by Amanda Ohlin
"...and we've continued to break record temperatures for November this week. It's 95 degrees in Monterey right now, even with the low humidity. This heat wave, coupled with the drought, has become fairly serious, even for this region; several area schools have been closed early under pressure from parents, and state and local officials are considering taking action to regulate water usage. Not that anyone's going to obey them, of course..."
Giles glanced up from the book and steaming cup of tea in front of him. "Would someone please turn that bloody thing off?"
No one moved for several moments. Finally, Xander got to his feet and obeyed, shutting off the small clock radio sitting on the counter in Giles' kitchen. He flopped back down on the couch beside Willow. "You know what every other senior is probably doing right now?"
"Falling down stairs?" Buffy suggested.
"Wandering the streets like a zombie?" Willow added.
Xander sighed at that. "We're probably the only ones dumb enough to be doing research when school is closed," he grumped. "Everybody else gets to go home and crash."
"That's right, Xander," Giles replied, not looking up from the text. "The life is being siphoned out of the teenage population of Sunnydale. So while most of them are probably comatose now, you're awake and alert. Such a pity that you just can't fit in."
Buffy and Willow stared at him. "Okay," Buffy said after a moment. "Sarcasm levels reaching critical. Giles, are you all right?"
"I'm - I'm fine," the Watcher answered. "Everything seems to be piling up, that's all."
A sharp knocking on the door cut any further discussion short. "Stool pigeon's here," Xander announced as Giles got to his feet.
Willow nudged him. "Hush! Don't be rude."
Ignoring them, Giles opened the door. Mike, Oz, and Frank were standing there, and Frank was carrying a familiar-looking box in his hands.
"Hey," Oz greeted, breaking the silence before it could extend into a long, awkward pause. "We come bearing doughnuts."
"Mmm, sugar," Xander exulted as he finished off the chocolate doughnut. "Can't save the world without it."
Buffy smiled. "You can't function without it."
"Found it," Willow announced suddenly, shoving a book over to Giles. "It's a standard power point formation. You take four people with at least some mild psychic talent, pick one as the focus - that's the little person in the center - and the energy that all four generate is focused through him or her."
"Or in this case, through her voice," Giles said thoughtfully, looking over at Frank. "What else do you know about her?"
She's not human. Frank leaned back in his seat, shaking his head. After a few minutes and a few doughnuts, the Slayerettes had become generally comfortable with his mind-speak. I don't know what she is. Even when she goes to feed, I can't get enough of a glimpse of her real form to tell.
That got Buffy's attention. "Feed?"
Frank nodded. Every night, like clockwork. After the show, we drive down to the lake, she takes a swim, lures some poor sucker in, drags him under and that's it. Best glimpse I've seen of her then is scales and claws.
Giles' eyes lit up. "Scales? The lake? If not for the voice, I'd almost think we have a lamia... but perhaps..."
"Giles?" Buffy asked. "Is that an answer forming?"
For answer, Giles thumbed to the right page, laying the book down on the table. "A siren."
"What, like a mermaid?" Mike asked incredulously. "I don't know about you, but I was kind of expecting something nastier the way she glares at people."
"The popular myths about sirens are generally incorrect," Giles answered. "The most accurate is the myth that a siren could lure sailors to their death with her song - and once the hapless victim leapt into the ocean, the siren would assume her true form and devour him."
"Kind of puts a damper on a second date, huh?" Xander joked.
Willow was flipping through a stack of printouts. "Wait a minute. I got some responses on the Wicca message boards. There's a German legend about a woman who threw herself into a river because of her despair over a faithless lover. She was turned into a siren."
"Yes, the legend of Lorelei," Giles answered absently. "Rumor has it the faithless lover was drowned as well in the Rhine, which is why she was cursed." He stopped, realizing what he'd just said.
"Lori. Loretta. Lorelei." Oz retrieved a glazed doughnut from the box. "It all fits."
Frank snorted. Figures. I wouldn't be surprised if she did away with the faithless lover herself.
"Angel said he thought it was the Rhine," Buffy added, all business. "But don't sirens only hypnotize men?"
"Hypnotize, yes," Giles answered. "But this is far more complex than that."
She had it planned out from the beginning, Frank interrupted. First she pulled Molly out of juvie, then ran into Malik. And then Mal suckered me in when I couldn't pay for school.
"Four people, with at least latent psychic ability," Giles finished. "The four elements."
It was Xander who was next to contribute. "That's Fire, Air, Water, and Earth, right?" As Willow nodded, he added, "So who's who?"
Frank shrugged. Never too clear on that. I'd guess Lori's water and Mal's fire. She's a fish, he smokes like a chimney, they never stop bitching at each other. Molly's air, because that's where her head is all the time.
"And you're earth," Oz guessed. Frank shrugged again. "How does that help us?"
"It helps us big time," Willow responded, flipping through the printouts. "There's a woman in Scranton who watched you play and picked up on what was going on. All four elements have to be present for the spell to work, and the Earth aspect is generally the stable one. If you don't contribute, the spell's not going to go anywhere."
"Okay, okay," Buffy interjected. "Look, this is fascinating and all, but this siren's got my boyfriend hooked. How do we stop that?"
"According to all my sources," Giles answered, "the siren can be killed with an iron blade. In her natural form."
"Simple question, simple answer," Xander said. "I like it."
Frank flinched. Kill her? You ever see how fast her natural form is? As they stared at him, he continued. Two big guys, good swimmers. Fifteen seconds flat, she gets 'em under and drowned.
"So I won't get in the water," Buffy countered.
Frank shook his head. She never reverts until she's in deep water. Or unless she's really desperate to feed.
Giles sighed. "Well, then we'll have to take away her dinner."
"Faith and Giles will take the front door," Buffy announced once they were situated in the library. "Mike, you let me in the back. Will, Oz, as much as I wish you could help--"
"It's, it's okay," Willow cut in. "I mean, Oz can't help it if he's not himself tonight, and I'm not going to leave him alone. I'll stick by him, because that's what I'm supposed to do because he's my boyfriend, and will someone please stop me?"
Oz graced her with the adoring smile he only gave Willow. "Why? I like that."
Xander coughed. "Forgetting anyone, Buff?"
"Not at all," Giles replied. "Someone will be needed to keep an eye on Angel. You can use the tranquilizer gun; it's documented that sedatives will work on vampires."
"I get to watch the homicidal maniac," Xander groused. "Yay."
"Assuming we break in there and stop the concert," Mike asked, "what then? What do you need me for?"
"You let me in, then find someplace safe and stay down," Buffy answered. "I don't want you fighting any vampires or anything vaguely supernatural. No buts," she added as Mike opened his mouth. "We don't really know what we're dealing with."
There was a long pause before Willow spoke. "So how long til the Bronze opens?"
Mike checked his watch. "We've got three hours. Should be enough time to stock up on what we need."
"All right, then," Giles said, standing up. "Everyone knows their lists. We'll meet here again in two and a half hours."
On cue, the rest of the group got up as well and started towards the doors, muttering amongst themselves. Once everyone was out in the hall, Giles relaxed visibly. "So..." Xander asked after a moment, "what's the real plan?"
The now-familiar knock sounded, causing every head in the room to turn towards the locked and bolted door. Humanlike faces shifted into vampiric as the knock repeated. Only Trick, lounging casually in a stolen recliner, remained calm. "Shave and a haircut..." he murmured along with the rhythm of the knock before getting to his feet. "Gotta be more creative than that, my man."
He signalled to the others that it was fine as he moved to the door. "What's the password?"
"Password?" a strident voice snapped from the other side, loud enough to be heard clearly. "There wasn't no damn password yesterday! What you pulling now?"
Trick chuckled at that and opened the door partially, smiling as the vampires immediately scattered to avoid the beam of late afternoon sunlight that spilled through. Sunset was an hour away, but that didn't mean the sunlight was any less dangerous. "Just kidding. Come on in, brother."
The dreadlocked man standing in the threshold eyed the vampires crouched in the shadows. "I appreciate the invitation," he said, lighting a cigarette, "but your boys look a little too hungry right now." Twin flames were briefly reflected in his mirrored sunglasses before he extinguished the lighter.
Trick glanced back at the other vampires, and nodded. "You're probably right."
"You got any info for me, man?" Malik asked, stuffing the pack of cigarettes back in his pocket. "If the Slayer's planning an attack, we're gonna need to counter it."
The vampire hesitated at that. He had his suspicions about the recording, but then again... if his sources were right, Relish needed a good screw-up. Maybe if the Slayer went up against the siren, they might do each other in. Save the Mayor the trouble.
Either way, it was good business. "Have I ever let you down before?"
"There's one thing I don't understand," Giles said after a moment.
Frank turned, surprised at the sudden sound. It was just him and the Watcher in Giles' study; the rest had gone on their respective errands. What?
"You said that Lorelei 'gave' you the gift of telepathy," Giles continued, "but I sincerely don't believe that's so."
I couldn't do it before! Frank retorted defensively.
"I don't doubt that," Giles assured him, pulling a book from the top of the shelf. "But from all the reading I've done on this sort of 'psychic vampirism,' there is no possible way you could just have been given this talent. It could have been triggered, of course, assuming you had latent ability."
Are you telling me I've been able to do this all along?
Giles flipped through the book idly, only half paying attention to the pages, as he set it on the coffee table with the rest and sat down. Frank, intrigued, took a seat in the nearby chair. "It's very possible that you could, but just didn't know it. They wouldn't have sought you out if you had no potential to begin with."
The bassist did not answer to that comment, but merely stared at Giles, a perplexed look on his face. After a moment or two, a sharp rapping came on the door, followed by muffled shouts of "Giles! Open the door!"
Sighing, Giles stood up. "And they were just berating me about not locking it..." he muttered. Stopping by the chair, he patted Frank on the shoulder. "I could be wrong, but it's food for thought."
"Where the hell have you been?" were the first words out of Lori's mouth as Frank opened the door to the hotel room. She didn't even look up as he entered. Her attention was focused entirely on the mirror as she applied her lipstick carefully. "Mal got back from our informant an hour ago."
Malik was nowhere in sight. Molly was sitting on the bed, or rather lying at the head of the bed with her legs sticking straight up parallel to the wall. It took Frank a moment to chase away the last telling vestiges of fear before he answered. Just out thinking. Enjoying the hundred degree heat.
