Suggested listening:
"Nowhere Else" by the 77s
"Be Thankful For What You've Got" by Massive Attack


For The Blessings We Are About To Receive
By

Michael Walker

Prologue

It was so very quiet. He always marveled that so many people could produce so little sound. Of course, brushes and dental picks didn't make much noise, and everyone was so absorbed in their own task that conversational chatter was kept to a minimum. The generators produced more sound than the crew. The heat and dust combined with the mechanical chatter to create a slight soporific effect. He pushed the baseball cap back on his head as he looked at the twine-and-stake grid, laid out so carefully to mimic the larger dig site.

At first glance, there was nothing particularly significant about the fragment of clay, but it kept drawing his attention. Giving in to his curiosity, he stepped closer and squatted to look more closely. Expert as he was, the glyphs still looked somewhat unfamiliar. He could read part of an inscription, but at a certain point it turned into gibberish. Intrigued, he picked it up, holding it with his fingertips at the edges, and headed for his tent.

It only took a few hours to realize that the gibberish section was actually a code. His pulse quickened. An ancient code! What a challenge this would be.

He missed dinner, and when they came to inquire, he asked that food be brought to him. He worked far into the darkest hours of morning, then retired to a cot for two hours sleep, rising before dawn to resume his work. He had only a few books with him, and much of what the fragment contained seemed to have no connection with them. Time and again, he thought he had cracked the code, only to realize it was a dead end.

It took four days, four days while the rest of the expedition continued to dig, and whisper about the "crazy Englishman", but at dusk on that fourth day, he had it. The code was cracked. As the night turned to velvet black, he began to translate the message. Even with the code, it was a torturous process. It was past midnight when, working by the harsh white glow of the camp lantern, he held a finished translation in his hands. What he read made his blood run cold.

"No," he whispered. "It cannot be." Fingers trembling, he laid the translated message on the folding desk and dropped his head into his hands.

The shadow flickered on the tent wall. "Who is it?" he said, lifting his head. That was a mistake, for it only gave the intruder a clean shot at his throat. He toppled from the stool, dead before his body hit the ground. The killer picked up the translation, folded it with great care, and tucked it into a pocket. He wiped his dagger on the dead man's shirt, then reversed it and with great precision used the pommel to reduce the clay fragment to powder. The assassin looked around the tent, then with a gloved hand, carefully turned out the lantern.

***

"So, what I'm saying is, I'm still looking forward to Thanksgiving." Willow Rosenberg perched atop a tombstone, feet dangling. "Although I do feel kind of guilty about it, I mean, a holiday that basically celebrates the beginning of our destruction of an entire native culture. Yet on the plus side, it's basically nonsectarian in orientation, so the whole Jewish thing isn't such a problem."

Buffy Summers ceased scanning the horizon for vampires and turned to her redheaded friend. "Will, sometimes you make the undead seem positively normal."

"Thanks." Willow perked up and grinned. "I'll take that as a compliment." They sat for a moment, enjoying the silent bonds of friendship, bonds that were broken by a distinct rustling behind a mausoleum.

"Here we go," Buffy said, scooping up her Slayer bag. "Ours not to question why, ours just to make 'em die."

"You could've picked a more upbeat poem," Willow complained.

"That's from a poem?" Buffy shrugged. "Whaddya know. Education pays off." She underhanded a vial of holy water in Willow's direction. "Catch."

Three vampires crouched behind the mausoleum, brutish and malformed. They looked up, startled at the Slayer's approach. That moment's pause proved fatal. Buffy did not hesitate, but dropped her Slayer bag and plunged right in. She charged the middle vamp, driving her stake deep into his heart, then dropped and rolled as the two survivors leapt at her. Their heads collided in empty space with a surprisingly loud clunk. Buffy popped to her feet, stake in hand.

