Suggested listening:

"Pass In Time" by Beth Orton
"Know Who You Are At Every Age" by Cocteau Twins
"Nineteen" by Old 97s


Mystery Date
By

Michael Walker

***
SUNDAY
***

Janine Treadwell was cute as only someone who was fifteen, blond, and carefree could be. Her backpack was slung over one shoulder as she walked through the darkness. She could have called her mother to pick her up, but since Crissie's house was only eight blocks away she'd decided to walk home. They were almost finished with their Chem I project, and Janine was surprised at how hard Crissie was working. They were best friends, but Janine realized that the other girl was something of a fountain of slack.

Something rustled in the hedge. Janine stopped and stared, aware of just how dark it was. Her eyes narrowed as she tried to see into the mass of foliage. She convinced herself that it was her imagination and turned away.

The creature burst out of the hedge in a scattering of leaves and the cracking of small branches. Janine jumped, her hand going to her mouth to smother a small shriek. She grinned as she watched the rabbit bound away, her heart still pounding in her chest. She smiled, hitched up her backpack, and continued home.

***

The drop of water clung to the glass, fighting the pull of gravity against its plump form. It quivered with resistance, then let go and trickled down, its passage carving one clear path through the dense condensation gathered on the windshield.

Said condensation was formed due to the excess heat generated by the two people in the car. The interior of the Sebring was a confusion of groping hands, twisted clothing, and harsh breathing. Gymnastic moves worthy of Olympic gold were performed in the search for more leverage and new sensation.

Xander Harris did not know if he believed in heaven, but if there was such a place, it would- it must -be very much like this. Unable to resist the temptation, he opened his eyes for the briefest moment. Yes, it was Cordelia Chase in the car with him. Who said dreams didn't come true?

"Xander. Xander! Stop!" Cordelia got both hands on his chest and pushed him away. Xander took a deep breath and wiped his mouth with the heel of his hand. Cordelia was busy re-buttoning her shirt. "How many hands do you have, anyway?"

"Excuse me?" he said, his breathing heavy. "Did I do something I wasn't supposed to? Did I not do something I was supposed to?"

Cordelia twisted the rear-view mirror toward her. "I thought we needed a time-out," she said, looking into the mirror to straighten her hair.

"A time-out? Cor, my six-year-old cousin gets time-out. I'm not six years old."

She looked at him. "Things were just moving a little faster than I wanted."

"Okay, okay, I'm sorry. I didn't realize that we were playing good-touch bad-touch here." Xander turned away.

"It's not that... it's just..." Cordelia struggled to find the right words. "Xander, we've talked about this."

"I know, but it's killing me. We've been dating for, what, nine months? I'm eighteen years old, Cordelia. I'm at my sexual peak. I have--"

"No, don't you go there." Cordelia held up a warning finger. "Don't give me 'needs' talk."

"Hey, just because you're a robot doesn't make me one too." Cordelia's breath caught. Xander looked at her and saw real hurt in her eyes. "Hey, hey," he said, reaching for her hand. "I'm sorry. That was little Xander talking. You're the boss. Do you want to go home?"

She shook her head. "No. I just don't want to..."

He finished her sentence. "Push the envelope?"

She nodded. "Exactly." She looked away, then back into his eyes. "I know this is hard for you--"

"You have no idea."

She rolled her eyes. "Are you trying to kill my sympathy?" He shrugged. Cordelia said, "I'm not trying to tease you, Xander."

"I know. You've been painfully candid on the subject."

"There are things I won't do until I'm ready." She looked down at their clasped hands, then back up at him. "That doesn't mean," she said, scooting closer to him, "that there aren't other things we can do."

He gazed into her eyes. He knew what the offer meant, and he could not believe what he was going to say next. "Thanks but not tonight." He reached up, his free hand touching her cheek. "Maybe we should just call it a night."

She forced a smile. "Yeah. I think you're probably right."

As she put the car in gear, Xander thought, I am a stupid, stupid man.

***

"All I'm sayin' is, you should have called me to watch your back." Faith's right leg flashed out and the sole of her black Doc Marten slammed into the female vamp's chest.
The sternum cracked with a sound like crumpling cellophane.

"Thanks, but my back was fine." Buffy cross-blocked a punch, then snapped off a backhand blow that crushed the nose of her vampire. She shook her hand. "Damn, those forehead ridges are hard."

The girl vamp lunged forward. Faith planted her feet, twisted just enough to let a right hand go past, and then grabbed the wrist and elbow. She pulled down on the wrist, pushed up on the elbow, and tucked her right shoulder into the vampire's armpit. A roll of the hips and the demon flew through the air, landing on its back. Before it could do more than shake its head, Faith was dropping to one knee, her stake flashing down, piercing the heart and setting off the inevitable reaction.

"You shoulda called," Faith said, as she stood and used her left hand to rake her hair away from her face.

Buffy threw a right-left-right combination. Her opponent stumbled backward, dropping his guard and leaving himself wide open. It was the last time he would commit that error. "It was personal," Buffy said, tapping the stake against her thigh to knock off any clinging dust. "Not professional."

"With you and Angel there's a difference?"

***

Willow woke with a start, wondering why her room was bathed in a dim light. Then she realized that she wasn't sleeping in her room; she was sleeping on the floor of the library. Propping herself up on her elbows, she turned toward the cage. In the faint glow of the hallway security lights she could see the wolf sleeping.

Willow watched the silver-black flank rising and falling. A shaft of moonlight traced a luminous diagonal from the window to settle on the thick, shiny fur. Kind of ironic, how beautiful wolf-Oz looked in the shimmering rectangle. She was tempted to reach through the bars and stroke that silky pelt, but she restrained herself. It was so difficult for Oz to sleep, and after the grueling transformation, he needed all the rest he could find. Willow watched him for a few moments, then lay back down in her sleeping bag and closed her eyes.