He was too tired to be jittery, and while she couldn't read his mind, Lori always knew when he was nervous about something. Almost. The few times she hadn't seemed to pick up on his emotions were always when he was tired, usually after loading equipment all day. But all the running around he'd done with the Slayer and her friends was enough to exhaust him. He took a seat on the edge of the bed with a relieved sigh, landing heavily on the mattress.
The jolt caused Molly to open her eyes and glare at him. "More like gettin' blasted by the heat," she snapped in a rare moment of sanity. "You're out of your mind."
No, no one suspected. Frank held back any responses and turned to Lori, who was engrossed in applying her makeup. What are you getting all fixed up for?
Lori smirked at her reflection. "I ran into an... old flame a few nights ago," she answered before turning and kicking the bathroom door. "Mal! Did you drown in there? Get your ass in gear! We've been waiting forever!"
That explained why Molly was so crabby. Frank smirked as Mal stuck his head out of the door, his chin half-smeared with shaving cream. "Listen up, Wonder Woman, I've only been in here five minutes! You take half a friggin' hour!"
As they launched into a full-scale bickering match, Frank lay back on the bed, closing his eyes. He didn't notice the curious look Molly was giving him.
They all seemed to converge on the Bronze at the same time. Fifteen minutes before sunset, the crowds appeared on the streets, obeying a subconscious signal that only they could hear. The teenagers were tired, drained, and easily susceptible to suggestion.
Especially when it was being pitched by a couple of experts.
"Aura!" Cordelia practically squealed, pouncing on the girl like they were best friends.
The former Cordette blinked at her. "Cordelia. What do you want?"
"I'm sorry, I had to ask you," Cordelia gushed. "But where did you get that dress?"
He didn't want to talk to her, but maybe that was the point. "Harmony," Xander greeted, trying not to sound too enthusiastic and succeeding. "How's tricks?"
She glared at him through bleary eyes. "Excuse me, loser, I'd like to get to where the party's at."
"Which would be where? The Bronze?"
"Any place away from you is a start," she retorted, trying to brush past him. He was naturally quicker, not having been exposed to the music, and grabbed her arm. "Hey! Get your paws off me!"
"Not til you listen," Xander snapped. "You've been feeling like crap lately, right? Can't stay awake, can't think, can't come up with a good comeback. I bet people are whispering behind your back that you're a stoner by now."
For a moment, her expression didn't change. Then she grabbed him by the collar. "What do you know? Who's talking?"
"Hey, I don't know if anyone is!" he exclaimed, and she let go. He held up a pack of earplugs. "But I think I know how to stop it."
Alone on stage, Frank glanced about furtively. The club was only starting to fill up, and no one was really paying attention to the stage just yet. A small crowd was at the bar, trying to get fake IDs past the bartender. Frank caught Mike's eye and grinned, seeing the frustrated expression on the other's face. Some people just couldn't take a hint.
The door to the alley closed behind Malik, and Frank stopped tuning his guitar. Now they were all gone. Molly was in the back, Lori was in the bathroom, and Mal was out getting a smoke. It was now or never.
Carefully, he set his guitar down, turning to the empty stool where his spare guitar pick lay. Beside it was Lori's water bottle. Turning so that his back was to the rest of the club, Frank reached into his pocket. He pulled out a tiny packet filled with a brownish powder, and unscrewed the cap on the water bottle. Checking to make sure that no one was looking, he hastily dumped the contents of the packet into the bottle, capping it and shaking it hurriedly. The powder dissolved in a few seconds, much to Frank's relief. He replaced the bottle, grabbed the pick, and snatched up the guitar again.
Angel opened bleary eyes to see Buffy kneeling before him again, a steaming mug in her hands. He blinked a few times, trying to make sense of the situation. "What are you doing here? You have to stop--"
"Shh," Buffy interrupted soothingly. "We're going to. Here, drink this."
He made a face at the bitter smell. "What is it?"
Someone cleared their throat, and Angel glanced up to see Giles standing there. "You might call it... er... temporary immunity."
"Ladies and gentlemen," Harry announced, "Relish!"
The usual swell of applause punctuated that statement as the manager stepped off the stage and Lori stepped up to take the microphone. Frank bit his lip as they launched into the first song, a slow number which fortunately had a long instrumental opening. He watched nervously as Lori launched into the first verse, her throaty voice seeming to permeate the entire room like a fog. The water bottle was untouched, but Frank reminded himself that she planned to build up to it before the big one.
He'd finally coaxed the details out of Mal while they were setting up. Tonight was pretty much like the last nights, except on a larger scale. With the excess energy siphoned off the regulars, amplified by the full moon, Lori was going to create a frigging psychic whirlpool strong enough to reach across town... perhaps all the way to the Hellmouth. Frank didn't want to think what she'd do with that kind of juice. Of course, she'd insisted that they would all "reap the benefits" as well. If they did, she would probably get the lion's share.
Even now, she was tough enough that if she discovered his deception, he'd be a dead man. Worse, he'd probably be dinner, latent psychic talent or not. If she figured it out...
He picked up the bass line hurriedly, trying to steady his nerves. If she pulls this off, she won't need us anymore, he reminded himself. At least this way he had a chance of getting out. Glancing back at the crowd, he frowned. They didn't look as completely drawn in as they had the last few nights, but not completely invulnerable, either. Earplugs or not, Lori could drain as she pleased.
The spell was starting to pick up as they went, gathering power with every moment. Frank could feel it swirling about them, like a whirlpool sucking energy in. He flinched in revulsion as it passed him, passing through all of them. As the verse ended, the funnel of energy began to expand, like a worm with a gaping mouth. It was stretching, reaching towards another part of town, slowly starting to move towards the Hellmouth.
Glancing at the water bottle, Frank silently willed - no, pleaded - that Lori would reach for it. Before it was too late.
"Hey, gorgeous," the vampire greeted. "Looking for a good time?"
Faith spun to see half a dozen vampires, all wearing their game faces, striding towards her from the end of the alley. She smiled at their momentary surprise; obviously, they were expecting Buffy. "Sorry, the usual girl's sick tonight," she quipped, pulling a stake from her purse.
Growling, they rushed her. Faith met the first two easily, staking one right off and blocking the attack of the other. The rest surrounded her, and even a Slayer as skilled as she was going to have a hard time fighting her way out of the throng. A lucky swipe, and the stake was knocked from her grip. "We're just going to have to make do," the leader leered, pinning her to the wall.
A dark figure dropped into view behind them, leaping from the roof of the Bronze to land neatly on his feet. Not even bothering with a quip, Angel grabbed the leader and shoved a stake through him before any of Faith's attackers even had a clue. Between the two of them, the remaining vampires didn't have a chance.
"All done," Cordelia announced, plopping the empty bags down on the library table.
"Very good," Giles said absently, still focusing on the book in front of him. Willow was also present, helping him research; set plan or no, if anything went wrong they might need to be prepared for a contingency. From the bookcage, the newly transformed Oz growled.
Cordelia glanced nervously at the circulation desk. "Is that bug doohickey still on?"
"Nope," Willow answered, sitting down. "We unplugged it and took it apart and all that a while ago."
"Oh, yeah." Cordelia reached into her purse, pulling out a small purple notebook. "I picked this up when Xander made me sneak into the Bronze. It kind of looked something like you witchy types would like. Diagrams and stuff."
"What?" Willow cried, snatching it from Cordelia's fingers and flipping through it. "And you waited until now to mention this?"
"So I forgot," Cordelia snapped. "I mean, I almost got caught by the scary voodoo guy, got my dress messed up, and you yell at me for forgetting something?"
"Well, this - this is a major clue to just how they planned this out," Willow answered, flipping through the pages. "It looks like diagrams of rituals, certain positions..." She trailed off, hesitating on a certain page. "Uh-oh," she said in a small voice. "Uh, this doesn't look good. Not good at all."
Surprised, Giles looked up. "What is it?"
She opened the notebook flat on the table so that they all could see. "Look at the diagrams. They're devised for this type of draining ritual, and the focus is the person in the center."
"Yeah, the siren," Cordelia said. "We've already figured that out."
"She's the focus of power, true, but the person actually weaving the currents is the one standing in the eastern point of the triangle," Willow finished. "Guys, she's not the one actually casting the spell!"
One of the waiters lugged a box over to Mike, saying something to him. The bartender sighed and made a great show of reluctance as he picked it up off the counter and carried it off towards the back exit. Malik smiled expectantly; he'd arranged for security.
But Mike turned left, heading for the back room instead of the exit. Mal's smile faded, and Frank was hard pressed to conceal his own. Weren't expecting that, were you? Frank mused, careful not to broadcast his thoughts.
Lori wasn't paying any attention as she finished the verse, reaching behind her for the water bottle. She took her usual healthy swig, swallowed, and hesitated, a strange expression forming on her face. Frank jerked his gaze back to his fingers, not wanting to make eye contact. The funnel seemed to stop, remaining where it was.
She leaned back into the mic to belt out the chorus, and it came out strong... but there was something missing. The power was absent. Just as Lori seemed to realize this, she launched into a spasmodic fit of coughing, grabbing her throat. For the first time in who knew how long, the siren's voice failed her. The song abruptly stopped, and the spell fizzled out. The shock was so much that Lori stumbled forward, catching herself on the stool to avoid crashing to the floor.
Before any of them could react, the skylight popped open.
Down came Buffy.
Off went the power.
At around that moment, all hell broke loose.
"Out! Everyone out!" Xander shouted, ushering the stampede of panicked patrons out the back door. He slipped back into military mode, bellowing as loudly as possible. "Move! Move! Move!"
Fortunately, most of the teens were still lucid enough to remember the mantra that had been spreading throughout the crowd: If the power goes out, head for the back exit. Exactly why, no one was sure; some said it was because some of the "gangs" were going to try and start a riot again, others that it was an early Senior Prank. Whatever the reason, though, the stampede was as orderly as a stampede could get, with no strays from the herd.
Outside, Faith and Angel were handling most of the guards, who weren't exactly expecting him. The mob of somewhat panicked teens were free to flee for the parking lot unmolested for a change as the Slayer and the vampire fended off the undead.
In the back room, Mike stood by the opened fuse box, counting the seconds off as he waited.
From a distance, Trick watched the exodus thoughtfully, then flipped his cellphone open. "Let's just make this a bit more interesting, shall we?" he murmured as he began to dial.
