Suggested listening:

"Fall On Me" by REM
"Mezzanine Floor" by Delirious?
"Under The Milky Way" by The Church

Part 3 of "Mystery Date."

***

"So it could be this cult that has Cordelia? Assuming that such a cult exists and that they are acting on this ritual?" A vertical frown line appeared between Lindsay's immaculate eyebrows.

Xander closed his eyes. "Based on my personal experience, yes, it's possible that Cordelia is... that she meets the requirements."

Faith sat slouched in one of the wooden chairs, her feet propped on the library table. "Hey, with speech skills like that you should be in politics." Buffy tried throwing a 'shut up' look in Faith's direction, but it had all the effect of spit on granite as the dark-haired Slayer continued to speak. "So we're really supposed to believe that Cordelia hasn't gone on Mr. Toad's wild ride? That's a little rich for my credibility budget." Xander's expression was one of physical pain.

Giles rubbed his chin with his thumb. "I suppose," he said at last, "that there are many things one could do and still be considered, at least technically, a virgin." Now Xander's expression was one of physical illness.

"Hey," Buffy said, "could we concentrate on the important matter at hand? Okay, I'm as skeptical as anyone, but we have to find Cordelia. After we do that, we can take a personal history."

"Yeah," Xander said, grateful for the change of subject. "And we have to guard Willow."

"What?" Willow said, her voice shooting upward.

"I'm just saying that if this cult has Cordelia and it turns out she isn't... acceptable, then they'll be looking for someone else and you're a likely candidate," Xander said.

Willow stared at him, her mouth open. Sputtering noises were heard. "Wh-what... wh-who..."

"As embarrassing as it may be, Xander might have a point," Giles said. "Perhaps Willow could be... that is, um..." he lapsed into silence.

"Bait? Is that the word you're looking for? Bait?" Willow's dander was still up. Oz touched her on the shoulder but she shook him off. "I'm so sorry, but as much as I'd like to be your Judas goat, I'm not eligible anymore."

Giles shook his head. "I would never ask you to--"

"You had sex?" Buffy said. "You guys did it."

"What?" Xander said, his eyebrows heading skyward. He turned to Willow. "You...?"

"Yes. Yes, we had sex," Willow said, her posture defiant. "It was a beautiful, private thing that was going to be all the more beautiful for remaining private until you stomped all over it." Her hand moved so fast that the sound of the slap was fading before most of them realized what she'd done.

"Ouch," Xander said, rubbing his jaw. Oz put his arms around Willow from behind, folding her into his embrace and whispering in her ear.

"Hey." Faith spoke into the vacuum. "Any reason we're only worried about female virgins?"

Giles ran both hands along his jaw. "It's a matter of custom and tradition, but... no, the ritual does not specify females. Why?"

Faith looked at Xander, her lips curved in a wicked grin. "Maybe we should be protecting you."

Xander turned to Buffy. "Please kill me now. This is officially the most humiliating moment of my life."

***

The hinges squeaked as the door opened. Cordelia looked up. They were here! She was... Her heart sank as she saw Hockey Mask enter. No rush of light accompanied him, so she assumed it was night. He squatted beside her. Cordelia drew away from him, pressing her back against the rough wall. He watched her for a moment. His hand touched her leg just above the knee.

"Don't," she said. She tried to make it commanding, but her voice quivered.

"Or you'll what?" His eyes were in shadow, two glittering points all she could make out. She gathered what strength she had and swung her fist at him. He caught it with ease. "Nice try." He squeezed, and pain lanced through her arm. He removed his right hand from her leg and reached behind his back.

"See," he said, producing the intricate knife, "I kept it."

Cordelia swallowed hard. "I thought killing me would screw up the sacrifice."

He shrugged. "Who said 'kill'? Maybe I'll just cut off a finger. Or saw off your hand. With a tourniquet, you could live long enough." He released her hand. Cordelia cradled it, trying to rub out the pain.

He switched the knife to his left hand and placed his right on her leg again. "This is what's so sweet." His hand crept higher on her leg, caressing her upper thigh. "Seeing you like this after watching you walk those halls, watching you think you're better than everybody else. Well, who's in charge now?" His hand slipped up under her skirt and touched the hem of her cheer briefs. Cordelia tried not to recoil as his fingertips caressed the material. "I've always wondered, do you wear panties under these or do you just go au naturel?" He slipped a finger inside the elastic. "Hey, looks like you're double-covered."

His hand withdrew and began to spider-walk across her abdomen, his fingers creeping over the fabric. Cordelia tensed. He paused, then a finger dipped between her legs and pressed. A sour taste flooded the back of her throat. She tried to squeeze her thighs together, which made him laugh. "Don't worry baby. I'm not going to rape you. That would spoil things. I'm just having some fun." He leaned close enough to whisper in her ear, the knife in his left hand.

"Isn't it ironic?" he whispered as his finger rubbed up and down. "You've saved it and now it's going to get you killed. Who's high and mighty now?" A brutal excuse for a chuckle emanated from the white mask. "Who the fuck has license plates like that anyway, 'Queen C?' You're not the queen now, are you?" The gleam in the shadowy sockets of the mask grew feverish. His hand moved from between her legs. Cordelia heard the grating sound of his zipper opening, then the rough rasping noises of flesh on flesh. She turned her head. She could see Casey Porter lying on the floor. The whites of the other girl's eyes were visible. She was watching. Cordelia closed her eyes.

