Inversion
by Trekker


He was falling in love. It was so wildly inappropriate right now, with Buffy’s pain, and Angel’s soullessness, and the very real threat of death hanging over all their heads, and yet, there it was. Love.

He should have been thinking about vampires and research, and what Angel’s next move may be, but instead, all he could think of was Jenny... saying she was in love with him.

Jenny, who, right now should be waiting to meet him at home. He’d been half-hard since he left Buffy’s house and now, as he pulled up to the curb in front of his place, he could feel himself trembling lightly with anticipation. Desire, like a fever: shaking, shortness of breath, cold sweat, weakness settling around his joints and making his step a bit uncoordinated. Odd, really, he thought as he fumbled for his keys, that this was a condition people actually sought to be in.

Not that he was complaining.

His hand stopped with the key halfway to the lock when he looked up and actually saw his front door for the first time.

A single red rose was taped at eye level. He felt a grin cross his face as he took down the flower and held it to his nose. The familiar scent brought back soft, pleasant memories, of days as a youth in his family’s rose garden, and romantic dinners lit by candlelight.

He stepped through the unlocked door into a scene from a romance novel... candles, roses, champagne chilling. He called out softly and received no reply, but it didn’t worry him. A bone-deep contentment was settling in alongside the urgency, two forces that should have contradicted, but didn’t...

He took off his coat and then picked up the folded piece of paper that had been propped against the ice bucket.

“Upstairs”

A rush of fire swept through his veins.

Trading his glasses for the champagne bottle and two flutes, he made his way up the stairs to the loft, carefully stepping around the roses that had been left on each step. The heat was pulsing through his body now, coiling in his groin, and his heart was pounding.

He stopped at the top of the stairs, pausing for a moment just to drink in the sight of her... or as much as he could see without his glasses on, anyway. She was stretched out across the bed, atop the covers and still dressed, her head turned towards him.

For a moment, she was very still, then she pushed herself up on one elbow.

“Rupert.”

“Jenny,” he answered, a besotted grin spreading across his face. He crossed the room in a few easy steps and set the glasses and the bottle down on the night stand.

She reached up for him and he leaned down, her hand cupping his cheek and guiding him the last few inches to her lips. They kissed deeply, and then he pulled back a bit.

“You’re cold...”

She smiled.

“It’s a chilly night.”

She paused, then added, with a sexy quirk of her brow, “Want to help warm me up?”

His grin widened and he shed his jacket and flowed onto the bed, filling in the space she made for him and dropping a series of light, teasing kisses across her lips. His hand slid down to her hip and he tugged on it, urging her closer.

They kissed deeply for long, uncounted minutes, lost in the simple pleasure of touching and holding. Her body was a miracle... soft curves, gentle hands. He decided he’d be content if he could just spend hours exploring her, finding all of her secret places, the spots that made her sigh, and moan, and whisper soft, dirty words between his lips. He’d dreamed of this, but his dreams had never even touched the reality of it. Dreams were always too transient, too fragmented. The joy of this was in taking their time, reveling in the joy that finally, finally, they were really here.

Nevertheless, after awhile, she slipped one leg over his and wrapped them together, moving her hips restlessly, suggestively. He gasped and pulled her hard against him, and she threw her head back, inviting him to run his tongue along the long column of her throat. And he did so, tracing the small mole there, and then rolled them over, capturing her beneath him.

“Too many clothes, Rupert,” she said, the first real words either of them had spoken aloud since he’d joined her on the bed.

He smiled and reared back a bit as her fingers went to work on his tie, loosening it and then drawing it over his head and tossing it aside. His smile changed to a mischievous grin, and he ducked his head down to kiss her lips, and nose, and cheeks as she unbuttoned his shirt. Once, her knuckles brushed against his nipple and he shuddered with pleasure.

“Mmm, like that, do you?” she whispered, her voice husky.

In response, he lunged closer to her, nipping at her neck, then her earlobe, then stopping and sucking at the loose skin there.

She chuckled and slid one hand beneath the open flap of his shirt, her fingertips skating over his chest lightly before she laid her hand flat over his nipple and rubbed firmly with the heel of her palm. He gasped... partly from the pleasure of the touch, but also from the cold. Her hand was like ice.

He pulled away, looked down at her.

“Jenny?”

She frowned, small annoyed lines appearing between her brows. Her eyes... something... something wasn’t right.

“Jenny, are you-” he didn’t know quite where he was going with that sentence, until something caught his gaze out of the corner of his eye.

He turned his head, found himself staring into his own eyes... the mirror over the dresser. For a moment, he couldn’t figure out quite what was wrong with the image he was seeing.

And then, Jenny lunged up beneath him, flipping them both over with inhuman strength, and pinning him to the mattress.

No reflection.

“Oh, dear lord,” he whispered, and then her fangs were in his throat.

He’d never quite figured on the extraordinary helplessness. He’d always thought, rather disparagingly, actually, that if a vampire ever did get close enough to bite, he’d throw it off and run. But it wasn’t that simple, he saw now. He was defenseless. He had no cross or stake, wasn’t at a good angle at all to get enough leverage to shove her away, and her strength was startling, even though he’d faced many vampires before.

It was a helpless terror, feeling the slow ebb of blood from his body, and every second he became still more hopeless as he grew weaker.

Her hands were tight like steel bands around his wrists and her body was shifting rhythmically against his, a horrible parody of the lovemaking from a few moments earlier.

“Jenny,” he breathed, uselessly, as her hair tickled his cheek and nose, and her death-cold hands leeched heat from his arms. “Jenny, please.”

He was getting dizzy... the room, everything, seemed far away, muffled by unseen cotton. His breath and heartbeat seemed strangely loud, though, as did the wet sounds of her feeding. His feet and legs were tingling and his head ached. *Blood loss,* his mind supplied, unhelpfully. And then, even more unhelpfully, it added, *Oh God, Buffy. What about Buffy?*

And that thought was enough to make him throw all his remaining strength into one last ditch effort to escape.

All it amounted to was a weak tug against her restraining hands.

She stopped, though, and lifted her head. He could feel his blood trickling down over his shoulder, soaking into his shirt collar.

“Shh,” she said, looking down at him, shifting to her human face. Her eyes were dead, and her bloody smile did not touch them. “Everything’s fine. Just relax, lover. You’ll be fine. Jenny’s gonna make it all better.”

“Oh, God. No. No, no, Jenny... please!”

She pressed her lips to his, and for the first time all night they were warm, and he shuddered again, this time with nothing but revulsion. He could tasted his own blood, coppery and hot.

She dropped her head to his shoulder again, her cool, wet tongue lapping at the wound, coaxing the blood to flow. The world grew dim and quiet, and he began to understand why people talked about lights and tunnels as his vision narrowed down to a single point.

He felt only vaguely her moving away, and then, a moment later, the soft pressure of her wrist against his mouth. It was wet, and slick. He pressed his lips together, tightly. To drink, even one mouthful, would mean a fate far worse than death.

But then her fingers were pinching his nostrils shut, and even moments from death, his body couldn’t override the instinct to breathe. His mouth opened against his will. He felt the silky cool liquid, thick on his teeth and tongue. The taste, the smell: copper and salt, and a tinge of something he could only define as death.

He knew in that moment that he had failed. Failed his family, failed himself, and most importantly, failed his Slayer. His last thought before he died was, “Oh God, Buffy, I’m so sorry.”

***

Jenny sighed and gazed at her fingernails. She was sitting with her back against the headboard, one leg drawn up, nothing to do but wait. And wait. God, it hadn’t taken *her* this long to come around, she was sure of it.

She cast a brief bored glance over at the body in bed beside her. Rupert was still lying in the same pose he’d been in all evening, one arm hanging over the edge of the bed, the other resting across his chest, head turned to the side, dead eyes staring off into space, blood still tacky around the bite marks on his throat. A small pool of it was congealing on the bed beneath his shoulder and the smell was making her hungry. Angel’d warned her that she’d be ravenous... she’d thought that draining a grown man would have been enough to satisfy it. Apparently not.

She sighed again and went back to inspecting her cuticles. Damn, she wished she’d brought her purse.

Then suddenly, bam, she was on the floor, pinned flat on her back.

“Hello, Jenny. I’m back.”

He pressed a hard brutal kiss against her lips and then hopped up, bouncing lightly on the balls of his feet.

“And I’m famished.”

He turned his head and looked down at her from his considerably height, game-faced and grinning, his yellow eyes glittering with an unholy glee.

“Care to accompany me for dinner, my dear?”

She began to grin back, feeling her fangs pressing against her lips.

“Why, Rupert. I’d love to.”

He grabbed her arm and swung her to her feet as though she weighed as little as a feather, then reeled her into his arms. He touched his forehead to hers and looked into her eyes.

“Call me Ripper.”

***

The anger at Angel’s taunting of her mother had lingered, making Buffy tingly and restless. She’d tried to sleep, but it had been useless. She’d laid awake for hours, just tossing and turning, staring around her room, listening to Willow breathe the steady breath of the peacefully sleeping down in her sleeping bag on the floor. Finally, she’d just given up and slipped out the window, armed with her usual assortment of stakes, holy water, and crosses. She might as well get in some patrol hours. Her sleepless night could be someone else’s salvation, after all.

She mused on that as she wandered down the quiet Sunnydale streets. All those people who died while she was off in dreamland. Great, that was a real upper. Like she needed any new depressing thoughts right now, with her boyfriend off being the scourge of the world.

She frowned and fiddled with her stake as she walked.

Seemed like a quiet night, really. No sign so far of demons or vampires or-

No, wait. She froze, listening. Was that a-

Yes! A scream, or at least, an “eek.” Definitely worth investigating. Buffy shot off into the park in the direction of the sound at a dead run. Could be a rabbit, of course, they did make noises like that, as she had become well aware after two years of false alarms and very startled owls...

But no, this was no rabbit. This was the real deal. Two vamps, one male, one female, and one human of undetermined gender... the two feeding vamps were blocking her view. She only had seconds to make the save, so she dashed in at full force. If these vamps had friends nearby, she’d worry about it later. The man was closest, so she grabbed him by the shoulder and flung him back, then shoved the woman away. The human, a young guy, dropped to the ground in a faint, and she spun back towards the male vamp, who had just regained his feet and was lunging towards her.

She froze, stake held high.

The vampires froze, too, and for a long, long moment, they all stood there like statues in the deep darkness of the park, and the only sound was the breeze. And then, very softly, Buffy said:

“Oh God. Giles?”

His lips pulled back in something that could have been a sneer or a grin, or more likely, something in between, and then he shifted out of game-face. His eyes were the same green they’d always been, but they were colder. Emptier. The gentle soul that she’d always seen shining in them was gone. She thought that she just might pass out.

“Buffy,” he said, and his voice was the same as it had ever been, soft and gentle.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw movement, and she instinctually fell back a few paces, putting a tree behind her back and turning so that she could see both of the vamps. The female had also shifted back to human face, and now moved to curl up against Giles’s side, her arm around his neck and her other hand on his chest, as she watched Buffy with clear amusement.

“Jenny?” Buffy whispered.

“Mm-hmm,” Vamp-Jenny said, then twisted her head up to gaze at Giles adoringly. “She’s very perceptive, isn’t she, England?”

“Oh, yes,” Giles said, “That’s my girl. Very bright.”

A familiar half-smile tugged at his lips and he looked her up and down, his eyes dragging over every inch of her body from head to toe, unapologetically.

“And quite the looker, too. Don’t know why I never did anything. Was in the perfect position to abuse my authority with an attractive young thing. Ethan was right. I was pathetic. Thank god that’s done with.”

Ok, that just went too far.

“No,” Buffy said, though shock was still leaving her far too numb to do anything but shake her head in helpless denial. “No. This is a dream, or, or one of those, those alternate reality thingies. This- this isn’t real...”

Giles detached himself from Jenny and all but glided towards her, one hand coming to rest against the tree trunk just above her shoulder. He was close enough that she could smell him, old books, cologne... dried blood... His eyes stared into hers from a distance of mere inches, and if he could have breathed, she would be feeling it against her lips.

“Oh, I assure you, it is very, very real.”

And then she shuddered all over in horror because she knew, she really knew that it was true. Her every Slayer sense was alive and screaming “Vampire” at her, and there was nothing human left.

With a soul-deep, inarticulate cry, she slammed both arms against his chest and sent him flying back, and in seconds, she had snatched another stake from the waistband of her pants.

He was laughing as she came at him, and he danced aside when she plunged the stake forward. The missed blow sent her reeling, but she recovered quickly, and caught him well before he could get his fangs into her neck. She shoved him away again, but this time, instead of just waiting, he backed away, game-faced and still looking amused, and then he grabbed Jenny’s hand and together the two newly-turned vamps fled into the night.

Buffy slowly lowered the stake as she stared after them. A few moments later, her knees finally gave out. She dropped to a kneel on the dewy grass and sobbed her heart out.

***

God, he’d never felt so alive! The night air was shimmering against his skin, his every sense was singing. Foreign blood was rushing through his veins and the thrill of the hunt, the chase, the kill, and the fight with the Slayer were all still with him. The *power* of it.

He couldn’t seem to stop laughing with pure joy. It was like being high, only more so than anything he’d ever experienced.

They were far enough away now, and he knew Buffy wouldn’t be following them, so he suddenly stopped. Jenny didn’t, though, so she was pulled up abruptly by their linked hands like a bulldog hitting the end of its chain. Ripper used the extra momentum to swing her against the side of the pool shed they’d stopped near, and he covered her body with his own and kissed her deeply.

She growled, that deep vampire growl, and he answered with a snarl of his own, shoving her back against the faux-wood paneling with a thrust of his hips. He found he couldn’t kiss her and hump her at the same time, so he lifted his lips from hers and went for full-body contact. The shed thumped and rattled under their weight, and a light went on upstairs in the house.

“I... am gonna fuck you. Right here. Right now.”

She just smiled toothily up at him, and hummed her approval as he pressed his hand to the side of her cool thigh and slid it up and down slowly. His fingers traced the seam of the silky fabric with light, teasing touches.

“Well, then, get to it, Rip,” she said, and nipped at his throat.

His only response was to ruck her dress up around her waist. Her hands beat his to his fly and she unzipped him and wrapped her fingers around his cock, pumping him once, twice, holding him tight just the way he liked it. He rolled his head back and cursed, loud and heartfelt. It was about damn time they did this, anyway.

“Hey!”

Ripper lowered his head, and slowly turned it towards the house. A middle-aged man, clad in an old bathrobe, stood mostly silhouetted in the back doorway.

“Hey,” the man repeated. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? This- this is-”

Ripper released Jenny and turned, utterly unconcerned at the state of his clothing. He let out a low growl and let the demon take over, moving towards the man like a tiger stalking its prey. The man, maybe thinking himself brave, but in actuality, merely stupid, took two more steps out of the safety of his home.

“Now, see here. I’ll call the cops, don’t think I won’t. My children are asleep upstairs, I won’t have them seeing-”

The light from the open doorway fell over Ripper’s features, and the man went completely pale. Ripper quivered with the effort of restraint, but he waited, until the exact moment the man realized that he should run, and run now, and then, at that moment, he struck.

He gripped the man’s wrists and pinned them around behind his back, holding him in an embrace close enough that he could feel the man’s body shaking in terror against his. He was staring up at him, his eyes wide, and Ripper watched and enjoyed as he saw every defense, every denial fall away, as the realization deepened and ripened and the man become truly aware that everything that had haunted his nightmares, everything that had seemed to lurk in the darkness, was real.

Watched this, first the logic. Then, the emotion. Terror, horror, sadness, desperation. Felt the man go completely limp.

Monsters were real, and he was doomed.

Ripper smiled down at him.

“Quite right, my dear man. You are dead. Or, rather, you will be, once I’ve drained your blood.”

“Please,” the man rasped, and this made Ripper chuckle.

“You know, I was saying the very same thing myself just a few hours ago. It didn’t save me, either.”

And then he lowered his head and began to drink.

He drained the man halfway and then held him out to Jenny by hair at the base of his skull.

“Care for a taste?”

She shook her head slowly, not breaking eye contact with him.

“Right, then,” he said, and snapped the man’s neck and then let him drop.

This time it was Jenny pushing *him* back against the house. He let his head thump back against the siding as her cool hand closed around his cock again, drawing it out of his pants and then pushing her panties aside and sliding him inside of her. His eyes fluttered closed with pleasure and he sighed, even though he didn’t need to breathe.

”Oh, yes,” he murmured, and he wrapped his arms around her, holding her against him as he began to move his hips. In seconds, he was lost in the feeling of her body, tight and slick around him. Perfect.

“Ripper,” she answered, finding his rhythm and going with it.

They took their time with it, letting the pleasure build slowly from a spark to a raging bonfire. It was odd, though, at this point, to not be sweating, not be panting. It was also invigorating. Hell, he could do this all night. He laughed again, and pulled her harder against him, then flipped them over, so that her back was against the wall again. She made a small startled sound, then laughed, but her laughter quickly changed to pleased moans as he took advantage of this better positioning to take her deeper and harder.

Just as he was beginning to feel his climax come within reach, there was a flash of a shadow across the light from the open doorway beside them, and a moment later, a distraught woman shot out the door and fell to her knees beside the fallen man, crying out, “John!”

Ripper craned his head over his shoulder to watch her, and couldn’t contain an amused snort. The woman looked up in horror and could only stare.

If he hadn’t been quite so pleasantly distracted, she would have made yet another ridiculously easy kill.

To her credit, however, she was faster on the uptake than her late husband, and within seconds, she was back on her feet and in the house. He could hear her dialing 911, and he shouted to her, “You know, I did you a favor! Old John was probably a terribly stuffy old bore!”

He looked back down at Jenny.

“Or maybe that was me,” he said, lightly, and then he really went for it, each thrust slamming her up against the wall hard enough to rattle the windows. Her internal muscles gripped him hard as she came, and drew him right over the edge with her. Just as the last aftershocks of it were sweeping through him, he heard a soft child’s voice in the house, asking “Mommy? What’s going on?”

And then, in the distance, a siren.

Better to not tangle with the local authorities, even if there was nothing they could do to him. Besides, the sky was getting pale.

“Where to, love?”

Jenny smoothed down her skirt and said, “Angel’s.”

***

Willow had awoken to find herself alone in Buffy’s room. For a moment, she’d panicked, but then, she’d remembered the spell. Angel couldn’t get in. Buffy was probably patrolling. She rolled back over in her sleeping bag and shut her eyes. But then, her stomach growled, and the floor felt really hard. She sighed, and decided a little snack was the way to go.

She slunk downstairs in the dark and crept to the refrigerator. She opened the door and stood bathed in the welcoming yellow light. Hmm, she thought, should she go with a cheese stick, or the more healthy veggies?

She was still pondering this momentous decision when she heard the front door quietly open and shut. She bounced out of the kitchen and into the living room, feeling bright-eyed and wide awake, and hoping that Buffy’s patrolling had left her in a similar condition.

“Hey, Buff!” she said, keeping her voice low.

And then, she caught her first real look at her friend.

Buffy was pale, her hands clasped in front of her, her head hanging down. Her clothes and hair were damp with dew. And when she raised her head, looking at Willow like she wasn’t quite sure who she was, her eyes were dead.

Willow’s face fell.

“Buffy?” She approached her, slowly. “Did something happen? Is it Angel?”

“Will,” Buffy said, her voice coming out raw and damaged. It sounded like something had broken inside her that could never be fixed. She took a few aimless steps forward.

“Oh, god. Oh, god, Buffy, what-”

Willow gently caught hold of Buffy’s arm and steered her towards the couch.

“He’s dead, Will.”

They both sat down slowly as Willow spoke gently:

“Who? Angel? Did you fight-”

Buffy was staring at some invisible point near the center of the floor.

“Giles.”

“What? What did Giles do?”

Buffy raised her head again, turned to look at Willow, but her eyes still didn’t quite focus.

