Also, there's an ASOIAF-tribute Easter egg in here. In retrospect it's pretty hard to find so I thought I would at least alert you to its presence.
Faith gave another glance to the print-out map she had been carrying in her pocket, then folded it back up and checked the time. The Wolf’s next killing was scheduled for 7:15am, so she and Buffy had come early to scope out the location where Willow had advised it would happen. Fortunately, there was no private residence within a thirty-foot radius, which was supposed to be the maximum distance that would work for the ritual. The spot was outdoors, in a patio adjacent to a commercial plaza. Faith had just done a headcount in the one restaurant which had unlocked its doors, and Buffy had disappeared into an indoor shopping center with the same purpose.
Something was going on with Buffy, Faith thought. Angel too, although she hadn’t seen him since the night before last, and Spike’s perspective on it hadn’t been much help. They were probably just stressed out by the mission, but they were supposed to be professionals.
Faith turned to circumnavigate the zone again, and was stopped short by the appearance of a familiar face she hadn’t been expecting here. “Oz,” she greeted him. “Hey. Are you here for...?” There was another man with him, a stranger, and she wasn’t sure about how freely she should speak.
“Yeah,” said Oz, then indicated his companion. “This is John Howell. He knew this was the spot, so we decided to check it out with you.”
“Oh!” Everything clicked into place. “You found him.”
It was Howell who answered. “I found him. Got away from the brainsucker influence before any real damage was done. You’re the Slayer?”
“I’m a Slayer. What do you mean ‘real damage’?” Faith heard a door close, and looked over her shoulder to see Buffy approaching with a wave and a nod.
“Something’s telling me to fly away,” Howell said gravely. “Something else is telling me to wreak havoc, all glory to the Wolf. Another something else just wants to help you guys as much as I can, to save Cleveland. Since the pull is pretty much equal in every direction, I figure I get to choose.”
Buffy had reached them just in time to respond to Howell’s self-analysis. “Smart move. I’m glad to see you’re okay.”
“So the gang’s all here,” said Faith. “Except for the ones who can’t do the sunshine thing. And the ones who, y’know, might be the actual killers.”
Buffy nodded. “We’ll see her coming. The front and side doors are the only ways to get into that restaurant, right?”
“Right,” said Faith. “And she’s not in there right now. What about the stores inside?”
“None are open and only one has anyone in there. It’s a sheet music store with this little old guy who looks like he hasn’t had a customer since cassette tapes were invented.” She paused thoughtfully. “Really makes it kind of inspirational that he’s the first one up and ready in the morning.”
Faith nodded. This was good -- there might not be a fight, but either way, they would want to be out in the open to see Nina coming. If it was even Nina. Maybe it was stupid to still be holding onto the hope that her friend was going to be okay, but she wouldn’t let it affect her judgment.
Buffy frowned at a car that was zooming by. “This is the first location in the golden spiral that’s in a public space in almost-broad daylight. Is she going to compensate for that somehow, or does anyone who happens to be taking an early morning walk get the big reveal?”
Oz coughed. “Why don’t you ask her?”
Faith, Buffy, and Howell all whirled around. Nina was approaching at a relaxed amble, sunglasses perched on her head and a purse slung over her shoulder. Her gait paused when she saw them, and she held up her hands in mock surprise. “Hello, everyone. What are you doing here?”
“We were going for breakfast,” said Faith, indicating the restaurant and swallowing a nervous laugh. “You?”
It seemed ridiculous to fake a normal conversation when every single person here knew exactly what was going on, but Nina sounded so natural that it put doubts in her head all over again. “Shopping. Mr. E wants some songbooks. He’s really serious about this idea of getting a band together.” She smiled, a patronizing expression. “Well, I’ll leave you to your 24-hour diner food. Really hits the spot at 7:17 in the morning, doesn’t it?”
The implication sank in all at once, and Faith saw the color draining from Buffy’s face at the same moment that she felt it in her own. She looked at her watch, too automatically to fight the impulse. Nina was right: it was 7:17am. Two minutes after the death was supposed to take place.
Oz ran into the diner, Buffy and Faith lunged for Nina, and Howell reeled backward, hand to his face, saying, “Oh God, of course. Why do I only know it now?”
“Take it easy,” Nina chided them, not bothering to struggle or even feign surprise as the Slayers each grabbed one of her arms. “Look around you. Is this a crime scene?” She waited until their uncertainty had loosened their grip, then said, “Now let me go get my boyfriend’s present.”
Oz reemerged, shaking his head in consternation. “What is it?” he asked Howell, who was still distraught.
“Music shop,” the pilot said hoarsely. “We ought to escort her.”