He grabbed her chin and jerked her head around. "Open your eyes, bitch."

"No," she said, eyes shut tight. "Kill me. Cut my face. Do what you want. But I'm not watching this." She trembled, waiting for the blade to strike, but instead she heard the sounds resume. His breathing was rapid and shallow, almost gasping. She flinched as something warm and slippery squirted across her thighs. He groaned and she heard the zipper sounds again, then the sound of him getting to his feet and stumbling across the room. The hinges on the door squeaked and it slammed. That's when the shame and humiliation and anger surged up, threatening to choke her. Her throat burned and her eyes were closed as she sprawled there against the wall. The viscous fluid oozed over her legs, its passage marked by an obscene tickle. Scalding tears worked their way past her lashes and spilled down her cheeks. She felt something wet and cold brush her leg. With a strangled cry, she lashed out, opening her eyes.

The punch caught Casey in the back of the head, knocking her forward across Cordelia's legs. The girl looked back at the cheerleader, her eyes wide. Cordelia struggled to find something to say. Casey pushed herself to her knees. Her hands held her soaked T-shirt.

"I'm sorry," she said in a shaky voice. "I'm so sorry. I saw what he was doing, but I was so scared. I should have jumped on him or something, but instead I just lay there and let him... let him." She began to cry. "I'm so sorry. I thought I could at least wash it off for you."

"He had a knife." Cordelia shook her head. "It's not your fault. You couldn't do anything. He did it. He's to blame." She wiped her eyes on one of her sweater's filthy sleeves and looked at the other girl's hands. "You shouldn't waste your drinking water."

Casey looked down at the nasty floor. "Cordelia, what did he mean when he said 'You've saved it and now it's going to kill you?'"

"I have no idea."

Casey looked at her. "When they started the ritual, he said something about three untouched, three unknown by man."

"Yeah, I guess." Cordelia felt mostly fragile and alone. She wrapped her arms around her stomach, trying to hide their trembling.

Casey chewed her lip for a moment. "Is there anything...?"

"No." Cordelia shook her head, tired beyond anything she ever imagined. "Try to sleep."

Casey opened her mouth but said nothing. Instead, she crawled away and lay down, her back to Cordelia.

Cordelia Chase put her head in her hands and cried, cried for what had happened and for what was about to happen and for the sure, certain knowledge that no one was coming.

***
TUESDAY
***

"Thanks for the ride," Willow said as she climbed into the van. "I didn't feel like walking today."

"Hey, no problem," Oz said. "How are you feeling?"

Willow looked at him and scrunched up her face. "I'm okay. Not crazy about having... certain things become semi-public knowledge, but it happened. Xander wasn't trying to hurt us, he was just an idiot."

Oz nodded. "Agreed." He leaned over to kiss her on the cheek. "Hey, new shampoo?"

"Yeah." Willow held up a section of hair. "I'm trying to tame that flyaway thing."

***

Xander glanced at the clock again. The timepiece mocked him; it claimed that only two minutes had passed since his last glimpse. What period was this? What subject? He didn't know and didn't care. His stomach was a mess; he constantly felt like he was going to either puke or crap in his pants. Walking was a chore since his knees wanted to fold up every time he directed them to move. The clock marked another second. Would this interminable class ever end?

***

Faith drew the blade of the knife across the stone using a slow, deliberate motion, taking great care to keep the angle perfect. She finished with a flourish, holding it up to the light then testing the edge with her thumb. Satisfied, she slid the weapon into its sheath.

"That one's good," she announced. "What's next?"

Buffy looked up from shaping a stake. "Check the fletching on those arrows. Or you can sharpen those throwing stars."

Faith picked up an arrow and sighted along its length, turning in slowly. "This is the shit," she said. "Nothing like working on your weapons. Although I guess Xander didn't get to work his weapon." She snickered.

Buffy stopped her task. "Could you be a little more tacky?"

Faith scowled. "What's your major malfunction? Do you really think that Cordelia hasn't been taken for a test drive?"

Buffy waved a hand. "I don't know. I suppose it's possible. I mean, sure, if you asked me to compile a list of ten girls most likely to be virgins, Cordelia wouldn't be on it, but that doesn't make it impossible."

Faith laughed. "Think about it-Cordelia keeps herself chaste and all it does it make her the target for a bunch of loonies. If she is a virgin, which I still doubt." She shook her head. "The things that can get you in trouble. Makes me grateful to Stevie McGillicuddy in the seventh grade."

Buffy frowned. "Your first time was in seventh grade?"

Faith shrugged. "Lot of my friends didn't wait that long. Besides, what's the big? Now I don't have to worry about the virgin grinder."

Buffy returned her attention to the stake, but her hands only worked for a few minutes. Faith tugged at the feathers in an arrow then returned it to the quiver, satisfied. "Sure beats being in class, doesn't it?" When there was no reply she looked at Buffy. The blond Slayer was bent over the stake but her hand was still, her mind elsewhere.

"What's that?" Faith said, her voice louder. "Yeah, this is my favorite way to kill an afternoon."

"Huh?" Buffy looked up. "Sorry. Guess I took a mental vacation day there."

