Home and Heart

A Buffy the Vampire Slayer story.

Author: Ghostrider <skarman[at]ghostrider.demon.nl>

Summary: What happens when your heart is ripped apart by those you love? A slayerette's return after years of absence causes old wounds to be ripped open.

Rating: R

Authors Notes: This story takes place approximately 8 years after the events in the this season's last episode. Personally, I don't like the ending, it's too convenient. So I rewrote it to what I would have wanted to see. Furthermore, I would like to thank my Beta-readers Ozmandayus, Banquo and Scb047 for everything they've done.

Disclaimer: Joss Whedon, Fox, Mutant Enemy, the WB and UPN own the characters.

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The noonday sun beat down on jungle canopy, penetrating it, stirring up the moisture contained in the trees and ground until the heat became cloying, oppressive. Every step was sheer agony, every breath scalding the lungs as hot, moist air was sucked in. The cries of animals wafted through the treetops of the dense forest, reaching out to the two figures walking slowly over long since overgrown paths, carved out by the indigenous people eons ago.

One had to look closely to even see them, the exposed parts of their skin covered in greens, browns and blacks. Their bodies covered with what appeared to be vines, leaves and plants, blending them into the background. Watching them move was like watching a strangely choreographed dance, as each foot slowly lifted off the ground, before setting down again after making sure there were no dried leaves of branches on the spot that would alert anyone in the vicinity. One misstep, one crack of wood splintering or scrunching of leaves would bring down death, swiftly and surely.

More sounds drifted through the dense foliage; raucous sounds of laughter, voices shouting obscenities, clinking of utensils and other, less identifiable sounds. The two shapes stopped behind a large tree, thick vines running down over the ground giving them a clear vantagepoint. They were near the outer perimeter of the target zone; they still had much further to travel before being able to mark the target. No words were used, the only communication between them short jerks of their heads, slight gazes and hand signals.

Using the dense foliage, they moved further into the enemy's territory, their movements even slower, more deliberate then before. Nearly three hours later, the two figures had passed the outer perimeter, crossing less then 600 meters of ground in that time. Carefully navigating their way through the jungle, every step carefully taken, every part of their surroundings checked for signs of boobytraps, surveillance equipment, dried leaves or branches that could give away their presence. Nightfall came quickly, the sun was there one moment, the next it was gone. Still they traveled onward, the timetable demanding it, spurring them on. But still making sure no one would hear them; finally, reaching their next designated resting point, they both made a careful sweep of the area, before climbing into a tree.

Nestled between the many leaves, one pulled out a small satellite uplink, sending a microsecond burst transmission, not waiting for an acknowledgement. Someone always had the money to buy better equipment, no need to tempt fate. The other scanned the surrounding area with his night vision goggles, satisfying himself their position was secure; the nearest human-sized heatsource was miles away. They had made it deeply into the enemy's position; tomorrow, at first light, they would travel the remaining 3 clicks to ground zero, before setting up for the night. Two more days and nights of travelling, searching for the perfect spot, then taking the shot. 48 hours of relative peace and quiet, before everything was going to go to hell. 48 hours before their lives would become forfeit.

Late the next day, both men reached ground zero, staying back deep in the jungle as the waning sunlight threw ever-growing shadows around them. Merging in the shadows themselves, they began a detailed scan of their surroundings and the opulent palace in front of them. A palace built on a foundation of hundreds of thousands who had died by what the owner produced in the fields all around them. A palace built with the blood of untold numbers of those who dared stand in his way to reach power through any means necessary. Blood money that even now was paying for the hundreds of guards surrounding the grounds; for the thousands more guarding the fields, using the locals as slaves. Abusing them, killing them for sport, raping their wives, sisters and daughters.

The lead man carefully moved the binoculars from one side of the white marble building to the other, noting every entry point, every sentry, every machine gun emplacement. Calculating how best to approach unseen if that became a necessity. It was no use to think about the man inside; the power-hungry megalomaniac that wanted ever more. The man whose appetite for power, destruction and fear was only surpassed by his hunger for money. Every piece of this giant edifice had to be flown in by helicopter or dragged on the backs of underfed, abused slaves.

There is evil in the world, the lead man knows that. He's seen it up close and personal. He's fought it since he was but a young, gangly teenager. But evil takes many forms. Again he's sickened by the fact that no matter how vile the demons are, man can often make them look like angels in comparison. Tomorrow, he thinks, tomorrow he will make sure this evil is put down for a little while, until another takes over. Then things will go back to what they were, what they've always been. The people here will still be under the whip of these power-hungry animals. Their families will still be starving, they will still hear the cries of anguish when their loved ones are being beaten or raped for no other reason than that their handlers can. Their spirits will still be broken. It's but one drop on a boiling hot plate. Life will go on as usual, the never-ending chain once again ruffled but not destroyed.

Is it worth it, he asks himself again. Yes, it is, he convinces himself. If this one isn't stopped, he will use his money to buy himself deeper into the government, enlarging his powerbase. Making it possible for him to perpetrate his evil on an even larger scale. They may not be able to stop it but they can slow it down. Maybe make some others think twice before venturing into business with the next despot of these parts. It has to be worth it, no matter how small or fleeting the victory. It has to be enough. Anything else is unacceptable.

As the darkness descends, activity surrounding the palace picks up, as more patrols go out. The leader is not concerned; unless one of the 'soldiers' steps on him or his companion, they'll never see them. Suddenly, behind them the crushing of branches. Both still their bodies even more as a chill runs up their spines; a group of men from the outer perimeter has returned, not using one of the access roads. Instead, walking through the jungle, in search of anyone that might have passed through their ranks. A patrol on the well-kept grounds walks towards them, the group that came up behind them standing less them half a meter away from their current position.

Willing his breath to come out slow and even from his open mouth, the leader lies perfectly still, the heel of a muddy combat boot inches from his nose, listening to the apparent leader of the group talk to the men of the grounds patrol. Their singsong voices high-pitched would be a source of amusement at any other time, right now, he's listening to the tone of the conversation. It would tell him if they'd discovered that someone had broken through their ranks. It would tell him what the next few seconds would bring, instant death or long hours of inactivity.

After a few minutes, the two groups walk off, one back to patrol, the other to get something to eat and sleep or some other activity. Feeling the tension drain slowly from his body at the close call, the leader again thanks whoever is up there for his training and equipment. Whoever designed these 'ghilly suits' should get a medal, he thought. It also didn't hurt that they'd been trained to stay still for hours, days on end even.

Several hours later, the mansion's staff has finished the final preparations for tomorrow's festivities. Everybody except the guards is asleep. Staying close to the jungle's border, the leader moves stealthily towards his entry point; the owner of the mansion is no fool. The mansion is situated in the middle of an artificial clearing, over a 1000 meters wide on all sides. Each corner has one concrete bunker with 2 machinegun ports on opposite sides, each one covering an area that partly overlaps the one from the other two opposite bunkers. Add a mobile radar/SAM facility in another clearing a mile further, no access roads and the roving patrols and you have an almost impenetrable fortress.

He rapidly crosses the field, throwing himself down on the ground once a patrol comes close enough to spot him, waiting until they're well passed before moving again. Finally reaching the mansion, he hugs the walls as he accesses the satellite imagery he's imprinted in his brain and sets to work.


0800 hours, local time

Both men watch the activity in front of them through their binoculars. The sun has been up for an hour now and the 'soldiers' are all dressed up, the mansion's kitchen staff is preparing a feast fit for a king and just now, a helicopter is unloading over 20 females, all carrying bags, all different nationalities and all beautiful. Undoubtedly, tonight's entertainment. None of them locals, for security reasons; it was highly unlikely any of them spoke the language so business could be attended to while they were entertaining the guests and the host. The two men quickly move their sight into other directions, making sure everything is still as it should be. Mistakes would lead to instant death.

"Roof, north-west corner, looks like a Dragunov." "Got it. Window, one o'clock, behind the drapes." "Definitely a Dragunov. No infrared." "That would make for a bad day." "Barn, eastern side. Second floor, behind the coffee bags. Bipod-mounted." "Good position."

Just then, the helicopter bringing the women in, lifted off with a thunderous roar and a massive downdraft of air. Once it was away, the area seemed calmer somehow, as if everything held its breath. It was an oppressive silence. Soon, however, that silence would be broken in the most violent of ways. Just a few more hours.

When one is having fun, time seems to fly by at the speed of sound. Before you know it, it's over. But have you noticed what happens when you're waiting for something to happen? When you're waiting to be dismissed from class after a test, or just waiting for the bus? Time seems to slow to a crawl. That minute seems more like an hour. The second hand on your watch seems to be glued into place, not moving. You feel the anxiety build with every beat of your heart. Tick, tock, tick, tock, you can almost hear the clock ticking away the precious seconds of your life. Have you ever wondered how much time in your life is spent waiting? Both men have pondered this question time and again as they lay there, waiting for the events to unfold before them. Suddenly, in the distance, the unmistakable sound of rotor-blades is heard. Time seems to speed up again.

"Sequence?" "A, B, 3, 2, 1." "Acknowledged. Tricky shooting, all targets beyond max effective range." "Not a problem."

The sound gets louder and suddenly the helicopter comes in sight as it circles around the landing zone. Flaring briefly, it pulls its nose up as it comes down for its landing, the main gear making some contact with the ground. As it settles completely, the pilot shuts down the engines, spooling down the rotors. As the sound settles and the powerful vortex used to lift the aircraft falls away, the owner of the mansion steps out, partially obscured by the helicopter. His aides and bodyguards surround him as he walks down the steps towards his visitor as he and his bodyguards get out of the helicopter.

Carefully, the leader pushes out his M40A1 rifle, trying to get a clear shot. Both men are obscured by their bodyguards, but he is a patient man. All he needs is a split second. Reaching out with his mind, he wills the guards to step aside. He knows it is foolish, he knows it's just wishful thinking. After all, he's only human. Just an ordinary human. But that needed split second is there, he sees it, he takes advantage of it. Depressing the trigger smoothly, he's already working the bolt and acquiring the second target.

The high-powered sniper rifle is one of the most frightening weapons devised. Travelling at almost 800 meters a second, the bullet breaks the sound barrier. As such, you only hear the shot after impact.

The guest is laughing with his host, the only real thing on his mind being the fact that if all goes well today, he will be millions richer. One has to think about the future and one's own well being, after all. Suddenly, he feels something splash his face, like somebody just threw a bucket of water down on stone steps while he's walking passed. What he sees however, is much worse, like something out of a Edgar Allen Poe story.

The host is amicably talking with the politician as the bullet enters just below his left ear, underneath the jaw. Traveling in an upward trajectory, it rips through the brain tissue and exits the skull from the top, violently ripping apart the skull bones. Blood and brain matter flying every opening in the head, showering all those standing close by. The power of the impact lifts the body up and into a somersault; before it has fully fallen to the ground, the sound of the gunshot is heard, cracking like a whip.

Humans tend to look up towards any sudden sounds instinctively, trying to locate the source. So too did the group clustered around the visiting dignitary and his now dead host. The politician's head had turned, providing the sniper with a clearer shot. Even before the host's body had come to rest on the ground, the second bullet had found its mark, tearing through his temple. The sniper turned the rifle as the sound of the shot reverberated through the area, sighting the sniper hidden behind the bags in the barn. The man's head popped up as he trained his rifle on the grounds, searching for the target. Before he could do more then that, the third shot followed, throwing him backwards. Another quick turn, working the bolt, removing the spent cartridge, another shot and the second sniper died. Up, work the bolt, sight, depress trigger; the last sniper died a violent dead as his head exploded from the impact. 5 shots, 5 kills in under 8 seconds.

"Let's book." "Time for the sparkler."

The spotter lifted the small red covering from the switch on the detonator and quickly depressed the green button. The response was immediate as everywhere, C-4 charges exploded. All 4 the gun emplacements went up, the ammo stored in them cooking off. The fuel dump exploded, sending barrels of diesel and aircraft fuel shooting into the air like they were rockets. The pandemonium it caused gave the two men more then enough time to get out without being seen and they took off. Instead of going back the way they had come, they were going for the secondary site, where the SAM site was. It had to be cleared for their extraction and that was exactly what they were going to do.

After 3 hours of travel, they'd made it halfway to the secondary objective. Several times, they had to hunker down as patrols swept the area but none of the patrols was looking for the people that had killed their boss. They were going to aid the other groups that were searching the other side; after all, who would be stupid enough to trek deeper into the jungle, moving further away from the border? No words were exchanged as they made their way, their senses attuned to their surroundings. Listening for anything and everything. Each sound a potential threat. The leader's eyes flicked to the side rapidly as a chill ran up his spine. His body felt cold even in this sweltering climate. Something was out there stalking them. As he turned around to look at his spotter, a gurgling sound reached his ears. Belatedly he realized it was coming from behind him; what he saw paralyzed him on the spot.

His spotter was hovering in mid-air, a huge claw sticking out of his stomach, his face filled with fear and pain, blood streaming from his eyes, mouth and nose. Behind him, grinning, stood the second largest creature he'd ever seen. It was fully 8 feet in length, mottled green and brown skin, at least 600 pounds of muscle. Its head was something out of a nightmare, dark tendrils wafting about, their tiny mouths opening and closing as if gasping for air. A flat nose and a huge maw-like mouth filled with what looked like shark's teeth, edged in a permanent grin.

'Demon', his mind screamed. 'Shoot it', it screamed next. He knew he had to do something or his partner would die. He willed his body to move, to react to the messages his brain was sending but it refused steadfastly. The demon licked its lips, sending bolts of revulsion through his body as he watched his spotter flap like a fish on the claw protruding from his body. Before he could react, though, the demon's free hand grabbed hold of his partner's dangling left arm, twisted and ripped it off the man's body. The scream that tore through the jungle.... he would never be able to tell if it was his or his spotter's. He could do nothing but stand and watch as the man he'd worked with, the man he'd broken bread with, was torn limb from limb, blood gushing out of his body like a waterfall. Finally, the demon opened its maw wide, lowering it over the softly moaning man's head and bit off the top of his skull, proceeding to suck out his brainmatter.

"You cannot save them, human."


Chapter 1

"Easy, Gunny! Deep breathes! Come on, deep breaths."

Wild eyes darting around the room. Room? He was in a room! Grey walls, steel bulkheads. With a groan, he fell back onto his sweat-soaked bunk, putting a hand over his eyes.

"You okay, Gunny?"

He looked up at the worried faces of his bunkmate and the squadron's XO.

"Yeah, I'm fine." "No, you're not. This is the fifth time this week you've had this nightmare." "Spoon, I said I'm fine! It's just a nightmare, okay?" "Spoon?"

The pilot looked back at his friend, nodding as she cocked her head towards the door. After closing the bulkhead behind him, Ice sat down on the bunk, resting a hand on her friend's shoulder.

"This has been going on for a while now, hasn't it?" "What do you mean?" "These nightmares. Remember when we had to hotbunk in Barcelona? At the beginning of our tour? Not enough rooms in the hotel. Drawing straws as to who would sleep with who." "Yeah." "It was the first time I woke up with you tossing and turning; you were breathing hard, like you were running from something bad. Talk to me, Guns." "Nothing much to talk about. Just my past catching up to me, Captain. I wasn't always a pilot."

The young man tried to keep the tremor out of his voice, as he looked Ice straight in the eyes. Hers were boring into his with the same intensity as when she was taking in the pre-flight briefing.

"This has nothing to do with stuff you did in Recon, Gunny. I'd bet my bars on that", she answered back, a small smile conveying her worry about her friend.

"What? You're a psychologist all of a sudden? Maybe a dream-interpreter", he said, more harshly then he'd intended. The sudden spark of hurt in her eyes caused him an almost physical pain and he grabbed hold of her hand, squeezing softly.

"I'm sorry, that was out of line. You don't deserve to be on the cutting edge of the crap I'm saddled with. If you want to bring charges for verbally abusing a superior officer, I won't hold it against you. All you've been trying to do is help me and here I am, acting like a jerk. I never learn and -"

He looked up at the sound, surprised at what he saw there. Ice, the unflappable, ice-cold XO was laughing. Laughing at him, tears forming in her eyes. His anxiety at ruining another friendship faded away at the sight; she seemed to have forgotten or at least disregarded his outburst."

"Mind telling me what's so funny, Ma'am?"

Not getting an answer apart from the snickering, that turned into hiccups, he stood up and walked over to the small head, retrieving a glass of water. Handing it over to her, he started running the palm of a hand over her back.

"Better now?"

At her nod in the affirmative, he asked her again.

"Well, you were babbling. I've never heard you babble before. It's funny." "Yep, that's me. The babbling Marine. You want to put it up on the flightboard? .... Ma'am?" he said belatedly, grinning back at her. "No, your secret is safe with me. Listen Gunny, we'll be back in Pensacola in a week. I've checked the books, you've got almost six months of leave saved up. Take some time, talk to someone about whatever it is that's bothering you. Right now, it's getting to you, making you less then one hundred percent. When you've got it out of your system, that cockpit will still be waiting for you." "Promise", he asked with a lopsided grin, a grin Ice decided she liked a lot better than his usual stoneface. "Hey, you think I wanna break in a new wingman? Not a chance! Now get yourself together, briefing in a hour." "Yes, Ma'am. Thank you, Ma'am. Anything else, Ma'am? Maybe some coffee with Danish, Ma'am?"

Deciding that she liked this lighter side of her friend more, Ice pushed Gunny into the head. "Who are you and what did you do with the Gunny", she asked bubbling with laughter. "Moi? Just glad to be alive is all. And the fact that a beautiful woman is pushing me into the shower. Now if that doesn't present a number of possibilities", he winked at her, suddenly feeling like a weight had been lifted from his chest, at least for a little while.

"Get in there and shower, maybe that'll clear your head. I'm tempted to drag your sorry six to sickbay to make sure you've not hit your head, Guns", she replied with a grin, matching his own.

Closing the door and getting under the hot spray of water, he thought about the dream. Every nightmare he'd had since starting this deployment had been a variation of one of his missions. The only thing they had in common was the ending, the huge unknown demon tearing his teammates apart and mocking him, telling him he couldn't save them. Had he been anyone else, he would have done it off as the inevitable bad dreams every soldier had about past happenings. Every one of them carried some dark memories with them, of people they'd lost. Things that should have been done differently so those that had died wouldn't have.

One thing about the Hellmouth was that you didn't take dreams at face value, especially not when there was a huge killer demon in them. Thinking back to Ice's words, he made the hardest decision he'd ever had to make in his 29 years. He was going back to Sunnydale. Finishing his shower and shave, he dressed quickly, zipping up his flightsuit. As he was about to leave his quarters, he glanced back, noticing his laptop. Closing the door again, he sat behind the small desk, starting up the computer and calling up his email program. If he was going back and his dreams were prophetic, then he was going to need some things to even the odds.


0900 GMT Pilot's briefing room, USS Carl Vinson

"Feeling better, Guns?" "Yes, Spoon, sorry about that." "'S okay. It's just.... "

The young lieutenant could see that his bunkmate had problems with whatever it was he wanted to say, so he pulled him towards a corner of the rapidly filling room.

"Sir, just spit it out, whatever it is. I promise I won't hurt you. Too badly", he finished with a grin.

Laughing slightly at the joke, Spoon shook his head, feeling better about what he was going to say.

"Kate asked me to look after you. She was worried about you. Said she could see there were things that were weighing you down."

Taking a deep breath, remembering the gorgeous blonde that ran the aviator's hangout near the base, Gunny was again struck how well she'd come to know him. Although the only times they'd spent together were when he and the rest of his squadron were at the Bucket, she'd seen through his shields from the beginning. He and Kate had become fast friends after some initial awkwardness and that friendship had strengthened over time with frequent letters and emails as he went on his first deployment. It seemed like every Naval Aviator and Marine Pilot cycling through Pensacola fell partly in love with her and numerous were the stories of her helping them out with problems of various kinds.

"That woman should start a psychologist's practice, she'd make a fortune. Sir, things are okay. I just had to work some things out in my head, stuff I had pushed away. Guess the stuff didn't take too kindly to that. I'm gonna take some leave to put everything in order." "I hope you're gonna tell her yourself before you go off, coz I'm not looking forward to her grilling me about you. She'd make the spooks look like amateurs", Spoon said, smiling. "Sir, if all spooks looked like her, who'd care?"

Both men laughed at that, acknowledging the truth as they headed to their usual seats for today's pre-flight briefing.


0915 GMT, Flight Deck, USS Carl Vinson

The aircraft handlers had already hooked the aircraft up to the catapults, the blast barriers had been raised and flight control was making sure that everything was in order before giving the go ahead for launch. Gunny checked to his starboard side, giving the thumbs-up signal to Ice, sitting in the other Hornet. Today's mission was a High Cap - Low Cap Patrol; 4 Super Tomcats and 4 Hornets would be flying the outer perimeter of the carrier group. The faster Tomcats would go low after topping off their tanks from the orbiting tankers, the Hornets quarterbacking them from high-altitude.

Using their radar, the Hornets would actively search the area, while the Tomcats, radar shut down but guided by the Hawkeye aircraft would immediately dive for the deck once potential threats had been located. Going supersonic, they'd pop up behind the bogeys, lighting up their radar and take them out, then dive for the deck again, not giving any trailing second group a chance to get a shot off. Today's victims would be a flight of Air Force jockeys, flying Strike Eagles.

Seeing the go-signal, both pilots cranked the engines to full afterburner, just as the catapults engaged, shoving them violently into their seats. It was as if their bodies had gained 9 times their own weight in a fraction of a second as the Hornets were thrown forward off the deck, dipping towards the ocean. Quickly pulling the stick back, both aircraft leaped upwards, joining the two others already there.

"Nice of you two to join us. Traffic backed up again?" "No, we were having high tea, Burner." "Tea? Please, how can you drink that slush?" "It's not slush, Burner, it has a nice calming effect. You should try it sometime." "Are you saying I'm restless, Ice?" "Knock it off, people. We've got Momma Bear coming up." "Gunny, you're no fun. No fun at all." "Burner, you should know by now that I'm here to keep you guys focused. You and Spoon up for it, or you need someone to hold your hand?" "Bite me, Gunny. Let the master show you how it's done." "Master of self-deception, most likely", Ice added as the foursome came up behind the two converted A6's.

Slowly moving in, Burner slid behind the basket, the drogue of his aircraft out and slowly moving it into position. The drogue clicked, lighting up the fuel panel as aircraft fuel began to flow into its tanks.

"Who's the master now, hey?" "Settle down, boy! No need to get all excited there", Spoon said, as he too locked on and began transferring fuel from the A6. "Momma Bear 1 thanks you. It is unseemly to be so loud so early in the morning", the pilot of the A6 said through the radio. "Now, drink up boys. We need you to be strong and healthy this fine morning. Want momma to sing you a song?"

At that, the pilot got into a roaring rendition of "You've lost that loving feeling", causing the Marine pilots to scream out in mock agony. At the same time, Gunny and Ice had connected with the second A6 and were taking on fuel.

"We can't take them anywhere, Gunny." "Remind me to have the doc remove Navy's vocal cords. This should be considered cruel and unusual punishment."

Laughter was his only answer.


1237 GMT, USS Carl Vinson

The Hornet's main gear touched down with a hard thud, jarring the pilot hard enough to feel his teeth rattle. Almost immediately, the tailhook grabbed hold of the Number 3 arrestor wire, slowing the Hornet to zero knots in the blink of an eye, throwing the pilot's body forward, the harness cutting into his flesh. As the hook pulled up, releasing the wire, he maneuvered towards the side of the deck, in line to the other Hornets of the patrol. Getting out, Gunny could hear Burner's loud berating of himself, bringing a small grin to his face. Burner always had been cocky and with good reason. He was very good. But even the best needed a lesson in humility now and again.

"Calm down, Burner, you're not doing yourself any good this way. Accept that they had you and move on. Another lesson learned." "Come on, Ice, they cheated! There was no mention of them using Raptors! We should have won! They can't do this." "Apparently, they did, Burner. And as to the not mentioning bit, they aren't supposed to give us any details. Now, if you had waited a bit until the Tomcats got into position, you might have gotten the call in time. As it is, you brought your wingman and yourself into a dangerous situation. A situation that got you both killed, I might add, not to mention Ice and myself. And about 4000 men and women aboard this vessel", Gunny said, staring the agitated First Lieutenant in the face.

The whole carrier group was still reeling from the fact that two B1's had pulled a kamikaze while the outer perimeter was in embroiled in air battles and hit the carrier with a mad dash, ten feet above the waves. The Air Force had decided to test a new jamming device aboard an EC-135 that had completely blanketed the powerful airsearch radar of the escort vessels. They had only burned through it when the two bombers had reached the halfway point of the inner perimeter. By that time, it had been too late as both aircraft had launched a flurry of simulated anti-ship missiles, hitting both the stern as well as the bow and amidships of the carrier. Had it been real, the pilots would have no place to land and would have to splash their aircraft.

Burner was still complaining as they walked towards the briefing room; a subdued atmosphere greeted them there. Gone were the cocky displays of bravado, as one by one, aviators and pilots sat down. Getting your six kicked so soundly had a tendency to do that to you.

"Attention on Deck!"

All present jumped up from their seats, standing at attention as the CAG strode in, his face set in a tight frown.

"At ease."

As the others in the room sat down, the CAG began pacing in front of them, looking at each crewmember's face.

"Today, we got our sixes kicked. It won't happen again, understood?" "Sir, yes sir!" "Damn straight! The Air Force won this battle through cunning and skill. Well, we don't have their level of equipment but we can do just as well, better even. Tomorrow, another drill will be run. Day after, the same, until we reach port. They ain't gonna hit us the same way twice, they're not that stupid. Remember that. Ask yourself where it went wrong, then work on that. Go over every piece of information we have, think like them and look for weaknesses in our defense. You are the defensive line-up, people. Let's make them pay!" "Sir, yes sir!" "Ice, your flight had the north-western approach. What the hell happened out there?"

Ice stood up and walked to the map at the front of the room, drawing a circle around the area her flight of 6 had operated in.

"Sir, we detected a flight of two F-15 Echoes on a 12 o'clock heading on our radar. The Low Cap Patrol immediately dove to low-level flight and came up behind the bogeys. Burner immediately closed in from their 12 o'clock, to close up the trap. They reversed it, by performing a 9-G turn and diving for the deck as the Tomcats came up behind them. The Tomcats then were pounced on by two Raptors, who were flying in tight with the Echoes. That's why the Hawkeye didn't see them on radar.

The Echoes got into a steep climb at full afterburner and locked onto Burner and Spoon, taking them out almost immediately. Then they turned onto Gunny and myself, with the Raptors in full pursuit. We couldn't see them on the radar until the Hawkeye acquired them, but by then it was too late. I got painted and Gunny got it a few minutes after that after taking out one Echo." "Estimated time of the engagement, Captain?" "4 minutes, CAG." "Try 2 minutes, 45 seconds. You hear that? 2 minutes, 45 seconds, people. That is how long it took to take out 6 aircraft. Had this been a real engagement, not only would this ship be at the bottom of the sea right now, but none of you would know. Why, you ask? Because you are all DEAD! D-E-A-D! They caught us with our pants down, and shoved it up our sixes."

The quiet of the room was even more enhanced after the CAG's outburst as everybody realized what he'd said. The Air Force had scored a clean kill, taking out all the patrols AND the carrier with minimal losses. Without it, the carrier group was just a collection of cruiser, destroyers and frigates. Powerful enough by itself, but not able to project that power behind the horizon. The only consolation they had was that right now, the admiral in charge of the group was reaming out the ship's commanders for their failure to stop the Lancers from penetrating the perimeter and giving adequate backup to the fighters; they in turn would do the same to their respective crews. It was not enough from the hard truth though. They had failed, utterly and completely. Gunny felt it again, like he had for years, that feeling of being the world's biggest failure. No matter how hard he worked at banishing it, it was still there, still worming its way through the back of his brain, mocking him. Even though his conscious told him it was nonsense, his subconscious was not letting him off the hook. With a sigh, he went to his quarters to get cleaned up, then get started on the analysis of today's events. This brought back memories of hours spent pouring over ancient books, researching the occult in order to stop the next big bad and his bad mood sunk even lower. Yeah, it was gonna be a great day today.

Chapter 2

1000 GMT, July 10th, Miramar MCAS

"So, Gunny, Colonel Nievsky really talked you into taking a three month leave", Ice asked as she drank a beer, while he was packing his clothes and toiletries into a duffelbag. Spoon and Burner were sitting around, holding their own beers, surveying the spartan living quarters. They had returned two days ago and had planned a welcome home party at the Bucket in Pensacola. Only Gunny had talked to the squadron's CO and had gotten himself a three-month leave. He had just started packing when his friends had come calling, asking him if he wanted to go to Pensacola with them.

"Yes, he took one look at my records and chewed me out for not taking leave since I joined up. He wasn't amused when I told him that I've been busy." "I'll bet. He didn't by any chance ask with what, did he", Spoon asked innocently. "No, and don't you start snooping around either, sir. I'd hate to have to kill you." "Does that mean you'll tell us if we ask?" "Burner, I used to work construction, I remember how to work a cement mixer, okay?" "What's a cement mixer got to do with anything", Burner asked bewildered as Ice almost drowned in her beer from laughing.

"He means... oh, man!" "Deep breaths, Ice. Man, one beer and she's loosing her famed cool. Lay off the sauce, Captain, it ain't a pretty sight from here."

Ice threw a pillow at Gunny, trying to wipe that smirk off his face, then turned to face Burner and Spoon, red-faced.

"I believe the former Gunnery Sergeant is referring to what is commonly known in New York City as 'cement overshoes'." "Cement oversho - Oh!", Spoon said, a huge grin on his face. "What? Someone better tell me or there'll be hell to pay." "Burner, cement overshoes as in one of the more ingenious ways the Mafia took care of people who'd pissed them off?"

The look on Burner's face was priceless as he looked at his friends smirking faces.

"Told you if you'd ask that I'd have to 'take care' of you." "Gunny, one of these days, I'm gonna get you." "In your dreams. Sir", he added belatedly. Finally packed, he put on his garrison cap, took one last look into the mirror, straightened his ribbons and picked up his bags.

"Are you sure you don't want to join us and visit Kate, Alex? She'll be really disappointed that you didn't come with us", Burner asked. "No, I'm sorry. I just have to get some stuff cleared up and I want to start as quickly as possible. Just make sure, she gets my present, will you?" "Already taken care of, Guns, got it stashed in my bag somewhere", Spoon said. "Well, I guess this is it, then. See you guys in three months."

There was an awkward silence as the four friends stood around, not really knowing what to say. Ice was the first to move and hugged Alex tightly.

"Take care of yourself, Alex. Keep in touch, okay? I'll miss ya." "I'll miss you too. You've got my cellphone number right?" "Speeddial number one." "I'm flattered." "Don't be. It's the fastest way of getting to kick your six if you get into trouble." "Who? Me? I believe you have it the other way around. I'm the one that always has to bail you 'officers' out of trouble. They don't pay me enough to do that, you know." "Yeah right, delusional much", she asked smiling. Inside however, she had a bad feeling, as if this would be the last time she'd see her friend. "Just make sure you come back, we need you."

In response, Alex gave her a soft smile as he stepped out of the hug. Burner and Spoon were next, clapping him on the back, before taking him into hugs themselves.

"Big softies." "Hey! We're Marines and these are manly hugs! Besides, aren't you the one who always says we've got to become more 'sensitive'", Burner asked smugly. "Whatever." "Take care, Guns and try to find a nice girl and date her. I think it's been way too long for you." "Burner, keeping you outta trouble is a full time job that should come with hazardous duty pay. Sir." "Me? Trouble? I'm the most even tempered person in this room." "Yeah right", snorted the others at the same time, causing them all to erupt into laughter. "Get outta here, Gunny. Your chariot awaits. Three months of freedom!" "HOHOHOHOHO!"

Ice, Burner and Spoon pushed Gunny out of the base housing he lived in, towards the Ford Excursion parked in front and loaded his gear inside. As he stepped into the cabin and started the engine, he waved goodbye and drove off, leaving his friends standing there, each with a sense of foreboding in the pits of their stomach. A feeling Alex Harris had become all too familiar with in recent months.


Road to Sunnydale, CA

Alex was driving towards Sunnydale in the noonday sun, the CD player blasting out the gravelly voice of Eric Clapton. Over the years, Alex's taste in music had changed dramatically. No more Country & Western, just good old-fashioned Rock & Roll and Blues. It reflected his feelings a lot better than C&W ever had. As he was driving, he let the gravelly voice of Eric Clapton soak into his mind, calling up images from his life.

I've got you on my mind, I'm feeling kind of sad and low. Got you on my mind, feeling kind of sad and low. I'm wondering where you are, wondering why you had to go.

He was going home, for the first time in over 8 years. Only, it didn't feel like that to him. Xander Harris had died in Sunnydale. The boy who couldn't get into college, who couldn't hold down a job if his life depended on it, until he started working construction. The boy, whose so-called friends tried to keep him from helping because he was normal. Neglected him because they were too busy with their own lives.

Tears begin to fall every time I hear your name. Tears begin to fall every time I hear your name. But since you went away, nothing seems to be the same.

His heart felt heavy as he remembered the good times, when he could pretend that they cared about him. He missed that more then he'd ever admitted to himself. But that man was dead. Killed by uncaring friends, killed by indifference. There were times when he missed the old Xander, always ready with a witty comeback, even in the face of unspeakable evil. Now, his only comeback was a well-placed bullet or a missile up the tailpipe. Alex personified seriousness.

No matter how I try, My heart just don't see why I can't forget you. If ever it should be You want to come back to me, You know I'd let you.

Slamming his fist onto the steering wheel, his breath hitched, feeling despair cut through him like a knife. He missed them, all of them, with a pain that was almost physical. It felt as if someone had taken a blunt knife and cut off a part of his anatomy.

I've got you on my mind, I'm feeling kind of sad and low. Got you on my mind, feeling kind of sad and low. I'm wondering where you are, wondering why you had to go

A part of him wanted to go and see them straight away, grab hold of them and never let go again. For the last 8 years, he'd let no one in. Sure, he had friends or rather acquaintances. People he'd put his life on the line for. In this business, you watched each other's back. People he worked with every day, but none of them came close to what he'd had with these people. And again, he wondered why he hadn't walked in, demanded to know why they'd treat him like that, like he was a non-entity. Demand to know why they'd trample his feelings like so much dust, to be wiped away. But the other part, the part that overrode all others, demanded a cold, dispassionate view of things to come. Whatever was out there, emotions could get in the way, throw off his game and screw up the mission.

No matter how I try, My heart just don't see why I can't forget you. If ever it should be You want to come back to me, You know I'd let you.

I've got you on my mind, I'm feeling kind of sad and low. Got you on my mind, feeling kind of sad and low. I'm wondering where you are, wondering why you had to go I'm wondering where you are, wondering why you had to go. I'm wondering where you are, wondering why you had to go.

Taking a deep breath, Alex pushed his feelings down, into the deep recesses where he'd put them for over 8 years. If they met up, fine. He'd do what he'd always done, hide behind the stone-faced mask he'd perfected over time. Nothing was going to distract him. They'd made it perfectly clear what they thought of him.


1045 AM, July 12th, Sunnydale, CA

The massive Ford SUV drove slowly into the cavernous, rundown warehouse, stopping in front of a medium truck, its driver leaning casually against the rear, smoking a cigar.

"Hello Harrelson, LTNS. You don't write, you don't call, I'm feeling neglected here!" "Stuff it, Expediter, you know the rules of the game." "No need to get your garters in a bind, Harrelson. You call, I'm here." "I can see that. More importantly, have you done your name proud, Expediter?"

Motioning Alex over, the man, known only as the Expediter in certain circles, opened up the back of the truck, revealing it stacked with boxes in various sizes. Handing Alex a medium-sized plastic case.

"6 Motorola cellphones, untraceable numbers, encrypted on both sides. Only NSA's computers could lock in, but they'd have to have a definite fix first. 6 Motorola handheld radios, 24-digit encryption, also NSA spec. The rest of the stuff as you requested."

Alex hopped into the truck, opening boxes and checked their contents before closing them down. After a few minutes of silence, the Expediter spoke up.

"Listen, it's none of my business but this isn't on the Government's nickel, right?" "You're right, it's none of your business." "Yeah, but I still have to get paid and most of this stuff, it's made to order. Not to mention the fact that you put a rush order on it; that costs extra. You good for it?"

Alex looked up at the Expediter, his left eyebrow raised.

"I think you'd know better then I, how my financial situation is. If I couldn't pay, you wouldn't be here, now would you?" "See, that's what I like about you, Harrelson. You've always known me better than those idiots I usually deal with. A piece of advice?"

Alex jumped down and followed the Expediter to the front of the truck, where a laptop lay on top of the hood. He handed over a blank, silver-colored card that the man slipped into a slot attached to the side of the laptop.

"Get out of the damn business, go somewhere warm and retire, watch the girls go by, get laid. Life is more then the next mission, the next kill."

Alex typed in the passcode as the access screen for the offshore bank appeared on the screen, followed by the 14-digit accesscode that granted entry into the account. He then transferred the funds to the Expediter's account, closed the connection and removed the card.

"What if I told you that I live for the next mission, the next kill?" "Then I'd say you're a psycho. But you're not. You see, I've worked with all kinds of people over time. I can spot a psycho a mile away. You know how? It's in the eyes. Always in the eyes. Yours don't have that, my friend. You do it because it's something you've got to do for yourself. You're trying to prove something to yourself, I think. Maybe even to others, I don't know. This isn't you. Take my advice, get out. Or one day, you might find yourself to have become one of those psychos I talked about."

"I didn't know you moonlighted as a shrink, Expediter. If you must know, I like what I do. I'm a pilot and a damn good one too. I don't have to prove anything to anyone." "Then why are you here, in your old hometown, buying up enough ordnance to start a friggin' world war, in private? A seemingly calm town at that. You're here for a reason and proving yourself is part of it." "Just shut up and help me get this stuff loaded in my truck and leave the psycho-analyzing to the pro's", Alex said harshly, the truth of the Expediter's words hitting too close to home. Was he really here to proof something? Was he indeed on the path of self-destruction, becoming that what he hated most?