"Y'know," she said to Willow, "that trick always works for Bugs Bunny." She stepped up and staked the second vamp, but the third vamp was a little quicker and a little braver than his companions. He grabbed her from behind, pinning her arms at her sides. His head reared back, spit-shiny fangs shone. Then he screamed, a great roar of pain. Buffy threw her head back, catching him squarely in the nose. He let go, still shrieking. She turned. Smoke poured from his back and shoulders. Buffy picked up her and dispatched him.

Willow stood there, now-empty flask in her hand. "You could have just thrown the whole thing," Buffy pointed out.

"Yeah," Willow said. "But then there would have been broken glass everywhere."

Buffy surveyed the piles of fine dust, already beginning to blow away in the slight breeze. "True. I guess one should remain as neat as possible when wreaking unholy carnage." She turned to Willow. "Ready to go?"

Willow's head jerked in a quick nod. "Sure. Home?"

"Why not? Today was grocery day. There should be fresh Doritos."

As the two friends picked up their things, a dark figure watched from behind a tree. After Buffy and Willow were out of sight, the figure crept away in the opposite direction.

***

There were fresh Doritos and Dr. Pepper and Alexander Lavelle Harris, who was very excited.

"This is gonna rock your world," he said, sliding the tape into Buffy's VCR. "A Better Tomorrow subtitled, yes, I said subtitled, not dubbed."

"That's what you're so excited about?" Buffy said, her voice brimming with incredulity. "Another John Woo movie?"

Xander froze in front of the VCR and turned slowly. "Another John Woo movie? Sometimes the depth of your ignorance astonishes me. A Better Tomorrow is the John Woo movie, perhaps the ur-John Woo movie."

"Ur?" Buffy's nose crinkled.

"What about The Killer?" Willow crunched a nacho cheesy chip.

"Close second." Xander pressed play and scooted back across the room, settling onto the floor. "Either one of them are better than anything he's done in America.

"So you're saying his best work is his Hong Kong period." Willow looked into the bag of chips.

"Yeah," Xander said. "I'm saying that John Woo's Hong Kong movies are better than his Hollywood ones."

"Explain," Willow demanded.

Xander shrugged. "I think it's the language barrier. Subtitles and gunfire are such a match." He reached into the bag Willow held and took handful of chips. "Plus, Chow Yun Fat could kick Bruce Willis's ass any day of the week. Not to mention Nicolas Cage's."

"Hey," Willow said. "I like Nicolas Cage."

"I said not to mention Nicolas Cage," Xander said, popping a chip. "Besides, he couldn't carry Chow's trench coat."

"No argument there," Buffy conceded. She settled back on the sofa, bracketed by her friends and ready for an evening of wire work and gunplay.

***

Giles could not remember the name of the tune that was stuck in his head. This annoyed him a great deal more than the tune itself, which was a banal little number that he was positive came from a boyhood visit to a music hall. Snippets of melody floated through his head as he prepared a light supper. The knock at the door was a welcome interruption.

Not so welcome as to take for granted, however. One never knew who, or what, might be stopping by in Sunnydale. Especially after dark. Giles plucked a stout cane from the umbrella stand. At least, it appeared to be just a cane. It was actually made of cured oak, with a large silver knob for the head and a curiously sharp point at the other end. Vampires couldn't enter without an invitation, and the silver was a good all-purpose defense against most other supernatural foes.

He opened the door, keeping it between him and his visitor as much as possible.

"Very good, Rupert. Still keeping up your guard."

Giles flung the door wide. His guest was very tall, towering a good six inches above Giles. Silver hair was combed straight back from a pronounced widow's peak, above a face that was all planes and angles.

"Gerard!" Giles said. "Please come in."

Gerard Roland stepped across the threshold. He wore a simple black sweater and khaki trousers as though they were custom-tailored on the King's Row. The shirt hung impeccably, the creases in the pants sharp enough to slice bread. Looking at his old friend, Giles felt even more rumpled and tweedy than usual.

