“Oh, God,” Cordelia closed her eyes tightly. Tears squeezed from the corners and slipped down her cheeks. “When is this gonna end?”

Angel’s hands gripped her shoulders lightly. “Cordelia? What is it? When is what going to end?”

He could hardly hear her voice. “When will she leave us alone?”

Matt arrived with a tall glass of water, which Angel took gratefully. “Cordy, just calm down and talk to me.” He offered her the glass. “Drink this.”

“Calm down?” she opened her eyes and looked at him blankly. “You want me to calm down?” She slapped the glass from his hand and it shattered on the floor. When do I get my life back?!

Angel caught her arms as she railed at him. “Give us a minute,” he told Matt, who eagerly complied, pulling the door shut behind him.

“Cordy…” he said, and still she fought. “Cordelia! I’m trying to help you!”

The brunette collapsed back on the couch, drawing her knees up, shrinking from him. “Help me?” she said weakly. “You brought her here. She came here for you.”

And then he knew. Angel sat back on his heels. If he knew how to breathe, he’d have forgotten just then. “No…” he whispered.

She wiped at her eyes.

Angel shook himself. “What did you see?”

“You know what I saw. She’s coming back.” There were footsteps outside the office and Cordy glanced that way. “You want to tell them?”

*   *   *   *   *

“They’re in the office,” the bartender told Ripper and Oz as they came back inside. “Don’t know if you want to go in there.”

“We’ll be okay,” Ripper assured the man.

He heard Angel saying, “…until we know more,” as the two entered the small room. Cordelia looked shaken; the vampire… well, that was usually hard to tell.

Oz shook his head at Angel’s unspoken question.

“We’re going to keep looking,” Ripper told them, “but we wanted to let you know, and check on Cordelia.”

The young woman gave him a weak smile, but her eyes were brimming. “I’ll be alright.”

The ex-Watcher nodded at her sympathetically. He looked to Angel. “Anything we need to know?”

The vampire’s face was clouded. “Still trying to figure that out.”

“Well,” he said, deciding not to press, “we’ll leave you to it.” He put a hand on Oz’s shoulder and they slipped back out.

The two didn’t speak until they’d reached the parking lot once more. Oz looked out again. “What are our odds here?”

“Slim to none,” Ripper mused.

“Usual odds, in other words.”

“Quite,” he smiled. “Well, we can check some of our… other clubs. But we haven’t seen these two before.”

“New in town?” the wolf questioned.

“It’s a possibility,” Ripper shrugged. “I suppose the motel district could be a place to look.”

“Unless they’re demons. Which means sewers and cemeteries.”

“Sunnydale is a magnet.”

“Roswell of the demon set,” Oz said flatly. “So we split up?”

The Brit nodded.

“I call sewers,” the young man smiled.

“Bless you,” Ripper said, then grinned. “I call the blonde.”

*   *   *   *   *

“I’ll take the little guy,” Faith said as they looked down on the two heading out on foot, from flat atop the roof of the Bronze.

“You sure we want to do this?” Annie asked.

“Hey,” the brunette said. “Their buddy’s a vampire. Salty goodness or not, I’m thinking they’re trouble.”

Annie shifted uncomfortably. “Yeah. Guess so.”

“Plus, they’re down there looking for us. And we didn’t do anything.” Faith caught Annie’s eye. “Right?”

She shrugged. “Yeah, wasn’t me. She just started falling.”

“So, we track the friends, we might get the boyfriend in the open.”

“And what if we just shouldn’t get involved?” Annie’s voice was brittle.

“How about, maybe they need us? C’mon, B, five vampires, plus friends, first night?” The thrill in the brunette’s voice was obvious. “Something whacked about this town.” Faith cocked her head, looking at her companion closely. “You taught me this stuff.” She smiled. “Not losing your nerve, are you?”

The blonde Slayer was reluctant to take the bait, but couldn’t help herself. “Me? You’re taking the little guy.”

“Yeah, but I might actually catch my guy,” Faith rolled and started towards the fire escape. “Meet at the hotel by dawn?”

Annie nodded, then moved to catch Faith’s arm. “Recon only, okay? Unless you get in trouble.”

The brunette rolled her eyes. “Wussy.”

She gripped the arm tighter. “I mean it. Be careful.”

