I'll leave."
"No, no, we're just taking a break," Giles insisted, beckoning.
Buffy rolled her eyes. "He is. I'm just venting. How come you waited ten minutes to announce your presence?"
"I didn't think interrupting was such a good idea," Mike explained. "If I distracted you at the wrong time, well, we'd be taking Giles to the ER." The Watcher smiled in silent agreement.
"I think we might have to anyway," Buffy joked, giving Giles a look.
Giles straightened. "If Faith would get here sometime this millennium, I wouldn't be in this shape, now would I?"
"He says after hounding me about training all morning," Buffy shot back.
"Okay, okay!" Mike cried. "I might as well spot for him if this keeps up."
Slayer and Watcher turned to stare at him. "Are you serious?" Buffy asked.
Mike paused, thoughtful. "Well..." Abruptly, he shook his head. "Look, I just came to let you know I might have a halfway decent job."
"Finally some good news," Giles began, but paused. "'Might?'"
"Nothing's definite yet," Mike replied. "I got the job out of sheer luck, but I've got to pull a shift tonight to make sure I'll be working there for a while. So I'm going to be back kind of late."
Buffy folded her arms. "So what's the job?"
"I'm not saying anything or I'll jinx it. Let's just say it's a hell of a lot better than sanitation or Snyder." He turned to Giles. "So it's not going to be a problem?"
"No, perhaps not," the Watcher said thoughtfully. "On one condition. You take my place for twenty minutes."
Mike started at that. "You're kidding."
"Actually," Giles said with a small smile, "no." He straightened up. "It's just warm-up, really. Simple offensive-defensive drills. Mike, you can take the defensive and Buffy, the offensive." As the two young people continued to stare at him, he sat down to watch. "Focus on form and accuracy instead of brute strength. In short, Buffy, don't kill him."
"You're serious?" Buffy asked.
Giles nodded. "Twenty minutes."
Reluctantly, Mike tossed his jacket over a chair. "All right, let's get it over with."
Buffy grinned as they took up their stances. "Think you can last twenty minutes?"
"Maybe I'll get lucky."
He lasted for twenty-three.
"Is it always this busy on a Tuesday?" Mike had to shout over the din to be heard.
Of course, Tina's attention was elsewhere. "What?"
"I said, is it always this busy on a Tuesday night?"
The blonde waitress frowned, shaking her head. "Not usually this busy," she mused, playing with a stray lock of hair. "I mean, this is the only place to go in Sunnydale, but, like, we usually get competition from Must See TV."
"Oh." Mike nodded, pretending to understand. "Must be all reruns tonight."
"Yeah, right. It's sweeps week." She leaned over the counter. "So are you seeing anybody?"
Mike sighed and looked past her to a table of teenagers who looked increasingly impatient. "You know something? Those guys over there look like they need to order. They've been glaring at us for the past ten minutes."
She glanced over at the table. "So?"
"Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't you wait tables around here?"
A few seconds passed before she bounced up, understanding. "Oh, yeah! I'll see you later, okay?" She picked up her notepad before bouncing over to the table.
Mike groaned. "Where do they find these people?" He didn't have time to reflect as another teenager came up to try to get a beer out of the new bartender.
The kid was overdoing the swagger, not to mention he couldn't be a day over fifteen. "Gimme a Molson's."
"Yeah, right. ID."
On the stage, the band was starting a new set, and the crowd got a little quieter as the elbow room in front of the stage became less. Left alone for the moment, Mike glanced over at the four band members and frowned, reviewing the little he knew about them. Most of it had come from listening to them argue or from listening to Tina babble about them. The Amazon - Lori, he thought her name was - was on lead guitar and vocals, and seemed to believe she owned the other three. As for the drummer, Malik, if he wasn't arguing with Lori about something, he was getting a smoke in the alley.
The other two he didn't know so well. Mike didn't even know the name of the girl who did keyboard and backup vocals, but that was because he hadn't bothered to learn it. Tina said the girl gave her the creeps, and Mike could see why. She couldn't be older than fifteen, and her mind seemed to be continually on another plane of existence. "And her fashion sense!" Tina had lamented. "What does she call that look, 'not-quite-Goth?'" But there was something else about her that unnerved Mike, probably just in the way she stared at people. You had the uncomfortable feeling that her gaze could burn right through you.
Mike sighed and turned his attention to the bass player, a guy named Frank. Of the four of them, he seemed like the most normal, although he never spoke a word. He was tall and lanky with spiky black hair and dark eyes that always seemed worried or depressed. Maybe he just seemed normal because he was also uncomfortable with the motley crew - it was almost as if he was thrown in with them against his will.
He was jarred out of those thoughts as Lori leaned into the microphone. By this time, everyone in the nightclub was paying some attention to the music, seemingly entranced. For his part, Mike thought they weren't bad at all, but he was starting to get a headache. He searched behind the bar for the Tylenol as they hit the chorus.
Then the song ended, and the spell was broken. Mike jerked back, shaking his head to clear it, as applause replaced the music. When he turned back to look at the pool tables, there was no sign of the apparition.
But his headache was gone as well. Sighing, he steeled himself to deal with the next teenager who swaggered up to the bar.
"Any news yet?" The Mayor, for a change, got right to the point.
On the other end of the phone, Trick sighed. "Depends on what you call news."
"Which, I assume, means 'no.'"
"Not exactly," Trick answered. "The Slayer and her friends haven't picked up on the Halverson project yet, though. They're too busy whining about the heat."
Wilkins leaned back in his chair. "Good, good. Speaking of the opposition, what do we know about this newcomer - what's his name?"
"Mike something." Trick frowned. "Him we don't know much about. But if you ask me," he added in a lower voice, "I don't think we have to worry much about this one. Kid can fight, but that's about it. Nothing special."
"I suppose we really don't have the time to investigate that new development," Wilkins admitted. "But it's only been a few days. Just keep your ears open and let me know if anything comes up."
The vampire smiled. "That's what I'm here for, isn't it?"
"So how goes the head-shrinking?" Cordelia asked in an uncharacteristically interested tone as Buffy set her tray down at the lunch table. They couldn't take advantage of the lunch privilege mainly because Cordelia's car was blocked in by an illegally parked Jeep - and the owner just happened to be a faculty member.
"It's all right," Buffy answered warily as she sat down beside Willow. "I've been going for the past two days. Why the sudden interest?"
The May Queen suddenly became very interested in her half-empty tray, and Xander answered. "Cordy has to spend some time in guidance next period. She told Freeman exactly what she thought of him." At his girlfriend's dismayed look, he put an arm around her and added, "Which was, I might add, an incredibly bold move that many of us have been tempted to make ourselves."
She moaned and put her head on his shoulder. "I don't know what came over me. I just couldn't stop staring at his stupid comb-over ponytail."
"So...what did you say?" Buffy asked, interested.
"Just the basics," Cordelia mumbled.
Xander grinned with pride. "You know: that he's an idiot, that everyone knows it's a comb-over, that his obsession with Dolly Parton has nothing to do with the executive branch, and that he doesn't need to smoke on the roof because the school doesn't need a chimney."
"Everything we've all wanted to say but never got the guts to," Buffy concluded. "I'm impressed."
Cordelia did not look convinced, and Willow added, "Well, you're using your powers of insult for good instead of for evil. That's, that's always a good thing."
"I'd go and lend her moral support," Xander added to Buffy, "but I got stuck with detention. Something about the subject I picked for art class."
"What subject was that?" Cordelia asked.
Xander blanched a bit. "Oh, uh, nothing really. Typical school censorship."
Buffy smiled and interrupted before they could begin squabbling. "The new guy - Mr. Stone - is pretty weird."
"What are they calling him?" Willow interrupted. "Kidney Stone?"
Nodding, Buffy continued. "He's harmless, but he's just kind of out to lunch. He wanted me to call him 'Jerome' but I said no. And he was trying way too hard to 'be my friend,' or just get me to talk to him. Kind of nervous. He's probably not going to keep you very long, though." When Cordelia did not look convinced, Buffy added, "Hey, at least he doesn't smoke like a chimney." "You just convince him you're not crazy," Oz put in. "That's all."
"It's not me, it's the heat," Cordelia groaned. "If they don't fix the air conditioning sometime this year, I'll go completely insane! Before you know it, I'll be wearing Kmart!"
Willow glanced around at the other students eating outside, as drained by the heat as they were. The only reason so many students were eating outside was that there was at least a breeze, while the indoor cafeteria was suffocating. "Everybody's drained from the heat, Cordelia. It's not just you."
Xander nodded, looking past the group. "No kidding."
Curious, Buffy turned to see what he was looking at. Jonathan was trudging past the picnic tables, seemingly in a daze. He nearly walked smack into a pole, and collided head-on with one of the football jocks, who promptly grabbed him by the collar. Surprisingly, Jonathan didn't look all that scared; it was almost as if he was so tired it hadn't quite registered in his brain that he was about to be pounded.
Buffy stood up. "That's not the heat," she muttered as she maneuvered around the tables to reach Jonathan. She shoved her way in between Jonathan and the bully, forcing the bully to let go of him. As Jonathan stumbled back in a daze, Buffy got right in the bully's face. "Go smack someone else against your ego shield."
"Hey, that little punk should learn to watch where he's going," was the response. "So I was just gonna teach him."
"Hello?" Buffy snapped. "Look at him. He's sick. What, you're going to show how macho you are by beating up on a sick kid?"
He grabbed her wrist. "Like you're gonna do anything about it."
Ordinarily, Buffy would have just flipped him over her head, but some people were watching. Turning so that no one could get a look at what she was doing, she wrenched her wrist out of his hand and grabbed his own wrist, twisting it roughly. As his face contorted in pain, she murmured, "Want everyone to see you get trashed?"
He grimaced. "You win, Summers." Satisfied, Buffy let go.
As he walked away, rubbing his wrist, Buffy turned back to Jonathan. He was leaning against the wall for support, and up close he really did look drained. He was somewhat pale and sweaty, and he was this close to falling asleep then and there. "Are you all right?"
Jonathan nodded vaguely as Willow and Xander, followed by Oz and Cordelia, came up behind Buffy. "Yeah, I'm okay now. Thanks."
"Trust me, buddy, 'okay' is not how you look right now," Xander replied. "Just stating the obvious."
"I'm just kind of tired," Jonathan mumbled. "I think I gotta sit down."
The other five managed to herd him back to sit at their table. "You don't have mono, do you?" Cordelia asked warily. "My cousin Jess had that for a whole year, and her social life almost died out completely."
Jonathan shrugged. "I was fine yesterday."
Willow reached forward and put a hand to Jonathan's head. "You don't have a fever," she observed. "Did you eat anything?"
"I'm not sick," Jonathan insisted. "I just can't stay awake."
"What do you have after lunch?" Oz asked.
Confused, Jonathan blinked, willing his brain cells to produce the answer. "Uh, I think Government."
Xander realized what Oz was getting at. "Freeman can put me to sleep even with two cans of Surge."
"You're not gonna make it," Willow concluded. "Get a note and go to the nurse's office."
"They won't let me," Jonathan mumbled.
"Tell them you think you have mono," Buffy suggested. "They'll do whatever they can to get you out of the building."
Jonathan wavered. "I don't know."
"Go to the nurse," Willow repeated. "I'm - I'm ordering you to go," she added sternly. "Now."
"Okay, okay," Jonathan acquiesced, getting up. "Thanks, guys." With that, he shuffled off.
Willow turned back to Oz. "You think that was forceful enough? I know I'm not that intimidating, well, not at all, but he really looked sick and I was worried."
"Extremely forceful, Will," Xander assured her, putting an arm around Cordelia.
Oz smiled and nodded. "You're still cute when you're forceful," he added, and she frowned. "That's a difficult balance to attain." Willow brightened again.
Buffy was silent, watching Jonathan trudge off. Sure, he could just be sick, but a nagging feeling was telling her otherwise. Besides, Jonathan regularly came into contact with the forces of darkness whether he liked it or not. He was a magnet for trouble, and her "Slayer sense" was telling her that it had found him yet again. She made a mental note to keep an eye on him before turning back to her lunch.
"...and the square of the cosine plus the square of the sine, you recall, is always equal to 1. So if we divide the cosine out..."
Xander's head lolled back as the trigonometry teacher, a substitute who practically read out of the textbook, droned on mercilessly. The ceiling was not much more interesting, so he turned his gaze to the rest of the classroom. Most of the other students were reacting similarly, staring into space, doodling, a few faking death in the back row. The heat was even getting to the teacher, who stopped mid-drone to fan herself with the workbook in her hands.
Surprisingly enough, Harmony, who always had the irritatingly perky habit of always raising her hand - whether she knew the answer or not - was passed out over her desk, fast asleep. The teacher didn't notice it at first, but when Harmony started to snore, several students started giggling. Sighing, the sub closed the workbook and walked over to Harmony's desk. "Miss Perkins."
No reaction. "Miss Perkins?" the sub repeated, louder. When that didn't work, she leaned down and shouted, "Miss Perkins!"
At that, Harmony jolted awake, sitting up like a bullet and nearly falling out of her chair with the violent motion. As she sat there, blinking, her blonde hair in her face, the entire class erupted into laughter. "Miss Perkins," the sub repeated sternly, "I'd advise sleeping in your own bed in your own home; it'll spare you the chiropractic bills later." This elicited some more giggles. "In the meantime, please move up to the front row next to Mr. Harris so you can stay awake." Xander flinched.
Nodding, Harmony absently gathered up her books and stood up, rather unsteadily. Seeing the way she was wobbling, Xander frowned, forgetting his disgust at the prospect of having to sit next to her. As much as he despised her, this was not normal. Even if she was at school sick, Harmony constantly had to put on the perfect poised Barbie doll act. But now her hair was hanging in her face, and she was barely noticing the giggling as she stumbled down the aisle. In fact, she wasn't balancing all that well.
As she passed the second row, Harmony's legs suddenly gave out under her, and the cheerleader crumpled to the floor, scattering books and papers everywhere. The laughter immediately died away as several students - including Xander - jumped to their feet and crowded around the pale, drawn form on the floor. The substitute shoved through the students, kneeling down at her side. "Someone get the nurse!"
"I'll do it," Xander announced before anyone else could volunteer, grabbing up the hall pass before turning and hurrying down the hall towards the nurse's office. The nurse, nothing, he thought. I'd better talk to Giles.
The Bronze was fairly empty, but then again, it was only three in the afternoon. Technically, it shouldn't have been open, but the manager either didn't expect or didn't care if anyone wandered in. It was probably due to the damages from Saturday; the blackout riot had cost the manager a few windows and some furniture. They were still dealing with repairs on top of cleaning up after the patrons.
Whatever the reason, Faith had nothing better to do. It looked to be a standard patrolling week; Giles hadn't found anything out of the ordinary. There were a few hours left til sunset, and most of the Scooby Gang was otherwise occupied: Xander, stuck in detention, Willow, stuck tutoring, and Buffy, stuck with the guidance counselor. So there was time to kill.
A new guy was behind the bar, cleaning off the glasses and sweeping up, his back turned to her. Faith strode over and leaned casually against the bar. "Give me a Miller."
"Give me some ID," a familiar voice shot back.
At that, she looked up and was surprised to see Mike behind the bar. "Corbett, what are you doing? The real bartender know you're back there?"
"Very funny. I'm working, of course." She rolled her eyes, and he added, "Hey, it's better than janitor duty at Sunnydale."
Faith snorted. "What loser let you tend bar?"
"The same loser who's watching me like a hawk. ID."
"Come on, just give me a drink."
"Not until you show some ID," Mike insisted. "If I lose this job, I'm condemned to janitor work."
Sighing, she leaned back and fished out a Massachusetts driver's license, intending to merely flick it briefly past his line of vision. But Mike was just quick enough to catch her wrist and peer closely at the card. "Hey!" Roughly, Faith yanked her wrist free, so hard that Mike had to catch himself against the bar. "Don't you trust me?"
Mike smirked, rubbing his hand. "No." He paused, a curious expression crossing his face before he continued, "I just wondered if that was your real name. Never would have figured you for a Scot, though." At her blank look, he added, "Faith Mackenzie?"
"I don't know. Probably closer to Spuds than Macbeth." He smirked at that, and she gave him her best manipulative little smile. "Now will you give me one, Corbett?"
"The name's Mike." He was still smirking. "Maybe I should start calling you 'Mac' from now on."
Faith cocked her head. "You're not getting any extra points here."
"I'm not trying to score," Mike answered. "Planning to patrol on a buzz?"
"What's your point?"
"For one thing, I know a fake ID when I see one." As she continued to look him up and down, he added, "Besides, you're dangerous enough when you're sober."
She merely stared at him for a few seconds before smiling and conceding the point. "All right, give me a Dew." As he pulled out a clean glass, she added, "How'd you get this job anyway?"
"Dumb luck." He produced a cold can of Mountain Dew, setting it beside the glass. "Came down to bus tables yesterday, but I was too late - they'd already hired enough people. Of course, they were short a bartender."
"And desperate enough to let you do it." She tossed a few dollars on the counter before popping open the can and taking a swig.
"Hey. I tended bar a few years. Had to pay for school." He took the money, opened the cash register, and counted out the change. "Besides, Harry's kind of in a rush. New band came in and charmed the pants off him, not to mention they really packed in a lot of people last night."
"Tuesday night?" Faith repeated. "They're that kicking, huh?"
Mike grimaced. "Yeah, but - I don't know why, but every time I've heard them, it gives me a headache." He shrugged and slammed the cash drawer shut. "I'm probably going to pick up some earplugs when I get a chance."
She nodded, changing the subject. "So you're working here tonight?"
He checked his watch before taking the glass and washing it off. "I'm off in half an hour. The only catch to getting the job was that I had to do a test night and help today with cleanup. There was some kind of riot here Saturday."
"Heard about it from B," Faith answered. "First time that's happened here without any vamps around."
Mike stopped mid-rinse. "So...vampire attacks happen here a lot?"
"All the time," Faith continued. "I mean, with all the teenagers and the drinking and the partying, it's a vamp magnet."
He stared at her for a moment, then shook his head, chuckling. "Yeah, I picked a great place to work." Glancing down at the cabinets and compartments beneath the bar, he frowned thoughtfully. "Maybe they should keep some stakes back here."
"Mmm-hmm," Faith agreed absently, her eyes straying to the group clustered around the speakers. "So about this band - what do you think?"
Mike followed her gaze, looking thoughtful. "They're pretty damned good. But every time they play, I get an automatic headache. And it won't go away until the music stops. I don't know why. I guess--"
He broke off then, staring at something. "Mike?" Faith asked, bringing him back to his senses. "You there?"
"What? I - yeah, I'm fine." He glanced back at the stage and frowned. "It was there a minute ago..."
"Yo!" Faith punched him lightly in the arm. "Ground control to Major Corbett." As he snapped out of it, she inclined her head towards the door. "You're done, so let's motorvate."
Mike dried the last glass and put it away before checking his watch again. "It's 3:20. Close enough for government work."
Faith grinned as he locked the register and they headed out into the late afternoon heat. "You're learning."
"So how many extra points is that?"
She cocked her head. "I thought you weren't trying to score."
"Just wondering," Mike answered absently.
Faith saw the look on his face and briefly wondered just what was going on in his head. "C'mon," she urged, taking his arm. "Let's go see if the Scooby Gang's made parole."
"Six students," Giles began as the doors opened to admit Mike and Faith. Surprised, he glanced up at the clock. "Sunset's not for an hour yet."
"Had nothing better to do," Faith answered. "And I got to visit Vortex Boy here at his new job, so I dragged him along."
Mike winced. "Keep calling me that and I'll turn you in, Mac."
"Vortex Boy," Xander echoed in a low voice. "I like that."
Willow perked up. "So you got that job? For real?"
"Yeah, and it pays pretty well," Mike responded as he took a seat across from Buffy. "I've got to work late nights, though."
"Hey, we can identify," Xander pointed out. "So what's this new job?"
Exchanging glances with Giles, Mike changed the subject. "I'll tell you later. What's going on?"
"Something seems to be adversely affecting a number of Sunnydale students," Giles answered, turning back to the list.
Willow jumped in. "A bunch of people have been passing out today. Well, not a bunch, we've only listed six, but even with the heat index they were way too drained for it to be just that."
Buffy nodded. "No such thing as coincidence here."
"Or leprechauns either," Giles murmured, his eyes still fixed on the list. Buffy shot him a look.
"So six people got smashed last night," Faith gathered. "Sure sign of the apocalypse."
Xander was shaking his head. "You weren't there. Compared to these guys, the walking dead look like party animals."
"Harmony didn't even bother to gel or curl," Cordelia put in.
"Well, although we've reached a consensus that their behavior is abnormal," Giles continued, "we're unsure as to the cause."
"I still say she was sniffing hair spray one too many times," Cordelia went on. "I mean, she wears so much lately her head is like a Glue Stic."
Xander coughed. "Cordy, as much as I agree with you right now, can we return to Earth for a few minutes?"
"I know a couple of these people." Oz seemed to be the only one attending to the topic, since he was effectively tuning out everyone except Willow. "I don't see what they have in common."
Willow took the yearbook from him, flipping through it. "That's - that's because they don't," she added. "None of the same friends, teachers, clubs, sports, interests, grade levels, grades--"
"Somebody's been hacking into the school records," Xander admonished, waggling a finger at her.
Mike was glancing over Willow's shoulder with moderate interest, and suddenly pointed to the photo of Jonathan. "Hey, I've seen him before."
"What, Jonathan?" Willow asked as she handed him the yearbook. "Yesterday morning, you mean?"
