“Doyle! Wake up, dammit! You’re having a nightmare.”
It wasn’t Harry’s voice. Something in my sleep-befuddled mind said, ‘Threat,’ and I rolled away instinctively, putting my arms over my head. Half-waking, I found myself about to spin off the edge of my bed onto the floor.
A hand caught me and hauled me roughly back.
I opened my eyes, to see an angry-looking, nude brunette hovering over me. “Doyle! Are you awake now?”
Actually, I wasn’t sure. But I wasn’t too keen on going back where I’d just been, so I nodded.
“Good, ‘cause I don’t need to share your nightmares, thank you.”
Gradually I recognized the angry voice, and face, and body now sharing my bed. I don’t know what my own face looked like at that moment, but something in it must have reached her, as her expression softened. “You gonna be all right now?”
I still couldn’t speak, but I tried to nod again, realizing for the first time that I was shaking.
Yeah, some way to impress a slayer. It suddenly occurred to me that I actually cared about that, and I wondered dimly why I bothered.
“Hey,” Faith said, her voice dropping to a tone that was almost tender. “It’s okay, Doyle. I know that shit still gets to you sometimes. It’s all right.”
Awkwardly, she stretched out next to me and threw an arm over my chest, like she wasn’t sure of how to touch a man without signaling “sex.” “Hang in there, guy. Not too much longer till morning,” she murmured as she settled herself against me. “I’m goin’ back to sleep now.”
My body still felt cold, locked in the nightmare, but her warmth pressed against me helped to make the trembling subside. I shifted my position to put an arm around her shoulders, holding her against me, as she went back to sleep.
“Thanks,” I whispered against her dark hair, and I felt her lips move in a smile against my chest, just before her body relaxed back into slumber.
I stared up at the ceiling for a long time.
“Sunnydale Coach Tours.”
I frowned at the flyer that was tucked into the newspaper. It looked like it had been run off by somebody’s home computer, but that wasn’t what caught my eye.
What human in his right mind would choose to go to Sunnydale? Even at the dirt-cheap rates being advertised, there wasn’t any good reason for a human to travel to the nowhere town that just happened to be located on the Hellmouth.
Then again, one can never overestimate the human capacity for denial.
“Visit beautiful Sunnydale! Leave with a group of new friends tonight, and enjoy your full day bus tour tomorrow. Tour package price includes a light breakfast, lunch and dinner. Enjoy twenty-four hours out of the ordinary. It’s a day you’ll never forget,” the ad enticed, with a price lower than what two meals would cost in most restaurants. I would be willing to wager that I’d find the flyer at bus stations, homeless shelters, and maybe even at the soup kitchen.
The thought of soup kitchens, with its unwelcome reminder of Harry, brought back a recollection of my nightmare. I pushed it aside.
Walking back into the office, newspaper in hand, I shoved the flyer toward Wesley. “Hey. That mean anything to you?”
Wes looked up blearily from his book. Seemed like I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t been sleeping well lately. Slowly, he reached out for the flyer.
“Good God,” he muttered, after reading it. “Are you thinking what I am?”
“Most likely, yeah. I’d guess the vamps have run down their food supply, and they’re looking to haul in some fresh livestock.”
I lit a cigarette, ignoring Wesley’s pained look. This attempt to quit had lasted eight days and fifteen hours. No, of course I wasn’t counting.
“You didn’t get a vision about this, did you?”
“No, I didn’t. Wonder why not.”
“Perhaps your Powers that Be aren’t calling upon you to deal with this particular problem?”
“I’m not plannin’ to wait for a vision, Wes, not if the Master is making forays into L.A. to fill tour buses with take-out. It’s one thing to admit that we’re not ready yet to go and fight the Master on his turf. It’s another when he starts raidin’ ours.”
Wesley smiled slightly at the ‘ours,’ then tried to hide it. “Hmm, yes. I must agree there.”