Faith staked the last vamp, unconsciously reaching into her jacket for a new stake before she realized that was all of them. But her expression was not one of triumph. "Uh-oh."
Angel froze. "What?"
For answer, she brought out an old knife, its intricately carved handle and the polished iron blade gleaming in the streetlights. "I think B needed this."
"So what you're saying is," Cordelia said slowly, "that even though the fish girl is the one whose voice is hypnotizing everybody, she's not doing all the witchy stuff?"
Giles nodded, examining the diagrams thoughtfully. "One of the other band members is. I'm afraid I can't say who, since we don't know who's in the eastern position in this formation."
Willow's eyes grew wide. "It's not Frank, is it? He wouldn't be double-crossing us?"
Cordelia frowned. "Who's Frank?"
"The bass player," Giles responded. "The, ah, the mute fellow."
"Oh, he's got to be cool," Cordelia said flippantly, dismissing their speculation with a gesture. "He spotted me when I snuck into the Bronze, and he didn't rat me out or anything."
Giles and Willow stared at her. "And you were going to mention this when?" Giles asked.
"You didn't ask. Look, Mike got me in, I got out okay, what's the problem?"
Willow glared at her, but Giles hesitated, a faraway expression crossing his face. "Those who are marked are immune to a siren's call..." he murmured, remembering.
"Marked?" Cordelia asked as he grabbed a book off the stack and started leafing through it. "You know, Giles, it's considered rude to completely go off on tangents in the middle of people's conversations..."
"I just recalled something when you mentioned Mike," Giles answered. "Those who are marked..." He found the page he was looking for and studied it for a few moments before going pale. "Oh, dear Lord."
Willow moved to look over his shoulder, and Cordelia did the same. "Giles, what is it?"
"It was in the Billings account on sirens," Giles replied shakily. "Among those who are immune to a siren's song are those mortals who have been marked by revenants, powerful spirits, for possession."
"And?" Cordelia pressed.
Giles slammed the book shut. "Mike is immune. And he's had an apparition following him around all week. Think about it, won't you?"
It took Cordelia a moment, but horrified understanding flashed in her eyes. "You mean - he's--"
Willow nodded. "Relish isn't our only problem now."
Buffy dropped down to the dance floor right in front of the stage, landing nimbly on her feet. As the last of the stampede hurried out, the lights suddenly flickered back on in the now-deserted club. Hunched over the stool, still clutching her throat, Lori glared at the newcomer. A haggard expression had come over her features, making her look twenty years older. "You..." she snarled, venom dripping from even the harsh whisper of her voice. "Little Slayer bitch..."
"Oh, look. I'm famous," Buffy shot back, keeping her gaze locked with Lori's. She didn't even look at Frank for fear it would give him away. Besides, this was one ticked-off siren. If one looked closely enough, the faintest glimmer of red was flickering in her eyes. All she needed was a little push.
Malik was sensing it as well. "Lori..." he cautioned worriedly.
Buffy cocked her head, studying the exhausted woman's appearance, especially the creases in her skin that were appearing suddenly. "You know, they have wrinkle creams today that would do wonders for you."
That did it. Lori's head snapped up, her eyes glowing with crimson fire. With a hoarse screech, she launched herself at Buffy like a wild animal. "Lorelei!" Molly screamed, suddenly gifted with a noticeable Irish accent. "No!"
But the siren ignored her in her bloodlust, seeming to grow claws as she lunged. Buffy easily sidestepped the pounce, but Lorelei was undeterred, landing lightly on all fours with catlike grace before leaping into an upright position. Slayer and siren circled each other for a few seconds before Lori lunged again, this time with a right hook to the midsection. Mid-swing, her fingers changed, elongating and stretching into scaly claws. Buffy dodged, but just barely, as something sliced through her blouse. She glanced down to see five parallel gashes in the fabric.
"Hey! I liked that shirt!" Buffy cried, slamming a fist into Lori's face. The siren's head snapped back only briefly before she delivered a side kick to Buffy's gut. The Slayer fell back, rolled, and jumped to her feet again, just as Lori lunged a second time.
Both combatants tumbled to the ground, Buffy struggling to break Lori's grip. "What the hell kind of mermaid are you?" Buffy gasped.
"Let's just say I got tired of singing to sailors," Lori snarled, just as the bar stool smashed across her back.
"We'll have to get it to her," Angel insisted as Xander approached them.
"I'll go," Faith volunteered. "It's not like there's any more vamps to fight out here."
As soon as she said it, movement sprung from the shadows. Faith and Angel turned to see half a dozen vampires emerge from the darkness, game faces on and definitely in search of some fun.
Angel sighed. "You had to say it, didn't you?"
Inside the club, crashing sounds could be heard. Despite himself, Angel stole a worried glance at the Bronze. Faith smirked, handing him the knife. "Go get 'em, Tiger," she said, whipping out a stake. "I can handle this."
Having a heavy bar stool broken across one's spine would have seriously hurt a normal human being. In Lori's case, it was enough for her to loosen her grip. Buffy kneed her in the stomach, shoving her to the side and flipping so that she had Lori pinned to the ground for a moment, shoving the siren's head into the floor.
Molly, Malik, and Frank remained on the stage, seemingly transfixed by the battle going on right in front of them. Molly snapped out of it, whirling on the other two. "We've got to do something!"
"You want to fight a Slayer, be my guest," Mal retorted, tossing the drum sticks to the floor. "I'm gonna go start the car."
With a snarl, Lori literally bucked Buffy off, leaping to her feet. Buffy did the same, getting a better look at the halfway transformed siren. From the elbows down, the skin of her arms blended into scales and clawed hands, a grotesque pair of gauntlets. Her eyes were glowing like twin Christmas lights, the flaming red irises shining from beneath her wild mane of orange hair. "YOU!" she cried, enraged.
Buffy prepared to dodge the next lunge, and was surprised when it wasn't even aimed at her. Lori flew by her in a blur of orange and green, intent on harming the wielder of the bar stool. Mike was barely able to dodge, and she caught him in the shoulder, sending them both flying over the bar. Several glasses fell, and Mike shielded his eyes against the storm of shattered glass. Lori took most of the brunt of the glass on her back, only somewhat fazed by the onslaught as Mike took the opportunity to try to pull himself up. He wasn't entirely unscathed; there was a nasty-looking gash on his forehead, but he was still conscious.
Something snared his ankle as Lori made a grab for him, trying to pull him down. "Do you have any idea," she snapped as he kicked against her grip, "how long it's been since I've eaten?"
Her claws tore easily through his pant leg, cutting into his flesh. Mike winced, but somehow the pain seemed to give him an extra surge of adrenaline. "No," he answered curtly, twisting in order to shove his free foot into her face. Surprised, she let go, and Mike pushed himself up...
...and without knowing how, managed to backflip over the bar, landing on his feet. It wasn't a perfect landing by any means; his knees seemed to give out, and he had to grab on to one of the stools to keep from toppling over entirely. As he slumped over the stool, trying to regain his equilibrium, Lori practically flew over the counter, leaping clear over his head. She landed gracefully in front of the Slayer.
"Get out of here, Mike," Buffy ordered before she and Lori traded blows again with a flurry of punches, blocks and kicks. Having no better option, Mike stumbled towards the front door, a broken stool leg in one hand.
For several moments, neither Buffy nor Lori seemed to get the upper hand, until Buffy pulled something from her shirt and stabbed Lori with it. The siren staggered back, stunned but otherwise unharmed. She looked down to see a wooden stake protruding from her chest, and suddenly began to laugh, a harsh, rasping sound. "Oh, please," Lori cackled, pulling the stake out easily and tossing it away. "Wood is for vampires, little girl. Don't they teach you anything in school?"
With that, she lashed out, her claws raking Buffy's cheek. Buffy managed to dodge slightly, and the cuts were as minor as cat scratches. But it was enough of a distraction for Lori to punch Buffy, hard, sending the Slayer reeling back a step. Dazed, Buffy couldn't block in time as Lori hit her again, knocking her to the floor. Her vision blurred as she looked up to see the siren standing over her, extending a gleaming claw. Mike was still slumped over the stool, conscious but not aware enough to be much help.
An enraged roar split the air, and a dark shape suddenly plowed into Lori like a freight train, knocking both siren and savior to the floor. Buffy stumbled to her feet, shaking her head to clear it. Her surroundings finally came into focus enough to see that Angel was grappling with Lori a few feet away, and neither seemed to be getting the upper hand. Her foot nudged something, and she looked down to see the iron knife lying on the floor where Angel had dropped it.
She glanced up again in time to see Lori flip Angel onto his back and lift a clawed hand. In her grasp was the discarded stake. "You really should have taken me up on my offer," she snarled. "More's the pity."
"No!" Buffy and Molly shrieked in unison. The keyboard player made a lunge to stop Buffy, but Frank grabbed Molly from behind, trying to restrain her. In a single motion, Buffy snatched up the knife, leapt behind Lori, and stabbed the siren in the back. Lori let out a strangled gasp, loosening her grip on Angel.
As the vampire stood up, an unearthly scream of rage tore through the air. The sound made both Buffy and Angel cover their ears in pain, and there was a crash as Frank reared back, landing on the drum set.
When the ringing in her ears had sufficiently died down, Buffy looked up to see something she hadn't quite expected. Molly had Frank in a headlock, pressing a knife to his throat. But that wasn't what surprised Buffy. The faint nimbus of eerie blue light playing around the girl did. "Enough!" she screamed.
Angel looked, and his eyes widened in recognition. "Oh, God," he murmured. "Sidhe. Bean sidhe."
"A what?" Buffy asked, wincing as Molly screamed again, the sound not half as intense but definitely devastating.
Lori began to stagger to her feet, pulling the blade from her back with a howl of pain. It hadn't been a killing blow, but from the greenish blood trickling from her mouth, it was apparent that Buffy had done some serious damage to the siren. "We're leaving now, dears," Molly continued, her thick Irish accent now harshly apparent. "Anyone tries to stop us, and the wee traitor here dies." As if to punctuate the statement, Lori cast the knife away, sending it skittering across the floor. "Go, Lorelei."
Sparing them one last baleful look, Lori staggered towards the back door. Angel snarled, stepping towards her. "Stop where you are!" Molly cried. She pressed the knife against the skin, and a small trickle of blood appeared on Frank's neck. The bassist flinched in pain.
