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Undead (uncut) - FOTM for Summer 2008

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  • Undead (uncut) - FOTM for Summer 2008

    Rating: PG -13
    Setting: AtS, between 513 and 514
    Disclaimer: The characters in this story are not mine. I therefore cannot take responsibility for any inconvenience they might cause while experimenting with criminality and various acts of delinquency or anti-social behaviour.
    A/N: This was originally intended as a 3000 word max. entry for Wolfie's Leather Pants Challenge (#7) over in Challenges, but somehow took on a life its own, and I didn't have the heart to discard it, so I'm submitting it here. If you have read the challenge version of this, fret not, as this includes some 19,000 words prior to that.
    Word count: 24,108
    Listened to while writing: Relax (Mika), Come Undone (Robbie Williams), Leather (Tori Amos), Trouble (P!nk) - pm me for info. Also: 99 Red Balloons (Nena) and Everybody Knows (Dixie Chicks)
    Acknowledgements: Thanks to Torchwood for their retcon pills, and Supernatural for their Shape Shifter.

    UNDEAD (uncut)

    The heavily decorated silver dagger reflected the light of the window, making them blink in their row of chairs as they turned to watch him.

    ?So. The mind-readers' interview room. Always wondered what it was like in here. Baroqu-er than I imagined.'

    ?Lorne, put that down and get back to your seat.'

    They frowned at the dryness of his tone, looking up at him, each from his or her basic bare chair.

    ?Yes, sir, CEO, sir!'

    The empath demon sat back down next to his four colleagues, huffily crossing his arms at the situation.

    His entire team sitting attentively, Angel resumed his slow pacing up and down in front of them. After a lot of seconds and almost as many nervous, concerned, annoyed, demeaned and disaffected sighs from them, he stopped and faced them.

    ?I've got all day.'

    ?And I've got germs!' Even the most uncaring of them had to squint at her. ?In the lab ? cultures. Viral micro-organisms of sub-Ethrosian origin, and I have to shake them in exactly 27 minutes,' she specified, glancing at the cherub clock on the shelf behind him, ?or they'll die. Do you know how many rare demon virus samples we don't have, Angel?'

    ?I'm sure you'll be back in time to shake your microbes, Fred. Just one of you tell me what I wanna know.'

    She shook her head at his stubbornness and studied the others' expressions. None of them seemed about to spill.

    ?That's fine. Like I said,' Angel repeated calmly, ?I've got all day. In fact, I've got all eternity.'

    ?Angel, aren't you a tad overreacting?' questioned Wesley.

    ?Overreacting? Under-bloody-statement.'

    ?No, see, I don't think I am overreacting. Overreacting would involve? a mass firing. Hey, there's a thought.'

    ?Whoa, whoa! Hold your horses there, Mr Burns. That ain't no solution an' you know it.'

    ?Chill, Charlie boy. He'd never do it. All mouth, no trousers. 'Sides, what's Team Angel without the Team bit?'

    ?Hmm, you're new here, Spike. Guy's gotta history. Right, Wes?'

    His two oldest co-workers visually called Angel's bluff.

    ?Sad truth is,' their boss answered through gritted teeth, ?I can't work with people I don't trust. I can't trust people who are lying to me. You do the math.'

    ?Okay, we get it, you're pissed! And believe me, I dig why. Totally know where you're coming from, man. But you can't prove one of us did it. In court you wouldn't have a case --'

    ?Well then it's just as well I'm skipping the law, Gunn. Settling this the old-fashioned way. With a full, unadulterated, and inevitable confession from the culprit.'

    They stared at him in silence, gauging his anger. He lifted himself onto the desk behind him and sat on it, happy to wait.

    ?And? well? what will happen to him? The culprit? Not saying that's me!'

    ?I don't know yet, Lorne, but there will be consequences. But the longer I'm kept waiting, the less lenient I'm feeling.'

    ?But you're aware keepin' us locked up like this is flat-out unreasonable and unacceptable managerial behaviour, right? Good, so long as you're aware,' the law expert hinted, not giving him time to reply.

    ?In some countries it would class as harassment,' taunted Spike.

    ?Naaah, that's not harassment,' the boss disagreed. ?This is harassment?' He jumped off, walked around to the desk drawers, and got out an audio tape. ?99 Red Balloons,' he read off the case, ?Violin cover version. By Kelsey, aged 8.' He slid the tape into an old cassette-player on the desk, relished in their terrified faces, and mercilessly pressed play.

    ?That's?' Wesley turned to Gunn, stunned. ?In violation of Human Rights? Surely?'

    ?How long are we? Angel, my cultures! I can't sit here listening to? Angel, we have more urgent business to? This isn't right,' she muttered, staring at him. ?Is it?' she queried Wesley.

    ?If by "right" you mean "soul-full"?' He peered at him.

    ?Dunno about right or soul-full but it definitely ain't fair,' remarked Gunn.

    ?I'm gonna talk,' mumbled Lorne, staring into space.

    ?You don't even know it was one of us!'

    ?Gunn's right!' protested Wesley. ?I'm not one to grass but? How do you know Harmony didn't --'

    ?Because,' Angel cut him off, irritated, ?Harmony doesn't have the goddamn fingers to! Only the five of you have the bio-electronic permissions to my office desk's drawers! Fingerprint recognition! Desk doesn't open for anyone but me or the five of you. So stop wasting everybody's time and fess up! Or I'm gonna turn this up.'

    ?I'm gonna talk?' Lorne surrendered, trembling in despair.

    ?Well how amazingly stupid a strategy,' Wesley accused. ?He's about to confess to something he didn't do.'

    ?Really?' challenged Angel.

    ?Of course really!' the ex-Watcher cried. ?We all know who did it! Even you! And turn that bloomin' racket off! It's like a dying Ghora.'

    The vampire let out a breath of vexation and reluctantly pushed stop.

    ?Fine. But no one leaves here till you've told me.'

    ?Angel, if my virus dies? I don't think you realise the devastating impact that would have. On a scale of 1 to mega scientific blunder? You see, Knox first thought it was species-specific to scaly demons, but after studying its behaviour in a group, my theory is that it could be used to fight some of our own protozoan parasites, like malaria for inst--'

    ?No one leaves here till you've told me.'

    He heard the impatient sighs and felt the accusatory eyes of his colleagues on him, verified as he looked up from the desk's feet he'd been focusing his boredom on. His jaw dropped imperceptibly, while his eyebrows rose noticeably, and he had a reflex sneer.

    ?I see. All right. I did it. I snuck into your office, opened the desk drawer, nicked your car keys, went for a ride, smashed the bugger, drove it back, parked it in its space and kept schtum about the whole bloody thing. What you gonna do about it?'

    Angel's glare was a million toothpicks, wooden, darting him straight in the left atrium. This sent Spike smirking even more obnoxiously.

    The others oscillated between the two vamps. Of course it wasn't about the car. It was about a drop of Mountain Dew at the bottom of a chalice, the Shanshu cross of which those two still bore on their very human shoulders. A vampire-with-a-soul's issue, anyway.

    ?Well, for starters, I'm gonna deduct 40% off your monthly salary to buy a new car. What these babies go for, you should be done paying it off in about? Sometime this century.'

    Spike shrugged his shoulders, untouched. ?Anything else?'

    ?Yes. I'm suspending you. For a week. You're off the case and you're not to set foot in Wolfram & Hart for a week.'

    ?Gee, not allowed to come in to work, gonna have to stay home thrashing the old X-box and getting pissed? Are you trying to make my bloody day?'

    ?Whatever, Spike.' Angel took a key out of his pocket and chucked it to him.

    ?Really? So soon?' He got up, made to go, then stopped. ?I'm down to Downtown, done all the barrios between Los Felis and Downtown, no trace of the Shifter or any of his minions, but there's a movie theatre in Santa Monica --'

    ?All right! All right, just leave your research with Harmony on your way out. What're you still doing here?'

    Despite himself, he returned the million toothpicks. ?So long, teammies.' He made a few steps towards the door, turned around and marched to face Angel. ?You know what? You've got a dozen bleeding cars, you greedy ponce! What's your soddin' problem?'

    He shook his head. ?No, they're all company cars. The only one that's really mine is the Plymouth. And it's the one you choose to total. Because it's the last thing of mine you haven't yet stolen!'

    ?Huh! Well, I've got news for you, victim boy! Some of the things I stole were gagging for a stealing! Like they'd never had a satisfying stealing before me.'

    That stimulus triggered an instant nose-punching reaction.

    Spike wiped his bleeding nose, looked at Angel, and pounced on him, pinning him against the desk in a fighting frenzy, all punches and kicks, until the grand-sire gripped his rival's upper arms, flung him round to slam him lying on the desktop, leaped up landing kneeling astride him, and began pummelling his supremacy into him.

    The others had got up from their chairs with the shock but the whole thing had happened so fast only Wesley had lunged closer to the desk.

    ?Angel!' gasped Gunn.

    ?Break it up?' attempted Wesley, unconvinced.

    The blows continued to shower, both ways.

    ?Okay, I did it! I DID IT! It was me, I crashed your car!'

    They all looked at her, checking the person matched the voice that had just uttered such an absurdity. Angel paused his pounding to give her a glance.

    ?Yeah right,' he mumbled dismissively, then turned back to Spike. Seeing the latter was still staring at Fred, he had a double take and studied her face. ?You're not kidding. Are you?'

    ?I just wanted to go for a short drive. Get some fresh air, change of scenery? That power plant leapt right out of nowhere.'

    He jumped off the desk and stood facing her, silent.

    ?I'm sorry about your? crumple zone,' she grimaced sheepishly. ?I'll pay you back every cent.'

    ?Can I have a moment alone with Fred?'

    Spike raised his eyebrows at her sympathetically, and led the way out of the interview room, followed by his three workmates.

    They stared at each other, both waiting for the other to make the first move. Angel did.

    ?Why didn't you take your own car?'

    ?My pickup isn't? classy like your car. I just felt like driving something shiny and pretty. Your car is so nice. Was.'

    He scowled at her and exhaled angrily. ?I was really hoping it was Spike.'

    ?Why sure,' she grumbled. ?'Cause good ol' law-abiding Fred is incapable of screwing up.'

    He shook his head in denial. ?No, 'cause I had our insurance department take a look and they came back with an estimate of the speed the car was going on impact to cause such damage. Now, at that kind of speed, if Spike had been behind the wheel and for any reason had found himself crashing through the windshield, BANG!' he shouted, slamming his fist into his other hand, which made her jump. ?If Spike had gone flying through the windshield, he'd have had serious cuts, probably multiple concussions, and a lot of broken bones? But he would've walked away from it.'

    She looked down, avoiding his reproachful eyes. ?I'm fine, aren't I?'

    ?You're lucky, is what you are. Why were you going so fast?'

    ?I don't know. 'Cause I could? I don't know, Angel.'

    ?I want your car keys and driver's license.'

    ?What?' She frowned at him.

    ?I can't go home driving my car, neither can you.'

    ?You live here in a penthouse!'

    ?You know what I mean. I want your car keys and driver's license, you can have them back after you've completed an enhanced driving course.'

    ?So, what, you're punishing me?' She looked down again. ?Okay. I understand,' she said guiltily. ?You're angry and you have every right to be. And I'm really, really sorry. I know how important that car is to you, you've grown attached to it and I can't tell you how bad I feel that you've lost such a beautiful? I can't do this,' she realised, her tone switching to a belligerent aloofness and her eyes definitely level with his. ?It's a car, Angel! Nuts and bolts wrapped in a sheet of metal, average leather that squeaks under your butt, with the environment-friendliness of the 1960s, and other than a hopelessly clichéd EXTENSION, it's nothing, nada, an additive identity!' She got her wallet out of her lab-coat pocket and marched to the desk, stopping to face him. ?You wait till you lose a loved one, say a family member,' she whispered gravely, almost threateningly, ?and you tell me if the car even existed.' Still holding his gaze, she deposited a small laminated card and a set of keys onto the desk. ?Now if you'll excuse me, I have a mankind to rid of malaria.'

    He watched her storm out the door, slamming it peevishly behind her.

    Angel peered at Fred's driver's license picture and muttered to the empty room, ?I have lost a family member, Fred. The car doesn't exist, never said it did.'

    * * * *

    On her way back to the lab she walked past the cafeteria which was empty at this time of the morning, save for one individual, standing by the microwave, humming to himself while making a couple of forks dance on the worktop in what could only be analysed as a very desperate way to kill time.

    ?Worry, worry, super-scurry, call the troops out in a hurry. This is what we've waited for, this is it, boys, this is war. Na-na-na-na is on the line, as 99 red bal--'


    Spike looked up and slammed down the cutlery, sneering with embarrassment, caught in the act of being alone. ?Cu-Cuppa,' he pointed his thumb over his shoulder at the oven. ?Nothing worse than cold pig's bloo--'

    ?You had my back, back there,' she cut him off, walking to him. ?Didn't get to thank you.'

    ?Aw, don't mention it. Thought Gunn had wrecked the cammmmm--'

    His last word was slightly distorted, by Fred ramming his lips with hers. She tasted them busily, then pleasurably but peremptorily parted them with her tongue, brushing past his teeth in a whirl of lustful lush ? full-on French. Spike forgot the world, the bland walls of the Wolfram & Hart cafeteria, the mug of blood beeping away behind him, past kisses he would never find again, the daily grind of apocalypses, Heaven or Hell, the sting of one of the bruises already fading from his jaw, what the hell the bird was playing at, corporate sex in the copy room with bloody Harm, real loss of humanity, what Fred was playing at, and fancying her all right ever since she'd examined his ectoplasm. All there was was the feel of her tongue against his, the loveliness of the warmth, and the pang in his lower abdomen.

    She unlocked her mouth from his and drew back.

    ?So? Thank you,' she labelled her act, grinning innocently.

    She turned on her heels and headed for the door before his still gobsmacked eyes. Stepping out, she turned around, remembering something.

    ?Uh, Spike? Wotcha doin' tonight?'


    ?Cool. Going to Sakqraan's with a couple of friends, wanna join us?'

    ?You're going out to the seediest demon joint of the dodgiest part of LA?'

    ?Oh, you know it? I'll see you there around 9, then,' she smiled, then disappeared round the corner.

    Spike stared on at the door, running the tip of his tongue over his bottom lip, spacing. He shrugged. So, some people were more demonstrative than others. He opened the microwave, grabbed his mug, and swallowed the wholesome beverage before getting back to work.

    * * * *

    ?Yep?' she confirmed pensively, eyes glued on the microscope lenses. ?Exactly the same chemical components as the other sample.' She looked up at him. ?Definitely a piece of shifting-demon moult. I'll run a DNA test,' she explained, picking up the Petri dish next to her and emptying its contents into a solution, ?and tomorrow we'll know if this belongs to the same Shape Shifter. But?' She placed the test tube inside a large buzzing machine.

    ?But you think it does.'

    ?I hope it does, Wesley. One Shifter's gonna be hard enough to neutralise, if we're dealing with several? Where was this moult found?'

    ?Well, that's the concerning part. In the changing rooms of Health Fiends Fitness Club, which is owned by?' He sighed.

    ?Wolfram & Hart. You think this demon's after us?'

    ?And so does Angel. Spike's got a lead over in Santa Monica but nothing substantial enough to? I just want this case over with. It's making me very uneasy, those things are incredibly shifty. So to speak.'

    She smiled knowingly. ?You have nothing to be afraid of.' She took her coat off the stand and put it on. His expression indicated she needed to extrapolate. ?I'd know you from a Shifter in two picoseconds, Wesley. You'd know me too. Right?'

    ?I like to think I would, Fred. But those demons are clever. And we both were fooled when Angel got? switched.'

    ?That's because I didn't know him then. You worry too much. What say we start the paranoia when we've got a reason to?' she suggested with another reassuring smile.

    He responded with one of his own. ?You're right. Anyway, thanks for staying behind to take a look.' He held the lab door for her as she walked out.

