CHAPTER ONE

It was early Thursday evening. The last light of the day was slowly disappearing from the horizon, and inside the crowded restaurant the room reverberated with the voices of families and young adults, competing with loud music from a jukebox in the corner. It wasn’t the fanciest of eateries. The pseudo-Italian décor ran to red checkered vinyl tablecloths and darkly painted wall murals of peasants and farm landscapes hidden under faux grapevines. A widely varied price range on the menu featured everything from pizza to steak, the bulk of the list leaning heavily toward pastas and a miscellaneous diversity of sauced entrees. It was a popular place for those with children or limited budgets, 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 Summers and three of her friends.

On the surface the group of teenagers appeared to be ordinary, but it only took a light scratching into the surface of their lives to see that they were anything but typical. They were all seniors at the local dispensary of public education, Sunnydale High School. Two boys and two girls, the friendly group was as varied in looks and personality as any species on the planet Earth. At one corner of the table sat Alexander LaVelle Harris. Known as Xander to his friends, the teen was a tall, lanky youth with dark hair, and eyebrows that arched distinctively over twinkling hazel eyes. His handsome features were well proportioned on a long, angular face, which seemed perpetually on the verge of breaking into a smile at any given moment. Infamous for his quick parrying wit and smart-tongued commentaries on life, Xander was seldom at a loss for a scathing comeback when the opportunity presented itself for sarcasm, but it was his fierce loyalty that made him the paragon of human kindness and an appreciated friend. Though less than perfect in his academic achievements, he would nonetheless willingly put himself at great risk to protect his best buds, and in return, trusted those said same companions with his most personal and sensitive secrets, baring his soul for their occasional critique.

Sitting across from Xander was his long time childhood friend, Willow Rosenberg. A girl confident in her own intellectual talents and computer savvy, the red headed teen was once an extremely shy and introverted individual. But in the last few years her gentleness had evolved into a confidence that allowed her a more dynamic take-charge attitude to her life. She was at times quite naïve, always gracious, and occasionally ironic in her views of others, but she was never mean-spirited to her fellow man. Willow wore her auburn colored hair at a sensible, neat shoulder length that framed a sweet, cherubic face. A perpetual look of innocence accentuated her brown eyes that saw the world in childish wonder. She was polite, smart, and the epitome of what most parents would consider a perfect daughter, though a closer familiarity would reveal a growing independence to the girl’s personality as well as a blossoming stubborn streak. But her most unlikely talents were those of a burgeoning witch. It was an unusual pursuit, but one in which she showed increasing interest and an amazing aptitude. She pursued the craft with scholarly diligence, leaning toward the kinder aspects of white magick in her occasional mystical dabbling.

Willow’s quiet complacence was only outdone by her rock musician boyfriend’s casual, laid back attitude. They called him Oz, and as the oldest of the four teens present in the restaurant that day, he was also carried the distinction of being the shorter of the two boys. Lacking any outward signs of ambition, Oz was nevertheless a brilliant young intellectual. At one point he had given up on the challenges of academia, but a change of heart brought him back, and now he was repeating his senior year in his pursuit of a diploma. Oz’s one real joy in life, after his girlfriend, was his semi-professional career as guitarist for a rock band with the unusual name of “Dingoes Ate My Baby.” The group played the occasional club date or party, and hoped one day to cut a record of their own. It was this chosen vocation that explained a propensity toward the ever-changing vibrant hues that Oz’s short, spiked hair went through constantly. This week it was a shocking orange-red blonde that contrasted shockingly with his pale, almost pasty complexion. Calm and cool, the teen surveyed the world as an amused spectator of the human condition. His casual wardrobe ran toward bowling shirts and T-shirts with unusual messages or designs, with the occasional earring as accessory. But there was a side to the sedate youth that was atypically normal. Three nights in each lunar cycle Oz was a werewolf. The unfortunate result of a bite inflicted by a cousin, the transformation complicated his life, but Oz and Willow managed to keep their relationship going in spite of his lycanthropic tendencies, taking certain precautionary measures at the proper time each month.