'No time, no time. No need to think about such crap; it isn't true. You're here to stop whatever it is from happening', he kept telling himself as he pulled box after box from the back of the truck and put them into his SUV.

"Listen Expediter, I'm a Marine. I'm damn good at what I do. I don't like killing, but I do what is necessary to keep others from dying. My 'Cloak and Dagger' days are over, in case you've missed the memo." "Then why did you call me to get this stuff? Having a 4th of July party? Look, I've always liked you, kid. I'm glad you've changed designators again. Just don't get yourself caught back into this underground stuff again. I don't want to pull your broken six outta the fire again, like in Asia. I'm too damn old for that kinda stuff." "Oh, and I should just say 'No thank you, sir, I don't want to do this anymore?' In case you've forgotten, I'm wearing a uniform and I go where they send me!" "Yeah, they do, but when they ask you if you're interested in some more of their games, say no! I don't want to read your obituary anytime soon, especially not when it states you died in a 'training accident'! I've lost too many good friends that way!"

Alex stared at the older man in surprise, his words shaking him to the core.

"What did you say?" "You heard me, Alex! I consider you a friend, kid. Stick to what you know, don't go volunteering for anymore suicide, black ops-behind the lines missions. Why do you think I took your call? I'm retired, for cryin' out loud! I wanted to see you, tell you this and hope you listened to an old man." "You're not old, Expediter." "This crappy business makes you old before your years, kid."

Alex put a hand on the man's shoulder, seeing the sincerity in his eyes. It caused a lump in his throat, making him try to swallow a few times before he was able to speak.

"Thanks for the advice. And don't worry, I'm out of that crap. This, however, is personal. Putting old demons to rest, you might say. It's something I've got to do, alright?"

Looking into Alex's eyes, the Expediter could see the sincerity there. Nodding, he patted Alex on the shoulders.

"Alright, just be careful, 'kay? And think about what I've said. That's all I ask." "I will, promise. Now promise me you'll get out of here right now. No stopping anywhere, just get in and drive away to wherever it is you came from. This town is not a good place to be, especially not at night."

Looking at the boxes stacked in the back of the SUV, the Expediter shook his head, a sad smile on his lips.

"Yeah, I guess you're right about that. But I'm thinking that that is gonna be changing soon."

He walked back to the cab of the truck, pulling out something.

"Got ya something", he said, handing the wooden box to Alex, who smiled when he saw what it was.

"You do realize that these are illegal, don't you?" "Well, not much more illegal then what we're doing here, Harrelson. These are the best, courtesy of Castro. I know you've developed a taste for them, although I still wonder why Naval aviators and Marine pilots love these stogies so much." "Look who's talking! I've never seen you without one!" "What can I say? Guilty. But then again, they're my only sin." "Why do I have a hard time believing that", Alex said, grinning. "Will you get outta here, already?" "I'm gone. Take care, Expediter", he said, hugging the older man on impulse. "Take care of yourself, cowboy. If you ever need anything, call me, okay?"

Nodding, Alex stepped back into his SUV, turned around and drove out of the warehouse, towards his next destination.


1135 AM, July 12th, Offices Queen C Productions, Los Angeles, CA

"Hello! Did I not tell you that I wanted Jean-Marcel for the designs? Who gave Paul permission to exist? So what will you do?" The stunning brunette listened carefully to what was being said on the other side of the line, her eyes dancing with a mixture of anger and mischief. "Good girl. Yes, get rid of Paul and contact Jean-Marcel. Think you are up to it? Good."

With a sigh, she put the phone down, leaning back in the chair, blowing a lock of hair off her forehead.

"I take it good help is hard to find?"

Glaring at her visitor through slitted eyes, she retorted, "I can see why you're a watcher. All those highly developed skills of observation would be better served if you could find me someone who'd do what I say, when I say it. Not take everything I say and do the exact opposite, Wesley." "As much as I'm fascinated by the world of brainless entertainment, known as television, that's not the reason I'm here."

As Wesley Windham-Pryce didn't continue with his explanation, the brunette behind the desk glared him down; seeing that her patented glare didn't have the desired effect, she groaned and fell back into her chair.

"Wes, don't make me get up and hurt you. Spill!" "Well, Cordelia, how does lunch at The Shack, followed by a stroll through the park and munching on double chocolate chip ice cream sound?" "The Shack? Wesley, how... " "Ah, that would be telling, Miss Chase. Let's just say it is part of my astute watcher's capabilities. Now are you interested or should I go out there and ask one of your assistants? I'm sure I could interest one of your female employees", he said innocently as he stood to go.

"Take one more step and you die, Wesley." "Does that mean we're going?"

With a snort, Cordelia Chase got up, grabbed her purse and walked over to her old friend. Before she could place her hand on his offered arm, her world started spinning violently. Her head began thumping, as if about to explode, images running through them at incredible speed. Gasping, her knees buckled and she would have fallen to the floor, had Wesley not caught her.

"Cordelia! Are you all right? Talk to me! Cordelia!" "Stop screaming for a second, Wes, my head is pounding", she gasped, her fingers digging painfully into his arm.

Wesley placed her on the couch and quickly walked into the small bathroom, grabbing the bottle of Advil and a glass of water. Crouching next to the couch, he handed her the glass and placed two capsules in her hand. Cordelia immediately swallowed them, downing the water in one long gulp. Sitting back, her head resting on the back of the couch, she placed a hand on her forehead, the pounding slowly subsiding to a dull ache.

"Feeling better?" "A little. God, it has been ages since I had one of these. I'd forgotten how painful they are. Pen? Paper?" "Here you are, Cordelia."

Cordelia Chase took the offered implements and began writing as she told Wesley about the vision.

"Something big is in Sunnydale, worse then the Mayor and the Master combined. I saw images of Buffy, Giles and the other Scoobies, you, me Angel and some other guy I didn't recognize. Also saw the demon that's responsible; big, powerful, ugly. Like I said, more powerful then the Mayor and the Master." "I take it we should go see Angel", Wesley answered as Cordelia handed him the pad, on it a quick sketch of the demon she'd seen. "I hope you can change those reservations to another time, Wes, you still owe me lunch", Cordelia said as they walked out of the office, his hand protectively on her back.


1152 AM, July 12th, Offices Angel Investigations, Los Angeles, CA

"Angel! Damnit, Angel, where are you?" "I'm right here, Cordelia. You know it's my bedtime", the vampire said, appearing bleary-eyed in front of his friends.

"We've got major trouble brewing", the brunette said, pushing the sketchpad into his hands. "Nice to see you too, Cordy." "Angel, this is no time to try and be a funny man."

Wesley stepped in, trying to avert another bickering match between his two friends.

"Cordelia had another vision." This caused Angel to look up from the pad, his brow furrowed with worry.

"Are you alright? It has been years since you had one." "No, really, Sherlock? I didn't know", she retorted sarcastically. "We've got to get to Sunnydale. That's where this demon is going to show up. And before you say anything, yes, we. I saw all of us in my vision. Doyle, if I ever meet up with you again! Nice guy, good looking in a down-to-earth way. Horrible dress sense, like someone else I know. Totally not my type. Only gift he gives me? A lightshow combined with pounding headaches. Nice way to win a girl's heart." "Calm down, Cordy, and tell me exactly what you saw", Angel said as he led her to a chair.

Knowing that whatever Cordelia saw, was going to show up in Sunnydale, had shaken the souled vampire to the core. The last time he was there, he and Buffy had parted on less then stellar terms and he wondered if he would be able to survive her wrath, once she laid eyes on him. Not that he could blame her. But even if she didn't stake him, seeing her was torture enough for him. To know that he never would have another chance with her. It was just so damn infuriating and disheartening at times.

"We were all fighting that icky demon there", she said, pointing to the drawing. "Don't know what he's planning but it's big; he's very powerful, more powerful then anything we've ever faced."

Silence reigned as everybody in the darkened office thought about what she'd just said.

"Well, we took out the mayor and a lot of other very powerful creatures in the last few years so I don't see too much of a problem. It'll just take a lot of research", Angel stated, looking at Wesley. "I'm not sure I've ever seen a demon of this kind before, Angel, and I pride myself on being able to recognize over 90 percent of all demon species that the Council has information on." "That just leaves the remaining 10 percent. I fail to see the problem." "Guys, when I said that this guy is more powerful then the Mayor and master, I meant it. I'm not sure even Glory could stand against this guy."

Cordelia's words sent a chill through her friends. Glory was a goddess and if what Cordelia said was true, then their chances had just dropped significantly.

"Something else I saw in my vision was some guy. I didn't recognize him but he seemed familiar somehow." "Whose side was he on?" "Ours, I think." "You think", Angel asked exasperatedly. "Hey, it's not like these things come with a script and character references, Mister Dark-and-Brooding! All I'm saying is that he did fight against the big ugly but that I didn't get the feeling that he's all too friendly towards the good guys." "So, we have someone who might have divided loyalties. We should thread carefully." "As in, we shouldn't thread carefully where this ugly demon is concerned", Cordelia said while rolling her eyes at Wesley.

"Yes, well, what I meant was..." "We know what you meant, Wes. No need to get all upset. Okay, get your gear together. Cordy, we'll pick you up at your place in an hour. I'll call Giles and then come and get you, Wesley."


1754 PM, July 12th, The Magic Box Bookshop, Sunnydale, CA

"Alright, Giles, care to let us know why we couldn't have dinner first before coming over here", Buffy Summers asked, as she and Faith walked into the training room at the back of the shop. Already there were Willow, Tara, Cassandra and Spike. Cassandra was the new slayer, called a few years ago when Buffy reached the age of 25. Still, Buffy patrolled even though officially she was retired. After all, this was Sunnydale, Hellmouth Central.

"Yeah, G-man, B. and me were gonna give those boys at Sergio's an eyeful tonight", Faith said as she grabbed a chair, turned it around on one leg and straddled it, resting her arms and chin on the back. Giles felt a pang of nostalgia run through him at Faith's use of the nickname Xander had given him. No one knew what had happened to the boy and all felt that it they were somehow at fault for his disappearance.

"You know you could always give me an eyeful, slayer." "Up yours, Spike", Faith grinned back. "Anytime, baby, anytime", he leered back.

"I think it is best if we wait until the others arrive." "What others? Come on, Giles, I can hear that sinfully sweet garlic bread call my name." "Novel idea, Buffy, knocking vampires out with your breath."

At the familiar voice, everybody turned around towards the entrance of the shop.

"Cordy!" "Hello Buffy." "Angel." "Bloody marvelous! It's the gel king himself", muttered Spike, violently thrusting his cigarette into the ashtray.

"Hey Cordelia, how is showbusiness treating you?" "It's going great! Yesterday, I got a call from Ben Affleck. He wants me to work on his next movie, Willow. I'm so excited! How are things here?"

Buffy watched as Angel came over to her, hesitance permeating every step. Strangely, she didn't feel a thing, not anger, not betrayal, not hurt. It was as if by letting go that night, she'd purged herself from any lingering resentments and negative feelings towards him. She could look at him and not have that familiar ache of lost loves, lost chances consume her, for which she was grateful. At least she could get on with her life, such as it was.

"Hello Buffy." "Angel. You know, you don't have to be afraid that I'm going to stake you. Unless you're Angelus, then I won't hesitate like I did the last time." "You look good." "I've been better. What brings you to our fair town?" "Cordelia had a vision." "Oh." "Yeah."

Angel was secretly glad that Buffy hadn't attacked him and that she seemed quite okay with his presence. But at the same time, her rather neutral greeting hurt him to no end. Buffy was usually either happy to see him, or ready to chew nails and cut him to pieces. Tonight, she was neither. It was as if she'd moved on; it hurt him, knowing that he was no longer that important to her. It was inevitable but one always kept up the hope. This time, his hopes were dashed, taken away by her quietness. And it hurt, more then he ever thought possible.

As everybody said their hello's and got caught up quickly with what was going on in their lives, Angel handed Cordelia's sketch to Giles.

"Okay, I think that is enough of all the sugary stuff, people. You said there was a big emergency, Giles? Now we're all here, so spill already", Buffy announced as she stepped out of Cordelia's embrace.

"Yeah, Giles, what do you want us to pound into oblivion this time?" "I hear ya, Faith, pounding is good, I can get behind that big-time." "Just any kind of pounding or got any specific kind in mind, Cass?" "Get yer mind outta the gutter, Spike", the dark-haired teenager said, punching the bleached vampire in the shoulder, grinning.

The new Slayer and the bleached vamp made a formidable team. Cassandra was almost as tall as he, with long raven hair, usually worn in elaborate braids. Green with yellow speckled eyes, combined with sharp features gave her a feline look. A look enhanced by the way she moved, gracefully and sinewy. She was a predator, a very beautiful predator.

When Angel looked back at Buffy, she averted her eyes quickly. The last time he had been here, they'd fought. It was a few weeks after Giles had finally decided to call off the search for Xander. They had organized a small memorial service for their friend and every night, before and after patrol, Buffy would go to the marker at the cemetery and talk to her friend. It was there that Angel had found her one night. The night where things were said, secrets revealed that had been buried for years. The night Buffy finally understood that she and Angel had never belonged together. It was also the night that had killed any hope of even simple friendship between them.

"So what's this big emergency then that has the big poof here come all the way from Sunny LA?" "Cordelia had a vision."

Wesley's words silenced everybody; it had been years since Cordelia had had a vision.

"I take it that means something big?" "Yeah, doll, the may queen gets these lovely visions from the PTB that foretell huge disasters of the undead kind", Spike answered Cassandra. "But it's been years since the last one; we'd thought she was finally rid of the damn things." "Thank you for your concerns for my health, Mr. I-can't-get-enough-bleach-what-am-I-gonna-do." "Cordelia, if you please? Tell us what you saw." "Thank you, Giles."

As Cordelia recounted her vision for the others, Willow reached out and squeezed Buffy's hand, their eyes meeting. Reading the question in the redhead's eyes, Buffy nodded slightly, indicating she was okay.

"Any ideas, Giles? I don't recognize this type of demon and I already catalogued all the ones in my library", Wesley stated. "I suggest Buffy, Faith, Cassandra and Spike go on patrol, groups of two. Since we don't know who or what we're dealing with, it would be best to be prepared for the worst. Buffy, you and Faith take the northern section, Cassandra, Spike..." "Got it, Tweedy, southern section. You comin', Billyboy?" "I ain't yer bleedin' Billyboy, Cassiopeia." "I'll check out the warehouse district", Angel said, "Maybe something will pop up there." "Good idea, the rest of us can get started with the research. After your patrol, please report back here so we can get some more research done." "More bleedin' research! You sods are really cramping my style! I've got several Passions eps I want to see!" "Spike! Big bad coming. Possible end of the world. End of the world equals no more Passions. So if you want to continue watching that dreadful show, you'll show up here!"

Everyone looked at Faith, mouths hanging open.

"What? I got something on my face? What?" "You just said... ", Willow started to say but couldn't find the words. "I just said what? I told Spike that he should get his ass back here ASAP after patrol instead of .. ", she started to say while going over the words in her head. A look of utter horror filled her face.

"Oh no, no, I didn't....", she began again as she turned to Giles. "Tell me I didn't, please?" "I... I... " "Giles! This is your fault! I've been hanging around you way too long", the dark-haired slayer shouted, before stomping out of the room, quickly followed by Buffy, who had a hard time controlling the threatening smirk on her face.

Chapter 3

1956 PM, July 12th, Garden of Eden Cemetery, Sunnydale, CA

"You okay, B?" "Fine."

The two slayers walked along in silence for another few minutes.

"That's it! B, you've been silent the whole time since we left Giles. Something is bothering you and I have a sneaking suspicion it's something to do with Angel. So spill already!" "Faith, it's nothing for you to concern yourself about." "The hell it is! You're driving me crazy here with the brooding bit. I expect it from him but not from you."

Faith threw Buffy a sideways glance and continued in a softer voice, "Come on, Buffy, I thought we were friends. You know that if something is the matter, you can talk to me, don't you?"

The uncertainty and shyness in Faith's voice made Buffy look up to the other slayer, a feeling of warmth filling her. They'd been through a lot, from tentative friends, to enemies, to reluctant partners, to friends again. While she would never become as good a friend as Willow, there were things that only someone who was like yourself could understand. And over the years that they'd worked together, fought together and cried together, one thing had become clear to Buffy. Faith may be brash, impulsive, forward and generally portrayed the image of the 'Bad Girl', underneath she craved friendship and love, things Buffy herself had received in abundance from her mother, her watcher and her friends.

"It's Angel." "Why am I not surprised? You always go all loopy when he's around, B." "It's not that, Faith", she said, taking a deep breath, trying to get up the courage to say what was really bothering her.

"The last time he was here, we had a fight. I threatened him, told him that if I ever saw him again, I'd dust him." "Wow, that's heavy, B. Want to tell me what happened?" "Not particularly, no." "Fair enough."

They walked in companionable silence for another few minutes.

"It was just after one of my patrols. I'd stopped by Xander's grave, you know, to talk to him. Angel showed up. It was a few weeks after the memorial we'd held." "I remember thinking it was strange that he wasn't there. Was he there to pay his respects or just to see you?" "Both, I guess."

Buffy started telling Faith what happened that fateful night.

"Well, Xand, told you I'd be back later. Nothing much tonight, just a couple of newbies. God, when will they learn, huh? Just rush in, thinking that'll give them the upper hand. So you see, nothing for you to worry about."

Buffy was quiet for a minute, gathering her thoughts, as she felt her stomach contract and her breath hitch.

"I lied, Xander. I almost didn't make it tonight. They had me pinned. One was all ready to drain me, but then, I thought about you. You were always there to save me. You always had my back, didn't you? Anyway, like I said, I thought about you as that one was getting ready to drink my blood and something snapped inside me. It was like I heard you telling me not to give up, to keep on fighting. I don't know how I did it but I managed to free myself and kill all of them. That's not entirely true, Xander, I know how I got free. You were there, you gave me the strength to get myself out of it, like you always do."

Buffy fell to her knees in front of the headstone, her fingers running over his name as the tears came again.

"Willow needs you, Dawn needs you, even Giles needs you. Would you believe Spike needs you, even though he doesn't say it and would deny it to his last breath? He nearly killed Giles when he decided it was time we stopped searching for you. Willy told me he pulled in favors all over the place to find you. I need you too, my Xander-shaped friend. I need you more then I ever thought I'd need anyone. Please, come back to me."

The tears were falling in torrents now, as her heart ached, thudding dully in her chest. Even so, as immersed as Buffy was in her grief, she heard the soft footfalls behind her, her senses picking up the presence moments later. Jumping up and around into a fighting stance, stake at the ready, the slayer peered into the darkness.

"Easy, Buffy, it's just me." "What are you doing here, Angel?"

Her former lover stepped out of the shadows, the pale moonlight casting a ghostly glow over his features.

"I came to pay my respects." "Really? Why not when we held the ceremony? Cordelia and Wesley were here. We held it at night too so Spike could attend." "I had things to do." "Things to do. Not according to Cordy and Wesley. Darla, Angel? That slut is back from Hell and you can't even leave her side for one night? I know there was no love lost between you and Xander but at least you could have done him the courtesy of being here when we laid him to rest."

Angel sighed, knowing this was coming the moment he decided to come back to Sunnydale. Dreading what was about to happen.

"You're right, Buffy, I didn't like Xander and he hated me with a passion. That's why I didn't come at first. But I knew one way or another I had to come, to put things right. To make amends." "Amends", Buffy asked incredulously, "Amends for what?" "For screwing up everything", Angel answered, running his fingers through his hair as he turned around and leaned his back against a nearby tree. Buffy followed him, the unasked questions burning on her tongue.

"Again I ask, amends for what?" "Whistler came by to see me yesterday. Told me it was time to come here and ... I saw you, outside Hemery, that day you met Merrick for the first time. Whistler brought me there, to show me what my destiny was." "I was your destiny?" "Yes, in a way. I was supposed to help you. It was a way for me to redeem myself in the eyes of the PTB. It was also the day I fell in love with you."

Buffy let it all sink in, Angel had known about her far longer then he'd ever let on. The alley that first night, when she was on the way to the Bronze, wasn't the first time he'd seen her.

"You know what I envied most about Xander? The fact that he could be there for you, when you needed someone. That he could make you laugh, no matter how hard the circumstances were you found yourself in. The way he'd always believe in you, even when everyone else thought things were hopeless. I couldn't do any of those things, even though I was in love you. You didn't need me, Buffy. You've never needed me."

"But... but I love you." "Maybe you did, maybe you didn't. I don't know anymore. Did you know that when you were in the hospital, Angelus came to visit you? He... I was planning on turning you."

Buffy was speechless at this revelation.

"Yeah, you were weak, in no condition to fight and best of all, you weren't home. But Xander was guarding your door. He wouldn't let me pass. I could've killed him easily. But he stared me down; I've never in all my years, seen such determination. I knew even then, that he'd sell his soul to the Devil for a chance at revenge if I so much as touched a hair on your head. I called him your White Knight, did you know that?" "No, he never told me", Buffy said in a subdued tone. "No, he wouldn't. Because that is not him, Buffy. He's the quiet hero, the one people don't see, don't acknowledge but the one nonetheless, who saves those same people, who would scorn him. He'd die for you, Buffy. And that is more then I would do."

Angel's admission was another shock to her already fragile state and Buffy stumbled backwards, her back hitting Xander's headstone. Her hand covering her mouth, trying to surpress the sobs wracking her body.

"I was never supposed to fall for you, Buffy. I was only supposed to help you. Whistler made that clear. I tried, God knows I tried, but I couldn't help it. I fell in love with you and no amount of wishing or cursing would help me get over it."

He turned back to her, watching her intently before dropping the next bombshell on her.

"That night of your birthday, after that fight we had at the pier? That night when we first ... Please forgive me, but I couldn't help myself. You were so beautiful in the light and I couldn't stop myself. I knew about the curse, I knew what would happen and I still..."

Angel looked down at the ground, his soul in agony as he replayed every single moment of that fateful night over and over again in his mind.

"You knew? You knew and you still... Oh my God! All those people!"

Suddenly, Buffy sprang forward, hitting Angel with all her might, knocking him into the tree with such force, the breaking of his ribs was audible. She started kicking him, all the while repeating the words, "You knew!" Finally, after her rage had settled down, she backed away from him, fury visible in her eyes.

"How could you? Xander was right, I should have staked you when I had the chance. All those people! Miss Calender, Theresa!" "I'm sorry, Buffy." "Don't you dare! Don't you dare say you're sorry, you bastard! You lied to me! From the beginning you lied to me! In the alley, when you told me you'd thought I'd be bigger! Not telling me about the curse? What did you do? Hypnotize me to fall in love with you?" "No! I never... Buffy, you've got to believe me! I never..." "Don't! I said, don't! Don't you dare tell me it wasn't your fault for falling in love with me. You should have told me, at least that way one of us could have stopped all this from happening! All those people, death, because you couldn't open your mouth one goddamned time to tell me the truth!"

Buffy Summers turned around and walked back to the headstone, looking at the name of her best friend as the tears started running again, leaving her eyes puffy and red.

"Get out of Sunnydale, Angel and don't ever come back. If I see you again, I will stake you and save the PTB the burden of giving you your humanity back. You are death to me now." "Buffy", he pleaded. "GO!"

Slowly getting to his feet, his ribs still not completely healed, Angel walked out of the cemetery as Buff finally succumbed to the emotions flooding her heart and mind and crumbled to the ground. Resting her head against the cool marble, she cried. Tears for a love that was steeped in lies, tears for the loss of so many innocent lives, lives she was supposed to protect but in the end was the one responsible for their deaths. Tears for her best friend, the other part of her soul. She could finally accept that fact. Xander Harris was the one, the one who'd made her do her best time and time again, the one who could encourage her to go beyond her own limits. Now he was gone and the heart of their family was gone with him, ripped out and shredded. How they would survive was a mystery. This was the way Giles found her several hours later, curled up against the headstone, shivering and crying.

"Jeez, B. I can't believe that he would do something like that." "I know, Faith, believe me, I know. No matter how much I love him, I can't be with someone who has lied to me. Especially not when it comes with such a high price."

They walked on in silence for several more minutes, each lost in their own thoughts.

"He's right, you know." "Who? Angel", asked Buffy. "Yeah." "About what?" "Xander being the quiet hero." "I know." "Remember that night with the Sisterhood of Jhe?" "How could I forget? All those icky she-demons running around and then what happened in the library?" "Xan saved my hide when I was going up against a few of them. We went to my place for some R&R. You know how I get, right?" "You and Xander?" "Yeah, go figure. Anyway, I figured, I've always liked the guy, he and I connected on some level. Guess it's the screwed up childhood we both had. To make a long story short, afterwards I kicked him out. Biggest mistake I ever made, B. If I hadn't, maybe things wouldn't have become so fucked up for all of us back then. Hell, he even reached out to me after that thing with the deputy-mayor and I tried to strangle him", Faith cried out, the lump in her throat making it hard to speak.

"But that's not the important part. We all pushed him aside during that time. And he is the real hero of that night, B." "What do you mean, Faith?" "When I got back here, me and Spike were patrolling one night. We went over to Willy's afterward; I wanted to play some pool and maybe bash a few heads. It was a slow night, you know."

Buffy nodded in acknowledgement, wondering why it bothered her that Faith seemed to have feelings for Xander.

"Well, he asked if we'd heard anything from Xander. I asked Willie why he was interested in some kid who hung out with the slayer. You know what he said, B.?" "No, I wasn't there, remember?" "Yeah, well, Willie said that that Harris kid had more balls then all of us combined. When Spike asked him what he meant by that, Willie told us an interesting story. Seems that Xander had been 'recruited' by Jack O'Toole." "Jack O'Toole? Sunnydale High's own psycho? Yeah, Cordelia said something to that effect." "Did she tell you that O'Toole had been killed in a drive-by shooting a week or so before and his uncle had used some kind of voodoo magic to reanimate the body?" "What?" "My words exactly. Jackie-boy was a zombie. So, he and Xand went to the cemetery and proceeded to raise his dead gang buddies. They were planning on painting the town red and I don't mean metaphorically speaking either, if ya catch my drift."

Nodding affirmative, Buffy motioned Faith to continue.

"Well, the gang broke into some hardware store, giving Xand the perfect opportunity to get the hell away from them. Sensible thing to do, if you ask me. Anyway, Xander isn't the stupid, worthless joke everybody makes him out to be. He figured out that these guys were up to no good so he grabbed one of these zombie-guys and interrogated him Don't ask me how, coz that's more then even I wanted to know at that point. Anyway, seems O'Toole and his buddies were making a bomb and they had planted it in the boilerroom of Sunnydale High. You know what's up top of the boilerroom, B.?" "The library", Buffy answered softly, almost dazed. "Yeah, the library, the same library you guys were busy getting ready to stop the apocalypse demons. So, Xander goes in and starts taking out these zombies one by one, on his own. Finally, it's just him and Jackie-boy. They have a Mexican standoff in the boilerroom as the clock ticks and finally Xander convinces Jack that if that bomb goes off, he'll still be alive on account of being a zombie and all. But it wouldn't be the same coz his body would be blown into tiny little pieces. See, Xander wasn't going to let him get out of there, even if it killed him, so Jack disarmed the bomb with only a second or so to spare." "Wow." "Yeah." "But what happened to O'Toole? I mean, he must've been pissed off." "He was, but not for long. As to what happened, seems Oz had gotten loose somehow and had a snack." "Gross! Way more information than I needed." "Don't blame me, you asked." "But how did Willy know?" "The Mayor, of course. He knew there were a few zombies loose that night and his minions found the bomb, dismantled it and cleaned up what remained of those gangbangers."

Silence reigned as both slayers walked through the cemetery, thinking about their lost friend.

"He never said a word." "That's Xander for ya." "Do you know why I didn't want him with us? Why I insisted he be kept out of things? It's not because I didn't want him to get hurt. Well, part of it was, but mostly because he lied to me." "What do you mean, B.? Xander lied to you? About what?" "When Angel was about to awaken Acathla, Willow was going to try the soul restoration spell again. She told Xander to tell me about it. He didn't. He told me to kick Angel's ass instead. When she told me about it, I was furious. I couldn't understand why he never told me. At first, I thought it was because he hated Angel. But after that confrontation Angel and I had at his grave, I finally began to understand."

For several heartbeats, nothing else was said, until finally, Faith snapped.

"Are you gonna tell me or do I have to beat it out of you? Spill already!"

A slight smile crossed Buffy's lips as she continued, "While his dislike of Angel may have been a part of his decision, it wasn't the main reason he didn't tell me. Remember that Halloween when Ethan Rayne called up the God Janus?" "Yeah, you were turned into some 17th century noblewoman, I think?" "One and the same. Xander had been turned into a soldier, in a battlezone, somewhere in Vietnam. His knowledge of tactics and weapons came in handy a number of times, thanks to that. Anyway, after my confrontation with Angel, I asked Giles about it." "About what?" "What other reasons Xander might have had about not telling me that Willow was doing the spell again." "And what did you come up with?" "Before that whole Halloween disaster, Xander and a few other students had been inhabited by a Hyena spirit. He was the leader of the pack. You know, the leaders are always the strongest members of the pack", she continued as if not hearing the question Faith had posed.

"Both the packleader and the military have a similar mindset. The strongest, most cunning party wins. Acathla was about to suck the earth into hell. The only way to stop it was to kill Angel and send him to hell instead. Had I known that Willow would be doing the spell again, I would have tried to slow Angelus down, giving him a lot better chance of killing me and therefore everybody else on the planet.

The Hyena culls the pack of the weakest members, the military believes that it is better to sacrifice a few so that the majority may live. Xander made the hard choice, Angel for the rest of humanity, even though he knew I would find out. He took the risk of losing my friendship to save all of us. He made the choice I couldn't make time and again, when I faced Angelus.

Oh Faith, if I had only realized it sooner, he might still be here, not out there somewhere, alive or death", Buffy cried out, the tears that had been brimming behind her eyelids pouring out in a heated torrent. Faith did something that was uncharacteristic of her. She pulled Buffy into a tight embrace, even as her tears began to fall.

"He's always been the strongest one of us all, Faith. He would never back down, even if he were scared. Always confronting me when I needed it. God, I miss him so much!" "We all do, B. We all do. But if he was here, what would he tell you?" "To get on with my life", Buffy sniffed. "That's right, he wouldn't want us to mope around like some silly kids. We honor him by doing what we do best. He may not be with us in body, and what a great body it is, but he's in our hearts and minds." Pulling out of the embrace and wiping her eyes, Buffy smiled at the brunette slayer.

"When did you get so wise?" "All that time in prison, probably. Gives you lots of time to think."

"How touching."

Both slayers turned around at the sound of the voice, to find that they'd been surrounded by at least a dozen vampires and assorted demons.

"Slayers bonding with each other over a long lost friend", the same vampire spoke again, obviously the leader of the mixed pack they were facing.

"Yeah, and in his memory, we'll be kickin' your ass all the way back to whatever hole you crawled out of", Faith snarled, as she and Buffy got into their defensive positions.

"I seriously doubt that, Slayer."

With those words, the vampires and demons attacked, six each per slayer. Instead of attacking the ones attacking from the front, Faith delivered a fierce reverse kick to the vampire and demon coming from the rear, creating some space as they were thrown backwards. Jumping into a roll, she came up crouching, slamming one stake into the chest of the vampire she'd kicked, while launching the second stake at another vamp rushing her, dusting both quickly. Before she could do much more however, the demon she'd knocked to the ground hit her in the back with a leg, causing her to land hard on the ground. The remaining three immediately grabbed hold of her, pulling her up and began raining blows on her body.

Buffy meanwhile, was having troubles of her own. She'd jumped straight up and kicked two of the advancing demons in the face, pivoted in mid-air, landed into a handstand and used that to launch her over the group. She rapidly staked one vamp and demon, the former turning into dust, the other crumpling to the ground, dead. However, its blood was toxic, immediately burning the stake to ashes and startling the blonde slayer. It was all her remaining opponents needed as one sprang forward, turning himself into a ball as he slammed into her legs, toppling her to the ground.

The leader grabbed her by the hair, pulling her upwards roughly, while slamming an elbow into her kidneys, then throwing her towards two of his minions, who pushed her to her knees as they held her arms tightly. Buffy looked up to where Faith was and saw that she too was in a very bad situation. Cursing herself for letting down her guard and not listening to her senses, Buffy was looking for an opening. She wasn't going to die tonight, neither was Faith. They both were needed here and Xander was sure to give both of them a serious tongue-lashing if they joined him now.

'He's not dead, you hear! He's not dead!" she screamed in her mind, as the lead vampire pulled out a wicked looking knife and advanced on her.

"So these are the vaunted Slayers. I must say, I'm not impressed." "Really? Just give me a sec and I'm sure we'll be more then able to impress you", hissed Faith, her face bloodied, the red liquid coursing from her nose and the corner of her mouth, as she was forced down next to Buffy. "I'm sorry, my dear, but you see, you don't have that much time to live. See, we need your blood. Oh not for our drinking pleasure, although I wouldn't mind a sip. No, we just have to drain you and that's exactly what we're gonna do. So who wants to go first? I promise to make it as painful as possible", the vampire leader said, a nightmarish grin on his hideous face.

Buffy and Faith tried to fight themselves loose from their captors, but somehow, their Slayer powers didn't seem to work. It was as if something was suppressing them.

"Hmm, I don't know. What do you think, B.?" "You first?" "You sure? I wouldn't mind, you know. You going first and all." "Naah, you go first. Just leave a little bit for me, though."

Looking from one slayer to the other, the leader was confused. How could they be so calm and flippant while their deaths were imminent? If he could have looked into their minds, he would have seen they were anything but. Their powers weakened and outnumbered, they had very little chance of getting out alive.

As they continued talking, Buffy pushed into the demon on her left, hard, making him stumble right into the one holding Faith on the right. As his grip on the blonde loosened, she broke free, surged up and slammed the palm of her hand straight into the nose of the demon on her right, pushing the bone straight up into his brain.

Faith ripped her arm free, the stake in her sleeve dropping into her hand and slammed it into the crotch of the one holding her on the left. Ripping it out, she jumped up and staked the stumbling vampire, dusting him instantly; continuing her spin, she jammed the stake into the neck of the demon Buffy had pushed into one of Faith's opponents, severing the spine and killing him instantly. That left only 5 opponents, one of which was rolling on the floor, holding his crotch in agony.

Before either Faith or Buffy could do anything, or their remaining enemies take them on again, the knife-wielding vampire's head seemed to explode, his body catching fire and a silvery white hiss. Within a fraction of a second, he was turned into ashes, the knife clanging loudly to the ground. It was the loudest sound as everything seemed to run in slow motion. Everyone was frozen in shock at the site.

The Polgara demon's chest seemed to explode outwards, raining blood and gore, his body following the sickening sight of intestines flying outwards, before it landed on the ground with a wet crunch. The two remaining vampires and the slayers looked around frantically to find what had caused this new development; Buffy nearly choked as she saw the small red dot appear on the nearest vampire's head. It exploded and in similar fashion to its leader, the body burned and turned to dust. The last vampire standing met the same fate, even before his predecessor's ashes had hit the ground. The deaths of the vamp leader and his minion had taken less then five seconds from the moment Buffy and Faith had beaten off the demons and vamps holding them down.

"What the hell just happened here, B.?" "Don't know but I'm not complaining. Hey!"

Buffy noticed their last opponent stumbling away, almost bend double as he held his bleeding crotch, trying to save his unlife. Buffy and Faith looked on in amazement as the red dot she'd seen earlier tracked his every move, letting him get away further. When he was almost in the shadows of the trees, a soft sound, almost like a sigh could be heard and the vampire disappeared in a bright white flash. The two slayers turned around, towards where the red dot had appeared. There, in the shadows of a group of trees, a silhouette was barely noticeable, bathed in the moonlight.

"Seems we've got a partycrasher. Wanna say Hi?" "Would be the polite thing to do, B."

Both slayers began walking towards the silhouette, which didn't seem to move at all. As they neared him, the silhouette suddenly lifted his hands, stretching them out. Seeing the red dot painted on Buffy's forehead, Faith didn't hesitate and bounded into her friend like a defensive lineman, knocking them both to the ground. Before they untangled their limbs and managed to get up, the roar of a powerful bike engine cut through the night. Looking into the direction it was coming from, they both were startled as powerful headlights nearly blinded them, the silhouette roaring past them on a dark motorcycle into the darkness of the night.

"Guess he's the shy type, B." "Yeah, too bad. Next time. We better get back to the shop." "Right, vamps and demons working together. That's a first. And a stranger in town who seems to prefer to blow them up, then ride off into the night. If I didn't know better, I'd say this is a scene from 'High Plains Drifter'. "As to the first item", Buffy said, as she began to jog back to the Magic Shop, "we've had that before, when the Initiative and Adam were around. As for the second, all I can say is 'Huh'?"

Faith grinned at her sister-in-arms.

"B., next vid night, I'm gonna introduce you to Clint Eastwood. Maybe even Lee Marvin and Charlie Bronson. Now those were tough guys, not wusses like today's so-called action heroes." "Hey! Freddie P. kicked major butt in his last flick! And he's to die for!" "B., you're seriously hard up if you find that guy attractive."

With their playful bickering, the two slayers ran into the night, towards their destination, both wondering what bad mojo had come to Sunnydale this time

Chapter 4

2048 PM, July 12th, training room, The Magic Box, Sunnydale, CA

"Giles! Bad news! We just...", Buffy started to say as she and Faith rushed into the backroom of the store, only to be stopped by the sight that greeted the two slayers. Angel was sitting on a chair, being tended to by Cordelia. His face was sporting several cuts and bruises and his chest was in the process of being taped up.

"Argh! Cor, will you lighten up? Pulling it tighter will only cause me more pain. I'll be all right in the morning. Vampire healing remember?" "Sure, and when those ribs don't heal up properly because they weren't set, who's gonna be in another foul mood on top of their perpetual brooding? Hmm? So just sit still and be a good boy, otherwise, I'll just have to pull a little harder."