    ?That's okay, I? I kinda need a favour too.'

    ?Of course, anything.'

    ?I need a ride. To a club. I'm meeting a couple of friends and Angel had a bout of control-freakness? Long story short, I can't drive there.' Wesley looked apologetic. ?Oh but if it's a pain I'll take a cab?'

    ?No, it's just? I've just remembered I didn't drive in today. Got here on my bike. Motorcycle.'

    ?Oh.' She shrugged, unfazed. ?I can go on the back?'

    He stared at her knee-length straight skirt. ?Not in that, you can't.' Then, not standing her disappointment, he added, ?It's all right. I've got just what you need.'

    * * * *

    ?Well? Whaddaya think?' She had a quick twirl for him to see every angle.

    "You mean besides gghhh?" he thought. ?Ye-Yes, it's?' Wes had an inkling "the most arousing thing since your conference on ?spores or the evidence of a multivectorial biotope'" wasn't the right answer. ?Fetching. Very fetching indeed. Only I?'

    ?Yeah?' she prompted.

    ?I'm not sure it's you.'

    Fred studied the mirror, her legs made even longer by the colour black, even more toned by the clinginess of the material, her hips filling out the seat, the exhilarating restraintlessness offered by the lightness and comfort, almost like in the nude? These were power pants. She checked what her ass looked like in the pants of generations of youths who wouldn't be told what to wear, what to do. Her ass looked? cheeky. And then there was Wesley's eyes. Always a bonus. Definitely power.

    ?It is too me! Leather pants are totally me. Whose are they?'

    ?A-A friend's. I bought them for her when she was staying over and didn't have spare clothes. But when she left she asked me to hold onto them, in case she came back for a visit. I think she was using symbolism.'

    ?A friend, huh? I daren't ask? Lilah?' she ventured with a face.

    He shook his head. ?Faith.'

    ?And you keep them in your Wolfram & Hart office closet. In case Faith comes to see you for demon-fighting advice? butt-naked.'

    ?Actually,' he specified, opening the cupboard, ?I keep them with the rest of my biking gear.' He revealed a few worn T-shirts, some more leathers, and two crash hats.

    ?Ooh!' she exclaimed excitedly. ?Can I have the pink helmet?'

    * * * *

    ?No demon, no entry,' growled the tri-horned bouncer.

    ?I can't believe you dragged me here?' muttered Wes.

    ?Listen, pal!' She paused, thinking. ?We may not be all horny and?' she cringed, ?slimy, but we're Wolfram & Hart! We will shut you down!'

    ?It's our policy, sorry, Miss.'

    ?Why are we here?' Wesley reiterated his complaint.

    ?I wanna speak to your manager, rhino!'

    ?My manager's busy skinning the last non-demons who tried to sneak in.'

    ?I think we should go, Fred.'

    ?And I think we should burn a whole demon club to the ground, Wes, starting with the retard who doesn't respect his protectors. You wait till Angel hears of this and there's gonna be a rhino's head in Sakqraan's bed.'

    ?What on earth are you on about?' her friend asked, bewildered.

    ?Shhh. We're going in,' she whispered.

    ?A-Angel? The vampire-with-a-soul?' babbled the bouncer.

    ?No. The faded plastic ornament at the top of your Costco Christmas tree. OF COURSE THE VAMPIRE-WITH-A-SOUL!'

    ?Well, why didn't you say you know a vampire, Miss? Human allies are welcome. Please.' He stepped aside and in they went.

    Through the smoke and rotating coloured hooves bouncing off the mirror-ball, Fred saw a familiar figure at a table in the corner by the gents', and grabbed Wesley's hand to lead the way across the demon crowd.

    ?You made it,' she rejoiced, loud enough to cut through the Music ? the demon scene's answer to Trance, named after the way it was usually played: by Muses using magic.

    ?Looks like. What's he doin' here?'

    ?Gave me a ride. On his bike.'

    ?And what's Gunn doing at the bar?' Spike demanded, nodding his head towards him.

    ?Oh. How'd he get in?'

    ?Bumped into him at the door, he was threatening the bouncer to come back with the Department of Health. Came in with me. Invited the whole bloody staff, did you?' he reproached, unimpressed.

    She sat down opposite him at the cabaret table, and Wes took a seat next to her on the circular bench.

    ?I told you I was coming with a couple of friends, didn't I? Lorne had a gig in Frisco. So, is Charles bringing the drinks?'

    ?Fred, why are we here? Seriously?' Wesley asked impatiently.

    ?Because we all work very hard all day and we need to decompress. Have a drink, put our feet up, listen to some tunes?'


    ?Don't be such a snob, Wes. We're in now, why not make the most of it? Nobody else is whining about wanting to go.'

    ?We gotta go.' Gunn put down a tray of glasses and a couple of pitchers of drink onto the table. ?I overheard a conversation over the counter, turns out, the bartender served one of the Shifter's minions tonight.'

    ?If his minions are around, the bugger won't be far.'

    ?So, we stay.'

    ?Eh? No, Fred, we go.' He stood up.

    ?Think about it, Wesley, it's our chance to bust him. Who knows where he'll be tomorrow!'

    ?We're not equipped to take him on tonight! We'd be risking infiltration! We need a SWAT team, one or two profilers? We need an Empath!'

    Fred had a loud sigh of boredom. ?And I need a drink.' She poured herself a glass of the amber liquid and sat back.

    Wesley silently frowned at her, not knowing what to make of her nonchalance.

    ?Maybe Fred has a point,' proposed Gunn. ?We only risk infiltration if we split up. If we stick together all night, worst that can happen is we don't catch the bastard. But he can't mess with us either. And we might get more on his whereabouts.'

    Spike helped himself to the cocktail pitcher too. ?I'll drink to that.' He raised his glass to Fred, while Wesley and Gunn sat down on either side of them, glancing around discreetly for anyone acting suspicious.

    ?Whoa! What is this?' coughed Fred, showing Gunn her half-empty glass.

    ?Have no idea, but it's brewed right under here.'

    ?Cellar?' she hoped.


    She made a face, and gulped the rest down. ?Hey you guys, care to make this interesting?' she asked, pouring herself another glass. They looked at her questioningly. ?Drinking game!' Three pairs of eyebrows raised their surprise at her even knowing about those. ?What? I wiki'd it in my lunch break.'

    ?You wanna play a drinking game?' Gunn asked in disbelief. ?Right now? With us?'

    ?And what else do you have to do, Charles? Right now with us?' she teased.

    ?All right. You're on,' he challenged.

    ?Okay. This game is called "Truth or Drink". We each have a full glass. I ask someone a question and they have to answer the truth. If you think they're lying, you drink up. If the majority thinks you lied, you have to drink the whole of your glass too. Ready?'

    ?If it's all the same to you, Fred, I'll play this game with you when it's age-appropriate,' announced Wesley. ?In, ooh, minus 17 years!'

    ?Agree with Percy. This is a fancy version of Never Have I Ever. Not playing that with bloody workmates.'

    ?Do you think it's because it rains so much where they're from? D'you think that's why?' Fred casually asked Gunn.

    ?Why what?'

    ?Why they got that umbrella up their asses?'

    ?Oh, right, I forgot you were such a party animal. Well, go on, ask your soddin' question, then.'

    ?Okay, then. This is a question for Charles. Have you ever? done it? with a demon?'

    He thought for a moment, very conscious of the others' eyes on him. ?Um? No.'

    ?That includes humans with demonic supernaturaly powers.'

    ?Then? still no,' he insisted, not telling her.

    Fred downed her glass, shivering as the alcohol hit her nervous system.

    Spike copied her, not caring about his colleague's deviant or not sex life, but keen to have a drink.

    Wesley peered at Gunn, enjoying the psychological guessing game. He gulped his drink too.

    ?Everyone thinks you're lying, Charles. Drink up,' she commanded, sneering cheekily as he complied. ?So, you're playing now?' she taunted Wes. ?Good, 'cause my next question's for you. Did you? Play this sort of games 17 years ago as part of a thrilling, wild, happy, fun adolescence?'

    ?Well I? I had some fun in my time, yes.'

    ?What's the best way for your Slayer to kill the Pargo demon?' inquired Spike.

    ?Drowning it's the most efficien-- Hey!' Wesley protested, seeing Spike sniggering as he drank his glass. ?That doesn't prove anything! Knowledge isn't synonymous with tameness!' he argued as Gunn began to drink his. ?I know how to have fun!' he insisted to Fred who was swallowing the last drop of hers.

    ?Bottoms up, mate,' sentenced Spike.

    Wesley emptied his glass in a swig, then complained on as he poured himself another one. ?Yeah well that was a bit below the belt. Who at this table can say they had their share of fun and parties in their teens? Hey? Gunn, played a lot of drinking games, did you, between two counter-offensives launched on vampires? And you, Fred, between two pieces of quantum physics coursework?' They both smiled, taking his point. ?As for Spike?' All three turned to him mockingly.

    ?Oi. That's different. Keggers didn't even exist in those days. Anyway that was your question, not mine,' he reminded them, pouring them all a new drink.

    ?You're right, this is yours,' started Fred, spilling a bit from her glass as she dragged it to her. ?If you didn't have a soul, would you be here with us right now?'

    ?Here in a rough chavvy demon dive getting pissed out me 'ead? Tough one, that.'

    She shook her head. ?Uh-uh. Here with us?'

    He stared at her, concentrating. ?Truth? I don't know.'

    They all put their glasses down. ?I actually think he's telling the truth,' remarked Wesley, amazed. ?Nobody drinks.'

    ?And my turn to ask a question,' boasted Spike.

    ?Nuh-uh!' objected Fred. ?Them's not the rules! The person who suggests playing the game asks all the questions.'

    ?That, is a big fat lie.' Spike knocked back his drink as a statement. The other two men joined in the protest, downing their glasses and frowning at her as if she was headed straight for Hell for that. ?Liar. Drink, and brace yourself for my question.' She gave him a cheeky face and drank up. ?Okay. Out of the people around this table, how many have you snogged?'

    Fred glared at him in silence for several seconds. ?Two.'

    Wesley and Gunn stared at each other, not touching their drinks. Spike sneered, and ostentatiously picked up his. He brought it to his lips and slowly drank it to the last drop.

    ?She said "two"?' Gunn began, then, seeing the dirty look Wesley was giving Spike, understood that the vampire knew very well how many Fred had said.

    ?Actually, I wasn't lying,' she denied, one hand supporting her head, the other filling Spike's glass with the last of the second pitcher.

    ?Really? Shall I drink about that, an' all?'

    ?I wasn't lyin', Spike. We need a refill? Yo, waiter?tress?thing!' she called the nearest tie-wearing purple demon, waving the pitcher in the air. ?More of your Ch?teau-Gutter, sweet'ums. Here, take both.' The demon grabbed the pitchers and went off. ?Yes. As I was sayin'? What was I sayin'?'

    ?That you weren't lying,' cued Wesley.

    ?Yes! I wasn't lyin'. Because you asked something very specific, Spike, and I answered just as specifically.' She laid her hand on Gunn's thigh under the table. He had a slight jerk as she ran it slowly up towards his crotch. ?You said "people", didn't you, "how many people". So there. Oh, you guys! I'm sooooo happy. You're all so symbiotic, y'know? And this place is soooo? We should make it a weekly thing, just the four of us, yeah? Bum one, Spike?'

    ?Eh?' He looked up from his lighter, a cigarette hanging from his mouth.

    Gunn put his hand on hers and gently removed it from the inside of his leg, resting it on the bench next to him.

    ?A smoke. Me. Bum one. Please?'

    ?Sure. Or maybe something to eat?' he suggested, putting the pack away. ?Hear they make a killer burrito here.' He felt something on his? Groin? What the? Ow! It had just pinched his scrotum. Her toes. Groping about in sensitive areas. Yes, this could be lovely. In the bloody movies, where the birds've had the practice and know what they're doin-- Ow!

    She burst out laughing. ?That's funny! "Killer" burrito! You're so witty, Spike! You know. 'Cause it probably is. With their sanitary precautions. Gonna kill you.' She giggled again. ?Spike! You're killin' me. Oh, "killing"!' She laughed some more. ?You're just a big burrito.'

    ?Fred, you sure you're up to another round?' asked Gunn, a little worried.


    ?Coffee first, though, right?' persuaded Wes.

    Spike reached out under the table for her leg and brushed her calf. Hey? Leather much? He hadn't seen them in the dark earlier, but those were definitely leather trousers. Go Fred. He stroked her ankle and noticed the cocky playfulness in her eyes as her toes made a pushy comeback. Nope, not having it, missy. He grabbed the back of her heel and gave it a little tug, making her gasp with surprise as she skidded forward in her seat. She put her foot back on the floor and smiled.

    ?No way ? whoa,' she added, losing her balance standing up. ?Coffee's for wusses.' She clumsily got out of her seat.

    ?Fred? Fred, where you going?' asked Gunn.


    ?Oh, no you don't,' Wes disagreed, springing up. ?Not on your own.'

    ?Wesley, I have to pee. What're you gonna do, come with me? It's right there.' She showed the pink neon letters saying "Gals" only a few yards from them.

    He consented with a sigh and she headed off, then came back again. ?And by the way, just in case you were wondering, I'm not drunk.'

    ?Course not,' said Gunn.

    ?I'm not! And I'll prove it.'

    They cringed, expecting her to touch her nose while standing on one foot or something.

    ?I'll prove it,' she repeated, focusing. She took a deep breath. ?Pre-su-ma-bly.' She walked off, giggling.

    ?Gentlemen, we have a situation,' informed Gunn, smiling.

    ?She'll be fine. Girl's just letting her hair down, she deserves it. We all bloody do.'

    ?Did you kiss her?' Wesley asked, not looking directly at him.

    ?What the bloody hell's that got to do with anything?'

    ?Only trying to determine exactly how out-of-character she's been acting.'


    ?Meaning Fred doesn't usually go around letting strange vampires kiss her. I'm concerned about what might be interfering with her discernment. The likeliest cause is commonly possession, in fact Fred herself --'

    ?You're a wanker, you know that?'

    Wesley deigned to let his eyes defy Spike. ?Girls like Fred don't just let their hair down. They don't get hammered of an evening and fall for cheap overused seduction tricks from the first male cliché that comes along. They don't become a different person overnight. You'd know that if you knew her.'

    ?Oh yeah? Well maybe Fred's sick of pillocks who get off on "girls like Fred" and maybe she likes her male clichés getting off with actual Fred.'

    He repeated that to himself. Twice. ?What?'

    ?I don't know! Something offensive! And to answer your question, no, I didn't kiss her.'

    This glare put the evening's previous ones to shame. ?Do you fancy her?'

    ?Erm, no.'

    Staring at Spike resentfully, Wesley grabbed his glass and downed it in one.

    Gunn sighed. ?Always a pleasure to solve situations with you fellas.'

    ?Our drinks here yet?' asked the girl in question, back from the ladies'.

    ?'Scuse me,' mumbled the purple demon, pushing past her and slamming the refill pitchers on the table. As the drinks hit the table just in front of Wesley, some of the liquid splashed onto his shirt, leaving a bright orange stain.

    ?Hey, watch what you're doing!' complained Fred.


    ?It's all right,' comforted Wesley, wiping the stain with his hand, ?it's only an old sh--'

    ?No, it's not all right!' Fred yelled. ?It's your shirt! It's your? It's you! I'm not gonna let this idiot damage? You morons have one job to do, ONE! So, what, you flunked waitressing school?'

    ?Fred! Take it easy. It obviously didn't mean to?' coaxed Gunn.

    ?Yeah, and I didn't mean to do this.' She grabbed her glass and knocked it hard against the edge of the table, making it shatter into several large chunks. She picked up a piece of glass and held it out towards the demon's throat. ?We're nothing to you, are we, little bitch. Inferior beings you can just splash and stain at your leisure. Well why don't we find out what colour stain you'll get on your shirt when I slash you?'

    ?Whoa. Whoa, Fred!' Gunn intervened.