“Will, Giles is dead. He’s a vampire. They turned him. They killed him.”

Even hearing the words, it didn’t quite make sense at first. And then, slowly, it sank in. Willow went cold all over.

“Oh. No. No.” Suddenly, she rallied herself, “No!” she turned urgently towards Buffy, grabbed her arm and tugged on it, “You must be wrong. A mistake. Bad lighting. Not, not Giles. He wouldn’t- he’s too-”

For the first time that night, Buffy focused, and her eyes went hard.

“I’m not. He’s dead, Will. I saw him myself. I know what I saw. And-” Buffy looked down at her hands. “And Jenny, too.”

This second blow hit hard, blasting through what little was left of her ruined defenses. She opened her mouth to try to speak again, beg for it not to be true, but instead, all that came out was a sob. And then, once the tears started, she couldn’t get them to stop. She felt like someone had just stabbed a knife through her chest.

Buffy’s strong arms wrapped around her, crushing her almost painfully against her. She knew she should be getting ahold of herself, comforting Buffy, something, but all she could do was cry, cry like she might die of it, like every drop of liquid in her body was escaping down her cheeks, and her chest burned for air because all she could do was gasp between sobs.

This couldn’t be real. Not Giles. Not Jenny. How could she lose the two people she’d come to look up to, to count on, more than almost anyone else in her life? God, Giles had been there for her more than her own parents ever had.

And then, a horrible thought hit her.

“Oh, god,” she gasped, “Buffy, Xander! And- and Cordelia, and Oz! We- we need to warn them.”

She looked up at Buffy through the blur of tears and saw her friend’s eyes were still dry, although her shoulder was soaked. Buffy nodded.

“You... think you’re up for it?”

Willow sat up straight and drew in a deep breath, swiping the sleeve of her pajama tops over her eyes.

“Yeah. Yeah, I am.”

Buffy waited for her in the living room as she snuck back up the stairs and changed, and then they both slipped out into the grey haze of near-dawn. It was a short walk to Xander’s, where the threw rocks at his window until he appeared at the window, then joined them outside. Next, Oz’s place. Then, Cordelia’s. They were silent in their mission, and the others picked up on their silence and merely followed them all the way back to the school.

They settled in their usual places in the quiet library. Willow pointedly tried not to look at anything. Buffy seemed to be looking at everything.

Cordelia was the first to break the silence.

“So, we’re all here. Where’s Giles? Doesn’t he like, live here?”

For a moment, Willow was uncomfortably sure that Buffy was going to kill her. She went completely still, her eyes drilling into Cordelia like lasers.

“What?” Cordelia said, looking put out.

Willow couldn’t keep it in any longer.

“He’s dead.”

Now all eyes, except Buffy’s, who was again avoiding eye contact with anything, were on her.

“He- he got- he’s a vampire now.”

Again, Cordelia: “He’s what?” She looked even more put out than before. “Look, is this some kind of a joke? I mean, hello, it’s like, o’ dark thirty in the morning, this is not fu-”

Buffy backhanded her.

She hit the shelves, bounced to the floor, then scrambled to her feet with one hand pressed to her face. Everyone just stared, wide-eyed, too shocked to move.

“Holy shit,” Oz said, “He really is, isn’t he?”

Willow nodded, the tears pressing against her eyes again.

“Oh, god,” Cordelia said, “I think you dislocated my jaw.”

Willow squeezed her eyes shut and then Oz was there, his arms so warm around her, holding her tight and keeping her safe.

“What do we do?” he said.

The darkness was comforting. Willow just drifted on it, feeling a slow trickle of tears running down her cheeks, floating on the sensation of Oz’s embrace, the only thing that really seemed real.

“We need to stop him,” Buffy said, softly. “He could be dangerous, with all the Watcher stuff he knows. We should stake out his house, and here. He might come back, and then, then we can-”

Kill him.

The unspoken words hung in the void around them, and no one spoke for a long, long time. Oz was quietly rocking her, his face pressed to her hair. She could feel his breath against her ear, and feel it cooling the wet tracks on her cheek.

After awhile, she had to open her eyes. Buffy was leaning against the bookshelves. Cordelia was sitting at the head of the table, down near the computer. She looked slightly spaced out, but she was still gingerly probing her jaw with her finger tips. Xander was standing, a few feet away from the table. Just standing. Like maybe he’d forgotten how to move.

“Xander?” Willow said, gently, and felt Oz lift his head a bit, shift his arms.

Xander didn’t react.

“Xander?” she tried again. He moved a bit, then finally turned to look at her, the same dead shell-shock in his eyes she’d seen in Buffy’s earlier that day.

“Huh?”

Oz released her and she walked around the table, and reached for him. But before she could embrace him, he flinched all over and took a quick step away.

“Don’t.”

She looked up at him, pained.

“Oh- ok.”

He looked a bit apologetic, turned and lifted a hand, nearly touched her face, then stopped himself.

“I just, I just need... need to... not be touched right now.”

Her vision blurred again, and she nodded.

“Ok. Ok, that’s fine. I understand.”

There was another painful silence, and then he spoke again.

“I think... I think I’m gonna go. Yeah. Go.”

And then he made for the door at a slow, ambling, pace, wavering slightly, like a drunk. They all watched him go, and then Oz, for once, spoke first.

“Giles was a good man. I think... it’s important we don’t forget that.”

Willow turned back to face the group and saw Buffy was crying again, silently, just dampness on her cheeks, sticking her eyelashes together in dark clumps. Her arms were crossed, though, and her expression was resolved.

“He was. And now- he’s gone. And there’s a demon in his body. And we’ve got to stop it. Because it’s the right thing to do.”

“But... Buffy. Can you?” Willow asked.

She looked down, then looked back up, her eyes hard again.

“I have to. And I will. And Angel, too. Because nothing’s gonna bring him back, and too many lives have been lost.”

Willow felt her heart break all over again, but all she said was:

“Good. That’s good.”

***

The hem of a burgundy silk skirt lightly caressed the floor as Drusilla approached the little cd player and switched it on. She adored Rasputina, the strings and the lovely Gothic lyrics were simply dreamy.

"Once you're well, we're going dancing, Spike," she purred, dancing around her wheelchair bound lover and teasing his shoulders with her long fingertips. She growled, and smirked playful, as he grabbed her hand in his and kissed it, drawing her index finger into his mouth.

"That we will, Pet... an' we'll start with a tango on the Slayer's grave."

"Mmmmmm." Her midnight eyes flashed with a hint of gold. "Remember during the Boxer Rebellion when you killed your first Slayer?" Dru moved away from him a bit, putting her hand to her lower abdomen and danced suggestively to the music. "You were right about it being an aphrodisiac. And we'll have more again, and ride on, and on, and on..."

"Dru, you're insatiable," Spike grinned.

She wrinkled her nose at him and continued dancing, rolling her hips and swinging her other arm above her head as though it were a lasso. Then she stopped dancing, running her free hand over her head and down her body.

"Spike, I wonder what'd happen if we turned a Slayer?"

"Drusilla, dear," a new voice sounded from the doorway, and she turned to see Angelus framed in a square of light, a gunmetal door sliding shut behind him. "It's bad manners to play with your food."

She squealed in glee and prowled over to embrace her Sire, then snarled playfully at him.

"Daddy's home!" Drusilla ran a hand through Angelus' thick black hair, oblivious to Spike tensing in jealousy. "What have you brought your kitten?" She purred, rubbing her body up against his.

Angelus smirked and slipped one hand into the pocket of his trench coat, withdrawing a tiny rag doll in Romanian costume, which he presented to the waif-like woman.

Dru plucked it from his hands and danced about the factory with it, holding its tiny hands in hers.

"I'm going to call you Daisy Mae," she sang, "'cause you're as pretty as a flower... but I can't have flowers because they always die." Then here eyes went wide, and she crumpled to the floor, clutching the dolly to her chest and whimpering in pain. A flash of motion had registered on her third eye. "I see it..."

Through the pain and the confusion, she heard Angelus' voice.

"Tell me what you see, Drusilla."

"Rain... It's a rainy night... They're frightened... and cold... nowhere to run, nowhere to hide." She returned to the present as the sturdy metal door started sliding open again and turned to face their visitors.

They were two young vamps, newly turned.

"Oh, Daddy," Drusilla whispered, approaching the couple, "look who's come to visit." She caught sight of the well toned biceps on the male and reached out a hand with undisguised lust in her eyes. "Look at this one... he's built like a god!"

The female leaned possessively against the male, switched to game face, and hissed at Dru while the male simply stood there smirking and fondling one of the female's breasts.

"Mine," the fledgling female warned.

"Good girl, Jenny," Angelus chuckled cruelly. "I knew you could do it." Then he swaggered over to stand nose to nose with the male. "This will do better than kill her - it'll devastate her, won't it, Rupert?" He slapped the male on the shoulder. "After all, what good's a Slayer without her Watcher?"

"Not a damn bit of good," the fledgling male smirked. "And the name's 'Ripper' now."

Angelus laughed out loud, not bothering to disguise the contempt he felt toward this interloper.

"Oh, no no no no no.... Not so fast. You're gonna have to * earn* that name... Rupert."

Ripper glared at Angelus, but dared not challenge him just yet.

"We need a place to stay," Jenny explained. "The Slayer..."

"We had a melee with the little tart," Ripper smirked. "She looks like she'd be a hell of a shag."

"She was. And you can thank * her* for your new life style." Angelus took a blood bag from the cooler nearest the stairway and bit in, the salty coppery flavored liquid oozing out and into his mouth. It was life and nectar, invigorating... and best of all, it annoyed the hell out of Rupert who was watching with mounting hunger. "Now get out or I'll see you kissing daylight."

"Oh, * please* let them stay," Drusilla pleaded. "It's nearly Christmas day and the family should be together. We could have dinner with all the trimmings and a fine fat blood pudding for desert!"

Angelus sighed.

"All right, they can stay... but * only* a few nights, and that's final."

He stalked out, and Ripper flopped down in a nearby chair, pulling Jenny onto his lap and kissing her savagely. He paused, leering at Jenny, then glanced at Spike.

"He always that anal?"

"Only every bloody minute of the day."

"Hrmph." Ripper gave a hideous grin. "I'm not as dumb as he looks, you know." Then he returned his attention to Jenny.

Dru watched them, fascinated by the shape of Ripper's face, his jawline, the way his tongue darted into view, the way a few stray chest hairs peeped out above the collar of his shirt. He was beautiful, primally sexy, and she wanted him.

She was so taken with watching the vamped ex-Watcher that she barely caught the whisper of rubber against concrete as Spike's wheelchair slid up beside her.

"Welcome aboard, Ripper," Spike grinned. "It's nice to have some fresh blood around again." He glanced up at Drusilla. "Um, Dru? Show Jenny the guest room, would you, Pet?"

Jenny pouted, then kissed Ripper very quickly and very deeply before getting up and following Drusilla out of the common room.

"You're part of the family now," Dru reflected happily. "My great-great-great-great-great-great-grandniece! We'll have such fun together hunting and prowling and dancing in the moonlight." She skipped off hand in hand with the fledgling, ready for the new adventures that awaited them.

"Yeah, great," Jenny sighed, "whatever."

***

Cordelia sighed and crossed her arms against the early morning chill. Here she was, leaving school, to go home, to get ready to go--to school. Her life was really just not going as planned today. And what the hell was up with Giles dying? What’d he go and do that for? Didn’t he realize how much trouble he was causing?

She sighed again, forcefully, exhibiting to the whole world just how much duress she was under at this moment. Because hello, without Giles around, there was just that much more research that they’d all be expecting HER to do. Great. Plus, there was now a much larger chance that she’d be eaten by a vampire, given that Giles, he of no life, had been largely responsible for ensuring that the vampire population of Sunnydale was kept in check.

And besides-

Whoa.

She stopped dead in her tracks.

Was that Xander?

She turned around and stared across the street. Yup. That was Xander. And dear god, for once, he was actually looking totally hot, and not just his usual inexplicable geeky hot. And he looked cool. And, oh my god, he had a gun. A very big gun.

She scurried across the street.

“Xander!”

Ok, rude. He didn’t even look up. She practically had to jog to catch up with him, and how dorky did that make her look, anyway?

“Xander, wait up!”

She came up alongside of him. He didn’t even break stride, just walked along, staring straight ahead, gun resting against his shoulder.

“Man, what is with you? Are you, like, possessed? Having a soldier boy relapse or something?”

“Cordy. Get away from me.”

‘Oh, well, that’s not what you said last night,” she said, half-joking. Her self-satisfied grin made her jaw hurt again. Stupid Buffy. Thinks that just cause she’s the Slayer, she can hit anybody.

Xander stopped and was suddenly right in front of her, glaring down at her. She shrank back a bit.

“Whoa. Psycho much?”

“Just go.”

Her eyes widened in pained shock.

“Well, fine. Whatever. Where are you going, anyway?”

He walked away, but called over his shoulder, “To get the bastard that killed him.”

***

Buffy opened the door to find Cordelia peering at herself in the glass of the adjacent window. She didn’t even look up.

“Cordelia?” Buffy finally said when it became apparent that she wasn’t going to.

Cordelia glanced up, then back at her reflection for a moment.

“God, look at that bruise. I’m going to look like a case for the local women’s shelter all day, thanks.”

Buffy began to close the door, and walk away, but stopped when Cordelia’s hand blocked the door from shutting.

“Wait! Wait, I- I saw Xander. On the way home.”

Buffy turned back to her, really not wanting to deal with Cordelia right now.

“Ok. You saw Xander. And? This is worth my time because?”

Cordelia’s brow knotted.

“I think he’s gone nuts.”

Buffy frowned, and a tendril of cold fear worked its way through her heart.

“Nuts?”

“Yeah,” Cordelia said, her eyes wide. “He had this big gun, and he was acting all, all... macho... And he said something about... getting the bastard who killed ‘him’.”

The trickle of fear turned to a flood of icy horror.

“Oh, god, no.”

“Buffy?” Willow said, coming up behind her. “Cordy? What’s going on?”

Buffy pulled away from the door and dashed up the stairs, calling back down to Willow.

“Xander’s gone after Angel.”

She burst into her room and hauled out her weapons chest, quickly digging for a few quick necessities for a rescue mission. Crosses, holy water, and a single stake. She doubted that she’d be killing any vamps this time around. Just get in, get Xander-the-idiot out, and go. She just brushed past Willow on her way out the door, but her friend trailed her down the stairs.

“Buffy! What are you doing?”

“I’m going to go and get him. Don’t worry, Will,” she said, as she stormed out into the morning sunlight, “I’m not gonna do anything dumb.”

Willow stopped following her when she reached the sidewalk.

“Be careful! And- And bring him back safe!”

Buffy stopped, then looked back over her shoulder, and saw Willow standing at the end of her walk, looking completely alone and forlorn.

“I will.”

Willow nodded, but Buffy could see her twisting her hands together in agitation. She felt like there was something more she should say, but nothing sprang to mind, so eventually, she just turned and walked away, feeling the stake, rough and familiar, press against her back with every step.

***

Ripper leaned his chair back on two legs and surveyed his surroundings. The place was a bit of a mess, but it was spacious, at least. Pretty well sealed off from stray sunlight, too, from the looks of it. Not so sure about the company here, though. Angelus would no doubt prove to be a bit of a drag. He let his gaze wander over to Spike. He was a bit more promising.

“Got a smoke?” he inquired, and immediately, Spike dug one out, and handed it over, then held out a lighter. Ripper took his first deep drag, held it in his lungs for a moment and then let it out with a heartfelt sigh.

“Oh, that’s good. Don’t know why I denied myself for so long.”

He tossed the lighter back to Spike, who caught it and quirked his brow a bit.

“No reason to now.”

“Sup’ose not,” Ripper said, savoring the moment.

It ended too soon.

The door to the factory banged open and a swath of sunlight poured into the room, vivisected down the center by a dark silhouette. Ripper threw a hand in front of his eyes and staggered back, knocking his chair over, and losing the cigarette somewhere on the floor.

The figure from the doorway strode into the factory.

It was vengeance personified... in the form of Xander Harris. It should have been laughable.

Actually, Ripper decided, as the shock of the sunlight faded and he was able to assure himself he was out of any direct rays, it was laughable. The boy looked somewhere between angry enough to pop and scared enough to throw up. He was holding a gun high in one hand. For a moment, he looked around wildly, his hair flapping as he moved his head, and then his eyes focused on Ripper.

Ripper grinned.

“Xander, dear boy. It seems you weren’t paying much attention to the lecture on ways to kill vampires. You see, bullets don’t-”

In less time than it would take a human heart to beat, Xander had the gun cocked and braced on his shoulder. A second beat, and he squeezed the trigger.

The hail of bullets came in low and sweeping, cutting across Ripper’s abdomen like a sword. He howled in agony as his world came down to nothing but pain and darkness. He vaguely felt himself hit the floor, and for a moment, he couldn’t even move.

Footsteps crossed the cement floor, echoing loudly in the empty spaces.

Ripper scrambled to his feet, clutching at his gut, with one hand, and the side of the table with the other. Slick, cool blood oozed around his fingers, but he could already feel the wounds healing.

“Little ponce,” he snarled, going full game face. Xander readied the gun again and fired, and this time, the bullets strafed across his shoulder and chest. The force of it knocked him back. As he tried to get his bearings back, he heard the roar of gunfire again, followed by a bellow of pain that sounded like Angel.

Suddenly, there were cool hands on his shoulder, helping him up.

“Ripper!”

Jenny, then.

He grabbed her arm and together they staggered back to their feet.

Out of the corner of his eyes, he could see Angel also getting back up. Xander was standing in the patch of sunlight, still holding his gun at the ready. Ripper stalked forward, gun be damned, that little shit was going to pay. He heard Angel and Drusilla and Jenny all closing in as well.

Xander fired again, wildly, trying to take down all four of them at once, no doubt, but only managing to catch Ripper once more in the shoulder. He did hear Jenny and Dru cry out, though, but it was unimportant. He had plans to teach this child a thing or two about vengeance.

The boy had the guts to look him straight in the eye as he approached, and the gun was steady in his hands as he leveled it at Ripper’s neck. Decapitation, now, that *would* do the trick. Ripper would never let it happen, of course. At the moment Xander’s finger twitched, he lunged forward and a bit to the side, feeling the heat of a bullet or two as they whined past his ear, and then he felt the far more satisfying sensation of firm flesh and bone colliding with his own.

For an agonizing moment, he and the boy grappled in the full sunlight, and then, with a shove, he toppled them both to the hard cement floor and out of the burning brilliance.

Xander was squirming beneath him, and the sensation flared through him. The heat, the life, in that body. The power in the blood he could all but hear singing in those veins. Xander was shoving at him, ineffectually. One of his hands was at Ripper’s shoulder, the other at his waist. Ripper snarled and snatched first the wrist of the hand at his waist, and then the one at his shoulder, and jerked both of the boy’s hands over his head, holding them there with one hand, pinning him to the floor with his hips, and twining their legs together.

He could feel the chest beneath his own heaving, probably barely able to get enough breath under the weight of his body. Xander’s eyes were wide, only inches beneath his, and his mouth gaped open as he struggled for breath.

“Idiot boy,” Ripper sighed across his lips, close enough to kiss him, “You really think you could have killed me? You’re useless, Xander. You always were. And now Buffy will probably come here, to try and save you, and you know what? She’ll die, Xander. Because, let’s face it. There’s one of her and five of us, and she’ll never be able to kill me, or Angelus, because she doesn’t understand, does she? That we’re not them.”

“Bastard,” Xander hissed, trying to look brave, but the pain in his eyes told a different story.

Ripper just smiled.

“In any case, you won’t be around to see it happen. Perhaps that will be a small mercy to you? Not that I care about mercy. At the moment, I’m just hungry.”

He bent his head down, found the smooth skin of Xander’s neck, and gently ran his tongue across it. The body beneath his stilled and stiffened, and he could feel his pulse racing still faster.

