Suggested listening:

"Dig You Own Hole" by the Chemical Brothers
"Go" by Moby
"Run Through My Veins" by Vigilantes of Love

The Devil You Know

By

Michael Walker

"We should do something."

Willow Rosenberg's announcement was greeted with something less than a rousing 'huzzah' from her companions. Cordelia Chase looked at her as though she'd grown another head, Xander Harris couldn't stop looking at Cordelia, and Oz, well, Oz looked thoughtful.

"I mean it," Willow continued, determined to struggle on and articulate her idea. "Since Buffy's been back the only time we've all been together was in that icky cave and when we killed the crazy vampire."

"Isn't 'crazy vampire' redundant?" Xander's eyes may have been fastened to Cordelia, but it seemed his ears were tuned in.

"You know what I mean." Willow glared at him. "I just thing we should get together and do something, something nice, something that doesn't involve arcane rituals or cemeteries at midnight or anything sharper than a butter knife."

Xander considered this for a moment. "So you're suggesting an event where the biggest danger comes from friends and loved ones."

Willow beamed. "Exactly."

***

The Sunnydale High library was beginning to smell like the Sunnydale High gym. That was because Buffy Summers, senior and scourge of all things evil, was training with her Watcher.

The Slayer launched a series of powerful front kicks that drove Giles back and knocked the breath from him in spite of the thick padding he wore. Springing back, she ducked a clumsy right hand with ease and used her right forearm to push the punch on past her. Giles turned awkwardly, exposing his back to her. The Slayer landed three light, fast punches over his kidneys, then swept his feet out from under him. The Watcher landed with an "Oof!" and a thud.

Buffy stood over him, bouncing on the balls of her feet, ponytail flying, her sweat-soaked once-gray T-shirt now only a couple of shades lighter than her black tights. The speed gloves she wore were sodden. Her breath huffed out, blowing perspiration off her face in a fine mist. She did a quick imitation of the Ali shuffle, throwing an uppercut combination at an imaginary foe, then dropped her hands, although she continued to bounce.

"That enough?" she asked. Rather than reply, Giles groaned and began to climb to his feet, unbuckling his padding.

"You know," he said, removing the helmet that had saved his cranium more than once during the session, "I'm beginning to long for the days when your training was half-hearted."

"Hey," she said, "what can I say? I didn't realize how out of shape I was. Besides, it feels great to work up a sweat and hit things. Uncomplicated, direct, unlike most everything else in my life now."

"Well, speaking on behalf of the things hit, I hope your turmoil resolves itself soon." Giles flexed his arm, wincing. "That's going to swell." He went into his office and returned, holding an ice bag to the injured area. "Speaking of turmoil..."

"How am I sleeping?" Buffy stripped off her gloves and began to wring out the hem of her T-shirt. She stopped when Giles cast a pointed glance at the puddle of brine she was making on the library floor. "Fine. No dreams." She bent over to touch her toes, stretching her hamstrings. "Any ideas why?"

Giles started to shake his head, then thought better of it. "Not really. Frankly, I'm not much of a hand at dreams per se. I mean, when they're an obvious part of a prophecy, then I have some facility, but this... I suspect it could be simply your unconscious mind attempting to sort out the events of the past few months."

"Why would my unconscious mind hate me so?"

Giles' lips pursed, his face thoughtful. "Please forgive me if this seems intrusive, but did you think much about what happened? While you were away, I mean?"

Buffy shrugged, her face darkening. "Not like, think think about it. It didn't seem... I mean, what would be the point?"

Giles gestured with his uninjured arm, the ice bag threatening to fly out of his hand. "There you go. It could be your psyche's way of integrating all that's happened."

"So why stop now?"

Giles exhaled, a deep sigh emanating from him. "Buffy, I told you, dreams are not my forte. Perhaps we should simply be grateful they've stopped and you can sleep again."

Buffy took the scrunchy out of her hair and shook her head. As her loose hair fell around her face, she said, "That would be nice, but my life usually doesn't work out that way." She glanced into the cage. "Hey, think I could work on my knife throwing?"

***

Oz watched the tuner while he turned the Telecaster's tuning machine ever so slightly. The light moved from red to green. Oz turned off the tuner, unplugged the cable from it and inserted the cable into the input jack of his amp. He strummed an open C chord, listening for any tuning imperfections. Tuners were a great tool, but Oz really trusted his ears.

Especially now. He had begun to notice that his hearing and smell were getting sharper. He could only assume that it was the wolf. That knowledge bothered him, but it made for a seriously in-tune guitar.

Dingoes Ate My Baby were only a few minutes from rehearsal. Oz was ready. Doug had his bass set up and good to go. Devon was fondling the mike stand. As soon as Geoff got all the drum hardware tightened everything was a go.

"Oh, great. Thought I was late." Oz turned to see Trey Garcia lumber into the garage, which was quite a sight, since Trey was tall and thin and did not lumber easily. The bulky instrument cases he carried created the staggering gait.

Oz leaned his Tele against his amp. "Need a hand?" he asked.

"Yeah." Trey held out his guitar case. Oz took it from him. "String quartet practice ran a little long," the black-haired musician said, a little short of breath.

"Dude, what's in the big bag?" Devon asked, gesturing to the oddly-shaped leatherette gig bag strapped to Trey's back.

"Cello," Trey said as he slipped his arms out of the straps and leaned the instrument in a corner. He went to his guitar case and removed a shoreline-gold Stratocaster. He strapped it on and plugged in.

"Okay," Geoff said. "It's all good here." He settled onto his throne. "What's first?"

"How about 'Scary Love'?" Devon asked. When nods all around greeted the suggestion, Geoff held up his sticks and counted the tune down.

Oz and Trey had developed a system. The first time through, Oz played the song while Trey, volume way down on his guitar, followed along. On the second pass, they played at equal volume. The third time through, Oz laid out while Trey played the part. It worked because Oz had written out good chord charts and because Trey was gifted.

Except that this afternoon, Trey raised his hand after the first pass.

"Problem?" Oz asked.

"No," Trey said. "I know this one pretty well. I would like to try something, though."

"Sure," Devon said. "What?"

Trey ran a hand through his thick hair. "Well, I've got the cello with me, and whenever we've played this song, there's just been this part running through my head. I'd like to give it a shot." He looked at Oz. "Is that cool?"

Oz shrugged. "Yeah, if it helps the song." Trey slipped his guitar strap over his head and propped the instrument against his amp. It took him a few minutes to set up his cello and check the tuning. Satisfied, he looked at the rest of the band, bow in hand, a half-smile on his lips.

"Ready," he said.

Geoff's drumsticks cracked four times and Oz and Doug came in on the downbeat. They were halfway through the first verse before Oz became really aware of what Trey was playing. It was a low, keening line that slithered into the gaps in Doug's bass line during the verses, then jumped up into the high register for the chorus, avoiding any conflict with Oz's fuzzed-out power chords.

"Dude." Devon's voice was faint, more an exhalation than a statement. Oz could see the same look in Geoff's eyes. Doug just nodded.

"Okay," Oz said. "An improvement."

"Hey man." Doug pointed at Trey. "You have any other ideas, you share, okay?"

Trey grinned like an idiot. "Okay. Whatever."

Oz nodded. "How about we play 'Crushed'?"

Devon grabbed the mike stand. "You got any ideas for this one?" he said to Trey.

"There is a second guitar part I'd like to try." Trey glanced at Oz. "If it's okay with you."

"Sure." Oz strummed a D chord. "Whatever works." He hit the chord again, listening to the B string wobble out of pitch.

***

Buffy walked through the park, senses alert. As she passed a bench, a snarling vamp leaped from the shadows, blocking her path. Buffy's hand flashed beneath her jacket and came out holding one of her new stakes. She held her ground for a count of three, then whirled and stabbed. The vamp charging from her rear had no chance. He simply ran onto the stake and dissolved. Buffy spun, pivoting on her right foot. Her left foot caught the first vampire upside the head. He spun and went down. As he struggled to get to his feet, the Slayer advanced. She feinted with her left, then fired three quick rights over his dropped guard. He staggered backward, arms flailing, and fell flat on his back, where he lay, groaning.

"Don't you guys ever work on new moves?" she asked as she staked him.

***

The mini-van, a white Ford Windstar with American View stenciled on the side, parked across the street from Sunnydale High. Two people got out. One was a stunning Hispanic woman who wore a tangerine suit jacket and an eggshell silk top over faded jeans. The other was a man of medium height who, if an observer wanted to be kind, could be described as "stout." He wore a T-shirt that had fit him perfectly some three years ago and denim painter's pants. A baseball cap with an adjustable plastic tab in the back covered his head.

He opened the side door of the van and pulled out a large plastic case. The woman stood behind the van, looking at the school, tilting her head, walking a few paces, first to the right, then to the left, and looking at it again. She arrived at some sort of conclusion by the time he was finished setting up the broadcast-quality video camera. She turned to him.

"I think this angle works best. Frame me in these trees, with the school behind me. What do you think, Nun?"

Nunley shrugged. "Your call."

She nodded. "I want the building in the background. Get the camera set up over here. That should give us a nice long shot across the street, wide angle of the school, eager students hurrying in to learn, dit dit dit, all that jazz. I think that's best, but we'll get some coverage shots from a couple of different angles. You get the gear. I'll finish writing my stand-up. Ready?"

Nunley did the camera set-up with practiced, bored efficiency while she rehearsed what she was going to say, lips moving to the voice in her head.

"Hey, Nun," she said. "What's another word for 'dead'?"

Nunley shrugged. "I dunno. Curtains? Extinct? Demise?"

She shook her head. "No, none of those have enough drama." She thought hard. Her face lit up. "Got it. You ready to go?"

"I was born ready," Nunley replied in a voice that implied he was born ready for a nap. She picked up the microphone and assumed her position on the sidewalk.

"On me," she said. "In three, two..." She held up one finger, then dropped the arm, waited for a beat, and began. "What's the most dangerous city in America? The average person would probably say New York, Washington, DC, or Los Angeles, but they would be wrong." She switched from a smile to a look of serious concern. "No, the most perilous place to live in America is this seeming paradise, Sunnydale, California. It has the highest rate of violent death per capita in the country. And it is especially hazardous to be a student at Sunnydale High School, where a recent rash of fatalities means the average student is as likely to go home in a body bag as on a school bus. I'm Pilar Cruz. Join me for this exclusive report on 'Annihilation High.'" She paused for a beat, staring into the camera, beautiful face full of concern and serious purpose.