All four of them did, letting Nina lead the way through the building’s main entrance and under a sign reading All Harmony Music. A string of bells on the shop’s narrow wooden door rang out as it swung open, but instead of the peaceful scent of books, an odor of fresh blood hit Faith’s nose.
Nina screamed, as convincingly as if it had been authentic. Everyone pushed their way in and fanned out to see the body on the floor, an aged shopkeeper in an old-fashioned vest, lying in a pool of blood. Buffy rushed over, but there was no hope: his forearms had each been deeply slashed from wrist to elbow with a bloody pocketknife that had fallen by his head.
“A suicide?” said Oz, aghast.
“Sure,” Nina chuckled, all traces of horror gone from her voice. “Let’s go with that.”
Faith saw the pieces come together, and spoke them out loud, facing Nina. “They were all suicides, weren’t they? You just paid them a visit afterward to obscure the evidence.” The full magnitude of it hit her. “You were pinning it on werewolves! Your own pack!”
Nina shrugged. “This one won’t look like werewolves. Unless you’d all like to step outside for a moment so I can change. No? Alright then. Does anyone want to call the cops, or should I?”
“They’re coming,” said Buffy, her phone in her hand and her voice just above a whisper, but full of restrained rage. “And you’re coming with us.”
Footsteps came pounding up to the shop’s entrance, and Nina said, “I don’t think so,” just before it opened. They turned to see, not the police, but Mr. E, his face white and breath rapid.
Nina flung herself into his arms, sobbing. “Oh, Eric. This poor old man. It’s just too horrible.”
Cleveland was in chaos. The first responders who had arrived at the scene of the shopkeeper’s death could see the evidence that it had been a suicide, but there was no easy explanation for why there were six people already there, thirty minutes before the shop was due to open. They were saved from immediate suspicion thanks to Faith’s familiarity with the local law enforcement, but everyone had been questioned as a witness -- including Nina.
So far, Buffy had heard nothing about the consequences of that interview, but reactions from all over town were spreading through word of mouth and the internet. The people of Cleveland didn’t need math equations to know that the murders were coming faster, and they didn’t need to know it was an occult ritual to be afraid. Buffy had spent most of the day holed up in Oz’s house with Angel, taking calls from the police department and waiting for calls from Eric or Howell, which did not come.
Nobody could quite recall when they had last seen Howell, so he must have slipped away after making his statement at the police station, or he was still being held there. Buffy was almost more concerned about him than she was about Nina. The man was clearly losing his grip, and there were too many ways that the Wolf could use him now, to ruinous effect.
Eric, of course, had left with Nina. Buffy was anxious to know more about where he now stood with her, but Oz had turned down her suggestion to go and speak with him in person. His top priority, he said, was the pack. Early in the afternoon, he had left the house to visit with his people, and he hadn’t been back since.
“The question is,” said Buffy, handing Angel a fresh cup of coffee, “what’s he talking to them about? Is this a ‘rally the troops’ thing, or is he doing some private investigation of his own?”
Angel swiveled in his chair to accept the mug from her. “I think it’s more a matter of checking up on them, seeing if they’re okay. With their alphas incommunicado, they’ll want some sign of leadership, and Oz seems to be pretty well respected in the pack.”
“Huh.” Buffy sat down in her adjacent chair, set there so that they could both see Oz’s computer monitor. “I wish that didn’t make me start wondering about his loyalties again. Are all of us becoming as paranoid as I am, or am I just paranoid enough to make it seem that way?”
It was rhetorical, of course, but his gravely-spoken response surprised her. “I’m not sure we’re being paranoid enough.”
“What’s that mean?”
“This morning you figured out that the murders were suicides, right? That means that every single one of them was infected by the Wolf and forced to act against the strongest human instinct that there is, and they had nothing in common aside from being in the wrong place at the wrong time. What are the limits? Is there anyone the Wolf can’t touch?”
Buffy sucked in a sharp breath. “I...I don’t know. But if it were one of us -- we would know. Howell said he could tell he wasn’t himself, and he didn’t keep it secret from us. He cooperated. We would do the same.”
“If we understood what was happening,” Angel insisted. “Even for Howell it was a fine line. He knew he didn’t want to fly us to Cleveland, but he convinced himself he did before he even questioned it. If the impulse were a little more subtle, then who knows?”
Resisting her fervent desire to react with more denial, Buffy forced herself to think critically. “If you were the Wolf and you had the Scooby Gang extended edition at your disposal, what would you do with us?”
“Prevent us from interfering with the spiral,” Angel began, “but I’m not sure what that would entail, aside from keeping us away from the murder sites.”
