A Thief in the Night
by Dafmeister (aka Dafydd)
Author’s Notes: This one’s dedicated to Shamrock, who’s been trying to extract more writing from me for a couple of years now. Typically, I finally started when reality was keeping her busy. Big thanks to DJ for stepping into the breach and generally being cool and helpful. In particular, she gets the credit for a certain pasta-based line you’ll see later.
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“Hold up a minute, B”
“Faith, this is so not the time to be getting cold feet.”
“Like I got a choice in these shoes.”
“You can’t wear your boots with that outfit, it’d look stupid.”
“Yeah, it’d be the boots makin’ me look stupid.”
“Could you be a bigger wuss? Have you even seen what I’m wearing? Stop bitching and move it, we’ve got work to do.”
“Just gimme a minute, all right?”
“I wanna go over some stuff, maybe do a little ‘previously on...’ bit.”
“Faith, I don’t think-”
“Zip it, Blondie.”
“Okay, fine, just hurry up!
“So, I’ve done some bad stuff since we met. Killed a guy, tried to pin it on you, went Boston Strangler on your friend, sold you out to the bad guy, spied on you for weeks-”
“More like a month.”
“Whatev. Chained you up, planned on torturin’ you to death, almost killed another one of your friends, poisoned your boyfriend, beat up your mom and your sister-”
“Technically, Dawn wasn’t-”
“You wanna let me finish?”
“How about I finish for you? You stole my body, slept with my boyfriend and almost got me killed by three angry Watchers, did I miss anything?”
“No, I think you got it.”
“Great. Now is there a point anywhere in there?”
“Point is, I go through with this, you’re gonna owe me.”
A week earlier
The fog was heavy that morning. It gathered in thick grey banks over the Pacific that rolled east through the Golden Gate and shrouded the bridge until all that could be seen of it was the towers looming up out of the murk, sentinels standing watch over the waking city, while below them the foghorns roared their warnings across the water.
Willow listened to the horns’ distant rumble, smiled and pulled the covers tighter around herself. The first time she heard them, the morning after they had arrived in San Francisco, she’d been absolutely sure that they would drive her crazy. Now, only a few days later, the horns were familiar, safe, even comforting. Listening to them, she felt that after the chaos and terror of their battles against the First Evil, and everything that had gone before, she had finally come to a human place with human problems. Problems that were simple enough that they could be solved with a few really big horns.
The arm draped around her waist tightened, and Willow’s smile grew wider as Kennedy snuggled up against her back. “Morning, Brat.”
“Morning, Witch,” Kennedy replied. She raised her head far enough to kiss Willow’s cheek. “Sleep well?”
“Like a log that just ran a marathon. You?”
“Like a log that spent half the night trying to wear out her girlfriend. I thought I was the one with the superhuman stamina?”
Willow’s smile turned into a self-satisfied smirk. “I didn’t hear you complaining.”
“My mother always said never to talk with my mouth full,” Kennedy shot back. “Besides, you were making enough noise for the both of us.”
“Oh God...” Willow groaned, her cheeks reddening. She rolled over to face Kennedy, lowering her voice as though she could take back whatever had come out of her mouth the night before. “You don’t think we woke anyone, do you? These walls aren’t exactly big with the soundproofing.”
“You weren’t worrying about that last night,” said Kennedy, her voice turning husky.
Willow grinned at her. “Yeah, well, your tongue stud kept doing that thing where it makes me forget stuff.”
“You could’ve asked me to stop,” Kennedy pointed out.
“But we finally got a room all to ourselves!” Willow objected. “It’d be wrong if we didn’t make the most of it.”
“Yeah, it’s all ours,” Kennedy muttered, looking around the room. Her upper lip curled in a faint gesture of distaste.
“What’s wrong with the room? It’s clean, it’s comfortable, it’s got a bathroom for just us...”
“It’s a crappy room in a crappy hotel,” Kennedy shot back. “My Dad sent me a new credit card, I could’ve taken you somewhere nice, like the Hyatt.”
“Ken, baby, your Dad’s not gonna pay for us all to stay in a five-star hotel.”
“I know,” Kennedy sighed as she laid her head back on the pillows. “Okay, how about this? After Giles is done talking to whoever he’s spending all day talking to and we know what the next move is, you and me go away somewhere for the weekend. We’ll get a huge room with a hot tub and a bed the size of Central Park, and we’ll live on room service the whole time. You know, when you’re not tied to the bed.”
Willow’s eyebrows shot up her forehead. “Wait, you wanna tie me up?”
“Definitely,” Kennedy grinned. “I figure it’s the only way I’ll get you to stay still long enough for me to finish.”
“Counting your freckles with my tongue.” Kennedy’s grin turned positively wolfish.
As they walked hand-in-hand into the dining room, they spotted Buffy and Dawn already sitting at the table eating breakfast. Or, rather, Dawn was eating breakfast; Buffy looked to be just pushing her cereal around in circles in the bowl. The look on her face was one that Willow had become all too familiar with over the previous week, distant and pre-occupied. Nothing like the glowing, optimistic smile she’d worn as they bade farewell to Sunnydale.
“Sweetie, could you get me a cream-cheese bagel and some coffee, please?” Willow said, letting go of Kennedy’s hand. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Kennedy’s mouth tighten as she followed Willow’s eye-line toward Buffy, but Willow pushed that to the back of her mind as she walked across to the table.
“Hey Willow.” Dawn’s smile carried just a hint of relief.
“Hey,” said Buffy. “Check you guys out with the early rising.”
“Early?” Willow frowned. “It’s after eight.”
“Which for you guys is practically the break of dawn,” Buffy said, grinning a little too much.
“Hey, we’re not that bad.”
“Didn’t you miss breakfast yesterday?”
“For a minute there, I thought Kennedy was gonna kill the receptionist when she found out.”
Dawn giggled. “Who knew she was such a grouch if she didn’t get her coffee.”
“Well, she is from New York,” Buffy pointed out.
“You think that’s why they’re down early this time?”
“Actually,” Buffy stage-whispered, “I think they just wanted to beat Xander down here so he couldn’t smirk at them when they walked in.”
“Does that mean we should be doing it?”
“I think so. I mean, what’s breakfast without a little smirk.”
“Good idea,” Willow said, scowling at them as she took a seat. “Tease the uber-powerful witch.”
“Who is also grouchy when caffeine-deprived,” Buffy replied. “You guys make such a cute couple.”