"Okay," Nunley said. "We're out."

Pilar held her stance for an extra beat, then pumped her fist in the air. "All right! That'll get some attention. 'Annihilation High.' Flows pretty well, don't you think?"

Nunley rolled his eyes.

***

Giles was shelving books when Buffy entered. She tossed her books onto the counter and leaned back against it, elbows supporting her weight.

"Good morning," the Watcher said. "How are you?"

"Well, I got two last night."

"Two vampires?" Giles glanced over his shoulder.

"No, two tickets to see No Doubt this weekend. Of course, two vampires. And, might I say, they were mondo pathetic." She straightened and stretched. "What do you think Trick's up to?"

Giles shrugged as he turned away from the stacks. "I don't think we have any way of knowing what his plans are."

"Yeah, well that sucks."

The door burst open and Xander came skidding in. "Did you hear?" he gasped, out of breath.

Buffy looked at him, frowning. "Apparently not. What's up?"

A grin of huge proportions appeared on Xander's face. "Pilar Cruz is in Sunnydale!"

Buffy made a disgusted face. Giles asked "Who?" accompanied by a look of mild puzzlement.

Xander nodded as he gulped in air. "Pilar Cruz. Investigative reporter for American View."

"What?" Giles said.

Buffy turned to him, a look of profound pity etched on her features. "It's a TV show, so we understand your deep unfamiliarity."

"I'm familiar with TV," Giles sniffed. "It's not my fault you have nothing to equal Fawlty Towers."

"It's more than a TV show." Xander said. "It's a hard-hitting revealer of truth."

Buffy smirked. "If your idea of truth is a feature on the guy who invented the thong bikini."

"Hey." Xander was indignant. "I learned."

Giles had been deep in thought. "Would this be the woman they mentioned at the faculty meeting this morning?"

Buffy's eyebrows arched. "Did they mention?"

Giles picked up some more books. "She's here to do a story on our school."

Xander nodded. "Is Arlene the chain-smoking cafeteria lady about to get busted?"

Giles shook his head. "It seems she wants to know why so many people die here."

Buffy scooped up her books. "Well, thank goodness none of us know anything about that, huh?"

***

"I don't care who you are, you are not coming inside this school!" Principal Snyder did his best to block the door against the woman with the microphone and the man with the camera.

Pilar looked perturbed. "Excuse me, but have you ever heard of the First Amendment?"

Snyder's face was a combative mask. "As a matter of fact, I have. But the First Amendment does not apply here. This is a school campus. Your presence here would be disruptive, and you would not obtain any information that could not be gathered at some other time and in some other place."

Pilar lowered her mic and put her hands on her hips. "Says you, but let me spin out a scenario. You deny me access to this campus. My show gets a judge to issue an injunction barring you from such action. Now, you can fight that injunction, and you might, might possibly win, but it will take you months. In the meantime, we will have come and gone, and will air the story, complete with details on how the principal of Sunnydale High tried to stand in our way. Does he have something to hide? Hmmm?"

Snyder's eyes shifted from side to side. Sweat began to bead on his scalp, lending him the look of a freshly waxed Volkswagen Beetle. Pilar motioned for Nunley to focus on it.

"That's- that's tantamount to blackmail." Snyder's voice squeaked a bit on 'blackmail.'

She shrugged. "If tantamount means 'equal to', then, yes it is."

Nunley leaned his head to the side and spoke around the camera. "She's gonna get in, pal. Question is, will it be through you or over you? Take a piece of advice-- work with her, not against her."

Snyder attempted a smile. "Well, we seem to be at an impasse, don't we?"

Pilar looked unimpressed. "No, we're not, because I'm going to get in."

Snyder scowled. Then the idea appeared to him. "Tell me, Ms. Cruz, if I co-operate with you, would it be possible for me to have some sort of... influence on the way the story is told?"

Pilar considered the possibility. "I can't promise you that. I will, however, guarantee that you have every opportunity to tell your side of the story as fully and completely as possible."

"Well, that seems very fair. Perhaps I could give you some names... some sources for your story." Snyder slathered on what passed for his charm.

She smiled. "That would be wonderful."

Snyder stepped aside, beckoning them to enter. "You really should begin with Rupert Giles, our librarian. He's a fascinating man..." His voice faded as they strolled down the hall.

***

Buffy met Willow at the soda machine. The redhead wore a mournful face. "Root beer," she said, holding up a can for the Slayer to see. "I ordered a Coke."

Buffy shrugged. "Want me to rip it open and get you a Coke?"

Willow shook her head quickly. "No. I guess I was predestined to have a root beer." She popped the top and took a drink, then grimaced. "I guess I'm getting rid of some bad karma." They began to walk down the hall. "So," Willow said, "how's your mom handling the Slayerness of you?"

Buffy shot her a sideways glance. "You know, Willow, you shouldn't be so subtle."

"Sorry. I would be more circumspect, but I didn't know of any way to approach it other than head-on."

Buffy waved a hand. "Then you're forgiven. Actually, I'm worried about her. She seems to think that I'm in constant danger of catching a cold."

Willow whistled. "Wow, Freud would kill to get his hands on her."

"Don't I know it."

"Hey," Willow said, "Have you seen Xander lately?"

Buffy snorted. "Is he geeked about this reporter or what?"

Willow shrugged. "I think all the guys geek about her."

"What about Oz?" Buffy lowered her voice.

Willow glanced at her. "Oz doesn't geek."

Buffy cocked an eyebrow. "Except about you."

Willow paused outside the library door and turned to her friend, her face inscrutable and mysterious. "How sweet of you to notice," she said. Smiling, they shoved through the library doors together. And stopped in their tracks, mouths open in amazement at the tableau before them.

Giles was pinned against the counter, eyes almost crossed as he stared at the black foam windscreen of the microphone Pilar Cruz thrust toward him.

"So you're saying that this number of student fatalities is nothing out of the ordinary?" she demanded.

"I didn't say that... what I mean is, I have no knowledge of... that is, why would I be of any use to you? I'm just the librarian." Giles jabbed at his glasses with a forefinger. Buffy sized up the situation and stepped between Brandee and the guy in the baseball cap holding a video camera.

"Okay, cut. You gotta problem, kid?" He lowered the camera from his shoulder.

Buffy pointed at herself. "What? Me? No, no problem. I just needed to see Mr. Giles about a... a..."

"A biography of Millard Fillmore," Willow chimed in.

"Yeah, that's right." Buffy shot a narrow-eyed glance at her friend. Willow smiled sweetly.

"Ah, Millard Fillmore." Giles stammered as he grasped the life preserver. "Well, that may be difficult to find. Sorry to seem rude, Miss Cruz, but I really must help these students."

Pilar looked at him for a long count, then turned to her camera man. "Come on, Nun. We've got plenty here." They left the library with her leading in an elegant stride, Nunley plodding behind.

Giles sagged against the counter. "I must thank you. That woman was about to get the better of me."

"About to?" Buffy's eyebrows shot up. "Giles, you looked guiltier than Hugh Grant."

"Excuse me?" Giles straightened his tie.

Willow gave him a sympathy face. "It wasn't a stellar performance."

Giles stiffened. "Well, if everyone is done criticizing me, perhaps we should formulate a plan for dealing with this woman."

Buffy shook her head. "Why do I catch a whiff of Snyder all over this thing?"

"A whiff?" Willow snorted. "I'd say it's stinky with Snyder."

***

"So, Oz-man, why so glum?" Xander vaulted over the back of the sofa and landed with a thud next to Oz. Books and papers bounced and sifted to the floor. Oz snatched at a sheet of paper and missed, watching as it floated across the table and slid underneath the opposite sofa. He turned on Xander, eyes flashing.

"Did you have to do that?" he snapped.

Taken aback, Xander stammered, "H-hey man, sorry. What's the illness?"

Oz shook his head. "My bad. Feeling a little tense."

Xander leaned forward. "You? Tense? My world no longer makes sense. Say it ain't so."

"Everybody's entitled to a bad day," Oz grumbled as he tried to put his papers back in their proper order.

Xander looked past Oz, spying Cordelia walking down the hall. "Hey, sorry to intrude and run, but I gotta." He spun up and around the sofa, planting himself squarely in Cordelia's path.

"Miss Chase," he said "would you be offended if I told you that you looked lovely?"

Cordelia's mouth twitched. "I don't think so."

"Weeellll, if I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?"

Her eyes rolled like marbles on a tin roof. "There's a new record for compliment differential." He fell into step with her as she continued down the hall.

"Seriously," he said "what would you like to do tonight?"

"Oh, Xander." She stopped and turned toward him, regret constricting her features. "I really have a ... thing tonight."

He shrugged. "Is it the sort of... thing I might be interested in?"

She shook her head, dark hair flying. "No. It's a parent-child thing."

"I could put on a clean shirt."

"Xander..." Cordelia's eyes narrowed.

"You know, it occurs to me that you really don't seem that enthusiastic about me being around your parents." Real hurt seeped through in Xander's voice.

"And you don't exactly invite me over to the old home place yourself," Cordelia replied, a little more tartly than she'd intended.

"Yeah, but that's different. I don't think it's right to make anyone hang out with crazy people."

"Yet you insist that I hang out with you." Cordelia shook her head. "Trust me, Xander, you don't want any part of this."

He did not look happy. "Why are you so sure of that?"

Cordelia sighed. "Because I'm not sure I want any part of it."

***

Stefan Warner was under attack, and during his free period at that.

"When you accepted a teaching position at Sunnydale High, were you aware of the district's death rate?" As pretty as this woman was, he found her habit of shoving that microphone at him very disconcerting.

"No, not really," he said. "What was it at your high school?"

"Do you fear for your life?" The expression of concern on her face was so believable that for a moment, he almost thought it was genuine.

"Only when I'm denied access to the coffee machine," he said, holding up his mug and attempting to slip past her. If he could get to the teacher's lounge, he would be safe.

Pilar Cruz was too smart for that. Like an experienced boxer, she cut off his escape routes and turned him back where she wanted him. Even as his exasperation grew, he admired her skill and economy of motion.

"What do you believe are the root causes of this rash of violence?" she demanded.

He shrugged. "Too much television. Oh, hey, Ms. Hollis."

