Kaleidoscope

 
 

After a short discussion, Ripper ushered Clem out the cabin door with the motorcycle keys in his hand, spare jeans, flannel shirt, and hooded jacket in place of the bathrobe, and orders to send Oz or Xander their way in a few hours. Annie had suggested a freight train as his ultimate transportation back to Omaha, but the demon insisted on at least the dignity of a Greyhound, claiming that no one ever really looked at their fellow passengers on a bus anyway. The Englishman had loaned him the money for a ticket, and wished him safe passage.

“I’ll try to get the deathtrap to the bus station in one piece,” Clem ribbed him gently about Ripper’s preferred mode of travel. “You do the same here, okay Rupe?”

“That’s always the goal, old friend,” the ex-Watcher replied, and shut the door behind him.

He turned to the empty room, and leaned his back against the door. He sighed, then turned his head at a rustling in the bedroom. Ripper cleared his throat, pushing off and starting for the sofa. “I’ll just take—”

He turned his head as she appeared in the doorway, legs bare beneath a lengthy nightshirt. “None of this ‘I’ll take the couch’ crap, okay?” she interrupted him. “We’re both tired and it’s a big bed, so just come on.”

Rupert didn’t move, simply stared at the writing on her garment. “Where did you find that?” he said in a voice that startled him with its evenness.

Annie jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “Same cabinet you found those clothes for, uh, Mr. Pink Skin.” She looked down at her front, and read the phrase ‘Chicks Dig Unix’. “It’s okay, right? Normally I sleep au naturel, but I did actually want to sleep, so I figured…”

“Yes,” he said, swallowing before he answered. “It’s fine.”

She heard it then, in his voice. Looking up, she could see his distant look, and she realized her mistake. The Slayer stepped forward, reaching out and taking his hand. “Come on, before you fall over.”

His eyes met hers blankly, but he let her draw him into the bedroom, and close the door behind them. Annie let him go, then drew the heavy curtains against the brightening morning, before climbing into the bed and drawing the covers up between him and the reminder of his past.

“So how did you meet Clem?” she asked, and with a hand turned down the covers on the other side of the bed.

Ripper blinked and looked at her once more, then smiled gratefully and moved to the bed. He sat and began to remove his boots.

“I met him while investigating Sunnydale’s demon underground.”

“Just for fun, or what?” Annie crooked an eyebrow.

He chuckled. “No. Despite your image of Watchers, not all our information comes from books. It helps to actually speak with demons, occasionally.”

She watched him slip off his socks, then stand to remove his trousers. “How can you trust what they tell you? They’re demons. What if this Clem guy has been setting you up just to knife you in the back someday?”

“Well,” he said thoughtfully, sitting on the bed in his boxers (a detail which Annie realized she’d been too occupied to remember from the last time he was this unclothed), “there is a spectrum of good and evil in the various demon races, just as there is in humans. Most demon races tend towards the ‘evil’ end, just as — so I would like to believe — most humans tend towards the ‘good’ end. But individuals can always be exceptions.”

“And Clem’s one of the good guys?”

He slid his legs under the covers, and settled back against his pillow. “He’s been a good friend.”

Annie slipped down to her back, careful to keep the covers over the nightshirt, and looked back up at him. “So he gave you the skinny — pardon the pun — on the bad stuff going down.”

“Uhm, well, he was a source. But not a very good one,” Ripper turned sheepish. “He’s too nice; none of the really bad demons would talk to him. But there are plenty of channels for information here, most willing to part with—” he grinned, “—the skinny, for some financial reward.”

Annie turned on her side and propped up on her elbow, head in her hand. “That’s what you were doing last night. You were asking around with your demon sources after Faith and me.”

“You’ve managed to slip under the radar so far.”

She shrugged, grinning. “We’ve only been here a day and a half. Give it time.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Will you?”

Her smile faded somewhat, and she turned to her back once more. “Are there really that many demons in this little town?”

“There are twelve cemeteries in this ‘little town’, and fifty-seven churches. What do you think?”

When she didn’t respond, Ripper slipped down to his back as well. He looked at the ceiling. “You know, as something of an expert on the subject, I’d say you’re quite good.”

