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“What the hell you got Fred doing for you now? Slavin’ away at the lab ain’t enough, you gotta have her as your own personal errand girl? Fuck that. Let her be, for fuck’s sake.”

That’s what Spike wanted to say.

That’s what he’d picked up his cell phone to say at least six times since waking up from his nap with Fred.

Spike frowned. He loved the girl so damn much for many reasons, not the least of which was for how she made her own decisions, often stubbornly so. When she got her heart set on something (like getting his body back, for instance) she could dig her heels in but good. When it came to Angel, she would always respond to his requests and value his opinion. After all, Angel became her first savior when he plucked her out of Pylea.

“Long as we both know, I’m her last, boss man,” Spike told the closed phone and put it back on the nightstand.

The slender, naked length of Fred’s back tempted him as she lay sleeping on her side, the white sheet wrapped over the rest of her. Leaning in, he rested his forehead between her shoulder blades and drank in her scent, while gliding his hand along her side. Then he felt something that stopped him with a start.

Her hipbone. Always prominent, it seemed to jut out just a bit more than he recalled. Frowning, he ran his hand lightly underneath her buttocks and gently kneaded her firm bottom. Just as he had suspected: less of an inch to pinch. Not that she could really spare it, either.

Fred had lost another pound or two. That made, in his estimation, ten since she’d gotten back from hospital. Ten pounds gone tucking away at pizza and wings and French fries and milkshakes (although her hearty appetite had definitely waned as of late). Ten pounds gone and a shade of the bloom gone out of her cheeks, too, now that he really thought about it. Ten pounds gone since she’d returned to the lab after the deals they had both made with that damnable Wolfram & Hart.

He’d worked it, though, hadn’t he, that she’d be spared? He’d give up being human (no great loss there, really) in exchange for keeping Fred out of the fray.

Maybe gentleman’s agreements didn’t count between demons.

More likely, he had to be imagining things.

Shaking the negative thoughts away, he rolled out of bed, into jeans and out onto the sunset-lit outdoor balcony to smoke.

Fred needed to stretch her legs, after weeks of trying to work off the physical effects of sedation, the emotional effects of murder. He should be happy – thrilled even – that she could return to her daily habits so quickly.

Hell, if Fred could go running around at Angel’s behest, tinkering with god-knew-fuck-all in that bloody lab, what was his excuse?

“Hey,” she padded out to him barefoot and sleepy-eyed and wearing one of his t-shirts. “I can’t believe we slept so long.”

Spike tossed the cigarette. Solemnly, he walked toward her, took her face in his hands and kissed her soundly on the forehead. "You floor me, pet. Barely back on your feet and still thinking of the good fight."

“Huh?” she yawned.

“Dunno why I thought bein’ holed up here with me was enough.”

“Wait, what?” she blinked.

“You never stop thinkin’ on others is all. I should take your lead - start patrolling again, catch up with Charlie, shake out a few nests. He's got to be up to his balls in vamp attacks on that side of town.”

Fred struggled to wake up and focus. “Well, sure, if you want to.”

“I need to, don’t I?” He kissed her again and went straight to the kitchen.

“I guess?” she called after him.

“You got that number to the shelter he gave us?” He asked, opening and closing kitchen drawers. “Wait ’til he hears I’m back on the streets. Aha,” he held up a business card. “Got it. Wonder if I’ve missed him. Well, there’s always tomorrow night, and the next.”

“Hey, slow down,” Fred told him as he picked up the receiver to the wall phone.

“Fred, he may’ve already left.”

“That would be okay.” She took the phone and hung it up.

“Why?”

“‘Cause what I have to say is more important. Spike, of all the things that have been happening here with you, being ‘holed up’ is not how I would describe any of ‘em.”

He stroked her hair back. “I keep you in the dark with me.”

“Not really, most of the time you’re awake before I am.”

“You know what I mean,” he chastised her gently. “You glow like the sun,” he whispered, running his knuckles along her jaw. “Only seems fair you should be out in it.”

“I get plenty of sun. Besides, I burn and freckle real easy. Spike, I love our life.” She wrapped her arms around his neck. “I love you. Don’t ever think any different. Patrol if you wanna. Call Charles and have a beer. But don’t do it because you think I want you to.”

Suddenly, right before his eyes, he watched all the color drain from her face.

“Oooof,” she groaned, pulling her arms from him to wrap around her middle.

“Win, what is it?” Spike gripped her shoulder.

“Just heartburn, extra spicy volcano style. I’m gonna get some Pepto - ” she nodded back toward the bathroom and headed that way.

Spike watched her helplessly, then shook his head and picked up the phone.

“It’s just heartburn. She’s fine, you dolt. You’re just bloody whipped is all.”

 

From the front-row seat his wheelchair afforded him, the withered old demon could not stop watching his own death.