Helplessly, Angel and Buffy could only watch as the sidhe backed out as well, dragging their friend along.
Mike burst out of the front door only to be confronted with a hungry vampire, who immediately whirled at the smell of blood. Before Mike could even block, Faith had already staked his would-be attacker. Xander was hastily reloading a crossbow, and Mike lunged for the nearest vamp with the stool leg, giving the other boy a reprieve to load and fire.
His head had cleared, and he found himself fighting back to back with Faith for a moment. "Did B get the knife or what?" Faith shouted as she sucker-punched a vamp.
"Yep," was all Mike had time to say as he ducked a punch, lashed out with a side kick, and clumsily staked the overconfident vampire who had rounded on him. Fortunately, there were only a few left, and in a few minutes the number of vampires had dwindled to zero.
Xander lowered the crossbow. "That's got to be all of them."
"It had better be," Mike added, wiping at his temple and pulling his hand away to see his fingers stained with blood. The gash on his forehead was still bleeding, and would be likely to attract local vamps without a mission.
Faith whistled, walking over to him and getting a good look at the cut. "Damn! What happened to you?"
"Broken bottle, I think," Mike replied, wincing at her touch. "Looks that bad?"
"It'll heal," Faith observed. "Gotta clean it up, though."
"Giles has a first-aid kit in the library," Xander began as a frigid gust of air suddenly blew past, the chill a surprise in the muggy heat of the evening. "What the--"
Mike turned towards the source of the cold air and stopped short. Faith and Xander followed his gaze to see a glowing shape moving towards them, an ethereal form surrounded by a pearly haze of light. Its feet barely touched the ground as it moved towards them, picking up speed as it came. Faith took Mike's arm, but he was rooted to the spot, unable to move. "Corbett?" She waved a hand in front of his face. "Corbett?"
Then the moon passed behind a cloud, and Mike was suddenly jolted out of his trance as the apparition hesitated just a moment, pointing at him. "Run, guys," Mike advised, suddenly afraid. "It wants me."
"Hell no!" Faith retorted, stepping between Mike and the advancing spirit. "You think you can take me?"
The spirit waved a hand - at least, it looked like a hand - and Faith was suddenly lifted off her feet, sailing into the air. She crashed into the wall of the Bronze and slid to the ground, unconscious. "Was that a yes?" Xander gulped.
Mike hesitated a moment, looking worriedly at Faith's prone form, but the specter continued its advance. Stealing a final worried glance at the unconscious Slayer, Mike took off at a dead run down the street, the spirit in hot pursuit.
Xander stood there for a few moments, staring openmouthed at the scene. Finally, he snapped out of it, rushing to Faith's side. "Faith! Come on, wake up!"
She stirred, groaning in pain, then suddenly snapped back to attention, stumbling to her feet. "Where'd it go?"
"Just took off," Xander began, helping her stand. The squeal of tires interrupted any further conversation, and the two teenagers looked up to see a black van speeding around the corner, peeling rubber as it disappeared into the night. "Was that who I think that was?"
"Yep," Faith replied, brushing her hair out of her face. "There goes Relish."
"Oh, this just gets better and better."
Buffy and Angel burst out into the alley just in time to hear the squeal of tires and see the van speeding off. "Great," Buffy groaned. "And we have no clue where they're headed."
"Probably the lake," Angel guessed. "If she wants to heal, she'll have to transform and feed."
"And Frank's going to be the main course," Buffy realized. "You wouldn't know how to hotwire a car, by any chance?"
Before Angel could respond, headlights appeared at the nearest end of the alley, and a familiar vehicle pulled up with a screech of tires. "Cordelia!" Buffy shouted, running out of the alley as Giles' car pulled up behind the convertible.
Faith and Xander came running down to meet them. Both were covered in dust, but both looked to be in good shape, although Xander seemed to be developing a bit of a black eye. "What's the sitch?" Faith asked, seeing the panic in Buffy's eyes and the grim worry in Giles'.
"Reader's Digest version," Buffy gasped. "Lori drank the stuff, choked, we evacuated, I fought her, I stabbed her, Molly put a knife to Frank's throat and they all just took off a minute ago."
"She was a sidhe," Angel put in.
Cordelia coughed. "Um, excuse me? Didn't you just say the same thing?"
"No, a sidhe," Angel corrected. "You'd know her kind as a banshee. I should have seen it coming."
"She must be the caster, then," Giles realized, shaking the notebook. "These diagrams indicated that while Lorelei was the focus of power, someone else was actually weaving the spell."
"Oh, it gets better," Xander added. "Some ghost just showed up and took off after Mike." He hesitated, glancing at Faith, unsure whether or not he should go into all the details.
Faith sighed. "One nasty sucker, too. Knocked me on my ass."
"Well, considering it intends to possess him," Giles said, "I'd say that a certain amount of nastiness could be expected."
"Possess him?" Buffy echoed. "Giles, instant replay."
Giles sighed. "According to a text on the subject, mortals who are marked for spirit possession are often immune to a siren's spell. Now since Mike is immune, and since there's been a ghost following him about, it made sense. I may know a ritual that may prevent it, but--"
"Then let's motorvate," Faith interrupted, stepping towards Giles' car. "That dead bastard's not getting away with this."
Xander caught her arm. "Wait a minute! Relish got away! For all we know, they could be headed for the border."
"No, they wouldn't," Angel said suddenly. "At least, not yet. The siren's wounded. She'll have to feed. They'll stop by the closest and cleanest body of water before they do anything."
"And Frank's probably going to be the main course," Buffy finished, sagging a bit. "Okay, here's what we do. Faith, Xander, you go with Giles to stop that thing."
"Great, I get to go stop Casper," Xander groused.
Buffy continued, ignoring him. "Angel, Cordy and I are going to hit the beach."
"What?" Cordelia exclaimed. "You are NOT going to drag me along on another ick-fest Slaying!"
"Fine, then we'll just take your car ourselves," Angel said casually. "Buffy will drive."
She immediately made a break for the convertible. "I know a shortcut!"
The two groups split off, leaving Xander standing alone for a moment. He glanced over to Cordelia's convertible, then over to Giles' car. Sighing, he squared his shoulders and followed Giles. "Hey, you really need my help?"
"Definitely," Giles answered as he unlocked the car, allowing Faith and Xander to scramble in. "This is no ordinary spirit, I'm afraid. We may need all the help we can get."
At a look from the Watcher, Faith sighed and reluctantly buckled her seatbelt. "Ordinary? Nothing on the Hellmouth is ordinary, G."
Giles started the engine, peeling rubber with a surprising burst of speed. "I'll explain on the way!"
The van swerved wildly as it flew around the corner, jolting Frank awake from his semi-daze. He was lying on his side on the floor of the van, with both his wrists and ankles tied. Gingerly, he tested his bonds, and was not surprised to find that they were tight. Escape was probably a bad idea right now.
Cautiously, he peered around him, trying not to give any indication that he was awake. Lori was sprawled across the back seat, her breath coming in hoarse, wheezing gasps as she stared at the ceiling, unaware that he was awake. Up front, he could hear Malik loudly protesting over something, followed by a quiet but sharp retort from Molly. He craned his neck, twisting to see what they'd used to bind his hands behind his back. Duct tape. It figured.
He looked back at Lori. She looked like hell, but that was no guarantee he'd be any match for her - especially if he was tossed in like a sack of potatoes. If he could just get his hands and feet free, he might have a small chance. Rolling over, he was gratified to feel a lump in his jeans pocket. They hadn't taken his pocketknife.
It was a bit of a strain, but with a little work he could reach it...
Mike ran blindly through the streets of Sunnydale, ducking into a crowd of shoppers to evade the spirit that was following him. Whenever he passed through a crowd, it slowed down, uncertain which human in the sea of bodies was his. But he was running out of crowds fast, and he wasn't going to be able to run forever. He needed help. He needed Giles.
The library. That was where Giles and Willow were stationed. They were on Oz watch, so they couldn't leave. Of course. If anyone could help, the Watcher was his best bet.
He picked up speed, heading for Sunnydale High.
The van screeched to an abrupt stop just at the edge of the asphalt, inches from the wooden fence surrounding the dunes. Unable to check her motion, Lori rolled off the back seat, landing on the floor with a thud. As Malik hopped out of the cab to slide the van door open, Lori glared at him venomously. "Dammit, Mal, where the hell did you learn to drive?"
He helped her stagger out, unfazed by her anger. "New York."
"Figures," she gasped, leaning against the van for support. "Stop staring at me and get the little weasel out of there."
Frank cursed mentally; he'd only sawed halfway through the tape. As Mal grabbed him by the shoulders, dragging him out, the pocketknife slipped from his grasp. Chicken shit, he thought as he was hauled out onto the asphalt. Won't even try for a fair fight.
He was surprised when Lori kicked him, not as forcefully as she would have liked, but enough to knock the wind out of him. "You're calling me a chicken shit? You bastard!" She knelt down and grabbed him by the hair, pulling his face up to meet hers. "I've planned this for years now, years. What did you expect to gain out of double-crossing us? Did you think the Slayer would protect you?" She hesitated, coughing, as more blood trickled from her mouth. Hastily, Molly helped her stand again, supporting her partner in crime. Lori turned bloodshot eyes to Malik. "Dump him in."
As Mal hauled him up again, Frank didn't bother to struggle, mainly out of shock. She had heard him. They all had. But wouldn't his gift have been taken away by now? Unless... unless the Watcher had been right. He began to work at the tape on his wrists again.
Mal was too busy dragging him across the sand to notice that Frank was straining against the tape, and slowly, ever so slowly, the tear he'd cut was growing larger and larger. Lori and Molly were a few paces ahead of them, wading out into the water. As she waded in deeper, Lori suddenly gained a tranquil expression, the harsh lines fading from her face.
Just as Malik reached the surf, the tape broke.
Frank flung his arms out as he tore the tape off, grabbing Malik by the forearms and flipping the drummer clear over him. Malik landed face first, his surprised yell cut off by a mouthful of sand. Lori whirled to see Frank tearing frantically at the tape wrapped around his ankles, and her features twisted into a snarl. By now, her legs had fused into a tail, and the scales traveled across her arms, as her hands elongated into webbed claws. "No you don't!" Lori hissed, her eyes glowing.
