Music was pouring loudly from the jukebox in the corner and the crowded restaurant was reverberating with the voices of families and young adults. It wasn’t the fanciest of eateries. The Italianesque theme décor ran to red checkered vinyl tablecloths and darkly painted wall murals of peasants and farm landscapes hidden under faux grapevines. There was a widely varied price range on the menu that featured everything from pizza to steak, the bulk of the list leaning heavily toward pastas and sauced entrees. It was a popular place with the twenty to thirty year old crowd and on that particular evening there were several tables of younger people occupying the alcoves toward the back of the main room, among them Buffy and her friends.

The teens were nearly finished with their meal, having spent the early evening hours gossiping and grazing their way through two large pizzas and various other menu items on the side. Night shadows had gradually lengthened as the sky darkened outside and the first stars made their appearance. It was getting late, but the four teens continued to linger over their sodas and the few bites of food left on the plates before them.

“Oooo! I love this song!” Buffy smiled, humming along with the music from the jukebox, her mouth energetically chewing to the fast driving tempo. Oz lapsed into musician mode, obliging the group with an air guitar solo. The entire gang soon began dancing in their seats, heads bobbing in synchronous rhythm to a popular song. Oblivious to the world around them, they were simply four young friends out having a good time.

The song wound down to its final measures and a momentary semblance of calm returned to the table full of teenagers. Xander’s eye roved over the remains of their meal, spotting a lone slice of pizza on the platter in front of him. He made a quick grab for the wedge but was arrested in mid-reach as a slender arm shot out, gripping his wrist firmly. Glancing up, he found himself facing Buffy’s challenging glare.

“Come on, Buff! You’re still eating that piece,” Xander protested, pointing to the remaining small portion of crust on the girl’s plate. “This baby’s got my name on it.”

“You’ll back off if you know what’s good for you,” the blonde told him, scowling menacingly as she held his hand back from the slice. “Or would you like to fight me for it?”

The dark haired boy seemed to consider the idea briefly, then sagely backed down, meekly acknowledging defeat. Xander slumped back in the booth, dejectedly watching his classmate claim her prize and trying not to notice her triumphant gloat of victory.

“You may have won this time,” he muttered grudgingly. “But you’ll get yours. Wait and see. Every bite of that slice of pizza is going to come back and haunt you the next time you step on a scale.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Buffy frowned at the boy. “I need the extra calories, for my slaying. I’m a growing girl, you know.”

“Oh, yeah,” Xander snorted derisively in reply, one eyebrow creeping upward toward his hairline. “We just won’t mention what direction that particular slice will happen to make you grow.”

“That’s low, Xander,” Willow complained in defense of her female friend. She gave the dark haired boy a disapproving glower and kicked his ankle under the table.

“Precisely what I was thinking,” Xander continued his teasing, wincing as he withdrew his leg out of range from any further attack. “It all eventually ends up down low, right on those ol’ hips.”

Before Buffy could remark on her classmate’s bitting comment, Oz noticed something across the room. There was a faint flickering of expression on his stoic face as he leaned forward, interjecting himself into the escalating argument and changing the subject.

“Don’t look now,” he told the others, nodding toward the restaurant’s entrance. “But I think Buffy’s ride is here.”

The blonde twisted around in her seat. Coming across the busy room toward them was Giles, and he didn’t look happy. He was negotiating his way awkwardly between the tight tables filled with squirming children and their parents, barely avoiding the sauce dripping fingers that threatened to reach out and touch him from every side.

Buffy groaned, realizing that she hadn’t been keeping track of the time. She had promised Giles that afternoon they would meet at the library and she would ride with him when they went to their rendezvous with Wesley later. It was obviously later now and once again she had blown it. A twinge of guilt overcame the teen and she crouched down in her seat, trying to fade into the crowd and become invisible, but the librarian had already spotted them. By the dour look on his face, she could tell she was in big trouble.

“Do you have any idea what time it is?” the Brit demanded sternly, yelling to be heard over the blare of loud music. He stood beside their table, his tall figure towering over them, looking totally out of place in the casual atmosphere of the restaurant with his vested tweed suit and tie. But Giles was seemingly oblivious to his surroundings, his attention focused on the young blonde that meekly cowered at the back of the booth.

“Uhhh,” Buffy stalled, chewing on the crust from her plate that she had stuffed into her mouth. The Englishman held up his arm, pointing to his wrist with its old-fashioned analog watch. Squinting, the blonde tried to read the Roman-style numerals. “Mmmmm, well,” she started, mumbling around her mouthful of food. “The little hand is on the V, I, I and the big one is on the X and I, so that means…” she frowned, looking first toward her companions who offered no help, and then back toward the impatient Brit. “I’m late?” she finished lamely.

“For heaven’s sake, Buffy!” the agitated librarian cut her off. “We don’t have time to dawdle. Come along!”

“Okay! Okay!” Wiping her fingers on a napkin, she took another gulp from her near empty glass. “Lighten up, will you, Giles? It’s not like it’s the apocalypse, you know.” Reaching for her purse, Buffy began to rummage though its contents. “So, what’s the damage guys. How much do I owe?”

“Let’s see,” Xander said, his face contorting in a thoughtful grimace as he mentally added up the absent bill of fare, calculating the blonde’s share of the charge on his fingers. “You had two cokes and the salad bar, right? Plus how many slices of pizza?”

“Oh, really!” Giles wore an expression of complete exasperation, quickly losing any patience he might have possessed. Reaching into his pocket he pulled out his wallet, thumbing it open. He hastily slapped several bills down on the table before shoving the leather billfold back into place again. “Now, please hurry!” he encouraged Buffy, hovering nervously as the teens rearranged themselves and she slid out of the booth. “We’re already late.”

Buffy waved to her friends, allowing the flustered librarian to usher her out of the restaurant. Back at the table, Xander watched her disappear out the door, grinning broadly as he scooped up the last abandoned slice of pizza from his companion’s plate and bit into it with great relish. Glancing down at the cash the Englishman had left with them, Willow’s eyes went wide, her jaw dropping open in surprised disbelief.

“Wow!” she remarked in an awed tone. She snatched up the fan of money, thumbing through the bills as she counted them. “Do you think Giles meant to pay for everyone? ‘Cause there’s enough here to cover it.”

“Of course,” Xander replied, licking spicy tomato sauce from his lips. “He can afford it. He’s the one with the job, remember?”

Xander wolfed down the last few bites of reclaimed pizza, savoring every mouthful to its utmost as his classmates watched him. With a satisfied sigh he sat back, stretching out and smiling at his companions. For a moment the three teens looked at each other, saying nothing. Then their minds suddenly clicked with a shared idea.

“Who’s for dessert?” Xander said, voicing first what they had all been thinking.

“I’m in,” Oz nodded.

“Me, too,” Willow beamed, waving the bills clenched in her fist.

“Garconess?” Xander signaled and caught the eye of a nearby waitress. “A round of Brownie Fudge sundaes, please.”

“We should do this more often,” Oz remarked as the waitress hurried off to fill their order. The others quickly agreed and settled back to wait for their desert to arrive.

Buffy scurried after the Englishman, trying to keep up as he crossed the parking lot with long, hurried strides. As he pulled opened the driver’s side door of his vintage sixties Citroen coupe, the girl paused and gave the battered vehicle a hard, critical look. It had definitely seen better days, having gone through more than its fair share of repairs in the years she’d known Giles. On those occasions when she or her gang of Slayerettes had jokingly suggested the librarian trade in the old car for something trendier or at least reliable, they were met with a castigating stare of disgruntlement from the Brit. He stubbornly refused to replace the outdated automobile, claiming his chosen mode of transportation suited him quite fine. Buffy had a much less favorable opinion of the tank-like relic that was known for its undependable engine and the difficulties it had in achieving anything resembling a reasonable speed limit.

“If we’re really in that much of a hurry, Giles, maybe we should walk,” Buffy teased, tugging open the passenger door and peering inside the car’s dimly lit interior at the worn seat upholstery.” This thing isn’t exactly ready to run the Indy 500.”