“You know,” Willow remarked in an excessively pleasant voice, “I just realised I never actually turned anyone into a toad. Doesn’t that seem like the something any self-respecting Wicca oughtta have done?”
“Yeah, good luck with that, Miss Frog-Fear.”
“That’s frogs, not toads. Totally different kettle of fish.”
“Kettle of fish?” Buffy thought about the image for a moment and shuddered. “You’re officially spending way too much time with Giles.”
“We were up late talking to the coven,” replied Willow.
“Lots to talk about,” Willow replied, a hint of exhaustion creeping into her voice. “Which is why I think I’m entitled to a little early-morning snuggle time.”
“Hey, I’m not arguing.”
“Not until you’ve had coffee,” Dawn added.
“I’m not the one who had the three-mocha-a-day habit senior year of high school.” Willow shot a sly look Buffy’s way.
“You’re just jealous ‘cause you always got twitchy halfway down your second,” Buffy shot back. This time Willow could see in her smile just a hint of the old high school Buffy, before the weight of her responsibilities had worn her down, and she wished there was some way to bring that girl back.
She was about to respond when she felt a hand on her shoulder. Kennedy slid a breakfast tray onto the table in front of her and sat down, one arm draped around Willow’s shoulder. “One bagel, extra cream cheese,” she said, and dropped a kiss on Willow’s cheek.
“Extra?” Willow said doubtfully. “Ken...”
“Come on, live a little. Besides, you could stand to put on a couple of pounds.”
“If it’s curves you want, you’re dating the wrong girl.”
“I know,” replied Kennedy. “I just like giving you extra calories to burn off.”
The look in Kennedy’s eyes made Willow’s cheeks burn, and she wracked her brain for a new topic of conversation. “Oh, hey, Buffy, I got an email from Vi last night.”
Buffy, who’d gone back to brooding over her cereal when Kennedy arrived, looked up. “Yeah? How’s she doing?”
“Pretty good,” Willow replied, nodding happily. “Enjoying the family time, I think. She wanted to know if we had any idea when we’re getting all ‘Avengers, assemble!’ again.”
Buffy’s eyes dropped back to her bowl. “Soon, we just gotta figure out the where. Couple of weeks, maybe?”
“Okay, I’ll let her know.” Willow took a sip of her coffee. “It was a good call, suggesting the new girls take some time away.”
“Well, there’s no point having them all here with nothing to do,” Buffy replied. “Besides, they need some time to figure out if this is what they want, and they deserve to be with people they love for a while.”
“Plus it got Andrew out of our hair for a while,” added Dawn. She turned her eyes toward her sister, a shadow of concern crossing her face. “You think they’ll all come back?”
“I don’t know.” Buffy poked at her cereal for a moment. “It’s not like there’s one girl in all the world any more, none of them have to come back. They should get to choose.”
They all looked around as Faith walked up to the table, carrying a heavily- laden breakfast tray; two bananas, a melon slice, a Danish and a heaped bowl of cereal. Kennedy shook her head in amazement. “God, what is it with you and breakfast food?”
“You know what they gave us for breakfast in Stockton?” Faith asked as she took her seat and started peeling one of the bananas.
“Me neither. Ate it for three years, not a clue.” Faith took off the first third of the banana in one bite.
“Hey, B, where’d you get to last night?”
“Huh?” For a second it looked like Buffy didn’t know how to respond. “Oh, I, uh, went for a walk, I needed some air. I got back kinda late.”
Willow caught a momentary frown on Dawn’s face. The sisters were sharing a twin room, and she was pretty sure that look meant that Dawn knew ‘kinda late’ was an understatement. It wouldn’t have surprised her to learn that Buffy had a stake in her pocket when she went out, either.
“Heads up, guys,” Faith muttered.
“Heads up why?” Buffy followed Faith’s gaze to the buffet tables. “Giles and Xander?”
“Ran into ‘em on the stairs, they been arguing about somethin’ all the way down here.”
“Arguing about what?”
“I dunno,” Faith shrugged, “some crazy idea Xander had I think.”
A collective sigh ran through the group; even Kennedy had been around long enough to appreciate Xander’s unerring ability to wind Giles up, and they watch the pair approaching with a mixture of amusement and resignation.
“Come on, G-Man, just think about it for a minute!”
“I have thought about it,” Giles replied irritably, “and it’s absolutely out of the question.”
“It’s a great idea,” Xander insisted as they put their trays down. “You’re just mad ‘cause the big Watcher brain didn’t come up with it first.”
“For the last time, Xander,” Giles slapped a folded newspaper down on the table beside his tray, “we are not going to set up a Slayer training camp on Alcatraz.”
“Alcatraz?” Buffy repeated, arching her eyebrow in Xander’s direction.
“Okay, look, I know it sounds kinda crazy-”
“Because it is,” Giles put in, unfolding his newspaper.
“-but,” Xander went on, “just think it about for a second. It’s big, there’s lots of living space, plenty of room for the Slayers to practice, and it’s close enough to Haight-Ashbury so Buffy can go shoe-shopping any time she wants. Plus, our own island fortress! What’s not to love?”
“It’s dark, dank and drafty, not to mention fogbound half the time,” Giles replied.
“Sounds like London,” Kennedy whispered into Willow’s ear, not quite quietly enough to stop Giles from over-hearing. He gave her one of the same long-suffering looks he’d perfected on Buffy years earlier, took a sip of his tea and screwed his face up in distaste.
A hint of a smile twitched at the corners of Buffy’s mouth. “Giles, why d’you keep going for the tea? Every day it’s the same. Just try the coffee, it’s pretty good.”
“Buffy, there are certain things in this world that are sacrosanct, one of which is tea with breakfast.” Giles took another sip. “Oh dear Lord!”
Buffy just shook her head and went back to her cereal. She was finally lifting a spoonful up to her mouth when Giles turned the page of the newspaper and she froze. “Giles, wait.”
“What is it?”
“I dunno...” Buffy was staring at a picture attached to a small article halfway down the page. “Who’s that?”
Giles glanced at the article. “Erm, it says her name was Constance Bauer.”
“Yes, she died a few days ago. The article’s about the results of the coroner’s examination. Apparently there was some suspicion of foul play, but her death was due to natural causes.”
“No,” Buffy said quietly. She turned the newspaper around and scanned the piece herself. “No, they’re wrong. There’s something oogy going on.”