"No, last night at the Bronze." Mike drummed his fingers on the table. "I only remember that because he didn't try to get a fake ID past me."
"What was he doing at the Bronze?" Cordelia wondered. "Tuesday nights are, like, the most dead nights of the week. It's Must See TV."
Mike stared at her, muttering, "What is it with you people and--" Catching himself, he switched back to the topic. "Yeah, well, it was packed last night. And I clearly remember seeing that guy there."
"Okay, so what were you doing at the Bronze?" Cordelia pressed. Buffy and Giles exchanged looks as it dawned on them just where Mike was working.
Moving around the table, Faith wrapped her arms around Mike's shoulders, leaning over him from behind. "Guess who's tending bar down there now."
Xander was immediately at attention. "You're kidding." As Mike shook his head, he added, "So, you think you might be able to--"
"Forget it," Mike retorted. "I want to keep this job."
"Don't take it personal," Faith informed Xander. "I couldn't get through him either."
"Let me see the rest of them," Mike said, gesturing for the list. He glanced up at Faith, who, much to the others' amusement, was resting her chin on his head. "Faith? Do you mind?"
She pretended to pout, but relented at a sharp look from Giles. "Whatever."
Releasing Mike, she pulled up a chair beside him as Oz flipped through the yearbook. "Here we go. Harmony Perkins."
"Now that is a nasty yearbook picture," Cordelia observed. "I told her to come get a professional photo like I did, but did she listen?"
By now, Mike had learned to tune Cordelia out completely, and he tapped a finger on the photo thoughtfully. "Booth in the back. Had a shit fit when I wouldn't bring their Cokes over myself."
Willow found the next person on the list first. "Jeremy Scott."
It took Mike a minute to place the face. "Think he was getting killed at eight ball. I'm not sure."
Mike frowned. "Can't place her."
"Oh, yeah. Nearly broke his neck trying to crowd surf."
"Again, not sure, but I think that's the one who made Tina cry." At the puzzled looks he received, Mike clarified, "Tina's a waitress there. She's okay, but she's kind of out to lunch."
Buffy sighed. "That's three definites, two possibilities, and one unknown."
"It's a start," Willow offered. "But what's at the Bronze that could be doing this?"
Xander leaned back in his chair. "Maybe the new guy mixed a few drinks wrong, huh?"
"For your sake," Mike muttered, "I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that."
"Whatever the reason, perhaps a trip to the Bronze is in order," Giles suggested. The others stared at him. "To - to assess any potential threats."
"The Watcher's actually telling us to go party," Faith murmured. "I could get used to this."
Buffy frowned. "Oh, wait, that reminded me. Mom wanted quality time tonight, kind of. She said to invite you all over for dinner. I think she's still trying to adjust to the Slayer thing."
"Really?" Willow exclaimed. "Sure!" She glanced over at Oz meaningfully. The musician smiled and nodded.
"Dinner with someone else's family?" Xander responded. "I'm all for that. Cordy?"
She shook her head. "Unlike some people, I have a social life."
"I'm in, B," Faith added.
Buffy turned to Giles. "Actually, I - I really have to get some more research done." The Slayer sighed and shook her head.
There was a silence, and Mike glanced up to see that Buffy was staring at him. "What?" A moment passed before he deciphered her expectant look. "Oh, uh, no, that's okay. I think your mom's going to have her hands full already."
"You working tonight?" Buffy asked.
"Not til late this time," Mike admitted. "But--"
Smiling, Faith leaned over to Mike, her lips almost brushing his ear. Low enough so that only he could hear, she purred, "Her mom makes wicked french fries."
Mike stared at her for a moment, trying not to laugh. It wasn't easy to keep a straight face with all the strange looks the rest of the Slayerettes were giving them. "All right, all right, you win," he answered finally.
As they wrapped things up and filed out of the library, Buffy pulled Faith aside. "Just what did you say to that boy?"
Faith smiled mysteriously. "Nothing special."
"So you're staying with Mr. Giles?" Joyce asked.
Mike looked somewhat embarrassed. "Well, just until I get back on my feet. It wasn't my idea, really."
"He wasn't conscious enough to have one," Xander mumbled through a mouthful of broccoli. Willow kicked him.
Fortunately, Joyce either didn't hear him or chose not to. "He must have been good friends with your father, then."
Coughing to keep from laughing, Mike nodded. They had given Joyce a cover story that he and Giles had cooked up the day before: that Mike's father was an old friend of Giles' - which was why when Mike had showed up asking to use the phone, Giles had given him the couch instead. So far, it seemed to be working. "Uh, yeah, I guess. But all I really needed was to use the phone."
"Get off the guilt trip already," Faith advised him. To Joyce, she added, "He's gonna start paying Giles rent if this keeps up."
As Mike took a dinner roll from the basket, entertaining the notion of throwing it at Faith, Buffy cut in before her mother could interrogate Mike any further. "When do you have to work tonight?"
"Seven-thirty," Mike answered, checking his watch. "I've got an hour."
Willow realized something and hurried to swallow before speaking. "Oh! The Bronze! Did we, uh, figure out what's going on there?"
"Not that I recall," Oz replied.
"What's this about the Bronze?" Joyce asked.
Buffy winced before explaining, "We kind of think something Hellmouthy is coming from there."
"So you know about the Slaying business too," Joyce surmised, looking at Mike speculatively.
Faith shrugged. "Corbett was in the wrong place at the right time."
"That's not exactly how I'd have put it," Mike retorted. "Anyway, I'm stuck here for the time being, I might as well deal with it."
Joyce was surprised. "Why don't you just call home?"
Mike and Giles had already concocted an answer to that question. "Actually," Mike replied, "if I do, it means I get to tell my folks I dropped out of grad school." He grimaced. "I'd rather dodge vampires, thanks."
"I can relate," Faith commented, a small smile playing at the corners of her mouth as she egged him on. "But the fam can't be that bad."
Mike gave her a sharp look before continuing. "Uh, you don't know my Dad," he muttered. "I'd end up in military school before I knew what was going on."
"You'll have to tell them eventually," Joyce advised, glancing meaningfully at Buffy.
At her mother's look, Buffy smiled wryly. "Yeah, or they'll probably find out on their own."
"I will eventually," Mike insisted. "If I've got some money saved up when I do, I'll have a choice in the matter."
A brief silence followed, and Xander, of all people, broke it with a serious question. "So what's up at the Bronze anyway?"
Mike thought for a minute. "There wasn't anything special except for the crowd," he mused. "Although ... that new band Harry hired is getting a lot of attention. Maybe too much."
"New band?" Willow asked curiously. "What new band? I thought you said Screaming Ballerinas was going to be there all week," she added, turning to Oz.
Oz shook his head. "Their lead got attacked last weekend."
"Well, a replacement walked in on Monday," Mike continued, seeing that they were about to veer off the topic again. "Their name's Relish."
"Relish?" Buffy repeated. "What kind of a name is that? You can't name a band after something you put on a hot dog."
"I think they mean a different sort of relish," Joyce told her.
Xander looked perplexed. "Hamburger relish?"
"Whatever, these guys are weird," Mike interrupted. "They're pretty good, but every time they've started a new set, everybody acts like they're the greatest thing that's ever played."
Oz took another roll from the basket. "You don't share that opinion."
Helplessly, Mike shrugged. "No, I just get a headache. Maybe it's just because I'm not sleeping so well." At the concerned looks he received, he added hastily, "Hey, I'm still getting used to the couch."
"You might want to get some earplugs," Joyce advised. "I've heard a lot of stories about concerts and hearing damage."
She started to collect the dishes, but Buffy caught her. "Mom, I've got it."
"You're sure?" Joyce asked as Buffy tried to balance the stack of dishes.
Mike seized the opportunity and took a few plates off the top. "I'll help."
"You really don't have to--" Joyce demurred.
"Not a problem," Mike answered, following Buffy into the kitchen. Another moment of silence passed as the four teenagers and Joyce looked at each other.
Xander cleared his throat. "Uh, no dessert?"
"So how'd your Mom find out?" Mike asked once they were in the relative privacy of the kitchen.
Buffy sighed. "Totally by accident. A vampire attacked in the front yard, and she was standing on the porch. I had to stake it right in front of her." She shook her head, opening up the dishwasher. "She didn't take the news all that well at first."
"Don't see why she would," Mike pointed out. "My mother had a panic attack when she found out I joined the GSA, and that didn't necessarily involve hand-to-hand every night."
"Yeah, well," Buffy added, "she's still not all that comfortable with it. Which is why we went for the cover story. Nice job of covering, by the way."
Nodding absently, Mike set the stack of plates down by the sink. "Well, not all of it was bullshit. My dad - let's just say one of the reasons I joined the GSA was to get away from him."
"I wouldn't go that far with Mom," Buffy commented with a grin. "But she's still really paranoid and overprotective. She won't even let me drive. So there's a few things I haven't told her yet."
"Like what?" Mike inquired.
"Angel," Buffy said without thinking, her eyes fixed on the night sky beyond the kitchen window.
Seeing the faraway look in her eyes, Mike frowned. "What about Angel?"
The Slayer bit her lip. "No one told you about Angel, did they?" She sighed as he shook his head. "Angel's a vampire."
Mike stopped mid-rinse and stared at her, confused. "Wait a minute."
"But he's a good vampire, really," Buffy added hastily. She looked away, uncomfortable under his curious stare. "It's kind of complicated."
"Okay." Mike drew the word out uncertainly. He could tell it was a touchy subject, and didn't press for details. "Anything else you're not telling me?"
"Well," Buffy replied, her eyes travelling to the window. "Oh, that reminds me. Full moon starts tomorrow night. Better remind Will about Oz watch."
Mike cleared his throat. "You realize that went completely over my head. Oz watch?"
"Oz isn't that harmless three nights out of the month," Buffy explained. When he still didn't get it, she narrowed her eyes. "He's a werewolf. Do I have to spell it out for you?"
"Weirdness back home tended more toward monsters attacking in the park. This kind of weirdness is on a completely different wavelength," Mike responded flippantly. He didn't seem all that surprised. "Oz is a werewolf? How'd that happen?"
"I got bit," a voice answered, and they turned to see Oz leaning on the "island" in the middle of the kitchen. "You might want to find some dessert soon."
Buffy rolled her eyes. "Xander the sugar addict. I think there's some rocky road in the fridge." She moved over to search the refrigerator.
Oz turned to Mike. "You don't have a problem with werewolves?"
"As long as I don't get mauled by one, not really." Shaking his head, Mike leaned back against the counter.
Seeing the look on his face, Oz smiled. "Not much of a surprise."
"For some reason, no."
"Then it's started," the guitarist declared. "You're getting used to Sunnydale. After that, there's no turning back."
Mike glanced out the window, where the nearly full moon gleamed brightly in the sky. "Great."
For once, the person at the bar actually sounded legal. "Hey."
"What'll it be?" Mike asked without thinking, and then caught himself as he realized that Angel was sitting at the bar. "Oh. I'm guessing I don't have anything you can drink."
Angel smiled wryly. "Buffy told you."
"Not everything," Mike admitted. "She never got around to explaining why you're on our side."
"I was cursed with my soul a while back," Angel sighed. "I've had to live with everything the demon inside me did for all those years before." He shook himself out of the memory. "Just give me an ice water, if you don't mind."
Mike complied, deciding this was another subject that was too sensitive to ask about. "If you're looking for Buffy, you just missed her," he explained as he set the glass in front of Angel. "They were watching out for the band for about two hours, but Relish hasn't showed yet. It's like they knew we were coming."
Angel was nodding. "I spoke to Giles - well, as much as I could under the circumstances," he added.
"Another long story?" Mike guessed.
"You have no idea," Angel replied as a commotion broke out near the back. The four band members, looking somewhat battered but no worse for wear, were hauling their instruments up to the stage. The patrons started cheering, and the last-minute DJ Harry had hired immediately started packing up.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Mike muttered sarcastically, "Relish has entered the building."
They wasted no time in setting up, and did so surprisingly fast, with Lori handling a rather irate Harry fairly well. Mike watched her carefully; he couldn't hear what they were saying, but she seemed to be apologizing and explaining some convoluted excuse for their lateness. Harry was buying into it, but somehow it seemed as though her sincerity was just a result of carefully calculated acting.
"Who's the redhead?" Angel murmured.
"Lori. The lead," Mike explained. "You know her?"
Angel's brow furrowed as the band took the stage. "I think I've seen her somewhere."
As the music started, their conversation was put to a halt. Again the dance floor was crowded, and again the music had the crowd mesmerized. But this time, Mike realized, it wasn't quite the same. This time, the melody was a lot more potent. The people on the dance floor were moving and swaying to the music in a daze, as if they were completely oblivious to the world and the laws of physics. In fact, the entire club seemed to be in a trance, drinking in the music like it was an addictive drug.
Mike scanned the club and frowned, recognizing faces. Harmony. Gwen. Jonathan. Ben. Jeremy. And that girl hanging over the banister was definitely Katherine. Feeling the headache start to build, he ducked beneath the counter and pulled out the earplugs he'd picked up on the way. As soon as they were in, his head felt clearer.
Standing up, he turned back to the vampire. "Someone's got to get Buffy." Angel didn't respond. "Angel?"
But Angel didn't even hear him. To Mike's horror, the vampire was as mesmerized as the rest of them, his eyes locked on the stage. Or, more appropriately, locked on Lori, who was turned in their direction, looking straight at them as she crooned into the microphone. Slowly, Angel got to his feet, ignoring the untouched glass of water as he moved into the center of the dance floor. He merely stood there amongst the gyrating crowd, staring right at the lead singer.
Mike made to follow, but a glance over at the corner told him that was a bad idea. Harry was still keeping an eye on him. When he turned back to the dance floor, there was no sign of Angel.
As she belted out the chorus, Lori's gaze met his. There was almost a knowing smirk on her face as her green eyes glinted in challenge. The glance lasted only a moment, but as she turned away, Mike could not get rid of the chill that gripped him. How the hell did they know?
He sighed and turned his attention back to the bar, missing the worried and uncertain glance from the bass player.
"Mike. Yo, Mike."
Completely lost in his thoughts, Mike jumped in surprise when Nick poked him with a pencil. "Huh? Oh, sorry. What's up?"
Nick grinned. He was out of uniform, with a satchel slung over one shoulder. "It's after two, man. Harry said to pack up."
"Finally," Mike sighed, throwing the towel over a hook and locking the cash register. "Another night like this is going to kill me."
"No kidding," Nick said as they headed out the back door. "It's never been this nuts during the week before. I'm kind of dreading Friday night."
Mike laughed at that. "God forbid. Maybe I'll get lucky and get hit by a car or something before then."
"Then this is your lucky night," a voice answered.
Immediately, Mike spun in the direction of the sound, dropping into a defensive position on instinct as a pair of vampires stepped from the shadows, game faces revealed. "Nick, get out of here," he ordered the younger boy. "Go!"
Nick wasted no time and bolted for the end of the alley, only to be grabbed by a third vampire at the other end. The vampire threw the boy into the brick wall, letting him collapse into a pile of trashcans. "Dinner later, boys. We got business with the bartender."
Surreptitiously, Mike slid a hand into the pocket of his backpack, slightly relieved when his fingers closed around the stake he'd been keeping for emergencies. "What do you want?" Like I don't know.
"Take a wild guess," the leader answered before leaping at him.
Mike dived out of the way, slamming his pack into the vampire's midsection and knocking his attacker off-balance. He backflipped out of the small circle, stake in hand and back to the wall. As he'd hoped, the leader came at him again in a rage, too arrogant to have the other two double-team him. A crescent kick to the face stopped the rush, but only briefly as the vampire grabbed Mike by the shoulders and pinned him to the wall. The stake fell out of Mike's hand, and he was no match for the vampire's strength.
A crazy idea flashed through his mind, and without thinking, Mike slammed his knee into the place that would hurt the most. With a howl of pain, the vampire let go of Mike, who dropped to the ground, grabbed the stake, and shoved it through his attacker's heart.
He spun to face the other two, stake in hand. This time he wasn't so lucky as they rushed him in tandem. He managed to block a punch from one and kick the other in the gut, but couldn't block the second punch he received in the face. The sheer force of the blow sent him flying into the wall. Dazed, he slumped against the wall, only to be hauled back up to his feet. "I hate it when they fight back," one of the vampires muttered.
"Speak for yourself," the other answered. "I think this one might be a good addition to our organization."
Before Mike could react to that, a sudden cold wind erupted out of nowhere, blasting the vampires from behind and making them turn in surprise. "Holy - !" the first one gasped, his shock great enough to make him loosen his grip. Mike wrenched his wrists free and staked him before he could recover. The other vampire shoved him hard before turning and running down the alley.
Confused, Mike got to his feet, coughing and dusting himself off. When he saw the hazy, glowing form in the alley, he froze. "You." The specter did not answer. "Who are you? What do you want?" The feeling of paralysis was creeping up his spine again, but Mike gritted his teeth, shaking it off and stumbling back from the apparition. For a moment, it looked as though it would advance, but its glow flickered like a candle flame, causing it to hesitate.
Snatching up his discarded backpack, Mike dashed to the other end of the alley, where Nick was still lying in the midst of the trashcans. "Nick! Wake up!" He shook the other boy frantically. "Come on, man!" A glance told him that the specter was gone again, but he wasn't taking any chances.
Nick blinked at him, confused. "You get the number of the Mack truck that hit me?"
Sighing, Mike hauled him to his feet. "I almost ended up roadkill myself. Come on, let's get out of here."
He ran the six blocks back to Giles' apartment. Giles was there, having fallen asleep reading in an armchair, but he came to as Mike burst through the door. Mike was already sporting a bruise from the punch he'd taken to the jaw, and the Watcher started in surprise. "What on earth happened to you?"
Taking a few deep breaths, Mike forced his lungs to work again before answering. "Giles," he gasped, "we - we really need to talk."
Sunrise was coming.
The figure staggered through the trees, following a circuitous route as it weaved and stumbled its way home. It fell down a few times before picking itself up again and continuing with dogged perseverance. Sheer determination and self-preservation were the only things spurring it on as it reached the old mansion, literally falling down the steps as it reached the front door.
With a final burst of strength, the door was wrenched open, and Angel lurched across the threshold, slamming it shut behind him. In the safe darkness of his home, he only managed a few more steps before swooning limply to the stone floor.
Franklin Kwan hated his life.
He sat alone in the beat-up old van, guitar resting in his lap, plucking idly at the strings. Playing helped him think, especially when he was away from the other three. Any time he was away from them helped him think, actually. It made him realize just what kind of a fool he was.
Outside, Lori had just snared a catch. Frank couldn't see or hear it, but he knew instinctively. That was the only reason they needed him - well, the main reason. They had to have four, and each with some level of psychic ability. Right now, Lori was broadcasting hunger and viciousness, her pleasure in the hunt. Frank's stomach turned with revulsion as he picked it up. She wasn't bothering to shield, something she did intentionally to mess with his head. Empathy was a bitch.
Gritting his teeth, he shifted the guitar, retrieving the pick from his shirt pocket. As she moved in for the kill, he started to play, picking out a series of chords as his imagination provided them. Closing his eyes, he tried to lose himself in the melody, to let the rest of the world fade away as he always did. Yet the churning swell of emotions outside - hunger? fear? death? a mingling? - rose up, threatening to break through. His fingers moved even faster over the strings as he fought against it, the melody gaining a frenzied tempo. Still, at the very edge of his consciousness, the carnage was present, a reminder of what he had gotten himself into. Frank kept playing, determined to block it out. He wanted to scream in rage, to yell at her to stop.
Hell, he just wished he could scream.
The kill was made, and the miasma of hunger faded away, much to Frank's relief. He leaned back against the seat, unconsciously clutching his guitar against his chest as he tried to steady himself, to slow his breathing and the pounding of his heart. I can't take this anymore.
Molly climbed in from the cab, grinning like a maniac. Frank forced himself to relax, refusing to let her see his discomfort. She seemed to take pleasure in watching him squirm. "What're you doing in here?" she inquired innocently, as if she didn't know. "You missed the floor show."
He turned his head away, refusing to look at her. "What's the matter, Frankie?" she teased. "You don't like the feeding?" At the lack of response, she frowned. "Really, you can't tell me you don't feel the hunger too."
Frank closed his eyes, refusing to give her any satisfaction or response. "Come on," Molly purred. "It's just little me. You can talk to me." She knelt down beside him, leaning to whisper in his ear. "Talk to me, Frankie. You know you want to."
He didn't move, didn't even flinch or give any sign that he heard her. After a moment or two, she sighed and climbed back out the cab door. Alone, Frank sagged with relief, despite his internal frustration with her taunts. As infuriating as she was, and as tempting as it was, any retaliation would just make things worse.
Although Malik and Lori hadn't said anything to him - and Molly was always lost in her own psychotic little world - he knew that they were about to pull something worse than usual. Just because he couldn't speak didn't mean he couldn't think. Sunnydale was right over a Hellmouth, and Friday was a full moon. It was a definite setup for destruction.
He had to do something, to save his sanity if nothing else. But what? He racked his brain, trying to think of something, anything, some detail they might be missing.
Surprisingly enough, he came up with an answer.
He was dreaming of running.
At first, he thought it was the same recurring dream he'd had since he was six; running up a hill that seemed to get higher as he ran, making it impossible to make any progress towards the top.
But he crested the hill easily to reach the fringe of the meadow, where the open land ended and the dense forest began. Uncertain, Mike slowed to a halt. Where was he, and what was he supposed to do now? As he stood there, confused, he caught a flash of color amongst the green. It was flickering between the browns and greens of the forest, a glint of golden yellow. Without thinking, Mike took off after it, plunging into the forest.