“Just get in,” Giles grumbled, sliding in behind the wheel. He jammed his key into the ignition with a twist and the car groaned, its ancient gears grinding in protest at being forced into service. Buffy shrugged and dropped down onto the low seat, yanking the heavy door shut with a slam that caused the vehicle to tremble ominously beneath her. She waited as Giles performed a complicated combination of synchronized wrist and ankle gyrations, pumping his foot on the accelerator pedal and wrestling with the key as he attempted to coax the car to life.

The engine caught at last and Giles threw the car into reverse with a creak of the clutch, backing out of his parking space. Another shift of gears and the car bucked violently, shuddering before it lurched forward, the Brit steering the vehicle through the parking lot with an uncharacteristic recklessness that had Buffy unconsciously gripping the edge of her seat. She inhaled with a sharp audible hiss as Giles cut the wheel roughly with a jerk to one side, narrowly missing the rear bumper of a red pick-up truck as he swung out the exit and directly into traffic without so much as slowing down. Ignoring the irate blare of a horn from behind the Englishman aimed his vehicle into the leftmost lane and entered into what passed for Sunnydale’s version of a downtown traffic jam.

Usually a very cautious driver, Giles’ foot was riding the accelerator heavily as he swerved erratically from lane to lane, advancing a car length here and there in an attempt to make up for lost time. The librarian sped through yellow signal lights he would normally have stopped for on other days and coasted blatantly through a stop sign at an intersection on a less traveled side street. He even took a shortcut through a busy filling station, zooming in one entrance and quickly out another to avoid traffic piled up at another corner. When Giles actually laid his hand to the car’s horn, cutting off an unsuspecting motorist trying to back out of his driveway, Buffy knew the Englishman wasn’t acting like himself.

“You’re sure in a mood tonight,” Buffy muttered through nervously clenched teeth, glancing sideways at the librarian. Giles’ face was set in a stern mask as he concentrated on his driving, eyes fixed vacantly on the road ahead. He either hadn’t heard or was choosing to ignore her comment, Buffy couldn’t be sure which. She pouted thoughtfully and tried another line. “I hear they make a pill now for PMS,” she said to the Brit, hoping to get a reaction from him. “Maybe we could stop off at the drugstore for you on the way.”

“I beg your pardon?” the Brit replied in distraction, a frown tightening his mouth. “You were saying?”

“Nothing,” Buffy sighed, leaning against the door.

They drove along in silence for the next mile, heading toward the outer city limits of Sunnydale. As the blocks rolled by, Giles eventually showed the first signs of calming, his driving technique becoming less spastic and returning to its usual reserved cautiousness. Buffy relaxed enough to stretch out in her seat and watch as the scenery of downtown businesses gradually disappeared and were replaced by small older homes in a less prosperous area of town. Several uncomfortably long minutes passed and the librarian turned to speak to his young passenger.

“Buffy,” Giles started, trying with some difficulty to keep his voice level and untainted with anger. “Do you realize how long I waited for you tonight at the library? You promised me that you wouldn’t be late.”

“Sorry, Giles” the girl apologized contritely. “I guess I was having too much fun and lost track of the time.”

“I see,” the Englishman grumbled, accepting her simple explanation. His expression of disappointment said a lot more, that he did not necessarily approve of the offered excuse. “This is the third occasion this week that you didn’t show when you were expected,” he complained to the teen. “I do wish you would learn to take these things a bit more seriously.”

“You want serious?” the girl questioned, turning to face her companion. “I can do serious.” Carefully composing her features in a fair imitation of the Englishman’s dour expression, she proceeded to mock his clipped accent. “Look at me. I’m exceedingly serious. Tediously boring. Please be good enough to stop me if it should appear I were having fun.”

Giles glanced her way, his frown deepening. He did not look impressed by the performance. Sighing, Buffy gave up on her teasing and regarded her mentor with a straight face.

“All right, Giles,” she said to the older man. “Something’s eating you. What is it?” She paused, thinking about the wording of her question. “Okay. Maybe not the best way to phrase it considering we live on a Hellmouth where the answer could be any one of a gazillion demons, but you know what I mean. You’re really uptight today, even for you. Something’s got your British up. What’s wrong? Spill.”

“Nothing is wrong,” he replied, but she could hear the hard edge in his denial. “I merely believe that someone of your age could be a bit more responsible, not to mention punctual.”

“Responsible?” Buffy echoed incredulously, her green eyes wide. “You think I’m not responsible? Excuse me! But who else in this car has had to give up on all the fun of a normal life to be the Chosen One? Let’s have a show of hands.” She raised her own arm alone and gave the Englishman a pointed look. “I slay and I slay, and do I ever get any thanks? Does anyone cut me a break on my homework or make my tests any easier because I have to go out and patrol for vampires instead of staying home to study? No! So, once in a while I want to relax and unwind with my buds, kick back and enjoy a night out on the town. What’s the bad with that I ask?”

“I understand that you have an unusual burden being a slayer, Buffy,” Giles grudgingly conceded. “And while I can appreciate the difficulties inherent in juggling such a dual life, it’s no excuse for what happened tonight.”

“Oh, great! I’m a couple minutes late and you go all Norman Bates on me,” the blonde retorted with a pout. Brushing a stray lock of blonde hair from her eyes she flopped back in her seat, arms folded across her chest. “That’s so not fair, Giles.”

“Life was never meant to be fair,” the Brit responded philosophically. “And the quicker you realize that fact, the sooner you will grow up.”

“Giles, have a care. I’m eighteen and still in high school. Graduation isn’t for another couple months. Can’t I wait a little longer to grow up?” Buffy asked plaintively. “These are supposed to be the happy, carefree days of my misspent youth, the times I look back on years from now with great fondness and warm, fuzzy feelings of nostalgic longing. There’s this unwritten code thing that says I’m required to go to parties, date boys, have senseless fun.” Buffy gave the librarian a surly look. “You remember what fun is, don’t you, Giles?” she inquired, her voice dripping with unrestrained bitterness. When the Brit didn’t reply, she sighed and closed her eyes, arms dropping in limp resignation at her sides. “Okay. I’m ready. Let’s have it.”

“Ready?” Giles responded with one eyebrow lifted in quizzical confusion. “Ready for what?”

“The Lecture.” Buffy said, her curved fingers making sarcastic quote marks in the air. “You know, the one that starts out ‘when I was your age”, fill in the blank, blah, blah, blah.”

In spite of himself, Giles cracked a brief grin. “I’m afraid I don’t know that one yet. You’ll have to teach it to me so that I may add it to my repertoire.”

Buffy turned to stare at the Englishman. His expression was no longer strained or somber. Whatever had been causing his dark mood had been forgotten, or at least set aside for the moment. She smiled, relieved that the uncomfortable cloud of negative emotions between them had finally passed and Giles was back to his old self again.

“No lecture?” she asked, feigning deep disappointment.

“No lecture,” he repeated, a faint smile tugging at his mouth. “However, I feel we cannot continue to ignore this chronic propensity toward tardiness that you seem to be developing. Something must be done to correct this unfortunate habit. Perhaps a nice watch might be in order. That is, if you would actually bother to look at it once in a while,” he continued in a slightly exasperated tone, peering out of the corner of his eye toward the teen. “What do you think?”

“A new watch would be decent,” Buffy admitted, quickly warming to the idea. “You offering to buy? ‘Cause I hear they’re having a big twenty percent off sale at Lazler’s this weekend,” she said, mentioning a local store that dealt in fine jewelry.

“I believe I might be persuaded to spare an hour or so of time from my busy social calendar this weekend for an excursion to the mall,” Giles responded drolly, his smile gradually broadening.

“A shopping trip!” Buffy squealed, beaming excitedly in anticipation of the chance to pursue a favored pastime. “Giles, you sure know how to make a girl happy.”

“And you thought I was too old for that sort of thing,” the Brit chuckled.