    Spike stood up. ?Probably not the best place to start a brawl, love.'

    Fred glared on at the demon, her shard of glass ever closer, not backing off. The demon growled and gripped her by the collar, lifting her above its head and holding her there at arm's length.

    ?Let go, you? buttmunch!' She wriggled, swishing the piece of glass about.

    ?Erm, we understand your disgruntlement, Sir? Ma'am,' wheedled Wesley. ?But, trust me, it is in your best interest to let my friend here down. We'll of course reimburse you for the glass --'


    ?Quite. Or we can talk. If you'd rather talk about it.'

    Spike sighed, rolled his eyes, and vamped out. ?Look, tentacle-head, simple. You let our friend go, I don't rip your top jaw off. Deal?'

    ?She started it,' snarled the demon.

    Before Spike could reply, a tap on his shoulder made him and the others turn round.

    ?I'm afraid I'm gonna have to ask you to leave,' warned a demon the size of a small redwood, in a tuxedo. He gestured them to the back door, and the three men followed as the waiter plodded its way there, still carrying Fred.

    ?And don't come back!' It chucked the girl out to them and slammed the door. She stumbled to her feet, grasping onto Wesley.

    ?What about our drinks?' she shouted. ?We still have drinks in there! They don't grow on trees!' She hammered on the door. ?Ass-hole?' she muttered finally. She turned round to face a pair of irate glares.

    ?What in God's name is the matter with you?'

    ?That waiter wrecked your shirt. He messed with my posse, I showed him.'

    ?Fred, it's no joke, okay?' yelled Gunn. ?You coulda got real hurt!'

    ?What the hell got into you?' reproached Wes. ?Your eyes, they were? insane. I've never seen your eyes like that.'

    ?I have,' said Gunn. ?Once.' His silence blasted the past like a slap.

    ?You're outta line,' she grumbled, and sauntered over to Spike, by a porch, lighting up. ?I want another drink,' she announced, snatching a cigarette from Spike's pack. ?Let's go to a different bar.' She placed the cigarette between her lips and went for his lighter but he put it away in his back pocket.

    ?Don't you think you've had enough?' lectured Wesley. ?You just got kicked out for assaulting the staff.'

    Gunn got out his cell phone and flicked it open. ?I'll get you a cab home.'

    ?What? I don't wanna go home! The night is young! And so am I! I wanna another drink! I'm not going home. Turn it off! I'm not even drunk!'

    ?You just picked on a fierce demon and almost got badly killed, Fred. That ain't bein' sober.'

    ?You're clearly not your normal self. I've never seen you act this irrational and reckless.'

    ?Yeah? Well, get used to it,' she retorted, the unlit cigarette bobbing up and down at the corner of her mouth. ?Charles, hang up! All right, just phone the damn cab. I ain't going.' She marched to the porch and flumped on the steps, arms crossed.

    Seeing her resolute face, Gunn snapped the phone shut, and turned to Wes. ?We gotta get her home. She ain't fit to stay out here by herself.'

    ?Or to go on to another bar, by any standards.'

    ?Come on, Fred? Be reasonable! I have to be in court at 9! We've had a good time, let's call it a night. All right?'

    ?You call it a night! Go on, shoo! I don't need you! I'm going for another drink! Go on, night night!' she waved the two of them away.

    Wesley sighed. ?I really could do without more demon bar merrymaking. But we can't take her home kicking and screaming?'

    Spike exhaled a puff of smoke and looked at them. ?Why don't the two of you head back, and I'll make sure Fred gets home safely.' They gazed at him, unconvinced. ?We'll walk it off, foot it to the nearest taxi rank, get a coffee on the way, sober up. I'll have her in bed by midnight, and tomorrow Cinderella will be out of the leather pants and back in her old lab coat.'

    ?You'll have her in bed, will you?' questioned Wes.

    ?By midnight, yeah,' frowned the vampire, offended by his selective hearing.

    ?It―It's not that we don't trust you?' babbled Gunn. ?It's more that? We don't trust Fred, right now. To say no? to anything.'

    Spike scowled at him. ?I resent the bloody insinuation, mate. Just because I'm a vampire? I'm not gonna take advantage of her!'

    ?What, 'cause you've stopped doing that now?' confronted Wesley.

    Spike peered at him, dumbstruck.

    ?Last year when we had our little blotted-out-sun incident, I rang Giles for a consult. Dawn picked up,' the reformed Watcher volunteered. ?We had an enlightening chat.'

    The vampire stared at them silently, there was nothing to say, no point.

    ?I think?' Gunn broke the silence, watching Fred scraping the shard of glass against a wall brick next to her and bringing the cigarette to it, clearly trying to light it off imaginary sparks. ?I don't think Spike would do anything to hurt Fred.'

    ?What, 'cause he has a soul now?' Wes shrugged, dismissing the point as invalid.

    ?Nah, 'cause? Vamp knows better.' There was no mistaking his tone, the directness of his brow, his solid voice. Spike took Gunn's comment for what it was: a threat. Bloke may as well have had a stake to his heart.

    ?Are we going yet?' urged Fred. ?Let me know when you lightweights are done chitchattin'.' She stood up. ?Time waits for no woman.' She started lolloping down the road.

    Spike sneered and strode off, catching up with her.

    ?Anything happens to her, your doing or not!' called Wesley.

    ?I get it!' he shouted back, not turning round. ?Wait up?'

    She looked at him and pinched the intact cigarette off her mouth between her index and middle fingers, smoking fashion. ?They not coming, then? That's 'cause Wesley's mad at me. Everybody's mad at me,' she sighed. ?I don't care. You're not mad at me, are you, Spike?'

    He had a rapid flashback of the last 30 seconds. ?Gettin' there.' He smiled. ?C'mon, let's get you home.'

    ?Okay, Spike, what part of? What part of? Okay, NO!'

    ?What, you want another drink, is that it? We'll hit the offie on the way. Liquor store. How's that?'

    ?That's? acceptable.'

    After walking side by side down a dark street for a few minutes, she got closer to him and, biting her bottom lip cheekily, slipped her hand inside his leather duster and started fondling his left buttock. He halted, and felt her hand stroking harder, now inside his pocket.


    She quickly withdrew her hand and victoriously exhibited the product of her efforts: his lighter. She brought it to her cigarette and took a drag, letting the smoke out of her nose. She then put Spike's lighter away in Faith's pants pocket, and they resumed their stroll.

    ?Didn't know you smoked,' he remarked when she failed to cough her lungs out.

    ?Me? Like a chimney. Not? tobacco, though. You know.'

    ?Yeah.' He squinted at her dubitatively. ?Since when?'

    ?Since when did I start smoking? Uh, lemme think? Last night.'

    ?We'll cut through these blocks, there's a convenience store at the top?'

    ?That's it? You're not lecturing me about quitting before I get addicted?'

    ?Never been much of a life coach. On account of, y'know. Not living. You're a grown woman, aren't you?'

    ?Thank you! That's what I said! Lorne fricking caught me in the storage room this afternoon, I was setting up my halogens, y'know, for a little bit of Wolfram-grown, nothing gnarly --'

    ?Halogens? Plural? How big's your crop?'

    ?Oh, it's teeny. Personal use. Oh, no, it's 'cause you need two halogens 'cause it's Pylean and that stuff only grows with two. Anyway, Lorne's all, "You're growing klootch? I can't believe you're growing klootch! That stuff's mighty illegal, blah blah" and then he goes on and on about how pot is bad for you, and he could name like a dozen celebs who started with a bit of recreational weed and went on to cocaine and are total junkies. So I'm like, "Klootch isn't addictive, it's only habitual, it's not even as addictive as tobacco" and the smartass points out that even if that was true I'm mixing it with tobacco anyway so technically I'm endangering my health. Do you believe the demon? Like that's even a point.'

    ?Well, technically, you are clogging your arteries and charring your lungs.'

    ?Yeah,' she rolled her eyes, blas?, ?I know, and micronising my head, yawn yawn.'

    ?Yeah. Eh? Whating your head?'

    ?Micronising. You know, because of the whole when-humans-smoke-klootch-sometimes-their-heads-explode? You don't know? Anyway, then he starts getting all patronising-like, "This isn't like you, Fred, you're smarter than this?" Well guess what, green-cheeks, this is like me and I'm not smarter than this. And I'll tell you what else bugs the heck outta me. Them guys. Doing a Judge Judy on me. Okay so I get a little tipsy, big fricking deal! Least I don't go betraying everyone every five minutes.'

    Spike instinctively seized this opportunity to get the grimy gossip on his collaborators as this type of amo often came in handy. Seeing as how the little bit had dished the dirt, it was only self-defence. ?Who betrayed who?'

    ?Wesley! Angel! Big time! Ain't you heard about that?'

    ?Can't say as I have.'

    ?Why, course, it's all done and dusted now. He totally got the most important person in Angel's life abducted to another dimension. Quor-Toth, it was called. Angel went berserk, he almost choked him to death. I don't blame him, though, can you imagine? If you lost a loved one to another dimension, you thought you'd never see them again? I'd have pressed that pillow right down.'

    ?Who was that? That was abducted to Quor-Toth?'

    ?His? girlfriend, vamp called Darla.'

    ?Darla? Darla got stranded in another dimension? Darla? His sire? You sure?'

    ?Um, that's the sort of thing that sticks out in your memory, Spike.'

    ?I'd no idea. Heard she'd died? in mysterious circumstances.'

    ?Well, that'll be it, mysterious as in other-world-y. Why was I telling you this?'

    ?'Cause of Percy's bloody nerve going all holier-than-thou.'

    ?Yeah! Fo' sho'. And Charles, right. Do you know he once sold his soul to the de--'

    He stopped in his tracks and signalled her to halt. ?Shhh.'

    She looked around. ?What is it?'

    He nodded at a side alley. ?I can hear some?' he whispered. ?Think there's a vamp down there. Doing his thing.'

    ?Got a stake?' she murmured.

    He lashed out his arm and a stake popped out of his left sleeve. ?Wait here.' He started towards the alley but she caught up with him.

    ?No, I'm coming with.'

    ?No, you stay here. I'll be back in a sec.'

    ?No! Why should you have all the violence? Get me the other one. Spare stake, up your other sleeve. C'mon!'

    He handed her the stake, choosing time over safety. ?All right, but be careful, right, 'cause I'm sure there's drawbacks to slaying under the influence.'

    They rushed down the alley, till they got to a young woman, pinned against the wall, a tallish, bulky, ginger, male vampire hanging off her throat, too busy to notice them standing casually a few steps behind him.

    ?How're we doing this, Fred? You do the honours or shall I?'

    The vampire turned round and greeted them with as intimidating a growl as etiquette prescribed in such situations.

    ?Really? Can I? Aw, thank you, that's so chivalrous! Feel bad, though, I mean, you heard them.'

    ?Oh, don't be silly. You go. I'll get the next one.'

    The vamp studied each of them successively, and lunged towards Fred, shoving her slamming against a metal door, which shocked her into dropping her stake. Before anyone could react, his fangs were nicking the surface of her neck.

    ?Oh, bollocks!' Spike let out, snapping out of light-hearted play mode. Humans died, for Pete's sake. He pounced onto the vamp and punched his face off Fred's bloodied skin. ?If that leaves a mark, you twat, my mates are gonna kill me.' He gripped his collar and thrust him off Fred, trying to get a clear shot of his heart, but the big beefcake clutched his arm and returned the punch, twofold.

    Fred crouched down and slipped away from the scuffle, but as she reached out for her stake on the ground the ginger vamp kicked it off a few yards down the street. She glanced at Spike, presently simultaneously kneeing his opponent in the gut and receiving a potent head-butt, and ran to the stake.

    ?Fred, I got him!' he shouted between blows. ?The girl! Get the girl to safety! One on one, he's dust! Deal with her! NOW!'

    She looked at the girl, frozen in her prey stance against the wall, paralysed with fear and weakness from the blood loss.

    ?It's okay? It's okay, you're gonna be okay,' she comforted, putting her arm around the shaking victim and escorting her down the alley. ?My name's Fred, and I'm gonna make sure you're all right,' she smiled softly. ?There, this way, only three quarters of a block and we'll be out of danger. That's it, easy does it, you're doing great.'

    ?What? What was that? He bit me?' she whimpered, staggering arduously along the road.

    ?You were attacked. You've lost some blood. Let's get to the main road and I'll take a look at your injuries. But you're conscious so I'm hopeful you're going to be just fine,' she solaced, beaming reassuringly. ?We'll call 911 just in case, but I can administer first aid so you're in good hands. But first we have to get to that road up there, we'll be safe there. You see it?'


    ?Good, excellent. Only a few more steps, you're a trooper.' She supported her to the end of the alley and they made it to the cut-through road. Fred had a sigh and peeked over the corner of the block at Spike before tending to her rescuee. He was still fighting but seemed to have the upper hand.

    ?That's it, you did it, we're out of sight,' Fred praised. ?Now, let's take a look at this nasty wound.' She bit the bottom of her T-shirt and ripped off a strip of fabric then fumbled into her jacket pocket and got out a miniature spray bottle. She pushed a few squirts of the fluid onto the piece of T-shirt and brought it to the flinching girl's neck. ?It's okay, it's only perfume. The alcohol will act as an antiseptic. It's gonna sting a little, though, sorry.' Gently, she cleaned the blood off the punctures, two pea-size raw craters left of her thyroid cartilage.

    ?Missed the common carotid,' the law-firm scientist muttered, engrossed, ?this was the hors d'oeuvre. He'd have had a subsequent bite?' She straightened herself and smiled at the woman. ?You'll be fine. You're gonna be sore for several days, but without suction, these will clot and heal up. Now I have to ask you a very important question, and I apologise if this stirs traumatic memories, but it's essential that you answer to the best of your knowledge. During the assault, was any of your attacker's blood ingested by yourself?'

    ?Ingest? Ew, no!'

    ?Good, that's good.' She stopped smiling and reached for another object, inside her right pocket this time. She whipped out the stake, and pointed it at the girl's neck, pricking her just below her wound.

    ?Ow! Wh-What are you doing? Ow!'

    ?Just chewin' the fat. So, what's new with you? Oh, I know! You're alive! Now, would that be, by any chance, entirely thanks to me and my buddy back there? Yes, I believe it is.' She stuck the skin a little harder. ?Well? What do you say?'

    The young woman, realising her respite was over and she was back to square one having her life threatened by a mad-eyed maniac, started shaking and blubbering. ?P-Pleeease?'

    Fred made a confused face. ?No? the other magic word!'

    ?Please. Don't hurt me. Please,' she sobbed.

    ?What, more requests? "Please save my life", "please don't hurt me"? What next, "please iron my underwear"?' She puffed in annoyance. ?These helpless today, I tell ya. Give 'em an inch?'

    The girl attempted to shuffle away and got her neck pricked harder.

    ?Ah-ah-ah,' warned her rescuer/attacker. ?He missed, I won't. Okay, sugar, enough with the small talk. I think a little reward is in order. Let's see your wallet.'

    ?My? Are you mugging me?'

    ?Of course not, what am I, evil?' she retorted, offended. ?Payment for services rendered. C'mon, ain't got all night!'

    She got her wallet out and handed it to Fred, who, opening it with one hand, checked out the contents.

    ?Is that it?' Fred moaned. ?Are you poor, as well as weak and pathetic? That won't do, honey, there's just about enough to buy your hero the pint he deserves. What else you got?'

    ?Nothing, I? I was on my way home from a friend's.' She panicked, seeing her mugger's impatient eyes. ?Oh my god? Please let me go.'

    ?Your god has nothing to do with it. Your god or whatever it is you believe in, wasn't there for you when you needed it most, was it? So stop being such a useless whiney baby. Any jewellery? Oh, come on, I'm doing all the work here!'

    ?Here? My watch,' she blurted, offering her wrist.

    ?Nah, who needs a watch, we're slaves to time enough as it is. I'll have that ring, though, that rock real? Not Shopping Channel carats?'