He surveyed it with the rapt detachment of the spectator he truly was, feeling no ill effects from his on-screen demise. The image fascinated him, the grainy picture in the center of the Orlon Window, how the strange blue woman's fury and the force of her fist exploded his skull into flying fragments of pulp. He watched how his body slumped to join that of the already dead man lying on the floor - his six o'clock appointment in this current reality, one Wesley Wyndham Pryce.

Cyvus Vail smiled at the wonder of alternative realities. If he had his way, Pryce and the rest of his cohorts wouldn't be left alive in any of them.

"You're obsessed with that thing," a young woman's voice said behind him.

He frowned. "You might be well to share my obsession. Perhaps it would spark your flagging interest in what we're trying to accomplish."

"You know, funny thing about throwing the universe out of whack..." Eve sighed, flopping into his plush jacquard couch. "Not as fun as it sounds."

"The fun does not begin, my dear," he hissed. "Until we have earned it. You completed your visit, I take it?"

"Yeah, what was that about?" Eve frowned. "I found that Lindsay McDonald guy you showed me from that box? He didn't know me from Adam," she smirked a little at her pun. "Too busy playing Johnny Cowboy with his little pals all day. The guy's a rodeo clown, not a diabolical genius."

"Yes, well," Vail chuckled. "Some realities are more amusing than others."

"Well, amuse yourself with this," Eve said, her smile disappearing. "I want the Lindsay Mick-Dee you showed me." She pointed to the Orlon Window that Vail had been gazing into. "Big with the tattoos, the evil plan, and the getting fleshy with me.”

"All in good time, my sweet," Vail wheezed. "We must put proper parameters in place first. You'd do well to remember that I contacted you - meaning my schedule, my plan." He stared hard at the glowing cube in front of him. "At least in this world."

"That's another thing I don't get," Eve said. She got up from the couch and walked over behind Vail, squinting warily at the screen on his table. "How is it that we can see all of this?"

“The Orlon Window is my creation. My work for Wolfram & Hart before their management changed. Unfortunately, without the amulet, its value is diminished.”

He turned around and eyed her. "You do not know what Orlon stands for? Other Realities Lost on Nature. With only the application of a small amount of magic," he waved his hand over the cube and a picture of Eve with an apple, sitting on Angel's desk and grinning prettily, came into view. "I can view the variations of the reality we're currently residing in."

"Man, I have the best clothes in that reality," she sighed wistfully.

"In there, you die," Vail growled. "Wolfram & Hart collapses on you."

"I know, I know," she said with a roll of her eyes. "And you die and that Lindsay dude dies. I got it."

“I created this vessel when I created Connor’s new life, which led, of course, to Angel taking over Wolfram & Hart. If Angel had never changed his son's outcome, Wolfram & Hart would have continued unchecked. We would have continued, certainly. As underpaid lackeys!" Vail roared, slamming his fist on the desk. "You say I am obsessed for studying the millions of worlds in this window. Without that obsession, I never would have found our opportunity."

They watched together as Angel and Connor came on screen, struggling in the sporting goods store of a shopping mall.

"Angel dies in that one, his son kills him," Eve noted. "Dust to dust, baby."

"Yes," Vail murmured. "I have also learned that the one constant in every world in which we, too, exist is Connor. Here he's a criminal, a murderer. But he's acquitted, on account of his insanity. Even here, the son of the vampire with a soul lives."

Eve met his eyes. "So he's our key?"

"The amulet is our key. The amulet will allow us to move through the window's worlds at our bidding, extract individuals at our behest – such as the Lindsey I have enamored you of – and its destruction will seal whatever changes we make. No, Connor," Vail grinned evilly. "Connor is merely one of our pawns - along with the rest of them."

"So what do you say, boss," Eve whispered, working her hands into a strong massage of Vail's tight, thin shoulders. "I think it's time for our first move."

"Ah, yes. On to Wesley. You'll help me dress, won't you, dear?" he leaned back into her touch, closing his eyes. "I don't wish to keep our first player waiting."

 

Groggily, Buffy sat up on Lorne's velvet settee, cracking her stiff neck from side to side. Not the most comfortable nap in the world, but she'd slept off the afternoon's rum run to awaken refreshed and only slightly embarrassed.

Lorne came out of his bedroom dressed in a pink leopard skin printed tuxedo and clucking his tongue at her. "Thought for a minute you were going to miss the whole show. Come on, shake a leg and you can be first in line for the happy hour canapé buffet.”

"Oh, no," Buffy said, shaking her head resolutely. "Drowned sorrows, check. Time to move on." She glanced up at him. "What time does your hour get happy anyway?”

"Let's see, Wednesday night, so that makes it…" He checked his watch. "Yup, six o ‘clock."

"Six!" Buffy shrieked. "Why did you let me sleep so long?”

