Hector Nunoz Ramierez had worked hard all his life, starting in his uncle's Los Angeles landscaping business before he was quite legal to work, sweating in rich people's backyards during the day and attending school in the evening. By the time he was thirty, he was running the business, and by the time he was fifty, all his children were attending very good colleges-- only occasionally helping out with the business, just to remind them that all success is built on dirt.

At fifty-seven, when his wife died, his family convinced him that taking an interest in life again was not a betrayal of her memory. He had as much money as any one man really needed and then some, and he decided that the only thing working twelve hours a day got you was sitting at funerals saying "I should have spent more time with my family." He cut back to a decadent six hours a day and began exploring the brave new world of hobbies.

Cars. As a young man, he'd looked at the cars in the garages of the rich folk, and he could never decide which one he would buy when he was rich. Now that he was really rich, he decided to buy them all. Some of his grandchildren enthusiastically helped, and within a few years the Ramierez Collection was being talked about in the same breath as the Harrah Collection.

Hector hardly slept anymore. Nighttime was a good time to catch up on his car magazines and to surf the Internet for prices and possible new acquisitions. At two a.m. on a Friday night in August, he was the only one up when he looked out his office window and saw lights on in the garage.

The alarms hadn't gone off, so he wasn't too concerned. He probably had forgotten to turn the lights off himself when he left--or one of the grandkids had come by to drool over the new California Shelby. Ricky was still trying to negotiate his way out of being banned from the garage for sneaking several buddies in to look at his grandpa's cool cars.

The garage was the reason he'd bought the house in Rancho Santa Fe, bigger than he was really comfortable with. The previous owner had been a dot-com millionaire who had spent his money just as quickly as he earned it. The collection of Porsches and motorcycles had been one of the first liquidations when the bottom fell out, but the house hadn't been far behind. As Hector approached the garage, he saw a red BMW convertible parked in the shadows to one side of the big front doors. Who did he know who drove a Beemer convertible, he wondered as he stepped through the open doors.

"All right, who's here?" he called.

The place seemed empty, except for the twenty-two cars parked down both sides of the long space. Must be one of the grandkids, then, hoping not to be caught.

"I know you're here, I saw your car outside. Who's here?"

"Evenin', mate."

He seemed to have popped up out of nowhere, the slender blond Englishman in the long black leather coat.

"Who are you?" Hector asked. He looked around again. "Who let you in here?"

Another man appeared, down by the '68 Corvette. "I'm sorry, we let ourselves in. We heard about your collection and thought we'd nip over and have a look."

This man was English, too, and possibly a bit older than the first one. He was dressed in black as well, but more respectably than his friend.

Hector blinked at them, baffled by their casualness. "It's very late."

"We know," the second one said apologetically. "We just got in, though, and thought we could peek in without bothering anyone." The look he gave his friend was oddly challenging.

Hector looked at the garage doors. "You're lucky I apparently forgot to set the alarm."

The blond scratched his ear casually. "Yes, lucky, that. I must say," he added quickly, "you've got some nice cars here."

"Oh, yes, I'm quite pleased with them." Hector smiled happily at having new fellow enthusiasts to chat with. "But I swore that I'd keep the collection under two dozen, and I just spotted a 1969 Detomaso Mangusta on the Internet. I may have to sell something to make room." He looked down the line of cars. "But I'd hate to part with any of them."

The second man scanned the collection with a wistful eye. "I'd make an offer for that '62 E-Type over there, if I could."

The blond shook his head. "No, no, no, Ripper, you're the T-Bird type. The '56, over there, that's a nice set of wheels."

Hector nodded. "My late wife's favorite car." He sighed briefly at the pang of memory. "Which car is your favorite?" he asked the blond.

The man reached up and fiddled with a small gemstone that pierced the top of his right ear. "They're all some very sweet cars, mate, I'll grant you that. The Coupe Deville is very nice." He began strolling down the line. "But I have to confess that, if forced to make a choice, I'd go for this one." He stopped and rested his hand on the black hood of one of Hector's more recent acquisitions.

"Oh, the 1959 DeSoto. That's actually a very rare car."

"Yes, I know." He ran his hands over the front of the hood, smiling fondly. "The Fireflite Sportsman, in Starlight Black. That's why we picked this one, because Dru liked the name of the color. She thought she was the only one who knew the stars were actually black."

Hector glanced at the second man, wondering if he should be concerned about the other one's behavior.

The second man smiled calmly. "Where did you get the DeSoto?" he asked Hector.

"Oh, at a police auction in a little town a couple of hours from here. I got a very good deal on it." He glanced at the car sympathetically. "The poor thing was in terrible shape, with the windows covered in spray paint and really horrible stains on the upholstery. But we've got her all fixed up and looking as good as new."

The blond man walked slowly up the driver's side, running his hand along the fender. "Looks just like she did on that carlot in Memphis, where we got her."

Hector was beginning to feel faintly nervous. "Where you . . ."

"Yep. A clean, one-owner vehicle, she was." He shrugged. "Well, clean being relative, of course."

"But you're not old enough to have bought that car new."

The smile was disturbing. "Never said anything about buying, mate." He tilted his head back thoughtfully. "The salesman was quite happy to come with us on the test drive."

The other man chuckled faintly. "Let me guess, you've been test driving it ever since?"

"In a manner of speaking." He fished in his coat pocket and pulled out a set of keys, then glanced up at Hector. "Unless you've changed the locks, mate."

Hector shook his head. "I brought in a locksmith, he made new keys. This was your car? You're the one who owned it before the police seized it?"

"Which they had no right to do, as I was being illegally detained at the time." He unlocked the driver's door and swung it open. "Well, that buggering squeak's finally gone." He slid into the driver's seat with a contented sigh. "And you've fixed that damned annoying broken spring in the seat. Thank you. Oi! Where's my stereo!"

"It--was missing when I bought it."

"Rotten coppers must have kifed it, no one else in Sunnydale would have the balls to rob my car."

Hector took a step towards the door, suddenly not very comfortable with these strange visitors. Especially not if one of them was the person responsible for some of the things the police said they'd pulled out of the DeSoto.

The second man put his hand on Hector's shoulder. "Don't leave yet, Mr. Ramierez. I'm sure Spike has other questions about what happened to his car."

Despite everything, Hector could not pull away from that hand. "Please . . . I want no trouble."

"Neither do we, sir. No trouble at all."

The DeSoto's engine turned over and caught without a problem. The blond laughed and revved it a few times before turning it off. "Sweeter than she's sounded in forty years," he said, climbing out of the car. "And a full tank of gas, too. Thank you, mate." He strolled over to join them.

Hector kept shaking his head. "Just take it . . . please. I won't even call the police."

"Of course you won't." He stopped in front of Hector, then glanced thoughtfully at his friend. "Unless you want to?"

"No, I'm fine, thank you. The girl at the club earlier was enough for me."

"Right, then." He smiled at Hector. "And because you did such a nice job on the car, this will be very quick."

Hector didn't even have a chance to finish saying "What?" before his neck was snapped and fangs were in his throat.

When Spike was finished, he let the man's body fall gently and grinned at Giles. "So, fancy a new car, do you? I bet we can find the keys to these beauties around here somewhere."

Giles looked around thoughtfully, then shook his head. "I'm really fairly fond of the BMW. The E-Type would just make people think I'm having a midlife crisis or something."

"You're a baby vampire, Ripper, you're too young to have a midlife anything."

"I am not a baby."

"Are."

"Not." He shook his head. "Just get your car and let's go."

"Right. Let me get the spray paint."

"We'll be back in Sunnydale well before dawn, don't deface that lovely car if you don't have to. We can get the windows tinted when we get home."

Spike hesitated, then shrugged. "If it's not dark enough, then I'll get the paint. Fair enough, home we go." He hopped over the body on the floor and strode back to the DeSoto, bouncing happily. "And I'm getting a stereo put back in first thing!"

"Good! You can get those damned discs of yours out of my car then."

***

Willow took another slurp of her frappachino. "So, where do all the ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties go during the summer?" She looked around the dark cemetery half- hopefully, half-worriedly.

"I'm not really sure." Buffy jumped to the top of the waist-high wall and strolled along as she sipped her own drink. "I don't really care, either. I like my summers off."

"Not that you had one, this year."

Buffy sighed. "Summer school, ick. It's so high school. But as of this weekend, that's all over, and I get three whole weeks before regular school starts up again. Mom says she's going to see if she can get us some time at the beach."

"Your Mom's up to swimming? That's great."

"Well, not so much the swimming, but she's definitely up for the wading and the sun bathing." Buffy stopped and looked up at the sky, blinking hard. "She hasn't used the walker in over a week. And she only needs the cane when she's tired."

Willow reached up and squeezed her foot. "I know. Tara has nightmares every now and then, but she's in perfect shape. And Dawn's good and . . ."

Buffy nodded as she trailed off. That did rather exhaust the list of people who were good. "Have you seen Xander in the last few weeks? He returns my calls, but either no one's home when I drop by or he's ignoring me."

Willow dropped onto the top of a nearby tombstone. "I've seen him, but only because I have a key to his place. I went over there the other day and stayed till he came home from work. At least, I think he's still going to work. When he did get home, it was way after dark, and I don't think he was putting in overtime."

Buffy sat on the wall. "What do you think he's been doing?"

"Weird guy stuff. Brooding in the dark and stuff." She bit her lip before continuing. "I think he's been drinking, Buffy."

They were silent for several minutes. "Anya's still around, right?" Buffy asked. "I--haven't been to the Magic Box much, and there's this old guy behind the counter."

"Oh, that's Simon. Anya hired him to look after the place when she's gone on, well, business."

"Vengeance demon business?"

Willow nodded glumly.

Buffy stared out at the night. Everything would seem so normal, so good, for days on end, then something would remind her that her good fortune came at a damned high cost.

What Scoobie meetings that were held anymore were held at the Summers house. Buffy didn't go to the Magic Box at all if she could help it. The wrong faces were there behind the counter. Twice this summer she'd caught herself a block away from the shop, her mind on some problem and the vague refrain of "Giles will know" in the back of her head.

Xander kept begging off from meetings with excuses of being exhausted after a long day at the construction site. The one time Buffy had pushed him, he'd made an almost-snide remark about how swinging a hammer all day might be just a touch more strenuous than sitting in lecture halls on campus.

She had seen Anya at the Magic Box, not long after they'd gotten home from the convent of Saint Eugene. Anya had been pleased to see that Buffy had survived relatively unscathed, but she'd avoided the subject of being a vengeance demon again and why. Buffy had noticed a bride's magazine tucked under some invoices on a shelf behind the counter, and she'd had to leave before she said something out of place. Anya's dreams were her own.

Movement in the corner of her eye caught her attention.

"What is it?" Willow whispered.

"Somebody moving through the bushes over there. Stay here."

Buffy put her drink down on the wall and dropped off.

It had been a quiet summer, as usual, demonically speaking. Rather than being a source of tranquility, though, the quiet had just drawn the tension tighter. She knew what was out there.

Or, rather, who.

She knew Spike was out there. Cigarette butts kept appearing under the trees outside the house, and her mother had occasionally been rinsing out two mugs on some evenings when Buffy got home late. Once when she had been looking out her window around midnight, she'd spotted Dawn strolling down the street, *back* to the house. Buffy had been just about to run outside to give her sister some truly indignant whatfor when a familiar figure had stepped out of the shadows behind Dawn, following her down the street. When Dawn spotted him, she'd started to argue, but the finger-wagging and emphatic gestures at the night made it clear who had the stronger position. A firm pointing finger in the direction of home had sent Dawn on her sulking way. Buffy hadn't relaxed till she heard the front door close and footsteps sneak up the stairs. She'd been about to go deliver a scolding when she spotted a red glow under the tree outside. She watched for about twenty minutes until the glow disappeared.

She hadn't seen any sign of Giles. She didn't go look.

Those vampires who apparently didn't have vacation homes elsewhere were still aggressive and bloodthirsty. More of them, though, seemed to recognize her on sight, and a few had run away on seeing her. Almost as if they'd learned not to mess with a Slayer. She didn't want to think about who might be holding classes.

Three male vampires were hiding in the bushes ahead, and they were too busy with their argument to notice someone creeping up on them from downwind.

"I don't care who they are," one of them snapped. "I'm my own vamp, I do what I want."

The other two looked at each other nervously. "You're not thinking of challenging the boss, are you?" the little one said.

"Oh, the boss, big deal. Some jerk blows up out of nowhere, swaggers around, and everybody bends over for him."

The others looked out at the trees nervously. The third one, a red head, whispered, "Dude, this is Spike. William the Bloody. He's over a hundred years old. He's been in town for years."

The first one blinked a little, then shrugged. "Yeah, Spike. Tell me another one. Last I heard, Spike was a pathetic, neutered lapdog."

The other two actually cringed as they looked over their shoulders.

The braggart straightened. "Look at you two, scared of a big mouth who's playing you with a good story. The real Spike would be draping human entrails over the lamp posts, not giving lectures on people to stay away from. What your boss really is, he's a soft coward."

The little one squeaked and covered his head. Red Head shook his head in disbelief. "And the wizard," he whispered. "Ripper. You think he's soft?"

Braggart had to take a moment. "I don't know what he is. All I saw was a guy standing in the corner and watching everybody."

"He does that," Red Head said. "Watches you. And thinks. And you just hope that whenever he's done thinking that you're not anywhere around if he wants to try something out." He patted the little one on the shoulder. "Tooke here was days getting over Ripper's last experiment."

"Experiments, huh?" Braggart leered. "Is that what they're calling it nowadays?"

Tooke shook his head. "Nothing like that. And he doesn't do it for fun. He just wants to see what happens."

Red Head nodded. "I'd rather have Spike pissed at me than Ripper. Spike'd do you quick. Ripper keeps getting distracted by some neat thing about vampire healing or something." He patted Tooke's shoulder again. "Damned scientific method."

Buffy shivered, both in disgust and recognition. The very thoughtful Giles, terribly curious about how things worked. Distracted, she nudged a branch of the bush she was lurking behind.

The very faint sound was more than enough for vampire senses. All three of them glanced up and began searching the night.

Buffy debated just a moment, then shrugged. "Hi, guys!" she said brightly, stepping out into view.

"Slayer!" Tooke squeaked. He began scrambling away even before getting to his feet.

"Now, that's just rude," Buffy said. "It makes me feel unloved."

Braggart got to his feet. "Slayer, huh? But you're a skinny little thing. I could snap you over my knee."

Buffy pulled out Mr. Pointy and smiled. "You can try."

Tooke took advantage of the distraction to scramble to his feet and run for it. Red Head hesitated, then started sidling after Tooke.

"You damned coward!" Braggart yelled. "Two of us can take her! Your wussy boss is turning you all into cowards! Not fit to be called vampires! It's just one skinny girl!"

Red Head flinched, then grinned nervously at Buffy. It looked rather ridiculous on game face. "He's new in town, ma'am. Doesn't know how we do things here on the Hellmouth."

Buffy glared at him. "How do we do things here on the Hellmouth? You're a vampire, I'm a vampire Slayer. I catch you, I slay you."

"Oh, well, yeah. But there's no reason to be rude about it."

"Look, if your boss is who I think he is, rude does not begin to describe him."

"But he's earned it." Red Head nodded at Braggart. "Him, he hasn't earned it."

Braggart snarled. "I don't have to earn anything! I'm a vampire! I take!" He jumped for Buffy.

A nice, clean, straightforward fight. Vampire vs. Slayer, best being wins. Buffy found herself grinning as she ducked Braggart's first attack.

Red Head watched until the two were completely involved, then began creeping away. The new guy wasn't going to last long, and it was best to be far away when the Slayer looked around for a new target.

He was a good forty feet away when he sensed motion off to the side. One of the Slayer's cronies? He was still trying to spot the source of the movement when a crossbow bolt came out of the darkness and slammed into his heart.

The dust made pretty pattering sounds as it fell.

It was a tough enough fight that she had to pay attention, but nothing that Buffy was too worried about. The big blowhard got in one good kick to her hip, but she rolled with it and came up behind him. She got him in the heart before he could turn around, then jumped back to avoid the spreading dust.

Willow came up, carrying both drinks. "All done?"

Buffy didn't relax as she scanned the darkness. "There were two others, but they ran."

"You sound disappointed."

"If they're running around in the open, I should try to stop them. I'm not used to them being sneaky."

She shrugged and took her drink from Willow. Just as she was taking a sip, a branch in a nearby thicket snapped. She tossed the drink over her shoulder and whirled, stake ready.

"*Levo*," Willow said quickly, catching the drink midair.

Buffy walked carefully to the bushes. Before she got there, she found a pile of fresh vampire dust. She went very still, listening for all she was worth. Faintly she heard Willow's heartbeat and breathing, nearly drowned out by the rustling of her clothes. No one else around that she could tell. After a suspicious moment, she went back to Willow.

"What was it?" Willow asked.

"Dusted vampire. One I didn't do." She blinked, just then noticing her drink, floating at Willow's shoulder. Willow grinned around her own straw. "You caught it."

"I've been practicing." Willow waved the floating cup over to Buffy, who sipped cautiously before accepting it as unchanged. "I'm getting so I can have two spells going at once," Willow went on excitedly. "That's really handy."

Buffy nodded, but she didn't listen that closely as they walked out of the cemetery. She ought to be searching for the mysterious vampire staker, but she wasn't sure she wanted to find out. There were a couple of people out there who might be moved to watch her back but who she didn't want to deal with.

Willow continued to chatter, but Buffy kept her attention on the landscape and tried not to feel lonely. Slayers always had Watchers, someone who knew the job, knew the choices, knew the risks. She didn't like having her friends out on the line with her, because of the dangers, but she didn't want to be alone with this job, either.

She'd talked generalities with her mother, who was surprisingly wise when it came to a job you were duty bound to perform, but Joyce couldn't help the occasional Mom-twinge that said to get her daughter as far away from this nasty job as she could.

She missed Giles so much. His phone number was still in her wallet, and more than once she'd dialed the first six numbers and sat with her finger over the last button until the phone raspberried her and cut off.

He was a vampire. Her Watcher was dead. All the writings she'd seen were clear: the vampire is not the same as the living person, the cleanest thing to do was to kill them as quickly as possible and mourn the first death that had replaced the person with the demon.

She'd never lost someone she knew--or at least, knew well. Harmony was as mind-bogglingly shallow as a vampire as she was as a human. Buffy couldn't mourn Harmony, she was too busy shaking her head in disbelief.

She should ask Xander, he would know more how she felt, because of--oh, gosh, what was the boy's name? Jimmy? Joseph? Damn it, she was supposed to know these things.

She started to ask Willow, but Willow was still talking about magic. Buffy supposed it made sense. Tara had been saved by magic, and so much of that siege had involved Willow flinging spells around. Of course the two witches would want to study more, especially as a way to reconnect after Tara's illness. Willow had made jokes before about attending her own summer school.

She turned her attention back to the darkness, wondering who else was out there.

***

Friday night, date night. Xander walked down the hallway to Anya's apartment with a bouquet of chocolate roses. She agreed that flowers were pretty, but she had an odd quirk about having what she called plant corpses around the house. Which made odd, Anya sense.

He paused at her front door to listen for signs of her presence. They'd been trying all summer to recreate something resembling a relationship, but between the shop and the demon biz, free time was something Anya didn't have a lot of. She had been practically living with him before the trip to the convent, but after getting her old job back they'd decided some reorganization time was in order. Which was just as well: when Anya got the call that a scorned woman was looking for some payback, she headed out immediately. Xander found it less upsetting to stop by her place to find a note saying, "Off to Vladivostok, love you," then to have her teleporting out of his place on her missions of unmercy.

The stereo inside was playing something upbeat, so she was home. He knocked on the door.