“Agree with what?” Faith asked as she sauntered in, and yawned. She spotted the cigarette in my mouth, smirked, but said nothing. Good. I didn’t need any self-righteous superiority from a seventeen-year-old with twice as many vices as I had - not that I didn’t enjoy sharing a few of hers, but that was beside the point.
“He agrees that we’re gonna check out this little operation.” I handed her the Sunnydale Coach Tours flyer, and she glanced indifferently at it, then did a visible double-take.
“Yeah,” and I glanced at Wesley as I deliberately echoed his words, “I’d guess you’re thinkin’ the same thing I am.”
Faith snorted, tossing the flyer on the desk. “Fast food run, yeah. I get it. Think we can disrupt their supply line?”
“It’s a classic of military strategy,” Wesley put in. “Before launching a direct attack, first cut off the enemy’s access to critical supplies, such as food and weapons.” When both Faith and I glared at him, he lifted his hands a little, backing off. “I am merely pointing out that I do agree it’s a good move.”
“Fine. Got a plan, Master Strategist?”
“Not yet, but I will shortly.”
“Good. Speaking of a food run, anyone for donuts?”
Sunnydale Coach Tours had rented a tiny office in one of the poorest and dirtiest neighborhoods in L.A., confirming my suspicion that they were trying to recruit the type of travelers who would not be easily missed. This had to be a short-term operation, I concluded as we approached. Even the homeless have a grapevine of sorts, and the word would get out soon enough that the Sunnydale-bound tourists never returned.
In the meantime though, the vamps seemed to be doing a good job of filling their bus. There was already a long line of people waiting to buy tickets, and while I hunted for a parking space where the car might possibly be intact when we returned, the line grew longer.
“There’s a certain art about it, I must admit,” Wesley remarked as I finally maneuvered the car into a space. “Getting your victims to pay for their own death.”
“Yeah, sounds like a vamp with a flair,” I muttered.
“So, are we gonna jump the line?” Faith piped up expectantly.
“We’re the government tonight, o’course we are. The Department of Transportation Licensing never waits in line.”
“I thought it was the Division,” Wesley said.
“Whatever. Think you can handle doing the talkin’ while Faith and I try to figure out the vamp-to-human ratio?”
“I can most certainly handle doing the talking.”
“Yeah, Wesley does the officious, meddling bastard thing really well,” Faith commented sweetly. “Ain’t that right, Wes?” She clapped him on the shoulder, and although I could tell that she was being careful not to hurt him, he winced in anticipation anyway. By her grin, that was the idea.
We entered the building at a deliberate pace, Wesley strolling in front with his cane and a slow, dignified walk that made the cane seem like an affectation, Faith and I following with the bored expressions of civil servants. The people in line glared at us and muttered, but did not interfere.
All along the line, there were only humans in sight. Of course, I couldn’t shift into demon form to take a sniff for vampires, but the body language was telling enough. I glanced quickly at Faith, knowing that she should be able to sense the vamps too, and she shrugged very slightly, almost imperceptibly, letting me know she was coming up empty as well.
It wasn’t until we were nearly at the reception area, with its one small desk, that I heard her voice. It was soft, girlish, a little breathless. “Well, yes, of course it’s a bargain. We’re a small town, but there are plenty of jobs, and this tour is an opportunity for people to experience the beauty of Sunnydale and consider making a new home for themselves and their families. Consider it a welcoming gesture from the friendly residents of Sunnydale, who hope that some of you will become their new neighbors. There’s absolutely no obligation after the tour is done.”
I didn’t realize I had stopped walking until Faith’s hand closed around my arm, forcing me to go on.
Woodenly, I moved forward, trying not to show any reaction. I knew that voice.
As we came closer, and Wesley cleared his throat, preparing to launch into his speech, she looked up, blonde hair falling aside slightly, and I saw her face. Faith’s grip was the only thing that kept me standing there, playing my part, because my whole body had gone numb and I wasn’t sure where my feet were. But I was sure who she was.
I didn’t want to remember. I didn’t want to think about it.
But I remembered.