“Buffy, there’s nothing there to suggest-”
“I know, I know, but my Slaydar’s blipping on this.” She looked into his eyes, almost begging him to trust her instincts. “Giles, there’s something weird about this, I know there is. We need to look into it.”
Giles looked at her closely for a moment, and then glanced around the table at the others.
“Alright, we’ll see what we can find out.”
“That’s just freaky,” Kennedy whispered, peering into her girlfriend’s empty, staring eyes. Willow was sitting on the edge of their bed, her new laptop balanced on her knees while her hands hovered no more than a finger’s breadth above the keyboard.
“What’s freaky?” Willow asked, startling her.
“God, you can hear me?”
“Course I can hear you, sweetie.” An impish smile appeared on Willow’s lips. “You’re right in front of me.”
“You know you have all these tiny little ones and zeroes flashing through your eyes right now?”
“I do?” Willow blinked and her eyes focused in on Kennedy.
“Uh-huh. It was kinda like watching the credits from The Matrix on a really tiny screen.”
“Matrix-eyes,” Willow said, and giggled. “Nifty.”
“You’re such a geek sometimes,” Kennedy said, smiling fondly at her.
“I’m a nerd, sweetie, not a geek. There’s a difference.” Willow’s gaze drifted off into the distance again.
“Okay, I’m into the coroner’s records.”
“Like you’re gonna find anything...” Kennedy muttered. She got to her feet and started pacing the room.
“Why’re we wasting our time on this? All we’ve got is one little newspaper story, and it’s not like we don’t have tons to do already.”
“I know it’s not much, Ken, but Buffy’s been right about stuff like this before. Remind me later and I’ll tell you about her first room-mate in college.”
“She’s miserable and she wants something to distract her, that’s the only reason she’s got us doing this.” Kennedy turned and stood staring out of the window, arms folded tight across her chest. “You know she’s going out patrolling, right? She wants there to be something weird going on.”
“Maybe she does,” Willow said grudgingly. “The Angel thing’s hitting her hard, Ken. She trusted him, and then he turned around and joined Evil Incorporated. She just needs some time to get used to the idea.”
“I get that, but how come we have to-”
“We can spare a couple of hours, she’s earned that much.”
Even through the blank look, Kennedy could tell she was done talking about it. Even after the months they’d known each other, she sometimes found herself surprised by how resolute Willow could be once she’d made up her mind. For a few moments she stayed by the window, the gentle hum of Willow’s computer the only sound in the room. “Anything?”
“It looks clean. The coroner couldn’t find anything weird. You know, apart from the whole woman-drops-dead-at-twenty-eight thing.”
“So Buffy was wrong?”
“I guess. Let me just check something.”
“It’ll just take a second, I’m gonna... whoa!”
At first, Kennedy wasn’t very happy about what Willow had found, her pride stung at being proven wrong, but the feeling didn’t last long. By the time they all regrouped in the dining room for lunch, Willow was glad to see that Kennedy was more excited than anything else, eager to get to work on her first case as a Slayer.
They all made small talk at first, while their waiter took their orders and brought out their meals. Then, when they could talk freely without anyone listening in, Willow said quietly “You were right, Buff.”
A ripple of surprise ran around the table; to one degree or another, they’d all suspected Buffy was sending them on a wild goose chase.
“Score one for Momma Slayer,” Faith said around a mouthful of cheeseburger. The flippancy of her words was belied by a look of respect that Willow found a little unnerving. “Nice catch, B.”
There were murmurs of agreement from the others, but Buffy didn’t look happy about being proven right. She leaned forward in her chair, her face grave. “So what’s the deal?”
“I’m not sure,” Willow replied. “The coroner’s report looked pretty normal. Constance Bauer was found at home, in her bed. She didn’t have any injuries, the toxicology report was clean, no sign of serious illness, nothing. Cause of death was listed as ‘idiopathic cardiac arrest’, and that’s it.”
“Idio-what?” Xander put in. “Her heart stopped ‘cause it was stupid?”
“Idiopathic means ‘of unknown cause, Xander,” Giles explained with a slightly exasperated look. “Someone once called it a high-flown term meant to conceal ignorance. All they know is that her heart stopped.”
“So, basically, coroner-speak for ‘ya got me’?” Buffy said.
“More or less,” replied Giles.
“Wait a minute,” Dawn said, the look on her face telling everyone she thought she was missing something.
“The paper said she died of natural causes, right? How can they be sure if they don’t know what killed her? Isn’t that, like, suspicious or something?”
“It’s unusual, certainly, especially in someone of Ms. Bauer’s age, but it’s not unheard of,” Giles explained.
“There’s nothing there to suggest foul play, so there’s no reason to dig deeper. Sometimes people do just die.” He looked sceptically at Willow. “What makes you so sure that there’s something unnatural going on?”
“’Cause after I pulled the coroner’s report, I did a search for similar deaths,” Willow said, grinning with pride.
“She’s not the first.” Faith didn’t need to make it a question.
“Not even slightly,” Willow replied. “Constance Bauer was the fourth woman under thirty-five to die like that this year, and there’s more going back to last summer.”
“All unexplained?” Giles asked, staring off into nothing as his mind worked over the new information. “Did the police investigate any of them?”
“Just basic unexplained death stuff. They closed the files pretty quick when the coroners couldn’t find anything suspicious.”
“Okay, Giles, Final Jeopardy time,” Buffy said. “Say this is something supernatural. What kind of demon could kill someone like this?”
“I’m not sure,” Giles replied cautiously. “We don’t have a great deal to go on. There were no marks, no signs of violence. Without access to my books-”
“Ooh! Ooh!” Dawn burst out, pointing at her watch. “Five hours, I win.”
“Five hours?” Giles asked, baffled by her excitement.
“Before you started pining for your books again,” Xander replied, extracting half a dozen five-dollar bills from his pocket and handing them to Dawn.
“You got my little sister gambling?” Buffy glared at him, then shook her head and turned back to her Watcher. “Giles, I know you’re flying kinda blind right now. Just best-guess me and we’ll go from there.”
“Well, if I had to make a guess I’d say it sounded like something had drained their life-force. There are a few demon races that can feed that way, but we’d need more information before we can narrow it down.”
“So let’s go get some,” Kennedy said eagerly. “I mean, it’s a murder, right? Shouldn’t we start with looking at the crime scene?”