He ran without slowing or stumbling, following a random and roundabout path as he madly dashed after the figure ahead of him. As he threaded through the trees, his surroundings became a haze of light and color, and it seemed as though his feet were barely touching the ground. But he couldn't stop running, and as the mad chase went on, he couldn't tell who was chasing who. He thought he heard someone laugh... and then the ground disappeared from beneath him.
With a yell, Mike pitched forward, unable to stop his descent. He tumbled gracelessly down a steep, grassy slope, colliding with someone on the way down. They landed in a tangle of arms and legs, cushioned by the long, thick grass at the bottom. Coughing, Mike sat up, turning to meet the eyes of the girl beside him. Immediately, everything and everyone else he had been worried about seemed to fall away as he recognized her.
Giles didn't notice it until after he had finished a hasty breakfast. Putting the plate in the sink, he happened to glance into the living room. It occurred to him that Mike had barely stirred at all during his morning routine. Normally, the slightest noise would cause Mike to thrash around and bury his head beneath the pillow as if he were trying to block out the sound of a train wreck.
Concerned, the Watcher turned off the tap and moved over to the couch. Mike was lying there, deep in slumber and even smiling in his sleep. Giles couldn't help but chuckle. Hastily, he scrawled a note, setting it on the coffee table before picking up his satchel. He spared one last glance at his guest before closing the door and heading off to work.
"Willow! Willow Rosenberg!"
Surprised, Willow looked up from her locker to see Amy Madison fairly jogging down the hall. "Amy? What's going on?"
The brunette brushed her bangs out of her face as she hurried over. "I've got to get a haircut," she muttered absently.
Willow noticed the nervous look in her eyes. "What's the matter?"
Amy glanced at the clock before responding. "Can I talk to you for a minute? Witch to witch?"
"How are you feeling?" Giles asked as Mike entered the library. He was a considerable sight better thanks to sleep, and the bruise on his cheek didn't look quite so bad.
Mike pulled up a chair, brushing his somewhat unkempt hair out of his eyes. "I've been better, but I'll live. Thanks for letting me crash late."
"You needed it, from what you've told me," Giles observed. "You've been seeing this apparition periodically since you've come here, I take it?" Mike nodded. "Have - have you been having any related dreams?"
The younger man frowned thoughtfully at the tabletop. "I've been having dreams, yeah, but I don't think they're related."
The slight edge to his voice was not lost on Giles. "Perhaps they might be," the Watcher suggested.
Mike was silent for a moment, but relented under Giles' stare. "All right, all right," he sighed, throwing up his hands. "There - there was this girl back home. Maya. The one who fell through the portal in the first place." he clarified.
He didn't continue, and Giles adjusted his glasses. "And?"
"Well, I've - I've been dreaming about her." At Giles' nod, Mike continued hastily. "Constantly. Vividly. I knew her for what, three hours, and I can't get her out of my head. I'm starting to think that this is how stalkers start out."
Giles was smiling. "You didn't seem so unhappy about it last night to me." At Mike's alarmed expression, the Watcher burst out laughing. "No, no, nothing that embarrassing. But when you weren't roused by my mucking around in the kitchen, I thought something was wrong."
"Yeah, well," Mike replied, "it didn't feel wrong. That's what's bothering me. I barely knew her - maybe a few hours - but now I can't get her out of my head."
"I suppose this could be due to - ah - homesickness, to put it simply," Giles proposed. "It's quite understandable, really, given your situation."
"No," Mike declared. "It's not just that. This kind of thing doesn't happen to me. I don't meet a girl and immediately..." He stopped, trying to find the right words to explain. "When she looked at me, my brain shut down for a second. Everything but Maya just faded into the background. I didn't follow her because it was the right thing to do," he admitted. "I couldn't stand the thought of not following her and letting her disappear. God, I sound like a psychopath."
"If you were truly going mad," Giles observed, "would you be questioning your sanity like this?"
Mike looked down at the table. "I don't know. Maybe I'm on the verge."
The Watcher was silent for a moment before speaking. "Speaking from personal experience," he finally answered, "love at first sight does truly exist."
Mike couldn't suppress a snort, but Giles was undaunted. "Well, it occurs on different levels, I suppose. For some it may be immediate and all-encompassing, and sometimes just a slight stirring that you don't even recognize."
He looked almost wistful as he spoke, and Mike's skeptical look vanished. "Who was she?"
"Oh, ah, actually, she was the - the computer teacher here," Giles replied absently. "Constantly insisted on defending those bloody machines any chance she got. She..." He stopped, realizing where he was. "It's a rather long story."
"I'm sorry." It was all Mike could think of to say.
"No, it's not your fault." Dismissing the subject, Giles slid the stack of books at his elbow over to Mike. "If you're not otherwise occupied, what would you say to a little research?"
"Okay, this is really starting to freak me out," Cordelia moaned as she came within earshot of Xander and Oz. "Broken air conditioning or not, everyone is totally wigging today."
Xander glanced up, smirking. "Hi, Cordelia. I'm fine, and how about yourself?"
"Mock me if you will," his girlfriend answered, not missing a beat, "but I'm serious, Xander." She continued as the three friends headed down the hall. "You know, I counted twelve people who looked like stoners today. People who normally don't even drink," she added at the dispassionate looks Oz and Xander were giving her.
"I counted twenty-two," Oz responded.
Surprised, Cordelia looked back at Xander. "I only got thirteen," he admitted.
"The Bronze theory seems to be accurate," Oz observed.
"Oh, that's just great," Cordelia groused. "So if I don't go to the Bronze, I get to stay a non-zombie, but I have no social life. If I do go to the Bronze, I get to have a life, but I end up as braindead as the rest of them." She frowned as something occurred to her. "You think I'd be wasted enough to wear something off the rack?"
Xander shook his head. "Cordy, the day you wear something store-bought is the day I buy it for you. Which won't be soon," he added, "because I'm broke."
"Pity we didn't get to see Relish play," Oz interrupted.
"You didn't?" Cordelia asked Xander, surprised.
"Nope," he replied. "Sat there for two straight hours and the band didn't show."
"Well, that's ridiculous," Cordelia stated. "If they're so popular, why would they not show for two hours? Unless they knew you were coming ahead of time and decided to avoid the Loser Squad."
"Hey," Xander said, ignoring the insult. "Maybe they did." He gasped, feigning shock. "My God, Cordy's had a breakthrough!"
She made a face at him, but didn't rise to the bait for a change. "Oh, come on. I mean, how could they know? Psychic powers?"
Ahead of them, a dark head was bobbing crazily among the rest. Nancy wobbled down the hallway towards the stairwell, too drained to care that her sense of equilibrium was all but nonexistent.
"We're on a Hellmouth," Oz pointed out as they neared the top of the stairs. "It could happen."
Suddenly, Nancy toppled forward, unable to catch herself as she rolled down the stairs, limbs flying every which way, until she landed in a crumpled heap on the linoleum at the bottom. She didn't move, and as the crowds gathered around, the three Slayerettes stared at the commotion below them. Snyder was there immediately, shoving his way through the crowd as he alternately put down students and muttered about lawsuits.
Cordelia paled. "I think I'm staying in tonight."
"The Bronze just reeks of Old Magick," a voice was explaining as Mike emerged from the stacks with his arms full of books. "Everyone I've passed today who's been there is bearing its mark."
The speaker was a girl he didn't recognize, but Giles was listening to her explanation intently. She was obviously a student, somewhat pretty and more than somewhat agitated, gesturing animatedly as she spoke. Willow was also present, and had taken up residence at the computer behind the circulation desk. None of them noticed his presence as he walked down to the lower level and plunked the books heavily on the table. At the sudden sound, Giles jumped, nearly dropping his glasses in shock as he spun around. "Good Lord!"
"Sorry," Mike apologized, not sounding entirely contrite. "What's going on?"
"Lunch break, I believe," Giles answered, replacing his glasses and glancing up at the clock.
Willow was glued to the computer screen, and didn't seem aware of the situation. "Are those files on ritualistic significance of four elements still here?"
"I wouldn't touch that machine on pain of death," Giles retorted. "You know that."
Obviously, answers weren't forthcoming from them. Sighing, Mike offered a hand to the girl. "Hi. I'm Mike, by the way."
Gingerly, she took it. "Amy." She looked over at Willow as if to say, Who the hell is this guy?
Willow caught the confused looks both were giving her. "Mike, Amy. Amy, Mike. He's okay, she's a witch."
By this time, Mike had given up being surprised. "Nice to meet you."
In her haste, Willow knocked a stack of papers off the desk, sending them tumbling to the floor. "Oops." She knelt down and quickly scooped them up, trying to shuffle them back into shape. "Giles, do these have to be in any order?"
"Hm? No, I don't think so," the Watcher answered. "Just make sure they're all together."
As she stood up again, Willow thought she caught a glimpse of something black sticking out from the upper corner of the cupboard. Before that could register clearly, however, her head connected squarely with the cupboard's rim. "Ow!" Forgetting about the black object, she staggered to her feet, replacing the stack and holding her head. She failed to notice that the impact had jostled the black thing as well.
"You okay?" Mike asked.
She nodded, waving them off with one hand and gently touching a tender spot on the back of her head with the other. "I think so."
"As I was about to ask," Mike continued as they walked over to the computer, "what's going on here?"
"Amy recognized the type of magic coming from the Bronze," Willow answered.
Mike and Giles looked over at Amy, who shrugged. "Like I said, whatever's coming from the Bronze is definitely Old Magick. Not only that, some kind of ritualistic merging of magics."
"Translation, please?" Mike asked.
Giles frowned. "It's not just one demon making everyone act like this. A couple of powerful entities, perhaps, not necessarily demonic, although they would need at least one supernatural being in their number."
"And there's lots and lots of complex rituals and variations," Willow put in. "I'm checking the Wicca bulletin boards. If Amy can pick up on the kind of magic they're using, maybe someone's heard of Relish and can clue us in."
"Try www.spook-squad.com," Amy advised. "They usually pick up underground information."
Willow nodded, her eyes glued to the computer. "Wish I had full names I knew were real. Then I could probably get records on these guys."
Something clicked in Mike's thoughts at that. "Willow, could you do that? Look up records just by full name?"
"I'd have to get through a few firewalls, but I could," the redhead answered as she typed. "And I'd need date of birth and maybe either social security number or a driver's license number."
At that, Mike turned away, looking thoughtful. If Giles had been paying attention, he would have recognized the look on Mike's face. It was similar to the expression Buffy would get when the first stages of an insane plan took hold.
"What sort of rituals?" Giles asked, turning to Amy.
The witch sighed. "I'm not entirely sure. Again, there's tons of variations to choose from, even if we narrow it down to what we already have. Four members of the band, possibly representing the four elements. They use music as the key. And they only seem to do so at night."
"Wait a minute," Mike said. "What about the full moon?" They stopped and stared at him. "Well, it's starting tonight."
Giles started at that thought. "Of course." He turned and selected a book from the stacks that were already on the table, flipping through it. "The full moon lasts for three nights, and on the second night its power is the most potent."
Willow was still engrossed in the computer, so Mike turned to Amy. "I'm still new to this. Help?"
"Basically, when there's a full moon, the concentration of psychic energy is greatest," Amy explained. "Especially the second night. Anyone with some psychic ability could tap into a much greater reserve than usual."
"Which means if they're planning anything big, it'll happen tomorrow," Mike surmised.
"That's still not enough," Giles sighed. "We'd still need to know how many members of the group had supernatural abilities, which type of entity was involved..."
Mike covered his ears. "All right, all right! I get the picture."
Willow finished typing and leaned back, breaking free of her cyber-trance. "I checked out most of the bulletin boards I know. No one's posted any mentions, but I sent out some inquiries. I'll probably get a reply or two later, I hope."
"Thank you, Willow, Amy," Giles said, wiping at his glasses. "This is becoming a rather difficult business. Usually, there's some sort of prophecy that would coincide, but I can't find a blasted thing."
Willow logged off and shut the computer down, patting Giles on the shoulder. "It's okay," she reassured him. "Sometimes stuff just happens."
As she spoke, the lunch bell rang. "Stuff like that," Amy groaned. "I'm never going to make it to Precalc in time."
"I'll never get to Chemistry," Willow added. "Unless a faculty member signs me a late pass."
"Late pass? Of all the blasted--" Giles began, but stopped as Willow pouted, turning her best puppy-dog stare on. "Oh, very well."
He reached into a drawer and pulled out a pair of late slips, hastily filling them out before handing them to the girls. "You realize that if it was anything but the workings of the Hellmouth delaying you, I would not be doing this."
Amy and Willow exchanged knowing looks. "Thank you, Mr. Giles," Amy said with a grin as the two girls hurried out.
Giles sagged wearily against the desk, shaking his head. He turned to see Mike snickering. "And just what do you think you're laughing at, Vortex Boy?"
Somehow, that just made Mike laugh harder. He shut up when Giles shoved a stack of books into his arms.
Trick glanced up from the computer screen. "Can't you see I'm busy?"
"Yeah, boss, but it's kind of important," the lackey stammered as Trick glared at him. "The volume on the reception's a lot lower than it should be. Something might have gotten knocked out of alignment."
The three-piece-suited vampire smirked condescendingly. "So turn it up, then. You can do that by remote."
Nodding, the lackey swallowed nervously. "Uh, yeah, I can, but at this level that's kind of risky."
"Nothing serious, I hope," Trick surmised, a dangerous glint in his eyes.
"No, but there's a chance of a feedback whine on the other end." The vampire winced under Trick's penetrating glare. "Well, a chance, anyway."
"Hmmm." Trick glanced at the screen. "If what I'm reading is right, the Slayer might not be our biggest problem now." He leaned back in his chair, thinking. "Crank it up. Not worth the effort to retrieve."
"Yes, sir," the vampire said, shuffling away.
Trick grinned. "Besides, what are the chances they'd find it?"
Mike rubbed his eyes, trying to make sense of the text in front of him. After Willow and Amy's departure, Giles had decided to postpone further research into Relish until after school. Which meant the research went back to Mike's stalker. Not that he wasn't grateful for the help, but some of these books were incomprehensible.
From the way Giles shifted in his seat, suddenly becoming interested in the book in front of him, Mike could tell he'd found something. "What? Found something?"
"It's fascinating, really," Giles murmured. "Several accounts of spirit summonings. They seem to correlate somewhat to your appearance."
"Well, I'm not a--" Mike began, then stopped suddenly as a faint sound reached his ears. It was a high-pitched whine, like a siren coming from far away, or the whine of feedback from a microphone.
Suddenly, his conversation with Angel came back to him. "It's like they knew we were coming."
Slowly, trying to make as little sound as possible, he stood up, glancing around the room thoughtfully. If that noise was what he believed it to be, someone was listening in on their conversation. Which made perfect sense, he realized as he turned the events of that Sunday night over in his head. That attack had been calculated, planned, and executed when there were no Slayers about. Despite their best efforts, the attack had failed completely, with nothing and no one taken.
Or so they had been made to believe. In the midst of battle, who would notice a bug, a concealed microphone perhaps, being planted in some odd corner? From what he'd heard these past few days, Mike had gleaned that attacks like this were usually executed in order to acquire something, not plant something.
Noticing his confusion, Giles looked up. "Are you all right?"
Frantically, Mike waved at him to be silent as he replied, "Yeah, I'm fine. Just got a headache. You got any Tylenol in here?"
Perplexed, Giles nodded. "The desk in the office. Top drawer on the left."
Nodding, Mike gestured for silence as he moved over to the office, looking around for clues. He closed his eyes, trying to think back, to remember something out of place in that battle. Nothing came to mind until just before that specter had appeared; he'd noticed, out of the corner of his eye, someone crawling behind the circulation desk...
His eyes flew open. Of course.
He hurried to the desk, grabbing up a pen and the bottle of Tylenol before turning to try to clue Giles in.
"So Nancy's going to be okay?" Willow asked as the three friends walked down the hall towards the library. "I can't believe I didn't hear about this til after lunch."
Buffy nodded. "Yeah, it was a zoo when I finally got out of English. Snyder was screaming about lawsuits, the nurse was trying to get him to get out of the way for the paramedics to get to her, and nobody was going anywhere near class."
"I heard she landed on her side, not her head," Xander added. "She's got a broken arm and probably some bruised ribs, but just a minor concussion since her shoulder took the brunt of the impact."
The girls stared at him. "How do you know all that?" Willow inquired.
He made a face. "Cordy got one of the paramedics talking." From his tone, it was apparent that he wasn't too happy about that.
"Mr. Stone got flooded with students claiming they were traumatized," Buffy remarked with a grin, changing the subject. "He packed up and left early."
"So Nancy's going to be all right, and Buffy got out of counseling," Willow finished. "I guess that's not too bad."
"Well, she was lucky," the Slayer continued as she opened the door. "This stuff could get worse if more people get this whacked out. We're going to have to figure this out soon."
She would have said more if Giles hadn't hurried up to them, waving his arms wildly. "Oh! Charades! I get it!" Xander exclaimed. "Let's see, first word..."
Giles glared at him and thrust a note into Buffy's hands, gesturing for silence. Buffy frowned and looked down at the note, Xander and Willow looking over her shoulder. No talking! it read in Giles' sharp-edged printing. Mike thinks the library is bugged.
Buffy blinked, confused, and Willow frowned, but Xander's eyes widened in understanding. He looked at Giles inquiringly, and Giles inclined his head towards the circulation desk. Nodding, Xander pulled a notebook and a pen out of his backpack and walked over to the desk as Giles beckoned Willow and Buffy out into the hall.
Mike was crouched behind the circulation desk, peering at something attached beneath the top shelf. Carefully, so as not to make any noise, Xander scooted in beside him to see what the newest member of the Scooby Gang was looking at.
One look and a memory from the Halloween incident told him that Mike's hunch had been right. The concealed microphone wasn't disguised as anything insignificant, but it had been planted in an insignificant spot. But from what Xander's military memories told him, the job was relatively sloppy.
He uncapped the pen and started to write. They planted this Sunday night?
Mike took the pen, answering on the same sheet. Yep. I remembered seeing one of them crawling behind here just after I got clobbered. He peered at the bug intently before continuing. I'm trying to figure out what the range on this thing is.
I think it's maybe a 15-foot range, but the place they stuck it might take that down a bit, Xander wrote back. As Mike stared at him in confusion, he added, Halloween. People turned into their costumes for a night. I went as an Army lieutenant. It was a slight fib, but Mike hadn't been there. Besides, a private wasn't as impressive.
Mike continued to stare at him skeptically for a moment, then shrugged it off as a sudden thought struck him. They probably don't know we're on to them yet.
Xander glanced again at the recording device, then at Mike. Obviously, they were thinking the same thing. Maybe we should leave it on for a while.
Nodding, Mike got to his feet. Xander got up as well, and the two of them hurried out into the hall, where Giles, Willow and Buffy were already deep in conversation. "...talk to Angel," Buffy was saying. "He might have heard something." The conversation abruptly ceased as Buffy noticed their presence.
"We found it," Xander announced as soon as the door was closed. "Stuck behind the counter in a little corner they thought we'd never see."
"Good," Giles said, relieved. "I suppose you've disabled it, or turned it off, or whatever?"
Xander shook his head. "Not yet."
The Watcher frowned. "Now wait a moment. I thought--"
"Think about it," Mike reasoned. "We turn it off, they know we're on to them."
"If they don't know already," Xander admitted.
Willow was nodding, seeing where the two of them were going with this. "But if we don't..."
Buffy finished the thought. "They only hear what we want them to."
Faith hopped up the steps to the school entrance, striding down the empty hallways towards the library. She was plugged in to her Walkman, and moved to the beat of the music, humming softly under her breath as she sauntered along. When she came into view of the library, she stopped short, surprised to see Buffy and Giles with their backs against the door. It was almost as if they were guarding the entrance. From Buffy's expression, she knew something was going on.
Switching off the Walkman, she pulled off the headphones, letting them hang around her neck. "We got a problem?"
"Sort of," Buffy answered, gesturing for her to follow. "But we know what that attack was all about."
"You want me to do what?" Cordelia exclaimed. "Are you insane?"
Mike wisely chose not to answer that question. He and Xander had caught her in the parking lot just in time to pitch Xander's crazy idea to her. Personally, Mike wasn't so sure it was a good idea himself - it was a little too risky - but he'd been outvoted. It still seemed that he'd be better off just doing it himself, although if he was caught they'd make the immediate connection to the Slayer. Cordelia was different. Cordelia hadn't been participating in most of their deliberations. Cordelia... well, Cordelia was an airhead.
Xander took a deep breath to steady himself. It seemed he'd been expecting such a reaction. "Cordy, you're the only one who wasn't there last night. You're the least likely to be recognized if someone sees you."
"I can't believe you're asking me to do this," Cordelia went on. "You guys were just insisting that going to the Bronze meant going braindead, and now you want me to hang out there tonight?"
"Technically, the band is the problem," Xander pointed out.
"Oh?" Cordelia snapped. "The band's going to be there, of course. Any idea how I'm going to get around that?"
"You don't have to come when they're actually playing," Mike explained. "They come in to set up and warm up at 4:30. They don't affect anyone until they have an audience."
Still, she wasn't convinced. "I don't know. Don't you think people are going to wonder if I show up all of a sudden after avoiding the Bronze all week? Without an excuse?"
Groaning, Xander swallowed his pride, literally dropping to one knee. "All right, Cordy, I'm grovelling now. Are you happy?" As she stared at him in shock, he added, "You're the only one who can pull this off. Please."