It was the remaining teen within the intimate cluster of friends that was by far the most important in the group’s dynamics. Buffy Anne Summers was a perky blonde with dazzling green eyes and very feminine features that most males found pleasingly attractive. She had an athletic grace to her, and a slim figure that held no hint of the unusual physical strength she possessed. Her biggest desire had once been to become popular and well-liked among her high school peers, but destiny had chosen a very different kind of life for the young girl. At sixteen Buffy had discovered she had an unusual calling, that of a vampire slayer. It wasn’t a typical adolescent’s dream to stand out for one’s capabilities at battling demons, monsters and the undead, and there were plenty of times that she would gladly have given it all up for the chance at a normal life. But fate would not allow this to be. Her social life often as much a disaster as her failed academic performance, Buffy nevertheless continued to obsess about the things other girls her own age did, things like boys, and clothes, and how she looked to the boys in those clothes. But she also knew she had a much larger responsibility in her life. It was her duty, her job, to protect the world from the evil that existed in it. She was a girl of destiny, whether she liked it or not. Sure, there were the occasional moments of light fun with her three best pals, to whom she was strongly devoted, and at times that was all she needed to keep her happy. The teens were a very close-knit circle of friends, unrivaled by any group within the school, though to be counted among their ranks was a privilege few cared to take.

The convivial foursome had spent the early evening hours gossiping and grazing their way through two large pizzas and a variety of other menu items. Night shadows had gradually lengthened, and the sky outside was growing dark, the first stars making their appearance. It was getting late, but the teens continued to linger over their sodas and the few bites of food left on the plates before them as they bantered back and forth in a lively discussion. Of course, it wasn’t’ anything as mundane as schoolwork that had the teens debating among themselves with such loud and vigorous passion. It was another issue entirely, one that was familiar to teens the world over, and a theme of paramount importance to anyone in their immediate age bracket. Parents.

Her face registering proper teenaged indignation, Willow was recanting a conversation that had taken place the previous evening in her own home. She had asked her parents about attending a concert that was coming up soon, an event that had been a frequent topic among the teens in the past week. Willow and her friends had decided to attend the musical extravaganza as a group, sharing in the fun and experience as many of their classmates were planning to do. But the red headed teen’s parents would hear none of it. They had succinctly denied the permission she had been seeking, crushing the young girl’s hopes.

“I don’t know why they’re being so unreasonable,” Willow was saying to her companions. They were all listening with great sympathy to her plight. “I promised to stay away from the drinking and the drugs. I said I’d be home at a decent hour. I even told them I’d pay for the tickets out of my own money. But would they listen? No! It was ‘We don’t approve of that type of music!’” she quoted, mimicking her parents’ severe voices. Willow frowned and made a disapproving raspberry noise of distaste. “Parents!” she exclaimed in exasperation. “They don’t understand!”

“Do you think it was a real no, or was it one of those ‘we’re still thinking it over but might cave if everybody else’s kids are going’ no?” Buffy asked, her face registering sympathetic understanding for her friend’s frustration. “Maybe they’ll change their minds, Will. Parents are funny that way.”

“They were pretty serious,” the other girl groused ruefully. She pouted, folding her arms across her chest. “It was a very definite no, the kind that says ‘I don’t want to hear about this ever again!’ So, I guess that means I’m not going to the concert with you guys,” she finished meekly.

“That’s too bad.” The comment was from her boyfriend sitting in the chair across the table. At his look, Willow’s face brightened momentarily into a smile. “It would’ve been fun,” Oz said.

“Well, you can still go,” Willow remarked with a brave, martyred graciousness. “You’re parents didn’t say no.”

“Wouldn’t be the same without my Willow,” Oz replied. He flashed her a grin, and she blushed. Eyes glowing with deep pride, the redhead glanced toward Buffy.

“Isn’t he just the sweetest?” she gushed.

“Like honey,” the blonde girl responded with a grin. “So, Oz’” Buffy continued, leaning an elbow on the table before her. “What’s your big secret? How do you get your parents to let you go to these things?”

The boy shrugged his shoulders, sitting back in his chair. “They don’t consider it a big deal,” he explained. “I guess they figure if I can handle being in a band and not get into trouble, then going to see someone else play can’t be any worse.”

