Part VI

Job over, and time to go, only she couldn't. While nothing physically barred her departure, there was still the matter of the money she was owed, and ATMs wouldn't fork out cash in the amounts she had coming. So, they had to wait for the banks to open, which meant waiting till sunrise, which meant she was stuck in her motel room all day.

Well, she had cable TV, and there was her new unicorn collection to enjoy, and — unaccustomed exercise though it was — she had a few things to think about. This whole business had gotten a lot more complicated than she had expected.

Plus, she had visitors.

For some reason, they chose to come to her one at a time. Maybe it was just a matter of grabbing whatever time was available to them, or maybe each of them craved a private audience with Her Slayerness. Whatever, it gave her something to liven up the interminable day.

Judith was the first (which made some sense, her being co-owner of the motel). They hadn't really spoken the night before; everyone else had been preoccupied with reunion and aftermath, and the Slayer — whose evening had included decent sex, first-rate violence, and a satisfying meal — had been ready to return to her accommodations and sleep for awhile. Late in the morning, however, there was a knock at the door; Buffy went back into the bathroom, and called loudly, "Come on in and close it quick!", and the visitor complied, and there they were.

Andy's wife, heretofore unintroduced, was a delicate-featured woman with high cheekbones and slender, long-fingered hands. Doc had said she was, what, four years older than Andy? That would make her early- to mid-thirties, and she looked it, but the automatic maturity had probably been there when she was a teenager. "We never really met last night," she told the Slayer. "I'm Judith Sexton. I owe you a great deal, and I haven't had the chance to thank you properly."

"And now you do." Buffy smiled at her. "So thank away."

"As I said, I owe you a lot." Judith paused. "We were all … very lucky, that Andy saw you when he did, and realized what you were."

"Uh-huh. I'd say Andy's pretty good at grabbing for opportunities. As for what I am, well, he doesn't know as much as he thinks he does."

"Probably not." Judith took a seat in one of the chairs. "I'm still coming to terms with what happened. I went to see Wayne to ask him about the Bannisters — they were the first to come down sick, they used to own the property next to this place, Wayne brokered the sale — and he must have thought I suspected him, because he called those … those creatures out …" She stopped, visibly composed herself. "Katie tells me this kind of thing is common in your Sunnydale. Is Cromwell about to turn into a place like that? Or was this an, an outbreak, that we managed to stamp out in time?"

Buffy shrugged. "Beats me, I just kill stuff. But Sunnydale's built on top of a Hellmouth. I think I'd have heard if there was another one of those in California; that kind of thing, word gets around. Once I'm gone, you're probably good."

Judith nodded, considered for a moment. "Andy's theory is that the larger demons were like guards and shepherds for the smaller ones, and the smaller ones were causing the disease symptoms … marking territory with their urine, like dogs do, and then somehow droplets got into the air … Now that the larger ones have all been killed, assuming you got them all, will the smaller ones scatter, relocate?"

Buffy frowned. "Do I look like I spend all my time studying demon livestock? Maybe they will, maybe not, maybe you'll have to organize some hunting parties. Not my problem, I'm more the direct combat type."

"All right." Judith stood. "Thank you, again."

"Hey, seeing you back with Andy is all the thanks I need." Smile. "That, and my money."

"I don't think you need to worry on that account," Judith said, turning to leave. "Douglas keeps his promises."

"Nice to find a man you can count on," Buffy said sweetly, retreating to the bathroom again as the other woman approached the door. Judith didn't respond, and a moment later she was gone.

~ – ~ – ~

Katie was the next caller, and by then the sun was high enough that Buffy could avoid it by staying in the corner during the few seconds the door was open. "Hey, Midget," Buffy greeted her. "Still looking to be all you can be?"

"I feel horrible," Katie said. "Whatever they used on me … If a hangover is anything like this, I'm never touching alcohol, it's strictly Gatorade for this girl."

"Huh," Buffy said. "So they got you with drugs, not just a power snatch?"

"I don't know," Katie admitted. "I don't remember anything. I … I think I smelled something, but … Then the next thing I knew I was lying on the concrete in one of the vacant offices in the auction barn, puking so hard I thought my eyes would pop out. When I got done with that, I saw I was tied up, except my hands were in front of me and the knots weren't that tight, it only took me a couple of minutes to get loose …" She gave the Slayer a doubtful look. "I can't get a straight answer, Andy says you told them that was the place, and Dustin says it was just luck. Did you … was it you that found us?"

