Chapter 47: Righteous Felons

June – July, 2001

“Come on, Pratt. It's barely midnight. I know you won't be asleep for a few more hours. Isn't it a little early to put me back in my chair?”

Buffy tightened the knots behind her hostage's chair. “We're going out, and I don't want Giles to have to babysit you.”

“Thank you,” Giles said from the other side of the table. “Worrying about you is more than enough to keep me occupied.”

“It's fine, Giles. Not a big deal. I'm not even taking the other scythe.”

“While I accept that as an acknowledgment of confidence in your abilities, should you encounter any demons, my concerns for this venture veer more toward... well, the venture itself.”

Dawn came into the kitchen dressed in black, with a black bag over her shoulder. “Are we ready?”

“And involving your sister in it.”

“Does that mean you won't bail us out of jail?”

“Dawn, do try not to be flippant about this.”

Buffy checked her pockets, pulling out Spike's lock picks and a list of book titles. “I'm good. Did you check the batteries in the flashlights?”

“They're great. And I have tons of room in this bag.” She called toward the dining room. “Tara?”

“Just a minute! The schematics are printing. You're sure we can crack the vault with a listening spell?”

“I'm sure,” Buffy called back. “You just have to hear the clicks, and take your time. I can do it.”

Dawn chuckled. “My sister, the master criminal.”

“Heist movies and the internet provide good training. ...But never mention that to Mrs. Kroger.”

Whistler looked up at his captor. “Are you kids robbing a bank? I thought your husband left you plenty of dough.”

Buffy smirked and picked up Spike's empty duffel bag. “We're not stealing money. We're stealing answers.”

*~*~*

Giles stepped to the doorway of the large dining room and stared in dismay at the books spread out over the long table. “Oh, dear lord. Buffy, did you leave any books for the Watcher trainees to read?”

She laughed. “Sure. Bunches. They have all kinds of dusty watcher diaries, and tons of big, thick books about demons, artifacts, and prophecies The Academy just happens to be a little short on books on certain topics right now.” She pointed to a group of book stacks at one end of the table. “That's for later. Everything we could find that might be related to the Key and Glory. Dawnie deserves to know what Travers held back in my time. The rest... Giles, meet Plan B.”

He stepped over to the table and began skimming book titles. “These are all about accessing other planes. You can't possibly mean to...”

“Make good on my threat? If Spike doesn't get sent back soon, hell yes, I do. This break-in is nothing compared to what the next one will look like.”

Giles jerked his head up at her severe tone, his eyes drawn to the fierce look in hers. “Sometimes, I don't know who I'm talking to,” he whispered. “The widow, the general, or a slayer far too in touch with her inner demon.”

“All of the above, Giles. One and the same. Just like my husband, my lieutenant, and my chosen mate.”

*~*~*

Dawn handed a plate to Whistler. “Take this to Tara. She's in the library.”

“It's a dining room full of stolen books, Summers, not a library. And why doesn't she come in here to eat, like everyone else?”

“Because she's working, demon,” Buffy growled. “Do as you're told.”

“You know, when I got chosen to be an agent, I never aspired to the great height of being a retired slayer's slave. I guess I just got lucky.”

“You're lucky your head is still attached. Go!”

Giles cleared his throat. “Buffy, there's no reason to be abusive. Any of us could have taken Tara's lunch to her.”

Dawn joined them at the table. “Yeah, but this is more fun.”

“Look at it this way, Giles: He's being genuinely useful, and not lying to anyone. It's a step up for him.”

“Buffy, the Powers are not your enemy. Neither is your case agent.”

Buffy's hand slammed the table. “That son of a bitch is not my case agent!” she spat. “PTB assets have agents. I'm not an asset anymore. I'm the enemy.”

Giles was still staring at his slayer when Whistler returned to the kitchen. “So is there a reason that dining room is almost as covered up in jacked up witch magic as you are, Pratt?”

“Stolen books, stupid,” Dawn answered for her sister. “We don't want the Council to find them.”

