Faith pounded her fist on the Mayor's desktop. "She's always in the way. Why don't you just let me do her and get it over with."
The Mayor frowned and rubbed peevishly at the spot where her fist had landed with a soft cloth. "I don't think sending you after Buffy would be a wise move right now. Have patience."
"You don't think I can do it." She stated coldly.
"You know that's not true." the Mayor made a distasteful face, "I just wouldn't want to put you at risk, that's all."
"There wouldn't BE any risk." Faith spat, slumping back into a chair.
"Maybe not, " he agreed. "But it's no longer an issue. There's a new player on the market, one whose talents suit our needs to a tee."
Faith's eyes warmed with delicious mischief.
"Our slayer problem will soon be over." the Mayor buffed the cloth over his fingertips and, folding it neatly, stuffed it into his breast pocket.
Buffy felt her eyes cross again in utter boredom. Her head sagged slightly foiling her attempt at feigned attention. God, senior year and algebra is just as boring as ever, she lamented silently. Glancing to her left, she noticed her best friend Willow scribbling meticulous notes into a pristine coil bound note book, happily oblivious to the rest of the class. Seeing no opportunity to break the monotony there, she turned halfway in her seat to see what Xander was doing. Slumped down behind her, he appeared to be carefully studying the insides of his eyelids again, soft half conscious sounds on his breath.
He stirred slightly and smacked his lips sleepily before settling back down again. She considered nudging him awake briefly, then reconsidered. Xander's penchant for witty dialogue was usually greatly impaired for a while when he first woke up. Buffy' s boredom needed more immediate relief.
Raising her hand anxiously, she looked to her teacher imploringly. The woman, a living personification of the phrase 'battle axe' if there ever was one, scowled darkly at her.
"Yes, Miss Summers?" she inquired crossly, her voice low and gravelly like a man's.
"May I please be excused to go to the washroom?" Buffy asked sweetly.
The battle axe's scowl deepened. "Go." she growled, slamming her heavy textbook shut with an echoing snap. Buffy shank into her seat and the entire class jumped. Behind her, Xander jerked awake and fell sideways in his desk. In his disoriented state, he had no time to catch his balance. With a bone jarring crash, he toppled, desk and all, to the hard tiled floor.
"Whu? What?" he stammered as he tried to untangle himself from the fallen desk. Placing his hand to the top of his algebra book, he pushed himself upward. The book slid out from under him and, clumsily, he slipped over onto his side again.
The teacher fixed him with a glare that could have curdled milk. Seizing the distraction, Buffy hopped up and, snatching up the worn, pink hall pass, fled for the door.
"Five minutes, Miss Summers!" the old woman barked, pointing a stubby finger in the direction of the door, all the while making sure to keep Xander transfixed with her gorgon stare.
He smiled nervously and continued to gather up his books and desk.
Closing the classroom door quickly behind her, she paused to breathe a sigh of relief. If there was a hell it would most definitely be senior algebra with Mrs. Finkel. Or at least something very much like it. Freedom, even for a mere five minutes, was priceless. Intentionally slow, she meandered happily in the general direction of the ladies room. A tiny chill ran down her spine and she instantly ducked close to the wall. Even a hall pass wouldn't save her if Principal Skinner found her wandering the halls.
A figure crossed by the end of the corridor. It wasn't Principal Skinner but a young man, close to her own age. Sunnydale was a small town and every student, whether they were an acquaintance or not was at least recognizable, or so she thought. He was dressed in stylish brown pants and darker brown shoes and wore a fitted dark gray leather jacket. He had dark auburn hair, wavy and cut short, and his skin was unnaturally tanned like he'd just returned from a vacation down south. Strolling confidently by, he paused in mid step and turned slowly to regard her.
For some unknown reason, she froze like a deer caught in a car's headlights. The same shiver crawled slowly up her spine again and started her adrenaline pumping. He was watching her, watching him, his face as expressionless as a statue. He continued to stare at her across the length of the hallway for endless seconds, then, apparently finished with his appraisal, he smirked and continued on his way. Buffy took an unsteady step back. Only now did she realize that she had been holding her breath. Releasing it into a long drawn out sigh, she chuckled self consciously. What the hell was that? she thought peevishly. It was just a guy, no big deal. It's not like he was a vampire. It's two thirty in the afternoon. Catching the edge of her lip between her teeth in thought, she forgot about the bathroom and turned back toward Mrs. Finkel's algebra class. So why did the old Slayer sense go bonkers there for a minute?
She returned to class, closing the door behind her and silently took her seat.
"Hey, Buff, what's up?" Xander piped cheerily. "Have a nice walk?"
"Good to see you survived that fall, Twinkletoes."
Leaning over sharply, she tapped Willow's arm.
"Hey, Will, " she whispered, "What are the chances of a vampire copping a late afternoon suntan?"
Willow shrugged, her attention still divided with her notetaking. "They don't sleep during the day like in the movies. They can move around, it's just not very safe. If a vampire survived exposure to the sun, it would probably be crippled and REALLY ugly." She laid her pen down on the desk. "Why? Did you see something?"
Sitting back in her seat, Buffy folded her arms across her chest and frowned. "Big miss on the ugliness factor. Any other ideas?"
"What did you see?" Willow was fully at attention.
"I don't know." Buffy scrunched her lips to one side and shrugged. "Nothing really, I guess, just a weird feeling."
"Oh boy, " Xander sat up, alarmed, "How do I know that this feeling of yours is soon to be followed by an unspeakable darkness. Oh, wait, I know. That's what always happens. Just once I'd like to hear you say that it's just going to rain or that the cheerleaders' bus is going to break down near my house."
"Sorry, Xander, " Buffy chuckled apologetically, "Unfortunately, I only seem to pick up warnings on the bad things."
"Great, " he tossed his head in disgust, "You've got better reception than the entire Psychic Friends Hotline, but the only station you pick up is K-H-E-L."
"Maybe we should ask Giles." Willow suggested. "He can look in his books and I can check the internet when I get a free."
The remainder of the class crawled by at a snail's pace as Buffy's worry mounted. There was something different about that guy in the hall, she knew. The more she thought about it, the more disturbed she became. Who was he? Giles was possibly her only hope. As far as she was concerned she couldn't get to the library fast enough.
Giles studied the large, rectangular metal box that sat on the desk before him. The deliverymen had brought it in almost ten minutes ago and he'd bade them put it on the desk. It was almost four feet long and a foot and a half wide, with lines of carefully scribed runes along the outer edges. His older brother Gerritt had sent it along with a short letter of explanation. The letter spoke only of a great weapon to help them in their never-ending war with evil. He was grateful for the assistance, but he had no idea what to do with it. He grasped one of the handles and tugged ineffectually on it. Buffy burst through the swinging doors to the library, Willow and Xander in tow.
"Hey, what's this?" she asked slapping the flat of her hand roughly on top of the box.
Giles flinched visibly, "Careful, Buffy, the box's contents are very precious."
"Oh, yeah?" Xander curiously reached out to touch the dull metal edge. "What's in it?"
Giles reached out and swatted Xander's hand away. "I . . . don't really know yet. I haven't been able to open it. The box is lined with lead and magically sealed against detection."
"Hmm, protected from both clairvoyance and Superman. Wise decision." Xander nodded in exaggerated agreement.
"Quite." Giles responded crisply, searching the surface of the container for some way of opening it.
"Where did it come from?" Buffy asked, looking the box over.
"My brother Gerritt sent it from Edinburgh." Giles answered, squinting at the etchings along the box's surface. "He's an antiques dealer there."
"I didn't know you had a brother." Willow said, "How come you never mentioned him before."
"I have six of them, actually. I suppose it never came up. They are scattered around the four corners of the globe. We only get in touch once in a long while."
"Why would he send you a box you can't open?" Xander queried, "Some kind of practical joke?"
"There must be something very important inside for him to go to such lengths." Giles rubbed his chin in thought, "Gerritt is not a joker."
"A straight man in your family? Now why don't I find that hard to believe?" Xander quirked a smile.
"This looks like a variation on the typical locking enchantment." Willow drew her finger along a line of runes. "If we read it backwards . . . " She whispered the archaic words low, under her breath, and, with a muted gasp, a fine seam appeared around the box's middle.
"Hey, it worked!" Willow peeped, pleased with herself. "Go ahead, Giles. Open it."
Giles carefully lifted the top of the metal container. His breath caught in his throat and his eyes widened in awe.
"Well, what is it?" Buffy asked, excitedly peeking around to get a look at the box's contents. The intricately decorated bronze hilt of a sword was fitted into a perfectly customized foam rubber bed. A soft, red cloth covered the blade.
"It's the Sword of Seals." Giles gasped.
"A sword made for cute little circus animals?" Xander scratched his head in confusion. "Doesn't seem like such a great idea to me."
"Seals, as in wards and locks, not the ocean mammal. This sword was made to seal closed mystical portals and such. It had been lost for a dozen centuries until now. Gerritt must have come across it while acquiring artifacts for the museum. I had no idea he'd take such a risk in sending it to me."
"Seal closed mystic portals?" Buffy repeated softly, the significance of the statement slowly sinking in. "Then it could close the Hellmouth. Sunnydale could become just like any other town."
"Gerritt said in his letter only that it was a weapon against evil." Giles was equally reverent. "This could change everything."
"Hey, guys?" Xander interrupted humbly, "I don't mean to rain on anyone's parade, but this doesn't look like much of a weapon." He held the hilt of the sword dangling between thumb and forefinger, its blade apparently missing.
"What?" Giles was aghast, "The letter didn't say anything about it being in two parts." He snatched away the red cloth and found only an empty blade-shaped depression.
"Maybe, it's like encyclopedias and you have to wait until next month to get the next piece." Xander offered.
Giles rummaged frantically through the interior of the box, but found nothing. "There must be a reason why the blade is missing. I'll contact Gerritt and consult my books." Fighting disheartenment, he took the sword hilt from Xander and laid it back inside the box. Closing the lid over, he attempted, unsuccessfully, to lift it. Buffy gripped the box with one hand on either side, and lifted it easily into the air. "Where do you want it?" she asked innocently.
Giles peered at her over the rims of his glasses. Even after all this time, he was still sometimes stunned by the extent of her strength. "In the . . . cage, if you don't mind. In the back."
"Sure thing." She carried the box into the open metal cage that occupied one side of the room and set it down carefully.
"We'll keep it here until I can find a more suitable place for it. Until we can figure out what happened to the rest of it, it would be best to keep it a secret. Now, you wanted something?"
A pit of worry turned in Buffy's stomach. She had almost forgotten. "Have you ever heard of a vampire walking around in broad daylight?" she asked carefully, leaning over the desk.
Distracted, he turned to face her only slightly. "Did you see a vampire?"
"Yes, well, no, not exactly." She closed her mouth and frowned, flustered.
Giles' eyebrows stitched together and he sat on the edge of his desk. "What did you see?"
"I don't know." She groaned, burying her face in her arms. "Nothing, really, I guess. Maybe I'm just jumping at shadows." Giles looked to Xander and Willow. "Do either of you know what she's talking about?"
Willow's face brightened. "She saw a creepy guy in the hall on the way to the bathroom!"
Her cheeks reddening, Buffy waved her arms in denial. "This guy wasn't creepy. Not really. But something about him totally gave me the wiggins. Big time."
"Well, " Giles began, "despite the overwhelming evidence presented by your . . . wiggins, I would suggest you not worry yourself over the appearance of some new boy."
"I'm telling you, " she argued, "there's something different about this guy. I can feel it."
"I'm sure it's nothing Buffy. Not every visitor in town is here to destroy us."
"Although, statistically, the odds do favor destruction." Xander cocked his head, "And I, for one, would rather be safe than demon chow."
"All right then." Giles surrendered, pinching the bridge of his nose in exhaustion. Buffy only noticed now, but his expression looked strained, worn. Something was bothering him. She made a mental note to ask him about it later. "Willow and Xander can keep an eye out for this young man. I need you to watch the North End Cemetery tonight. All indications point to a possible uprising there. No more than one or two, though, I'm sure."
"Hold the phone there, G-man." Xander interrupted, "How do you know I don't have my Friday night already sewn up. Who says I have to waste it hanging around watching out for a guy I've never seen instead of out on a date or something?"
All eyes turned on him in voiceless question. Very calmly, Giles spoke. "Do you?" he asked incredulously, "Have a date, I mean?" Xander inhaled deeply then let his head drop and his shoulders sag. "Sadly, no. But, lucky for me, I have friends who always have fun things to do. Like hanging out in graveyards, for instance." Feigning cheeriness at the prospect, he draped an arm around each of his female companions. "Thanks, guys. You're always there for me."
"Check around the school first, " Buffy suggested, "see what you can find out. He may still be around. I'll keep an eye out on patrol. If there's new player in town, he's bound to try and hook up with some of the local nasties." Grabbing up her backpack, she slung it over her shoulder and headed for the exit.
"Wait!" Willow called out, "How are we going to know when we see him?"
"Trust me, " Buffy said over her shoulder. "You'll know."
The first vampire started to burrow up out of the ground only a few moments after sundown. Buffy peered down at it from her perch atop its headstone.
"So, an early riser, huh?" she commented blithely.
Noticing her, the undead creature leaped the rest of the way out of its grave and reached for her throat. Batting its clumsy attack aside, she swept a sharp kick across its face. Snarling, the creature spun to the side and fell. Sitting up, the thing wiped the back of its hand across its mouth and chuckled, dark mirth glittering maliciously in its eyes.
"What are you laughing at ugly?" she asked. A second vampire rose eerily from behind her, arms outstretched and triumph in its eyes.
"I'll give you an 'A' for dramatics, " Buffy said wryly, "but for effectiveness you get an 'F'!" Driving her arm back, she punched the tip of a long wooden stake into the creature's heart. There was a sound of rushing wind and a cloud of ashen dust wafted over her shoulder.
The vampire on the ground scrambled to his feet and turned to flee, his confident expression turning to fear. With an underhanded flick of her wrist, she sent the stake spinning to thud into creature's back. With an airy scream, the thing fell to its knees and dissolved into a pile of ashes.
Dusting her hands off against each other, she blew out a long breath and stretched.
"That almost wasn't even worth the trip over here." she muttered.
As if summoned by her words, a strong arm snaked around her neck and tightened in a steely chokehold. Clutching at the solid limb with one hand, she reached for her only other stake. A fierce blow snapped her head to the side and sent her vision swimming. The stake tumbled from her nerveless fingers. When her eyes cleared, she found herself staring face to face with the grinning visage of the fourth vampire. He was swarthy, with uneven stubble along his jaw and an over long droopy black moustache.
"Don't you know what a razor is for?' she mocked him.
Drawing out a long, thin bladed knife, the vampire ran his tongue along the flat of it and grinned. "Oh yeah, trust me, I know."
"You know what? This sucks!" Xander complained aloud for possibly the fortieth time.
"You know what? That's probably the fortieth time you've said that." Willow answered as the pair strolled past the Sunnydale High sign and onto the sidewalk.
"Does that make it any less true?" he asked, "Come on, what could suck more than this?"
"I guess you have a point." she agreed, shrugging her shoulders.
"You guess?!" he exclaimed, "Here we are leaving school at . . ." he paused to check his watch, "five o'clock on a Friday night. You know, outside of detention, I've never stayed this late after school."
"I find that hard to believe." Willow grinned sardonically.
"Where was I?"
"You were complaining . . ." she prompted, then noting his blank stare, ". . . about how much-"
"this sucks!" he finished exultantly, "yeah. Anyway, we definitely got shafted."
"It could be worse." Willow allowed her arms to flop carelessly from side to side as she walked. "I mean, we could be at the cemetery fighting vampires with Buffy."
"Anything would be better than this. I bet even Giles is having more fun than we are."
"You received Gerritt's letter, then? " the figure asked from the shadows.
Giles took his glasses in one hand and pinched the bridge of his nose with the other. "Well, y-yes I did, but it didn't mention you. I was of the understanding that you wouldn't arrive for another six months."
The figure shrugged non-committally. "Things change. So, are you in or not?"
"I can't give you an answer yet." He stalled, "I must have more time to think."
"You've had enough time. Now you're just wasting yours and mine."
Giles stood and began pacing the room. The figure in the darkness watched him, following his movements unerringly with peculiar green eyes whose pupils were outlined with yellow.
"Look here, come out of the shadows." Giles snapped irritably, " I find it very . . . unnerving."
The figure stepped forward and light from the overhead lamp spilled across his angular features. The light brought out the auburn highlights in his hair and illuminated his dark gray leather jacket. His lips pulled up on one side in a crooked smirk. "Good enough?" his lip curled derisively for an instant, "Enough stalling. Personally, I don't care what you decide, but you DO have a decision to make."
"Yes, " Giles considered, easing back into his favorite chair, the weight of his impending decision heavy on his mind. "Yes, I suppose I do."
The youth sat on the edge of the coffee table across from Giles and leaned forward. "So what's it gonna be?" he asked, his eyes boring into the older man. "In or out?"
Giles leaned back in his chair as much as it would allow, his uneasiness intensified by the visitor's proximity. "I agree, of course." he answered, not at all sure of what he was doing. "I gave my word, however many years ago, and I will abide by it."
The visitor chuckled, a touch of astonishment in his voice, and rose suddenly to his feet. Giles couldn't help flinching at the sudden movement. "You surprise me, Rupert." he announced, "I really didn't expect you to follow through." Casually, the young man opened the door and stepped into the hallway. "I'll be back later. Hope you know what you're doing." The door slammed shut with a sharp bang. Giles buried his face in his hands and sighed. Dear God, what had he gotten himself into?
Buffy strained against the thick arm encircling her throat, her fingernails digging into the undead flesh. The other vampire leaned in close to her, the rusty stink of blood on his breath, and touched the cool steel blade against her cheek. "My, but aren't you a pretty one?" he leered, drawing the chill metal teasingly along her jawline, a quarter turn away from slicing her soft skin. "Not for long, though."
Wrinkling her nose against the stench, she met the vampires gaze levelly. "I don't know which amazes me more about you vampires, the smell of your breath or the fact that you always leave me way too much time to escape these little predicaments!" The vampire's eyes widened an instant before the toe of her sneaker smashed into his chin. The knife went spinning harmlessly off into the darkness.
Throwing her head back, she crushed the other's nose. Snarling in pain, he loosened his grip around her throat. Two swift elbows thudded against his rib cage then, an instant later, he was hurled over her hip. The first vampire leapt over his fallen companion, barreling straight for her. Nimbly ducking aside, she snapped her knee into his midsection and chopped hard onto the back of his neck. Diving into a roll, she came up with her lost stake in hand. One short, sure thrust and she had impaled the vampire who had grabbed her. The creature exploded in a cloud of dust.
She hopped to her feet, ready for the last of the four. All she heard was the sound of retreating footsteps trailing off into the night. Damn, too far to chase down now. Still, three in one night wasn't too bad. Maybe she could afford to call it quits a little early this time. Scooping up her backpack, she shoved the stake inside and tucked the other one in her belt. Checking her watch, she quickened her pace. Home was a good walk away and if she got there soon enough, she might be able salvage what was left of an otherwise acceptable evening.
A half-hour later, she climbed up the side of a tree and on to the landing that lead to her open bedroom window. Her mother was well aware of her nighttime activities, but old habits died hard. Something odd struck her. She had long since gotten used to moving in the dark, but for some reason, her bedroom light was still on. It had always been her practice to leave the light off while she was out hunting. Her mind briefly flashed an image of the vampire who had escaped tonight. Gripping a stake in her hand, she crouched just under the windowsill. Steeling herself, she dug her toes into the rough roof shingles and dove through the flowing drapery. Rolling smoothly, she came up with her fist cocked.
Willow stood petrified before her, her head ducked and her hands thrown protectively forward.
"Willow!" Buffy exclaimed, relaxing her stance and dropping her fists. "What are you doing here?"
Willow peeked out slowly from behind her fingers and smiled. "Xander and I finished checking over the school grounds hours ago, so we thought we'd see if you were back yet. You're Mom said we could wait up here."
"Xander's here?" Buffy looked around, perplexed.
A dark haired head poked up from behind her bed. Sheepishly, Xander raised his hand and waved weakly. "Just making sure all the dust bunnies are present and accounted for. Yep, everything seems to be in order here."
"I'm eternally in your debt." Buffy smiled wryly. "So what's up for tonight?"
"That depends." Willow answered, "Are you . . . finished?"
"Definitely." the slayer nodded her head emphatically, "Three in a row. Although one did slip through my fingers. Guess I'll have to make up for it tomorrow."
"Good. How does the Bronze sound?"
"Same as every other night." Buffy smirked, "But that's fine by me. Do I have time to take a shower first? I've got vampire yuck all over me."
Xander's face perked up. "A shower? Like a nude, bare naked shower?"
"No, Xander, " Buffy cocked her head to the side, an ironic expression on her face, "I always shower with my clothes on. I'll only be a few minutes, promise." Favoring them with a quick wave, she grabbed up a few items of clothing and padded into the bathroom.
Something closer to an hour later, Buffy stood before a mirror and straightened the soft fabric of a stylish burgundy dress against her sides. She paused, scrutinizing her ensemble. A look of dissatisfaction began to creep across her features.
"As much as I relish watching you parade around in a variety of costumes, Buff, the Bronze is going to be closed by the time we get there." Xander groaned from where he languished across the foot of her bed.
"I guess you're right, Xander. But when was the last time I got to go hang out without the threat of global destruction hanging over our heads. I just want to make sure everything is perfect."
"Uuuggghhh, you look perfect, everything's perfect. Can we GO now?" Xander crossed his arms over his head and buried his face in a frilly pillow.
"All right, " she smiled patting him consolingly on the head. "Come on, Willow, let's go then, before Xander here dies of boredom."
Xander jumped up quickly and Willow left her perch on the windowsill. The three filed out through her bedroom door and headed downstairs.
"Bye, Mrs. Summers!
"See ya, Mrs. S!"
Buffy's mother popped her head out of the living room in confusion.
"Buffy? Is that you?" she called just in time to watch the front door close. "Good-bye. Be careful."