“Alas! I too will be ticketless come concert day,” Xander declared with exaggerated angst. “My funds are at an all time low, and since I possess no special skills at predicting the future numbers in the lottery, I look to remain penniless and poor for some time to come. Besides, Cordy said we’ve got a previous engagement for that evening. I’m not sure she’s actually decided what we’re doing yet, but if the queen says we’ve got other plans that means I’d better keep my calendar clear.”

The others nodded in complete understanding. Xander had been referring to the absentee member of their little group, Cordelia Chase. His one time nemesis, she had recently become the professed object of his affections. She was an exotically beautiful dark-haired femme fatale, spoiled and self-centered, and by far the most popular girl at Sunnydale High School. Together she and Xander made up the Odd Couple of romance.

Theirs was a strange relationship. It had started during an incident about a year ago when a group of demonic assassins known as The Order of Taraka had been sent to eliminate the slayer. Xander and Cordelia had been fleeing one of the creatures, a creepy little man made out of bugs, and had taken refuge in the basement of the Summers’ house. The incident of shared terror brought forth an element of hormonal desire that evolved into their first kiss. Soon they were meeting on a regular basis for clandestine groping sessions in the janitor’s closet, hiding their growing romance from their classmates, knowing that none of them would ever understand why two such opposites had become so attracted to each other.

But the secret didn’t stay one for long. Out in the open at last the couple began a shaky dating scenario that culminated with Cordelia declaring a break-up on Valentine’s Day. Devastated, Xander sought retribution, asking a classmate to cast a love spell on the girl. It was his intended plan to then dump Cordelia and gloat while she suffered with unrequited love for him.

But as it usually did with his plans something went horribly wrong. Cordelia had been totally unaffected by the magick, whereas every other female in Sunnydale suddenly went berserk with insatiable Xanderphilia. Being much sought after by the feminine persuasion soon lost it charm when the teen’s wanna be suitors began coming after him with axes and death threats. He was relieved when the spell was finally reversed and he reverted back to his normal not quite so popular self. But the capping glory to the otherwise disastrous fiasco, the one thing that made all the terror and anxiety worth while was that Cordelia, flattered he had gone to such great lengths over her, had become his steady girlfriend once again, a relationship that had lasted nearly year now.

“So that’s a no show from Xander and Cordelia,” Buffy sighed as she voiced aloud the two newest candidates to make the list of those not going to the concert.

Oz turned toward his blonde classmate, his pale eyebrows raised in mild curiosity. “And you?”

Buffy’s exasperated expression answered his question.

“Your Mom said no, too, huh?” Willow translated, sympathizing with her best friend.

“I never even got around to asking Mom!” the other girl snorted in reply. “Someone else quashed that idea first. Think your folks don’t understand you? Try arguing with a Watcher. They’re way worse than any parent. Giles won’t let me do anything fun!”

The target of Buffy’s complaint was Rupert Giles, the librarian at Sunnydale High School. A seemingly proper and stuffy individual the former museum curator had moved from Great Britain to California at the very time Buffy herself had come to Sunnydale. That their formerly diverse lives had converged at that particular point was no coincidence.

Buffy Summers was a vampire slayer. There was one born into every generation, a girl with the strength and skill to fight the forces of darkness. The Chosen One. And it was at the tender age of sixteen that Buffy discovered this was to be her calling in life.

She had been a typical teenager then, living in a suburban town on the outskirts of Los Angeles. A student at Hemery High School her days revolved around parties, cheerleading and boys. But then a man called Merrick had come along. He explained her destiny as a vanquisher of evil. Told her that he was her Watcher. Of course she hadn’t believed him. Not at first. But he’d finally managed to convince her, and begrudgingly accepting the older man as tutor and trainer, she allowed him to instruct her in the sacred duties of her new vocation.

But their time together was short. As others of his profession had done before him in centuries past, Merrick gave his life protecting his slayer, leaving the teen with countless unanswered questions about herself and the strange occupation that defied explanation on a resume. Then there was her parent’s announcement that they were getting a divorce, followed by Buffy and her mother’s move to Sunnydale. It was a confusing time for the young teen, who assumed that her Watcher’s death had meant an end to her days of hunting vampires. But as Buffy was soon to discover once a slayer, always a slayer. Destiny was not something to be so easily denied.