Suddenly, a figure jumped up from the surf, and a pair of arms wrapped around the siren's neck as Angel leapt on her from behind. "Yes he does," Buffy snapped, standing up as well. In her hand was the iron blade.
Molly opened her mouth to let out another ear-splitting scream, but she was too late. The rather heavy piece of driftwood Frank had discovered collided squarely with the back of her head. No sound issued from her open mouth as she collapsed to the sand.
"NO!" Lori shrieked, bucking backwards and dunking Angel beneath the surf. She lashed out with her tail, sweeping Buffy's legs out from under her. The three combatants vanished beneath the waves in a swirl of limbs and scales.
As Buffy struggled to regain her equilibrium, the siren's tail smacked her full in the face, sending her spinning. The knife slipped from her grip, landing in the soft sand below. She tried to feel around for it, but Lori whacked her again, missing her head and pummeling Buffy in the shoulderblades instead. Desperately holding her breath, Buffy steeled herself for a third strike.
It never came. Lori surfaced again with a strangled shriek. By now, the potion had worn off, and her voice was regaining a bit of its power. But she was still weak, and the fact that Angel's arms were still wrapped around her neck made it difficult to actually use her voice to its full potential. Lungs burning, Buffy briefly surfaced to see what was going on. Apparently, Lori had forgotten one tiny detail in her fighting strategy; vampires didn't need to breathe. Temporarily forgetting about the Slayer, Lori reared back again, clawing at the arms that were wrapped around her windpipe like an iron vice.
"Hurry!" Angel gasped, and Buffy suddenly realized that the antidote Giles had whipped up was starting to wear off as well.
She dived under again, frantically feeling around in the sand for the cold of the blade's hilt. It was too dark to see, and Lori's tail was still thrashing about, and Buffy surfaced again, just barely dodging a slap. "I'm looking!" she cried, still feeling blindly.
Angel was gritting his teeth, the last vestiges of his strength giving way. "I can't... hold on... much longer..."
Something smooth and cold brushed against her fingers, and Buffy grabbed madly, wincing as her fingers closed around the blade instead of the hilt. But it was just what she was looking for. She switched hands, jumping to her feet. With her good hand, Buffy aimed and threw the knife.
Lori finally shrugged Angel off, gasping with relief as the vampire was flung into the waves. "Can't you do any better than--"
She stopped abruptly, jerking in pain as something thunked into her torso. Looking down, the siren stared numbly at the iron hilt protruding from her chest. "But that's... that's..."
"Yep," Buffy said. "Wood. Iron. They're different. You told me."
Lori wavered, turning to look at the Slayer with a curious expression. "So many centuries..." she croaked. The lines returned to her face, and she seemed to be withering, shrinking inward. The red glow faded from her eyes, replaced with what looked almost like respect. "Nice shot."
With that, she let out her last breath in a sigh, sinking into the water with a moan as she continued to dissipate. In a moment, all that was left was dust and bones and shredded clothing. Nothing moved for several seconds as Angel and Buffy stared at the spot where Lori had been.
Buffy finally stepped forward, wading over to Angel. She stooped to retrieve the knife, then helped Angel stand. He had to lean on her, again fatigued and drained. But the addicted, crazed look was gone. "Are you all right?"
"I will be," he answered as they stumbled out of the water like a pair of drunken buddies. "Forget the shot; that was great timing."
"Well, we aim to please." She sighed. "Got to hand it to Cordelia, though, she knows her shortcuts."
Angel cracked a smile at that, but his mirth faded quickly. The vampire's knees buckled, and he fell to the sand with a moan of agony. Buffy knelt by his side immediately. "Angel? What's--"
She stopped as she realized what was going on, turning to see the source. Molly was getting to her feet, the same pale nimbus of blue light surrounding her. "Oh, dear, did you forget me so quickly?" The sidhe clucked her tongue reproachfully. "I suppose I'll just have to kill you."
"Tyger, tyger, burning bright..." Willow droned tiredly, then stopped to glare at the surprisingly docile werewolf crouched on the bookcage floor. "I've read this poem over three times! Isn't there anything else that calms you down?"
For answer, Oz growled, his hackles rising. "What about White Fang then?"
No change. Willow sighed. "You know, you've got a repetitive streak. I wonder if all werewolves are like this." Another growl. "Oh, all right, all right. 'Tyger, tyger, burning bright / In the forests of the night...'"
She was saved from a fourth reading as the doors were thrown open, and Mike dashed into the library in a panic. He was a sight; his left pant leg was torn, he was breathing heavily, and he was sporting a nasty-looking gash on his forehead. But the panicked, wild-eyed expression on his face was all she needed to tell he was in trouble. "Will? Where's Giles?"
"He went looking for you," Willow answered, closing the book and crossing the room to meet him. "Mike, he said you were marked for possession by a--"
At that moment, a cold gust of wind blew the doors open, and a hazy figure stepped into the library. "--ghost," she finished.
"Yeah, I kind of guessed as much," Mike answered weakly as they backed away. "Willow, get out of here. It's after me."
She ducked into the office, quickly snatching up an amulet that Mike didn't recognize before dashing out again, interposing herself between her friend and the advancing specter. Hands shaking, Willow held up the amulet. "Spirit, I command you! By Hecate, return to the depths from whence you..."
Before she could finish the incantation, the specter made a sweeping gesture, lifting Willow off her feet and sending her flying into the nearest wall. She collapsed in a heap beside the office, unmoving. Oz howled and vainly charged at the bookcage door.
The werewolf's enraged howling and snarling seemed to fade into the background as the specter turned towards Mike, continuing its advance.
Buffy lifted the blade. "Not unless I kill you first."
In response, Molly let out another strident wail. Buffy was ready for it, but even so she had to clap her hands over her ears to keep from keeling over. Angel writhed in pain as the petite girl stood over him, the aura of light now more brilliant than before. "Pity, really," Molly mused calmly. "Lorelei and I, we had such grand plans. Such grand plans... She could spell them, I could drain them... oh, what a lovely time it would have been. But now," she finished, "it ends here!"
She punctuated that statement with another scream, and this time Buffy fell to her knees, the sound getting through the earplugs easily. The Slayer squeezed her eyes shut as the keening continued... and then abruptly ended with a startled shriek.
Buffy and Angel both looked up in time to see Molly go flying, borne by an unseen force that lifted the sand beneath her feet up in a tiny geyser of sand. Frank was standing there, a determined expression on his face. You're right. It is ending here.
Molly hit the sand and rolled, the aura of power dying out. As she glanced up, she could see just what Buffy had sensed; whatever power had been locked away in the bassist had just been unleashed. "Uh-oh."
She let out another scream, but the sand lifted around her again, surrounding her in a miniature tornado. The swirling sand and grit and dust blinded and choked the sidhe, and she was barely able to surface from the storm. "You'll regret this!" Molly screamed. "I found you! I made you! Without me, you wouldn't have even learned what you were capable of!"
Frank didn't look in the least fazed. So?
The sidhe wrenched herself free, gasping as she stumbled across the sand, momentarily looking human, weak, again. "You can't stop me," Molly snarled. "You hate the feeding, the killing. And if you ever want to get rid of me, you'll have to kill me!"
The storm began to subside. You're right, Frank admitted. I can't.
Molly smirked triumphantly. Her smile died away as gunshots were heard, the bullets striking her in the back. Jerking in pain, she gasped, her mouth opening in an "O" of surprise. Somehow, she found the strength to turn and stare at the source of the shots.
"Well, guess what," Malik commented, lighting a cigarette as Molly slumped to the ground. "I can."
Mike scrambled backwards, knocking over a chair as he backed frantically away. The misty figure was undeterred, stepping through the overturned chair as it advanced towards him. With each step, the shape in the center of the mist became more and more defined. As his pursuer became visible, Mike's spirits sank. This did not look good.
The figure was heavily armored from head to toe, armed with a blaster and a broadsword that was as long as his arm. Its horned helmet had a reflective black visor, making it impossible to see its face as it moved forward. It was the same one he'd been catching glimpses of all week. And it was definitely after him, there was no doubt. He glanced over at the motionless form by the office. Willow would probably have a headache when she woke up, but that was about it.
Cursing under his breath, Mike turned and dashed up the steps, heading for the back windows of the library. Where the hell was Giles?
He scrambled up to the nearest window, trying to force it open. The rusty frame creaked in protest and wouldn't budge. A cool gust of wind brushed against him, and he whirled to see the armored figure standing only a few feet away. "Who are you?" Mike shouted. "What do you want with me?"
For a moment, the specter did not respond. Then a voice spoke, gruff and harsh with disuse, echoing in his mind.
--Don't you remember?--
Mike could only stare as it continued.
--I'm the one who saved you.--
"What do you mean, it's not a ghost?" Faith asked incredulously as Giles sped down the road, breaking yet another speed limit.
"Not precisely," Giles answered. "Technically, it is a revenant of a deceased person, but this spirit commands a great deal of energy."
Xander nodded. "Not your typical ghost."
"Far from it. If it's as powerful as I believe, full moon or no, this banishment will only be a temporary exile from this plane." Giles frowned. "Although a spirit possession usually requires some sort of permission... I don't know how that could have been circumvented..."
"Wait a minute," Faith interrupted. "I thought you said that we could get rid of it."
"In this case, we can only hold it off for a while." Giles sighed. "Sometimes, when a person is in command of a great deal of internal power at the time of death, that energy is manifested in the revenant. The only thing it lacks is solid substance."
"Solid substance?" Xander echoed. "Maybe I'm stretching a little, but you think that's why it's after Vortex Boy?"
The expression on Giles' face turned grim. "Exactly."
Buffy got to her feet, staring at Molly in shock. The sidhe twitched, her face contorting in pain. "Iron... bullets..." Her eyes rolled back in her head, and her body sagged limply as the life left it. Blue light surrounded her again, this time engulfing her form as it disintegrated, forming tiny motes of light that spiraled into the air, drifting away into the night like so many fireflies. As it faded away, all that was left was a couple of dented bullets lying on the sand.
Angel jolted, gasping as his strength returned to him in a rush. "Uh, uh, uh," Malik cautioned as Buffy stepped towards him. She stopped, seeing the gun pointed directly at her. "I don't know about the walking corpse here, Slayer, but I don't think you can dodge bullets." He eyed Frank. "And don't try no tricks. If I get a hint you're gonna do something, I'll blow her brains out."
