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The Burbank Wedding (Chuck/Buffy the Vampire Slayer) (Sequel to 'The Burbank Team')

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Starfox5, Aug 22, 2020.

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  1. Threadmarks: Chapter 1: The Hunt
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    The Burbank Wedding

    Summary:
    Caridad Ramirez was a happy Slayer. She had stopped an apocalypse almost by herself, with just a little help from the Council, she had her city under control, and she had a boyfriend who didn’t mind that she was a Slayer. Her biggest problem was ensuring that the upcoming Bartowski wedding didn’t go wrong. Or so she thought. Sequel to “The Burbank Team”.

    Disclaimer:
    I do not own Chuck or any of the characters in the series. I do not own Buffy the Vampire Slayer or any of the characters in the series.

    Author’s Notes:
    This story is set in an Alternate Universe. A number of canon events didn’t happen or happened differently in the series.

    Cover:

    [​IMG]

    Chapter 1: The Hunt

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, May 31st, 2008

    Somewhere in this club was a vampire. Caridad knew it - she could smell its foul stench clearly. But there were too many people to easily spot the demon. Too many on the dance floor, too many sitting in every corner, drinking, flirting and making out. Or doing so on the dance floor, she noticed, passing a couple who was dancing particularly closely.

    A guy moved to dance in front of her, flashing artificially white teeth. She briefly shook her head and walked past him. There were too many trying to hit on her, too, to hunt the vampire in peace. Well, it wasn’t as if they could help it - Caridad knew that she was hot and her clothes hid her weapons but not her figure. Her tight pants showed off her legs and her tube top and laced up boots drew attention away from her jacket, which held most of her weapons. Of course, she had to dress like this to fit in with the clubbing crowd. You couldn’t hunt vampires looking like a hobo.

    Then the song changed, and she had to squint and turn her head when strobe lights lit up, and suddenly, the entire crowd seemed to be moving in slow motion - or going backwards. Damn!

    She clenched her teeth, growling under breath - couldn’t the DJ have kept the slow music going on a little longer? Finding the damn bloodsucker was now much harder than before.

    “Are you alright?” she heard John ask through the bud in her ear - she had forgotten about the throat mic concealed in her choker.

    “Yes,” she whispered. “Just annoyed at the DJ.” She heard him chuckle in return. There was no need to go into details. This was just a temporary setback. No, just a slight annoyance.

    Or - she grinned as she caught the vampire’s scent much more clearly - an opportunity! The strobe lights made it difficult to see what was happening, but that went for everyone. Especially for potential witnesses. And she was close to the bloodsucker - it couldn’t be further away than five yards, tops.

    She closed her eyes for a moment and focused. Or tried to - she had never been a fan of all the mystic shit Chao-Ahn was so fond of. But she could find bloodsuckers with her eyes closed if she had to. Which she had.

    She drew another deep breath. Phil claimed that she didn’t need to actually smell to find the vampire, but it certainly helped. Stale cigarette smoke, cheap perfume and deodorants, alcohol, weed and other drugs… but also blood. Old blood. She slowly turned, her nostrils flaring again. Yes - the twinge and the scent came from that direction.

    She opened her eyes and started walking. There was a man, standing at the wall. Tall, broad-shouldered, wearing a slightly too-tight t-shirt and definitely too-tight jeans. And he was talking to the bloodsucker. Which was a dolled-up valley girl. Tied-off shirt, Daisy-Dukes that tried too hard to be a thong, stiletto heels that doubled as daggers - no class, no fashion, but it certainly attracted horny idiots with no sense of self-preservation.

    But how to separate the idiot from the corpse? The bloodsucker had him hooked line and sinker, or however the saying went.

    Caridad cocked her head. The song had still two minutes left. Two minutes of flashing light that made it all but impossible to follow whatever was happening. And two minutes of loud music that would mask the sounds of battle. She grinned. Damn subtlety!

    She tensed and stalked towards the vampire, gliding past a dancing boy. The demon didn’t notice her until she was almost in melee range, and even then it didn’t realise that Caridad wasn’t just another girl trying to make a move on the boy - it bared its teeth at her in a snarl. “Get Lost! I saw him f…”

    Caridad cut the vampire off with a blow to the stomach that folded it over, following up with a knee to its face, then grabbed the reeling vampire’s head and smashed it several times into the concrete wall behind it. In the strobe light, it looked almost funny - as if the vampire was teleporting into the wall without anyone doing anything.

    By now, the horny idiot had started to move, but a slight tap to the solar plexus stopped him in his tracks, and another tap to the chest sent him into the seat behind him. The vampire was starting to recover, so Caridad smashed its face in a few more times.

    It was young and hadn’t fed in a while - it wasn’t healing as quickly as an older vampire would, much less a master vampire. Good - exactly what they needed.

    Caridad broke the demon’s arms and legs, then heaved it over her shoulder and quickly walked towards the closest emergency exit. “I’ve got it,” she whispered. “Heading to the southern side alley.”

    “Copy,” John replied, and she could hear his car’s engine starting up.

    By the time she stepped out of the club and into the dark side alley next to it, John was already waiting there with the car. And the metal cables that would hold the vampire until they reached a suitable place to interrogate it.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Eastside, May 31st, 2008

    The underground car park had seen better times, just like the small office building above it. Water had seeped in through cracks in the foundation, causing mould to sprout up, and all sorts of waste, human and other, were strewn about.

    Caridad frowned - and not just because the stench assaulted her nostrils. People should know better than using the basements of abandoned buildings for shelter. Not only didn’t they have any barriers that would keep vampires out, but they also kept sunshine out - places like the one they had just entered with their car were practically vampire blood farms.

    Not for the first time, Caridad wished they could just go public with the truth about demons. It would save so many lives. But that would fuel the belief in magic. And because there were a shitload more people around since the last time everyone had believed in magic, that belief would wake up the kind of elder gods or demons no one, not even demons, wanted to wake up.

    Well, they had to stick to the next best thing: Kill as many of the demons as they could! And their captive tonight would help them with that goal!

    She looked around again, smelled the air to check that there were no witnesses, then pulled the vamp out of the car and dropped it in a corner, right into a puddle of cold water mixed with oil and gasoline. The fledgling had recovered during the trip here, but Caridad could still see some bruises on its face.

    She grinned at the glaring monster and checked its bonds. All good. Reaching down, she ripped the gag out of the vampire’s mouth, taking a fang with it.

    “You bitch! I’m gonna kill you, meatbag!”

    Caridad rolled her eyes. That vampire really was too dumb to, well, unlive. Exist. Whatever. Did it honestly think a normal human would have overpowered and kidnapped it? Well, John probably could’ve done it, but he wasn’t exactly normal, either.

    She grinned at the thought, and at the vampire. “Pipe down, bloodsucker.”

    Behind her, she heard John leave the car and walk over towards them.

    “I’ll kill you and your friend - I’ll kill him first and make you watch!”

    John stepped up his pace, and as he reached Caridad’s side, he took another two steps forward and smashed his steel-capped boot into the vamp’s face, slamming its head into the wall behind it. “Amateur.”

    Caridad made an agreeing noise and stepped forward to pull the monster up. “Shut up, bloodsucker, and look what we brought.” She grabbed its hair - fortunately, it was freshly styled; some vamps, especially males had icky greasy hair that hadn’t seen shampoo since they rose - and forced it to look at the bag John had brought.

    John opened it and started to pull out various tools and stuff, lining it up next to it while he commented on his own work. “Holy water. Wooden nails. A lighter. Some gasoline. Pliers.” He held up a set and grinned.

    That, to Caridad’s slight envy, finally made the vamp shut up and stare at them. “Who… who are you?”

    That was her cue. She bared her teeth at the monster and said: “I’m the Slayer. And you’re going to tell us all you know.”

    The gasp from the vampire was very satisfying.

    She crouched down - out of the demon’s reach, of course - and grabbed one of the wooden nails. “What do you know about Nathan?”

    The vampire flinched. “N-nothing! I mean… who’s Nathan?”

    Caridad sighed - then glared and snapped her arm forward, sending the nail into the monster’s biceps. “What do you know about Nathan?” she asked again, once the screaming had died down. This might take a while.

    *****​

    “I really don’t know where he is! Only those who graduate from the training camp do! That’s all! I swear!”

    Caridad sighed, disappointed, as the bound, whimpering vampire shied away, pressing itself into the corner in a doomed attempt to get away from her. She turned her head and looked at John, who was standing to the side, holding a cross.

    He shrugged. “I don’t think it knows anything else.”

    They had the location of the training camp and a few more names. Not the exact addresses of the vampires, though - just a basement room serving as a meeting area. Not really ground-breaking, but it was a solid lead.

    Caridad drew her stake. Time to finish this. Before the monster could react, or even scream, she staked its heart, then jumped back. No need to get all dusty, or lose the stake.

    “If anyone takes samples from the ground, they’ll have a surprise,” John commented.

    She shook her head. “They’ll think someone spilt an urn here - the kind of dust vampires leave behind would require cremation in special facilities if it were a human.”

    “Ah.” He nodded, and she knew he wouldn’t ask again - he rarely forgot anything. And he was a gentleman where it counted.

    She was smiling at his back as she followed him to their car. Technically, they had just finished a hunt...

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Los Feliz, June 1st, 2008

    “There is the block,” John said as they drove past it, “and the entrance the vampire mentioned.”

    Caridad took a look at the building. It looked normal - not abandoned or decrepit. No boarded windows, not many graffiti… and the one broken window was covered with plastic in a professional way. She frowned. “Are you sure the bloodsucker didn’t lie to us?” That wasn’t how vampire lairs looked - she had taken out enough of them.

    “No, I’m not,” he replied as they took the corner. “You can’t be sure unless you can verify the information during the interrogation - or question a prisoner again. But the vampire didn’t seem to be smart enough to consistently repeat a lie and add enough details to make it convincing.”

    She nodded a little reluctantly. “And vampires aren’t loyal. They’ll sell out each other to save themselves.” But lying to spite the Slayer was a possibility as well. On the other hand, it had been a fledgling, not an older vampire, and a pretty dumb one. “I guess we’ll have to check,” she added, holding up and dangling the keys they had taken from the vamp before she staked it.

    “Not right now,” he told her. “If this is a trap we’re unprepared.”

    “I can handle a training camp,” she retorted. She could.

    “Not if they’re expecting you,” he retorted. “Nathan is rebuilding his forces - and he’s bound to have a cadre of experienced vampires by now.”

    Those who had ‘graduated’ from the training camps. Caridad frowned. Competent enemies with a plan were the worst. “It’s unlikely, though, that they’d use a dumb idiot like our skanky vamp as bait. How could they have expected us to run into her?”

    “Misinformation. Tell your troops the lies you want the enemy to hear, then send them out on missions where there’s a decent chance of them being captured. They could’ve also been using this to test the trainees, see who among them is too smart to fall for it.”

    She frowned some more. Sometimes, she forgot that John wasn’t a former soldier turned Watcher like others, but a former spy - or active spy depending on their next few missions, or something. And then he talked like this, showing that he still thought like a spy. “It’s still unlikely,” she said with a slight huff.

    “Yes,” he agreed. Before she could reply, he went on: “But we don’t have to take the risk anyway. It’s almost morning.”

    Which meant the vampires would’ve fed already. She clenched her teeth but nodded. Slowly. “Let’s return here in a few hours, then.” Around noon sounded good. “How are your ribs?”

    It was his turn to scowl at her. “They’re fine.”

    She nodded again, grinning a little. “Good. I was looking forward to trying out a new position.”

    She saw him glaring at her for a moment before he focused on the road again. “I was fine. It just hurt a little. Like a strained muscle. People have such small injuries all the time.”

    But not Slayers. Or Watchers as fit as John. “You didn’t sound fine.” And she’d had quite the scare, suddenly hearing him grunt in pain. Instead of, well… the other reason.

    “I’m fine now.”

    That was good enough. She nodded. Every Slayer, no matter what they said, had some trouble controlling their strength at first. And while few Slayers might admit it, accidentally hurting your partner because you lost control during sex was a common fear among them, in her opinion. It was for her, at least.

    Time to change the subject - his wounds were a sore topic for John. “So, what are you doing at Devon’s bachelor’s party?”

    “I’m not the best man so I don’t know what is planned,” he replied.

    She snorted. “You’re the best spy. You probably know all about Chuck’s plans.”

    John scoffed. “You expect me to spy on Bartowski to find out what he’s planning? For the bachelor’s party he’s supposed to be organising?”

    He sounded honestly puzzled. But he was a spy. And she knew him quite well by now. So she grinned at him.

    He sighed. “We’ve discussed things. I told him the classics are the classics for a reason.”

    “So, booze, poker and strippers?”

    He raised his eyebrows. “Can you see him hiring a stripper?”

    “Honestly…. No.” Not unless lives depended on it. She chuckled. “But Morgan?”

    He groaned. “I’ll talk to him.”

    “Hey, it’s tradition. Big cake, stripper jumping out…”

    That earned her a glare. “It’s a security risk.”

    “You’re going to vet the stripper?” She chuckled again. This was too fun... She blinked, narrowed her eyes and growled. “You’re not going to vet a stripper!”

    “Just a background check by Orion,” he said. And he was grinning.

    She huffed, crossing her arms. And people said John had no sense of humour. He had one, but it appeared at very inconvenient times.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 1st, 2008

    Caridad grabbed another sandwich - you could never have just one - and a soda and went to rejoin the others at the dining table in John’s - their - home.

    “I’ve gone through the resident’s data trails,” Chuck said, “and there are a couple obvious fake ones.”

    “Let me guess: They live in the basement?” Caridad asked before taking another bite.

    “There’s no apartment in the basement,” he told her.

    “Not officially,” she retorted, “but I doubt that they’re happy living just one broken blinder away from fiery death. Not to mention the fire hazard that would cause.”

    John snorted. “I don’t think Nathan cares much about his minions’ lives.”

    “Unlives,” she corrected him with a smirk.

    “Uh…” Chuck cleared his throat.

    Caridad turned to look at him with an innocent expression as she ate the rest of her sandwich. “Hmm?”

    “I’m currently trying to sort the residents who are illegal immigrants from those who are vampires,” he explained. “Since both are missing a proper data trail, it’s a little challenging.”

    She scoffed. “It’s a good neighbourhood. That requires more money than new immigrants usually have. Just look at the more recent fake IDs.”

    “Uh… but what if there are exceptionally affluent arrivals? Or people sponsored by their relatives who have already settled in? We really don’t want to target the wrong people here,” Chuck said. “And Nathan might’ve used an older ID to rent an apartment for multiple vampires.”

    “As long as we don’t kill them by mistake, it’ll be fine,” John said.

    Caridad frowned. “We just need to check the windows - if the blinders are down and sunlight is being blocked, odds are, they’re vampires.”

    “Or their AC isn’t working,” Chuck said. “Or they work nights.”

    “Or it was done deliberately to lure us into a trap,” John said. “If this is a decoy, then such deceptions are to be expected.”

    “That would be a lot of effort for a marginal effect,” Sarah retorted. “I don’t think they would go to that length just on the off-chance that we would catch on and find the location.”

    “But they will be expecting us as soon as they realise that the vampire we caught didn’t come home,” Caridad said. “We need to strike soon. Preferably at noon.” Which left them about two hours of preparation.

    “Then we probably should disguise us as health inspectors, or something, and check all doors,” Chuck said.

    “Checking for rats?” John asked with a grin.

    “That should work,” Chuck said, a little defensively.

    Caridad agreed. It was a good neighbourhood, but not a super-rich one. Then again, you had rats there as well.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Los Feliz, June 1st, 2008

    Caridad heard the resident walk towards the door right after she had rung the bell. Wheezing breath. Short, shuffling steps. Someone mumbling to herself. Unless Nathan had turned an old woman who was also a great actress, this was another bust - few fledglings bothered with faking a breath.

    But they had to maintain their cover. She straightened and brushed a hand over her fake ‘Department of Public Health’ polo shirt moments before the woman reached the door and smiled brightly.

    “Who’s there?” The woman asked.

    “Mrs Smith? Maria Juarez, Ma’am. L.A. Department of Public Health,” Caridad replied. “This is Mr Black. We’ve received reports that this block might have a pest problem, so we were sent to verify that.”

    John just grunted.

    “Oh. Pest problem?”

    “Rats, mainly,” Caridad told her.

    “Oh, really? Yes, I’ve got a problem with rats!” The door rattled, and a face appeared in the gap. “Come in!”

    Caridad winced at the invitation - that would get the woman killed if a vampire tried to visit her - and at the revelation that Mrs Smith actually had a rat problem. It was supposed to be a simple cover. Not actual work! “Thank you, ma’am.”

    The woman had a little trouble with the door chain, but after some fumbling, the door opened all the way, and Caridad could enter the apartment.

    “They keep eating my dears’ food.”

    “Your dears?” She hadn’t smelt any pet. Nor could she smell any other person.

    “Yes. I leave food out on the balcony, but rats eat it!”

    On the balcony? “Are you feeding the birds?”

    “Yes, of course.”

    Oh. She could almost hear John grinding his teeth as the woman led them through a slightly dusty living room to the door to the balcony.

    “Oh, no! There’s one right there! Catch it!”

    Caridad stared. That was a squirrel on the balcony, plundering the bird feeder. “That’s not a rat, Ma’am,” she said.

    “Of course it’s a rat! Do you think I’m blind?”

    Caridad did actually think the woman was nearly blind. How could she miss the big fluffy tail of the squirrel?

    “Now catch it!”

    She wanted to groan.

    *****​

    “Guys, what happened?” Chuck asked, sounding more than a little concerned. “You spent fifteen minutes inside that apartment.”

    “Nothing,” Caridad snapped.

    “Pest control,” John replied.

    “Pest control?” Chuck repeated.

    “Tree rats.”

    “Tree rats?”

    “I had to catch a bunch of squirrels to shut up the old woman,” Caridad ground out. Squirrels who must have found some drug stash somewhere since they had been far too hard to catch for normal animals and hadn’t smelt like possessed. “And if anyone mentions that ever again, especially in a report to the Council, I’ll be very displeased.”

    “Are you quoting Phil?” Chuck asked.

    Bloody smartass… Caridad blinked. That had been a rather British comment. “So?” she replied. “You’d rather have me quote Faith?” She suppressed the urge to clench her teeth at mentioning the older Slayer. Who had slept with John.

    “No, no, Phil’s good.”

    “Of course he is,” Caridad said. She wished he were back in L.A. already, though. And not helping the Council sort out some legal issues in Merry Old England. Well, he’d be back very soon.

    “Can we focus on the mission?” John snapped.

    “Uh, sure, sorry.”

    “Yes.” She nodded. John was always very professional. Sometimes too professional. Like when he resisted starting a relationship with her for the longest time because it would’ve been “unprofessional”. Feh! At least he had finally wised up, and she only had to kill a dragon for it.

    “Next suspicious apartment is number twenty,” Chuck said. “Blinders are down, and we haven’t caught a heat signature yet.”

    “I’ve got the windows in my sights,” Sarah added.

    “Good.” The distance was a little far for a crossbow - unless it was one of the heavy ones only Slayers could really use - but it was almost noon, and any vampire that jumped out the window wouldn’t be able to run very far.

    They made their way to the next apartment, and Caridad checked that the stake hidden in her big notepad was still whole - she’d had to swat the last tree rat out of the air with it. If Vi ever heard of this incident…

    “There it is,” John interrupted her thoughts.

    “Yes.” Caridad took point - a Slayer was always at the front. Between the demon scum and her friends and allies. And lover. She took a deep breath as she raised her hand to ring the bell, and her eyes widened a little. She knew that smell. “Dried blood.”

    “Could’ve been an accident and a sloppy tenant,” John speculated.

    She shook her head. “No, I don’t smell the kind of filth that you usually find in those apartments. Just dried blood.”

    He grunted - he probably hadn’t expected anything else.

    She rang the bell twice, then listened. Footsteps. Two pairs. And the smell of dried blood was growing stronger. Must be a fledgling - more experienced vampires wouldn’t make that mistake. If you never cleaned up, even normal people would smell you.

    Well, those vampires wouldn’t grow old enough to learn, she thought, pressing her lips together so she wouldn’t grin and give the game away.

    The vampire looked through the eye-spy - she could see the light dimming - and then opened the door. “Yes?”

    The vampire was wearing a young body, early twenties, wearing jeans and a black t-shirt so faded, she could spot the dried stains of blood. Ew. It must be a messy eater. She didn’t take a deep breath - the stench was strong already. “Mr…” She glanced at her notepad. “...Stonehill? I’m Maria Juarez, L.A. Department of Public Health. This is Mr Black. We’ve received reports that this block might have a pest problem, so we were sent to verify that.” After a dozen apartments, she knew the spiel.

    The demon blinked. “Oh… pest problem?”

    “Vermin,” John chimed in with that growly voice of his that…

    Not the time, she reminded herself. “Rats, mostly. Can we briefly check your apartment for signs of the little buggers?”

    The vampire blinked a little, and Caridad almost frowned. Perhaps she had picked up a little too much slang from Phil. Then it nodded. “Ah, sure, sure… come in. Don’t mind the mess, though. We had a, uh, party.”

    “We’ve been in a lot of apartments today,” she told it.

    “Some were worse than this,” John added.

    “Ah, good… wait!” The vampire blinked. “What do you mean?”

    She didn’t reply - the second vampire had appeared in the doorway to the bedroom, smiling at them. Caridad knew better than trying to take two vampires prisoner. She grabbed the stake in her notepad, then flung the pad at the vampire in the doorway before staking the vampire next to her.

    She dashed towards the second vampire before the first’s dust hit the floor. It had slapped the pad away, leaving it open to her attack, and her flying kick caught it in the chest, breaking its ribs and sending it flying back.

    It grunted as it hit the wall behind it, falling down on its knees. She was on it before it could recover, her foot slamming into its chin and breaking its jaw. Its head hit the wall again with the sound of breaking bone, and it collapsed. It was regenerating slowly, like the idiot last night, but she took no chances and broke its arms and legs before John arrived with the steel cables to secure it.

    The demon was starting to move again shortly after they had secured it, so she beat it up some more, cracking its head again - carrying a rolled-up carpet that moved and struggled out to the van would attract too much attention. Carrying a rolled-up carpet? Not so much.

    “That apartment was infested by rats,” she told the nosy older woman watching them in the staircase. “We had to remove the carpet, and, well…” She grimaced. “It’s a write-off.”

    The women nodded. “I always thought Mr Stonehill was up to no good - he never was around during the day, he spent all night in clubs… and, well, he never cleaned his part of the stairs. Of course he’d have rats in his apartment.” She looked around. “Where is he, anyway?”

    “Last we saw him, he was leaving,” Caridad replied, and smacked the carpet on her shoulders again for good measure. “With good reason - once we’re done with him, he’ll wish he were dead!”

    That made the old woman smile.

    The others were waiting outside, in the van - which looked quite like a real Department of Public Health vehicle. If they had such vans. They had official vehicles, at least - they had used the official decals for the van.

    Chuck opened the doors for them and smiled at them. “You got your marks.”

    She narrowed her eyes - was he making fun of her for the squirrel hunt? No, this was Chuck. “Oh, it was easy,” she said. “These vamps are idiots. Fledglings.”

    “That’s a tautology,” he replied.

    John grunted. “Can we get on with this and discuss it after we secured the prisoner?”

    “Sure, sure! Sorry!” Chuck blurted out, stepping aside to let them enter.

    “You know, if the cops inspect or car, they’ll arrest all of us,” he commented while Caridad strapped the vampire into the van - without taking it out of the carpet. “It’s a rather obvious kidnapping van.”

    “It’s a moving van,” John told him. “It’s just that properly packaged, people and demons are as easy to transport as furniture.”

    “I’m not sure if that is reassuring or worrying,” Chuck replied. “I’ll never be looking at a moving van or truck the same way again.”

    She snorted at that, though John was just politely chuckling. She could tell. “Well, let’s get the other vampires!” she said, “there should be three more according to our intel.” At least if the idiot that they had caught in the club last night had been able to count to six - Caridad had her doubts.

    Before they returned to the building, she broke the vampire a little more. Better safe than sorry.

    *****​

    The next vampire apartment they found - after two more duds, one with a woman who worked night shifts at a hospital, the other a college student who apparently played video games all night, but no more squirrels - had three of the bloodsuckers in it according to the records. And fresh blood. Very fresh.

    Caridad staked the first halfway into her Public Health spiel, then charged into the apartment through the dust cloud he left. The second vampire managed to get into a fighting stance before she reached him. Karate, Caridad guessed as she ducked under his first strike and deflected the second. Yes, definitely Karate - she recognised that combo.

    But only Karate, nothing else mixed in - and the vampire hadn’t trained to fight before its death. It moved as if it were doing katas, tough with the speed of a vampire.

    I didn’t help the monster, of course. Caridad slid around it as soon as it was launching the next attack and rammed a stake into its heart from behind while the vampire was still going through the motions.

    John had followed her in and was already at the closed bedroom door when a vampire broke through it and slammed into him. Caridad was about to gasp, but John let himself fall on his back and used the vampire’s momentum against it, throwing it into the wall behind him with a modified Judo throw.

    Caridad was on the monster before it could recover, breaking its right knee with a snap kick, then dislocated its right shoulder with a quick lock. The demon screamed, so she shut it up with a kick to the jaw that smashed its teeth together.

    “Shit!”

    That had been John! Caridad smashed her heel into the monster’s head, then staked it and rushed towards the bedroom.

    John was there, rendering first aid to a woman on the blood-soaked bed. Caridad saw the puncture marks on the arms and legs. And the blood bags in the open cooler.

    They had been draining her. Slowly.

    Damn - she should’ve made the monsters suffer before killing them!

    *****​

    “That’s going to be in the evening news,” Caridad commented as she watched the ambulance take the woman away. Probably as some horror story about people stealing blood for transmissions. And organs.

    “And we’re going to be in a police holding cell if we don’t move,” John replied.

    A few calls would solve that - it wasn’t the first time they had to call an ambulance to a demon victim - but with the LAPD still angry about the spy affair, it would be better to avoid them. She nodded. “Let’s go.”

    “I’ve stalled the cops, but they’ll be here soon,” Chuck told them as soon as they entered.

    “Hit it,” John replied. “We’re done here.”

    “Got the last three vamps,” Caridad added. She casually hit the vampire in the carpet again, on its head - better safe than sorry.

    Sarah started the engine and entered traffic just as the first patrol car arrived. Followed by the first news van. Yes, that would make headlines.

    Caridad sighed once they were on the highway. “Nahan will definitely be warned now.” So much for the plan to ambush the master vampire’s courier - or liaison, as John called it - once it arrived for the weekly meeting.

    “If we wanted to avoid that risk, we would have had to let them hunt until their master contacted them,” John replied.

    She glanced at him. He looked, well, as always. Slightly angry, ready to fight at the drop of a hat, determined… but she couldn’t tell if he thought that they should have let the vampires kill a few humans to get to Nathan and save more in the long run, or if he was just pointing out that their original plan had had a few weaknesses.

    “Uh, guys…” Chuck spoke up.

    John grunted in response.

    “I thought… what are the odds that the vampires managed to rent three apartments in the same building, within a few weeks?”

    Caridad grinned - she had been looking for an apartment in Los Angeles in the past, and she knew how difficult that could be. Even with the Council backing her and a cover story to explain why she could afford the rent. As a freshly dead vampire? Probably using a fake identity? No proof of employment? “Nathan must have some influence on the building’s owners.”

    “Or their administration,” John said, baring his teeth.

    “I’ll hack into this,” Chuck said, then pouted when neither Caridad nor John laughed.

    Caridad didn’t care. It was a stupid pun or whatever you called it, and they had another lead on the stupid master vampire that kept evading her.

    And, she reminded herself, they had another vampire to interrogate. Even though it probably wouldn’t know anything useful. But it was one less demon preying on humans.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, June 1st, 2008

    “...and we do need to schedule the rehearsal for the rehearsal,” Ellie said, putting down her fork.

    Caridad mumbled something while refilling her plate - the roast was great! Ellie’s Sunday dinners were always a treat - then blinked. “Rehearsal for the rehearsal?” What?

    “Yes,” Ellie confirmed, frowning slightly at her. “So the rehearsal goes off without problems.”

    “But… isn’t the point of the wedding rehearsal that the wedding goes off without problems?” Chuck asked. “By letting you spot problems and mistakes before the real deal?”

    “Yes. But in order to spot such problems, it’s best if the actual rehearsal isn’t plagued by problems you could’ve identified beforehand. Hence the rehearsal for the rehearsal,” Ellie explained. She was frowning a little more now, Caridad noticed.

    Devon nodded. “Just for the most important participants,” he said, beaming at them. “Which means us here.”

    “But that’s why you have the rehearsal!” Chuck protested.

    Caridad almost sighed. He was trying, but she knew from experience that once Ellie was set on something, it was all but impossible to change her mind. She was just too stubborn, really.

    But she was also a great cook. And any soldier or Slayer knew that you didn’t annoy the cook. “Sounds logical,” Caridad said as she grabbed another serving. “Will there be food, too?”

    Ellie beamed at her. “Yes, it’s also a good opportunity to try out a few courses for the wedding.”

    “Which could be done without having a rehearsal for a rehearsal. You know, by just eating at restaurants.” Chuck, too, could be stubborn. Turning down free food? That was madness.

    “I don’t mind one more rehearsal,” Chuck’s dad added. “I wouldn’t want to mess up my part.”

    “Dad! Your part is simple. All you have to do is walk Ellie down the aisle and hand her over to Devon!” Chuck shook his head. “A service dog could do that part.”

    “Chuck!” Ellie snapped. “We’re talking about our wedding here, not one of your LAN parties!”

    “I haven’t had a LAN party since the nineties!” Chuck missed the point.

    Sarah touched Chuck’s arm, shaking her head.

    “But…” Chuck sighed. “Alright. We’ll hold a rehearsal for the rehearsal. Even though it’s redundant!”

    “I just want this wedding to go off without a hitch. No demon invasions. No apocalypses,” Ellie said.

    “No Spy vs Spy battles,” Devon added.

    Caridad snorted. “Don’t worry. Apocalypse Season is over.”

    “And we quit the NSA and CIA,” Chuck added. “Don’t worry, Sis - your wedding will be perfect!”

    *****​
     
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  2. Threadmarks: Chapter 2: The Threat
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 2: The Threat

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 2nd, 2008

    Caridad saw his right leg tense up. Just a little, most would’ve missed it, but she was the Slayer - she had noticed his tells a while ago. He’d lead with a feint, then throw a spin kick when she was dodging his strikes.

    There he came! Low blow aimed at her ribs - easily dodged to the side. Palm strike going for her face - she ducked below it and angled herself to step inside his reach and catch his right leg when it… It didn’t come. Instead, he launched himself at her, racing out to grab her. Grapple a Slayer? It was so stupid, she didn’t react in time, and he managed to tackle her. Just when she was shifting her weight.

    She didn’t fall, but it was a near thing, and her throw was a little off, so he hit the ground in a shoulder roll and was back on his feet before she could grapple him in turn.

    She pounced anyway, making him jump to the left. Hah! She turned her landing into a roll over her shoulder, pulled a split when she was halfway through and twisted her move into a Capoeira-style sweep.

    He didn’t manage to jump over it and ended up on the floor, catching himself on his hands, but not quick enough to avoid her next pounce, which ended with him underneath her and her arm around his throat, ready to crush it.

    Both of them were panting. “I was too slow,” John spat through clenched teeth.

    “No, you were too close,” she corrected him. “You need to get more distance when dodging a vampire or you won’t have time to recover.” This wasn’t like fighting another human, where his excellent reaction time would give him the advantage if he stayed close. “Good feint, though.”

    He grinned at that. “If I’d had a weapon…”

    “I’d have focused on your hands, not your leg,” she replied. That was common sense. Slayers could shrug off a kick from almost anything their size, but blades cut them like humans. And Slayer healing was fast, but not fast enough to work during a fight.

    And, though she didn’t say it, she would’ve fought differently, too. Like going for disarming strikes, at the least, before disabling.

    She was still on top of him, though she’d pulled her arm back. “Good spar.”

    He nodded, though it looked a little grudgingly. Perhaps she’d showed off a bit too much? No, he knew what she could do, and he would’ve noticed if she had been really holding back. It was probably just a hurt ego - John was very good at handling the fact that she was much better at fighting than he was, and also much stronger, faster and tougher, but he was still a man, and all men had some trouble with that. Even Chuck had had some when he’d been younger, or so Buffy had told them.

    But at the same time, it also made John who he was. She took a deep breath, her nostrils flaring as she smelled him. And very attractive. She grinned, then bent down to kiss him.

    By the time she pulled back, panting again, his hands were under her top, and she had most of his padding off.

    “We’re in the open,” he whispered - but his hands didn’t stop.

    “It’s already dark, and the only ones who can look into our backyard are Chuck and Sarah,” she told him, then clenched her teeth as she struggled not to simply rip off the uncooperating pad on his lower arm. “And if they want to watch, let them!”

    He snorted in return before they kissed again.

    *****​

    “We should get a jacuzzi,” she said later, when both of them were lying on the grass, clothes and padding strewn around. “We could spar, make out, then clean up in the jacuzzi.” And have more fun in there.

    “Cleaning up in the jacuzzi? That would take a lot of water,” he said as he turned his head to look at her.

    “You’re concerned about the environment?” She smiled at him, half-teasing, half-impressed.

    “I’m concerned about wasting water,” he shot back. “I’ve been in deserts often enough to know you shouldn’t do that.”

    “Ah.” She nodded but she didn’t believe him. He sounded a little too defensive. But she also knew better than to push this.

    Instead, she rolled on top of him and smiled. “Good for another round?”

    “Don’t you have a patrol?”

    “There’s still time.” It wasn’t as if she had a job to go to in the morning. Neither had he - they still needed cover stories so the neighbours wouldn’t start asking questions.

    But that, like her patrol, could wait.

    *****​

    It was almost midnight when she left the house - a bit later than usual. Late, in short. Phil would be disappointed. Though not too much - as long as she got a bloodsucker or two. Which shouldn’t be too hard. Los Angeles was big, and she could only patrol so much during a night. There were entire districts she hadn’t patrolled in a week.

    She stepped out into the backyard, walking past the pool. They really needed a jacuzzi. The pool was nice for swimming and cooling off, but it wasn’t built to relax in. Or make out. And they should have enough money.

    She vaulted over the hedge, landing in Chuck and Sarah’s backyard. A quick sniff told her that no one but the couple had been there in the last few hours. Well, she would’ve heard any intruder anyway, since she had spent most of that time outside in the yard with John, but it was always better to double-check - both Phil and John agreed on that.

    The living room was dark, but the lights upstairs were on. She hesitated a moment, then dashed forward a few steps, gaining speed, before she jumped straight up, landing on the balcony. Yes, Chuck and Sarah were still up. And not ‘busy’, either. She knocked on the door, then waved when both of them turned to look at her. They needed better situational awareness - Chuck was obviously surprised; Sarah less so, but she couldn’t fool Caridad.

    She would have gone on after checking if the two were safe, but Chuck was on the computer - and not playing a game. Which meant he was working.

    Sarah opened the door, and Caridad slid inside. “Hey! Got anything?”

    “Uh… I’m working on it,” Chuck replied. “I’m tracking a connection which I’m pretty sure is Nathan’s back door into the administration’s system, but whoever set it up was good - I’m on the third strawman, so to speak. The good news is that that way, we’re uncovering the vampire’s business network.”

