Deus Ex Machina

by

Michael Walker
All4114all@bigmailbox.net

Suggested listening: "Lonely Moon" by Kevin Smith "Monkey" by Joe Henry "Blink by Rick Elias

Feedback? Yes, please.

*********

"So, whattya say, Will? You rent the movies, I'll pop the popcorn, it'll be big crazy movie fun night. More mirth than free people should be allowed to have." Xander Harris hopped over a crack in the sidewalk without taking his hands out of his pockets.

Willow Rosenberg shook her head. "That sounds nice, but I'm busy tonight. This weekend is Oz's time of the month, so we're spending our evenings together, you know, to see us through and help Oz get ahead on his homework."

"The sad part of that statement is that you both think that's fun."

Willow smiled, eyes twinkling. "That we do."

Xander turned and skipped backwards so he could face her. "That's good for you, but what am I supposed to do? Sit at home listening to my mom play the autoharp and sing Woody Guthrie songs."

"Hey," Willow said, "your mom has a great voice. Plus, she knows all the verses to 'This Land Is Your Land'. Besides, what about Cordelia?"

Xander shrugged and almost stumbled. "I don't know," he said after balance was restored. "This whole detention thing is making her very moody, which makes me very scared."

"I think it was noble of her to take detention for defending us."

Xander grinned. "Yeah, it would have been a sweet treat to see Snyder's face when she let him have it. Maybe I'll give her a jingle-jangle later. Even so, she doesn't approach movie night with the same gusto. The exquisite thrill of a guy in a rubber monster suit is lost on her."

Willow smiled. "It is a refined pleasure."

"Yeah, she just can't get into it like you and Buffy."

They fell silent, thinking the same thing. Where was the Slayer?

"I think I went almost ten whole minutes without worrying about her," Willow said in a soft voice.

"Yeah," Xander said. Then, attempting to change the subject, he asked, "So, had any more apocalyptic visions?"

Willow shook her head. "Nope, I'm presently lacking the vision thing. It's been almost two weeks, which is good, because it was really weird."

"Maybe you could get some kind of Hellmouth Caller ID. That way, when the scary voices call, you can refuse the charges." Xander did a 180 and fell into step beside her.

"Which would be useful," Willow agreed, "because, you know, the supernatural always calls at dinnertime."

******

The intercom button on Principal Snyder's phone buzzed. Irritated, he poked it with a stiff forefinger. "What is it?" he snapped. "I'm busy."

"The mayor is on line one," his secretary replied.

Snyder sat up straighter and smoothed his tie, completely unaware of the gesture. He took a deep breath and composed himself, then picked up the phone.

"Hello, your honor. What a pleasure to hear from you. What? Yes sir, school is off to a fine start. The project? It's on schedule, just as we planned. Yes sir, I'm sure of it. Not to be arrogant, but have I ever failed you? Isn't the Summers girl out of the way? No sir, no sir, I am not-- No sir, I would never presume to tell you how things should proceed." Sweat began to bead on Snyder's forehead.

"Sir? I hardly think that's fair. I have spent many days this summer, days which, I might add, are not contract days, preparing for this. No sir, I am not trying to shirk anything. What? Yes sir, yes sir, I'll get right on it. You can count on me." Hand shaking, Snyder placed the phone in its cradle. As he leaned back, he looked down at his lap.

"Oh, great," he snapped. "One more thing to take care of."

**********************

Her arms were yellow. This was disturbing, until she realized that she was wearing a raincoat. This seemed like a good idea, since a steady rain dripped off the branches of the trees surrounding her. Mist drifted through the trunks and eddied around her, tendrils rising into wispy nothings. She saw lightning, but heard no thunder. A figure moved through the trees ahead of her. She squinted, trying to see, but the light was bad and the rain ran into her eyes, blurring her vision. She shook her head, but she couldn't clear her vision. It seemed that the figure was drawing closer.

Lightning flashed, so close and bright that her eyes were dazzled. He stood before her, illuminated in the hard blue glare. She gasped and fell back a step.

"Why so surprised?" Angel asked. "Wherever you go, I'm there."

She wanted to say something, say the right thing, the thing that would make him understand. "Angel, I'm so sorry," was the best she could manage.

He looked down at her, his gaze a mixture of bemusement and pity. "I never figured you for a quitter. That's really surprised me."

"How can you say that?"

"You can't run away from who you are." He extended his hand, palm open. Buffy looked down. Her claddagh ring lay in his palm. She reached for it. A bolt of lightning split the sky, startling her. Angel stepped back and disappeared into the mist.

Buffy Summers sat bolt upright in bed, breathing hard. Her forehead was beaded with sweat. It took her a second to orient herself. She was in the room Cooper had offered her in return for volunteering at the shelter. Good, it was always good to know where you were. As her breathing slowed, she realized she wasn't alone. A shadowy male figure stood at the foot of her bed. For an instant, the dream came flooding back, but this man was too small to be Angel.

"Excuse me," Buffy said, voice strong, "I think you have the wrong room."

He didn't speak, but launched himself at her. She rolled out off the bed, landing in a crouch as her attacker sprawled across the mattress.

"Don't you guys ever get it?" she asked. "When a girl says no, it means no." His only reply was a flying kick directed at her head as he leaped off the bed. Okay, she thought, not one of the guys from downstairs. She stepped inside a right hand and delivered an uppercut that clicked his teeth together. She jumped back and snapped a kick into his midsection. He went with it, rolling over and coming to his feet. He feinted a kick to her ribs, and when she dropped her arm to block, came over the lowered guard with a hard punch. She dropped back a step and leaned away from a following blow, then hooked to his rib cage. It knocked him slightly off-balance; Buffy grabbed the front of his shirt and drove him across the small space of open floor and pinned him against the wall. Her forearm pressed across his throat.

"Okay," she demanded, "spill. Who are you?"

He pointed at her forearm. The signal was clear: I can barely breathe here, let alone talk. She shifted her weight the tiniest bit. He sucked in a deep breath, then spoke. "Let me go."

"Not a chance. Tell me why you're here."

He stared into her eyes, his focus intent. "To remind you not to lose faith. You're the chosen one. You can win."

Startled, Buffy's grip relaxed for a heartbeat. It was all the opening her assailant needed. He kicked, sweeping her feet out from under her. She landed with a jarring thump. He hesitated, then turned and ran through the wall. Buffy blinked and shook her head, trying to get the pounding to go away before realizing that the pounding came from the door. She scrambled to her feet and opened it. Marla stood in the hallway, quilted maroon robe belted tight around her.

"Is something wrong?" Marla asked. "I heard the most terrible commotion."

"Wrong?" Buffy's brain went into turbo. "No, nothing's wrong. I... saw a roach. I hate those things. They're so gross. You probably heard me trying to kill it. He was tiny, but surprisingly fast."

Marla looked past Buffy. "Well, he certainly seems to have done a great deal of damage."

The Slayer looked over her shoulder. The skewed mattress sloped from the box spring onto the floor. Blankets were strewn around the room; the lamp from the bedside table rocked gently on its side. Buffy turned back, a pensive expression on her face.

"Isn't it always like that?" she asked. "Little things cause so many problems."

*******

Giles took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He was doing that a lot these days, but some of the print in these old books was so faded that eyestrain was just a matter of course. Truth be known, he wasn't expecting to learn anything from the books tonight, but he needed a way to fill the time while he waited for a phone call.

For approximately the thousandth time that night, his thoughts turned to Buffy. Giles knew what it was to rebel, to kick against the traces of fate, but he realized that even during the worst of his days as the Ripper, he'd never felt the sort of isolation and despair that must have driven the Slayer away.

He reached out his hand and began to stroke the orb of Thessala that sat on his desk. Giles had run every possible sequence of events through his mind, over and over again. He was convinced that only one scenario could explain subsequent happenings.