“I’m always careful,” Faith pulled away and started off. She paused at the ladder long enough to blow a kiss. “Love ya, B…” she smiled, and disappeared over the edge and into the darkness.

*   *   *   *   *

Oz opened his senses to the night as he walked through the suburbs of Sunnydale. He was saving the sewers — and their lovely stench that would overwhelm his sense of smell — for later. For now he was going back over the graveyards he’d hit earlier on patrol, with the same result: nothing. It was as if someone had swept them before he’d come out for the evening.

It was after midnight and the moon was set, so he could give over to the wolf more without losing control. The air was an intoxicating blend of aromas: the dewy grass and the perfume of well-manicured flower beds and, with the wind coming from the west, the salty taste of the sea from across town. As he approached Restfield Cemetery there was added the slight smell of decay.

He walked along the tall iron fence separating the graveyard from the sidewalk, eyes scanning the space within. It was difficult with the streetlights at his back. With a glance around to be sure no one was watching, Oz gathered his strength and sprang atop one of the regular stone pillars along the fence, then back down into the grass on the other side.

As he touched down, his sensitive ears picked up a sound behind him and off to one side, rather like a startled gasp, quickly squelched. He waited, but heard nothing else.

Using one of Veruca’s old tricks, Oz began to walk with the wind at his back. Stepping quietly through the grass, he felt the low, involuntary snarl in his throat as he caught the scent from behind him after a few moments.

He slowed. But then the scent was gone again, and he wondered if he’d imagined it. The light smell of sweat, and new leather. (Which could, he reasoned, be himself, looking down at his jacket.) But also apples, and the sweetish aroma of unburned tobacco. And now nothing.

Shaking his head, he continued on in his search, nerves on full alert.

*   *   *   *   *

Ripper spent an hour casing his favorite underground haunts, and questioning his usual sources. Though he got no leads, several brawny humans and a Kailiff demon had promised to contact him if two matching girls were to show up. If they were new in town, he doubted they’d find these private clubs, but he had the impression that the two knew how to uncover the action. And Sunnydale never lacked for action.

Willy’s was its usual subdued self, albeit somewhat crowded, and though his entrance caused a minor stir (particularly with a confused Fyarl), Ripper’s focused attention on its proprietor allowed him uninterrupted passage to the bar.

“Ripper,” Willy greeted him with an air of near relief. “Fancy seeing someone of your species here.”

The ex-Watcher scanned the crowd. “I’m looking for two girls, human. Blonde and brunette.”

“This isn’t the best place to snag that kind of threesome, Rip, but if you’re not opposed to interspecies dating—” and then Ripper had him by the collar.

“Just tell me, Willy,” he said, voice low but not yet threatening.

“Haven’t seen ’em,” the barkeep gasped. “No one like that, not tonight.”

Ripper released him. “If you do, I’m looking for them. Alive.”

“You know me, Rip, I have a strict ‘no outside food’ policy.”

The ex-Watcher started for the door, but Willy’s voice sounded unbearably servile and slowed him. “Hey, Rip, have you talked to Witless lately? I was telling him…” the voice faded with Ripper’s glare.

“What now? More portents? Signs of doom? Uneasy feelings? This is Sunnydale; you hear those every day. Are you telling me there’s something different?”

“Look, Rip, I know it’s easy to get the guy going.” He leaned over the bar, and the Englishman humored him with only a small roll of eyes. “Something’s got the clientele real nervous,” the barkeep whispered. “Sort of feeling there hasn’t been since the Ascension. Something big and bad is coming, Ripper.” He resumed a casual stance for the benefit of his other customers. “Bad for business, you know?”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” Ripper answered, and headed for the door again. Something coming. Not felt for years. That earned a modicum more attention coming from Willy’s mouth than Wesley’s, but on top of Angel and Oz….

He gathered himself outside the bar. No sign, not unexpectedly. With a fleeting hope that he’d fair better in the motel district, Ripper headed back for the Bronze and his bike, deep in thought. And once again missed his extra shadow, as he’d done since he left there earlier tonight.

*   *   *   *   *

When his destination was obvious, Annie paced herself to beat him there. If he was looking for her, he’d been doing it in strange places. His last, seedy-looking stop had given off such a supernatural vibe that her fillings hurt. She was starting to want to walk the other way. He was human and she could take him without much effort, but she didn’t need the grief. They didn’t need the grief, not when L.A. was a train hop away.

