Suggested listening:

"Scuttle Buttin'" by Stevie Ray Vaughn
"Kissers & Killers" by the Choir
"You Dropped A Bomb On Me" by the Gap Band

New Kid In Town

By

Michael Walker

It was a perfect autumn day in Sunnydale, California. In fact, it was a day on the cusp between late summer and early fall, the sort of day when people who had spent the entire summer bowing before the altar of air conditioning found themselves irresistibly drawn to the outdoors. Parks were full, playgrounds throbbed with the roar of playing children, and students spent the better portion of their day glancing out the window of the classroom, wishing to be either again four or at least twenty.

On this gorgeous day, a man exited the Sunnydale National Bank and took out a small, wafer-thin cell phone. He was a bit taller than average, a bit thinner than average, his hair was beginning to recede but not dramatically so, and his face wore an expression balanced between pleasantry and contempt. He wore a dark suit, a crisp shirt so white that it positively glowed in the sunshine, and a blood-red tie. He punched a number into the phone, then waited while it connected and began to ring. Neither his posture nor his expression conveyed the faintest bit of annoyance, eagerness or, indeed, any discernable emotion.

A voice spoke in his ear. "Yes?"

"Everything is in order at the bank. I have secured accommodations for you, and the realtor will be by this afternoon with the papers that will complete the transaction."

"Good." The connection was broken. He closed the phone and returned it to his pocket with a deft gesture. He turned to his left and nearly collided with a man entering the bank. He took in the newcomer's appearance with a single glance. About his height, round glasses, bit of a pinched expression, fraying shirt collar, hopeless tweed jacket.

"Excuse me," the man with the tweed jacket said, his British accent even more glaring here in California.

"Not at all," the man in the dark suit replied. "I should be more alert." The fellow in tweed nodded and stepped around him to enter the bank. The man in the dark suit took a small leather-bound notebook from his pocket, opened it, and made a careful notation:

'Met Wtchr?'

***

Buffy Summers did her best to mask the frustration that ate at her psyche like a cutworm. The last thing she needed was for Ms. Dortmann to make a note of her "agitated state."

Said Ms. Dortmann was speaking. "Could you tell me what provoked your behavior?"

"You mean, why did I run away?" No, no, stupid, stupid idiot. Wrong answer, she screamed inside her head.

"Well." Ms. Dortmann shook her head like a welterweight who'd taken a good hard right to the noggin. "You certainly have chosen to be blunt."

"Sorry." Buffy did her best to adopt a contrite tone. "It's just, you know, being back in school, trying to make up missed work, and then, everybody... you know."

"Indeed I do." Ms. Dortmann's lips compressed into a thin line as she leaned forward over her desk. "The stares, the feel of everyone's eyes on you. The weight of their unspoken questions."

"Uh, yeah, that."

"I know what you went through must have been terrible, but your response was inappropriate. All of us find ourselves..."

Ms. Dortmann's voice faded as Buffy allowed her mind to wander. The counselor's extended monologue became a vaguely pleasant white noise as the Slayer contemplated possible dinner choices, what Willow might be doing at that moment, plans for the evening. At the redhead's insistence, Buffy was going to accompany her to the Dingoes Ate My Baby rehearsal after school. According to Willow, Trey Garcia would be there, attempting to learn Dingoes' material well enough to fill in for Oz on those nights when the guitarist's lycanthropy rendered him unable to play.

"...so you can be secure in the knowledge that all your peers have felt exactly the way you're feeling." The sheer ludicrous folly of Ms. Dortmann's statement pulled Buffy back to the here and now. Oblivious, the counselor plowed on. "So you don't have to feel like some sort of freak. Everyone has gone through this.

Buffy wanted to say, Really? You mean everyone's been forced to choose between their boyfriend and saving the world? Everyone's had to resolve the situation by running a sword through him in order to stop hell from invading earth? Wow. Had I but known. It would have made all the difference. Her vision began to blur, and she realized that she was on the verge of tears. Get it together, she commanded herself.

"Oh dear, it looks like that's all our time for this week," Ms. Dortmann said, looking at her watch, then the wall clock. She came around the corner of her desk, arms outstretched. "Big hug."

"Uh, Ms. Dortmann..." Buffy began, but the rest of her statement was cut off as the counselor snatched her up in an aggressive embrace. The Slayer felt herself lifted up on tiptoe.

"Don't you worry," Ms. Dortmann whispered in a voice full of empathy and caring. "We'll get through this."

***

The limousine turned off the street onto the access road, smooth as melted butter off a hot skillet. The windows were tinted the same obsidian shade as the body, making the car a single long line of gleaming black, like a mobile oil slick. It cruised along a chain-link security fence, turning through an open gate, which slid shut behind it. Ahead of the car, a large overhead door opened, rising up on a well-oiled frame. As the car entered the building, the door closed behind it, the building swallowing the vehicle and leaving no trace. A white sign was affixed to the building beside the door, a large white sign with orange lettering: CRD.

The car came to a soundless stop in what had once been a warehouse or loading area. A man crossed the floor to meet the car's occupants. He was a bit taller than average, a bit thinner than average, his hair was beginning to recede but not dramatically so, and his face wore an expression balanced between pleasantry and contempt. He wore a dark suit, a crisp white shirt, and a blood-red tie. He reached the car and opened the rear passenger door with a flourish.

An immaculate black oxford descended onto the concrete floor. A black man of medium height flowed from the car and straightened, shaking his shoulders slightly to restore the drape of his custom-tailored charcoal-gray suit. He stepped away from the car and extended his hand for the vehicle's remaining passenger.

She was dressed in a red suit, a single thin line of gold at her throat. Green eyes were a startling contrast to her caramel skin. She took the offered hand, steadying herself as she exited the limo. She was taller than the man whose hand she held, but her bearing was quite deferential.

"Quisling," the black man said, nodding to the man who had met them.

Mr. Quisling bent at the waist in a small, formal bow. "Mr. Trick, welcome to Sunnydale."

***

"So, how goes the crazy talk?"

Buffy turned toward the sound of the unfamiliar voice. "Oh, hi, Amy," she said. "So, my sentence is public knowledge?"

The blond witch shrugged. "Sort of underground telegraph. Buzz is that you have to spend one afternoon a week with the Diesel. How is it?"

Buffy made a face. "Better than driving a nail through my hand, worse than a hot fudge sundae."

"That leaves a lot of territory."

"Well, it varies."

"Understood." Amy looked around for a second, shifted her books from one arm to the other. "Well, listen, I gotta go, but I just wanted to tell you that, you know, if you need anything, or if there's anything I can do for you, all you have to do is ask."

Buffy was strangely touched. "Thank you," she said, her voice sincere.

Amy leaned toward her, voice lowered to a conspiratorial level. "Hey, I have some knowledge of the weirdness that infests this place, and I know that something really funky happened last spring. I guess it had something to do with you, and I guess it was bad."

Buffy almost turned away, but she stopped. Giles was right, she had to stop walling people off. "Right twice," she said to Amy.

The other girl nodded. "I won't ask about anything else. But the offer stands, and I mean it."

"Thanks," was all Buffy could manage as Amy waved and moved away down the hall.

***

Mr. Quisling's tour of the facilities ended at the corporate offices. He opened the door with a flourish and stepped aside, the corners of his mouth twitching up.

Mr. Trick stepped inside and let his gaze encompass the entire room. "Bravo," he said, turning to his associate. Quisling's smile grew a touch more self-satisfied. Trick took a deep breath, as though trying to take the room into himself.

An antique mahogany desk, its gleaming surface reflecting the office's muted lighting, was centered in front of the far wall. Matching armoires, also burnished mahogany, sat flush against the side walls, framing the desk. The walls were covered in natural silk; the floors, shining hardwood. A long kilim rug stretched from just inside the door to just in front of the desk. Two visitor's chairs sat on either side of the rug.

Trick turned to the woman. "Delilah, make sure that you note Mr. Quisling's exemplary performance in furnishing the office."

She turned to her palm computer. "Done," she said in a crisp tone. Trick was already gliding around the desk, looking at the flat-screen monitor perched on one corner.

"I'm already connected," he said. It was not a question.

"Of course, sir," Quisling replied. "The rest of the facility is a few days away from full readiness, but the offices are already on-line."

Trick nodded, never taking his eyes off the screen. "Excellent. The rest of the crew won't be here for a few days anyway. Now, Quisling, you have a meet with Hizzoner this afternoon?"

"Yes, sir. Two-thirty."

Trick stroked the top of the monitor with a feather-light touch. "Be sure and express our appreciation of his hospitality, will you?" He snapped his fingers at Delilah. "Has our welcome gift arrived?"

Delilah consulted her computer. "Yes, sir. Leon has arrived in Sunnydale and should be here at the facility within the hour."

"Good, good. Now, Quisling, where do you think we should put Leon?"

"The Bronze. It's an establishment frequented by the youth of Sunnydale. Leon should make quite an impression."

Trick nodded, then turned to Delilah. "Have Leon delivered to this place just after sundown. Tell the deliverymen to make sure they loosen the lid." He switched back to Quisling as Delilah took down his instructions. "When is that realtor going to be here?"

Quisling checked the Patek Phillipe watch on his left wrist. "We agreed on twelve-thirty. It is now twelve-fifteen, so I assume she will arrive any moment."

Trick rubbed his hands together. "Good. Let's get this deal done. And remember," he said to Delilah, "this time, nobody eats until after we sign the papers, understood?"

***

"So she's over her staking block?" Xander stuffed french fries in his mouth while he waited for Willow to respond to his question.