“Who cares? Everyone on at least two planes knows you aren't scared of watchers.”

Buffy shook her head. “They don't know I'm here. And they also don't know who owns the farm on the other side of their south fence. I'd like to keep it that way.”

“Please!” Whistler waved a hand dismissively. “This close to a Hellmouth? They've got to expect some demons to be living close by, watcher territory or not.”

“What they don't expect is a pissed off, time traveling slayer. Hence the hiding.”

“So you're willing to keep pushing the boundaries of Maclay's ethics to stay out of sight? Real smart, kiddo. Save one witch, only to ruin the other one.”

“No one is forcing Tara to participate in anything. She's making her own choices.”

“Because you're filling her head with your insane pipe dreams instead of letting her mourn, same as you're doing to your kid sister, here. What you're asking for could be a decade away, for all you know. And that's assuming the bosses haven't changed their minds.”

“They haven't.” Buffy pointed to his chair. “Now sit down and shut up, or your roaming privileges will be revoked.”

“Yeah, can't have anyone talking sense to you. It might ruin the fantasy.” Whistler returned to his chair, leaning back slowly to avoid jamming the scythe tied to him into his spine. “Man, I thought you were conflicted about your old man, here. Then I thought your twisted dreams were a problem. But this? This is the final proof you've completely lost the plot. Pratt, you're in so deep, you can't even see the surface of that river in Egypt you're drowning in.”

“Dawn, tie it down and muzzle it.” Buffy threw her napkin on the table and marched to the dining room. “Tara, how do you feel about inviting Giles to help with the research?”

Tara looked up from the book she was reading. “Um, sure. Four would be better than three. What changed your mind about asking him?”

“Whistler.”

“Another 'settle in and wait for a few years' speech?”

“With a side of 'you're a nutcase in denial.'”

“Buffy, you know he's only looking out for his own interests. You can't take anything he says to heart.”

“Just the same, we need to know if Plan B is actually viable, as soon as possible. Meanwhile, I need Giles to take over as your primary assistant. Dawnie and I are going to be training. Hard.”

*~*~*

“Hello?” Buffy mumbled sleepily into the phone.

“Up and at 'em, B! Rise and shine!”

“Ugh. Faith, it's six in the morning. Why did I give you this number, again?”

“I think you were worried about me.”

“Well, I'm not worried anymore. Go away.”

Faith laughed. “I actually have a legit reason for waking you. I'm over at your place, raiding your weapons chest, and there's something at the bottom of it.”

“If it's chocolate, don't eat it. It's probably four years old.”

“B, I've been in the joint. I'm pretty sure I'd still classify that as edible.”

Buffy wrinkled her nose. “Eww. I think it's too early for this conversation.”

“It's an envelope. Addressed to you and Spike.”

“Huh. That's weird. Is there anything else on the outside?”

“Nah, just 'William & Buffy.' It looks like a woman's writing. The envelope is kinda squarish, like a greeting card. Do you want me to open it for you?”

There was a long silence.

“B? You didn't go back to sleep on me, did you?”

“No.” Buffy's voice was soft. “Faith, I think that might be from my mom.”

“Damn. Um, maybe I should just mail it to you.”

“Let's just see if I'm right, first. Then I'll decide about that. Are you in the living room right now?”

“Yeah.”

“Go over to the desk and dig around a little. See if you can find a handwriting match.”

“You sure you don't mind me poking through your stuff?”

“First of all, since when do you care? Second, most of what's in there is out of date at this point. Mom's old check registers and files of old bills and insurance paperwork aren't going to tell you anything. These days, all the money stuff is being handled through other channels.”

Faith rifled through some files in the desk drawers. “Like that Jenna chick who forwarded your Council money to me? Ravencroft Trust is a demon bank, isn't it?”

“Demon bank, demon estate management firm. People who are set up to take care of things for the kind of clientele they have.”

“The no permanent address, only checks in once every few years kind?”