The phone trilled, snapping him out of his reverie. He grabbed a pad and pen as he cradled the receiver between his shoulder and ear. "Hello, Sunndyale High Library. Rupert Giles speaking."

"Should it be someone else?"

The sound of the familiar voice brought Giles a small measure of comfort, the first he'd known in weeks. "Well, I can't very well answer, 'Rupert Giles, Watchers' Council."

"No, you cannot. I know that this is not a social call, so I will be brief. I have read the documents you sent to me, as well as your notes. I believe that your interpretations of the signs and the relevant texts are all correct."

There was a beat of silence while Giles absorbed this information. "Well," he said at last, "I can't tell how much I hoped that you would find an error in either my translation or interpretation."

"Alas, I cannot."

"Then that means--"

"Yes, old friend. You are in a very dangerous place."

******

Buffy gave the table one final swipe with the towel and took a step back. "Watch out! Coming through," a voice sang out behind her. She looked over her shoulder. Nancy, one of the breakfast volunteers, passed behind her, carrying a full tray of glasses. "Hey, Anne," she said, "how's it going this morning?"

Buffy's smile was small but genuine. "It's going pretty well," she replied. Nancy, a diminutive woman with an unruly mop of curly hair and a sharp pretty face, grinned. Buffy took her spray bottle of bleach and water to the last table and began to wipe it down. Finished, she took her implements back to the kitchen, tossed the towel in the laundry, stored the disinfectant in the supply closet, and poured a cup of coffee. The others were sitting at a table.

"Watch out," sang out Jill, a sophomore at UW. "If you spill anything, Anne'll go on the warpath." General laughter greeted the joke, and Buffy smiled as she took a chair.

"How's it going?" asked Hugh, who was in his sixties and laughed more than anyone Buffy had ever known. "How are you today?"

Buffy rubbed a shoulder and said, "Sore."

"Tell me about it," Jill said. "I'd like to see most guys hoist those steam trays for four hours at a pop."

"Well, Cooper," Nancy said, "what's the latest word on the budget?"

Cooper took a sip of his coffee and considered the question. "The director says we're pretty much right on target."

"And what does 'on target' mean?" Jill asked.

"Only four crises a month instead of six." Everyone chuckled at Hugh's statement. "Well," he said, "I always say it's good to leave on a laugh." He stood up, astonishingly straight and limber. "I've gotta shove off."

"Hey," Nancy said, "can you give me a ride?"

"Sure." Hugh drained the last of his coffee while Nancy got her jacket. Jill stood up as well.

"I guess that's my cue, too," she said. "Later, Cooper. Later, Anne."

Cooper waved at the trio as they left. "Thanks for the help."

"Wow." Buffy looked down at the table. "I sit down and the party breaks up. Do I offend in some way?"

Cooper shot her a glance. "What? Oh, that. Well, some aren't here twenty-four seven like you and me. We're lucky. They have lives. Poor suckers."

A small, ironic smile touched Buffy's lips. "Twenty-four seven? I'm impressed. That was hip as recently as two years ago."

Cooper shrugged. "Well, I try to keep up with what the young people are saying." He grinned and sat his cup on the table. "How's the room?"

Buffy shrugged back. "Pretty much great. Although it doesn't have much to compete with." She took a deep breath. "I suppose I should thank you for getting me in. I mean, I don't see anybody else getting to spend the night."

Cooper picked up his cup, looked at it for a moment, then put it back down. "Actually, you should thank Marla. She pulled the strings."

"Marla?" Surprise was clear in Buffy's voice.

"Yeah." Cooper glanced around, then lowered his voice. "She's got a soft spot for you."

Buffy was flummoxed. "She hides it well. She always looks at me like something she found on the bottom of her shoe."

"It's her way." Cooper rubbed the palm of his left hand with his right thumb. "Marla has an extremely tender heart. She wants to save everyone who comes through here, but that's impossible. So she puts on her mask. Don't be fooled by it. She cares. A lot." He took a great interest in whatever he saw in his right hand. "That's why she's so concerned about the commotion coming from your room the other night."

Buffy cocked her head. "Cooper, remember what you told me last week? About the hospital." He stopped rubbing his hand. "I need to know how much of that was true. I need to know what you really believe."

His head rose slowly until he looked into her eyes. He raised his right arm and turned the hand until the palm faced her. His shirt sleeve covered his arm, but she knew what was under the denim: the scar, that furrow plowed through his flesh, all the more frightening for the straightness and precision of the cut. He said nothing, just held the arm up for her to look at.

"Okay." She nodded. "I get it. Very dramatic. But it doesn't answer the question."

He lowered his hand and leaned forward. "I believe there's an entire world we can't see. I think that whoever lives in that world is very different from us, and I think that some of them want this world the way a terrier wants a rat." He sat back. "Does that answer your question?"

Buffy chewed her lower lip. Moment of truth time, she told herself. She looked into Cooper's eyes, trying to read them, to find a hint of how he would respond to her story.

"I had..." She stopped and started again. "There was a... visitor in my room last night."

Cooper lifted one eyebrow. "Well, now, that's just plain against the rules."

"It wasn't--" Buffy stopped short when she realized that he was joking. "Ha, ha," she said, a weak grin on her face. "Very funny."

"Thank you." Cooper made a 'continue' motion with his hand. "I'll just assume that this visitor was somehow... special."

"As in he left through the wall, not the door." Watching for his reaction, Buffy realized that she was holding her breath. Cooper blinked twice and frowned.

"Are you saying that he... ?" Cooper made a motion with his hand, like a bird flying away.

Buffy nodded. "That's what I'm saying. Like a scene in The Frighteners, but without the effects crew."

"Uh huh." Cooper looked down and blew out his breath. His cheeks puffed out with the force of his exhalation. When he looked at her, Buffy saw something in his eyes, something different. "What made you come here?"

"What?" The question took her off-balance.

"You showed up at night, long after sign-up, and needed a place to stay. This is after telling me for weeks that you didn't need anybody. What happened on that night to make you come here?"

Buffy swallowed. "I had a run-in with a couple of guys. A cop broke it up. She started asking questions. I can't do the police. I told her I'd come here. So I did."

"This officer have a name?" The fingers of Cooper's right hand twitched against his thigh, a rapid thrumming that he didn't seem to notice.

"Uh, Gabriel. That's what was on the badge."

"Gabriel. Okay." He pushed away from the table and stood.

"Cooper? What's wrong?"

He looked at her, and Buffy caught a glimpse of a bleakness, a ravaged quality, that he kept well-hid. His voice seemed to come from a place deep inside himself. "Were the two guys, uh, related to your visitor last night?"

Buffy's gaze slid to the table. "Maybe." He nodded once and walked away, holding his body at a strange, stiff angle. She watched him go past the serving area, into the kitchen, heard his footsteps cross the floor, and the faint sound of the back door opening and closing.

Marla came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on a checkered dish towel. "Any idea where he's going?" she asked.

Buffy shook her head. "None whatsoever."

**********

Giles looked over the heads of the students pouring through the halls, searching for a familiar face. He spotted Oz easing through the crowd, completely comfortable in his skin, which was ironic, since his skin changed once a month. Giles cut across the current, intercepting the young werewolf and falling into step with him.

"Giles." Oz gave the briefest of nods. Giles was learning how to read the boy's body language. This particular nod said "Good to see you" with overtones of "What can I do for you?"

"Have you seen Willow?" the Watcher asked. They walked a few feet in silence before Oz started and said, "Oh, you mean recently."

"Yes." The faintest hint of exasperation entered Giles's voice.

Oz shrugged. "No. But I'll see her at lunch."

"Could you tell her that I need to see her in the library after school?" Giles stopped and laid a hand on Oz's shoulder. "In fact, all of you should be there."

"This is big, isn't it?"

Giles pasted a bland expression on his face. "What makes you say that?"

Oz turned his head to look at the hand on his shoulder, then lifted his sleepy gaze to the Watcher's eyes. Giles nodded. "Yes," he said, removing his hand. "I suppose that was a bit demonstrative."