Transferring to a new school in Sunnydale, Buffy discovered that there was another Watcher waiting for her. Rupert Giles. At first she defied his efforts to lure her back into the dangerous life of slaying, but eventually she accepted the inevitable. She couldn’t escape what she was. And in the last few years Buffy and Giles had worked together as mentor and student, Watcher and Slayer, destroying the many demons, monsters and vampires that were drawn to Sunnydale by the Hellmouth that lay beneath the town.

Along the way to her newfound destiny there were several people who became privy to Buffy’s secret identity. Willow and Xander, then later Cordelia and finally Oz formed the loyal band of her closest friends. They called themselves the Scooby Gang, the Slayer and her Slayerettes, and their adventures fighting evil had brought out a special kinship among the five teens. And through it all Rupert Giles provided guidance to the eccentric group, his distinctive British personality often serving as a prime target for the student’s stinging barbs.

“Where does Giles get off telling you what to do?” Willow complained, her previous tirade moving on from the interfering ways of parents to include all adults in general.

“Yeah,” Xander agreed, leaning forward over the table as he made his point. “It’s not like he’s your Dad or anything. He’s just Giles. When have you ever listened to him?”

His eye casually roving over the remains of their meal, Xander’s gaze fell on a lone slice of pizza that lay on the platter at the table’s center. Licking his lips in anticipation of another cheesy round of nourishment, he reached out to nab the gooey wedge. A slender arm shot out, gripping his wrist with menacing firmness and holding it at bay just short of claiming his coveted prize.

“Back off if you know what’s good for you,” growled a female voice from across the table. Glancing up, Xander found himself facing Buffy’s challenging glare.

“Come on, Buff! You’re still eating that piece,” the dark haired boy protested, nodding toward the remaining portion of crust on the girl’s plate. “This baby here’s got my name all over it.”

“Care to fight me for it?” the blonde returned defiantly. Her fingers tightened ever so slightly around his wrist.

For a brief moment Xander seemed to consider the idea. Wisdom managed to persevere over hunger, however, and drawing his hand back, he meekly acknowledged his defeat. Dejected, he slumped down in his seat and watched his classmate claim her prize with envious eyes.

“You may have won this time,” he muttered grudgingly, jabbing an accusing finger in the air toward the petite blonde. “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 scowled. She tore into the greasy, cheese-laden slice with an uninhibited gusto. Xander merely shrugged, glancing pointedly downward at his companion’s hips. Comprehending the significance of his look, Buffy squirmed self-consciously in her seat. “Hey! I need the extra calories for my slaying,” she pouted defensively. “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 make you grow.”

“That’s low, Xander,” Willow complained, defending her female friend. She gave the dark haired boy a disapproving kick beneath the table.

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

As she considered an appropriately biting comeback to her classmate’s comment, Buffy’s attention wandered toward the restaurant’s entrance doors. A small flurry of activity had suddenly erupted with the appearance a familiar, tall figure dressed in tweed. Oz observed the immediate draining of care-free joy in his schoolmate’s staring gaze, and he twisted around to see what had caused it. The faintest flickering of expression crossed the musician’s stoic face as he recognized the source of his companion’s escalating angst.

“I take it you weren’t expecting?” he calmly observed, nodding toward the man that was talking with the restaurant’s hostess.

Buffy let out a low groan as she sank lower in her chair. “Giles said something about checking out this lead he got, some big evil deal that’s supposed to be going down tonight. A vampire blackmarket sort of thing. I’d promised I’d meet up with him at the library. Guess it kinda slipped my mind,” she finished, her features contorting with a sheepish grimace.

“Oh, Buffy!” Willow frowned at her blonde friend, her pained expression one of mild recrimination. “This is like the third time this week you’ve bailed on Giles.”

“But…I haven’t been bailing,” Buffy argued, her lip pouting as she offered up an explanation for her transgression. “Just…forgetting. A little.” Willow crooked a skeptical eyebrow that immediately melted Buffy’s defenses. “Okay! I’ve been forgetting a lot,” the blonde reluctantly admitted. “It’s not like I do it on purpose, you know! I run a pretty full schedule. What with school, and slaying, and… stuff, I can’t help it if I miss an appointment now and then.”

