Best Served Cold 2

Second Helpings

Author: Greywizard1235 AKA John <grey.wizard[at]>

Rating: Pretty much the same as the show, with maybe a bit more violence.

Disclaimer: None of these characters belong to me. Deal with it. I have. All of the songs and lyrics belong to their respective owners. All of the really good characters belong to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, etc., I'm just borrowing them for a while to show him how things could have gone after season 3. There is no intent to profit from this. Only the story is mine, and even that is negotiable.

Category: Action-adventure. Completely AU after Graduation 2. Primarily B/X, C/X, W/X, W/O and some other relationships.

Warning: Some Angst.

Time frame: Season 7 in a completely AU Buffy-verse.

Summary: What might have happened to Xander and other members of the Scooby Gang if Buffy had found out about "The Lie" at Graduation, and she, Willow, Cordelia and Oz left Sunnydale afterwards?

Character Bashing: None. Some people may think that Buffy, Willow and Cordelia are not shown in the most favorable light, but that is because of decisions made and actions taken in the original story, "Best Served Cold." This story describes what happens next.

Spoilers: Some for AtS 1-4, but absolutely none for BtVS after season 3, because this takes place in a completely alternate universe from the one you guys know.

Author's Notes: This story is a sequel to Starway Man's story, "Best Served Cold." If you haven't read it, I strongly suggest you check it out at The Darkness Within archives or here in the group before reading this. The author has okayed my posting his story here and my writing this sequel, and has also provided significant input to the plot. This story takes place at what would be the end of season seven for Buffy and season four for Angel. To anyone too impatient to read "Best Served Cold" first, the following is a brief summary of the story. (But, you really, really, REALLY should read "Best Served Cold" first. It really is that good.)

Capsule Summary of "Best Served Cold": Around the time of BtVS season 6 episode "Normal Again" Anya did not accept reinstatement to her position as a vengeance demon by D'Hoffran, after previously being left at the altar on her wedding day. Furious at Xander and refusing to listen to any explanation for his actions, she conspired with her friend, the 'justice' demon, Halifrek, and went back in time to exact vengeance on him. This was done by manipulating his friends to abandon him after making sure they found out that he lied to Buffy about the soul curse spell that Willow was attempting to cast in "Becoming, Part 2."

Upon realizing that he had lied to her, Buffy became enraged and attacked Xander, *seriously* injuring him, after the battle with the Mayor was over. At the same time, Willow, also enraged, called him "jealous garbage" and cursed him to go to Hell for eternity and stay there. Even Cordy got into the act, joining in and rebuffing him. Oz had left to take care of some personal business a few moments before the revelation was made, so he was not there to witness anything that took place between Xander and the rest of the Scooby Gang.

Anya's machinations also included later cutting a deal with Wesley to persuade the Watcher's Council to send Buffy, Willow, Oz and Cordy off to Oxford University on scholarships (sort of a 'vacation' from their Slaying duties), while leaving Xander behind, alone and friendless - as long as Buffy agreed to accept the Council's orders again..

None of the girls had spoken to Xander since leaving Sunnydale, and Oz had only spoken to the former Zeppo to notify him of their impending return, after four years of silence. It should be noted that Willow and Oz got married during 2002, as the Wicca never met Tara and the werewolf never met Veruca, and as of June 2003 Willow is approximately six months pregnant with their first child.

While the four were off at college, the Council pulled the plug on Faith's life support in order to activate new Slayers, three of whom have since died in the various battles against evil - with 17 year- old Michele Byers being the current Chosen One. Despite the Scooby Gang being gone, Xander continued assisting Giles and the new Slayer (s) in the fight against vampires, the Hellmouth and any other evil that showed up.

Xander eventually met Riley Finn after saving him and several members of his patrol from vampires, joined the Initiative when offered a field officer's commission (due to his extensive real-world experience with demons), and was killed while helping defeat Adam. The "Normal Guy" of the Scooby Gang was brought back to life by a group of monks seeking to hide a mystical energy 'Key' from the mad hellgod, Glory, by concealing the energy within him; this was due to the fact that they were aware that the current Slayer at that time, Rachel Hyde-Fitzpatrick, cared very deeply for young Mr. Harris.

By reporting that Xander had been seriously injured but not killed in the battle, Riley arranged for his friend to receive a medical discharge from the service, when the Initiative was later disbanded following Adam's death. And Glory was eventually destroyed when she attempted to use Xander to open a gateway to her home dimension, although not before she killed Sharon Cameron, Rachel's successor. Michelle was 'Called' upon Sharon's death, and has been the current Slayer for approximately eighteen months.

In addition to being able to open dimensional gates, one side effect of Xander's becoming the Key is that he now heals superhumanly fast, in a manner similar to that of a Highlander Immortal, although he is most definitely not one. In another change from the previous timeline, Angel and Xander managed to work out their differences regarding "The Lie" in the intervening years since Graduation; they have, in fact, fought at each other's side numerous times and have actually become friends.

As of July 2003, the Fang Gang consists of Angel, Wesley, Gunn and Fred (just as in the canon series), Harry Doyle (Doyle's ex-wife, who became a half-demon in order to survive the visions she receives from the PTB while serving as Angel's Seer), and Connor, Angel's son by the vampiress, Darla, who helps out as needed.

As far as continuity for AtS is concerned, assume that everything that happened in the TV series happened here, also, although not necessarily in the same time frame, with Harry replacing Cordelia wherever necessary (except for the Cordy-Connor liaison - and about that, just let me say, Eeeewwwwww!!!).

Connor is now approximately eighteen years old, and has recently been traveling around the country on a sort of 'road trip', trying to learn more about both himself and the society and world in which he is now living.

Getting back to Buffy, Willow, Oz and Cordy - after completing college, the four Sunnydale expatriates returned home, and learned, with some astonishment, about the various events that took place in their absence, since the Council basically kept them completely out of the loop when it came to Hellmouth- and demon-related matters.

As of that point in time, Xander has not forgiven Buffy, Willow or Cordy for their condemnation of his actions, their refusal to even listen to his reasoning for what he did and their complete abandonment of him. He would barely speak to any of them at their (very) reluctant reunion - although he holds no hard feelings against Oz. Calling their interactions 'civil' would be stretching the truth a LOT.

Xander is currently Michele's unofficial Watcher, and he and Michele have recently moved to LA (due to increased vampire activity) to fight the various monsters inhabiting the City of Angels. And now, onto the new story...

Latest addition

Chapter 1

"Vengeance helps no one." - Flora MacDonald, Scotland 1746

Caritas Karaoke Bar
South Los Angeles, CA
July 6, 2003 9:45 pm

"Wow! This place is really cool!" Michelle Byers, the most current incarnation to bear the title of Vampire Slayer, looked around the demon lounge, clearly fascinated by the various demonic species she could see seated at the tables scattered around the club's interior. "How come you never brought me here before, Xan? "

"Maybe 'cause he's never been here before, and didn't even know this place existed, before yesterday?" Gunn smiled at the young blonde's enthusiasm as he pulled back a chair for her. He absently noted that the several blue streaks through her hair matched almost exactly the spaghetti-strapped top the Chosen One was wearing.

"Oh sure, you're gonna use that as an excuse, huh?" the teenager grinned back at the former gang-leader-turned-demon fighter/supernatural investigator as she slipped into her seat.

"Well, you said you wanted to see someplace new and unusual that you've never seen before," Angel said softly, as he took a seat facing the stage, "and this is definitely one of the more unusual, and safe, places in the city. I don't know of any other place where you can find out about your destiny just by singing..."

As he finished his little speech, Michelle looked at the vamp with a sideways glance. The maroon pullover the undead detective wore provided enough of a contrast with the black leather trenchcoat and slacks he wore, that Angel no longer looked like a spokesperson for the Amalgamated Morticians Association of America.

"Hey, who said anything about safe, D. B.?" the Slayer asked the leader of her group of unofficial chaperones.

<Man, this definitely has to be a contender for the championship of the 'Extremely Unlikely Team-ups' Contest, at least from the Council's point of view, > she thought to herself as she fondly gazed at the smiling face opposite her.

< I mean, who would have expected a 250 year old Master vampire to be providing backup to a Vampire Slayer? Well, actually, maybe it should be *another* Slayer, since he did actually work with That Bitch a couple years back, > she reflected, before dismissing the entire matter as currently unimportant.

"Actually, I did," came the reply from behind her, just as she expected.

The speaker was currently dressed in a deep forest green shirt and black Dockers, a hip length black leather jacket casually draped over one shoulder. "You take enough chances as it is, Michele. A relaxing and stress-free night is something you should learn to appreciate here."

"Hey, the last suggestion I had for a stress-relieving way to spend the night? It made you start choking on that juice you were drinking, you know. Right before you turned a really impressive shade of red," the Slayer commented casually, as she turned her head to face her Watcher, hoping to see a repeat of the actions she had just described.

Unfortunately, her hopes were fruitless, as the dark-haired young man just stood to one side, grinning at her. A superior smile was on his face, as Michelle realized he had anticipated her words.

"You only get one opportunity to score on the Xan-Man, young lady," he told her, deliberately dropping into a pompous British accent as the human incarnation of the Key hooked his thumbs in his belt and looked down at her with pseudo-disdain.

"And most people do not even get that. Consider yourself one of the fortunate few, child, who have *ever* managed to score one on the Master," he looked down his nose at her in a haughty, mock- patronizing way, one he knew would cause her to break out in laughter. A moment later, he was rewarded with an outburst of giggles.

"And what exactly did you suggest, Michele?" the cute-as-a-button redhead also seated at the table asked with obvious interest. "I've never seen Xander do a spit-take in all the time I've known him," she continued. "Whatever you said to accomplish that most definitely bears repeating..."

Seeing her co-worker's face blush slightly when Michele had first mentioned the incident made Harry Doyle realize that she simply *had* to know what it was the girl had said to get such a reaction from the normally un-embarrass-able joker calling himself Xander Harris.

"It's not really that important, we can discuss it later," the man in question immediately declared as he tried to change the subject, but Harry was not to be swayed in her quest for knowledge.

"Oh, I definitely think it's that important," the former blonde disagreed with an even bigger smile, when she saw his reaction. "Come on, Michele. Just what was it you said to him?"

Enjoying her moment as the center of attention, Michele dropped her smile and pasted a look of total innocence on her face, as she quickly looked out of the corners of her eyes over at Gunn. The towering black man had just picked up his drink, before the Slayer started answering.

"Well, all I did was ask Xander if he'd like to stay in and help me work out some practical applications of this book I was reading," Michelle stated simply, watching as Gunn began swallowing his drink.

"Oh? And what book was that?" Harry continued her interrogation. The redhead was determined to find out exactly what had elicited that reaction from her erstwhile opponent in all things jokes- and humor- related.

"The Kama Sutra," Michelle answered, a gigantic smile breaking out on her face as her designated target of opportunity choked on his drink, spraying the contents across the table to form interesting designs on Angel's shirt.

"Ha! She shoots, she scores, once again!" the teenager exulted, bouncing triumphantly in her chair and thrusting both arms up in the air in a gesture of victory for her successful timing.

"Oh yeah, I've still got it," she grinned gleefully, as the rest of the table's reactions ranged from hysterical laughter on Harry's part to a rueful grin on Angel's face as he wiped the contents of Gunn's drink off himself, to a slightly self-conscious smile from Xander.

"Come on, old man." Michele was out of her chair, and tugging on Xander's arm to follow her. "Let's go check out the song list. And I'm picking out yours, so don't even *think* about anything related to that country and western 'music of pain' crap," she admonished him as she led the way to the song catalogue.

"Ah, good evening, my little collection of angst aficionados! Quite an interesting little cherub you brought along tonight," Lorne commented, watching the two walk over to the songbooks by the stage as he strolled up to the table.

The owner/Master of Ceremonies of the club was attired in a pale blue shirt and burgundy suit with matching cravat, that contrasted dramatically with his green complexion and red horns. "I know, they're all young when compared to you, Tall, Dark and Broody," he smiled as he looked at Angel, "but she's really pushing the limits now, don't you think?"

"She's the new Slayer, Lorne. Her name is Michelle Byers," Harry informed the anagogic demon as she half-turned in her chair to watch the two walking away.

"And the guy with her is her Watcher, Alexander Harris. They've just relocated here from Sunnydale, so we decided to bring them here for a reading, to see if you could possibly give us a head's up on anything Michelle might need to watch out for," the seer explained.

"So who's watching the Hellmouth while they're here enjoying the splendors of the City of Angels?" the empathic demon inquired. "Or did she just think no one would notice her absence and not try to bring about Hell on Earth, while she was gone for a week or two?"

"Well, actually, the old Slayer is back in Sunnydale now, and she's taken over the responsibilities there," Angel said somewhat uncomfortably, not wanting to get into any of the details involved in the transfer of responsibilities.

"I see. Oh! Uh-oh, duty calls, my dears! Looks like I'm needed elsewhere. I'll have to catch up with you later," Lorne smiled at the group before heading off to the bar, where a Fyarl demon appeared to be arguing with the bartender.

"And remember, darling," the former Deathwok clan member caught Harry's gaze for a moment before leaving, "you have a sacred duty. Don't forget it! Ever!"

"What duty was Tall, Green and Musical referring to, Harry?" Gunn asked, smiling at Fred as she returned from the ladies' room and rejoined the threesome already at the table. "Somethin' you forgot to mention to us when you got yaself merged with your demon-y half?"

"No, nothing like that," Harry grinned. "It's just something Lorne decided I should be responsible for, after the last time we were here."

"What happened the last time we hit this place?" Gunn asked. "I don't remember any major shake-ups or anything Apocalypse-y happening."

"Well, after the last time we were here," the redhead smirked at her 'boss' across the table, "Lorne decided that it was my sacred duty to prevent Angel from ever getting close to that microphone again. Even if it was to 'stop an Apocalypse', he said," Harry laughed at the memory.

"Hey, I'm not that bad!" Angel protested, a hurt look on his face.

"Yes, you are," all of his companions at the table automatically chorused.

"I gotta say, I'm with Lean and Green on this one," Gunn said, after he shrugged. He looked over at the souled vampire. "You got put back here on Earth to save lives and souls - not sing, bro."

"So, what's going on here, people?" Michele asked, as she and Xander rejoined the group.

"We're just tryin' to convince Angel that his mission here on Earth involves saving souls, not trying to replace Bryan Adams on stage," Gunn explained as the two took their seats.

"Yeah, Deadboy, you're supposed to prevent Hell on Earth, not initiate it," Xander grinned, unable to resist an easy shot at his friend.

"You guys stop picking on Angel," Harry scolded the rest of the group, before adding with a wicked grin, "That's my job."

"I, uh, don't mean to interrupt you guys or anything," Fred interrupted them as they all tried to best each others' comments, "but, uhm, it looks like Lorne is ready for the next performance, so maybe we could get Michelle up there now," she suggested. "That is why we came here, isn't it?" the Texan asked cheerfully.

"Oh, yeah!" the blonde squealed, as her face lit up with delight. "It's showtime!!!" the Slayer then announced with a happy smile.

"What songs did you finally decide on, Michelle?" Harry asked, smiling at the expression of fun the young blonde was wearing. She had come to look upon the girl as the younger sister she had never had, and, given the girl's Calling, intended to make sure the Slayer enjoyed life as long as she could.

"I'm going to do "One on One" by Hall and Oates," the Slayer revealed, throwing a sidewise glance at Xander that the redhead noted and mentally filed for later evaluation.

"How about you, Xan?" Harry asked the taller brunet. "What's your song?"

"The Brat here insists I do "Bad to the Bone" by George Thorogood," Xander answered, somewhat embarrassedly, using the nickname he had given her the first time they had met. He reddened even further when Harry laughed and clapped her hands in approval at the blonde's choice.

"Come on, Xan-Man," the younger girl demanded, heading towards the stage and pulling Xander along with her. "Let's get going!"

"I still think this is a bad idea," the brunet could be heard protesting half-heartedly as the Slayer led him away. "Maybe I should just sit back there with the gang and just - " The rest of his proposed alternative was lost in the background noise of the club.

Caritas Karaoke Stage
Five minutes later

"I'm tired of playing on the team
"It seems I don't get time out anymore
"What a change if we set the pace face to face
"No one even trying to score
"Oh oh I can feel the magic of your touch
"And when you move in close a little bit means so much
"Ooh yeah, you've got to understand baby
"Time out is what I'm here for

"One on one I wanna play that game tonight
"One on one I know I wanna play that
"One on one I wanna play that game tonight
"One on one so slow"

Michelle's voice echoed across the room, her lilting alto matching the easy-going chords of the music. Harry was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Slayer could not only carry a tune, but that she was surprisingly talented.

In fact, judging by the way the blonde's voice danced along with the various instruments, Harry suspected that Michelle had taken at least a modicum of voice training at some time in her life.

Harry also noted the way that the teenager's eyes repeatedly wandered back to the spot where Xander sat waiting, and the expression in her eyes as she observed her Watcher. The Seer made a mental note to herself to have a discussion with Xander in the very near future regarding his unofficial ward and the girl's possible behavior towards him. She should probably have a talk with Michelle, too, she decided.

"One on one I wanna play that game tonight
"One on one so slow
"That's all you need to know now
" 'Cause if it's really right there's nothing else
"One on one I want to play that game tonight..."

< Oh yeah, > the redhead decided, as she paid as much attention to the *way* Michelle was singing, as she did to the words she sang. < Xander and I *definitely* need to talk about Michelle. Tonight, if not sooner. >

Xander's turn in the spotlight soon brought a broad smile to Harry's face as she came to the realization, from the tall brunet's body language, that he would rather be fighting a pack of Fyarl demons than be standing on the stage onto which his ward had dragged him.

Her mild smile of amusement at his discomfort shifted to one of surprised enjoyment as the Key gradually got into the mood of the song. While he most definitely wasn't a threat to Hollywood or Nashville, Xander's husky baritone worked surprisingly well, as he more recited, rather than sang, the lyrics to the song Michelle had selected for him.

"Now when I walk the streets
"Kings and queens step aside
"Every woman I meet
"They all stay satisfied.
"I wanna tell ya, baby
"What I see I make my own.
"And I'm here to tell ya, pretty woman
"That I'm bad to the bone"

Looking at the young man up on the stage, Harry studied him a bit more thoroughly, consciously tapping into her demonic side in order to examine him more closely. Now that she was paying more attention to the guy, Harry could easily sense the power radiating from her new friend.

< I've got a feeling all of our lives have just become a bit more interesting, > she reflected, unknowingly proving that the Seer didn't need the visions that the Powers That Be sent intermittently in order to predict the future.

Caritas Lounge - twenty minutes later.

"Look, sweetness, I really don't know that this is such a good idea you've decided on," Lorne protested yet again, as Michele dragged him over to the Fang Gang's table.

"Just tell them what you told me," the Slayer commanded him. "'Cause I know enough about weird stuff happening, to know that I need them to hear exactly what you just told me," she elaborated.

"Guys, please. Just listen up to what Lorne has to say, okay?" the petite blonde then addressed her friends as she interrupted their conversations.

Anyone who knew the young woman would have been able to tell that the young blonde seemed upset, but was covering it well. But those who knew her well would have immediately realized that she was scared, almost out of her wits.

What alarmed Angel the most, though, as he observed the young woman's Watcher standing behind her, was the look of intense concentration that furrowed the brunet's brow and the grim expression he wore. The (fortunately) few other times he had seen his friend's face wearing that expression boded no good for the target of the young man's displeasure.

"All right then, Little Darling," the Host agreed as he pulled over an empty neighboring chair and dropped into it. "You just calm down, and I'll tell them what I can."

"What exactly is the problem, Lorne?" the vampire asked, as the rest of the group waited for the answer.

All attempts at fun and frivolity had vanished when Michelle and Xander had returned to the table. Everyone present now wore serious expressions that would have instantly cowed anyone, human or demon, at whom they were directed. *No one* threatened any member of their family without calling down the wrath of every member of Angel Investigations, and everyone there looked upon the current Slayer as though she were their favorite baby sister.

"Well, you see, it's not really a problem, so to speak," Lorne began, looking a bit uncomfortable with everyone staring at him with such intensity. "It, uh, seems that our little songbird's destiny was...altered, about two years ago."

"Well, tell us what kind of demon-y badness messed with Little Sis here, so we can go find it and kill it," Gunn said. "Ain't nobody gonna mess with any of our people's destinies and get away with it like that! What's her destiny supposed to be, who or what changed it, where do we find him, her, it or them and how do we kill 'em and get things back to the way they're supposed to be?"

"Whoa, slow down, Captain America! Well, my lethally intentioned friend, you really don't want to do any of that - because you'll make the lovely little lady here very upset with you," the Host stated.

Lorne looked very pensive, as he looked at the faces staring at from around the table.

"You see, guys, her original destiny was to *die* about two years ago. And the person responsible for changing that is our very own unofficial Watcher, sitting right there," he informed them, as the demon indicated Xander.

After a moment of stunned silence, the table broke out in a multitude of half-shouted questions, and Lorne took advantage of the confusion to look over at the tall brunet. His face silently asked a question, to which Xander gave a reluctant nod of his head.

"All right, all right, come on now, guys and dolls," the green- skinned oracle raised his voice to be heard over the clamoring questions. "If you'll all quiet down, I'll tell you everything we know. Which actually isn't all that much, so pay close attention, kids..."

"Get on with it, Lorne," Fred demanded impatiently.

"Sheesh! Keep your panties on, honeybunch," the demon replied, as he continued to look at Xander. "Now, as far as destiny goes, your karma seems to have been rear-ended and run off the road by some one's tractor trailer-ma, so to speak, sweet cheeks," the Host said with a slightly twisted grin as he stared at the quietly waiting Watcher.

After a momentary pause, he continued. "It would appear that your companion here pissed off some *very* significantly powerful people, my friends," Lorne stated as he glanced around the group. "And they are *way* out of my league. Basically, it was the alteration of Xander's destiny that subsequently affected Little Darling's destiny here, among many others. But for some reason, I really don't think she's going to be all that upset with him for that."

"I bet..." Gunn stage-whispered to Fred.

Lorne ignored him. "With regard to who actually caused the alteration? That I can't tell you, because I honestly don't know. All I can say, is that someone most likely used an artifact to provide the power boost necessary to accomplish something like this. The flavor seems like it might be Kleynach, but don't hold me to that, I'm not completely sure."

Angel started as he remembered his one (thankfully brief) encounter with that demon breed, but said nothing.

"In any event, altering someone's destiny isn't something that just any street corner mage or witch can do, people," Lorne continued to explain. "It takes a whole lot of power and a *whole* lot more determination to reach back and alter the timeline that way. And the kind of guys capable of doing things like that? They are *definitely* not the type that like other people trying to undo their work, if you catch my drift."

As the table re-erupted into a verbal hurricane of questions, Lorne gave a small sigh and settled back for what was probably going to be a *long* evening.


UC Sunnydale Museum
Antiquities Collection Wing
UC Sunnydale, CA
July 7, 2003 9:00 am

As the staff went about their normal opening routine, straightening the various historical presentations or putting the finishing touches on new displays, no one paid any particular attention to the very attractive brunette coed moving confidently through the hallways, aside from the occasional approving hormonal glance or two.

After all, most of the university professors usually had one or more of their students and teaching assistants running errands or making pickups or deliveries for them prior to the start of classes. So, there was nothing out of the ordinary that would draw an onlooker's attention to this specific woman.

At least there wasn't, up until the moment she stopped in front of one of the more esoteric exhibits presenting a variety of purported Mesopotamian relics and artifacts, and casually punched her fist through the high-impact glass enclosure protecting the display.

As the museum alarm system began ululating throughout the halls, several members of the college's security force headed towards the source of the disturbance as fast as they could possibly manage.

The first guards to arrive at the display were astonished to discover to see an attractive brunette casually ripping apart the entire display, tossing some of the heavier shelving aside as thought they were made of cardboard, and effortlessly pulling apart the steel framework enclosing parts of the exhibit.

"All right, little lady," one of the guards yelled as he drew his pistol and aimed it at her. "Stop what you're doing and put your hands on top of your goddamned head."

"I'm sorry, but I can't do that," the woman smiled agreeably at him as she continued to shred the display. "My boyfriend needs some of these things, and he's waiting for me, and I really don't have any time to waste talking to you," she said pleasantly.

"I said get your hands up, or I'll shoot!" the guard warned, as the girl turned back to her work. "I'm going to count to three, and then I'm going to open fire," he warned her. "One."

The girl continued to ignore him.


The brunette nonchalantly bent a three inch angle iron out of her way, as she sorted through the debris she had created.

"Three. All right, honey. Can't say I didn't warn you," the guard said, as he centered his pistol's sight on her chest and pulled the trigger.

The woman looked up as the bullet apparently hit her, although there was no sign of blood or injury evident.

"Hey," she said, a startled look on her face. "That wasn't very nice."

As she spoke, the woman grabbed a broken steel bar and threw it at the guard, hitting hard enough to impale him through the chest, drive him backwards and embed the bar into the wall behind him.

Leaving behind a widow and two children, the human died instantly.

Seeing the fate of the first guard, the remaining security guards immediately began emptying their pistols at the woman, but none of the bullets seemed to have any effect upon her whatsoever.

Gathering up several items from the now thoroughly demolished exhibit, the woman just deposited them inside a backpack she had brought with her, then took off at an unnatural speed down the hallway.

Easily pushing open the large, very heavy wooden doors leading to the main stairway, she then vanished amongst the bewildered thongs of students filling the vestibule of the building, most of whom were wondering at the ongoing wail of the sirens, the confused babble of the people in the hallway above and the panicked calls for an ambulance that could be dimly heard above the howl of the alarms.


Chapter 2

Hyperion Hotel, Los Angeles, CA
July 7, 2003 8:30 am

"So your destiny was apparently diverted from its original path at approximately the same time that the Mayor's attempt at Ascension was thwarted?" Wesley attempted to summarize the group's description of the previous night's revelations.

He, Xander, Gunn, Fred and Harry sat around one of the tables eating breakfast in the hotel's atrium, adjacent to the bookshelf-lined room that served as their library. The group had just finished bringing Wesley up to speed on the previous night's happenings, after he'd wandered in that morning.

"This is absolutely fascinating," the ex-Watcher turned demon hunter turned supernatural investigator commented idly as he considered the various ramifications the information implied.

"It's most unfortunate that Connor and I were unable to join you all last night," he added, "but I think that our visit to the Mirror of Infinite Possibilities did provide him with several significant insights, regarding his future career options.

"In any event," Wes continued, "getting back to the topic at hand, if memory serves - there are barely a half-dozen cases documented cases in the Council's archives regarding individuals whose destiny was altered through mystical means."

"Not a lot," Fred commented, her Texas twang a soft contrast to Wes' British accent.

"Quite. And in all of the cases with which I am familiar, the individual in question either died or was murdered shortly after the alteration was implemented," he noted, as he jumped to his feet and hurried over to one of the large wooden cabinets used to safeguard their collection of ancient tomes and missives.

"Boy, you're just a regular font of comfortin' knowledge, ain't ya, English?" Gunn commented dryly as the former rogue demon hunter searched the shelves.

"What? Oh! Uhm, I, uh, I didn't mean to imply that Xander need fear for his life," Wesley quickly stated, as he realized the full implications of his previous statement.

"Then what did you mean?" Harry asked.

The former Watcher to the Slayer turned to address her. "Well, I meant the fact that Xander is still alive four years after the initial alteration would seem to indicate that whatever power acted to alter his destiny did not intend to kill him. I t would seem to indicate that instead, it or they wished to prevent him from accomplishing whatever purpose he had achieved in this other timeline."