"Come in if you're Xander!" came the answering call.

He paused to savor the sound of her voice. Even a whole summer later, Xander still had trouble replacing the image of Anya dying in his arms with the ongoing pictures of the perky woman bustling through her world. Perky demon. He shook his head firmly and went in.

For a couple of hours they pretended they were nothing but a devoted couple catching up on the day's news over dinner. They traded stories of the shop and of the construction site over some surprisingly good lasagna. Dessert was apple pie a la mode--Xander suspected supermarket pie meets a few seconds in the microwave for warmth, but he didn't care because it was good--and they took their plates over to the couch to catch some sitcoms on TV while they ate and leaned against each other.

The evening was about to progress to the "kissing leading to sex" part of the schedule when a puff of air moved through the room, followed by a woman's voice saying, "Oh, I'm so sorry to interrupt, Anyanka! I didn't know you had a guest."

Anya sighed and straightened up from her very comfy spot on Xander's shoulder. "This isn't a guest, Halfrek, this is Xander."

The woman standing in the middle of the entryway--where she hadn't been two seconds before-- was the fluffy, pretty sort. She blinked at Xander in eager curiosity. "Oh, so *this* is Xander. He's pretty."

"Thanks," Xander said with a frown. He raised an eyebrow at Anya, who sighed.

"Halfrek, Xander Harris. Xander, Halfrek. She's a friend from work."

He grimaced. "I'm thinking you don't mean the Magic Box."

Halfrek bounced over to the couch. "No, I'm a vengeance demon, too. Hi." She held out her hand.

Xander shook her hand gently. "So, vengeance demon. Who do you venge for?"

Her smile slipped a few points. "Children. I work with kids."

He blinked in surprise. "Then how come none of my wishes as a kid came true?"

"It's--complicated." Halfrek turned back to Anya. "So, sweetie."

Anya shook her head. "I have tonight off. It's down on the schedule. D'Hoffryn himself initialed it."

"Well, that was before this guy in Paris cleaned out the bank accounts, ran off with his secretary, and left his wife and four kids homeless and bankrupt. It's a two-for-one deal. Plus--Paris!"

Anya started to look intrigued, then shook her head again very firmly. "Night off. Night off with Xander. Paris is . . ." She tossed her head. "I've seen Paris. I haven't seen Xander all week." She leaned back against his shoulder.

Halfrek sighed. "Anya, Mme. DuCharles is whipping up potions and firing up the hand of glory as we speak. The kids are holding candles at the edge of the circle and chanting. We're up, honey."

"No. Get somebody else." But the smile she gave Xander was uncertain.

Xander sighed. "Honey, if you've got to go--"

"No. It's on the schedule. If we start ignoring the schedule, then chaos has won and the bunnies are members of the board." She shuddered and dropped her head firmly onto Xander's shoulder.

Halfrek looked to the ceiling for guidance. "Look, if it's such a big deal, why don't you just bring him with us?"

Anya started to answer, paused, then looked at Xander. "Have you ever been to Paris?"

"I've been to Oxnard."

"Oxnard isn't Paris."

"No, it isn't. But Oxnard is where I've been."

"You'd like Paris," she grinned. "It's very pretty and old, and if you ignore the Frenchpeople, it's a very nice place. We could stroll along the river and listen to the music."

Xander blinked and thought about it. He'd only ever been out of the state of California once, and he hadn't quite given up his dream of traveling and seeing something of the world. The idea of strolling along a river in a romantic city hand in hand with Anya was actually pretty appealing.

Halfrek nodded at the look on his face. "Xander, yes, come along and wait in some nice little Left Bank cafe while we finish with Mme. DuCharles' wish, then you and Anya can have a wonderful time."

Anya sighed. "Yes, we should get that out of the way first. Then I wouldn't be distracted."

"So," Xander said slowly, "we'd have our romantic tour of Paris after . . ."

Anya shrugged sadly. "Can't be helped. Work before pleasure."

"And I'd wait in a cafe someplace while you and Halfrek here . . ."

"Oh, we can talk Mme. DuCharles into something quick for her husband, then we'd have most of the weekend for ourselves."

Somehow Xander didn't see himself sitting in some restaurant, calmly waiting for Anya to finish eviscerating some poor schmoe so they could have a nice little vacation.

He put on his best fake smile. "You go on, sweetie. Have fun in Paris."

Anya frowned. "But I'd rather spend time with you."

Halfrek shifted impatiently but said nothing. Anya looked at her unhappily.

Xander hugged her. "When the boss calls, we jump. Go on, you don't want the big guy pissed at you."

She pouted. "He's going to owe me big time." She leaned up to kiss him. "I'll call you when I get back."

"Sure thing. Be careful."

"Always am. Bye bye." She smiled at him, touched the amulet hanging at her neck, and was gone, Halfrek seconds behind her.

He wandered the apartment, cleaning up for lack of anything better to do on his Friday night. He even washed the dishes, though that was more for avoiding complaints about lifeforms growing in the sink when Anya got back. Which might not be for several days, now that she was out and about with a buddy. She and Halfrek gave off a Buffy/Willow vibe that suggested some serious shopping might be in order after Monsieur Schmuck was dealt with.

The emptiness of the apartment was making Xander think some unpleasant thoughts about loneliness, so he headed home, where he could at least fill the silence with country music. The blinking light on his answering machine, though, gave him hope that maybe there was evil mayhem afoot to distract him.

The voice surprised him. "Hello, Xander, this is Joyce Summers. If you're free this weekend, could I beg a large favor of you? It would involve driving and being out of town, so if you have plans, please don't worry about it. Thanks."

Roadtrip out of town, by the sound of it. Buffy's mom hadn't quite yet been cleared for the piloting of small land vessels yet, so he could understand why she was looking for a driver. Buffy was slowly becoming reliable in a town setting, but open freeways tended to encourage her to put the pedal down and trust to her Slayer reflexes when navigating heavy traffic at 80 miles per hour. Not particularly soothing for a recovering woman.

And being out of town meant being out of town when Anya was out of town. Much better than being in town thinking of Anya being out of town.

Still fairly early. He picked up the phone. Buffy answered. "Summers residence."

"Harris Chauffeur Service, someone called from this location?"

"Oh! Xander!"

He frowned. "Oh. Buffy." Granted, he hadn't had too many heart to hearts with her over the last few months, but that was no reason to sound so shocked to hear from him.

She had the grace to sound apologetic. "I'm sorry, it's just--I haven't heard from you in a while. Um, how's stuff?"

"Stuff-like. How's your stuff?"

"Similarly stuff-like. So, Mom's asking you to drive on her adventure?"

"Looks like. What's up, business trip to LA?"

That uneasy not-sound came from her again. "Um, no. She's, um--"

"Buffy . . ."

"Sorry." Why was she taking a deep breath? "Mom needs someone to drive her up to the Convent of St. Eugene. She's been collecting clothes and stuff that she thinks they need. Xander?"

Dark night, screams of pain, blood on his hands, literally and figuratively. Two mass graves.

A new voice in his ear. "Xander? Are you there?"

"Mrs. Summers, hey. How are you?"

"I'm fine, Xander. Thank you for calling me back, but you don't have to do this if you don't want to." Her voice was very understanding. Too understanding.

"No, I'm fine. I'm free this weekend, I'm happy to help."

"Xander--"

"When do you need me over there?"

Joyce was silent for a few seconds. "Nine o'clock?"

"I'll be there, nine o'clock."

"Wonderful, thank you. Buffy wants to talk to you, just a moment."

The thought of hanging up drifted past in the back of his mind, but he let the thought go.

"So," Buffy's perky voice said, "how's work and everything?"

"Work is work. I'm up for crew chief."

"Well, yay, you."

"What about you? Willow said you were doing the summer school thing."

"Yeah, just finished up."

"Did you pass?"

"Yes, I passed. I almost got an A in American history."

"Let me guess, Dawn helped you."

"If you were closer I'd bap you. And she only helped me keep the Jacksons and Johnsons straight with the presidents. She's no Giles, but she's not bad."

She caught her breath after that sentence, as if just realizing she'd used the G word. Xander knew he should comment, but his mind stayed on the mundane path.

"So what are you taking this year?" he asked.

"I've--still got a couple of things to decide on. I got a letter saying I'd have to declare a major this year, no more putting it off. I don't know what to tell them."

"Well . . ." He remembered conversations like this their senior year of high school, Buffy and Willow intently debating options for a future that seemed a whole lot broader than the one open to himself. "What's Willow say?"

"Oh, she just goes on about whether she should double major in computers and psychology or take something simple so she can spend more time with magic. Mom says I should go with history, since I spend so much time looking through old books anyway."

"Makes sense."

"Except I don't think my professors are too interested in the uprising of the Pringer Gnomes against the chaos demons."

"Probably not."

He heard her settling in comfortably, ready for a long chatter about life in Buffyland. Once upon a time these talks were the highlight of his existence, giving him entrance to the mysterious, thrilling world of girls and, especially, Buffy. He suspected, though, that she wasn't too interested in the life of a construction worker and that talking might lead to, well, *talking*. About *things*. Willow kept trying to have those kinds of talks, about how he felt and how he was dealing. He dealt, what else was he supposed to do?

And if he had nightmares that involved burying bodies that opened their eyes and asked him "Why?", how was mentioning that to anyone going to help? If hearing cars backfire gave him the shakes for half an hour, that was nobody's business but his own. And lots of people threw up when they smelled the rank, old blood of meat going bad in the back of the fridge.

"You know, Buff," he said, interrupting her description of the gross unfairness of a professor who required a paper a week in a summer school class, "if I'm taking your mother on a long drive tomorrow, I ought to get to bed."

"Oh. Yeah, you're probably right. Xander?"

"Yeah?" he asked cautiously.

She started a couple of words, then settled on, "I love you, you know."

He swallowed hard. "Love you, too, Buffy. Night."

"Night."

After a typical night of uneasy sleep, Xander arrived at the Summers house, ready for a long day's drive. He was very carefully not thinking about the destination, only thinking about freeways and offramps.

Joyce answered the door. "Good morning, Xander. Thank you so much for helping me with this."

"De nada, Mrs. Summers."

Dawn came bouncing down the stairs. "Hey, Xander," she called as she headed for the kitchen.

"Hey, Dawn." Xander watched her for a few moments, feeling almost cheerful. There was a reason they'd gone through so much hell last spring, and saving the world was only part of it.

"Have you had breakfast?" Joyce asked.

"I'm fine."

"That's not what I asked," she said with a semi-stern frown.

He caved graciously. "I had part of breakfast."

"Then you can help us finish off the bacon." She briefly balanced herself with a hand on the wall as she turned for the kitchen, then walked off with only the faintest of limps.

Xander nodded in satisfaction but made a mental note to make frequent stops today to let the recuperating woman stretch her legs.

Buffy was on stove duty, doing battle with the bacon, while Dawn foraged in the cabinets.

"Where are the Rice Chex? There are supposed to be Rice Chex."

Xander spotted both Buffy's look of guilt and the Rice Chex box sticking out of the recycling bin by the back door. He decided to stay out of the discussion.

"If we're out, we'll get more," Joyce said. She made her way to the bulletin board on the wall, picked up the pen hanging by a string, and added Rice Chex to the shopping list. She studied the writing for a few moments, looking both dismayed and pleased. "Well, at least it's legible. Is there food for the very nice young man who's driving me?"

"We are with bacon," Buffy declared. "And we do have cereal if you want."

Dawn pulled out a box. "Fruity Pebbles? I'm not a kid anymore." She looked at her sister suspiciously. "I heard that." Buffy hid her follow-up snicker behind a roll of paper towels.

"Or," Xander offered, "I could stop at the McDonald's on the way out." But he did take a piece of bacon from the platter Buffy put on the table.

The toaster popped up. "Eggos!" Dawn caroled. She placed two on a plate that went in front of Joyce, then two on a plate she kept hold of. She stuck her tongue out at Buffy when her sister pouted. "There's more, hold your horses." Four more went in the toaster.

Xander tried to keep his snicker to himself, but Joyce caught it and smiled at him. "Yes, it's always like this." She didn't try to hide the smile from her daughters. Dawn ducked her head and focused on breakfast. Buffy smiled back, but it faded quickly.

"So," Joyce said brightly, "Dawn, what do you have planned for the weekend, with the bad old mom out of town?"

"Trying to avoid the bad old big sister, who isn't going out of town." Dawn wrinkled her nose right back at Buffy. "You remember, I'm going to Janet's tonight. You're taking a cell phone, right?"

"Yes, we are, and the AAA is paid up and the spare tire's in good shape and I had the engine checked last week. What about you, Buffy?"

"I might go see if Willow wants to go Bronzing, maybe watch her flip through the college catalog to see if there are any other general requirement classes she can take before having to settle on a major." She poured herself some milk. "Gosh, a quiet night. I've probably hexed myself just thinking the idea." She looked sternly at her mother. "So, you're going to call when you get up there, right?"

"Sweetie, I won't be surprised if they don't have cellular coverage up there. We'll call before we get out of range."

Buffy turned to Xander. "And you won't drive more than ten miles over the speed limit, right?"

Xander accepted his own pair of Eggos from Dawn, plus the syrup and butter. "I think you may have mistaken me for someone else in this room who needs reminding of speed limits. We'll be fine, Buffy."

She was still frowning a little as she dug into her own Eggos.

They ate in relative silence for a few minutes. Buffy started to speak then stopped so often that Joyce finally put down her fork. "Yes?" she asked patiently.

"Are you sure you're up to this?"

"Sweetheart, I made it before under far worse conditions."

Buffy shrugged. "I know, but . . ."

Joyce got up to put her plate in the sink and kissed Buffy in passing. "I'll be fine. Xander will be with me."

Xander kept his head down over his plate so no one could see his grin. It was nice to have someone appreciate him. When he glanced up to get his milk glass, he saw Buffy watching him. And almost frowning. He raised an eyebrow at her, and she paid attention to her waffles again.

Joyce went into reduced bustle mode as she gathered her things for the trip. Xander followed her out to the car to get out from under Buffy's thoughtful eye. The back of the Land Rover was full of boxes.

"Christmas in August?" he asked.

Joyce grinned. "I've been taking donations at the gallery all summer, after I got back to work. I told everybody it was for a convent in Honduras."

"What are you taking them?"

"Some new gardening tools, some bolts of cloth, shoes and things. Canned food. It's not easy shopping for people who have nothing and don't want anything."

He thought a moment, then went to his own car. He hauled out his tool box and belt and carried them to the Land Rover. "They might need some things fixed," he explained with an attempt at an offhand shrug.

Joyce nodded. "Good idea." She took a deep breath. "Leave in fifteen minutes?"

"Sounds like a plan."

A few last minute things needed dealt with before they hit the road. After his own turn in the Summers bathroom, he found Buffy waiting for him near the stairs.

"Yes, I'm going to drive carefully and not bounce her around and make sure she's all right," he said to forestall the lecture he saw brooding in her eyes.

She nodded with a small smile. "If she doesn't seem OK, you bring her straight home, all right?"

"I promise. But she's right, she's in a lot better shape than the last time she made this trip."

"Yeah, but then we were all there too. This time it's just you."

"I think I'm up to looking after your mother."

"I know, it's just . . ."

That came out a half second too slow, and she didn't meet his eyes when she shrugged again.

She didn't trust him to look after her mother, not really. Xander kept himself from asking what was wrong, afraid she'd tell him. "You could come with us."

"I shouldn't leave town. There have been a couple of weird things the past couple of days that I need to keep an eye on. Besides, Mom said no."

He gave her a look of "Well, then?" If she wanted to say something, she was going to have to make the first move. He wasn't in the mood to be Volunteering Boy.

"Xander!" came from Joyce downstairs.

"Gotta go," he said, smiling in as friendly a way as he could manage.

"Yeah. Xander--"

He turned from the stairs, his gut twisting in dread. She looked undecided, then she hugged him instead of saying whatever was on her mind. He hugged her back.

"Xander, come on!"

Buffy grinned. "Better go. That's her 'I'm not writing you another excuse note' voice."

"And you know this tone of voice well?"

Her laugh followed him down the stairs.

Dawn hugged him in passing. "Bye, Xander, drive careful."

"Always do. Don't do anything stupid that blows up in your face and you have to admit to your mother later."

"Sure thing."

Joyce was already by the car, looking impatient. Xander held the passenger door for her and lent a hand for balance as she climbed in. She tapped her fingers on the arm rest as he got behind the wheel.

"Are we in a hurry?" he asked.

She caught herself, then laughed. "I love them dearly, but Buffy and Dawn do tend to hover. I'm--kind of looking forward to having a couple of days without someone watching me all the time."

"Sorry," he shrugged, "I promised." He started the engine, put it in reverse, then hesitated. "We forgot the most important part of the trip."

"What?" Joyce frowned.

"Music. And who gets to pick it. I've got CD's in my tool box."

"My car, I get first pick."

Xander watched anxiously as she opened the storage unit between the front seats and pulled out a CD binder. Maybe she'd at least have something marginally cool, like Elvis when he was still country.

Joyce smiled at him. "What do you think of Led Zeppelin?"

"Who?"

"Them, too."

"Huh?"

She pretended to think about it. "I don't think I have them." She laughed at the look on his face. "Get us on the road, Xander, and you can hear proper old fogey music. Maybe some Hendrix," she mused as she flipped through the CD's.

He sighed and put his trust in U-2 and, if necessary, Roy Orbison.

***

The flick of something soft and fuzzy across her nose brought Tara out of a deep, comfy sleep. She opened her eyes slightly, unwilling to move in case she decided that slipping back into dreamland was the best decision she could make in the next few minutes. Kitten tails. Or, rather, the fluffy tails of spoiled cats who assumed that any empty pillow was fair game to become a cat bed. Miss Kitty was still circling on Willow's pillow, creating a perfect bed to whatever demanding standards cats followed. One more flick to settle her tail over her front legs, and Miss Kitty settled down to sleep.

Tara decided that was a very good idea, then the thought "Where's Willow?" drifted past her mind. Long Saturday mornings were generally for both of them to laze around. She turned her head just a little.

Willow sat at her desk, studying a book. Tara smiled. Dear obsessive-compulsive vacation studier. Probably getting a head start on the new semester. She debated pouting loudly about books being more appealing than girlfriends.

She took a breath to speak then realized Willow was speaking quietly to herself as she read. Something that sounded close to Latin, but more guttural. A sickly grey glow appeared over the desk. Willow glanced up at it and frowned. She opened her mouth to speak, hesitated, then looked back down at the book. She read silently for a few seconds, glanced back up, then shook her head.

"Depart," she whispered, and the glow faded. She hmphed in frustration and bent back over the book. An old, leather-bound book, Tara noticed, not one of the volumes likely to appear on the normal textbook lists of UC Sunnydale.

Miss Kitty yawned loudly, making Tara twitch. Willow glanced up at the movement.

"Bad kitty, waking up Mama Tara." Willow tucked the book into a stack of others on her desk, then came over to the bed. "Good morning, sweetie."

Tara accepted the kiss happily. "Good morning. What were you reading?"

Willow blinked. "Reading? Oh, just getting a head start on that stupid business management course I have to take this year. Not like I'm ever going to be managing an office or something. I thought you were going to sleep for hours."

"You should have woken me."

"Oh, but you looked so cute, curled up with Miss Kitty."

She leaned down for another kiss, and Tara let herself be distracted. An hour later, when they left to find breakfast/lunch/whatever, Tara glanced at Willow's desk. The stack of books seemed perfectly normal, just an average stack of text books with bright covers. Nothing leather bound or more than five years old.

"Come on, honey," Willow said in the hall, holding out a hand. "I'm hungry."

Tara took her lover's hand and told herself to stop worrying.