She sighed. "Get up. People are staring."
"Not until you say yes."
Cordelia looked to Mike for help. "I... think I'm staying out of this one," he decided. Crazy idea or not, getting between the two of them was probably even more insane.
As Cordelia and Xander stared at each other, locked in a stalemate, Mike's gaze wandered past the rows of cars to the clump of trees at the other end of the parking lot. Although the shadows partially concealed it, he was sure he caught a glimpse of a familiar dark figure. Sighing, he turned away. There just wasn't time to deal with that at the moment.
Finally, Cordelia rolled her eyes and tugged at the collar of Xander's shirt. "All right, all right. I'll do it. Now get up."
As he got to his feet, Xander gave Cordelia his most endearing, lopsided grin. "Thanks, Cordy. You won't regret it."
"Oh, I probably will," Cordelia answered flippantly as she opened the driver side door. "But it's better than you humiliating me."
"I don't think the Bronze is a good idea tonight," Buffy announced. "We go in, we either get hooked or we get a migraine."
With her free hand, she scribbled on a piece of scrap paper. Mike's headache? How do we explain that?
Xander cleared his throat, trying not to sound nervous. "Uh, yeah, G-man, you figure out what's with Vortex Boy's head?" Mike glared at him, and Faith covered her mouth to suppress a laugh. Standing over by the railing, they were pretending to be absent. The faces Xander was making, however, made it hard to be silent. Mike took a couple index cards and a marker from the desk.
"Actually, there's a number of references to head trauma and temporary immunity to sound spells," Willow piped up.
"Yeah, I guess tripping and falling over the railing would leave a mark," Xander responded, grinning evilly.
Mike held up a note. I'm going to get you for this.
Giles sighed. "Xander, please. But perhaps that concussion might have something to do with it."
"Okay, okay, but then what are we supposed to do?" Xander exclaimed. "What about Faith? She know about this?"
"Not yet," Buffy replied. "I checked around. Guess she'll show up when she feels like it." Faith smirked almost proudly at that. "Looks like Trick has a hand in this too. I think maybe some wide-range patrol could turn up a mole or two."
"Am I the only one who thinks we shouldn't ignore the Bronze?" Xander cried, overdoing the melodrama a bit.
Willow frowned. "You saw what happened last night. They're going to expect us to try something."
"Besides, perhaps we can figure out what connection the local vampires have to this band," Giles put in.
Buffy leaned back in her chair. "I think we need to pay our old pal Willie a visit." And while they wait for me there, I'll talk to Angel.
"I'll come," Xander volunteered quickly. "To, uh, provide backup."
"You just like seeing Buffy threaten him," Willow said.
He shrugged. "So it gives me a bit of a rush." I'm kidding, really, he wrote hastily at the odd look Buffy was giving him.
Mike stifled a laugh, then stiffened suddenly as he felt a hand on his backside. He glared at Faith, but she took no notice, looking straight ahead as if there was nothing wrong. Sighing almost inaudibly, he reached back, took her wrist and pulled her arm back to her side where it belonged. Faith caught his eye, giving him a coy half-smile.
Shaking his head, Mike glanced up at the ceiling helplessly. Folding her arms, Faith turned her eyes forward again, but the smile didn't fade from her face as the rehearsed conversation continued.
It was the perfect excuse.
Nick staggered towards the back exit of the Bronze, trying to carry a tall stack of empty crates. Quickly sliding around the bar, Mike caught the crates before they could fall. "Whoa, easy," he advised, taking the crates and steadying his friend. "You don't look so good."
"Yeah, thanks," Nick murmured, obviously dazed.
Mike frowned with concern. "Give me the keys, Nick. I'll take these round back for you." Nick wasn't in any shape to argue, and a moment later, Mike staggered out the back exit with the crates in hand, letting the door slam shut behind him.
"What took you so long?" a familiar voice demanded. Sighing, Mike set down the crates and turned to face Cordelia, who was standing there with her arms folded and tapping one designer shoe against the asphalt.
"It's quarter to five," he replied. "Not my fault you're early. I thought you didn't want to go through with it."
She sniffed. "I just want to get this over with. I can't believe I'm doing this."
"That makes two of us," Mike muttered under his breath. "Come on." He led her over to the door on the far end, the entrance to the back room. "The band usually dumps their stuff back in here," he told her as he unlocked the door. "Should be some ID, driver's licenses, stuff like that." He checked his watch. "I've got to get back. If you're not sure you're up to this, though--"
"And have Xander gloat over it for a week? I think not." She slipped inside. "Besides, the Bronze is the only place to go in town. I'm not going to let a band named after mashed pickles ruin it."
"All right," Mike sighed. "But be careful." He closed the door, leaving her alone in the dim room.
"Okay," Cordelia murmured as her eyes adjusted to the light. "If I was incriminating evidence, where would I be?"
She moved around the room, looking on empty carts and behind crates, when suddenly she spotted a swatch of purple in the dim grays of the room. On closer inspection, she discovered it to be a neon purple duffel bag stuffed behind an old desk. Beneath it was another backpack, but first things first. Cordelia grabbed the handle of the bag, tugging it from the cramped space with some effort before it came free.
"What do they keep in here, rocks?" she complained, setting it down on the floor and unzipping the duffel bag. Hurriedly, she rummaged through the contents. Her searching fingers found a couple dog-eared romance novels, a makeup bag that rivaled her own, an emergency change of clothes, a couple of New Age tapes, a water bottle, and a bag of tissues.
Eventually, she found the ID's, scribbling down the names, dates, and license numbers. Ohio driver's license, issued to Franklin Kwan, age 20. New York driver's license, issued to Malik Robbins, age 32. California driver's license, issued to Molly Leary, age 16. Oregon driver's license, issued to Lori Halverson, age 27. Reaching into her purse, Cordelia pulled out a small notepad and a pen, and quickly scribbled down the names, birthdates, and ID numbers.
She replaced the IDs and was about to close the bag up when she spotted the tiny notebook in the pocket. Curious, she pulled it out, flipping through the pages. The paper was covered with bizarre doodles and sketches in purple ink. None of them made any sense at first, although the same odd loopy symbol was repeated over and over. It looked like something out of Giles' books. As the doodles progressed, however, they began to resemble diagrams, formations, positions for people to be in. It almost looked like those football plays Mitch had tried to show her, the lines and O's and X's she never understood. She puzzled over the notebook for a moment, then gave up and stuffed it into her purse before zipping up the black backpack and shoving it back into its hiding place. Good enough.
Then the creak of the stage door reached her ears. She barely managed to stifle a squeak of fear as she whirled, half-expecting to be caught.
"...telling you, Pippi Longstocking, if I don't get a smoke soon, I'm gonna lose what little I have left!" The speaker only had the door half-open, and was leaning back towards the stage, unable to see her. If she didn't hide soon, she would have some major explaining to do.
Naturally, Cordelia froze like a deer caught in the headlights of a truck.
Malik stormed into the back room, with Frank trailing behind him. "Get my water bottle," he echoed in a mocking tone. "Do this. Do that. What, does she think I'm her personal slave?"
Trailing behind him, Frank cracked a smile, writing something on his notepad. He handed it to Malik, who read it out loud. "'It's your own fault for calling her Pippi Longstocking.' Yeah, well, Frank, she was asking for it. And you don't have to do that now. No one's gonna know back here."
Frank did not respond, and Malik blinked and looked around, letting his eyes adjust to the dimness. There was no one in sight. "Where'd we stash the bags again?"
Rolling his eyes, the bassist snatched the notepad back and strode over to the desk, yanking the black bag free. Holding it by the strap, he tossed it over to Malik before shoving the notepad back in his pocket.
The drummer caught it, barely, stumbling back a step as it slammed into his chest. "Thanks for the warning." He reached into the bag, feeling around until his fingers closed on the pack of cigarettes inside. "Here we go." Dropping the backpack to the floor, he shook a cigarette out of the pack, lighting it up. "That's more like it."
As he took another puff, the drummer paused. "You hear that?" His companion looked at him blankly as a faint scuffling sound could be heard. "There it is again. Behind there. Go check for me, will you?"
Shooting the other man a baleful glare, Frank moved in the direction of the sound, checking behind rows of crates. He moved from row to row, finding nothing, and emerged at the other end of the room, shaking his head. Just as he was about to give up, he turned and saw her.
Cordelia was crouched on the lower shelf of an empty cart, hugging her knees against her chest and trying to keep her designer outfit from touching anything dirty while not making any noise. An old tarpaulin was draped across the upper shelf, hiding her almost completely from Malik's view. If not for the angle, Frank wouldn't have noticed her himself. She glanced up, and their eyes locked. Recognition flashed in her eyes, which grew wide as she realized that she was in deep shit.
"Yo, Frank!" Malik called. "See anything?"
Frank stared at her for a few more seconds before shrugging and shaking his head. He crossed back to the drummer and handed him another sheet of paper. "I am not paranoid, man," Malik protested as he stomped on his last cigarette and they headed back to the stage. "Can't accuse me of that in this town."
The door slammed shut behind them, and Cordelia sagged in relief. Then, realizing where she was, she jumped from the cart, brushing frantically at her clothes. "Dry clean only," she muttered as she shouldered her purse and slipped out the back door. "This had better be worth it."
Buffy opened the door a crack. "Angel?"
There was no response. Concerned, but wary, she stepped into the mansion, closing the door behind her. As it slid shut, she pulled a stake out of her pocket, moving forward slowly. She could hear a muffled groan down the corridor, and moved to investigate.
It was coming from the bedroom. Back to the wall, she eased around the corner, gripping the stake tightly. Another groan, and she stepped into the room, falling into a battle-ready stance.
Angel was in chains, slumped like a limp rag against the wall. Dropping the stake back into her pocket, Buffy hurried to his side. "Angel! What happened?"
He looked up at her with bleary eyes. "I - she - the Bronze--"
"Where's the key?" Buffy was casting about desperately. "I'll get you free in a second."
"No!" Angel cried hoarsely, with such vehemence that Buffy stopped and stared. "If I go, it'll get worse... it's like a drug..."
The situation was beginning to dawn on her. "You chained yourself up."
"I had to," Angel gasped. "I just keep slipping in and out. One minute, I need more, then the next I can't move..."
"Need what?" Buffy asked warily.
He didn't respond, and she suddenly noticed that he was shivering, despite the warm evening. My God, he looks like some kind of junkie... "Angel, listen to me! Who did this to you?"
Instead of answering, he suddenly leapt up, shoving and struggling to break free from his chains in a frenzy. Buffy jumped back in fright; the last time she'd seen him struggling like that was when he'd just returned from hell. "No," he gasped. "No, no, no..."
After a few moments, he stopped struggling, but remained tense, still trembling. "Buffy," Angel whispered. "Unlock the cuffs."
She crouched down to his level, but kept her distance. "I don't know where the key is."
"Above the fireplace." His eyes didn't seem to be focusing. "Unlock the cuffs."
Angel gritted his teeth. "Unlock the cuffs." She didn't say anything. "Let me go. I've, I've got to go."
"Angel, I'm not gonna--"
He shifted into his game face. "UNLOCK THE CUFFS!" With that, he threw all of his weight forward, trying to break the chains. Panicked, Buffy jumped to her feet again, this time falling into a defensive stance. The chains held, but Buffy could hear the creak and groan as Angel was jerked back, slamming against the wall again.
When he didn't immediately try again, she approached him cautiously, kneeling beside him. "You have to let me go," he moaned. "I need--"
Seeing that he was only somewhat subdued, Buffy cut him off with a hard slap to the face. Stunned, Angel dropped his game face, looking up at her with tired, bloodshot eyes. But this time there was actually some clarity there. "I..." he started, before inhaling deeply. He was still shivering a bit, but for the moment he was in control of himself. "Thank you."
"Angel," Buffy asked seriously, "what's going on?"
He took another deep breath before speaking. "I went to the Bronze last night around ten, but Mike said you'd just left. Then Relish showed up."
The Slayer snorted. "Yeah, that figures."
"When they started playing..." Angel hesitated again, trying to remain coherent through his obvious fatigue. "I recognized the lead, but it couldn't be her. A daughter, or maybe -"
Buffy tentatively reached up to put a hand to his cheek. "Maybe what?"
He licked dry lips before finishing his sentence. "Maybe she was immortal."
Giles looked at the vampire without pity. At the same time, however, there was no scorn in his gaze. Although he hadn't completely forgiven Angel, he could tell that the vampire was suffering enough without the condemnation of others on top of it. He'd arrived at the mansion in time to see Angel in the throes of a withdrawal attack, and it wasn't pretty. Once Buffy had explained what was going on, Giles could tell that Angel was going through an agonizing experience. Besides, this was a serious matter.
He had come at Buffy's urging, having one less excuse not to with the library still bugged. The implications of what she had told him - and what he was seeing now - bothered him greatly. From all appearances, not even the undead were immune to the spell that Relish had cast over half of Sunnydale.
None of the others could have come, anyway. Willow's mother was still demanding quality time, so Faith was keeping an eye on Oz while Xander was keeping an eye on Faith, so to speak. Mike was working, and Cordelia was elsewhere, busy with some mad plan of Xander's.
Buffy returned from the kitchen with a cup and a bag of preserved blood. Kneeling beside Angel, she poured some into the cup, making a face as Angel drank it dry. When he was finished, he looked slightly better, yet his features remained drawn and haggard. "You - you say you believe you've seen this woman before?" Giles managed.
"It was about a month after I was cursed with my soul," Angel affirmed, remembering. "I was wandering aimlessly around Europe then; I didn't really know where I was going, and I didn't care. So one night, I reached the banks of a river - I think it might have been the Rhine - and simply threw myself in." He frowned. "I suppose I thought I could drown myself, but all I succeeded in doing was knocking myself out instead.
"I woke up in a room in a nearby tavern a few hours later. It turned out that a singer at the tavern had pulled me out of the river. Whenever she sang at the bar, every male there would suddenly stop what he was doing and focus on her completely." His eyes seemed to go unfocused for a moment, and he tried to slow his breathing. "I'm sorry, I--"
Shaking her head, Buffy poured some more of the preserved blood into the cup, lifting it to his lips. She was too wrapped up in the story - and too concerned about Angel - to be all that bothered by the blood. "Easy," she advised, although she was anxious to hear the rest. "Take your time."
He drank greedily and swiftly before picking up the thread of the tale. "At first, I thought she was being generous, but she had known me for what I was when she pulled me out. Aside from the fact that she threw herself at every man she wanted to use, there was something wrong about her. I don't know what her ulterior motive was, but I didn't bother to discover it. Once she figured out I wasn't your typical vampire, she wasn't interested anymore. I left the next night."
Giles frowned. "Do you remember anything else?"
"I don't recall her name," Angel answered after a moment's pause. "I'm not sure if it's the same girl; the hair is different, but the voice... it seems almost the same. She could put any of the men she threw herself at into a trance. Which is why I left as soon as I could."
"Just the men?" Buffy wondered. "But everyone's been strung out on the music."
Angel inhaled deeply, trying to maintain his focus. "Except Mike."
"Mike is not from this reality," Giles reminded them. "Although that particular factor hasn't come up in my research, I'm afraid." He cleaned his glasses before continuing. "There are actually a number of creatures and demons - predominantly female - who employ song to drain or entrap others. Each one has different weaknesses. And although it's significant that vampires are not immune," he added, "that has only narrowed down the list slightly."
"Wonderful," Buffy groaned.
"I hate meatloaf," Willow groused for the third time as she sat down in front of one of the lab computers. Its blue-white glow was the only luminescence in the dim, empty lab, casting eerie shadows on her face as she typed.
Xander grinned and slipped an arm around her shoulders. "No end to the 'quality time' kick, I see."
She almost leaned into the hug, but caught herself, straightening up a bit in her chair. "She ignores me for months, then all of a sudden wants to know everything about me. And teach herself to make meatloaf while she's at it." She shuddered at that.
He leaned closer, scooting the chair as close as he could to hers. "Poor Will. Always carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders."
Willow turned to look at him then, their faces almost touching. The two friends stared at one another, lost in the moment, until the door opened and Cordelia walked in, picking strands of something out of her hair. "Xander, you had to give me the dirty job, didn't you?"
Immediately, Xander and Willow pulled apart, so violently that even Cordelia noticed the chairs skidding. "How much caffeine have you had?"
"A - a lot, actually," Xander stammered. "Did you find anything?"
She shrugged. "Got the driver's licenses, and the ID numbers. You think it's bugged in here too?"
"I doubt it," Willow replied. As Cordelia stood there, trying to remove something from her hair, Willow cleared her throat. "Names? Please?"
"Oh, right." Cordelia pulled up a chair to sit beside them. "Um... lemme find it..." She pulled the list out of her purse and handed it to Willow. Several minutes passed as the redhead hacked away. "Find anything?"
Xander was staring at the screen. "Oh, yeah."
"Malik Robinson," Willow read. "He's been convicted of fraud in three states, gambling, petty larceny, and acquitted of manslaughter. Wow, there's a whole file on this guy."
"What else?" Xander asked as Cordelia leaned over Willow's other shoulder.
Cordelia pointed. "Voodoo cult in Louisiana. He's certifiable."
Willow sighed. "Cordelia, Voodoo's a legally practiced religion. But this group..." She trailed off. "They were accused of murder, ritual sacrifices, disturbing the peace, but nothing was ever proven. Besides, this guy got out of it when he was 20."
"And our next contestant is..." Xander began.
"Molly Leary. A bunch of juvenile offenses, full psychiatric record, got let off because they ruled she was delusional." Willow scrolled through the data and stopped. "And according to this, she disappeared a year ago. She's only 15. No family records."
"What about the other guy? The bass player?" Cordelia wondered.
"Franklin Kwan. Class of '97, Lamont High School in Texas." Willow stopped. "That's it. No criminal record, nothing." She shrugged it off. "And last, but not least..."
Xander started drumming on the table. "Drum roll, please..."
"Lori Halverson. Family deceased, accused of a couple felonies, got off of all of them." Willow frowned. "There's less on her than the bass player."
"Well, this is helping," Cordelia commented.
Willow's eyes widened. "Wait a minute." She brought up a new file, of Lori's mother. "Check this out. Loretta Halverson." With a click, the image came up full-screen. "Look familiar?"
"Looks a lot like her daughter," Xander observed.
In response, Willow brought up a few more records. "And her grandma. Want to bet the resemblance goes all the way back?"
Cordelia looked blank, but Xander got it. "Yeah, if they're all the same person."
Willow grinned. "I think we've got our supernatural entity."
They took their positions on the stage deliberately, trying to make it look casual. Frank was having a harder time than usual in that respect, but fortunately the other three didn't notice as they set up. It was always the same: a triangle formation, with himself, Molly, and Malik as the points and Lori in the center. That was the position they had to start and end each set with, something that Lori had pounded into them time and time again.
Tuning his guitar, he scanned the crowd. No sign of the Slayers, or the others they had come with the previous night. But the bartender, who didn't seem to be under the spell, was already there. Frank bit his lip, somewhat disappointed. He'd hoped for more. Shoving away his disappointment, he turned back to the task at hand. You had to take what you could.
Lori was still tuning her guitar, so Frank leaned over to Malik, reaching into his pocket for his notepad. You don't need me tonight, do you?
The drummer favored him with a hard look. "Look, we had this talk a while ago. You gotta get used to it."
Mal, I made a deal, but I'm getting sick and tired of having to witness the feeding frenzy. I hate that shit.
"I don't know," Malik muttered. "The Slayer and her crew are out looking for vamps. If one of 'em happens our way--"
"We don't need you," Lori interrupted.
As the two men blinked, surprised, she turned to fix both of them with a glare. "Tomorrow night's the big one. Middle of the full moon. Everyone's going to have to be rested." Her cold gaze fell on Frank. "I still say you've got to get a backbone, but dragging you along tonight won't help that at all. You'll stay here and meet us at the back exit."
Frank didn't know whether to be relieved or afraid.
"Pretty good crowd tonight, huh?" the manager observed as Mike finished wiping down the counter.
Shrugging, Mike tossed the towel on a hook and turned to the sink. "Big crowd, you mean. Which means a big mess to clean up."
Harry yawned. "You're telling me. These guys are really packing them in, but it makes cleanup a bitch." He staggered, leaning against the counter for support.
Mike frowned, getting a better look at his boss. Harry looked rather pale, and was sweating more heavily than usual. "Harry, you feeling all right? You're not looking so good."
"Naw, I'm fine." The big man dismissed Mike's concerns with a wave of his hand. "Business jumps up like this, I'm bound to lose some shut-eye. Just need to catch up on my sleep."
For about a week, Mike finished silently. Harry was looking more than merely tired, and Mike had been seriously considering getting some of the waiters to strong-arm their boss into seeing a doctor. But none of the waiters were looking well either. Not as bad as Harry, of course, but at the end of every night the staff and patrons alike looked more and more exhausted - drained, as if the energy had been sucked out of them.
Which it probably had.
He snapped out of his reverie abruptly, patting Harry on the shoulder. "Then go home, boss. We're almost finished up here."
Harry wavered thoughtfully, looking around the empty nightclub. Mike wasn't fibbing; the patrons had long gone, and most of their trash and debris had been swept up. Almost all of the band had gone elsewhere, except for the bass player, who was leaning against the equipment, watching them curiously. "All right," he finally conceded, and Mike grinned. "But only because we're almost all done."
"Night, Harry," Mike sighed as the manager yawned, grabbed his coat and keys, and stumbled out the door into the night. Shaking his head, Mike turned to the task of washing glasses.