Matti Hollis made the big mistake. She acknowledged her name. Warner slipped away from the reporter and her cameraman and threw an arm around Matti's shoulders. "Now, you should really talk to this lady," he said, gesturing toward her with his mug. "She could help you out. She's the cheerleading sponsor." He wheeled and took off at the fastest gait that would still allow some pretense of dignity.

***

Principal Snyder sat in the Mayor's outer office, one foot jigging nervously on the carpet. He had requested this emergency meeting, which only exacerbated his fear and loathing. The Mayor's receptionist was gone. He was alone in the office. Snyder felt a bead of sweat slip its moorings on his scalp and begin the long trip down his forehead.

The door to the inner office opened, and the Mayor himself beckoned Snyder to enter. As Snyder went in, the Mayor put his arm around the principal's shoulder. Snyder tensed; the gesture might look amicable, but he felt like a mouse right after the python gives its first friendly squeeze.

"So, Bob," the Mayor said, settling into his chair and picking up a cigar, "to what do I owe the pleasure?"

Snyder took a moment to control his breathing. "It seems that a reporter has decided to do a story on Sunnydale High School."

The Mayor continued to roll the Macanudo between his fingers. He did not look at Snyder as he spoke. "Yes, Pilar Cruz. Love her work on American View." He held the cigar under his nose and inhaled. "The kitsch factor alone is considerable." He placed the cigar on the desk. "She's here to do a story about our rather impressive death rate."

Snyder nodded, pretending that he was following the conversational twists.

The Mayor looked at him. "I suppose that she's making things difficult for you at school?"

Snyder nodded. "Yes sir, most difficult. She is constantly underfoot, constantly asking questions, harassing teachers--"

"Bob, what have you done so far?" The Mayor's tone was mild.

Snyder swallowed, trying to ease a terrible case of drymouth. "Well, I suggested to her that Rupert Giles might be an excellent source for her story."

A delighted grin broke out on the Mayor's face. "Bob, that shows real initiative. I couldn't have proposed a better plan myself. If I know my English reserve, her attention will keep our Watcher in a flustered state."

Snyder relaxed a millimeter. "Thank you sir. I'm just afraid--"

"That our stonewalling British friend won't hold her interest for very long, and she'll be back stirring the pot." The Mayor thought for a moment, rubbing his chin. He held up an index finger to Snyder, then leaned forward and jabbed out a phone number. "Mr. Quisling. The Mayor. Could you please tell Mr. Trick that I'd like to see him as soon as possible?"

Leaning back, the Mayor stared at Snyder with eyes gone black and dead. "Perhaps it's time for our new ally to begin work a bit early."

***

Nunley hoisted the camera into its case and windmilled his arm, trying to work out the numbness that afflicted it after a full day of shooting. Pilar sat sideways in the van's passenger seat, door open to catch the breeze, a shadow of a frown resting on her face as she pored over a notebook.

"Get anything good?" he grunted.

She shook her head. "Just a weird vibe. Something is going on here, Nun. Something big."

"How big?"

She smiled, perfect teeth glowing in her perfect face. "Network big. Maybe morning-show big."

***

"Mr. Trick. Thank you for coming to the office. I know you have a very busy schedule." The Mayor of Sunnydale gestured toward the sofa. "Please, have a seat."

Mr. Trick settled into the cushions, watching the Mayor with hooded eyes. "Quisling said it sounded urgent. I'm assuming you want a status report."

"Well, I would like to know what progress is being made." His Honor poured a glass of dark liquid from a crystal decanter. He raised the decanter in Trick's direction, a questioning look on his face. The vampire declined with a small shake of his head.

"My entire team is here," Trick said. "The research group has begun to establish a network and track down sources." Trick crossed his legs. "I believe that I should tell you right now that this is going to be a difficult thing to pull off."

The Mayor sipped from his glass. "I knew that when I contacted you. The question is not 'Is this difficult?' It's 'Is this possible?' You assured me it is."

Trick stretched his neck slightly. "It is possible. But sometimes people confuse possible with fast, or easy."

"Believe me, Mr. Trick. I am not one of those people. I understand the enormity of our chosen task. I am fully cognizant of the stakes involved, more cognizant than you could ever be."

"The Slayer has eliminated Leon. This is no surprise, and in fact was foreseen. We are firmly established. My tactical people are implementing a plan to occupy the Slayer and her little cadre of followers. The research team, as I've already said, has begun to track down leads using the latest technology as well as more... traditional methods."

"Do any of these avenues appear promising?"

Trick held up a hand. "At this point, we have no definite search area. Frankly, we're trying to determine whether it went east or south."

The Mayor nodded, touching a forefinger to his upper lip. "East is Babylon, but I'm not sure I understand south."

"Alexandria." Trick took a deep breath. "I would also like to point out that it's entirely possible that it's been destroyed."

"Perhaps. But that's why I emphasized discretion to you. If it has been unmade, then no one must know of our little quest."

"Understood." Trick stood. "That's all I have."

"I have one more thing." The Mayor leaned back in his chair. "It seems that an ambitious television reporter has come to town. She's irritating Bob Snyder at the high school and making a pest of herself in general. I was thinking that a few members of your team might pay her a visit."

Trick thought about this for a moment. "I don't know," he said. "I'm not sure that's the wisest course of action."

The Mayor frowned. "What do you mean?"

Trick shrugged. "She's here to do a story about death in Sunnydale. Sure, people die here, but what's she going to discover, that vampires are the cause?" A sly smile spread over his face. "I don't think so. Let her try and sell that one to a network."

The Mayor had a faraway look in his eye. "Still, it would be so easy to eliminate her."

"Sir, I realize that I'm working for you, but if I may say so, it is time to think of the big picture. This woman is an annoyance. It's a fool who uses a shotgun to kill a fly."

"I think I know where you're going, but please, continue."

Trick glanced to his left, then back again. "Leave her alone. If she keeps pushing, she'll dig her own grave. We don't have to dig it for her."

The Mayor nodded. "I see your point. Thank you for your counsel, Mr. Trick. It's been very helpful." He glanced at his watch. "Well, if you're finished, I have to run. I must visit an animal shelter this afternoon. Please, do keep in touch." As Trick turned to go, the door opened and Nicholas wedged himself through the doorway. Trick did not consider himself easily unnerved, but the Mayor's chief of security made him jumpy. They stared at one another for a moment, dead eye to dead eye, then Nicholas moved aside. Trick ducked through the door, the back of his neck tightening as he passed.

***

Cordelia smoothed her dress down her sides and looked at herself in the mirror for, oh, the millionth time. She looked fantastic. The dress was new, black cocktail-length with a halter back. Her nails wore a fresh coat of carmine polish, her hair was still flawless from that afternoon's visit to the salon. So why was she so filled with dread?

She ran her hands down the front of her dress as if to quiet the ADD-afflicted butterflies that seemed to be living there. She stared into the eyes of the Cordelia in the mirror, willing her to be still.

"You can do this. You can do this," she repeated like a mantra. "Be strong," she said to the girl in the mirror. "You can do this."

"Cordelia, are your ready to go? We don't want to be late." Her mother's voice rocketed up the stairs. Cordelia winced and looked in the mirror again.

"You can do this," she whispered. The girl staring back at her did not seem convinced.

***

Donald Hoagland never had a chance, never saw it coming. One minute he was bopping down the street, enjoying a cool fall evening while Korn banged away in his Discman headphones, and the next someone or something had snatched him off the sidewalk and pulled him into the shadows.

Donald struggled, but whatever had him controlled him with ease. Something that felt very much like a hand grabbed his hair. Pain lanced through his skull as his head was yanked back. Lips caressed his neck.

Is this some kind of freaky rape thing? The thought flashed through his head and was chased away by a blinding agony. Something sharp sank into his neck. A burning pain radiated from the wound, like acid or something was being injected. Oh God, Drano! Someone's pumping Drano into me! That panicky thought was the last coherent message Donald's brain formed.

The feeding continued. When the demon was sated, Donald Hoagland's drained body was cast aside to crumple in an awkward pile beneath a tree. His headphones bounced to the end of their cable, then fell over, Korn's thick groove mutated into a tinny buzz. The vampire stood over his kill. A frown contorted his face.

"Damn noise," he growled, lifting his booted foot.

***

Buffy looked down at the corpse and tried to make sense of what she was seeing. The kill was fairly fresh. She squatted down and ran her fingers through the deceased's hair.

"Wow," she said to no one in particular, "what vampire in Sunnydale is so desperate that he's eating rabbits?" Straightening, she dusted off her hands and continued on patrol.

She wore a black leather jacket over black jeans. Her hair was pulled back in a tight French braid. Two stakes, the perfect Slayer accessory this season, were tucked at the small of her back.

She wheeled toward the rustling noises in the bushes to her right and caught a glimpse of a fleeing figure. Working on the theory that anyone skulking in the bushes at this time of night was up to no good, she pursued. As fast as she was, she was gaining no ground. All she could see were glimpses of a dark shape, a large figure somewhat darker than the night through which it fled. She lost sight of her quarry but continued her pursuit, trying to track it by sound.

A hedge loomed in front of her. Without conscious thought, she jumped, her leap carrying her up and over the obstacle. She landed in a well-manicured lawn, going to a crouch as she absorbed the shock of landing.

The thump of her landing caused the female vampire to turn toward her. It had been looking at the house, but here was a meal unprotected by doors and walls. A smile spread across the vamp's once-beautiful face as it morphed into a slavering monster.

"Oh please," Buffy said, shaking hair out of her eyes and taking out a stake, "you so don't want to tangle with me now."

"You're the Slayer, aren't you?" The vamp licked her lips. "I'm Liz."

Buffy frowned. "And you're telling me this why?"

"Because I want you to know who killed you."

Buffy snorted. "Can you say 'cliched much'?"

The vamp began to circle, an expression on her face that was half-smile, half-snarl. Buffy held the stake low, face impassive.

"Are you afraid, Slayer?" Liz rasped.

"Look, the name's Buffy. Can the melodrama. I'm not the one who keeps talking so she won't have to fight."