The blonde straightened up and moved confidently into my apartment, a serene smile on her blood-dappled face, as the big man held my struggling wife with one hand.
“No, I’m not too badly hurt,” she said to Harry in a soft voice, watching her closely. “Thanks for asking, though.”
Desperately I dashed toward the phone, knowing that there was no way I could possibly take the man holding Harry; he was twice my size. If I could only reach the phone -
The boy followed me, moving much faster than I could. He caught me by the shoulder, his fingers digging in like they were made of metal, and grinned triumphantly as I winced in pain. He grabbed my neck and lifted me completely off my feet, wrenching my head to the side. His face suddenly transformed into the ugliest thing I’d ever seen, as he dragged me headfirst toward what looked like - fangs?
As he grabbed me, the woman’s tone suddenly sharpened. “Jesse, wait!”
The boy immediately stopped moving, as the eager grin faded from his distorted features. “What?”
“First of all, you called me your mother. You were supposed to call me your sister.”
“Sorry,” he mumbled, still holding me in an amazingly strong grip. With my head twisted to the side and my feet dangling inches above the floor, any movement that I made hurt, but I tried to pull his hands off me anyway. I couldn’t budge him.
The man who was holding Harry watched the exchange with an amused look, obviously in no hurry. She was still fighting him, punching and kicking, but he hardly seemed to notice.
“Second, don’t waste your time with him.” It was bizarre, but I recognized the tone of a teacher instructing a somewhat slow student. “I know a fledge like you wouldn’t know the difference, but he’s not human. After awhile, you’ll be able to tell by the smell.”
“What?” As soon as Harry made a sound, the big man holding her put one hand over her mouth, holding her easily with the other.
“Oh.” The boy, still holding me by the neck with his fingers digging into my throat, sounded disappointed. “What should I do with him then?” He glared impatiently at me as I kicked him as hard as I could, fighting to get free. The kick hurt me a lot more than it did him. I could hardly breathe, but he seemed to be cut out of the same rock as the man who had Harry. All it got me was an annoyed grimace and a plaintive, “Hey, he kicked me. That actually hurt. Can I kill him?”
“Jesse, dear,” the female vampire chided, with appalling sweetness in her feathery little voice, “You still seem to be missing the point. How are we going to have fun with him if he’s dead? No, I have something better in mind. You’ll see. We’re going to have quite the entertaining show here, and we’re going to make him watch.”
“Sounds good to me, Darla,” the man holding Harry put in.
“I don’t need your approval, Luke,” she replied tartly. “Just hold the woman. Jesse, you keep hold of whatever that thing is,” gesturing contemptuously at me. “Make sure that he doesn’t miss anything. Do you think you can manage that?”
“Okay,” Jesse said sullenly. I kicked him again, and he winced, but didn’t budge except for digging his fingers deeper into my neck. His grip made breathing a struggle, but I couldn’t even think about that. All I could see was Harry, who was staring back at me over Luke’s hand.
Darla looked back at Harry, with a sugary smile. “Aren’t you the good Samaritan then? I do so much appreciate your willingness to help. I’ll bet you adopt stray kittens, and you probably volunteer at a food pantry somewhere, too, don’t you? Of course you do.”
She reached out and flicked a lock of Harry’s hair with her finger. “Come to think of it, you remind me of a missionary I ate once in China. You shouldn’t mind feeding a few thirsty strangers.”
Luke laughed. “Are you going to bother feeding at all, Darla, or are you just going to stand there and talk the girl to death?”
“Patience, Luke, patience. Let’s show Jesse how to enjoy the game.” Her eyes were still on Harry, who seemed to be trying to bite Luke’s hand. Luke only grinned and tightened his grip on Harry’s face, now covering her nose as well.
“So, what’s a nice girl like you doing here with that thing?” Darla gestured dismissively in my direction. “Oh, that’s right, you can’t tell me anything at the moment, can you? Let me guess.”
She pretended to consider. “Is he one of your charity cases? Was he a soul in need of saving? Hmmm, now there’s a good question, does he even have one?” Harry’s face was starting to turn color as Luke’s hand cut off her air.