"So they succeeded then?" the Seer asked.

"Before I answer that - let me just say, that I would venture to assume that this power also wished to keep Xander alive, at least for some period of time, possibly because his death might produce a reality they wished to avoid," Wes hypothesized.

Looking at the Key, he continued. "Given the abilities you've gained in this timeline, Xander, I would hazard a guess that you must have been an extremely formidable individual in that other universe. You would have almost HAD to be, for whoever or whatever is responsible for the alteration to have taken the steps necessary to accomplish this."

"Thanks for the pep talk, Wes," Xander grinned, "but I'm not real concerned about somebody out there wanting to put me six feet under. That seems to be pretty much a given, after what I've been doing the past seven years. I'm more concerned about Michelle," he continued. "Lorne said that she was supposed to be dead now, and that her survival so far was tied to my destiny, somehow."

"Uh, yes..." Wesley stammered, not sure what to say about that.

Xander looked straight at Wesley. "I need to find out what happened, and exactly how it tied Michelle's destiny to mine. Most of all, I want to find out who, or what, is responsible and why they did it," he finished up. "Michelle's alive now, and I want to make sure she stays that way."

"And that you stay that way, too," Harry added, giving him a severe look, and then frowning as he merely grinned and shrugged his shoulders.

"Yeah, that would be nice, too," he agreed.

"Did Lorne give any indication of who or what he believed might be responsible for the interference?" Wesley asked, as he paged through an ancient looking book he had pulled from one of the cabinet shelves.

"Not exactly," Xander replied, as he finished his coffee. "He did say that whoever did this most likely used something to amplify and modify the effects of a lower level spell. He said the traces he could still detect had an unusual 'flavor' to them. Karnak, I think he called it, or something like that. And that it almost certainly was some type of artifact, not something readily available to your run-of-the-mill magician or sorcerer."

"Karnak?" Wesley asked absently, as he browsed through the references noted in the volume he was holding. "I don't recall any species or civilization named Karnak," he commented.

Then Wesley's expression seemed to harden. "Could he have said Kleynach, possibly?" he suggested, as he replaced the book in his hands back into its place on the shelf before pulling another from another shelf lower down in the case.

"Yeah, I think that coulda been it," Xander absently agreed, his thoughts obviously centered on other matters.

"Ah, yes, there are several Kleynach artifacts that possess sufficiently powerful enough properties that they could have been employed by our unknown magician," Wes noted, unconsciously dropping into his 'lecturer' mode while continuing to leaf through the volume he held. "Among them are the Seal of Djareva, the Icon of Ashkaehnte, the Band of Blacknil..."

Occupied by the buzz of their own conversation, no one noticed as the former Watcher's voice trailed off, or the sudden pallor and expression of concern his face had taken on as his own words filtered through his academic babble and triggered memories not thought of in nearly four years.

"Well, guys, I'm going to go check with some of our sources, see if I can come up with anything that might help us figure this out," Xander said, as he got up and cleaned up his breakfast dishes.

"Like who?" Fred asked nervously.

"Don't know yet. And as to who coulda done this? Maybe an old friend of the Mayor decided to posthumously even things up for him. Or maybe it's an old enemy of his that was trying to use me, to help take him down. Either way, we won't get any information just sittin' around here. I'll try to be back before dinner. See you later."

"Very well," Wes agreed vaguely, his mind churning with the myriad guesses and speculations suggested by the possible identification of the artifact responsible for the alteration of his friend's destiny.

The others gathered at the table also made their excuses to leave and hurried off, leaving Wesley standing alone before the massive cabinets

< Lord almighty, > the Englishman thought desperately to himself, < please, please don't let *me* be the one responsible for this mess. Not after what happened with Connor...I need to check this out, as quickly as possible. >


Hyperion Hotel
July 7, 2003 4:15 pm

"No, no, no, Michelle! Not like that! You're telegraphing what you're going to do every time you do that spin kick!"

"I do not!"

"Yes, you do! You've been sliding your left foot forward, then turning your foot ninety degrees right before you start your spin. You might as well just tell your opponent what you're planning!" Angel told the current Slayer, holding up his hand for her to stop as they sparred.

The vampire continued. "You need to launch yourself into the spin immediately - not move, pause and then spin. That's giving your opponent entirely too much time to react."

Michelle looked at her companion. "What about my follow-through?"

"Your follow-through after the kick is fine, but that won't do you any good if you don't connect with the initial strike, first," Angel explained, as he stepped off the training mats covering this half of the basement dojo, and onto the tiled floor.

Opening the door of the small refrigerator located against the wall, he pulled out a clear plastic water bottle and tossed it to Michelle as he grabbed a black thermos for himself.

"Don't you think you're being a little too nit-picky?" the current Chosen One asked, as she gulped down the water, obviously not agreeing with her mentor's assessment. "I mean, I've fought like how many vamps since I became the Slayer, and none of them have ever really given me any trouble..."

Angel just stared at her, not believing she'd just said that.

"I just mean, it's not like they're going to get a lot of chances to take me out, once I find them, right?" she stated, with the complete and unshakable confidence of the very young and very ignorant.

"So, how's the training going?" A voice asked from the far end of the room.

"Xander!" Michelle squealed happily, as she turned and took two steps before throwing herself onto the approaching brunet, wrapping her arms around his neck. And trying, unsuccessfully, to fasten her lips over his as he turned his head to the side, while catching her.

"Michelle! You have to got to stop doing things like that," Xander admonished her as he set her down on the floor, trying very carefully to keep his hands away from particular areas of the blonde's figure.

"Why?" she grinned up at him cheekily. "I was just glad to see you're back," she explained in that all-too-innocent tone of voice.

"A simple 'Hi, Xander" woulda been more than adequate," the object of her current romantic fantasies replied. "And you didn't answer my question," he added.

"Pretty good!"

"Not too bad."

The fact that the two replies didn't exactly match up came as no surprise to the young unofficial Watcher. Looking over at Angel, Xander grinned and said, "Lemme guess. You're being overly critical of tiny, inconsequential, so-called flaws in her techniques again, aren't you?

"Xander..." Michelle started to say.

"After all," he continued to his friend, "what do you know? You've only got twenty three decades of experience fighting monsters and other creatures of the night, as compared to her seventeen months of kicking the butts of those incredibly lame doofuses we've been practically tripping over, since we took Glory down. Right?"

Angel returned his grin and shrugged his shoulders as he answered in a neutral voice. "Maybe I am being a little too hard on her," he agreed, his eyes meeting Xander's in a silent message.

"Why don't you spar a couple rounds and see for yourself?" he then suggested, as he turned away to take a few quick gulps from his thermos, not wanting to upset the teenager with the sight of him drinking blood.

He knew the sight wouldn't faze any of the older group members, but he tried to avoid any situations that might possibly upset Michelle as much as he could, as she had previously announced that seeing him drinking blood was "completely and utterly gross! Yuk!"

"That's probably a good idea," Xander agreed, "but I think we should have a completely neutral and impartial judge watching, just to be safe.

"Hey, Newly-Ascended-Patroness-of-Really-Lame-Soap-Operas," he called up the stairway. "Can you come down here for a minute? We need a judge."

"What is it this time, you humor-impaired excuse for an adult adolescent?" came the shouted reply.

"I need a neutral judge down here while Michelle and I spar," he yelled back up the stairs.

"Oh good!! I get to watch my favorite Slayer kick your scrawny, not- very-funny-at-all butt all around the room?" The redhead smiled as she practically flew down the stairway. "I knew today was going to be a good day!"

Pausing only long enough to remove his boots and hang his leather jacket up on one of the wall hooks, Xander stepped onto the mats and dropped into a defensive stance, his right foot forward and pointed at the Slayer.

His face impassive, he grinned internally when Michelle dropped into a mirror image of his stance.

"Xander, don't you think you should put on some pads?" Harry's voice carried just the faintest hint of concern.

"Nah," the former Zeppo shook his head negatively, while his eyes never strayed from the poised and waiting female form opposite him. "I'd only need them if the Brat here actually had a chance of hitting me," he grinned at his charge mockingly and immediately drew an irritated response.

"Oooo, I am *so* gonna kick your butt for that," Michelle glared at him.

"Anytime you're ready, Harry," Xander spoke to the redhead again, seemingly oblivious to the teen's threat.

"Okay, guys, get ready." The half-demon Seer stood to one side, looking over both combatants. Angel stood off to the side behind her, a small grin on his face as he watched the two combatants prepare.

"Remember now, standard rules: no broken bones; taking down your opponent is worth one point; any incapacitating hit is worth one point, with the judge (that's me!) deciding what is incapacitating. Knocking your opponent unconscious is an automatic win, as is any takedown that immobilizes your opponent for three seconds or more. First person to get five points is the winner. "Any questions?"

Both combatants shook their heads 'no,' so Harry dropped her hand in a signal. "Begin!"

As she gave the command, Harry's brow creased with concern as she noted that Xander seemed to be...glowing?...very faintly.

As Harry watched, curious as to what could be happening, Michelle had already begun to move, confident in her unquestioned superiority over her opponent. She had immediately snapped her left foot up into a roundhouse kick aimed at Xander's head, while she simultaneously slid her base foot forward about twelve inches, following up the first kick with a second roundhouse targeted at his stomach.

As the glow surrounding him continued to increase, Xander merely pulled his head back three inches to allow the first kick to slide past his face, and slapped the second kick aside with his lead hand.

As Michelle pulled her leg back to rechamber for yet another kick, Xander instantly dropped to the floor, moving faster than any normal human could, his glow now not quite equal to that of a softly-glowing night light's bulb.

As the Key pivoted on the ball of his foot, he shifted his weight forward, sweeping Michelle's base leg out from under her, and followed the sweep up with a lunging punch to her midsection, driving her breath from her lungs as she hit the mats.

He continued his attack by instantly diving atop of her, grasping the blonde's throat with his left hand while he drove his right fist in a piledriver blow into the mat next to her left ear.

"Point and match!" Harry called out as Xander stared down impassively into Michelle's shocked, wide-open eyes for moment, before finally breaking out into a wide grin and releasing her as he rolled off his Slayer and back to his feet.

Barely four seconds had elapsed, from the beginning of the match to Harry's declaration.

"Wha- What did you just do?" the petite blonde gasped, looking at him nearly dumbfounded, as she took the hand he offered and let him pull her back to her feet.

"I just took you down, Brat," Xander told her with a big, triumphant grin. "A simple leg sweep, lunge punch and budda-bing, budda-boom, you're toast."

"Bu- but- how?" she asked, taken aback by the sheer impossibility of what had just happened.

"I cheated," the tall brunet grinned down at the smaller blonde, who was now beginning to glare up at him as the realization of how quickly and easily he had defeated her started to sink in.

"You were careless and overconfident, Michelle," he told her. "Something that can get you killed. You 'knew' that you were going to win, because you were the Slayer and I'm just a 'mere' human. You thought because you're stronger and faster and a hell of a lot tougher than any 'normal' human being, you didn't even consider that there was any chance that I could beat you.

"I..." Michelle began to say.

Xander didn't let her finish. "You weren't really paying full attention to the fight, you were probably trying to figure what you want for dinner, or something like that. So you saw what you thought I was doing, and not what was really happening," he smiled at her, gloating openly as the blonde gave him a glare that normally would have had any vampire in the vicinity wetting him- or her-self.

"I recently discovered that I can tap my Key energy and use it to 'supercharge' my physical abilities, so to speak," he explained parenthetically, as he sat down on one of the chairs against the wall and began putting his boots back on.

"So far, I've been able to nearly triple my reflex speed and quadruple my strength. Granted, I can only do it for short periods of time, right now, but with enough time and practice, I'll be soon be kicking your skinny little butt all over the training mats on a regular basis," he kept grinning, as Michelle scowled even more intensely at him.

"And as far as my beating you goes, kiddo," Xander said laughingly, "if you'll recall, I didn't back up when you attacked, I just leaned back and held my ground as you moved forward, which immediately put me inside your defenses."

"Nuts!" Michelle muttered under her breath.

"Normally, you're fast enough that you wouldn't have to worry about that, too much. But since I was powered up, as soon as you rechambered for another kick, I just dropped and took out your supporting leg. And since you weren't expecting me to be able to react that quickly, it was fairly easy to administer the coup de grace."

A short but significant pause. "Point and match to Harris," the Key crowed, licking his index finger and making an imaginary mark on an equally imaginary scoreboard floating in the air near him. "You should be grateful you didn't have any money riding on that match, Brat. You'd be owing me your allowance for the next five years."

"Oh yeah, I owe you," Michelle agreed, a small smile on her face and the desire for vengeance in her eyes. "And I'll definitely be paying you back. Just keep looking over your shoulder," she grinned. "Not that it'll help any, but it might make you feel better..."

The suitably nebulous threat now delivered, the Slayer headed over to the elevator, intent on changing into her bathing suit and heading out to the outside pool to work on her tan.

Just before she went out though, Michelle turned around. "By the way, Xander?" The Watcher looked at her. "When you were completely on top of me like that...was it as good for you, as it was for me?"

The Slayer sent him a malicious grin as Xander's good mood vanished, and then swept out with a burst of laughter.

"So, Xander, just exactly how and when did you discover this 'supercharging' ability of yours?" Harry asked him, changing the subject as she followed him upstairs to the back offices that they were currently using to store their 'Slayage' supplies, as Michelle referred to them.

"Remember that group of Prio Motu demons we ran across about two months back, outside of Sunnydale?" the former geek asked her, as he dropped into the high-backed captain's chair behind the desk he was currently using as his 'office'. The unofficial Council operative then propped his feet up on the corner of the mahogany desk in front of him.

"The ones who were running the protection racket on the business owners in the west end of town?" Harry offered, as she plopped down on the couch across the room.

"Yeah, those doofuses," he agreed. "Anyway, when we were cleaning out the tunnels under the mall grounds, Gunn, Fred and I were fighting two of them, when another three suddenly showed up. To make a long story short, I was fighting three of them and getting my ass kicked, Fred was unconscious on the floor across the room with Gunn was trying to protect her and hold off the remaining two demons..."

Xander had a faraway look on his face, as he continued. "I remember wishing I could move faster and trying to get out of the way of this very big axe heading towards my head, when suddenly, zoom! It was like I was the Flash and the demons I was fighting were moving in super-slow motion..."

"Wow," Harry said appreciatively.

The young man continued as if she hadn't interrupted. "I finished all of them off, and then helped Gunn with his two. The whole thing couldn't have taken more than thirty seconds, and then I was feeling like I had just run the Boston Marathon!"

"It was that bad?"

A snort of laughter. "I was so tired I could barely help Gunn carrying Fred, so I just chalked it up to adrenalin, and I really didn't give it much thought until the next day. The more I thought about it the next day though, the more I realized that it *couldn't* have been hormones. It wasn't like anything I'd ever experienced before."

"So then what did you do?" asked the seer.

"I spent the next couple days trying to figure out just exactly what had happened, and how I did what I did. It took a while, but I finally managed to re-create the effect, and since then, I've been practicing with it. Like I told Michelle, I can't maintain the boost for very long at the moment, but the more I practice, the longer I can hold it."

"That's amazing. So, is there anything else you've found you can use the Key energy for, now?" Harry asked, genuinely curious. "Aside from the whole mystical dimensional gate thing, I mean," she clarified her question.

"Well, you know how I can open up gates to pretty much anywhere I want to go, now," Xander answered her. "Once I'm familiar with a place, I can open up a 'doorway' to get there with virtually no effort whatsoever. So far, there doesn't seem to be any distance limit, but that might just be because I haven't reached it yet. It's probably just another part of the whole Key thing, anyway," he noted, staring into space, his mind only partially focused on his current location.

"It took me the better part of a year to learn how to control where I wanted to go," he reminisced, "but now I can open up portals to dozens of different dimensions, and to about a dozen different locations in each of them.

"I recall Mr. Giles was very excited to learn you could do that," Harry said with a soft smile. "That's one reason the Magic Box has been doing so well," he grinned. "Once I learned how to select exactly where I wanted the portal to go, I went to Giles with this idea that had just popped into my head one day.

"Which was what?"

"For a minor partner's share in the Magic Box, I set us up as a major player in the magical supplies market. Using my portals, we started going directly to the source for most of our components, instead of having to deal with half a dozen middlemen - who import second-rate stuff and then mark up the costs to damn well ridiculous prices... "

The ghost of a capitalist smile on his face, Xander them said, "Once Giles felt we'd gathered a large enough inventory, we started offering magic herbs, charms and other artifacts at anywhere from a half to a quarter of the prices charged by some of the regular suppliers. And the money just started pouring in..."

Harry mused, "You would have upset some people, I suppose..." "Oh yeah, it *really* upset some of the more traditional wholesale suppliers, who decided it was necessary to take steps to correct what they saw as an 'imbalance in the marketplace'," the former high school class clown added with his trademark grin.

"Last year, towards the end of October? An Ach'ul'yarlen consortium sent some Fyarl demons over to the Box to 'suggest'," he laughed, using his fingers to make quote marks in the air as he related the story, "that Giles remove the Magic Box from the marketplace as a supplier of magical powders and accessories."

The man who had once died for a minute continued. "I wasn't there when this all went down, so all I know for certain is what Giles and Michelle told me, but evidently these two doofuses walked in, saw Michelle, thought she was a store clerk and tried to grab her and rough her up a little to intimidate old G-man."

"Big mistake," the half-demon murmured.

"You ain't kidding! Once she realized what was going on and they started chasing her, the Brat led them back into the training room so that they wouldn't break up the store, and then she took them down, easy as one-two-three."

"Good for her..."

"Giles had been out at the bank when they showed up. And when he came back, he said he found the two of them unconscious on the floor, wrapped up in chains like a Christmas present and being used as footrests by Michelle while she did her English homework."

Harry sighed, "The girl does have a sense of humor...""I don't think you've ever met Ripper, have you?" Xander asked the redhead, apparently changing the subject as he glanced over in her direction.

"No, not that I can recall," Harry replied, with a thoughtful look on her face. "Although the name does seem a bit familiar. I think I might have heard Angel mention him a time or two. Why, is he a friend or an associate of yours?"

"Yeah, you could say that," the Key grinned, obviously finding something funny about her question. "That's the name Giles got tagged with, back in the '70s when he was 'full of foolish and criminally reckless exuberance,' as he puts it."

"What?" asked the redhead in astonishment.

Xander continued, "Most definitely not someone you want to piss off, lemme tell you. If Ripper gets a mad-on for you, you'd better find a hole to crawl into, and then pull it in after you. Not that that'll stop him; it might slow him down for a little while, but he will eventually find you."

"Oh my...""Anyway, when G-man found out what these guys came for, Ripper came out to play, and by the time Giles finally decided to take over again, the whole board had decided to take early retirement and join a religious community. The kind where you never leave once you walk through the front door?"

"He didn't...?"

"We never had any problems with anybody over supplies after that," he noted absently. "In fact, since then, we've actually started providing some of the larger retailers with bulk lots of magical supplies. For a specified fee, I used to open up a portal to a particular place, the customer drove their truck or van through, spent an hour or so gathering up whatever they came for, and then drove back through and I closed the portal. Everybody ended up happy, and life goes on.

"What more could you ask for?" he asked rhetorically, before lapsing into silence, obviously lost in some bittersweet memories.

The two sat quietly for a while, each lost in their thoughts, before Harry finally broke the silence. "Uhm, Xander, I'm pretty sure that you're going to think that I'm sticking my nose in where it doesn't belong," the redhead began, "but I can't just sit back and not say something when I see a problem developing that's going to hurt some of my friends..."

Not looking over at Harry, Xander held up his hand as he interrupted her. "If you're about to say something about the way Michelle has been throwing herself at me," he said, "let me save you some time and embarrassment."

"Xander..." "First off, I stopped being Mr. Oblivious several years back, after some - serious relationship issues kinda blew up in my face. Next, I want to make it perfectly clear, I have absolutely no interest in any kind of romantic relationship with Michelle."

The young man again sported a bittersweet smile. "While I have to admit it's a nice boost to the old ego for her to be thinking about me like that, I'll be the first to say that I'm much too old for her. Just the idea is enough to drag up some old memories that are best left forgotten..."

"I see." "I've tried to handle things as delicately as I can, and before you say anything," he smiled and rolled his eyes as he looked over at the redhead, "yes, I *do* realize that sounds like an oxymoron, coming from me. But it's true."

"I don't mean to..."

"I remember how it feels to think you're deeply in love with someone who doesn't love you back, and who doesn't even think she could feel 'that way' about you," Xander interrupted her. "So I've been trying to push Michelle away gently, but it doesn't seem to be working very well."

A sigh. "The more I try to keep a distance, the harder she tries to make me notice she's not a kid anymore, which is something that was quite evident a while ago. I've been hoping she'll just get over the idea for most of the past year, but that plan doesn't seem to be working very well," he sighed again.

"Sometimes you just have to tell someone the flat-out truth, Xander," Harry advised him, feeling a small pang of sympathy for his obvious pain when he spoke of his previous unrequited love. "It makes it easier for everyone involved in the long run, even if it doesn't seem like it initially."

"I know," he agreed, with a rueful shake of his head. "It's just that I don't want to hurt her, and I can't see any way out of doing that."

"Yes, what was it you once said to me? Love hurts, or makes you do the wacky, or something?" "Love, right. When you're a teenager, every love you have is major and the consequences are always devastating. Like, majorly earth- shattering. And Michelle's got enough going against her as it is! She's special, Harry. I want her to be as happy as she can be now - because with her job, the retirement prospects really suck," the Key summarized the situation.

"I know, Xand. All of us feel that way about her, too," Harry told him. "And we all want to make sure that we do as much for her as we can. Letting her know that there isn't any chance of the two of you getting together will at least let her have a chance to date a boy her own age," she pointed out.

"Once summer's over, there'll most likely be a mob of the usual preening, testosterone-driven would-be Romeos flocking around her, so she'll probably have her choice of any of them. And since Connor will also be at the school there this year, I'm sure his friends'll probably be checking Michelle out also."

The redhead then looked a little uncertain. "Speaking of which," she looked over at him with a puzzled expression on her face, "why is Connor so spooked around you?"

"What do you mean?" Xander asked her, his perpetual grin once again plastered on his face as he vainly tried to paste an innocent look on in its place.

"I mean, whenever he walks into a room that Michelle's in, he immediately looks around to see if you're there. And if you are, he either leaves or stays on the opposite side of the room to you," Harry explained. "It's as if he doesn't want you to notice he's around..."

"I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about," he said, trying unsuccessfully to keep his grin from growing even wider.

"What did you do?" the redhead demanded suspiciously, as she gave him an accusatory glance. "Threaten him or something? Because now I'm convinced you said or did *something* to him. You only try to use that innocent look when you're guilty as sin."

"I didn't do anything at all," he protested. "I might have made a minor comment or two, but that's all."

"And just what might that 'minor comment or two' have been?" Harry grinned back at him, now caught up in the humor of the conversation.

"Well, hypothetically speaking, if I had caught him checking out Michelle the first time we had stopped by here, I might have said something along the lines of: 'Look, kid, I was your age not that long ago, so I know what you're thinking. And I just want to tell you, that if you think it again, I'll have to remove certain body parts without benefit of anesthesia,' " Xander told her, trying to look serious.

And failing dismally, as Harry broke out in peals of laughter.

"After all, her father hasn't been around for almost six years now! And as Michelle's Watcher, it's kinda my responsibility to look out for her best interests, especially when it comes to anybody trying to date her," he continued, trying to justify himself.

"And the fact that it gives you a perfect opportunity and license to terrorize and terrify any boy that might be interested in her has absolutely nothing to do with it, at all. Right?" Harry asked him, once she caught her breath.

"Absolutely not," Xander solemnly shook his head. He managed to hold in his laughter for almost another fifteen seconds before it became too difficult to reign in, and he burst out in hysterics. "The, the look on his face w-was absolutely pr-priceless," he managed to gasp out, after a moment, as he almost fell out of his chair.

"Even Angel thought it was funny," Xander then added between chuckles. "He was on the other side of the room when he heard it, and I saw him almost run out the other door so that Connor wouldn't catch him laughing."

"You guys are awful," the redhead managed to choke out, in between giggles. "I truly pity any poor boy unfortunate enough to come around here to ask her out..."

"Oh yeah, and I'm sure that you and Fred wouldn't be planning on giving any potential dates the third degree?" Xander shot back. "I don't even want to think about how Gunn's gonna act," he said, as visions of the big guy pinning some teenager against the wall by his throat as he questioned him floated through his mind.

"Oh, dear God in Heaven, that would be worth paying money to see," Harry said, as she fell back in her seat, and began laughing again.

"You know what? For once in my life, I'm really beginning to look forward to school starting," Xander gasped out.


An unnamed bar
South Central LA
July 7, 2003 3:00 PM

"Look, *human*, I've already told you, I don't know anything. So why don't you get smart and leave now, before something bad happens to you."

The contempt in the speaker's voice was plainly evident as it spoke to the smaller, frailer being leaning against the counter before it. For a species that was so much weaker and less durable than virtually any member of the demon world, these human were remarkably stupid, constantly coming in and annoying the bar's inhabitants with their foolish questions.

"To be absolutely honest? I think it's primarily because I don't believe you when you say you can't help me," Wesley answered quietly. Several hours of talking to informants of various demon species in search of information had finally brought him here, to one of the seedier pestholes he had ever had the misfortune to set eyes upon.

"I am beginning to run out of patience, so I will repeat my question one more time," the ex-Watcher stated slowly, eyes never leaving the thickset autumn brown demon on the other side of the counter, who was incongruously sporting a Disney World T-shirt bearing a picture of Donald Duck.

"I'm looking to contact the former vengeance demon, Anyanka. The last time I saw her, she was human, and using the name Anya Jenkins. I need to speak with her, and I need to speak with her *now*. I have been given reliable information that you could help put me in contact with her. So I need you to tell me, *where* *is* *she*?"

The last three words came out in a voce so cold that it seemed as though the temperature around Wesley had dropped at least fifty degrees.

Behind him, a Chormak demon rose up from the table at which it had been sitting and stalked towards the oblivious human, one long thin arm outstretched to grab him.

Ducking below the creature's arm, Wesley whirled and slammed a left hand hammer fist strike against the demon's side, several inches above its right hipbone. The Chormak let out a loud choking sound and collapsed to the floor like puppet with its strings cut.

As several other demons began getting up from their chairs, Wesley's right hand slipped under his black leather biker's jacket and reappeared with a 9mm Browning Hi-Power. The sound of the weapon's hammer clicking back into position as it swung up to cover the room made everyone present immediately freeze in their place.

"Before anyone makes a truly foolish mistake, I would like to inform all of you that each round in this pistol is composed of a mystical silver alloy. As well as having been blessed by priests of three different religions," Wesley calmly stated as he turned slightly, so as to be able to cover all of the occupants of the place.

"Now," he addressed the bartender once again while his eyes never left the of the room, "I believe you were about to answer my question. How can I contact Anyanka?"

Hate mixed with respect and the smallest bit of fear filled the bartender's eyes, but its voice was completely neutral as it answered, "You might try a place called the "All Seeing Eye" in Gaithersburg, Maryland. It's outside Washington. Last I heard, she was running the place. That's all I know..."

"Thank you," Wesley replied politely, as he reached into his jacket with his left hand and withdrew an envelope and dropped it onto the countertop.

"I believe you might find the contents of this envelope of some interest. It details several plans being considered by Wolfram and Hart; plans to corner the market on several of the more vital foodstuffs or nutritional supplements used by the local demon community, as a means of expanding their control within the confines of the city. I stumbled across it several weeks ago while looking for something else."