***

The drive north passed surprisingly pleasantly. Xander argued music with Joyce till they found some common ground with Sting and the Police. However, Xander inadvertently started a 75-mile argument with the statement "Carlos Santana--didn't he play with Matchbox 20?"

A full Santana CD later, he managed to get a word in edgewise. "I'm not saying he's not good, I'm just saying I never heard of him before. Have you ever heard of Matchbox 20?"

Joyce shrugged. "I've heard Buffy play them. They're--not bad. They can actually play melodies. Unlike a lot of bands these days."

Xander laughed. "Oh, yeah, bands these days. I have heard that Led Zeppelin bunch, and you can hardly understand that lead singer of theirs. That 'Stairway to Heaven' thing, what the heck is that about, anyway?"

He thought Joyce might just have another aneurysm on him, the way she was looking at him, and then what the hell was he going to do? Leave her with a local hospital, change his name, and start hitching rides to far points?

She laughed, finally. "All right, fair point. Half the time I can't understand Robert Plant, either. It helps if you're stoned. Watch the road!"

He managed to stop staring at her in shock, but it took a little before he could get his jaw to stop hanging open in disbelief.

"You can't say stuff like that! Just say no! D.A.R.E.! This is your brain on drugs! That's what they've been teaching us in school, and you just come out and say Led Zeppelin makes sense if you're stoned?"

Joyce shrugged. "Well, that's what I heard. From the kids in school. I'm not sure 'Kashmir' ever made a great deal of sense." She flipped through her CD binder. "I think I have some if you want to hear it."

"Druggie music." He realized he was sounding like Mr. Martin the Health Teacher and went for a different tack. "I've got some Hank Williams Jr." He laughed at the look of dismay on Joyce's face. "Or how about Waylon and Willie?"

"How about the Stones?"

"At least I've heard of them. Keith Richards. He's one of the undead, isn't he."

She snickered. "If he was one of the undead, do you think he'd look like that?"

"Point," he laughed. "Still, those are some snaggly looking old guys."

Joyce didn't argue as she turned to another page in her binder. "I've got 'Steel Wheels' and 'Voodoo Lounge.' Shall I put one in?"

"Sure, bring on the scary grandpas."

The sign warning that the Los Padres National Forest exit was coming up soon went by. Xander let the navigational portion of his mind make note of that, but he kept his thinking centers focused on old music rather than on destinations.

They stopped for lunch at the same restaurant as they'd stopped at before. The place was full of travellers this time, families on vacation, hikers headed for the mountains, people with maps and sunburns.

"And gas prices are easily twenty cents more per gallon than they were in the spring," Xander observed as they were finally shown to a table.

"So are the food prices," Joyce added, studying her menu.

"If you cover the refueling, I'll cover lunch." He saw her look at him in uncertainty. "I've been putting in a lot of overtime, I can easily spring for a tourist-priced lunch."

She smiled graciously. "All right, then. Deal."

To his surprise, the lunch she ordered paid mere lip-service to the idea of either healthy or low- cal. She bit into her bacon cheeseburger with delight, then made a noise of inquiry at his stare.

"You don't eat like a girl," he blurted out.

She swallowed and smiled. "Life is short. Eat a cheeseburger."

He nodded but his smile was a little forced. Life is short. Damned straight.

They worked through their burgers and fries and drinks in peaceful silence for ten minutes. When Joyce took a deep breath over her last fry, though, Xander braced himself.

"How's Anya?" she asked, paying more attention to the puddle of ketchup on her plate than to him.

"She's fine." He licked a finger and began picking up the stray sesame seeds from his hamburger bun. He finally couldn't help looking up at Joyce's continuing silence. She was wearing the Concerned Parent face, a look that only seemed to get directed at him by people he wasn't related to. "Don't, please," he said as she took another breath.

"Xander--"

"Please!"

She frowned a moment longer, then reached across the table to pat his hand. "All right, I'm sorry. It's just--we worry."

"Everything's fine." He couldn't help smiling just a little at the "I don't believe you" that went over Joyce's face. "We're--managing."

"And that odd--person. With the horns. Who you made the deal with. What about him?"

"D'Hoffryn. Anya's boss." He found some sesame seeds he'd missed. "Haven't seen him. When he shows I'll deal. When did you want to get back on the road?'

She frowned a moment more, then nodded. "We probably should get going. I'll meet you at the car."

Xander signaled for the check as he watched Joyce make her careful way across the restaurant. That hadn't gone nearly as bad as he'd been afraid of. And maybe she'd leave the subject alone. Too bad Buffy and Willow wouldn't take No for an answer on discussing Anya and the deal. He had no idea what D'Hoffryn had in mind. The demon might hold on to that debt for twenty years or something. What could the master of vengeance demons possibly need from one human? Best not think too long in that direction.

The waitress arrived with the check, and he headed for the cashier. Some snacks and some drinks for the rest of the drive, that would keep his mind away from things that were best left alone.

Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen filled most of the air on the rest of the trip into the mountains. Joyce told a tale of sneaking into a Springsteen concert, but only after making Xander swear he'd never tell Buffy. The mother-daughter negotiating field was delicately balanced enough without adding material like Joyce lying to her own mother about a sleep-over with a friend as cover for going to the forbidden concert.

The side roads that led away from the park entrance were busier at this time of year. By the time they reached the rutted turnoff marked by the small roadside shrine of Saint Eugene, though, they hadn't seen another vehicle for half an hour. Xander slowed for the turn, then hesitated.

Joyce started to ask what was wrong, but then she remembered Anya hopping out of the bus to identify the shrine on the last trip up here. If there had been anyone else to ask to drive her up here, she would have asked them. She hated dragging Xander through the memories of everything that had happened.

Xander glanced over at her cautiously, but he seemed to relax when she didn't say anything. Without a word, he drove on.

The air was drier and dustier in August. Rabbits and mule deer leaped out of hiding in the bushes as the car drove past. Joyce lowered her window and leaned out, letting the wind blow through her hair. It made a good cover for the tears that threatened.

This was the summer she thought she'd never see. When doctors used words like glioma and cerebrum and operable, a woman's long-term planning was suddenly defined in days and weeks, not seasons. Then the Glory thing had blown up, and it was all Joyce could do to hang on to Dawn's survival, much less her own. It had taken weeks after Glory's defeat for Joyce to start thinking again of the future as something that might be counted in years. She'd had a follow-up visit with her neurosurgeon three days ago, and Dr. Isaacs had told her that all the scans showed clean. All that was left to do was to continue her exercises to regain what function she could, plus a check-up in a year, just to be sure.

She sniffed, hoping the sound of the wheels on the dirt road would cover it. She was going to be all right. Her daughters were safe. The world was a beautiful place. It was such a damned shame that not everyone got to feel like this.

She pulled her head in and looked at Xander, who was glaring out at the road. No one as young as he should have those lines between his eyebrows. "Thank you," she said.

He blinked in surprise. "Huh? Um, you're welcome, I guess. For what?"

"For driving me this weekend. I know this brings up bad memories--and, don't worry, I'm not going to go into them anymore. But it makes it even more kind of you to come all this way with me."

He shrugged and started to reel off some witty reply, then subsided. "You're welcome," he finally said. "And thank you, too."

She nodded and started watching ahead for the first sign of the convent.

The valley opened before them in the hot summer afternoon. The wheat in the field was as tall as the windows of the Land Rover, and the heavy stalks waved in the breeze like a patriotic commercial.

Joyce sighed in pleasure. "It looks just like my uncle's place in the Imperial Valley. I always loved watching the different colors of the crops in the wind."

Xander peered briefly out into the fields. "Do you see anybody working?"

"They're probably all inside. Wheat doesn't really need much looking after at this time of year. Oh, I wish there was a way I could have warned them we were coming, I hate just dropping in on people like this."

The gates--roughly repaired but whole--were still open to all comers. Xander fought the shiver of deja vu that took him as he drove carefully through the gateway, mindful of the chickens milling around the courtyard. He turned off the engine, then realized he was reluctant to raise his eyes from staring at the steering wheel. The last time he'd seen this courtyard, the bullet holes were still fresh in the walls, the courtyard still showed dark stains, and the smell of blood hung in the background.

Finally he forced himself to look up--at a view as pristine and peaceful as the last time he'd driven into this place. The walls of the buildings were newly whitewashed; the dirt of the courtyard was neatly raked. The timelessness of the place rolled on, unmarked by the events of a couple of very busy days in its long history. He took a deep breath and was able to let it out without any of the shakiness he'd been afraid of.

From out of the chapel came a familiar figure. Sister Agnes peered at the vehicle curiously, then a huge smile appeared. "Joyce Summers? Oh, blessed Mother, how wonderful to see you!"

Joyce unsnapped her seatbelt and opened her door. "Careful!" Xander said quickly as she climbed out, but she neither paid attention to him nor to any issues of her balance. She did hold on to the door for a moment to regain her equilibrium, then took a few steps to meet the Mother Superior's hug.

Other sisters appeared from various spots, and they all sounded quite pleased and excited to see the visitors. Giving a completely fake sigh of resignation, Xander also climbed out of the Land Rover, ready to greet the women who had declared themselves proxy aunts.

Sister Agnes, though, got to him first. "Xander, dear boy," she said as she hugged him. She pulled back to look at him, but she didn't say any of the things he expected. She only studied him for several moments, nodded briefly to herself, then hugged him again. He was hugging her back when something impacted against his left ankle.

"Za-er! Za-er!"

"What the--" He looked down to find a somewhat bigger Baynar glued to his leg, grinning up at him in toothy demon delight. "Did you just say my name?"

Sister Agnes laughed. "Yes, his English is getting much better. We now at least know what language he's babbling incomprehensibly at us in."

Baynar bounced. "Za-er!"

Xander finally laughed. "Hey, little dude." He crouched down and scooped up the little demon into a fierce hug.

The sisters tried to refuse the gifts Joyce had brought, but for once they had run into a force more powerful than their certain faith: the generosity of a grateful woman. While Sister Agnes was still in the process of graciously giving in, Xander shrugged and began unloading boxes from the Land Rover. He asked Baynar for directions, and the little demon happily led the way to the kitchen and to the storage rooms.

He found Savlin, Baynar's mother, in the tool shed, sharpening a hoe. The large Minoto smiled at Xander. "You have returned."

"So I have."

Savlin came over and made what seemed to be pleased noises over the box of hand tools Xander had brought in.

"I thought you and your family were going to San Francisco," Xander said as he helped her unpack the pruning shears and trowels.

"We have been waiting for word about my mate, Baynar's father, yes. He was supposed to meet us here. He will be here in another few days, then we will go on to the city to join the rest of our clan." She looked down at Baynar, who was still staying close to Xander's leg. "I am pleased we are able to see you again."

Xander shrugged and grinned. "Kind of nice to see you and the little rugrat, too." He grinned down at Baynar, who hissed and bounced before tugging on Xander's pantleg.

"Now," Baynar said, pointing to the door. "Now."

"Why am I not surprised that he's learned that word," Xander said to Savlin with a smile.

Savlin shook her head. "He is young, and the world does not move quickly enough for him. Go, I shall unpack these."

"Cool, thanks." He held his hand out to Baynar. "OK, little dude, where are we off to?" Baynar squealed and began tugging Xander off with surprising strength.

He was conducted on a tour of the convent, narrated in a fairly incomprehensible mix of Minoto hisses and stray English words. Baynar pointed out the repaired gate, the chicken coops, the grape arbor, then led the way out to show off the cows and the plowhorse. The nuns they passed all smiled at him and said how nice it was to see him again. Something in his spine unkinked, and he felt like he was standing straight for the first time in weeks.

As they rounded the back wall of the convent, Baynar paused with a small squeak. Xander looked at him and saw the little demon was staring up the slope at the olive grove--and the graveyard laying there.

"Let's not, OK?" he said tightly.

Baynar looked up at him, a worried look on his face, then he turned around and led the way back the way they'd come.

They found Savlin and the rest of the Minoto coming in from the field. There were two more of the demons than had been present in the spring, and they stared uncertainly at Xander. Savlin and the others hissed quickly at them, but that didn't stop them staring.

"Not used to humans, huh?" Xander said.

Savlin nodded. "We are telling them that you are a good human, that you are the one who defended us that long night against the bad men and against Glory."

He blushed hard and felt a little sick. "It wasn't just me. Buffy and--and Giles did the heavy lifting on taking Glory down. Hell, even Spike helped."

"Yes, we have told them. It is a good story to tell on a summer night when we are sitting under the stars, frightening and heroic."

The two newcomers were whispering together and giving him furtive looks. But they didn't look like nervous looks. He took a step away. "It wasn't like that--well, maybe it was. Frightening, anyway. But I just did what I had to."

Savlin nodded again. "Yes, a good tale. A strong tale. There have been several who have come to hear of the destruction of Glory."

"What? People have come here . . ."

"The word has spread. When we go to the city, there will be many who will seek us out to hear the story from ones who witnessed it."

And that was nausea twisting his gut. "Look, please, you can't--I don't want--what are you telling them?"

She tilted her head, a bit perplexed. "The truth. You and your friends stood against an army and would not let them do us harm. And when Glory came, you fought her as well. It was a brave thing, and we are honored to have witnessed it."

Xander didn't know why her words hurt so much. There had been no time for bravery, only for fear and resignation and the knowledge that there were no choices. It shouldn't be a story to be told over beers to a bunch of people who had no idea what had happened. He hated the idea that strangers knew what he had done.

One of the others hissed at Savlin, who nodded and hefted her shovel. "We must get the tools put away before supper. We shall talk later, Xander Harris." She spoke briefly to her son, who nodded quickly. "Baynar will try to tell you that he does not need to wash before he eats. Do not believe him."

"Yeah, OK."

The Minoto continued inside the convent, and Baynar tugged on Xander's hand, leading the way down the road to show him something in the fields. Xander focused on the high-pitched voice instead of the screams in his memory.

***

Sister Agnes brought tea out to the grape arbor and sat across the table from Joyce.

Joyce accepted her cup. "So, what happened to all the Knights' horses?"

"Oh, the horses." Sister Agnes settled in comfortably. "We sent a message to the monastery of the Knights, and a few weeks later several novices came to collect the horses and to hear the tale."

"Were they angry?"

"Not in the least, thank God. They seemed far more relieved that Glory was defeated. They said a few prayers next to the graves and left." She smiled tightly. "Well, they left after I forbade them to salt the earth where Glory is buried and other similar things. She's not going anywhere, there's no reason not to leave her in peace."

"So it's been quiet otherwise?"

The nun nodded. "A typical summer. A few more visitors than normal, but no problems. We always get a few wanderers stopping by who are exploring the roads and find their way here."

Joyce glanced at the chapel. "What do they make of Saint Eugene?"

"If they notice, they never say anything. Savlin and the others stay out of sight, and the visitors have a nice tour and leave. The rangers come through occasionally, but no one bothers us." She smiled and sipped her tea. "So, tell me how everyone is."

Joyce told her about the gallery, Buffy and Dawn in summer school, Tara getting back to perfect health, and Willow busily studying. The easy words slowed when she reached Xander and Anya. She told of how worried people were about Xander and how he pulled away when his friends tried to find out how he was.

"They're pushing him too hard," she said. "I told Buffy he needs room and time, but she's too worried about him to leave it be."

Sister Agnes nodded. "She sees a challenge and must defeat it. They want everything to go back to normal, but some things never can. Are he and Anya still . . ."

"I think so. I didn't ask. Too many people keep asking him things."

"Poor boy." Sister Agnes stared at her tea cup for several moments. "What of Mr. Giles?"

"Well . . . I think he's still around. Buffy hasn't said anything either way. I haven't seen him, and I don't know if any of the others have. I know Buffy misses him. She'll start to say his name, then change the subject." Joyce shook her head. "They all do."

They sat in silence, sipping their tea.

---

Xander retrieved his tools from the car and, followed by his faithful shadow, Baynar, went through the convent repairing and building. Sister Teresa's kitchen work table had its wobbly legs tightened; Sister Mary got some new shelves for her herbs. Sister Dymphna bashfully asked him to take a look at the mangers in the stable, and he found some scrap wood in a corner to incorporate into the renovations.

It was good, silent work. Baynar quickly learned the English for "nail" and "hammer" and "saw" and such, and the only thing heard for hours was the occasional request for a tool and the sound of woodwork. When Xander paused for a drink of water, though, he heard whispers and quiet giggles just outside the stable. He peeked outside; three young women in nuns' habits squeaked guiltily.

"Uh, hi," he said.

The three looked at each other nervously, then the shorter one smiled. "Hello."

"Have we met?"

They all shook their heads. The taller one took a nervous breath. "We're novices. We've only been here a few weeks. I'm Sister Yvonne."

He couldn't help smiling. "I'm Xander."

The medium one was just gathering her courage to speak when a throat was cleared behind them. Sister Dymphna stood there, trying to look stern. "Sister Teresa is looking for help in the kitchen, sisters."

The three novices immediately tucked their hands into their sleeves, nodded demurely, and headed serenely back towards the gate. When they rounded the corner, though, there was the sound of more giggles.

Sister Dymphna sighed. "They're very young, and new to their vocation. But they're good girls. I remember being young." She glanced at Xander, then looked away, blushing just a little.

Xander looked at her curiously, then remembered that, in the heat of an August afternoon of hard work, he'd taken his shirt off hours ago. You weren't supposed to wander around nuns half- dressed. He scurried into the stable to find his shirt.

Sister Dymphna looked over her nearly-rebuilt stalls. "This looks lovely, Xander, thank you. But you don't have to do it all today. It's almost time for Vespers and supper." She looked pointedly at Baynar, who was burrowed into the straw. "And I know someone's mother expects him to be clean for supper." Baynar did his best innocent look.

"Come on, dude, there's no fighting it," Xander laughed. "They always make us clean up for supper." He put his tools into a neat pile for later, then held his hand out to Baynar. "Let's go in before your mom comes looking for us."

Baynar pouted, then leaped out to grab Xander's hand.

Both Joyce and Xander joined the community for Vespers. The sun wouldn't set for several hours yet, but the times of prayers had been standardized generations before to avoid bunching up all the observances at one end of the day or the other. Baynar tried to sneak away from his mother when he saw Xander in the chapel, but Savlin told him firmly to sit still. Xander gave him the best stern look he could manage without laughing until Baynar slouched in defeat and sat quietly.

Supper was a different matter, and Savlin let her son wiggle in next to his human friend to continue chattering in English/Minoto. Xander felt momentarily disoriented when he saw that Joyce's indulgent smile was nearly identical to Savlin's. The Mom thing transcended species, obviously. Fortunately he was distracted from contemplating his own parents by the arrival of a peach cobbler Sister Teresa had put together from the food gifts Joyce had brought.

The three novices sat at the end of the table nearest Sister Agnes. She kept a close but genial eye on them, giving them pointed looks whenever their whispering became a bit too intense. Sister Teresa made sure everyone had seconds, though Joyce tried to demur at more peach cobbler.

"You are too thin," Sister Teresa said firmly. "You've been ill, you need to feed yourself up so you can get well."

Xander failed to muffle his snicker, and Joyce turned to glare at him. She finally sighed, though not too hard. "All right, I'll have more of the cobbler."

"Good for you. And you'll sleep well in the guestroom tonight, and I'll give you a big breakfast tomorrow."

Sister Teresa bustled away, and Joyce sighed more sincerely. "I'm going to go home having gained five pounds." She glanced at Xander.

"I didn't say anything," he protested. "I know far, far better than to make any kind of comment in a conversation involving women and weight. Not me, no, sir."

After supper, Xander went back to the stable, followed by Baynar. They worked until Sister Dymphna brought the cows and the plowhorse in from the meadow.

"And that will be enough for tonight, gentlemen," she said firmly. "Zorrababel, Hepzibah and Mehitabel need their sleep."