She quirked an eyebrow. “An expert? We’re talking about what, exactly?”

He heaved a sigh. “Slaying.”

“Oh, right,” she grinned.

“Yes, well, you are good. Unconventional, but good.”

“Surprised?”

“No,” he shrugged. “Merrick was a good teacher.”

Again she fell silent. It was his turn to face her, scrunching the pillow beneath his head with a hand.

“I knew Kendra for a year,” he said softly, “and her technique was impeccable, but almost entirely by the book. She’d learned her Calling from the time she was a young girl — as you were to have. But being away, with no one to help, that’s schooled you also.”

“I have to think on my feet.”

He fell silent himself, taking in her profile.

“What?” she finally asked, turning her head.

“I’m wondering what you’d be like if we’d known you’d survived. If you’d been my Slayer from then.”

“You had a Slayer.”

“Actually, I didn’t. She was more properly Mr. Zabuto’s. But he sent her to Sunnydale when the Council couldn’t find Greta Braiden’s replacement.”

Annie took in the soft lines around his eyes. “So… technically, I’m your Slayer.”

He smiled. “Meant for each other, we two.”

She blinked, and he blushed. “Not an unappealing prospect,” Annie said.

“I didn’t mean—”

“I know what you meant,” she smiled. “But not what they intended, I’m sure.”

“No,” Ripper shook his head. “We broke quite a few rules in the Council’s eyes, to be certain. Very basic ones, in fact.”

“Good thing you’re an ex-Watcher,” she replied, placing a palm on his T-shirt clad chest idly.

He covered her hand with one of his own. “I’m fairly certain that when it comes to interacting with the Slayer, the Council doesn’t recognize my retirement.”

“Well they have to recognize mine.”

“Annie—” he began, but she cut him off.

“Look,” her eyes avoided him, “I don’t want to talk about Watchers or Slayers right now, okay?”

Ripper was quiet for just a moment. Then he lifted her hand, still beneath his on his chest, and lightly kissed her palm. “All right,” his voice was gentle. “No Watchers,” he kissed the tips of her fingers, “no Slayers,” and then the back of her hand.

“Just us,” she finished, meeting his green eyes.

“Just us,” he echoed.

Their gaze locked, the air still, breath held… and then Annie yawned.

They both laughed. Ripper gently tugged her arm, and she moved the few inches between them as he slipped his arm around her. She nestled her cheek on his chest, and he kissed her forehead softly.

“This bed is really soft,” Annie murmured.

“The finest goose-down a librarian’s money can buy,” he whispered in return, and could feel her smile without looking.

In moments, they were both asleep.

*   *   *   *   *

Oz watched the demon drive away on the motorcycle, then looked up at the window of his loft, half-expecting to see Faith watching. From his position on the couch, he’d seen her stir when Clem had rung the buzzer, but she had, at the very least, played sleep when he had taken the elevator down to the street. Though he’d have rather offered his old friend more hospitality, Oz knew bringing a demon into the loft with an antsy Slayer would have simply been asking for trouble. As it is, he was wondering just how good a view she’d have as Clem drove away.

Ripper had the other Slayer. Faith would — he hoped — breathe easier at that news. Certainly if they were to elicit her help, it was essential.

But that was the rational side of him talking. He’d gotten very used to listening to that voice in the last couple of years. Strategy, organization, planning for the latest apocalypse…

That was not the side that had been talking to him last night, as he lay on the lumpy couch and drifted in and out of sleep, eyes watching the young woman in his bed. Instead he’d heard something he hadn’t in a while.

Never once since he’d met Ripper and the others, learned what they did, night after night, had he considered leaving Sunnydale. He could have, after he’d learned enough about what he was, how to control his lycanthropy. Hell, he could have once he knew to chain himself up three nights a month.

Yet that had never been more than a passing thought for him. Cordelia had once referred to what they did as ‘saving the day, one night at a time’. And it was a worthy cause. But the real reason had been far simpler, far less altruistic.

His reason had been Veruca.