***
MONDAY
***

It was that rarest of occasions, an overcast day in Sunnydale. Buffy thought about the unfairness of it all while she waited for Willow. Why was she required to attend school on a day that was perfect for sleeping in? She was pondering this thought when she saw her friend crossing the lawn, weaving through the clots and clumps of students scattered around the lawn. The Willow-smile was in place, that open, eyebrow-arching grin that made her look like a demented pixie.

"So," the Slayer asked, "how was your weekend?"

Willow's grin broadened. "Great!" She started up the steps.

"Wait a minute." Buffy grabbed the redhead's sleeve. "Wasn't this Oz's furry time?"

Willow nodded. "Uh-huh. Still a great weekend."

A sly grin spread over Buffy's face. "Willow, are you engaging in anything against the laws of nature?"

Willow made an ick face. "Ewwww!"

As they made their way toward the front door, Buffy leaned in closer. "So, is Oz an animal any other time?"

The mystery of Willow's grin deepened. "It would be ungentlemanly to kiss and tell."

"But you're not a gentleman," Buffy said, pointing out the obvious.

Willow pulled open the door. "True." They entered the building.

"So," Buffy demanded, "give over." She was about to nudge Willow with an elbow when she noticed her friend's open-mouthed gape. The Slayer turned her head.

A huge banner hung from the ceiling of the main hallway, spanning the entire width of the corridor. This was no amateurish spray-paint-on-a-bed-sheet affair, but the work of a professional. It read-

For Homecoming Queen '98, There's Only One Choice!!!

Underneath was a giant picture of Harmony.

"Oooh," Willow said. "Do you think Cordelia's seen this?"

Buffy shook her head. "We'd have heard the screaming." They stared at the gaudy sign for a minute, then merged again with the flow of students.

"Hey," Buffy said, "that was weird, but I'm still focused. Spill about Oz."

Willow leaned against a locker and actually sighed. "Oh, Buffy, he's so wonderful. He's kind and considerate."

The Slayer cocked her head. "Will, I'm here for nasty details."

Willow pushed off the locker and walked away. Buffy hustled to catch her. "So?"

Willow looked up, studying the walls. "Well, let's just say that the countdown is underway."

"And the rocket is on the launching pad?"

Willow looked at her and made a face. "Yuck! That's disgusting. Your mind is in the gutter."

Buffy shrugged. "Hey, I'm not the one who turned a simple space metaphor into Freudian imagery."

"True," Willow was forced to admit.

"Hey, B!" They turned toward the voice and saw Faith making her way toward them through the throng. A shiny new backpack dangled off one shoulder.

Buffy turned to Willow. "See you after school?"

"Sure. Espresso Pump?"

Buffy arched an eyebrow. "Where else?"

Willow veered off toward her classes. Buffy turned toward Faith. The new Slayer stopped in front of the old and struck a pose, arms out, one knee bent.

"Whaddya think?" Faith asked. "Do I pass?" She wore a denim jacket over a red, yellow and orange psycho print top and low-slung flared hip-huggers. Buffy reached out and touched the backpack. The nylon canvas was still stiff.

"Nice," she said. Faith looked around, checking out the walls.

"Is homecoming really such a big deal around here?" she asked, nodding at some of the posters.

"Oh, you haven't seen anything yet," Buffy said. "Cordelia hasn't thrown her pointy hat in the ring. Didn't your old school have homecoming?"

Faith shrugged. "If I'd gone much I might know, but I doubt it. Folks don't go back to a combat zone."

Buffy tried for a joke. "Old soldiers like to visit the battlefield."

Faith threw her a hard-eyed glance. "Not while the war's still on." Then she grinned and the tension vanished. "So, where do I find American History I?"

"Ah," Buffy said, taking her by the arm. "I can help you there."

***

"So this is the dreaded cafeteria," Faith said. "Frankly, I don't feel the fear."

"That comes eight to ten hours after you eat," Xander said.

"Get out," Faith said, taking a bite of her cornbread.

Xander leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. "Seriously, last year, we fought what Giles called a Rehoboth demon. Could actually, physically, turn you inside out." He sat back. "Didn't scare me as much as the burritos." Faith laughed, spraying an arc of crumbs across the table. Xander grinned.

"Well that's pretty," Buffy said. "Has Cordelia seen the banner?"

"Or as she insists on calling it 'that thing'?" Xander sipped his soda. "Oh yeah."

Buffy grimaced. "I'm guessing her reaction was of the extreme."

Xander thought for a moment, his eyes rolled up, then shook his head. "Nah. She didn't bite the head off a puppy or anything."

"So... where is she now?"

"Ah." Xander nodded. "Fair Cordelia has chosen to spend her lunch at Kinko's. I predict that by tomorrow morning this campus will be awash in flyers, posters and handbills bearing her likeness."

"Why?" Faith asked.

Xander shrugged. "Winning. Cor's got a competitive drive that makes Michael Jordan look like Gilligan."

Buffy chewed and swallowed. "She's not afraid Harmony will win, is she?"

"No, but she is afraid Harmony might pull enough votes to keep her from setting a record for winning margin." Xander winked.

"Why's she got such a bug up her ass?" Faith asked. "Life's been pretty good to her."

Buffy shrugged. "Who can say?"

"What have you people done to this table?" That grating voice sent a chill down their spines.

"Principal Snyder," Xander said. "What timing."

***

Cordelia reached down and yanked the laces of her white Adidas, testing the knot. Frowning, she re-tied the shoes, pulling the laces until the leather stretched and double-knotting them.