A tapping noise startled him, and he turned to see Frank sitting there, tapping a pen insistently against the counter. "What can I get you?"
For answer, the bass player pulled out a small notepad, wrote something on it, and turned it so Mike could see. You got a minute?
Glancing around to make sure everyone was too zoned out to pay attention, Mike nodded and leaned over the counter. "Yeah. What's up?"
Frank's brow furrowed for a moment before he picked up the pen again. Why doesn't it affect you?
"Why doesn't what affect me?" Mike wondered, lowering his voice to a whisper.
The music. Lori.
Mike tried to play dumb. "She affects me, all right," he muttered. "Every time she opens her mouth, I get a headache."
Frank almost smiled before continuing. That's not what's supposed to happen.
Now they were getting somewhere. Picking up a dishtowel, Mike pretended to be wiping off the bar. Under his breath, he added, "You know what's going on, don't you?" Frank hesitated before nodding. "People getting drained - this is what's supposed to happen."
It wasn't a question. Frank grimaced. I shouldn't be telling you this. If they find out, I'm a dead man.
Mike nodded and turned to the coffeemaker, pouring himself and Frank a mug. He set the mug in front of the bass player, sliding over the creamer before speaking. "The way it's going, a few people are gonna die if this keeps up." At the startled look on Frank's face, he added, "One of the girls who hung out here? Wasn't awake enough to catch herself going down the stairs and now she's in the hospital."
Frank's only response was to stare numbly into his coffee cup.
"All these half-conscious people are wandering the streets," Mike continued. "How much longer do you think it's gonna be until someone walks into the path of a tractor-trailer? Or drives a bus full of kids off a cliff? What's it going to take for you to tell the truth?"
The young man's lip curled, and he pounded both fists on the bar with enough force to make Mike stop short. Frank was glaring at him fiercely, and Mike forced himself to return a level stare.
Finally, Frank grabbed up the pen. It's supposed to be addictive. They come, they get hooked, they pack the house, Lori drains 'em, we move on.
"Lori drains them?" Mike whispered, confused. "What does she need you for?"
It's the 90's. Bands get in the door. With shaking hands, Frank poured in some creamer and took a gulp of coffee before continuing to write. Molly and Malik are into this stuff, too. Not me.
"Why don't you quit?"
Frank was shaking his head vehemently. Who's gonna take a bass player with no vocal cords, huh?
Mike set his coffee down, unconvinced. "Anyone who hears you play." He sighed. "Look. You can trust me. I've got some friends who can help. What's stopping you?"
For a moment, Frank merely stared at him, then let the pen slip from his fingers onto the bar. Mike's shoulders slumped in defeat, until the voice entered his mind.
This is what's stopping me.
If Mike had been holding his coffee cup, he would have dropped it in his shock. "Wait a minute... you..."
Frank looked sheepish. It works better than pen and paper. As Mike shook off his initial shock, he explained. This was my trade-off for joining up. If I split, they'll take it back.
"You've got to come with me," Mike insisted. As Frank scowled, he added. "Please. You're the only chance we've got, and a lot of my friends are dropping like flies." He extended a hand.
Frank glanced over his shoulder. I don't know. If they find out...
"You expect them back soon?"
The bassist checked his watch. In about an hour.
That wasn't a lot of time. "Trust me. We'll be back in thirty minutes."
With a resigned sigh, Frank took the proferred hand and shook it. I know I'm gonna regret this.
"How is he?" Willow asked as Buffy emerged from the bedroom. Xander and Cordelia had volunteered to do Oz watch, since Xander didn't want to deal with his parents and Cordelia had promised to keep him awake. How she planned to do that, Willow really didn't want to know.
Buffy sighed and shook her head. "He goes back and forth between hysterical strength and completely wasted. Right now, he's completely wasted, although he won't admit it. I finally made him lie down." She scowled. "If he goes anywhere in his condition, he's an easy mark for Trick and company. Xander could probably take him out without much trouble."
"I wouldn't tell Xander that if I were you," Giles advised, a wry smile creeping over his features. He had several books tucked under one arm. "I've gathered some research on the supernatural entities that could do this; unfortunately, there are still a few to choose from."
Hearing this, Faith hopped up from her seat beside the fireplace. "Come on. We know Relish is behind this. Hell, we know just which one of them's the supernatural freak. Why don't we just go beat it out of them?"
"Because not all of them are out to drain Sunnydale dry," a new voice answered, and Giles turned to see Mike coming through the front door with another person in tow.
It was a minute before Buffy realized who it was. "Are you crazy?" she snapped at Mike, stepping towards the bassist.
But Mike held up a hand. "Buff, calm down. He's here to help."
The full moon was coming.
Tomorrow night, the psychic currents would be at their most potent. He had felt stronger as the nights wore on, almost enough to make his move prematurely. It might have been possible tonight.
Yet... he'd felt the same way the night before, and had still failed. Patience, he told himself, was the key. Patience. There had been a brief moment when his chosen was alone in the alley, a perfect time to finish what he'd started. But he could only watch this time, instead of wasting all his energy. No, this had to be done at the right time and in the right place. Assuming nothing happened to the host.
Until then, he told himself, it was best to merely wait.
He would have his revenge in time.
"...and we've continued to break record temperatures for November this week. It's 95 degrees in Monterey right now, even with the low humidity. This heat wave, coupled with the drought, has become fairly serious, even for this region; several area schools have been closed early under pressure from parents, and state and local officials are considering taking action to regulate water usage. Not that anyone's going to obey them, of course..."
Giles glanced up from the book and steaming cup of tea in front of him. "Would someone please turn that bloody thing off?"
No one moved for several moments. Finally, Xander got to his feet and obeyed, shutting off the small clock radio sitting on the counter in Giles' kitchen. He flopped back down on the couch beside Willow. "You know what every other senior is probably doing right now?"
"Falling down stairs?" Buffy suggested.
"Wandering the streets like a zombie?" Willow added.
Xander sighed at that. "We're probably the only ones dumb enough to be doing research when school is closed," he grumped. "Everybody else gets to go home and crash."
"That's right, Xander," Giles replied, not looking up from the text. "The life is being siphoned out of the teenage population of Sunnydale. So while most of them are probably comatose now, you're awake and alert. Such a pity that you just can't fit in."
Buffy and Willow stared at him. "Okay," Buffy said after a moment. "Sarcasm levels reaching critical. Giles, are you all right?"
"I'm - I'm fine," the Watcher answered. "Everything seems to be piling up, that's all."
A sharp knocking on the door cut any further discussion short. "Stool pigeon's here," Xander announced as Giles got to his feet.
Willow nudged him. "Hush! Don't be rude."
Ignoring them, Giles opened the door. Mike, Oz, and Frank were standing there, and Frank was carrying a familiar-looking box in his hands.
"Hey," Oz greeted, breaking the silence before it could extend into a long, awkward pause. "We come bearing doughnuts."
"Mmm, sugar," Xander exulted as he finished off the chocolate doughnut. "Can't save the world without it."
Buffy smiled. "You can't function without it."
"Found it," Willow announced suddenly, shoving a book over to Giles. "It's a standard power point formation. You take four people with at least some mild psychic talent, pick one as the focus - that's the little person in the center - and the energy that all four generate is focused through him or her."
"Or in this case, through her voice," Giles said thoughtfully, looking over at Frank. "What else do you know about her?"
She's not human. Frank leaned back in his seat, shaking his head. After a few minutes and a few doughnuts, the Slayerettes had become generally comfortable with his mind-speak. I don't know what she is. Even when she goes to feed, I can't get enough of a glimpse of her real form to tell.
That got Buffy's attention. "Feed?"
Frank nodded. Every night, like clockwork. After the show, we drive down to the lake, she takes a swim, lures some poor sucker in, drags him under and that's it. Best glimpse I've seen of her then is scales and claws.
Giles' eyes lit up. "Scales? The lake? If not for the voice, I'd almost think we have a lamia... but perhaps..."
"Giles?" Buffy asked. "Is that an answer forming?"
For answer, Giles thumbed to the right page, laying the book down on the table. "A siren."
"What, like a mermaid?" Mike asked incredulously. "I don't know about you, but I was kind of expecting something nastier the way she glares at people."
"The popular myths about sirens are generally incorrect," Giles answered. "The most accurate is the myth that a siren could lure sailors to their death with her song - and once the hapless victim leapt into the ocean, the siren would assume her true form and devour him."
"Kind of puts a damper on a second date, huh?" Xander joked.
Willow was flipping through a stack of printouts. "Wait a minute. I got some responses on the Wicca message boards. There's a German legend about a woman who threw herself into a river because of her despair over a faithless lover. She was turned into a siren."
"Yes, the legend of Lorelei," Giles answered absently. "Rumor has it the faithless lover was drowned as well in the Rhine, which is why she was cursed." He stopped, realizing what he'd just said.
"Lori. Loretta. Lorelei." Oz retrieved a glazed doughnut from the box. "It all fits."
Frank snorted. Figures. I wouldn't be surprised if she did away with the faithless lover herself.
"Angel said he thought it was the Rhine," Buffy added, all business. "But don't sirens only hypnotize men?"
"Hypnotize, yes," Giles answered. "But this is far more complex than that."
She had it planned out from the beginning, Frank interrupted. First she pulled Molly out of juvie, then ran into Malik. And then Mal suckered me in when I couldn't pay for school.
"Four people, with at least latent psychic ability," Giles finished. "The four elements."
It was Xander who was next to contribute. "That's Fire, Air, Water, and Earth, right?" As Willow nodded, he added, "So who's who?"
Frank shrugged. Never too clear on that. I'd guess Lori's water and Mal's fire. She's a fish, he smokes like a chimney, they never stop bitching at each other. Molly's air, because that's where her head is all the time.
"And you're earth," Oz guessed. Frank shrugged again. "How does that help us?"
"It helps us big time," Willow responded, flipping through the printouts. "There's a woman in Scranton who watched you play and picked up on what was going on. All four elements have to be present for the spell to work, and the Earth aspect is generally the stable one. If you don't contribute, the spell's not going to go anywhere."
"Okay, okay," Buffy interjected. "Look, this is fascinating and all, but this siren's got my boyfriend hooked. How do we stop that?"
"According to all my sources," Giles answered, "the siren can be killed with an iron blade. In her natural form."
"Simple question, simple answer," Xander said. "I like it."
Frank flinched. Kill her? You ever see how fast her natural form is? As they stared at him, he continued. Two big guys, good swimmers. Fifteen seconds flat, she gets 'em under and drowned.
"So I won't get in the water," Buffy countered.
Frank shook his head. She never reverts until she's in deep water. Or unless she's really desperate to feed.
Giles sighed. "Well, then we'll have to take away her dinner."
"Faith and Giles will take the front door," Buffy announced once they were situated in the library. "Mike, you let me in the back. Will, Oz, as much as I wish you could help--"
"It's, it's okay," Willow cut in. "I mean, Oz can't help it if he's not himself tonight, and I'm not going to leave him alone. I'll stick by him, because that's what I'm supposed to do because he's my boyfriend, and will someone please stop me?"
Oz graced her with the adoring smile he only gave Willow. "Why? I like that."
Xander coughed. "Forgetting anyone, Buff?"
"Not at all," Giles replied. "Someone will be needed to keep an eye on Angel. You can use the tranquilizer gun; it's documented that sedatives will work on vampires."
"I get to watch the homicidal maniac," Xander groused. "Yay."
"Assuming we break in there and stop the concert," Mike asked, "what then? What do you need me for?"
"You let me in, then find someplace safe and stay down," Buffy answered. "I don't want you fighting any vampires or anything vaguely supernatural. No buts," she added as Mike opened his mouth. "We don't really know what we're dealing with."
There was a long pause before Willow spoke. "So how long til the Bronze opens?"
Mike checked his watch. "We've got three hours. Should be enough time to stock up on what we need."
"All right, then," Giles said, standing up. "Everyone knows their lists. We'll meet here again in two and a half hours."
On cue, the rest of the group got up as well and started towards the doors, muttering amongst themselves. Once everyone was out in the hall, Giles relaxed visibly. "So..." Xander asked after a moment, "what's the real plan?"
The now-familiar knock sounded, causing every head in the room to turn towards the locked and bolted door. Humanlike faces shifted into vampiric as the knock repeated. Only Trick, lounging casually in a stolen recliner, remained calm. "Shave and a haircut..." he murmured along with the rhythm of the knock before getting to his feet. "Gotta be more creative than that, my man."
He signalled to the others that it was fine as he moved to the door. "What's the password?"
"Password?" a strident voice snapped from the other side, loud enough to be heard clearly. "There wasn't no damn password yesterday! What you pulling now?"
Trick chuckled at that and opened the door partially, smiling as the vampires immediately scattered to avoid the beam of late afternoon sunlight that spilled through. Sunset was an hour away, but that didn't mean the sunlight was any less dangerous. "Just kidding. Come on in, brother."
The dreadlocked man standing in the threshold eyed the vampires crouched in the shadows. "I appreciate the invitation," he said, lighting a cigarette, "but your boys look a little too hungry right now." Twin flames were briefly reflected in his mirrored sunglasses before he extinguished the lighter.
Trick glanced back at the other vampires, and nodded. "You're probably right."
"You got any info for me, man?" Malik asked, stuffing the pack of cigarettes back in his pocket. "If the Slayer's planning an attack, we're gonna need to counter it."
The vampire hesitated at that. He had his suspicions about the recording, but then again... if his sources were right, Relish needed a good screw-up. Maybe if the Slayer went up against the siren, they might do each other in. Save the Mayor the trouble.
Either way, it was good business. "Have I ever let you down before?"
"There's one thing I don't understand," Giles said after a moment.
Frank turned, surprised at the sudden sound. It was just him and the Watcher in Giles' study; the rest had gone on their respective errands. What?
"You said that Lorelei 'gave' you the gift of telepathy," Giles continued, "but I sincerely don't believe that's so."
I couldn't do it before! Frank retorted defensively.
"I don't doubt that," Giles assured him, pulling a book from the top of the shelf. "But from all the reading I've done on this sort of 'psychic vampirism,' there is no possible way you could just have been given this talent. It could have been triggered, of course, assuming you had latent ability."
Are you telling me I've been able to do this all along?
Giles flipped through the book idly, only half paying attention to the pages, as he set it on the coffee table with the rest and sat down. Frank, intrigued, took a seat in the nearby chair. "It's very possible that you could, but just didn't know it. They wouldn't have sought you out if you had no potential to begin with."
The bassist did not answer to that comment, but merely stared at Giles, a perplexed look on his face. After a moment or two, a sharp rapping came on the door, followed by muffled shouts of "Giles! Open the door!"
Sighing, Giles stood up. "And they were just berating me about not locking it..." he muttered. Stopping by the chair, he patted Frank on the shoulder. "I could be wrong, but it's food for thought."
"Where the hell have you been?" were the first words out of Lori's mouth as Frank opened the door to the hotel room. She didn't even look up as he entered. Her attention was focused entirely on the mirror as she applied her lipstick carefully. "Mal got back from our informant an hour ago."
Malik was nowhere in sight. Molly was sitting on the bed, or rather lying at the head of the bed with her legs sticking straight up parallel to the wall. It took Frank a moment to chase away the last telling vestiges of fear before he answered. Just out thinking. Enjoying the hundred degree heat.
He was too tired to be jittery, and while she couldn't read his mind, Lori always knew when he was nervous about something. Almost. The few times she hadn't seemed to pick up on his emotions were always when he was tired, usually after loading equipment all day. But all the running around he'd done with the Slayer and her friends was enough to exhaust him. He took a seat on the edge of the bed with a relieved sigh, landing heavily on the mattress.
The jolt caused Molly to open her eyes and glare at him. "More like gettin' blasted by the heat," she snapped in a rare moment of sanity. "You're out of your mind."
No, no one suspected. Frank held back any responses and turned to Lori, who was engrossed in applying her makeup. What are you getting all fixed up for?
Lori smirked at her reflection. "I ran into an... old flame a few nights ago," she answered before turning and kicking the bathroom door. "Mal! Did you drown in there? Get your ass in gear! We've been waiting forever!"
That explained why Molly was so crabby. Frank smirked as Mal stuck his head out of the door, his chin half-smeared with shaving cream. "Listen up, Wonder Woman, I've only been in here five minutes! You take half a friggin' hour!"
As they launched into a full-scale bickering match, Frank lay back on the bed, closing his eyes. He didn't notice the curious look Molly was giving him.
They all seemed to converge on the Bronze at the same time. Fifteen minutes before sunset, the crowds appeared on the streets, obeying a subconscious signal that only they could hear. The teenagers were tired, drained, and easily susceptible to suggestion.
Especially when it was being pitched by a couple of experts.
"Aura!" Cordelia practically squealed, pouncing on the girl like they were best friends.
The former Cordette blinked at her. "Cordelia. What do you want?"
"I'm sorry, I had to ask you," Cordelia gushed. "But where did you get that dress?"
He didn't want to talk to her, but maybe that was the point. "Harmony," Xander greeted, trying not to sound too enthusiastic and succeeding. "How's tricks?"
She glared at him through bleary eyes. "Excuse me, loser, I'd like to get to where the party's at."
"Which would be where? The Bronze?"
"Any place away from you is a start," she retorted, trying to brush past him. He was naturally quicker, not having been exposed to the music, and grabbed her arm. "Hey! Get your paws off me!"
"Not til you listen," Xander snapped. "You've been feeling like crap lately, right? Can't stay awake, can't think, can't come up with a good comeback. I bet people are whispering behind your back that you're a stoner by now."
For a moment, her expression didn't change. Then she grabbed him by the collar. "What do you know? Who's talking?"
"Hey, I don't know if anyone is!" he exclaimed, and she let go. He held up a pack of earplugs. "But I think I know how to stop it."
Alone on stage, Frank glanced about furtively. The club was only starting to fill up, and no one was really paying attention to the stage just yet. A small crowd was at the bar, trying to get fake IDs past the bartender. Frank caught Mike's eye and grinned, seeing the frustrated expression on the other's face. Some people just couldn't take a hint.
The door to the alley closed behind Malik, and Frank stopped tuning his guitar. Now they were all gone. Molly was in the back, Lori was in the bathroom, and Mal was out getting a smoke. It was now or never.
Carefully, he set his guitar down, turning to the empty stool where his spare guitar pick lay. Beside it was Lori's water bottle. Turning so that his back was to the rest of the club, Frank reached into his pocket. He pulled out a tiny packet filled with a brownish powder, and unscrewed the cap on the water bottle. Checking to make sure that no one was looking, he hastily dumped the contents of the packet into the bottle, capping it and shaking it hurriedly. The powder dissolved in a few seconds, much to Frank's relief. He replaced the bottle, grabbed the pick, and snatched up the guitar again.
Angel opened bleary eyes to see Buffy kneeling before him again, a steaming mug in her hands. He blinked a few times, trying to make sense of the situation. "What are you doing here? You have to stop--"
"Shh," Buffy interrupted soothingly. "We're going to. Here, drink this."
He made a face at the bitter smell. "What is it?"
Someone cleared their throat, and Angel glanced up to see Giles standing there. "You might call it... er... temporary immunity."
"Ladies and gentlemen," Harry announced, "Relish!"
The usual swell of applause punctuated that statement as the manager stepped off the stage and Lori stepped up to take the microphone. Frank bit his lip as they launched into the first song, a slow number which fortunately had a long instrumental opening. He watched nervously as Lori launched into the first verse, her throaty voice seeming to permeate the entire room like a fog. The water bottle was untouched, but Frank reminded himself that she planned to build up to it before the big one.
He'd finally coaxed the details out of Mal while they were setting up. Tonight was pretty much like the last nights, except on a larger scale. With the excess energy siphoned off the regulars, amplified by the full moon, Lori was going to create a frigging psychic whirlpool strong enough to reach across town... perhaps all the way to the Hellmouth. Frank didn't want to think what she'd do with that kind of juice. Of course, she'd insisted that they would all "reap the benefits" as well. If they did, she would probably get the lion's share.
Even now, she was tough enough that if she discovered his deception, he'd be a dead man. Worse, he'd probably be dinner, latent psychic talent or not. If she figured it out...
He picked up the bass line hurriedly, trying to steady his nerves. If she pulls this off, she won't need us anymore, he reminded himself. At least this way he had a chance of getting out. Glancing back at the crowd, he frowned. They didn't look as completely drawn in as they had the last few nights, but not completely invulnerable, either. Earplugs or not, Lori could drain as she pleased.
The spell was starting to pick up as they went, gathering power with every moment. Frank could feel it swirling about them, like a whirlpool sucking energy in. He flinched in revulsion as it passed him, passing through all of them. As the verse ended, the funnel of energy began to expand, like a worm with a gaping mouth. It was stretching, reaching towards another part of town, slowly starting to move towards the Hellmouth.
Glancing at the water bottle, Frank silently willed - no, pleaded - that Lori would reach for it. Before it was too late.
"Hey, gorgeous," the vampire greeted. "Looking for a good time?"
Faith spun to see half a dozen vampires, all wearing their game faces, striding towards her from the end of the alley. She smiled at their momentary surprise; obviously, they were expecting Buffy. "Sorry, the usual girl's sick tonight," she quipped, pulling a stake from her purse.
Growling, they rushed her. Faith met the first two easily, staking one right off and blocking the attack of the other. The rest surrounded her, and even a Slayer as skilled as she was going to have a hard time fighting her way out of the throng. A lucky swipe, and the stake was knocked from her grip. "We're just going to have to make do," the leader leered, pinning her to the wall.