Out of the corner of his eye, Xander saw Baynar yawning. "Looks like someone else does, too."

"And so do you," Sister Dymphna said. "You drove all that way and you've worked all afternoon. You must be ready to drop."

He shrugged. "If I work hard, then I sleep well. Otherwise I just toss and turn. I'll be fine. Do you need any help with the animals?"

"Not at all. This is my favorite time of the day, when I settle them for the night. You two go on to bed now."

Baynar tried to distract Xander with something interesting further down the road from the convent, but this time Xander was firm. The little demon made loud protests, which immediately stopped when they met Savlin coming out of the dormitory.

"Here he is," Xander said, "safe and sound and fighting tooth and nail against going to bed."

Savlin nodded. "It is the same every night. But he will cooperate soon enough."

Baynar's face screwed up as he fought another yawn, which escaped despite his best efforts. Savlin picked him up and cuddled him against her shoulder. "Say good-night to Xander, little one. You will see him in the morning." Baynar tried to protest, but yet another yawn interrupted him, and he rested his head tiredly on his mother's shoulder before he caught himself.

Xander grinned. "Good night, Baynar. See you in the morning."

Baynar said something sleepy. Savlin smiled. "Good night, Xander."

He watched the two of them go back into the dormitory. For the first time all day, there was silence around him. He almost started towards the dormitory in search of company, but unlike the silence of his apartment in Sunnydale, this silence held a subnote of peace, despite what had happened here just a few months ago.

He listened to the birds in the trees and the cicadas in the grass. The sun was warm on his head, and he could smell the dry dust--and the chickens. Finally he let his mind relax a little and tried not to flinch as the echos of screams and gunshots returned to the corners of the courtyard around him.

Now he was glad he'd come with Joyce. Tara spoke of the great wheel of life and death, light and dark. Now he had different memories he could lay over those of that dark, bloody night.

He started towards the dormitory to ask when a young man could get a thorough wash without running the risk of shocking anyone, but stopped after a couple of steps. No one was around, no one was watching him with caring, concerned eyes. No expectations or worries haunted him with accusations that he wasn't dealing with matters the way that he should. There was something he needed to do before he could honestly think he was on his way to settling things. Glancing around once more to make sure he was unobserved, he walked slowly out the front gates, around the walls, and up the slope to the olive grove and the memories sleeping there.

The birds paid him no mind as he walked up the hill. Some sort of snake twisted away into the taller grass; a rabbit leaped out of hiding and bounded into the rocks. Cicadas and other buzzing things made the day seem much noisier than a summer evening in town.

Both mass graves had grown over with grasses and weeds. Nature made no distinction between hellgod and holy warriors.

The fence of swords around the Knights' grave was undisturbed. Sister Mary had told Xander about the visit of the Knights earlier, and she'd said they'd debated another marker. In the end, they left it as it was. They had asked the sisters to thank whomever had set up the swords, calling it the most fitting memorial to those who had fallen in battle with their ages-old foe.

Xander settled down at the foot of the biggest olive tree and studied the graves. The nuns had shown no fear at having a hellgod buried in their graveyard. Apparently the dead didn't get up and stroll around so much in their world.

He wished he could stay here. Quiet, peaceful, and the work he did was appreciated. But there was that whole male thing and not fitting in too well in a convent. Maybe Sister Agnes knew of a nice monastery somewhere, hopefully one that didn't require a vow of silence. Someplace far in the country, where the dark things couldn't find you and lurk outside your window.

Most mornings he found at least one cigarette butt on his balcony. He tried to ignore it, tried not to pick them up in the mornings even though he hated trash on the floor, tried not to make a note in the evening that the balcony was still clean. Tried his very damnedest not to show he was awake when he smelled cigarette smoke in the middle of the night. The voice he sometimes heard, that whispered "Invite me in," existed only in nightmares.

Except if he pretended that voice was a dream, he was afraid that one night he was going to dream himself answering, "Come in."

And that way lay madness.

The man in the white hat did not stand shoulder to shoulder with the villain. There were sides, and he'd chosen his when the tiny blonde girl had turned over the rocks and showed the nasty things underneath. If he could face off against his oldest friend with every willingness to shove a stake in his heart, then he could surely keep his back turned to a joyful killer who had always shown such delight in causing him pain.

He'd never been tempted by Jesse's invitation to join the dark side, he'd never thought for even a moment that a life of evil at his best friend's side might not be all bad. He had not found one ounce of comfort in having Spike backing him up that long night, he had not been reassured that the two of them were functioning on the same wavelength of necessity and practicality.

He had not become much better at lying to himself.

Spike was stalking him. He knew that. What really worried him, though, was the number of times he felt like catching the vampire at it, just for a chance to talk to someone who understood what had happened that night, who wasn't trying to explain to him how he really felt about all of it, who wasn't trying to get him to fucking share. Whatever Spike was after, Xander was fairly sure it wasn't something Oprah would be advocating on TV.

Why the hell was the vampire after him, anyway? Buffy was supposed to be Spike's obsession. If it was a matter of Spike finally following through on the "I live for the day I kill you" thing, Xander would have expected something a whole lot more straightforward than an Angelus-style stalk-and-scare.

Except there wasn't much scare involved, was there. Just Spike being there, nearby. Like he was waiting for something.

On the far side of the graveyard, a pair of deer picked their way down from the rocky slope, nibbling on bushes. Xander watched them, wondering how close they'd come to him if he sat perfectly still. But the wind shifted, and the animals' heads came up at the scent of human, then they bounced away at speed.

Sighing, Xander checked the position of the sun. Getting close to dark. He was starting to feel the effects of the drive and the long afternoon of work. He might just sleep without the dreams tonight. He'd been putting in as much overtime as he could at work, so he'd be exhausted enough for silent dreams. It even sometimes worked. He got to his feet and headed down to the convent, hoping they'd assigned him a room other than the one Anya had chosen before. Maybe he'd sleep better without waiting for the scent of cigarette smoke to come drifting in through his windows.

***

Buffy waited till she got a phone call from Dawn at Janice's house--and she listened to the background sounds to make sure of where Dawn was--then she grabbed a quick snack and headed out into the night. There had been no answer at Willow's room, so she hit the patrol alone.

A sweep of the college showed nothing nasty lurking in the usual places. Maybe the vampires were all waiting for classes to start too.

She remembered going over the class lists for the fall semester, trying to decide what to take--and whether trying to decide on a major was foolishness for a Slayer. Her mother had been a big help, encouraging her to think of the future. Buffy had stopped mentioning the realities of a Slayer's life, though, when she saw her mother's mouth tighten up in that painful way.

Weirdly enough, Dawn was the easiest one to talk to about fate and destiny and all that. She was still getting used to being barely a year old in real time while still packing a lifetime's worth of memories in her head. Every now and then Dawn would go up to people she was supposed to know, and she'd check to see what memories the monks' magic had given them. So far the magic was holding good. They'd made sure to get copies of all her school transcripts and medical records, though, just in case things started to fracture.

Nothing moving in Restfield; a couple of slime trails that went nowhere in Peaceful Acres. Over in Southside Memorial Gardens, though, she got the feeling again of being watched. She concentrated for several seconds, but it wasn't a vampire, whatever was out there. So at least it wasn't Spike doing his bizarre love from afar routine. Or Giles keeping an eye on her again. A few weeks after getting back from the convent, Buffy had been following the trail of some migrating Red Hats. There'd been a couple of skirmishes, then one knock down drag-out before they decided Sunnydale was no place to put down roots. More than once Buffy had seen a familiar figure in the shadows and bad guys with more damage than she remembered inflicting.

He'd said he still considered himself part of her clean-up crew. She knew she was supposed to be outraged and disgusted. And thinking about it made her head and stomach hurt.

She smelled blood from a nearby grove. When she got there, she found human blood on the ground, vampire dust in the grass, and a crossbow bolt hanging crookedly from a branch halfway up a tree. Dusted vamp, hurt human, no body lying around. Nobody she knew was doing freelance Slayer work. She listened again, but there was only the breeze in the leaves.

This was getting annoying. Time to get the inside information on any new players in town.

Willie handed Buffy a non-alcoholic, non-demonic strawberry daiquiri. He glanced nervously at the rest of the barroom, then went back to wiping glasses. "So, what are you looking for tonight, Slayer?"

"Hey, I could just be stopping by for a drink and a visit." She pouted at his disbelieving look. "It could happen!"

"Yeah, sure, kid." He looked at the crowd again. "At least none of the heavy hitters are in tonight. Nobody here wants to have any trouble with the Slayer."

Buffy checked the room in the mirror. Vampires wouldn't show up, of course, but she had those handy Slayer senses for them. All she saw were furtive, quiet demons, some of whom were giving her dirty looks, some of whom just looked scared.

"I'm not looking for trouble, honest. I'm just--" She slumped. "I'm the bogeyman. People find out who I am and they're afraid."

Willie pulled up a stool on the other side of the bar. "Well, you are the Slayer, kid. Not likely to be on the side of the demons."

"I'm the Vampire Slayer. Slayer of creatures who want to munch humans. That's a good thing, right?"

He nodded. "I'm for not getting munched."

"I met some Minoto demons a few months ago, they were nice. I know there are others like that. But I never get to meet the nice demons."

"This is the Hellmouth, kid. Definitely the bad side of demon town. In LA and such, now, you get the good places, nightclubs and all that, where you don't have to worry about brawls."

She grinned at Willie's wistful look. "Oh, you'd miss it."

"Probably."

"But it does sound nice."

"They don't send Slayers to places like that, though," Willie went on. "You're the cops, and cops only go where there's trouble. But the thing with cops, they deal with troublemakers all the time, and pretty soon that's all they see, troublemakers. You see a demon, you expect him to be up to something, and sometimes he's just out for a latte."

Buffy blinked. "Demons like lattes?"

"Lattes?" said a new voice behind her. "Did you get the cappuccino machine fixed, Willie?"

"Sorry, Clem, still down," Willie said.

Buffy turned and stared at the grinning, floppy-eared, floppy-skinned, floppy--well, floppy person. He held out a hand, still grinning.

"Hi, I'm Clem."

She shook his hand carefully. "Hi. I'm Buffy."

Clem hopped onto a stool. "We don't get a lot of humans in here. I just wanted to come up and say Hi."

"How did you know I'm human?"

He nodded at the mirror. "Reflection, so you're not a vampire. Body temperature is human normal. But if you're not human, that's cool, too."

Willie put a glass of something in front of Clem. "Here ya go. When you expecting the guys in for the game?"

"They should start rolling in any time now."

Willie looked apologetically at Buffy. "Unless you do want some excitement, kid, you might want to be somewhere else when the poker players show up. None of 'em much like Slayers."

Buffy glared at the barkeep as Clem gasped. She'd kind of enjoyed her anonymity.

"You're the Slayer?" Clem whispered. "But you're tiny! The Slayer's this gigantic, super- powered, vamp slaying machine."

She shrugged uncomfortably. "Nope, sorry. It's me."

Clem grinned. "This is so neat! Me, chatting with the Slayer. The guys will plotz."

Buffy blinked. "You're not--scared?"

"Nah, you've got no reason to come after me, I'm not up to anything."

"Except you're a demon."

"So?" He lost some of his mellow look. "Or do the Slayers go after anything that's not human?"

She shrugged. "If they do, I wasn't told. I'm fine."

"Well, if you're fine, I'm fine." He leaned closer. "But Willie's right, some of the guys, not as civilized as some. They wouldn't understand."

"Gotcha. Willie, before I go, is there anybody in town doing the rogue demon hunter bit? Somebody's out there dusting vampires that isn't me."

Willie shrugged. "I ain't heard of nobody."

"Oh, I have!" Clem said. "There's a bunch of guys wandering around with crossbows and guns. They don't seem to like much of anybody." He shivered, which did amazing things to various bits of him. "Don't want to deal with a bunch like that again."

Buffy wanted to ask for more information, but Willie was starting to look truly nervous. For a moment she was tempted to see what these tough guy poker players were like, but she didn't want to get into a brawl just now.

She nodded reassuringly to Willie. "I'll be heading out then, see what's out there." She headed for the door.

Willie nodded. "See ya later, kid. Be careful!"

Clem waved. "Don't be a stranger!"

She waved back.

Demons as normal people. After meeting the Minoto at the convent, that shouldn't be such a surprise. Why hadn't she been told about the good demons? Was it some policy of the Council, that there weren't any good demons? Or had it been simply that there wasn't time, between atrocities being committed by the bad demons. And the bad humans. She didn't have time now to go through the books, learn for herself which ones were the ones to worry about and which ones were just floppy guys who liked lattes.

What did demons do for fun that didn't involve brawling and trying to bring about the end of the world? Poker, apparently. She tried to imagine a place like the Bronze, but with a demon clientele. Did they have bands? D.J.s? Did demons dance?

She had a sudden image of Clem on the dance floor and couldn't decide between laughter and horror.

Angel would know about the demonic night life of Los Angeles. Cordelia had mentioned a karaoke bar they all hung out in that was run by a demon who was a friend of theirs. The world was a lot more complicated than it used to be. The First Slayer, with her fire and bones, probably never had to deal with demons who ran nightclubs and liked lattes.

Buffy stopped walking. So why hadn't anyone told her how to deal with them? Was she the only one who had noticed?

The wind shifted, and she smelled human blood again. Footsteps, too, that were trying to be sneaky.

She was near some old buildings, not far from Spike's old factory. The footsteps were following her, so she led them towards the shadows. She Slayer-crept her way around a corner and into a convenient shadowy alcove. By the footsteps, it was four good-sized people, fairly spread out.

The first man came around the corner and paused when he realized his quarry was out of sight. He wasn't Initiative, unless the soldiers had traded in their camo for plain, heavy cloth pants and leather jackets. The crossbow he held was a sleek black metal and plastic number. So was the gun in the holster on his hip.

Two more men came into view, also with guns and crossbows, but not held ready to use. One of them had a bandaged arm with blood showing through. The other wore a headset, and he gestured to the first one to lower his crossbow. The first man looked around nervously but obeyed.

The man in the headset muttered something into the microphone that Buffy didn't quite hear, but caught something that sounded like "Slayer". Eyes narrowed, she stepped out of hiding. They jumped when they realized she was behind them. The first one started to bring his crossbow up.

"Oh, don't you dare," she snapped. "Now, are you going to tell me who you are and what you're up to, or do I get to beat it out of you?"

"That won't be necessary, Miss Summers."

The fourth set of footsteps. Buffy whirled.

Quentin Travers of the Watchers Council leaned on a walking stick and regarded her with something approaching pleasure.

"What is the Council doing back in my town?" Buffy demanded. She looked over her shoulder at the three men with crossbows. "Is this another one of your commando squads? Like the one that tried to come after Faith?"

Travers sighed. "Yes, in a way, and no. We don't call them commandos, and these gentlemen are a bit more prudent than those with whom you had trouble in Los Angeles. You did get a formal apology for that, didn't you?"

She thought a moment. "Um . . . no. Mr. Travers, what are you doing here? Glory's settled, it's summertime, traditional quiet time in the realms of evil." She looked back again. "Why are you guys hunting vampires on your own? Is this another one of your stupid tests?"

"No, not in the least," Travers said quickly. "I do admit, we have been observing you, watching you in the field." He smiled again. "You are quite remarkable, Miss Summers. Oh, and profound congratulations on the Glory matter."

Buffy shrugged uncomfortably. "I had a lot of help."

"Yes, so I understand." Some of the pleasure faded out of Travers' voice. "We've heard various stories of the fight, terribly third and fourth hand. I'd be very grateful if we could hear it from you. And the others."

Buffy looked at the three armed men Travers had brought with him, wondering if there were any more Council goons wandering around, looking for things. Looking for stories. "Sure, the others. I don't know how much they'll want to talk about it, it was pretty hairy. But I can ask them."

"As I said, I'd be grateful." Travers stared at the ground, then visibly braced himself. "There is another major reason we're here. As I said, we've heard stories. Miss Summers, where is Rupert Giles?"

***

Willow lay in bed next to Tara, tracing her eyebrows and nose and lips. "You are so beautiful," she whispered. "So beautiful."

Tara's lips smiled under Willow's fingers. "So are you."

"You're more beautiful."

"No, I'm not."

Willow kissed her. "Yes, you are. So there."

Tara lowered her eyes, but she was smiling.

With a contented sigh, Willow snuggled in close. "I love you so very much."

"I love you more." Tara kissed her to stop the protest. "So there." Willow laughed and let it go.

They lay together in happy silence, watching the candles flicker lower. Miss Kitty hopped onto the bed and found her favorite spot in the curve behind Tara's knees. Tara's blinks finally became nearly indistinguishable from someone fighting sleep.

"Go to sleep, sweetie," Willow whispered. "I love watching you sleep."

"Voyeur," Tara murmured.

"Darn tootin'." Willow lightly ran her finger tips along Tara's forehead and cheekbones. "Go to sleep." Tara's eyelids slid closed and her breathing deepened. Willow continued to run her fingers along Tara's face. "Sweet dreams, my sweet. Deep sleep and sweet dreams." She kissed her lover's forehead and slipped carefully out of bed.

She stood a moment, watching Tara sleep. She still wasn't completely over the terror from Glory's theft of Tara's mind, the feeling of helplessness when she didn't think she'd ever have her beloved back. She wished she'd watched more of the fight that had taken Glory down, just for the satisfaction.

There were still so many bad things out there, still so many ways your loved ones could get hurt. She had to learn every way she could to protect them. Nothing was ever going to hurt her family again.

She dressed quickly, gathered some things, and left as quietly as she could. The wards of protection on the door got an extra bit of energy. As tough as those wards were now, the whole building could catch fire and Tara would sleep peacefully on in a room completely untouched.

Not many people were still around in the break between summer school and fall semester. No one noticed Willow leaving the building--not that there was anything to notice, just a girl heading out with a knapsack over one shoulder. She strolled off casually, heading for the east side of town.

She took a shortcut through the smallest and oldest of Sunnydale's myriad cemeteries, filled with really neat crypts and Spike's former home. She wasn't far from the Du Lac crypt when she heard the sound of metal on stone.

"Oh, bother," she sighed, and changed directions.

When she was closer she heard voices. "Why do we have to be the ones breaking into crypts?" said a half-familiar voice.

"Because we lost the lightning round of Next Generation trivia," answered a completely unfamiliar voice.

"I'm still not sure he's right about that mistranslation of the Klingon subtitles."

Another clink of metal against stone. "Well, when there's a discrepancy between dialogue and subtitles, canon always follows the dialogue. That's just a given."

"I'm not arguing that, but the Klingon lexicon has gone through some changes since the dictionary was published. It's out of date, I don't care if it's the only authorized edition. 'Undiscovered Country' alone introduced new vocabulary that isn't adequately declined in the published sources."

"But Rule 32 says 'The Klingon Dictionary is the final arbiter of translation debates in trivia contests.' We all voted on that."

"Yeah, but that was when they were going to update the dictionary."

Willow peeked through the bushes at the two arguing young men. Yep, that was Jonathan, but who was the blond guy? And why were they using crowbars on the lock on the Du Lac crypt, which had been installed and magically reinforced by Giles himself years ago?

She debated several approaches, then decided on a Buffy-esque confrontation. She stepped around the bush. "Hi, guys. Whatcha doing?"

The resulting screams of shock were very gratifying.

Jonathan clutched his chest. "Wil--Wil--Willow."

"Hi, Jonathan." She looked at the other person. "Hi, have we met?"

The blond young man blinked, hugging his crowbar to him. "We were at school together. I'm Andrew."

Willow thought a moment, then nodded. "Tucker's brother."

Andrew beamed. "You remember me?"

She shrugged a little. "I think I saw you getting beaten up in the hallway one day."

