Giles unlocked the Citroen and climbed in. He had done a thorough perimeter check and even looked under the chassis and hood for explosives, an action that would have brought whoops of laughter from any bystander who divined his intent. He scanned the faces on the sidewalk but no one looked out of place. Of course he was probably fooling himself by believing that he would be able to detect them, but it was the last sop he could throw to his vanity.

The evening had been ghastly, hours of movement for its own sake, motivated by fear. A few minutes ago he had experienced an epiphany. He wasn't afraid of them, whoever they might be. What really churned his stomach, what made his hands shake and his head grow light, was the knowledge that he really had no place to go. Vampires, demons, wraiths, goblins, he had faced them all, but always with the knowledge that he was part of a greater good, a warrior in a dedicated army.

Now he just felt like a fool. Rupert Giles turned the key in the ignition and put the tiny car in gear.

***

Xander checked the time, then ran his hands through his hair. Said hair was now sticking straight up but he was long past caring. Here he sat, in a borrowed sport coat and a dumbass bolo tie, humiliated beyond anything he could remember, which meant this was a grave ignominy indeed. He checked the time again. Ten-thirty, which made Cordelia officially three and a half hours late. He put a mental asterisk by that thought-after the asterisk he added 'without a phone call or anything.'

He had tried calling her, but the only answer he got was the machine. The Bronze was loud and rocking; it seemed that everyone else was part of a couple and they were all looking at him. He pushed away from the table. Xander Harris would salvage some small shred of pride. He would not stay here until closing time, waiting like some pathetic puppy for her to show or call. As he made his way through the crowd his face felt hot and dry, like someone with a bad fever.

***

"Tell me again what happened?" Trick strode swiftly through the hall, his coat swirling around him.

"Marcellus told me to come and get you." The vampire was almost running to keep up, although this might have been the result of an obvious case of nerves.

Trick rolled his eyes and bit down on the first reply that popped into his head. "Yes, but why did he send for me?"

"Oh, well, one of the perimeter guys heard a noise and when he went to see what it was, there was this crate on the ground outside the fence. So he calls Marcellus, and he checked the box and then he told me to come and get you."

Trick did a slow burn. "You're a fountain of knowledge." He walked the rest of the way in silence, ignoring his servile companion. They left the gleaming, fluorescent-lit hall and entered the cavernous delivery bay. The huge overhead door was still down, but a normal, hinged steel door was open. His guide pointed through the open door. Trick shook his head and went into the night.

The black asphalt rolled smoothly away to the fence, which was quite close to the building at this spot. Only forty yards or so separated him from the three lackeys huddled around a wooden crate. They stared into it, transfixed. Trick crossed the distance with long, rapid strides. "Marcellus," he snapped as he reached the gate. "What's going on?"

Marcellus turned and Trick did not like the look on the other vamp's face one little bit. Marcellus was no great thinker, but he was tough and, like many that lack imagination, he did not understand fear. He gestured at the crate. "I thought you should see this," he said.

Trick scrutinized the container as he approached. It was a large, big enough for a desk or coffin, made of rough wood slats. Splinters were still visible on the raw wood. He waved Marcellus aside and looked in.

"Aaaaaaaah shit," Trick said as he stepped away and threw his head back. He rubbed his forehead and went back to the crate. "Give me a stake," he said.

"W-We don't have any stakes," one of the vampires stammered.

"Then get one or get me a machete or a saw or any damn thing that'll work," Trick barked, his baleful gaze scorching them. They stumbled off toward the building. Trick turned to Marcellus. "I wondered when this would happen," Trick said.

"Sir, I didn't see who sent it," Marcellus said. "But I'm sure--"

"I know who did this." Trick turned to the sound of running feet. One of the vamps held an axe at port arms. He thrust it at Trick.

"Will this do?"

Trick snatched the axe away from him. "It'll have to." He hooked the axe over the edge of the crate and pulled. It tipped over. The other vamps turned away as the contents rolled out. "Sorry, brother," Trick said and swung the axe. He waited for the dust to clear, then bent down and picked up an envelope.