“If I might suggest,” Oz offered, his voice tranquil with sagacious insight. “Maybe an investment in one of those electronic PDAs. Or, possibly, post it notes?”

“I’d say it’s a little late for either,” Xander chuckled. The librarian had spotted them, and was heading their way. Giles swept across the room, nimbly dodging the saucy fingers of high-chair bound children that reached out at him from every side, negotiating the narrow space between the crowded tables like an athlete running an obstacle course, his unwavering gaze fixed upon the young blonde seated at the table.

“Maybe he’s not really that mad,” Buffy said, trying to bolster her courage for the Englishman’s arrival. “I mean, okay, a little upset, but not mad. Do you think he looks mad?” she queried anxiously, turning to her peers for confirmation. The three teens exchanged dubious glances. “Oh, God!” the blonde moaned, shrinking further down in her chair as she tried to make herself invisible. “If you’re really my friends, you’ll end my suffering, before it’s too late. Somebody…anybody? Please, shoot me now and get it over with quick!”

Her companions only smiled. They all knew Giles, and though his look of disapproval could instill a sense of self-guilt within any one of them, they also knew that, no matter how angry he got, the Brit would never intentionally inflict any real harm upon Buffy. Or anyone else that he cared about. For in spite of their earlier complaints, and numerous vocal denouncements to the contrary, Giles was, in their collective teen opinion, the most fair and impartial adult any of them had ever met. Not to mention being an invaluable addition to the special little circle of slayer acquaintances they had formed to fight the world’s forces of evil.

Rupert Giles was the librarian at Sunnydale High School. A devoted bibliophile and graduate of England’s Oxford University, the Englishman surrounded himself with things that were old, from his precious volumes of ancient and archaic texts, to the unusual primitive artworks he collected. He looked the part of a picture perfect academician with his bespectacled steely blue eyes, receding hairline and the fine etchings of character lines around his mouth and eyes.

For the most part what passed as the Brit’s social life was poor to non-existent. Perfectly content to while away the leisure hours he had on his favorite pastimes of researching, reading and cross-referencing, the librarian was far from being a typical bookworm. He was exceptionally skilled in the arts of fencing and swordplay, and was equally adept with the use of a quarterstaff. His accuracy with both a tranquilizer gun and the crossbow were not to be taken lightly and his knowledge of medieval weaponry was unsurpassed, as was the unique collection of daggers, halberds, spiked flails and swords that he kept locked away in the library’s book cage.

But Rupert Giles was not some sinister deranged lunatic with a penchant for ancient implements of torture. First and foremost he was a scholar. He could competently read several languages, some of which were no longer currently spoken by any part of the population at large. He was well suited to his present profession of librarian, possessing a great respect and love for books, specifically those ancient tomes he had managed to acquire through years of meticulous ferreting in unusual bookstores. When it came to researching obscure folklore or digging up arcane facts about demons and monsters Giles was the undisputed expert of Watcher wisdom throughout all of Sunnydale.

If it could be said that the Brit had a particular character flaw it was his strong prejudicial aversion to certain modern technologies, most notably the computer. Times being what they were, he was sometimes forced to use what he referred to as “that dread machine”, but avoided the opportunity whenever he could in favor of his beloved musty books. When he did confront his technophobia, the Englishman’s battles with the library computer were stories of legend among the teens. And though he would lose his patience with them as well, in the opinions of the four students with which he spent most of his time, Giles was an alright kind of guy.

Deftly avoided the cascading waterfall of milk that spilled from a child’s untimely overturned glass, Giles approached their table and came to a halt, his fierce gaze fixed upon the slayer in an intimidating, dour glare.

“Do you have any idea what time it is?” Giles’ demand was stern and delivered at an elevated volume to overcome the blaring din of the jukebox’s incessant music. His tall, upright posture was imposing, and he hovered pompously over the petite seated blonde, waiting for her reply. The adult Brit seemed oblivious to the conspicuous image he projected in the casual atmosphere of the restaurant, dressed as he was in a natty, vested tweed suit and tie. His attention was focussed on his young slayer at that moment, and nothing else.