The awkward pause ended as Gerard wrapped Giles up in an enthusiastic hug, lifting his feet off the floor. "Ah, Rupert, it is so good to see you again, my friend."

Back on terra firma, Giles took off his glasses and fiddled with them. "It's good to see you as well. I must say, it's most unexpected." He put his glasses back on. "Where are my manners," he scolded himself. "Have a seat. Would you like something to drink?"

"Of course." Gerard settled himself on the sofa. "I don't suppose you have any cognac, do you?"

Giles hesitated. "No, I don't, but I do have-"

"I know, I know. You have tea." Gerard waved a hand. "A cup of your excellent Earl Grey would be fantastic."

Giles dawdled with the tea, trying to calm his spinning brain. How many years since he had last seen Gerard? What would bring him from Montreal to Sunnydale?

Get a grip, man! Giles internal command stiffened his spine. There was only one way to find out. He placed the cozy over the kettle, arranged the cups and utensils on a tray, and went back to the living room.

"Tell me, Gerard," he said as he placed his burden on the coffee table. "What brings you to Sunnydale? Is this a social call?"

Gerard Roland leaned forward, elbows on his knees. "Alas, Rupert, I wish it were so. I fear... Well, I am not sure what I fear, but I know that I am afraid."

Giles straightened, alarm painting his face as Gerard selected a cup and methodically prepared his tea. Finished, he sat back and sipped. He looked up, noticed that Giles was still standing.

"Rupert," he said, nodding at the easy chair, "do sit down." As Giles lowered himself, Gerard sat his cup down on table and clasped his hands.

"Well," he said, "I suppose I should begin with the situation at the Council."

"Something is wrong at the Council?" Giles could not believe what he was hearing.

"Ah, Rupert, if it were only so simple. "The entire situation is much more--" Gerard made a rolling motion with his hands-"fluid."

"How so?"

"Rupert, you with your books and your museums and me with my languages, we have some sense of the flow of history, no? We know that whenever an organization faces a changing culture, there are two responses. One is to contest the change from without by emphasizing tradition. The other is to try to adapt, and perhaps influence the change, to guide it to good ends. This is the crux of the debate at the Council."

Giles' confusion was plain on his face. "But, why would the Council be in conflict?"

A sardonic smile flitted across Gerard's face. "Because of you, my old friend. You and your Slayer."

The china cup almost slipped from Giles' hand. "What? Why, that's the most preposterous thing I've ever heard."

"Is it? Let us start with you, my friend. A faction blames you for, and I quote them, 'this present disgraceful situation.'" Gerard waited a moment for a reply. When none was forthcoming, he continued. "Your Slayer, her name is Buffy, I believe, has been something of a rebel, has she not?"

"Well, I wouldn't put it that way. She still--"

"That is how some on the Council would put it. They are also very troubled by reports that a number of people know that she is the Slayer."

Giles remained silent, digesting this information. "So the Council has sent you--"

"Oh, no no." Gerard threw up his hands. "They have no idea I am here. If they knew..." An eloquent shrug completed the thought.

"Aren't you being a bit melodramatic?"

"I wish I was. I believe you are in danger. You and your Slayer."

"Danger? From whom?" The absurdity of the question struck Giles. When was he not in danger?

"From the very ones you once called brothers. Rupert, I fear that the Council may be persuaded to pursue some form of sanction against you."

"What?" Giles started up from his chair.

"Please." Gerard motioned for him to sit. "There has been talk of calling a new Grand Inquisitor."

Now Giles really was worried.

***

"Buffy. Buffy."

"Wait a minute." Buffy forced one eye open, looking into her mother's face. "What kind of trick is this? I know there's no school today."

"You have a phone call."

Buffy levered herself onto her elbows and looked at her clock. "Do I even know anyone who's awake at this hour?"

"Besides your dear mother? Yes." Joyce turned in the doorway. "Tall man, speaks with a British accent."

"Say no more." Buffy rolled out of bed. "And I really mean that. Say no more."