    ?No, it's? sentimental value. Please don't take my ring, it belonged to my great-grandmother.'

    ?Well thanks to me and my friend, you're not giving your great-granny a high five right now. Slip it off.' The woman placed the ring in Fred's hand. ?Attagirl. Like yer boots,' she complimented, eying her feet. ?What shoe size are you?'

    ?What?' She sighed. ?Nine.'

    ?Close enough. Straight swap, and then you can go.' They exchanged footwear. Fred had a satisfied grin. ?These go great with my leather pants, thank you! Now, before you go, sweetie, I don't have to tell you that I have your address somewhere in your wallet. Any of this slips out, and I'll be over like a shot, and I won't be nice this time. So you want us to remain strangers, you keep your mouth shut. Understand?' The girl nodded frantically. ?Good, you're smart.' She pulled the stake back. ?Run along.'

    The victim, adrenaline filling in for the blood lost, ran off and disappeared into another side street.

    Her stake firmly in hand, and well intent on using it, Fred raced back to Spike.

    He was alone, hunched over in the same spot as before, catching a breath he didn't need, the only evidence of his triumph already scattered away.

    ?You okay?' She helped him up straight.

    He nodded. ?Right bugger. He kept shifting, had to stake him three bleedin' times. Way nimbler than he look-- What happened to your top?'

    ?Oh, makeshift gauze for the girl's bite-wound. It was dry, vamp missed the artery. She went off home.'

    He raised his eyebrows. ?She could've offered to pay for your shirt?'

    She frowned. ?That's a point.'

    ?You all right? Let me look at your neck.'

    ?Oh, that's superficial. It's just a graze,' she diagnosed, lifting her chin and blinking as he wiped the sticky blood off with the back of his fingers.

    ?Yeah, it's a graze that does a brilliant bite-mark impression. And humans take bloody ages to heal.' He gazed at her face, sneering amicably. ?What are we gonna do with you?' He wiped his fingers on his jeans.

    ?You're not gonna lick that?' she nodded at his hand, then looked him in the eye.

    He was quiet for a long three seconds, then replied sternly, ?I'm gonna pretend you're still drunk and talking bollocks.'

    ?Sorry. I've offended you. It was only a poorly thought-out joke, I'm such a schmutz sometimes. That's a schmuck and a klutz.' He shrugged his shoulders to signify no harm done. ?You know, the girl insisted on treating you to a drink, after what you did for her. We're still dropping by that convenience store, right? Nice spot of overtime we did tonight, I say we deserve a break.'

    ?Too bloody right.' He started down the alley, joined by her at his side.

    ?So, Spike,' Fred began, breaking the silence and boredom of this late-night trek to the liquor store, ?What's the deal? With you? I mean, and Harmony? What're you guys? What are you guys?'

    ?Couple of vampires,' he eluded cleverly.

    ?A couple of vampires?' she prodded on even more cleverly.

    He smirked at the ground. ?I'll let you know as soon as I? decide it's any of your business, nosy pants.'

    ?Oh, sure, sorry, didn't mean to pry. I? I thought you might wanna chat is all. Let's talk about something else. Anything. Say? Buffy? Heard from her lately?'

    ?And just what do you know about Buffy?' he snorted dismissively.

    ?Just that she's? important. To Angel, mostly.'

    ?Well, trust me, the importantness isn't mutual. They have a? thing, postal system thing? In Italy. And the telephone. And even airlines and all sorts. She's not been using any. With Angel.'

    ?And with you?' she asked, curiosity giving way to earnest sympathy.

    ?What do I matter?' he sneered. ?It's like, you know, I? I get that she needs space. To suss out stuff, or move on or whatever. But erm? she could've sent me a "welcome back" card or something. I sure welcomed her back.'

    ?Maybe she still doesn't know.'

    ?Hmm, and maybe I'm Tinky bloody Winky. Soddin' Andrew knows. The whole of the old Scooby network, and probably a few hobbit-sex chatrooms know by now. She knows.'

    ?Well, sometimes people just? waste time. For no particular reason. It's like time takes over, and time's pawing you around, and you wake up one day and? everything's clear. And if you're lucky, you get to show time who's boss. And if you're not? Maybe she's still arm-wrestling with time.'

    He smiled at her. ?You're being freakishly philosophical for someone who's practically sober.'

    ?Gee, you're right, hope I don't get breathalysed!' she jested. ?Sharing while not intoxicated, I may lose my license.'

    ?Well we can fix that, there's your shop,' he indicated ahead.

    ?Great. I? kinda? Would you mind waiting outside? I kinda wanna go in alone.'


    ?Um?' She concentrated. ?Because? The reason? why I want to go in on my own? is a very logical? Women! Things, women's things. I need to buy some stuff. That's personal and embarrassing. For a guy to witness.'

    He raised his hand "don't wanna know". ?That's cool, you go get what you need, I'll be right here.' He got out a cigarette and matchbook and leaned against a block wall, chilling, as she went in.

    2.5 fags and a mental performance of Anarchy in the UK later, he watched her storm out of the off-licence and plonk herself in front of him, somewhat excited and flustered.

    ?All done, let's go.'

    ?Get the hooch?'

    ?Yup.' She opened her jacket and flashed a bottle of whisky.

    He narrowed his eyes suspiciously. ?You didn't pay for that, did you?'

    ?Nope,' she answered proudly. ?We should probably finish this conversation elsewhere.'

    ?Sure. Just one word, though. You know, four letters or less. CCTV.'




    He rolled his eyes. ?Ber-luh-dy 'ell. Stay here.'

    He marched to the store, went in, closed the door behind him, and reappeared less than a minute later.

    ?Now let's go.' He bolted down another side alley and she followed him.

    ?What d'you do?'

    ?Got your screen-test tape. We can watch it later,' he joshed.

    ?Should we be hiding? Where are we going?'


    ?That's miles away. We gonna get a cab? Isn't that risky?'

    ?No, it's round the corner. My home, we're going to, not yours.'

    They'd been racing across the neighbourhood for a few minutes when a police siren was heard approaching. Fred froze.

    ?Oh boy. What are we gonna do?'

    ?Well first, we're not gonna freeze on Spike, all right? Second, we're not gonna panic, because they're all the way on the main road and we're here. And third?' He slid the cover off a nearby manhole, and began climbing down. ?We're gonna pretend like it's a sunny day.'

    They continued their hike underground, in the sewer corridors' eerie dimness, a result of the faint street lights reaching them this far down through various natural and man-made holes in the surface.

    ?Ahhh,' sighed Fred nostalgically. ?Happy times?' She opened the bottle, had a shivering swig, and handed it to Spike. ?Forgot how romantic these sewers are.'

    ?Yeah!' he scoffed, then raised his eyebrows realising she wasn't being sarcastic. He had a gulp of whisky and handed it back. ?You okay going to mine instead? It's just a hell of a lot closer, we'll be there in ten minutes. I, er?' he searched for the best way to put it, ?I have a spare couch.'

    She took another large swig. ?Oh, sure, I'm easy. I mean? I mean no problem.' Her eyes shut tight as she swallowed another gulp, and she offered him the drink again. ?Eh, Spike,' she grinned, not letting go as he grabbed the bottle, ?Truth or Drink.'

    ?Aw here we bloody go again.' There was a cheeky, fun-loving spark in her eyes he hadn't seen in there since? ever. ?All right, you wanna play, let's play, but don't come to me when you're bled dry of shameful secrets?' He let her keep the bottle, waiting for his question.

    ?Okay. If there was one thing you could change, one event, in the whole of your life, you could do different, what would it be?'

    ?Blimey, one?'


    ?Okay. Letting you nick one bottle of booze out of a whole bleedin' store.'

    ?Seriously, Spike.'

    ?Yeah, seriously. What d'you want me to say, "killing hundreds of innocents"? Go play Truth or Drink with Angel.'

    ?Actually, I was more thinking along the lines of "being in the wrong place at the wrong time when Drusilla laid eyes on me".'

    He shrugged. ?Well, sorry to disappoint, but I don't wish I could change that. To do that, I'd have to mull over the past, which I don't very much, because it has a tendency to bugger up the present something chronic. Ask the experts, again, your CEO will be pleased to answer any questions on the subject.' He looked at her. ?Is that what this is about? Being in the wrong place at the wrong time when your Pylea portal opened?'

    She held his gaze. ?Is that what what is about?'

    He stared on. ?Nothing. Pass the brew. Oi, don't you drink, you rascal!' he objected as she sneaked another swig. ?I told the truth, 'cording to the rules you only drink when --'

    ?Yeah, like I care about rules,' she boasted, handing him the bottle.

    ?All right, my turn, clever clogs. Have you ever slept with Angel?'

    ?What?! No way!' He drank. ?Honest, Spike, swear to Einstein!' He peered at her, dubious. ?Funniest thing you ever said. What makes you think me and Angel?'

    ?I dunno, you've been working with him a while and you're amazingly good-looking, and fun, and smart, wouldn't put it past the stupid git, he's only human. Give or take. Plus, I know you lot had a visit from Angelus last year.'

    ?Oh, you think he? Noooo, dufus, we did that manually!'

    He narrowed his eyes, somehow not comforted by that explanation, and returned the bottle.

    ?Okay, bleach boy, this is war,' she teased. ?So, tell me, Spike, what's the deal? With you and Harmony?'

    ?Aw piss. Me and Harm are two responsible adults who enjoy each other's company, and ours is a deep, meaningful relationship, mostly based on trust and respect.'

    She had three swigs of the beverage, and passed it to him.

    ?Someone's gonna be sorry for starting a war, missy. I got a question I'm dying for you to answer. Why did the liquor store clerk have a split lip?'

    ?Um, to get to the other side?' She shrugged. ?Same reason my knuckles are tender. Didn't get service with a smile, what can I say?'

    ?Hate to state the obvious, love, but --'

    ?Then don't.' All good-humouredness was gone from her dark voice. ?You don't know me from Adam, Spike. Do not judge what you've just found. You don't know where it's been.'

    It may have been the alcohol, or the authoritativeness of her tone, but that made perfect sense. ?I'm? I'm not judging, I'm? barely trying to understand. Here,' he concluded, passing the bottle, ?your question.'

    ?What's to understand? Girl having fun, not exactly what PhDs are made of?' She took a sip. ?Have you ever slept with Angel?'

    ?What?! What kind of bloody question's that? What the bloody hell are you sayin'?'

    ?Just answer, vampire,' she smirked. ?And remember, I will know if you're lying.'

    ?Of course I've never?' She brought the bottle to her lips, eyebrows raised warningly. ?Me an' Angel's? car-shared before. That's all! ONCE. And I was driving. Well, whaddaya know, we're almost at my gaff.'

    She giggled wholeheartedly and handed him the bottle. ?I totally own you.'

    ?Was Gunn your first?' he retaliated.

    ?Who says there's been a first?' she batted her eyelashes.

    ?Yeah, right.' He had a swig and passed the three-quarters empty bottle. ?We should've wagered kittens.'

    ?No, for real. All depends what you mean by "first". If you mean "the first to sweep me off my feet, throb my heart, and take the whole of my head" maybe there hasn't been one.' She gazed at him. ?Yet.'

    Spike stopped, almost under a manhole, and indulged in her gorgeous brown eyes. She laid her left hand onto his chest, fingers wide apart, and pushed him gently, till he was backed against the sewer tunnel wall. She brought her lips to his upper arm and started kissing it, softly and relentlessly, each kiss drawing on a wild inebriate breath to travel up towards his shoulder.

    He felt her mouth take its time up towards his and the caress of her long hair in his neck. He was such a sucker. For everything she'd just said, the getting swept, the heart, the head. She was right, she did totally own him. Because he was so aching to be owned. Sucker.

    Fred jumped from his shoulder to the base of his neck, the ever insistent kisses little mouthfuls of him, not stopping for the world. The bottle went rolling off as she dropped it and grabbed both his hands, placing them firmly on her butt.

    ?Fred, Fred?' he whispered as she progressed up his neck. ?You're trolleyed.'


    She was getting dangerously close to his mouth, with her scrumptious little arse dangerously inside his hands. ?We should go home, get some sleep?'

    ?Shut up.'

    She kissed the corner of his mouth, repeatedly, and he felt her hand unbutton the top of his fly. ?Fred, love, you're pissed, and I'm not so big with the whole self-control thing, so maybe we shouldn't start something we might finish?'

    She pulled back slightly, and removed her hand, putting it in her pocket instead. She scowled at him gravely. ?I thought I'd told you to shut up.'

    He felt a prick just above his bellybutton and had a tiny reflex gasp glancing down. A stake. In her hand, etching an invisible line up his black T-shirt as she slowly scraped the point up to his heart. He looked her in the eye and had a kinky smile, inviting clues that she was messing about.

    She failed to provide any. ?Think this is funny? Good for you, always look on the bright side and all. Hands where I can see them.'

    His smirk fell as she prodded his chest harder. His back teeth started grinding anxiously as he understood he was in danger, and he immediately blamed the alcohol for her erratically aggressive behaviour, kicking himself for indulging her when she was obviously going through something. Gingerly, he put his hands up in the air. ?Fred, what are you --'

    ?Shhh. On your head. Your hands. Now.'

    He sighed and complied, very aware of the presence of a stake on his heart and the absence of a smile on her face.

    She searched his left pocket and confiscated his stake. ?Open your mouth,' she ordered.

    He thought hard, the neurones battling their way through the ethylic smog up there, but couldn't find any satisfactory rationale behind that request. ?My mouth? Fred, it's been a long, knackerin' day --'

    She replied with a chest poke, and he painfully opened his mouth.

    She wedged his stake lengthways between his teeth. ?Bite on this. It'll keep you from speaking out of turn.'

    She carried on pricking his left pec and watched him, taking a mental picture of him standing excruciating like this, hands on his head and effectively gagged with the stake. ?Where was I? Oh, yeah.'

    She undid the second button of his fly and slipped her hand inside his jeans, leaving it there just under his waist for now. She burrowed her face in his neck and resumed her manic kissing, with a marked preference for the far right of his windpipe.

    Her hand moved a quarter of an inch down his pants, her fingertip reaching the waistband of his trunks. Spike expected to welcome the gesture, and was surprised to find himself overwhelmed with a surge of claustrophobia instead. His nostrils flared with the surfeit of useless air inhaled, and had he actually processed that oxygen he would have hyperventilated. He reasoned with himself that this was about to be pleasurable stuff, stuff he would happily have done years of arduous seduction work towards, but for some reason his reason sent back a fight or flight procedure order, and since he was stuck for fight and flight, he began to feel his chest compress to the point of implosion. Which was completely bloody random. And then he got it. And it was both panic and guilt that fuelled his suffocation.

    He bit into the wood and let out a muffled grunt as the stake prickled harder, then realised it was pressing and releasing, with small regular jerks vibrating against his heart. He looked at her and she was?

    Fred withdrew her hand and the stake, and collapsed by the wall, her legs giving way. She struggled for breath from the uncontrollable giggles she was being overpowered with. ?Sorry!' she managed between bouts of laughter and gasps for air. ?Couldn't keep it up, you were too hilarious.' She had another fit of giggles, while he watched her, still in the same stance, unable to believe his eyes. ?Maybe later, huh? Is there anything left in this?' She extended her leg and tried to roll the lying bottle to her with her foot.

    He took the stake out of his mouth and hurled it at the wall in a fury. ?This is a JOKE to you?!'

    ?Well, no,' she smiled, puzzled at the stake on the floor, ?but I need a little timeout to regroup, I just got the giggles all of a sudden, must be the booze. Sorry.'

    He glared at her, about to explode. ?WHAT THE BLOODY HELL'S WRONG WITH YOU?'

    She squinted at him. ?Spike? You sound mad, why do you sound mad?'

    ?Well, maybe, because I'm SO BLOODY PISSED OFF I COULD SCREAM!'

    ?Well, believe me, you are screaming. What's the matter?'