“I take it all back,” Buffy replied earnestly. “Any guy that offers to spend money on a girl ought to qualify as dateworthy, no matter how old he is.”

“Yes, well,” the Englishman dryly commented, taking umbrage at Buffy’s slight about his supposedly advanced age. “Flattering as I’m sure you meant that to be, I expect a relationship to be based on something more substantial than the potential of my bank account.”

“Geez, Giles!” Buffy protested with an askance roll of her eyes. “I wasn’t talking about you and me! Do you even realize how desperate a girl would have to be before she thought about dating a librarian? That’s like social suicide. Personally, I’d rather die a lonely old spinster before I ever had to sink that low. Just the thought of it makes my skin crawl. And don’t even get me started on that other thing about being old. Ewww!”

Giles felt his wounded pride slip another notch as he noticed the teen shudder, her face wrinkling in an expression of undeniable disgust. Not that he’d ever had a desire to pursue a relationship of that type with someone half his age, and it hadn’t been what he’d been talking about anyway. But it did seem to him quite ironic that Buffy would object so vehemently to the idea when her own paramour was an undead man over two centuries old. And yet she herself would probably not admit to the duality of her personal tenet concerning this obvious double standard of age discrimination. After all, he could imagine she would argue, unlike him, Angel was a very young looking two hundred and forty plus years old.

“What I meant was,” Buffy was continuing to talk on, unmindful of the Brit’s silent brooding. “Maybe it’s time you got out and found yourself a significant other type of person. You’re not getting any younger, you know. A guy like you only has so many good years left in him before things stop working or start falling off. Kind of like this car,” the teen added as the Citroen’s overtaxed engine made a series of strange noises that were unlike any it had given forth before.

”There is nothing wrong with this car,” the librarian retorted a bit sharply, though even he found the latest sounds emanating from under the hood less than encouraging. “Or, for that matter, with me,” he muttered defensively.

“I never said there was,” Buffy countered in amusement. She realized that she had managed to strike a sensitive chord in the Englishman’s psyche. A mischievous glint flashed in her eyes as she began to tease her companion further. “It’s not like you’re that bad looking, Giles. I mean, for someone in your particular age bracket. Why I just bet that there are scads of older women out there with great personalities beating down the door to your apartment every night. It must be a real pain for you.”

“Not nearly so bad as the one you’re giving me,” the Brit grumbled with ill humor.

Buffy grinned, enjoying her older friend’s reactions as she pressed his emotional buttons. At times Giles could be so predictable. It was fun watching someone so stuffy and inhibited squirm under her calculated needling. She knew just how far she could push the hapless Englishman before he would explode and she carefully baited him along to that point, taking care not to get too cruel or sadistic, keeping her insults annoying, but harmless.

They drove along for several more minutes, with Buffy chatting and teasing her mentor in a non-stop monologue. Giles’ ancient car strained to keep within the speed limit, its driver carefully negotiating through what little traffic they happened to encounter. Along the way to the rendezvous point, they made a brief detour, and stopped off one of Sunnydale's less infamous run down hotels to pick up their final passenger, Faith.

Like Buffy, Faith was a vampire slayer. It sounded simple enough, but the whys and hows of explaining Faith were actually more complicated than that. Since the origin of the first slayer and her Watcher, every generation of man had known one girl as "The Chosen One". A slayer died, and a new girl was immediately called. But the Powers That Be who were in charge of these callings apparently hadn't figured man's medical ingenuity into their formula. When a vampire known as the Master had killed Buffy several years back, her friend Xander had managed to revive her using CPR. Buffy had gone on to destroy the Master, but somehow, her death, brief as it was, set in motion the trigger for the next slayer, Kendra. Now there were two active "Chosen Ones". It was a phenomenon that the Council of Watchers had never before encountered, and they were baffled as to how they should handle the situation.

Eventually, it was decided that, with her greater experience, Buffy would remain at the Hellmouth, while Kendra was sent back to her former Watcher for additional training. Kendra made another appearance many months later, returning to Sunnydale to help Buffy fight a "dark power" that had arisen, and in the service of her duty, Kendra was killed. And, just as tradition had always dictacted, when the young slayer died, her powers were passed on, and Faith became the next slayer in line to be called.

When Faith showed up in Sunnydale without a Watcher, the Council ordered Giles to take charge of her until someone else was sent out. The librarian found himself with two rambunctious adolescent slayers, neither of which seemed to show much concern for rules. As wild as Buffy had been, she was decidedly more disciplined than Faith, who lived to fight, and seemed to have a natural apptitued for her slaying. It was unfair to judge who was the more superior slayer, each girl having their own unique approach to their duty, but it soon became apparent to Giles that Buffy was the more reliable of the two, and though he tried not to play favorites, he found himself expecting "his" slayer to take on the role of the "good one".

Of course, all that was before Giles was fired. When Wesley came and took charge of the situation, Giles was reduced to the status of an outsider. He refused to abandon Buffy and Faith, compromising himself to work alongside Wesley as his "helper", aiding in research, and giving out advice. He had even gone out of his way to convice Buffy that it was in all their best interest to cooperate with her newly assigned Watcher, and the blonde teen had begrudgingly agreed to be on her best behavior.

Faith, however, was another matter entirely. She had no respect at all for Wesely, or his position of command. Tonight proved to be yet another chance for her to flaunt that authority, and after telling Buffy and Giles that she had "better things to do than babysit a Princes Margaret pantywuss", she left to go out on patrol alone, leaving the Watcher and slayer to pile back into the old Citreon, and headed off on their rendezvous with Wesley.

Eventually they turned down an unfamiliar side street, and after consulting a map for directions, went first through an older neighborhood of tiny homes on cramped little lots, and then a little used business district with many derelict offices and run-down storefronts. Slowing to a crawl, Giles made a left turn between two buildings, his vehicle nearly scraping a pair of overflowing dumpsters that crowded the narrow alley. He braked to a halt, the Citroen continuing to ride forward several more feet before it finally rolled to a stop behind a familiar blue van. Immediately the other vehicle’s door flew opened, and a slim figure stepped out. Buffy recognized the man hurriedly approaching their car. It was Wesley, her “new” Watcher.

An involuntary groan escaped from Buffy as the impeccably dressed young man came alongside the driver’s side door. She didn’t like Wesley. He was a "by the rules Watcher" and she was not a slayer that worked well within such structured confinement. She understood a need for discipline in training, but when it came down to actual fighting, she preferred using her own set of rules and a certain amount of creative license. So far it had worked out for her quite well. She was still alive.

Along with his expectation that she unquestioningly obey his so called rules, Wesley emphatically believed in all the strict protocol and tradition associated with his time-honored vocation as a Watcher, and he wasted no opportunity to drive this point home with his American slayer. Within minutes at their first meeting Buffy had decided she couldn’t stand the tall, dark-haired man with his self-serving smugness and annoying dependence on doing everything by the book. She thought of Wesley as a hopelessly geeky wuss and a general pain in her young life. It didn’t help that he was there to insinuate himself as a wedge between herself and her old Watcher. In Buffy’s eyes, Wesley was nothing more than a cheap knockoff copy of the older Brit, and she only grudgingly tolerated the new Watcher out of respect for Giles when he had asked her to go along with the arrangement.

“It’s about time!” Wesley said as Buffy and Giles got out of the old car. He was directing his irritation toward the librarian in particular as he complained about their lateness. “Where have you been? You’re fifteen minutes late!”

“My fault,” Giles lied, reaching into the back seat for a large, black leather bag. “So sorry. It seems I misjudged as to how long it would take us to get through the traffic downtown. It was quite a mess.”

Buffy shot her friend an “I owe you one” look of thanks. She didn’t know why Giles had kept the truth of their tardiness to himself, but she was glad he did. The last thing she wanted was a lecture from Wesley. He could out-Brit even Giles when it came to that.

Meeting eyes over the hood of the car, she smiled kindly at its weary owner.

“Now I know what was eating you,” she said, her voice purposely low so that only he could hear her. “I think I would have preferred a demon.”

