Damned If I Don't, Damned If I Do
Part Three of The Damned Series


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PART EIGHT: 4th July 2004
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Chapter Three: Slugs and Snails and Puppy Dog Tails

It wasn't a long drive to Cleveland when you weren't on a bus that stopped every five minutes to collect passengers, but traffic was heavy today. People from out of town coming to see their families and people from town heading out for the organized Fourth of July celebrations taking place everywhere filled the streets.

As Buffy and Xander sat in a jam waiting to join the artillery road that would take them into the centre of the city, they were discussing what Willow had found in Troy's college records.

"Maybe he moisturizes." Xander tapped his fingers against the steering wheel in time to the hip hop playing quietly on the radio.

"Nuh-uh, don't let the commercials fool you. No moisturizer can make you look fifty years younger." Buffy shook her head as she looked into the tiny mirror stuck to the sun-visor. "Unfortunately."

"Well then maybe he's just aged really well," Xander tried next. "They say people live longer in the Mediterranean."

"The records make him seventy, Xan. Seventy! And that's even if he started college at eighteen. If he took a few years off to travel the world first he could be even older than that."

Xander edged the car along; as soon as he had it in park again he twisted in his seat to look at her. She'd been about to put her sun glasses back on, but she waited now, giving him all of her attention.

"Right, so it's not the expensive face creams or the healthy gyros diet that's keeping him looking so youthful. That leaves only one other option that I - in my glut of experience - can think of." He paused, waiting for her to catch up; when she just kept staring at him, he went on, "He's obviously a vampire."

It had already crossed her mind, but she'd discarded it as quickly as she'd thought it.

"He can't be a vampire, he was at the picnic. The middle of the day, very sunny, not-a-cloud-in-the-sky picnic."

"Oh yeah," Xander turned back to face the road, moving the car along another twenty yards or so. "Maybe he has really good sun block."

Buffy humored him, "Maybe. I mean, you'd think at least one undead-chemist would have thought about that by now, but I've never gotten any vampy vibes off of him."

He gave her a look, letting her know he knew she was humoring him. "Maybe some other kind of demon then. One that sunlight doesn't turn to ash."

"I don't get any demon-y vibe from him either. I don't really get any vibe from him except a big 'I hate you and everything you stand for' vibe, which I think is probably just coming from me." She smirked a little now as she finally pushed her shades back on.

"Think that could be overshadowing any other sort of vibe?" Xander asked seriously.

Buffy thought about that for a moment as the car moved forward some more. If they kept up this pace they'd be in Cleveland sometime around midnight.

"Could be," she conceded. "But then I didn't always hate him. When he and Faith first got together I even tried to like him. 'Course that didn't work because he's a big jerk, but I don't remember getting any whiff of supernatural-ness then either."

"Well he's got to be something."

"Yep," Buffy agreed.

"Have we ever come up against something before that you didn't get a demon heads-up on first?"

"A few. Actually, quite a few. My acuity isn't all that great." Buffy admitted. "But usually only when we first meet - me and the demon that is - by the time we're on first name terms I've generally figured it out. Even if they don't have horns and a tail."

"But not with Troy," Xander mused. "So either he's doing that cloaking spell thing Will's used before, or he's a type of demon that isn't on your radar."

"Pretty much," she nodded.

The traffic started to flow a little faster and Xander accelerated to keep up with it.

"So assuming for a second he's not a completely new kind, what kind don't spike your internal demon-counter?"

"Off the top of my head," she thought for a second, trying to remember - after all, she fought a lot of demons. "Balance demons 'cause they have that whole good/evil ambiguity thing. Any mixed-species are kinda hard to get a beat on 'cause a lot of the time the human genes outweigh whatever the demon has that passes for genes. Oh and..."

A topless green Lotus shot in front of their jeep. It was a small vehicle, but not quite small enough for the space between them and the Ford Explorer in front. Xander had to slam the breaks on hard to avoid a collision.

Buffy gripped the arm rest with one hand and the dashboard with the other to brace herself, but once the danger was passed she laughed at Xander's brief burst of road-rage.

"Does Melissa know what a potty mouth you can be?"

"No," Xander grinned at her sheepishly. "I try to hide my patrimonies when I'm around people I like."

"So you don't like me then?" Buffy pretended to be hurt.

He licked his lips, grinning again. "That's the good thing about family. I can shake my fist and curse at asshole drivers safe in the knowledge you'll still love me tomorrow. Melissa on the other hand, could realize what a big mistake she's making any old day now. I have to at least try and show her nothing but my good side."