Buffy looked over at Frank, who nodded slightly. He'll know. To even be invited into the group, Mal had to have some abilities of his own.
"What do you want?" Angel demanded quietly.
"Hey, I got all I wanted. Ding, dong, the bitches are dead." He grinned maniacally at Frank. "Damn, kid, I was wondering when you were gonna stand up to them."
"And you were just going to play along," Buffy added. "Oh, yeah, that's real macho of you."
"I'm not trying to be macho, I'm trying to stay alive," was the answer. "Which means a one-way ticket out of the Hellmouth. I get in the van and take off, you don't stop me, you never see my sorry ass again."
"Until the next voodoo cult comes into town," Buffy retorted.
Frank winced. Don't give him any ideas.
"Voodoo? Oh, that's rich." He snorted, keeping his gun trained on Frank. "I was thinking Vegas! The strip! I'm gettin' out of the entertainment biz. Security's where it's at down there." Neither of his three adversaries looked impressed as he backed up the beach, keeping the gun trained on Buffy.
"Think he's bluffing?" Angel murmured.
Once he was halfway up the ramp, Malik lowered the gun and started running. "Oh, yeah," Buffy replied as she dashed after him, with Angel and Frank following. The drummer was already crossing the parking lot as they started up the ramp.
Malik literally vaulted over a bench, throwing the van door open as he leapt into the cab and started the engine. He didn't notice the dark figure pulling itself out from under the vehicle. As his pursuers reached the top of the steps, Malik was already turning out of the lot onto the main road.
The van only made it ten feet down the road.
Fire spewed forth from the base of the van, the blast lifting it up a few feet as a miniature fireball consumed the vehicle's innards. The flame spilled forward from the back, flooding the cab completely with roiling orange-yellow light. Buffy, Frank, and Angel could only stare as the fire reached the gas tank, taking the van out for good in a terrific explosion.
The same thought struck Buffy and Angel then, and both turned to stare at Frank. The bassist backed away, shaking his head. I didn't do it!
"I wouldn't fault you if you had," Angel said quietly.
Buffy stared at the wreckage in morbid fascination. "Wow. I guess he won't be going to Vegas after all."
Anything else was cut off by a loud, insistent honking and the flash of headlights. Cordelia pulled up as close as she dared, leaning on the horn of her convertible. "Excuse me? Social rejects? Wouldn't it be a good idea to LEAVE around now?"
"For once," Buffy sighed, "I think she's got a point."
They piled hurriedly into the convertible, unaware of the eyes watching them as Cordelia hit the gas, speeding out of the lot.
"Why the hell are you chasing me?" Mike snapped, trying a new tactic. Running wasn't working, and fighting was out, so stalling was all he had left. "You claim you saved me, and now you're driving me crazy! What do you want?"
--Scorpius seeks the Lights of Orion. Three thousand years ago, I released them, and paid with my life. I must find them before he does.--
"Great," Mike answered. "Why don't you go do that, and leave me alone?"
--I cannot in this state.--
"I don't understand." Mike glanced past the specter to the front doors of the library. Sprawled beside Giles' office, Willow did not stir. In the book cage, he heard Oz roar and crash against the bars, but to no avail. He was probably better off with the werewolf locked up anyway. "Where do I come in to all this?"
--I have the power. I lack the substance.--
Mike didn't like where this was heading. "Substance?"
The specter hesitated. --You.--
"What?" Horrified, Mike edged sideways, but stopped as the specter drew its sword. "No! Forget it. I don't know who you are or why you want these Lights, and I'm not letting you use me to get to them! Go find yourself another puppet!"
--That is no longer an option. The mergence began when you first awakened me. It must be completed.--
"Over my dead body." Mike paused, glancing at the ethereal blade. "Wrong choice of words, but you know what I mean."
--I've waited too many years to give up now. They killed my son, destroyed my life. I must have my revenge.--
"I don't do revenge." If he could get the ghost to move just a bit to the left, he could make a break for the stacks. He'd jump through the back window there if he had to.
The specter tried another tack. --If Scorpius gets his claws on the Lights, we are all doomed.--
"And if you get your hands on them?"
--I will see justice done. I have pledged my very existence to the cause of the Defender.--
"You didn't pledge mine," Mike retorted.
The specter paused. --There is no other way.--
As it reached for him, Mike dived to the side - or tried to. He found himself locked in place, unable to move a muscle. The armored knight stepped forward, its form glowing brightly before dissolving into a formless, swirling brilliance. It surged forward, wrapping about him like a cocoon. Shutting his eyes, Mike gasped in pain as unwanted energy flowed into him, burning through him. A montage of scenes flickered behind his closed eyelids, like someone else's memories burying his own.
No! Mike clenched his teeth, pushing back as hard as he could. But despite his determination, he couldn't do much more than hold it off. Bit by bit, he began to feel himself slipping down into the recesses of his mind. You can't... do this...
As he struggled to hold on, Mike let out an agonized scream.
"Okay," Xander commented as the scream echoed down the hall, "that didn't sound good."
Giles was the first to reach the doors of the library, hastily pulling out the bottle of crushed herbs, a small ceramic bowl, and a book of matches. "These will have to be burned for it to work effectively." Pouring a quantity of the herbs into the bowl, he lit a match and set the herbs ablaze.
"Ugh!" Xander coughed at the smell. "What is that stuff?"
"Asafetida," Giles answered. "It's used for banishing spells."
"Yeah, I can smell why," Faith muttered. "Let's go before it banishes me."
The specter didn't notice as they slipped into the library, too absorbed in whatever it was doing to Mike. "Oh my God," Giles muttered as he saw what was going on.
Xander spotted Willow's prone form lying near the office. "We're going to have to get Will out of the line of fire."
"You do that," Faith advised. "I'll keep Wolfie from going on the rampage." All the commotion and the concentration of energy was starting to agitate the werewolf, who was crashing against the door of the book cage. If he kept that up for much longer, the lock would give.
Nodding, Xander hurried over to Willow's side, trying to move quietly so as not to attract the ghost's attention. Not that it was difficult under the din of an overexcited werewolf. Carefully, he placed his hands under her arms, dragging her into the relative safety of the office.
Faith literally vaulted over chairs and tables to get to the book cage, where Oz was still slamming his bulk against the door. The Slayer spun around in confusion before she noticed the file cabinet nearby. Grabbing it, she shoved it against the book cage door.
Meanwhile, Giles began to chant in Latin, and the smoke rising from the herbs took on a yellowish glow.
Setting Willow gently on the floor of the office, Xander emerged, shutting the door behind him. The file cabinet notwithstanding, Oz continued to batter against the book cage door. "Great," Faith muttered. "Where's a chain when you need one?"
Xander took one look at the book cage and ducked behind the circulation desk.
The specter suddenly realized what was going on, but it was too late as the energy began to pull back from Mike. "Earth, and Wind," Giles shouted over the howling of the wind and the growling of the wolf, "draw this spirit from this plane!"
With a roar, Oz crashed against the book cage door, snapping the lock. Another crash, and the file cabinet toppled over. The enraged werewolf nearly tore the door off its hinges as it bounded out of its prison. Naturally, Faith was the closest living target.
Xander popped up from behind the desk, hastily loading the tranquilizer gun. "Faith! Catch!"
He hurled the tranquilizer gun into the air as Oz pounced. Slayer reflexes saved Faith for the nth time as she flipped out of the way, landing on top of the table in time to catch the gun. Deprived of its target, the wolf crashed into one of the lower bookshelves instead. Before Oz could pounce again, Faith aimed the gun and fired two darts into the werewolf.
Giles set the bowl on the floor before him. "Respond, and release."
The effect was instantaneous. The glow around Mike flickered and faded, and a barely distinct figure reared back with an angry roar. Mike slumped to the floor as a gust of wind blew through the room, snuffing out the flame and spilling the bowl of herbs.
Xander was the first to speak. "Did we get him?"
Giles looked up again, fanning his face against the smell of the burning herbs. The specter was gone. "I believe so."
The office door opened, and Willow stumbled out, rubbing the back of her head. "Xander? Giles? What happened?"
Before Giles could answer, the doors flew open to admit Cordelia, Angel and Buffy, the latter two of whom were soaked. "What'd we miss?" Buffy asked as she strolled over to join the group, trying to look casual.
"Same old, same old," Xander responded.
Cordelia scowled at Buffy as she joined them. "I hope for your sake you didn't seriously damage the upholstery." Buffy rolled her eyes. Behind Cordelia, Frank slipped in through the library doors, unnoticed by the others.
Still disoriented, Willow suddenly noticed the open book cage. "Oh, no! Oz!"
"He's fine," Xander assured her, indicating the unconscious werewolf. "Although we're going to have to get a better lock for that thing."
Giles sighed, eying the remains of the chair Oz had smashed into. "Not to mention yet another chair."
"So where's the ghost or whatever?" Cordelia spoke up.
"It's gone," Xander replied. "Isn't it?"
At that, all heads turned to where Mike was still slumped against the wall, limp and unmoving. Giles jumped up and hurried over, with Faith and Xander following. "Let's hope he's all right," the Watcher said. "We may have been too late."
An unpleasant thought occurred to Faith. "Hell, let's hope he's still Mike."
Giles reached Mike first, kneeling down to check for vital signs. Faith and Xander were right behind him. "Well?" Faith asked after a moment.
"He has a fairly steady pulse, and he's breathing, albeit shallowly," Giles answered. "But there's no pupillary reaction."
Xander raised an eyebrow. "Everything's working, but no one's home?" Giles nodded. "That's not exactly a good thing."
"Dammit," Faith muttered, slapping Mike lightly to try to rouse him. "Come on, Corbett. Come on."
The stream of images shut off abruptly, the specter's hold on him dissipating. But one last fragment of memory came to the fore.
There was only one thing to do. "I'm sorry," he whispered almost inaudibly as he let his hand slip from his brother's. Panicked, Leo grabbed for him, but caught only air as Mike dropped into the grey swirling abyss.
As he fell away, the last thing Mike heard was his brother's anguished scream. "NO!!!" With that, the surface world was swallowed by grey.
Mike's descent abruptly ceased as his body jerked like a rag doll. But the jarring pain and blackness he was expecting did not come. Barely conscious, he tried to open his eyes, seeing only a blur of smoke and flames. Before he could will himself to focus, the world flared suddenly in an explosion of white light.