"I tagged the place once we were close," Buffy said. "So Andy gave me the credit, huh? Nice of him."

"He really came through," Katie admitted. "All of them did." She cut a glance at Buffy from the corners of her eyes. "Did you, um, did you see my dad —?"

"Not about to forget that," Buffy confirmed. "Your pop's a wild man. He's, like, Conan on PCP."

Katie nodded, but she still seemed disturbed. "I knew he was a great guy," she said. "I knew he … he's always told me you have to do the right thing, no matter what, and I knew he meant it, and I knew he'd fight if it was something he believed in. But … the way he was, last night …"

"Look, Midget, I know guys," Buffy said. "Guys are basically two types, jerks and idiots. Your dad is an idiot."

"He saved me!" Katie protested, scandalized.

"Yeah, charging in like an idiot." Buffy shook her head. "Look, you're missing the point. Doc is an idiot, and he raised you by idiot rules, and you're kind of a head-case yourself so it seems to suit you —"

"I don't understand what you're trying to say," Katie complained.

"Then let me finish, already." Buffy gave her a glare, then continued. "I'm saying you need to find yourself somebody who's as big an idiot as your dad is."

The message sank in, and Katie's face went stubborn. "Dustin fought. You were there, you saw it."

"Sure, he was cool, him and Andy both." The Slayer grinned at the memory. "They were better than cool, they were great. If I had minions like that … They were steady, they were solid, they made sure to stay alive so they could keep fighting. Your dad, though, he didn't care a rat's rear about staying alive, all he cared about was you. Getting to you, protecting you, saving you. Total idiot."

Katie shook her head. "You're, you're mixing everything up …"

"Your dad is an idiot," Buffy went on relentlessly. "Your boyfriend is a jerk. Dump him and find an idiot boyfriend, and raise idiot babies, and live a happy idiot life. That's pretty much what you're made for."

Katie stood up, started for the door. "I can't be hearing this."

"Embrace the inner idiot," Buffy called after her as she fled. "Celebrate your idiotness! Be at peace with the idiot-you!"

The door slammed. The Slayer settled back into her chair. "Hmph," she said to herself. "Why is it that people who need advice the worst are never any good at taking it?"

~ – ~ – ~

Less than half an hour later, Dustin was at the door. "Katie came to see you," he announced upon being granted entry. "I tried to talk her out of it."

"Do tell." Buffy regarded him with the saccharine smile that conveyed neither warmth nor courtesy. "If you were so worried, I'm surprised you waited this long to check on her."

"I drove her here," Dustin said. "When I saw she was determined, I brought her here myself, and then I took her home afterward. She was really upset, but she wouldn't tell me why. What did you say to her?"

Buffy laughed. "You mean, did I spill any of the dirty details about you and me rolling around on the grass? No, I kept that to myself. I just told her she should dump you."

"What? Why?"

"Because you're a jerk." She lounged back in the chair, still smiling but with eyes like arctic ice. "You'd dump her yourself, as soon as you got what you wanted, so I thought we might as well skip straight to the end part."

"You had no right," Dustin told her hotly. "What's between me and Katie is none of your business —"

"See, business is exactly what it is," she broke in. "I'm being paid to look after these people. I can't really make myself care, but it's like a game, the fun is seeing if you can win even if the rules are stupid. For this game, the rules say the hero gets the girl. Hero, you're not, so you don't get her."

He stared at her, groping for words. "That, that has to be the craziest —"

"Hey, I'm not the one who wrote the rules." She stood, that infuriating smile still in place, and he automatically fell back a step. "And you shouldn't complain, this game lets you off a whole lot easier than some others I know."

"Have it your way." Dustin turned toward the door. "But no matter what you say, I know what Katie will decide."

"So do I." In the time it had taken him to blink, she was standing in his path. "You're right, she won't do what I tell her, she's not that type. She's like this innocent little fuzzy kitten that keeps running into glass doors because it never can remember they're there. Always worth a laugh, but at the same time you don't want anybody else messing with it. So I'm telling you."

She tapped his chest with her finger, a tilt of one eyebrow acknowledging her memory of the bruises she had left there the previous night. "The Midget is off limits to you. You want to hang around her, your choice, but I'm going to have this witch friend of mine slap a squealer spell on the both of you. If you ever get into her pants, I'll know, and I'll come back here and break your arms and legs. Then, when they're almost healed, I'll break them again. And I'll keep doing it till they just won't heal at all, or else I get bored and kill you."