The Bronze was unusually busy that night, filled with more teen life than it seemed Sunnydale had to offer. Music throbbed steadily and the air was warm, thick with the mixed scents of cafe lattes, perfume and cologne. Already, Buffy could feel a pleasant hum rise in her blood.
"Wow, must be the long weekend." Willow stared around, eyes wide with amazement.
"There must be two hundred girls here tonight." Xander agreed, "I've got to have a chance with at least one of them."
"Keep hope alive." Buffy commented with a smile, "I'm going to get something to drink, you guys want anything."
"Snapple, iced tea." Xander indicated, gaping constantly from side to side.
"No thanks, we'll see if we can find a place to stand." "Sure. I'll find you."
Buffy made her way through the thick crowd slowly. It was nice to be surrounded by living breathing people her own age. She had been having such a hard time trying to have any social life at all recently that times like this were a real treat. If Giles could figure out the puzzle behind the Sword, she might be looking at nights like this as a regular thing. Cautiously, she quelled any excitement at the prospect. Until the Hellmouth was closed, she couldn't afford to daydream.
She noticed one or two boys watching her as she cut through the crowd. They were Sunnydale students, but no one she knew. She took pleasure in the attention, but paid them no heed. She had been tagged with a reputation for being mentally unstable around school and didn't really trust anyone from there to treat her fairly. Best just to keep things at a distance so they wouldn't get spoiled. God, when did I get so cynical? she chuckled to herself.
She bought two Snapples at the juice bar and proceeded to slip back through the crowd. Finding Willow and Xander in a small space along the railing on the second floor, she quickly joined them. A pretty blonde girl next to Xander frowned at him and, looking disgusted, pushed her way through the crowd away from him.
"Well, three rejections already, I think I've broken a new record." Xander announced, turning back to Willow and Buffy, "I'm about ready to go home."
Buffy handed him his iced tea. "Here, maybe this will cheer you up."
"Ah, sweet nectar, " he accepted the bottle, cradling it, "How often have I had to drown my sorrows with you?"
Buffy laid her drink on a small end table and took her friends by the hands. "Come on, let's go dance."
The three gradually made their way back to the main level and eventually to the dance floor. The music picked up as they found a cramped corner to dance in. Buffy raised her arms over her head and closed her eyes. A warm smile turned on her lips as she let the music guide her body. She turned and moved to the beat, letting her senses open to her surroundings. She stopped suddenly, her body tensing reflexively. She felt something, a presence nearby, not friendly, but not openly threatening either.
"Buffy? You okay?" Willow asked, concern creasing her forehead.
"He's here." she said, her eyes darting around.
"Who?" Xander's eyebrows knitted together above the bridge of his nose.
"Him." Buffy nodded toward the upper floor, where an auburn haired young man in brown pants and a dark gray shirt leaned on the metal railing. Aware of her, he cocked his head to the side and smirked.
"Wow, he's cute!" Willow blurted. Buffy's eyes shot dangerously in her direction, "in . . a . . . dangerous and creepy sort of way, I mean."
"I'm going up there." Buffy started for the stairs.
Both Xander and Willow looked worried. "Be careful." Xander said.
"Don't worry about me." she smiled in return, "I can handle myself."
She took the stairs slowly, a knot of agitation turning in her stomach. After seeing him walk through a sunlit hallway this afternoon, she doubted he was a vampire. A demon maybe? What were the odds of him being a good guy then, like Whistler? Not too likely, she wagered. As the distance closed between them, he continued to watch her, the smirk still firmly in place. She was glad that she had thought to bring her purse backpack with her. Inside was a small assortment of her typical weapons, ranging from wooden stakes to vials of unmarked holy water. The slight weight against the small of her back was reassuring. Out of the corner of her eye, she knew that her friends were keeping an eye on her, too.
The stranger turned to face her fully as she approached, still leaning casually against the railing.
"Would you like to introduce yourself or are you going to keep stalking me until I knock your lights out?" she demanded quickly, hoping that her resolve wouldn't fail her.
He smiled, a nice smile. "You're the one that keeps showing up wherever I go." he commented, "Maybe it's just fortunate coincidence."
She noted an odd inflection in his voice. An accent? She couldn't place its origin, though.
"Why are you here?" she asked, her irritation fading. He waited, as if considering his words carefully, but it only made her feel more uncomfortable. In the background, she heard the music slow.
"Dance with me and I'll tell you." He held out his hand. She hesitated, confused. "Please." he continued, taking her hand in his.
She started at his touch. It was like a jolt of electricity had leapt from his fingertips, followed by a warm tingling sensation. The stranger seemed momentarily startled as well, but recovered quicker. He gripped her hand more fully and led her toward the dance floor. Not sure what else to do, she followed.
Reaching the edge of the dance floor, he nudged in between a number of couples and cleared a small area for them. Turning, he raised her hand over his head and dropped it onto his shoulder, placing his own hands around her waist.
"I'm new here. This is the first time I've been to the Americas." he mentioned, low and barely audible, leaning his forehead in close to hers.
"Yeah, I figured you weren't local." she refused to look up at him, still trying to regain her bearings. Her skin, wherever it came close to his, felt like it was being caressed by a thousand soft tipped needles. It made her feel warm and oddly at ease.
"Your name is Buffy, isn't it?" he asked, brushing a few stray strands of her golden hair out of her face with his fingertips.
"How did you-?" she pushed back from him and looked into his face.
His features were well defined and angular and his brows were faintly curved, the same dark auburn of his hair. His nose was straight and well proportioned above a pair of slightly pink, bow shaped lips. She found herself drawn to his eyes. Framed by curving auburn lashes, they seemed filled with both danger and mystery. Deep green at the outside edge, his irises lightened to a yellowish hue on the inner edge.
"I have very good hearing." he smiled, satisfied to hold her at arms length "I overheard your friends using it."
She regarded him seriously. "You still haven't told me what you were doing at my school today."
"I was looking for someone." he shrugged, "Nothing important." "You seem a little out of place in a small town like this. Why did you come?"
"Do you make a habit of grilling newcomers or should I consider myself blessed?" he smirked good-naturedly.
"Sorry, "she apologized, turning her head away in embarrassment, "I have a habit of meeting new people who bring trouble with them. I hope, for both our sakes, that this isn't one of those times."
Wrapping his arms tighter around her waist, he looked directly into her eyes. "Maybe a little trouble is what this town needs."
She smiled and laid her head against his chest, feeling the warmth of his skin through the thin fabric of his shirt. She inhaled deeply, breathing in his exotic scent, a strangely familiar sweet spiciness. It had been too long since she had been close to anyone like this. She had almost forgotten how comforting it was to be held. Maybe her first impression of him had been wrong.
"What does she think she's doing?" Xander craned his neck to peer through the crowd as the auburn-haired young man lead Buffy to the dance floor.
"My guess would be dancing." Willow mimicked his motions, attempting to get a better view herself. "But I could be wrong."
"What happened to 'This guy is dangerous.' Aren't we supposed to be stopping him from doing whatever he's up to?"
"I don't think he's doing anything." She observed.
"Looks like he's doing more than enough to me." He didn't even try to hide his bitterness.
"Give her a break, Xander." Willow finally got a direct line of sight and watched the pair intently, "If there's trouble, she'll let us know."
The stranger's hand slipped through her silky hair and cupped her behind the ear. Gently guiding her head back, he looked into her eyes with a strange intensity. "You're not like the rest of these people, are you? There's something different about you."
"Oh, you don't know the half of it." She rolled her eyes dramatically, "Trust me, different is my middle name."
"Well, just so you know. I like different." He smiled his remarkable smile as she laid her head back against his chest and let herself relax. It was an extraordinary, yet simple, pleasure.
Her eyes half closed, through the sea of dancers, she spotted a familiar face. Easily recognizable by his drooping moustaches, the vampire was busily working to separate an unsuspecting young girl from the crowd.
"I-I have to go." Buffy backed away from the stranger, her eyes locked on the vampire. She was determined not to let him get away this time.
He arched an auburn eyebrow in unvoiced question, but she had no time to explain.
"I really have to go." she pushed past him, directly for the unwary vampire, and left him stunned.
Before she could get close enough, the vampire turned and recognized her. Roughly shoving his would-be victim aside, the vampire barreled into the crowd.
Damn. Buffy picked up the pace, digging around inside her backpack for a stake. She passed by Xander and Willow, gesturing in the direction the vampire had fled.
"The one with the stupid looking moustache. He was at the cemetery."
Nodding, her two friends headed for the main door while she went for the rear exit. With both exits covered, they could cut down the vampire's chances of escape. The crowd was too thick, slowed her down too much. There was no way she could catch up to him like this. Stepping up on to an empty chair, she leapt into the air. Bounding across the closely packed tabletops, she was able to start gaining ground. The added height gave a good vantage of the place, as well. She spotted the vampire nearing the emergency exit. He scrambled madly forward, looking fearfully over his shoulder and pushing rudely through the crowd. Reaching the door, he pushed it open and slipped through. She was there immediately after.
Bursting outside, she looked quickly up and down the alleyway. Spotting movement at the closed end, she couldn't help but smile. Taking her time, she walked to the dead end, tapping the side of the wooden stake against her palm.
"You really should have kept running after the cemetery." she said.
The vampire stopped with his feeble attempts to scale the wall. He spun to face her, pressing his back against the brick like he was trying to become a part of it.
"Let's not make this any harder than it has to be, all right?" Buffy beckoned to him with her free hand while the stake hand remained poised to strike.
Acting purely on desperation, the creature hurled a brimming garbage can at her. Knocking the projectile aside, she was a fraction of a second too slow to stop the vampire's oncoming charge. He caught her around the waist and bore her to the ground. Rolling with his momentum, she kicked upward and flipped her attacker overhead. He landed with a thud and a groan. Quickly rising to her feet, she crouched over his fallen form and brought the stake overhead.
"Wait! Wait! Kill me and your friends die, too." he hissed. "Look."
She stayed the blow and followed the vampire's gaze to the mouth of the alleyway. Two vampires stepped into view, one holding Willow tightly around the throat, the other holding Xander.
Straining against her captor's grip, Willow looked apologetic. "Sorry, Buffy. They were waiting outside the door for us."
Reluctantly, Buffy took her knee off the vampire's chest and let him get up.
"I'll take that!" droopy moustache snarled, snatching the stake from her hand and tossing it away. He leaned in on her, backing her against the side wall until they were nose to nose. "Now, its time for a little payback for what you did at the cemetery." He gripped her head painfully, holding her eyes locked to his and gestured offhandedly to his companions. "Hurt them, boys."
Buffy winced at the muffled squeak she recognized as being from Willow. Horror washed over her as the sound was immediately followed by a dull crack.
The droopy moustached vampire grinned evilly. "Your time is over, Slayer."
Something big flew by and crashed into a pile of trash with a cry of pain and outrage. Seizing the distraction, Buffy smashed her head into the vampire's face and snapped a foot into his stomach, doubling him over. Spinning, she connected with a kick to the side of his head.
Reaching into her backpack, she pulled out a fresh stake. "Good bye and good riddance." Dropping into a crouch, she jabbed the stake into the vampire's chest and was up and away before his corpse disintegrated. The vampire that had landed in the trash stumbled backwards against her, clutching its chest. An instant later, it exploded in a cloud of dust.
Snarling like a beast, the last of the three vampires caught a hard punch across the jaw. Who? As the vampire's opponent leaped up into a powerful kick, she caught a glimpse of auburn hair. A few more blows were exchanged, before the stranger swiftly staked him and knocked him aside. Like his cohorts, the vampire dissolved into a swirling mass of grayish dust. Willow and Xander stood glued to the spot, dumbfounded.
Buffy rushed to their sides. "Guys, you're okay!"
"Yeah, " Xander rubbed the back of his neck, "Thanks to Batman over there."
Buffy turned and the auburn-haired stranger tossed her something. The stake she had lost thunked solidly into her hand. "I think this belongs to you."
"Thanks." she answered in a low voice.
"Any time. My name's Gabriel. See you around." He retreated into the darkness, melting into the shadows like a wraith. "Geez, " Xander gawped, "he IS Batman."
The next day, Buffy and her friends relaxed briefly in the sun-dappled solarium of the Sunnydale mall's food court.
"So this guy, like just turned invisible?" Oz asked. "Not too shabby on the list of in-demand super powers. Personally, I would have picked flying."
"It was really cool." Willow sat up excitedly, "Boom! He just came out of nowhere and taught those vampires a lesson. They won't mess with us anymore."
"You know, Will," Xander popped a soggy french fry into his mouth, "Considering their new occupations as dustpan filler, I don't think they'll be giving anyone any problems."
"I guess you're right. It was really heroic, that's all."
"Umm Hello, " Buffy waved her hand, feeling a little neglected. "There were THREE of them, not to mention the other three I dusted at the cemetery. I don't hear anybody announcing 'Local Slayer Girl Does Good.'"
"Sorry, Buffy, " Willow smiled, "You were great, as always. I was just so scared, I was really glad when he saved us."
"He was a big help, sure, " Buffy admitted, "but we still don't know anything about him. I don't trust him."
Xander snorted, "You didn't seem too worried about him on the dance floor last night."
Buffy shot him a warning look, and his sarcastic smirk fell.
"He doesn't sound like a bad guy to me. After all, he did prevent Willow from joining the ranks of the dearly departed. For which I am eternally grateful." Oz observed, while Willow gave him an appreciative hug. "Although I would remind you of the story of the 'Wolf in Sheep's Clothing'. No pun intended."
"That's just what I'm saying." Buffy continued, "One good deed doesn't make this guy into a hero." she looked to Willow, "No matter how much his help might have been appreciated."
Willow sat back, undaunted. "I did some research on his name when I got home last night. Gabriel is the name of an archangel, a total good guy."
"Not totally, " Oz interjected, "Gabriel's job was to announce the Armageddon."
"Army what?" Xander frowned.
"Armageddon." Willow explained, a little disheartened. "In short, the end of the world. But that's just an old legend."
"Well, we do live in a place where old legends tend to get people killed on a regular basis." Buffy nodded.
"Wow, Buff, you really have a knack for attracting these dark and troubled angelic types, huh?" Xander chuckled.
The look Buffy shot him this time made the last one look like a friendly smile.
"I'm suddenly very thirsty." Xander announced uneasily, "I think it's time for me to go for a soda. In Canada."
Rising, he made a hasty exit.
"So we've established that this guy is a major mixed message." Oz keenly broke the tension. "So what do we do about him?"
"We could check with Giles and see if he knows anything." Willow offered.
"Maybe, " Buffy agreed, "He's been distracted lately. I wonder what's up."
"We should at least let him know what happened last night." Willow suggested.
"I'll drive." Oz offered, dangling the keys to his van.
Buffy snatched up her backpack and hopped out of the small metal chair. "Let's go."
Buffy rapped on the heavy wooden door of Giles apartment for the sixth time, her frustration mounting.
"Do you think he's at the Library?" Willow asked.
"Sounds like typical Saturday afternoon fun for Giles." Xander smiled, "It'd probably be the safe bet."
"No." Buffy said, tilting an ear toward the door. "I can hear someone inside. Stand back, I'm going in."
As Willow, Oz and Xander moved back, Buffy planted her feet and cocked her forward leg back for a powerful sidekick. The instant her foot would have connected with the door, it opened half way and she came within a hairsbreadth of shattering Giles' jaw.
"Ahhh!" he barely managed to jerk his head back in time, "Buffy, what in heaven's name are you doing here? And whatever possessed you to try and break down my door."
A little sheepishly, she dropped her foot and shrugged. "Sorry, slight emergency. I saw him again last night, Giles. The same guy who was at school yesterday. Get this, he appears out of the night and takes out two vampires Lone Ranger style and then 'POOF' he's gone just as fast. We were hoping you would have some special watcher information."
Giles looked very uncomfortable and hung protectively close to the doorjamb. "I'll look into it." He assured her and started to push the door closed.
"Giles, what's wrong!?" she demanded, slamming the heel of her hand against the door to keep it open. "You've been acting weird for days now. What gives?"
"Nothing, Buffy. I'll see what I can find out and tell you about it on Monday."
"No way, Giles! You look totally freaked. Now let us in and spill." She pushed insistently on the door, her slayer strength more than a match for the librarian's average frame.
Giles face grew stern. "Buffy I must insist that you save your concerns until Monday morning. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some personal matters to attend to. Good day."
He closed the door abruptly, leaving a stunned Buffy and friends in the hall.
"I can't believe this." Buffy whispered, insulted. "He 'Good Day' -ed me. Me! He never does that!"
"I heard him make that cluck noise, too." Willow pointed out, "You know, the one that he usually only makes when Xander's around." "Whatever it is, it's got him in a fit." Buffy was the first out the door, a look of focused determination in her eyes.
Giles sighed and leaned his back heavily against the door.
"I'm only here one day and you're already lying about me." Gabriel mused from his chair.
"She's not ready to hear yet, nor am I ready to tell her." Giles snapped a little too quickly, "There are rules which must be established before we proceed any further with this."
"Rules? Like what?" Gabriel toyed idly with a small knick-knack of Giles', his attention focused elsewhere.
Rage boiling over, Giles snatched the ornament out of Gabriel's hand and shook his fist in the young man's face. "Like not going out and doing what you did last night!"
Gabriel didn't flinch. "I think you have the wrong idea about our situation here, Rupert." He stood up, barely avoiding a collision with Giles at the same time. "We're both here because of promises we made. I don't NEED to be here. I'm no more pleased about this than you are. I would have been more than happy to stay in Edinburgh. Besides, if I hadn't been there last night that girl and her friends would be dead."
"You can't run around killing vampires like some sort of vigilante."
"You want to lecture me on vigilante vampire killing? Tell me the girl that was just here isn't the Slayer."
"That's different. She is not without guidance. The Council-"
"Oh, please!" Gabriel sneered, "There is no way that I am answering to a bunch of old codgers like the Watcher's Council."
"No, but while you are living here in Sunnydale, you WILL answer to me. No more unannounced excursions into the night and no extraordinary displays without my permission." Giles ground his fist against the tabletop as he leaned forward. "Is that clear?"
Gabriel looked at him darkly then grudgingly nodded. "Yes. Sir."
Monday morning came and Buffy strolled sleepily through the front doors. Sometimes it seemed like there were more Mondays than any other day of the week, certainly more than Saturdays. Willow met her in the hallway, clutching her books to her chest. Next to her, Xander leaned against the wall, stifling a yawn.
"Hey, Buffy." Willow took up step next to her as she approached. Xander was a little slower. His greeting came out as a garbled yawn. "You going to talk to Giles?" Willow asked.
"No time." Buffy shook her head, "Skinner says if I miss another chem class, he and I are going to have one of our little chats. Giles will have to wait."
The three passed a pair of giggling juniors headed in the opposite direction.
"Oh my God, he was such a babe!" the first, an obvious bottled blonde, squealed excitedly. "Tall, auburn hair and his eyes! I don't think I've ever seen anything so green!"
"Where did he go?" her companion implored.
"The library. I hope he has a big paper due or something." The blonde gasped, "I'm going straight there right after class!"
Buffy's eyes flared and she turned down a corridor, away from her chemistry class and straight for the library.
"Buffy, wait!" Willow called, running after her. Xander, unaware of what was happening, followed blindly. Buffy gave the double, swinging doors of the library a shove that sent them crashing back on their hinges. She stopped, stunned, not surprised, but stunned at what she saw. Willow and Xander stumbled in behind, nearly colliding with her.
A lone figure, dressed in stylish charcoal gray pants and a close fitting black shirt, leaned casually against the rear wall idly flipping thorough an old book, a cup of tea in his free hand.
Buffy felt the same strange sensation wash over her as it had the other two times she had seen him. An odd tingling tickled her skin and a faint pressure, somewhat like a sinus headache built up in her skull.
"Ah, Buffy, " Giles began, placing his own cup down on the table. "This isn't really a good time, you see-"
"Save it, Giles." she snapped, stabbing a finger in Gabriel's direction. "What is he doing here!?"
"I, well - I," Giles choked and stammered on a response.
"I show up telling you about this freaky guy who's popping up all over town and you shut me out. Now I find you sitting down together for tea time! You lied to me!"
"Buffy, I truly meant to tell you. To tell all of you really, "he apologized, "But, quite truthfully, I wasn't expecting him to arrive for months. Buffy, Willow, Xander, " Giles drew a deep breath to still his nerves. "this is Gabriel . . . my nephew."
Buffy's scathing retort died on her lips. "Giles, " she exclaimed, her anger ebbing, "I had no idea."
"Gabriel is the youngest of my younger brother's sons and he'll be staying here with me for a while."
"How many brothers do you have?" Willow asked Gabriel shrewdly, sliding into one of the library chairs.
"Six." He answered, pleased that she was bright and educated enough to make the connection.
"Wow, his Dad's younger than you and he has seven kids already." Xander noted, clapping Giles on the shoulder, "That's a little hard to believe. Kinda makes you wonder what you're doing with your life, huh?"
"Peter was always . . . er . . . well traveled, I suppose." Giles hedged.
Willow's expression became one of concentrated thought as she muttered quietly to herself. After a moment, her face lit up and she lurched forward, clutching Buffy's arm. "Ohmygosh! Ohmygosh! Ohmygosh!" she blurted, seeming on the edge of hyperventilation, "He has six older brothers and his dad has six older brothers! That makes him-"
"You are quite correct, Willow, " Giles cut her off, "which is why this situation must be handled very carefully.
"Hold on a second." Buffy demanded, "Makes him what?"
Gabriel, silent until now, folded his arms across his chest. "What it makes me is the seventh son of a seventh son, gifted in all the ways of mankind. Or so the story goes."
"So what are you? The boy's club equivalent to the Slayer?" Xander asked sarcastically. He was liking this less and less as he found out more about the situation. The last thing he needed was another super powered person hanging around, particularly one with an interest in Buffy.
"The seventh son is very similar to the Slayer, yet different in many aspects." Giles explained, "One could compare them in the same way one would with lions and tigers. The two share many of the same traits, but are very different animals."
Gabriel leaned across the table and winked at Buffy. "Ever get the feeling that you've suddenly turned invisible?" he whispered, his yellow-green eyes glittering with amusement.