Ripper had met her at an underground club he used for information. She was a singer in a band he’d heard there, and her control and ‘beyond her years’ maturity spoke of darker secrets, something Ripper knew instinctively. When Drusilla had kidnapped Cordelia, she’d leant a hand to locate them. Oz, not yet a werewolf, had seen the distinctly out of place girl in the halls of Sunnydale High, and she’d made an impression.

Veruca was wild, and made no attempt to hide that fact. He knew, from later half-spoken thoughts and sidelong glances that when Jenny Calendar had died, and Ripper made a lifestyle of the underground scene, that the werewolf had indulged in her own version of helping him recuperate. Oz didn’t know — or want to know — the details, but he couldn’t help but notice Willow’s continual discomfort around the she-wolf.

It was shortly thereafter that Oz had contracted his own condition. Ripper had introduced them, and it didn’t take long for Veruca’s fire to completely seduce him.

Ripper, Ethan, and Angel taught him discipline. Veruca taught him indulgence. Control yourself, but feed the animal. It, and she, were almost impossible to resist.

He couldn’t count, or forget, the nights of furious lovemaking after the heady danger of fighting vampires or demons.

Veruca’s way, though, led to both passion and anger. When a hunter had come to town seeking werewolf pelts, it affected her badly. She had no problem being the good guy when it meant freeing her predator within. But being the hunted, not the hunter, feeling the fear burn through the controlled rage, was the beginning of her end.

Eventually she’d left them, and him. After accidentally killing Sunnydale’s Deputy Mayor, she’d been offered a position by the man himself. He’d seen how tenuous her belief in good over evil, versus power over weakness, was, and exploited it. She’d been both on Drusilla’s side, and against it, as it served the Mayor’s purpose.

When Drusilla had snapped Jenny Calendar’s neck for attempting to cast on old gypsy curse to restore her soul, Rupert Giles had abandoned the last of his British decorum and attempted to kill her, practically with his bare hands. Spike had borne the brunt of his assault, however.

After Veruca switched sides, she’d helped Dru capture Ripper and Angel, and use their respective long-ago lovers to restore Spike’s health.

But when Dru had tried to end the world using Acathla, the wolf girl had instead helped prevent it, seen to it that Angel sent the maniac vampire to Hell.

Through it all, and right to the moment he and Veruca had fought their final battle, Oz had remained ambivalent about her, about himself. In those last moments, the night before the Mayor had attempted his Ascension, Oz had at last come to terms with who he was at heart, where his loyalties were, without question. He was done. He was over her. She was dead to him.

But then, she wasn’t dead. She lay in a coma, unliving, but undying. And he was denied real closure. Oz was on hold.

So while everyone around him (bar Ripper) did their Hellmouth duty but lived their lives, enjoyed love, Oz steeped himself in the work, the sacrifice. He still played in the Dingoes, but even that wasn’t offered its due; he’d shared too much of the music with Veruca to embrace it anymore.

He strategized, organized, planned for the next apocalypse.

Now, with Drusilla trying to return, and then, last night, seeing Veruca — even seeing her at her worst — it made him question what he was doing with his life, or what should be his life.

Oz was twenty years old, and tired of being on hold.

He’d lain on his couch, and watched a pretty girl asleep in his bed, and felt his soul stir for the first time in far too long.

Time to get moving.

Oz opened his phone to dial Xander, let him know to pick Ripper and Annie up, and instead found himself staring at an incoming text message. A reply to one he’d sent in the depths of night, in a moment of uneasy wakefulness.

The words he read would have been a source of mild trepidation, even in the best of times.

“Understood.

Be seeing you.

–E.”

*   *   *   *   *

Willow looked through the front window of the cabin as Xander waited at the door, knuckles red from knocking.

“Let’s just use your key, hon,” the soldier said.

“Hang on… I don’t want to catch him in the middle of anything,” she replied, head bobbing this way and that, hand above her eyes to shadow the glare as she strained to see inside.

“If he was in the middle of ‘anything’, he’d have heard me knocking. What do you see?”

She squinted. “The bedroom door is closed.”

“Then he’s probably sleeping.” He looked at his watch. “Oz said nine-ish, and we’re already running behind.”

