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Another Unsubstantiated Report From The Heartland Of America

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Another Unsubstantiated Report from the Heartland of America

"A hacking genius, Scully!" Mulder raised a hand to prop open the elevator doors while Scully stepped into the hallway. With a long morning of filing stretching ahead of them, Mulder had persuaded her to start the day with a trip to the upper levels of J. Edgar Hoover for a coffee. Scully knew it wouldn't be long until he was trying to convince her of more debatable matters, and Mulder didn't disappoint. Last night's pizza and beer binge with the Lone Gunmen now had Mulder itching to fly off to California to unearth the latest aspirant to The Thinker's throne.

She had to admit it sounded better than cutting through the red tape currently burying the X-files. Lately all their expense reports were coming back tagged with audit forms. It wasn't reassuring. So she was quite willing to slip into the more comfortable routine of shooting Mulder down in flames. "A hacking genius?" she asked, looking up at him as they strode side by side through the morning crowd.

Mulder kept a straight face, but she was almost sure he was hiding a smile--probably at her carefully neutral tone of voice. It was her way of telling him she would listen, but she wasn't necessarily going to buy in to any of his theories. After a lifetime of surprises, it was routine that Mulder cherished...as well as the point or two she occasionally allowed in his favour during their verbal sparring.

He cleared his throat and dropped into his lecture mode. "Apparently, this hacker has been operating under the radar for two or three years now. He's managed to find his way into several well-guarded government as well as private sector computer systems, and he's left behind some incredibly intricate back doors in the software. This guy downloads information from government databases like I would from Ask Jeeves. Langly tells me that he only stumbled over the traces that were left by purest chance, and that if he hadn't been paying attention, he would never have found them a second time."

Scully nodded to herself as they entered the coffee room. So far, she didn't see where the FBI, or the X-files, came into the picture, but that was hardly unusual. Mulder's convoluted explanations did arrive at a point more often than not. "Any relationship among the sites that were hacked?" she asked.

"Here's where things get interesting," Mulder said, clearly relishing his words.

Scully suppressed an eye-roll with moderate effort. "And I suppose by 'interesting' you mean 'paranormal'?" she asked. She leaned back against the counter while Mulder filled a mug with the sluggish brown liquid the FBI called coffee. It was sludge, but it hit home like jet fuel, and coming upstairs to fetch it was a good excuse to stretch the legs. He handed her the first cup and started pouring a second.

"The hacker's alias is Red Witch," Mulder said, "and the older, easier to trace break-ins fit that pattern. They were all old museum catalogues or library private collections--ancient texts, demonologies, liturgies, and so on. It reads like my research into serial killers and the occult. Raising and dismissing demons, ensouling the undead, mythical weaponry, Slayer lore..." He paused while spooning sugar into his coffee.

Scully raised an eyebrow. In seven years at Mulder's side, she'd never heard that phrase, and Mulder had a tendency to spit out any and all research he'd ever done when he was trying to find a scientific foothold for his hunches. This was new. "Um... Mulder? Slayer lore?" she prodded.

Mulder nodded and took a gulp of coffee and grimaced. "Hmm. Something I learned a bit about in my Oxford days. Fellow I went to school with told me of a girl, or girls, destined to slay vampires. 'Into every generation a Chosen One is born... something, something... to fight vampires and the forces of darkness.'" He shrugged. "I suppose it's possible. But to get back to this hacker."

"Of course," she said dryly. This hacker must be good if Mulder was more interested in him than in substantiating claims of actual vampire slayers. Or actual vampires, for that matter.

"In recent months, he seems to have changed tacks," Mulder continued as they returned to the elevators. "He's been getting into all sorts of government files--coroners' offices, hospital records, and Department of Defense secret initiatives."

"So, our old friends at the D.O.D.," Scully said as she pressed the call button. "What are they up to these days?"

"Apparently the army is performing special drills out in California for the capture and study of strong, intelligent, non-human creatures!" Mulder paused dramatically, half-in and half-out of the elevator, which buzzed its irritation at being kept from its rounds. He got in and smiled sheepishly at her.

"In other words, aliens," she said, her voice a precise ratio of two parts disdain to three parts weary disbelief to one part amused tolerance.

"Not necessarily," Mulder returned, putting on a hurt expression for her benefit. "My obsession ranges a bit wider than that."

"But not much," she said as they entered the basement hallway. "Mulder, I am not flying out to California to investigate something that is hearsay three times over. I barely trust Langly. I don't trust hacker geniuses that I've heard about from Langly. And I certainly don't trust the Department of Defense, no matter what they claim they've got the army doing."

Mulder gave a half-nod as he shoved his key into the lock. He pushed the office door open and entered, only to stop abruptly. Scully walked on his heel, nearly slopping her coffee over her wrist, and gave an irritated sigh.

"Mulder, what now?" she asked, stepping around him.

"We have a guest," Mulder said, glaring at the man who sat in his chair, arms folded behind his head, feet propped up on the desk, at an angle that had always caused Mulder to go toppling over backwards. He had the look of a lion, resting at complete ease on the savannah, with his thick dark hair and hooded eyes. His clothes--trousers and a thin turtleneck under a blazer--seemed casual but well-tailored, fitting his lanky frame easily. He returned their stares calmly and smirked a bit.

"Special Agents Mulder and Scully, I presume?" he asked, his rough baritone coloured with an English accent.

"How did you get in here?" Mulder demanded, setting his mug on a stack of filing.

"Would you believe it was magic?" the man asked idly. He smiled again, like a boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar, sure of his ability to charm away punishment.

"He might," Scully said, glancing at Mulder, "but I think picking the lock is a lot more credible."

"And no matter how you did it, I'm more interested in why," Mulder added.

The man nodded, and in one smooth movement he set his feet on the floor, stood up, and offered his hand to Mulder. "My pleasure," he said, shaking firmly, and moved on to Scully. He took her hand and raised it to his lips. "Well met, fair maiden," he murmurred over her knuckles, his breath warm and his smile warmer. He stepped back to face Mulder's fierce scowl. "My card," he added, nodding to Scully. She looked down to see that she held a business card in the hand he'd kissed.

"Mr. Ethan Rayne," she read aloud. "Magician, sorcerer, sometime charlatan, of London and Los Angeles."

"At your service," Ethan said, and his half-bow implied to her just how personal that service could be. Scully was astonished to find herself returning his rakish grin, as well as his appraising look. Ethan had features that could age well--he might be a mature thirty or a well-preserved fifty, though she judged him to be at least five years older than Mulder. He had a strong hooked nose and mobile eyebrows, as well as lips that looked like they knew how to kiss. Scully mentally censored her last thought, but she admitted that Ethan was undeniably handsome. And he obviously knew it.

Mulder cleared his throat and stepped between them in order to reclaim his desk chair. "That answers who, not why," he snapped.

Scully raised an eyebrow at him, and he replied with a look of innocent outrage. He hadn't acted this badly since they'd turned their backs on Sheriff Lucius Hartwell. He was jealous, and that idea sent a strange warm tingle down her backbone.

"The why is quite simple, my dear Agent Mulder," Ethan said with only a hint of his earlier theatrical manner. "I was advised by an erstwhile friend of yours that you two were the people to talk to about the maltreatment I received at the hands of your government."

"A friend," Mulder repeated flatly. "And who would that be?"

Ethan paused as though considering Mulder's antagonism on a new level. "Pretty chap," he said, and again inclined his head toward Scully, as though to apologise for admiring someone else more than her. "Fellow by the name of Alex Krycek."

Mulder's lips compressed. "I wouldn't trust any recommendation Alex Krycek made," he said. "And he's far from friendship here."

Ethan shrugged. "Well, I learned to trust him. I met him several years ago, when I was studying animism with the shamans of Tunguska. Since then, he's proved himself to me on several occasions."

Seeing Mulder's closed expression, Scully broke into the conversation. "Nevertheless, Mr. Rayne, you haven't touched on the reason for your appearance here."

Ethan spun around, again the showman. "Appearance, yes, that's the word," he said. "Why, Agent Scully, I have been unlawfully detained! Held prisoner against my will. Tested! Prodded! Chewed up and spat out by your government officials in the name of national security. I protested, most vehemently, I assure you, but I was told there was no recourse. I escaped, as you see--difficult to hold a sorcerer indefinitely. But I demand justice. I want this shadow organisation brought to light. And I am told--yes, by Alex Krycek, but by others as well--that only you two can help me."

"And where did all this take place?" Scully asked.

"I was arrested in California, and then taken to Nevada to some army base. I was imprisoned with the most awful demons and half-breeds. I may dabble in evil, but I have my standards." Ethan crossed his arms and leered at Scully, daring her to challenge his statement.

"Are you saying you were incarcerated in Area 51?" Mulder asked, leaning forward at the desk.

Ethan gave a non-commital grunt. "There's not as much significance attached to the name as you might think," he said. "It's only a holding station for the demons they catch--the larger doings are all happening in a small town just north of Los Angeles. There's a Hellmouth there, of course."

Mulder seemed to consider this seriously, and Scully rolled her eyes at him, this time not even making the effort to hold back. "Mr. Rayne, I might believe that you were detained by the army, but I'm not going to accept that you had a demon for a cellmate."

"Mmm. Slime demon, actually." Ethan turned to Mulder with a confidential nod. "Their antlers are a nuisance, but at least they're not carnivorous." To Scully, he said, "I know how you feel about all this paranormal nonsense. But whether you believe that aspect of my story or not, the fact remains that your army fellows are doing something mighty suspicious in Sunnydale."

Mulder sat up abruptly, frowning at Scully as though she ought to have reached the same conclusion that he obviously had. "Mr. Rayne, does the name Red Witch mean anything to you?"