“Afraid, Xander?” he whispered against the damp flesh, feeling the shiver. “I was too.”

He let his fangs just lightly caress the skin over the jugular, feeling the pulsing heat call to him, and just enjoying the sensation for a moment, more sensual than anything sexual he’d ever done. He could smell the salty tang of tears, and watched as one drop rolled slowly over Xander’s jaw. He caught it with his tongue.

“What? Not begging for your life?”

Xander spoke, his voice rough with tears.

“Just fucking do it already.”

Ripper pulled back a bit, looked down again into the boy’s damp, defiant eyes.

“Beg.”

“Never.”

Ripper shook his head slowly. No, no, that would be no fun at all. He slowly tightened his grip on Xander’s wrists, feeling his bones shift, and watching as pain twisted his features.

“Come on, now,” he said, his voice gentle and cajoling. “Humor me.”

He felt a bone snap. Xander gasped, then said, “No.”

“Really, Xander, there are two ways to do this. The easy way, where you do as I say, and die quickly and easily, or the hard way, where you keep up this foolishness and suffer first. Not that the idea of making you suffer isn’t attractive.”

Xander’s long lashes fluttered shut, and Ripper could feel him making an effort to regulate his breathing.

Ripper bounded to his feet, dragging Xander with him by his wrists and his tee-shirt and he slammed the boy against one of the nearby support pillars, pinning him there again with his body, still holding his hands immobile above his head. Xander kept his eyes shut, kept trying to keep his breathing level.

With his free hand, Ripper reached around behind the pillar, searching amongst the stacked debris there until his hand hit on a small implement. A screwdriver, as it happened, he saw when he glanced down at it. Perfect.

He softly slid the long metal rod up underneath Xander’s shirt, trailing it back and forth lightly over his ribs.

“Come on, now, Xander. Let’s hear it.”

Xander let his breath rush out, and he was trembling harder than ever. Ripper could literally smell the terror on him, and it was doing wild things to him. But Xander didn’t beg.

Ripper dragged the phillips-head down lower, tracing small designs over the soft flesh on Xander’s flank. He angled it up, nearly perpendicular to his body. The air beneath the boy’s shirt felt blazingly warm on his room-temperature skin. Xander was panting, now, frantic in his fear. But silent.

“I always knew you were far braver than you were smart, but really, Xander, I thought you’d know when you were beat.”

He began to apply pressure, feeling the skin’s resistance pushing back. Someone behind him made a small sound, and he realized he had an audience. He didn’t bother to look back at the other vampires. As long as they stayed out of his way, he couldn’t care less what they did.

He pressed a bit harder, caught the first metallic scent of blood, mingling with the scent of the sweat that was now coating the boy’s entire body.

And then, suddenly, there was a shout behind him, and then the sound of combat.

“Damn it,” he muttered, glancing back over his shoulder.

The three other mobile vampires were standing in a loose ring around Buffy. He had to grin, though, at the sight of his Slayer, facing them all down. Jenny was the first to move, coming at her from behind. Buffy clearly heard her approach a mile away, and spun a quick, neat roundhouse kick at her, sending her flying to her side on the floor, stunned.

Angel immediately took advantage of the Slayer’s moment of unbalance after the attack, jumping in and grabbing her by the shoulder, trying to knock her off her feet. Buffy shook him off and slammed her hand against his arm--no, not just her hand. Angel staggered back with a scream, frantically clawing his shirt off. Holy water. Ripper could see the small shards of glass from the bottle still embedded in his arm, and his skin was red and steaming. Drusilla was distracted by her injured sire, and ran to his side, and suddenly Buffy was coming right at him, unchallenged, already reaching behind herself for her stake.

Ripper snickered and released Xander, hearing him fall behind him, but now all focused on the charging Slayer. He was ready for her first move, easily blocking the kick, and then ducking the punch that followed. All things he’d done with her in training, only now... Now he was just as strong, just as quick.

The fight was fast and brutal, but in the end, he got her pinned down, trapped between him and yet another pillar, with his right hand tight around her throat, and his left braced above her head. Her stake was long since lost somewhere beneath some debris. She hadn’t been giving it her all, he knew, and now she was paying for it.

“Giles,” she gasped, between panted breaths, grasping uselessly at his grip.

He shook his head.

”I thought I trained you better than that,” he said, making his voice sound mournful. Then, he just laughed. “Seems not. Not that it matters. Your loss is my gain.”

But just as he was beginning to feel her lose consciousness, it all went to hell.

The roar of gunfire was almost drown out this time by the intensity of the pain. It hurt so bad, he didn’t know where he’d been hit, he didn’t know that he’d fallen back away from Buffy. He didn’t know anything until an endless moment later when he opened his eyes and saw Xander, with fire in his eyes and the gun in his hand, and realized that he was now leaning against one of the packing crates, and that he was clutching his left hand in his right, and dear god, all he could really see of it was a bloody mess, and how could it possibly hurt this bad? Being shot through the gut hadn’t hurt this bad. And there went Buffy, dragging Xander out the door, and no one even tried to stop them, because the other vampires were all still down for the count: Jenny unconscious, Spike AWOL, Angel burnt and Dru fawning over him.

He slid down into a sitting position against the crate, clutching his hand.

***

Buffy punched him once she’d dragged him out of the factory and into the sunlight, and it made him fall on his broken arm, and for a moment, he’d nearly passed out. But he shook off the darkness and made it back to his feet, fighting vertigo and still trying to get back inside the factory. But she grabbed him again, and he went down to his knees again, and they were both shouting at each other.

“Damn it, Buffy, we could stop them, they’re vulnerable, right now! We can’t just let them-”

“Xander, will you just shut up! It’s not worth it!”

And then he saw that she was crying, and it stopped him.

“God, Xander,” she screamed, through her tears, “I can’t lose you! *I can’t lose you!*”

And then, suddenly, all he could do was fall into her arms, and they clutched each other like they might die if they let go, and they cried in each other’s arms, for all they’d lost, and all they could still lose.

Once they’d finally cried all they could cry, they stood up, and walked away in complete silence... but Buffy didn’t let go of his hand until the nurse at the ER gently led her away so that the doctor could set his arm.

He stayed mostly wordless through the whole procedure, only speaking when spoken to, and then in listless one or two word replies. The doctors had treated him like a child abuse victim, which was fine by him, whatever. He’d gone through that spiel with social services workers enough times before to know by rote all the answers necessary to get out as fast as possible.

So, he got through all that, and came out on the other side with a cast and sling and a sample packet of fairly potent painkillers. They hadn’t even noticed the small scab on his side. It probably wouldn’t even leave a scar. And yet...

He brushed a fingertip lightly over the spot again, for what had to be the twentieth time, as he and Buffy walked out of the ER. She glanced at him, and he knew that she had noticed, but she didn’t comment. Instead, she just reached out and laid her hand on his good arm, and moved to stand a bit closer as they stood on the curb and watched Cordelia’s cross and garlic adorned car pull up.

Buffy got the door for him, and gestured for him to get in ahead of her. He was too tired to protest the chivalry treatment, and the pain meds were kicking in, filling him with the usual expected dizzy sleepiness. He slumped in the front passenger’s side seat and fumbled with the seat belt until Cordelia sighed and reach across him, pulling it on herself.

“Jeez, Xander, what are you on?”

“Vicodin,” he said.

“Oh, ok then,” she said. “Where to?”

“My place,” Buffy said. “Mom’s probably gone in to the gallery by now. Did Willow go to school?”

“Yeah,” Cordy said as she guided the car away from the curb. “So did Oz. They said something about telling Snyder that Giles is on some emergency trip to Alaska.”

“Hmm...” Buffy said. “Creative.”

Xander slumped against the door and shut his eyes, tuning out the girl’s voices. Alaska. Right. Sure. He was in Alaska.

In his mind, he saw a flash of dead green eyes, and heard Giles’s voice whispering horrible truths in his ear.

He jolted awake suddenly, just as Buffy said, “Thanks for waiting for us, Cordy. Don’t know how my Mom would have reacted to me calling her in the middle of a school day to pick us up from the ER.”

“He’s not in Alaska. He’s dead,” Xander said, turning his head to see Buffy leaning between the two front seats. She looked over at him.

“I know that,” she said.

“Do you?” he asked, looking at her, hard, searching her face, and her eyes. He could still see tear tracks on her cheeks, and faint red marks where the bruise left by Giles’s hand was fading.

“Of course I do, Xander. I saw him myself.”

“You have to *know,* Buffy. You really, really have to know. Because if you don’t, he’ll kill you.”

She stared at him, and he watched as the emotion played across her face: Shock at his bold statement. A brief flash of that Slayer rage that always lurked beneath the surface. Pain. And then, finally, just quiet pensiveness. He reached across his chest with his free hand and gently closed it around her own hand, which was resting on the top of the seat near his shoulder. Then, they just looked into each other’s eyes.

“Ok, we’re here,” Cordy said, breaking the moment. “Look, I’ve really got to get to school, so if you guys are gonna live and all, I’m gonna be going.”

For a moment, neither of them broke their eye contact. Then, Buffy seemed to shake herself, and she turned towards Cordelia.

“Right. Sure. Thanks, Cordy.”

Buffy climbed out of the car, and opened his door, helping him out as well.

“Bye!” Cordy called, just before Buffy pushed the door shut, and then she pulled away from the curb and drove off. Buffy laid her hand on his arm to guide him towards the door, and it felt shocking small and fragile. He glanced over at her, and realized for the first time in ages how small she really was, and, with a force, the thought hit him that they were just a bunch of kids. Teenagers. The fate of the entire planet may well rest in the hands of five seventeen-year-olds.

Buffy unlocked her door and he stepped inside the house, allowing her to shepherd him onto the living room couch.

“Need anything?” she asked, “I guess I could do the food thing, if you’re interested.”

He shook his head and lay down, feeling the muzziness of the drugs again.

“Nah,” he said, softly, “Think I’ll just, you know, pass out for awhile.”

“Ok. Sounds... relaxing. I just might jump on the bandwagon there, and join you.”

“Buff,” he said, as his eyes drifted shut almost of their own accord.

“Yeah?” she said, and he felt her hand again, gently brushing his hair back.

He kept his eyes comfortably shut as he spoke.

“I trust you, ok? I just--I’m scared. And. I really don’t want... you know, to lose anyone else.”

“I know,” she whispered.

“It isn’t fair,” he said, and he meant to say more, but at that moment, even breathing seemed like a lot of work.

“I know,” Buffy said again, and just before he drifted off, he felt her lips brushing a single, soft kiss across his forehead. “Sleep now. Just... get better.”

***

*She’s amazing.*

She drew his attention away from the papers he’d been sorting through. She was kneeling on the floor of Giles’s living room, volumes of dusty old books scattered around her, a notebook on her lap. Her red hair hung down in a veil around her face, and her soft pink sweater embraced her curves.

The corner of his mouth turned up as he watched her small hand reach out and shift one of the giant books, then move back to jot something into the notebook. He couldn’t *not* look at her. His Willow. So brave, so strong.

As if she’d sensed his eyes on her, she turned her head, pushed her hair back behind her ear and regarded him.

“Oz?”

He just shrugged one shoulder, let his smile stretch momentarily wider, then turned back to the papers.

Legal stuff, mostly, stuff like the lease for the loft, financial records, Giles’s birth certificate, and his will. For now, of course, they would wait on the will thing. Snyder had bought the Alaska excuse with a snort and a muttered, “That is just like him.”

Oz slid the first set of papers back into the file, noted what and where they were in his own notebook, and then opened the next folder.

Watcher Council stuff. Correspondences, addresses, phone numbers, names.

“Hmph,” he said.

“What is it?” Willow called, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw her stand and move over to stand behind him, with one hand resting like a light bird on his shoulder.

“Watcher stuff,” he said, holding the first few pages up to her. She took them and they both looked over it.

“What should we do? Should we... tell them?”

Oz shrugged again, as he read over a letter from the Council that berated (in a very proper and British way, of course) Giles’s handling of the Angel situation. Not the after-losing-the-soul thing. Just the Angel thing in general. Seems the council wanted him dead and gone two years ago.

He turned his head, dropped a kiss on the hand on his shoulder, and then looked up at her, loving everything about her, even the worry in her eyes, and the way her expressive brows drew together.

“I dunno. We need to talk to Buffy about it.”

Willow nodded, then set down the papers she was holding and sighed. He caught a whiff of the tears that had been so close to the surface all day today, and he reached up and touched her cheek.

“It’ll get better,” he said.

She shook her head, bunching her lips together, and the first of this latest onslaught of tears brimmed in her eyes. He pushed the chair back and stood in one fluid movement, and pulled Willow into his arms, gently cradling her head in one hand and guiding her face to his shoulder. She clutched him tight and sniffled against his neck.

He shut his eyes.

And then, someone kicked the door in. Willow jumped back with a startled shriek and Oz spun towards the door, just as Giles lunged forward and was immediately thrown back by an invisible field of energy.

Oz knelt down, slowly, and reached under the desk for the crossbow, all the while taking in the sight of the vampire who was standing at the threshold. He didn’t really look any different.

Willow was walking slowly towards the door. Oz leveled the crossbow at Giles’s chest. He was still wearing the pinstriped shirt and corduroys he’d had on yesterday, except the shirt was spattered with blood and unbuttoned halfway down his chest. And, he wasn’t wearing his glasses.

And then, of course, there was the whole, evil, vampire face, yellow eyes thing he was doing, which he hadn’t been doing a second ago. And the fact that he smelled... dead.

Willow stopped a few feet in front of him, her hands slightly out from her sides, obviously terrified. And angry.

“You can’t come in,” she said, her voice level and calm.

“Bitch,” the Giles-thing hissed, in the same low, intense, cultured tones Oz remembered from countless library rendezvous, “You can’t just cast a man out of his own home.”

“You’re not a man.”

Oz could practically feel her trembling as she swallowed hard, and then drew herself up to her full height.

“You’re a demon. And you killed Giles. And--And I--I won’t have that.”

Yellow demon eyes narrowed and focused on Willow and Oz saw his chance. Calmly, without making any moves that may alert the vampire, he pulled the trigger. Willow flinched as much as Giles did when the vampire staggered back. For a heartbeat, Oz was sure--*sure*--his bolt had found its mark.

And then, with an inhuman roar, Giles slammed his fist against the invisible barrier, backed off, and vanished up the stairs.

Willow fell to her knees, and Oz dropped the crossbow and reached her side in seconds, grasping her tightly. For a moment, he thought she was crying again, but when he lifted his gaze to her face, he found her eyes dry, staring out the door, and her jaw clenched in a very un-Willow-like snarl. Rage. His Willow was shaking with rage.

“Oz?” she said, softly, after a moment.

“Yeah?” he said.

“A little to the right next time.”

He was silent for a beat, then he glanced out into the empty night.

“Yeah.”

***

Jenny watched, amused, as Ripper stormed back up the stairs, yanking a crossbow bolt from his chest and tossing it aside as he came.

“Damn kids,” he growled, and she laughed.

“They lock you out, Ripper?” she asked, curling herself around his arm and following him down the sidewalk.

“It’s my flat. They had no right-”

For a timeless moment, he was the flustered librarian again. She pulled his head down and kissed him deeply, probing his mouth thoroughly with her tongue until she felt a measure of the tension flow out of his body, and he began to return the kiss, turning them and pushing her back a step or two against a lamp post. She waited until he was really getting interested in the proceedings, then she slipped out under his arm and skipped a few steps away.

“I’ve got an idea. We could go into town. Get some... things,” she said, arching a brow and grinning.

He pushed himself away from the lamp and prowled towards her, an almost playful glint in his eyes. Almost.

“We could. Or... we could stay here... and *do* some... things...” he caught her wrists and wrapped both their arms behind her back, lowering his lips to hers again. She allowed the kiss for a little while, then tugged away.

“But I want to go to town,” she pouted.

“Jenny-” he started.

She pulled a little harder against his grip and found he was holding her tighter than she’d thought. His eyes flashed at her escape attempt, and he went to game face, growling deep and low in his chest.

“Ripper-” she began, then changed tactics, “Come on, now, who sired who, here? I think that makes me the boss, all right?” she said, trying to keep her tone light and teasing, relaxing her body to a pose of submission. For a moment, he tightened his grip, pushed her back a step or two, and she felt a flash of real fear.

Then, so abruptly it made her stumble, he released her and started walking down the sidewalk towards the center of town. She stood there in the grass for a moment, looking after him, then she trotted to catch up. When she reached his side, he slung his arm around her and pulled her against his side.

“Lovely night,” he said, human-faced again.

“Yeah,” she said after a little while, trying hard to shift gears again.

They walked in silence, until they began to pass the small shops that heralded Sunnydale’s downtown.

“Anything you want, love,” he said, “It’s yours.”

***

Spike looked up at the rumble of the factory door opening and arched his brow in surprise. Well, now. They certainly looked... different.

Jenny was wearing a black leather top that barely covered more than the average bra, a tiny matching skirt, and black boots that came up to nearly her knees. Her navel was pierced with a shining hoop, and encircled with a small tattoo of a dragon biting its tail. Over it all, she wore gauzy, transparent black jacket that reached a bit lower than the skirt itself on her thighs.

Ripper completed their matched set with black leather pants, a white wife beater, and a thick leather biker’s jacket adorned with various shining silver hoops and buckles. He wore a thick chain around his neck, and in his left ear was a hoop with a small skull dangling down. The sleeve of the jacket was pushed up a bit on the arm he had around Jenny, and Spike could see a studded leather band around that wrist that matched the studded leather collar around Jenny’s neck.

Spike’s brow crept a bit higher, and he intoned, “Well, lookee what we have here. Two escapees from the local biker’s convention. Been awhile since you’ve been young and hip, has it, ‘Ripper’?”

The newly turned vamp shot him a scathing look, and then he dug into one of the jacket’s pockets and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He tossed it to Spike.

“That your brand?” he asked.

Spike quickly glanced at the label.

“Sure is.” He suddenly felt a bit more charitable. “Thanks.”

Ripper dropped into one of the chairs and pulled Jenny into what was becoming her accustomed place on his lap.

“Well, let’s just say the chap I obtained them from will--no longer be needing them,” Ripper said, with an ironic quirk of his brow. He pulled a pair of cigarettes out of his own pack, handed one to Jenny, and lit his own and hers with an expensive-looking chrome Zippo.

Spike huffed a laugh in spite of himself.

“You know, a pitiful taste for too much--” he paused, frowned, then said, “Or possibly too little--leather aside, you could be all right.”

“Hmm,” Ripper mumbled around the cigarette, then plucked it out of his mouth and tapped the ash onto the floor, leaning in to nuzzle Jenny’s neck. Spike rolled his eyes and wondered if he and Dru were that bad.

And then, as though his thoughts alone had conjured her, the factory door rolled open again, and his princess floated in.

“Dru, baby,” he called, and she rolled her head towards him.

“My Spike. It’s been so long. And I was cold. And the baby... it screamed so loudly.”

He smiled and held out his hand.

“Come here, my pet. I’ve missed you.”

She drifted closer to him, swaying back and forth with every step, like a feather floating to the ground. She clasped his hand in her own and drew it up to her lips, but she didn’t bite or lick, just dragged his fingers over her lips. He watched her fondly, unable to stop a smile from crossing his own lips.

“Did you have a good hunt, pet?” he said, as her eyes drifted shut and she hummed.

“It was... like a tree...”

He grinned.

“Was it now?”

“It was like a vampire, eating a man. Like most hunts.”

Spike frowned as Dru immediately detached from him and flowed off in the direction of the new voice. Angel. He sighed, and again battled back the urge to leap up and kill the bastard. All in good time.

He watched, feeling the rage simmer, as Dru bumped up against her sire, curling her hands into fists around bits of his shirt.