    ?"What's the matter?"?! "What's the matter?"?!' he repeated, baffled. ?YOU JUST HELD ME UP AT STAKE-POINT, YOU CRAZY COW!'

    ?Well, yeah! For fun, right?'

    ?For FUN?! Almost slaying me is your idea of FUN?!'

    ?Nooo, it's your idea of fun. I did that for you. You knew I was horsin' around, right? To make you happy?'

    ?H-HOW? How was that supposed to make me happy? How? In what bloody parallel universe? How?'

    ?Well, hello? You have a thing for Slayers, it's no secret. Thought you enjoyed having a stake to your chest. Thought it'd bring back fond memories.'

    He studied her sweet face, had a big aggravated groan, staggered over and flumped onto the ground, sitting against the wall next to her.

    ?Right soddin' pair, we make,' he shook his head. ?Fell for the old cliché like right amateurs.' He gestured for her to hand him the bottle, and had a soothing swig, leaving just enough for one more.

    ?Really? You didn't know? But that's dumb.'

    He raised his eyebrows. ?Yeah well you didn't exactly make it clear. And what was the deal with the whole hands-on-your-head-bite-on-the-stake gig?'

    ?Oh, well, I guess that was my own personal touch. But you didn't complain, so I assumed you were diggin' it too. I mean, I was sure you were humouring me. You gave me a sign, you smiled at me!'

    He held the ridge of his nose, sneering in desperation. ?Yeeess: I? smiled? at you,' he said slowly, for her to draw her own conclusion.

    ?Oh? Oh. I'm beginning to see a flaw in the system. Still, that doesn't make sense, Spike. How could you not know I was messin' around? That would mean that you thought I was genuinely? Oh, jeez! You thought I was really gonna hurt you? Why? Why would I wanna hurt you?'

    ?Well, not hurt me per se?' he babbled. ?Just slay the hell out of me.' He saw she was hurt that he might think that and had none of it. ?Aw come off it, I thought it was the booze! And then? Okay, I'm gonna say it. Because I've been not saying it, and got almost slain for my trouble. You've been acting odd! Not yourself! Today, anyway! You've gotta know that!'

    She rolled her eyes. ?Okay so maybe, I've been under a lot of pressure -- with work and stuff, and maybe I haven't been that? patient with people tonight. Because all I wanna do tonight is get wasted, and go nuts, and not worry about petty mundane things like Angel's car or the liquor store guy, who will be getting a fat cheque for his fat lip by the way? I'm not saying it makes it right, but I'm just not in the mood to worry about anything tonight, I just wanna have fun. And I thought you of all people would understand that. And I would never turn on you. I mean, I thought I'd made myself pretty clear already but? I like you, Spike. A lot.' She polished off the rest of the whisky.

    He sighed. ?But you're plastered.'

    ?Yeah, I know I am. If I wasn't I wouldn't be doing this.' She leaned over to him, looked in his eyes, and kissed him passionately. Again.

    She pulled back and smiled. ?Now please, please,' she urged, ?tell me there's something to drink at your place.'

    * * * *

    ?Get off! OFF!' He pushed her aside and hurried to get his key in the lock before she charged back but too late. She was back hanging off his arms, kissing them like there was no tomorrow, kind of tracing veins up towards his shoulders, giggling her head off between kisses.

    ?I'm having some of that. Tonight, you know. Spike? I'm having some arm of Spike tonight.' She chuckled. ?Bicep steak.' She giggled again, clutched his other arm, and started kissing it.

    ?Can't believe I got you another two cans for the way here.'

    ?And I can't believe you paid for 'em. You're such a goodie-goodie. Value for money, that soul.'

    ?Will you? get off? my bloody arm?'

    ?Hmm? No.'

    ?Fred, we've been standing at the door to my basement ten minutes, do you wanna go inside?'

    ?That'd be neat.'

    ?Brilliant! So now the only thing is for me to get me key in the lock, and I have to use some sort of limb for that.'

    She chortled. ?Limb!'

    He couldn't suppress a smile. ?Blimey. You're not half rat-arsed, are you?'

    She nibbled her bottom lip and her eyes fired freedom sparks into his worldly ones. She grabbed the seam of his T-shirt and proceeded to lift it up.

    ?No-no-no,' Spike objected, pulling his T-shirt down. ?I'd like to get into my flat sometime tonight. No! Fred, pack it in!' She managed to lift it above his abdominals and bent down to kiss them, slowly, moving further and further down his belly. ?Aw now that's not fair! Okay. Okay, I'm gonna have to put my foot down. You want me to put my foot down? It's not gonna be pretty. You're not gonna like it, I'm warning you.'

    ?Man, that's so hot. Keep talkin',' she requested, still at his abs.

    ?Right, that's it. We get in, I'm gonna get you some old jeans or something, and the leather's coming right off. 'Cause it's putting the S and M in your smoochies. Fred, come on, love, please, let me open the door! You know, I have beer inside. With your name on it. Nice cold beer. Mmm, you like that, don't you?'

    He glanced over his shoulder and had a double take, seeing the old black lady from upstairs standing on the landing.

    ?Stomach!' he specified as she peeked at Fred still bent down.

    ?Young Spike got hisself a lady-friend. Gone 1 o'clock in the mornin', boy, some folks tryin' to sleep.'

    ?Yeah, sorry, Mrs Douglass, we'll keep it dow--'

    ?You got a problem, lady?' Fred leapt up the few steps and stood right in her face. ?Huh? You got a problem? I think you got a problem. You wanna take it outside?'

    Spike shut his eyes tight one second. ?She doesn't want to take it outside, she's a 75-year-old pacifist. Get back here.'

    ?So? I ain't scared of you, lady. Just 'cause you're an old one! You think I'm scared of you? You think I can't hold my own? You don't tell me what to do!'

    Mrs Douglass shrugged and turned on her heels.

    ?Yeah, that's right! Scram! I ain't scared o' ya! I'm here! I'M HERE, SUNSHINE!' Fred shouted at the deserted hallway, her fists tight with anger. ?COME AND GET ME! YOU CAN'T TAKE ME! I CAN HOLD MY OWN! I'M WAITIN' FOR YA, YOU HEAR ME? YOU CAN'T TAKE ME! I'M STRONGER THAN YOU! YOU'RE DEAD!' She stared ahead, panting, a bag of rage.

    Spike unlocked the door and pushed it open. ?Better?' He nodded inside and she went back downstairs, stepping in past him. ?If that doesn't get me kicked out?'

    ?That your bed? Cosy. Wow,' she noted, looking around, then slouched on his tatty couch, ?not one single book.'

    ?Yeah well I?' He frowned, puzzled. ?Were you wearing those boots earlier?' He went to the fridge and got a couple of cans out. ?Beer or not?'

    ?Not? NOT!' She made a face, unconvinced about this particular not-joke. ?Hey, I used to have one of those!' she pointed at a large stone near the TV set.

    ?A Rock of Fl?rke?' He handed her a can and sat down next to her.

    ?Oh. No. Mine was just a rock. What's it do?'

    ?It's meant to settle the soul.' He shrugged. ?Plus, it's zen. Picked it up from Ikea. Eh, Asbo girl,' he started, gazing at her unusually intensely, ?if there was something troubling you, something serious, you'd tell me about it, wouldn't you? I-I know we're not best mates or anything, but if there was something I could do to help? You'd tell me, right?'

    ?Sure.' She had a swig of beer.


    She sighed. ?If there was something you could do to help, I'd tell you, promise.'

    He narrowed his eyes. ?And if there wasn't?'

    ?You gonna sound like a teen soap all night, or are you gonna kiss me already?'

    He smirked and shook his head at the floor. ?Not sure I can stop there, pet.'

    ?Who's asking you to stop anywhere? Is it 'cause of what Percy said? I mean Wesley.'

    He snorted. ?Coppers might fly.'

    ?Then what? You don't find me attractive?'

    He sneered and looked at her. ?I'm undead, I'm not dead.'

    ?Well if you don't, I will.' She leaned closer to him and her lips brushed his.

    ?You're drunk, Fred?' he muttered, turning away laboriously.

    ?Getting drunker by the minute,' she whispered in his ear. ?But I still know what I want.' She kissed his cheek, then moved down to his neck. ?And I know what you want.' She kissed his neck softly and slipped her hand up his T-shirt, caressing his skin. ?What we live for.'

    ?Okay, you know what?' he blurted, eyes closed with pleasure from her touch. ?Sod it.'

    He gently lifted her head off his neck and kissed her wildly, one hand savouring the curve of her hip, while she held onto his shoulders to sit up astride his lap. They remained like this a while, high on pleasure, lost in lust. She moaned with a mix of both, and her mouth separated from his by necessity, to allow her to slip off his T-shirt. Faced with his naked torso, she momentarily discarded his mouth for his pecs, revelling in a different feel on her lips and tongue, and kissed her way back up to his neck.

    What had until now been both familiar and astonishing for Spike became, in the space of a split second, both novel and alarming. It had started with a love-bite on his neck, which he hadn't been too sure about but had enjoyed too much to contest, but now he had definitely felt a pinch, and the sting of torn skin.

    ?Hey!' As she ignored his interjection and carried on in his neck, he grabbed both her arms and lifted her off him, swinging her round to sit her back down on the couch. He stood up and put a couple of fingers on his neck where it stung. ?What the hell?'

    ?Ooo,' she teased, ?someone doesn't like the taste of his own medicine.'

    ?No, it's not that, it's? That was? dodgy!' he reproved angrily.

    She rolled her eyes. ?Take a pill. It's a hickey.'

    ?This,' he yelled, exhibiting a few drops of blood on his fingers, ?is not a bloody hickey! I mean? it is a bloody hickey! Which is why it's not a hickey! Don't confuse me!'

    ?Where are you going?' she asked cutely as he strode off.

    ?To the bathroom! Need to check this in the mirror?' He stopped dead in his tracks, cringed at his own freakishness, and went back to her. ?This is how upset I am.'

    ?Awww, well come here, I'll unupset you. Come here, big boy,' she enticed playfully.

    ?It's not funny, Fred! We don't know?'

    ?We don't know what it does this way round,' she guessed cleverly. ?No death, no exchange, vamp stays parched and the human does all the drinking. I doubt there was enough of a fluid intake to "do" anything, Spike. A speck on my tongue, hardly qualifies as tasting, much less drinking. And anyway, if it does do something then we'll find out, won't we? How science progresses, you try stuff out.'

    ?Is that what this is?' he indicated her and him successively. ?An experiment?'

    ?Yes. I'm currently conducting a study on the effects of alcohol, blood and gorgeously charming male co-workers, on heads of science departments' libidos. I regret to inform you that due to a lack of ecological validity in this clinical trial, we have to do it all over again. Come here,' she smiled, arms outstretched invitingly, ?and lose the insecurity, it's a turnoff.'

    He looked at her, so beautiful there on his couch, so real, and strong despite her frailty, so tantalisingly his.

    ?Un-bloody-believable,' he grumbled, and went to her, eager to pick up where they'd left off. He took her in his arms and kissed her softly, taking charge. ?No more monkey business, I mean it,' he whispered between mouthfuls of her lips.

    ?I'll be good,' she smiled, closing her eyes and holding him tighter.

    Suddenly, he felt her jerk and her muscles tense, and she was up on her feet, white as a sheet.

    ?Where is your bathroom?' she managed, shaking.

    ?Down there, past the kitchen,' he pointed behind him. ?Are you all righ--'

    She ran there before he could complete his question. His gaze followed her tracks, paused on the bathroom door she'd shut behind her, then retraced her steps back to the lounge, to stop on the two cans by his feet.

    ?Aw, damn it!' he growled with anticipated frustration. ?Hate you!' he scolded the beer. ?That was sneaky! Bad habit, bad!'

    He got up and walked to the bathroom door. ?Fred, you okay in there?'

    ?Hmm-hmm?' came a muffled reply from behind the door after a few seconds.

    ?Want me to? hold your hair back or something?'

    She was silent for a few more seconds, then he heard, ?Make some coffee?'

    ?Coming up!' he announced, welcoming the excuse to leave her to it.

    He emptied the old pot and was scooping some ground coffee into the filter to make a fresh one, when he heard the flush, soon followed by the bathroom door opening. Fred came out and staggered to his bed, then slowly climbed onto it and snuggled up.

    He squatted by her side. ?You okay, pet?'

    ?Yeah. I'm fine. I like it?' she muttered, curled up in a foetus position.

    ?You what?'

    ?I don't like being sick. Like the idea that I still get sick. Means I'm alive. And flawed. So sorry about this?'

    ?It's okay, love, my bad. Shoulda known better. I forget you're flawed,' he smiled. ?Shall we take off those leather pants? Not very comfy?'

    ?No!' she pouted, holding onto them.

    ?Okay, okay, not touching the pants. Manky top? Off for the night? You want one of me old T-shirts?'

    ?Spinnin' like hell. Crappy timing, too. I meant every word, you know. I meant every kiss.'

    ?I know. Well, I hope I know.' He sneered. ?Guess we've found out what effects alcohol and blood have on this science boffin?' He stood up. ?You want that coffee?'

    ?And gorgeous? co-worker?' she slurred her words, eyes closed. ?Mustn't forget? gorgeous? hunky? vampi?' she trailed off.

    Spike basked in her angelic face, then trudged back to the lounge, turned off the light and slumped onto the couch.

    ?G'night, Asbo. Sleep tight.'

    * * * *
    "I'd like to keep Spike as my pet."
    "Get out of my temporal lobe, House!"

  • #2
    ?My eyes too blue?'

    No reply.

    ?Spike!' she tried again. ?My eye-shadow. Is it too much?'

    ?Hmm?' He raised his eyes from the seat next to him, to glance distractedly at her behind him, lying on her stomach on his bed, squinting at a tiny makeup thingy mirror. ?You've got 11 missed calls on this,' he waved a cell phone. ?I have four on mine. Fancy giving twat features a ring before he sets out a bloody search and rescue zombie crew?'

    ?Aw, cute. Look who's scared of being yelled at by the boss for being late for work.'

    ?Yeah. Or having the stroppy git show up at my gaff accusing me of debauching his staff: not the best hangover cure.'

    ?Ooh, speaking of hangovers. Any of that beer left from last night?' He gave her a disbelieving look. ?What? Hair of the dog.'

    ?Nah, booze monster had it. And I had a few sips. But you should get something down you, sure you don't wanna have some grub?'

    She made a face. ?Dry Cap'n Crunch? Who doesn't have milk?'

    ?You're lucky I have a kitchen. Why don't we go to yours tonight? If? you still wanna go out. A-Anywhere.'

    ?Yeah, sure. After work. We could grab a movie or, you know, dust a couple of vamps, whatever.'

    ?D'you know, I've been having fantasies of a quiet night in. Order in, listen to music, a few glasses of wine, candles. I've not done that since? the sixties, I think, but back then we'd eat the pizza delivery guys. But we could get Chinese --'

    A knock on the door interrupted him.

    ?Bloody cavalry, you watch?' Spike grumbled, going to the door and opening it. ?Eh, surprise surprise, Percy in person.'

    ?Spike. You're in. What time was it when you dropped Fred off last night? She didn't show up for work this morning, and she's not home. She's not answering her cell phone, I fear something may have happened to her --'

    ?Hi, Wesley!' called Fred from behind Spike, and he peeked inside to see her still on the bed. She got up and came to the door.

    ?I? I see,' stammered Wes, peering at the vampire and Fred successively.

    ?You don't see nothing. We overslept. I mean, she overslept. An-And I overslept. On the sodding couch. We didn't oversleep together. Why am I babbling to you?'

    ?Fred, your neck. Is that a vampire bite?' Wes asked, horrified, then glared at Spike.

    ?Yeah, about that,' burbled Spike. ?You should see the other vamp. Good job I was there, I tell you. Came out safe and sound, didn't you? Save for the T-shirt.' Wesley glanced at her top. ?Not this one, obviously, that's my old "Rock rocks" T-shirt, the other one, the top she had on last night, ripped to bloody shreds to clean the bite-wound. Not this one, the woman's. Still. Not my fangs.'