"Oh, yeah." Willow nodded. "I guess it's like riding a bike. You know, you never forget how to slay."

Cordelia shook her head. "No way."

Willow flared. "What do you mean, 'no way'?"

Cordelia rolled her eyes. "First, she staked this vamp from the back, not the front. Second, and more importantly, didn't you say this one was a woman?"

"Had been a woman, yes."

Cordelia snorted. "What were the chances of her looking like Angel? Because she dusts a female vamp from behind, you're willing to forget the little performance problem? Well, I'm not."

Willow scowled. Xander chewed, swallowed. "Speaking of," he said, "where is the fair Buffster?"

"She's skipping lunch. Oz is helping her catch up on American Lit." Willow sank back into her funk.

"She better be careful," Xander observed, dredging the last of the fries from his plate. "Don't want her wasting away to skin and bone."

Willow's forehead wrinkled. "Do you really think Buffy might freeze up and let one of us get hurt?"

Cordelia's mouth set in a firm line. "I know that people can let you down. Even people you never thought would. So, yeah, it's a real concern with me. I'm not wild about ending up with fangs in the neck, or worse."

"What could be worse?" Xander mumbled around a mouthful of fries.

Cordelia looked at him and rolled her eyes. "Well, the possibility that you might be Mr. Right springs to mind."

***

"Wait, wait." Buffy held up her right hand. The left was already busy supporting her head. "So, Julius Erving is like the first important American writer?"

"Well, first of all, it's Washington Irving." Oz's tone was mild.

"It is?" Buffy frowned. "Then, who's Julius Erving?"

"Basketball player. Dr. J."

The Slayer's voice was hopeful. "Did he ever write anything important?"

Oz shrugged. "Maybe. But it wouldn't be the right time period."

Buffy tossed her pencil down on her American Lit book. "Y'know, it's not enough that I don't like school. No, I have to be the Slayer. Then, on top of that, I have to miss school and get behind." She scowled.

"Don't stress. We'll get you through." Oz stood up and stretched. The library was devoid of other students. Giles was somewhere back in the stacks, doing librarian stuff to keep up his cover. "Lunch is pretty much over. Let's knock for today."

"You got my vote." Buffy began to gather her books before Oz could change his mind.

"Everything cool?" Oz's backpack dangled from his hand.

Buffy shrugged, not looking at him. "As can be, I guess."

"Okay. See ya." Oz ambled out of the library. Buffy finished packing her books and zipped her bag. She was almost out the door when she heard Giles' voice.

"Buffy, are you free after school? We need to resume training."

The Slayer paused for a beat, then turned. "Gee, I'd love to, but I promised Willow that I'd go to Oz's rehearsal with her."

Giles frowned. "I realize that you want your life to return to normal as soon as possible, but we cannot neglect your training."

Buffy shook her head. "The last thing I want is for my life to return to what's normal for me. Besides, all this extra studying's given me a lot of pent-up stress. I'm afraid that I might not be able to hold back."

Giles paled and blinked. "Well, I suppose that we could wait a while longer. What about the weekend?"

Buffy pointed a finger at him. "Tell you what, it's a date. Saturday, I'll beat the crap out of you. Deal?"

"Deal," the Watcher replied in a weak voice.

***

Mr. Quisling stepped into the reception area of the Mayor's office at two-twenty-three. The receptionist turned a blinding smile toward him.

"Hello. Are you the Mayor's two-thirty?"

Quisling nodded. "I am."

"Well, please have a seat. He'll be with you shortly."

Quisling sat in one of the industrial-blue chairs, back very straight, hands on his thighs, right foot slightly behind the left. He focused his attention on the round old-fashioned schoolhouse clock on the wall behind the receptionist's desk. As the second had swept up to the twelve and the minute hand snapped over to the six, the phone on the desk buzzed. She picked it up, listened, said, "Yes, sir." Replacing the phone, she lifted her eyes to Quisling.

"He's ready for you now," she said.

Quisling stood with a smooth, unhurried movement and entered the Mayor's office. He paused just inside the door, eyes sweeping the room. It was an old habit. He was impressed by this room. No ostentation, nothing amiss or odd, but he was willing to wager that some interesting things could be found in that armoire in the corner to his right.

The Mayor rose from behind his black desk and approached Quisling, extending a hand. "Mr. Quisling. It's good to see you." They clasped hands briefly, then the Mayor returned to his seat as Quisling settled onto the sofa.

"Well," said the Mayor, "has your master arrived?"

"Mentor. Mr. Trick is my mentor." The slightest hiss edged Quisling's voice.

The Mayor waved a hand as though clearing smoke. "Sorry. Of course. Mentor. Has your mentor arrived?"

"Mr. Trick and his personal staff are presently at the facility."

"And has everything been to their liking?"

"They have found the conditions more than satisfactory. He asked me to convey his most heartfelt appreciation."

"Well, good, good. Glad to hear it. If there's anything you need, or should I say, anything they need, please let me know. I don't expect my associates to work with inadequate resources."

Quisling nodded. "That brings us to the matter of the Slayer." The Mayor steepled his hands in front of his face, waiting. Quisling smoothed his tie before continuing. "The contract was negotiated when it was believed that the Slayer had departed."

A small gleam shone in the Mayor's eye. "And now you wish to renegotiate, what with the change in circumstances, her return and all."

"That goes without saying."

"Ah, well, skilled craftsmen do know their own value." The Mayor toyed with a small box on his desk. "What sort of inducement were you thinking about?"

"Mr. Trick feels that a twenty-five percent increase is warranted."

The Mayor grinned, exposing pointed incisors. "Well, it seems that you hold all the cards, so let's not insult one another by haggling. A twenty-five percent increase it is. Now, when will you be ready to begin fulfilling the contract?"

"As soon as all our people arrive."

A dry laugh rattled up from the Mayor's throat. "Your 'people?' That's very good, Mr. Quisling. Still, I suppose it's a harmless conceit."

If Quisling heard the Mayor's remark, he gave no note. "Of course, most of our organization will be engaged in more... traditional activities. The core group is a small department." The Mayor nodded. Quisling continued. "We have plans for an... event to occur tonight at a local club."

"That would be the Bronze."

"Yes."

"Good. Burn the place to the ground for all I care."

"It's nothing so flamboyant as that. Merely a diversion, a red herring to send a certain someone's efforts in the wrong direction."

"Ooooh, misdirection. How devious."

Quisling stood. "Unless you have issues to resolve, I should be on my way."

The Mayor stood. "Thank you for coming by." He waited until Quisling's hand was on the doorknob before saying, "You do realize that you didn't need to inform me of your plans for this evening. The contract allows you more than sufficient leeway regarding such matters."

"I know," Quisling replied. "It was a gesture of respect." He bowed slightly as he slipped out the door.

A wide smile spread over the Mayor's face. "Oh, my," he chuckled, "I won't be able to turn my back on him for a minute."

***

"I don't care what anyone says." Cordelia shook her head to emphasize her words above the rumble of conversations filling the Bronze. "If I can't depend on Buffy one hundred percent, then I can't depend on her at all."

"Now, that's just unfair." Indignant, Willow rose to her friend's defense.

"Really? In what way?" Cordelia wasn't backing down one bit.

"Well, because... because it... it... it just is!" Willow's voice grew more heated.

Cordelia leaned back in her chair. "Oh, that's a wonderful bit of logic."

Willow looked at Oz and Xander. "Are you two going to say anything, or have you both turned into wooden monkeys?"

"Wooden monkeys?" Xander appeared startled.

"It was the first thing that came into my mind." Willow scowled.

"Not to put out a fire with gasoline, but Cordelia does have a point." For someone who'd made such an explosive statement, Oz looked very relaxed.

"What?" Willow just went a little ballistic. Cordelia smile was so satisfied she might as well have etched the word 'smug' across her face in lip liner.

"A point." Oz rubbed his right fist against his left palm. "I mean, we all count on Buffy to watch our back. I know I was a lot more careful over the summer, knowing she wasn't there."

"So?" Willow spread her hands. "We'll just be careful now that she's here."

Oz nodded. "An option, but what if we forget? I wouldn't want to be the guy caught out if Buffy has a Vertigo moment."

"Which she will." Cordelia's eyes flashed. "We don't even know where she was, or what happened to her. What if she's got some sort of panic disorder? Or that, that post-trauma stress thing? I bet that could happen."

Willow looked around the table at her friends. Or her 'friends', as she thought of them at this moment. "Will you listen to yourselves?" she demanded. "What right do we have to demand that Buffy tell us what happened?"

"The right of people who risk their ass." Cordelia seemed pretty clear about it.

"She will tell us what happened when she's ready. I know that. Right now, she needs our support. I don't know what happened, but I know it was pretty awful. What kind of friends are we?" Willow was on the verge of tears.

Xander's voice came from a million miles away. "I wonder of Buffy had to do anything she's, like, ashamed of while she was gone."

Oz suddenly found something very interesting on the tabletop. Cordelia and Willow turned repulsed eyes on Xander.

"Ewwwww," was Cordelia's comment.

"That was officially disgusting," Willow added.

"Hey, hey, no, you're taking it wrong." Xander hurried to defend himself. "I just saw this after-school special once, about this girl who was a runaway, and she had to... do stuff."

Cordelia got up from the table. "I'm going to the bathroom. I feel a strong need to wash my hands."

"Me too." Willow joined her.

"Hey, hey," Xander shouted at their retreating figures. "What's with the sudden sisterhood?" He turned back to Oz. "Weren't they mad at each other?"