The vamp screamed and charged. Buffy feinted right and jumped left, but she stumbled in the soft turf and Liz grabbed her right wrist, immobilizing her stake hand. The vampire grinned. The grin vanished as Buffy hit her three times under her right eye, the Slayer's left hand a flashing blur. The vampire snarled and made a grab for Buffy's left hand, but the Slayer was too quick. She looped her arm up over her adversary's arm and clamped down, pinning Liz's right arm against her rib cage. The vampire was stuck, with nowhere to go. Buffy jerked her head back and whipped it forward, her forehead crushing the demon's nose. Liz howled. Buffy head-butted her again, reducing her nose to a pulpy sack of fluid. The vampire's grip on her right wrist loosened. Buffy drove the stake into the vampire's neck. Liz's hand flew to her neck, grabbing at the horrible wound. Buffy brought her right knee up three times, smashing into the vampire's solar plexus, then stepped back, raising her left arm and allowing Liz to fall to her knees. The Slayer took out her second stake. Liz looked up at her, tears running down her face, hand clutching the stake that protruded from her neck.

"Man," she whispered in a voice thick with pain and blood, "you're a bitch."

Buffy stabbed forward. "Ain't that the truth," she whispered to the pile of dust. She crawled back over the hedge and walked a few yards before she bent at the waist and threw up.

***

"Hang on, Mr. Boots." Staci Madison hurried across the kitchen. She was just a couple of steps from the back door when the scratching stopped. She opened the door, but no Mr. Boots was waiting.

"Mr. Boots? Mr. Boots?" she called into the night. The dog was probably somewhere out by the fence; that was where he usually went if his entreaties to be let in weren't immediately answered. Staci looked around again, willing her eyes to penetrate the inky darkness. It did no good. She thought about going back for her slippers, but what harm could there be in a quick jaunt across the lawn in bare feet? Her breath sucked in as she stepped into the grass; the dew was beginning to form and the moisture surprised her. She headed toward the big tree in the southwest corner of the yard. As she drew closer, she saw a large, dark bulk underneath its branches.

"Mr. Boots," she said, "what are you doing under that big old tree?" She extended one hand as she drew closer.

The shape launched itself from the ground, and Staci had just enough time to think, 'That's not Mr Boots' before it hit her and bore her to the ground. Mr. Boots huddled at the corner of the house and whined pitifully as his master died.

***

Xander Harris was fast asleep and dreaming. In his dream, he was at a gymnastics competition, and Amy Yip was about to perform on the pommel horse. Suddenly, a bell tolled, and he was in a boxing ring. Amy was in the opposite corner, pounding her gloves together. He was trying to figure out the sudden change when his dream self turned and said, "It's the phone, stupid."

"Hhngggghhh," he grunted as he shook himself awake. The phone was ringing. Better answer it before the bell woke up his parents. He fumbled the handset off its cradle and managed to whack himself in the head before getting it to his ear.

"H'lo," he mumbled.

"Xander?"

He blinked and sat up in bed. "Yeah, Cor, what's up?"

"Were you asleep?"

He blinked and rubbed his eyes, trying to focus on the clock. "What? No, it's only... one-thirty."

There was a long silence. Xander was about to doze off when her voice crackled in his ear.

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have called."

"No, no, it's okay. Um... what's up?"

Another pause, not as long. "I, uh... Could I see you?"

He swung his feet onto the floor. "Yeah, first thing at school."

"No, I mean right now."

"Uhhhh...." The sand finally trickled out of his head. "I guess so." He started to hang up the phone.

"Xander?"

He brought the phone back up. "Yeah?"

"Thank you." He hung up the phone very slowly, trying to identify what he'd heard in her voice.

Ten minutes later her Sebring pulled up in front of his house, where he stood shivering on the sidewalk. He ducked into the passenger seat.

"Do your parents mind?" she asked.

"Right," he said. "Like they even woke up." He finished buckling up and turned to her.

Cordelia wore a sweatshirt and blue jeans. Of course, the sweat shirt probably ran about $200, and the jeans another C-bill, but for her, it was definitely dressed down. Her eyes were red around the edges. Probably no sleep for her, either. She stepped on the gas and the car pulled away from the curb.

"Soooooo," he said. "Scavenger hunt?"

Cordelia took a deep breath and swallowed. "I thought we might go to that diner on Woodland, the one that's open all night."

Xander frowned. "How do you even know about Ziggy's?"

"Scavenger hunt."

He nodded. "Listen, not that I'm complaining about your irresistible need to see me, but what gives?"

Cordelia remained focused on the road. "I just needed to see you. Is that bad?"

Xander searched for something to say. "I guess not" was the best he could do.

They pulled into the parking lot of Ziggy's, an island of fluorescent glare in the sea of darkness, the early morning fog that often drifted through Sunnydale cloaking the converted Airline trailer in a diffuse silver glow. They climbed the wooden steps. Xander held the door. Cordelia turned left and went to the farthest booth, which wasn't that far. The diner held one other customer, a man who slouched on a stool at the far end of the counter. Xander slid onto the cracked vinyl seat across from Cordelia as the waitress came up.

"What'll it be?" she asked, pencil poised above her pad.

"Tea," Cordelia said in a hoarse whisper.

"Coke?" Xander said.

"Wow, lemme write that down, I might forget it," the waitress said, slipping her pad into a pocket in her apron. Xander threw a smile her way as she left, then turned back to Cordelia.

She stared down at the tabletop, hands in her lap. Xander opened his mouth, thought seriously about what he might say, then decided that being quiet was his best option. When Cordelia looked up at him, her face looked like it was scraped raw.

"Sorry for waking you up," she said.

He shrugged. "Hey, I was getting up in six hours anyway." She nodded. "So, listen," he began "why--"

"Xander," she said. "Could we just... be here?"

Their drinks came. They drank in silence. The other customer finished his meal, left a scattering of coins on the counter, and paid his bill. After he left, the waitress wiped down the counter with a towel. Xander fiddled with the straw in his empty glass.

"Ready to go?" he asked. Cordelia nodded. As they reached the bottom of the steps, Xander looped his arm around her and pulled her close. They walked to the car that way.

He got out in front of his house and leaned down, looking at her profile in the green reflected light from the dash. "You okay?" he asked. A small nod was her reply. "Well then, I'll see you at school tomorrow." He started to straighten.

"Xander." He ducked back down at the sound of her voice. She was still staring through the windshield. "Thank you," she said.

"For what?"

"For caring enough to get out of bed. For, uh..." She coughed. "...being you."

He attempted a joke. "Okay, who are you, and what have you done with Cordelia?"

Her head turned and her eyes locked onto his. "I mean it."

He nodded, considering this statement carefully. "Well, you'd be surprised how easy it is for me to be me. Be careful going home, okay?" He stood up and closed the car door. He remained there at the curb, watching the car until its taillights disappeared around a corner.

"Boy," he said to himself as he turned toward his home, "that was obtuse bordering on incoherent."

***
The Sunnydale Police Station was experiencing major overload. Officers dashed back and forth in an attempt at using organization to get a handle on the previous night's carnage. Pilar and Nunley wound through the ruckus, stopping and starting more than once. They finally exited into a cool, bright morning, as though nature had decided to mock last night's horror.

Pilar put her hands on her hips, looking back over her shoulder at the concrete and glass building. "I don't know what the hell is going on here, Nun, but it makes the Crips and Bloods look like a game of Red Rover."

Nunley took off his baseball cap and rubbed a hand over his hair, which was thick and chestnut-colored. "Maybe we oughta pull in our horns on this one."

She shook her head. "Quit? No way! That word is not in my vocabulary."

Nunley shrugged. "It's in mine. You can borrow it if you want."

Pilar pulled back, looking down her nose at her camera operator. "You going chicken on me, Nun?"

A heavy sigh escaped him. "Look, I know you got some image of yourself as Nancy Drew, crusading girl reporter, so I'm gonna let that last remark pass. Point is, people got killed in this town last night." He shook his head. "We're out of our league here."

"Is that some kind of comment on my professionalism?" Pilar's eyes narrowed.

Nunley's eyes rolled. "No. You're always professional. But this is heavy, heavy stuff. This isn't some actor in rehab."

"Are you quitting on me, Nun? Because I can get another cameraman."

Nunley scowled. "No, I'm not quitting on you. We're a team. I just think we should be really careful about where we step."

She turned to him, clenched fists together in front of her body. "Nun, this story could jump me up to network. I can feel it. There's something weird here. I mean, look at that principal."

Nunley looked at the ground, then at her, a rueful expression on his face. "So I guess we're going back to the school."

She slapped him on the upper arm. "Let's go."

***

Buffy scowled at the textbook on the table in front of her. Her chin was supported by her fists, her elbows were supported by her knees, and the rest of her was supported by one of the hideous chairs in the student lounge.

"Hey, El Buffo." She looked up as Xander and Cordelia settled onto the sofa. That made the day complete-- Cordy snuggled in tight against him. "Busy night?" Xander continued.

Buffy made a sour face. "You could say that."

Xander rubbed his chin with the back of his fingers. "Buzz is that fifteen people bought it last night. Would we know anything about that?"

"Could be."

"God," Cordelia said, "no one's safe even with you around."

Buffy closed her eyes. It was far too early in the morning to feel so weary. "Thank you so much, Cordelia. I had one last shred of self-worth that I just couldn't get rid of, but you've taken care of it."

"So, I take it the dentally challenged crowd was involved?" Xander asked.

The Slayer nodded. "And how."

Xander shook his head. "Say hello to the new boss, same as the old boss."

Buffy blinked, surprised at hearing her own words again. "Yeah, well," she said, getting up and shoving the book into her backpack, "I won't get fooled again. I need to see Giles."

The librarian was cataloguing books when Buffy walked through the door.

"Heard about last night?" she asked.

Giles looked up at her. "Yes. It sounds rather grisly."

"That's one way of describing it. 'Slaughter' would be another."

Giles placed his books on the counter and motioned for Buffy to follow him into the office. Inside the tiny space, he sat at the desk and removed his glasses.

"I've managed to garner some information about Trick. There isn't much. He's only been a vampire a short time, less than twenty years."

Buffy shook her head. "For a baby, he's got a pretty sharp bite."

Giles sighed. "Vampires are very... traditional. One doesn't become powerful until he or she has been around for some time. Even Spike, as dangerous as he was, wasn't a particularly powerful figure before he arrived at the Hellmouth."

"So what's your point?"

Giles hesitated, searching for the right phrasing. "For Trick to become this prominent in such a short time, he must possess special... attributes. From what I've been able to piece together, he's organized, technologically aware, and extraordinarily ruthless, even by demon standards."