She touched his right arm gently. "Xander, if you were a decagon, you'd have nine good sides, so I wouldn't worry so much, okay? Besides, you're past the sixth month mark - she's gonna get more concerned if you aren't a well-rounded boyfriend by now. And luckily for you that means getting away with gross guy stuff," she wrinkled her nose just at the thought of it. "Just don't do it too often and you'll be fine."

He gave her a quick smile and was silent for a time, probably considering what she had said.

She considered it too. She and Toni would reach the six month mark while Toni was in Japan, assuming Buffy didn't find the resolve to break up with her over the phone before that.

Toni was well-rounded already - not in the gross guy sense, but just in general - and it didn't put her off. In fact, nothing was putting her off Toni, not even her affiliation with evil demons and Troy; it was just that Faith was there - not there physically, but there in her heart - and... it seemed there was only room for one feisty female at a time.

If she and Faith had gotten together at Christmas they would have been together for over six months now, and Faith had been well-rounded in every sense since the night she'd entered Buffy's life. They'd probably be tearing each other to shreds by now - physically, mentally and emotionally. If Faith was right, they'd be making each other's lives a living hell.

But what if Faith wasn't right? It certainly wouldn't be the first time. What if it could be every bit as good as she let herself imagine it could in her weaker moments? Buffy felt like she owed it to Faith to push this thing at least a little further and she felt that Faith owed it to her too. Whether Faith felt the same or not was a mystery at this point - their last conversation felt more like a dream with every day that passed - but tonight they'd be talking again and hopefully Buffy would find out once and for all if she and Faith had a future.

They were driving at a steady sixty miles an hour now, passing through the suburbs and heading straight for the centre of the city. Buffy had rolled her window all the way down when they were at a standstill and now she enjoyed the cooling breeze, although she could have done without the way it was whipping her hair about.

"So, where exactly are we aiming for?" Xander asked over the rush of wind in the jeep. "Cleveland is a leetle bit bigger than Sunnydale. We can't just park outside the Sun and walk to wherever we need to go now."

Buffy pulled the address out of her pocket and read it. "The Flats." She was impressed. "East Bank."

"East Bank? Isn't that mostly run down warehouses, code-failing clubs and building sites?"

"Oh, is it?" Okay, that was less impressive. "I've been down to the West Bank a few times with Faith, just patrolling. It always seemed like a pretty happening stretch of the river."

"Yeah, well you should try patrolling the other side. You'd probably find a dozen vamp nests in a five minute stroll." Xander shuddered a little. "I did a job down there a couple of months back; can't say it was the nicest working environment ever and I've worked directly above a Hellmouth."

"Why didn't you tell me about this?" Buffy frowned. "I could have been down there, clearing it out."

"I mentioned it to Faith and she said she was handling it. I assumed you knew too."

Buffy shook her head again. "No, she never mentioned it."

It would be just like Faith to want the area all to herself, especially with the tension that had been between the two of them before she'd left. Either she wanted the solo victory of cleaning up what Xander seemed to think was the most vermin-ridden neighborhood in Cleveland, or she didn't want Buffy poking around near her honey's home.

'Unlucky, Faith, because you leaving has just created a vacancy in the area. One Vampire Slayer urgently required; and the first spot I'm cleaning out - your honey's home.' Buffy thought as they got held up in more traffic going through downtown.

She'd heard through customers at the diner where she worked that there was a parade sometime this afternoon. The police were probably already shutting off some streets in preparation. The later it got, the harder it was going to be to maneuver around the city.

The digital dashboard clock read 1:05. Plenty of time, she assured herself.

Ten minutes later Xander turned onto the stretch of road they wanted, although from what could be seen out of the window, Willow's hacker magic might not have worked this time around. Maybe Troy had given a false address on his records.

Xander had been right about one thing: this place was a vampire haven. Clubs and bars and restaurants - that were once glitzy and glamorous and 'the place to be!' - were now either run down dives or boarded up.

Some places still looked to be struggling on despite whatever had shrouded the rest of the area in failure; and they were like bright beacons of color that undoubtedly drew the vampires in like wasps to strawberry jelly.

Warehouses stood dark and imposing in the bright July day. Most looked empty, stripped of their stock either by owners quick to flee the downwardly mobile riverbank, bailiffs claiming it to cover debts of the owners not quick enough leave, or more likely - thieves and demons making a few 100% profit sales.

