Forever and a Day

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

People: After some discussion with Bill Haden <BILLHADEN[at]>, he has graciously allowed me to continue this story he began, for a variety of reasons. The main story idea is his, but I'm doing the writing, so if anyone has a problem with how the story actually works out, let me know, because it'll be my fault, not his.

Since it's been a while since the story first appeared, I've taken the liberty of combining the first two chapters and expanding on them a little.


Rating: G for this chapter, maybe R later for violence and some language. I'm not sure yet, but definitely not much worse than the show.

Disclaimer: They're not mine. Deal with it. I have.

Category: Mainly B/X , D/X, B/D (family stuff).

Summery: Buffy's resurrection in the Master's cave may have had another explanation.

Time Frame: Through fifth season. Becomes AU in midseason 5.

Spoilers: Prophecy Girl and The Gift mostly

Character Bashing: None.

Feedback: Of course! It's like food, water and air to a writer.

Archiving: If you want to archive this, I would be honored. Just let me know where, please.

< > indicates character thoughts.

:: :: indicates mental communication.

Appended for Chapter 10 :

Author's Notes: As I have already noted, this story takes place in an AU breaking off from the standard Joss Buffy-verse at the end of season 5 Buffy. The Angel-verse it intersects with is also AU, with the following major changes from the standard Joss Angel-verse. Anything I don't reference as happening otherwise occurred the same way it did in the Joss-verse.

The major highpoints/differences of my AU Angel-verse are as follows:

First off, there is no Connor!!!!! (Xander does the Snoopy dance of joy!)

Darla was not, and never has been, pregnant with *any* child by Angel as a result of their getting funky near the end of the previous season. At the present time, all Angel and Company know for certain about her is that she and Drusilla were both badly injured by Angel during his nihilistic period the previous season, both apparently managed to escape the city and they have not been seen by anyone since then. Rumors have put them in Rio de Janeiro, Rome and Brisbane, Australia at various times.

Angel does not brood nearly as much now as he did in the Joss-verse during seasons one and two. He did go through the nihilistic 'Let Darla and Drusilla enjoy the Wolfram & Hart lawyer buffet' stage, but realized, just as he did in the show, that adopting such a philosophy did himself and those he cared about no good whatsoever, so he now is embracing a more pro-active approach to battling evil and the forces of darkness with the help of the Fang Gang. He has also been seeing Kate Lockley fairly steadily in a not-entirely business way for several months now, after he rescued her from her suicide attempt, and she came to terms with the fact that her father's death was a result of his own actions, and was not her or Angel's fault. The realization that someone or something intervened in order to allow him to enter her apartment without having been invited in has done a lot to make them think seriously about their interest in each other.

In addition to receiving the visions sent by the PTB, Cordy now possesses enhanced strength, agility, resistance to injury (sort of a 'Slayer Lite' package) and *very* high-level regenerative healing abilities (very much like those of HL Immortals, but without the Quickening aspect, and with the additional requirement that she now needs a much greater level of potassium chloride (table salt) in her diet), all of which are 'aspects of the demon' she inadvertently absorbed after she and Wesley managed to kill a Mohra demon who was trying to assassinate them, and they were subsequently bathed in its blood. Her firearms, melee, stealth and hand-to-hand combat skills are better than average, but not anywhere near those of professional military personnel or demon-hunters, with the exception of her skills with a crossbow, with which she is an expert. Her other combat skills have improved dramatically as a result of her recent training with Angel and Wes. She and Wes got together as a couple shortly after the beginning of the second season of Angel and have stayed together since then. There was no Cordy-Gruselog romance during the gang's visit to Pylea, and Groo did not come back with them upon their return home. Cordy is also still a brunette and has not cut or dyed her hair in a vain attempt to look like Madonna. :)

Wes has basically the same abilities as Cordy, except for the visions, having gained the same 'aspects of the demon' from the Mohra demon assassin. His combat skills, as well as his strategy and tactics training, are definitely superior to Cordy's because of his Watcher training and military training he had undergone prior to joining the Watcher's Council. (He had originally enlisted in the British Army at the age of nineteen under a pseudonym as a form of rebellion against what he perceived as unwelcome family meddling, and underwent nearly a full year of training before finally being located by his family and being discharged due to family influence, since, in the opinion of his father, the army was a career suitable only for 'commoners'. As a result of his actions and their attitudes, Wesley is estranged from his family, especially his father and older brothers, who are very much the strereotypical English buffoons seen on television and in the movies.)

Gunn is still loosely associated with Angel Investigations, but on more of a part-time basis, since he returned to his old neighborhood to help organize the community after most of his old gang was decimated in a trap set by several groups of vampires working together. He has set himself up in business as a general contractor using seed money loaned to him by Angel (who has a fair amount of money secreted in various banks and safe houses around America and Europe, although not nearly approaching that now possessed/controlled by Buffy and Xander) and has become a major player in the local political arena by providing independent 'street' and neighborhood input to the staffs of various City Council members. By helping to set up numerous 'Community Watch' programs throughout the various black, Asian, Hispanic and demon communities, he has gained a large amount of influence among all the leaders by establishing a reputation for scrupulous honesty and being a leader who does not automatically blame the demon community whenever there is a conflict between the various human-demon groups, but who instead tries to determine what actually happened, rather than what people say or think happened. He also acts as a liaison for the demon community with the more established political groups, and helps distribute/exchange information between/among all of the groups on a daily basis. He still helps Angel, Cordy and Wes when they need extra muscle by either helping out himself or providing trusted people who know what is really going on in the darker areas of the city. He is still a very much 'hands-on' type of fighter, still going on patrols or hunts with his own group of people at least three times a week.

Fred isn't around because she went home to Texas to get herself back together shortly after being rescued from Plrtz Glrb by the Fang Gang when they were rescuing Cordy, although she and Cordy still keep in fairly close touch via email.

Cordy's ghost friend/roommate, Dennis, is no longer bound to the apartment she and Wes share, but can now move freely anywhere in the city. He has not tried to leave the city limits, so whether he is still restricted to staying within them is unknown.

Lindsey MacDonald followed his conscience after several confrontations with Angel and the Fang Gang, quit Wolfram and Hart and worked with Angel Investigations and the LA Public Defenders office, frustrating W&H's schemes wherever and whenever possible for a short period of time. He was later murdered by agents of Wolfram and Hart while saving the lives of some 'gifted' children targeted by a W&H 'client' and now occasionally manifests as a ghost to give Angel's group a head's-up on new schemes involving W&H. What he does when he is 'elsewhere' is unknown at present.

Kate Lockley is still a detective with the LAPD and is now second-in- command of a 'special' unit that deals with 'unusual and non- conventional' cases that cannot be resolved by traditional methods. The group was originally formed several years back, to provide the brass with someplace to dump 'troublemakers' who insisted on trying to make the rest of the department stop ignoring 'unusual cases' and acknowledge that something else is out there and that they need to deal with it officially. Since then, however, the group has successfully solved and 'handled' an increasing number of problems and has prevented at least three major demonic incursions into the city, as well as preventing an attempt by a group of demons from achieving control of the criminal underworld. Consider them an LA- based Special Unit 2 group, with informal connections to other 'non- conventional' law enforcement units and 'community demon watch' groups across the country, and with most of the equipment you would expect an intelligently-run, well-trained, demonically-oriented SWAT unit to possess. There has never been any official acknowledgement that some of the unit's suspects/targets might be anything but normal humans, possibly/probably acting "under the influence of drugs." Kate's unit works frequently with Angel Investigations and several local 'Community Watch' groups formed by Gunn and his people, and try to handle their investigations in an intelligent, well-thought out manner, seeking the help of civilian and clandestine government groups wherever and whenever needed, albeit in a low-key, very-low- visibility manner. The Unit's official Commander is a political appointee of the Mayor who wholeheartedly supports the unit, since he and his family were saved a year and a half earlier from a group of vampires by Cordy and Wes.

Lorne is still running Caritas and bemoaning the wide-spread lack of musical taste among the 'youth of today,' as well as the ongoing presence of boy bands and Britney Spears. :)

Basically, if you can figure a way to reconcile anything else that happened on the show and this story, it's fine, but anything that might conflict never happened.

Now, on with the story!

Latest addition

Chapter 1


"Come on, Buff. Breath!" Xander said as he completed the current set of compressions and went back for more mouth to mouth.

< Come on, God, don't do this! Please! Take me if you need to take somebody. I know it's not an even trade, but she doesn't deserve to die, > he pleaded silently. < Do whatever you want to me, just let her live! Please!!! >

Angel waited, watching silently, feeling helpless as his unacknowledged rival for Buffy's affections tried to breath life back into the blonde's small form.

Then something caught his eye.

As Xander blew air into her mouth, he could swear that he saw a pale blue sparkle of light flow between their joined lips. Blinking several times, he dismissed it as an optical trick of the Master's lair when it didn't repeat itself.

Buffy's coughing up the water in her lungs brought him back from his distraction. And his heart dropped as her first word, post revival, left her mouth.


The relief in his voice obvious, Xander's reply followed with an extreme joy. "Welcome back."

< Thank you, God! Thank you! > the elated teen thought, as she helped Buffy to her feet and they headed out of the caves in pursuit of the Master.

Two hours later at the dance, Angel was having a quiet conversation with Giles after Xander had stolen Buffy for a dance.

"..and I could swear that I saw something come out of Xander's mouth and enter Buffy's. Some sort of energy," Angel was telling the Watcher, as he kept an eye on the gyrating boy in question while Ballroom Blitz was blaring out of the speakers

"It must have been a trick of the light," was Giles' measured reply, motioning for Angel to reclaim the Slayer as the dance ended.

Ushering Jenny out onto the dance floor for a much slower dance than what had just been playing, he let his thoughts wander as he smiled down at the wonderful woman in his arms.

He had never told the group much about the Watchers. In fact, the Council of Watchers only made up a small part of a much larger organization. The Council, at most, was made up of fifty or so individuals. Researchers for the most part, the majority of whom examined ancient prophecies for warnings of any upcoming apocalypse and how to circumvent them. There were only six field Watchers out training potential Slayers at any one time. And, of course, one training and helping the active Slayer.

No, for the most part, the Council was nothing in size when compared to its parent organization, The Society of Watchers. The Society chronicled the lives of a group of men and women called Immortals. People who, for whatever unknown reason, will live, if not killed in combat with their own kind, forever. People who will never grow older after experiencing what they called their 'first death.'

The Society of Watchers had reason to believe that Alexander Harris was Immortal.

Five years before, an Immortal named William Tomas, known for training newly resurrected members of his own kind, had observed the boy for a good half hour before continuing on his way. Tomas had a highly developed ability to sense pre-Immortals, and a reputation for training only the ones of good character.

Alerted to the possible existence of an as-of-yet unawakened Immortal, Tomas's Watcher had spent two days tracking down information on the boy. All the facts going into a new file that would be the beginning of his Chronicle, should young Harris actually turn out to be an Immortal in the making.

When Giles had come to Sunnydale to look after his Slayer, he had been informed that there was a possible Immortal in the same high school class as the girl. Imagine his surprise when the boy in question had begun to help Buffy fight the vampires and demons that were drawn to the Hellmouth.

Like every other Immortal known to the Society, Alexander Harris, or Xander as he preferred to be called, was adopted, any information surrounding the circumstances of his birth unknown. And also like every other pre-Immortal known, he appeared completely normal in every conceivable way. Unlike any other pre-Immortal of which Giles was aware, though, Xander Harris threw himself into the line of fire daily in the supernatural battle between Good and Evil. There was also the fact that no other pre-Immortal was known to have been raised in the proximity of a Hellmouth.

< Yes, > he thought, < this could get very interesting. Could his Quickening have helped him revive Buffy? She had been, supposedly, completely drained before she had drowned. >

It was something he'd have to look into, in the morning. Right now, there was something much more important to do. With a wide, and slightly Ripper-ish, grin on his face, he dipped Jenny deeply and with perfect time to the music.


The Magic Box 2001

< Could my life get any more complicated? > Xander thought as he completed another in a seemingly endless series of sword Katas under Giles' watchful eyes. The fact that he could use the full tang ninja style katana without lopping off a portion of his own anatomy was still a wonder to him.

Of course, for the first two months that he had practiced with his new toy, Giles wouldn't let him take off the plastic practice guard, something that allowed him to walk away afterward with just bruises instead of massive hemorrhaging, he acknowledged, while he let his thoughts wander.

It had not been a good year. For any of them.

It had started off well enough. He had a girlfriend that actually liked him, a great apartment, and a job that he actually liked to pay for it. He was riding high.

The crash soon followed.

Anya, in the end, hadn't adapted all that well to mortality. She spent time every morning looking through the obituaries, a significant section of the paper in good old Sunny D. The idea that death was surrounding her and that the town was cursed and trying to kill her became all consuming.

< We live on the gateway to Hell, Ahn. Of course, it's trying to kill us. >

So she left.

Three days before Thanksgiving, he came home from work to find a note taped to the fridge. To say he fell apart wouldn't be a stretch. Two weeks of doing nothing but work and sleep made him look like something he used to help Buffy stake.

Then one evening at the beginning of his third week of unwelcome bachelorhood, he opened his door to see two girls determined to drag him back to the land of the living.

The Summers sisters, refusing to take "no," for an answer, had almost literally dragged him out to see a movie. The following night it was an excursion to The Bronze with the two gorgeously attired, almost- beautiful-beyond belief Summers women on his arms (something that left all of the men, and some of the women, there drooling), and the night after that was a vid fest at Casa del Xander. Little by little, he came back and re-engaged in the world around him. Whether it was patrolling the undead centers of town with Buffy, or helping Dawn with her homework, they kept him involved. It felt good to be wanted, especially after what had previously felt like Buffy and Willow's pushing him away during their freshman year of college.

He hadn't felt this close to Buffy in a long time. A fact that hadn't gone unnoticed by Riley. It seemed to remind the soldier that the internal wall Buffy had built to protect herself after Angel left kept him on the outside looking in. Last straw on the camel's back and all that.

But Xander wasn't on the outside. He had been there before the walls went up, along with Willow and Giles. The four of them seemed to form some kind of unit, an interlocking network of people who seemed to understand each other on a level so deep that it sometimes appeared that they could read each other's minds, and whose emotional support for each other formed a bedrock that could never be shaken, let alone broken.

When Joyce got sick , Xander did every thing in his power to help. Every day after work would find him at the Summers' house, doing small repairs, taking care of the lawn work, or just doing his best to keep their spirits up. It had been hard, but Joyce's operation went off without a hitch, and everyone sighed with relief.

Then Riley left, and Xander quickly found himself playing the role of the comforter instead of the comforted that he had been a few short months before. Not a new role for him where Buffy was concerned, by any stretch of the imagination. Helping her deal with Riley's departure and then, in quick succession, with the revelation that Dawn was some sort of interdimensional Key soon left him appearing to be her primary means of emotional support.

And now, he felt himself falling for her all over again.

< Best not think about that now. > He knew he should be thinking about the Slayer's little sis.

Dawn. Buffy's little sister, that he remembered from when they had first moved to Sunnydale. But not really.

Every memory he had of her before this year was false. Every conversation, every night that he had babysat her, every card game they played, and every day she supposedly sat with the Scooby Gang in the school library had never really happened. As if everything that happened in this town didn't do enough to mess with your mind normally, now something was doing it intentionally.

It didn't matter.

Dawn was a good person. He knew that without any doubt. He could feel it in his soul. In Sunnydale, innocence was a rare thing, and Dawn was an innocent in this whole matter going on around her. In his mind and heart, he had made a niche for her where a little sister would have been if he had one. That wasn't to say that he didn't know that she had a crush on him; he had, after all, given up emotional blindness as a hobby after the whole Fluke thing with Willow. When Buffy had finally revealed the truth to the Gang about what the monk had told her, Xander had silently pledged then and there that he would do anything to protect the younger brunette, just as he had done with her big sister.

Then Joyce died, and their whole world was ripped apart again.

He had never realized how much Joyce had kept them all going till she was gone. Buffy and Dawn were, in a word, shattered. Everyone did what they could for them, but this wound would not be recovered from quickly, if ever. Over the next few weeks, it was a rare night that he didn't hold one or both of them till they could cry themselves to sleep.

His apartment became a place he would only see for a hour a day as he spent the rest of his free time either at the Magic Box, training himself and helping Buffy train, or at the Summers' house, doing every thing from the routine maintenance owning a house required to helping Giles settle Joyce's estate. Their rec room couch became his regular bed.

It was an odd thing to discover that he was better at helping other people with their lives than leading his own.

"Xander, you're dropping your shoulder again."

With a start, he brought himself back to the here and now, and concentrated once more on the kata he was supposed to be doing. Giles had finally agreed to begin training him, just after New Year's. He idly wondered what had changed the ex-Watcher's mind; he'd only been asking to be trained since the week after he found out that Buffy was the Slayer.

< Maybe he's just slow. And maybe Glory will just pack up and move to Maine. >

< Yeah, right. >

Giles obviously thought this was going to be bad. After facing everything that they already faced, that had to be saying something.

None of it of the good.

As he completed the kata's final movement with the carbon-fiber composite blade of his katana, he wondered what was going on behind the seemingly placid expression Giles was wearing.


Chapter 2

The top of Glory's Tower
May 22, 2001

After pushing Dawn towards the stairway of the swaying, hastily- constructed tower, Buffy swan-dove off the end of the platform and into the glowing portal, only to hang there, motionless, for a few brief moments, her face wracked with pain, as the portal's radiance slowly began to fade and its diameter began to shrink. As the portal winked out of existence, it gave off one last burst of light before finally releasing Buffy and allowing her to continue her plummet to the debris-strewn ground below.

Everyone on the ground began running towards the base of the tower as they watched the Slayer fall, hoping against hope for a miracle to occur that would ensure her salvation. The dull thud of Buffy's impact against the ground drove home the futility of that hope and broke the silence that had enveloped the site, followed immediately by a dull scream of pain from Xander, as he clutched at his head and crumpled in his tracks to fall limply to the dirt.

As Willow and Giles paused momentarily in their rush, obviously torn by the conflicting urges to get to Buffy's obviously dead body and to determine the cause of their still-living friend's unexpected collapse, Tara waved them on.

"I - I'll check Xander. You guys go. H- Help Buffy," she told them, as she turned to head towards the stricken carpenter.

As the two remaining original Scoobies hurried to the impact site, Tara dropped to her knees next to Xander and carefully turned him onto his back, in an attempt to determine what was wrong. The blonde witch's hand immediately jumped to her mouth in horrified astonishment to see blood flowing from her first real male friend's eyes, ears, nose and mouth, distorting his appearance into a grotesque parody of a clown's mask.

Before she could even compose herself enough to call out to her friends, her astonishment was further compounded by the sudden appearance of minute blue sparks that began dancing across the male Scooby's blood-smeared features. Tara watched, dumbfounded, as the miniature lightning bolts played across his face for several moments, before gradually dissipating. As she stared at him, pondering what had just happened, Xander gave a loud groan and brought his hand up to wipe his face, only to frantically pull it away and stare in horror at the blood covering it.

"What's going? What happened?" he demanded as he looked up at the distraught young woman kneeling next to him. "Tara, why am I covered with blood?"

"I - I don't- don't know," she replied as she stared at him in wonder. There was no sign of any type of injury that would account for the blood she had seen running freely from his various bodily orifices earlier. Aside from the blood smeared across his face and clothing, the tall brunet now looked to be in the peak of health. "What do you remember?"

"I'm not sure," he said uncertainly, as he wondered at the strange, almost-aching feeling that encompassed his entire body. Not real pain, actually, more akin to the satisfied, but somewhat fatigued sensation you got after a hard workout. Mentally shrugging his shoulders, he pushed the puzzle aside for later consideration

"I was running and then, suddenly, I had this tremendous pain explode in my head and neck, and - Wait a minute! Where's Buffy? What happened to her?" Xander demanded, as he suddenly remembered what had been happening before he mysteriously collapsed. Scrambling back up to his feet, he ran over to the silent group huddled together at the base of the tower, closely followed by a bewildered witch.

"Will! Giles! What's going on? How's Buffy?" he asked, reluctantly asking the question uppermost in his mind. The redheaded witch and the former Watcher, together with Dawn and Spike, were clustered around the unmoving body of the petite blonde Slayer, though no one was apparently willing to actually touch the bruised and broken body lying on the ground in front of them.

"Oh god. No," he whispered in futile protest, as he dropped to his knees next to Buffy, hesitantly reaching out his hand towards her, but not quite making contact. All of the almost innumerable nightmares he had suffered through over the last past five years since he had first discovered the truth now cascaded through his mind, all centered around the indisputable fact now lying in front of them all: Buffy Summers, the Chosen One, the Vampire Slayer, had died while saving them as she had so often done in the past.

"Is- Is she- ?"

Dawn's nearly inaudible question broke the unnatural silence holding them all in its grip, allowing Xander to finally complete his action, and reach out and touch the unmoving body of his first and only love. At the instant before his fingers touched her skin, a large blue spark seemed to jump from his fingertips to Buffy, momentarily startling them all, but nothing else happened.

Nothing at all.

No moan.

No movement.

No breath.

No life.

Buffy was dead.

This wasn't one of his nightmares from which he would eventually awake. This was a nightmare that he would have to live for the rest of his life.

His life. He still lived, and she didn't. That wasn't right. That wasn't how it was supposed to be. It should be him lying there, and Buffy looking down at him. That was the deal. His life for hers. That was the deal he had agreed to, five years ago.

THAT was the DEAL!


Suddenly, his rage at the horrendous injustice of it all could no longer be contained. He exploded to his feet, his clenched fists shaking wildly at the sky as he screamed out his pain and anger and sorrow and fury.

"GIVE HER BACK, YOU BASTARD!!! This wasn't the deal!!! Give her back, and take me!!! My life for hers!!! THAT was our deal, you rotten son of a bitch!!! GIVE HER BACK AND TAKE ME!!!!" he ranted in impotent rage as he waved his fists at the heavens.

"Xander?" he heard Willow hesitantly ask, as he paused for a breath before continuing his tirade. The others were all staring at him, their eyes wide with confusion and concern and obvious fear that he had lost his mind, he realized as he turned to face them.

"What deal? What are you talking about?" she questioned him, as he seemed to calm down slightly as he looked at her.

"I made a deal with God, Will," he told her simply. Seeing their faces, he realized that they all thought he had broken, so he explained in more detail.

"When I found Buffy in the Master's lair, she wasn't breathing, so I made a deal with God as I was doing CPR on her," he told them. "My life for hers. If he would send her back, he could take me. When she started breathing again, I figured that he had taken me up on my offer. I wasn't exactly looking forward to dying, but I was ready to go. After all, that was the deal I had offered, so I was ready to pay off my end, because He had already paid off His. But he didn't take me.

"At first, I wasn't sure why not, but then I figured maybe He thought Buffy would need my help in the future, and he was letting me hang around for a while, so I could help out, until the next time, and that I could be here and take her place the next time.

"So I've just been waiting for my time to come around," he said, glancing at the rest of the Gang.

"I figured it would be me this time around, and I would have been. I *should* have been. That should be me lying there, not Buffy. But that rotten son of a bitch broke our deal and took her instead," he said, as he scowled up at the skies above. "And now I don't know what to do about it."

Seeing the expressions on his friends' faces, he added, "I'm not crazy, guys. Think about it. The only difference between my deal and the ones the guys we fight usually make, is who I made it with. This is the Hellmouth, isn't it? And if there's a Hell, then there has to be a Heaven, so that things all balance out, right, Giles?"

"Uhm, well, uh, yes, I suppose so," the flustered ex-Watcher hesitantly agreed. It was obvious that his explanation had done nothing to reassure any of his companions of his stability.

"Xander, I don't want you to leave me, too," Dawn said, her face white with shock and her eyes wide with fear and trepidation as she looked up at him. She walked up to him, her every movement filled with sorrow and uncertainty, and laid her head against his chest as she wrapped her arms around him, her tears running down her face. "I *can't* lose anybody else. I can't. Not now," she whispered before she broke down and began crying inconsolably.

The sight of the young brunette weeping against his chest awoke his most basic reflex, to protect and comfort his family, and he ruthlessly overrode his own anger, grief and anguish, shoving them aside into a small corner of his mind, to wait there, dormant, until he had sufficient time to deal with them properly, as he began trying to console the now orphaned teenager.

Seeing the shock and disbelief pervading his friends' faces, the long dormant Soldier template imprinted on him so many years before surfaced under the battlefield stimuli, and he began issuing orders to the still shocked and horrified remnants of the Scooby Gang.

"Guys! We have to get moving, and get out of here," he stated. The blank looks and slightly disoriented expressions reaffirmed his initial evaluation of the situation.

"Giles. Giles!!" The urgency and note of command in his voice temporarily brought back the Watcher's attention to their present situation.

"I need you to start policing the site here and make sure there's nothing left behind that could lead back to any of us. No stray pieces of paper with our names, nothing to make anyone think we were ever here. Especially, make extra sure there's nothing on Ben's body that could tie him to any of us. Okay?" A mumbled assent, and the Watcher headed towards the former human housing of the mad hellgod.

"Willow," he addressed his lifelong friend, who was looking at him in shocked bewilderment. "You and Tara start gathering up everything we brought with us. That means all of the weapons, and anything else we brought with us, especially the Buffybot, the Troll Hammer and the Orb." The redheaded Wicca nodded numbly, and she and Tara moved off to begin their search of the ruined steel framework.

"Spike!" The bleached and chipped vampire looked up from his position kneeling beside the unmoving body of the Slayer as he reacted to hearing Xander call his name, his game face showing his emotional upset, his anger at his grieving being disturbed.

"Shut up and leave me alone, you bloody wanker!" he snarled, uncaring of the bloody tears running down his face.

The carpenter turned reluctant leader stared down his would-be rival for the Slayer's affection, his impassive face now that of a troop leader facing a querulous recruit in enemy territory.

"Look, we don't have time for a pissing contest to see who's the most upset here, Spike," he stated, his voice flat and completely devoid of emotion. "Buffy told me before all of this started that she asked you to help watch over Dawn, if anything should happen to her.

"Well, something has happened, and now we have to deal with the consequences, and take care of Dawn. That means we can't let anyone know Buffy is -" He paused for a moment, unable to say the word, as if his not admitting what had happened would prevent the fact from becoming real.

"- that Buffy's, unavailable now," he continued after a moment. "If word gets out that she's not around, then Child Welfare will step in and take Dawn away, and the odds are, we'll never see her again. And even if Child Welfare doesn't do anything, the bank owning the mortgage will try to repossess the house and she won't have anywhere to live. Do you think that's what she wanted to happen? We need to move, and move fast. Are you going to help or not?"

"What do you want me to do?" came the immediate reply.

"*We* need you to pick up Buffy and head back to the house, as fast as you can. You can move faster than anyone else here, even if you're carrying her. Buffy did re-invite you in, didn't she?" the Heart of the Scooby Gang verified. At the vampire's nod of confirmation, he continued his directions. "Once you get there, hide her in the basement, and then stay down there with her. The way our luck's been running lately, some idiot will try to burgle the house and find her, if no one's there to guard her.

"If anyone gets in the whatever you have to do to make sure Dawn'll be safe," he said, the unspoken message in his eyes immediately understood and agreed to by a nod of the Big Bad's head. "We'll see you back there as soon as we can, once we get finished here."

With a final concerned look at the still-weeping girl clinging to Xander, Spike carefully, almost reverently, gathered up Buffy's limp body and took off towards the Summers house at top speed.

"The sun's going to be up soon, and we all need to get away from here as quick as possible, Dawny," Xander addressed the younger, and now only remaining, Summers. "Even the Sunnydale PD will have to respond to the reports that this - mess - must have generated. We need to be long gone before they get here.

"Do you think you can hold it together long enough for us to get moving now?" he asked gently, as he patted her back reassuringly. "We can't have the police finding us here. We've got enough problems right now, without adding to them. Are you okay for right now?"

Hesitantly, the Key nodded her head, silently looking up at her protector with pleading, grief-filled eyes.

"Don't worry, Dawny," Xander smiled down at her reassuringly, although his face more resembled a grimace than any expression of happiness. "You're never going to be alone, again. I swear to you, right now, I'm never going to leave you, and I know everyone else feels the same way. Even if someone killed me, I'd come back to take care of you. I promise."

His pledge seemed to reassure the young brunette sufficiently that she released her embrace from around his torso, hesitantly exchanging it for a frantically tight death grip on his hand.

Looking around the building site one final time, Xander saw Willow and Tara struggling to maneuver the only partially functioning Buffybot through the debris, while behind them, Giles strained to drag the Troll hammer Buffy had so easily wielded during the battle earlier.

Leading Dawn by the hand, he headed over to meet the rest of the group, reaching out and grabbing hold of the hammer from Giles before slinging it over the shoulder of his free arm.

In the distance, the shrill wail of sirens could be heard approaching them. Giving the area one final look, Xander turned and began leading the small band away from the scene of their most recent 'victory.'

"Come on, guys. Let's get the hell out of here."


The Summers residence
1620 Revello Drive
Approximately one hour later

Outside, the sun was shining brightly in a nearly cloudless blue sky, the kind of morning usually only seen on greeting cards. Birds chirped cheerfully, welcoming the new morning while they haphazardly flew their patrol routes above the well-cared for lawns making up the neighborhood.

As he contemplated the outer world through the almost completely drawn drapes covering the living room windows, Xander found himself idly wishing for a gun, so that he stop that damned chirping from those annoying animated feather dusters up, once and for all.

At the moment, everyone present was trying to come to grasps with the concept that Buffy was no longer with them. Even in his own mind, as he argued with himself over what needed to be done next, he could barely bring himself to envision a future without her in it. Ignoring the headache that was beginning to bludgeon its way through his brain and the strange, cramp-like spasms that had begun crawling across his body a moment before, he tried to figure the best way to address the problems they now faced, and how best to prioritize them.

He could hear Giles in the kitchen, puttering around with the cleanup he had decided was needed after their return that morning, while behind him, Dawn was sprawled the length of the couch, her head pillowed on Tara's lap, while Willow sat on the floor by the blonde Wicca's feet, gently stroking the teenager's hair, much like Buffy has been wont to do when she needed to comfort her distraught younger sibling.

Once they had made it through the front door, the young girl's resolve had dissipated entirely and she had broken down into hysterical crying that no amount of comfort and reassurance from any of her entourage could resolve. Eventually, she had cried herself into an exhausted, restless slumber, and neither Willow nor Tara would consider moving a centimeter to disturb her.

As he watched his childhood friend and her 'Significant Other' comfort the girl they all regarded as a younger sister (or daughter, in Giles' case), Xander could see that the only thing holding back the redhead's own hysterical reaction to Buffy's death was her determination to not upset Dawn any further with her own grief. Tara was watching both Dawn and Willow with an expression of concern so comforting and all-encompassing that he could almost feel the emotional warmth from where he was standing. Watching the blonde Wicca simply waiting for the moment she might be needed, he smiled to himself, happy that his friend had someone available to help her deal with her loss. If only he were that lucky...

Any further musings were abruptly cut short by a loud THUMP! and an astonished "BLOODY HELL!?!" from the basement.

As he practically flew down the basement stairs in response to Spike's outburst, Xander absently noted that he was clutching his katana, evidently the result of the subconscious, reflexive desire to keep a weapon close to hand that any survivor living on a Hellmouth quickly developed. When he reached the bottom step, closely followed by Giles and the others, he stopped so abruptly that Giles literally ran into him. The scene before him was so surreal that his brain simply refused to accept what his eyes were seeing.

Spike was standing off to one side of the room, so still as to seem a marble statue, his hand hesitantly outstretched as he stared across a distance of a dozen feet at the discarded couch on which Buffy's body lay.

The couch, or more properly, Buffy's body, seemed to be bathed in a pale blue light provided by the small sparks and bolts of lightning crisscrossing her body, all of which appeared to be growing in size and power as they watched.

At the same time, the muscle cramps plaguing him seemed to be growing stronger, threatening to make him collapse to the floor, but he focused his will and forced himself upright, trying to figure out just what the hell was going on and what needed to be done. Behind him, he heard Giles gasp in surprise.

"God in Heaven!" the ex-librarian whispered to himself, before the full implications of what he was seeing registered and he whirled around to bark instructions to the two Wiccas behind him.

"Willow! I need you to put up a shield around Buffy's body immediately!! As strong as you can make it! Tara! You have to do the same thing around us and Spike! Hurry, both of you! There's no time to explain, just do it!" he ordered, as he turned back to continue witnessing the steadily growing pyrotechnics.

A faint shimmering in the air coalesced into several faintly glowing spheres that resembled large soap bubbles enclosing the areas Giles had designated, the two witches apparently acting just in time. The continually growing lightning bolts that danced over the Slayer's body slammed into the wall of the bubble before rebounding into the now-convulsing form beneath and blasting fragments from the couch on which she lay.

At the same moment, Xander dropped to his knees, muffling a scream as he felt as if he had grabbed hold of a bare transformer wire. Involuntarily curling into a ball in reaction to the muscle seizures enveloping him, he ground his teeth together, fighting to hold back the screams trying to erupt from his throat, heedless of the questions shouted at him by his friends. The detached, emotionless Watcher aspect of Giles' mind noted with interest that the timing of Xander's seizures coincided exactly with each of the lightning strikes upon Buffy's body, while the concerned parental aspect worried about whether either of his surrogate children would really survive what he barely dared to hope/believe was happening.

After several more cascading strikes, the frenzied electrical activity finally died down, leaving an eerie silence in its wake. With a gesture, the witches dismissed the shields, while everyone remained where they were, all but one uncertain of what they had just witnessed.

On the couch, Buffy's body gave a last convulsion, and her eyes flew open as she drew in a long, shuddering breath, before a single word escaped her lips.



Chapter 3

Summers Residence
Approximately thirty minutes later



The petite blonde's words were echoed by only fractions of a second by her taller brunet companion. As she sat on the living room sofa, her arms curled reassuringly around Dawn's shoulders as her younger sibling's arms were locked anxiously around her waist as she huddled against her, Buffy stared in disbelief at her mentor's halting, mind- boggling explanation for her survival.

"How can that be possible?" she asked. "And why didn't this happen the first time, when I thought I died in the Master's lair?"

"Actually, Buffy, I have always been inclined to believe that you did die at the hands of the Master," Giles informed her, as he paused in his explanation to remove and polish his glasses. "Based on some rather sketchy information that Angel provided me after the incident, I now believe that it was during Xander's attempts to resuscitate you after removing you from the pool that he somehow managed to pass a portion of his Quickening into you, which apparently revived you without actually triggering the full properties of the Quickening's energy."

Xander was even less accepting of the Watcher's proffered explanation for the Slayer's survival.

"We're Immortal?" he repeated himself. "You mean, like in 'Never going to die' immortal? Like 'Going to live forever' type immortal?" he asked dubiously, as he stood behind the sofa, one hand clasped for reassurance on Buffy's shoulder while the other rested on Dawn's outer shoulder, silently providing much needed emotional support to the teenager. The new sofa and love seat looked good in the room, the idle thought passed through his mind, especially with the new arrangement of the furniture. After Joyce's death, both Dawn and Buffy would only sit on the sofa when there was no other seat available, and then only with the greatest reluctance, so his 'accidental' spilling of his food and coffee on the sofa had provided them with a ready made excuse for their quick acceptance of his suggestion to replace the 'too-badly-stained-to-be-saved' couch and then re-arrange the furniture into a 'more comfortable' arrangement.

Willow was scrunched up next to Buffy on the side opposite to Dawn, her hands lightly but immovably clasped around Buffy's arm providing her with concrete, indisputable, physical evidence of her friend's survival. Her eyes tracked relentlessly from Buffy to Xander to Giles, and then back to Buffy before repeating the cycle again, as she listened in absolute, open-mouthed amazement to Giles' attempts to elucidate yet again why her friend was once again alive, after indisputably dying just a few hours before.

"Well, not exactly," the Englishman began qualifying his earlier pronouncement. "A more precise explanation would be to say that you have the potential to live for an extremely long time. As I indicated earlier, the Society of Watchers has chronicled the histories of thousands of people like yourselves, and the longest living individual known to our records is a person named Methos, who is believed to be approximately five thousand years old.

"After a potential Immortal dies for the first time," he continued as his audience listened in mute wonder, "from any cause other than disease or old age, their healing system somehow becomes supercharged, so to speak, and they are then capable of healing any injury they might sustain in an incredibly rapid manner. Even if they should be mortally wounded, they will come back to life within a short period of time. The energy responsible for this regenerative ability is referred to as a Quickening, and it encompasses not only a person's life energy, but their memories and knowledge, also. Which leads me to my next point.

"The only exception to an Immortal's healing ability being capable of bringing them back to life is death by decapitation. In such a case, they are irrevocably killed and their Quickening is then absorbed by the person that killed them, providing the survivor with all of their opponent's knowledge, memories and physical abilities in addition to the power of their Quickening.

"It is for precisely this reason that most Immortals participate in what they refer to as 'The Game', which is basically nothing more than ritual combat against another Immortal to the death," Giles elaborated to his audience. "It is a generally held belief among most Immortals that they will have to battle each other over all the centuries until only a single Immortal remains standing. Once that last Immortal triumphs over his final opponent, he or she will then receive 'The Prize.' What the Prize actually is, no one seems to know, but most believe it to be analogous to elevation to some form of Godhood."

"Hold on a minute there, G-Man, and let me get this straight," Xander held up his hand as he interrupted his mentor.

"You're saying that Buffy and I are going to be able to live very, very long lives, provided that we mange to kill every other Immortal out there, all of whom are going to come looking for us so that they can cut our heads off and absorb our life energy, memories and knowledge, and that we're expected to keep on fighting these idiots until there is only one Immortal left alive, who'll get some kind of cosmic Crackerjack prize, although nobody knows what it really might be.

"Would you say that's an accurate description of what you just said?" the apprentice carpenter asked as he finished his summary.

"Well...yes," Giles agreed. "There are a number of details that the two of you need to be made aware of, but that is a relatively accurate summary."

"Okay," Xander said. "Now I just have one more question.

"ARE YOU AND ALL OF THESE OTHER PEOPLE OUT OF YOUR FREAKIN' MINDS??!!" he half-screamed, startling all of those gathered together in the room.

"Talk about the old good news/bad news joke," he ranted. "I just found out that I could possibly live forever, as long as I don't get my head cut off, and right after that, I'm also told that there are other people out there, who I have never met and who know absolutely nothing about me, who want to kill me just so I won't be in the way of their possibly getting some unknown prize some equally unknown time in the future.

"Anybody who believes all of that crud is a complete and total Grade A whack job!" he declared. "No offense, G-man," he added parenthetically, "but that's the kind of story I expect to see heading up the Science Fiction channel's show list or plastered on the front page of the National Enquirer."

"Nonetheless, Xander, that is exactly the situation in which you and Buffy now find yourselves," Giles calmly replied. "I realize that this revelation must be extremely shocking, but I felt it imperative that both of you be informed of what has happened to you as soon as possible, in order that you both be aware of how significantly your lives have changed, and so that you can begin preparing yourselves for the rest of what will hopefully be very long lives."

"And I thought my life was strange back when I was just the Chosen One," Xander heard Buffy mutter. "Now it's like it's strange, squared."

"Yeah, you're right about that, Buff," he agreed with her as he began considering the ramifications of everything he had just heard. "And I'll raise you a 'mind-boggling' to the third power."

"What are you talking about, Xan?" the blonde asked, confused, as she turned her head to look up at him over her shoulder. "I didn't say anything."