"See this?" Lorne asked, walking over toward her and pointing to a swelling and discoloration on the tip of his green nose. "My blending skills with the miracle of food coloring and a good base aside – that hit's from you, Slugger.”

"I hit you?" she asked in a small voice.

"I attempted to shift your siesta to the comfort of my boudoir but her ladyship wouldn't be moved," Lorne said wryly. "You think I was gonna chance a wake up call after that?"

"Oh, Lorne, I'm so sorry," Buffy said, eyes wide and plaintive. "What can I do to make it up to you? Need a bouncer? You got a preview on how good I am.”

“Nah, my tender-hearted bruiser bouncer Bruno wouldn’t hear the end of it," he chuckled. "This is nothing a little plaster and Spackle won't fix. I'll mend. Meanwhile, why don't you go out and make the streets safe for my less-demonic patrons tonight?”

She looked at him blankly. “Huh?”

“Uh, patrolling is what I think you crazy kids call it,” he replied, matching her surprised look.

“Oh, right.” She hiccuped bananas and grimaced. “I don’t really do that anymore.”

He sat next to her on the settee. “The answer to the $25,000.00 question on why would be what? You’re the Slayer.”

“I’m one of many now.”

“So that makes your mission mean less?”

“Of course not,” she shifted uncomfortably in her seat.

“Buffy, a sweet year or so ago, when the doo-doo hit the fan in the City of Angels, I had the 911 on ‘who you gonna call.’ He came, he saved, he could be ever so righteous about it.”

She smiled a little.

“Last I checked, he isn’t out there. Which means - who is?”

“I’m sure there are other Slayers…”

“Why, so it makes you feel better about sitting out a round?”

Buffy sat back. “I’m going to be a Watcher now, Lorne. My Slayer days - they’re not so much over, just buried. Under my whole town, actually.”

“Only if that’s where you want them,” Lorne replied, then patted her knee and walked to the door. “If you stick around for the buffet, I give five stars to the BBQ meatballs. Take care, doll.”

Patrolling. She didn’t know what was stranger - that he brought it up or that she hadn’t thought of it in so long.

After a few sluggish minutes, she peeled herself off the sofa and used Lorne's private exit. Buffy found herself on the street, down a block from the entrance of the club. The simple neon sign, Caritas, had just been lit and Buffy stood for a moment, reflecting on it.

Charity? Mercy. Whatever. How different life could've been with this kind of watering hole than one named for third place at the Olympics. Obviously, if Angel had guys like this in his corner, things couldn't be all bad here.

Then she remembered: Lorne had already sprung out of that corner. Along with Charles Gunn and Wesley…

"Who seems to have gotten out of rehab just in time to make happy hour," she murmured, craning her neck down the street when she saw a familiar Wesley-esque figure about to descend the stairs to Caritas' entrance.

"Wes!" she called, jogging down the street, suddenly enervated. The day wouldn't be a total loss. She could meet him in the bar, take his statement on his imprisonment by that Slayer…as much as he remembered of it. She halted in her steps. Too many drugs might mean too little memory.

Too late. He’d stopped and turned.

“Hey!” she waved.

Buffy Summers, Wes thought wildly. What on earth are you doing here?

 

“So you’re working for the Council now," Wesley mused after catching up with Buffy at the entrance to Caritas. "That's interesting and…somehow terrifying.” He gave her a teasing grin.

“What, me doing anything close to the work you and Giles did? Yeah, right there with you,” Buffy sighed. “But beggars can’t be choosers. We need Watchers.” She elbowed Wes and raised her eyebrows hopefully. “I heard you need a job. We’d even give you an office.”

“Generous offer, but I’ll pass, thank you.”

“So what are you gonna do now?”

Wes rubbed his forehead tiredly. “I ask myself that question every day. At the moment, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other and not sticking a needle in my arm to do it.”

Buffy touched his shoulder. “Wes, I’m really sorry that happened to you.”

“Leah happened to me. The rest I accomplished all on my own.”

“Would you be willing to give a statement for the Council about her?”

“Of course, but…” he hesitated. “I don’t suppose this could be accomplished via email?”

“Yeah, sure,” Buffy fumbled in her briefcase and pulled out a business card. “I guess a formal in-person interview full of reliving and rehashing might not be your jam right now.”

He smiled gratefully and pocketed the card. “Thank you for understanding.” Then he pointed to the door. “Going in?”

“Oh, no, thanks, I’m…” She stopped, since she had no idea what to do next.

Wes didn’t wait for a response. “All right then. Good luck, Buffy.”

“Thanks,” she replied but the door had already closed.

At the green light signal on the corner, a small fleet of cabs hurried through the intersection. Buffy took advantage of their availability and hailed one down, feeling oddly guilty for going back to the hotel.

Of course she should patrol! Only one problem with that.

You couldn’t stake vampires with a briefcase.