Willow stepped back to the door. She took out her keys, and kissed her fiancé quickly. “You military types so need to be punctual.” She unlocked the door and opened it tentatively. “Rupert?” she called quietly.

Xander stepped in after her, his eyes immediately taking in the residual disarray of the cabin’s interior, the recently burned candles, and especially the large painted pentagram. “Will?” he called, and she turned her head. “What do you make of this?”

The redhead followed his gaze and moved closer to the fireplace. “Someone was doing a summoning.”

“I smell vamp dust. I’m thinking when Oz said ‘pick Rip and the other Slayer up at the cabin’ he was leaving out a few details.”

“Apparently. I hope he’s okay,” she said, brow furrowed. She moved to the bedroom door and knocked timidly. “Rupert?”

At the lack of response, she turned the knob and opened the door first a crack, then enough to stick her head in. “Rupert?” she whispered loudly.

She saw a form stir in the bed, and heard a soft moan of protest. The witch pulled her head back out of the door’s opening. “Rupert?” she called again softly.

“Willow?” came Ripper’s hoarse response.

She stuck her head back into the room, but averted her eyes. “Good morning!” she said, unable to keep the cheeriness out of her quiet voice. “Oz called a meeting… Xan and I are here to pick you up.” She retreated once more.

“Why are you hiding?” his voice was puzzled.

“Why are you talking?” came another sleepy voice.

“No reason!” Willow practically squeaked. “See you in a minute!” She pulled back and closed the door.

*   *   *   *   *

Still nestled within his arms, Annie raised her hand to cover Ripper’s mouth as he tried to reply. “No more talking.”

He gently lifted her hand. “We have to get up, love.”

She didn’t move her head from his chest. “I mean it, no talking. I’ll take measures.”

He drew in a breath to respond, and Annie slid up his body and planted her lips over his. Startled at first, Ripper soon melted into the kiss. Just as his body started to respond, she pulled back.

“Measures, I said,” and she flopped back atop him, eyes closed, cheek to his chest.

“If you think that will dissuade me, it’s the wrong tactic entirely.”

Annie sighed. “God, you Brits, so many words! Couldn’t you just say, ‘kiss me again’?”

“Kiss me again,” he replied.

She turned once more, planting her hands on either side of him, and raised to look at his face in the dimness. “I thought we had to get up?”

“I knew it wouldn’t be that easy,” he rolled his eyes.

She kissed him, this time swinging a leg to his other side and lowering her hips to his. His body reacted instantly, and his hands latched to her sides to pull her tighter against him. Exerting her Slayer strength just slightly, she drew out of his grasp and rolled out of the bed. “I distinctly heard you say it was time to rise and shine.”

His voice was a growl. “Believe me, the rising part is done.”

She glanced at the confirming evidence of the tented blankets. “Naughty Watcher,” she purred.

“Bloody tease,” he replied.

She smiled wickedly. “Always.” With a fluid motion Annie drew the nightshirt up and off, leaving herself naked. Then she turned away and bent to scoop her clothes from the floor and started donning them.

Ripper threw off the covers and sat up, turning his back on her. Looking about, he spied Clem’s abandoned bathrobe on a chair. He stood and grabbed in, giving it a quick sniff before pulling it on and stalking to the bedroom door and out.

Annie grinned to herself as she heard the bathroom door slam and water faucet turn on. She drew her leather pants on and sat on the side of the bed.

Her smile faded as she picked up her shirt. She wrung it in her hands nervously. God Annie, she thought, be careful. This would be so easy. ‘Easy’, in her life, had never translated to ‘good’.

The door opened again and Ripper came back in, his T-shirt flecked with wet spots from an apparent quick splash of his face. He removed the robe and tossed it back on the chair, then reached for his pants.

Behind him, Annie slid shut the drawer where she’d returned the carefully folded nightshirt. “So,” she breached the silence, “time to meet your friends?”

He took a deep breath. “Good as any.”

“Is there a brush or something in here I can use?” she gestured around the room without looking at him. “Maybe a rubberband?”

The ex-Watcher stepped around the bed and to her. He rested a hand on her shoulder, and at last she lifted her eyes to his, surprised to find no admonishment there. “You look pleasantly disheveled.”