******

"...so while certain alternative historians have tried to argue that both Alexander the Great and Napoleon would have grown tired of slaughter and turned their attention to administering their empires, I think it's more likely that both of them were like sharks. The day they stopped moving forward would be the day they died."

Xander slouched at his desk, mesmerised by another of Mr. Warner's digressions. The new history teacher had the most fascinating habit of completely abandoning his lesson plan at the drop of a hat and chasing whatever rabbit interested him down whichever hole it entered. It made for entertaining classes, but it was hell to study for the exams. Check that, Xander reminded himself, it's a lot of things, but it's not hell. I know from hell.

"Anyway, to get back to our main thread, which is how Alexander's empire unified Western Europe through the concept of Hellenism. Anybody care to guess what Hellenism was?" Mr. Warner flipped his chalk into the air and caught it with an easy, practiced motion. "Erin?" He pointed at a girl in the second row.

"Hellenism was..." Xander zoned out as Erin Bening ploughed through her explanation of the topic, an explanation which would be highly detailed, doubtless correct, and utterly, utterly boring. Thank heavens it was fourth period; lunch would help him clear his head. Probably help him clear his stomach as well.

Without the slightest warning, a violent shudder ripped through him, starting at the base of his spine and rocketing upward. His shoulders and head jerked with enough force to leave him dizzy. As the fog cleared, he realized that the room had grown silent. He shot a quick glance around the room. Yep, everyone was looking at him, and not in that fun, hey-you're-such-a-stud way he'd often imagined.

"Is there a problem?" Mr. Warner took a couple of steps toward his desk. Xander hauled himself upright.

"No, everything's cool. Just, uh, y'know, overcome with pride in my namesake." He lifted a fist in a weak mockery of a power salute. "Alexanders of the world, unite."

A giggle ran through the class. Mr. Warner smiled, which disturbed Xander, since that goatee made the teacher look more than a little devilish. "Nice save, Mr. Harris," he drawled as he went back to the board. The bell clanged as he was raising his chalk. "Okay," he said, turning back to the class, "tomorrow, the division of Alexander's empire. Know it. See you later."

*****

"Why are they called chicken fingers?" Xander examined the golden plank between his digits. "Chickens don't have fingers."

"Buffaloes don't have wings," Oz pointed out.

"Bison." Willow pushed her hair back. "The plural of buffalo is bison."

"Are you people proud of being the geek patrol?" Cordelia asked.

There was a moment of silence, then Willow said, "Well, not exactly proud."

"Hey, speak for yourself." Xander drew himself up straight, chin out. "I say it's time for geek pride."

"Well, that's lovely, but you're not actually a geek." Cordelia grinned. "Geeks have some sort of technical skill."

"Remind me again," Oz murmured, "what is the basis for your relationship?"

"It's a Wizard of Oz kind of thing," Xander offered. "Cordy has no heart and I, according to her, have no brain."

Willow giggled. They all looked at her, questioning. "Sorry," she said. "I was thinking none of us has the nerve."

"I wouldn't say that." Cordelia's fingers drummed on the table. "I'd say that putting ourselves out there as a roaming buffet for evil requires both heart and nerve."

Oz's lips twitched in what might have been a smile. "Guess it doesn't say much for our brains, though."

There was a beat of silence, then Oz said, "Oh, Giles wants us all to meet in the library after school."

"Am I the only one who wonders why Giles never wants us to meet at Pizza Heaven? Huh? Huh?" Xander looked around the table, making a 'bring it on' gesture with both hands.

"Think it's about your computer project?" Cordelia took a small bite of her salad.

"I don't know." Willow glanced at Oz. "Did he say?"

Oz shook his head. "Nope. And he touched my shoulder."

Xander's jaw froze in mid-chew. Cordelia put down her fork; it rattled slightly as she placed it on the table. Willow's eyes grew round.

"You mean, like this?" She placed her palm on Oz's shoulder in a comforting gesture.

Oz nodded. "The same. It was a very Della Reese moment."

Xander dropped his chicken onto the plate and leaned back in his chair. "Well, I don't know what's going on, but it sure has Giles spooked."

********

Buffy took a deep breath to steady her nerves and knocked on the door of the small office. Marla's muffled voice said, "Come in." Buffy pushed open the door and entered.

Marla was sitting at the battered old metal desk, fingers flying over the keyboard of the hopelessly obsolete computer the shelter used for its bookkeeping and inventory needs. The desk was one of those old battleship-green and slate-gray numbers, probably a cast-off from some now-defunct Catholic school. Marla was a big woman, tall and wide through the shoulders, and Buffy thought she looked uncomfortable, wedged into the space between desktop and wall. As the older woman turned toward her, Buffy realized that Marla was wearing half-glasses.

"Hello, Anne," she said. "What can I do for you?" As usual, Marla's manner was brisk to the point of inducing a chill.

Buffy shrugged and folded her arms. "I didn't see Cooper at lunch," she said. "I was wondering if anything was wrong."

Marla took a deep breath. A sudden image flashed through Buffy's mind, an image of Marla opening her mouth and exhaling a blast of flame. Instead, she asked, "You just noticed?"

Buffy shook her head. "No. He wasn't at dinner last night, or breakfast this morning."

Marla nodded. "Well," she said as she turned back to the computer, "at least you're not blind."

Buffy's hands curled into fists. Settle, she told herself. She relaxed her hands and eased her weight back onto her heels. Keeping her voice as neutral as possible, she said, "Is this unusual for him?"

Marla stopped typing and stared at the screen. Buffy was beginning to think the older woman hadn't heard her when Marla turned to look at her. "Anne, do you have any idea where he might be?"

"N-no," Buffy stammered. "I was going to ask you the same thing."

Marla took off her glasses and rubbed the bridge of her nose. The similarity to Giles's favorite gesture struck Buffy hard. A twinge ran through her. How were they back in Sunnydale? What was Willow doing? Were Xander and Cordelia still dating? With a shock, Buffy realized that this was the first time she'd allowed herself to think about them in weeks.

Marla took another deep breath. "I'm sorry," she said, her voice stiff and halting. "That blind remark was uncalled for. I've never handled stress well."

"Are you stressing over Cooper?" Buffy asked.

Marla nodded. "I know he seems very strong to you, like steel, but he's really like iron."

Buffy's forehead wrinkled. "Sorry. Metaphor blew right past me."

"Iron can withstand a direct blow of tremendous force, but it's brittle. If you twist or bend it, it breaks very easily."

Buffy shook her head. "Still not getting it."

"Cooper carries a great deal of pain inside himself. Pain and fear."

"Fear?" Buffy's puzzlement grew.

Marla's eyes clouded over. "I probably shouldn't be talking about this. I'm sorry."

Buffy had to respect her decision. "Okay. Is there anything I can do?"

Marla turned back to the computer. "Say a prayer."

Buffy nodded and slipped out of the office, closing the door behind her.

*********

Xander angled across the current of students, sliding out of the crowd at Cordelia's locker. "Hey there, pretty lady," he smirked. Cordelia stuck a book in the locker and turned to him.

Uh-oh, he thought. I don't like that face. "Is, uh, is something wrong?" he asked.

"Wrong?" she said, firing a book into the locker with enough force that Xander could hear it bounce off the back. He winced. "What could possibly be wrong?" she continued. "My next class is Bio III, which completely sucks, then cheerleading practice,
and then I have my little appointment with detention."

Xander stuck his hands in his pockets and thought fast. "Well, Bio only lasts fifty minutes, and detention... Okay, there's nothing good about detention, but at least you got it for something worthwhile. I mean, you told off the Snyde."

Cordelia bowed her head. Xander's leg began to twitch, a sure sign he was nervous. "Uh, is there anything else?" he asked.

Cordelia's voice was barely above a whisper. "I heard a rumor that someone's saying I shouldn't be captain of the squad."