"Wow." Buffy took a moment to let this sink in. "So, what was he before... you know."

Giles rubbed the bridge of his nose. "He was in mergers and acquisitions with some Wall Street firm."

"Great." Buffy's voice was dry. "A vampire with an MBA. Now I'm truly frightened."

"It is a changing world," Giles said, putting on his glasses and standing.

"Not changing that much," Buffy said.

***

The window in the door to Principal Snyder's office was covered by a set of mini-blinds. He was hiding behind those blinds, lifting a corner from time to time and peeking out at the reception area. That woman and her fat, camera-toting accomplice were still there. Snyder checked his watch again. How long would he have to wait?

Pilar and Nunley looked up as a man came through the door connecting to the hall. For a split-second the noise and bustle of the school intruded into the office, then the door closed, restoring the room to silence.

The newcomer wore a dark suit, white shirt and a navy-and-gold striped tie. His bearing was dignified, but not haughty. His face was unreadable as he crossed to them.

"Hello," he said, extending a hand. A smile warmed his features. "My name is Mr. Quisling. I'm the public information officer for the Sunnydale Public School System. I would like to apologize to you for this delay, but miscommunication between offices does occur sometimes."

Pilar stood, accepting the proffered hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you, but I'm here to see Principal Snyder."

Mr. Quisling waved a hand, dismissing her comment. "I'm sorry, but the principal will simply not be able to meet with you today."

She began to protest. "But--"

"In his place, I would like to make myself available to answer any questions you might have." Quisling smiled, smooth as butterscotch pudding. "I've made lunch reservations for us. I hope that will be acceptable."

Caught off guard, Pilar could only say, "Well, yes, but--"

"Excellent." Quisling went to the door and paused, his hand on the knob. "I only have one condition."

"Wait a minute." She scowled. "I don't do conditions."

Quisling held up a placating hand. "This is so minor, I'm embarrassed to mention it, but the restaurant I've chosen is a rather dignified establishment. I'm afraid your friend's camera would not be welcome. No offense." He inclined his head toward Nunley, who shrugged. Quisling continued. "I assure you that I will answer any and all questions to your satisfaction, for attribution, and will be glad to arrange a follow-up interview, at which time I will be more than happy to appear on camera."

Pilar wanted to protest, but she could find no real grounds. She turned to Nunley. "What about it?" she asked.

He shrugged. "Hey, okay by me. I'll get some work done, grab a burger somewhere."

She smiled. "Thanks Nun," she whispered. "You're the best."

"That's what all the ladies tell me." He hoisted himself off the couch and headed for the exit. Quisling held the door as Nunley, then Pilar left the office. Just before he pulled the door closed, Quisling inclined his head slightly in the direction of the office door.

Snyder exhaled, body drooping with the release of pent-up tension. Now he could get to work on those budget requests.

***

"Are you trying to say that the death rate among Sunnydale High students is nothing out of the ordinary?" Pilar couldn't even pretend to keep the skepticism out of her face.

Quisling dabbed his mouth with a napkin and shook his head. "It's a tragedy when any young person loses their life. I'm simply saying that you're looking for conspiracies that don't exist."

"Mr. Quisling, a child in the Sudan has a better chance of reaching eighteen than a student at your school."

He smiled, accompanied by a rueful shake of his head. "Ms. Cruz, I'm absolutely certain that you are exaggerating."

She tried to glare but couldn't hold it. "Okay, I am. But not much."

"I understand how you could think that there was a story here, but there really isn't, at least not of the sort you're searching for."

"Then what sort of story is there?"

He spread his hands, a regretful expression on his face. "Unfortunately, we have a very high level of gang activity in Sunnydale. Abnormally high. As you can imagine, we're not proud of it. We have also noticed a sharp increase in methamphetamine use among students, a terrible phenomenon that is not limited to our school. I think that these two factors can explain what you choose to refer to as 'the high death rate.'" Finished with his explanation, he sipped his wine.

Pilar smiled. "Mr. Quisling, that is the most evenly spread layer of bullshit I've ever encountered."

He almost did a spit take. "Excuse me?"

She shook her head. "Sunnydale has more gang activity than LA? Sorry, but most gangs have some sort of racial affiliation, and Sunnydale is so white it makes 'Friends' look like 'Martin.' Meth? Maybe if a bunch of bikers were offing each other, but you've got a city-wide situation here. If you actually believe what you just told me, then you've got bigger problems than I thought." She drained her glass, wiped her mouth, tossed her napkin onto the table, and stood. "I may have been born at night, but it wasn't last night."

Quisling watched her leave the restaurant. As the door closed behind her, he pulled his phone from his pocket and punched in a number.

***

Willow closed the door of the counselor's office and shook her head. She hustled down the hallway, trying to put distance between her and Ms. Dortmann's inner sanctum. She turned the corner just in time to see Buffy and Giles coming out of the library. A look of delight bloomed on the Slayer's face when she spied Willow.

"Hey, Will, what's up?" she said.

The redhead threw a look over her shoulder. "Not a lot. The grief-counseling teams have set up shop."

Giles sipped from his coffee cup. "Grief-counseling teams?"

Buffy waved a hand. "In case anyone needs to 'talk' after last night's hemoglobin hoedown."

Willow made a face. "They're pretty much de rigeur. Ms. Dortmann's trying to get me to see them."

"You? Why you?" Buffy cringed. "Oh, Will, was someone you knew...?"

Willow shook her head. "No. Mrs. Dortmann is just worried that my shy, retiring nature masks a potential parking lot sniper."

Giles looked offended. "Why, that's positively ghoulish."

Willow shrugged. "Oh, she thinks you're a prime candidate too, Giles." She turned to Buffy. "Walk and talk?"

"Why not?"

They strolled away, leaving Giles standing there with a stunned look on his face.

***

"Okay." Mr. Trick spoke into the headset. "Thanks for calling." He reached down and broke the connection, turning to Delilah. "Could we find out what the hell is going on around here? I said that nobody moves without my orders."

Delilah chose her words with great care. "And everyone swears that they obeyed. No one went free-lance."

Trick took in a deep breath and held it, allowing the unused air to spill out of him slowly. "If that's true, then we have an unforeseen variable in our equation." He turned to Delilah, a sly smile on his face. "Life never gets dull, do it?"

She shrugged. "Life did. Death doesn't."

***

"Why so distant?" Willow asked.

"Do I seem distant?" Buffy frowned.

"Not to anyone else, but to my Buffywise eye, you seem distant."

Buffy looked around. Students streamed past, headed for sixth period, which would start in about two minutes. She tugged Willow toward one of the pillars, out of the main current.

"Last night," she said, lowering her voice, "I killed a vamp in somebody's back yard."

"Which is as it should be," Willow said. "Unless it's in my back yard. On vampires, I'm strictly of the NIMBY persuasion."

"I got two the night before."

"You've bagged two before, although it's usually without this many qualms." Willow shifted her books.

Buffy shook her head. "That's not the point. Will, I felt something that I've never felt before." She searched for the right words. "I think... I think I wanted to kill them."

Willow was baffled. "That's the gig."

Buffy's frustration surged. "No, that's not what I mean. It's... She grabbed me. I thought it was just close quarters, but I've thought about it, and... I'm not sure I didn't want her to grab me."

That got Willow's attention. "Whoa. Again?"

"I didn't just dust her. I dished out some real punishment, and when it was over--" Buffy closed her eyes. When she opened them, Willow felt her heart catch. "When it was over, I felt really, really good."

"Wow." Willow leaned back against the post. "You mean, good like 'I did a good thing' or good like 'That was a good nap?'"

"More like 'Oooooh, that was really gooooood.'"

Willow's eyes widened. "Oh my," she said. The bell rang; students began to vanish from the hall. "Buffy, we have to talk about this."

Buffy hitched up her backpack and looked squarely into her best friend's eyes. "I don't like this, Will. It's one thing to be the Slayer. I don't want to enjoy it."

***

"Hey, Oz, I got an idea, man." Devon ran a hand through his hair. "You know how we got that gig at Marcy's party next week?"

Oz concentrated on opening his locker. "Mmmm-hmmm" was his only reply.

"Well, I was thinking, why don't we see if Trey can play with us?"

Oz went two digits past the proper number on his lock. His fist balled and his eyes closed. He took a deep breath, opened his eyes and began again. He spoke to Devon while he twirled the dial.

"I'm not sure that's a good idea. I don't want to break up his band."

"No prob." Devon stuffed his hands in his pockets, a big grin on his face. "They don't have any gigs for the rest of this month." He lowered his voice. "Besides, I don't think they'll be together much longer. I mean, they suck, man."

Oz pulled his books out and stood up. "If that's what you want, it's cool with me."

Devon literally jumped up and down. "Cool. When I run into Trey, I'll tell him we want him to sit in." He shambled away down the hall. Oz watched him, teeth clenched and eyes narrowed.

***

"He actually had the balls to try and tell me that crystal meth is behind this. Tell me, Nun, do I have 'stupid' written on my face?"

Nunley shook his head, keeping his eyes on the street. "Not on your face."

She threw him a glare. "Thank you so much." She rubbed her forehead. "So, where are we? We've got a town that's a war zone, a high school principal who runs whenever he sees us coming, and somebody who claims to be the PIO trying to pedal a steaming load of fertilizer."

"Soooo, are you pissed because you think he lied to you or because you can't get a handle on this story that you're convinced is right under our noses?"

"Maybe we aren't digging deep enough."

"Excuse me?" Nunley pulled the van over to the side of the road and put it in park. "Listen, we've only been in this town a couple of days, and I'm already lookin' over my shoulder. I thought this was going to be an in-and-out, get some quotes, a little footage, bam, four minutes."

Pilar banged her fists on the dash in frustration. "But don't you want to know what's going on here? Don't you want to know the truth?"

Nunley shook his head as he put the van in gear and checked his mirrors. "The truth is that I'm a fat guy with blood pressure you could surf on. The truth is this place gives me the willies."

"Okay, how about this?" Pilar looked out the windshield. "Whatever's going on here, it's connected to the night. Let's go back to the motel, get some sleep, we'll go out after dark and see what we can find. How about it?"

Nunley's voice was as dark as his mood. "How long are you gonna hang onto this?"

Pilar waved her hands in the air. "If we don't have anything by tomorrow night, we'll fold the tent and use what we got, okay?"

Nunley was silent for a moment. "Tonight and tomorrow night, right?" he asked.

