The wind in Giles’s face was cold and dry. The air crackled with static. The sky stretched up forever above them, the stars almost bright enough to read by. Somewhere far down below them was civilization and a salt lake, but they both faced away from it. In front of them lay a little cabin, a vacation home for wealthy skiers, now a home for something else. Their quarry.
The demons were late. They’d been there long enough to leave traces; if Faith were assigned the job of tracking themselves she’d be able to tell him how long the two of them had lain there in the snow and the pine needles.
The only sounds in the dark were the wind and Faith, swearing softly to herself as she fiddled with her mobile. Then Giles shifted and sat up. That was an engine. He adjusted the focus on his night-vision goggles and scanned away from the door toward the long drive. They were perfectly positioned. Faith was, he thought, nearly brilliant at this work.
“Car in the drive,” he said. “Just a moment. Yes. It’s our demon.”
In the goggles, the car was a blaze of greenish heat against the black night cold. The demon was a brighter blob of light, vaguely man-shaped, moving around it. The rear hatch opened, closed. The demon went to the front door and opened it onto a flare of light and heat. Giles blinked, and the goggles dimmed the intensity. More movement. The door shut.
“It’s gone inside. Time to move, Faith. Faith?”
“What’s the fuss?”
“Dawn sent me pictures. What she’s wearing to the party. Tomorrow night. Tonight their time, I guess.”
There was mobile service up here? Giles looked west; the lights on the valley floor weren’t far away as the crow flew. Though it seemed half a world away to him now, as far away as Dawn and the others.
“Time to get to work,” was all he said. But Faith had already zipped the phone away in her jacket, was already stretching to warm for action. She pulled her knife out of the sheath, checked it, then re-sheathed it loosely. Giles did the same. He had a small crossbow for mid-range fighting, but he would likely have no use for it.
It was a few hundred yards to the cabin, enough to get his blood flowing again. The snow hushed everything, including what little noise he made as they moved. Faith was utterly silent. Perfect control of her body. Peak form. He’d give her that assessment later, after the action was over.
Faith flattened herself against the cabin door and listened intently for a minute. She nodded to him then cautiously reached down and tried the knob. It turned. She met his eyes and he nodded and looked away from her. Toward the door, toward where the room would be when she–
Faith slammed the door open.
She went low and he went high. Inside, into warm air and light. No motion, the pit demon sitting at a barstool, just now reacting to their entry, turning, erecting the spines along its arms in alarm. Left, fireplace, clear, right, a second pit demon. Two? One must have been already in the house. All day? Giles didn’t think about it further. He let the crossbow bolt loose and it thunked into the thing’s leg. It screamed and leaped. The next moments were a blur-- Faith moving across his field of view, knife flashing. The smaller one on the floor but moving fast, lashing out, catching Giles in the ankle.
He went down, more in surprise than pain, came up again, knife out. Kicked it with his good foot, then threw the knife down into its chest. It thrashed. Mortally wounded. Then Faith was there, gripping it by the head and twisting.
“Fucker,” she said. “Sneaky little fucker.”
Giles let himself stagger backwards. He caught himself against the edge of something. A countertop. The wet bar where the first demon had been sitting. Faith picked up the smaller pit demon and marched out the door with it. Giles breathed and felt time slow down again. Adrenaline faded, leaving that familiar sick feeling in his stomach, the metallic taste in his mouth. And his ankle burned. He looked down, saw blood.
Faith came back in through the front door. “Got 'em in a snowdrift. They’ll keep till spring, prolly, unless-- Fuck, G, they get you?”
Giles let himself collapse to the floor, his back sliding down the bar as his knees let go. Faith was there before he could manage to undo his thermal trousers. She had her knife out and was slicing his trouser leg to ribbons before he could ask her to. She’d taken that training seriously too, it seemed, as seriously as the tactical lessons he’d given her. She found motel rooms as boring as he, those long nights with nothing to do but watch that interminably boring fellow on the Tonight Show. Though they’d found some other occupations.
He forced himself to focus on the here and now and look at it. Yes, he’d taken a spine. More. Three spines. The poison was mild, but they had to get them out quickly or he’d be raving by morning. Faith did something to his ankle and he choked on an oath.
“Where’s the medkit?” she said.
“In the car,” Giles said. A mile away, across snow-blanketed forest. His cold-weather clothes were in shreds on the floor and his sock was bloody. She’d have to fetch it on her own. Half an hour at best, there and back, in these conditions. “Keys in my hip pocket.”
Faith sprang up from her crouch and vaulted over the bar. He heard the glasses clanking and cabinet doors banging open. “Gotta be something here. This is a cabin? These demons must have been stinkin’.”
Or the people they’d killed were wealthy; impossible to say which. There were many humans willing to do business with demons, as they both well knew, both evil and good and the usual gray muddle between. It was their business, as a team, to deal with the black ones. More distraction, he realized.