"What is that?" Marcellus asked.

Trick turned the envelope, looking at it from all sides. "I'm not sure of the exact wording, but it's a declaration of war." He tossed the axe to Marcellus, who caught it deftly in one hand. "Be sure and lock up," Trick said as he went back into the building.

***

Angel was almost to the door of the mansion when he heard the footsteps behind him. He turned, keeping his left side toward whoever was behind him, his weight shifted slightly toward his back foot. Another person, male by the silhouette, stopped as well.

"Why do you always think I want to fight?" the figure said. A shaft of moonlight fell on the sidewalk, illuminating his feet and lower legs. He wore very nice shoes. His upper body and face remained in darkness.

"Better safe than sorry," Angel said. He was glad that his body hid his right hand. That way the shaking was invisible. He started to edge back toward the door.

"Ah, yes, caution. A trait I admire." The other man leaned against the retaining wall and appeared to be completely at ease.

"I really don't want to talk to you," Angel said. He wanted to get inside and put a nice thick door between them.

"But I wish to talk to you. There is a rumor that you are thinking of leaving this fair city."

Angel swallowed, fighting to keep his voice steady. "That's right. And soon."

His visitor shook his head. "I am afraid I cannot allow that."

Angel felt a tremor race up his right arm. "Oh?" was all he trusted himself to say.

"You see, I think I may need your help."

Angel's eyes narrowed. "What?"

"I find myself in a bit of a... what do the Americans call it? Oh yes, a pickle. I'm in a bit of a pickle and you're the only one who has all the necessary... qualifications to help me."

"What if I say no?"

"You won't." The visitor put his hands in the pockets of his trousers. "You wouldn't abandon the Slayer when she needed you most, would you?"

***

Giles sensed them before he saw them. He was on the sidewalk, approaching his apartment when the two large figures detached themselves from the shadows and moved to either side of him. Giles realized that his earlier thoughts were wildly optimistic-there was no way out. For a split-second, a fraction of a heartbeat, he was tempted to run, but where would he run? And for what purpose? Better to get this over with than to live on the run, always looking over his shoulder yet without any real mission. No, he would end it here and take what pleasure he could in dealing out some pain of his own.

He lowered himself into a fighting stance. His assailants took two steps away from each other and Giles saw the glimmer of light on the edge of a blade. He, of course, like an idiot, had no weapons with him. The man on his right feinted. Giles half-turned toward him. The assassin on the left bought the feint and stepped forward. Giles blocked the thrust with his left forearm and jabbed the stiffened fingers of his right hand forward. His opponent dropped his chin to protect his larynx. Even as his blow deflected off the man's chin Giles knew that the other one was making his move. Worse, the librarian knew there was nothing he could do. He would never respond in time; all he could hope to do was turn a fatal blow into a wounding one. Something buzzed by his ear and suddenly the man in front of him was gone. Giles looked around, confused, and saw his attacker a few feet away. It took a moment for Giles to realize that someone else was fighting the assassin. The disoriented Watcher saw the flash of the knife, a series of blows and counterattacks rendered surreal by the vaporous blue-white glare of the streetlamps, and then the Watcher's antagonist was down, moaning as he clutched at a broken wrist. Giles' savior turned to him.

"Hey, Mr. Giles," said Stefan Warner. "Thought you'd never come home." The librarian gaped, then whirled at the sound of footsteps behind him. Matti Hollis approached, cradling a long black pistol in her arms. Giles looked at the pistol, then at the second attacker. A long, cylindrical dart protruded from his chest.

"It's just a tranquilizer," Matti said. Giles continued to gawk at the two of them.

"You're probably confused," Warner offered.

"That I am," Giles said, his eyes big. "Who are you?"

"I thought you'd never ask," Warner said. "Mr. Giles, the Chevaliers du Croix are at your service."

Matti Hollis laughed. "You love to say that, don't you?"

***

End of "Blood Brothers."