"Oh, well, yeah, that happened a lot."

She looked at Jonathan. "So what brings you two out in the middle of the night? To the cemetery? With crowbars?"

Jonathan and Andrew stared at each other, then at their crowbars, then back at Willow.

"Um . . ." Andrew started.

"Live action role playing," Jonathan said.

Willow blinked. "Excuse me?"

"Yeah, like Dungeons & Dragons."

"I know what a LARP is." She looked them over doubtfully. "So what are your characters?"

Andrew perked up. "We're brave adventurers in a modern-day setting, in a world populated by dark and dangerous creatures, where mystic powers and arcane rituals are the keys to power beyond understanding."

Willow blinked again. "You said that all in one breath." He shrugged in bashful pride. "Dark and dangerous . . ." She glanced out into the shadowy cemetery, considered the contents of the bag she was carrying, and decided not to explore any further the boundary between role-playing and the real world. "So what are you doing here?"

Jonathan fielded this one. "There's an artifact inside we're supposed to get."

"I don't think you're supposed to do any actual breaking and entering in LARPs. Besides, there's nothing interesting in the Du Lac crypt--except what's left of the Du Lacs, of course."

"There isn't?" Jonathan frowned. "How do you know?"

"Um, well . . ." Wait a minute, she wasn't the one who had just been caught committing desecration. "It's something Buffy dealt with a few years ago. We closed it up afterwards, there's nothing interesting there, now." She smiled cheerfully.

Jonathan and Andrew looked at each other uneasily. "The, um, game master said we had to check the place out," Jonathan said.

"Well, then you can tell him you ran into a wandering witch with local knowledge who said not to bother." She continued smiling in her best "I'm only here to help" manner.

Andrew fidgeted with his crowbar. "Our gamemaster was really sure something interesting is in here."

Willow was starting to get curious about this gamemaster. "What's supposed to be in there?"

Jonathan smacked Andrew's arm, making Andrew wince. "If you say nothing's in there, then you're probably right. You're certainly one with the local knowledge, Willow. Come on, Andrew, we've got other places to check tonight." He began tugging on Andrew's arm. "Good night, Willow, be careful out here."

"Stop pulling!" Andrew protested, but he followed Jonathan into the shadows.

Willow debated following them, but she had an appointment she was already nearly late for.

On the edge of the failed Sunrise Grove development on the east side of town, Willow paused to carefully speak a chant. She then took a deep breath and paid as much attention to her surroundings as it was witchily possible to do.

She did not take the main street down towards the recreation center. One of the crumbling paved roads circled through the half-built houses to a point on the other side of the vampires' lair. Other creatures had moved into the area, those that didn't mind the proximity of the undead. None of them would be pleased to find a human about, and Willow walked very carefully.

Loud punk music and bright light came from the open garage doors on the south side of the rec center. The red BMW convertible was there, along with three big motorcycles. The center of attention, though, was an old black car with the hood up. Two figures were bent over either fender, heads buried in the engine. Both were wearing black jeans, and Willow identified the one on the right as Spike, from the Doc Martins on the feet. She didn't know who the other one was, wearing running shoes. She crept carefully to the edge of the light.

Spike straightened from the engine compartment and reached for his cigarettes. "Evenin', Red," he called.

The other vampire pulled up and stared into the night, startled. She recognized Sammy, who seemed to hang out with Spike a lot. He didn't see Willow until she stepped into view.

"Darn it, Spike, how did you know I was there?"

"Smelled you." He smirked at her over his lit match. "The wind shifted a couple of minutes ago, and I smelled the blonde witch. Left her with pleasant dreams, I trust."

Willow tried to answer, but she was blushing too hard.

"If it's any comfort," Spike went on, "I didn't know you were there till then. You're getting good with that misdirection spell."

Willow beamed.

"But you still need to work on shielding the magic itself," said a new voice. She squeaked and turned. Giles stood right behind her, smiling.

"How did you--" She blew air out in frustration. "Darn it."

Giles put an arm around her shoulder and led her into the garage. "I was watching for you, and I felt the magic when you invoked the spell when you got here. But that was much smoother tonight, no sudden flash of power. I may not have noticed if I wasn't looking for it." He cleared his throat. "The scent matter, though, is relevant." He glared at Spike. "Though someone without specific knowledge may not have realized the significance."

Spike just smiled. "Other than knowing it smells good." Sammy snickered, then smothered it at Giles' pointed look.

"We can," Giles continued, "modify that misdirection spell to cloak all traces of your presence."

Willow sighed. "Every time I think I have something down, somebody pokes a hole in it."

"Nature of the beast, I'm afraid. Magic is more art than science. Come along, we can go over your exercises."

As Willow followed, she glanced at the black car. "Oh, is this the famous De Soto? Or did you get a replacement?"

Spike patted the fender fondly. "Nope, this is the one. I tracked her down and got her back."

"I bet it's a gas hog."

He grinned at her. "She may not be fuel efficient, but she's got it where it counts. I'll give you a ride someday, if you want."

Willow saw Giles' glare from the corner of her eye, but she was used to innuendo from Spike. "Is it a stick shift? I don't like stick shifts, they just don't drive as smooth as automatics."

Sammy let out a guffaw before he could stop himself, then focused his attention on the engine compartment of the De Soto. Spike winked at Willow, who smiled back before following Giles.

"Did you have any trouble getting away?" Giles asked.

"None at all, once Tara went to sleep. Everybody's busy. Buffy's on patrol, and Xander's off with Joyce. They're on a road trip to the Convent of St. Eugene."

Spike turned back again. "Where's Joyce?"

"Road trip to the convent. She's been gathering donations, and she drafted Xander to drive her up there. I guess he and Anya didn't have anything set up this weekend. They'll be back tomorrow."

"Who's looking after Dawn?"

"She's at a sleep over."

Spike frowned. "And Buffy's out patrolling alone."

"She's a big Slayer, Spike," Giles said. "I'm sure she's fine."

Willow glanced at Giles. He sounded just like himself, warning Spike away from Buffy, with just a little growl in the sub-harmonics. But Spike looked oddly confused at he nodded at Giles' words, then turned back to the car. Giles tugged lightly on her arm, and she followed him into the rest of the building.

Willow wasn't sure how many vampires lived at Sunrise Grove. There always seemed to be new faces but not the same ones. When she had begun to come to Giles for magic lessons at the beginning of the summer, he'd made a point of introducing her to the four others living there at the time. Warning them off, she realized. New faces began to appear at the rec center, and she got used to covert stares and badly disguised hostility.

A month ago, when she was still practicing the misdirection spell, one of the new fledges ambushed her on the way in, snarling that humans were food, not pets. Giles caught the panic flare of her instinctive reaction, but when he got there all that was left was the fading stench of burning vampire and a witch shaking with the reaction of pulling a fireball out of nothing. He hugged her in relief, but that night's lesson had been short. Spike walked her home, muttering to himself that he hoped Ripper didn't dust the lot of them as a lesson. Two more new vampires had been missing the next the next time she went there, and the others kept their distance.

Willow took a deep, appreciative breath when she entered Giles' workroom. There were always interesting smells there, old books, exotic spices. Granted, some of the smells were interesting but less pleasant, like blood and other organic things.

She checked his desk for anything new he might be working on. A gnarled hand and arm lay in the middle of some wrapping paper and string.

"What's that?" she asked.

Giles went over and picked the piece up carefully. "The hand and arm of a lesser Tyrenian imp from Madagascar."

"Oh." She looked at it for a couple of seconds. "Why?"

He chuckled and gave in. "For some reason, the hands of the lesser imp are the second favorite choice in the creation of Hands of Glory. I was curious as to why."

"What's the first choice?"

He gave her one of those "your worldview will not be enhanced by this answer" looks. "Human."

"Oh. I should have guessed. I wonder why. Humans aren't inherently magical, unless they have the knack for magic."

"I think it's a matter of ease of availability. To be honest, a great many Hands of Glory were constructed by people who had no idea of the true nature of things but who thought that the blasphemous aspects of dismembering a corpse would provide the extra power. The hands of criminals, particularly murderers, were quite sought after."

Willow grimaced. "Do they work?"

"Inasmuch as the intent of the item is evil and therefore leads the focus of the magician into darker areas, then it works. If the hand is prepared with the proper rituals, it can be an authentic artifact, but most mages don't bother."

"What are the proper rituals?"

Giles studied her for a long moment. "Are you needing an artifact of evil for something?"

"Oh, gosh, no! No evil artifacts, not at all. I was just wondering."

"We'll leave it to academia, then." He put the arm back on the desk. "Now, then." He considered her for a moment, his hands in his trouser pockets, then, with vampiric speed, he tossed a small marble at her.

It bounced off the point of Willow's chin. "Ow!" She gave him a look of betrayal and rubbed the budding red spot.

Her look was more than matched with a perturbed look of Giles' own. "Willow, what were you supposed to be practicing?" he asked sternly.

She managed not to go "eep!" "Blocking things, stopping them and holding them. And I did! I have! Last night I caught Buffy's frappachino and held it in midair for her. I went to the batting cages a few days ago and practiced with the pitching machine."

He glanced pointedly at the marble, lying in the corner.

"I wasn't expecting that--and don't give me that look, I know the bad guys don't give warning." She began to wonder if even the resolve face would be able to stand up to the stern vampire look.

He gave her a very old-fashioned "Giles is disappointed" sigh. "One of these days it might not be a marble. I'm glad you feel safe enough to relax here, but you shouldn't drop all your defenses. Not everyone here is your friend. All right?"

Willow nodded quickly. Giles went over to pick up the marble--and he flicked it towards her while still crouched. The marble stopped dead six inches in front of Willow's face, and she smiled serenely at him.

"Very good," he laughed. "Now we'll try it in multiples."

For the next hour, Willow practiced catching balls. Giles tossed them at her in varying numbers, then she had to catch them and hold them as he threw more at her. The weight ranged from ping-pong balls to large ball bearings, and she was sweating at the end of it.

Giles picked up a baseball and considered, then shook his head. "Enough. Put them all in the box over there, and we're done."

Willow took a deep breath and very carefully moved the mass of suspended balls to the box on Giles' desk. The first time she'd tried this, she'd dropped everything on the desktop. There were still dents. This time only the ping-pong ball tried to escape, and she magically nudged it back into the box.

"Well done, Willow." Giles patted her shoulder. "Very well done. Here, sit down."

She dropped gratefully into a chair at the table where Giles' electric kettle lived. The water was just coming to a boil, and her very own dark-blue-with-gold-stars-and-moons mug was waiting. She watched him pour the water into the teapot with the leaves, letting her mind slow down. This was nearly her favorite part, where it was almost like those long hours in the library.

"So what's new in your world?" Giles asked, pushing the box of cookies--no, biscuits--closer. "Have you decided on a major yet?"

They settled into a nice long chat ranging from college to magical theory to whether Sunrise Grove could support an internet connection.

"We could set up a wireless hub and network," Willow said. "I don't think you have a phone line out here. You could do online banking and email, plus there's all these neat websites about magic and demons and such."

"Online banking?" Giles repeated. "That might be useful."

"Oh, yeah. It's the 21st century, Giles. Geeks are cool. Or maybe not. Is there anything left in the Du Lac crypt?"

Giles sipped his tea. "Other than the Du Lacs? I don't think so. Why?"

"I found Jonathan and a buddy of his trying to break in tonight. They said they were playing a role playing game and their gamemaster told them something was in the crypt."

"Jonathan . . . he was the one with that calendar, wasn't he."

"Uh huh. I don't know his buddy that well. His name's Andrew. Tucker's brother."

"Tucker--oh, yes, Tucker. The hellhounds. Why am I not comfortable with the idea of Jonathan and Tucker's brother trying to break into a heretic's crypt?"

"I can't imagine," Willow said solemnly. "I should have asked them who their gamemaster is."

"If they are up to something, I'm sure we'll find out." He put down his empty mug decisively. "We need to modify your misdirection spell to completely mask your presence from everyone. Instead of baffling the senses, we need to change it to something that causes people to ignore you if they perceive you."

Willow bounced. "It's the Jedi mind trick spell! These aren't the droids you're looking for!

He gave her a pained but amused look. "Indeed. However, I doubt you'll find the information you need indexed under Jedis. Or, if you do, I want to know about it." He nodded towards the bookcases.

Lessons always went like this: an hour or so of actual practice, then recuperation and visiting over tea, then book time. Willow wondered if this was how the English went to school, guided by a mentor to the information but having to dig up the answers themselves. It was so much nicer than sitting in a lecture hall.

She got to her feet, studying the books. "I should start with Artoris' Compendium, right?"

"That would be best. I think you'll find Ceraso's Dream a useful next step. I really must start teaching you non-human languages."

As Willow began searching the shelves, Giles turned to the imp arm laying on his desk. She watched him out of the corner of her eye until he picked up a nearby book and began reading. Casually she went back to the shoulder bag she'd brought, pulled out a notebook and pen, then, slinging the bag on her shoulder, she went back to the bookcases. She pulled out Artoris' Compendium, then moved slowly down the row of books. As she studied the spines of several books, she pulled an old leather-bound volume out of the bag and slipped it into a gap on the shelf. She wandered back towards a work table, removing Ceraso's Dream as she went. She sat down at the empty work table she used for studying and got to work.

A few minutes later, Giles, muttering to himself, got up and went to the shelves himself. He searched them all, then tugged a slender volume off a top shelf and headed back to his desk. Willow, still watching him surreptitiously, relaxed and focused on the Latin in front of her--until Giles paused and turned to study the books curiously. He went slowly back, staring at the books, then reached the section where she'd returned the book she'd borrowed. His eyes flickered into vampiric yellow briefly, then faded back to their usual green. He reached towards the book she had put on the shelf.

She turned and put all her attention on the printed page and her notes.

"Willow?"

"Hm?"

"Willow."

Bracing herself, she looked up slowly. Giles stood over her, the book in his hands. The stern look was back on his face. "Y--yes?"

"This book is warmer than the others. As if someone with a higher body temperature than mine has been handling it. And the only other person remotely likely to have been handling these books is Spike. Did you borrow this book without my knowledge?"

She knew the look on her own face was answer enough, but it was still several moments before she could nod. Even human, Giles' annoyance was frightening. Now, though . . . He even glanced away for a moment before he spoke.

"Willow, how many times do I have to tell you, there are things in this library that will devour you if you're not careful. You cannot just take any book that catches your fancy and start rummaging around in it." He glanced at the title of the book. "'Guide to the Higher Planes.' Well, it could be worse, but not by much. Did you try to open a portal?"

"Yes."

"Did it work?"

"No."

"What happened?"

"It didn't look the way it was supposed to according to the book, so I didn't let it open all the way."

He nodded. "At least you have some sense."

"I was careful!" she flared. "I knew it might not work, so I only opened up a viewing portal, just the way it says to in the book. You didn't do that when you opened the gateway to Sqaon."

"That was because I went over every syllable of the incantation with someone who had actually been there." He pinched his nose, only missing the handkerchief and glasses to have the classic Giles pose. "Willow, I don't deny your power or your talent. I'm only concerned about your caution. There are spells in the 'Guide' that open portals to places that despise human life, that are inherently inimical to humans. Even a viewing portal can attract the attention of things strong enough to break through into our world. Please, don't do anything like this without guidance, please."

She sighed and nodded.

His frown deepened. "Willow, I want your promise. No portals without me there to help."

"I promise," she muttered, glaring at the table.

"All right. How are you coming with the, um, Jedi mind trick?"

"I think I've got the basic parameters worked out." She pushed her notebook towards him.

He read her notes and nodded. "Excellent, I think you've got a working model there. Work on that, and the next time you're here we can fine tune it. You might want to have it handy when I do the demonstration I was thinking of."

She perked up. "Demonstration? Of what?"

"Some of the things that live on the other sides of portals. A summoning."

"A summoning? Ooh, of what?"

"That will have to wait. Until then, work on your new spell."

Willow tried to glare at him. "I know what you're up to. Scold Willow, then give her a present to make up for it."

"Would I do that?" Giles smiled very faintly, then went to put back "The Guide to the Higher Planes" before going back to his own work..

It was well after midnight when Willow left. She was trying to hide yawns, but she swore she could get back to campus without problems.

"Please do try not to get eaten," Giles said as he walked her to the front door of the rec center. "I would be very upset to lose my favorite pupil."

Willow turned and beamed at him. "Your favorite pupil? Really? Wait, I'm your only pupil-- aren't I?"

He smiled and hugged her. "Yes, you are. That doesn't mean you're still not my favorite."

She tried to frown, but she was still smiling. "Good night, Giles. Thank you for the lesson."

"Good night, Willow. Walk carefully."

She waved and disappeared into the darkness. He stood at the door, listening with magic and vampire ears until she was back in populated areas of town. He then headed off towards a nearby dilapidated house, where he smelled cigarette smoke.

Spike was reclining on a pile of rubble in the depths of the ruin, gazing up at the rafters as the smoke rose. A bottle of whiskey was propped next to him. Giles strolled up to him and borrowed the bottle for a swig.

"Not going stalk-about tonight?" he asked.

Spike blew a smoke ring and didn't answer.

Giles raised an eyebrow and settled onto a nearby pile of debris. "You're being unwarrantably solemn."

"Bugger off."

"Not here, too many splinters." He smiled at the glare he got. "Honestly, if I didn't know better, I'd swear you were hiding in here, brooding." He had to duck as Spike threw the lit cigarette at him. "So, touched a nerve. Why aren't you doing your--deep thinking outside the window of your Belle Dame Sans Merci, alone and palely loitering? With Dawn and Joyce out of town, there's no one to see."

Spike looked away, studying a far corner for a moment. "Got the little witch away, did you?" he asked. "After your . . . lesson? Terribly eager, Red is, comes hurrying here from her lover's bed, all anxious to be . . . taught." His glance slid back to Giles, one eyebrow quirked knowingly.

Giles' eyes narrowed. "Yes, she's a very enthusiastic student. I'm quite pleased with her." He let Spike smirk for a moment. "Still, I doubt you put off your Buffy lurking just to make sure Willow left safely. With Dawn at her friend's house and Joyce out of town, I'm sure Buffy will be doing extra-late patrols. If you leave now, you can probably catch her."

Spike grabbed the bottle instead of answering. Giles pondered the development. Was Spike's fatuous obsession with Buffy finally running its course? He was acting more like a sullen boy pouting because his favorite toy didn't work any longer, rather than a lover frustrated by a discouraging woman. Unless the obsession had shifted targets. Spike seemed oddly upset that Joyce was out of town, but there didn't seem to be any unexpected developments in that direction. Giles knew that Spike still visited Joyce on occasion, most often dropping by the gallery when she was working late, giving her escort home and maintaining his chivalrous guard over Revello Drive.

If it wasn't Joyce that Spike was sulking about, then who . . . "Oh, no."

Spike gave him a concerned look. "What?"

"Good lord, no."

"What?"

"Xander? You're obsessing over Xander Harris?"

"I am not!"

"Well, you were annoyed when you heard that Joyce was out of town, and I don't think you've started mooning over her, and you're too depressed to go haring off after Buffy, which means that the person you prefer to be stalking isn't around. Which leaves Xander." He paused and thought about it again. "Xander?"

Spike took another swig of whiskey. "I thought you liked Harris."

"Oh, he's a nice enough lad, though a bit dogmatic in his beliefs. Certainly he's loyal and brave and faithful and all that."

"So's a Labrador retriever, mate." Spike shook his head. "You don't see it, then."

Giles frowned. "See what?"

"There's darkness in that boy. You just have to tease it out."

"Darkness? In Xander?" He considered the painfully earnest young man he'd watched grow up. "I know there are things in his past he doesn't talk about, but once he got out of his parents' house he seemed much happier."