Ethan raised an eyebrow. Scully studied him closely as he, in turn, stared at Mulder. Mulder had mentioned that the hacker had unearthed some very similar reports of paranormal activity near Los Angeles. Mulder had caught Ethan off guard with the question, she thought, and he didn't like it. Like an arrogant practical joker, Ethan would rather be the startler than the startled.

"I don't know anyone by that name," he said carefully. "But I see that your reputation of a man with facts at his fingertips is not undeserved."

"My reputation in Alex Krycek's opinion?" Mulder asked, his eyes narrowing at Ethan's cagey reply.

"Hardly." Ethan shook off his surprise and continued confidently. "No, I'm referring to another mutual acquaintance. You were school chums for a year or two, if I recall correctly. But I've made my statement; if you have the initiative, it will be enough to help you uncover all the conspiracies you can stomach." He inclined his head to Scully and sauntered towards the door.

"Just a moment, Mr. Rayne," Mulder said, but Ethan didn't stop. Scully tried to turn to follow him, but she felt oddly reluctant to question him further. Obviously he'd told them everything they needed to know. He could leave now.

"My apologies for confessing and running, Agent Scully." She heard his words whispered in her ear, though his footsteps had already left the room. "Another lifetime, and I might have dallied longer. Even a sorcerer has regrets."

Mulder jumped up and went to the door, looking out briefly. "He's gone," he said. "Probably much the same way he arrived."

Scully shook away the daydream feeling that she'd missed something important. "What do you mean by that?"

Mulder gave her a deceptively blank look and shrugged. "Maybe he had an accomplice."

Scully frowned at the trace of sarcasm in his voice. "Or else he said the magic words and disappeared?"

"You said it, not me." Mulder grabbed his coffee off the filing cabinet and swallowed some. "Blech," he commented to the mug, as though the coffee's taste was its fault. He dumped the dregs into the garbage can and reclined in his chair. Scully narrowed her eyes at him as he took up the same position Ethan had been in when they entered the room. He usually crowed when she took his side in a debate, but now he didn't seem to be following the conversation at all. He looked like he was mentally filing through his remembered research.

"Now that we've heard about this D.O.D. activity in California from two independent sources, we can probably eliminate coincidence," she said, testing.

"Unless Ethan Rayne is Red Witch, and this is a set-up."

"Paranoid," Scully said fondly. "The Gunmen are too careful to let even this hacker know they were following his footsteps."

"Hmm." Mulder picked up his thinking basketball and began making small tosses. Ethan's comment about their mutual acquaintance was probably uppermost in his mind, and, given the topic under discussion, he was probably the same man who'd introduced Mulder to the so-called Slayer lore. This wasn't about the army, the D.O.D., or aliens any more.

"I'll phone the airlines, then," she said, resigning herself once more to their routine. She had a pretty good idea what Mulder thought he'd find in Sunnydale, California.

He caught his basketball and grinned at her gleefully, probably reading every thought that had led her to follow his conclusions. "A vampire slayer, Scully!"

Scully sat down opposite him. "I have a feeling I'm going to hear all about them," she said dryly, and reached for the phone.

 


 

Riley Finn swaggered up the street between rows of apartment houses, a bag of groceries in the crook of his elbow and a six-pack dangling from the opposite hand. It was about four o'clock by the sun, and enjoyably warm. Riley flexed his shoulders a bit to feel the lingering heat of his workout, mostly deadlifting barbells and the bike for cardio. He considered shifting the groceries to his other hand, but the challenge to see how far he could go with the first arm was too enticing. Challenges had to be met, even if it was a test of his own making.

Tonight would be another type of test altogether. It was a beautiful day, perfect for a big carbohydrate-filled dinner, a short walk under the stars, and then a quick burst of exertion of quite a different kind, and finally a comfortable catnap of a sleep. Riley planned to involve Buffy in all those activities. She'd told him that she'd be researching at her old librarian's apartment, but he wasn't going to let that stop him. It was simply a matter of finding a way to make himself appreciated. Last night, a few words with Willow had been enough to learn that spaghetti and meat sauce were the surest way to Buffy's heart. Research or not, she had to eat, and he was going to show up and chef, even if it meant cooking for the whole ill-assorted group.

And he'd be helpful in other ways, too--he'd dole out whatever bits of low-security info Professor Walsh had given him the green light to reveal, which would put a quick end to the all-night book bonanza. Then, some subtle hints...a few lingering kisses when the others were busy with the dishes...and they'd head back to his dorm via the nearest cemetery so that there couldn't be any accusations that Buffy was neglecting her patrol. And, of course, getting the juices flowing was a nice side effect. And...fait accompli.

Riley charged up the steps to the courtyard in front of the apartment and reached for the door handle, then paused. Buffy and her friends always tromped right in, but he felt uncomfortable invading Mr. Giles' privacy that way. It was strange to even think of him as just 'Giles', as Buffy insisted he ought. The poor old guy probably didn't appreciate being overrun with the bunch of them. Sure, he'd been Buffy's teacher and trainer for a couple of years, but now that Buffy trained with Riley, there wasn't much need for that. Buffy could still be really young in some ways--she didn't see the social niceties of the situation. She kept training with Mr. Giles, too, and probably wore him out doing it. Riley himself was sometimes hard pressed to keep up with her, so Mr. Giles was doubtless exhausted.

So Riley rapped on the door, lightly, hoping that Buffy would open it and he could do his best to avoid Mr. Giles...Giles...altogether.

No such luck. The door opened and Giles peered out, squinting through his glasses. "Oh. Riley." He paused for a fraction of a second, really not long enough to be called a hesitation, then stepped back and let the door swing open.

"Hey," Riley offered. He hunched his shoulders and stepped inside, felling ridiculously tall as he passed Giles, even though he only had two or three inches on him. "I brought some stuff," he said, giving the paper bag to Giles. "I thought I'd make dinner while you're all, uh, researching."

Giles accepted the bag with raised eyebrows. "By all means," he said.

Riley nodded. "Uh, is Buffy here?" he asked finally, when Giles only stood there silently. Jeez, it was like asking permission to date the guy's daughter. Riley forced himself to stand straighter, reminding himself that Mrs. Summers liked him fine, and so did Buffy, so whatever crumpet the old British guy had crammed up his ass didn't matter.

Giles nodded towards the dining table. Xander was at the far end, hunched over a thick volume of velum sheets, his pencil tapping. Willow sat with her back to them, her fingers flying over the keys of her laptop. Buffy stood with one hand on the back of Willow's chair and leaned over her, engrossed with the hieroglyphics flowing over the screen.

"Hey," he said as he approached her. Willow twisted around and switched the to her screen saver. Buffy looked up and smiled, but it wasn't as bright as usual.

"Riley. I didn't think you were coming," she said.

Was he imagining it, or was there a hint of "and I hoped you weren't" in her voice? Well, no matter, he was here now. "I didn't want to leave you dinnerless," he said, smiling his best all-American farmboy smile. "I'm going to make you my very own spaghetti and meat sauce, courtesy of my hometown Iowa recipe."

Willow rolled her eyes at him--he'd actually asked her for the recipe, but he thought he could reveal that on a need-to-know basis, and certainly Buffy did not need to know--but Buffy didn't notice, so it was all good.

"My favourite." Again there was that ambivalent tone, as though she were surprised he would know what she liked. Riley shrugged it off mentally. If it was a pleasant surprise, then all the better. "Can you cook?"

"Of course," he said, taking mock offense. "Learned at my momma's knee."

"Well...great. Thanks, Riley."

He leaned down for the obligatory kiss, but Buffy grabbed him by the arm and steered him towards the kitchen. "I'm starving. I hope you don't mind, we're right in the middle of all this, but if you want to cook right now, that'd be great."

Riley allowed himself to be led into the kitchen, where Giles was rummaging through the groceries he'd brought. Buffy gave him a smile and whisked back into the living area. Riley started to prepare the sauce. Giles watched him for a moment, then opened a cupboard.

"I'll get out the mushrooms," he said.

"Buffy hates mushrooms," Riley said.

"So she does."

"Yeah." Riley waved away the offered can with his sauce spoon. "Sorry, Mr. Giles, but I'm kinda doing this for her."

Giles' lips twitched into what, in anyone else, Riley would have called a mocking smile. But not Giles. He was too stuffy for a sense of humour. "So no mushrooms?"

"Nope." Riley stirred the sauce. "Really, I've got it under control. You can, uh, go do your reading."

"Thank you, I'm sure."

Riley wanted to say he hadn't meant it that way, but Giles had already left the kitchen. Well, whatever. He concentrated on cooking, wanting Buffy to be impressed with his culinary abilities. He tasted the resulting concoction, declared it somewhere between not half bad and very good indeed. He served the meal with a flourish, brushing aside the musty books that covered the table to put the pot down. Giles cleared away the mess of papers and volumes before they all sat down and started filling their plates.

"It smells great," Buffy said. "What kind of cheese did you bring?"

Riley frowned at Willow. "I didn't know about the cheese."

"Hey, I told you Buffy liked cheese the first time--"

Riley nudged Willow's shin under the table. There was no need to advertise the fact that he'd stolen his 'hometown Iowa' recipe from her. "Well, anyway, sorry, I forgot the cheese. I guess this time we'll just have to go without..."

Giles sat back from the table. "I have some Gouda, or some Parmesan--the real thing, of course--and maybe a bit of leftover Brie. If you like. Buffy, I think you know where the grater is."

"Yep. Thanks, Giles." Buffy bounced off her seat and into the kitchen. She came back with the cheese and grated a liberal amount over her sauce, then started picking through it with her fork. Finally, she looked up, with an apologetic look at him. "No mushrooms?" she asked wistfully.

Riley glared at Giles. "I thought you hated mushrooms," he said.