The river could be seen between the buildings on their left as Xander drove north past the warehouses towards a bunch of construction sites. Left and right was now made up of open space, piles of gravel and sand looking like termite mountains rising from the scraped flat ground. Here and there support beams sprouted up from the ground, looking alien without their buildings wrapped around them yet. Clunky looking diggers and graceful cranes stood like statues in the baking sun, for once getting a day off from doing all the heavy lifting while their drivers and operators enjoyed the federal holiday.

"We must have gone too far." Buffy decided, checking the piece of paper again. "There are no apartments here."

"Yeah, but there were no apartments back there either." Xander pulled to the side of the road to let a car pass them before making a u-turn anyway.

"True, but let's look again, and drive slower this time so I can see better."

Xander sighed deeply. "Great, you want me to curb crawl through this neighborhood? Ten bucks says we either get a fyarl demon trying to wash the windshield or I end up splashed across the newspapers like Hugh Grant."

Buffy rolled her eyes, "Yeah, except the difference is: Hugh Grant was splashed across international tabloids, and you'll be splashed across the National Enquirer, and possibly the Wendigo Herald if you're lucky."

"You call that lucky?"

They were deep in the domain of the industrial again - squat factories and warehouses blotting out the sun - when Buffy saw it. It was discreet but so out of place here that it stood out to her all the same.

"There." She pointed to a warehouse set back from the road behind a chain link fence.

"Where?" Xander did an emergency stop and looked about, trying to find the apartment she was pointing to. Luckily, although the road wasn't totally devoid of traffic, no one bent their rear fender.

"There." She repeated as she pushed the door open and jumped down from the jeep.

"That's a warehouse," he pointed out.

"I can see that. I can also see the address on the side of it, right next to the doorbell."

Now that she was looking more closely, she could see its many subtle differences to the others. It was cleaner. Made of metal and brick like the rest, but the brick wasn't covered in graffiti, - okay, not as much graffiti - and the metal was not dull, rusted and rent in places. It looked shiny. Intellectually she knew that at some point warehouses were built and they probably started off pretty shiny, but you wouldn't know it to look at the rest of these poor abandoned shells.

Xander had sensibly pulled the jeep alongside the building - outside the fence, but into the deep shadow created by the large warehouse - and it was mostly out of sight from anyone driving past.

He joined her by the door. "I guess not a lot of warehouses have pretty little doorbells like this one, right?"

"My guess, only when they've been converted into something inhabitable." Buffy pressed the bell hard and a pleasant tinkly ring could be heard echoing around inside.

"Um, Buff, what are you doing?" Xander turned to her in alarm. "Aren't we supposed to be snooping? Since when do we ring to announce our presence when we're snooping?"

Buffy waved him away and pressed the bell again. "Since we don't know a thing about what we're going to walk into. He may have warehouse-mates or he might have asked someone to look after the place for him. For all we know, he has a butler. And if I'm right on any of that, one sniff of us - or anyone - poking around, they're going to be straight on the phone to either Troy or the police. The police I can handle, but I don't want Troy knowing we're on to him until I'm ready for him to know."

No one had come to either of the first two rings. Buffy rang it again and they both listened hard.

"Looks like we're safe," she finally surmised.

"What were you going to say if someone answered?"

Buffy shrugged, "Guess we'll never find out now. So, front or back?"

"Do warehouses have back doors?"

"Front then. Stand back and keep your eye open," she instructed as she gave the doors a once over.

There was a big metal freight door, tall and wide enough to receive whatever came off of the back-end of a truck, and a smaller person-sized door set into it on the left hand side. The smaller one had a round black doorknob.

Buffy trusted Xander to warn her if people were coming, so taking a firm hold on the black handle, she flexed her hand around it and then applied enough pressure to snap the lock.

Except it didn't. The handle just turned and turned and turned, obviously connected to nothing on the other side. Frowning, she put her shoulder to the door instead to try and force it open. It was shut tight and wouldn't give.

"What's wrong?" Xander whispered.

"Either magic or faulty mechanics, I'm not sure yet. I'm gonna try the big doors."

The handle for the big door was level with her nose, simply a smooth metal hoop bolted on the metal of the door. From what she could make out, it slid along runners in the floor.

Grabbing the hoop, she yanked it sideways with all her strength and then went along for the ride when the heavy door slid easily, its weight pulling her off balance.

"That was too easy," Xander muttered from behind her.