“Bathroom,” he said.
Faith vanished for several minutes. When she returned she was grim, though Giles couldn’t tell why. His ankle was beginning to swell.
“They’ve got jackshit in the bathroom. Bandaids, aspirin, an Ace bandage, then nothing. What kind of people haven’t got first aid stuff?”
Normal ones, Giles thought but did not say. He gripped his shin and willed the toxin not to reach his core body. Slow-acting, at least. “Alcohol will do what I need,” he said, through gritted teeth.
“Purer the better. High proof.”
“You got your back to a most awesome wet bar.” Faith vaulted over it again-- bloody Slayers-- and came around again the slow way, with a black-labeled bottle in her hands.
“The owners are not gonna be drinking this ever again,” she said.
Giles wondered what she’d seen in the back. But he let it drop, and said merely, “What have you got?”
Faith turned the bottle so the label faced herself and studied it uncertainly. She frowned. “Brandy,” she said. “Looks French, but it’s from California so you can sneer at it.” Faith pulled the cork out and sniffed. “Not bad. Says alambic. Isn’t that an alchemy word?”
“Alambic brandy? Christ, Faith, that bottle’s fifty pounds if it’s a penny.”
“Your ankle’s worth more,” was all she said. Her face was turned away from him, but Giles knew what he’d see there.
She upended it over his ankle. The alcohol hit the spines and the toxin foamed up and bubbled out of the wound. Red from his blood, green from the toxin. Cold. Giles dug his hands into his leg and held it still, forced himself not to flinch. It looked worse than it felt.
“Okay, now to get the suckers out. This is gonna hurt. Drink up.”
Faith handed him the half-empty. He sniffed. Apples and something else. Sipped cautiously. Excellent. He lifted the bottle for another tentative taste. Faith seized it and tipped it up. Brandy rushed into his mouth; Giles had no choice but to swallow. His eyes burned and he spluttered. “Enough!”
“Yeah? Enough to stop you whining when I pull these out?”
Giles took the bottle from her and drank again, less recklessly. He could feel it now. Head already swimming. Countering whatever the hell it was the toxin was. He’d forgotten the name.
“Give it a minute to do its work.”
He shed his parka and tossed it aside. Faith rose and paced away from him. She looked tense. She hated it when he was injured. Never minded it when she was on the receiving end. Giles sat and held onto his leg and waited for the brandy to work. The stuff was good, give the Californians their due. He had another swallow. He’d drunk far worse in these circumstances. Rotgut bourbon. Once, in Moscow, home-distilled vodka, the worst he’d ever tasted. Once he’d burned it to try to sterilize a wound. Trick had worked. Giles grinned, remembering blue flames and Faith’s half-shocked, half-impressed face.
The brandy had risen to his head. Or the toxins had. Whichever, it was time.
“All right. Do it.”
Faith wiggled at each of the three spines in turn, testing something. She found the one closest to the surface and pulled. Hard, fast, out in an instant. Giles swore, and while he was still cursing she did the next. The last was deepest, but by then the endorphins had hit him.
Bright blood welled out. Red blood, clean blood. Faith let him bleed. Learned her lessons, she had. Bleed out the toxins. He heard ripping cloth. Somebody’s shirt had given his life for his ankle. Giles swallowed the giggle that wanted to bubble up and watched Faith mop off the three puncture marks in his ankle. She bandaged him up expertly with the shirt scraps.
“That’ll keep until we get back to the car.”
“I can probably walk. Or we can find the keys to their truck.”
“You’re driving us nowhere drunk like that.”
“Good point. House clear?” When she nodded, he said, “We spend the night here. Bed should be better than the one in our motel anyway. Christ, it’ll be nice to sleep on a mattress made in the last twenty years.”
“No. We don’t want the bedroom.”
“Fuck.” That was a mood-killer. He’d been fantasizing about comfort, for once.
“Yeah. You got a foul mouth when you’re drunk, you know that, G? One of the things I like about you.”
Faith held out a hand to him and Giles gripped it. She pulled him up effortlessly and got a shoulder under his arm before he could even think about putting weight on his bad foot.
“Fireplace,” he said. “Can sleep by the fire.”
“Now you’ve got it. Park your ass and toast your ankle.”
Faith helped him limp over to the hearth and lowered him to the carpet in front. Giles arranged himself with his back to the flames. Deliciously warm. His heart rate was finally back down to something near normal. Giles stretched his arms. It had been a good fight, though a trifle short. Hardly enough payoff for two days of surveillance in the snow.
Over now. They might as well settle in for the night.
“Fetch a drink, would you, Faith?”
“I’m not making you anything girly.”
“Stick with the brandy,” Giles said. “In a glass this time.”