Spike sighed. "The whelp's very, very good at facades. If you're not looking close, all you see is the happy-go-lucky overgrown puppy. That's what he wants you to see."

"Since when did you start looking closely at Xander?"

"I was stuck in his basement for a long time, I saw a few things he wishes I hadn't. But it was that night with Glory. Ripper, you should have seen him. Him against an army, and he faced down the whole bloody lot of 'em."

"Guns make men brave."

"Guns make cowards brave. Guns make brave men make hard choices. Harris made the choices." Spike picked up the whiskey bottle and stared at it. "He went somewhere dark that night. Someone had to. I don't think he's come back yet."

Giles studied Spike for several moments. "And are you hoping he does make it back? Or that he gets lost there?"

A predatory smile curled across Spike's face. "There? 'There' is where we are, Ripper. I like having Harris here in the dark. He's not quite comfortable here yet. There's just a few more steps left before he realizes that he's wasted over on the other side."

"You're being uncharacteristically patient about it all, I must say. It's been months since we finished Glory." He reached over and grabbed the whiskey from Spike, took another swig, and handed it back.

Spike tapped his forehead. "You can teach an old dog new tricks, if you kick him in the head often enough. And Harris knows me too well to fall for anything direct. There are enough obstacles in his life for him to trip over."

Giles became aware of an odd sense of outrage. "And you're throwing Buffy over for Xander? The Vampire Slayer for a--well, he's a very nice young man and all, but he's no Slayer."

"And he's not going to be more than a very nice lad while he's still trying to fit in with the goody two shoes brigade. There's potential there, mate. Be honest now. In all the years you've known him, have you never once looked at him and thought about the possibilities? I know what you used to call fun. Never once did you have a picture in your head of him on his knees in front of you--"

"No," Giles said firmly. "I haven't." He ignored the disbelieving grin. "So you're exchanging your Buffy-obsession for a Xander-obsession."

Spike's pensive look came back. "Not exchanging, no."

"Oh, for heaven's sake. Collecting the whole Scooby set, are you?"

"No, I'm leaving Red for you." The leer faded. "With Buffy--you said it right, La Belle Dame Sans Merci. I can't help myself. I still want her. I'm just not sure if I want to drag her down to me or . . ."

"Or pull yourself up to her," Giles said softly. He was treading on very thin ice here. Sometimes Spike was willing to admit to the instincts of a shy young poet, but sometimes the merest mention of the name William made bodies scream.

Spike only nodded slowly. "Nothing cuts deeper than that look of suspicion she gives me. Angelus couldn't inflict pain the way she can. And I disgust myself for letting it get to me."

"The man versus the demon." Giles braced himself for a reaction, but Spike let it go. "Whereas this thing with Xander . . ."

The tension fled Spike's shoulders. "That's pure. In a very impure way, of course. Uncomplicated. You get the feeling that playing with him for a few centuries would be a festival of claws and snarls and good times."

Giles blinked. "Centuries? My god, you're not saying--What are you saying? I'm not spending the next several decades listening to Xander Harris natter."

"Oi, who said I'd let you? Don't have to hang around, you know. You could spend your time on Red. Or why else are you spending so much time on our Willow's . . . education?"

He drew himself up with dignity. "She's starving for knowledge, she's going to find it somewhere. Better through me than willy nilly, when she could wreak untold havoc."

Spike still smirked. "Plus you get to give her those little hugs and let her gaze at you adoringly. Not that that has any bearing on anything."

"Of course not."

"Perish the thought."

"Indeed."

***

Buffy walked slowly along the dark streets of Sunnydale, shadowed by a trio of Watchers Council commandos and with Quentin Travers, head of the Council, silently at her side.

She hadn't been able to answer his question about Giles, and not just because she'd very carefully kept herself from knowing exactly where he was. She knew that Vampire Central these days was out in Sunrise Grove, but no one had specifically ever said, "Rupert Giles, using the professional name of Ripper, is doing business here."

She should have expected someone to wonder where he was. She'd demanded that he be reinstated to the Council, so of course they'd be in contact with him. The reports might be reluctant and incomplete, but the reports were still being made.

"How did you know he was--missing?" she asked.

Travers didn't blink at the sudden breaking of over an hour's worth of silence. "He'd been reporting every week, even if it was just to say 'Situation continuing.' When the reports stopped, we assumed things were becoming more complicated, and we decided not to bother him. The two of you have proved the match of any number of crises, and we expected we'd get a long summary before too much longer."

He fidgeted with his walking stick. "We did hear about the last fight with Glory, though the tales were third hand and worse. It was a story of magic and blood and very unlikely alliances. And every story mentioned two vampires. William the Bloody and a compatriot of his. How long has William the Bloody been--fully capable again?"

Buffy gave him a disbelieving look for his phrasing, imagined Spike's reaction for a moment, and forced back a snicker. "He's been--back to normal for several weeks now."

"And you've left him alone?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

She stopped and gave him a very level look. "Didn't we have this conversation already, about you telling me what to do?"

Travers raised a calming hand. "Please, Miss Summers, I'm not--I would really like to know what circumstances would prevail that would allow a Vampire Slayer of your skill to ignore so vicious a vampire as William the Bloody."

"I'm not ignoring him. It's more--an understanding. I patrol every night, and if I catch them I slay them. To go after Spike now I would have to declare war, and I'm not ready for that."

"Surely you had the opportunity once Glory was finished."

"Mr. Travers, we would not have beaten Glory without Spike's help, or without--" She really did try to say his name, really. "Spike could have sold out to Glory, but he didn't. He stood on the side of the humans instead of a hellgod."

"For his own selfish reasons, I'm sure."

"Mr. Travers, you weren't here. There was so much going on. And Glory nearly tortured Spike to dust trying to get him to tell where her Key was."

Travers frowned. "Really?"

She nodded. "There were pieces missing when we rescued him."

"Rescued? 'We'?"

"You weren't here. You don't know."

They walked along quietly for several minutes. Buffy led the way into one of the busier cemeteries, and the commandos spread out, like hunting dogs looking for a scent.

Travers broke the silence. "In a war, strange alliances are often necessary. But those alliances are finished when the war ends. There is no shame in that."

Buffy didn't answer.

"I first met Rupert Giles when he was eight years old. His father brought him to the Council for a tour. He didn't seem impressed."

She smiled sadly. "He wanted to be a fighter pilot."

"Did he?"

"Or a grocer." After a moment, he handed Buffy his handkerchief and studied the surrounding tombstones himself for several moments.

"After that . . . interval . . . in college," he went on, "Rupert settled in fairly well. I tried to direct him into the archives and research, but he kept insisting he wanted to be a Watcher in the field. Apparently we never fully succeeding in eradicating the rebel in him."

"I'm glad," Buffy said quietly.

Travers pursed his lips. "We do have reasons for why we do things the way we do--and it's not just because that's the way things have always been done. That's not even true. There have been periods where it was judged immoral to take a young girl away from her family, others when it was considered that leaving her in her community, among people she knew, would give her a greater sense of responsibility in fighting the evil things."

"And?" Buffy asked when he paused.

"It made no difference," he said softly. "The Slayers fought, and the Slayers died. Sometimes she tried harder because her loved ones were in danger, sometimes that very danger distracted her at a critical moment."

"And did we ever get a say in how we were treated, through all the long years the Council has been around?"

Travers walked quietly for several moments. "I have been a part of the Watchers Council in one way or another for nearly forty years. In that time, do you know how many Slayers there have been?"

Buffy shook her head, dreading the answer.

"Twenty-three. Not even an average of a year and a half for each. Consider how long you have been a Slayer, Miss Summers, and think how short the life span of some of those Slayers has been." He stared off into the darkness. "One meets this lovely young girl, strong and brave, trained for the war, ready to do her duty. One starts to get to know her, and then she's gone. And there's another girl, equally strong and brave, equally doomed. It doesn't take many memorial services before one stops trying to know her as more than the Vampire Slayer. It's the only way to stay sane."

The image of all those deaths twisted Buffy's stomach. "Then why haven't you tried to figure out why I've survived so long? You can use it to stop those girls dying."

He turned on her. "Do you think we enjoy this? Sending girls who could be our sisters, our nieces, our daughters to this doom? Do you really think it is only about the power for us?"

"That's all I saw when you were here last fall. And then there was the Crucia-whatever. Everything designed to make me jump to your tune. You never asked me what I thought about the job, and I'm the one doing it. Slayers are the ones dying out here, not Watchers--"

They stared at each other, then Travers began walking again. "We lose a great many Watchers in the field. Someone on the Council always says, 'Damned shame about So-and-So, wants to go in the field with the Slayer.' It's considered less prestigious. The simple fact is, we're afraid." He glanced at Buffy. "It has happened before, losing a Watcher--even a Slayer--to the vampires. We try to act on it as soon as we can, especially if it's a Watcher. There is too much knowledge that can be used against us in the wrong hands."

She bristled. "Why not go to the extra effort for a Slayer who's been turned?"

His smile was sad, but oddly proud. "They don't last long. Someone wrote a tedious thesis on the matter some years back, but the current theory is that the--spark--that makes one a Slayer survives the transformation, and the dichotomy of being the thing one is sworn to kill is too much for them. They rarely survive long."

"Rarely isn't never."

"No. And those are the bad times." He stopped walking and turned to face her. "Miss Summers, your Watcher, my friend, is dead. There's a memorial service planned for Rupert Giles. Once we're sure. You know he must be stopped."

Buffy closed her eyes. Yes, she knew it. Every Slayer cell in her body knew it. Except the ones in her heart, that still whimpered, "Not Giles. I can't do this without him."

Travers took her hands gently. "We're not asking you to do it yourself. Perhaps, in the first few hours, before you had a chance to think, it would have been possible. But not now. That's why I'm here with the others."

She glanced out into the darkness, where the trio of commandos had disappeared. "You're going after him. In force."

"Yes."

"He'll try to stop you."

"I know. Which is why we must move quickly. But I need to know where he is."

"You don't think I can do it, do you."

"I don't think it's something we should ask you to do. Truly, Miss Summers, we're not monsters. Unlike the vampires."

Not her call. Not her responsibility. Part of her knew this was cowardice speaking, but the other part, the part that was still crying, was glad to have the decision taken out of her hands. Besides, they'd find out sooner or later, and sooner reduced the chances of them all getting killed. She took a deep breath, focused on the carved weeping angel on a nearby mausoleum, and told Quentin Travers about Sunrise Grove.

***

Tara's eyes popped open, but she managed not to leap out of bed with a chipper "Hello, world!" Some mornings were like this, she woke up with boundless energy and a song in her heart. The first time Willow had seen it, she'd suspected demonic possession and had nearly finished Giles' phone number before Tara could stop her.

Her mother had laughed and called her "wood sprite" on such mornings. Even that melancholy memory couldn't dim her mood. She sent a thought of love out into the air, certain her mother would get it, wherever she was, then Tara rolled over carefully.

Willow was bundled up in her share of the covers, snoring sweetly. Miss Kitty was curled up on her hip, tail over nose. Tara smiled and eased closer.

"Good morning, gorgeous," she whispered into Willow's ear. Willow muttered something but showed no other signs of awareness. Tara pouted. She'd learned that waking an exhausted Willow in interesting ways was frequently fun, but resulted in a tired and cranky Willow. Best to let her sleep.

"Piffle. Might as well get up, then."

She slipped out of bed and looked around the room. No homework during break; the only thing on TV at this hour on a Sunday morning were infomercials and televangelists who weren't quite laughable enough. And how many times could one watch Suzanne Somers demonstrating exercise equipment?

She bounced restlessly on her feet, and a certain draft reminded her of a chore that desperately needed doing. Laundry!

As she gathered clothes, she found one of Willow's skirts and a blouse in a pile near the door with her shoes. They certainly hadn't been there the night before. Shrugging, she added them to the basket.

She sang her mother's favorite gospel songs down in the basement laundry room as she loaded the machines, enjoying the sound bouncing off the cinder block walls. Her mother had told her to ignore some of the people who sang these song, because a song of joy was a song of joy. And darn good tunes, as well.

She limited herself to humming on the way back to the room. Not everyone appreciated cheerful moods in the morning. Opening the door a crack, she peered in.

Willow raised her head. "There you are," she said blearily. "Why are you up?"

"It's one of *those* mornings. I've started the laundry already."

Willow leaned towards Miss Kitty. "Oh, no, Kitty, it's happened. The pod people have come and taken Tara away and replaced her with one of their evil alien spawn doubles."

Miss Kitty yawned and resettled herself.

Tara came over and bounced on the bed. "Well, this evil alien spawn double loves you, and she's going to kiss you." Which she proceeded to do, but Willow's response was a little vague. She pulled back and studied her lover worriedly. "Did you have a bad night?"

"Huh? No, it was fine. Why?"

"I found your clothes by the door. Where did you go?"

"Oh! That. Um, I woke up with a case of the munchies. I went down to the lobby and they didn't have anything I wanted, so I went vending machine hunting over at Campbell Hall."

Tara frowned. "You went out in the middle of the night alone?"

Willow looked affronted. "Hey, one of the original Scoobies, here. I pity the fool vampire that messes with me."

"You need more gold chains for that to work."

They giggled and snuggled for a while, then Tara saw Willow trying to keep her eyes open. "Get some more sleep, sweetheart," she said.

"No . . . I'm fine."

Tara rested her forehead on Willow's. "There are bags under your eyes." She looked closer. "I think they say Samsonite. Or maybe Louis Vuitton."

"Where did you learn about Louis Vuitton?" Willow grinned.

"Remedial consumer awareness 101, taught by Professor Dawn Summers. She dragged me to the mall and tried to explain why a suitcase was worth five hundred dollars."

"That's our girl." She fought back a yawn. "Are you sure you don't mind . . ."

"Go to sleep. I have to go back down to the laundry room and make sure Creepy Charlie didn't stay over break."

Willow grimaced. "I had to threaten him with boils to make him stop looking through our underwear in the drier. He said they were nicer when they were warm."

They shared a shudder, then Tara kissed Willow and crawled out of bed. "You sleep yourself out. I'll be fine."

"OK. Night night. Love you."

"Love you, too."

Tara tucked the covers around Willow and quietly left the room.

In the lobby, she paused, then went to the line of vending machines. They must have just been filled. Every snack Willow liked was present, from the healthy sunflower seeds and granola mixes to the quasi-food things like Twinkies and genuine artificial-fruit-flavor filled, pre-hardened pastries. Guiltily, Tara told herself it was nothing to worry about, and she continued down to the laundry room. But vaguely uneasy thoughtfulness competed for space with the guilt.

***

Birdsong outside his window woke Xander, and he opened his eyes to whitewashed walls and a tiled floor. He was momentarily disoriented, but it was kind of nice. Somewhere bread was baking.

This was a smaller room than the one Anya had been given when they were here last. The ancient rope-strung bed was surprisingly comfortable, but he'd been unable to really settle down to sleep until he'd shamefacedly lit the candle in the lantern on the table. He wasn't afraid of the dark, but the dark in Sunnydale was a less thick and impenetrable thing than the darkness in the mountains in a building that was still ignorant of all forms of electricity. He'd actually spent five minutes marveling at how much light his digital watch could give off. But once he had a little light, he'd been able to settle down to a good night's rest.

Odds were he wouldn't get a crack at the washroom this morning. He'd gotten in late enough last night that he was able to get a proper bath without upsetting respectable female eyes. Still, there was enough water in the jug on the table to go on with. This simple life had its advantages. He wondered how big a solar panel he'd need to run a TV and satellite dish off of.

They were done with morning Mass and halfway through breakfast when Xander realized he hadn't had any of the usual dreams that plagued him in Sunnydale. Whether that was a result of him not having that one extra beer before bed or not having visitors lurking at the windows, he wasn't sure. But he liked this feeling, the one of actually getting enough sleep. He should have that stable finished in record time.

Baynar didn't show up to help for an hour or so. Maybe his mother held Sunday School or something for little demons. Xander heard him coming, calling "Za-er!" as he came.

"Right here, guy, I haven't gone anywhere yet." He pulled out the board he'd been saving as Baynar dashed in. "Just in time, I need somebody to hold this end up while I nail it in." Baynar bounced excitedly.

Another hour saw the end of the tool-using portion of the job. Xander was giving the attentive Baynar a lecture on the importance of cleaning up the jobsite when he realized they had an audience. Joyce was leaning in the doorway, smiling that maternally pleased smile that was so bizarrely disturbing. Baynar squeaked a little at seeing her, but he only took a cautious step closer to Xander instead of actually running for cover.

"Hey, Mrs. Summers. What can I do for you?"

She looked a little apologetic. "Well, I was wondering when you wanted to get going home."

Home. That was supposed to be a happier sounding word. "Never?"

She nodded. "I know."

She joined him in staring out over the valley, the crops in the field peacefully growing, the mountains in the distance.

"But," Joyce sighed, "we can't stay. It's not our place."

"It could be," Xander said. "Without too much trouble at all, this or someplace like it could easily be my place. It's quiet here. Peaceful."

"You're too young to be looking for peace and quiet." She smiled when she said it, but the smile faded as she looked at him.

"Young," he mused. "I remember being young, once." He squared his shoulders. "But, yes, you've got other places to be and footloose and fancy-free daughters to be scolding. When did you want to leave?"

The sisters insisted that they stay for lunch. Xander endured the gushing thanks of Sister Dymphna for the repairs, and Sister Agnes made an embarrassing speech of gratitude for Joyce's donations, Xander's work, and "all the wonderful help before."

After lunch, Xander managed to slip away to the chapel. The only light came from the small windows and the candles burning in front of the images of Christ, the Virgin, and Saint Eugene. Xander stood a while, then finally chose a pew at the front, where he could look up at the face of the tortured man on the cross.

"I don't want to go back," he said softly. "And I know it's only the cowardice talking. It may not be me they need, but they do need someone who knows the score and is willing to go out every night and take his lumps in the fight. But I'm not the Slayer. I'm allowed to want more. Think I'm ever going to get it?"

There was no answer from the upturned, pain-wracked face.

Xander nodded. "Yeah, you and the Magic 8 ball, conditions unclear, try again. No offense." He considered alternate universes for a while. "Should I have left when I had the chance? Taken Glory's car and driven off into the sunrise? 'Cause the Hellmouth's gonna kill me, and probably sooner rather than later. And I shouldn't be thinking 'Get it over with, already,' should I. But I shouldn't blame the Zeppo on the Hellmouth. I've got no reason to think I'd be any different anywhere else." He looked up at the carved man. "I'd just like to think there's a reason, you know? That it makes a difference that I'm the one here, not just Any Guy Who Can Take Care of Practical Home Repairs. But I guess you get that a lot, huh." He nodded and stood up. "You come up with an answer, big guy, you know where to find me. Xander Harris, Mouth of Hell."

There were some tears, of course, when they packed the Land Rover for the trip home. Sister Teresa packed some cheese and bread, and Joyce promised to come back. Xander crouched down to give Baynar a big hug.

"Don't know if I'll ever see you again, guy," he said, trying not to feel too mushy at saying good- bye to a demon.

Baynar chattered something not quite comprehensible, then looked up at his mother impatiently. Savlin smiled and patted her son on the shoulder. "He says you will, Xander Harris."

Xander nodded. "Yeah. Keep hope alive, kid. I don't think I'll be getting to San Francisco any time soon."

Savlin listened to Baynar and nodded. "He says when he is big he will come to the Hellmouth and find you."

"Oh, the Hellmouth's an icky, nasty place. He doesn't want to go there."

"He is determined. And children do grow up and do the most amazing things. Do not be surprised if before too much longer you open your door and find a Minoto there."

Xander stared at Baynar's earnest little face. "I'll warn the neighbors."

