WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Buffy stared down into Sunnydale.
It was surprisingly easy to pick out landmarks. True, the city now lay in a massive hole in the ground, but the buildings had been on top, with nothing to cover them up. The only thing completely gone was the high school, now marked by a still smoldering crater of heat blackened earth.
She could make out the crumbled remains of streets and sidewalks, and here and there a roof remained mostly intact. A few of the buildings had dropped almost straight in, leaving them easy to identify, while parks and cemeteries were marked by mounds of green.
It was one of these green areas she headed toward, but unfortunately she had lots of company.
She’d managed to avoid the National Guard patrols, as she approached the site in the early morning darkness. The main perimeter had been much more difficult, but by being stealthy and making a few truly spectacular leaps over guard dogs and motion sensors, she’d made it to the edge. There she discovered areas where the side had caved in, giving her a ramp of sorts that allowed her to continue. But by then the sun poked over the edge of the crater, and it wasn’t long before someone in a hovering helicopter caught sight of her.
Buffy used all her skill to allude the two Hummers full of soldiers, but she couldn’t shake the chopper, and by the time she reached the edge of the northside cemetery she could see small groups of armed, camouflaged men in the distance, moving to intercept her. This was not good.
Then, directly ahead, an unusually tall, lanky soldier popped up from behind the jumbled remains of a crypt. He held some kind of mean looking ultra modern weapon, and an eyepiece attached to his helmet aimed straight at her. She skidded to a halt, knowing her insane quest was over, and waited for him to order her to the ground.
“Stand down, soldier.”
Buffy still couldn't believe it, even after he removed the helmet to reveal that unruly light brown hair and familiar broad smile. “Riley?”
“Neither one of us should be surprised.” Riley Finn sent a string of instructions into his radio mike, and within seconds the helicopter peeled off to hover in the distance. The soldiers, some looking disappointed and other curious, loaded back up into their trucks and headed for the edge of the pit.
Buffy stared at her former lover, and for some reason the dream she’d had came back to her. Here she was, in the same cemetery, but the one man in her life who hadn’t been fighting -- and singing -- over her in the dream showed up now. Well, there was also that weasel college student whose name she refused to think of . . .
“I had a feeling you might show up,” Riley said, and then he stepped forward to give her a brief hug. “And you should have known that the government would want to investigate this disaster using the people most familiar with what’s really going on.”
“Yeah, I . . .” Despite herself, Buffy scanned the tombstones scattered around her. “I don’t know why, but I guess I didn’t consider such a big fuss being made over the -- remains.”
“That’s because you Sunnydale people learned to take this kind of thing in stride.” Riley offered her a canteen, and she gratefully took a slug of cool water. Sunnydale had edged the desert, after all, and she’d been working her way through the security cordon all night. “But something this big couldn’t be ignored by the outside world.”
“So you’re investigating?”
“Do I still need to?”
Briefly, Buffy filled him in on everything that happened during those long weeks of fighting The First, although she left out where the group went afterward. When she finished she waited a long moment -- waited for the questions. But all he said was, “So . . . Spike didn’t make it, huh?”
Huh. Men will always be men. “By the way, how’s your wife?”
“She’s in that helicopter. In fact, I think she won the pool on how soon before you'd show up.” He grinned. “We’re still going strong. When I said that about Spike --”
“I know. I didn’t actually see him . . . go. Well, partially I did. He was really hot.”
Riley’s grin faded.
“I mean, on fire. Literally on fire. Which, as you know, doesn’t go over well with vampires.” Sighing, Buffy looked around again. “It was really him who did all this.”
“She’s gone, Buffy.”
She turned her attention back on Riley. “Huh?”
“I just realized why you came here, to this particular place.” He took her hand and gave it an encouraging squeeze. “One of our jobs is to move the caskets, take the bodies somewhere else, and I saw to it that one of the first caskets moved was your mother’s. She’s safe in a new cemetery, just a few miles from here.”
“Oh.” Buffy dropped down onto a broken tombstone, relief flooding over her. “Thank God.” As much as she told herself that the dead were gone, and she needed to deal with the living, she hadn’t been able to let it go. Not knowing the condition of her mother’s grave, whether it could have broken open . . . it had preyed on her until she had to return.
“This was actually one of the last graveyards we were going to get to, but I made a special point to get Joyce out of here. I figured you’d have enough other worries, and I planned to tell you as soon as I could get in touch.” He shrugged. “That’s one of the reasons we were keeping an eye out for you.”
“Thank you, Riley.” Then another thought hit her, and she felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up. “You mean, most of these caskets are still occupied?”
“Yeah. We’re working on it, though -- Buffy?” He had to hurry after her as she jumped to her feet, making her way to a pile of asphalt that marked a former walking path, and from there past the splintered remains of a tree. “Where are we --?”