Oz shrugged. "You have a gift for uniting people in spite of their differences."

"Don't you ever wonder what happened while Buffy was away?"

"Shhh." Oz pointed at the stage. "I'm listening."

***

Cordelia pushed through the crowd. She was mad, mad at Xander, mad at Willow, and mad, mad, mad at Buffy. She was pretty much pissed off at the world.

"Cordelia." The brunette whirled as the hand touched her elbow. Willow flinched and almost stepped back; Cordelia looked angry enough to swing at her. "L-Look," the redhead stammered, "I know that you're not just being a jerk. I know you have issues with Buffy--"

"You do not." Cordelia cut her off. "You don't know any such thing. If you did, you wouldn't be so quick to forget that Wonder Woman bailed and left us to do her job."

"I know, but there were circumstances--"

"Spare me. Everybody has circumstances."

A strange and thoughtful look passed across Willow's face. "Cordelia, is this about Buffy, or about you?"

Cordelia glared, and opened her mouth to retort, but a third voice cut through the air like a buzz saw through butter.

"Cordeeeeeelia!" Harmony half-whined, half-brayed from just behind the former Queen C. Cordelia winced, her face twisted in a grimace for a split-second before it was replaced by a huge smile, that bright, dimpled grin with all the authenticity of Pamela Anderson Lee's boobs. Brimming with false good cheer, she turned to face her former acolyte.

"Harmony," she said. "Imagine seeing you here."

The blond fluttered her lashes, matching Cordelia fake pleasantry for fake pleasantry. "You look fantastic. It's so good to see that Xander's fashion sense isn't rubbing up against you... oh, I mean, rubbing off on you." She covered her mouth with her hand, a simpering gesture that caused Willow to gag.

"Oh, and look, you're making friends with his social circle." Harmony's attention shifted from Willow back to Cordelia. "Trying to learn the secrets to that geek chic look that'll drive Xander wild?" The Harmonaires snickered in chorus. "Tell you what," Harmony said to Willow, "see if you can get her to wear some of those overalls you like."

Willow's eyes burned. Harmony's an idiot, Harmony's an idiot, she kept repeating to herself. Okay, if she's the idiot, why does this bother me?

Cordelia took a deep breath. "Harmony, do you remember when I called you a sheep?"

The look on the blonde girl's face said that, yes, she did remember the stinging lecture she had received from her then-idol. "Yes," she said.

"Well, I was wrong, and I want to apologize." Cordelia face wore a look of sincere regret. "You're not a sheep. You're an ass." She leaned in closer. "Or maybe I should say, a very specific part of an ass." She spun and marched away, leaving the Harmonaires with open mouths and their leader gasping in fury.

Willow jerked a thumb over her shoulder. "Uh, I should probably, you know, go with her." She hurried away, half-scandalized, half-laughing.

***

Oz thought he knew the girl who was singing. Tatum Something, Tatum, Tatum... She'd sat behind him in Advanced Music Theory last year. Of course, her hair was sort of burgundy then, instead of the bright white that caught the spotlight tonight. Detweiler! That was it. Tatum Detweiler. Reassured that he wasn't suffering early-onset Alzheimer's, Oz concentrated on the music. The group consisted of Tatum and a percussionist. Tatum was playing a Taylor twelve-string acoustic, but she was running the signal through some sort of processor that enabled her to lay down loops on the fly. She was layering two and three guitar parts behind her vocals. Very impressive. The lyrics were a little weak, though; mostly moon-spoon-June aching, breaking heart stuff. Still, she had a good voice and played some cool guitar.

She was right in the middle of a drony, Middle-Eastern sounding song about a bad breakup when the big window behind the stage shattered, shards of glass flying onto the stage and into the front of the crowd. Tatum screamed. The percussionist never had a chance; a dark, hulking figure jerked him out from behind his kit. A head dipped to a neck.

Oz and Xander needed no more information. Both of them came out of their chairs as the now-limp body of the percussionist was flung aside. Tatum had taken the shortest way off the stage, over the front. The cables from her guitar dragged her effects to the lip of the stage, where they snagged for a moment before the jacks pulled free. Guitar still strapped on, cord trailing, she joined the crowd in a mad rush for the exits. The vamp leaped off the stage, a jagged, feral grin splitting its dark face. Caught in the crowd, Xander and Oz could only watch as the vampire caught Tatum by the hair, dragging her back. He sank his fangs into her neck with such force that a small cloud of red mist hovered in the air. Even over the screams, they could hear the obscene snuffling and sucking sound emanating from the creature as it fed.

Being smaller than Xander, Oz had an easier time getting through the throng. He clambered up onto the stage and looked around. He spied a mike stand lying on its side. Snatching up the gleaming tube, he took a full swing from his position above the demon. The heavy base of the stand caught the creature flush on the back of the head, knocking it to the ground beside the drained body of Tatum Detweiler. It got to its feet, apparently none the worse for the experience and turned to face its attacker. Oz reversed the mike stand, ready to jab at the vamp.

Xander broke free of the crowd and flung his body onto the vamp's back. It snarled and reached back, grabbing him by the hair and flinging him over its shoulder. He thudded against the base of the stage. "Ow," was his only comment.

The patrons of the Bronze were packed pretty tightly by the exits, leaving Willow and Cordelia standing in the middle of the dance floor, watching this new vamp waste their boyfriends. Willow looked around, trying to formulate a plan. Her eyes fell on the posters on the wall.

"Quick," she said to Cordelia. "Get a candle from the tables."

As Cordelia rushed away, Willow ripped two of the posters down, rolling them into rough funnel shapes.

"Here." Cordelia, breathing hard, held out a candle. Willow extended the two paper cones.

"Light 'em," she said.

Cordelia touched flame to paper. The brittle old posters caught quickly and burned brightly. Willow handed one of the makeshift torches to Cordelia. "Let's go," she said.

The vamp was trying to climb onstage. Oz poked at it with the mike stand. The creature caught the stand in one hand, yanked it from his grasp, and tossed the stand over its shoulder. Xander grabbed a convenient chair and smashed it over the demon's head, a blow which staggered it, but otherwise left no effect. Oz picked up a cymbal from the demolished percussion kit and sailed it, Frisbee-style, at the creature. The vamp saw it coming and ducked, but the bronze disc still glanced off its skull, gouging a pretty deep furrow. It snarled in pain and rage.

Willow and Cordelia thrust the flaming posters at the vampire. Confronted with fire, the vamp jumped up on stage. Oz held a drumstick, poised to use it like a stake. Xander was climbing up on stage, a broken chair leg in hand. Willow and Cordelia took turns lunging forward, fencing-like thrusts that would have been comical, if they hadn't been in such grave peril.

The vampire snarled, then laughed. As the four students held their ground, it turned and sprang through the gaping window. It took a moment for the Slayerettes to realize it was gone. Shaky with adrenaline, they all relaxed a bit.

"Okay, anyone want to follow?" Xander asked. "I thought not."

Oz took a step back and stumbled over the arm of the dead percussionist. He jumped forward, an uneasy look on his face.

"Ow," Willow cried as her forgotten torch burned too close to her hand. She dropped it to the floor and stomped it out, her hand stuck in her mouth. She stomped quite a bit longer than necessary, until she realized that the others were staring. "Sorry," she said, taking her burned hand away from her mouth. "Guess I got carried away."

"Well," Xander said to her, "you call Buffy, I'll call Giles."

***

"Hey." Buffy spotted Giles in the milling crowd outside the Bronze and worked her way to him. The Watcher was definitely dressed down in a navy-blue sweater and gray pants. She stood on tiptoe, trying to see over the heads of the crowd.

"Think we can get in?" she asked.

Giles shook his head. "I don't know, but I'm not sure there's any need. I've already seen Willow talking to a policeman. I'm sure the others are about."

"Then what say we make our way to the front of this mob?" She set off through the crowd, Giles trailing behind.

Willow was indeed being questioned by a uniformed officer. Oz hovered a few feet away. Another officer, a hapless look on his face, was trying to question Xander and Cordelia. He wasn't having much luck, since Cordelia was crying and Xander had his arm around her shoulders. Xander saw them and whispered something in Cordelia's ear. A fresh wave of sobbing swept over her. The officer began to flap his hands, looking something like a chicken. Xander waved to them with his free hand. Buffy and Giles hurried across the open space.

Cordelia unleashed a strangled wail and threw herself on Giles. Buffy went to Xander and wrapped her arms around him.

"What is going on?" she hissed in his ear.

Xander's reply was a low murmur. "Didn't want to talk to the cops, so Cordy's doing her best Titanic."

"Um, sir, are you family?" The cop was addressing Giles.

"Well-" the librarian began.

"He's like family to me," Cordelia choked out and buried her face in Giles' shoulder. Giles looked at the officer, trying to appear comforting and respectable.

"Well, uh, I think I've got all I'm going to get tonight, so I'll let you folks go. We may be getting in touch with you again, Miss..." The policeman checked his notes "...Chase." He touched his cap and walked away in a fast little quick-step.

As he left earshot, Cordelia smacked Giles on the chest with the flat of her hand. "Geez, could you take a little longer next time? Another five minutes and I was going to have to fake childbirth."

"What happened?" Giles directed his question at Xander. He had learned that ignoring Cordelia was often the safest course.

Xander shrugged. "Remember how we were worried what might happen when a new, big-time vamp came to town? Well, I think we can stop worrying. He's here."

"You sure he wasn't just a local guy making a big entrance? Maybe looking spookier because of the panic?" Buffy asked.