    She suppressed a snort. Knowing the bloodsucker’s business details wasn’t important as long as you staked it. On the other hand, Chuck was working hard to track down the vampire and didn’t deserve to be bitched at. “Good,” she said instead. “I’m sick of its plots and schemes.” It was always a step ahead so far - but the vampire had to make only one mistake, and Caridad would slay it.

    “Nathan’s one of the smarter vampires, yeah,” Chuck said. “We’re lucky that it hasn’t set up on a Hellmouth.”

    “Its tricks only work because Los Angeles is so big. If it tried anything in Cleveland, it would be dusted in a week, tops.” The Council had lots of Slayers there. Enough to cover the entire city in a single night. Most of them were rookies, but still - no vampire would last long there, boost from the Hellmouth or not.

    “Well, we could call for…” Sarah started to say.

    “No!” Caridad cut her off. They didn’t need another Slayer. Not for a single vampire. Single master vampire and a bunch of fledglings. “We can handle this.”

    “Uh… the only problem is finding them. We should be able to handle a nest - once we know where it is,” Chuck said. “And we’ll do recon, of course - if we think we need help, we can call for help then.”

    Caridad nodded. “Yes.” And they wouldn’t need help. “Alright - I’m off to patrol now.”

    “And we’re off to bed,” Sarah replied.

    “I’m just going to hack this…”

    “Chuck....”

    “But…Oh!”

    Caridad snickered as she jumped down into the backyard. They were more than OK, at least.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Glendale, June 3rd, 2008

    It was quite a bit past midnight when Caridad swung by Kirsten’s apartment. And Morgan’s, probably, even if it wasn’t official, yet. The lights were already out - Kirsten was still recovering from her wound, so that was no surprise - but there was nothing amiss, as far as Caridad could tell.

    She did a quick tour through the building anyway, but found no demony traces. Still, it would be better if they rented or bought a house. More private. Safer. Easier to check on a patrol. But they might not have the money - Morgan certainly didn’t. She didn’t know about Kirsten - John was older and had had more time to save up. Though the Council was supposed to provide housing assistance to Watchers as well as Slayers, wasn’t it? She should ask Phil.

    And speaking of Phil… time to do the second leg of her patrol.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, June 3rd, 2008

    Two hours and another dusted bloodsucker later, Caridad was finished with her patrol. The only thing left was checking on Ellie and Devon. And Gunn’s people - it never hurt to check if the hired help was up to the job.

    She parked her bicycle two houses down the road - reminding herself, again, that without her cover job as a courier, she could actually upgrade to a bike or car - and made her approach on foot. The security system was still the same. At least it looked like it hadn’t been changed or upgraded. Easily avoided if you were a Slayer and familiar with the technology.

    Which Caridad was, of course. She jumped over a neighbour’s hedge, then got up on the roof there, to avoid the motion detector in the yard. The jump to Ellie and Devon’s roof wasn’t much of a challenge, but to land without waking up everyone inside was a little more difficult. Still not impossible at all for her - she had made the jump before. Although… she narrowed her eyes. The chimney looked just a little bit different. Ah! A few bricks had been replaced. So, more sensors to avoid.

    Which meant jumping onto the roof was out. Jumping at the wall, though… She grinned and made two quick steps to the edge of the roof, then pushed off and launched herself towards the house - at an angle. She latched onto the edge of the roof - not the flimsy gutter - with one hand and swung her legs up to bleed the rest of her momentum off, then clung to the wall above the window to the bedroom.

    Upside down, she checked. Both were asleep. No sign or scent of a demon around. Good. That left Gunn’s people. She clung to the wall as she made her way to the other side, avoiding the sensors on the roof and on the ground, then smelt the air as soon as she reached John’s former apartment. Ah. Fresh cigarette smoke. She recognised the brand - Gunn was around.

    She looked around, judged the wind… there. “Smoking is bad for your health,” she said, loud enough to reach the open doorway to the yard.

    She heard a muffled curse before Gunn stepped out. “Slayer.”

    “Not-Slayer.” She dropped from the wall to the ground and walked towards him. “Seriously, smoking is bad for you.”

    He scoffed. “In my business, I will be killed by a demon long before cancer gets me.”

    “Not what I meant,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “I could smell you across the yard.”

    He scoffed again, and she could see his jaw muscles twitch. “Vampires don’t have your sense of smell.”

    “Just because you never met one that did doesn’t mean they don’t exist. And some demons have noses like a bloodhound.” She grinned.

    “Like you.” He bared his teeth and snorted.

    She glared back at him - she knew what he meant. But Slayers weren’t demons. They fought demons. Better than anyone else. “I didn’t sell my soul,” she said, showing her teeth in return.

    “I did what I had to to protect my people.”

    “Some lines should never be crossed. And some plans are too stupid to be attempted.” Like working for Wolfram & Hart to ‘take them down from the inside’. Really, as if the demons hadn’t seen that coming from miles away.

    He twitched again - he knew what she meant. They had gone over this several times. “What do you want?”

    “Just checking up on Ellie, Devon and your folks.” She smiled as sweetly as she managed, to rub it in.

    “We’re doing our job,” he spat.

    “Yeah, yeah.” She nodded. “And I do mine. Got a few more bloodsuckers today.”

    “We’ve been hired as bodyguards, not as hunters,” he replied.

    “Exactly!” She didn’t pat his head - that would have been too much; the man’s fragile ego wouldn’t have handled it. But she drove the point home anyway. He had to understand that this was her city. Her people. Her job. Amateurs like him shouldn’t try to horn in on her turf.

    He tensed for a few seconds, then took a deep breath and finished his cigarette, flicking it away - almost at her. “So, you’ve evaded our security system.”

    “Yes. You need to cover the walls as well. And the motion detector in the yard needs to be a little more sensitive.” This was about Ellie and Devon’s safety, after all.

    “Since when are you an electronics expert?”

    She shrugged. “You pick up stuff if you pay attention.”

    “It’s your new boyfriend, isn’t it? You never were interested in electronics when you were panting after Chuck.” He grinned as if he had just made a huge deduction.

    She snorted. “Repeating second-hand gossip? Wow! What’s next, you gonna ask about my passionate love affair with Vi?” She still didn’t know who had started that particular rumour, but once she did...

    “Your what?” He looked surprised.

    “Another baseless rumour going ‘round,” she told him. Then she turned to look at the sun, which was starting to rise. “Well, I’m off. Keep up the good work.”

    She was over the hedge and in the next yard before he could answer with more than a curse.

    Well, that had been fun!

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 3rd, 2008

    She reached Phil’s home shortly after six in the morning - early enough so there was not much traffic or passers-by around, late enough so Phil would be awake already - he might have jetlag, though. And early enough so that the bakery at the corner with the bagels to die for was open already.

    Munching on her fourth - a Slayer had to keep up her strength - she rang the doorbell to Phil’s new apartment, then opened it with her own key. “Phil?”

    “In the kitchen, dear.”

    She smelled the air on the way - the scent of fresh paint still lingered, but she could smell the tea he had just brewed. And brewing coffee. And when she entered, she saw that he had decked the table for both of them. He had been expecting her.

    He also must have noticed her brief frown since his smile widened a little. “There’s no need to eat like a barbarian if you can have breakfast in a civilised fashion.”

    She snorted. “Technically, this is just a snack before bed for me.”

    Instead of answering, he filled her cup with coffee, then sat down.

    Sighing, she put the scones she had purchased for him down on the table. “I can’t surprise you, can I?”

    “Oh, you manage all the time.”

    She frowned - he made it sound like a compliment, but there was some sneaky hidden meaning…

    “Eat up, dear. I trust you had a successful hunt.”

    “Got three bloodsuckers and one hellhound,” she told him before starting on her fifth bagel. She forced herself to eat it in small bites, too.

    “A hellhound? Was it hunting someone or something?” he asked as he buttered his scones. He wasn’t taking notes, so he wasn’t really concerned.

    She shrugged. “I don’t think so - it was hiding behind a dumpster. Probably waiting to ambush a hobo.”

    He frowned a little - probably at her language. “That makes it unlikely that it was summoned by someone - few practitioners would summon a demon like it and then set it free, though the inexperienced dabblers might lose control. Of course, that generally means that they get eaten by their own summons, and, therefore, can’t repeat their mistake. But we shouldn’t assume that we were so fortunate in this case. Where did you find it? Near storm drains?”

    “Yes.”

    “There might be a pack then, and one of them wandered a little too far in search of prey.”

    She groaned. “Sewer patrol tonight?”

    She gave him her best puppy dog eyes, but he nodded. “We can’t risk a pack of Hellhounds going hunting. The panic and the rumours it would start… And Chuck is still working on tracking down Nathan’s hideout, last I heard.”

    “Yeah, it’s a smart vampire. One that knows how to use computers, too.” She finished her sixth and last bagel. He pushed the remaining scones towards her, followed by his home-made jam. Beaming, she grabbed one, cut it apart and started spreading butter and jam on it. “Thanks!”

    “You have to keep up your strength.” He took a bite from his own. “Although this Nathan could also have turned someone with the needed skills.”

    “I guess so.” It didn’t really matter - she’d slay them all anyway.

    “That would mean it could be far older than you expect.” His voice had that slight chiding tone.

    She suppressed a pout. “It can’t be too old, or we’d have heard of it.”

    “It could’ve been subtle enough to avoid our notice. The old Council had certain limitations when it came to gathering information about demons.”

    “There are tons of books about demons and vampires,” she pointed out. “More than anyone could read in their lifetime!”

    “Not quite.” He chuckled. “And I do agree that the odds of Nathan being an older master vampire are rather low, but…” He tilted his head towards her.

    She sighed. “But it’s the unexpected threat that kills a Slayer. I’ll be careful.”

    “Good.”

    “But we don’t need to call in help yet,” she clarified. They could handle this without another Slayer.

    “I wasn’t planning to, dear. Between Mr Casey, Sarah, Chuck and Miss Bane, we should have enough help to deal with this threat.”

    She nodded.

    “And how is Mr Gunn’s group doing?”

    She snorted. “As expected.” He raised his eyebrows, so she went on: “They’re decent bodyguards, as long as they don’t think they can handle dangerous demons on their own instead of ensuring that everyone gets away.”

    “You might be underestimating them,” Phil replied before taking a sip from his cup. “They did hunt vampires with Angel for several years. You shouldn’t hold their lapse in judgement, however fatal it would have proven if not for our intervention, against them. Your friends on the Council have made similar mistakes, have they not?”

    She scowled at that. He was right, but… “They’re not as good as they think they are.”

    “A quite common failing, I assure you.”

    She nodded. Then blinked. “Hey!”

    He was hiding a smile behind his cup, she knew it!

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 3rd, 2008

    Caridad slowly opened her eyes, then checked the alarm clock blinking on the sideboard. Almost noon. Almost five hours of sleep, too - that counted as sleeping in. For a Slayer. Yawning, she stretched and got up. If she didn’t dawdle, she’d be ready in time for lunch. And with John busy making said lunch - she could hear him working downstairs, and she could smell the potatoes frying in the pan - there was no reason to take her time in the bathroom.

    By the time she entered the kitchen, John was just taking the last steaks out of the pans. She licked her lips - they were just like she liked them: Raw.

    “Long night?”

    “The usual,” she said. “I checked up on the others. And I got a couple vampires and one hellhound.”

    He nodded and started to serve the potatoes.

    “But the hellhound might be part of a pack, so…” She took a big bite and continued after swallowing: “...I need to check the sewers in the area where I saw it.”

    “Need help?”

    “I don’t need help…” she said between more mouthfuls.

    “You can always use backup.”

    She nodded. “That’s good meat. Where did you get it from?”

    “New butcher in Hollywood.”

    “Ah. We’ll have to check them out, too.”

    He frowned and stared at his steak. “Why?”

    “Just a precaution.” She grinned at him. “We’ll be shopping there more often.” Unless the butcher was a demon, of course.

    He snorted in return and was about to say something when his phone started ringing. In the blink of an eye, he was all serious. “Casey.”

    Caridad cocked her head, listening in.

    “Casey? Are you and Caridad home?”

    That was Chuck. And he sounded… concerned. Caridad checked the knife in the sheath on her back.

    “Yes,” Casey replied.

    “Good. So… could you come over? We’ve got a situation here.”

    Someone was laughing in the background, Caridad noticed. Briefly and not loudly, but her ears picked it up anyway. And it was a woman.

    John looked at her, then at the half-eaten steak on his plate. “Is it urgent?”

    “Uh… kinda? Not urgent-urgent - we’re not about to get attacked any second. I think.”

    John sighed. “We’re on our way.”

    Caridad would have said something, but she was already stuffing her second steak into her mouth and grabbing a bread roll to turn her third into a sandwich. If this wasn’t really urgent, she’d make her displeasure known. Pointedly, as Phil would say.

    Caridad was swallowing the last bite of her sandwich when they entered Chuck and Sarah’s backyard. She could see Sarah through the big glass door in the back - the woman looked tense. Annoyed, too. That didn’t look good. And Chuck, sitting next to her, looked nervous. Both were facing someone Caridad couldn’t yet see.

    John, who had followed her example, was halfway through his improvised sandwich before dropping it on the table in the yard and drawing his pistol.

    “I’ll take point,” she whispered. If there was a fight, she wanted to be as close as possible before it started.

    “Gotcha.”

    Caridad opened the door, and her greeting died on her lips when she saw their visitor. Long legs, short skirt, tight top, gun hidden under her skirt - she knew that woman.

    Chuck cleared his throat. “Uh… you remember Carina? From the al-Farsi-mission back in October? Carina? You remember Caridad? You know Casey already, don’t you?”

    Carina. Sarah’s friend. And, apparently, an ex of Casey. Caridad bared her teeth. “Of course I remember - I rarely forget people whose life I had to save.”

    Oh, the spy didn’t like hearing that. Caridad grinned when she saw a brief scowl flash over the woman’s face. But then, it turned into a beaming smile. “Casey! Long time no see!”

    Caridad glanced at John, clenching her teeth, and took a step towards him.

    “Carina.” John nodded, curtly, but she saw that his eyes lingered a little too long on the spy’s legs.

    And, judging by the woman’s wide grin, she had noticed as well.

    “That’s a rather cold greeting after the time we spent together in the past.”

    John grunted, but didn’t contradict the woman. Caridad narrowed her eyes at her, then looked at Chuck. “What’s she doing here?” And how had she found their new address? Scratch that, the woman was a spy.

    “Uh…” Chuck cleared his throat again.

    “I’ve come to want you,” Carina spoke up before anyone could say anything else. “The DEA recently busted a Mexican cartel safe house. Among the data we found, your files popped up. Apparently, someone’s targeting you, and the cartel was gathering information for them.”

    Oh, no! “Who is after us?” she snarled. She’d hunt them down and stomp them flat! Demon or human, no one threatened her friends!

    The spy glanced at her with a smirk. “I just said that I don’t know their identity.”

    “But you mentioned a cartel. Which one?” Chuck asked, grabbing his laptop.

    “You’ve tangled with more than one cartel?”

    “We’ve been busy,” Sarah said.

    “So I’ve heard.” Carina crossed her legs - far too slowly - and nodded. “You’ve quit the CIA and the NSA,” she added with a glance at John.

    “Yes,” he replied.

    “Uh...which cartel was it again?” Chuck looked up from his laptop.

    “Aren’t you going to your new base?” Carina raised her eyebrows.

    “Don’t tell me that this is a ploy so you can find out where our new base is,” Sarah said with a frown.

    Ah - the spy expected them to have a secret base. Like The Castle! Caridad smirked. Carina wasn’t as well-informed as she tried to act like!

    “Of course not!” the spy said, putting a hand on her chest. Caridad knew she was lying. “But is this really the place to discuss a mission?” She made a point of looking around.

    “Uh, we planned the al-Farsi mission in Sarah’s apartment,” Chuck replied.

    “So you haven’t a new base.” The spy shook her head with fake regret. “Who are you working for, anyway? Don’t tell me that you’re going rogue.”

    “That’s classified,” John told her.

    “Really?” The spy was smiling at John as if she was trying to seduce him - well, the slut probably was!

    Caridad took another step towards John until she was touching his side with her biceps as she crossed her arms and glared at the woman.

    All that earned her was another smirk, though, before the spy smiled at John once more. “I can see Sarah quitting and going rogue - especially with the director dead. But you?” She shook her head. “You would never quit the NSA and go private. You’d rather die.” Another glance at Caridad followed. “Not for any price.”

    Caridad frowned. Was the woman hinting at… Oh! She growled. “Are you saying that I seduced him into quitting the NSA?”

    Carina chuckled in return. “No, I’m absolutely sure you didn’t.”

    Caridad blinked. That… That was an even worse insult! She’d teach the slut a lesson! She’d…

    John’s hand on her arm saved the spy from a well-deserved beating. “Carina,” he said in his angry growly voice that Caridad liked to hear, “this is need to know, and you don’t need to know.”

    “I’m sharing intel from a classified DEA mission with you. The least you could do is to return the favour.”

    Was the woman pouting? Really! Caridad scoffed. “You just want to find out who we’re working for!” She blinked. Should she have claimed they were mercenaries? No, Carina already claimed she wouldn’t believe that, not with John in their team. She still hated the way the other woman smirked.

    “Uh… can we return to the fact that we’re being hunted by some cartel killer? Like telling us which cartel was involved?” Chuck said.

    “Carina won’t be telling us what we need until she gets what she wants,” Sarah said with a scowl. “She’s always trying for an angle that benefits her first. And most.”

    Caridad nodded in agreement. Sarah would know - she knew the woman best.

    “I’m hurt!” The spy’s smug smile proved that she was lying. “I’m risking a lot by sharing this intel with you, and that is the thanks I get?”

    “You haven’t actually shared much, yet,” Sarah replied.

    “Uh… you want to know our secret base?” Chuck asked.

    “I already know that you haven’t a new base,” Carina told him. Then she looked at Caridad. “You’re working with her, and she’s working for an organisation so secret, no one I talked to knew anything about it - and I talked to a lot of people. But they have enough clout to make the NSA and CIA let their best spies go.”

    “That’s classified!” Caridad told her again.

    Carina grinned in response. “That’s interesting.”

    “Guys…” Chuck was biting his lower lip, Caridad noticed. And she knew his expression. He was about to ask something stupid.

    “She can’t be trusted,” John said - he must have recognised Chuck’s expression as well.

    “She won’t let it go,” Sarah said. But then she turned to Chuck. “Chuck! You can find out which cartel she was talking about.”

    “But… that might take a while. Even with…” He tapped his temple with his index finger. “And if we have a killer coming at us…”

    “We can deal with a killer,” Caridad said. “We did before.” Unless they were dealing with a sniper, she would spot anyone getting close enough. Although… A cartel killer might be a sniper.

    Damn.

    “You’re not cleared for this,” John repeated himself.

    But Caridad knew it wouldn’t impress Carina. The spy didn’t care about that - Caridad could tell. The way Carina sat, arms and legs crossed, the smirk… she thought she was in control. That she had the upper hand. Well, she didn’t!

    “Carina,” Sarah spoke up again. “We aren’t in the NSA or CIA any more. And our superiors are aware of you.”

    “Then it would be only fair if I were aware of them, wouldn’t it?”

    “No,” Sarah replied. “We aren’t playing these kinds of games any more.”

    “Really.” Carina didn’t believe her, Caridad could tell.

    “Yes, really,” Sarah said through clenched teeth.

    “You’re still spies. That means you’re still in the game.”

    “It’s not a game!” Sarah spat.

    “It, uh, really isn’t,” Chuck added. “But…”

    “Chuck. Carina wouldn’t understand,” Sarah said. “She thinks everything is a game - a contest.”

    “I like to win,” the spy confirmed it. “No matter what it takes.”

    Which was the worst kind of person to recruit as a Watcher, Caridad knew.

    The doorbell rang before anyone else could try to explain things to the stupid spy. Morgan and Kirsten had arrived. Both were still banged up - Kirsten more so than Morgan - but they were walking.”

    “Bane.” Carina’s greeting lacked any warmth. No old friends, Caridad noted.

    “Miller.” Kirsten sniffed. “I should’ve known you’d get into trouble.”

    “I’m not the one targeted by a Cartel Killer.”

    “Morgan,” Morgan said. He smiled, more than a little forced. “In case you didn’t know.”

    “Your file didn’t mention that you’re a spy,” Carina told him.

    “Err… I’m not a spy,” Morgan replied. “I’m… Chuck’s best friend and Kirsten’s boyfriend.”

    “You’re dragging a civilian into this?” Carina raised her eyebrows as she looked at Sarah.

    “The killer won’t care,” Sarah told her.

    “Right,” Morgan said. “Who’s after us this time?”

    “This time?” Carina smiled.

    “Miss Spy won’t tell us until we tell her who we’re working for,” Caridad told him with a glare. He wasn’t supposed to spill information!

    “Why not?”

    “Because she wants something in exchange,” Kirsten said with a scowl.

    “Like everyone,” Carina replied. “Tit for tat, and all that.”

    “We’re not recruiting her,” Caridad said before Morgan could have an even more stupid idea than Chuck. The spy couldn’t be trusted. Not with the truth and not around men.

    “Of course not,” Sarah agreed.

    Kirsten scoffed as well.

    “She’s a loose cannon and more trouble than she’s worth,” John added.

    The spy pouted in return as if she hadn’t known that already. “Is that the thanks I get for warning you?”

    “You haven’t actually given us actionable intel,” Sarah told her. “Just a vague warning.”

    “Well, once we’ve gone through the DEA files, we should have intel,” Chuck said, looking up from his laptop.

    “That intel isn’t in the DEA files,” Carina claimed. “As soon as I saw your names, I swiped the whole hard drive.”

    “Oh.” Chuck blinked.

    “How nice of you,” Sarah said. “That makes the intel more valuable.”

    “Yes.” The spy beamed with fake cheerfulness.

    Caridad wanted to beat her up. Just a little until she spilt the beans. And so she wouldn’t get any ideas about seducing anyone.

    “The identity of our new employer is not on the table,” Sarah told her.

    “Alright.” Carina sighed, then leaned forward. “But then I want in. On this mission.”

    “What?” Chuck blurted out.

    “I need results. Like catching an infamous cartel killer.” The woman beamed at Chuck. “A girl has to look out for herself.”

    “That’s all you do,” Sarah said.

    “Well, we can always use the help. Against a cartel killer, I mean. Right?” Morgan said, totally not helping.

    “Uh…” Chuck trailed off, but he was wavering. Caridad could tell. “It’s a good deal? The only deal we can get?”

    Caridad knew that her own idea - beat the spy until she told them - wouldn’t be received well, so she didn’t suggest it.

    Sarah sighed. “You won’t accept anything else.”

    Carina’s smile was so smug, the answer was clear.

    “Alright,” Sarah said. “Give us the data, and you can arrest the killer.”

    “If they survive,” John added.

    And if Carina survived, of course. Caridad wouldn’t shed a tear if the spy didn’t.

    *****​

    While Chuck went over the data, and Carina tried to convince Sarah to let her sleep in the guest room, Caridad went outside. Before she punched the woman. A quick kata helped. A little. She still wanted to punch Carina. Just not hard enough to take her head off.

    “She’ll try to spy on us,” John said.

    Caridad stopped her kata in the middle of a spin kick. Without lowering her raised leg, she looked over her shoulder. John was leaning against the wall next to the door. “Well, duh,” she replied. “That’s obvious.”

    “She’ll be trouble.”

    That was obvious as well. Caridad scoffed and lowered her leg, then turned and walked over to him. “If we’re lucky, she’ll try to seduce Chuck, and Sarah kills her.” She was only half-joking.

    John snorted. “Walker won’t kill her for that.”

    Well, Caridad would. At the very least, she’d break the woman’s face if Carina went after John. John was hers. Hers alone. Let the spy try! No, don’t even let her try! She realised that she was growling.

    “Don’t let her see that - she’ll take it as a challenge,” John told her.

    “Why is she still alive if she goes after every man she sees?” Caridad asked.

    John hesitated, and she narrowed her eyes. He coughed. “She’s good at getting out of trouble - and her targets usually are the kind of people who can hide their affairs.”

    “Like other spies.” Like John.

    “She seduced me years ago, but I learned my lesson.”

    Caridad clenched her teeth and growled again. First Faith, and now this spy… wait, it was the other way around, wasn’t it? “Let’s go to bed!” she snapped. She had an itch to scratch, worse than after a good patrol.

    He blinked but didn’t object.

    *****​

    Caridad didn’t smirk at the spy when they returned to Chuck and Sarah’s house later. She was above that. But she sat on the armrest of John’s seat. Just in case Carina didn’t get the message.

    Then the spy smirked, and Caridad had to stop herself from growling. Carina had changed her clothes, too - had Sarah actually let her take the guest room?

    “So.” Chuck cleared his throat. “I’ve gone over the intel, uh, Carina delivered to us.” He pushed a button, and a beamer started up, projecting files on the wall behind Chuck. “So, I, uh, analysed the data, and I’ve come up with one suspect.”

    In other words, Chuck had flashed, and the Intersect had told him who was after them. Good. That would make it easy to find and slay - or stop - the killer.

    “That’s a great analysis,” Carina said. “No wonder the CIA wanted to hire you so badly.”

    Caridad frowned. Was she fishing for information, or did she know about the Intersect?

    “Uh, thanks, I guess.” Chuck coughed again. “Anyway - this is our probable killer.” He pushed another button, and a woman’s face appeared on the wall.

    Caridad frowned. She didn’t recognise the woman, but John did - she felt him tense.

    “Jeanne Dubois,” Chuck said.

    *****​
     
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  3. Threadmarks: Chapter 3: The Spy
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 3: The Spy

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 3rd, 2008

    “Jeanne Dubois?” Caridad asked. That was the killer after them?

    “Former spy for the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure - the French intelligence service,” Chuck explained.

    “Ah.” What had they done to the French? But John and Sarah were tense, so there was more to this. And Kirsten was frowning as well, now. “And she’s now a killer working for the cartels?”

    “She’s missing in action, presumed dead,” Chuck said. “According to her file.”

    “She wouldn’t be the first spy gone rogue and becoming an assassin,” Carina added. “Black Ops?”

    “Her assignments on file are a bit… spaced out. And there’s nothing about her last assignment,” Chuck said.

    “And you’ve met her.” Carina grinned.

    Well, Caridad hadn’t, so it must have been a spy mission.

    “I’ve known of her,” John said. “And we’ve tangled with a few cartels recently.”

    “Oh!” Carina’s smile widened. Caridad clenched her teeth - she wanted to wipe it from the spy’s face. “And now the cartels sent their best hitter after you.”

    John grunted.

    He was evasive, Caridad realised - so, Carina was being misled. Good. She still needed to talk to him what this was really about.

    And it looked like Kirsten and Morgan wanted to do the same.

    *****​

    Half an hour later, after some pretty boring planning that boiled down to ‘be careful and don’t expose yourself if you can help it while we search for her electronically’, John and Caridad returned home. Before she could start grilling John, though, her phone vibrated - it was a text from Morgan.

    Coming. C&S keep spy busy.

    Ah. A few minutes later, the security system alerted them to intruders in the backyard - familiar intruders who had some trouble climbing over the fence. Caridad sighed and went outside to help them - it wouldn’t do for them to be seen by Carina, and both were still not healed up fully.

    She jumped over the hedge. “Hey!” Morgan startled. Kirsten did too, but less obvious. “Let me help you,” Caridad told them, then boosted Morgan over the hedge before grabbing Kirsten and jumping back with her - she had taken a more serious wound, after all. Caridad let her down, though, before they all stepped inside.

    “So, err, what’s with the French spy?” Morgan asked, still rubbing his ankle.

    “I don’t remember any encounter with her during our missions,” Kirsten added.

    Caridad merely smiled at John.

    He sighed. “Remember Marco Goncàlez?”

    Caridad frowned. That name rang a bell.

    “No,” Morgan said. “Wait… Ah, yes. She was involved?”

    Kirsten frowned. “You were involved? Of course you were.”

    “I wasn’t. I just knew about it.” He shook his head.

    “And I didn’t?” Caridad felt hurt. Why hadn’t she been told?

    “He was trying to recruit Chuck… or was he?” Kirsten said.

    Morgan grimaced. “Well…” he looked at John.

    “It was a frame job to protect a VIP. Dubois happened to interfere. She was presumed dead,” John said.

    “Council business,” Morgan said.

    “Ah.” Kirsten nodded, although a little slowly. Morgan might be sleeping on the couch tonight.

    Served him right, anyway - he could’ve told Caridad! She frowned at him, then at John.

    “Need to know,” he answered her silent complaint.

    “Well, now we need to know, don’t we?” she told him.

    “And Carina can’t know. Under no circumstances,” Morgan said. He took a deep breath. “This is about Chuck’s dad.”

    “He was the VIP?” Kirsten said. “But… why would he… he was behind the transfers. And he’s a hacker, even better than Chuck. He…” She blinked.

    “He’s Orion,” John said.

    Kirsten’s eyes widened.

    Caridad grinned - she had known that. From the start. Well, practically.

    “He’s Orion? No wonder that the NSA and the CIA couldn’t do anything.” Kirsten shook her head. “A lot makes more sense now. A whole lot.”

    “The NSA and CIA wouldn’t ever let off hunting him if they knew,” Morgan said. “And that would cause a lot of trouble since he’s working for the Council now.”

    “One of the best hackers, someone who has backdoors into probably all government systems, working for the Council.” Kirsten scoffed. “The NSA would go crazy if they knew.”

    “Well… it’s not as if the Council had no other hackers before him,” Morgan said. “Willow learned from the best, so to speak.” He shrugged. “Sorry for not telling you, but…”

    “Need to know.” Kirsten nodded. Well, she was a spy. “And you didn’t even tell the Slayer.”

    Caridad grumbled at that. They should’ve told her!

    “Well, now we did. And we need to make sure that Carina doesn’t find out the truth,” Morgan said.

    “And keep from getting killed by Dubois,” John reminded them.

    “And hope that it’s over before Ellie’s wedding,” Morgan added.

    *****​

    Once Morgan and Bane had left again, Caridad sighed. “I don’t like this.” And she didn’t like Carina, either.

    “I know,” John told her. “Sorry.”

    Well, it hadn’t been his secret to tell her. But Chuck should’ve told her! Or Morgan! Or… “Did Phil know about this?”

    “I don’t think they told him any details.”

    She narrowed her eyes. That sounded… well, it could be evasive. Or the truth. She’d have to ask Phil. But if he knew and hadn’t told her, she’d… well, she’d think of what she’d do when she knew the truth.

    “Keeping secrets is a spy’s business,” he said as he filled a shot glass. “Walker hasn’t told Bartowski everything she’s done. Neither has Bane.”

    And neither had John. “I know,” Caridad snapped, then turned and headed to the fridge. “But Morgan and Chuck aren’t…”

    “Bartowski’s a spy. And Grimes is a Watcher.”

    “Watchers aren’t spies.” She grabbed a few slices of bread and some pastrami.

    “Close enough. They’re the ones gathering intel and directing the Slayers. And keeping secrets.”

    “The new Council isn’t like that,” she retorted, ruining one slice when she pressed the butter knife down a little too hard. Almost ruining the counter, too. And the knife - but a quick twist fixed the bent blade.

    “You can’t run an organisation like this by sharing everything. Need to know is a rule for a reason, or one captured or turned Watcher would betray everyone else.” His glass was empty already.

    “I wouldn’t betray anyone! I’d rather die!” she shot back. “But this isn’t about the Council. This is about Chuck’s dad.” And Chuck was her friend.

    “Do you tell them every detail of your patrols?”

    “Yes.” Apart from the details they didn’t need to know. “To Phil, at least.”

    “Who’s your Watcher.”

    “And my friend!” And family. Best family she had, anyway.

    “But you don’t tell everything you do to your friends, do you?” He refilled his glass.

    “I would if they asked.” A little bragging never hurt anyone and was fun.

    “And if Phil told you to keep a secret?”

    She finished her sandwich and took a big bite out of it so she didn’t have to answer right away. That was an unfair question. Although… “Why exactly didn’t they tell me?”

    He sighed in that grunt-like way of his. “Because it wasn’t a clean mission.” She frowned, and he explained: “Gonzàlez wasn’t after us - we were after him because he made a good scapegoat.”

    Oh.

    “He wasn’t innocent - he was a career criminal.”

    She nodded. “But he wasn’t a threat.”

    “Not to us.”

    Ah. She took a deep breath. “I have to go on patrol. Hellhounds.” Sewer patrol.

    He nodded.

    She left without kissing him goodbye.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, North Hollywood, June 4th, 2008

    It was past midnight when she reached the area she had caught the hellhound in. And she still felt angry. Bad. Whatever. So, Chuck’s dad had framed and killed a drug dealer to save himself. And Chuck and the others had helped him. And killed a few bodyguards and a French spy in the process. Or almost killed a French spy. Wait - they killed her partner, didn’t they? The other French spy.

    Chuck’s dad was a killer. Who’d have thought? Well, spies were killers, weren’t they? They had to kill someone to become a spy, didn’t they? Well, all of them had killed enemies on missions. And not just demons. Or witches. Evil witches.

    And Caridad wouldn’t like to tell anyone about such a mission, either. But… couldn’t they have trusted her?

    She shook her head as she parked her bike and jumped down into the concrete canal, taking a deep breath. No scent of demons, hellhounds or other.

    She wouldn’t have thought badly of them if they had told her - she would have understood. Hell, she knew how bad the cartels were, and all those who worked for them. Without them, a cousin of hers would still be alive. Probably. But…

    She sighed and entered the tunnel. No danger of a flood, at least, according to the weather report. Drowning in the sewers would be amongst the most embarrassing deaths for a Slayer. She sniffed the air again. Something… She knelt down and took another sniff. Yes. Demony. But not like a hellhound. Not unlike a hellhound, either, though.

    A bit further in, the scent had grown stronger. A demon, indeed. But what kind? There were bones strewn around - mostly pets, but that ribcage… And the scent… definitely a hellhound. Or more of them.

    She bared her teeth. She could deal with a pack of hellhounds. An average pack, at least. And there were not enough reports about missing persons for a large pack. Really, it was probably just one or two left, after she got the other one. And she really wanted to slay something. Fight something.

    But…

    She scoffed. Phil would be disappointed if she went ahead on her own.

    She turned around and consoled herself with the fact that she needed to talk to Phil anyway.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 4th, 2008

    “...and it’s definitely a pack of hellhounds. I didn’t get their number, so I didn’t deal with it right away,” Caridad finished her report in Phil’s kitchen, munching on a few jaffa cakes he’d had in his cupboard. Emphasis on had - you never put the box back once you had opened it. That was the rule.

    Phil nodded, finishing his notes, and smiled at her. “That was the right decision, dear. As long as we don’t know how many hellhounds are there - and whether or not their summoner, provided there was one, is present as well - it would’ve been reckless to push on. We shall deal with the pack tomorrow, with the help, or so I hope, from our friends.”

    She smiled in return. She wasn’t some rookie Slayer who thought she was invincible and rushed into every battle. She was a veteran Slayer. And Phil knew it. Then she sighed. “We’ve got another problem, though.”

    “Oh?” He frowned a little. “Since I wasn’t already informed, I gather that this is connected to our friends’ previous occupation?”

    “Well, kinda?” She shrugged. “It’s connected to spy stuff, but also to the Council’s recruitment of Chuck’s dad.”