Constance Bauer’s former home was an apartment taking up the top floor of a converted three-storey town house in the Mission District. The occupant of the apartment below hers was out, for which Faith gave great thanks with every passing moment as she knelt in front of the apartment door, working on the lock.
“Can you get that thing open or not?” Kennedy hissed at her, casting a worried look down the stairwell.
“Giles and Willow won’t be able to keep the old biddy downstairs tied up forever.”
“You wanna take over, Trust Fund?” Faith snapped. “All I gotta work with is a couple of B’s hairpins.”
“It’s okay,” Buffy reassured her. “Just relax, you’ll get it.”
“Relax?” Annoyance merged with incredulity in Faith’s voice. “Easy for you to say, B, you’re not the one with prints that’ll set off every alarm in the frickin’ state.”
“Even if they do, it’s not like anyone but us can recognise your face as long as you’re wearing that charm Will made you.”
“Did you have to bring that up? Frickin’ rawhide strap she hung it off’s making me itch.” Faith shifted the pin in her left hand forward a fraction and twisted. There was a quiet, metallic click from the lock and the door swung open a little. “Score!”
“I never knew you could do that,” Buffy said as she and Kennedy followed Faith inside.
“Ya kiddin’ me, right? I’m a Southie.” Faith looked around the apartment, trying to get a read on its late occupant. “’Kay, B, we’re in. What’s the plan?”
“Look around, see if anything looks funky.”
“Thank you, Mrs Brubaker.” Giles accepted the tea she handed to him and placed the delicate porcelain cup and saucer carefully on a lace coaster on the coffee table. Beside him on the couch, Willow did likewise with a friendly smile.
“Oh, don’t mention it, Professor Stewart.” Mrs Brubaker, a rail-thin woman in her seventies with her silvery hair pulled back in a tight bun, settled into the armchair opposite them. “I get so few visitors these days, it’s nice to have a reason to get out the good china.”
“Yes, it’s really quite exquisite.” Giles raised his cup and gingerly took a sip of the steaming liquid, then let out an appreciative sigh. “My word, I don’t believe I’ve tasted better since I came to this city. Where on earth do you find such a good Darjeeling?”
“There’s a little shop in Chinatown that sells it, I can get you the address if you like.”
“Thank you, that would be-”Giles hesitated for a moment as Willow prodded him with her foot. “Very good of you. Now, as I was saying, the research Alison here is assisting me with concerns unexpected deaths among the young. We’re trying to find any commonalities that might lead to a pattern. So, I was hoping that you could tell me something about the young lady who died in the apartment upstairs?”
“That poor girl, it’s so sad what happened to her.” Mrs Brubaker’s eyes glanced upward for a moment, and she sighed. “Some of my friends thought it must be hard sharing a building with two young people, but she was a lovely neighbour. I broke my hip last year, and she did all my grocery shopping for me until I could walk again. Not like that one in the other apartment.” She looked upward again, this time with surprising venom.
“He didn’t even stop by once to see how I was doing. It was the same when Connie died. You would think he didn’t even notice she was gone. Do you know she was lying up there for two days before they found her? You hear about these things happening in cities, but...”
“One never expects it on one’s doorstep.” Giles nodded, sadly. “Was it you that raised the alarm?”
“No.” A faint look of shame crossed the old woman’s face. “It was a young man from her office. She was a paralegal, you know, in one of the big firms. She didn’t go to work on the Monday, and they couldn’t reach her on the phone all day. He came over to check on her that evening. He could hear her phone ringing through the door, so he came down and asked me if I’d seen her. I told him not since she went out on the Saturday night. Connie and I had swapped spare keys in case of emergency, so I let him in. Oh! The look on the poor boy’s face after he found her! I think he was sweet on her, but she wasn’t interested in him.”
Willow looked up from her notebook, her pen hovering over the paper. “Was she seeing someone else?”
“I think that depends on what you mean by ‘seeing’, my dear,” Mrs Brubaker replied, rather tartly. “You could say she was seeing a lot of people, but she didn’t often see them more than once, if you follow my meaning.”
“Miss Bauer was...” Giles hesitated, searching for an appropriate word.
“Promiscuous,” Mrs Brubaker said firmly. “Oh, I know it’s not the done thing to disapprove of that kind of lifestyle these days, but I’m an old-fashioned lady. I would have liked to see her settle down with someone, not bringing a different young lady home every weekend.”
“She was gay?” asked Willow.
“In every sense of the word, young lady.” A hint of a smile flickered on Mrs Brubaker’s lips. “Which is why that poor young fellow from her office never had a chance, of course. Not that poor Connie was looking for anything serious, even if she was that way inclined. Half the time her conquests didn’t even stay until morning. Like that one that was with her the night she died; I fell asleep in my armchair that night, and I heard the front door slam when she let herself out. It always slams if you’re not careful.”
“She wasn’t alone that night?” Giles’ interest suddenly sharpened. “Did you see who she was with?”
“The police asked me the same thing, Professor, but I’m afraid not. I was awake when they came in, just after eleven, but I only caught a glimpse of her. All I know is she had dark hair, and I’m sure she was pretty. Connie’s girls were always pretty. Anyway, she was gone just after two in the morning, and the police told me that Connie died around five.”
“I see...” Giles glanced at Willow, silently asking her if she could think of anything else to ask, and she responded with a minute shake of her head. “In that case, Mrs Brubaker, thank you very much for your time, and for the tea.”
Faith rifled through an untidy stack of magazines on the coffee table, a mix of legal titles and the kind of girly stuff she could imagine Buffy relaxing with while she got a pedicure. “You guys find anything?”
Buffy emerged from the kitchen, a frustrated look on her face. “The only unholy thing in there’s the amount of ice-cream in the freezer. Kennedy?”
“Still checking,” Kennedy replied from the bedroom. “So far all I’ve got is she’s not a neat freak and she’s got even more trashy romance novels than Willow had.”
“Any sign of a struggle?”
“I don’t think so. The bed’s messed up, but the rest of the room’s just untidy, not trashed.”
“So she didn’t put up a fight.” Buffy looked around the living room and sighed. She turned to Faith and said
“Hey, I’m an ass-kicker, B, You were always the one doing the P.I. crap.” Faith saw the shadow pass across Buffy’s face, realised what she’d said and swore under her breath. “B, I’m-”
“It’s fine,” Buffy said curtly, turning away. She felt Faith’s hand on her shoulder. “Faith, I said-”
“I’m pissed at him too, okay?” There was an unusual note of bitterness in Faith’s voice, one she didn’t try to hide, instead letting her sense of betrayal at what Angel had done show openly. “Look, B, I love the guy, but he’s lost it if he thinks he’s changin’ that place. I get it.”