Dustin's throat was so dry suddenly that he could barely get the words out. "You're not serious."

The Slayer pouted. "You don't think so? And I was working really hard at being threatening. Maybe I should tear off a couple of your fingers to convince you I mean business —"

"No," he said. "No, you don't have to do that. I believe you." Blessedly, she let him pass, but to his surprise he found himself pausing at the door. "What if I really care for Katie?" he asked her. "What if we might stay together, make it permanent?"

She snorted at that. "What, like Andy and Judy? I told you, I kind of like the Midget, even if she is as dumb as a bag of toenail clippings." The smile vanished. "You're one type. She's a different type. Stick to your own type. Now shoo."

When he was gone, she sat down again. "Whew," she said. "Brain work is tiring."

~ – ~ – ~

It was late in the afternoon when Doc arrived. "You better be bearing gifts," she warned as he entered. "I know you have more sense than to try and stiff me, but I've already been waiting long enough."

"I brought your money," Doc said, and held out an envelope. "I'm sorry it took so long, things have been … Well, here."

She took the envelope, opened it, and riffled through the bills inside. Then she stopped, her eyebrows rising, and did it again, slowly. When she was done, she stood thoughtfully for several seconds, then looked to Doc. "Huh," she said.

"It's twice what you asked for," he told her. "You earned it, more than earned it. I'll never be able to truly repay you."

"So if I'd asked for twice as much, I'd have got four times as much." She sighed. "Okay, next time I'll know. So if you weren't stalling, why'd everything take so long?"

"There was a lot of mess to deal with," Doc said. "We had the death of a local citizen, two kidnappings, a building full of dead demons … maybe you can kill and walk away from the corpses, but it's more complicated for those of us who aren't supernatural. There was no way to hide it, not with the damage to my truck and the auction barn littered with shotgun shells that had our fingerprints —"

Buffy smirked at him. "See? Back entrance, slice- and-dice instead of gunplay; you should have listened to your Slayer."

"Maybe," Doc said. "We came out of it okay, so I won't try to second-guess myself."

"Really? Came out of it how?"

"I called the chief of police," Doc explained. "Said I had something to show him. Gene and I get together for poker twice a month, so I knew he'd hear me out. Once he saw the demon bodies, he was … predisposed to believe. He knew Judith had been missing, and it was obvious Wayne hadn't been killed by anything human; and, as I said, the dead demons made a pretty solid selling point."

"I can see they would," Buffy agreed. "So?"

"So we hauled the carcasses away for disposal, and cleaned up as best we could at the barn, and it's now officially recorded that I let Wayne borrow my truck, and he died on impact when he lost control and slammed into his own building. I signed the death certificate myself; remember, I'm the coroner here. By this time tomorrow, Wayne's body will be cremated, he has no family here to object. Everything tied up nice and neat."

"Wow. Just like Sunnydale." Buffy beamed at him. "Happy endings for everybody, right?"

"Close enough," Doc said. "More than I could let myself hope for, once Katie had been … I'll always be in your debt. Always."

"And I may come back someday to collect," the Slayer said. "But probably not, this place doesn't really have much to offer." She gave him a look and a quirk of her mouth. "Bet you're glad to have your secretary back."

"I'm glad she's safe," Doc corrected mildly. "She won't be with me much longer, though. We've … agreed that she needs to find other work."

Buffy's brow furrowed. "I don't get it," she said. "I heard you talking with her after the big rescue. She knows. She knows what you are, and she knows what she's married to. Why doesn't she just bounce the two-timing creep? Then the two of you could both —"

"It's not about him," Doc explained. "It's about her, the promises she made. It's the kind of person she is, and I wouldn't want her to be anything else."

Buffy shook her head slowly, and her lips formed the word, idiot. Then, after a few seconds of reflection, she asked, "Do you want to have sex? "

"I'm afraid that's not possible," Doc said. "I told you already, she'll never betray her vows, and even if —"

"No, dummy," Buffy interrupted. "I meant with me. Sex with me."

Doc stopped with his mouth open. Eventually he closed it. "Have you lost your mind?" he asked quietly.

"What?" she said. "You're a good guy, you've been a total White Hat since the beginning, and it's getting you nothing but hosed. You think you're, like, Brad Pitt with glasses or something? I'm trying to be nice here!"

"Ah," Doc said. "Well, I, um, I appreciate the kindness of your offer, but I'm afraid I can't accept."