"I'll say." Faith twirled an arrow between her fingers like a baton. "If this is true, it's kind of funny. I mean, Willow's got some and Cordelia hasn't."

"This really isn't my favorite subject." Buffy shook her head.

The light bulb went on for Faith. "Wait a minute. Was Angel your first?"

"First and only." The instant the words were out of her mouth Buffy knew they sounded small-town and naïve and she hated it.

"No shit." Faith turned her full attention to Buffy. "I mean, doing the undead would be freaky enough, but to have it be your first... Hey, I gotta ask, was he, y'know, cold?"

Buffy squirmed. "I really don't want to go there."

Faith leaned forward. "C'mon B. Share. Slip me the lowdown on vamp lovin'."

Buffy turned away. "Don't take this the wrong way, but please shut up."

"Hey," Faith said, "I'm five by five, but I think somebody's got issues." She returned to sharpening weapons in the tense silence.

***

Willow worked her way out of the trickle of departing students and entered the library. Xander was already there, sitting at the table and looking pasty. She heard voices from the office; she assumed Giles and Lindsay were there. She crossed the room to the table. As she sat down Xander looked up.

"Hey, Will," he said, "I'm really sorry about... y'know, yesterday and everything."

Willow nodded once, her mouth turned down a little. "I know you're upset, so I'll let it go." The doors opened and Buffy came in. Oz followed a few minutes later. Giles and Lindsay came out of the office.

"Yes," Giles was saying. "That might be the best plan."

"We have a plan?" Xander said.

"Yes," Giles said. "The proprietor of the Magic Shoppe should be able to tell us if anyone has bought the book containing the spell for calling Azrael. That should lead us to Cordelia."

Willow got up from the table and went into the office. For a few minutes there was silence, then the whirring of the printer. Willow came out, holding a sheaf of papers in her hand. "Here," she said as she handed them to Giles. "That's five copies of the spell from five different web sites."

Giles stared at the papers. Lindsay said, "So we've got nothing." Willow nodded.

"Afraid so," she said.

Giles shook his head. At that moment the door banged open and Faith entered. "What's with the grunge angst?" she said.

"Willow just shot down our best lead," Lindsay said.

"And we're running out of time," Giles added.

"What?" Xander came halfway out of his chair.

Giles shook his head. "The ceremony must be performed on the new moon. The first night of the new moon is Thursday."

"Day after tomorrow?" Buffy said. Giles nodded. Lindsay bit her lip. "So what do we do?" Buffy demanded.

Giles shrugged. "I honestly don't know." He looked at the students. "Why don't all of you go home. Ms. Maeda and I will continue to work."

"Wait," Xander said. "We can't just give up."

"Xander," Giles said, "we are not giving up, but we have no leads. It will do no good for you to stay here. Go home, rest, do your schoolwork. If we discover anything, we will call you. Now go." He turned and went back into the office. Lindsay watched him go, then turned back to the kids.

"I'm sorry," she said, "but he's right. We'll get in touch as soon as we can think of something." She turned and hurried after Giles.

***
WEDNESDAY
***

Willow tried to concentrate, but emotional turmoil did not sit well with brushing one's teeth. She leaned over the sink to spit.

There was a split-second of nausea and then the headache hit like an anvil dropped from the Sears Tower. Her toothbrush fell to the floor. Willow turned, hands squeezing her head, and collapsed, missing the countertop by a whisker. The pain crested and receded like a wave, a very big, very slow wave. She took a fluttering breath and moved her arms and legs. Confident that she was in control of her skeletal system, she got up and hurried to the hall phone.

"Oz," she said, "I need you to take me to school, right now."

***

Cordelia felt the grit against her cheek and realized that she must either fallen asleep or lost consciousness at some point. She tried to push herself up and found that she had passed out with her left arm underneath her. The limb was numb and dead.

"Here, let me help." Casey Porter started to reach out to her.

"No," Cordelia snapped. "I can do it." Two attempts convinced her that she was wrong. "Here," she said, extending her right arm. Casey knelt beside her and the two of them were able to get Cordelia into a sitting position. It only took a few minutes for her arm to begin burning as the feeling returned. Cordelia grimaced in pain.

"Oh, have you got a boo-boo?" Janine sneered.

"Shut up," Casey snapped. "Just shut up. All you've done is sit there in a ball and when you're not doing that all you've done is bitch at her. What's your problem?"

"My problem is that you keep acting like she's some sort of queen. Didn't you get enough of her at school, her and her little gang of cronies? Always looking down on everybody else, always judging everyone, and now that we're about to die, you still treat her like royalty."

"Not like royalty," Casey said, "like a human being."

"God," Cordelia said to Janine, "do you realize how very pathetic you sound? Where do you live?" The blond glared at her for a second, then spat out an address. Cordelia nodded. "You know, that's not exactly the ghetto. And if you feel bad about yourself when I'm around, well that's your problem, because I don't recall ever even speaking to you before."

"That's my point," Janine said.

"What?" Cordelia threw up her hands and grimaced as her left arm protested. "Because I'm a cheerleader, I'm supposed to know everyone's name? Would it be okay to be all sullen and broody if I were poor? Or what about those art geeks who hang out by the fountain? They're not exactly racing around saying hi to everyone. What about them?" Janine scowled but said nothing. Cordelia twisted her torso, trying to work out a kink, and felt a tightening of the skin on her leg. She looked at her thigh and saw a dried scaly spot. Her eyes filled with burning, acid tears.