"Well, yeah." Buffy forked her spaghetti around her plate. "I hate them. But, okay, I'm sorry, immature thing maybe, but I like to pick them out of the sauce and complain about them. It's, like, a childhood tradition."

"Oh." Riley looked down at his own plate, then back up. Xander was shovelling the food into his mouth and Willow was twirling the spaghetti on her fork, both of them paying little or no attention--no obvious attention, anyway. Riley stared at Giles and saw that the quirk of a smile he'd seen earlier was back. The old guy was actually laughing at him. As if he knew Buffy better than her boyfriend did.

"It's the thought that counts," Giles said.

"Of course," Buffy said. "You're the greatest to think of us, Riley. We usually just order pizza, so Giles doesn't have to do any dishes..."

"Right." Riley thought of the state he'd left the kitchen in and winced. "Yeah. Sorry about that."

"It's okay." Buffy waved the matter away with her fork. "We'll be here all night anyway. I can help with the dishes--the books aren't really good friends of mine."

"I kinda thought that we could--uh--patrol, later," Riley said.

"Oh, yeah, patrol," Xander said with a grin and a waggled eyebrow. "You guys go play 'stake the vampire' while we finish up here. Just hang a sock on the doorknob for Willow's sake, that's all I ask."

Willow nodded. "Even better, go patrol around Lowell House. Tara's beginning to wonder why I always want to practice spells so late at night."

"Xander, shut up," Buffy said. "Not everything is a stupid euphemism for sex."

"Uh huh," Xander said. "But seriously, folks..."

"Harris..." Riley started.

"Anyway." Buffy cut him off. "I'm not going patrolling tonight. The Initiative has that covered, right, Riley? This research is more important."

Riley frowned at her. What was this research that was so crucial? Professor Walsh hadn't warned him of any impending danger that might warrant it. Most likely, they were chasing down a mystical convergence of the stars or some such crap, portents and omens and harbingers that had nothing to do with good, solid recon info. He ate in silence, tasting his own cooking like cardboard, until Buffy began silently clearing the table. Maybe she wanted to be the dedicated one, but she was forever saving the rest of their asses. She deserved a night off. All he needed to do was convince her of it.

When Xander and Willow turned back to their research, Riley went into the kitchen after Buffy, where she was standing at the sink rinsing the dishes under the hiss of hot water. He'd been sneaking admiring glances at her all evening, because Buffy was wearing one of his favourite tank tees, cut especially low in front. Her tan legs emerged from beneath the white cotton of her short-shorts and continued down to the twinkle of an anklet above her sandals. Riley crossed the room, enjoying the view. This would be good. He'd walk up behind Buffy for a hug, feel the press of her breasts resting on his forearm, the sweet curve of her ass jutting into his crotch, the smooth skin of her neck under his chin. Leering in anticipation, he threw his arms around her.

And was rewarded with an elbow to the solar plexus. His breath exploded out of him in a slow-motion burst of astonished pain. Time slammed to a standstill. He tried to gasp and it was like breathing through a brick wall. Buffy whirled around, slapping his arms away and raising her fists. Riley heaved for air, curling around the burning hole in his chest. Buffy's expression changed from startled anger to shock to embarrassment to concern in the eternal second before his legs collapsed under him and he fell on his side.

"Oh, my God. Riley." Buffy dropped to her knees and cradled his head in her lap. "You startled me."

Riley wanted to spit out something along the lines of no kidding, but right then breathing was a much bigger issue.

"Here, let me--uh--get you some ice. Or something." Buffy gave him an apologetic grimace and patted his head. "Giles? Can we move him to the couch? Or are you not supposed to move someone after...uh...this?"

Giles wandered into his view, and Riley saw him roll his eyes, apparently more at Riley for sneaking up on the Slayer than at Buffy's lack of first aid know-how. "No, there's nothing you can do for him. He just has to relax and breathe out. It will hurt, but we can't hurry the process." He stared down at Riley. "You understand? You've confused your diaphragm. It thinks you need to breathe in, but you already have. Let your air out."

Buffy sat back on her ankles. "Oh," she said. Then, "I'm really sorry, Riley. I didn't mean to..." She trailed off, shrugged, and made a little elbow-gesture to finish the sentence, then went back to stroking his hair off his forehead. Riley finally let his air out in a huge, searing breath and started gasping in earnest. The fire in his lungs seemed to expand to fill his entire body, and he felt tears prick behind his eyes. He closed them so that Buffy wouldn't see. She stayed beside him, murmuring unhelpful things like "There, there," and "Just breathe, okay? I'm sorry..."

"Oh, really, Buffy." Giles' voice was distinctly annoyed. "Let him alone. He'll recover if you stop hovering. I think we can move him to the couch now, if you want. Xander, help me?"

Riley opened his eyes wide and gasped harder. Let them leave him on the floor; at least he wouldn't have to move. But he could say nothing, and Giles grabbed his feet while Xander took his shoulders, and they swung him over the couch back and on to the pillows. Agony burst upwards through him in nauseating waves, and he tipped his head back, struggling to keep the tears in. Buffy knelt beside the couch at his head.

Giles stared down at him, shaking his head, and said to Buffy, "You must work on your environmental awareness. Your strength and speed have never been an issue, but what if Riley had been a vampire? That elbow wouldn't have stopped him then, and he would have fed from you before you could defend yourself."

Buffy looked up and pouted. "I knew he wasn't," she said. Riley nodded in agreement at her matter of fact tone--he was far too able to get turned that easily--and then regretted moving his head.

"Based on what evidence?" Giles asked.

Riley glanced over the couch back at Xander and Willow to see what they thought of this interrogation, but they had gone back to their interrupted tasks. This analysis must be a regular thing, then, even though Buffy had never mentioned it as an aspect of her training.

"I didn't get cramps," she started, "but that's not the most reliable thing. Mostly it's because it's here. Somewhere else--my house, or Xander's or Will's place, there's always a possibility that someone was invited in. But it was you, Giles. I trust you."

Giles nodded. "And if I were a vampire?" he asked softly.

Buffy's face went so still that Riley felt like he'd just been elbowed all over again. Xander looked up from his research, his normal grin replaced by wide-eyed seriousness. Willow's hands fell limp on the keyboard and she twisted around to stare at Giles and listen to Buffy's response.

"Then you wouldn't have attacked me so half-assedly," Buffy said. The blankness was gone, and now there was anger in her voice. Riley wanted to defend himself--it wasn't an attack, damnit--but if Buffy had been ignoring him before then he might as well be in Canada for all the concern she was showing him now. Surely she'd thought about the consequences if Giles got vamped before? It wasn't pleasant, but you did lose people in the field. That was life, that was the military. You accepted that risk when you joined up.

"Really," Giles said. "Why would your response be different? Because I'm your Watcher and he's your boyfriend? That can never be a Slayer's first thought."

"What is that, the handbook talking? I don't work like that, Giles." Buffy glanced down at Riley, and then said, "You're different fighters, for one thing. Riley's impetuous. He fights by the rules until you get him angry, and then he loses control. You've got a more mature fighting style. Mostly, though, if you were vamped, you'd know how to hurt me a lot worse than by sneaking up behind me."

"You're probably right," Giles said. "Which makes it all the more unexpected."

Buffy stood up and let go of Riley's hand. "You want to try it, Watcher-man?"

Giles' eyes narrowed, and Riley sank back on the cushions. For the first time, the librarian looked like he could do more damage than a paper cut. He and Buffy stared at each other, and a silent challenge passed between them. This wasn't routine. Riley could see it in Buffy's face--Giles had never gone this far before. Like Xander and Willow, he was reduced to watching them play out their parts in a scene that suddenly made no sense.

"Turn around." The words were soft yet somehow dangerous.

Buffy turned slowly, squaring her shoulders, her face set as she stared towards the kitchen. Giles, too, was still for a long moment, and then he lunged for Buffy's neck. In a burst of motion almost too quick to follow, Buffy grabbed Giles' arms and bent low to use his momentum against him, throwing him over her shoulder. Riley thought for sure Giles would land hard, but at the last moment his legs whipped out and caught Buffy behind the knees. She lost her balance, and Giles fell on top of her, flipping quickly to pin her. But quicker still was the Slayer instinct for the trap, and Buffy rolled them both over, coming up with a stake Riley could have sworn there was no way of hiding in her outfit. Buffy tapped it against Giles' chest and immediately stood. She walked away, dropping the stake, and raised a hand to cover her eyes. Giles rolled to his feet just as easily and tugged his shirt back into place, not even wrinkled. The entire exchange had taken all of seven seconds.

Buffy turned back to Giles. If her eyes were a little too bright, or his lips too tight, then there was no other sign of what this little contest had meant to them. "Dust," she said, and he nodded.

"I'll work on it," she said, and it was only those words that made Riley remember this had all started as a way for Buffy to improve her awareness of the dangers around her. Such as him. Riley snorted to himself, softly enough not to jar his ribs. He was no danger to her. What did it matter how far he could sprint, how much he could bench-press? Even Giles was more of a threat. He massaged his abs, feeling the tender spot where, doubtless, he'd be purple tomorrow. It wasn't a fucking attack. He'd wanted a kiss, a dinner date, a night with his girlfriend, not some Matrix-inspired dojo death-match demonstration.

Why couldn't Buffy just be Buffy? Riley closed his eyes. He hadn't felt so useless since he'd gone to talk with her after the Gentlemen had come. His pager started beeping. "Fuck," he said quietly, and read the message.

"What is it?" Buffy asked, coming back to sit beside him.

Riley heaved himself upright, away from her touch. "I guess I gotta go," he said, shoving the pager back into his belt.

"Yeah," Buffy said. She glanced over her shoulder at Giles, but he turned back to Willow and Xander. Riley twisted on his heel and went to the door. When he looked back, Buffy hadn't moved, watching him from the edge of the couch.