    “Ah.” Phil took a sip from his cup of tea - his third since she had arrived. But then, she usually would’ve swung by in the morning, not this late, and she had called ahead so he wouldn’t go to bed already and she wouldn’t wake him up.

    When he put the cup down without saying anything else, she went on: “They had to deal with a cartel leader or something, and they fought some French spy team as a result. One of the spies wasn’t killed as they assumed, and is back for revenge. Probably,” she added with a shrug. “She’s been asking a cartel about us - she’s been working for them as an assassin. We found that out from some spy friend of Sarah’s, Carina. I’ve met her when I had to save Chuck and the others from a vampire on a mission. She is working for the DEA.”

    He raised his eyebrows. “I think I remember that report, yes.” Of course he would remember - Phil didn’t forget things Caridad had done. Or failed to do. “And you don’t like this spy?” he asked.

    So she hadn’t been able to hide her reaction as well as she had thought she had. Frowning, she nodded. “She’s reckless and only thinks of herself. Sarah said she keeps getting her team into trouble. And she’s a honeypot.”

    “Ah, I see.” He nodded and took another sip from his tea.

    What did he see? “I trust John,” she said, frowning. “And Chuck won’t cheat on Sarah. And Morgan should know better than to cheat on Kirsten.”

    “One should hope so,” Phil agreed. “Morgan certainly has been involved in the spy business, as you put it, long enough to be acquainted with the possible consequences of cheating on a lover who is well-trained in the arts of espionage and assassination.”

    “Yes.”

    “But you think this new spy will cause trouble on that front anyway?” He tilted his head at her.

    Caridad nodded firmly. “She is the type to try it anyway. And that will cause trouble. She won’t accept that she has no chance and take it as a challenge.”

    “Ah.” Phil nodded slowly. “I am familiar with that type.”

    She narrowed her eyes at him in return - had that been a dig at her? She couldn’t tell.

    “However,” he went on, “I think we can trust Chuck and the others to handle her - Sarah knows her well, you said?”

    “Yes. But she also wants to know about the Council, and everything,” Caridad told him. “She tried to trade the information about the French spy for information about the Council.”

    “She didn’t succeed, though.” He tensed up a little.

    “No. She agreed to help us in exchange for getting to arrest the cartel members involved and what information we uncover about the cartels.”

    “Good. That doesn’t make her action any less deplorable, though. Especially if she supposedly is a friend of Sarah’s.”

    “Yes!” Caridad agreed, nodding a few times. “We can’t trust her not to stab us in the back!”

    “Does Mr Casey share your views on her?”

    “Yes.” She frowned. “But he thinks we have to work with her to catch the killer. Not because it’s a good idea, but because if we don’t, she’ll be even more of a problem.”

    “That would, of course, appear to be quite probable, based on my limited information,” Phil replied. “And you don’t expect this Carina to stick to the deal you made?”

    “No.” Caridad sneered. “She’ll break it as soon as she thinks she can get away with it and get more information.”

    “Then it would behove us to ensure that she never assumes she can, as you say, get away with breaking her agreement.”

    “I’ll keep an eye on her. Which is easy since she managed to convince Chuck and Sarah to let her stay in their guest room.” Caridad scowled. They should’ve known better than that.

    “That means that dealing with the hellhound pack might be more difficult than anticipated,” he pointed out.

    “I know.” And that was all Carina’s fault.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 4th, 2008

    Caridad stretched in the late morning sun. John hadn’t woken her when he got up in the morning. It was fair - she hadn’t woken him when she had returned home from Phil.

    But he greeted her in the kitchen when she came down the stairs. “Morning.” And he had been frying bacon.

    “Morning.” She grabbed some bread and started making a bacon sandwich, spreading the scrambled eggs left on a plate on it.

    “It’s a hellhound pack,” she told him between bites.

    He nodded. “We’ll need a distraction for Carina, then.”

    Which meant she would have less support in the sewers. “Chuck and Sarah should be able to keep her busy.”

    He grunted - the kind of grunt he used when he disagreed.

    She finished her sandwich and started making another, without eggs this time. “You think she’ll try to stick with us?” Emphasis on ‘try’, of course.

    “Walker knows her too well to fall for her tricks. Bartowski…” He frowned.

    “He wouldn’t cheat on Sarah!” she protested as she got the mustard.

    “Carina might not know that - or try to use that so he’ll get flustered and let something slip.” He put his own plate in the dishwasher.

    Caridad would have liked to refute that, but that sounded like Chuck. On the other hand… “He didn’t let slip anything about demons with you, did he?”

    He snorted. “I’m not Carina.”

    That was true as well. Though Chuck had been able to resist Caridad’s charms, back when she was interested in him. He shouldn’t have any trouble resisting Carina. “Well, we just need a good cover story for a night out in town.”

    “With a killer after us? Yes, we need a good cover story.” He nodded as if he were agreeing and not correcting her.

    She pouted at him. “You’re the veteran spy.” Hah - the little dig at his age made him frown a little! Not that he was old.

    “I’ll be scouting a safe house,” he said. “Too boring for Carina, but with a killer after us, it is needed.”

    “At night?”

    “It’s a workday,” he replied. “And she’ll know that we won’t be able to use our former safe houses.”

    “Won’t she assume that you’ll have private safe houses?” Caridad asked. After all, John had prepared a private safe house.

    “She should think it was compromised. Which it was.”

    That might work - John was the spy. Still, betting on the enemy being too smart not to fall for your ruse could backfire badly. Plans should be simple. Slayer-proof, as Buffy called it. Which was unfair, of course. Caridad imitated John’s grunt.

    It made him grin. “If she follows me, then Bartowski and Walker will support you.

    “And what if she follows me?”

    “You’ll have to leave early so we’ll know and can react.”

    She grunted again, then grinned. “I could just ambush her and tier her up.”

    “Don’t underestimate her,” he told her.

    She didn’t tell him that she had been joking. Although… It certainly wasn’t the worst plan.

    “So…” he said after a moment. “What did Brown-Smythe say?”

    “He agreed with you,” she said, trying not to scowl too much.

    “Did he know about the mission?”

    She shook her head. But she hadn’t asked him directly about it.

    *****​

    “So… we’re still trying to track Dubois,” Chuck said a few hours later, at a ‘briefing’ in his and Sarah’s home. “Though we haven’t been lucky yet.”

    “She’s an experienced spy - she won’t leave electronic traces when she enters the USA,” Carina said. She was wearing another too-short dress again. “Your best bet is to lure her into the open.”

    “You mean we should use someone as bait,” Sarah said, glaring at her supposed friend.

    Carina smiled in return. “It’s better to be prepared and have her go after a target you know instead of trying to protect everyone. She doesn’t know that you know, after all.”

    “It’s still too dangerous,” Sarah retorted. “She might not care about bystanders, either.”

    “That’s an even better argument to lure her to a place of our choice,” the spy said. “You wouldn’t want her to bomb your wedding rehearsal, would you?”

    Even Chuck glared at her in response, but she seemed to ignore him. And as much as Caridad hated it, the spy was correct - they had to lure the assassin away from innocent bystanders. “I’ll be bait,” she said.

    “She’s not after you,” John snapped.

    “She will, once she finds out that I’m your lover,” Caridad told him with a smile. She knew he hated it - but she was the toughest in their team. She had the best chances to survive whatever Dubois might try. “And if we’re lucky, she’ll try to kidnap me to force you out.”

    And if they were unlucky, Dubois would shoot her from afar. Or plant a bomb to take out an entire house.

    John grudgingly nodded, as did Chuck and Sarah. And Carina beamed at her. Stupid spy!

    Well, time to get things moving! “Anyway, I’m going out for a while,” Caridad said as she grabbed a handful of the chips Chuck had prepared for them. “I’ve got to take care of some business.” Like the hellhounds.

    “Oh?” The spy leaned forward.

    “Private business,” Caridad told her.

    “But what if Dubois attacks you while you’re out alone?”

    Caridad smirked. “She won’t find me if I don’t want to be found.” There were a few ways to travel through the city that normal humans had no idea of. “See you later.”

    She blew a kiss to John and was out of the door before Carina could say anything else. Once outside, she couldn’t help but look around for anyone aiming at her. John had shown her the closest possible sniper nests, but this was Los Angeles - it wasn’t as if Dubois would have to get too close to have a line of fire. There were too many buildings within half a mile or so.

    But the assassin would have to hit her, first. And she wasn’t an easy target. Caridad dashed across the road, between two cars - and tried not to think about car bombs - then jogged, varying her speed, down the street before she took a corner. Dubois would be expecting her to use a car, anyway, wouldn’t she?

    Well, it didn’t matter. There was a manhole in a side alley ahead of her. She easily lifted the cover with one hand and climbed down, closing it up after her. Let’s see the assassin catch her in the sewers, where she didn’t have to hold back!

    She ran at a good pace - for a Slayer - towards Phil’s area, jumping over the worst pieces of mud and worse.

    No sweat! Wait… She was travelling like a vampire!

    Clenching her teeth, she stepped up her pace. This was Dubois’s fault.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 4th, 2008

    Another problem was that she stunk when she reached Phil’s apartment. “I need a shower. And a change of clothes,” she told him.

    In response, he raised his eyebrows. “I don’t smell anything.”

    “Well, your nose isn’t as good as mine,” she replied. “I definitely smell like mouldy sewer.”

    “Storm drains, actually,” he corrected her. “I would notice if you smelled like an actual sewer, I presume.”

    “Whatever - I stink. And John will be here in a bit.”

    “Provided our spy doesn’t follow him.”

    She frowned at that. “She better not!”

    “And, while I would never try to argue against good hygiene, we are about to enter another, albeit a little larger and airier, storm drain later tonight, aren’t we?” He cocked his head at her.

    “So? That just means I need another shower later. And another change of clothes!” She huffed. If she was going on a hunt with John, she needed to look - and smell - her best. Especially with a spy like Miss too-short-dresses around!

    “Very well. I suppose that will, at the least, justify your clothes budget somewhat.” His lips twisted into a smile.

    He was teasing, but she still frowned at him. “Slayers need the budget. Slaying ruins clothes like nothing else. And Los Angeles isn’t some backwater city like Cleveland - I have to keep up with the trends, or I’ll stick out like some country girl when I’m hunting vampires in clubs!” Or, worse - people might mistake her for a vampire stuck in the past.

    “A very compelling argument.”

    She glared at him, but he merely raised his eyebrows again as she passed him on the way to the bathroom. She really needed to shower.

    *****​

    One and a half hours later, they were in Phil’s car, grabbing a bite to eat on the way to the meeting spot - if, by some chance, Carina managed to follow the others, then she wouldn’t find out where Phil lived. Caridad was through her third quarter-pounder with cheese when her phone vibrated. She pushed the rest of the burger into her mouth and checked the display. And hastily swallowed so she could curse. “John’s not coming! The spy’s sticking to him!” Not literally, she hoped, or there’d be hell to pay.

    “That means Chuck and Sarah are joining us, then.”

    “Yes. Apparently, Carina wasn’t interested in their ‘night out’.” Caridad replied with a huff. Stupid spy, going after John - Caridad had dressed up for nothing!

    “Ah.”

    “He can handle her,” she said, grabbing a handful of fries.

    “I’ve no doubt that her attempts to seduce him are futile.”

    “Yes!” She could trust John. But she still wanted to bash Carina’s face in - a little, at least - for ruining the hunt before it even got started.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, North Hollywood, June 4th, 2008

    Caridad was still pretty angry when they reached the meeting spot - not a bar or café, as they would have picked before this whole mess with the spy, and the assassin, had started, but a side alley. A side alley where you usually had a free parking spot because cars left here tended to get scratched by hobos, racoons the size of Dobermans - not demony; Caridad had checked, twice - or whatever actual demons hid in the storm drains nearby. Or sewers.

    Well, it wasn’t her car. Phil knew the risks.

    She sighed and stared at the wrapper from her sandwich. “We could’ve had dinner in a nice restaurant.”

    “And endanger the other patrons?” Phil sounded... not angry, but a little bit annoyed. Though that might’ve also been in part because he’d mistakenly ordered a vegan roast beef sandwich and Caridad had categorically refused to trade.

    But he was correct. She sighed. “This sucks. I’ll have to put on a disguise to go out to eat.”

    “It’ll help your infiltration skills, dear.”

    She snorted. “Nothing like the real deal.”

    “I’m certain that Mr Casey will be happy to help you refine your skills.”

    “Not with Carina peeking over the fence,” she replied, sighing again. Stupid spy. Stupid intruder. Stupid assassin, too. Well, it would be nice if the woman would stick to Chuck and Sarah’s yard, but she’d come over. And on to John.

    Caridad caught herself growling and twisting the wrappers with so much force, that, with some toothpaste added, they could’ve been used for a prison shank.

    “You seem rather troubled about this ‘Carina’,” Phil remarked. “I could call London.”

    “No!” she blurted out. She could handle the spy. She couldn’t handle rumours that she had to ask the Council to get rid of a rival. “She wouldn’t listen anyway - she’s a loose cannon.”

    “Ah.”

    She glanced at him with narrowed eyes. That had sounded a little off. And he was smiling. Slightly. Probably a dig at enthusiastic Slayers. She huffed, and his smile grew a little. “She should know better - she’s way older than I am!” At least thirty.

    “Indeed.”

    She counted that as a win. And there were Chuck and Sarah - in disguise and on a motorbike. The red wig didn’t suit Sarah, and Chuck’s wig had a severe case of helmet hair, but they were dressed sensibly - as Faith liked to say: If you’re dressed to bike you’re dressed to hunt. Though if they didn’t go into the storm drains quickly, the two would be sweating heavily.

    “Did you lose her?” Caridad asked as she got out of the car.

    “She didn’t even try to follow us - we checked through the security cameras,” Chuck replied.

    Caridad pressed her lips together. That meant the spy was still with John. She trusted John - to think that this woman thought she could just walk into her home and try to seduce her lover… She was growling again.

    “Uh… should she have followed us?” Chuck asked.

    “No,” Caridad snapped. “Let’s get the gear and get going.”

    Slaying a few hellhounds was just the thing to help with her mood. That way, she wouldn’t slay the spy if she found it in her home.

    They grabbed the two sports bags that Phil had brought - no sense in arming up outside the storm drains - and walked the short distance to the entrance to the tunnels. The sun was just setting as they arrived.

    She sniffed the air. Then the ground. No fresh scent of hellhounds or other demons. “They haven’t left yet.”

    “Good. That should simplify matters,” Phil said, grabbing his crossbow and favourite sword - a cavalry sabre from the Napoleonic wars he never let her use - from the bags. Chuck grabbed a flamethrower; no surprise. Sarah stocked up on several throwing spikes and grabbed a butterfly sword and a shotgun. The spikes wouldn’t be of much use in a fight against hellhounds, but Caridad knew that you could never have too many weapons; only too few.

    She grabbed an axe and a short sword - she already carried several blades and stakes on her. “Alright, let’s go put down some demon dogs!”

    She followed the same route she had taken last night - the scent didn’t grow stronger. That meant they hadn’t passed through this part yet - and wouldn’t have smelt her, either. Good.

    Once she reached the point where she had turned around last time, she held her hand up. “The lair is beyond this point.”

    “We should proceed with caution, then,” Phil said. “And remember that while anyone we encounter inside the lair might very well be the conjurer responsible for the demons’ presence, they could also be lost or a victim of the demons.”

    “No frying people on sight, got it,” Chuck said.

    “But fry them if they try to attack us,” Caridad said. “Unless they are panicking and mistake us for demons,” she added before Phil could say it.

    “Quite.”

    Caridad nodded and entered the smaller side tunnel. The stench of demons quickly grew much stronger. And she smelled decay as well. She clenched her teeth and hoped that the demons hadn’t dragged people down here, but animals.

    Deeper down the tunnel, the dirt covering the tunnel’s floor had grown into small mounds which cast large shadows on the walls in the light from their lamps. This tunnel hadn’t been flooded in a while, Caridad deduced. She tried to remember the last big rain to get a handle on how old the nest could be, tops, but didn’t manage. And asking the others… no. They were committed anyway. And it couldn’t be more than a month or two.

    But the stench… definitely a lot of rotting meat. Or flesh. Damn de… A faint scratching sound made her stop.

    She heard Chuck gasp behind her as he stopped as well while Phil and Sarah didn’t make a sound. “Wait,” she whispered. “I’ll go ahead.” She didn’t want their flashlights to alert the monsters - she could see perfectly fine with minimal light.

    Caridad moved faster now. They were close now. Time to slay! She turned a corner and spotted something moving about ten yards ahead, where the tunnel opened into a bigger room. Cistern or something. The hellhound didn’t notice her until it was too late - it managed to jerk away, so her axe didn’t split his skull, but the blow wrecked its shoulder instead, smashing it to the ground. Before the howling demon could recover, Caridad buried her sword in its mouth.

    But the monster had managed to alert its pack mates. Caridad heard them howl as she ripped her weapons free, splattering the tunnel with demon blood and brains. She yelled back, the sound echoing in the chamber ahead, as she dashed forward.

    Another hellhound pounced on her, but she ducked under its claws and jaws, slashing its belly open with her sword as she tucked herself into a ball, then came up in a crouch in the middle of the chamber - surrounded by half a dozen more beasts.

    Perfect! “Chuck! Incoming!” she yelled, somersaulting back. She landed with both feet on the back of the disembowelled hound behind her, and jumped off again, aiming for the tunnel from which she had come.

    The howling from the beasts almost deafened her. They trampled the wounded monster as they charged her, pushing each other out of the way to get to her. She met the first with an axe to the face that slammed it on the ground and ducked under the second. Damn - that monster ended up behind her. Not good. She kicked the wounded demon in front of her into the path of the next two, then whirled, sword and axe flashing.

    But the hellhound retreated, opening the distance. Trying to keep her surrounded. And she could see the others coming - the cones from their flashlights lit up the tunnel. Time was running out.

    She jumped to the side, then dashed forward, running up the walls as two more hellhounds crashed to the ground where she had been a moment before. The beast in front tried to track her, but she pushed off, and jumped to the other wall, then jumped off again - flying over its head. Her blades slashed down as she cleared the demon’s head, and the thing howled again as her axe clipped its flank.

    She hit the ground and rolled forward, then jumped up and rushed forward, towards the others. “Incoming! Behind me!” she yelled as the cones of the flashlights turned on her.

    There was Chuck, flamethrower ready. She grinned, flashing her teeth, as she passed him. “Light them up!”

    A moment later, the tunnel behind her filled with fire and the howls turned into frantic screeching as the demons charging after her burned.

    Then the smoke and stench filled the rest of the tunnel, and she started coughing.

    *****​

    “As effective as flamethrowers are, I think their drawbacks, especially underground, justify some restraint in their use,” Phil commented a few minutes later, when the smoke had cleared enough for them to advance into the room ahead.

    “We only brought the one; that is restraint,” Caridad retorted as she took point again.

    “And they are very effective. Though next time, we should bring breathers,” Chuck added.

    “Unless you are fighting demons immune to fire. At that point, they become a liability,” Phil replied.

    Caridad counted the burned demon husks. Three, four, five, six… missing one. She entered the chamber and looked around. No sign of the demon, but… there! The dirt was covered with ashes and other burned things. “We’ve got a runner!” she yelled, then gave chase.

    The wounded beast hadn’t made it far - she caught up to it after a few dozen yards and two turns. The demon was trying to open a grate above them, but with just one working forelimb, it didn’t manage to get enough leverage on the small ladder. Caridad cut it down with a few swings, then split its head.

    “That should be all,” she told them after returning to the chamber.

    “And we might have found the conjurer,” Phil replied, pointing at a skeleton with a split skull, then at a curved dagger next to it and more bones. “Although unless we manage to identify the person, it’s merely an assumption even though the odds of anyone using a Scythian sacrificial dagger for self-defence are rather slim.”

    “We can take the skull and compare it to the dental records of missing persons,” Sarah said.

    “And track the dagger!” Chuck added.

    “Very well. Let’s hope that we can solve this mystery and close the case. As quickly as we cleared this infestation, Hellhound packs are a serious threat to the population.”

    “Well, this pack won’t be a threat to anyone ever again,” Caridad said, grinning as she kicked another carcass.

    “As long as we destroy the remains so they won’t be found by someone else,” Phil told her. “That would trigger questions we don’t want to be asked.”

    Ugh. Caridad knew what that meant - more dirty work. “I’ll gather the remains.”

    “And I shall prepare the pyre.”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 4th, 2008

    John was still awake, watching tv, when she finally returned home shortly before midnight. Even better - there was no sign of Carina.

    “Need a shower?” he asked as she entered from the backyard.

    “I took one at Phil’s,” she replied. As if she had wanted to arrive covered with ash and demon blood and stuff when Carina might be around! That would have endangered their secret, too.

    “Ah.”

    She flopped down on the couch next to him. “We got them.”

    “Good.”

    “How was Carina?”

    “Annoying.”

    She twisted let her legs hang over the armrest so she could place her head in his lap. Then she raised her eyebrows.

    “She didn’t try to kiss me,” he went on.

    “But she flirted.” Caridad didn’t think the spy knew how not to flirt.

    “She tried to.”

    She clenched her teeth. That was still going too far. And in her own home! She pushed herself up and slid into his lap with a growl.

    John was hers. Not anyone else’s. And certainly not Carina’s.

    He was growling himself when she started kissing him.

    *****​
     
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  4. Threadmarks: Chapter 4: The Plan
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 4: The Plan

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 5th, 2008

    This time, when Caridad woke up, John was still sleeping. Well, she had kept him up for quite some time, hadn’t she? Grinning, she stretched and slipped out of bed. Eight o’clock - not late yet, but not early any more, either. She had slept in, at least according to Slayer standards.

    And she was hungry according to anyone’s standards.

    She showered and dressed quickly, as usual, then reconsidered. She knew that she was hot - any Slayer was. And she didn’t need to spend hours primping herself to look good. But… She looked at herself in the mirror over the dresser and frowned. She looked good - damn good - and she really didn’t need to, but perhaps, today, she could make a little effort to look even better. Oh, yes.

    Smirking, she went back to the bathroom. That would show the spy!

    *****​

    Enough makeup to look like she only used a little, clothes that were just short of ‘clubbing wear’ - she was looking stunning when she went downstairs to finally grab breakfast. First breakfast, anyway; she’d eat her second breakfast with John when he woke up.

    After half a dozen eggs and bacon and sausages to match - John hadn’t black pudding in the fridge, yet, but she’d wear him down one of those days - she dumped the empty toast wrapper in the trash and stepped out into the backyard for her morning exercise. A light kata to start, followed by some cardio with weights…

    She stopped and stared for a moment. The spy was in the neighbouring backyard, on a lounger, in a bikini. A bikini obviously not meant for swimming because, without some double-sided industrial-strength duct tape, it would be swept away by the slightest wave.

    “Good morning, Caridad,” Carina greeted her with a lazy wave and a smirk under her oversized sunglasses. Hell, the things covered more than her bikini!

    “Morning,” Carina spat out. She would have to change her planned workout. Swimming was now mandatory. It would ruin her makeup, but she should shower before using the pool anyway, especially after a workout.

    “How was your evening?”

    “Successful, thank you,” Caridad replied, grabbing some weights. Some of the Slayer weights, which looked normal but weighed more - the perfect tool to work out without showing off too much.

    “Oh?” What did you do? I didn’t hear about any explosions or fires in the city. Or murders.”

    Was the spy trying to bait her? She snorted - she had seen better. Far better. She started her workout with some light exercises - she’d do the kata later. “It’s classified.”

    “You’re no fun. We’re working together, aren’t we?”

    “Not on this.” She clenched her teeth - replying to the woman’s comments was a mistake. But not replying would make her look like a pouting teenager. A young teenager.

    Carina pouted. “But we should know more about each other so we can work together on our shared mission. If we don’t know what both of us can do, we’re bound to make mistakes.”

    Caridad flashed her teeth at the spy. “Just assume I can do it - whatever it is.”

    “Oh? You’re a hacker, too?”

    “No, but I can get a hacker if Chuck is too busy.” There was Chuck’s dad. And if everything failed, there was always Willow. It would cost her pretty much every favour and then some, but it would be worth it if only to show up Carina.

    “Ah. Your mysterious friends. ‘London’.”

    Caridad grunted in response and doubled the speed of her repetitions. A little showing off never hurt anyone, and the spy had to learn that she was outclassed in every way that counted. “Need to know,” she replied.

    “But I do need to know.”

    Caridad didn’t have to actually take a glance to know Carina was smirking widely. She did it anyway - you didn’t turn your back to a spy and potential enemy. “You want to know. You don’t need to know. That’s a difference you might yet learn.” She resisted the urge to imitate Phil’s accent, but she hit his tone.

    And, she noticed with glee, Carina frowned. Briefly, but clearly. Then the spy smiled again. “But I do need to know - or I might stumble upon information I shouldn’t know. Completely by accident, of course.”

    “Then you’ll have an accident, of course.” Caridad bared her teeth as she dropped the weights and started a kata to stress her point. She didn’t show off too much here, either - but enough to make the spy frown once more.

    Good.

    *****​

    Two hours later, Caridad heard John wake up. She smiled. Finally! After her workout and a shower, she had been sunbathing for almost an hour by now. “Morning!” she yelled from the yard as soon as he came down the stairs.

    “Morning.” He detoured from his way to the kitchen and stepped out into the garden - and she saw his eyes widen when he spotted her on the lounger. As they should - she was wearing her sexiest bikini.

    “Morning, John.” Carina had to butt in, of course.

    He merely glanced into her direction - and the hedge kept the spy and her tiny bikini out of sight from that angle - but Caridad caught a little smirk before he schooled his features. She frowned in return. This wasn’t amusing. “You slept in,” she told him. “I already had my workout, and with the weather being nice…”

    He snorted and nodded, then began his own workout. Which was nice to see, of course, but also attracted unwanted attention from the other yard.

    “Oh, Casey. Looking good.”

    He grunted in return. Caridad’s glare was ignored by the woman.

    “Mind a sparring session? I might need a little refresher.” The spy flashed a fake smile at him.

    “I’d love to spar with you!” Caridad blurted out before John could say anything. She all but jumped up and bared her teeth at Carina. “Full contact, OK?”

    The spy, though, backed off faster than a fledgling went for an easy meal. She turned her head towards the other house. “Perhaps another time - I think Chuck is preparing lunch.”

    “Sure, sure, anytime you want to spar, just give me the word,” Caridad told her.

    Behind her, John snorted, softly.

    “Damn coward,” she swore after Carina had vanished into Chuck and Sarah’s house.

    “She’s smart enough not to underestimate you.”

    Caridad scoffed. “If she were dumb she’d have been killed long ago.”

    And now John was frowning. Caridad pursed her lips - she hadn’t meant to remind him of his own age. Only of Carina’s.

    Ah, well. “Let’s have lunch, too,” she said with a smile.

    She didn’t change out of the bikini until they had finished their meal.

    *****​

    “So… we’ve been tracking the money of some of the cartel, trying to find their contacts in Los Angeles,” Chuck explained. “In case Dubois is using them.”

    “Low odds on that,” John commented. “She’s likely not trusting the cartel assets.”

    “Yes, but… it’s the best we can do.” Chuck grimaced. “We’ve also been checking the airport surveillance cameras, but…”

    “She won’t be arriving by air,” John said. “Or if she does, you won’t recognise her.”

    “Told you - my plan is the best,” Caridad said.

    “Out of a bunch of bad options,” Morgan added.

    “I wish we could do more. We’ve increased security here - we’ve hacked into all the surrounding security cameras,” Chuck said. “But…”

    Sarah patted his shoulder. “We’re doing what we can, Chuck.”

    But it might not be enough. Caridad knew it, though she wouldn’t say it.

    Chuck sighed. “Anyway… No news on our other mission.” He looked at Caridad.

    She nodded. That meant he hadn’t found Nathan yet - no surprise; finding a killer after them was more urgent.

    “And, there’s the rehearsal for the wedding rehearsal coming up.”

    “The what?” Carina stared at Chuck as if he had told her they were going on tour with the Polka Brothers.

    “The rehearsal for the wedding rehearsal,” Sarah repeated Chuck’s word with a sweet smile. “Chuck’s sister is getting married, and she wants to make sure everything goes perfectly.”

    “Of course, we can’t have a wedding rehearsal while Dubois is gunning for us. That would endanger far too many civilians,” Chuck said.

    “No problem then,” John said. “We won’t be doing it.”

    Caridad nodded. Ellie would understand. She wouldn’t like it, but she’d understand.

    “A rehearsal…” Carina shook her head. “As a cover, that’s really bad.”

    “It’s not a cover,” Sarah told her. “It’s the truth.”

    “Yeah, right.” The spy scoffed. “Next, you’ll be planning your own wedding, huh?”

    Carina’s smug smile flattered a little when Sarah didn’t dismiss the possibility right away. “Who knows? As I told you repeatedly, things changed.”

    “People like us don’t change, Sarah. We’re not the picket fence, two point five kids suburban family people.”

    “Of course not,” Morgan said. “Picket fences don’t give enough privacy. Hedges, on the other hand, are great. And very environmentally friendly.”

    Carina still didn’t look like she believed them. Well, her loss.

    “But I don’t like using Caridad as bait. A single sniper shot…” John trailed off. “You aren’t bulletproof.”

    But she was the most likely to survive an attack. Anyone else would be in greater danger. And none of Caridad’s friends was expendable. So, there was no choice.

    She blinked, then grinned. There actually was a choice.

    But she couldn’t talk about that with Carina present.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 5th, 2008

    “So… I have to be, like, bait again?”

    Harmony had gotten it the first time - Caridad was almost impressed as she checked if anyone near them in the café was listening in.

    “Ah, yes,” Chuck told the vampire. “Although you’ll be perfectly safe.”

    From the assassin. If she took one step out of line, Caridad would slay her.

    The vampire blinked. “But… if it’s safe, why do you need me?”

    “It’s safe for you. Anyone else wouldn’t be as safe,” Chuck explained - again. It seemed the vampire wasn’t any quicker on the uptake than expected. Which was kind of reassuring - the thought of a smarter Harmony would have been worrying.

    The vampire blinked again, her mouth twisting into a pout as she seemed to think this through. Or at least try to think it through. “How does that work?”

    “You, ah, might get shot. With a gun,” Chuck hastily added when the vampire gasped.

    “Oh.” She blinked. “Guns don’t hurt me.”

    Which was why Harmony would be bait, duh.

    “But they will hurt my clothes!”

    “You’ll be reimbursed.” At the look of total incomprehension on Harmony’s face, Chuck added: “We’ll pay you new clothes.”

    “Oh!” The vampire nodded. “Goodie! There’s that new dress I so wanted!”

    Which would get holed if she bought it now and wore it. But that was no skin off Caridad’s butt. As long as Harmony played the high school friend of Chuck and drew Dubois out of hiding, all would be well.

    “Uh, yes. Anyway - you might also get kidnapped.”

    “Kidnapped?” Once more, the vampire gasped. “Like… the Initiative?”

    “No. Just as a hostage,” Chuck said.

    “A hostage?”

    “Against us.” Chuck smiled. “But since they don’t know you’re a vampire, you’ll be able to easily escape - if they even manage to kidnap you in the first place.”

    “Oh.” The vampire tried to think again, which took a while. “And who’s after you?”

    “A cartel killer named Dubois,” Chuck said.

    Caridad frowned. Harmony didn’t need to know that. The stupid vampire was likely to blurt it out, which could warn Dubois that they knew about her plans.

    “Dubois?”

    “It’s a French name.”

    “Oh.” Harmony blinked. “The French have cartels as well?”

    Caridad sighed. This would take longer than she had expected.

    *****​

    “So… the French cartel killer doesn’t know about vampires. And Sarah’s friend isn’t allowed to know about vampires.” Harmony nodded to her own words.

    “Yes.” Even Chuck sounded more than a little tired by now.

    “But she’s working with you.”

    “She forced that on us,” Caridad snapped.

    The vampire flinched a little - which was good; bloodsuckers needed to fear Slayers - then frowned again. “That sounds complicated.”

    For her, perhaps.

    “Just don’t let her find out that you’re a vampire, Harmony. She only knows that we’re friends from school.”

    “Oh.” Harmony nodded, “I can do that. But what if she finds out that’s not true?”

    “How?”

    “She’s a spy, right? She could find out that we weren’t friends in school! I mean… I’d have, like, died if people had thought we were friends with nerds!” She blinked again. “Wait… I kind of died when we were kind of friends.”

    “I doubt that she will find out that we moved in different circles back in high school,” Chuck replied. “And even if she does, it won’t change anything since we’re friends now.”

    Speak for yourself!

    “Oh!” The vampire beamed at Chuck. “That’s true!”

    “Just… if Carina asks about you, I mean, asks you about you, tell her you’re a freelance operative.” Chuck smiled.

    “A free lance operator? Is that a sex thing?”

    Caridad rolled her eyes.

    “Uh, no. Just tell her that you’re a freelance spy,” Chuck explained. “And that you can’t tell her more.”

    “Ok!” Harmony nodded several times.

    Caridad snorted. Carina would get the totally wrong impression about the Council if the spy thought Harmony was one of them. On the other hand, Carina would probably think it was all an act…

    *****​

    Back in Chuck and Sarah’s house, Carina did look properly paranoid, as John would call it. “You’re Harmony.”

    “Yes!” The vampire nodded with a vapid smile. “Harmony Kendall. Though I don’t use my last name often any more. It’s against tradition or something.”

    “And you’re a friend of Chuck.”

    “Oh, yes! We went to high school together. In Sunnydale.”

    “And she’ll help us catch Dubois,” Chuck cut in. “She might not look it, but she’s perfect for the job.”

    Carina narrowed her eyes. “You’re a spy?”

    “What? Oh, I’m a freelance spy.” Harmony nodded with a smile that made her look even more stupid than she was.

    And Carina’s smile told Caridad that the spy didn’t believe a single word from the vampire.

    Good.

    *****​

    “So, I was, like, ‘this looks cute’, and she was all, like, ‘Oh, no, Harmony, you can’t wear it with your shoes’. But, she, like, gets to wear it with her shoes? Yeah, right! I couldn’t let that stand!” Harmony nodded several times.

    “I see,” Carina lied. “And that’s where Chuck comes in?”

    “Huh? Chuck? No. Why would Chuck know anything about fashion? No offence, Chuck, right?” the vampire quickly added with a forced smile.

    “None taken,” Chuck replied without looking up from his laptop.

    “Thank you!”

    “But… we were talking about your time with Chuck in high school!” the spy protested.

    “Yes.” Once more, Harmony nodded. “We were in the same year! Same classes, even - at least a few. I think.”

    “And you are friends,” Caridad prodded, hiding a smirk.

    “Oh, yes, we are!” Harmony dutifully repeated. “Sunnydalers stick together. Those who survived graduation, at least.”

    “Ah. Sunnydale High must have been a tough school.” Carina tried again.

    “Oh, yes! Hell on earth - kinda. Like, I didn’t know it at the time, until Xander told us, but it literally was on top of hell. Or something.”

    “Hell?” Carina was leaning forward now. Caridad knew she should stop the exchange, but it was too amusing to watch.

    “You know, the big fiery place where bad guys who don’t call after a date go? Hell!” Harmony nodded, firmly this time with an expression of satisfaction as if she had just given a lesson in theology.

    And Carina was trying to puzzle out what the braindead vampire had actually meant. “I see,” she lied again. “It must have come as a shock to you when the whole town vanished in a sinkhole.”