Annie raised her hands to her hair. “Great for a first impression, huh? I have bed head.”

“You nervous?” he arched an eyebrow. “What will it matter if this is your only time meeting them? Or have you changed your mind about staying?”

“I haven’t made up my mind about anything,” she replied, turning a mock scathing look on him. “Even whether I like you.”

He sat on the bed beside her. “You’re not sure how well you play with others.”

She smoothed the leather of her pants, just to give her hands something to do. “Except for Faith, I haven’t had many others to play with.”

“I suspect that’s by choice.”

“You suspect right.”

“Well,” he said, “if you’ll give them a chance, they’re good people.” When she turned almost-hopeful eyes on him, he added, “And I say that as someone you’ve just met, and who has a profession you trust not one bit, so I’m sure you’ll believe me right off.”

She smiled gently, “I trust you as much as the next magic shop proprietor.”

“Hmm,” he pondered, “I’m not sure Bob down at ‘Charms R Us’ is quite as trustworthy as I am.”

Annie laughed.

“Ready?” Ripper asked.

She nodded in return. As he stood from the bed, she added, under her breath, “As I’ll never be.”

*   *   *   *   *

Ripper looked to be in a much better mood coming out of the bedroom the second time, Willow thought. But then he spotted her standing by the pentagram, and even across the room his eyes immediately went to the bruise on her jaw. It took him three long strides to reach her.

“What happened?” he said, fingers on her chin, turning her head gently. “Are you all right?”

“Slayer encounter,” Xander answered from the couch.

“It wasn’t like that,” Willow answered quickly, her eyes darting momentarily to Annie, who was hanging back in the open doorway of the bedroom, a frown on her face. “She thought I was maybe a bad guy. She was very sweet after that.”

“She left you tied to a chair,” Xander answered.

Despite herself, Annie smiled. Maybe her continual words of caution had sunk in.

“But I’m fine.” Willow looked up into Ripper’s concerned eyes. “Really.”

“You better be,” he smiled at her. The ex-Watcher cocked his head. “So why were you hiding? Earlier, when you were waking us up?”

“I didn’t want to interrupt anything.” She lowered her voice conspiratorially, forgetting that the Slayer could easily hear her anyway. “Especially smoochies. You deserve more smoochies.”

Ripper placed an arm about her shoulders and drew her close, kissing her temple. “You always look out for me.”

Xander stood from the couch, and the Englishman gestured Annie closer. She stepped forward with obvious reluctance.

“Come on,” Ripper said. “You didn’t have this much trouble meeting Clem, and he’s a demon.”

The witch’s eyes went wide. “She met Clem?”

“Last night.”

“Clem was here last night? Awww! I can’t believe I missed him.”

“Wait,” Xander frowned. “Clem was here here?” He gestured at the pentagram. “That’s who was summoned?”

“Long story,” Ripper answered. “We’ll discuss it with the others.” He turned again to the Slayer. “First, I’d like you two to meet Annie Summers, the Vampire Slayer.”

The soldier stepped forward, “Hi, I’m Xander, Xander Harris.” He started to hold out his hand, then paused. “You don’t greet people with violence too, do you?”

Annie smiled shyly, and shook her head. “Not typically.” She furrowed her brow. “Although I did punch out Clem when he appeared.” Off their looks she added, “He was a demon materializing in a pentagram. I jumped to conclusions.”

Xander shrugged, and took her hand. “Perfectly understandable Slayer reaction.”

Ripper spoke up again, “And this is Willow.”

“Of ‘Rupert and Willow’ fame,” Annie said, and turned her tentative smile to the young woman.

Willow returned the expression. “The very same.”

The Slayer looked back to the ex-Watcher and broached the question she’d wondered before. “Your daughter?”

He smiled broadly. “No,” he looked down at the Wicca’s face, “just my eternal joy.” He kissed her forehead, and she slipped her arms around his waist, holding tight, eyes closed.