“Jenny,” Angel said. He didn’t even acknowledge Dru with anything more than an absent hand, laid on the small of her back, but she curled back against that hand and her mouth dropped open in a wide-mouth grin, as though she were in the heights of pleasure. Angel talked on, oblivious. “I need to talk to you.”

“Now?” Jenny’s petulant voice drew his attention over to that side of the table. Ripper was game-faced, and his nuzzling seemed to have changed to nibbling. Also, one of his hands was somewhere in Jenny’s lap.

“Yes. Now.”

Angel strode over pulled out the chair at the head of the table, sprawling in it and crossing his feet up on the table. Dru looked after her sire dazedly from where he’d left her, standing in the middle of the room. Then, like a determined little dust mote, she began to gravitate in his direction. Spike sighed again.

Jenny rolled her eyes and tossed her hair back.

“Fine. So talk.”

Angel swung his feet back down onto the floor and leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table.

“This little spell of yours. What exactly does it do? And what would one need to do it?”

Ripper plucked his cigarette from his mouth and said, “Spell?”

Jenny glanced back at him, then turned back to Angel.

“It’s an old-style gypsy curse. It restores a vampire’s soul. If the vampire experiences a moment of true happiness, boom, no more soul. You know all this.”

“Hold up, just a moment,” Ripper said, suddenly, “you knew this spell? And you didn’t find it prudent to tell us this little detail?”

Jenny shot him an exasperated look.

“It’s the reason Angel killed me, Ripper. I’d just figured it out.”

But, Spike was still staring hard at Ripper, a bit shocked. That was the first time he’d seen even a flash, really, of the man Ripper used to be. Any sign at all that Ripper really even remembered or cared about his former life. Hell, even his accent had changed since he’d been turned.

“Anyway,” Jenny was saying, “You need an orb of Thesula to serve as a vessel to summon the human soul from the ether. That’s the only rare thing you’d need. The rest of the stuff’s a dime a dozen at any herbal store in the world.”

“How many are there?”

“What? Orbs? I dunno. Maybe fifty or so left in the world? They’re really not used for much.”

“Got one in my office,” Ripper said, firmly back in his new form, “I could fetch it for you. The children can’t lock me out of there.”

Spike looked quickly over at Angel, and didn’t miss the speculative gleam in his eye when he said, “That would be good of you, Rupert. Why don’t you do that? Hey, you could even get some of your books while you were there.” Dru came up behind Angel and draped her arms over his shoulder. He folded his hands over her slim forearms and looked up, his face lost behind a curtain of her dark hair. Spike fumed. “Night’s still youngish. Why don’t you go now?”

Ripper took a draw of his cigarette and then said, “Just might do that. Care to join me, love?” he added to the woman in his lap.

“Got nothing better to do.”

Spike watched the pair stand up in disbelief. His mouth was probably hanging open, but what the hell. Just as they started for the door, he pulled himself out of the shock.

“You bloody idiots.”

Everyone stopped, and then turned to look at him.

“He’s setting you up. Can’t you see that?”

“Spike-” Angel said, and it was clearly a warning.

“Sod off, you big poof.” Then, to Ripper, who was looking at him like he wasn’t quite sure what to make of this, “You really think that the Slayer would let you just waltz into that library? Don’t be a git. You were a smart man when you were alive, *Rupert.* What happened to you?

Apparently, Angel couldn’t resist opening his big mouth, even at a moment like this, and he said, “He’s two days turned, Spike. You and I both know that vampires that age don’t operate on all cylinders.”

“Hey, now,” Jenny protested.

Angel rambled on, oblivious.

“Besides, I’m not setting anyone up. He knows the Slayer. He knows what she can do. He’ll be fine.”

“Like hell he will. You just said it yourself. He’s two days old, fer crying out loud.” He turned to Ripper. “Don’t. Just don’t. You wanna live longer than two weeks, you’ll do well to lay low for a bit. That Slayer... you don’t trifle with her.” He shot a long look at Angel as he said the last words.

“Huh. So what, exactly, were *you* trying to do?”

“Me? I was trying to kill the girl, not piss her off.”

“Actually, you *were* doing a fair job of pissing her off.”

“Yeah, well, least I was *trying* to do the right thing. You don’t see *me* turning her bloody Watcher and piddling around with her best friend’s pets.”

“What, exactly, is your point, here?”

“I see what you’re trying to do, mate. You want her to kill him. You think it’ll make her weak. You think she won’t be able to live with herself after turning her own Watcher to dust. Well you know what, Angelus? You’re wrong. You know what it’ll do? All it’ll do is make her realize that he’s a demon, and you... are... too. And then, she’ll come here. And she’ll kill you. And then, she’ll kill me. And maybe, she’ll even manage to kill Dru. And you know what else? I am not going to stand for it.”

Dru cried out suddenly, her high, wavering voice slicing through the sudden silence in the factory. “Oh. Oh, oh, oh.”

“Dru. Dru, baby-”

She staggered back, and he spun his chair, hurrying to reach her, and just managing to catch her and pull her into his lap before she fell to the hard floor. She was skin and bones against him, delicate and wonderful, and he held her close.

“Easy, baby, easy.”

“Oh, Spike. It’s bad. Bad bad.”

“Shhh. I’ve got you. Nothing bad’s gonna happen, kitten.”

“All the world’s falling down... all the world. All of the family. Dust and dust.”

“No, no, baby. Never. I won’t let it happen.”

“Dust, dust, I *see* it, I see it floating, floating down... Oooh!”

She curled into him, and he wrapped the sides of his coat around her quaking body, still making reassuring noises as he looked up and found all of the other eyes in the place on him. He looked Ripper straight in the eye, and saw, for just a single moment, something more stir there. And then, Ripper looked over to Angel.

“Is this true?” he said, his voice quiet and calm.

The corner of Angel’s mouth twitched, in something, maybe a grimace, maybe a smile. It was hard to tell.

“What Dru said? ‘Course not.”

“What Spike said. Is. It. True?”

Angel pursed his lips, steepled his fingers, and finally peered up through his lashes at Ripper.

“Look, Rupert, buddy, nothing personal. It’s all just part of the plan.”

Ripper growled, and his stance changed, subtly, becoming looser, more balanced, the stance of a seasoned and talented fighter going on guard. Angel stood up, not quickly, just being prepared. He even pushed the chair back in behind him. And then, he too settled into the fighting groove, going game face and spreading his hands slightly to his sides.

“You want to fight me, Rupert? You’ll just die now, instead of later. I’m two hundred years older than you.”

“You’re a coward and a blind idiot, Angelus. And you always were,” Ripper replied.

Dru wailed into Spike’s chest and he held her a bit tighter, and he felt a thrill pass through him. Someone was going to die, and before they did there was going to be a bloody good romp. He grinned in spite of himself, and settled back to enjoy the show.

Across the room, he saw that Jenny had backed well out of the way and was watching the two male vamps as they made a slow circuit around each other. Her dark brows were drawn together with concern, and it wasn’t unwarranted. If Ripper was the one to take the fall, no doubt Jenny herself wouldn’t be far behind.

Angel made the first move, darting towards Ripper, going for his throat. Ripper dodged easily, and caught one of Angel’s arms, then used his own momentum to send him crashing off into the cluttered debris off to Spike’s left. Angel rebounded off the junk, angling himself towards Ripper, reacting just in time to block a kick aimed at his head, and then reply with a solid blow to Ripper’s side with his own foot, sending the younger vampire reeling back out into the middle of the floor.

They met again out there, and the fight continued, with neither seeming to gain the upper hand. These were two expert fighters, well-matched in strength and ability. It was like watching a ballet--or at least, it would be, if ballet included growling, swearing and bloodletting. It was a hell of a thing.

Then, Spike noticed Jenny again. She was moving away from the fight. Not a bad idea in general, but she seemed to be moving with more purpose than one who is simply getting out of the way. When she stopped and opened one of the vampires’ crates, he understood. Oh, clever woman.

She returned to the fight with a long sword in her hand.

“Ripper!” she called, and after a moment, Ripper caught Angel with another good kick and fell back a pace or two, spinning towards Jenny. She grinned and tossed him the sword, point down. He snatched it out of the air and immediately arced it up to ready, and suddenly, Spike knew beyond a doubt who this fight belonged to.

Angel’s eyes widened, and he made a mad dashing circuit around the room, keeping as far from Ripper as possible. Ripper just turned in one place, keeping Angel in front of him, but not attempting to pursue him. Honor. This was honor. What an odd trait in a vampire.

No. Wait.

Angel reached the weapons chest and frantically hauled out his own sword, turning back in Ripper’s direction as quickly as possible.

Not honor, Spike realized. This was the cat toying with the mouse. Ripper’s eyes glittered, and he settled down in a fighting stance, one foot slightly back, his free hand out just enough for balance. Angel stayed where he was, similarly braced, and they stared at each other across the factory.

“Afraid?” Ripper asked.

“Not a bit. You?” Angel retorted.

“Hardly. There’s more room to play out here. Are you going to join me, or do I have to come over there?”

And, then, for good measure, Ripper lowered his sword, resting the tip of it on the floor at his side. After a moment, Angel edged closer, keeping his own weapon at the ready until he finally came within striking distance. Ripper calmly raised his sword again and dropped back into position, crossing their blades between them. Their eyes locked together.

“En guard,” Ripper whispered, and the real fight began.

Spike’s grin widened further as he watched the swordplay. Blades glinted in the light as the two combatants worked their way up and down the factory floor, and the walls reverberated with the clang of metal on metal. The fight moved over closer to him and stalled there, giving him a good view of the proceedings, but not close enough for him to worry about Dru’s safety just yet.

For a moment, Angel and Ripper locked swords, and Ripper glanced in his direction, a wicked grin of his own on his face, just before springing back away from Angel, laughing.

“Enjoying yourself, Spike?” he shouted, above the sound of the the swords coming together again as Angel lunged towards him.

Spike laughed. So, the placement of this little sparring match was no accident. Neither, he was beginning to realize, was very little else that Ripper was doing in this fight. Angel was the attacker in almost every move, and Ripper was blocking each blow with ease, his every movement measured and deliberate. And, where Angel looked like he was giving it his all, or was, at least, deadly serious, Ripper looked like he was simply enjoying the hell out of himself.

That went on for a few minutes, and then Spike saw the moment that the fun went out of the fight, and it was in earnest again. Angel fell back immediately, suddenly struggling just to block the rain of blows, until Ripper got him backed into the center of the room.

Their swords locked together again, and they were leaned in close to each other, eye to eye. Ripper snarled softly, and then, with a sudden twist of his wrist, he neatly flicked Angel’s sword out of his hand. He caught it behind his own back, and Angel backpedaled frantically. But not quite frantically enough.

Ripper slammed Angel’s own sword low through his gut.

Dru howled, and Angel made a small gasping sound.

Still holding the sword that impaled him, Ripper stepped up close to Angel, and whispered to him.

“Ripper,” Angel gasped, after a moment, his eyes wide. “Your name. Ripper. Definitely.”

“And don’t you forget it,” Ripper said, then jerked the sword up, slicing through Angel’s abdomen from his belly to his collar bone. Angel grunted, and fell to his knees. Ripper turned his back to him. Angel clutched the sword in his chest and stared up at him as he began to move off.

So, he was going to let him live. Not so bad, Spike supposed, he could be a useful-

Ripper spun around, and his sword cut cleanly through Angel’s neck.

Then he walked away, the dust swirling in his wake.

Spike stared, mouth open in shock. He’d thought... but... dust... Angelus dust...

He looked back towards Ripper, who’d stopped when he reached the table, where he pulled out his pack of cigarettes and shook one out. With the cigarette between his lips, he looked back at Spike.

“Think I’ll wait on getting that orb from the library,” he said, then flicked open his lighter.

***

Tuesday again. One week since Giles and Jenny had died. Xander walked alongside Buffy in the quiet cemetery. There hadn’t been a whole lot of activity from the vampire gang since Wednesday, although every morning since, Buffy had read the homicide column of the crime section of the paper with even more intensity than usual. Her finger would glide down the page as she read, until it froze in one place, and Buffy would softly say, “This one. This one was Giles.”

He wasn’t sure how she did it. He wasn’t even entirely sure if she was right, although he’d come to trust her instincts on icky things implicitly. Still, whether she was right or not, the killings were always brutal ones and her apparent obsession with ferreting them out was worrisome.

Right now, though, the night was still and quiet. It was a silence that extended even between them. He knew that with the arm thing, he wasn’t a whole lot of help to her right now. In fact, he was probably more of a burden than anything, someone she’d have to worry about while fighting. But really, that wasn’t much different than the way things usually are, and the thought of letting her out here on her own troubled him more than the thought of being a distraction.

On Saturday, Joyce had begun to make gentle jokes about adopting him into the family, in fact, because of the amount of time he was spending at their place. He’d felt really dirty for it, but he’d finally resorted to hinting that maybe his home life was responsible for his current condition, and since then, there’d been less pointed jokes and more chocolate chip cookies, so maybe it wasn’t an entirely bad thing. And, anyway, his house really wasn’t the place to go for sympathy and understanding.

Buffy sighed softly beside him, and he glanced over at her. She was walking with her arms crossed over her chest, a stake in one hand, her hair pulled back in a simple ponytail. Like she had for the past week, she looked tired, run down.

“How’re we doing, Buff? ‘We,’ of course, being the medical ‘we.’”

She smiled a bit without looking at him and said, “We’re doing not too bad. Medically.”

“Well. Good.”

There silence again... until they rounded the corner and stumbled over the body. Literally. Buffy grabbed his shoulder before he could skillfully plow face first into the grass, and she hauled them both back a few steps.

Xander could swear his heart stopped in his chest when he looked up.

Jenny, lounging back against the side of the crypt, watching them with that hint of amusement in her eyes. Except for the cigarette dangling from her fingers, and that *outfit,* she looked pretty much like she always had.

“Wow, hey, I always suspected sluttiness was part of the whole vampire package, but *damn*... now I *know*.”

As the words escaped his lips, Xander seriously contemplated where, exactly, this death wish of his had come from.

“Xander!” Buffy hissed at him for good measure, obviously wondering exactly the same thing.

Jenny just dropped the cigarette and ground it out with her toe and said, “Xander, Xander, Xander. You never change, do you?”

“Apparently not,” he said, feeling, for a moment, real remorse, even as his heart rate increased and the stark terror began to take over. Beside him, Buffy was looking around, searching the darkness. Jenny was walking slowly towards them.

“Giles,” Buffy said, and Xander barely resisted the urge to yip in horror. And then he realized she was addressing the words to Jenny, “Is he with you?”

Jenny sniffed dismissively.

“Like I’d tell you. It’s so much better to leave you wondering whether or not I’ve got back up waiting in the wings.”

“Stay close,” Buffy said, inclining her head slightly in his direction, and she readied her stake, moving towards Jenny, tensed for battle.

Only, instead of attacking, Jenny just made a break for it. Buffy grabbed her arm and threw her into a nearby tombstone, darting after her, stake held high. Jenny blocked the downward sweep of Buffy’s arm and shoved her back, following her and grabbing Buffy’s stake arm, trying to disarm her.

As they tussled, Xander looked around the graveyard, watching for any sign of movement that might indicate Jenny wasn’t alone.

“Ha!” the sound of Jenny’s triumphant voice drew his attention back to the battle in a hurry. Buffy was reeling back to her feet near the crypt, clutching her head. Her stake was lying on the ground a few feet from Xander, and Jenny was approaching Buffy, who was looking extremely out of it.

Without even stopping to think, he grabbed the stake and charged Jenny.

She blocked his blow of course, but then she snarled at him and retreated. Xander hurried to Buffy’s side, wrapping his good arm around her.

“Hey. You ok?”

Buffy shook her head vaguely. “Don’t feel so-”

“Hey,” Jenny’s voice called, and he looked up. She was standing at a safe distance, grinning, “Buffy. Just thought you might want to know. Your boyfriend’s dust.”

And on that note, Jenny fled.

Xander looked over at Buffy, who was leaning heavily against him.

“Buffy?”

She moaned softly and passed out.

And that was how Xander ended up in the ER for the second time in a week. He munched a bag of peanuts from the vending machine and made up dialogue for the characters on the muted TV screen in the corner.

“Hey, weren’t you just in here?” one of the ER interns grinned at him.

Xander sighed, “Yup. You’d think they’d give, like, frequent patients discounts or something. Or maybe give us a nice lounge.”

The intern laughed, “Sure thing. Right after they give the *doctors* a nice lounge, maybe.”

He looked back up at the TV as the intern scurried off. Mulder and Scully were doing an autopsy on something gooey.

“Oh, Scully,” he muttered, in his best Mulder deadpan, as Mulder’s lips moved, “You are so sexy when you’re slimy. Make passionate love to me!!”

Scully looked faintly perturbed.

“Xander!”

Xander twisted around in his chair. Ah, the gang was all here. Willow, Oz, and Joyce were rushing in the door.

“Hey, guys.”

“What’s going on? Where is she?” Joyce asked, craning her neck to try to see around the various walls and curtains.

“They wouldn’t let me back there. She was sort of going in and out. Flu’s been going around.”

Joyce headed for the main desk, and Willow and Oz sat down next to him, immediately clasping hands.

“What is it, really?” Willow said, softly.

Xander ate a peanut, then said, “Flu, I think.”

“Oh. Ok. Good. I think.”

“Less research involved, anyway,” Oz pointed out. “Oh, hey. X-files.”

Xander contemplated his peanuts for a moment, then said, “We, uh, saw Jenny. Right before Buff went sleepy-time.”

”Oh?” Willow said, her voice a bit shaky.

“Yeah... she, uh, she said that Angel was... um. Dead.”

“What?” Willow was staring at him now. Oz raised one eyebrow just a bit.

“I mean, she could have been lying, but, you know, why would she?”

“To hurt Buffy, maybe?”

“I guess. But. I mean, unless Angel really is gone in some way, we’d probably run into him sooner or later, right?”

“But... Why would he be dead? I mean, he’s not stupid... it’s not like he’s gonna be, be trying to get a tan or something... how would he die?”

There was a moment of silence, then Oz looked away from the TV.

“Giles,” he said.

Xander and Willow both looked at him.

“Giles?” Willow said.

“Yeah. I mean, Giles was always an alpha-male kinda guy. He probably didn’t get along too well with Angel. Vampires... they’re like wolves. They have a hierarchy. Giles was a new member of their pack. He’d have to eventually challenge the established leader. Ergo, a duel with Angel. And, well, vampires are a violent bunch. They would fight to the death.”

“Which all makes sense except the Giles is an alpha male part. Giles? Hello, did we know the same tweedy librarian?”

Oz looked as inscrutable as always.

“A librarian whose real job is... was... controlling a Slayer and fighting demons. Trust me, Xander, the guy was no pushover.”

“Huh,” Xander said. Giles had never really struck him as the tough-guy type. Well, except that whole beating-up-Ethan-Rayne thing, but come on, that guy just inspired that. He noticed that Willow’s eyes had gone wide and tragic, that way they had that made her look like a Disney character.

“Does Buffy know?”

“Not sure,” Xander said. “She kinda did the unconsciousness thing right after, so, I’d say, fifty-fifty chance.”

“Oh. She’s... she’s not gonna take this too well.”

“Hey, come on now. This is a good thing. Remember? Soulless evil demon? Kills people? Including Giles? Right now, I’m thinking ‘Ding dong, the witch is dead...’ Um. Not that there’s anything wrong with witches in general.”

“An apt metaphor, considering that the more dangerous enemy is still out there,” Oz said, but Willow was still staring at Xander like he’d just declared that he’d converted to Satanism.

“Ok, I’m still having trouble with the Giles alpha-maleness hypothe- Holy shit.”

Giles. Oh god. Giles. Here. Crap. And wow, Jenny wasn’t the only one who’d changed her look. Giles was here and he was... he was heading for the receiving desk. Where Joyce was waiting in line. Oh God.