Faith joined him on the carpet, brandy bottle in hand. “Pansy-ass,” she said. She uncorked it and swigged directly from the bottle.
“Bloody Slayers,” said Giles, but there was no heat in it.
“Woah. Smooth. Usually it burns.”
Giles took the bottle from her and had another mouthful, more cautious than she. He had a lifetime’s practice, but he was already three sheets to the wind. More sheets than that. Sheets, he thought. He’d like to be between them now, with Faith wrapped warm around him. She could be tender in the dark, when there was no one watching her but he. Tender and wild. Just what he wanted after a good fight. He looked over at her. She wasn’t looking at him, though. Not in the mood, perhaps.
Faith’s jacket played a five-second snippet of rock music. Her face flickered and she glanced over at it.
“Answer it,” Giles said. The action was most definitely over now.
“That’s not a call. That’s another mail coming in. From Dawn.” How she knew that, Giles didn’t ask.
That was the right thing to say; Faith’s face lit up. She dug in her jacket pockets for her phone and fiddled with it before handing it over. The Watchers and Slayers Society annual holiday do was fancy dress this year. Dawn had sent more photos, of herself with friends assembling their costumes. She was dressed in white feathers and had huge wings sprouting from her back. Xander was a pirate, as he was every year at Halloween. He’d sworn to milk it for all he was worth. One photo showed him trying to fasten a plastic parrot to his shoulder, the next the parrot head-down in his shirt pocket. Giles smiled and scrolled to the next photo. Another young girl, no doubt a Slayer, one he didn’t know. The next was Willow in drag, in waistcoat and wide striped tie.
“Your face gets softer when you look at them,” Faith said.
Giles handed the phone back to her and pinched the bridge of his nose. He wasn’t going to go defensive and deny it.
“You wish we were there instead of here?”
Faith shrugged. Giles did calculations in his head. Three hours, likely, to reach the airport, no idea when the next flight was, but probably they’d head to Chicago then to Heathrow direct. Then back again the next day to finish the work of clearing out this cell. Might just be possible. Or there was another way.
“We could contact Willow,” he said, tentatively.
“And now your face is doing something else. Repression filter goes away with the swearing filter when you’re drunk.”
“What’s my face doing?”
“I think they call that falling. Look of total misery. What’s the matter? Don’t like parties?”
Giles hid his face behind the bottle. Last drink, though. He’d had more than enough. “I’ll get you there if you want to go,” he said, indistinctly, through a mouthful of brandy.
They’d go. They’d have a good time. The others would be delighted to see them. Buffy would tell him she missed him. Dawn would kiss his cheek and check his pockets for the presents her unsuitable adopted uncle always had. Then Wesley would tell him again that he needed Giles’s expertise in the home office. He’d tell him they’d kept his desk for him, and that they had a classroom full of young Slayers who needed to be taught how to hone. They’d retrieve the white shirts, the good wool suits, the cufflinks, the school tie from the mothballs he’d stored them in. And they’d pack him into the mothballs instead.
Giles reached for the brandy again. Faith snatched it away and pounded the cork in. She set it far out of his reach. He sighed.
“When’s our next planned reunion?” she said.
“End of February. Meeting Xander in Tangiers.”
“That’s plenty soon enough. Unless you want to go.”
“Only if you do.”
“You sure? You sure you’re not here killing demons with me 'cause you think I’d pitch a fit if you didn’t?”
“Lord, Faith, I thought it was the reverse. I’m keeping you away.”
“Yeah, but no. Parties are fun, but it’s a total glue trap going there. We’d never get away again. I fuckin’ like doing what we do. Was driving me crazy being there all the time.”
Giles nodded and gestured toward the ceiling.
“Precisely. Was going soft. Never punching anything but a weighted bag. Sodding desk job. The paperwork was killing me.”
“And this isn’t?”
“Fuck me if this isn’t more fun.”
Faith snorted, but her face was clear now. She rolled close enough to him that she was warmer than the fire. “I’ll take your suggestion under advisement.”
Her accent on those words was an alarmingly good imitation of that of the woman who’d been his secretary before he’d resigned. Starch and pomp. Giles laughed and reached out to touch her cheek, then he leaned over and kissed her. Thank god he wasn’t so drunk he couldn’t feel his lips or that marvelous quick tongue in his mouth.
Faith rose to her knees and straddled him. Her body was warm across his hips and just heavy enough. Giles made a sound that came out far more pleased than he’d intended it to.
Faith leaned over him. Her dark hair fell forward and tickled his nose. “Glad we had this little chat and got that cleared up,” she said.
Giles blew at her hair. “Indeed.”
She laughed at him. “Brandy-breath. You’re feeling no pain.”
Giles grinned up at her, letting all his teeth show. He shifted his hips under her, to make his point clear. “I can feel you,” he said.