After navigating stairs as treacherous as Mt. Everest, Buffy picked up the phone in the kitchen. "H'lo," she mumbled.

Joyce watched from the doorway, and tried to discern the gist of the conversation. This proved impossible, since Buffy's contribution consisted mostly of grunts and mumbled "Uh-huh"'s. Her first full sentence was "All right. I'll see you then," which she uttered just before hanging up.

"Is anything wrong?" Joyce asked.

"Oh, you know, the usual." Buffy waved a hand as she stumbled to the coffee maker. "'Great danger, be careful, watch your back', blah, blah, blah. Heard it once, heard it yada yada."

"Did he mention the source of this great danger?" Joyce tried to keep her tone light, but she had brushed up against Buffy's calling too many times to keep the strain from showing.

Buffy poured a cup of coffee. "No, but I'm sure it's from some dusty book bound in the skin of an endangered species." She blew on the hot liquid, took a sip. "Anyway, I'm going over to his house this afternoon."

"You'll be careful?"

Buffy shot her mom a look. "I know," Joyce said, raising her hands, "that was a stupid question." She retreated from the room as Buffy picked up the phone.

She punched in the familiar number. "Hi Will," she said. "Giles tells me there's another possible apocalypse on the horizon. Wants me to meet him this afternoon. I'm sure there'll be heavy research. You in? Great. Meet you at his house noon-thirtyish."

She hung up the phone and took another sip of coffee. "What to wear?" she mused to herself.

***

"Why can't we ever fight any demons who love to hang out on sunny days? That way we could get a tan along with our scars." Buffy raised her arms, letting the warm autumn sun caress them.

"We do seem to spend an unhealthy amount of time either underground or running through the night," Willow conceded. "Maybe we could find some demons who haunt the beach. That would be cool. Or snow skiing! I could really go for fighting some demons who love to ski."

"We should ask Giles if that's possible." They turned up the sidewalk that led to Giles' apartment. Buffy's hand was raised to knock when the door opened.

"Come in, come in." Giles stepped aside, motioning for them to enter. Buffy noticed an old guy sitting in Giles' chair. On second look, he was about the same age as Giles, which made him old, but not old like on first impression. The white hair was a possible reason; it made such a stark contrast with the black turtleneck and dove-gray trousers he wore. He got up as they entered, his lanky frame unfolding from the sofa. He held out a hand.

"Hello," he said, his voice soft and slightly accented. "I am Gerard Roland. Which of you is the Slayer?"

"That would be me," Buffy said, taking his hand. To her surprise, he did not shake, but gave a little bow and kissed her hand. "Okay," she said, withdrawing her hand, "First lesson in American etiquette. We don't do the hand-kiss thing."

Willow turned to Giles. "I'm guessing he's one of you."

Giles shrugged. "Yes."

The white-haired guy actually bowed. "Indeed, I am a Watcher."

"Is he the great danger?" Buffy asked.

Gerard laughed as Giles stammered, "No, no. In fact, he's come to warn us."

"About?" Buffy said.

"Yeah." Willow shrugged. "What's the vine?"

"The vine?" Gerard was definitely puzzled.

"As in grape," Willow offered. "You know, the grapevine?"

"Ah!" Gerard clapped his hands. "Rupert, I tell you, the dialect you have here is fascinating."

"Yes," Giles muttered, "well, you wouldn't say that if you had to listen to it every day." He motioned for everyone to sit down. "I think we should wait for Faith and Ms. Maeda to arrive." Buffy and Willow looked at each other, then settled down on the sofa. Gerard Roland waited for them to be seated, then lowered himself into the chair, projecting so much natural grace and authority that Buffy almost jumped to her feet. She looked at Willow again. The redhead's eyes widened and the corners of her mouth pulled down in that familiar expression of Willow-bafflement. Buffy looked around for Giles, but he was nowhere to be seen. She heard water running in the kitchen.