"Take it easy with that." Cordelia whirled, her eyes widening. "Cut off blood flow to your toes, you'll get gangrene." Ms. Hollis stood there, arms folded.

"M-M-Ms. Hollis," Cordelia stammered. "I, uh--"

"It's okay, Cordelia." Ms. Hollis put her hands on her hips. "I see that you're a candidate for Homecoming Queen." Cordelia nodded. Ms. Hollis continued. "I understand they crown the Queen at halftime. Since you're the captain of the squad, how do they handle that?"

"Oh." Cordelia thought for a moment. "One of the other girls is the temporary captain."

"I like a solution that's simple and elegant." Ms. Hollis turned. "Think about it during practice, then pick somebody."

"Wait." Cordelia hurried after her. "Today? I mean, just like that?"

Ms. Hollis shrugged. "Sure. Gives us almost two weeks to get ready."

"But shouldn't we have some sort of system?"

"Look, Cordelia, we've already played five games. I imagine that you have an idea who you'll pick. Don't make a big deal out of it." Ms. Hollis pivoted and went into her office.

***

"Hey," Buffy said, gathering up her books. "Will and I are going by the Pump. You want?"

Xander shook his head. "Promised Cordelia I'd go with her to pick out a formal."

"Ooooh, you're moving on up," Buffy said.

Xander grinned, but the expression held precious little mirth. "Yeah, to the east side."

"Got your tux?"

"Don't need one. All the 'members of the Court' have to be escorted by a football player." Xander held open the classroom door.

Buffy looked at him as she passed. "You don't seem terribly paranoid about that."

Xander shrugged. "She asked Larry."

"Aaaaahhhh."

Xander nodded, his expression indicating that he too saw the humor in the situation. "It was her idea. And I'm getting a tux anyway. For the dance."

Buffy looked at her friend as he shambled along, hands in his pockets. "So, how are things with you guys? I mean, we sort of hit the ground running with the slaying and the killing and the magic, and we haven't had a chance to talk. Sooooo, how's it going?"

Xander looked at her, then up and down the hallway. He grabbed Buffy's arm and pulled her over by the wall. "Do you really want to know? I mean, you weren't just asking to be polite, were you?"

Buffy looked at him, her nose scrunched up. "No, but I'm starting to wish I had."

"It's just... I mean, I haven't had much dating experience... okay, none. The closest I've come was that long-term relationship I had with a poster of Michelle Yeoh."

"Ick." Buffy frowned.

"Hey, it was a really hot poster. Supercop 2."

"If you say so." Buffy made a rolling motion with her hand. "So, what's the problem?"

"Soooo, when we started dating, it was kind of innocent--"

Buffy held up a hand. "No, it wasn't. It was disgusting and covered with saliva. Go on."

"But now I'm really in uncharted waters. Cordelia might be Homecoming Queen, and I'm going to dance with her. In formal wear. We're going to dance, in formal wear. It's like the world is upside down."

"Does that bother you?"

Xander squinted. "It's sort of at odds with the 'me' I've always been."

Buffy patted his cheek. "I think you're just scared of looking stupid on the dance floor."

***

"Everybody listen up." Ms. Hollis raised her hands. The cheerleaders gathered around her, faces flushed and hair damp. "Before we hit the showers, I'm sure you all know that our captain, Cordelia Chase, is a candidate for Homecoming Queen. That means that one of you will be the temporary captain for that game." She looked around at them. "I've asked her to choose who that will be, so give her your attention." She motioned for Cordelia to step forward.

As she stepped into the loose circle, Cordelia felt a soft breeze whisper across her cheek, stirring a stray tendril of hair. She looked around, searching for one face. "Lacey, you're captain for the Copper Creek game," Cordelia said, nodding in the other girl's direction. The squad broke up, drifting toward the locker room as Lacey accepted congratulations from some of the other girls.

"Interesting choice," Ms. Hollis said from behind Cordelia.

The brunette shrugged without turning around. "She'll do the best job."

"She'll do a good job, but you two haven't exactly been the best of friends."

"It's for one game. No big deal." Cordelia looked back at the teacher. "Besides, who wants to be Homecoming Queen if the cheerleaders suck?"

***

Willow hustled through the door of the Espresso Pump, red hair flying. She hopped up on a stool at the table Buffy was already occupying. Her leap carried enough force that her perch teetered on two legs for a second.

"Did I miss something?" Buffy asked. "Is table-getting becoming an Olympic sport?"

"I just thought I was running late, well, later than I am." Willow took a deep breath and blew it out. "I'm working on something and I get lost in it. Same old story."

"Well, I took a chance and ordered for you." Buffy slid a tall cup toward her friend. "Grande latte. Just got 'em."

Willow's face erupted in a grin as she sipped from the cup. "Thank you. That was so sweet."

"I went to see Angel."

Willow choked and sputtered. "Jeez, Buffy, you could at least let a person swallow before you just, you know, drop something like that on her." She wiped her mouth and dabbed at her shirt with a napkin. "So, how did it go?"

Buffy watched the dark liquid swirl in her cup. "What's the strongest word there is for 'bad'? As you can imagine, there was some lingering bitterness."

Willow nodded, her lips compressed into a thin line. "It's not like you had a choice."

"I know that. Still, when he says I put him through hell, it's not a metaphor." Buffy looked up at her friend.

Willow spoke with great caution. "You seem to be taking all this rather well."

"I'm not, but in a way, it's a relief. I was a real mess, but it's been few days and I've had time to think. He's not Angelus anymore, and it's not like our schedules overlap. I guess it's like, I don't know, like something that hurts but not as bad as you think."