"Because of detention?"

"No, because they butchered a chicken and the innards said someone else should be captain!" Cordelia's eyes flashed before both of them realized that, in Sunnydale, that might not be far from the truth.

Okay, Xander thought, it's time to be the good boyfriend. Cheerleading meant something to Cordelia; being captain was a big deal. It was on her list of things to do, like winning Homecoming Queen, and being the first person to own the newest Versace. Xander had come to realize that she was driven, and that some of her thoughtlessness came from her blind focus on achieving her goals. He didn't understand what was driving her, he just knew something was.

"Hey," he said, his hand resting on her arm, "it'll be okay. No one else is fit to carry your captain shoes. Don't worry about that. Do you have any idea who's behind it?"

Cordelia thought, her perfect lower lip caught between her perfect teeth. Xander imagined that lip caught between his-- No, no, he commanded himself. Stay on message! "Lacey," said Cordelia. "She's pretty much Harmony's puppet."

"Are you kidding?" Xander demanded. "If Harmony made a right turn without signaling, it'd break Lacey's nose." Cordy grinned in spite of herself; that was a funny image. "Here's what you're going to do," Xander continued. "You're going to go to practice, and you're going to kick Lacey's ass at everything. You'll jump higher, you'll cartwheel faster, you'll... split wider."

"Okay, that last one was just perverted."

Xander grinned. "Well, if you're recovered enough to call me a perv, then I know you'll be all right." He pushed away from the locker. "See you tonight?"

"Don't we have to do the chop-chop stab-stab thing?" Cordelia zipped her backpack and swung the locker door closed.

"No," he said. "Will's got a couple of tests coming up and Oz has rehearsal, so we should be carnage-free tonight."

"Okay, then. How about eight?"

Xander snapped his fingers. "You know, I was just going to suggest eight. Your ability to read my mind is uncanny, miss."

"Please." Cordelia rolled her eyes. "Your mind's about as hard to read as See Spot Run."

*******

Xander was actually the first one in the library, but only by moments. He was still looking around when Willow and Oz walked in, arms around each other.

"Hey, hey," Xander called, gesturing at their entwining. "You two want to get a room?"

"Oh, yeah," Willow mock-sneered. "Like you and Cordelia don't look like Siamese twins joined at the lips."

"Where's Giles?" was Oz's contribution to the repartee.

Xander shrugged. "Don't know." He pulled out a chair. "Shall we?"

"So," he continued after they were seated, "you didn't find anything on Snyder?"

"Nope."

"So it's like, before Snyder existed here, he didn't." Oz held Willow's hand and rubbed the back of it with his thumb.

She nodded. "That's pretty much the conclusion to draw."

Xander shrugged. "You're making an awful lot out of one search."

Willow shook her head. "It's not one search. Everyone leaves a trail, paper or electronic. Even if you don't use a computer, the people you do business with will. And they'll keep records on everyone."

"Everyone except Principal Snyder," Oz interjected.

"Exactly." Willow continued. "I've checked every database I can think of, and he's not in any of them."

"What do you mean, electronic trail?" Xander sat up straighter in his chair.

"Oh, well, whenever you do anything by computer, it can be tracked by someone who knows what they're doing." Willow was matter-of-fact.

Oz grinned at her. "Someone like Willow." She smiled shyly.

"But that's only while you're on-line, right? I mean, after you sign-off, it can't be traced, can it?" Xander asked.

Willow shrugged. "Sure they can. It's all in there."

Xander spread his hands out on the table. "That's terrible. Is there no corner of our lives safe from these prying eyes? Must everything we do be open to public scrutiny?"

"Xander--" Willow began.

"It's a matter of principle. It's not like I have anything to hide, and why are you looking at me that way?"

"No reason." Oz looked at Willow, and the look said let's not even go there. "Anyway," he continued, "what does this have to do with Snyder?"

"I can't find even the most basic information on him. No birth certificate, no driver's license issued, no records of a bank account or a house. No marriage license, nothing. It's like he's never done anything."

At that moment, Giles walked through the doors, a stack of heavy books in his arms.

"Hey, Giles," Xander said. "I think we found your long-lost twin."

The librarian hoisted the books onto the checkout desk. "I haven't the faintest idea what you're talking about, Xander, but I'm sure it's a shining example of what wit is not."

"Hey," Xander said, "I think that bore a marked resemblance to a gibe."

Giles turned to Willow. "What were you talking about?"

"Oh, you know, how Principal Snyder is the electronic equivalent of the invisible man." She turned to Oz and Xander. "Did you know he's never even registered a car?"

Xander raised an index finger. "More surprisingly, no visits to spankme dot com."

Giles sat down at the table. "It seems a little late in the game to ask such a question, but is what we did terribly illegal?"

Willow opened her mouth, but Xander interrupted before she could speak. "Don't answer that, Will." He turned to Giles. "Best to maintain extreme deniability."

"Well," Giles said, resting his elbows on the table and steepling his hands in front of his face, "regardless of that, we must turn our attention away from Principal Snyder."

"Does this have anything to do with your bad-touch on Oz this morning?" Xander asked.

"I'm afraid it does," Giles replied. "I believe that we may all be in grave danger."

"We really should make that the school motto," Oz said.

***********

"No, no, no!" Cordelia put her hands on her hips and flipped her pony tail out of the way with a quick jerk of her head. "We're looking for a cartwheel, Andrea, not a round-off."

Andrea Pierce nodded, blond bangs bouncing with the effort. "Let me catch my breath," she panted.

"Let's do it now," Cordelia demanded. "First game's in a week."

"Cordelia?" Ms.Hollis, the cheerleading sponsor, waved her over. Cordelia jogged across the grass, feeling the sun warm on her back as she crossed the track.

"Yes, ma'am?" Cordelia squinted against the sun as she looked up at Ms.Hollis. The teacher looked down from her perch on the bottom row of the stands. Cordelia hated the angle. Ms. Hollis spooked her anyway; the teacher was physically imposing, tall and strong. Someone said she'd played basketball in college, but Cordelia thought she looked like she'd wrestled.

"Tell you what, it's a long season. Let's not exhaust the troops crossing Poland."

Cordelia was baffled. "Huh?"

Ms. Hollis sighed. "Stop pushing everyone so hard."

"But the first game--"

"I know when the first game is. Believe it or not, having a working knowledge of the schedule is kind of mandatory for the sponsor." Ms. Hollis smiled and shook her head, sending her springy black hair into a wild corkscrew dance. "I appreciate your dedication, Cordelia, I really do. But you can't just drive people. That's not what being captain is all about."

Like that matters, Cordelia thought. She glanced over her shoulder, looking for Lacey. The movement was quick and unconscious.

Ms. Hollis was still talking. "It's about getting the best performance out of the entire squad. Now, let's finish up on a high note, okay?"

Cordelia forced a smile. "Okay," she said. As she walked back toward the squad, her eyes met Lacey's. The tiniest hint of a smile twitched around those cherry red lips. Cordelia felt her jaw clench. Relax, she thought. Remember what Dr. Nunn said about grinding your teeth. "Okay," she called out, waving her arms, "formation. Let's do this last one right."

*****

"Not to be flip," Oz said, "but how grave a danger are we talking about? 'All life ending and the world a smoking cinder' danger, or 'a funky smell and some extra frogs' danger?"

"Which is nothing to sneeze at," Willow added, a trace of indignation in her voice.

"I've always wondered how you actually sneeze at something," Xander mused.

"This is closer to the former than the latter, I'm afraid." Giles flipped open the leather cover of an old, old book, then waited for the small cloud of dust which resulted to settle. "I'm not one-hundred percent certain, but I believe that someone is attempting Hamuntep's Conundrum."

The trio of students looked at each other. Finally, Oz said, "Okay, guess I'm the guy. What is the... thing you just said."