"Look," Casey said to Janine, "I'm sorry. But if it weren't for her, we'd both be dead now."

"Or worse," Cordelia said, still looking at her leg.

"Huh?" Casey turned toward her.

Cordelia looked directly into the other girl's eyes. "Death isn't the worst thing that can happen." She shook her head to clear her tears. Casey blinked and looked down at the floor. Cordelia got to her knees, then to her feet and hobbled toward the other room. Time for the morning toilet.

***

"I thought you couldn't control it," Buffy said.

"I can't," Willow said. "I'm not saying I can."

Giles furrowed his brow. "But you believe that you know where to find Cordelia?"

Willow shook her head. "No. I mean, not like I saw a picture of a house or anything."

"But you saw Cordelia," Xander said.

"No. Not really."

Giles made a doubtful noise. "I'm not certain I understand."

Willow gave an exasperated sigh. "I'm not sure I do either. I just know I was brushing my teeth this morning and I got another one of those... whatever I get, and I had a really strong impression of Cordelia and where she was."

"But you said you don't know where she is," Buffy pointed out.

"Will you all shut up and listen!" Willow screamed. The library fell silent. Lindsay stepped to the door and glanced out. She turned and shook her head. No one had been summoned by Willow's outburst. The girl slumped over the table, head cradled in her hands. Oz stepped up behind her and placed a hand on her shoulder.

"Why don't you give her a chance to explain it?" he said. "Without the Ron Popeil moments?"

Giles nodded. "Of course. I'm sorry, Willow."

Willow pushed her hair off her forehead and held it back with both hands. The gesture stretched her forehead tight and made her eyebrows arch even more. "I was brushing my teeth when one of those hit me. I can't explain it in words because it wasn't in pictures or symbols or anything like that, but I know that I got a sense of where Cordelia is. Or the direction at least." She sighed and let her hair fall back. "I can't think of a way to describe it. Maybe like sound or color. All I know is that Cordelia is in that direction." She pointed northwest.

"Just direction?" Giles frowned. "Do you have any idea how far?" Willow shook her head. The Watcher thought, chewing on his lower lip as he did. "Could you tell if we were getting close?"

Willow looked at him. Oz realized that he knew that look; it was the look she wore when she was puzzling out a particularly difficult equation. "I think so," she said. "At least in the general area."

"Rupert," Lindsay said, "you're not considering this?"

He looked at her. "I am."

Lindsay grabbed him just below the shoulder. "Can I point out all the deficiencies that are immediately apparent? We have no, zero proof that she'll be able to do this." She turned to Willow. "No offense. Nothing personal." The redhead nodded.

Giles bowed his head for a heartbeat. "Ms. Maeda, I respect your opinion, but believe me when I say that if Willow is convinced of the accuracy of this vision, then I believe her." He leaned forward and lowered his voice. "I know this seems very irregular to you, but please trust me. These are not children, not any more. They have seen more supernatural phenomena than all but a handful of our group and battled more than perhaps anyone."

Lindsay looked at Willow. "How close is 'the general area?' Can you get within a block? A square mile?" Willow shrugged, looking miserable.

Oz coughed. As everyone looked at him, he said, "I might be able to help you with that."

***

"You think you can track her by smell?" Buffy sounded skeptical. "How?"

Oz took a step closer to the Slayer. "You showered this morning with lilac soap. And you had..." He squinted just a bit. "...salad with ranch dressing for lunch. Which you're trying to cover with Carefree gum."

Buffy blinked twice. "Okay, I'm convinced."

Faith tapped a foot. "Is this some kind of werewolf thing?"

Oz nodded. "I think so. I can find Willow anywhere in the school."

Xander said, "So why can't you just take us to Cordelia?"

"There's a distance factor. I can't smell Willow when she's at her house and I'm at mine. And I know what Willow smells like. I don't know Cordelia's scent."

"Well," Buffy said, "that's why we're here." At that moment the door to the locker room opened and Willow's head appeared.

"All clear," she said. The two Slayers and Oz followed her into the locker room. Xander remained outside as watch. The quartet looked around. The far wall of the room was lined with full-length lockers, each with a mesh front. A huge blackboard hung on the wall just to their left, bracketed by two full-length mirrors.

"Which one's Cordelia's?" Willow asked.

"This one," Buffy said, walking to the third locker and pointing. "Who else would have Chanel No. 5 in her locker?" A pile of clothing lay on the floor of cubicle.

"Do we just bust the lock?" Faith asked. Buffy looked at the locker for a few minutes before she answered.

"No," she said as she lightly kicked the bottom of the mesh. "See, it's come loose down there." She bent, worked her fingers through the openings, and began to pull. The screen peeled back to offer access.

"Okay," Buffy said as she reached inside, "what have we here?" She pulled her hand back and held up a black sports bra.

"No," Oz said, taking a quick step back. "And no socks and definitely no underwear. This is borderline fetish enough."

"Well then, let's see." Buffy reached back in and brought out a black half-shirt with long sleeves and a mock T-neck. "Will this do?"