"I'll see you later, then," he said, and hated himself for saying it. Desperate much?

"Yeah," she answered, even more softly, and then, once more, "I'm sorry."

Riley wondered whether that was for the elbow or for what followed, but by then he was out of the apartment and sprinting for campus, feeling the stitch in his side like justified anger.

He slammed his way into the elevator at Lowell House. Maybe his fighting style was immature, but it was sure as hell good enough for the Initiative. Who held the record for most HST kills? Whose unit was the most efficient at captures? Maybe he hadn't been bred for generations to watch over Slayers, but he could hold his own in any fight.

"Shit," he said. "I'm her bloody Watcher. Shit."

"Voice not recognised. Please state your full name."

"Shut up."

"Voice not recognised. Please state your full name."

"Fuck. Riley Finn." He aimed a punch at the wall, and then held back. No use having a broken hand to go with his broken ribs. The doors slid open at the Initiative level and Riley stalked out, hunch-shouldered, feeling like some HST's worst nightmare.

Forrest and Graham met him at the weapons locker. Riley gave them a short nod and turned to requisition his taser. He was in no mood for their frat-boy facades, and didn't answer their greetings. He snatched the orders sheet from the lieutentant and skimmed them quickly, tossing them in a heap on the desk.

"I thought you were off for the night," Forrest said. "What happened to the big romance?"

"Called off on account of vampires," Riley said, refusing to rise to Forrest's bait. "There's a nest making trouble at Shady Gardens cemetary. The sooner we make the capture, the sooner we can all go back to our plans."

"Right," Forrest said. "Vampires."

Riley clenched his jaw and grabbed his gear. His ribs still hurt, and he held back a grunt of pain as he bent over to haul on his fatigues. At least HSTs he understood. Women...Buffy... She hadn't exactly tried to keep him from leaving. And that whole demonstration with Giles hadn't exactly made him want to stay. What the fuck was that, anyway? She avoided the old guy as much as she could, didn't talk about him or to him much as far as Riley could see. She trained with Giles, but she complained about it so much that Riley thought she did it mostly to humour him. And tonight...

Riley ground his teeth through the briefing and then set a bruising pace for his patrol across campus to Shady Gardens, feeling his own breath burning in the hollow just under his pounding heart. Damn that Slayer strength, anyway. How could any guy compete with that in his girlfriend? Riley ran harder, just to prove he wasn't so badly hurt. Graham grunted behind him but the unit made no other protest. They made their first pass without incident and were coming back for a more detailed search went the radio coughed to life.

"Zorro to Lilac, we have civilians in the cemetary."

The radio's message stopped Riley cold. Graham and Forrest came up beside him, taser barrels pushing the branches aside, peering out across the open grassy expanse marked with tombstones.

"At three o'clock," Graham muttered, and pointed.

About five hundred yards away, a man and a woman stood, clearly visible under the full moon. The man gestured emphatically towards a nearby stone vault, and the woman shook her head.

"Vampire bait," Forrest said. "Getting in our way. People that stupid deserve to get eaten."

Riley said nothing. This little snafu was hardly unknown, but Buffy always tried to save everybody, stupid or not. Besides, these two didn't seem the type to throw their lives away with a starlit stroll. The man was tall, dark, assured; he looked like he knew this place as well as his own backyard. The woman was about Buffy's height and seemed as confident as any Slayer. Riley opened his mouth to suggest that his unit hunt elsewhere tonight to avoid being seen by the civilians, when a vampire sprang out from behind the vault.

The vampire took the tall man down with his first charge, fangs gleaming in the moonlight. The two of them rolled across the grass, grappling, and the red-haired woman chased after them. Riley saw her reach under her coat, probably for a gun, but that wouldn't do any good against a vamp. Besides, where there was one, there were usually more.

"Graham." Riley signalled his unit forward, towards the mausoleum. "Get around there, look for the nest. Forrest, call Zorro, tell them we need a perimeter sweep. I'm going for the humans."

Graham started off immediately, but Forrest growled, "Fuck that, Riley. You can't do anything for them, they'll see you."

"And if I don't, they'll be blood donors."

Forrest shook his head. "Man, you been hanging out too much with your girlfriend. This is a capture, not a rescue mission."

"I'll take the heat." Riley gestured with his taser. "Get going."

Forrest turned, looked back once, and finally went. Riley circled behind the bushes, following the sound of the fight. Suddenly, shots cracked out, three in quick succession, then two more. Probably a Sig Sauer 220--somebody's official issue. Who had permission to interfere on the Initiative's territory? And what had Riley gotten himself into with his stupid heroics?

Still, they were humans. No matter what kind of fire power they were packing, they weren't going to hold their own against a vamp for long. Riley stepped up the pace, peering through the shrubbery, and saw the short red-haired woman sweeping the area with her gun. The man lay at her feet, bloody but alive. And the vampire--a second one, probably, if the first had been hurt badly enough by the shots--was sneaking up on them from the far side.

Riley crashed out of the bushes and ran for the woman, praying that the HST wouldn't attack before he got there. He couldn't risk a taser blast with her in the line of fire, but he meant to tackle her to the ground, out of the way. He raced across the cemetary, hurdling headstones, and leapt forward. She glanced over her shoulder at the last moment. He saw a brief flash of her wide blue eyes, startled but determined.

And for the second time that night, a woman dropped Riley Finn with an elbow to the gut.

 


 

With the last rounds in her gun, Scully managed to drive off the second attacker. He stumbled into the bushes, and Scully took the momentary reprieve to snap a new clip into the magazine. She did a slow three-sixty turn, but there was no more movement in the immediate area. This excursion to the cemetary had been foolhardy, but she and Mulder were acting blind, purely on Ethan Rayne's vague tip. Mulder thought he could document evidence of an actual vampire slayer, but beyond stumbling around in cemetaries after dark, he had no idea how to find her. The old school friend of Mulder's, Rupert Giles, was not listed in the Sunnydale directory. She'd gathered some police reports from the station, but they didn't mention anything resembling the actions of a so-called vampire slayer. So far, they had reached a dead end. She glanced down at the two men at her feet.

She turned first to Mulder, worry making her fingers fumble as she felt his neck. He'd fought off the first man, but he was hurt, and he hadn't moved since then. Her hand came away smeared with blood, and her heart froze for a moment before she felt his pulse strong and steady in the opposite carotid artery. He opened his eyes and smiled at her.

"How bad'm I?" he asked.

"You're a mess." Scully pulled on professionalism like a surgeon's mask and gloves. She turned his head to look at the wound on his neck. "But it's superficial."

"Next time I'll listen to you," he mumbled, closing his eyes.

"Can I have that in writing?" Blood had seeped into his hair and his collar, but not enough to concern her--as a doctor. As his partner, though...it was infuriating, for reasons she refused to understand fully. Scully shook her head in exasperation. She pulled the handkerchief she kept for just such an occasion from her pocket and applied it as a pressure bandage. "Hold this."

Mulder raised his hand to the bandage. "No more gallivanting about in cemetaries, as I think your exact words were."

"Ethan Rayne told you to look up that man you went to school with. Which makes sense. If he lives here, he'll have more of an idea of what's going on. There are more ways of finding a man than in the phone book."

"Hmm." Mulder flinched as she loosened his collar. "I don't trust Rayne; not if Krycek sent him. Besides, where better to meet a vampire Slayer than in the dead of night in a cemetary?"

"Too many Bella Lugosi movies, Mulder." Scully smiled at him in amused affection. For the purely medical reason of checking his head for bumps, she allowed herself to ruffle his hair through her fingers. There was a slight lump on the back of his head, but if he was concussed, it was very mild. "I'm going to check on our local D.O.D. representative."

She knelt beside the other man. On second glance, he was more boy than man, looking too young for his army fatigues and Kevlar vest. His eyes were open and watering, and he gasped like a fish out of water. She'd managed to land her elbow just below the edge of the jacket. A taller person than she probably wouldn't have hurt the young giant at all. The gun he'd dropped--looking like some sort of Star Wars prop--was spitting sparks, so Scully left it where it lay. It was amazing that the Department of Defense managed to keep any of their maneuvers covert if this was the quality of their recruits.

"Can you hear me?" she asked. The boy gave a half nod, squeezing his eyes shut. "I'm a doctor. You've just had the wind knocked out of you. Just relax and breathe."

"Yeah," he huffed. "I know."

Scully reached for his dogtags and read his name, rank, and serial number. "Agent Riley Finn," she said. Mulder climbed to his knees and joined her beside the boy.

"Our local demon-hunting representative, more likely," he said. "One of the army-types who sent Ethan Rayne to Area 51, I assume."

Riley's eyes widened and his chest heaved faster. "Who are you?"

A speculative look crossed Mulder's face. "Special Agents Mulder and Scully," he said. "We're with the FBI. We heard about your organisation out here, and we thought we'd pay a little interdepartmental hospitality visit. I think I dropped the fruit basket, though."

Riley heaved himself to a sitting position. "What does the FBI know about the Initiative?" he asked. Holding his stomach with one hand, he used the other to push himself to his feet.

"The Initiative," Mulder said. "There's been a breach of security in your ranks."

Scully stayed quiet, willing to let Mulder lie their way into a better bargaining position. If the Department of Defense meant to keep their Sunnydale experiments hidden, they wouldn't hesitate to dispose of intruders. Whatever Mulder could learn from Riley Finn was a step forward in their investigation, and by the anxiety showing plainly on the boy's face, they could learn a lot.

"What kind of security breach?"

"Well, for one thing, you're not keeping the vampires contained." Mulder tapped the bloody kerchief Scully had tied around his throat. She held back a derisive snort and refrained from reminding him that the last time he thought he'd been attacked by a vampire, it had been a pizza delivery boy with plastic fangs. However, Riley Finn took the question seriously.