“No, you don’t.” Buffy turned back to face her, and her eyes were burning. “You don’t get it, but I do. I figured it out. Angel shows up with a Hellmouth-closing amulet and a stack of info from a source he says isn’t remotely reliable? It came from them.” Even now she couldn’t bring herself to say the name. “It was the wrong apocalypse, not the one they wanted, so they gave Angel something that would stop it from happening and take him out of the picture at the same time, and then I sent him off to be second-front guy and handed the amulet to Spike! They set a trap for Angel and I threw Spike into it instead.”
For a moment, Faith didn’t know what to say. She hadn’t even thought about it that way, and part of her wondered if her own resentment toward Spike played a part in that. “B, I’m sorry... Am I allowed to say that now?” She put a lighter note into her voice, in spite of the stab of pain she felt at remembering the last time she’d tried to apologise to Buffy, all those years ago.
“Yeah, you’re good,” Buffy said with the briefest and faintest of smiles. “I’m not gonna beat you to death for saying it.” Her cell phone buzzed in her pocket. “Giles? Oh, okay. See you in a minute.”
“Time to get gone?”
“Time to get gone.”
The seven of them regrouped in Willow and Kennedy’s room after dinner to discuss what they’d learned, and what was supposed to be a fairly short catch-up spiralled into a full-blown research session. Within an hour the floor was covered with printouts of coroner’s findings, police reports and whatever biographical information on the victims that Dawn and Xander had been able to find online while the others were investigating Constance Bauer’s home.
They spent hours comparing victims to one another, searching for some common thread uniting them. Finally, Buffy rolled her head back against the wall, pushed aside the locks of hair that had escaped her ponytail, and sighed in frustration. “This is making my brain hurt. Giles, you got any idea what we’re up against here?”
“I’m starting to think so.” Giles shifted in his armchair, stretching his back. “I was right before, we’re clearly dealing with a creature that can drain the life force from its victims, a form of psychic vampirism if you will. I only know of a few demons that feed in that way, and what we’ve found rules out most of them.”
“Like what?” asked Kennedy.
“Well, the Tulmarik only feeds on adolescents,” Giles replied, ticking the suspects off on his fingers, “and our victims’ ages range from twenty-one to thirty-four. Nighthaunts drain their victims by instilling abject terror in them; all but one of our victims seem to have died peacefully in their beds, and the other one, what was her name...”
Willow glanced at her notebook. “Jessica Weston. Died in the sauna at her gym, there were three other women there with her when it happened. She just fell asleep and never woke up.”
“Not exactly mortal terror there,” Faith added.
“Okay, so we know what it isn’t,” Kenned said impatiently. “What is it?”
Giles hesitated. “I think it’s a succubus.”
There was a moment of silence, and then Xander said “Succubus? As in a whip-toting, thigh-high boots wearing, horns on her head, leather bikini, ride you ‘til you die smiling bat-winged bimbo from hell?”
“Xander!” Buffy hissed, casting a protective look at Dawn.
Giles looked at him with a mix of surprise and distaste. “Whip-toting... where on earth do you get these images?”
“Erm... you know, books ‘n stuff?”
“What books? No, don’t tell me, I really don’t want to know.” Giles shuddered for a moment. “Real succubi are a lot less distinctive. They don’t have wings, rarely carry whips and generally dress like normal women.
They do have horns in their natural state, but they can shape-shift to look completely human when hunting.”
“Don’t succubi feed on guys?” Dawn asked.
“And you’d know about sex-demons how?” Buffy snapped. Dawn just rolled her eyes, as if to say ‘I’m not a kid any more.’
‘Normally, yes,” Giles replied, “succubi hunt men and incubi, the male counterparts of succubi, hunt women.”
Kennedy narrowed her eyes at him. “You’re saying demons can’t be gay too?”
“Uh-oh,” Faith muttered, grinning.
“It’s not a matter of sexual preference,” Giles said hurriedly. “It’s a feeding, pure and simple. I’ve never heard of a succubus feeding on women, or an incubus on men for that matter, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. The demon would simply be hunting among those who would be attracted to it.”
Buffy was looking sceptical about the idea. “Giles, wait a minute. These things feed through sex, right? But you said Connie Bauer died hours after the other girl left. And what about Jessica Weston? Like Will said, there were three other women in that sauna with her.”
“Right,” Faith agreed. “She was going at it with one of them, you think the other two woulda noticed.”
“Unless they were joining in,” Xander suggested.”
“Dude, get your brain outta the gutter before it gets stepped on,” Faith retorted.
“Victims of these kinds of attacks rarely die immediately,” Giles explained. “The demon will often end the feeding while the victim is still alive, no-one’s entirely sure why. Some demonologists have theorised that the act of feeding forms a link between the demon and the victim, and if the victim, dies while that link is active the demon could be endangered. Others think it’s simply so that the demon can feed on them again in the future.”
“So if the feeding doesn’t kill them, what does?” asked Willow.
“The feeding doesn’t kill them immediately,” Giles replied. “However, having their life force drained in that way leaves them... vulnerable, for days, even weeks. Closer to death. Sometimes, especially after repeated feedings, the victim will just slip away, especially in their sleep.”
“When we sleep, we’re a little closer to death already, if you think about it. Heart rate slows, brain activity is reduced. Combined with a depleted life force, it can sometimes be more than a person can withstand.”
“Okay.” Buffy was convinced. “We’ve got a succubus hunting gay women...”
“We sure all these chicks are gay?” Faith asked.
“At least five of them,” Willow replied. “Mrs Brubaker told us about Connie Bauer, Natalie Kaminski-”
“Which one was she again?” asked Buffy.
“The tourist. She was a gay rights activist in at home Houston, her group put an obit on their website. Then there’s Julie Halloran – she sued her ex-boss, said he fired her when he found out she was gay. And the police looked at Jing-Mei Chou and Louise Thomson long enough to find out that they both liked going to lesbian clubs.”
“Five out of eight,” Kennedy observed. “Even San Fran’s not gay enough for that big of a coincidence.”