    ?We ran into a vampire,' Fred explained, smiling sheepishly. ?An evil one. Spike was a real pro.'

    ?An evil vampire, you say?' repeated Wes, spotting Spike's love-bite. ?As opposed to your more common cuddly vampire. How extraordinary. Are those tooth marks?'

    ?Cut myself shaving. So, any more on the Shifter?'

    ?Well, possibly. Which is why both your presences are requested by your employer. You lot shave? That's never occurred to me before. Must be tricky.'

    ?Hence the cut,' smirked Spike. ?So, we'll see you there, right?'

    ?Well, I was wondering if Fred might need a lift. My car's downstairs. I mean upstairs.'

    ?Oh, that's sweet, Wesley, but? Forecast says cloudy, we don't have to sewer it.' She gave him an apologetic smile. ?I'm with Spike. Getting a ride. I'm getting a ride with Spike.'

    Temptation had the better of Spike. ?That's right. Me and Fred are goin' steady. Into work, in my car.'

    ?Oh. Of course.' Wes looked at her, then him, and his throat and stomach tightened simultaneously. ?Figures.' Beaten to it. It wasn't a blooming race, though, everyone knew that. It was everything, his life. It so wasn't a stupid race. So how come he kept losing, again and again and again? What did they all have that he didn't? Huh? Muscles, was that what it was? The girl fell for muscles, sad, and extremely disappointing, but, as it appeared, true. Only this time, it looked disturbingly like there was another body part she'd fallen for. Teeth. And she'd gone too far. ?Fred, can I talk to you for a minute? Alone?'

    ?You two old pals do that, I'll gather my stuff for work,' offered Spike, shrugging unthreatened. ?You know? my coat.' He stepped inside and pushed the door to, granting them that harmless privacy.

    ?Fred, do you remember what happened last night?'

    She smiled. ?Most of it. Why?'

    ?Because? I'm sure you're fine. But just for everyone's peace of mind? That's no shaving cut on his neck. And you've been bitten too. And it sometimes takes a while for the? person to realise what's happened. Especially when the turn occurred quickly. It's usually several days, but it varies from one? person to the next and it can be as short as a few hours. We're not certain why, the current theory is that it's to do with the ratio between body weight and amount of blood consumed, and the stage of the moon cycle? Anyway, I digress. Again, I'm sure you're fine. Are you feeling all right? The same? No stronger? No feeling of invincibility? Have you experienced any unusual cravings?'

    Her expression harshened. ?Wesley, I'm trying very hard NOT to understand what you're driving at.'

    ?Oh don't take it personally,' he retorted casually. ?Put yourself in my place, my friend goes missing for several hours ? that is effectively what you do when you don't show up for work and are unreachable, by the way, look it up ? and I eventually find her, with a bite-wound on her neck, after spending the night with a vampire, who also happens to have a bite-wound on his neck. You'd jump to conclusions too. Soul or no soul, he's a vampire. I don't trust him. Now, are you feeling any different today?' he insisted, punishing her.

    ?Yes, I am,' she answered through gritted teeth. ?Betrayed.'

    ?Well, snap.'

    She shook her head. ?Oh no, Wesley, not snap. This is nothing like snap. You're hurt. I get that. But you're standing here telling me that if I were dead, and walking about looking the same, if my body was devoid of soul, of humanity, kindness, of everything that makes me me, and I was only a Fred-shape shell harbouring a murderous monster, you wouldn't be able to TELL?! You would have to ask me routine post-accident questions to determine whether I was still myself? You wouldn't know that wasn't me!' she accused, her voice shaking with anger and pain. ?So you wanna play snap, let's play. I'm going out with Spike. Bite me.'

    She stormed back in and slammed the door in his face.

    ?Fred, I?' Wesley stared at the door, hearing his own inner voice shouting that of course he'd know, of course he would be able to tell her from a monster, of course he knew she hadn't been turned, that if she had he would have sensed it in his flesh from miles away, that he hadn't meant to hurt her and it was an incredibly stupid thing to say but she'd hurt him first and she made him stupid, that the thought of her in any other man's arms, let alone Spike's, reduced his brain to semolina and turned him into a complete arse liable to say stupid, hurtful things, that the very notion she could die at the hands of a vampire was so unbearable it bore no reality and that was how he was physically capable of coming up with such utter nonsensical rubbish, that she was his world, that it was ludicrous to try and hurt your world. He got back upstairs, out, into his car, and drove off to Wolfram & Hart.

    * * * *

    ?And second of all, Asbo pie, that is why God invented the plastic stake,' Spike was saying, handing Fred his cigarette for a drag, as Wesley barged in on their coffee break up on the roof. ?'Cause accidents do happen.'

    ?Oh, that's where you are. Been looking all over for you two.'

    Fred exhaled a second puff and passed the cigarette back, getting close enough to Spike for their sides to touch. ?Oh no, Spike, we went missing for ten minutes! Quick, call the? the? being findable police!'

    ?I hate this place,' Wesley mumbled, looking around uneasily.

    ?I love this place,' contradicted Fred. ?You really get the city's openness.'

    ?Any reason you were looking for us, or just honing your pain-in-the-arse skills?'

    ?Another minion's been sighted. In Santa Monica again. Angel wants you to check it out.'

    ?Right, in the middle of the day.'

    ?You're here dishing out longing gazes and cigarette butts out on the roof, surely if sunlight was an issue you'd be saying it with searing flesh and 3rd degree burns right about now. Not one ray of sunshine today, it's actually raining over Santa Monica, it'll do you good.'

    ?Gi'z the address, I could do with a bit of legwork anyway. All that bookworming on the ins and outs of shape shifting? not bloody natural, it's not.'

    Wesley gave him a piece of paper. ?Sprocket.'

    ?Oi, sprocket yourself, you coil.'

    Wes cast him a "beyond help" look. ?It's your password, you amazing being, report every hour and use that word to identify yourself thus confirming you're not the Shifter. You're exhausting. How do you do it?' he asked Fred.

    ?I don't know,' she snapped back, ?it must be solely down to pure virility, effortless charm, and instinctive passion. It's the spontaneity that does it for me,' she added, smiling at Spike almost indecently. She glanced at Wesley and put her hands around Spike's neck. ?I just can't resist a man who knows what he wants and has the balls to act on it. So many guys these days are so pathetically sentimental they get off on their own feelings and then they get stuck in the romance in their heads. I like my romances? corporeal.' She drew nearer and kissed him on the mouth, sensually, spectacularly, interminably.

    Wesley looked down, unable to face this sight. ?Of course,' he commented in a low voice. ?Such a delicate constitution. You're still drunk from last night.'

    Fred stopped kissing Spike and slowly turned to Wesley, infuriated. ?And YOU, are in fricking denial. Come on, Spike, let's go.' She stepped towards the door, leaving the two men standing.

    ?And where do you think you're going?' asked Wes. ?Not to Santa Monica, I should hope.'

    She turned round to face him. ?Yeah, I'm going with Spike.'

    ?The hell you are.'

    ?The hell I'm not. Spike!'

    ?I'm, er? I'm with Percy on that one, love. It's completely bloody unsafe, I --'


    ?And if I bump into the bastard I'm thumpin' him, and I don't wanna be distracted.'

    ?Well I won't distract you, I'll help you. Thumping's on my professional development plan.'

    ?No, you're staying here, it's too soddin' dangerous.'

    ?That's not why!' Wes chimed in. ?Fred can perfectly handle that level of dangerousness. You've fought much worse before,' he reminded her. ?But we need you here. Angel's still waiting for that post-mortem you said you were doing on the moult. You said you could get info from that, on the last victim and on the Shifter's whereabouts, first thing you told us when you came in at lunchtime.'

    ?Yeah, I know! But I'm no forensic anthropologist, am I? Angel seems to think you can just put a piece of someone's skin under a microscope and that'll tell you when they were attacked, why they were attacked, and the attacker's mom's favourite Spice Girl. Don't know where he got that idea.'

    ?Any detail we can get is crucial in putting together a profile. You said you might be able to find residual clues that might tell us where he's been?'

    ?Yeah, I know,' she reluctantly admitted. ?I can do that. There might be like a type of dirt or pollen or bug or such on the epidermis, then all I have to do is narrow down the areas that stuff is endemic to and bingo: Shifter past location. Though there is a slight methodological problem with doing it that way?' She stopped.

    ?What's that?' asked Spike, speaking for both him and Wes.

    ?It's boooorrring! I wanna go to Santa Monica with you and kick some demon ass!'

    Wesley raised a both surprised and somewhat amused eyebrow. ?Finish your autopsy first, and then you can go out to play.'

    She narrowed her eyes and tilted her head as if to say "ha-ha, very funny", and flashed her thumbs joined together with her hands open in a W shape.

    ?We still on for tonight, baby?' Fred gave Spike a kiss on the cheek, then said softly, ?You kill me a Shifter and you'll get that lovely night in you talked about. Can't promise it'll be a quiet one, though.'

    Spike had a quick, discreet, unnoticeable sniff of her hair. He glanced at Wesley, looking away at the city's urbanness, then headed to the door, followed by Fred.

    ?Tell Angel he'll have that post-mortem on his desk by 6,' she called out without turning around.

    * * * *

    ?Okay so after four hours of playing hide-and-seek-and-slap-back-alley-hoodies-about,' Spike blurted, straight across the lobby and slamming his hands on the reception counter, ?I finally find myself a life-size, full colour minion to have a natter with. And I'm thinking, bloody na?ve as I am, if the sod doesn't rat out his master by the time I'm done with him, which, you know, don't like to brag and I haven't got any hot skewers with me, but I would still like to see that, once in me life, I'm curious, anyway if he doesn't rat the Shifter out, I'm thinkin', I'm taking him to the office and Angel can be good cop, maybe play him a violin tape or whatnot. And the bugger is cornered, you know, there's no way out, a cul-de-sac in an alley about as wide as, I dunno, this unicorn pencil,' he illustrated, picking it up from the desk, ?between three bleedin' skyscrapers, me about five yards from the end bit, and the minion facing me, literally between a rock and a hard place. There's no escape for the geezer, Harm, it's talk to the mean vampire with the bleached hair, or be a bit tortured then talk to the mean vampire with the bleached hair. Right? Know what he does? The wanker bloody liquefies himself! Right there in front of me, poof, or-or slurp or something, and he, like, pours onto the ground, and starts flowing on the pavement, like. He's this? sludge giving me the slip 'cause I'm buggered if I fit between cobbles and asphalt cracks and all that crap, and then I notice the soddin' drain. So he's already half flown down but I think to myself, just in case we can solidify him back or something, so I get my flask out, and I ruin about two mouthfuls of pretty decent bourbon by hand-mopping some minion liquid into it. And voi-bloody-l?,' he exclaimed, reaching into his inside pocket and brandishing a silver flask, ?half a pint of minion.'

    Harmony made a disgusted face at the flask and looked up at Spike from her seat behind the desk. ?Sorry, Sir, but I'm gonna need your password.'

    ?What? Sprocket.'

    ?Oh, blondie bear, so glad it's you!'

    ?Yeah, wish I could say the same. Harm, did you hear anything I just said? Look!' He unscrewed the top and poured a little viscous fluorescent liquid onto the signing-in book. ?Well, hello there, Mr Minion McShifter. What's this droplet, d'you reckon? An arm? An ear? Nobody knows. Oh, and I wouldn't touch it 'cause I'm no expert but it looks a bit radioactive to me.'

    ?Spike, okay, first off, ew!'

    He smirked and poured the drop on the book back into the flask. He waited. ?And second off?'

    ?Second off? you know! Ew! You got minion goo all over my signing-in sheet! Just when Angel was gonna have a look at that, too! It didn't smudge the times, did it?' she moaned, sliding it around and inspecting it. ?No. Phew. Thank God for that. He's mega crabby today, and he's already warned me that no one's coming in and out without timin' and signin', and he's coming down to check the sheet.'

    ?Bugger me, ever his extreme self. Is this about me and Fred signing in five hours late? Plonker needs a life, getting pretty life and death for him now.'

    ?No, I think it's about Fred signing out before finishing her whatchamacallit. Where is she, anyways? You're gonna have to sign in under your minion stain now. And, actually, can you initial it? The stain?'

    ?What d'you mean, "where is she"? Thought she was in the lab doing her whatchamacallit. She signed out?'

    ?Yeah, right here,' Harmony pointed on the sheet. ?4.30. Wesley said she'd probably gone to meet you in Santa Monica.'

    ?Nope. That's about an hour after I went. It's 8.30 now. She didn't say where she was going?'

    ?Not to me, that's for sure. And not to Angel 'cause I had to try and phone her cell all evening so's he might make head or tail of her anti-shifting something or other. Why do you care, anyways? OMG, it's the soul talking, you total freak!' She watched his face. ?Aw, that's so sweet! You're worried, ain't you? Who's a cute little worried blondie bear? Hey? Who's a cutesy wutesy widdle worried blondie bear?'

    ?So? Can you stake someone with a unicorn pencil?'

    ?Even if your pencil's wooden, the lead would act as a barrier,' answered Angel, stepping out of the elevator with Wesley and Gunn. ?I, um? looked into it. Get the Shifter's minion?'

    ?Some of. Long story. Fred say where she was off to?'

    ?She's not with you?' asked Wesley.

    Spike looked around. ?Not unless she fits in my flask? Minion hunting joke, Harm'll get it.'

    ?She didn't meet you in Santa Monica?' Angel insisted.

    ?Noooo? she? didn't? meet? me? she's? not? with? me. Slow and literal, I always forget. She didn't tell anyone where she was going?'

    ?She put aside the moult autopsy thing, told Knox she was off to run an errand, and took off. Harmony, did you manage to get hold of her?'

    ?No, bossy, I tried her cell like a gazillion --'

    ?Well then we have a problem,' the CEO informed. ?Greater than or equal to our Shifter troubles.'

    ?Angel, we don't know that she did it,' reminded Gunn.

    ?Oh, she did it all right,' replied Angel, ?no question about that. No, what we need to find out, and soon at that, is whether she did it.'

    ?Did what? She who?? What?' asked Spike.

    ?The public library went up in flames this afternoon,' Wesley filled him in. ?Burnt to the ground. There is a non-negligible possibility that was Fred's work.'

    ?Fred? You've lost the plot, mate. You all have. Fred would never damage a library! A bank, maybe, or? a law firm. But a bloody library? Why the hell would she wanna --'

    ?Oh shut up, Spike,' snapped Wes scornfully. ?You don't know Fred, so shut up.'

    ?Right, only biblically,' Spike lied, aiming at knocking him down a peg.

    ?That's where her portal to Pylea opened,' Gunn explained, to shut both of them up, then addressed Angel, ?We should go check it out.'

    ?Yeah, we need to contain her,' he mumbled, thinking out loud. ?Whether it's her or not, first things first.'

    Spike's mobile phone rang. ?Were there any casualties?' he asked, still dubious. He got his phone out and glanced at the screen. ?It's Fred.'

    * * * *

    The map-like blotches on the grey walls echoed the pit-stains on the men within them. Angular and low, the ceiling had no ambition to imitate the sky, and only passably succeeded in rendering its whiteness of earlier today, unable to replicate the swiftness of the white, as pushed across the blue by February's wind. There was no wind in here; despite having only three walls, the square room was entirely draught-free. Through the bars making up the fourth wall, one could see a few ribbons flapping off an old fan on the police officers' desk, proof that there was air circulating nearby. But it was blown down the corridor, not making it to the cells. Perhaps that explained the damp on the walls.

    Save for the snores of a vagrant lying face down on the side bench, no human sounds were emitted. This uncomfortable silence was alleviated by the drumming of fingers on thighs, a quiet rhythmical pacifying beat, hominine skin on bovine skin, digits on leather.