Giles pointed at the book. "It is very complicated and theoretical. It involves cosmology, metaphysics, epistemology and religion. It--"

"It appears to be something which works by boring us to tears," Xander observed. "Just tell us how to get out of the way of the train, not how the locomotive works."

"Sorry." A tight smile appeared on Giles's face. "One of my bad habits, I'm afraid. Very well, Hamuntep's Conundrum is an ancient spell which is basically the opposite of the spell that would have awakened Acathla."

"Well, how is that bad?" Xander shrugged. "Acathla would have destroyed the world, so I guess that opposite of that would be making the world better."

"No, no, that's not what I meant." Giles referred to the book again. "Acathla would have dragged the world into hell. Hamuntep's Conundrum would bring hell into this world."

"Oh," Willow said. "So, same result, different process."

"Somewhat. It would dissipate the barrier between our worlds and allow an unlimited number of demons to cross over in corporeal form."

"They have an army?" Xander asked.

"So, are we totally screwed?" Oz looked at Giles.

"It's hard to say. The spell is very old, very complicated, and requires the presence of an arch-demon, who would have to be brought across first and bound to the spell." Giles looked up from the book. "This would require the skills of a very powerful sorcerer, and I believe it has already happened. I think that it coincided with Willow's experience."

"Huh?" Willow looked equal parts puzzled and alarmed.

"One reason I didn't want you to attempt the spell to restore Angel's soul was the possibility that you would expose yourself to the spirit world. Sometimes, when individuals attempt something like that spell without adequate knowledge or training, it... re-orients their souls. They become very attuned to the other world."

"Like a radio or something?" The alarm was gone from Willow's face; Oz had seen this look when she was studying. New knowledge was irresistible to her.

Giles nodded. "A good analogy."

"Hold on a sec." Xander raised a hand. "So, Willow gets the wigglies, and now you've decided that demons are invading? Call me a skeptic, but that's quite a leap."

"There is a small chance that I could be wrong. It's not a chance I'm willing to take." Giles voice was firm, his tone brooked no contradiction. "We must--"

"Whoa, whoa," Xander interrupted. "What's the 'we', kemo sabe? This sounds like Slayer duty if ever I've heard it."

"True, but in case you haven't noticed, the Slayer is absent." Giles adjusted his glasses.

Xander's voice was noticeably weaker. "So, we're going to try and stop this thing, even without Buffy?"

Giles lifted his chin. "If not us, who? If not now, when?" He looked around the table.

"Somebody else, and later," Xander said.

The doors opened with a loud thump, startling them all. "Hey, sorry," Mr. Warner said. "Didn't mean to surprise. Am I interrupting something?"

Giles and the trio of students exchanged glances. "Um, this is a... study group which I'm..."

"He's helping us with Medieval History," Willow chimed in.

"Really?" Mr. Warner looked surprised. "Glad to hear it." He held up a slip of paper. "Again, I'm sorry, but I need to get some books, Mr. Giles."

"Yes, yes." Giles swept the book off the table and under his arm. "That's quite all right. We were just finishing." He looked around at Oz, Willow, and Xander. "I'll see you tomorrow after school."

Following hastily mumbled good-byes, the three headed for the door. Giles slipped his book underneath the counter. "Now, what can I get for you, Mr... ?"

"That's right, we haven't formally met. Stefan Warner, attempted teacher of history." He handed his list to Giles. "I need to check these out for a unit on the Roman Republic..."

*********

Buffy hefted the steam tray, loaded with mashed potatoes, into its slot on the serving table. Slayer strength came in handy for other things. She stretched, standing on tiptoe to work out her back.

"Anne?"

Buffy dropped back to earth, heels hitting the floor. She turned. "Yeah?" she said to Tia.

Tia's hair was pulled up on top of her head in a modified Pebbles Flintstone/Foghorn Leghorn look. She wore a faded purple-and-gold University of Washington sweatshirt over black leggings. "I was wondering if you knew anything about Cooper," she said.

Buffy shook her head. "No. You should probably ask Marla."

Tia grimaced. "I don't think so. She seems a little touchy."

Buffy couldn't help grinning. "You noticed too?" She headed back for the kitchen, brushing past Tia.

"Aren't you worried about him?" the younger girl asked.

Buffy hoisted a pan of mixed vegetables, letting the weight ride on her hip. She could feel the warmth through her jeans. "Not really. Sometimes a person just has to get away and think."

Tia shook her head. "Not Cooper. I've volunteered for two years. He's never missed a meal. This place is all he has."

"Well, you know..." Buffy slid the tray into place on the table "...you told me that you weren't that close to him."

"I'm not." Tia wrung her hands. "But sometimes... sometimes people belong in a certain place, you know? It's where they're supposed to be."

Buffy rolled her eyes. "Metaphysical, much?"

Tia reddened. Her hands came apart and she crossed her arms over her chest. "Make fun, but he belongs here. It's not right for him to be gone."

"Really." Buffy was in the kitchen again. "And even if you're right, what are you gonna do about it?"

"After dinner, I'm going to go looking for him."

"Whoa." Buffy put the pan she held back on the counter and gave Tia her full attention. "You can't do that. It's way too dangerous out there."

"Well, it might not be... if you came with me." Hope, so raw and new it hurt Buffy to see it, stole across the other girl's face.

The Slayer held up her hands. "No. No way. I'm not going, you're not going. He hasn't even been gone twenty-four hours."

Tia's lips tightened. Buffy recognized that face; she'd seen one like it often enough on Willow. "True. But I'm still going. Are you with me, or are you going to stop me?"

Buffy sighed. "Can I do that with anything short of a full nelson?"

*******

"So, what should we do tonight? Bronze?" Xander looked out the passenger window of Cordelia's car, hoping his mom didn't come to the window.

"I don't think so," she replied.

"Why not? Oz says the band will be cool. Couple of guys he's seen before called Life In General."

"I just... Not tonight, okay?" Her tone of voice made Xander look over. Her lips were pressed together in a tight line. Realization blossomed like a dandelion in March.

"Oh, the whole Harmony thing, huh?"

She nodded. "I can deal at school, but I just don't want to see their faces right now."

Xander started to say something about standing up to Harmony, but he stopped himself. In her own way, Cordelia had been very brave. "So," he said, "how about the movies?"

"What's playing?" Cordelia asked as she pulled away from the curb.

"Uh, Armageddon's on out at the mall."

"Pass." A bitter smile crossed her lips. "I get enough of that in real life, even if it does have Ben Affleck."

"Rushmore?"

"I don't think so."

Xander was indignant. "It's got Bill Murray."

Cordelia was unmoved. "Lisa Renfro saw it last week. She said it's nothing like Groundhog Day."

Xander knew when he was beaten. "Rush Hour?"

Cordy ducked her head to look at a traffic light. "Possibly. Anything else?"

Okay, Xander thought, time to take the hit. "Uh, I think The Horse Whisperer is still playing at the dollar theater."

Cordelia slowly sat up straight, her eyes unfocusing. Xander could see her going to that special place, the place where gentle mountain breezes wafted without disturbing the hair, and where all denim was perfectly broken in, where the deer and the antelope and Ralph Lauren played. "The Horse Whisperer. That would be nice."

"Okay, then," Xander said, mustering all the enthusiasm he could fake, "let us be off to the theater."

*********

The Citroen wheeled into the driveway. Giles turned off the ignition and sat for a moment, listening to the engine ping as it cooled. The windows of the house glowed a warm, inviting yellow, but he didn't feel welcome. In fact, he dreaded walking up those steps and ringing that bell.

He'd avoided Joyce Summers for the last three months. Well, avoided wasn't the correct word; it wasn't like they traveled in the same circles, and he'd seen her on the street, had said hello and made sympathetic noises, all the time dreading the day he knew would come.

Today was that day. Joyce had called right after school, asking to see him. He'd thought about making an excuse, but deep down, he knew that would just be postponing the inevitable. The woman's daughter had run away; she would want to talk to him.