"So why you are giving this information to us?" one of the floor's occupants demanded.

"General principles, mostly," the Englishman smiled, painfully trying not to think of the death of his lover named Lilah Morgan. "Confusion to the enemy, and the fact that it puts a wrench in the works for them - that sort of thing. Besides, I always pay my debts. For information or anything else that may pop up. Now, have a good day, gentlemen," he nodded, as he began backing towards the front door, the pistol never wavering for even a second.

As he slipped outside, the pistol disappeared inside the jacket, and the former Watcher turned rogue demon hunter turned supernatural investigator climbed into his car and quickly pulled out in traffic.

"Gaithersburg, Maryland," he mused to himself. "Near the capital of the nation. What are you up to now, Anyanka?"


The Magic Box
Sunnydale, CA
July 7, 2003 6:00 PM

"So, Will, have you managed to find out anything about who or what this museum thief from this morning might be?"

The speaker was a petite blonde, who was perched on the edge of the large hardwood table in front of several large freestanding bookcases, whose shelves were filled with various sized and shaped esoteric volumes of mystical knowledge.

Currently dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and a hip length brown leather jacket, the blonde appeared out of place among the various exotic and arcane paraphernalia that filled the shop's innumerable shelves and floor space.

Any casual onlooker would have been astonished to learn that the young woman was Buffy Summers, currently the most successful and longest living Vampire Slayer in recorded history.

"Sorry, Buff, nothing yet," was the reply from the redhead seated in front of the laptop on the other side of the table from where the blonde was perched.

Willow (nee' Rosenberg) Osborne shifted awkwardly in her chair, trying to find a more comfortable position for her six-months- pregnant body. "I managed to hack the museum's security cameras, so we've got copies of everything the cameras recorded; but aside from photos of what the thief looked like, we've currently got nada."

"You okay, Will?" Buffy asked, noticing the grimace that passed over the redhead's face. "Can I get you anything?" she asked solicitously.

"No, I'm okay," Willow replied. "I just can't seem to find a position that's comfortable for more than five minutes before Junior here decides to start kicking again," she smiled as she rubbed her hand over her distended belly. "He's either going to be a soccer player or a martial artist, from the way he's been working out lately..."

"I am *so* looking forward to spoiling this kid when he finally shows up," Buffy grinned, as she reached down to lightly place her palm on her friend's stomach.

"Aunt Buffy is gonna you teach all about the joys of ice cream, shopping and late night movie marathons, kiddo - yes, she will," the Slayer smiled as she spoke to her friend's stomach, then jerked back slightly in surprise as she felt the skin beneath her hand throb momentarily.

"Wow!" she breathed, in awed wonder. "You're right, Will! He's amazing!"

"Durn tootin'," the redhead grinned at the expression of reverence and admiration on the blonde's face. "He knows when his aunt's talking to him, and he just wanted to say 'hi!'..."

The jingling of the front doorbell interrupted the two friends' conversation, as a tall brunette strode imperiously into the shop bearing a *lot* of bags.

"Willow, I just saw the cutest baby stroller you could ever imagine when I was in Niemen-Marcus's baby section at lunchtime," the woman announced, as she deposited the load of bags she was carrying on the table next to where the shop's two occupants were sitting.

"I swear, it was this deep pastel blue with these absolutely perfect little animals on it, dogs and cats and little bears! I just knew you'd love it as soon as I saw it, and I was thinking it was perfect because we could tell little Daniel Junior that the dogs were pictures of Daddy when he changes," Cordelia Chase said, as she opened the bags and began pulling out various items of baby clothing.

"What?" she asked, a bit too self-righteously at the looks the two women were giving her. "You're going to have to explain about why Daddy gets all hairy and 'Grrrr-y' during the full moon, sooner or later," she stated.

"This way you can lead into it gradually, right?" the former cheerleader reasoned.

"You actually do have a point there, Cordy," Willow grinned, as she followed the brunette's line of reasoning. "It may be insane Cordelia Logic, but it is a point."

"Hey!" the brunette took mock-offense at her friend's response. "It is not insane. I can't help it if the rest of the world doesn't think the same way I do. That's their problem, not mine.

"Right," murmured the Slayer. "So, what're you checking out? Saks' on-line baby catalogue?" she continued as she looked over the redhead's shoulder at the laptop's screen.

"Nope. I've be trying to identify the thief that robbed the museum this morning and killed the security guard," Willow told her, her expression sobering at the change in subject.

"Oh god, that was so awful. And I met the guy last week, when he was helping us check out a break-in at the Registrar's office," Cordy stated, her eyes beginning to fill with tears, her expression immediately shifting to a mixture of sorrow and anger.

"He was one of the nicest guys you'd ever want to meet," she said. "Art had just retired from the army last year, and was working for the college's security department part-time while he finished up his Criminal Justice degree..."

She then continued, "Elaine, that's his wife? She's been helping us with the fund-raiser we were setting up for next month. My God, I don't know what she's going to do now! Art's pension can't be very much, and with both of their kids still not even in school, it's going to be tough for her..."

The former Queen C turned to face her other friend. "Buffy, we've got to find this bitch," Cordy turned to address the Slayer.

"She's definitely not human. I talked to all of the guards who were there this morning, and they all say she must have been shot at least a dozen times - and it didn't slow her down, not one bit. Even if the Sunnydale cops were halfway competent these days, they wouldn't be able to handle whatever she or it is! They're even more out of their league than usual with this one," she stated definitively.

"Okay, Cordy, we'll do our best," Buffy agreed with the brunette. "But I don't know how much good that'll do, anymore. I mean, after the other night..."

"What happened the other night, Buffy?" Willow asked, her curiosity piqued. "Oz didn't mention anything unusual happening."

"Well, it's kind of embarrassing, actually," the blonde admitted, as she remembered the events of the night in question. "It was the first night we started patrolling after we got back. You know how we were all feeling kind of rusty about our vamp-killing skills, even after the training Giles had us do? Well, we managed to get two newbies that had just risen over at Holy Savior and then we moved over to..."

/ / / Flashback / / /

Buffy, Oz and Cordy had just arrived and started patrolling at Exalted Redeemer Cemetery when they were suddenly confronted by a group of approximately fifteen vampires exiting one of the many crypts dotting the cemetery grounds.

"Great! We've got a bunch of tourists looking for a group discount," Buffy quipped, as she, Cordy and Oz tried to position themselves with their backs to one of the crypts. Both sides gazed appraisingly at the other, carefully evaluating their opponents. Even when they had been at the top of their form, fifteen to three odds would have been daunting. Considering their present situation, it was virtual suicide.

"Who the hell are you guys?" the apparent leader of the group asked, looking at the various stakes, swords and crossbows the trio were sporting.

"Cordelia Chase."


"And I'm the Slayer," Buffy had stated, holding up a stake and preparing for an immediate onslaught against them. Maybe if she could cause a large enough distraction, Oz and Cordy could get away. It was the best she could hope for, all things considered.

She was completely unprepared for the reaction her statement produced.

"What happened to the other one? Is she dead?" the leader asked, surprised. "I didn't hear anything about anybody getting lucky..."

"No, she's not dead," Buffy stated, as she began to lower her stake with a surprised and insulted look on her face.

Another member of the group stepped forward to question her. "What about her 'Watcher'? Y'know - big guy, dark hair, real bad-ass in- your-face attitude... Is HE dead?" he asked hopefully.

"No! They're both still alive, they're just not here anymore. This is my turf again."

The vampire who had questioned her looked her up and down, then turned and looked back at the rest of his group, seemingly slightly disappointed. "And you are?" he asked, a slight note of condescension in his voice.

"I'M THE... A... SLAYER!" Buffy almost shouted at him, insulted by their cavalier attitude. "I'm Buffy Summers."

"Buffy? Only in California," she heard one of the group mutter to another of his companions.

"Never heard of ya, kid," the leader told her. "But if you say the Big Guy's gone, that's cause enough to celebrate in my book! Come on, guys! Let's hit the road, first round at Willy's is on me!" he said, turning his back on Buffy, Cordy and Oz and beginning to walk away.

"HEY!" Buffy yelled at the retreating undead. "Where do you think you're going? Aren't we going to get dusty?" The surrealistic feel of the entire situation was really beginning to get to her.

Turning his head over his shoulder, the leader answered a surprised and dejected Slayer.

"Look, little girl, that Watcher, Harris, is gone - he's out of here! If you think we're going to waste one second of this night dealing with his replacement instead of partying and wishing that bastard a well deserved death, then you're out of your little bitty mind!"

The vampire grinned, "Where the Hell have you been? That prick's been a thorn in the side of every vamp and demon in town for four years - not that any of his Slayers lasted four years, mind you. If you want us to kill you, come back tomorrow. But tonight, we PARTY!"

Somewhat unsure of what they should be doing, the three former- and newly-returned-Scooby Gang members watched the backs of the departing group of vampires walking off towards the far side of the cemetery.

"Does anyone else feel as though they just wandered into the middle of a Fellini film?" Oz asked, as he slid his stake back into the sheath sewn into the inside lining of his jacket.

Mutely, both Buffy and Cordy raised their hands, before the three of them turned and resumed their patrol.

/ / / End Flashback / / /

"I swear, it was completely and totally weird, Will," the blonde said as she finished recounting their experience of the other night. "It was like we weren't even important enough to attack when compared to celebrating Xander's departure."

Not hearing any reply to her statement, Buffy glanced over at her friend to find her battling back tears.

"Oh god, I'm sorry, Will," she immediately began apologizing, as she realized how the reference to their former Scooby Gang member had affected the redhead. "I wasn't thinking. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to mention his name."

"I'm okay, Buffy," the redhead waved off her best friend's apology, as she dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. "It wasn't that," she lied badly, "I just felt so sad all of a sudden. Must be the hormones," she joked feebly.

"If you guys'll excuse me, I have to use the bathroom again," the redhead then said, as she awkwardly got up from her chair and headed towards the rear of the store.

"We've got to do something about that whole Xander situation," Buffy said as she glanced over at her taller companion.

"Yeah, you're right about that," Cordy agreed. "But the question is, what?"

The following silence seemed to the only answer either could think of.


Chapter 3

Angel Investigations Offices
Hyperion Hotel
July 8, 2003 10:15 am

"Angel Investigations, we help the helpless," Fred caroled as she answered the phone. "How can we help you?"

"Hi, Fred, how're you doing?"

"Oh hey, Amy, how're you guys doing?" the former Texan turned Southern California girl smiled as she heard the voice of her friend she hadn't seen or talked to in months. "We haven't heard from you for a while! What's new with you?"

"Nothing much, really, Fred," came Amy Madison's throaty response. "Jon and I have been trying to track down some artifacts he's gotten interested in, so we've been doing a lot of travel, to check out various library collections and some private collections, too. We just got back from a three-week stay in this incredibly beautiful, ultra-weird place called Amber."

"What was so weird about it, Amy?" Fred asked, immediately wondering what kind of place could be so unusual that the blasé well-traveled witch referred to it as 'weird'.

"Well, it's got this ruling family who have all of these incredible magical abilities, and the king hasn't been seen in nearly a hundred years, since he left on what he said was supposed to be a short vacation. No one seems to know exactly what he would consider 'short', but, since they're all pretty much immortal, no one seems to be too worried about his non-appearance right now," Amy elaborated to her friend.

"Anyway, the king's got this big busload of children, all potential heirs to the throne, all of them ranging from only fairly to extremely powerful mages, who are all trying to cut each other's throats about the succession to the throne, if the King doesn't reappear soon. And I mean that phrase both figuratively and literally, 'cause I'm sure they'd be bumping each other off real quick, if they think they could get away with it."

"Wow!" the ex-physics student said, as she tried to imagine the elaborate Byzantine political plotting that would be involved in a court like the one Amy had just described. "I guess that makes our dealings with Wolfram and Hart look kinda Pollyanna-ish, doesn't it?"

"Well, they've gotten to the point where I think everyone involved tries to figure out whether what you're ordering for breakfast has any significance," Amy laughed.

"Anyway, the reason I'm calling now - aside from wanting to talk with you, Fred - is that Wesley had left a message for Jon, asking that he get in touch with him as soon as possible, and my betrothed seems to have lost Wes' cell phone number. Again," the Wicca snickered.

"When it comes to dealing with anything not having to do with magic, I'm still not sure whether he's just careless -- not interested enough to really pay attention - or he's just a complete and utter doofus! I swear, the man doesn't even remember to feed himself sometimes, when he's researching or working on a new spell. If I don't make him stop and take time to eat his meals, he might go for three days living on only coffee and Twinkies."

"Oh, that sounds just like Wes," Fred agreed. "I've come downstairs some mornings and found him asleep at the table in his chair, with his head pillowed on one of the Anderjanii epistles," the former Texan smiled, as she remembered.

"There was this one time I went to wake him up? When he lifted up his head, I saw that some of the ink from the page he'd been sleeping on had transferred to his cheek, and he had what looked like this multi- colored tattoo of a reversed Gothic letter 'C' on his cheek," she giggled. "Gunn told me later that I shouldn't have said anything to him about it, so we could see how long it took for him to realize it was there. He was gonna bet on three days."

"Men!" Amy laughed. "Without us taking care of them, they'd still be living in caves and wondering why the pretty fire burns them when they stick their fingers in it!"

Both women laughed and gossiped about the comparative merits and debits of their respective Significant Others for several more minutes before Amy reluctantly came back to the original reason for her calling, and re-acquired the number of Wesley's cell phone.

"So, anything else new with you guys?" the Wicca asked the head of Angel Investigations' research division.

"Oh, my gosh! I almost forgot to tell you!" Fred gasped, as she realized she had inadvertently omitted mentioning Xander and Michelle's arrival. "Xander and Michelle have moved in with us, and they're going to be staying here in LA, since the other Slayer, Buffy, and her friends have moved back to Sunnydale and taken over the Slayage there."

"They're back, huh?" Amy snorted.

Her last memories of the newly-returned Scoobies did not portray any of them in the best of lights.

Of course, the brunette Wicca had known Oz only peripherally during her brief association with the Scoobies prior to her transformation, and that was primarily as Willow's boyfriend; but from everything she had been able to pry out of Xander, he seemed to be a good person.

The werewolf/musician had helped all of the Scooby Gang out on more than one occasion, and Xander had never had anything bad to say about him. He had, in fact, even commented once (in response to a jibe she had made) that Oz's passing up a full four year scholarship to Oxford would have been the height of stupidity - and so he had basically left with Xander's good wishes.

Because of that, Amy was willing to cut him some slack when it came to the whole 'run-away-to-someplace-safe-and-dump-your- responsibilities-on-a-person-who-had-helped-save-your-life-numerous- times-after-beating-him-mercilessly-and-hospitalizing-him' situation.

The other three, however, were another matter entirely. The memories she had of them were not nearly as kind, and the information she had managed to wheedle out of Giles and Jonathan didn't do much to improve them.

First in line was Willow Rosenberg. Formerly the resident genius of Sunnydale High School, computer hacker extraordinaire and Wiccan witch wannabe.

In Amy's opinion ...a self-impressed, overachieving little nerd who was jealous of everyone who was more socially adept than her - which basically amounted to just about anyone still alive, and possibly a fair number of dead people, too, given the school's location on the Hellmouth.

The fact that the redhead had spent the better part of a year and a half studying and yet had still been unable to reverse the spell that had changed her into a rat, while her fiancé had been able to restore her to her human form after only a few weeks of research most likely had something to do with her semi-hostile attitude - or so Amy grudgingly admitted to herself.

<Of course, it's not like Willow and I were the best of friends even before I changed, > she admitted to herself.

< Sure, I liked her back in the brownies and broth days, but even *I* thought she was pretty much a nerd. Once she started hanging around with Buffy, she just became a kinda spooky nerd, always worrying about what Buffy thought, or needed her to do. My money says that if it hadn't been for Xander, she would never have made it to Graduation. >

< I mean, how could she just turn her back on him like that, after their being best friends for over ten years? > she had once asked herself. < And she never once even called the hospital to find out how he was, after she left. How could anyone treat someone they called their best friend like that? What a rotten, nasty little bitch! >

Next up was Cordelia Chase. The self-styled apex of the social order at Sunnydale High School, Queen C ruled with an iron hand encased in a Versace glove and a tongue sharper than a priest's sacrificial dagger.

< And who knows just where that tongue's really been? > she asked herself snidely.

The memories Amy had of Cordelia consisted mostly of that bitch and her entourage making life hell for anyone they didn't like or looked down on, which seemed to be everyone except themselves, the jocks and the children of the very wealthy.

< Shallow, self-centered, whiny tramp. And those were her *good* points, > she remembered the evaluation she and some of her friends had made of the self-styled social queen of the school.

< How Xander could put up with her outside of the janitor's closet I just *cannot* understand. As far as I know, her only major contribution to the group's activities was acting as a distraction that time when Xander stole that anti-tank rocket they used against the Judge from the armory. >

Another snort. < Other than that, she just hung around and whined about her nails and her clothes getting dirty, until she dumped him Senior year. And after that, she seemed to go out of her way to make life hell for him. Another one who wouldn't have made it to Graduation, if not for my friend. >

And that finally brought her to Buffy Summers. Actually, Elizabeth Anne Summers. The Chosen One. The Vampire Slayer. Or in her case - Vampire Layer.

After all, she was the one who had broken the gypsy curse by giving Angel a moment of pure happiness, thus releasing the deservedly infamous Angelus.

Formerly one-fourth of the Scourge of Europe, the Master vampire's hobbies included evisceration, torture (both physical and psychological), killing anyone or anything weaker than him that he could manage and the ever popular 'bringing-about-the-end-of-the- world-and-releasing-Hell-on-earth' thing.

Buffy was the woman who had ultimately sent her vampire lover to Hell through the same portal he had opened up to bring Hell to earth, but only after a desperate battle which she had nearly lost.

Poetic justice, if you asked her.

The same woman who had viciously beaten Xander Harris almost exactly a year later, to the extent that he had been hospitalized for six weeks and in physical therapy for months afterwards.

The same Xander Harris who, upon his release from the hospital, had immediately begun working with Buffy's former Watcher, Rupert Giles, to assist the replacement Slayer-in-training sent by the Watcher's Council after Buffy and her friends worked out a deal with the Council to go to college in England.

To Amy's mind, it was evident that the Slayer, charged by Fate to battle evil, had decided that it was perfectly acceptable to take a vacation and leave the dangers of the Hellmouth behind her. To let it be fought by those who voluntarily decided to stand up and battle the forces of darkness, rather than those who chose to run away, deny their destiny and pretend they knew nothing about any of it.

After all, it wasn't like it was the first time she had run away from her responsibilities, was it?

< And, of course, the fact that the necrophiliac put one of my closest friends in the hospital for six weeks probably has a *lot* more to do with why I'm pissed at that bottle-blonde bitch than anything else. After all he had done for her, for her to turn on Xander like that... >

< She'd just better pray I'm not PMS-ing the next time we meet, > she thought to herself, with a nasty smile, < or we might find out just how much *she* likes cheese. Again. >

"So, did they all meet together and arrange who does what, or did the Council just tell them what they had to do?" the brunette Wicca asked, after all the memories had flashed through her brain, in about five seconds.

"Well, Giles arranged for everyone to all meet at the Magic Box, so they could work out everyone's duties," Fred told her.

"Oh goddess! I would have loved to see that! I guess it must've been real interesting, seeing them all together after all this time, huh?" the witch asked, regretting that she hadn't been present to witness the confrontation between the former Scooby Gang members and their ex-friend. "Did everything go okay? Were there any words exchanged? Who said what to whom?"

"Well - actually - I wasn't there," the brunette ex-Texan reluctantly admitted. "Angel had asked me and Gunn to stay here while he went to Sunnydale, since Wesley was helping Connor locate the Mirror of Infinite Possibilities, and he didn't want to close the office, in case something should come up.

"But I did arrange with Michelle for us to get a feed off the webcam she'd installed," she added with a giggle, "so I've got the whole meeting saved in a file on my hard drive. I can send you a copy, if you'd like."

"That would be great, Fred!" Amy agreed enthusiastically. "How did everything go?

"Not too badly, I suppose, all things considered," Fred replied, a bit uncertainly. "Everyone in Buffy's group seemed to be pretty surprised when they first saw Xander, except for Willow's husband, Oz. He seems to be pretty laid back about almost everything."

"Her husband?" Amy asked, surprised. For some reason, the idea that the two might get married hadn't even entered her head. "Those two got married?"

"Yeah! She married him last year during one of the term breaks, and now she's about six months pregnant, according to Giles," Fred passed along the latest tidbit of information.

"Wow!" was Amy's only comment.

"Yeah. Well, anyway, I think Michelle might have had some kind of problem setting up her webcam, because I think she could have tweaked the resolution and the refresh rate a little more to get a better image resolution! The way I did, that time we set up the camera in the old monastery when we were looking for any signs of poltergeist activity -."

The brunette had begun to descend into techno-babble, so Amy hurriedly broke in before Fred completely lost her way in the (for her) fascinating labyrinth of technical challenges/problems their video system offered.

"Whoa!! Whoa!! Whoa there, Fred!!" she laughed, as the other woman stumbled to a confused halt in her explanation. "You can tell me about the system another time. All I really need now is a quick wrap- up of the Scooby meeting," she smiled, picturing the sheepish expression her friend was most likely wearing right now.

"Oh, yeah. Sorry," she heard the brunette apologize. "Sometimes, I just lose track of things, you know. Anyway, everybody was there, including that Riley guy, to support Xander. And when he walked in through the back door and they saw him, I think they didn't realize who he was, at first. Things started out a little rough, and they didn't get much better at all, and Giles, Angel and Riley had to step in to break up arguments a couple of times.

Amy heard Fred hesitate. "Anyway, after Michelle mentioned Xander's Army time and his getting killed and coming back from the dead, everything started to get confused - so Xander did his 'cut-his-arm- open-and-watch-the-green-light-heal-everything' bit, and I thought all of their jaws were just gonna hit the floor," Fred chuckled.

"That was when Buffy started to get real 'in-your-face' with Xander, because she didn't want to believe he was the real deal. And then he got real cold, like he can when he's really upset about something sometimes, you know, and then he told her she had no idea about what had happened around here while they were all gone, and that she didn't know him at all, anymore."

"Good for him!" Amy applauded, visualizing the confrontation between the two.

"Anyway, things got really strained between everybody after that, and after a couple more minutes of not-quite-arguing, Xander left for patrol with Michelle and Giles, Angel and Riley explained everything that happened since they left.

"And then what?" Amy asked.

"Apparently, the Council didn't tell them about *anything* that happened while they were gone, Amy," Fred continued. "They didn't know Faith died, or that Michelle is the fourth Slayer since they left, or about Glory, or anything! When they found out about Xander dying and the whole Key business, I thought they were gonna freak out completely!"

"It's a shame we couldn't see it in person," Amy lamented. "I'd have given a lot to watch their faces when they finally realized that not only is Xander not the loser they kept telling him he was in high school, but that he's been charged by the Powers with safeguarding the energy of the Key."

"Well, you'll be able to see it all in the file I'm sending," Fred reminded her. "Did you and Jonathan ever change over to that Linux system you were talking about, a while back?"

"Oh yeah. We got tired of all the upgrade problems we kept getting from Uncle Bill," Amy grinned, "so we backed up everything we wanted to keep and then wiped the entire system and reinstalled everything about two months ago. Haven't had any problems since then."

"Good for you," Amy could practically feel Fred's smile over the phone. "I'll get the file sent out, right away. If you need anything else, let me know, okay?"

"I'll be sure to do that, Fred," Amy promised. "Have you got anything scheduled for later in the week? I thought maybe we could get together for lunch or something, once I take care of all the paperwork that's been piling up while we were away."

"Okay. That sounds really good to me, Amy," AI's resident technical genius agreed. "Give me a call when you're free. "

"Sounds good, Fred. Take care, and I'll give you a buzz later," the witch said, before hanging up.

"We will, and you do the same. Bye."


The Magic Box
Sunnydale, CA
July 8, 2003 10:30 am

"Good morning , Willow," Giles looked up and greeted his former-and- now-once-again-Scooby gang teammate with a wide smile as she entered the shop. "How are you feeling this morning?"

"Like a beached whale who's trying to learn ballet," the redhead complained, her voice flat and listless as she walked over to the shopkeeper and pulled him into a hug.

"Have I told you how much I missed you while I was away?" Willow then asked, her voice muffled as she pressed her face against his chest and spoke into it. " 'Cause I really did. A lot."

"And I missed you, too," he replied sincerely as he wrapped his own arms around her and carefully hugged her back. "I missed all of you," he added.

"Is everything all right, Willow?" he asked her a moment later, as he felt the presence of moisture against his chest. A note of concern entered his voice, as he put his hands on her shoulders and took a half-step back to allow him to look directly into her eyes.

"Are you feeling all right? Is there something wrong with the baby or Oz?" he asked her quickly, upon seeing the tears that were filling up her eyes. "What's the problem? Should I call Buffy and the others?"

"No, everything's fine, Giles," the witch answered hollowly. "Little Danny Jr.'s fine, and so is his daddy. I'm just feeling a little - sad and depressed, right now. That's all. I'll be fine in a couple minutes, I'm sure," she reassured him, as she pulled away and took a seat at the large conference table.

Pulling the store's laptop over into place in front of her, Willow pulled out several tissues from a box stationed strategically on a shelf near the table, then wiped at her eyes and blew her nose as she waited for the computer to boot up.

"Did you manage to garner any information last night regarding the Museum robbery?" Giles asked her, content for the moment to let the subject of his surrogate daughter's distress fade away in lieu of other more pressing subjects.

"I'm sorry I wasn't able to be here to assist you with the search last night, but an opportunity to actually speak and deal with a Mohiro-Somei demon is something that doesn't occur more than once or possibly twice in a lifetime," the newly-reinstated Watcher then explained.

"The astrological conjunctions necessary for their summoning generally occur about every sixty-four years, and the next one will not take place until December of 2067. I felt that it would be a more advantageous use of my time to attend that, than if I stayed here to help research. And considering that I was able to trade several of my less valuable texts for several of their less readily available sorcerer's texts and an almanac, I believe it was time well spent."

"That's okay, Giles," the redhead assured him. "We all know that the meeting was important. And it sounds like you accomplished more last night than we did."

"Ah, you mean - ?"

"There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of information available on who or what the thief could be," the redhead informed him. "The only definite information we have all boils down to the following: the thief appears to be a female human in her late teens or early twenties, pretty, superhumanly strong and fast, bulletproof and not possessing a whole lot of regard for human life."

"That, that sounds bad," Giles frowned absently.

"Yeah, she almost seems to be something like a supercharged Slayer," Willow shrugged. "Except for the bulletproof and disregard for human life parts."

She then continued. "Anyway, Buffy, Cordy and Oz spent several hours before and after patrol searching through the archives here, and nobody managed to come up with any really viable possibilities. We thought we had some likely suspects a couple times, but none that met all the criteria."

A pause. "We're all meeting here to do more research, after everyone finishes work. Buffy and Cordy are picking up Chinese for everyone, so if you decide you want something else, you better call one of them this afternoon."

"Yes, well, my taste for jelly doughnuts had gone down over the years. Have you lot made any other plans, in the meantime?" "Uh, I was thinking, in the meantime, I'm gonna surf the Web and see if there's anything out there we might have missed last night. You know, sooner or later, we're gonna have to set a better occult database than the one we have now," Willow commented, as her fingers began dancing across the keyboard before her.

"I also wanna scan in all these new books you've gotten while we were - away," the mother-to-be paused in her recommendation for a moment, a sad look regaining its position on her face for a moment, before she continued.