Darla glared at Luke. “Excuse me! Did I say that you could suffocate her? I’m not finished yet.” Then Darla shrugged, apparently losing interest.
“Well, never mind. It doesn’t matter any more, but if you wanted something strong enough to protect you from the things that go bump in the night, then I’ll let you in on a little secret.” She leaned closer to Harry. “It isn’t working.”
Harry’s eyes met mine, and in them, I saw goodbye.
“No!” I cried out, as I saw the woman’s face change, and felt my own body turn to fire.
“Yeesh!” The boy cried out in surprise as my skin seemed to shift under his hands.
He threw me aside. I found myself flying through the air, and then I felt my head hit the wall, hard, the sickening thud jarring my already twisted neck.
I could only lie there, stunned, uncomprehending.
I couldn’t move, as I watched what I had already seen happen once before.
They were still laughing as they left Harry’s broken body by the door. I crawled toward her, hoping desperately that she was somehow still alive.
Although I could hardly move, and my head felt barely attached, I managed to drag myself to her side, and touch her pale cheek.
For a moment it seemed that my frantic prayer had been answered, when her eyes opened. She looked straight up at me.
“What... What are you?” she whispered, staring at my face, with a look of utter horror.
And then she died.
I stood up, covered in Harry’s blood. My mind had shut down, like someone turned off a light; there was no room for thinking.
My movement was reflected in the mirror, and I stared.
In the full-length mirror, in my blood-soaked clothes, a monster with red eyes and a spine-covered blue-green face stared back at me.
“No! No! No!”
Under the monster’s fists, the mirror smashed in a thousand pieces to the floor.
Faith’s grip on my arm tightened painfully, dragging me back to the present.
Wesley was giving his speech, but no one was listening to him, least of all Darla. She was looking straight past him, at me, with an expression of amusement.
“I don’t think so, Mister... I’m sorry, what did you say your name was?” Her voice was still soft and sweet, as she moved out from behind her desk and came closer to Wesley.
The people in line grumbled impatiently as Darla walked over to Wesley. She stopped right next to him, leaning so close that they might be talking about a bribe.
Speaking so that only we could hear her, she murmured, “The next time you try to impersonate city workers, stick to humans. More convincing. I won’t harm you now, because I don’t want to scare away our customers. Leave quietly, and consider yourselves lucky that you can.”
Over Wesley’s shoulder, she smiled at me. “Whatever you are, did you really think that you could fool me?” Her voice stayed low, a silky whisper. “There isn’t much I haven’t seen in four hundred years, you know.” Then she tilted her head quizzically. “Come to think of it, have I seen you somewhere before?”
Faith answered for me, “I don’t think so,” and steered me firmly in the opposite direction. I made no attempt to resist.
Wesley murmured under his breath as we retreated, “I didn’t think vampires could sense you that quickly.”
Faith muttered back, “I guess four-hundred-year-old vampires can.”
I didn’t say a word. Walking was difficult enough.
Faith reached into my front shirt pocket, where a business card or two was usually buried between my lighter and a pack of cigarettes. It seemed like a funny time for a smoke, but I wasn’t arguing.
Ignoring the cigarettes, Faith removed one business card and the lighter. As we approached the door, with one hand still firmly on me, she casually flicked the lighter with the other, and tossed a suddenly flaming business card into an overflowing wastebasket by the door.
“Fire!” she yelled, and then grabbed Wesley’s arm with the hand not already occupied in shepherding me out. She dragged us both out of the door and clear before the stampede of people dashing out of there could trample us.
That place emptied out before Wesley even had a chance to protest. As for the wastebasket by the door, its performance had a short, but dramatic finale.
I watched the flames, listened to Wesley’s tirade begin, and still remained silent.
Darla didn’t even remember who I was. But that didn’t matter.
It was time for a new plan...
Just as soon as I could stop shaking, that is.
This wasn’t the time or the place, but I was going to make sure that Darla never fed again.