"Total containment was never our mission," he said. He bent stiffly to retrieve his weapon. "If that's all this is about, why didn't you just go to Professor Walsh?"

"Wouldn't take my calls," Mulder said airily, neatly sidestepping the issue of the good professor's gender. "And we have issues with Professor Walsh, as well. We hear there's been interference in this area by the vampire slayer."

Riley's eyes widened. "You know about that?"

"Of course." Mulder sent her a significant glance, easily interpreted. He had just struck pay dirt. "And we're quite concerned, as I'm sure you can imagine."

"Well, I didn't know, at first--anyway, she's not--I mean--" Riley cut himself off. Scully wondered if he'd been about to say that this girl was not, in fact, any such thing as a vampire slayer. "I'm going to call this in." He whispered into the radio at his wrist and then listened briefly. "I'm to take you to Professor Walsh."

Riley turned and started leading them across the cemetary. "I hope you don't mind my asking, Agents, but how did you get ahold of all this classified info?"

Behind Riley's back, Scully sent Mulder an ironic glance. The kid didn't even know he'd just been pumped for every worthwhile thought in his pretty little head. "Agent Mulder is the paranormal expert--a psychologist and profiler," she said. "We're assigned to paranormal cases that fall under the Bureau's violent crimes devision."

"Like vampires," Mulder put in, with a grin at her.

"Yes." She kept the irony out of her voice with an effort. "Like vampires."

"There are as many different kinds of vampires as there are cultures that fear them," Mulder pontificated as they exited the cemetary and walked towards the U of C Sunnydale campus. "From the Babylonian Ekimmu to the Chinese Kuang-Shi to the Motetz Dam of the Hebrews, the Mormo of ancient Greece and Rome to the more familiar Nosferatu of Transylvania. Some vampires are thought to be eternal. Others are thought to have a life span of only forty days. Sunlight kills certain vampires while others come and go as they please, day or night."

Riley turned to Scully, a confused look on his face. "Is he serious?" he asked, with a sideways glance at Mulder that questioned his mental stability.

"I'm afraid so," she said, hiding her amused smile from Mulder. Perhaps Riley Finn wasn't as dull as his cowtown looks suggested, if he could separate fact from fiction while running about with this cadre of self-described demon hunters.

Riley turned back to Mulder with a sheepish grin. "That's a nice, uh, theory, Agent Mulder. I'm a psychologist myself--well, grad student--so I see where you're coming from. But the idea of lots of different types of vampires, it just doesn't hold water."

Scully raised an eyebrow at Mulder and made air-quotes, mouthing the word "theory". He gave her his usual deadpan look, but she was pretty sure he wanted to stick his tongue out at her.

"You see, sir," Riley continued, "there's only one kind of vampire. They're demon half-breeds: the demon takes over the human body at the moment of death. Anything else you might think is a vampire is probably just a different type of demon. There are plenty of different kinds of demons."

"Really," Mulder said, in a such a false tone of overenthusiasm that Riley gave him another confused stare. The poor boy certainly had a lot of versions of the confused stare, Scully thought, rolling her eyes at Mulder's pointed sarcasm. Perhaps she was the only voice of reason left in the world.

Just because they'd been attacked at night by someone who'd bitten Mulder's neck did not mean it had been a vampire. The Sunnydale police reports she'd gotten her hands on earlier that day suggested that such attacks were commonly the work of a subculture of drug addicts--gangs on PCP. That was far more likely than any supernatural explanation, although it didn't give much credit to the police, who'd been fighting a losing battle against these gangs for as far back as the reports went. However, it looked like neither Riley nor Mulder would appreciate listening to facts gathered by crime scene experts. Especially when those facts didn't lend much credence to either version of vampire mythology.

"Well, yeah." Riley shot him confused look number three. "But the Professor can fill you in. She's expecting you."

They entered the darkened hallways of the university's psychology building, Riley nodding his way past other military men in fatigues, to the office door marked Professor Margaret Walsh, Department Head.

Riley knocked, then walked in without waiting for an acknowledgement. Scully watched the macho soldier-boy wither to the supplicating grad student, as though his faculty advisor were the source of all manna in his world. Professor Walsh stood up behind her desk as they entered, but made no move to welcome them. With a single glance, Scully had her pegged as the worst kind of scientist--the kind who let arrogance interfere with test results, who used the authority of a white lab coat to bully laymen, and who thought asking questions was the quickest way of proving one's stupidity. She was a true post-modern Prometheus, a peroxide-blonde Diana Fowley.

"Well, well, what business brings the FBI to Sunnydale?" she asked, her voice brittle with annoyance.

Mulder flashed his badge, then said, "Agent Scully and I are investigating certain complaints that have been brought to our attention concerning the Initiative's military presence in Sunnydale."

Walsh's pencil-thin eyebrows rose a fraction. "I was under the impression that all our actions were cleared through the Department of Justice."

Scully stepped forward and was gratified to see Walsh lean back from her. "Not when those actions interfere with civilians, in defiance of their Miranda rights," she said. She had no idea where she expected this conversation to lead; they were dealing dangerously with someone who could make a phone call and discover that the FBI had no legitimate business at all in Sunnydale.

"I see." Walsh's oily smile was as fake as her hair colour. "We can't let this become a matter of interdepartmental jurisdiction."

"You mean it isn't already?" Scully asked with contrived innocence. "The Justice Department takes precedence when there has been an allegation of misconduct levelled against the actions of another department."

Walsh sent her a withering stare. "We operate outside those regulations, Agent Scully, as I'm sure you can understand. If every little red-tape bureaucrat in Washington knew what we are working on here, then I would never get a moment's peace from people poking their noses in the wrong places."

Mulder stared at Walsh as though he had all the time in the world. "I hope you're not referring to our work here, Professor," he said. "If there has been malfeasance, we won't back away from exposing it."

Walsh twisted her lips into another mirthless smile. "Of course not, Agent Mulder."

"If that's all, then perhaps you'll excuse us?" Scully said, at her most saccharine. Walsh's smiles made her teeth hurt. "We are only just beginning our investigation..."

"Of course." Walsh directed them to the door. "Just give me one moment with Agent Finn, and I'll have him escort you."

Scully shot an ironic look at Mulder. Escort translated loosely as spy and prison guard, as long as they were on the Initiative's turf. They stepped out of the office.

Scully looked for soldier-boys with sharp ears, but they were alone. "That was stupid," she said. "We're lucky she didn't make a call to Skinner right in front of us."

"Skinner would vouch for us--at first, anyway," Mulder said. "No matter what her importance is in all this, it'll take her a while to confirm. Meanwhile..."

"We go out and get attacked again? Mulder, I want to get you to a hospital. You might need stitches." Scully leaned close to him, taking the handkerchief away, and was only mildly reassured by the teeth marks. Human bites were easily infected.

"I'm fine." Mulder grimmaced at her attentions, then looked up when Riley exited the office. "But you were right on another score," Mulder said to her softly, as Riley marched ahead of them to the doors. "Our next best bet is to find Rupert Giles. I can put a call in to Danny, get him to go through the British visas for five or six years back."

Riley glanced back over his shoulder and looked from Mulder to Scully and back again. "You weren't kidding," he said. There was something rueful in his tone, and he raised a hand to the pit of his stomach, massaging.

"About what?" Scully asked.

"Knowing about Bu--the Slayer," he said. He cast a nervous look back the way they'd come, making sure no one was within eavesdropping distance. "You meant it. Professor Walsh was sure you were bluffing."

"I rarely bluff," Mulder said, straight-faced.

"Are you trying to tell us that you know Rupert Giles?" Scully asked.

"Yeah..." Riley winced. "But the professor's right. It won't do you any good to follow up on this. We've got it under control, the Initiative does. You're only going to dig yourselves deeper into the mess if you stay in Sunnydale."

"If the mess is there to be dug into, then it deserves our attention," Mulder said. "If you can tell us what you know about him--"

"I can't compromise our security that way," Riley said, his face going blank.

Mulder looked like he was about to start ranting, and Scully waved him off. She turned her most winning smile on Riley Finn and said, "I know you're just as concerned about saving people as we are, and if the information we have will benefit the Slayer in any way, then it would be in all our best interests to speak with her quickly. If the only way to her is through Rupert Giles--we'll find him sooner or later; we have all the resources of our department behind us. You could just help make it sooner."

Riley's face twisted into some variation on confused stare number five. "He's not going to let you hurt her," he said. "I wouldn't, either, Initiative or not. But...he's...well, I can tell you where he lives. The rest, I guess, is up to him."

"Good man," Mulder said. "He'll thank you."

"I don't know about that," Riley said. "I just hope she will," he muttered as he took some paper from a pad in his jacket and scribbled out an address. He handed it to Scully, and then pushed open the doors, leaving them on the campus quad. "Remember--it's not safe out until dawn. I'd get there quick if I were you." And the doors slammed behind him.

Scully raised an eyebrow at Mulder. "Not safe?" she asked.

"We should tell the poor kid about our caseload some day," Mulder returned equably. "Full resources of our department, huh?"

"You're not the only one who knows how to bluff," Scully said. "My brothers taught me to play a mean game of poker."

"Remind me never to open a deck of cards in front of you."

"Mulder--" Scully stopped and shook her head. "Let's just get in out of the dark, shall we?"

"Lead on," Mulder said, grinning, and followed her into the night.

 


 

Reaction had set in. Buffy squirmed on the couch, trying to concentrate on the words swimming across the page in front of her and not on her body's stupid post-slayage desires. She had a major attack of the munchies. Not to mention... "Is there any spaghetti left?" she asked the room at large.

"If Xander didn't finish it, then yeah," Willow answered.