"Not unless Sunnydale has a new Burning Spear fan club." Finished with the police, Oz and Willow were standing behind them. Oz continued. "No way this guy's local. Dreads like that, they stand out in the 'dale."

"And you guys drove him off? Pretty brave," Buffy said.

"Well, it's a fine line between brave and insane," Xander offered.

"I don't know if we really drove him off," Willow said, voice pensive. "I got the feeling that he kind of quit."

"Yeah, well, quit because of our crazy bravery," Xander blustered.

Willow patted his arm. "Keep telling yourself that."

A moment of blessed silence followed, then the Slayer spoke. "Okay," she said. "I'm off."

"What?" Xander asked.

Giles' brow furrowed. "Are you sure that's the best course of action?"

Buffy shrugged. "I don't think there's an option, do you?" Her glance at Giles was pointed. "After all, I'm the Chosen One, not the Choosing One."

Giles shifted his weight. "This really isn't the time or place..."

"Buffy, you don't have to prove anything." Willow sounded like she was reasoning with someone standing on the ledge of a tall building.

"Willow's right--" Giles began, but he was cut off.

"What, we should wait until this guy gets stronger? No, I have to do it now. I have to nip this in the bud." The set of Buffy's jaw showed her determination.

"Okay, Deputy Fife," Xander said, "but if you insist on this, I'm going with."

"Me too." Willow's chin went up.

Oz shrugged. The action said it all. He was in.

"No," Buffy said. "I can't let you. I can't risk--"

"Risk, shmisk," Willow said briskly. "We've already fought him without you. I feel a lot better about fighting him with you."

Buffy shook her head. "But what if--"

"It won't happen." Willow's voice was firm and steady. "Don't worry about it, because it's not going to happen." The redhead gave her best friend a quick hug.

"Cor?" Xander asked.

Ten eyes turned toward Cordelia. A scowl creased her forehead. She drew in a deep breath and let out a disgusted sigh. "Do I have any choices?"

Buffy gestured toward the Watcher. "You can research with Giles. See if you can find any information about this guy."

Cordelia rolled her eyes. "I'll go with."

"Thank you," Giles said. "I'm not insulted at all."

"I gotta say," Xander offered as the group left, "sarcasm always sounds so much classier coming from a Brit."

***

Hungry. Hungry. Hungry. The word kept beating a tattoo in his brain. How long since he had eaten? Disoriented, dazed, not quite sure how long he'd even been here, he stumbled along, driven by the one urgent, incessant need, the hollowness, the craving that compelled him onward.

Something here. He could smell it. He dropped into a crouch, eyes roaming, head still. His vision swept across an open patch of grass, then swerved back. There! Bunny rabbit, sitting in the grass, minding his own business. Be still, Mr. Bunny. Easy, Mr. Bunny. He shifted his weight, freezing as Mr. Bunny's ears twitched. He was a stone until the rabbit's flanks relaxed. A demented grin spread across his face as he tensed to spring.

Mr. Bunny was quick. But not as quick as he.

***

Delilah tapped on the door to Mr. Trick's office. It was a light tap; she did not want to upset her boss. Other members of their organization had done so, and all had been made to regret it.

"Come in," a voice called from inside the office. Realizing that she had been holding her breath, Delilah pushed the door open. Mr. Trick sat at his desk. He was in his shirt sleeves; Delilah knew that the suit coat was hung with surgical precision in one of the armoires. His cuffs were turned back once. The knot of his tie was still snug and tight. He wore a headset phone, and he continued to type at his keyboard as Delilah crossed the floor.

"You know," she said, standing behind him, "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." She began to rub his shoulders.

Trick took a deep breath. "And luck favors the well-prepared," he said over his shoulder.

A frown creased her forehead. "Shakespeare? Sun-Tzu?"

Tick shook his head, eyes never leaving the monitor screen. "Darrell Royal. Football coach at the University of Texas."

***

"Yes, that's why I'm calling." Giles shifted the phone from his left ear to his right. "I don't know anything else. The attack was tonight." He listened to the reply.

"Yes," the Watcher said, "I can do that. No, I understand completely. Best not to be cavalier when an alpha-vampire may be involved."

***

Two hours after leaving the Bronze, the Scooby Gang had to admit the truth; they weren't finding any vampires tonight. A faint trail had led them east from the Bronze, but now they were wandering aimlessly.

"Buffy," Willow whispered, "shouldn't we call it a night?"

The Slayer took a deep breath. "Yeah, I think you're right." She turned to the others. "I don't think we're doing any good. Let's sack it."

"Finally." Cordelia shook her head. "If I don't get some sleep soon, I'll look like a vampire tomorrow."

"Yeah," Oz said. "We couldn't give much of a fight right now even if we found him. And the trail's pretty much cold."

"What about tomorrow night?" Xander asked, then corrected himself. "I mean, tonight?"

A general babble of ideas ensued until Willow raised her voice. "Listen! We're all tired, plus the adrenaline's wearing off. We shouldn't make any plans now. Let's meet in the library after third period. We'll decide what to do then, okay?"

A murmur of assent issued forth, and they separated.

***

Giles peered through his glasses at the monitor screen and then, satisfied that everything was in order, clicked on the "send" box. "The machine", as he liked to think of the computer, whirred and blinked, and a message telling him his e-mail had been sent flashed on the screen. He still didn't see what the fuss was all about, but it was convenient. Much easier than writing out a report and then mailing it to the Council; safer, too, according to Watcher Security. He should probably thank Willow for insisting that he learn how to use e-mail. Willow and-

Best not to go there, he warned himself. He powered down the computer and collected a few books. With one last look around, he turned out the lights and locked the library door.

***

"Yeah, there you are. Gotcha." Mr. Trick clapped his hands once before his fingers began flying over the keyboard. Within seconds, Giles' captured e-mail was displayed on his screen.

"Now, you see," he said to Mr. Quisling, who sat in one of the visitors chairs, "there's the problem with traditional organizations. Even when they adapt to new technologies, they never understand them. Watchers might as well be living in the seventeenth century. Never heard of encryption. Not good encryption, anyway." He tapped the screen. "Still, it looks like they real worried about Leon." A wide grin split his face. "Man, do I love it when a plan works."

Quisling cleared his throat. "Might I ask a question, sir?"

Trick made a rolling motion with his hand. "Of course."

Quisling's voice trod the line between concentration and puzzlement. "What exactly is the plan? I know that you do not expect Leon to serve as an infinite distraction. I'm not sure what purpose is served by increasing the Slayer's alertness."

Trick pointed a long index finger at Quisling. "That's an excellent question. That's why I'll answer it.

"I need Leon to distract them for a few days until we're settled in. I know they'll find out about us. I just don't want them finding out until we're established and ready."

"Ah, misdirection." Quisling nodded.

"Yeah, plus, Leon's really gotten to be a loose cannon. I figure this will eliminate that problem."

"Loose cannon, sir?"

"Ah, who am I kidding? Frankly, Quisling, the brutha's crazier than a shithouse rat."

***

Buffy dragged herself into Mr. Warner's third period classroom. The class was American History, 1865-present, the class in which she didn't know anything about Wilson and Roosevelt (either of them) rather than the class where she knew nothing about Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln.

Mr. Warner was pretty foxy, though. Young-ish, (after all, could a teacher ever actually be young?) tall, that casual, crooked grin, that blond hair that fell to his shoulders...

Buffy shook her head and took a deep breath. He was making some point about... what? Peaches? No, the impeachment of President Johnson. Buffy brought all of her powers of concentration to bear. Her mom had lived through the Johnson administration. Had she ever mentioned LBJ being impeached? Buffy scribbled a quick note to herself: Ask Mom about impeachment, LBJ?

"So, between the impeachment and Johnson's failure to understand the opportunity that lay before him, Reconstruction turned out to be a rather miserable policy." Mr. Warner sat on top of his desk, feet swinging. "Although, you have to feel for Andrew Johnson." Aaargh, Buffy thought, scratching out her note. "After all, when the Republicans nominated Grant as their candidate in 1868, he had to know he was in trouble. Think about it, impeached president running against war hero. Johnson was probably grateful when the Democrats nominated Horace Seymour."

Buffy's eyes swam. Her head felt like a watermelon on the end of a broomstraw. Getting to bed in the wee hours of the morning, plus...

No dreams. Sure, she hadn't gotten to bed until almost 2 AM, but she had no dreams last night. She sat bolt upright just as the bell rang. She was gathering her books when Mr. Warner called to her over the hubbub of departing students. "Miss Summers, could I see you for a minute?"

"Yessir?" she said, resting her books against one hip as she stood beside his desk. Mr. Warner sat down and began looking through some papers.

"Yeah, I just got done grading your make-up report on the surrender at Appomatox." He pulled a sheaf of papers from the middle of the stack and held it up. "Here it is." He extended it toward her. "There's some good work in there. You have good thought processes-"

"Not to be rude," Buffy said, "but it sounds like there's a 'however' coming up here."

Mr. Warner laughed. Damn, he had good teeth, too. "Yes, there's a 'but.' Your writing skills leave something to be desired, specifically your clarity. You need to work on that. It's not right to clutter up excellent thinking with muddy writing."

"Okay," she said, sliding the paper into her notebook. "I'll keep that in mind." She headed toward the door.

"Oh, by the way, Buffy." She turned. He leaned back in his chair, one foot on the desk. "It's also not a good idea to come to school so exhausted you can't stay awake."

She grimaced. "Sorry. Late night last night."

Mr. Warner nodded, bouncing a pencil off his desk and catching it. "Are you friends with Xander Harris?"