"Yeah," Oz said, nodding hastily. "Now, could we go?"

***

"Are you okay?" Casey Porter asked, touching Cordelia on the shoulder.

"I'm fine." But Cordelia's dull eyes and listless voice said she was lying.

"What's wrong?" Casey crouched, trying to get down to eye level.

Cordelia looked up into the other girl's face. "What do you think?"

Casey fell back on her haunches. "What can I do?"

"Nothing. There's nothing you can do."

"You said someone would be looking for us," Casey said. "They still might find us."

"Even if they do," Cordelia said, looking past Casey with a thousand-yard stare, "it may be too late."

***

"This is the best I can do," Willow said. Oz pulled the van to the curb and killed the engine.

"Are you sure?" Xander said, looking out the window at the decaying neighborhood outside.

"I'm sorry," Willow said, "but the impression isn't any stronger."

"Okay," Buffy said to Oz. "You're up." She took the half-shirt out of the plastic bag she carried and handed it to him. Oz held it in front of his face for a few seconds.

"Let's go," he said as he opened his door.

"Be careful," Giles said. The plan called for him to stay at the van with Lindsay. As Buffy had explained it, "Not to sound harsh, but all of us walking around with you two will look like a day trip from teacher's pet camp."

They stood on the sidewalk in a loose cluster. Oz turned in a slow circle, then began walking. The others followed. Willow kept glancing from side to side. This wasn't the best district in Sunnydale. Most of the lawns displayed large patches of bare dirt; many of the houses were in need of paint and featured old appliances as lawn ornaments. A few had decided to go whole-hog and make an automotive statement in the front yard.

"Now this," Faith said, "this is like home."

"Really?" Willow said.

The brunette Slayer shrugged. "We didn't have any yard, but hardly anyone in Boston does, at least not anyone who lives on the top floor of a three-decker. But the general ambience is pretty close." A pack of middle-school kids raced by shouting. Willow started as they passed.

Oz stopped, turned, and went back toward the van. Xander wheeled with him. "What's wrong? Aren't you getting anything?"

Oz shook his head. "I thought I had something, but I lost it." They passed the van. Expectation marked the Watchers' faces, but a quick shake of the head from Buffy apprised them of the situation. Oz walked about a block past the van and stopped at a cross street. He stood there for several minutes, staring in to space, then turned left. He led them on a meandering path with no rhyme or reason to its twists and turns. Buffy could sense Faith and Xander growing agitated. She quickened her pace to draw even with Oz.

"I don't want to hex your mojo here, but are we gaining any ground?" she asked.

He spared her a quick glance. "I think so. It seems stronger, but there's lots of stuff in the way."

"Okay," she said. "Keep sniffing." She dropped behind him. Oz stopped, backtracked, turned back in the original direction, then stopped.

"She's around here," he said, then turned in a slow circle. "There." He pointed across the street. They rushed across the cracked concrete toward a makeshift fence built of rusting panels of corrugated tin topped with barbed wire. Two panels wired to iron poles served as gates. A padlocked chain ran through holes snipped in each panel.

"What is this place?" Willow said. Faith pushed past her.

"Let me see." Faith crouched, peering through the holes in the gate panels. "Looks like a junkyard to me," she said, dusting off her hands as she stood.

"Are you sure she's in there?" Buffy asked. Oz shrugged.

"Give me a minute," he said and walked away. Minutes passed. Buffy felt the sun on the top of her head and heard the buzz of flies in the air. Strong smells of oil and dirt hung in the air. Oz came into view, walking from the opposite end of the block.

"Yeah," he said. "I circled the block. I keep smelling her in the middle."

"Okay," Buffy said. "How do we get in?"

Faith bent down and peered at the lock. "Chain's too strong," she said. "But I think the cut is rusty enough that it'll give. Give me a hand, B." The Slayers positioned themselves in front of the panels. "On three," Faith said. "One... two... three!" They kicked simultaneously. The panels crashed and shook but they held. Faith looked again. "Oh yeah," she said. "It's gonna go."

Two more kicks and the rusty tin parted with a squeal of protest. The Scooby Gang pushed open the gate and entered a landscape so alien it might have been in another solar system. The yard covered the entire block. Immediately in front of them, a hard-packed dirt path led between rows of junked cars. Broken glass littered the ground around the cars and caught the sun, throwing winking shards of brilliant light into the air. As they shuffled their feet, small puffs of dust rose and settled. Buffy squinted and shaded her eyes with her hand.

"Where do we go?" she asked Oz.

He pointed down the path. "Follow the yellow brick road." They had gone about a hundred feet when they saw the building, a concrete block affair with two large overhead doors and one white door to the right. A faded sign in the one dingy window read 'L&S Salvage.'

"What do we do?" Willow asked, rubbing her nose.

"I say straight on in," Faith said.

"You would," Buffy replied, "but I don't see any other way." She turned to the others. "Faith and I are going to open the doors. You guys follow when we give you the thumbs-up." The Slayers sprinted to the building and plastered themselves against it on either side of one of the overhead doors. Buffy looked at the door's handles, then at Faith. The other Slayer nodded. Buffy nodded three times. Both of them wheeled in, grabbing a handle and yanking up. The door was unlocked and slid up smoothly on its rails, banging to a halt in the fully open position. There wasn't much to see, just one large, high-ceilinged room. A standard door opened to their right. Buffy turned and waved. The Scoobies dashed across the dirt and through the door. Faith turned to the standard door and kicked. It was a cheap hollow-core and smashed into splinters. She went into the room and came out.