    “Oh, not really. I was, like, living - kind of - in Los Angeles by the time. And our group had, like, broken up years ago. After graduation.” Harmony frowned. “I, like, died.”

    “Ah. And then you reconnected with Chuck.”

    “Well, I reconnected with my ex, first. Who then reconnected with his ex. Who then reconnected with Chuck. I think. Right, Chuck?” Harmony turned to him.

    “It was about like that, yes.”

    Caridad couldn’t tell if Carina took that as confirmation or a misleading lie, but either way, it would, or so she hoped, keep the spy busy trying to figure it out. And keep her from bothering Caridad or John.

    “And Angel was so pissed when his big plan failed, but it was, like, dumb. But I got to work as a secretary for a while!”

    “His big plan?”

    “Classified,” Caridad said with a frown.

    “It sounds like old news.”

    “Not as old as Angel!” Harmony’s laugh was nerve-grating. It was almost enough to slay her on the spot.

    “Really?”

    “Oh, yes.” Harmony nodded again, but a glance from Caridad kept her from spilling more about the vampire. “So, anyway, I thought I was gonna get slain, but I didn’t, and everything worked out in the end, but, like, I had to quit as a secretary. No more benefits!” She sighed in a very theatrical way. “It’s been hard since then.”

    “Have you considered seeking other employment?”

    “Oh, yes! But most jobs I can only work nights, and that would, like, cut into my party time. And jobs are so demanding, you know?”

    “Yes.”

    “Anyway - how about we go out? Clubbing?” Caridad spoke up. It was late, but not too late to start working on Mission: Bait.

    “Oh, goodie!” Harmony beamed at her. Then she blinked. “Do you mean, like, clubbing-clubbing, or is this a mission?”

    “Clubbing-clubbing.”

    “Goodie!”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, June 6th, 2008

    “...and I think Carina’s really nice. She hasn’t gotten mad at me, like, ever!” Harmony had a rather sappy smile on her face.

    “That’s because she wants to find out your secrets. And then probably sell them to the highest bidder,” Caridad told her. “She’s a spy.”

    “Well, I’m supposed to be a spy too!” The vampire frowned. “Actually, I was a spy with Angel, wasn’t I? Working undercover - the other kind of undercover.”

    The way Caridad had heard it, Harmony hadn’t exactly started working for Wolfram & Hart with infiltration and sabotage in mind. Or anything in mind. But she knew it would be pointless to point this out. Nodding and going along with the vampire’s babble was much easier. And didn’t make her want to stake the vampire as much.

    “So… think she has a job for me?”

    “Do you want to work for the government? The same government that had the Initiative?”

    “Uh… But isn’t the Initiative like, gone?”

    Caridad rolled her eyes. “And you think they won’t restart it if they get a vampire?”

    “You think so?”

    “Yes.”

    “But would they know?”

    “Yes. And the Scoobies would also know. And Willow doesn’t like the government very much.” The witch didn’t like Harmony very much, either.

    “Oh.” The vampire winced. “So… no cushy government job for me.”

    “No.” Caridad nodded firmly at her.

    One problem managed - so far.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 6th, 2008

    “I could almost feel my brain leaking out of my ears,” Caridad said the next morning as she sat down on the couch in their living room. “Harmony’s just… braindead. I’m surprised she can actually remember her name and address.”

    “Well, technically, she is brain dead. Or brain undead,” Chuck said. “At least temporary. No brain activity when she ‘sleeps’.”

    “No brain activity at all,” Caridad retorted. “She was wondering if she could work for the government.”

    John snorted as he sat down himself, then nodded at Chuck. “What do you have?”

    Chuck coughed, “Uh… I kind of spent the time making Harmony more visible. Electronically, not literally. Just so anyone investigating us would find her.” Anyone meaning Dubois, of course. “And, uh…” he looked over his shoulder.

    “Carina’s not nearby,” Caridad assured him. “I can hear her talking to Sarah in your living room.”

    “Uh, thanks.” Chuck winced. “She’s been quite… persistent. She kept badgering us all night about Harmony. Trying to find out whether Harmony was a spy playing dumb or if we were actually planning to use a dumb civilian as bait.”

    Caridad snorted. Anyone who knew Chuck would know he’d never allow that. Carina wasn’t as smart as she thought she was.

    John, though, nodded, which made her frown.

    “Anyway, I did manage some work after we retreated into the bedroom, and Sarah threatened to shoot her if she bothered us.” Chuck shook his head. “But I mainly asked Dad for help.”

    “It’s his fault, anyway,” Caridad said. Chuck’s dad had caused the whole mess.

    “Well, he didn’t expect the French to be involved…” Chuck winced a little at her glare - and John’s. “Moving on! Dad’s been busy adjusting Harmony’s cover.”

    “What did he do?” Harmony was a bloodsucker and a stupid, vapid girl, but she was helping them, and it would be kind of unfair to ruin her un-life in exchange.

    “Hid her death a little better.”

    “Oh?”

    “It’ll look like a cover story for a spy instead of a paperwork oversight,” John said. “Right?”

    “Uh, yes, exactly.” Chuck nodded. “He said none was investigating her yet, though.”

    “Or he didn’t notice,” John said. “He’s not perfect.”

    “But…” Chuck sighed. “OK. So, we’re going to assume Dubois already found our address - or will soon - and Harmony will be visiting often.”

    Caridad groaned.

    “Uh, she has to, to sell the cover story,” Chuck said.

    “I know.” That didn’t mean she’d have to like it. Caridad sighed again. She just hoped Dubois would strike before he lost her temper and slayed someone. Between Carina and Harmony, this would be a real challenge. She frowned. Speak of the devil… “Carina’s coming.”

    John muttered a curse while Chuck blinked and quickly started closing windows on his laptop. “Uh… so… that’s about it.”

    A minute later, Carina entered from the backyard. “Did I mention that you really need a gate there, or something - climbing over the fence gets tiresome.”

    “We’ve ordered one,” John said in a flat tone.

    “But, uh, usually, we can just take the front route,” Chuck said. “And it’s kind of nice to have a private backyard where the neighbours can’t stumble in… I mean, not that you’d actually stumble, but…”

    Caridad snorted. “As long as you’re not too loud.” She grinned when he blushed - he would know she could hear him and Sarah anytime they were in their yard.

    Carina laughed. “I’ll have to tease Sarah about this later.” Well, her funeral. “Anyway - what were you planning?”

    “We were going over Harmony’s cover story,” Caridad told her. It was the truth, even.

    “Ah.” And it would make Carina think there was more to the blonde vampire. “And what did you do?”

    “Just some minor adjustments to her records,” Chuck said with a bright smile. “Nothing major. But it should suffice to get Dubois on her case.”

    The spy looked taken aback. “And how are you going to protect her once Dubois strikes?”

    “She can take care of herself,” Caridad said with a shrug. Vampires were hard to kill - at least for amateurs.

    “You know, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you considered her expendable,” Carina replied with a glance at Chuck.

    “What? No!” he protested.

    Caridad forced herself to nod in agreement. “She’s not as easy to kill as she appears.”

    Carina looked at her, frowning. “She’s good then. Very good.”

    It took all of Caridad’s self-control not to tell Carina that Harmony was actually bad. Very bad.

    *****​

    “Hello!”

    After checking through the peephole, Caridad blinked. Why was Harmony standing outside their door with two suitcases? She opened the door - a gap; just in case someone was aiming at them. “Harmony?”

    “Ah, goodie!” The vampire smiled at her. “I wasn’t sure you were at home. Chuck said you were, but… like, you never know, do you?”

    “What are you doing here?” Caridad asked.

    “Just dropping off a few things before I’m going clubbing.”

    “A few things?”

    “You know, like, clothes, cosmetics, accessoires, shoes - like, the essentials.” Harmony nodded as if she had just dispensed some ancient wisdom.

    Caridad cocked her head. “And why are you dropping them off here? Did something happen to your apartment?”

    “What? Oh, no, nothing. But if I’m to live here, I, like, need my stuff, you know?”

    Live here? “What?”

    “I said that if I live here, I need my stuff, like, you know?”

    “Why would you live here?” If vampires could even be said to live.

    “Because Carina’s in Chuck’s guest room, and she’s not sharing,” Harmony said as if that explained it. “And if we shared, she’d probably find out I’m a vampire, what with the mirror in the guest bathroom not working for me, you know?”

    “No, that makes sense.” Sort of. “But why would you need to live here?”

    “So the assassin will go after me when I go clubbing, duh!” Harmony shook her head. “That was the plan, right?”

    Caridad didn’t remember any plan that would have forced her to let a vampire into her home. She wasn’t Buffy - there was no need for a vampire to stay with her! “No, it wasn’t. The goal is to use you as bait so the assassin doesn’t hit our homes.”

    “But Chuck sent me to you! Besides, that way, I have some spare clothes if I, like, have an accident and need to change. Your home is much more convenient than my own for that, what with the best clubs being, like, five minutes from here!”

    The best clubs weren’t so close unless you liked flash-in-pan tourist traps. “You want to turn my home into a wardrobe for you?” She should just stake the bloodsucker!

    “Only an emergency wardrobe. Besides, if I stay here, I can protect your lover.”

    “John doesn’t need protection,” she told the vampire. “He’s an experienced spy.”

    “But I thought you needed me because of the assassin…” Harmony looked honestly confused.

    “Caridad?”

    And John had returned to the living room from the yard.

    “Hi, Casey!” Harmony all but yelled. “I’m here to drop off my suitcases in your guest room!”

    “Which I hadn’t agreed to,” Caridad added as John joined them.

    “Ah.”

    She sent him a glare. He better backed her up here!

    “You probably should stay with Bartowski; he needs more protection,” John said.

    “No, he told me I should come here.” Harmony nodded. “Plus, their guest room is occupied, Yours isn’t! Unless you have a guest and didn’t tell me. You don’t, do you?”

    “No, we don’t have a guest,” Caridad said.

    “Goodie!”

    Caridad wasn’t going to invite a vampire into her home. She was about to tell the bloodsucker that, in no uncertain terms, when she spotted Carina watching them. Damn! If the spy found out about this… “Give me the suitcases.”

    “Thanks!” Harmony handed them over. “I’ll be back later - before the sunrise, of course!”

    And she disappeared.

    Caridad mumbled: “Spy’s watching us.” Then she carried the suitcases upstairs and threw them in the guest room. One hit the bed and bounced off, landing on the floor, the other hit the dresser and got stuck half-way under the bed.

    She barely managed not to slam the door.

    “So, we’ve got a vampire house guest now?” John asked when she entered the living room again.

    Caridad sighed. “We can’t let Carina grow suspicious. More suspicious.”

    John nodded - though slowly. “Her invitation can be revoked later, right?”

    “Yes. But we’ll need a witch for that.”

    “Good.”

    But it wasn’t good. Not at all.

    And the worst part was that getting Harmony involved had been Caridad’s idea. She couldn’t even blame anyone else for that.

    *****​

    “So…” Standing in the backyard, Chuck looked over his shoulder.

    “Carina’s in the bathroom showering,” Caridad told her.

    Chuck blinked, then glared at John. “Did you bug our house?”

    “No, I can hear her,” Caridad said. “She left the window open.”

    “Ah.” Chuck looked relieved, then froze. “Uh…”

    “Yes,” Caridad told him.

    “Uh, I think we’ll have to, uh, get better air conditioning,” Chuck said, blushing.

    “Why are you here?” John asked.

    “Uh… I found out more about Dubois.”

    “Oh?” Caridad grinned. If they had the assassin’s location…

    Chuck nodded. “Yes. Apparently, she killed several cartel members in Mexico before she started looking for us. I’ve confirmed that she was responsible for four murders. High-ranking cartel members with ties to Lopez. The real cartel killer we had to deal with during our mission.”

    “Ah. So…?”

    “She must have thought we were working with Lopez,” John explained. “So… how did she learn about our involvement?”

    “And our identities,” Chuck added.

    “A Fulcrum contact would be the most obvious explanation,” John said. “Unless we messed up with our cover.”

    “Well… we were quite involved in Mexico,” Chuck said. He tapped his temple. “So far, I got nothing about that.”

    “So, and how does that help us find her?” Caridad asked. That was what was important, after all. Who cared what Dubois had done before attacking them - all that mattered was stopping her.

    “Uh… We can deduce some things by studying the murders?” Chuck’s smile looked forced. “She didn’t, uh, use bombs or sniper rifles for them. She did it up close and personal.”

    “She probably needed information,” John said.

    Chuck nodded. “Three showed signs of torture,” he said.

    “And the fourth?” Caridad asked after a moment.

    “Body hasn’t been found so far.”

    “Ah.” So the assassin wanted to torture them before killing them. She was unlikely to use bombs on them, or snipe them from afar.

    That was good news. Kind of. Except for the bit about torture.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 7th, 2008

    “...so, like, I said: ‘No, I don’t go out to eat’, and he said I must be a good cook. Like, why would he think that?” Harmony shook her head. “Guy, like, hadn’t ever heard of delivery, you know? So, like, I told him no, and he laughed as if I had made a joke, So rude!” She noisily sucked the last of the blood from her bag.

    Caridad really wanted to stake the vampire. That was her breakfast with John that the bloodsucker was ruining. Chuck so owed her for hosting her. Caridad wasn’t exactly Willow, no one was, but so much stupidity hurt her brain anyway. “He probably wanted to hook up with you,” she said, before chomping down on more sausages. Still no black pudding.

    “Like, duh, of course he wanted.” Harmony shook her head. “Who wouldn’t? But I’ve got standards!”

    Caridad managed not to snort - even though the vampire probably would have thought she was laughing at the unknown man so desperate, he had hit on a vampire.

    “Any sign of Dubois?” John asked.

    “Uh…” Harmony scrunched up her face so much, straining her brain, Caridad almost though she was going game face. “No, I don’t think so,” she finally said after a few seconds. I wasn’t, like, shot at - I think; it was kinda loud in some clubs. And no one tried to kidnap me. Unless they tried to be subtle and disguise themselves, like, as men hitting on me.” Her eyes widened, and she gasped - even though she didn’t need air at all. “OMG! Perhaps that was her! Or.. a minion! Trying to seduce me so they can kidnap me!”

    Caridad rolled her eyes. Now Harmony was becoming paranoid. On the other hand, if she suspected everyone hitting on her to be a kidnapper… That would put a strain on her love life. And keep civilians from getting dragged into this. “It can’t be ruled out,” she said.

    John frowned and glanced at her, raising his eyebrows. She glanced back and nodded. She was going somewhere with this. “Best don’t get involved,” she said.

    “Like, duh - I wasn’t born yesterday!” Harmony nodded with a serious expression. “Do spies get minions, anyway?”

    “Sometimes, we have local support,” John said.

    “Gunn and his people probably count,” Caridad added with a grin.

    Harmony giggled at that. “Oh, yeah - they’re still at it, aren’t they?” Then she frowned. “But do they count?”

    “We hired them to protect Ellie and Devon,” Caridad reminded her.

    “Oh, right.” Harmony nodded again. “Better you than me - Gunn, like, always made me feel really dumb. That wasn’t nice.”

    Caridad once more had to struggle not to blurt out what she really wanted to say.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 7th, 2008

    “I don’t think a tracker is good enough security,” Carina commented in the evening, in Chuck and Sarah’s living room. “We need bodies nearby, or we can’t react quickly enough.”

    “Anyone we place near Harmony is at risk of getting recognised and attacked,” Sarah replied.

    Or to lose their self-control and stake the vampire, Caridad silently added.

    “And Harmony will be fine,” Chuck added, looking up from his laptop. “She’s got experience with kidnapping.”

    Mostly, as far as Harmony knew, by doing the kidnapping with Spike, back when Spike was evil. “And we’ll be in the area,” she said, nodding at John. “In an unmarked car.”

    “Somewhere ‘in the area’.” Carina shook her head. “I can’t believe you. What if Dubois manages to escape because you’re too far away when she strikes?”

    Ah. Caridad had been wondering why Carina seemed to care so much about Harmony.

    “That’s what the tracker is for,” Chuck said.

    The spy looked at them. “I can’t believe you… this isn’t right!”

    “Uh… Harmony volunteered. And she knows the risks,” Chuck said.

    “Save it!” Carina snapped. “This isn’t how things are done. This isn’t how we used to do things, Sarah. You’re hiding something!” She glared at Sarah. “You’d never send one of your own out to die. And if you wanted her dead, you’d kill her yourself. We have a deal - what is going on?”

    “Uh. Harmony can handle Dubois. She really can.” Chuck tried again.

    “No matter how good she is, no one is perfect.” Carina scowled. “Dubois is a good spy - she can get the drop on Harmony. And she’ll expect trackers.” The spy narrowed her eyes. “No, you’ve got another plan.”

    “Uh… no,” Chuck said.

    “That is our plan. Harmony is bait. Once Dubois takes the bait, we go after her,” Sarah said.

    Caridad nodded.

    “I don’t believe you.” Carina snorted. “Casey, I’d believe. Sarah - if Harmony had hurt you in the past.” She looked at Caridad and scoffed. “But you, Chuck?” She shook her head. “You wouldn’t risk someone like that. That’s not you.”

    “Uh…” Chuck grimaced. “The risk is really not that great, trust me. Dubois will likely try to kidnap her, to get intel on us. Or, uh, leverage. Or to make an example. But she won’t just kill her.”

    “She’ll torture her instead.” The spy narrowed her eyes at him.

    “Uh… we’ll intervene before that.”

    “Dubois will expect backup. And you know that.”

    Caridad frowned. Of course they did - that’s why they used Harmony: to lure the spy out in the open. But Carina wasn’t buying it. Caridad was about to comment when she heard the backdoor to her home open. Harmony was done in the bathroom.

    A moment later, the vampire appeared in the backyard, waving at her. She was wearing a dress far too short - which, apparently, had been normal at Sunnydale High, according to Chuck - and heels far too high. “Hi, there!” she chirped as she entered the room. “I used up your conditioner, Caridad. You need to buy more.”

    “The conditioner I told you not to use?” Caridad asked. That was expensive. And needed, with all the times vampire dust or demon goop got into one’s hair.

    “Uh… you did? I mean… yes?” Harmony smiled weakly. “Anyway, I’m totally ready for today’s mission!”

    “Really.” Carina pointedly looked at her.

    “Yes!”

    “And what do you do if something goes wrong and you get kidnapped?”

    “Duh! I’ll escape, of course. And catch the kidnapper. Without killing them.” Harmony nodded, obviously proud to have remembered her instructions. “Then I’ll call you if you haven’t followed me.”

    Carina looked at her, then at the rest of them. “I don’t know what’s going on, but I’ll find out.”

    Harmony beamed at her. “Oh, did you forget? That happens to me all the time, but this time, I paid attention. So, it’s like this…”

    Caridad smirked openly at Carina’s expression.

    *****​
     
  5. Threadmarks: Chapter 5: The Ambush
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 5: The Ambush

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 7th, 2008

    Caridad took another sip from the far too expensive coke and sighed. Aggressively. ‘We’re going to all the best clubs’, Harmony had said. The ‘Lilac Leopard’ was many things - overpriced, far too loud, garishly decorated, and trying way too hard to be hip to actually be hip - but one thing it wasn’t, and that was ‘best’ in anything. Worst, on the other hand… The name alone was a deal-breaker. Someone thought they were clever, what with the not-quite-Pink-Panther-ripoff.

    Of course, Harmony and her mental peers would love it. Caridad glanced at the vampire on the dance floor. Amidst all the valley girls, Harmony didn’t stick out. Even her outfit, dated since a few years ago, was now old enough to be retro-hip.

    For a moment, she wondered how Buffy was managing that - she had insisted that you could spot vampires by their outdated fashion style. With the retro waves, that was a little difficult these days.

    Well, Caridad had other means to spot a vamp, and the more Harmony looked like a normal girl, the better, now that a French assassin was hunting them. Bait had to look convincing. Harmony’s apparent age was already a slight source of concern - Harmony had just said that she had experience in looking older than she was.

    Well, the vampire had fooled Carina, so she was probably right.

    Caridad took another sip, and now her glass was empty. She wanted to scratch her scalp - the wig itched - but that might give her away. And she might smear the makeup that served as part of her disguise. And that would give her away, even in this crowd, with half the girls looking as if they were wearing enough makeup to deflect a throwing spike.

    If only Dubois was a vampire! Caridad would be able to sense her, which would make this whole thing so much easier!

    She sighed once more and glanced at the bar. Perhaps she should get another coke? With the air conditioning not working - or not good enough to deal with the crowd - she was certainly thirsty enough for another overpriced soft drink. And she could probably bill the Council for this - after all, she was working undercover.

    Yes, she would…

    The music ending in mid-song and all the lights going on interrupted her. What was going on? She looked around. Everyone seemed frozen, some blinking and squinting at the sudden light. And with the lighting, the entire club looked uglier than before.

    A voice came over the sound system. “We’ve got a technical problem which forces us to close the club for the rest of the night. Please use the exit and emergency exits to leave right away and in an orderly fashion.”

    That sounded…

    “Fire! Fire!” someone yelled. “We’re all gonna die! I smell smoke!”

    “No!”

    “Ahhhh!”

    And there went anything resembling order. And fashion. In one moment, the crowd turned into a mob.

    Someone tried to push her from behind, but Caridad bared her teeth and stood her ground. Unfortunately, the idiot - some college-age boy - stumbled as a result and fell down.

    Which meant she had to step in to keep him from being trampled, which sent two more idiots to the floor.

    “The exits are blocked!”

    “We’re all gonna die!”

    “No!”

    Caridad gasped. Exits blocked? Was that Dubois? Did she plan to lock them inside and burn the entire building down? Had they misjudged the assassin?

    She hissed and ran towards the closest emergency exit. No matter how it was blocked, she could punch through the door - or go through the wall if she got a decent hammer.

    The emergency exits were locked, as she found out, but ripping the doors off their hinges worked. Someone had wrapped a chain around the handles outside. Which shouldn’t have been present anyway, or so Caridad thought - wasn’t that illegal for emergency exits?

    No matter. If the exits were blocked, then Dubois had to be around. Caridad dashed down the side alley, towards the street. Dubois might be…

    Oh.

    The main entrance wasn’t blocked - not with chains. But the mob left of the guests of the club had filled the street, and more pushed into them from behind.

    There were even ambulances present already. And cops. But no fire - she couldn’t smell any smoke. So, this was a diversion… where was Harmony?

    Caridad quickly focused. Bloodsucker. In the crowd. That would be Harmony - or a walking dust pile. Grinning, she pushed into the crowd herself, moving gawkers and morons aside - with force, if needed. There… oh, it was Harmony.

    And she had a dart stuck in her neck. Which the vampire didn’t seem to have noticed. “There you are! We almost, like, burned to death! Fire - can you imagine? That’s… oh my God! Fire!”

    “Don’t look at me,” Caridad hissed as she looked around. “There was no fire - it was a trap.” And Dubois would be in the vicinity. She must have been in the club, to be able to sneak up on Harmony and nail her with a dart - unless you were a Slayer, those things hadn’t much range, and hitting anything in a crowd of people was pure chance.

    But where was the assassin?

    “A trap? What?”

    “Someone shot you with a dart,” Caridad mumbled. She couldn’t spot anyone suspicious nearby. But that didn’t mean anything. Dubois could be in disguise - probably was in disguise. The assassin could be anyone. Well, almost anyone.

    “Oh my God! I was shot! With a dart! Imagine if it had been a wooden dart!”

    And the vampire was panicking.

    “You weren’t shot in the heart,” Caridad replied.

    “But I could have been! Like, the neck isn’t really far from the heart!”

    “Panic later - we need to leave before she strikes again.” Caridad shouldn’t have made contact with Harmony. Damn. That was a rookie mistake. “We’re going to split up.”

    “What? But what if she uses a bigger dart? Like a stake?”

    “She won’t. She wants you alive.” For torture. “Move it!”

    “But…”

    Caridad was already moving away from Harmony. Through the crowd, back towards the side alley. If Dubois was in the crowd… this was worse than the special training ideas Xander sometimes came up with.

    She had to shove a man to the side who wasn’t moving fast enough, but she reached the side alley without getting shot at. A quick glance back - no pursuit. And no one ahead.

    She crouched down and jumped straight up, easily grabbing hold of the fire escape. One chin up, then she slid over the railing and quickly rushed up to the roof, keeping an eye on the street alley below.

    A man entered just as she reached the roof. Hand under his jacket - too hot for Los Angeles in summer - and he was looking around, looking for someone. For her. So… Dubois had help.

    She could jump on the man from above… well, not straight onto him; from her current height, that would kill him. But if she either landed next to him, or jumped from below her, she could take him down without hurting him too much.

    Unless he wasn’t alone.

    While the man moved deeper into the alley, she checked the entrance. There wasn’t anyone suspicious. An old man leaning against the wall, watching the police and fire brigade arriving. No press, not as far down as here.

    She bared her teeth and rushed down the fire escape again. She didn’t make much noise, but the man below was good - he picked her up anyway. But by the time he looked up and drew his gun, she was already dropping down on him.

    Her right foot broke his arm with a loud crack, sending his pistol flying. He managed to raise his other arm in defence, but she was a Slayer - her blow slammed his arm into his face and sent him into the pavement, face first, cutting off his scream before he could get going.

    She landed in a crouch and looked around. She still couldn’t see anyone else - but Dubois had to be nearby. The spy on the ground was still moving, so she kicked his head, knocking him out. Now to transport him… Screw it. She slung him over his shoulder and sprinted down the alley, towards the street on the back of the club, texting the others with one hand.

    Got a prsner. Moving.

    She really needed a car for herself. Even if she could outrun most cars in the city. Unless they cheated and hacked the traffic lights.

    She reached the exit of the alley. Almost home free. She just had to…

    Something flashed across the street, and she threw herself down to the ground without thinking. Then something struck the wall behind her - someone was shooting at her.

    Damn. She rolled on the pavement, behind a parked car. That would give her some…

    Another shot punched straight through the car and missed her head by inches. Damn cheap economical euro car! She jumped up and sped down the street, keeping her head low. Forget subtlety - she wasn’t going to get shot for this. The window on the next car exploded as another bullet struck it, but she was already past that. The next side alley was coming up. Just a few more yards

    Then something hit her leg, and she was sent sprawling on the ground.

    She screamed, letting go of her captive - who was starting to stir - and rolled across the pavement. Had to keep moving. Forget the pain. Keep moving. Into cover. Into the alley. Had to get up…

    She screamed once more as her wounded leg buckled under her, and she fell down again. She scrambled onward, though, the next shots missing her - the assassin wouldn’t have expected Slayer speed crawling.

    Clenching her teeth, she pushed on. Another car’s window blew out, and more bullets sent splinters from the stone wall next to her flying around. But that gave her the angle - as soon as she was around the corner, she should be safe.

    Too bad for her captive, though. Who was starting to stir, anyway. She threw a throwing knife, hitting him hilt-first in the head, and he stopped moving again. But she couldn’t take him with her.

    She managed to get her good leg underneath her, then kicked out and jumped forward, landing at the corner. One more shot missed her, striking the ground at her feet as she grabbed the gutter pipe and swung around the corner, into safety.

    Provided she didn’t bleed out. Damn.

    But she had no time to treat her wounds right now - if the sniper followed her… well, then she’d kill them. They would have to get into range of a throwing spike if they entered the alley. Once she was further in.

    She pushed herself up and steadied herself against the wall, then limped onward. There was a dumpster ahead. Not cover, but it would hide her long enough to do something about her wound.

    She dragged herself behind it, then pulled out the bandage pack from her jacket. Another pair of pants wrecked, she thought with a snort as she ripped the fabric off her thigh. Didn’t look too bad - no artery nicked; she was still alive. No bone shattered. But it bled and hurt like hell.

    She wrapped the bandage around it, which helped with the former. And she could handle pain. Any Slayer could.

    Caridad leaned to the side and glanced around the corner of the dumpster. No one had appeared in the entrance of the alley. She hadn’t heard anything, either.

    Time to go before they cornered her. Hell, the enemy might’ve another man covering the alley exit already.

    Once more, she looked up.

    And grinned.

    Even with a wounded leg, she could climb a fire escape. Easily. Mostly. Five minutes later, she was on the roof, hidden behind a small forest of AC machinery and satellite dishes. And texting the others for help. And to warn them.

    This was a trap, after all, and a wounded Slayer would serve as well to draw out John and the others for Dubois as would a kidnapped vampire.

    She craned her neck, peeking up over the box behind her, looking for a sniper on the roofs across the street. She didn’t see anyone. And she didn’t hear the police - not close enough, at least. The shots had been silenced - suppressed, as John would say - so the cops probably didn’t notice, not with the ‘fire’ going a block down the street.,

    Typical! On the other hand, they would have driven off Dubois, and that would have let the assassin escape. And that would...

    Caridad growled. ..have been good. She didn’t know how many enemies were out there, and, fluke or not - it had to be a fluke; the sniper had missed her with every shot but one - she had been shot already. Still… this was Dubois; Caridad knew it. And she would escape now, what with Harmony off and Caridad wounded.

    And that grated. She could’ve ended this, tonight. John would’ve been so impressed, and Carna green with envy.

    She gasped. The spy! If Carina came with the others to help her, Caridad would never live this down! She had to get down. And away. Not the fire escape - using the same trick twice was pushing it. Three times? They’d expect that. Jumping to the next roof? Normally easy. She could make it even now… But if she got spotted, she would give her position away. And they would have a better idea of what she could do.

    Sighing, she crawled towards the roof entrance. It was locked - no surprise, of course - but not Slayer-proof; She ripped it off with one hand. No alert. Good.

    Slipping inside, she went down the stairs. But should she leave the building? If they were waiting for her...

    She grabbed her phone again. She needed an inconspicuous pickup. The enemy would be looking for a hot, wounded Slayer. They would’ve seen her crawl and spotted the blood. As long as she walked normally and was dressed differently, she should be fine.

    All she needed was another disguise. And she was in an apartment building. There would be a suitable dress somewhere here.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 7th, 2008

    “So, you lost your captive. And you got wounded. Too bad. I told you that we should have more people in the area.”

    Caridad clenched her teeth. She really wanted to hit Carina. Hard enough to shut the spy up. That her leg hurt - John had bandaged it, but she had refused to take pain killers, not that they would’ve worked for long without taking enough to knock herself out - didn’t help. She didn’t need her legs to knock out Carina. She could do it with a thrown knife. Like she had done to her captive. WHose escape totally hadn’t been her fault.

    “If we had more people in the area, we might not have extracted all of them without losing anyone,” Sarah said.

    Carina shrugged as if she wanted to say that those were acceptable losses, as long as she wasn’t among them. Which she probably did want, in Caridad’s opinion. But the spy didn’t say so - she said: “If two people manage to escape, even with one wounded, we could’ve bagged the enemy team if all of us had been there. We could extract Caridad, after all, and Harmony escaped by herself.”

    “Oh, yes,” Harmony chimed in. “I walked away, and no one, like, stopped me. At least I didn’t notice anyone trying to stop me.” The vampire smiled widely.

    Carina laughed once - she must think the vampire was joking. The spy didn’t know that Harmony had missed getting stuck with a poisoned dart until Caridad had pointed it out!

    Caridad snorted herself - the spy’s ignorance was amusing. As was the slightly suspicious look Carina aimed at her in return. The woman might act all smugly and ‘told you so’, but she didn’t know what was really going on.

    Chuck cleared his throat. “Anyway, we now know that Dubois - or at least her team - are in Los Angeles, and they have taken the bait.”

    “Wait… I wasn’t taken!” Harmony protested. “I would’ve noticed that!”

    “I meant that they went after you to get to us,” Chuck explained.

    “Oh.” The vampire nodded. “Yes, they did.”

    Once more, Carina looked puzzled before levelling a suspicious glance at the bloodsucker. “But now they also are aware that we are ready for them,” she retorted. “The bait won’t work again.”

    Which wasn’t Caridad’s fault, either.

    “We need a new plan,” the spy went on.

    “I could disguise myself and try again?” Harmony suggested. “As long as they don’t try to set the building on fire for real. That wasn’t part of the deal!”

    Chuck grimaced. “I, uh, don’t think that’s the best idea.”

    “Oh. OK.” The vampire even looked disappointed. Caridad clenched her teeth again.

    “Anyway, I’ve got an idea,” Chuck said. “It’s not very original, but it worked before.”

    “Oh?” Caridad perked up. A new plan? And from Chuck, who was one of the smarties people she knew, when he wasn’t being dumb? Finally, some good news!

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 8th, 2008

    Chuck was an idiot. Caridad frowned and silently repeated herself. His plan was stupid. And boring. “No. No. Nope.” She said, rolling her eyes as she flipped through the next batch of pictures on the laptop. Cartel members, spies, mercenaries… Just how many faces were on Chuck’s computers? They had been at it for what felt like hours! The only saving grace was that Carina had gone to bed already and wasn’t trying to needle Caridad with so not helpful suggestions and criticism.

    “Oh, alright. “So, did any of them look like him? A little, perhaps?”

    And now the ‘fun’ part started. Again. “The eyebrows on that one.” She marked one of the faces.

    “Eyebrows, got it… give me a sec. Yes. Anyone else?”

    She rolled her eyes again - the quality of the picture varied from ‘police mugshot’ to ‘grainy surveillance camera’, so most of the pictures looked a little alike. Still… “That one.” She marked another one. “The chin was a little like his.”

    “Chin… was it longer or shorter?”

    “The spy’s was a little wider.” Or so she thought. She didn’t have a photographic memory.

    “OK. Lemme add that as well…” Chuck typed on his laptop. “And… how does that look?”

    The composite picture, as he called it, that appeared on Caridad’s screen, did look very much like the guy she had knocked out twice a few hours ago.

    “That’s him,” she said.

    “That’s a picture. But if I run it through our database, we should…” Chuck trailed off, smiling expectantly. After a few seconds, his face fell.

    “We should wait?” Caridad asked with a grin, cocking her head.

    “Well… there are a lot of faces to compare it to…” he said.

    Then his computer beeped, and the spy Caridad had almost caught appeared on her screen.

    “That’s him!”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 8th, 2008

    “Jean Berger aka Hans Schäfer.” Chuck looked tired. Then again, he had pulled an all-nighter, as far as Caridad knew. While she had gone to bed - late, or early, depending on your point of view - he apparently had continued to work on gathering intel about Dubois’s minion.

    “Former Légionnaire, received a new name and French citizenship after his service in the Légion,” Chuck went on. “Then became a mercenary.”

    “Cover story?” John asked.

    “Yes.” Chuck pouted a little. Probably annoyed that he couldn’t have revealed this himself. “He was working as a deniable asset for the French, mostly in Africa. More importantly, though, he was a friend of Kurt Besson.”

    “Dubois’s partner in the Los Angeles mission. Killed in action,” Sarah said. By them, which she didn’t say.

    Chuck nodded, beaming at her. “Exactly. Berger vanished two months ago - the French have no idea where he’s gone.”

    “So, it’s personal,” John said, frowning.

    “Probably,” Chuck replied.

    “She might have just known him because of the personal connection to her former partner,” Carina pointed out. “It could be just business, nothing personal.”

    Caridad stared at the spy. Had she just made a joke? It had to be deliberate - you couldn’t say that seriously, could you?

    Chuck laughed, briefly, at which point the spy grinned. So, it had been a joke.

    “Do you want to try to turn him?” Sarah asked with raised eyebrows.