“Pretty much. Between the two of them, they handle just about everything. I don't have to sit down at a desk every month and pay household bills. They all either get paid automatically, or Lucy -that's the estate agent- pays it from one of the bank accounts she has access to. I don't even know the details of how it all works. Lucy and Jenna take care of it all.”

“Sounds like a good situation to get rooked, B. ...Ok, that's definitely not the same handwriting. This looks like it was written by a calligrapher on their day off.”

Buffy sighed. “That would be the writing of a man who learned cursive in the early 1860s.”

“Gotcha. I'll keep looking for your Mom's check registers.”

“As for being rooked, do you really think well-paid humans who work with demons would risk embezzling? There's a big difference between 'I could go to jail' and 'I could end up on a snack tray.'”

“True. ...Hey! This looks more like it. Yeah, that's definitely your mom's writing on the envelope.”

There was another silence. “I have no idea what to do about this,” Buffy eventually whispered.

“So you don't want me to mail it to you?”

“To be honest, I'm not sure I could handle it right now. Can you do me a favor and just put it in my room some place? Um, in my nightstand drawer, maybe?”

“Yeah, sure. I mean, it's kept this long, right?” Faith closed the desk drawer and headed downstairs.

“Exactly. ...So I've been meaning to call to check up on you. I know summer on the Hellmouth is kind of slow, but are you starting to get into the swing of things again? Is everything going ok?”

“Five by five. You're about the only person who hasn't checked up on me. I've been getting calls from Giles, Angel, and Wes. Lydia thinks they don't trust her to do her job. She's getting a little offended.”

“Tell her not to worry. The men will stop biting their fingernails soon, when they realize you can do the job just as well as I did. Aside from the paranoid phone calls, are you and Lydia still getting along ok?”

“You and Xan were right. I like her. She's pretty easy-going, you know compared to how Wes used to be, before we got him canned. As a watcher, she's cool. As a roommate? A little too uptight. I think I need to save up for an apart-- Holy hell, B! I never would have thought... Handcuffs?”

Buffy dropped her head back against her pillow. “The other nightstand, Faith.”

“I guess room temp isn't your only kink, after all. I mean, assuming you guys used them.”

“I'm so not going to have this conversation with you.”

“That's a yes, isn't it?” Silence. “That's ok, I bet Anya knows. I'll ask her.”

“Oh, shit. You've been talking to Anya?”

“Hell, yeah, I have! She's the best kept secret in the Scoobies. We've really hit it off. She took me out to Willy's last night and we had a blast. Seems like you two are pretty chummy, from what I could tell. That's another surprise. I didn't think she was your girlfriend type. She's nothing like Willow.”

“I guess my tastes in friends have changed over the years. I find shopping and gossiping with Anya... I don't know if relaxing is the right word, but kind of like that. You never have to be fake with her, not even just to be polite. And you can count on her never being fake with you. It's...”

“Refreshing,” Faith finished. “Hanging with her is what real girl time is supposed to be. No tension.”

“I guess it helps that you don't really have much history with her, like you do with Willow.”

“Yeah. Willow's still kinda keeping me at arm's length. She's working with me, and not being a bitch about it, or anything, but we're never gonna be best buds. Just friendly in a 'work relationship' kind of way.”

“Things should be better when we get back. Tara is going to try to patch things up then. If it works, Wils should be in a better mood, all the way around. And Tara could give her a nudge or two, to ease things along.”

“I'm not all that worried about it, to be honest. I'm cool with hanging with Anya and working with the other Scoobies. We've got things going pretty good, as it stands.” Faith was silent for a moment. “I think I'm starting to get it, B.”

“Get what?”

“How different the job looked, from your perspective. I've got a decent place to crash, a watcher who gives a damn about me, Willow, Anya, and Xander ready to help whenever I need them, a huge training room to work out in whenever I want, and people calling to remind me they want me to make good, and are even willing to jump in to help make it happen. ...It feels pretty awesome.”

“It definitely has its moments.”

“Angel said he's still talking to you every night, and you haven't said a word about missing the job.”