Properly chastised and with a sheepish look on his face, Angel quieted down. Both Cassandra and Spike looked a bit worse for wear but Vampire and Slayer healing powers were already kicking in.

"I take it you guys ran into some Vampire slash Demon trouble?" "You could say that", Cassandra answered Faith's question. "From your statement, Faith, and Buffy's rather loud voice upon entrance, I take it, it wasn't an isolated incident?" "Nope, G-man, we had ourselves a bit of trouble too. Demons and vamps working together." "That's not the worst of it, Giles. Faith and I, when they jumped us, it was like we lost our powers or something." "W- what? Lost your powers? But.. but.." "Buffy is right, Giles. I felt it too. It was like my slayer strength was cut in half. I had a hell of a time keeping them away." "This is quite distressing. I've never heard of something like this." "Think it might have something to do with this new demon", Tara asked. "It must be. The only other thing I can think of that could cause a slayer to lose her powers...", Giles trailed off, thinking back to the old practice of the Chrysantemetum and how it had affected his relationship with Buffy.

"Rupert, we both know the Council stopped that practice several years ago. You saw to that." "Yes, Wesley, I do remember that. I'm not senile yet." "What? What's he talking about, Giles?" "Long story, Cass. We'll fill you in later." "Thank you, Buffy, now if you would please sit down? Cassandra was about to fill us in what happened on patrol.

As everybody took a seat, Cassandra began her tale......


2017 PM, July 12th, outside The Bronze, Sunnydale, CA

"Closed for renovations. Great! Just great! I was looking forward to dancing the night away after patrol." "No need to get yer knickers in a knot, Cass. They'll be openin' up tomorrow again and ye can get yer jollies then. Maybe this time, they'll give the place a better lookin' interior." "Why Spike, I didn't know you noticed such little things as the interior of a place." "Just coz I like in a basement, doesn't mean I don't appreciate the finer things in live! I'll have ye know that some of the worst demon clubs look a damn sight better then this place on a good day." "I so didn't want to hear that."

The vampire and the slayer grinned at each other; they bickered and fought a lot but deep down, they cared for each other. After getting the chip removed several years earlier, Spike found that even without it, he couldn't feed on humans. He'd begun to care. While it would be too much to say that he'd gotten a soul, Spike was the rare breed of vampire that actually could feel. Sometimes more then even humans. And especially after Xander's disappearance, he'd felt the loneliness of having lost a friend, although he'd deny it to high heaven. And after his crush on Buffy and getting to know Dawn, Spike had decided that if he couldn't be the scourge of humanity, he'd just become the scourge of demonkind. Still the Big Bad!

"It would be nice if nothing popped up tonight, you know?" "Yeah, those Passions tapes are calling my name. Gotta work in some stuff on the website spoilers board and stuff. But from the looks of things, it ain't gonna happen, doll." "Yeah, nice big group comin' this way. You ready to Rock&Roll, Spike, baby?" "Sure, that New Age crap gives me a headache." "Okay, guys, come on out! Didn't your momma teach you it isn't nice to stalk people?"

"Getting awfully cocky, there, slayer. Especially when you're outnumbered six to one", an Ender demon said in a hissing voice.

Spike and Cassandra saw that he wasn't kidding as twelve demons and vamps came out of the shadows. Suddenly, Cassandra felt her powers drain, making her slightly dizzy; Spike saw her stumble slightly from the corner of his eyes.

"You okay, doll?" "Yeah, and ready to kick some demon butt. You?" "Right behind you."

"Is this a private party, or can anyone join?"

"Well, if it ain't the big poof himself? Forget some hairgel, Angelus? Coz I can assure you, you ain't gonna find it here." "No, just couldn't do without your witty repartee, Spike. How about we even up the odds a bit here?" "What? You gonna join the dark side of the force, Angel", Cassandra asked as she and her two companions stood back to back, facing their opponents.

"Kill the traitorous vampires and beat the slayer senseless!"

With those words, they attacked from all sides. Using every skill they had learned over centuries of bloody combat, Spike and Angel cut down their enemies, dusting vampires left and right, taking out the demons. Cassandra ducked beneath a roundhouse swing into a crouch, her left leg kicking upwards into her opponent's crotch. As soon as he doubled over, her stake found his heart, dusting him instantly. Before she could right herself, a Polgara demon got her with a right cross, sending her flying against the wall of the Bronze. Pressing his attack, he advanced on her.

Cassandra could feel the effects of the hit take their toll. Normally, such a hit wouldn't have fazed her but with her diminished powers, it took her some time to get back into fighting form. Grabbing a trashcan lid, she threw it like a frisbee at the demon. It hit him on his right knee, making him stumble forward, right into her extended leg. Cassandra's combat boot made contact with his face in a sickening crunch, sending the demon flying back, hitting two of his comrades as they attacked Spike and Angel. Jumping up, she tackled another vampire, jamming her stake through his back, dusting him, but getting a hard kick to the ribs for her troubles as another attacker went after her.

Spike was busy dodging blows from the tail of a Scourge demon; it had the power of a wrecking ball taking down a ten-story building and could ruin your day. Cursing the fact that he didn't bring anything bigger then the stakes in his pockets, he somersaulted over demon, kicking another demon and a vampire in the face as he landed. He immediately placed his palms on the ground for leverage and kicked out his right leg in a circular arc, knocking the Scourge demon off its feet. Turning around, he slammed his stake straight through the creature's left underarm, upwards, the sharpened front end exiting the shoulder. The demon immediately turned into a slimy goo. Under normal circumstances, he'd have made some cracks about how the slime was ruining his favorite duster but seeing Cassandra in danger was really not making him think of that. And there seemed to be even more opponents then before the fight started, he thought as he leapt back into the fray, intent on reaching the slayer before she'd get killed.

Angel had already killed three of his opponents but more were coming out of the woodwork like roaches. And none of them were fighting like usual; no, this time, it was a team effort. It was as if these demons had been trained to become a well-oiled fighting machine. One or two would attack, then pull back while others took their place. It made it hard to take them out while draining him and his companions of their strength. Jamming the stake backwards, he killed another demon, while ducking the punch from another vampire, built like a house. He couldn't escape the kick that landed on the back of his left leg and he went down, hard. Then they were on him, kicks and punches landing everywhere. Just as suddenly, the hits stopped as a roar of defiance was heard. Only later would he realize it had been ripped from his throat.

Angel had placed his hands on the concrete and pushed with all his strength, twisting his body in a circular motion, his legs sweeping around in a circle, causing his attackers to be thrown backwards. Flipping upright, he immediately went into the offensive, delivering killing blows to anyone near enough to be caught. From the corner of his eye, he managed to see that Spike and Cassandra were fighting back to back, both of them looking worse for wear. Suddenly, a shrill whistle cut through the sound of fighting and panting in the alley. The sudden quiet was even more deafening after the fighting had been. A quick glance revealed that the doze attackers were now down to ten; knowing how many he'd killed already, Angel could only imagine that they had gotten more reinforcements during the fight.

Focusing his eyes on the side where the whistle had come from, he noticed a figure, dressed completely in black, making its way towards them. The man stopped about four meters from the two groups, lighting up a cigar, his face strangely still huddled in darkness. Blowing out three perfect rings of smoke, he looked at the group and spoke in an ice-cold voice.

"Why don't you youthful delinquents run home to momma. Don't you know it's a schoolnight?" "And why don't you run along and mind your own business, mister?" "Why would I do that? By the way, didn't they tell you the horned look is so passe? I think maybe I should do something about it, kiddo." "This is your last chance, human. Get out of here, or die", another demon said.

Looking at the glowing end of his cigar, the black clad figure seemed to think it over.

"Get out of here, or die. Let's see. Nope, don't think so. Now why don't you kids get out of here, or I shall be forced to spank the lot of you."

Before anyone could say anything, the horned demon who he'd insulted, ran towards him, growling. The man seemed to spin in place, the flaps of his duster resembling the wings of a flying predator; the demon missed him but the man had not. It became clear what had happened as the demon's body kept moving forward while its head flew backwards and bounced to a stop in front of Angel's feet, a surprised look on its face.

"He beheaded the demon", Wesley observed questioningly. "Yeah, with some kind of big knife, had an opening near the tip and a ring at the hilt. Never seen anything like it", Cassandra stated, cracking her neck muscles. Giles walked to one of the cabinets, removing something from it and handing it to Cassandra.

"Does this resemble it somewhat?"

Cassandra turned the knife around in her hands, observing the serrated upper edge and the razor sharp blade.

"Yeah, somewhat. Size is about right, but the spine wasn't this serrated and this one doesn't have the eye on this side", she said pointing to the hilt. "What is that hole on the front for anyway?"

Giles took the knife's scabbard and pushed it flat against the blade, inserting the steel knob into the hole.

"Now, it is capable of cutting through wire, like a wirecutter." "Awesome! How come you didn't give one of these to me for my birthday, G-man?" "Yes, well... maybe some other time. Please continue, Angel."

"Kill them all!"

As one, the demons and vampires surged forward, intent on killing the four people they'd surrounded. Angel snapped the neck of one demon, while launching a devastating back kick to a vampire, smashing her sternum and throwing her in the path of another vamp. Quickly turning around, he jammed a stake through her heart, his left hand grabbing hold of the other vamp and pulling him up by the hair. The female vamp's ashes hadn't even settled on the ground when her companion's ashes joined hers.

Spike smashed an elbow to the back of a demon's neck, the force severing it's spine, while he ripped the heart out of another's chest. Quickly discarding his two kills, he staked two vamps, charging him from the sides, the stakes having fallen from their holsters in his sleeves. Quickly turning towards his companions, he saw Cassandra taking down another demon, jamming a stake through its neck. Catching his eyes, she signaled that she was okay. Looking around, they noticed that all of their opponents were taken out. What was more interesting however, was the fact that their sudden ally was taking on three uglies at the same time.

Ducking underneath a kick, the man slammed a closed fist into the vamp's crotch, then rolling out of the fray and coming to his feet behind his three opponents. A Polgara demon slashed out, his spikes aiming for the man's throat. With a clang of bone on metal, blade met blade; the man's left hand grabbed hold of the demon's throat and threw him in a wide arc, knocking the demon into the concrete wall. Completing his turn, his knife flashing like quicksilver, cutting the throat of the other demon advancing on him. Following the trajectory through, the knife moved diagonally downwards, cutting through the dying demon's right hand, severing the limb. The lone remaining vamp, seeing the odds had turned to four to one, decided to make a run for it, as best as his wounded privates would allow. Not giving the vampire a chance to run to its master to tell of their defeat, the man drew a gun smoothly, firing a round into the back of the head of the running vamp. The sound was deafening in the small alley, bouncing off the walls and the eardrums like a heavy metal drumbeat. The effect on the vampire was even more devastating as his head seemed to explode on impact, joining the rest of its body in ashes.

Taking a drag of his cigar, the man put the gun away as Angel walked up to him, intending to place a hand on the stranger's shoulder.

"Thanks for the a-", he began to say but was cut off as the man's left hand surged upwards, ripping Angel's hand off his right shoulder. Pulling forward and down, his right hand grabbed Angel's coat; moving in circle, the man threw Angel against the wall, hard. Pulling him back, he released him but followed up with several spin kicks to the face and chest; Angel could feel his ribs breaking under the powerful onslaught as he tried to get away from his attacker.

Relentless, the man followed, smashing his right palm against Angel's face, snapping it backwards. The force of the blow would have driven a normal human's nose bone straight into the brain, killing them instantly. Snapping his right leg up, he was about to deliver a frontal kick, when Angel caught his foot, holding and turning it counterclockwise, intent on pulling the man to the ground. It was a mistake because as soon as he did that, the man's left leg came up off the ground, on an intercept with his jaw. They both went down hard.

The stranger recovered quickly, his right fist moving towards Angel's face. Just before it reached its intended target, Angel grabbed it, standing up straight quickly and moved forward, turning the arm backwards and flipping his attacker over. Still holding the arm, he lifted him up bodily and slammed his knee into the man's ribs a few times, sending him to his knees. Following through with a right cross, he was amazed that his opponent was still not down. Instead, he launched himself from his haunches, tackling Angel and sending him into the opposite wall. Grabbing Angel's right arm, he again began kicking him in the ribs and stomach, doubling the souled vampire over and finished him off with a downward kick to the back of the head.

Grabbing the crumpled form by the scruff of the neck, the stranger lifted Angel up, placing a gun to his head, stopping Spike and Cassandra from coming any closer. Both of them had been completely caught off guard by the sudden turn of events.

"One step closer and overbite here is nothing but an unpleasant memory." "Easy, lad. I don' like the big poof meself but he is a white hat. And near and dear to a few of my friends. They'd be mighty pissed if ya offed him now." "What my buddy Spike is saying is that if you kill him, we'll kill you." "Maybe you will, maybe you won't and maybe you won't even get the chance. Don't worry, I won't kill him. Yet."

Pressing the gun tighter against his skull, the stranger applied even more pressure on Angel's throat. Angel tried to dislodge the hand, but it felt like a vise had clamped down on his throat.

"Now listen and listen good, because I'm saying this only once. I don't like you, vampire. In fact, I downright loathe you. Do NOT ever touch me again. Understood? Blink twice if you have."

Angel did what he was told, blinking his eyes twice, as in the distance sirens could be heard getting closer. Sunnydale's finest were on the job. With that, he was roughly thrown to the floor, Spike and Cassandra immediately at his side. Looking back to where their savior-turned-attacker had stood only moments ago, nothing but shadows remained.

"Damn! That bloody sod is even better then you at the friggin' disappearing act, Angel. Come on, get your lazy bones moving! I don't want to be around to explain to the coppers what we're doing here."

"That's when we came here as fast as we could", finished Cassandra. "My powers had come back by that time." "It's a good thing you didn't antagonize this mystery man any further. However, he is not our main concern right now. We've got to find out what is happening to your powers, girls. From what you've told me so far, I take it they started to fade once you were attacked." "There is something else, Giles. He seemed familiar somehow but I couldn't put my finger on it. I do know that I know him, or at least have to have known him somewhere." "Maybe someone from LA?" "Could be, Willow but I doubt it." "A succubus", Wesley said. "Excuse me? A succu-what?" "A succubus, Buffy. Or rather, a drainer. A succubus is a female demon that sleeps with men. Those men will not awaken, only experiencing it as a dream", Wesley said, clearly uncomfortable with the subject.

"It is also a catch-all phrase for any number of demons that drain their victims of their powers. Although I've never heard anything about a demon capable of draining or at least suppressing a Slayer's powers. Certainly not when there are two present in the same area", added Giles.

"Why don't you fill us in on what happened to you and Buffy, Faith."

Faith and Buffy launched into what had happened during their patrol, as the others sat and listened, mentally comparing the encounters.

"It seems that their main goal in both attacks was to injure the slayers. Not to kill them." "Giles! Hello! Those uglies were planning on draining us." "Yeah and the boss guy shouted that his buddies should kill us", Cassandra added. "That was only after this mysterious man entered the fray, Cassandra. As for draining you two, I doubt that. They may have planned on drinking your blood but would have stopped short of draining you. These are scare tactics, designed to weaken your resolve. I doubt that whoever is behind this would let any serious harm come to you. It just seems too much trouble to make vampires and demons join forces so they can kill the slayers. No, there is a lot more to this than we can see but it does involve you three", Wesley stated, pointing to Buffy, Faith and Cassandra.

"Give the man a cigar."

Every head in the room swiveled towards the voice. There in the dooropening, stood the unknown stranger that had helped Angel, Spike and Cassandra and possible Buffy and Faith too.

Buffy, Faith, Cassandra, Spike and Giles immediately got up, forming a semi-circle around the others, protecting them while Cordelia and Wesley stepped half in front of Angel.

"Who the hell are you and what do you want, mister", Faith asked in a menacing tone. "Make it short and sweet. You don't want three pissed-off slayers on your case", added Cassandra.

Buffy remained quiet, keeping a steady gaze on the man, as he stood halfway into the darkened shop, his face shrouded in shadows. He was dressed in black from head to toe; black T-shirt, black combat pants with pockets and a long, black leather duster. His hair was cut short, almost spiky; his eyes hidden by dark-tinted sunglasses.

Resting one foot against the doorframe he was leaning against, the stranger lit up a large cigar with a Zippo lighter, the flames dancing in his glasses. Blowing out three perfect rings of smoke, he turned towards them.

"I'm the guy that saved your sixes tonight. Hey, overbite! Hope those ribs take a long time to heal", he said with an evil grin.

"Why did you attack Angel?" "Always the one to run to the defense of your lover, hey, Summers?" "You bastard", Cordelia cut in, taking a step forward, "how dare you speak to her like that? Answer the question or you don't have to worry about them kicking your ass, because I will! Angel has a soul! He's fighting the good fight."

"I have this little aversion to Vampires and other assorted creatures of the night, especially this specimen here, Miss Chase. As for his fighting the good fight, ever thought about the fact that his soul should be wherever souls go when the body is killed? Whether heaven or hell, the soul should be allowed to rest. Besides, didn't he go all fangy again a couple of years back? Lots of innocent people died, because someone who shall remain nameless didn't have the guts to do her job", the man said, his voice rising in strength with each word as he leaned into Buffy's face.

Buffy couldn't look the man in the face, his words sending bolts of shame and guilt through her. Angel looked down towards his shoes, as he felt the pain of all those he had killed in that time come crashing back down on him.

Spike was looking at the man; he was sure that he'd seen him before and he wasn't thinking about the alley behind the Bronze. There was something about the sound of his voice, the subtle inflections in it. His build too, seemed familiar, 'It'll come to me in time, you bloody wanker, then'll kick your ass.'

"Just tell us why you're here and then begone", Giles interrupted angrily.

Without a word, the man, pulled a disk from a pocket, hurtling it towards Giles, whom barely managed to catch and hold on to it.

"What's on this vile contraption?" "An image of the big bad that's set up shop here in town. Thought you'd like to know what you're dealing with." "Couldn't you have made a drawing or something?" "I did make a drawing. It's time you'd come out of the Stone Age, Giles."

Willow had been staring at the stranger through the whole confrontation and it took Giles a couple of times to get her attention.

"Huh.. oh, sorry Giles. You want something?" "Yes, Willow, could you", he asked impatiently, wanting to get rid of the visitor as soon as possible but also wanting to find out as much as possible about him.

Willow took the disk from Giles, all the while keeping a close look at the man standing there. There was something familiar about him, although she couldn't put her finger on it right now. She would get it sooner or later. Booting up the file manager, she checked the disk, noting the extension for the file on it and activated it.

"Oh my!"

Giles exclamation caught the attention of everyone there.

"Wesley, Cordelia", Giles called out; shortly, they joined him and Willow at the computer.

"Oh my God, that's it! That's the demon I say." "I'll say! It looks exactly like your drawing, Cordelia. Where did you get this?" "The image I made myself. As for where I got it, let's just say that I'm turning into an insomniac." "Bad dreams, huh? I wonder why", Faith sneered.

"I'm sure you know all about bad dreams, Faith", he answered, causing Faith to step forward, but Buffy held her back. "Well, you've done your civic duty, boyscout. Why don't you take your ass outta here and leave it to us."

"No can do, Summers. I'm here for the duration, whether you like it or not. I've been getting these dreams almost nightly for the last three weeks. Dreams in which he has you people for dinner, you being the main course of course. Which means that I'm supposed to help you guys out, make sure you stay alive and that we kick this beastie to wherever it came from. So, Giles, you contact the council and see what they have on this dude." "What makes you think we need or even want your help", Cassandra spat, taking a step forward. "You have no choice. I'm here for the duration. Once the evil has been destroyed, you won't have to worry about seeing me around. I'll either be dead or gone. Either way, I'm out of this town for good. I'll be around sometime tomorrow to hear what you've found out."

The man turned around and was about to walk out the door, when Willow stepped forward, taking a chance that she was right.

"Xander, wait!"

The tension level jumped several more degrees at Willow's outburst, everybody looking at her with surprise. Turning back to their uninvited guest, Buffy saw his shoulders tense up, then slowly sag, as if being pushed down by an incredible weight.


The small redhead didn't answer Faith as she slowly walked up behind the man, her right hand reaching out hesitantly. As it was about to rest on his shoulder, he turned around abruptly, pushing her backwards, into Cassandra's arms.

"Leave me alone!"

Xander Harris stood there, looking at the extended Scooby gang with unrestrained fury in his eyes. The others couldn't turn their minds around the transformation that had befallen their long lost friend. Buffy looked up to him with tears in her eyes, Faith's mouth was moving, lost for words. Cordelia, Tara and Willow were crying and smiling at the same time, while Giles just looked stunned. Spike was grinning as everything clicked in his mind, while Angel looked like he'd been hit by a truck, not quite believing he'd been beaten up by the mere boy who'd once faced him down in a hospital corridor.

Cassandra held Willow tightly, not trusting the newcomer, even though everybody else seemed to be completely mesmerized by him. Buffy walked towards him, silent tears running down her face, a brilliant smile lighting up her face.

"Xan, you're alive. You're really alive", she kept saying softly as she looked deeply into those brown eyes. The same eyes she'd dreamed of almost every single night. In her dreams they'd held such love, devotion and trust, all for her. As she made to engulf him in a tight hug, Xander snapped out of his trance, catching her left arm in a vice-like grip, janking it downwards, pulling her down onto his rising knee. Stunned, the air left her lungs in a loud whoosh; turning her arm backwards and pulling it up her back till almost the breaking point, he turned her around, pulling her against him.

"Xander, no!" "Xander, don't do anything foolish, now." "Xander, please, we're your friends." "Listen, you bloody fool, you hurt her and I'll tear you apart, slowly."

"Really, Spike? Think you can take me? Besides, what do you care? I was under the impression that you still thought you were the big bad. Used to be a time when you would give anything to see the slayer death. Particularly, this one. What happened, gotten soft in the head?"

Spike changed into his demonic visage, snarling at Xander, ready to keep his promise.

"You'll see how soft I've gotten in the head, you bloody sod." "Take a number and stand in line, Blondie. As for you people being my friends, who of you stood up to the almighty Buffy here when she decided that I was to be kept out of all things to do with fighting the evil that walks the streets?"

Looking around exaggeratedly, he began to nod as he saw the blank looks on all their faces.

"By the looks on your faces, it's clear you don't have an inkling as to what I'm talking about. I didn't expect anything else from this lot", he stated disgustedly. "Don't expect me to help jog your memory, people", he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. Unbidden however, the images of 8 years ago came back to him, as if it were a movie, playing on repeat.

Chapter 5

** Begin flashback, about 8 years ago **

Xander quietly made his way out of the hospitalroom, trying hard not to stumble. He was still in pain but since he'd woken up two days ago, nobody had been in to visit him. He was getting seriously worried, hoping that Glory really was death and the memory not something from a feverish dream; if she wasn't, him not getting any visitors might mean that the others were either still running, or dead. He shuddered at the last thought, not wanting to think of that possibility.

The last thing he remembered before he woke up in the hospital, was the huge fight against Glory. She'd taken Dawn and was ready to perform the ceremony to return to her realm when the Scoobies had attacked. Glory was about to open the portal when Buffy had attacked her. They'd battled viciously, giving no quarter; Buffy fighting to save her sister, Glory to return home at any cost.

As the portal grew larger, the time to sacrifice Dawn to release the power of the Key grew shorter. Glory managed to knock Buffy onto the ground, hard enough to daze her. Xander saw Glory raising the sword to kill the Slayer; hacking his way through Glory's minions, he managed to deflect the blade enough so that it slammed into the ground. Now Xander began to fight the angry Goddess, long-buried instincts coming to the fore. The Hyena spirit, tempered by the soldier's experience and tactical mind combining with Xander's own courage combined to make a deadly machine as he drove her backwards, ever nearer to the opened portal.

Glory looked into the young man's eyes, seeing determination, anger, even a touch of madness in their depths. It was enough. The distraction created an opening and Xander pounced on it, his sword penetrating the soft flesh of Glory's belly as he shoved the sword through her to the hilt.

"Nobody hurts my friends."

A look of disbelief colored Glory's face as she felt herself being lifted off the ground, the pain of being impaled not even registering on her mind. Before she could do anything to save herself, her body was hurtling towards the portal. A scream of the deepest agony and despair assaulted everyone's ears as Glory's body disintegrated on impact, the portal's power ripping her apart.

Xander turned around and walked over to the dais where Dawn was tied to, cutting her bonds with his sword. Carefully lifting the girl up, he set her down on the ground; she clung to him as her body shook with silent sobs, not quite believing it was all over and she was still alive. Pushing herself back a ways from him, Dawn tried to speak but no words came, she just hugged him tighter. Feeling his grip on her relax, it took a moment for her to realize what was happening.

Xander toppled backwards, landing on his back with a thud; the look on Dawn's face turned from questioning to horror as she saw the massive dark stain on his shirt, the blood running down already soaking his pants. The scream that tore from her throat echoed through the room for what seemed like an eternity.

When he came up from his musings, Xander noticed that he'd reached Giles' place. The watcher still lived here, although he was planning to move in with Buffy and Dawn soon. Seeing the light on, a sense of relief watched over the young man. At least someone was home and if it were Giles, that would mean the others were save too. Quickly making his way to the front door, he forgot completely that he hadn't had a visitor in days at the hospital. His friends were all right, that was all that counted.

As he was about to knock on the front door, he passed by the window next to it. Glancing inside, he saw all his friends sitting there, drinking tea. A huge smile crossed his face, seeing them all well. He just stood there, soaking it in, this feeling of belonging. They were back together again, withering another storm that had threatened to suck them in and chew them up. Then the words being spoken within caught his attention and suddenly, he felt as if the whole world had punched him in the gut. Words he would remember for the rest of his life as they burned their way into his memory.

"He can't come on patrol with me anymore. It's just too dangerous; you saw what happened? He almost got himself killed again, for the umpteenth time! He has no skills, is worthless in battle and always gets in the way." "Buffy, you don't have to be so negative. I do agree with you but don't you think it's something he has to decide for himself?" "No, Willow, you know how he is. He'll whine and bitch about it and insist that he can contribute, but we all know that isn't true. He was at death's door when we brought him to the hospital." "I'm afraid Buffy is right, Willow. Xander has no combat skills at all. You and Tara have your wiccan powers, I am a Watcher and have been trained in many forms of martial arts. Spike... well, as much as I want to deny it, he has proven to be quite the ally. Xander would only bring more danger upon us as we try to keep him safe during the fighting. A distraction like that could kill any one of us; think of the guilt that would cause him." "I know all that but with all that has happened... I mean, does he even know Anya is dead? If he finds out and hears that we don't want him along, who knows what he'll do? Xander will not take this lying down."

Xander thought his heart had stopped beating at the mention of them not allowing him to help them anymore. But at the mention of Anya's death, his heart started beating double-time, so loud, it drummed in his ears. It felt as if all the air had been knocked out of him. Turning back to the room, hoping against everything that what he'd heard was someone's sick idea of a joke, he continued listening in.

"That's what I'm afraid of, that he'll do something stupid, like seeking revenge by going up against a bunch of vamps. What if he decides to walk into Willy's bar to pick a fight? How do we protect him? I'm not loosing anymore people, Willow." "But if we don't keep him close, he'll go out alone, Buffy." "Then we keep him at home, someone needs to stay with him. He can baby-sit Dawn when I'm out patrolling." "The idea has merit, Buffy. I'm sure Dawn will benefit from Xander's presence, as will he. They can help each other heal, as can we all. Things will be calm for the time being, I surmise."

Xander walked backwards, stunned beyond belief. Anya was dead, his so-called friends hadn't had the decency to even visit him in the hospital and now they thought of him as useless, not fit to be anything but a babysitter. The dream from the First Slayer popped back into his mind, the sequence of Apocalypse Now with Snyder. The image of his father busting open the door to his basement, getting ready to beat him again. The feeling when the First Slayer gutted him, ripped his heart out, intermingled with Glory's last strike against him. It felt just like that time, the incredible pain of his heart being torn from his body. Anya's face, Cordelia, Willow, Faith, Buffy, Dawn, Tara, Joyce, the faces of all the people he'd known that had been killed by vamps and demons, ran through his mind's eye like mad film reel. And through it all, the one sentence kept playing through his mind, over and over and over.

'You're useless, nothing but a waste of space. You're useless, nothing but a waste of space.'

Finally, as if by some mystical force, his mind cleared and Xander found himself in the cemetery where Joyce Summers was buried, in front of her grave. Looking at her name and dates of birth and dead, he finally broke down. A heart-wrenching sob spilled from his lips as his beaten body fell to its knees. The tears came unbidden in a torrent, his hands in his lap. He cried for her, he cried for Anya, for Dawn who would never know the love of a mother again. He cried for all those that had died because of all the evil in the world but most of all, he cried for himself. He cried because he couldn't do anything to stop the killing, to stop the death of innocence. When the tears stopped, the sun was slowly ascending to its rightful place, signaling the dawn of a new day.

"No more. No more", he whispered as his hands traced over the letters on Joyce's headstone.

"I made you a promise, mom, to take care of your daughters", he said softly, almost in a whisper, acknowledging for the first time how he thought of Joyce Summers. She had been more of a mother to him then his own had ever been and he'd loved her dearly. Her death had shaken him to the core, but he'd put it aside, to be there for Buffy and Dawn.

"I made you a promise and I intend to keep it. I just can't do it here. I'm leaving, mom, but I'm keeping my promise, they'll never want for anything as long as I live. But I'm making another promise to you today. I'll do everything in my power to stop evil from taking any more innocent lives. Be it man or demon, I will destroy it wherever I find it. I'm through being the useless sidekick, the funnyman. I'm going to make a difference, one way or another. This is my solemn vow to you", he concluded, kissing his fingers and placing them on the headstone. The soft gust of wind felt like a caress; he imagined it being Joyce's fingers softly stroking his cheek and ruffling his hair, offering him support and love. Xander got up and walked unsteadily away, back into town. It was time to make good on his promise.

** End flashback **

The girls all had tears in their eyes, too choked up to speak. Giles removed his glasses, cleaning them, a sure sign that he was thinking of a response to the cryptic words spoken by the young man he'd grown to love as if he were his own son.

Buffy felt like her heart had died again at the revelation of the extent of his pain she could clearly hear in his voice. She wanted to die right there, by his hands, knowing exactly what he was talking about. How he'd find out, she could only guess but it was clearly the reason why he'd gone away and left them. Left her. Him killing her right now would be a suitable revenge for all the pain she'd caused him in his life, she thought as hot tears ran unbidden down her cheeks. She took a shaky breath.

'I'm sorry, Xander, so sorry. How will you ever be able to forgive me', she thought.

"Xan, please. I didn't want you to get hurt", Buffy whispered. "Hurt, slayer? Don't make me laugh", he sneered in her ear. "All you've ever done is hurt me. At least with Cordy, I knew that she'd do it, every single day. She was after all Queen C. What I had forgotten was that you were the Cordelia Chase of Hemery High and boy, did you show me when you got to college."

Another piece of Cordelia's heart broke at his loudly spoken words, thinking back to all the cruel things she'd done and said to Xander and everyone else when they were in High School. It seemed everything finally got too much for her friend and turned him into this dark, murderous avenging angel before her.

"Remember the dance? You ripped my heart out on the dancefloor, stepped on it and ground it into a million pieces. For what? So you could make Deadboy there jealous. That's all I ever was to you, the convenient idiot that could make you feel good about yourself, how superior you were. Well, no more, Buffy." "I'm sorry about that. I'm sorry about everything I've ever done to you, Xander. Please, please forgive me." "And that is supposed to make things better? Forget it, you can't ever begin to apologize enough, Slayer. As I said before, I'm here because some big evil is in town, bigger then you've ever faced. If it weren't for those rotten dreams, I wouldn't even be here. Guess the PTB want me to kick some demon six again and keep you safe. Why, I don't have a clue. It's not like you've never unleashed a monster on the town."

With that, he threw Buffy forward, crashing her into Faith, Cassandra and Willow who all went down in a tangle of arms and legs. Angel and Wesley moved towards Xander, intent on taking him down; he threw his cigar at Angel, making the vampire duck sideways, simultaneously pulling out a KZ-45 handgun. The gun discharged, the .45 caliber jacketed hollow point ripping through Angel's shoulder. The power of the almost point blank fired round caused Angel to rotate around his axis and fall flat on his face, the pain almost unbearable.

Bringing the gun up in a leftward arc, he aimed it at Wesley's face even before the spent shellcasing had hit the floor. Motioning with the gun, Xander ordered Wesley to move backwards.

"Don't worry, Deadboy, you're a vampire. It'll heal in no time. Besides, I've got a promise to keep to you, don't I?"

Seeing that nobody was moving, Xander backed away, putting the gun back in its holster.

"As I said, I'll be around tomorrow to check out what you've found out about our 'friend'. And please, don't do something so obvious as to try and follow me."

With those words, he stepped out of the door and into the night. As soon as he was out the door, Buffy, Faith, Willow and Cassandra ran after him. Once on the sidewalk, they looked in all directions, finding no sign of him.

"Damn it! Where did he go?" "No one can disappear that fast." "Seems like he took lessons from Angel, B." "We've got to find him, Buffy. We just have to find him. I can't lose him again. I wouldn't survive! Please, we've got to find him."

Willow was nearly hysterical, babbling on a mile a minute, wringing her hands. Buffy pulled her into a tight hug, running her hands up and down her back slowly, murmuring comforting words in her ear.

"Yeah, we'll find him, then I'll wrap his spleen around his throat", an angry Cassandra said. "You do that, C. and the Council is gonna have ta find a new Slayer to replace you."

Surprised, Cassandra turned towards Faith.

"What's the matter with you? You protecting that maniac after what he did to Angel?" "Angel deserved it. You weren't here so don't start acting all macho, girlfriend. Besides, it's not like it's gonna kill him. Boy toy just let the souled one know that this time, he'd better behave himself."

Cassandra walked up to Faith, standing toe-to-toe.

"I don't know what your problem is, Faith, but Angel is one of us. Nobody, NOBODY hurts any of us, no matter what their past. If that weren't the case, I'd beat you to an inch of your life then dump you in the nearest nest." "Bring it on, girl, anytime, anywhere, anyplace." "Will you two stop with the testosterone overload? Nobody touches Xander. I may not agree with what he just did, but I can understand it. You weren't here, Cassandra. Angelus killed a lot of innocent people to get to Buffy and she couldn't stop him! Friends of ours, people we went to school with. So don't you dare say anything about Xander!"

Willow was screaming now as Buffy held her back, fearful what the small Wicca would do if she got loose. "Willow, calm down, please! We'll find Xander, I promise, but I need you to focus! Focus, Will!"

Finally, Willow stopped ranting and struggling, her eyes catching Buffy's. Within an instant, both girls were in each others arms, holding on for dear life.

"He's alive, Buffy, he's alive." "I know, I know."

As they clung to each other, Faith walked up, putting her hands on both women's shoulders. Buffy was the first to look up; seeing the watery sheen in Faith's eyes, she quickly pulled the dark-haired slayer into the embrace. Three women, one his best friend since childhood, one the love of his life and the tormentor of his soul, one a kindred spirit and former lover, three women who all loved him in their own way, held each other, crying for their friend. Crying for all the pain they'd caused him, whether by choice or unknowingly.

"Why don't you all come inside?"

Looking up, they saw Cordelia in the shop's doorway, her hands folded around herself, as if warding off the chill in the air. Her eyes were swollen, her cheeks were red. Faith was the first to move, holding Cordelia tightly; Willow and Buffy following. Cassandra was left standing there, watching the group hug, not understanding why these women she looked up to were in such a sorry state about one man. A man whose loyalties were in question, it seemed to her. As they made their way inside, she saw that Angel seemed to be doing better. Giles and Wesley had bandaged the shoulder wound; it would have healed by morning. Walking up to Spike, she pulled him into a corner.

"Care to tell me what the hell all this is?" "Girl, you just met the missing link. Or rather, the heart of this group, only they didn't know it until they pushed him away." "What do you mean?" "You buy me a bottle of Cardhu and I might tell ya, Cassiopeia." "Spike!" "Xander Harris was the glue that held the group together. Haven't you noticed that these bleedin' idiots, for all the fun they have, all the things they do, carry around a melancholy undertone? That sometimes, they just sit around and stare at something only they can see?"

At Cassandra's affirmative nod, Spike continued.

"If it wasn't for that bloody fool, Summers wouldn't be alive. Hell, nobody in this room would be alive today. Not Summers, not Faith, not Dawn, Red or Tara. Not Rupert nor Wesley. He saved each one of them on one occasion or another. No powers, no destiny, he just did what he thought was right. And when he left, he took that bleedin' huge heart of him with him, effectively killing the group. It's a wonder they're still alive. So don't get any ideas of hurting the man, you'll have a very pissed of group after you. Including me." "You", she asked incredulously. "Yeah, doll, me. He's the only person in the last decade who could verbally spar with me and make me eat crow."

Cassandra was amazed, no, shocked would be a better word. Spike's words were as close as an admission that he considered Harris a friend. He'd never admitted that about anyone of their little group. Oh, he'd admitted he'd had a crush on Buffy. He'd admitted he tolerated Giles but then, he was also English and they both enjoyed the cricket and snooker championships. And although he would never admit it, Dawn had him wrapped around her little finger. But never had he so clearly stated that he liked someone. Whoever this Xander Harris character was, she'd keep an even closer watch on him. The others devotion to the man they thought they knew could very well be their downfall.


2123 PM, July 12th, Jameson Trucking, Sunnydale, CA

Xander stepped off the Triumph Speed Triple motorcycle, shutting down the engine. The Jameson Trucking building had been abandoned years ago, when the company was sold off to a national trucking company that had moved into a larger complex. The building had been sold to an offshore investment firm a few months ago; shortly thereafter, a wicca high priestess was sent to bind the building, making it impossible for vampires and demons to remain there or gain access. Since then, the body count in the area had fallen dramatically.