“Okay, we’re already planning to be at each site on schedule, so now we know that backing out of that is a red flag. Good. What else?”
“I would get my pieces set up. Make sure that there would be a victim available at the time and place they were needed.”
“And he’s already got the owner of Satellite 3 under his control. We can probably expect him to lure in a crowd and then trap them all inside, so we’ll need to look out for anyone who has a burning need to go have a drink.” An idea hit her as soon as the words were out, and she grabbed Angel’s arm for emphasis. “Wait. What if nobody could get a drink that day at all? What if the bar had to close?”
He picked up the thread instantly. “What would force them to close? Damages, maybe?”
“There wouldn’t be enough time to vandalize past the point of no return. How about planting something in there that brings Food Safety down on them?”
Angel considered, then shook his head. “Too many variables. For all we know, the health inspector is Wolf-infected.”
He pushed back the chair and stood up, pacing the small room while taking meditative sips from his coffee cup. Buffy remained sitting, but followed him with her eyes. It still sometimes fascinated her to observe him, never mind the years that had passed since she discovered what he was, and how they had wrought no visible changes. Once she recognized a vampire, she couldn’t unsee it -- that was true for all of them, but Angel had such a predatory way of moving that she wondered how she had ever mistaken him for anything else. Even as she admired the view, her instincts were giving her unsolicited instructions on how to best dodge his next attack.
Suddenly she had it. “We can stage a vampire attack. You know how the room clears whenever there’s a bumpy face in sight. You and Spike chase all the civilians away, I’ll play victim, the three of us stay hiding in there so everyone’s afraid to come back.”
Angel’s face went from surprise to a broad grin. “And if they want to get rid of us, they’ll have to enlist Cleveland’s best Slayer.”
“Right! Faith can come in to help us, Oz can keep watch from outside, and then all we have to do is hold down Nina when the time comes, and not die.”
“And I’ll be in there already when the sun rises, so I won’t have to wait til dark to join you. I was worrying about that.”
Buffy bounced to her feet and put her arms around his neck to give him a quick kiss. “I told you we were going to figure something out. Let me call Faith.”
The phone rang in her hand, and she put it to her ear without looking at the name. “Hey Faith,” she began, then realized that it might be the police instead, or Eric, or Howell. “Um, sorry, I mean...hello?”
“Hi Buff,” came the small but kind voice on the other end.
Buffy glanced up at Angel, who had heard the voice as well, and he shrugged slightly to show her that it confused him too. “Will,” she said to the phone. “You’re calling me. On a phone.”
“I had to cool it with the astral projection. My actual body was starting to flicker. Can you get me any kind of information you have on Nina?”
Angel frowned, and Buffy held up the phone so he could be heard: “Like what?”
“Is that Angel? Hey. Like Wolfram & Hart files, art she’s made, any personal details you remember...quantity over quality. This is a long shot in the first place but if I can fudge knowing her intimately, it might work.” She paused. “I mean, not intimately, her being involved and all...”
“We get the picture,” said Buffy. “Are you sure it’s a good idea to be spellcasting at all? I don’t like when my Willow flickers.”
“I’ll take care. We’re down to the wire, Buff. It’s gotta be all in from now on.”
After the conversation had concluded, Buffy stood still for a moment, her brow furrowed, feeling as if there was a question she should have asked. “Well,” she said to Angel, who had no more insight than she did, “I’m glad she’s got her resolve on, anyway.”
Barely a word had been exchanged since Oz and Eric had gotten into the car, and nothing was said now that they were parked at the private airport. Eric stepped out of the driver’s seat, looking around the quiet lot for signs of life; Oz knew where they were headed and began walking in that direction without hesitation.
They went past the sole terminal and three small hangars before Oz found the one he wanted, took a key from his pocket, and opened the side door. The afternoon light cast only a narrow beam into the vast, dark space, but Eric found a lightswitch, and the lumpy smudge in the middle of the hangar turned into Howell’s plane, the Romulus, right where Faith had said it would be.
“Whoa,” said Eric, and Oz could see why. The plane had been vandalized with black spray paint, loose spirals decorating its wings and body. At its nose, one on either side, scarlet eyes had been painted with surprising precision. It should have looked ridiculous, but Oz saw the suggestion of a malevolent beast in those eyes, and he felt uneasy.
“Howell,” he said. “He’s losing it. We’re lucky we got here before he tried flying away.”
Eric had gone up to the plane and was inspecting it closely. “The engine is dismantled,” he said. “Wouldn’t be able to take off in this.”