“I don't.” Buffy sighed. “You're seeing my perspective from back when we first met, Faith. My perspective now is... different. I've put in eight years, one of them a repeat. I've died three times. I've been betrayed more times than I probably even know about. I've seen one too many apocalypses, and led one too many soldiers into battle who didn't come home.”

“It was the last one that made you walk away. …And I get that. Really. If I were in your place, I'd probably throw in the towel and spend my time trying to pull off some kind of fangy miracle, too.”

“Dammit! You know, for a guy who used to be a pro at cryptic bullshit, Angel's gotten really chatty.”

“I asked, B. You were a little too sure of yourself when you talked about the Zippo being a loaner. I figured if you were talking to him so much, he might know something. He says you've got some leverage with the PTB, and you're trying to use it.”

“You think I'm nuts, don't you?”

“A little.”

“Right now, I have an agent of the PTB tied to a chair in my kitchen. I'm holding him hostage.”

“Whoa! ...Maybe more than a little.”

“Please tell me you haven't told the Slayer Scoobies what I'm working on. They'll buy plane tickets and come over here to stage an intervention or something.”

“No, not a word. But...” Faith frowned at the phone. “Am I the good slayer, now?”

“Where are you right now?”

“I'm still down in the basement, sitting on your bed.”

“Think about that bed for a second.”

There was a brief silence. “I've been the good slayer for a while, haven't I?”

Buffy chuckled. “Definitely.”

“So that's a 'yes' about the handcuffs.”

“You and Anya are going to be dangerous together, aren't you?”

“We already are!” Faith's laugh came to an immediate halt. “Huh. That's weird.”

“What's weird?”

“I never made it to the other nightstand, B. I just figured I'd put the envelope in there when we hung up. I just turned it over and-- You know, I've got a pretty dicey past.”

Buffy's chuckle returned. “I think I remember something about that.”

“Other stuff. Earlier stuff. I've steamed open envelopes and resealed them, B. I know what it looks like.”

“I wouldn't worry too much about it, Faith. Glory's minions ransacked the house right before... you know. They probably found it and wanted to see if there was anything useful in there.”

“I guess there wasn't. Maybe it's only something useful to you?”

Buffy bit her lip for a moment, trying to make a decision. “Open it.” She listened to the tearing of paper as the envelope was opened, bracing herself for the contents. She picked up her necklace from her nightstand and held the attached ring tightly.

“I called it. It's a greeting card. It's got gold and silver balloons and the words 'Happy New Year' on the front. The printed message inside is 'I hope you have your best year yet.'” Faith paused. “There are two written messages, B. Something written in the card, and a separate letter. You sure you're up for hearing them?”

“No, but read them anyway.”

“Ok, so what's in the card is addressed to both of you.”

William and Buffy,

May 2001 be the first year of a long, strange marriage full of loud arguments and quiet talks over cocoa, of thrown dishtowels and stolen kisses, of mortal enemies (who happen to be best friends) laughing over their private jokes and saving the world together.

Have fun, be strong, and cherish each other. I just know you're in for an amazing journey.

Happy New Year, Mr. and Mrs. Pratt.

Love, Mom

Buffy exhaled a long breath she didn't know she was holding. “God, this is hard.”

“You know what? I'm just going to put the letter back and let you read it when you come home. Maybe your crazy plan will work, and you won't be missing both of them by then.”

“I can take it, Faith. Read the letter.”

“Alright. If you're sure.”

“I'm not.” Buffy whispered. “Read it, anyway.”

December 31, 2000

Buffy,

I didn't understand at first why you kept Spike's ring at the bottom of your weapons chest, but I'm beginning to. You were guarding it. Trust me, honey, wearing it is better. And when you take your other ring from its guarded location, you'll discover wearing that one is better, too.

I won't pretend to know or understand the difficulties that caused you to come back. Honestly, a future that isn't going to happen doesn't concern me all that much. I know you'll set right what you need to. I have no doubt in my mind. What I do understand is that those experiences changed you. Mostly, I think they changed you for the better, teaching you to know when to be serious, and when to enjoy yourself. You've struggled with that since you became a slayer.