“Uhhh…” Buffy chewed slowly and deliberately on the crust she had stuffed into her mouth, stalling for time as she pretended to reflect on Giles’ question. The Englishman’s impatience increased, his glower darkening by the second. Venturing a timid smile, Buffy attempted to appease the Brit’s dour attitude with some feminine, slayer charm, but Giles wasn’t falling for her wily trick this time. Finally, holding out his arm in front of her face, Giles exposed his wrist and the old-fashioned analog watch that encircled it, pushing it under her nose to see.

“Hmmmm,” she frowned, squinting to read the Roman-style numeral as she mumbled around a mouthful of un-swallowed food. “Let’s see. The little hand is on the V, I, I and the big one is on the X and I, so that would mean…” She flashed a weak, self-deprecating grin up at the Brit, following it with a contrite shrug. “I’m late?”

“Late?” the agitated librarian blustered. Shaking his head in disbelief, he scowled down his nose at the teen. “I spent over forty minutes waiting for you at the library while you sat here dawdling with your friends, and all you have to say for yourself is ‘I’m late’?”

“Whoa! Simmer down there, Giles,” Buffy countered with overly dramatic alarm. “No need to go getting your knickers all tied up in a knot.”

“Now there’s an uncomfortable image,” Xander chortled, his eyed dancing with an impish twinkle. “And think about the difficulty walking would present.” Smirking broadly, the boy basked glowingly in the appreciative chorus of stifled sniggers that he’d elicited from his fellow students. Giles, however, was less amused. Pushing at the spectacle frames balanced precariously near the end of his nose, the Brit reached into his suit jacket and extracted a copy of that day’s local newspaper. Laying it down on the table in front of Buffy, he borrowed an empty chair from a nearby table, and drawing it over, sat with the four teens.

“Have you seen today’s obituaries?” he questioned the slayer. Buffy’s wrinkled nose expressed her opinion of the morbid query.

“Ewww!” The blonde gave an exaggerated shudder. “Not everyone’s an obit groupie like you, Giles.”

“Most people go for the funnies first, or the sports page,” Xander chimed in, his dark eyebrows winging their way up into his hairline. “But not Giles. He dives right into the good stuff. So, did you find your own name in there by any chance?”

“What? My name?” Puzzled, Giles looked up from his paper to frown at the youth, his voice conveying the weary tone of one whose patience has been tried too many times. “No, my name wasn’t listed.”

“Well, then,” the boy continued, teasing. “I think it’s safe to assume you’re still alive. You can move on to the rest of the news now.”

The four teens broke into a round of laughter, having managed once again to make the older Brit the subject of a joke. But they weren’t done with him yet. Not by a long shot. They enjoyed ribbing the stuffy Englishman, taking great delight in his reactions to their abusive jests. He seemed completely befuddled by their strange sense of humor, acknowledging it with little more than a disdainful sigh or a scathing glance.

“Say,” Buffy chortled, picking up where her companion had left an inviting opening. “Isn’t reading the obits one of those signs a person is getting on in years? You know, checking out which pal died, who in the old gang is still around and all that stuff.” When Giles ignored her jab, she leaned back in her chair, and adopting a look of innocent curiosity, addressed her next comment to him directly. “You had another birthday and forgot to tell us about it, didn’t you Giles? Hmmm! Short-term memory loss. Another problem of advancing age. Maybe we should start looking into extended care facilities for you. I hear some of those places have pretty long waiting lists to get in.”

There was another round of titters that Giles promptly dismissed with a clearing of his throat as he attempted to bring Buffy’s attention back to the obituary column.

“There’s been another unexplained drowning at Fuller Pond,” the Brit remarked, pointing to a name circled in red ink. “That makes four this month. Too many to be just coincidence, I should think.” Shaking his head slowly, he removed his glasses to rub wearily at his eyes. “I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t noticed this earlier. I usually manage to keep myself abreast of these things.”

“Must be slipping,” Xander chided the librarian. “Better watch out. If the Watcher’s Council catches wind , they might force you to take an early retirement. I hear their benefits package is the pits.”

Giles directed a stony glare at the boy that quickly reduced Xander’s broad jovial smirk to a humble, sheepish grin. Slipping his glasses back onto his nose, the Brit turned his attentions once again toward Buffy.