    “The thought crossed my mind,” Carina replied, smiling and crossing her legs in that attention-drawing manner of hers. Caridad would have done the same, if not for the bandages currently covering her thigh. “But after the events last night, I think he’ll be too paranoid for that. And he might be wounded as well,” the spy went on.

    Caridad scoffed. Using her as an excuse? Yeah, right. Carina wasn’t hot enough to turn everyone’s head.

    “And we’d have to find out where he’s staying in Los Angeles for that, first - you can’t exactly seduce someone under fire,” Sarah retorted.

    “Speaking of that,” Chuck said with a smile, “I might have a lead on their location.”

    Caridad leaned forward, baring her teeth. He had? The hunt was on, then! The French wouldn’t escape her a second time!

    Then the pain in her leg reminded her that she wasn’t quite fit for combat, yet.

    *****​

    “That’s a very expensive safe house,” Caridad commented as she studied the pictures Chuck, who had finally gone to sleep, had provided. “It’s as big as our two houses together.” And it had a much bigger yard and pool. And a hot tub!

    “You heard Chuck: It belongs, or belonged, to a cartel contact,” Carina said.

    “Yes, I heard him. It’s still an expensive villa,” Caridad told the spy. As if she hadn’t paid attention at Chuck’s briefing!

    Carina made a scoffing sound under her breath that most would have missed. Caridad was a Slayer, though, and heard it clearly. And clenched her teeth.

    “The cartels have to invest the money from the drug trade somewhere,” Sarah pointed out.

    “Not enough gold chains and gold-plated AK-47s?” John scoffed. “It’s an expensive villa, but it’s not the safest building. Nor the most secure location. And it needs staff. That means it’s very vulnerable to an assault.”

    “If Dubois is staying there - and if she hasn’t left already. There isn’t much evidence,” Carina said.

    “Chuck said Berger is staying there,” Sarah said, frowning at her supposed friend.

    Carina shrugged. “And I’m not quite convinced that his deductions are correct. It’s just conjecture.”

    “It’s solid evidence,” Caridad retorted. The Intersect wasn’t wrong about those things. “Just because you’re not as good at analysing data as Chuck is doesn’t make his intel invalid!”

    “Perhaps.” Carina was smiling that stupid smile again. “You certainly trust his work without question.” She looked at Sarah and John. “That’s a lot of trust in him.”

    “There’s a reason the CIA recruited him,” Sarah told her with narrowed eyes.

    “Oh, I’m sure. They wouldn’t assign you two as his bodyguards without a good reason, would they?”

    Oh, that… Caridad bared her teeth. Even when they were dealing with Dubois, the spy was trying to find out more about Chuck!

    “Really, Carina?” Sarah looked angry. “You’re playing games while we are planning an assault?”

    The spy shrugged with a smirk. “You know me - I like to multitask.”

    “Can we focus on the assassins?” John asked. “We need a plan.”

    “Sneak in, shoot the guards, shoot Berger, arrest Dubois,” Carina said. “Easy!”

    Caridad scoffed again, It would be easy for a Slayer, but she was currently wounded. And they might not have the time to wait for her to heal up. Fortunately, Carina hadn’t seen the wound, so they would be able to claim it was just a scratch without giving away how fast Slayers healed. But she needed a few more days to be ready for combat. And they might not have those days.

    Caridad really hated it when others went to fight in her place.

    *****​

    “So… we, like, found the bad guys?”

    “Chuck found them,” Caridad corrected the vampire.

    “But he found them because of us - because they attacked us, right?”

    “Because I could identify one of them,” she told Harmony, clenching her teeth. And because I was shot and lost the captive, she silently added.

    “Right! But you got him because they attacked me, right?” Harmony made slurping noises as she tried to get the last drop of blood from her bag.

    It would be so easy to stake her. She would just have to pick up the pencil on the kitchen counter and lean over. Or take one of the toothpicks stuck in the sandwiches Carina had made and throw it - Caridad was sure she could get it to go into Harmony’s heart at this distance. She certainly was angry enough to throw it with all her strength. “Yes,” she ground out between bites from her second dinner, “The plan to use you as bait worked.”

    “Yay me!”

    It had been Caridad’s plan. She finished another sandwich and crushed the toothpick before she gave in to her urge. Her plan, and it had worked - after a fashion, as Phil would say. And now she was stuck here, waiting for news from the others assaulting Dubois’s safe house. And she was alone with the vampire - Morgan and Kirsten were with Phil, helping him catalogue some books or something.

    “So… how long do you think the others will take?”

    Stuck with an annoying vampire while her friends risked their lives and she couldn’t do anything! And Phil was too busy researching something, with Morgan and Kirsten’s help, to come by later to check on her wound and keep her company. “I don’t know,” she spat before she rubbed her leg - not for the first time. It hurt. She could walk, she might even be able to run - until she ripped out the stitches. Not fit for combat, as John had called it.

    Harmony nodded, apparently oblivious to her mood. “Yeah, I got that. You can, like, never predict traffic in the city. But how long do you think they will take?”

    “I don’t think traffic is the problem here,” Caridad pressed out.

    “Really? Because I think it is. Like, every time I drive, I get into trouble because of traffic. People, like, just can’t drive safely.” Harmony nodded with a pseudo-sage expression, then dropped the blood bag in the trash can under the sink.

    Where Caridad would smell it every time she was in the kitchen. Or nearby. She clenched her teeth. This was torture. Double torture. The others would launch their attack soon - she glanced at the laptop on the kitchen counter next to the sauce bottles. Still no change.

    She resisted the urge to call them again. This was a mission. They didn’t need the distraction. They didn’t need the wounded, useless Slayer asking for news like a teenager asking or gossip. They’d call her as soon as they went in.

    “Oh, don’t worry! They’ll be, like, fine!” Harmony piped up. “If they needed help they’d have asked me to come along - it’s dark outside so I could easily join them.”

    Caridad closed her eyes for a moment. A vampire trying to console you. If Vi ever heard of this… “You couldn’t have joined them,” she told Harmony. “You’re not trained to work alongside them.”

    “Huh? I’m so trained! I was, like, an executive secretary for Wolfram & Hart!” the vampire protested. “I would’ve gotten a great recommendation, if not for Willow killing the entire management. Except for Angel, though I’m not sure he counts.”

    “Not that kind of training,” Caidad managed to say through clenched teeth. She could feel her brain cells dying under Harmony’s verbal assault. “Combat training.”

    “Oh. Like, karate? Or boxing? Spikey loved that! Boxing. He loves to fight, did you know? Though I dunno if he still does. Like, after he got a soul, you know?”

    “Yes. I’ve sparred with him, you know?” She bared her teeth at the stupid vampire.

    “Oh, you did? Nice!” Harmony completely missed her tone. “He never sparred with me. But he wanted to show me some tricks, like, punching, you know? But that’s easy - you just strike.”

    Easy... Caridad made another sandwich. She wasn’t really hungry, but cutting up the remaining roast beef, then thoroughly shredding some iceberg salad sounded quite tempting right now.

    “So… how long do you think they will take? It’s one house, so it shouldn’t take long, right?”

    “The enemy usually has a say in that, too,” she quoted John to the vampire.

    “They do? You didn’t, like, ask them? I mean, that would, like, totally ruin the surprise, wouldn’t it?”

    Caridad sighed again. “It’s a figure of speech,” she explained before Harmony could ramble on and come to an even more stupid conclusion. “It means the enemy will do all they can to ruin your plans.”

    “Ah.”

    Before Caridad could say anything else, she heard CHuck over the laptop’s speakers: “Home base? We’re about to go in!”

    “Good luck,” she replied.

    “Thanks!”

    She didn’t hold her breath. Not for long.

    “They’re over the wall. Approaching the villa. No sign of the enemy, yet,” John reported. He was overwatch with a sniper rifle. And a light machine gun, just in case.

    “No contact yet,” Sarah said.

    “Amateurs!” Carina commented.

    “Carina! Wait!” Sarah suddenly hissed.

    “I’ll have this open in a second, no worry!” The spy sounded far too confident.

    Caridad clenched her teeth again. Stupid spy - you didn’t change the plan without a damn good reason.

    “Carina! Don’t!”

    “It looks like Carna didn’t train with them, either,” Harmony commented.

    Caridad nodded in agreement before she realised what she was doing. “She’s a loose cannon,” she added.

    “Isn’t that a little mean? Just because she dresses nicely and has a nice figure doesn’t make her a loose woman.”

    “I said cannon,” Caridad told the idiot.

    “Oh. That didn’t mean busty girl?”

    She really wanted to stake the vampire.

    “Carina! Wait!”

    “I’m just checking the living room. It looks deserted.”

    “Guys! Guys! I just flashed! It’s a trap!”

    “Abort! Abort!”

    Caridad gasped.

    “What’s happening?” Harmony asked.

    Caridad ignored her. Her friends didn’t need a distraction. She checked the camera feed from John’s position. She couldn’t see anything from there, though… Wait! There were flashes inside the villa. Shots! Machine gun fire! It was an ambush!

    “It’s a trap!” Chuck yelled. “Automated guns! Retreat!”

    “Abort!” John ordered again.

    Caridad growled. She should’ve been there! Wounded or not! This was…

    A message flashed on the screen. Orion!

    They just called the police. I’m stalling, but it won’t last long.

    Damn!

    “The cops are coming!”

    “Carina!”

    “I’m OK!”

    “Carina’s cut off!” Sarah yelled.

    Caridad heard more machine gun fire. Bursts.

    “Though,” John snapped. “Abort. Retreat.”

    Caridad nodded in agreement. This was all the spy’s fault! Let her suffer the consequences. It’d serve her right!

    “No! We won’t leave her behind!”

    Caridad clenched her teeth. Chuck was being stupid again! If only… A crack made her blink - she had gripped the laptop’s frame too hard.

    She scoffed. It didn’t matter - it was still running. Her friends mattered. And they were in danger! Without her. And she couldn’t even see what was happening!

    “Guys! I’ve got an idea!”

    “Chuck!”

    “Let him, Sarah - I’m open to anything right now!”

    “I need to hack the controls of the sentry guns. There has to be a server nearby - in the house. Keep them busy while I hack the air conditioning for increased usage!”

    Caridad heard John curse under his breath, but he started shooting the windows on the upper floor - triggering more shooting from the inside.

    “Wow. That sounds like in the movies,” Harmony commented.

    Caridad turned towards her with a snarl. “Our friends are in danger!” she snapped. “This was a trap!”

    “Oh.” The vampire blinked. “Sorry.”

    Caridad huffed, her attention back on the laptop’s screen.

    “Alright… I’ve got the server room! It’s in the basement!” Chuck announced.

    “Small problem with that plan. The stairs leading to the basement are covered by a gun!” Carina told them. “I can see them from here.”

    “Uh… where is it?”

    “I’ve got a grenade.”

    “No, Sarah!” Carina yelled.

    “No! Carina’s too close,” Chuck chimed in. “We need… we need… I’ve got it! Give me a minute!”

    “How?” Sarah asked.

    “I may not have a minute.” Carina sounded stressed. “The two guns pinning me down are chewing through my cover.”

    Stupid spy, Caridad thought. This is all your fault!

    “I’m working as hard as I can,” Chuck replied.

    Another message appeared on the screen: Police know. SWAT alerted.

    “SWAT’s on the way,” John reported. “Expect patrol cars before that. We’re running out of time.”

    Caridad hissed. John was right - they had to retreat before the cops arrived. The LAPD already didn’t like them. They might just shoot them on sight. And if John shot them, then things would get even worse.

    “Wow! Spies, robot guns, police… where are the bad guys? Did I miss them?” Harmony asked, sounding as if she were watching TV.

    Caridad turned to give the stupid bloodsucker a piece of her mind, then stopped. Harmony was right - where was Dubois with her team? This was the best opportunity to ambush the team from the outside. But… She gasped again. “This is a trap. A diversion!” she yelled.

    “A diversion?” Harmony asked.

    John was already cursing. “They want us to be pinned down there,” he said. “And there are only two targets for them to go after.”

    Caridad clenched her teeth. Two targets. Phil and the others were safe .- Phil had a new house, Dubois wouldn’t know the address. But Ellie and Devon were one target.

    And the other was Caridad herself. And Harmony, she supposed.

    She switched the laptop to the security cameras from her own home.

    “Hey! What happened to them?” Harmony protested.

    “Shut up,” Caridad spat in return, cycling through the feeds. “They might be coming or us.” She texted Gunn, too.

    Possible attack by assassins inc. Be on guard.

    Her phone vibrated a few seconds later, but she ignored it. There was a suspicious van a block away, at the outer edge of their coverage - and only John’s secondary camera circuit covered it.

    “Caridad? Your phone keeps vibrating.”

    “OK, guys - I’m ready,” She heard Chuck again.

    “Good, because I’m about to be done for,” Carina replied. “This better work!”

    “I sure hope so,” Chuck told her. “This should distract the guns. Long enough for me to reach the basement.”

    Damn. Damn. Damn. Caridad couldn’t let herself get distracted.

    “Shouldn’t you, like, check? It could be important.”

    Caridad glanced at the screen. Just questions, no alerts. Unimportant right now. Then the sentry guns suddenly fired all at once, or so it sounded to her.

    “Ah!”

    “Chuck!”

    “I made it! Just slipped and fell down the stairs!” Chuck replied.

    “A toy car? Really?” Carina complained.

    “It worked, didn’t it?” Chuck retorted. “Now I’ll get the server controlling the guns… Uh.”

    “‘Uh’? I don’t like that sound.” The spy sounded nervous.

    “There’s a bomb here. A big one,” Chuck reported.

    “It could be a decoy to keep us in the house,” John said. “I see the first patrol car.”

    “It’s not a decoy. Trust me,” Chuck replied. That meant the Intersect had confirmed it.

    Cariad hoped that the Intersect would also let him disarm it. The van hadn’t moved. Was it harmless? Or a distraction? She hated those mind games.

    “Chuck…” Sarah sounded…

    Caridad pressed her lips together. If this were John down there, and she were up there...

    She cycled through the feeds again, leaving one window focused on the van.

    “Alright… I think I know how to disarm it.”

    “You think?”

    “Shut up, Carina!” Sarah growled. “Be careful, Chuck.” After a heartbeat. “I love you.”

    “I love you too,” Chuck replied.

    Caridad held her breath. Even Carina was quiet, despite the shooting in the background.

    “I’m OK,” Chuck reported. “It’s done.”

    “Congratulations. Now get the server before I get turned into Swiss cheese!” Carina snapped.

    Ungrateful b… Caridad froze for a moment.

    The van was moving. Towards the house.

    Then the power went out.

    “Oh, hell - a blackout? Now? Didn’t you, like pay your bills?”

    John’s generator came on, and the laptop had a battery anyway, but most of the area was now dark.

    Dubois was coming.

    *****​
     
    Last edited: Sep 20, 2020
  6. Threadmarks: Chapter 6: The Trap
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 6: The Trap

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 8th, 2008

    Damn. Damn! Dubois was coming for them. And Caridad was wounded, and the only ally she had was a braindead vampire.

    “What’s happening?”

    Caridad ignored Harmony and focused on the laptop. “We’re under attack. Dubois is attacking our home!” she snapped.

    “What?” Harmony shrieked.

    “Caridad, get out and away!” John told her over the radio.

    Leave her home to those… intruders? Caridad clenched her teeth.

    “Alright!” Harmony piped up. “Let’s go!”

    “No! They’ll expect that!” Caridad shook her head and cycled through a few more feeds. “They’ll have a sniper covering the back.” No one would prepare such a distraction, and then just barge in without a plan.

    “But… what do we do then?”

    “Stand and fight,” Caridad told her.

    “But…”

    “They carry guns, not stakes.”

    “Oh. Right.” Harmony beamed. “Like, no sweat then!”

    Had the idiot really forgotten that she was impervious to bullets? Caridad clenched her teeth.

    “Wait, no!”

    What now? She glanced at the screen. The van had pulled up at the corner, and four people were jumping out the back. Plus driver and shotgun. All carrying rifles or SMGs. All masked.

    “If they shoot me, they’ll, like, ruin my clothes!”

    “Well, doh!”

    “Those are my favourites!” Harmony started stripping.

    Caridad stared. “What are you doing?”

    “Saving my clothes! I’ll grab some of yours!”

    Caridad blinked. She couldn’t be serious! But Harmony was already dashing up the stairs. Half-naked.

    “Leave my clothes alone!” Caridad had never been as tempted to slay the idiot as right then. But half a dozen spies were about to attack her home, and dealing with them took priority. She clenched her teeth and checked the back - pressed against the wall, of course. She couldn’t see anyone outside there.

    But the spies were fanning out. Pincer attack. That was… good and bad news. If they moved quickly, they could defeat them in detail, as John called it. If they were too slow, they’d end up in a crossfire. And then the camera feeds cut off.

    Caridad headed upstairs. She needed more weapons for this.

    “I only took your worst jeans and t-shirt!” Harmony yelled as Caridad entered the bedroom.

    She ignored the vampire and dropped down next to the bed. John always kept a carbine taped under the bed. Her leg hurt a little - she couldn’t strain it too much, she reminded herself. The wound was bandaged but not healed.

    “Wow, you’ve got guns in your bed? You’re kinky!”

    But Caridad was already at the door again, ignoring the twinges in her thigh. The attackers would be covering the balcony. Oh! “Harmony, check the balcony!”

    “Alright!”

    Caridad was at the window in the hallway when she heard the shots. And the scream. “They’re shooting at me!”

    “Good! Keep them distracted!”

    She kicked off with her good leg and hit the window with her good foot, in the middle, breaking the wooden frame and pushing the entire window outside - with her following behind the remains. Twisting in the air, she brought her carbine to bear, catching two assassins on the ground, pressed to the wall. As expected.

    She fired while she was still in the air, putting a burst into the first man’s arm and hand. He went down screaming, his gun flying. The other whirled and raised his rifle, but she was already hitting the ground on her good leg. As he swung his rifle back down, Caridad rushed him. She grabbed the muzzle before he could react, pointing it at the back of the yard. He managed to pull the trigger a moment before she rammed the stock of John’s carbine into his face.

    She released the muzzle before it could burn her hand and dropped to a knee. Her thigh protested again, but it wasn’t bleeding. A kick took out the other man.

    Two down. And at least two were still firing at Harmony, who was hiding on the balcony or so.

    “Hey! Stop that! Are stupid, or what? Whatever did I ever do to you, anyway?”

    Well, Caridad would be firing at the vampire herself if she weren’t busy. She jumped up and dashed towards the front corner. At least two would be there.

    She dropped down again, then quickly peered around the corner - and jerked back right before bullets riddled the corner, sending bits of stone and plaster flying as she scrambled back. Right. They were expecting her.

    But they weren’t expecting the Slayer. Even with just one good leg, she was ahead of them. Caridad crouched, then jumped straight up, grabbing the gutter of the roof, then pulled herself up with one hand. She dashed across the roof to the front. A roof tile next to her foot exploded - sniper, as she had expected.

    But she was too fast. She kept going, then jumped off the roof in the front. One assassin covering the corner, crouched behind a planter. Too bad John hadn’t gotten around to placing explosives there. A long burst into the man’s leg took care of him - he thrashed around, holding his bleeding legs.

    Then Caridad landed on the ground - and felt her wound breaking open.

    Damn! Blood was already soaking her jeans. And she was out in the open. Clenching her teeth, she threw herself forward into a shoulder roll. Someone started shooting at her, from behind - automatic fire. Bullets kicked up dirt next to her as she rolled over the lawn, partially concealed by the hedge.

    She jumped up, dashing towards the garage - she could run with a bleeding leg; she was the Slayer. She could dash despite the pain.

    But she could also bleed out.

    She reached the garage. More bullets chewed up the yard behind - and around her. Growling, she speed-crawled forward, then gripped the door and forced it up, before rolled into it.

    No bullets slammed through the garage door. Had the shooter missed her move? Or… Damn! She snapped her head to the side, her gun following, and looked under the car to the back of the garage. Someone was moving there!

    She fired two bursts into the feet she saw. Screams and a body dropping to the floor followed. She rose, slid over the car, and silenced the assassin with a kick to the head. Then she sat down - she needed to treat her wound; she had been leaving a veritable blood trail.

    She grabbed her shirt, pulled it over her head, then ripped it and bandaged her wound. She really should’ve taken a bandage pack with her, just in case. Live and learn. If she lived through this.

    But she wasn’t feeling lightheaded or wobbly or anything. She was pissed. Four enemies down. At least two and the sniper left. Probably more. Well, she was just starting.

    She reloaded her carbine and crawled towards the door to the house. Just as she reached it, the enemy outside started shooting through the garage door. Probably realised their friend was out.

    Caridad cursed and went back to grab the unconscious assassin before the man was shot by his own side.

    Then she opened the door and entered the house. She didn’t hear shots from outside any more - had they given up on shooting Harmony, or…

    Someone was moving through the living room! Caridad dropped the wounded and moved forward, staying low. Figured that Harmony wouldn’t be able to keep the attackers busy enough. She crawled behind the couch and listened for the footsteps. Yes - they would turn the corner about… Now!

    She rose and slid around the corner, the butt of her carbine already flashing forward…

    …and broke Harmony’s nose, sending the vampire sprawling on the floor.

    “Hey!”

    Caridad winced. “Sorry.”

    “You’re trying to kill me?”

    “No, or I would have staked you,” she spat. “I thought you were an assassin.”

    “But… I don’t look like them at all!”

    “Where are they?”

    “Oh… outside? I think? They, like, stopped shooting at me, so I thought I’d go down. Oh - your top and bed are like, uh, ruined.”

    Great. “I can see that,” she replied, moving to the corner of the couch and peering outside.

    “You can? But… Oh, you meant the top. What happened to yours?”

    She ignored the question. There had to be two enemies in the backyard. And she couldn’t see anyone. Where were they? Oh. Of course. “Can you see if someone’s in the pool?”

    “You think they’d go for a swim?”

    “Just check it!”

    “Alright, alright…” Harmony, her nose healed already, rose and peered over the couch. I can’t see anyone, but…

    A shot cut her off. Caridad saw the window shatter and heard the impact and Harmony’s fall. She didn’t look behind her - the vampire would be fine. Or she wouldn’t. Caridad was looking at the yard. Unless that was the sniper… and the angle was too low… there! She caught wisps of smoke from one of the bushes.

    “They shot me! They must be in the pool. And my hairstyle’s ruined. And my makeup!”

    “Spotted one in the bush,” Caridad replied.

    “What?”

    But she was already moving forward. “Look at the big one in the corner!”

    “Which corner?”

    Another shot rang out, and Harmony screamed. “Not again! Do you know that hurts?”

    Same spot, Caridad noted. She rose and snapped two shots off, aiming low, before ducking behind the couch again. Through the glass door, she saw a man rolling out of the bush, holding his stomach.

    Well, she had tried to hit the legs.

    “There he is! The one who shot me! Twice!” Harmony was standing again - and pointing.

    Or, as Caridad liked to think of it, looking for a sniper.

    But no one was shooting at the vampire, even though there were at least one sniper and one attacker not yet accounted for, probably more.

    Had Dubois abandoned her attack? Or, Caridad thought, had Dubois realised that shooting Harmony wouldn’t do anything? Harmony hadn’t been too obvious about her undead-ness - at least Caridad hoped so - but after getting shot half a dozen times or so without staying down, anyone would start to suspect something was up. And Dubois was a spy - trained to ferret things out. Would she come to the conclusion that Harmony wasn’t human?

    Caridad scoffed at herself. The middle of a fight wasn’t the time to worry about that. Even though she wasn’ sure if the fight was still going on.

    “Uh… so, should we do something about the guy there?” Harmony asked. “He, like, seems to be dying. I mean, he’s, like, bleeding a lot. I’m no expert - well, I kinda am, actually - but… like, people die when they bleed out.”

    Caridad didn’t really care about the man’s life - he had come to kill her and her friends. Or help torture them. And he had shot Harmony, but that was excusable. But he’d make a good source of intel.

    Or not - the guy had just fainted. Or died. Which meant he wouldn’t be able to talk until he was treated in a hospital, anyway. Best case, at least.

    But there were a few wounded assassins around - and she had dragged one of them inside, knocked out. Right. “Keep an eye on the outside!” she snapped, then hurried back.

    The guy she had shot and kicked in the garage was stirring, but in no shape to do anything. She quickly tied him up, then dragged him towards the living room - and listened for movement in the garage.

    Nothing. Not even groaning from the guy she had shot in the leg out front.

    “Watch the guy!” she told Harmony and speed-crawled behind the couch, then dashed across the living room. She needed to check the other side.

    “Don’t I need to watch the yard?”

    “Do both.” And shut up.

    Crouching in the bathroom on the ground floor, she listened again. No whimpering or groaning here, either.

    Unless everyone outside had died or had been killed, they had retreated. Or they were in hiding. But they wouldn’t press the attack, not with so many taken out, would they? Well, Caridad would - but she was a Slayer. Still, the police would be arriving soon - their homes had pretty good privacy, but a full-blown assault with sniper cover and automatics would get a police response. Especially in this neighbourhood.

    Which meant they needed to get out, or they’d have to deal with the police. And Caridad didn’t want to explain Harmony to the LAPD. Or call the Council to bail out the vampire.

    “Grab the prisoner! We need to go!” She grabbed the laptop - it had survived the shooting, though the frame was a little cracked.

    “Go? Where? Won’t they, like, shoot us? They shot me every time I got out!” Harmony protested. But she had also grabbed the guy, so that was a wash.

    Caridad was already back at the garage. And winced.

    John’s car had stopped a few shots. The Ford Crown Victoria was solidly built, but it wasn’t armoured. He wouldn’t like that.

    On the other hand, Caridad wouldn’t be wrecking a perfectly fine car, so that was a good thing, Kinda.

    “Get in the car!”

    “In the car? Like, driving?”

    “I’ll drive!” she told the vampire with a glare. John would be livid if she let the dizz drive his car. And they probably wouldn’t make it out of the garage in that case, anyway.

    She slid over the car’s trunk - wincing when her bandage caught on something before she dropped to the ground on the other side - and moved to the driver’s door. No one had shot at her yet. Good.

    She climbed into the car and grabbed the keys from the hidden compartment. “Let’s hope it works,” she muttered.

    “What?”

    But the engine rumbled to life. Good car.

    “Do you want me to open the door?”

    Caridad didn’t reply. She just leaned back and slid down, putting as much of the engine between herself and the enemy as possible while still being able to see the road… somewhat, at least. Then she put her foot down on the accelerator, and the car shot forward, crashing through the garage door. She had to fight it to keep it going without the crumpled remains of the door stopping it, but she was a Slayer - no car would beat her. They razed a bush and kind of bumped a planter to the side, but within moments, they were racing down the drive.

    And then the windshield exploded, and she felt something pass over her head. Sniper.

    Dubois was really, really stubborn. And a sore loser.

    Another shot hit the car in the side. Then they took the corner and were clear.

    For now.

    But the others! “Check with the others!” she snapped as she took another turn.

    “Uh…”

    “Use the computer,” Caridad added.

    “Right!”

    She overtook a far too slow BMW and rushed down the main road. She would have to slow down soon so she wouldn’t be made by the police, but for now, she wanted as much distance as possible from that bloody sniper.

    “Uh… it’s, like, asking for a password. And password doesn’t work.”

    “The password doesn’t work?” Damn. Was the thing broken?

    “No, ‘Password’ doesn’t work. It usually does for my stuff.”

    Caridad would have closed her eyes if she hadn’t been driving through still noticeable traffic and high speed. She told the vampire the actual password, making a mental note to tell Chuck to change it as soon as possible. And another not to trust Harmony with any computer security, ever.

    “That doesn’t work, either!”

    “Try it again.” The idiot probably had made a mistake.

    “Uh… don’t you, like, know what they say about doing the same thing?”

    That idiot, giving her lip? Caridad bared her teeth and growled at the bloodsucker. “Do it again!”

    Harmony eeped. “Please don’t stake me!”

    “Do it!”

    Half a minute later, she finally heard John again. “Team to base, reply. Over.”

    She smiled as she took the next lane up to the highway - she had to lose any possible pursuit. “We’re alright, but we had to leave the house. Got a prisoner, and took out half a dozen of them. Mostly wounded. Prisoner’s wounded too, but secured.”

    “But there will be, like, a lot of cops at the house, and they’ll search through my stuff and, like, probably leave it all over the floor,” Harmony added. “And they shot me. A lot.”

    “We’ve extracted from the target area without casualties,” John told them,

    “Are you OK?” Chuck asked.

    “No. My clothes are ruined - well, Caridad’s, she loaned me some. But, still! That’s like, so unkind, you know?”

    “We’re fine,” Caridad cut in.

    “No one hurt?” John asked.

    Damn. She didn’t want to lie, but she didn’t want to… “My old wound opened,” she said.

    “Your old wound? What old wound? Did you mean the gunshot wound in your leg?”

    So, Carina had survived as well. “It’s just a scratch,” Caridad replied.

    “Head to Brown-Smythe and get it treated. And treat the prisoner. We’ll be there soon,” John said. “Team Out.”

    And that was it. Time to head to Phil. After checking the car for bugs and trackers, of course - Caridad had been listening to John about his tricks, after all.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 8th, 2008

    “This might hurt a little.”

    Caridad clenched her teeth. That was Phil speak - or British - for ‘this will hurt a lot’. And it did. She hissed through her teeth while he disinfected her wound. “I’m sure there are disinfectants that don’t hurt as much,” she muttered.

    “Oh, there are.” Phil gave the wound another swipe, making her tense and fight the urge to push him away. “But they are more expensive and might not properly motivate you to avoid getting hurt in the future, dear.”

    “I had no choice - I was attacked at home,” she retorted. Her new home. She had barely stayed there long enough to get familiar with every nook and cranny, and now it was all full of holes, and the police would be poking around. Speaking of… “Did you call the Council?”

    “They’ve already contacted the local police,” he replied. “Although the officers in charge might be a little slow to follow orders.”

    She snorted. ‘A little slow’. She’d bet that the LAPD was doing all they could to find anything on them. The joke was on them, though - they hadn’t set up any secret spy base stuff. Not even a decent armoury. Most of the stuff left behind was perfectly legal.

    “It does mean that the authorities are aware of your new lodgings,” he went on.

    “That would’ve happened anyway.” Unless they had been using fake IDs for everything, the LAPD would have found them sooner rather than later.

    “But sooner than anticipated.”

    “Still doesn’t matter.” She scoffed. “It’s not as if the cops would’ve changed their view of us anytime soon.”

    “You’re not planning to change lodgings again, then.”

    “No.” She had a home, and she wouldn’t leave it just because a few dinky cops had issues with the Slayer keeping the city safe. “Unless John wants to move.”

    “Ah.”

    She narrowed her eyes at him. He was smiling that little sly dry smile of his. But then he started bandaging her wound, and she had to clench her teeth again. She really had to avoid getting shot in the future.

    She blinked. That was exactly what Phil wanted.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 9th, 2008

    By the time John and the others made it to Phil’s apartment, it was past midnight. And things were starting to look more than a little crowded. Phil’s new digs weren’t a shoebox, but his apartment wasn’t meant to house nine people. Ten if you counted the prisoner, which they had sedated and stuffed into the closet.

    “Oh, this is the best tea I’ve had in quite a while.”

    Or eight people and a stupid spy. Caridad glared at Carina as the woman tried to charm Phil, but the woman ignored her. As if the spy had any idea about decent tea - her attempts to flatter Phil were pathetically transparent.

    “Thank you, Miss.” Phil nodded, holding his own cup. “It’s been hard to get a decent supply in the Colonies, but I do try.”

    “Well, California isn’t Boston.”

    Caridad blinked. Had Carina just made a Boston Tea Party joke? Dear Lord, that was… That joke was so old, it made Phil look young! She chuckled, then frowned - the spy would think she laughed at her joke, not at her!

    “Indeed, it isn’t, but most tea shops cater to those who prefer herbal tea. Organic herbal tea.” Phil managed to make the simple statement sound like he was talking about a war crime.

    Carina, of course, laughed before taking a sip from her own cup. She had put so much milk and sugar into it, she could probably barely taste the actual tea.

    Caridad looked at Phil, then rolled her eyes.

    He smiled but didn’t show any other reaction.

    “And thank you again for offering us shelter,” Carina went on. “We were tapped out on safe houses.”

    “Think nothing of it,” Phil told her. “It’s the least I could do.”

    “No, no, hosting so many people - so many wounded,” the spy added with a glance at Caridad, “ must put a strain on you.”

    “It’s only temporary,” Phil replied. “And I’ve been through worse.”

    Caridad frowned. Worse? She couldn’t recall a story of Phil’s that would fit that description. Had he been holding out on her? Or was this a red herring for Carina to chase?

    “Of course,” Phil added with a glance towards the living room, where Harmony was still whining about not getting to watch her favourite soap reruns, “some impositions are harder to bear than others.”

    Caridad huffed under her breath. As if that was her fault! She couldn’t kick out the vampire after she had helped them, could she?

    “Well, we’ll try not to impose on you too much, I hope,” Carina went on. “Though accommodations for the night are bound to be cramped. Even with the couples sharing a single bed or couch.”

    Caridad scoffed. “We’ve got enough air mattresses and bedding for everyone,” she told the spy.

    “And medical supplies,” Carina added with a nod to Phil. “It must not be the first time this happens, then.”

    “I believe in being well-prepared for anything,” Phil replied.

    “I love a man who thinks ahead and knows what he’s doing.” Carina crossed her legs - she had somehow changed into a miniskirt between the mission and their arrival at Phil’s - and made bedroom eyes at him.

    Carina growled. Phil was her Watcher!

    “I’ve had a lot of experience with these sorts of things,” Phil retorted, taking another sip from his cup. And acting as if he hadn’t heard Caridad!

    “Oh? Working for MI6?” Carina leaned forward a little, and her eager impression changed a little, Caridad noticed.

    Phil laughed. “The Secret Service? Hardly. My father would have had a fit.”

    “Oh?” Carina looked confused.

    “He was a firm believer in the private sector, so to speak,” Phil said. He was smiling, but with that hint of a smirk that Caridad knew meant he was pulling your leg.

    But he must have been a little too obvious, since the spy frowned a little. “I see.”

    Caridad bet she didn’t - the spy had no clue, as far as she could tell.

    “In any case, you have been a most gracious and thoughtful host. I’ve seen trouble handled far worse in actual bases,” Carina said.

    “It’s all about making the best of what you have,” Phil said. “Sometimes, I feel that the younger crowd has trouble improvising since they’re used to the system working as intended.”

    Caridad glared at him. That was a dig at her, she was sure! And the spy was smirking.

    “A man who knows how to improvise is also very attractive.”

    And Carina was still flirting with all the subtlety of a hungry Polgara Demon. Caridad growled again.

    If only John would finish cleaning their weapons already! Watching the underdressed spy trying to put the moves on her Watcher right in front of her made her want to stake Carina.

    And for some reason, Phil still hadn’t shot her down. Was he enjoying this? Caridad almost gasped. He wouldn’t actually take her up on it, would he? He couldn’t!

    He was her Watcher!

    Then she perked up - she heard John walking towards them. “John!” she greeted him as soon as he reached the door.

    He stepped inside and nodded towards her, which made her frown in turn. “I’ve stashed the weapons,” he told Phil.

    “Wouldn’t want to have any visitor realise what this apartment hides,” Carian butted in.

    “Oh, that’s generally not a problem,” Phil replied.