“As would I,” Giles answered with a conspiratorial wink.

The younger Watcher squinted, and peered into the backseat of Giles' car.

And where's our Miss Faith?" he asked, frowning at his elder cohort. "I thought we had agreed you were to bring her along as well. Safety in numbers and all that."

Giles sighed, slipping a brief glance toward Buffy before answering Wesley's query. "Yes, well, Faith is...on patol. I decided that it wasn't necessary for both girls to be here."

This news obviously did not please the other Watcher.

"You really should consulte me before making these decisions on your own," he peevishly grumbled at the elder Brit. "As the Watcher in charge here, I'm the one who is supposed to delegate these orders. Well, no use standing about arguing the toss now." Beckoning impatiently, he turned and began to walk toward a gated entry behind one of the buildings. “Come along, you two. They’re already here. This is no time to lollygag about and talk. There's evil afoot!”

Hefting his bag, Giles grunted, and falling in at Buffy's side, followed the younger Watcher over to the fenced area between two old brick office buildings. A hefty chain that had been meant to keep out unwanted intruders was woven through the surrounding metal fencing, and restricted their passage into the common yard. Wesley waited at the barrier, gesturing frantically for them to move faster. Buffy quickly assessed the lock and metal chain and with a quick, hard snap of her wrist, broke open the ineffectual obstruction. Both men casually took into stride the girl’s unusual display of strength. They had witnessed such exhibitions before. Buffy’s slayer super powers came in handy during their occasional breaking and entering operations.

The three stealthy trespassers entered the enclosed yard single file and circled around to where dozens of wooden box pallets were stacked high beside the back door to the old building. Above them a light was coming through the high, long windows, suggesting to them that the room within was occupied. Standing at the base of the pile of wood pallets they could just make out the muffled mutterings of several voices coming from inside.

Buffy leaped effortlessly up onto a sort stack, climbing the rest of the way up the perilously teetering structure to perch at its top and peer in through one of the windows. The glass was dirty, but she could make out a small room furnished with file cabinets, furniture and lots of boxes. She guessed it was a kind of combination office space and storage area servicing the business that leased the store out front. Judging by the cheap décor of flimsy paneling on the walls and peeling paint, the place wasn’t one that made very much of a profit, or at least it’s owners didn’t bother investing what they made in their employees’ comfort or surroundings.

In the far corner of the office stood five men. Buffy knew instinctively that four of them were vampires, recognizing the creatures by their outdated choice in clothing and ugly, distorted facial features. The fifth man however was a bit different. Short, thin and balding, he looked like a fairly normal human, or what might pass for normal in a world where people wore loud, garish suits and tacky ties. Buffy thought the man’s taste in fashion was too flashy for his obviously advanced years, which she guessed to be somewhere between sixty and death.

“What do you see?” It was Wesley’s strained whisper calling up to her. She gestured for him to be quiet and come up to have a look for himself. The Watcher proceeded to climb the rickety pile of lumber, moving with exaggerated caution until reached the pinnacle and was tottering precariously at the window beside her. Setting his bag down on the ground, Giles picked his way up the unsteady perch as well, taking a position on the girl’s other side. Peering through the grimy opaque glass pane, the three eavesdroppers listened to what was being said inside the room and watched the scene unfold before them.

The human Buffy mentally tagged as a salesman had a very sizeable black case in his possession. He carried the obviously heavy box with very little effort in spite of his small stature. The small man seemed totally indifferent to the mutant-like faces of his clientele, as if he dealt with the undead every day in his line of work. Elderly and frail, the man’s hairless head shone boldly under the glaring lights in the room. Buffy wondered how he could be so casual about the hideous creatures gathered around him. Any one of the vampires could wipe out the fragile looking human with one well-aimed blow, yet the salesman showed no apparent signs of fear toward the monsters.

Placing his black case on a desk, the salesman unlatched its front doors, swinging them open to stand the box like a book on end. Revealing the interior with its many compartments, he chose a drawer, drawing it out to show off its contents. Dark velvet lined the portable shelf, the rich material setting off the objects inside, each of which glittered and sparkled like so many diamonds. And rubies and emeralds, too! Buffy realized in surprise that the box was a jeweler’s travelling display case, and it was packed full to overflowing with what looked to be thousands of dollars worth of valuable inventory.

“I think you’ll be very pleased with the merchandize I have to offer,” the salesman was saying as he showed off the tray of jewelry to one of his undead clients.

“Very pretty,” the vampire exclaimed, examining the dazzle of gems. He was a bearded creature with long, greasy hair and a muscular frame worthy of a body-builder, and would not have been particularly good looking even without his vamp mask. “But it’s not what I had in mind. I was told you had some unique, special pieces.”

“All my inventory is special,” the salesman replied, returning the first drawer to its place in the box. He flipped through a series of trays, displaying bracelets, necklaces, watches and rings. “I sell only the finest quality craftsmanship designed by the best artisans in their field. Occasionally I am able to procure a small collection of older pieces, antiques if you will. Ah, here we are,” he announced, reaching deep into the case to pull out yet another hidden level of drawers. “Here are some very unusual acquisitions from my private collection, gathered from around the world and reserved for those clients with more discriminating tastes. Perhaps they are more to your liking.”

The vampire’s face broke into a grin, an unattractive expression that revealed his long canine fangs. Lifting a circular band from the drawer, the salesman offered it to the creature, which promptly snatched it from his hand and held it up to the light to admire. It was a collar-like torque worked in silver metal with a small, attached charm in the shape of a coiled snake. Examining the piece carefully, the vampire turned it over in his large clawed fists, running his fingers along the intricate engravings that ornamented the necklace.

“Very nice,” he praised, showing the choker to his companions. They all muttered appreciatively, inspecting the fine workmanship of the piece.

"And very old,” the salesman added. “It has magical powers.”

“Magic?” the vampire echoed. This announcement seemed to please the creature and his fellow cohorts. Their faces became uglier, their grins wide and toothy. “What kind of magic?”

“It’s a protection collar,” the man explained to him. “Blessed by an ancient and powerful Norse shaman. The man who wears this into battle cannot be struck down by any forged weapon.”

The vampire shrugged, no longer interested. Tossing the piece back in the tray with a casual unconcern for its value, he selected another item. His cold eyes glinted with the hint of avarice as he slipped a ring with a spray of sparkling blue gems on his finger.

“And this?” he asked. “What does it do?”

“That is part of a set,” the salesman told him, showing the vampire a small compact-like box with mirrored interior. Buffy automatically thought about how useless the silvered glass would be to a creature that had no reflection. The salesman was smiling, continuing his informative spiel to his client. “The glass allows one to see what the wearer of the ring is doing. It’s been a very popular choice with suspicious lovers.”

“Not interested,” the vampire snorted, removing the ring from his hand. The small salesman collected his inventory, carefully putting it away with its box.

“How about this?” With a showman-like flourish the salesman produced a murderous looking knife, its golden handle ornately encrusted with dazzling jewels. “Just perfect for those ritual sacrifices of young virgins.”

This item finally brought murmurs of approval from all four of the vampires. The man obligingly offered the dagger for inspection, and the vampires passed it back and forth among themselves, hefting the weapon and testing its weight in their hands. They seemed impressed, especially by the precious gems embedded in the knife’s hilt. When the first undead creature had the blade in his possession again, he tenderly caressed the weapon, feeling how it fit into his palm.

“Very admirable craftsmanship,” the vampire remarked. “Has a good feel to it, too. Are the jewels real?”

“You insult me, sir!” the salesman protested vainly. “Of course they are real. Everything I have for sale is guaranteed to be the genuine article, I assure you. I don’t deal in fakes.”

“Maybe I’ll take this,” the vampire said, satisfied with the man’s assurance of authenticity. Beaming at the prospect of an impending sale, the small man rubbed his hands together gleefully. In that instant Buffy thought the man resembled some small, animated creature, a squirrel or something like that, all twitchy nosed and excitable, but minus the fur, of course. She could almost imagine him running along some tree branch, chattering away as he proudly extolled the virtues of his prize collection of nuts to the other forest critters.