"Oh, oh, I know." Willow waved her hands. "It's like you have an abcessed tooth, and it just hurts and hurts, but you're afraid if you go to the dentist, it'll hurt more, so you don't go, but the pain just gets worse and worse, and so you have to go to the dentist and when he does pull it, it hurts, but then it's a relief, because the tooth doesn't hurt anymore, and getting it pulled didn't hurt as bad as you thought it would."

"Okay." Buffy reached over and picked up her friend's cup. "No more caffeine for you. That analogy was far too elaborate."

***

"Okay, what about this one?"

Xander looked up as Cordelia came out of the dressing room. This dress was a simple red sleeveless halter-back, although the plunging neckline was a nice touch.

Xander gulped. "Uh, you look really great."

She looked at him with narrowed eyes. "You've said that about every dress."

"In my defense, you look great in every one of them."

"Okay, I'll accept that, but which one is best?"

Xander squirmed in the wing chair. On an average day, the big windows at the front of the store would have flooded the store with sunlight. Only gray clouds were visible today. Somehow he thought that was a significant metaphor. He could see three Cordelias reflected in the mirrors behind her. "Are you sure that someone with my fashion sense should be making this judgement?"

Cordelia's hands rested on her hips. "Xander, I'm not asking you to dress yourself. I'm asking which dress looks best on me. I think you're qualified for that."

"Okay, well, uh..." He thought for a second. "I really liked that green one."

"Okay," she said. "Was that so hard?"

As she swept back into the dressing room, Xander rolled his eyes to the sky. "Please, please, please," he whispered, "let the green one be the right answer."

***
TUESDAY
***

Mr. Quisling took a deep breath of the clean outdoor air. It was likely to be his last for a while. He'd been in houses like this one before and a rank odor was one thing they all had in common.

The house in question sat on the outskirts of Sunnydale. Weeds poked through gaps in the porch flooring. The whole structure sagged as though weary of supporting its own weight. Shingles were missing from the roof in large patches; the windows that weren't boarded up were broken.

"Cretins," Quisling hissed under his breath. "In thrall to a stupid romantic fantasy." He walked through the overgrown yard, pushing away the thoughts of small things that might run up his trouser leg, and stepped onto the wobbly porch. The door swung open in response to his knock, but no one stood in the doorway. Quisling stepped to the side, turning in profile. He heard the thump and whistle, but was unable to see the bolt until it was past him. It whirred away into the brush.

Quisling stepped inside the house. The crossbow was lashed to a table. A skinny, hard-looking vampire in a Detroit Tigers baseball cap struggled to reload it.

"A shotgun would be better," Quisling said. "The chances of one of your kind visiting during the day is quite small and the shotgun both does more damage and is more intimidating to humans." He looked around the room, taking in the peeling wallpaper and the water-stained ceiling.

His hand shot out to plant the polished aluminum cross in the face of the charging vamp. There was a sizzle and the smell of roasting flesh. The vampire screamed and clawed at his face. Quisling stepped in close, his left hand rising to the creature's neck.

"Feel that?" he asked in the same voice he might use to observe that the sky was a beautiful shade of blue. "Of course you do. This syringe is full of holy water. I don't have to tell you that an intramuscular injection of this would be a particularly nasty and painful way to die." He smiled. "I will not be fucked with, understand?"

The vampire blinked, trying to keep his eyes open in spite of the pain and the little strips of skin peeling from his forehead. Mr. Quisling's eyes widened and he shifted his weight, leaning on the syringe. "Understood," the vampire whispered.

"Good." Quisling stepped back, pocketing the syringe and the cross in a smooth, fluid motion. "Now, I wish to see your master."

The vampire led him to the basement stairs and pointed down. The interior of the house was dim, but the staircase was an unrelieved pit of darkness, a pitch-black descent into who knew what. Quisling reached into the inside breast pocket of his jacket and brought out a small globe of clear glass about the size of a large marble. He rolled it between his thumb and forefinger, then uttered one word in a harsh, guttural tone. The sphere flared, then settled into a steady yellow-white glow. The vampire stepped back, squinting. Quisling winked at him; a gesture made grotesque by the eerie lighting and the fact that every part of Quisling's face except his eye remained immobile. He descended the stairs, the glowing bauble held in front of him. When he could see the bottom of the stairs, he stopped.

"I know you are down there. I mean you no harm. I will defend myself if attacked, however." He went down the remaining steps and stood on the concrete floor of the basement. He could smell them, see motion in the dimness beyond his small circle of light. At last, one of them stepped forward. He was a short, squat vampire, missing three fingers on his left hand and sporting a vicious scar that ran from mid-forehead through his left eye and ended just below the corner of his mouth.

"I would speak to your master," Quisling said.

"Really?" The vampire smirked. "Why don't I just kill you now?"

Quisling sighed. "Do you know how dated you sound? I've already gotten past your booby trap and your guard upstairs--"

"So? LePage couldn't guard shit."

"If you interrupt me again I will hang you from a streetlight and watch the sun finish you," Quisling said. The vampire paused in the act of spitting, a shocked look on his face. "Now, if we can avoid further displays of machismo, I wish to speak to your master."

"Coyne, bring him." The leathery whisper came from the deep darkness behind the vampire. Coyne responded to it the way a trained hound responds to the voice of its master.

"Come," he said. Quisling followed him to a plain, cheap door. The door was open, but the darkness within seemed to swallow the light from Quisling's orb.

"Coyne," the voice said, "turn on the lights." Coyne gestured, there was a snap and the basement was flooded with light from a half-dozen bulbs. An anticipatory grin spread spread over his face as he stepped aside and gestured for Quisling to enter. He tucked his glass sphere back into his jacket and did so.

The room was small, probably a utility or laundry room when the house was occupied by the living. It was wider than it was deep, and Quisling had to look to his left, around the door, to see the room's lone occupant. That occupant sat in an oak rocking chair, moving back and forth in small, slow movements. The light in this room came from two ornate floor lamps set behind and to the sides of the chair, meaning that the face of the figure in the chair remained in deep shadow.