Buffy thought so too until she looked through the wide gap. "Not so much."

Behind the large metal doors were glossy black metal railings stretching from one side of the building to the other. They were stuck in the floor and reached as far as Buffy could see into the roof. Even as she checked it out, she saw the camera on the other side of the bars blink to life and begin to move - electronically tracking her.

"Crap!"

She stepped backwards and slid the door closed again. She heard the motor of the camera stop almost immediately.

"He's got a security camera wired up to activate when someone opens the door," she explained to Xander.

"You can run faster than CCTV," he pointed out.

"Yeah, but I can't run through a big iron portcullis."

This was exactly what it had looked like; but with an extra bit, like a two foot corridor leading to the door that wouldn't open. Obviously that was Troy's usual entrance, but he'd disabled it somehow for while he was away.

"Come on, we'll have to take the traditional route."

As she started to lead the way around the side of the building, she heard him groan. "That means the sewers."

"Cheer up. It'll be just like old times."

A few minutes later she found what she was looking for on the other side of the chain link fence to the warehouse. A big storm drain probably made to allow rain to run from the street directly into the river behind the building.

"I love old times," Xander studied it with her. "In fact I never pass up a chance to relive our glory days, but the one bit I don't miss? Sewers."

Buffy removed the metal grating easily. Though she tried to settle it gently on the sidewalk, it clanged anyway. "It'll just be for a couple of minutes."

"Did you at least bring a flashlight?"

"Nope, didn't think of it, what with it being the middle of the day and everything." She jumped down into the darkness before he could protest any more.

She landed in a tunnel about three feet wide and almost perfectly round - the bottom was flat. It wasn't even damp; obviously it was only meant as a back up for when the rain was especially heavy and the last few days had been dry.

Xander jumped after her. "Ow!" There was a furious rustling sound coming from him as he rubbed whatever he'd hurt. "And there goes my hammer elbow."

"Is that like a repetitive strain thingy you constructionists get?" Buffy asked cheerily as she felt her way along the stone tunnel.

"No, it's the elbow that makes my hammer go up and down." His voice indicated he was still feeling the pain. "Do you know where we're going?"

"Only a hunch," she admitted. "But I'm thinking Troy might have built himself a little bolthole underneath the warehouse, and why dig a brand new escape tunnel when the city already supplied a perfectly good one."

The tunnel was just too dark for even her keen eyesight to make out anything at all, so she walked with one hand trailing over the curved roof of the tunnel - it felt warm thanks to the heat of the day - and another trailing along the wall as she tried to find evidence of anything irregular in the stone.

"What makes you think that?"

"He has a castle, and a portcullis in his apartment. I'm thinking whatever Troy is, he has a whole medieval obsession thing going on. And besides, it's what I'd do if I had the resources. Keep the mob banging on the front of the warehouse while I slip quietly out of the back. So far in my life I've had to make do with trees outside my bedroom window, but a tunnel would be so much cooler." Her fingers hit something rougher than the smooth stone. "Got it."

She felt Xander nudge against her back and step back again quickly with a muttered apology as she worked her fingers around what felt like a stone slab above her; the kind people used to make garden paths. It was rough-edged, not professionally cut, and was pretty well wedged into the hole it was made to block.

It took Buffy four hard slams from both palms before she got it to move at all, making her think it hadn't been lifted in awhile - maybe not even since it had been set there in the first place. Even once she'd gotten it going, her biceps and triceps still ached with the strain of lifting it, and then with one last grunt of effort she jettisoned it in an upwards arc. It made a loud thud as it hit the floor inside the warehouse.

"And we're in," Xander breathed near her ear. He must have been trying to peer into the dark opening like she was. "And no flashlight has miraculously appeared in my hand. All in favor of coming back in the daytime..."

"It is the daytime," she reminded him as she lifted her arms to grab the edges of the hole and boosted herself up.

"Oh yeah, I forgot." He copied her and soon they were stood in what felt like a closed-in dark space.

Buffy walked very slowly forwards with her arms out until five steps later she touched a concrete wall, and then she felt along it trying to find a light switch. Before she had, she tripped over someone standing in the way and gave a little shriek. Xander shrieked in reply, and at first she thought it was him that she'd bumped into, but the person she'd tripped on was skeletal thin and eerily silent as they both started to fall over together.

Buffy stumbled, trying to keep her footing and accidentally stood on the other person's foot. A blinding light suddenly seared her eyes.