"So," Gerard said, "this is somewhat uncomfortable, no?"

"Somewhat, yes," Buffy said.

A small refined smile quirked Gerard's lips. "I apologize."

"So, do you work with languages?" Willow leaned forward. "I mean, the thing you said about dialects and all, it sounded like a professional interest to me."

"Indeed." Gerard hitched forward in his chair, half-turning his upper body so that his left elbow rested on his left knee. His right hand splayed across his right thigh. "I am a philologist."

"Do you live in France?" Buffy asked.

He chuckled. "No. I live in Montreal." He rolled the 'r' with immense savoir-faire.

"Do all Watchers have other jobs?" Willow said.

Gerard shrugged. "We are all trained and most of us are employed in our main area of expertise." He sat back, his open hands extended in front of him. "But look at you. You have enticed me into talking about myself. You are very good."

"Good?" Willow looked puzzled. "At what?"

"You know much more about me than you did a few moments ago, while I, I know nothing more of you. You are a very gifted young lady."

Willow actually blushed. "Th-Thank you," she stammered. She ducked her head as she flushed a deep red. There was a knock at the door and Giles came out of the kitchen so fast that Buffy checked his feet for roller skates. He flung open the door with enough force that it hit the stop and rebounded, forcing him to catch it with his left hand.

"Come in," he said, his voice a little higher than usual.

Faith stepped across the threshold, followed by Lindsay. The contrast was startling. Faith's eyes were puffy and a little bloodshot. One cheek was still creased by pillow marks. She wore a periwinkle-blue spaghetti-strap top over blue and green plaid flannel pants that Buffy suspected were pajamas. Her sockless feet were jammed into untied Doc Martens. She looked around the room and muttered, "It better be barbarians at the gate time, 'cause this is wicked early to be up on a Sunday."

"It's almost one in the afternoon," Giles said.

"My point exactly," Faith said as she half-staggered across the room and plopped down between Buffy and Willow. "Hey, B," she said as she rested her head on Buffy's shoulder, "wake me up when this gets interesting." She closed her eyes, breathing deeply. Buffy glanced at Gerard Roland, who seemed a bit nonplussed.

On the other hand, Lindsay wore a crimson silk turtleneck under a navy-blue wool blazer. A flat gold chain encircled her throat. Black pants and half-boots completed the ensemble. She stopped inside the door, looking from Giles to Gerard and back again. Giles cleared his throat. "Lindsay Maeda, may I introduce Gerard Roland."

Gerard rose with a short half-bow. "I am pleased to make your acquaintance."

Lindsay nodded. "I thought I recognized you from the book jackets."

Gerard smiled and waved his hands in a c'est la vie gesture. "You are very kind. I fear that I have aged a great deal since those books were written."

Giles made a shushing motion with his hands. "Could we please be seated and get on with this?" Buffy watched in amazement as he herded Lindsay across the room to a chair. Giles was positively twitchy. He tried crossing his arms in front of him, then clasped at his waist before he thrust them into the pockets of his trousers. He nodded in Gerard's direction. All eyes turned to the white-haired Watcher. Buffy elbowed Faith in the ribs. Faith blinked as she struggled to sit upright.

Gerard spread his hands wide, a mournful expression on his face. "When I decided to come to my dear friend Rupert, I did so with a heavy heart. Now, having met you-" he nodded at the three girls on the sofa-"that pain is doubled."

"Do you get paid by the word?" Faith grunted.

Gerard nodded. "I beg your pardon. Sometimes I love the sound of my own voice. I have come here to warn you. I believe that you are all in danger."

"Even me?" Willow squeaked.

"No, not you, not directly." Gerard rubbed his forehead with the fingers of his right hand. "The Slayers and their Watchers."

"Sorry you made a long trip for nothing," Buffy said. "Us being in danger isn't exactly a reason to stop the presses."

"Ah, but you have never before been in danger of the Watchers Council."

"Excuse me?" Buffy looked skeptical.