Discarding his helmet, duster and weapons, he walked over to the bathroom, pulling off his T-shirt as he did so. Xander grimaced as he looked into the mirror, the bruises on the left side of his chest showing, growing to a dark purple. Angel packed a punch, what with his vampiric power. Xander however, had long ago learned how to channel his pain to a small corner of his mind until such a time when it was more convenient to let it out. It had saved his life a number of times and he was glad that tonight hadn't been any different. He couldn't let the others know that he was hurt.

Thinking of the encounter in Giles' store, he swore under his breath; things hadn't gone exactly as planned. Even after an absence of eight years, Willow was able to recognize him. Even with the Marine hair cut, the fact that he had significantly bulked up and that his facial features had changed over the years, she recognized him. He should have worn a mask or at least the helmet; the glasses and staying in the shadows as much as possible hadn't helped.

Not to mention the fact that he'd let all his pain and anger out. All this time, he'd kept a lid on the torment his soul was in and a few minutes with these people.... his friends... NO! Not his friends! Never his friends, not anymore! Just a few minutes with them and it had come all out, boiling like lava in the crater of an active volcano. He'd even shot Angel, for crying out loud! There was no way they'd ever forgive him for that. Not that he cared. A strange satisfaction had filled him in that alley behind The Bronze when he beat the crap out of his old rival. The same satisfaction when later he pumped a round into the souled vampire. However, tomorrow morning he would have to face them again. And they would let him have it with both barrels. They would be prepared this time. He would be lucky to get out with his life intact, after Buffy was done with him.

Sighing, he stripped and stepped into the shower, letting the hot water cascade down his bruised body. After a while, he got out and dried off. Taking the first aid kit, Xander proceeded to tape up his ribs as tight as possible. Going to the battery-operated cooler, he grabbed a bottle of water and swallowed an Advil. As he drank down the water, he looked around at the setup he'd made. His SUV and motorcycle on one side, his equipment on another side. A computer setup against the far wall; his living quarters opposite that, consisting of an surplus army cot, collapsible closet and tv/video/audio setup with automated scanners for the police band and all other bands, including encrypted transmissions. He's spent time in worse places in the past. Throwing the bottle in the trash, Xander walked to his bed and laid down, almost falling asleep immediately. The last fleeting thought he had was the hope that the nightmare wouldn't come back tonight.


2116 PM, July 12th, The Magic Box, Sunnydale, CA

"Can you find out where Xander might be staying, Willow?" "I can try, Buffy, but no guarantees. He's been hiding from us for eight years." "Come on, Red, stop being miss negativity." "Faith, it's not that I'm negative but eight years and no sign of him? That sort of puts a damper on your faith in your abilities." "Why don't you check out military records?" "Military, Faith?" "Yeah, B., notice Xan's hair? All bristly and close to the skull? I 'dated' this guy for a while, was a Marine. They all have that buzzcut." "I already checked those, a couple of times. There was nothing." "Dated? You dated, Faith?" "Well, it was only two days, Cordelia." "What you mean is that you 'saw, took and sweated'. So typical", Cordelia shot back. "Yeah, well, at least I was out having fun, C. Have you ever had any fun? You're too wound up, a little action might loosen you up, right quick, girl. Want me to set you up?"

"Thanks, but I prefer my men with an IQ above that of monkeys."

During the conversation with Faith, Cordelia was watching Willow work on the computer, running searches throughout Sunnydale's hospitality sector.

"Willow, you said you checked military records, right?" "Yes, all of them, Army, Navy, Air Force, even Coast Guard and Reserves." "You did a namesearch, right?" "Yes, every permutation of Alexander Lavelle Harris, Harrison; I reversed his name, used Xander, Alex, everything I could think of." "Did you do a photosearch?"

Cordelia almost laughed out loud at the blank looks Giles, Buffy and Faith gave her. Willow's eyes grew huge as realization dawned on her.

"Ooooh, I'm a moron! Why didn't I think of that earlier!"

With those words, Willow moved into action, calling up a picture of Xander she kept on her homesystem. Within minutes, she was working furiously hacking into the military personnel database.

"I'm running a simultaneous search for Xander in all hotels, motels and guest houses in Sunnydale. I'm also checking real estate and rental companies." "Check the county and state tax records too. Maybe Xander has a place here we don't know about; he still needs to pay property taxes."

"Uh, Cordelia, how do you.. What I mean is... " "Cordelia is quite adept at finding people or things that want to remain hidden, Rupert", Wesley said, as he returned from the bathroom, after having cleaned up from bandaging Angel's shoulder. "Yeah, she's been and continues to be a valuable member of Angel Investigations, even though she runs her own company now", Angel added, adjusting the rig holding up his injured arm.

"I... I.. I didn't mean to imply that s- she wasn't...", Giles stuttered. "It's okay, Giles. I know that I was an airhead back then but I've grown up a lot over the years. No offense. Besides, if it weren't for you guys, I wouldn't be here. You've all taught me a lot." "Wow, a thank you from Queen C", Buffy said, laughter in her tone. "We're glad you're here, Cordy. It's not been the same without you", Buffy said, hugging her old rival tightly.

Angel looked on, smiling slightly; Buffy may not have shown him any concern after being shot but he couldn't fault her. They'd grown apart over the years, becoming mere acquaintances. It still hurt though.


Everybody turned towards Willow as her scream echoed through the room.

"Willow, you okay?" "Yes, I'm alright! It's just... I've found him! Look, come see! I've found him! I can't believe I didn't think about it! Cordelia, you're a genius!" "Wills, you're babbling. Stop talking, breathe deeply."

Willow followed Buffy's advice, as the others all crowded around her. On the screen, a personnel file was visible, the USMC icon on top. The picture in it was clearly that of Xander, dressed in his Class A Service uniform.

"Wow! He looks really hot."

Everybody turned to Tara, who promptly blushed a bright red.

"I- I m- m- mean... he looks g- g- good. Not hot! Definitely not hot because... I ... I .... I'm gay and I don't .... " "I didn't know you went for guys in uniform, Tara", Faith grinned, cutting off Tara who'd kept getting redder and redder, "but you're right, he's hotter then ever before." "Shut the hormones down, Faith. Let's read what it says, maybe it'll give us a clue as to where to find him." "Sure thing, B."

Faith leaned closer to her, whispering in her ear, "but you can't tell me you don't think he's a hottie."

Buffy's answering blush was enough for Faith and she had to surpress a chuckle.

After a few minutes of quiet reading, Cordelia was the first to speak up, a soft quiver in her voice.

"This thing reads like a recruiting poster!" "How so", questioned Wesley. "Well look at this", she said, pointing to the screen at the photo of Xander.

"Second Lieutenant Alexander Harrelson, USMC. Look at what he started out as, a lowly private, but within a year, he'd made Lance Corporal and got into Force Reconnaissance as a sniper. It's been less then seven years and he's already a lieutenant. If that isn't something worthy of going on a recruiting poster, I don't know what is." "No wonder we couldn't find him", Willow continued, "He's been using another last name." "Which, if the Corps found out about, would get him into trouble." "Angel, don't get any ideas", Buffy said, without looking away from the screen.

"What else has our boy done", Spike asked, dragging on his cigarette. "Okay, it says here that he quickly advanced in rank, becoming a Gunnery Sergeant after four years. He also became a Drill Instructor, while getting his qualifications as a Combatant Diver and Rotary Wing pilot", Faith said softly, the awe in her voice clear to all.

"Oh! He also got a Ph. D. in Engineering! He did it! Yes!" "Willow, what do you mean?" "Education girl, remember, Giles? Willow is just excited that Xander did attend and finish college", Buffy stated, smiling down at her best friend.

"I knew he could do it, Buffy, he just had to convince himself of it." "I know, Wills, I know." "He was recommended for OCS by his Company Commander, then went on to Flight School and graduated within the top ten of his class", Willow finished.

"What else does his file say?"

Skimming quickly through the file, Willow answered Giles question, "Mostly where he was stationed and when. A list of his citations and medals, which to sum up in one word is 'WOW'!" "With that many medals, it's a wonder he's not shown up here before", Cordelia commented, "just so he could show us how good he's become." "That's not how Xander is and you know that, Cor", Faith said, letting a little anger shine through her words.

"Does anyone notice anything strange to young mister Harris's personnel file", Wesley asked. "What do you mean?" "Well, I noticed that none of the medals have any explanation as to why he received them. Willow, if you please, could you find the part that deals with his deployments?" "Sure thing, Wesley."

Willow quickly scrolled downwards, finding the page that held Lieutenant Harrelson's deployments and missions. It quickly became apparent what Wesley was trying to tell them. Scrolling down the list, everyone noticed that almost all lines had been blacked out, effectively making them unreadable. The only parts that were visible dealt with where he'd followed his training and the last deployment he'd been on, an F/A-18 fighter squadron that had been aboard a carrier.

"Wesley, is this what you suspected?" "Yes, Angel." "Hello, could you guys be any more cryptic? Explain to those of us with lesser IQ's", Faith nearly yelled.

"It's simple, Faith, Xander seems to have been involved in a large number of classified operations of the years. The fact that no reason was given for most of the medals he received tipped me off. That's why I asked Willow to find his deployment listing." "And this is relevant to us, how?" "What I think Wesley is trying to tell us, Buffy, is that Xander's appearance in Sunnydale may not be as clearcut as him having dreams about our demise", Giles said as he rubbed the bridge of his nose.

"What? You're saying he's here coz he's been ordered to?" "May I remind you of Riley and the Initiative, Buffy?" "No, Giles, you may not! This isn't the same! This is Xander we're talking about. You saw him, you heard him speak. He may hate me, but he would never betray us. I believe him and so should you." "Uhm, guys", Willow interrupted her friends, "I think I found something interesting."

Buffy and the others quickly stood behind Willow as she pointed to the screen.

"Does this number seem familiar to you, Buffy?"

The sharp intakes of breath by both Buffy and Faith answered that question. "Oh my."

Everybody else looked at Giles as he hastily turned around.

"I think it's time we started researching this new threat. Willow, I don't think we'll find Xander's whereabouts tonight. When he returns tomorrow, we'll ask him. I for one, tend to respect his privacy. See what you can find on the net regarding this new threat. The rest of you, let's hit the books, as you youngsters are so fond of saying." "Giles, did I ever tell you that I get all excited when you talk like that?" "No, Cordelia, you never have." "Well, don't get your hopes up, because I never will", she said with a sweet smile.

Internally, her thoughts were a messed jumble as she went over tonight's shockers. Buffy, Faith, Willow and Giles had found something more in that file, something they weren't sharing. It wasn't something that worried her; if it was something that would endanger them, the three of them would tell them. No, what worried her more was the fact that the Xander she'd seen tonight was so full of anger. He may not have voiced exactly why he was angry, but Cordelia wasn't stupid. She could guess as to why he'd left all those years ago, without telling anyone. Couple that with his current military mindset and you've got a very volatile combination. Cordelia remembered that Halloween all too well; Xander as Soldier Boy had been quite effective and the hard look in his eyes back then spoke of someone who'd experienced a lot of horrible things. Someone who'd done a lot of horrible things and would do whatever was necessary to win. He'd shown the same spirit and resourcefulness on several other occasions, specifically against the Judge and during the Ascension. She just hoped that this time, his anger wouldn't throw him over the edge.

Chapter 6

1216 PM, July 13th, The Coffee Shoppe, Sunnydale, CA

Dawn walked out of the coffee shop, a big styrofoam mug Chocolate coffee, topped with whipped cream in one hand, her book bag in the other. She was in her last year of college and classes were over for today. She'd needed to take up some extra classes to make up for being sick for almost three months before. Still shivering at the thought of the accident that had landed her in the hospital for such a long time, she enjoyed the warm sun. Life was good, today her vacation officially started, even if it was shorter then usual. Being a straight A student had paid off as most of her teachers had agreed to let her catch up her classes during the vacation time, provided at least two of her regular teachers would stay behind to administer the tests. Lucky for her, that proffesor Matheson and Doctor Harding still had a lot of research to complete so they would be staying. Now she was all caught up. Thinking nothing but happy thoughts, Dawn didn't look where she was going and so, bumped rather hard into what felt like a concrete wall, spilling her books all over the sidewalk.

Xander walked aimlessly through Sunnydale, his mind soaking up the images of his old hometown. So many things had changed over his absence, yet so many things stayed the same. Everyone went about their business as if there was nothing wrong. He knew these people knew what kind of things played around in the dark, yet they refused to acknowledge it. Hard to believe that at one time, he'd been one of them.

It was a beautiful sunny day, one where you walked about with your loved one, had a picnic in the park and just did those things young lovers did. He'd been inside, researching on his own but so far, he'd come up on a brick wall. None of his sources, cultivated over years, had anything about this specific demon. Frustrated, he'd gone out, hoping that the others would have more luck, since they had the Watcher's Council's resources behind them. But once on the street, Xander was again struck with dread. He would have to face them again, today. He wasn't sure if he was ready for that. The old instincts had come to the surface again, the same instincts that told him to run as fast as he could, as far away as possible. Deciding that he'd needed time to prepare himself mentally for their next meeting, Xander started walking through Sunnydale, soaking up the warmth of the sun. That's when he bumped into someone.

"Ouch! Could you look where you're going, mister? Most people have eyes for a reason, you know."

Xander looked down at the female voice, ready with an angry retort. It stopped halfway to his throat as he caught sight of the beauty kneeling before him, gathering up her books. Chuckling slightly to himself, he bend down to help her, taking off his glasses and putting them in his jacket pocket.

"Sorry, just enjoying this beautiful day and trying to think things over, miss. Guess my mind wandered about." "I am sorry", the young woman said, softly, "I was doing the same thing. Guess I didn't pay as much attention to my surroundings as I should have."

Xander picked up the last book as they both stood up. Handing it to her, Xander's breath caught in his throat. Before him stood one of the most beautiful women he'd ever seen. He hadn't seen her eyes yet as she was busily rearranging her bag, but her long brown hair, cascading down the side of her face gave her the appearance of an angel. Then she looked up and Xander felt as if he'd been punched in the gut.

Dawn looked up at the tall man she'd bumped into and had helped her get her stuff together. He was very handsome, even if he should let his hair grow out. Very nicely dressed too, with a sports jacket, a tan button-down shirt and black Dockers.

"So, do you usually bump into girls so you can ask them their names", she asked mischievously.

Shaking off his momentary cluelessness, Xander gave her his trademarked lopsided grin before replying.

"I only bump into them to check for any hidden weapons before I ask them their name. Don't want any surprises, now would we?" "No, we wouldn't. So?" "So? What?" "Aren't you going to ask my name? I'm sure you've already established I'm not carrying any weapons." "I wish I could ask you your name, but right now, that part of my brain has deserted me." "You mean, you don't know how to ask me my name?" "That's right. I don't. Sorry."

'Damn, but he's cute. And that smile! It's just like Xander's', Dawn thought, appraising the man in front of her. Then her thoughts caught up with her and she gave herself a mental shake. The eyes, they were the same shade of brown as Xander's, with the same mischievous look in them. The same one she'd seen on so many occasions! Could it be? "Okay, so you don't know how to ask me my name. Well, the only solution is if I guess your name, now isn't it?" "How do you figure that?" "I can't really call you 'Hey, you', now can I?" "I've been called worse", he answered with the same smile as before and Dawn now was certain. "Well, it's been nice talking to you, but I must be off. So, maybe I'll see you around, Xander."

The smile froze on his face as the girl said his name almost casually. His eyes narrowed as he grabbed her by the arm, almost shaking her.

"How did you know my name?"

The tone in his voice, sharp, like a knife. Dawn, for the first time in her life, was scared of Xander. His eyes had become cold like eyes and she could feel the chill throughout her body. Swallowing, she looked him straight in the eyes.

"You don't tend to forget those that sacrifice themselves to save you, Xan", she said softly.

For the second time in minutes, Xander felt as if he were punched in the gut, as he finally recognized the young woman.


Not trusting herself to speak, Dawn just nodded, as tears started leaking from her eyes. Xander's mind was twisting and turning in all directions by this new development. He'd never seen any pictures of her after leaving Sunnydale; somewhere in his mind's eye, she was still the little fourteen year old who had a crush on him, not this gorgeous creature. As if by hidden agreement, both of them came together, slipping into each others arms, holding each other tight. No words were spoken, everything that needed to be said was transferred through their arms, the contact of their bodies against each other. Finally, they pulled away from each other, their arms still around each other.

"God, Xan, it's great to see you! Where have you been? We've all been worried about you. You don't write, you don't call. You just up and left! Why? Was it something I did? I'm sorry about Anya. I'm so sorry. I was worried you hated me, because she died protecting me." "Dawnmeister, you're babbling", he said with a grin. "Shutting up now. Oooohhhh, it's great to see you", she exclaimed as she pulled him into another crushing hug.

Several minutes later, the two sat down in the coffeeshop again, Dawn insisting they'd needed to talk and she wouldn't let him out of her sight until he'd told her where he had been. The look on the waitress's face as he'd ordered a coffee, black, was priceless.

"What is it with these places that they look at you like you're Fyarl demon when you ask for a normal coffee?" "Maybe because it's so ordinary?" "Well, I like my coffee without all those strange concoctions thrown in." "Okay, Xander, we've talked enough about the merits of caffeinated drinks. Suppose you start telling me why you left in the first place. You said it wasn't because of Anya's death. Was it because of me?" "No! How could you think that, Dawny? It was never about you." "Thank goodness. I couldn't live with myself if it had been because of me. So spill already! Why did you leave? And do the others know you're back?" "Yeah, they know. As for why I left, that is a long story." "Well, I'm out of college for a while so I have lots of time. Talk, mister." "Maybe another time. It's really good to see you, Dawn. I thought that after we took care of Glory, those monks would come for you and take you back to whatever place you'd come from."

Noticing his reticience about his silent departure, Dawn vowed to drag it out of him, one way or another. Both Buffy and Willow had taken it hard when he'd disappeared and she owed it to them to find the answers. In the meantime, she'd soften him up and tell him what he'd missed.

"Yeah, they did. The same night you guys vanquished her. That ride to the hospital... It was the longest ride I've ever had. I held your head in my lap the entire time and Buffy... she was crying, begging you to hold on. We'd just brought you in and the doctors had taken you into the OR and were sitting there waiting for word on how you were doing."

Xander took Dawn's hands in his own, giving them a soft squeeze. Hearing Dawn's words regarding Buffy and seeing the pain of remembrance in Dawn's own eyes, send a stab of pain through his heart, that he violently quelled.

"I'm sorry that I worried you so much, but I couldn't let anything happen to the old Key, now could I?" "Yeah, well, next time, don't get yourself hurt, okay? Anyway, while we're pacing around, there is this huge light and we all disappeared into it. When it was over, we were in some huge cave in the mountains of Tibet or Nepal, I don't know.

Those monks came out of nowhere, saying that it was time to set the Key free. I was even more scared then when Glory had me. I mean, I was just saved from certain death and I was finally free to enjoy being with my family, you know. Then here are these guys mumbling that it's time for me to be set free. Well, the others rallied around me and Buffy stated in no uncertain terms that if anyone of them touched me, she'd kill them.

The high priest or whatever he was, made a few gestures with his hands and suddenly, everyone was tied up to the walls and I was kneeling in a circle. Nobody could do anything and I lost track of time. When I woke up, I was sore all over. These monks helped me out of the circle and suddenly, we were all in Giles' apartment. Then this spooky voice, the one from the high priest said that I was set free, that the force inside me had been removed and that I was human, fully human. Xander, do you know how happy I was? It was like... " "Like you're given a get-out-of-jail card?" "Exactly! I was human again and I had a family and friends. Best of all, I wouldn't be the target of the next madman that needed the powers that were inside me. I also kept my powers to open dimensional portals but for the rest, I was just a normal girl."

The smile on her face warmed his heart and Xander felt happy knowing he'd had a part in putting it there.

"Well, turns out we were gone for almost a week. First thing Giles did was call the hospital to get an update on your status. According to the doctor, you'd pulled through the operation and had gotten out of a coma three days before. We were all happy to hear that but it was late so we decided to visit you the day after. I went to bed, after all that stuff, I was almost dead on my feet. The next day, when I woke up, the whole house was in an uproar. You'd disappeared from the hospital, Xander. We nearly tore the town apart looking for you. Buffy blamed herself for a long time. Me, I blamed myself until she finally kicked my ass, telling me it wasn't my fault. Well, you know me, I told her I'd stop blaming myself if she did the same. She couldn't have done anything, after all, she was with me at the time, tied to a rock wall."

Xander felt as if his heart was wrenched from his body all over again at hearing her story. They hadn't abandoned him, they'd had no choice in the matter. Feelings of shame hit him from all sides until he ruthlessly pushed them back. Even if they hadn't abandoned him, they were still guilty. Guilty of trying to leave him behind, even after all he'd done for them. He would have lain his life down without a second thought to save anyone of his friends and they had planned to shove him to the side like yesterday's news.

Dawn saw the confusion in his eyes and suddenly, with clarity, realized the reasons behind his quiet departure.

"That's why you left, isn't it, Xander? Because you thought we forgot about you?" "What?" "You heard me, mister! You left us because you thought we abandoned you. Well, let me tell you something. None of us abandoned you. You're a part of all of us, didn't you know that? Without you, none of us would be here now. Without you, we're just rudderless ships on the ocean." "When did you become a philosopher, Dawn?" "Hey, don't hack it. It's one my favorite topics. You know, the meaning of life, what came first, the chicken or the egg." "Why did the chicken cross the road?"

They both burst out laughing at that last one; Xander felt good, better then he had in years.

"Now, tell me why you left, Xander."

Looking at Dawn, he saw she had her resolve face on. Just like Willow. And just like Willow, she wouldn't budge until she'd had her answers. Sighing, Xander told his story, how he'd overheard the others talking about cutting him out of their nightly activities. She could feel his pain as if it were her own and right there and then, Dawn resolved to kick a certain sister, a certain Wicca and a certain Watcher where it hurt for hurting their best friend that way.

"Promise me one thing, Dawn." "Of course I will. What is it?" "Don't tell anyone what I just told you, alright? I'm not in the mood for platitudes and pity from them. I've had that more then enough of that over the years."

Dawn was about to object but decided that could wait. She'd see what happened when Xander and the others met, then take it from there. For now, it was more important to gain his trust again.

"So, what have you been doing with yourself all these years? And why come back now? Why not sooner? You know that we missed you, right?" "I doubt that, Dawn. After all, I was the weakest link here, everybody had to worry about me getting them killed, right?" "That's not true and you know it!" "Well, it's true and I do know it. You weren't there, Dawn. You were sleeping upstairs. Your sister, Willow and Giles all agreed. I was to be kept out of things. The only thing I was deemed good enough for was to babysit you. Anyway, the past is the past. We can't change it so why dwell on it, right?" "Does that mean that you're going to be staying here?" "No, I'm here to take care of some business. You can ask the others about it when you see them. When I'm finished, I'm out of here for good."

The casual way in which Xander dismissed everything she'd said or the others, hurt Dawn. She could see that Xander was trying to be indifferent about things but he was angry. So very angry that it almost physically hurt her.

"Where will you go", she asked timidly. "Wherever they'll send me." "What do you mean?" "Come on, I think it's time I go to the shop. I'm sure the others are there. You'll find out about what's been going on there."

Xander stood up and walked out of the shop, Dawn on his heels.

"You got a car?" "No, it's in the shop." "Come on then, I'll drive you."

Minutes later, they arrived at Xander's SUV and drove off. Several minutes later, he parked in front of the Magic Box; walking inside the store, Dawn felt an unexplained chill permeate the air. Looking at Xander, it was as if he'd replaced his usual demeanor with one of hardened resolve. It was something she wasn't used to seeing on him and it gave her a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach.

"Hello Tara." "Uhm, hello Xander. Hi Dawn. They're in the back."

Without so much as a word, Xander walked to the back of the shop and into the trainingroom, Dawn on his heels. The minute she stepped inside, all hopes she had regarding a tearful reunion were destroyed as Buffy walked up to Xander without saying a word and slapped him hard enough to make him loose his balance.

"Nice to see you too, Buffy. Anybody else waiting to take potshots at me? First one is free, the next one, you pay. Dearly." "You have the gall to come in here after what you pulled last night", Buffy questioned in a tight voice.

Buffy was terrified; she'd hit Xander hard and she couldn't for the life of her understand why she'd done it. She was happy to see him after all these years but last night, the way he'd behaved. Ever since his entrance, his behaviour had thrown her. It was like she was on a rollercoasterride with no way of stopping the cars as they kept speeding up. She wanted to apologize for whatever it was that had caused this rift between them, but she couldn't. Pride wouldn't let her. Buffy had a feeling that same pride would damage whatever was left between her and Xander and there was nothing she could do about it. "Nobody ever accused me of being the brightest light in the universe, Slayer. Besides, I'm not here for anything resembling a tearful reunion. If you recall, Big Bad equals Research equals ways to kick its six. Found anything, Giles?"

Xander walked passed Buffy as if she wasn't even there, to lean against the large table, covered with books in varying sizes. Dawn walked up to Buffy and put a hand on her shoulder. Buffy turned to look at her sister and Dawn could see the unshed tears threatening to spill. But Buffy wouldn't let them, she'd be damned if she showed any more weakness. Dawn vowed to get her sister to talk and tell her and the others about Xander's feelings and perceptions. When she'd done that, she'd be kicking their butts all over the place; nobody deserved to be treated like that. No one.

"Even if we've found something, Xander, what makes you think that we're going to tell you?"

The anger was clearly visible in Giles' face, make that 'Ripper's' face.

"Indeed, we don't know whose side you are on, Xander. For all we know, this is just a way for you to hurt us", Wesley added, standing next Giles. Xander could see that both men were ready to fight him, if necessary. It brought a grin to his face, a grin that rocked everybody who saw it; it was the grin of a predator.

"I take it you've finally been able to locate my file."

When no acknowledgement was forthcoming, he continued as he walked around the room, stopping next Willow as she sat behind her computer, not daring to look up at him.

"If I wanted to hurt anyone of you, none of you could stop me. Unlike you people, I have no compunction to killing humans. Just because you're fighting demons, doesn't mean there are no other horrors. I've seen them up close and personal and believe me, evil is not just part of the demon world. Humans have it too. Isn't that true, Ripper? The difference between you and me is that I don't go for the revenge drive, Giles. I do my job to the best of my abilities." "Revenge is no issue with you? Then explain why you shot Angel, Xander!"

Xander turned towards Buffy, regarding her cooly after her outburst.

"That was self-defense, Buffy. I don't like him, I'll admit that. Don't ever put me in a situation where I'm alone with him because only one of us would come out of there. He attacked me, I defended myself. If you'll recall, I didn't shoot Wesley, even though he too came after me. I'm sure Angel is feeling much better now, especially since I'm sure you've been tending to his every need."

"No Buffy", Dawn said softly, holding on to her sister's arm, stopping her from tackling Xander. "So, I take it that's it then. Since you won't be telling me what I need to know, I'm left to my own devices. Not that that is anything new for me. See you around."

With those words, Xander walked out of the store and drove off, leaving a stunned audience behind. Faith, Cordelia and Cassandra walked into the shop as Xander drove away. Seeing the tight faces of the others, Cordelia turned to Tara, asking her what had happened. Before she could answer, a loud voice interrupted them.

"Are you people stupid, bullheaded or just plain asses?" "Dawn, please, this does not concern you." "Doesn't concern me, Giles? How dare you say that", she raged as she stepped up to him, thrusting a finger into his chest.

"Xander sacrificed his life to save me. He did the same for all of you here at one time or another and you just kick him to the curb! Because he's got no powers? Who died and made you god?" "Dawn, it's not that. This isn't our Xander." "Really Willow? Could have fooled me. What tipped you off, the fact he's not been our Xander since you all decided to cut him out of helping you with fighting evil? Or the fact that he doesn't need powers or use strength-enhancing drugs to fight them?" "Dawn, that's not what Willow means." "No, Buffy, then what does she mean, enlighten me."

Buffy watched her sister, as she stood there in the middle of the room, eyes ablaze with anger and sighed. This was going to be hard to explain to her, hell, it was hard to explain it to herself.

"Last night, Xander was here after helping both me and Faith and Spike and Cassandra out. He shot Angel, threatened the rest of us, he just didn't act like he normally would. He might have been under the influence of something or someone." "Buffy, you are so blind you can't even see it, can you?" "What do you mean, Dawn?" "Of course this isn't the old Xander, it's been over eight years. People change, him more so than any of us. And you know why he changed? Because you forced him to change, Buffy. You, Willow and Giles." "What do you mean, Dawn? I admit, I wasn't here but I doubt this Xander is the product of something your sister and his friends did." "Faith, how did you feel when everybody kept telling you that you had to be more like Buffy?"

Faith looked at Dawn then towards Buffy with an apologetic shrug.

"I didn't like it. They made me feel like I was inferior or something. They didn't accept me like I was. Everything Buffy did was okay, no problem. If I did something, I was chewed out like it was a cardinal sin I'd committed. It just got too much", she said, softly, remembering all the pain and suffering it had caused. Buffy, Willow, Giles and Wesley looked on uncomfortable, knowing that it was true and that they were as much to blame as Faith was for her turning.

"Xander was the only one who didn't try and make me become a Buffy-clone." "That's probably because he could imagine how you felt, what you've been through. He never talked about his life at his parents house, but I got the feeling that it was more of a hellhole then anything else", Dawn said softly, squeezing Faith's hand. "You two had more in common that you think.

Why did you decide to cut him out, Buffy? Why did you decide that it was time that Xander not help you anymore with the slaying? Why did you decide that he would be better off babysitting me? Not that I needed a babysitter, Glory was gone and I was fifteen at the time. I think I was old enough to stay by myself at home. You went out at night slaying at that age."

"How did you know that", Buffy said, taken aback at Dawn's words. They crushed all hopes that she had that Xander had had another reason for getting away from them.

"Xander told me. He overheard you guys talking that night. He walked out of the hospital because he didn't see any of you after he came out of the coma and was worried. He walked out of the hospital while he was still in the ICU! Doesn't that tell you how much he cares? He doesn't care about his own safety. He does care about us. Show me one person here he hasn't saved at one time or another. No destiny, no powers, no nothing and yet, he still went ahead and did the right thing. And you decided that it was time for him to just sit on his hands? Buffy, I love you, you're my sister but right now, I can't stand the sight of you. You drove him away and that is something you have to live with. I doubt he'll ever be able to forgive you."

Dawn turned around and walked out of the store, angrier then she'd ever been. She didn't hear Buffy's quiet words as she slammed the frontdoor closed.

"I doubt I'll ever be able to forgive myself."

"So, I take it we ain't going to be working with Mr. Marine, huh", Cassandra stated as she picked up a slice of the pizza she'd brought with her. "Knowing Xander, he'll be around, watching our back", Faith countered as she walked to Buffy and pulled the other slayer with her.

Faith and Buffy sat down on the back stairs as Faith began to chew her pizza slice. Buffy declined, not feeling hungry. She kept looking at her shoes, as if they were the most fascinating things in the world.

"You should go after him." "What?" "B., you should go after him, grab hold of him and beg his forgiveness. Even if he doesn't forgive you, at least you'll be able to move on." "What makes you think I need Xander's forgiveness to move on?" "B., look at yourself. You've not been yourself for years now, girl. One moment, you're happy and carefree, then you see something that reminds of you of him and you turn all contemplative. None of your dates have lasted more then an hour before you tell them you don't feel too good. Hell, you've not been out on a date in over a year! And the guys you date? They all look like Xander." "Oh please, spare me! That's not true." "Isn't it? From what I've seen, it's true and Willow agrees with me on that. She's miserable too; no matter what Tara tries, nothing can pull Willow out of her funk. Just like you, she is happy one moment, the next she's crying her eyes out. Remember when we went to the park for that picnic? Halfway through, she started talking about the one the three of you went to, during high school. She couldn't finish the story coz she started crying and ran off. The way I see it is that you have to swallow your pride and go to him on your knees of need be."

Buffy contemplated Faith's words for a moment before answering.

"Why should I even try, Faith? I've hurt him so much over the years. That stupid decision was the last straw. I always thought Xander would be there for me, you know. Every guy I've ever known left me. Pike, Angel, Riley. Then there were those idiots like Scott and Parker. Through it all, Xander never left. He was like a rock, you know?" "Your cornerstone." "Yeah. Then he left and it was my fault. Again. I used him, abused him, hurt him in so many ways. I ripped his heart out time and again and still he stayed. I took it for granted that he'd stay no matter what I did." "Then you found out that that wasn't true. We're only human, B. Humans can only take so much before they snap. Telling him he was worthless was the straw that broke the camel's back." "I had hoped that I'd learned that after the whole Sisterhood of Jhe fiasco. Without him, none of us would be alive. Faith, what am I going to do?"

Buffy turned to Faith with tears in her eyes and dark-haired slayer took her older friend into a tight hug.

"You go out there and find him, you talk to him, make him listen and beg. Beg like you've never begged before. You'll swallow your pride and beg, asking for his forgiveness and if he'll give you another chance. But give me a chance to talk to him first, okay?" "Why?" "B., I've done a lot of crappy things when I worked for the mayor. I never got the chance to fix things with Xander. Even so, he helped me. I need to ask his forgiveness too and thank him for everything. Maybe I can smooth things over for you, you know?" "Thanks, Faith, you're a real friend." "Hey B., you've been there for me too, you know. Consider it payback time."

With a last hug, the two slayers parted and finally Buffy managed to take a bite from the pizza in front of her. A tiny spark of hope burned in her heart that maybe things would get better soon.

Chapter 7

1524 PM, July 13th, Sunnydale Park, Sunnydale, CA

After the scene in Giles' shop, Xander had driven around for a while, until he'd reached Sunnydale Park. Parking the SUV, he'd walked around, until he came up on the children's playground. Standing there, he watched as the children played, calling up memories of earlier times, happier times. Times when he and Willow had played on the swings, the rocking horse or climbed into the tower. He remembered the nights he'd come here, after a particular brutal patrol, just to look up at the stars. The first time he'd come here to find Buffy sitting on one of the swings, just after killing the Master. That night, they'd talked about everything and nothing. That night, he'd held her as she broke down, finally releasing all the pent up frustration, anger and fear from her death at the Master's hands.

If he closed his eyes, he could still smell her scent, that strawberry shampoo she used, mixed with her own unique scent. He could still feel her tears soaking his shirt as she cried, him murmuring comforting words in her hair. Promising her he would never leave her side, would always be there for her, no matter what.

'Well, you broke that promise, didn't you, Xander? You left, just like every other guy in her life, you left. Not true. You didn't leave, she did. She left you the moment she pushed you away from the group. You just went away. There was nothing more here for you. They didn't want you or needed you anymore.'

As Xander listened to the voice in his head, sorting through his conflicting emotions and feelings, he kept walking.

"Your mind and heart are heavy with conflict, young man. Why do you not sit down and talk about it? You might see things more clearly."

Xander turned towards the voice, surprised to see an old Oriental gentleman sitting on one of the park benches. His eyes were hidden behind dark blue tinted glasses and slowly, realization set in.

"You're blind", he stated in shock. "A brilliant observation, young mister Harris. Come, sit", the man said, tapping the place beside him for emphasis.

"How do you know who I am? It's not like you can see me", Xander asked warily. Demons didn't usually come out in the daytime and this guy didn't seem like any demon he'd ever seen before. More like an ancient man, skin all wrinkled and mottled with liver spots. The old man suddenly let out a short bark of laughter.

"I'm not a demon, young man. Although some people may disagree with you in that regard. Come and sit with an old man for a while."

Sighing, Xander thought it over for a moment, then sat down next to the old man, looking at him from the corner of his eyes. After all, this was Sunnydale, the place where nothing was what it seems.

"See, that wasn't so bad, now was it?" "Who are you and how do you know my name?" "Your question is, 'how do you know that I'm Alexander Lavelle Harris, when I'm blind as a bat?' Hmmm? Am I right?"

Xander looked the old man over; he was dressed completely in black, from the black pants to the black shirt and jacket. His clothes were worth a multiple of what Xander made in two months. A black bowler sat atop his head and the cane he carried was made of ornately carved wood, with a jade dragon on top. The man gave him the creeps.

"Maybe. But you have me at a disadvantage. You know who I am, but I don't know who you are." "You may address me as Mister Lee." "Well, Mister Lee, care to answer my previous question?" "Of course. I've been following your exploits for quite some time, Mr. Harris. Or should I say Lieutenant Harrelson?" "Really? And how long would that be, Mister Lee?" "Why, since the Slayer came to Sunnydale, Xander. You don't might if I call you Xander, right?"

Not getting a response from him, Mister Lee continued on.

"I'm sure you are wondering why I've been keeping an eye on you, Xander." "Nope, not at all. I'm used to people watching my every move. Comes with the territory of being a babe magnet", Xander answered as he looked around him, trying to find anything or anyone out of the ordinary. His feelings of unease didn't abate in the slightest as the conversation wore on.

"I do love a man with a sense of humor, Xander and yours is a particularly enjoyable wit. I also see that you don't ask the obvious question, how do I know about the Slayer." "Nope, not gonna ask. I figure, you want me to know, you'll tell me. But if you're going to tell me that the slayer is here to slay dragons, I'm getting up and walking away. Unless of course that dragon on your cane suddenly decides to grow exponentially and starts breathing fire. Then I'm running out of here."

Again, Mister Lee burst into laughter, his free hand slapping his upper legs in mirth. Finally getting himself under control, Mister Lee took a deep breath.

"Good, good. You are neither confirming nor denying anything. They've trained you well, always try to get as much information from your contacts without giving too much away. Anyway, enough small talk. Let's get down to business.

As I said before, you're mind and heart are full of conflicting emotions, fighting against each other. These emotions stem from the fact that you feel betrayed, yet you've found out that the betrayal is not as all-encompassing as you'd deemed it in the first place. You have to put that turmoil to rest if you are to be ready for the coming battle."

"And what would you know about this socalled turmoil, hmm? Or this battle? I'm on leave and as far as I know, CNN hasn't yet announced where the next hotspot is gonna be, a week in advance before we even know it."