One more hug, and he was out of reasons to delay. He steadied Joyce into the passenger seat and headed for the driver's side. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Sister Agnes coming towards him, but he pretended not to notice and climbed in behind the wheel. The Mother Superior appeared at his window.

"Come back if you need to, Xander," she said simply. "Or even if you just want to. We enjoy guests." He looked at her uneasily, but she only smiled, then reached in and patted him on the shoulder. "Good-bye, Xander. Take care, Joyce."

Joyce leaned forward to speak past Xander. "Good-bye, Sister Agnes, and thank you."

Xander drove out slowly, avoiding the chickens, and he let Joyce handle the waving farewell duties. He took the rutted road down the valley slowly and didn't look into the rearview mirror until they'd made the turn into the woods.

"I'm glad we came," Joyce sighed. "It was lovely to see them all again. And I'm glad you got to see Baynar again. You're going to be a wonderful father someday."

Xander hit the brakes, and he didn't apologize when the seatbelt jerked Joyce back against her seat. He had to close his eyes against the images Joyce's words had summoned: kids of his own, his and Anya's. A chance to do the job of fatherhood right, to avoid all the mistakes his own parents had made. Some little voice saying the word "Daddy," and never, ever making his kids cry. "Yeah," he whispered brokenly, "I kind of thought I would, too. Someday."

Joyce started to reach for him, started to speak, but she settled back in her seat and let him be.

***

Los Angeles in summer. Asphalt swelling in the sun. Brown-outs when the city power grid couldn't handle the drain of millions of air conditioners any longer. Angel could feel the heat through the walls of the Hyperion. He supposed the heat should have felt oppressive even to a vampire, but a few decades in hell did have a way of resetting a person's internal thermostat.

It had taken Cordelia to remind him that he didn't live alone any longer. Fred never complained about the heat, but she never complained about anything. Maybe to a Texan, LA in summer was a cakewalk, but Angel noticed she'd greeted her new window air conditioner with a small bounce of delight.

He heard it running even as he finished his morning tai chi exercises. Have to see about getting her out of that room later. Unless . . .

"Angel! Fred! Breakfast!"

Nailing her cue the way she never could on stage, Cordelia entered the lobby below. The Sunday morning ritual continued.

"You've got a housemate who needs to eat, Angel," had been another of Cordelia's lectures on Fred-care, this one delivered over a box of doughnuts and a tray of coffee. She had found a coffee shop that had a blend so dark and strong that a vampire could appreciate it. She showed up mid-Sunday mornings and made sure that Fred came out into the open for at least a couple of hours, and Angel discovered he didn't have the nerve to bow out.

Two weeks after the first visitation, Wesley appeared on Sunday morning, towing the Sunday LA Times. The next week, Gunn showed up, saying he just wanted to make sure everyone was alright after whatever events had happened the Saturday night before. He stayed to read the sports section of the newspaper and argue soccer vs football with Wesley.

Angel listened to Cordy bustling around downstairs as he dressed. Fred wouldn't go down until she heard Angel was already there. It was kind of like being followed around by an adoring puppy that couldn't quite bring itself to be in the same room as you. On Sundays, though, Fred would manage to sit on the steps with everyone else in the room. She was slowly working her way lower and lower, and in a few more weeks she might even sit on one of the plush sofas in the lobby.

As he headed down the staircase, Angel heard Wes' motorcycle and Gunn's truck pull up. He wondered which of them this week would be the one to lurk in the courtyard for ten minutes so no one would think they'd arrived together.

Cordelia was setting up on the main desk: doughnuts, cinnamon rolls, orange juice, milk, coffee, and a red plastic pitcher that no one was going to mistake for human friendly again.

"Morning, Angel." She poured him a glass of blood and held it out to him, smiling brightly.

He accepted it, smiling back. "Good morning, Cordy." She went right back to setting up her buffet, but Angel watched her a moment. He had never known a human who not only took his being a vampire in stride but who even went so far as to serve him his blood. Wes and Gunn still twitched just a little at the blatant reminder of what he was, but Cordy didn't seem to care. At this year's Fourth of July party, she'd even put a little flag in his glass, like all the others.

"Good morning, all," Wes announced as he strolled through the doors. Angel raised a brief eyebrow at Gunn walking in right behind.

"Hi, guys," Cordy said. She wrestled with the cap on a glass jar. "Angel, come here and be useful." Sighing ostentatiously, Angel obeyed.

Wesley brought the Sunday paper to the desk and helped himself to a cinnamon roll. He smelled like Gunn's usual brand of soap, Angel noted as he twisted off the stubborn cap on the bottle of salsa.

"Why salsa?" asked Gunn, who leaned on the desk next to Wesley. "Hey, English, hand me one of the glazed."

"Certainly." He handed the doughnut to Gunn, a procedure which seemed to involve more finger contact than Angel assumed was strictly necessary. Wesley caught the faint smile. "What's so amusing, Angel?"

"Nothing. Cordy, why is there salsa?"

"For the nachos, silly." She emptied a bag of chips into a large bowl.

"Nachos for brunch," Wesley commented. "I suppose it makes sense to a Californian."

"It's for Fred. Familiar food, to make her feel more comfortable."

Gunn grabbed a chip and sampled the salsa. "Well, it won't go to waste either way."

Angel heard the faint footstep on the stairs behind him, but he didn't turn too quickly. "Hi, Fred," he said over his shoulder to the wraithlike girl, who had managed to come two-thirds of the way down the stairs.

Cordy gave another bright smile. "Good morning, Fred. Would you like orange juice or milk?"

Fred sank slowly to a step. "Um, juice?"

"Coming right up."

They settled into their Sunday morning routine, sharing the sections of the paper out. Angel took the want ads, but more for something to hide behind as he studied his friends. Cordelia had the entertainment section, Gunn had sports, Wesley was working through the international news, and Fred was giggling faintly to herself over the comics. Angel took a swig of cold, disgusting pig's blood to remind himself not to get too content with his lot in life.

"Who's got the want ads?" Cordelia asked.

"I do." Angel took the section over to her. "What are you looking for?"

"Oh, this and that," she shrugged. "The personals are a hoot."

Angel picked up the entertainment section as he poured himself another glass of blood. As he started scanning the front page, he noticed Cordy turning to the Help Wanted section. He was ready to ask her if she really was looking for a new job when he saw she was looking over the audition announcements. He tried to remember when she'd last been out on an audition, much less had a call back.

"When did this happen?" Wesley suddenly said, looking at his section of the paper.

"When did what?" Angel asked.

"Hector Ramierez is dead."

Cordy shook her head. "Who's Hector Ramierez?"

Angel folded up the entertainment section. "The car collector?" He ignored Cordy's smirk. Cars were a perfectly acceptable thing to have an interest in.

Wesley re-read the story. "Yes, he. Oh, dear. 'Ramierez was brutally murdered Thursday night when he interrupted burglars who had broken into the garage where his car collection is stored.'"

Gunn snorted. "'Brutally murdered.' Cop talk for he was beaten to death or something equally messy."

"This looks like merely a filler story. It seems the police have brought in his grandson for questioning. Apparently they had a fight not long before Mr. Ramierez died."

Angel drained his glass. "You said burglars. How many cars did they get?"

Cordy poked his arm. "Maybe you can find them, get to keep one as a reward."

Wesley scanned the story one more time. "Just one, it looks like. It was apparently driven away."

Gunn looked over Wes' shoulder. "What kind of car, does it say?"

"Yes, a rare De Soto Fireflite Sportsman."

They all jumped when Angel's glass slipped out of his hand and shattered on the floor. Silent Fred gave a squeak and moved up a step.

"What color is it?" Angel asked in a tight voice.

"It doesn't say. Angel--"

"Cordy, I need you to get me the police report on this. I need to know about this car and exactly how Mr. Ramierez was killed."

Cordy put down her orange juice, but she looked doubtful. "What are we looking for? Why does it matter what color it is?"

"It's a rare car. I'll just feel better if I know what color it is. Especially if it isn't black."

She folded her arms. "It easier to find information if I know why I'm looking for it."

Wesley put the paper aside. "Angel, who do you know who drives a black De Soto Fireflite?"

He sighed. "Spike."

He hadn't admitted it at the time, but Angelus had admired the old car his obnoxious descendent drove--when Spike wasn't wheelchair bound, that is. He was never able to find the keys to the thing, though. Not even Drusilla would cooperate.

"Oh, no, Daddy, the car is my Spike's darling. I think it talks to him," she confided, "like Miss Edith speaks to me. I put its eyes out once, because it was watching me and whispering terrible things." She shivered at the memory. "Spike was terribly cross."

Wesley frowned. "It might have nothing to do with Spike. There must be thousands of those cars out there, and we are in Los Angeles, where the car is king."

"They made a little over two thousand of them. I know it doesn't make any sense, but--that particular car, violent death, it makes me nervous, is all."

Cordy, bent over the computer, shook her head. "Well, score one for the big guy's hunches, then. The car is, indeed, a black 1959 De Soto Fireflite Sportsman. And as for the cause of death?" She looked up. "Severe laceration of the throat resulting in extreme blood loss. Very little blood spatter evidence at the scene of the crime."

"Damn," Angel muttered.

Wesley shook his head. "But Spike has the Initiative chip in his head. He couldn't have killed Mr. Ramierez."

"He might have had help," Angel said. "He loved that car nearly as much as he did Drusilla."

"But why now? Cordy, when did Mr. Ramierez acquire the car?"

She scrolled through the records. "About two years ago, according to the records the police have. He bought it at an auction of seized property. Damn it," she muttered.

"What?" Angel asked.

"I get visions for everything else, why wasn't Mr. Ramierez important enough for the Powers that Be to clue me in that he was going to get munched on by a vampire? Especially one working for Spike."

Gunn interrupted. "We don't know that this Spike character was the one that jacked the wheels."

"True enough," Wesley said. "It could be a vampire who was wanting some means of influence with Spike."

Cordy shook her head. "I don't know, bribing a vampire with a car? What am I saying, this is Spike. You could probably bribe him with a bottle of whiskey and a candy bar."

Angel almost smiled at that, but he was still worrying at the puzzle. "Why now? What's changed? Cordy, when's the last you talked to anyone in Sunnydale?"

She frowned. "You know, it has been a while. The Glory thing worked out all right because, well, here we are. I think Willow sent me a couple of emails at the beginning of the summer, but there wasn't much in them."

Wesley chuckled. "What, only three pages worth of gossip instead of five?"

"Not even that." She looked at Angel. "Do you think something's wrong?"

"I think I ought to head up there tonight and check on Spike. I should have been doing it anyway. God knows what he might have gotten up to by now."

"Do you want one of us to come with you?" Wesley asked.

"No, I can deal with Spike." He looked down at the broken glass on the floor. "I'd better get that cleaned up." Cordy helpfully handed him the broom and dustpan.

A hand appeared cautiously from behind the staircase bannister. "Excuse me?" whispered Fred.

"Yes, Fred?" Wesley asked.

She looked carefully from person to person. "Who's Spike? And who's Willow? What's Sunnydale?"

"That's a long story," Cordy said. "Fresh drinks all around for this one."

Angel debated calling someone in Sunnydale, but he was reluctant to get into everything with the folks up there. Besides, Spike might be innocent of involvement in the murder--

He paused to boggle at thought processes that could ever conceive of putting the words "Spike" and "innocent" together in a sentence that didn't end with a sneer.

Still, a quick there and back again, no one the wiser. Simpler all round.

Wesley volunteered to go out to the Ramierez house and see what there was to see. Angel was not surprised when Gunn went with him. Fred disappeared back to her room, and Cordelia began searching the net for more information about Hector Ramierez and rare De Sotos. Angel went to do more tai chi to calm himself before dealing with his most obnoxious family member.

The late summer light was still in the sky when he drove into Sunnydale. Each time he came here he swore it would be the last. You'd think he'd learn.

It occurred to him that he wasn't sure where Spike was. Willow's communications, while vague, had mentioned he was still in town, but the last Angel knew, Spike was living in Xander Harris' basement. When he'd first heard that, he'd had to go for a long walk in the sewers so that his chortles of evil delight wouldn't make people nervous. It was just so perfect, two of his least favorite people in the world, forced into a perverted buddy movie, sneering at each other, sharpening their admittedly quick wits on each other, taking out their frustrations . . .

Angel paused, then made a mental note to stop listening to Cordy pointing out hidden sexual tensions on TV shows. Better to think of something more pleasant, like seeing if he could make Willie actually wet himself in fear.

Still a scummy little hellhole of a place. Lorne would be mortified to know Angel had even stepped into such a dive as the Alibi Bar. He went to the back door, just in case there was anyone in the bar he didn't want to deal with just yet.

The shadows gave him a place to lurk while he observed the barroom. An average crowd, with an average mix of species. No one he knew. He slipped out and took a seat at the end of the bar. A minute later, Willie jumped quite satisfactorily when he turned and saw Angel. He walked slowly down, a sickly smile on his face.

"He--hey, Ang--"

Angel put up a finger to interrupt him. "Don't say my name. How you doing, Willie? How's business?"

"O--o--okay. What can I get for you?"

"A beer," he said after a moment's thought. "Beer would be good."

Willie hesitated, waiting for the next request, then he hurried off. "Beer. Comin' right up."

Angel sipped his beer for a few minutes, observing the crowd in the mirror. He saw a few curious glances thrown his way, but no one seemed inclined to check further. Finally, he raised a finger when he saw Willie look his way. The barkeep took a deep breath and came slowly down the bar.

"Yeah?"

"Whiskey," Angel said. "I'd like a whiskey with my beer."

Willie hesitated again, then scurried off to fill the order. He paused only a few seconds after dropping off the glass, obviously waiting for more, but Angel only tossed back some whiskey with his beer and continued gazing into the mirror. Willie left quickly for the other end of the bar.

When both glasses were empty, Angel raised his finger again. Willie approached cautiously. "Hit me again," Angel said, indicating both glasses. Willie nodded and obeyed. "Oh, and where's Spike?"

Willie hesitated. "Spike?"

"Spike." Angel smiled genially. "And don't ask which Spike."

"Oh--Spike!"

"Yeah. Where is he? And while you're thinking, bring me my booze."

Willie hurried off to get the whiskey, a job that seemed to take a long time. When he glanced down the bar, Angel smiled back pleasantly. Well, pleasantly if you were Angelus, that is. Angel folded his hands on the bartop, giving every air of a man in absolutely no hurry to be anywhere else.

Slowly, Willie came back down, holding a bottle. He filled a glass and set it before Angel.

"Thank you, Willie." He took a sip, then looked at the barkeep expectantly. Willie made a show of putting the whiskey bottle away. "And the rest of my order?"

"I don't want--"

"If you say you don't want any trouble, I'll smash every piece of furniture in here. Where is Spike? That's all I want. Where can I find him?"

Angel knew that, even with the chip, Spike was not someone you wanted to get on the wrong side of. But surely terror like Willie's was new. Didn't matter, Willie's terror of Angel was there first.

Finally Willie sighed and nodded. "East side of town, a housing development that didn't make it. He's holed up there."

"Thank you." Angel drained the whiskey, dropped a bill on the bar and stood to go.

"What are you going to do?" Willie asked nervously.

Angel smiled again and enjoyed Willie's flinch. "I thought it was time for a family reunion. You won't let him know, will you? I want it to be a surprise."

Willie shook his head quickly, and Angel went out the back door..

He debated his approach as he drove across town. Maybe Spike was holed up in the dilapidated buildings nursing his helplessness in solitary exile. And maybe he'd found some kind of community, allies who might help he reclaim his beloved car. If Spike was out there drunk and depressed and alone, Angel could sneak up on him and smack him sillier before Spike knew he was there. But if he wasn't alone . . .

Angel parked his car a quarter mile out and walked into the abandoned development. The air stank of all kinds of demons and of recent traffic. He crept through the backyards of the half- built lots, keeping every sense alert for possible trouble. There was a vampire wandering around with something approaching a sense of purpose, but the music playing on his headphones had to be distracting him from his guard duty. Angel shook his head. Mr. Music better hope Spike didn't come out and find him slacking off. Angelus had demonstrated many ways of punishing minions who fell down on the job.

The building in the middle of the development showed activity. Angel circled it carefully. Light showed out of half-blocked windows, and another guard, female this time, leaned in the front doorway. A well-organized group, by the look of it.

A car engine and loud music warned him to duck behind some rubble. A black De Soto squealed tires around the corner and screeched to a stop in front of a set of garage doors. The horn beeped twice, the garage doors rolled up, and the car pulled in.

A male vampire strolled up. "Hey, boss!"

The driver's door opened with a blare of punk rock from the stereo. Spike leaned out and tossed a can of beer over.

"Thanks!"

When the song ended, Spike killed the stereo and climbed out of his reclaimed car, carrying several grocery bags. "Anything fun happen while I was out, Sammy?"

"Sorry, no."

Peeling the wrapper off a pack of cigarettes, Spike nodded at the empty side of the garage. "Where's he taken himself off to?"

"Book shipment, he said."

"Yeah, right," Spike laughed. "He's probably trolling the bus station, with his 'I'm so respectable, look at my shiny foreign car, can I give you a ride, little girl?' routine. Or little boy, depending on his mood."

The easy arrogance, the casual confidence. This was a vampire in the fullness of his power, experienced and cunning, dependent on no one for his survival. The predator scanning the herd for prey, not the scavenger looking for leftovers.

The chip had to be out. Angel was surprised at the intensity of dread he felt. Angelus, once freed from his confinement, had been a mad, ravening monster. What revenge might Spike be plotting against the humans that had neutered him? Angel had to act quickly, if nothing else but to spare the people who would be Spike's meals.

He hesitated, though. It wasn't from any twisted remnant of family feeling. Drusilla and Darla and a pool of gasoline could tell you how little that mattered if he decided it was time for a descendant to die.

Art appreciation stopped him. It had been a long time since Angel could observe Spike just being Spike without the whole history of hatred, betrayal, challenge and soul getting in the way.

Spike was a good leader, when he cared to make the effort. He had the charisma to attract followers and the strength to keep them. He inspired loyalty, too, from the way that underling, Sammy, kept one eye on him, ready to jump whichever way Spike said. Vampires, like wolves, functioned best with a clearly defined hierarchy. Spike was obviously at the top of this pecking order.

The dread Angel felt at what unchipped Spike might do was real. But so was the pride, no matter how much Angel wanted to deny it. Obnoxious, maddening, infuriating idiot he might be, but he was of Angel's line. Deny it, fight it, interfere with it as he might, his "children's" twisted talents always brought a secret, shameful rush of gratification. That was why he wanted to destroy them so much, because they were so good at what they did.

With Spike there was the added pride in his survival. The Initiative cut him open, made him their lab rat, but he never stopped fighting. To be honest, Angel half wanted Spike to find the Initiative. It might be just a little fun to watch those mad scientists get a taste of their own medicine.

In the garage, Spike gathered up his groceries and headed for an inner door. With a word and a nod, he sent Sammy to close the garage door. Angel knew he should rush in, use the surprise to remove Spike before the job got harder. The safety of the world and his own soul's urgings said this was what needed to be done. But a balls-out frontal assault was such a Spikean thing to do. Might work, might get his face kicked in. He had no idea how many underlings Spike had at his command or of the layout of the building. Spike would keep, and Angel would just have to accept the guilt for the people who died to keep Spike alive.

He headed back through the decaying buildings towards the car. Halfway there, he caught the scent of humans. Four of them, all male, no longer young. No one he recognized. He changed direction to intercept one that was on his own.

The man with the crossbow that he found smelled of tea and beer, and nervousness. Angel made sure to kick a pebble before moving any closer. The man turned in his direction, crossbow ready.

"Easy, easy, just me," Angel said, stepping closer with his hands up.