She favored him with a brief smile and looked away. This was too weird. Inside, she was experiencing an emotional windstorm. On one hand, Gabriel seemed kind and courageous, not to mention attractive. Just what a girl would want in a mysterious stranger. On the other hand, however, she couldn't help but feel a little threatened by his arrival. The last time someone with powers comparable to her own had arrived in Sunnydale, she had ended up becoming one of her greatest enemies.
"You know, Sunnydale is really a boring place." Xander tapped a fingertip on the table, "No reason to stay here, at all, if you think about it."
Willow shot forward in her seat. "What Xander means to say is that he's very happy that you saved us outside the Bronze. Isn't that right, Xander?"
Xander stifled a yelp as she stamped her heel down on his toe. "Yeowch . . . right."
"I've been filling Gabriel in on the current situation with the mayor." Giles placed a stack of books on the table, near Gabriel, "He's also aware of what little information we have to share about the Ascension. Hopefully, with his help, we'll be able to learn more."
Xander poked at the stack of books. "Geez, his first week and you're already giving him homework. You're not even a teacher."
"You want me to do research?" Gabriel asked evenly, his attention focused solely on his uncle.
Giles didn't look up, feigning absorption in another book. "Whatever are you talking about?" he asked, a trifle too innocently. "You're not keeping me out of this fight." Gabriel asserted, a hint of threat in his voice.
"No one's keeping you from anything, Gabriel. Research is just as important, sometimes more important, than the physical aspect of battle."
"Remind me of that when this place is overrun by darkness and I'm caught with my nose buried in a book. How often do you get Buffy to dig through a pile of old books when there's trouble?" he muttered sourly.
"That is not the point. We've been over this. Sunnydale is Buffy's responsibility. Perhaps after you've settled in, you could try joining in on a patrol or two. For a start."
"I've been training for this sort of thing my entire life. You know I'm capable. You need me in the field." Gabriel 's conviction was reflected in the vibrancy of his eyes.
"What I need is for you to accept the responsibilities given you. Without complaint." Giles reiterated crossly.
"No, what you need is to separate your personal misgivings from your professional interest. I may not have spent my life over a Hellmouth, but I've come up against some dark business before."
Giles eyebrows knitted together angrily. "Mayor Wilkins is a highly trained warlock, not some half-drunken mischief spirit. If you were to come face to face with him now, brash and uninformed as you are, he would destroy you."
"I can't believe this!" Gabriel stood swiftly, sending his chair clattering against the wall. "You have no idea what I'm capable of. And you're too afraid to find out."
He slammed his fist into the wall and stormed out of the room, fuming.
"Well, I guess we know which of the seven dwarves he is." Xander observed blithely. "I'm surprised he could fit that chip on his shoulder through the door."
"Quiet, Xander." Giles scolded, "Gabriel hasn't had an easy life. Seven years ago, my brothers and I made a pact that each of us would raise him for one year, making use of the time to train him in our own particular field. I'm afraid the constant uprooting has left him with somewhat of a volatile temper."
"Do you think one of us should go talk to him?" Willow asked. "No, no." Giles responded, "Best to let him cool down for a bit. I was warned that he might be like this for a while until he gets settled. As the seventh son, he is in possession of special powers that could possibly get out of hand if his anger causes him to get careless."
"Sounds like the kind of guy I'd want living with ME for the next year." Xander folded his hands behind his back and leaned against the wall.
"We had no choice." Giles frowned at the memory, "We couldn't allow Peter to raise him."
"Peter?" Buffy asked, finally tearing her eyes away from the softly swinging doors.
"Gabriel's father, my only younger brother." Giles explained, "Even when he was as young as sixteen, he had been trouble. Involved with drugs, theft, smuggling and all sorts of illegal activities we knew nothing about. Gabriel was born when Peter had just turned seventeen. He had already fathered eight children by various women, six of them male. Looking back, I think he knew about the legend and did it purposely."
"Gabriel was living with your brother Gerritt up until now, right?" Willow asked, "Do you think he might know something about the Sword?"
"I asked him already." Giles sighed, "He's never even seen it until today. The three of you had better get back to class."
Nodding, they agreed and quietly filed out of the room. Inconspicuously, her brow knitted in thought, Buffy veered off and headed for one of the exits.
Breaking out into the bright sunshine, she paused. That strange feeling she had felt when she was near Gabriel was still there, only very faint. Using it and her keen Slayer senses to guide her, she set out in search of him. It took almost twenty minutes, but, eventually, she found him sitting in the shadow of a tree well off school campus, gazing at the highway. Before she found out who he was, she had been disturbed by the strange instinctive reaction she had whenever they met, and, later, a trifle threatened when he handled himself so flawlessly in the fight with the vampires. Now she felt a little sad for him. She understood the loneliness of being the chosen one all too well, and wouldn't wish it on another person. She trudged down the grassy hillside, and walked up directly behind him.
"You're a hard guy to find." she said, partly as an impromptu way of announcing herself. "Until I closed my eyes, that is."
"Maybe I didn't want to be found." he said into the breeze, not turning to even look at her. "That's usually why people hide."
"Well maybe you should get a little better at hiding then." she joked uneasily, then sat down carelessly beside him. They sat in silence for a while, she watching him, he watching the highway. She noticed after a few minutes that he was specifically watching the outgoing traffic.
"He thinks I'm just a kid." Gabriel muttered angrily, all of a sudden. "I've been taking care of myself for a long time now. Who does he think he is to tell me what to do?"
"That's just his way." Buffy smiled, "Trust me, if anyone is familiar with Giles' overprotective side, it's me. He's concerned about you, that's all."
"Yeah, well, he can save it for someone else." Gabriel turned and leaned his back against the trunk of the tree. Still not looking at her, he was facing her now, at least. "Back in Scotland, Uncle Gerritt let me do whatever I wanted."
"Don't expect that from Giles." She warned, "Butting in is his favorite hobby. Saved my life more than once."
"How do you do it?" he asked, the yellow in his eyes seeming to dominate the green for the moment.
"Do what?" she frowned.
"All this, " he said, sweeping his arm in reference to all of Sunnydale, "I've never lived anywhere that I didn't know I would be leaving in a couple of years. Don't you feel trapped sometimes? You seem so . . . comfortable with the whole situation."
"You have no idea how much I would love to support that misconception." She chuckled, "It's getting better. Slowly. But life on the Hellmouth is rarely a party. You'll get used to the sight of destruction and mayhem in no time, I promise."
"I hate it here." He grumbled.
"You know, I didn't like it much here when I first moved in, either." she began, "My Dad was in L.A., so were my friends, I was just drafted to be the lead role in an end-of-the-world prophecy. At the time, life really stunk. Remind me to tell you about the time I died someday. That one probably took the cake for traumatic." She tilted her head back and looked wistfully at the sky.
"But, you know, I made new friends, the best friends I ever had. You could too, if you give people a chance. I know what it's like to be different than everybody else. I live with it every day. You just gotta roll with the punches and deal."
"And how would you suggest I do that?" he looked irritated, but she detected a warming note in his voice.
"Cut Giles some slack." she suggested, rising to her feet, "He's cool . . . only in a not obviously cool way. I gotta go before Skinner notices I'm gone and has a seizure. Think about it. You might just get to like it here." She waved goodbye and jogged up the hill in the direction of the school. Out of the corner of his eye, Gabriel watched her as she left.
The school bell rang and classes were over for the day. Only four more days to go, Buffy mused.
"You doing anything after school?" Willow asked, stuffing the last of her notebooks into her tote bag.
"Afraid my schedule is full all week. I pulled a I-really-have-to-study-so-can-we-please-skip-training-for-today twice last week. So its make-up calisthenics for me."
Side by side, they left the classroom and strolled down the hallway.
"Hmmm." The auburn haired girl sympathized. "Homework doesn't seem so bad anymore."
"You're getting off easy, trust me. I'll call you later, okay?"
"Sure. Have fun." Willow waved goodbye and walked through the main doors as Buffy headed for the library.
Entering the library, she dumped her schoolbooks on the large central table and stood at attention, her arm bent in mock salute. "Private Summers, reporting for duty, SIR!"
Giles turned and eyed her skeptically. "Yes, very droll. Are you ready for today's training?"
"Absolutely. So what's on for today? Step aerobics? A little shadow boxing? How about Tae-bo?"
"I thought we'd try something a little different today."
"Tae-bo isn't different enough for you?" Buffy looked interested, "What have you got in mind?"
"I thought that since Gabriel is here to learn, it might be good to include him in your training."
"Gabriel?" she was taken aback. "You think he'll be able to keep up?"
"Just watch me, Summers." Gabriel stepped into the room, a smile tugging at his lips. "I'm sure anything Uncle Rupert can come up with won't measure up to the testing I went through in Europe."
"Is that so?" Giles voice carried a certain edge to it. It seemed that whatever problems there had been between the two of them yesterday had passed.
"No offense Uncle," Gabriel smirked patronizingly, "but I've spent my life training against the very forces of nature. Climbing the Appalachian Mountains, swimming the English Channel, running the African desert. Somehow, Sunnydale seems to lack the required challenge. Besides, I've heard that the Americas have made you soft."
"Soft?!" Giles exclaimed indignantly.
"On the side of geographical challenges, " Buffy quipped, "I'd like to remind you that we ARE standing on a Hellmouth."
"Whatever you have planned, I'll be ready for it."
"Good enough then, " Giles clapped his hands together, mild irritation still evident in his voice. "We'll just see how 'soft' I've gotten. We'll start with a run up and down Lookout Heights." Buffy groaned in protest, "Twice."
Forty-five minutes later, Buffy and Gabriel were halfway up the slope for the second time. Both were slick with sweat, breath pumping like a bellows but still going strong.
"Did you really run like this in the desert?" Buffy panted, keeping steady pace with Gabriel.
"Not since I was eleven." he answered between breaths. "When I lived with my Uncle Marcus in Sudan. It was some of the best survival training I ever got."
"Survival training for an eleven-year-old." She wondered, "That's quite a life."
"Look who's talking." He huffed, "How many times have you had to save all of mankind from destruction or worse."
He was holding up fairly well, she noted. A typical person would have been left at the bottom of the slope. Maybe it was time to push things a little. Arms and legs pumping, she delved into her energy reserves and pulled ahead. "See ya at the top." She called over her shoulder. Smiling, he accepted the challenge and ran after her. He was fast, fast enough to catch her if she let him, but she had another trick up her sleeve. Ducking between two trees, she veered off the running path and into the forest.
Without a word, he followed. Ducking tree branches, hopping over stumps and winding around trees, she did her best to lose him. Risking a quick look over her shoulder, she saw that he had stayed with her, move for move, perhaps even gained a scant inch or two. Leaping over a small ditch, she turned back to the trail again. Once they were in the open again, there was no way he would catch her. Gabriel stumbled on the edge of the ditch. Bending low and catching himself with one hand, he continued running without missing a beat. Damn, he was good. They were almost at the top. This called for a little bending of the rules. Before he cleared the tree line, she reached overhead and grabbed a low hanging branch. With the finesse of a gymnast, she flipped up and around to perch carefully on the limb. Pulling herself upward, she disappeared into the foliage. Gabriel hit the trail moving at an impressive rate. Buffy reconsidered briefly whether she would have beaten him to the top or not. Muscles tensing, she waited until he was just under her perch. As he pounded by, she leapt like a cat onto his back. They both went down in a pile, but her feet hit the ground first and she was up and running again in an instant. Clambering after her, he growled in good-natured frustration and made a grab for her waist. His fingertips brushed her back and she bent forward, running with all her strength. In less than thirty seconds, she had her hands planted firmly on the tree they had agreed upon as a marker on their first lap. Only a second or so behind, Gabriel rushed up and collapsed against the tree trunk.
"Alright, THAT was not fair." He panted, leaning his back against the tree, "If I had known ambushes were allowed, you'd still be at the bottom."
She wiped the back of her hand across her forehead and leaned forward heavily, hands supporting her on her knees. "Hey, you snooze, you lose." Straightening, her breath still ragged, she smiled. "Besides, to set an ambush, you would have had to get ahead of me."
"Oh, is that so?" he arched an eyebrow at her, pushing damp auburn locks up out of his eyes. He smiled, and looked away from her, shaking his head.
"What?" she asked.
"It's nothing." He replied, staring out at the lookout which gave the hill its name, still smiling. Almost the entire town of Sunnydale could be seen from up here.
"Tell me!" she tugged on his arm and he twisted away, quickly jumping back out of her reach. She changed tactics and, tilting her head, looked sweetly up at him. "Please?" she pouted.
Gabriel rolled his eyes. "Nice one, Summers. You've got the 'Doe Eyes' down pat. Lucky for me, I'm not particularly attached to this one little secret." He turned his gaze out over the specks and lines that were the houses and streets of the town.
"I was just thinking that you've got a nice little life here. Odd, certainly, but nice."
"Sure, if you ignore the demons and monsters who get their kicks from trying to kill me and my friends and the occasional brush with global destruction. At least things are never boring."
"Your friends are hardly boring, either. A witch, a werewolf, and a middle-aged Watcher. You make an interesting team."
"How did you know about Oz? And Willow?" Buffy frowned in confusion.
Gabriel turned and looked directly at her, his green-gold eyes glistening. "I have the Sight." He brushed his fingertips across his eyes. "So do you, but yours is different, more prophecy, less direct insight. When I see people, I can see deeper than most, pick up things about them that they might not even know themselves." He walked slowly toward her, circled to one side. "You must have sensed something the first time we met. The intensities of our special natures can affect one another sometimes." He leaned close to her ear from behind and held out his hand, hovering just above her cheek. "Can you feel that?" he whispered, moving his palm slowly across her face. "Sorta like static electricity, isn't it?"
She could feel it, just as she had when they had danced at the Bronze, an invisible field that tickled her skin like a thousand soft tipped needles. The pleasant feeling, coupled with the pumping of blood and adrenaline brought on by the run, left her disoriented.
"Yesterday, you said that this is a good place to make friends. I'd like to be your friend, Buffy." He whispered, his breath torturously close to her ear. He cupped her chin and turned her around to face him. She could see tiny reflections of herself in his eyes as they looked deep into her soul. "I'd like to be more than that, too." He tilted her chin up and moved his mouth close to hers.
Buffy closed her eyes, her small, silken lips parting. She could feel the interaction of their energies all over now, a wall of tickling warmth that seemed to draw her to him.
"No." she protested, suddenly turning away from him. "There's someone else." She explained, her cheeks burning, "Someone I haven't really gotten over yet."
"The vampire." Gabriel mused, sounding disappointed. "The Sight again?"
"No, " he shrugged and smiled weakly, "Uncle Rupert told me. He warned me to be careful with you. Another one of his rules. He cares about you, a lot."
"Yeah, Giles is pretty good. He's always there for me."
"Tell you what, " he offered, "Double or nothing says I beat you to the bottom."
"You're on." She agreed, shoving past him and breaking into a run.
Smiling, he quickly took after her.
Through the rest of the week, Buffy and Gabriel continued to train together, toning their bodies and sharpening their minds. On Friday, they entered the library together. Laughing and teasing, they raced to get to the one comfortable chair in the center of the room. Gabriel dragged the chair away, turning in an attempt to keep himself between her and it. Nimble and cunning, Buffy punched him playfully in the ribs and slipped around the opposite side, under his arm and into the seat.
"Thank you!" she quipped, folding her arms across her chest smugly, now firmly entrenched in the seat.
He growled in frustration and relinquished his hold on the arms of the chair.
"Well, the two of you seem to be getting on well enough." Giles commented, appearing from behind a bookshelf, a stack of papers in his arms.
"Ready to rock and roll." She smiled as she watched him as he carefully dropped the stack onto the tabletop.
"I thought we might try some sparring. Buffy, you haven't done much since Faith left."
Buffy's face darkened at the mention of the newest slayer. She took Faith's betrayal personally, for more reasons than one. She often wondered if she might have been able to do something to halt Faith's descent into darkness.
"Sparring?" Gabriel asked incredulously. "With her?"
"Well, yes. Is there a problem?" Giles folded his arms across his chest.
"Yeah, " Buffy narrowed her eyes in mock offense, "You worried I'm gonna beat you?"
"Not likely." He grinned, eager to accept her challenge. She bounced up out of her chair smiling, her hands raised into fists.
Giles quickly stepped between them. "Your enthusiasm is reassuring, but might I suggest that we reconvene in the gymnasium." Buffy shrugged confidently. "Fine with me."
"Same here." Gabriel followed suit.
There was a roped off square on one side of the gym, left over from the day's P.E. classes.
"Looks like somebody was expecting us." Buffy noted, "Which is usually not a good thing."
"Take it as an omen." Gabriel smiled. "The day the Slayer gets her butt whipped."
Peeling off his shirt, he ducked under the top rope and stepped into the ring. Her eyes widened and she felt warmth rush to her cheeks.
"You ready, Summers?" he leaned casually forward on the topmost rope.
Snapping out of her daze, she fixed him with a cheeky expression and neatly hopped up and over the rope to land, cat-like, in the ring. "Any time you're ready."
Giles pulled an old pocket watch from inside his jacket and held it up. "We'll start with three minute rounds. Then, we'll move up to-"
The thick, gray floor mats thumped as Buffy stepped in and flipped Gabriel over her hip. He rolled into a quick footsweep that almost knocked her flat and bounced to his feet.
"Yes, well, I suppose you get the idea." Giles muttered.
Buffy blocked a series of swift blows, weaving from side to side. Gabriel was good, equally skilled with both hands and feet, and fast. She ducked under a right hand hook and went for his ribs. The strike was slapped aside and she barely avoided a lightning fast knee.
This was good. She hadn't sparred with someone who could push her like this in a long time. Hopping over a low kick, she landed already in position to counter his next move. She felt the world slip away and, with it, all the worries she had bottled up over the last few months. No Mayor, no Ascension, no college, no prom. All that existed was Gabriel and a sixteen by sixteen square of mats and rope.
He was feeling it too, she could see. His emerald eyes glittered with excitement and his face was flushed. His every movement was quick and controlled, his motions like those of a well-oiled machine. The combatants fought back and forth, neither scoring a hit, falling into a violent rhythm. The fight became like a dance. Punch, punch, kick, punch. Each circled the other, alternating between inspired attack combinations and dazzling defensive maneuvers. Yet, neither could gain advantage over the other. They were too perfectly matched.
Buffy's muscles sang with wiry strength as she darted back beyond the reach of a snapping fist. She rebounded into a jumping kick aimed at Gabriel's midsection. He dropped to the floor, narrowly avoiding the attack. He was pushing her to new limits, forcing her to adapt and attempt more intricate moves. Dashing into the corner, she dexterously ran up the ropes and leapt off them, spinning into a powerful kick. Gabriel saw the daring move too late and caught her small, white sneaker across the jaw. He hit the mats hard, flat on his back.
"Ow." He groaned, his body tensed with pain.
Buffy strolled over to his prone from, a self-satisfied grin on her face. She hadn't meant to hit him that hard, but she got caught up in the moment and her instincts had taken over.
"Sorry about that. Better luck next time." She offered her hand and helped him to his feet.
"Easy for you to say." He rubbed gingerly at his jaw. "You're still going to be able to talk in an hour."
"Yes, well I suppose that should be enough for today." Giles said, his eyes wide and unblinking. He wasn't sure if he had ever seen such an impressive display in his life. Unconsciously, he slipped his watch back into his coat pocket. "I trust I can leave the two of you to lock up when you leave? I must run along. I've forgotten that I have a meeting."
"No problem, Giles." Buffy nodded. "I'll leave the keys in your desk."
The librarian tossed her a jingling set of keys and exited briskly.
"And then there were two." She said as she pocketed the key ring. "Come on, I'll take you for a frozen yogurt."
She turned around, ready to leave. Gabriel was leaning heavily against the bleachers.
Oh God, I must have hit him too hard, she thought hysterically. She had allowed herself to get too into the fight, overestimated his resilience. "Hey, are you all right?" she touched his forehead and jerked her hand back. It felt like his skin was on fire.
"Yeah, " he lied, his breathing harsh and uneven. "I just need a minute or two. G-get my jacket, would you?"
"You don't look so good." Her face was knotted with worry. "Maybe we should get you to a hospital."
"Just get my jacket!" he snapped irritably. He calmed almost instantly. "Sorry. There's medicine in my inside pocket. Could you get it please?"
She snatched up his charcoal gray jacket from the far end of the bleachers and quickly rummaged through it. In the depths of the inside pocket, she closed her fingers around a small plastic cylinder. Pulling it out, she heard it rattle dully. She pressed the bottle into his hand, noting that, unlike his forehead, the flesh of his fingers was cold. Popping the bottle open with a practiced motion, he shook out a small, single black ball the size of a pea and popped it into his mouth. Within seconds, he was looking better.
"What is this stuff?" Buffy held the plain bottle up to eye level, relieved that the episode hadn't been her fault, and peered at the little globes inside.
"I don't know." He slipped the bottle out of her hand and into his pocket in one fluid motion. "My father sends them to me about every month or so. If it wasn't for these little things, I might not be here."
"What do you mean?" she frowned.
"Three months ago, my father came to visit and took me on a week long excursion into the jungles of Brazil. You know, to learn about the uses of different plants and how to survive alongside some of the bigger predators. That kind of thing."
"Oh, of course." She feigned understanding, her eyebrows raised in disbelief. "Giles and I do that all the time."
"I caught some kind of bug and got really sick, thought I was dying. He gave me one of these and I got better in a few days." He smiled sadly as he pulled on his jacket. "Ever since then, I have to take one every day or the sickness comes back."
"Do you have any idea what it is? The sickness, I mean?"
"Not really." Gabriel shrugged, "My father said it has something to do with my special nature. Regular doctors wouldn't have a chance to understand it even if I could tell them who I am. It doesn't matter though, as long as my father knows. He's a pharmaceuticals researcher so he spends a lot of time travelling all over the world. I don't get to see him very often anymore, not since I was twelve. The pills remind me that he's out there, watching out for me."
"I know what you mean." She nodded, "My Dad lives in LA. He calls a couple of times a month, but I only get to see him in person once in a while. I really miss him sometimes."