A dark figure dropped into view behind them, leaping from the roof of the Bronze to land neatly on his feet. Not even bothering with a quip, Angel grabbed the leader and shoved a stake through him before any of Faith's attackers even had a clue. Between the two of them, the remaining vampires didn't have a chance.
"All done," Cordelia announced, plopping the empty bags down on the library table.
"Very good," Giles said absently, still focusing on the book in front of him. Willow was also present, helping him research; set plan or no, if anything went wrong they might need to be prepared for a contingency. From the bookcage, the newly transformed Oz growled.
Cordelia glanced nervously at the circulation desk. "Is that bug doohickey still on?"
"Nope," Willow answered, sitting down. "We unplugged it and took it apart and all that a while ago."
"Oh, yeah." Cordelia reached into her purse, pulling out a small purple notebook. "I picked this up when Xander made me sneak into the Bronze. It kind of looked something like you witchy types would like. Diagrams and stuff."
"What?" Willow cried, snatching it from Cordelia's fingers and flipping through it. "And you waited until now to mention this?"
"So I forgot," Cordelia snapped. "I mean, I almost got caught by the scary voodoo guy, got my dress messed up, and you yell at me for forgetting something?"
"Well, this - this is a major clue to just how they planned this out," Willow answered, flipping through the pages. "It looks like diagrams of rituals, certain positions..." She trailed off, hesitating on a certain page. "Uh-oh," she said in a small voice. "Uh, this doesn't look good. Not good at all."
Surprised, Giles looked up. "What is it?"
She opened the notebook flat on the table so that they all could see. "Look at the diagrams. They're devised for this type of draining ritual, and the focus is the person in the center."
"Yeah, the siren," Cordelia said. "We've already figured that out."
"She's the focus of power, true, but the person actually weaving the currents is the one standing in the eastern point of the triangle," Willow finished. "Guys, she's not the one actually casting the spell!"
One of the waiters lugged a box over to Mike, saying something to him. The bartender sighed and made a great show of reluctance as he picked it up off the counter and carried it off towards the back exit. Malik smiled expectantly; he'd arranged for security.
But Mike turned left, heading for the back room instead of the exit. Mal's smile faded, and Frank was hard pressed to conceal his own. Weren't expecting that, were you? Frank mused, careful not to broadcast his thoughts.
Lori wasn't paying any attention as she finished the verse, reaching behind her for the water bottle. She took her usual healthy swig, swallowed, and hesitated, a strange expression forming on her face. Frank jerked his gaze back to his fingers, not wanting to make eye contact. The funnel seemed to stop, remaining where it was.
She leaned back into the mic to belt out the chorus, and it came out strong... but there was something missing. The power was absent. Just as Lori seemed to realize this, she launched into a spasmodic fit of coughing, grabbing her throat. For the first time in who knew how long, the siren's voice failed her. The song abruptly stopped, and the spell fizzled out. The shock was so much that Lori stumbled forward, catching herself on the stool to avoid crashing to the floor.
Before any of them could react, the skylight popped open.
Down came Buffy.
Off went the power.
At around that moment, all hell broke loose.
"Out! Everyone out!" Xander shouted, ushering the stampede of panicked patrons out the back door. He slipped back into military mode, bellowing as loudly as possible. "Move! Move! Move!"
Fortunately, most of the teens were still lucid enough to remember the mantra that had been spreading throughout the crowd: If the power goes out, head for the back exit. Exactly why, no one was sure; some said it was because some of the "gangs" were going to try and start a riot again, others that it was an early Senior Prank. Whatever the reason, though, the stampede was as orderly as a stampede could get, with no strays from the herd.
Outside, Faith and Angel were handling most of the guards, who weren't exactly expecting him. The mob of somewhat panicked teens were free to flee for the parking lot unmolested for a change as the Slayer and the vampire fended off the undead.
In the back room, Mike stood by the opened fuse box, counting the seconds off as he waited.
>From a distance, Trick watched the exodus thoughtfully, then flipped his cellphone open. "Let's just make this a bit more interesting, shall we?" he murmured as he began to dial.
Faith staked the last vamp, unconsciously reaching into her jacket for a new stake before she realized that was all of them. But her expression was not one of triumph. "Uh-oh."
Angel froze. "What?"
For answer, she brought out an old knife, its intricately carved handle and the polished iron blade gleaming in the streetlights. "I think B needed this."
"So what you're saying is," Cordelia said slowly, "that even though the fish girl is the one whose voice is hypnotizing everybody, she's not doing all the witchy stuff?"
Giles nodded, examining the diagrams thoughtfully. "One of the other band members is. I'm afraid I can't say who, since we don't know who's in the eastern position in this formation."
Willow's eyes grew wide. "It's not Frank, is it? He wouldn't be double-crossing us?"
Cordelia frowned. "Who's Frank?"
"The bass player," Giles responded. "The, ah, the mute fellow."
"Oh, he's got to be cool," Cordelia said flippantly, dismissing their speculation with a gesture. "He spotted me when I snuck into the Bronze, and he didn't rat me out or anything."
Giles and Willow stared at her. "And you were going to mention this when?" Giles asked.
"You didn't ask. Look, Mike got me in, I got out okay, what's the problem?"
Willow glared at her, but Giles hesitated, a faraway expression crossing his face. "Those who are marked are immune to a siren's call..." he murmured, remembering.
"Marked?" Cordelia asked as he grabbed a book off the stack and started leafing through it. "You know, Giles, it's considered rude to completely go off on tangents in the middle of people's conversations..."
"I just recalled something when you mentioned Mike," Giles answered. "Those who are marked..." He found the page he was looking for and studied it for a few moments before going pale. "Oh, dear Lord."
Willow moved to look over his shoulder, and Cordelia did the same. "Giles, what is it?"
"It was in the Billings account on sirens," Giles replied shakily. "Among those who are immune to a siren's song are those mortals who have been marked by revenants, powerful spirits, for possession."
"And?" Cordelia pressed.
Giles slammed the book shut. "Mike is immune. And he's had an apparition following him around all week. Think about it, won't you?"
It took Cordelia a moment, but horrified understanding flashed in her eyes. "You mean - he's--"
Willow nodded. "Relish isn't our only problem now."
Buffy dropped down to the dance floor right in front of the stage, landing nimbly on her feet. As the last of the stampede hurried out, the lights suddenly flickered back on in the now-deserted club. Hunched over the stool, still clutching her throat, Lori glared at the newcomer. A haggard expression had come over her features, making her look twenty years older. "You..." she snarled, venom dripping from even the harsh whisper of her voice. "Little Slayer bitch..."
"Oh, look. I'm famous," Buffy shot back, keeping her gaze locked with Lori's. She didn't even look at Frank for fear it would give him away. Besides, this was one ticked-off siren. If one looked closely enough, the faintest glimmer of red was flickering in her eyes. All she needed was a little push.
Malik was sensing it as well. "Lori..." he cautioned worriedly.
Buffy cocked her head, studying the exhausted woman's appearance, especially the creases in her skin that were appearing suddenly. "You know, they have wrinkle creams today that would do wonders for you."
That did it. Lori's head snapped up, her eyes glowing with crimson fire. With a hoarse screech, she launched herself at Buffy like a wild animal. "Lorelei!" Molly screamed, suddenly gifted with a noticeable Irish accent. "No!"
But the siren ignored her in her bloodlust, seeming to grow claws as she lunged. Buffy easily sidestepped the pounce, but Lorelei was undeterred, landing lightly on all fours with catlike grace before leaping into an upright position. Slayer and siren circled each other for a few seconds before Lori lunged again, this time with a right hook to the midsection. Mid-swing, her fingers changed, elongating and stretching into scaly claws. Buffy dodged, but just barely, as something sliced through her blouse. She glanced down to see five parallel gashes in the fabric.
"Hey! I liked that shirt!" Buffy cried, slamming a fist into Lori's face. The siren's head snapped back only briefly before she delivered a side kick to Buffy's gut. The Slayer fell back, rolled, and jumped to her feet again, just as Lori lunged a second time.
Both combatants tumbled to the ground, Buffy struggling to break Lori's grip. "What the hell kind of mermaid are you?" Buffy gasped.
"Let's just say I got tired of singing to sailors," Lori snarled, just as the bar stool smashed across her back.
"We'll have to get it to her," Angel insisted as Xander approached them.
"I'll go," Faith volunteered. "It's not like there's any more vamps to fight out here."
As soon as she said it, movement sprung from the shadows. Faith and Angel turned to see half a dozen vampires emerge from the darkness, game faces on and definitely in search of some fun.
Angel sighed. "You had to say it, didn't you?"
Inside the club, crashing sounds could be heard. Despite himself, Angel stole a worried glance at the Bronze. Faith smirked, handing him the knife. "Go get 'em, Tiger," she said, whipping out a stake. "I can handle this."
Having a heavy bar stool broken across one's spine would have seriously hurt a normal human being. In Lori's case, it was enough for her to loosen her grip. Buffy kneed her in the stomach, shoving her to the side and flipping so that she had Lori pinned to the ground for a moment, shoving the siren's head into the floor.
Molly, Malik, and Frank remained on the stage, seemingly transfixed by the battle going on right in front of them. Molly snapped out of it, whirling on the other two. "We've got to do something!"
"You want to fight a Slayer, be my guest," Mal retorted, tossing the drum sticks to the floor. "I'm gonna go start the car."
With a snarl, Lori literally bucked Buffy off, leaping to her feet. Buffy did the same, getting a better look at the halfway transformed siren. From the elbows down, the skin of her arms blended into scales and clawed hands, a grotesque pair of gauntlets. Her eyes were glowing like twin Christmas lights, the flaming red irises shining from beneath her wild mane of orange hair. "YOU!" she cried, enraged.
Buffy prepared to dodge the next lunge, and was surprised when it wasn't even aimed at her. Lori flew by her in a blur of orange and green, intent on harming the wielder of the bar stool. Mike was barely able to dodge, and she caught him in the shoulder, sending them both flying over the bar. Several glasses fell, and Mike shielded his eyes against the storm of shattered glass. Lori took most of the brunt of the glass on her back, only somewhat fazed by the onslaught as Mike took the opportunity to try to pull himself up. He wasn't entirely unscathed; there was a nasty-looking gash on his forehead, but he was still conscious.
Something snared his ankle as Lori made a grab for him, trying to pull him down. "Do you have any idea," she snapped as he kicked against her grip, "how long it's been since I've eaten?"
Her claws tore easily through his pant leg, cutting into his flesh. Mike winced, but somehow the pain seemed to give him an extra surge of adrenaline. "No," he answered curtly, twisting in order to shove his free foot into her face. Surprised, she let go, and Mike pushed himself up...
...and without knowing how, managed to backflip over the bar, landing on his feet. It wasn't a perfect landing by any means; his knees seemed to give out, and he had to grab on to one of the stools to keep from toppling over entirely. As he slumped over the stool, trying to regain his equilibrium, Lori practically flew over the counter, leaping clear over his head. She landed gracefully in front of the Slayer.
"Get out of here, Mike," Buffy ordered before she and Lori traded blows again with a flurry of punches, blocks and kicks. Having no better option, Mike stumbled towards the front door, a broken stool leg in one hand.
For several moments, neither Buffy nor Lori seemed to get the upper hand, until Buffy pulled something from her shirt and stabbed Lori with it. The siren staggered back, stunned but otherwise unharmed. She looked down to see a wooden stake protruding from her chest, and suddenly began to laugh, a harsh, rasping sound. "Oh, please," Lori cackled, pulling the stake out easily and tossing it away. "Wood is for vampires, little girl. Don't they teach you anything in school?"
With that, she lashed out, her claws raking Buffy's cheek. Buffy managed to dodge slightly, and the cuts were as minor as cat scratches. But it was enough of a distraction for Lori to punch Buffy, hard, sending the Slayer reeling back a step. Dazed, Buffy couldn't block in time as Lori hit her again, knocking her to the floor. Her vision blurred as she looked up to see the siren standing over her, extending a gleaming claw. Mike was still slumped over the stool, conscious but not aware enough to be much help.
An enraged roar split the air, and a dark shape suddenly plowed into Lori like a freight train, knocking both siren and savior to the floor. Buffy stumbled to her feet, shaking her head to clear it. Her surroundings finally came into focus enough to see that Angel was grappling with Lori a few feet away, and neither seemed to be getting the upper hand. Her foot nudged something, and she looked down to see the iron knife lying on the floor where Angel had dropped it.
She glanced up again in time to see Lori flip Angel onto his back and lift a clawed hand. In her grasp was the discarded stake. "You really should have taken me up on my offer," she snarled. "More's the pity."
"No!" Buffy and Molly shrieked in unison. The keyboard player made a lunge to stop Buffy, but Frank grabbed Molly from behind, trying to restrain her. In a single motion, Buffy snatched up the knife, leapt behind Lori, and stabbed the siren in the back. Lori let out a strangled gasp, loosening her grip on Angel.
As the vampire stood up, an unearthly scream of rage tore through the air. The sound made both Buffy and Angel cover their ears in pain, and there was a crash as Frank reared back, landing on the drum set.
When the ringing in her ears had sufficiently died down, Buffy looked up to see something she hadn't quite expected. Molly had Frank in a headlock, pressing a knife to his throat. But that wasn't what surprised Buffy. The faint nimbus of eerie blue light playing around the girl did. "Enough!" she screamed.
Angel looked, and his eyes widened in recognition. "Oh, God," he murmured. "Sidhe. Bean sidhe."
"A what?" Buffy asked, wincing as Molly screamed again, the sound not half as intense but definitely devastating.
Lori began to stagger to her feet, pulling the blade from her back with a howl of pain. It hadn't been a killing blow, but from the greenish blood trickling from her mouth, it was apparent that Buffy had done some serious damage to the siren. "We're leaving now, dears," Molly continued, her thick Irish accent now harshly apparent. "Anyone tries to stop us, and the wee traitor here dies." As if to punctuate the statement, Lori cast the knife away, sending it skittering across the floor. "Go, Lorelei."
Sparing them one last baleful look, Lori staggered towards the back door. Angel snarled, stepping towards her. "Stop where you are!" Molly cried. She pressed the knife against the skin, and a small trickle of blood appeared on Frank's neck. The bassist flinched in pain.
Helplessly, Angel and Buffy could only watch as the sidhe backed out as well, dragging their friend along.
Mike burst out of the front door only to be confronted with a hungry vampire, who immediately whirled at the smell of blood. Before Mike could even block, Faith had already staked his would-be attacker. Xander was hastily reloading a crossbow, and Mike lunged for the nearest vamp with the stool leg, giving the other boy a reprieve to load and fire.
His head had cleared, and he found himself fighting back to back with Faith for a moment. "Did B get the knife or what?" Faith shouted as she sucker-punched a vamp.
"Yep," was all Mike had time to say as he ducked a punch, lashed out with a side kick, and clumsily staked the overconfident vampire who had rounded on him. Fortunately, there were only a few left, and in a few minutes the number of vampires had dwindled to zero.
Xander lowered the crossbow. "That's got to be all of them."
"It had better be," Mike added, wiping at his temple and pulling his hand away to see his fingers stained with blood. The gash on his forehead was still bleeding, and would be likely to attract local vamps without a mission.
Faith whistled, walking over to him and getting a good look at the cut. "Damn! What happened to you?"
"Broken bottle, I think," Mike replied, wincing at her touch. "Looks that bad?"
"It'll heal," Faith observed. "Gotta clean it up, though."
"Giles has a first-aid kit in the library," Xander began as a frigid gust of air suddenly blew past, the chill a surprise in the muggy heat of the evening. "What the--"
Mike turned towards the source of the cold air and stopped short. Faith and Xander followed his gaze to see a glowing shape moving towards them, an ethereal form surrounded by a pearly haze of light. Its feet barely touched the ground as it moved towards them, picking up speed as it came. Faith took Mike's arm, but he was rooted to the spot, unable to move. "Corbett?" She waved a hand in front of his face. "Corbett?"
Then the moon passed behind a cloud, and Mike was suddenly jolted out of his trance as the apparition hesitated just a moment, pointing at him. "Run, guys," Mike advised, suddenly afraid. "It wants me."
"Hell no!" Faith retorted, stepping between Mike and the advancing spirit. "You think you can take me?"
The spirit waved a hand - at least, it looked like a hand - and Faith was suddenly lifted off her feet, sailing into the air. She crashed into the wall of the Bronze and slid to the ground, unconscious. "Was that a yes?" Xander gulped.
Mike hesitated a moment, looking worriedly at Faith's prone form, but the specter continued its advance. Stealing a final worried glance at the unconscious Slayer, Mike took off at a dead run down the street, the spirit in hot pursuit.
Xander stood there for a few moments, staring openmouthed at the scene. Finally, he snapped out of it, rushing to Faith's side. "Faith! Come on, wake up!"
She stirred, groaning in pain, then suddenly snapped back to attention, stumbling to her feet. "Where'd it go?"
"Just took off," Xander began, helping her stand. The squeal of tires interrupted any further conversation, and the two teenagers looked up to see a black van speeding around the corner, peeling rubber as it disappeared into the night. "Was that who I think that was?"
"Yep," Faith replied, brushing her hair out of her face. "There goes Relish."
"Oh, this just gets better and better."
Buffy and Angel burst out into the alley just in time to hear the squeal of tires and see the van speeding off. "Great," Buffy groaned. "And we have no clue where they're headed."
"Probably the lake," Angel guessed. "If she wants to heal, she'll have to transform and feed."
"And Frank's going to be the main course," Buffy realized. "You wouldn't know how to hotwire a car, by any chance?"
Before Angel could respond, headlights appeared at the nearest end of the alley, and a familiar vehicle pulled up with a screech of tires. "Cordelia!" Buffy shouted, running out of the alley as Giles' car pulled up behind the convertible.
Faith and Xander came running down to meet them. Both were covered in dust, but both looked to be in good shape, although Xander seemed to be developing a bit of a black eye. "What's the sitch?" Faith asked, seeing the panic in Buffy's eyes and the grim worry in Giles'.
"Reader's Digest version," Buffy gasped. "Lori drank the stuff, choked, we evacuated, I fought her, I stabbed her, Molly put a knife to Frank's throat and they all just took off a minute ago."
"She was a sidhe," Angel put in.
Cordelia coughed. "Um, excuse me? Didn't you just say the same thing?"
"No, a sidhe," Angel corrected. "You'd know her kind as a banshee. I should have seen it coming."
"She must be the caster, then," Giles realized, shaking the notebook. "These diagrams indicated that while Lorelei was the focus of power, someone else was actually weaving the spell."
"Oh, it gets better," Xander added. "Some ghost just showed up and took off after Mike." He hesitated, glancing at Faith, unsure whether or not he should go into all the details.
Faith sighed. "One nasty sucker, too. Knocked me on my ass."
"Well, considering it intends to possess him," Giles said, "I'd say that a certain amount of nastiness could be expected."
"Possess him?" Buffy echoed. "Giles, instant replay."
Giles sighed. "According to a text on the subject, mortals who are marked for spirit possession are often immune to a siren's spell. Now since Mike is immune, and since there's been a ghost following him about, it made sense. I may know a ritual that may prevent it, but--"
"Then let's motorvate," Faith interrupted, stepping towards Giles' car. "That dead bastard's not getting away with this."
Xander caught her arm. "Wait a minute! Relish got away! For all we know, they could be headed for the border."
"No, they wouldn't," Angel said suddenly. "At least, not yet. The siren's wounded. She'll have to feed. They'll stop by the closest and cleanest body of water before they do anything."
"And Frank's probably going to be the main course," Buffy finished, sagging a bit. "Okay, here's what we do. Faith, Xander, you go with Giles to stop that thing."
"Great, I get to go stop Casper," Xander groused.
Buffy continued, ignoring him. "Angel, Cordy and I are going to hit the beach."
"What?" Cordelia exclaimed. "You are NOT going to drag me along on another ick-fest Slaying!"
"Fine, then we'll just take your car ourselves," Angel said casually. "Buffy will drive."
She immediately made a break for the convertible. "I know a shortcut!"
The two groups split off, leaving Xander standing alone for a moment. He glanced over to Cordelia's convertible, then over to Giles' car. Sighing, he squared his shoulders and followed Giles. "Hey, you really need my help?"
"Definitely," Giles answered as he unlocked the car, allowing Faith and Xander to scramble in. "This is no ordinary spirit, I'm afraid. We may need all the help we can get."
At a look from the Watcher, Faith sighed and reluctantly buckled her seatbelt. "Ordinary? Nothing on the Hellmouth is ordinary, G."
Giles started the engine, peeling rubber with a surprising burst of speed. "I'll explain on the way!"
The van swerved wildly as it flew around the corner, jolting Frank awake from his semi-daze. He was lying on his side on the floor of the van, with both his wrists and ankles tied. Gingerly, he tested his bonds, and was not surprised to find that they were tight. Escape was probably a bad idea right now.
Cautiously, he peered around him, trying not to give any indication that he was awake. Lori was sprawled across the back seat, her breath coming in hoarse, wheezing gasps as she stared at the ceiling, unaware that he was awake. Up front, he could hear Malik loudly protesting over something, followed by a quiet but sharp retort from Molly. He craned his neck, twisting to see what they'd used to bind his hands behind his back. Duct tape. It figured.
He looked back at Lori. She looked like hell, but that was no guarantee he'd be any match for her - especially if he was tossed in like a sack of potatoes. If he could just get his hands and feet free, he might have a small chance. Rolling over, he was gratified to feel a lump in his jeans pocket. They hadn't taken his pocketknife.
It was a bit of a strain, but with a little work he could reach it...