"So, uh, it won't take me too long to write a search engine that will let us cross-index everything we have on file, and then we'll be able to just punch in a few basic parameters, and - presto! - a rogue's gallery of the possible latest Big Bads. It'll cut our research time to a fraction of what we used to spend looking for information."

"Oh, we already have that capability, Willow," Giles called back over his shoulder, as he carried a box of pre-packaged Zarlythian crystal petals over to one of the less crowded fixtures and began to transfer its contents to the empty shelf. "I thought I'd mentioned that to you the other day. You can start the program by clicking on that icon marked 'Guess Who?' "

"Wow," the redhead goggled, an expression of complete surprise on her face as she followed his instructions and started up the program. "When did you learn to program like that?" The witch marveled at her mentor's newly acquired technical abilities.

"Oh, I haven't," he answered absently, his attention divided between trying decide when he would be able to examine in detail the texts he had obtained the previous night, and the necessity of determining who or what had robbed the Museum.

"Xander did. He wrote almost all of the program himself, with some help from Riley's people once he had the basics completed. His superiors at the Initiative offered to send him to some type of accelerated training course, if he was interested, and it was one of the things he felt he needed to know, after all of you -"

The shop owner stumbled to an awkward halt, as his brain finally caught up with his mouth and he realized exactly he had been about to say. Turning to look over his shoulder at the redhead, he saw her sitting motionlessly at the table, staring blankly at the screen before her.

"I'm sorry, Willow," he began, as he moved to crouch down by her chair. "I wasn't thinking -"

"No, Giles, it's okay," she shook her head as she turned to face him. The tears were back in her eyes, and she was obviously trying not to lose her composure. "It is the truth, after all. It was something Xander felt he needed to know to help out, after we all left you two here alone here and went off to college."

The expression on the redhead's face was heartbreaking. "I'm so sorry, Giles," she began crying, as the Watcher leaned in and pulled her forward to rest her head on his shoulder. "I really am. I should never have yelled at him and I should have tried to stop Buffy before she hit him and it was all my fault because my feelings were hurt that he didn't believe I could cast the soul restoration spell."

"Willow-" Giles started to say, but it was too late; she was deep in self-recrimination mode.

"I was mad at him because I thought he didn't think I could do it, so I started to yell at him and then Buffy started to hit him and I was thinking 'serves you right for doubting me' and then I could see that she was really hurting him and I was scared and ashamed because I knew he didn't deserve to be hurt like that and I should have tried to stop her and I didn't and then when he was in the hospital I couldn't go to visit him because I knew I let him down so badly and I couldn't bear to see him looking at me because I failed him so badly," she babbled as she sobbed into her emotional-father-by- proxy's shoulder.

"Willow - "

"And then Wesley came around with the Council's offer to send us all to Oxford and I was so scared that he would hate me because I didn't even try to stop Buffy until it was too late that I couldn't even think about facing him again so I accepted and then they wanted us to leave as soon as possible and I really was intending to go see him at the hospital before we left but every time I started to go there I got so scared that he would hate me that I couldn't move and then it was too late and we were flying to England and I never took the chance to say how sorry I was that I failed him," the redhead paused in her emotional outpouring to take a breath, but then immediately resumed her confession before Giles could say anything.

"I tried to call a couple times after we got over there Giles I really did," she insisted, "but every time the phone started ringing and he picked it up I just froze and I couldn't say anything to him because he deserved to have me apologize in person so he could tell me what he thought of me face to face and I just chickened out and hung up and then by that time it was several weeks afterward and I knew that it was too late to apologize because I was too scared to talk to him before and I couldn't even write to him because that's not something you can do when you're responsible for what happened to him."

"Willow -"

"And then the longer I waited to try to call him the harder it got and by that time it was a couple of months and I knew he would never want to talk to me again so I didn't do anything at all and I couldn't even come home here during the semester breaks or summer vacation because I was afraid I might run into him and then he would tell me in person how much he hated me and he never wanted to see me again and now it's four years later and he hates me and he'll never forgive me and I wanted to have him at our wedding but I was still too scared and ashamed to talk to him and I wanted to tell him when I found out that I was pregnant and I wanted him to meet his sort-of nephew because he always protected me and he was like the brother I never really had and it's never going to happen because I was such a coward and I'm so sorry for everything that happened Giles I'm so sorry I'm so sorry I'm so sorry I'm so sorry," she kept repeating herself as she wept incessantly, and Giles tried without success to comfort her.

It took several more minutes of inconsolable weeping before Giles was finally able to quiet the apprentice witch down sufficiently that he could even begin an attempt to calm her down.

"Willow? While I understand now why it was that you never contacted any of us while you were away, you must understand that any efforts that any of you might make in an attempt to reconcile your friendships with Xander are going to encounter... extreme difficulties," he told her.

Deciding that complete honesty would be necessary if he was to convey to the redhead the magnitude of the task that lay ahead of her, Giles made a decision to tell her the blunt truth. And Buffy and Cordelia too, should they attempt to regain their former friendship with the young man.

"Xander feels, quite rightly, that the three of you condemned and then abandoned him without allowing him any chance to explain or justify his actions of that night," he said quietly, as he moved back and pulled over a chair to sit down.

Giles shrugged. "While his physical injuries were quite extensive, the emotional damage you, Buffy and Cordelia inflicted on him that night and in the days was nearly sufficient enough to make him lose his will to live, at least for a short while."

A pause. "I know for a certainty, Willow, that when he first learned of your departures after finally regaining consciousness from the beating he suffered at Buffy's hands, he was... he was so distraught and depressed that he initially refused to eat, forcing the hospital staff to resort to feeding him intravenously."

Seeing the stricken look on the redhead's face as he informed her of Xander's initial reaction to their departure, Giles attempted to assuage at least part of her obviously deeply felt guilt.

"He recovered quickly, Willow, and he was never in any real danger," the Englishman reassured her, as the witch looked as though she might begin crying again. "If anything, upon being released from the hospital, he seemed to return to our - nocturnal pastimes - with an even more fervent desire to help than he had before," he told her.

"The boy insisted that I teach him as much of my martial training as he could absorb - which, in point of fact, is something that I should have done with all of you, years ago," he added parenthetically.

A sigh. "His determination to learn everything that I could teach him was actually almost frightening in its intensity. For the first two and a half months after he was released from the hospital, he would spend four hours each morning in physical therapy, regaining the strength and coordination he had lost as a result of his injuries and hospitalization, then come to the shop here and continue his training with me."


"Oh, yes. During the first few weeks, when he was not physically strong enough to attempt the physical aspects of the training, I watched as he studied military small unit strategy and tactics. He virtually devoured every book he could lay his hands on, that dealt with the psychology and mental aspects of personal combat, martial arts, hand to hand and weapons training, and the basic close combat manuals issued by the armed forces of virtually every nation on the planet."

Willow was confused. "Did he say why?"

"No, but by the time he was physically able to begin our training, I believe he could, if he chose to do so, quote entire passages regarding various authors' viewpoints on almost any aspect of personal combat from the books that he had read."

Giles removed his glasses and began polishing them, as he recalled for the young mother-to-be the intensity with which the ostracized youth had pursued his education in all matters that could conceivably be viewed as affecting the struggle against the forces of darkness here in Sunnydale, or more specifically, here on the Hellmouth.

As he had indicated to Willow, when he wasn't involved in physical training, Xander had thrown himself into his studies, virtually devouring every available reference on hand to hand combat, the martial arts, the psychology of combat, military small unit strategy and tactics, knife fighting, swordsmanship, military small arms and guerrilla warfare.

And then, as if those studies weren't enough of a burden for him, Xander had begun delving deeply into every available reference book he or Giles could locate on the most commonly encountered demons, studying their strengths and weaknesses, their physiology and psychology, consuming every scrap of information available that he could find on them, as well as their more esoteric cousins.

The single-mindedness of the boy's - no, the young man's - focus in learning everything he could to aid him in his personal battle against evil had alarmed the Englishman. And his efforts to dissuade Xander from what he considered a futile and foolish objective had eventually resulted in a verbal take-no-prisoners battle that had threatened, more than once, to escalate into a physical confrontation, despite the efforts of Sandrine Bouchet, the resident Slayer-in-Training at the time.

The Council had transferred the young girl to Sunnydale from her home in Nice immediately upon the four Scooby Gang members' departure for their overseas education. And upon learning that Giles was the teenager's sole support in her Slaying activities, Xander had instantly declared his support - only to have Sandrine ignore him completely and immediately question Giles about how this outsider had gained his knowledge of their activities.

Having been trained solely by the Council for the bulk of her life, the young girl had vehemently adhered to the Council's beliefs that the Slayer's only support should be her Watcher, and she had sloughed off all attempts by both Giles and Xander to help her in her work.

Those beliefs had led to her death only a few short months later, while attempting to stop the bloody rampages of the master vampire, Spike, after he had acquired the Gem of Amara.

The fact that she had been unable to remove the ring from the vampire's finger before succumbing to the terrible injuries Spike had inflicted on her during his reign of terror served only to show the full extent of the white hats' defeat.

Even if either of had them realized the repercussions that the Slayer- in-training's brief (and futile) stint as guardian of the Hellmouth would entail among the Council, it was unlikely that they would have been able to prevent the subsequent sequence of events that occurred.

During the course of his six week residence in the hospital, once he became mobile Xander had taken to visiting the comatose Slayer, Faith. He had spent hours each day talking and reading to her, describing the things they would do once she had regained consciousness and they were able to go outside.

Even after the Slayerette had been released from the hospital, he'd continued to visit her twice daily, reading her stories from the newspaper and filling her in on the latest developments happening in town. When Giles had questioned him about why he spent so much time with the comatose girl, his answer had been simple.

"Because we owe her, Giles," the Watcher recalled the younger man saying. "Let's face it, we all failed her, badly. If we had been there for her when she first arrived in town, she probably never woulda gone bad. She didn't have anyone there to support her and show her the right way to do things even before she was Called, so why were we all really that surprised when she fell into the dark side of the Force? This time - when she wakes up, I'm gonna make sure she never feels like she's abandoned and alone like that again."

It was on the third day following Sandrine's death and Spike's escape that Xander showed up for his daily visit - only to discover Faith's room empty.

Inquiries to the staff had elicited only the information that a "distinguished, older gentleman with a British accent" had appeared the previous day, with documentation identifying him as the brunette Slayer's uncle and sole surviving relative. And that he had quickly arranged for the brunette's immediate transfer to a private rehabilitation clinic on the East Coast.

All attempts by both Xander and Giles to trace Faith's travels had led to dead ends, leaving both men frustrated and fearful for the young woman's fate.

And then, ten days after Faith's disappearance, Quentin Travers had shown up at Giles' apartment - accompanied by several surly looking men, who were obviously bodyguards, and a young redheaded teenager, whom he introduced as the newest Slayer: Mary Mulvane.

After blandly explaining that Faith had succumbed to 'heart failure' while undergoing treatment at the Council's 'rehabilitation' facilities, and pointedly ignoring Xander's voluble accusations of murder, Travers had informed Giles of the Council's decision to appoint him as the new Slayer's Watcher.

This had been based on the numerous successes Buffy Summers had accomplished, while under his tutelage. And the ingenuity, courage, perseverance and resourcefulness displayed in what the Council perceived as his leadership and direction in thwarting the former Mayor's attempted Ascension - according to Wesley's somewhat disjointed final report to his superiors..

After only a few minutes of conversation, it quickly became obvious that Giles' appointment as Watcher to the new Slayer had been done contrary to Travers' desires, and they had realized that any support or assistance provided would be of minimal use and very begrudgingly extended.

Accordingly, Giles rushed through the requisite procedures as rapidly as possible, practically shoving Travers and his entourage out the front door of his apartment at the earliest possible moment.

And once the Council's representative and his minions had left, Giles then began questioning his new ward, attempting to gauge the extent of her training and her general frame of mind towards her new station in life.

Unlike her predecessor, Mary had only been recognized as a potential Slayer scarcely two years before. And thus, having benefited from having a relatively normal family life, she'd viewed the Council's strictures against the involvement of others as shockingly foolhardy, considering that the success or failure of her actions could very easily determine the fate of the world.

Miss Mulvane had readily and gratefully accepted Xander's offer of assistance and support, bringing a genuine smile to the young man's face for the first time in months, by Giles' recollection.

It was at about this same time that the remaining Scooby Gang became aware of the existence of a covert military research facility, the Initiative, which had been set up in Sunnydale to investigate and study the various creatures of the night that seemed to flock to the town.

It had been Xander's rescue of a patrol beset by vampires and lacking the equipment to defend themselves properly that first introduced the two groups to each other, and resulted in the teenager's recruitment as an assistant unit commander - his rank had been "Agent Harris" - and resident expert on the fauna inhabiting the region.

The combination of the two groups' expertise and equipment had resulted in the establishment of a relatively quiet period on the Hellmouth, while the Initiative scientists had studied both demons and the apparent changes in the laws of physics effected in the area in and around town by the existence of an interdimensional gateway.

Unfortunately, however, the relative peace established by the groups' efforts had led to Spike's return, and the Irish Slayer had perished in battle only a few short months later while battling the same vampire who had slain her predecessor.

Before dying, however, she had successfully removed the Gem of Amara from Spike's finger; and Mary had also hacked off the vampire's right arm below the shoulder and partially blinded him with a stake through his left eye, before the cripple had left town.

Mary's successor, Rachel Hyde-Fitzpatrick, had appeared shortly thereafter and her sense of self-preservation had caused her to display many of the same qualities that the Irish Slayer had shown regarding the idiocy of the concept of one person single-handedly guarding the Hellmouth and refusing to accept any help or support offered.

The irony of the fact that the very same group providing support to the Slayer was responsible for the existence of the creature that eventually killed her was not lost on Giles.

The added fact that the same creature, Adam - an amalgam of human, demon and cybernetic parts intended to battle the demons attracted by the Hellmouth's energies - had also been responsible for killing Xander before being destroyed itself had cemented Giles' determination that any offers of help proffered in the future would be much more closely scrutinized.

His surrogate son's apparent miraculous resurrection and the reasons for it, the subsequent dissolution of the Initiative and the appearance of, first, the Knights of Byzantium, and then Glory were all passed on to the redhead, as he attempted to explain to another of his 'children' all that had happened to change her former friend into the person he now was.

When he had finally finished his recitation, Giles looked over to find his 'daughter' staring at him with a mixture of amazement, horror, sorrow, shame, grief and several other emotions he couldn't readily identify.

"I never thought that things would get so bad after we left, Giles," she whispered. "I swear, I just never thought it would get that far! And we ran away and left you and Xander all alone, to fight all the monsters by yourselves. We were cowards. *I* was a coward, and I ran away because I was tired of fighting all the bad things that were always showing up, and I left you two alone, and you kept on fighting anyway..."

She dropped her gaze from his and in a small voice the Englishman could barely make out, she asked, "I'm sorry, Giles. I'm sorry I ran and left you and Xander alone. Can you ever forgive me?"

And as he quietly assured the young woman of his forgiveness, Giles wondered to himself if the former 'heart' of the Scooby Gang would, or could, ever forgive the ones who had wronged him so deeply.


An anonymous residence inside the Sunnydale city limits
July 8, 2003 9:25 pm

"So, sweetie, is everything working okay? I'm pretty sure none of the bullets hit the box, so anything inside should be okay, right?"

The speaker was an attractive brunette, who would have recognized immediately by anyone who had been present at the UC Sunnydale Museum earlier that day.

She was currently hovering around a large table almost completely inscribed with nearly incomprehensible runes that seemed to make the viewer's eyes hurt, should anyone look upon them too long. The tall, heavyset dark-haired young man seated at the table was carefully manipulating several intricate-looking assemblies that were currently grasping a dark wood box whose surface was also inscribed with various eye-wrenching symbols similar to those on the table.

Any observer present would also recognize the box as one of the items taken by the statuesque brunette in the course of her rampage.

"Everything looks fine, baby," he reassured his companion. "Don't you worry your pretty little head about anything. The box wasn't even scratched. Now, just let me concentrate here, okay? The next few minutes are going to be tricky..."

Silence reigned in the room over the next several minutes as the man directed the waldoes over and across each surface of the box in an intricate pattern and the brunette watched in interested ignorance.

Finally, the silence was broken by a short aria of sounds that ascended atonally across the scale until it reached the upper limits of the human ear and seemed to quietly fade away.

Simultaneously, a glowing purple dot appeared on the front face of the box and split in two, with each part racing away from the other, leaving a horizontal glowing purple line in its wake as it sped around the circumference of the box, to meet and meld together on the opposite face, before flaring slightly in brightness and then fading away, leaving only a thin seam visible across each face of the box to mark its existence.

"YEEESS!!!" The young man's exclamation of triumph echoed through the room, as he pumped his fist up and down in a victory gesture. "That did it! Three weeks, huh? That'll teach them to doubt me!"

"You're a genius, baby!" the brunette smiled happily, as she leaned over and gave the man a quick kiss on the cheek. "I knew you'd figure it out! That stupid old box never had a chance of stopping you! You've got to be the smartest man in the world, ever!"

"Thanks, baby," the brunette smiled back. "With you to inspire me, there isn't anything that'll be able to stop us. In just a couple of months now, we're gonna be ruling over everything we see!" he predicted.

Turning his attention back to the box, he hesitantly reached out with both hands and carefully lifted the top away, to reveal two large, semi-translucent spheres apparently illuminated by their own internal crimson light.

"The Orbs of Nezzla'khan," he breathed out the name as he stared at the glowing crystals.

Approximately three inches in diameter, they seemed to pulse with their own faint light as he stared at them for several minutes without moving, apparently lost in thought.

"With these things, I'll be invincible," he murmured softly to himself. "Come on, man. Just reach out and take them. The power is just waiting for you to take it and make it your own..."

With a visible effort, he finally reached out with two slightly trembling hands and grabbed hold of the shimmering spheres.


The scream that split the quiet of the suburban neighborhood lasted only a few seconds before vanishing. The silence that immediately followed was gradually replaced by the normal sounds of the night, as the various nocturnal denizens decided that any potential danger had passed, along with the anxious questions of an apprehensive young woman.

"Are you okay, baby? Sweetie? Can you hear me? Baby, you're scaring me. Please answer me. Come on now, please..."

Chapter 4

"The All-Seeing Eye" Occult Shop
Gaithersburg, MD
July 8, 2003 9:20 am

Sitting quietly behind the wheel of the navy-blue Chevrolet Blazer Hertz rental, Wesley watched the front of the small shop with a focus developed over the course of nearly four years of investigative experience ranging from utter boredom to mind-numbing terror. Sipping a cup of something the proprietors of the local fast food confectionary franchise insisted upon referring to as coffee, but which he had decided was much more accurately described as sludge or partially processed sewage, he took a moment to long for a cup of piping hot, perfectly brewed Earl Grey tea while his eyes never left the front of the small strip mall's magic shop.

The sign in the front window of the shop, set in between a dry cleaning establishment and a small industrial design and engineering consulting business, indicated that the store opened for business promptly at nine thirty each day, closed for lunch from one-thirty to two-fifteen each afternoon, and then remained open for business until eight P.M. His inquiries earlier that morning indicated that the proprietor of the shop, a Miss Anya Jenkins, operated the store with a degree of meticulousness that the finest Swiss watchmakers might envy. And that her clientele covered an incredibly wide range of people, from jean and leather clad bikers to business people whose suits probably cost more than he made in a month.

The ex-Watcher-turned-demon-hunter-turned-private-investigator took another drink from his cup and watched with great interest as a strawberry-blonde woman strode up to the front door of the shop and unlocked it, flipping the 'Closed' sign in the window to 'Open.'

To judge from the information he had been able to glean from his contacts last night prior to his flight's departure, the "All-Seeing Eye" was much more than a small occult paraphernalia and supply store catering to the more esoteric fringe crowds.

The shop had a reputation of providing high-quality spell ingredients and of being able to consistently produce most of the less readily available components as long as the would-be purchaser could meet their price.

Rumors also abounded, although these usually were conveyed in low whispers accompanied by a quick scan of the speaker's surroundings prior to the revelation, regarding the less commonly available types of items and spells that might possibly be obtainable from the proprietor of the operation.

if the seeker could both gain her interest and meet the non- negotiable price quoted, of course.

Other whispers spoke of scrying spells able to penetrate the most secure chambers created, and charms and beguilements and compulsion spells were also mentioned, that would cause the ensorcelled victim to eagerly confess anything the caster might wish to learn, as well as wards and amulets to protect against those same magics being used by one's enemies (or allies, as the case may be).

< It would seem that Anyanka has established quite the thriving market niche for herself here, > Wesley mused to himself, after spending several hours observing the shop.

The people he had observed entering and leaving the shop varied enormously in appearance and attitude, from a few jean-clad bikers ostentatiously displaying their colors to women who appeared to be nothing more than the typical suburban housewife and mother, in some cases complete with toddler or pushing a baby stroller.

< Hmm, I rather doubt she'll be very keen to answer any questions I might pose to her regarding anything that occurred during and after that whole Graduation muddle, > he mused to himself

< Oh well, I suppose I'll just have to be even more charming than usual, and sweep her off her feet, > he decided, a wry expression on his face as he started up the engine and carefully pulled out of the shopping center's lot.

< Best to establish the needed arrangements beforehand and lay in the essential supplies now, while I have the opportunity, > Wes reminded himself.

< How exactly did Gunn phrase it, now? Ah, yes - 'Proper planning prevents piss-poor performance.' How alliterative of him, > he grinned, as he headed off towards the store he recalled having seen while passing on his way here earlier in the morning.


The Magic Box
Sunnydale, CA
July 9, 2003 8:00 am

"Giles, we need to talk," Buffy announced as she strode through the shop entrance, the bell above the door clanging loudly as the door itself bounced off the wall-mounted bumper and swung back to close behind her.

"And I'm delighted to see you up and about so early this morning, too, Buffy," the reinstated Watcher replied, the faint sarcasm in his voice either unnoticed or ignored by the young blonde.

"What, pray tell, is so important that we need to discuss that it brings you to the shop two hours before your normal wake-up time?" he asked, as he noted that the blonde's body language was practically screaming that she was upset and frustrated about something.

And an upset and frustrated Slayer is most definitely not fun to be around, he reminded himself.

Recalling his observations of the demeanor of all the remaining Scooby Gang members the previous night, the shopkeeper had an uncomfortable premonition as to what the subject of their discussion was to be.

"I didn't want to talk about this last night 'cause Willow was here and she'd only get more upset if she heard us," the Slayer noted, "but we need to find some way to get her and Xander back together, or at least talking to each other.

"She's been wigging ever since we got back here and she found out about everything that happened to Xander while we were gone and then, to top that off, the fact that he won't even talk to her is really bothering her, Giles," she explained, her concern for her friend evident in her voice and the way she was pacing back and forth before the large table the Gang used when researching.

She stared up at her former, and once-again, mentor and Watcher. "Oz says she's been wigging, ever since we got back here and she found out about everything that happened to Xander while we were gone. And then, to top that off, the fact that he won't even talk her? It's really bothering her, Giles.

"Oz say she hasn't been sleeping well the past couple of months because of the baby, and that it's only gotten worse since we got back to Sunnydale. If she could just talk to Xander a little so they can clear things up, I think she'd feel a lot better," she clarified her intentions.

"And then she could at least start feeling better," she finished up. "It can't be good for either her or the baby, the way she's been going the past couple weeks."

"And what, exactly, do you want me to do about it, Buffy?" he asked, his voice neutral in tone and manner.

< I certainly hope she's not expecting me to do what it would appear she's leading up to, > he thought to himself.

"Well, you need to speak with Xander and get him to at least start talking to Willow, Giles," the petite blonde told him, staring at him as though he were being particularly slow in his comprehension of her concerns.

"I'm afraid I can't do that, Buffy," Giles replied carefully as he looked back at her.

"What? Why not?" she demanded immediately, staring at him as though he had suddenly just sprouted horns and wings and begun singing Broadway show tunes.

"Because you, Willow and Cordelia need to resolve the matter of your relationships with Xander by yourselves," he explained patiently. "I will not - I must not - allow myself to become involved as an advocate for any one of the four of you to any of the others, regardless of who it might be."

Buffy appeared to be completely stunned by her Watcher's statement.

"Giles! You told us that you thought of us like we were your daughters," Buffy reminded him, a look of disbelief at his statement in her eyes.

"Xander won't answer any of our phone calls or email, not even to tell us to leave him alone, so we need you to step in and help us out here! Willow's health is getting worse, and if you don't do anything about it, she - she could lose the baby!" the petite blonde stated heatedly.

Giles took a moment to remove his glasses and begin polishing them before responding to his Slayer's statements, an action Buffy recognized as a basic reflex to stall and give him time to think.

"First of all, to state matters more precisely, Buffy," the ex- librarian answered her, "you are most certainly exaggerating the seriousness of what you perceive to be Willow's problem to a vast degree. I spoke with Willow's doctor while she was present when I went to pick her up after her appointment last week, and, according to him, neither her health nor that of the baby's is endangered in the slightest, at present, despite whatever reservations you might have.

"Second, while I did, indeed, state that I regard all of you girls, as well as Oz, as my children, I know with complete certainty that I also stated at the same time, that I consider Xander my son as much as I do you three my daughters."

He paused momentarily.

"Accordingly, I am refusing to favor any one of you above the others," he concluded, replacing his glasses and looking her straight in the eye as he spoke.

"But Giles -" she began, but the Englishman interrupted her before she could continue.

"Believe me, Buffy, it would be far better for everyone involved that I remain an impartial third party as regards this issue," he warned her. "Should I be forced to choose sides in this matter, I am quite certain that none of you would be pleased with the decision I would make."

"What? You - you'd take Xander's side? Against me? Against us?" she asked, her face a mask of disbelief and shock. "You'd choose him over us?"

"Actually, I would prefer not to have to make any decisions of that type, at all, Buffy," he answered. "But...if it were to come to that, if I were compelled to make such a judgment - my conscience would most surely have me choose to support the person whom I felt was the one most seriously wronged, in - in the situation under consideration."

The look of surprise, pain and distress on Buffy's face as she listened to him speak hurt the older man deeply, but he knew that to say anything other than how he truly felt would be a betrayal of everything he believed was right. This wasn't some trifling, minor spat between two teenagers that could later be overlooked or ignored by everyone involved; this went directly to the core of everything he believed was important, both to himself and everyone he cared about.

"I - I can't believe you think HE'S the one who was wronged, Giles," she said, shaking her head as if to deny what her surrogate father had just said.

"I mean, he BETRAYED me!!" Buffy practically screamed at him, her eyes glistening with the threat of tears. "He lied to me about the soul restoration spell, just 'cause he hated Angel! Willow was trying to bring the real Angel back, and that asshole told me she said to 'kick his ass'! He lied to me, so he could have a chance to get rid of Angel and get close to me - to try to get me to finally love him back!"

The Englishman stood silently for a moment, staring at his charge, before shaking his head and seeming to finally come to a decision.

"If you truly believe that that was the sole reason Xander lied to you about the spell, Buffy," he told her quietly, "then you are not nearly as intelligent or insightful as I have always believed you to be."

While her mentor's demeanor appeared outwardly calm and tranquil, Buffy was now beginning to pick up a vibe that had her 'Spider-sense' (as a certain unnamed joker used to refer to it) screaming that something she wasn't going to like was heading her way at full speed.

"For the record, I had not intended to ever bring this subject up," Giles said, as he walked past her and locked the front door, then closed the venetian blinds in the door and all the windows, ensuring their privacy. "But since it appears that you seem determined upon damning Xander in order to justify yourself, I now feel that it is something that we need to discuss - without any fear of interruption."