Annie felt a powerful, unexpected surge of jealousy. It must have been visible on her face, for she saw Xander look at her sidelong, then step towards the other couple. “Okay, okay, break it up.” He wagged a finger at the ex-Watcher. “No macking on my fiancée. Suave, good looking British guys…” he grumbled with a false frown.

Willow swatted at him playfully and he ducked aside. She held out her hand for Annie, who took it. “It’s very nice to meet you.”

Annie merely smiled, still tentative. She cringed inwardly. Get it together, Annie. Where’s the girl who rode into town on her iron horse? she thought. Which brought another question. “So you’ve met Faith?”

Willow’s eyes went wide. “Oh yes, after a minor misunderstanding,” she replied, fingers unconsciously lifting to her jaw. “She told me some about you two,” the witch said, “and don’t worry, she’s with Oz, so she’s safe. I know she was worried about finding you last night.”

“Who’s Oz?”

Ripper leaned closer. “Werewolf.”

“Good to know.”

“Okay, people,” Xander clapped his hands, “running late, time to go.”

Willow rolled her eyes. “Military.”

Annie smiled. But when she turned to share it with Ripper, her heart froze for just a minute. As he watched the other two, she saw an almost desperate look of affection in his eyes. Then he met her own and his smile brightened considerably, but she knew it was just for her benefit.

Annie knew that look. She’d seen it on Merrick. She’d worn it herself. Annie knew from desperate. And her urge to bolt came back forcefully.

Truthfully, she didn’t know what she felt. But as she hid her own emotions from her face and followed the others out of the cabin and into the morning, in her mind’s eye she saw the ragged jaws of Fate closing, trapping her inside.

*   *   *   *   *

The “Closed for Inventory” sign was already in the R & W’s front window when Xander’s Jeep pulled past the shop and around to the alley behind. The Slayer chuckled.

“What?” Ripper crooked an eyebrow at her.

“I wonder whether the population of your Sunnydale here drops significantly when that sign goes up,” Annie answered.

The ex-Watcher returned the grin. “And how many legitimate store inventories have frightened the skittish into impromptu vacations.”

Xander pulled to a stop behind Oz’s van. “I think most of Sunnydale is eternally clueless to the real darkness.”

“I like to think of them as ‘still innocent’,” Willow offered.

“That’s why I love you,” Xander said, reaching over and caressing her hand.

Annie wasn’t sure why, but watching the small gesture, and the exchange of soft smiles that followed, melted her.

The doors of the van opened as the four of them climbed out of the Jeep. Annie saw the small man she’d seen with Ripper at the Bronze get out of the driver’s seat.

“That’s Oz,” Xander offered to her questioning gaze. He noticed the figure coming around the front of the van. “Which would make that—”

“Faith!” Annie exclaimed, and surprised herself by practically bolting to the younger Slayer. As she approached, Annie saw a hesitance in the dark-haired girl, and slowed. Then she caught her eyes.

There was so much there. Pain. Fear. Profound sadness. Over what? Their fight? Or something deeper? She knew this girl so well… her body, her mind. Her heart. Faith blinked, and Annie saw the tears hang in her eyes, unspilled but threatening. And for the moment, none of their differences mattered. Annie stepped to Faith and enfolded her in her arms.

“B, I’m so—” Faith began.

“Shhh,” Annie soothed, rubbing Faith’s back, tilting her mouth to the younger girl’s ear. “It’s okay.”

“We have a lot to talk about.”

“I know,” Annie said. “But I think we get to listen first.”

Faith pulled back, surprise and hope in her face. “You mean it?”

“No promises,” Annie smirked at her.

The brunette embraced her again. “I love you so much,” she whispered.

“I love you too, baby,” Annie returned. “No matter what.”

She felt Faith sigh very slightly in resignation, imperceptible but for her Slayer senses and intimate knowledge of the other girl. Outsiders sometimes thought they read one another’s minds. It didn’t matter at the moment. Annie pulled back just slightly, and kissed Faith in reassurance. They shared a small smile, and turned back to the others, ready to face the world.

*   *   *   *   *

Willow glanced at the faces of the men around her, then quickly retrieved her shop keys and moved to unlock the back door. She smacked Xander on her way by.

“Oz, have you heard from the others?” the witch asked.