“Excellent!” the ecstatic salesman replied. “Now, let’s work out a price, shall we?”

The vampire’s next move was a blur that caught Buffy off her guard. His empty hand shot out and roughly grasped the salesman’s tie, drawing his intended victim closer. With lightening speed the vampire brought his other hand upward, pressing the knife’s pointed tip to the human’s throat, stopping just short of piercing the soft flesh. The creature’s hideous face was now only inches away as he flashed his fangs in a vicious, toothy snarl at the smaller man.

“How about we say your life for this pretty little thing?” the vampire growled menacingly.

To everyone’s surprise, especially those spying in through the window, the man didn’t appear in the least bit afraid. There was an uncanny serenity to his body language, and Buffy quickly reassessed her opinion of the small fellow. This was no nervous squirrel awaiting the opportunity to flee and escape, but someone who felt a confident equal to the challenge of the creature that threatened him. She watched in amazement as the man very calmly looked his burly attacker in the eye and gave the vampire a polite, gentlemanly smile.

“A fair price for such an obviously exquisite piece, I’m sure,” the man intoned sedately. “But I’m afraid I can only accept monetary compensation in exchange for my merchandise. There’s little profit in it for me otherwise. Surely you understand.”

“I understand,” the vampire smirked evilly. “But obviously you don’t. I’m taking the knife, and everything else you have. You’re not getting anything. In fact,” he sneered, his three companions crowding in closer behind him. “You just lost your life, too!”

The four vampires looked ready to rip out the small man’s throat. Buffy tensed, prepared to spring into battle at any moment. The salesman looked like he was in big time trouble with no way out. It wouldn’t take long at all for the pack of vampires to drain the blood of someone his size. But the small man remained unflappably placid, totally unconcerned by the threats being made against his life.

“An unfortunate decision,” the man was sighing as the drama continued.

“Unfortunate for you,” one of the other vampires chortled, already licking his lips hungrily in anticipation of a meal.

“For all of us,” the salesman said, never halting his sales pitch. “Because, if I die, you’ll never know about my more unique items.”

The muscled vampire hesitated. He still held the knife against the man’s throat as he seemed to contemplate what the human had just said. After a few moments he apparently decided it might be worth listening to the salesman’s pitch a little longer.

“What else you got?” the vampire asked. Knowing he had the creature’s attention, the human eagerly flashed a wide grin.

“A most marvelous assortment!” he boasted effervescently. Everyone guaranteed to bring satisfaction or your money cheerfully refunded. These items all come with powerful magics. But they’ll be of no use to you without the spells to activate them, and those my good man are in here.” The salesman pointed to his own hairless head. “Without the special services only I can provide, included at no additional cost, of course, these items would be completely worthless trinkets, nothing more than fancy, sparkly baubles.”

The vampire took a long moment to mull over his options. He was curious to know what kind of power the salesman was talking about. If need be, he could always kill the little man later. Releasing his hold on the man’s tie, he dropped his prisoner and stepped back, the knife lowered at his side. The salesman’s smile warmed as he nonchalantly readjusted his tie and straightened his mussed clothing.

“A wise choice, my friend,” the little man said, gingerly taking away the weapon from the creature. The vampire seemed reluctant to give up his treasured prize, but meekly handed over the dagger. Tucking the knife safely in his box, the salesman brought forth two nearly identical amulets, holding out one in each hand. “Here are some very interesting items. Would you care for a demonstration? No charge, of course.”

“Sure,” the vampire replied, and waited to see what the man would do.

From their hidden spot outside the window the eavesdroppers watched with rapt interest. The salesman set aside one of the amulets on the desktop, palming its twin and holding it out before him. Muttering mysteriously in a low, guttural voice the man waved his other hand over the disk-shaped piece with a graceful flair for showmanship like drama. It was obvious he enjoyed playing this part for his customers, and he milked the role for all it was worth.

Buffy strained to listen through the thick glass. She couldn’t understand the salesman’s mumbled words, but she’d heard Giles use enough Latin to guess that was what the man was speaking. She didn’t know if the vampires were any more aware of what was being said than she was, but the four monsters were definitely entranced by the theatrical performance the human was putting on for them. Like ugly little boys fascinated by a free magic show the undead creatures watched enraptured as the salesman-cum-magician executed an intricate display of hand movements and cast his spell.

Turning away from the action that was unfolding in the room below, Buffy turned toward Giles. He was frowning, obviously trying to concentrate on what the man was saying. She knew her former Watcher had dabbled in magic himself, though his slightly befuddled expression told her he didn’t find the magician’s spell a familiar one. Or maybe the librarian was just having trouble hearing the barely audible mutterings through the barrier of double-glazed insulated glass.

“Boy, is this guy’s a piece of work, or what?” she whispered in an exaggeratedly hushed tone.

“Quite the cheeky fellow,” Wesley agreed, his nose pressed to the window as he observed the goings on below them. “Very arrogant.”

“He certainly is sure of himself,” Giles noted. “He doesn't seem at all concerned by their threats.”

“Maybe he’s got something in that bag of tricks of his that he can use on them,” Buffy surmised thoughtfully.

“A very astute assumption,” the librarian nodded.

Buffy frowned at Giles. “Uh, that means I’m right, right?” she asked hopefully. He nodded again and she broke into a wide grin, fist clenched victoriously. “Yeah for me!”

“My word!” Wesley’s surprised voice interrupted. “Look at that!”

The elderly salesman was now well into his conjuring. An eerie amber glow had formed around his lower arm and the hand that held the amulet, clinging like a vaporous glove over his sleeve and flesh. The mist grew thick and opaque, then began to sparkle, reflecting the florescent light in the room and becoming gradually brighter. In his open palm the amulet pulsed with a visible energy, the stone at its center seeming to absorb the magical energy emanating from the man. There was a quick flash of light, and the intense brilliance flooded the room, burning away every shadow and momentarily blinding everyone it touched.

Buffy blinked, trying to rid herself of the glaring green dots that danced painfully in her vision. When she could finally see straight, she noticed that the fireworks display was over. It was as if nothing had happened in the room. Once again the little man appeared to be nothing more than a perfectly normal person dressed in outlandish clothing, holding a fancy charm in his hand.

“So?” the vampire was growling in irritation, unimpressed by the fanciful display of lights. “That’s it?”

“That was merely the beginning,” the salesman replied with a sly smile. “And now…” He rippled his fingers in a complex gesture, speaking some brief, unintelligible command. The amulet’s stone colored brightly for a moment, then burst forth with several pulsating winks of light. There was another illuminating flash, and suddenly a small creature appeared, hovering before the magician at eye level. It was not more than eight inches tall, and had beautiful diaphanous wings like a butterfly that it fluttered rapidly, holding itself aloft in the air.

Buffy gasped, unable to believe what her eyes were seeing. It was a miniature person with long, pale flowing hair and perfectly proportioned features, just like the pictures she remembered in the fairytale books from her childhood. She was the ideal embodiment of a tiny Tinkerbelle, right down to her doll-like dress woven from gossamer, leaves and bits of forest debris. She was simply remarkable to behold, and Buffy was in complete awe at the sight of the tiny creature.

Seeming entranced, the muscular vampire reached out a hand toward the fairy creature. She flew gracefully forward, floating as if born aloft on a puff of wind. With naïve trust she perched lightly within his open palm, regarding the larger being without fear. For a moment the vampire smiled almost humanly, staring at the tiny living thing with what looked to be amusement. Then his grin darkened, became one of evil. Buffy let out a horrified gasp as she watched the monster snap his fist shut and squeeze tightly. Blood began to ooze out from between his fingers, trickling in delicate rivulets down his forearm. With a distasteful flick of his wrist the vampire tossed the fairy’s tiny broken body to the floor, his foot stamping down to squash the remaining life from it like a bug. In a gesture that made Buffy’s stomach turn in sour disgust, the vampire proceeded to lick his hand clean.