Turning to face the young woman standing in the center of his shop, Giles removed his glasses and slipped them into the breast pocket of his shirt, his demeanor changing as he did so.

It almost seemed to the now-uncertain blonde as though he were changing into another person, as if he were Clark Kent transforming into Superman before her very eyes.

As she witnessed the change happening before her, Buffy suddenly found herself wishing that she had given a *lot* more thought to her notion of having Giles act as intermediary between the Scooby Gang and Xander, and that she had thought to invite Cordy to accompany her in her mission.

"You say, with great conviction, that Xander betrayed you, Buffy," her Watcher repeated her charge as he stared at her with an almost disturbing focus.

"He manipulated you to rid the world of Angel so that he might have the opportunity to possibly establish some type of romantic liaison with you, I take it. And you behave as though that were the only possible reason for his actions, while choosing to ignore numerous other potential explanations for his not telling you about Willow's attempt to restore Angel's soul."

"Giles, that's not exactly what -" Buffy tried to interrupt, but the ex-librarian continued speaking.

"Isn't it conceivable that he might have been more concerned about the possibility of your being unable to fight Angelus quite as earnestly as you could have, should you believe there was a chance of regaining your lost lover?" her mentor asked her softly.

"That you might have attempted to battle Angelus to a stalemate, instead of seeking to defeat him completely, despite the fact that he was attempting to complete a ritual that would create a portal that would enable the forces of Hell to invade our world?"

"No, I wouldn't have -" she tried to protest, but the Watcher again ignored her interruption.

"I'll grant you that Xander hated Angelus; by my recollection, Buffy, that soulless demon was personally responsible for the deaths of dozens, if not scores of people while running amok here in Sunnydale. And from the very beginning of his rampage, Xander had always insisted that Angelus be held accountable for his actions, just like any other vampire we encountered who preyed on the populace here in town."

Giles then continued, "And that sentiment was completely apart from our even considering the deaths of those people we knew personally," he stated calmly, his eyes seeming to flare for the slightest moment as the silently acknowledged spectre of Jenny Calendar's death passed between them.

"Further, despite the fact that you consistently failed to defeat Angelus on the number of occasions when you confronted each other during the course of his rampages, you continued to receive our wholehearted support in your efforts in the battle against the forces of darkness."

"But Giles -"

"We aided you in what could have been considered selfish, self- centered efforts to retrieve the soul of your lost paramour, once we became aware of the re-souling spell," the Englishman pointed out to her, determined to make his surrogate daughter face the truth of her actions from several years previously.

"This all was despite the fact that that support put everyone involved at an increased risk of death or worse, at the hands of a demon whose sole purpose for existence seemed to be centered on tormenting you by destroying your friends and associates. And instead of showing any appreciation for that support, I'm afraid you instead acted as though it was something you were entitled to receive as your inalienable due."

"That's not true," the blonde objected halfheartedly. But even to herself, the objection sounded weak, and Giles didn't even deign to acknowledge her protest.

"I fear we both know the truth, Buffy," Giles said as he held her gaze. "It was only after Willow was seriously injured and it appeared that there was no longer anyone left alive who was capable of casting the re-souling spell that you seemed to accept your loss and finally went to put a stop to Angelus' scheme.

The shopkeeper then shrugged. "While I must admit that Xander had always indicated that he was interested in a romantic relationship with you," Giles continued, seemingly changing the subject of discussion, "he continued to provide the bulk of much needed physical and emotional support for you and the rest of us. Even after you had made it plain to him that there was no hope of such a relationship ever coming about.

The Watcher then stared at his charge again. "Indeed, I must confess that I was astonished that he continued helping after the extremely callous way you treated him at the Bronze at the beginning of your junior year," he added, his gaze on her making the Slayer feel as though she had been judged and found *extremely* wanting.

For his part, the Watcher felt the slightest bit of shame that he was somehow obscurely pleased to see the young woman standing before him flush with embarrassment at his reminder of her cruel and insensitive behavior.

"I think it also necessary to point out to you that Xander, had he wanted only a purely physical relationship with you, had the perfect opportunity to do exactly that later that same year when he attempted to gain revenge upon Cordelia by coercing Amy into casting that misguided love spell," Giles reminded his charge of one of the side- effects of the Valentine's Day spell that had gone so seriously awry.

"As I recall, you were foiled in your efforts to have sexual relations with him only by his own refusal to take advantage of your offers. Something that infuriated you at that time to the point of violence - again - if I am not mistaken?"

Another shrug. "Has anything I've stated so far regarding Xander been incorrect in any manner, Buffy?" Giles paused in his recitation to ask the blonde Slayer the question, in much the same manner and tone of voice that a teacher might use to check on a student's knowledge of their subject.

"Uh- well, no, I don't suppose so," the Slayer answered him uncomfortably as she shook her head, her face bright red from the brief trip down memory lane.

The memories of her carnally-centered intentions, and the accompanying memory of the way that Xander had frantically tried to deflect her actions in spite of his widely acknowledged desire for her ("...if I thought you had one clue what it would mean to me...") suddenly made Buffy wonder if she had ever actually given him sufficient credit for the strength of character he had so casually demonstrated on that, and other, occasions.

"So, we are agreed, then, that since the beginning of our association here in Sunnydale, Xander established himself as someone upon whom you depended, quite heavily at times? Someone who provided you with all the support, assistance and backup, both physical and emotional, that one could hope for and never once took any untoward advantage of your friendship, despite several opportunities to do so?"

She nodded once.

"Would that be a relatively accurate description of the situation here during your three years at high school, Buffy?" he asked, wanting a verbal reply, his eyes intent on hers.

Reluctantly, Buffy briefly nodded her head 'yes,' while she glared at him in a mix of anger, humiliation and embarrassment at the description of her behavior.

"Before we discuss anything concerning Xander's lie to you about Willow's attempt to cast the re-souling spell a second time, I believe it is of significant importance to remember the circumstances in which those events took place," Giles stated as his Slayer remained quiet.

"At the time during which all of these events transpired, Willow was barely more than an apprentice witch with virtually no formal training. Someone who had already failed once in her efforts to cast the spell, and who was virtually comatose in hospital with a concussion and other injuries," he reminded the young blonde.

"I, myself, was a captive of Angelus - who had tortured me for hours in an attempt to learn how to activate Acathla. Drusilla had murdered Kendra, and Xander had already suffered a broken arm in fighting off Angelus' minions. Cordelia had run off after the attack, while you yourself were a suspect in Kendra's murder and wanted for questioning by the police after eluding their pursuit," the Englishman enumerated the various facts for his charge.

"Had Angelus been successful in opening the portal then, it would have provided the forces of Hell with a ready means of invading our world. A means which none of the existing military or governmental forces would have been able to counteract, even if they had been able to recognize it for what it actually was. Once that gate was opened and the two dimensions merged, demon hordes would have begun pouring through - demons that would have been at least the same size and power as the late mayor - and the human race would have been doomed to slavery and, eventually, extinction.

Giles sighed. "The fact is, Buffy, that Xander helped save the lives of six billion people when he lied to you about Willow's efforts. In my opinion, he made a military judgment call; he felt that the possibility that you might consider risking the fate of the world in order to get Angel back was too great a danger to even chance," he explained.

"I won't deny the possibility that he also took pleasure in learning that you sent Angel to Hell; but looking at the situation dispassionately and given the stakes involved, there was absolutely no other rational choice a man in his position could have made at the time," he concluded

Giles paused and remained silent for a moment to let Buffy absorb his words; and then, when she made no response, resumed speaking.

"Looking back, I realize now that all of us were under an incredible amount of stress during the weeks leading up to Graduation. And that afterwards, we all were most likely suffering from some form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; so it is not difficult, now, to understand why it was we all made exceedingly foolish choices while rushing from crisis to crisis," he stated.

"I also believe that it was an incredibly unfortunate stroke of luck, occurring at the worst possible moment, when you discovered the fact that Xander had lied to you that day. And I also believe that, had it occurred at any other time when you were not so emotionally distraught, you would not have reacted to the news as badly as you did." Giles tried to bring solace to Buffy in his tone, if not his words.

"But the fact is, Buffy," he told her, "that you injured Xander quite seriously when you attacked him. Do you have any idea how badly you hurt him? Did you even bother to determine the extent of his injuries before you left Sunnydale for Oxford?"

"No," came the quiet, almost whispered, reply, as she shook her head, looking down at her feet and not meeting his gaze. "I was so furious with him then...that I didn't even want to hear his name mentioned."

"Well then," the blonde's mentor replied, "it is far past time you learned exactly what you did to him."

The way he said those words made the Slayer blanche slightly, in expectation of what she was about to hear.

"When I was finally permitted to see Xander," he told her, "which occurred two days after you assaulted him, I must add, since no one had thought to notify me of anything that happened that day - he was situated in the Intensive Care Unit.

"Oh my god, Giles," Buffy murmured, her face a pasty-white as she considered the results of her actions, "I didn't know. I swear to you! I really didn't know he was hurt that badly," she insisted.

"But you had made no attempt to find out, either. Correct?" he asked her, rhetorically, as he seemed to tower above her seated form.

The look of shame on her face as she looked at him answered the Watcher loudly enough that her low-voiced, "No. I - I guess I really didn't want to know," was not truly necessary.

"Well, Buffy," the Englishman began, "his left arm had been broken in three places, and his right in two. Four fingers on his right hand were broken, as were both of his legs and his right kneecap. His jaw was broken in two places and he had lost four teeth. He also had twelve broken or cracked ribs, several of which had punctured his right lung in numerous places."

Buffy looked sick, but her Watcher hadn't finished yet. "His spleen had been ruptured and the doctors had been forced to remove it. He had also suffered extensive severe internal bruising and hemorrhaging in his stomach and intestines, and the doctors were concerned about possible bruising on his heart muscle, also."

"I - I..."

"In addition to suffering from a severe concussion, the doctors were also uncertain at the time as to whether Xander would lose the sight in his left eye and whether he might possibly suffer partial hearing loss in both ears. I distinctly recall one doctor saying, at the time, that he had never seen anyone as severely injured as the boy had been make a full recovery, and that he was surprised that he had survived as long as he had."

Giles looked at her sadly. "Buffy - you came *this* close to killing a human. And there was no chance that Xander would have turned out to be an android, like the one that dated your mother all those years ago."

"Oh dear god," Buffy whispered, her eyes wide with shock, her hand covering her mouth, as she sank down in one of the chairs flanking the wooden research table.

"Oh god! I - I did all that to him? Oh my god...I never thought that I could ever..." Her voice trailed off, her eyes beginning to mist over with tears as she envisioned everything Giles had described to her.

Giles had noted with some small degree of almost Ripper-ish satisfaction the look of disbelief, horror and nausea on Buffy's face as he recited the litany of injuries she had inflicted on her former friend and teammate. And that small sense of approval grew in direct proportion as the look on her face grew worse as he continued to catalogue the damages she had done.

The sudden pallor beneath the Slayer's normally tanned skin as her hand had leaped to cover her mouth revealed the degree of anxiety that his revelations had produced, as did her apparent inability to make any comment or reply.

After all, the nature of Buffy's typical nocturnal opponent generally precluded any necessity for medical examinations or treatment, with the bodies of the losers generally transforming either into dust or an amorphous goo within minutes, if not seconds, of their defeat.

Normally, when the Slayer defeated an opponent, there wasn't an abundance of human blood splattered around to stain the surrounding area. Or a misshapen figure lying on the ground at her feet, the normal contours of the limbs and body disrupted by the fractured bones that normally served as their framework.

As her imagination vividly filled in the images Giles had described to her in graphic detail, Buffy suddenly leaped to her feet and ran for the restroom, from which, a moment later, he could hear the muffled sounds of her violently losing her breakfast - followed shortly thereafter by the subdued sounds of her weeping.

It was several minutes later that Buffy returned to her seat, her eyes now dry, but showing signs of tears and her face a pale echo of how she had looked when she first arrived.

"What else do I need to know about what happened?" she hesitantly asked as she looked up at her mentor.

Giles then resumed his recitation for the petite blonde, who was staring at him - horrified and transfixed by the description of what her former teammate had endured.

"Upon his arrival at the hospital, Xander remained comatose for three days before he finally regained consciousness, but he was essentially unaware of virtually everything happening around him for the next ten days - because of the sheer volume of antibiotics, painkillers and other drugs that he was receiving."

"He was released from the hospital after six weeks, somewhat prematurely in my opinion, after his parents informed the hospital administration that neither they nor their health insurance company would cover any additional expenses for his continued care."

A shrug. "It came as no great surprise for either Xander or myself, then, when Mr. and Mrs. Harris informed him of their next decision. That, as he was no longer a minor, he was unwelcome to stay in their house for the duration of his recovery," the former librarian continued his description of the events that occurred after Graduation. "It was at that point that I insisted he move in here with me, at least until he was well enough to live by himself.

"So, uh, at least *you* were here for him," the blonde observed quietly, her eyes downcast, her hands in her lap.

"Buffy, all else aside - I simply cannot understand how people like those two could have produced a son like Xander," the Watcher commented parenthetically. "He is the complete, polar opposite of the two people responsible for his conception. I swear to you, individuals such as they are should stand as examples as to why some creatures should be denied the opportunity to ever procreate...

"In any event," he went on, "there were moments there when it almost seemed as if someone were orchestrating events behind the scenes in an attempt to completely destroy Xander's life. If I hadn't insisted that he stay with me until he had fully recovered...I don't know what might have happened to him, or where he would have ended up," the Englishman said.

"It took Xander quite a long time to recover from his injuries, Buffy," Giles informed her after another moment's pause. "Fortunately, he did not suffer any lasting impairment to either his vision or hearing as a result of your assault."

"Thank god for that," Buffy whispered gratefully.

"Nonetheless, after his discharge from the hospital, he found it necessary to attend physical therapy classes for approximately two and a half months - in order to regain most of the strength and coordination he had lost, during his convalescence from the injuries you inflicted."

The Slayer winced visibly as she listened to her Watcher's apparently detached account of her former friend's injuries. "And even after he completed the therapy, he still had limited mobility and strength in his right knee and leg, which caused him to walk with a slight limp, thereafter."

The look of regret and disappointment he wore as he spoke caused the young woman to wilt even further.

"But- but, Giles, he didn't have any limp when we saw him here last month," Buffy protested, her expression somewhat perplexed as she grabbed onto what seemed an error in his account of what had befallen her former teammate.

"He was moving around without any problem at all, at your place. And, and he looked good. Really good," the petite blonde noted, coloring slightly as she remembered her initial reaction to seeing him, then coloring even more as she realized Giles was looking at her with a somewhat puzzled expression on his face at her reaction.

< Okay, so maybe I did think he looked kinda hot, > she admitted to herself self-consciously, with a mental shrug of her shoulders.

< I just hadn't recognized him, that's all. I thought that he was a stranger and, okay, I might possibly have thought that he was tall and dark and potentially yummy, but it wasn't my fault! I mean, he *definitely* didn't have shoulders or arms or a chest like that back in high school, so how was I supposed to know that it was him? It's not like I was practically drooling on the floor over him like Cordy was doing, > she thought as she attempted to justify her, until now, not-fully-acknowledged reaction to seeing Xander again for the first time in four years.

"In point of fact," Giles began, unaware that the Slayer's train of thought had been momentarily sidetracked as his voice unconsciously dropped into his 'Lecturer mode' voice, "Xander's current physical condition is a direct by-product of the restoration spell that the monks who imbued him with the Key energy utilized."

"The Key thing, yeah, about that..."

"Apparently, the energy of the spell the monks performed not only healed both Xander's current and older injuries prior to restoring his life force, it completely restructured his body, optimizing the potential of his cellular structure and bringing him to the pinnacle of his physical capabilities."


"In addition," the Watcher noted, his voce coloring with the excitement of a researcher who has discovered a new realm of knowledge to explore, "Xander's senses were also significantly improved, to the point where they are actually superior to those of most demons we have encountered here. His vision, hearing, smell, taste, even his sense of touch - all are extraordinarily acute!"


"Indeed. I believe that aspect of his abilities to be an unexpected residual side-effect of the Hyena possession he experienced during his sophomore year of high school. The possession evidently must have left some residual metaphysical traces, that were then incorporated into his cellular matrix upon the spell's initiation."

"So, what you're saying, Giles, is that the Xander we met is still the same basic model we went to school with, but now he's had a makeover and had all the available deluxe factory options added?" Buffy asked, trying to assimilate everything her Watcher had told her.

"Well," the Englishman replied with a quiet sigh of resignation at the blonde's - unique - phraseology, "while I would never express it in quite so crass a manner, Buffy, I suppose the answer to your question would be 'yes'."

"Okay, I think I've got it all, now, Giles," Buffy said, after a few minutes of thought.

"I really screwed things up big time, didn't I?" she said quietly, her words more a statement of fact than a question.

"Yes, you did," came the equally quiet reply.

A long sigh.

"I made a horrible mistake back then, Giles," the Slayer admitted, "and I couldn't even admit it to myself until now. I was just too proud to even think that I could have made a mistake, let alone admit it, until you told me what I had actually done."

Se sent her pseudo-father a searching glance. "How am I gonna fix this, Giles? Xander won't even acknowledge my existence anymore. Not even when I'm in the same room with him..."

An equally long sigh.

"I don't know, Buffy. From the depths of my soul, I-I-I quite honestly don't know."


The Hyperion Hotel
Los Angeles, CA
July 9, 2003 12:15 pm

"Are you out of your *obviously* brain-damaged mind!??!"

"No." The reply was offered almost in passing, as the speaker busily searched through the contents of the large oaken cabinet he had opened only a moment before.

"Xander, you can NOT take on a whole nest of vamps by yourself!" the redhead stated emphatically.

"I don't care how fast or strong you can make yourself, it's complete and utter insanity for you to go into a vampire's den alone! You just have to wait for the guys to get back, so they can back you up! They should be done cleaning out that Kohl' Mara infestation in a couple hours, and be back by four - five o'clock at the latest!"

"I can't wait that long," was the only response the hybrid Seer received.

Harry's heated commentary hadn't seem to faze the target of her tirade in the least, she noticed as he ignored her comments, so she switched gears in her approach to dissuade him from what appeared to her to be a certain path to suicide.

"You know, if Michelle ever even suggested that she was thinking about doing anything like that, you'd have her chained hand and foot and locked in the wine cellar downstairs, while you sat outside the door with as many guns, knives and swords as you could get your hands on!" the redhead said in a more conversational tone to the tall brunet, who had pulled a dual shoulder holster rig out of the cabinet and placed it on one of the nearby tables.

"Yep. You're right about that," he agreed with her, as he also removed two Walther P99's from the interior of the cabinet and checked each one to ensure that they were functioning properly before inserting a clip marked around the base with red tape into each pistol.

The pistols and several spare clips then joined the shoulder rig on the table, while the Key turned to another cabinet and began rummaging through that one with a cheerful expression on his face.

"Well, if I'm right about this when it involves Michelle, then why am I wrong when it involves you? And Xander? If you say it's because you're not Michelle, I'll break *both* your kneecaps," she smiled at him.

The complete and utter certainty of her statement was unmistakable in her voice, Xander noted, as he also caught sight out of the corner of his eye of the billy club she held casually in her right hand.

"Well, since you put it *that* way," Xander said as he grinned over at her, "it's because this one is a very *special* nest, Harry.

"It's got a vampire named Spike living in it," he told her, the voracious smile of a *very* hungry predator on his face as he spoke.

The half-demon seer felt a chill run down her spine as she looked at the expression on her friend's face when he pronounced the vampire's name. For just a moment, the look in those eyes made her want to run away and hide somewhere safe, someplace the owner of those eyes would never be able to find her. Then, as the eyes refocused and looked at her, and not at some memories only they could see, the expression in them softened, immediately warming her spirit.

"Spike?" Harry asked thoughtfully, sifting through her mental files for the reason that particular name seemed to set off alarms in the 'professional demon hunter' section of her mind.

"Are you referring to the same Spike who was part of the vampire pack known as the "Scourge of Europe"? she asked.

"The very same," Xander absently agreed with her as he checked his sword for any nicks or signs of rust before returning it to its scabbard and placing on the table alongside the shoulder rig and pistols. "The same Spike who's also Angel's grandchilde, by way of Drusilla, which is another reason I don't want to wait for the guys to get back. I don't want Angel involved in this."

"Why? Do you think he'd try to stop you from killing him?" she asked, one eyebrow lifted questioningly at him.

"Of course not. Don't be ridiculous, Harry," came the response. "It's just, finding out that Spike is back in town would just make him feel bad. He'd feel like he's responsible for everything Spike's done ever since he was turned, and he'd start brooding, and pretty soon, the entire city would implode from all the depression. You wanna be responsible for that happening? I certainly don't."

The redhead ignored her friend's jocular tone of voice and kept up her questions.

"Xander, if everything I've read about him is correct, that creature has killed two Slayers by himself in single combat," Harry told him, the expression on her face conveying her worry and concern.

The fact that ALL combat between Slayers and vampires had been 'single combat' up until the advent of the now widely- famous 'Scooby Gang' passed idly through the redheaded half-demon's mind, but she ignored the thought as currently irrelevant to her conversation.

"Actually, he's killed THREE Slayers, and a Slayer-In-Training," Xander corrected her as he checked the slide and action of the 12 gauge Winchester 1300 Defender pump-action shotgun he was currently holding.

"At least, that's all we know of. But having met Spike, I don't think he's the type to allow the credit for killing a Slayer go to someone else," he opined, as he paused in his preparations for a moment to look Harry in the eye.

"The first Slayer he killed, her name was named Xin Rong. She was a peasant girl operating in the area of Beijing, China during the Boxer rebellion, and she had the misfortune to meet up with the Bleached Wonder when he was barely 20 years old as a vamp," he told the redhead.

"The second Slayer was a young black girl, her name was Nikki Woods. She ran across him in the New York City, first in Central Park, then in the subway in 1977. After that, as far as we know, he only slaughtered normal people until he finally showed up in Sunnydale, four months after my high school Graduation."

The unconscious wince he made when he mentioned the word 'graduation' alerted Harry that something *bad* must have happened then, and she made a mental note to ask Angel about it.

Discreetly of course; as it might be vital to know about anything that might have occurred back then. For the present, though, she needed to focus on what Xander was telling her.

"He was looking for something called the Gem of Amara," Xander continued, his eyes losing focus as he relived memories only he could see. "It was demon mojo ring which would make its vamp wearer invulnerable to stakes, beheading, sunlight, fire - pretty much anything that would normally kill the undead."

Harry was about to say something, but the expression on her friend's face persuaded her otherwise.

"After he got it, he went up against Sandrine Boucher. She was the Slayer-In-Training who'd come to take over guarding the Hellmouth while waiting to be Called, as her predecessor had ended up - well, she was... in a coma, I guess you could say. He could have killed Sandy instantly, once they started fighting, but that would have spoiled his fun...

Xander snorted in fury. "Spike liked to play with his food, you see - building up their hopes by letting them think they have a chance to win or get away, before he finally killed 'em. Well, he was playing with some college girls he had captured, when Sandy finally located him. While she tried to distract him, Giles and I were supposed to help the students get away...

"He had the Gem by that time, although we didn't know it. So, when Sandy finally managed to toss him out into the sunlight, after what we thought was a pretty bad fight, he just stood there for a minute, smiling at her, before he walked back up to her and snapped her neck. After that, he looked over at me and Giles - and just smiled at us. Then the soulless bastard just walked away across campus, in the sunlight..."

"Oh my god..." Harry was horrified by the images Xander had described.

"It was like he knew - he knew that that was the worst thing he could do to Giles. To me too. He killed our Slayer and let us live with the knowledge that the guy that had murdered her had the Gem - and he could go anywhere he wanted and do anything he wanted, and there was damn well nothing we could do about it."

Hearing this, the look of sorrow, rage, and hatred on her friend's face alarmed the Seer more than just a little. "That must have been heartbreaking. For the both of you," Harry said, trying to offer some comfort, however small it might be.

"Yeah, well, I've had better years," Xander admitted with a bitter smile.

"It was right after Sandy's death that the Watcher's Council arranged for Faith's - resignation," he told the Seer, and she saw, through her demon senses, that the grief on his face related to this "Faith" person was carved even more deeply in his soul.

"It let them Call a new Slayer - Mary Mulvane," he explained, seeing the horror blossom on her face as she realized what the brunet's circumlocutions exactly meant.

"Not that Mary lasted anywhere long enough. I mean, Spike didn't hang around good ol' SunnyHell all the time; he was in and out of town for months, killing just for the sheer hell of it. Not even draining his victims, just doing it to torment all three of us about our inability to do anything about him."

Another snort. "It took us a lot of time and effort and planning, but we finally managed to trap that son-of-a-bitch in a specially prepared room inside this covert military base the government had built in the town. I had joined up with this military 'black ops' group tied to the base by then, and they helped set everything up..."

"What happened?" Harry asked softly, as the brunet paused for a moment, lost in his memories.

"Mary went hand to hand with him, after I'd softened the bastard up with a couple thousands volts of electricity. And she finally managed to get the ring with the Gem away from him, by cutting off his arm. Surprised the hell out of Captain Peroxide, I'm sure," he laughed grimly at the memory.

"He thought that just because the Gem made him immune to beheading and stuff, that he was safe from any cutting damage. Boy, was he surprised when she hacked off his arm! Almost as surprised as when she managed to catch him with a stake through his left eye," Xander smiled with bitter satisfaction at the memory his words invoked.

"What happened to this Slayer - Mary, you said her name was?" Harry inquired softly. She could see the pain still stored up inside him as he related the story, and she wondered what could be done to help rid her friend of it.

"Just because she won the war doesn't mean it was a happy ending. Mary bled to death from her injuries," Xander explained grimly.

"I remember, she was lying there, in a pool of her own blood with a team of medics working on her. And she looked up at Giles and asked if she had definitely gotten the Ring away from Spike. And when Giles assured her that it was done, she just smiled up at him - and, and then she was gone."

"There's something you're not telling me," Harry opined, as Xander shrugged.

"Never could fool you, I guess. I wanted to stake the one-armed bastard, right then and there, but Riley gave orders not to. It seems some genius further up the food chain had decided that they wanted to keep 'the subject' around for further testing, to try and determine how much more power a vamp gains as they get older...

"Were they insane?" Harry asked in horror. "Didn't you tell them about, what was his name? Kakistos?"

Didn't matter. And, yeah, eventually I realized they were nuts. Hell, Giles and I both started screaming about what a horrendously bad idea that was, but nobody listened to us. At least not until Spike managed to somehow escape from his cell and the base - and by that time, it was too little, too late."

"So, now that you've found out where this monster is supposed to be hiding, you're just going to rush right over there, and kill anything that gets in the way between you and him? *That's* your brilliant battle plan?" Harry demanded.

"You know, Har, if the sarcasm in your voice gets any thicker, you're gonna have the EPA stopping by to check the toxicity levels around here," Xander grinned at his co-worker. "But as far as a plan goes, killing anything in my way sounds like a winner to me. What's your problem with it?"

"Well, aside from the fact that it sounds like the same plan your General Custer might have recommended at Little Big Horn? The complete lack of back-up. The lack of any blueprints or layout plans of the building he's in. The lack of any reliable estimates of the number of vampires on site, and the lack of information regarding any security measures this Spike or any of the other vampires staying there may have established are the first things that come to mind," Harry said acerbically, as she ticked the various points off on her fingers.

"Harry," the tone and level of Xander's voice may have been soft, but she could hear the steel underlying it. "I am *not* letting that soulless prick get away again. He's got far too much blood on his hands, and I've got far too much pain in my heart, and it's all because of him. One way or another, I am going to find him. And I am going to kill him, or die trying. It's that simple."