"Hey, I resent that implication. I only had seconds." Xander paused. "Well, maybe thirds. Riley's a good cook." Buffy set the book she'd been not reading down on the table and glared at Xander. He shrugged at her. "Hey, what? He is." Willow rolled her eyes and whapped Xander's arm. "Ow. What? The rest's in the fridge."

"Buffy, can I get you anything?" Giles asked.

Giles. She certainly didn't want to let him, of all people, know how their little bout of sparring had affected her. If Riley were still around, she could drag him off and have her way with him, even though that particular solution was becoming less and less effective as time went on. And besides, she doubted Riley wanted anything to do with her right now. He told her not to hold back, but whenever she didn't, she could see the hurt it caused in his eyes. That, and a look that screamed 'freak'.

"Buffy?" Giles knelt in front of her. "Are you all right? Did you want some of the leftovers?"

Buffy leaned back in couch, away from the warmth of him. Why was she reacting this way to Giles? "Yeah...that'd be good." She smiled at him and watched him walk into the kitchen. Watched a little too much, because, hell, he looked good walking away. And where did that thought come from? She gave an irritated sigh. A knock at the door took her mind off those thoughts.

Giles bent over the breakfast bar and asked, "Who could that be at this hour?"

"I'll get it," Buffy said. At least if it were evil, she'd have an opportunity to pummel something. In any case, it was a welcome distraction.

She opened the door to see a man and a woman standing on the threshold, both wearing trenchcoats that would have looked perfect on Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. The guy, at least, was doing nothing to flip off her internal hottie-watching switch. Buffy raised an eyebrow at them. "Can I help you?" she asked doubtfully.

"We're Special Agents Scully and Mulder, with the FBI. Is this the residence of Mr. Rupert Giles?" the woman asked, equally doubtfully, as though Buffy didn't belong in any home where Giles lived.

Hackles raised, Buffy kept the door tight at her side and returned the woman's stare. She wouldn't give anything away. Too many evil things knew where Giles lived as it was. And all the information Willow had discovered about the Initiative hardly made her inclined to trust government operatives. "And if it is?"

"May we speak with him?" she asked, ignoring Buffy's deliberate rudeness.

"Oh, come on, Scully," the man--Mulder--said. "Don't get all official on her." He flashed a rakish grin at Buffy. "Just tell him the guy from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's tomb is here. If he doesn't remember that..."

"Mulder, what are you talking about?" Scully's facade of professionalism slipped. "You mean when you and--"

Embarrassment shaded Mulder's smile. "Yeah. Ripper got quite an eyeful." He shrugged at Scully's astonished glare. "Hey, I told you we were good friends. How do you think we met?"

"Buffy?" Giles stepped up behind her. "Who is it?" Buffy slipped sideways, away from the unnerving sensations that being close to him caused. He didn't notice--he was staring at the man standing outside. "What are you doing here?" he asked with a sudden smile. He pushed the door open wide.

Mulder came inside, and Scully followed him a step later. Buffy slipped behind them to close the door again. Grinning, Giles pulled Mulder into a hug, and the two men slapped each others' shoulders.

"Fox."

"Ripper."

They each stepped back a pace and said in unison, "I told you never to call me that!" and then laughed.

Scully looked the same way Buffy felt--completely out of her depth. How did Giles know this man Mulder? How did Mulder know about Giles' past, and his old nickname? And what kind of a name was 'Fox', anyway?

"So--how long has it been?" Giles asked, still shaking his head.

"Since you caught me with Phoebe?" Mulder's grin was directed at Scully this time. Her cheeks coloured a bit, but she said nothing.

"No, you ponce, since you left for Quantico." Giles gestured them farther into the room, and took their trenchcoats, tossing them over the back of the couch.

"Oh, fifteen years, give or take." Mulder's eyes roamed around the room, glancing at Buffy, still standing by the door, then at Willow and Xander, apparently frozen where they sat at the table. "Let me introduce my partner, Agent Scully."

"Of course," Giles said, turning to her. "I've heard quite a bit about you. And if I may say so, Mulder's taste certainly has improved since his freshman year."

Scully smiled a bit at that. "I'm sorry to say the opposite isn't true. Mulder's barely mentioned you."

"Ah, well." Giles arched an eyebrow at Mulder. "If you're half the skeptic he tells me you are, then that's probably for the best."

"Hey, hold on a sec," Buffy said, leaving her post by the door. "You mean he knows? About you? And--uh--all the rest of it?"

"Yes, he knows." Giles reached a hand out to her, and Buffy allowed herself to be drawn closer to him. "May I present Buffy Summers, my Slayer?" he said, and his voice was warm with affection. Buffy shivered under the weight of his arm. "And, of course, her friends--Willow Rosenberg and Xander Harris. The chosen few."

Buffy blushed at the stares of the two FBI agents. What right did Giles have to give away her secret identity--or his own, for that matter? Scully was looking at her like she were a specimen under a microscope--the kind of look that Willow directed at a computer right before she hacked into the most top-secret systems. Mulder was staring at her the way Xander looked at a pack of Twinkies when he was broke. She didn't know which look frightened her more.

Mulder cocked his head at Giles. "What happened to the Chosen One?" he asked.

"Things are--rather unique, here," Giles said. Buffy could hear the smile in his voice. "I haven't looked at the handbook in years."

Mulder nodded. "So your father was right after all--born a Watcher, always a Watcher?"

"There's more than one way to watch," Giles said.

Mulder burst out laughing. "You're never going to let me live that down, are you?"

"I'm quite certain I won't," Giles said. He gave Buffy a squeeze before letting her go. "Come sit down, tell us what brings you to Sunnydale."

"So, um, have I gone insane, or have a lot of weird things just happened?" Xander asked as they all settled around the table. "You guys are for real FBI agents?"

"Yeah," Willow chimed in. "Do you track down gunrunners and terrorists and drug cartels and money launderers and quasi-military fundamentalist right-wing neo-Klan NRA members?"

"Not quite," Scully answered with an ironic glance at Mulder.

"Mulder and Scully run a unit called the X-files," Giles said. "They investigate paranormal phenomena, as well as demon activity--in their own way."

"Hey, Willow, shouldn't you know that already?" Xander asked. "You've got all the ins. Why didn't you find them?"

Willow shrugged. "Purloined letter technique," she said.

"Huh?"

"Well, obviously they aren't hidden--so I didn't find them when I was looking for hidden stuff," she said. "But it's cool that the government doesn't toss all the demon hunters into basements."

"Actually, as far as the basement goes..." Mulder shrugged. "Well. Where the office is isn't the point. And we don't call them demons."

"Why not?" asked Xander.

"Because there's no such thing?" Scully asked rhetorically, and with a kind of futile hope.

Xander and Willow stared blankly at her. Buffy snickered to herself. Mulder and Giles exchanged a grin.

"Seven years," Mulder said, as though to himself.

Giles nodded. "Makes you work for it, hmm?"

Mulder gazed innocently at the ceiling. "I'm getting the feeling that you're in a similar position."

"Well--"

"Mulder, wait just a moment," Scully said. "We have never held conclusive proof of most of your paranormal phenomena, let alone some fairy tale demon creature. This is getting ridiculous."

Buffy shook her head. "If that's the way you think, then you were damn lucky to get here alive tonight," she said. "You can't just go walking around in the dark and and expect not to run into the things that go bump."

"As a matter of fact--" Mulder started, lifting a hand to his neck. Buffy peered closer and saw the edge of a bandage beneath his shirt collar.

"You got away," she said, and mentally let the pair rise a notch higher in her personal estimation. Still, that wasn't much. If Scully didn't believe at all, and Mulder thought this was all some great adventure, they were going to end up some vamp's dinner sooner rather than later.

"We ran into a lot more trouble with military authorities than with any creatures of the night," Scully said. "That, Mr. Giles, is why we've come to Sunnydale--because of reports of secret Department of Defense projects in the area."

"You know about the Initiative?" Willow exclaimed. Xander elbowed her. "I mean--oops."

Mulder smiled. "We--encountered them, yes. And a Professor Walsh told us quite firmly to keep our noses to ourselves."

"Which only increases your suspicion, of course," Giles said. "I've 'encountered' Maggie Walsh myself. Not an experience I'd care to repeat."

"Hey," Buffy said. "She's a good psych prof."

"Yeah, with an excellent T.A.," Willow said with a sly look. Buffy glared at her.

"Not Riley Finn, by any chance?" Scully asked. "He's her grad student, and a member of the Initiative."

Buffy winced. Now was not a good time to bring up Riley--not that any time really was. She preferred to keep her Slayer and her Initiative ties separate whenever possible. It was just too uncomfortable to bring Riley to the gang--look at how things had turned out tonight. "You met Riley?" she asked, tentatively, peeking at Giles sideways, and stupidly hoping for a negative answer. It was Riley who'd caused this weirdness between her and Giles. She didn't want to think about him or about tonight; she wondered how Giles felt about it. But he was only staring at her mildly. Damn his inscrutableness, anyway.

"Agent Finn was very helpful," Mulder said. He leaned back a bit in his chair and looked at Scully, the kind of glance that was supposed to convey a private conversation, but Buffy understood it as clearly as if they'd spoken aloud: Riley was a lunkhead, a Mom-and-apple-pie idiot who didn't know when to shut up.

"After talking with him, it's quite obvious that the Department of Defense has organised this covert unit," Scully said, "but without proof we can't bring it to the attention of our superiors, or stop the Initiative from interfering with the people they're using their prototype weapons on."

"Demons," Buffy said. "They catch demons and do experiments on them."

Scully said nothing, but Buffy could practically feel the other woman holding back an eye-roll. As master of the eye-roll in her own right, it was doubly irritating. "Look--" she started, slapping her hand on the table.

"Buffy..." Giles covered her hand with his. "Scully is a scientist; she needs to see the Pit for herself in order to believe. Remember how you felt when you were first called."