"Uh, yeah. Why?"

Mr. Warner smiled. "I've seen you hanging together. He has the same problem in my class."

"Well, we'll both try to do better." Rolling her eyes, the Slayer pivoted around the door and headed for the library.

Everyone else was already there, watching the door. "First day back at work and you're late," Xander said in a mock-scold. "That's not going to impress the boss."

"Sorry." She dumped her books on the table and dropped into a chair. "Did you start without me?"

"Giles was just about to give us a sit-rep," Willow conifided. Seeing the blank stares directed at her, she rolled her eyes and clarified. "Situation report."

"Yes," Giles said into the stillness. "Well, while you were out trying to track our new adversary, I notified the Watcher's Council and requested any information they might have on known alpha-vampires who fit the profile and description."

"And?" Xander tipped his chair back, trying to balance precisely on two legs.

Giles shook his head. "Nothing so far. I don't know what to expect from them."

Buffy stifled a yawn. "So we've got nada."

"Not quite." Giles produced a Sunnydale city map. "Five more deaths were reported last night, in addition to the two at the Bronze." He spread the map out on the table. "I've marked the sites on this map."

"How do we know he did them all?" Cordelia asked.

Giles nodded. "Well, even for Sunnydale, five deaths in one night is suspicious, but these were all attributed to 'animal attack' by the police."

"Ah-hah!" Xander said.

"Quite." Giles studied the map. "Now, if we can learn the times of death, we should be able to get a fix on the direction he was moving."

Willow held up a hand. "That's my job. I'll hack into the coroner's computer."

Buffy shook her head. "It'll be a couple of days before they post all the autopsies. That's too long."

"Besides," Cordelia said, "just take the one closest to the Bronze and work out. Even by vampire logic, you'd have to be an idiot to kill the guy farthest away first."

Willow stomped her foot. "But I really wanted to hack into the coroner's computer."

"Okay," Buffy said to her, "officially time for a new hobby for you."

They all bent over the map, tracing the line of homicides as they led away from the Bronze. After starting east, the vamp had turned north, then curled away to the northwest. Giles traced the line with a finger, letting it rest on the last red circle.

"So, what now?" Oz asked.

Buffy traced a finger over the red dots, connecting lives cut short. "I've got to find him."

"Don't you mean we have to find him?" Xander asked, leaning forward.

"Hey," Cordelia said, slapping him on the arm, "don't put words in her mouth."

Buffy looked up from the map. "I slept last night."

"Okay," Xander said. "If we're playing the non-sequitur game, my answer is 'I'm holding the two of clubs.'"

Buffy shook her head. "No, I mean I slept last night. No dreams."

"Who had time to dream? We didn't get to bed until dawn." Cordelia rolled her eyes.

Giles stared at Buffy. "Are you sure... ?"

The Slayer nodded. "I said I'd talk about it when it was time." She turned to her friends. "Ever since I got back, I've been having... dreams. Dreams with Angel in them." She paused, searching for the next words. Willow gasped, a quick, involuntary sound of commiseration. Oz was watching her like, well, like Oz. "I... On that last night, Angel... he began the ritual. The one to awaken Acathla." She swallowed. Xander's hand reached out, his fingers entwining with Cordelia's. Buffy continued. "And I started... I started having these dreams. Last night was the first night I haven't had one."

"What happened to him?" Cordelia asked.

"What?" Buffy looked at her, a dazed look, the look of someone who'd been buried alive and clawed their way back to the surface.

"You said he started the spell, then you're off wherever having dreams. What happened to Angel?"

"Cordelia--" Willow began.

"I ran him through with a sword." Buffy's voice was surprisingly firm and measured. "It stopped the spell, and..." Her voice trailed away.

"Is that... Is that all?" Willow asked.

Buffy shook her head. "Before... it, something happened. He became Angel again. He wasn't Angelus. But the vortex was opening." She took a deep, shuddering breath, tears quivering on her lower lids. "So I kissed him, and I told him it would be all right, and I shoved a sword through him." The tears fell as she pushed away from the table with a violence that knocked her chair over. The crash of its landing was loud in the cathedral-like silence of the library, and they all jumped. Buffy ran out, the double doors swinging behind her.

Willow jumped up and followed. Giles sat there with the other three. They were silent for a long time before Oz spoke.

"She didn't kill him."

"Excuse me?" Xander said. "Pretty sure putting a sword through a guys innards kills him."

Oz shook his head. "She said 'ran him through', not killed."

"So?" Cordelia sounded annoyed.

Oz looked at them. "There's a difference."

"Giles? A ruling?" Xander looked at the Watcher.

"I'm afraid Oz is correct. Absent decapitation or the piercing of the heart with a wooden stake, there is no reason to believe that Angel is dead."

Xander frowned. "But... he's not here."

Giles bowed his head. "Exactly."

"Then where is he?" Cordelia demanded. Stares met her question, and she was opening her mouth to ask again, when the penny dropped. "Oh," she said.

***

The sun was bad. His addled brain latched onto that fact and kept repeating it over and over. He hunkered down in his hidey-hole and listened to his own breathing. How had he gotten here? Every time a cogent thought tried to insinuate itself, a terrible squeezing pain seized his head. His cranium buzzed, like bees had taken up residence in his brain pan.

Wait here. He would wait here. The bad sun would go down. Then he could come out, come out and feed. Feed, and try to make sense of all of this.

***

Willow was extra-careful to look both ways, since the hammering of her heart in her ears would keep her from hearing any oncoming cars. She dashed across the street, red hair flying, trying not to think about what a monumentally stupid thing it was that she'd just done.

Willow Rosenberg simply did not ditch school. Never. It wasn't in the vocabulary. Yet here she was, in the middle of the day, nowhere near the school building. Trying to find her friend.

Buffy's house was just ahead, sitting in the middle of the block. It was the only place Willow could imagine the Slayer going. After all, when Buffy rushed out of the library, she'd fled the one place in school that might be a refuge. Willow knew that if she were in this position, she'd go home. If Buffy had chosen another course, like trying to find the new vamp's resting place, well, if that happened, Willow had no other plan.

She went to the back door. The knob turned easily. In Willow's opinion, this indicated that Buffy was home; that, or the Summers house was being robbed in broad daylight by a cat burglar. Willow fervently hoped it was the first. She saw Buffy's books scattered across the counter top. The Slayer was here.

She wasn't in the living room or dining room, however. Willow had no desire to be beaten to a pulp, so rather than charging up to Buffy's room she stood at the foot of the stairs and called to her friend.

"Buffy? Are you up there?" Hearing no answer, Willow weighed the possibility of a Slayer-administered thrashing against the duties of friendship. Reaching a decision, she put her foot on the bottom step.

"Buffy?" she said. "I'm coming up, so don't, you know, go all Beowulf on me or anything, okay?" Still no answer. Willow went up the stairs, listening for any sound. She thought she might hear crying, but the house kept an eerie silence as she ascended.

Exercising the utmost caution, Willow crept down the hall and peered around the corner of Buffy's door. "Buffy?" she asked, for the third time.

The Slayer sat on her bed, back to the door. She was looking at something in her lap. She raised her head and looked over her shoulder, at her best friend standing in the doorway. Buffy's throat worked as she swallowed.

"Are you okay?" Willow asked. Buffy's eyebrows went up. Willow grimaced. "Sorry," she said. "First thing that popped into my head, you know?" Buffy nodded, a ghost of a smile drifting across her lips.

The Slayer's eyes fell to her lap. "He gave me this ring," she said. Willow crossed the room on tiptoe to look over Buffy's shoulder. The blond girl cradled the claddagh ring in her lap. Willow eased her slight frame onto the bed beside her friend. Her arm went around the Slayer's shoulders. They sat there together for a very long time.

***

The hubbub in the room vanished when Mr. Trick stepped through the door. Attention was directed toward him; spines became straighter and concentration sharpened. Trick took a deep breath and began to speak.

"It's good to see all of you. I'm sure that you understand that time is of the essence, so I'm going to keep these remarks brief and to the point. The Slayer is back in town. I realize that is a development we did not foresee, but it can't be helped. We still have a contract and a job to do. We're going to do it, Slayer or no Slayer. Yes?"

A skinny vamp with glasses and a bad haircut had raised his hand. "Does this mean any changes in the plan?"

Trick nodded. "Excellent question. The answer is 'not really.' There will be no modifications to the central paradigm, but some minor changes in our secondary operations are to be expected." He glanced around at the faces watching him. "I suppose that this is as good a time as any to tell you that some of you, especially those of you in the tactical side of the unit, will probably not leave Sunnydale." Angry murmurs rippled through the gathering; apparently the "tactical side" did not approve of this news. Trick raised a hand. "Folks, it's a Slayer we're dealing with. Do you really think that she'll be defeated without loss of life, or what passes for life among us?" He shook his head. "We're soldiers. It comes with the territory."

"Bullshit." A tall, wiry man with one empty eye socket directed this scornful epithet at Trick. "You're no soldier. And I'm not risking myself for your dreams."

"May I remind of what's at stake?" Trick asked. "We all stand to gain a great deal here."

"Does me a lot of good if I'm dust." The one-eyed vamp picked up a duffel bag. "I'm out of here." He headed for the door behind Trick.

Trick took a step to his right to intercept the vamp. "Griggs," he said, placing his left hand on the creature's shoulder, "I really don't want to lose you."

Griggs threw a contemptuous glance toward his shoulder. "Worry more about losing that hand."