Annie noticed the bike as she entered the parking lot. It was a Vintage Classic, low profile and lots of chrome. She doubted there were many in this town. She didn’t need to see the black helmet he’d had sitting beside him to know it was his.

Faith would keep pursuing this; Annie knew that look she’d had. And for that, she walked up to the bike and took a lean on it. Without information, Faith might be in danger. That was unacceptable.

He spotted her right away as he entered the lot. She had speculated that it was just the club atmosphere, or the high of the kill still in her blood, that drew her to him before. That away from there, at some other time, he’d just revert to an uninteresting, early-middle-aged creep who liked to hang out at clubs with people half his age. Now she realized that wasn’t going to be happening, watching him walk toward her with no evidence of surprise to find her there. She took in the unconscious grace of his gait. The cycle leathers fit his form well; she doubted he worked out, but whatever he did — and New Age shop proprietor definitely seemed inaccurate — kept him fit and, from his cool, hyperaware posture, fighting trim. What had the bartender called him? Ripper? The name fit him.

Then his green eyes met hers, and she hoped whatever had just kicked her in the gut wasn’t visible on her face.

“Guess you haven’t left town,” he said in a smooth British accent that made her toes curl.

She raised an eyebrow. “Does that mean you were looking for me?”

“Well, you did leave awfully fast.”

“I like to avoid trouble,” she said. The look on his face said he didn’t believe that. “How’s your friend?”

She looked away, but felt him looking at her, measuring her somehow. “She’ll be fine.”

“I didn’t do… whatever happened to her, you know.”

“No,” he answered slowly, “you didn’t. She has… spells, occasionally.”

Annie turned back to face him. “But she’ll be fine?”

“Yes,” he nodded.

“Good,” she moved to stand, “that’s all I needed to know.” It wasn’t, actually, but she didn’t think he’d really just let her leave.

He cleared his throat, and she paused. “What?” she asked.

“Well,” he shrugged, “you have your information…”

“Oh,” she leaned back again, testing a little smile. “Did you want to know something?”

“Your name might be nice.”

“Might it?” she batted her eyes playfully. “It’s Annie. Is that nice?” He grinned broadly, though he tried not to. “And you’re Ripper, right?”

“Actually it’s Rupert,” he answered, “but I rarely get called by it.”

“Rupert,” she clicked her tongue on the ‘t’. “I see why. I think I’ll stay with Ripper.”

He looked off, then back. “So how was it you found me? Since you apparently were looking?”

She ran her hands along the bike as her answer, and he nodded with a laugh in his eyes. Annie fished a near-empty pack from her pocket and lifted a cigarette to her lips. “Do you have a light?”

“I quit,” Ripper answered.

“You quit, or you’re quitting?”

He paused. “Quitting.”

“Which means you have a light,” Annie smiled.

He pulled a silver lighter from his pocket with a chuckle. “Those things are terrible for you,” he placed it in her palm, warm fingers touching her hand with a linger.

“These and everything else in life,” she flicked on the flame.

He shrugged. “Plus, it makes kissing an unpleasant experience.”

Annie lifted her eyebrows. “Really.”

He nodded, lips twitching on a smile.

“So my girlfriend tells me,” Annie took a deep draw.

“The brunette?” he didn’t blink. “Lovely girl.”

She clicked shut the lighter, flipping it back to him. “Anyway, that’s for the non-smoker in the kiss. Wouldn’t bother me if you don’t smoke.”

Ripper clicked the flint idly. “So... you’ve thought about kissing me then?”

Annie coughed uncharacteristically on a puff. She couldn’t speak.

“You all right?” he asked nonchalantly.

She took a moment to recover, laughing. “Now that wasn’t fair.”

His face turned serious. “What, are we playing a game?” He moved closer to her. His voice was low, feral. “Was that round two?” Seductive. “How long do we play?” He placed his hands on the seat on either side of her, and she stopped him with a palm against his chest.

“How do I know where you’ve been playing?”

“You don’t,” he laughed low in his throat. “No more than I do you.”

She could feel his heat through her hand. His eyes were locked with hers; his breath was sweet. And then they teetered on that perfect moment, when both know what will happen, but each imagines they could stop it if they wished.


III: Nightmare Coming