Buffy slumped back in her chair, sulking, but didn't pull her hand away. "I kinda got the point after I was attacked by my first vampire," she said. "What do you think did that?" She pointed at Mulder's neck.

"Given the evidence the police have gathered, I'd assume it was a gang member on PCP," Scully said. "Drug addicts under the influence of a powerful hallucinogen might believe that they have the abilities of such a creature, especially if their delinquent subculture encourages that belief."

Xander burst out laughing and Willow giggled. "Are they still running that old story?" he asked. "I thought they'd find a new one after Snyder got eaten."

Giles said, "Xander--"

Xander grinned. "I feel for the police, I really do. I mean, get these guys some better PR. I'd like to see a case that wasn't blamed on PCP--now that'd be a find." His smile withered under Scully's glare. "Um, okay, not good mocking the FBI lady. Shutting up now."

"Well, no matter what it was that attacked me," Mulder said, "the fact remains that we're here investigating a legitimate complaint. We're going to need some way of verifying what the Initiative is doing, and whether people are at risk."

"Ooh! Does that mean I get to do my soldier thing?" Xander asked. "'Cause Anya really likes me in my army stuff." Everyone turned to him again. "Uh, not that we ever had any sort of kinky role playing sex or anything while I was wearing--uh..."

"Poor Xander," Willow said. "Would you like us to pretend that your words are not our English words?"

"Maybe that would be best," Giles said. Xander blushed.

"Giles, I don't think I understood half of what was said here tonight--" Mulder said, with an impressed shake of his head, "but one thing is clear. I love the way you fight evil."

 


 

Mulder couldn't stop staring at Buffy. She seemed like a normal girl--a beautiful, sharp-witted girl, with a glare almost as stony as Scully's, but just a girl nonetheless. Yet every time he turned to her, he expected her to exhibit some sign of her supernatural powers. Scully still had no idea about the extent of Slayer lore, or exactly what Buffy's capabilities were. But he, at least, had some idea. It wasn't that he was overly credulous--he would love to get Buffy into a lab, see what kind of recordable, replicatable numbers they could get...strength, speed, healing abilities...if Scully could be convinced of half of it, she'd be more excited than when she'd dusted sulpher powder all over that invisible man.

But one look at Giles told him there was no way that was going to happen. Twenty years of friendship would be tossed out the window the instant he so much as suggested it.

Still, he wasn't going to let anything go undocumented as far as the Initiative was concerned. Buffy's description of the massive hospital and barracks below the campus were enough to make him want to grab the nearest shovel and start digging.

Well, maybe a backhoe.

When the stories were finished, Giles leaned back in his chair and glanced at Buffy, who nodded at Willow and Xander. The message was clear: the 'Scooby Gang', as they called themselves, had shared all the information they were likely to at a first meeting.

"I think we've detained Buffy from her patrol long enough," Giles said. He nodded to Scully. "Maybe she can escort you back to your hotel, since it's so late."

"Willow and me have holy water pistols and crosses," Xander said. "We'll be fine getting back to her dorm."

Giles raised an eyebrow at the boy. "And then let you walk halfway across town on your own? No, I think it's best if Buffy accompanies you. Safety in numbers."

Xander pulled a face, and Willow patted his arm. "Don't worry, I'm sure Buffy will let you take all the punches you need in order to feel macho."

"No, no, that's okay." Xander grinned sheepishly. "As long as no one sees her defending me, she's on pretty safe ground."

"Aw, you're incredibly manly, Xander," Buffy said. "The manliest. And I promise to kill any witness who'd say otherwise."

The three of them started to gather their papers and books together. Willow packed up her laptop and Xander pulled their coats from the closet. Giles touched Buffy's arm. "Do be careful out there."

Buffy shook her head. "As if I'm ever not. I think I'll check Shady Gardens, in case that nest's still hanging out. Probably the Bennett mausoleum again. Want a report when I'm done?"

"Only if there's something unusual." Giles gave her a shy half-grin. "Or if you want a cookie."

Buffy's smile brightened. "What I wouldn't kill for fresh-baked cookies at four in the morning..."

Mulder shook his head slightly. He suspected Buffy was speaking literally. He half-hoped they would be attacked again on the way to the motel so that he could see her in action. However, that would have to wait for another opportunity. If he could get Giles alone, he might be able to coax more out of him. Occasional letters--Giles always refused email--and keeping up with each other's publications in some of the more obscure journals didn't exactly nourish a friendship; still, the trust Giles had shown him back at Oxford surely hadn't died away entirely.

"Mind if I join you for a nightcap?" he asked Giles. Scully gave him a surprised glance. He didn't drink much--usually nothing beyond a beer or two--but tradition was a far better tongue-loosener than abstention.

Giles took off his glasses to wipe them. "If you don't mind sleeping on the couch. I wouldn't send a friend out into a night like Sunnydale's."

"The couch would be better than you know." Mulder turned to Scully. "We can do some catching up on old times. Tomorrow we're going to have to rent a car, I suppose, but for tonight you don't mind going with Buffy, do you?"

Surprise turned to annoyance--she assumed he was patronizing her, again. "What about Buffy herself?" she asked. She looked at the kids waiting by the door. "Didn't you say you lived in the dorms as well?"

"Yeah. Willow's my roommate." Buffy shrugged. "Don't worry, we'll do you first. It's on the way."

"But won't that mean you'll be coming back alone?"

Mulder tried not to grin as the three young people exchanged baffled looks, the kind that indicated Scully was hammering on the obvious. Scully frowned at them. "I am armed," she said.

"Yeah..." Xander said slowly. "So are we." They all pulled out sharpened wooden sticks from various pockets.

"Agent Scully," Giles said. "I'm sorry, but I'm afraid that with your beliefs, you're in the minority here. Of course in most cities, your training would make you the best choice to brave the streets alone. But when in Sunnydale..."

"...you do like the Slayer says," Buffy finished. "No offense."

Scully turned her frown on Mulder. He gave her a shrug, rather enjoying that for once, he wasn't the one being treated like a crazy person. "Maybe we should try to blend with the natives."

"You can have one of my stakes, if you want," Willow offered. "Or, uh...not," she added, at Scully's incredulous look.

"No, um...thank you...Willow." Scully pulled a pained smile. "I suppose I'm just not used to the so-called 'hellmouth' yet."

"It's like jetlag," Mulder deadpanned. Scully glared at him. He was going to pay for that later. He grabbed her coat for her and went with her to the door. "I'll meet you at the motel around nine. We can go to the morgue and ask to see their recent neck traumas."

"Won't that be fun," Scully said. "As long as you don't stick me with more autopsies, Mulder, we'll be fine. And I, for one, would like to speak with Professor Walsh's superiors."

Mulder nodded. "Maybe we can convince Mr. Finn to help us further."

Xander snickered. "We'll get Buffy do the convincing," he said. Buffy whacked his arm.

"Would you really threaten a human?" Mulder asked. "I thought they were taboo to Slayers."

Xander chortled again. "No, no, you don't get it. We'll get Buffy to do the convincing." He waggled his eyebrows and got another whack, harder, and he winced. "Okay, okay, the Xandman's humour is not appreciated. I get it."

"Come on, Xander," Willow said. "Let's get you home before you commit suicide-by-Slayer-baiting. Don't you have an ice cream truck to drive tomorrow?"

Xander's smile fell. "You had to say it."

Buffy grabbed his arm and shoved him outside. "Let's go, King of the Road."

Willow stepped out after them. Scully paused to give Mulder one last lingering glare before following. He gave her his best innocent look, but it was one she'd learned to see through a long time ago. She was humouring him by going with Buffy and the others, more for the sake of his chat with Giles than because of the Hellmouth. Still, by the time they met up tomorrow, she'd probably know more than he did about the workings of this little group. Willow and Xander were both prone to babbling, and Scully could pull the threads together better than anyone else he knew. Now all he had to do was convince Giles to open up and share.

Experience told him it would be a long night.

 


 

Buffy stepped into the small courtyard outside Giles' place and waited for the twitchy-tingle feeling of vamps creeping up on her. There was nothing nearby, so she nodded to Xander and Willow. "You're at the motel?" she asked Scully. "Down by the docks?"

Scully joined them as they walked down to the street. "Yes. But I still think it's unnecessary--"

Xander shook his head. "Sorry, Agent Scully. You're stuck with us now. We can be pretty stubborn--you should see Willow's resolve face."

"Plus we'd feel bad if, you know, you were bloodily dismembered," Willow said. "It'd be a bad way to make your appointment at the morgue tomorrow."

Scully nodded slowly. "Have you been doing this long?" she asked. She didn't say which 'this', but the way she said it made it sound like she meant 'sharing this delusion'. Buffy made a disgusted noise in the back of her throat, but softly enough that everyone could pretend not to hear.

"Since we were in high school," Willow said. "Sophomores."

"The Buffster let the cat out of the bag on the first day," Xander added. "The Clark Kent thing didn't exactly work out. I think if she had glasses--"

"Or if you didn't eavesdrop," Buffy said, annoyed.

"Whoa." Xander held up his hands in defense, only half-joking. "And where would you be if I hadn't?"

Buffy looked at her feet. "Sorry," she muttered. She hadn't meant to offend him, but they really didn't need to be going into this. Mulder might be a friend of Giles', but that didn't automatically include the FBI agents in the club. And Scully's expression--a kind of scientific 'what a fascinating ethnography paper I could write about these strange people' look--was starting to get on her nerves.

Willow rushed to fill the silence. "So, uh, Agent Scully--with the X-Files--I guess you've seen a lot of stuff. Demons, or not-demons, or whatever you call them when you don't call them demons."

"Ooh!" Xander jumped in. "Ever date a somebody who turned out to be a demon?"