    The spy cocked her head to the side. “Don’t tell me that you rarely have visitors!” she exclaimed. “I know all about maintaining your cover, but having a healthy social life is part of that cover. An attractive British gentleman, living alone?” She raised her eyebrows in a rather overly pretentious way.

    “I do live alone,” Phil told her. “And in my humble opinion, my social life is quite satisfactory. However, I was commenting on the fact that, so far, no visitor has found anything suspicious in my flat.”

    Caridad narrowed her eyes. ‘No visitor’? She wasn’t aware of any other visitors except for her and her friends - and she would have smelled them.

    Carina didn’t frown, but she looked like she wanted to for a moment, before she pasted her obviously fake smile on her face again and beamed at Phil. “Does that mean you’re single?”

    “Happily single, Miss,” Phil replied. “Now, I believe it’s time to sort out sleeping arrangements.” Before the spy could use the opportunity to suggest some blatant ploy like sharing the bed, he went on: “I believe the wounded should take the beds.” He looked at Caridad. “That includes you, dear.”

    At his glance, she swallowed her protest that she wasn’t wounded, not really, and nodded instead. If he was being all serious like that, arguing was pointless. “John and I can take my usual bed.”

    “Your usual bed?” Carina’s eyebrows shot up - but this time it looked like a natural reaction.

    “It’s not the first time I had to treat her wounds,” Phil told her.

    “I don’t get hurt that often,” Caridad spat with a scowl. And this was a new apartment - she hadn’t actually slept here before! Most wounds didn’t even need treatment. Phil was just a little worrywart. Slayers were tough, everyone knew that.

    “Ah.” The spy looked smug again - and glanced at John as if… What? With Phil? Caridad clenched her teeth. Phil would never do that! And she would never cheat on John!

    “I’ve distributed the air mattresses,” John said. “We can bunk in the living room.”

    “And Harmony can get into the other closet,” Caridad added. They could lock it, too!

    “Pardon?” Carina looked, well, not shocked. But closer to it than before.

    “It’s a quirk of hers. She doesn’t like sunlight ruining her skin tone,” she told the spy. It was the honest truth.

    Carina looked from her to Phil, who was nodding in agreement, then to John’s expressionless face, before she tried again to hit on Phil. She just couldn’t take him not falling for her, could she?

    “Alright!” Caridad stood - gingerly; no need to annoy Phil by putting stress on her wounded leg - and stretched her arms over her head. “John and I can hit the sack then - the bed’s big enough for two,” she added with a glance at the others. No need to have him take the air mattress. “Morgan and Kirsten can take yours.”

    “They’re already asleep, I believe.”

    Unless Harmony’s whining had kept them up, of course.

    “I do feel a bit tired myself,” Carina said. “Would you show me to my mattress?” Once more, she made eyes at Phil with all the subtlety of a charging dragon.

    “Certainly.”

    And once more, Phil didn’t set the spy straight!

    *****​

    In the morning, Caridad made her way through the living room. Chuck and Sarah were still asleep, cuddling on a single mattress. Harmony was dead in the closet - Caridad could sense her. And smell her perfume. Morgan and Kirsten were still asleep as well, she heard them breathe and snore through the door to Phil’s bedroom.

    As was Carina - the spy was sprawled out on a mattress, and wearing only lingerie. And far too close to Phil’s mattress, even though Caridad’s Watcher was already up and in the kitchen.

    Caridad sneaked over to his mattress, then bent down. She smelled him. And Carina! She almost started to growl - but she didn’t smell sex.

    She still scowled at him when she entered the kitchen.

    He raised his eyebrows in return. And smiled. “Our guest decided to make another attempt to seduce me. She was most disappointed when I didn’t return her interest.”

    Her scowl deepened. “She just wants to seduce you to find out more about you.”

    “That much is apparent,” he replied. “I’m familiar with this ploy, my dear. Although I have to admit that it is quite flattering.”

    “You didn’t have to flirt back!”

    “I was merely being polite, dear.”

    She huffed and started to eat. British breakfast! “I can’t wait for her to leave,” she mumbled after her first sausage.

    “Our situation could do with some improvement, I agree. While I certainly wouldn’t even think of turning you out, I do hope things will change soon.”

    “You could turn her out,” Caridad replied. That wouldn’t be a big loss!

    “I would be a poor host if I did that,” he replied. “And she is amusing.”

    She huffed again. Men!

    *****​

    “We need to break this habit of getting attacked at home,” Chuck said as they gathered around Phil’s dinner table. “We had just moved in, and now we’re on the run again.”

    “Again?” Carina asked, far too eagerly.

    “Need to know,” Sarah told her.

    Caridad smirked at the scowl that caused.

    “We’re not on the run,” Morgan said. “Are we? I mean… they fled from Caridad. And Harmony.”

    Caridad pressed her lips together. The vampire had been a distraction at best. She had driven the assassins away - while wounded.

    “Oh, yeah! And we, like, even got a prisoner!” Harmony said. “Who, by the way, is still in the other closet, is he? I can smell the blood.”

    “He’s sedated, and his wounds were treated,” Sarah informed the bloodsucker. Who should’ve been aware of that, having been present.

    “Oh, right. So… what are we doing with him? Are we, like, killing him later?”

    “We’ll interrogate him,” John told her.

    “Oh! Is that, like, the police thing? Or like the torture thing?”

    “The spy thing,” he replied.

    “And what is the spy thing?”

    “Whatever works.” John’s toothy smile seemed to impress her - she finally shut up.

    “Anyway,” Chuck apparently tried to get the briefing back on track, “we temporarily lost our homes anyway - the police have found a body there, and they’ve recovered like a zillion spent cartridges.” He pushed a key, and a police report or something appeared on the screen of his laptop.

    “The news is calling it the “Hollywood Massacre,” Morgan added. “Even though it wasn’t in Hollywood and there’s only one dead.”

    “There might be more,” Phil pointed out. “Without proper medical care, a number of their wounded might yet die.”

    “They can find a surgeon easily,” Carina said. “Plenty of doctors in the city who won’t inform the police if you pay extra.”

    “Enough to make tracking them through medical help implausible,” Sarah agreed. “Which leaves us with the prisoner as our only source of intel.”

    “And Dubois knows we got him - she’ll take steps to make sure he can’t tell us anything useful,” Carina didn’t quite scoff, but she glared at Caridad. As if this was her fault!

    “He will know what they did so far, which is useful intel,” Chuck pointed out. “We can model her plans using that information. To some degree, at least.”

    This time, Carina did scoff. “She’s an experienced spy; she won’t make a rookie mistake.”

    Chuck looked almost cocky as he retorted: “We’ll see. We’ve got pretty sophisticated modelling software.”

    The Intersect, of course, Caridad reminded herself. Which Carina didn’t know about - though Chuck’s bragging wasn’t helping there.

    “Yes, we’ll see. But let’s assume that we don’t get better intel. What do we do?” The spy frowned - she had probably taken Phil’s rejection quite badly. “Dubois managed to lure us into a trap and attack your homes without getting caught.”

    “You were the one who jumped into her trap,” Sarah told her.

    “We all were attacking her supposed hideout; I was merely on point,” Carina replied.

    “You didn’t wait for us to scout things out. You were reckless. As usual.” Sarah didn’t look very happy with her friend. Well, Caridad wasn’t happy with Carina, either - and she hadn’t been in the villa when the spy had triggered the trap.

    “Sometimes, you have to take a little risk,” Carina defended herself.

    That was, obviously, true, even if the spy was the one to say it. Caridad still didn’t like agreeing with her.

    “You always do this!” Sarah scoffed. “You never stick to the plan.”

    “I always get results! Danger is part of the game.”

    “It’s no game, Carina!” Sarah glared at her supposed friend. “That’s your problem!”

    The spy stared at her, then slowly shook her head. “You’ve really changed, Sarah. A while ago, you wouldn’t have minded a little risk.” She looked at Chuck with narrowed eyes. “You aren’t fun any more.”

    “Fun?” Sarah spat. “You call this fun?”

    “Uh… can we get back to what we’re doing now?” Chuck cut in. “We can blame each other later.”

    That, of course, didn’t endear him to either Sarah or Carina.

    “Yes,” John said. “We’ve got to find Dubois and her remaining men. And we need to LAPD off our backs.”

    “I’ve made some calls,” Phil spoke up. “The official investigation should be handled. Although that might not deter private investigations by individual police officers.”

    “You’ve managed to make the LAPD drop the investigation?” Carina looked impressed. And even more interested, Caridad noticed.

    Great.

    Phil shrugged. “We’ve got friends with some influence.”

    The spy snorted. “A lot of influence. The cops won’t like dropping an investigation that attracted so much attention.”

    “Oh, yes!” Harmony nodded sagely. “The news will call them stupid and corrupt.”

    Caridad scoffed. “And they’ll be right.”

    “I wouldn’t go so far,” Phil interjected. “Although, without a doubt, there are a number of crooked officers in the corps, we cannot, and should not, assume that the entirety of the police force is corrupt.”

    “They’re out of their depth, though,” Caridad replied. “And they don’t want to admit it.”

    “They lack the information needed to draw the correct conclusion, dear,” Phil told her.

    “Which would be?” Carina asked.

    “Classified,” Cariad told her with a grin.

    “We also need to step up the protection of Bartowski’s family,” John said. “They’re exposed and vulnerable.”

    “Yes, we do,” Chuck agreed, nodding sharply.

    “She lost most of her team attacking your homes; she won’t risk losing more attacking civilians,” Carina objected.

    “We don’t know that!” Chuck protested. “And we can’t risk being wrong.”

    Carina must have realised how serious she was since she didn’t repeat her line about some risk-taking being necessary.

    “So… what do we do about Ellie and Devon?” Morgan asked. “You know Ellie - she won’t like to go to ground.”

    “Oh, yeah - she’s, like, very stubborn,” Harmony agreed. “Almost staked me, once.”

    “‘Staked’?” Carina asked.

    Caridad clenched her teeth. The stupid bloodsucker had just...

    “Yes,” Harmony replied. “That was scary.”

    “Staked?”

    “Yes,” Harmony nodded, frowning. “You know, when you push a stake in someone?”

    Carina looked like she was reevaluating Chuck’s sister. And Chuck himself.

    Caridad wished she knew what the spy was thinking. Had Carina drawn the correct conclusions? Or was she still thinking this was all just spy business?

    But asking would give the game away. Probably.

    Great. Caridad really hated having a spy on the team that wasn’t part of her team.

    *****​
     
  7. Threadmarks: Chapter 7: The Oversight
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 7: The Oversight

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 9th, 2008

    Caridad caught the spy nosing around in Phil’s library after lunch. “Don’t touch that!” she snapped.

    Carina didn’t even jerk, much less remove her hand from the spine of ‘Lampreys and Leviathans’, one of the best works when you were dealing with aquatic demons. She simply turned and smiled, as if she hadn’t been violating Phil’s privacy. “I was just admiring Phil’s collection,” she lied. “I wasn’t aware he was such a fan of fantasy.”

    That should’ve been ‘Mr Brown-Smythe’, Caridad thought with a scowl. And the books weren’t fantasy. Out loud, she said. “They’re very old and valuable - grease from uncovered skin could damage them.”

    “Oh? Speaking from experience?” Those damned eyebrows rose as the spy’s smile turned into a smirk.

    “I’ve never damaged one of Phil’s books,” Caridad retorted. It had been a borrowed book, after all. She crossed her arms and glared at the woman.

    “Neither did I,” Carina replied. “I’m quite familiar with valuable antiques.”

    Probably stole them on her missions. Caridad snorted. “That’s what everyone says - and then they ruin a priceless tome.”

    “I wouldn’t have taken you for such a passionate defender of literature.”

    Caridad wanted to smash the spy’s face in. Just a little. A few broken teeth and a flattened nose would greatly improve Carina’s looks. But Slayers were supposed to be better than that. They weren’t supposed to use their powers to beat up annoying spies - no matter how much a particular spy might deserve it.

    So she shook her head and said in her best condescending tone: “There’s a lot you don’t know.” She had to suppress a grin when she saw Carina twitch in response. Hah!

    “You’re very confident about your information security, aren’t you?” Carina said with a very forced smile

    Caridad shrugged. “I haven’t had cause to doubt it,” she said.

    “Overconfidence has doomed more spies than intel fuckups,” Carina replied.

    Well, Caridad wasn’t a spy. But saying so wouldn’t be smart. “We’ll see,” she said instead. “But for now - don’t touch the books.”

    “Indeed,” Phil added - he had managed to sneak up on Caridad again! “Some need special handling, lest they hurt you.”

    Carina blinked. “Like in ‘The Name of the Rose’? They really did poison the pages?”

    “Oh, you’ve read the book?” Phil beamed - genuinely delighted; Caridad could tell.

    “I’ve seen the movie. With Sean Connery,” Carina told him. “Another very attractive older man from England.”

    “He’s Scottish, actually,” Phil corrected her, with a more neutral tone.

    Two mistakes! Caridad could’ve beamed with glee.

    “In any case, yes, some books will literally poison you if handled without appropriate precautions.”

    “You wouldn’t leave such dangerous books out in the open like that, would you?” Carina sounded dubious.

    “I obviously know about the danger, and I haven’t had any guests yet who weren’t aware of them, either. With all the excitement last night, it slipped my mind that you weren’t among them. I apologise for putting you at risk.”

    “That’s alright. I wasn’t about to read them - I was just watching the books,” the spy lied. “It’s a very impressive collection. It must have cost a fortune.”

    Caridad had seen more subtle questions about Phil’s wealth.

    “Oh, I would expect so - but the library was collected over generations, and my ancestors didn’t exactly keep receipts.” Phil chuckled. “Some of the volumes might’ve even been acquired through less than honourable means - although in those days, looting a defeated enemy was perfectly acceptable.”

    “Just how old is your family?”

    “We can trace our line back to the Hundred Years’ War with sufficient certainty. Mother always claimed our ancestors came over with William the Conqueror, but there’s really no base for that claim other than some unreliable family legends.” Phil chuckled again. “Father always told her that we should be above this sort of pretension.”

    “The Hundred Years’ War? That’s very impressive,” Carina told him, nodding as if she were impressed and not planning to use it to research Phil’s family tree.

    Which she totally could, of course, if Willow hadn’t put up some obstacles. Perhaps they needed to inform Willow about her, if only to avoid some misunderstandings.

    Phil shrugged. “Everyone’s got ancestors dating back even further, only many don’t know them. All it means is that some of my ancestors were a little more famous - or infamous - than most. Or simply managed not to lose their documentation.”

    “Still, with such a legacy, aren’t you expected to provide an heir?”

    “Ah, the family line is taken care of, rest assured, Miss,” Phil replied - considerably cooler, now, Caridad noted.

    And with justification. Some subjects one didn’t talk about, and Phil’s family fell under that.

    At least, this time, Carina got the hint and stopped flirting.

    But she wouldn’t stop spying, Caridad knew it.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, June 9th, 2008

    “Reschedule the wedding? Leave the city?”

    Caridad flinched at Ellie’s tone - and she was in the kitchen, not in the living room where Chuck had broken the latest news to his family.

    “It’s just a worst-case scenario…” Chuck started to say.

    “A ‘worst-case scenario’?” she interrupted him. “I thought that we were under protection - we’ve got Gunn’s people living in Casey’s old apartment! And now there’s another threat? What is it? A dragon about to hatch? A portal to hell?”

    “Don’t worry about dragons; I’ll kill any that show their snout!” Caridad yelled as she finished making a sandwich.

    “Thanks!” Devon yelled back.

    “No problem!”

    “Chuck? What’s going on?”

    “Uh… it’s like this…” Chuck took a deep breath. “There’s this French spy who is after us for killing her partner during a mission.”

    “You killed a French spy? Aren’t they our allies?” Ellie sounded confused.

    “Technically, they were undercover - and so were we. They were posing as members of a Cartel, and we were posing as friends of another Cartel.”

    Chuck was stretching the truth more than a little there, Caridad knew. She took a bite from her sandwich and walked back to the living room.

    “Chuck! You can’t keep doing this!” Ellie stood up. “First, the bodyguards because there’s some vampire in the city Caridad hasn’t yet staked. Then I see your new house in the news - surrounded by the police! After someone waged a whole war there!”

    “Technically, they attacked Casey’s house, not ours,” Chuck protested, but his weak smile died under Ellie’s glare.

    “‘Technically’ didn’t work when you were a teenager trying to lie to me about another LAN party. It doesn’t work now, either!”

    “No way! Did you try the “I slept half an hour before breakfast, so technically, it wasn’t an all-nighter’ excuse?” Devon chuckled, but quickly fell silent when Ellie shifted her glare to her fiancé.

    Caridad took care not to cross her line of sight.

    “And all I get, when I’m worried that some killer army attacked my little brother, is one text that you’re OK.” Ellie put her fists on her hips. “An hour after the news broke! After the news talked about bodies left behind!”

    “I tried to wound them, but…” Caridad shrugged.

    “Look, Ellie - we had to get away from the ambush in the villa, first. And we couldn’t be sure that your phone was secure,” Chuck explained.

    “Ambush in the villa…” Ellie blinked. “The Hollywood shooting? That was you as well?”

    “Well… yes?” Chuck’s smile wouldn’t have fooled a blind demon, Caridad thought as she finished her sandwich.

    “Chuck!”

    “Sis! I can’t tell you about secret spy missions!”

    “You’re not a spy any more - you’re working for the Council,” Ellie replied.

    “The principles are the same,” he protested.

    “Ellie…” Sarah spoke up. “We can’t tell you everything about our work - Council or CIA. Some things have to stay secret. If people - or demons - think you know what we’re doing, then you’d become a target.”

    “I thought we already were a target,” Ellie shot back. “That’s why we have the bodyguards around.”

    “More of a target,” Chuck tried again.

    Ellie crossed her arms and set her jaw. She was obviously not in a mood to appreciate such fine but crucial differences. “And I’m supposed to just go along with whatever you say? Without having a say myself?”

    “Uh…” Even Chuck knew better than to honestly answer that question.

    Caridad finished off her soda and cleared her throat. “Ellie, look… usually, things work out, right? This is just an exception. We’ve got an assassin after us, and there’s a smart vampire out there. But we’ll kill both, and then things will go back to normal. Promise.” She nodded emphatically. “Oh. And we’ll do it before the wedding,” she added.

    Ellie stared at her for a moment, then slowly nodded. “You better,” she said. Then she sat down and sighed, slumping over before Devon wrapped an arm around her shoulder. “I can’t take much more of this. I can’t live like this for the rest of my life!”

    Caridad winced. And went to the kitchen to get another sandwich. And a soda. Ellie was Chuck’s sister.

    “Uh, sis - we’ll get through this, I promise you.”

    “Yes. We just had a setback. But we’re working on that,” Sarah added.

    “And you’ll risk another ambush,” Ellie replied. She was still staring at the floor, Caridad noted.

    “We’ll be prepared for a trap,” Chuck said.

    “You thought you were prepared before, weren’t you?”

    “They were,” Caridad cut in. “But another spy nominally on our side jumped the gun. And that triggered the trap.”

    “What?” Ellie looked up. “Who?”

    “And old, uh…” Chuck looked at Sarah.

    “An old friend of mine,” she replied. “She works for the DEA, and she’s very… impulsive.”

    “She’s a loose cannon with no self-control. She jumps into any fight,” Caridad added.

    Then she frowned at the looks the others exchanged. It was true, wasn’t it?

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 9th, 2008

    “...and that’s about how it went,” Caridad finished her - well, it wasn’t a real report. More like gossip, though Phil, even though he was listening with interest, wouldn’t call it that, ever. “Ellie took it well, all things considered,” she added. Chuck’s sister hadn’t cried, at least. Not until they had left, in any case.

    Phil nodded. “Our circumstances aren’t ideal, and not entirely through our own fault,” he said.

    “It’s Chuck’s and his dad’s fault,” Caridad cut in. They should’ve, at least, made sure that Dubois was dead.

    “There’s also the matter of Nathan, dear,” Phil replied.

    She pressed her lips together. That was unfair - they were doing what they could to track down that stupid bloodsucker.

    “Nevertheless, Dr Bartowski, for all her formidable strength of character, is neither a spy nor a Watcher...”

    “...and not a Slayer either.” That had to be said.

    “Quite.” He sent her a glance. “Coming under such a double threat, and in the middle of the preparations for her wedding, which already would put her under a great deal of stress, must be extremely unnerving.”

    “Yes.” That was obvious. Hell, Caridad knew a few Slayers who’d have weathered the ‘circumstances’ with less grace. Mostly because of the wedding stress, though - enemies and fights any Slayer knew how to handle. Usually, she amended her thoughts, There were exceptions.

    “We can but hope that the situation improves, I fear.”

    They could do more than hope - they could do something. Hunt the bastards down, for one. As soon as they knew where they were. Which was Chuck’s job. And his dad’s. But they were already on it, and Phil knew that. “So… how are things here?” she asked. “Carina giving you any trouble?” Caridad hadn’t seen the spy when she returned with the others.

    “She’s been talking with our other guest,” Phil told her - and he left no doubt how he felt about Harmony staying in his closet.

    She winced a little. “Is that a good or a bad thing?”

    “Carina seemed a tad upset when she went outside for a stroll,” Phil replied.

    “And Harmony?”

    “Confused, although that is her natural state when confronted with anything more challenging than picking a dress for a night in town.”

    Now that was unfair. But funny anyway. Caridad chuckled before growing serious again. “Carina went out?”

    Phil tilted his head to the side. “She seemed rather determined, and so I took a page out of the Watcher’s Handbook.”

    She blanked what did…? Oh. “Never give an order you know won’t be followed?” She was quite familiar with that quote, after all.

    “Precisely. I could hardly stop her, anyway, could I?”

    Caridad could think of a few ways to stop the spy from going out and endangering them all, but most of them were rather permanent. So she sighed and nodded. “I guess not.”

    “Of course not. Contrary to our guest’s apparent expectations, I am not a slightly older than average version of James Bond.”

    She grinned in return. “Too bad.” That had teasing potential.

    But Phil was smiling, with a definite hint of a smirk. “You do know, dear, how Commander Bond would have solved the problem our guest presents, don’t you?”

    What did…? Oh! She glared at him. “She’s the one trying to seduce you!” she pointed out.

    “Indeed. And if I were the most famous fictional member of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, I certainly wouldn’t have turned her down. Mr Bond is quite the cad, actually.”

    “And he’s hot.” That wasn’t a good comeback, but it was true.

    “Which says a lot about prevailing gender stereotyping, to quote Miss Rosenberg,” Phil replied.

    Both laughed at that.

    “I guess I’ll check with Harmony and find out what she said to drive Carina away.” That could be useful, after all.

    *****​

    “...and I was, like, telling her about all the best clubs, but she didn’t seem happy, even though she, like, asked about what I’m doing. She, like, even asked for tips, but when I told her that her makeup could be a little less subtle - I mean, she isn’t getting any younger, is she? - she didn’t like it either. I don’t get it!”

    Harmony looked genuinely confused, Caridad noted.

    “So, she said she’d be going out, and I, like, asked which club, and she glared at me, only not really, and said she didn’t know yet, and left.”

    At least it was clear what had happened: Carina had interrogated Harmony but hadn’t realised that the bloodsucker was answering her subtle probes honestly. Which was all kinds of funny - the big bad spy, unable to figure out the truth. Well, part of it.

    “You didn’t say anything about your diet?”

    “My diet? I didn’t have to go on a diet since graduation, did you, like, forget? I don’t get fat anymore!”

    “I didn’t mean that kind of diet,” Caridad explained.

    “There’s another kind? Oh, you mean the blood bags?”

    “Yes.”

    “Nope. She, like, thinks those are medical supplies, I think.”

    Caridad smiled. That was good. As long as the spy didn’t find out about the supernatural, they were good.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 10th, 2008

    It was obvious to Caridad that they really needed to find a new safehouse. They couldn’t keep camping in Phil’s apartment. They needed more privacy - and not just because of Carina. A Slayer had needs, after all. And the walls here weren’t thick enough for her taste.

    Which was why they had moved the prisoner into the basement of an abandoned house for the interrogation. It wouldn’t do to have Phil’s neighbours call the cops if they heard the screams.

    As if on cue, she heard the prisoner scream below her. The assassin who wanted to kidnap her and her friends so a spy could torture them to death, she reminded herself. And the assassin who was the key to finding the rest of Dubois’s team to end the danger to her friends and their families once and for all.

    She still clenched her teeth and took a few steps away. Slayer hearing could be a pain sometimes. If it were a vampire or other demon, Caridad wouldn’t care - who’d care about a corpse getting hurt? Or a monster getting its just desserts? And if she were needed, she’d be down there anyway.

    But she wasn’t needed. John and the others could handle it. And she was a better fit as a guard, anyway. Just in case that the assassins somehow found them. Or some stupid demon heard the screams and thought there was an easy meal to be had.

    That would actually be great - Caidad could really use a fight to relieve some stress and frustration.

    But, as expected from evil monsters, no demon had the decency to show up. Wait. There! Someone or something was moving in the shadows of the entrance across the street!

    She tensed. Was that a demon? Or an assassin? Or…

    … a hobo. She sighed. Not even a half-demon or something - she would’ve smelt it at this distance. Which meant she would have to disguise herself to scare the guy off.

    By the time the hobo reached the entrance to the building, Caridad had pulled on a wig and wrapped a scarf around the lower half of her face. Together with her battered leather jacket, it should make her look like a druggie. Not a very good disguise, but it would keep the hobo from leading the cops straight to her and her friends.

    She hid in the shadows and waited until they stepped inside. Then she spoke: “Leave!”

    The man jerked, almost dropping his backpack. “Jesus Christ!”

    “Leave,” she repeated herself. “This building is taken.”

    “What?” The hobo looked around. “This is big enough for both of us!”

    The booze she could smell on his breath must make him braver than usual. Or more stupid. She took a step towards him, out of the shadows. “No, it’s not.” She cocked her head.

    Instead of being frightened, he smiled. Or leered. “Oh.”

    She clenched her teeth. Sometimes, ‘Slayer hotness’, as Buffy called it, was a pain as well. Time to get serious. She dashed forward, fast enough to surprise a vampire, and grabbed the man by the front of his smelly coat. He was dangling from her fist before he realised what had happened.

    Then he gasped. “Oh my God! Please, no! I didn’t know! Please!”

    As expected, he knew - at least to some degree - about the things that went bump in the night. Enough to think she was about to eat him. “Leave!” she snapped, then threw him back a yard or so.

    He fell, then scrambled back on all fours. She hissed at him, and he finally jumped up and fled the building.

    She wiped her hand and sighed. At least he hadn’t pissed himself. That would’ve been awful with her sense of smell.

    Then she heard footsteps behind her - from the stairs. The others must be done with the interrogation.

    “We’re done!” Chuck announced. Then he saw her disguise. “Uh…?”

    “I had to scare away a hobo,” she explained.

    Carina took the time to make a point of looking her over before nodding. “I guess that works.”

    Caridad knew exactly what she meant with that and growled in return. She would’ve liked to see the spy trying to scare away the hobo. She blinked. No, she wouldn’t have liked that. “So…?” She looked at John, who had the prisoner slung over his shoulder. Bleeding a little more, but still alive, Caridad noted.

    “We’ve got another address.,” he told her.

    “The assassins won’t be there, but it’ll help us track down their finances - and use more data for pattern recognition,” Chuck explained.

    “Dubois is good, but she can’t erase all traces of her money,” Sarah added.

    “And this time, we won’t let her get away!” Carina announced.

    “And what do we do about him?” Caridad asked. Since he wasn’t dead already, they wouldn’t be killing him.

    “Stash him until I get Dubois. Then I’ll arrest him officially,” Carina replied with a smile. “My bosses like arrests.”

    “He hasn’t noticed anything classified,” John added.

    Which meant supernatural. Good.

    Caridad wouldn’t have liked seeing the man killed just for knowing too much.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 10th, 2008

    Caridad was in a better mood when she returned to Phil’s apartment in the morning. Two bloodsuckers and one Fyarl demon wouldn’t bother anyone ever again. Neither of the vampires had known anything about Nathan, though it wasn’t as if she had properly interrogated them.

    Right now, she didn’t care anyway, she just enjoyed a successful patrol. And finishing the breakfast burrito she had bought on the way. It would tide her over nicely until breakfast at Phil’s.

    After checking, once more, for tails - unlikely, since she had taken a detour underground - she entered Phil’s home. Well, the apartment building. One of Phil’s neighbours greeted her on the stairs, apparently on her way to work an early shift. “Good morning.”

    “Morning,” Caridad returned the greeting. The woman didn’t seem to care what the Slayer had been up to, which was exactly how Caridad liked it. Nothing worse than a nosy neighbour.

    Actually, she corrected herself when she entered Phil’s apartment, there was something worse: a nosy spy in your home. Carina was up already - she didn’t look tired so she must have slept since the interrogation - and was bothering Phil again while he was preparing breakfast. Caridad’s breakfast. The woman was wearing a bathrobe - silk - and apparently nothing else underneath it.

    “Good morning, dear,” Phil greeted her.

    “Good morning,” the spy added. “Been out clubbing all night?”

    “Yes,” Caridad lied.

    “Without John?” Carina raised her eyebrows.

    “Yes.” Caridad grabbed a bread roll and speared a sausage with her fork before sitting down at the kitchen counter. She smirked when she caught the spy frowning for a moment.

    “With Harmony?”

    “No.” Caridad rolled her eyes at the suggestion.

    That caused another frown. “You know, going off by yourself isn’t the smartest thing to do with Dubois still at large. Especially if you’re hurt,” Carina pointed out.

    Right. She was supposed to be hurt still. She took a bite out of the bread and then bit the sausage in half while thinking of a suitable answer.

    “Caridad didn’t go off by herself,” Phil said as he poured tea in his cup. “Certainly not without telling anyone where she was going.”

    “Really.” Carina narrowed her eyes but didn’t react to the implied criticism of her own actions yesterday.

    “Yes,” Caridad confirmed after swallowing.

    “And what did you do?”

    “Clubbing.” She didn’t add: ‘I told you. Did you forget already?’, but she wanted to.

    “Hiding things isn’t a good idea when we’re all in the same boat,” the spy complained.

    “It’s classified,” Phil cut in. “And unrelated to our current difficulties with Miss Dubois. Just routine work.”

    “Really. ‘Routine work’?”

    “Yes.” Caridad swallowed the second half of the sausage and shovelled some scrambled egg on her plate. “Boring.”

    “Which is a good thing,” Phil added. “I think we had enough excitement for a while.”

    “Not until we get Dubois,” Carina objected. “She won’t stop coming after us.”

    “Well get her,” Caridad said. “As soon as we find her.”

    “The address we got was a bust,” the spy retorted.

    “Of course it was.” That was the reason Caridad hadn’t gone there with the others. “Dubois isn’t a rookie.”

    “Everyone makes mistakes sooner or later,” Carina replied. Her expression when she looked at
    Caridad left no doubt what she was implying.

    The Slayer bared her teeth. “Yes. Some more than others.” Caridad hadn’t been the one to jump the gun and almost get the team killed.

    Carina glared at her with a forced smirk on her face. Good.

    Then the spy stood. “Well, I’ll be in the shower.” She glanced at Phil, but Caridad’s Watcher simply smiled and nodded at her.

    “Please don’t use up too much warm water,” he told her as she walked - with swaying hips, as if anyone were interested - out of the kitchen.

    Caridad scoffed as soon as the door closed behind the spy. “She doesn’t know when to quit.”

    “She’s quite stubborn - not an uncommon trait amongst the people of my acquaintance,” Phil said.

    Caridad started to nod, then frowned. “I’m nothing like her.”

    “Quite.” Phil nodded. “So, how was your patrol?”

    “Two vamps and one Fyarl.” She flashed her teeth.

    He looked impressed - at least for Phil. “A Fyarl?”

    “Looked like a lone wolf,” Caridad went on. “It wasn’t roaming blindly, but lying in wait and had a lair nearby.”

    “Ah.” Phil nodded again. “You might want to sweep the area again, though.”

    “I’m planning to,” she agreed. Where one demon was, there could be more.

    “And the two vampires?”

    “Tried to eat a drunk in the side alley next to a 7-11,” she said. Seemed to be new arrivals, not locals - accents and clothes fit.” She pulled a battered wallet out of her pocket. “Picture on the license matched, too.”

    “Nevada? I’ll ask Chuck to check if it matches missing or dead persons.”

    Caridad nodded. Someone might even check for the relatives of the dead - just in case the couple she had slain hadn’t been the only vampires in the area.

    “Is there anything else?”

    She shook her head. “I’ll write up the record later. Now I need some sleep.” She stretched, craning her head.

    “How’s your leg, dear?”

    “As good as new,” she replied. “Look!” She dropped into a crouch, then balanced on her healed leg.

    And blinked. There was something stuck to the underside of the counter.

    A bug. An electronic bug. A surveillance device. Caridad blinked. Someone had bugged Phil’s kitchen? Carina! She snarled, turning to go and rip the spy’s head off, then froze.

    “Dear?”

    “Sorry, bit on a pepper,” she told Phil, pointing at the counter and gesturing at him to come take a look.

    “Ah.” He nodded. “I thought they were a little spicy, but usually, you like them.”

    She saw his eyes widen when he spotted the bug. ‘Carina’ she mouthed.

    “In any case,” he continued, pointing at the door, “we’ve received new orders.”

    “Oh?” She nodded and moved towards the door, then listened. If Carina had placed the bug - and who else could’ve done it? - then she would be listening right now to Phil’s fake intel.

    “Yes. You remember Operation Bullfrog? It’s a continuation. We’ll work with Team Zombie to deal with more of the Aztecs’ efforts.”

    She slowly, carefully opened the door a gap. Phil’s apartment wasn’t big, and Carna wouldn’t be listening in where others could observe her. That left…

    “Headquarters is concerned about the demons gathering there, so…”

    She sneaked out and quickly approached the bathroom while Phil indulged, as he’d call it, his more creative sides. Then she ripped the door open, breaking the lock and part of the frame.

    And caught Carina staring at her, one hand holding a bud to her ear.

    “Hah!”

    *****​

    “You bugged us?” Chuck sounded as if he couldn’t believe it.

    Caridad shook her head. Carina was a spy - of course she’d do this.

    “Carina! That’s…” Sarah glared at her friend. “How could you do this?”

    “Easily,” Carina replied with a sneering smile.

    “You don’t bug your team!” Sarah replied.

    “Not bugging your team when they’re hiding something is how you get traitors stabbing you in the back!” the spy retorted.

    “Traitors like you,” Caridad snarled - though Sarah seemed taken aback for a moment before scowling at her friend again.

    “I’m not the one working for a foreign organisation!” Carina had the gall to tell Caridad.

    “You’re working for yourself,” John said.

    “Everyone is working for themselves, no matter what they say,” Carina replied.

    “Some of us have a higher calling.” Phil calmly sipped from his tea.

    “A higher calling?” The spy sneered. “Are you telling me you’re a priest?”

    Phil chuckled - once. “Hardly. But not everyone is beholden to themselves first, and then some country second.”

    “Working for another country’s spy agency is the definition of treason,” Carina told him.

    “And that has any relevance in this discussion exactly how?” Phil raised his cup to take another sip.

    “Guys! Can we focus on the fact that she spied on us?” Chuck said.

    “Oh, please! You knew that I would do this - all of you did!” Carina scoffed.