Xander's face was like a block of stone. "After I find him, this time - only one of us will be walking away afterwards."

"I'm not going to let you walk out of here by yourself, you know. If you're going vampire hunting, I'm going with you. I'm not going to let you commit suicide. After all, who would I have to harass and annoy me, if I let you get yourself killed?" Harry grinned at him.

"Besides, I can help you find and locate any bloodsuckers, no matter where they are, in whatever building they might be in."

"Yeah? How can you do that?"

"Easily," the ex-Mrs. Doyle grinned, inwardly elated that she had now at least gotten him to stop and discuss matters.

"I can sense supernatural entities, remember? I can help you locate any vampires or demons inside their lair - and I will, if you promise me that you'll wait for the rest of the gang to help us. We can go over and reconnoiter the building; but once we get them all located, then we call for backup, and we don't do anything else until they get there. Deal?"

"Okay, deal. But," he qualified his statement, "if it looks like any of the undead are gonna leave, I'm going in there. Understand? I'm not going to miss out on the chance to nail this bastard, Harry. Those are my terms. Take it or leave it."

"Deal." She stuck out her hand and grasped Xander's firmly when he took hold of hers and shook on it.

< I am not going to let you get yourself killed taking down this creature, Xander Harris, > Harry then thought to herself. < I don't have much family left anymore, and I'm damn sure not going to lose any that I do have, no matter what you may want to do. >

Chapter 5

'The Gallery' Art Boutique
Sunnydale, CA
July 9, 2003 10:30 am

The bell over the door chimed a low, melodious tone as Buffy carefully made her way into the shop, in much the same manner she would have upon entering an unknown and unexplored vampire lair.

She had spent the past twenty-five minutes sitting outside in the parking lot in her car, gathering her courage to make this effort, and she was determined to carry it through, despite the butterflies the size of eagles that were currently taking up residence in her stomach. She had driven here immediately after leaving Giles' shop, having painfully realized that Xander was not the only person she had wronged and hurt prior to her departure for Oxford four years before.

"Good morning. Can I help you find anything in particular?" she heard someone asking her in an excessively cheerful voice.

The young brunette woman speaking to her appeared to be a few years older than she was, and was dressed in a conservative white silk blouse and a business-like dark skirt. A small engraved gold badge on her blouse announced that the woman's name was 'Eileen.'

"Oh. Ah, hi," Buffy replied, as she looked around the store, trying to note any changes that might have been made since her last visit. It had been a while since she'd last been in here, after all.

Over four years, actually.

"I was looking for Joyce Summers," the petite blonde continued. "I, I need to talk with her."

"Mrs. Summers is busy, at the moment. Can I tell her what this is in reference to?" Eileen asked her, eying Buffy's ponytailed hair, faded jeans, T-shirt and leather jacket and her obviously distressed face a bit doubtfully.

"It's personal," Buffy answered, looking the woman in the eye. "I'm her daughter, Buffy."

"Oh," the woman replied, obviously surprised by the information she'd just heard. "Well, it's nice to finally meet you, Buffy," she smiled, extending her hand to shake the young blonde's.

"I'm Eileen Stratham. I've been working for Joyce for almost two years now. If you'll excuse me for a moment, I'll go tell her you're here. I'll be right back," she promised as she headed towards the rear of the shop.

Buffy pretended to idly peruse the various paintings adorning the walls of the store while she anxiously listened as Eileen walked past the small counter at the rear of the store and passed through a curtain-draped doorway behind her.

Her hyper-acute hearing enabled her to follow the clicking of the woman's heels as she crossed the open space of a linoleum floor and knocked on some type of door, most likely to an office of some kind, she supposed.

The Chosen One couldn't quite make out the murmur of the brunette's low voice, but she heard quite clearly the 'What!?" that answered it, immediately followed by the rapid clicking of a second set of heels across the floor, headed towards the front of the store.

A moment later, a beautiful, tastefully-dressed and made-up blonde woman pushed her way through the drapes separating the sales and storage areas of the store, to stop and stare in surprise at the young woman waiting apprehensively near the front door.

There were a few more lines around the corners of her eyes, and her hair was a bit longer and a bit curlier and a slightly darker shade of blonde than she remembered, Buffy noted - but overall, her mother looked quite well, she decided with a feeling of relief.

"Buffy?" was all that escaped Joyce's mouth as she gazed at her only child with a mixture of joy, surprise, uncertainty, worry and several other emotions Buffy couldn't quite identify, before she visibly took control and a professional expression of polite interest slid over her face.

"Hi, Mom," was all Buffy could force out, her smile more a grimace than an expression of joy as she waited to see what her mother's reaction to her presence would be.

"Is there something wrong, Buffy?" Joyce asked, her hand going to her throat as she took in her daughter's obviously distraught expression and her tear-reddened eyes.

"Is everyone okay? Nothing's happened to Willow or the baby, has it?" the older woman asked worriedly, as a thousand explanations for the blonde's appearance flashed through her mind.

"Oh, no! No! Will's fine and so's the baby," Buffy quickly replied, reassuring her that was not the reason for her unexpected visit.

"I was, uhm, hoping that, uh, that you might have a couple minutes free, and we could get a coffee or something, and maybe talk? Just for a couple of minutes? Please?" the petite blonde continued uncertainly, watching her mother with no small degree of nervousness.

It was *much* easier going out and fighting the forces of darkness than it was to stand here and take the first step in trying to repair some of the emotional damage she had both inflicted and received four years earlier.

Buffy didn't know what she would do if her own mother refused to speak to her. All she was certain of was that she needed to do this - she needed to apologize and try to re-establish all of the relationships she had burned behind her four years before.

The complete lack of expression on her mother's face as she considered Buffy's words shook the young woman more than she wanted to admit to herself.

"All right," Joyce agreed after a moment's pause, bringing a smile of relief to her daughter's face. "Just give me a minute," she then added, ducking back behind the curtain.

Buffy could hear her walking back across the tiled floor and then caught the sounds of a cabinet or locker being opened, followed by the click-clack of heels across the tiles again and her mother's re- appearance through the curtain.

"I'll be back shortly, Eileen," she said, turning to address the brunette who had been standing off to one side, trying not to be too obvious while watching, during their meeting.

"There's a coffee shop right down the concourse here," Joyce said to her child, as she led the way outside.

Neither one spoke another word, until they were seated with their beverages at one of the small tables in the back of the upscale yuppie coffee shop Joyce had mentioned.

"Well, what was it you wanted to talk about, Buffy?" Joyce asked, looking across the small table at her after taking a small sip from her cup of tea. Her voice was completely neutral, neither approving nor condemning, the tone that of someone conducting some completely impartial bit of business with a stranger might use.

"I, uh, I wanted to, to, uh, see you," Buffy began, floundering for the necessary words she needed to say in order to try and make things between them right again.

Even though she knew what she had to say, she couldn't seem to get the words to come out of her mouth. The young woman was suddenly terrified that after she apologized for her behavior over the course of the last four years, she'd find out that her mother no longer cared.

About that, or her. And that she had no interest, whatsoever, in re- establishing any kind of relationship with her daughter, leaving the Slayer alone in the world.

"I - I - I was just at Giles' shop," Buffy forced herself to speak, looking down at her coffee cup as she did, so as to avoid the look of condemnation she knew she deserved.

"He, uh, he told me all about what happened to Xander at Graduation. No, that's wrong. He told me what *I* did to Xander at Graduation," the Chosen One corrected herself, a small shudder running through her body as she again recalled what she had learned from her Watcher regarding the damage she had inflicted on her former friend and teammate.

"He made me recognize what really happened back then, and the, the consequences of everything I did, and what Willow and Cordy did, too. And I - I - I realized that Xander wasn't the only one I hurt," she said almost desperately, looking everywhere except her mother's eyes.

"I hurt you, too, even if it wasn't physical damage, and I finally realized that I need to apologize for what I said and what I put you through, back then," Buffy said, all in a rush.

"I came here to ask you to forgive me for the way I acted then, and for the way I've been acting towards you for the past four years," she said quietly, her voice almost a whisper as she focused on the cup in her hands. "I was angry a-and self-righteous a-a-aand completely certain that anything I did was right, and I pushed you away and ignored you when you tried to talk to me about what I did to Xander..."

She took a deep breath before continuing. "I'm sorry that I turned myself into a - a shallow, selfish, self-centered bitch even before I left for school. I'm sorry that I got so mad at you and that I told you to leave me alone if you didn't want to support me. And that I've wasted four years we could have had together being a family because I couldn't even consider that I might have made a mistake," she elaborated, her voice beginning to quaver as she fought to hold back the tears that were trying to gather in her eyes.

Joyce remained silent, listening.

"I'm sorry that I hurt you, when all you were trying to do was make me realize that what I did was wrong, and that you were trying to prevent me from completely screwing up my life. And, and I hope that you still wanna be my mother, because I've missed you so much and I've finally realized how wrong I was and how much I need you in my life," she confessed, as a few tears managed to escape her eyes and run down her cheeks.

"I love you, Mom. I'm sorry. Will you forgive me? Please?" Buffy asked, her voice plaintive and obviously full of pain and sorrow.

The person speaking then wasn't Buffy Summers the Vampire Slayer. It was Buffy Summers, the distraught young woman who was desperately trying to correct one of the worst mistakes she had made in her relatively short life.

It was strange, the twenty-two year old woman reflected. She was the Slayer, the Chosen One who had faced down innumerable hordes of demons night after night without anywhere near the same degree of fear that now filled her as she sat at this table, afraid to look up and see the reaction to what she had just said in her mother's eyes.

After all, demons could only kill your body. Rejection by her mother, combined with the realization that she had alienated and nearly killed a friend who had always tried to help her, for no reason other than the fact she had simply lost her temper, might just destroy her soul.


It took Buffy a moment to recognize the simple, single word she had just heard as the response she had been hoping for.

And looking up through tear-filled eyes for the first time since she had begun speaking, Buffy found her mother smiling at her with the love and affection she had worried was lost to her forever.

"Buffy? I love you, baby," Joyce told her quietly, as she reached across the table to tightly grasp Buffy's hand. "I always have, and I always will. You're my little girl, and I'll always love you."

Moving around the table, Buffy enveloped her mother in a hug hard enough to make the older woman squeak, "Buffy! I need to breathe!" as Joyce felt herself being crushed against her daughter's smaller frame.

"Oh god! Oh god! Slayer strength - I'm sorry, Mom! I'm sorry!" Buffy immediately pulled away, panic-stricken that she might have inadvertently injured her when she had hugged her. "I wasn't thinking! I'm sorry! I'm so sorry! I wasn't thinking! I didn't mean it! Really! I'm sorry!" she began to babble.

"Buffy! Calm down, dear. I'm fine, really!" Joyce smiled at her child, as she reached out and pulled the teary blonde back to her. "I just couldn't catch my breath, that's all. You didn't hurt me," she reassured the younger woman.

"We're going to be fine!" she assured the young woman, as she wrapped her arms around her and held her tight. "I promise. We'll work everything out, and everything's going to be fine. I promise."

Buffy just nodded her head in agreement, unable to speak for fear she'd break down in tears and not be able to stop crying with happiness.

She'd accomplished her first step in her first goal, to reconcile with her mother. This hadn't automatically, magically made everything all right now, and it hadn't erased or resolved any of the problems that existed between them...

It just meant that now they were going to be able to talk to each other and somehow, eventually, work things out, so they could be a part of each other's future.

Now, all she had to do was find some way to do the same with Xander...


One and a half blocks from an abandoned warehouse
South Central Los Angeles
July 9, 2003 3:30 pm

"All right, then. According to my figures, that makes a total of nine vampires, two Chaos demons and four other unidentified demons inside the building, with one possibly being a Deevak demon, and another possibly a Kaliff demon," Xander stated as he made some final notations on the building plan displayed on the laptop currently situated in his lap.

"And, according to the builder's plans I lifted from the Licenses and Inspections files, most of them seem to be clustered together in the basement. So if I know anything at all about Spike, that means there's definitely access to the sewer system somewhere down there. Probably two, maybe three different spots. That simplifies things a lot," the brunet smiled to himself, as he sorted through the various possibilities that information suggested to him.

"Okay - where and when did you learn to hack into municipal databases, Mr. Harris?" Harry asked, as she continued to watch, fascinated, as his fingers danced across the keyboard, conjuring up the information they sought with an ease that spoke of much effort and practice.

"Just another peripheral benefit of military service in an non- existent black ops group, Har," the brunet smirked as he replied to her question.

"I also learned about the finer points of wilderness survival, conventional and unconventional weapons use, explosives, electronic subterfuge, and demonic and non-human biology. Although, I will admit that was primarily to help us figure out how to kill the nasties more easily. Plus, how to jump out of planes at night with a parachute and without any lights to help you locate your target area," he added brightly.

"Exactly the sort of things that help prepare you for a job in the real world," harry noted wryly.

He and his half-demon companion were currently seated in one of Angel Investigations' vehicles: a somewhat innocuous, decrepit-looking white minivan identical to hundreds, if not thousands, of others that could be found anywhere in the city at any time of the day.

The private investigation firm had purchased it specifically for that reason; virtually anyone seeing it would not suspect that the occupants could be using it for surveillance. And of those that might suspect such a thing, few would expect its denizens to be using both the latest available state-of-the-art technology, as well as the most sophisticated magical devices obtainable that lined the walls and were currently being used to monitor their targets.

A further examination of the van's interior would show that the windows and seemingly almost-rusted-through body and floor were lined with a (relatively) lightweight armor laminate that would hold up against both anti-tank projectile weapons and most mines, while the high-performance engine would enable the users to maintain pursuit after most vehicles one would expect to find inside the city.

Concealed, easily accessible, combination-locked racks held both H&K .45 UMP and 9 mm MP5A3 submachine guns, with regular, blessed, armor-piercing and demon-killer ammunition available for each, should necessity require additional firepower to that which the occupants might normally carry.

All in all, the van was everything anyone working for a top-notch private investigation/ personal security firm would want and expect to find available for use, and Xander was not disappointed in the least.

"I told Giles this would be a good use for the extra money," the Key muttered to himself as he paused in his evaluation of the data on his laptop. "Even if you guys never made a cent, the money would be well- spent."

"Whoa there, big guy!" Harry paused in her examination of the warehouse they were staking out from a position a block and a half away and looked over at him with an expression of irritation.

"Hold on just a minute there! Ever since I got involved with these bozos after Franny died, we have made a profit every single quarter!" the redhead indignantly pointed out, her professional pride as the head of the financial department of the firm stung by his remarks.

"In fact, our revenues are currently up twenty three and a half percent over the same period last year, while our expenses are only up eleven and three-eighths percent for the same time frame," she noted, the glare in her eyes making her companion immediately hold up his hands in mock surrender.

"Okay, Harry, okay! Settle down, okay? Please? I wasn't making any slurs about the business end of the business, I was just commenting on how useful all of this equipment is - that's all! Relax a little, would ya?" Xander smiled at her disarmingly.

Before he could say anything more, they were interrupted by a sudden thumping on the side of the van and people attempting to open the various doors, while several loutish-looking individuals surrounded the front of the vehicle.

"Yo, man! Open up! Customs inspection!"

A heavyset, rough-looking character, approximately the size and build of a gorilla on steroids, although not nearly as good-looking, and sporting several day's worth of unshaven beard and a generally unkempt appearance, was banging on the window next to Xander. About a half-dozen of his companions were leering at Harry as they stared in through the front windshield and the driver's and passenger's windows, all of them looking as though they were competing for a spot on "America's Grungiest Scumbags."

Looking over at the group's leader for a second, Xander glanced back at the redhead and said, "Excuse me a minute, Har," before turning and lowering the driver's window partway.

"Yeah? Can I help you?" he asked the guy who had spoken.

The breeze wafting through the open window brought with it a combination of fragrances that included beer, tobacco and unwashed clothing and skin. It seemed to Harry that her friend's back immediately seemed to stiffen slightly, and she was almost prepared to swear that he intentionally took a second, deeper sniff of the wind blowing in their faces

"Yeah, man, you need to pay your immigration taxes," the guy grinned at him, as his entourage laughed, elbowing each other and making rude comments as they watched their leader hassle the obviously lost yuppies.

"Hey, Harry, did we leave Los Angeles?" Xander asked the redhead over his shoulder, as he maintained a steady gaze on the group's leader.

"Uhm, no, Xander," she replied, a bit puzzled at the question.

"Sorry, Bonzo, you made a mistake," the brunet smiled as he addressed the gang leader. "We're still on planet Earth. You only get to collect taxes when you go back home to the Planet of the Apes," he said, his voice still even.

The gang leader stared at him, apparently stunned at his response.

"Now, go away. I'm doing something important, and you're annoying me," he dismissed him, then pushed the button to raise the window.

"What'd you say to me?" the gang leader demanded as he stared at Xander, not believing what he thought he had just heard this yuppie asshole say to him.

Xander stopped the window part-way up and looked directly at the thug as he repeated himself, speaking slowly, and carefully enunciating each word.

"I said, 'Go away. I'm doing something important, and you're annoying me.' Did you understand me this time, or do I need to repeat myself again?"

Everyone clustered around the car was staring at Xander in astonishment at his reply, along with an equally dumbfounded Harry.

"Uh, Xander -" the redhead began, as she put her hand on his shoulder.

"Just a minute, Har, I'm not finished with Donkey Kong, Jr., here," he replied. "Now, was there anything else I can help you with, buddy?" he asked, as the thug's face began to get redder than Harry thought humanly possible.

"Get this motherfucker!" the leader screamed, spittle flying from his mouth, as he reached under his jacket and began pulling out a pistol.

Before the guy's hand could emerge from his jacket, Xander had unlocked and then rapidly slammed his car door outward, catching the gang leader across his face and arm with the metal doorframe. He then quickly pulled it back and repeated the action, before the target could fall backwards.

Slamming the door open a third time, Xander then smoothly slid out of the van and into the midst of the three gang members congregated on his side of the van before they could move, as they momentarily stood staring at the dazed form of their leader lying slumped on the macadam in front of them.

And that was a big mistake.

As Harry watched, shocked at the brunet's unusually aggressive behavior, Xander easily slid aside as one of the gang slashed at him with a foot-long Bowie knife.

Grabbing the wrist of the hand holding the knife, Xander twisted and locked the arm, then slammed his palm down and shattered the elbow, eliciting a sickening scream from his opponent a moment before knocking him unconscious with a backhand blow to the face.

Letting both the man and the knife drop to the tarmac, he pivoted to face the hulking Neanderthal looming next to his victim. Reaching out and grabbing him, Xander casually tossed the man over the top of the van in a high arc that ended up directly on top of two of the thugs clustered by Harry's door, the impact dropping all three of them to the road's surface. The casual smile on his face would have done Faith at her most psychotic proud.

"Xand! Behind you!" Harry screamed in warning as she saw the remaining thug on the driver's side of the van stepping up behind her friend, a tire iron lifted over his head, before bing swung towards the Key's skull. With a nonchalant sweep of his arm as he spun, Xander blocked the down-swinging club and plucked it from its wielder's hand as he simultaneously drove his other fist against his attacker's jaw, knocking the man out cold while taking care not to shatter the man's jaw.

Seeing the two remaining thugs on her side of the van frantically fumbling for their weapons while watching the young brunet carelessly trash the rest of their gang, Harry's instincts to protect a friend kicked in automatically, temporarily overriding any thoughts about the possible reasons for Xander's apparently unprovoked actions towards the gang members, as well as her own survival instincts.

Taking advantage of the pair's lack of attention to her, she duplicated her friend's actions and slammed the van's passenger door into them, knocking them to the pavement on her side of the vehicle.

Sliding out onto the sidewalk, the former Mrs. Doyle bent down and grabbed hold of the nearest hood and slammed him solidly up against the side of the van, grabbing his wrist and twisting the Glock 17 out of his grasp as she drove her knee deep into his stomach before dropping him onto the street.

The ease with which Harry had manhandled the now-semiconscious thug, who obviously outweighed her by at least a hundred pounds and who was currently occupied with puking his guts out onto the street, caused his companion to cease any attempt to draw a weapon. Instead, he immediately began scrambling backwards in a crab-like crawl, as he pulled a cell phone from his pocket and began awkwardly jabbing at its buttons, one-handed, as he continued his retreat.

"You know, none of this would have happened if you people were a just little more polite in the way you greet and address visitors when they first enter your neighborhood," Harry politely scolded the terrified hoodlum. She followed him and grabbed the cell phone from his hand as he rammed up against one of the boarded-up storefronts lining this section of the block.

"I'm sorry! I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" he began screaming, as he looked beyond Harry, trying to see what was happening to the rest of his gang. "I'll never do that again! I swear! I'll change! I'll leave and I'll never do anything like this again!" he promised frantically.

"All right then," Harry nodded agreeably, her smile apparently not as reassuring as she had intended it to be, to judge by the guy's frantic reaction. "Then I'd suggest you get out of here right now, before I change my mind," the redhead commented as she offhandedly crushed the cell phone in her hand and let the broken fragments fall to the sidewalk.

Frenetically nodding his understanding, the guy clawed his way up the wall behind him, then began running backwards up the street, not looking away from her at any moment, as if to ensure that she didn't change her mind before he was gone.

Turning back to the chaos behind her, Harry was somehow not at all surprised to see Xander and the leader of the now pacified gang were engaged in a furious battle. The gangleader was fruitlessly attempting to hit Xander, who was dodging the red-faced thug's blows with an ease and nonchalance that seemed only to infuriate his opponent.

Apparently tiring of his sport, Xander suddenly went on the offensive and began raining a flurry of blows down on his adversary, each strike impacting solidly against the man's torso or limbs, each eliciting a small gasp or eruption of air from his lungs when they landed.

At least one, if not both, of the hoodlum's arms appeared to be broken, Harry noticed as she observed the fight. As she headed over towards the pair, she saw her friend's foot hammer against the thug's lower left leg, causing him to crumble to the ground.

"All right now, Bonzo," Xander said, as he stepped back and let his foe drop to the street, gasping for air and futilely trying to wrap his injured arms around his damaged abdomen, "I've just got a couple simple questions I want you to answer, and then you can go visit the ER. If you can get any of your buddies to drive you."

"I-I'm not tell- telling you shit, you- you sonofabitch," the thug wheezed, glaring up at Xander as he tried to breathe as shallowly as possible, to minimize the pain each inhalation brought him.

"And as soon as I get back on my feet, you're a dead man! You hear me, motherfucker? You're dead! And I'm gonna find your old lady over there, and show her a real good time before I kill her, too!" he sneered, an ugly snarl making his simian-like face even less attractive than normal.

"I'm a dead man, am I?" Xander repeated the hood's words as he bent down and picked him up, his fist balling up the material around his victim's throat as he one-handedly picked him up and pulled his face close enough for each to feel the other's breath on their skin. "Like the dead man whose blood you've been drinking? Huh? Like him?"

The leader's face paled visibly at Xander's words, Harry noticed absently as she interrupted with her own questions.

"What on earth do you mean, Xander? He's not a vampire - he can't be - he's out here in the sunlight, in the middle of the day!" she pointed out.

"That goes without saying. But he's a ghoul, Harry!" the Key stated heatedly, his lips drawing back to expose a shark-like smile, as he shook his prey.

"Someone who drinks blood from a Master vampire, to make them stronger and tougher, and to prolong their life indefinitely," he explained to the incredulous redhead. "As long as they get their regular doses, they're healthier, stronger and harder to hurt than any normal human being.

Harry shook her head in incredulity. "You can't be - "

"- serious? Oh, you better believe I am. But -" Xander paused dramatically for a moment, as he stared with loathing at the creature he held, "if they don't get their regular dose of their master's blood, they go into withdrawal. I hear the pain's worse than crack or heroin. Not that they suffer very long," he noted offhandedly. "Most ghouls die within two days - three days tops - once their master cuts them off. Or the bloodsucker dies."

"How do you know that he's a - a creature like *that*?" Harry demanded, now staring at the man he held with abhorrence and disgust.

"I can smell it on him," was the reply. "And you know what else? Not only can I smell the vampire blood in his veins, I can put a name to it," the brunet added. "And the name is...*Spike*."

The way Xander pronounced the vampire's name and the look in his eyes sent a chill down Harry's back again as she stood there, just as it had back at the AI offices earlier in the day.

The hatred, the barely contained rage that his voice and body language screamed out as he quietly spoke that name, frightened her more than most of the creatures they had encountered in her nearly three years with Angel and the rest of the Fang Gang.

"Wh- why are you telling me this?" the gangleader hoarsely demanded. "It sure as hell ain't gonna make me tell you anything to help find him." He had evidently realized the utter futility of trying to deny what he was, or the identity of his master.

"Because I want to make sure that you know exactly what you're going to be feeling, once the pains start," Xander told him, the smile on his face not at all pleasant to look upon.

"In just a few minutes, I'm going to kill Spike and every other demon that's inside that building. And once I've done that, you're going to die, too, because there won't be any more vampire blood to sustain you. You're going to go into withdrawal; you're going to start getting the cramps and the muscle spasms, and the feeling that rats are eating you from the inside out. And there's absolutely nothing you can do about it, you stinking piece of garbage.

"Xander -" Harry began, but the young man ignored her.

"Of course, you're fairly young and strong; so there's a chance you might survive. I hear it's a lot like going cold turkey off crack; but, still, theoretically, there's a chance you'll make it," the former Scooby smiled mockingly at the barely human monster he was holding up.

"Assuming you get to leave here alive," he added in a low voice.

"Xander!" Harry exclaimed, staring at her friend in mixed shock and disquiet. "What do you mean? You just can't -"

Her voice trailed of uncertainly as she continued looking at her friend. This was an aspect of the young man she'd never seen before in the approximately three years she'd known him.

Colder and harder, completely lacking any of the warmth and humor that was his trademark, the man before her might have been a complete stranger for the lack of any recognizable trace of her friend that she could see.

"This piece of crap is not a human being anymore, Har," Xander informed her brusquely, "so don't bother with the arguments or recriminations, okay? He stopped being human the moment he decided to drink Spike's blood. As far as I'm concerned, a Prio Motu demon is more human than this guy, and I've never had any qualms about killing *them*.

"I'm giving you a chance here, asshole," he continued, turning his attention back to the thug he held. "Just one, and you've got thirty seconds to answer me." His voice was cold, all emotion turned off as if by a switch.

"What chance?" the gang leader asked in a hoarse voice.

"You tell me exactly who or what's hiding in that building over there, as well as where I can find Spike, and I'll let you go. You can get some of your buddies there to take you to a hospital, or maybe find you another vamp you can swear fealty to." He made it sound like an appropriately remote possibility.

The ghoul said nothing, but his eyes spoke volumes...

"Do things my way, and you at least have a chance, however small, of staying alive after I dust him. If you don't ..."

Xander shrugged his shoulders indifferently, "Well, I'll drag you down into the basement of one of these buildings and leave you there to rot. And if you lie to me, I'll come back later and pour honey all over you for the rats before I permanently lock you down there.

"So what's it going to be?"

The badly injured leader looked into the eyes of the man holding him for a moment, and found not the slightest trace of pity, compassion or mercy within.

The man holding him so indifferently meant exactly what he said, the thug realized; he'd have no qualms whatsoever with dumping him in some basement and leaving him there, to either die from withdrawal or be eaten by the rats and scavenger demons that infested these buildings.

And so, his choice was eminently simple: if and when Spike found out he betrayed him, the vampire would undoubtedly try to find him and kill him. But that would happen some indeterminate time in the future...