"What do you say we go get that frozen yogurt?" he smiled, "Ow." His fingers prodded gingerly at his jaw.
"Sure, you buyin'?" she patted his cheek tenderly and recoiled with a giggle as he winced.
"So then what happened?" Willow leaned over the edge of her bed, eager to hear confirmation of her suspicions.
"Stop drooling, Will." Buffy chuckled, aimlessly flicking through the television channels from her seat on the floor. "NOTHING happened. We went out for ice cream and then I went home."
"No smoochies?" she complained. "Not even so much as a smoo." "But you said he tried to kiss you!"
"Yes, the operative word is tried and that was almost a week ago." Buffy clarified, "Why do you care so much?"
"Buffy, " Willow intoned in a beleaguered voice. "How long are you going to do this?"
"Do what?!" but Buffy had a feeling she already knew what Willow was getting at. This wasn't the first time she had brought it up and she doubted it would be the last.
"You know what I'm talking about. You can't go through your life alone like this."
"I'm not alone." Buffy dropped the TV remote and turned toward her friend. "I have you, and Xander, and Oz, and --"
"Angel." Willow regarded her seriously, "You said that the two of you are just friends, but sometimes, I don't believe you. What are you waiting for?"
"I-I don't know." The blonde-haired girl dropped her eyes and shrugged helplessly. "Things with me and Angel ended so suddenly and harshly. I kind of feel like we were cheated."
"Maybe that's why Gabriel showed up here." Willow surmised optimistically, "I mean Gabriel is an angel and he is very cute. He's even special, like you."
Buffy shifted uncomfortably. "I appreciate the vote of confidence, Will, but I'm just not ready to replace Angel yet."
Willow frowned. "Who said you had to replace him? I used to have such a huge crush on Xander but when I met Oz, things changed." She paused sheepishly, "All right, they didn't change fast enough, but they changed. I still have a special place for Xander, but now I have a place for Oz, too."
She laid her chin down on the back of her hands and looked at Buffy, concern brimming in her coffee brown eyes. "He likes you, a lot, I think. I think you could like him too, if you let yourself."
Buffy regarded her suspiciously. "You seem to know an awful lot about my love life, or lack thereof, to just be an innocent bystander, Willow. Spill."
"I don't know what you mean." Willow waffled. "I-I just had a feeling. A surprisingly accurate feeling, much better than I thought it would be."
"Willow?!" Buffy questioned dangerously.
"I did a Seeing." Willow admitted guiltily. "Only a little one. To see what might happen with you two."
"Willow, I don't need your help with my love life. Why don't you do a Seeing on the Mayor and find out what he's up to."
"Oh, no." Willow shook her head, "too much . . . interference. Yours was way easier."
"Enough, Willow." She smiled, "Let's just watch TV, okay?"
They sat in silence for long minutes, neither really watching the screen.
Buffy cocked an eyebrow and looked to Willow out of the corner of her eye. "What exactly did you see?"
"Mr. Mayor, " the secretary's voice sounded across the intercom, "there's someone here looking for an unscheduled appointment. Should I send him away?"
"Hmm, " the mayor considered, "unscheduled appointments are a disruption to my itinerary. Send him in anyway, but tell him he only has fifteen minutes."
"Right away, Sir."
With a quick hand gesture, the mayor sent a signal to Faith who obediently backed into an alcove. The large mahogany door opened and a tall auburn haired figure strode through. He wore a long, dark trench coat and walked with a confidence that bordered on arrogance. "Hello, Mayor Wilkins." the man said with a distinctly english accent.
"Well, it's good to finally meet you face to face, Mr. Giles." the mayor beamed, quickly shaking his visitor's hand and unconsciously wiping his palm with a sanitized towelette immediately after. "Your reputation precedes you."
Reaching out, he beckoned to Faith. "This is my executive assistant, Faith."
"Hello, Mr. Giles." she purred, sauntering out of the shadows of her alcove. The dark haired girl looked the newcomer up and down appraisingly. "So you're Giles' little brother, huh? Nice."
"Call me Peter." he smiled warmly.
"Now, now, Faith." the Mayor cautioned. "Mister Giles is here on business." He folded his hands together before him on his desk. "What can I do for you?"
"My end of the bargain is in place." Mr. Giles slid his hands into his pockets. "In fact, things couldn't have gone more smoothly."
"Are you sure your boy is as good as you say he is?"
"Born and bred to be the best." Peter assured, "You won't find a better assassin on the face of the planet, I guarantee."
"It seems to be a bit of a conflict of interest to place him in your brother's care, considering his close ties to the Slayer and all."
"Not to worry, Mister Mayor." Mr. Giles strolled across the room toward Faith, a distant confidence in his eyes. "My son is . . . controllable." As he passed the end of the desk, he casually left a cylindrical glass bottle filled with small black beads on the corner. His green eyes lingered on Faith as he walked. She moistened her lips enticingly, as she watched him reach out a tanned hand toward her. Leaning into him, she closed her eyes and smiled.
"What an interesting sculpture. Is it Cantonese?" Peter reached past her and took a fist sized wooden statuette in his hand. Faith's eyes narrowed angrily and she stormed quietly to the other side of the room.
"Malaysian, actually." the Mayor leaned forward and took the glass jar in his hands. "Mr. Giles? May I ask what this might be?"
"That, my dear Mayor, " the englishman replaced the sculpture on its stand and tapped his fingers into the palm of the opposite hand. "is the means with which to control my son."
"Oh?" the Mayor arched an eyebrow, "Do tell."
"You see, Gabriel is the result of a project I've had in mind since I was very young. This has all been planned out since before he was born. His training is not quite complete, but he is ready for what you need. Now, I'd be a fool to develop so much power in a person without the means to control him." Mr. Giles strolled over and plucked the glass bottle out of the Mayor's hand, holding it up to his face.. "Which brings me to these little darlings. Imagine the most addictive substance in the world and multiply its effects by ten. Add in an ingredient engineered to unlock a decade of mental conditioning, along with an experimental muscle enhancer, and you have the perfect control system. They were specially developed for Gabriel's physiology. They have no effect on a typical person, but, without a regular supply of these, he can't even think straight. His own supply is about to run out, so all you have to do is let him know that you have them and he's yours."
Faith walked closer to the desk and took the bottle gently from Peter.
"You turned your own kid into a junkie!" she exclaimed, her interest renewed by the sheer devilishness of the act. She brought the jar to the Mayor who took it carefully and placed it prominently on his desk.
"Well, Mister Giles, I assure you that once the Ascension is complete, your cooperation will not be forgotten."
"I'll have to take your word for this." the englishman commented dryly.
"My word is my bond, my good man." the mayor rose and, placing his arm around the Peter's shoulders, guided him toward the door. "When the job is done, my people will be in touch and you will be paid."
The three left the office together, The mayor and Mr. Giles leading, while Faith followed close behind.
"Tell me, Mr. Giles." The mayor began cheerily, "How do you feel about miniature golf?"
Buffy hopped out of the back of Oz's van and bounded up the walkway to Giles' apartment.
Oz cocked his head to the passenger seat where Willow sat. "Serious Slayer business?" he asked.
"No, " she peered after Buffy through the window, "She's going to get Gabriel."
"As far as I recall, nobody else agreed to inviting this guy along." Xander complained from the back.
"I don't know, " Oz considered, "it might be kinda cool to have another, Slayer-type hanging around. Might make things more interesting around here."
"Interesting?!" Xander exclaimed, throwing his hands in the air, "We live in a town that thinks every night is Hallowe'en and you want more interesting?!"
"Xander, " Willow peered at him from her seat, "He's new here. Buffy's his only friend. If he doesn't come with us, he'll have to hang out with Giles all afternoon."
Xander visibly shuddered. "All right. Even I wouldn't condemn a man to that."
Buffy knocked on the heavy wooden door once, then again. Was anyone home? There was a distinct rattle from the other side of the door, as the locks were being thrown. The door opened a crack and a green eye whose pupil was limned with yellow peered out.
"Oh Buffy, it's you." Gabriel smiled, allowing the door to fall wider open.
"Hey." She waved, pushing the rest of the way in, "Were you expecting someone?"
"Not really, " he replied, "Just waiting for a delivery."
Leaning back comfortably in his favorite chair, Giles folded down the top of an immaculate newspaper and smiled a greeting. "Hello Buffy, what brings you here?"
Gabriel laid a worn looking book down on the coffee table and walked into the kitchenette to pour himself a cup of tea.
Buffy reached over and pulled the spine of the book upright so she could read it. "'Ancient Cultural Rites of Passage.'" She read aloud, "You know, I didn't see the family resemblance until now."
"It's quite fascinating." Gabriel and Giles responded in unison, each peering over a cup of tea, then looked, stunned, to one another.
"Well, Giles, I hope you don't mind if I borrow your nephew for the afternoon." She took Gabriel by the hand and tugged him toward the door. "A week's worth of the torture you refer to as 'training' deserves at least a one-day pass from the penitentiary."
Giles sputtered and squawked, but neither Gabriel nor Buffy paid him any heed. Gabriel barely had enough time to snatch up his jacket before they were out the door.
"So where are we going?" Gabriel asked.
"I had a feeling you needed a little loosening up and finding you here on a sunny Saturday afternoon proves it to me beyond a shadow of a doubt."
"And your solution is?" he smirked.
"You've been hanging around with Giles way too much. We are going to introduce you to something other people your age call fun."
They approached Oz's van and Buffy held the door open, and ushered Gabriel inside.
"Hi." Willow chirped as he crawled past her and sat in the back.
"Hey." Xander's greeting was less enthusiastic.
Buffy clambered in and, smiling reassuringly at Gabriel, sat a calculated distance from him. "You've met Oz haven't you?"
"Hey." Oz nodded from the driver's seat. He looked to Willow. "So, are we mall bound?"
"Absolutely." She grinned, patting the back of his hand excitedly. She leaned back and nudged Gabriel. "Oz likes me to navigate." She confided, "That's why I get to sit up front."
"For which we are eternally frightened." Xander interrupted, "Can we go now? Mall's not going to be open all day."
"Actually, " Oz observed as he turned the key in the ignition and pulled onto the street. "One of the great things about malls is that they do, in fact, stay open all day. Part of what makes them prime hanging grounds."
"Oh." Xander sat back, dejected.
"You're taking me to a mall?" Gabriel questioned incredulously.
"Absolutely, " Buffy replied cheerily, "It's an American tradition. Now that you're living here you should learn some of the wonders of our culture. Namely, the mall."
"It turns out that what I said actually translated into 'I am eating my shoes.' The woman was understandably confused." Gabriel leaned back in the hard metal chair, finished with his tale.
"You've been so many places." Willow paused to sip on a half empty iced tea. "It must be hard to adjust whenever you move."
"It's not that bad." Gabriel shrugged, "You'd be amazed at how quickly you can pick up a new language once you're immersed in it."
"How many languages do you know?" Buffy ventured as she careful picked a small morsel from the side of a cranberry muffin and popped it into her mouth.
"Four, plus a bit of Gaelic that I absorbed in Edinburgh."
"You know, I was planning on travelling to Europe." Xander put in, eager to step into the spotlight. "Do the whole road trip thing. You know, sow my wild oats, the whole experience."
"Where did you plan to go first?" Oz asked.
"Europe." Xander frowned in confusion, "Didn't you hear me?"
"I think he means 'where' in Europe." Buffy clarified.
"Oh, well, you know, when you live the life of a road warrior, you never know where you'll end up. Maybe I'll visit some of those Aztec temples or something. I've been meaning to get a close look at them."
Willow made an apologetic face. "Aren't those in South America?"
"Right!" Xander grinned to hide his embarrassment. "Right you are, Willow. So, Gabriel, what other interesting stories that have nothing to do with me do you have?" Dropping the cheerful facade, he sank back into his chair.
"It's getting late." Gabriel looked at the clock across the square. He wasn't feeling very good. He had taken his last pill this morning and there was no sign of the next shipment. The sickness was returning, he could feel. It started as an all over ache, but it would get worse.
"So what do you say?" Xander folded his arms across the table and rested his chin on them. "Bronze, tonight?"
"That's such a crazy idea that it just might work. I'm in." Oz smirked. Willow nodded in assent.
"Sounds good to me." Buffy smiled, "What do you think, Gabriel?"
Gabriel shifted uneasily in his seat. "I don't know. I should get up early tomorrow. I don't want to be out too late."
"So don't stay out late." Buffy shrugged, "You should at least come out for a little while."
"Now, now, Buff." Xander interjected. "If Gabriel here is too tired to go out then maybe we should let him get his rest."
Gabriel eyed him with mild amusement. It didn't take the Sight to reveal his motivation. "I'll go." He nodded in Xander's direction, "And we'll see who gets tired."
"Great!" Buffy hopped up out of her seat and clapped her hands together. "Let's go."
When Gabriel turned the key in the lock and went inside, Giles was still awake. Sipping a steaming cup of Earl Grey, the librarian chuckled lightly, an uproarious laughter to him, as he watched a late-night british comedy sitcom.
"A delivery came while you were out." He pointed over his shoulder at a medium sized box on the kitchen table.
Gabriel immediately ran to it and, drawing a knife out of the drawer, started sawing at the packing tape. It seemed to take forever, the knife chewing through the tape only to find another layer underneath. Frustrated, he stabbed the blade into the corner and attempted to tear a hole. The box twisted and bent under the force, but only a small rent opened. Growling, he dug his fingers into the opening and ripped at it until he could get the top off. There were a number of articles inside. Dried fruits, trinkets from a dozen different countries, rare literature and a few items of clothing. But not what he was looking for. Pawing around inside the box a few times, he still couldn't find it. Desperately, he upended the box, spilling its contents onto the table. There was no other explanation. It wasn't there.
"Is something the matter?" Giles inquired.
"No." he answered dolefully, "I was just expecting something different, that's all.
He began pacing the room restlessly. The apartment seemed so small all of a sudden, he felt like it was smothering him.
"Gabriel, sit down please." Giles pleaded quietly. "Read a book if you need something to do."
"I'm sick of reading books!" he snapped testily, "I'm going for a walk."
He stalked out of the apartment, slamming the door behind him. As he strode briskly down the walkway, he was filled with regret. He hadn't meant to leave in such a fury. He felt so frustrated today. And sore, too. His muscles ached vaguely, like a mild bruising. He stretched and rubbed the back of his neck as he hit the sidewalk.
"I had a feeling you'd be a looker." A strange female voice announced, "Guess the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, huh?"
He whirled around, startled. A dark haired girl, dressed in form fitting black pants and a sleeveless top leaned casually with her back against the trunk of a tree. He hadn't even seen her hidden in the shadows as he passed. "Who are you?" he asked.
"I'm kinda like your guardian angel." She pushed off the tree and sauntered up to him. "I'm here to make sure you make the right choices."
There was something disturbing about her, something cold and empty. He felt a chill as she slid a long, slender finger across the back of his neck. "What do you want?" he asked, stepping out of her reach.
"Take a walk with me. I'll buy you a drink and we can talk about you're future in Sunnydale." She took hold of his hand and began to walk.
Working his fingers out of her grasp, he followed cautiously. He walked beside her in silence, his mind uneasy. He couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong about this girl. He angled his head and looked at her, studying what his particular vision showed him. She was lonely, that was for certain. Arrogant, too, and filled with a lot of pain. There was something else, a familiar power he sensed from her, but he couldn't quite put his finger on what it was.
She pushed open the door to a dark, smoke hazed coffee shop and entered. Selecting a corner booth, she sat and extended her arm, offering him the opposite seat. Gabriel noted that she chose a particularly dark table and kept her back to the wall. Not very comforting observations, in his opinion.
A sleepy eyed waitress passed by their table and the dark-haired girl snapped her fingers. "Two mediums." She indicated with a pair of upheld fingers. The waitress nodded and veered off toward the kitchen.
"What did you mean by 'my future in Sunnydale'?" he asked, slipping into the offered seat.
The girl shrugged. "There are a lot of opportunities in this little town. If you know where to look."
"I see." He leaned back in his seat, uncomfortable. He didn't like the way that this conversation was going.
"There's someone I want you to meet."
The waitress arrived with two steaming coffee mugs and placed them on the table. Faith handed her a small pile of change before she left. The dark-haired girl wrapped her hands around the cup and held it up in front of her face until her eyes were just barely peering over the rim at him. "Go ahead, " she said, "Drink up."
Warily, Gabriel touched the hot mug to his lips and took a tentative sip. It was good, flavored faintly with chocolate, and it calmed him somewhat.
"This person you want me to meet, who is he?" he asked.
"Let's say he's a friend for now." She answered cryptically.
"You're not telling me very much that would interest me." He said, sipping at his coffee. "And that only makes me more suspicious." Normally, he would have stood up and left right then, but he felt oddly relaxed and decided to stay a little longer. The coffee seemed to help quell the odd gnawing sensation inside him.
"There's no need to get worried, now." The girl warned. "You've got to be patient." She watched him carefully, as if expecting something.
"I've had enough of this!" he set his drink aside, pressing his palms against the top of the table and rising swiftly. The world shifted and fell sideways, blurring sickeningly. He collapsed limply back into the booth, limbs sprawling.
"What did you do?" he asked, his tongue thickening.
"Slipped a couple of mickies in your drink." She explained casually, "Didn't think they were going to work for a minute there. You're tougher than I thought." She grabbed him by the arms and attempted to gather him together. He struggled, but his muscles refused to respond, resulting only in a feeble twitching.
"Oh, come on, now." The girl shook her head with an incredulous smile. Bending forward, she pressed her cheek close to his ear. "You can't honestly think you're going to get away, do you? Honey, no one here's going to help you. And I don't care WHO you are, I'm the Slayer and nobody beats me."
Gabriel's eyes rolled up inside his skull and he slumped in her arms.
Buffy hovered outside the door to Angel's mansion, pacing back and forth, her hands knotted together in turmoil. Forcing herself to stop, she drew in a deep breath and steadied her nerves. Decisively, she gave the doorknob a sharp twist and walked inside.
Angel sat on the floor next to a smoldering fire, a dusty book open in his hands.
"Buffy!" he exclaimed, shutting the book and jumping to his feet. "I wasn't expecting you. Is something the matter?"
"Something?" she blurted, "Why would you assume there's a something? Must there always be a something when I come over? Can't I visit over a nothing? A nothing is a perfectly good reason to visit someone."
"You're upset." He noted, "Is there anything you want to talk about?"
"It's nothing." She whirled and headed for the door. "I shouldn't even be here."
"Wait!" Angel called, "You can tell me."
She halted and turned back toward him, distress showing on her face. "It's really no big deal. I should probably get home anyway."
He walked around behind her and laid his hands gently on her shoulders. "Come on, Buffy. I haven't seen you for over a week. There's never been anything we couldn't talk about."
"It's . . . about a . . . guy." She whispered.
"Oh." He let his hands drop to his sides.
"Like I said, I should go."
"No, we're friends now, remember? We can talk about this. Just like we can talk about anything else."
"I don't know." She caught her lip between her teeth and folded her arms across her chest. "He moved here last week. His name is Gabriel. He's Giles' nephew."
"So that explains your recent absence." He pursed his lips uneasily. "What's he like?"
"Heee's . . . nice." She hedged, trying to downplay things out of respect for his feelings.
"Nice wouldn't make you nervous like this."
"He's different." She elaborated carefully. She had not tried to put this new feeling into words yet and she wanted to be sure before she spoke. "Gabriel is smart, brave . . . loyal . . .I'm sorry. I know you don't want to hear this. I just didn't know who else I could talk to."
"So what's the problem?" Angel walked over to the fireplace and stirred the dying coals. He wouldn't be jealous, he told himself. He would keep a clear head about this and be there for Buffy because she needed him. It was hard, though, possibly too hard. "He sounds like a great guy."
"He is." She answered, "I just don't know what I should do."
"Are you worried about me?" he gave the fireplace one final stab, coaxing forth a single bright flame, before tossing a thin log on top.
"Um, helloo!" she threw her arms up in the air, "Excuse me for thinking this might have any effect on you. I was trying to be sensitive to you're feelings, but I guess there isn't any need."
"That's not it, Buffy." Angel shook his head, "I just didn't want you to make the wrong decision because of me."
"I don't even know what kind of decision to make." She paced back and forth, gesticulating sharply. "There's so much going on now. School's going to be over soon and I don't have a clue about what I'm going to do after graduation. Not to mention the Ascension. And then there's Willow and Xander and Giles and . . .you. ' She paused, looking at him with wide, imploring eyes.
"Buffy, I don't want you to miss out on something good because you're worried about my feelings. I'm always going to be here for you, no matter what. But we both have to live our lives and let go of the past."
"What are you saying?" she whispered, her throat tight.
He pressed the back of his fist to his forehead and squinted in concentration. "I'm saying that we both still have our lives and we can't forget that because of what we've lost. I'd rather focus on what we still have."
"And what do we have?"
"We have friendship. Stronger than anything in the world." He wrapped his arms carefully around her. "Sometimes I miss you so much I feel like I'm going to die. But then I remember that you're still here. And I want you to know that I'm still here, too. No matter what happens." He thought about telling her now, but changed his mind. The time wasn't right. She was too confused. It would only make things worse.
"Thanks." She smiled sadly, holding on to his arm. "I'm glad I have a friend like you."
Gabriel awoke with a murderous headache. He groaned weakly and carefully sat up in bed. He wasn't in his own bed, or that of anyone he knew. And underneath the fine sheets, he was naked, he realized distantly. His throat throbbed and his stomach ached. Something was wrong; he needed his medicine.
"Looking for something?" a soft, sultry voice purred.
Gabriel started violently. The same shapely, dark-haired girl from the coffee shop sauntered across the room from the open doorway. "I-I-I need my medicine." He stammered, pressing his hand to his forehead and wincing.
"You mean this little thing?" she held a long fingered hand up, a tiny black globe pinned neatly between thumb and forefinger.
He grabbed for it, but she was quicker, drawing her hand back, just beyond his reach. He slipped out from under the sheets, following her blindly, his eyes locked on the small black pill.
She eyed his lack of shame approvingly. "I think this is going to be more fun than I thought." Placing the pill between her front teeth, she slid her hands across his bare shoulders and offered it to him.