"Just you, eh?" said the man, with an English accent. "Who are you and what are you doing here?"

Englishmen with crossbows near a vampire's lair. Now, whoever could this be? Angel made sure his smile looked harmless. "I'm a detective from L.A. I'm up here tracing a stolen car."

The man frowned. "A stolen car? Here?"

"Which I spotted down there." He nodded towards the occupied building.

More footsteps approached, and two more men appeared, also with crossbows. The oldest of them frowned. "Dodgson, who is this?"

"Detective from L.A., tracing a stolen car."

"Here?"

"I somehow doubt that," said a new voice coldly. Another man came into view, older than the others, not dressed for sneaking, using a walking stick to balance on the rubble. He kept his distance and glared at Angel, who smiled back.

"No, really, I'm tracing a car. And I found it, too." He shifted slightly, putting himself between at least one crossbow and the new arrival, who sneered just a little.

"Oh, yes, the detective agency. Through which you try to atone for the incalculable evil you' ve inflicted on the world."

Angel shrugged, never taking his eyes of the man who was obviously in charge.

The senior of the three crossbowmen blinked. "Mr. Travers? Do you know this man?"

"He's not a man. He's a vampire. Angelus."

As the others gasped, Angel smiled. "I'm between you and them, and if I hear one click of a crossbow starting to fire, I'll duck, and you'll be a pincushion. Just a thought." He lost the smile. "So, Travers. Would that be Quentin Travers, the head of the Watchers Council? What brings you to Sunnydale? Did you find a new test for Buffy?"

Travers stood even straighter. "Our purpose here is none of your business, Angelus."

"The name is Angel. Or didn't you get the report from those idiots who were around last time? I'm not surprised, they weren't very bright."

"I'm more concerned about your presence here," Travers said. "Specifically in this part of Sunnydale."

Angel allowed himself a faint smile. "I heard some rumors I wanted to follow up on."

Travers tensed slightly. "What rumors?"

"Family things. You wouldn't be interested."

"On the contrary, the Council is always interested in matters involving your . . . family."

Angel glanced at the crossbowmen again. The only reason he could think the Council would send a hit squad to Sunnydale was that they'd heard Spike was back to what passed for normal. "Why now?"

Travers' hands shifted on his walking stick. "What do you mean?"

"Why the goon squad now? I imagine you're here to make sure they don't screw up everything again, but why come after Spike now? The Council didn't seem in any hurry to send in backup for Buffy when he was wandering around loose before." He blinked at the way Travers' shoulders relaxed, though the man's voice stayed as cold as ever.

"William the Bloody is not a vampire who should be allowed to run around loose." Travers' lip curled just slightly. "Failing the effective efforts of those who say their only concern is the welfare of the innocent, the Council has no choice but to act ourselves."

Angel studied the Councilman closely. He was nervous about something, but he'd lost some of his anxiety when Angel had mentioned Spike. "Does Buffy know you're here?"

"Yes, she does." Travers was definitely smug. "We are working closely with her on this project."

That hurt, in a weird way. But really, who else should a Vampire Slayer go to for help when dealing with an especially notorious and dangerous vampire, her own Watchers Council or someone who had just proven to himself he would let prime opportunities slide by?

If Buffy was part of this, though, that put a different perspective on certain matters. "You don't have enough people, not to take out Spike and whoever he's got with him."

"What do you mean?" Travers snapped, suddenly tense again.

"He's a cocky idiot, but he hasn't survived this long by being a complete moron. You'll have to take him by surprise and finish it quickly, because if he has a chance to get his feet under him, he'll take you all. I've seen three others around here, and he mentioned someone else. That's four, plus Spike, plus God only knows how many. Even with Buffy, you're outnumbered." He glanced in the direction of the lair, than back. "Remember who trained him, Mr. Travers." He didn't even try to stop the faint, menacing, Angelus smirk that flickered out.

Travers fidgeted with his walking stick a moment. "Who have you seen?"

Angel shrugged. "The usual underlings keeping watch. And you do know that it's not just vampires around here, don't you?"

"We've seen the signs." He looked very thoughtful, then met Angel's eyes. "Thank you for the warning," he said grudgingly. "We'll definitely keep it in mind."

Angel nodded. "Good night, then." He took one step away before using vampire speed to vanish into the darkness, leaving the humans to jump and gasp. He stayed within earshot though.

"Sir," said the chief goon, "we didn't really factor William the Bloody into the battle plan. We thought we could do this with a quick in and out."

"Yes, I know," Travers said. "And if he is here, we'd have to get into that lair and find him. If they are keeping the kind of security Angelus says, that would be no easy task."

"Sir," another said, "are we going to believe him? A vampire? Even if he is supposed to be on our side now?"

Travers was silent for several minutes. "I don't trust him. He has fallen from grace before. But I don't disbelieve him, either."

"Should we have told him--?"

"No. Absolutely not. There's no need for this to become gossip for the riff raff of the night."

Angel bristled silently. Riff raff?

"We should leave," Travers continued. "We don't want to risk getting caught by anything else."

Angel listened to the men depart, wondering if anything was going to jump out at them and what he'd do if something did. Nothing happened, and he was very thoughtful as he headed for his car. Who were the Council people looking for if not Spike? Was it whoever Spike had been asking about, the one who was out hunting in a shiny foreign car?

He debated going back to Willie's for more information, but another visit would require more forceful persuasion. It was just possible that Willie might tell Spike about Angel's visit in an effort to curry favor with the vampire who seemed to be in charge of such things. Maybe Giles would know something. The last Angel had heard, relations between Giles and the Council weren't overly cordial, and the ex-Watcher might be willing to say why the Council was wandering around Sunnydale.

When Angel reached Giles' complex, new residents were in his apartment, and they didn't know where he had gone when Angel asked. Maybe he'd finally decided to leave a place with so many bad memories. Maybe he'd been evicted after one too many damage-causing incidents, Angel thought with a smile that quickly disappeared after remembering his own incident. Still, he needed to talk to someone. The power structures of the Hellmouth had shifted, and he had too many ties to the place to ignore the situation.

Revello Drive was painfully familiar, peaceful and prosaic on a summer night. Lights were on all over the Summers house, and through the dining room window Angel saw Joyce, Dawn, Willow and Buffy sitting around the table talking and sipping from mugs. A girl he didn't recognize sat very close to Willow. The talk seemed cheerful enough, but with an underlying melancholy. If he'd tried, he probably could have heard their words, but he found himself content to simply watch.

Buffy looked tired. She always seemed to, whenever he saw her these days. As he watched, though, he saw her look at Joyce with an expression of uncomplicated love and happiness. She looked almost sixteen again.

He turned around and went back to his car. Tonight, for whatever reason, she was happy. If she saw him, she wouldn't be happy anymore. Information was everywhere, but there was very little peace for Slayers, and he wasn't going to be responsible for taking it away when he knew she wouldn't get to enjoy it for long.

***

In a lonely part of France was a very ancient cave. Painted on the walls were pictures hidden away from the world's eyes for millennia, strange scenes of hunters in pursuit of their prey. Unlike the mysterious caves of Lascaux, however, it was not only the hunters in these scenes who went on two legs. In this cave, the humans fled from fearsome creatures with long, clawed fingers and hungry fangs. The ancient vampires ran down their prey, ravaged and fed and gloried in their mastery over the world.

In the deepest cave, other pictures told another part of the story. A human figure fought back, attacking with a long spear as another group of human figures stood by. The warrior was smaller than the observers, as if the human who dared defy the vampires was a youth, or even a girl.

The only lights permitted were small lanterns barely capable of breaching the primal dark. The only vampire who usually occupied the caves was one so ancient he'd forgotten what his human face had looked like. He tended the paintings, speaking to them as old friends. Every few hundred years he added new ones in his own private section of the caves.

Tonight he had more mobile company, important company. Or, at least, important to themselves. The elders of the Order of Aurelius met in council, to discuss who would become their new leader.

Male and female vampires from around the world had gathered in the largest cave, where concessions to civilization had been made in the form of comfortable chairs and couches. The elders were attended by minions, and more than one had brought a private supply of humans. Debates could be thirsty work.

The vampires mingled quietly, greeting others they hadn't seen in centuries. Most eyes followed one particular female, who made sure she greeted everyone.

She had last seen the bright sun of her African homeland over two centuries ago. Her black hair hung unbound to the floor, where a human slave crouched behind her, carefully holding the hair clear of the floor and keeping the strands untangled with a golden comb. Her champagne silk gown had been made for her in 1952 by Dior himself. Her name was Fleur de Mal, and she was widely considered to be the primary candidate for leadership of Aurelius.

When the ancient vampire caretaker entered the chamber, the others ceased their conversations and bowed. He gestured them to the seats and waited till they were silent again.

"Our Master has fallen. Prophecy was fulfilled. He rose from his prison, but his reign was brief."

"Slayer," came the hiss from several portions of the chamber.

The guardian glared at his audience. "The Slayer fell. Prophecy was fulfilled. But she rose up as well, outside of all prophecy, and battled with our Master and threw him down."

"Revenge," muttered several.

"To what end?" the guardian challenged. "There are always Slayers. If not this one, then another. And that is not why we are here. Our Master has fallen. Aurelius is without a leader. You all know this, and in the time that has passed, you have discussed this. Tonight we decide."

Fleur de Mal rose to her feet. Her slave hurried to pull her hair out of the way as she stepped forward.

"I claim the leadership of the Order of Aurelius, by right of lineage and deed."

The guardian bowed in acknowledgement. Fleur de Mal gazed around at the others, waitng for the response.

On the far side of the chamber, a male vampire in impeccable Georgian court garb stood. "I challenge the lineage." He bowed to Fleur de Mal, then gestured to the minion behind him, who handed him an ornate snuff box.

Fleur de Mal inclined her head. "I am pleased, Magus, that the reports I heard of your grievous injuries were exaggerated."

The Magus smiled. "The stake bounced off a rib. Good assassins are so hard to find these days, aren't they, Fleur?" He inhaled a small portion of snuff.

The guardian frowned. "Challenge has been made to your candidacy, madam."

Fleur nodded. "On what grounds, Magus, do you challenge my lineage? My sire was begotten by the Master himself. How thin is the Master's blood in your veins?"

The Magus, six vampiric generations removed from the fledgling created by the Master in Renaissance Florence, twitched very faintly. "Your sire, yes. An interesting story, that. He was destined to be a meal, was he not? Except that he somehow managed to grab the Master's wrist and begin feeding himself. Quite tenacious of him. I believe the Master compared him to a rat."

"My sire served the Master for nearly two hundred years," Fleur said calmly.

"True, true. He cared for those little dogs, didn't he? The Master was still amused by human foibles then."

"Yes, my sire and the Master spent a great deal of time together. So many of his other children had to be summoned back to their place at his side."

The Magus brushed away a few remaining grains of snuff from his upper lip. "Yes, they were out in the world, tending to a vampire's business of blood and death, when they weren't forwarding the purposes of our Master. Still, someone had to stay behind and clean up after the little monsters."

The look she gave the Magus suggested that new and more capable assassins might be making their way to him in the near future, but Fleur de Mal's voice was calm. "Does the manner of my Sire's service reflect on the quality of the blood he received and passed down to me? I know there are vampires here who are older than I or who have a closer relation to our Master." She bowed to one corner of the chamber, where sat several vampires who were no longer able to differentiate between their human and demonic faces. "I would, of course, step aside for any of those who wished to claim the leadership."

No one in the room believed her, but it was a politic remark to make. The Magus could only smile and accept it. None of the older vampires had shown any urge towards leadership. They were content to live their lives in isolation, occasionally going out and wreaking localized havoc. The swiftly changing world baffled them, and they muttered frequently about how things were done in their day. The Master had been exceptional in his ability to adapt and accept the changes.

"You spoke of deeds," the Magus said. "Would you mind speaking further of them? I sometimes lose track of what others get up to, and I do enjoy hearing tales of mayhem and adventure."

Fleur shook her head. "My deeds are known. I would hate to waste the assembly's time."

"I ask only to make sure that Aurelius has the best qualified leadership." The Magus sighed sorrowfully. "The Master's chosen, Luke, was killed by the Slayer, and none of his descendants survive. The others who served the Master during his confinement, those closest in his counsels, are also lost."

"Not lost, not all." In a far corner, one of the true elders rose to his feet slowly, supported by one of his minions. He seemed swamped by his Cardinal's robes, and the scarlet biretta was perched awkwardly on a head beginning to shift permanently into demonic angles. His minion wore the robe of a Benedictine monk.

The Magus and Fleur glanced at each other suspiciously, then frowned at seeing they were both equally surprised. Fleur recovered first. "What do you mean, Your Eminence? Not all lost?"

Cardinal Fortezzi had been corrupt and venal in life. His smile still held much of its old lasciviousness. "The exquisite Darla survives.

The Magus managed not to sigh audibly. "Your Eminence, Darla was killed by Angel before we lost the Master."

Fortezzi chuckled nastily. "I'm not that old yet, Magus. I know what goes on in the world." He laughed again as the Magus shifted uneasily and Fleur smirked. "If I say Darla survives, then Darla survives. He Who Keeps knows this as well."

Everyone turned to the guardian. "Is this true?" Fleur asked. The guardian nodded. "And you never said?"

He smiled very faintly. "No one ever asked."

The Magus muffled his impatience with difficulty. "One does tend to assume that if someone is dust then they are not coming back. How, then? And where is she?"

"Where?" Fortezzi said. "I do not know. How? I do not know that either, but I know Who. Those meddlers currently calling themselves Wolfram & Hart."

A knowing whisper went round the chamber. "But why?" the Magus asked.

"Why? Why is the easiest of questions, child. To torment her lover and killer, Angelus, of course."

Fleur de Mal shook her head. "As interesting as this is, why is it relevant? Darla was a faithful servant of our Master, but she is not here to claim any rights or to present her opinions."

"True, true," Fortezzi nodded. "Still, her line is one with much potential, and she was one of the Master's favorites. He was most intrigued with Angelus, as well."

"Angelus is gone," Fleur said firmly. "Darla's line contains no one we need concern ourselves with. Darla shows no interest, Angelus is gone, Drusilla is mad, and William the Bloody is reduced to begging for his meals."

"Don't be so quick to judge, child," Fortezzi said, grinning maliciously. "That line has a remarkable ability to bounce back from their misfortunes. Darla has returned, Angelus is retrievable, Drusilla has sufficient moments of clarity to make her very dangerous, and . . ."

Fleur sighed impatiently. "Yes, and? What of William the Bloody, who managed to fall foul of humans and was made helpless for his pains?"

For all the frailty of his body, Fortezzi's malice was as lively as ever. "He's not."

"Not what?"

"Helpless. He hunts again. The humans' chip is gone."

The whisper was louder this time. The human's Initiative against the demons had caused much talk and concern. A demonic jihad had been contemplated to stop them. One of the other vampires leaned forward.

"How was the chip removed?" she asked. "Most of the victims destroyed themselves, but there are still several about. Such knowledge would be very valuable."

Fortezzi shrugged. "That I do not know. My information extends only to the fact that William the Bloody is himself again."

Fleur remained unmoved. "While I rejoice that there is a way to undo the humans' atrocity, I still do not know the relevance to the current discussion, which is the leadership of Aurelius."

The Cardinal's look of unassuming concern was nearly perfect. "Aurelius is not only those of us who tend our machinations. Aurelius is also the wild ones in the night, the ones who think of us as calcified fossils who have forgotten what our fangs are for." He considered his own hands for a moment, studying the claws he could no long will away. "They may be right. William the Bloody has a reputation that appeals to the wilder vampires, the ones who dismiss us if they think of us at all."

"He is foul, unprincipled, and uncouth," Fleur snapped. "He cares nothing for the traditions of our order. His grand-sire rejected the Master and took Darla away, and he himself--" She had to steady herself. "He destroyed the Anointed One."

"Yes," Fortezzi said, all mocking gone. "The Anointed One. Who sat at the left hand of the Master, who provided the key to his release, who would have guided Aurelius in the ancient ways. But who was not strong enough to resist destruction at the hands of--" He nodded at Fleur "--an uncouth, unprincipled rogue with no appreciation for the way things have always been done." The Cardinal looked around at his fellows. "So perhaps it is time to reconsider the ways things have always been done."

Fleur de Mal could only gape for several seconds as talk broke out around her. "Your Eminence, are you suggesting--what are you suggesting? That we consider that--that barbarian for--for anything?" No one was paying attention any longer, so she strode to the Cardinal's side. Her slave scurried after. "Fortezzi, you said you were on my side," she said quietly. "What are you doing? How do you even know these things?"

"It has never been my habit to ignore those who might be rivals, even if their only seat of power is a garbage heap. Fortuna turns, and her favor falls where it was refused before. The wheel has turned for our unmannered friend. Fleur, he holds the Hellmouth, he helped bring down the Hellgod Glory, and he destroyed the Anointed One. He cannot be dismissed."

She shook her head in distaste. "But he's--have you ever met him?"

Fortezzi grinned. "Yes, I have. He and his lady, Drusilla, in Rome about ten years ago. Such an interesting pair. Yes, Spike is everything you said, uncouth, unpleasant, uncivilized--though if you get him drunk enough, he can speak quite knowledgeably about grand opera, and in the proper languages. I must admit, however, that he threatened to pin me to St. Peter's Dome with several railroad spikes if I ever mentioned Rossini or Mozart again."

"And you wants us to court him."

"He is unique, Fleur. For millennia we have followed the prophecies, the ancient courses. Our Master believed in the old ways, but he was never afraid of change. Spike is chaos personified. I believe we need a touch of chaos. We are as much a part of this world as the humans, and the world does not turn on her way immutable and unchanging. Too many of us think if we cling to the traditions that we will triumph. The humans adapt. So must we."

Fleur de Mal reserved her opinion. Enthusiasm was disconcerting, especially in such a one as Cardinal Fortezzi. She paid attention to the conversations around her. The disgusted mutters of "no dignity" and "so horribly human" and "all Angelus' spawn are mad" were met with "holds the Hellmouth" and "quite surprisingly clever" and "I don't know how well I would have survived being starved for so long."

It was breaking down along age lines. Perhaps, just perhaps, she had spent too much effort shaping her campaign to suit the oldest and most influential. The younger ones had voices, too, and there were more of them.

"He could never lead the order," she stated.

Fortezzi shrugged. "I doubt he'd want to. But I would be careful of touting your deeds and lineage just yet, with everyone thinking of Spike."

"I am only one generation removed from the Master! This--Spike has three between himself and the Master."

"But everyone knows the names of the vampires in those three generations. You're probably the only one, dear Fleur, who even remembers the name of your Sire. The one with the dogs, is how we remember him. One only has to say the word Angelus, and everyone begins telling the tales. And many of those tales include the name William the Bloody. The Master's blood is powerful, but it improves with reinforcement."

Fleur studied the old vampire, thinking of all the centuries of plots he'd concocted, living and dead. "You want him for leader. Instead of me."

Fortezzi shook his head. "The true elders would never accept him. They will accept you. But such a one as William the Bloody would be a very useful ally--if not something closer."

As she considered and watched the crowd, Fleur spotted the Magus deep in conversation with two of his own supporters. He glanced up and caught her watching, and his automatic smile and bow were a few seconds behind the thoughtful look he sent her way.

She disliked having new playing pieces appear on her gaming board, no matter how potentially useful this new piece might be. Still, even pawns were useful for getting in the way of more powerful pieces.

"It sounds worth investigating, at the very least," she said cautiously to Fortezzi. "The entire line sounds like it needs to be re-evaluated. As you said, there is potential there. Perhaps it is time for the Order of Aurelius to see to its neglected children."

Especially if it turned out that the best way Darla's line could be greatest help was to stop clouding the issues of Fleur's ascension by being dead.