Xander was bristling with anger at this man's presumption regarding his mental state and what had caused it. He was also scared that this man was capable to see these things in him, things he didn't want to admit to himself just yet. Also, the allusions he made to what had driven him here were adding to the discomfort Xander was feeling.

"I know that the Slayer didn't want you in the line of fire. I know that she decided it without your input. I know that her Watcher and your best friend agreed with her. I also know that you've proven your worth over and over again and that they never acknowledged it. Furthermore, I know that all three of them feel guilty for you leaving." "Really? Fine way of showing that to me." "What do you expect, Xander? You disappear for years without so much as a word. Then when you do come back, you do your version of a cross between Lee Marvin and Steven Seagal and shoot the souled vampire. An inspired move I must say. A sign of things to come, after all, you promised to be at his demise. And believe me, you will." "Who the hell are you", Xander asked wide-eyed.

"Mister Lee, of course, I'm sure I told you that before. Now listen to me, Xander. It is important that you put to rest your anger and resentment. They are your friends. Maybe even more then friends. Even though they have been misguided, their intentions were honorable. See that for what it is. Let your heart speak, let them back in." "Are you sure you should be giving me that speech? I think they made it pretty clear earlier that they don't want my help."

The hurt he'd so carefully tried to hide, showed through his words, for the second time in less then 24 hours.

"Pride, young Starbuck, pride. After all, you didn't give them much choice, did you? Your entrance last night was nothing short of spectacular and quite bloody." "Oh come off it, old man! You expect me to forgive them while they are the ones who cut out my heart? Not in this lifetime! They should be the ones apologizing to me." "Did you give them the chance?" "The chance? The first thing that happened today was getting slapped in the face. Then those two British dudes backed her up, saying they didn't trust me and wouldn't tell me anything. Now I ask you again, why would I give them another chance?" "Ahh, pride. You people are so full of it that it stops you from doing the right thing." "What has pride got to do with anything?" "You are too proud to admit that you need them in your life. You are too proud to see that they are your family, with all the good and bad stuff that is part of being a family. They are too proud to say that they're sorry for everything they've put you through, for driving you away. Just remember the saying, 'Pride goeth before the fall', my young friend. Someone has to make the first move." "I think I did my part this morning. I took Buffy's hit. That would have been it for me; I was ready to forget about everything else, help them with the current problem and then leave. But did it stop there? No, it didn't. They just kept on pushing."

Mister Lee sighed as he removed his glasses, cleaned them and put them back on, the movements eerily similar to Giles'.

"Xander..." "No! I already made the first step this morning and got it thrown back into my face", Xander thundered as he jumped up and began to pace in front of the bench, not caring who witnessed his outburst.

"If they want to resolve anything, they can damn well swallow their pride and come and talk to me." "You are right, of course. However, don't wait too long. If Mohammed doesn't come to the mountain, the mountain should come to Mohammed." "What, now you're mixing your metaphors", Xander said, laughing sadly. "All I'm saying, Xander, don't wait too long. Before you know it, it's too late. You can't afford to lose time, not now." "You keep saying that. What more do you know? You know something, don't you? Something about all of this, about the dreams I've been having. About what it is we're facing?" "I might. If you're willing to listen to an old man." "Whatever you are, I doubt you're just a simple old man, Mister Lee. Who are you really, or should I ask what are you really?" "I'm just an old man who knows certain things. Sit and we shall talk about them. But do not forget what I told you. Forgiveness is the first step to building a bond so strong it will weather the coming storm. You need each other. You are the heart, remember that. If nothing else, remember that."

Shaking his head, Xander sat back down, wondering why that last phrase seemed so familiar to him and why, somewhere deep inside, he felt he could trust this strange Oriental man.


1524 PM, July 13th, The Magic Box, Sunnydale, CA

"Nothing, not a blasted thing!" "Calm down, Giles, there has to be something in these musty tomes of yours." "Cordelia, we've been over each and every one of them. We've been over every book you brought from Los Angeles. Nothing and absolutely nothing in it mentions a power that is capable of dampening a Slayer's power. Or even has a description of this demon!"

"The Council confirms that nothing in their library comes close to any of the information we've send them", Wesley said, as he stepped into the training room. "Neither are there any prophecies that foretell about any of this."

"So what, this is all just a hoax", Buffy asked, frustration evident in her voice. "I highly doubt that. Cordy's visions have always been accurate", Angel answered her as he slammed another book closed in frustration. "Besides, Xander has seen the same demon in his dreams and from what I could tell, they were quite disturbing", Faith added. "Oh, so now we're believing Xander? He's been gone for years, comes back suddenly, conveniently just when Cordelia is having this vision and claims to have had a prophetic dream, starring the same demon! That is after he kicks the crap out of a few demons and coming in here all 'Mr. Tall - Dark - Mess with me and you die' and shooting Angel, after having beaten him up. Who says he's not the one responsible for all this crap, huh? Do any of us know what he did in all that time? Maybe he's found a way to manipulate your visions, Cor. Maybe he's here to exact some sick and twisted revenge on us!"

Everybody looked at Buffy like she'd gone off the deep end. Before she could continue her rant, however, Willow was in her face.

"How dare you! How dare you even think such a thing! After all that he's done for you, you're accusing him? Buffy, Xander may be many things, but he's not like that! He's my best friend and I know he wouldn't do something like that." "Red is right, B. Xander is not the enemy. You don't think so either, you're just scared." "Scared? Me? Come on, Faith, I've been the slayer here for more then a decade! I've kicked major butt as long as I can remember. I'm not scared of anything." "Then tell me this, Buffy, in all that time, did you do your buttkicking alone? Or did you have people helping you? And who was it that was always at your side? Who always had your back? Who scoffed at prophecies of your death?"

Seeing the pained look on Buffy's face, Faith nodded.

"That's right, Xander. Come on, B. Admit it, you know he's not here to harm us. He's here to help. You're just trying to find a way to distance yourself from him, so you don't have to go and face him. That way, you don't have to apologise."

Buffy visibly deflated at Faith's words.

"Yeah well, I doubt he'll even want to speak to me after what I did this morning." "What WE did, Buffy. You were not the only one at fault. Giles and I were as much at fault as you are." "Thanks for helping, Wes. NOT!" "Buffy."

Buffy looked up at her former lover as he rested a hand on her shoulder. She looked so small, her face marred by thick bags, a combination of lack of sleep and crying.

"I'm the first one to admit that last night's spectacle was way out of line, but then again, I was wrong too in attacking him. I knew he would never hurt you but seeing you in such a vulnerable position... It just got to me. And Xander has enough reasons to hate me. You all do. He's just a lot more outspoken about it. And now, he has the resources to back it up. Don't blame him for this. Don't blame yourself. Just forget about it and be happy that he is back. Find him and talk things out. You owe it to yourself to do that. Maybe even regain what you've lost. I've seen you, Buffy, you've been lost without him." "Angel is right, Buffy. Xander's my best friend but he's so much more to you. Don't let this chance slip away. Try and regain some of what is lost and build from there. Do it for me, for all of us, but most of all, do it for yourself."

Willow pulled Buffy into a hug, both women holding on as if they were each other's lifeline.

"I'm scared, guys. What if I go to him and he rejects me? What then? I almost died the first time he left. I can't go through that again."

Nobody said anything as they pondered that question; what if Xander had already cut them out of his heart? What if he'd cut Buffy Summers completely out of his heart? Clearly, he was in town against his will. The dreams were what had brought him home after so long. Buffy had worked herself into exhaustion the first time he'd disappeared, tearing through town for any sign of him. When she'd recovered, she'd gone on a hunting spree of undead evil, the likes of which were still unbelievable. Taking risks that were irresponsible, skating on the edge of the abyss. Only her friends had managed to bring her back from the brink. Finally, she'd regained some semblance of sanity, but the remorse and feelings of loss were still there.

When Giles, Willow and Dawn had placed a memorial stone in the cemetery, Buffy had finally broken down and cried herself into a stupor that lasted weeks. Finally forcing herself to believe he was really and truly gone to her. Now, faced with the fact that he was alive and well, but so filled with anger and resentment towards her, those same feelings had returned with a vengeance. Knowing he was alive but still gone to her, with only a small possibility of forgiveness, was almost too much for her heart to take. Buffy knew that she couldn't take it if he left again. Her heart, that had taken so much effort to put back together again, couldn't take the thought of him hating her and leaving again. Buffy knew that if that happened, she would die. So she did the only thing she could. Buffy had closed her heart, built walls around it so nothing could harm her. But it wasn't enough. Not nearly enough.

"Wills, do you know where he's staying?" "Yes, Buffy", Willow said, handing a piece of paper to her friend.

Buffy turned towards Faith, handing her the slip of paper. Faith silently accepted it, nodding her head.

"I'll talk to him, B. You'll see, things will work out fine." "I hope you're right, Faith. I hope to God that you're right."


1754 PM, July 13th, Jameson Trucking, Sunnydale, CA

Xander stood in the middle of the floor, breathing deeply. He'd already done his warmup exercises and was preparing for his martial arts exercises. He was standing in the ready position, breathing deeply.

Slowly, he brought his hands, from waist level, palms up, fingers pointing toward each other, up to the chest, while inhaling. Then he turned the palms outward towards his imaginary opponent, and slowly began pushing them forward, while exhaling, then forcefully completed the movement with both arms out in front, knife-hands pointing 45 degrees in and up, as if pushing his opponent away.

Xander moved smoothly into the first stance with a 90 degree left turn, moving his left foot into a left back stance, completing it with a double knife-hand block, his left hand pushed out forward, the right pressed into pit of his stomach. The movements sped up, as he placed more power behind them. He pivoted on his left foot, his right leg executing a low side kick, attacking the knee. Immediately followed by a right leg side kick to the upper body, without even setting it down. The right foot came down into a right forward stance, followed by a right single knife-hand in-to-out strike to the upper body, the palm down, arm straight out in front, the elbow straight.

He immediately punched out with his left hand towards the middle of his imaginary opponent's body; shifting his weight and feet back into a right back stance, Xander's right arm shot out, into an out-to-in block. This preceded his stepping back with his right foot and turning 180 degrees to the right as he pivoted on his left foot, moving his right foot into a right back stance as he again used a double knife-hand block.

Xander pivoted on his right foot, his left kicking out towards the knee again, then quickly moving upwards, delivering a powerful side kick to the upper body. He stepped down with his left foot into a left forward stance, following that up with a left single knife-hand in-to-out strike to the upper body, a right hand middle punch following up the devastating attack. He shifted back into a left back stance, his left arm extending into an out-to-in block, a 90 degree turn to the left, moving his left foot into a left forward stance, using the left arm for a low knife-hand block.

Immediately going into the offensive again, Xander's right hand made an attack towards the throat, following it up with a right leg front snap kick; he stepped down with his right foot into a right forward stance and right arm low knife-hand block, going into a left arc-hand attack to the throat again. A left leg front snap kick followed in rapid succession, flowing gracefully into a step down with his left foot into left forward stance. He executed another left arm low knife-hand block and right arc-hand attack to the throat combination, shouting out his battlecry. Delivering a right leg front snap kick, Xander again stepped down with his right foot into a right forward stance. His next move pretended to break the opponent's knee with a left low arc-hand, holding the foot against his ribcage with his right hand. He moved his left foot a step forward, and pivoted on his right, turning his body towards the right 180 degrees, so that his right foot was now forward, facing South.

Following it up with another step down and back with his left foot into a right forward stance, he performed a double in-to-out middle block, fists crossing in front of him. Delivering a left leg front snap kick, Xander placed his feet into a left forward stance, again creating the movements to break his opponent's knee. He pulled his left foot back into a left walking stance, while performing a double in-to-out middle block, smoothly moving from defense to offense and back.

Xander performed another 180 degree turn right, using his left foot as axis, his right moving into a horseback riding position. His left arm performed a single knife-hand side block, the palm down, elbow slightly bent, his right fist at his. From there, he performed a right hand cross-body side punch to the upper body, using his left hand as target, punching towards a westerly direction, both arms held straight. Turning his upper body partially toward his opponent, with his feet still in the horseback riding position, Xander then sidestepped, crossing his right foot in front of the left, delivering a cross-body close front punch, forcefully moving his right fist with the palm up to the right hip, as if he was performing a rear elbow strike and moving his left fist across the front of his body towards the right hip, the palm down and his elbow bent at a 90 degree angle.

This was followed up by another left foot side kick to the upper body, another step down with his left foot, a turn to the right to an easterly direction, where he assumed a right forward stance, performing a left spear-hand attack to his opponent's groin while pulling his opponent's arm to his upper shoulder with his right. Pulling his right foot backwards into a right walking stance, Xander then made a right arm low block, following through with another step forward with his left foot into a left walking stance. A left hand low palm-fist block to block a low front kick rounded out his defense.

Xander stepped forward with his right foot, turning his hips towards the north into a horseback riding stance, his right arm performing a side elbow strike, supporting the right fist with left knife hand's palm. From there a right arm single knife-hand side block, followed by a left hand cross-body side punch to the upper body, using the right hand to distract. He sidestepped, crossing his left foot in front of the right, performing a cross body close front punch. Another right foot side kick to the upper body, a step down with his right foot, and a turn to the left, assuming a left forward stance, his right spear-hand attacking the groin again, pulling his opponent's arm to his upper shoulder with the left.

The sound of applause stopped him in midmotion and made him turn around, confronting its source.

"What are you doing here, Faith?" "Nice moves", she answered, ignoring his question, instead admiring his physique. Walking up to him, the dark haired slayer began circling him, trailing a finger over his chest, arms and back. His muscles were much more defined then she remembered, hinting at the power his body possessed. Shaking off the feelings her proximity and finger raised, he walked away from her, towards the fridge, pulling out a bottle of juice, throwing her a second bottle.

Faith deftly caught the bottle; they drank in silence, each eyeing the other. Faith couldn't get over the fact that her onetime boy toy had turned from a lanky teenager into a hardened warrior with a body that most women would drool over. If she was still the same person she'd been eight years ago, he'd be sweating from a different kind of workout right now.

Alex didn't like the fact that his hideout had been discovered but was glad that at least they hadn't send Buffy. As things stood now, it was a save bet one of them would not come out alive.

"Again, I ask, what are you doing here?" "Well, would you believe I was in the neighborhood and wanted to chat about old times?" "No. Let me guess, Willow?"

Knowing the question, she nodded.

"Yeah. Red always knew her way around a computer."

Faith suddenly began acting shy, her eyes moving all over the place instead of looking at Alex like she'd done before. It was clear she was uncomfortable for some reason. With a sigh, Alex threw the empty bottle into the thrash.

"Okay, what is it? You here to talk me into coming back to the group? Want me to go back and tell the others that I'm sorry? Because if that's the case, you can forget it." "No, it's not that. It's... I...", Faith stuttered, then continued, "Look, I don't usually do this, so just listen and don't say a word. Okay?"

Intrigued, Alex nodded his ascent.

"Thanks", Faith said, softly, almost in a whisper, her eyes pointed at the floor.

To say that he was stunned, would have been an understatement. Alex looked at Faith openmouthed, his brain not able to process what had just happened. Finally, shaking his head to clear it from the fog that threatened to overwhelm it, he spoke, "Uhm, you're welcome, I think. What exactly are you thanking me for?"

"Well, Willow found this place coz of the account that paid its taxes and stuff. You know? The same account that's paying my college fees? The same one that's been depositing monthly payments into my account? That letter from the law firm that I got when I got out of prison, telling me that those monthly deposits were under the condition that I got my GED and into college? I figure that it's all your doing, so again, thanks."

Alex groaned out loud, cursing himself for his stupidity. A rookie mistake. A damn rookie mistake.

"I take it that if you know, the others do too, right?" "Yeah." "Crap!" "Why are you saying that? Just because you made good on your promise? If it weren't for you, neither B, Dawn or me would have been able to go to school. None of us would have the chance at a normal life. I'd still be out there, playing around like a maniac, coz I wouldn't have a future. You gave me that future, Xander. Because of you, I'm looking forward to retiring from my slayer duties, just like Buffy and having a normal life. You gave that to me. You gave even more to B. and her sister! They've got a roof over their heads, food on the table. All bills paid, insurances filled out, money in the bank! Did you know B. has gotten several job offers right here in town? All because of you. So don't you start thinking that us knowing it is you is such a bad thing."

"Faith, spare me. I'm betting that the next time Buffy and I meet, she's gonna hit me again and tell me that she doesn't want my charity. That she's an independent woman and doesn't need a guy taking care of her and her sister like a sugar daddy. I'm so not in the mood for any of that crap, you know?"

He threw the towel he'd been using forcefully against a chair, leaning back against the fridge, head resting against the door, eyes closed. Throwing caution to the wind, Faith walked up to him, grabbing his head between her hands, forcing him to look at her.

"Xander, B. is mad at herself. She's mad because she thinks she drove you away. She's mad because she's been blaming herself for that. All these years, she hasn't stopped blaming herself. But because of her pride, she can't let go. That's why she's behaving like that, okay? She told me herself, so believe it. You don't know how hard she's had it since you've been gone; they thought you were dead when nothing they did could help locate you. I've been here six years and I've seen the way the group acts. It's like they're totally different persons from what I remember. All B. needs is for you to make the first step. Go and talk to her. Just sit down and talk to her. No shouting, no punching, no shooting people, just talking. Clear the air and move on from there."

"I take it the shooting Angel wasn't such a good idea, huh?" "Whatever gave you that idea", Faith asked, softly smiling at Alex. "Oh, I don't know, the fist in my face when I came in this afternoon." "Yeah, well, you did deserve that. Angel may not be my favorite person, but he did help me get my act together and he's been very helpful to us over the years." "I take it you want me to apologize to him?" "That's between you and him. Like I said, he's not my favorite person in the world and I know you've got even less use for him. And from what I've heard, you and him have some kind of date. Kinky", Faith grinned. "Yeah, kinky."

They were still standing that way, Alex leaning against the fridge, his face between Faith's hands. Their eyes were locked with each other and slowly, their faces seemed to be coming closer, moving into position for a kiss. Neither one was consciously thinking about what they were doing, it was as if something outside of them was compelling them to. When their lips were almost touching, both of them regained their senses. Faith started blushing as she quickly released his face and stepped back. Alex thought it was the cutest thing he'd ever seen, moreso since this was Faith, the woman whose mantra was 'Want! Take! Have!'. The attraction was still there, even after all these years.

"Okay, so you want me to go and talk to Buffy. Get things out in the open, clear the air, that sum it up", he asked, regaining his composure. "Yeah, something like that", Faith said, walking around the room, fidgeting.

She still felt flustered about almost kissing Xander. It felt right to want it but it also felt wrong somehow. When she'd looked into his brown eyes, she'd seen the attraction there, the blatant arousal, fear, need and something else, something deeper. She was afraid of that something because Faith knew that she could get lost in it. And something told her that until Xander and Buffy had talked and started the healing, she shouldn't get pulled into that deeper feeling she'd seen in his eyes. A feeling that deep down, she felt too for this man. This man that had saved her one night, had tried to help her at the deepest point in her life, this man that she'd tried to kill. Things were just too damn complicated right now. And until it was all sorted out, Faith would hold back. It was the right thing to do.

"So, what was that kata you were doing? Looked very effective to me", she said, looking around the setup Xander had made.

"Not a kata, that's Japanese. This was a poomse, which, technically, is the Korean version. It's one of the more complicated ones, specifically the Koryo poomse, done for the black belt." "So, a style pattern, then. Never had much use for those." "That's were you are wrong, oh dark-haired goddess. It is a basic technique designed to center your being, to make you one with the elements. Things suddenly become clearer, more focused. It's the true spirit of martial arts, in this case, Tae Kwon-Do. This is not sport, this is combat; technique is not everything, you know. You need to know the spirit, feel it in you, course through you. Only then, can you defeat any opponent." "Sounds like a lot of psychological crap to me, boy toy." "Maybe, but I do know when I've done a few of them, I'm more focused then I've ever been." "Maybe you should teach me a few of those moves. I could always use more focus. You wouldn't believe what kind of crap I'm getting in class", she sighed.

"Maybe I will, we'll see." "Where did you learn all that stuff?" "Spent a year in South Korea, courtesy of an exchange program for officers and NCO's. I was assigned duty with the White Skull Brigade." "Sounds like something Giles would love to study", Faith chuckled.

An answering chuckle was heard as Alex stepped into the showerstall. The sound of running water drew Faith from her perusal of Xander's spartan living quarters and she walked over to the closed door of the bathroom.

"Hey boy toy! Want me to do your back", she said through the door. "No thanks. I doubt I'd leave it at that, Faith. You're better than any Twinkie I've ever had and I don't want to tempt fate just now, no pun intended."

His laughter rang in her ears and brought an answering smile on Faith's lips.

"So you served with these White Skulls, huh? Guess they're some kind of special unit or something?" "You could say that", Alex answered, very aware of Faith standing on the other side of the door. Cursing himself for not locking it, a small part of his brain was wondering if he hadn't closed it on purpose. This game he and Faith were playing was getting more and more dangerous by the minute.

"They're tasked with guard duty of the DMZ. Really bad boys; each member knows at least two forms of martial arts and they could give any slayer a run for their money. The only times I can remember being so severely beaten up was when I was sparring with Buffy. But it paid off in the end. Got my black belt in Tae Kwon-Do and learned Aikido and Tai Chi." "So not a total waste of your time then, huh?" "Nope, not at all."

Hearing the shower shut down, Faith moved away from the door, taking a seat behind the desk holding the computer and radio equipment. As she looked it all over, imprinting every detail in her mind for later disclosure with Giles and Willow, a split picture frame caught her eye. The first picture showed Xander in Marine cammies, with a five-man team of Marines, huddled together, laughing at the camera. They were all wearing packs and other gear and looked quite intimidating. From the background, it looked like some tropical country.

The other picture was also a group picture, taken at an airbase. Xander, dressed in a pilot's suit, stood with four other pilots and a beautiful, blonde woman, dressed in a clingy summer dress. He carried a helmet in one hand, the other wrapped around the woman's waist. She was seductively wrapped around him, a captivating smile lighting up her face.

"The one on the left is from my last recon platoon, back in South East Asia, just before I was shipped off to OCS. The one on the right, is from just before my deployment to carrier duty."

Faith looked up and behind her. She'd been so engrossed in the pictures that she didn't hear Xander walk up to her. Taking in his attire, she couldn't help but give a whistle of appreciation. The black T-shirt clung to his body like a second skin. The black combat pants hid his powerful legs but somehow, he made it look sexy. His short, spiked hair glistened softly, still slightly wet. Definite girl candy! If the others could see him now... Faith was sure Buffy, Dawn, Cordelia and Cassandra would be drooling right about now.

"So who's the blonde?" "Which one?"

Looking back at the pictures, she noticed that indeed there were two blondes in the right picture.

"The one in the flightsuit is Captain Alexandra Jensen, callsign Ice. She's the squadron XO. The lady in the dress is Kate, our den mother, confidante and muse. She owns a bar in Pensacola, the Bucket; it's been a jet jock watering hole for decades. She's got this amazing ability to see right through you and get to the heart of the problem."

Noticing the fond smile as he spoke of Kate, Faith couldn't help but feel a stab of jealousy.

"Sounds like a great lady." "She is. She also likes to play with your head. I owe a lot to her and the others, they've been there for me when I needed someone", Alex said wistfully.

Seeing that Xander was beginning to fall back into a melancholy state, Faith quickly changed the subject, pointing to the helmet he was carrying in the picture.

"What's that symbol on your helmet?" "Oh, that. That's just the symbol for my callsign", Alex answered grinning.

After waiting a few heartbeats for any more information, Faith got impatient and lightly elbowed Xander in the ribs.

"Spill!" "Okay, okay, no need to get violent. My callsign is Gunny." "Gunny? Coz you love guns?" "No, because I was a Gunnery Sergeant before I went to flight school."

Remembering that she'd seen this in his personnel file, Faith nodded.

"You know, something is still bothering me, boy toy." "What's that?" "How can you afford all of this? Between sending me, B. and Dawn through college, the monthly payments and all the other stuff, it must be a fortune you're spending. Then this place here. I'm not the smartest girl on the block but even I know that soldiers don't make that kind of money. Where do you get it, Xand?"

Running a hand through his hair, Alex sighed before answering Faith's question.

"Let's just say that during my career, I've done some 'outside jobs' for certain parties. All highly illegal, all dealing with certain supernatural crises. I made it clear that the only way I would do those jobs was if I got a certain amount of compensation."

Faith was furious when she heard this, her thoughts immediately turning to the stories she'd been told about the Initiative. If Xander had done stuff for them..

"Faith, there is nothing to worry about. I mostly worked for the Watcher's Council. Did some work for wealthy individuals, who'd been harassed by certain gangs of demons and stuff like that. They're all major contributors to the Council. Mostly, it was just retrieval stuff, getting artifacts for the Council that shouldn't be in demon hands." "Xander, for your sake, I hope you're right. If I find out that you've been working for the other side, you don't have to worry about B. kicking your sorry ass, coz I will." "Noted and logged, Faith dear. Don't worry about it."

Faith was sure he didn't lie to her, but she needed to say it nonetheless. She still wasn't too fond of the Council, but it was the others he'd worked for that worried her. Maybe she could get it out of him, make sure that nothing would come back to bite them. As she was thinking all of this, Faith watched as Xander got ready for patrol.

Alex pulled on a combat vest, loaded with stakes, vials of holy water and other implements of the trade. Next came two of the same knives he'd used so efficiently the night before, attached to his hips on opposite sides. Two guns were placed in the attached shoulder holsters, the front pockets filled with spare clips. A H&K MP5PDW came next, attached to the tactical sling, just underneath the right-side gun holster. Spare clips sat on the left side of the vest. The last item was the long black leather duster Alex pulled on; it covered all the hardware quite nicely.

"Looks like you're ready to wage war on a small nation, Xan. Care if I tag along?" "Shouldn't you be with the rest of the Scoobies? Wouldn't want to be seen consorting with the enemy, Faith. You know what happened last time."

The moment those words left his mouth, Alex wished he could take them back, especially as he saw the hurt look cross Faith's face.

"I'm sorry, Faith, that was uncalled for." "No, it isn't, Xander, you were right. But the difference now is that you're not evil. You could have stayed away but you decided to come back to stop whatever it is that's in town. Even though you knew you'd run into problems with the old gang. Besides, I already told the others that I'm patrolling with you." "Fair enough. But do me a favor, stop calling me Xander. That's a part of my life that is death. I'd like to keep it that way. I go by Alex now", he said as he turned to the motorcycle and started it up. Faith walked up and sat down behind him, slipping her arms around his waist.

"Sorry boy toy, you'll always be Xander to me, so you better get used to it again." "Faith", he answered in a whiny voice, looking at her. "Live with it. Just one thing I'm curious about." "Another thing? Jeez, you can't seem to stop finding things curious. What now?" "How come those vamps and demons you shot earlier either exploded or burned and when you shot Angel, he just bled?" "Changed clips; most ammo I carry has a holy water- napalm combo center. It hits the target, the bullet expands. The holy water comes free, spreading through the body with the bullet fragments, causing the vamp's body to start burning from the inside. The napalm too spreads and keeps burning. It also toasts other kinds of demons pretty well, don't you think?"

With those last words, Alex revved the engine and drove out into the night, Faith's body pressed tightly against his. Her earlier words mingled in his mind and he decided to heed her advice.

Chapter 8

1821 PM, July 13th, unspecified underground location, Sunnydale, CA

"My Lord, he has left his lair with the Slayer named Faith." "Pieces are set, the game is in motion, my faithful friend. Soon, I'll be savoring that which I've been waiting on for millenia", the dark, hissing voice stated from the shadows.

"This world and all its insignificant beings will be my toys for eternity. Finally, I'll be free. Free to go as I please. Free to conquer every other dimension, this chattle as my footsoldiers." "Forgive me my ignorance, My Lord, but why did you see fit to warn the seer and the warrior of your impending ascension? Would it not be more prudent to strike when they are least prepared?"

A booming laugh, rolling of the cave's walls like thunder, echoed through the underground halls as the Lord's attendant stood by respectfully. His master turned around and walked over to an ornately carved wooden cabinet, opening it. Retrieving an old tome from it, he turned to his attendant.

"Why indeed. I've been on this plane for millenia, Gras'nvor. I have waited and waited until the time was right, until all the pieces were finally in place. What kind of anti-climax would it be if I just went and grabbed those pieces and performed the ceremony? No, my oldest friend, no, that would simply not do."

Gras'nvor dutifully followed his master as he sat down in his throne, pouring a steaming liquid into a golden chalice and offering it to him.

"I walked this earth since before man was even a simple molecule in the primordial ooze. I've battled this world's gods and defeated them. Odin, Zeus, the Roman Godlings, all fell before me. All, except this one. The One who banished me to a life underneath this filth that populates the world above. I knew this day would come so I awaited it patiently. HE has been complacent, not alerting his warriors as I had hoped so I did it for Him. I need a challenge. It's been too long since I've had a real challenge, old friend. And this small band of warriors has proven to be quite a challenge over the years, don't you agree?" "Yes, My Lord. As you say. However, I must question this. They've defeated everything thrown at them, from lowly vampires to the Godling Glory. They've defeated dead and Hell itself. What if they find a way to thwart your plans, My Lord?" "My dear Gras'nvor, I am counting on it. Makes the game all the more fun, don't you agree? The thrill of battle, living against the odds, taking the risk. Yes, I've set them on the road, now it's time for them to find the signs. If they are truly worthy of this honor I bestowed on them, then this will be a most glorious battle indeed. Let the game begin."

His boisterous laughter rang through the underground caverns, the echoes sending demons and vampires alike, scurrying, terrified about what was to come.


Same time, July 13th, Willy's Bar, Sunnydale, CA

Willy's Bar. A safe haven for all creatures that lurk at the edges of your nightmare. A neutral meeting place where demons of all ilk come for a drink, to swap stories or just to plain drink their miseries away. It just so happens that those miseries almost always center around this town's protectors of the night, the Slayers and their band of helpers.

As for the proprietor of this fine establishment? He's currently tied to a chair as all around him, piles of ash, puddles of slime and assorted broken bodies lie around him, some moaning, the rest would never get up again. Faith and Alex had entered the bar not more then 5 minutes ago. Almost immediately, its patrons had set onto the pair, trying to take them down. Those were the unlucky ones. Faith was perched on the bar, one slim, leather-clad leg dangling off the side, the other on top, her elbow resting on it, hand supporting her head. In the other hand, she was twirling her knife.

"It's always the same, you know, boy toy? Me or my gals come in here, these freaks decide to mess with us and they get their asses kicked. It's boring, ya know? Other places, they just try to pick you up for a night of wild sex. You wouldn't believe the pickup lines I've heard." "Maybe it's your magnetic personality or those dangerously seductive looks of yours that makes them all go nuts, Faith", Alex said as he wiped one of his knives clean of some purplish slime.

"You really think so", she asked, impersonating a ditzy voice and batting her eyelashes like some stereotypical dumb blonde. "Ooh, my, I'm so like... flattered."

Hiding the grin that threatened to show from her performance, Alex turned to Willy, who was sweating and looking from him to Faith nervously.

"Look Slayer, you've got to stop coming in here and killing all my clients. It's bad for business, you know?" "Willy, the last time I was here, none of your customers laid a finger on me. They were all sitting around, nursing their drinks. So, I had to beat you up a bit, what's new? It's the same standard song-and-dance routine we've established for years now. Now, all of a sudden, these guys have a deathwish? Something doesn't add up." "I agree, Faith. It smells to high heaven." "Wouldn't that be the remains of this dismemberment party?" "Nah, that just adds a little flavor, right Willy?" "Look, pal, I don't know who you are but could you please cut me loose? These ropes are cutting off my circulation." "Willy, Willy, Willy. You know the drill", Alex said as he tapped Willy's nose.

"I may have been away for a while but I doubt it has changed much. You're still the information broker in town. Coupled with the fact that your customers tried to rip us apart, that tells me there is something big they know. Since they knew it, you know it too. So, spare us the macho bull and start talking before I decide I have to hurt you to get the info." "I'd listen to him, Willy. He's mucho serious. And cranky. I think he didn't get his bran this morning; he's all clogged up and that makes him really unpleasant to be around."

Annoyed Alex turned to Faith; the answering smirk made him roll his eyes. This woman knew which buttons to push and she enjoyed it way too much!

"Look, I'm a simple bartender/owner. I quit the information business a long time ago, alright? I can't keep getting my customers killed because of you people. Do you know what the insurance is on this place? Every time one of the slayers gets in here, it's like a warzone. So, I'm sorry but I don't know anything. Now could you untie me, please?"

With a sigh, Alex walked away from Willy, as if going to the door. Turning around quickly, he pulled out a KZ-45 and fired a single .45 round. The thunderous explosion of sound reverberated through the bar as the left rear leg of the chair was cut short several inches. Willy screeched loudly while Faith jumped off the countertop behind the bar. As the noise died down, she cautiously looked over the bar onto a sight that made her shiver. Xander had turned into the same dark messenger of death she'd seen the night before.

For most of the night, she'd seen more then enough glimpses of the boy she'd know all those years ago but even the faintest trace was now gone. His brown eyes had turned almost obsidian, lacking the trademarked Xander warmth and mirth. It was like looking into twin pools of the coldest ice. Even his voice seemed to have been coated in steel. Faith realized one thing; the man before her was not someone she'd want to be on the wrong side of. The black gun he was holding seemed like an extension of his being, as much a part of him as his arms, his legs or his heart.

"Willy, unlike the Slayer, I'm not constrained by such rules as not killing humans. In fact, my human kill ratio far exceeds that of my non-human kill ratio. So, be smart and listen to Faith. Tell us what we want to know and you'll live to pay those rising insurance rates. Although, I think I'd prefer a quick dead to those rates. Those insurance guys are more evil then any demon or vamp I've ever met", Alex said in a conversational tone. To an outsider it would look like he was ordering breakfast.

The chill that had run through her earlier was now replaced with naked fear and that was something that was almost foreign to Faith. But right now, right here, she was terrified beyond belief. Looking at Willy, she noticed he'd paled considerably and was sweating profusely.

"Alright, alright! Couple of weeks ago, some new demon moved into town! Very big and not just in the power department. Wanted to set himself up as demon king or whatever. The then current vamp master wasn't too keen on the idea. The new guy quickly made him see the light, literally. That's after he personally killed over three dozen vamps and demons with his bare hands. They couldn't even touch him! Don't know who he is, what he is or where he is, all I know is that every demon, vamp and other creature that goes bump in the night now works for him. He's having them lay low for now. I think he's waiting for something and before you ask, no I don't know and none of the demons in this town knows either. That's all I know! I swear!"

Faith knew that Willy was telling the truth, he was too scared not to. Besides, Willy may have been catering to the demon community but at heart, he was a good guy and had more often then not given them tips about some new big evil in town that was planning on doing something that would get a lot of people killed. But she wasn't sure about Xander though. It seemed that he was ready to kill Willy with as much effort and thought it required most others to squash a bug. When he put the gun away, she breathed a sigh of relief, grateful for not having to take him down as she slowly put the bottle down underneath the counter.

"Cut him loose, Faith", Alex said as he moved to the bar and placed several bills on top.

"I hope next time I come here for information, Willy, you'll do me the courtesy of telling me what I want without too much prompting."

With those words he walked out of the bar as Faith cut the balding barkeeper loose from his bonds.

"Geez, Faith, who the hell is your friend? He's worse then most of my customers", Willy exclaimed, shaking all over. He stumbled to the bar, grabbing the nearest bottle of liquor and drinking deeply from it. Looking at the door Xander had disappeared through, Faith answered him in a soft voice.

"He used to be Xander."

The look of surprise on Willy's face would have been comical under any other circumstance but now it was just plain scary.

"The Harris kid? I always thought he was out there somewhere but ... oh man, this is way too much. I've always known he was the strongest of you lot, but he's worse then the things you fight, girl. You better be careful with him around you, he might turn on you." "Thanks, Willy, I'll keep it in mind." "I'm serious, Slayer. He's a loose cannon, waiting to explode. I don't know what is going on but I do know it's gonna get messy. This guy could crack and then we'd all be in serious trouble. I think I'm gonna take that vacation I've been putting off; you should think about doing the same."

Faith turned to the frightened barkeeper, smiling slightly.

"Thanks for the advice, Willy but you know I can't do that. Not with this new baddie in town." "Yeah, I know but I don't want to come to your funeral or any of your friends any time soon. Just watch your step."

Faith nodded and walked out of the bar; outside, she found Xander sitting on his bike, smoking another of his thick, long cigars. Caught between anger and fear, she walked up to him.

"What was that all about in there, Xan? Have you just lost it? Where the fuck do you get off, threatening people with dismemberment? It's not how we do things here, in case you've forgotten!"

The answer she got wasn't the one she'd expected. No loaded silence, no 'I do what needs to be done' speech, no terse reply to shut up and get on the bike. Instead what she got was laughter, pure unadulterated laughter. The kind you hear when someone has pulled the biggest prank in history. The kind you let loose when you're watching a slapstick movie, during the scene with the pie fight in the bakery.

Faith looked at Xander with astonishment, thinking he'd finally cracked, that he'd finally lost what vestiges of sanity he'd had left. Tears were streaming down his cheeks as he was holding his sides, trying to breathe as he laughed, almost doubled over on the bike.

"Di-... Did you see the loo- ... the look on his face... when... when I shot that chair? I though he .... he was going to piss ... piss his pants!" "Xander, are you telling me that you were playing him", Faith asked in astonishment. The sight of Xander howling at the moon like some crazed hyena was almost as frightening as his display earlier in the bar.

"Like a .... like a violin! Oh man, that was the funniest thing I've seen in a long time."

Alex felt as if a weight had been lifted from his chest; he hadn't laughed like that in years and it felt good. It felt liberating. He looked back at Faith as he wiped his cheeks, his chest rumbling with aftershocks, causing him discomfort from his bruised ribs. Then he was punched, hard, in the shoulder, almost toppling him from his bike.