"Shit." She let go to shield them but it was too late to stop the dark spots from impairing her vision. Stepping back, blinking, it was a second before she could see who she'd bumped into - or more like what.

A standing lamp was now a laying lamp. The 'foot' she had trodden on was the on/off button attached to its base.

"Jeez Buffy, could ya freak me out a little more?" Xander panted, one hand clasped over-dramatically to his chest. "I thought something was in here with us."

"Sorry, but hey - at least we have light." She apologized as she looked around.

They were in a small brick basement room by the looks of it. No windows at all and no decoration, at least not exactly. Huge maps lined the walls and the spaces between were filled with postcards from pretty much every country in the world, including at least a dozen that Buffy had never heard of.

The only furniture was the standing lamp - which Buffy now picked up and set back on its base - a large antique desk, and a broad solid-looking cabinet made of the same type of wood as the desk and probably just as old. On the other side of the square room, three stone steps lead up to a tiny door that even Buffy would have to duck to get through - making her wonder how on earth they got the big, heavy furniture in in the first place.

"Not exactly what I expected from Troy's pad," Xander looked around too, giving some of the postcards of sun-drenched beaches a closer look, probably in search of boobs. "Did he take a vow of solitude or something? There's not even a bed. Where do he and Faith sleep?"

Buffy rolled her eyes. "Do the math Xander. Big warehouse, tiny secret room. I doubt Faith even knows it exists, let alone comes down here to sleep."

"Good point. So do we go on up, or is this what we're looking for? And by the way, what exactly are we looking for?"

"I don't know yet, but I'm thinking secret room is where we're going to find the secrets."

She was looking at the maps spaced around the room. There was one of every continent, and they were big - the bottom edges at Buffy's knees and the top edges above her head - and finely detailed to boot. A variety of thin colored pins were pushed into locations across the world, two dozen at least, but there was no key to what the colors meant, or even what the pins themselves represented. Archaeological digs maybe, or possibly just hot vacation destinations - Buffy didn't have a clue to what the rhymes and reasons were, except...

"Xander what do you make of this?"

He took his time in wandering over to her, and when by her side he clapped his hands slowly once before rubbing them together. "This? This, Buff, is a map of the United States of America. I know geography tended to be nap time for... well all of us who weren't Willow, but I thought you'd have recognized this one at least."

She tapped the bottom left hand corner of the map impatiently. "Sunnydale. Or where it used to be anyway."

"So what, the Big maybe Bad has been to Big Bad Mecca?"

"It's the only place out of the all the places that has a pink pin. There are lots of reds, blues, blacks and greens, but there's only one pink. In Sunnydale."

"I get what you're trying to point out, the difference, but a baby pink pin isn't really striking fear into my bones, ya know." Xander shook his head. "Now all of these bright red pins..." he stepped forward and swung his arm up to convey pins stretching across the continents. "... Has me more worr... ow!"

Hopping back, he lifted his left foot to check the sole of his black sneaker. A long pink pin was embedded in it.

"Ouch," he muttered, pulling it out with a grimace. "Remind me never to try that walking on nails thing unless I have my boots on."

Buffy moved to the map again, studying it as closely as possible. "Quick, look for any empty holes."

"You mean besides the one now in my foot."

Wherever the empty hole was, was wherever the other pink pin had fallen from. If she could find where that was, maybe she could work out what that place had in common with Sunnydale. Then, maybe, she could work out what at least some of the pins meant.

"Here!" Starting from Sunnydale and working outwards, she found it quickly.

"Stockton, California." Xander confirmed.

The room was quiet as Xander took off his sneaker to gaze at the little dot of blood that had formed on his grey sock. Buffy took a second to come up with some theories that weren't the one that sprang to mind, but none of them felt close to being right.

"He didn't know she was in prison, but he knew she was there," she said quietly. "And he knew I was in Sunnydale. And for some reason he was marking that in his little secret room."

Xander replaced his sneaker and scratched at his eye-patch elastic as he gazed over the rest of the maps again. "Do you think all of these pins are slayers? Maybe he's trying to keep track of all of you."

"I don't know. I don't think so, but I don't know," Buffy admitted.

She gave them all one more long, hard look herself, trying to remember as many of the locations as possible, and then she turned away and went to the desk.

Unfortunately it wasn't a mess of papers with a handy important-looking corner poking out for her to see. There were no papers at all in fact; just a small, leather-bound notebook.

"Be useful," she muttered like a prayer before opening it.