"Yes, you did," he said. "I heard you. You said you used to think your life was strange when you were just the Chosen One, and that now it's strange, squared."

The Slayer stared at him wide-eyed with shock at his statement.

"Xander, Buffy didn't say anything," Willow said quietly, her eyes wide and her brow furrowed with concern as she looked up at her best male friend in the world.

Everyone was staring at him, now, all of their faces filled of concern tinged with worry and just a bit of fear, and he was beginning to worry himself.

< Oh, god, what's wrong now? I *know* I heard Buffy say that, > he told himself.

"No, you couldn't have," Buffy contradicted him. "I didn't say anything at all. Will just told you that."

The redhead's immediately snapped around to stare at her other best friend, surprise filling her features.

"Uh, Buff...Xander didn't say anything," she informed the Slayer, whose head instantly snapped around to stare at her in disbelief.

"Yes, he did! I heard him!" she argued,

"What did I say?" Xander broke in, before an argument could begin, as an unbelievable idea popped into his head.

"You said something like, 'God, what's wrong now? I know I heard Buffy say that,' " the Slayer replied.

:: Can you hear me, now? :: he asked, turning away from her and staring directly at Spike as he posed the question.

"Yeah. What's the big deal, Xander? You forget about Slayer hearing, or something?" Buffy asked him.

:: No, not at all. It's just that I didn't say anything, :: he told her, as he turned back to face her.

:: At least, not with my mouth. Ask Spike. He'll tell you that I didn't even open my mouth. He didn't hear anything, and his hearing is almost as good as yours. We're reading each other's minds, Buff, :: he announced, as he looked down into her equally shocked and dazed eyes. :: And we thought things couldn't get any stranger... ::


Summers Residence
Several exhausting hours later

The day's shocks had been coming so quickly, one after the other, that it now seemed as if everyone had become comfortably numb to any additional surprises that the world might care to throw in their direction.

After an initial burst of panic on the parts of both Buffy and Xander at the realization that they could read each other's minds, both had gradually calmed down with the ensuing realization that neither had complete and unfettered access to the other's thoughts, and that they were each able, after several minutes of effort, to erect a shield, or barrier, that provided them with the mental privacy each so desperately sought after their initial discovery.

Subsequent testing by the Scooby Gang (the membership now including Spike, whose initially inadvertent and somewhat reluctant redemption had been accepted by all, although the bleached vampire had been the most vocal dissident to the idea) had revealed a number of additional unexpected enhancements to both Buffy and Xander in addition to the mental link they now shared.

Both Xander and Buffy had observed a notable increase in their strength, with each of them now displaying a level of physical power superior to Buffy's Slayer strength and apparently equivalent to that possessed by Xander when he had been under the influence of the Hyena Spirit during their sophomore year of high school. They had each noted a significant increase in their bodies' resilience and resistance to injury as well.

Xander's vision had improved to an almost eagle-like acuity with excellent low-light vision, matching Buffy's. Both had also noted a significant improvement in their hearing and senses of both taste and smell, apparently yet another unexpected benefit of the Hyena possession.

Buffy's world-class hand-to-hand, melee and missile weapons expertise had been shared with Xander, while his own skills with military weapons, his strategic and tactical military training and his Special Forces close combat knife and in-fighting expertise, a legacy of his Halloween Soldier-Spirit possession, had reciprocated, with the Slayer demonstrating her newly gained proficiencies to an amazed audience by field stripping and reassembling both Xander's .45 Colt 1911A pistol and his Beretta M9 9mm pistol as quickly and easily as he was capable of doing. It had been decided that their actual testing of the Slayer's firearms skills and Xander's sword and staff combat skills would be held off for another day, though.

Most astonishing of all, however, was the healing factor they each displayed, a capability enabling either one to heal what would normally be an incapacitating, perhaps fatal injury in minutes, at a speed far in excess to that previously possessed by Buffy. After an extensive evaluation, Giles indicated his belief, based on recollections of films shown during his initial training as a Watcher, that the healing displayed by both was, in fact, even faster than that displayed by a 'normal' Immortal. He had also been pleased to inform them that the now seemingly photographic memory each possessed was yet another 'normal' characteristic possessed by all Immortals.

A separate, somewhat unsettling, finding they had accidentally stumbled upon, however, was the discovery that both of them now apparently shared some sort of empathic link with Dawn, through which any of three, with a bit of concentration, could feel the general emotional mood of either of the other two, along with a general sense of their location in relation to the other. Like the mental link between Buffy and Xander, however, they had found that they could create a wall or shield behind which they could maintain their privacy.

Although a bit disturbed that no one could come up with a reasonable explanation for this new ability the three of them shared, their vague anxiety was somewhat dispelled when Dawn quite loudly and publicly warned both Buffy and Xander to make sure that they put up their mental shields "before getting hot and heavy with anyone, 'cause knowing what you're doing, and who you're doing it with, would definitely be an 'Ughhh!' moment, guys!"

Hearing the young brunette's comment caused Willow and Tara to burst into giggles that threatened to degenerate into full-blown hysterics as they leaned back against the sofa where they had been sitting while reviewing the results of all of the tests conducted over the course of the day.

"Oh bloody hell, Nibblet!" Spike groaned from his position in the chair furthest away from any of the windows. "Thanks for nothing! Now the image of the wanker boinking some young bint is going to spoil my appetite for the rest of the day!" he complained, while trying to prevent a wide smile from crossing his face

"Hey!" Xander protested reflexively. "What the Xan-man does in his private life and who he does it with is *not* to be a topic of discussion here!"

"Oh good lord," Giles could be heard muttering off to the side, where he was busy examining some of the more obscure texts he had pulled out for examination and reference. "As much as I loathe to admit it, I am forced to agree with both Spike and Xander," he announced, while the beginnings of a grin threatened to escape from behind his scowl.

"Hey!" That was from Xander as he realized the backhanded nature of the support offered.

"Hey!" That from Spike as he also realized the dual nature of the ex- Watcher's reply.

Hearing the varied responses Dawn's comments elicited only made the pair on the couch laugh louder and longer.

"Okay, Munchkin," Xander grinned as he reached over and affectionately mussed Dawn's hair as she glared at him for his use of that much despised nickname, "that's it! You've gone too far this time! The fact that my lovelife has been a cause for laughter has, up until now, only been known to the women I've dated. Now you've made it a source of hilarity for people famous throughout the world, or at least our high school classes, for being severely humor- impaired."

"Hey!" Willow waved her hand in disagreement as she weakly protested, having barely enough breath left to object. "I do so appreciate good humor! It just so happens that you really aren't nearly as funny as you think you are, Mister!"

Xander ostentatiously ignored the redhead's objections as Dawn frowned ominously at him.

"Xander! I told you not to call that anymore!! And anyway, what's that make her? I'm at least three inches taller than she is," the younger brunette irately demanded, pointing to her sister who looked up from the chair she was currently slouching in. "If I'm a munchkin, what does that make her?"

Noting from the corner of his eyes that Buffy's head turned towards him to listen with great interest to his response, Xander grinned down at the fuming teenager.

"She would be the not-quite-as-tall-as-you-are woman who is still capable of kicking my butt," he replied, catching the matching grin crossing Buffy's face at his answer as he also felt a brief flash of amusement flicker against the barely-there mental wall separating their emotions.

:: Good answer, :: he 'heard' her comment, as she eyed him lazily.

:: That ain't *all* that's good, little lady, :: he told her privately with a smirk and a Groucho Marx-like wiggle of his eyebrows, as he turned and headed off towards the kitchen, missing the faint blush that colored the Slayer's face at his response.

"I'm getting a drink," he announced as he walked out. "Anybody want anything?"

< Yes, I think that maybe I do, > Buffy thought to herself, as she checked out his butt as he walked away. She felt the slightest twinge of jealousy instantly flare up when she noticed Dawn checking him out, too.

< There's too much happening right now, to make a quick decision about something like that, > she thought. < But according to Giles, now it looks like we're both going to have a lot of time to make any decision we need to. >

Xander Harris had been an important and significant part of her life ever since the day they first met, she reflected, as she sat back and just let her thoughts wander, while her mind tried to encompass and accept all of the incredible and almost unbelievable information they had learned today.

The brunet's dogged insistence upon participating in the struggle against the Darkness she was destined to fight had quite definitely saved her life more than once, and had, in fact, actually brought her back to life, twice, according to what Giles had told them today. He had saved all of them at one time or another, just as they, in turn, had saved him on other occasions. He had repeatedly thrown himself into the line of fire, sometime literally, in his attempts to keep her safe from the dangers threatening her because of who she was, and he had done it all without any expectation of reward because of who he was.

Thinking about it, she realized that he had always been there for her whenever her life took a turn for the worse, to comfort her and give her a shoulder to cry on when she had needed to be Buffy Summers, the brokenhearted teenager, and not Buffy Summers, the Chosen One, the Vampire Slayer.

When Angel lost his soul and went on a rampage of blood and terror directed against her family and friends, he had been there to support her every action.

When Angel had finally left her after Graduation, Xander was there to let her drench his shoulder with her tears.

When she had felt overwhelmed by events during her freshman year, he had been there to help her find her self-confidence again, to tell her she was his hero.

He had also been there trying to protect her when Parker Abrams had treated her so callously, although he didn't know she was aware of that.

/// Flashback ///

She had been crossing the campus, cutting one of her classes, the day after she had told Willow of her...blunder...with that self-centered ass, and had seen him heading towards the Student Lounge, the look on his face one she recognized from experience as his 'determined to straighten out the problem' expression. Curious as to what he was doing on campus, she had discreetly followed him. The at-the-time apprentice carpenter had sought out that preening, smooth-talking little prick (in all senses of the word), and had confronted him in one of the smaller lounges in the students' building, in the presence of several groups of upperclassmen. After a relatively quiet discussion that Buffy had been unable to hear clearly, Xander had 'suggested', quite firmly, to Abrams that he apologize to her for his behavior and then never bother her again. Abrams had laughed at Xander, then, and made some nasty, cutting remark about 'townies' desecrating the campus with their presence, something that Xander had simply shrugged off, not bothered in the least by the collegian's opinion of him. Parker's first and last mistake of the day was to then add an incredibly crude remark about her and her 'performance' that night.

Watching Xander's face, she had seen him go completely white with rage, before reacting faster than she could ever remember seeing him move. His left fist had driven up and out, and he hammered the sneering upperclassman's face with three devastating, lightning fast jabs before crossing with a right hook that sent that idiot spinning to the floor, where he lay cowering as the 'townie' moved to tower over him. Shocked by her friend's actions, Buffy, along with an unusually quiet crowd of onlookers, watched with silent glee as Xander had extracted a promise from Abrams to apologize to her and followed it with one of his own to visit him again if he failed to do as he had said. Hiding amidst the cluster of students still gathered around after Xander had left, she had eavesdropped attentively as Abrams tried to garner a list of witnesses and supporters that would allow him to have Xander arrested for the 'unprovoked assault.'

As Buffy had listened, concerned about the possible legal problems Xander might have brought upon himself, she had heard numerous people, only about half of them women, commenting that the whining scumbag had deserved everything he had gotten. Several of the women gathered around, in fact, had expressed disappointment that the cold- hearted bastard had gotten off so easily. It was when Abrams had recognized one of the women present, apparently a former victim of his lies, loudly asking about his assailant's name, and stating that she would *love* to talk to him, that he had turned even paler and quickly made his exit.

Consequently, Buffy had not been at all surprised when Abrams had sought her out later that afternoon to make a humble and abject apology for his cold and callous behavior towards her and beg her forgiveness. Dismissing him more civilly than he actually deserved, she had walked away with a broad smile and an incredibly warm feeling inside as she realized the degree of concern about her that Xander's actions revealed.

That night, at the Scooby meeting that Giles had called, she had told them all about Abrams' sudden appearance to apologize for his past behavior, and had then waited, in vain, for Xander to say or do anything that might indicate any prior knowledge of the reasons for Abrams' behavior. Aside from a quick smile and brief comment that she had deserved far more than that, he had said and done nothing to indicate that he knew more about that afternoon's occurrences than Buffy had revealed to the Gang.

Learning later that Willow's subsequent curse on Abrams, that he speak only truth for a week, had been inspired by a 'careless' comment by Xander had only caused her to belatedly recognize and begin to appreciate her best male friend's subtlety, while she laughed herself silly in the dorm room she shared with the redhead.

/// End flashback ///

Xander had been there for her again when Riley left, flying out of her life and leaving her alone once more, causing her to wonder what it was about her that drove anyone she cared about away, until she had finally realized the gross untruth of that statement.

Not everybody she cared about left her. Giles had stayed with her. Willow had stayed, too. And Xander had stayed.

Xander had always stayed.

Through Owen and Angel and Scott and Parker and Riley and Ben, he had stayed, even when it would have been so much easier to walk away from her and save himself from all the troubles that always found her and anyone around her.

He had been there for both her and Dawn that awful February afternoon when she had walked into her home and found her mother dead on the couch. He and Giles and Willow had helped the two of them manage to cope with all the necessary details that followed. Giles had taken care of the innumerable legal and financial details that needed to be attended to, and Xander, with Willow and Tara's assistance, had taken care of their souls.

The two witches had done their best to help brighten the girls' spirits, but there was a limit to how much shopping at the malls, working at the Magic Box, training or just sitting around the house talking about anything that came to mind could do to ward off the pain each time you realized your mother wasn't around any longer.

Sometimes, all you could do was cry, and it was at those times when Xander proved himself indispensable to both girls by wrapping his strong, protective arms around them and just holding them. There had been so many nights that she or Dawn or the both of them had cried themselves to sleep on his shoulder, as he just hugged them and murmured reassuring nonsense as he rubbed their backs to sooth them.

Just feeling him hold her in his arms had been so reassuring and comforting that Buffy sometimes believed that he was the only thing keeping her and Dawn from breaking down into tiny, brittle, jagged parts that would never be able to be reassembled into living, breathing people. The love and comfort and reassurance that he radiated was so strong that it just pushed the tears and the sadness and the grief away and then filled up the empty places left behind inside her, giving her the strength to get back up and continue on with her life despite the obstacles thrown in her way.

She needed Xander in her life. She had known that for a while; she just hadn't realized how much she needed and wanted him around, until now.

< Actually, I think I actually made that decision a while ago, and just didn't recognize it, > she realized. < Now, it's just a matter of finding out if he's still interested. >

She ignored the slight flutter in her chest as the thought that he might not be interested in her 'that way' anymore stole through her mind; that was a possibility she didn't even want to admit existed, let alone consider.


Chapter 4

Summers Residence
May 22, 2001
8:00 pm

"So, Slayer, have you told him yet?"

"Told who what, Spike?" Buffy turned and looked over her shoulder as she leaned against the railing of the back porch, where she had been gazing quietly up at the last fading remnants of the sunset, reflected against the scattered cirrus clouds floating above the horizon.

"The Wanker," the vampire replied, as he stepped out to take up a position next to his former adversary and lean against the railing, too. "Have you told him how you feel about him ?"

"Xander already knows how I feel about him," the blonde answered uneasily as she turned back to lock her gaze on the distant horizon, hoping Spike wouldn't notice her blush at his question.

"He's my very best guy friend in the world, and he's always been there for me whenever I needed him. He's saved my life any number of times, for which I am *extremely* grateful, I might add," she grinned. "I don't know what I would do without him around."

"That's not what I mean," the former Big Bad of Sunnydale told her, "and you know that. Have you told him that you love him?"

"He already knows I love him," Buffy replied evasively, not looking at him. "I love him and Dawn and Willow and Giles and Tara. They're my family. Of course, I love them. I'm even beginning to tolerate you," she added with the beginnings of a grin dancing across her face.

"If my heart could beat, it'd be going all pitty-pat from hearing such an exuberant declaration, Slayer," the bleached blond said drolly as he glanced over at her, noting the smile that graced her face at his reply.

"And we both know that isn't what I meant. You're falling for Droopy head over heels, if you haven't already. Don't try to deny it," he added, as Buffy opened her mouth to argue.

"Even supposing that what you said was true, why are you so interested in how I feel about him? Why does it matter to you?" she asked. "It's not like you and Xander have ever been the best of friends or anything and that you really care about whether he's happy or anything."

"I'll grant you that's true," Spike acknowledged, as he pulled a pack of cigarettes of his pocket and proceeded to light one up. "He and I have never been the best of friends, and I don't think we ever will be, but he does care about you and the Nibblit. Probably even more than you think he does. And I care about the 'Bit. A lot. And about you, too," he added, as he stared out towards the horizon.

"Spike -" Buffy began, before he waved her to silence.

"Let me finish, Slayer. I need to speak my piece, this one time, and then I'll never mention it again," he said. Biting her lip somewhat nervously, Buffy nodded for him to continue.

"I've been a right vicious bastard almost from the moment I was turned," he stated, still staring at the horizon, not looking in her direction at all. "I know it, and I've even gloried in it at times. Angelus and Darla and Dru taught me everything they knew from the start, and I was determined to improve on their teachings, so that I could make a name for myself apart from theirs," he said, returning the Zippo to his pocket.

"I've killed thousands of people; men, women, children - didn't matter to me in the least, except as to how fast or slow I could make them die; whether I could make them beg me to kill them faster or make them curse their mother for having brought them into the world so I could kill them. I've tortured people - just because I was bored and there was nothing more interesting for me to do, or because I wanted to see how long it would take them to die. I've even killed two of your predecessors, because I wanted to be famous, to have my name known throughout demon history as the vampire who killed two Slayers." He let his gaze rise to the newly revealed stars above them.

"And until this past year, I wanted to kill you, so that everyone would know that Spike had taken down the best the Council had ever had to offer. You..." he snorted, almost to himself.

"So I came back to Sunnydale, to the Hellmouth, to hunt you down. To watch and plan and wait until it was the right time. And then, at just the perfectly correct moment, I would kill you. And while I was watching and waiting and planning how best to do that, I got caught by a group of cartoon G.I. Joe knockoffs, who would have a hard time pouring piss out of a boot, even with the directions written on the heel, and they put this bleedin' chip in my head, and suddenly Spike the Merciless, killer of two Slayers, was Spike the Fangless, who couldn't even bite an invalid lying in bed in front of him." He looked at his hands, as if they had betrayed him.

"Spike -"

"Please, Slayer, let me finish."

"...go on."

"After that, I managed to escaped from the Initiative cells, and you bloody pathetic do-gooders took me in and helped hide me from them, because you thought that what they were doing was wrong. Didn't matter to you that they were doing it to creatures that would try to gouge your eyes out or rip out your heart without a moment's thought. Didn't matter that if they caught you that you might end up in a cell right next to mine. They were wrong, and you wankers took me in and let me stay with you, even before we all found out I could fight demons. I tried to betray you to Adam, and you all forgave me. Well, maybe not all of you. The Whelp still kept his eye on me. Shows he's not completely hopeless," Spike added parenthetically. He gave a small grin of appreciation for Xander's ruthlessness

"Then there was the bit with the robot..."

"Really *not* helping whatever case you're trying to build here, by bringing that back up, Spike." Buffy gave the vampire one of her patented glares.

"I truly didn't mean to insult you with that, Slayer," Spike said. "I knew that anything like that just couldn't work out. That even if it ever could be possible, you would be in a mental state so bad that you'd need to be in treatment. But I wanted it so badly..." His gaze was earnest for once.

"I'm sorry for that, for whatever that might mean to you," he said quietly.

"But through it all, you and the others didn't reject me, didn't give up on me. The Nibblit doesn't know anything about the way I used to be. She thinks I'm like these fledglings she's seen around here. She knows my hands are bloody, but she doesn't even begin to realize just how bloody they really are. She doesn't know how many people I killed, the things I've done. She treats me like I'm a person, not like the monster I am," he said with passion in his voice.

"She looks at me like I'm worthy of redemption, Slayer, and when she does, sometimes I feel like I really just might be worthy. All it would take is for one of you to show her the histories the Council has kept, and that would all be gone. She'd never want to look at me again. But none of you have done that. And that's because you, Buffy, decided to trust me. As I said once before, you treat me like I'm a man, not a monster. You trusted me enough to ask me to help take care of Dawn if something happened to you, and the others trusted you enough to let me help despite their own reservations when something did. Even the Whelp trusted your judgment enough to let me help, despite his own reservations. I would never have believed he'd ever be able to push his hatred aside enough to do that, but he did. And again, it was because of you." He was as choked up as he ever got.

"I don't know why, if it's because of this chip in my head or whatever, but I'm different now. I'm not the demon I was before I was captured, and I'm glad I'm not. For whatever reasons there might be, I care about people now. I care about the Nibblit, I care about you, I care about the witches and your Watcher. Hell, I even care about the Whelp, and you have no idea how strange I think that idea truly is," Spike said with disbelief. His fingers taped in-sync with this words on the rail in front of him.

"And because I care about you, I want to see you happy. The Whelp can do that. He can make you happy, Slayer. He's already spent six years of his life trying do that, and I have no doubts he'll try to spend the rest of his life, however long that may be, continuing to do so. I think even you realize that, now.

"Everyone here wants you to be happy, Buffy. So, give it a whirl. If you don't even try to grab this chance you're being offered, you'll regret it for the rest of your life. You've got an opportunity for real happiness here. As Nibblet would say - don't screw it up," he finished up, still not looking over at her.

Buffy stared at him, completely dumbfounded by his short soliloquy. She had realized a while back that Spike had changed, that he was no longer the cold, vicious, sadistic bastard she had encountered when she had first arrived in Sunnydale six years before. That was part of the reason she had asked for his help in safeguarding Dawn. But to hear him speak to her the way he had just now made her wonder who or what he really was. And what he could become if he tried.

Could William's soul have somehow returned and had taken back control of the body the demon had so long possessed? Had the dead poet's soul seen what carnage the demon had wreaked and come back to claim his still-animated corpse? That explanation seemed as plausible to her, now, as any other reason she might come up with.

"I think I'll be heading along now, Slayer," the vampire said, as he took a long drag from his cigarette and then blew out a cloud of smoke. "Think about what I said," he added, before hopping over the porch railing and heading for the gate at the far side of the yard.

"Okay," Buffy answered absently, still a bit staggered both by the idea of receiving romantic advice from a vampire, and, even more, the vampiric stalker from whom she had received it.

"Spike!" she called out, as he reached the gate. When he turned to look back at her, she smiled at him, and said merely, "Thank you."

Nodding his head in acknowledgement, thrusting his hands into his coat pockets, he disappeared from view behind the shrubbery. Leaving a mystified woman behind, deep in thought.


After a brief check of the house, Buffy had easily followed Xander's scent (which seemed to be a really odd way to find him, if she gave it any real thought) and finally located him in the garage, where he was busily working with his lathe, turning an apparently endless supply of wooden dowels into an equally endless supply of wooden stakes. She had stood by the door for a moment before speaking, watching with fascination as her best friend/apprentice carpenter/comrade-in-arms/too-many-other-things-to-identify-at-the- moment stood there, his attention focused solely on what he was doing, and used the tools of his trade to seemingly effortlessly produce what had come to be the basic tools of her trade. His deft, confident movements around what was, apparently, one of the basic tools of his craft seemed at odds with the typical goofball/ joker persona he seemed to habitually wear while with the other members of the Scooby Gang. It was a mask she knew would drop the second he thought someone he cared for was in trouble.

Another thing she had noticed was that the stakes he made for her, for them all, actually, were far superior to the ones they had laboriously hacked out of the wooden boards purchased from the local lumber yard, back in high school. The ones Xander now furnished them were lighter, better balanced and smoother, with the handles actually turned down to better fit each of their own individual hands. For all of the work involved, she realized, he made the tasks look extraordinarily simple and easy.

"Xander, have you got a minute? We need to talk."

Her words had seemed to startle him for a brief second, as he effortlessly spun around to face her, grabbing several of the stakes from the growing pile next to him while simultaneously dropping back into a defensive stance.

"Whoa. It's only you, Buff," he smiled as he relaxed and resumed his position in front of the quietly running machine. "Ah, not that I mean, 'it's only you' in the sense that I'm not glad to see you, because I am, but I mean it in the sense that you're you, as opposed to you being somebody else," he began trying to explain, before seeming to run out of words.

"Am I making any sense here? To you, I mean. Cause I feel like I'm babbling like a lunatic. How do you handle all this extra information you get? From the hyped-up Slayer senses," he clarified his question. "I seem to be hearing and seeing and smelling and feeling everything so much more intensely now, and finding all these other things I've never even felt or noticed before, and it's almost like I'm overloaded with all of these sensations, and I don't really know what to do about it."

"I know exactly what you mean," Buffy nodded as she approached him. "I remember, the first time all my senses kicked into Slayer mode, I thought maybe somebody had put some kind of drug in my food or something. Just relax and give it a few hours, and everything should pretty much adjust by themselves. It just takes your brain a little while to figure out how to sort out all the new and additional info it's getting now," she explained.

"I was so freaked about it that Merrick had to use a lot of one syllable words to explain it all to me, back then," she gave a small laugh at the memory. "I'm still adjusting to the enhanced smell and hearing, too," she confided. "I never realized how acute your Hyena senses were, back then."

"Yeah, well, let me give you a little advice," Xander grinned as he made a small adjustment to the controls of the equipment. "If you've got a highly developed sense of smell, I strongly recommend you don't stand anywhere near a group of football players who have been working out and who were out drinking beer the night before. Not unless you've got an industrial-size drum of Lysol room deodorizer."

"Ooooo, bad mental image," Buffy complained, wincing at the thoughts Xander's words conjured up.

"Be thankful it's just a mental image. I can testify that it doesn't come anywhere near the real physical one," he replied with a wide smile.

"So, what can I do for you, Buff-meister?" he asked, as he removed several pieces of wood from the equipment and turned the machine off. "You come out to stock up for patrol? I was thinking that maybe you'd take the night off, seeing as how you did die and all, yesterday. I think you're entitled to one night off, at least." Buffy noticed that the smile he flashed as he tried to joke about what had happened the previous night was most definitely a poor second compared to the ones he usually gave her.

"Well, a couple things occurred to me while I was thinking about a lot of things, earlier," Buffy began, as she slowly approached her somewhat preoccupied friend. "First off, I never did thank you for saving my life. Both this morning, and the first time, in the Master's cave."

"Hey, no big deal. I'm just glad I could help out," he waved his hand, as if to minimize the importance of his actions.

"No, it *is* a big deal," she corrected him, as she moved to stand next to him. "To me, it is a *very* big deal. Mom and Dawn both appreciated it, too, and I think Giles and Willow are kind of happy about it, also," she said, as she gently reached out to touch his arm and turn him to face her.

"And I also want you to know that I realize that's not the only times you've saved me, and the others, too," she added. "If it weren't for you, we would all be dead, many times over."

"Yeah, well, you guys have saved my butt a lot, too," Xander replied, as he looked down at her. "It's what friends do for each other."

"Well, I wanted to thank you for saving my life. Again," Buffy told him, "and I also wanted to apologize for the way I treated you that night at the Bronze. It was very nasty and cruel and a pretty shameful way to act, especially after everything you had done for me. I want you to know how sorry I am for the way I behaved then. Can you forgive me for that?"

"Sure, Buff," he replied, feeling more than a little uncomfortable with the way Buffy was looking up at him. "It's not a problem. You were under a lot of stress back then, what with having died and everything. I understand."

"No. You're wrong about that," Buffy shook her head in disagreement. "It's *not* okay. I knew how you felt about me, and I used it against you and embarrassed you in front of everybody there. I was wrong, and I need to apologize for it and I want you to stop acting like it was no big thing, because I know that it was! So stop acting like you deserved being treated like that, do you hear me!" Buffy's voice had begun rising as she spoke, annoyed that he was shrugging off the fact that she had hurt him as though it were unimportant, that he was unimportant, and by the time she had finished speaking, her tone was quite loud, given the confined space they were in.

"Whoa there, Buff!" Xander took a step back, holding his hands up in front of him. "Relax and take a breath, willya? I was a little upset at the time," he admitted, in classic Xander understatement, "but I got over it, all right? If I'm okay with everything now, why are you getting so wound up about it? It happened, we got past it, and we've moved on. No biggie, anymore. Let it go, okay?"

This was definitely weird. Xander could feel Buffy's emotions surging up as she spoke, and knew she really was quite upset and sorry about the way she'd acted four years previously. Evidently, either the mental shields they had created didn't completely block out emotions or they had to be reinforced if either one of them was strongly upset. In any event, he could feel the sincerity of her apology, and he concentrated on projecting to Buffy the feeling of resolution he had eventually developed regarding the whole Bronze incident.

"Look, Buff," he said, looking her in the eye. "It doesn't bother me anymore, so we can just forget it, okay? Water under the bridge, and all that. Agreed?" he asked as he concentrated on making sure she understood he no longer felt any resentment or anger over her actions.

Staring back at him, Buffy could feel the sincerity of his reassurances, and she reluctantly let the subject drop.

"All right," she agreed. "I won't mention it again."

"Okay. Is everything right with the world again, then?" he grinned down at her, relieved that they had apparently successfully negotiated the emotional minefield they had been dancing through.

"Yeah, I guess so. There was something else I wanted to ask you, though."

"Sure, Buff. What is it?" the brunet asked, thankful for the change in subject.

The wide, hopeful 1000 watt smile that graced Buffy's face made him grin back reflexively.

"Can I have you?"


Chapter 5


Xander stared at blankly Buffy, trying to figure to out what had happened to him.

Obviously, some one or some thing must have done something to him, because he was clearly hallucinating. If he didn't know better, he would swear that he had just heard her repeat the first words he had spoken to her nearly six years before as he had helped her pick up her books and other paraphernalia she had dropped after being bumped in the high school corridor.

Since that was clearly impossible, he was either hallucinating or being mind controlled or under the influence of some kind of spell or something. Whatever the cause might be, he had to tell the others right away, so that they would know they were under some kind of attack or that there was some kind of weird magic thing-y affecting Sunnydale. He would warn Buffy first, because she was right here, then they could alert the others, and Will and Tara and Giles and Dawn could start researching Giles' books for clues to what was happening, while he and Buffy and Spike could guard them and then go out and take care of whoever or whatever was responsible once they identified the source.

And on the personal side, whoever or whatever it was that was responsible for this particular hallucination was going to be very, very sorry they had chosen to use those precise words to torment him. The fact that Buffy didn't feel that way about him only made hearing those words seem to come from her lips hurt all the more, like rubbing salt into an open wound. Once he made sure the Gang was safe, and they figured out who was responsible, he was going to cut them into very, very small pieces.

Buffy watched Xander's face intently, anxiously waiting for his response to her question. A small part of her was a little concerned - all right, was really worried - that he might not feel the same way about her as he had after they first met and he had become involved in the Slaying and every other aspect of her life. She could only hope that he hadn't decided to move on after all of the rejections she had given him. Yes, that sounded - actually, it was - selfish, but she had only just now realized what she had thoughtlessly been neglecting for the past five years of her life, and she fervently prayed that she hadn't come to this realization too late.

As she waited for his answer, she also thinned down the mental shield she had erected earlier that day, carefully seeking to catch any clue she could glean about his reactions.

As the seconds ticked by, her apprehension began to grow exponentially. So far, his only outward reaction to her question had been to say, "Huh?" as he stood there with a blank look on his face, staring at her.

That was not exactly the response she had been hoping to hear from him. In fact, it was almost exactly the opposite of the response she had hoped to hear. And the emotions she was now reading from him through their link weren't anything like the love and affection she had wanted to feel from him; confusion, alarm and the beginnings of apprehension, anger and a burgeoning rage were most definitely NOT what she wanted him to feel about her.

< Oh god, > she thought to herself, panic beginning to set in, < it's not enough that he doesn't just not-care that way about me, he doesn't even want to think about caring that way about me. > As that idea took hold in her heart, Buffy could feel the tears beginning to fill up her eyes.

< I waited too long. I screwed things up again, and now I've lost my chance. > Tears immediately began running down her cheeks as she realized that her best chance for happiness was no longer available to her, and that she might never get an opportunity like it again.

"Buff, I think we've got a big problem here," Xander began calmly enough, as he focused again on the woman in front of him. Seeing the tears that were beginning to cascade down her face, Xander immediately realized that Buffy must be under some type of spell, too, if she had been so quickly reduced to the state she was now in.

"What's the matter, Buff?" he asked, as he gently took hold of her shoulders and looked down at her with all the reassurance he could muster. "What's the problem?"

"I'm sorry, Xan. Please don't hate me," Buffy whispered as she tried to stem the flow of tears pouring from her eyes. "I couldn't take it if you hate me. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to upset you when I said that."

"What are you talking about?" he asked, confusion now claiming its place on his face. "Why would I hate you?"

"Because I wanted you to love me, and you can't," she answered in almost a whisper, the look in her eyes before she turned away had been the one he had always dreamed of one day seeing when she looked at him. Obviously, something Hellmouth-y was definitely up.

"Buff, something really weird is going on here," he announced. "I've been hearing some extremely weird things, and now you're thinking that it's possible that I could ever hate you. We need to warn the others, right away. There's no telling what they have could have happening to them."

Grabbing hold of Buffy and pulling her against his chest for comfort, Xander attempted to reassure the emotionally distraught Slayer while wondering what exactly Buffy thought had happened to make her think he could ever not want to be around her, with the Slayer murmuring her apologies all the while.

< She's really wigged, > he realized as she sobbed against his chest.

< I have to find out what's causing this. She can't seem to tell me what's wrong, so it looks like there's only one way to find out what's responsible for her acting like this, > he told himself as he reluctantly began thinning the mental barrier separating him from Buffy.

The mental image of the stone wall Willow and Tara had suggested he use to visualize the barrier slowly began to fade away, until it had disappeared entirely, leaving him alone. Hoping that Buffy would understand that he was only trying to help her, he slowly probed 'outward,' seeking any indication of Buffy or anything else that might be around.

:: Buffy? :: he cautiously 'called' out/projected her name, only to be met with a resounding silence.

:: BUFFY? :: he called again, more forcefully.

:: Xander? :: He seemed to hear the faintest echo of his name.

:: Where are you? :: he asked.

:: I'm right here, :: she answered, and she was. The mental impression of her was immediately there, complete with the overwhelming feeling that she was trying to hide from him, or at least not attract any more notice from him than she already had.

:: What's the problem, Buffy? :: Concern radiated from him like light did from the sun, making her want to bask in his warmth, but she couldn't let herself do that. It was bad enough to know that he didn't care about her the way she wanted. To have him tell her he liked her, but just as 'a friend' would hurt even more, and she couldn't put herself through that.

:: It's nothing, Xander, :: she told him. :: I was just thinking about something that got me a little upset. Nothing to be concerned about. ::

:: I think we're under some kind of mental attack, Buff, :: he confided in her. :: I've been hearing hallucinations, and you seem to be suffering from some kind of emotional attack. We need to warn the others as soon as possible. ::

:: WHAT!?! :: Buffy answered, confusion of thought and emotion coming from her clearly. Then a thought came to her, as well as a growing suspicion. :: What did you hallucinate? ::

:: Well, ah... You see, ah... :: he hemmed and hawed at her as he tried to come up with a way to tell her without revealing what he thought she had said to him.

After a few seconds of this, Buffy decided to get pro-active and gave Xander a hard pinch to get his attention back to the subject. This didn't have quite the effect that it normally would have because both of them had to stop and watch the blue lightning play under his skin to heal the bruise she left him with.

:: Cool! :: they both thought simultaneously, before Buffy got them back on track.

:: What did you think I said? :: she demanded - actually, almost screamed - mentally at him. The expression on her face brooked no argument or delay from Xander.

< God, how do I tell her that I thought she said what I most wanted to hear? > he thought, not realizing that his mental shield was no longer up and that Buffy had 'heard' everything.

Happiness and annoyance raged within her at the man in front of her. The happiness confused him and the annoyance made him take a defensive step back, out of her embrace.

Not letting him get away that easily, Buffy grabbed him by the front of his shirt. :: You goof! You weren't hallucinating! I asked if I could have you... As in, you know, a relationship sort of way? ::

"With me?" he said out loud. He could barely believe what she had said to him. And while the mental link could be misinterpreted, lying was something that just couldn't be done between them anymore. And he could feel the truth from her.

A goofy smile spread across his face.

For her part, between that grin and the fact that she could feel Xander doing the Snoopy-dance in his head, she was now certain that it wasn't, in fact, too late at all. She let the last vestiges of her mental wall down and concentrated on letting him know just how she felt. The stunned look went across Xander's face for the second time tonight, but was quickly replaced with a look of wonder as he sent back all the love and caring he had felt for her over the last five years.

It was Buffy's turn to be stunned as she felt every thing she had hoped and dreamed about coming from Xander. It was like a warm fluffy blanket had been wrapped around her on a cold morning and she never wanted to get up. Her eyes locked onto his lips as she wondered what they tasted like. Deciding she didn't want to waste any more time, she started to pull him forward by his shirt to find out.

< She wants to kiss me, > Xander thought as she pulled him to her. <Lips don't fail me now! >

And he kissed her. Light, almost nibbling kisses as his arms want around her back and her arms snaked up to encircle his neck. Heads tilted to that perfect angle, the kiss deepened, his tongue sweeping into her mouth to duel erotically with hers. After several minutes of this, that Buffy would later say felt like several wonderful hours, they took a break to breathe.

One of the benefits of taking in that air, Xander discovered, was getting a good whiff of Buffy for the first time since the whole Hyena thing four years ago. The smell of vanilla shampoo and body wash didn't cover that essentially Buffy scent, or the barest hint of arousal that sent his senses into overload.

Buffy would have giggled at his reaction to her scent if she wasn't in nearly the same state herself. "So, is that a yes?" she said as soon as she had her breath back.

"I don't think 'yes' is a strong enough word, Buff," he said, the grin on his face one of pure bliss. "How 'bout 'Hell yes!' or to be location appropriate, 'Hellmouth yes!' ?"

"And for giving the correct answer, you win a prize," she said leaning up for another kiss. <Wow! And I thought that Cordy and Willow were exaggerating about Xander smoochies, > she thought, knowing full well that he'd hear her.

::You ain't seen nothin' yet!:: Buffy got in return. After the kiss broke reluctantly on both sides, he got a thoughtful look on his face. "Ya know, I don't think I ever did the whole dating thing."

"Something new for both of us then," she replied.

"So...How would you like to go to a movie with me?" Xander asked her.

Instead of answering, she pulled herself out of their embrace, grabbed his hand and led him into the house. Stopping only long enough to snag a video from a shelf in the living room, she pulled him up the stairs and into her bedroom. Putting the tape into her 16" TV/VCR combo on the dresser, she pushed him in the direction of the bed.

"Have a seat and get comfortable, the show will start in a few minutes." she said as she went though a few drawers and grabbed some comfortable things for herself. Xander's response put a 1000 watt smile back on her face.

"Whatever the lady wishes."

"Be right back." Buffy said as she went to the bathroom to change.

"I'm not going anywhere," was his reply. And she idly wondered while she was changing and washing up whether that smile she saw in the mirror would have to be surgically removed. Coming back in her room wearing a white T-shirt and red sweatpants, she noted that Xander had indeed made himself comfortable, kicking off his shoes and propping up her pillows along the headboard of her bed. He was sitting up with his ankles crossed as he hit buttons on the remote.

Ignoring the pillow obviously meant for her, she settled in, laying her head on his shoulder, luxuriating in the feel of him against her. "Let the show begin," she said as he wrapped his arm around her and hit PLAY on the remote.

The ultra calm voice of Nicolas Cage discussing his criminal carrier and his love life with Holly Hunter filled the room as 'Raising Arizona' started to play. She barely made it to the credits before falling asleep.