Sharp pain shot through him, and he was suddenly aware of another presence battering at the edges of his mind. Somehow, he grasped its intent, but it wavered, almost as if it needed to be permitted to enter.
Mike's conscious mind hesitated. But one voice, beyond reason and deep within his subconscious, agreed.
~I don't want to die!~
That was all it took.
Light exploded in and around him, and the rest of the world died away as a powerful presence flooded into his body. ~No!~ Mike tried to cry out, despite what his instinct had agreed to. ~I don't want this!~
His protests were futile as he was suddenly aware of everything the strange presence had seen and known in his life; a swirl of pain, grief, anger, and vengeance. As he slipped into the depths of his mind, Mike was positive that this must be what his own private hell was like.
Then, suddenly, something went wrong. There was a howl, a ripping sensation, and everything faded to black.
"Corbett? Corbett?" Faith repeated, sure that she'd seen some reaction. "Mike?"
Giles and Xander exchanged looks, and Giles shook his head grimly as he stood, wiping his glasses nervously. It didn't look good.
Suddenly, Mike convulsed, his entire body jerking violently as his eyes flew open. He leaned back, staring into space as he gasped for air. "Corbett!" Faith repeated. "Can you hear me? You in there?"
Numbly, Mike nodded, trying to breathe evenly. He remained staring blankly into space, seemingly fixated on a point beyond them. Giles knelt back down beside Faith as Cordelia joined the group clustered around Mike. "So what's wrong with him?" she demanded of the Watcher.
Giles sighed. "You always assume I know all the answers," he muttered. "I believe he's going into shock. Not that I could blame him, given the nature of what just happened."
Xander turned to the circulation desk, where Willow was bending - carefully this time - to replace the tranquilizer gun. "Will! Call an ambulance!"
"No," Mike croaked, startling them all. He coughed and managed to focus on Giles. "No, I--" Swallowing against a dry throat, he added more loudly, "I don't need an ambulance."
"Are you sure?" Giles asked.
Mike nodded wearily. "Yeah, I'm fine. I'm - I'm still me."
"Glad to hear it," Faith quipped.
With more than a little effort, Mike began to pull himself up, waving off Giles' attempts to help as he hauled himself unsteadily to his feet, holding on to the bookcase for balance. He wavered for several seconds, not letting go of the bookcase as he tried to regain his equilibrium. The others backed off, giving him a chance to preserve his dignity. "All right," Mike finally admitted. "I need some help here, please."
Grinning, Faith slung his arm over her shoulders, supporting him on one side. "That's not all you need."
As she guided him down to the lower level, Mike sighed. "Yeah, I need about a week's worth of sleep, a new set of legs, maybe a truckload of aspirin--" He stopped abruptly as her free hand wandered. "You've got one hell of a one-track mind, you know that?" Faith merely smirked.
Buffy approached them, dusting her hands off proudly. "Oz is still out cold, and I kind of had to MacGyver a lock," the Slayer explained. At Giles' curious expression, she added, "Hope you didn't like that letter opener too much."
Despite himself, Giles smiled and shook his head, patting her on the shoulder. "We'll worry about that in the morning."
In the midst of all the commotion, Frank had slipped into the library, and was hovering by the doors uncertainly. Cordelia? You might want to put the top down on your car.
"I wouldn't need to if you were out watching it!" the brunette exclaimed, throwing up her hands.
I'm serious. Look outside.
Turning to look out the window, Cordelia let out a squeal. She turned and bolted for the exit, brushing past Frank as she plowed out the library doors. The others followed curiously, filing out into the hall and out the side doors of the parking lot to see what was the matter.
A gentle sprinkling of rain was spattering the sidewalks, picking up as the Scooby Gang stepped outside. Within moments, it had become a steady downpour, blurring the surroundings with curtains of water. "We came out here for this?" Giles exclaimed, wrapping his vest about him tighter.
Willow beamed, holding out her hands as if to catch the raindrops in her palms. "It's wonderful!"
"It's also freezing," the Watcher muttered, hurrying back to the relative safety of the overhang. Cordelia, still shrieking, was scrabbling to get the top down on her convertible while Xander attempted to help. Faith, still supporting Mike, had wisely remained high and dry beneath the overhang. Frank folded his arms and grinned, the first real smile any of them had seen on the bassist's face. The miserable heat of the past few weeks was gone, and the first rain they'd had for weeks was coming down in torrents.
Buffy sagged against Angel, who put an arm around her as they stood together in the rain, content. "It's over."
"So everything is taken care of?" the Mayor inquired.
Trick nodded. "Pretty much. Slayer trashed the siren. Turns out there was a sidhe in the mix, but she's also out of the picture."
"Mmm." Pausing to brush a speck off the desk, Wilkins folded his hands in front of him thoughtfully. "Our other two clients: what of them? Did you send a committee to deal with Robinson?"
"Already taken care of," Trick replied. "It's his own fault for lighting up in a van carrying all that explosive."
Wilkins smiled. "I've always said smoking was a nasty habit. What about the fourth member of the group?"
"Turned on them," was the answer. "Couldn't bring himself to do in the sidhe, though. I don't think he'll be a problem."
"Well, three out of four isn't bad," the Mayor sighed. He leaned back, an odd look in his eyes.
Trick noticed it immediately. "What?"
"She was something, wasn't she?" Wilkins said admiringly. "Quite a woman. Last time I met someone that remarkable was that succubus who blew through here in the sixties."
The vampire chuckled. "You've got to respect the dominatrix."
"I might have added her to my team had she been trustworthy," Wilkins mused. "Pity she had to go and try to drain energy from the Hellmouth." He sat up straight again. "But what's done is done, I suppose."
"So... is that all for tonight?"
Wilkins stood and went to the cabinet, pulling his favorite bottle of Scotch and two glasses out from behind the occult artifacts. "Not quite." He set the glasses down on his desk and uncorked the bottle, pouring the liquor into the glasses, handing one to Trick.
The vampire raised an eyebrow. "I'm not much of a Scotch drinker, you know."
"One glass won't kill you. Besides, this is the finest Scotch I've tasted yet, and I've been around long enough to know." Wilkins lifted his glass. "A toast. To all the... remarkable women out there."
He took a long chug of his drink, and Trick sipped his as well. It was pretty damned good. "So," he said after a moment. "Tell me about this succubus."
The reminiscing - and the Scotch - lasted well into the night.
The young man groaned, cracking his eyes open to meet the bright sunlight streaming through the window.
Mike blinked a few times, briefly afraid he'd been sucked into some kind of mad time loop and that the whole week was about to repeat itself. But this wasn't Giles' bedroom. He was lying in a small guest room that was neat and quiet and comfortable... and utterly unfamiliar.
The bedroom door was slightly ajar, and he could hear the sound of a television set and laughter. Of course. Now he remembered. This was Buffy's place; Giles wouldn't let him crash on his couch with the condition he was in. They had ended up at Buffy's house, sans Angel, after Buffy had insisted she assure her mother that the monster of the week was gone. Joyce had caught Buffy sneaking out with a purseload of stakes Friday night, and had spent the rest of the evening worrying.
One look at Mike, and Joyce had gone straight for the first-aid kit. He couldn't recall all the details - he hadn't exactly been at his most alert - but around the time he dropped off to sleep at the kitchen table for the third time, Joyce had offered the use of the guest room. He didn't remember much after that.
The clock radio by the bed read nine a.m. From the noise downstairs, it was safe to say that most of the Scooby Gang either had stayed over or came back early. Sighing, Mike rose and dressed, glaring at his reflection in the mirror briefly before heading downstairs.
"They're both for breakfast, you put syrup on both of them, you make them both with Bisquick," the Slayer observed. "Don't see the distinction."
"I'm serious, Buffy," Willow argued as Buffy attempted to help Joyce in the kitchen. "Waffles are a lot better than pancakes any day. They've got that, that nice waffle shape that lets you pour the syrup in the little squares. You can even make patterns."
As Buffy looked at her friend oddly, Oz spoke up. "She's got a point. You've got to consider texture."
"Texture?" Buffy asked.
"The absorption level," the guitarist answered blithely. "Pancakes take in syrup like a sponge. Waffles don't absorb it so quickly."
Willow nodded, pleased to have some support in the debate. "And - and that way they don't get all spongy and mushy after two bites."
"You could eat them without syrup and it wouldn't matter," a voice interrupted. They all turned to see Mike leaning against the doorframe. "But I'll add my vote to waffles."
Buffy shot him an exasperated look. "Will you stop sneaking up on us? I get enough of that from--" She bit back the last word, realizing her mother was present.
Fortunately, Joyce didn't pick up on that, or didn't seem to. "How are you feeling?"
"Better," Mike yawned. "Hungry." He tapped his forehead and grimaced. "I think I'm doomed to walk around Sunnydale with a bandage on my head."
"It could be worse," Oz observed.
Mike nodded, conceding the point. "Where's everybody else?"
"Faith's around," Willow replied dismissively. "Frank's on the porch tuning, Xander's watching TV, Giles is being Giles somewhere, and Cordelia's getting her car reupholstered."
As she mentioned Frank, Oz straightened up as if remembering something. He turned and murmured something in Willow's ear, giving her a peck on the cheek as he left the kitchen. Mike watched him go, then turned back to the immediate possibility of breakfast.
At least his baby was fine.
He hadn't had time to get it before Molly had grabbed him, and Frank was wholeheartedly glad about that. If he had, it would probably be blown to bits with Mal and the rest of the equipment in the van. Frank sighed. Rest in peace. True, Malik had been as much of an ass as the other two, but a small-scale ass. As much as he'd complained and griped and smoked, for a few years Mal had been the closest thing to a friend Frank had.
The question nagged at the edges of his mind. Had he done it? Had he ignited that spark that took out the van and Mal with it with whatever ability he had?
No. No, he was sure of it. Somehow, Frank knew he wasn't capable of that. But it left the question of who, exactly, had rigged the van. It certainly wasn't coincidence.
The rattle of the screen door brought him back to reality, and he looked up to see Oz standing there, guitar in hand. "Hey."
Hey, Frank replied.
Oz gestured to the bass guitar in Frank's lap. "How's she sound?"
Not bad. Glad I left her in the Bronze. I think she'll pull through.
The other musician nodded, settling down on the bench with his own guitar across his knees. He reached into his pocket, holding the guitar pick up to the light. "Only one way to find out."