“I’m not impressed by your cute little parlor tricks,” the creature snarled at the salesman, lips smacking thickly as he polished off the last drops of blood from his fingertips. “Can that thing do anything else besides make snacks?”

“It can do plenty with the proper invocations,” the man explained, not at all put off by his client’s cruel act. “The amulet itself is merely a conduit, a tool for conveying spells. I could have conjured up any of hundreds of creatures. Unicorns, griffins, dragons. All at my command. And if that doesn’t interest you, for the right price I could endow the amulet with another incantation, any that you desire. Wine from water? No problem. Turn sawdust into gold dust? It can be done. My friend, there is simply no limit to the possibilities. You need only to imagine it and I can make it so. And I offer a lifetime guarantee on all my magic spells,” he added, pausing an instant for dramatic emphasis. “My lifetime, of course. You see, the magic remains alive only as long as I do. But you don’t have to worry about that being a problem. I come from a family with very old bloodlines and I can assure you that I’m in the best of health. So, are you interested?”

“Any magic spell?” the vampire asked, his mind considering the amulet’s potential.

“Anything,” the salesman repeated. “Spells of power, invisibility, wealth. Whatever you desire.”

The four vampires exchanged glances and began to talk excitedly among themselves. Their interest was definitely aroused by the thought of having such a power at their command. A satisfied chuckle escaped the salesman as he realized he’d hooked his mark. The sale was a sure thing. All that needed to be worked out now was the price, and being the reasonable man he was, that shouldn’t prove to be too difficult.

Outside at the window, the three spies had seen enough. It was time to move in and go to work. They couldn’t allow the vampires to get their hands on the amulet. With the magic charm in their possession the creatures could prove more than a match for Buffy and the two Watchers. It was Wesley who finally voiced the conclusion aloud.

“I believe it’s time we dealt with this situation,” he said, turning to face the blonde slayer beside him.

But Buffy was already gone. In a graceful leap she had vaulted from the height of the pile to land in front of the locked back door below. She struck out with one powerful kick of a leg, breaking down the barrier before her and then disappeared inside.

“Wh-what is she doing?” Wesley hissed in a loud panicked whisper to his fellow countryman.

“Dealing with the situation,” Giles sighed in reply. He scrambled down the stack of wood crates, hurrying to catch up with the girl. Grabbing at his discarded bag, he reached inside for several pointed wooden stakes and crosses.

“But the plan was we all enter together,” Wesley protested, following the other man to the ground. A noisy cascade of sticks came raining down on Giles as the younger Watcher slid the last few feet, unable to keep his balance on the moving pile. The librarian jumped aside, narrowly avoiding the onrushing bulk of the other man’s rapid descent.

“So much for the element of surprise,” Giles muttered under his breath as Wesley tottered unsteadily to his feet. “Come on then,” he urged the younger man, handing over some of the weapons. “Let’s have at it then, shall we?”

The two men followed Buffy’s path through the back door, which now swung open on its broken hinges. Inside they discovered the blonde standing in the room’s center boldly facing down the gang of vampires. She seemed unconcerned as the four creatures split rank to circle around her, blocking off any possible route of escape in anticipation of their attack. Buffy chose to ignore the advancing menace, turning instead to address the salesman.

“Boy, the Avon Lady has nothing on you,” the teen scoffed, walking up to peer curiously into his open case. “So, can anybody buy, or is this a private sale only?”

Momentarily startled by the girl’s unexpected entrance, the salesman recovered quickly, excited at the prospect of a new customer. He flashed Buffy his best smile, bowing cordially to the pert blonde, inviting her with a cavalier sweep of his arm to come and have a closer look at his merchandize.

“I sell to anyone for the right price, my dear,” he said with cultivated politeness. “Anything in particular you would be looking for?”

“Hmmmmm! Let me see.” Buffy continued to ignore the vampires converging on her backside. Flipping casually through the trays that held the selection of regular jewelry, she appeared to be carefully pondering her choices. She was searching for a special item that she had noticed earlier when looking in from the window. “I like these earrings, and these, and this bracelet is just to die for,” she exclaimed, fingering each piece lovingly. “Oh, and this one is absolutely the most!” she gushed in a little girl voice that dripped with excitement. “It’s so hard to decide.” Her hand hovered, then closed around a shiny silver chain. “I think I’ll take…this one!”

The Slayer spun around, her arm extended toward the creatures gathering to attack her. Dangling from her hand was finely wrought cross of filigreed silver. The vampires immediately jumped back, stumbling over each other in their haste to get away from the offending symbol. But Buffy’s quick turn had caused the necklace to swing in a wide arc that slapped one of the retreating creatures in the face. He let out a yelp like a wounded animal, throwing his hands up protectively in front of himself.

Instantly Buffy pounced. Grabbing the upraised arms of the injured vampire, she wrapped the silver chain around his wrists, lashing them together in expert cowboy style. The creature howled as the cross burned into his flesh, but he couldn’t free himself. As he doubled over in moaning agony, Buffy sent a foot flying in a spinning roundhouse kick, knocking the creature backward into a filing cabinet with a crash.

What followed next was an intense combination of kicks and punches as the girl attacked the four vampires. She was joined in battle by the Englishmen, who managed to get in their share of hits, but it was Buffy who took on the bulk of the fighting. Deflecting one vampire’s rush, she tossed him into a pile of boxes that promptly toppled over and spilled out reams of computer paper onto the floor. Another tackled her from behind, grabbing her around the shoulders. She bent forward, throwing him over her head to the floor in front of her. While he was lying flat on his back, she reached into her back pocket and whipped out Mr. Pointy, the stake her friend Kendra had given to her for good luck. With a forward lunge Buffy thrust the sharp stick into the vampire’s chest, aiming it to one side of his sternum. The creature gasped as the weapon plunged through his unbeating heart, and an instant later he exploded into a pile of decaying dust.

“One down, three to go,” the teen declared victoriously. Straightening to her petite five feet and mere inches more stature, she took a moment to brush a stray lock of blonde hair from her eyes. “All right, who’s next?”

A growling creature leapt at her. Buffy sent him staggering back with a high kick to the chest. He quickly recovered his footing and prepared for another charge. As his demonic yellow eyes locked with hers there was another suddenly burst of dust. The vampire disintegrated and Buffy found herself looking at Giles’ face through the slowly dissipating cloud of decaying must. She gave him a smile, which he returned with an acknowledging nod as he paused, stake in hand, before they both resumed their fighting.

There were only two vampires left now. One was the screeching creature she had hog-tied earlier and who was still hopping about trying to free himself from his painful bondage. The other survivor was the greasy vamp with the enormous muscles. Buffy went for the big guy first, leaving the two Englishmen to deal with the screamer.

Vaulting gymnast style over a desk, Buffy snatched up a paper-filled trashcan from the floor and flung out in front of her at the attacking creature. He batted the can away easily, its contents scattering in a harmless flurry, but the momentary distraction had caused him to hesitate in his charge. It was just enough time for Buffy to prepare herself, and she lowered her shoulder, running forward to tackle the beast. She met his huge bulk, throwing all of her slim weight into her rush and toppling the beast over backwards. They crashed to the ground in a knot of thrashing limbs, the lightweight girl holding her own as they wrestled. Buffy delivered a staccato of multiple blows, receiving a few as well from her opponent. She might have been smaller, but she was extremely agile and strong for her size.

Snarling like an angry beast, the vampire finally managed to throw her to one side. Buffy rolled and did a somersault over into a flip, landing nimbly back on her feet. Quickly she turned and faced the creature again. She fell back a step, taking a fighter’s attack stance, her hands clenched into tight little fists as she did an instantaneous mental review of the situation around her.

Big Guy was struggling to get to his own feet for another try at her. Off to one side, Wesley was attempting to subdue the screaming vampire that had finally broken free of his silver bonds. The Englishman wasn’t meeting with a great deal of success. He had somehow lost his cross and other weapons, and the vampire was pressing him back against the wall, its mouth opened wide, teeth ready to sink into his neck. At that moment Giles grasped the beast and wrenched it backward, saving Wesley from an unfortunate bloodletting. But the librarian’s moment of victory was short lived, the vampire twisting free of his grasp to turn on him next.