It was the best sleep she could remember.

Xander looked down at the slumbering form curled up against him, and smiled, feeling completely and totally content for the first time in his life. They had been friends for years, and now they had decided to be more.

Some people might have thought they would jump into bed together immediately (Well, actually, they had, but just not in the way most people would expect them to do so), but they were both content to let things develop at their own pace, rather than rush things.

After all, they had all the time they needed now.

All the time in the world.


The Bronze
July 9, 2001
10: 35 pm

It had been an average night as far the Slaying went during the summer slowdown: two newly risen fledglings who had been returned to their graves within minutes after clawing their way out - just not in exactly the same condition as when they had left it, a trio of zombies who appeared to have somehow wandered into town without encountering and/or attacking anyone during the course of their arrival, and a Fury demon who had had the good sense to turn tail and run as fast as she was able, upon her realization of exactly whom she was fighting.

All in all, a rather tedious and not very exciting night for anyone, Buffy reflected as she waited for Xander to join her at the club. Willow and Tara had decided to spend a few days on a school- sponsored cruise to Cancun, Giles was entertaining an 'old school mate' who was visiting California (although from the brief look at her Buffy had gotten before being hurried out of Giles' apartment, the woman must have skipped at least ten grades if she had ever been in any of her Watcher's classes), and Xander was currently chauffeuring Dawn, Christine and Melanie home, after picking them up after Christine's car had broken down on the Interstate on their way home from Magic Mountain.

Another twenty minutes and her other half would be here to spirit her away from all of this hectic revelry to the quiet sanctuary of their bedroom, where she then planned to have her way with him. Several times, actually, if things went the way she planned. She smiled to herself as Xander sent her a mental picture of exactly what he intended to do, once they were alone together.

Fate chose that precise moment, of course, to suddenly inflict the mother of all headaches on them. As she winced in pain, she and Xander both immediately surmised that this was almost certainly the warning signal that Giles had cautioned them presaged the presence of another Immortal.

"Dawn, you're going to have to drive," Xander told the teenager, as he pulled the Blazer off to the side of the road and switched places with her.

"I've suddenly got a massive headache and I don't think I can concentrate enough to drive. It almost feels like my head is split into two places," he said, giving a significant glance towards the two girls in the back seat, as she worriedly began questioning him.

The young brunette picked up on his cue after barely a moment's thought, and nodded her agreement as she slid behind the wheel, keeping her questions to herself and letting her one-time heart-throb concentrate on his link with her sister.

At the Bronze, Buffy was glancing around the room, trying to determine who her fellow Immortal might be and where he or she might be lurking. After a moment's search, her eyes met those of an attractive, well-dressed brunette who appeared to be only a year or two older than herself, and the throbbing in her head instantly ceased.

< Yvette de Francesco. >

Buffy recognized her from a photograph Giles had provided them a short time after their Awakening. He had taken the liberty of providing them with a presentation of a Rogue's Gallery of Immortals, people who had been identified by the Society of Watchers as more experienced Immortals who primarily preyed upon the newly Awakened in their ranks, hunting them down and killing them as the opportunity presented itself or, as was the more common method utilized by de Francesco, worming her way into the younger Immortal's confidence and then attacking at the most advantageous moment. Giles had also informed them that several Watchers believed the woman possessed either some highly refined psychic ability, or practiced some form of magic or witchcraft, that enabled her to locate the newly Awakened. Considering the number of inexperienced neophytes the Society had recorded her as having encountered, suggesting that she had run into them purely through happenstance twisted the laws of probability completely out of any recognizable shape or form.

"A demon in human form. A woman whose beauty conceals a soul as black as any vampire's," was the Englishman's evaluation. "She is at least 473 years old, since that is as far back as the Society's records identify her. Should either of you ever be unfortunate enough to encounter her, do not hesitate to kill her immediately, should the necessity arise, for she will not hesitate to kill you at the earliest opportunity that may occur."

"Hey," the brunette spoke to her, her brow furrowed in an expression of concern. "Are you okay? You don't look too good."

"I'm, uh, feeling kinda dizzy and sick, all of a sudden," Buffy admitted, dropping her eyes to the floor so that the woman wouldn't see the look of recognition on her face.

"Maybe you should get some fresh air," the other Immortal suggested. "Oh, my name's Evelyn Borden, but everyone calls me Eve," she added, with a friendly smile.

""Hi. I'm Buffy Summers. Nice to meet you," the Slayer lied, as she hesitantly got up from her chair. "That fresh air idea sounds good."

Grabbing her raincoat, she accompanied 'Eve' as they quickly escaped the confines of the club, moving through one of the rear exits into the alley behind the building.

Once outside, she turned to face her companion, while placing her back to the wall of the Bronze.

"Okay, who are you, really?" she asked.

"My, my, my," 'Eve' grinned. "For a newbie, you are remarkably perceptive. I am Yvette de Francesco of Milan," she recited formally, with just the faintest hint of an accent in her voice. "Am I to assume you've met some of our brethren recently?"

The woman's stance radiated arrogance as she looked down at the petite blonde in front of her from her superior height and attitude.

"The spell indicated that you had only awakened about six weeks ago. Is that right?" Yvette continued, the look on her face that of a cat who was about to start snacking on the canary. "Your aura is rather strange for a newbie, quite powerful but somewhat... diffuse. If I didn't know any better, I'd say you were nearly as old as I am."

"Close enough," Buffy agreed ambiguously. "Look, Yvette, I'm not looking for any trouble here. I'm going to give you one chance to walk away from here and continue living the good life. I don't want to have to draw down on you."

"I appreciate that, Buffy Summers of Sunnydale. Unfortunately for you, there really isn't any choice in the matter. 'There Can Be Only One'," she proclaimed as she pulled a saber from her coat.

Buffy's short sword appeared in her hand as if by magic, and she blocked the slash at her head with ease, causing the older woman to blink in surprise and quickly step back two paces.

"My. You're very good," the brunette commented, surprised respect in her voice. "You might actually have a chance against me." The older Immortal adjusted her stance, her free hand moving out from where it had been providing balance behind her.

"Oh well," she said, with a wry grin on her face. "Can't have that now, can we?"

With a small gesture of her free hand and a muttered phrase in a language Buffy didn't recognize, the woman sent a short bolt of light leaping from the palm of her hand towards her, and she was immediately slammed back against the Bronze's wall, momentarily stunning her. Her limbs were so weak that she couldn't even stand up, and she could feel herself sliding down the brick wall to lie helplessly on the macadam, where she lay staring up as her opponent approached.

"You really ARE strange, Buffy Summers," the woman offered, staring down at her with a puzzled expression, saber in hand, as she saw that the Slayer was still awake and glaring at her.

"That spell should have rendered you unconscious for at least five minutes, even considering our healing ability. If I thought it safe, I'd imprison you long enough to run some tests. Unfortunately for you, however, I prefer safe to sorry.

"There Can Be Only One!" Yvette repeated herself, as she lifted her saber above her head, preparatory to her strike.

< NO!!! > Xander was screaming in their heads. < Get up, Buffy! >

There was no way in heaven or Hell that he was going to lose her, not now that he had finally gained the dream he had believed so long denied him!!!

He could feel Buffy healing even as she stared helplessly up at her executioner; it just wasn't fast enough!! His emotions burned inside him, his frustration at his inability to help save the woman he loved triggering a rage hot enough to melt steel should it ever achieve physical form. If he could, he would rip the woman threatening his beloved into tiny scraps that he would then feed into a sewage plant, so that she would finally provide some benefit to the world she desecrated daily by her mere existence.

Suddenly, as he raged, Xander could feel his/their healing ability kick into overdrive, his power channeling into his lifemate and the warm flood of strength washing over Buffy as she glowered up at her would-be killer.

"There Can Be Only One!"

Her sword was several feet away, thrown across the width of the alley by whatever it was that bitch had hit them with, but Buffy always had one of her stakes with her, and her hand darted to the small of her back as she surged upright, kipping to her feet, her left hand snaking out to catch the descending blade as her right drove the stake up into her opponent's chest.

"That's right, bitch!" she snarled into the astonished face before her. "And it's NOT gonna be YOU!"

Ripping the sword from the suddenly powerless hand holding it, she shoved the woman away and swung the blade in an arc that intersected with her enemy's neck, shearing through the flesh and bone like a chainsaw though a twig.

Yvette's head tumbled one way to the ground as her body collapsed another, leaving the Slayer holding the bloodied sword and staring in numbed bemusement as a brightly glowing blue-ish fog began issuing from the stump of the neck and accumulating in a slowly swirling cloud above the body.

Belatedly recalling what Giles had told them about the victor of a duel absorbing the loser's Quickening, Buffy nervously began moving away from the cloud. Unfortunately for both Buffy and Xander, an ethereal seeming cobalt tendril shot out from the cloud to skewer her, and it suddenly felt as though the two had grasped hold of a high-voltage power line, as surges of unbearable pain/ indescribable ecstasy shot through their bodies, the memories of centuries of unrestrained predation on unsuspecting humans and her/their fellow Immortals played like a high-speed film through their minds.

Buffy floated above the tarmac of the alley as the lightning storm of the unconstrained Quickening raged about her, her screams drowned out by the thunder of the lightning strikes pummeling the walls of the alley while in the Blazer, Dawn fearfully watched as Xander convulsed in what appeared to be an epileptic fit, his jaw muscles clenched as he tried to restrain his own shrieks of agony/bliss.

"Xander? Are you okay?" Dawn's voice, fraught with worry, slowly became intelligible as Xander managed to pull himself up out of the murky greyness of semi-consciousness in which he found himself. As he opened his eyes, he noted that the car had been pulled off to the shoulder of the road, and Dawn was frantically shaking his shoulder.

"I - I'm, okay, Dawn," he said as he straightened up in his seat and managed to give the Key a shaky smile of reassurance. The look in her eyes and the roiling emotions he could feel from her told him he wasn't being very successful.

"I'm okay, Dawnster. *Everything* is okay, now," he told her, as he noticed all three adolescents were staring at him with obvious disquiet and worry. "I think it's just a bad reaction to some medicine I've been taking."

The lie seemed to placate some of Christine and Melanie's worries, they were from Sunnydale after all, and he concentrated on projecting reassurance and calmness to Dawn, much as he sensed Buffy was doing from her end of the link, also.

:: How are you? :: he asked his lifemate.

:: A lot better than that bitch is, :: came the reply, along with waves of love, tenderness and reassurance and a strong need and desire for his physical contact.

:: We need to talk to Giles about this, :: Buffy told him.

:: Definitely, :: he agreed, :: but that can wait for tomorrow. All I want right now is me holding you. Just the thought that I might lose you made me crazy, baby. I need you more than even *I* thought possible. ::

:: You've got me, :: came the reply. :: Forever. ::


Chapter 6

1620 Revello Drive
July 10, 2001
10:15 am

"And you say that you also experienced the effects of the Quickening Buffy absorbed?" Giles reiterated the information Buffy and Xander had just given him. Together with Dawn, the four of them were sitting in the rec room, glasses or mugs of their preferred breakfast beverage on the table in front of them, along with several boxes of doughnuts, cinnamon buns with raisins and assorted Danish pastries. Watching the rain pouring down from the overhanging thunderhead as they leisurely ate breakfast made the interior seem even cozier and more inviting than usual.

"Yeah, I felt everything Buffy did, even though I was probably ten or twelve miles away," Xander agreed. "It's gotta be because of the link. Buffy sliced and diced her, and then when the Quickening hit, I felt like I grabbed hold of a power line. I actually know that that is *exactly* how it feels, since I accidentally brushed against a live line last year, when one of the electricians forgot to shut the power off before we started working. Not a lot of fun, let me tell you. Not to mention that little accident with the Initiative blaster a while back; electricity is not the Xand-man's friend," he said with conviction.

"Anyway, when the Quickening first touched her, I started spasming, too. If I had been driving when it happened, it would have been Accident City, for sure," he finished up.

"Yeah, Giles. I thought he was having some kind of seizure or something," Dawn chimed in. "It lasted for about two minutes, and then he just kinda went all floppy-loose and just lay there and didn't move or do anything at all." The distress and confused upset still evident in Dawn's voice, and the jumble of emotions that radiated from the young brunette caused Buffy to slip her arm around her sister's shoulders and hug her close, while Xander moved from his perch on the arm of the loveseat to sit down next to her and pat her knee reassuringly.

"That is extraordinary," the ex-Watcher commented. "And you also say both of you seem to have gained the benefits of this de Francesco creature's memories and skills?"

{Yeah, G-Man,} Xander grinned as he answered in flawless German with a decidedly Prussian accent. {Unless someone slipped a Berlitz language tape under my pillow last night.}

{And if I spoke French this well in high school, my GPA would have been a lot higher,} he continued in Parisian French without missing a beat.

{It's like we both killed her and there were two Quickenings,} Buffy added in Milanese Italian, to demonstrate her fluency, also.

"Have either of you displayed any - unusual - tendencies or inclinations? Something you never liked or had considered favorably before last night?" Giles asked with his usual hesitancy at prying into the more personal areas of his 'children's' lives.

"Quite frequently after absorbing their memories, the recipient of a Quickening has a tendency to display some of the personality traits of their opponent, especially if the opponent was a strong-willed individual," he elaborated.

He noted the quick glance his two 'children' exchanged, along with the faint blush that rose in Buffy's face, as they each quickly replied, "No, not at all!" "Uh-uh, G-man. Nothing to report on that front."

Turning his head to hide the smirk that had arisen on his face, Giles added, "Well, should anything along those lines occur, I wouldn't worry too much. All of the reports I have read indicate that the new tendencies fade away after a few days, although the actual knowledge and skills imparted will most likely remain."

"Uh, since you brought that up, Giles," Buffy said, somewhat hesitantly, "we, uh, seem to know where all of the money and other things Yvette had, uh, accumulated during her life are stored. You know, the banks and the account numbers and passwords, and other stuff like properties and stocks and bonds - we know where it all is." Buffy managed to look both sheepish and excited at the prospects of large sums of money.

"We just aren't too sure what we can, or should, do about it," she concluded.

"Well, as I understand things, according to the rules of 'The Game,' they now belong to both of you," Giles told them, not quite sure of the reason for the pair's evident discomfort.

"Really? That's so cool!" Dawn immediately chimed in, her eyes lighting up upon hearing of a possible 'inheritance.'

"So, Buff, how much are we talking here? 'Cause my sixteenth birthday is coming up in a couple of months and a car would be just exactly the perfect gift, you know!" she announced with a wide smile.

Buffy and Xander exchanged another look, obviously holding a private conversation, before Buffy finally turned back to face the others and quietly said, "About twenty eight - million - dollars."

Giles' teacup paused halfway to his mouth, his eyes locked on Buffy's mouth, as though she were speaking an unknown language, while Dawn's eyes were opened so wide, Xander mused, that he was surprised that they just didn't roll out of their sockets and fall onto the floor.

:: That is a completely gross and disgusting mental image, :: Buffy told her lifemate.

:: I do my best, :: came the reply. She could easily picture the grin she could feel was now spread across his face. :: *You* certainly thought so last night, :: came the reminder.

:: PIG! :: was the only response he received, if one ignored the rising color in Buffy's cheeks and the suppressed smile she tried to hide.

:: And this surprises you why? You seemed to like our little game with the chocolate sauce last night. :: he sent to her, getting the hoped for, full on pretty pink blush (patent pending) from her.

" said...twenty-eight...million...dollars," Giles' halting statement broke into their mental flirting and sparring as he seemed to finally recover from the shock Buffy's earlier statement had produced.

"Yeah, Giles," Xander affirmed the accuracy of the news his lifemate revealed. "At least, that's the approximate value of the bank accounts, trusts, mutual finds and stock portfolios we know about. It doesn't include the fair market value of any of the real estate holdings, buildings or any of the furnishings in them, or any of the jewelry we know about, since they evidently haven't been appraised in the last several years."

"That's great, guys!" Dawn enthusiastically embraced the idea of imminent wealth. "So when can we go shopping for my car?"

"You're not getting a car, Dawn," Buffy stated almost absently, the majority of her attention focused on her mentor/Watcher/father of her heart as he took in everything they had been discussing.

"Okay, Buff," Dawn nodded agreeably. "You're right. An SUV would be a lot more practical."

"You're not getting *anything*, Dawn," Buffy refocused her attention on her sibling for a moment to clarify her earlier statement. "You're not even old enough to get your license yet. You're definitely not getting a car or anything else."

"That is *so* unfair!" the Key whined, throwing herself back against her chair and crossing her arms in front of her as she prepared to sulk. Her expression brightened momentarily as a thought struck her.

"Xander -" she began, only to be immediately interrupted by a laughing Xander as he held his hands up in a 'warding-off' gesture.

"Don't even look at me, Dawnie," he warned the younger brunette. "Your sister is the one with the final say in the matter, and she's saying 'No!'

"Not that I don't agree with her completely," he quickly added, as he noticed Buffy's head turning towards him from the corner of his eye.

"You are *so* whipped," Dawn muttered as she sank back on the couch, casting glares at both of her elders that would cause third degree burns on any normal person.

"And proud of it," the taller of the Immortal pair agreed with a nod and a big grin that did nothing whatsoever to alleviate the teenager's wrath. Her older sister's face, however, was now wearing a wide pleased smile that had more than a touch of feminine pride in it.

"Hey, relax and chill, Dawnie," Xander advised the pouting adolescent. "You can complain to Spike all about what's happening when he gets back from his 'vacation.' By the way, did he ever tell you where he was really going?"

"Uhn-uh," she shook her head negatively. "But if he were here and he inherited twenty-eight million dollars, I know *he'd* buy me a car," she whined.

"If you're gonna pout, we won't let you watch when we tell Willow and Tara the news when they get home Thursday," Xander warned, the lopsided grin on his face threatening to overwhelm him.

"Ooooo, that's right!" The Key immediately shifted moods and her face lit up at the thought of the redhead's reaction. "They don't know anything at all about this! Can I tell them, Xander? Can I? Please? Please? Can I? Huh? Please?" she implored him, attempting the 'sad puppy dog eyes' technique she had noted her mentor-in-humor had in the past used so successfully to get his way.

"I don't know, Dawnie," came the mock-thoughtful reply. "The expression on Willow's face when she hears about this whole situation is definitely going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A chance like that, to be the one who gets to tell her, should be worth *something*," he teased her.

"Come on, Xander," Dawn pleaded with him. "I'll do your chores around the house for the next week. I'll laugh at your jokes," she offered.

"You already laugh at my jokes," he corrected her with a superior smile.

"But this time, I'll mean it," she promised. "Come on, Xander! Please?"

As the two of them squabbled over who would be the one to break the news to the witches, Buffy turned to look beseechingly at Giles, who had been sitting back and watching the trio's antics with a broad, satisfied smile on his face. He shook his head and rolled his eyes when he noticed Buffy's gaze, indicating he had no intention of becoming involved in the resolution of the argument.

In the end, Dawn's wheedling prevailed, and she was granted the privilege of informing both witches of her sister and Xander's newly- found financial resources, while Xander would lurk nearby with a camcorder to record his childhood friend's reaction.


1620 Revello Drive
July 12, 2001
2:45 pm

"I think you guys broke her," Buffy commented, as she examined her friend with a critical eye as she waved her hand back and forth before the startled Wicca's face; the redhead hadn't moved from her position on the living room sofa for the last five minutes after hearing the news about the dramatic financial improvement in her friends' lives.

Actually, she hadn't moved in any manner at all, except to breathe, after hearing the news. Buffy switched from waving to snapping her fingers in front of Willow's eyes. Tara was sitting in one of the overstuffed chairs off to one side, a small smile on her lips, quietly watching the rest of the Scooby gang as they fluttered around her life partner.

"Hey, don't be blaming me! The Dawn-meister was the one who told her," Xander protested, pointing to his partner-in-crime, who immediately spun around and nailed him with a look guaranteed to turn strong men's knees weak with dread.

"You are so lucky you're Immortal, Xander, 'cause I'm gonna kill you for that!" Dawn promised. "You made me promise to do your chores for a week before you'd let me tell her, you snake!"

"Hey, hey, hey! First off, there will be no threatening to kill the Xan-man in this house," the possible victim-in-the-making announced to the room at large.

"Actually, there will be no threatening to kill me anywhere," he amended his statement after a moment's thought. "Secondly, I only told you could tell her the news, Dawn, not drive her into a catatonic trance she'll never come out of."

The verbal warfare between the two immediately ceased as the subject under discussion finally shook her head, blinked her eyes several times and looked over at her two friends.

"Ahhh - Twenty-eight - million - dollars?" The last word out of the redhead's mouth left with a plaintive, questioning quaver.

"Yeah, Will," Xander agreed quietly, looking his childhood friend in the eye. "Give or take a couple hundred thousand. Is this gonna get in the way of our friendship?" the carpenter asked, his voice serious.

"Huh?" Admittedly, not the smartest words to come out of Willow's mouth, but it beat the hell out of the just-staring-at-him-in-silence- drooling-thing she had been doing.

"I mean, do you think you can still like and associate with Buffy and me, even though we're now a much more powerful force in the oppressive capitalist oligarchy? " he asked, a twinkle in his eye, as he teased her about her parents' somewhat outspoken, non-traditional (read: hippy) attitudes towards what they considered 'the system.'

Staring at the person who had been a major part of her life since kindergarten (even considering the negative repercussions the 'Barbie incident' had produced), Willow found herself grinning back.

"Well, that all depends on a number of things," she replied. "First, are you intending to take over complete control of the entire federal government, or just establish dominion over a major section of the Western united States, and second, if you are, can I have the Pacific Northwest?" she asked.

"You seem to think very highly of yourself, don't you, Miss Rosenberg?" Xander asked her with a wide smile. "Two states? Hmmm, I don't know. What do you think, Buff? Can she have the Pacific Northwest?"

"I don't know, either, Xan," the Slayer answered, joining in the game. "That seems like an awful lot of responsibility for just one person. Are you going to have anyone helping you, Will?"

"I was thinking about asking Tara to help me out on that," the redhead told them. "How about it, hon? Want to help me rule despotically over Washington state and Oregon?"

"I, uh, don't know, sweetie," the reticent blonde smiled back at her, sharing in the humor. "Would we have to s-spend all our time ruling with an iron fist, or could we just do it p-part-time?"

"Hey, guys, can I have Southern California?" Dawn chimed in. "Like from L.A. on down?"

"No," Buffy told her, with a satisfied smirk. "You have to finish high school first, Dawn. Have you ever heard of any despotic iron- fisted ruler who didn't finish high school? Your jack-booted thugs will never respect you if you don't finish high school."

"Jeez!!!! You guys *never* let me have any fun! You'll probably have already stolen or embezzled all the good things by the time I graduate," the Key whined.

"Wait a minute, Will," Xander broke in. "Maybe Giles would wanna rule Seattle. Think about it - it's usually cool there, rains almost all the time and drizzles when it's not actually raining, and the people can be very rude. It'd remind him of London! Of course, he'd have to go to war with Starbucks over the whole coffee vs. tea thing but everybody needs a hobby. Would ya be willing to let Giles have Seattle, and you and Tara get the rest of the state?"

"Xander, have I ever told you that I find you the very personification of wit and humor?" the ex-Watcher asked from his position in an overstuffed chair across the width of the room.

"Uhm, no, I don't think so," the brunet answered, shaking his head negatively.

"Well, there is a very good reason for that," Giles smirked at him, a little bit of Ripper peaking out from behind the veneer of civilization.

"Hey!" was the apprentice carpenter's immediate response.

"Oh, chill, Xand!" Dawn admonished him, slapping his shoulder. "I don't know what you're complaining about. Buffy'll probably let you rule Colorado, Nevada and maybe even Arizona, and I don't even get a stupid city to rule, until I graduate high school. What a gyp! I bet Michelle's parents would let her have her own city!!"

The others stopped in their various conversation for a moment to stare at the teenager, who merely stared back at them blankly.

"What?" she asked. "You guys are going to be ruling over states and stuff, and you begrudge me one stinking little city! That really sucks!" the teenager glared at them, arms crossed, her displeasure with everyone present obvious to all.

"Ah, Dawn sweetie, we were just joking about all of that stuff," Willow told her quietly. "Nobody was really planning on despotically ruling over anything.

"At least, I wasn't," she added, glancing at the others out of the corners of her eyes.

"Oh...Uh...yeah. I knew that!" The younger brunette looked around at the rest of the group, her face beginning to turn a bright red, before quickly turning and scurrying from the room.

"Heh," Buffy grinned, as she watched Dawn almost run from the room. "Were we ever like that?"

"Nope. Not at all," Xander answered her semi-rhetorical question.

"I distinctly remember us as being the height of poise and maturity," he announced, a huge grin splitting his face as he heard Giles do a spit-take of his tea in the background.

:: Ah, yes! I've still got the timing! :: he crowed over their private link, as Buffy and the wicked wiccans broke into gales of laughter as the Englishman wiped his face and shirt clean of the beverage sprayed across it.


"Uh, guys, there's something else we need to talk about, too," Buffy announced a short while later, after things had settled down a bit and she had retrieved Dawn from her private sulking in her room. "That woman the other night, Yvette? She was some kind of witch or magician or something."

"What exactly do you mean, Buffy?" Giles asked, her forehead furrowed with concentration.

"She means that bitch zapped her with some kind of spell, Giles," Xander elaborated. "Come on, man, do you really think that any relatively normal-level person would have a chance of beating the Buffster in any kind of one-on-one confrontation, even before she got supercharged?

"After Buffy beat off her first attack, Yvette cast some spell and nailed her with some kind of bright white ray that shot out of her hand. The whole thing looked kind of like when Iron Man uses his repulsors, *ZAP!*" he described the older Immortal's attack in terms the other Scoobies could more easily relate to, although it left Giles completely in the dark.

"Don't you guys have, like, her memories or anything, to tell you what it was?" Dawn asked, staring at the two with rapt fascination.

"Well, yeah, we kinda sorta do," Buffy admitted. "But they're all kind of stuffed helter-skelter in our heads. Sort of like his clothes on the floor of our closet," she indicated her lifemate with a nod of her head, who indicated his acknowledgement of her comment with a shrug of his shoulders.

"Everything is there, we just haven't had the time to go through it all, and put it in any kind of order yet. That's why we wanted to talk about it, now, before we go rooting through all of that and maybe accidentally blow something up, without meaning to." The slayer made an explosive gesture with her hands.

"Yeah," Xander added with a smile, "if we're gonna blow stuff up, I think we should be intending to do it, not have to say, 'Ooo, sorry about that, man. We were actually trying to blow up the building next to yours. Better luck next time.' "

"God help me, I am actually beginning to agree with you, Xander," Giles grumbled, as he rubbed his chin, trying to ponder the additional variables this new information imparted to their situation.

"See, great minds think alike," the young Immortal practically beamed at the ex-Watcher's admission.

"*Anyway*," Buffy said loudly, trying to get the conversation back on track, "we wanted to arrange to have you guys," she indicated Willow and Tara, "around before we start sorting things out, just in case we need some shields or something, and we thought you should be there, too, Giles, because you already know a lot of stuff about this Immortal thing we've got going on here.

"And Dawn," Buffy turned to address her sister, who frowned and gave a long, heart-felt typical-teenager sigh, "If you don't mind helping out here, would you mind going to Spike's crypt and get him?"

"What?" Dawn immediately perked up, having anticipated being dismissed while the others analyzed, measured and evaluated her sister and Xander's as-yet-untested abilities, either for being a teenager or for not being powerful enough to be included in the group's preparations. "I mean, uh, sure, no problem. But why do you want him to come over here?"

"Well, he is part of the group, isn't he? And we," Buffy gestured towards herself and Xander, "think he should be here, so he can see everything that's going on, and so there'd be some physical power here, in case things start to go south once we start checking out the memories we absorbed.

"I tried calling him earlier, but he wasn't answering his cell phone, so I just left him a message to stop by the house when he gets a chance. If you could go see if he's back yet, it would be a big help."

"No problem-o, sis," the Key smiled, as she grabbed her rain jacket from the hall closet. "We'll be back as quick as we can."

As she was heading out the front door, she could Xander posing the question, "Can anyone here explain to me how Spike can maintain a cell phone account? I can understand about his stealing his electric power and his cable from the neighborhood next to the cemetery, but -"


"Bloody Hell, Slayer!!! Be a little more careful, next time! You almost hit the Nibblet with that last one," Spike warned, as he pushed himself up off the floor and then reached a hand down to pull Dawn up from the basement floor where he had shoved her and covered her with his body only a moment before the inadvertent pyrotechnic display Buffy had unleashed had hit them.

"Bleedin' thing stings like a gigantic friggin' cattle prod," he grumbled, vigorously rubbing his arm and shoulder where the idly floating iridescent yellow and orange ball had struck him.

"Oh god, I'm so sorry, Dawn. And you, too, Spike." Buffy's hands were at her mouth, as she took in the results her accidental release of energy had produced. "Are you guys both okay?

"I'm okay, Buffy. Thanks to Spike." The look of irritation, anger and annoyance Dawn gave her sister as she brushed the dust from her clothing could have flash-cooked an entire steer on a barbeque spit. "I don't know how I'd be, if he hadn't saved me from your whatever-that-was thing.

"Probably medium rare, with some parts extra-crispy," she added, watching for Buffy's reaction from the corner of her eye.

< Maybe I can make her feel guilty enough to get that car, > she thought to herself, as she noted the mix of embarrassment, concern and guilt on her older sibling's face as the Slayer flinched at the image Dawn's words evoked. < It's worth a shot. >

"I didn't mean to let it go, it just sort of took off on its own," the petite blonde tried to apologize/explain. "Are you sure you're okay?" she asked again, her worry etched on her face.

"See, that was exactly the kind of thing we were worried might happen," she turned to address Giles.

"It would appear that your concerns were, indeed, quite valid, Buffy," the former librarian noted, as he made some notes on a pad of paper he had brought along with him when they had adjourned to the basement to begin their preliminary tests of the two Immortal's possible magical skills. "Although you absorbed this woman's knowledge of magic and her memories of spell-casting, it would appear that you did not actually gain her skill along with them. Why exactly that might be I am currently unable to explain, but I would suggest that you and Xander both refrain from any such activities until Willow, Tara or myself can instruct both of you in at least the basics of spell craft."

"Yeah, Buffy, looks like you and Xander were right," Willow concurred, with Tara nodding her agreement, from their position behind the Slayer. "It is now definite: gaining the knowledge of how to cast a spell through a Quickening doesn't necessarily give you an adequate level of skill and expertise allowing you to do so safely, if you haven't done it before," Willow pontificated, only sounding slightly holier-than-thou.

"Well now, after seeing that demonstration and considering the various results of *my* past efforts with magic, I think I'm gonna hold off on any new attempts at enchanting brooms to clean the house," Xander announced from his seat at the bottom of the basement stairs.

Seeing the various blank looks he received from his companions as they looked at him, he asked somewhat indignantly, "What? Nobody here's ever seen Disney's 'Fantasia'? What are you guys? A bunch of uncultured barbarians?"

"Ooo! I get it now!" Willow laughed as she remembered the segment with Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer's Apprentice. "Good one, Xan!"

"Thanks, Will, it's nice to see *someone* appreciates my rapier wit," he stated, as he got to his feet.

"Well, you could appreciate my wit, *too*," he said, after a moment's pause, obviously in response to something Buffy had said over their mental intercom. A moment later, Xander's face grew quite flushed, and he gave a short laugh, but didn't speak. Dawn immediately turned her head to look over her shoulder at Buffy, just in time to see the blonde's face grow beet red also, as a wickedly lascivious grin crept across Xander's face.

"Okay, that's enough with that stuff!" the teenager loudly announced. "You horn dogs can say that stuff to each other when you're alone together, okay?!! I'm getting enough of a vibe through my shields that I know I *don't* want to know any more!!"

Seeing Buffy and Xander's faces suddenly flushing even redder with embarrassment at her words, the young brunette smiled inwardly to herself, placing an imaginary tick-mark on a similarly imaginary scoreboard, although she maintained her outward glare at them.

<This could be a *lot* of fun, > Dawn thought to herself, as she watched the two make some weak excuses before they hurried up the stairs.


Chapter 7

Summertime in Sunnydale had been even slower than normal as far as any kind of demonic activity went, and things had been going more than reasonably well for the past few weeks, so it shouldn't really have come as a surprise to anyone when it seemed that Fate suddenly changed its mind and decided to unload a whole tractor trailer-load of trouble on them.

Willy had quietly managed to notify them of the arrival of a new group of vampires in town, an even more obnoxious than normal nest who had decided that Sunnydale was the ideal location for them to hold their requisite summoning ritual to call up yet another demon lord in yet another attempt to bring about Hell on earth.

Unfortunately, in addition to being overly obnoxious, the vampires in question were also almost all former members of a militia group, who had brought the concept of victory through overwhelming firepower along with them on their sojourn to Sunnydale.

While ten or even twelve on five odds would normally no longer faze the Gang, with Willow and Tara providing long distance tactical support while Buffy, Xander and Spike faced their opponents in the figurative trenches, the presence of nearly a dozen automatic weapons most definitely shifted the odds in favor of the visiting team at their first encounter.

Tara had barely managed to get a shield spell up to protect herself and her lover after Willow had been taken down by what had fortunately ended up being rather painful but relatively shallow grazing hits along her neck and through the fleshy part of her left bicep. Seeing his childhood friend fall under the torrent of bullets had terrified and enraged Xander in almost equal measures, and Buffy had had to physically restrain him as he attempted to storm the vamp's position single-handed. Only the Slayer's urgent contention that they needed his hands-on first aid training to immediately treat Willow's injury had dissuaded him from attempting any form of attack or pursuit.

The argument between the two that ensued later that night, after everyone had finally returned from the hospital (Willow having signed herself out against the ER physician's advice), had been loud, forceful and emotional. Buffy's taking up the part of the (relatively) calm and unruffled tactician to dispassionately point out the futility of Xander's attempt to attack the heavily reinforced position while armed with only his sword and several stakes had surprised everyone, including herself, but Xander had eventually acknowledged the accuracy of her evaluations, and had later praised her behavior and reactions under fire before the entire group and much later, privately, in a much more intimate way.

Summers residence August 26, 2001 5:20 pm

The first thing that Xander and Giles had done on the day following their unsuccessful attack on the vampire militia was to locate and order body armor for each member of the group, with Willow's hacking expertise being used to convince the supplier's computer system that the equipment was being provided to the Sunnydale Police Department. Xander had then spent the rest of the day alternating between using his new laptop to find and search various Internet sites and his cell phone to contact an apparently endless list of people and businesses.

It was now late afternoon of the second day following their rout by the vampire militia, and the majority of the Scooby Gang found themselves sitting around the family room of Chez Summers, awaiting the arrival of both the seemingly manic half of their Immortal duo, who had left several hours earlier "to pick up some things" after first requesting that everyone assemble there by dinner time, and the teenage auxiliary of the group, who had adamantly told him that she was accompanying him on his travels, insisting that sitting at home doing nothing was driving her "crazier than even Buffy used to be." Mostly they chalked it up to "school starting soon" jitters on Dawn's part.

"Hey, guys, never fear, the supply train has arrived," Xander announced as he and Dawn entered, carrying several large boxes of what smelled like Chinese and Thai take-out into the room where the rest of the Gang were sitting. He then began distributing the various containers to the waiting crowd, after first receiving a quick kiss from the Slayer as he deposited several of the containers on the coffee table in front of her.

"Ooo, pepper steak *and* sweet and sour chicken! I knew there was a reason I love you, baby," she cooed happily as she began opening a piping hot carton of pepper steak and dumping it over the steamed rice already piled on her plate.

"The fact that you're my hopelessly entranced love slave helps a little bit, too, doesn't it?" the carpenter stated casually as he dropped into a sitting position on the floor next to Buffy and began opening his own containers of spicy orange chicken, ostentatiously ignoring the gagging noises coming from Dawn's direction as she paused for a moment in her distribution of food containers to pantomime sticking her finger down her throat.

"Here, Spike," the teenager gave the vampire a big smile as she handed him a plastic container bearing the logo of the local Irish pub. "We stopped at O'Shaunessey's on the way home and picked this up for you."

"Thanks, Nibblet," the bleached blonde smiled back as he took the carrier. It was almost impossible *not* to smile when she was around, he realized; it seemed as though she simply radiated happiness. It took a truly nasty bastard not to respond to her in the same way, and he was eternally grateful that he was no longer such a being. Not that he'd admit it out loud, he had a reputation to protect, after all.

"Why would you have to stop there?" he asked as he began opening the sealed container. Then his nose caught the aroma wafting from the tub in his hands and he looked up at her, delight written across his face.

"You didn't - ? You did! Thank you, Bit! Thanks a lot! You too, Droopy! I haven't had a good blood sausage in far too long," he said, an enormous smile on his face as he immediately began transferring the tub's contents to his plate.

"Not a problem, Spikey. Dawn remembered Christine saying her dad had added it to the menu recently, so we swung by and picked some up," Xander said, acknowledging the Big Bad's thanks before turning to address Willow.

"How're you feeling, Will?" he asked as he looked over at his childhood companion with an anxious eye. The redhead's typically ebullient disposition was noticeably curtailed, and her normally pale complexion seemed even more pallid than usual as she sat quietly on the couch next to Tara, not actually eating her curried pork and pineapple and fried rice with tomato and onions, so much as just pushing it around on her plate with her fork.

"Pretty good," the smaller Wicca smiled, albeit a bit weakly, as Xander exchanged glances with his lifemate, nodding his agreement at an apparently unspoken comment. "I'm still a little bit shaky but that's mostly just nerves. I think."

The rest of the meal was spent discussing mundane things, with Dawn both complaining about and looking forward to the start of school, once September rolled around. Once it appeared that everyone had finished eating, Buffy and Xander exchanged a long look, obviously engaged in another mental discourse.

"Hey, uh, Will, uhm, Xan and I were talking about a bunch of different things last night," Buffy began, a bit hesitantly, as she sat back from her food to look over at her friend with a look of deep concern.

"Oh, is *that* what that noise coming from your room last night was? I thought you two were starting on a new chapter for the Karma Sutra." Dawn broke in, her voice all-too-sweet, before the blonde Immortal could continue, smiling as she noted the blush that had begun creeping up the back of Xander's neck. It was getting harder to embarrass the pair and Dawn wanted to milk it for all it was worth.

Buffy threw her sister a low-level glare, but refused to be side- tracked, and continued her original line of thought. "Anyway, I remembered that you said something a year or so ago about there not being any really Wiccan good healing spells, because you couldn't really heal an injury with magic, you could only transfer it to someone else. Is that right?"

"Well, uhm, yeah, pretty much," the former hacker nodded her agreement, looking nervously back and forth between her two friends. "Why? What did you want to know about that for?"

"Well, we were thinking that, all things considered, maybe that's something we should be looking into," Buffy suggested tentatively. "You know, what with me and Xan being able to heal pretty much anything that comes along, we were thinking that maybe that could turn out to be something that could be pretty important down the road."

"Oh no, Buffy!!" Willow's wide-eyed expression conveyed her horror at the thought of what Buffy was suggesting. "No! I couldn't do that!! No, not at all!! Uh-uh, no way!"

"Hey, relax, Wills! Chill a bit, okay?" Xander held up his hands in a 'slow-down' gesture, as he tried to calm the obviously upset witch.

"Y- yeah, honey," Tara chimed in, putting her hand on the redhead's shoulder as a gesture of reassurance. "Just calm down. Everything is f-fine. Just listen to what the guys have to s-say, all right?" the blonde suggested soothingly.