"Why have you come here? Why have you placed yourself in such danger?" the figure asked. Quisling almost rolled his eyes at the melodrama of it all.

"I have come as an emissary of my mentor," he said. "We wish to welcome the Reverend Othniel Hampton to Sunnydale."

The figure's head lifted. "You dare address me by name?"

Quisling could see the glitter of light reflected from the Reverend's hooded eyes. "As a gesture of respect, not familiarity."

"I crave no man's welcome, nor do I require it." The Reverend shifted in his chair, leaning forward the slightest bit.

Quisling licked his lips. Trick had warned that this fellow was crazy, but he hadn't mentioned thin-skinned. "We do not claim dominion, nor is this a demand for fealty. However, when a being of such stature as yourself is in close proximity, we would like to acknowledge you."

The Reverend's laugh was little more than a burbling sigh. "I was old when your mentor still drew breath, yet he deigns to acknowledge me. I appreciate it." His elbows rested on the arms of the rocker, fingertips pressed together in front of his face. "What is your real purpose?"

"We have not come to the Hellmouth merely to feed. We have an assignment to complete. When that task is finished, we will move on. We see no need for conflict between our followers. There is blood enough for all."

"What do you know of blood?" The Reverend's voice was sharp. "You pretend to know our world, yet you have never tasted the bounty of a man." He stood, his tall gaunt frame casting an angular shadow that reached nearly to where Quisling stood. "Tell your master that I have come to destroy the unworthy. If you are counted among them, you will be driven from the earth. I am not the judge, only the instrument. You tell him that." The Reverend sat down again, gripping the arms of his chair. "Yet until that day is determined, we are not enemies."

Quisling bowed, a very formal gesture. "That is all we wish," he said.

***

"Could it be some sort of alliance?" Giles held his glasses up to the light and began polishing them.

Lindsay Maeda shook her head. "If there's one thing the Reverend can't do, it's work and play well with others. As far as vampires go, he's a stone traditionalist."

Giles thought for a moment, hands on his hips. "It would be helpful if we knew more about Mr. Trick. It might help us divine his plan."

"It would, but we don't. What if he doesn't really have a plan? What if he's just drawn to a power vacancy?"

Giles shook his head. "He has a reason. He didn't just come into Sunnydale. He insinuated himself into a high-technology facility, a facility which happens to have complete city utilities."

Lindsay frowned. "You think he has an ally in city government?"

Giles wandered over to the city map hanging on the library wall. "It's not the most bizarre thing to happen here."

"So what's his plan and how does the Reverend enter into it?"

"I don't know his plan." Giles reached up and tapped the map with his forefinger. "And perhaps the Reverend isn't part of it at all. Perhaps he's as much of a wild card for Trick as he is for us."

***
WEDNESDAY
***

Xander stood in the middle of the hall and turned a full circle, taking in the complete 360-degree panorama of posters, flyers and stickers plastered with Cordelia's name and face. Buffy saw him standing there, gaping.

"Hey," she said. "Auditioning for Of Mice And Men?"

"Did you realize that if you turn around really fast, all the different-colored Cordelia faces blur together? It's a psychedelic princess experience." He demonstrated.

"Okay," Buffy said, patting her friend on the arm. "Just don't stare at it too long or you'll go blind." She left him there and went on to the library.

Giles sat at the table, two books open in front of him. Buffy could see Willow in the office, working at the computer. "Hey Giles," the Slayer said. "You're looking even more serious than usual."

"Perhaps," he said. "I'm trying to find out what's going on."

"Wait," Buffy said, stopping and holding up a hand. "I know this one." She closed her eyes and placed a hand on her forehead. "A: a group of vampires have decided to destroy the world. B: demons are running amok, threatening the populace. Or C: monsters are poised to demolish our fair city." Willow snickered.

Giles was not amused by this display of wit. "Unfortunately, we may be dealing with 'D'."

Buffy shook her head. "There is no 'D'."

"What, are we dissing the basketball team already?"

Buffy turned. Oz stood just inside the door.

"No," Willow said, "Giles believes that the future of the world is in jeopardy."

Oz nodded. "You know, it's the consistency of this place that I love. What else in my life is so dependable?"

"The incredibly bad cafeteria food?" Buffy offered.

Willow chimed in. "Mrs. Bumphus in English hates you?"

Giles cleared his throat. "If everyone is quite finished with the music hall routine, I would like to get back to my work."

"Hey, don't mind me," Oz said. "I'm just getting a book." He went into the stacks.

"Why so tense?" Buffy asked, dropping her books on the table and taking a seat.

"Yeah," Willow said as she leaned on the doorframe. "We'll find out what Trick is up to, Buffy will kick his ass, end of story."

Giles looked at them, eyes wide. "Is it possible that you are truly this blasé?"

Buffy shrugged. "I'd say I'm the blasé-est."

"Not me," Oz said, coming down the stairs from the stacks. "I think this may be the most dangerous thing we've ever faced, and we should spend every waking minute planning on a way to defeat it."

"Thank you, Oz," Giles said. "I'm glad someone grasps the seriousness of the situation."

"Actually, I don't," Oz said. "I agree with them. I was trying to show a little brotherly solidarity."

Buffy stretched. "C'mon Giles. We know this is the real deal, but, honestly, we've gotten pretty good at it."

"And besides, Buffy's not alone any more," Willow said.

"That's true." Buffy turned to Giles. "We have Faith on our side now. Double the slayage, double the fun."

Willow took two steps into the room. "But we believe you."

"Yeah," Buffy said. "Even if you are the boy who cried end of the world."