Trick nodded, face sad. "Well, I'm sorry you feel that way." Trick's right hand flashed up, quicker than the eye could follow, fingers stiffened into a single stabbing unit. The vampire's one eye bulged; a gagging, choking noise erupted from his mouth. He dissolved into dust, leaving Mr. Trick standing there, one arm covered in blood and bits of pulverized internal organs. "See?" he said to the ashes at his feet, "You're dust anyway." Shaking his head, he examined the sleeve of his suitcoat.

"Damn," he said, voice calm. "That will never come out. And look at this. Must have torn it on the sternum." He looked around at the remaining vamps. "Anyone else have something to discuss? Good. Let's finish setup." He turned, unbuttoning his suit. "Mr. Quisling, get me a fresh jacket and shirt."

***

Giles tapped the pencil's eraser against the desktop. He'd been doing this for quite some time now, and whatever inspiration or illumination he had hoped it would produce had never come. Now, he was just doing it out of habit.

Something was bothering the Watcher, some small, miniscule earwig of discontent that burrowed into his brain and resided there. He had heard nothing from the Council, but that was not unusual. After all, what could they tell him? Sorry, Rupert, but it seems you have a nasty spot of vampires there. Giles caught the pencil, his grip tightening in an involuntary spasm, the implement snapping between his fingers. A deep sense of dread filled him. The Slayer was an emotional mess. Her friends, the great wild card, the group that made her different from all the solitary souls who'd held her post previously, were caught between wanting to hug her and wanting to follow her out with stakes in hand. He had hoped for some time, a breathing space he could use to help Buffy reassemble her fragile psyche.

Rupert Giles was not the wisest man in the world, but it was obvious to him that Buffy had just begun to reveal what was inside her. The questions about her calling, the death of the man who'd brought her home, the aftermath of the terrible deed she had been forced to perform last spring-Giles could see all the ingredients emerging for a fatal cocktail.

But there would be no breathing space. They were all back in the fray.

***

"So, Oz, you wanna hang with us?" Xander asked, arm looped casually around Cordelia's waist.

Oz shook his head. "Nah. I'm going home, do some work, wait for Willow to call. See you after dark?"

"Sounds romantic. Sure." As Oz walked down the hall, Xander turned to his girlfriend. "Ever get the feeling they were married in a previous life?"

Cordelia looked sideways at him. "Try a hundred lifetimes." She tossed her head. "What about us?" she asked, voice carefully nonchalant.

"Us?" Xander looked at her, that crooked grin spreading across his face. "In a previous life, I think one of us guillotined the other."

She frowned. "Do you always have to do that?"

"Do what?"

"Make jokes like that."

Xander thought for a moment. "Yes, I believe I do. You see, in our little gang, I am what they call the comic relief. Being funny is one of the job requirements."

Cordelia pulled away from him. "No, I mean... Everyone thinks Willow and Oz are so great. Okay, whatever. But do you ever..."

Xander waited, but she remained silent. His brow furrowed as he wracked his brain for her meaning. "Are you asking me if I'm ever jealous of Oz and Willow?"

"God, no." She recoiled, then softened. "Well, not jealous exactly."

Xander held up his hands. "Okay, if this is some kind of Cosmo quiz, please tell me what I'm supposed to say, and I'll say it. Just don't torment me with feminine inscrutability."

Cordelia's face darkened. "Don't make fun of me."

"Why not? It's one of the cornerstones of this relationship."

"What, we're not heading to the supply closet to make out, so it's open season on Cordelia?"

"No, of course not. I just..." Xander looked at her as she leaned against the lockers, arms crossed, head down. "Look, Cordy, I don't know why I do what I do. Maybe it's because you're my first girlfriend and I'm... not your first guy. Then there's the whole issue of our clashing socio-economic strata. Plus our history of mutual antagonism from kindergarten pretty much on--"

"Okay," Cordelia interrupted. "There better be extreme use of contrast around the corner."

"There is, there is. I guess what I'm saying is that, compared to you and me, Buffy and Angel were Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. I mean, I'm insecure enough for a weekend's worth of John Hughes movies and you..." He stared into her face. "And you're beautiful. And brave. So I'm a little, uh, unsure of what's going on here." He stepped close to her, hands sliding around her waist, pulling her close to him. She resisted for a second, then leaned against him. "But whatever it is, I like it, and I'm willing to ride the horsey as long as my quarter lasts."

Cordelia groaned. "I guess that's as close to romantic as we'll get."

***

Oz frowned as he stared at the book on his desk. He had been reading for two hours and had gathered precious little information. He was prepared for this to be a frustrating, difficult task, but most of the books he'd found were in languages he didn't know existed. Forget about being able to read them.

He glanced at his notebook. Scarcely a quarter-page of notes. He sighed and looked at the clock. Almost time to meet. Good. Tracking a vampire seemed so straightforward compared to solving this puzzle.

***

Xander thought Buffy looked very pale, but maybe it was just the blue glow of the halogen streetlights. They were gathered in the parking lot of a heating and air-conditioning repair service, the sight of the last murder. Giles' Citroen, Cordelia's Sebring, and Oz's van were the only vehicles. The faint smell of diesel fuel and the crackling glare of the lights gave Xander the impression of being in an extremely low-budget sci-fi movie.

"Okay," Buffy was saying, "Giles and I will go northwest, Xander and Cordelia, you'll go west. Oz and Willow, you're heading north."

Willow raised her hand. "Aren't we getting a little separated?"

Buffy turned to Cordelia. "Got 'em?" Cordelia reached into her car and brought out three Motorola two-way radios. She gave one to Giles, one to Oz, and kept the third for herself.

"Use these," Buffy said. "If you see him, or cross his trail, call. We'll all come running. Do not, do not try to take him on your own."

Oz turned the radio over in his hand. "No problem there."

Giles leaned into their circle. "Does everyone have stakes? Crucifixes? Holy water?" All replies were in the affirmative. "Good. Then let's go."

They split up and headed into the night. Buffy and Giles had only gone a few blocks when their radio squawked into the night.

"A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I got a gal in Kalamazoo..." Xander warbled.

Giles snatched his radio out of a pocket and depressed the talk button. "Xander! Stop that foolishness this minute."

"Sorry," came the reply. "Just thought I'd see if these things work."

"They do," Giles grumbled. "Now, be quiet."

Xander murmured, "Okay, Sir Grumpalot" and broke the connection. Buffy and Giles continued on their path, looking into alleys, checking doors for signs of break-in. They said little; there was no need for conversation while hunting.

A half-hour of searching turned up nothing but trash and the odd rodent. Buffy was about to scream in frustration when the radio blurted to life.

"Uh, guys," Oz said, "maybe you'd better come here."

They sprinted away, getting directions from Oz as to their precise location while running. They rounded a corner and saw Oz and Willow standing at the mouth of an alley.

"What is it?" Buffy panted, trying to catch her breath.

"It's pretty gross," Willow said as Oz directed his flashlight down the alley. The beam illuminated a half-dozen dead rats.

"Okay," Buffy said. "Mickey's ugly cousins bought the farm. So?"

Oz gestured with the light. "Look closer." Buffy and Giles leaned down, peering along the beam.

"Good Lord," Giles blurted. "Have they all... ?"

"Yep," Willow said. "Somebody had a little take-out. Six rats to go."

Buffy's stomach heaved. Sure, biting humans was bad, it was horrific, but this...

"Did we miss anything?" Xander's voice came from behind her. There was a beat, then Buffy heard Cordelia say, "Urp", and then strong retching sounds. The Slayer turned. Cordelia was wiping her mouth while the other four developed a strong interest in the second-story windows. The coagulating pool of vomit at Cordy's feet was probably the reason. Willow rummaged through her backpack and produced a container of Wet-Knaps.

"Here," she said, handing them to Cordelia without looking.

"Wow," Buffy said. "You're quite the little girl scout?"

"Hey," Willow replied, "slaying's a dirty business." Xander was gently wiping Cordy's face with one of the towelettes.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

Cordelia nodded. "I'll be fine. It just... it just hit me a little hard."

"That's one hungry vamp," Xander observed. "Seven humans last night, and now rodent tartar."

"Well, it looks like you guys were on the right trail. Let's--" Buffy was interrupted by a low, keening moan from Willow. Everyone turned toward her, just in time to see the redhead fall against the wall and slide down to the pavement. She flopped over and rolled onto her back. A rivulet of saliva bubbled from her mouth and snaked over her cheek.

"Turn her," Giles said, bending down to do so. Oz dropped to help him. Willow was rigid and pale and making weird noises in her throat.

"Hey, hey, keep her out of the puke," Xander cried. "Choking on your own spit's bad enough, but someone else's vomit?"

"What's going on?" Buffy's voice was panicky.

"Giles, do you think it's... " Xander hovered over Willow's prone form.

"Yes, I do," Giles replied.

"Will someone tell me what's going on, or do I have to start handing out E-ticket ass-kickings?" Buffy's voice climbed in pitch and volume.

"It seems Willow has a little possession problem." Cordelia turned toward Giles. "Did you know she was still having these? Is there anyone dependable around here?"

"Cordelia," Giles grunted, "will you shut up!"

The Willow noises subsided. She relaxed, and her glazed eyes came into focus. She looked up at Oz, then Giles. "What happened?" she stammered, then noticed her position. "Oh no, did I... ?"

"Yeah," Oz said, helping her to her feet. "You did."

***

"I didn't tell you about them because there's no way to predict them." Willow looked around at the faces of the other Scoobies, slumped around the library table. She turned to Giles. "If I'd told you, is there anything you could do?"

The Watcher took a deep breath and shook his head. "No, there isn't. Frankly, I'm not even sure what these occurrences are."