"No, we, we, we can't do that!" the redhead continued to shake her head 'No!' violently, as she seemed to start hyper- ventilating. "That's the really dark stuff, guys!! Black magic! *Really* black magic! *Black* black magic! I can't do that!! I WON'T do that! NO!"

"Okay, Wills, we've got the message now. No Witch-Fu will be used to help heal people. Check," Xander agreed as he tried to help Tara calm his best friend from childhood down. "That's fine, okay? We're cool with that. Just calm down a bit, so we can explain what we were thinking, okay?"

"Yeah, Will, nobody's gonna make you do anything you don't want to do," Buffy chimed in, too.

"I assure you, Willow, nobody is intending to try to get you to do anything you do not wish to do," Giles added his verbal support for the young witch. "But you should at least let Buffy and Xander explain why it is they brought up the subject, at all."

"But- but, that kind of magic is BAD, Giles! You know that," Willow told him emphatically, a expression of mixed horror and outrage on her face.

"There's no excuse for using that kind of magic at all! Ever!" she proclaimed.

"Will, are you gonna listen to what we wanted to say, or are you gonna just go all self-righteous on us and act like you're the only one who knows what's best for everyone?" Xander asked, beginning to get a little peeved at her reaction.

:: Cool it, Kissinger! :: Buffy warned him over their link, as she gave him a sharp look of disapproval. :: She's already freaked from getting shot the other night, she doesn't need you jumping all over her, too! ::

Aloud, the blonde tried to sooth her friend's fears by smiling in what she hoped was a supportive manner.

"Don't pay attention to this doofus, Will," she said, indicating Xander. "He's just really concerned about you, like we all are, and he's letting it get to him and make him act even crazier than he usually does."

"I - I know, Buffy," Willow replied. "It's just that - that kind of magic is usually only used by the kind of people that we try to stop from using it," she explained.

"We understand that, Wills," Xander immediately agreed. "It's just that Buffy and I were talking about how much worse the other night could have been if any more of you guys had been shot, too. If Buffy or Spike or I get shot or even killed, we'd get over it real quick, (well, except for the original Brain-Dead Blonde joke over there)," he couldn't help but add parenthetically, with a grin, "but if you or Tara or Giles or Dawn or anybody else get shot, you could die, and that's something we don't want happening, at all.

"If you or Tara or Giles could transfer the injuries to me or Buffy, even if it was fatal, we'd be back up and fighting in practically no time at all," he noted. "We don't want anything happening to ANY of you guys, and that's one way we could handle problems like that. We just don't want anything happening to any of you guys, that's all.

"When I saw you get shot the other night, I almost went completely nuts, Will," he told her, looking straight in the eye. "Buffy was the only thing keeping me from attacking all of those bastards with just my sword and two stakes, and all that that would have accomplished would have been to let them shoot me to pieces. The big difference between you and me getting shot, though, is that I get better in a couple hours, tops; you can't," he told her, and Buffy could feel the almost uncontrollable emotions raging inside him as he spoke. The intensity of his emotions was one of her lifemate's major strengths, but it could also, conversely, be one of his major weaknesses, if he didn't take care to think things through, first. A quick glance at her sister confirmed that she was feeling Xander's emotions as well.

"We just want to do everything we can to keep all of you guys as safe as possible, considering what we do," he stated, his eyes, like everyone else's there, glistening a bit brighter than normal. "That's why we're asking you about that stuff."

"Okay, guys," Willow finally nodded her agreement, very reluctantly. "We'll look into it. That's all I'll promise right now, okay?"

"That's good, Will,' Xander agreed, a smaller smile on his face. "That's all we were asking you to do. We'll talk about this some more, later. Okay?"


Once the dinner debris had been cleaned up, Xander visibly shifted into what Buffy had mentally begun calling "Team leader mode," at least to herself.

"Hey guys, can you listen up for a minute, please? I know these things aren't exactly right off the latest Armani line, but I think once I show them to you and explain all of their advantages, you'll all be delighted to wear them," he announced, as he began to open up some of the boxes lining the walls of the rec room and hand out the individually wrapped packages to the various members of his 'family' as they sat around the room watching him curiously.

"Giles and I spent several hours yesterday checking out what is the latest and greatest in body armor on the market and that is currently commercially available," he explained as he distributed the enclosed packages.

"These vests are made from a material called Zylon, where each thread is about ten times stronger than the same diameter steel wire, they weigh less than two pounds apiece, and they can stop a slug from a .44 Magnum when used with the ceramic plates they come with," he announced, holding up one of the packages for everyone to see.

"I also did some checking on various Internet SWAT, police and Spec Ops chat rooms and newsgroups for feedback from actual users on how they fit and feel, and they shouldn't impact on our agility in hand to hand much, if at all," he noted in an aside to Buffy and Spike. Turning his attention back to the rest of the group, he continued his briefing.

"In addition being relatively bulletproof, they're also puncture resistant and slash proof, so they can be used against pretty much anything we might come up against, and they also have collared neck protectors to protect our throats. Best of all, they can be worn under your regular clothes, so no one will realize you've got them on. Vests won't do you much good if the bad guys are aiming at your head," he added, making nearly everyone present wince at the image that thought engendered.

Any comments or reservations anyone might have had about the necessity of wearing the vests was swallowed after a single glance at the small gauze bandages and tape still adorning Willow's throat and arm.

"Here, Spike, this one is yours," Xander said as he handed over a particular package to their erstwhile enemy.

"The others have some additional protection you'd find pretty uncomfortable," he explained, as he pointed out the lines of small black metallic crosses sewn onto the outside of the neck protectors of the vests he was handing out to the rest of the group.

"Look, mate, I appreciate the fact that you got one of these things for me along with everyone else, but it's a waste of your time and money. It really doesn't matter if I get shot, 'cause as you might have noticed, I'm already dead," the bleached vamp pointed out with a grin.

"I'm glad you pointed that out, Evil Dead," the self-appointed group quartermaster grinned back, as he began opening yet another group of shipping crates that had been delivered earlier in the day, pulling a large box out of a crate and then opening it.

"I've got a tape here from one of our suppliers that I want to make sure everyone sees in a couple of minutes, especially you, Spike," he said, while the others fussed with the vests he had distributed, handing the armor back and forth as they tried to determine which item was intended for whom.

"You know, it's really amazing what you can get, and how fast you can get it, when the words 'Cost doesn't matter' are used in a conversation," the brunet noted parenthetically as he pulled out what initially appeared to be some sort of Star Wars type rifle out of its shipping container.

"These popguns here are pretty much the best automatic shotgun currently available on the open market. They're called the Pancor Jackhammer autoshotgun," he explained, as he held one up for everyone to see before handing it over to Buffy to pass around to the others.

"Unlike a conventional pump action shotgun, they can be fired on a fully automatic setting at a rate of 240 rounds per minute, although doing that would empty your mag after a mere two point five seconds. They use a drum magazine which can hold either ten standard 12 gauge shotgun shells or the specialized shells I've gotten for us to use, instead.

"Listen up carefully here, guys, because this is very important," he continued, waiting to make sure everyone's attention was shifted back to him before proceeding.

"I've managed, through the liberal application of greenbacks, to acquire some special ammunition called breaching rounds for us to use when we go up against these guys again. Breaching rounds are basically frangible, compressed powered zinc rounds that pretty much disintegrate on impact," he explained.

"According to the manufacturer's website, the kinetic energy they're traveling with is then transformed into heat when they hit something, making the powder flare and ignite, along with whatever it is they hit. Federal and metropolitan police SWAT teams use them to take out the locks on doors when they need to get into a room or building quickly, because they don't do much damage to anything except the immediate area they hit.

"But anything they hit, they pretty much destroy if it's not fireproof and highly impact-resistant," he added. "They aren't something we can use everywhere, especially in a situation where there might still be some victims left alive we're trying to rescue. I've got people working on some other ideas for those types of situations, but right now, this is the best solution we have available to deal with these bastards."

Spike's initial amusement at receiving his body armor was quelled somewhat when Xander then played a training tape provided by the breaching shell manufacturer showing a SWAT team practicing using their product to open various types of reinforced doors. Several of the Gang gulped audibly as the camera operator zoomed in for a close- up view of the melted remains of the metal door knobs and locking mechanisms on which the rounds had been used.

"I really don't think these yahoos would ever even think of using this kind of ammo," Xander explained after the tape finished, "but I don't see why we'd want to take any kind of chance that they might. The vest's ceramic plates should stop these things from penetrating if they do hit, and even if a round should ignite your jacket or coat, you at least have a couple seconds to get it and the vest off."

"Uh, Xander, not to be too negative or anything, but I don't think Tara and I are going to be very good with those things," Willow hesitantly pointed out after watching the tape. "Guns and me haven't ever gotten along very well," she said, eyes wide.

"I mean, I'm not very good at shooting things, even if they are demons and vampires and other nasties. Guns scare me. A lot," she added, as her hand unconsciously came up to rub the bandages still covering her neck. Tara nodded her head in agreement from her position next to the redhead, as she put her arm around the redhead's shoulder to comfort her.

"Not to worry, Will," Xander smiled at her reassuringly. "Buff and I never intended for you, Tara or Dawn to use these things. At least, not right now. I just want to make sure everyone here knows exactly what we're going to be doing and what we're going to be using to do it. Once we deal with these yahoos, Buffy and I are going to start training all of you guys in how to shoot and the proper method of handling firearms."

"But, Xan -" Willow began to protest as the liberal child of flower children came to the fore, but he interrupted her before she could continue.

"Look, Will, I know you don't like guns, but it's better for you to know how to use one properly and never need to use it, than to need to know how to use it, and not be able to do so. Right? And another point to consider is that you can't always use magic to get yourself out of a jam. If you've used up all your energy, or your opponent has one of those anti-magic protection amulets you told us about, and you're depending just on your magic to help get you out, you're out of luck."

Seeing the stubborn look in her eyes, Xander held up his hands placatingly and said, "Look, we can discuss all of this later, okay? Once we've taken care of our current problem?"

The redhead was obviously loathe to stop arguing the point, but she reluctantly nodded her agreement to continue the discussion at a later time.

"You appear to 'ave done quite an impressive job of determining our needs and acquiring all the equipment necessary for this foray, Xander," Giles spoke up from his position towards the rear of the room, where he had been examining the Jackhammer Buffy had handed him with more than just academic interest or skill.

The shark-like smile and hard-edged gleam in his eyes was an undeniable indicator that Ripper was most definitely alive and well and looking forward to again meeting the creatures that had dared injure one of *his* children.

It was a meeting that his opponents would *not* be looking back on.

"You 'ave anything else we can use against these bastards, mate?" the former bogeyman of the London underworld asked, his cockney accent showing. His expression brought to mind a ten-year-old mid-way through opening his birthday presents.

Xander's smile as he answered might be considered just a bit unnerving also, the former librarian thought, with a glee that would have anyone who remembered the Ripper shaking in their shoes before turning and running screaming for shelter.

"As a matter of fact, I do have a few other goodies we could use," the young Immortal said, as he opened yet another box that had been delivered to the Summers/Harris household earlier that day.

"Those bastards decide to up the ante when they started shooting at us," he continued, as he began pulling out boxes and arranging them on the table.

"Now it's our turn to raise the stakes, so to speak," he grinned at the pun, as Buffy winced and made a face at him. "I've had a gunsmith making up some special loads for our pistols, too. These babies are magnesium tips with a thermite fuse. They're not much good past a hundred feet or so, 'cause they'll pretty much burn themselves out beyond that, but anything they hit will burn up from the inside out."

He ignored the winces, shivers and expressions of disgust that statement caused among his listeners and continued his explanation.

"I've also got our guy working on wooden slugs and maybe wooden fletchette rounds, but he doesn't have anything usable right now. Again, this is stuff we generally won't be able to use if there are any victims around that could still be alive, but in this case, that's not something we need to worry about, since I'm planning on us hitting them a couple days before they're ready for their ceremony."

"I've taken the liberty of acquiring a selection of pistols for you and Spike to choose from, Giles," the brunet mentioned, as he opened yet another shipping container stacked against the wall and withdrew several smaller wrapped wooden boxes from within it.

"Oh, and I got us those Glocks we decided we wanted to standardize on, Buff," he added in an aside over his shoulder to the Slayer, eliciting a pleased smile from her.

"Just about everything here uses 9mm ammunition, guys" he noted. "We wanted to try and avoid any problems with someone running out of ammo and not being able to use someone else's ammo in an emergency."

Opening several of the boxes, he laid out the contents on the coffee table and stepped back to allow his friends to cluster around the table and examine the assortment of goodies he had provided.

Giles immediately reached out and picked up one of the two 9mm Browning Hi-Power semiautomatics lying there, the smile on his face that of someone seeing an old friend after an extended absence. He expertly checked out the pistol before turning to his protégé and bestowing a wide smile on him.

"You did good, lad," he said simply, as he picked up the first pistol's mate and began examining that one, also.

Spike, meanwhile, had gravitated towards the Sig Sauer P226 he had noticed at the far end of the table, and surprised his companions by imitating Giles' actions as he checked out the semiauto's firing mechanism.

"Where did you learn to handle guns, Spike?" Dawn asked curiously, watching her undead guardian angel as he began to disassemble the pistol.

"Oh, picked up a bit of practical learnin' here and there, Nibblet," he answered her absently as he examined the action.

"Are any of these for me, guys?" Dawn asked a bit uncertainly from her position in one of the overstuffed chairs, as she watched the two male Scoobies fussing over the various munitions on display and generally acting like kids in a toy store. Willow and Tara just quietly sat back on the couch and watched the others' reactions to Xander's explanations.

"Well, not right away, Dawn," Buffy answered her immediately, smiling as she looked up from examining her own pistol. "First thing is, we need to teach you the proper way to handle any kind of firearm, but after that, we thought you should have one of these available to use, if you should ever need to," she said, as she held up her Glock 26 for the teenager to see.

"Neat!" the younger brunette smiled widely at the realization that she was to be included in the training. "Are you guys gonna show me how to use one of those things, too?" she asked eagerly, as she pointed to the Jackhammer Giles had set down when he began to examine the Brownings. " 'Cause they look, just, so cool, ya know!"

"Dawnie, none of these 'cool' things here are toys," Xander immediately broke into the conversation, stopping his unloading of the various boxes as he felt a very strong need to make a point to the teen.

"All of these weapons are made for one purpose, and one purpose only, and that is to kill or otherwise injure people and other creatures. There is nothing whatsoever 'cool' about that," he stated as he looked over at her. The look on his face as he spoke to the Key was intense - almost cold - and nothing at all like the smiling face he usually wore when he spoke to her.

"We bought all of these weapons here because the vamps we fought the other night have the edge over us right now. There's a real old saying, 'Never bring a knife to a gunfight,' and that's what happened to us the other night.

"We were extremely, almost miraculously, lucky that Willow wasn't hurt a lot worse than she was, and that no one else got shot. We couldn't even get near those bastards because they could shoot us long before we got anywhere near close enough to hurt them. We bought these guns because we can't afford not to get them, now that the bad guys have them," he informed her.

Seeing the expression on her sister's face as Xander spoke to her and taking a moment to check on the girl's reaction through their bond, Buffy realized she had to speak up.

"We don't want you to think we're yelling at you or anything, Dawn," the Slayer chimed in immediately, trying to soften what the younger girl seemed to think was a reprimand, as she saw that her sister seemed a bit intimidated by her lifemate's semi-lecture. "We really aren't. We just want to make sure that you realize exactly how serious our getting these guns really is. Okay?" she asked, smiling at her as she tried to eliminate or minimize any hurt feelings the brunette might have.

"Yeah, Dawnie," Xander instantly added, also smiling at her, as he projected warmth, love and affection through his end of his link to the younger brunette, as Buffy was also doing through her own channel to her sister. "I'm sorry if you felt like I was yelling at you or anything, 'cause I really wasn't. I was just trying to make sure you realized just how dangerous these things can be."

"Okay, Xan," the younger brunette smiled back at him, tentatively. "I got the message, now, loud and clear. I can't go around shooting any of my teachers just because they aren't being nice, and give really unfair tests," she grinned, a bit weakly, back at him.

"Well, now, let's not jump to conclusions there, Dawn-meister," he grinned back. "If it's Mrs. Caroga you're thinking about, we might reconsider. I remember, back when I had her for Biology, she - Hey! What was that for?" he complained as Buffy reached over and smacked him on the shoulder.

"I didn't say it was okay, I just said - Okay, okay!" he said, obviously responding to something she said over their mental intercom. "You don't have to get mean about it," he said, giving the Slayer his patented 'sad puppy-dog eyes' look as, eyebrows drawn ominously together, she silently, but obviously, scolded him for what he had been about to say.

The remainder of the briefing consisted of detailed descriptions of the other supplies Xander proposed to use in their assault on the vampire militia group's stronghold.

In addition to small, lightweight earplug and throat microphone radio transceiver units for communications and standard flash-bang munitions and concussion grenades that would help soften up the defenders prior to, and during, the course of their attack, the brunet had managed to acquire/develop holy water aerosol grenades with the help and actual blessings of Father Traynor, pastor of the local Catholic parish, Reverend Greengard, a minister with the Baptist congregation and Rabbi Jenoff, the local spiritual head of Sunnydale's Jewish community. Their use insured that the defenders inside the warehouse would be laboring under continuing peripheral assaults even before they began fighting off the Gang's attacks, in much the same way police and military SWAT teams would saturate an area to be assaulted with tear gas and CS aerosol canisters prior to entry.

Spike's outraged protests that the grenades would prevent him from participating in the assault inside the warehouse were easily resolved once Buffy suggested the use of a diver's wet suit and a gasmask to protect him from any vapors he might encounter inside the building.

The smile on the vampire's face as they revised the tentative assault plan bore an almost unholy resemblance to the one Ripper wore as the entire group soon began to debate the various aspects of the proposed strategy and tactics. Although he was extremely loathe to admit it to anyone, the people in this room now formed the core of his family, and any attack or attempt to hurt any of 'his' people only ensured that the being or creature making such an attempt would be removed from this plane of existence as quickly and as painfully as he could mange.

< I may not be a monster anymore, > he reflected to himself as he sat back in his chair and listened as the others debated the feasibility of a particular approach to the militia's warehouse, < but that doesn't mean I'm a bleedin' nancyboy who can't give someone what they deserve. >

< And anyone trying to hurt any of *my* people deserves to be put into the ground, as quick as can be managed. >


It was a much better prepared assault team that gathered around the inevitable dockside warehouse three days later to disrupt the preparations for the summoning ceremony.

While Dawn waited a few blocks away inside their recently purchased Ford SEL Windstar van, prepared to zoom in for a quick pick-up once the attack was completed or for emergency medical evacuation, should that prove necessary, the rest of the Gang took up their designated positions and waited for the signal to attack.

From his position on the roof of a five-story warehouse three blocks away, Xander peered through the scope of his Barrett M-82A1 sniper rifle, looking down at the roof of the two-story warehouse the vampires had chosen for their nest and checking the locations of the two vampires standing guard on the roof and the one positioned by the secondary emergency exit at ground level.

"This is Able One," he quietly murmured into the throat mike linking him to the rest of the group. "I verify two bogeys in sight on the roof and one bogey outside entryway Two."

"This is Baker One," came Buffy's muted response, as she looked down on the two loading docks at the rear of the building from her position inside the second floor of a warehouse approximately thirty yards behind the one they currently had under surveillance. "I verify four bogeys in position outside entryways Three and Four."

"This is Charlie one." Giles' voice was equally quiet, as he waited inside the vestibule doorway of the building directly across the street from their target. "I have one bugger in sight, directly inside entryway One."

"This is Delta One." Spike's voice so laidback that anyone listening to their channel might think he was lying on a couch watching television. "I can see the bleedin' idiot plain as day. The wanker is actually sitting on the steps and has his feet propped up on a box while he takes a cigarette break. What a moron." The grin in his voice was evident to anyone listening.

"Uhm, uh, this is Enterprise One and Two," Willow's voice was just the slightest bit hesitant as she reported in. "We are in position and we're just waiting for the signal to start."

The two witches were currently concealed inside the warehouse cattycorner to the one Buffy currently occupied, a location that afforded them an excellent view of two sides of the vampires' building, the sides with the largest number of blackened out windows. Positioned in multiple rows at their feet were the flash- bangs, concussion grenades and the blessed aerosol grenades Xander had taken so much effort to procure for the assault. At Xander's signal, they would use their telekinesis spells to launch the munitions waiting at their feet into the vamps' lair, hopefully providing both sensory impediments and a series of distractions to draw the vamps' attention away from the assault teams' entries. As an insurance policy against the appearance of Mr. Murphy, each woman had one of the automatic shotguns slung uncomfortably over one shoulder, having gone through a relatively rushed, but thorough, training course in their use the day before.

"Uh, this is Foxtrot One," Dawn's voice chimed in, her excitement coloring her voice despite her efforts to sound detached and professional and maintain her cool during the operation. "I am in position and waiting for instructions."

As she waited, the Key's eyes strayed to the Glock 26 lying next to her, partially hidden by a jacket 'carelessly' tossed on the seat. None of the Gang was willing to take any chances on possibly endangering the teenager, who had vehemently insisted that she wasn't going to be left behind, so she too had been given a quick course in how to handle the weapon. The fact that she had been given one of the pistols for backup both thrilled and frightened her. On the one hand, it indicated that she was finally being taken seriously as a member of the Scooby Gang. On the other hand, however, it was also an indication that things she was helping out with were *extremely* serious, and could be very dangerous to her now, too.

Xander's words of advice as he had given her some basic instructions came back to her readily: "Keep all the doors locked while we're gone. If anyone or anything bothers you while you're waiting, just drive off and let us know what's happening and where you're going. If you can't get away because you're blocked in, ram whatever it is that's blocking you with the van. If you still can't get away and they won't leave you alone, then take your pistol, point it at the belly of whoever or whatever's bothering you, and pull the trigger, and keep pulling the trigger until they fall down and stop bothering you or they go away. It almost certainly won't kill them, but it will definitely hurt them. Okay?"

The intense look of concern on his face as he spoke to her, and the feelings of anxiety and worry she could feel through her shields from both him and Buffy warmed her immensely, and she had nodded her understanding, smiling weakly but feeling incredibly reassured by both of them.

"All right, people," Xander announced from his rooftop perch, as he sighted in on the head of the vamp farthest from him, "it's show time! T-minus five...four...three...two... one... Go!"

Pulling softly back on the trigger, he sent a .50 caliber slug careening through the air towards his first target, then smoothly switched to his second target and launched another .50 caliber missile at that unfortunate's head, before swinging the barrel to locate his final target, the vamp guarding entryway 2, and sending yet a third round on its way. To any onlooker, it would have appeared that the guards' heads seemed to simply explode a moment before their bodies quietly transformed into dust.

After spending a moment to take a quick final look around the neighboring rooftops and finding nothing, Xander pulled a paint- splattered dropcloth over the Barrett to conceal it from casual observation and then secured the previously arranged rope hanging down the side of the building to the rappelling harness he wore before stepping off the side and beginning a rapid descent to the ground.

Simultaneous with Xander's signal, Buffy gently squeezed the trigger of her Jackhammer and took down the vamps guarding the loading dock with two quickly yet carefully aimed series of bursts.

All of the targets were taken completely unaware by the attacks and were dead (again) before they even realized they were under attack, the normal booming roar of the Barrett's and Jackhammer's discharges muted completely by a 'Hush' spell cast on all of the guns and the ammunition by the two Wiccans back at the Summers' house.

Pausing only to replace her magazine, Buffy then quickly slid through the window she had carefully oiled and opened the day before, when she and Xander had reconnoitered the area preparatory to setting up their final attack plans, and noiselessly dropped to the ground. Even before she and Xander had been augmented, a two story drop had been a piece of cake. Buffy landed even more gracefully than a cat and was at the loading dock entrance almost instantly, the shotgun in her hands up and ready for action. She then checked to see if the door was unlocked and smiled a bit ferally when she found that it was.

"Baker is in place and ready," she announced quietly, as she waited for her lifemate to rappel down the side of the building from his sniper's perch and join her and the others in their assault.

As his two teammates removed the guards at the designated entrances to the warehouse, Spike had casually begun walking down the alleyway holding his target's entryway, pulling a pack of cigarettes from his pocket as he approached the guard, his black duster concealing the Jackhammer hanging on its sling inside the coat.

"Hey, mate," he grinned at the lounging would-be guard, as he lit his cigarette. "Is this the place where I sign up?" he asked as he shifted into his game face, plainly visible despite the motorcycle helmet he wore.

Surprised by the blond's appearance, but also reassured by the evidence of his demonic nature, the guard made the regrettable and extremely erroneous assumption that Spike was one of 'their' kind and allowed him to continue to approach without triggering the exterior alarm.

"Sign up for what?" the vamp asked, dropping his feet to the alley's surface and beginning to stand up.

"The 'Kill All The Incompetent Asshole Vampires You Can' competition," the former Big Bad informed him, as he swung the shotgun up into the vamp's face and pulled the trigger once. The guard's head blew apart like an over-pressurized balloon, and the rest of his body turned to dust a moment later.

"That's one," the reformed demon grinned to himself, as he walked up the concrete steps to the emergency exit's door, pausing for a moment to make sure that his timing meshed with everyone else's as they prepared to enter the building.

"Delta is in place and ready to rock," he spoke into his throat mike, as he finished pulling the full Plexiglas face shield down into place, to protect his face and head from the air inside the building.

At the front of the building, Giles had casually started across the street as Xander began his count, a large duffle bag slung across his shoulder.

" 'ey mate, can you call Gregory and tell him Ripper's 'ere?" he called out as he entered the office vestibule and saw the 'security guard' seated behind the desk.

"What are you talking about?" the guard demanded, giving Giles a hard look across the width of the room, but not getting out of his seat. "Who's Gregory and who are you?"

"Oh, call me Ripper," the Watcher smiled at the vampire, the look on his face reminiscent of a hungry shark dropped into a pool full of salmon. "And I've got something I need to give Gregory," he said, as he dropped the duffle bag onto the top of the desk in front of the guard and began rooting around inside it.

"Who the hell is Gregory?" the guard repeated himself, "and what are you giving him?"

"Ah, 'ere it is," Ripper noted triumphantly as he located what he was seeking inside the bag. "Since Gregory doesn't seem to be 'ere, maybe I can give this to you, instead."

The cold smile on the stranger's face was beginning to make the guard the smallest bit uncomfortable, so he had just started getting to his feet as the newcomer made his announcement and began pulling his arm out of the bag.

Staring down the extremely large barrel of the gun the man was holding pointed at his face caused the vamp to freeze for just a second, which was more than enough time for the former terror of the London underground to level the Jackhammer with the guard's face and pull the trigger.

As the guard's dust floated gently down onto the surface of the desk, Ripper spoke quietly into his throat mike.

"Charlie is in place and ready."

Meanwhile, Willow and Tara had been busy positioning their lethal armada, the grenades hovering in the air immediately adjacent to the building's windows while they awaited the signal to unleash the Gang's version of vampire napalm onto the unsuspecting enemies within.

"Able is in place and ready."

The terse message signaled to everyone that the brunet Immortal had arrived at his entry point and that the attack was imminent. Checking the door, Xander cursed silently when he found it was locked, then shrugged and positioned his Jackhammer, ready to shoot out the lock the moment it was time to move.

"Okay, guys," Xander announced. "Unless someone has a problem, we're good to go. Three...Two...One...Now!" he announced, as he blew out the lock on the emergency door and yanked it open, sweeping the area immediately around the door for any potential opponents.

The witches had smashed the grenades through the windows and then remotely triggered the concussion and flash-bang grenades at Xander's count of 'Three', so the inhabitants of the warehouse were still staggering around blindly when the assault team swept in, just as the aerosol grenades were triggered by the witches. The water spray posed no problem to any of the raiders, since the humans were unaffected by the holy water and Spike was wearing a diver's wet suit under his jeans, sweatshirt and duster, with gloves and helmet protecting any areas not covered by the suit.

The warehouse plans they had obtained from the City's Department of Licenses and Inspections office earlier in the week had show a single, unpartitioned, two-storied enclosed area with a small office and vestibule area at the front of the building, and a partitioned- off locker room and rest room facilities at the rear of the structure. Upon seeing the building's layout, Ripper had claimed first dibs on the office area, figuring that the Master of the nest would have claimed the back sections of the area for his own, and wanting to ensure that the demon leading the nest died painfully, albeit far too quickly to suit him.

Kicking open the door leading from the vestibule back to the office area, Ripper tossed a flash-bang grenade at an angle through the doorframe to ensure it would land near the center of the room, then quickly stepped through immediately after it went off and hosed down the three vampires screaming and staggering around blindly with his Jackhammer. A quick glance around the room showed no additional vampires present, but he tossed one of the aerosol grenades into the center of the room before leaving, as a precaution to avoid any unpleasant surprises from approaching him from the rear as he opened a door on the far wall to reveal an inside entrance to the warehouse.

Inside the warehouse storage area proper, Ripper noted the apparently haphazard positioning of the innumerable storage containers filling the interior space.

Coordinating their positions with each other over their transceivers, the four each moved quickly but carefully through their assigned area of the warehouse, following the plans so painstakingly worked out over the course of the past three nights, single shots from the Jackhammers igniting screaming figures clutching at their faces or heads, who then vanished almost instantly, their bodies transforming into dust.

Quickly but efficiently, each of the team members cleared their immediate area, taking time to check the top of each pallet they passed and behind any boxes or crates and inside any closet or locker they happened upon as they moved, ensuring that no vampire remained behind them, except as Dustbuster fodder.

Less than five minutes after their entrance, they had determined to their satisfaction that the warehouse was now completely devoid of any inhabitants save themselves.

As they began searching the building for the various summoning paraphernalia that Giles insisted would be necessary for the ceremony, they were suddenly alerted by Dawn's quiet warning over their comm system.

"Uh, guys, I think you're about to get some more company," the teenager alerted them to a possible new threat. Slunk down in the van to a level where only her eyes were above the base of the window frame, she watched two vans cruising down the deserted street slow down and pull into the parking spaces immediately before the warehouse.

"There's two van-loads of people that just pulled up in front of the building, and at least three of them are definitely not human," she advised as she saw one Fyoral demon (recognizable by both its size and its large curving horns) and two vampires wearing their game faces climb out of the second van. The minimal illumination provided by the street light across from the nest prevented more definite identification of the other inhabitants of the vans, although it didn't require much thought to realize that the new arrivals were almost certainly not there to congratulate them on their latest accomplishment.

"How many are there total, Foxtrot?" Xander questioned her quickly, all of them realizing that they were wasting precious seconds that they could be using to set up an ambush.

"It looks like at least nine or ten," the teenager replied. "I can't tell if there's anyone or anything still waiting inside the vans, though. It seems like everyone out there is waiting for somebody to get out of the second van," she added.

"Okay, guys, listen up," Xander stated, as he and Buffy both mentally assessed the situation for an appropriate response. "Charlie, you and Delta head out the side doors and set up a crossfire outside entryway One. They're gonna be suspicious as soon as they walk inside the vestibule and don't find anyone there, and the holy water aerosols are probably going to be a good clue as to what happened here, too. Get moving, 'cause we probably only have the time it takes them to walk inside to set up.

"And watch out for anybody who might be looking for the missing guards, too," he added, as they all swapped out their partially depleted magazines for full ones.

With a quick nod, Ripper and Spike took off running for the emergency exits, leaving the two Immortals behind to set up their own welcoming party.

"Enterprise, do you have any munitions left?" Xander asked quietly, as he and Buffy began climbing up to the top of two tall pallets of crates on opposite sides of the building and setting up their lines of fire.

"We, uhm, have two flash-bangs left, uh, Able," Willow replied, worry very clear in her voice. "We used up all the other stuff. But we still have all of our, uh, our Jackhammer stuff. We haven't used any of that yet."

Everyone could picture the knife-sharp smile in his face as he said, "All right, then, ladies. If you don't mind, wait for my signal and then toss both of the flash-bangs in here. And try to get them all the down on the floor before you set them off. We don't want any sky-lighting, if we can avoid it.

"Once you've done that, get yourselves out of there and rendezvous with Foxtrot," he instructed them. " We'll join you at the pick-up point, once we finish cleaning up in here."

"Okay, uh - Able," came the reply.

"Charlie? Delta?" he continued. "Wait for the fireworks and then hit them from the rear, hard and fast. Just watch where you're shooting, okay?"

"Never better, old boy."

"Got it, Droopy."

:: You all set? :: he asked Buffy silently, as he watched the door to the office/vestibule area, waiting for their unknown guests to show themselves.

:: Well, there're plenty of other things I'd rather be doing, :: came the reply, accompanied by images of them lying on the couch watching television, Buffy doing her nails and then shopping at the mall, immediately followed by a rather graphic vision involving the two of them, ice cream and flavored syrups and then an image of the two of them sharing a large steaming hot bathtub. The vivid intensity of the images was such that he had to immediately shift his position on the crate he was lying on, in order to relieve the discomfort he had begun experiencing due to the reflexive, involuntary diversion of blood to other parts of his body.

:: But, this is kinda fun, too. :: she finished up innocently, her thought definitely tinged with a mental grin, as she watched the vestibule door.

:: You are completely heartless, woman, :: he told her, grinning back. :: And I'm gonna make sure you pay for that, later tonight. ::

:: Promises, promises, :: she teased him lightly, before her mood shifted completely to Slayer mode, as they could hear a sudden outbreak of pain-filled screaming and cursing. :: Here they come.::

The door to the vestibule area swung open, and both of them held their fire, providing the newcomers with a false sense of security as half a dozen vampires wearing their game faces rushed through the door, rubbing and clawing at their faces and other exposed areas of skin.

From her position atop her pallet, Buffy could see at least two Fyoral demons heading into the office area, and what looked like a Belgari demon next to a Chaos demon standing inside.

"There are at least two Fyoral demons, one Belgari and a Chaos demon backing up these guys," she whispered into her throat mike to alert the rest of the team of her observations. "I can't see anything else in there, but my line of sight into the office area is mostly blocked."

The vamps fleeing from the holy water-tainted air of the office renewed their screams as they encountered the equally lethal air in the warehouse area and tried to rush back into the vestibule area, causing a jumble of confusion with the demons trying to enter the warehouse.

"Okay, Enterprise, hit it!" Xander ordered, taking advantage of their enemies' momentary confusion.

:: Cover your eyes, :: he reminded the Slayer, as he clenched his own eyes shut and covered them with his forearm. It was times like this that all the enhanced senses became a curse rather than a blessing.

A second later, there was a loud "WHOOOMP!", the intensity of the sound barely attenuated by his earplugs, and the barest flash of light noticeable through his sheltering arm, immediately followed by a new chorus of screams and curses.

"Everyone, GO!" Xander shouted, rising to his knees as he joined his lifemate in methodically picking off individual demons, working his way through from the outer edge of the blinded, confused and panic- stricken mob below them in towards the center of confusion clustered around the single door.

The scene appeared almost surreal as he looked over their killing ground, most likely due to the silent nature of their attack, he decided. Temporarily blinded, and without the sound of gunfire to alert them to the nature of the assault plaguing them, the vamps clumsily flailed at each other in their efforts to escape the holy water vapors permeating the air, none of them even realizing that they were under attack.

Spike and Ripper had struck as soon as they heard the muffled boom from inside the building, quietly stepping through the front door of the vestibule and immediately letting loose with their Jackhammers.

Both the Fyoral and the Belgari demons were much tougher than the vampires had been, requiring their assailants to pump three of the breaching rounds into each of them before finally falling down and dying, and staining the floor with their blood.

Once the other demons had been taken down, the two turned their attention to the remaining vampires not yet targeted by Buffy and Xander, a task that was much akin to shooting fish in a barrel. In less than five minutes, the warehouse was once again quiet, with any echo of the screams of the now dead-again demon-controlled bodies having faded away completely.

The interrupted search for the summoning paraphernalia that Giles had been concerned about was resumed, and the equipment found and collected by Giles along with a number of other minor items uncovered during the search, in, of course, the last place they looked.

In addition to the other prizes found, the Gang had decided to take both of the vans used by the demons as legitimate prizes of war, based on Xander's insightful argument, "Finders keepers, losers weepers."

As he sat behind the wheel of the dark silver-grey Chevy Venture LT (while Dawn and Spike argued over who had first claimed 'dibs' on the navy blue Venture WBE model Buffy was currently driving home), he called out to Giles, Willow and Tara.

"I'm gonna be a bit late, guys, I need to stop at the supermarket on the way back. I've got this sudden craving for some chocolate mocha swirl ice cream and I want to make sure we've got a couple gallons in," he informed them before driving off.

"Before anyone says anything at all," Giles stated, as he turned the key in the ignition of the Windstar they had loaded all of the equipment and plunder into, "I am not at all sure of the reason for Xander's smile as he drove off, and I am quite certain that I do not want to know."

Chapter 8

Holy Redeemer Cemetery
Outskirts of Sunnydale
September 6, 2001
9:30 pm

"Okay, who sent out for delivery?" The speaker was a burly ex-biker type vamp, who had turned and addressed his minions, a mix of apparent former bikers and the more mundane members of society, upon catching sight of Xander and Dawn as they turned the corner of a massive mausoleum and practically ran into the crowd of undead.

The two were patrolling one of the quieter graveyards in town, trying to ease the teenager into the 'Slay-age type action,' as she had phrased it, while Buffy and Spike had split up, each of them touring one of the usually-more-active cemeteries, since Willow and Tara were currently accompanying Giles on an excursion to examine, and possibly purchase, a reportedly newly available artifact that had come to light only the day before in Denver.

Since the object in question allegedly had the potential to allow its wielder to bring forth and command legions of undead, Giles had felt it of vital importance to evaluate the item and determine the truth regarding its capabilities as quickly as possible. Should the item prove to be authentic, their plan was simple: purchase it using one of the platinum Visa cards Buffy and Xander had set up for the group's use, in order to "remove its offensive potential from their enemies' arsenals," as Xander had phrased it or, should the current owner prove recalcitrant about selling it, let Ripper convince them of the foolishness of their decision, then pay for it with the Visa card. If other potential buyers should attempt to interfere, the two witches would provide Ripper with their arcane support, what Xander had smilingly referred to as "the Scooby Gang's covert nuclear strike force capability." They always knew when the G-man was in Ripper mode now. For his birthday two weeks ago they'd gotten him a leather biker jacket with 'Ripper' spelled out on the back in steel studs over a Norten's logo.

Accordingly, the remaining Scooby Gang members had rearranged their nightly patrol schedule to allow the three to check out the possible relic.

Dawn had balked at always having to patrol with Buffy, claiming that the older sibling was overly protective, and had argued that she was capable of patrolling on her own, an idea that all three of the senior group members immediately shot down.

According to the normal 'sidekick rotation schedule,' as Dawn snottily referred to it, she was teamed up with Xander that night, and she had been complaining almost non-stop since they had begun patrol about the older Scoobies' tendency to treat her 'like a whiny little kid.'

Xander's growing impulse to inform her that that was exactly how she was currently acting was squelched upon their stumbling upon the group of undead. Alright, mostly squelched.

"You know, you guys might be undead, but lines like that prove that you're still brain-dead," the tall brunet snipped at his opponents reflexively, motioning for Dawn to drop back behind him as he drew his Glock 17 from its holster on his hip and eyed the dozen or so vamps that were looking at them like they were the entré of the day.

The Key also pulled her own Glock 26 as she moved to position herself with her back to one of the surrounding crypts, to prevent any bloodsuckers from sneaking up behind her, while still allowing her to help guard her former crush's back.