“So how do we find this bitch?” Faith’s thoughts were turning to the practicalities of hunting. “They hang out anywhere specific?”
“I’m afraid not.” Giles tried not to sound discouraging. “They live among humans as a rule. Our best bet will probably be to find its hunting ground. Succubi tend to find a good place to hunt and stick to it.”
“So we just need to find a good place to pick up lesbians.” Xander said, jokingly. “Will, you said the cops found a couple of the dead girls went to clubs, right? Any chance they went to the same one?”
Willow rifled through the papers littering the bed. “This one says Jing-Mei Chou was a regular at a club called Kitsune. Who’s got the Thomson report?”
“Here.” Faith held it up. “What do we got... our girl went to the Lexington, some place called the Blue Diamond and...” She turned the page. “Kitsune.”
“Kitsune...” Dawn muttered. “I know that word, I’ve seen it somewhere.”
“It’s from Japanese folklore,” said Giles. “Kitsune are fox-spirits, they often have several tails.”
“Just the place to meet some foxy ladies,” Xander quipped, to universal groans. “So we know two of them went to the same place, at least.”
“Three.” Everyone looked at Buffy. “I saw a ticket for a party pinned up in Connie Bauer’s kitchen. It had a picture on it, like the club’s logo. Will, can you check if they have a website or something?”
“Sure.” Willow turned to her laptop and tapped in a search. “Is this it?”
She turned the computer so they could all see the screen. At the top of the page was the word ‘Kitsune’ in electric blue letters. A vivid orange-red fox wound its way sensuously through the letters, its nine tails curling over the top like a fan. Buffy examined it for a moment. “That’s it, that’s what I saw.”
“Three out of eight,” Giles said, a little doubtfully. “It could just be a coincidence.”
Faith picked up the street map they’d used to plot where each victim had died. “You sure about that? All the dead chicks lived within a mile of this place.”
“And,” Willow said, clicking on another search result, “The club opened three weeks before the first victim died.”
“Well, when you put it like that...” Giles smiled. “This club seems like a good place to start, at least – and this would seem like a good time to call a halt for the night,” he added, seeing a few hidden yawns around the room. “Shall we pick this up after breakfast?”
“Yeah,” Buffy said. “We need to find out more about this club, and about succubi.”
“Like how to kill ‘em,” added Faith.
“As a for instance.” Buffy got to her feet, stretching the cramp out of muscles that had been in one position for too long. “You know, something that doesn’t involve me toting the Scythe in a crowded nightclub.”
“In that case,” said Giles, “I think a shopping trip may be in order. I’ll see if I can find any texts that may be useful.”
“Someone better go with him,” Faith said, smirking. “Giles on his own in a book store? Bad idea if we wanna see him again this week.”
Giles gave her one of his exasperated looks. “I seem to recall a time when Slayers treated their Watchers with a degree of respect.”
Buffy looked at him in surprise. “Giles, how old are you?”
The burst of laughter that ensued from everyone but Giles acted like a curtain falling on the meeting. As they filed out of the room, Faith had a thought. “I’m talkin’ to Robin tomorrow, you want me to ask him if
Crow-guy knows anything about these demon chicks?”
Giles – “Faith, Bernard Crowley was one of the most respected Watchers in the world, even after he retired. Referring to him as ‘Crow-guy’ isn’t entirely appropriate.”
Faith just shrugged. “Yeah well, the guy says Robin can go stay with him while he’s healing but he won’t let me near the place? Not exactly making me wanna play nice.”
“Watchers are generally a conservative lot, Faith, it’s not surprising he finds the thought of you a little, well, off-putting.”
“How the hell am I gonna start making things right if guys I never even met before won’t give me a chance?”
“If it was easy, it probably wouldn’t be worth doing.”
“If you’re just gonna go all fortune cookie-”
“I’m not.” Giles almost put a reassuring hand on her shoulder, but thought better of it. “If it really matters to you, then I’m sure Robin will bring him around. He can be remarkably persuasive when he wants to be. And it was a good idea to see if Crowley knows anything. Can I leave that with you?”
Faith just looked at him for a moment, not used to being spoken to that way. “Yeah, sure. Thanks.”
“Okay,” Buffy said late the following night, after they’d spent hours in Willow and Kennedy’s room, poring over the half-dozen books Giles had been able to acquire. “What do we know?”
“I know I miss the table from the Magic Box,” Xander replied, grimacing as he stood up and stretched; he’d been sitting on the floor with his back to the wall for too long.
“I’d settle for just the chairs,” added Dawn.
“The chairs...” Xander’s face turned wistful at the memory. “Couldn’t we have done this downstairs somewhere? Somewhere with seating?”
“Nice idea,” said Faith. “Let’s go down to the bar with all the demon books and talk ‘bout killin’ some hell-chick. I’ll buy you a beer while we wait for the straitjacket squad to show up.”
Giles shook his head in despair at the bickering. “I don’t know what you’re all complaining about. None of you spent half the day traipsing around this godforsaken city trying to find an occult bookshop that sells more than incense and cheap paperbacks about interpreting dreams.”
“That’s why you got the armchair. Again,” Buffy said, rather pointedly.
“I thought that was in deference to my advanced age,” Giles replied with as much dignity as he could muster. “In any case,” he went on, consulting his notes, “at least our collective discomfort hasn’t been for nothing. We know more than we did about the usual hunting patterns of a succubus.”
“And the nightclub’s definitely looking like the place to start,” Kennedy put in.
“Indeed. Everything I’ve seen suggests that a succubus will find good a hunting ground and stay there as long as she can. We also know how to kill one.”
Buffy nodded. “Silver blade through the heart.”
“One thing we don’t know,” Faith said impatiently. “How the hell do we know when we’ve found the bitch?”
“That won’t be so easy, I’m afraid,” Giles replied. “From what we’ve been able to learn, the succubus will be completely indistinguishable from a human while hunting. It may revert to its natural state when feeding, but even that isn’t definite. The only thing we know for certain is that the intended victim will be overcome with lust for the demon.”
Faith shook her head, frustrated and angry. “So what, we wait ‘til we catch a coupla girls playin’ tonsil-hockey, then follow ‘em home and if they’re screwin’ we gank the one on top? Screw that!”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Faith!” Giles jumped to his feet before he could stop himself, stung by what she was saying. He turned away from them all, toward the window, looking out over the city. “I wasn’t suggesting we just jump in, but at the moment-”
“We gotta be sure Giles,” she interrupted him. The anger was gone from her voice, and as much as she tried to hide it she looked shaken, even a little scared. “This thing’s gonna look human, we gotta be sure. All I’m sayin’.”