It was a diary - the page a week kind - and the week she'd opened it to was blank. Not so useful. She turned a couple of pages until she found something written there in black ink.

'Hand in assignment on the Basilica of San Clemente.' There was a little red tick next to it.

Just what kind of evil demon made a note to make sure their homework was done on time? Either Troy was being really good at covering his tracks, or he was even lamer than Buffy had always thought.

Unless it was code for something. Flipping through some more of the diary, Buffy found other notations seemingly alluding to college assignments. Some were pretty out there like the first, but others were mundane enough to convince her they were what they appeared to be. No self-respecting evil-doer would use the words pop quiz in a code, unless they were a teacher.

She shuffled through the pages to today's date. The whole week had the words: Take Faith to Italy, scrawled across.

Buffy looked up to stare blankly at a postcard of donkeys on some English beach. So Troy really hadn't meant for he and Faith to stay in Rome for so long then. He'd expected to be back in the States before now, if he'd planned on heading to Italy last Sunday.

"Buffy." Xander had opened up the cabinet and was peering inside.

Leaving the diary for the moment, she wandered over to take a look and remembered something Faith had said on the phone, about finding bones all over the place. At the time she'd dismissed it as drunken chatter, but now in this tiny windowless secret room it came back like a warning. Xander hadn't said her name like someone who had found a skeleton in the closet, but then it wouldn't be the first time.

There were no bones. There was nothing in fact, and it was the lack of stuff that made the nothing seem important, hence Xander calling her over. Inside the large cabinet was a series of purpose built racks of all shapes and sizes, and Buffy could only guess at what they'd held by reading the little place cards tacked by each one.

She read a few out, frowning deeper as she went on. "Key to the Gates. The Sceptre. The golden staff. Apollo's Bow. Do they sound like the results of normal excavations to you?"

"Well they had that dig in Sunnydale remember, a few years back, the one on the Aztec site, but then that turned up a demon lord trapped in a mirror, so I'm gonna go with... this sounds eerily similar." Xander scratched his elastic band some more. "And whatever these things were, he's taken them with him by the looks of it, and that adds to the eerie."

"Agreed." Buffy went to close the cabinet back up when she saw the drawer at the bottom. Trying to pull it open proved it was locked. "Think pulling on this is going to set off an alarm?"

Xander shrugged. Buffy shrugged back and gave it a sharp tug. The lock snapped and the drawer came open slowly. And here was the mess of papers!

"Here we go." Buffy dropped into a crouch and started going through them.

Most of the papers were handwritten letters, an odd jumble of handwriting attesting to several different senders. There were travel documents - all from within the last eighteen months at first glance - things like booking information, hotel receipts and boarding pass stubs. Buffy shuffled through them quickly until she found one that stood out.

Not so much a travel document as a staying in one place document. His buyer's papers for the warehouse they were snooping around.

"He moved here less than two weeks after we did."

"Well, we did arrive just before the fall semester started." Xander pointed out as he ran his fingers over the ornate cabinet. He was pissed with Buffy for splintering the drawer, not that he was going to say so. She glared at him. "I'm not saying it's not suspicious. Just that - alone - its not totally suspicious either." He defended himself.

Frowning, she flipped back through the pile to something she'd seen and dismissed before. "Here, a hotel reservation in Tulsa. Guess when for?"

Xander didn't need to guess; the tone of her voice made it clear as day. "Sometime around the third week of June last year," he asked weakly.

"On the money," she said, holding the piece of paper up to show he was right. "The same week we were there picking up Kateri."

They'd picked up several new slayers on their way across the country to Cleveland, some found by the coven, most found by chance. Was there a corresponding hotel receipt to match them town for town?

"Okay, you've sold me on the creepy," Xander squatted down next to her and pulled out a handful of papers from the drawer.

"He was interested in Faith before she met him, that much is obvious anyway." Buffy set the travel stuff to one side to look at the deeds to the warehouse a little closer.

"Not just Faith." And now Xander's tone was urgent like hers.

"What?" she was asking, even as he showed her what was inside the neat looking file he'd been leafing through. "Shit!"

"Yeah," Xander handed it to her and the deeds slipped from her fingers, forgotten. "That was pretty much my first, second and third reactions." He put his hand on her shoulder. "Buff, I think its time we face the fact that Faith's boyfriend really is too good to be true."

Normally that would have earned him a big glare. Actually, the sincere disappointment in his tone was probably worth a dead arm, maybe two, but right now she was too worried over what she was reading.