The Slayer stared at him in bewilderment. "You're turning me down," she said. "I know you're not gay, you have a daughter and you're hot for Judy and that doesn't go with gay, and you've got no woman at all and you're turning down no-strings sex with a really hot babe — because I am beyond hot, you just have no idea — and are you crazy? "

"That must be it," Doc said gravely. "It's really the only sensible explanation."

Buffy slumped in her chair. "This is one of those things I just can't understand, isn't it?"

"I'm afraid it is," Doc replied. "I'm sorry."

"I want to understand," she told him. "I really do."

"And I really wish I could help you. I simply don't know how."

They sat silently for several minutes. Then she made a vague motion with her hand, and he stood and left, still without speaking, and she was alone in the room.

~ – ~ – ~

Andy was the last, knocking at the door of the room hours after Doc's departure. "Sunset," he declared cheerfully when she answered. "You wanted me to let you know, and here I am. You all packed?"

"What I've got didn't take long." She surveyed him with a bland gaze. "Sounds like you're in a hurry to see me gone."

Andy gave her a winning smile. "Hey, you're big league. We were lucky to run across you when we needed help, but I never expected you'd want to hang around once the job was finished."

"Uh-huh." She glanced at the small suitcase that held her new clothes and reconstituted unicorn collection, but made no move to pick it up. "Has anybody ever told you you're really smart?"

He grinned at that. "It might have been mentioned a time or two."

"Nobody ever said it to me," she stated matter-of-factly. "Not even guys who were trying to cozy me into bed. There's the whole dumb-blonde stereotype, and if you're a cheerleader, too, well, you can just forget it. And, yeah, there's a lot of stuff I don't get … but, even if I don't understand everything, I do understand some things. Oh, yeah, some things I'm totally clear on."

"I'm not following," Andy said, regarding her with a puzzlement that was probably genuine, since there was no actual interest attached. "What is it that you understand, and why is it important? "

"Three things," she replied. "One is about demons. One is about evil masterminds. And one is about high school."

"Okay." The corners of his mouth turned up. "I can tell this is going to be good."

"Demons, well, there was this vampire once who mentioned some low-grade demons with what he said was the perfect defense mechanism: their blood had some kind of numbing agent in it, too much and it'd paralyze you. He said if humans ever managed that trick, vampires would go extinct overnight."

"I can see how that would work," Andy said. "So?"

"So I think that's what I smelled at the house where Dustin cut the oinker, by the back door at Doc's, and at the auction barn. Just a couple of seconds and I could feel my nose starting to go dead. Katie doesn't remember being grabbed, but she's still feeling queasy, so I'm pretty sure she got drugged. I'm thinking somebody used oinker blood to trank her."

Andy was nodding. "Yeah, makes sense, if Wayne was running those demons he could have known how to use their body fluids. Pretty clever, actually."

"Maybe, but that takes us to evil masterminds. So, okay, diabolical realtors aren't exactly the A-list of villains, but the whole business with the Midget was just totally bogus. Why grab her? What did that accomplish? He'd have done better to send all his soldiers against the house, attack us before we could attack him. And then he ties her up so she can get loose in a couple of minutes? Please. There's bad-tactics dumb, and there's too-good-to-be-true dumb. This is way past that."

Andy was listening attentively, with a slight frown. "And I can't wait to hear what this has to do with high school," he said.

"That's where it gets really good," she assured him. "I ruled in high school, and nobody, I mean nobody, could slip the knife to somebody the way I could."

Andy's eyebrows went up. "You knifed people in high school? Was that a Hellmouth deal?"

"No, dimwit, I mean the social scene. You know, climbing the ladder, holding your place, trashing people's reputations and massaging rumors and planting just the right hint in just the right way …" She flashed him a sudden, chilling smile. "That's where you blew it, Sexy-Boy. The way you kept trying to steer us at Duane, that was amateur stuff, and you were playing in front of a pro."