The werewolf blinked, then looked to her. “Wesley and Anya were picking up Cordy.”

“Yeah,” she responded, “I don’t think we’ll see Queen Cordy in the sewers until that fungus demon incident becomes a more distant memory.”

“And Mr. Broody Pants must be inside already if the sign is out,” Xander added.

Ripper moved to the Slayers. “That would be Angel he’s referring to,” he leaned down to tell Annie.

“I’m catching on,” the Slayer smiled back. She nudged Faith. “By the way, if there is any staying happening, that’s gonna give me the wiggins, having a vampire around with ‘don’t kill’ tattooed on him.”

“I hear you,” Faith replied.

As the others moved into the shop, Oz giving them a lingering glance before entering, Ripper paused with the Slayers. “So you must be Faith.”

“Faith the Vampire Slayer, at your service,” the younger girl offered the slightest of curtseys. Annie elbowed her.

The ex-Watcher smiled. “Glad to have you join us, even if only temporarily.”

“Looking forward to lending a hand or two,” she answered, then glanced at Annie. “Or four.”

The other Slayer started towards the door. “Shall we get the lowdown on your apocalypse?”

Ripper smiled, following her. “Then maybe do some research.”

Annie glanced back, eyebrow raised. “Knew there was a Watcher in there somewhere.”

Faith hesitated as they headed in, and the Englishman slowed. “I just wanted to say, uhm… I’m sorry about Kendra.”

He stopped dead. Ahead Annie slowed. “That’s… that’s very kind of you,” he responded at length. “Thank you, Faith.”

She offered a sad smile. “Well…” she said and, nodding, started forward again, and he fell in beside her. “So why do they call you Ripper?”

He paused to let her enter the store first. “You’ll find out the when fun starts.”

*   *   *   *   *

Angel was standing in the darkest corner of the room as the two Slayers entered and, on unspoken instinct, split to tactically advantageous positions on different sides of the room, Faith by the research table, fingers running unconsciously along the back of a wooden chair, and Annie just an arm’s length from a Goran sacrificial spear. The ex-Watcher could barely hide a delighted smile, fond as he was of the souled vampire. Of all their motley crew, he knew that would be the toughest sell. And it wouldn’t get easier when they learned of his association with Drusilla. That had been easy for none of them, he thought grimly. Yet even he himself, with all that the insane vampire had done to him personally, had never made that final step, that conclusion that they’d be better off, that the Hellmouth would be better defended without Angel around.

Of course, after Dru had been sent to Hell, it had hardly seemed to matter. Now… well, no time to think on that now. There was a crisis at hand.

To which end the bell on the shop’s front door rang as the group’s stragglers entered. "I'm just saying," he could hear Anya's voice, "any sudden movements and I'm back out the door."

The look on Wesley's face was one of accommodation mingled with carefully hidden exasperation. "Well, if you have to make a break for it, we'll rendezvous back at the apartment in two hours," he whispered rather audibly.

"Good idea," Anya replied, clearly not getting the joke.

Cordy shook her head as she pushed past them, eyes rolling, and approached the table and its perimeter of chairs, where Willow, Xander, and Oz had already taken seats. She immediately approached the new dark-haired stranger. "Faith, right? I'm Cordelia, and welcome to our nightmare."

Faith took her proffered hand firmly. "Nice to formally meet you, Cordelia. Funky little town you have here."

"Oh, you've noticed?" she replied with a sympathetic raise of her sculpted eyebrows. "That you're still here is... well, I was gonna say a good sign, but that's probably not true." She pulled out a chair and sat, then turned her eyes on Ripper. "Is there such a thing as voluntary insanity?"

The ex-Watcher smiled. "Not that I've heard of." He waited as Wesley sat in one of the overstuffed chairs by one of the room's many bookshelves. He could see the younger man's eyes upon Faith, who had pulled out a chair and perched on the edge, unconsciously ready for any action. Ripper grinned when Anya plopped unceremoniously into Wes's lap, to the Watcher's surprise.