And whatever else happened in those years, you also learned what love is. It isn't 'Romeo and Juliet attraction,' as you said. It isn't all love notes and kisses. It's day-in, day-out partnership. It's sharing strengths and weaknesses, and balancing each other out. Not intentionally, but intuitively. (Again, your words, not mine.) It's sharing the highs and lows, and carrying each other through them.

It's the willingness to do anything for each other, be it as grand as saving the world together, or as simple as going out of your way to make each other laugh.

And it's all there, building right up under your feet while you're busy worrying about your war. But while you're worrying, remember one thing: He may call you 'general,' but he also calls you 'love.' The whole world isn't a battlefield, honey. You have a safe place in it. You seem to have found it, I only hope you appreciate its value, and hold on to it.

The clock just chimed midnight. I hope you kissed your groom when it did. I know you aren't as fond of silly romantic rituals as you were when you were younger, but try a little romance once in a while. I think you might actually like it.

I love you, honey. Congratulations.

Mom

There was a long silence between the slayers as Faith repacked the envelope and placed it in the nightstand drawer. Eventually, she said, “Married on New Year's Eve, huh?”

“Yeah,” Buffy whispered.

“Your mom thought a lot of him, didn't she?”

“They were close.”

“Losing them both so fast... Hard year for you.”

“Almost the hardest I've ever known.”

“Damn, B. What was worse?”

Buffy closed her eyes against a flood of memories of the war with the First. Spike being so changed. Digging holes in the backyard. Being betrayed by nearly everyone she trusted. The sinking feeling of knowing they were going to lose. The seemingly endless ache of helplessness at Christmastime, the stomach-churning dread at what the amulet could represent. “The year I lost everyone, in various ways.” She shook her head. “Except for you, oddly enough. You came back to Sunnydale; and we fought, of course. But that's just us. You got swept up in events that you really didn't control. I didn't lose you. I gained you. Finally. Like, for the first time.”

“You broke me out based on that, didn't you?”

“There are two things in this world I know for certain, Faith. One is that you and I aren't meant to co-exist. That's why we're not consistently good at it. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try.”

“What's the other thing?”

“That Spike always comes home.”

There was another silence. “I'm holding down the fort with the Scoobies, B. Don't worry about things here. You go, prove your mom right. Make it an amazing year.”

“Working on it.”

“Good luck with your fangy miracle.”

“Thanks.”

*~*~*

“Spike!” Buffy screamed into the sunlit bedroom. She opened her eyes as she sat up. Her gaze fell on the scythe case on top of the dresser, and the small canvas print hanging on the wall above it.

'Memory... is the diary that we all carry about with us.'

Dawn came rushing in, still in her pajamas. She sat down on the bed and pulled her sister into her arms. “Good morning to you, too.” She held Buffy for a minute, until the gasping stopped. “Spectator?”

Buffy nodded, still looking around to try to get her bearings. Her focus fell on the light of the morning sun, coming through the window. “Day 40.” She threw back the covers. “I've had enough of this bullshit.”

She climbed out of bed and ran down to the kitchen, with Dawn on her heels. “Buffy! What are you doing?”

Whistler was asleep in his chair. Buffy grabbed the scythe from the table in front of him. “Wake up!”

Whistler opened his eyes and lifted his head, only to have a blade pressed close to his throat.

“I need to see an agent!” Buffy shouted at the ceiling. “Now!”

With a blue flash, Doyle was again leaning against the refrigerator. “What's wrong, Firecracker?”

She shifted to face him, still holding the blade to Whistler's throat. “I need you to deliver a message, Doyle. You have to tell them. I can't wait another 107 days. I won't.”

Doyle looked over her sleep mussed hair, her wrinkled tank top and shorts, and the desperate look in her eyes. “Don't you think you ought to take a minute? Get your wits together?”

“No more minutes. No more waiting. This can't go on for another hundred days, Doyle. I'm not Spike. I'm not strong enough or patient enough to keep going for 147. Sometime very soon, I'm going to cross a line I can't uncross. I'm going to kill this man. And then I'm going to storm the castle.”