Oz nodded, relieved. His plan had been to ground the plane in whatever way they could manage, but it appeared that Howell had taken that precaution himself. The paint job might have come after, as a way to vent his violent compulsions.
“What now?” asked Eric, and Oz led them back to the terminal. The sole attendant on duty barely acknowledged them, and they took seats in the waiting area, both sniffing the air to be sure there was nobody else nearby to overhear.
“You know I can’t promise this will work,” Oz said flatly.
Eric opened his hands, then folded them again in his lap. “If you’re not sure it won’t work, I’ll take what I can get.”
A tone chimed, indicating that a private plane had landed. Eric looked at Oz, who nodded, and they both stood up. “Does she know we’re coming to meet her?” asked Eric.
“She knows I’ll be there when she needs me.”
The first stars had just hit the sky as Faith’s Mustang reached the top of the hill. Before parking, she nudged Spike and pointed at Eric and Nina’s house: “Look, the light’s on. Someone’s home.”
“I’m coming in with you,” he announced, swinging open the car door and planting a boot on the ground.
“Spike!” Faith huffed in exasperation. She hadn’t wanted to have this conversation out in the open, but he left her no option but to get out and slam her door shut. “It’s gonna be hard enough to get Nina to talk to me if I’m alone. If you’re there I don’t have a chance.”
Spike was flicking his Zippo furiously at a cigarette. Finally he took it away from his lips, unlit, to retort, “And after she opens your ribcage like a stuck cupboard, I’ll tell everyone, yes, I was out in the car, Faith didn’t want me cramping her style. Is that right?” He replaced the cigarette, lighting it on the first try this time, glaring at her all the while.
“I’m not planning on giving her any reason to hurt me. Anyway, E’s probably in there too, and she’ll still be keeping up the act for him.” She almost added, If she does decide to attack there’s nothing you could do, but decided that probably wouldn’t much help her case.
He blew out a long column of smoke. “Mr. E’s car is gone.” He was right, but she didn’t have time to come up with a counter-argument before he added in a lower tone, “And that’s not how we do things. Not anymore. If I can’t face the danger in your place, I’m bloody well facing it at your side.”
Lines like that broke down all her defenses, and she didn’t have the heart to tell him he wasn’t playing fair. “Fine. But no talking. Literally none, you get me? No hello, no goodbye, no anything in between.”
Spike gave her a wolfish grin and turned to the house, duster swirling. It was Nina who met them at the door, Nina alone and showing no apparent change since they had last seen her. She made Spike extinguish his cigarette and then invited them both in. Faith greeted and thanked her and Spike was very conspicuously nonverbal.
“Did Angel send you?” Nina inquired, sitting down with them at the small round kitchen table.
“No,” said Faith. “He doesn’t know we’re here. Angel’s got this thing where he thinks he can save people’s souls, and sometimes he’s right, but I don’t think he’s the man for the job this time.”
Nina was smiling with amused detachment. “And you are?”
“All I want is to see you survive this. I mean, I don’t want anyone to die, but us I’m not so worried about. We know how to win.”
“By killing me, yes.” Nina’s voice took on a lecturing tone. “You won’t do it. None of you will, but especially not you, Faith. Or your vampire dog.” She motioned at Spike, who ground his teeth but maintained his vow of silence. “You’re both reformed killers. What you’ve gained, you can’t risk losing now. A backslide would destroy you, Faith.”
Faith flinched. She had no problem considering the ethics of eliminating a possessed human, from a philosophical perspective, but she couldn’t imagine ever recovering if she deliberately killed again. “What is this, the moral high ground? You gotta be shitting me.”
“You think it’s just about morality?” Nina snapped. “Magic is nothing but opening doors. Vampire drains a human, demon crosses the dimension and takes over the body. Oz’s little redhaired girl, she cast a spell and now she’s a practitioner forever. If you kill me -- me, Nina Ash, innocent woman -- evil gets its invitation. And evil is keeping tabs. Evil is dying to know which one of you it gets to claim when you open the door for it.”
Faith’s heart was pounding so hard that she noticed Spike looking at her with concern. She wanted to leave immediately, but there was one question raised that she needed to have answered. “What door did you open to let the Wolf in?”
A brief flash of interest showed in Nina’s eyes, and then her sardonic smile returned. “I transmitted my condition,” she said. “I was new to it myself then, but I was a candidate to host as soon as I bit someone and turned him into a werewolf.”
“Can’t you fight it?”
“I choose not to.”
Faith held back tears as she left, Spike attempting to use his small frame to loom protectively over her and scowling at Nina all the while. He hadn’t said a single word while he was inside, but Nina could see as she watched them from the window that they were talking as soon as the door closed behind them, and that they met in a tight hug before getting back into the car.