"What the hell was that for?" "If you ever scare me like that again, boy toy, I'm gonna put some serious hurting on you!" "Faith, you should know me better then that, at least, I had hoped you would. But then again, we didn't spent much time together."

The hurt tone in his voice made her feel small again, remembering the pain she'd caused him. Placing a hand on his bruised shoulder, she was about to apologize again, when he shook his head, placing a finger on her lips.

"Don't. It's in the past."

Nodding silently, Faith fought the urge to suck his finger into her mouth and play with it. The warmth that shot through her by his simple gesture was almost overwhelming her senses. The coldness when he removed it made her shiver involuntarily and she surpressed a moan of disappointment. Looking into his eyes, she saw a bit of the old Xander mischief and Faith couldn't help the small grin from forming on her face. That was all it took and both burst out laughing at what had happened in the bar.

"Geez, Xan, you put the fear of God into poor Willy. He'll probably have to change is pants!" "Just doing my part to help the poor drycleaners in town."

Laughing, she stepped onto the bike, wrapping her arms around Xander's waist, reveling in the warmth his body seemed to impart on hers. Resting her head between his shoulders, Faith inhaled his scent, savoring it, as they rode off into the night.


1945 PM, July 13th, Sunnydale Park, Sunnydale, CA

Buffy and Cassandra were patrolling together, Angel and Spike tailing them, just out of sight. Nobody knew were Faith was; she'd called in and had said she'd be tagging along with Xander. Willow, Cordelia, Tara and Dawn were still researching, going through books and the internet databases, while Wesley and Giles were contacting the Watcher's Council and anyone else who might know what was happening.

Both women hadn't said much during the previous fortyfive minutes after leaving Giles' shop and it was beginning to grate on Cassandra's nerves. Usually, Buffy could talk about anything, like most women would, except in their case, the topics included slaying, among stuff like boys, clothing, the latest hot singers and stuff like that. The younger slayer looked at her predecessor sideways, noticing the lost look, covering her like a cloak. Buffy's eyes were cast to the ground, her arms wrapped around herself.

"You know, that'll make you age a lot quicker." "Huh?" "That contemplative slash brooding look? You'll get all wrinkly and puffy in the face, way before your time. Then you'll be thinking that Cher had the right idea and before you know it, you're at some plastic surgeon's expensive practice, getting your face lifted." "Uhm, what are we talking about here?" "Exactly my point, we're not talking. I'm observing that you're somewhere else with your mind and it causes your face to frown up like a lemon left too long in the sun. All wrinkly." "Thank you for that unwanted mental image. But what's your point?" "Buffy! You've been quiet girl ever since we left the shop. For all I know, you've been like this since yesterday. It's freaky!" "What do you want me to say", asked Buffy as she stopped walking, looking at the playground they were just passing. The swings were there, the same swings, she and Xander had sat on, on some patrol nights, talking about everything and nothing.

"How about you tell me about this Xander character? Since I've been here, nobody has ever talked about him. I never knew he even existed! Then suddenly, he reappears and all of you are wigging out over this guy! He's all Mister Psycho but you all jump to his defense. Even Angel, for crying out loud! What's with this guy that you all feel so strongly about? I think I've got a right to know."

"You want to know about Xander Harris? He's the bravest, strongest, most loyal man I've ever known. Without him, none of us would have been here." "Well, that's just great! Is that all there is to tell about him? You make him sound like the second coming."

Buffy sighed, as she walked onto the playground, sitting down on one of the swings. Pushing off softly, she tucked in her legs, letting the momentum carry her back and forth, her eyes closed. Cassandra watched her silently, arms crossed in front of her, for a few minutes. When no more words were forthcoming, she blew an errand strand of hair out of her face and sat down on the next swing.

"First day at a new school and I bump into a cute guy with horrible dress sense, the most beautiful brown eyes I've ever seen and a smile that could melt ice. This guy, having bumped into the new girl, is tongue-tied, making him seem even cuter. But I wasn't looking for romance just then. You know, new school, new people, bad academic record among other things. To make a long story short, I didn't think much about him for the rest of the day, until I met Willow. I'd hooked up with her coz she was the resident genius and I needed someone who knew their stuff. Slaying had kept me so busy my grades had slipped to dangerous territory. Little did I know, she was also friends with said guy.

That same day, we found a kid stuffed in a locker, killed by vamps. The guy overheard me talking to Giles and that night, he followed me when I'd seen Willow get out of the Bronze with an eighties reject, obviously a vamp. We found her, got her and Jesse, another friend of theirs out of the vamps clutches and I send them away, so I could take care of the rest of the vamps there. If I had gone with them, Jesse might still be alive. Instead, a few nights later, his best friend was forced to stake him. Ever since then, Xander has been by my side, watching over me. We had a master vampire in town then, trapped underneath the Hellmouth. I was prophesied to die according to the Codex. Nobody did anything, even I had finally given up and decided that you can't fight a prophesy."

Buffy looked up at the sky, seeing the stars twinkling as her mind transported her back in time, to the underground lair of the master. She could still feel his hands around her throat, the pain and euphoria as his teeth sank into her flesh, sucking her blood. The draining of her strength, the way her body fell into the pool of water. She could still feel her life slipping away slowly as darkness descended on her.

Cassandra listened intently to her story; it was the first time any of the Scoobies had talked about their shared past. Finally, a glimpse was being revealed inside the life of the most successful slayer of all time.

"From darkness, suddenly, there was light. I felt my spirit being pulled back into my body, horrible pain as water was expelled from my lungs. When I finally opened my eyes, I saw twin brown orbs gazing at me with so much love and concern, I thought I'd reached heaven. His smile... His smile, it sent shivers down my spine. It was the most beautiful sight I've ever seen. But back then, I didn't know what I had. Once I saw Angel was there, I forgot everything about the boy who saved my life. The man who'd defied the prophesy, defied everyone who said it couldn't be done."

"You did thank him later, right. I mean, the guy brings you back from the death, you thank him, right? He knew you cared about him."

"Oh, yeah, I thanked him. Not that night, but I thanked him", Buffy said, choking slightly as tears started to fall again.

"Angel and I had a falling out. I was so wrapped up in him that I couldn't see straight. So one night, at the Bronze, I asked Xander to dance. You should have seen his face. I knew how he felt about me and I threw myself at him. His eyes, they said it all. It was as if all his dreams had finally come out. We danced, I saw Angel there and then I danced. I asked Xander if I'd ever thanked him for saving my life and then I began to dance. It was the most seductive, sexy dance I've ever done in my life. It was like I was looking down at someone else, dancing around a pole at a strip club, making sure that Angel saw everything. Then I left him standing there, in the middle of the dancefloor. I tore Xander's heart out, ripped it apart and stomped what remained into the ground."

Cassandra winced internally, picturing the scene in her mind. She couldn't believe someone would do something like that. A new understanding for Xander's behavior was revealed and finally she understood why he acted like he did. Looking at her predecessor, Cassandra saw the light reflected in the tears that ran down her face, sympathy and anger warring within her.

"That wasn't the first time, nor the last that I hurt him. That we hurt him."

Buffy told more tales of Xander, his triumphs and his failures, the Halloween incident, how he'd protected her and Cordelia then as a soldier. The horrible home life he'd had. Being possessed by the Hyena spirit, his fight against Jack O'Toole and his gang. How he'd saved every member of the Scoobie gang, how he was the one that made the connection about how to defeat the Judge. How he'd helped plan the destruction of the Mayor and planned the counter-assault and led the student army. How he'd stood his ground against Angelus in the hospital corridor. Not telling her that Willow was performing the soul restoration spell again. How he was the heart of the group, signified by the card he'd gotten in their final battle against Adam. Everything she told Cassandra. Even what had transpired during the last battle against Glory.

"Glory had knocked me down and was about to skewer me with her sword. I was too groggy from her punches to do anything but just lie there. Suddenly, he was there, between us. Their swords were clashing; I'd never seen him so determined, so focussed. He managed to stab her through and flung her through the portal. Without the power of the Key, it killed her, scattering her molecules over thousands of dimensions. Xander then freed Dawn who clung to him, crying. But before I could get to them, Xander just toppled. He fell like he had no bones in his body left!"

Buffy's breathing hitched as she closed her eyes, trying to get that horrible image out of her mind. Taking a shaky breath, she continued.

"Dawn screamed and tried to wake him up. When I finally managed to get to them, I saw what had happened. Glory had gouged him open with her hands. His whole stomach looked like some wild animal had torn it open with their claws. There was blood everywhere, so much blood. We got him to the hospital just in time. He ... he died in the OR. Twice they had to bring him back, twice! He was in a coma for days after he was moved to the ICU. The doctors didn't give him much chance of survival. And we weren't there. None of us were there with him, giving him a reason to hang on. None of us."

Cassandra stood up then, wrapping her arms around Buffy, rubbing her back. The younger slayer didn't know what to say to help Buffy. So much guilt and pain, no wonder all of them felt so protective of Xander. She could understand him better now. His anger, the way he acted and carried himself. She didn't know what she would have done had she been the one to receive such treatment from people she called friends and family.

"Why weren't you there? What was so important that you could leave someone who'd given so much for all of you alone, Buffy? What?"

Pulling from Cassandra's embrace, Buffy rubbed her palms over her face, trying to remove the evidence of her tears as she stood up and walked around the swings aimlessly.

"What was so important?" "Dawn."

At Cassandra's questioning look, Buffy smiled sadly and told her how the monks had somehow transported them to their compound. How the monks had removed all the energy from Dawn, turning her into a normal, healthy young girl. The reason why they hadn't been by their best friend's side during his time of need.

"Buffy, the Xander you told me about, would understand that you couldn't be there with all of that going on. That wouldn't have pushed him so over the edge. The man we saw, he's filled with anger towards you and the Scoobies. Not towards Dawn. With her, he was totally different, from what I could see when they walked in." "Dawn already told him what happened, why we weren't there." "Then there is something you're not telling me. The boy and man you described, he wouldn't leave. He would come looking for you, Buffy. No way would he just up and leave without saying a word, when he doesn't know if you guys are still alive or death. So something else must have happened. Something you haven't told me yet."

Buffy's breath hitched again, the lump in her throat so big, she could hardly breath. Her heart was breaking as she remembered that night. It had become her nightmare, her greatest failure and her greatest betrayal. Buffy couldn't begin to forgive herself for it, how could she expect Xander to forgive her?

Cassandra saw the raw emotion playing across Buffy's face, the haunted look in her eyes and her heart was breaking for the older woman. Whatever it was that she was holding inside, it was eating her alive. It was the same look she'd seen in Willow's and Giles' eyes on occasion, but right here, right now, she knew nothing those two felt could come close to what Buffy was going through.

"Buffy?" "I betrayed him."

Cassandra was looking intently at Buffy, waiting for her to continue. The older Slayer had stopped walking and was watching the stars in the night sky, seemingly deep in thought. Cassandra noticed the slight hitching of her shoulders, signifying more tears. Hesitantly, she walked up behind Buffy, placing a hand on her shoulder.

"You betrayed him, how?" "The night we got back, he was there. He had to have been there, outside, by the window. I saw a shadow but was too tired to think too much about it, but it had to be him."

Cassandra waited patiently for Buffy to continue, slowly rubbing her back, letting her know she was there. But it seemed as if Buffy was somewhere else, somewhere far away. Her eyes seemed to glaze over as the memories returned in perfect clarity.

"I can't go through this anymore. I've already lost my mom. Anya died trying to save Dawn and Xander. He's in the hospital, near death!"

Buffy was frantically pacing through Giles' livingroom, her face haggard from all the stress of the last few months. Giles came out of the kitchen, a tray with tea and cups balanced in his hands.

"Buffy, please sit down. I just called the hospital. Xander is going to be fine. He woke up a few days ago and according to his doctor, his condition is improving markedly. So stop worrying. You're wearing in hole in the floor."

Buffy sat down with a sigh, her body aching and accepting the cup of tea Giles handed her. He busied himself with filling the other cups and handing them out. Finally, he himself sat down, sipping his tea.

"Buffy, if it weren't for Xander, you'd be death. So would Dawn and all of us. Earth would be at the mercy of demons", Willow countered.

"Don't you think I know that, Wills? He saved me. All of us, again. And what does he get in return? He gets gutted, that's what!"

Buffy screamed out the last sentence, then the tears started to come, hot torrents down her cheeks. Resting her face in her hands, she cried hot tears for her friend, who lay in the hospital. Willow sat down next to her, holding her tightly. Finally, Buffy got a hold of herself and looked up at the others.

"I've lost too many people already. First mom, then Anya. I came this close to loosing Dawn. Tara almost died and now Xander." "Xander isn't dead, Buffy", Giles interrupted. "No, not this time. But there have been too many close calls. This was just the last one in a long line of many. He somehow has got it into his mind that he's my guardian angel or something. Protecting me from harm. It's stupid and it's gonna get him killed."

The room was silent as the occupants thought over the Slayer's last words, thinking over the consequences of those words.

"That's it. He can't come on patrol with me anymore. It's just too dangerous; you saw what happened? He almost got himself killed again, for the umpteenth time! He has no skills, is worthless in battle and always gets in the way." "Buffy, you don't have to be so negative. I do agree with you but don't you think it's something he has to decide for himself?" "No, Willow, you know how he is. He'll whine and bitch about it and insist that he can contribute, but we all know that isn't true. He was at death's door when we brought him to the hospital." "I'm afraid Buffy is right, Willow. Xander has no combat skills at all. You and Tara have your Wiccan powers, I am a Watcher and have been trained in many forms of martial arts. Spike... well, as much as I want to deny it, he has proven to be quite the ally. Xander would only bring more danger upon us as we try to keep him safe during the fighting. A distraction like that could kill any one of us; think of the guilt that would cause him." "I know all that but with all that has happened... I mean, does he even know Anya is dead? If he finds out and hears that we don't want him along, who knows what he'll do? Xander will not take this lying down."

"That's what I'm afraid of, that he'll do something stupid, like seeking revenge by going up against a bunch of vamps. What if he decides to walk into Willy's bar to pick a fight? How do we protect him? I'm not loosing anymore people, Willow." "But if we don't keep him close, he'll go out alone, Buffy." "Then we keep him at home, someone needs to stay with him. He can baby-sit Dawn when I'm out patrolling." "The idea has merit, Buffy. I'm sure Dawn will benefit from Xander's presence, as will he. They can help each other heal, as can we all. Things will be calm for the time being, I surmise."

"You people are all daft", came another British voice from the stairs. Looking up, they saw Spike descend the stairs.

"Spike! Who asked you?" "Slayer, you don't have to ask me to give my opinion and in my opinion, you are all daft. You want Harris out of the group? Without him, you're nothing! All of you! You already said it yourself, he's saved each of your asses more times then I can count. Slayer, who was it that kept you and the prissy teen queen save while me and my goons were after you on Halloween? You were afraid of pictures, Bloody Hell!

And you, Rupes, who was it that got your tweed butt out of Angel's mansion? Who was it that kicked Glory's arse? You may have softened her up a bit, Summers, but the coup de grace came from Harris. I've got tons of stories about how Xander Harris saved all your butts at one time or another, sometimes even without your knowledge. And you want to kick him out? Well, that's par for the course for you bleedin' idiots. Just trample on the guy like so much dirt you wipe off your boots. And that's what calls themselves friends. Ha, you make me sick!" Spike kept muttering curses under his breath as he walked into the kitchen and got himself a packet of blood.

"Spike, Xander is my best friend and I'm not going to lose him because he thinks he's got to save us. In case you haven't noticed, the people in this room can take care of themselves. He may have been soldier boy once but none of that is still with him." "And whose fault is that? If you or the Watcher here had taken the time to help him train, he would be a lot better at fighting then he's now! And let me tell you, he's damn good already, but you won't see it. What with your superiority complex and all. It's always Slayer knows best. If it wasn't so pathetic, I'd laugh. You say he's your best friend, but you treat him like crap, Slayer! Nobody deserves that, especially not someone you say is your best friend. I'm outta here, you people make me sick."

"Early the next morning, the phonecall came. The hospital called to let us know Xander had disappeared. I'd never been so scared in all my life when we got there. Nobody could understand how he'd managed to get out. We thought maybe some of Glory's helpers had kidnapped him, or some other demons or vamps had decided now was a good time to take on the Slayer by taking out her friends.

We tore through Sunnydale, from one end to the other, underground and anywhere else we could think of. We used everything we had to find him, but he was gone. I was a mess. I blamed myself and I was right. He'd heard us. That shadow I thought I'd seen? It had to have been Xander. He heard me talk about him, how I didn't want him involved and he left."

Buffy turned around, facing Cassandra.

"I am responsible for doing what I wanted to prevent! Instead of saving him, I destroyed him, Cassandra. I destroyed him! I was so intent on keeping him safe that I pushed him away. I lost everything that day. But he lost even more because of me. I did what I'd resolved never to do again. I destroyed his heart."

The memories overwhelmed Buffy and she sank to her knees, sobbing, briefly wondering how it was possible for her to have more tears to shed. Buffy did something she hadn't done in a very long time. She prayed. She prayed that she could bring up the courage to talk to Xander. She prayed that he would forgive her. She prayed that somehow, they might get their friendship back. Her sobs filled the night as Cassandra watched over the older woman awkwardly.

Somewhere near, but deep underground, a massive figure watches the images playing across the rippling pool of water as Buffy Summers, kneeling, cries. Moving a hand over the water, the images disappear in the ripples.

"And so it continues, my dear Gras'nvor. Divide and Conquer."

His attendant merely bowed slightly in acknowledgment.

"I told that stupid wench that her trying to keep Harris out of the fight would only bring trouble, but did she listen? No. Stupid Miss-know-it-all-slayer", Spike hissed out, as he watched the two women on the playground. "I didn't know you cared, Spike." "Sod off, Angelus! I care, yes. I've been here too damn long not to care. He should have just killed you and be done with it." "Buffy's in love with him." "And you just figured it out? Wow, gotta love those braincells of yours, Angelus. She's been in love with him for over 10 years, but she didn't realize it until he'd left. Must be the haircolor."

Even though his heart went out to Buffy, Angel couldn't help but chuckle at Spike's statement.


Noticing where Angel was glancing at, Spike got even more pissed off.

"Oh, sod off, you bloody wanker. Stupid Irishman, it's bleach so lay off." "If you say so."

Both vampires quieted down, both of them silently sending their strength to the woman they'd both loved and hoping that she could recapture some of what was lost all those years ago.

Chapter 9

2006 PM, July 13th, The Magic Box, Sunnydale, CA

"Nothing! Not a bloody, damn thing!"

Giles slammed the last book closed; coupled with his loud, uncharacteristic exclamation, it was enough to startle the others in the room. Willow, Tara, Cordelia and Dawn all looked up at him as he walked around the room. Giles, normally the picture of the stiff British upper lip, looked haggard and worn.

"I am afraid that I have not had any luck either", Wesley stated as he walked back into the room.

"The Council has absolutely no idea who this demon is or what its plans are. Neither do any of my contacts. I even went to Caritas but the Host couldn't help me." "You went to Caritas, Wes? Don't tell me you sang!" "It is the only acceptable way to receive any information from Lorne, Cordelia. You know that." "I, for one, am glad that I wasn't with you. Hearing Angel sing was bordering on traumatizing." "Angel sings?" "No, Willow, he tries but it's more like hearing a cat screech when you step on its tail." "All the talk of singing aside, what are we going to do? I'm not going to lose my sister or any of my friends to this baddie." "Nobody is going to die, Dawn."

The sound of a chair flying backwards and hitting the wall startled everyone. Dawn was in Rupert Giles' face a second later.

"Really? Can you guarantee that, Mister Almighty Watcher? Can you guarantee that Buffy is going to be okay? That Faith will survive? Can you guarantee that Xander will still be alive after this is over?"

Giles could do nothing but stare at the young girl he'd gotten custody off all those years ago and marvel at the young, independent and strong woman she'd become. So much like Buffy and their mother. Her eyes were alive with a mix of anger, fear and love, shining with unshed tears. She was scared, they all were.

"Dawn, you know how it works. We always prevail. Yes, things might get hairy at times but we always win."

Dawn whipped around, stopping Willow with a glare that would have made Buffy proud, had she been there.

"Don't patronize me, Willow. I know the score. So do you so don't pretend everything is gonna be fine."

Before Dawn could say anymore, Cordelia stepped in, taking the younger woman's arm and leading her out of the training room towards the shop.

"I'm putting some water on. Anyone want some tea or something", Wesley asked the subdued crowd.

Willow and Tara declined as Tara comforted her girlfriend, holding her tightly. Dawn's outburst had nearly broken Willow because it was the truth. Nobody knew what they were up against. This might very well be the last battle they all fought.

"I'll come with you, Wesley."

Both men walked into the small kitchen, Giles leaning against the cupboard, stretching his shoulders.

"Rupert, I'm sorry." "Whatever for?" "For not being any more help. I feel so useless!"

Giles watched as the younger Watcher put the kettle on the fire.

"Why?" "Why what?" "Why do you think you've not been a help? Is it because you cannot find anyone who has any knowledge about our foe? Is it because you don't feel that you've contributed enough to the cause? Is it because you think you're not capable of standing against the forces of darkness? Let me tell you a story about a young man I once met. He was full of himself, thought he knew all there was to know. When push came to shove, when it was time to face the evil he was trained to fight, he caved. He became a blabbering fool, asking for mercy and was willing to give up anything to survive.

But later on, he redeemed himself. Freed from his constraints, he became a force to be reckoned with. A self-proclaimed rogue demon hunter. A man who had the knowledge, the skills and the wherewithal to face evil wherever he encountered it. He teamed up with a small band of like-minded souls and became a force to be reckoned with. He might not know everything there is to know about the evil that surrounds us, but that didn't stop him from going into battle time and time again." "Maybe I'll meet him sometime, Rupert", Wesley said dejectedly as he took the boiling water off the fire and poured the hot liquid into two mugs.

"Just look into a mirror sometimes, Wesley. There is where you'll find him. You've come a long way, my friend. Nobody knows everything. Certainly not about the demonic activities we're constantly faced with. There always will be some new evil, some new power that we don't know about. But we do what we do best, we try. That is all any of us can do. Will it be enough, who knows? But if we don't, who will hold the line? So don't ever think of yourself as useless. We'll find a way to stop this demon from whatever its goal is."

The silence that followed Giles' speech was a comfortable one as both men sipped their tea. Wesley couldn't remember feeling this good in his whole life. Giles' praise was like a balm for his soul. It made him feel good about himself, even in this dreaded situation.

"We're missing something." "You've noticed it too, then?" "Of course, Rupert. What do we know so far?" "Not much, really. There is a new demon in town, a very powerful one." "Powerful enough to have the local demon community in its thrall. The number of vampires and other demons on the street are almost negligible." "It has the power to drain a slayer's powers." "It has managed to have vampires and demons working together." "Something only Adam has been able to do, on such a scale, to my knowledge." "We're missing something, I know we are."

Both men were silent, running through everything they knew, how little of it there was.

"Like rats in a maze." "Excuse me?" "Like rats in a maze, Wesley. We're given a few clues, Cordelia's vision, Xander's dreams. Some encounters between our people and some minor minions, just to put us on edge. Their main goal to weaken the Slayer's support system." "Divide and Conquer! Of course!" "Yes, just like Adam did." "Do you think it's Adam?" "No, we destroyed him. He was just a human who'd had Demon parts grafted onto himself. I doubt he'd be resurrected." "Maybe the Initiative has been restarted and they've resurrected the program", Wesley offered. "Maybe, but I doubt it. Cordelia's vision and Xander's dreams would seem to preclude that. The demon they described is like nothing I've ever encountered, either in books or in real life." "You said Glory was from another dimension. What if ..." "We're dealing with a demon from another dimension? I think that you might have something there, Wesley", Giles said, his countenance revealing a rising in hope.

"If that is so, how do we find out who it is? It's not like we can go dimension hopping." "Actually, I think there are a few ways. Dawn has the power to open inter-dimensional portals and I know a few spells to call on some powerful spirits that might shed some light on the situation." "Then I think we should start with that."

Wesley was all smiles, a small measure of relief flooding his being. Giles too was feeling better then a short time before.

"There is still some other matter we must attend to, Rupert." "Xander." "Yes. Right now, things are tense. We must get Xander and the others to talk out their differences. As it stands now, we're in pretty bad shape. Everybody is going through a guilt trip because of what has happened. Everybody is walking on pins and needles, their concentration is in very bad shape." "It all boils down to the relationship between Xander and Buffy. I'm sure that once they get their differences out of the way, things will get back to at least a semi-relaxed truce", Giles said thoughtfully.

"I sincerely hope so, because we'll need teamwork on this one and from what I've seen so far, I doubt that that is possible, what with all the fragmented feelings." "Faith is working on him as we speak. If anyone can get through to Xander, it'll be her. She'll get him to talk to Buffy. What happens then, is out of our hands." "Do you really think that sending Faith to talk to him is going to accomplish anything? After all, she did try to kill him once." "Yes, but from what she's told me, he's visited her a few times in prison, before he left and their differences have been talked out. Also, she's the only one out of all of us who has never treated Xander as if he were useless, like the rest of us have done. Besides, their backgrounds are similar enough for an understanding to be reached between them. She's our best bet at the moment."

Nodding his head in understanding, Wesley sipped his tea. There was nothing more to be said.

Cordelia sat Dawn down on the steps of the stairs, sitting down next to her. Looking at the girl next to her, Cordelia felt for her. Dawn had at one time, had a crush on Xander and his disappearance had hit her hard. She'd gotten over it but there were still strong feelings there. Add to that the fact that Buffy, justified or not, was to blame for what had happened. It was no wonder Dawn was feeling so bad, having your sister fight with someone you both care deeply about.

"Want to talk about it?" "I hate them both", came the quiet reply. "Really? Why is that", Cordelia asked, knowing who Dawn was talking about. "Yeah, really", Dawn answered, sarcastically.

"Care to fill me in why you hate them? From what I could tell, you seemed pretty chummy with Xan earlier and you and Buffy have always been so close. Now you suddenly hate them both? How did that happen?"

Dawn turned to look at Cordelia, the tears slowly flowing down her cheeks.

"I hate him because he left and her because she made him leave."

Dawn's body began to shake as the sobs started and Cordelia took her into her arms, hugging her tightly, her own eyes moist. Cordelia didn't know exactly what had happened to bring things to this bad state of affairs, but having been part of the Scooby gang for some time, she could very well imagine what had happened. Remembering how she and the others had treated him after the whole fluke with Willow, all those years ago, made her feel small and insignificant. Cordelia had the right to be angry and hurt, but even so, Xander didn't deserve being pushed aside by the others.

"He saved my life, Cor, and Buffy dismissed him like he was nothing", Dawn murmured.

"He did so much for us, not thinking about his own safety and look at what it cost him. Anya and a chance at happiness. A family, his friends, his humor, his smile, that never-say-die attitude of his that would always give us hope. She took that away from him."

Dawn buried her face into Cordelia, who started to rock her back and forth slowly, murmuring soft words of encouragement in her hair.

"He isn't laughing anymore. His eyes, they don't hold that spark of humor anymore, Cordelia. Buffy killed that, destroyed it like it was some evil demon, to be slain." "She wanted him to be safe, Dawn. Wanted him to have that family and not worry about what great evil was next gunning for them. She didn't mean for any of this to happen. When he cheated on me with Willow, I was so angry. There was a part of me that wanted him to hurt as much as I was hurting but there was another part of me that didn't want anything to happen to him.

He showed me another side of myself, a side that I am proud of. I wasn't just the queen bitch of Sunnydale, I was a real person, a person with feelings. A person who deserved some happiness and love too. I love him for that. He's still my best friend, even after all these years and yes, I am angry at Buffy too for how she treated him at times. All of us are to blame for that to some extent. But I do understand why she did it. We just have to try and get him to understand the why and maybe he'll forgive us and we can all be friends again. It won't be easy but we can always hope. After all, he didn't have to come back to help us, now did he?"

"She was pregnant, you know?" "What?" "Anya was pregnant. I found out the morning before Glory got me. She swore me to secrecy because she didn't want Xander to worry about her. He'd already had too much on his mind. She was planning on telling him after everything was over, provided they'd survive. She never got the chance."

Cordelia couldn't say anything, her feelings in turmoil. Her heart went out to Xander, having lost so much. It wasn't fair, she screamed silently. It wasn't fair for one person to receive so much tragedy in their short life. Finally, the tears she'd been holding in, began to spill as both women grieved for the tragedies befallen their friends.

Tara stood behind Willow, as her girlfriend stared out in front of her, not seeing anything, her mind miles away, it seemed.

"Willow?" "She's right. She's right. We don't know anything. We act like everything is going to be alright but that is not true. How can we fight something we know nothing about? How can we help the people we love?" "We will help them like we always have done, Willow. We'll be there for them and give them our strength."

Willow pulled herself out of Tara's arms, turning towards her angrily.

"Don't say that! Don't say everything is going to be alright, because you don't know that! None of us know that! I lost my best friend because I wanted to protect him! 8 years! 8 years of our lives, thrown away! And for what? False pride? Telling ourselves we didn't need him? We've known each other almost our entire lives and do you know what I did?"

Willow seemed to have gone over the edge, as she ranted and raved, walking back and forth through the room. Tara didn't know what to do to calm her down, her own anxiety rising rapidly.

"I ignored him, belittled him, made fun of him. I hurt him and I'm supposed to be his best friend. I never had time for him anymore. What I did, it was like saying that Xander wasn't important to me anymore. What does that say about me, huh? What does that say about me? He did so much for us, he was willing to give his life without a second thought to save us all and I just pushed him aside."

Willow's tantrum subsided as quickly as it had set on; one minute she was screaming at the top of her lungs, the next her face scrunched up, as the tears start to come in earnest. Within seconds, Tara had her in her arms, hugging her tightly, murmuring soft words of encouragement. Giles, Wesley, Dawn and Cordelia had come in, hearing Willow's screams and all watched the two Wicca's. Willow saw them, pulling herself out of Tara's arms.

"I'm sorry for going off like that." "No need to apologize, Willow. None of us really got the chance to work through our issues regarding Xander", Giles stated softly as he handed her a tissue.

"Now, he's back and it's like he's another person", Cordelia said. "Yes, well, I think we've done enough for tonight. Why don't you all go home and get some rest?"

Before anyone could protest, he held up his hands.

"We've researched every book and database there is and have come up with nothing. The Council has no information either. Neither do any of our regular contacts. Wesley and I have a theory but it will take some time to get everything together to try it out. It's late, we're all exhausted. Let's all just go home and rest." "But what about the others on patrol? Wouldn't they find it strange that there is no one here when they get back?" "Yes, Cordelia, and that is exactly why I'm staying here until Buffy and the others come back. Then I intend to give them the same speech and see them home. Now off you go."

Shooing his charges out of the store, Giles was again amazed how such a group of widely different people had become such a tight-knit group. They were there for one another, no matter what. Their only failure had been the one young man he'd always thought of as a son. Vowing to do anything he could to remedy that situation, Giles closed the door and began to gather the supplies needed for the supplication.


2117 PM, July 13th, Lindenhall Cemetary, Sunnydale, CA


Faith had lined up several stones, kicking each in turn, trying to bounce them off a nearby headstone, then into an empty flowerpot. Up till now, she'd managed to do it only once.

"This is so frustrating!" "What? The fact that your tryouts for the Sunnydale Women's soccer team are a bust? I could have told you that, but would you listen? Nope, not at all", Alex said, leaning against a tree as he swept the area with his eyes. They had been patrolling several cemeteries for the last few hours and they had encountered not a single vampire or demon.

"Ha ha ha, X-man. You should have gone into stand-up comedy. By now, you'd probably have your own sitcom." "No thanks, television never appealed to me as a career path. You've got to get up way too early to my liking. Seriously, what is so frustrating?" "We've been out here for hours! And not one vamp has shown their toothy grins! And I was really looking forward to kicking some undead butt. I thought they were out to get us. What changed?"

Alex walked over to her and grabbed the last stone from the ground, proceeding to throw it into the flowerpot.

"Murphy's Law of Combat, number 23: The enemy invariably attacks on two occasions: When they're ready; When you're not."

Faith looked at Xander, eyebrows raised.

"Oookay, and that would mean what, exactly?" "Easy. Whoever is in charge wanted to give you a demonstration of his power. Right now, we don't know squat about who or what he is, where he is hiding, what his intentions are, apart from needing you for some sort of ritual. We do know that he's got the whole demon population wrapped tightly around his finger. We know he's incredibly powerful and capable of negating the Slayer powers. We're running around in circles trying to figure this guy out. I'm willing to bet even money that the others haven't found a clue to any of the above questions. We get frustrated, we start making mistakes. We make mistakes, he exploits them and before you know it, we're neck deep in trouble." "Boy toy, I never figured you to be a Zen follower", Faith grinned. "Zen isn't really my thing. But then again, there are no Atheïsts in a foxhole either", he grinned back.

"So, we'll just have to wait and keep our guard up." "Never go out alone at any time of the day. That would be tempting fate. No pun intended."

Alex looked Faith up and down, his left eyebrow raised; what he saw there was quite appealing, since Faith still dressed like he remembered. Tight fitting jeans, tight, very revealing top and short leather jacket. Faith noticed the look and felt herself blush, suddenly feeling rather shy. A feeling she didn't have much experience with. Coughing a little, she decided to change the subject, before she did something stupid.

"Hey Xan." "Yeah?" "Why a Marine?"

Alex looked at Faith, wondering why she'd asked him that question. Looking away to scan their surroundings again, he tried to decide how he was going to answer her. It was obvious she had something else she wanted to bring up, but didn't exactly know how to do it. Maybe it was time to take Mr. Lee's advice and start listening.

"What do you say we kick this place and go to mine for some hot chow and cold drinks? We'll talk all about my joining up and anything else you want to talk about. Sounds fair to you?" "As long as you're buying the food, I'm in. And none of that canned stuff you've got in that drafty place of yours. I wouldn't feed it to my dog." "You don't have a dog, Faith." "My point exactly."

Laughing under his breath and shaking his head, Alex began to walk to his bike, Faith falling in step with him.


2245 PM, July 13th, Jameson Trucking, Sunnydale, CA

The small collapsible table was filled with take-out boxes, all empty, several empty bottles of spring water next to them. Candles were alight around the room. The two occupants were sitting on the floor enjoying the companionable silence; they'd gone to Fook Long's Chinese restaurant before coming back to Alex's place. Since they'd left the cemetery, neither had spoken a single word. Neither knew where to start, it seemed. Finally, Faith cleared her throat.

"So, boy toy, you still owe me an answer."

Alex looked at her through hooded eyes, the light of the candles casting shadows over her face, enhancing her natural beauty.

"What was the question again?" "Xand, why did you choose the Marines?"

Alex looked thoughtful for a moment, gathering his thoughts before answering her.

"I guess you could say I was looking for something where I could make a difference." "And did you find what you were looking for?"

Alex looked at her for a moment, taking a sip of water.

"For the most part, yes." "For the most part? What's missing then?"

Alex seemed to be lost in thought for a moment before answering.

"I don't really know." "You don't really know? What kind of stupid answer is that? Come on, Xan, you must have an idea." "Okay, so I feel like there is something missing, only, I don't know what it is, alright?"

Faith sat there for a few moments, pondering his words.

"Maybe it's because you weren't doing it together with your family, Xan."

Snorting, he answered her.

"My family? What family? My drunken father? My oblivious mother?" "You know what I mean! The Scoobies! Willow, Giles, Tara.... Buffy." "They're not my family. Just acquaintances. I was always the black sheep of the group. Useless."

The underlying note of sadness in his voice, unnoticeable by others, was clear to Faith. She'd felt that same way for most of her life. Until she'd hit rock bottom and Angel had helped her pull herself up out of the pit of despair she'd thrown herself in. Until she'd started herself on the road to redemption. And unlike her, Xander had nothing to be ashamed of; unlike her, he had always fought on the side of the angels. Unlike her, he's always done the right thing, no matter how hard it was or how much it would cost him. She'd be damned if he kept thinking so little of himself.

"You were never useless, Xander. You know it, I know it and most importantly, they know it too. When are you going to give this attitude up and start the healing?"

Alex stood up, angrily throwing the bottle in his hand against a wall.

"Why is everybody so keen on me going on my knees to beg for forgiveness? I didn't do anything wrong here, yet everybody tries to make me look like the bad guy? What's that all about, huh? This is another example of Queen Buffy's superiority; she's never wrong, she's all-knowing, all-seeing." "Xander, you know that's not true. Hell, at one time, I thought just like you. Remember what happened? I joined up with Mayor Wilkins. I killed people, I even tried to kill you", she said softly.

"I'm only saying that you should stop brooding and holding everyone at arms length. Talk to them. I mean really talk to them. Get it all out of your system. It really helps, I know it did help me. Remember when you would come to visit me in jail? That first time, it was so awkward, neither one of us knowing where to begin." "What to say to each other. But then you just blurted it all out." "Yeah, I did, didn't I", Faith said, grinning as she walked over to where Alex was standing.

"Seeing you, apologizing to you, it was the hardest thing I've ever done. More so then when I had to talk to B. over the phone after Joyce died." "I wish I could have done more for you back then, Faith." "Don't be too hard on yourself, Xand. You did do a lot, I just wasn't in the mood to listen back then. I'm just glad things finally worked out between us", Faiths said as she stopped next to Xander.

Faith turned him around, pulling him into a tight hug, a soft sigh escaping her lips as she felt his arms wrap around her tightly. His scent filled her senses, fueling the long forgotten feelings he'd awakened inside of her. Pulling back reluctantly, she looked him straight in the eyes.

"So we're Five by Five, right? You promise to talk to B.?" "No."

At Faith's angry scowl, Alex ran a finger through her hair, pushing some loose strands behind her ear. Faith had to use all her strength to contain the groan of pleasure rippling through her at his touch.