His brow furrowed in discomfort, he snatched the medicine away from her and, jamming it into his mouth, retreated to the bed. Wrapping himself defensively in the sheets and, swallowing hard, he choked down the pill. He felt cold, but at the same time his face felt flushed. The medicine's unknown composition began flowing through him almost immediately. Gradually, the pain eased and his mind unknotted.
"You're the girl from this afternoon." he muttered from the depths of the bed sheets.
"Good guess. And it was last night, actually. You've been asleep for quite a while."
"Why did you bring me here?" he watched her suspiciously.
"You look like you're trying to imitate a teddy bear. Get up." She tossed a neatly folded pair of pants on the bed, followed by a shirt. "There's a shower in the next room. Clean yourself up. There's someone you have to meet."
Apprehensively, he gathered the clothes into his arms. He waited for her to turn around and let him pass with some small measure of his dignity intact, but had to settle for twisting the bed sheets around his waist and waddling to the shower room.
"Don't be long." She called teasingly, "The man doesn't like to be kept waiting."
Twenty minutes later, Faith piled him into a yellow cab. The car started to drive, following a complex, roundabout route until they arrived at the back of an official looking government building. Faith pulled him by the arm and lead him through an emergency exit. Inside, they started up a series of staircases leading ever upward. A short hallway later, they stood before a varnished oak door. Faith had hardly been vigilant, carelessly forging on ahead, expecting him to follow of his own accord. Gabriel could have escaped at any time, he was sure, but there were too many questions he needed answered. He suspected strongly that the answers waited behind that door. Faith turned a small, metal key in the lock and pushed the door open. With a flourish, she swept her arm wide and waited for Gabriel to enter.
Inside, a middle aged man sat contently behind a meticulously neat desk, his hands folded in front of him. On the outside, he looked like a typical political figure, but, looking deeper, Gabriel saw far more. The man reeked of evil, with an aura of agelessness that defied explanation. Black magic was ground deep into his soul from decades of practice. This was no ordinary town mayor.
The man stood and offered his hand in friendly greeting. Gabriel glared at him darkly and made no move to return the handshake.
"All right, then, " the man switched gears smoothly, "Formality aside. I trust you've been treated well during your stay here."
Gabriel refused to speak.
"I see that your extensive training failed to include professional courtesy. A pity, young people today have forgotten the social niceties. Faith?"
The dark-haired slayer moved obediently and jammed a sharp elbow into the small of Gabriel's back, driving him to his knees. Gripping him roughly under the chin, she forced his head up to face the Mayor. With conscious effort, he prudently kept his hands from grabbing her slender wrists.
"Now isn't that better." The Mayor smiled ingratiatingly,
"Faith?" Gabriel repeated softly. He looked at her disdainfully. "You're the other Slayer."
Viciously, she grabbed him by the throat. "I'm the ONLY Slayer."
"Now, Faith." The mayor raised a cautioning hand. Faith released him, roughly dropping his head, "He's our guest." The mayor nodded approvingly. "I want him to feel like part of the team."
"What are you talking about?" Gabriel asked suspiciously.
"As of now, you work for me."
"You're crazy." He spat, "Let me go."
"We aren't in the business of keeping prisoners, Gabriel. May I call you Gabriel? Good." He stepped out from behind his desk, a small glass vial in his hand. "I, we, would prefer that you stay here of your own free will."
"So if I get up and walk out of here, you're not going to stop me?" Gabriel arched an auburn eyebrow incredulously.
"Absolutely." The Mayor assured him with a practiced smile, "You can leave at any time." Deliberately, he placed the glass vial on the desk, plainly in Gabriel's view.
Something inside the auburn-haired youth jerked at the sight. The sensation was similar to hunger only in that it was a need, an absolute requirement for existence. Every cell in his body recognized the tiny black globes within the glass vial and struck up a chorus of demand. He fought it, forcing his eyes away, and focused instead on Mayor Wilkins.
"Can you give me a ride to the park, then?" he asked casually. "I feel like an ice cream cone."
Faith jerked his head back so far that his throat was strained and looked down into his green eyes. "He's good. I almost believed he wasn't dying to grab that bottle and down it." She noted keenly. "The voice was good, but you can't cover that look in the eyes. Like he'd sell his soul for one more taste. He's hooked, alright. Bad."
"Sell his soul?" the Mayor rubbed his chin in consideration. "Now that's interesting."
"Where did you get those?" Gabriel demanded.
"I'm a very resourceful man, Gabriel. Something you should keep in mind when you consider my offer."
"What do you want from me?" Gabriel didn't like this at all. The Mayor looked down at him beatifically. "I want you to think of me as your friend, Gabriel. Like a big brother. There are a lot of advantages to having a benefactor in my position. Someone of your talents could go quite far. Just look at how well Faith is doing. You won't find better fringe benefits anywhere in the country, I assure you. On the other hand, those who stand against me are taking their futures into their own hands."
He clapped his hands together and gave them a quick rub with a sterile towellette. "I think we're done here, Faith. Gabriel has a lot to think about, but he seems to know where everyone stands. Take him back and see that he gets set up in his room comfortably. We have to keep our boy happy."
Faith looked to the Mayor shrewdly and smiled. She released Gabriel's head and he let his eyes drop to the floor. As much as he hated to admit it, she was right about his medicine. Even now, so soon after a dose, he could feel the craving burrowing up from within. If this was only the beginning, he prayed for resilience.
"Oh, one more thing." The mayor called, as Faith pushed Gabriel toward the door, "There are two things I believe very strongly in. Cleanliness and loyalty. I think you should stay away from those friends of yours. They're a bad influence on you, trouble makers, all of them." Tossing the vial of pills to Faith, he sat back behind his desk and began sifting through a stack of paperwork. I'll leave it in your hands to see that he is rewarded for good behavior. And punished for his mistakes. Enjoy the ride home, I'll be in touch."
"You bet." She smiled, hooking her arm through Gabriel's and guiding him away.
Soon after, Faith returned him to the room where he had first awoken. The spacious and well furnished apartment was hers, it seemed. "You really shouldn't get all bent out of shape over this, Handsome." She kicked off her black, leather boots and sat back on the end of her bed. "You don't have a heckuva lot of choices here, so why don't you sit back and enjoy the ride. I mean look around. How many kids our age have all this?"
"Is it worth it?" he muttered, standing just outside the doorway.
"What?" she asked, baffled.
"This." He gestured around them. "All the possessions in the world won't change how you feel about yourself."
"Spare me the shrink lecture. I like myself just fine. I'll never know why people think denying themselves makes them into a better person. Some people are just born better, like you and me. I say get whatever you want out of life and let everyone else fend for themselves." She stroked the bed sheets next to her. "So do want to be on top or bottom?"
"You've got to be kidding me." He looked tiredly at her. "Where is my room?"
"Right here, Handsome." Faith rose and pressed her hands against his chest, sliding her long fingers under the neck of his shirt. "Boss man wants to make sure all your . . . needs are satisfied. Like I said before, this is going to be a lot of fun."
He angrily grabbed her by the wrist. "I heard him tell you to get me set up in my room. Where is it?"
"Suit yourself, " She spat, jerking her arm free. "You'll be back."
"Where?" he reiterated impatiently.
Faith turned away, rolling her eyes in disgust. "Whatever. Downstairs, first door."
He turned and left immediately, heading directly for the stairs.
"Remember what I said, Handsome." Faith's derisive chuckled followed him down the hallway. "You'll be back!"
Buffy was walking along a dark street, a wooden stake in her hand. Her mother was with her and they were looking for something. Or someone.
"You know Buffy, I think you should invite Angel over for dinner?" Joyce suggested, "He likes meatloaf, doesn't he?"
Buffy turned and found herself in her own kitchen. Her mother was gone and Angel sat at the table, pondering a cold plate of meatloaf. She approached him and he looked up. The meatloaf was untouched. "This smells so good, but I can't eat it. What would happen to the world?" He turned his head back and continued to stare into the plate.
"Angel? What's going on?" she asked.
His head snapped up and he pointed to the door with a shining silver fork. "It's for you."
The back door opened and a young girl of perhaps five years stood in the doorway. She had dark hair that hung in loose curls over the shoulders of her little black dress and her black-irised eyes glittered with mischief and intelligence. Strangely, she wore oversized black boots that reached to the tops of her thighs. "You wanna play?" the little girl asked, a shining black ball the size of a human head appearing in her hands.
"I-I don't think so." Buffy answered. There was something she had to find, but she couldn't remember what it was.
"I don't need you anyway." the little girl snarled viciously and threw the ball at her. "He'll play my game."
Buffy ducked under the ball and ran to the door. Gabriel knelt down in the grass, the forefinger of each hand encased in a small woven puzzle that she recognized as the Chinese Finger Trap. The little girl stood beside him, peering down at his hands.
"He's not as much fun to play with." She pouted, "He has a cold."
"What do you want me to do?" Buffy asked, watching Gabriel struggle to pull his fingers apart.
"Ask them." The little girl pointed across the yard to a painted white swing set. Two men sat on the swings, cloaked in a blanket of darkness, the one on the right swinging, the other stone still.
"He set up the game." The little girl indicated the still figure, "And he makes up the rules."
A cold, white light washed across them, illuminating their faces. The man on the right, she recognized immediately as the Mayor of Sunnydale, the other, however, was a stranger. He was tall, dressed in expensive clothes, his auburn hair carefully groomed. She placed his age at somewhere around thirty-five. He stared at her coldly, still as a statue, his eyes like yellow-green ice. He stood slowly, a solid looking sword, like the one Giles was keeping in the library only this one had a blade, appearing in his hand. He walked over to Gabriel and hefted the weapon high over the oblivious young man's head.
"It's payback time, Ripper." He whispered, bringing the sword down full force.
Buffy dove to intercept it, but time seemed to bend and she moved impossibly slow. The heavy metal blade connected with Gabriel's back and he shattered like a stained glass window, shards flying in all directions.
The little dark haired girl bent and began gathering up the pieces into her tiny hands. "The game is over now." she lamented, "I wanted to play longer."
"Buffy, are you all right?" It was Angel, dressed all in white and wearing dark sunglasses. "You're bleeding."
Shocked, she looked down to find a shard of glass embedded in her chest. The fragment was long and narrow, containing the image of a lengthwise strip of Gabriel's face, an inch and a half wide, running from just above his eyebrow down to his chin.
"Help me." He said, his jaw and lower lip disappearing into her wound each time his mouth opened.
She awoke with a start, jerking straight in her desk. Before her was a plain sheet of paper with her name scribbled in the upper left corner. Next to that was a photocopied page with ten questions in thick black typeface printed on it. She looked around to see her classmates, diligently scratching out answers on their test papers. Without a word, she stood up and went for the door. Ignoring the teacher's complaints, she bolted into the hallway and broke into a run for the library.
Giles rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "That's a very interesting topic." He said to the young senior. "It's a bit late to be choosing a thesis but I suppose better late than never."
The young man shifted uncomfortably and waited patiently.
Buffy rushed into the room and walked straight up to Giles. "We've got trouble." She stated plainly.
Giles gaze flicked nervously from the student to her then back to the student again. "Check the auto-biographicals." He gestured absently with his hand. "In the back."
Rolling his eyes and shaking his head, the student grabbed his backpack and headed toward the far side of the room, thoroughly disgusted. Giles waited until he was an acceptable distance away before turning back. "Buffy, you really must be more discreet when speaking on matters that are . . . work related."
"Later, Giles, have you seen Gabriel since yesterday?" She watched him expectantly.
"Well, yes, he came in a little late last night, but I did see him." Giles forehead furrowed. "He was restless, though, and he went for a walk."
"When did he get back?"
"Well . . . I don't know. I was asleep soon after he left." Giles was a little confused but not worried. "I assume he came home all right."
"Check again, " she reached over the desk and handed him the phone, "I hope I'm wrong, but I have a feeling he's in real trouble."
He stormed up the stairs, every blood vessel in his body on fire. The muscles of his upper body hovered on the edge of cramping and chill sweat gathered on his upper lip. He paused, leaning heavily against the wall just outside Faith's door.
"Open up, Faith!" he barked, carefully keeping his waning strength in reserve.
The door to her room opened slowly and she leaned casually against the jam, arms folded across her chest. "You bellowed, handsome?"
He shifted uncomfortably, rubbing the back of his neck in agitation. "I-I wanted to talk."
Her lips twisted in a bitter smile and she threw her arm wide, inviting him in. "I told you you'd be back. You must be Jonesin' big time. This is going to be fun,"
Hurriedly, he followed her inside, clasping and unclasping his hands.
"You know why I'm here." He said, dropping all attempts at pretense.
"Yeah, " she shrugged, looking him up and down, "I know. But it's not important."
He watched her close the door and follow him into the room, her dark eyes piercing him like an angry predator's.
"What matters now is what you're going to do to earn it." She pressed herself against his chest, her face barely an inch from his. She blew softly across his neck and gently scratched her fingernails across his opposite cheek. Gabriel's jaw tightened in disgust.
"Keep acting like this and a girl could get the idea that you don't like her." She teased, running her fingers roughly through her own tousled hair. "Lemme tell you something, Handsome. I OWN you, understand? You belong to me and when I want something, you damn well better be ready to give it up."
"Just give me the pill and let me leave." His folded his arms tightly across his chest. He could feel the tremors starting. He needed that pill.
"Forget it." She sneered. "You're going to jump through some hoops and you're going to learn to like it." She produced one of Gabriel's pills from behind her back. "Or don't you want it."
Longing filled his eyes and she knew she had him. He found it so hard to think lately. It seemed much easier just to let someone else make the decisions for him. No thought, no stress. Faith grinned and kissed him hungrily. He snapped out of his daze, breaking away from her and shaking his head. "No. Not with you. Ever."
"It's her, isn't it?!" Faith's eyes flared and she slashed her fingernails deep into his cheek. "Damn it, just once I'd like to turn around without that BITCH'S face showing up!" She slammed her fist against the wall and shoved Gabriel hard. He stumbled back, clutching his wounded cheek.
"You know how sick I am of hearing that name?! Buffy, Buffy, Buffy! What the hell is it about her?!" She paced, agitated, for a while, a dangerous glint in her eye. A devious plan was forming. "I have the chance to get back at her now, thanks to you, make her pay for everything she's done to me. Come on, we've got work to do." Grabbing up a small carry bag, she headed for the door. "Wait. The pill? Please?" he was appalled at how weak his voice sounded.
Without looking, Faith hit him with a backhand slap that snapped his head sharply to the side. "You'll get your pill when I feel like giving it to you. Now, come on."
He watched her leave, determined not to follow. The craving gnawed at him, though, and, his heart sick with self loathing, he trailed after her.
She led him downstairs and across the street to a wide, single level, brick building. It was well-kept, but definitely vacant. All the windows were painted black from the inside, Gabriel noted. Faith produced a sturdy key and slipped it into the lock on the heavy metal door. Gabriel heard a solid bolt click open from inside and then the door was opened. He walked inside, his stomach uneasy and his muscles sore from lack of the drug. It was dark inside and there was an oddly familiar scent of sterile age. He recognized it immediately as the stench of vampires. He hugged himself against an imaginary coldness and hovered close to the comfort of the light that streamed in through the doorway.
"What are we doing here?" he asked uneasily.
"You're here for some training. I want to see just how good you are." She allowed the heavy door to slam shut, plunging the room into complete blackness. A moment later, there was a sharp snap and the room was bathed in harsh yellow light from above.
A group of vampires, almost a dozen in number, surrounded them in a rough semi circle, grinning evilly.
"Boys, this is Gabriel." Faith purred, "Gabriel meet the boys. They're going to get you into shape before the big job."
"Job?" Gabriel narrowed his eyes skeptically.
Faith dragged a folding metal chair away from the wall and sat down on it backwards. "You'll find out when you're ready. Right now, I think you have more important things to worry about."
He barely turned in time to catch his first attacker, a ferocious, wiry vampire with wild, hate filled eyes. Ducking aside, he smashed his knee into the creature's midsection and knocked it back with a solid uppercut. Spinning, he took another one behind the knee with a quick foot sweep. He backed cautiously away, his hands ready.
"Come on, Gabriel!" Faith shouted, "I thought you were a fighter. Show me something impressive and you might get a prize!" She brandished one of Gabriel's pills between her thumb and forefinger.
The sight of the pill ignited something inside him. Outrage and shame fused with the evergrowing feeling of powerlessness that clung to him. Studying the group of vampires with bloodthirsty eyes, he relaxed into a predatory fighting stance. Here was on outlet, a place to vent his anger without consequence. The death of evil was nothing to be mourned. Wasting no time, he rushed the creatures, appearing amongst them in a fury of savage punches and swift kicks. Each time he took a vampire from its feet, he struck a blow for freedom, reminded himself who he really was. He killed them with innovative methods and imaginative moves, using whatever tools were available.
There was a muffled ringing from inside Faith's pocket. She quickly withdrew a small, black cell phone and flipped it open.
"Yeah?" she answered. There was a short pause. "Already? But we're right in the middle of training." She paused again to watch Gabriel as he vented his rage on the group of vampires. "Yeah, he's doing okay. Sure. No problem. We'll be there in five." She closed the phone and stuffed it back into her pocket.
"Make it quick, Handsome." Faith smiled, approving of his efficient brutality, "That was Boss Man on the phone. Says its time for you to step up to the plate. We're out of here in five." She leaned back against the warehouse wall, folding her arms across he chest, and waited.
Seeming unaware of her, lost in grim focus, Gabriel brandished a shattered length of wood and thrust out his chin in challenge to the remaining vampires. Faith yawned and checked her watch, unconcerned. She and Gabriel were the only ones who knew, without a doubt, that not one of his opponents would still be alive in five minutes.
Buffy paced back and forth in agitation. "Where else could he be? Someone must have kidnapped him."
They had been looking for hours, despite the fact that they had no idea where to start, and found nothing. Even their most recent stop, the ice cream parlor he had visited with Buffy, had yielded no clues.
Giles looked up at her gravely from where he sat on the edge of the curb. "Perhaps not. He may have simply gone back to Edinburgh." "Without any of his things." She furrowed her brow, perplexed. "He hadn't really brought much with him. Hardly enough to keep him here, that's for sure."
"Call your brother. See if he's heard anything." She suggested quickly.
"I've been calling Gerritt for a week with no luck, but I'll try again. Check local transportation out of town. I'll make a few calls."
"I don't think he left on his own, Giles." Buffy reminded him, "The dream was definitely pointing the finger at dark forces."
"Right now, I can't think of any other options." Giles shrugged tiredly. It was clear that he blamed himself for Gabriel's disappearance.
Buffy laid her hand consolingly on his arm. "Go back to the library. Try and get some rest. I'll hit the bus station."
"Where is it, old man?" Faith growled, twisting Giles' collar tighter around his throat. His eyes bulged and he fell back, upsetting a stack of books he'd been cataloging. He could only hear them hit the floor dully through the rush of blood in his ears. She loosened her grip and let him breathe again.
She had taken him completely unaware, so engrossed was he in his own thoughts and worry over Gabriel. She and three vampires had burst into the room and, within seconds, she had had him immobilized. "I-I sold it to a travelling circus." He coughed. "I imagine you'll find them somewhere near Prague by now."
"I don't have time for this!" she back handed him to the floor and viciously drove a pointed boot into his ribs. The librarian curled up, clutching his side. "You know I'm not the most patient girl around and you probably figured out how I like to hurt people, too. Save us both some pain and aggravation and just cough up the Sword."
"You-you're right, Faith." He agreed weakly, "I see no point in lying to you further."
"Well?" she tapped her foot, "Where is it?"
Giles sat up and shrugged. "You're too late. A pack of flying elephants arrived early this morning and carried it off."
Faith's face darkened with outrage and she kicked him hard in the midsection. He doubled over in agony, his lips still bent in a smile of triumph.
"I found something." One of her vampire minions announced.
Faith left Giles huddled on the floor and approached the metal cage that was built against the wall. Inside, she could see a metal bound box, etched with runes.
"You wouldn't be stupid enough to hide it here, would you?" she chuckled condescendingly as she threw her shoulder against the door, easily snapping the lock.
Giles struggled to his feet desperately, but the other two vampires quickly closed in from both sides.
Faith tugged the top of the box open and reached inside. She withdrew the bladeless Sword of Seals.
"Got it." She grinned, slipping the treasure into her backpack. "Let him go, boys. He deserves to be around to see the end when it comes."
The doors to the library parted and Buffy strode in. "No luck at the bus station, Giles. You haven't heard from him yet, have you? I was-" She stopped dead in her tracks.
"Buffy, stop her. She has the Sword!" Giles cried. The blonde slayer burst into action. Vaulting the main desk, she whipped a stake out of her backpack and speared one of the vampires holding Giles before it could even move. Leaving it to fall to dust, she kicked the other in the chest, knocking it flat. Half a second later, it was no more than a whiff of ash in the air. The third tried to take her from behind, but she deftly sidestepped and threw the creature over her shoulder. It landed with a loud crash and stared for a second at the three inches of wooden stake sticking out of its chest before it, too, turned to dust.
"Giles, are you all right?" she crouched to help the battered librarian to his feet.
"Go, " he wheezed, pointing to an open window in the back. "Faith already has a head start on you. I'll be fine here."
Obediently, she leaped up and pulled herself through the small window. Dropping to the ground outside, she caught a glimpse of Faith disappearing down the street. Bolting after her, she cut across the school grounds and bounded over a rock wall. She pushed herself harder than ever before. If Faith got away with the Sword, their hopes of sealing the Hellmouth would be gone. There was no other choice. Faith had to be stopped. She rounded a sharp corner and saw the other slayer ahead of her, closer than she had expected. The dark-haired girl slipped into an alley, throwing trash cans behind her as she went. Buffy bounded over the obstacles easily, steadily gaining ground on her quarry.
"Give it up, Faith!" she shouted, "You're not going to get away!" Faith shot a glance over her shoulder. "Watch me!" She sped down another alley with a mad cackle. Following close behind, Buffy spotted a black car waiting in the shadows at the end. No! If Faith reached that car, she would escape for sure. There was just not enough time to close the gap between them. The Sword was as good as gone and, with it, their hopes for the future.