"It's a file on me. A whole file on me. And we're not just talking slayer stuff either Xan, we're talking school grades, medical and dental records, even my birth weight!" She looked at him desperately before turning the page and reading some more. "There's stuff about Mom's illness, stuff I didn't even know about my Dad! Xander, what the hell is this?"

He didn't have an answer, but he squeezed her shoulder comfortingly. "I don't know, but it looks vaguely like some kind of military file. Maybe he got it from the Initiative."

Angrily she started to group as many of the papers and files together as she could. Really she should take everything, but there were a lot and she had no place to stash them right now. As she lifted the messy pile up, a small sheet of paper, no more than a scrap really, fell back into the drawer and Xander picked it up.

He read what it said, "Marco. That name sounds familiar."

"It is; it's the name of Troy's lackey." Buffy glanced at it. "And I'm guessing that's his phone number. Would have preferred Quantiaro's, but this'll do for starters. After here, we'll give Will a call, see if she can trace his address from the number and then I'll go beat the info out of him." She was too mad to even pretend she was going to be diplomatic.

"What about the picnic?" Xander asked, pushing the drawer shut again once she was finished in it, and closing the cabinet back up.

In her mind, his words translated easily into: "What about Faith's call?"

"Okay, that can wait until the morning." She folded her pilfered documents in half, lengthwise, and then shoved them down the side of her pants so that they lay trapped between the denim and her thigh. It was uncomfortable, but it left her hands free and no one would see them when they left. "Okay, come on."

They'd gotten as much out of the secret room as they could, she reckoned; time to move. She went to the steps leading up to the little person door.

"Uh, aren't we going out the same way we came in?" Xander asked, pointing at the hole.

"Oh, good point." Going to it, she lifted the stone slab from the floor and dropped it back into place, sealing the exit.

"Um, what point was that exactly?"

"We've come this far, I'm not going home now until I've seen how the other half live." She told him simply and trotted up the few steps to try the door handle.

It didn't give and instinctively she drew back her leg and forced it back hard against the lock, just as Xander shouted, "Alarms!"

"Shit!" They both stopped dead waiting for a shrill ringing to pierce their ears and summon the police.

There was nothing. It was possible some silent alarm had been triggered with a security company, but there was no point worrying about something they didn't know for sure.

"Come on," she repeated, pulling open the busted door.

He followed her obediently out of the little basement room and then up another, much longer flight of stone stairs that ended in a solid brick wall.

"Damn," she muttered in the semi darkness.

There were windows here, two of them on their left, high up near the ceiling. Dirty and way too small for even her to get through, but they let in a little light, enough to see the wall anyway.

"You can't tell me he comes in through the storm drain every time," she said.

"No, I don't think he does." Xander squeezed past her as she looked confused. "Like you said earlier, about bolt holes and secret tunnels. Well, they're not any good if your enemy can find them straight after you've gone through."

She watched as he felt around on the bricks, his palms moving slowly but surely over each one.

"There you go," he muttered to himself, for no reason that she could see, and then suddenly he was struggling with half a wall in his hands. "Help?"

She moved in closer to him, taking the weight of the twenty or so cemented together bricks he'd loosened from the main structure, and set it awkwardly down on the stairs. "How did you know?"

"Good guess," he admitted. "And the bricks are a different color to the rest."

"Oh." She smiled at him briefly before stepping through the hole, back into total darkness again. After two steps her forehead struck metal with a dull twang. "Ow. Great, now a false metal wall," she complained.

"Or a warehouse door," Xander suggested. "Look for a handle."

"Oh, right." She did so and found it, and this one wasn't even locked.

On the other side was the first floor of the warehouse. There were windows along the sides and the back. Large, high up windows that were spotlessly clean letting a lot of bright sunlight stream in from the back. The warehouse was big though, and still a lot of it was in shadow, so before Buffy looked around, she flipped the light switch by the door and actually felt her jaw bounce on the thick carpet as it was all revealed to her.

"And I didn't think it was possible to hate him more, yet now I do," she said as she looked around, slightly awed at the magnificence of the place.

"And I didn't think it was possible for me to be more jealous of one guy, yet now...I stand corrected." Xander added his sentiment.

It was three stories high, with shiny metal staircases leading to each upper level. Standing in the middle of the room - as they both moved to do now - it was possible to see all the way up to the spotless skylights in the roof.