If he didn't tell this guy what he wanted to know, right now, he'd be dead in the next few hours. Maybe even sooner than that.

"The Master is usually in his chambers, that's what he calls his rooms - his chambers - all afternoon," the ghoul began babbling.

"He's kind of obsessed with some soap opera - Passions, I think - and he watches it everyday, in addition to taping it so he can watch it again later. His chambers are on the other side of the building, at the far end from where we are, here. He's got eight or nine of his childer there with him. Three of them are about two or three years old, the others are a couple months old to less than a year."

"What else?" Xander demanded, now in information-gathering mode.

"He's also got two Chaos demons working for him," he added hastily, as he searched his memory for more information, more worried at the moment about the man holding him up than the demon who owned his ass.

"And a couple of what he called Drokken demons, too - they look like some kind of demon dog-thing. Plus, there's a couple other demons down there with them that showed up the other day, but I don't know what they are. They just showed up late, and the Master told everyone to ignore them and not pay any attention to what they did."

Harry stood a small distance back, listening to the terrified ghoul's babble and watching everything with a worried eye.

She didn't *think* Xander would follow through and actually do what he threatened the gang leader with - but she had to admit to herself that, after seeing the way he had been behaving since learning about Spike's reappearance, she wasn't completely certain about that assumption.

Harry was sure about two things:

The first thing she was sure about, though, was that she needed to talk to Angel and the others about Xander as soon as possible. His behavior right now had all the aspects of a ticking time bomb, and she was quite certain that Xander's blowing up would be a *very* bad thing to happen.

The second thing was that she NEVER wanted Xander to look at her like that.


"The All-Seeing Eye" Occult Shop
Gaithersburg, MD
July 8, 2003 7:50 pm

The small bell above the door chimed melodiously as Wesley walked through the front door of the shop. Looking around, he ascertained that, aside from himself, the store was, indeed, empty of other customers.

The tall, business-like strawberry-blonde attending to the shelves at the far end of the store turned to address him, a wide, patently false smile on her face.

"Welcome to 'The All-Seeing Eye' Occult Shop. What goods or services are you seeking that I can help you locate and purchase?" she caroled as she approached him.

"Normally, I close the store at eight o'clock; but if your purchases appear profitable enough, I will extend the closing time until you have acquired everything you came for," she began, but stopped speaking as she looked him over with a professional eye.

Taking in the black jeans, light blue button-down shirt and leather biker jacket Wesley was currently wearing, as well as the tinted glasses, two days growth of beard on his face and the barely visible scar stretching across his throat that she could see partially concealed behind his shirt collar, an expression of disdain crossed her face.

Obviously, she did not recognize him as the man she'd dealt with in Sunnydale over four years previously.

"You should know that I categorically refuse to do business with drug dealers or their minions, anymore," Anya stated quite firmly in a flat voice, as she stopped about ten feet away from him, her back stiff and her arms folded across her chest.

"So you can just turn around and leave my shop. Now," she told him, a look of sharp disapproval directed towards Wesley, as one hand apparently played nervously with the locket she wore around her neck.

"I am neither a drug dealer nor a minion of one, Miss Jenkins," Wes immediately corrected her, as he looked the former demon straight in the eye. "I am here because I was informed by reliable sources, that I might be able to obtain information from you regarding an artifact that I have reason to believe was used to alter the destiny of an associate of mine approximately four years ago."

"Why would you think that I would know anything at all about destiny- altering artifacts or other things like that?" she demanded suspiciously. "I just run this shop, that's all."

"Your reputation precedes you, Miss Jenkins. The fact that you are the former vengeance demon Anyanka, the Patron Saint of Scorned Women, would lead me to believe that you know a great deal more about said magical items than you would have me believe," the ex-Watcher told her, a small half-smile on his face. "Or would you prefer that I refer to you as Anyanka?"

"I would prefer that you go away and stop bothering me right now."

"I am sorry but I cannot do that, Miss Jenkins," Wesley replied truthfully. "A young woman I know had her life significantly altered several years ago. And I have been led to believe that, while the alteration may not have been intentional, it may have occurred as a result of someone's indiscriminate use of a Kleynach artifact against yet another party.

Anya almost started at the word "Kleynach," but concealed her sudden anxiety well.

"I am currently attempting to determine the truth of that supposition, and, if it is correct, the reason behind the artifact's use. That is the reason I am here, and I will not leave until I am satisfied that I have gathered all of the information available so that we can best resolve the situation in which she has found herself."

"So, you're doing this now so that this young woman will feel obligated to you and might possibly allow you to manipulate her into some form of romantic liaison at a later point in time?" Anya asked, a sneer on her face as she spoke to him. "Typical male porcine behavior..."

"Good lord, no!" Wesley almost laughed out loud at her comments. "The girl of whom I speak is far too young for me, and I would not be at all interested in establishing that type of relationship with her, anyway."

"Why? Are you gay, or suffering from erectile dysfunction?" the strawberry blonde asked curiously, her head slightly tilted as she looked at him.

"No, Miss Jenkins." The Englishman's humor dissipated almost immediately at her words, as the memory of the cause of his current situation resurfaced in his mind. "It is the fact that Michelle is more akin to a niece or surrogate daughter to me, than any type of romantic interest.

"Then why -"

"More importantly," Wes interrupted Anya, his eyes momentarily looking back into a past that clawed at his heart, "the woman with whom I had planned to spend the rest of my life was quite ruthlessly murdered, recently. Thus, I am not at all interested in establishing any type of new relationship of that nature, I assure you."

The woman before him stood quietly, merely watching him and waiting for him to continue.

"Once I help Michelle resolve her current problem, my time will be taken up doing other things more important than trying to establish some new... relationship," the Englishman concluded, a determined look in his eyes. And the pain in his voice was evident as he spoke, substantiating the truth of his words to the former demon.

"Such as what?" she demanded, curious to find out what this *man* considered important.

"Why, making the bastards responsible for her death pay as dearly as possible, of course," Wesley told her quite honestly, looking at her as if she might be a little on the 'slow' side of things. "What else would you expect me to be doing?"

The former vengeance demon's face broke into a wide smile of delight as she heard the man standing before her speak.

If this man standing before her was half as determined to reap vengeance as he appeared to be, then the former vengeance demon Anyanka would be delighted to help.

After all, vengeance was something Anya understood, deep down to the very marrow of her bones. She might not possess her demon powers any longer, but she was far from powerless - as those fools who had tried to rob the store last year had learned, to their everlasting regret.

"Still," Wes added, the regret quite evident in his voice, "that will have to wait until this current problem with Michelle has been resolved.

"What I need to obtain from you, Miss Jenkins," he then said, his stance and behavior visibly shifting into a more business-like manner, "at least at this point in time, is information regarding what Kleynach artifacts were existent and potentially available to be used between four and five years ago."

He continued without a pause. "I will also need documented all of the capabilities and any limitations of each item you may identify, and - I cannot stress this part sufficiently - I need this information as soon as possible. I realize at least some of the difficulties that the urgency of this assignment entails, and thus I am prepared to pay generously for any information you could provide." He kept his tone clipped and formal.

"Hmmmm..."Anya murmured, the ghost of a capitalistic smile on her face.

"If you do not believe you can handle this task, I would appreciate your indicating so, and, if possible, your directing me to someone else who could accommodate my requirements," he finished up his speech and gazed patiently at the shop owner.

"Oh, I can get all of that information for you, that's no problem," Anya replied, radiating confidence the way the sun radiated heat, "but I'm going to have to call in several favors, if you really do want it as soon as possible, and that's going to be expensive."

"How much, and how soon can you have the information?"

"Four thousand dollars in cash, and tomorrow afternoon. Say, three o'clock?" she suggested.

"Agreed. I'll see you then, Miss Jenkins," Wes' smile was small, but genuine. "And Miss Jenkins? I expect the information to be *complete*," he said, before turning and heading outside.

"Hey, wait a minute," she called, as he opened the door.

Wes paused in his tracks and looked back over his shoulder to face the ex-demon. "Yes?"

"What do I call you?" she asked. "What name should I put on the bill for services rendered?"

"Kenobi," he answered, struck by a sense of whimsy as he remembered a discussion that had occurred several nights previously at the hotel, when the gang had been watching a movie that Xander had insisted was one of the greatest films of all time. "Call me... Benjamin Kenobi."

"All right, Mr. Kenobi. I'll see you tomorrow,"

As he climbed into his rental car, Wes gave a brief sigh of relief that everything had gone as well as it had.

His reconnaissance of the area earlier that morning had alerted him to the fact that the shop appeared to be festooned with a variety of protective wards,. Thus, he hadn't been at all surprised when the protective/magic-detection spell he had cast on himself prior to entering had revealed the locket Anya had been playing with as they spoke to be enchanted with a lie-detection spell.

The remaining spells he had been able to detect were all more geared towards thwarting robberies or burglaries, set to react if and/or when anyone with hostile intentions towards the owner made any threatening actions.

< The key word being 'threatening', > Wes mused, as he headed off to the Days Inn he had registered at earlier in the day.

< The most significant problem with a lie-detection spell is that they can identify a lie when it is spoken - they're also completely useless and provide no warning at all when only the truth has been uttered, even if it is only a partial-truth. >

Had Anyanka been more astute in her interrogations, he would have had a much more difficult time answering her questions. Fortunately for him, she was more interested in seeing how much she could charge him and get away with than in ascertaining his motives for seeking out the information he had requested.

< Well, all I can really do at the moment is wait. Tomorrow will come at its own pace, regardless of any intentions I may have, > he reflected. < A quick dinner, check my email, and then off to bed. It's going to be a full day tomorrow...>


Chapter 6

Osbourne Residence
Sunnydale, CA
July 9, 12:30 pm

"Okay, the Luncheon Express has just arrived, courtesy of Cordelia Chase, food deliverer extraordinaire," Cordy announced as Willow opened the door before her.

"Hi, Cordy," Willow smiled gratefully at the gorgeous brunette as she stepped back to let her into the apartment she and Oz were temporarily renting. "I really appreciate your coming by so quickly. I need to talk to someone about this situation with Xander, and I can tell Buffy doesn't want to talk to me about it because she thinks it'll upset me, even though it really won't."

Seeing the upraised eyebrows and skeptical expression on her friend's face, the redhead revised her previous statement, "Okay. Upset me more than I already am. Satisfied?"

"For the moment," Cordy told her as she placed the brown bag she was carrying on the kitchen table and began removing numerous cardboard cartons from it and setting them out for use.

"What is it you want to talk about? The Xander Harris part of our lives is over and done with, and we all need to accept it and move on to other things," she stated as she opened up several of the containers and began scooping out portions onto one of the paper plates already on the table. "He doesn't want to have anything to do with us? OK. That's fine by me. Everybody moves on, everybody is happy, things are fine. What more is there to say?"

Willow noticed that the tall brunette avoided looking her in the face as she spoke, though, as she heaped several helpings of sweet and sour pork, pepper steak and chicken lo mein onto her plate, opened her bottle of spring water and then sat down across the table from Cordy before refocusing on the subject she wanted to discuss.

"Thanks for picking up lunch, Cordy," she said through a mouthful of noodles as she began chowing down on the food before her with all the subtlety of one of Hoover's finest products. "This stuff is great!"

"Yeah, and I still can't believe just how much you can eat, nowadays, Willow," the brunette paused between bites to comment, her expression one of disbelief as she watched the food disappear into the smaller woman's mouth. "You must eat forty pounds of food a week, and none of it shows! God, that is just so unfair!" she complained with just a touch of the old 'Queen C' persona showing.

"Hey! I'm eating for two, remember," the redhead grinned, momentarily enjoying the slightly jealous expression Cordy was giving her.

"No, you're eating enough for a football team," the brunette shot back.

"Daniel Junior is going to be born six feet eight inches tall and weigh about three hundred pounds," Cordy added with a grin, enjoying the opportunity to just sit back and relax and talk with her friend about something that didn't involve potential end of the world scenarios, serial killings or demons of any kind.

After all, she and Buffy had decided months ago, as soon as they had learned of the redhead's pregnancy, that they were going to keep their friend as uninvolved in any type of demon-y or Hellmouth-y business as they could manage, for her own sake and that of their future niece or nephew.

They passed the next twenty minutes in casual conversation about the doings of various acquaintances they knew, with Willow cleaning out the last remnants of the various containers before she sat back in her chair and gave a sigh of contentment, followed by a small burp that set the two of them laughing.

"Let me guess," Cordy grinned as she moved to fill the tea kettle from the bottle of filtered water in the refrigerator. "That was Little Danny burping, not you?"

"You got it," Willow nodded agreeably. "'Cause I would never do anything like that, you know. None of us would, because we're all incredibly polite and genteel people after four years in England, right?"

"Of course, we are," the former cheerleader affirmed, as she set the kettle to boil. "And we would never associate with low-life people who do things like that."

"We used to, though," Willow said, softly, looking over to catch and hold her friend's gaze.

"I remember, we all used to hang around with someone who prided himself on the fact that he could recite the first two lines of the Pledge of Allegiance in one burp," she said. "I grew up with him, and you used to date him."

"Sorry, Will, but I don't know anyone like that. Not anymore," Cordy shook her head in denial. "To be honest, I don't think I ever really knew anyone like that." Her voice was slightly off-kilter as she said that.

"Yes, we did, Cordy," Willow disagreed with her friend's last statement. "We both knew him, and we both cared about him, and we both made a terrible mistake and abandoned him and now we both regret what we did."


"Don't we?" she asked hopefully.

"He's made his decision about whether he wants us to be part of his life, Willow, and he decided that he doesn't. Why should we try to change his mind?" Cordy asked her. "It's not like we need him in our lives to happy or anything. We got along just fine without him being around for four years. We can get along without him, now."

"If we're going to be honest, I didn't get along fine. Not at all," the redhead admitted. "Uh, we never talked about it, Cordy, but - why did you do it, Cordy? Join us, when we attacked him?" Willow asked, her voice soft.

"I know why I did it," the redhead said, her eyes glistening slightly. "I was mad at him for doubting me, for thinking I wasn't strong enough or good enough to do the re-souling spell. I didn't remember any of the good things he was always doing for me ever since we met. I didn't think about any of the times he saved me from vamps, or demons, or any of the other things that live near a Hellmouth...

"I didn't remember that he had always been my best friend for my entire life, as far back as I can remember, and that he had always tried to protect me from anyone or anything that might hurt me."

Willow's jade green eyes held Cordy's in an unbreakable gaze, and she could see that the tall brunette who had become like a sister to her during their four years away was fighting to maintain her shell, the tough exterior she had built to keep the world away from the kind and caring and comforting woman she truly was inside.

"All I thought about was how furious I was with him for doubting me and lying to Buffy," the hacker/apprentice witch confessed quietly. "And then later, when I realized how badly my other best friend had hurt him, I was too scared of how he would look at me, of what he would say to me for letting Buffy do that to him, for not even trying to stop her, to go to him and apologize for everything. I was a coward, Cordy, and I ran away, and I've been regretting it and letting it eat me up inside every day for the last four years."

The tall brunette beauty still said nothing.

"I think you regret what you did, too," she ventured, before lapsing into silence, as Cordy broke their gaze and stared down at the countertop in front of her. "Don't you?"

The quiet filled the air for a few moments before the taller woman finally began speaking.

"I was just feeling...numb...after everything that had happened," the former cheerleader spoke in a hushed voice, as though she could barely make herself be heard. "I wasn't feeling happy or elated or glad or even surprised that we won; I was just not feeling anything, except very, very tired."

Her voice had that off-kilter thing again, the Wicca noticed.

"And then that Anya girl showed up and started talking, and that was when you and Buffy got mad at Xander for lying about the re-souling spell," she explained, still not looking up from the surface before her.

"And I was standing there listening to you, and it reminded me of when he betrayed me by kissing you in that warehouse, and I remembered how I got impaled on that damn rebar when part of the stairway collapsed and how much it hurt, and all the pain I went through afterwards, physically and in school and everywhere else, and I just got furious at him for making me go through all of that after I had given up everything for him!"

Willow almost flinched at the past memories and stupidities, of her inability to control her hormones and impulses, that might have cost her both her husband and her unborn child if things had gone differently. She unconsciously caressed her belly gently, as Cordelia went on...

"So I stood there and watched Buffy beat him into the ground, and after she was done and she left, I looked at him lying there on the ground, with this big pool of blood spreading out from under him, and, and that was when I started to remember how decently he had always treated me when we were going out together. And how he was always throwing himself in front of whatever nasty thing was around to try and keep all of us safe," she confessed, her voice barely able to be heard in the silence of the kitchen.

"And then I remembered how he had bought my Prom dress for me and hadn't said a word to anyone about that, or that my parents had lost all of our money, and I realized that I - that WE - had made an awful, terrible mistake, and I had to turn away from him because I started throwing up," Cordy continued, now only the slight quaver in her voice betraying the churning turmoil she was feeling.

"And after I - after I stopped throwing up, I started screaming for help, and an ambulance crew came running over and started checking him out, and I heard one of them saying that he didn't think Xander was going to make to the hospital, let alone through the night..."

Willow flinched when she heard that, the images she had conjured up in her mind of how Xander must have looked after Buffy had left tormenting her again, as Cordelia continued her confession.

"And when I heard him say that, I panicked and ran away as fast as I could, because I couldn't bear to look at him, with all that blood and his bones sticking out through his skin, and I ran home to that apartment we were living in then, and locked myself in the bathroom, and I threw up again, and I kept throwing up until there wasn't anything left to come up. I didn't leave my room for the next three days, until Wesley called and told me that the Council wanted to reward us for stopping the Mayor's Ascension by paying all my college expenses and arranging for me to go to Oxford," she admitted to the redhead.

"And like a whore, I took them up on their offer and I took their money so that I wouldn't have to stay here in Sunnydale and face Xander and explain to him why I didn't lift even a finger to try to save him," the brunette finished bitterly. "And I've been running away from what I did, and what I didn't do, ever since. Just like you."

Cordy snorted scornfully at herself. "I even managed to forget what happened, while we were at school. Can you believe that? I convinced myself that I couldn't have done anything to stop Buffy, anyway, to absolve myself of any guilt about my not doing anything but watch while Buffy broke Xander into bloody, little pieces.

"And then, when we came back here to Sunnydale, and I saw him at Giles' place, and he looked okay, I told myself that I must have remembered everything wrong, and that he really couldn't been hurt that seriously, after all," she said. "And he looked so hot that for a moment, I thought..." The brunette's voice trailed away.

"You thought what, Cordy?"

"That maybe we could put the past behind us. I mean, before everything went to Hell back then, we'd started to do that, right? We spent this one fifth period together..."

"Oh my God! You wanted to get back together with Xander, last month?" Willow's eyes were wide with astonishment.

"Ye-no. Well, whatever, it doesn't matter now. Whatever chance I had of becoming Mrs. Cordelia Harris died years ago. All I'm saying is I, I guess that somewhere in the back of my head, I just wanted things to be like they once were..."

The ex-cheerleader's face was desolate as she remembered her ex- boyfriend's reaction upon seeing his former friends and classmates.

"But when he saw us, he looked us like we were some sort of demons he wanted to kill, and -" The brunette was unable to finish her sentence as the tears finally broke through her resolve, and she just stood there weeping silently.

Getting up from her chair as quickly as her distended belly would allow, Willow took the weeping brunette into her arms and tried to comfort her.

"We're gonna work things out with Xander, Cordy," she promised through the lump in her own throat. "I don't know how yet, but we'll find a way. We'll find a way to get Xander to talk to us, so we can beg his forgiveness. Everything is gonna work out, I promise."

Even as she spoke, the redheaded mother-to-be wondered how they could ever make things right with the person who had once been her closest friend, and who now seemed to hate even the sight of her and the other two women he had formerly referred to as 'his girls.'


Summers residence
Sunnydale, CA
July 9, 2003 5:30 pm

Joyce had left the shop early, intent on getting home and getting dinner ready so she could sit down and eat with the daughter she hadn't seen or spoken to for the past four years. She wasn't planning on anything fancy, really, just one of the casseroles she had stored in the freezer, ready to pull out and defrost, then pop into the oven.

She had just finished setting the table (for two, for the first time in a very long while, she noted absently, with a wide smile) when the doorbell chimed.

When Joyce opened the front door, she found Buffy waiting patiently, a brown bag holding a bottle of wine in her hands.

The blonde had obviously showered and changed since their meeting earlier in the day. Her hair now flowed down over her shoulders, pinned back on one side with a silver barrette, instead of being pulled back into the ponytail she had effected for their previous meeting. Buffy had also changed into a pair of smartly tailored navy pants and a long-sleeved medium blue and white patterned blouse that accentuated the color of her eyes, with a pair of calf-high lace-up black leather boots comfortable enough to allow her to fight and chase after any prey she might happen upon.

"Hi, Mom," the Slayer smiled, still a bit tentative because she didn't want to rush things and possibly ruin everything she hoped to regain.

"I hope you still like rosé," she said, as she held up the bottle for Joyce to see. "Cordy said this is one of the better ones available, so I took a gamble and picked it up."

"Rosé is fine, Buffy," Joyce smiled back at her. Following long- ingrained habits developed from years living around a Hellmouth, she stepped back to allow Buffy to enter, but offered no obvious invitation to enter.

Stepping forward into the foyer, Buffy reached out and embraced her mother, letting herself revel in the warmth she had denied herself the past four years through her own stubbornness and self- righteousness.

"I love you, Mom," she said, feeling her tears threaten to begin falling yet again. "I've got four years worth of that saved up, so I'm just warning you now, you're going to be hearing that a lot."

"I love you, too, Buffy," Joyce smiled also as she pulled her daughter tight against her. "And likewise with me, too."

Stepping back after a few mutually comforting minutes of embracing, Joyce examined the young semi-stranger before her.

"You've grown a couple inches and put on some weight," she commented as she examined the girl with a mother's critical eye, evaluating the changes in her only child since she had left without a word four years before, "and you darkened your hair, too.

"You look very good," she said, the smile still wrapped around her face drawing its reflection from the petite Slayer at the compliment.

"You look good, too, Mom," Buffy replied. "I couldn't believe how good you looked when I saw you this morning.

"Come on, let's put the wine in the 'fridge so it can chill before we eat," Joyce suggested, pulling her along as she headed to the kitchen.

As she watched Buffy put the wine bottle in the refrigerator, Joyce noticed a thin white line on her daughter's forearm protruding from under her sleeve, that seemed to run along the outside of the blonde's arm, and her brow furrowed with concern.

"What happened to your arm, Buffy?" she asked, as she reached out and pulled the sleeve back for a better look.

"What do you mean?" the girl asked, a puzzled look on her face. Seeing the long thin scar line that traveled the full length of her forearm, her face cleared up immediately.

"Oh, that? That's from an accident we were in about two and a half years ago," she shrugged. "I'm fine now."

"An accident? Who's 'we'? What happened? Were you driving? Who else was involved? Were Willow or Cordy or Oz hurt, too?" Joyce had instantly dropped into 'worried mother' mode upon hearing the word 'accident.'

"Mom. Relax, okay?" Buffy laughed, enjoying the warmth and feelings of love and affection that ran through her as she heard the concern in her mother's voice.

"None of us were driving," she explained, "We were all on one of the school's buses going to this tournament that Cordy was competing in, when a tire on a truck that was passing us blew out. The driver lost control and he sideswiped the bus and drove us off the road into this big field. Actually, we were really pretty fortunate, that it didn't happen when we were on this bridge up ahead of us on the motorway," she noted parenthetically.

"Anyway, we went off the road, and the bus rolled over, and we all got kinda banged up, but, except for Cordy, nothing really too serious. She broke her arm and her wrist, and she had to miss the tournament," the Slayer commented. "Which was a real shame, 'cause she probably would have won, I think. Cordy's really an excellent shot, now, and the girl who took first place had lost to her in the three previous tournaments they were both in."

"What kind of tournament was it?" Joyce asked, her surprise at the revelation evident on her face. She had a hard time imagining the former cheerleader that she remembered competing in any type of athletic event, let alone taking first place repeatedly.

"Pistol and rifle competitions," Buffy gleefully informed her mother, anticipating the reaction she would receive. True to her private prediction, Joyce's jaw dropped open upon hearing the news.

"Cordelia? Cordelia Chase? Shooting? Guns?" the older woman asked, her disbelief evident on her face.

"Yep. She's really pretty good, Mom. Almost Olympic-level, actually," Buffy smiled, nodding her head for additional confirmation. "And she's pretty good with a crossbow, too," she added with a lopsided grin.

Before she could say anything more, however, the oven timer went off, and the two busied themselves with the final dinner preparations

An hour and a half later, after finishing the cleaning up, Buffy and Joyce were seated on the couch in the rec room, quietly talking over a glass of wine, and Joyce was bringing her daughter up to date on everything that had occurred in town since her departure four years earlier.

", the last I heard Amy and Jonathan were talking about the beginning of next May for the ceremony, but I haven't heard anything more since then, either way," Joyce finished her summation of what was currently happening with the Scooby Gang's graduating class.

"That's just amazing," Buffy had smiled, happy at hearing that Jonathan had been able to return Amy to her normal form, and that the two of them were now involved with each other. "It's nice to hear that good things still happen to people we know, and that not everybody I know is involved in the battle against the forces of Darkness."

Hearing that statement, Joyce carefully considered her next words.

"So, what exactly are you planning to do, now that you're back here in Sunnydale?" the elder Summer woman asked her daughter.

"I'm still a Slayer, Mom. And it's a lifetime gig. You know that," Buffy said quietly, guessing at what she thought her mother's question was carefully not asking. "I've basically been on vacation for the past four years, while I was at Oxford, and it's time for me to get back to doing what I was Chosen for, what Xander and Giles have been covering for me and doing in my absence, while I was away."

"You don't have to do that, you know -" Joyce began, but Buffy broke in almost immediately.

"Yes, I do have to do this, Mom," she interrupted, "It's all part of the deal I made with the Council: four years away from the Hellmouth, and then I'd come back and do whatever was necessary here, for as long as it takes. I made that deal with my eyes open, Mom. I knew what I was promising, and I got four years of college as payment, away from the Hellmouth.

She looked at her mother with real regret in her eyes as she continued speaking, noting the pain and concern that filled Joyce's face as she spoke.

"I may have screwed up the rest of my life after I made it, but it was a deal I made quite willingly with the Council at the time, and now, I have to live up to my end of the agreement," the Slayer said simply.

"I also have to try to rectify some of the other things I screwed up before I left," she noted, her blue/green eyes taking on a reflective aspect as she spoke.

Putting aside her own feelings about the responsibilities her daughter was reassuming, Joyce began questioning her about her somewhat vaguely-described plans.

"By that, I'm assuming you mean, trying to apologize to Xander for what you did, correct?"

At the diminutive blonde's nod of assent, Joyce's face took on a look of concern and anxiety, and she chose her words with extreme care as she spoke.

"Buffy, before I say anything else, I want to make sure that you know I love you. I not only want you to know that but I want to make sure that you understand that, without any doubt whatsoever. And because I love you, I'm telling you this. Be careful. Xander is *not* the same person he was when you left Sunnydale."

"I know that, Mom," the Slayer readily agreed. "But I have to make amends, I have to apologize to him. For...for everything. He needs to know how sorry I feel for what I did to him."

"Buffy, understand that I am saying this with as much biased love I can offer you as my only daughter. But there are some things you just cannot apologize for," the older blonde stated, "*and* there are some mistakes that cannot be forgotten."

"I have to at least try, Mom. I have to make the effort. I need to tell him how much I regret what I did, and I need to ask him to forgive me. Even if he chooses not to do so, I still need to ask him for his forgiveness."