    “But not with bugs!” Chuck protested. “That’s…”

    “...breaking the rules?” Morgan suggested.

    Carina rolled her eyes in return.

    Kirsten spoke up: “We know what she did. Now we need to focus on what we do.”

    John nodded in apparent agreement, as did Sarah.

    Chuck didn’t. “But… for that we need to know why she did it.”

    “Because she doesn’t respect our privacy - or friendship,” Sarah said.

    “Oh, please! Who warned you of Dubois?” Carina shook her head. “And instead of thanking me, you try to blindside me, running a foreign spy mission on US soil!”

    “It’s not a spy mission,” Chuck blurted out.

    “Whatever we do, we do with the full permission of the US government,” Phil cut in.

    “Really.” Carina scoffed again. “And that’s why you’re hiding what you’re doing from the CIA and NSA?”

    “They’re not cleared for the information,” John said.

    “And neither is the DEA,” Caridad added. Just to cover that.

    “Of course you’d say that!” Carina replied. “But they don’t agree.”

    “Are you working for them?” Chuck asked.

    “She’s not working for anyone but herself.” Sarah sounded bitter. “But whatever she uncovers she can sell to them - or trade for favours.”

    Carina’s silence confirmed that. The spy had crossed her arms over her chest and sneered at them. The effect was weakened by the fact that she still wasn’t wearing more than a thin robe.

    “What exactly did she hear, anyway?” Chuck asked.

    “Enough,” Carina cut in.

    “Nothing actionable,” Phil told him.

    “But enough to figure things out on her own?” Sarah didn’t leave her friend - or was that former friend? - out of her sight as she spoke.

    “Possibly.” Phil shrugged. “As usual, it’s hard to tell how people will react.”

    Carina didn’t reply, but Caridad could tell she was tenser than before. Probably realised that she knew too much.

    “So, what do we do about it?” Morgan asked.

    A question for which they still hadn’t found an answer.

    Well, Caridad had an answer, but Chuck would never agree to kill Carina. Nor, probably, would Sarah. Morgan would be appalled. Probably - Kirsten would be in favour, but Morgan wouldn’t go against his best friend, Caridad thought. As would John and Phil. Though Phil wouldn’t say so, since he wouldn’t want to antagonise Chuck. Chuck’s dad was in the same boat, so to speak.

    It all hinged on Chuck. Rats.

    “So, you’re going to kill me for knowing too much?” Carina, of course, had to push things.

    “If the alternative is to endanger the whole world?” Phil gave her a flat stare.

    “‘The whole world’?” The spy scoffed and turned to Sarah. “Did you go all-in on the patriotic kool-aid? Not even ‘the free world’?”

    “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” Sarah replied with a glare.

    “Hmm?” Carina wrinkled her nose. “And yet I know too much?”

    “We could call London,” Caridad suggested. Willow could wipe the woman’s mind. Or… “What about the machine?” The brainwashing machine had worked for Morgan and Kirsten, hadn’t it? Not quite the same situation, and it was probably taken apart by now - Willow had a thing about such things - but…

    “Uh…” Chuck looked… not happy. Really not happy. “Guys, we went through this before, right? The, uh, machine, is bad news.” Morgan and Kirsten nodded without saying a word.

    “And I doubt that our superiors would condone using it - they weren’t very happy about its very existence,” Phil reminded them that the machine was likely broken down or something.

    “What machine?” Carina asked. She was putting up a good front, but Caridad could tell that she was increasingly nervous.

    “A machine to solve problems like the one you represent,” John said. He hadn’t pushed for killing her, yet. Not openly. “There aren’t many other options.” And there he went.

    “Guys! We’re not doing this again!” Chuck protested.

    “‘Again’?” Now Carina was visibly nervous.

    John shrugged. “What’s the alternative? We can’t trust her.”

    Chuck looked to Sarah with a pleading expression.

    “Carina’s not very loyal to anyone but herself,” Sarah said - without looking at the spy.

    Caridad, tough, was, and Carina looked as if she had been struck.

    “Guys, we’re not doing this again,” Chuck repeated himself. “The, uh, other case was one thing, but this is different. She isn’t, uh, trying to kill us.”

    “She almost got us killed in the ambush,” John told him.

    “But that was, uh… Chuck trailed off. “An accident?”

    “The kind of accident she keeps causing,” John said.

    “But still an accident!” Chuck shook his head.

    “The question seems to be: Can we trust her to change her ways? At least with regards to our mission?” Phil tilted his head as he looked at Carina. “Or do we have to expect her to disregard everyone’s safety for her own selfish impulses again?”

    Seeing Carina swallow drily was quite satisfying. She wasn’t looking so smug now, was she?

    “What are you talking about? What secret are you hiding?” Carina spoke up. “I only got code-names, so what is the big deal?”

    “Do you think she’ll figure out the truth?” Caridad turned Sarah’s earlier question back on her.

    “She’s smart and curious. But…” Sarah shrugged.

    “The risk is there,” John said.

    Everyone looked at Carina. The spy was pressing her lips together and staring back, eyes moving from one of them to the other.

    “Can you keep it down a little? I’m trying to rest here.”

    Oh, no!

    The closet door was opened from the inside and Harmony peered out. “What’s the big deal? You’ve been, like, talking for hours!”

    “Uh… Carina bugged us,” Chuck told her.

    “So tell her to bugger off. Spikey always said that when I annoyed him.” Harmony nodded.

    Hadn’t she overheard them?

    “Not bugging like that, bugging as in… placing bugs. Electronic surveillance devices,” Chuck explained.

    “Oh.” Harmony blinked again. “And now she, like, knows too much?”

    “I don’t!” Carina protested. “I don’t know what’s going on - I only heard code-names. Like ‘Vamp’ and ‘Fyarl’.”

    “The assassin woman got a Fyarl demon?” Harmony asked. “Also, it’s ‘vampire’, not ‘vamp’. ‘Vamp’ is rude.” She nodded.

    Caridad wanted to groan. “Shut up, Harmony!” she snapped.

    “I was resting! You were the ones not shutting up! You know how hard it is to rest when there are people talking?” Harmony frowned. “So, what’s the problem, like, anyway?”

    “You,” Chuck said with a sigh.

    “What, me? I, like, didn’t do anything!”

    Carina looked now both scared and confused. “What are you talking about? How is she…” The spy blinked, then shook her head. “This is a distraction - or a sick game.”

    “A game?” Harmony joined Carina in being confused. “You were playing a game without me? That’s rude! Unless it’s, like, daytime sports.”

    “It’s not that sort of game,” Chuck said, “We aren’t playing games like that.”

    “I, like, don’t get it. What’s the problem, then?” Harmony yawned.

    “They’re discussing whether or not they’ll kill me to keep their secrets,” Carina said.

    Harmony blinked. “Kill you? Whoa! What for?”

    Carina stared at her. It seemed the spy still hadn’t figured out that Harmony was not putting on an act - the vampire really was that stupid.

    “Knowing about our purpose,” Phil said. Before Harmony could blurt out something else, he continued: “Which you know not to spread, either.”

    Harmony nodded. “Totally!” Then she blinked. “So, why don’t you, like, recruit her?”

    “We can’t trust her not to get us killed,” Morgan said.

    “Oh.”

    “I wouldn’t get you killed!” Carina protested.

    “You almost did,” John shot back.

    “That was the normal risk on a mission!”

    “And in our business, the stakes are a little higher than in yours,” Phil pointed out. “I wasn’t using hyperbole when I said the fate of the world hinged on some missions.”

    “You’re acting like you’re…” Carina trailed off and looked at Harmony. Her eyes widened.

    Caridad frowned. What… then she gasped. Phil had removed all mirrors in the apartment, outside the bathroom. But the door to the bathroom was open, and Harmony had stepped in front of it.

    And she wasn’t visible in the mirror behind her. While everyone else was.

    Great.

    *****​
     
  8. Threadmarks: Chapter 8: The Explanation
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 8: The Explanation

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 10th, 2008

    Carina was staring at the mirror. In which she could see herself, but not Harmony - who was standing between the spy and the mirror. “What the…? Why aren’t you showing up in the mirror?”

    Caridad sighed through clenched teeth. The stupid bloodsucker had blown it!

    “Uh…” Chuck looked as if he was at a loss. Which he probably was.

    “It’s actually a high-end screen with an integrated camera, and due to a glitch, Harmony doesn’t show up.” Morgan grimaced. “We’re still working on fixing it.”

    Well, he had tried.

    “A screen…” Carina narrowed her eyes at the junior Watcher, then at the mirror. “That’s no screen. I would’ve noticed it.”

    Of course the spy would spend so much time in front of the only mirror in the apartment to notice.

    “You don’t show in the mirror.” Carina turned to Harmony. “How?”

    “Uh… my skin is, like, so sensitive to light, it doesn’t reflect it?” Harmony beamed at the woman. “No?”

    “That’s not how light and reflections work, Harmony!” Chuck blurted out.

    “What? I got a ‘D’ in high school for that!”

    “You got a D because the teacher didn’t fail anyone,” Morgan pointed out.

    “No!”

    “Yes!”

    “Stop it!” Carina all but yelled. “Why can’t I see you in the mirror?” She walked into the bathroom and eyed the mirror. “It’s not a screen!” Then her head snapped to the side. “Ah!” She grabbed her makeup kit. Which had a mirror in it, of course.

    Caridad tensed. Should she stop the spy?

    But it was too late. “You don’t show up in my mirror, either!” Carina exclaimed. “This is impossible!” She waved her makeup mirror around. “This is not a screen!”

    Phil shook his head. “I believe the cat is out of the bag.”

    “We can still kill her,” John said.

    “Kill me? For seeing something that’s impossible?”

    “Hey! I’m, like, not impossible! And I’m not something!” Harmony complained. “I’m just special!”

    “That’s not…” Carina trailed off. “You don’t show up in the mirror. You sleep in the closet. You…” She looked at the windows. With the shades drawn down. “You don’t like sunlight, do you?”

    “Of course not! I burn easily!” Harmony replied in a serious tone.

    Carina looked around, then gasped. “Oh my God - you’re vampires!”

    Killing her sounded very good to Caridad right then.

    “What? No! We aren’t vampires!” Chuck told her. “Look, we’re visible in the mirror!”

    “And you saw us in the sun,” Sarah added, rolling her eyes.

    “But… she’s a vampire!” Carina pointed at Harmony. And rapidly paled.

    “Well, duh!” Harmony sniffed. “What gave it away? I’m asking so I, like, won’t do the same thing again. People don’t like that.”

    For a moment, everyone stared at the bloodsucker. Then Chuck sighed. “You were standing in front of the bathroom mirror, Harmony.”

    “Oh, right!” Harmony nodded. Then she frowned. “But that, like, wasn’t my fault - someone left the door open!”

    “And you walked in front of it,” Caridad added.

    “But I, like, didn’t realise it!”

    “Yes,” Chuck said.

    Harmony nodded. “See? I told you. Not my fault.”

    “She’s a vampire.” Carina was still pale. “I’ve been talking to a vampire!”

    “Yes?”

    “Oh my god! Vampires are real.” The spy grabbed her own throat.

    “Are you checking for bite marks among your hickeys?” Kirsten asked.

    “I didn’t bite you.” Harmony pouted. “If I had, Caridad would’ve staked me!”

    “This is crazy! I’m crazy!” Carina shook her head. “This can’t be true! Vampires aren’t real!” She grabbed her makeup mirror and started to pry it apart. “There has to be some explanation! An explanation that makes sense!”

    “Wow, you’re, like, freaking out!” Harmony commented. “I wasn’t that bad - and I died finding out about vampires!”

    “New rule,” Morgan said. “Harmony doesn’t get to tell people about magic.”

    “Hey! It’s not my fault she’s having a breakdown!”

    Carina gasped again. “Magic is real?”

    “Indeed.” Phil stepped forward. “Magic is real. Vampires are real. Demons of all kinds are real.”

    “Hell’s real,” Caridad added, baring her teeth. “I’ve fought in hell.”

    “This is impossible.”

    “I think you need a demonstration,” Phil said.

    “You’re not, like, going to shoot me, are you?” Harmony asked.

    “Of course not,” Phil said. “We wouldn’t want to frighten the neighbours,” he added after a moment, just when the vampire had started to smile with relief.

    “But…”

    “Please check Harmony for a pulse.”

    Phil had to repeat himself until Carina managed to touch Harmony’s wrist. She quickly started to check the other wrist, then the throat. And almost stripped the vampire in an attempt to uncover a trick device or something.

    “This can’t… this is impossible!”

    Phil chuckled. “I’m afraid it’s true. The world is older than you know…”

    *****​

    “...and that’s what the Council’s fighting,” Phil finished.

    “What the Slayers are fighting,” Caridad added with a small frown.

    “Quite, my dear.”

    She eyed the spy. Carina hadn’t said anything during Phil’s tale. But she had been shaking her head.

    “So, now you know our secret,” Phil said.

    “Your secret? That’s ridiculous! A fairy tale! Demons, and magic, and a world-spanning conspiracy hiding everything! And… and magical girls fighting vampires?”

    What? Caridad jumped up. “We aren’t magical girls!” she snarled at the spy. “We’re Slayers!”

    “Well, technically…”

    A glare from her shut Chuck up in mid-sentence. “We aren’t magical girls!”

    “Got it!”

    “I don’t get it,” Kirsten said.

    “I’ll explain it to you later,” Morgan told her in a low voice.

    “It’s ridiculous!” Carina repeated herself.

    “It’s the truth,” Phil told her. “And we can prove it.”

    “Not it!” Harmony blurted out.

    “What?” Chuck asked.

    “I’ve heard about this! I’m not going to be the vampire doused with holy water or pushed into the sunlight! Go get another!”

    “We’re not going to torture you,” Chuck told her. “But you can demonstrate vampiric traits.”

    “‘Traits’? Like, literature stuff?” Harmony looked as dumb as she was.

    “I think you mean ‘tracts’,” Phil said.

    “Yes. Don’t you have, like, tons of those things?”

    “They’re called books,” Caridad said.

    Unfortunately, her subtle barb went over the bloodsucker’s head. “Yes, exactly!” Harmony nodded with a smile. Then she blinked. “So… what did you mean?”

    “Traits - qualities unique to vampires for which magic is the only explanation,” Phil explained.

    “Oh.” Harmony frowned. “I have those?”

    “Can you drop the act?” Carian suddenly hissed. “It’s not funny - it’s stupid! Do you see me laughing? Do you see anyone laughing?”

    “What act?” Harmony looked confused.

    “It’s not an act,” Sarah said. “And it’s not a joke - we are fighting demons.”

    “And sometimes criminals and enemy spies. But usually, it’s demons. Or evil practitioners of the dark arts,” Morgan added. “Which are pretty much like the Dark Arts in Harry Potter, but Willow doesn’t like it if we compare them… Uh, well, yeah.”

    That hadn’t helped Carina accept the truth, Caridad could tell easily. Well, time to show off!

    She stood, then walked over to the couch that Sarah and Chuck were occupying, bent down and lifted it up.

    Carina stared.

    “Feel free to check for wires, magnets and whatever you can think of,” Caridad told her with a grin.

    “You’re a cyborg!”

    Caridad almost dropped the couch. “No, I’m a Slayer!”

    “Please check Harmony’s reflection again,” Phil said.

    “That’s a trick!”

    Caridad was leaning more and more towards just killing the spy.

    “And how would we be able to do this? Replace your mirror with a sophisticated screen and camera? And then arrange all of this just to fool you?” Phil’s sarcasm was starting to shine through.

    “Yes!”

    “With such an implausible story?” Both eyebrows went up, Caridad noted.

    “Double-bluff,” the spy replied. “It’s so impossible, you think I’ll assume it has to be true because I think you wouldn’t try something so absurd.”

    “We should get Willow to turn her into a rat,” Morgan said.

    “She’d blame psychedelic drugs,” Chuck told him. “I think we have to demonstrate that this is not a trick. Harmony, turn your game face on and hold her up.”

    “Really? But it’ll, like, ruin my makeup. Do you know how much of a pain it is to put it on?”

    “But you have a phone with a camera now, don’t you?” Chuck replied, blinking.

    “Yes, but I’d like to see you do that one-handed in a closet.”

    “How about you do it in the bathroom?”

    “I don’t trust the shades there!”

    “Right. Anyway - game face?”

    “Alright.”

    Harmony turned to smile at Carina and vamped out.

    The spy gasped. Then shrieked when the vampire grabbed her with one hand and lifted her up.

    And shrieked even more when her thin short robe tore and she dropped to the floor in her panties.

    “Oh, I’m like, so sorry - I didn’t, like, think your robe would rip. And it was silk! Must have been expensive, though I don’t recognise the brand.”

    Carina scuttled back on all fours, retreating into the bathroom while Harmony followed her, trying to apologise.

    “This must have been the worst reveal of magic in the Council’s history,” Chuck said.

    “At least since the incident with the Inquisition in Madrid,” Phil said.

    “No one, ever, tell anyone else about this!” Caridad glared at everyone. They would never live this down if Vi heard about it. Or the Scoobies.

    *****​

    It took a few more hands-on demonstrations of vampire physiology, as Phil called it, as well as an actual magic spell - two, actually, a scrying spell and a ritual to purge Harmony’s invitation - for Carina to accept that there were more things between heaven and earth than she had known before. Or something.

    Although Caridad was still not sure whether the spy had actually been convinced, or whether she was still trying to come up with alternative explanations for supernatural effects. As long as she wasn’t calling the Slayer a cyborg or Terminator any more, Caridad didn’t really care. Even if it triggered a discussion between Chuck and Morgan about movies and TV series.

    What she was concerned about was whether or not Carina would keep their secret. And, in her opinion, the jury was still out in that regard. “I don’t like it,” she mumbled after checking the counter in Phil’s kitchen for bugs.

    “Me neither,” John replied as he cut a few slices of cold roast beef.

    “I don’t trust her,” Caridad added, reaching out to grab one.

    “Those are for sandwiches.” He grabbed her wrist before she could reach the plate.

    “Sandwiches I’ll eat!” she protested.

    “Once they’re done.” He grinned at her.

    She could’ve pulled her hand free. She probably could grab the plate before he could react, too. But that would’ve been… She sighed, and he released her wrist. “I don’t think the threat of the Old Ones waking up is enough to keep her silent.” Someone who would rather believe in time-travelling cyborgs than magic wouldn’t be impressed by such tales.

    “Then the scrying demonstration should be enough,” John replied, starting to cut bread - Phil’s gotten them some German-style dark bread for some reason while out grocery shopping.

    She scoffed. Carina was the type to think she wouldn’t get caught. Or that, if she got caught, she would be able to deal with it. Like a new Slayer who had dusted a fledgling or two and thought she was the hottest thing in town - and needed to be beaten around the training room a few times by older Slayers until she was ready to listen to people with more experience.

    She blinked. “Damn! I’m thinking like a Watcher!”

    John cocked his head. “You’re thinking about arranging an accident?”

    “What? No!” She shook her head. “I was thinking… Wait! Are you?”

    “It’s one option,” he said.

    “Chuck would hate you,” she told him.

    “He would hate having some spies kidnap or kill his family trying to get leverage on him more,” John said.

    That was true, of course. But…

    “I’m not planning it,” he went on. “But the option’s on the table.”

    After a moment, she nodded.

    While he finished the first sandwich, she sighed. “It’s too bad that we can’t just go hit Caritas. That would set her straight.” Unless the spy would blame Hollywood tricks. But going out in force, with Dubois unaccounted for and the LAPD still looking for them - word from their superiors to drop the case or not - that would’ve been a bad idea. Even a demon could call the cops anonymously, after all. And disguises wouldn’t help - they were too well known in the place. Well, Caridad was.

    John grunted in reply, ten slid the plate over to her.

    “Thanks!” She beamed at him, then started to eat.

    Of course, Carina had to ruin the meal, as Caridad’s ears picked up her talk with Harmony.

    “You don’t have a soul?”

    “Well, no. At least not as far as I know, Vampires don’t have souls. Except for two, but they, like, don’t count.”

    “And you don’t age.”

    “No! And I don’t get fat, either. No matter what I eat.”

    “And you’re impervious to bullets and super-strong.”

    “Yes!”

    “But you can’t get out into the sun any more.”

    “No. And let me tell you, that’s a huge thing! Like, no beach parties anymore - unless after sundown. And shopping is harder, too - there is this great boutique I can, like, only visit when it’s dark outside. Otherwise, it’s like instant death. Well, it takes a few seconds - we saw one vampire burn in school, once.”

    “Ah.”

    Caridad could tell that Carina didn’t believe that, even if it was true according to Buffy and Willow. But that didn’t matter much. What mattered was that Carina sounded as if she was considering getting turned.

    She sighed. If she could just stake the spy, then things would be much simpler. But deliberately letting someone get turned? No. That went against everything a Slayer stood for.

    Someone had to inform Carina that vampires weren’t people with special dietary requirements and an allergy to sunlight, but corpses animated by a demon.

    Someone who could make the spy believe.

    Because all other matters aside, the last thing Caridad wanted was another spy turned vampire out there. One with a grudge against her and her friends.

    *****​

    “...so, you see, vampires, lacking the soul of the human who was killed, are demons possessing a corpse. They have the human’s memories, but none of their morals. Or restraints.” Phil nodded towards the spy. “The human soul is in the afterlife.”

    “Heaven - or hell,” Caridad added.

    Carina nodded in return, but she didn’t look convinced. At least Caridad thought so. “So, the Buddhists are wrong about reincarnation?” That hint of a smirk confirmed it - she wasn’t taking this seriously.

    “We don’t know that,” Phil replied. “Our knowledge of the afterlife is still quite limited.”

    “So, how would you know what happens after death?” Carina slightly narrowed her eyes.

    “There’s a vampire who had its human soul ripped from the afterlife and stuck into it,” Caridad told her. “And the demon is still in its body as well.”

    “The result of a dark curse,” Phil added. “But it did confirm our lore. It also gave us new insights into vampires. Having a vampire turn you isn’t a way to gain power - it’s simply suicide and letting a bloodthirsty demon take over your body.”

    “So Harmony is a bloodthirsty demon?”

    “Yes,” Caridad replied.

    Phil nodded as well.

    Carina frowned and Caridad caught her glancing towards the closet, where the vampire was ‘sleeping’.

    “She wasn’t always like this,” Phil said. “In the past, she would have killed you and drunk your blood without hesitation. She wouldn’t have spared Harmony’s own family, either - many vampires make a point of hunting down their host’s friends and family.”

    Provided they had friends and family, of course. Caridad doubted that Carina cared for anyone other than herself. Although… “And there’s the slavery, of course.”

    “Slavery?”

    “The one who turns you becomes your master,” Caridad explained. It was a little more complicated, but best not give the spy the idea that she could game the system. “So, your body is forced to serve other vampires. Like a slave.”

    “And other vampires, being soulless demons, tend to be a little careless about their minions, to say the least,” Phil added. “They’d think nothing of sending a minion out to die - or a rival.”

    “Ah.” Judging by how Carina’s lips slightly twisted and formed a thin line, that had struck home.

    “And then there’s the whole half-blood thing,” Caridad said. “Vampires are considered the lowest of the demons.” Which wasn’t entirely correct, of course - an experienced vampire could wreck most demons in a fight - but she’d use whatever angle she could to convince the stupid spy that getting turned wasn’t a free powerup, as Morgan worded it.

    “You’ve made your point,” Carina said.

    Caridad still doubted that the spy had completely abandoned her idea.

    *****​

    “The LAPD just visited Ellie and Devon,” Chuck blurted out as he joined the dinner table. “She just called me. Which is why I’m a little late, sorry.”

    “I thought they were ordered to drop the investigation. Are they ignoring it so openly?” Morgan asked.

    “The directions given to the authorities in charge were quite clear,” Phil said. “However, that doesn’t mean that they will be followed to the letter.”

    “Or they are followed to the letter, but not in the spirit,” Chuck said, then blinked. “Something like that. Anyway, they were asking questions about Gunn’s people - under the pretext that some ‘neighbours’ were ‘concerned about their presence’.”

    “Do you think that this was a pretext?” Phil asked Chuck.

    “Uh… yes?”

    Caridad scoffed. “A bunch of tough, black people in your old neighbourhood? If someone had spotted that they were armed, the LAPD would have sent in SWAT.” Sometimes Chuck was a little too naive.

    “Uh… so, this might not be related to us? They really wanted to know if Ellie and Devon had seen something suspicious?”

    “Probably a bit of both,” Sarah said. “They would’ve jumped at the chance to continue their investigation.”

    “Of course they would - the longer they fail to arrest the ‘terrorists’, the more the press is tearing into them,” Carina said.

    “And Gunn’s people fit the bill,” Kirsten added.

    “Anyone who’s not white fits the bill,” Caridad said, scoffing again.

    “What did Gunn say about it?” John asked.

    “Uh… I haven’t called him yet, what with dinner waiting and all…” Chuck blushed a little. “He would’ve called already if something was up, wouldn’t he?”

    “Are his phones secure?” Carina asked.

    “Not to Willow-level, but the cops shouldn’t be able to tap into them,” Chuck said.

    “‘Willow-level’?” Carina raised both eyebrows.

    “Oh, right, you wouldn’t know her,” Chuck said, “Willow. Most powerful witch on the planet. She was in some of my classes. Let me tell you...”

    Well, Caridad thought as Chuck told Carina about Willow, this should scare her into not letting herself get turned.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 11th, 2008

    It was past midnight, though not too late - for a Slayer - when Caridad returned to Phil’s apartment. She felt better - less on edge. Being coped-up for the entire day was excruciating or something - Slayers needed to move, to hunt, to fight.

    Staking a dumb vampire and scaring the hell out of a supposedly harmless loose-skin demon hadn’t been much of a hunt or fight, but it had been better than nothing. Running all-out for a while had also helped.

    She didn’t feel the urge to stake Carina on sight any more. Hurt, maybe, but nothing serious.

    Unless, she mentally added with a growl, the spy was making moves on John or Phil again.

    After a last check to see if she was followed - unlikely, she had taken a few detours underground again, and she would’ve noticed anyone following her down there - she entered the building. Perhaps John was still up, and she could take care of another urge…

    Everyone was still up, she noticed, as soon as she entered. “What happened?” she asked as she closed the door.

    “Hi, Caridad. How was your hunt?” Morgan asked from where he was sitting on the couch with Kirsten - who was studying something on a laptop. The rest of the group was standing and sitting around the dinner table, looking at pacers and more laptop screens. Even Carina, though Harmony was missing.

    “It was fine. What happened?” She didn’t quite growl, but she showed her teeth.

    “Uh…”

    “Bartowski’s program found a trace of Nathan,” John told her.

    She smiled in return and went to hug him. “So, where is it, and when do we go and stake it?”

    “We’re working on that,” he replied before she kissed him.

    She broke the kiss after Phil cleared his throat. “I’ll expect your report later, dear. But, indeed, we may have found our elusive prey’s hideout - or, at the least, a lead to it,” he told her.

    “Where is it?” She looked at the table, scanning the maps and pictures. “An office tower?”

    “Uh, it’s not much of a tower,” Chuck told her. “Actually, it doesn’t qualify as a highrise. But it’s been recently constructed - and by a contractor that also did work for Wolfram & Hart, back, you know, when they were still around.”

    “Wolfram & Hart? I’ve been hearing rumours about them being a terrorist front,” Carina asked. “Don’t tell me that they were vampires!”

    “Well, they weren’t vampires - but they had some on staff,” Chuck said. “Harmony worked for them for a while.”

    The spy didn’t like hearing that. “We were supposed to investigate a client of theirs, but then the operation was cancelled.”

    Caridad snorted. ‘We’ probably meant ‘I’ and not ‘the DEA’ here.

    “Uh, yes, that probably was one of the corrupt politicians who had sold their souls to Wolfram & Hart influencing the DEA,” Chuck said.

    “That’s a…” Carina blinked, then groaned. “Don’t tell me that you mean that literally.”

    “Uh…”

    “Hell’s a real place. Souls are real. Demons are real,” Caridad reminded her with a grin.

    “This is…” Carina shook her head.

    “Too much for you?” Sarah asked, raising her eyebrows.

    The spy glared at her. “No.”

    Caridad rolled her eyes at the bravado. Carina wasn’t handling the real world very well. “Where’s Harmony?” she asked.

    “She’s visiting friends,” Phil said.

    The vampire had friends? Actual friends?

    “Don’t look at me,” Carina said. “I was against it - Dubois is still out there, and the LAPD is looking for you.”

    “Harmony, for all her quirks, is an experienced vampire,” Phil said. “She shouldn’t have any trouble with either.”

    And if she did, then it wasn’t a big loss, in Caridad’s opinion.

    “And she’s got a tracker and a burner phone,” Chuck added. “But I don’t think Dubois will risk another fight. Not with the police looking for them and us.”

    “Unless she thinks she has an opportunity to kill or kidnap Harmony without anyone else noticing or being able to interfere,” John told him.

    “She’ll probably assume it’s a trap and leave her be,” Sarah pointed out.

    “And Harmony knows to go underground before coming back,” Chuck added, nodding.

    “What was the deal with Wolfram & Hart?” Carina asked. “And don’t look at me like that - we’ve been looking at the office building for hours, now, without making progress.”

    Judging by the lack of denial, the spy was right. “They were controlled by elder demons,” Caridad said. “And they wanted to end the world - on their terms, or something. Mostly, they helped demons and evil humans, collected souls, corrupted people...” She shrugged. “You know, the usual evil lawyer stuff.”

    “It is a little more complicated, but that is the gist of it,” Phil agreed. “The Council took care of them, though it took a considerable effort to do so, and some of their allies escaped.”

    Carina looked like she just realised just how much influence the Council had - she would’ve known the scope of the official operation against the ‘terrorist front’.

    Good. That should show the spy that this was way bigger than her and her stupid agency. “So… what’s the plan for Nathan?” she asked, leaning over the table.

    “Uh, we actually don’t know yet,” Chuck replied. “We’ve hacked into the system of Real Estate Los Angeles, that’s the firm, but it’s a dead-end. So, it’s either Nathan - though none of the management on record fit a vampire’s profile - or they have a second computer system not connected to the first to handle communication with Natan.”

    “Or it’s handled in-person,” John added with a slight glare.

    “I was getting to that,” Chuck replied, frowning. “The firm did change ownership a year ago - the founder had an accident, and his heirs sold he shares.”

    “An accident, or an ‘accident’?” Caridad asked.

    “Assume the later - the timing would fit,” John told her.

    “Whether it was an accident or murder doesn’t matter,” Phil said. “The medical records are clear proof that the owner wasn’t turned.”

    That was true. Still, Caridad liked to know just how ruthless and evil the enemy was. And knowing that a vampire could fake an accident was valuable intel.

    Chuck cleared his throat. “Anyway, we’re currently discussing how to proceed. We can’t afford to lose this lead - or to tipp off Nathan about our investigation. So, we need to proceed very carefully.”

    Caridad nodded. That made sense. As long as it didn’t take too long.

    Cuck went on: “So, our best plan involves sneaking in and bugging the place so we can observe the management. It’s just how to sneak in that’s the issue - break in, or pose as interested customers. Charles Carmichael, semi-returned software mogul, could be looking to invest in real estate,” he added with a smile.

    “Breaking in leaves no trace in their system. No financial records to look up. No address to check,” John said.

    “Only if you don’t leave any trace,” Sarah replied.

    “If we break in, we can bug any room we want - not just an office or two,” John pointed out.

    That was true as well. But just a little bad luck during the break-in could ruin the plan - and Caridad had seen too many plans encounter bad luck. There was even a proverb about it. So… Oh! She grinned. “I have an idea! Let me check something!”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, June 16th, 2008

    “Welcome to Real Estate Los Angeles, Miss Garcia!”

    “Han you! I’ll do my best!” Caridad smiled brightly at Mr Jones even though she would have preferred to slap the man - he had been staring at her legs instead of her eyes for most of the interview. And he was wearing a wedding ring!

    “We expect nothing less. Your predecessor leaving so suddenly…” Jones shook his head. “In my time, interns stuck around. I wouldn’t even have dreamed of leaving a job, whether I won a cruise in the Caribbean or not. Not that I would have entered a contest in the first place, mind you!” He stood up.

    She nodded sagely as she stood as well, smoothing her skirt - it was a little too short, in hindsight. Even though Buffy would’ve approved. The former intern hadn’t entered a contest, either - but the woman either hadn’t remembered or hadn’t cared when the tickets they had purchased had arrived in her mailbox.

    Though, Caridad added as she quickly bent down to adjust her shoe or something in order to avoid the arm Jones wanted to sip around her waist, if Miss Garibaldi had been working with the man, perhaps she would have jumped at a paid trip to Oklahoma as an excuse to leave the job.

    “Now let me show you around.”

    “Thank you, sir!” She kept her fake smile up as she left the man’s office. She could almost feel his eyes on her legs. Then again, they had been counting on that to get the position, so maybe she shouldn’t complain.

    “James! This is Miss Ramirez, our new intern. She’s replacing Miss Garcia. Miss Garcia, this is James Buckwalter, our head of accounting.”

    “Hello!” The man looked like a stereotypical Hollywood movie accountant, alright. Or, perhaps, a tv series accountant: almost bald, ill-fitting suit, pocket protector with more pens than a class could use in a week. And he was staring at her chest.

    “Hi!” she replied, shaking hands.

    “Pleased to meet you.” At least he had a decent handshake, and he was now looking at her face. Not for long, though.

    “She’ll be officially starting tomorrow, but I’m showing her around today already,” Jones said. He once again tried to slip his arm around her waist, but Caridad side-stepped it, peering at a painting on the wall.

    “Sorry!” She beamed at them. “This is a fascinating painting.”

    Buckwalter returned her smile. “It is, isn’t it? Jeremiah Walker, a rarely-known artist from the 19th century who went on the Oregon Trail. Most of his work deals with this experience - he died young, alas, shot to death at Gettysburg, but he also…”

    “I’m sorry, James, but we need to visit human resources,” Jones cut in. “Please follow me, Miss Garcia.”

    “Of course! Sorry, Mr Buckwalter!”

    Great. Jones was already acting jealous. Maybe she should’ve sent Carina for this.

    No. Caridad was the Slayer. If this was a vampire front, then the spy would be an easy meal - and, if they turned her, Nathan would know far too much about the group. And, Caridad added to herself as she followed Jones down the hall, nodding at office workers the man obviously didn’t think important enough to merit an introduction, odds were Nathan’s minions would be smart enough to turn a spy they caught.

    Or a pretty woman.

    “And here’s the employee lounge. Well, for the staff. There’s also a VIP lounge reserved for management and their guests,” Jones said as he opened the door to what looked like a typical office break room: Furniture that had been a little too cheap to keep looking fine for long, stacked plastic cups next to a pot of apparently free coffee on a heater, fridge covered with the remains of stickers and notes, and two employees who hastily stood up. “Mr Jones!”

    “At ease!” Jones chuckled at his own joke, then gestured at Caridad. This is Miss Garcia, our new intern. I’m showing her around.”

    “Good morning. I’m Frank Dawson.”

    “Lily Juarez.”

    “Good morning.”

    “And now let me show you your office,” Jones said, already moving towards the lifts.

    Caridad’s office was a cubicle among half a dozen more, on the “main secretary floor, sorry, our ‘personal assistants,” as Jones put it, looking at her as he stressed ‘personal’.

    She nodded, acting as if she had been focused entirely on her new desk. “This is great, Mr Jones!”