Buffy's heart soared as a tall, dark, auburn-haired figure stepped into the mouth of the far end of the alley. Faith skidded to an abrupt stop, barely a few feet short of him. Buffy slowed and closed on her from behind, watching her carefully.
"Where you going now, Faith?" she walked with her hands open and her arms slightly apart, ready for any desperate moves from the other slayer.
"Hey there, lover." Faith smiled cruelly and wrapped her arms around Gabriel's neck. Pressing her lips to his, she kissed him deeply. Buffy looked on in horror. Her petite mouth quivered in shock and her eyes filled with moisture. "No." she whispered, her voice tight with hurt, "Gabriel, no, please, no."
As the two parted, Faith turned to face her, pressing her back teasingly into Gabriel, her arms switching grips over her head, still locked around his neck. "Your boy is mine now, B." Faith purred, "And this is just the first thing I'm going to take from you." She slunk around behind him, sliding her arms down around his waist. "Be ready."
Buffy's face grew stern with anger and she lunged forward, grasping for Faith's arm. Gabriel, silent and almost motionless until now, shot his hand out and caught her by the wrist.
"Let me go!" she cried, her emotions boiling over.
"Buffy, just let us leave." He said somberly, looking down at her, his face an emotionless mask. "Please."
"Wait, no." the words were barely audible as they left her lips, "You can't-"
Faith waved mockingly and climbed into the back seat of the car. Gabriel released Buffy's arm and backed away, his face stricken. She could do nothing but watch as he sank into the leather seat next to Faith and closed the door with an echoing thud. She flinched violently at the sound. It shot through her with chilling clarity, flooding her mind with painful memories. She was in Angel's old apartment and he was calmly explaining how everything that she had come to believe about their relationship was a lie, that she was just a foolish girl who meant nothing to him. It had felt like her whole world was collapsing around her, so harsh was the betrayal. She was reminded poignantly of that pain now. The car pulled away and it felt like her heart would turn to dust. She stood, silent and still, long after the car was gone until, finally, she let the tears flow.
"That was the best!" Faith crowed exultantly as she and Gabriel started up the stairs in their building. "Did you see the look on her face? She looked like she was going to cry right in front of us!"
"Shut up, Faith." Gabriel plodded sullenly up the stairs behind her.
"Oh, come on, Handsome, " she chided, "You must have enjoyed that a little bit. I mean every man loves to break a little girl's heart, whether he admits it or not."
They stopped outside her room and he regarded her stonily. "Get me my pill."
"I suppose you deserve a reward." She teased, opening the lock and leading him inside. He followed, fidgeting with the increasing craving that gnawed at his bones.
"You did pretty good out there." She complimented him, "What do you say we celebrate?"
"Give me the pill and let me leave!" he snarled, his patience strained by the pain of the craving.
"You know, I don't think I like the tone of your voice. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe you should wait a little longer for your next dose." Panic shot through Gabriel like a bolt of lightning. "Wait! I-I'm sorry. I didn't mean it." He almost choked on the wave of self-loathing that welled up from within.
Faith smiled smugly, basking in the glory of his bent spirit. "You want it? Beg for it. On your knees."
He fell to his knees quickly, his eyes swollen with hunger. "Please, " he whimpered, "The pill, let me have it."
She backhanded him hard, snapping his head back and splitting his lip. Her eyes filled with bloodlust, she pulled his head around by the hair. "Keep begging. I like the sound of it."
He started to hyperventilate and the words spilled shamelessly from his mouth, ceasing only when she hit him a second time. She was panting now, charged up on the control she wielded, her eyes wild and lusty. She struck him again, harder this time and drove the toe of her boot into his belly. Groaning in perverse ecstasy, she balled up her fists and continued to pound him, thrilling to each impact. Each time she struck, it seemed only to fuel her bloodlust. Soon, her eyes were gleaming, her skin sheened with sweat as she rained a flurry of frenetic blows down on his tortured body. He took the beating stoically. The pain she inflicted was nothing in comparison to the great craving that was devouring him from within. By the end, he would have told her anything as long as it meant cessation of the pain inside.
She left him weak and bleeding on the hardwood floor, groaning faintly. She fished around inside her pocket and produced a small black globe. Gabriel, one eye closed, the other swollen shut, sensed the presence of the drug and strained to get up. Sneering, Faith flicked the small pill across the room to clatter against the far wall. With fevered energy, Gabriel scrambled after it.
"I'm going to take a shower." She said, wiping the back of her hand across her mouth and strolling languidly into the next room. "Make sure you're gone by the time I get out."
Mayor Wilkins pored over a small stack of trying paperwork. "Come in, Faith." He said, without looking up from his work.
Faith sauntered in through her private entrance, a mixed look of confusion and curiosity on her face. "How did you know I was here?"
"You don't think I would leave a direct entrance to my office unmonitored do you? I don't trust that modern video surveillance equipment. Nothing works like a good old warding spell." He placed his pen carefully down on the desk and set his papers aside. "Do you have something to report?"
"I was kinda hoping to surprise you." She revealed coyly, "But I guess there's no point in that, huh?"
"He's ready, then?" the Mayor could hardly contain his smile.
"Yeah, " she smirked triumphantly, "I tossed him against the wall and he stuck."
"Excellent." The Mayor rubbed his hands together, "It's about time. I was beginning to wonder if that boy was ever going to learn. See that he's brought to me immediately."
"What are you going to do with him?" she smiled, sharing in his excitement.
"Now that our boy is ready. It's time for a little re-education."
"I don't think I'm ready for whatever it is you need me to do." Gabriel said as he came through the door into a small, barely lit room. "Maybe another pill will help me feel better."
Faith sneered and, placing her boot on his rear, shoved him harshly. "You'll get another pill later. Right now, the man wants a meeting."
Mayor Wilkins leaned patiently against the back wall, the single overhead lamp casting his face into harsh shadows. A metal chair sat prominently in the center of the bare room. Thick leather straps were attached to the arms and front legs of the chair. Gabriel found that it reminded him of an electric chair.
"Gabriel, " the Mayor greeted cheerily, "Come in, have a seat." He patted the hard back of the chair.
Gabriel looked at the offered seat skeptically.
"Do it." Faith insisted venomously.
With surprising complacency, he sat down. Faith immediately fastened the leather straps around his wrists and upper arms, then bound his ankles. Lastly, she pushed his head back and wrapped another strap across his forehead.
"We're going to go through a little exercise today, Gabriel." Mayor Wilkins explained, smiling. Withdrawing a small black book from his inside coat pocket, he flipped it open to an earmarked section. In his other hand, he produced a small, nozzle-tipped bottle.
"I want you to think of her, Gabriel." Faith forced Gabriel's eyelids apart and held them while the mayor leaned over and deposited a single drop in each eye. The liquid stung terribly, but he could not blink it away. "Think of Buffy and what she means to you. That's good enough, Faith."
Faith released his eyelids and stepped back, her eyes glistening with interest.
"I won't let you hurt her." Gabriel's voice seemed small and weak, but there was a filament of strength in it, like a stainless steel wire.
"Defiance? At this stage of the game?" the Mayor placed the dropper bottle back in his pocket and looked disappointedly to Faith, "Oh well, I guess it doesn't really matter at this point. On with the show, then."
He began to recite strange, alien words out of the tiny black book and made a sharp gesture with his hand in front of Gabriel's eyes. The auburn haired young man shook violently in his bonds and his eyes rolled up in his head. He groaned, his jaw clenched, and a thin trail of saliva slid out from between his lips.
"What are you doing to him?" Faith stared at his shuddering body, enrapt.
"Our partner, Mr. Giles, uses crude methods to control his son. I'm just making sure my needs are met as per our agreement." He produced a set of three wide, flat sticks of wood, one pink, one yellow and one green, and held them out to Faith with a genial smile. "Here, keep an eye on him and make sure he doesn't swallow his tongue. The strawberry flavor is the most popular, I'm told." The Mayor pushed the wooden slats into her hand and left the room. "I'll be back in a few hours to see if our plan can proceed."
Floating between Gabriel's lens and cornea, a flashing series of magic-spawned images blurred into a single, unrelenting message. The command pounded his weakened mind, tapping endlessly at a dozen cracks in his mental defenses that had appeared since he had first arrived at the mayor's office. The cracks widened and the images seeped slowly in. The message would not be denied. ^Kill the Slayer. Kill Buffy Summers. She is the source of your pain, destroy her and your pain will end.^ The images flashed by too fast for the eye to perceive, but his mind was absorbing them. And, slowly, the cracks widened.
Buffy leaned over the railing of Halfway Bridge, named so because it was almost half way from any place a person might want to go in Sunnydale. The susurrus roaring of the water helped block out her memories, kept her from thinking too much about what had happened. Toying with a short-stemmed daisy between her fingers, she plucked absently at the petals. One by one, the petals fluttered down into the rushing waters below to be swallowed up and lost.
"Loves me not . . . loves me . . . loves me not . . ." she whispered to herself, leaving the daisy with only a single petal. "Yeah, right. Whatever." She tossed the rest of the flower into the river and rested her chin glumly on her arms.
How could he do this? She wondered to herself for the thousandth time. She had instinctively headed for Angel when the pain had hit, but then she had turned and come here. She felt so foolish for letting Gabriel get to her so easily. The last thing she wanted to do was put that foolishness on display in front of Angel. So she had opted to be alone for the time being. If only I could talk to him, she lamented silently, I could find out what happened.
Her senses, though dulled by depression, warned her of someone's approach. She whirled in alarm. Less than fifteen feet away, Faith leaned casually against the railing. With the roaring of the river, Buffy hadn't even heard her approach.
"What are you doing here?" Buffy advanced on her, hands flexing, ready for an attack.
"Just here to return a little something." Faith didn't move. "If you want a piece of me, you'll have to go through him first." Another person moved into view behind her. It was Gabriel, or had been at one point. His eyes were raw and red, his pupils dilated pools of vacant darkness. His body twitched as he walked more fully into view, following some invisible lure. It looked like he wasn't even aware of her. Buffy thought she could hear a low, discordant sing-song emanating from his direction.
Faith looked him over appreciatively and held out a small black pill in her fingers. Gabriel's attention snapped to the pill instantly. "You know what these things are doing to him?" she asked with an ironic smirk, "Pretty cool, huh?"
"What did you do to him?!" Buffy cried angrily.
Faith's lips pulled up in a hateful grin and she shrugged. "Who knows? Why don't we find out. Buffy!"
Gabriel's head snapped up at the mention of Buffy's name, a mad fire in his eyes. Growling low and deep, he lunged at her with surprising speed. Buffy ducked aside, blocking the crude attack easily. He threw her arm wide in rage, tossing her aside as if she were a child.
The first time she had fought against him, his technique had been dazzling. Now, his swings were clumsy and easily avoided. Fortunately, Faith seemed content to remain a spectator for the time being. Hopefully, she would get lucky and be able to knock him out before Faith decided to change her mind. She spun and ducked around his heavy-handed attacks, scoring hit after hit, but nothing seemed to have an effect on him. It was like he was immune to pain.
"What are you gonna do, B?" Faith called teasingly. "He can go like this for hours. So you either have to kill him or let him kill you."
"Forget it, Faith. As soon as this is over, I'm going to kick your-" Her challenge was cut off as Gabriel dove headlong at her, catching her around the waist and driving hard against the metal railing. Pain lanced through her lower back and they tumbled over the edge.
They hung, suspended in the air for endless seconds. Then, as if gravity had finally noticed their challenge, they plunged at an alarming rate. Buffy twisted and squirmed to escape, find some way to absorb the impact, but Gabriel would not release her from his maddened embrace. Together, they tumbled thirty feet into the raging waters below.
The force of the impact blasted the air out of her lungs and she felt her arm snap wide, twisting at the shoulder joint. Spatial orientation lost all meaning as up became sideways and the powerful current tossed the pair around like ragdolls. Gabriel's grasp on her slipped and he was lost in the maelstrom. Her lungs burned for air but she didn't even know which direction to struggle in. Her mind became detached, separate from the chaos surrounding her body. She could see light in one direction. It had to be the surface.
Scooping wide circles through the water with her arms, she plowed her way upward. Breaking the surface, she gulped in a deep breath. Air had never tasted so sweet.
A strong hand grasped her shoulder and spun her around. Gabriel's forehead was bleeding profusely, running freely down the right side of his face. His green eyes wild and filled with pain, he pushed her hard under the surface. Struggling, she thrashed back and forth, attempting to loosen his grip. Twisting one of his hands back on itself, she was able to partially free herself.
Disaster struck as the intertwined pair collided with a large, worn rock, Buffy taking most of the impact between her shoulder blades. The force of the collision stunned her, robbing her weakened limbs of what little strength remained. Worse still, the air had been driven out of her lungs and her body instinctively tried to draw a new breath. Kicking desperately, she felt her left foot skim something solid underfoot. Pushing off hard, she rolled, taking Gabriel with her, until she broke the surface again. Gasping, she fought to keep him from getting a solid grip on her. Surviving a trip down the river in this condition would have been unlikely under the best of circumstances. Fighting for her life with Gabriel would make it impossible. Talking had already proven a failure. She might have to resort to more drastic measures if either of them were going to make it out alive.
Growling like an animal, he wrapped his arms around her waist and locked his hands together tightly, pinning one of her arms to her side. His face was awash in bloody water and his eyes were vacant and wild looking as he squeezed violently. His strength was astounding, beyond anything she had ver felt. Her back bent and she could feel her rib cage compress. Bringing her free arm around, she smashed an elbow down on the top of Gabriel's head. The blow would have been enough to drop a normal man, but he didn't even seem to notice. What have they done to him? She thought, darkness creeping into the edges of her vision. Shoving any remorse she felt deep down inside, she repeatedly pounded her elbow into the top of his head. He snarled in irritation and shook her viciously from side to side. Her body jerked painfully, her ribs felt like they would fold over on themselves.
She could see another rock up ahead and a risky plan took shape in her mind. Breathing out sharply, she sank, dragging Gabriel down with her. Slowly, they drifted closer to the bottom. Consciousness fading, she rolled back so she could reach the bottom before him with her shorter legs.
Digging her toes deep into the riverbed, she drove forward. Gabriel recognized the ploy too late. Twisting, he hit the rock sideways, his body wrapping painfully across the rough surface. His arms went limp and she easily slipped out of his grasp. Paddling fiercely, she was able to keep her head clear of the rushing current.
Gabriel's body floated nearby and she quickly grabbed on to him, twisting her fist into his shirt to secure her hold. She paddled with her free arm, making slow progress for the shore. They had been washed far downstream and the river was wider here, the current less unrelenting. Floating weakly into a shallow pool, she paused to rest for a moment. Dragging Gabriel's dead weight, she collapsed, sliding in the chill mud. His limp form flopped to one side, coughing up a lungful of water. They lay unmoving for a long time, panting heavily in offset rhythm.
"I'm sorry." Gabriel broke the silence at last. His voice was quiet, barely above a whisper, but somehow, it carried clearly above the sound of the river. "He said that it would all be over if I got rid of you. He told me it would end the pain. I don't know how I could have believed him."
She sat up slowly, leaning on one elbow. His eyes were open, she could see, but his gaze was empty. The madness appeared to have receded, at least. Blood matted his hair and ran down his neck to mingle with more blood that seeped out of a hundred long, thin scratches across his chest.
"What do you mean? What pain?" She carefully kept her voice under control. She knew that there was something strange going on with him, had known it since he had left in the car with Faith, but it was hard not to let the hurt take over.
"My medicine. I've been lied to. It's some sort of drug. I was too weak to resist it. Too scared to kill myself. I'm so sorry."
He let his head drop back into the mud, his eyes jammed shut and his face twisted in anguish. Looking at him, the implications of what he'd said sank in. His father . . .Her heart ached with pity for him. "Come on." She pulled him to his feet, slinging one of his arms across her shoulders.
"No!" he cried and fought free. He fell back into the mud, face first this time and lay there weeping. "Without the pills, I'm going to die. I deserve to die here. Alone."
The whimpering tone in his voice struck a nerve with her. When she had first seen Gabriel, he had been confident and decisive, with a will of steel. Now what she saw disgusted and enraged her. Mayor Wilkins would pay for this.
"Get up!" she barked, nudging him sharply with her foot. "The only way you're going to die out here is if you give up on yourself!"
"Please," he moaned weakly and rolled slowly onto his side, hot tears oozing from his reddened eyes to mix with the blood and filth on his face. "Let it end here. I can't fight anymore. I don't have anything left."
Her face determined, she scooped him up again, careful to hold tighter this time. Her shoulder throbbed, but she ignored it. Half dragging him, she forced him to take a step. "Wrong." She whispered, "You do have something left. You've got friends."
"What do you mean he's gone?!" Peter cried in outrage.
Faith shrugged, unconcerned. "Like I said, they both went over the bridge. I watched the water for two hours and nobody came up. I'd have to say they're fish food right about now."
Peter's face was flushed and blotchy with barely controlled rage. "Do you have any idea how long I've spent conditioning that boy?! He can't be dead!"
"Mr. Giles, please, calm yourself and have a seat." The mayor indicated a plush leather chair that was positioned directly across from his desk. "I'm sure that if any sign of your son arises, my agents will bring it to my attention."
"You don't understand!" the englishman leaned abruptly over the desk and jabbed his finger toward the Mayor. "That boy is my life's work! My seventh son! How often do you think such a child is born. My once in a lifetime opportunity is gone now because of your bungling!"
The mayor took the accusation stoically. "I'm sorry that you feel that way, Mister Giles, but you did sign an agreement. You delivered as promised and you will be remunerated. At the same time, " the Mayor shrugged, "your losses are your own affair." Peter glared at the man across from him balefully. His thoughts were plainly written on his face. Mayor Wilkins was unconcerned. "Good bye, Mister Giles. Faith will show you the door."
Sneering, Faith gripped him tightly by the arm and steered him toward the door. Peter snarled angrily as he was led out of the room. Faith gave him a shove into the hallway and slammed the door thunderously.
"You think he might be a problem?" Faith seated herself casually on the edge of the mayor's desk.
The Mayor's face puckered and he fussily shooed her up off the meticulously polished desk. "I wouldn't be too concerned about that. Besides, his work here is done." Gleefully, his withdrew a small black agenda book out of the breast pocket of his suit and opened it to a list of tasks. The first item, 'Kill the Slayer', was printed in bold letters. Happily, he popped the cap off a pen and placed a neat check mark next to it.
Peter stalked up to his car, a compact, black Mercedes, and angrily threw open the driver's side door. Dropping heavily into the seat, he turned the key in the ignition and drove away, tires squealing. As the scenery whizzed by unnoticed, his mind whirled in shock. His seventh son was gone, killed in the midst of his first true test. The one who did it was dead too, it seemed. Someone would have to pay. Perhaps there was still a way to profit from this disaster. With Gabriel gone, he would have to find another means for his revenge. Taking a sharp turn, he smiled craftily. He knew right where to go.
Buffy adjusted her grip on Gabriel's waist and freed one hand. It had taken almost two hours to reach Angel's mansion and he had only gotten worse during the trek. She was supporting almost all of his weight now. She wasn't even sure he was conscious anymore. With only a momentary pause, she opened the large front door and dragged him inside.
Gabriel stumbled and fell down on his hands and knees. His body was covered in sweat and shook uncontrollably. He crawled weakly to the far wall and rolled over, pressing his back against it. He closed his eyes and tilted his face toward the ceiling.
"How do you feel?" Buffy knelt down next to him and gently touched her fingers to his forehead. She was cold, weak and tired but she was responsible for both of them for the moment and that meant she could worry about herself later.
"I can't breathe." He gasped, his lungs pumping laboriously.
"I'll get you some air." She went to the room's closest window and tugged on it. The latch was stuck and she had to break it, finally, to get it open. Cool spring air washed into the room, causing the thin drapery to billow softly.
"Don't worry about the window." Angel said from the shadows, "I need stuff to do during the long hours of the night anyway."
"Angel, " Buffy exclaimed in alarm, "I didn't think you were here. "I-We need your help."
He entered the room and flicked the light switch, lessening the gloom only a little. Then he saw the shape she was in.
"What happened?! Are you hurt?" he rushed to her and took her by the arms. She sucked air wetly through her teeth and winced in pain. Instantly, he released her.
"Nothing I can't handle, " she smiled weakly, cradling her injured shoulder, "But Gabriel isn't doing so good."
Angel turned and froze. He had that look again, she realized, that troubled frown that seemed to verge on pain. Standing impossibly still, he stared down at Gabriel's weakened form. The two locked gazes for an instant. Gabriel, pain-ridden and struggling to stay conscious, Angel as stone faced as ever. Gabriel began to shake more violently and his jaws clenched together. A shuddering moan worked its way out of him, a testament to the pain he was experiencing. "What's wrong with him?" she asked, her eyes filled with concern. "Withdrawal, by the looks of it." he said somberly, recognizing the familiar symptoms instantly. "What's he been taking? Do you know?"
She caught the edge of her lip between her teeth in thought. "It's something weird, they look like little black marbles. Is he going to be okay?"
"It's too soon to tell, really." Angel frowned, "Let's see what we can do for his wounds first. You, too. You're a mess. Will you be okay to take care of yourself while I deal with him?"
"Hey, if anyone has had experience with self surgery, it's me." She mused, "I'll be fine."
"Good," he said, visibly relieved. "Bathroom's upstairs. I'll clean him up while you're up there." He bent and started to pull away Gabriel's torn shirt. She hesitated in the doorway, watching the two. She trusted Angel to know what to do, but she wished she could do more herself. As her adrenaline began to fade, the pain in her body, particularly her shoulder, returned. A long, hot shower was just what she needed. She plodded up the stairs and closed the bathroom door behind her.
Angel took a moment to start up a fire in the hearth. When the flames were roaring heartily, he tossed in the remnants of Gabriel's shirt. He returned to where the boy lay, silent and shivering. The wounds on his chest weren't deep. As long as they were kept clean, they wouldn't be a problem. There were a lot of bruises and evidence of recent beatings, as well as a thin gash in his scalp just above his forehead. It looked like it had already scabbed over and was beginning to heal. He was apparently as resilient to physical punishment as Buffy was. No problem there. That left only the addiction.