“Faith’s right,” Buffy said quietly. “Giles, we need a way to pick a succubus out of a line-up that doesn’t involve seeing who’s best with a bullwhip.”
“I know,” Giles replied. He continued staring out the window for a moment, composing himself. The emphasis Buffy put on Faith’s name was subtle, but enough to remind him that the problem might have a particular resonance for her. “We’ll think of something, Faith. We wouldn’t be able to go hunting until tomorrow night anyway, unless anyone has a silver weapon hidden away that they’ve not mentioned?”
“Why don’t we call it a night, guys?” Buffy suggested. She could feel the frayed tempers in the room, born of too many people cooped up in too small a space with too few answers. “We’ve got everything we’re gonna get out of the books. Let’s get some rest and take another swing at it in the morning.”
There was a round of nods and murmurs of agreement, and they went their separate ways. Buffy and Dawn went back to their room, one floor up, and were preparing for bed when there was a knock on the door. They looked at each other in surprise, both wondering who it could be at that hour. Buffy walked over and opened the door.
Faith was standing in the corridor, fidgeting nervously as she waited. “Hey, B. Got a minute?”
“Uh, yeah,” Buffy replied. She wondered if she should invite Faith in, and was about to do so when she caught Faith peering past her into the room, as though checking to see if Dawn was there. She stepped out into the corridor instead, pulling the door closed behind her. “What’s up?”
“I’m, I just... I wanted to...” Faith floundered for a moment, struggling to find the words. “I’m sorry I went off on Giles like that, I shouldn’t be puttin’ you in the middle of that kind of crap.”
“It’s okay,” Buffy replied.
“No, it’s not. You guys’re just gettin’ things back together after...” Faith left the sentence hanging, reluctant to bring up any of what had happened toward the end in Sunnydale.
“It’s okay, really.” Buffy reached out and her fingers just brushed Faith’s arms. “Look, I’m not saying I loved you two yelling at each other, but it’s good you’re thinking like that. We do need to be careful on this one.”
Faith nodded, a sad smile forming. “Too bad I didn’t figure that one out a few years ago, huh?”
“Faith, don’t go there.” Buffy looked away, anywhere but Faith’s eyes and the pain they carried. “We’re just starting to get along, now’s so not the time to be digging up that stuff.”
“Got it. Five by five.” Faith tried to sound unaffected, but her voice couldn’t carry the lie. She turned away and started walking down the corridor toward her own room.
“Yeah, you too, B.”
Faith’s wish didn’t come true, though. Buffy spent a restless night in and out of sleep, her dreams haunted by all the things she hadn’t wanted Faith to speak of. As the sky brightened outside, she got dressed and crept out of the room, leaving Dawn still fast asleep.
Willow and Xander found her in the dining room when they went down for breakfast. She was sitting by the window with a half-drunk mug of coffee in her hand, gazing out at the hotel garden.
“Hey Buff,” Xander said cheerily. “How’re the worms?”
Lost in thought, Buffy hadn’t heard them approach, and at the sound of Xander’s voice her head jerked around in surprise, eyes blinking. “Huh? Worms?”
“Y’know, as in early bird gets the.” Xander looked at Willow, hoping for support. “Come on, it was kinda funny.”
Willow shook her head sadly. “Sorry, sweetie.”
“Not so much ‘kinda funny’ as ‘kinda lame’,” Buffy added. “Also ‘kinda gross’.”
Xander thought about arguing the point, and then his shoulders slumped in resignation. “Late night. Early morning. Man need coffee before making with the funny.”
“Man go get coffee,” Buffy said, and held out her mug. “Get friend re-fill while at it.”
Taking the mug with a weary sigh, Xander turned to Willow. “You want too?”
Willow nodded, smiling. “Thank you, Cavewaiter.”
While Xander headed off in search of a coffeepot, Willow took a seat next to Buffy. Her friend was still smiling, but in her eyes there was something else, something that Willow couldn’t quite place. “You okay, Buff? You look like you’ve been up for a while.”
“What? Oh, yeah, I, uh, I didn’t close the curtains completely last night and I got sunbeamed in the face. Couldn’t get back to sleep, so...” It all came out in too much of a rush to be convincing, but before Willow could say anything Buffy had already moved on. “Where’s Kennedy?”
“In the shower. She’ll be down soon.”
“Good, that’s good,” Buffy said, nodding as though Willow had said something terribly important. “Any ideas on how we’re gonna solve the whole who’s-the-succubus problem?”
“Not yet,” Willow replied. The way Buffy kept changing topics was starting to worry her, so before Buffy got a chance to do it again she went on, “We’ll figure it out. There’s gotta be a spell or a potion or something that’ll let you see them.”
“Yeah, there’s gotta be.” Buffy smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. Before Willow could say anything more, however, Giles arrived. As soon as Buffy caught sight of him she switched into pleasant small-talk mode, anything but the problem they’d been discussing the night before. From the look on his face, Giles knew what she was doing, but he went along with it.
One by one, the rest of the group joined them, with Faith the last to arrive. Buffy and Xander were discussing the relative merits of the blueberry and cinnamon muffins on the buffet table when she arrived.
Her eyes looked tired, but there was a spring in her step that had been entirely absent the previous night. She flopped into a chair with a hint of her old swagger and gave them all a beaming smile. “Mornin’!”
“Someone’s in good mood all of a sudden,” Kennedy observed. “Did Robin show up last night?”
“Just got off the phone with him.” Faith snagged a sachet of sugar from the bowl on the table, ripped it open and poured the contents into her mouth. “Good news, guys – Robin and Crow-guy came up with the goods.”
Any thought of further small-talk vanished in a heartbeat. Giles leaned forward eagerly in his seat. “They found something.”
“Plenty. Mostly old news, though. ‘Cept for the part where they figured out how to ID the bitch.” Faith’s smile turned a little smug as she finished, but if anyone noticed they could forgive it.
“See?” Willow said to Buffy. “What did I tell you?”
“Well done, Faith,” said Giles. He was smiling too, but the look in his eyes was more apologetic than happy. “It was a good idea to call them. What do we have to do.”