"Xander." "Look, Faith. It's too soon for me to talk to her. We'd just come to blows or hurt each other even more. I will meet with Willow first. Care to set up a meeting?" "Willow? Why?" "You work your way up things. I have enough trouble gathering up the courage to talk to Willow. I don't think I could face Buffy right now." "Okay, I'll talk to Willow tonight. I'll call you when I've set it up?" "No", he answered with a smile. "No?" "No, you can tell me in person." "What are you talking about, boy toy", Faith asked with a sultry smile. "It's late and I'm tired. And I'm not going to let you walk out into the night. There is a bad element on the street at night, didn't you know", he answered with a grin. "Really? I hadn't noticed", Faith grinned back. "So, what's the plan?" "Well, you can take the bunk. I'll sleep on the floor." "Are you sure? It might be a tight fit, but I'm sure we could make it work for us", she said, giving him a sexy smile.

"Thanks for the offer, Faith, as tempting as it is, but we both need our sleep. It is late, after all", Alex said, giving her one of his infamous lopsided smiles.

The two people stood in each others arms for a few more minutes, just savoring the feel. Finally, Faith broke the embrace, taking a deep breath to calm her nerves. Being this close to Xander was definitely not a good thing, if her rapid heart beat was any indication. Especially not when so many people's feelings were involved.

"Well, I hope you've got something for me to wear. Unless you don't mind getting an eyeful." "I think I can scrounge up a shirt and jogging pants for you."

Taking the offered clothes, Faith walked behind the partition to change. When she came back around, she noticed that Xander had put fresh linnen on the military style cot.

"Miss, your bed awaits", he said with a smile. "Why thank you, kind sir." "You're quite welcome, dear lady." "You sure you don't want to join me, Xan? The floor looks really cold and hard, you know."

"Good night, Faith", he said smiling, reaching out, his fingers brushing her left cheek before turning around and sliding into the sleeping bag at the other side of the room.

Faith watched him go, feeling his absence even though he was on the other side of the room. As she slid into the bed, all she could think about, was her reaction to Xander. She'd wanted him to stay close to her. She'd wanted him there with her, because she wasn't ready for him to leave her side and it scared her. But Faith knew something else. Until everything was settled between Xander and the Scoobies, specifically Buffy, she would keep her own feelings hidden.

'God, girl, when did you become such a goody-two-shoes? I'm trying to keep my hands off a really great guy coz I know someone else feels the same way about him', she admonished herself.

Adjusting herself, trying to get comfortable, Faith's mind was alive with thoughts. She knew she was a knockout. But until Xander, nobody had told her she was beautiful. Dressed in prison clothes, no make up, feeling like she was the last person on earth needing sympathy or understanding and he had still found her beautiful. She'd been called many things in her life, hot, a fox, sexy but never beautiful. He thought she was beautiful. With a sigh, she closed her eyes.

"You'd better start talking to him, B. I don't think I can do this much longer."


0945 AM, July 14th, Montaguey Apartment Building, Sunnydale, CA

"Okay, it's settled then, Red? You'll meet him around noon?" "Yes, Faith", came the subdued voice of Willow Rosenberg over the phoneline. "I just wish he would have asked you to set it up with Buffy." "He isn't ready for that yet, Red. I don't think she's either." "Well, truthfully, I don't think I'm either." "You'll do fine, Willow. Trust me. I think he'll be as nervous as you are."

There was silence for a few seconds, neither woman knowing what to say, or bring into words their doubts. Finally, Willow broke the uncomfortable silence.

"How is he, Faith?" "The Xan-Man? He's good. He's very good, in fact", Faith responded, a wicked smile gracing her features. She could imagine Willow's face turning a bright red as the meaning of Faith's words became clear.

"Faith! You didn't! Tell me you didn't... How could you?" "Take it easy, Red", Faith said, laughing loudly, "I was just yanking your chain. Nothing happened, Xan was a perfect gentleman and I kept my hands to myself." "Uhm, that's good. That's very good. Because you know... things right now... well, they're quite screwed up..." "Tell me about it! Last night, for the most part, it was like old times, you know? Me and Xan patrolling, talking, laughing. He was joking around, it was like nothing had ever changed. But all that changed when we went to Willy's. We got attacked the moment we stepped inside. Xander changed, Red. It was like watching a totally different person; he took those demons down like it was nothing. And then, he tied Willy up and began questioning him. At one point, he just shot at him when he kept saying he didn't know anything. The look in his eyes... It was so cold, like ice. I was really afraid, Willow."

Willow could hear the tremor of fear in Faith's voice as she described last night's goings on. It scared her even more, knowing that someone as strong and impulsive as Faith, a person who wasn't scared of much, could feel fear of someone.

"I'll talk to him. We have to bring him back, Faith, we just have to."

Ending the call, Faith dialed Xander's cellphone and told him about the appointment she'd made for him with Willow. Promising her that he would be there, he hung up. Taking a deep breath, Alex steeled himself for the first confrontation. There would be many questions, many accusations, even screaming but he had to get through it. His feelings were a mixed jumble of anger, apprehension but most of all, fear. Willow had been his best friend since childhood and she wouldn't let him get away with anything. Part of him wanted desperately to make things right again with the others, part of him wanted to flee like he had done all those years ago. But he had to squash the latter thought. Something had been missing from his life. A part of him had stayed in this town and unless he recaptured it, he would die. Maybe not physically, but die he would nonetheless. It was with these thoughts that he got ready.

Chapter 10

1213 PM, July 14th, Sunnydale Park, Sunnydale, CA

Willow was fidgeting on the bench as she watched her surroundings. Parents playing with their children, people cycling or rollerblading. Walking their dogs. Everybody around her seemed to be having a good time. Everybody except her. Here she was, ready to meet someone who was closer to her then a brother could ever be. That was if she had a brother. But then again, she was an only child so how would she know how close her and her brother would have been as opposed to how close she was to Xander? But then again, she didn't have a brother. Xander knew everything about her, every little detail that was Willow Rosenberg. Would a brother know that much? Maybe she'd talk to Buffy about it, her having a sibling and such. But Dawn was Buffy's sister and would that have any effect on how close the relationship would be? However, Dawn wasn't really Buffy's sister. She was just energy given human form. But the monks had removed the energy and made her permanent.

"You're babbling." "Huh?"

Willow turned around, coming face to face with Xander, correction, Alex. He wanted to be called Alex. NO! This is Xander, not Alex. Xander! Remember that!

"You get that frown on your face, your nose is all scrunched up? Dead giveaway." "Hi Xander", she said in a high pitched voice and with a wave of her right hand.

Alex couldn't help but smile at the antics of his Willow. She hadn't changed a bit. The hair was long and straight as he remembered her having it in high school. Nothing about her reminded him of the girl who'd gone to college and seemed to have forgotten all about him that first year. The mannerisms were still the same. It was as if time had stood still for Willow Rosenberg. Something he'd wished could have been true for all of them.

'Great going, Wills, he's gonna think you're a moron, instead of a mature, young woman', she admonished herself.

Taking a deep breath to calm the butterflies in her stomach, she straightened herself and looked at her oldest friend. Instead of the tall, lanky guy she'd known, he looked ... chiseled. A dark green, thick cotton button-down Columbia shirt over black Dockers and shoes, a dark brown leather aviator's jacket and stylish black Ray Ban's on his nose, Xander looked hot. Willow couldn't help it as a tiny voice in her mind supplied that thought, causing her to blush even more then she already did.

"Hello Willow, how are you?" "Good! I'm good! Goodness and me we're a pair today. Yes sir. Nothing but good feelings today." "Glad to hear it", Alex laughed, feeling some of the tension leave his body.

Willow looked as nervous as he felt; he'd been here an hour already, waiting for her to show up. Gathering the courage he needed to go over and speak with her. This was it, the first step towards redemption.

'You'd better not screw up, kid.'

"Easy, Will. Just breathe deeply a few times. Don't want you hyperventilating." "I'm okay, it's just... You're back!" "You hungry?" "No! I mean, no, I'm not. Don't really have an appetite right now. But if you want something, maybe we could go over to that hot dog vendor. Or maybe somewhere else?" "No, no, that's okay. I'm not really hungry either. Walk with me?"

Alex motioned for her to follow him and began walking slowly through the park, Willow falling into step next to him. The pair walked on for several minutes in tense silence.

"I've missed you."

Alex looked up at the small voice that spoke up. Willow had her head down, watching her feet as they walked, her hands clasped together in front of her.

"It's true, you know? I really missed my best friend."

Alex took a deep breath to calm his frayed nerves and to push down all the resentment and anger inside of him.

"How is that possible? Buffy didn't leave town as far as I know, so how could you miss her?"

Willow could hear the undertone of anger and pain in his question, shock, remorse and anger filling her that he could even think such a thing. She stopped walking, turning towards Alex and looked him straight in the eyes as he turned around and walked the few steps back to stand next to her again.

"Xander, you're my best friend!" "Really? You have a funny way of showing it, Wills. A real funny way."

The accusatory undertone in his voice felt like a slap against her face. It also strengthened her resolve to get things out into the open, to pull her Xander back from whatever dark hole he was in, to pull him back into the Scoobies' ranks.

"What's that supposed to mean, Xander?" "Well, from what I was told, a best friend supports you. Defends you when others try to hurt you. Stands up to bullies. That sort of thing. Like I did for you, against Cordy when we were in kindergarten. And any time after that." "So you're saying that I've never stood up for you? Is that it?" "You said it, I didn't."

Alex had resumed walking, his hands stuck deeply in his pockets. Willow couldn't believe what she was hearing, her mind trying to process what he'd just accused her of. Almost running to catch up with him, she grabbed his left arm and turned him around.

"That's the second time you've accused me of that. First two nights ago, when you showed up and just now! How can you say that when you know I've always been on your side. I've always defended you, stood up for you, just like you've always done for me. Tell me, how can you say that", Willow pleaded, her eyes bright with unshed tears.

"You let them take away my choice, Willow. You let them take away my choice when you agreed to keep me from doing my part. You did it when the Sisterhood of Jhe was trying to bring forth the Apocalypse. And again after we defeated Glory. I was always your best friend, me and Jesse, we were the three musketeers! Yet, as soon as Buffy came to town, that was history. Oh, not right away, but within a few short years, I was relegated to the back row of the theater. It was always Willow and Buffy, best friends. Remember college? You didn't want to be seen with a townie. How many times were you actually happy to see me when I came to visit? How many times did you tell me you had something or other to do so you didn't have to be seen with me? Or all the times when you sided with Buffy against me? Oh, he's just jealous. No, Xander is Xander. He doesn't know better, so please feel free to ignore him."

Willow could hear the betrayal in his voice; she was sure she could see it in his eyes, were he not wearing the dark glasses. It cut her through her soul, forming a lump in her throat, making it difficult to speak. Reaching out, she placed a soft hand against his cheek, softly stroking, her thumb brushing the area underneath his eye.

"Oh Xander, we only did that because we wanted to keep you safe. Don't you understand that? Neither Buffy nor I wanted to lose you. If that had happened...", she didn't finish her sentence, the lump in her throat cutting off any speech.

"I'm not a child, Willow. I knew damn well what was at stake. Hell, I was the one who found out about Buffy being the Slayer. I've fought side by side with you time and again. I've saved each of you at one time or another. I saved your life, I saved Giles' life. I've saved Buffy's life I don't know how many times! Even as soldier guy I was the one keeping the demons and vamps off Buffy's back!

And if it wasn't for me, the Judge would still be walking around, wouldn't he? Who was it that figured out the text only talked about forged weapons? Who was it that appropriated the rocket launcher? Who was it that came up with the battleplan to take down the Mayor and his goons? Or designed the bomb, got the materials and placed them inside the High School? Or led the students in the attack? Who was it that saved all your lives that night with those Apocalypse Demons?

It was all my choice, Willow. You had no right deciding for me, like I'm some little kid who doesn't know what dangers lurk around. Buffy had no right. Neither does Giles. I can get killed crossing the street. I can get hit by a falling piano. Over those things, I have no control. Whether I want to help you fight evil, that I do control. It is my decision. Nobody else has the right to decide for me, what's best for me or how I should live my life. The moment you did that, you showed how little you thought of me. You showed exactly what you thought of me. Namely, that I'm too stupid to do anything remotely worthwhile.

Well, I'm sorry I'm not a straight A student, I'm sorry I don't know any Wiccan stuff. I'm sorry I don't have Slayer powers; I'm sorry I don't have all the knowledge of the Watcher's Council at my beck and call and I'm sorry I'm not a chipped or souled vampire. I'm just Alexander Harris, one hundred percent human. No powers, no grand destiny. I'm just an ordinary human being. As such, I have the right to choose as guaranteed by the Universal Human Rights. That means that you don't get to choose what's best for me. Nor does Buffy Summers gets to choose what's best for me; or Giles. The only one who has that right, is me, Alexander Harris."

Silent tears ran down Willow's cheeks as Alex made his speech, her heart aching with each word he spoke. Every word he uttered crumbled another piece of her self-esteem. Every word destroyed another part of her self-image. No longer was she the pure, sweet Willow, the one who stood by her friends. The one who helped them, encouraged them, made them do the impossible. Instead, she saw what she had become; a young woman, who, because of her superior intellect and Wiccan powers, thought that she knew better then others what was right or wrong. She had become that which she had been fighting. She had made decisions regarding other people, simply because unconsciously, she felt she knew better what was good for them. Without knowing it, Willow had believed herself to be superior to others. The realization hit her like a ton of bricks.

"Goddess, what have I done", she whispered softly before throwing her arms around Alex, burying her face against his chest.

"I'm sorry, Xander. I'm so sorry. Please forgive me. I'm sorry, I'm sorry..."

Alex stood rigid for several long seconds, unsure of what to do as Willow's tears seeped into his shirt, his anger swirling through his body like fire. Her arms were tightly wound around him, sobs wracking her small body. Finally, shaking off his surprise, he wrapped his arms around her, pulling her tight against him. He held her tightly, rubbing her back slowly as her words penetrated the pain surrounding his heart.


1254 PM, July 14th, Sunnydale Park, Sunnydale, CA

Alex and Willow were sitting side by side on a bench, nearest to the southern entrance to the park. Willow had finally managed to stop her crying, her eyes still puffy and red. Neither one had said anything for the last few minutes. Neither one knew how to start up the conversation after Willow's breakdown. Willow was surreptitiously sneaking glances at Xander, marveling at how much he had changed, while still retaining much of the old Xander.

"Xander?" "Yes, Willow?" "Are you still mad at me?"

Alex chuckled lightly, the question making Willow sound like a five-year old instead of the young woman she really was. The look on her face was full of hope and his heart nearly broke at the sight. Suddenly he felt as if all the pain he'd suffered all these years, real or imagined had disappeared.

"Come here."

He opened his arms and Willow moved into them quickly, a deep sigh escaping her lips as she snuggled close to him, her head on his chest. The beating of his heart was music to her ears; with a start, Willow realized it was one of the things she'd missed. So many little things that she'd taken for granted. Only now did she fully understand the extent of the pain and loneliness she'd experienced without her best friend.

"You didn't answer my question, Xander." "What question?" "Well, you know..." "No, I don't." "Yes, you do! I just asked it." "Well, I've been hit in the head a few times, so my memory isn't what it used to be. Could you, like maybe, refresh it for me?"

Willow could hear the goofy grin on his face as she shifted her position into a more comfortable one. An answering smile played across her lips.

"Are you still mad at me, Xan?"

Willow could feel Xander's chest heave as he took a deep breath, preparing herself for... something... anything. Even though it seemed that Xander had forgiven her, indicated by her current position against his chest, there was still a lot of stuff that they needed to talk about.

"No. No, I'm not angry at you, Wills. At least, not anymore. I am, however, disappointed and hurt by your lack of trust in me."

Willow's breath hitched as he said those words, knowing that although he'd forgiven her, things between them were far from being okay again.

"I'm sorry. I know it doesn't help much, but it's all I can say. If there was any way I could take the pain and disappointment away, I would do it in a heartbeat. I just hope that someday, we'll recapture what we had before." "I hope so too, Wills, I really do."

Nothing more was said as the two childhood friends held on to each other, trying to recapture at least a little part of the old times, the better times.

"I'm hungry."

Willow giggled softly; that was her Xander-shaped friend, alright. Always thinking with his stomach.

"We could go to Mamma Doria's, they serve the best Italian food in town." "You buying?"

Her clear laughter rang through the park as Willow looked at her friend. Just like old times.

"What's it this time, Xan? Forgot your wallet?" "Nope, just that the last time we were eating together, I footed the bill. So, now it's your turn", he returned with a lopsided grin.

"You remembered that?" "Hey, when it comes to food, I'm the master." "Sure, no problem. I'll just sell the house, my car and everything else I own", Willow answered, laughing.

"Hey! I resent that! You make it sound as if I am some sort of bottomless pit!" "Xan, when it comes to food, you are", Willow countered, ticking him on the tip of his nose. "Well, I'll try to restrain myself to half the menu, then", Alex said, a mock-suffering expression gracing his features.

A few minutes later, after a leisurely stroll through Sunnydale's center, they'd reached Mama Doria's. From the outside, it looked just like a any other shop in town, all concrete and steel. It was the inside, however, that gave it ambiance. The light colors of the walls was complemented by the old furniture, that seemed to be straight from a farmer's dining room. Dark wood, smoothed over from years of use, covered with soft pillows for comfort. Large tables with checkered table cloths and small candles burning on top. The soft strings of some classical Italian music wafting through the air combined with the heady smells of garlic, olive oil, Chianti and other uniquely Italian foods and spices could make you believe you'd stepped back into time in some small Italian village. After ordering their food, an awkward silence developed again.

"Is this how it's going to be from now on?" "What do you mean, Wills?" "These moments filled with awkward silences, furtive looks? We never used to be like this. We could talk for hours, about anything! You'd make silly jokes, I'd laugh. Now it seems like we've lost all that." "Willow, I've been away for over eight years. And not under the best of circumstances. If there is something I've learned over the years, it's that some things take time. We're talking now. Things aren't what they used to be, but in time, it'll get better. Maybe not like it was but certainly a lot better."

Willow's smile threatened to split her face as she grabbed hold of his hands, squeezing them tightly. At that moment, their food arrived and both friends started eating in companionable silence.

"So, what have I missed?"

Willow looked up, grinning, licking some sauce off her lips.

"Well, Tara and I are still together after all these years. Although we've both found out we like guys also." "Wills!", exclaimed a shocked Alex, almost choking on a forkful of bisteca. Pretty soon, all the anger, hurt and resentment were forgotten as two once best friends began to rekindle their lifelong bond.


1631 PM, July 14th, near the Magic Box, Sunnydale, CA

"I had a great time today, Xander", Willow said, as she hugged Alex tightly. "Me too. I'm glad I agreed to meet you." "I still don't understand why you don't want to come in. I'm sure the others will be glad to see you. I can guarantee there will be no more fighting." "Willow, not right now. I've had a great day so far. Let's not push it, okay?" "Buffy, huh?" "Yeah. But I'll be by tonight. Gotta pick up Faith, we're patrolling together again. Besides, there's some stuff I need to check out before then." "What do you want me to tell Buffy?"

Xander looked up at the sky, watching the sun as it slowly descended, thinking deeply. Thinking of the blonde slayer gave him an ache in his heart.

"Tell her ... Tell her I'll see her tonight." "She's missed you terribly, Xander." "Willow, please. Not now." "Yes, Xander, now", Willow answered forcefully, holding his hands tightly in her own.

"You need to hear this, whether you want to or not. I was a wreck when you turned up missing. Dawn blamed herself for weeks. Giles.. Well, he felt like he'd failed another one of his children, what with Anya dying and everything. And you are one of his children, Xander. If you believe one thing, believe that. You're like a son to him."

"He's my father, Wills", Alex whispered softly, his eyes tightly shut, keeping the tears in. For years, he'd loathed his life, how miserable his parents made him feel. How they ground his self-respect into the ground. Told him he'd never amount to anything. The countless beatings and emotional abuse he suffered. Everything he'd hidden behind a mask of humor and goofing off. Until Buffy Summers came into his life. With her, came the two persons he'd come to see as his real parents. Joyce Summers and Rupert Giles.

Joyce Summers had never belittled him or put him down. She'd made him feel better about himself, just by giving him a smile or by ruffling his hair. He still remembered the first time she'd found him curled up at the back entrance of her house. His father had come home again, drunk as usual. He still remembered the sound of the baseball bat as it made contact with his chest. The way he'd hit the wall. The frantic run for the front door and his mad scramble out of the house. He still didn't know how or why he'd gone to the Summers' residence nor how he'd gotten there.

Joyce had taken one look at the bedraggled form of Xander Harris and had ushered him in without a word. She had never asked any questions, just being there for him, taking care of him. And finally, he'd told her everything. He told her everything, everything that none of his friends knew, everything that was rotten in his life. And Joyce never judged him, never belittled him. All she did was be there for him, giving silent support, a shoulder to cry on, ears to listen. Buffy never knew that on the nights the abuse became too much, he'd come to her home and Joyce would take him in. Tend to his bruises. Hold him as he finally couldn't keep it in anymore and cried hot tears. How he'd sneak out in the early morning hours to go back to his house. The place where he kept his clothes and other possessions. His home was the Summers residence. He'd made that distinction early on and to this day it was the place where he felt safe.

Rupert Giles, for all his British stiff upper lip behavior, had become the other person in his life that he could look up to. At first, the Watcher was someone he could annoy with his jokes and general obnoxious behavior. But later, as he got to know him better, Xander began to look up to him more and more. Beginning to see a man who had more in common with him than he would have first thought. A man who had given him more chances, more help, more encouragement than his own father had given him. He began to see a man who himself had a checkered past, who had overcome that past and grown to become a man to be respected. Slowly, Xander began to realize that if Giles could do it, so could he. The late-nights researching that turned into quiet conversations between the two of them as the others slept, were some of his fondest memories.

"Then tell him, Xander. Tell him because he's never stopped blaming himself for you leaving. He felt like he'd failed you somehow." "I will, I promise." "You need to talk to Buffy too." "Wills, you're pushing it", Alex growled. "Xander, please. You have to talk to her. Out of all of us, she's the one who took it the hardest. When we couldn't find you, she'd go out alone and hunt. That's what she did. She didn't patrol anymore, she'd hunt. She'd take risks, huge risks. She shut all of us out, Xander. And she nearly died because of that." "What? What do you mean?"

When Willow seemed reluctant to continue, Alex gripped her upper arms, squeezing and shaking her.

"Tell me what happened!" "She had found a large nest of Gra' Loch demons and went in, alone as usual. Buffy barely got back home. Dawn found her the next morning on the front porch, nearly bled to death. She was in the hospital for three weeks. After that, she wouldn't come out of her room. She wouldn't talk, barely ate. We had to intervene somehow so all of us came to her place. Faith finally got her so mad, Buffy attacked her but as weak as she was, she couldn't do much damage. Buffy broke down, Xander. She broke down, crying like I've never seen her cry before.

After that, Buffy finally told us why she was behaving so irrationally. Xander, you left. The one person she could count on, the one person who had always been there for her, who protected her, had left her. She needed you more then she's needed anyone else, Xander. She blames herself for pushing away the one person who held and protected her heart. "

A punch to the solar plexus couldn't have hurt as much as those words from Willow had. Only Willow's arms stopped Alex from falling down, his legs feeling rubbery all of a sudden. The tears he'd managed to keep at bay burst forth, trailing hot tracks down his face.

"No!", he whispered. "Yes, Xander. It took a long time for her to recover and even now she's not back to her old self. When she smiles, it doesn't reach her eyes. Buffy doesn't have fun anymore, like in the old days. We have to drag her out of the house to go dancing and even then, she just sits there, not really watching the crowd. She's had some dates but none of them have gone beyond first date status. When we ask, she just says they're not really her type." "And that has to do with me because...", Alex asked, slowly regaining his senses. "Because she's measuring them against you, who you are, what you are, Xander! Don't you get it? She loves you, Xan! Buffy loves you! When you left, her whole world was ripped apart! Her mother had died, and now you left! To her, it proved that she was destined to be alone. That everything, every life she touched ended in pain and suffering." "That is not true! Willow, you know that that is not true. Without Buffy, all of us would have been dead years ago!" "I know that, you know that. But with you leaving, that last piece of hope was ripped from her heart. Buffy needs you, Xan." "I'm not in love with her, not anymore."

Willow smiled softly at her friend, caressing his cheek.

"I only said that she needs you. I never said you were in love with her, my Xander-shaped friend. Now why would you say something like that, I wonder? Is it because you want to deny to yourself that you still have feelings for her?", Willow stated with a small smile.

"Willow, that was ages ago." "Maybe, but I can see it in your eyes. You may not be in love, but there is something there, just like with Buffy. You both need to heal; you both need to forgive the other. Stop hiding behind that wall of blame you use to protect yourself from living. Xander, it's time for both of you to let go of the past, stop merely existing and start living again. I love you, Xander and I'm hurting because I can see how much you hurt here," Willow said softly, placing a hand over his heart, feeling the steady thumb as it beat, pushing the blood throughout his body, keeping him alive.

Alex couldn't think of anything to say, so profoundly had her words shaken him. It was just too much to take in right now; the need for some solitude to put these revelations in perspective was great. With a soft kiss to her forehead, Xander left Willow and walked away, not once looking back. If he had, he would have seen the sad, tear-filled yes of one Buffy Anne Summers staring at his retreating back.


1654 PM, July 14th, Garden of Eden Cemetary, Sunnydale, CA

Alex had to force himself not to run the whole way to this quiet place, instead taking the SUV and driving the two mile distance. Back to where it all began that lone night, 8 years ago. Again, like that night, he stood in front of the headstone, signifying the final resting place of the one person, who was more of a mother to him than his own had been for most of his life. Squatting in front of the gray marble, he ran his fingers reverently over the engraved lettering, gathering his jumbled thoughts.

"Hey Joyce... I mean... Mom."

Taking off his glasses, Alex vigorously rubbed his eyes, trying to push back the tears that burned at the edges.

"God, it feels so weird calling you that, you know? I've never said it to your face when you were alive. I wish I had. I wish so many things, mom. Maybe, if you had been my real mother, I'd maybe turned out to be a better person. Even so, those few years that you were with us...."

Alex took a deep, shuddering breath, his chest feeling constricted, like a weight was pressing on it; his throat felt full, a large lump cutting off all sound as his head dropped onto his chest.

"You saved me, mom. You saved me. Every kind glance you'd throw my way. Every time you'd ruffle my hair, shaking your head because I'd done or said something goofy. Every time you held me after I ran away from the hell that was my house. Every time you tucked me in. Countless little things. Things others take for granted. Things other people don't even notice. Every time you did one of those seemingly little things, you showed me more kindness than I've ever received from anybody else.

You enabled me to see the world through new eyes, Joyce. You showed me what it was like to be part of a real family. You made me feel loved. No, no you didn't", he said, shaking his head slightly, taking another deep breath to continue.

"You didn't make me feel loved. You loved me. With all my faults, all my stupidity, warts and all, you loved me. You took in a stray, the son of the town drunk and rebuilt his broken soul. You saved me from the darkness of despair and loneliness, mom and for that I'm eternally grateful."

Biting back a sob, Alex looked up at the slowly setting sun, running a hand through his short hair before turning back to the gravestone.

"I hope you understand why I had to leave. I didn't want to. I had to. Even if it was for the wrong reasons. Too much had happened. This town. It eats you alive if you let it. I needed to find myself, just like you said. I needed the time away to find out who Alexander Harris really is. Remember how we talked about it, during the last year of high school? That road trip of yours you told me about you went on after you graduated high school? How you told me not to plan a specific route, just to get out onto the open road and drive. Let the road take me where it leads. But again, the Harris luck struck as usual", he stated, chuckling.

"Well, I finally did it. Maybe not a road trip, per se. More like a trip to all the darkest, filthiest places man has ever known. But it helped a lot. I got to know Alexander Harris. The real Alexander Harris. I finally know who I am. I'm not proud of some of the things I've done. But I'm not disgusted about myself either, not like I used to be. I think... no, I hope, you're proud of me in some small way. I hope that you look down on me with a smile, knowing I am doing my best to do the right thing, even if it sometimes seems that the right thing is indistinguishable from the wrong thing.

I owe you a lot, Joyce. I owe you my life, my sanity and my soul. I can never repay you for all that you've done for me. God knows I tried. I promised you I'd take care of your girls. I know you had hoped I'd be here to do it, but I couldn't. I just couldn't. I did my best though. I hope you know that. I have made sure they never wanted for anything. Hell, Buffy and Dawn seem to have done alright. I wish I could have done more but I couldn't stay here back then. I'm not sure I can stay here now."

Alex finally gave up the fight and let the tears come, burning a path down his cheeks as his fingers ran over Joyce Summers' name, his breathing hitched.

"Today, actually, not so long ago, a friend told me what almost happened after I left. You almost lost Buffy again. I never meant for it to go that far. You have to know that.", he pleaded.

"I never knew that she'd felt that way about me. That one person could have such an impact on someone's life. No, that's not true. I knew that one person could have that much of an impact. You did on me. I just never saw myself as having that much power over someone else's life. And yet, because of me, Buffy almost died. Not because I screwed up again and put her in danger. No, me leaving pushed her over the edge and she almost died because of that. I'm sorry. I'm so, so very sorry. If I had known.... If only I had known..."

Standing up, he wiped his eyes with his palms before putting the glasses back on.

"Willow told me something else today too. She told me Buffy loves me. Me! Can you believe it? The girl I've loved for what seemed almost my whole life, loves me! Me, the Zeppo! Screw up, good-for-nothing, son of the town drunk Harris. I loved her once, but you know that already. You could see it every time I looked at her. I could tell you knew. That small shake of your head when you saw how oblivious she was. Even when I was with Cordy or Anya, I loved her. But I fell out of love with her a long time ago. That night she ripped my heart out was the night I banished her from my heart. I think I ripped out the capacity to love out of my heart then too because I've never loved anyone since.

And you know what the funny thing is, mom? I've got these feelings inside of me that are all jumbled up. I mean, when Willow told me that Buffy loves me and mind you, I don't know if it's true, there was this part of me that was jumping for joy. But a larger part of me was, is feeling like a nightmare has come true. I don't know what I'm feeling for her. And then there is Faith. Gorgeous, slightly crazy, in-your-face Faith. There has always been that attraction between us. When I saw her that night in the cemetery, my heart was beating so hard, I could feel it in my throat. Every time we've been together in the last few days.... It's been hard to keep from kissing her. She's just as screwed up as I am. Maybe even more so. She and I, we're more alike than you'd think, the only difference being that she didn't have a wonderful person like you around to help her.

There is something there, mom. It's driving me nuts right now. Right now, it's like I'm being torn apart in two directions. It's not a feeling I like. I need more time. More time to sort out my feelings. To find out what's inside of me. To find out what I'm really feeling for either of them. It's not fair to either of them and it's not fair to me. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'll always do my best to keep my promise to you but also to be honest about how I feel to either of them. And right now, if you asked me, I couldn't give you an answer. Once this thing is over and we're still standing, I'm going away again. This time, to sort out how I feel. I do promise one thing to you, though. I won't stay away so long."

With a long look, Alex turned around and walked back to his car. When he had opened the door and was about to step in, he cast a last look at Joyce's headstone.

"I love you, Joyce. Thank you for everything."

Chapter 11

1637 PM, July 14th, Magic Box, Sunnydale, CA

Willow stepped inside, after watching her lifelong friend walk away, his shoulders slumped. She felt bad for telling him about the aftermath of his departure, but it was the only way she could think of to get him back. There was so much anger and resentment in him, much of it deserved but it was time for all of them to heal. And if it took telling him the state Buffy had been in, then so be it. Xander had always had a soft spot for the stubborn Slayer; how many times had he not put his life at risk to save hers. Or the way they argued? Nobody dared to talk back to Buffy Summers, lest they incur her wrath. Nobody except Xander. He'd tell her exactly what he thought about her behavior, point out her faults, tell her to get her head on straight. Of all of them, Xander was the only one who would go toe to toe with Buffy.

"Wills? You okay?"

Buffy's voice shook the redhead out of her thoughts. Looking up into Buffy's eyes, Willow noticed how red they were as well as the puffiness beneath her eyes. Her friend had been crying and it hurt Willow more then she could bear. Instinctively, she reached out, pulling Buffy into a tight hug.

"What was that for?" "You looked like you needed it, Buffy", Willow said, motioning to her puffy eyes. "Yeah, well, I was watching some tearjerker movie in back. You know how I get from one of those sappy stories." "Sure you do", Willow said, a knowing smile lighting her face. "It wouldn't have anything to do with me meeting up with Xander, now would it?" "What made you think that? Do I look like I care what he does", Buffy asked defiantly, although her eyes spoke quite the opposite.

Willow noticed it too, giving her best friend her resolve-face. And as usual, it worked perfectly. Buffy walked away from her and sat down heavily at the table near the bookcases, resting her head on her arms.

"Fine! Fine already! I do care! So just shoot me for caring for the dumb jerk, okay? He comes back after all these years and what happens? My whole life is thrown back into a turmoil! As if my life isn't complicated enough, he comes back from wherever, throwing everything I've worked for into a blender and hits frappe!"

The blonde Slayer looked up, fresh tears coursing down her face.

"He hates me, doesn't he?"

Willow was by her side in seconds, wrapping her arms around Buffy, hugging her.

"No, he doesn't hate you. He's angry, Buffy. That's all there is to it. He's angry and he has every right to be so. You know that, we've talked about it before. But give it some time, he'll come around. You'll see, in a few days, he's going to be coming in here, driving us all crazy with his antics again. It'll be like the old days." "You sure", Buffy asked in a small voice.

"Buffy, I know so. Right now, things are tense between all of us. You don't put 8 years of anger and resentment behind you like that. He and I talked today. We spent the day together, getting to know each other again. He and I, we're good now. Not like in the old days, but it'll get there. And he is going to want to talk to you. Soon. He just has a lot of things to work through at the moment. Just like the rest of us."

Willow offered Buffy a tissue and after several minutes of silence, Buffy had managed to regain her composure.

"So, what did you do today?" "Well, we went to the park, talked, I had a breakdown, complete with babbling and lots of hugging. Then we went and had a late lunch at Mama Doria's. After that, we walked back here, talking." "So, you had a breakdown too, huh?" "Yep! It wasn't pretty. Tears so don't go with my complexion."

"What", Willow asked her friend, after noticing the arched eyebrow Buffy was giving her.

"Oh, nothing. Just wondering if you're channeling Cordelia." Willow started spluttering, trying to form a coherent sentence.

"That is a mean thing to say, Summers!" "Hey, I'm not the one talking about my complexion, Rosenburg!"

The two friends looked at each other before bursting into laughter. When after several minutes, it had finally subsided and they both had managed some semblance of control, Buffy asked the one question that was on her mind as she had watched Xander walking away.

"Hey Wills, just now, before he left, what did you tell Xander that caused him to go white as a sheet?"

Willow nearly dropped the bottle of water she got from the small fridge at Buffy's question.

"Willow?" "I- uhm.. I asked him if he.. if he... he wanted to come in and talk to you? Yes, if he wanted to come in and talk to you."

Giving the witch an appraising look, Buffy shook her head.

"Nope, try again, Wills. You are no good at lying. You should never play poker, you'd lose every time. So, what did you tell him?" "Nothing, I swear", Willow said with a panic-filled voice. "Wills?"

Buffy stood in front of her friend, eyebrows raised, waiting for an answer. Finally, Willow broke under Buffy's scrutiny.

"I might have told him... that is, I might have let it slip that..." "Willow Rosenburg, I am waiting." "I might have mentioned what happened to you after you fought those Gra'Loch demons and that you have feelings for him", she finished in a small voice, not daring to look up at her friend.

Buffy, for her part, was shocked. It felt as if she'd been kicked in the chest by a mule.

"Please, no, tell me you didn't..."

Willow was by her side in a flash, helping Buffy to sit down again as it seemed all her strength had left her.

"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, Buffy, but I had to tell him. I had to make him understand. You're both hurting so much over this. I can't stand to see my friends hurt, you know that. I just wanted him to know how much of an impact he has on your life. Maybe that way, he can take the next step. Before, he didn't want to even see you. He didn't want me to even mention your name! Now he knows how much him leaving hurt you, he might get over his fears and finally talk to you."

Willow hugged Buffy tightly to her, stroking her back and hair.

"You've both been hurt by this mess. We all have but you and Xander most of all. It's time to heal the wounds, Buffy. The way to do that is to get everything out in the open. No secrets. Just honesty. He has a right to know what happened." "I know you're right, Wills. It's just ..." "It's just what, Buffy? You think you have to be strong all the time? You think that you're the only one who can carry the burden of being the Slayer? You think that you have to be alone for the rest of your life, just because of what your destiny is? Well, guess what? You don't have to be the strong one all the time. You have friends to rely on, to lean on. How many times have we leaned on you for support, hmm? How many times have you been there for all of us?

You're not the only Slayer anymore, either. There's Faith and Cassandra. And what about Xander? In his own way, he too is protecting the world. Maybe not from Hellspawn but from people who think that their way of thinking is the only way and everyone who doesn't think like that should be killed. In a way, they are worse then any demons we've come across."

"I know all that, Willow. Believe me, I do. But don't you get it? I'm scared!"

With this revelation, Buffy Summers jumped up from her chair and started pacing around the store.

"I'm scared, Willow. I nearly got myself killed the first time he left. I'm scared that if I let him in and he leaves again, I won't survive. My mom raised me to be a strong woman; it took a lot of hard work to get to the point that I could be what mom raised me to be and I'm afraid that I can't be that strong woman if I open up again. To anyone." "So just because you're scared to love Xander, you're willing to let all the anger between you two continue to grow?" "Willow! Of course I love him! I love you! I love Giles! Hell, I even love Faith, crazy and exhibionist she may be. It's just...." "It's just that you are also IN love with Xander Harris, Buffy. Don't look at me like that. Did you think we didn't know? We've known for years, Buffy. Nobody would go through what you did for a friend, no matter how good of a friend it is. I was devastated when he left, but you were beyond that." "What?"

Willow couldn't help the small smile of triumph at her friend's incredulous looking face.