Taking a deep breath to steel himself, Giles opened the car door and approached the house. He was raising his hand to ring the bell when the door opened.

"Mr. Giles," Joyce Summers said. "Thank you for coming." She stepped back and Giles entered the house. He sat on the sofa; Joyce perched on an armchair. Her movements exuded the unnatural calm of someone on the very edge of breaking down. She looked remarkably well pulled-together for someone under the stress Giles knew she must be feeling. Her eyes were a little red, and Giles noticed her fingernails, the polish chipped and worn, the nails themselves ragged, probably from being bitten.

"Could I get you something to drink? Some tea, maybe?" Giles started to decline her offer, then reconsidered.

"Yes," he said. "That would be very nice." She went into the kitchen and returned carrying a tray with two cups and saucers, a bowl of sugar, and cream. Giles took his cup and was surprised to find it contained an excellent Earl Grey. Joyce took a small sip, swallowed, then took in a very deep breath. Giles tensed; the prologue was over. Time for the first act.

"Mr. Giles, has Buffy called you or contacted you in any way?"

Even though he was expecting it, the question still caught him off-guard. "No, she hasn't. Have you heard anything from her?"

Joyce lowered her cup to the tray. Giles noticed that her hand trembled as she did so. She sat back and carefully folded her hands in her lap, looking at them as she spoke. "No, I haven't. I've been reading some books about... runaways. They say that kids often contact someone other than their parents, someone they trust."

"I'm... I'm flattered that you think Buffy would think of me that way, but I assure you-"

Joyce interrupted him. "Mr. Giles, I know that Buffy respected you. I'm hoping that you can answer a question for me." She looked up into his eyes.

Giles put his cup down and leaned forward. "I'll do my best."

Joyce blinked and looked back down at her hands. "What was Buffy involved in?"

"Excuse me?" Giles knew he was on thin ice now. He must tread with caution.

"The night that she... We fought. She said... she said she was a vampire slayer." Joyce pressed her lips together in a tight line. Giles said nothing. When Joyce was composed again, she continued, albeit in a shaky voice. "So, is my daughter crazy, or am I?"

Giles weighed his words with great care and spoke slowly. "Mrs. Summers, Buffy is a very... special child. I know that her grades didn't reflect it, but she is an extremely intelligent girl. She is also under some... unique pressures."

A brittle smile appeared on Joyce's face. "Special pressures like the man she killed with a stake on that last night?"

Giles kept his face as blank as possible. "Excuse me?"

"Or, at least I think she killed him. It was hard to tell, since he turned into dust."

Giles cleared his throat. "Could you please tell me exactly what happened?"

"I was out looking for Buffy. I came home and she was here, with Spike."

Giles was taking a sip of his tea. He sputtered into it. "Excuse me," he said, dabbing at his jacket with a napkin. "You said Spike was here?"

Joyce looked at him. "Do you know Spike?"

"I know... of him."

"Mr. Giles, what is my daughter involved in?"

Giles would have squirmed, but he couldn't think of a dignified way to do so. Stay calm, he commanded himself. Maybe a question would give him time to think. "Why was Spike here?" he asked.

"Well, apparently, he and Buffy had formed some sort of alliance to save the world." Joyce's eyes filled with tears, but she pressed a hand to her forehead and maintained control. "It seems that Buffy had been this... slayer for some time." Joyce smiled again, a bright-eyed, glittering grin from the edge of insanity. "So, what is it, Mr. Giles? Is the boogey-man real, or does my daughter need to be institutionalized?" Joyce dropped her head into her hand. "I know this sounds crazy. I wouldn't blame you if you called 911."

Giles started to reach out, then drew back his hand. "I would never do that. I have a more... open mind than you might think."

Joyce's voice was slightly muffled. "That's not the worst of it. She said she had to save the world, and I told her that if she left the house to not come back."

Giles swallowed. Hard. "Why did you say that?"

"Because I thought she needed help. Because I thought she was covering up something else. Because I was tired of being the last to know anything. Does any of this make any sense?"

"Actually, it does. You mustn't blame yourself, Mrs. Summers. Students are under a great deal of... pressure these days, and Buffy more than most."

Joyce's head came up. "Because she's the Slayer?"

"Mrs. Summers, I believe that you should have a very honest conversation with Buffy when she returns." It was the best he could do.

"When she returns? Do you know something I don't know?" Tears started to spill down Joyce Summers' cheeks.

"I know that Buffy is a very resilient, very courageous girl. I also know that she is not insane. Please believe me. She has... responsibilities that other students do not. This may make her seem alien to you, but you must remember that she loves you very much. Never doubt that. She will come back. When she does, there will be time for you to ask her these questions. She is the only one who can answer them." Giles stopped, miserable. Was this part of being a Watcher, withholding information from a grieving mother?

Joyce exerted a Herculean effort and stopped her tears. "Well, when she returns, I guess we'll have a talk." She stood. "I would like to thank you for coming by, Mr. Giles."

Giles stood, hands hanging awkwardly at his sides. "I'm sorry I couldn't be more help to you. If there is anything I can do..." Unsure how to finish his statement, he trailed off into silence.

Joyce just nodded as they walked to the door. He stood on the porch for a moment, wanting to say something. She smiled again, but this one was sad and filled with a bitter wisdom. "Thank you again. If Buffy should contact you, I'd appreciate it if you'd tell me," was all she said. He nodded, mute and disgusted with himself.

The door closed and he turned to go. As he walked down the steps, his peripheral vision caught a flicker of movement to his left. He turned. Nothing was there. His brow furrowed for a moment, then he turned back to the street. There, again! He whipped his head around. Nothing. Perhaps it's a trick of the light, he thought. After all, it is getting dark. That's what he told himself, but he didn't believe it.

*********

"Harris!"

Xander blanched. He knew that voice. "Larry," he said, turning.

Larry Blaisdell grabbed his hand, squeezing not quite hard enough to fuse sand into glass. "Hey, how are you guys. Were you here to see The Horse Whisperer?"

"That's usually why you come to the theater," Xander said.

"You were in there?" Cordelia asked.

"Oh, yeah." Larry nodded enthusiastically, an act which frightened Xander considerably, given the size of Larry's neck. "This is my third time."

"Really?" Cordelia leaned in, interest growing. "Why?"

"Why?" Larry's astonishment was comical. "Why not? It's so... so..."

"Horsey? Whispery?" Xander offered. Larry and Cordelia favored him with stony glares.

"Y'know, it doesn't make you less of a man to get in touch with your emotions," Larry said, his voice quiet and sincere.

"Not less of a man, but it does endanger my tenuous grip on reality." Xander stuffed his hands in his pockets.

Larry nodded. "I understand. Hey, we're seniors now. Isn't it great!" Cordelia and Xander allowed that, yes, it was great to finally be a senior. "Hey," Larry said, "I haven't seen Buffy around school. What's up with her?"

"B-Buffy?" Xander was hit with a momentary attack of stupid.

"Yeah. I mean, you guys seemed to be big friends--"

"I wouldn't say that," Cordelia said.

Larry shrugged. "Whatever. Anyway, I haven't seen her around school. Wassup?"

"Well, uh, what's up..." Xander's brain churned furiously. "Well, uh, see, she spends the summers with her dad, and she's... not back yet."

"Really? Man pretty soon she's gonna have missed a month of school. Not to mention the start of football season." Larry pumped a clenched fist. "Oh," he said, turning to Cordelia, "I really want to thank you and the rest of the cheerleaders for all you do. It's a vital job."

"Thaaaanks," Cordelia said, a fixed smile on her face.

"Listen, it was great to see you guys, but I gotta run. See you tomorrow." Larry gave Xander a playful punch in the shoulder.

Xander staggered a couple of steps to the right. "Yeah, see you tomorrow," he said to Larry's departing back.

"In some ways, he's even scarier now that he's out of the closet," Cordelia observed.