A movement suddenly distracted Buffy and she glanced off toward her left to see the salesman hurriedly trying to close up the drawers of his display case. He was obviously hoping to make an unnoticed escape during the melee and avoid partaking in the physical violence. In fact, for the first time Buffy thought the little man looked scared. Maybe his powers weren’t as great as he had wanted everyone to believe, and all that fancy abracadabra stuff was just an act. He sure didn’t seem too eager to stick around and join in on the fight.

Her moment of hesitation in battle was only a matter of seconds, but Buffy felt her energy level rejuvenate during the brief rest. She turned her attention back to the big vampire on the ground before her. He was getting to his feet now, ready to leap at her, his fangs bared in anticipation of a kill. With an upward lurch of his body he threw himself at the girl. She met his sluggish attack with a foot to his face. The kick stopped his forward progress, but did not bring him to the ground. He managed to grab Buffy’s leg before she could retract it, and the blonde felt herself jerked off balance, falling against the desk at her side. She righted herself almost immediately, shoving her captured foot into the vampire’s face like a battering ram. This time she smacked her enemy in his nose, and the shocked beast released its hold, grabbing at its ugly face in pain as it let forth with a tremendous howl. Buffy kneed the vampire in its firm gut, then followed through with several rapid punches to its head that eventually knocked the creature over onto its back. She was leaning down to plunge the stake into its chest, when it twisted out from under her weapon and scrambled to its feet.

Buffy continued her downward lunge, arms extended. Her palms slapped the floor and she did a graceful cartwheel that took her out of harm’s way. She pirouetted on one heel to face the vampire just as he threw a punch. Deflecting his fist with her forearm, and his next cuff as well, she then got in a few hits of her own. Their bodies slammed each other in a rain of jabs and kicks, neither managing to gain the upper hand. This enraged the big creature that had mistaken the girl for easy prey. He was discovering the error of his thinking very quickly as Buffy proceeded to match him blow for blow.

Frustrated by his failed attack, the vampire stepped back for a moment. That was when he saw the salesman trying to sneak past him toward the open back door. An enraged roar burst from the creature and he reached out, ripping the black case from the man’s hands, raising it over his head to hurl at Buffy like a weapon. In that instant, when he held the box aloft and exposed his front, the girl saw her opportunity to strike. She tossed her stake at the creature’s heart like a throwing knife, hitting her intended target with perfect accuracy. As the point penetrated his chest, the vampire’s eyes popped wide, staring at the girl in disbelief. Then like the others before him, he dissolved into a pile of dust, his frustrated death cry erupting from a disintegrating throat.

For a moment the jeweler’s case hung in mid-air. Then gravity took over and the heavy case clattered to the ground, smashing open as it hit the hard floor. A glittering cascade of jewels spilled out, scattering in every direction like a sparkling, colorful flood. Rubies, diamonds, garnets and emeralds tumbled and mixed in a kaleidoscope of shimmering opulence unmatched by anything Buffy had ever seen. Gold and silver chains tangled with watches and bracelets, and rings with stone settings of every imaginable variety bounced across the floor in front of her, mesmerizing the blonde teen into a state of momentary awe.

An anguished cry of despair assaulted her ears, and Buffy stepped back as the salesman threw himself upon his inventory. He immediately began to scoop up the precious gems and antique pieces, stuffing them into his suit pockets and tossing them haphazardly into his broken case. But Buffy didn’t have time to concern herself with the elderly man sifting vainly through the vampire’s ashes after rings and trinkets. There was still one more vampire in need of a staking.

She spun around on her heel, crossing the room in a few quick strides to where the two Brits were still battling it out with the last undead creature. Giles had managed to maintain a strangle hold around the vampire’s neck, clinging valiantly onto its back like the proverbial monkey, but it looked as if the creature had battered the Englishman around quite hard in its attempts to throw him off. Giles was disheveled and exhausted, and looked like he was definitely feeling every one of his middle-aged years.

Wesley meanwhile was trying to thrust a stake into the semi-restrained beast, but it kept itself enough of a moving target that the younger Englishman couldn’t seem to find the correct spot necessary with which to dispatch his quarry. His ineffectual stabbing had turned the vampire into an unhuman pincushion. It was starting to get really messy, and Buffy decided she had to step in and put and end to things before someone got hurt.

The blonde teen grabbed Wesley by his wrist, arresting the forward momentum of his next blow. With her other arm, she threw the vampire roughly back against the nearby wall. Unfortunately that meant that Giles was caught between the creature’s back and the hard surface behind him. Buffy winced as she heard the librarian’s breath knocked out of him with a loud “Ooomph!”, mentally cringing at the thought she had hurt her friend. But she continued through with her attack, pulling Wesley’s arm forward and helping him drive his stake home. The last vampire burst into a dusty shadow of itself, disappearing into a pile of moldering soot at their feet. With the creature’s body no longer holding him pinned aloft against the wall, Giles suddenly collapsed forward, falling onto the others. He would have impaled himself on the wooden weapon in their hands if Buffy had not used her Slayer reflexes to snap Wesley’s arm back, pulling it out of the way just in time.

“Sorry about that, Chief,” Buffy apologized, releasing her grip on Wesley to help Giles. The older Brit smiled wanly, panting as he straightened upright. Buffy did a quick check and saw that the librarian was winded, but basically unharmed. Wesley was no worse off, though he seemed to be concerned with his one wrist, rubbing it gingerly where she had held it. She realized she might have been a little too vigorous helping the Watcher to stake that last vamp.

Satisfied nothing was seriously hurt, Buffy turned to face her one last adversary. The salesman had finished gathering his merchandize into the broken remnants of his case and was fumbling to secure the latch closed again. Hugging the bulky repository to his chest, the man looked furtively back over his shoulder. Their eyes locked across the room, and Buffy instinctively sensed he was about to take flight.

“I’m afraid that I can’t stay any longer, my dear,” the man said, rising to back toward the exit with its broken door. Ever the gentleman, he smiled most politely at the young blonde and her two companions, giving each an acknowledging nod. “Good night to you all. Perhaps we’ll do business again sometime.”

Scurrying hurriedly out the open doorway the salesman disappeared into the dark outside. Buffy immediately bolted after him, but when she got to the enclosed back lot the man was gone. She made a search of the yard, looking behind various piles of trash, under the stack of pallets and several garbage cans, even in the dumpsters in the alley, but there was no trace of the elderly man anywhere. It was like he had vanished into thin air. She was pretty sure that wasn’t possible, but found it just as amazing that someone that old could move so fast. Deciding not to waste any more time, she gave up on her pursuit and went back inside to see how the two men were doing. They were still recovering from the exertion of their fight with the vampire, their faces flushed as they gasped for air in unison.

“That was certainly exhilarating,” Wesley huffed, trying to catch his breath. He ran a hand through his slightly mussed hair, smoothing it back into near perfection. “However, as I recall we’d all discussed and agreed upon earlier, Buffy, the plan was to have been we go in together.”

“Couldn’t help myself, I guess,” the teen shrugged, replacing her favorite stake into a back pocket for the next fight. “All that pretty sparkly stuff drives the shopaholic in me wild. I rally to the cry of ‘Charge it!’” She wagged the point of a finger at Giles. “And don’t think this gets you out of that trip to the mall. You promised me a present.”

Giles nodded, panting loudly. He pulled up an overturned chair and plopped down into it, resting for a moment. His tie was askew and Buffy noticed a small rip in his shirt, but otherwise he seemed fine. Luckily, neither Englishman was injured in any way, except for some possible bruises that might show up later. She would have her share of those, too.

Buffy took a good look around the small office at the disorder that they had created. Papers were everywhere, scattered helter-skelter across the room. Furniture was toppled over and the contents of a filing cabinet littered the floor. Upended boxes lay in disorderly piles. They had really trashed the place.