"Uh-huh."

"And we bail if we got nothin'?"

"My hand to God."

"Okay," Nunley grumbled at last. "I'll give you that much."

"Thanks Nun," Pilar said, smiling.

***

"I'm really worried about her, Giles." Willow followed the librarian across the room to the cage. "I've called an emergency meeting of the Slayerettes."

"The... Have the four of you actually given yourselves a name?" Giles selected three volumes from a box and went back toward the desk, Willow still in tow. "How very American," he observed.

"It's highly unofficial," she said. "The point is, something's wrong with Buffy."

Giles placed the books on the desk and turned his full attention to Willow. "Willow, I know that you are Buffy's best friend, and I know that your concern is genuine, but I must say that I've never seen Buffy more serious about her duties."

"And that's what's wrong!" Willow's voice climbed. "This is Buffy! She's supposed to slack. She's supposed to coast on natural ability. Instead, she's training like crazy and practically running out the door to patrol. Doesn't this bother you?"

"Let's see, Willow, I am the Watcher, charged with guiding the Slayer. No, her new-found dedication does not trigger alarm bells." He pulled one of the books onto the desk and opened it. "Perhaps, after all that happened during the summer, she has decided to take her calling seriously."

"Or disappear into it." Willow frowned.

"Excuse me?"

Willow's timid expression vanished. She set her mouth in a firm line. "I think Buffy's hiding in her... her Slayerness. And that's bad. The only way for Buffy to be RoboSlayer is to quit being Buffy. Is that what you want?"

"Excuse me, Miss Rosenberg, but when did you receive your license to practice psychology?"

Willow's eyes widened and her mouth dropped open. "Ooh, ooh, that is just so... reprehensible," she said, jabbing her index finger toward him. "Besides, I know lots about psychology. My mom's a psychologist, remember?"

Giles stared at her. The sheer, indignant fury radiating from the slender girl took him aback. "I'm sorry, Willow. You're right, that was juvenile. Please forgive me."

"Well... okay." Willow took a deep breath. "I'm sorry that I had to be so harsh, but you were being very stubborn."

"Yes," Giles agreed, "we've established that I was a great, stupid prat. Now, what are the nature of your concerns about Buffy? I promise that I will listen seriously."

"She told me this afternoon that she's starting to like the Slaying. I don't mean being the Slayer, I mean the killing part of it."

Giles frowned. "That would be cause for concern."

Willow rushed on, taking advantage of this window in Giles' attention. "I don't think she means it, not deep down. I just think it's an easy place to hide. I mean, she killed Angel, or worse, then when she comes back, what's the first thing that happens? That whole demon crossing in the cave thing, then that vampire in the Bronze thing, and now, now we find out about Mr. Trick?" Willow thrust out her hands, palms up. "Do you see where I'm going, Giles?"

"I think I do." Giles leaned on the desk, supporting his weight on his crossed arms. "Buffy's in a great deal of emotional turmoil, and slaying is one part of her life that she finds clear and unambiguous."

"Plus it's all anyone needs from her." Willow made a disgusted noise at Giles' clueless expression. "Not really, but that's what it seems like. She picked up right where she left off, and aside from a couple of nights at the Bronze where we kind of ran into each other, that's all she's done."

Giles squinted, still unsure of Willow's destination. "I see your point, but I'm also guessing you have some sort of solution in mind."

Willow nodded once. "Darn tootin'. That's why we're having a meeting without Buffy. I've already talked to her mom. We're all having dinner at Buffy's house tonight, all of us, and it's a surprise for her."

"Willow, you can't just throw something like this together."

"Oh, Giles, get with the program. It's not like it's a formal dance, and I've been planning it for a while. We just didn't have a date, and I thought tonight would be good."

Giles thought about it for a moment. An evening that had nothing to do with vampires; it was actually a good idea. "Well, then, what do you need from me?"

"Are you guys training after school?" When Giles nodded, Willow said, "Keep her just a little late, then drive her home."

"I can certainly do that," Giles said. "Do I need to bring anything?"

"Giles," Willow said, serious, "I've seen your kitchen. Just drive her home."

***

Joyce Summers hurried to the kitchen door. Opening it, she saw Cordelia standing there, a large covered bowl in her hands.

"Come in," Joyce said, reaching for the bowl. "Let me take that. What is it?"

"I'm the dip," Cordelia said.

"You said that, not me," Xander cracked as he leaned into the refrigerator.

"Xander!" Willow's voice was sharp and commanding. "Do not eat all the food before the guest of honor arrives."

"Well then," he replied, "the guest of honor better get here in a hurry."

***

"Refresh my memory," Nunley said. "Why am I squeezed in here after dark?"

Pilar did not look away from the rear window. "The principal knows more than he's saying. I want to find out what he does outside of school. That may give us an angle to either lean on him or head in another direction."

"Great," Nunley grunted. "I hope the little runt's not a workaholic. I can't stay in here all night."

***

"You know, I could have walked home," Buffy said to Giles as she got out of his Citroen.

"Yes, I'm aware of that, but you've been training very hard," Giles replied.

"Well, thanks," she said. As she walked to the door, Buffy glanced over her shoulder and realized that Giles wasn't pulling away. Oh well, she thought, probably got his cuffs stuck in the pedals. She entered the house, yelling "Mom, I'm home."

"Oh, hello dear." Her mom swept in and kissed her on the cheek. "Dinner's on the table. Why don't you go on in?"

"Okay." Buffy shrugged and went into the dining room.

"Surprise!" Buffy jumped, startled. Willow rushed forward and wrapped her up in a hug. Over the redhead's shoulder, Buffy could see Cordelia, Xander and Oz standing around the table.

"Uh, Will, what is this?" the Slayer said, gently disentangling herself from her friend's embrace.

"This is dinner with your friends. Come on, sit down."

Buffy looked back over her shoulder, just in time to see Giles follow her mom into the dining room. "You knew about this?" the Slayer asked.

A look of utmost innocence graced the Watcher's features. "I only found out about it recently."

***

"Let's go."

Nunley grunted and shifted in his seat, stirring out of the restless sleep into which he'd drifted. Pilar clambered into the passenger seat. Nunley blinked, trying to clear his head as he started the engine.

"Did we find anything?" he asked.

Pilar shook her head. "No. The little troll hasn't so much as shown his face." She sighed. "I know something's here, Nun. I just can't find out what it is."

He cocked his head. "Sometimes finding out is worse than not finding out."

***

Xander tapped on his glass with a fork. As attention turned his way, he stood. "Well, now that we've all enjoyed a lovely meal, it's time for a few words from Willow." He gestured for Willow to rise.

The redhead stood, hands twisting nervously. She had to clear her throat a couple of times before she could start. "We... we wanted to say 'welcome back' to Buffy." She smiled at the Slayer, who returned the love. "So, 'welcome back.' Uh, we wanted you to know that we missed you, and that we're really happy you're back, and it has nothing to do with you being the Slayer." Cordelia made an "eh?" expression, which everyone ignored as Willow continued to speak. "We're glad you're back because you're our friend, and because we missed you." With great difficulty, she swallowed. "It was really hard for us to think about what might have happened to you. We all... I mean, what we felt..." Willow began to cry as she flapped her hands like a bird. "Oh, I suck at speeches. We love you, Buffy, and we're so glad you're back." She sank into her seat as everyone else froze, suspended between laughter and choking up.

Giles cleared his throat. "Perhaps we should hear from the guest of honor."

Buffy looked mortified, but everyone else seemed to like Giles' idea. She stood and looked around at them. "Listen, I just want you guys to know that... what happened had nothing to do with you." Her eyes were shiny. "You guys are the best friends anybody ever had, and this only proves it." As she sat down, Xander began to clap. Everyone joined in.

***

Pilar Cruz dropped the legal pad on the table and picked up a small spiral top-bound notebook. She took a long drink from a bottle of water while she leafed through the pages. Maybe the fourth or fifth reading would help it make sense.

The knock at the door broke her concentration. Tossing the notebook down, she opened the door as far as the chain would allow. Nunley stood in the hallway, hands in his pockets, a bland expression on his face. She undid the chain and opened the door.

"Yeah?" she said.

"I'm gonna go get a beer and a sandwich, then gas up the van. Thought I'd let you know."

"Okay, thanks." She began to close the door and he turned to go. She opened the door again and stuck her head into the hallway. "Hey, Nun, thanks for sticking it out on this one. I mean it."

He squinched up one eye. "Ah, what else am I gonna do? I'll check in when I get back."

She nodded and closed the door.

***

Giles handed the last plate to Joyce, who placed it in the proper cabinet. She turned just as Giles flipped the dish towel over his shoulder.

"Well," she said as she took in Giles rolled-up sleeves and loosened tie, "I like to see a man who knows his way around a kitchen."

"When you've lived alone as long as I have, it's a necessity," he replied.

"Have you always lived alone? I mean, was there ever a Mrs. Giles, or close?"

The Watcher's eyes clouded. "Not really," he said in a strained voice.

"Oh, Rupert, I'm so sorry." Joyce touched him on the arm. "That was such a thoughtless remark."

He shook his head. "I can't expect everyone to walk around on eggshells forever." He took a deep breath. "Let's see what the, uh, the..."

"The kids?" Joyce prompted.

"I know it's silly of me, but I have a hard time seeing them as children," Giles said, tossing the towel onto the cabinet.

"I have a hard time seeing them as anything but," Joyce replied.

They paused in the doorway, looking into the living room. The four students were watching a video of Groundhog Day. Oz and Willow sat side-by-side on the sofa, his arm around her shoulders. Cordelia occupied an armchair. Xander sprawled on the floor beside her, leaning against the chair so that he could hold her hand.

"Where's Buffy?" Joyce asked.

Willow spoke without taking her eyes off the screen. "She went upstairs. She'll be down in a minute."

As though on cue, Buffy came down the stairs. She wore black pants with a red sweater vest over a black T-shirt.

"Buffy?" Joyce said.

"What's up?" Willow asked.

The Slayer shrugged. "I though I'd make a quick patrol. There's plenty of time."

"Why?" Willow got up from the sofa. Oz picked up the remote and turned off the VCR. He was pretty sure no one would watch the rest of the flick.

"I need to. I mean, there's a new bad boy in town. Somebody's got to go get him."

"Well then, let us go with you." Willow looked around at the others. "We'll help."