"Must have been the office," she said. "It's clear."

"Hey," Oz said, "check it out. There's another door over here."

***

Cordelia heard the sound of footsteps. She clenched her jaw and swallowed. Somehow, she would inflict pain. The footsteps stopped. There was a booming impact on the door, then another, then it flew inward, the top hinge pulling out of the frame with a scream of wood screws. She threw up her hands against the light.

"Cordelia?" Xander's voice! It was Xander's voice! She pulled down her hands, but her watering eyes could only make out blurry shapes. She heard Faith say, "Wow, is it ripe in here", then arms were around her, pulling her to her feet.

"Wait, wait." It was Willow. "They're chained."

"We've got to get them off." That was Buffy. Cordelia's eyes were adjusting; she could make out faces. Xander pulled her to him.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

"That," she sobbed in his ear, "is the stupidest question I've ever heard. Of course I'm okay."

Oz ambled up. "Here," he said, holding out a hammer and an enormous screwdriver. "Improvise." Buffy took the tools and knelt in front of Cordelia.

"Hold still," she commanded. Positioning the screwdriver against the first padlock, she smacked it once, twice, three times with the hammer. The lock tumbled away, sheared through the hasp. Buffy stood up. Willow and Faith had gone to the other two girls in the room. The Slayer freed them in minutes.

As they came into the light of the main room, Willow stifled a gasp. She could really see Cordelia now, and it wasn't pretty. Queen C's arm was looped around Xander's shoulders; he was practically holding her upright. A large scab graced her right knee, surrounded by the dark-red flesh that signaled infection. Her cheerleading uniform was beyond hope; dirt and grime had worked into every fiber, turning the white areas a uniform gray or black. Her hair was matted, she was covered in filth and the smell... Willow saw Cordelia looking at her.

"You look great," Willow said.

"Liar," Cordelia said.

"Dammit, those kids were right." The gang turned toward the new voice. Four male figures stood framed in the open overhead doorway. All of them wore masks. The leader, a guy in a white hockey mask, leveled a knife at them. "See," he said over his shoulder to the others. "I told you it was a good idea."

"This?" Buffy said. "You guys are the death cult?"

Hockey Mask shrugged. "I'm not too doctrinaire."

"Fancy vocabulary for a guy who picks on women," Xander said, his voice betraying the strain of supporting Cordelia.

"Harris," Hockey Mask said, sounding as though he'd just noticed Xander's presence. "I'll bet you're relieved to find out that you weren't the only cowboy who couldn't mount up."

"How did you know we were here?" Willow asked.

Hockey Mask laughed. "We asked the neighborhood kids to tell us if they saw anyone poking around the junkyard."

"Do you have any sort of plan or are we just supposed to hold these poses?" Buffy said. She glanced at Faith and made eye contact. The new Slayer blinked slowly. The chains used to hobble the girls dangled from her right hand.

"Sure," Hockey Mask said. "Azrael's the angel of death, so I guess we kill you. It could be messy fun." His compatriots hefted their weapons, a collection of aluminum baseball bats and crowbars.

Buffy shrugged. "Sounds like lameness to me. I mean, the death cult thing has panache, but this? This is just half-assed."

Hockey Mask's hand trembled as he raised his knife and pointed it at Buffy's head. "Smart mouth for somebody whose life is in my hands."

Buffy waved her hands, dismissing him. "Yeah, yeah. Tell you what, I'll give you one chance to put down your weapons and give up."

"Give up?" His voice climbed into a higher register. "We have the power. You are nothing!"

Faith said, "So your dick's what? Inch and a quarter?"

He cried out in rage and swung toward Faith. Buffy launched herself at him. He tried to turn back but was too slow. Buffy's left hand came up fast into his armpit, stabbing into the big bundle of nerves. His scream was cut short as the heel of her hand slammed into the hinge of his jaw. Not even hard plastic was adequate defense against Slayer strength. One of his compadres, a burly guy in a Scream mask, started to raise his bat, but Faith was already on him. Her right arm came straight over the top, the chains crashing down across his head. He screamed in pain and dropped the bat. Faith caught it by the barrel with her left hand and thrust upward. The knob caught him right under the chin. He made a gagging noise and fell over.

The other two, one in a Freddie Krueger mask and one in an Old Man mask, stood there, stunned at the speed of the attack. Faith turned on them, reversing the bat in a blur of motion. They both cringed, shaking their heads. Oz walked up to them and took their weapons, another bat and a crowbar. "I think I should hold these for you," he said. Buffy reached down and hooked her fingers beneath Hockey Mask's disguise.

"Don't," Cordelia said. Buffy looked at her in surprise.

"What?" she said. "Don't you want to know who it is?"

"No," Cordelia said. "I don't. Just get me home. Please."

Buffy straightened up. "But we have to do something about these guys."

Willow said, "Cordelia, you can't just let them go."

Cordelia shook her head. "I just want to go home and take a bath for about nine days."