It was all open plan, but the furniture on the ground floor did a good job of making it seem like separate rooms. A kitchen in the far corner was a gourmet chef's idea of black and chrome heaven, while the living room was a square in the middle made of black leather couches and even blacker slim line entertainment technology. The television was almost the size of her bedroom wall. In another area was a bar, a pool table and a foosball table three times larger than she'd ever seen before, the little plastic players eight inches tall!

No wonder Faith had hardly been coming home those last couple of months. It must have been torture to leave this place even to go slaying.

"Well apart from the fact it makes me want to melt with envy, I can't see anything suspicious down here." Xander murmured.

"Except the bars covering the front wall, but then I already saw them." Buffy agreed.

She was keeping her voice low too and wasn't sure why. They were obviously alone. Talking out loud just seemed wrong in such a grand place, almost like they were in a church's bachelor pad.

The camera attached to the bars was staying still for now, half trained on the big front door. Obviously it wasn't connected to any sensors under the carpet, at least not any of it they'd walked over so far. That felt wrong too. Buffy was caught between a desire to take her boots off so as not to muddy it and going outside to jump in a few sludgy puddles before coming back in to practice a waltz around the furniture.

"Let's try upstairs," she whispered.

She watched the camera all the way up, just in case it suddenly swung their way, but it didn't.

The next level was just as impressive. It seemed to be a bedroom with a living room incorporated into it. The windows were large and at the right height for windows this time. Buffy could see more warehouses through them on one side, and if she walked around the big rectangular hole in the floor to the other side, she had a great view of the West bank of the river.

"I want his porn," Xander said from somewhere behind her.

She smirked a little. "Most of that is probably Faith's."

"Well some of it is definitely Faith's," he said with so much certainty that she turned to look at him.

He was staring at the TV at the foot of their emperor-sized bed; he must have turned it on although there was no sound coming from it.

Looking somewhere between sick and turned on, he grinned weakly at her. "Owned by Faith, produced by Faith, starred in by..."

Before he could finish she was at his side and now the same half-sick, half -turned on expression was on her own face. "Fuck!"

"I think they're just getting to that bit," Xander joked.

Buffy watched the romping couple for a few more seconds, unable to drag her eyes away from the horrible spectacle, and then her foot found the centre of the screen. It went black as sparks flew from the dent and then the whole television crashed backwards off of its stand, killing it completely.

"Guess we're not going with subtle anymore," Xander winced as she turned the huge bed over with a yell, scattering sheets and pillows across the floor.

"No..." She picked up a plush easy chair and threw it against the wall. "...we're fucking..." Picking up a small wooden bedside cabinet, she used it to knock a state of the art stereo to the floor and then beat it into pieces. "...Not!"

When there were no bits left bigger than a CD drawer, Buffy threw the cabinet over the railing to smash to pieces on the first floor and turned from Xander so he wouldn't see her tears as she tried to wipe them from her face.

It was probably a waste of time - he'd seen them already - but he gave her the second she needed. In an act of solidarity, he kicked his foot through the paper screens shielding the bathroom where it now remained stuck, forcing a little giggle from her despite how wretched she felt.

Smiling a little himself, he pulled his foot free - tearing yet more of the screen - and went to give her a hug, but she shied away.

"No," she shook her head. "I'm okay. Let's see what's on floor number three."

They walked up the next lot of polished metal stairs side by side.

"When I said I wanted the porn, you know I didn't mean that porn, right?" Xander checked.

"I know." Buffy nodded.

The next level revealed a gym. The kind of gym you usually had to pay half your salary a month to belong to. It took up the entire floor. Weight machines, a bike, a rowing contraption that looked dangerous to get inside of, running machines, walking machines, skiing machines, apparatus where you hung upside down and did God knew what machines. There was also a hot tub in one corner, and a juice bar, and a door marked Sauna and... Buffy took a step back, one arm out to halt Xander too.

...Lot's of wrinkly faced humanoid demons coming through the door.

"The welcoming committee finally showed up," said Xander.

"Or the security team," Buffy said, checking out the similar black and white suits they all wore.

"Ah, you musta be Miss Summers." One of them greeted in a strong, lilting Italian accent as the rest fell in behind him, spreading themselves around the equipment. "It isa pleasure to maka your acquaintance. Ana to answer your question. You coulda say we were a leetle of both."

Buffy just had time to roll her eyes before they were attacked.


Chapter Four

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Part Eight Quick-Jump:

Chapter One || Chapter Two || Chapter Three || Chapter Four || Chapter Five || Chapter Six || Chapter Seven


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