Gerard raised his hands in a calming gesture. "Not from the entire Council, but from a small faction, a faction that has come to believe that you are a reason for the burgeoning chaos around the world, rather than a bulwark against it."

Buffy turned to Giles. "Could you tell him that prof-speak tends to make our tiny little heads hurt?" She jerked a thumb at Gerard, but Giles wasn't paying attention.

"What 'burgeoning chaos'?" he demanded of Gerard. "You said nothing about any 'burgeoning chaos'."

"Felix, Oscar. Let's concentrate on the matter at hand." Buffy turned to Gerard. "How could I be responsible for any of this?"

He rubbed his chin, choosing his words with great care. "The Council has an established order, a lineage and ritual of centuries. A Slayer is born, she is called when the present Slayer dies, she does battle until she dies, then--"

"Yeah, yeah, then the next one is called. Skip Slayology 101. I think we're ready for the advanced class."

"Maybe even postgrad," Willow chimed in.

A smile flickered across Gerard's face, and he spoke to Giles. "I tell you, Rupert, if I only had time, I would love to study these two." He turned back to Buffy. "Very well. As I'm sure you are aware, no Slayer has ever behaved as you."

"Yeah, I've been reminded of that many times." Buffy rolled her eyes.

"Your... independence has made a faction of the Council very nervous, almost frantic."

"I can't believe that anyone on the Council would think that Buffy should be punished." Lindsay picked at the knee of her slacks. "Who are they?"

Gerard shrugged. "The core of this faction is a group of young zealots who believe that we must purge the Council of compromise."

"Compromise?" Buffy frowned. "Compromise with what?"

"I do not believe they know." Gerard leaned back and crossed his right leg over his left. "Insufficient fervor is always an easy accusation to make."

Lindsay held out one hand, palm up. "But surely they can't have much influence."

"They are remorseless in pressing their agenda and they have the fire of obsessed youth. Their persistence is causing some who should know better to waver." The elegant Watcher sighed. "But that is not all. They have forged a sort of devil's alliance with another party." He looked at Giles.

The librarian stared at his friend. "No. Tell me that what I'm thinking is wrong." Gerard shook his head in the negative.

"What?" Lindsay said. The three girls sat on the couch, transfixed by the scene.

"Lindsay, you are very young." A sad smile etched itself upon Gerard's features. "Watchers, in their own way, are as special as Slayers. The Slayer is called, but she has powers. We are called to face death armed with nothing but conviction. You yourself are aware that there is no higher honor for a Watcher than to guide a Slayer, yet it is an honor that most, indeed almost all Watchers will never experience. It is only natural that those who have no Slayer become jealous of those who do."

"Somebody is after us because Lindsay's my watcher and not them?" The conversation had finally gotten Faith's full attention. "Anybody touches her, I kick their ass through the top of their head."

"Faith." Lindsay made a shushing gesture. "So this coalition might actually be able to set policy?"

Giles's brow furrowed. "How could such a situation come to pass at the Council?"

"Sadly, it is a common phenomenon." Gerard gave another eloquent shrug. "Organizations become more interested in protecting themselves than accomplishing their stated goals."

There was a moment of silence before Buffy cut to the chase. "You're saying I'm in danger because they're afraid of losing their jobs?"

The three Watchers looked at one another. Gerard shrugged. "A bit oversimplified, but essentially correct."

"Well, that's the definition of suck," Willow said.

"What's our next move?" Lindsay asked.

Giles pushed away from the wall he was leaning against. "What sort of time frame are we facing? How advanced is this sentiment? What sort of actions are they talking about?"

Gerard folded his hands in front of his face, the fingertips tapping against each other. "The answers to those questions are quite complex and detailed."

"Oh great," Faith groaned. "I don't even want to know this guy's idea of a complex answer." She flopped back on the couch. Lindsay gave her the evil eye.