“Cute,” she said out loud as they drove away.
A voice answered from the den, clear but uncertain. “Is it true what you said? You’ve bitten someone before?”
Nina turned to the man as he emerged from the dark room and joined her at the window. She nodded and touched his arm, still bandaged from the fresh bite. “I know how it works. You’ll be fine.”
“Oh,” said Howell. “Thank you.”
The anticipated location for the next sacrifice on the spiral was outdoors again, at the nearest intersection to Satellite 3. More importantly, it was deep into the night, so Angel accompanied Buffy to the site, immeasurably relieved that he could be of use for once.
They found Faith and Spike already waiting there, and before long, Oz showed up as well. Angel hadn’t seen all of them in one place in days, though they had been sharing news over the phone since the last murder. He was eager to touch base in person, but Faith seemed shaken about something, and Oz had been cagey about what he had learned with Mr. E. He claimed they had worked out a backup plan, but insinuated it was a “werewolf thing”, and kept the focus instead on E’s role as double agent.
“As long as we’re all on board for Tuesday,” said Buffy.
Everyone made a sound of agreement, but she said it again when they had spread out to cover the four corners of the intersection, and only Angel was in hearing range. “It’s too easy for the Wolf to sabotage us if he takes control of someone who knows about the plan,” she continued. “But it’s not like we can keep them in the dark, either.”
“That’s why we’re keeping it simple,” Angel replied. “Even if the Wolf knows what we’re up to, all he can do is try to get warm bodies into the club. And all we can do is make sure he doesn’t.”
Buffy nodded grimly, and they fell silent, looking for any sign of life closer than the bar. Spike caught their attention from the spot he had staked out across the street, and pointed. Beneath the sign showing the crossing of Main and Rye, a lady was walking a dog, a shaggy grey ghost in the summer night. “The victim,” Angel murmured, and showed Buffy his watch: 2:20am.
Faith reached the woman first, moving at a normal pace so as not to alarm her, but the infection kicked in at that point and she was suddenly fumbling in her purse. ”Gun,” called Faith, and everyone converged to stop the victim using it on herself.
They succeeded, but not without a fight. The woman was screaming, either in fear or rage, and the dog barked wildly until it found an assailant to bite. It was still hanging onto Spike’s leg as an ambulance careened up, sirens blaring.
Angel held the woman from behind, immobilizing her arms and trying to reassure her. Buffy and Faith met the EMTs to explain that they had interfered only to prevent a suicide, and that she still needed to be restrained. Spike detached the dog, and Oz caught it by the leash and made sounds that seemed to calm it down.
“It’s 3:07,” said Buffy as the ambulance rolled away with the woman in its care. “I think this counts as a success.”
She was probably right -- with this much time having passed, the Wolf wouldn’t be able to manipulate another death into his pattern. Still, Angel had to shake his head. “It won’t make a difference to the ritual. Even if we prevent all of them from here on out.”
Faith was still staring in the direction that the ambulance had gone. “Yo, how long does the infection take to wear off? That chick was still freaking out when they closed the door.”
Angel’s thoughts went to Howell, who had shown no improvement and was now at large, but evidence pointed toward that being a more long-term variation on the Wolf’s mental influence. “At least she’ll have medical care,” he said, though he couldn’t ignore his own discomfort at the idea. “She’ll be supervised as long as she needs it.”
There was a silence, broken by the dog whining. Oz looked down at it, then turned to lead it away. “See you guys tomorrow.”
The next night’s rescue followed a similar sequence. This time it was in the factory next door to Satellite 3, and they cornered a baffled worker in the basement who thought he had come in early to clean up from the night before but instead found himself switching on some potentially fatal equipment when the clock struck 4:58am.
As a group, they overpowered him and called another ambulance to take him away. Angel had to hurry home before the sun came up, but he overheard Faith’s discussion with the accompanying police officers as he slipped away, and he wondered if they had saved another person only to leave him indefinitely trapped in a straitjacket.
Oz hadn’t been home much, and he had avoided speaking to Angel when he was, but Buffy came over late in the morning and joined Angel in his darkened bedroom. “Tonight’s the big night,” she said, yawning. “We should get some sleep.”
She had brought pajamas with her for that purpose, and she made him lie down with her on the twin bed, pressing her back against his chest and arranging his arm around her. He kept still and listened to her breathing, thinking he wouldn’t be able to sleep, but the trust radiating from her small body cast a spell of contentment over him. They had more than one big night ahead, and they would both need to be at peak performance. He slept.