    “I know! And now let me show you your main tasks!”

    Which, as Caridad quickly found out, consisted of searching the archives, taking notes and making as well as serving coffee.

    The furniture in the VIP lounge looked expensive in the obvious way that was meant to impress visitors, and the coffee maker could have been stolen from the latest hip coffee shop selling Starbucks menu for five bucks a cup. Though there was no carpet, Caridad noted - hardwood floor was a little odd.

    Then she noticed the hint of a tint to the windows. The same windows Wolfram & Hart had used - the sort that filtered sunlight so vampires wouldn’t get burned.

    “...and here are the different coffee brands. I like cappuccinos,” Jones continued.

    “I’ll remember that, sir! Caridad chirped with a wide smile. Vampire friendly windows - this was a front indeed. One vampires were meant to visit during the day. That meant… cars with tinted windows dropping off visitors underground.

    “Good! Now I’ll show you…”

    “Showing our new intern around, Parker?”

    Caridad noticed Jones freezing for a moment before he pasted a fake smile on his face. “Cyril! Yes, we just hired her. This is Miss Garcia. Miss Garcia - Cyril Lewis, our CEO.”

    Lewis wore his suit well. Tailored, Caridad thought, and probably worth more than most of his staff made in a month. He also was tall, quite fit, and his hair looked perfectly styled.

    “Charmed!” he said, shaking her hand.

    “Likewise!” Strong grip, she added to her estimation and resisted the urge to crush his hand - his aftershave couldn’t hide the demony scent.

    Their eyes met - Lewis didn’t stare down her top - and Caridad did her best to channel a harmless, eager intern, excited and nervous about her new job and meeting the big boss. If this escalated… she wasn’t armed, but she could easily improvise a club and stake from the closest seat in the lounge.

    The demon kept the handshake up just a little longer than normal, then released her hand, flashing pearly white perfect teeth as he smiled. “Let me welcome you to our firm as well.”

    “Thank you, sir! It’s an honour.”

    He nodded. “We expect the best from our employees, but we also offer the best rewards.” His smile turned a little… sharper, Caridad decided fit best. And amused.

    She nodded, “I’ll do my best, sir!”

    “Good. I’m keeping an eye on you.” He nodded at Jones with slightly raised eyebrows and then left the VIP lounge.

    Jones’s smile looked very forced. He cleared his throat. “So, that was our, uh, CEO. I’ll show you his office, well, the hallway and reception, later - Mr Lewis doesn’t like to be bothered without an appointment.”

    Jones didn’t try to touch her during the rest of the tour, but Caidad couldn’t tell whether the man knew about Lewis’s true nature or was simply scared of earning his boss’s displeasure.

    Nor could she tell whether Lewis had warned off Jones of hitting on interns - or staked a claim.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 16th, 2008

    “Cyril Lewis. Canadian immigrant. Joined the firm after the change of ownership and was promoted to CEO soon afterwards, after his predecessor resigned,” Chuck said, pointing at a picture on his computer screen.

    He looked normal in the picture - and less impressive than in the flesh, Caridad noted.

    “Fake ID?” John asked.

    “We’re looking into it,” Chuck told him. “His records are a little… skimpy. He’s got everything he needs, but nothing else.”

    “Looks like a fake - and a bad fake,” John concluded.

    “He definitely is a demon?” Carina asked.

    “Yes,” Caridad replied. “I felt and smelled it.”

    “But not a vampire?”

    Caridad had told them that already. “No, not a bloodsucker.” Any Slayer could identify a vampire on sight. Unless you were Buffy on a Hellmouth, of course. And blinded by your hormones.

    “He looks rather attractive for a monster. Does he change shape or what?”

    “He could be a possessed human - or a shapechanging demon,” Phil said. “There are several possibilities. Wolfram & Hart’s demise left a void that others have been trying to fill.”

    “A void?” Carina frowned.

    Phil nodded. “Many demons live outside society, dwelling - or squatting - in abandoned warehouses or the sewers. Or the wilderness. But there is a sizable number of demons who are living amongst humans - passing for human. Some grew up in society - and some have been living amongst humans for generations. And many of them need help navigating modern society without sticking out and being detected by the government - or the Council. Wolfram & Hart filled this niche - and others have been trying to replace them for years.”

    “And you let them?”

    “The Council deals with those who help and support dangerous demons. Many demons are relatively harmless.”

    Caridad snorted. Some were practically helpless. But they were still demons.

    “Lewis doesn’t look harmless,” Carina commented with a grin. “He looks dangerous.”

    The spy wasn’t just talking about one kind of danger, Caridad knew. It was a very good thing Carina hadn’t been the one posing as an intern - the dumb woman would probably try to seduce Lewis, and end up dead - or turned.

    Sarah spoke up: “The question is: Is Lewis Nathan’s minion, business partner - or boss?”

    “Good question,” Caridad told her. Most demons wouldn’t work for a vampire - at least not the kind of demons smart enough to run a company. Except for certain very powerful vampires. But as far as they knew, Nathan wasn’t in that league.

    Then again, they had been wrong before.

    *****​
     
  9. Threadmarks: Chapter 9: The Undercover Mission
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 9: The Undercover Mission

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 16th, 2008

    “Well, I need to get to the apartment ‘Miss Garcia’ is living in,” Caridad said after dinner. It wouldn’t do to have the vampire - or Lewis, depending on their exact relationships - send someone to check on the new intern and find the apartment empty. Even though it meant sleeping alone. And no more patrolling.

    John nodded. He didn’t look happy about it, either. Well, he better not look happy. And Carina better not try anything in Caridad’s absence.

    “What if they come for you at night?” the spy asked.

    Caridad scoffed. “Then they die.” She wasn’t about to let herself get kidnapped by vampires or their minions.

    “That would endanger your cover.”

    Was Carina trying to get her killed? Caridad glared at her. “Getting kidnapped and turned would endanger me as well.”

    “What about…” The spy glanced to the side, where Harmony’s empty closet was.

    “At this point, we have to assume that Nathan is aware of her. Harmony has a certain reputation in the supernatural world - at least in its corner in Los Angeles,” Phil explained.

    “A reputation?”

    “She survived Wolfram & Hart’s fall,” Morgan piped up. “Not everyone will know her on sight - few, actually, I think - but she’s not exactly, err, subtle.”

    Caridad snorted. The vampire was about as subtle as she was smart. Hell, she made most fledglings look smart - and those generally were about as smart as your average brick.

    “But she’s working with you.” It seemed that Carina didn’t want to let this go. “And she was bait for Dubois.”

    “We’re working with her but we’re completely aware of her limitations,” Phil told her. “And while she was perfectly adequate bait for Dubois, an infiltration mission involving demons and vampires is a little beyond her capability.”

    Just a little, Caridad thought. She stood. “Well, I have to go - and I need some money for takeout.” She beamed at Phil. “I better have the receipts and empty containers in my trash to show why I’m not cooking at home.”

    Her Watcher smiled and opened his wallet. “Of course dear.”

    She frowned a little at him as she grabbed the bills. It was a valid justification! A valid expense, even!

    John joined her on the way to the door, and they stopped in the hallway. Caridad cocked her head - she couldn’t hear anyone in the staircase. “It’ll be OK,” she said.

    He grunted in return. Then he said. “Don’t underestimate this ‘Lewis’.”

    “I won’t,” she replied. Unknown demons - especially demons able to not just fit in with humans, but to run their own business - were always a serious threat.

    He nodded. “Good.”

    He wouldn’t complain about the mission, she knew that. It would make him a hypocrite since such undercover missions were spy work, and he was a spy. And a Watcher now. Still… She leaned forward and kissed him. For some time.

    Both of them were panting when she broke the kiss. “So…” she licked her lips. “This shouldn’t take too long. I just have to get to their computers, and place some bugs.”

    “Don’t rush it.”

    “I won’t.” She didn’t roll her eyes - even though Slayers could be perfectly patient if a mission required it. It was just that most people, even Watchers, were a little too cautious. “Don’t worry.”

    He nodded again.

    He would worry, of course. They always did. But he was a spy - he was used to this. Unlike others who knew the truth about Slayers.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, June 17th, 2008

    Jones hadn’t made any move on her. He had been perfectly professional - even distant - when he greeted her. And he had quickly retreated into his office. Without even ordering coffee. And the others on the floor - mostly secretaries - were giving Caridad strange looks.

    That wasn’t a good thing. Then again, she was the Slayer. Not some helpless intern trying to get a better job and unwilling to stand up to the CEO.

    Whom she hadn’t seen so far, either. Nor had she received any orders, other than to be ready to assist him. Great.

    And she couldn’t even take a nap. New interns didn’t do that. Nor did they plunder the snacks in the VIP lounge. Even though no one would miss a handful or two. Probably.

    Nor could she indulge on coffee, except for the cheap free stuff. She sighed, not for the first time, as she fidgeted on her chair.

    Waiting was the worst.

    *****​

    Halfway to noon - she had already snacked on a few energy bars when no one was looking, and on a doughnut (with jelly filling) in the staff break - her desk phone rang. She took the call. “Garcia?”

    “Miss Garcia, this is Lewis. I need you in my office.”

    “On my way, sir!” Caridad picked up her notepad and suppressed the urge to grab a weapon as she stood. She was here undercover. Slaying Lewis wouldn’t help the mission - Nathan would be warned that they had a trace to it. But once they had what they needed… She managed not to bare her teeth, but it took a little effort.

    “Hey! Consuela!”

    Caridad turned her head. That was one of the secretaries from the pool. Bradbury something. “Yes?”

    “Just be calm and polite, and you’ll do fine,” the woman told her with a smile. “Mr Lewis knows it’s your first day. He won’t eat you.”

    Caridad forced herself to smile at the secretary. The woman meant well - even though the Slayer was sure that Lewis would absolutely eat her given a chance. Demons were like that - especially those working with vampires. “Thanks.”

    Bradbury gave her thumb’s up, Cardad nodded in return, and continued towards Lewis’ office.

    “Go straight in,” the executive secretary told her with a slight sneer, “he doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

    If the demon wanted her to be quicker, he should’ve given her an office closer to his. Not that she’d mention that. She knocked and opened the door.

    Lewis’s office looked like the typical CEO office in a TV series: Expensive designer furniture including an oversized desk and a black leather chair, latest computer - you couldn’t be friends with Chuck and Morgan without being told about the state of the art in computers every few weeks, at least, so she could tell - and some modern art on the walls. What she didn’t see, though, were family pictures or anything like a personal touch - except for an old dagger apparently serving as a letter opener. “Mr Lewis? You called for me?”

    “Yes, I did. A minute ago.” He flashed his teeth at her.

    She nodded, not sure how to interpret that, and raised her notepad, pen at the ready.

    “No need for notes,” Lewis told her. “I just need a coffee - black, no sugar.”

    “What brand of coffee?”

    “Pick one.” Another toothy smile followed.

    Was that a flaw in his human disguise, or a test? Most people had a favourite type. She nodded anyway. “Yes, sir!”

    She wasn’t a barista, but she knew how to operate a fancy coffee-maker. Picking a brand was a little more difficult - but then, she wasn’t actually an intern anxious to impress the boss, so she picked the most expensive one and made coffee.

    A few minutes later, she presented the cup - a real cup, not a disposable one - to the demon. He sniffed the cup, then sighed. “Ah… good choice.”

    Once more, she nodded. “Do you need anything else, sir?”

    “Ah, yes. Fetch me the Lilander file.”

    “Yes, sir.”

    Caridad had to ask the secretary - who was still sneering at her as if the Slayer was angling for her job or something - which file that was, and then spent ten minutes in the archives since the directions she had been given were ‘somewhat less than helpful’, as Phil would have put it.

    But Lewis didn’t even comment on the delay when she returned, motioning to her to wait while the demon studied the file.

    Which took some time. Caridad was soon fidgeting - standing so close to an evil demon, unable to slay it, and nothing to occupy her mind was torture. Slayers weren’t meant for this!

    That the demon made some humming noises every few seconds didn’t help either. Caridad was biting her lower lip to keep from snapping at Lewis when the demon finally put the file down. “Ah.” Again, that toothy smile appeared. “As I thought.”

    She cocked her head. “Yes, sir?”

    “Just an idle thought.” The demon leaned back, tilting its head back as it stretched, and it was all Caridad could do not to growl at the provocative way the demon exposed its throat.

    “Are you nervous?”

    She stood straighter. “A little, sir.”

    “Don’t be. You’re doing well.” Lewis stood. “Quick, eager - I like that in an intern. Or a staff member.”

    She forced herself to smile as he walked around the desk towards her. “Thank you, sir.”

    “Respectful, too.” Lewis sighed and shook his head. “You couldn’t imagine the kind of spoiled brats who sometimes make it past our human resources. Although since Parker took over the department, we’ve had fewer trouble cases. He has a talent for picking interns who fit into our company.”

    Ugh. Caridad kept a smile on her face. She knew what kind of type Jones preferred. And Lewis shared the man’s taste?

    And was he merely interested in impressionable and vulnerable young women as playthings - or did he have other plans? Chuck’s research hadn’t found a string of missing interns, but if the demon was smart - and Lewis was; she knew that - then he could’ve covered his tracks.

    It took an effort, but she kept her bright smile and nodded. “Thank you, sir! I won’t let you down!”

    “I know you won’t. Now fetch me another coffee.”

    “Yes, sir.” She turned and left his office, suppressing the urge to scowl - or sigh - as soon as the door closed behind her. “Mr Lewis wants another coffee,” she told his secretary.

    The woman’s reply was just this side of being rude. Was the woman actually jealous? Or did she know something? Was she implicated? Caridad would have to set Chuck and his Dad on that.

    After fetching coffee for the man.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 17th, 2008

    “...and then he kept me busy fetching coffee and files, and I don’t think he wanted either,” Caridad told the others between munching on a sandwich John had prepared for her. She shrugged. “Don’t know what he wanted to achieve.”

    “Ordering you around is a demonstration of power,” Carina said. “And praising you each time you do something simple is mental manipulation.”

    “Yes,” Kirsten added. “It’s like textbook sexual harassment.”

    “He hasn’t said anything sexual to me,” Caridad retorted. “Nor did he ogle me.”

    “That just means he’s smart about it,” Kirsten replied.

    “Or that he has other, even worse, aims in mind regarding you,” Phil said.

    “Yes! He might want to sacrifice me!” Caridad said, looking for another snack. A Slayer needed food.

    “I haven’t found any missing interns, though…” Chuck trailed off.

    “Yes?” Caridad looked at him.

    “Few interns have stayed at the firm since the takeover,” he said.

    “That would fit a pattern of sexual abuse,” Sarah pointed out. “Any lawsuits?”

    “None.”

    “He could’ve scared them into not saying anything. Or paid them off,” Kirsten said.

    “We haven’t found any payments that would fit that pattern,” Chuck said, “but we haven’t managed to get into all their systems.”

    Caridad frowned. “I’m working on that. I couldn’t do anything today - he kept me too busy.” And the secretary kept her eyes on her.

    “Good.”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, June 17th, 2008

    Caridad could smell the vampire from a dozen yards away. Lurking in the shadows. Looking for prey. Probably hoping for some drunk, or a hobo - or just some stupid guy who was stupid enough or late enough to take a shortcut through a dark alley.

    Well, too bad for the demon, but she was neither. She could fake it, though - just an office worker who had gone out for dinner right after work and was now walking home - or to a bus station. If she’d had headphones, she could’ve made it even more convincing.

    Not that she needed to - she could’ve just rushed in and taken the vamp down. But after a day spent catering to a demon, she needed more than a quick kill. She needed a fight. A brutal, bloody fight.

    So she walked, hips swaying, eyes on her phone while she fake-texted. Half a dozen yards. It was moving now. Changing its stance. Getting ready.

    Would it just pounce? Or would it try to scare and chase her? Or even try to bluff and appear as a homeless beggar? Caridad had seen all three, but in this spot, in the middle of downtown, when it wasn’t yet past midnight… probably pounce straight away - it wouldn’t want its prey to run into the next street.

    Another yard… Ah. It would come from behind. That was a cautious vampire. Good. This might be satisfying, then.

    She heard the air moving as it rushed at her back and whirled, dodging the grasping arms and burying her knee in the monster’s stomach. It made a gurgling noise as it was propelled back, smacking into the wall where it had been hiding.

    Caridad shifted into a basic kickboxing stance. Nothing fancy - her heels were handicap enough. The vampire shook its head - full game face, she noticed - and snarled. “You!”

    “Me!” she replied, flashing her teeth.

    It was smart - she could see how it glanced left and right, looking for an escape route. Not a fledgling, then; those always thought they were unbeatable. But she would be able to intercept it whatever route it took.

    She wriggled her fingers. Come at me, bloodsucker.

    It came at her, snarling and hissing. But it had no combat training - and no experience fighting a Slayer. Caridad dodged two wild swings, jumped over a telegraphed kick and laughed at a tackle attempt. The next time it attacked, she trapped and broke its arm, followed by a kick that shattered its knee.

    And that was it. She could let it drag it out. Let the vampire recover, then beat it down again. No. She was better than that.

    She staked it with a pencil before it knew what happened.

    Then she sighed. Not quite as satisfying as she had hoped, but it had helped vent her frustration.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, June 17th, 2008

    Caridad was in a better mood when she finally approached ‘Garcia’s’ home - or, rather, the apartment building in which her cover identity had rented a small flat, as Phil would say - backdated a year thanks to Chuck’s hacking. It had been a short fight, but a dead bloodsucker was a dead bloodsucker - one less demon preying on humans. She was even swinging her purse as she crossed the streets, humming a little.

    Then she felt another demony presence. Close. She almost froze but managed to keep going. First rule for a Slayer - well, second, first rule was ‘don’t die’ - was to play the harmless meal when facing vampires and other demons to gain the element of surprise in a battle.

    The demon - a vampire; she could smell the blood as she closed in - was hiding at the corner of the building. A good but not perfect ambush spot; it would have to grab her and drag her into the side alley, and she would show up on the camera covering the building’s entrance.

    The bloodsucker was alone, too - Caridad smiled without showing her teeth. Wasn’t it nice when the vampires came to you? She put a little more spring in her step as she neared the corner. A few more steps and it would pounce.

    It didn’t. From behind? No. She kept going and reached the building entrance, and the demon hadn’t moved at all. What did that mean? Since when didn’t vampires jump helpless victims in dark side alleys? Had the vampire recognised her?

    Or… was this one of Nathan’s? Checking up on the new intern? Damn. That meant she couldn’t climb out of the window and drop on the demon’s head from above.

    Clenching her teeth, she entered the lift, pushing the button to her floor with more force than needed.

    Another demon she couldn’t slay but would have to tolerate - at least until she knew more.

    At least a vampire couldn’t sneak into her apartment - cover identity or not, she was sleeping here and treating it as her home, so any bloodsucker would need an invitation. But… they might be spying on her. And a naive intern wouldn’t expect spies.

    Great. She kept smiling as she left the lift and entered her apartment, kicking her shoes off and grabbing a snack from the fridge before she sat down on her bed. Sleeping while a vampire spied on you...

    This mission couldn’t be over fast enough!

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, June 18th, 2008

    “...and another coffee.”

    “Yes, sir.”

    It was getting harder to stay in-character. And not because Lewis was a demon, its stench filling the office. She could handle that - it had stayed the same since Caridad had started here. But Lewis constantly ordering her around, and her having to smile and bear it, playing the obedient intern, eager to please… it grated. She longed to smash her fists in that smiling face, breaking those gleaming teeth, showing the bastard that she wasn’t some dumb prey but the Slayer.

    But she was on a mission. She could do this.

    Smiling, she walked past the sneering secretary and into the lounge. By now, she could operate the coffee-maker in her sleep and recognise the different brands by touch - well, not quite. But almost. Lewis drank more coffee than a Navy bridge crew, as John would call it.

    She blinked as the cup started to fill. Were there demons that needed caffeine? She’d have to ask Phil. It might be a clue about Lewis’s nature. And it would make slaying it even more satisfying if she could prepare the most painful and effective way to do so.

    Once she had finished her mission, of course. Which she hadn’t. Lewis had been ordering her around all morning, and she had barely had time to grab a snack on the way, much less time to find out where they kept their main servers and the hidden servers Chuck was sure they had.

    The cup was full now. She grabbed it, cleared the machine, took a deep breath, and…

    ...blinked. That was another demon scent. Faint, but it was there. There was another demon in the building - on this floor.

    Forcing herself to smile, she left the lounge. The scent grew stronger. And there was a hint of blood. Old blood - a vampire? Wait… she knew this scent! That was the vampire who had spied on her last night!

    And, judging by how its scent grew stronger the closer she got to Lewis’s office, it was waiting for her with the demon.

    Great.

    She knocked, then opened the door, as she had been told to, and entered smiling. Yes, there was the vampire, in a good suit, standing at the window. Was it unused to the special glass? Relishing in the novelty of actually being able to stand in the sun without burning to ashes? She couldn’t pay too much attention, though.

    “Here’s your coffee, sir,” she said, placing the cup on Lewis’s desk.

    “Thank you.” Lewis took a sip, probably just for show - unless the demon really liked the stuff - and sighed, eyes closed for a moment.

    Caridad suppressed the urge to strike at the apparent opening - she was used to that from frequent visits to Caritas. She kept standing, hands behind her back - ready to throw the pen in her hand at the vampire, should the bloodsucker make a move.

    “Ah, this is Carlos. Carlos Smith,” Lewis said. “Carlos, this is Miss Garcia, my new intern.”

    Not ‘our new intern’? A slip of the tongue, or a claim? Lewis certainly hadn’t let her work for anyone else so far. Which, as Caridad had found out during lunch break with the non-sneering secretaries, wasn’t unusual, but not really common, either.

    “Call me Carlos,” the vampire said, flashing its teeth at her in a smile.

    Caridad managed not to shudder at the stench of old, rotten blood that waved out of the demon’s mouth as she nodded in return. “Pleased to meet you, sir,” she lied. Carlos. Not Nathan - unless it was lying. But she doubted Nathan, even if he were a minion of Lewis, would go on stakeouts. Vampires in its position had fledglings for that.

    The vampire’s smile deepened. “Polite.”

    “Very,” Lewis said.

    “Thank you, sir.” Caridad hoped her strained smile would be taken as nervousness, and not disgust. Talking about her like she wasn’t standing in front of them? She longed to slay both demons and end their stupid power games. Especially since Carlos’s presence indicated that Lewis’s treatment of interns was worse than she had imagined - and she hadn’t been optimistic.

    “Will that be all, sir?” she asked.

    In response, Lewis merely raised his hand without looking at her.

    Caridad settled into waiting, looking out of the window behind Lewis - and tracking Carlos as the vampire started to walk around in the office. The demon was acting as if it was looking at the art on the walls, but Caridad caught him staring at her - which caused it to smile.

    She clenched her teeth and tensed when the demon walked behind her, quickly hiding the pen in her palm. A vampire at her back, stepping closer. Close enough to pounce. Close enough, now, to strike so she wouldn’t be able to react in time… Every fibre of her wanted to whirl and stake the beast.

    But she forced herself to stay still. Trembling a little, but not moving. Not fighting. The demons wouldn’t strike at her in the office. Too many - too many humans - had seen her fetch coffee, knew she was working for Lewis. If she disappeared, there would be an investigation. That wasn’t Lewis’s style, or Chuck would’ve found traces and clues.

    They wouldn’t attack her here, now.

    But if they had recognised her… if they knew that she was the Slayer, that the Council knew about the firm… then they wouldn’t have anything to lose and everything to gain by killing her, would they?

    But she was in disguise. In a good disguise. She didn’t look like the Slayer - she looked, she acted like a nervous, impressionable young intern.

    Carlos walked into her field of vision again, and she tracked it in the corner of her eyes, relaxing slightly. Judging by its grin, it thought she had been nervous, even afraid of it - and not straining against the urge to slay both of the demons in the office.

    “Carlos is an associate of mine. Treat his needs as mine.”

    “Yes, sir.” ‘Needs’? More word games. The demons thought they were being very clever. But they were very predictable. Sort of - Caridad still had no idea about their endgame. But she had a feeling. And it wasn’t a good feeling. Chuck needed to check those former interns again.

    “Good.” Lewis smiled again. “Now fetch us the Kramer building files and return those files.”

    “Yes, sir.” She had fetched the Kramer files twice so far - it was now clear Lewis just wanted to order her around. But for what purpose? Some sick game? He never said ‘please’ or asked for anything - he ordered her around.

    At least she had been able to explore the archives at her pleasure and place one of Chuck’s prepared USB sticks in the server there to upload whatever he had programmed.

    Thinking of that little victory made it easier to smile when she returned with the Kramer files to the office. Carlos was once more staring at the sun outside. Definitely not used to such perks - and Nathan would be, according to all they knew about the vampire. “The Kramer files, sir.”

    “Thank you.” Lewis didn’t even look at her and gestured at the desk.

    Caridad placed the files on it, then took a step back to wait again. The stench of old blood had worsened - no air filtering. “Will that be all, sir?”

    Again, the hand rose. After about a minute, Lewis reached for the files without looking - and ‘accidentally’ pushed them off the desk. Sheets went flying, covering half the carpet in front of the desk - and beneath it.

    And the demon looked at her with raised eyebrows as if this was her fault.

    Flushing - with anger, not embarrassment, as the demon probably thought - Caridad knelt down and started to gather the files. Another stupid power game. And the vampire was staring at her butt.

    She had to take care not to crumple the sheets in her anger, and despite how humiliating it looked, she was glad that she had to crawl under the desk to get the last sheets - she could snarl and sneer there without the demons seeing her face. And she could verify that there was no computer hidden in the man’s desk; she would’ve smelled the electronics and heard the fans.

    She was back to smiling when she pulled back and got up. “I’ve got all of them, but I’ll need to sort them - they got all mixed up, sir.”

    “Use the carpet to spread them out.”

    “Yes, sir.”

    The demon - the demons - must really like to see her on her knees. Was that another hint to the demon’s nature? The only demon-type Caridad knew that got off on such was an incubus, but they… well, they generally weren’t the patient type. Or the managing type. And they tended to dress and act much more…

    Carlos was at her back again. Damn. And Lewis was watching. Her smile felt even more forced as she focused sorting the paper sheets without letting her guard down.

    Then the demon smiled. Widely.

    She froze for a moment. Was he about to attack her?

    But Lewis didn’t move, and Carlos didn’t pounce, either.

    Looking a little flushed, she finally got up and placed the restored file on the desk again. “Here, sir.”

    “Good girl.”

    “Thank you, sir.” ‘Good girl’? She really wanted to smash its face in - she was no dog. “Will that be all, sir?”

    Lewis frowned but looked more amused than actually annoyed. “Are you uncomfortable? Do you need to use the bathroom? You can just say so.”

    “No, sir. I’m fine,” she replied. “I just wanted to check if I was assigned more work from the pool.”

    “No, you weren’t,” the demon told her. “I’ve assigned you to my personal service.”

    “Ah. I mean, thank you, sir,” she lied.

    That complicated matters. Well, she could stay late - or arrive earlier. Perhaps. Her badge would be tracked, but if she had a good excuse…

    “Now fetch me the Miller file.”

    “Yes, sir.”

    She could almost feel the demons’ eyes on her back as she finally left the office. And the secretary was positively seething - what was her major malfunction?

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 18th, 2008

    “Power games. Sick power games,” Chuck said, nodding.

    “Exactly! Like in ‘9 ½ Weeks’,” Morgan added.

    “What?” Caridad stared at him.

    “You know, the movie with Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke?” Morgan cocked his head. “With all the, uh, sex games?”

    “That sounds like a porn movie,” Caridad pointed out.

    “No, no… it was an erotic movie.” But the guy was blushing. Definitely porn. “So, there’s this affair, and the two play erotic games of domination and such, and then he has her crawl over the floor, gathering bills.”

    “Bills?”

    “Money. Anyway… she doesn’t like it, and they break up.”

    “That’s the plot?” She shook her head. “It sounds like porn movies have more plot.”

    “It’s not like that!” Morgan protested. “But… well, that, err, doesn’t matter. It’s a dominance play.”

    “I already knew that,” she told him.

    “Oh.” Morgan coughed. “Anyway - it’s definitely sexual harassment.”

    “I already knew that as well. I need to know if the former interns were turned.”

    Chuck frowned. “Turned? They weren’t reported dead or missing… Oh.” He winced. “If they turned them without anyone noticing…. I need to check their employment and working hours!”

    Caridad had a feeling she already knew what Chuck would find. While he typed away on his laptop with Sarah looking over his shoulder, Caridad went to the kitchen for more food. As she had hoped, John followed her.

    “I don’t like this,” he said.

    “I don’t like it, either,” she replied. “They’re up to something, and I hate waiting for the shoe to drop.” Waiting until she could finally slay the demons - both of them. Caridad could take them both together, anyway. The vamp would be easy to surprise - she could’ve jumped it back on the street in a moment, and it would’ve been dusted before realising she had moved. It wouldn’t be any different in the office, either. Hell - if needed, she could break the windows with the furniture and let the sun fry the bloodsucker. But Lewis… she still had no idea what kind of demon was hiding behind the human facade. Or as human as a CEO could be, at least, she thought with a snort.

    Oh. John was frowning. “Sorry, thought of a joke,” she said.

    He nodded and grabbed a slice of ham and a piece of toast for himself. “They seem to have locked you down as their gopher.”

    “I’ll head in earlier tomorrow, look around,” she told him. “With a little luck, I’ll find Chuck’s hidden server.”

    “Good.” He bit into his sandwich, chewing rapidly. “I don’t like this.”

    She made an agreeing noise as she kept building her own sandwich. More ham, sliced eggs, mustard… more ham… bacon left from breakfast…

    “What if they jump the gun before you find the computer systems?”

    “Then I slay them,” she replied at once. That was a no-brainer.

    He grunted and finished his sandwich. “We should have backup for you ready. Just in case.”

    Her first instinct was to claim she didn’t need any help - she was the Slayer, after all. But by the time she had swallowed the bite she had taken out of her finished sandwich, she had reconsidered. “That would be good.” Just in case Lewis was a stranger demon than expected.

    And knowing John was close would also help with keeping her temper in check.

    They remained in comfortable silence while she finished her sandwich.

    *****​

    “Phil? Do you have any idea about demons needing coffee? Or being into such power games?”

    “I’m afraid I don’t recall either as a characteristic for a specific demon species,” her Watcher replied. “I do remember reading about a few individuals with such proclivities and cravings - although for tea in most cases - but all of them were, to my knowledge, slain before their antics were recorded. Most of them were vampires, too.”

    “Well, Lewis isn’t a vampire. I would’ve smelled that,” she said. No amount of perfume could hide the stench of dead blood from her if she spent hours close by. Which she had.

    “The other case I remember was a Brachen Demon named Cearney. Apparently, the demon led a small cult in Ireland in the waning years of the Roman occupation of England. They had very peculiar customs and rites. Interestingly, Cearney wasn’t killed by the Slayer, or a member of the Council, but by a posse of local Irishmen for seducing their wives and daughters - or so the story goes.” Phil smiled. “It was most certainly exaggerated since the tale wasn’t recorded by an eyewitness.”

    “Well, I don’t think Lewis’s a Brachen Demon,” Caridad told him. “Just too… slick?”

    “I’ll see what I can dig up.” Phil’s smile widened “This is a good example of how good research is still more valid than a digitalised database with a search algorithm. I hardly think the parameter ‘slick’ would produce anything usable other than a list of slime demons.”

    “Willow called about her plans for the archive reorganisation again, didn’t she?” Caridad asked with a grin.

    “She did. As if I would stab Rupert in the back about this. It’s one thing to save copies for posterity, in case we should suffer a repeat of the unfortunate incident a few years ago, but it’s another to trust a computer tool over our own wits. The mind is like a muscle - if it’s not exercised regularly, it’ll grow weak. Sooner or later, we would only look for answers amongst the results of the first search - potentially blinding us to the key needed to save the world!”

    “Well, I think Chuck disagrees,” she pointed out.

    “He isn’t exactly objective,” Phil retorted. “And neither is Miss Rosenberg, given her background.”

    Caridad grinned. “In any case, please look into it. It would be very helpful if it turned out Lewis were vulnerable to say a high heel stuck in his forehead.”

    “Of course. Though, given the general age of demons, I doubt a relatively modern garment could turn out to be an ideal weapon - which is a good thing; I shudder to think what our budget would look like if Miss Summers could claim shoes as weapons.”

    Caridad was still giggling when she left his apartment.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, June 19th, 2008

    As planned, Caridad arrived early at work. The security guard in the lobby was half-asleep but still got up to check her badge - though he was yawning. “Early today, Miss Garcia?”

    “Yes. Late for you?” she replied with a polite smile.

    He nodded. “Just fifteen more minutes, and I can go home.”

    He was already dozing off when the lift arrived in the lobby. Caridad went straight up to her floor - the cameras would be tracking her, so she had to head to her desk as if she were starting work. Not that she actually had had real work so far - just busywork assigned by Lewis to keep her busy and, presumably, in sight of the demon for whatever reasons she wasn’t exactly going into right now. Creep.

    But being kept in the CEO’s office the whole day also gave her a nice excuse to explore before the demon arrived at eight. She logged on, then checked the e-mail she’d had Chuck send through the hacked part of the company’s system. It had set back his search for the fates of her predecessors as interns a little, but it was needed. It would look like an easy mistake, should anyone investigate: A request for a number of files from the archives. And, being early, she could take her time.

    The cameras in the archives weren’t as well-placed as the ones in the lobby and executive floor; for a Slayer, it was easy to dodge them by jumping over the shelves instead of using the passage in the centre.

    Unfortunately, there was no hidden computer here, as she already knew. But that was just the first part of the plan, anyway.

    For the second, she carried the files down to accounting. Thanks to a glitch, she was supposed to bring the files to the IT manager. Who didn’t have any need for them, even if he were present - which he wouldn’t be until eight. But his office was next to the main server room, and a faked stumble had her fall into the door to the server room, pushing it open and spilling the files all over the floor.

    It meant more time spent on her knees, this time with a camera watching her back, but it also let her compare the setup of the present computers to the servers Chuck had found electronically.

    They didn’t quite match.

    Caridad grinned as she slowly, paper by paper, closed in on the one server without a presence in the official computer system of the firm. Now all she needed was to slot Chuck’s USB stick into it, and her mission would be done! And with the camera at her back, she was perfectly placed to do that without anyone being the wiser!

    But she was still half a file and two yards from her target when she heard the door to the floor open and someone mumble: “Damn, it’s too early for this!” under his breath.

    Damn. She could rush this - just grab the papers and slot the stick, damn the cover. But that might warn Nathan - and they couldn’t afford to have the vampire slip through their fingers. Besides, with a little luck…

    “Oh, my God! What happened here?”

    She clenched her teeth for a moment before smiling and turning to address the IT manager staring at her. “Sorry, sir,” she chirped. “I was bringing the files you requested, and stumbled - I’m not used to the heels, yet, I think.”

    “Ah.” It took the man a few seconds to realise what she had said. “The files I requested?”

    “Yes, sir. I got the e-mail this morning.”

    “I didn’t request any files, I don’t think so…”

    Perfect! “Perhaps you could check while I gather the rest of the sheets?” She beamed at him. Just go to your desk and start the computer. All she needed was a minute or two!

    “Oh, but let me help you here, first!” He beamed at her and quickly started gathering up the sheets closest to the mystery server, working towards her.

    Damn.

    *****​
     
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