    Mostly, boredom. Live, fierce, almost snarling boredom, that made you plan out the taking off of your leather pants and the tying them into a noose. And time. The seconds hand above the framed LAPD group photo, going round jerkily but surely, round and round unstoppably, now hiding for the length of the thickness of a bar, and emerging again, with bagfuls and pocketfuls of its loot, tiptoeing off to its lair, with bagfuls, suitcases of stolen time.

    Outside, the city crawled with life. Nightlife and its lights, noise, smells and flavours. Fountains of whisky, tingling your tongue and burning your throat, blurring all sadness around and shyness within, and turning laughter loose. Between whiffs of ozone, the smell of the living, there to be preyed on, played with, mixed with. The softness of their necks on your mouth. Also, violence, since these streets oozed roughness. Danger, pumping adrenaline through your veins till you were high on it, heard it in your temples. The fun in subduing somebody. The goosebumps lining your guts as you broke Man's law, and the buzz of the fear of getting caught.

    Like tonight.

    The finger-tapping ceased as firm steps were heard coming up the corridor, bringing back the middle-aged on-duty policeman from the front of the station, who planted himself at the door of the cell and looked in.

    ?Burkle! Someone here for you.'

    * * * *

    ?I one-phone-called Spike,' she complained. She drew her legs to her on the bench, hugging her knees and resting her chin on the leather, and looked up at Angel, towering there through the bars, scowling his outrage at her. ?He said he was coming over.'

    ?Yeah well, seemed like a managerial matter.'

    ?Are you gonna bail me out?' she asked earnestly.

    ?What are you in for?'

    Fred looked down and sighed, glanced aside at nothing in particular, then focused her gaze in the vicinity of his left shin. ?Disturbance of the peace,' she reluctantly answered. ?And indecent exposure,' she added, the control over the shaking of her voice slackening. She dragged her eyes up to his and searched them, heartbreakingly sheepish. ?And a little assault and battery.'

    ?You are freaking kiddin' me,' her CEO let out through gritted teeth. ?The rest of us are working our asses off to nail this bastard of a case, and you're getting yourself arrested?! What the HELL did you do to get locked up for assault and battery? Huh? Indecent exp--' He shook his head. ?You know what? I don't even wanna know.'

    He went to the desk, signed a few forms, a cheque, and took the items handed to him by the policeman: a folded jacket as a display cushion for a cell phone, a wallet, a Zippo lighter and a stake. Angel followed him to the cell door and threw daggers at Fred while he unlocked and opened it.

    ?In the car.'

    * * * *

    LA streetlights flashed past as the Camaro sailed silently to Wolfram & Hart.

    Fred turned to her bail at the wheel and ventured a smile. ?This is a nice car. Not that I would know,' she added quickly. Angel stared on at the road, lips and eyebrows immobile. ?I? I know you said you didn't wanna know, but I feel I owe you an explanation. Seeing as you bailed me out and all. Which, thank you, by the way.' Still no reaction. ?I was a little drunk, okay? I? Something happened and I needed a drink, and I only had a couple but because I'm not used to drinking? I was walking home, through a very quiet neighbourhood, and I don't know why, I started singing to myself. 'Cause it was too quiet, I guess, and I was plastered. But then I must've been singing a bit loud, because these people stuck their heads out the windows above and started shouting abuse at me. So I answered them back, right? I mean, what would you do? If a bunch of stuck-up morons picked on you, like five against one? Bearing in mind the alcohol. Anyway, it carried on like this for a while, not sure how long, with them threatening to call the cops and yelling at me to shut up, and me taunting them to come down and make me, and then this bald guy opens his window and he's, like, brandishing a baseball bat. So I told him where he could shove it. And then I kinda showed him where,' she grimaced.

    Angel couldn't retain a quick horrified look at her. ?You mooned him?!'

    ?Did I mention I was very very wasted?' she reiterated, with another embarrassed face. ?I didn't hear a siren or anything, but next thing I knew, three cops were charging at me, you know, like, real police, handcuffs and everything. I tried to bolt but they outran me, what with my pants still half down and all. And I don't mind telling you, looks-wise, these are the bomb, no question, but emergency-getting-dressed-wise, there's a whole inelasticity issue? Anyway, they collared me, and by that point I was all set to cooperate, I swear, but one of them went for his cuffs, and I don't know, Angel, I just flipped. I kicked him in the crotch and I slapped another one's face, then I got the stake out of my pocket and started clubbing them with it? You know, not that hard, and not for very long because they soon overpowered me, hello, single human drunk female here. And that was the extent of the assault and battery, no more, couple of bruises, tops, that's it. And there's absotively posilutely no way it will happen again. Ever. I want you to know that. It was by far my least finest moment, I got drunk, I shouldn't have done it, and I wish I hadn't, and I'm never gonna let this sort of thing happen again. Spending a few hours away in that cell was gruesome enough, believe me, and then on top of that, having you come down to pick me up? Seeing me in there? I mean, being called to the police station in the middle of the night and of a mind-vacuumingly difficult case to get the Head of your Science department out of jail? That's not what you want, is it? I'm fully aware of that, Angel, I need you to be aware that I'm aware. And that I'm really sorry,' she concluded in a small, emotional voice.

    He kept his eyes on the road and his mouth shut.

    ?And I'm prepared to take the consequences,' she went on. ?The officer on duty, he said I'm likely to get a bunch of community service, now I'm gonna have a word with Charles, see if there's any chance he can get me out of it, but if he can't, then I'll just get on with whatever sentence I get. Won't be for ages yet, anyway, he said the admin takes weeks, months sometimes. By then I'll be?' She glanced at the rear-view mirror. ?You know, really truly remorseful for my actions. This must totally freak out the other motorists,' she nodded at the mirror.

    Angel passed up her attempt to lighten the mood, and focused on driving.

    ?Thanks for the ride, too. I can't wait to be back in the lab and sink my teeth into my work. Gonna take a shower first, if that's okay, eugh!' she shivered. ?We'll bust him, Angel, I had time to do some thinking tonight, and there's a few pseudo-scientific alleys we haven't gone down yet, so leave it with me, I'm gonna be on it for the rest of the night, and first thing in the morning I'll fill Knox in and he'll put the rest of the department on it. We'll have this whole thing figured out in no time. Angel, I get that you're disappointed in me, heck, I'm disappointed in me. But you're being creepily quiet. I mean, more so than usual. Hate it when you're this quiet. Say something? Anything? Please? Come on, what are you thinking?'

    ?I'm thinking?' he muttered without looking at her, ?that it's a good thing you like singing.'

    Her smile fell while her eyes lingered on him for a moment, then she turned away and stared out the window for the remainder of the journey. Angel parked in his allocated space in the Wolfram & Hart underground parking lot and got out.

    As soon as Fred stepped out of the car, two burly men from security loomed towards her. ?Mr Angel, Sir?'

    Angel glanced at them from his side of the car. ?Do it.'

    The men each gently grabbed one of Fred's arms, insistently escorting her with or without her consent. ?Ms Burkle, this way, please.'

    ?Where are you taking me? Angel, where are they taking me?' she cried, stiffening in their grip. ?Get your hands off of me, you primates!' They tightened their hold and began to march her off towards the firm's entrance. She struggled, twisting her body and thrashing about, and managed a look over her shoulder. ?Angel, please! I won't do it again, I swear! Where are they taking me? 'Cause I'm guessing, not to the coffee machine! Angel! Angel, it was the booze, I won't drink again, I promise! Please, don't! Angel, I said I was sorry!'

    The vampire silently watched his parking space's white line as his employee, prot?g?e and friend was dragged away literally kicking and screaming.

    * * * *

    Angel darted into his office, opened his desk, and rummaged through a document drawer, oblivious to his three co-workers waiting there.

    ?Well? You get her back? Where the bloody hell is she?'

    ?That's what I'm gonna find out.'

    ?Yeah, sounds about right, just what we've been hanging about here for, game of ruddy charades. Statement of fact. Four words. First word: "you're". Second word --'

    ?Technically that's two words,' mumbled Gunn distractedly, his head in an ancient volume. He felt Spike's exasperated glare on him. ?She's downstairs, you noob. She's safe.'

    ?Downstairs? You mean Nina's cage?' He turned to Angel still searching his drawer. ?So you got her out of jail, all the better to lock her up in jail?!'

    ?Sadistic, huh?' noted Wesley, looking up from a set of black and white photos. ?You don't know the half of it. Fred spent five years without a door, let alone a cage door. It's all going to feel massively oppressive to her.'

    ?And you're okay with that? His Royal CEOness here gets off on triggering your mate's claustrophobia, I mean, no wonder you're kicking up such a sitting around.'

    ?I need a newspaper!' grumbled Angel, impatiently. ?Thought I'd left tonight's edition in here.'

    ?So much you couldn't possibly comprehend, Spike, it makes me quite vertigo-ish.'

    ?Ah. Here.' Angel produced a broadsheet. ?Right, Wesley, I'm gonna do what we talked about, so you guys don't come down until advised differently. I'm getting to the bottom of this.'

    He folded his paper and rushed out.

    * * * *

    The hinges of the metal door to the cage room creaked as Angel shut it behind him. Fred glared up at him from the back of the cage, sat on the floor in a corner.

    ?That was so not cool.'

    He put down his newspaper on the floor and studied her through the bars. ?Where is she?'

    ?Let me out.'

    ?Where is she?'

    ?Let me out. Then we'll talk.'

    ?We talk first. Then I decide if I let you out before or after I kill you. Where is she?'

    ?Not very believable, I'm afraid. You're overdoing it. No way you'd kill a friend. Not for any reason, much less getting into a little trouble with the law.'

    ?A friend, very unlikely, you're right. You, on the other hand? WHERE. IS SHE?' he groaned angrily.

    ?All right. I'm gonna say it first, but only because my life expectancy is way shorter than yours. Where the heck is WHO?'

    ?Don't play games with me, you son of a bitch, you're gonna lose. You've already lost, wake up and smell the cage bars.'

    ?Okay, Earth calling Angel, not Angelus. Where is who? And how am I supposed to know, I was in jail, remember? Nina? Harmony? Is Harmony missing? Eve? Should I list every female on the payroll? Buffy? 'Cause that one I know. Where is who, Angel?'

    ?You know who! Winifred Burkle!'

    Her eyes widened. ?Okay? Forget the murder threat, that was scary. I? I don't even know how to respond to that. And I thought my blood alcohol was bad.'

    ?Stop wasting my time, you dirtbag! You tell me where you left her, I go find her, hopefully, for your sake, safe and sound, and my lawyers will make sure you get life. As opposed to death by vampire strangulation. So talk.'

    ?Ohhhh, I get it. Sorry, I'm a bit slow tonight. You think I'm? Easy mistake,' she nodded, impressed. ?I can see where this is going. And, I'm trying but? there's no non-cliché way to say this. I'm not the Shape Shifter.'

    ?And I'm not the vampire-with-a-soul. Talk.'

    ?Oh noooo!' she whined. ?This is gonna take ages! I haven't got time, Angel! Ooo, I know! I know! Cycloid! No-no. Sprocket! There.'

    His eyes narrowed dubitatively. ?Yeah, nice try. Except you've been hanging out here for at least a couple of days. You stole Fred's identity way before I gave out the password. It's invalid to you.'

    ?Well that sucks.' She crossed her arms sulkily. ?It's not fair! You're the boss, you should've seen this coming and given us a password the minute we took on the Shifter case, not a few days into the case! But no, you wait till after infiltration, then you think about the practical details. What good's that gonna do? Now I haven't got a password. Not professional,' she pointed her finger accusingly.

    ?So you're admitting you've infiltrated us.'

    ?No way! But I could have! I mean, he could have!' She stood up and came to the front. ?How do I know you're not the Shifter, huh? Wouldn't be the first time.'

    ?Because,' he grunted, picking up the newspaper, ?I haven't been subject to erratic behaviour.' He chucked it into the cage violently.

    She kept her eyes on him a moment, gauging his anger, then crouched by the front page, her throat tightening as she read the headline.


    ?No casualties?' she murmured to herself.

    ?Not in the headline. Read on.'

    She squinted at him suspiciously. ?You know I'm Fred?' She stood back up without reading more. ?Don't you? You've known all along I'm not the Shifter.'

    ?Could've fooled me. You almost did. Wes made a good case for you. What the hell's going on with you?'

    She went back to her corner and sat down, facing him defiantly. ?I didn't do it. And there were no human casualties.'

    ?Really? A deaf old man didn't hear the evacuation order and was still inside when the fire broke out. He got stuck in there.'

    ?No!' she cried. ?He made it out! I -- Someone went back for him! He got out safe!'

    ?He inhaled a lot of fumes.'

    ?But he'll live.'

    ?But it was close. And Fred would never put people's lives at risk for kicks. So, one of two explanations. Either you are the Shifter, or there's something going on making you act up that you're about to tell me about. So what's going on?'

    ?Okay,' she yielded with a smart-aleck face. ?I'm the Shifter.'

    Angel growled with rage. ?It's not funny, Fred! It's not just the fire! Or the getting arrested! It's the drinking! And the shirking! And the vandalism! I got billed by a demon nightclub today! You were caught on their bathroom CCTV last night, smashing the mirrors with a toilet seat! Now what the hell were you doing there in the first place? Huh? Getting drunk with Spike?'

    ?And Wesley and Charles.'

    ?Oh but you left with Spike! Spent the night at his place, you think I don't know?'

    ?My private life's none of my employer's business.'

    ?It is when Spike's involved. And the rest of my staff. Have you any idea what that's doing to Wesley?'

    She looked him in the eye. ?Is this about me wrecking your car?'

    He sighed. ?I'm not even gonna dignify that with a denial. You've not been yourself these past couple of days. Lashing out at police officers, committing arson! You've been getting high?'

    ?Huh!' she exclaimed, outraged. ?Lorne is such a tattletale!'

    ?So you're gonna tell me what the hell is the matter with you,' he ordered. ?'Cause we've gotta fix it.'

    ?There's nothing to fix, I've just been having fun is all. You should try it sometime.'

    He sized her up, suspecting he wasn't gonna get anything out of her. ?All right, that's it. I'm through. Someone you love goes a bit off the rails, you're not happy about it, but you let it slide because you put it down to a little natural harmless rebelling, next thing you know they've wired innocent people to a bomb and they're threatening to blow up a mall, and you have no choice but to let them be taken away from you! So I'm done playing. You will not leave this cage until you've told me what's going on.' He stepped back.

    ?You can't do that.'

    ?And what's more, you will not see anyone. The rest of the team have very strict orders not to come and see you. Until you've told me what's wrong, you will see me when I come to interrogate you, and that's it.' He turned around to leave.

    She got up and ran to the front of the cage. ?You can't do that!'

    ?Watch me. Now I'll come back to talk to you in a while. Till then? Enjoy the peace and quiet.' He walked to the metal door.

    ?Angel, please! Don't leave me all alone here!'

    The vampire put a hand on the door handle. ?See ya.'

    ?I'M DYING!'

    He turned around to face her. ?What?'

    She went back to her corner and sat back down, staring into space.

    He stepped to the cage door. ?Are you sick?'

    She shrugged and whispered, ?Not yet.'

    Angel dialled the code on the number pad and the cage slid open. He strode to the back and flumped next to Fred. ?What's the matter, what makes you think you're dying?'

    ?I saw it. In a dream. I wasn't here anymore. Everyone was grieving. It was really sad. It was really real.'

    ?It was a dream.'

    She shook her head. ?It was more than a dream. It felt real. I'm dead, and everyone's mourning me, and you try and fix it but you can't. And I don't know how it happens. There wasn't a body. None that I saw, anyway.'

    He smiled. ?When does it happen? Whe-When do you "die"?' he emphasised the word mockingly.

    ?I don't know precisely, but in the dream there was a discarded Valentine's Day card, so I'm thinking, soonish.'

    ?Hmm hmm. Wanna know what I think? I think somebody's angry. At wasting five years of her youth in a parallel dimension, and now she's catching up on all the fun stuff she didn't get to do back then, and she's using that dream as an excuse to justify acting up.'