Ripper moved forward towards the table. "I suppose that introductions are in order.  Our guests have met me — informally, as it were — but for the record, my name is Rupert Giles. I am the proprietor of this shop, the Runes & Wicca, along with Willow Rosenberg," he nodded at the henna-haired witch, who was seated next to Faith.

Willow smiled brightly. "I've kind of met both of you too," she said, glancing between them, "but, you know, these are better circumstances and stuff."

Ripper heard Annie mutter "Really?" under her breath.

The younger Slayer had reached over to cover Willow's hand with her own. "I'm sorry about last night, I really am."

"It's okay, really," Willow replied. The fingers of her uncovered hand touched her jaw. "Not even sore anymore."

"Beside her is Xander Harris, Willow's fiancé and a Corporal stationed here at the local military outpost."

Xander sat up straighter. "The guys in my local outfit are aware and experienced with Sunnydale's unique form of enemy threat. As long as they don't draw attention of the higher ups back in Washington, they can help us when we need it. Comes in handy."

"When they don't get in the way," Wesley added quietly. At Xander's offended scowl he said, "I'm sorry, but demons are the Slayer's business." At which point Anya elbowed him painfully. After taking a moment to recover, he addressed Faith and Annie directly. "Wesley Wyndham-Pryce, junior member of the Council of Watchers. And this," he indicated the girl on his lap, "is Anya Emerson."

"Hi, perfectly normal, run-of-the-mill girl here, not harmful or threatening in any way," Anya chimed in.

Annie looked at her straight-faced. "So you were the vengeance demon then."

Wesley had to clamp his hands around Anya's waist to keep her from bolting immediately. "Reformed," he said.

"Right," Annie replied.

Ripper cleared his throat. "Indeed. Well," he gestured across from Faith at the table, "this is Daniel Osborne, or Oz."

"Werewolf, not reformed," Oz said.

Faith shifted in her seat. "Yeah, I'm sorry about hitting you at that cemetery, too."

"You're doing a good job of beating up me and mine," he answered. "As long as we direct that towards the bad guys, we're good."

Faith smiled. "Roger."

"So, then this is Cordelia Chase, whom you've met," Ripper continued. Cordelia offered a nod to both guests. "And that just leaves Angel."

"Him, we got," Annie said, and Faith's lips twitched in a smile.

"I think you'll find that, for amateurs," Ripper ignored her, "we do pretty well at demon hunting."

Faith raised an eyebrow. "If that means we're the professionals, do you Watcher guys pay us?"

Wesley looked appalled, and Ripper coughed to hide a laugh. Annie sported a grin of her own. "Don't say it," she held up a hand in Wesley's direction. "Sacred duty, blah blah blah. I've tried to tell her."

The Watcher raised an eyebrow in curiosity, wondering how this other girl was connected. He didn't remember anything about a Watcher this young being sent to locate the lost Slayer.

Ripper turned now to the newcomers. "This is Faith Lehane," he eyed the younger Slayer for confirmation, and she nodded. "She was Called when— after Kendra. Which makes her the active Slayer."

The dark-haired beauty gave a general wave to the room, then turned to Wesley. "Making you, I understand, my active Watcher. For what it's worth."

Ripper saw Annie's face cloud, and continued on in haste.
"And this is Buffy Anne Summers. She was the Slayer Called after Greta Braiden, and she goes by Annie."

The blonde spared him a tiny grin, and he felt a bit of relief. And then delight as he saw Wesley's jaw practically fall off his head.

Anya beat the younger Brit to the response. "Wait, they're both Slayers? How is that—"

"CPR," Willow jumped in. "Nothing to do with zombies."

"This is extraordinary," Wesley said. He looked at Ripper. "Unprecedented."

"As far as I know," the ex-Watcher replied.

"I have to—" Wesley began.

"—consult your books?" Annie finished for him, and the room laughed. "He's a Watcher all right."

Wesley sighed, and Anya patted his hand in comfort.

As the laughter quieted, Ripper called their attention again, and turned to Oz. "That done, I should ask why you called this meeting."

The werewolf met Ripper's eyes steadily. "Veruca's awake."

His soft voice might have been thunder, and the eerie silence that followed rolled over the room, as it often does before a summer rain.

 

XIII: Gathering