"Yeah," Xander said, rubbing his shoulder. "Hey, shall we get some coffee?"

"Sure." Cordelia swept through the door of the theater, a door he held for her. Part of it was manners, part of it was the fact that this put him behind her as they walked to the car. Cordelia sure did wonders for a pair of jeans and a red silk shirt.

"Penny for your thoughts," she said as they slid into the car.

"Oh, I was just thinking about this," he said, leaning over to give her a quick kiss.

"Why, Mr. Harris, you make me blush," she said, starting the car.

"Fat chance of that," he said. "Unless you're referring to the distinct gap in our socio-economic status. Es. Statuses. Or is it stati?"

"Is this a subtle way of saying I have to buy the coffee?" Cordelia asked as they turned on to Main Street and pulled up in front of the Espresso Pump.

"No, I got it." Xander held the door open again, because... well, just because. Another couple approached before Xander released the door. He knew them a little. The guy played soccer; the girl was on the swim team. Already pairing up to pass along the athletic genes. He held the door for them and got a "Thanks, man" for his trouble. He stepped inside the coffee shop.

Something was wrong with Cordelia's posture. Her back was rigid. Xander lifted his gaze, looking past her shoulder, and saw Harmony sitting in a booth, surrounded by Aura, Aphrodesia, and... uh-oh, Lacey. Xander stepped up beside Cordelia and looped his arm around her shoulders, pulling her in close.

"Okay," he whispered into her ear, "laugh like I just said the funniest thing in history."

"What?" Cordelia shot him a look.

"No, seriously, it was funny. Just laugh." He guided her toward the counter.

She tossed her head and emitted a weak "Ha, ha."

"Not bad. That's about the reaction I usually get."

"What the hell are you doing?" Cordelia hissed.

Xander threw back his head and guffawed. He cut loose with a belly laugh of monumental proportions. His eyes were watering by the time he stopped, just as they reached the counter. Slapping the formica, he said, "Two coffees, and water for our horses." He wiped his eyes.

"Are you trying to humiliate me?" Cordelia asked.

"C'mon," he said, jerking his head. "There's a booth over there."

"I'd rather just go," she said.

Leaning in close, Xander whispered directly into her ear. "Leave now, and she wins. It'll be all over school how she made you back down."

That was the magic phrase. Cordelia's eyes flashed as she picked up her cup. "Let's go," she said, leading the way to the booth.

Settled in, Xander leaned over the table. "You okay?"

Cordelia sipped her coffee and thought about the question. "Barely. What was that whole scene?"

"Sorry if it was dorky. I was improvising." Xander smiled. "Besides, if I can't torment you, making Harm eat her liver is the next best thing."

Cordelia tried to frown, but it morphed into a grin. "Y'know, sometimes I can see what I see in you."

"M'lady is cryptic, yet hardly flattering." Xander sipped his coffee. "Anyway, why let her bug you?"

Cordelia shrugged. "I don't know. She just does."

"But it's not like you need her. I mean, you're a full-fledged member of the Scooby Gang now."

The instant the words were out of his mouth, Xander knew he'd said the wrong thing. Cordelia's face darkened and her eyes did that thing where they got really narrow and then really big.

"Well, thank you for including me," she snapped. "It's such an honor to know that I'm considered part of the Spaz Squad. That makes everything all better."

"Cordy, I'm sorry. I was just trying to put things in a different light-"

"And what light was that?" She was really getting wound up now; her voice was low enough to avoid being overheard by anyone else, but the tone was diamond-hard. "This may surprise you, but I don't intend to stay in Sunnydale for the rest of my life. Some of us have goals. Some of us have ambitions beyond finally finishing a Big Gulp."

"Hey." Xander held up his hands, palms out. "I know that we're all wiggin' without Buffy-"

"Why does everything always come back to Buffy, Xander? Huh? Why isn't this just about you and me? Or is that part of this? Do you like it this way? Harmony's top dog in school, and Buffy's your little superhero queen, and what am I? What am I?" She bit off the last word.

Xander chose his words with great care. "Look, I understand that you're stressed--"

"Please." Cordelia glared. "What are you going to say? Are you going to point out that the world might end?"

"Well, yeah, something like that."

"You have to worry about the end of the world. I have to worry about the end of the world and the fact that that little witch Lacey is over there plotting with Harmony to keep me from being captain."

"Y'know," Xander said, in what he hoped was a soothing voice, "I think you're getting a little stalker about this captain thing."

"Really? Let me tell you, if they have their way, not only will I not be captain, I won't even be on the squad. And that Ms. Hollis is just the person to go along with them."

Xander shook his head. "Cor, you've got to get a grip. Hollis is a new teacher. She doesn't even know everyone's names yet. I'm pretty sure she hasn't taken sides in the great Harmony Wars of 1998.

"You've got to calm down. Let's just drink our coffee, and try to indulge in the sort of conversation that a semi-normal couple might have. You be a little less Angelina Jolie, and I'll try not to use the B-word, deal?"

Cordelia took a deep breath and let it out. "All right. Let's try and act like we're having fun."

"See?" Xander leaned back. "That's exactly the sort of hypocrisy that every successful relationship's built on."

*******

"I just want to say, for the record, that this is a bad idea." Buffy zipped up her sweatshirt and tugged a watch cap down over her head.

"Understood. That's only about the fifty-second time you've said it." Tia flipped up the hood of her parka. "Ready?"

"No, but my options appear to be limited." Buffy rolled her neck and shoulders to loosen them as Tia led the way out the door.

They had gone five blocks when Buffy asked, "Do you have any kind of plan?"

Tia looked away. "Not really," she said in a sheepish voice.

"Well, this might help us." Buffy fished in her pocket and brought out a piece of paper. "Cooper attends a lot of AA meetings. Here's a list of every group in a half-mile radius."

"Really? Fantastic." Tia grabbed the piece of paper. "How'd you know he's in AA?"

Buffy shrugged. "He mentioned it once."

"Wow, this is really some list. Should we split up?"

"No. Don't even think it. Anywhere we go, we go together."

"Well, then, I guess it's the closest one first." She looked at the list, then up at a street sign. "And it should be just a couple more blocks up this way and a couple more over."

******

"Shoot." Tia looked up and down the street, her body language a portrait in frustration.

"What's wrong?" Buffy was looking at the alleys and side streets.

"It's almost time for the last bus and we've still got five meetings to go."

Buffy stepped up and took the paper from Tia's hand. "We're not going to find him. The meetings were a good idea, probably our best shot, but it didn't work."

"Where could he be?"

"C'mon." Buffy grabbed the other girl's coat and began tugging her along.

"Hey." Tia wrenched free. "How can you be so cold? Don't you care?"

Buffy was tired and the night was turning cold. The younger girl's words struck her like a knife. "I know you're worried," she said through gritted teeth, "so I'll let that go. Believe it or not, Cooper's a grown-up. It's his life. I don't know what's going on, but he has to deal."

Tia spread her arms wide. "So it's as simple as that?"

Buffy gave a weary nod. "Yeah, sometimes it's as simple as that. It's romantic to think some other way, but you know what romance is, Tia? It's a $4.99 paperback. It's not how the world works."

Tia looked away, then swung her gaze back to the Slayer. "You can't be more than two years older than me. How did you get so hard?"

Buffy stared into those blue eyes. "It's only one year. And that can be a long time, if you spend it in the right place. Now, come on. You've got to make your bus."

*******

The noise from the alley caught Xander's attention just as he reached for the car door. "Cor," he said, straightening up, "something's going on. Why don't you get in the car?" He walked toward the alley, trying to seem nonchalant.

"What do you think it is?" Cordelia hissed in his ear.

"What are you doing?" It wasn't a shriek, but it was close. "I told you to wait in the car."

"Right. And leave someone who might be in mortal danger to be rescued by you alone. That would be cruel." Cordelia cocked her head and gave him a skeptical look.