Angel was not pleased with this. During the sixty or so years he had lived in New York, he had seen hundreds, perhaps thousands, of faceless addicts come crashing down in the streets. He had rarely seen any of them get back up again. Judging by the boy's symptoms, he was already in deeper than most of them had been.
How could Buffy fall for someone like this? Probably the same way she had fallen for a vampire with a soul, he chided himself silently. If Whistler had taught him anything, it was to not judge by appearances. He resolved to give Gabriel the benefit of the doubt.
He knelt forward and turned the boy's face to the light. His pupils were tiny dots in a sea of pain-filled green and yellow as he stared blankly at the wall opposite him. His body shuddered constantly. Suddenly conscious of the vampire's presence, his eyes sharpened into focus and he straightened, forcing his shaking under control. He's tough, Angel mused, I'll give him that.
"The pain must be hell." he commented, slumping back against the wall next to Gabriel
"It is." Gabriel answered through gritted teeth.
"Trust me, it will get worse." Angel answered unsympathetically. He stared blankly at the ceiling, lost in his thoughts. He suppressed the urge to say anything further. It bothered him to see Buffy care for someone else like this. What they had together was eternally strong, but he still harbored the feeling that this young man was an intruder, an interloper on the sacred territory that he and Buffy shared. His feelings were wrong, however. She was free to do whatever she pleased with whoever she pleased and it was not his place to stand in the way of that. This is what atonement is all about, he reminded himself. Doing what you know is best instead of what feels best.
"So you're Giles' nephew." Angel mentioned conversationally, "Funny, you don't sound like you're from England."
"I'm not. I was only born there." Gabriel seemed to scowl at the memory, "Where is Buffy? Why am I here?"
"She's upstairs, getting cleaned up." Angel answered, "And she brought you here because she thinks I can cure you."
"You don't have a cure, do you?"
Angel looked down at him and shook his head sadly. "There is no cure for what you've got. The only way out is the hard way. You think you can do it?"
Gabriel pulled his knees up and wrapped his arms around them, squeezing tightly. His face tightened, the muscles in his jaw taught, and went white with pain. Another spasm, Angel realized. He's too proud to hurt in front of anyone. He's got a lot to learn. After a minute or two, the spasm passed and Gabriel's body slowly unclenched.
"Here." Angel draped his long coat over the weakened young man.
"Sorry I don't have a couch or anything for you to lay on, but I haven't really had much time to go furniture shopping lately."
"Why are you helping me?" Gabriel's eyes narrowed suspiciously, but he still accepted the coat.
"Buffy's told me a lot about you." Angel seemed to be considering the answer for himself, as well. "She believes in you. And I trust her judgement."
"I tried to kill her. Would you call that good judgement?" Gabriel whispered bitterly.
"I've known Buffy for a while now. She wouldn't bring you here if she thought you were a threat."
The two sat in awkward silence for long minutes, broken only by the near silent recurrences of Gabriel's spasms. "Do you love her?" Angel asked suddenly, his face carefully blank. Gabriel's body shook in the departing throes of another spasm. His skin was paler now and sheened with cold sweat. He struggled to rise, his red rimmed eyes blurring in and out of focus but remaining cautiously fastened on Angel.
"I'm not going to hurt you." The vampire assured him, "This isn't about jealousy, it's about Buffy being happy." Inside, however, he wasn't so sure. Keeping his distance from her was hard enough. How could anyone else be as right for her as he had been? "This isn't the best time for this, I know, but later it may be too late. Do you love her?"
"I don't know." Gabriel settled back slowly, more out of physical weakness than any sense of ease. "So much has happened since I arrived here. My mind is a mess. I need time to sort it all out."
"She cares about you." Angel said, "And I care about her. I need to know that she'll be all right. I need to know if you're strong enough to stand by her. Do you understand what I mean? No, I don't think you do." He sighed and let his head sag a little. "Buffy is special. Sometimes what someone wants to do and what someone needs to do aren't the same thing. Decisions like that can change your life forever."
The words echoed painfully in Angel's mind, a forerunner to what he knew he would have to do. Soon.
"I read my uncle's Watcher's journal." Gabriel said in a low voice tinged with resentment, "I know what happened between you. And I know what she's been through because of you."
Angel's face constricted with shame and he looked away. "That was a long time ago." He said softly, "Longer for me than anyone else, but it will haunt me until the day I die."
They sat together in another awkward silence until Gabriel broke the tension.
"You're going to leave her, aren't you?" he said.
Angel went rigid with shock. "I thought about it. It seems like the only way for either of us to have a normal life. How did you know?"
"Why else would you be doing this, trying to find her a protector? Someone to watch over her when you can't?" Gabriel whispered low and resolutely, "You can't protect her from everything. She has to make her own choices. Buffy's spirit is strong, even stronger than you think."
Angel felt a green, razor-tipped icicle jab his heart. "You seem to know her pretty well for having been here such a short time." He commented curtly.
"I have the Sight." Gabriel rubbed his fingertips against his eyelids. "It's not working very well right now, but you'd be amazed at what I see sometimes."
"So why didn't you see this coming?"
Gabriel pressed his lips together tightly, his green eyes turning dark and brooding. "The Sight only shows me things. It's up to me to interpret. I guess there are some things I just don't want to see."
"And some things you just can't handle seeing?" Angel smirked empathetically, feeling the beginning of a curious kinship with the young man. "Yeah, I know what that's like. Maybe waiting before you decide what to do about Buffy is a good idea after all." He pushed away from the wall and stood up. "Just don't wait too long."
"Wait too long for what?" Buffy inquired curiously as she strolled into the room. "I showered as fast as I could. Did you need to get in there or something?"
Angel started and spun around. "Buffy, " he exclaimed, "you're back."
She was wearing her sodden, mud-encrusted clothes again, but her hair was freshly washed and she looked a little more vibrant than she had fifteen minutes ago. The fire had warmed the room to a comfortable level, although it would take her clothes some time to dry out. Accepting a blanket from Angel, she wrapped it around her shoulders and crouched down to see Gabriel.
"How are you feeling?" she whispered softly, as if normal volume might cause him further pain.
Gabriel coughed harshly, a deep wracking sound, and sat back with a groan. "I haven't felt this terrible since . . . well, never." He joked weakly.
"Nice attempt at the funny." She smiled, gently touching his arm, "Does this mean that you're going to live?"
"I hope so." He breathed weakly, his eyes half closing with pain. His body shook more violently this time than any other and a pained moan escaped him. The cords in his neck stood out like taut wires and his jaw clenched against the seizure. Under Angel's borrowed coat, his hands knitted together tightly. Buffy didn't know what to do. For all she knew, he lay dying in her arms and she had no idea how to help. She looked to Angel, but he only watched grimly. When the seizure was over, it left him wheezing and weak. Buffy leaned over him, concern creasing her forehead.
"You nose is bleeding." She gasped, accepting a tissue from Angel and pressing it to Gabriel's upper lip. He coughed on the trickle that ran down the back of his throat, spraying her with tiny crimson flecks.
"I feel hot." Gabriel muttered, clawing Angel's jacket off him and kicking it aside.
Buffy pressed her palm to his forehead. "You're burning up. Let me get a cloth."
"In the kitchen, " Angel directed, watching her rise, "under the sink."
She returned with a cool, dripping facecloth. Kneeling down, she allowed Gabriel to lay across her lap, and draped the damp cloth across his forehead. His closed his eyes, and coughed weakly, his hands pawing blindly at the collar of his shirt. She tugged his hands down and pressed them to his sides. "What can we do now?"
"Now is the hard part." Angel intoned solemnly, "All we can do is wait."
"She's been gone for more than a day." Willow bleated, "Shouldn't we be doing something?"
Giles shook his head sadly, "I've already notified the police and Joyce is keeping watch at home, in case she turns up there. Other than that, I can't think of anything else to do."
"So she went chasing after Faith and never came back?" Xander swallowed the lump of fear in the back of his throat. "You don't think that . . ." he couldn't say it.
"Buffy is the better Slayer." Giles declared hotly. "In a fair fight she would defeat Faith."
"Yeah, but who ever said Faith fights fair." Willow pointed out, glumly.
Each looked to the others for reassurance, but found little.
The library doors opened slowly and all three whipped around, hope gleaming on their faces. A tall auburn haired man in his mid thirties somberly entered the room.
"Peter?!" Giles gasped in shock. "How-? What are you doing here?" Peter raised his head and gave his brother a pained look. "I have terrible news, Rupert. Gabriel and your Slayer are both dead."
Giles knees gave way and he slumped back into a nearby chair. Xander gaped in horror, barely conscious as he placed his arm around Willow and she burst into tears.
"How did this happen?" Giles couldn't believe what he was hearing. Peter turned his eyes to the floor. "There was a battle." He began slowly, "Gabriel and the Slayer were chasing another person."
"Faith." Giles nodded, feeling a surge of guilt welling.
"They reached an alleyway and dozens of vampires attacked them. They fought well together, but there was no chance against such numbers. I was terrified, but I immediately sought you out." Peter wanted to smile. The fools were so desperate for an explanation that they swallowed his story hook, line, and sinker.
"Why here? Why did you come to America?" Giles asked levelly. He had to push through the pain and keep a level head through this.
"The reason may be even worse news." Peter wanted to be very careful. Rupert was an intelligent and suspicious man. "We can't let Mayor Wilkins retain the Sword of Seals. We have to get it back." Giles pressed his fingers to his temples. "The Sword is incomplete. It's no use to anyone."
"The power contained in even a piece of the Sword is too great. It could destroy the entire town if he tries to use it."
"Why would you care about this town?" Giles spat, his pain surfacing.
"I don't." Peter answered plainly, "But I do care about my son."
"I don't know about the rest of you, " Xander stated resolutely, "But I'm tired of sitting around while Mayor Wilkins hurts the ones I care about. I say we take the fight to him."
"Anger is not the answer." Giles struggled to stay focused. Something inside him knew that this was not right. "We must remain calm."
"No, " Willow pursed her lips and swallowed back her grief, "I don't want to be calm. I want to stay angry and use it against them. Before it fades and all I want to do is curl up and die."
"She may have a point, Rupert." Peter keenly interjected, "The Mayor won't be expecting retaliation so quickly. Speed is of the essence."
Giles rubbed his temples furiously. He wanted to retain control of his emotions, to approach this situation with a clear head, but, for the moment, what the others were saying made sense. Buffy was dead and so was Gabriel. His nephew and the girl he had come to look on as a daughter were gone, taken away from him by the Mayor's cruelty. When Jenny had been killed, he had lost all rational thought. His world became a void and the only thing that lit the darkness was the flame of his rage. Now that flame had returned, a hundredfold of what it once had been. A small voice inside him, the same one that had nagged him since Peter's arrival, begged for him to so see reason, but he drowned it out with another voice. Xander wasn't the only one who was tired of being unable to protect his loved ones. "Willow get your books." His voice held a flat, cold, steady tone, like he had become another person entirely. "We have a battle to plan."
Gabriel screamed, a long agonized sound that ripped through Buffy's heart like barbed wire.
"He's awake again." Buffy quickly rolled out from under her blanket and bounded for the main room. "I'll take it."
Angel stepped in front of the door. "Let me go. It sounds like he's getting worse. Sometimes these things get . . . out of control."
"I've already gone three rounds with our resident seventh son and lived to tell the tale. I'll be fine."
She entered the room to find it dark, lit only by the glow from the dying fire. Gabriel huddled in the corner, hugging himself against the pain, his breathing harsh and tightly controlled. Buffy tossed a fresh log on the fire and approached him. There was a stink in the room, a mixture of fear, anxiety, sweat and vomit. He shrank away from her, pulling himself tighter into the corner. She could hear him muttering to himself faintly.
"Gabriel?" she crouched down near him. He looked like Hell. His eyes were sunken and red-rimmed, haunted. A crust of blood caked his upper lip and long red furrows marred the right side of his face where he had scratched himself. She carefully reached out and lightly touched his face.
"Get away from me!" he screamed, scrambling against the wall "You can't control me! You can't!" Thrashing his head from side to side, he shook with the pain of another seizure.
"Gabriel, I'm here." She took his hand and squeezed it tightly. "Gabriel!"
"The fire will forge the blade!" he cried, "The fire will forge the blade! What does not kill will only strengthen. The fire will forge the blade!"
He screamed again and began to weep like a baby. "Father." he whispered, his throat raw and dry. Her heart aching for him, she held him until the weeping passed, "The fire . . . will forge . . ."
His eyes cracked open slowly. There seemed to be more red than white in them now, but she could see recognition there. "Buffy." His teeth gritted, as his muscles slowly uncramped. "I thought you were someone else. How long have you been here?"
"Not long, " she lied with a consoling smile. She had brought him to Angel's doorstep yesterday morning and she had not wandered more than a hundred feet away from him since. She hadn't even taken the time to let the others know where she was.
"My throat is sore." He whispered, pawing around the floor, searching for a glass of water that had been left for him.
"That's no big surprise. You were screaming pretty loudly for a while there." Buffy rose quickly and went to the windowsill. She had moved the water there hours ago when he had first started thrashing about. "Here," she pressed the rim of the cup to his lips.
He slurped greedily, gulping down the lukewarm water. "Thanks." Suddenly, he pushed away the empty glass and looked at her, panic-stricken. "Mayor Wilkens! You have to stop him!"
"I'm not leaving here until you're better." She declared stubbornly, holding him carefully still.
"You don't understand!" he shouted, grasping her wrists and holding her hands close to his face. "I remember now. It's starting to come back to me. The Sword. . . "
"What about it?" she asked, carefully sidestepping the painful memory, "The . . . Mayor has it."
"We have to get it back." He rose to one knee and braced himself for a push to both feet.
"Whoa!" she cautioned, catching him as he lurched. "You're not going anywhere."
"It's not broken." He sank weakly to the floor, "The blade was always there, but it exists outside of our perception. It's made of the same energy as the seal on the Hellmouth. Giles was right, it can close the portal, but what he didn't know is that it can open one, too."
"What?" Buffy's jaw fell slack.
"Yes." Gabriel nodded with deadly certainty, "I overheard Faith talking. That's why we have to go. Now." He struggled to stand again.
"No." Buffy was already gathering up any weapons she could find. Fortunately, Angel's home was well stocked. "You better stay here. You're in no shape to fight."
"I'll be fine." Gabriel protested.
"Are you sure you want to go alone?" Angel watched her intently.
"We don't have much of a choice." Buffy shrugged, "Gabriel's too weak and I don't expect you to follow me out at this time of day. The Mayor has to be stopped." She paused by the door, looking at Angel, then Gabriel. "Take care." She said, softly. "I'll be back." Shoving a small bag of weapons under her arm, she strode through the living room and headed out the front door.
Gabriel pushed himself up and swooned. No, he berated himself. I was too weak once. Not again. Battling nausea, he clasped a stake that Buffy had left behind, and took a few careful steps to the door. Never again.
"So explain this to me again." Xander took long strides to keep up with the driven Giles. Behind them, Peter, Willow and Oz followed carefully. "We're just going to walk through the front doors?"
"No, not the front doors. We'll look for a less obvious entrance, a window or fire exit. It's just past noon. Wilkins' vampire minions will be useless to him." Giles stormed forward purposefully. "With any luck, we'll be able to get in, get the Sword, and get out with minimal conflict."
"And if we're really lucky, we'll get a stab at that murdering piece of garbage, too." Xander rubbed his hands together in anticipation.
Giles halted instantly. "No!" he commanded with an outstretched finger, "The mayor is still impervious until the day of the Ascension. Battling him now would be suicide. We must keep level heads about this. Revenge can wait for another time. That goes for everyone." He pointed to each of his comrades in turn.
Peter folded his arms across his chest and arched a knowing eyebrow. "Including you, Rupert?"
"Yes." Giles nodded solemnly, "Including me. Especially me."
Mayor Wilkins tapped the small black and white screen that displayed the feed from one of his surveillance cameras and sighed. It never failed to amaze him how heroism was invariably coupled with stupidity. And, noting his former business associate amongst the group, how so-called heroism often sprouted from greed. Calmly reaching into the perfectly ordered top drawer of his desk, he retrieved his small black spellbook. Flipping it open with a practiced motion, he almost immediately found what he was looking for. It was a simple spell, something he had mastered a century ago. Reciting the short passage absently, he traced a few magical symbols in the air. Slipping the book back into his drawer, he turned his attention to a stack of paperwork with a smile.
"Um, Giles, " Xander tapped the librarian on the shoulder anxiously, "Is there anything particular supposed to be happening today? You know, any rare natural phenomenon?"
"No, nothing." Giles answered, most of his attention focused on prying at the seam of a low window. "If there were, I would have warned you. Please, you're standing in my light."
"No, I'm not."
Giles turned and looked at the sky. The sun was steadily being swallowed up by shadow and thick, dark clouds rolled in. In less than a minute, it was dark as night.
"Oh, no." Willow whispered.
Giles clucked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. "Perhaps this isn't such a wise decision after all."
"Don't forget about the Sword, Rupert." Peter snapped, pushing past him and, giving the window frame a solid kick, bent it open enough to slip inside. "We just have to be more careful now."
Willow and Xander looked questioningly to one another then followed Peter inside without a word.
Faith slipped out a side door, not far from the bent window frame. With a knowing smirk, she approached the opening.
"Where do you think you're going?" Buffy stood atop a concrete wall, her arms folded across her chest.
Faith started, whipping around. "You're dead." she breathed, stunned.
"You know, people keep saying that but it never seems to come true." she leaped off the wall and came down with a hard right hand across Faith's face. The dark-haired Slayer hit the ground, rolling into a crouch.
"This time I'm going to make sure you stay dead." she snarled, launching herself forward.
She dipped her shoulder, driving swiftly forward and tackled Buffy. Buffy's wounded shoulder flared with fresh pain, but she ignored it. Coming up with her knee, she jammed it into the fleshy part of Faith's thigh and shoved her back with a punch to the throat. Faith choked, stumbling, but retaliated with a swift roundhouse.
"Your boy was good, B." Faith sneered, "A bit of a wet blanket, but not bad once I showed him the ropes."
Buffy's face twisted in rage as she circled her opponent.
"If you've got something to say about me, Faith, say it to my face." Gabriel stood at the end of the concrete walkway, a vengeful look on his face.
"Gabriel!" Buffy exclaimed, "What are you doing here?" Angel appeared behind him. "We came as soon as it turned dark. He wouldn't let me go alone."
"You better get inside, " she advised, "There's no telling when this freaky eclipse might lift."
"Both of you go ahead." Gabriel walked purposefully up the walkway as Angel gravitated instantly to Buffy's side. "Get the Sword."
Faith eyed the pair archly. "Well if it isn't Junkie and the Dead Man. You're not looking so hot, Gabriel. You need another hit?" She produced a small black pill and held it out to him.
Buffy and Angel looked back and forth between Faith and Gabriel apprehensively.
"It's fine." Gabriel assured them, his eyes filled with green fire, never straying from Faith. "You two go after the mayor, get the Sword."
Buffy and Angel, the old team, hesitated, then quickly slipped through the window into the mayor's building. Almost simultaneously, a pair of vampire cries rose and dissolved into airy nothingness.
"Guess it's just you and me now." Faith squared off with Gabriel, her mouth bent in a malicious smile.
Wasting no more time with words, he jabbed and followed with a swift kick. Faith ducked backward and blocked the kick against the hard heel of her boot. She countered with an overhand right that caught him glancing across the chin. He grabbed an incoming kick and tossed it aside, throwing his shoulder forward hard. Faith nimbly sidestepped and neatly flipped him over her hip. He landed harder than he hoped she knew, but was on his feet again and retaliating in an instant. Ducking inside the arc of a sharp hook punch, he kneed her in the stomach and snapped the heel of his palm into her nose.
Undaunted, she rolled backward with the punch, bringing the sharp toe of her boot up into his side, and followed with a short chop to his chest. The blow stunned him and he took a few more painful hits before he could back off. Faith eyed him confidently, a trickle of blood seeping out of one nostril.
"You're slower than you used to be." She pointed out, her breathing only mildly labored. "A lot slower. I'm going to kick your ass and I'm going to enjoy it."
Gabriel swallowed nervously and forced his breathing to calm. This was not good. She was right, he was slower. Movements that had been second nature two weeks ago felt clumsy and awkward now. Sheer rage and determination wouldn't be enough to carry him. Every muscle in his body felt soft and tired, drained already at this early stage of the fight. He had known that he would not be at top form entering this fight, but too much was at stake. He had no choice but to fight. Matching the confidence in her gaze, he raised his hands and advanced on her.
"Any time you're ready." He challenged.
"I hope he'll be okay." Buffy ducked under a clumsy vampire's swing and stabbed it in the chest with a roughly hewn stake.
"He'll be fine." Angel staked his own vampire and kicked it aside. "Concentrate on finding the Sword."
They bounded up the stairs, following the sounds of battle. Xander fell back at the top of the staircase, nearly tumbling down it. He fired an oversized crossbow and there was a scream announcing a vampires demise. Buffy ran to his side.
He sat up, dazed, a smear of blood staining his temple. "You're alive!" he exclaimed, "Or am I dead?"
Helping him to his feet, she guided him away from the stairs. "You're going to be fine. What are you doing here?" she asked.
"We came to get the Sword back. The others are already heading for the mayor's office." He stammered, pointing weakly. "With P-Peter."
"Peter?" her voice chilled instantly, "Gabriel's father?"
"Yeah," he responded confusedly, "How did you know?"
"I knew I smelled a rat." She rose determinedly, "I was just looking in the wrong place. Angel will help you keep a handle on things down here."
"Where are you going?" Angel called after her.
"Upstairs, " she answered without looking back, "It's time to take out some bad guys."
Gabriel landed hard on his back and kicked upward. His feet connected awkwardly with Faith's ribs, exerting only enough force to bruise them, not break them as he had intended. Laughing, Faith backhanded him as he tried to rise, raising a worn leather boot to stomp down on him. He rolled, coming up into a leap, and grabbed her around the waist. Unbalanced, she fell backwards, driving her knee up into his midsection. He gasped in pain and felt her twist out of his grasp. Desperately, he threw his whole body into a punch.