“You know,” he said gently. “Changing the situation from a looming threat to a more pressing one... It might bite you in the ass, Firecracker. You're messing with the big boys, here.”

She shook her head. “I don't care. Tell them to send Sparky home, or they're going to have a mightily brassed off slayer on their doorstep. I'm going to Plan B.”

*~*~*

“Angel, you were right. I've cracked up, and the distractions aren't working.”

“What now? Are you going to drop the renovation project?”

“No, that's actually pretty fun. ...I'm going to kill my hostage. Soon.”

“I know he's a pain in the ass, but you still have 107 days to go.”

“I had the spectator dream again. And I was still shaking from it when I made a rash decision. I, um, increased the threat level from 'scary rage slayer' to 'impatient scary rage slayer.'”

Angel sank into his desk chair. “Buffy, we've talked about this. I told you to stay away from him after that dream. This is exactly why. You aren't in control of yourself.”

“I know. But I really need to get rid of it. The dream. The anger. The helplessness. All of it. I can't take it anymore, waking up like that.”

“And you think making Faith look like a rule-abiding saint is the right answer?”

“I don't care what the right answer is anymore, Angel. I just need this fixed. And I'm willing to follow through on every threat I've made to do it.”

*~*~*

Denise rushed out of the office behind Buffy, who was squinting in the sun on the sidewalk, digging a pair of oversized sunglasses out of her purse. “Mrs. Pratt! You forgot the second floor file!”

Buffy slipped on the sunglasses and turned to accept the folder. “Thanks, Denise. But you could have kept this until the next meeting. I'm not even sure I'll have time to work on it.”

“Make some time, Mrs. Pratt. Mrs. Varnes needs you to stay on top of things.”

“What does that mean?”

Denise bit her lip. “Um, oops.” She took a step backward, edging toward the door. “Nothing.”

Buffy grabbed her arm. “Denise. Talk.”

The young receptionist frowned at the strength of the grip on her. “You're not human, are you?”

“Not completely. Now spill.”

“Mrs. Varnes is planning to cut her work load. Semi-retirement, you know?”

Buffy dropped her hand from the girl. “Oh. Which means dumping her biggest account on some stranger.”

“Probably. She says she won't be in the office much after that, mostly working from home. But I think she'd keep it, your account, I mean. ...You know, if she had help?”

“Me?”

Denise shrugged. “I can't think of anyone better. You live close by, you get along with everybody, and none of the other partners really has time to take on another huge account. Mrs. Varnes always says immortals tend to wander off, and leave the accounts to manage themselves, like they think it's magic or something, not work. And vampires are the worst about it.” She looked Buffy in the eye. “But most of them aren't married to someone who wants to help with stuff, someone nice.”

“Are you trying to keep Lucy here, Denise?”

“Am I so transparent? I don't think the other partners like me much. I bugger up stuff too much. Mrs. Varnes can't leave. I'll be sacked without her stepping in and covering for me. I think you're just the way to keep her here.”

“I'm only in town for the summer, you know. I live in California.”

“So? Email and fax stuff. Fly out here for meetings.”

“You've thought this through.”

A voice behind them said, “At least someone around here thinks before she speaks.”

Both women turned to find Doyle leaning against a lamppost at the edge of the sidewalk.

“You seem a good bit calmer today, Firecracker. And your friend is a hot little number.”

Denise blushed and fidgeted with her hair. “Hi.”

Buffy took Denise by the arm and steered her back toward the office. “Denise, no. Never get involved with a demon who doesn't pay his gambling debts, especially not-exactly-dead ones. Trust me.”

“Dead? Huh?” She looked over her shoulder. “He's really cute. What species?”

“Bracken,” Doyle said from behind them. “And single.”

“And dead,” Buffy repeated with an eye roll. “Denise, we'll talk about the account later, ok?” She held up the folder. “Thanks for the file.”