Buffy lifted her left hand off her knee at a right angle to her forearm. "If I might rephrase that in a more polite way, do we need to stay here for this? Because this sounds like it could on all day and, no offense, but I just don't want to be here for that."

Giles rubbed the back of his neck. "It might be best if you left us alone. I'm sure that the internecine affairs of the Watchers Council will be of little interest."

"I have no idea what that word meant, but I distinctly heard permission to leave." Buffy stood. "I'm out of here."

Lindsay said, "Faith, I don't know how long this will take."

"If it's okay with you, she can hang at my house." Buffy looked at Lindsay, then at Faith. "In fact, why don't you just sleep over tonight?"

Faith shrugged. "Sounds great to me. Linz?"

Lindsay nodded. "Good idea. Thanks, Buffy."

***

"That was the dumbest movie in the world." Faith rocked her head from side to side, loosening her neck. Buffy and Willow fanned out behind her on the sidewalk in front of the Sunnydale Six theater. Willow had suggested an afternoon showing of Pleasantville

"I thought it was sweet," Willow said.

"C'mon, they screw and the world turns colors?" Faith snorted. "Wish I'd meet a guy that good."

"What would you rather see?" Willow said, her pride stung.

"Soldier," Faith replied without hesitation. "Ninety minutes of kicking ass and taking names."

Willow scowled. "There's more to life than fighting."

"Really?" Faith put one hand on her hip. "Oh yeah. There's partying after fighting." She executed an impromptu dance step on the sidewalk.

Willow was aghast. "Didn't you think it was even a little romantic or sweet, the idea that love could change the whole world?"

Faith pointed at the redhead. "See, there's the flaw in your reasoning, right there. It wasn't about love. It was about screwing. Everybody's world started changing when they started getting their freak on."

"What about the Jeff Daniels character?" Willow demanded. "It was his love for his art that did it."

"Please. Love for his art? He wanted to fuck another man's wife." Faith smirked. "That was his grand passion." Her voice dripped sarcasm.

Willow stamped her foot on the sidewalk. "That is so cynical." She turned to Buffy. "What do you think?"

The blond Slayer bit her lower lip. "I think it might have been, uh, a little rosy."

"Oh!" Willow crossed her arms and scowled. "You're just on her side."

A cocky grin split Faith's lips. "'cause I'm right."

"Uh, guys?" Buffy pointed to the sky. "Sun's going down. We should probably think about patrol."

"Oh yeah," Faith said. "Time to get to the important work."

Willow was still pouting. "I'm not in the mood."

"Will," Buffy said. "It's just a movie." She put an arm around her best friend's shoulders.

"I know," Willow said. "But I liked it."

Buffy smiled. "Maybe that's because you've had better experiences than we have." A weak smile crossed Willow's face. Buffy looked into the redhead's eyes. "Sure you don't want to come?" Willow shook her head. "Want to come by the house later?"

Willow shook her head. "I think I'll call Oz."

"Okay." Buffy removed her arm. "Are we good?"

Willow grinned. "Yes. You know that."

"Good," Buffy said. "See you at school tomorrow."

***

Oz slipped the CD into the Walkman and pressed the buttons to lock in the repeat pattern. He leaned back and smiled as the opening chords sounded through the headphones. He had bought this CD because Willow liked it; actually she liked one song on it. They had seen City of Angels and Willow had fallen hard for 'Iris.' She had purchased the soundtrack CD, but Oz gave it a pass. He had bought the Goo Goo Dolls Dizzy Up the Girl instead. 'Iris' was okay, but the third song on the album was the one for Oz. Every time he listened to it he hoped that someday he would be able to write a couplet as great as 'see the young man sittin' in the old man's bar, waitin' for his turn to die.' It sent shivers down his spine whenever Johnny Rzeznik sang that line in a grainy voice.