***

"Sir, I think you will want to see this."

Mr. Trick opened his eyes and sighed. "What is it, Delilah? Tell me something to make me happy."

She smiled, an expression at once sardonic and mirthful. "I think that you will be very pleased with what Trumbo has found."

And pleased he was. "Trumbo, you are a genius," Trick said as he leaned over the vampire's shoulder to look at his monitor. "You're sure about this?"

Trumbo, a skinny vamp with a prominent adam's apple and bulging eyes, nodded. "I have a few confirmations to make, but all our people and sources say it's true."

"Damn." Trick's voice was barely louder than a breath as he leaned in closer to stare at the monitor, his face bathed in blue light. "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down."

"Omar Khayyam?" Delilah asked.

Trick shook his head, never taking his eyes from the monitor. "David. Psalm one-thirty-seven, verse one."

***

"I'm conflicted," Xander announced. "Part of me is appalled by this degrading spectacle, yet I'm somehow strangely aroused."

"Watching Cordelia stump for votes gets you hot?" Buffy asked, her expression mirroring the bewilderment in her voice.

They sat on the lawn under one of the trees. Faith sprawled in front of them, propped on her elbows. Across the lawn, Cordelia worked the crowd, going from group to group and person to person, lobbying for votes, flattering and cajoling.

Xander shrugged. "My thermostat opens at an extremely low temperature. What can I say?"

Faith twisted around to look at them over her shoulder. "Why aren't you helping her?" she asked.

"Cordelia seems to believe that her chances are better if I remain the power behind the throne," Xander said. "Oh, look," he said, pointing. "This should get good."

Cordelia and Harmony were on a collision course. The blond, backed by the Harmonaires, was also campaigning. They were only a few yards apart when they noticed each other.

"What's up?" Willow asked as she and Oz walked up and sat down.

"Shhh," Xander hissed. "The latest skirmish in the Harmony-Cordelia wars is about to take place."

Oz and Willow sat down, the autumn sun warm on their faces as they watched Harmony and Cordelia circle each other. Wary glances were exchanged, hair was tossed, but they continued past each other.

"Well, that was disappointing," Buffy said.

"Makes sense," Oz said. "Why risk a public incident?"

"So what are you guys doing tonight?" Buffy asked.

Willow shrugged. "I'm at loose ends. Oz has to rehearse for a Dingoes gig."

Buffy glanced at Faith, then back to Willow. "Wanna come patrol with us? We can hit the Bronze after."

Willow thought then nodded. "Okay. If it's all right with you, Faith."

The dark-haired Slayer said, "The more the merrier."

***

"We better find a vampire soon or I'm gonna punch a tree just for the hell of it," Faith growled. Not a single vampire had crossed the trio's path so far.

"Maybe instead of looking for them we should let them come to us," Buffy suggested. "Let's take a break."

"Okay with me," Willow said. The three girls sat down beneath an old oak tree under the waning moon.

"How's your little problem?" Buffy asked Willow.

The redhead shrugged and frowned. "I think it's some better, or maybe I'm just learning to live with it."

Faith scanned the area for signs of movement. "Can you feel it coming?" she asked.

"Just for a few seconds. Then it's 'boom'."

Buffy poked at the ground with the point of a stake. "Has Miss Calendar's stuff helped?"

Willow's face crinkled. "I can't tell." Her eyes shot open. "Oh, but I have learned to do this." She looked around until she found a stick about four inches long and the diameter of her little finger. She placed it on the ground between them.

"Now," she said, "watch this." At first they could discern nothing, but then Buffy saw the stick twitch. It continued to tremble and then, ever so slowly, it began to rise. It hovered some eight inches off the ground. Buffy glanced at Willow. The redhead's eyes were wide and unblinking, her face slack with concentration. A fine film of perspiration glistened on her forehead. The stick began to turn, to pinwheel around perpendicular to the earth. At first it was a slow, steady motion but the speed began to increase until it was a whizzing blur.

"Uh, Will--" Buffy began, but a dry popping interrupted her. The stick had vanished and fine, powdery sawdust drifted to the ground. Willow blinked and shook her head.

"Sorry," she murmured. "I'm still having trouble with the stopping."

Another dry snap drew their attention. Four vamps straggled along, laughing. Buffy glanced at Faith. The new Slayer's eyes were hard and cold.

"Definitely not the Reverend's boys," she said, vaulting to her feet.

They were local vampires, new-made really, and they presented little challenge to the three girls. One of them managed to land an open-handed slap to the back of Faith's head, but that was all. In mere moments, the ashes of the four were settling in a pulverized cloud.

"Okay," Faith said, slapping the sleeves of her jacket. "Done with the killin', now comes the chillin'."

***

Coyne entered his master's sanctum with eyes downcast. A stifling heat filled the room, produced by the small charcoal grill in the corner.

"Do you have a report?"

Coyne looked up into his master's eyes. "All have returned safe tonight," he said.

"Good," the Reverend said. "These girls have become quite vexing."

"Sir," Coyne said, his voice shaky, "not to question you in anything, but what will we do about--"

"About that arrogant popinjay who sits before his computer and looks down his nose at us?" A grim smile creased the Reverend's face. "I have no doubt that things will end badly between us and Mr. Trick. He has the stench of the unrighteous about him. Still, I think that we have miles to travel together before our paths diverge." He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "Thank you, Coyne. Now leave me."

Coyne did not have to be told twice. He left the room at twice the speed with which he'd entered. As the door closed behind his henchman, the Reverend Othniel Hampton turned to the glowing coals in the basin. The blade of a knife was buried in those coals, wedged into the pulsing red-white heart that lay beneath the thin powdering of gray ash. Laying aside his shirt, the Reverend reached down and grasped the haft. The skin along the edge of his index finger and his thumb puckered in the heat, the smell of burning hair a bitter perfume. Even through the leather wrapping of the hilt he could feel its radiance. He held the blade before his face. It glowed a dull cherry in the center, shading out to a brilliant white along the very edge.