“There was just one more I was worried about. I know it’s foolish, that they’re just empty vessels, but --” Then she saw another familiar stone, a simple piece of granite now broken in half. Right beside it lay the casket, splattered with dirt and shattered into splinters, and the sight of that made her stop short.
“We haven’t got here yet,” Riley told her in a hushed voice.
Bracing herself, Buffy moved forward and shoved the remains of the casket aside, exposing the interior lining and a shredded pillow. But no body. No human remains at all.
She turned a questioning gaze on Riley. “You’re sure --”
She looked down at the casket for a long time before murmuring the name, in a small voice:
Robin Woods leaned over to pull on his socks, then gave up the effort and sat straight until his stitched up abdomen stopped throbbing.
He considered himself lucky, really he did. He had taken on what amounted to an army of super-vampires led by the very First Evil, suffered a near fatal wound, and still lived to tell the tale. And, he managed to fit in a really great roll in the hay with a hot vampire slayer.
Just the same, Robin wished he had slayer healing powers, right now. The injured slayers, some of them hurt as badly as him, had all been released from this Los Angeles hospital. They’d had no problems beyond suffering through tests by disbelieving doctors, and sweating out how good Andrew was at manufacturing fake ID’s -- since most of them were still under eighteen and had no parental supervision.
But Robin ended up stuck here for another week, and still hurt despite what the doctors described as an excellent physique. He’s better be in good shape, after spending all his life in training to fight the forces of evil -- no junk food, no sitting around on the couch watching basketball -- but hitting the gym every day just didn’t prepare a person for having his gut sliced open.
Well, he’d have some free time now, until he healed enough to start workouts again. Just as Robin decided to walk on out barefoot the door opened, and still another young doctor walked in. Dark haired, slim, wearing glasses and a somewhat world weary look, the man adjusted a too-large lab coat and looked Robin up and down. “I’m told you’re leaving against medical advice.”
The man had a refined English accent so much like Rupert Giles’ that Robin jumped -- which brought a sharp pain in his belly. “I’ve signed all the paperwork,” he said defensively. “And the other doctors assured me I’d heal up okay as long as I didn’t do anything crazy, like move.”
“Crazy is exactly their concern. For all practical purposes you were dead when they airlifted you to the trauma center, and you still refuse to tell the police what happened to you. It’s hardly any wonder they suspect you’ll do something foolish.”
They? Wasn’t this guy a they? “Believe me, I have no plans to do any adventuring this summer.”
“Plans tend to go awry when one spends time around Buffy Summers.”
Robin stared with new interest at the man, who smiled grimly and offered a hand. “Allow me -- I’m Wesley Windham-Price, of Angel Investigations. Faith asked me to pick you up, since she has to keep a low profile while in this city.”
Robin gestured at Wesley’s lab coat. “You’re all doctored up.”
“I’ve managed to convince them I’m your personal physician, under the theory it will cut down on suspicion, but we should move quickly. Can I assist?”
“Um . . . could you help me get my socks and shoes on?”
It took only a few minutes to collect Robin’s meager belongings and check out, and when they reached the curb Robin found a sleek limousine waiting for them. He climbed in with some difficulty, and was relieved to see Faith waiting inside. “Take us to the meeting place, please,” Wesley said to the driver, after closing the door behind them.
“Sure thing, sweetcakes.” The car pulled smoothly away from the curb, while Robin took in the fact that their driver was green. Not green as in carsick, but more a Shrek green.
He pointed that out to Faith, who shrugged. “Guy’s name is Lorne. He’s a big muckety-muck in Angel’s organization, doing us a favor to keep my presence here under wraps.”
Lorne gave them an okay sign. “And I’ve got a license now, so it’s cool.”
Faith leaned forward to give Robin a gentle kiss on the cheek. “I was going to jump your bones, but you’re looking a little pale -- for you.”
Looking uncomfortable, Wesley cleared his throat. “I’ve arranged a car for you, which will be waiting at a lot near the edge of town. Faith’s murder conviction has been expunged and the escape warrant dropped, but she’s still rather unpopular with the local police.”
Startled, Faith turned to him. “My conviction --”
“A personal favor, from Angel. He feels you’ve redeemed yourself.”
That was great news -- once they left town, Faith would no longer have to worry about being a wanted fugitive -- but she looked troubled. “So, Angel’s got some pull now, huh?”
“Indeed.” Wesley looked even more troubled.
“And does that have anything to do with why he didn’t show today?”
“Angel has been quite preoccupied since he took control of Wolfram and Hart, but he sends his best.”
“Wes, what does Angel think he’s doing, going into the lion’s den like that? The local demons are more afraid of Wolfram and Hart than they are of Angel -- or me. Word is they’re the baddest of the bad.”
Robin had a feeling there was a great deal of undercurrent in this conversation, so he elected to stay out of it. Instead Wesley, who looked more morose by the second, answered Faith.
“Angel feels he can effect change from within, and I’m hopeful . . .” He trailed off, not looking hopeful at all. “At any rate, wish Mr. Giles luck with his new endeavor, wherever the new Watcher’s Council may be located.”