Mike ran blindly through the streets of Sunnydale, ducking into a crowd of shoppers to evade the spirit that was following him. Whenever he passed through a crowd, it slowed down, uncertain which human in the sea of bodies was his. But he was running out of crowds fast, and he wasn't going to be able to run forever. He needed help. He needed Giles.
The library. That was where Giles and Willow were stationed. They were on Oz watch, so they couldn't leave. Of course. If anyone could help, the Watcher was his best bet.
He picked up speed, heading for Sunnydale High.
The van screeched to an abrupt stop just at the edge of the asphalt, inches from the wooden fence surrounding the dunes. Unable to check her motion, Lori rolled off the back seat, landing on the floor with a thud. As Malik hopped out of the cab to slide the van door open, Lori glared at him venomously. "Dammit, Mal, where the hell did you learn to drive?"
He helped her stagger out, unfazed by her anger. "New York."
"Figures," she gasped, leaning against the van for support. "Stop staring at me and get the little weasel out of there."
Frank cursed mentally; he'd only sawed halfway through the tape. As Mal grabbed him by the shoulders, dragging him out, the pocketknife slipped from his grasp. Chicken shit, he thought as he was hauled out onto the asphalt. Won't even try for a fair fight.
He was surprised when Lori kicked him, not as forcefully as she would have liked, but enough to knock the wind out of him. "You're calling me a chicken shit? You bastard!" She knelt down and grabbed him by the hair, pulling his face up to meet hers. "I've planned this for years now, years. What did you expect to gain out of double-crossing us? Did you think the Slayer would protect you?" She hesitated, coughing, as more blood trickled from her mouth. Hastily, Molly helped her stand again, supporting her partner in crime. Lori turned bloodshot eyes to Malik. "Dump him in."
As Mal hauled him up again, Frank didn't bother to struggle, mainly out of shock. She had heard him. They all had. But wouldn't his gift have been taken away by now? Unless... unless the Watcher had been right. He began to work at the tape on his wrists again.
Mal was too busy dragging him across the sand to notice that Frank was straining against the tape, and slowly, ever so slowly, the tear he'd cut was growing larger and larger. Lori and Molly were a few paces ahead of them, wading out into the water. As she waded in deeper, Lori suddenly gained a tranquil expression, the harsh lines fading from her face.
Just as Malik reached the surf, the tape broke.
Frank flung his arms out as he tore the tape off, grabbing Malik by the forearms and flipping the drummer clear over him. Malik landed face first, his surprised yell cut off by a mouthful of sand. Lori whirled to see Frank tearing frantically at the tape wrapped around his ankles, and her features twisted into a snarl. By now, her legs had fused into a tail, and the scales traveled across her arms, as her hands elongated into webbed claws. "No you don't!" Lori hissed, her eyes glowing.
Suddenly, a figure jumped up from the surf, and a pair of arms wrapped around the siren's neck as Angel leapt on her from behind. "Yes he does," Buffy snapped, standing up as well. In her hand was the iron blade.
Molly opened her mouth to let out another ear-splitting scream, but she was too late. The rather heavy piece of driftwood Frank had discovered collided squarely with the back of her head. No sound issued from her open mouth as she collapsed to the sand.
"NO!" Lori shrieked, bucking backwards and dunking Angel beneath the surf. She lashed out with her tail, sweeping Buffy's legs out from under her. The three combatants vanished beneath the waves in a swirl of limbs and scales.
As Buffy struggled to regain her equilibrium, the siren's tail smacked her full in the face, sending her spinning. The knife slipped from her grip, landing in the soft sand below. She tried to feel around for it, but Lori whacked her again, missing her head and pummeling Buffy in the shoulderblades instead. Desperately holding her breath, Buffy steeled herself for a third strike.
It never came. Lori surfaced again with a strangled shriek. By now, the potion had worn off, and her voice was regaining a bit of its power. But she was still weak, and the fact that Angel's arms were still wrapped around her neck made it difficult to actually use her voice to its full potential. Lungs burning, Buffy briefly surfaced to see what was going on. Apparently, Lori had forgotten one tiny detail in her fighting strategy; vampires didn't need to breathe. Temporarily forgetting about the Slayer, Lori reared back again, clawing at the arms that were wrapped around her windpipe like an iron vice.
"Hurry!" Angel gasped, and Buffy suddenly realized that the antidote Giles had whipped up was starting to wear off as well.
She dived under again, frantically feeling around in the sand for the cold of the blade's hilt. It was too dark to see, and Lori's tail was still thrashing about, and Buffy surfaced again, just barely dodging a slap. "I'm looking!" she cried, still feeling blindly.
Angel was gritting his teeth, the last vestiges of his strength giving way. "I can't... hold on... much longer..."
Something smooth and cold brushed against her fingers, and Buffy grabbed madly, wincing as her fingers closed around the blade instead of the hilt. But it was just what she was looking for. She switched hands, jumping to her feet. With her good hand, Buffy aimed and threw the knife.
Lori finally shrugged Angel off, gasping with relief as the vampire was flung into the waves. "Can't you do any better than--"
She stopped abruptly, jerking in pain as something thunked into her torso. Looking down, the siren stared numbly at the iron hilt protruding from her chest. "But that's... that's..."
"Yep," Buffy said. "Wood. Iron. They're different. You told me."
Lori wavered, turning to look at the Slayer with a curious expression. "So many centuries..." she croaked. The lines returned to her face, and she seemed to be withering, shrinking inward. The red glow faded from her eyes, replaced with what looked almost like respect. "Nice shot."
With that, she let out her last breath in a sigh, sinking into the water with a moan as she continued to dissipate. In a moment, all that was left was dust and bones and shredded clothing. Nothing moved for several seconds as Angel and Buffy stared at the spot where Lori had been.
Buffy finally stepped forward, wading over to Angel. She stooped to retrieve the knife, then helped Angel stand. He had to lean on her, again fatigued and drained. But the addicted, crazed look was gone. "Are you all right?"
"I will be," he answered as they stumbled out of the water like a pair of drunken buddies. "Forget the shot; that was great timing."
"Well, we aim to please." She sighed. "Got to hand it to Cordelia, though, she knows her shortcuts."
Angel cracked a smile at that, but his mirth faded quickly. The vampire's knees buckled, and he fell to the sand with a moan of agony. Buffy knelt by his side immediately. "Angel? What's--"
She stopped as she realized what was going on, turning to see the source. Molly was getting to her feet, the same pale nimbus of blue light surrounding her. "Oh, dear, did you forget me so quickly?" The sidhe clucked her tongue reproachfully. "I suppose I'll just have to kill you."
"Tyger, tyger, burning bright..." Willow droned tiredly, then stopped to glare at the surprisingly docile werewolf crouched on the bookcage floor. "I've read this poem over three times! Isn't there anything else that calms you down?"
For answer, Oz growled, his hackles rising. "What about White Fang then?"
No change. Willow sighed. "You know, you've got a repetitive streak. I wonder if all werewolves are like this." Another growl. "Oh, all right, all right. 'Tyger, tyger, burning bright / In the forests of the night...'"
She was saved from a fourth reading as the doors were thrown open, and Mike dashed into the library in a panic. He was a sight; his left pant leg was torn, he was breathing heavily, and he was sporting a nasty-looking gash on his forehead. But the panicked, wild-eyed expression on his face was all she needed to tell he was in trouble. "Will? Where's Giles?"
"He went looking for you," Willow answered, closing the book and crossing the room to meet him. "Mike, he said you were marked for possession by a--"
At that moment, a cold gust of wind blew the doors open, and a hazy figure stepped into the library. "--ghost," she finished.
"Yeah, I kind of guessed as much," Mike answered weakly as they backed away. "Willow, get out of here. It's after me."
She ducked into the office, quickly snatching up an amulet that Mike didn't recognize before dashing out again, interposing herself between her friend and the advancing specter. Hands shaking, Willow held up the amulet. "Spirit, I command you! By Hecate, return to the depths from whence you..."
Before she could finish the incantation, the specter made a sweeping gesture, lifting Willow off her feet and sending her flying into the nearest wall. She collapsed in a heap beside the office, unmoving. Oz howled and vainly charged at the bookcage door.
The werewolf's enraged howling and snarling seemed to fade into the background as the specter turned towards Mike, continuing its advance.
Buffy lifted the blade. "Not unless I kill you first."
In response, Molly let out another strident wail. Buffy was ready for it, but even so she had to clap her hands over her ears to keep from keeling over. Angel writhed in pain as the petite girl stood over him, the aura of light now more brilliant than before. "Pity, really," Molly mused calmly. "Lorelei and I, we had such grand plans. Such grand plans... She could spell them, I could drain them... oh, what a lovely time it would have been. But now," she finished, "it ends here!"
She punctuated that statement with another scream, and this time Buffy fell to her knees, the sound getting through the earplugs easily. The Slayer squeezed her eyes shut as the keening continued... and then abruptly ended with a startled shriek.
Buffy and Angel both looked up in time to see Molly go flying, borne by an unseen force that lifted the sand beneath her feet up in a tiny geyser of sand. Frank was standing there, a determined expression on his face. You're right. It is ending here.
Molly hit the sand and rolled, the aura of power dying out. As she glanced up, she could see just what Buffy had sensed; whatever power had been locked away in the bassist had just been unleashed. "Uh-oh."
She let out another scream, but the sand lifted around her again, surrounding her in a miniature tornado. The swirling sand and grit and dust blinded and choked the sidhe, and she was barely able to surface from the storm. "You'll regret this!" Molly screamed. "I found you! I made you! Without me, you wouldn't have even learned what you were capable of!"
Frank didn't look in the least fazed. So?
The sidhe wrenched herself free, gasping as she stumbled across the sand, momentarily looking human, weak, again. "You can't stop me," Molly snarled. "You hate the feeding, the killing. And if you ever want to get rid of me, you'll have to kill me!"
The storm began to subside. You're right, Frank admitted. I can't.
Molly smirked triumphantly. Her smile died away as gunshots were heard, the bullets striking her in the back. Jerking in pain, she gasped, her mouth opening in an "O" of surprise. Somehow, she found the strength to turn and stare at the source of the shots.
"Well, guess what," Malik commented, lighting a cigarette as Molly slumped to the ground. "I can."
Mike scrambled backwards, knocking over a chair as he backed frantically away. The misty figure was undeterred, stepping through the overturned chair as it advanced towards him. With each step, the shape in the center of the mist became more and more defined. As his pursuer became visible, Mike's spirits sank. This did not look good.
The figure was heavily armored from head to toe, armed with a blaster and a broadsword that was as long as his arm. Its horned helmet had a reflective black visor, making it impossible to see its face as it moved forward. It was the same one he'd been catching glimpses of all week. And it was definitely after him, there was no doubt. He glanced over at the motionless form by the office. Willow would probably have a headache when she woke up, but that was about it.
Cursing under his breath, Mike turned and dashed up the steps, heading for the back windows of the library. Where the hell was Giles?
He scrambled up to the nearest window, trying to force it open. The rusty frame creaked in protest and wouldn't budge. A cool gust of wind brushed against him, and he whirled to see the armored figure standing only a few feet away. "Who are you?" Mike shouted. "What do you want with me?"
For a moment, the specter did not respond. Then a voice spoke, gruff and harsh with disuse, echoing in his mind.
--Don't you remember?--
Mike could only stare as it continued.
--I'm the one who saved you.--
"What do you mean, it's not a ghost?" Faith asked incredulously as Giles sped down the road, breaking yet another speed limit.
"Not precisely," Giles answered. "Technically, it is a revenant of a deceased person, but this spirit commands a great deal of energy."
Xander nodded. "Not your typical ghost."
"Far from it. If it's as powerful as I believe, full moon or no, this banishment will only be a temporary exile from this plane." Giles frowned. "Although a spirit possession usually requires some sort of permission... I don't know how that could have been circumvented..."
"Wait a minute," Faith interrupted. "I thought you said that we could get rid of it."
"In this case, we can only hold it off for a while." Giles sighed. "Sometimes, when a person is in command of a great deal of internal power at the time of death, that energy is manifested in the revenant. The only thing it lacks is solid substance."
"Solid substance?" Xander echoed. "Maybe I'm stretching a little, but you think that's why it's after Vortex Boy?"
The expression on Giles' face turned grim. "Exactly."
Buffy got to her feet, staring at Molly in shock. The sidhe twitched, her face contorting in pain. "Iron... bullets..." Her eyes rolled back in her head, and her body sagged limply as the life left it. Blue light surrounded her again, this time engulfing her form as it disintegrated, forming tiny motes of light that spiraled into the air, drifting away into the night like so many fireflies. As it faded away, all that was left was a couple of dented bullets lying on the sand.
Angel jolted, gasping as his strength returned to him in a rush. "Uh, uh, uh," Malik cautioned as Buffy stepped towards him. She stopped, seeing the gun pointed directly at her. "I don't know about the walking corpse here, Slayer, but I don't think you can dodge bullets." He eyed Frank. "And don't try no tricks. If I get a hint you're gonna do something, I'll blow her brains out."
Buffy looked over at Frank, who nodded slightly. He'll know. To even be invited into the group, Mal had to have some abilities of his own.
"What do you want?" Angel demanded quietly.
"Hey, I got all I wanted. Ding, dong, the bitches are dead." He grinned maniacally at Frank. "Damn, kid, I was wondering when you were gonna stand up to them."
"And you were just going to play along," Buffy added. "Oh, yeah, that's real macho of you."
"I'm not trying to be macho, I'm trying to stay alive," was the answer. "Which means a one-way ticket out of the Hellmouth. I get in the van and take off, you don't stop me, you never see my sorry ass again."
"Until the next voodoo cult comes into town," Buffy retorted.
Frank winced. Don't give him any ideas.
"Voodoo? Oh, that's rich." He snorted, keeping his gun trained on Frank. "I was thinking Vegas! The strip! I'm gettin' out of the entertainment biz. Security's where it's at down there." Neither of his three adversaries looked impressed as he backed up the beach, keeping the gun trained on Buffy.
"Think he's bluffing?" Angel murmured.
Once he was halfway up the ramp, Malik lowered the gun and started running. "Oh, yeah," Buffy replied as she dashed after him, with Angel and Frank following. The drummer was already crossing the parking lot as they started up the ramp.
Malik literally vaulted over a bench, throwing the van door open as he leapt into the cab and started the engine. He didn't notice the dark figure pulling itself out from under the vehicle. As his pursuers reached the top of the steps, Malik was already turning out of the lot onto the main road.
The van only made it ten feet down the road.
Fire spewed forth from the base of the van, the blast lifting it up a few feet as a miniature fireball consumed the vehicle's innards. The flame spilled forward from the back, flooding the cab completely with roiling orange-yellow light. Buffy, Frank, and Angel could only stare as the fire reached the gas tank, taking the van out for good in a terrific explosion.
The same thought struck Buffy and Angel then, and both turned to stare at Frank. The bassist backed away, shaking his head. I didn't do it!
"I wouldn't fault you if you had," Angel said quietly.
Buffy stared at the wreckage in morbid fascination. "Wow. I guess he won't be going to Vegas after all."
Anything else was cut off by a loud, insistent honking and the flash of headlights. Cordelia pulled up as close as she dared, leaning on the horn of her convertible. "Excuse me? Social rejects? Wouldn't it be a good idea to LEAVE around now?"
"For once," Buffy sighed, "I think she's got a point."
They piled hurriedly into the convertible, unaware of the eyes watching them as Cordelia hit the gas, speeding out of the lot.
"Why the hell are you chasing me?" Mike snapped, trying a new tactic. Running wasn't working, and fighting was out, so stalling was all he had left. "You claim you saved me, and now you're driving me crazy! What do you want?"
--Scorpius seeks the Lights of Orion. Three thousand years ago, I released them, and paid with my life. I must find them before he does.--
"Great," Mike answered. "Why don't you go do that, and leave me alone?"
--I cannot in this state.--
"I don't understand." Mike glanced past the specter to the front doors of the library. Sprawled beside Giles' office, Willow did not stir. In the book cage, he heard Oz roar and crash against the bars, but to no avail. He was probably better off with the werewolf locked up anyway. "Where do I come in to all this?"
--I have the power. I lack the substance.--
Mike didn't like where this was heading. "Substance?"
The specter hesitated. --You.--
"What?" Horrified, Mike edged sideways, but stopped as the specter drew its sword. "No! Forget it. I don't know who you are or why you want these Lights, and I'm not letting you use me to get to them! Go find yourself another puppet!"
--That is no longer an option. The mergence began when you first awakened me. It must be completed.--
"Over my dead body." Mike paused, glancing at the ethereal blade. "Wrong choice of words, but you know what I mean."
--I've waited too many years to give up now. They killed my son, destroyed my life. I must have my revenge.--
"I don't do revenge." If he could get the ghost to move just a bit to the left, he could make a break for the stacks. He'd jump through the back window there if he had to.
The specter tried another tack. --If Scorpius gets his claws on the Lights, we are all doomed.--
"And if you get your hands on them?"
--I will see justice done. I have pledged my very existence to the cause of the Defender.--
"You didn't pledge mine," Mike retorted.
The specter paused. --There is no other way.--
As it reached for him, Mike dived to the side - or tried to. He found himself locked in place, unable to move a muscle. The armored knight stepped forward, its form glowing brightly before dissolving into a formless, swirling brilliance. It surged forward, wrapping about him like a cocoon. Shutting his eyes, Mike gasped in pain as unwanted energy flowed into him, burning through him. A montage of scenes flickered behind his closed eyelids, like someone else's memories burying his own.
No! Mike clenched his teeth, pushing back as hard as he could. But despite his determination, he couldn't do much more than hold it off. Bit by bit, he began to feel himself slipping down into the recesses of his mind. You can't... do this...
As he struggled to hold on, Mike let out an agonized scream.
"Okay," Xander commented as the scream echoed down the hall, "that didn't sound good."
Giles was the first to reach the doors of the library, hastily pulling out the bottle of crushed herbs, a small ceramic bowl, and a book of matches. "These will have to be burned for it to work effectively." Pouring a quantity of the herbs into the bowl, he lit a match and set the herbs ablaze.
"Ugh!" Xander coughed at the smell. "What is that stuff?"
"Asafetida," Giles answered. "It's used for banishing spells."
"Yeah, I can smell why," Faith muttered. "Let's go before it banishes me."
The specter didn't notice as they slipped into the library, too absorbed in whatever it was doing to Mike. "Oh my God," Giles muttered as he saw what was going on.
Xander spotted Willow's prone form lying near the office. "We're going to have to get Will out of the line of fire."
"You do that," Faith advised. "I'll keep Wolfie from going on the rampage." All the commotion and the concentration of energy was starting to agitate the werewolf, who was crashing against the door of the book cage. If he kept that up for much longer, the lock would give.
Nodding, Xander hurried over to Willow's side, trying to move quietly so as not to attract the ghost's attention. Not that it was difficult under the din of an overexcited werewolf. Carefully, he placed his hands under her arms, dragging her into the relative safety of the office.
Faith literally vaulted over chairs and tables to get to the book cage, where Oz was still slamming his bulk against the door. The Slayer spun around in confusion before she noticed the file cabinet nearby. Grabbing it, she shoved it against the book cage door.
Meanwhile, Giles began to chant in Latin, and the smoke rising from the herbs took on a yellowish glow.
Setting Willow gently on the floor of the office, Xander emerged, shutting the door behind him. The file cabinet notwithstanding, Oz continued to batter against the book cage door. "Great," Faith muttered. "Where's a chain when you need one?"
Xander took one look at the book cage and ducked behind the circulation desk.
The specter suddenly realized what was going on, but it was too late as the energy began to pull back from Mike. "Earth, and Wind," Giles shouted over the howling of the wind and the growling of the wolf, "draw this spirit from this plane!"
With a roar, Oz crashed against the book cage door, snapping the lock. Another crash, and the file cabinet toppled over. The enraged werewolf nearly tore the door off its hinges as it bounded out of its prison. Naturally, Faith was the closest living target.
Xander popped up from behind the desk, hastily loading the tranquilizer gun. "Faith! Catch!"
He hurled the tranquilizer gun into the air as Oz pounced. Slayer reflexes saved Faith for the nth time as she flipped out of the way, landing on top of the table in time to catch the gun. Deprived of its target, the wolf crashed into one of the lower bookshelves instead. Before Oz could pounce again, Faith aimed the gun and fired two darts into the werewolf.
Giles set the bowl on the floor before him. "Respond, and release."
The effect was instantaneous. The glow around Mike flickered and faded, and a barely distinct figure reared back with an angry roar. Mike slumped to the floor as a gust of wind blew through the room, snuffing out the flame and spilling the bowl of herbs.
Xander was the first to speak. "Did we get him?"
Giles looked up again, fanning his face against the smell of the burning herbs. The specter was gone. "I believe so."
The office door opened, and Willow stumbled out, rubbing the back of her head. "Xander? Giles? What happened?"
Before Giles could answer, the doors flew open to admit Cordelia, Angel and Buffy, the latter two of whom were soaked. "What'd we miss?" Buffy asked as she strolled over to join the group, trying to look casual.
"Same old, same old," Xander responded.
Cordelia scowled at Buffy as she joined them. "I hope for your sake you didn't seriously damage the upholstery." Buffy rolled her eyes. Behind Cordelia, Frank slipped in through the library doors, unnoticed by the others.
Still disoriented, Willow suddenly noticed the open book cage. "Oh, no! Oz!"
"He's fine," Xander assured her, indicating the unconscious werewolf. "Although we're going to have to get a better lock for that thing."
Giles sighed, eying the remains of the chair Oz had smashed into. "Not to mention yet another chair."