"Guns can't hurt us, blood bag," one of the front line vamps, the stereotype of a scruffy-looking, bearded Southern redneck, grinned at him.

"I hope you don't mind if I try anyway," the ex-carpenter grinned back. "Waste not, want not and all that."

"Be my guest," the speaker invited him, talking a step forward and spreading his arms out wide to his sides.

Smiling at the show of bravado, Xander shot him in the chest, then shot the vamp to each side of his target, as the loudmouth laughed at him for a moment, before a look of surprise stole across his face and he gave a loud scream, as small flames appeared around the hole in his chest a moment before he was consumed in a burst of fire.

A moment later, each of the vamp's companions joined him in a brilliant pyrotechnic display. The air was full of the smells of cordite and dust to his enhanced senses.

Behind him, Dawn had followed his example and begun shooting also, although she was slower and more hesitant, not having as much experience as her companion, hitting only two of the vamps. On the plus side, though, any hit to the body was a guaranteed fatality.

While the remaining vamps stared in astonished disbelief as their friends flambéed, Xander continued shooting the stupefied vamps, nailing four more before his gun jammed, apparently misfiring and jamming the slide action. Non-standard ammo was always a risk in an automatic, revolvers were much more forgiving. Too bad they came with only six shots.

"Damn!" he cursed, as he slipped the pistol back into the holster and drew his katana from its sheath on his back. The middle of hand to hand combat with vampires most definitely wasn't the time to be trying to clear a jam!

Realizing that Dawn held the only remaining weapon that could apparently kill their kind fro a distance, one of the more intelligent vamps remaining immediately grabbed a rock and hurled it at the teenager, catching her with a glancing blow on the head and causing her to drop her pistol as she staggered back, crying out and barely managing to keep herself from falling to the ground.

"You okay, Dawnie?" Xander asked, stepping so as to place himself more completely in front of her.

"Uhn... yeah, Xand," the Key shook her head, a bit groggily, it seemed to him. "I-I'm okay." A quick 'glance' through their empathic link gave the lie to her reassurance. The girl was fighting desperately to maintain consciousness and barely able to maintain her balance at the moment.

Playing for time, Xander slashed at the vamps nearest him, slicing through the outstretched hand of the one closest to him and eliciting a scream of pain from the unwary unfortunate, while he estimated their chances.

< Six on two wouldn't be as big a problem if it were me and Buffy, or me and Spike, > he thought to himself, < but with Dawn here, it's way too much of a risk. >

"Uh, guys," he keyed on his transceiver as he spoke quietly into the throat mike they all now wore while on patrol. "We could use some help here. Stat," he said, as he evaluated their situation.

:: Where are you? :: Buffy demanded, as she drove a stake into the chest of a newly awakened fledgling only halfway out of her grave, paying only minimal attention to her opponent as she concentrated on her links to her lifemate and her sister. :: And what's the situation? ::

"We're at the southern end of Holy Redeemer," he spoke aloud to notify Spike of their location. "It's six on two and Dawn's been stunned. She's kinda out of it."

:: And it looks to be not of the good, :: he added to his life-mate, as he eyed their surroundings, knowing that Buffy was looking at the situation using his eyes. Again he snapped his blade out as one of the vamps drew closer, removing several fingers from the demon who thought he was faster than the "mere mortal" facing him while moving closer to Dawn.

"I'll be there in less than two minutes," the besieged Scoobies could hear Spike promising through their earphones, as Xander eyed the encircling demons. "I was headed over your way, anyway. Everything's dead over here."

At another time, Xander would have groaned at the inadvertent pun, but now he gave a silent prayer of thanks to any higher power that might be watching.

Deciding their chances of getting away and/or survival could only get worse, Xander whirled around, scooped Dawn up and tossed her over his shoulder, and began running away as quickly as he could, his enhanced strength and speed taking their adversaries by surprise. The vamps hesitated only a moment before taking off in pursuit after them, like hounds after a fox.

Distantly, he could hear the roar of an approaching cycle, which he hoped/prayed would be Spike. While he could sense Buffy headed their way at top speed, he knew it would be at least six minutes, if not more, before she could travel the five miles that separated them.

The sound of pursuit behind them was gaining, slowly but surely, and he wasn't confident enough that he could continue to evade the hunters long enough to ensure Dawn's safety. Racking his brains for a solution, he recalled a mausoleum they had checked out the previous week, one where the lock on the gate still functioned, but which had been left unlocked for some reason known only to the owners. It was small enough that it could be defended by one person, and was close enough that he thought they could make it there before their pursuers caught up with them.

:: I'm heading for that old crypt we checked out last week, :: he told Buffy, not daring to talk lest the demons behind them possibly hear and try to cut them off. :: Tell Spike. I can hold them off long enough, once I get there. The door's narrow enough they can only come at me one at a time. ::

He and Buffy could both hear and sense Dawn's groggy protests at his decision, but they each realized that, even if she were at the top of her form, the Key could only hold off a hungry vamp for a few minutes. In her present shape, she was an hors-d'oeuvre waiting to be gobbled up.

Spying the designated crypt ahead, Xander prayed that the owners hadn't returned and rectified their mistake since the Scoobies' last check. Almost skidding to a halt at the entrance, Xander gave a brief prayer of thanks as the door swung open as he turned the latch and gave the enclosed chamber a quick once-over to make sure there weren't any nasties hiding within.

After practically tossing Dawn inside, he yanked the door shut, ignoring the young brunette's only half-conscious protests, and whirled around to confront their pursuers, his katana now pointed at the band's leader, as they slowed and formed an arc surrounding him. < From now on,> he thought to himself, <I'm gonna have to start carrying a second pistol in case of emergency; this is just ridiculous.>

"Running didn't do you any good, did it, blood bag?" the vamped-out biker grinned at him, as he stopped several feet beyond the blade's reach. "Guess now we're gonna have to recruit you and your little squeeze, to replace the guys you dusted."

The noise of the cycle was steadily increasing, and Xander's feeling of relief at hearing it was replaced by an icy-cold rage at the vampire's next words.

"Gotta say, boy, you do got good taste in women. The frail might be a little young, but she's gonna make a *fine* little minion, after we all finish breakin' her in," the leader sneered, the leer on his face matched by the rest of his band.

"Well, I just don't see how that's gonna be possible, you fat, disgusting, bloodsucking slug," Xander shark-smiled back at him. He grinned to himself as he listened to Buffy (who could hear everything being said through both their radio and their own link) as she screamed imprecations at the vampire as she ran, itemizing the body parts she was going to remove, and describing in detail the methods by which she would do so, her words almost making Xander wince in male sympathy as he listened.

"Why's that, boy?" the demon-biker asked.

The once-designated Zeppo surged forward, then dropped back, his blade snapping out low, then outward and upwards in an arc that cleaved through the vampire's neck, decapitating him so smoothly that it was a moment before his head tumbled off his shoulders, to turn to dust before hitting the ground.

"'Cause I just don't think you have the balls to do it, asshole," he explained as the remaining demons stared in horrified disbelief at the small mass of flesh that had fallen to the ground a moment before their leader dusted.

The looks of horror changed to anger a moment later, as one of the surviving demons screamed "Get him!"

The five remaining minions all charged at him, and he managed to decapitate two more before he was physically overwhelmed and knocked to the ground by two of them.

Despite his struggles, the vampires were pulling him away from the gate to the crypt, and the third had actually managed to open the door and was shoving his way inside as Xander heard the deep-throated roar of a motorcycle practically in their ears, followed by a high- pitched scream from inside the crypt.

"One of them's inside with Dawn," he screamed into his throat mike to notify Spike, as he drove a foot up into someone's crotch, extracting a loud groan of pain from his victim at the same time the demon behind him trapped his arms at his sides. "Help her!"

He saw a blur of black leather and denim fly past him as he felt the sharp bite of fangs driving into his neck, and then things began to slow down around him as a gentle lassitude seemed to overtake him. He could hear Buffy screaming, over both their radios and their own internal intercom, demanding to know what was happening, but he couldn't seem to muster the energy necessary to respond to her, even mentally.

It almost seemed as though he were in a dream as he watched the vampire before him slowly regain his feet and turn towards the gate of the crypt, only to be met by a yellow-eyed avatar of rage who seemed to suddenly materialize back outside the crypt's gate and effortlessly slide past the gang member's slow-motion strikes, to drive his clawed hand through his victim's chest and watch the poor unfortunate transform to dust around his arm.

The arms holding him released him and he dropped loosely to the ground, as the avatar turned in his direction and he could hear the vampire who had attacked him beginning to scream. He hit the ground and lay there, somehow content in his lethargy to merely observe everything occurring around him.

He could see his assailant off to one side, now, his hands clawing at his body as he screamed, while diminutive blue-white flashes of lightning began dancing randomly over and across his body. The yellow-eyed avatar was frozen where he stood, staring in mute wonder as he, too, observed the spectacle taking place before them. From the corner of his eye, he could see Dawn wobble into view, clutching at the gate, only to stop and gawk at the scene presented her.

The miniature lightning strikes were increasing in both number and activity, almost completely concealing the vampire beneath them until, as they watched in rapt fascination, he gave a final bloodcurdling scream and vanished in an anticlimactic burst of light and a nearly soundless puff of smoke, leaving only a few motes of dust dancing slowly in the air to mark his existence.

Dawn turned her head, her mouth open to speak, and it was then that she saw Xander lying on the ground outside the crypt.

"Omigod!! Xander!! Are you okay?" she demanded as she staggered over and dropped to her knees next to him. Behind her, Spike was glancing back and forth from the dust motes still hanging in the air to Xander, a look of astonishment on his face.

:: Xander!! Xander, answer me!! Please!! What the hell's happening? Xander??!! Talk to me!! :: he could hear Buffy calling him as she ran, and he mustered a tremendous effort of will and answered.

:: Everything's fine now, Buff! :: he managed to tell her as he tried to project reassurance and comfort down their link as well as the link to Dawn. :: Dawn's okay. Spike got the one who went into the crypt after her. :: He didn't realize that he had been talking aloud until he heard Spike correcting him.

"Actually, Dr- Xander, the 'Bit nailed that one by herself. Did a right good job, too, from what I saw," the blonde vamp smiled, his pride in the young brunette plainly evident in his voice. "Not sure just how she did it, but the only thing left of that wanker was a pile of dust on the floor!"

"Dawn, are you okay?" they could all now hear Buffy without need for the earpieces, as she slowed to a halt in the small clearing in which they were currently gathered, barely breathing hard after her sprint across town.

The blonde immediately went to her sister's side, reaching out and running her hands across and along the brunette's head and limbs, apparently trying to reassure herself of her safety through physical contact, while carefully probing through their link to make sure that the teen wasn't trying to conceal or minimize any pain or injury she might have suffered.

As Buffy checked over Dawn, Spike reached down and pulled Xander to his feet, and they both looked over the blonde's shoulder as she examined the no longer bleeding cut on the young brunette's scalp.

"How do you feel? Did you get hit anywhere else? Is your head still hurting? Are you seeing double or anything?" she rapid-fired her questions at the younger girl almost without taking a breath.

"I'm fine, Buff," Dawn protested automatically, as she endured her sister's examination. "Jeez, it's not like I'm a little kid or something, you know."

Despite her complaints, both Buffy and Xander could feel a mixture of relief and gratified satisfaction from the brunette at her older sibling's fussing over her and she could feel their relief and happiness that her injury appeared to be not much more than a relatively shallow cut.

Once reassured that Dawn was all right, she turned her attention to Xander, walking over and pulling her lifemate close and hugging him tightly to her, even though she knew through their link that, physically, he was fine.

"All right, Spike, what's up with you? You actually stopped before you called Xander 'Droopy' a minute ago," she asked, as she looked over at the blonde vamp, "and the look on your face when you saw what happened to that vamp wasn't exactly complete surprise - it was more like you recognized what you were seeing, like it was something that you'd heard about.

"So, what gives?" she demanded, turning in Xander's embrace until her back was braced against his chest.

"The Children of the Phoenix," he replied, a look of surprise, awe, and reminiscence, mixed with a healthy dash of fear and horror coming over the blonde's face as he spoke.

"They're kinda like a cross between a legend and the boogeyman in vampire culture, pet," he said. "I first heard about them from Dru, a couple years after I was turned, but I didn't pay all that much attention to what she said, her bein' the way she was and all."

The blonde pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and proceeded to light one up as he spoke, almost as though it were a ritual to keep his hands busy.

"Legend had it that they were some kind of vengeance demon-human hybrid, with all sorts of mystical powers. Supposed to be completely indistinguishable from normal humans, until you try to drain them" he told them. "Then, once you've done that, the dead body comes back to life and they burn you up from the inside out with their magic as their vengeance. Word was that if they started to hunt you, there was nothing that you could do to stop them, except keep on running and hope they lose your trail.

"I met a couple of vamps in a small village in Scotland, oh, 'bout a hundred, hundred six years ago," he paused for a moment to gather his thoughts, "who swore to me they were being hunted by a Child of the Phoenix. I didn't believe them, of course. Thought they were just a couple of bloody superstitious fools," he explained, as he paced restlessly back and forth in front of the mausoleum.

"They'd said they had been with this nest that had killed a pair of villagers up in the Highlands some five, six months before this, and that the vamp who had drained the woman had just started screaming and had been attacked by tiny lightning bolts before he just disintegrated in a puff of smoke and light. Right after that, the woman came back to life. The pair swore that she had been dead and drained completely, and when they saw her start moving again, they started getting a bit antsy. After all, they knew no one had tried to turn her, so it wasn't like she was a member of the club, so to speak," he added matter-of-factly.

"Anyway," he went on, as his three companions listened with lurid fascination, " when she saw what had happened to her man, she turned and began cursing the whole of them. One of their brethren, some thickheaded lout who reckoned himself an up-and-comer, walked over to her and snapped her neck and then tossed her body inside their home and set fire to it, just to prove that she wasn't any kind of demon. They said as they were riding off, they looked back and saw something staggering out of the house, all aflame and screaming at them. Gave them an awful shudder, it did," he said, replacing his lighter in his pocket.

"They insisted that *something* had been chasing them across the country ever since then, killing their group, one by one. The lout had been the first one to go, by the way. The two I met had split off from the others a few weeks before," he explained, "and they were hoping that whatever it was chasing them had lost their trial and wouldn't be able to find them. That was the last I saw of either of those sods, so I never did learn what became of them," the vamp told his listeners.

"Guess now we finally know what the woman really was, eh?" he concluded his tale.

"Come on now, 'Bit, let's see about getting you home, and taking a look at that head of yours," Spike suggested, changing the subject. "I'll take you on my bike. It's not like you're like the Whelp, here. An injury to *your* head might actually do some damage," he said, with a sideward glance to where Xander and Buffy were still currently leaning against each other.

"Why is it that I think you're not referring to my ability to heal almost any kind of injury, Spike?" Xander asked with a wry grin.

"What?! Why would you think I was inferring something else there, Droopy?" came the semi-outraged reply, along with a small grin.

"Doesn't matter," the taller Immortal shook his head as he grinned back.

"Anyway, Spike's right about checking out that cut there, Dawnie," Buffy chimed in. "Do you think you need to see a doctor about it? Spike could take you to the ER, and we could meet you there," she suggested.

"No, Buffy, I'll be fine," Dawn insisted. "I just want to get home and get a shower and get all this blood off me. I'll put some antiseptic on the cut afterwards, okay?"

"If you're sure," the elder Summers reluctantly agreed.

"Yeah, Buff, I am," Dawn insisted, stifling a yawn. "Anyway, I need to get home and get stuff ready for school tomorrow. Unless you're gonna let me stay home?" she added hopefully.

"Uh-uh, don't think so," the Slayer shook her head negatively. "If you're feeling good enough not to go to the ER, you're good enough to go to school. Besides, you haven't even finished a full week yet! No blowing off school in the first week, sis - at least, not if it doesn't include an apocalypse!"

"You're enjoying this whole 'parental authority' thing way too much," the brunette grumbled as she climbed onto the seat behind Spike. "I coulda talked Mom into letting me stay home tomorrow."

"See that's one of the advantages of being the firstborn, Dawn," Buffy grinned, teasing her. "You get to do everything first, so you already know what the demonspawn that come after you will be trying to get away with."

"Hey now," Spike interjected, "as the only true demonspawn here, I object to be lumped in the same class as your little sister here, Slayer!"

"And just *what* would be the problem with being 'lumped in the same class' as me be, Spike?" Dawn asked in a dangerously low voice from her position behind him.

Seeing the wide grin on Xander's face, Spike immediately realized his mistake and desperately began trying to dig himself out of the hole he had thrown himself into.

"Well, uh, there's no real problem, actually, Nibblit," he floundered aimlessly for a moment.

"I just meant that with you being a girl, uh, I mean, a beautiful young woman," he recovered instantly, "and me not - being a woman, I mean - that I just thought it wouldn't be right or fair to you, to categorize the two of us in the same class, that's all."

"Nice save," Xander commented with a huge grin. "I'd give a 9.2 for its being extemporaneous and off the cuff, but only a 6.8 for actual execution, mainly due to lack of additional flattery. What do you think, Buff?"

"Oh, I'd have to say that was an 8.2, maybe even an 8.4," Buffy stated, a wide grin matching Xander's on her face as they watched the Bleached Bad squirm. "You need to work a little harder on the sincerity part, Spike, but overall - not bad at all."

"How about you, Nibblit?" the chipped vampire asked, the least bit anxiously. "What do you think?"

"W-e-e-e-l-l-l-l," the young brunette drew out her response, "Buffy's right about the sincerity part, but - considering the way you came flying into that crypt earlier looking for me, I think you'll get a passing grade. For tonight, at least," she added.

"Just don't push your luck too far in the future, mister," she advised him, as she gave him a light poke in the ribs, then wrapped her arms around his waist. "Now, take me home, James," she instructed him. "There's a long, hot bath out there, calling my name."

Had he had any real need to breathe, Spike would have let out a long, loud sigh of relief at Dawn's words. After his relationship with Drusilla, he knew the very real dangers of having a woman pissed off at you. And having that woman be a teenager, let alone a mystically empowered teenager, only increased the level of torment possible.

With a large smile of relief on his face that Dawn couldn't see, he let out the clutch and roared off for home.


UC Sunnydale campus
September 14, 2001
8:30 am

"Hey, Willow! Yo! Rosenberg! Wait up a minute!" The speaker was a young, bearded, rather good-looking fellow redhead who had called to her as she was walking down the hall of the Physical Sciences Building.

"Oh, hey, Jerry," the witch smiled as she paused to wait for the speaker to catch up with her. "How are you doing? How did your summer go?"

"Oh, not too bad," he grinned at her. "Took a couple weeks off in August to hike through Yosemite National Forest. Man, that place is incredible! How'd yours go?"

"Oh - pretty well, I suppose, all things considered," she said reflectively as she thought about everything that had happened to the Scooby Gang in the ensuing months.

"But things are *definitely* better than they were last May," she decided. "So, Jer, what did you want?"

"I got those test results back that you asked me to run," the youth informed her with a big smile, as he rooted through his backpack and pulled out a sheaf of papers to hand her. "So, you can tell your friend 'Congratulations' and now she has proof positive to show the son of a bitch!"

"Show who, what?" the hacker turned Wicca asked, her face a mask of bewilderment as she looked from Jerry's face to the cover sheet topping the stack of papers she now held.

"I ran each of the tests twice," he continued speaking, expanding on the results shown on the paper. "Things were a little slow here at the end of July, and I was just basically sitting around, twiddling my thumbs, so I figured, since I didn't have anything else to do, I would run the tests a second time, so there would be conclusive proof for your friend.

"There isn't a laboratory in the nation that could argue with the way we did anything here, Willow," he grinned proudly at the redhead. "We followed the most recently issued procedures to document and test each specimen, and all of our equipment was checked and re-calibrated last April. And voila! All the proof you need is right there, in front of your face!"

"Oh, Goddess!" she exclaimed under her breath, as she read the printed summary at the bottom of the page, then re-read it a second time, to make sure she wasn't seeing things.

"But - but - how - I mean, that's - that's impossible! This can't be right!" she insisted, her expression flustered as she looked up in confused protest at her classmate, but he was already heading off in the opposite direction.

"See ya around, Willow! Got get to class - I'm a T.A. now. Later!" Jerry waved his goodbye to the perplexed semi-retired hacker.

"There's been a mistake," she protested weakly as she read the results she held in her hand for a third time. "There must have been! This is impossible! It just can't be-" she trailed off feebly.

"On the other hand - this *is* Sunnydale..." she reminded herself, as she tucked the papers Jerry had given her in her backpack.

"Oh boy! They're *really* going to go crazy when I tell them this," she predicted to herself, before setting off for her class.


Basement of The Magic Box
September 14, 2001
2:50 pm

"I can't believe you're actually going to do this."

"I've been saying I'm going to do this for months now, Xand. There's no reason for you to be surprised."

*Long sigh.*

"I don't suppose you talked to *her* about this, did you?"

"Nah, it'll be a lot more fun just surprising her, don't you think?"

"If you define 'fun' as lots of screaming and things being thrown around and broken, then that's definitely a 'Yes'."

*Sounds of tools.*

"You didn't say anything to her, did you?"

"Do I *look* stupid or suicidal to you?"

"Do you mean today, or in general?"

"Very funny, Missy. It is to laugh. Ha. Ha. Ha."

"Willow says there's only a few minor tweaks still needed, and then - Bingo! Houston, we have lift-off!"

"I think the better description would be 'pissed off,' not 'lift- off'."


"Easy for you to say. You're not the one who has to sleep with her."

"Sleep? Is that what you two call it?"

*Extended glare.* "That is definitely *not* a subject we will be discussing, at any time, ever, young lady!"

*Shrug.* "And anyway, it's not like you *have* to sleep with her, you know."

"I thought it was established that we were not going to discuss this subject?"


"What exactly do you mean by that word?"

"Whatever I want it to mean."

"I see. Planning on a career in politics, huh?"

"Maybe. It all depends on how much money I can make in it."

"As far as I know, there's no standardized pay scale for corrupt politicians. It's more of a "Keep up the bidding!" type of deal, but with a pretty good health benefits package thrown in. Unless, of course, you're the Mayor - then the whole retirement thing could be a little abrupt."

"Sounds good to me."


"So, you're really serious about this? How do you plan on explaining everything to the gang and, most especially, Buffy?""

"My initial plan called for lots of lying and denial of responsibility, but then I thought it over in more depth and I figured I could blame Spike."

"Okay, that might work. Payback's gonna be hell, you know."

"Yeah, but the expression on her face is gonna be *so* worth it."

"That's what you say now. I think your attitude might change after the first six or eight years of grounding have gone by."


"And again with that phrase."

*Sounds of footsteps on a stairway.*

"Hey guys, what're you doing down here?"

"Oh, hi, Wills. How's things?"

"Oh, uh, so-so, I guess. Dawn!" *Giggle.* "You're actually doing it? That's great! Buffy is going to be so surprised! And pissed!! She'll probably burst a blood vessel!"

"Glad to see you're supplying an appropriately mature example of adult behavior for an impressionable young woman, Wills."

"Aren't you supposed to be doing that?"

"Will." *Pause and a Look.* "If you check in the dictionary, you'll see my picture next to the words 'mature' and 'responsible,' with the caption 'Definitely not him'."

"Good point. Have you seen Buffy lately, Xan?"

"She's at the mall, shopping for shoes. She's only got about nine dozen pairs back at the house, and I think she doesn't want them to get lonely. Why? Is something up?"

"Oh, no! No, not at all! I was just wondering where she was, that's all! In case we might need to call her or get in touch with her or something like that. Just basic Scooby curiosity, nothing more. Nothing to get concerned about. Nothing at all. No biggie."

"Were you sniffing some of the fumes of the stuff you mix in your Chemistry lab class again, Will? 'Cause you seem to be acting weirder than normal. Well, at least, normal for you, that is."


"Ow! What was that for?"

"Weird is *not* normal for me, Xander Lavelle Harris."

"Wills, this is Sunnydale. Being normal is weird here, and being weird is normal here. Am I right, Dawn?"

"For you, being right is weird, Xander."

"I get it. This is one of those female things, isn't it? You're backing each other up because I'm the only one here with a Y chromosome. Boy, and people talk about sex discrimination - I'm gonna have to talk to Giles about recruiting more guys into this group."

"Xander, you're beginning to act even weirder than you usually do."

"Obviously, you weren't paying attention just a moment ago, Dawnie, or you would have heard me explain how weird is normal and normal is weird here in the 'Dale."

"Oh, please, Dawn! Don't let him get started on that again."

"Ah-ha! That proves it! All of you women are in it together! I knew it! I knew there was a conspiracy!"

"Dawn, did Buffy let him have a second bowl of those Super Choco Sugar Bombs for breakfast this morning?"

*Shrug.* "Well, at first, she told him to stop when she saw him getting the second bowl, but then he turned around and looked at her and then I think he did something with his mouth, and probably his tongue, too, that I couldn't see, and he must have said something to her over their link, 'cause she turned redder than I thought was humanly possible and she got this big goofy grin on her face, and she didn't say anything to him after that."

"Dawn, Buffy is going to kill you for telling her that, you know."

*Another shrug.*

"Yeah, well, she was going to kill me for this, anyway, so it's not like I've got anything to lose, now do I?"

*Reflective pause.*

"You do have a point there...Might as well go for the gold, then, Dawn."

"So, green or blue?"

"Green, definitely. Emerald green."

*Clicks and a half-muttered curse from Dawn.*

"Ah! Finally!"

"Looks good to me, Dawn. Very nice."

"If you don't mind me asking, why red, Dawn?"

"Well, Buffy, Tara and Spike are all blondes, even though we all know two of them come out of a bottle, and Xander, Giles and I are brunettes, and you're all by yourself, so I thought I'd even the odds up a little for you."

"Awwww, that is so sweet of you, Dawnie. Thank you!"

"You're welcome, Oh Great and Powerful Witch of the Hellmouth."

*Indistinguishable clicks, whirls and sounds of various tools.*

"You know, you seem to have a definite talent for this kind of stuff, Dawn, unlike your sister. If it's not weapon- or mass destruction- related, she's just not interested in it. Not that I'm complaining, mind you. But you really seem to have picked up a lot of this stuff just hanging around Willow and watching what she does."

"He's right, Dawn. You really are very good with this stuff. Much better than I was at your age."

"Thanks, guys. It's nice to hear things like that. When she was my age, Buffy was already kicking undead ass all over the place."

"Actually, Dawn, given the differences in your ages and birthdays, Buffy wouldn't have begun to kick undead ass until about another three weeks had gone by. So you're actually ahead of the pre-Slayer Buffster in the angst-y adolescent accomplishment competition. Although she would definitely have kicked your butt in the 'snotty mindless cheerleader condescension' and 'arrogant skanky Cordelia Chase clone' categories."

"And I could kick hers in the actual 'kicking undead ass' category, at least for another three weeks."

"In any event, you're not competing with Buffy in *anything* in our eyes, Dawn. You do know that, right?"


"Thanks, guys. I appreciate everything you said, and before we degenerate into a disgustingly sentimental puddle of hugs and sniffles, I want to take this opportunity to say - We're Done!"

"Really? Cool!"

"Ooo, that 's great!"

"So, have you thought of a name?"

"I think Daphne would be perfect."

"Guys, do you think we might be taking this Scooby theme a step too far here?"


"Definitely not." "How about an explanation for her being here for any non-Scooby?"

"Eccentric, distant cousin who's just moved into the area and is staying with us until she finds her own place."

"Works for me."

"Okay then, why don't you start her up, Dawnie, and make sure she's working properly. I think that a good way to test her would be to have her prepare dinner for us tonight. You did remember to download the basic and gourmet cooking programs and the recipe database, didn't you?"

"You know, I'm still not sure why you were ever referred to as the 'Heart' of the Scooby Gang, Xander. The 'Stomach and Upper Gastro-Intestinal Tract' of the Scooby Gang would be much more descriptive, if you ask me."

"Perhaps now you understand why no one checked with you first, young lady."

"Bite me."

"Ah-ah-ah! Not words you really want to be saying much in this town, Dawn. And your sister would probably be quite upset if she ever heard you saying them, given her nocturnal hobby."

"So, Xand, is everyone going to be at your guys' place later tonight?"

"I guess so, Will, considering that that seems to have become the normal routine for us the past couple months. Did you and Tara want to come over early for dinner? It's shouldn't be a problem - we'll just program Daphne for a couple additional portions and it'll be all set."

"Oh, uh, no thanks. We'll probably just get something from the Jade Garden, I think. Thanks for the offer, though."

"No problem-o, Wills. Well, ladies, I gotta be getting out of here. I need to stop by the Fed-Ex office and pick up a package they're holding for us. They left a note on the door that they need someone to sign for whatever it is, and no one was home when they came by. You haven't been calling the Home Shopping Network again by any chance, have you, Dawn-meister?"

"I was eleven when that happened, Xander. How's an eleven-year-old supposed to understand what 'twelve easy payments of only forty-nine ninety-five plus tax' really means, huh? And anyway, Mom later told me it was the nicest piece of cubic zirconium she ever had, so there, you money-grubbing, penny-pinching tightwad, you!"

"Buffy's still not gonna let you get that Ferrari, Dawn, regardless of what names you call me. Or her, for that matter. I think the fact that she's even considering letting you get a car at all to be proof that miracles can still occur in this day and age."

"I don't want a Volkswagen, Xander! They're for geeks and doofs!"

"And the Shoe Leather Express is so much cooler? A word of advice, kiddo - I would definitely tone down the attitude about the Volkswagen - Buffy could be checking out Volvos. Want to be driving something a middle-aged accountant in a three piece suit owns?"

"Oooohhh! You guys make me so mad sometimes!" *Sounds of feet stomping up a stairway.*

"And the match goes to Alexander Harris, with a TKO at the end of the final round!"

"Thanks, Wills, but with the years of experience I've got behind me, against opponents like Harmony and the legendary Cordelia Chase, the poor kid really didn't have a chance."

"Okay, Xand. Well, I guess we'll see you guys later tonight then. Bye."

"Later, Will."


Buffy and Xander's bedroom
Summers/Harris residence
September 14, 2001
7:12 pm

"And I still don't think that that *thing* looks anything like me at all! My cheeks are completely different, and my eyes are blue, not that bilious green color Dawn picked out. And my hair is a completely different style, not to mention the color! And those clothes! Purple? Please!! And the headband and that dress?!! That's so 1970's!! I wouldn't be caught dead in anything like that!! If I ever put anything like that on, I'd kill myself first!!!"

Buffy was still ranting, her voice echoing through the room as she paced back and forth in the open space at the foot of their bed. Xander just lay quietly on top of the bedspread, keeping silent and letting his lifemate vent.

A quick peek through his 'blast shield' (as he thought of it at the moment) had verified that the Slayer wasn't so much upset by the sudden reappearance of the rebuilt Buffybot as just extremely pissed off by her sibling's subtle modifications to the 'bot features and the manner in which it was clothed, considering it a subtle slur on her own appearance and taste. The blonde's tirade had been going on for about ten minutes now, and she was just beginning to wind down a bit.

"And I can't believe you didn't say anything to me, Xander! You just let me walk in there and get blindsided by that nasty, conniving, scheming little brat!"

"Ah, but if I had said anything, my dearest Slayer, you wouldn't have any reasonable justification for grounding the impertinent little wench for the rest of her life, or until you get tired of hearing her whine," the carpenter-turned-millionaire pointed out, his rationalization only earning him yet another glare from his lifemate as she continued her diatribe.

The blonde had caught her second wind, and was about to start on the next phase of her tirade, when the two Immortals heard someone knocking on the front door, followed by the sound of the door opening and Willow's voice hesitantly inquiring if anyone was home? Dawn's holler informing them that she was on the phone in the kitchen could probably have been heard on the other side of town.

"Oh, and there's my best friend, Benedict Rosenberg!" the apparently still irate blonde pointed out upon hearing the witch's voice. "There is no way Dawn could have been working on that 'bot without Willow knowing about it, and she somehow 'forgot' to mention it to me, too!"

"Okay, come on now, Bufferino!" Xander said, as he reached out and grabbed hold of the Slayer's leg as she passed by him, pulling her down onto him and the bed, then wrapping his arms and legs around her to hold her tight as she put up a perfunctory struggle against him.

"Don't you think you're going on just a little bit much now? Okay, so Dawn got you with the 'bot bit, and you're just pissed that she did. Let her have her little victory for now," he murmured in her ear as he nuzzled her neck with his lips. "You're going to have plenty of chances to even things up. There'll be boys coming around to pick her up for dates that you can browbeat, missed curfews, dances and plenty of other things you can ding her for."

Buffy had begun purring and ceased her token struggling as his mouth began sliding along her neck, and now she squirmed around in Xander's grasp until she was facing him, their mouths on a level with each other. She leaned forward and kissed him lightly, her lips skip- kissing all over his face, while she insistently ground her torso and pelvis against his, plastering herself against him as though she were trying to be absorbed into him through his skin. As her lifemate growled low in his throat and leaned his head forward to deepen their kiss, Buffy gave a quick twist and rolled out of his embrace, to stand by the side of the bed, glaring down at him.

"Don't think that you're getting out of this whole mess scot-free, *sweetheart*," she advised him, her eyebrows narrowed in annoyance and disapproval and her arms folded across her chest, as he looked up at her in frustrated surprise.

"That was just a little reminder of what you're *not * going to be enjoying until I decide to forgive you," she informed him.

< Uh-oh, she's a lot more pissed than I thought she'd be, > the semi- retired carpenter belatedly realized. < Time to grovel, Xan-man, like you've never groveled before. >

Dropping to his knees before the diminutive Slayer, he immediately began begging her forgiveness.

:: I'm sorry, Buffy, :: he sent across their link as intensely as he could. :: I didn't think that you would be as upset as you obviously are. I thought that you would probably just consider it as a slightly funny joke, and laugh it off after a minute. You *know* I would never have allowed Dawn to do anything with the 'bot if I had thought it would really upset you in any manner. Can you please find it in your heart to excuse my stupid and inconsiderate actions? ::

Just because the person that you were literally sharing your life and your mind and heart with could really and truly know your feelings didn't mean you shouldn't lay it on a little bit thick.

The major advantage of the mental and emotional link the two of them shared was that they could each experience the intensity of the other's feelings as they communicated. Neither one could lie to the other, although the possibility of misinterpretation and miscommunication still remained, so Buffy immediately knew the truth of Xander's statement to her.

Unable to deny the honesty of her lover's feelings, she reluctantly relented in her threatened punishment, although she still felt somewhat self-righteously entitled to her sense of being unjustly insulted and ridiculed.

:: I forgive you, you insensitive clod, :: she told him. :: Sometimes, I just can't figure out why I continue to put up with you, ::she added as he immediately broke out in a smile and climbed back to his feet.

:: Because you are a warm and wonderfully forgiving person, :: he quickly replied. :: And far too good for the likes of me to ever deserve the delight that is your presence, :: he went on, extolling her virtues.

:: Don't push it, doofus, :: she warned him with a grin. :: You're still gonna have to wine and dine me at a very nice place to make up for this goof-up. ::

:: Dine on you? :: he replied with a twinkle in his eyes as an extremely vivid image flashed between them. :: I'd be delighted to do so! :: Taking her in his arms, Xander softly but passionately kissed the petite blonde, the kiss deepening as she entwined her arms around his neck and pulled him tighter.

Before they could continue further, however, Willow's voice could be heard again, summoning everyone in the house.

"Uh, hey guys! Not meaning to be interrupting anything, but can everybody come down here for a minute or so, please? I've got something really, really important to tell you," they could hear her calling.

With a mutual frustrated groan, the two Immortals reluctantly released each other, their eyes making promises of what would ensue once Willow's 'business' was concluded as they headed downstairs.

"Okay, Will. So, what's the big news you had to tell us?" Buffy asked as they joined the rest of the Scoobies in the rec room, trying to ignore Xander's fingers as they lightly danced across her lower back as he stood next to her, making little shivers course up and down her spine.

When he bonelessly dropped into one of the overstuffed chairs, the little blonde gracefully slid onto his lap, grinding her derriere against him as she did so and quietly laughing to herself as he stifled a groan, extremely pleased with his reflexive reaction to her gyrations.

< Paybacks can be a real bitch, can't they? > she smiled over their link, while seemingly waiting attentively for Willow to begin her explanation.

Wisely, Xander chose to remain silent. It's amazing how much better life goes when you're not dining on shoe leather.

"Okay, well, uhm -" Having everyone in the Scooby gang's eyes on her as the center of attention was apparently making Willow even more nervous than she normally would be.

"Okay, Red, enough with the suspense," Spike said as he slouched on one end of the couch, feet propped up on the end of the coffee table. "What's so important that you had to drag everyone over here to hear it?"

"Yeah, Will, what's up?" Dawn chimed in, as she knocked Spike's feet off the table and casually glared at him as she stepped over his legs and dropped onto the couch next to him.

"Yes, Willow," Giles added from his position by the kitchen doorway. "Without wanting to appear rude or anything, I do have an appointment in Los Angeles I need to keep, and I should be leaving very shortly, if I'm not intending to be late."

"By any chance, would this 'appointment' of yours be with that 'old school mate' of yours I met for such a short period of time back in July, Giles?" Buffy asked, her eyes alight with deviltry as she noticed that her surrogate father was wearing his leather jacket and that his Norton Classic was parked outside in their driveway.

"Well, uhm, actually, Buffy, as a matter of fact, it is," the former librarian grudgingly admitted. "So if you don't mind, Willow, I would, uhm, appreciate your informing us of whatever this information that you fell we need to know is, so that I could be on my way."

With a desperate, last minute glance at Tara for support, Willow nervously began her announcement, wringing her hands as she spoke.

"Well, uhm, guys, I suppose I should have spoken to you about this first, but Tara already knows about it, because I had to talk to someone right away when I first found out, and she was the first person I ran into, and I really didn't think that you would mind very much if Giles and Spike found out at the same time I told you guys because they would be the only ones to not know if I did tell you guys first so I called them and asked them to come over here so they could be here when I did tell you," the redhead's words had begun to run on, apparently interminably, when Xander broke in, interrupting her.

"Okay, Wills, relax," he advised her. "Take a deep breath, and then, in short sentences, tell us what it is you've been trying to tell us. Okay?"

With an embarrassed smile at her reversion to her infamous Willow- babble, the Wiccan nodded her agreement, and took a deep breath as her childhood friend had recommended.

"Okay. Much better now," she smiled, still a bit nervous. "You guys remember, back in May when we first found out that all of you guys could feel each other's presence how I took some tissue samples, so we could maybe see if there was kind of link that you guys all shared?"

At the various nods of the people involved, the redhead flashed them another anxious smile before continuing.

"Well, I asked a friend of mine, who's one of the T.A.'s in the Biology Department, to run some tests for me, to try to help narrow down some of the possibilities," she explained, "and he kind of went all gung ho! when he ran the tests, which is why I was so surprised when he finally got the test results back for me." She paused to take another deep breath before going on.

"Well, we all know that the monks used a cell sample from Buffy when they were creating Dawn's body, right?" she asked, her eyes darting uncomfortably among Buffy, Xander and Dawn.

As the various members of the Scooby Gang nodded their agreement with her statement, again, Willow drew another deep breath.

"Well, that sort of explains why there would be a link between Buffy and Dawn. And the fact that Xander shared his Quickening with Buffy probably explains why he and Buffy are linked," she added. "But as far as why Xander and Dawn share the same kind of link that she and Buffy do, there's a very simple explanation."