"They're creepy, that's what they are," Cordelia announced.

Buffy dug the heels of her hands into her eyes. "Let's not forget, there's still a big vamp to find."

"Yeah," Oz agreed, then turned to Willow. "Not to ignore your sitch."

Willow shook her head. "Not a problem. Gotta prioritize."

"We'll catch him tomorrow night," Buffy said. She turned to Willow. "You'll stay home."

Willow shot to her feet. "No way! I'm there. You'll have to knock me out, or tie me up if you don't want me around."

Buffy nodded. "Okay." Seeing the surprise on the other Slayerettes' faces, she shrugged. "Will believes in me. I have to believe in her."

"Great. Now it's a therapy session," Cordelia groused. "What's next, I'm dead, you're OK?"

"Stop!" The smack of Giles' hand hitting the tabletop echoed through the room. "This is ludicrous. Everyone at this table is weak and flawed. Shall I go round the room and remind each of you of his or her particular shortcoming?" The statement produced lowered gazes and shamefaced looks. The Watcher took a deep breath and continued. "I thought not. Now, here is what will be done. Each of you will go home and go to sleep." Buffy opened her mouth, but Giles cut her off. "Not a word, not a word. You are all exhausted. Stumbling about half-asleep will not save lives, nor will it corner this fiend. It certainly doesn't do anything for any of your personalities. So get some sleep, and meet me here tomorrow after school. We will find this creature, and we will kill him."

Xander opened his mouth. Giles' arm shot out, index finger leveled at the boy. "Unless the next words out of your mouth are going to be 'Yes, sir', I would advise you to be quiet." Xander cowered back in his chair. "Very well," Giles said, tugging at his jacket, "now, get on home, all of you."

They straggled out until Giles was left alone. As the door closed behind Willow, he sagged into a chair.

"Well, Rupert," he said to himself, "that was a lovely impersonation of someone who knows what he's doing."

***

"Who put the bee up his butt?" Cordelia asked as they reached the parking lot.

"There's no bee," Willow said.

"'scuse me? He looked to be retaining bees," Xander said.

Willow shook her head, a glum expression on her face. "He's trying to unite us by being a big jerk. He figures if we're all mad at him, we won't be mad at each other."

"Won't work," Cordelia observed. "I've got more than enough mad to go around."

"Look, I'm sorry." Willow huddled inside her jacket. Oz put an arm around her. "I didn't know that was going to happen. These things come and go. I can't control them."

Buffy jammed her hands in her pockets and took a deep breath of the moist night air. "It's not you, Will. Let's lay all the cards on the table.

"I know that it's hard to trust me right now." She made a special effort to not look at Cordelia. "I can't help that. I can't make what happened not happen. I know the last three months have been hard on you guys. Well, they were harder on me."

"Buff--"

"Let me finish, Xander. I know that you all tried to take up the slack, to do... the job I should have been doing. I know that you've changed, and I know that I've changed. We're trying to act as though nothing's different, but the fact is everything is different, and we don't know how much."

Cordelia scowled. "Is there a point to this, or is all just personal carthasis?"

Now Buffy looked straight at her. "Excuse me if I'm boring you, Cordelia. You guys want to know what happened? Okay, if it will help, here it is."

Willow whispered, "Buffy, this might not be the best time."

"There won't be a best time, Will." She gulped in air as she looked at their faces. "There's not a lot of mystery or romance to it. I ran away. I lived in a box. I had nightmares where I killed Angel again and again. Anyone have that in the pool?" She blinked, hard. "I would not be here if it weren't for one man, a man who's dead because he tried to help me. So excuse me, Cordelia, if I've got some issues."

Cordelia winced; she actually looked as if she felt pain. "Buffy, I--"

The Slayer's words came fast and harsh, spat out into the night air like bullets from a machine gun. "I've had more than enough of people close to me dying. I may have had a problem with that first vamp, but I will promise you this-I will not let any of you be hurt." She turned and looked at Cordelia. Their eyes locked. "Any of you, understood?"

Cordelia stared right back. "You can't promise that."

"Then what do you want me to promise?"

Cordelia's chin rose. "Why should you promise me anything?"

Buffy's eyes lost their hard shine. She brushed her hair back from her forehead, and the hand that did so trembled. "Because without you, I would have died the night I came back. You can be a Sherman Klump-sized pain in the ass, Cordelia, but I owe you. So what do I have to promise you?"

Cordelia blinked and swallowed. "Promise me that I won't die in the middle of a graveyard because you had a wistful memory of your boyfriend. Don't promise me I won't die, or be hurt, because there are too many ooky things around here for anyone to keep their word on that. But promise me it won't happen because I counted on you and you weren't there."

Willow could feel the atmospheric pressure rising. She needed to pop her eardrums in the worst way. Seconds ticked by.

Buffy said, "And then we'll be cool?"

Cordelia nodded. "We'll be cool."

Buffy set her jaw. "I promise it won't happen."

Willow felt the air rush out of her lungs with a surprisingly loud whoosh, then realized that the sound had such magnitude because the same thing had happened to Xander and Oz. The three of them sagged like scarecrows in a rainstorm.

"Man," Xander gasped, "how long did I hold my breath?"

Buffy looked around. "Let's take Giles' advice."

"Works for me," Oz said. He took Willow's hand. "Let's go." They got into Oz's van. The headlights washed across the three remaining Scoobies, illuminating them briefly.

Xander scuffed one toe on the concrete. "Well," he said to Cordelia, "we'd better go."

"Okay," Cordelia said, but she didn't move. Buffy looked at her, trying to understand what she saw in those hazel eyes.

"I meant what I said, Cordelia," the Slayer said.

The brunette nodded. "I know you did. And you'll try." Then she turned and walked toward her car, where Xander waited.

***

As Giles stepped into the alley behind the Bronze, he reflected on his good fortune. He was truly blessed to be so isolated from the rest of the Watchers Council or else he might have been forced to explain why he was poking through this refuse at six-thirty in the morning.

He cast a few desultory glances around the area, then decided to get down to business. If something was here, it shouldn't take long to discover it.

It didn't. Within minutes, he had found what looked to be the pieces of one side of a very large packing crate. Laying the three fragments down, he estimated the crate to be about seven feet long and three feet high. Working from this first discovery, he was able to find other pieces. As he dragged them out, the questions that had congealed in his mind last night began to sort themselves out.

It was in that moment between wakefulness and slumber that the earwig of unease had finally reached the center of his brain. Something was wrong with this vampire attack, at least it was wrong if they assumed this to be the new alpha-vamp. Certainly, Spike's first major action had been directed against the school, but it had at least an element of cohesion and planning.

Now, as he looked at the remnants of the crate scattered about the alley, Giles realized that this vampire had been planted here. He had destroyed his encasement as he awakened. While the rending of the container indicated enormous strength, it seemed highly unlikely that a master vampire would, by coincidence, be dropped off behind the Bronze, still tightly packed.

As Giles stared at the wreckage, he noticed a flap of paper, glued to one of the pieces, flapping in the slight breeze. He bent down and smoothed the paper, holding it flat. It was a label from Sunnydale Express Delivery. He could make out the address on the familiar orange and yellow paper: CRD.

Interesting, Giles thought. Why are they making deliveries to a company that's no longer in business?

***

"Yeah," Willow said, pointing at the monitor screen. "It's all right there. Power, water, telephone, all turned on again at CRD."

Giles rubbed his chin. "Does that strike you as strange?"

Willow looked at him with disbelieving eyes. "Around here? No. An empty building with working utilities seems very normal. Almost homey, in fact."

"Well, thank you. I'm sorry to take you away from whatever you were doing."

"'Whatever I was doing' is called study hall, Giles. I even have a library pass, remember?" Willow looked at the screen, then over her shoulder at the Watcher. "You think this has something to do with what happened at the Bronze, don't you?"

Giles shrugged. "It might. Something about it bothers me."

"Gee," Willow said under her breath as she gathered her books, "something bothersome in Sunnydale. What are the chances?"

"Willow, could you come here for a moment?" Giles stood at the counter. As she approached, Willow could see the map of Sunnydale. Giles motioned toward the map. "What do you see?"

Willow bent over the paper. Giles had added another circle, a blue one. Orienting herself, Willow realized that the address indicated was CRD. She let her eyes wander over the page. She saw the pattern right away.

"If you keep going in the direction he was heading, you'll end up at CRD," she said.

"Exactly."

Willow rubbed her forehead. "Giles, do you think you might be getting a little Rain Man about this?"

Giles reached into his pocket. "Last exhibit." He smoothed a piece of torn paper on the countertop. "I found this on the remains of a packing crate behind the Bronze. A man-sized crate."

"You're an excellent detective, Giles, really, an excellent detective."

Giles nodded and removed his glasses. "I realize that you think it's quite amusing to poke fun at the doddering old librarian, but I'm quite proud of myself nonetheless." He put his glasses back on. "Sad, isn't it?"

***

"Whoa whoa whoa," Buffy said. "Why do you think we need to be here?" Her finger stabbed at a point on the map, which was spread on the hood of Giles' car.

Giles looked at the Slayer and the gathered Slayerettes. "Because I believe that he is trying to reach CRD."

"The old computer place? Out in the industrial park?" Cordelia looked up from straightening her sweater. "Why would he go there?"

"I don't know why. But I believe that he is." Giles gave them a quick recap of that morning's events. "That's why I believe that if you position yourselves here--" He tapped the map "-you will intercept him."

"You keep saying 'you' and 'yourselves', G-man. Where will you be?" Xander shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his cargoes.