“Perhaps you should investigate this situation further,” he suggested, idly adjusting his spectacles. “I believe these incidents are related, and most likely of a supernatural origin. In which case, the local police don’t stand much chance at finding a solution to this problem, hampered as they are by their somewhat limited investigative techniques.”

“You mean our very own Sunnydale Keystone Kops?” Buffy scoffed derisively. Her opinion of the local police force was less than glowing. “Those jerks wouldn’t recognize a vampire if it came up and bit them on the…well, you know,” she finished lamely, curbing her tongue at the look of disapproval the librarian sent her way. “I don’t think we can count on them for much help,” she finished.

“So what are we talking about here?” asked Willow, her interest aroused by the idea of a new adventure. “You don’t think the swim team is back in town, do you?” She shuddered, remembering an incident that had happened last year. The Sunnydale High School swimming coach had used experimental chemical steroids to enhance his team’s competitive performance. Unfortunately the man’s plan had backfired, causing the athletes to mutate into fish-like creatures.

“No, I don’t believe they’re responsible for these deaths,” Giles assured the girl. Willow breathed a quick sigh of relief. “There was some mention of mutilation to the bodies in the autopsy reports, but nothing one would label particularly gory in nature.”

“By whose standards? Yours?” Buffy sneered sardonically. “Sorry, Giles, but what you’d consider ‘a bit unusual’ is enough to send someone from the normal world screaming straight into the arms of the nearest available shrink.”

“So, if it’s not the swim team,” Oz said, puzzling on the line of thought his girlfriend had started. “Then who?”

“Or should we be asking what?” Xander somberly amended.

“An appropriate question for those of us living over a Hellmouth,” Giles agreed. “There are many fiendish creatures inhabiting the waters around us. Any one of a hundred species of demon could be behind these drownings.”

“Translation?” Xander whispered in a dramatic aside to his companions around the table. “He doesn’t know.”

“And thus the importance of my proposed reconnaissance,” Giles responded. “Buffy will concentrate her patrol in the area where the bodies were discovered out by Fuller’s Pond. In the meanwhile…” Collecting his newspaper, Giles rose to his feet, his next comments directed toward the slayer. “We are running late for a previous appointment across town. I suggest we make haste.”

“Mmmm, right!” Wiping her greasy fingers on a napkin, Buffy took a last, quick gulp from her soda glass. Reaching for the purse that dangled from its strap off the back of her chair, she plunked it down on the table before her and began to rummage though its contents. “So, what’s my share of the damage here guys?” she queried her dining companions. “How much do I owe?”

“Let’s see.” Xander contorted his features into a thoughtful grimace as he mentally calculated the absent bill of fare on his fingers. “You had two cokes, the salad bar, plus, uhhh, how many slices of pizza was that now?”

“Oh, really!” Seeing that the teen’s were not in any hurry, Giles’ heaved a sigh of exasperation and reached into his pocket, pulling out his wallet and thumbing it open. Extracting several bills, he slapped them down on the table, shoving the leather billfold back into hiding once again. He clucked his tongue impatiently, hovering nervously over the table as the teens exchanged good-byes. “Do please hurry!” he entreated the blonde slayer, urging her to quicken her pace. “We must be on our way. Now!”

With a final wave to her friends, Buffy allowed the flustered librarian to usher her across the room and 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. Snatching up the fan of money she thumbed through the bills, counting 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?”

Wolfing down the last few bites of reclaimed pizza Xander made a production of savoring every mouthful to its utmost as his classmates watched. When he had finished the last bite he slowly eased back in the booth, licking his fingers clean as he stretched out his lank frame and smiled triumphantly at his two companions.

For a moment the teens looked at each other, saying nothing. Gradually their gazes were drawn to the wad of money Willow held clenched in her fist. Almost as one their minds clicked with the same idea.

“Who’s up for dessert?” Xander said, giving voice to their shared thought.

Oz raised a hand. “I’m in.”

“Me, too,” Willow beamed, excitedly waving the fan of bills in her hand.

“Gar-coness?” Catching the eye of a nearby waitress, Xander gestured gallantly. “A round of Brownie Fudge sundaes, if you please.”

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

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