Turning to look her oldest friend directly in the eye, Willow gave him her broadest smile, with the faintest hints of anxiety, and told him, "Congratulations, Xander. You're the proud father of a bouncing baby sixteen year old girl.

"You're Dawn's biological father."

Chapter 9

Summers/Harris residence
September 14, 2001
7:18 pm

"I'M WHAT???"


"HE'S WHAT???'

Both Buffy's and Dawn's exclamations echoed Xander's by only a fraction of a second.

"According to the DNA tests we had run, Buffy, you are Dawn's biological mother, and Xander is her biological father," Willow announced, rather calmly actually, if you considered all the circumstances involved. She was rather proud of that.

"But that's, like, completely impossible!" Xander protested emphatically, as he shifted his gaze back and forth between Dawn and Buffy, while the sisters did exactly the same thing.

"I can't be her father!" he expounded further in obvious semi- panic. "Buffy and I - we never got close - we never - ah, I mean -" he paused for a moment in complete stupefaction.

"Yeah, Xander and I never -" Buffy began. "I mean, at least, not before Dawn showed up and I died and then -" she broke off abruptly, somewhat at a loss for words.

"Okay, okay! We get the point, guys," Willow agreed, looking over the others' shoulders towards Tara in a mute plea for help of any kind. The blonde just gave her a small smile and silently shrugged her shoulders in a gesture of helplessness as regards any suggestions as to what to do.

"Well, uhm, actually... that does go a long way towards explaining some of the discrepancies I've noted between you two," Giles stated, his voice sounding loud in the sudden silence.

As all eyes in the room turned towards him, the former librarian dropped into his 'lecturer's' mode as he began speaking. Which was a really weird visual with him all decked out in leather, kinda like getting a lecture from Brando in 'The Wild One.'

"What exactly do you mean, Rupe?" Spike asked the question the majority all had in their minds. The sudden stops in this conversation were beginning to annoy him.

Giles glanced a bit nervously at Buffy for a moment. "As I just said, I had oftentimes wondered about the, uhm, the differences in your sizes and colorings," the Scoobies' surrogate father answered, as he took off his glasses and began cleaning them, dropping once more into his default lecture-mode of information dissemination.

"If Dawn had been created solely from your DNA, Buffy, as we previously believed... based on the information the monk gave you," he said, with a shrug, "then I would have expected her to more closely resemble you in her features, such as her eye color and cheekbones, for example, as well as being much closer to you in height than she actually is."

"I'm not that short," Buffy mumbled under her breath.

Giles paid no notice. "Realizing that Xander is also partially responsible for your genetic structure goes a long way to explaining why you currently tower over Buffy, Dawn," he continued, looking up briefly to smile at the younger woman, "as well as the differences in your bone structure and eye color." Giles carefully stayed away from a discussion of their differing hair colors, being only occasionally suicidal.

"I would hypothesize that when you passed a portion of your Quickening over to Buffy during your attempts to resuscitate her in the Master's Caverns, Xander, you also left some form of metaphysical imprint on her cellular structure that somehow bound the two of you together, even then. Which would also explain why Xander always seemed to know you when were hurting..." He trailed off, realizing he was getting off topic.

"Thus, when the monks cast their spell on the cell sample they had managed to obtain from you, Buffy, the spell also energized the metaphysical imprint Xander had left, causing it to manifest and then combine with the existing DNA present. And, viola, we now have Dawn!" he concluded with a wide smile, as he finished his glasses cleaning and returned them to their normal position partway down his nose, the handkerchief disappearing into the leather jacket.

"Oh my god! All this time, I've been checking out my dad?" Dawn's low-voiced comment could clearly be heard in the resounding silence that followed Giles' pronouncement.

As she realized that she had spoken that thought aloud, Dawn's face immediately turned a brilliant red with embarrassment, much like Willow's had been wont to do during their high school years, and she immediately turned and fled up the stairs to her room, slamming the door shut with a strength born of total mortification.

Speaking up for the first time since the whole discussion started, Tara said, "They say a girl looks for her father in the guys she's interested in."

More silence greeted her observation, as everyone tried to avoid making any additional comment and compounding the discomfort factor.

Taking advantage of the opportunity presented, Giles muttered something about being late, and quickly slipped out the door, in full British avoidance mode. Everyone inside the house heard the almost immediate snarl of his Norton as it started up, and the subsequent Doppler-esque fade of the bike as 'Ripper' roared away.

Following Giles' lead, Spike, Willow and Tara quickly made their own excuses and departed as quickly as they could, leaving Buffy and Xander looking at each other in bewildered silence.

:: Ooh-kay. So, what do we do now? :: Xander asked, looking at the woman with whom he fully intended to spend the rest of his life.

:: Well, first off, I think we're gonna have to put any previous plans we had for tonight on hold, :: Buffy replied, with a sigh. :: I think we're about to find out what it's like to be up all night with a whiny, cranky baby, sweetheart. ::

:: Oh joy. ::


Sunnydale High School campus
September 17, 2001
7:53 am

"Hey, Dawn! What 's up?" Chrissy called out to her friend, as she caught up with the slim brunette plodding down the main hall of the school towards her locker. "You haven't talked to me since Friday, and I left at least six messages on your voicemail! You busy all weekend with some stud muffin you tripped over, or something?"

The blonde's voice was full of the perky early morning cheeriness that was responsible for making large portions of the student body (and a good number of the teachers, also) want to strangle her each time they heard her open her mouth before ten o'clock in the morning.

"Hey! Are you okay? Is something wrong?" she asked, full of concern once she got a better look at the expression, or rather the lack thereof, on her friend's face.

"Oh, everything's just peachy perfect," the Key told her friend in a dull voice, not even looking at her.

Seeing the uncharacteristically subdued look on her friend's face as she answered, Chrissy decided that they two of them needed to talk about whatever it was that was bringing the taller brunette down. And they needed to talk now.

"Okay. Enough with the pseudo-nihilistic philosophy bullshit attitude," the shorter blonde said, as she grabbed hold of her friend's arm and dragged her into a nearby empty classroom.

"What's the problem here, Dawn? I'd say you look like you just found out someone drove over your puppy, except you don't have one. So, what's wrong? Come on, now! Spill!" she demanded, as she managed to catch the brunette's eyes.

"Oh, it's just some family stuff that kinda blew up on me Friday night, and I've spent the weekend trying to work some things out. I, uh, found out that this guy I've been kinda, uhm, well, interested in is... actually related. To me and Buffy," Dawn explained.

"It's all kinda weird and mega-squicky, and I *really* don't want to talk about it," she continued, wanting to avoid getting into any details. She turned away from her friend to look out the classroom window in time to notice a tall, strongly-built youth exit an SUV that had pulled in to the curb.

Seeing him begin making his way towards the main school building, the Key immediately fell silent.

It was the fact that she didn't recognize the guy that had immediately caught Dawn's attention. That and the relaxed, athletic way he moved.


She most *definitely* was not watching simply because he was drop- dead gorgeous (and considering that the school was located over the Hellmouth, that probably was not the best or most appropriate phrase to be using when describing someone walking around the school halls) or that he seemed to move almost effortlessly, like one of those big cats she had seen prowling their cages at the LA zoo last year on the class trip.

"Wow. Like Cordy would have said: hello, salty goodness..." The lean, statuesque brunette didn't realize that she had actually murmured that aloud under her breath, as she watched the guy glide across the quad.

A big grin lit up Chrissy's face as she heard the low-voiced comment and she watched her companion continue to ogle the new guy until he finally disappeared through the main doors of the school.

"I guess things are starting to look a little better now, all things considered - right, girlfriend?" the blonde asked rhetorically.

"Huh? " Dawn turned back to face her friend, not really having heard the comment her best friend had made. "What'd you say?"

"I said, I guess things are starting to look a little better now, all things considered," Chrissy repeated herself.

"By the way, did he have any clothes left on when he got to the front doors?" The little blonde smirked unashamedly as her friend began to blush at the insinuation she had been mentally undressing a complete stranger in her mind.

"You are completely and totally wrong about that," Dawn protested automatically. "I was just, uh, just trying to figure out whether he, uh, if he was, uh..." Her voice trailed off as she realized that she couldn't think of any semi-rational, let alone intelligent, thing to say regarding her evaluation of the new guy.

"Salty goodness, possibly?"

"If I hear anyone else even mention that phrase, you're dead meat," Dawn warned, realizing when she heard Chrissy repeat her words that she was busted. Her attempt to look stern and foreboding warred unsuccessfully with the brilliant blush flooding across her cheeks.

"Understand me, Midget?" she asked, the affectionate nickname slipping out along with the grin on her face

"Oh, yeah. I understand," Chrissy agreed, a lascivious smirk on her face. "I understand perfectly," she concurred.

"Dawn's got the hots for the new guy," she caroled in a sing-song voice a second before she darted out the door and into the hallway, laughing every step of the way.

"You are *so* dead, Tolliver!" Dawn yelled as she immediately took off after her, trying to hide the grin she knew she was wearing as she chased the shorter blonde down the corridor, the two of them weaving in and out of the clumps of students and pseudo-students filling the hallways.

The smaller girl was right, though. Things were *definitely* starting to look a little better now, all things considered.


As he casually headed down the main corridor, looking for the principle's office, Tim quietly took in every detail around him, eyeing the various groups of teenagers clustered haphazardly in the hallway as he passed and trying his best to not appear as though he was scrutinizing his environs for possible hostiles.

Which was exactly what he was doing.

On the surface, everything seemed perfectly sunny-California normal, just like you would see on TV or in the movies and commercials. But it seemed to him that there was some kind of faint undercurrent that permeated the school building, and indeed, the entire school campus, as well as those parts of the town he had managed to check out since they had arrived here Thursday night.

Something was wrong here in Sunnydale.

Something about the town made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

Something evil.

And the local populace seemed totally oblivious to it. At least on a conscious level, anyway.

From what he had seen so far, it was almost as though everyone living here were continually watching their surroundings, but on a totally unconscious level of awareness. Almost as though their subconscious was aware of the danger and was continually on alert to spot the danger, before it could get too close and possibly threaten them. The only time he could remember being this weirded out was when he was around that Detective Stone and the guy he was chasing... and man, that was just SO not of the good.

It was only after he had passed the plaques listing the names of the deceased members of each of the graduating classes for the past twenty-five years and realized that the number of names exceeded the total population of some of the metropolitan high schools back East that Tim realized that something was *seriously* wrong here.

He'd thought that he'd left all of that behind when Dad and Helen made the decision to move here to give them all a new start, a continent away from anything that might remind them of That Night.

He sighed quietly, realizing that, once again, he was being pulled into something that, if he had any brains, any sense of self- preservation at all, he'd be running away from as fast as his legs could manage, not heading directly towards it. But he couldn't do that, couldn't ignore the fact that there were *things* out there that looked at humans as just another selection on the dinner menu life offered them, any more than he could stop breathing or stop his heart from breathing.

Although, there a lot things out there that had tried to do just exactly that for him.

First thing he needed to do was try to determine exactly what this particular evil was, what its/their strengths and weaknesses were, and then figure out the best way to go after it or them.

As he reflected on the various possibilities he might be facing here, and decided that he'd have to hack into the local police department and hospital databases for more background information, he noticed a cute, rather petite, blonde, who reminded him of Stephanie for some reason, come barreling around the corner ahead of him, just barely missing running into him.

"Sorry," he heard her call back, as he turned his head to follow her path darting between and through the knots of their fellow students as he continued his progress down the hall.

It was for precisely that reason that he was unable to see, and therefore avoid, the taller brunette following her as she rounded the corner and crashed directly into him, knocking them both to the floor and scattering their backpacks and their contents across the hallway.

"Omigod, I'm so sorry!" the brunette immediately began apologizing as they both quickly scrambled back to their feet. "I wasn't watching where I was going," she continued, as she bent to pick up her backpack, her face red with embarrassment.

"Not a problem," Tim smiled back at her, automatically checking her out as he stooped to grab his own bag, although the reason for this examination was definitely based on the hormone-driven adolescent male portion of his psyche, rather than the possible opponent/enemy threat assessment aspect that was usually in charge. Especially with all the cleavage on display when she bent over. Around them, the rest of the school population continued to walk on by, ignoring them as if they weren't there.

"I wasn't paying attention to where I was going, either," he assured her, more than slightly approving of what his inspection had revealed.

Almost as tall as he was, shoulder-length brown hair, beautiful features that were currently holding a very becoming blush, an athletic build, but with all of the requisite curves any male teen could want - all in all, most definitely one of the most attractive girls he'd ever the fortune to run into.

"I'm Tim Drake," he introduced himself, sticking out his hand towards her with a smile. "My family just moved into town this past week, so this is my first day here."

The brunette smiled back readily enough and shook his hand, her grip surprisingly strong. Almost as strong as his was, he decided.

"Dawn Summers," she smiled back, making her face light up into something almost transcendentally beautiful, at least in his opinion. "I guess you haven't made it in to see Principle Wood yet, then, huh?"

"Nope. I was trying to figure out where his office was, hence my not paying attention and subsequent running into you. Although it seems more like good luck, now," he told her, as he stood there looking at her. "I'm not in school five minutes, and I've already made a friend."

"Me, too," Dawn told him, thanking any gods that might be listening that her voice had come out sounding completely normal, and not some high-pitched squeak. "How about I show you where his office is, so you can avoid any more collisions? At least until after you get your class schedule," she suggested, mentally willing him to say 'yes'.

She smiled with suppressed glee when he agreed, and turned to lead the way, catching sight of Chrissy standing off to one side, a triumphant grin on her face as she stood there watching the two of them. 'You owe me,' the smaller girl mouthed to her when she caught Dawn's eye.

Ignoring the smaller blonde completely, Dawn restrained the impulse to link her arm around Tim's and headed down the hallway side-by- side, a very satisfied smile on her face, as she began filling him in on the various factions currently comprising the student body, who was who, who was up, who was down, and all of the other minutia that any successful high school student needed to know.

"My work here is done," Chrissy announced to no one in particular as she made her way to homeroom.


The Magic Box
September 17, 2001
9:12 am

"Good morning, Giles," Buffy smiled brightly at the shop's proprietor as she and Xander breezed into the magic shop.

"Hey, G-Man, what's up?" Xander echoed his lifemate.

"So, how was Los Angeles?" the petite blonde asked the father of her heart, a gleam of avid, not to mention teasing, interest in her eyes as she inquired about his weekend away from the Hellmouth. "Anything interesting happen while you were there?"

"The weekend was quite enjoyable, thank you, Buffy, Xander," he replied, ignoring the Slayer's obvious desire to hear more about his weekend activities as he continued stocking the rear shelves with several pre-packaged bundles of commonly stocked herbs that had proven to be quite popular with the local populace. "And how did your weekend fare?"

"Well, Dawn was acting kind of freak-some and hyper-embarrassed avoid- y for most of the weekend. But we finally all sat down and talked things out, so I'm guessing everything's mostly okay now," the Slayer explained, as she deposited the box of pastries they had brought with them in the center of the wooden table they typically used for research and Xander set down the caffeinated-drink carrier he held.

"All in all, I'd say everyone's doing fine on the 'unexpected family relationship news' front, now," Xander agreed. "We do, however, have something to contribute to the 'completely unexpected and perplexing gifts' category of "What's New at the Hellmouth?" game show," he said, as he set a small brown box, about ten inches wide, fourteen inches long and three deep, down on the table.

"I picked a package up at the Fed-Ex office Friday afternoon," he explained. "With the news from Wills and everything else happening, I forgot all about it until yesterday. This," he said, indicating the brown box, "was inside another, bigger box that was addressed to Mrs. Elizabeth Harris, of 1620 Revello Drive, Sunnydale, CA. Buffy opened that one, and we found this package inside, along with this note taped to the box top. We didn't think it was significant enough to call you and mess up your weekend, since we knew we were going to see you this fine morning."

The former carpenter offered a small sheet for the Watcher's examination. On it was a short, unsigned message:

"The prudent would take due warning from the words of Mazurkas."

Buffy had opened the box in question while Giles read the note and had removed a rich, mahogany-hued, leather-bound folder, which she then opened to reveal a heavy, cream-colored linen parchment on which were inscribed, in ornate lines of elaborate calligraphy, the following verses:

"There will come the time when the Beast and the Warrior join with the Immortal Heart. Then shall the twice-dead Slayer die no more. And their souls will bind each other until the end of time.

"From them will come the Opener of Gates, Who shall follow her parents in all things, And through her, the Council's treachery will be revealed.

"The Mage Forsaken shall regain his Power And the Witch shall chop the truth through her lightning words. Thus shall the Four who were One know their hearts and destiny.

"Their Love shall bind them all together And the Lives of their Loved Ones Shall be bound too.

"The Harbinger of Spring shall save the Morning's Light, And the Hunter who Watched shall discover the truth. Then shall the Golem gain possession of the Seal.

"The Placid Bard shall return and bring direction to the Chosen who was Lost. The dead Poet shall guide them through the Halls of the Destroyer. Only then shall the Pagan be returned to their midst.

"The Scourge shall guard the Seer As they search out the Mind Hunter and Seeker of Truth, And the union of their needs shall benefit all.

"The Warlord of the City shall aid them, And the Hearth Mother of the Lost shall shelter them, And their bastion shall not fall while their hearts remain strong.

"The Golden Shield shall be the Herald of truths unknown. The forever Dead Man shall live again And he shall know her and embrace her.

"Vengeance shall return seeking succor and the Tomorrow Man shall visit Yesterday. Then shall the Naughta Demon find them and conduct them to the Two who are One, And their time will not come to pass if the Four take counsel of their words.

"The One who watched but did not make known Shall see his children and theirs content and complete, Despite the rule of the Council.

"Thus shall the Fellowship of Light be made known."

"Very Tolkein-esque, wouldn't you say?" Buffy commented, once the ex- Watcher looked up at her from perusing the sheet. "And in English no less, gotta love that."

"I especially like the lines about 'There will come the time when the Beast and the Warrior join with the Immortal Heart. Then shall the twice-dead Slayer die no more,' Xander commented, earning him a quick glance from the Englishman.

"Seems to be hitting a little too close to home to be just a coincidence, don't ya think?" he asked.

"Exactly what do you mean, Xander?" Giles questioned the brunet Immortal, wanting to hear his and Buffy's views before proffering his own. He reminded himself that this was no longer the 15 year-old jokester that sat before him now, but a very accomplished strategist and tactician.

"Well, looking at it from the point of view of someone who's now probably professionally paranoid?" Xander replied with a lop-sided grin, as he selected a lemon Danish from the box on the table, "I'd say that the line about the Beast and the Warrior joining the Immortal Heart could be very easily interpreted as describing the Hyena and Soldier Spirit possessions I went through. And when the four of us merged last year to defeat Adam, you referred to me as the Heart aspect of the merger. Adding that to our most recent developments this past May? Makes me think that it's pretty likely I'm the person being referred to in the first line."

"Yeah, Giles, and the reference to the 'twice-dead Slayer' dying no more has *got* to be a reference to me," Buffy chimed in, as she sat down at the table and took a sip of her mocha latte. "As best as we've ever been able to determine, no other Slayer has ever even died once and come back, let alone twice.

"So, who's this Mazurkas guy the note referred to, anyway?" she questioned their father in all but blood.

"I cannot be completely sure without checking several of my references, Buffy," the Englishman replied, "but the only person with that name that I can recall was a relatively obscure prophet and wizard who lived in what would now be referred to as Belgium, and who died sometime towards the end of the eighth century. As I recall, his prophecies, what few I remember, were typically rather convoluted and filled with obscure references to people and events that were only readily comprehensible sometime after the events they described had occurred, which made his prognostications of little use, for the most part," he said, a sour look on his face.

"Obviously," Xander chimed in, getting a grin from Buffy.

"On the other hand, though, his prophecies were *always* correct and extremely detailed in describing the events he foresaw," Giles reflected, as he sat down at the table with his children and helped himself to a cinnamon bun. "The main problem his interpreters had was in understanding exactly what event it was that he was referring to.

"I must admit," he continued after finishing off the bun, "I'm quite intrigued about this prophecy, if it is indeed an actual prediction that he made."

"Well, without feeling like I'm going to far out on a limb with this, I'm pretty sure that if we're involved in this prophecy the way I think we are, we're not gonna be sitting around the house drinking coffee and watching the tube," Xander remarked a bit sourly. "I can't recall any prophecy we've ever run into that I liked, either before or after we understood what it meant."

"And I'll have to add a big 'Yes, indeed-y' to that sentiment," Buffy agreed. Glancing at her watch, she noted the time and rose to her feet, reaching out to pull her lifemate to his, also. "Come on, honey, we've got to get moving if we're gonna meet Angel, Cordy and Wes at the time we arranged."


"We're getting together to discuss some of those plans we talked about last week, remember?" the petite blonde reminded the former Watcher as he looked up, a question in his eyes. "With any luck, things will go fairly smoothly," she said hopefully, as the two Immortals headed for the shop's entrance, arms looped together.

"Somehow, I don't think even Lloyd's of London would want to take a chance on that," Xander grinned as he opened the door and ushered the other half of his soul through, receiving an appreciative smile for his efforts.


In Xander's car
Outside Angel Investigations
Hyperion Hotel
Los Angeles, CA
September 17, 2001 10:45 am

::: Now remember, I want you to be nice to everyone, once we get inside, :: Buffy reminded her lifemate as they pulled into a parking space outside the hotel housing the detective agency.

:: I'm always nice, :: Xander automatically protested, turning to face the petite blonde sitting in the passenger seat of the forest green Mustang they occupied. :: Even to him. ::

:: Really! :: he insisted as he felt the skepticism and mild disbelief she projected. :: I go out of my way to be pleasant and agreeable. It's not my fault if some people don't understand the more subtle forms of humor, :: he continued, only to be met with the massive wave of incredulity that comment generated.

:: Look, honey, :: Buffy addressed the other half of her soul, :: I know you and Angel never really got along that well, ::

A massive wave of amusement engulfed the two of them at the enormity of that understatement, but she continued uninterrupted.

:: But we really need to get them involved and on board with this, if our long term plans are going to succeed, and that means you have to stop being so belligerent and hyper-sensitive when you two are around each other. ::

:: I'm not belligerent, :: the brunet insisted. :: He just rubs me the wrong way, that's all. Always has, always will. Some people just don't get along, no matter what. ::

:: And the fact that he's my ex has absolutely nothing to with the two of you not getting along, of course. :: Buffy's sarcastic tone carried perfectly across their link, and she hurried on before Xander could reply.

:: Look at me, Xander, :: she requested, and waited for him to turn his head and face her. :: I am completely and totally committed to you, :: she stated as she looked into his eyes, emphasizing the feelings she was projecting towards him.

To any passing onlooker, it would seem as though the two young people were merely looking at each other, not holding a prolonged conversation.

:: Do you have any doubts about my commitment to you, and to us? Any at all? :: she questioned him, feeling the smallest bits of concern her lifemate still harbored regarding her former lover. :: Angel is part of my past, a very important part, and I cannot, and will not, ever deny that... ::

As she 'spoke' to him, Buffy reached out and cupped his face in her hand.

:: *You*, however, are my future, :: she told him, projecting the love she felt for him in an almost palpable wave. :: If you have any doubts about that, whatsoever, get rid of them - right now! I thought you believed me when I told you that I loved you, and that I wanted us to be together for the rest of our lives, however long or short they might be. I know I believed *you* when you told me that. With the connection that we have, do you truly think I could ever lie to you about something like that? ::

:: No, :: Xander acknowledged, a wave of embarrassment and chagrin, with the remnants of a long-held anger, following along with his words. :: It's just that - you never really saw me, before, when Angel was around. When he walked into the room, you didn't see anyone but him. I guess there's still a little part of me, deep inside, that's afraid that that's going to happen again. After being with you now, sharing my life with you, I don't think I'd be able to handle not having you as part of my life. ::

:: Well, stop worrying about it, because that's never going to happen, :: she told him sternly, her eyebrows furrowed as she stared at him.

:: I was sixteen years old when I met Angel, and, like most teenage girls, I thought that having a tragic, star-crossed love was terribly romantic. I'm twenty years old, now, even though sometimes I feel like I'm going on a thousand, and I know that it's not terribly romantic, it's just terrible. There's a reason that most girls fall for bad boys at some time in their lives, Xander. It's so that they can appreciate the good men they meet later. I couldn't realize just how good you really are until I had something to compare you against, :: she smiled up at him, the expression making her face light up as though a spotlight shone on her. :: So just get rid of all of those feelings, darling. I've got you now, and I'm never going to let you go. ::

Her expression then shifted from concerned to slightly devilish, and she stated, :: After all, we have a daughter to raise... Now, do you understand me, or am I gonna have to kick your ass around this whole town before you figure it out? ::

:: Ahhh, there's the true Scooby tradition, :: Xander replied, a grin splitting his face. :: A tender moment, immediately followed by threats of violence. How could I ever resist a combination like that? ::

Leaning forward, he kissed her lightly, but thoroughly, on her pouting lips as he said, :: All right, baby. I promise, no more sulking or feeling depressed or sorry for myself. I've got you, Dawn and the rest of the Gang and multi-millions of dollars. What more could a man ask for? ::

:: Bet your ass, baby, :: Buffy smiled back. :: Come on, now, let's go meet the guys. ::

Chapter 10

Inside Angel Investigations
Angel's office
Hyperion Hotel
Los Angeles, CA
September 17, 2001 10:45 am

"All right, you two, they're gonna be here any minute, and I want both of you on your best behavior. Do not embarrass me in front of these guys. Do you understand me?"

The tall brunette was staring at the two men seated on the office couch, both of whom stared back up at her with the completely innocent expressions on their faces usually worn by axe murderers and five-year-olds caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

"What are you talking about, Cordy?" the taller of the two said, the narrow-eyed glare of intimidation the brunette was sending his way apparently sliding off him without any effect. "Why would you think we'd be acting any other way?"

"Well, the facts that our visitors are your former girlfriend and her current boyfriend, who also just happens to be the same incredibly annoying guy who couldn't stand you in high school and went out of his way to show it, and who is someone who you wanted to kill on at least a weekly basis, are the first reasons that spring to mind," she immediately snapped back at him.

"*And* the fact that said guy is also my former boyfriend is another," she added, turning her head to glare at the other dark haired man occupying the couch, who was apparently intent on the task of cleaning his glasses at the moment. "I don't need a vision from the Powers to foresee a possibly very messy situation in the immediate future."

"Cordelia, I assure you that I have no intentions whatsoever of either initiating trouble or participating in any squabbles that might develop between Angel and any of our visitors," the Englishman informed her, as he settled his glasses back into place before looking up at her with a wide smile. "The fact that Xander also happens to be one of your former suitors does not disturb me in the slightest."

Hearing his coworker's comment about his lack of concern regarding Cordy's former boyfriend and seeing the brunette's eyes narrow the slightest bit as he spoke immediately set off a multitude of warning bells in Angel's mind and he quickly rose to his feet and headed for the relative safety of the outer alcove, muttering something about checking on the coffee machine before Buffy and Xander arrived. 240 years of un-life had imparted *some* survival skills, after all.

"Nice try, Wes," the brunette immediately replied with a small grin. "Now pull the other one."

"The other what?" the Englishman asked, an expression of complete bewilderment on his face.

"Again, nice try," the Seer grinned at her lover. "I heard you use that expression with that Glorkandu demon last week when it lied to you, right before you shot it in the kneecap, so I know you know what I mean."

"Well, it's not as though I crippled it irreparably," the former Watcher-turned-demon hunter pointed out, a bit self-righteously. "It did have seven others to rely on, you know. And I had warned it as to the consequences if it lied to me."

"Oh, I don't have any problems at all with your shooting the Glorkandu, Wes," the former cheerleader reassured him.

"It's your trying to bullshit me that could seriously affect both your health and your love-life," she warned him, flashing a brilliant, piranha-like smile

Despite having been considered a twit while working with the Scooby Gang in Sunnydale, Wesley possessed a rather high level of intelligence, and said intelligence was now urgently telling him that unless he wanted to emulate the lifestyles of certain celibate orders of Tibetan monks for the indefinite future, he should cease his attempts at maintaining a façade of indifference regarding the imminent appearance of his lover's former boyfriend and 'fess up right away.

"Very well," he sighed. "I'll admit that I might have been the slightest bit apprehensive about Buffy and Xander showing up here. The fact that you and he had managed to sustain a relatively stable, ongoing relationship while still helping Buffy and the others deal with incessant, recurring demonic assaults on the Hellmouth may have caused me to wonder somewhat about the strength of our own relationship," he admitted, not meeting her eyes.

"The truth is I would find myself with a rather large hole in my life if you ever decided there was no future in our relationship. A hole that I think would most likely never be able to be filled again," he finished as he finally looked up at Cordy, to find her beaming down radiantly at him.

"Now *that* is the kind of response that's probably going to substantially improve the above mentioned love-life," Cordy informed him with a smile, as she leaned in to bestow a light, promising kiss on the Englishman's lips, accompanied by a look in her eyes that suggested the possibility of much more, once they were free to indulge themselves. As she started to pull back, Wes's left hand reached up to cup the back of her head to hold her in place as he pulled her down into his lap and deepened the kiss.

As though the fates had been biding their time waiting for the best moment to interfere, a "HELLOOOO!? Anybody home?" suddenly sounded in the lobby from an obviously male voice, followed by a quite definitely feminine voice echoing his question.

"And he's still got probably the worst timing in the world," Cordy muttered under her breath as she reluctantly pulled back from Wes's lips. "All right then, let's go meet our guests and take care of business, so we can get back to more interesting things," she suggested, with a wry smile.

"Your wish is my command, Your Majesty," the former rogue demon hunter smiled at her as he got to his feet.

"And don't you ever forget it," the former May Queen smiled back as they headed out to greet their visitors.

< It's so nice, once you get them properly trained, > she thought to herself as she lead the way to the lobby.


From his vantage point in the small alcove off to one side of the hotel's lobby, Angel heard the front doors swing open and turned his head to see both his ex-girlfriend and the young man who had seemed intent on doing his best to make the vampire's life a bed of thorns during their years together in Sunnydale enter the building hand in hand.

The first thing he noticed was the casual ease that the two were displaying in each other's company, their body language indicating that they were completely comfortable in each other's presence, more so than mere friendship would explain. The ensouled vampire momentarily felt a slight wave of jealousy pass through him as he watched his former lover's face brighten as she looked up at the youth who had been the never-ending bane of his existence during his time in Sunnydale, before he shook off the feeling and firmly reminded himself that he and Buffy had broken up for a very good reason and that he had always wanted the petite blonde to be happy, even if that required someone else to take his place in her affections.

The fact that that 'someone else' was his former rival for the petite blonde's affections should be of absolutely no consequence, he told himself. Something else he needed to consider was the fact that he and Kate seemed to be slowly heading towards something that might end up as more than friendship. How could he consider moving on with someone else, and not want Buffy to do the same?

When you got down to it, Buffy's happiness was all that should matter to him. The fact that he knew Xander would always be looking out for the safety of Buffy Summers, former high school cheerleader, as well as that of Buffy Summers, mystically chosen Vampire Slayer, cheered him, though, and he deliberately let go the last bonds tying his heart to hers as he silently wished her happiness forever.

Moving out of the alcove as quietly as he normally did, he saw Buffy begin turning towards his direction, as she would when hearing the barely audible sound of his footsteps, but the ensouled vampire was surprised to see her companion turning to face him, also. The taller brunet had begun moving at the same instant the Slayer had, so he was clearly not responding to any signal from Buffy.

A normal human could not have heard him, of that Angel was completely certain. So, judging by past experience and taking into account where the pair currently lived, it was virtually a dead certainty that any explanation for whatever the youth's new-found abilities might be involved magic and/or the Hellmouth. He wasn't getting any feeling of wrongness from either of the two, so he'd just wait to see what they said. He'd learn what was going on, sooner or later, probably whether he wanted to, or not.

"It's good to see you again, Buffy," Angel smiled as he approached the pair. "You, too, Xander."

"Hi, Angel, how're you doing?" Buffy smiled at him, but made no move to come over and hug him, he noted. Of course, all things considered, he couldn't really blame her for her restraint when they saw each other.

"Congratulations, Angel. You actually managed to say that with a straight face," Xander replied with his trademark smirk, as he paused to stand next to the blonde Slayer. "With a little more practice, you'll be able to run for political office with no problem, whatsoever."

"Thanks. You have no idea how much that means to me, coming from you," the vampire answered, drawing an appreciative grin from the brunet, as well as a somewhat stunned look from his former paramour, at his rather dry response.

"I think that's supposed to be one of the signs of an approaching apocalypse, isn't it, Buff?" the former carpenter declared, looking at his better half for support upon hearing the comment from his former opponent for the Slayer's affections.

"'Yea, verily, there shall come a time when the undead with hair gel and a soul shall rise and make a joke,' " he mock-quoted, " 'and you shall know then, that the end is nigh, and that your asses shall soon be hanging from the flagpoles.' Hey! What was that for?" he yelped, grabbing his arm and feigning injury as his remark drew a slap on the shoulder from his diminutive companion.

"I told you to behave yourself," Buffy admonished him with a brief but stern look, before looking at Angel with a reproachful expression on her face and continuing, "and you're not helping the situation at all, either, you know, encouraging him like that," as a small smile split her face.

"And you know he doesn't need any encouragement to be like that," Angel replied, with a small smile of his own.

"Looks like a lot of things have changed since the last time I saw you," he observed, glancing down at Buffy's hand lightly clasped in Xander's larger one before looking up again to meet her eyes.

"You really have no idea just *how* much," Buffy agreed, her smile now incorporating a rather large degree of wryness, as she reviewed how many things had happened since their last meeting.


Heading out to the lobby, Cordy, with Wes trailing along in her wake, noted that Angel had abandoned the sanctuary of the kitchen alcove and was engaged in what so far seemed to be a civil conversation with Buffy and Xander, with the latter two holding hands as they stood next to each other. Cordy also noticed with interest that Xander seemed to be holding the blonde's hand more in a casual, absentminded way, as opposed to a more possessive manner intended to declare the Slayer as 'his property' in the eyes of her former lover

"Hey, guys," she greeted them, "how're things doing back in SunnyHell?"

"Hey, Cor," Xander smiled as soon as he saw her walk out of the office. "You're looking good, as usual," he complimented her.

"Well, duh, of course I am, doofus," she smiled back warmly at her former boyfriend. "You make it sound like it's possible for me to not look good, Dweeb-Boy," she teased him.

"Nice to see you again, too, Buffy," she added, turning slightly to address the Slayer standing next to her former beau.

"It's good seeing you again, too, Cordy," the petite blonde replied with a small smile as her eyes moved past the brunette to alight on her former Watcher as he exited the office to join the group.

"How are you doing, Wesley?" Buffy asked him, her tone a bit more formal and distant with him than it had been with her former classmate.

"Actually, I'm doing quite well, Buffy," the Englishman replied, a small smile gracing his face as he glanced over at Cordy.

"Cordelia tells me I'm very much less the prig, now that I've had that poker removed from up my butt," he continued amiably, causing Cordy to try to choke down her laughter at the expression of dumbfounded surprise that flickered across the Slayer's face at Wes' casual comment on his previous behavior.

"Uhm - well, that's, uh, good to hear, I guess," Buffy managed to reply with a relatively straight face, while Xander broke out in peals of laughter, which he futilely tried to squelch when the diminutive blonde turned her head to glare at him.

"S-s-, he-he, s-sorry, huh-huh," he eventually managed to gasp after a moment or two, when he finally recovered his composure, "but - the look on your face when he said that, Buff, that was just priceless!" the ex-carpenter explained to his lifemate.

"Most definitely a Kodak moment, if ever there was one, sweetheart," he added with a grin. "Excellent setup there, Wes. Although it would been even better if you could have caught her as she was drinking her coffee or - okay, shutting up now," he hastily concluded his commentary as he caught the narrow-eyed stare and its accompanying feeling of displeasure he was receiving from the other half of his soul.

The three AI investigators watched with undisguised interest as their two visitors stared silently at each other for a few moments, their expressions shifting slightly, almost as though they were holding a conversation, before a pleased smile lit up Buffy's face, matching the one that had broken out on Xander's.

"So, what exactly was it you wanted to talk to us about, Buffy?" Angel finally broke the silence that seemed to have taken over the room momentarily.

"Well, there's been a number of really interesting things happening with the Scooby Gang the past few months and we wanted to let you guys know what's going on," Buffy said, as Xander smiled at the degree of understatement that sentence contained.

"And we also wanted to discuss some long-term plans and ideas we've come up with that we'd like to have you guys get involved in, too," she added. "But I think we should all be sitting down when we talk, 'cause it's gonna take a while to cover everything."

"Perhaps we should all adjourn to the conference room, then," Wesley suggested, as he gestured towards a set of mahogany doors off to one side of the lobby. "We can also fortify ourselves with some sandwiches and cold drinks we took the liberty of ordering, since I feel relatively certain, given our combined groups' past histories, that these events will most likely take a while to describe."


"Okay, hold on just a minute here, and let me see if I have all of this straight," Cordy said, once the two Sunnydale visitors had finished their account of the various happenings in Sunnydale over the past few months, holding up a hand to forestall any other comments or questions.

"You guys are both not only Immortals, who now share some kind of mystic telepathic connection and have uber-SlayerSoldier-GuyHyena powers, but you're also actually the biological parents of Buffy's fifteen year old sister, who actually didn't exist before this past year, because she was only recently created by a bunch of monks who were trying to hide some ball of interdimensional energy from a Hell- goddess, who wanted to use her in a ritual to return to her home dimension, a ritual which would, incidentally, destroy our dimension when she did it, and then Buffy died while stopping this Hell- goddess, but because Dweeb-boy, here, had somehow transferred part of this Quickening immortality thing of his to Buffy when he brought her back to life after she was killed the first time by the Master, she only stayed dead for a few hours, and then came back to life without any CPR or other life-saving stuff being done to her, and then a few weeks later, Buffy was attacked by an evil Immortal who wanted to kill her and absorb her Quickening thing, but instead Buffy killed her and absorbed her Quickening and her memories, and because of that, you guys are now multi-millionaires, and control all sorts of international companies and conglomerates because they think you guys are the new owners?"

Cordy's question echoed through the currently dead-silent conference room as the Angel Investigation staff members gazed at the two eternally soul-bound Scooby Gang members with a mix of surprise, wonder and stunned incredulity.

"Uhm...yeah," Xander nodded, as the pair looked at their former teammates and waited for their reactions. "Nice recap, Cor," he added.

"Okay," Cordy said simply, after a moment's pause. "I just wanted to make sure I had it all straight.

"Although, I have to say, it's really hard to believe that Dawn's your daughter, because, from what I can remember of her, she's got way better fashion sense than either one of you guys ever had," she added, apparently as an afterthought.

"Gee, thanks, Cordy," Xander grinned, as the blonde Slayer seated next to him tossed a minor, annoyed glare at the taller brunette for her comment. "It's good to see that living in the big city hasn't changed you at all."

After a quick glance around the table indicated that Wesley didn't seem to have anything to ask or add to the brunette's evaluation, at least for the moment, Angel took the initiative and broached his curiosity regarding the other reasons for the Immortal pair's visit.

"Not that it's not nice seeing you guys again," he began, drawing a sardonic smile from Xander, which, the ensouled vampire noticed, also earned the former Zeppo a narrow glance and a light elbow to the ribs from Buffy, evidently as a result of something he must have added over their personal link, "but you could really have covered most of that news with just a phone call or two, and saved yourself the drive up here. Was there anything else you wanted to discuss with us?"