He really meant to say something intelligent and useful, like, “Joyce doesn’t know Giles is evil now, perhaps we should assist her.” Instead, what came out was, “What the heck is it with vampires and leather anyway?”

“She doesn’t know!” Willow whispered urgently, “We’ve gotta go over there!”

She and Oz stood up. Xander--tried.

“I can’t,” he said, his throat suddenly dry. “I--shit.”

Giles had come up alongside Joyce, and when she’d startled at his appearance, he’d laid a comforting hand on her arm and smiled a comforting Giles-smile and murmured something to her. Willow looked at Xander, concerned, and then glanced quickly back at Giles. For a moment, she seemed torn, then she grabbed Oz’s hand and they both crossed the waiting area towards receiving.

Great. Just great, Xander, he thought to himself. Very manly.

Yeah, well, they weren’t the ones Giles-the-evil-thing had been about to gut with a screwdriver. At that thought, his hand tightened slightly on the arm of the chair, slippery with sweat, and he pulled his slinged arm a little closer to his chest. He could feel his heart pounding.

Come on, he rallied himself. You’re in the middle of the ER. He’s not gonna do anything here. And if he does, you’ve got a nice little cross and some holy water in your jacket.

Willow and Oz had reached the line, and subtly inserted themselves between Giles and Joyce, no doubt trading clever jabs that all had no less than two possible meanings. It was the kind of thing he generally enjoyed. But right now, the idea of standing near that--thing, was just unbearable. Not to mention terrifying in a way he hadn’t even truly realized existed.

He’d always been the brave one. Brave, but, well, kinda dumb. But now, now the whole thing had been turned on its head, because no matter how much lip-service Willow paid to the to the fact that Giles was dead, and that was a demon, she, and Buffy, and Oz, and everyone else, they just didn’t quite get it. Not on the gut level that Xander did. For once, *he* was the one who understood exactly what they were facing, and it was a feeling that made him suddenly sympathize a whole lot more with the position Giles must have been in countless times during their acquaintance.

He *always* knew. He *always* understood exactly what it was that lurked in the dark. Damn, whoever said ignorance was bliss had no idea how right they were.

Giles always knew. But then, he also always did it anyway.

Xander took a long, deep breath, and before he could stop himself, he stood up and walked across the room.

“Hey, Xander,” Willow said, her voice light and filled with notes of admiration and relief and fear. He forced a smile, and then pushed his eyes up to meet Giles’s.

The vampire smiled slowly.

“Xander,” he said, with a slow nod.

“Giles,” he said, through his tight throat, then he let himself wimp out a bit and turned to Buffy’s mom, “Joyce. Hey.”

She looked tired and afraid, and he felt bad suddenly that they couldn’t tell her. The poor woman knew that something was going on with her daughter, but she didn’t know what, and probably every little thing that happened to Buffy was colored in her eyes with that fear of the unknown.

“Xander. You were with her? What happened?”

Xander shrugged a bit, trying to look nonchalant, and not quite getting it, cause all his internal alarms were screaming about the vampire standing just a foot or so away.

“Not sure. She just passed out for a second or two. I really think it’s that flu.”

The person ahead of them in line moved away, and Joyce stepped up to the counter, and the rest of them shifted forward to follow. In the shuffle, Xander felt the sleeve of Giles’s jacket brush against his arm and he shuddered, and then stepped away.

Joyce turned back to them after a brief conversation with the nurse.

“They said it’s the flu. Family only with her right now, though, I’m sorry. I’ll... I’ll let you know what room she’s in. Um. Xander, you’re welcome to stay at our place tonight, if you want.”

He had no intention of being *anywhere* except right by Buffy’s side tonight. Especially not with leather boy over there hanging around.

“Thanks. But. I think I’ll just stay here.”

Joyce looked surprised at this, but didn’t comment.

”Well, I’ll be back there with her.”

He nodded, and Joyce moved off into the back, following the nurse. He turned back to the group.

”What are you doing here, anyway?” he asked, feeling a bit braver now.

Giles smiled enigmatically.

“I was simply curious to see if I needed to worry about another Slayer being called.”

“Is it true?” Willow asked, suddenly. “About Angel?”

“That depends on what, exactly ‘it’ is. If ‘it’ means dead, then yes. He’s dead.”

“Why?” Willow asked, obviously also not quite buying Oz’s explanation.

“We had a slight... difference of opinion.”

“You killed him? You killed Angel? Killed? On purpose?” The concept seemed to be eluding Willow’s grasp.

Giles just smiled again, and turned and walked away.

“Ok. Ten points for Oz,” Xander said, still staring after him. “Would be twenty if you’d called the biker thing.”

“He killed Angel,” Willow said, her eyes doing that Disney thing again. Oz gently rubbed her shoulder.

***

Buffy was fading in and out. Her mind was muzzy and hazy, and shadows were dark and filled with evil things, and the edges of the world were sharp, and at the same time, wavery to the point of unreality. When she was awake, she could feel the scratchy sheets on her cold, sweaty skin, hear the sounds of doctors being paged and nurses making their rounds.

When she was asleep, she was visited by ghosts... some old, some recent. Merrick, her first Watcher, had stood at her bedside at one point, his own stake through his heart. He was resting one hand on it. He looked distant and very sad.

Sometimes, it was a little girl, her cousin, who’d died in a hospital when Buffy was very young. She would look at her with wide, accusing eyes. Or sometimes, with mute panic.

There was a parade of others, the people she hadn’t quite been in time to save, the people who had been nothing to her but an enigma for Giles to puzzle out, whose bodies had been nothing but pieces of their puzzle, or obstacles in their path, or enemies to be slaughtered. Like fishes, they were the ones that got away, the ones that slipped through her fingers, maybe because she wanted a normal life, and had gone to the Bronze, or done her homework, or just flaked out one night, and laid in her bed listening to music. Or, they were the victims of her mistakes, or possibly, what she always considered acceptable losses in the overall battle.

One girl stood there longer than the others. She had shoulder length hair, mousy brown, unremarkable. She’d watched Buffy with quiet desperation, and then, all of a sudden, she’d just... fallen apart. Not emotionally. Physically. Her arms and legs and head had just fallen off her body. Buffy had jerked awake after that, her breath racing, found a nurse beside her bed, saying it was all right.

It wasn’t.

Then, there were the most recent and heartbreaking. There was a middle-aged man, whose picture she’d seen in the paper the morning after Giles had been turned. His name was John. He had two children. That night, he’d gone out to investigate a noise. He never came back. His wife had found him dead on their patio, and had said that a dignified-looking man and a younger, dark haired woman had laughed at her, and then vanished into the night.

And also, there was Angel. He was there almost constantly. He’d sit beside her, his hand holding hers, so blissfully cool against her fever-hot skin. He would whisper to her, softly, lovingly, telling her about all he had done, all the people he had killed, how Jenny’s blood had tasted on his lips, how he’d scented her fear. And he’d told her how Giles, how Ripper, had turned on him, killed him. He told her he’d created a monster even he hadn’t been able to handle. And then he would laugh, and stroke the hair back from her sweaty brow, and kiss her lips.

Now, she was somewhere between sleeping and waking. She looked out into the creeping shadows and the sharp edges of the hallway and she saw something pass by her door. Dark hat, dark coat, long, curved nose, the wrinkled face of an inhumanly ancient being. She jolted in shock. Real. It was real.

She grabbed the bar of her bed and felt its cold shock in her hand and knew for sure. She was awake. And that was a demon.

Trembling all over from fever and exhaustion, she sat up and dragged her legs over to the side of the bed, then let herself down to the floor as carefully as possible. The room still seemed to be moving around her as she carefully moved to her door and peered out into the hallway.

But the demon was gone.

“Buffy?”

She turned her head slowly, trying to not invoke the vertigo, and found Xander standing beside her.

“Xan?” she asked, and her voice sounded far away.

“Yeah, Buff. I don’t think you’re quite cleared for takeoff yet. Let me get you back into bed. Wow, I can’t believe I actually got to say that.”

She wasn’t in humor mode, so the comment drifted right over her head, like a leaf on a sluggish current.

“Xan, there was a demon.”

“What? Demon? I didn’t see any demon, Buffster. You could possibly be hallucinating, though, and if so, enjoy it while it lasts. Normally, that kind of experience requires controlled substances.”

He was guiding her back towards the bed, which, actually, seemed like a very good idea right now. She stared at the crumpled, tangled white sheets and felt a longing akin to the way a soldier in a distant land may feel while reading a letter from home.

“Hang on, lemme get this for ya,” Xander said, gently releasing her and grabbing the sheets, trying to wrestle them back into order one-handed. Buffy swayed back and forth and couldn’t find it in her to do anything but watch.

“All righty,” he said after a moment, though the bed really wasn’t in much better shape than it had been before. “Your chariot awaits, madam.”

He gestured expansively, then placed his hand back on the small of her back and gave a gentle push. She climbed back in, lying down on her back, and tugging at the covers.

Xander stepped up beside her and reached for the sheets, pulling them across her with his good arm and tucking them around her body.

“There you go. Nice and snug.”

Wait. Demon.

“Xander,” she said, as firmly and awakely as possible, “I saw a demon.”

“Ok, we had this conversation, remember?”

She reluctantly pulled a hand out of her cocoon and weakly grabbed his sleeve.

“I really did. I know when I’ve seen a demon, ok, Xander? Slayer here.”

That tirade left her practically panting for breath. She so hated being sick.

Xander stroked the hair off her brow, like dream-Angel, only warm.

“Hey, ok, ok, no offense intended, oh Chosen One. What kinda demon? I’ll get Will and the guys on it.”

“Um. It looked. Old. Kinda like, you know, that guy? From the movies? With the... fingernails...”

She waggled her fingers to demonstrate.

“Old guy from movies?”

“Yeah, scary... movies.”

Her energy reserves were fading rapidly. Xander was still petting her hair. It was nice.

“Um. Freddy Krueger?”

She smiled, as brightly as she could, given her condition, which meant it was kind of like one of those flickering letters in a liquor store sign rather than its usual thousand-watt brilliance, but, hey, extenuating circumstances for not-so-spriteliness.

“Yeh...” she said, not quite getting the entire word out before giving up. Xander looked down at her with loving brown eyes, and a soft smile on his own lips.

“Okee dokee, then. We’re on it. Freddy Krueger demon, stalking the hospital halls. One soon-to-be-toast Freddy Krueger demon, that is. Now, your mission, whether or not you choose to accept it, is to take a nice nap and feel better.”

She thought maybe she could handle that as she drifted off again.

This time, it was Giles standing in her doorway, one shoulder resting against the door jam. The corners of his eyes were crinkly and he was smiling, like he did sometimes, after she’d saved the world, or something else of note, or sometimes just for no reason at all. He saw her looking at him and pushed away from the door, strolling into the room with his arms laced loosely across his chest, the smile never leaving his face.

“Buffy,” he said, and his voice was filled with tender reverence.

“Giles,” she said, not sure if she was really speaking or not.

He sat down in the chair beside her bed and touched her, brushing her cheek gently with the backs of his knuckles. His skin was soft and oh-so-warm.

“Why, Buffy?” he asked, his voice still soft, still brimming with love.

She frowned a little, confused and tired, and just wanting him to be with her.

“Why’d you let him do it? If only you’d killed him... when I asked you to.”

His shoulders slumped a little, and his eyes darkened, regret written across his face.

“If only you’d stopped him then, when you had the chance. I’d still be alive. Jenny would be alive. You... oh, Buffy. How could you?”

Devastation. That was all she could feel. It was like dying. It washed through her, wrapped like a cold hand around her throat and her heart and her guts and squeezed. Those simple words, spoken in his soft, deep voice, flat and agonized. It was the same voice he’d used to confess that he didn’t know how to stop the demon Eyghon without killing his beloved Jenny.

“Giles,” she whispered again, and this time it came out strangled, desperate, the same way it had when he’d had her pinned to that pillar in the warehouse. He leaned closer, his green eyes suddenly intense.

“I trusted you. I *believed* in you, Buffy.”

Then, he pulled away, stood up and paced to the far side of the room, his back to her as he faced the window.

“Look where that lead me.”

He turned around and his shirt was unbuttoned to his chest, the collar soaked and brilliant red with his own blood. His face was twisted into the demonic visage of the vampire, except his eyes, which remained grey-green, and agonized.

“Look what you’ve done to me,” he whispered, and then the sunlight blazed around him, and he fell to dust.

Buffy woke again, finding herself propped up on her elbows, with her heart racing. A tear rolled down her cheek and into her hair, cool and tickling as it slowly curled around her ear.

“Oh, god,” she whispered, and then a deep and dreamless sleep claimed her.

***

Willow thought that if she turned one more page, she may very possibly explode.

She did it anyway.

Old English. It was a lot like German. Not so much like English. Not so good to be trying to read at 3 AM, which, even for someone who was as nearly nocturnal as she, was still the deep, dank, sleepy underbelly of the night.

Most of the lights were out, except the fluorescent emergency light near the entrance to the library, and the lamps on the desk. Her book was resting in one of those pools of yellow light. Everything else was silent and still, even Oz, who was sitting at the end of the table, with his feet up on the table and a book in his lap.

She forced her gritty eyes back down to the text. This bit was an account of a strange, four headed demon who lived somewhere in the Alps. It apparently wasn’t all that dangerous, given that it spent all of its time arguing with itself, and yet, the authors had felt for some unknown reason compelled to lavish five high-handed and overly embellished pages on it.

Her backpack was sitting up on the checkout counter. Her history book was in there, along with a sketchy outline of the essay she was supposed to be writing about the causes of the Civil War. Also, there was a bunch of half-graded programs for Jenny’s computer class. Balanced haphazadously beside her backpack was a stack of books that students had returned that needed to be shelved.

She looked at the book again. It also didn’t help that the monk or whoever had transcribed this thing was obviously way trigger-happy with the serifs and decorations. Hello? It’s a letter, not a work of art. Function over form would *clearly* apply in this case.

“Willow?”

She jumped at the sound of Oz’s voice.

“Um. Yeah?”

“You think maybe we should take a break here? Demon will probably still be there tomorrow, and hey, if not, no demon, so no problem.”

A break. Wow, did that sound nice. She took a few moments to stare into space and fantasize blissfully about her bed. Then, she shook herself back to the reality of hard wooden chairs and 500-year-old manuscripts.

“You could, if you want. I’m gonna keep looking.”

Giles would know what to do. He might even know what this demon was, without looking it up. Now, here she was, digging through this stupid codex, that was pretty much the Dummies Guide to Demonology, in spite of the serifs and the Old English. If things kept on like this, Buffy would no doubt be dead within the month.

Maybe they should contact the Watcher’s Council after all.

”Oz?”

“Yeah?”

”Maybe Buffy needs a Watcher.”

Oz put his feet on the floor and placed the book on the desk, sitting up to look straight at her.

“We talked about this.”

“Yeah, I know, but... But, Oz, I--I don’t think I can.”

“You can. I know you can.”

She narrowed her eyes, “I know you think so, but... but this time, I think you’re wrong. There’s just too much. Too much I don’t know. Oz, people train for years and years to be Watchers. I can’t just... just DO it. I just don’t know enough.”

Oz got up and moved to the chair beside hers, and took her hand in his.

“Hey. This is the first week, ok? You’ve gotta cut yourself some slack here. Besides, you saw those letters the Watcher’s Council sent Giles. Buffy was right, they could be bad news.”

“But... but not as bad as if I can’t find some demon, and so Buffy doesn’t know how to kill it. Or if I don’t know about some big apocalypse thingy. Or, or, some big bad comes to town and I don’t even know that they’re big or bad!”

He leaned forward and cut off her rambling with a kiss.

“You’re not alone.”

“But... I am.”

He shook his head.

“No. There’s me. There’s Buffy. There’s Xander.”

“But, Oz... there’s no grown-ups. Angel’s dead, Giles and Jenny are evil, there’s no one! We’re just kids! We can’t... we can’t save the world.”

“Sure we can. Willow, we have.”

She didn’t believe him. She wanted to, so badly. Or, actually, in some ways, she didn’t. She wanted to give in, to call the Watcher’s Council. She wanted them to send some nice, grown-up British guy who would step in and boss them all around, and know everything about anything.

“Maybe we’re going about this wrong,” Oz said.

“About what?”

“This demon in the hospital thing. Ok. So, there’s a demon. What do we know about him?”

Willow was dubious about the value of this, but she played along.

“He looks like Freddy Krueger?”

“Yeah, but what else?”

“Nothing?”

Oz smiled his classic enigmatic smile.

“Try again. Just think a minute.”

She thought. Ok, so Xander had called them. He’d said Buffy had seen a demon. He hadn’t seen it, but she swore that it was a real demon. It was in the hospital. That was all she knew.

“Think harder,” Oz said, gently, tilting his head a bit and looking hard into her eyes as though he could see her brain working.

Think harder. She thought harder. Xander called. Said Buffy saw a demon. Buffy saw it. Not him. Buffy. But not Xander. So... what was different about Xander and Buffy? Well, Buffy was a girl, and she was a Slayer. So... a demon that only girls can see? A demon only Slayers can see? It had possibilities.

“Maybe... only Slayers can see it? Or only girls?” she tested this hypothesis out loud, and Oz’s eyes danced with pride.

“See? That’s a step in a good direction. What else?”

It was in the hospital. So, sickness, death. Something of that nature. Maybe it... preyed on the dying? Fed off of sickness? Or fear? Or pain?

“Um... get the... uh... Damon Chronicles. Those are from Europe during the Bubonic Plague. Maybe... maybe a demon of death, or pestilence? And I could try, um, Sandler’s... he was a physician, he might know something.”

Just before he stood to do as she asked, he said, “See?”

She reached across the table for the index they’d made of all of Giles books, listing the titles and locations. She was working on organizing the list by subject matter and indexing all the various other kinds of references he had lying around. For now, though, she trailed her finger down the list of titles until she found Sandler’s text. Ah, yeah, that was one of the ones Giles kept in his office. It had some really... detailed... anatomical drawings. She walked into the office, trying to ignore her backpack, which she could have sworn was staring at her accusingly.

The office was dark, like the rest of the library. One of Giles’s coats was still hanging on the coat rack in the corner, and one of his sweaters hung over the back of a chair near the far wall, and there was a tea mug off to the side on the desk that still had the dregs in it. The desk itself was cleared off, and the papers that had been scattered across it were neatly organized now, in the drawers and cubby holes.

Willow’s grandparents had died when she was very young, and since then, no one in her immediate family had passed away. Sure, like any Sunnydale youth she’d faced the death of friends before, the most notable of them being Jesse, of course. But, in spite of that, she’d never dealt with death before. Not the little details. And it was all in the details, she was finding. She’d never been responsible for sorting out the mess that was left behind.

Countless things. The lease on his apartment, which they had to somehow keep paying, because he’d no doubt terrorize any future residents of the place. His job... well, jobs, both his job as Watcher, and his job as school librarian. Magazine subscriptions. Lots of papers, all sorts of papers, some of which were relevant to them, like the letters from the Watcher’s Council, others which appeared to have been saved merely at some random whim.

Little things, like the knickknacks he kept on his desk, and his clothes, which they’d boxed up and then been completely unable to decide what to do with.

She found that she hadn’t stopped walking when she reached the bookshelf. Instead, she crossed the room to the chair, picked up the sweater. It was wool, slightly rough and heavy, and she lifted it to her face, breathed in his scent, as familiar and comforting as the scent of home to her. Her eyes were suddenly hot, and she pressed the rough fabric to her cheek and squeezed them shut, burning tears seeping through her lashes.

Sometimes it was like she’d lost him all over again. Sometimes, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to take it.

She let herself weep softly into the sweater for a minute, maybe two, and then she pulled it away, arranged it on the chair again, and walked to the bookshelf, blinking away the tears she didn’t have time for and pulling down the thick, leather-bound text she’d come for. By the time she reached the table and rejoined Oz, she was emotionless again.