"I let him," Mike said after a moment.
Willow blinked. "What?"
Mike sighed, staring at the dining room table. "I must have blocked it out... it wasn't even conscious, but he had to be 'let in.'" He glanced over his shoulder to where Joyce was making the waffle mix, oblivious to their conversation. "Some part of me freaked. I didn't want to die. That was all it took."
"Oh," Willow replied, unsure how to respond. "It's - it's not like you asked for him to try that."
"Maybe," was all Mike would say.
Buffy nudged him. "Hey. Anybody in that situation wouldn't want to die. Anybody sane, anyway."
"It's not my sanity I'm worried about," Mike mused. "I'm going to be okay, it's just - if he hadn't tried that stunt, if he hadn't stopped my fall, I'd probably be dead right now."
The two young women were silent, unable to think of an appropriate answer as the sound of the screen door banging and the strains of dueling guitar chords could be heard. "Got a major jam session going on out there," Faith announced as she strode into the kitchen.
Buffy raised an eyebrow. "Wow. Isn't this, like, 2 am according to your sleep schedule? What are you doing up?"
"Didn't sleep," Faith answered. "How's the head, Corbett?"
"Still attached to my neck," Mike responded as she took the seat beside him. "How are you doing?"
Faith grinned. "Hey, I'm livin' large." She patted his knee, cocking her head suggestively. Willow and Buffy tried not to laugh at the resigned look on Mike's face.
"Faith, the boy just escaped being possessed," Buffy scolded. "He hasn't even had breakfast yet."
"Hey," Faith protested, putting both hands on the table before her and trying to look innocent. "I'm here for the pancakes."
"Waffles," Willow corrected.
"Whatever. So where's the syrup?"
When the stream of intertwining guitar chords finally ceased, Buffy took her cue to step out onto the back porch. "Room service."
Oz set his guitar down and took one of the plates from her hands before they could topple, handing it to Frank. The bassist took the plate with a grateful smile. Thanks.
"No problem." She handed Oz his plate and sat down on the stoop as Frank dug into his portion with an almost feral vigor.
Even with his werewolf side to contend with, Oz was surprised at the way Frank was inhaling the food. "Haven't eaten in a while?"
He stopped, embarrassed. Huh? Oh. Sorry. Haven't had something home-cooked in ages.
Buffy nodded understandingly. The three of them sat in silence for several minutes, finishing off the waffles. "So what are you going to do now?" Buffy asked.
Frank didn't answer for a moment, chewing his bite thoughtfully. I don't know. Hadn't thought about that yet. Not sure where I could go.
"You could always stick around here," Buffy suggested, then hesitated. "Did I really say that?"
But what am I going to do?
"You could at least jam with Dingoes Ate My Baby," Oz offered.
"It'd be an improvement," Buffy put in. "No offense."
"None taken. We could play more than one chord for a change."
The slightest hint of a smile played at the corners of Frank's mouth. I'm not going back to my folks. From his tone, it was evident he meant that. But I've got a cousin in Stone Canyon. Trini might put me up for a day or two at least if I grovel.
"Sounds like a start," Buffy observed.
I'll have to think about it. I've got time.
"Freedom," Oz noted. "Got to be a new concept."
Frank leaned back in his seat, thinking. I haven't been on my own in years. I don't know where to start.
Buffy stood up to collect plates. "Nice, isn't it?"
This time, Frank really did smile. Damn right.
"Hey," Willow greeted as she and Mike came into the living room, plates in hand. "What you watching?"
"Huh?" Xander glanced up. "Food! All right!" He fairly snatched the plate from Willow's hands, blocking her view of the TV. "Thanks, Will."
Mike settled into the armchair, plate in hand. "Down in front."
As Xander reluctantly sat back down on the couch, Willow scooted in beside him, watching the TV with interest. "You're watching Power Rangers again, aren't you?"
"I'm exploring my inner child," Xander replied defensively. Mike promptly started choking on his food. "Hey, Mike? You okay?"
"Did you say 'Power Rangers?'" Mike gasped incredulously once he was able to speak again.
"Yeah," Xander answered. "Why?"
"Nothing," Mike said, shaking his head. "Got to be a coincidence."
The television was showing a group of too-attractive teens on what was obviously a soundstage made up to look like a youth center. A very familiar youth center, if it had four walls and was slightly less fake-looking. Mike set down his fork, suddenly having lost his appetite. "What the hell is this?"
"It's this really cheesy kids' show," Willow explained. "They take footage of Japanese sentai and splice it together with American footage. It's corny, but a lot of little kids like it."
"Kids' show?" Mike echoed in disbelief. He set the plate aside, all traces of his appetite gone. Something told him he probably didn't want to see this, but a perverse fascination kept him rooted to his seat as the show played out. Even fashioned from obviously fake and too-clean settings, he couldn't help but recognize places from his childhood: the Youth Center, Angel Grove High, and that damned park. Seemed like every third time he or Leo had crossed through Angel Grove Park for some reason or another, there was a monster attack going on. He was watching the story of the superheroes he'd idolized half his life as a low-budget kids' show.
Man, did he ever have a headache.
"Wait a minute," Willow realized. "Angel Grove. Didn't you say that was where you were from?"
"Yep," Mike muttered.
Xander swallowed abruptly and turned to gape at Mike. "Hey... you don't mean that Angel Grove, do you?"
"No," Mike answered slowly, still recovering from his shock. "This Angel Grove was real." At their stares, he added, "Yes, with real Power Rangers."
"Let me get this straight," Xander said as the robot and the monster of the day started trashing the cardboard city. "So where you come from, a bunch of teenagers in spandex fighting off aliens was normal. And you didn't believe the Hellmouth was real until a couple of vampires almost killed us."
"Well, this was real," Mike snapped angrily. "People did get killed. A lot. People I knew. There was a ton of property damage. Monster alarms and shelters were a normal, everyday part of life, all right? Those huge things storming into the middle of town were huge, and real, and damn destructive."
"Okay, okay," Xander conceded. "Sorry. Didn't mean to hit a nerve there."
"It's okay," Mike sighed.
There was a moment of silence as the show continued on. "So, did you ever meet the pink one?" Xander asked. Willow pinched him. "Ow! It's a legitimate question. I mean, she fills out that spandex." Another pinch. "I'll shut up now."
"I knew of her," Mike muttered. "And it wasn't spandex, it was armor."
"Looks like spandex to me," Xander observed. "You can't tell me it wasn't."
"Maybe on a cheap kids' show, but not in real life."
"It was armor, I was there."
Willow changed the channel.
Faith was sitting alone at the dining room table, with an empty plate in front of her and an almost content smile on her face. She glanced up as Buffy entered with a stack of plates as the jam session resumed outside. "How's it hanging?"
"I think Frank's going to be fine," Buffy announced as she set the plates down for a moment. "You don't look so bad yourself."
"You know me. Five by five." She leaned back and stretched, the contentment fading.
Buffy caught the flash of worry in Faith's eyes. "What is it?"
For a moment, Faith looked like she was about to shrug it off, but decided not to. "Think Vortex Boy's all right?"
"Mike? He will be if you and Xander stop calling him that."
"Come on, B. You know what I'm talking about."
Buffy stood and picked up the dirty dishes. Faith followed her into the kitchen as she set them down by the sink. "I guess he'll be okay. The whole 'possession' thing has him kind of wigged out, but he's dealing."
Faith nodded. "Has to be to survive here."
Willow stuck her head into the kitchen door, trying not to laugh. "Buffy? You might want to, um--"
Curious, the two Slayers followed Willow into the living room. Xander and Mike were arguing loudly, oblivious to their audience. "Armor!"
Faith grinned. "I think our boy's going to fit right in."
The three girls exchanged looks, then burst into hysterical laughter.
Screams. Nothing but screams. The child's dying cries echoed in the warrior's ears as he stumbled from the battle, heartsick and weary. If only he had been quick enough. If only he had foreseen his son's brave and impulsive move. If only he could have stopped Zika. If only... Countless battles passed by, a flood of anger and loss and terror. Everything he had fought for, all the ideals he had stood for, seemed to fade away. Scorpius' forces had killed innocent after innocent. They had laid waste to all that was good. They had murdered his son. They had taken his soul. And for that, they would pay.
The child's dying cries echoed in the warrior's ears as he stumbled from the battle, heartsick and weary. If only he had been quick enough. If only he had foreseen his son's brave and impulsive move. If only he could have stopped Zika. If only...
Countless battles passed by, a flood of anger and loss and terror. Everything he had fought for, all the ideals he had stood for, seemed to fade away. Scorpius' forces had killed innocent after innocent. They had laid waste to all that was good. They had murdered his son.
They had taken his soul.
And for that, they would pay.Mike awoke with a start, nearly knocking himself off Giles' couch in his shock. He sat bolt upright, gasping for air, his heart pounding in his chest. It was a few moments before he could collect himself, wiping the sweat from his brow and untangling himself from the sheets. The anger and hatred from his dream ebbed away, to be replaced with a cold fear.
He knew that rage. He'd seen it for a few moments, when the Defender had taken hold of him for the first time. Dreaming of Maya had disturbed him, but not like this. Never like this. Why couldn't he go back to those dreams?
As if answering his question, the words of the Defender came back to him. --The mergence began when you first awakened me.--
Mike groaned and flopped back down, shifting position to get comfortable. The vengeful spirit was gone, for now. Giles had assured him of that. If he could just stop thinking about this, and torturing himself, maybe he might be able to get more than three hours' sleep. He had to stop dwelling on it.
--I must have my revenge.--
His subconscious was tormenting him, that was all. It wasn't real. His fixation with Maya had triggered those dreams, and the Friday night insanity had triggered these. This too would pass. Dammit, what was wrong with him?
--It must be completed.--
Sighing, Mike rolled over onto his side, closing his eyes. He was not going to think about this; his head hurt too much already. The Defender was gone, banished and unable to touch him. It was over. As he slipped back into a restless sleep, two words floated through his subconscious.
The EndAuthor's Note: Yes, there is a sequel in the works to this. There are several sequels pending. They've been in the works since December '99, which should tell you how slowly this series has been progressing. I haven't produced anything that I consider to be a worthy follow-up to "New Blood" yet, but when I do... you'll be the first to know. I just wish these stories would write themselves sometimes. :)