Robin had a feeling Wesley knew exactly where the new Council was, and remembered Wesley himself had once been a Watcher. “Good luck to all of us; it’s a dangerous game we play.”
“Indeed.” Wesley turned his full attention to Robin, so intently that Robin felt uncomfortable. “What about you? What are your plans now?”
“Me?” Robin exchanged glances with Faith. One of the things that attracted them to each other was that they both worried only about joining in the fight, and didn’t think much about plans beyond the latest battle. “Well, I suppose I’ll hook back up with Giles and see where we go from there.”
Wesley looked through the tinted window, watching as the car turned from a freeway onto a side street near the outskirts of the city. “Mr. Giles suggested I join him in reforming the Watcher’s Council.”
Robin turned to Faith, who had filled him in on her history with the Council. Sure enough, she looked like she had a bad taste in her mouth. “That’s quite a compliment, Wes,” Faith said, “assuming there should be another Watcher’s Council. They’ve got some crimes of their own to answer for, if you ask me.”
Wesley didn’t deny it, but he pointed out, “Any alleged crimes were done by Council members who are no longer alive. In fact, as far as I know, Mr. Giles and I are the only living people who ever served as Watchers, so -- If there should be Watchers -- now might be a time to start with a clean slate.”
Faith leaned back in her seat, looking completely unconvinced. “Maybe you could be on the Council’s goon squad, Robin. I had some fun times taking them on.”
Wesley interrupted, clearly not wanting to rehash those old issues again. “Actually, Mr. Giles asked what I thought about the possibility of Robin becoming a Watcher.”
Robin stared at him. Faith stared at him. Lorne, who has paused at a stop light, stared at them all. It was, as Faith said later, a regular stare fest.
Then Robin, just because he knew it would get under her skin, turned a sly smile on Faith. “Wouldn’t that make me your boss?”
“I don’t think so,” she snapped, but he could tell she was intrigued. “As much as I hate to admit it, the new slayers do need help, and you’ve got experience both as a fighter and a teacher. Me -- I’d be more like an independent operator.”
“Actually . . .” Robin could tell Wesley was choosing his words carefully. “Perhaps your best position would be in something of a mentor role for the younger slayers.”
Faith blinked. “Younger?”
“A big sister, if you will, someone to show them the ropes --”
“Hey, I’m still young!”
Robin chuckled, despite himself. “Or maybe a drill sergeant.”
“Yes, well --”
“Guys, I am not that old.”
The car glided to a stop, and Wesley glanced out with some relief. “Oh, we’re here. Well --” He paused, leaned forward, then cast a look at his guests. “And we have a visitor. Perhaps you should continue this discussion with someone who’ll be there to see it through.”
Robin and Faith leaned forward. They saw a woman wearing a flowery sundress, dark glasses, and a wide brimmed straw hat that didn’t conceal the yellow strands of hair flying in the breeze that blew through the suburban parking lot. She leaned against a red Mustang, arms crossed, with an expression that could have been deadly serious or more of a fashion model cool. The only sign that there might be anything different about her was the size of the crucifix at her neck, and the hilt of a knife showing from a scabbard at her belt -- which the unknowing would assume to be a decorative cell phone.
“There’s my girl,” Faith said with a smile. “Always the most stylish slayer.”
Cheeseman was beside himself. Literally.
Actually, he was beside a life size statue of himself, made of the best Wisconsin American -- his favorite -- which had popped into being when he snapped his fingers during a moment of boredom. But now things were heating up, and he’d forgotten the statue in favor of throwing a temper tantrum.
“Where did those vampires come from? They could have ruined everything!”
Beside him, Ozma was also looking into the huge, floor length mirror, but she acted as though it was a real mirror -- she had removed her flowers and crown, and now slowly drew a brush through the long black strands of her hair. If she saw in the mirror the image of Xander, Dawn, Kara and Jason battling the vampires in the coffee shop, she gave no sign, but she clearly knew what had happened. “They said they came from Cleveland.”
“But why leave there? What business did they have with the slayer’s sister?”
Sweet mused on that for a moment. “Perhaps someone else has stumbled onto the same scheme you have, and is trying to make it happen for themselves.”
“But I’m the greatest force of evil on the planet. At the moment. I’m the cheesiest!”
“No one would deny that,” Sweet soothed. “But you know how this business goes: Someone else always wants to see their name in lights.”
Ozma paused in her brushing to give Sweet a speculative look, then turned to Cheeseman. “I’d forgotten how competitive all you Earth centered demons can be. Yes, I think you’re right -- someone else either wants their own army of slayers, or wants to prevent you from getting one.”
“Well, that’s not going to happen.” Cheeseman snapped his fingers. “Starting now, we move the timetable up. Right after lunch. Salad and three-cheese dressing.”
“Do you think you should take the time?” Sweet asked.
“There’s always time for cheese.”