"Hey, Buffy." Faith looked at the two conscious miscreants. "Could we shake a leg here? One of the Masters of Death seems to be having a problem with sphincter control."

"Cordelia..." Buffy began, but Cordelia just leaned on Xander and shook her head.

"Take her home." One of the other hostages, a dark-haired girl with a chunk of a watch on her left arm and a bunch of those string friendship bracelets on her right, stepped forward. "Call the cops. I'll press charges." The girl looked at Cordelia and Buffy could have sworn something passed between them. "I'll take care of it."

"I'm not gonna look a gift fish in the mouth," Xander said. "Let's get you home." He began to help Cordelia toward the door.

***
FRIDAY
***

"I can't believe she's going through with it," Willow said.

Buffy shrugged, watching as they maneuvered the portable stage into position. One of the custodians reached down and locked the wheels, then turned and gave the thumbs-up. The band director nodded. The Sunnydale High band launched into Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely", and the SHS Homecoming Court came around the end of the bleachers.

First came Little Miss Homecoming from Sunnydale Elementary. Her escort carried the queen's crown on a satin pillow. Then came the freshman attendant, then the sophomore, then the junior, each accompanied by her escort. They took their positions on the platform, trying to appear dignified and serious atop the wobbly dais. Cameras flashed in the crowd as proud parents strove to immortalize a significant moment in time. Then the candidates for queen appeared.

Harmony wore a black formal, her hair piled high. Razorbacks tailback Travis McNabb, who was responsible for two of the three touchdowns Sunnydale had scored in the first half, escorted her. Harmony mounted the platform with small teetering steps, Travis's hand at the small of her back for support.

"Hey," Faith said as she slid in beside them, a box of popcorn in hand, "I miss anything?"

Buffy said, "She's about to come out." As if on cue, Larry and Cordelia came into view.

"Wow," Willow said. Buffy had to concur. Cordelia looked stunning. The jade-green dress fell in a flawless line as she glided across the track toward the stage. Her arm was hooked through Larry's elbow, her hand resting lightly along his forearm. They reached the base of the steps and Cordelia swept up without a moment's hesitation, her shining hair swinging across her back. Larry followed, a huge grin splitting his face. Her gown was almost exactly the same color as the grass stains on his uniform.

"She looks pretty good," Faith said. "Amazing what a firehose and a bucket of soap can accomplish." The girls watched as Cordelia and Harmony assumed their spots. Two chairs remained unfilled. One was a copy of the pretentious patio furniture occupied by the rest of the court. The other was the queen's throne, a slightly more ostentatious bit of wrought iron resting on a six-inch high box. The two candidates faced the crowd. There was a sharp moment of feedback as the PA blurted into life.

***

The lights were too bright. The faces in the bleachers looked washed out, high contrast smudges of blazing white with black slashes for mouths and black blots for eyes. Cordelia fought the urge to squint. A bitter, coppery taste lingered in the back of her mouth. As she struggled to control her breathing she could feel her smile ossifying, threatening to slide off her face.

Principal Snyder stood at the edge of the stage, a sour expression on his face. The PA announcer finished introducing the court. Snyder stepped forward, lifting the crown from pillow held by the little boy. The PA announcer said, "And your 1998 Sunnydale Homecoming Queen... Miss Cordelia Chase!" Snyder reached up and placed the crown on her head.

***

"Hey, look," Faith said as she crunched popcorn, "she's crying."

Willow said, "It's been a stressful week."

"Yeah," Buffy said. "Plus this like her biggest dream come true."

"Geez," said Faith, "if that's true then she really should get boned."

***

Xander whistled. "Will, you look great."

Willow's smile was small, but it lit up her face like a spotlight. She released Oz's arm and turned a slow spin as they all admired her black dress with silver trim. Circuit completed, she took Oz's arm again.

"You don't look bad yourself," Oz said, pointing at Xander.

"Yes, the plaid vest cost extra, but I felt it was worth it. After all, how often are we undefeated?"

Oz asked, "How's Cordelia?"

Xander shook his head. "She's been pretty incommunicado the last couple of days."

Buffy frowned. "Is that some kind of spa?"

"She says she's okay, but she's awfully jumpy." Xander shrugged, trying to get comfortable in his tux jacket. "Which is understandable, being abducted by a jackass death cult and all."

Willow touched Buffy on the arm. "Where did you get this dress?"

The Slayer leaned forward. "I put it on layaway at Helene's last month," she whispered.

"Whoa," Xander said. "Will you look at that." He pointed across the gym. They all turned just as Faith entered. Her hair was up, highlighting her perfect oval face. Her dress was black and strapless, exposing her creamy shoulders and accentuating that graceful neck. She fidgeted as she looked around, then spied them and crossed the gym floor.

"Faith, where did you get that dress?" Buffy asked.

A nervous giggle bubbled out of Faith's lips. "Lindsay got it for me." She looked around the gym, then flashed a goosey smile. "I feel like everyone's oogling my goodies."

"And how do you feel about that?" Xander asked.

Her lips quivered, twitched, then split into an ear-to-ear grin. "Pretty damn bitchin'."

Willow brushed a hand across the brunette Slayer's shoulders. "Is that glitter?"

Faith nodded. "Yeah. Lindsay thought it would be good."

Buffy said, "Well Lindsay was right. You look fantastic."