Denise turned to throw Doyle another blushing smile before she went inside. “Nice to meet you!” In a whisper to Buffy, she added. “Can he pick you up at the office again soon?”

“Goodbye, Denise.” Buffy waited until the girl had gone back to work before turning to face Doyle. “Do you just have a thing for receptionists?”

“Did you have to tell her I'm a gambler?” He countered with a shake of his head. “Angel talks too much.”

“Yeah, I noticed. He's getting chatty in his old age. So I'm going to guess this isn't a social call. What's so urgent that it couldn't wait for me to get home?”

“I was hoping to talk to you alone.”

Buffy looked over the top of her sunglasses at him. “On a sidewalk in the middle of town.”

“Without your housemates, your hostage, or your watcher.”

“Definitely not a social call, then.” She nodded down the street. “There's a small park about a block from here. Let's go for a walk.”

He fell into step beside her. “Getting comfortable being 'Mrs. Pratt,' huh?” He reached out to tap the folder she carried. “Taking care of the other family business?”

She heard something familiar in those words, and frowned. “You know about the forward jump.”

“Yeah, I do.”

The conversation didn't progress until they were off the street and walking toward an isolated park bench.

“I'm talking to some people, Firecracker, trying to see if I can get away with pulling some strings for you. Under the table, of course.”

Buffy wrinkled her nose. “Is this conversation going to end with me grateful or angry? 'Cause I really like you, Doyle. I'd hate to have to hurt you.”

He raised his hands in mock surrender. “Grateful, I swear. I've seen you angry, and I know I don't want it directed my way.”

She sat down on the bench. “I should probably apologize for getting all growly at you. But I can't. You understand, right?”

“'Cause you meant it. I get that.” He sat beside her. “And I want to help.”

“No, Doyle, you don't. I meant what I said yesterday, even if I wasn't thinking straight at the time. I might be jumping to Plan B very soon, and you do not want to be caught up in that.”

“Just 'cause I work for them, Firecracker, doesn't mean I agree with them on everything. You should know what that's like. You were a slayer who defied the Council of Watchers on a weekly basis.”

“Which is kind of my point. I don't know what the PTB's version of a wet works team is, but I'm pretty sure I don't want you on the wrong side of it. If nothing else, Angel would kill me.”

Doyle chuckled. “He's even a good friend to the dearly departed. But you're learning that.”

“I am.”

“I'm not worried about me. There's only so much they can do. They fire me, I get kicked to heaven to sit around, placing bets on events on this plane to pass the time. It'd be a waste of talent, if I do say so, myself.”

“You're sure?”

“Hero's death, Firecracker. I'm either working or I'm relaxing. That's the system. But you've already figured that out.”

Buffy nodded. “But are you sure you want to get involved?”

“I'm sure you need some help. I can offer a little.” He took in her skeptical expression. “This isn't a trick, Buffy. I'm not your case agent. Hell, I'm not a case agent at all. I'm just a lowly standard field agent, with no dog in this fight that's not personal.”

“So you're doing this for Angel? Helping out a friend of a friend?”

“Partially.” He leaned back against the bench. “I stole a peek at your file. That's how I found out about that forward jump of yours. My name was attached to that time jump, Firecracker. I must be a part of that era of your life, must know you then. I don't know why, couldn't find out without getting caught. But it is. I'm supposed to be there, somehow.”

“You're assuming the future I saw is even going to happen.”

“Last I checked, nothing had changed. The odds still favor that future.”

She gasped. “The twins. So we're on the right track?”

Doyle grinned at the hope in her eyes. “So far, anyway. The way I see it, you are likely to be the friend I'm helping in that time. And maybe this is where it starts.” He put a hand to her shoulder. “I'm willing to help, any way I can. I think I'm supposed to, for some reason no one's talking about. ...And I've found a way I think you'll like.”

She frowned in suspicion. “Exactly what sort of 'under the table' strings are you pulling, Doyle?”

“If it pans out, you'll see. Meantime, Mrs. Pratt, keep your cool. Word on the street is, you and your temper are drawing some attention with the bosses.”

“Good.”





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