“Glad I don’t have to clean up this mess,” she remarked aloud, her toe dislodging a stray pencil on the floor.

The yellow stylus rolled in a wide arc, eventually coming to rest near the desk. Something shiny and colorful amid all the white paper on the floor suddenly caught Buffy’s eye. She walked over to where the pencil had stopped, kneeling down on all fours to peer into the shadowy recess under the desk. There she saw one of the salesman’s magical amulets. Eagerly reaching for the jeweled piece, her palm closed over the metal disc and she drug it out into the light from its dark hiding place. A broad smile lit her face she stood up and turned toward the two men, her newfound prize in hand.

“Look! Free samples!” she declared excitedly, holding out her find to show them. Wesley adjusted his glasses, squinting as he scrutinized the item from the other side of the room. Seeing the glitter of stones, he became instantly interested.

“What do you have there?” the young Watcher inquired. Buffy crossed the room and Wesley reached out his hand to take the amulet from her. The girl reacted instantly to his greedy gesture, pulling back her arm and jerking the necklace well out of his reach.

“It’s mine,” she told him, pouting childishly. “Finders keepers.”

Wesley opened his mouth to raise a vocal objection to the girl’s impudence when Giles intervened.

“May I?” the Englishman asked politely.

Buffy turned her back on the younger Watcher, handing the jewel over to the librarian instead. Giles produced his glasses from a pocket in his suit jacket, and adjusting the frames on the bridge of his nose, he proceeded to examine the unusual talisman.

“Rather hideous, wouldn’t you say?” he observed, commenting on the garishly ornamental design with its multi-colored gemstones.

Buffy regarded the ornament with a critical eye. “It is kind of different,” she admitted.

The amulet was shaped like a small disc and was no more than two inches across at its widest point. Its middle portion slightly thicker and it tapered gradually to its thin edges. A polished cabochon cut stone was set into its center, the translucent green gem incised into perfect quadrants. Around the circumference of the disc were strange markings, and there were several smaller stone chips set around the main jewel at measured points, eight in all. The shining crystals were each a different color, but more or less equal to each other in size. When Giles turned the piece over, he revealed additional writing on the reverse side that was set in a spiral pattern. A small hole pierced the disc in one spot, and a silver chain was attached to serve as a necklace.

“That’s not the same piece that he was using for his demonstration,” Wesley noted, peering over his glasses at the object in the librarian’s hand. “Very similar, though.”

Giles agreed. “The other amulet had a red center stone, as I recall.”

“What are those scratches?” Buffy asked. She had leaned in to get a closer look and was pointing at the markings. They were too crude to serve as writing, and lacked the detail to be called pictures.

“These are runes,” Giles replied to her question. “They're magic symbols.”

Buffy took the amulet back from the librarian and held it up to the light for a better look. Wesley wore an expression of mild panic, upset by how casually she was handling the magical charm. He seemed very concerned. It was almost as if he thought the thing it might break or explode at any moment, its evil busting out to contaminate them all.

“Careful!” Wesley scolded the blonde. “We have no idea what that thing is capable of doing. Perhaps it would be best if I held on to it,” he suggested nervously.

“What? You don’t trust me?” Buffy pouted as if her feelings had been hurt, refusing to relinquish her find. “Maybe I could have the stones reset,” she mused aloud, turning her attention back toward Giles again. “It might make a nice ring. What do you think?”

“I think it’s not your place to decide such things,” Wesley replied instead, frowning his serious disapproval at what he hoped was a jest. “The amulet will be sent to the Council for safe keeping at the earliest available opportunity. They will determine what is to be done with it.”

“You know, I always wondered how they financed their operations,” the teen smirked impishly. “Got to pay those outrageous salary options they give you Watcher guys, right?”

Giles chuckled appreciatively and Buffy wrinkled her nose in mutual amusement at the shared joke. The older Brit silently held out his hand, and without any protest the teen meekly gave the charm back over to him, entrusting it to his care. Before Wesley could react the librarian had tucked the piece safely away into the breast pocket of his tweed jacket.

“We appear to have done all we can here,” Giles announced, rising from his chair. “And I believe you have somewhere else to go tonight,” he reminded the teen. “Patrol?”

“Ah, yes! Patrol.” Wesley smugly grinned, nodding his approval of the idea. Buffy stared at the Englishmen in disbelief.

“You guys are too much!” she said in exasperation. “I just dusted four vamps, ran a sorcerer out of town, saved your two sorry butts, and you still expect me to go out on patrol tonight? Don’t I get any time off for good behavior?”

“If you happen to display any, I may give it consideration,” Giles retorted dryly, but there was a twinkle in his eyes that said he wasn’t being serious in his critique of her behavior.

“Now see here!” Wesley protested what he perceived as the librarian’s interference. “You seem to have forgotten that I am Buffy’s Watcher.” Giles made an exaggerated wave of acknowledgement with one hand toward the younger Brit. Wesley disregarded the faux gesture of relinquished authority and directed his comments to the blonde teen. “Young lady, your duties do not allow for such frivolities as ‘time off’. A Slayer’s work is never ceasing.”

Wesley beamed smugly with his own self-importance, assured that the teenager would understand and obey him. Buffy rolled her eyes in disgust, catching Giles in a more restrained version of a similarly pained expression. Apparently he wasn’t any more impressed by the young Watcher’s pseudo-proverbs than she was.

“By the way,” Wesley continued, frowning in puzzlement as he leaned toward Giles. “Where is she going tonight?”

“To Fuller’s Pond,” the librarian answered. “There have been several recent incidents of unexplained drowning. I thought it might possibly be demonic in nature.”

“I see. A very good idea, Mr. Giles,” Wesley concurred. They all started toward the door as the Brit went on talking. “Stay on top of things. Nip them in the bud. No sense in letting the situation escalate any further.”

“I’m so glad you approve,” the librarian replied sarcastically as they stepped back out into the dark yard. Giles collected their weapons and tossed them into his bag. Hefting the leather satchel, he carried it with him as they made their way back to the vehicles parked in the alleyway.

“Of course, we will do our part as well,” Wesley continued prattling as they moved along. “While Buffy is out scouting for the forces of evil, Mr. Giles and I shall be hard at work doing our research at the library. After all, that is what teamwork is about, isn’t it?”

“Rah! Rah!” Buffy intoned with a deadpan expression as she performed a gesture that would have looked perfect with a set of pom-poms in her hands. She glanced toward Giles and saw that again she had drawn a faint hint of a smile from the older Brit. She wasn’t sure if it was the poor lighting, his tussle with the vampire or too much time spent with Wesley, but Buffy couldn’t help noticing that her friend looked very old and tired. She hoped Giles would decide to call it an early night and get himself some well-deserved rest. Maybe she’d suggest it to him later.

Arriving at their parked vehicles, Wesley separated from the pair to go to his own van. Buffy followed Giles to his Citroen DS, letting herself in as the librarian threw his bag into the backseat behind them. He slid in behind the steering wheel with an audible groan.

“Teamwork!” the Brit grumbled morosely. He slammed the door shut and attempted to start the car’s stubborn engine. “At least you get to be the away team.”

“For which I am eternally grateful,’” Buffy grinned at her companion.

Wesley had paused before climbing into his van, turning to look back at the two of them. Hoping to hold off what he interpreted as another weary interchange of length with the younger Englishman, Giles rolled down his window and stuck out his head.

“Why don’t you go on ahead to the library, Wesley,” he said to the other man. “I’ll drop Buffy off at the park and join you there later.”

“Very well,” the other Brit replied and got into his vehicle.

After a minute or two of fiddling the librarian managed to get his car started. Backing the vehicle carefully down the tight alley, he rolled out into the street, waiting as the van followed close behind in his tracks. Wesley then took the lead, and soon the two drivers had retraced their way back along the road to a major intersection. There the van turned left into town, striking off on its own toward the school while Giles headed his protesting Citroen in the opposite direction, the venerable relic straining and trembling with valiant effort as it made its way toward the park.

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