Sandler was a recent text, written by an American during, oh the irony, the Civil War. The language was fairly dry and technical, given that he was describing the ruthless kind of demons that hunted battlefields and thrived on blood and aggression and slaughter. But, dry was infinitely better than Old English, and she found her second wind, moving through the pages swiftly, and trying not to look at the bloody pictures.

She stopped on about page forty-three. Interesting.

“The men are restless and terrified tonight. They say a beast is visiting at night, preying on the wounded. I believe this particular claim is nothing but poppycock, as I have observed the men all night myself and seen no such creature. I believe it is merely the case of frightened, dying young men, making up stories of a creature that they might fight, rather than facing the inevitability of their own death from this accursed fever. However, I shall watch again tonight.”

Tucked into the next page was a scrap of folded paper. Willow pulled it free and gently laid it flat, careful not to tear it along the worn creases.

“Oh!” she said.

It was a rough sketch of an old man, with a dark hat and a long curved nose, grinning horribly. It was obviously drawn by one of the soldiers, not by Sandler, given the quality of the artwork, but still, there was no mistaking.

“Oz! Freddy! Right here!”

Oz jumped up and joined her.

“Oh yeah. That’s him all right. What else does it say?”

She sighed.

“Pretty much a big nothing. Sandler didn’t see it. Said he didn’t believe it was a real thing. But, oh, fever. They had a fever, which is kinda like a flu. So, definitely leaning towards the pestilence demon idea there!”

“Good. Then, I can keep working on my book, right?”

Willow nodded.

“And I’ll see if there’s any more in mine.”

Which, as it turned out, there was. One of the soldiers, a seventeen-year-old who’s family were relatively recent immigrants from Germany, apparently awoke everyone one night, screaming, over and over, “der Kinderstod, der Kinderstod!” Recognizing the name, Sandler had looked the demon up and recorded the pertinent information.

Der Kinderstod was a demon that preyed on the sick and dying, usually children, which was where the name, which literally meant “child death,” had come from. It was your standard demon, apparently slayable even without special tricks or weak spots, although too strong for an average human to take on. Its only other advantage was it was invisible to anyone except those who had high fevers. Sandler had performed a simple exorcism to drive the demon from the camp, since there’d been no Slayer on hand to be rid of the parasite once and for all.

For her, that meant she needed to find out if they’d just go the exorcism route themselves, or if Buffy felt up to killing the thing.

Willow smiled, and, for a moment at least, felt in control.

Then, she dragged her backpack over to the table and began to attack her history essay.

***

The children were distracted... circling the wagons around their fallen Slayer and settling in to wait out her flu. It meant he had a few days. He wouldn’t waste them. He, in fact, wasn’t wasting them.

He shut his eyes and let the night air move over him. So different from the air of his youth. In England, nights were cool and damp. They touched you like gentle wet leaves, heavy with scents and chill. Here, the air was warm and dry. Always warm and dry. Such a static thing, so empty. This air couldn’t hold anything.

But, still, it fairly crackled with magic. That was the Hellmouth, of course, not anything to do with Southern California.

The power of the Hellmouth, which he was tapped into right now, with a rough power circle sketched around him on the concrete where he sat, cross-legged with this hands resting, palms up, on his knees. Just outside the circle, Jenny was pacing, holding the book he’d retrieved from the library on the night Buffy had been admitted to the hospital.

Jenny’s voice cut cleanly through the dead, brittle air, and he caught each word and repeated it, feeling the power gather closer, pulse stronger with each repetition of the verse.

Twice more, twice more and it would be seven and the spell would be cast.

His eyes fell open and he stared straight ahead, as the power filled him and focused.

His words had not been mere frustration. They could never truly cast him from his home. Willow wouldn’t know that, of course. It would give him an edge.

Twice more the verse was repeated, and then, a clap like thunder, the scent of ozone and power in the air, a soft click, and the front door of his apartment drifted open, welcoming him in.

He smiled and stood up, kicked at the chalk of the power circle, to blur the lines, and then walked in the door. Just past the threshold, he paused, glanced back over his shoulder and said, “Do come in, Jenny.”

She smiled and shut the book with a heavy thump, then followed him inside.

The place was dark and quiet, but not undisturbed. By the look of the arrangement of pillows and throws on the living room couches, and the scent of the place, Willow and the werewolf had been spending a lot of time here, even sleeping here.

The papers on his desk were more or less where he’d left them, only more neatly stacked, which told him the children had been sorting through them. Understandable.

Some of the books he would take. Others, he had no use for, so he would leave. He’d already compiled a list of the volumes he wanted to take, and he noted with satisfaction that Jenny had immediately moved to begin packing up those books.

He had a more personal matter to attend to.

His bedroom, as it turned out, had not been spared, most of his clothes were already in boxes. Not that it really mattered. There were only a few things he wanted. It took a bit of digging, but he found a pair of black jeans, a grey sweater and undershirt, and, most important, his long black overcoat.

The biker jacket had been an impulse decision, a mad grab at his former youth, which he’d thought he could reclaim now that he was an ageless creature. Over the past week, he’d quickly realized that that was an error in judgment. His youth was gone, and he didn’t even particularly want it back. He was something new, and, more important, older and wiser.

Of course, Spike’s constant taunting had nothing at all to do with his decision to change his look.

He quickly stripped and changed clothes, then grabbed his glasses from the night stand and slipped them on.

As he stood, feeling the weight of the trench coat settle around him, and enjoying for the first time in a week clear vision, he felt as though something had clicked into place. The clothes may not make the man, but there was something about the way one presented themselves that linked back intrinsically to who they were. For the first time, he felt that he had got it right.

He tossed one glance at the mirror over the dresser, and it took seeing nothing there to remind him that he wouldn’t see himself. He rolled his eyes at his own ineptitude, then headed back down the stairs.

Jenny paused her work in the living room, and looked up, approval shining in her eyes.

“Nice. The glasses... look pretty good, actually. You sure you need them, though?”

He snarled softly.

“You think I’d wear them if I didn’t? Hardly. Bloody obnoxious things.”

“Aww,” she said, in mostly-mocking sympathy. “Here. Have a book.”

He took it from her and then began checking the shelf she hadn’t gotten to yet.

“Everything’s accounted for?”

“So far, so good. Oh, ‘Death Magicks and Talismans.’ Isn’t that kind of silly name for a book? I mean, usually it’s something like ‘ The Forbidden Tome of So-and-so,’ or something. What is this, some kind of bargain-basement ‘Kill Things for Dummies’?”

Ripper snatched it from her hands.

“It’s a modern translation of one of the most ancient and dangerous texts known to mankind.”

Jenny looked impressed.

“Sounds like fun. We gonna play with it?”

He sighed.

“I’ve told you. I have no plans to end the world.”

“Why not? I’m sure you could do it. Probably got all sorts of arcane Watcher secrets somewhere in that brain of yours... all that stuff that the good guys don’t want us bad guys to know. And just *think* of all the suffering and gratuitous violence.”

“I was thinking more of the lack of fresh human blood that would be available should everyone on the planet happen to die,” he said, softly, letting his words drip with irony.

“Hmm. Spoilsport,” Jenny said, reaching for the next book. “If you’re not going to use it, why take it?”

He waited a moment, then said, “In case I ever change my mind.”

Jenny grinned up at him, an attractive evil glint in her eye. He found himself grinning back, and dropped to one knee, going game face and pressing a hard, brutal kiss to her lips. She rumbled low in her throat, a sound that was closer to a purr than a growl, and licked away the blood his fangs had drawn from her lip.

“Are you good here?” he asked, standing up and sweeping the coat irritably back away from his legs.

She nodded up at him.

“Good, then. I’ve got to go. There’s an old friend I need to get back in touch with.”

***

Oz froze, one step inside the door, and sniffed. Death. Vampires had been here.

“Willow. Back to the car. Now.”

***

The old factory was cloaked in darkness, surrounded by old run-down machines and junk. Clearly, it was abandoned and had been for some time.

Must be the right place.

To be honest, now that he was here, the gravel of the parking lot crunching under the tires of his rental car, he was a bit nervous. More than a bit, actually. He was beginning to think that he was possibly insane.

But, it was too late for that... he was shifting into park even now, and turning off the motor. When he switched off the headlights, the dark became total.

Except for the red glow of a cigarette off near the wall of the factory.

Ethan Rayne drew in a deep breath, tried not to think that it could be his last, pushed open the door of the car and stepped out into the night.

Immediately, the cigarette dropped to the ground and was snuffed out. Ethan squinted at the dark, as his eyes adjusted far too slowly for his taste. He could hear heavy footsteps crossing the the gravel, see a dark form approaching. He hung back a little closer to the car, feeling the cool metal of the door against his back.

“Ripper?” he called, and was suddenly absolutely convinced that he’s just in fact pulled up next to the *wrong* vampire lair, since there were undoubtedly many in Sunnydale, and he was about to be someone’s midnight snack.

But then, blessedly, a familiar voice cut through the night.

“Ethan Rayne. About time you showed up.”

He couldn’t stop the nervous chuckle.

“Oh, right. Well, you know airlines these days... delays like you wouldn’t believe.”

“Mmm, yes,” Ripper’s voice eased around him, different than he remembered it, looser, seductive. He didn’t stop moving when he’d had reached a sociable distance... Ethan instinctively shrank back another inch closer to the car, and then Ripper was right on top of him, close enough that he could feel his coat brushing against his own, and in the light of the half moon, he could see his eyes glittering. “Are you afraid?” Ripper whispered, his lifeless breath tickling Ethan’s cheek.

“Terrified, actually,” Ethan said, with false cheer.

Cold fingers traced from his temple to his jaw, and Ethan shivered, every instinct screaming at him to run, but every muscle frozen solid.

“Good,” Ripper said.

But, oh, it wasn’t just fear. No, no. Not just fear at all. Every second, he could see a little clearer, and right now he could see things in Ripper he hadn’t seen in years... the barely-restrained violence, the power... His doubts were rushing away like leaves on an autumn wind. This was the man he’d known, who knew his own strength and reveled in it, with no fear and no regret.

Ripper stepped back suddenly.

“Walk with me.”

For a moment, his muscles continued to rebel against any form of movement. Then, realizing he was probably safer with Ripper than without, he trotted after him, slowing to match pace beside him.

“So. How’d it happen? Slayer wasn’t around to save your ass, I assume?”

Ripper shot him a glance that was indecipherable in the moonlight, and then said, “I let my guard down at the wrong time. I’d really rather not discuss it.”

“Ah. Right, then.”

They walked on in silence, eventually leaving the warehouse district ending up on a quiet residential street. He couldn’t see well, but the houses seemed a bit tired, run-down.

“So, um... where are we going?” Ethan asked finally.

“To a friend’s place. There’s something I need.”

“Oh, yes? What’s that?”

Ripper smiled in the darkness.

“An invitation,” he said, and then turned up one of the walks. Ethan followed him up to the door and watched him knock.

A moment later, a woman opened the door a small crack, and peered out, yellow light spilling around her.

“Who are you?” she asked, glaring at them.

Ripper smiled a perfectly innocent smile, suddenly and disconcertingly all sniveling librarian again.

“I’m sorry to be a bother,” he said, “But our car’s broken down, you see, and we’re from out of town... I was wondering if it would inconvenience you too terribly much if I could just use your phone for a moment? I promise I’ll be gone just as soon as I can.”

The woman considered, but only for a moment, and then stepped back away, opening the door fully.

“Sure. Come on in. Phone’s in the kitchen.”

Ripper’s false smile widened.

“Thank you ever so much, my dear.”

And then he stepped into the house. Ethan felt a tightening deep in his gut. God, he was going to kill her. He was sure of it. He wanted to shout something, to warn her, but he couldn’t quite manage it. He actually didn’t care so much about *her*, per se... he just wasn’t sure about watching Ripper... kill someone... And then, he noticed that Ripper had walked right past her and into the kitchen.

“You gonna come in or what?” the woman said, and Ethan suddenly realized she was talking to him.

“Oh. Um. Yes, of course, thank you.”

He walked in, and found Ripper actually on the phone, talking as though to an actual car repair place. Clearly, there was more going on here than a simple kill. Ethan waited for him to get off the phone, his unease deepening, and when Ripper hung up and headed back out the door, Ethan flinched as the vampire walked past the woman again.

“What was that all about?”

“Nothing you need to worry about,” Ripper replied, and they continued down the sidewalk.

“So, Ripper,” he said, eventually, as they left the neighborhood behind, and began to walk down a darkened path in a small park, “What are you planning?’

Ripper’s only answer was a gesture for quiet, and then a flash of a grin in the dark. They’d stopped walking, and it only took a moment for Ethan to hear a soft cry of passion from the trees off to their right. He arched a brow at Ripper, and prepared to make some sardonic remark about sex in public places, but the words died on his lips.

Ripper was growling, softly, beneath his breath.

Nothing human growled like that. It was a deep, rough sound, that it seemed he could feel on his skin... or perhaps that was just the goose bumps... because there was hunger in that soft sound, and violence.

And when he dared a glance at his old friend, he found himself looking on a demon... ridged brow, yellow eyes that seemed to glow in the darkness... and fangs... sharp, shining fangs.

“Oh, Janus,” Ethan said, and then Ripper flashed into the darkness off the edge of the path.

For a moment, there was silence, then, a sharp, startled gasp.

“Did you hear that?”

A female voice, young, and high with fright, answered by another voice, male, but also still young, deepened with false bravado.

“What? Don’t be silly. I didn’t hear--”

Ethan realized he was shaking. Do something, you idiot! He’s going to kill them. *Do* something.

The girl screamed, then, burst out of the darkness, and barreled straight into him, and screamed again. Unconsciously, he grabbed her to steady her, and, for a heartbeat, held her tighter when she struggled to get away, and then Ripper was back in the relative light of the path, holding the boy by his collar.

“Let go! Oh god, let me go!” the girl cried, twisting in his grip.

He couldn’t. He couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t do anything but stare at Giles, Giles who was a *demon*, who just ripped out the throat of a sixteen year old boy. Giles, who... who grabbed the girl roughly from his frozen hands and sank his fangs into her throat. He’d known... but he hadn’t really *known*.

No. No, no, no, it wasn’t supposed to be like *this*. Wasn’t supposed to be Randall all over again.

And why the *hell* hadn’t he let her go? She was staring at him now, eyes wide, moaning in quiet horror, and she had one hand on Ripper’s shoulder, like maybe he was her date and they were dancing at her prom, only, only... she’d never go to prom now, would she?

And all he could do was stare as the lights went out in her eyes, and the demon dropped her beside her boyfriend on the asphalt path.

Ripper wiped a hand across his mouth, and when he turned around, the demon was hiding again.

“Now, then. We were talking about my plans, were we?” he said, and walked on.

Ethan stayed where he was. After a few steps, Ripper stopped, but didn’t turn around.

“Ethan. I expect obedience, although I realize it is a foreign concept to you. I strongly advise you not to test me, because I promise you, if you do, it will be, so to speak, your... final exam. Am I making myself clear?”

He followed. What else could he do?

***

Willow’s eyes were urgent as she gripped Buffy’s upper arm and whispered to her desperately.

“But, Buffy! He’s already taken over most of the Western seaboard. He’s in a perfect position to overrun the entire continent! We need to act now.”

Buffy edged a little closer, hopefully shielding the conversation from anyone who may be listening in.

“I don’t know, Will. If we force his hand now, he could completely wipe us out in South America. I say we wait. Mass our reinforcements in Asia.”

“Yeah, but Buffy? All of North America? Is that a sacrifice you’re really prepared to make?”

Willow’s eyes were filled with tragedy.

“I don’t want to,” Buffy said, gently, “You know I don’t. But I think it’s really the only way.”

“Hey, guys?” Xander’s voice chimed in from across the room. “You gonna be making any decisions anytime soon? Or are we all just gonna sit around here until we drop dead of old age?”

“Quiet, Xander,” Buffy hissed, “This is a pivotal moment.”

“So, what’re we gonna do?” Willow said.

Buffy took a deep breath, held it for a moment, and then said, “Fine. We attack.”

Willow grinned.

“Yes!”

Both girls turned back to the rest of the group, and Buffy scooped up a handful of dice.

“Ok, Xander. My guys are attacking your guys in Mexico. Prepare to die!”

“Ha!” Xander replied, “Your little pink men are no match for my military genius! You’re going down, girlie.”

The dice clattered into the box and Buffy groaned, and removed two of her pink pieces from the Risk board. Oz grimaced.

“So much for fortune favoring the brave.”

“What? You think I’m gonna give up just cause two of my men couldn’t hack it? Please. I’m the Slayer.”

“Yeah, tell that to *them*,” Xander said, as the dice again came up in his favor, and Buffy’s army dwindled to a mere two pieces.

“Crud,” Buffy said unhappily. “See what you’ve done to me now, Will? Aren’t you supposed to be the smart one?”

Willow finished chewing her mouthful of popcorn, then said, “Nope. I’m the research department. The battle tactics are all yours.”

“Heh, that’s what you get for trying to form an alliance in Risk,” Xander said. “It’s a cutthroat game. Dog eat dog! One man against the world!”

“Hey, women present!” Willow reprimanded.

Buffy pouted.

“Well, guess I’m done for this round. Your turn, Oz.”

Which basically meant that everyone else could wander off for potty breaks and the like, because Oz was a deep thinker, and his turns took at least ten minutes of strategizing before any of his little red men moved an inch. Buffy, Willow, and Xander moved down to the other end of the library table, leaving Oz crouched over the board, his pale eyes flickering over the spread of colorful armies.

Buffy flopped down in her chair.

“So, Will, I never really got a chance to tell how cool you were. Figuring out that Kinder-whatever thing. Good call.”

Willow ducked her head and smiled a bit, but when she looked back up, her face was earnest.

“We really need to talk.”

“Uh oh, Buff, I think she’s breaking up with you.” Xander joked, then froze, and added, “Wait a minute, she’s not... um, breaking... Cause, you know, I hate it when I say something totally off the wall like that and then it’s-”

“Xander,” Willow cut him off with a single word and a displeased look.

Buffy leaned forward, propping her elbows on the table.

“Sure, Will, what’s the what? Hit me.”

Willow took a deep breath and folded her hands in her lap. She lowered her eyes again, and a lock of her long hair slipped out from behind her ear and fell along her cheek.

“It’s Giles.”

Buffy frowned, and sobered a bit.

“Giles? What about Giles?”

Willow still hadn’t looked up from the table.

“He got in... to his apartment. A few nights ago, while you were still in the hospital.”

Buffy sat up, perched on the edge of her chair.

“What? How? Who would invite-”

Willow looked up at last, her brow furrowed.

“No one. No one did, Buffy. We got back there the morning after, and there was a power circle outside the door, and he took some stuff, some books, some weapons, magic supplies. Well, and some clothes. And his glasses. Buffy, I think he’s planning something.”

Buffy was still stuck on the Giles got into the apartment part.

“He got in? After the spell? With no invite? Oh, god, Willow... if he can...”

“I know. And, Buffy... the books he took... they were some heavy-duty stuff. If he...We’ve gotta stop him. I don’t think we really have any time to waste. One of the books he took... well, let’s just say ending the world is one of the more warm and cuddly things it could be used for.”

“Warm and cuddly?” Buffy said, staring into space in a bit of shock. Giles. Ending the world. Oh boy. That was just... just... Not right.

Xander spoke suddenly.

“Wait, wait, wait. Will. You’re saying that the vampire can get into houses. Without being invited. As in, he could be just, just, waiting for us one day, we walk into our house, la dee da, and oh, look, vampire, oh help, and then I’m dead.”

“Uh. Kinda looks that way, yeah.” There was an apologetic glint in Willow’s eyes.

Xander fell back in his chair. Buffy the slayer shoved Buffy the stunned high school student off into some corner of her mind and pulled herself together.

“Ok. Willow, we need a spell. Like... a protection spell. Or a...” she wrinkled her nose, trying to think of the proper word, then just gave up and said, “anti-magic spell or something.”