"Well, with that sort of support, I was sure to do well." He shook his head. "Okay, if you won't wait in the car, at least stay behind me."

She thought for a second. "I can do that. Definitely."

Xander stuck his head around the corner of the alley, then pulled it back.

"Did you see anything?" Cordelia asked.

"Yeah. A dark alley." At that precise moment, a gasp and what could have been a muffled scream reached their ears. "Okay," Xander said, "I guess that removes all doubt." He ducked into the alley, looking for a weapon. Great, he thought. The only clean alley in Sunnydale. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he could make out two figures, possibly locked in an embrace, or perhaps...

"Hey," he shouted. "Everything okay?"

One of the figures raised its head. He had the impression of long hair. "Yeah, everything's cool. A little privacy, please." The voice was female.

"Oh, sorry." Embarrassed, Xander started to back away.

"Hey, that's Katie Webster's voice," Cordelia said. "She died six months ago."

"Uh-oh." Xander sprinted toward the couple. The female vampire dropped her victim and faced him. Xander threw a hard overhand right, which she blocked easily. Her countering uppercut knocked all the breath out of him. He collapsed to his hands and knees. A hand reached down, grabbed his hair, and yanked his head back. He stared into the eyes that had once belonged to Katie Webster.

"Hey, Xander Harris, what a surprise." She giggled. Katie always giggled. "And just when I'm still hungry." As he gasped for air, her face morphed into its fanged incarnation, fangs that descended toward his throat.

"Katie, you always were a skank."

The vamp turned toward the sound of Cordelia's voice. "Cordelia Chase! The original gold-plated bitch." Katie giggled again. "This is gonna be so sweet."

Xander could see Cordelia standing there, arm outstretched. A small light flickered in her hand. It took seconds for his oxygen-deprived brain to realize she was holding a match. A match? he thought.

"Sweet? I thought it might sting." As used-to-be-Katie charged, Cordelia's other hand whipped out from behind her back. She held a metal canister. Xander heard a hiss. He thought, It's hairspray, just as the fireball blossomed. The vampire shrieked and flung itself back. Xander could smell burning hair as he struggled to his feet. The vamp lurched forward, swatting Cordelia out of the way and slamming her against the alley wall. The demon formerly known as Katie Webster ran away, head smoldering.

"Are you okay?" Xander gasped, bending over Cordelia. She nodded, wincing as she tried to move her shoulder. He staggered back to the victim. He'd seen this guy at school. His name was Richard Something-or-Other, and they were too late to save him. The vampire must've been almost through feeding when they arrived.

"Well, that's the worst of all possible outcomes." Xander slid down the wall to sit beside Cordelia. "A dead body and we get our asses kicked."

********

Morning came too early for Buffy. After putting Tia on the bus, she'd snuck up stairs and tried to enter her room quietly. Not quietly enough, for just as the bolt turned, Marla's door opened.

"I hope you had a good time," she'd said, stepping into the hallway.

Buffy leaned back against the wall. "Tia wanted to look for Cooper. I told her it was a bad idea, but she was bound and determined to do it, so I tagged along to watch her back."

To Buffy's surprise, Marla had just nodded. "Tia's a good girl, but she can be stubborn. Usually at the worst time. Did you have any luck?"

Buffy shook her head. "No. We checked a bunch of AA meetings, but no Cooper."

As she returned to her room, Marla had said, "Well, get some sleep. Breakfast will come early tomorrow."

And it had. Now she found herself leaning against the counter, trying to catch any moment's rest while the other volunteers went about their jobs. She was just about to get back to work when the buzzer for the back door sounded. The door was used for deliveries and couldn't be opened from the outside.

"Could somebody get that?" Marla yelled from the office.

I'm not doing anything constructive, Buffy thought. Might as well open the door. She struggled for a second with the balky deadbolt before it retracted. She pushed open the door.

"Hello. Breakfast ready?" Cooper strode past her into the kitchen. He'd spoken in a normal voice, but somehow it carried. Within heartbeats, everyone was gathered around him as the questions flew. He held up his hands.

"Please, everybody, thank you for caring, but we've got breakfast to serve." Everyone scattered to their tasks, leaving Buffy standing there with him.

"Glad you're back," she said.

"Glad to be back," he replied, then whispered. "We need to talk after breakfast."

**********

She wasn't top priority, however. He had to spend some time in the office with Marla, although with the door closed it was hard to tell what was going on. Buffy's money was on a thorough butt-chewing, with Cooper being the chewee. By the time he emerged, everyone else was gone. Buffy perched on a countertop, legs swinging. Cooper said nothing as he poured a cup of coffee.

"Well," he said after his first sip. "Shall we talk?"

"Fine by me." She slipped off the counter. They went into the dining room and sat down. As she took the chair across from him, Buffy took a surreptitious sniff.

It did not go unnoticed. "Casting about for traces of demon rum?" he asked. She shrugged. "I don't blame you," he continued. "It would seem to be the most logical explanation."

"Is it the explanation?"

He shook his head. "No. I didn't go on a bender. Trust me, if I had, I'd have been gone a lot longer."

"Sooooo... ?" She let the word trail away.

"I was scared." He took a big slug of coffee. "What you told me the other morning scared the hell out of me. I didn't ever want to visit that part of my past again. Now, you're telling me I may be right back in the middle of it. I left because I needed to get away. Can you understand that?"

"Yes." Buffy's voice was flat and even.

"I'll admit, the thought of a drink did seem sweet, but I'm old enough now to know that's not the answer." He looked down at the table, then off to his right. "So I decided to focus on something I could manage. I did a little research."

Buffy arched an eyebrow. "Interesting approach."

Cooper finished his coffee. He went back to the kitchen, poured another cup, and came back. "Remember the name of that cop you saw?"

Buffy nodded. "Yeah. Officer Gabriel."

Cooper sipped his coffee and swirled around in his mouth like a wine taster. He swallowed and said, "There is an Officer Gabler on the Seattle PD. There is a Detective Garcia. There is a Garofolo, five Garfields, three Gables, and even one Gabaldon. There is no Officer Gabriel."

Buffy felt her blood chill. "You must have checked the wrong precinct."

"I've been gone for over twenty-four hours. I've checked every precinct. There is no Officer Gabriel."

Buffy rose to her feet. Panic threatened to swamp her. "Cooper, what are you saying? Are you saying that I made it up, or that I'm crazy, or--"

"Anne, please. Sit down." A rueful smile crossed his face. "I wouldn't try to restrain you, even if I could, and after seeing what you did to Joe, I'm sure I couldn't. I don't think you're crazy."

Buffy lowered herself until her butt rested on the very edge of the chair. "Then what are you saying?"

Cooper looked at a spot high on the wall above her head. "You ever read the Bible, Anne?"

Buffy shook her head. "No. Not really."

"I have. The Bible, the Koran, you name it, if somebody thinks it can bring you closer to God, I've probably read it." He steepled his hands in front of him and stared at the fingertips. "In the book of Genesis, Jacob runs away from home. God sends a vision of angels to assure him of God's blessing. Years later, when Jacob decides to reconcile with his brother, he ends up wrestling an angel. Fights him all night, to a draw."

Buffy waited, but that was all he said. "Okay, and the point is?"

Cooper shook his head. "I'm not trying to make a point. I'm way past that."

An image of Giles flashed through Buffy's mind. "Do you guys sit around collecting useless information? Is there some kind of club you belong to? Never mind."

Cooper shrugged. "Jacob ran away from home. He had to go back to put things right."

"And this is all to tell me I should go home?" Buffy's voice rose. "Hey, why not just tell me my mom misses me? Why hit me over the head with the symbolism hammer?"

"Actually, I was just thinking out loud. Real life isn't that neat or tidy."

Buffy looked down at the table. "Maybe this time it is."

Cooper looked startled. "What?"

Buffy took a deep breath. "Maybe it's time for me to go home."

********