Scully hesitated. "I have seen things that I can't explain," she said. "However, as a scientist--I believe the answers are there, if you know where to look."

"I'd love to have the answer about why I keep dating demons," Xander said, grinning at Scully.

"Because she said she'd have sex with him," Willow mumbled to Buffy. Buffy gave a snort of laughter.

"The fact remains," Scully said to Xander, ignoring Willow's remark, "that what most people call aliens, or demons, or magic, is usually simply a scientific phenomena that they don't understand. That's my part in the X-Files--to provide that understanding."

"Huh." Xander nodded. "So--really nothing, like--I don't know--giant fish monsters in the sewers?"

Scully winced. "Well--in New Jersey--"

"Or people lighting on fire for no good reason?"

"Yes, once, but he--"

"Or guys who turn into wolves during the full moon?"

"I have met a man who claimed that he did--"

"Or zombies?"

"Uh, last month--"

Xander was nodding now. "But you don't call them demons."

Willow elbowed him. "Werewolves aren't demons, anyway."

"And zombies are zombies," Buffy added, smiling now, but feeling kind of sorry for Scully, who looked like admitting all this stuff left a disgusting taste in her mouth. She could understand it if Scully was a regular person under the influence of Sunnydale's stupidification field. But somebody who fought demons for a living really should be better at suspending her disbelief. "Plus that whole fire-lighting thing was Amy's mom," she added, to be fair.

"Oh, that's another one," Xander said. "Body switching!"

"No," Scully said firmly. "That's definitely never happened."

"So what does Agent Mulder call them, if they aren't demons?" Willow asked.

Scully shook her head slightly. "Mulder believes in aliens."

"Like, from-another-planet-type aliens?" At Scully's nod, Willow said, "Well, see, now on that I agree with you. Scientifically speaking, the chances of life evolving on another planet and then wasting massive energy resources to come and start bugging us are, like, practically nothing."

Scully smiled. "I'd like to be there when you tell him that."

"Sure." Willow nodded. "Anyway, what most people call aliens--I mean, grays--are mostly tourists from one of the nicer hell dimensions."

Scully's smile faded. She seemed about to speak, then stopped. Buffy grinned at Willow. Obviously they were overwhelming Scully with their experience. Too bad for her. Let her stay in Sunnydale a week, and she'd see more than she had in all her years on the X-Files. Then let her deny what was right in front of her. They were nearly to the motel, and that was totally of the good, because it wasn't much further to Xander's house, and then she could circle back with Willow to the dorms before making a quick sweep of the cemeteries. She was tired, and she wasn't sure she wanted to stop in with Giles afterward, but since he'd gotten turned into a Fyarl demon, she figured it was best to check on him. That time, she'd come too close to losing him, and she wasn't about to let anything happen to him again. Plus, she wasn't sure she trusted Mulder to let Giles get the sleep he needed. He'd been looking tired recently. She frowned and rubbed her arms. There was a sudden burst of twitchy-tingle, and she stopped. The others took a few steps further, then looked back at her.

"Wait." Buffy turned to the bushes that screened the fence beside them.

"Vampire?" asked Willow.

Buffy nodded.

"All right! This'll show you," Xander told Scully. "When you see it go poof--"

Buffy scowled at the bushes. "Not this one. Spike, get out of there. I can see your hair."

Spike stepped out into the streetlights, eyeing Scully. "Who's this, then?" he asked. "You throwing membership open to the masses?"

Buffy didn't answer. "What do you want, Spike?"

"What, a fellow can't take a walk in peace in this town anymore?" Spike was still leering at Scully.

Buffy took him by the collar, tossing him back into the bushes hard enough that he thudded against the stone wall. Scully raised an eyebrow at her. Buffy sighed--she'd hoped she wouldn't have to show her strength, but Spike would follow her all over Sunnydale if she didn't beat whatever he wanted to say out of him quickly. And she was still feeling the slay-itch from earlier that evening.

"He's a vampire?" Scully asked, watching Spike dust off his coat and reemerge from the bushes. Buffy cracked her knuckles, her annoyance growing. This was in no shape or form her ideal evening. First Riley acting the ass. Then that--whatever it was--with Giles. Now Spike was probably going to try and con her into buying him blood in exchange for some info that would prove useless. Scully's skepticism, on top of all that, was pretty much the last straw.

"Yes, he's a vampire. And no, I can't prove it." She crossed her arms. "Come on, Spike, I don't have all night."

"I try to help out and look what happens." Spike glared at her. "You're not making this worth my while, Slayer."

"He helps you?" Scully asked next. "Isn't he some soulless evil creature driven by bloodlust and the need to kill?"

Spike turned to Scully with a predatory smile. "Now her, I like."

"He's chipped," Xander said.

"What?"

"He can't hurt humans," Willow explained. "The Initiative did it to him, fiddled with his brain."

"He's not scary now, are you, fangless?" Xander taunted. "Can't eat the little happy meals on legs anymore, can we? Now why don't you show the nice lady your vamp face? She'd like to see."

"Your face changes," Scully said. It wasn't so much a question as a flat denial.

"Not at the drop of a hat," Spike said petulantly. "A little blood, a little fear--the smell of fear, now, that would do it. Not all this standing about, hey Spike, show us your game-face. I need the romance."

"Hmm," Scully said. "Of course."

"I can!" Spike started wiggling his eyebrows and growling to himself. "Just a second--"

"Not now, Spike," Buffy said. "What did you want to tell us?"

"Newbie git in the cemetery." Spike prodded at his forehead with his fingers. "Straight out of the ground, he was. Followed his blood. He'd picked five bullets out of himself. Thought you'd want to know, somebody's been getting all vigilante, but not too smart about it. I staked what was left of his heart."

Buffy, Xander, and Willow looked at Scully. "That was me," she said.

Spike stopped trying to vamp out. "You?" he asked, impressed. "Crack shot. Lucky he wasn't older. But you really want to put the fear into them, you might try something a little more wooden."

"Or something like this?" Scully pulled out her necklace and dangled the small gold cross at Spike. He jumped back with a roar, then looked back with a grin that showed off his fangs.

"There, that's done it," he said. "Told you I could."

Scully's eyes widened. "How did you do that?" she asked.

"I think you did it," Xander said, laughing. "Nice look, Spike--I liked the abject terror part."

"Amazing. You really have faith in the cross as a symbol of danger." Scully reached out to touch the wrinkled skin above Spike's eyes, feeling the line of his scar as it ran through his eyebrow. "Low body temperature could indicate a thyroid problem. These lumps...inflatable, with an emotional trigger? Surgically implanted beneath the skin? And the dental work alone must have been extensive...Have you ever been x-rayed in this condition?"

Spike jerked away from her fingers. "Surgically?" he growled. "This is me!"

Buffy rolled her eyes. "Wow, that is something, all right. Those darn doctors and their weird cosmetic surgeries. Well, I guess you've told us everything, Spike. Maybe we can get to the motel before I die of all the not-sleeping I've been enjoying recently?"

"Hah! That's not all," Spike said. He shook away the vamp face with a disgusted glare at Scully. "But I'm not talking until I get some blood."

"Fine. But Willow's already cracked the Initiative's computer system, so I doubt you know more than we do," Buffy said airily. She flicked her fingers at Willow, hoping she would get the point and agree.

"Yeah? Red got in?" Spike said. "You magic your way through the passwords?"

"Um, that's right!" Willow said, giving Buffy a nervous look. "I, uh, I used that wild and crazy witch magic that is mine to command. And, uh, so don't try and bluff us, Spike. Because I, I have the encryptions figured out. And Tara helped with the spells."

"Oh, right," Spike said. "Then you won't need to hear it from me, after all. 'Course, if you're ever interested...the price just went up." He quirked an eyebrow at them, then in a swirl of his leather coat, he turned away. "You know where to find me, Slayer," he said, leaping over the wall into the cemetery on the other side.

"Damn." Buffy took a step towards the wall, then realized she couldn't leave Xander and Willow, let alone Scully.

"Sorry, Buffy," Willow said. "I, I'm not much with the lying on the spot. Give me an hour to prepare, and I could--but not--well, anyway."

Buffy shook her head. "It's okay, Will. But you are getting closer, right?" They started on the last few blocks before the motel.

Willow gave a so-so wave of her hand. "The Initiative knows what they're doing. I'm working on it, but it'll take a while."

"You wouldn't, by any chance, go by the alias Red Witch?" Scully asked suddenly.

Willow did a deer-in-the-headlights double-take. "Um...yeah?"

Scully nodded. "You do impressive work," she said. "I know three people who would be very interested in meeting you."

"They're not hard-nosed FBI interrogators, are they?" Xander asked. "Good cop, bad cop, hot pokers and tweezers cop?"

"Hardly." Scully smiled. "Just some interested parties who would worship the keyboard you type at. Part of the reason we came out here was to investigate Red Witch."

Willow gave a shy smile. "Wow." Then she frowned. "I think I'll go rewrite my backdoors, though."

"That's probably a good idea. I trust each of these guys separately--well, two of them--but together..."

"Evil can result," Xander said, nodding wisely. "Geeks are like that."

They entered the motel parking lot, and Scully led the way to her room. "Well, it certainly has been...interesting," she said.

"Probably it's going to get interestinger before it gets boring again," Buffy said. "It does that, around here."

Scully nodded. "I'm familiar with the pattern."

Buffy looked at Willow and Xander. "All right. Let's get going."

It would be another late night. And the thought of seeing Riley again--in her way-too-early psych class--was not a happy one. She did want to see Giles before she went home, though. And--well, see him. Make sure he was okay. Not that there was any reason he shouldn't be, but--

Buffy shook her head. Maybe, for once, she didn't need a reason. Seeing him would be enough.

end: unfinished