"As a matter of fact, De-, Angel," the taller Immortal answered, correcting himself before he had completed his traditional nickname for his lifemate's former lover, "we have several ideas that we wanted to discuss with you guys, that concern upgrading all of our efforts regarding our night jobs."

"We ran into a nest of vamps last month who had decided to move their operations into the twenty-first century, at least as far as their weapons were concerned," Buffy informed the LA group as she took up the conversational lead.

"The first night we raided their nest, they cut loose at us with a bunch of machine pistols and nearly turned us all into road kill. Willow took a slug through the arm and another bullet grazed her neck, but neither injury was very serious, thank god!" she elaborated for their friends.

"We had to hightail it out of there as fast as we could, with those assholes shooting at us until we got out of range, and we could hear them laughing at us the entire time," the Slayer described the scene, a small flare of anger at the memory of that indignity still coloring her account of the incident. Her narrow-eyed expression lightened considerably as Xander smiled at her as he put his hand atop her smaller one on the table and gave it a light squeeze.

"Well, we decided turnabout was fair play, so we upgraded out own equipment," Buffy continued her account of the previous month's events, a quite satisfied 'cat-who-ate-the-canary' smile on her delicate features. "Xander and Giles checked out the Internet for what was the best available body armor and communication equipment, and we picked that up, along with some pistols, automatic shotguns and some holy water aerosol and flash-bang grenades for the new standard Sunnydale slaying equipment list we've developed," she informed the AI staff.

"We've also been giving a lot of thought lately to how we've been handling things, and we've come to the conclusion that we need to start addressing our efforts to handling these matters on a much larger scale than we've ever considered before," the Slayer explained.

"What the Buffster here means," Xander smoothly continued the explanation without a break, "is that we've come to the conclusion that allowing a single young girl to carry the fate of the entire world on her shoulders, the way the Watcher's Council has been doing for the past thousand years or so, is simply nuts." Everyone present nodded as they considered just how much of an understatement that observation truly was.

"So, we've decided we're going to become a lot more pro-active when it comes to shoving the bad guys back into the holes they crawl out of, and then filling in the holes after them, so they can't try the same thing again later, after we've gone home.

"We're here to find out if you guys want in on the deal," he concluded.


Three and a half hours later, the five demon fighters had hashed out all the basic ideas and structures that they felt would best address their groups' stated intentions, and were now at the point where additional research and work would be required before any further decisions or actions could be made.

The combined groups' future agenda now included the following action items:

Each groups' arcane libraries would be duplicated and copies given to both groups, with additional back-up copies archived on CD-ROM and stored at remote locations to prevent the possibility of a complete loss of reference materials in the course of a catastrophe. Efforts to gain copies of the Council's library would also be initiated, although there was little optimism held that those efforts would be successful.

In addition to the above noted work, Willow and Tara's endeavors to reverse the spell that Amy had used to change herself into a rat, to escape the enspelled parents during the MOO crisis, and restore her humanity would be supplemented by assistance provided by recruiting several magic-users in the Los Angeles area recommended by Wesley, Angel and Lorne.

Once the magical research group had either accomplished their objective, or finally determined that it was impossible to achieve, the group's efforts would then be turned to either finding a way to remove the curse section of the Gypsy's re-souling spell recovered by Jenny Calendar several years before, or towards developing an alternate spell that would accomplish the same purpose, both to remove the potential threat of Angelus' return and to add another weapon in their arsenal for use against vampires.

Cordelia's comment about the apparent surplus of magic-users flourishing in Sunnydale, especially in their own graduating class, had prompted a discussion about the various talents and abilities shown by some of their classmates. After some lengthy discussions, a general agreement had been made to approach Jonathan Levinson with an offer of employment as a researcher in the field of magic spells and devices, after Buffy and Xander had supplied a brief description of the spell he had cast the previous year. Having seen firsthand the results that his research efforts could produce, the two Sunnydalians wanted to keep a watchful eye on pretty much anything with which the small brunet became involved.

That discussion had also led to a rather condensed version of the Scoobies' encounter with Warren Meers and his development of his robotic girl friend, and a very terse summary of the subsequent creation of the Buffybot, since renamed Daphne. Cordy and Wesley's reaction to the news that Spike had commissioned an artificial replica of the Slayer had been to avoid any glances in the direction of the still blushing Slayer, and attempt to quickly move the conversation to other areas or a less controversial topic.

Angel's reaction, however, upon hearing that his grandchilde had contracted the crackpot inventor to build him a custom robot explicitly modeled after the Slayer, had been to narrow his eyes and clench his jaw tightly, then politely excuse himself from the current discussion and leave the room, quietly closing the doors behind him, while Cordy and Wesley watched him leave with an expression of concern and dread on their faces. Unlike the souled vampire's coworkers, who were forced to worry about their friend's response to the revelation, Buffy and Xander's heightened hearing had allowed them to then hear the ensouled Master vampire stalk into his office and slam the door shut, before breaking out into peals of hysterical laughter that lasted well over two minutes. The somber expression he typically wore, however, was back in place when he returned to the boardroom several minutes later, to calmly resume the discussions they had been holding prior to his departure.

Upon hearing that the group proposed to hire the roboticist, to perform further research on his techno-magic creations and determine the full extent of their capabilities and limitations, he quietly agreed that that particular idea was the best method of keeping tabs on someone who could potentially be a rather annoying, and possibly quite dangerous, foe in the future. And, as Xander and Wesley had pointed out, the potential ramifications of his work pretty much demanded that they be involved, if only to be able to determine just what aspects could safely be released to the commercial market sectors, as well as when, in order to cause the least amount of repercussions.

Efforts had already begun in Sunnydale to purchase the stores and businesses surrounding the Magic Box, in order to allow the Scoobies to expand the shop and incorporate new and additional defenses, both mundane and magical, which would then allow the shop to be used as a safe house in the event of what recently seemed to be becoming almost periodic Apocalypses and attempts to end the world.

While the Sunnydale contingent were occupied with the above noted activities, Angel Investigations would, in conjunction with a series of intermediary companies that Buffy and Xander controlled, begin purchasing and refurbishing warehouses in several different areas of the city as storage and re-supply centers, to hold all of the equipment that would be needed for the proposed hunter/ assault teams both groups intended to develop as support for their current efforts, much as the Scooby gang had already done in Sunnydale.

"A little while ago, we were getting some official paperwork for the Gang processed, and we took the liberty of getting these things made up for you guys, too," Buffy said, as she pulled a large manila envelope from the shoulder bag she carried, and opened to reveal documents for each of the three certifying them as bonded couriers for a service company named Mercury Express Transport, Ltd., along with Class 3 concealed carry weapon permits, that would enable them to carry firearms (fully automatic firearms!) with relative impunity throughout North America and most of Europe.

"Me, Xand, Giles, Willow, Tara and Spike all have the same licenses and paperwork as what's on the table, there," she smiled. "Dawn's still too young to qualify for either a permit or concealed carry license, which annoyed her to no end, and which is the only reason she doesn't have either one," she added.

"How in the world did you ever manage to get these?" Wes demanded, staring with incredulous eyes at the assorted documentation lying on the table. "The bureaucratic incompetence and rigmarole I had to contend with, when I initially applied for merely a pistol permit was both appalling and quite time-consuming, and, I believe, a deliberate effort by the state government to discourage interested citizens from pursuing such licenses."

"Well, Wes, I'd say you're almost certainly right about that, judging by what we saw when we first inquired about these things," Xander agreed, with a trademark grin on his face, "so we decided to skip all of the preliminaries and just go right to the top of the food chain, so to speak. Mercury Express Transport is an international courier service that has, at various times during its existence, served as extremely discreet intermediaries for most of the Western Bloc countries, and some of the Eastern Bloc, too, when it became necessary for certain items of information to be conveyed to interested parties, but diplomatic niceties made official communications difficult.

"As it happens, one of our company vice-presidents served as the Attorney General of the United States for a previous administration," the former carpenter noted, "so when the new owners of the company asked him to look into seeing if he could expedite the requested paperwork for these licenses, he was more than happy to call a few of his acquaintances and try to smooth things along."

"I'd say he must have been very happy to do so," Wes marveled. "Normally, it would take several months of concentrated effort and extensive background checks to acquire any of these documents. I must say, you've done an incredible job, just providing these papers to us, alone."

"We figured all of our lives are hassled enough, what with dealing with Hellmouth-related things," Buffy smiled at the expressions on Cordy and Angel's faces, "so we're just smoothing out as many of the other bumps in the road as we can."

The full extent of the changes the couple now sitting across the table from the AI team had undergone in the past several months was just beginning to sink in, as the LA based group began to realize the degree of access to the mostly unseen good-ol'-boys network that stretched around the planet that their friends could now utilize.

"You mean to say that nobody's ever really questioned you when you show up somewhere and start giving orders?" Cordy asked, her curiosity now quite piqued by the possibilities that suggested themselves to her.

"Not really," Buffy grinned widely at some of the memories the former cheerleader's had roused. "We actually do the majority of stuff necessary through email and voicemail.

"And if we do need to show up in person for anything, like to pick up some packages or some special equipment, say, depending on what it is we're doing or who we're talking to, it's obvious that I'm either a spoiled 'Daddy's favorite little girl' type or the current 'flavor of the week' of the guy who's running things, and Xand's either my current boytoy, for the first case, or a not-too-obvious bodyguard my sugar-daddy's assigned to watch out for me, in the second," she elaborated cheerfully. "I guess the Hemery High 'mindless cheerleader' aspect of my high school education turned quite to be quite useful, after all," she crowed with a smile.

"Another thing all of this cloak and dagger thing is really useful for, is setting up alternate identities," Xander pointed out. "All of us in the Scooby Gang now have at least two separate cover identities set up that we could step into at any time we'd like.

"We've already established a fully documented background for Spike," he informed the AI group, "complete with scholastic, medical and credit history records, memberships in various community and service organizations - the whole nine yards. He's currently nominally employed as the head of personal security for one of the smaller companies we control, which does work with various federal agencies. As far as our people in the company are concerned, Spike recently retired from a career with an unnamed covert federal agency, and his position is a 'thank you for a job well done' retirement gift for whatever type of work he did for them. It helps explain how he can speak fluent German, French and Russian, know a great deal about some less savory elements of society and yet not be overly familiar with some of the more common elements and expressions of popular culture."

The former Zeppo had a gigantic smirk on his face when he added, "The FBI liaison in the company , who thinks no one knows what he really does, believes Spike worked for the CIA, and the local CIA stooge thinks he worked for the NSA, and everyone thinks nobody else knows the real story."

"We're also prepared to provide additional cover identities for all of you guys, too, and a complete background workup like Spike's for you, Angel, if you'd like," Buffy disclosed to their somewhat stunned audience. "If you're interested, we can arrange for you to meet with the people who provided ours. If not, no problem. We just wanted to make you the offer."

"Whoa," was Cordy's initial response to her former teammates' proposal. "I'm feeling like I just woke up in some parallel universe, what with everything you've told us, and the secret identities offer and stuff," she commented, moving back from the conference table and tilting back in the captain's chair she currently occupied.

"Yes, there is something of a surreal sensation to this entire discussion," Wesley agreed, as he, too, leaned back in his chair. "Not that we aren't appreciative of everything you've presented us with, already," he noted. "It's just...there's a lot to take in, all at once."

"Yeah, we know exactly what you mean," Buffy nodded. "It took us a while to really get used to the whole idea, too - that we could start operating on a much larger scale than before, that we don't have to worry about getting hold of stuff we need, and that we could move out of the seventeenth century and into the twenty-first, as far as support and other stuff go.

"We're definitely planning on retiring at a reasonable age and spoiling rotten at least the next ten generations of our friends' kids," the Slayer announced, as Xander gave the petite blonde next to him a loving glance and a small squeeze of his hand. "Even if we can't have any children, aside from Dawn, we want to make sure there's a world out there that's worth growing up in, for them."

:: That's something we can look into, too, babe, :: the carpenter- turned-millionaire told the other half of his soul over their private link. :: We've already broken most of the rules we've been told about. So what's one more - like Immortals not being able to have children - to break into little pieces of rubble, too? ::

The smile and the slight glistening in Buffy's eyes as he made his comment conveyed the magnitude of emotion his simple statement had generated in her, and he took a moment to lift their intertwined hands and bestow a small kiss on the back of her hand.

"Do we really need a lot of time to think things over, guys?" Angel asked as he turned to look at his two co-workers. "It's not as if we're being recruited to do something we don't know anything about. The only thing that's really changing here is the scope and area of the work involved; we'd just be expanding from working in LA to going wherever the trouble is located, but with a lot more backup than we ever had before."

"You have the right of it, there, I must admit," Wes agreed. "And the idea of having competent and dedicated people supporting us in our endeavors and any requisite equipment we might need readily available is quite attractive, I must admit.

"Would you have any questions or reservations you'd care to bring up, Cordelia?" he asked, turning to look at his lover.

"Well," the former cheerleader answered thoughtfully, "since we're forming a new partnership, and we're going to be looking out for the human race and the rest of the world on a much larger scale now, I'd say we should all be entitled to some pretty hefty raises. And maybe some corporate credit cards, too, don't you think?" she asked.

The wave of laughter that rolled over the room brought a momentary narrow-eyed glare from the Seer at the others at the table.

"Actually, that's a good point, Cordy. 'The workman is worthy of his hire'," Buffy quoted the ancient biblical text, with a smile for the taller brunette. "And, considering what we'll be doing, money and anything like that should be the least of our concerns. We can work out the details later, but for now, consider us all equal partners in whatever we're gonna call this new effort we're setting up."

"Okay. Aside from that, I've got no other questions," the cheerleader-turned-demon hunter stated, quite satisfied with the blonde's answer.

"All right, then. In for a penny, in for a pound, as they say," Wes said, as he and his coworkers turned to face the two Immortals.

"Buffy, Xander, you now, officially, have three additional partners in your crusade against the Darkness," Wes smiled. "Hopefully, merely the first among thousands," he added, while, to his right, Cordy felt, for the barest instant of time, as though the room and the people in it reverberated in some non-physical plane, the repercussions of their decisions resounding down through the corridors of destiny.


The Magic Box
Sunnydale, CA
September 17, 2001 3:10 pm

Giles had just closed the door to the basement, having finished carrying the last boxes of the day's FedEx delivery of supplies, and was busy with arranging the latest shipment of Kyllan rainbow crystals in their proper containers behind the counter, when he heard the chime of the front door as it opened.

Turning to greet the 'mark,' as Anya had been known to occasionally refer to the store's customers, and silently reproving himself to stop thinking of the shop's clientele in such terms, he slipped on his best 'interested and concerned proprietor' expression and smiled at the nondescript dark haired gentleman who was casually examining the various containers of common spell components that lined the shelves immediately to one side of the counter.

"Good afternoon," he smiled, addressing the man, who turned his head to regard the Englishman with the barest amount of interest. "Could I help you find anything in particular you might be looking for?"

"Why, thank you," the man replied, with a pleasant smile, as he looked around the rest of the shop, apparently searching for something, "you probably can. I'm looking for a Mr. Rupert Giles. I believe he is the current owner of this shop."

"That would be me," Giles admitted, politely returning the smile. "Why, exactly, would you be looking for me?"

"Well, Mr. Giles, I'm supposed to deliver something to you," the newcomer answered, as he stopped about eight feet away from the counter and reached into his jacket.

"And what might that be?" Giles asked, as something in the back of his mind began clamoring for his attention.

"This," the man calmly answered, as he withdrew his hand from his jacket to reveal a Browning 9 mm pistol, which he then proceeded to aim at the former Watcher.

As Giles reflexively tried to throw himself to the floor behind the counter, the stranger fired four times, the bullets smashing against the ex-Watcher's chest and slamming him back against the shelving behind the register.

As he fell to the floor, his chest feeling as though he had been hit with a sledgehammer and his entire upper body a screaming morass of pain, Giles was vaguely aware of his assailant stepping behind the counter and opening the cash register, to grab a fistful of currency and stuff it into his jacket pocket.

"Nothing personal, Mr. Giles. This is strictly a business transaction," he heard the man say, before the shooter leveled the pistol a final time at his head and pulled the trigger.

< Wrong! You've just made it personal, you bloody pillock! > he screamed in his mind, an instant before he watched the barrel erupt in a jet of flame and everything went black.


Reaching into his inside jacket pocket, the man who had just gunned down Rupert Giles in cold blood pulled out a cellphone and thumbed a button on its face.

"All right, it's done," he announced, ignoring any greeting when the other end of the call was picked up. "Initiate operations, immediately. I want to be done and out of this town before sundown. We'll have enough problems, once they start looking for us. I don't want to add to them unnecessarily."

Not waiting for an response, he folded the phone back down and returned the phone to its inside pocket, then headed out onto the street, not sparing even a second glance towards the blood-splattered body lying behind the counter.


Chapter 11

Sunnydale High School
September 17, 2001
2:55 pm

"Uhm, excuse me, Dawn, but would you mind if I borrow your computer for a couple of minutes?"

The Key looked up from her seat in front of one of the workstations lining the wall of the computer lab to see the tall brunet she had run into earlier in the day smiling down at her.

"Tim! Hi!" she smiled back, while a small part in the back of her brain was dancing triumphantly, doing her own version of the Snoopy Dance. < Yes! He remembered my name! >

"Sure, Tim, no problem. What's the matter with the one you're using?" she beamed up at him as she slid her chair to one side to allow him easier access to the keyboard.

Off to one side, she could see Janet and her minions giving her the evil eye for even daring to speak to the new guy the would-be high school diva had decided she was interested in.

< Well, up yours, bitch! You're not getting him without a fight! > the younger Summers woman mentally sneered and thumbed her nose at the obviously bleached blonde as she gave her ostensible opponent a smug smile before turning her attention back to the hunk sitting next to her.

"I can't be sure without actually opening it up, but I think the network card in it is glitchy," he was telling her, and Dawn quickly rewound the past few seconds of their conversation to make sure she hadn't missed anything important while she had been flaunting her position next to Tim in the face of her class's Cordelia Chase.

"It keeps kicking me off the network, and I want to check my email before I leave," the newly registered student explained as his fingers danced over the keyboard. "This is my last class for the day, and I've got a lot of things I need to pick up before I get home, and I just wanted to see if there's anything urgent waiting for me."

"20thcen_Robin_Hood@hotmail..." she read aloud as he logged in to the server. "Are you a big fan of legends and mythology?" she asked curiously.

"Ah, well, I'm kind of a fan, but I really wouldn't say a big one," the brunet replied as he noted the lack of new messages awaiting him. "My login's sort of a nickname a friend of mine gave me a while back."

"Oh, well, it sounds pretty cool," Dawn smiled at him, desperately trying to think of something, anything, to say to prolong the conversation.

< Oh, god, he's gonna think I'm an idiot! > she told herself. Fortunately for her sake, the bell chose that moment to ring, signaling the end of the class period.

"Ah, Dawn, by any chance would you know any shops in the area that might carry a good selection of medicinal herbs?" she heard Tim ask, as he bent to pick up his backpack.

"Ah, sure!" she immediately replied, as she saw Janet and her flock of hangers-on get up and begin heading their way.

"There's place called The Magic Box that's probably got the best selection around, outside LA, and it's not too far from here," she informed him as she kept an seemingly indifferent eye on her would-be rival and her throng's approach.

"A couple of my sister's friends are really big into herbal remedies and things, and that's where they get all of their stuff. And the owner's a friend of my family, actually. I could take you there and show the place. I don't have anything scheduled, so I could take you over there and introduce you to Giles now, if you're interested," she offered, staring Janet straight in the eye as the would-be queen bee of the school, followed by her crowd of bootlicking parasites, strode up and flashed Tim the most insincere smile the Key had ever seen.

"Hi, Tim," Janet beamed at him as she completely ignored Dawn's presence. "I was thinking that, since you're new here, you probably don't know any of the good places to go, or the things you can do around here. I thought I could take you around and show you all the things worth seeing."

The skank was practically drooling on him, Dawn noticed impartially, while wondering how long it would be before the bleached blonde tried to jump on him.

It'd probably be less than a minute until that tramp had her pants down around her ankles and was bending over in front of him showing him one of the things most of the guys on the football team 'do' around here, she decided in a completely objective evaluation.

"Well, it's very kind of you to offer, uhm, Janet," Tim smiled neutrally at the blonde, "but Dawn's already offered to show me some things I'm interested in this afternoon, so I'm already got my schedule filled. Maybe another time?" he asked.

"You're choosing to spend time with *her* instead of *me*?" the self-appointed, would-be social sovereign of the high school demanded as she pointed at the Key disbelievingly.

"Yes, I am," was the tall brunet's simple reply, as he quietly sat there next to Dawn and stared at the bleached blonde, while her entourage watched, shocked and very nearly traumatized at the idea that the leader of their 'elite' group had been slighted for anyone else, let alone one of the weirdoes they just knew was their social inferior.

Dawn herself was a bit surprised at Tim's response to Janet's suggestion, accustomed as she was to the majority of the other students catering to the blonde's whims, although she concealed her amazement quite well, all things considered.

"Shall we get going, Dawn?" Tim asked, as he stood up and picked up both of their backpacks. "We don't want to be late."

Practically jumping to her feet, Dawn made a point of giving Janet a small (but nonetheless superior) smile as she accompanied Tim out of the classroom and into the hallway.

"See you around, Jan," she said casually as they left the classroom. She could practically feel the bleached blonde's eyes boring into her back in a combination of anger and disbelief as they walked out.

< In your face, bitch! > she added mentally.

"Well, if you were looking for a way to really piss Janet off, you found it the first time out, Tim," Dawn commented with an admittedly broad smile on her face as they exited the front doors of the school and headed towards the center of town, where the Magic Box was located.

"Well, I wasn't actually looking to piss her off, but I figured, since the opportunity arose, I shouldn't waste it," he admitted, the grin on his face making him look like mischievous ten-year-old, Dawn decided. She also decided that she really liked that expression on his face.

"Janet really reminds me of a girl I knew back in my old school," Tim confided, his face suddenly losing all of the humor it had held and now looking like someone who had just recalled one of the most painful memories of their life.

"Was she a close friend of yours?" Dawn asked, suddenly curious as to what this girl had meant to Tim.

Judging from the expression of loss on his face, she would have said they were very close, so she was quite surprised when she heard him reply, "Actually, we couldn't stand each other.

"I remember, back when I was about eleven, I had made very detailed plans to push her off the observation deck when we visited the Empire State Building on our class trip, and I was extremely disappointed to discover all of the wire fencing they had up to prevent people from jumping. Made me have to completely rework all of my plans," he gave a grim chuckle as he relived the incident.

"So, why do you look so sad when you think about her?" Dawn pursued her line of questioning. "If you don't mind my asking, that is."

"Because she died. And I should have saved her," Tim confessed quietly. "She and some of her friends were attacked by a gang, and she died from her injuries before I could get her to the hospital. If I had been faster getting there and helping them, maybe she'd still be alive."

Before Dawn could make any response to that statement, the two teenagers' attention was distracted by a dark blue Venture van abruptly pulling off the street and half-way onto the sidewalk, blocking their path. The van's side door immediately slid back to disgorge two dark-attired, thuggish-looking men, who spread apart to further block the sidewalk ahead of them.


Reflexively glancing back over his shoulder, Tim saw a second van, a maroon Chrysler Town and Country, pulling up across the sidewalk behind them, blocking their retreat. There were also no alleyways anywhere in easy sprinting distance, leaving them boxed in rather nicely, the strategist portion of his mind noted with a bit of professional admiration at the smoothness of their operation while it simultaneously began evaluating their escape options.

"Now, don't you be worrying yourself there, young lady. Just don't make any fuss, and there won't be any problem now," Tim heard the smaller, fair-haired man, who was apparently the leader of the teams, speak in a quiet voice, his Liverpool accent quite evident as he addressed Dawn.

The fact that Dawn didn't appear to be nearly as surprised and upset as the adolescent would have expected under the circumstances, was something else the professionally trained portion of his mind noted for later consideration.

Upset? Yes, she most definitely was.

But terrified and panic-stricken, the way your typical high school girl would be expected to be in this sort of situation? Nope. Not in the least.

The fact that she had instantly fallen into a modified fighting stance was something else he noted for later consideration.

"You're got nothing to be worried about, from me or the lads here," the leader was saying. "There're some gentlemen who wish to have a few words with you, and we're just here to make sure you get to see them straightaway."

"Sorry, buddy, but the young lady and I already have plans for the afternoon," Tim said as he surprised Dawn by gently pushing her closer to the wall of the building next to them, and stepping so as to place himself between her and the newcomers. "It'd probably help a lot if you called ahead and made an appointment, the next time you want to see someone."

"If you're smart, boy, you'll just kept your mouth shut and step aside, so we can conclude our business with the young lady," the blond-haired man off to their left put in his two cents worth.

"Uhm, Tim, maybe I should just go with them," Dawn suggested a bit nervously. From the corner of his eye, he could see that it looked as though she were evaluating the tactical situation. "I think I know who it is they're talking about who wants to see me."

"Even if you're right about who they're talking about, Dawn, do you really want to go anywhere with these clowns?" Tim quietly asked the young woman, who had moved up to stand beside him.

"Well, uhm, no, not really," she admitted as she shook her head negatively.

"Well, I guess that settles it, then. The young lady said she doesn't want to go anywhere with you guys, so it looks like your business with her is finished," Tim announced, staring the dark-haired man who had spoken first straight in the eye, his attitude clearly annoying the man

All four of the goons surrounding them had the look of experienced ex-military types, carrying an air of casual violence about them that undoubtedly intimidated most people with whom they came in contact, the teen noted to himself. Which probably meant that they were much more accustomed to people who immediately did what they told them to do, and not to people who talked back to them.

All right then, the strategist portion of his mind decided, preliminary tactics were to try to piss them off, get them angry and then be ready to capitalize on any mistakes they made.

And hope they didn't kick the snot out of him too badly, if he screwed this up.

"You just be keepin' your mouth shut there, boy," the apparent leader snarled as he took a moment to glare at the taller brunet. "This isn't any of your concern, so you just keep quiet and you'll walk away perfectly fine."

"No, I don't think that's gonna happen," the newest Sunnydale High student predicted, as he shook his head in disagreement.

"Nobody ever learns from history," he commented idly with a shake of his head, earning stares of bewilderment from the people around him. Including Dawn.

"You see, if I recall correctly, British press gangs were one of the reasons we went to war with England back in 1812," Tim continued, staring as insolently as he could mange at the leader, while keeping all four men in his field of vision. "You know, British soldiers and sailors thinking they could just grab American citizens against their will and drag them off to places they didn't want to go to, without suffering any repercussions.

"We ended up handing you guys your asses in a basket back then, didn't we?" he added, with a smug adolescent grin that was practically guaranteed to royally piss off whoever he was talking to.

"Uh, Tim, I really don't think this is a good time to be bringing things like that up," Dawn ventured, as she put her hand on his arm, clearly wanting him to shut up and not aggravate these guys more than he already had.

"You're a cheeky little git, ain't ya?" one of the men from the second van scowled at youth as he and his companion started forward. "Sounds like you need someone to show you your place, boy!"

"Well, I guess you'd better call him and get him over here pretty fast, then," Tim practically sneered as he deliberately looked all the four men up and down, "because it's obvious none of you guys will be the one doing it."

"Look, lad, I'm only going to say this one more time," came the terse reply from the group's leader. "Shut up and step aside, and you'll be fine. Mouth off again, and you're going to be regretting you spoke out of turn."

"I kinda doubt that, old man," Tim deliberately smirked at the man in front of him, while he carefully kept the pair from the second van in his peripheral vision. "It doesn't look to me like there's anyone here who could even have a chance of making that happen."

"Uh, Tim -" Dawn began, now obviously *really* worried about her companion's clearly aggravating behavior towards the men confronting them.

"Chill, Dawn," the tall brunet youth advised, turning his head slightly to look over at her and giving her a quick wink that was unseen by any of the men surrounding them. "It's obvious that none of these clowns can stop us, and by the time they can get anyone who might have a chance over here, we'll be long gone."

"A smart mouth can get you in a whole lot of trouble, boy," Tim heard one of the men off to his left, a member of the second team, warning him as he headed towards the two teenagers, obviously intent on shutting the loudmouthed youth up, "as you're about to find out."

As the thug reached out his hand to grab him, Tim grasped his assailant's wrist with his left hand and guided the arm towards the outside of his body as he instantly followed it up with a short palm strike to his opponent's solar plexus, momentarily stunning his diaphragm and paralyzing his ability to breathe. Before the guy could begin to collapse from the sudden shock to his system, he then yanked his attacker forward and swung him around to slam into the brick wall behind them and drop to the ground, completely unconscious.


Accustomed as she was to the 'normal' Sunnydale supernatural weirdness, Dawn wasn't exceptionally freaked out when the dark blue van pulled off the street and stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, blocking their way. She started becoming the least bit worried when the van's side door slid open and two rough looking men, not demons, got out, though.

At the first suggestion of trouble, she had reflexively shifted her footing and dropped into a modified defensive stance that Spike had shown her earlier during the summer, when Buffy and Xander had insisted that everyone in the Scooby Gang learn at least the basics of self-defense.

"Now, don't you be frightened, young lady. If you don't make any fuss, there won't be any problem now. You're not in any danger here, from me or the lads," the fair-haired man who seemed to be in charge told her. "There're some gentlemen who wish to have a few words with you, and we're just here to make sure you get to see them straightaway."

The man's accent was unquestionably English, and a small shiver immediately ran down Dawn's back as she realized that the Council had evidently decided to look more closely at her, and her relationship to Buffy.

< This is definitely not of the good, > she decided, as she quickly surveyed their situation. This particular section of the business district had no convenient alleyways close enough that they could easily dart into them, in order to try and lose these guys, whoever they might be.

< Damn, how am I gonna get us both out of this and keep Tim from getting hurt? > she asked herself, before the full import of the conversation currently going on between her friend and the Council's thugs sank in.

"Sorry, buddy, but the young lady and I already have plans for the afternoon," she heard Tim was saying as he surprised Dawn by gently pushing her closer to the wall of the building next to them, and stepping so as to place himself between her and the newcomers, while eyeing all four of the newcomers warily. "It'd probably help a lot if you called ahead and made an appointment, next time you want to see someone."

"If you're smart, boy, you'll just kept your mouth shut and step aside, so we can conclude our business with the young lady," the blond-haired man off to their left put in his two cents worth.

"Uhm, Tim, maybe I should just go with them," Dawn suggested a bit nervously, concerned that her new friend might be drawn into her problem and injured. "I think I know who it is they're talking about who wants to see me."

"Even if you're right about who they're talking about, Dawn, do you really want to go anywhere with these clowns?" Tim quietly asked her, as she moved up to stand beside him.

"Well, uhm, not really," she admitted as she shook her head 'no.'

"Well I guess that settles it, then. The young lady said she doesn't want to go anywhere with you guys, so it looks like your business with her is finished," Tim announced, staring at the dark-haired man who had spoken first.

< Damn it, Tim, you don't need to show me how macho you are! You're gonna get your ass kicked, if you keep mouthing off to these guys, > the Key thought as she listened to the tall brunet's posturing.

"You just be keepin' your mouth shut there, boy," the apparent leader snarled as he took a moment to glare at the boy talking to him. "This isn't any of your concern, so you just keep quiet and you'll walk away perfectly fine."

"No, I don't think that's gonna happen," the newest Sunnydale High student said, as he shook his head in disagreement.

"You see, if I recall correctly, British press gangs were one of the reasons we went to war with England back in 1812," he continued, staring at the leader with what sounded like typical adolescent arrogance. "You know, British soldiers and sailors thinking they could just grab American citizens against their will and drag them off to places they didn't want to go to, without suffering any repercussions.

"We ended up handing you guys your asses in a basket back then, didn't we?" he added, with a smug juvenile grin that was pretty much guaranteed to royally piss off whoever he was talking to.

"Uh, Tim, I really don't think this is a good time to be bringing things like that up," Dawn ventured, as she put her hand on his arm, wanting him to keep quiet and not aggravate these guys more than he already had. These guys would put him in the hospital in a body cast without a second thought, if he didn't shut up right away!

"You're a cheeky little git, ain't ya?" one of the men from the second van scowled at youth as he and his companion started forward. "You need someone to show you your place, boy!"

"Well, I guess you'd better call him and get him over here pretty fast, then," Tim was practically sneering at the Council's thugs as he deliberately looked all the four men up and down, "because it's obvious none of you guys will be the one doing it."

"Look, lad, I'm only going to say this one more time," came the reply from the group's leader, who was obviously straining to keep his temper in check. "Shut up and step aside, and you'll be fine. Mouth off again, and you're going to be regretting you spoke out of turn."

"I kinda doubt that, old man," Tim deliberately smirked at the man. Dawn noticed, though, that he still managed to keep the pair from the second van in his peripheral vision. "It doesn't look to me like there's anyone here who could even have a chance of making that happen."

< Oh shit! > Dawn thought to herself as she watched the expressions on all of the Council's thugs darken ominously. < Now he's gone and made it personal. Do you have a death wish or something, Tim? > she asked him silently.

"Uh, Tim -" the worried brunette began, now starting to become *really* concerned about her companion's obviously aggravating behavior towards the men confronting them.

"Chill, Dawn," the tall brunet youth advised, turning his head slightly to look over at her and giving her a quick wink that was unseen by any of the men surrounding them. "It's obvious that none of these clowns can stop us, and by the time they can get anyone who might have a chance over here, we'll be long gone."

Hearing him say that, Dawn figured that she probably had just gone as white as Drusilla usually was, all of the blood draining from her face as she realized that these guys were going to beat the mouthy teen into the ground now, regardless of whether she went with them willingly or not.

She wasn't quite sure she knew what the wink was trying to tell her, but she readied herself to move at the first opportunity that showed itself.

"A smart mouth can get you in a whole lot of trouble, boy," she heard one of the men off to their left say as he moved forward, obviously intent on violence, "as you're about to find out."

As the thug reached out his hand to grab Tim, Dawn watched him grasp his assailant's wrist and guide the arm towards the outside of his body as he drove a short palm strike to his opponent's solar plexus, momentarily stunning his diaphragm and paralyzing his ability to breathe. Before anyone could react to this obviously unexpected development, the youth had yanked his attacker forward and swung him past him, slamming him into the brick wall behind them and letting him drop to the ground, unconscious.

Taking advantage of the brief instant of surprise Tim's actions had provided them, Dawn slid forward and drove her left foot forward into the crotch of the Council thug closest to her, following up with a short right hook to his jaw as he doubled forward clutching himself.

Ignoring her now defeated opponent as he dropped to the sidewalk, unconscious, she turned her attentions to the apparent leader of the snatch and grab team. Dawn reflexively swayed backward to avoid the fist aimed at her head, then drove her foot forward towards her would-be kidnapper's balls in an attack identical to the one she had just used on her previous opponent. As Xander once told her, 'No man has steel balls.'

The light-haired man grinned mockingly at her as he caught her foot with both hands and jerked her forward, trying to pull her off balance, but the expression on his face immediately shifted to one of surprise as the young brunette made no attempt to resist his counter.

Instead, Dawn slid forward as he pulled her towards him, immediately flowing into her follow-up attack. Using his hands locked around her foot as a base, she stepped forward and upward as she chambered her right leg back, then snapped it out in a devastating roundhouse kick that drove the instep of her foot against the left temple of her attacker's head, knocking him out instantly.

Off to her left, Dawn caught a glimpse of Tim dropping slightly and sliding under their fourth assailant's outstretched arm, his shoulder fitting under the man's armpit, before abruptly straightening up while yanking the trapped arm downwards. The muted POP! of his shoulder joint dislocating was nearly drowned out by the man's muffled scream, which was abruptly silenced when the brunet youth slammed his free elbow into his opponent's face.

Letting his now unconscious foe drop to the ground, Tim grabbed a hold of Dawn's hand as she stared at him in surprise.

"Move it before they wake up, Dawn!" he ordered, as he took off at a sprint between the two vans and down the other side of the street, pulling her along with him, the two of them dodging between oncoming cars and ignoring the yells and curses of the irate drivers swerving to avoid them. Behind them, they heard the sounds of engines revving, followed by the cacophony of car horns being blown and the sudden screech of car tires and the sounds of several vehicles smashing together.

Darting into the first alleyway they came upon, he dragged the unresisting brunette in with him, not ceasing their headlong flight down several intersecting alleyways until they had put several blocks between them and their would-be kidnappers.


The Magic Box
Sunnydale, CA
September 17, 2001 3:14 pm

"That's odd," Willow commented as she and Tara walked up to the shop's front door and saw the 'Closed' sign hanging in the window.

Giles normally didn't close the shop during regular business hours unless there was some kind of emergency, and he hadn't called either her or Tara to ask one of them to stop by and take care of the store because he had to run out suddenly, so she was rather curious as to what might prompted him to change the store's routine.

She knew she had just seen someone leave the store a moment before as she and the blonde witch had been approaching from where Jennifer had dropped them off on her way to the mall, and her Hellmouth-developed instincts were beginning to flare with incipient alarm. The alarm shifted from a low-key hum to a more pronounced buzzing as she pushed the door open, finding it unlocked despite the 'Closed' sign prominently displayed.

Tara was also wearing a concerned look as she followed the redhead into the shop, and she could feel the redhead's aura shifting as she reflexively began gathering her energy, in case she should suddenly need find herself in need of it, much as she was doing, herself.

"Giles?" she called tentatively into the quiet of the store. The complete lack of any response or other indication of his presence, while the subdued tones of one of Beethoven's concertos filled the air, unnerved her.

There was most definitely something wrong here; she could almost feel it as her skin seemed to be reaching out and trying to grasp whatever it was that was wrong here.

The faintest bit of noise, almost as if someone was moaning, escaped from behind the counter, and she glanced at Tara to see if she had caught it, too. A quick nod from the blonde and a slight inclination of her head to the left told her that the other witch had also heard the almost nonexistent sound, and that she would approach the counter from the side opposite the one Willow was heading towards.

The gut-wrenching sight presented her as she rounded the counter was far from the one she had expected, based on her years of Hellmouth-oriented experience, and she momentarily froze up in horror as she found herself standing at feet of a blood-soaked Rupert Giles.

"Goddess!" Tara's dismayed exclamation from the other end of the counter shattered her paralysis, and she dropped to her knees next to the blonde as she crouched over the deathly still body, reaching out with her arcane senses to probe her surrogate father's aura while her fingers sought a pulse at his throat.

"He's alive! Thank you, Goddess!" she exulted when she felt the weak, but still present, beat of his heart, and she could see the relief and thankfulness coursing though her lover's aura as she spoke, as the blonde worked to help preserve the spark of life still fluttering within the body before them.

Beside her, Tara was swiftly pulling herbs from her shoulder bag, crumbling them together in her hands in a frantic mixture before scattering them across the bloody wounds perforating his chest and the ghastly hole marking his forehead while she murmured half-heard phrases in a language only spoken by a comparative handful of people across the world.

A golden light spread across the badly injured form and Giles' laboring breaths seemed to ease slightly.

"I've got him stabilized and his system slowed to a crawl right now," Tara stated, as she turned to the redhead. "He won't get any worse for the moment, but we need to get him to a hospital as quick as possible."

"Already on it," Willow told her, her cellphone to her ear as she waited for the 911 operator to respond. "Yes, I need an ambulance at The Magic Box shop, at 3023 Beneficent Drive - the owner's been shot. I think there was a robbery," she told the dispatcher as she finally took notice of the open drawer of the cash register. "There's blood all over the floor, and it looks like he's been shot several times.

"Okay, we'll be staying here with him," she confirmed to the operator. "Tell them to hurry," she added as she then thumbed the disconnect button and looked at her lover.