"I will be at CRD. Or thereabouts."

"Again, whoa. You won't be with us?" Buffy looked up at her Watcher.

"If he is headed for CRD, there is a reason. I intend to find out what that reason is."

"So... while we do Rambo, you'll be playing James Bond." Xander tossed his head from side to side.

"If that sort of oversimplification helps you grasp the facts, then, yes, Xander, that's what I'll be doing." Giles' voice was curt.

"Ouch," Xander said.

Cordelia leaned over and whispered, "What was that you said about being comic relief?" Xander just glared at her.

"Are you sure this is a good plan?" Buffy asked.

Giles exhaled heavily and pursed his lips. "I've gone over it a thousand times." He made a gesture that took in the Scooby Gang. "The four of you were able to fight him off, without Buffy and taken by surprise. With Buffy and preparation, I believe you will be more than a match for him."

Buffy looked skeptical. "What about you? Who's watching your back?"

The librarian held up a hand. "I can assure you that I will be seeking information only." He reached into the front seat of his car and brought out a large pair of binoculars. "I won't even get within pistol range."

"Don't joke." Buffy was serious.

"I'm not joking." So was Giles. "These are very powerful binoculars."

***

Move. Move. Move in the darkness. Dark was time to move. Where should he go? He sniffed the air. Smells were like colors. He picked out one particular odor. That smell was familiar. It drew him. He should follow it.

***

"So, does anyone want cocoa?" Willow looked around at the group as she pulled a thermos and plastic cups out of her backpack.

"Will, what is this weird compulsion you've developed about bringing comestibles whenever we do this?" Xander asked.

"Even weirder," Cordelia said, "where did you learn the word 'comestible'?"

"Yeah," Buffy said. "I don't think food can catch fire."

"That's 'combustible'," Oz said in a quiet voice.

"I watch Jeopardy," Xander informed them.

They sat in the shadow of a large boxwood hedge. The night had that smell of cut grass and dying flowers that Buffy associated with late summer.

"This is almost like old times," Willow said.

"Almost," agreed Oz. "But the football team is two and oh."

Xander scuffed the dirt with the heel of his sneaker. "Did you guys hear that 'SC might be interested in Larry? Who would've thought that coming out would make a guy a more homicidal linebacker?"

"This team is a lot easier to cheer for than last year's poster children for lameness," Cordelia chimed in.

Willow sighed. "Next month we take the SATs."

"Yeah," Xander drawled, "senior year's in full swing. Is anyone else having a hard time realizing that we are now seniors?"

"Don't worry about it," Cordelia said. "I'm sure you'll get the chance to let it sink in again next year." A moment of leaden silence followed, with all eyes turning to Oz.

"What?" he said. "Oh, the whole repeating senior year thing." He shrugged.

"This might be a good time to go over the plan." Buffy hastened into the breach. "If Giles is right, we're smack on the most direct route to CRD." She pointed. "He'll probably come down that street. Remember, stay spread out, let me draw his attention. I want you guys attacking from his blind side."

"Some would call this plan unsporting," Xander said. "But not me."

***

Giles stifled a groan as he pulled himself back from the top of the knoll. The dampness of the night and the amount of time spent prone had conspired to produce world-class joint stiffness. As he reached the bottom of the knoll, he got to his feet and took a moment to steady himself. Ah, he thought, to be a young Watcher again, when the thought of lying about all night under the stars seemed romantic, rather than an invitation to arthritis. Still, it had been time well spent. Something was definitely afoot at CRD. It was not exactly crawling with vampires, but he'd spotted a dozen of them. The librarian disappeared into the night, knees cracking.

***

Two figures stood deep in the shadows, watching the Watcher as he departed. He was unaware of their presence.

"What should we do?"

"Nothing. We were told to observe. We're observing."

"I hate this."

"So do I."

"I'm not good at being reactive."

"Yeah, proactive's my middle name."

"Really? I thought it was Earl."

"Very funny. Anyone ever tell you how funny you are?"

There was a moment filled by only the barely audible sounds of breathing.

"Did you--"

"Yes, for the fifteenth time, I notified them."

"How do you think they'll react?"

"Who knows?"

"This is definitely not the situation we thought it would be."

"Hey, things change. We still have our objective."

"Yeah, all hail the mighty objective."

"Sarcasm is the lowest form of humor."

"Actually, I think that's the pun."

***

"So, Willow, when you go into your little trance, what's it like?" Cordelia had commandeered Xander's jacket and was using it as a pillow.

Willow shrugged. "Really weird. I don't actually see or hear anything, but I get... impressions, you know? It's like, I don't see red, but I get a feeling that something's red."

"Really?" This intrigued Xander.

"Well, I just pulled 'red' out of the air as an example. It's like standing in the middle of a totally bad fog, and you know there are people around you, but you can't really see them."

"Sounds thrilling," Cordelia said.

"Yeah, it's pretty scary when it happens, but when I talk about it, it just sounds... boring." Willow made a face.

"Speaking of boring, do you think Giles made a mistake?" Xander looked down the street.

"No," Oz said. "Take a look."

He was weaving as he came down the street, but not staggering. He veered from side to side as though searching for something, but his face was up, not looking down at the pavement.

"Okay," Buffy said, slipping a stake out from under her jacket, "Oz, Willow, stay on this side of the street. Xander, Cordelia, cross with me." The vampire was fifty feet away when the three of them stepped into the street. Xander and Cordelia hurried across to the other side; Buffy stopped in the middle of the asphalt. The vampire was twenty feet away when he noticed her.

As he studied her, Buffy got her first look at him. The wild mass of dreadlocks were his outstanding visual feature. He looked tough and seasoned, definitely not a beginner. His green eyes glowed with madness. He shouted no challenge as his face morphed and those green eyes turned tarnished yellow. A low growl rumbled from his throat and saliva bubbled between his fangs and dripped from his chin.

"Great," the Slayer said. "We get a vampire who rides on the short bus." She retreated a few steps as he advanced. She looked over the creature's shoulder. The Slayerettes were moving out of the shadows behind the brute, stakes at the ready. Buffy stopped her retreat.

"Okay," she said, voice steady, "bring it on."

As the vampire raced across the intervening distance, Buffy realized how long it had been since she faced a seasoned opponent. He was coming in low and fast, and no good staking angle presented itself. She dropped, rolled back onto her shoulder, and kicked out with both feet. She caught him square in the chest. The blow stopped his charge and straightened him up, but she felt the shock all the way down her spine. A quick roll to the left to dodge a thunderous stomp, and she was up.

He was fast and unorthodox, a real street fighter. She blocked a right hand with her left forearm, pivoted on her right foot, and brought her left elbow around. The blow struck him squarely between the eyes. She thrust her stake forward. He parried and made a grab for her. She ducked and butt-rolled away. He shook his head and came at her again. She double-kicked him in the solar plexus and jumped back, but her heel caught in an uneven patch on the street, and she went down. She rolled out of the way of a ferocious attempt to stomp her into the pavement, and kept rolling as he continued stomping, the booming impacts ringing in her ears.

Then it was quiet. She scrambled up, stake high. She almost laughed at what she saw.

Willow rolled and crawled on the ground, avoiding the monster's attempts to grab her. She jabbed at its legs with the stake she held. The vampire's lunges were hampered by Xander and Oz, who were each hanging onto an arm and being whipped around like laundry in a cyclone. Cordelia had jumped on its back and had one arm around its throat and the other around its eyes. The demon thrashed madly, guttural yowls and grunts issuing from its mouth.

"Wh-Wh-Why are you standing there?" Xander asked as he was jerked back and forth.

Buffy stepped forward. "You guys ready for this?"

"Just do it!" Willow yelled, crawling between the vamp's legs.

Buffy stabbed forward. The vamp disintegrated and her three friends collapsed in a heap on top of Willow. "Hey!" the redhead cried, fighting to get out of the writhing mass of arms and legs. Buffy reached down and grabbed Xander's hand.

"I asked if you were ready," she said.

***

Buffy turned out of the stream of students flowing down the hallway and slipped through the library doors. She wore a black tank-top and black and white houndstooth pants. She slapped her books down on the counter as Giles came out of his office.

"Well, didja hear?" she asked. "We got ourselves a vamp last night."

"Yes," he said in a mild voice. "Willow told me about it before school this morning. And then Xander and Cordelia informed me between first and second period. Then Xander came in again."

Buffy tossed her head. "Well, he should be proud. It was pretty much team effort." She picked up her books. "Just wanted to remind you that we have an appointment tomorrow morning."

"Yes, I remember." Giles removed his glasses. "You know that he wasn't the alpha-vampire, don't you?"

Buffy nodded, serious. "Yeah. Didn't have to be a genius to see that. He was big and strong, but dumb as a stump. Strictly slash-and-burn muscle. Did you find out anything on your little trip last night?"

Giles nodded as he reached into his hip pocket and extracted a folded piece of paper. "Yes. Sadly, I appear to be right." He smoothed the paper and placed it on the counter. "I received this from the Watchers Council this morning. I've not shown it to the others."

Buffy looked at the paper. The message was simple:

'Information received regarding ID of new a/v. ID confirmed. Pre-death photo enclosed.' Below that was a photo, taken perhaps from a corporate roster, of a handsome, confident-looking black man. Beneath the photo was one word: 'Trick.'

"So," Buffy said, "he's..."

"Yes." Giles picked up the paper, refolding it before returning it to his pocket.

Buffy sighed. "Say hello to the new boss, same as the old boss."

********

End of "New Kid In Town"