Under her breath, Cordelia muttered, "What's this 'we' stuff, white man?"

"Honey, are you sure it's a good idea?" Joyce tossed in her two cents.

Buffy looked at her mother. "I won't stay out all night, I promise." She turned to Willow. "Why don't I meet you guys at the Bronze in two hours?" When Willow's resolute face did not soften, Buffy changed to a teasing tone. "Why the frowny? What can I do to put you in a smiley?"

Willow crossed her arms. "At least take Giles with you. And meet us at the Bronze in two hours."

Buffy turned to her Watcher, eyebrows arched in a silent question.

"Of course," he said, turning to Joyce. "Thank you for your hospitality."

"You guys finish watching the movie and I'll see you later." Buffy opened the door. "After you," she said to Giles.

***

"Sorry to drag you out like that," Buffy said as they ambled along the street. "Willow seems to be coming down with a bad case of momitis lately."

"Well, put yourself in her shoes and it's quite understandable," Giles replied. "What if your best friend suffered an emotional trauma, dealt with it by running away, leaving you to worry and cope for three months, then returned and not only resumed but immediately threw herself back into the behavior that led to the whole ordeal?"

"Okay, point taken. But it's not like I'm on the high board threatening to jump into an empty pool."

"If you say so." Giles put his hands in the pockets of his trousers. "But I prefer to see Willow's attitude as commendable."

"Huh," Buffy grunted. "Doesn't sound very Watcherly."

Giles surprised himself by saying, "Yes, well, it's not as though the Council is infallible. Besides," he added in haste, "they haven't been in touch with me much over the summer, and Willow is already your friend."

Buffy watched a cat cross the street. "Are they giving you the cold shoulder?"

"The Council?" Giles glanced at her as they walked. "The Watchers are in something of a state. Kendra is dead, you were missing and technically no longer the Slayer, or at least that's the position some held. Other members believed that you would again be the only One. If you were ever found."

"Tell me about the Watchers."

"What?"

Buffy stopped. Giles went on for a few steps, stopped and looked back at her. She shrugged. "I only met Merrick when I was called, and we didn't exactly get the chance to develop the closest of relationships. Then I moved to Sunnydale and met you. That's the total of my Watcher knowledge."

Giles pushed his glasses up. "Well, I suppose you should know more, but I really wouldn't know where to begin."

"Pick a spot. Bad as I am at history, it won't matter."

Giles sighed. "Very well." They began to walk again. "The Watcher's Council is an ancient brotherhood--"

"How ancient?"

"Very ancient. Where was I? Oh yes, an ancient brotherhood sworn to identify, train and guide the Slayer."

"How do they do that?" Buffy picked up a pebble and tossed it across the street.

"There is an entire department at our headquarters devoted to the identification and verification of each new Slayer."

"Is that why Kendra was with her Watcher since she was a kid?"

Giles rubbed his chin. "We are able to identify candidates. Sometimes. We don't know who the actual Slayer is until... Well, until the present Slayer..."

"Shuffles off to Buffalo?" Buffy chuckled, but it was a mirthless sound. "So, what Slayer holds the longevity trophy?"

"There was a Slayer in the eighteenth century who lived to be thirty-two. Her Watcher was Aidan Kelly." Giles voice changed as he said the name.

Buffy noticed. "Is he some kind of big Watcher hero-legend guy?"

"Indeed. Aidan Kelly is probably the greatest Watcher ever, certainly the titan of the last three hundred years. He was Irish, a crack shot, expert horseman, bare-knuckle boxing champion, and quite a thinker and inventor."

"Wow. Sounds like a dream date."

"Please. Don't mock me when you belong to a culture that venerates an eighteen-year-old actress whose main claim to fame is her willingness to remove her top."

"Ouch. Bitchy." Buffy smiled. "I'm sorry if I sounded snotty. Tell me more, oh please do."

Giles walked a ways in silence, trying to pretend his dignity was wounded, but vanity proved stronger. "Much of our present organization and procedures were developed by Kelly. After his Slayer was killed, he continued his personal battle against the forces of darkness well into his old age."

"What was her name?"

"Who?" Giles closed his eyes, amazed at his own stupidity. Opening them before he stumbled, he attempted an apology. "Buffy, I'm terribly sorry, I--"

"It's okay," she said. "I don't know the names of all the Watchers."

"No, that was in--"

She cut him off. "Giles, keep walking. Something's just up ahead of us, to the right. When I say 'Now', follow me. Got it?"

"What? I--"

"Now!" She broke ahead of him and sprinted to the right. Giles stared after her for a moment, dumbfounded, then began to chase after her.

***

Nunley pulled the van into a parking space in front of the motel. If he could make it through tomorrow, everything would be okay. He could go home, which was all right with him. This had been a bust from the word 'go.' He just wanted out.

He opened the door, pushing the lock button as he eased out of the driver's seat. He leaned back across the seat, picking up his log book. It had slipped under the passenger seat and he was forced to lean far forward, teetering on his belly, feet waving in the air, to reach it. "Ah," he grunted as his fingers closed around the black vinyl, his feet swinging back to terra firma. He stood in the V of the open door, back to the parking lot, as he took off his cap to wipe his forehead.

"Hey," someone said behind him. Nunley half-turned and the door caught him just to the right of his nose. It was slammed with enough force to crack his cheekbone and open a vertical gash through his eyebrow. He flopped backward, the seat catching him in the middle of his back. He bent backward, then the recoil tossed him forward. His head swam with pain as a hand caught him by the front of his shirt. He was yanked to the left and slammed back against the side of the van. Blinking through the blood flowing into his right eye, he tried to focus on who- or whatever was holding him.

Which was a very, very bad idea, because compared to this face, the piercing pain in his head and the dull ache in his back were the sweet kisses of youth. Maybe it was the effects of the concussion, maybe his depth perception was off because his right eye was basically useless, but Nunley could swear this face wasn't human. A large hand gripped the top of his skull, and Nunley felt his head twisted back and to the side, and then a long moment of sharp, burning agony.

Why couldn't we go home yesterday, was his last mortal thought.

***

Giles ran as fast as he could, feeling very large, old and out of shape. He was managing to follow the same route as Buffy, mainly by keeping his eyes on the red dot of her sweater in the distance. Their chase had led them into this residential area. Giles supposed that they had run at least two miles, although he could not be sure, since he had gone into oxygen deficit within two hundred yards.

Far ahead of him, he saw a dark figure clamber over a security fence. Seconds later, Buffy vaulted over. Giles came to a puffing stop, staring at the close-set pine boards. He looked right, then left. No gates. This was the fence that formed the boundary of the development. With a weary sigh, he jumped as high as he could and caught the top of the fence, struggling to pull himself over. As he balanced on top of the barrier, head over and feet dangling, he prayed that no one chose that moment to look out their window. Then he toppled over, feeling the sleeve of his jacket catch on the top of the fence. With a ripping sound, he fell to the ground, landing on his back. He got to his feet, listening. He stood in an undeveloped piece of property, surrounded by trees. Sounds of bodies crashing through the brush came from ahead. He followed them.

***

Pilar hit the 'mute' button when she heard the knock at the door. No need for Nunley to know that she was watching Home Improvement. She made sure the door was on its chain, then opened it, saying, "I think--"

The door exploded inward, the chain ripped out of its moorings and flung across the room, whirling through the air to land on the bed. Pilar flew backwards, landing on her butt and sliding to a stop against the far wall. Stunned, she shook her hair out of her face and said, "Shit, Nun, what..." Her voice died in her throat as she saw the three figures advancing toward her.

Nunley's words kept echoing in her head: "We're out of our league here."

***

Buffy come out of the trees and stopped. Whatever she'd been chasing, it was gone, lost in the brush, probably. She looked around, attempting to orient herself. She was standing on the edge of a parking lot. This was one of the commercial areas at the edge of Sunnydale-chain motels, franchise restaurants, office superstores.

Giles appeared at her side, huffing and puffing. "Did you... did you catch it?" he gasped.

She shook her head. "Lost it. But look at that." She pointed across the parking lot. In the security lights' glow, Giles could make out a white minivan.

"So?"

She looked at him, grim. "Door's open. Dome light's on." She started across the lot toward it. Giles grimaced, but followed. They were still some yards away when the body became visible.

"Is that...?" Giles asked.

Buffy nodded. "Camera guy." She looked down at the corpse, then at the motel. Without a word to Giles, she dashed toward the building.

She pushed through the doors. The desk was ahead to the left. Night clerk wouldn't be any help, though. That gaping hole in his throat pretty much told the tale. Buffy jumped over the desk. The dead clerk was in front of the computer. Buffy used a toe to roll the chair away, then looked at the monitor. A guest's name flashed on the blue screen: Cruz, 422. Buffy jumped back over the desk, heading for the elevator alcove. Both cars were on the top floor. Neither moved from that position. She pushed through the door to the stairwell and climbed.

She came out on the fourth floor. A quick glance at the elevators explained why they were stuck here. Dead bodies sprawled across the threshold were a good way to keep the doors from closing. She looked at the wall signs, oriented herself and sprinted down the hallway to her right, stakes in hand.

422 was the last room on the left. Buffy skidded to a halt in the doorway and felt her stomach roll.

There were three of them, turning at the sound of her arrival. The body of Pilar Cruz was splayed against the far wall like a broken doll. Blood pooled beneath the cooling form. Buffy had seen vampire work, but she had never seen mutilation like this before. One of the vamps squatted, trailing a hand through the puddle and scooping it up to his mouth.

"Mmmmm," he moaned, "this is good stuff."

The Slayer launched herself through the door. The closest vamp stepped toward her, a sadistic smile on his face as he anticipated snapping her neck. The smile disappeared as she ducked underneath his grab and buried the stake in her right hand in his chest. An expression of profound confusion crossed his face milliseconds before he dissolved into powder.

The remaining demons learned from their comrade's mistake. They stepped apart, trying to get on either side of her. Buffy glanced back and forth. There wasn't much space in the motel room. The bed took up most of the area. She was in the narrow corridor between the it and the dresser. The vamps looked at each other and nodded, confident that with the element of surprise lost, she was easy picking.

Buffy dropped her stakes and reached to her left. The TV was bolted to the top of the dresser, but Slayer strength rendered that academic. She yanked it free, bolts screeching as they pulled out of the particle board, and in one smooth motion heaved it at the nearest vamp. Shock registered on his face as the twenty-five inch Magnavox caught him square in the chest.