“I’m kinda fuzzy on the details,” Faith replied. “Sounds like a job for Willow. We gotta put a spell on somethin’ so we can see her. Robin’s emailin’ it all over, should be here any time now. Looks like maybe we go huntin’ tonight, B.”
“Sorry, guys,” Willow said a little while later. They’d all gathered in Buffy and Dawn’s room this time, just for variety, and waited there while Willow read through the information Robin had sent. “No hunting trip tonight.”
“What?” Faith had been lounging on Dawn’s bed while they waited, and as Willow spoke she sat up in a hurry. “You sayin’ it’s not gonna work?”
“No no,” Willow said quickly, “it’ll work. It’s kinda nifty, actually. Robin and Crowley found an enchantment I can put on a ring or a bracelet or something. Whoever’s wearing it’ll get the tinglies if they get within a few yards of a succubus, and if they touch it they’ll be able to see its true form.”
“Okay,” said Buffy, “sounds good. What’s the bad news?”
“I can’t do it in time for tonight,” Willow replied. “The spell’s pretty specific; I’ve gotta do it at midnight, under moonlight, it’s a whole ritual magic thing.”
“Damn.” Buffy bit her lip in frustration at losing another night. “Okay, so is there anything we can do today?”
“We still need to find a silver blade,” Kennedy pointed out. “What are we thinking, letter opener or something?”
“Should work,” said Buffy. She looked over at Giles. “Just make sure it’s real silver, it’s hard to tell sometimes.”
“Thankfully.” Giles rubbed his chest where Buffy stabbed him in her freshman year of college.
“Just one question left, then,” said Buffy. “Who’s going into the club?”
“Sounds risky,” Xander said, grinning. “I’ll volunteer.”
“Hands up who saw that one coming,” said Faith, smirking at him.
“It’s a club full of lesbians.” Kennedy looked at Buffy like the answer was obvious. “Who d’you think’s gonna fit in?”
“You two?” Faith arched an eyebrow at her. “No way.”
“Faith’s right,” said Giles. “Kennedy, a succubus can compel uncontrolled lust from anyone who is sexually attracted to women.”
“Which makes you and Will the equivalent of a hot fudge sundae,” Buffy finished.
“Indeed.” Giles removed his glasses and began polishing the lenses. “Xander and I are obviously out of the question, and Dawn’s too young. Buffy and Faith are the only ones here who can do this.”
“You up for some undercover, B?”
“You think we should both go?” Buffy’s desire to find the demon was clashing with her innate dislike for undercover work.
“This nightclub looks quite large, Buffy,” Giles said, “there’s a lot of ground to cover.”
Faith nodded in agreement. “And we’re gonna have to get close if Red’s gizmos are gonna work.”
“Maybe you should pretend to be a couple,” Dawn said, a mischievous grin on her face.”
“What?” Buffy’s head snapped around to stare at her sister.
“That’s not a bad idea,” Kennedy said, more thoughtfully.
“No, no, bad idea, very bad!”
“Just think about it,” Kennedy persisted. “It’s a nightclub, single girls go there to meet other single girls. If you both go solo you’re gonna get hit on, a lot.”
“Great!” replied Faith. “I get hit on by the demon chick, I let it take me somewhere quiet and I kill it, it’s a great plan.”
“Assuming it goes after either of you,” Giles put in. “There’ll be hundreds of women there, the odds of either of you being the intended victim aren’t very good. And even if one of you is chosen, if you’re separated you won’t be able to support each other. Whereas if you pretend to be a couple, I would imagine most of the single women would leave you alone, you can concentrate on watching the crowd for anything suspicious and you’ll be together if you find anything.”
Buffy and Faith shared a look. “Don’t you hate it when he gets logical?”
“Uh, Giles?” Xander said hesitantly, casting a nervous glance in Buffy’s direction. “You sure this is a good idea? Buffy and Faith?”
“What’s the matter, Xand?” Faith asked. “You think we’re gonna start wailin’ on each other?”
“That’s not it,” he replied. “It’s just that you guys, you’re... you can get... you know... you’re... help me out here, Will.”
Willow looked at him like she was a drowning woman and he’d just handed her an anvil. “Xander!”
“You got something to say, Will?” Buffy asked, far more pleasantly than Willow thought was healthy for her.
“Uh, well, you know...” Willow looked at her helplessly. “I’m trying to find a good way to say it.”
Xander nodded furiously. “A way that lets everyone get out of the room with all their parts attached, I already hit my yearly limit on missing pieces.”
“The right way to say what, Red?”
“It’s just, you guys, when you’re together, not saying it’s a bad thing, I mean look who’s talking here, yay gayness! But you two, sometimes... when you’re spending a lot of time together, you can get kinda subtexty, you know, in a Xena and Gabrielle kinda way. You know?”
Buffy and Faith looked at each other for a long moment, then they both turned to Willow and said “I’m the Xena here, right?”
Kennedy rolled her eyes at them. “That’s what they’re picking up on?”
If they even heard her, Buffy and Faith didn’t give any sign of it. They were squaring up to each other, nose to nose and glowering. Buffy said “You as Xena? Come on!”
“Think about it, B,” Faith retorted. “One smokin’ hot brunette, rockin’ the leather look and tryin’ to make up for her evil past. Plus,” she indicated Buffy, “one annoying perky blonde.”
“I am not Gabrielle!”
“You do like fightin’ with a stick, B. I’m the one with a thing for blades.”
“Stake! It’s not a stick, it’s a stake, and-”
“Okay, now I’m seeing it,” Kennedy said.
“Hey!” Buffy turned on her. “There is no subtext here. We’re two straight girls, this is a subtext-free zone.”
“You know the thing about straight girls?” Kennedy replied with a crafty grin. “They’re like spaghetti noodles. Only straight ‘til you get ‘em wet.”
“Listen up, Trust Fund,” Faith shot back. “I just spent three years banged up with five hundred chicks. If this girl’s noodle was gonna get moistened, it woulda happened by now.”
“Do they seem defensive to you?” Kennedy said, her voice teasing.
“We’ll be fine,” Buffy insisted, folding her arms across her chest. “Won’t we, Faith?”
“Five by five, girlfriend.”
“Well, that seems settled,” Giles said. In spite of himself, he couldn’t help admiring the way Kennedy had gotten Buffy and Faith to stand together. “Today we find some weapons for you, tonight Willow does her enchanting, and tomorrow...”
“Tomorrow we hunt.”