Whirling, she caught his wild swing and twisted the arm up behind him.
"I don't know what you were thinking when you came here." She drove his arm up harder against his back. "But it was stupid."
He gasped as the pain in his shoulder worsened. Damn it! She had him trapped. The drug had left him too weak. There was no way he could escape. There were other ways to win a battle, however.
"You're the one who's being stupid." He said, taking a risk.
"What are you talking about?" she gave his arm a sharp twist, leaning over close to his ear. If he hadn't already been on his knees, the sudden jolt of agony would have driven him down.
"What do you think is going to happen to you when the Ascension finally arrives?" he said, "You don't think Mayor Wilkins is going to keep you around do you?"
"He promised me." She snarled, giving his arm another twist, "All I have to do is finish the two of you and then it's easy sailing."
Good, he thought, she's already unsure, losing her temper. All he had to do now was feed the flames.
"When Buffy and I are gone, then what use are you going to be? " he continued to push.
"Shut up!" she cried, giving his arm a savage tug. The explosion of pain in his shoulder was enough to set his head swimming. "You're just trying to mess with my head. Forget it, Puppet-boy, there's no way you're going to get away."
Gritting his teeth and forcing his voice to remain calm, he looked over his shoulder at her "I know I'm not going to make it." He said with deadly seriousness. "I knew it the moment I decided to come. Why would I expect mercy from you?"
"You can't." she grabbed a handful of his hair and pulled hard.
"You're right." He glared at her, "So why would I bother to lie?"
"Enough!" she released him, kicking him hard in the back. He landed face down, a dozen sharp-edged stones biting into his chest and arms.
"Get up!" she commanded.
He crawled to his feet, feeling almost as weak as he looked.
"I got something for you." She whispered vehemently, holding a tiny black globe in her hand.
His eyes fastened on the pill. Unconsciously, he took a half step forward.
"Come on, " she leered, "You know you want it."
He reached out with his left hand, his fingers trembling. His right hand hung deliberately behind him. "Give it to me." He said, desperately, never taking his eyes off the pill. He plodded mindlessly forward and closed his fist tightly around her hand and the pill.
"Now that wasn't so hard, was it?" she smiled, reaching behind her and drawing a long, razor sharp knife.
"Almost too easy." He answered with a strangely clear, strong voice. Swinging his right hand forward in a swift arc, he smashed a fist sized rock into her temple. The knife tumbled out of Faith's fingers, midthrust, and she crumpled like a broken puppet.
Gabriel fell to one knee and rolled her over, checking for vitals. Still alive, he noted, but not going anywhere any time soon. His temples pounded and blood thundered in his ears. Unconsciously, he picked up the knife. His hand hovered over her face, trembling with fury, the steel barely an inch above her heart. It would be so easy to kill her like this. One quick strike and she would never wake up. It would be fitting after everything she had done to him. He watched her, laying as peaceful as a sleeping child, the picture of innocence to the casual observer. One quick strike. But that wouldn't change the past. What was it Angel had said to him? Sometimes what someone wants to do and what someone needs to do aren't the same thing.
Hurling the knife as far away as he could, he struggled to his feet again and stumbled, his head swimming. Not now! He couldn't abandon the others. He crouched over heavily, balancing hands on knees, and waited for his head to stop spinning. Maybe in a few minutes, he would be ready to follow Buffy and Angel.
Giles knocked a skinny vampire onto its back and ran for the mayor's office. The Sword would most likely be there. Behind him, he heard Peter and Willow attack the fallen vampire as a team. A few seconds later, the vampire screamed its death cry.
All this way and only one skinny vampire to show for it. Something wasn't right. The thought was barely formed when the doors to the mayor's office swung open and a burly vampire stepped out. Giles skidded to a halt and reached around inside his pack in search of a stake. The vampire snarled and grabbed him around the throat. Gesturing with his free hand, he beckoned to Peter and Willow. "Which one of you wants to be next?" he cackled.
"Don't you think you should at least chew your first bite before you try to take another?" a wry voice called down the hallway.
All eyes turned toward the voice, only one set reflected something other than amazement. The last set turned gray and burst into a cloud of dust and ash.
"Hi, guys." Buffy smiled, "You miss me?"
Giles and Willow surrounded her, hugging her tightly.
"Buffy, we thought you were dead." Giles eyes were filled with tears of joy.
"I appreciate the sentiment guys, " she disentangled herself from the mass of overjoyed greeting, "But who told you that? Wait a minute, I know this one." She fixed Peter with a withering stare.
Peter backed away uneasily. "I thought you were dead." He whispered.
"That's been a popular rumor today. Sorry to disappoint."
The door to the mayor's office opened and the warlock stood patiently, framed within the doorway. "I'm glad to see you've all met my associate here." He smiled, focusing his attention on Peter, "I am disappointed in you, however. We had an agreement. You were to be paid in full. There was simply no need for this foolish behavior. I supposed you came looking to steal this? So predictably greedy." he dangled the handle of the Sword of Seals carelessly before him. "Of course with the Slayer still alive, I guess your half of the bargain is no longer upheld. Now I'll have to kill you."
"Peter, you made a bargain with this man?" Giles was aghast, but not entirely surprised.
"It was nothing, Rupert." Peter shrugged off the accusation, his green eyes locked on Mayor Wilkins. "Just a small business transaction."
The mayor nodded in agreement. "Tell them what you sold him." Buffy spat.
Peter shifted uncomfortably under the combined gazes of the Slayer and his brother, glaring hatefully at Buffy.
"If you won't say it, Father, then I will." Gabriel topped the stairs, cradling one shoulder. "You gave him my soul. In exchange for Buffy's life."
"Gabriel!" Peter and Giles gasped in unison. Buffy was relieved to see that he had apparently survived his confrontation with Faith.
"Now isn't this a touching moment, " Mayor Wilkins watched harmlessly from the office doorway, idly toying with the Sword. "A father and son have their first big talk about betrayal. Boy, I remember having this discussion with my father like it was only yesterday."
Gabriel advanced on Peter, his lips tight with distress. "The pills you gave me. They weren't medicine, were they? They messed up my mind, so that THEY" he jabbed a blood-smeared finger over Peter's shoulder, indicating the mayor, "could mess it up worse."
"You were meant for great things, Gabriel." Peter matched his son's angry stare as they came almost nose to nose, Peter less than an inch the taller. "Sometimes extreme measures must be undertaken to insure that everything goes as planned."
"Extreme measures?!" Gabriel's jaw quivered with barely contained emotion. "You hooked me on a drug so you could sell me to the highest bidder!"
"Dear God." Giles looked at his brother with horror and disgust, "How could you? With all the terrible things you've done in you're life, this is, by far, the most inhuman!"
"Spare me your whiny reproachments, Rupert." Peter snarled, "I've worked too long and hard to let my plans fall apart now."
With speed born of desperation, he leaped at the mayor and snatched the Sword of Seals from his hand. Brandishing it as if it had a tangible blade, he warded the others away.
Xander and Angel rushed up the stairs and froze when they saw Peter. "What's going on?" Xander looked around, lost.
"I'll tell you what's going on!" Peter shouted, "Gabriel and I are getting out of here and none of you are going to do a thing about it." "Or what?" Buffy rolled her eyes, "You going to imaginary stab us with your imaginary sword?"
"No." Peter reached inside his coat pocket and withdrew a black, large caliber pistol. "That's what the gun is for. I should be able to sell the Sword on the European market for a worthwhile sum. I might recoup some of my losses, at least. Come on, Gabriel. We're leaving." He stuffed the Sword in his pocket and leveled the gun at Buffy. As he turned the Sword to fit it in his pocket, there was a faint scraping sound and the outline of a blade, showering tiny sparks, became apparent.
"You fool!" Mayor Wilkins cried, "You're opening a portal!" Peter turned and the semi-visible blade caught in the fabric of reality and tore it wide like it was tissue paper. The hole bathed the hallway in reddish light and filled it with the stench of brimstone. A discordant noise rose from inside the rift that sounded like the squealing of a thousand pigs. Gabriel leaped forward and tackled his father as a thick, brownish tentacle shot through the portal. The Sword skittered across the floor and lay still. Buffy grabbed up a tall, slender lamp and, using it like a staff, batted at the tentacle. Three more tentacles whipped through the portal, tearing the makeshift weapon from her hands and nearly crushing her.
"We have to close the portal!" Angel shouted, "It can't be allowed to cross over!"
More tentacles wove over the edge of the tear and a monstrous head pushed itself through. Appearing like a cross between a lion and a crocodile, the creature's jaws were lined with rows of pointed teeth like a shark. Its blood red eyes were pure malice. The portal appeared to be stretching under the beast's formidable mass as it leaned forward.
Xander grabbed Willow around the waist and pulled her back, out of the reach of the creature.
"We must find a way to stop the demon or else we'll never be able to close the portal." Giles ducked another flying tentacle.
"How?" Willow fretted, "It's so huge." Xander nodded, stupefied. Giles searched the room and found his shoulder bag lying discarded near the door. "I have an idea."
Across the room, on the other side of the demon, Gabriel and Peter struggled to avoid the demon's flailing limbs.
"I have to get to Buffy." Gabriel attempted to cross the room, but was forced to leap back against the wall to avoid being crushed by a questing tentacle.
"Forget about her." Peter shook his head to clear it, "We have to escape."
"You want me to leave them here?" he asked, unbelieving. Then his face turned dark, "Of course you do."
"Don't be a fool, Gabriel." Peter sneered, "You and your friends don't have a chance against that creature."
"And if we don't stop it, no one else will either."
Buffy retreated from a wall of waving tentacles and bumped into someone. Whirling around, she came face to face with Mayor Wilkins. "Are you going to help or are you just going to get in my way?" she snapped.
"What do I have to fear?" he shrugged, "I'm impervious to all harm."
Buffy regarded him archly. "Being impervious doesn't sound like a great deal if the octopus from Hell over there decides to chow down on a local political figure or two. What do you think?"
"Good point." He agreed, raising his hands in mock surrender.
"What is that thing?" she thrust her hand inside her backpack in search of a weapon. Coming up with a sharp tipped wooden stake, she briefly considered it then discarded it as useless.
"Looks like a Kevares demon." The mayor rubbed his chin in thought, "The babylonians called them Tiamat, their version of the Devil. Tentacle Beast, if you want the layman's term."
"No question of why." Her mouth quirked in a crooked smirk, "So how do we kill old grabby hands?"
"Mystical force is the only thing that can harm a Kevares. Here, give me a stake."
She handed him a stake and he held it, point up, in the palm of his hand. As he stroked it with his other hand, she noticed a subtle transference of power evinced by a faint glow imbuing the wood. "Here, " he handed it back to her, "Do you think you can hit its head?"
"Just call me William Tell." She accepted the stake. She could feel the power within it. Taking aim with her free hand, she cocked her arm back and threw.
The stake sailed through the air with unerring accuracy. At the last instant, the beast turned its head and the stake struck it in the neck. The creature's jaws opened wide and an ear piercing keen erupted from it. Its tentacles whipped about in pained fury.
"Ewww!" Willow backed against a wall in fear and disgust.
"I have to get to my bag. Can you two stage a diversion?" Giles studied the movements of the demon, waiting for an opening.
"I think so." Willow thumbed through a collection of loose pages, "I was prepared for vampires, not . . . Jabba the Hutt on steroids. Here it is. But I need to be able to see its eyes."
"I'm on it." Xander scrambled closer to the demon. He jumped up and down, waving his arms wildly and screaming. "Hey, you! Look at me, you big ugly!"
The demon brought its heavy head around with a snort, glaring down at him with its blood red eyes.
"Oh." Xander stopped moving immediately and his voice dropped to a meek whisper, "Bet you didn't get a lot of dates in high school, did you? But who knows with the crazy kids today, huh?" The demon snorted a blast of hot air that almost knocked him from his feet. "Okay, Will, " his voice quavered with fright. "Any time you're ready."
Willow rushed forward. Reciting the words of a spell from the page in her hand, she threw a handful of dust in the demon's face and, grabbing Xander by the hand, fled with him.
Bright lights flared behind the demon's leathery eyelids and it reared, screaming and blind. Giles ran for the door and dove, sliding across the last few feet to his shoulder bag. Digging around inside, he took a small, cylindrical bottle filled with clear liquid in hand. Rolling, he lobbed the bottle high. It landed against the demon's hard hide and shattered. A fresh scream sounded as the creature's flesh boiled and smoked wherever the liquid had splashed. Willow looked at Giles questioningly.
"Holy water." He explained, stuffing his pockets full, and taking three bottles in his hands. He pressed the bag into her hands. "Give some to Xander as well."
Buffy whipped another magically imbued stake overhand into the demon's hard flesh. It screamed and struck out blindly at her. Diving into a roll, she came up next to Angel, separated from Mayor Wilkins. With only had two magical stakes left, she would have to make them count. As calmly as she could, she stepped into the creature's reach.
"Buffy, what are you doing?!" Angel reached out to stop her, but was forced back by a flailing tentacle. "You want to eat something, Big and Ugly?" she opened her arms wide in invitation, "Come and get me."
Reacting to the sound of her voice, the beast lashed out with a pair of tentacles. Wrapping themselves tightly around her waist, they lifted her into the air and squeezed. The pain was great but bearable. Her plan was risky, but possibly the only chance they had.
"Come on, bite me, you big ugly freak!" she struggled within the grip of the tentacles, wriggling both arms free, a magically charged stake in each hand.
The demon drew her in close and opened its jaws. Now was her chance. With a snap of her wrist, she hurled a stake into one of the creature's eyes. Howling in agony, it thrashed about violently. The stake had hit the mark, but without enough force to penetrate the brain.
Buffy gasped in pain as the tentacles holding her convulsed and drew tighter. Her ribcage was still sore from her fight with Gabriel and the pain was too much. Her arm jerked and her last stake tumbled from her fingers. She hung defenseless as the demon's massive body shook along with its high pitched screams.
Peter clawed at the edges of the window desperately. Frustrated, he grabbed up a chair and slammed it against the pane. The glass spider webbed, but didn't break. Twice more, he hit it, but the window only bowed outward.
Gabriel grabbed him by the arm and turned him around. "I have to help her. The mayor said it takes mystical force to hurt the demon. What do you have that can help?"
"What do I look like to you? A travelling occult shop?!" Peter's voice was shrill with stress, " I have to get out of here!"
"The Sword." Gabriel breathed, "It's made of energy from the demon dimension." Scanning the floor, he found the Sword half hidden under a large bookcase. Snatching it up, he tossed it end over end.
"Buffy!" he called out, "Catch!"
The Sword flew through the air and landed solidly in her hand. Grasping it with both hands, she waited until the tentacle around her waist moved her close enough and stabbed downward. The Sword connected with the demon's forehead, driving into its skull with a screech like metal on metal. Black ichor sprayed out and the demon shrieked its death cry. The tentacles holding Buffy released their grip and she fell to the floor. Xander and Willow rushed into the fray and dragged her away from the writhing beast.
Tentacles convulsing reflexively, the demon began to retreat through the portal.
"The Sword!" Giles cried, pointing to where it stuck out of the demon's head. "Without it, we can't destroy the Hellmouth. It must not go through the portal!"
The creature screeched deafeningly and continued to writhe on the edge of the portal to the demon dimension. A multitude of twitching tentacles whipped back and forth in pain, almost completely blocking the embedded blade from view. One of the trailing appendages mindlessly twisted around Peter's legs and started dragging him.
"Help!" he wailed in terror. A dozen roiling limbs flopped about with deadly force on all sides of him.
Gabriel, his face stern and determined, charged into the dangerous mass.
"Gabriel, no!" Buffy called out to him, but he was already halfway to his destination. She winced as she saw him take a glancing blow, which took him off his feet. He rolled with the impact and came up close to his father.
"Gabriel, my son, help me!" the older man struggled against a second tentacle that had wrapped itself tightly around his upper body.
Gabriel pounded on the tentacle and started pulling on Peter's arms. There was an explosion of shattering glass behind him and a pained shudder ran across the length of the creature. It's constant scream rose sharply in pitch and the tentacles wrapped around Peter loosened.
"Hurry!" Giles shouted, lobbing another volley of holy water vials at the demon.
"Yes! Yes! That's it! I'm almost free!" Peter exulted, "We'll leave this place, Gabriel. You and I. We'll go back to Europe and finish my rivals there. We'll both be rich men, I promise you."
Gabriel stopped pulling on his father's arms, his green eyes hardening.
"W-What are you doing?" Peter cried, "Pull me out!"
Gabriel looked intently at his father, the shroud of self-denial finally falling away. Everything the man had ever done had been for personal gain. His children, purposely fathered for the sake of having a seventh son, were merely pawns to be played in the dubious games he partook. Even now, on the threshold of death, Gabriel found no remorse within him. Sadly, he let his eyes fall. He had never been so disappointed in all his life.
Giles shouted something as a glass vial shattered against the demon's thick, leathery skin. The creature shrieked ear piercingly and thrashed about, mad with pain. A thin, wiry tentacle snapped down and struck Gabriel across his left arm. He screamed as he felt bones cracking and his grip on his father was lost. The demon beast reflexively tightened its hold around Peter and reared, retreating further through the portal.
"Gabriel, help me!" Peter screamed, as he slid helplessly across the floor, "You can't do this to me! I am your father. You belong to me! Save me!"
He continued to scream as he was dragged through the swirling, mystical gateway. The sound of his cries was cut short, swallowed by the portal. Gabriel watched through pain-blurred vision as the Sword of Seals glowed hotly, spray a shower of sparks in all directions as it, too, crossed through the portal. The rift collapsed in on itself with a wispy pop and then the room was silent.
Gabriel stood as still as stone, paralyzed with shock, hot tears crawling slowly down his cheeks. "Sometimes what someone wants to do and what someone needs to do aren't the same thing." He whispered, too low for anyone else to hear.
Mayor Wilkins dusted his hands together and straightened his suit jacket. "Well, that's the end of that unpleasantness." He commented casually.
Angel carefully helped Buffy to her feet and she stood, ready for action. Her ribs were bruised badly and it felt like she might have sprained her wrist when the demon had dropped her, but she was ready. "So what now?" she watched the mayor suspiciously. Angel, Giles, Xander and Willow flocked supportively to her side.
Mayor Wilkins shrugged helplessly. "The Sword of Seals is gone now. I don't see any point in continuing this. Please get the door on your way out." Fretfully, he appraised the damage to the room and shook his head. "I just can't seem to keep this office tidy."
Looking to each other in confusion, Buffy and her friends slowly let their guards down. Giles took Gabriel by the arm and guided the shell-shocked young man toward the door. Buffy took his other arm, and, limping, they all headed for home.
"See you at the Ascension!" the mayor shouted to them once they were in the hallway.
"It's too bad the Sword was lost." Willow sympathized, holding her books tightly as she took the last few steps down to the school's paved walkway. "I mean it would have been nice to know that the Hellmouth was gone forever."
"Not to mention all the badness that went with it." Buffy agreed, "I guess it could have been worse. Giles says that things work differently in the demon dimension and the Sword is useless on that side."
"That's relief. No new Hellmouths popping up is a good thing. I wish we could have done it, that's all. You know, so you could get your life back. I'm really sorry."
"Don't sweat it, Will. It was almost two weeks ago. Besides, my life is still pretty good." Buffy reassured her friend as they strolled slowly along the sidewalk. "I thought it would mean a lot more to me than it actually did. I guess having control of your life isn't all it's cracked up to be. When it came down to it, there were things that were way more important on the line and the rest just didn't matter after that."
"Speaking of which . . ." Willow nodded across the street to where Gabriel strolled unhurriedly along the sidewalk. One hand dangled limply out of a pristine white cast, the other was buried deep inside his pocket. His back was turned to them as he walked.
Buffy stopped and gestured offhandedly to Willow. "I'll . . . catch up with you later, okay Will?"
"Sure." Willow answered brightly, "Take all the time you need."
Buffy ran across the street and cut in front of Gabriel.
"Hey." She greeted happily, "How's the arm?"
He looked down at his wounded limb and moved it slightly.
"Better, I guess. Itches sometimes, though."
"Where have you been? I've been looking for you. I guess I don't blame you for taking it easy for a little while. I mean with the multiple brushes with death and all." He didn't smile at her attempted joke, he wouldn't even look at her for more than an instant. "It was a bad one." She nodded thoughtfully, "At least everyone made it out okay."
"Not everyone." He whispered, his lips thinned and his jaw muscles twitching at the reminder.
"I-I'm sorry." Buffy apologized, "I didn't mean to-"
"No." he said, raising a reassuring palm. "It's all right. You didn't mean it."
There was a palpable silence between them that was almost painful. He pursed his lips and looked around at everything else but her while she mustered her courage.
"Weeellll, " Buffy fiddled with her hands nervously, "Since you're up and around again, I was thinking maybe we could do something together tonight. Just us. Maybe a movie or something."
She had rehearsed what she was going to say to him a dozen times but it came out much less cool and smoothly than she had envisioned. He paused, looking guiltily at her for a brief moment, his unfettered arm fidgeting about nervously in his pocket. "I can't." he answered finally. "I-I have this thing. Um, with Rupert. You know, uncle/nephew stuff." He tried, unsuccessfully, to soften the refusal with a weak smile.
Buffy's heart sank. "Well, maybe we could do it some other time." She suggested, unconsciously taking a few steps backward. All she wanted to do was flee at this point. "When neither one of us has . . . a thing."
"Sure, " he said half-heartedly. "Some other time, maybe."
Buffy reached out and laid her slender fingers on his arm. "Gabriel, are you okay?
He shrank from her touch. "Yeah, " he lied, "I'm fine. Just a little tired, that's all. I'll see you around."
He walked around her and continued down the sidewalk.
"Bye." She half waved, watching him go.
Gabriel pressed forward steadily, his heart feeling like it would implode. He kept going until he reached the corner and stopped. Confident that she was out of sight, he withdrew his hand from within his pocket and opened it slowly. Nestled like a dark pearl in the center of his palm was a small black pill. Clenching his fingers slowly around it, he jammed his fist back into his pocket and began walking again.