"I admit it," Andy said after a long moment. "I am now officially lost. What in the world are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about you are busted, bozo!" She took in the room with an extravagant gesture. "I've been thinking about this stuff all day, I made lists, I talked to the others and I went over everything anybody said, clear back to the beginning." She produced a scrap of paper from the pocket of her jeans, and began to tick off items. "You wanted the property next door, they were the first ones to come down with magic measles, that's when your big feud with Duane started. You jumped right on top of Duane's oinkers causing all the diseases, and you did it right there, only ten minutes before that we'd all been thinking on mystical ruins. That crappy after-shave of yours was at Doc's back door when I got there, along with the smell of oinker juice. It was you all along, you were the one —"

"Whoa, slow down, take it easy." Andy spoke soothingly, making calming motions with his hands. "You're letting your paranoia run away from you, there's a reasonable explanation for everything —"

"Give me a break!" Her tone and expression were withering. "I know a weasel when I see one, Tucker Wells trained a bunch of hell- hounds to attack our prom and you're exactly that kind of small-time dorkster. You started the whole thing, didn't you? You set the oinkers to infecting the next- door neighbors so you could get their land, only Duane was better at it and he took over the operation for himself. You kidnapped Katie and dropped her off at Duane's demon-barn, but tied up loose enough that she could get away and call us, only we got there first, and we got there because you kept saying we had to go there. It was you, it was you, all of it was you, and I was the one who figured it out! "

The last was an exultant shout; she stood glorious, resplendent, all but glowing with triumph. Andy held his place, though it required conscious effort to keep himself from retreating a step, the girl was primed to explode. At last the volatile moment seemed to have passed, and he spoke with careful control. "Okay, I'll say it: you're really smart. You're wrong, but you took things from all over the place and tied them together into a picture that actually holds. I can see why there are so many stories about the Slayer, you've got a … I don't know, a kind of intelligence that's intuitive instead of analytical.

"The thing is," he went on, "none of that actually matters. Wayne is dead, the demons are dead or scattered, Judith and Katie are back safe, and Doc has it all neatened up into a clean little package that nobody wants to disturb. So even if you were right about me — and you're really not — you don't have any evidence they could act on."

She snorted. "Evidence? Who needs it? You're a con artist, and you tried to con me along with everybody else, and I know. I knew while you were doing it."

Andy grinned. "And, like I said, it doesn't matter. You're a Slayer. You kill vampires, demons, mystical menaces up and down the board, and none of them are me. I'm just a guy trying to make a buck, and cuddle up to such ladies as are agreeable. In short, outside your jurisdiction."

Her expression went blank, and then she slowly smiled. "Ooohh, that's good. That is good. You're totally right, Slayers only kill magical things. Oh, whatever is a girl to do?"

He looked to her, suddenly troubled; there was something here he wasn't seeing, but deep-buried instinct told him it meant danger. She kept smiling at him, watching his assurance dwindle and fade. Then she let the smile grow, and widen, and change into something else. She gave him time to understand what he was seeing, and what it meant, and laughed as she saw terror come alive in his eyes.

She could have taken him before he ever had time to scream.

But, really, what kind of fun would that have been?

~ – ~ – ~

Once she was done with him, she left him in the room, locked it securely, and pulled her car out onto the highway. After an hour and a half of driving — including several reversals, the way they marked the signs just didn't make any sense — she happily found an Interstate on-ramp, and minutes later she was cruising at a steady 80 miles an hour.

So, which way, up the coast or down? L.A. was just not on the grid, she'd need to wait a year or so before she could even think of going back there. San Francisco was supposed to be a happening place, but it had kind of a snooty air to it; San Diego, well, there was nothing at all cool about San Diego. She could try Vegas … but no, she was a California girl through and through, except for maybe Paris. (How far a drive was that? Her next gas stop, she'd have to snag a road atlas. Yeah, there was an ocean in the way, she knew that much, but that was what the Chunnel was for, right?)

She smiled at the memories of Cromwell. Two thousand bucks, and she'd finally made the good-guy thing work. Sort of. It was hard keeping track of all the little persnickety things a hero was supposed to do and not do, but she'd totally nailed the basics. She'd put a scare into Dustin (Katie might wonder why her boyfriend had gone lukewarm all of a sudden, but she'd recover and find some nice, reliable idiot); she'd cleared the way for Doc and Judy, who'd never have had a chance if not for her; she'd stopped a plague, slaughtered a warehouse full of demons and taken down two evil masterminds (such as they were), and all without killing anybody who didn't have it coming to them. Really, why did people make such a big deal about the whole soul issue? All you had to have was a positive attitude.

One thing was for sure: despite her threats to Dustin and hints to Doc, she had no intention of returning to that dinky little burg anytime in her eternal life … but back in Cromwell, there were four people who would never, ever forget the name of Buffy Summers. (Of course, three of them would remember her with gratitude. Too bad about that, but not worth the effort to change it.)

She'd made good on her guarantee, though. She'd driven the lone vampire out of town … and she'd keep on driving till it was time to find a place to wait out the sun.

end