"Why?" The Slayer's mother held a desperate look, one that brought immediate shame to the subject it was cast upon. "Why after all this time, after all these years, is it so important now?"

Buffy cast her eyes to her lap and responded with a shrug of her shoulders. "Because...I need to apologise, Mom. What I did to him was just...awful. I... need to apologise for what I did... It's as much for me as for him."

Listening to her only child speak, Joyce shook her head in mixed regret and denial.

"When your father and I divorced and we moved away from LA to Sunnydale," the older woman stated, "there were no words to say how relieved I was that you were leaving those vicious, superficial, air- headed harpies that called themselves your friends behind. And after we were here for a while and I met them, I was even more relieved that you made such strong and positive friendships with Willow and Xander. I couldn't wish for better friendships for you then those two. Willow with her eccentricities and smarts. Xander with his humour, loyalty and heart..."

"I know, Mom," the Slayer agreed with the descriptions of her friends Joyce had painted with her words.

"No, Buffy, I don't think you really do," Joyce disagreed with her. "What I'm trying to tell you, Buffy, is if you're doing this to try to get things back to normal between Xander and yourself, then don't bother. He's not that boy, anymore. He's not that sweet, charming innocent we knew back then any longer, and there are no words you can say and nothing you can do that will get him back to being like that. "

Joyce looked at her child and sighed as she considered everything they had all experienced since moving here, watching her only child as she continued to avoid her eyes. A slithering pain flared in her chest, as it did whenever she thought carefully of the young man in question. Whenever she thought of Xander, her heart ached - to be so young and be without any true love of life...

"Xander scares me now, Buffy," Joyce confessed. This statement earned her the startled notice of the Slayer sitting across from her.

Buffy looked up, her eyes wide and concern replacing regret on her fine-boned features. Joyce offered her a soft and sad smile and a small headshake to reassure her through the unspoken mother-daughter bond they shared that she had not meant that Xander had threatened her.

As Buffy's features relaxed a bit, Joyce continued, choosing her words carefully. "I look at the man he's become, and I weep for the boy that was lost. He's harder now - tougher and much more violent than the teenager you knew and left behind here, Buffy. And if some of Rupert's stories about him are to be believed - quite ruthless as well, if he feels it necessary. From what I've heard, he's focused solely on 'the Mission' now."

Buffy could see the glint of tears in her mother's eyes as she spoke her next words. Her own mind began racing to the various Slaying encounters she had experienced of late. Of the various demons and vampires whose grotesque faces had lit with jubilation upon realizing who they were fighting - the replacement for the 'Old Marshall' who had left town.

Xander had built a fearful reputation for himself in the four short years she had been gone. Creatures that brought terror to men smiled in definite relief upon seeing her appear from the shadows to confront them. Not that they didn't fear her - they just feared *him* more. *Much* more.

For some strange reason, it was almost as though they were grateful it was she who dispatched them to their final fate, and not the grim- faced youth who had at one time incessantly cracked lame jokes to lighten tense times, but who now only seemed to crack bones and skulls. Buffy's train of thought was quickly abandoned as her mother's voice continued.

"And as much as I mourn what he's lost in this change he's undergone, I am also ecstatic, because he stepped in and shouldered your fate when you left here. He is what he has become because you were relieved of that terrible burden, Buffy," Joyce said quietly. "He's fought the evils in this town, faced its perils whenever they appeared and it has changed him. Irrevocably, I believe.

"It has changed him into something I fear is not completely human anymore, Buffy. He cares. I know that he still cares, but it seems as though he won't allow himself to feel anymore. His heart has been injured so badly, he refuses to use it. He knows right from wrong, but sometimes it seems that he doesn't care about the methods he uses as long as he achieves his purpose. As though the ends justify whatever means he might decide to use." The older woman paused for a moment to allow her words to penetrate her daughter's mind and heart.

"Ever since I found out about this terrible world you were forced to live in, Buffy, I have seen and read about monsters, demons and vampires. But they aren't nearly as frightening as a person who has abandoned their heart and their soul, and who simply doesn't care. And that is what has happened to Xander, Buffy. He doesn't care any more. This place, his responsibilities, they've all corrupted and changed that wonderful boy you first met here. Just as I'm sure it would have changed you if you had stayed and continued with your Slaying duties.

"May God forgive me, but if I had to choose between you becoming like he is, and him staying as he is now, then I choose him. God help me, Buffy, I choose him."

The tears were trickling down the older blonde's cheeks down, and Buffy wasn't sure whether Joyce was even aware of them as she spoke. She could feel her own eyes beginning to fill up as she listened.

"Through everything he had to endure over the years you were away, I kept saying to myself that at least My Baby is safe and was spared this. He may say he forgives you, Buffy, but don't expect him to change. He may be able to forgive, but I don't think he can forget. He's been through too much because of what was done to him, what *you* did to him, for him to easily to do that. The person he is now is someone he has had to become to survive his battle against the Darkness. If you two were strangers and met on the street, or in a coffee shop, I don't think either of you could stand the other now, you are both such completely different people with only two common threads - a Destiny to fight an unwinnable war, and a personal history that is best not brought up. He's no longer that sweet boy I had such hopes in for you," she concluded, finally obliquely admitting her former attempts at matchmaking to her daughter. "He's changed, Buffy. Completely and irrefutably. He's not the Xander you knew, and he will never be able to go back and become him again."

The Slayer shook her head in negation of her mother's words, as she brushed her sleeve over her eyes, wiping away the tears the words had produced

"You're right about part of that, but you're wrong, too, Mom," Buffy said. "I believe that deep inside, he's still the Xander we all knew. At the core, he's still him. All this other stuff you see is just a shell, and shells can be broken. And what's inside still remains. We just have to find a way to get through that shell." Buffy's back straightened and a look of determination appeared in her eyes.

"I don't know how we'll do it yet, but we'll find a way inside that shell."

Joyce looked at her daughter and reluctantly recognized the face her daughter was wearing. It was the same face she had seen a scant few times before, on Xander, on the rare occasions when she had been present during his and Rupert's occasionally voluble discussions regarding opposing battle strategies, when the Watcher had been reluctant to concede to the younger Warrior's approach.

Xander had called it his Resolve Face.


Spike's lair
South Central Los Angeles
July 9, 2003 4:38 pm

"I still think you're insane."

Harry's hushed comment carried easily through the eerie silence of the basement passages through which she was following her friend and coworker.

"I think you're probably right."

The equally quiet and deadpan response did absolutely nothing to relieve the redhead's unease, not by a long shot.

Xander had kept his promise to her to wait for reinforcements to show up before doing anything about Spike's nest. Once Angel and Gunn had arrived, the four demon hunters had assembled in the back of the small van and shared the information they had gathered, roughing out a plan of attack which they continued to refine as they discussed the probable opposition they would be facing.

Angel and Gunn were taking the sewer tunnel route to find the back door, or doors as the case might be, leading to Spike's lair, while Xander and Harry would tackle the front entrance. The former Initiative Black Ops agent had also provided the pair with a few 'party surprises,' as he referred to them, drawing a low- voiced "Holy Shit!!" from Gunn when the former gang leader saw the four modified Claymore mines he produced from his duffle bag. Xander had glued hardwood pellets to the front of the mine. (Seeing Angel shudder when he looked at them made it worth the effort.)

"Where'd the hell did you get them, man?" Gunn had demanded, before immediately amending his question. "No! On second thought, don't tell me! I really don't think I want to know."

The Key had remained silent but his wide grin had confirmed the wisdom of his co-worker's comment as he had handed over the ordnance, along with one of the H&K .45 UMP pistols and four thirty round clips loaded with demon-killer ammunition, to match the equipment the souled vampire had selected earlier to supplement his always present sword and stakes. All four had also taken the opportunity to don their high-collared Zylon(r) weave bullet-proof vests that also provided them unmatched protection against their demonic opponents' claws and fangs, along with the throat mikes and earbugs that enabled them to keep in contact when separated, as they were now, and the specially enspelled Gargoyle(r) protective sunglasses they all now wore, that enabled them to see as if in full daylight, regardless of the actual level of illumination of their surroundings, as well as protecting them from being blinded by any overly bright lights.

With their two coworkers poised to enter through the primary rear exit, after setting up the modified Claymores to booby-trap the other two basement escape routes the ghoul had pointed out on one of the paper maps Xander had printed out from his laptop (with the extra mine along in case they decided they needed to leave a 'surprise' for any possible pursuers), Xander and Harry were now poised to make their entrance at what the ghoul had referred to as the lair's 'front door.'

Shifting the strap of her MP5A3 into a more comfortable position on her shoulder and taking a firm grip on the submachine gun, Harry nodded at Xander and quietly said, "Ready when you are, Xan."

"Angel, Gunn, we're going in five...four...three...two..." Harry murmured into her throat mike, as, with a somewhat unnerving smile on his face, Xander positioned himself in front of the door through which they would be entering, took a deep, calming breath and focused his attention before suddenly exploding forward and driving the ball of his foot at the area immediately below the doorknob.

"Now!" Harry announced, as the door's locking mechanism explosively fragmented under Xander's attack and the door itself burst inward to slam violently against the interior wall.

The Key surged ahead, flowing into the forward motion his kick had initiated, swinging his Winchester pump-action shotgun upward into a ready position as he rushed into the nest. His peripheral vision noted motion off to his right and the barrel automatically swung towards it, his finger caressing the trigger, releasing an onslaught of flame into the face of the Chaos demon charging towards him and flambé-ing the poor unfortunate with the Dragon's Breath shell he had chambered. Quickly pumping the slide and ignoring the stench of burning slime, Xander fired again, pumped and fired again, the twenty foot tongues of flame catching the two Drokken demons full-on before they could halt their forward rush and removing them from further consideration permanently, if not neatly.

Behind him, he could hear the staccato rattle of Harry's MP5 as she covered the left side of the room and handled any objections to their appearance.

A quick glance around showed a horde of vampires rushing out of several adjacent rooms, heading directly towards himself and Harry, exactly as they had anticipated in their planning, and Xander let a small smile steal across his face.

"Okay, guys," he murmured into his throat mike, signaling his imminent activation of their plan's next stage, "I'm moving on the count of three..."

As he spoke, he stepped back and to this right, allowing Harry to step forward and provide him covering fire, the blessed ammunition they were using giving their assailants cause for a moment's hesitation.

And that was all the opportunity the Key needed.

"One...two..." the brunet's brow furrowed with concentration as he counted down his timetable.

"Three!" he announced, and a thirty foot by thirty foot area of the ceiling suddenly seemed to burst into a blinding brilliance, as though some one had opened a door onto a brilliant spring day.

Which was, in fact, exactly what had happened, as Xander opened a portal directly into Death Valley above everyone's heads and held it open for approximately ten seconds.

The seven vamps caught in the center of the room didn't even have time to realize what was happening to them, as their stolen bodies immediately transformed into dust, leaving their companion demons to blink helplessly in blinded confusion, their eyes trying to adjust to the sudden change in illumination.

"Go, people!" Xander announced the implementation of the next stage of their plans as he let the portal close. A loud BOOM! sounded from somewhere in the rear of the nest as Angel and Gunn used one of the Claymores as a door opener from the outside corridor where they had waited during the first stage of the attack.

The two AI operatives quickly moved into the main room, and joined Harry as she began checking out the other rooms and removing the remaining opposition from this plane of existence.

Xander, meanwhile, had headed down the hallway the ghoul had identified as leading towards Spike's 'chambers.'

Ahead, he heard two loud BOOM!s reverberating down the hallway, indicating that someone had discovered the two Claymores that he had so carefully placed in the small access passageway that ran along the outside wall of Spike's quarters and which had been shown on the blueprints he had downloaded earlier.

Sounds of choking and a virulent string of curses in British accent verified the continued existence of the vampire he hated most in all the world, and he allowed a small, razor-sharp smile to cross his face as he carefully entered the smoke-and-dust-filled room at the end of the hallway.

Dropping his shotgun in the hallway behind him, Xander looked at the shadow-obscured figure standing across the room and spoke, his quiet words filling the space between them with his hatred and anticipation.

"It's so good to finally see you again, Spike. It's been a couple years since I last had the pleasure. It was right before you ran out of Sunnydale with your tail between your legs, if I recall properly."

"What - Who's there?" the Bleached Bad demanded, coughing from the dust filling the air around him. "Who the bloody hell is that?"

"I'm hurt, Spike," Xander continued in the same quiet tone as he slowly approached the vampire. "You don't remember me, after all we've meant to each other?"

"Who- oh balls. Is that you, Whelp?" the bloodsucker grinned as he finally recognized the man before him.

"Yeah, it's me," Xander confirmed his identity, halting a few yards away from the demon. "Like I said - long time, no see."

"Well, well, well. Alexander Harris. Who'd've believed it? Heard some rumors going round that you finally grew a pair and could actually do something worthwhile, now, Whelp," the demon sneered, his trademark smirk on his lips. "What happened? Get tired of hiding behinds the skirts of all those Slayers you kept burying?"

Hearing the taunts his grandchild was throwing at his friend as he inspected an unchecked room just a short distance down the hallway, Angel fervently prayed that Xander wouldn't succumb to his anger and do something foolish that would give his opponent any advantage.

"If I remember correctly, wasn't it one of those same skirts you were sneering at that hacked off your arm and gouged out your eye before she beat you to the ground, Spike?"

Xander's voice was just as calm and quiet as it had been when he had first begun speaking. Although 'calm' probably wasn't the correct term to be using, Angel reflected as he finished his inspection and then halted outside the doorway and listened. There was nothing peaceful or placid about the youth standing facing the master vampire inside that room. It was more the same sort of quiet that a crouching panther in a cage possessed: power restrained, at least temporarily; power merely waiting for the proper moment to be unleashed.

"Yeah, well be that as it may, that bitch is dead now, isn't she?" Spike snarled at the man standing and staring at him. A puzzled expression took over the demon's face as his venomous words seemed to just slide off the figure facing him.

"True, she is. But look at it from my viewpoint, Spike. I'd say that a sixteen year old girl crippling a hundred and sixty year old, so-called 'master' vampire doesn't say a whole lot about that particular bloodsucker, now does it?" Xander returned the jibe, a small smile on his face that never touched his eyes.

"A master vampire, who was wearing an artifact that made him immune to anything that would normally destroy a vampire, had his arm hacked off and his eye gouged out by a sixteen year old girl that he outweighed by what, forty pounds?" Xander continued his questioning.

"Now what was it your demon pals were all calling you in those Initiative holding cells, back then? 'Bloody idiot'? No, that wasn't it. 'Incompetent poof'? Maybe that was it. That is the right word, isn't it, Spike?" he asked the demon. "Poof?"

"Or how about 'bleeding useless nancy-boy'? Don't you think that's a better description of a master vampire who had his ass trashed repeatedly by a succession of little girls every time he came up against them? The same master vampire who couldn't even keep the only female bloodsucker he ever wanted from leaving him for a slime- covered Chaos demon? And wasn't there a Fungus demon, after that?"

Angel held out his arm to halt Harry from entering the room as she and Gunn joined him in watching the confrontation evolving before them.

"How about it, Spike? Got a preference we should inscribe on the ashtray you're going to be buried in? Poof? Nancy-boy? How about 'tosser'?" the brunet asked, still in the same quiet manner.

The blonde vampire glared at the man standing before him, seemingly at a momentary loss for words.

"I don't know, Spike," Xander shook his head. "My old CO had a degree in psychology, and he had some real interesting comments when he was writing up your psych profile for the archives. Seems to me that killing little girls is really a pretty desperate way to try to prove your manhood, isn't it?"

"Shut your mouth, you bloody useless git!" The blond's tone had shifted from sneering and contemptuous to angry. "You don't know what the hell you're talking about, boy. Seems to me like you're the one who can't keep women around him.

"Tell me now, boy - didn't the Slayer and those other two girl friends of yours just leave you lying in the street in a pool of your own blood? Right before they took off for jolly old England? Without you? Guess they didn't think they needed to bring their own little lapdog over to England with them, hmm?"

Angel tensed, expecting Xander to explode as Spike tried to tried to torment him with his recounting of what had happened at Graduation, but was amazed to see no change whatsoever in the brunet's body language.

"Yeah, Buffy beat me to a pulp, Spike. Beat me up real good, " Xander agreed complacently, his eyes not so much looking upon the vampire as much as seeing through him. Seeing through to memories he had forced down into an unwanted place in his mind. "Not gonna lie about that. And the other two were probably cheering her on as she did it. A lot of people thought I wouldn't recover from that, but I did. And let's keep everything in perspective, here, Billy-boy. I was just a normal human who got the shit kicked out of them by a Slayer. No shame in admitting that the advantage was hers. But you? You were a master vampire who barely avoided getting staked by one.

"And I'm fine, now," he noted with a grin, holding out his arms for display, "but you're still missing an arm and an eye. Seems to me all you've got going for you is just your reputation now. Such as it is. I mean, to have existed as long as you have, killed as many as you have...and this is how it's gonna end for you?" Xander looked at the vampire and his smile widened even more. "You killed three Slayers, Spike. Tasted their blood. That's quite an accomplishment. You must be pretty proud of that. Not too many bloodsuckers can say they tasted even one. But you? Three of them. Man, that's impressive.

"But despite all of that, you're still not as famous or respected in your little demonic community as you should be, now are you? You're pretty much forgotten about when you're not around. Angelus, though - now, *he* was a vampire. You? You're only remembered as one of his minions." Xander's smile became crueler as he saw his enemy's pale features flush with restrained rage. In the corner of his eye, he saw the souled vampire he now called friend shift uncomfortably at the mention of his demonic alter-ego. "Even the name *Angelus* inspires a kind of dreadful awe in the listener, doesn't it? But 'Spike'? Come on now. I hear that name and I think of the idiot bulldog in the 'Tom and Jerry' cartoons.

"I met Angelus. I helped fight Angelus. I even stood down Angelus, Spike," Xander told the Bleached Bad. "Something you never managed to do, from what Angel told me. And compared to Angelus, you're a nothing. Not even an also-ran.

"Don't you think it's about time you stood on your own two feet, Billy-boy, the way I had to do?" Xander taunted him. "Come on now, step out of your grandfather's shadow and try in play in the big leagues. Just once. We both know you're strictly bush league, but you should at least try it one time before you die. Again."

"Oh, I think you'll be surprised at what I can do now, you sodding little pest," Spike smiled as he took a step forward to bring himself more fully into the light. "Those Initiative mates of yours gave me some ideas. I've had some improvements made, don't ya know?"

The blond's movement had revealed that the right sleeve of his shirt no longer hung empty, but was instead filled with a prosthetic limb that glinted a dull metallic sheen under the light from the ceiling fixtures.

Xander looked at the arm and then looked the vampire in the eye and just smiled.

"That's just a toy, Spike," he said. "That's all it is - a toy. I'm not impressed. You see a weapon, but what I see is a crutch. You're gonna die tonight, Billy. For good. And no one will ever know what really happened to you.

"You're gonna be remembered as a joke, Billy-boy. If you're remembered at all," Xander promised. "I'm gonna tell everyone who'll listen how I watched some gawky teenaged girl with glasses stake you with her No. 2 pencil when you attacked her. How you grabbed her from behind and she turned around and stabbed you with her pencil before you could even bite her. There was no great battle, no overwhelming odds, no Slayer, nothing like that at all. Just a clumsy girl who almost tripped over her own two feet before she killed you. And in just a few short months, no one will even be able to remember your name, let alone your reputation. How's that sound to you, Spike?"

The vampire with a hat trick of Slayer deaths to his credit maintained a locked gaze with the Warrior facing him for a long moment.

"I see your bleedin' idiot friends have shown up just in time to see me kill you, boy," Spike smiled as he feigned finally taking notice of the arrival of the Angel Investigations operatives. "Before I kill them, of course."

"Duck, guys!" Xander suddenly screamed to his friends as he lunged forward, knocking Spike's prosthetic arm upwards as the vampire began extending the limb towards the three onlookers.

Angel's vampiric reflexes enabled him to grab hold of Harry and Gunn and dive back down the hallway just as a bolt of lightning erupted from his grandchild's artificial hand and blew a hole through part of the ceiling and the upper section of the wall directly below it.

The faintest hint of a crackle and hum and a whiff of ozone had alerted Xander to the fact that something was about to happen and he had moved to block the demon's arm as soon as he saw the blond vampire begin to extend it towards his friends.

The Key was glowing brightly now as he drew on the ancient energy inside him and boosted himself, amping up his strength and accelerating his metabolism to superhuman levels.

As his left hand grabbed a hold on Spike's metal wrist, his right fist drove directly into the vampire's throat and shattered his larynx, the pain and shock of the unexpected blow disorienting the vampire for a second. He then followed up the punch by driving the ball of his foot against the inside of his opponent's right knee, destroying the joint and the monster's mobility and vertical stability. Spike's left hand raked across the right side of Xander's face, his claws gouging deep into the flesh and ripping terrible furrows across the brunet's cheek and eye.

Ignoring the pain and focusing on his unrelenting hatred of this particular vampire, Xander slid in closer as he lifted his left arm to pull the vampire up and forward, towards him. Chambering his right arm tightly against his chest, Xander turned slightly and then drove his right elbow up into Spike's right armpit while abruptly yanking the vampire's prosthetic arm forward with his left hand as strongly as he could.

The two opposing forces, each powerful enough to shatter stone into gravel, ripped the vampire's artificial limb from the stump to which it was attached, leaving the mechanism dangling from Xander's hand as the rest of the demon's body flew across the room in a descending arc to impact against the far wall with a hollow sounding thud before dropping to the floor.

Xander immediately spun and headed after the bloodsucker, moving before he had even collided with the wall. Spike had barely bounced once on the floor, and was just beginning to awkwardly try to sit up, not yet fully registering the shock of the loss of his arm, when Xander swung the prosthesis in his hand like a bat and caught the demon across the face, smashing his nose flat and fracturing his right cheekbone with his first swing, then inflicting similar damage on the other side of his face with his backswing. A third strike across his foe's face nearly snapped the vampire's neck, and fractured the metal limb, causing it to break into several smaller pieces.

Tossing away the jagged fragment he held, Xander reached down to grab the dazed vampire by his shirt and dragged him upright, ignoring the relatively feeble strike Spike landed against his chest and drove a rage-enhanced blow into the demon's stomach, doubling him over, then straightened him up by bringing his knee up into the demon's face, pulping his mouth and knocking out several teeth.

As Spike staggered backwards, collapsing against the wall when he was unable to support his weight on his ruined right knee, Xander followed him in like a shark zeroing in on a bleeding swimmer. Grabbing the vampire's left arm as he flailed awkwardly for balance, Xander turned the vamp's wrist over and pulled forward to lock out his elbow before slamming his fist down and destroying the joint.

The brunet then interrupted Spike's scream of pain by the simple method of backhanding his fist into the blond-haired demon's jaw, breaking it and splattering the wall behind him with stolen blood as the monster crashed into it yet again.

Ignoring Spike's barely intelligible pleas for mercy, Xander again reached down and picked up the demon, then leaned him up against one of the still relatively unbroken walls of the room and began hammering his fists into Spike's body. A muffled crack! followed the thud of each blow as it impacted against the ever-diminishing number of unbroken ribs in the vampire's body.

What Angel found as disturbing as the sight of Xander so methodically destroying his enemy as he battered him around the room was the complete silence in which he did so.

There was no screaming, no triumphant jibes or verbal digs at a fallen opponent. Instead, the Key remained silent, with only the expression on his face as he pounded his enemy to a pulp revealing the intensity of his focus.

The souled vampire was somewhat shaken when he realized that he was unable to recognize the other vampire's face when he finally caught a quick glimpse over Xander's shoulder of the bloody and beaten visage that was now only barely identifiable as something once human .

Once he had satisfied himself that he had broken all of his enemy's ribs, Xander grabbed hold of Spike's arm with both hands and drove it down across his upcoming knee, snapping both bones in the forearm and eliciting yet another scream from the vamp's broken mouth.

After releasing the mangled limb, Xander paused for a brief second, as if to indelibly fix the sight of Spike's ruined figure in his memory, then pulled a stake from its sheath at the small of his back and drove it through the vampire's heart and into the wall against which he was leaning. Spike's body instantly transformed itself into dust and slowly drifted to the floor, leaving only a bare handful of ashes behind to mark the existence of one of the most vicious creatures to ever walk the planet.

With a sigh, Xander shook his head and almost visibly let himself slip out of the boosted state into which he had forced himself in order to destroy his most hated enemy, and slumped against the wall, letting a sigh mixed of pain and fatigue slip from his mouth.

Angel took a moment to marvel at both the speed and the ease with which Xander had taken Spike down; barely twenty seconds had elapsed from the moment Spike had first attempted to attack himself, Harry and Gunn until the one-time self-proclaimed Big Bad of Sunnydale had been transformed into a handful of dust motes drifting in the breeze.

"Xan? Are you okay?"

Harry had pushed her way past Angel immediately upon regaining her feet and, along with Gunn, had stood watching in numb surprise as the tall brunet thrashed his hated adversary thoroughly, relentlessly and mercilessly. At the conclusion of the fight (if one wished to dignify a one-sided contest with such a description), as Gunn had busied himself checking out the booby-trapped escape passage to see if anything remained of whoever had set off the traps, Harry had rushed to Xander as he slouched wearily against the wall before him, fearing that the vampire had managed to seriously injure him during their brief, and somewhat one-sided, battle.

"Oh my god!" The redhead's hand had leaped to cover her mouth upon seeing the extent of the damage Spike had managed to inflict on Xander's face, and she could feel her stomach churning uneasily as her eyes slid over his injuries.

Four long, bloody furrows had been gouged into the right side of the brunet's face, stretching from a point just in front of his ear across to his nose and mouth. Blood still poured from the gashes and mixed with vitreous fluid leaking from the slash that had opened up his eyeball, turning that side of his face into a grotesque mask.

Even as she watched, though, Harry could see the bleeding beginning to slacken, until it finally stopped completely, followed by a soft, jade-green light that enveloped the injured areas and knitted the gaping wounds back together. In less than a minute and a half, the Key's face had been healed completely, with only the blood still smeared across his face to indicate that he had suffered any injury at all.

< There can be only one, > the old joke ran through Xander's tired mind, as the pain disappeared. < My God, I almost can't believe that it's finally over. But it is. So please, rest in peace, Sandy. You too, Mary... >

Rubbing his sleeve across his face in a futile attempt to clean himself up, Xander pushed himself upright and moved past Harry, pausing in the hallway for a moment to pick up the shotgun he had discarded there a few moments previously.

"Come on, Har," he said as he headed down the corridor. "We should be getting back to the office. It's getting on dinner time, and I'm feeling ravenous. Want to stop and pick up some barbequed ribs on the way back?" he suggested.

"Michelle'll probably be cursing us out for not waiting and bringing her alone on this little picnic, once she hears what we've been doing, and we might be able to distract her for a little while if we show up with food..."

The brunet's voice faded slightly as he moved away, and, not wanting Xander to hear what she had to say, Harry took the opportunity to turn to Angel and mouth the words, "We need to talk about Xander. Tonight."

The souled vampire's head nodded his agreement with the redhead's statement, and he pondered to himself some of the possible ramifications his fellow demon-hunter's behavior seemed to imply, as he stooped down to gather up the scattered fragments of his grandchild's prosthetic arm.

< I think we definitely need to look into just who's supplying high- tech weaponry to the demon community, > he thought to himself as he followed his friends out of the mausoleum that the now deceased master vampire's quarters had become.

< I've got a very bad feeling about this. Demons with guns would be bad enough to deal with. Master vampires with built-in Star Trek weapons are gonna be a royal pain in the ass. >