Willow nodded.

“Yeah. A ward. I’ve been working on it. I think I’ve found something that’ll work.”

Buffy smiled. Ah, Willow. What would she do without Willow?

“Great! So. Um. What do you think... I mean, with the books he took... what do you think he’s gonna do?”

At this, Willow grimaced and slumped her shoulders a bit.

“I really can’t say for sure. I mean, the books would be able to tell me, only, he’s got the books now, and all I have is the little index that we made. I know he took one of the big ones on wards and protection spells, cause I wanted to use it earlier. So, maybe he’s got something he wants to protect?”

“Guess there aren’t really copies of those books lying around, are there?”

“Well. Oh, I have one of them scanned into the computer here. And... there’s... there’s the... Watcher’s Council. I know we said--but Buffy, they’d have these, and I don’t know who else-”

The Watcher’s Council. Buffy had read the letters those bastards had sent to Giles. They were awful, nasty things, accusing Giles of everything from harboring demons (Angel, in other words) to babying her. Babying her. Oh, yeah, she felt REAL coddled. Especially that part where she died.

But then, that had been one of the Council’s harshest criticisms. That Giles had had the *nerve* to even try to face the Master in her place. So, ok, if that was coddling, fine, she was babied. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t GONE. In fact, even though she’d been all ready to go at that point, anyway, seeing Giles about to go down there, and die, no doubt, had only cemented her resolve to do her duty.

“Buffy... please...”

The Watcher’s Council didn’t know shit.

“No. No way, Will. They’re bad news.”

“Buffy... this could be the end of the world we’re talking about here! This is no time to be, be... holding grudges, ok? The Watcher’s Council-”

“Is already here.”

They all spun towards the new voice coming from the doorway. A tall, slim man in glasses and a dark suit, holding a brown leather briefcase, looked back calmly.

“Miss Summers, I presume?” he said, briskly, stepping towards Buffy and thrusting out his hand. “I am Wesley Wyndham-Pryce. I am to be your new Watcher.”

Buffy stared for awhile longer, long enough for the man, the Watcher, apparently, to lower his hand, and then stand there, looking uncomfortable, before she spoke.

“How did you know?”

“The vampire contacted us.”

Buffy frowned. Vampire? What kind of vampire would be contacting the council? She doubted they were exactly on Spike’s speed dial.

“The vampire? Which vampire?”

“In life, he was Rupert Giles.”

”Giles? Called you? Why on Earth would Giles call you?”

“A lapse in judgment, no doubt. The Slayer Kendra and her Watcher have already been dispatched posthaste to eliminate the threat.”

“Oh, god,” Buffy gasped. And then she ran for the door.

***

Kendra hefted her trusted crossbow and checked for her stake, then nodded swiftly. She didn’t bother to look back to see if her Watcher was behind her. He had been with her since she was a small child and she could sense him as easily as she could sense a vampire.

And she was sensing many of those at the moment.

But this was her calling, and she had no fear as she strode forward and firmly kicked in the door of the old factory, taking a moment to allow the disgust at the creature’s living conditions to curl in her gut. They were animals. Worse than animals. Vile creatures of the night that stained the world with their very presence as much as they stained it with their victims blood.

She was the Slayer. She would destroy them. She would die destroying them. She’d known and understood for as long as she could remember. One dies, the next is Called. She may well die tonight. But that meant nothing. The next would rise.

Secure in this, she stepped through the broken door and into the close air of the factory.

Something was different here, different than usual for a nest of vampires. She paused just inside, feeling the heat of her Watcher’s body just behind her right shoulder, hearing his breath. What was out of place?

There was the sense of vampires, which, of course, was normal. There was the smell of blood and death, also normal... almost, just barely, comforting, because it was what she had been surrounded with all her life. Also, the scent of candles, not unusual in a vampire’s lair.

“Magics,” her Watcher murmured, apparently sensing her disquiet.

She nodded once, just a quick jerk of her head, and moved forward, content now that the strange feeling had a name.

Once she passed the row of crates near the door, she stepped into a clear area that afforded her a view of the entire factory. Down at the end of the cleared space was a long table, on which many candles flickered. Around the sides of the table were several vampires, hanging back, obviously minions. There were five of them: two dark-haired females, a brown-haired male, and a blond-haired male in a wheelchair, which struck her as odd but inconsequential. Standing at the very head of the table, facing her, watching her, was a single male vampire.

She didn’t hesitate, merely lowered her crossbow and fired for the heart.

The bolt made it halfway across the intervening space, then suddenly dropped like a stone, clattering as it hit the cement floor.

The male smiled, and then spoke. She expected a taunt. Vampires were very trivial in that way, always making pointless remarks at odd moments.

But this was no taunt. This was a soft incantation.

She heard her Watcher cry out softly, in surprise more than pain, but when she tried to turn to him, she found herself immobile. Her eyes widened slightly in mild distress, but she soon found her center of calm. She would die. The next would be Called. In that way, truly, she could never die.

When the vampire reached them, it was with this calm knowledge in her mind that she met his eyes.

He smiled at her, reached out and ran just one finger lightly around her cheek.

She had known him. He was the other’s Watcher. All she could bring herself to feel was distaste. The other Slayer had failed. Her Watcher was dead and she still lived. Such was not the way of things. Kendra herself would die a Slayer’s death.

The vampire stepped away, towards her shoulder, and she braced herself for the pain of the bite. But instead, there were words.

“Xavier,” the soft voice of the dead Watcher murmured, just beside her ear. She felt a momentary pulse of hot rage at the unclean beast’s use of her Watcher’s name, but she let it die in her chill.

“I don’t know you,” her Watcher replied.

“Of course you do, dear man. We were at Oxford together. I still recall the lovely young woman you used to fuck there.”

Kendra stiffened again at the audacity of the creature, but what shocked her more was when her Watcher rose to the bait.

“You were as much a lost cause then as you are now, Rupert Giles.”

“Ah, yes. You *are* still so high on your horse you’re no doubt gasping for oxygen.”

The vampire’s voice was lilting, almost seductive. She found herself wishing he would end this, just kill them quickly.

“You. You dare to impugn me?” her Watcher answered, indignant, “You were a blemish on the Council’s good name long before... this... and *this*... this is... unheard of.”

“Yes, a Watcher, turned. It is rather ironic, of course. But not unheard of. In fact, in a moment, I believe it may become quite nearly... common.”

“I would never.”

The steel in her Watcher’s voice rallied Kendra.

“Of course not. But you see, my Sire taught me a trick. Let me show you.”

And Kendra felt the cool body beside her dart forward, and heard her Watcher, the man practically her father, scream in pain, then heard the wet sounds of a vampire feeding, smelled the sharp tang of fresh blood.

She began to shake.

His breath, his warmth, his presence, all things she had taken as eternal, unshakable... they were fading behind her. And she could do nothing.

She felt the vibrations shiver up her legs as his body hit the floor. Then the vampire that wore the body of a man she’d once known stepped back, so she could see him. His mouth ran red with blood, and he grinned, a horrible thing with the demon fully out and visible, and she hated him. She hated him with a passion she had never known could even exist.

He raised his left arm, and very deliberately slit his own wrist. Then he went to his knees beside her.

No. She felt the sentiment rocked through her so strongly, she suspected she may have said it out loud.

Behind her, she heard her Watcher gasp, what was quite possibly his last breath, and then choke around something wet. And then, there was silence, and the vampire stood.

He didn’t even look at her, merely turned back to his minions, who were now gathered around them.

“Bring the cage down,” he said, and one of the dark-haired females turned and began working at a chain.

The vampire in the wheelchair, to whom the other female was clinging, was eyeing Kendra, and spoke as the cage on the ceiling lowered.

“You sure you’re sure about this? Because I’m thinking having our very own Slayer for a pet is really a bit like decoratin’ the baby’s room with live electric wires, if you get my drift.”

“As long as she’s here, we know where she is. And we know another won’t be Called.”

No. No, no. The vampire’s plans began to become clear. No. Kendra threw herself against the magic that bound her... but was unable to move so much as a muscle.

The suspended cage hit the floor with a hollow clang, and the alpha vampire stepped up to her, and then reached out and touched her face again. She shuddered hard at his touch. His hands did not stop at her face this time. Cool, dry palms laid flat against her skin and then dragged down... down...

The flush of rage matched pace with a flush of embarrassment as the cold hands passed over her breasts, lingering there for a moment before sliding around to run up and down her back, then down around her ass, and then stopping, briefly, at her waistband to pull out the stake she kept there and toss it aside. Then the hands moved around, running over her stomach, leaving chills in their wake, and the down again, over her crotch, her thighs, then down to the relatively safe territory of her knees and calves and feet.

As he stood up, the vampire hooked one arm around behind her knees and swept her off her feet, catching her in his arms and cradling her immobile form, as she had seen pictures of husbands carrying their brides over the threshold.

Though she’d never been held this way before to know the difference, her body still ached from the wrongness of the cool, still chest she was pressed against as the vampire carried her, almost gently, to the cage and laid her inside on the bars.

He gave her one last smile, human-faced now, but still bloody, and then slammed the cage door shut, and walked away. The female hoisted the cage back up, and with each jolt, Kendra felt the binding spell loosen a bit. When the cage had returned to its previous height, she was free from the magics.

She sat up and pulled her knees up to her chest.

Below her, the female vampire left the chain and dashed out the door, following the alpha vampire and the other female. The blond vampire in the wheelchair left the room as well, off in a different direction. The brunette male remained, staring up at her, with a strange look on his face.

She stared back down. Oddly enough, she didn’t sense him, like she usually sensed vampires.

And then it hit her.

He was human.

***

Buffy crashed through the door of the factory at what Xander would probably refer to as warp factor ten, with her stake raised high.

But there were no vampires. She stopped, just inside the main room.

She was too late. He was sprawled in the middle of the room, a wet circle of blood under his neck, and his suit coat splayed around him. A Watcher. She knew it, somehow, and she slowly lowered the stake.

Dead Watcher. No vampires. No apparent Slayer. No one... no... wait. Movement.

She raised the stake again, moving towards the table, and then, he appeared out of the darkness like an apparition, and as pale as one. Tall, lank, dressed in a long brown duster with his hands in his pockets.

“Ethan Rayne,” she said. “I should have known. You bastard.”

But there was something in his eyes that stopped her. Something empty and sad, and scared. Something like she’d seen in Willow’s eyes, and Xander’s.

“You’re wasting time,” he said. “It’s a trap, you know.”

He was speaking strangely, like a man about to die.

“What?” she said. Trap? She looked around.

“Not a trap for you,” he said.

“Who then? Look, I don’t have time for these stupid riddles--”

Ethan breathed in softly, looked at her, calmly, more calm than she’d ever seen him. Frighteningly calm, really.

“Dear old Ripper has taken his two women to the school to kill all of your little friends. I was supposed to supply a diversion. I’m not supplying said diversion. He’ll probably kill me. If you look up, you’ll notice that the other Slayer isn’t as dead as you probably think she is.”

Buffy was still trying to work the shock out of her system. Kill her friends? Oh. Oh. Oh, *shit.*

Then, a voice came from above.

“Slayer?”

She looked up. A girl was in a cage suspended from the ceiling. Kendra.

“Just a suggestion, you may want to, you know... do something,” Ethan said.

And then, it all finally processed. Kendra was in a cage. Ethan was apparently betraying Giles, no doubt for some selfish reason, but that was unimportant at the moment. And Giles, Dru, and Jenny were on their way to the library to have themselves a merry little massacre.

Or so they thought.

But they were really, really wrong. Not on her watch.

The cage came down first, a little faster than was possibly wise, but Kendra was a Slayer, she could handle it. Buffy kicked the lock off with the full strength of a pissed-off Slayer, and Kendra was out in an instant, and then, with fire in her own eyes, headed straight for the dead man. Her Watcher. Buffy gave Kendra a moment, just a moment. The other Slayer knelt, touched the man gently on the shoulder.

Then she pulled the sword out from the sheath on his back... and cut his head off.

In the sudden stillness, Buffy could hear the vampire dust patter softly to the floor.

And then, there was no time.

“Come on,” she said, heading for the door. “Both of you. That is, if you want me to save your pathetic ass, Ethan.”

By the time she emerged from the factory into the night, she was back up to a full run. She could hear two sets of footsteps behind her.

***

The library doors crashed open with enough force it had to be just Buffy, returning triumphant and pissed with a Slayer and Watcher in tow. Xander didn’t even bother to look up from his place, parked at the end of the library table nearest the stacks, feet propped up on the table, book in his lap, until someone screamed. Must have been Wyndham-Pryce.

But, anyway, he then *did* look up. And it wasn’t Buffy.

Nope, not Buffy at all, no siree bob. No, it was actually, of course, Giles. Giles the evil vampire. And his two delightfully evil vixens, and why the hell was he thinking like this when he should be standing up... oh, wait, he *had* stood up, and was, in fact, now plastered back against the bookcases and staring as the three vampires crossed the library in what seemed to be slow motion, like those guys in Apollo thirteen walking up the gangplank to the shuttle, or was that Armaggedon?

Well, actually, this pretty much *was* armaggedon, so that was probably a more apt metaphor, and the bookshelf was seriously digging into his back, and Will and Oz were over there running for the weapons cage, and wasn’t that a good idea, too bad he was an idiot, because now Giles had reached the other end of the library table, and instead of doing something dorky and librarian-like like walking around it, he just... bounded up onto it, that black trench coat billowing out around him, his face... his face was human, and somehow that was a thousand times worse than if it were demon, and his eyes were focused on one thing, and that thing was his prey, which, of course, would be Xander himself, and running, running was really a very very good idea now, too bad he couldn’t actually do it, because hey, the table shook with every step Giles took in those large, heavy-looking boots of his, and every one of those steps was bringing him closer, and in fact, Giles was getting really close now, and oh god... the whole *universe* shook when he leapt down from the table, and landed directly in front of Xander, and... smiled...

Xander made a small, pathetic sound in his throat and his knees gave out, so he sank down into a half crouch, his back still against the bookcase, the vampire looming over him...

And then the doors banged open again.

“Oh, you are *so* dead,” Buffy’s voice said, ringing across the room like, like, like something really, really, really, very much good, and the nearness of salvation was enough, just enough for him to find his legs and run, well, scrabble on all fours, actually, and then run, and he heard Giles curse, but frankly, he wasn’t listening, cause now that he could, he was just gonna run. And run some more. And... well, yeah, that was pretty much the plan.

So, he ran.

***

Jenny had come in on Ripper’s right, and the first person she saw was a neatly-dressed man she’d never met before. Looked like a Watcher. Maybe it was a Watcher. It screamed, and the sound sent a thrill through her. Well, whatever it was, it was dinner now, she thought, grinning as she felt the demon well up inside her, push to the fore and send a tremble of strength through her. Oh, yeah, this was the life. Well, not exactly.

Watcher-boy looked about ready to piss his pants. Nothing at all like her Ripper, who was currently jumping up onto the library table.

It squealed again as she approached, backing away, and fumbling for something in its coat pocket. Just as she reached it, it pulled out a cross. Damn.

She hissed and fell back, feeling the burn of the cross even across the intervening space, like the heat from a radiator.

“Back, creature of the night!” the Watcher squeaked, like a little mouse. Wasn’t that just cute? She dodged a bit to one side, then to the other side, and he swung the cross around wildly, following her.

She could smell his fear.

Shaking her head, she said, “You really think you’re going to save yourself, little man? You’re optimistic, I’ll give you that much.”

He was edging... towards the stairs up to the stacks. She moved around towards the stairs herself, subtly herding him back towards the table even as he kept the cross trained on her.

And then the doors burst open and the Slayer shouted something, and Xander ran out of the room like a scared rabbit, and her own prey darted for the stacks...

And when she turned around, that *other* Slayer, the one that was supposed to be locked up, was heading right for her. So, hey, Xander and the little Watcher had the right idea. Jenny vaulted over the railing and ran for the stacks. But the formerly-caged Slayer was fast. Before she’d even reached the archway that lead into the stacks, the Slayer had grabbed her from behind, slammed her into a nearby bookcase.

It was only her vampire reflexes that saved her from a stake through the heart. She’d grabbed the Slayer’s wrist, stopped the stake just inches from her chest.

The Slayer didn’t give up. She pushed. Jenny pushed back. The stake moved a centimeter closer. Then a centimeter away. She looked up into the dark eyes of the Slayer, and the Slayer looked right back. And they were at a standstill, their arms shaking with the strain, both of their jaws set with determination.

Clearly, she needed some help, here.

“Giles!”

Over the Slayer’s shoulder, she saw him glance towards her.

“Giles! Little help here?”

He’d seen, he’d heard, surely he’d just bound over that railing and save her...

But he didn’t. He didn’t. He just... turned back to Buffy.

Oh, no. This was not good.

Her arm was shaking harder now, aching all up and down from the strain. And the tip of the stake was digging into her skin.

“Giles,” she gasped again.

The stake pressed forward, a bit more, breaking the skin, pressing hard against bone. She whimpered softly, and wondered why it had never crossed her mind how much it would *hurt* to be stabbed with a relatively blunt piece of wood.

He was toying with Buffy down there. Just playing. Playing, while she was *dying*. She met the Slayer’s eyes again, saw nothing but determination and rage there. She guessed her arm would probably hold out another three seconds or so.

She’d never really thought vampires could be afraid.

She shut her eyes, and then, a second later, heard a bone snap loudly. The stake disappeared.

And... she wasn’t dead.

She opened her eyes.

“Spike?”

Spike was standing in front of her. *Standing* in front of her.

“Yeah, well, figured things were gonna get a little hairy, thought I’d swing by and give you kids a hand.”

“But you... you can’t walk...”

He grimaced.

“Actually, I can, see... Anyway. Gotta go kill a Slayer. Another Slayer, that is...”

And with that, he hopped over the railing to join Ripper and Dru.

Kendra the Slayer was dead at her feet, her neck broken.

And that was when things really went to hell. There was a shout from the stacks. Then, lots of shouts from the stacks. Then, the rumble of many feet on hardwood floors.

She risked a glance over her shoulder, and saw the first of them, a man, dressed in black, like a SWAT team officer, only he was shouting something about the Watcher’s Council and he was armed with a crossbow, and a stake, and holy water.

Jenny decided she’d had enough for one night, jumped over the railing and fled towards the door. Spike was right beside her, dragging Dru with him. Dru was rambling on about pretty ghosts that scare children in the dark.

Just as she shoved through the doors, she heard Ripper roar behind them, “You stupid fools, it’s an illusion!”

But by the time they’d reached the front entrance of the school, he had joined them in flight.

***

Like dusting vampires, the illusionary soldiers burst into nothing the instant the vampires fled. Willow gasped, and jolted back against him, thumping him against the weapons cabinet. He clutched her closer, feeling her back heaving against his chest with her panicked breaths.

“Oh god. Who’s hurt? Who’s-” Buffy was staggering, bloody and wide-eyed and looking around frantically. “Xander? Where’s, where’s Xander?”

“I-I think he ran out the door... earlier, right when you came in,” Willow said, and then she gently pulled away from him, and walked up to hook her fingers through the bars. “Let us out?”

But then, Buffy’s attention snapped back towards the stacks, and she froze completely, and Oz caught the scent of fresh distress. He tensed, and laid a hand on Willow’s shoulder.

“Buffy?” Willow called, watching as her friend slowly walked up the stairs and around towards the bookcases, moving as though mesmerized. “Buffy, what is it?”

The slayer dropped to her knees behind the wooden railing, half-hidden from them, and her face was a mask of anguish.

“Oh god. Oh, god,” Willow was saying, and he could feel her beginning to shake, and for the first time, he really tried to use the wolf senses, breathing in the scents of the room. Who was it? But he couldn’t tell. All he could smell was blood, and undeath, and magic, and sweat.

And then, the new Watcher appeared, returned from the stacks, clutching a cross, pale and sweaty. He stopped, just beside Buffy and looked down.