He listened to the song twice, then took off the headphones and picked up his battered old Guild. The basic chord progression was simple, but Rzeznik used some wack altered tuning that made getting the sound right almost impossible in standard tuning. His wolf-enhanced hearing would have made it a snap for Oz to re-tune the Guild, but he didn't want to stress the old guitar's neck. Instead he was trying to split the difference and he was getting very close.

He ran through the song twice, tweaking the arrangement the second time. He sat with the guitar on his lap. Why was he so focused on this? Dingoes would never cover 'Broadway.' Maybe that was the point.

His morbid train of thought was broken when his gaze fell on the clock. Time for a treatment. He placed the Guild in its case and opened his desk drawer. He placed the three Zip-loc bags and the measuring spoons on the desk, pulled his mug toward him and began scooping. The phone rang in the middle of the process. Startled, he twitched and the spoon jumped, scattering its contents across the desk. He closed his eyes for a second as the phone range a second time. He picked up the receiver.

"Yeah," he said.

"Hi," Willow said. "Whatcha doing?"

"Uh, nothing much. Playing the guitar, you know."

Willow sighed in his ear. "I was hoping that maybe I could come over tonight."

"Sure. Is anything wrong?"

"I don't know." She sounded wistful. "I just want to see you."

"And I like to be seen. When will you be here?"

"Half an hour?"

"Thirty minutes it is." He hung up, finished measuring the dosage, then picked up the cup and headed for the kitchen.

***

"I can't believe it," Giles said. "I won't believe it. Not from Ion Manolescu."

Gerard Roland shrugged. "Your belief is not the issue, old friend." He tapped the top of his ear with an index finger. "I myself have heard him."

"But he cannot be in league with these zealots."

Gerard leaned forward. "It is their zealotry which appeals to him. You know that he is much enamored of the romantic charge. Besides, he is galled by the nature of your reports. He is offended by the lack of respect for tradition, by the frivolous attitude." A sarcastic smile graced his lips. "I think that he believes that you should be wearing a cape and top hat while Buffy fights the undead in a flowing dress of blood-red velvet."

Giles sighed as he shook his head. "It's his heritage. Thinks because he's from Romania he must uphold the cult of Dracula."

"Look, we've been at this for almost eight hours. Can we take a break?" Lindsay Maeda rested her forehead on the heels of her hands, trying to rub out the fatigue. "I think we've mentioned every member of the Council by name."

"I'm sorry." Giles ran a hand through his hair, which was already pointing to every conceivable sub-heading of the compass. "We should stop for the night." Gerard and Lindsay stood as Giles began collecting dirty cups and plates. As he returned from the kitchen he noticed Gerard stroking a thumb along his chin. "What's the matter?" Giles asked.

"Before I go, there is one more thing." The white-haired Watcher tried to smile, but it ended up as more of a grimace. "The Council is very, very unhappy that the Slayer's identity is no longer secret."

Giles frowned. "I agree that it's not standard practice, but Buffy's friends have been nothing but an asset."

"Still," Gerard said, "if you can find a way to warn them to be on their guard without making too much of a fuss, it would be wise."

Lindsay buttoned her blazer as she shook her head. "I can't believe this. This is not the way I envisioned the operations of the Watcher's Council."

"Neither did I, and I've been at this a lot longer than you." Giles folded his arms over his chest.

"Well," Lindsay said, "I'm starving. I'll talk to you tomorrow."

"I'll be glad to drive you home," Giles said, slapping at his pockets for his car keys.

In one graceful motion Gerard Roland moved past her and swept open the door. "Please, I have kept you here far too late. Let me buy you dinner and take you home." He turned his bright, intense smile on Lindsay and some of her exhaustion abated.

"Thank you," she said.

"Be careful," Giles called after them as they went down the sidewalk. "Remember, we drive on the right side of the road here."

"I know, Rupert." Gerard laughed as he ushered Lindsay into the passenger seat of the rented Ford Taurus. "We do in Canada, too." He waved and went around the car, got in the driver's seat and pulled away. Giles watched the red taillights recede in the distance.