"Really? Thanks." Faith was almost quivering. "Hey, when do they start dancing at this shindig?"

"In a couple of minutes," Willow said. "The king and queen have to dance."

As if cued by her words, the lights dimmed and the DJ said, "Ladies and gentlemen, for the first dance of Homecoming 1998, your king and queen." Larry and Cordelia stepped into the spotlight. 'Under the Milky Way' began to play and they danced. They glided around the floor and as they completed their circuit, other couples began to dance. Oz and Willow slipped onto the floor.

Xander turned to Buffy and started to speak then stopped when he saw her expression. The Slayer shot her eyes toward Faith. Xander's eyes widened. He nodded ever so slightly.

"Faith," he said, "would you like to dance?"

"Yeah," she said, taking his offered arm.

Buffy watched them as they made their way onto the dance floor. She smiled and headed for the ladies room.

***

The king and queen completed their dance and Larry escorted Cordelia off the floor. "Excuse me," she said. "I have to go to the bathroom." Larry nodded.

Cordelia hurried into the bathroom. Luck was with her; it was empty. She went to the farthest sink and splashed cold water on her face. She dried with a paper towel, then looked at her reflection in the mirror. The dance would last no more than ninety minutes, tops. She could get through that.

The stall door clacked like a train wheel. Buffy came out of the cubicle and froze. Cordelia was checking her makeup in the mirror.

Cordelia saw the Slayer and for a second her hand faltered, but she recovered and continued. Buffy went to the sink farthest from Cordelia and began washing her hands. The silence stretched until it was thin as a spider's web. Unable to stand it any longer, Buffy spoke to Cordelia. "Haven't seen you in a couple of days. How's everything going?" Cordelia shrugged in reply.

Buffy tried again. "Your dress looks really great."

"Cram it," Cordelia said.

"Hey," Buffy said, "what's the deal? What burr got under your saddle? Why am I Dr. Evil?"

Cordelia looked at Buffy's reflection in the mirror. The homecoming queen's eyes were hard and accusing. "I know what you thought: 'Cordelia's a big whore. They couldn't have taken her'."

Buffy wanted to protest, but how could she? Cordelia's analysis was painfully accurate.

"I'm a virgin, OK? It's not like I've got one leg or an extra head. I just haven't slept with anybody, and I'm not going to until I want to. And I don't have to justify myself to you."

"Cordelia, I understand--"

"You don't understand anything. And just because you gave it up to the first guy who wore a long coat and looked all broody at you doesn't mean I will."

"Cordelia, I wouldn't tell anybody how to live their life." Buffy's voice was tinged with frost. "Your choice is your choice. 'Why' is your business." She forced a smile. "And to show you how much I believe this, I'm going to ignore your comment and not break your arm."

The door creaked as it opened. Cordelia could see Harmony in the mirror. The blond did not look happy, but that wasn't unusual. She stalked up to the sink, checked her mascara in the mirror, and spoke to Cordelia without looking at her. "That was some trick."

"Excuse me?"

Harmony glanced at Cordelia, disgust etched on her face. "Faking your own 'disappearance' for the sympathy vote. I knew you wanted to win, but I didn't think you'd go this far."

Cordelia shifted her gaze to look at the other girl's reflection. "Harmony, life will go a lot smoother if you can learn to deal with one simple fact-sometimes when things go bad, it's your own fault." She twisted a tissue into a peak and blotted the corner of her mouth.

Harmony's eyes narrowed. "You're gonna get yours, Cordelia, and it's going to happen sooner instead of later." She looked at Buffy, attempting a cruel and haughty gaze. "How nice for you," she said to Cordelia. "One of your little urchin friends is here." She drew herself up, which was a mistake in the dress she was wearing. "I'll let you two have some quality time."

"Wow," Buffy said as the door slammed behind Harmony, "I'm impressed she used 'urchin' in context."

Cordelia looked at the door, then over at Buffy. "Yeah," she said as she left. "I guess there are worse things than people assuming you're a tramp. You could be a stupid tramp like her."

***

Cordelia put on a smile as she assumed her place beside Larry. The burly linebacker touched her on the elbow. "Xander's over there," he said.

"Oh," she replied. "I'm good. I'm okay."

Larry smiled. "Cordelia, I know you take being Queen seriously, but if you don't dance with him, I can't hang with Burke. So, please, go dance with your boyfriend." He placed a gentle hand on her shoulder and gave the tiniest of shoves.

Cordelia found herself moving across the dance floor. She was so unconscious of the movement of her feet that she might as well have been on roller skates. At first, Xander was just a small figure in a group of other figures, but as she drew closer he grew in size and the others faded until he was all she could see. She came to a stop. He looked at her.

"Would you like to dance?" he said, extending his hand. Her mind blank, Cordelia reached out and took it. He pulled her to him; his arm circled her waist. She felt stiff and cold in his grasp.

"I know that what happened to you was really awful." He was whispering, so close to her ear that she could feel the warmth of his breath. "I know that things won't be back to normal right away. So I'm telling you this now, so that you can put it in the bank. I'm here for you. Trust me."

As the music started to play, she put her head on his shoulder. A tear dropped from the corner of her eye to fall on his jacket as they began to sway together.

***

End of "Mystery Date"