Buffy didn't see it. She dropped to the floor, grabbing her stakes and rolled behind the bed. Coming up in a crouch, she could see the third vamp across the bed from her. He looked a little confused and tenative. The Slayer tucked forward, rolling onto the bed. As she came out of the flip, she pushed off the bed with all her strength and kicked out. Both feet caught the vampire in the chest, driving him into the wall with enough force that the drywall cracked. He bounced off, right onto the stake. As he decomposed, Buffy turned.

The surviving vampire finished extricating himself from the rubble of the television set. His face was bloody in three or four places; bits of glass from the screen peppered his skin. As the Slayer took a step toward him, he took the one chance he saw and bolted from the room.

Buffy gave chase, but her recent exertions allowed him to stay ahead of her down the hallway. She was dimly aware of voices and doors opening as she banged open the stairwell door. The vamp was vaulting down whole flights in his panic, and had actually increased his lead. He was already through the doors when Buffy entered the lobby.

She saw Giles lying in the parking lot, and her heart jumped up into her throat, but her Watcher pulled himself to a sitting position and rubbed the back of his head. "Pillock!" he spat, then saw he standing there. "That way," he said, pointing to his left.

"Are you okay?" she asked, crouching beside him.

"Yes!" he said, pushing her away. "It's a bump on the head. Get him."

The vamp was already a third of the way across the parking lot, but on open ground he didn't have a chance. Buffy closed the gap. He was making for the trees. She would catch him before he could.

She was within a few yards of her quarry, when a figure came streaking in from her right. It hit the vampire at waist level, knocking him off his feet. Buffy had a fleeting impression of dark hair and pale skin. She came to a sliding halt as they rolled a few feet, then separated.

The vampire staggered up, shaking his head. The other figure popped up, perfectly balanced. Buffy realized it was a girl. The interloper sized up the stunned vampire, then let loose a spinning roundhouse kick that twirled him like a top. As he spun to face her again, she drove the heel of her hand up under his chin. The vamp's feet actually left the ground and he arced through the air to land on the asphalt with a heavy thud.

"Hey," the girl said to Buffy, gesturing at the stakes she held, "mind if I borrow one of those?"

Mute with surprise, Buffy tossed one of the stakes. The dark-haired girl caught it cleanly and in one deft motion dispatched the vamp. Standing, she raked a hand through her hair, pulling it back from her face. She flipped the stake over and held it toward Buffy, handle out.

"You must be Buffy," she said. "I'm Faith."

"Giles," Buffy called over her shoulder, "I think you better come over here."

***

"She said she'd be here in two hours. It's been over two hours and she's not here." Willow craned her neck, trying to see the entrance to the Bronze.

Oz patted her hand. "Two hours and ten minutes. Little too early to panic." He tilted his head to one side. "Maybe we should dance."

Willow shook her head. They were sitting on one of the sofas, with the dance floor between them and the door. Xander and Cordelia were dancing, hidden from sight in the whirl of bodies as the Bronze rocked to the rhythms of DJ Tigre. DJ Tigre was actually Lorenzo Maxwell, the biggest student at Sunnydale High. Lorenzo stood six-seven and weighed somewhere north of three-twenty. Even if people didn't like his crossfades, they seldom made an issue of it.

The song ended, giving the dancers a break. Cordelia and Xander vacated the floor, slipping through the gaps between the other couples. As they came into the open space around the dance floor, Cordelia lifted the shoulders of her shirt and flapped the fabric, trying to create a breeze.

"Hot out there?" Oz asked.

"I blame in on the combination of poor ventilation and overcrowding." Xander slumped on the couch, hair plastered to his head.

Cordelia frowned at Willow. "Why are you so jumpy?"

"Buffy's not here yet."

Xander tore himself away from his examination of the way Cordy's sweat-soaked silk shirt had molded itself to her. "Will, it's a little early to hit the panic button."

"Besides," Oz murmured, nodding across the dance floor, "here she comes now." They all turned to look.

"And she's not alone," Xander said.

"Ugh," Cordelia grunted. "Look at those pants. I didn't know you could puke velvet."

"They are, um, colorful," Willow offered.

"Guys," Buffy said as she walked up to them, "I'd like you to meet Faith. She's the new Slayer." The quartet nodded and said hello, taking in Faith's rainbow-hued hip-huggers and the long-sleeved black jersey top with the shoulder cutouts.

"Oh no," Willow said. "You mean because Kendra died, and you..." Buffy nodded.

Xander shook his head. "That little nap you took is turning into the most troublesome two minutes ever."

Faith hooked a chair away from a nearby table and swung it around. "So you guys know B's the Slayer. That's cool."

"Where are you from?" Willow asked.

"Boston," Faith replied. "Southie."

"Is that where you got those pants?" Cordelia asked.

"So, why Sunnydale?" Oz asked.

"Yeah," Willow continued. "Is Giles going to be your Watcher?"

Faith shook her head and grinned. "Nah."

"Faith's Watcher is Lindsay Maeda," Buffy said. "She's meeting with Giles even as we speak." The crowd began to move back onto the dance floor as Lorenzo cued up a track from the Dust Brothers.

"Hey," Faith said, getting up and looking at Xander, "you wanna dance?"

Xander caught the look Cordelia threw at him. "No, I just got done and I need to rest my, uh, my trick pelvis."

"Cool." Faith turned to Oz. "You?"

"Pass. I'm on the production side, not participation."

She shrugged. "Whatever." She scanned the floor. "Looks like there's plenty of choices." She winked and walked away. Cordelia elbowed Xander in the ribs.

"Could you leer a little less openly?" she asked in a tart voice.

"Uh, yeah, I'll try," he replied. Faith tapped a guy on the shoulder and said something in his ear. He looked startled, then nodded. Within seconds, they were in the thick of the dancers.

Xander watched, open-mouthed. "You know, I was kidding about that trick pelvis, but she may have one." He blinked as Faith shimmied in close to her partner, her legs straddling him. "I can't figure out if she has more vertebrae in her spine than we do, or fewer."

Cordelia grabbed him by the jaw and turned his head toward her. "I'm right here," she said, all mock-sweetness with a razor-blade edge, "and I can hear you."

***

Giles set the tray down on the library table and proceeded to fix himself a cup of tea. Lindsay Maeda watched him, a can of Coke on the table in front of her.

"I'm sorry," Giles said. "I find the ritual comforting."

"It's all right." Lindsay Maeda was very young, very pretty, and Asian. Her black hair, just past collar-length when loose, was pulled back in a short ponytail. She wore a black leather blazer over a collarless white shirt. A ring with a green stone adorned the middle finger of her right hand. "I apologize for not contacting you, but there's been no time."

"Quite all right." Giles sipped his tea and decided it needed more milk. "I am surprised that the Council didn't notify me."

"It's probably not their fault. We didn't know we were coming to Sunnydale and we've been on the move so much, it's been hard for me to stay in touch."

"Yes, about that, Ms. Maeda--"

"Lindsay."

Giles offered a weak smile. "Yes, um, Lindsay. About that, you've been traveling across the country with Faith."

"Yes. We've been following this guy for weeks. I know it's bad news for you, but I'm glad that he's finally come to a stop someplace." She took a drink from her Coke.

"I understand, and I must say that I'm grateful you're here. We've been woefully short of information. Perhaps you can fill in some of the gaps around Mr. Trick."

Lindsay lowered the can from her lips and looked at Giles, puzzlement in her eyes.

"Who?" she asked.

***

Faith was practically humming with energy as they left the Bronze. "So, that's your spot," she said.

"Pretty much everybody's spot," Willow said. "Not a lot of spots in Sunnydale."

Faith nodded. "Still, pretty cool." She nodded.

Willow tried to keep the conversation going. "So, what subjects do you like in school?"

Faith snorted. "Pretty much none of 'em. School sucks."

"There's a sentiment I can get behind," Xander said, grinning.

"Where are you guys staying?" Buffy asked.

Faith shrugged. "Dunno. That's Lindsay's end of the stick. I'm the talent, she's management."

Oz spoke in a low voice. "Does anyone else notice somebody standing over there?" He cut his eyes toward a darkened side street. Buffy rolled her eyes, trying to look without turning her head.

"Good call, Oz," she said, looking around at the Scooby Gang. Xander nodded. Willow swallowed. "I think this is the guy I've been chasing for the past couple of nights," Buffy continued. "Everybody be careful. Don't tangle with him, just keep him in sight."

"These guys help you?" Faith asked. Buffy nodded. "Cool," the brunette Slayer said.

"Okay," Buffy said. "Let's go." They scattered, sprinting across the street. Now they could see movement as the lurking figure turned and ran. The six students gave chase. Buffy smiled grimly. Whoever it was might be able to elude her, but all of them? Not a chance.

They followed the figure through the streets, heading for the park. Buffy felt Faith beside her, matching her stride for stride. The four Scoobies were strung out to the left and right. As they entered the park, they were gaining ground, but not much. They chased it through the playground. Buffy felt a tap on her shoulder. She slowed, looking over at Faith, who pointed at herself, then off to the right. Buffy nodded and pointed left. They split, veering off to their respective sides. Buffy heard their quarry crashing through the brush, and she realized that he was slowing down. She was growing closer. There was a clearing just ahead. With a last burst of speed, she hurtled between two trees, into the glade...

Just as Faith entered from the other side and their prey stumbled in between them. Faith's stake was already out. She grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him around. The stake was already flashing downward when Buffy hit her with a flying tackle at the midsection. Buffy felt Faith forearm thud into her back as they toppled over.

Buffy rolled on over and came up standing, looking back at him. Her eyes burned and her throat closed. Her breath came hard as he stared at her, then turned and ran away. No, she thought, this cannot be true. I do not need this.

"What the hell's the matter with you?" Faith screamed as she got to her feet. Xander, Oz, Cordelia, and Willow came running into the clearing, breathing hard. Faith was up in Buffy's face. Willow saw the look in her best friend's eyes and stepped between them.

"What happened?" she demanded.

"I had the damn vamp in my sights and Buffy pushed me out of the way," Faith shouted, eyes flashing.

"Buffy?" Willow said as she turned to her friend.

Buffy stood there, her face a mask of ravaged despair.

"Angel," she whispered. "It was Angel."

***

End of "The Devil You Know"