“Dear god,” he said, “A Slayer. They... they’ve killed a Slayer.”

Oz felt Willow relax, and then, an instant later, tense again, and could all but feel the emotions going through her mind. First, relief, that it wasn’t Xander. Then, the realization that it was Kendra. Then, the guilt for being relieved, for being *grateful*. He stepped up behind her, wrapped his arms around her stomach and held her close, silently sending her forgiveness for her humanity. Love for her humanity.

Then, Buffy stumbled up to her feet, backed away from the body, and finally really looked at them. Oz met her eyes over Willow’s shoulder, but she quickly looked away. She unlocked the cage without any further trace of emotion, and said, “We need to find Xander.”

Oz brushed gently past Willow, taking a last bit of comfort from the touch of her shoulder against his arm as he passed, and then he headed towards the door.

Sure enough, he could easily find Xander’s scent here, once he was away from the more chaotic center of the library. He glanced back over his shoulder at Buffy and Willow, who were still standing by the cage.

“I can track him. I’ll go.”

They nodded, so he went, with Willow’s “Be careful” drifting after him.

It felt strange, to be walking down these darkened, familiar hallways, and letting his senses free. It felt a little too... wild. Too wolfish.

But it also felt kind of... right... in a way he didn’t really want to analyze.

In any case, it only took him a few moments to follow the scent to the maintenance closet. He stopped in front of the door, and considered for a few moments the least traumatic way to get Xander out of the closet, factoring in the startlement value of each, and the potential damage each may deal to whatever was left of Xander’s rather, well, fragile, masculine pride. He finally settled for knocking gently, and calling out, “Hey, Xander? You in there? They’re gone.”

There was a pause, then a clatter, and then the door opened and Xander strode out, bearing a broken mop.

“Oh, good. I. I was just. You know. Seeing if I could... find a weapon,” he said, gesturing with the mop.

“Yeah,” Oz said. “Uh. Good thinking, there.”

He nodded.

Xander nodded.

They both stood in awkward silence. Then Xander tossed the mop back in the closet, shut the door and said.

“So. Time to. You know. Head back, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

So, they did. By the time they got there, the gang was grouped around the library table: Buffy, Willow, the new Watcher... and... some guy Oz had never seen before. Xander, on the other hand, went instantly on red alert.

“Ethan Rayne? Ethan Rayne! What is Ethan Rayne doing-”

“He’s on our side, Xand,” Buffy said.

“Our side? He’s a chaos-worshipping... ex-friend of Giles’s. Who’s evil now. Giles is, I mean. What makes you think-”

Xander was again cut off, by Ethan himself this time.

“That... thing... is not the man I knew. And now that I’ve associated myself with you lot, I’ve no doubt placed myself near the top of his hit list. Believe me, I have no desire to harm the only people here who could even hope to protect me.”

Xander had stalked over to the table, and was glaring down at Ethan, masculinity apparently firmly back intact.

“Oh yeah? Well, how do we know that this isn’t all just some elaborate deception-”

For the third time, Xander was stopped in midsentence.

“I just know, Xander. Trust me, ok?” Buffy said softly.

Oz could see from the tension in his form that Xander wasn’t about ready to do that, but before he could retort, he looked up, towards the stacks, and he saw... her. Kendra. Someone had draped a long coat over her body.

“Oh god. Is that?”

“Kendra,” Buffy said.

“Oh, god,” Xander said again, and then he sat down.

Oz walked over to the table as well, took his usual seat beside Willow. As soon as he sat down, she spoke up.

“We need to find a spell. Something to keep them out of the library. We... we need to be safe here. I-I can look through Ms. Calendar’s stuff again. See if there’s... anything.”

***

Back in the factory, she felt stupidly safer, like an animal gone to ground, like an ostrich with its head buried in the sand. They could follow them here if they wished, she knew. And yet, she felt safer here. It was home, dark and close and comforting.

Ripper was in a rage. As she approached, he was busy tearing some old broken down piece of equipment to bits, the metal parts screaming as he wrenched them apart in a terrifying show of strength. Jenny, though, had never really been one for the cautious self-preservation route.

“What the hell was that?” she shouted, over the cry of protesting metal, and he stopped, stood still for a few seconds, then looked over his shoulder, game-faced and glaring, as though she had some nerve interrupting his infantile display of pique.

“What the hell were you *thinking* back there?” she demanded again.

He turned around.

“Thinking? What was *I* thinking? I wasn’t the one who ran like a scared deer from a illusion any competent five-year-old could have spotted.”

“I’m not talking about that! God, Ripper, I nearly died! That pet Slayer of yours could have killed me. You didn’t do *anything*. What the hell is up with that? I thought you--”

“What? You think I care?”

And he actually sounded honestly surprised. It took her a moment to get her stride back.

”Duh! I expect you to *care*. God, Ripper, I *love* you, I thought you--”

“Oh, *please.* Love? Vampires don’t *love.* I certainly don’t *love* anything. And neither should you. Good lord.”

She stared after him as he stormed off, apparently looking to continue his property damage somewhere with more privacy.

It was Spike’s voice that finally broke her stunned reverie.

“He’s telling the truth, you know. He doesn’t care. Don’t think he even can, really.”

She lowered her head, then peered back over her shoulder at him.

“I don’t... understand. You and Dru...”

“Look, Gypsy, you’re one thing to him, and one thing only. And you know what that is. And frankly, that makes you pretty much expendable, far as he’s concerned.”

Spike came up beside her, leaned back against the hunk of junk that Ripper had been demolishing, and pulled out a cigarette, then tipped the package in her direction. She waved the offer off and leaned against the metal next to him as he lit up. She crossed her arms over her stomach and stared off into the darkness of the factory.

“See, thing is...” Spike continued, “We don’t really change as much as we might like to think. Some vamps, they don’t get along so well with their demon. Others... ‘s like finding a long-lost friend.”

Tendrils of white smoke trailed up and away, coiling and curling as they went.

“So... what do you do?”

“Survive, pet. ’s all you can do.”

***

Later that night, Xander walked into his room, switched on the light... and everything went dark.

Consciousness came back slowly, a progression of darkness to mere dimness, but the first thing he was truly aware of was pain. His shoulders and arms, which were stretched up above him, were tingling and burning like a million fire ants were marching along them and nibbling as they went, and his wrists felt as though someone had just given him the mother of all Indian rope burns. He decided, somewhat distractedly, that this was probably because of the actual *rope* that was tying them up above his head. The rope, that is, that he was hanging from, although, not all the way up in the air. He was close enough to the ground that his knees were bent slightly and his toes were resting on smooth concrete.

It suddenly occurred to him that this was absolutely not a normal thing. Then he snapped awake complete, opening his eyes to the half-light of what seemed to be a back room of the factory.

“Oh, no,” he gasped, and scrambled to his feet and backwards, but the rope caught him, and his arms screamed in pain and white stars danced before his eyes. “No,” he said again, as Giles smiled at him in the dim light of one cage-covered bulb.

“Ah, good, you’re awake.”

He should have been terrified, but he wasn’t. The initial shock faded fast, and then all that was left was a small, tight ball of apprehension somewhere low in his gut. Other than that, there was nothing. At this moment, he supposed all he really was was resigned.

“Ok, fine. Here we are. Me tied up, you all evil. I just have to ask the obvious question. Why me?”

Giles stood up, his hands in the pockets of his coat, and ducked his head a bit and smiled, a familiar old gesture. Xander felt another spike of hatred for this creature dig into his heart.

“Isn’t it obvious?”

“You’re evil?” Xander shot back, wondering at his stupid boldness.

“Well, yes. There is that. But it’s actually because you are so... entertaining.”

He was trembling now, but he was so numb he wasn’t sure if it was fear or anger or just pain.

“Gee, thanks. I try.”

Giles gave him a dour look.

“I am, of course, not referring to your weak quips.”

“Hey, now. My quips could beat up your quips.”

“Shut up, Xander.”

“Oh, sure, so you can have your exciting little ‘I’m the bad guy, listen to me ramble’ monologue? The one that always has to precede the pain part of the event? I think, actually, quite emphatically, that I shall not shut up, because the longer I put it off--”

Xander croaked as Giles’s hand clamped around his throat.

Giles smiled again.

“Much better.”

Air. Air, he needed air, oh god, why’d he waste so much precious, sweet oxygen yapping? Never again, never again! The world was getting dark. Then Giles let go, and Xander dropped. The rope caught him by his wrists again and he yelped, just a little, and took a moment to catch his breath before he stood back up, and glared, silently now, at Giles.

“Now, would you prefer a little more pain before we start, or shall I get on with my... monologue?”

“I hate you,” Xander said, feeling the words catch and pull a bit in his aching throat.

“Very good, you’ve provided me with a perfect segue. You do hate me. And, more importantly, you fear me. Both are exceedingly attractive qualities in a victim, I’ve found. But do you know why you hate me?”

“Again, I’ve got to go with... because you’re evil?”

“No, no, that’s not it at all, actually. Care to guess again?”

“Well, no, seeing as I’m the one tied up and at your mercy, hows about you tell me what you think?”

Giles did so.

“I am, quite simply, your worst nightmare.”

Xander felt a small part of him inside curl up in despair at the truth of those words, but he spat back, “Kinda giving yourself a lot of credit, there, aren’t you? I mean, what vamp *doesn’t* want to think he’s some guy’s worst nightmare?”

“Oh, but I am. You loved me, Xander. You trusted me. Looked up to me. And why not? I was intelligent, I could wield weapons. I was kind, in a distracted sort of way. And of course, I ignored and insulted you just enough to seem truly paternal in your eyes. But I wouldn’t hurt you, would I? Not like he did. You felt safe. You let me in. But you see, now... I’m not safe anymore. But I’m still... in.

“You’re a well-guarded man, Xander Harris... but even the strongest walls can’t keep out someone who’s already inside.”

All he could think of as a retort was “nuh-uh”, and that, even he wouldn’t dignify by speaking aloud. A young voice from long ago, buried deep in his mind, whispered, “Please don’t hurt me,” but he’d learned, almost as long ago, that there was no point in speaking that aloud, either. He just stood there, his arms over his head, and felt something that felt a little like defeat.

But, Giles seemed to be waiting for something, so, eventually, he managed, “Weren’t you supposed to, you know, reveal the details of your evil plot, or something?” but his voice was soft and tired as he spoke.

“I don’t really have one, I’m afraid. But there is one more thing I wanted to say, and then, we can get on with the pain part of the evening which you so accurately predicted.”

“And what’s that?”

As he spoke, Giles walked over to the piles of old boxes and factory detritus that lined the walls of the room.

“I did you a small... favor. Something you’ve no doubt rather wished someone would do for quite some time now.”

He reached down into the mess and gripped something solid there, and then, with one good tug, yanked it free of the mess and out onto the floor, where he let it sprawl, limbs all flopping in different directions, bits of paper and tape and styrofoam stuck to it and scattered around it. A body.

Xander felt bile rising and burning in the back of his throat, a sharp counterpoint to the pulsing pain-heat in his arms.

A familiar body.

Giles nudged its head with one black-booted foot, and it rolled around on a limp neck to stare up at Xander with wide, dead eyes.

“No,” Xander said, “No, no, no. Oh god.”

His father.

“Don’t worry yourself. I certainly didn’t turn him. Awful man, really.”

Giles circled around behind him, and then came up close to his back. He shuddered as the vampire’s cold hand touched his shoulder.

“He’s not going to hurt you anymore.”

The cool presence moved away, towards the back of the room. Xander listened with quivering, horrified attendance to every rattle and rustle, trying desperately to predict if a blow was about to fall. Then, Giles’s footsteps moved back towards the front, accompanied by the soft hiss of something dragging across the floor. Xander’s muscles drew tight, even as his bladder seemed to loosen, and for one brief moment all he could think was “Oh, god, no matter what else, please, please don’t let me wet my pants,” and then, as Giles came back into his view, his head bent to examine whatever he was holding in his hands, he realized that was really the least of his worries.

Then, Giles was looking at him. Like a magician about to perform a trick, he held up for Xander’s inspection the two black electrical cords he was holding in either hand, each ending in bare, stripped wire. He touched the two ends together, and a blue spark jumped between them.

“He’s not,” Giles said, “But I am.”

***

She’d found it after school.

For a long time, she’d just stared at it. Because it just didn’t seem real. It didn’t seem like it could possibly real. It was like the hand of god had just reached down and dropped the answer right in her hands. It was like something way too good to have ever happened on the Hellmouth.

It was Angel’s curse.

And it had just been lying there, for who knows how long, between the desk and the wall. If she hadn’t dropped her pencil, she never would have found it.

Then, numb, she’d printed it out, and carried it back to the library.

“What, Will? You have something?”

She’d nodded.

“Well?”

She’d held it out towards Buffy, still silent, still shocked. Still half-believing that it would just disappear. That it wasn’t real. Ethan had drifted over towards them. He’d read over Buffy’s shoulder.

“Oh my god, “ Buffy had said. “This... this is...”

“Angelus’s curse,” Ethan had said. “It was believed to be lost.”

“Well. It was. And... and now it’s back. Ms. Calendar must have... have been translating it. That must be why...”

Buffy’d looked up.

“We can do this. Right? We can... fix him.”

But would it be him?

“I- I don’t know, Buffy... I mean... I don’t know if... if it’d even be... him...”

Ethan had taken the printout from Buffy’s hands. Willow had recognized the eagerness that he’d read it with.

“I have all of this out in my car. We could do this. *She* could do this.”

Willow’d realized suddenly that Ethan was looking at her.

“Me? Wait, wait, why... why me?”

“You’re the witch. I’m a sorcerer. There’s a difference.”

And that was when they’d gotten the phone call. Buffy had picked up the phone in Giles’s office, and Willow had continued to look over the printout with Ethan. When Buffy had come back out, she’d been pale. Willow wasn’t sure she’d be able to take whatever Buffy was about to tell them, but she asked anyway.

“What? What happened?”

“Giles has Xander. He said he’ll kill him in an hour if I don’t come. Alone.”

Oh yeah. She couldn’t take that. It just... didn’t really process. All she could feel was a deep, emphatic “no!”

“I don’t know if I can fight him, Will. I’ll hold him off as long as I can. Do the spell.”

So, here she was, sitting in the library with Oz and an unpredictable chaos sorcerer, preparing to perform a spell she had no idea if she was actually capable of performing. And if she couldn’t do it, hey, two of her friends were going to die. No pressure.

She drew a deep breath, and began to speak.

“Not dead, nor not of the living... spirits of the interregnum, I call...”

***

Buffy was beyond thinking as she reached the factory. Beyond feeling. Beyond anything. For the first time in her life, for the first time since she’d learned of the destiny force down on her, she simply let go.

Buffy Summers was gone. Was distant background noise. She was the Slayer. She was violence. She was death.

She kicked the door in, strode inside and he was waiting for her, already armed. When he smiled, a cold parody of the warm smile of the the man who had once been her Watcher, she felt nothing. She raised her sword, and she kept walking, and she didn’t pause, she didn’t flinch when metal met metal. She simply fought.

Primal instinct, thrust and parry, go for the neck every chance you get. Which wasn’t many. He was skillful, and that, of course, was all part of the trap. He’d met her on his terms, with his weapon.

Cold clangs and shrieks of steel. Warmth rushing through her limbs, her body. Heat gathering in her muscles, her joints. The burn of activity. The burn of cuts where his sword glanced off her skin. It didn’t matter. None of it mattered.

He was dead.

She was dead.

This, this was all a farce, a ploy. Her own death... it wouldn’t matter. He would be stopped. If the spell worked. It had to work.

Because she was losing. She could feel it. She knew it. She understood it.

And it didn’t matter. Not anymore.

She was just so tired. So very tired.

Angel, Giles... and now Xander. Xander, who was probably dead, or worse, turned, because Giles knew that she would come anyway, come just because there was a chance he was alive.

So tired.

Then she made a mistake, and the blow came, a crushing impact of the hilt of his sword against her temple. The world darkened, contracted, and she felt the concrete floor hit her, hold her up. And then him lifting her, hands knotted in her shirt, shoving her back against something hard, with force enough to make her collarbone crack. Pain only adding to the dizzy disorientation. Limbs not following her commands, and mind not quick enough to issue any.

She’d thought that he would have something to say. They always did, some pithy final remark to breathe into her ear.

So it surprised her when he didn’t pause in his lunge. When the only thing she felt was his fangs, suddenly in her. His cold tongue pushing over her skin. Too dizzy, too tired, to move. But enough of her left inside to feel something. A twist of disgust, distant and vague, but still recognizable.

And then he stopped.

Just stopped.

Held perfectly, utterly still, his fangs still at her throat, his hands still pinning her down. Not moving.

And then he was gone, and she half-fell, just barely holding herself up against the pillar. Through a dizzy half-reality, her hand reached up to her neck and pressed over the wound there, felt her own blood, slick and hot.

And the the darkness of her vision pushed back, like parting a curtain, and she saw him, standing, staring at her, human-faced, mouth half-opened, eyes wide.

His eyes...

She gasped, suddenly, and air rushed into her empty lungs, and with it came something complex, but hesitantly good. Maybe... oh, god, maybe...

His eyes... his *soul*.

And then he was looking away from her, looking around, and she saw his gaze land on something, and when she turned her head, she saw it was Jenny. Who was staring back.

And as they stared at each other, Buffy saw Drusilla fleeing from the corner of her eye, saw Spike, seemingly caught in the middle, looking from Drusilla to Jenny to Giles and back.

And then Giles reached down, picked up the stake she’d lost during the fight from the floor, and began to walk towards Jenny. Just walking, at first. And then with each step, his pace increased, until he was running at her.

She just watched him, like she couldn’t tear herself away. And it wasn’t disgust that Buffy saw in her face, or fear, or anger. It was something like awe, like longing.

Then at the last moment, before the stake could fall, Spike shouted her name and, like she’d been broken from a trance, she ran.

Giles’s stake cut through air, and then he let it fall, as the three other vampires fled.

She waited, still watching, feeling her strength slowly ebbing back. He stood still for a long time, his head hanging. And then, at once suddenly and slowly, he crumpled. Sank to his knees and one hand on the smooth concrete. His long black coat, that had been, for her, so much the symbol of his new existence, now draped around him like a funeral shroud, now seemed too large, like he was a boy wearing his father’s clothes.

By the time she reached him, he was sobbing, and when she knelt in front of him, and touched his shoulder, he grabbed her, and jostled her broken bone, but it was all right, because he was just holding her, and crying against her shoulder, the one that was already damp from her blood. That was ok, too. She shut her eyes, and turned her faces towards him, felt his soft hair against her cheek, her forehead, her nose.

They cried, together, until the factory door opened again, and Oz peered in.

He saw them, and simply nodded to her, and then headed to the back, and five minutes later, emerged with Xander, and slipped out quietly.

She wasn’t sure how much longer she held him and he held her, but eventually, he pulled away, turned from her, wiping the tears away with a self-conscious hand.

“Sorry,” he said, and she knew he meant only for the tears, because everything else was simply too massive to even contemplate.

And then, they’d helped each other to their feet.

***

He’d been back, so to speak, for three weeks. Principal Synder had bought the excuse the Scoobies had dreamed up, and the lease on his apartment was still current.

Everything was as it had been.

Except for a few details, of course. Tape on the floor of the library, marking danger zones where sunlight was likely to be. A mini-fridge full of pig’s blood in his office. No more Jenny.

But then, the children still came as they always did, today full of bubbling enthusiasm over the end of exams. Willow still smiled at him with the brightness of a dozen suns, Oz was still laconic but astute, Cordelia was still... Cordelia...

And Buffy... Buffy was quiet, but she was recovering.

And he was still the Watcher, reading the books, making suggestions. Doing his duty even if that git Wesley was, technically speaking, Buffy’s official Watcher now.

Life went on.

But he wasn’t alive.


The End
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