    She sneered. ?Oh, interesting theory. You wanna know what I think? That you're a fool.'

    ?Why you burnt down the Public Library. Of all the places to destroy, you choose the one where your portal opened? We've seen subtler acts of symbolic rage, Fred.'

    ?I didn't do it out of rage. I did it for the flames. To see them. To watch something beautiful. Because I'm dying in a couple of weeks, but I'm not dead now. And until then I'm gonna feel stuff, everything. I'm gonna get drunk, and get high, and I'm gonna laugh. I'm gonna party, and I'm gonna trash things, and I'm gonna feel my heart thumping when I'm stealing or lying. And I'm not gonna take any orders, or advice, from anyone, in fact, I'm gonna demand things from others and if they don't comply, I'm gonna hurt them till they do. I'm gonna know what it's like to be powerful. I'm gonna touch things, forbidden things, with my mouth, I'm gonna taste them. I'm gonna drive guys insane with desire, and I'm gonna have sex, lots of sex, passionate, meaningless, beautiful, routine, any kind of sex, with anyone who offers, with Spike, with Wesley, with Spike and Wesley! Because soon I'm gonna be dead. But until then, so help me, I'm gonna live a little! I'm gonna be the opposite of dead!'

    Angel was alarmed by the sparks in her eyes. He took in a breath of useless air. ?How did you die in the dream?'

    She had a sigh of her own. ?I don't know. But I know you can't fix it. Or stop it happening. It felt too? fateful.'

    ?I still think it was no more than a dream.'

    ?Oh yeah? What if I told you Cordelia was in it?'

    She struck a nerve. ?Cordy? Cordy was in it?'

    She nodded. ?She was guiding me. Dressed up as a Smurf, for some reason.'

    He smiled reassuringly. Whether that was reassuring her or himself was beside the point. ?Well, in that case? I'd say that was a normal, meaningless, run-of-the-mill, human dream. With Cordelia in it.'

    ?See, that's why I didn't wanna tell you! I knew you wouldn't take me seriously.'

    ?I am taking you seriously, and I'm taking your dream seriously, and I don't take this kind of stuff lightly. Whatever it is, it's clearly messing with your head, and I can't have that. Okay? So I'm gonna investigate it.' He took out his cell phone, speed-dialled a number, and brought it to his ear. ?Now.' He hung up.

    She recoiled slightly, guessing. ?I'm not singing.'

    ?Yes, you are. I need to know what's what here.'

    She shook her head and her eyes welled up. ?No.'

    ?Hey?' he comforted, pained to see her scared to tears. ?There's nothing scary about this. My belief is that you had a bad dream, I just want confirmation. For my own peace of mind. Hey? You're gonna be fine.'

    ?I'm not singing, Angel. You can't make me.'

    ?Fred, you already think you're dying, you've got nothing to lose! Lorne can only give you good news!'

    ?No, because I think I'm dying. And I'm pretty sure, say 98%, but if Lorne sees the same thing I did, I'll be 100% sure. And that's two percent I'm not so willing to gamble with right now.'

    ?Well, it's that 98% full baloney that's gonna cost me. It's gonna cost me victims, and probably my Head of Science. So it's not your call. Besides, if you are right then it gives us a little time to work something out, and if you're wrong then you can snap right out of badass mode, so either way, I'd rather know now. You're singing, end of story. Lorne will keep you in the dark if that's what you want.'

    ?That's right,' piped Lorne, closing the room door, ?anything my favourite atom-splitting jailbird requests.' He walked into the cage and looked around. ?Colourful d?cor, top guy, the kind of innovative psychology that would make Dr Phil blush.' He sat down opposite Fred, cross-legged. ?I'm all ears, cupcakes.'

    Fred sighed and turned to Angel.

    ?Come on. You'll be fine. Like ripping off a band-aid.'

    ?Fine. But I don't wanna be told, Lorne.' The Empath nodded, and she started singing, ?Tell me now, if you came sneaking up behind, would you know me and see behind the smile? I can change like colours on a wall, hoping no one else will find what lies beneath it all. I think I hide it all so well.

    Stepping out? Everyone can see my face, all the things I can't erase from my life. Everybody knows.

    Standing out, so you won't forget my name. That's the way we play this game of life, everybody knows.

    Looking through the crowd, I search for something else but every time I turn around, I run into myself. Here I stand, consumed with my surroundings? Just another day of everybody looking. I swore they'd never see me cry! You'll never see me cry.

    You say I'll pay the price. That's a chance that I'll take. Though you may think I'm telling lies. But I just call it "getting by".

    Everybody knows? I am just barely getting by. Everybody knows I'm just barely getting by. Everybody knows I'm just barely getting by.' She went quiet and blushed a little, fiddling with a rumple in her leather pants.

    Fred's audition over, Angel nodded at Lorne and both males headed for the hallway. As he reached the door, the Pylean turned to the girl interrogatively. ?Fred, your selection? I would've put good money on you picking the Dixie Chicks. But I can't place that song.'

    ?You won't. That was the Chicks all right. It's not on any existing album, though.'


    Fred shook her head. Lorne shrugged and stepped out, urged by his CEO. ?It was in the dream,' she muttered to herself.

    * * * *

    ?What's the verdict?' Angel asked Lorne once in the hallway.

    ?You're not gonna like it,' he prepared him for the news, cringing.

    ?Let's hear it.'

    ?She's had a dream.'

    Angel waited. ?That's it?!'

    ?'Fraid so. She feels strongly about that dream, so strongly that it's masking her aura. I couldn't see anything. Happens to the best of us.'

    Angel rolled his eyes in annoyance. ?Great. Did you at least see the dream?'

    ?Not so much. Though I can tell you she was probably glad to wake up. It shone with negativity. And the colour blue, for some reason.'

    ?So there was nothing about her future? Her destiny? What about the dream, did it look like a regular dream to you?'

    ?I guess. Don't quote me, though. All I got was intensity. Sorry. It's a rare but well-known phenomenon I like to refer to as "double Dutch". The client's feelings interfere with the picture of their aura, and whatever it is in their aura that caused those feelings is blurred by the picture. Dreams are notoriously a pain for that, you know, like when you wake up from a powerful dream and it stays with you all day? It actually clings to your aura for days. It's not unheard of, especially with humans.'

    ?Yeah, remind me why you're on the payroll?' he teased. He rubbed his face with his hands, stumped. ?All right, thanks, Lorne, I'll figure something else out.'

    ?Is Fred all right?' the demon asked, all light-heartedness vanished from his voice.

    ?Yeah, yeah, she's fine. It's a? temporary crisis, I'm gonna fix it.'

    * * * *

    ?Lorne's mojo didn't work,' Angel announced, back in the cage with Fred. ?It doesn't mean anything,' he quickly added, seeing the worry on her face, ?it just means that the dream threw your feelings a little out of whack and they obstructed your aura. Or, something like that. But it's okay, I? thought of something else. To restore you. Back to normal,' he clumsily explained. ?I think, if you forget about the dream, you'll revert to the sweet, good-natured Fred we all love. To work with,' he babbled.

    Her eyes bulged. ?You're asking me to? You actually want me to just? get over it. Just like that. Why sure, no probs, boss, I've seen my own death, but it's okay, it's not that grim, I mean, there wasn't even a body to grieve over, how bad can it be? I'll just? get on with my Petri dishes, then and I'll? be in the lab if you need me, being chirpy,' she railed, not budging.

    ?No, it's not like that. I? I just want you to be yourself, I? can't bear to see you like this anymore, you're hurting! Over a dream! You're hurting and you're gonna get really hurt. And you're gonna hurt people in the process, you've already started. Sometimes we wake up from a dream and we can't remember it. If you hadn't remembered this one?'

    ?I wouldn't be sat in a cage right now, no, if that's what you're getting at. But I do. Remember it, and it's killing me with dread,' she lamented.

    ?So you're dying twice,' he summed up smartly. ?Assuming you're right, assuming you are dying, which you're not, don't you think once is enough? Take it from a guy who's been there, once is plenty.' He saw on her face that he was hitting home. ?Now we can do that, can't we? That horrible dream with all the damage it's done, we could just throw it in the trash and be rid. Couldn't we?' Angel knew Fred. He didn't have Lorne's gift, but there were a select few he could read, to some extent. Presently she was no longer thinking "no!", but "how?". ?You told me you were working on some pills?'

    ?My short-term memory deletion pills? They're still experimental, Angel. I mean, they work on mice, and capuchin monkeys, but?'

    ?You've never tried them on humans?'

    She cast him a sheepish glance. ?I? had a problem with them. I decided to test them on myself but I? could never remember if I had or not. I think I tested them a few times.'

    ?So they work.'

    ?You have to be careful with the dosage, but yeah, I think they do.' She had a little unhappy smile. ?You want me to take one?'

    ?Only if you want to.'

    She sighed heavily. ?I don't know? Burying my head in the sand? I don't know, Angel.'

    Angel stood up. ?Well, you take your time to think it over. Okay? I'll come back later and you can tell me then. In the meantime, I'd appreciate it if you stay put. Right here. You're not yourself, Fred, and I'm gonna be my office, going through a ton of work on the Shifter, and I really can't afford another trip to the police station tonight. All right?'

    She nodded in silence, not looking up as he left.

    * * * *

    ?Having a laugh, you are. Door's bloody open!'

    Fred saw him and beamed.

    Spike walked into the cage. ?Now, what have we talked about? You get locked up, the door gets left open, you do a runner. You don't sit in the corner waiting for the screw to come back. Have I taught you nothing?' He sneered at her teasingly.

    ?I'm doing some thinking,' she smiled.

    He raised a playful eyebrow. ?Thinking about what you've done, huh? Trust the plonker.'

    ?Noooo,' she laughed. ?Something I have to decide.' She gazed at him and sighed. ?Kiss me.'

    He bit his bottom lip and crouched near her. ?Asbo, I've done a bit of thinking of my own. And I've sussed it out.'

    ?Sussed what out?'

    ?This,' he flapped his index between them. ?Us. I know what it's about. Who it's about. And it's not me.' They stared at each other, exchanging expressions of alternately fun and serious affection. ?And that's okay,' he smiled forgivingly.

    She covered her mouth with the back of her hand. ?Spike, I never meant to? I didn't premeditate? I wasn't acting.'

    ?I know.'

    ?And I enjoyed every second. I'm sorry. If he wasn't in the picture? You and me, we would've been something,' she boasted, grinning.

    ?We are,' he insisted, sitting down on the floor. ?Just not that. I brought you something.' He searched in his pocket and produced a hand-rolled cone-shaped cigarette.

    ?Klootch? You brought me klootch? That's so sweet!' she exclaimed excitedly. She extended her hand to take it but he withdrew it.

    ?I want you to quit,' he blurted gravely.

    She goggled at him, shocked. ?What, 'cause it's bad? You want me to quit 'cause it's bad, Spike?'

    He glanced around nervously. ?Oi, keep it down. Don't make me do it, I can't risk doing it, all right?' he urged in a low voice. ?If this gets out of here? I have a reputation! And I haven't had the practice, I-I'm bound to balls it up, so don't make me do it, don't make me lecture you.'

    ?All right, I'll quit,' she consented, putting him out of his misery. ?After this one.'

    ?Obviously.' He handed the roll-up to her. ?You've still got my lighter.' She got it out of her pocket and lit up, taking a drag and passing the joint back. ?Eh, Asbo, when you? get out,' he jested, eyeing the cage, ?are you gonna keep wearing those?' he nodded at her leather pants.

    ?Oh, I don't know,' she smiled, ?I guess I ought to give them back to Wesley.' Spike's eyes almost popped out of their sockets. Fred giggled. ?They're not his, dumbass! They're Faith's.'

    ?Phew, much easier picture.'

    ?He keeps them in his work cupboard? with his bike gear, not as a shrine or anything.' She sighed, exhaling the smoke from another drag. ?Do you think he's gonna suss it out?'

    ?I think he already has. But doing something about it, different kettle of fish. Give him time, pet.'

    She nibbled her lip. ?I haven't got it. Spike, you know when you? died?' she began.

    ?Which time?'

    ?The second time. No, the first time. No, the second time. If you'd known beforehand, what would you have done?'

    He peered at her. ?Are you all right?'

    She forced a smile. ?Yeah, sure, I? Cosmo questionnaire. What would you have done?'

    He thought for a minute. ?I would've got pissed. I would've done nothing.'

    ?In that order?'

    ?Yeah. Well, mostly, I would've done nothing special. I'd have had a few pints, drank a little blood, maybe read a poem or two, for the road, you know. I'd have been myself. Which I was, both times. Does that help? With your questionnaire?'

    She nodded, smiling. ?Yes. A lot.' She gestured for him to give her the cigarette. ?Pass the klootchie.'

    * * * *

    She slammed a bottle of pills onto his desk, making him jump in his chair.

    ?I'll do it, I'll take a pill. On one condition.'

    ?Fred.' Angel checked the door was closed and they were alone. ?You've made your mind up. Good. Good. What's the condition?'

    ?You have to take one too.'

    ?Me? Why?'

    ?Because if you don't, and I was right, and I die, and you were wrong, and you didn't believe me, and you didn't do anything to stop it, and I forgot about it, and you didn't, and you know I knew? we're looking at another 200 years' brooding with guilt, aren't we? You're trying to protect me from the consequences of knowledge, aren't you? Well, right back at you.'

    He glanced at the pills, then at Fred. ?Okay.'

    ?"Okay"? Really? You're not talking me out of talking you into it?'

    ?Nope. I've had a couple of bad experiences with remembering stuff I shouldn't. I'm gonna give myself a break on this one? How do we do it?'

    She was dumbstruck for a moment. ?Okay, I'll take one first, then you, then we'll go to sleep. When we wake up, most of the last two days will be erased from our memories, and whatever fragments are left will seem like they were just a dream, which, personally, I find kind of ironic.'

    He had a quick smile. ?What about the others? They know about you.'


    ?They know about you behaving un-Fred-ishly.'

    ?Oh. Yeah, that they do.'

    ?Then they'll have to take a pill too. Leave that part to me.'

    * * * *

    She focused the lens and gasped at the extraordinary sight. Hundreds of teeny little demon-shaped creatures, claw in claw, looking back at her.

    ?This was a full-size, man-size minion?'

    ?Before it went splash on me, yeah. What is it now?'

    ?Not that,' she mumbled, as focused as her microscope. ?Spike, can you pass me that slide?' she pointed to a shelf near him.

    ?What am I, a lab-rat?' He handed it to her and she poured some liquid onto it. ?Fred, what do you know about d?j? vu?'

    ?Gist is,' she explained while scraping a blade onto the slide, ?it's caused by different parts of your brain "lying" to each other. Why?'

    ?Just curious. Had a bloody massive one this morning when I bottled that minion liquid.'

    The door of the lab opened. ?Any development on the minion?'

    ?Oh, Wesley, hey,' Fred grinned. ?Not yet, I'm trying to isolate one of his particles, then I'll look into ways of communicating with it. I'm gonna need you, actually.'

    ?How spooky. I need you too. Gunn's found an abandoned lair that looks like it might have hosted the Shifter in the last few hours, he said you should check it out. He believes there are biological clues as to where he's gone?'

    ?Sure. Spike, your thing can wait, right?'

    He just raised his eyebrows at her, unimpressed.

    ?The only thing is, the lair's off a dirt track and access is much easier by motorcycle. Now, if you're comfortable with that we could go on my bike.'

    ?Oh, I don't know, Wesley?' she hesitated, walking with him to the door. ?I don't have the right clothes, for a start,' she indicated her short frilly dress.

    ?Oh, not to worry,' he smiled, opening the door for her, ?I keep some of my bike gear in my office cupboard, have a look if anything fits, I'd be happy to lend you some of my leathers?' he trailed off as they walked out of the lab.

    ~The End~
    "I'd like to keep Spike as my pet."
    "Get out of my temporal lobe, House!"