"Purify me," he said, "as with fire." He laid the blade against his chest, just above the left nipple, one of the few areas left unscarred. As the odor of searing flesh filled the room his lips drew back from his teeth in a rictus of torment. The sizzle and crack of his own skin frying was in his ears. The tendons in his neck stood out, rigid. His eyes squeezed shut and tears welled up, but no sound escaped him save for the deep, even rhythm of his breathing.

***

"Well, this sucks." Faith tossed a sour look at the stage. A band called Mortal Coil was playing tonight. The lead singer had a very apparent fixation on either Robert Smith of the Cure or Chris Kattan's Goth Talk character from SNL.

"Really?" Willow's interest was piqued. "I thought you might like them."

"Please." Faith's lip curled. "I've had enough real problems in my life. A bunch of suburban kids whining because their daddy bought 'em a red Mustang instead of a black one just don't impress me." She glanced at the band. "Mostly though, it's because they got no groove."

"I'm with you there," Buffy said.

"Hey girls." They turned to see Lindsay Maeda approaching the table. She wore a cropped black T-shirt over seriously baggy expedition green pants. Her hair was loose on her shoulders and her right hand held a bottle of Amstel Light.

"Hey, Lindsay, Faith didn't tell us you were meeting us here." Buffy pushed a chair in the new Watcher's direction.

"That's because I'm not," Lindsay said as she sat down. "I just came to check out the band."

Buffy's eyes widened. "You came to the Bronze of your own free will to check out the band?"

Lindsay shrugged. "Sure. Nobody was playing at the U, so I dropped by." She looked over her shoulder. "They're pretty good, don't you think?"

A moment of silence followed. Willow looked down at the table while Buffy though fast and furious. "Well," she said, "they take what they're doing very seriously."

"Yeah," Willow added. "They really do, um, uh..." She trailed off into silence.

Faith looked at her Watcher, a crooked grin on her face. "Come on, Linz. Don't be cruel. You know these guys are selling major suck."

Lindsay looked at Buffy and Willow and laughed. "Yeah, but it's always fun to mess with someone's head." The Slayer and her best friend relaxed, sharing in the joke.

"Well, Giles definitely never just drops by the Bronze," Buffy said.

"Of course not." Lindsay shook her head. "He's too busy working."

"Yeah, and all work and no play make Giles a..." Buffy stopped. "Actually, Giles was a dull boy before."

"Please," Lindsay said, taking a pull on her beer. "Rupert Giles is not dull."

"We know about his mysterious past, the Ripper and all that," Willow said. "It was a long time ago."

Lindsay tipped her bottle in Will's direction. "Don't fool yourself. The Ripper's not gone."

"Excuse me," Buffy said, the fingers of her right hand resting on the table, "we are all talking about Rupert Giles, right? Glasses, wears a lot of sweater vests?"

Lindsay smiled and shook her head. "I know his fashion sense is challenged at best, but I bet you've seen the other side of him."

There was a subdued moment, then Buffy said, "Yeah. I've forced it to the surface from time to time."

***

Janine Treadwell was quite satisfied. The project was done and an 'A' was assured. Crissie had done her fair share and all was right with the world. All being right with the world was important to Janine. Her life plan was right on schedule. She would graduate from Sunnydale next year with a GPA in excess of 4.00 due to her weighted class schedule, which combined with her exceptional SATs (which she would get, she was certain) and first class extracurricular resume would enable her to attend Penn, where she planned to study architecture. This plan was written down in some detail in a notebook in the top right-hand drawer of her desk.

Janine was so deep in thought about her flawless path to the future that she nearly jumped out of her skin when the rustling came from the bushes. She remembered her recent brush with the bunny and laughed. Bending over, she walked toward the bushes, one hand extended.

She never even had a chance to scream as the figure sprang at her and threw the bag over her head.

***
THURSDAY
***

"You know there's a pep bus going to the game." Cordelia shoved a book into her locker and pulled out two to replace it. Xander leaned back and shook his head.

"I really don't see myself as a pep bus guy. More the guy who sticks the potato in the pep bus tail pipe."

"A winning team is wasted on people like you." Cordelia slammed her locker closed.

"Actually, I'm thinking of the team," Xander protested. "If I went to the game, I'd only be looking at you. Someone who really cares about the game should have my seat."

Cordelia couldn't stop her smile from breaking through. "Well, I'll forgive your lack of spirit then."

"Oh, I wouldn't say I have a lack of spirit," Xander said as he took her hand. "I'd just say it's focused in another direction."

***

"Faith, is your homework done?" A faint echo trailed Lindsay's voice. Faith cast an irritated glance at the bathroom door.

"No," she said.

Lindsay came out of the bathroom wearing a huge white sweatshirt with the sleeves rolled up and a towel around her head. "You better get started then," she said.

"Lindsayyyyy!" Faith threw herself back on the bed. "I'm down with the student undercover tip, but hey, school's out?"

Lindsay pointed at the books stacked on the dresser. "It's more than a cover. You need to be in school. Get going."

Faith pouted. "I can't do it. I'm like way behind and I didn't know most of this shit to begin with."

"Well, that's why I'm here." Lindsay smiled sweetly. "Believe it or not, I was pretty good in school."

Faith stared at the ceiling. "You know those undercover cops who turn into drug dealers because they've been in deep cover so long? That could happen."

Lindsay brushed her wet hair back from her forehead. "I don't think algebra will cause you to turn into a pacifist."