"She said they've got an ambulance on the way," Willow repeated what the operator had told her as she looked down at the bleeding body of her true father.

Here was the man who had given her the emotional support, love and approval she had been so desperately and unknowingly seeking when she had first encountered him and Buffy and been introduced to a heretofore unknown and unsuspected world that existed side-by-side with the one in which she had grown up. Seeing him lying in a pool of his own blood had filled her with terror while simultaneously igniting a rage inside her that she was desperately trying to keep from flaring up into an inferno she would have no hope of extinguishing.

She desperately tried to think of things she could be doing to distract herself from having to look at Giles' bleeding body, things that would keep her too busy to pay any attention to the part of herself deep inside that was beginning to stir, to awaken again - the same part that she had stepped back and let take control all those months ago, when Glory had taken her Tara away from her. Her own little heart of darkness.

It was the nasty, vicious part of herself that truly terrified her when she paid attention to its suggestions, when she listened to the muted whispers telling her what she could do, once she found out who it was that was responsible for doing this to Giles.

The quiet, tempting, barely heard words that described the punishments she could inflict on those responsible for hurting one of the people she loved. She had the power to do whatever she wanted to do, and no one could stop her if she chose to do so.

"Tara, help me," she turned to the blonde witch, desperation on her face. "I'm afraid," she confessed, the tears in her eyes threatening to overflow

"Shhh, everything'll be all right, baby," Tara tried to sooth her, as she reached over and took her hands. "The ambulance is on its way and they'll take Giles to the hospital and he'll be fine," she reassured the frantic redhead.

"That's not all I'm afraid of," the redhead shook her head in denial as she squeezed her lover's hands seeking reassurance.

"I'm afraid of what I might do if he doesn't make it," she confessed. "I love him as much as I love you, baby. Just in a different way. I almost lost my mind when Glory hurt you, and I was ready to do anything I could to hurt her back. I don't know what I'll do if he, if he -" she couldn't even complete her sentence. She was so afraid of the possibility of death taking another member of her family that she balked at even putting the possibility into words.

"We n-need to tell Bu-Buffy and Xander," Tara pointed out. "Y-you should call th-them and let them know wh-what's going on," she suggested, trying to distract her frantic girlfriend.

"Oh goddess, you're right! They need to know, too," Willow agreed as she first noticed the ululating wail of an emergency siren in the distance rapidly approaching. "And we need to call Dawn, too!"

"I'll c-call Dawn, while you call Bu-Buffy," the blonde Wicca suggested. "B-Better hurry, the, the ambulance is almost here," she noted as she began punching in the younger Summers woman's cell number.

Outside, she saw the ambulance squeal to a halt in front of the shop and a man and a woman dressed in identical uniforms quickly exit the vehicle and rush into the shop, and she watched in horrific fascination as the paramedics began working on their mentor, her call to Dawn momentarily forgotten.


Pacific Coast Highway
September 17, 2001 3:25 pm

Buffy's cell phone warbled its presence as the petite blonde lightly dozed in the passenger bucket seat of her lifemate's latest toy, a fully restored 1968 forest green Mustang, complete with a 271-hp Challenger High Performance V-8 engine with 4-speed manual transmission.

"H'lo?" the only semi-awake Slayer mumbled into the phone, before instantly coming to full alertness as she heard Willow's semi-hysterical message informing them of her Watcher's current condition.

Xander, hearing the witch's words at the same moment through his connection to his lifemate, immediately floored the accelerator and the classic car leaped forward, the engine purring as the speedometer passed the three-digit mark and continued climbing.

As Buffy raised her seat back up from its reclining position and checked to ensure that her seatbelt was properly secured at Xander's silent request, the two Immortal demon-hunters each tried to reassure the other of their mentor's eventual complete recovery from the injuries he had received, while they also contemplated the retribution they would inflict once they located the person or person's responsible for Giles' present condition.

Chapter 12

Sunnydale Memorial Hospital
Neurological Surgery waiting room
Five hours later

"Uh, Miss Giles?" a tall, dark-haired woman in her forties wearing surgical scrubs splattered with blood stood outside the doors to the operating theatre and looked over at the small group filling the waiting room chairs and staring at her with a combination of hope, dread and fear.

"Buffy Summers," the Slayer corrected the woman, then elaborated when she saw the puzzled frown on her face.

"Giles is our stepfather," she equivocated, indicating Dawn and herself. "Xander is my fiancé and the others are friends of the family."

"I'm Dr. Pierce," the woman introduced herself then, her down-easter accent coming to the fore, satisfied that she was, indeed, talking to the right people. "I was the lead surgeon treating your stepfather, Miss Summers, and we've just now finished up everything we can do for him at present."

Tim, having accompanied Dawn to the hospital at her semi-hysterical request after she had received Tara's call, quietly took several steps back to try and provide at least the illusion of privacy to Dawn's family and friends, as they awaited the doctor's response.

"So, how is he?" he heard Dawn blurt out, unable to restrain herself. "He's gonna be okay, isn't he?"

"Your stepfather suffered extensive damage to his heart and both lungs," Pierce told them, her eyes not quite meeting and holding anyone's gaze for more than a moment before moving on to another member of the group.

"He was shot four times in the chest with a medium caliber pistol, probably a nine millimeter, and the bullets did a lot of damage. His left lung is in very bad shape, but there's a fair-to-good chance that it might recover sufficiently over time, so we did not remove it, and we repaired the damage to it and his right lung, also. We removed his spleen and also repaired the damage done to his upper intestine and some additional minor damage to his liver. He was extremely lucky in that only two of the bullets nicked his heart, and we've repaired the damage there, so I'm fairly confident that there won't be any additional problems from that," she elaborated, pausing to take a deep breath before continuing.

"What aren't you telling us, Doctor?" Buffy hesitantly asked, the worried expression on her face growing deeper at the physician's obvious reluctance to say more.

"Your stepfather was also shot in the head, Miss Summers," Pierce told them. "The bullet inflicted extensive damage, and it did not exit his skull, meaning that it's still lodged in his brain. At present, his vital signs are only borderline acceptable and we are reluctant to do anything more than we have already done, due to his weakened condition.

"Once he's stabilized and after he's gained a bit of strength, we anticipate that we'll be able to go in and remove the bullet. However - " she paused again, for a moment, as though hoping for a reprieve from having to complete the briefing, "you need to understand that your stepfather has already suffered severe neurological damage, and even the most optimistic prognosis would include a very high probability that he would most likely have severe impairments in many areas of his life following recovery."

"I'm getting the impression that you're not feeling very optimistic here, Doc," Xander observed, his face grim, as he pulled Buffy and Dawn closer against him, his eyes locked on the surgeon's face as he awaited her answer.

"Time to cut to the chase. What's Giles' prognosis?" he very clearly asked the question the doctor obviously wanted to avoid.

She paused briefly before answering. When she had first started her medical career, her father, a surgeon of almost fifty years standing, had given her one point of advice about informing families about bad news: give it to them straight and to the point, don't beat about the bush. So the daughter of Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce did exactly that.

"Given his current weakened condition and the severity of his injuries, even if your stepfather survives the night, which I personally do not expect to him to do, he will probably never regain consciousness and will most likely remain in a vegetative state for the rest of his life," she told them quietly.

Hearing that, the young brunette standing next to Miss Summer' fiancé let out a low cry of anguish and turned to bury her face against his chest, her arms reaching out to encircle both him and her sister as the blonde stepped in close and hugged both the younger woman and her fiancé. The redhead standing next to the three paled considerably and looked as though she were about to collapse as the taller blonde pulled her close to support her and quietly began murmuring something in her ear. The blond man in the black leather duster standing with them barely changed expression at her news, his brow only narrowing a bit more in a frown, Pierce noted, but she felt a shiver of fear suddenly run down her spine as he looked at her, and she quickly looked away.

"I'm sorry," the surgeon said quietly, before turning and heading back towards the double doors leading to the surgical area.

"Doctor Pierce," Xander called before she reached the doors. "We need to see him. As soon as possible," he added. "We need as much time with him as we can get. And we want a private room, so we won't be disturbed"

"All right," she nodded, wondering a bit at the unusual request. "I'll have him moved to one of the rooms on the second floor. It shouldn't be more than twenty minutes or so. One of the nurses will take you there once he's been moved."


:: Looks like we're going to find out if that crazy, emergency back-up plan we talked about is any good, a lot sooner than we thought, babe, :: Buffy told her lifemate as the two of them led a semi-hysterically sobbing Dawn over to one of the chairs lined up against the wall of the waiting area.

:: You want to stay with Dawn while I talk to Will and Tara? :: Xander asked, as he helped set the sobbing brunette down next to the petite blonde.

:: Yeah, I think that's probably the best way to handle things right now, :: she agreed, as they both continued to pour love and reassurance down the link they shared with the younger girl.

They found themselves doing a lot of things in tandem of late, as the last of the mental barriers between them were either forgotten or simply faded away. And at the moment, Buffy blessed that above all else as Xander gathered all her grief and rage and, along with his own, simply stuffed it into some deep, dark corner of his psyche so that she could concentrate on helping Dawn. They both knew that he would pay for that later with nightmares that made the worst of her Slayer dreams look tame. She'd repay him then, try to take away his pain at what she knew he would regard as a failure to protect one of his family from harm.

That was what drove him in virtually every aspect of his life, she now knew. There were absolutely no secrets between them now; over the course of the last few months they had explored each other's thoughts, feelings and memories until they had each learned everything there was to know about the other.

Her greatest revelation had been Xander's childhood, the abuse and neglect that only Jesse and Willow had saved him from. The full disclosure of what her White Knight had done in her service still left her in awe.

Xander's biggest shock had been to learn that THE LIE (she knew he still capitalized it in his mind) hadn't fooled her in the slightest. She had realized instantly that Willow would never had said anything like that. Xander obviously had thought the re-souling attempt hopeless, and that she shouldn't risk the world or herself stalling the master vampire. To find out that what he thought his greatest sin against her had been forgiven as it was committed had left him vowing not to underestimate her strength or perception ever again.

Giving his weeping daughter a quick kiss on the forehead, Xander turned and moved over to the two Wiccas seated a few chairs away, noting that Spike was approaching the two girls as he left. He could see the youth who had accompanied Dawn to the hospital, Tim Drake, he recalled Dawn introducing him to the rest of the Scooby Gang, sitting across the room and waiting patiently while she cried her eyes out on Buffy's shoulder.

"How're you doing, Wills?" he asked quietly, as he crouched down and looked into his oldest friend's tear-filled eyes. "Do you feel like you're gonna faint or anything? Do you need a drink of water or anything?

The redhead shook her head 'no' as she snuggled a little deeper into Tara's embrace and answered him in a barely audible voice. "I'm okay, Xand."

"How about you, Tar? You all right?" he looked over at the blonde Wicca who currently had her arms wrapped consolingly around the smaller redhead. Without conscious thought, he reached over to wipe the tears from her cheek, and he was happy to see she leaned into his hand, accepting the gesture of comfort. Xander knew she had very little faith in the male gender, unconsciously flinching whenever any man came too near and invaded her sphere of comfort, and he was proud and honored to be one of the few exceptions to her reflexive behavior.

"I - I'm fine, thanks," the blonde responded, her voice subdued, as she shook her head negatively.

"Xander, what're we gonna do?" Willow moaned plaintively, looking up at him, her eyes filled with pain as she thought of the man who was more a father to her than the one who had provided the genetic material, and who was currently lying injured and dying only a few short yards away from them.

"The way Buffy and I see it, from what the doctor just told us, Giles is pretty much gone, Will. He's probably gonna die tonight, and even if he doesn't, he's never gonna get better and wake up. There's absolutely nothing the hospital or any of the doctors can do for him that's gonna do any good," the brunet said bluntly, and watched the redhead flinch and shiver at the cold evaluation of their mentor's condition he had just made and bury her head against Tara, seeking refuge from his harsh words.

"That means that if we want him to live, we're gonna have to find a way to heal him," he continued a bare instant later, and saw the hacker/witch turn and look up at him with a spark of hope in her eyes.

"What do you mean?" she demanded, as she sat up straight to look him in the eye.

"Remember our talk back in August about healing spells and possibly transferring injuries to others?" he reminded her. "Have you and Tara found anything we might be able to use to do that?

"This is just the type of situation a spell like that would be perfect for," he pointed out quietly.

"We - uh, we did find a f-few spells that, that could transfer m-minor things like birthmarks or ta-tattoos to others," Tara told him, her eyes also beginning to brighten as the idea that they night be able to save their heart-father began to permeate their thoughts.

"But we haven't found anything that's specifically intended to shift wounds from one person to another, Xand," Willow pointed out. "We might be able to modify one of the spells we found to do something like that, but it's probably gonna take a lot of energy and it might take several people to do it.

"Give us a little time to think about it and figure out which spell would be the best one to use and what we'll need to modify it," she suggested distractedly, her attention already focused inward on the alterations they would need to make to accomplish their purpose.

"Tara, if we shift the fourth paradigm on that spell we found in the 'Book of Many Realms' and -" she began discussing an idea that had just occurred to her with her lover, as the Immortal let a small, hopeful smile cross his face and left the two to their brain-storming.


"How are you holding up, 'Bit?" Spike asked quietly, gently putting his hand on the young brunette's shoulder as he crouched down on the side opposite the Slayer. "Can I get you anything?"

"No, but thanks anyway, Spike," Dawn shook her head negatively as she sniffed and wiped her nose with the handkerchief he held out to her. Her eyes were still red and swollen when she looked up at him, but the heartbroken tears had stopped, at least for the moment.

In their place was a look of determination and thoughtful reflection as she posed the question that had passed through everyone's mind at some point during their wait, but which they had all shuffled aside for later discussion, once they were reassured about Giles' fate.

"Does anyone know who shot Giles? Or why?" she asked, her voice both plaintive and questioning at the same time. "Does anyone have any idea what happened at the shop to make things end up like this?" she inquired.

"You know, even with a Hellmouth around to blame, it seems just a little too coincidental that this happened on the same day someone tried to kidnap you, Dawnie," Buffy quietly pointed out, as she took a moment to consider all the events of the day. She could hear Xander's thoughts echoing her suspicions over their link even as he spoke with the two witches about a possible way to save their adopted parent. Willow had called it multitasking when she had mentioned to the redhead that she and Xan were now easily able to follow two simultaneous separate conversations. And not just follow, but make suggestions to ask questions of the other's conversation.

"Not to seem like I'm snooping or anything, 'Bit," Spike said, as he kept an eye on the tall brunet youth who seemed to be occupying himself with a four month old copy of People magazine as he sat in one the generic-issue waiting room chairs across the room, "but, is it just me being my normal nasty, suspicious bastard self, or does it seem just the least bit odd to anyone else that Wonder-boy over there shows up at your school the same day that a Council snatch-and-grab team drops by to invite you by for some tea and crumpets?

"Just how much do you really know about this bloke, hmm?" he asked, giving the young brunette a questioning eye.

"Well, His name's Tim Drake, and he's from back East, around the Philadelphia area, and his family just moved into town last week. We kind of ran into each other at school this morning," Dawn explained, blushing slightly as she remembered her initial reaction upon seeing first seeing Tim in the quad.

"He's a nice guy and he's really smart, maybe as smart as Willow is," she added, as she considered whether or not to admit that she and Chrissy had snuck into the Records office during their lunch period to check out his file.

"He scored 1427 on his SATs and was an Honors student at his old school," she informed her companions, "and he was on the gymnastics team for a while, before his mother and his two sisters were killed by muggers last year.

"That was one of the reasons his family - that's him, his Dad and his stepmother, moved out here - to get him away from the danger and the violence," she noted, an sardonic grin on her lips. "Irony much, huh, Buff?" she commented bitterly.

"Well, as unfortunate and tragic as all that bunkum sounds, it still doesn't mean that any of it's true, 'Bit," Spike replied as he gave a quick glance over towards the subject of their conversation.

"I know that I'm probably sounding like the Whelp here, but from where I'm sitting, all I'm seeing is a good-looking bloke that any girl - any beautiful young woman, that is -" the former 'Scourge of Europe' member corrected himself quickly, as he noted Dawn's expression begin to darken, "might be dazzled by.

"Pretty much the same way any bloke with eyes would be enspelled by you, if you ever decided you wanted to start breaking hearts wholesale, darlin'," he added, giving the Key a small smile and a quick wink that quickly defused the explosion he had seen building up in her eyes.

"Try to look at it from our viewpoint, okay, Dawnie?" Buffy interjected before her sister could begin trying to refute Spike's words. "Giles is attacked and left for dead on the very same day that this new Prince Charming guy arrives at your school, meets you and is walking home with you when you're suddenly stopped and threatened by a group of the Council's pet thugs. He helps you fight off a group of professional bad guys without getting even a scratch, and then runs away to safety with you before they can recover enough to chase the two of you.

"Doesn't all of that seem just the least bit coincidental to you?" Buffy asked her reasonably. "We're not saying that it's not true; we're just trying to be as careful as we can be. Something bad's already happened today; we don't want anything else happening, especially to you. You understand why we're saying what we're saying, don't you, Dawn?"

"Yeah, Buffy, I can see why you're thinking that, but Tim's not like that!" Dawn replied, her voice as earnest as she could make it. "He's not like that at all. Just go over and talk to him, and you'll see for yourself; he's just a really nice guy whose family moved to the worst possible place in the world to avoid trouble!"

The young brunette's voice was intense and seemed more than just a bit emotional as she spoke about her classmate, Spike thought to himself as he listened to Dawn answer her sister/mother.

< For your sake, you'd better not be playing around with the 'Bit's head, mate, > the Blonde Big Bad decided as he threw another glance across the room towards the unsuspecting youth. < You hurt her, and you won't live out the day. That is one thing I can most definitely promise, without any doubt whatsoever, boy. Chip or no chip, break her heart, and I'll rip yours out. >


Tim could almost feel the blond guy's eyes on his neck as he waited for Dawn to finish talking to her sister and the guy she had introduced as 'Spike.' She had described him as 'an OLD friend of the family' and he could see the obvious affection the brunette held for the older man as she hugged him tightly while they and other family friends waited for any further news about the guy he had heard Dawn's sister describe as their stepfather.

He wasn't quite sure just exactly what it was about the blond guy that bothered him, but the young demon hunter knew quite definitely that there was *something* about the guy that wasn't right, and one of the reasons he had survived this long was by paying attention to his feelings about people and things.

Spike's attitude wasn't exactly hostile, at least not on a personal level, he finally decided, after giving the matter a fair amount of thought as he feigned being interested in a four month old 'People' magazine, so much as it was just extremely protective of Dawn.

In fact, it strongly reminded him of Logan's attitude towards him when he had first started seeing Jewel; the not very subtle or understated 'hurt her in any way and I'll gut you, pull out your intestines and hang you from the flagpole with them' mindset her guardian had possessed seemed like it would be a damn good match for this guy's way of thinking, if he was reading the signs right. But that still didn't explain the weird vibes he was getting from the guy. He sorta felt like a bad guy, but he certainly didn't act like one. Not even in the small, virtually indistinguishable body language characteristics he displayed around all of these people. Judging by those ticks, Tim would've said he cared about everyone there. But his vibes still felt *off*.

< Just give me some time, > he told himself. < I'll figure it out eventually. >

Actually though, now that he thought about it, *all* of the people in this group were giving him some quite definitely weird vibes:

There was something about the redhead, Willow, and the tall blonde (Tara? he thought her name was) that pretty much seemed to be screaming out loud to some unspecified part of him, trying to tell him something, he wasn't quite sure exactly what, about the two of them. And it didn't feel like a BAD something. In fact, it felt almost the complete opposite of the vibes he got from that 'Spike' guy. Warm and fuzzy, just WAY off the charts. He'd figure out what that something was, too, eventually; he just needed time to think about it, that's all.

And then there was Dawn's sister, Buffy, and her fiancé, Xander (and what kind of name was Xander, anyway?). Both of them moved with a fluidity and economy of motion that you usually only saw in very highly trained athletes or members of elite military units, like those guys in Dick's squad that he had met through Bruce that one time. Not to mention the fact that he was also fairly certain that at least one, if not both, of them were carrying weapons. He had noticed what looked like the frame of an automatic pistol outlined against the small of Xander's back when Dawn had hugged him upon his and Buffy's arrival, and the bulge in the tall brunet's right back pocket, next to his key case, was almost certainly a Gerber folding knife, or something damn similar. The thought that they were both cops briefly crossed his mind, but when he thought about it, there were damn few cops that were THAT good.

Dawn also moved in much the same way they did, he realized as his thoughts gravitated once more towards the striking brunette. Quite apart from the fact that she was just incredibly gorgeous, that was one of the things that he found so enticing about her, he silently admitted to himself: the graceful way she simply flowed as she walked. He was probably going off the deep end with this sudden - fascination - he had with her, he quietly acknowledged, and reminded himself that he'd better watch what he said and did around her or both Spike and Xander would probably be looking to drag him into a convenient nearby alleyway and 'discuss' his obsession with him.

Once again, his memories of his conversation with Logan came to mind, and he decided that both of Dawn's male parental surrogates would probably get along *very* well with the monosyllabic Canadian.


"All right, guys, I think we're about as ready as we're going to get," Willow quietly announced to the anxiously waiting Scooby Gang members gathered in the visitors lounge down the hall from Giles' room. The redhead was seated on one of the chairs she and Tara had pulled over in front of the couch the remaining Scoobies were currently occupying.

Tim Drake had left only a few minutes previously, after Dawn had informed him that she would be remaining at the hospital overnight with the rest of the group, to await any developments that might arise in Giles' condition. Before leaving, he had elicited a promise from the Key to let him know of any changes in Giles' condition and insisted that she call him should she feel a desire to discuss any aspect of the whole horrible matter, an indication to her of his concern that brought a fleeting smile to her face, while making Buffy, Xander and Spike wonder yet again whether the youth was simply some innocent inadvertently caught up in their ongoing conflict, or a talented operator seeking to manipulate the young woman for some currently unknown purpose.

"Okay, Will, who do you need to work this mojo with you, and what do you need us to do?" Buffy asked, her question echoing the one uppermost in all their minds.

"Well, we're gonna be doing a couple things here all at the same time, Buff," the hacker turned witch answered, her clasped but fidgeting hands revealing her nervousness despite the confident expression she was currently wearing.

"Tara and I talked it over and we think that you're probably the better choice to try link up with Giles," she informed the tiny blonde, "because you've got a stronger emotional connection to him, what with him being your Watcher and everything. And she's got a better feel for the basics of the spell we're basing this all on, so she's going to be the one to link you with Giles.

"No offense, Xand," she noted, turning to address her childhood friend and one-time heartthrob, "but we have to optimize every variable we're dealing with here, because we don't know how much each of them are going to affect the results, and we're probably not going to get a second chance to try this again."

"Not a problem, Will," the one-time so-called Zeppo grinned wanly back at her from his place on the couch between Buffy and Dawn, an arm wrapped supportingly around each woman's shoulders. Spike was seated next to Dawn, both of her hands wrapped around his right one for reassurance, the expression on her face practically screaming out her worries and fears for the man who held the position of father in her heart.

"Do whatever you think is gonna be best for him," the tall brunet told their resident genius as he glanced down at the Key and gave her a reassuring squeeze.

"Don't worry, you big lummox," the witch's return smile was just as washed-out as his was, he noticed, "we're not gonna be ignoring you.

"While Tara is linking Buffy and Giles, I'm gonna need you to tap you as a power source for the shield I'm gonna put up around us, to protect everyone else, here and in the rest of the hospital, in case something goes wrong," she continued. "After what Buffy told us about that Quickening thing you guys absorbed back in July, we need to make sure that it doesn't get out of control, 'cause it would probably short out or destroy everything electronic around here. I checked and there's two people in ICU a newborn down in Maternity on respirators, so we gotta be careful."

"What do you need me and the 'Bit to do, Red?" Spike asked, looking up at the witch, while trying to convey with his eyes the message that Dawn couldn't be ignored and left out of their plans, if for no other reason than the young woman's peace of mind.

"You guys probably have the toughest job," Willow immediately responded to his question. "We need you to guard the rest of us while we're doing this."

Seeing the frowning expression growing on Dawn's face, Tara leaned forward to lay her hand atop the teen's, catching the young brunette's eyes.

"We-we're not making up work for you t-to do to make you feel better, sweetie. We're completely s-serious about this," she affirmed to the disgruntled adolescent. "Re-remember, this *is* the Hellmouth. D-do you really think that everything is gonna go p-perfectly right if we don't take any precautions?"

"Glinda the Good Witch is right, 'Bit," Spike immediately chimed in, while receiving a surprised and semi-affronted glare from the blonde for the nickname he had bestowed on her. This got small smiles from everyone else around because not too long ago, Tara wouldn't have had the self-confidence or self-respect to be to be affronted at anything anyone said about her.

"What would you say the chances of nothing going wrong with this plan are, based on the combined history of all these screw-ups we've got gathered together here?" the Bleached Bad continued, his question drawing another involuntary grin from everyone present. "It's gonna be up to us to keep these bleedin' idiots safe, despite themselves."

"You know, Buff, as much as it pains me to admit it, based on what Evil Dead here just pointed out here, maybe we should re-think this idea," Xander quickly agreed with the Bleached Bad's observation, trying to lighten the atmosphere of gloom that seemed to surround them.

"I don't know which bothers me more," Buffy stated, looking over at the two guys who had been speaking. "That Spike's comment actually makes sense, or that Xander agrees with him," she noted, drawing a frown and an outraged "Hey!" from both of them.

"You're absolutely right, Spike," Dawn graced the blond vampire with a smile after a quick glance at the rest of the Scooby Gang.

"Sometimes, I don't think we can let them go to the store by themselves, even if we pin a note to their collars," she commented, blithely ignoring the narrow-eyed glare she received from her parents at her words.

"All right, then, guys, let's get busy," Willow took advantage of the momentary silence to grab back control of the meeting. "Giles doesn't have any time to waste."


Although it would normally be considered quite spacious and airy, the hospital room presently appeared crowded and cramped, Giles' hospital bed having been pulled into the center of the room in order to allow the witches to inscribe a series of protective circles around both it and the patient it held.

After sabotaging the room's smoke detectors, candles set at the cardinal points of the compass of the outermost circle provided all the available light, the level of illumination somehow much greater than would have been expected from such an apparently meager source, revealing Buffy and Tara standing on opposite sides of Giles' bed, each clasping one of the other's hands and one of their mentor's.

A short distance away, outside the circle enclosing Giles and both girls but still remaining within the outermost inscribed circle, Xander and Willow were seated Indian-style facing each other, their hands locked together in an unshakable grasp.

Standing just outside the outer circle on opposite sides of the room were the final two Scoobies, Buffy's Glock 26 securely held in Dawn's somewhat sweaty right hand and Xander's locked Gerber folding knife in her left as she watched the curtain-covered windows, while Spike faced the closed and warded door that opened onto the corridor, game face on and one of his Sig Sauers available and ready for use at his hip.

"Brigit! Exalted One! Mother of health, healing and medicine! Threefold Daughter of the Dagda, we call upon you to heed our plea, Oh Gracious One!" Tara intoned as she began her exhortation. "Grant this boon we seek that the injured father of our hearts might link to his daughter for the healing he so desperately needs and which she wishes to provide him!"

Even as Tara began her chant, Willow was starting on her own invocation.

"Jaelithe, Lady of Escarp, Scourge of Darkness, Protector of the Helpless and Guardian of the Weak, hear our petition!" the redhead declared in a strong voice, her words echoing through the room just as clearly and understandably as her lover's words were also doing. "Enable us to protect the father of our hearts, Oh Paladin, in this, his hour of need, even as we also protect the weak and helpless from any harm might prevail."

"Belenos, Lord of healing, bestow upon us your blessing that our father might be healed of the grievous injuries he has suffered." The blonde witch's words seem to reverberate through the room as she spoke, each woman's words separate and distinct while they seemingly boomed and echoed through the suddenly darkening chamber.

"Kerridwen! All-Mother! Grant us thy wisdom and knowledge to heal and protect our father, treacherously stricken down by one without honor!" Willow called out their entreaties as the candles flickered momentarily before suddenly brightening to a greater level of illumination.

"Dioncecht! Father of medicine! God of healing! Empower this daughter to aid her father in his time of need! Grant us your favor, that we may aid and support him as he has aided and supported us in the past," Tara intoned, her eyes flickering with blue-white sparks that danced around all three of the participants standing within the ceremony's innermost circle.

"Rhiannon! Queen Mother! Bestow thy strength and knowledge upon us, his children, that we may protect our father in his time of need, as we also protect the weak and helpless from the evils that seek to prey upon them!" The sounds of a fearsome storm seemed to fill the area around them, though nothing was disturbed, and the redheaded witch's hair swirled around her shoulders as if tossed by a fierce wind, despite the fact that none was felt anywhere else in the rest of the room.

Even as she kept alert for any potential threats, Dawn was trying to keep track of what was going on inside the circles.

Xander and Willow were now both outlined in a pale bluish-white glow that seemed to bleed from them into the barely visible, shimmering hemisphere that currently encompassed the area marked by the Circle.

Inside the innermost circle, all of the ceremony's participants were now only partially visible as a blazing iridescent blue glow began to fill the smaller hemisphere enclosing the area around Giles' hospital bed.

Small bolts of bluish-white lightning, like the ones that appeared whenever Buffy or Xander were healing, were now dancing wildly over all three of the hemisphere's occupants, partially blinding the onlookers with the brilliance of their glow.

The ethereal pyrotechnics blazed for several moments more before abruptly dying away and vanishing, leaving the room shrouded in semi-darkness, the only illumination now being provided by the half-consumed candles on the floor.


"You okay, Xand, Buffy?"

The brunet Immortal opened his eyes (he hadn't even realized that he had closed them), to find himself lying on the floor and peering up into an upside-down pair of anxious blue eyes. As he struggled to sit up, he noticed that Willow was sprawled out on the floor in front of him, also apparently only semi-conscious from the efforts they had expended during the ceremony.

"Uh, yeah. I think so, Dawn," he hesitantly replied as he cautiously stretched out unbending arms and legs from the now rather-contorted position in which he found himself. "I feel like the floor of a taxicab," he quoted while simultaneously calling to his lifemate.

:: Buff? :: His entire body felt stiff and tired, as though he had run a triathlon immediately after a steel cage match with the bigger and nastier half of the WWF, and he swallowed a groan as his muscles strongly protested any efforts to do anything but keep lying on the floor.

:: You okay, darling? :: he inquired, the least bit of worry beginning to cloud his emotions, as he felt the diminutive blonde stifle a small scream as she tried to move from whatever position she had found herself.

:: I've had better days, baby, :: he heard her groan mentally, which was immediately followed by a loud, physical one. From the sounds he could hear off to one side, Spike was checking Tara to make sure she was unharmed by their impromptu, somewhat off-the-cuff ceremony.

"You sure you're okay?" he heard the Key ask uncertainly, while he felt her probing down through her mental link to both him and Buffy to try to ascertain the truth of their statement.

"Yes, Mom, I'm sure," he joked, ignoring the blue-eyed glare that earned him as he also tried to ignore the minor stabs of pain jolting through him as he pulled himself up into a sitting position and leaned forward to check out the shallowly breathing redhead.

Happily, her pulse was strong and steady beneath his fingers, removing one worry that had popped up. Even as he looked, he could see his childhood friend stirring, and he pushed aside his worries to check out the rest of their little group.

"Take it easy, Wills," he cautioned the redhead as she tried to sit up and then sank back to the floor with a loud groan, clutching at her head.

The tall brunet could feel his other-half through their link, and the petite blonde seemed to be feeling in even worse shape than he was currently experiencing. Fortunately for both of them, it seemed that both of their Quickenings were now starting to kick in, and he could Buffy's aches and pains, as well as his own, quickly beginning to fade.

:: Did it work? :: he asked, as he climbed to his feet and looked over at the bandaged, motionless figure lying on the hospital bed, festooned with the various medical arcana that were monitoring his vital signs and helping maintain his life despite the extensive damage he had suffered, their ongoing electronic surveillance punctuated by a recurring series of beeps and hums.

:: I don't know, :: he heard Buffy answer, :: and I'm half-afraid to look and find out, :: she said as she climbed to her feet. :: And who's doing all that hammering? ::

As he realized that the muffled pounding sounds he had been vaguely aware of since he had woken was someone yelling and hammering on the door from outside in the hallway and headed over to open the door, Xander was distracted by a low voiced curse

"Who the bloody hell is making all that noise?" Xander heard an annoyed, British voice muttering in an extremely irritated voice. "Tell that bleedin' ponce I'm trying to sleep, and that if he doesn't shut up, I'll rip him a new arsehole."

"Giles!" he heard both Buffy and Dawn shouting as he whirled around to see the man who occupied the place of 'Father' in all their hearts being buried under an onslaught of joyous female bodies as both Summers women, Willow and Tara all tried to embrace him as he lay there on his bed, hooked up to a plethora of monitoring devices.


It had taken the better part of an hour to straighten things out, but they had finally managed to get things calmed down and the last of the hospital's medical staff, eyes still wide with disbelief at the truly miraculous cure they had been documenting, pushed out of Giles' room, practically at gunpoint.

Considering the fact that the individual in question had been suffering from half a dozen extremely critical injuries less than six hours beforehand, and now appeared to be in prime physical condition, Buffy found herself both grateful and also more than a little surprised that virtually all of the doctors and nurses who had been involved in Giles surgery were content to merely verify for themselves their patient's newly upgraded status.

< I guess that's one of the few semi-beneficial side effects of living in Sunnydale, > she thought to herself, < the ability to ignore anything that doesn't fit into your view of the world. I suppose that's something you really need if you're going to be a doctor here. >

Unless, of course, your name was Pierce.

"I'm not going anywhere until you tell me exactly what it was you people did in here," the tall brunette surgeon was insisting, quite loudly, for what was probably the fifth time in as many minutes.

She was currently buttressed by a small cadre of interns and nurses, the bulk of whom seemed to comprise the hospital's ER department, and all of whom also were unwilling to simply accept the miraculous occurrence that had taken place and then ignore it.

Dawn had made a point of smacking Spike's shoulder when he had (only semi-jokingly) suggested returning the unwanted personnel to the ER department by simply throwing them out the window, with a suitably vague warning to "Behave yourself, William, or else!" before she had then somehow managed to herd the remaining staff out of the room and into the corridor, with the combination of verbal harassment and the promise that anyone truly interested in finding out what had actually taken place could meet with the Scoobies the next day at the Magic Box at lunch time.

:: You know, give her another year or so and she's going to be able to give Cordy a real run for the "Queen Bitch" title, :: Xander remarked to Buffy, a note of pride clearly evident in his mental voice, as the two Immortals watched her hustle the medical staff out before turning back and smiling at the reason for the doctors' consternation: the man now sitting upright in his bed, a look of irritation and annoyance on his face as he watched the various people retreating and finally leaving him alone and in relative peace.

:: I don't think that's the kind of thing that most parents usually think about their daughters, darling, :: he heard Buffy laughing at his evaluation of the Key even as she stepped over to the bed and laid her head against Giles' chest and hugged him, not too tightly, to her.

"Don't ever do that to us again," she scolded her Watcher yet again, her voice catching in her throat as she spoke, even now.

"I promise you, Buffy, I shall do my best to evade being shot again in the future, solely to avoid the possibility of upsetting you and the rest of these ungrateful wretches I am forced to deal with on a daily basis," the Englishman smiled down on her as he pulled her to him to return the embrace, all the while marveling that he had this opportunity to banter with the people who had become his children in all but their genetics.

"So, Rupe, you got any suggestions as to who it might be that decided they could do without your sparkling personality around?" Spike asked from his position leaning against the far wall of the room.

"Call me a traditionalist, but my first nomination's gotta go to the people who've been the biggest pains in our as-, uh, I mean, our butts," Xander caught himself, throwing a quick look over at Dawn as he corrected his description, "since Buffy first got selected for this gig - Quentin and his fellow Council Nazis." He observed quietly, with a small smile, as the young brunette took her sister's place in hugging the Englishman, the reassurance she received from the feel of her surrogate father's arms wrapped around her evident to anyone watching.

"Despite my better judgement, I'm gonna have to agree with the Whelp," Spike chimed in a bit sourly as he added his support. "At least this time," he added, receiving a quick grin back from the male Immortal from the tacked-on comment.

"I can't think of anyone else we could blame, either," Willow agreed from her position seated next to the vampire, a look of disquiet furrowing her forehead. "I can't even think of anyone else left to look at." She threw a short questioning look at Tara as she finished speaking, but the blonde witch merely shook her head to indicate she had nothing to add.

"Well, yes, you do have a point there, Willow," Giles agreed as he leaned forward in his bed and looked around at his family. "Once we take into account that virtually all of the other foes we've faced over the course in the past five years are no longer among either the living or the undead, I'm inclined to agree with your identification of the Council as the most likely employers of the individual who assaulted me."

"If you add in the fact that two groups of thugs with English accents tried to kidnap me the same afternoon you were attacked, I think we can be pretty sure that they're involved in this hip deep," Dawn noted, her voice somewhat muffled since she hadn't bothered to lift her head from Giles' chest as she spoke.

"WHAT!???!!!!" Giles' outraged exclamation and subsequent tirade was loud enough that the nurse on duty stuck her head inside to check and see what, exactly, was upsetting her patient.

"He just saw his cable bill for last month," Xander wisecracked, trying to reassure the woman that there was nothing of any significance occurring inside her patient's room, while the four women attempted to calm the outraged Englishman.

"Giles! Watch your language in front of Dawn!" Buffy's voice cut through his rather detailed descriptions of exactly what he intended to do the attempted kidnapers once he got his hands on them, making him stop short in mid-rant.

"Oh, uhm, you're completely right about that, Buffy. Sorry," the Slayer's Watcher immediately agreed, a somewhat embarrassed look on his face as he glanced down at the now-grinning young girl hugging him and now looking up in amusement.

"I don't mind, Giles," the Key informed with a wide smile on her face. "Just consider it a British language lesson. I've heard a lot worse from Spike."

"You have, huh?" Buffy inquired as she shot a narrow-eyed glare at the chipped vampire, who currently seemed to be finding the cracks in the ceiling tiles absolutely fascinating.

"I'm evil, if you'll remember, Slayer," was the vampire's only comment.

To which Xander automatically snipe d, "You are the Diet Coke of evil...Just one calorie. Not evil enough."

"Uh, guys, we're getting off subject here," Willow interrupted what seemed to her to be a potentially long insult-fest between the two. "Trying to figure out who shot Giles, remember? Discussions about evil and appropriate language in front of Dawn can wait till later, right?"

"Yeah, you're right, Will," Buffy agreed, giving Dawn, Xander and Spike a final low-level glare before abandoning the topic.

"While I deeply appreciate all of your concerns about the identity of my attacker," Giles announced before anyone else could say anything, "what I would be most thankful for at the moment is for all of you to leave the room so that I can change out of this dreadful hospital gown and back into some actual clothes."

"We can then continue this discussion further at your house, Buffy, if you don't mind," he went on, "since I rather doubt that I would be comfortable returning to the shop at this point in time, and I don't believe my flat is large enough to hold all of us comfortably.

"Is that acceptable to everyone?"

"Well, that's okay with me, Giles," Willow agreed as she hesitantly raised her hand to get his attention, a somewhat dubious expression on her face, "but I really don't think that you'd want to change back into your other clothes.

"You see, the emergency people kind of cut them to pieces when they were trying to save your life, and I didn't really think anything about it at the time..."