"So where's the ghost or whatever?" Cordelia spoke up.
"It's gone," Xander replied. "Isn't it?"
At that, all heads turned to where Mike was still slumped against the wall, limp and unmoving. Giles jumped up and hurried over, with Faith and Xander following. "Let's hope he's all right," the Watcher said. "We may have been too late."
An unpleasant thought occurred to Faith. "Hell, let's hope he's still Mike."
Giles reached Mike first, kneeling down to check for vital signs. Faith and Xander were right behind him. "Well?" Faith asked after a moment.
"He has a fairly steady pulse, and he's breathing, albeit shallowly," Giles answered. "But there's no pupillary reaction."
Xander raised an eyebrow. "Everything's working, but no one's home?" Giles nodded. "That's not exactly a good thing."
"Dammit," Faith muttered, slapping Mike lightly to try to rouse him. "Come on, Corbett. Come on."
The stream of images shut off abruptly, the specter's hold on him dissipating. But one last fragment of memory came to the fore.
There was only one thing to do. "I'm sorry," he whispered almost inaudibly as he let his hand slip from his brother's. Panicked, Leo grabbed for him, but caught only air as Mike dropped into the grey swirling abyss.
As he fell away, the last thing Mike heard was his brother's anguished scream. "NO!!!" With that, the surface world was swallowed by grey.
Mike's descent abruptly ceased as his body jerked like a rag doll. But the jarring pain and blackness he was expecting did not come. Barely conscious, he tried to open his eyes, seeing only a blur of smoke and flames. Before he could will himself to focus, the world flared suddenly in an explosion of white light.
Sharp pain shot through him, and he was suddenly aware of another presence battering at the edges of his mind. Somehow, he grasped its intent, but it wavered, almost as if it needed to be permitted to enter.
Mike's conscious mind hesitated. But one voice, beyond reason and deep within his subconscious, agreed.
~I don't want to die!~
That was all it took.
Light exploded in and around him, and the rest of the world died away as a powerful presence flooded into his body. ~No!~ Mike tried to cry out, despite what his instinct had agreed to. ~I don't want this!~
His protests were futile as he was suddenly aware of everything the strange presence had seen and known in his life; a swirl of pain, grief, anger, and vengeance. As he slipped into the depths of his mind, Mike was positive that this must be what his own private hell was like.
Then, suddenly, something went wrong. There was a howl, a ripping sensation, and everything faded to black.
"Corbett? Corbett?" Faith repeated, sure that she'd seen some reaction. "Mike?"
Giles and Xander exchanged looks, and Giles shook his head grimly as he stood, wiping his glasses nervously. It didn't look good.
Suddenly, Mike convulsed, his entire body jerking violently as his eyes flew open. He leaned back, staring into space as he gasped for air. "Corbett!" Faith repeated. "Can you hear me? You in there?"
Numbly, Mike nodded, trying to breathe evenly. He remained staring blankly into space, seemingly fixated on a point beyond them. Giles knelt back down beside Faith as Cordelia joined the group clustered around Mike. "So what's wrong with him?" she demanded of the Watcher.
Giles sighed. "You always assume I know all the answers," he muttered. "I believe he's going into shock. Not that I could blame him, given the nature of what just happened."
Xander turned to the circulation desk, where Willow was bending - carefully this time - to replace the tranquilizer gun. "Will! Call an ambulance!"
"No," Mike croaked, startling them all. He coughed and managed to focus on Giles. "No, I--" Swallowing against a dry throat, he added more loudly, "I don't need an ambulance."
"Are you sure?" Giles asked.
Mike nodded wearily. "Yeah, I'm fine. I'm - I'm still me."
"Glad to hear it," Faith quipped.
With more than a little effort, Mike began to pull himself up, waving off Giles' attempts to help as he hauled himself unsteadily to his feet, holding on to the bookcase for balance. He wavered for several seconds, not letting go of the bookcase as he tried to regain his equilibrium. The others backed off, giving him a chance to preserve his dignity. "All right," Mike finally admitted. "I need some help here, please."
Grinning, Faith slung his arm over her shoulders, supporting him on one side. "That's not all you need."
As she guided him down to the lower level, Mike sighed. "Yeah, I need about a week's worth of sleep, a new set of legs, maybe a truckload of aspirin--" He stopped abruptly as her free hand wandered. "You've got one hell of a one-track mind, you know that?" Faith merely smirked.
Buffy approached them, dusting her hands off proudly. "Oz is still out cold, and I kind of had to MacGyver a lock," the Slayer explained. At Giles' curious expression, she added, "Hope you didn't like that letter opener too much."
Despite himself, Giles smiled and shook his head, patting her on the shoulder. "We'll worry about that in the morning."
In the midst of all the commotion, Frank had slipped into the library, and was hovering by the doors uncertainly. Cordelia? You might want to put the top down on your car.
"I wouldn't need to if you were out watching it!" the brunette exclaimed, throwing up her hands.
I'm serious. Look outside.
Turning to look out the window, Cordelia let out a squeal. She turned and bolted for the exit, brushing past Frank as she plowed out the library doors. The others followed curiously, filing out into the hall and out the side doors of the parking lot to see what was the matter.
A gentle sprinkling of rain was spattering the sidewalks, picking up as the Scooby Gang stepped outside. Within moments, it had become a steady downpour, blurring the surroundings with curtains of water. "We came out here for this?" Giles exclaimed, wrapping his vest about him tighter.
Willow beamed, holding out her hands as if to catch the raindrops in her palms. "It's wonderful!"
"It's also freezing," the Watcher muttered, hurrying back to the relative safety of the overhang. Cordelia, still shrieking, was scrabbling to get the top down on her convertible while Xander attempted to help. Faith, still supporting Mike, had wisely remained high and dry beneath the overhang. Frank folded his arms and grinned, the first real smile any of them had seen on the bassist's face. The miserable heat of the past few weeks was gone, and the first rain they'd had for weeks was coming down in torrents.
Buffy sagged against Angel, who put an arm around her as they stood together in the rain, content. "It's over."
"So everything is taken care of?" the Mayor inquired.
Trick nodded. "Pretty much. Slayer trashed the siren. Turns out there was a sidhe in the mix, but she's also out of the picture."
"Mmm." Pausing to brush a speck off the desk, Wilkins folded his hands in front of him thoughtfully. "Our other two clients: what of them? Did you send a committee to deal with Robinson?"
"Already taken care of," Trick replied. "It's his own fault for lighting up in a van carrying all that explosive."
Wilkins smiled. "I've always said smoking was a nasty habit. What about the fourth member of the group?"
"Turned on them," was the answer. "Couldn't bring himself to do in the sidhe, though. I don't think he'll be a problem."
"Well, three out of four isn't bad," the Mayor sighed. He leaned back, an odd look in his eyes.
Trick noticed it immediately. "What?"
"She was something, wasn't she?" Wilkins said admiringly. "Quite a woman. Last time I met someone that remarkable was that succubus who blew through here in the sixties."
The vampire chuckled. "You've got to respect the dominatrix."
"I might have added her to my team had she been trustworthy," Wilkins mused. "Pity she had to go and try to drain energy from the Hellmouth." He sat up straight again. "But what's done is done, I suppose."
"So... is that all for tonight?"
Wilkins stood and went to the cabinet, pulling his favorite bottle of Scotch and two glasses out from behind the occult artifacts. "Not quite." He set the glasses down on his desk and uncorked the bottle, pouring the liquor into the glasses, handing one to Trick.
The vampire raised an eyebrow. "I'm not much of a Scotch drinker, you know."
"One glass won't kill you. Besides, this is the finest Scotch I've tasted yet, and I've been around long enough to know." Wilkins lifted his glass. "A toast. To all the... remarkable women out there."
He took a long chug of his drink, and Trick sipped his as well. It was pretty damned good. "So," he said after a moment. "Tell me about this succubus."
The reminiscing - and the Scotch - lasted well into the night.
The young man groaned, cracking his eyes open to meet the bright sunlight streaming through the window.
Mike blinked a few times, briefly afraid he'd been sucked into some kind of mad time loop and that the whole week was about to repeat itself. But this wasn't Giles' bedroom. He was lying in a small guest room that was neat and quiet and comfortable... and utterly unfamiliar.
The bedroom door was slightly ajar, and he could hear the sound of a television set and laughter. Of course. Now he remembered. This was Buffy's place; Giles wouldn't let him crash on his couch with the condition he was in. They had ended up at Buffy's house, sans Angel, after Buffy had insisted she assure her mother that the monster of the week was gone. Joyce had caught Buffy sneaking out with a purseload of stakes Friday night, and had spent the rest of the evening worrying.
One look at Mike, and Joyce had gone straight for the first-aid kit. He couldn't recall all the details - he hadn't exactly been at his most alert - but around the time he dropped off to sleep at the kitchen table for the third time, Joyce had offered the use of the guest room. He didn't remember much after that.
The clock radio by the bed read nine a.m. From the noise downstairs, it was safe to say that most of the Scooby Gang either had stayed over or came back early. Sighing, Mike rose and dressed, glaring at his reflection in the mirror briefly before heading downstairs.
"They're both for breakfast, you put syrup on both of them, you make them both with Bisquick," the Slayer observed. "Don't see the distinction."
"I'm serious, Buffy," Willow argued as Buffy attempted to help Joyce in the kitchen. "Waffles are a lot better than pancakes any day. They've got that, that nice waffle shape that lets you pour the syrup in the little squares. You can even make patterns."
As Buffy looked at her friend oddly, Oz spoke up. "She's got a point. You've got to consider texture."
"Texture?" Buffy asked.
"The absorption level," the guitarist answered blithely. "Pancakes take in syrup like a sponge. Waffles don't absorb it so quickly."
Willow nodded, pleased to have some support in the debate. "And - and that way they don't get all spongy and mushy after two bites."
"You could eat them without syrup and it wouldn't matter," a voice interrupted. They all turned to see Mike leaning against the doorframe. "But I'll add my vote to waffles."
Buffy shot him an exasperated look. "Will you stop sneaking up on us? I get enough of that from--" She bit back the last word, realizing her mother was present.
Fortunately, Joyce didn't pick up on that, or didn't seem to. "How are you feeling?"
"Better," Mike yawned. "Hungry." He tapped his forehead and grimaced. "I think I'm doomed to walk around Sunnydale with a bandage on my head."
"It could be worse," Oz observed.
Mike nodded, conceding the point. "Where's everybody else?"
"Faith's around," Willow replied dismissively. "Frank's on the porch tuning, Xander's watching TV, Giles is being Giles somewhere, and Cordelia's getting her car reupholstered."
As she mentioned Frank, Oz straightened up as if remembering something. He turned and murmured something in Willow's ear, giving her a peck on the cheek as he left the kitchen. Mike watched him go, then turned back to the immediate possibility of breakfast.
At least his baby was fine.
He hadn't had time to get it before Molly had grabbed him, and Frank was wholeheartedly glad about that. If he had, it would probably be blown to bits with Mal and the rest of the equipment in the van. Frank sighed. Rest in peace. True, Malik had been as much of an ass as the other two, but a small-scale ass. As much as he'd complained and griped and smoked, for a few years Mal had been the closest thing to a friend Frank had.
The question nagged at the edges of his mind. Had he done it? Had he ignited that spark that took out the van and Mal with it with whatever ability he had?
No. No, he was sure of it. Somehow, Frank knew he wasn't capable of that. But it left the question of who, exactly, had rigged the van. It certainly wasn't coincidence.
The rattle of the screen door brought him back to reality, and he looked up to see Oz standing there, guitar in hand. "Hey."
Hey, Frank replied.
Oz gestured to the bass guitar in Frank's lap. "How's she sound?"
Not bad. Glad I left her in the Bronze. I think she'll pull through.
The other musician nodded, settling down on the bench with his own guitar across his knees. He reached into his pocket, holding the guitar pick up to the light. "Only one way to find out."
"I let him," Mike said after a moment.
Willow blinked. "What?"
Mike sighed, staring at the dining room table. "I must have blocked it out... it wasn't even conscious, but he had to be 'let in.'" He glanced over his shoulder to where Joyce was making the waffle mix, oblivious to their conversation. "Some part of me freaked. I didn't want to die. That was all it took."
"Oh," Willow replied, unsure how to respond. "It's - it's not like you asked for him to try that."
"Maybe," was all Mike would say.
Buffy nudged him. "Hey. Anybody in that situation wouldn't want to die. Anybody sane, anyway."
"It's not my sanity I'm worried about," Mike mused. "I'm going to be okay, it's just - if he hadn't tried that stunt, if he hadn't stopped my fall, I'd probably be dead right now."
The two young women were silent, unable to think of an appropriate answer as the sound of the screen door banging and the strains of dueling guitar chords could be heard. "Got a major jam session going on out there," Faith announced as she strode into the kitchen.
Buffy raised an eyebrow. "Wow. Isn't this, like, 2 am according to your sleep schedule? What are you doing up?"
"Didn't sleep," Faith answered. "How's the head, Corbett?"
"Still attached to my neck," Mike responded as she took the seat beside him. "How are you doing?"
Faith grinned. "Hey, I'm livin' large." She patted his knee, cocking her head suggestively. Willow and Buffy tried not to laugh at the resigned look on Mike's face.
"Faith, the boy just escaped being possessed," Buffy scolded. "He hasn't even had breakfast yet."
"Hey," Faith protested, putting both hands on the table before her and trying to look innocent. "I'm here for the pancakes."
"Waffles," Willow corrected.
"Whatever. So where's the syrup?"
When the stream of intertwining guitar chords finally ceased, Buffy took her cue to step out onto the back porch. "Room service."
Oz set his guitar down and took one of the plates from her hands before they could topple, handing it to Frank. The bassist took the plate with a grateful smile. Thanks.
"No problem." She handed Oz his plate and sat down on the stoop as Frank dug into his portion with an almost feral vigor.
Even with his werewolf side to contend with, Oz was surprised at the way Frank was inhaling the food. "Haven't eaten in a while?"
He stopped, embarrassed. Huh? Oh. Sorry. Haven't had something home-cooked in ages.
Buffy nodded understandingly. The three of them sat in silence for several minutes, finishing off the waffles. "So what are you going to do now?" Buffy asked.
Frank didn't answer for a moment, chewing his bite thoughtfully. I don't know. Hadn't thought about that yet. Not sure where I could go.
"You could always stick around here," Buffy suggested, then hesitated. "Did I really say that?"
But what am I going to do?
"You could at least jam with Dingoes Ate My Baby," Oz offered.
"It'd be an improvement," Buffy put in. "No offense."
"None taken. We could play more than one chord for a change."
The slightest hint of a smile played at the corners of Frank's mouth. I'm not going back to my folks. From his tone, it was evident he meant that. But I've got a cousin in Stone Canyon. Trini might put me up for a day or two at least if I grovel.
"Sounds like a start," Buffy observed.
I'll have to think about it. I've got time.
"Freedom," Oz noted. "Got to be a new concept."
Frank leaned back in his seat, thinking. I haven't been on my own in years. I don't know where to start.
Buffy stood up to collect plates. "Nice, isn't it?"
This time, Frank really did smile. Damn right.
"Hey," Willow greeted as she and Mike came into the living room, plates in hand. "What you watching?"
"Huh?" Xander glanced up. "Food! All right!" He fairly snatched the plate from Willow's hands, blocking her view of the TV. "Thanks, Will."
Mike settled into the armchair, plate in hand. "Down in front."
As Xander reluctantly sat back down on the couch, Willow scooted in beside him, watching the TV with interest. "You're watching Power Rangers again, aren't you?"
"I'm exploring my inner child," Xander replied defensively. Mike promptly started choking on his food. "Hey, Mike? You okay?"
"Did you say 'Power Rangers?'" Mike gasped incredulously once he was able to speak again.
"Yeah," Xander answered. "Why?"
"Nothing," Mike said, shaking his head. "Got to be a coincidence."
The television was showing a group of too-attractive teens on what was obviously a soundstage made up to look like a youth center. A very familiar youth center, if it had four walls and was slightly less fake-looking. Mike set down his fork, suddenly having lost his appetite. "What the hell is this?"
"It's this really cheesy kids' show," Willow explained. "They take footage of Japanese sentai and splice it together with American footage. It's corny, but a lot of little kids like it."
"Kids' show?" Mike echoed in disbelief. He set the plate aside, all traces of his appetite gone. Something told him he probably didn't want to see this, but a perverse fascination kept him rooted to his seat as the show played out. Even fashioned from obviously fake and too-clean settings, he couldn't help but recognize places from his childhood: the Youth Center, Angel Grove High, and that damned park. Seemed like every third time he or Leo had crossed through Angel Grove Park for some reason or another, there was a monster attack going on. He was watching the story of the superheroes he'd idolized half his life as a low-budget kids' show.
Man, did he ever have a headache.
"Wait a minute," Willow realized. "Angel Grove. Didn't you say that was where you were from?"
"Yep," Mike muttered.
Xander swallowed abruptly and turned to gape at Mike. "Hey... you don't mean that Angel Grove, do you?"
"No," Mike answered slowly, still recovering from his shock. "This Angel Grove was real." At their stares, he added, "Yes, with real Power Rangers."
"Let me get this straight," Xander said as the robot and the monster of the day started trashing the cardboard city. "So where you come from, a bunch of teenagers in spandex fighting off aliens was normal. And you didn't believe the Hellmouth was real until a couple of vampires almost killed us."
"Well, this was real," Mike snapped angrily. "People did get killed. A lot. People I knew. There was a ton of property damage. Monster alarms and shelters were a normal, everyday part of life, all right? Those huge things storming into the middle of town were huge, and real, and damn destructive."
"Okay, okay," Xander conceded. "Sorry. Didn't mean to hit a nerve there."
"It's okay," Mike sighed.
There was a moment of silence as the show continued on. "So, did you ever meet the pink one?" Xander asked. Willow pinched him. "Ow! It's a legitimate question. I mean, she fills out that spandex." Another pinch. "I'll shut up now."
"I knew of her," Mike muttered. "And it wasn't spandex, it was armor."
"Looks like spandex to me," Xander observed. "You can't tell me it wasn't."
"Maybe on a cheap kids' show, but not in real life."
"It was armor, I was there."
Willow changed the channel.
Faith was sitting alone at the dining room table, with an empty plate in front of her and an almost content smile on her face. She glanced up as Buffy entered with a stack of plates as the jam session resumed outside. "How's it hanging?"
"I think Frank's going to be fine," Buffy announced as she set the plates down for a moment. "You don't look so bad yourself."
"You know me. Five by five." She leaned back and stretched, the contentment fading.
Buffy caught the flash of worry in Faith's eyes. "What is it?"
For a moment, Faith looked like she was about to shrug it off, but decided not to. "Think Vortex Boy's all right?"
"Mike? He will be if you and Xander stop calling him that."
"Come on, B. You know what I'm talking about."
Buffy stood and picked up the dirty dishes. Faith followed her into the kitchen as she set them down by the sink. "I guess he'll be okay. The whole 'possession' thing has him kind of wigged out, but he's dealing."
Faith nodded. "Has to be to survive here."
Willow stuck her head into the kitchen door, trying not to laugh. "Buffy? You might want to, um--"
Curious, the two Slayers followed Willow into the living room. Xander and Mike were arguing loudly, oblivious to their audience. "Armor!"
Faith grinned. "I think our boy's going to fit right in."
The three girls exchanged looks, then burst into hysterical laughter.
Screams. Nothing but screams.
The child's dying cries echoed in the warrior's ears as he stumbled from the battle, heartsick and weary. If only he had been quick enough. If only he had foreseen his son's brave and impulsive move. If only he could have stopped Zika. If only...
Countless battles passed by, a flood of anger and loss and terror. Everything he had fought for, all the ideals he had stood for, seemed to fade away. Scorpius' forces had killed innocent after innocent. They had laid waste to all that was good. They had murdered his son.
They had taken his soul.
And for that, they would pay.
Mike awoke with a start, nearly knocking himself off Giles' couch in his shock. He sat bolt upright, gasping for air, his heart pounding in his chest. It was a few moments before he could collect himself, wiping the sweat from his brow and untangling himself from the sheets. The anger and hatred from his dream ebbed away, to be replaced with a cold fear.
He knew that rage. He'd seen it for a few moments, when the Defender had taken hold of him for the first time. Dreaming of Maya had disturbed him, but not like this. Never like this. Why couldn't he go back to those dreams?
As if answering his question, the words of the Defender came back to him. --The mergence began when you first awakened me.--
Mike groaned and flopped back down, shifting position to get comfortable. The vengeful spirit was gone, for now. Giles had assured him of that. If he could just stop thinking about this, and torturing himself, maybe he might be able to get more than three hours' sleep. He had to stop dwelling on it.
--I must have my revenge.--
His subconscious was tormenting him, that was all. It wasn't real. His fixation with Maya had triggered those dreams, and the Friday night insanity had triggered these. This too would pass. Dammit, what was wrong with him?
--It must be completed.--
Sighing, Mike rolled over onto his side, closing his eyes. He was not going to think about this; his head hurt too much already. The Defender was gone, banished and unable to touch him. It was over. As he slipped back into a restless sleep, two words floated through his subconscious.
Author's Note: Okay, don't kill me for this. The next Bloodlines fic (actually, it's the fourth, but due to RL and timing it'll be out of order), "So This Is Christmas" will probably not be out until the year 2000. I have finals, Christmas, and work to worry about, but eventually more will come. Eventually. If you enjoyed this fic, e-mail me and let me know - it's my longest fic ever, and it took up a lot more time and effort than I ever expected it to. Happy Holidays, all.