Faith pushed up off the bed scowling. "You're supposed to be the brains. I'm just the muscle."

Lindsay looked into the mirror as she said, "You're going to be more than that. Besides, who'll be the brains if I'm gone?" The silence that followed caused Lindsay to look into the mirror. She saw a pale Faith frozen behind her, halfway across the room. Lindsay turned to look at the girl, concern on the Watcher's face.

"Don't," the girl said, shaking her head. "Don't ever say that."

***
FRIDAY
***

Cordelia pressed the button on her key chain. The Sebring chirped in response. She slung her gym bag over her shoulder and headed for the pep bus. The strap started to dig into her shoulder about halfway through the trek. Even through the heavy maroon and gold sweater she could feel it. Irritated, she stopped and switched sides.

She could have parked closer. There were lots of spaces close to the bus, but people who at the very least wouldn't have minded leaving a ding in the door of her car drove most of the cars. She suspected that some of them would even enjoy it.

As she stepped up onto the bus, Cordelia looked back. It was worth a little shoulder pain to see her car sitting down there by itself, safe and sound.

***

"Hey," Oz said when Willow opened the door. "Your folks around?"

"No," Willow said as they went into the living room. "Mom has a conference this weekend and Dad went with her."

"Cool," Oz said. "I brought the homework." He held up the textbooks.

"Okay," Willow said. "I thought we might work on that for a while and then we could eat."

"Which takes us through about seven o'clock."

"I rented That Thing You Do. We could watch it after dinner."

Oz smiled. "A fine cautionary tale."

***

The pep bus was a melee of shouting and singing. The Razorbacks 33-12 triumph meant that Sunnydale would be undefeated at Homecoming for the first time since, oh, forever. Three or four lame pop songs were being sung or shouted out, contending with breathless replays of game highlights. Cordelia laughed as the aftermath of victory eddied around her.

"Can you believe this?" Andrea Pierce shouted into Cordelia's face. "We are actually going to state!"

"I know." Cordelia had to yell to be heard over the cacophony.

Andrea leaned forward. "I wanted to tell you, I think you've been a really great captain."

Cordelia blinked. "Thank you."

Andrea shook her head. "I really mean it. I think you've been great, and I'm going to vote for you for Homecoming Queen."

Cordelia nodded. "Thank you."

Andrea got up, swaying with the motion of the bus. "I'm going to the back. Wanna come?"

Cordelia shook her head. "No. I'm going to just stay here."

Andrea nodded. "Okay. See you later." She walked down the aisle, slapping the hand of some guy who reached out to pinch her butt. Cordelia watched her for a minute, then turned, looking out the windshield of the bus, but not seeing any scenery.

***

Oz stood as the final credits of That Thing You Do began to roll. Willow jumped to her feet to stand beside him.

"Are you going?" she asked.

"Unless you have a copy of Empire Records you want to watch," he said as he gathered the books he'd brought.

"You don't have to go," she said.

He stopped and looked at her. She fidgeted a bit, then licked her lips. He stepped close to her.

"Willow," he said, "are you--"

The rest of his sentence was cut off as Willow kissed him. It was a long, urgent kiss and when she stepped back he had to catch his breath. "I want you to stay," she said. "Ever since I was in the hospital, all I can think about is how short life is and how it can be gone before you know it. I don't want to die with some things undone."

Oz shifted his weight. "I'm flattered," he said, "but that's not really a good reason to--"

"Dummy." She cuffed him on the side of the head, a playful tap. "I don't just want to do it. I want to do it with you. I wouldn't want to leave this life without knowing what it was like to be with you."

"Oh." He stood there for a heartbeat with that faraway look on his face, that look like he was listening to a distant voice that only he could hear. He looked into her eyes. "Well, if it's that important to you..." He dropped the books and drew her to him, his eyes closing as his lips found hers.

***

The pep bus pulled out of the Sunnydale High lot. Cordelia and Skyler Paine watched it go. Skyler grinned. She was a tall, broad-shouldered girl with auburn hair who excelled at strength moves.

"I didn't think we'd ever cheer for a winner," she said.

Cordelia nodded. "Amen to that." She reached into her purse and took out her keys. "See you on Monday."

Skyler was already opening the door of her car. "Okay. Where you parked?"

Cordelia pointed. "Far end of the lot."

Skyler nodded. "Be careful." She got into her car.

Cordelia heard the engine start and the sound of tires as Skyler pulled out behind her. The Sebring was up ahead. She pointed her key chain at the car and pressed the button. The lights flashed as the doors unlocked.

The key chain was knocked from her hand as someone or something struck her in the back, throwing her to the asphalt. Something soft and cold was pressed over her face, hampering her efforts to draw breath. She struggled to get up, but whatever was on her back was too heavy. The edges of her vision began to go black, until the only thing she could see was the fuzzy glow of the security light over the Sebring. Then it winked out and darkness claimed her.

***

Oz lay on his back and breathed. He felt the air fill his lungs, then rush out his nose. He moved his arms and legs, small motions, little experiments.

"Are you okay?" Willow asked.

His eyes slid over to look at her, her pale skin glowing in the blue light of the darkened bedroom. "Yeah," he said. "I think I'm okay."

Willow bit her lip. "I didn't hurt you or anything, did I? I mean, I thought I knew what I was doing, but that was in theory, y'know?"

"No," Oz whispered. "You didn't hurt me. How are you?"

"I'm good." Willow smiled. "I mean, I read up on this and I was prepared for it to be, you know, less than awesome, because a lot of the books say to expect that."

Oz raised his head. "Were the books right?"

Willow giggled. "How would I know? It's my first time." She lay down, her head resting on his shoulder. "But if that was disappointing, then I can't wait to get to competent."


End of "Mystery Date" Part 1