"Admit it, Buff, you're in love with the Xand-Man. He rocks your world, tilts it upside down, sideways from Sunday. That's why you're so scared right now. That's why you're trying so hard to keep distance in your heart, instead of going with what it says to you."

Silence reigned for several long moments as Buffy Summers tried to reconcile what her mind was saying with what she felt in her heart. Willow silently watched the raging battle of emotions in her friend, hoping that Buffy would finally let go of the past.

"I'm doomed, aren't I?" "No, you just need to let go of the past, Buffy. Let go of all the pain, anger and resentment. Then start accepting what is in your heart."

There was a tense silence as Buffy contemplated Willow's words, then she looked up into her friend's eyes.

"I do love him, as my best friend. But more then that, I am in love with him, Wills. I see couples walking down the street and in my mind, I see me and Xander in their place. And I'm scared because I don't know if he still feels the same way. And I know that he is The One. And if he doesn't feel the same way about me, then there's nothing left for me. I'll be alone for the rest of my life because nobody else measures up to him."

Willow was floored by Buffy's words; she and the others had known that Buffy had strong feelings regarding Xander. They all knew she was in love with him, although she never had said it in so many words. But having a breakdown like the one she'd had, not to mention the short string of one-night dates were all clear indications of Buffy's feelings. And the lack of any real smiles like the ones Xander brought to her lips was another clear indication of how bad Buffy Summers had it. But this was the first time Buffy herself had said it. It was the first time she had even admitted that, for her, it was Xander and no one else. Every girl, every woman knew what 'The One' meant.

"Buffy, you and him need to talk. Really talk. Get it out in the open. Rant, rave, scream and throw things but you have to really talk about your feelings. That's the only way you'll be able to go forward."

"I know, believe me, I know. But what if he doesn't feel the same way anymore? It's been years." "Well, that is the chance you will have to take, Buff. But you have to take the first step and that is to get back the friendship you once had. Once you've got that, you can build from there, one step at a time. If you are meant to be together, the feelings between the two of you will continue to grow." "When did you get to be so wise", Buffy asked Willow as they hugged. "Just call me Obi-Wan Rosenburg, student of Yoda Giles and friend to Harris Skywalker and Princess Buffy Organa."

Giles and Wesley walked into the shop to the sound of laughter.


2213 PM, July 14th, Magic Box, Sunnydale, CA

The Scooby Gang reconvened at Giles' shop after patrol. The night had been eerily quiet, not a trace of any vampires or other demons anywhere. At any other time, this would have been more then enough to give them pause, instinctively knowing that something big was brewing. But with everything that had happened in the past few days, they knew for certain that whatever was coming their way, would be bigger then any threat they'd faced before. It was a sobering experience.

"You know what I hate about these kinds of situations? The damn waiting. It's not enough that we have no idea who or what we're up against, they have to play games with us too", Cassandra grunted as she slammed her weapons into the locker with more force then was necessary.

"I think it's written somewhere in the Demon's Guide to Evilness on how to treat the good guys." "Cordelia is right. I think it's Chapter 14, How to aggravate, annoy, confuse, befuddle and generally play with the good guy's heads", Dawn chimed in, high-fiving with the former May Queen.

"Yeah, well, it still sucks. I'm all worked up; need to burn off some steam before I go mad here." "I'm sure you and I can come up with a few ways to vent all that energy, pet." "Spike, I'm sure there are girls out there who fall all over themselves when you talk like that, but rest assured, I'm not one of them", Cassandra said annoyed as she lightly punched the vampire.

"Aah, you know you want to, Cas. Just admit it, if not to me, then to yourself. We can have such good times", he continued, waggling his eyebrows at her.

With a disgusted snort, Cassandra turned away from him and sat down in one of the chairs around the research table.

"Not to be the one to add to the Doom-and-Gloom mood we're in, but shouldn't Faith and Xander have been back by now", Buffy asked from her place at the table.

"I'm sure they're alright, Buffy", Willow said, sending her an encouraging smile.

While the girls were talking, Angel motioned Giles and Wesley over to the other side of the store.

"I ran into an old contact of mine here tonight." "I take it this old contact had some news?" "I'm not sure, Wes. He said he couldn't talk then but wanted to meet with me later. Said he had some information for me regarding the current situation. I'm going over there in a few minutes." "It could be a trap. Wesley and I already think this whole situation is some form of divide-and-conquer strategy that our opponent is weaving around us. A series of confrontations designed to do who knows what." "I know it could be a trap, Giles. I also know right now, we don't have any information save the supposed look of this guy. Any scrap of information is welcome."

Giles sighed as he removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose.

"You are not going alone to this meeting, Angel." "I think I can handle myself, Giles." "I have no doubt of that, Angel, but I would feel better if you had backup. We can't afford to loose anyone now, if indeed this is a trap." "I'll go with him", Wesley offered. "Excellent, Wesley. Take the radios with you and keep an open line at all times. If things look to go bad, call me immediately."

With a curt nod, both men walked to the door and went outside.

"Where are they going, Giles", Tara asked softly as she walked up to him, rubbing her arms as if to ward off a chill.

Looking down at the worried face of the blond Wicca, Giles allowed a soft smile to graze his lips. Pulling her against him in a one-armed hug, he again marveled at how much he'd come to think of this motley crew as his children. He surely couldn't love any of them any less as if they were his own.

"Angel and Wesley are going to meet an old informant of Angel's. Seems that person might know something that could help us in our current predicament." "Giles?" "Yes, Tara?" "I'm scared. I mean, whenever we're fighting, I'm scared but this time... It's different. I have this feeling of impending doom. Even more so then when we were fighting Glory." "I know how you feel, Tara. I feel the same way every time. But you know what? Every time, we come through it without problem. I know that this time is no different." "You know or you hope?" "Hope is all we have got, child. It's all we've got", Giles said, softly squeezing her shoulder.

At that moment, the bell hanging above the door opened, revealing Faith and Xander as they entered the store, laughing.

"Tell me you're kidding! There is NO way that could have happened!" "I'm telling you, Faith, THAT is exactly how it happened."

"Well, look who's decided to grace us with their presence", an angry Buffy Summers grated out as she watched the easy camaraderie between Faith and Xander.

"Chill, B. We've just been passing the time telling war stories. Xander's got a ton of them and with no action out there all night, it's a way to pass the time", Faith shot back, both happy and angered as she clearly saw the jealousy radiating off of the other Slayer.

"So neither of you ran into any trouble on your patrol, I take it?" "Didn't I just say that, G? Nothing, nada, zip, zilch. It's like all the nightly residents of SunnyHell decided tonight is a good night to watch tv."

"From the way you're pinching the bridge of your nose, Giles, I take it nobody else tangled with said nightly residents?" "And you would be correct in that assumption, Alex." "The eye of the storm", Tara interjected as she sat down next to Willow, taking the redhead's hand in hers.

"Excuse me? Eye of the storm?" "What Tara means is that the eye of the storm, that is the middle part of it. That part is always calm; it means that things are going to get worse soon. Probably sooner than we think." "I can imagine. I've flown through a few storms myself. Not something I'd like to repeat any time soon." "Awww, is poor Xander a widdle scared of the wind", Buffy baited him, her eyes narrowed as she noticed how close him and Faith were standing.

Oblivious to her stare, Alex just grunted and continued to talk.

"Nope, not at all, it's just that landing at night, in a storm, on the deck of a carrier, that looks no bigger than a postage stamp, and is pitching from side to side like a rollercoaster, is a good way to get yourself killed. I've seen it happen. You misjudge the angle or a sudden wind shear comes along and your aircraft just slams into the steel of the deck. Before you know it, you're lighting up like it's the Fourth of July. You just hope that the poor bastard got killed by the crash coz burning to death in an inferno of jet fuel is not a nice way to go."

Alex's words caused everyone to quiet down as they saw his eyes mist over, indicating he was reliving these memories again. Buffy gave Willow and Tara a remorseful look, knowing exactly what the two Wicca's were telling her with their pointed looks. Faith just gently squeezed Alex's shoulder.

"A friend of yours", Dawn asked in a soft voice. "No, not really, just a nugget. A rookie pilot who was there with his class to train in carrier landings", Alex clarified. "He'd already qualified for daytime landings and it was time for the nighttime landings. Kid was edgy all the way through. The storms were a hundred miles out so it was decided to get in the first batch of night landing quals. Somehow though, the storm had another idea and suddenly, we're right in the middle of it. All the others made it down without a hitch but when he came in.... I still don't know what happened and I was standing right next to the LSO on deck.

His approach was good, he was right in the middle of the glide scope... Landing gear and hook were in the out position and he had called the ball. Then it all went to Hell... It was as if a giant hand lifted the carrier right out of the water into the kid's path. Before we could call a wave-off..."

"Come on, Boy-toy, forget about stuff like that, okay? Shit happens to good people and you can think about it all the time but it'll just make you go crazy. I know", Faith said, squeezing his hand softly.

Alex looked at the raven-haired beauty next to him, her eyes conveying the truth to her words. He knew that she could see the same truth reflected in his eyes. Squeezing her hand softly, he acknowledged her silent support.

"Enough of this gloom and doom. Why don't you tell them that story you just told me? I'm betting they'll get a kick out of it, just like I did." "Just shows you how low your standards are regarding the art of comedy, Faith." "And this from the man whose wardrobe suggested he spent his money at Clowns 'R Us", Faith countered.

"Faith, do not dare to bring up the clowns. You're not too big to get a spanking for that." "How do you know that's not what I'm aiming for", Faith asked, throwing a sexy leer over her shoulder as she walked to the fridge, grabbing a bottle of water.

Buffy was quietly seething at this point; her stomach felt as if someone had dropped a large stone into it and her brain burned with jealousy. The worst part of it was that she knew she deserved these feelings. If she hadn't treated Xander the way she had in the past, if she had just shown him how much he really meant to her, then none of this would be happening. Not his departure, not the anger and resentment he held for her. If she hadn't driven him away, those looks he now shared with Faith would have been hers. So many maybe's and what if's.... So many mistakes, all made with the best of intentions. But wasn't that how it always happened?

"Come on, Xander! Please? Just for me? Please?" "Not the puppy-dog look! You don't fight fair, Dawn-patrol. You know I don't stand a chance against it!" "I know", Dawn stated, grinning. "They say turnabout is fair play, Xan. How many times did you use it on me, hmm?"

With a grin, Alex pulled the younger Summers into a hug, kissing her hair.

"Alright, alright already. You win! Happy now?" "Nope, you still haven't told us the story that caused Faith to giggle like a schoolgirl." "Hey", came the indignant reply, "I don't giggle!" "You so do giggle, you crazy Slayer-chick, you", countered Dawn, sticking out her tongue. "Children, children, please. Behave yourselves and uncle Alex will tell you a funny story."

Dawn and Faith shared a triumphant look and immediately turned to Alex, putting on their best remorseful face. The fact that the object those faces were aimed at, burst into laughter, caused the others to start laughing as well.

"You two can't pull off looking sorry if the Devil himself was after you right now." "Hey, I'll have you know this face always works on the teachers!" "Yeah, sure, you betcha", Alex countered, getting his laughter under control. "So, Xander, what is this story they're so hot about hearing?" "Patience, Willow, patience. A story is like a fine wine. You have to savor it, know how to bring out it's bouquet, otherwise it falls flat on its face." "Since when did you become a wine connoisseur, Xander? I thought you only drank root beer?" "Hush, woman", Alex mock-glared at a grinning Tara. "I'll have you know that I'm an expert at the art of wine-tasting." "Yep, you're an expert alright. On cock-and-bull stories, Xan", Buffy said, trying to interject herself into the lighthearted banter.

"You dare mock the great bard himself, wench? Harrumph!"

With an angry glare, Alex turned his back on the others. Giles, watching the exchange between his children, could do nothing but smile and shake his head. It seemed like old times again. He, for one, was glad things seemed to be turning back to normal. Or at least as normal as on a Hellmouth. Even the pleading of the girls as they tried to appease Xander so he would tell a story was reminiscent of old times.

"Oh, very well then", Alex stated in a proper voice as he turned around. "I shall magnanimously bow to your pleas and relate to you a story of woe."

Another round of laughter rang through the shop at his words and stiff movements.

"Once upon a time, there was a small band of courageous men. Warriors were they, these courageous men, called upon to defend the innocent, the downtrodden. They were send to a land faraway from their shores, a land on the eastern part of what is now called Europe. In this land, there were a great many people, encompassing several religions. And all these people with their different religions, different customs, they didn't see eye to eye. No, they would rather gouge out the other's eyeballs."

Buffy, Faith, Willow, Tara, Cassandra, Cordelia and Dawn were all sitting on the edge of their seats as Alex continued his story; even Giles was listening attentively, so drawn in was he by it.

"Now, these courageous men, these warriors, had come there to keep the peace. One day, they were summoned to meet their leader, another warrior. A man they respected for his courage, his integrity and honor. This man, this leader of men, ordered them to go out and search for the enemies of peace. So out they went. After several days of marching through the cold, wet winter countryside, of eating C-rations and drinking instant coffee, they suddenly came upon an old wooden cabin, built into the side of a mountain.

Now, this mountain these courageous men, these warriors were on, afforded them a clear view of the valley and everything else for many miles. They could even see their main compound from there. It was a good place for the evildoers to put up an observation post. The warrior in charge of this small band of brothers-in-arms decided that it would be in their interest to search the cabin.

Taking point, he climbed down the slope of the mountain and landed on the roof, the others following him. From the rooftop, he swung down onto the rickety balcony and looked into the windows. Now understand, this cabin was old, very old and had seen better days. It looked like it could fall apart at any time. The paint was gone, windows were all broken, the wood was rotten in places.

Slowly, they made their way into the cabin, searching every room on the top floor. Then, the teamleader stepped into the last room...."

Alex stopped his narration, sitting back with a smug look on his face. It didn't take long for the others to grow frustrated and yell at him to continue. Raising his hands placatingly, a sardonic smile on his lips, he continued.

"When this group of courageous men reported back to their leader at their camp, their report read as follows:

'At 1553, Gunnery Sergeant Harris searched and cleared the third floor; at 1553, Gunnery Sergeant Harris searched and cleared the second floor of said cabin; at 1553, Gunnery Sergeant Harris searched and cleared the first floor; at 1553, Gunnery Sergeant Harris searched and cleared the basement. At 1555, the cabin collapsed.'"

Silence reigned for several moments as the Scoobies looked at each other, not knowing what exactly had happened. Suddenly, the silence was broken. As one, they turned towards the source of the strange sound. Everybody watched in amazement as Rupert Giles, the epitome of British conduct, tried valiantly to contain his laughter but failed to cover up his snorts.

"Oh to hell with it", he exclaimed and started roaring with laughter.


2247 PM, July 14th, Magic Box, Sunnydale, CA

After everyone had given their account of the night's activities, the group had again tried to find any information regarding their opponent. However, it became rapidly apparant that without any new information, no headway would be made. Giles had decided that everyone should get going to get some rest, after telling them that Angel and Wesley were going to meet up with a source. As everyone started to slowly make their way to the door, Buffy hesitantly walked over to the table Alex was standing next to, checking his gear. Fidgeting, she stood behind him, trying to think of an opening line. Several times, she tried to say something, before chickening out and shutting her mouth again.

'God, I've never been this tongue-tied before', she scolded herself. 'There used to be a time when I would just walk up to a guy and talk to him. Now look at me! I'm pathetic. He's supposed to be my best friend and I'm afraid to even say hi to him!'

"Are you going to just stand there and wring your hands all night long? Or are you going to do as Giles said and go home to get some rest?" "Huh?"

Buffy broke loose from her frantic thoughts and looked up, straight into Xander's brown eyes. Sometime, during her inner monologue, he'd finished whatever it had been that he was doing and had turned around, facing her, his arms crossed in front of him.

"Well, yeah, I am. It's just... I wanted to..."

'Aaah! Get a grip, girl!'

"Xander, I think we need to talk."

'There now, that wasn't so bad, was it? Now all he has to do is agree and then you ask him over. Oh God, he's looking at me like I'm crazy or something!'

"Uhm, what I mean is, you've been away for a while and we've not had a chance to catch up and... Things happened and we...", Buffy trailed off, mentally kicking herself.

"I mean, I know things aren't good between us. I was hoping that maybe, we could talk. You know, try to work things out? I've heard that talking about stuff helps to get problems and such out of the way."

Alex took in her stance, the bowed head, eyes seemingly examining the floor, the hands wringing together. Buffy Summers looked like some high school kid, standing in the principal's office, awaiting punishment. He decided then and there that he wasn't going to make it any easier for her, no matter how much she tried to look like a wounded puppy. The woman in front of him had hurt him too much. Even if doing so hurt him just as much as she was hurting.

"Why would you assume that I want to talk to you at all, Slayer?"

Buffy's face raised in shock at his use of the word Slayer instead of her name, her blue-green eyes meeting his brown ones. The tone was reminiscent of the ones used by the vampires and demons she fought every night. Trying valiantly to keep her voice steady and not give in to the tears threatening to fall from his harsh tone, she pressed on.

"I know that I hurt you. I know that you feel I betrayed you. I'm just asking for a chance to talk, a chance to explain my reasons to you. Call it closure. Call it cleaning the slate. Call it what you will. I just want a chance for you to hear me out. If, after that, you decide that you don't want anything to do with me, so be it. I won't bother you again. But just give me a chance. Please."

Alex stared at her in silence, taking in Buffy's words, her stance, everything about her. Willow's words came to his mind unbidden as he saw her try and fail to stop the tears from escaping. Buffy looked miserable and as it had always done in the past, it tugged at his heart. Only an iron will, forged in the heat of battle, held him in place, stopping him from wrapping his arms around her lithe frame. With great difficulty, Alex turned around, walking towards the shop's entrance.

"Xander, please!"

Buffy's heart hitched, as her throat seemed to constrict as she watched him walk away.

"Xander, please, I'm asking... No, I'm begging you! Give me a chance to make it up to you! I'll get down on my knees if I have to! Please, just give me a chance...", she finished, choking back a sob.

Alex turned around at her last words, watching her through narrowed eyes. The strong girl he'd once known looked to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown, tears streaming down her face. Buffy's chest was heaving, as if she'd run a marathon at full speed, her face red from the strain. It broke his resolve and Alex felt like a bastard for putting her through this. He could feel her pain as if it were his own. It took him several swallows before he was certain he could speak without breaking his voice.

"Fine. State your case."

Buffy felt as if a weight had been lifted from her chest at his words. Taking a deep breath, she looked him straight in the eyes.

"Could we... I mean... I was hoping that... Could you come over tomorrow night? For dinner, I mean? I'd cook, we eat, then we talk? Tonight's just... everything is so intense right now, you know? Please?"

Taking a moment to think over her question, Alex's military mind wanted to just get it over with right here and now. Let the chips fall where they may. But instead, he let his heart answer this one time. Tensions were too high right now and they both needed to be calm when the time came for the inevitable meeting.

"Alright, I'll come over." "Great! Around seven?", Buffy asked, her heart giving a small flutter of elation, her voice pitched a few octaves higher then usual. "Fine. I'll be there", Alex said, removing a small businesscard from a pocket and handing it to her.

"This is my cellphone number. If anything comes up, anything at all, call me. I'm not planning on standing in front of your door, waiting, while you're off somewhere."

Visibly wincing under the blatant dig, Buffy took the card and put it into her pocket. Not trusting her voice at that moment, she nodded in affirmation. Just then, Giles walked back into the shop after seeing the others off safely, noticing the heightened tension between the two.

"Is everything alright here?" "Just peachy", Alex stated as he walked out the door, reigning in his emotions.

Giles looked between his charge, who looked to be about to fall apart and the young man he thought of as a son as he disappeared into the night. Something monumental had happened here; the tension lingering in the room was thick and cloying. Walking over to Buffy, he wrapped his arms around her into a comforting hug. This action caused the young woman to finally release all the pent up tension and emotion in her body as he could feel the sobs wracking her small frame.

Chapter 12

2313 PM, July 14th, a street somewhere in Sunnydale, CA

Alex was riding around aimlessly through Sunnydale's streets, replaying the events of tonight in his mind. Things had begun good, he and Faith had been patrolling, talking about everything and nothing. They'd been having fun, he thought as a small smile grazed his features underneath the helmet. They hadn't even worried about the fact that the streets were so empty of supernatural activity, instinctively knowing it was their unknown opponent's doing. Carefully avoiding any mention of the other Scoobies, they had talked about the turns their lives had taken, all the mistakes of the past, hopes and dreams.

"So, you're working for Social Services?" "Not really. I work for Sunnydale Memorial's program for family affairs. Mostly battered women, abused kids, runaways, that kind of thing", Faith said. "A psychology degree and instead of going into a private practice and make tons of money, you do this? Why?", Alex asked as they walked through the streets, sipping their coffees.

"I figured, with all the personal experience I've had with that, I might just put it to good use", she answered flippantly. Alex winced under her tone; he might not know what had happened to her before she'd come to Sunnydale all those years before, but from personal experience, he'd been able to peg her as a survivor. He'd seen it in her eyes; in moments when she didn't think anyone was watching, there would be this melancholy flash of sadness. Just like him. And if what he'd been through was any indication, Faith's life had been infinitely worse.

"I'm sorry." "Don't be, boytoy. I'm not saying I don't want to make lots of money or work in private practice, but right now, I'm doing what somebody did for me."

Looking at her earnest face, Alex couldn't really figure out what she was saying.

"Excuse me but... HuH?"

Faith's laughter rolled around the quiet night like bells ringing. It was a sound filled with genuine feelings and it lifted his spirits, just hearing it, seeing the joy clearly on the darkhaired Slayer's face. Faith stopped walking and turned towards Alex, one arm stopping him from walking on and turning him to face her.

"Xander, the past few years, even before I started working for the Mayor, there was someone who tried to help me cope with my fucked up life. No matter what I did, no matter how much I tried to hurt the people around me, someone was always there to help me fight my demons. Even if I didn't want to. My first watcher. You. Angel and Wesley. Then you again. I screwed up, big-time. Yet, none of you guys dropped me like you should have. You stuck by me and helped me to overcome all the shit that's been dogging me my whole life. You guys didn't care what I did wrong. You didn't listen to others who said I wasn't redeemable. Or that I was evil. And believe me, Xan, I WAS evil. In my eyes, I was the most evil son-of-a-bitch around. I had killed people. I was evil and evil must be destroyed, so I tried to get myself destroyed. Yet, that didn't happen. These same people I'd hurt so badly, had tried to kill so many times, had betrayed. These same people helped me see that I was running away again and that if I continued doing so, I would end up in hell.

I was suicidal, Xander. I wanted to die because I thought I belonged in Hell for all the sins I'd commited. I was looking for a way out, for a way not to deal with all of it. They made me realize that doing so would be a continuation of what I've been doing for years. Running away from my problems. Taking the easy way out, instead of facing up to what I've done. They showed me that redemption and forgiveness, earned, however hard or not, is a lot more satisfying. It gives you a greater appreciation of life and of the people around you. You stop being the victim, even if you're the one doing others harm, because in doing so, you're just doing harm to yourself also. You're just sinking deeper into whatever hellhole you've been in."

Faith looked Alex straight in the eyes, noticing that they seemed to shimmer even more in the soft moonlight. She knew he was holding back tears at her heartfelt words. She was too.

"Xander, you were the first one here, the only one, to try and help me and I tried to kill you. I'm so sorry about that, but I never forgot that you tried to be there for me, even though your life wasn't much different from mine. If someone whose homelife was as bad as yours was, was still capable of reaching out to a wrecked soul like mine, how could I even consider doing something as mundane as using my talents to make tons of money? You are the main reason I'm helping kids like you and I, abuse victims and people who've been through what we've been through. It's the least I can do."

Alex tried to speak. He tried to form the words but Faith's fingers on his lips stopped him.

"No. Don't apologize for not being around, Xander. You may not have been around physically, but you've been with me, in spirit, for as long as I can remember. There were times when I wanted to just give up. Where I just wanted to curl up inside myself and not feel anymore but then I'd see your face or hear your voice and I knew I couldn't give up. I knew you wouldn't let me give up and would drag me, kicking and screaming forward if you had to."

Faith wrapped her arms around the man who'd come to mean so much to her these past few years, sighing in contentment at his touch. Of all the people in her life, Xander Harris was the rock she'd needed, the anchor to ground her and even if nothing more would develop between them, she was more then content to have his friendship.

Alex could still feel the lump in his throat at Faith's heartfelt words earlier that night. After that, they'd walked in silence for a while, until she'd hit the empty coffee cup out of his hands. He'd taken off after her and a tickling fight had ensued. They'd both laughed for a long time, feeling like little kids, all the worries and troubles forgotten for a brief moment. On their way back, Alex had begun to tell anecdotes of things that had happened to him during the past few years and the laughter had continued, until the reached the Magic Box.

But Faith's words still lingered in his brain and the subsequent confrontation with Buffy had reinforced his restlessness. Knowing he wouldn't be able to sleep until he'd calmed down some, Alex turned his bike around and headed to the Bronze. Hopefully, he'd be able to shoot a few games of pool and relax a little.


2349 PM, July 14th, The Bronze, CA

Cassandra stepped into Sunnydale's only teen hangout and club, the beat from the speakers, arrayed around the dancefloor, pounding into her ears. Looking around for any familiar or out-of-place faces, the young Slayer made her way over to the bar. She didn't usually come here on a Tuesday night, what with school and all, but tonight, she needed to unwind. Ever since the lost Scooby had returned, things had gotten way too intense. That, coupled with the new Big Bad was enough to give even a saint the jitters. From the looks of it, it seemed like Sunnydale's complete teenager-to-early-twentysomething population had had the same idea. The place was packed.

'Finals', Cassandra realized and suddenly cursed silently to herself. Being the Slayer didn't mean you could skip your finals.

'One drink, maybe a dance, then I'm outta here.'

Getting a soda, Cassandra leaned against the bar, her eyes roving around the packed club. Never one to be without any male (and sometimes female) attention, the girl was confident that she wouldn't be standing alone for long. Some dancing with a moderately cute guy, teasing and toying with him and she'd be peachy again. Pointedly ignoring the appreciative glances thrown her way, Cassandra took a sip from her drink, then ran her fingers through her raven tresses, finishing it with a slow, sensuous shake of her head. From the corner of her eyes, she noticed Kevin Martinelli, Sunnydale High's runningback moving towards her, a predatory grin on his face. Inwardly groaning, Cassandra mentally prepared herself for his arrival. The guy thought he was God's gift to women; he was rather successful with the girls, but if some of the rumors were true.... Well, she would keep an eye on her drink, that should keep her safe.

"Hey Cass! Lookin' good. How are you doing?" "Hey Kev. Thanks and okay." "Didn't expect to see you here tonight", the footballplayer said, leaning one arm on the bar, behind Cassandra's back as he stood next to her.

Rolling her eyes, Cassandra sipped her drink, before turning back and answering.

"Needed to get out a bit. Relax, stop the grey matter from churning around, you know?" "Yeah. Finals are a cast-iron bitch. I'm feeling like my head is gonna explode. Guess it's the same for you?" "What are you complaining about, Kev? I hear you got a football scholarship?", Cassie asked, giving him a sideways glance.

The youth grinned at Cassandra as he wrapped his arm around her shoulder, pulling her closer against him.

"Yeah, well, I'm not betting my future on it. It's a prestigious college so I'm taking it but at the same time, I'm gonna study. Hard. I mean, how many kids with sports scholarships get injured or something and then.... Goodbye Scholarship. No Cass, I'm gonna get me an education. If I ever get recruited by the NFL, well, we'll see then, won't we?" "Good thinking. Glad to see the notion of Dumb Jock doesn't apply to you." "Hey! Who have you been talking to?", Kevin stated in mock outrage. "I'll have you know that I'm a very dumb jock, girl! I can belch the ABC, crush beercans on my forehead and scratch with the best of them!"

Cassandra couldn't help it as she started to giggle and Kevin Martinelli thought he had the dark-haired beauty right were he wanted her. In awe and a little bit flustered. Bending forward slightly, he brushed his lips over hers, giving her soft kiss, startling Cassandra.

"Kevin, stop." "I'm not sorry I kissed you, Cass. Wanted to do it for a long time. You're beautiful." "Thanks, Kev, but I'm not looking for anything like that right now." "Cass, I'm not asking for a relationship okay? It was just a kiss and I'm sure you enjoyed it too. We're both young and unattached. What is stopping us from having a little fun before we get grinded by the tests tomorrow?"

As he was talking softly to her, Kevin slipped his other arm around her waist as he turned so he was standing in front of her. The hand behind her back came up, softly stroking her cheek with the back of his fingers and Cassandra could feel her temperature rise as he began to kiss her again, soft butterfly kisses. In the back of her mind she could hear both Faith's and Buffy's warnings about the dark side of the Slayer and the rumors about Kevin. It became harder and harder for her to resist the boiling of her blood, the need for release, even though it wasn't what she had come here for.

"Kevin, no. Please."

Her voice sounded foreign to her own ears, as the half-hearted protest passed her suddenly dry lips. He wasn't stopping, though, continuing to pepper her face with kisses that seemed to burn her to the tips of her toes, grinding his body along the length of her. Slowly, Cassandra was losing her will to fight. Backing up further against the bar, she pushed halfheartedly against Kevin's chest, when she noticed something or rather someone out of the corner of her eye.

'What's he doing here?'

Her curiosity piqued, Cassandra grabbed hold of Kevin's wrist, turning it sharply counterclockwise, straining it to the breaking point. The young man's reaction was immediate; with a yelp, he released his hold on the dark-haired beauty as he stumbled back in pain, Cassandra's hold on his wrist the only thing keeping him from falling flat on his face.

"I believe I spoke clearly when I said NO. You should learn how to listen, Kevin. It'll save you some broken bones", Cassie said, adding some pressure. Pushing the jock away, she picked up her drink and walked over to the pooltables in the corner of the Bronze, taking deep, relieved breaths. Placing the glass on the opposite end of the table's player, Cassandra leaned over the table, eyeing the man opposite her as he lined up his shot. With a light tap, the white ball careened off the left side of the table, hitting midway between the rightside corner and middle pocket. It then rolled along the side, hitting the last ball, sending it into the middle pocket.

"My beer fund thanks you for your patronage", Alex said as he pocketed the money on the table, nodding towards the other player.

"You always hustling some poor sap for beer money or do you like making fools out of people?", Cassandra asked

"I don't hustle. Kid saw me play and told me he could beat me. I didn't want any action, just wanted to shoot some pool, kick back and relax but he insisted", Alex said as he put away his wallet before looking up at Cassandra.

"So you decided to teach him a lesson that made him look like a fool in front of everybody." "It's a tough world out there, Cassandra. Somebody has to teach these kids about that", he retorted with a wry grin. "I'm sure you're the perfect person for the job", she countered, putting as much sarcasm as she could into it.

"You know, I just wanted a quiet night, just relax a bit but as usual, my 'luck' strikes again. Here I am and there YOU are with your holier-then-thou-attitude", Alex growled, then looked up to the ceiling. "What did I ever do to piss you off so bad, that you keep screwing up my life?" "Talking to your imaginary friend again?", Cassandra asked, casting a worried glance at the man in front of her.

"No, just some issues I've got with the PTB." "PTB?", she asked. "Yup, the defenders of all that is good and right", Alex said, the venom carrying clearly through his voice. "Let us lay down our lives and our kin to thy greater glory."

Cassandra looked at the man standing next to her.

"You know, the more I get to know you, the more I start to dislike you." "Really? Well, stand in line, kid, coz there are whole hell of a lot of people and non-people who don't like me."

It took a monumental effort on Cassandra's part not to knock his head off for his flippant behavior. Taking a deep breath to calm her boiling anger, she stood before him, hands on her hips, giving him her most menacing stare.

"You come waltzing into town like the Terminator, you've got my friends all hovering on the edge of a nervous breakdown and you're acting as if we're supposed to feel sorry for you? Can you say Bullshit? If you hate them so much, you should have left well enough alone and never returned. As it is, I'd say YOU are our biggest problem and not whatever evil is lurking around.

Buffy told me all the sob stories about you, pal. Yeah, she was wrong. Dead wrong, I'll give you that. But it's been years. GET FUCKING OVER IT ALREADY! MOVE ON! Forgive them, don't forgive them, I don't care! But stop adding to their guilt! If they really meant something to you once, you wouldn't want them to feel like this at all. The Xander Harris Buffy told me about would do anything to take away their pain." "Xander Harris died eight years ago of a broken heart", Alex said quietly as he stared into his glass. "As for your 'friends' all going wiggy, that is not my doing. I came here to do a job and then get out of here as fast as I can. It's their own guilt that is causing them all this stress." "Yeah, right, like shooting Angel is part of that 'job' or meeting up with Willow and Faith and patching things up with them, but ignoring Buffy. You came here looking for a fight, not necessarily with the enemy but with those that betrayed you. You've gone all Monte Christo on them."

Alex looked up at the angry Slayer, noticing her flushed face and the angry gleam in her eyes and couldn't help but to chuckle.

"What?" "Is that the new slang?" "Is what the new slang?" "Going Monte Christo? It used to be 'goin' midieval on someone's ass'." "Oh. OH! NO! No, not at all. I just ... I read Dumas' book and it's very good. It's actually my favorite novel, I must've read it a dozen times since I got it", Cassandra said, blushing slightly.

Silence fell around the two people; Alex walked around the pool table, taking out all the balls from the pockets and placing them back inside the triangle. Placing the white ball at it's spot, he placed his cue on the green felt and broke. Several balls immediately hit the side pockets, the majority however, still on the table.

"I loved to read. Don't have much time for it anymore, though. But when I was younger, I loved to read. It would be the only place, apart from Willow's house that I could forget the world around me. I could go anywhere inside those pages. Be anyone. Do anything I wanted. I spent hours in the public library, reading anything I could get my hands on. It was the one escape I had from the place I lived."

Cassandra's ears picked up at the last sentence, the empathic difference Alex had used. Not home, but place he lived in. It was important, very important and she would bet anything on it that it was what had shaped the man in front of her.

"I take it you know about Faith's life in Boston?"

At Cassandra's curt nod, Alex continued his story. He didn't know why he suddenly wanted to share this part of his life with the young woman, but the feeling wouldn't go away. Something drove him on. Something he couldn't understand but it was there nonetheless. She needed to understand who he was and what drove him forward. It was imperative that she did.

"Mine wasn't much better. Reading was what helped me cope. Nowadays, you go to see a shrink or a therapist and pay hundreds of dollars an hour just to hear your own voice talk about the stuff that makes you who you are. Back then, I couldn't talk to anybody about it. Not because I thought they wouldn't or couldn't understand but because I couldn't understand. So the library became my refuge. And so it grew. By the time I was in High School, I'd gotten an expert on internalising. I'd become the class clown, using that to mask what I was feeling. Willow and Jesse were my only friends and even they didn't know much of anything about me. I was their anchor, the one they talked to about their problems, who kept things together. Then Buffy came to town, Jesse died, and nothing would ever be the same again.

I was there for Willow, throughout her grief, but was she there for me? No. Nobody asked me how I felt. I mean, I'm the one who killed Jesse. I'm the one who saw what he had become. And nobody even said they were sorry for my loss. And even if they did, they took my answers at face value, never questioning. Never trying to dig deeper, to try and get me to open up. Xander says he's fine, so good, another problem less. For years I did that, taking in all of their pain, their problems. Sometimes standing up and telling them the truth, whether it was harsh or not. But in all that time, did any one of them even give the slightest thougth to how I was feeling? Did any one of them even make an effort to find out? No, they didn't. I've been there for every single one of them, whether they wanted it or not, whether they knew it or not. But even a simple thank you was too much too ask. Let alone worrying about my mental health. You can only put so much pressure on a tank before it explodes. I've been lied to, marginalized, shoved aside, used as a convenient prop and generally thought of as useless.

At one time, I thought it was all that I deserved. That all of it was true, that indeed I wasn't worth it. That I was a useless waste of space and oxygen. But someone showed me that that wasn't true. Someone showed me that I was worth something. That I did mean something. That I did contribute. And she paid for it with her life. And you know what really gets me? The way they always thought that I couldn't think for myself. That I was just the clown, the kid in a grown man's body. What's so funny about that is that I'm the most adult of the bunch, even more so then Giles is. At least I wasn't afraid to speak my mind, even if it was something they didn't want to hear. Being an adult is making decisions you don't like but are needed. Being an adult is doing what is needed to be done. Taking responsibility for your actions. Not hanging around feeling sorry for yourself. It has got nothing to do with age, Cassandra. It is all about what choices you make and having the responsibility to see them through and accept the consequences.

So yeah, I'm angry. I'm pissed off to the extremes. I am mad as hell. Do I enjoy their suffering? Yes, I do. Now they finally feel what I've felt for years. Now they know what I've been struggling with since I was just a kid. It's selfish, it's petty but it's all I have left. You want to know the real reason I came back, kid? I need closure. I left without ever closing that chapter of Xander's life. There is this ball in here", Alex said, pressing his closed fist on his heart, "filled with pain and anger. I thought I could keep it locked up but I can't anymore. It needs to be let out. It's heat must burn everything clean so I can start living again."

"I'm sorry for all your pain, but it still isn't fair to act like a spoiled brat. To hurt Buffy and the others", Cassandra countered, feeling a bit of her anger at him fading after his impassioned speech.

"I'm not hurting them. Their actions or rather, lack thereof are hurting them. I've forgiven Willow and you know what? That ball feels lighter already. She apologized to me for the things she did. It is a start. The others haven't. And as long as they haven't, none of us is going to live without the pain. It's up to Buffy and Giles to take the first step." "That is so typically male", Cassandra said in exasparation. "Maybe but if someone isn't willing to acknowledge what they have done is wrong, then what reason is there to think that they won't do something similar again? And in that case, why would someone want to forgive them? After all, they haven't learned anything."

Shaking her head, Cassandra leaned against one of the pillars holding up the top floor of the club.

"What if Buffy or Giles doesn't do what you want them to? Are you gonna walk around the rest of your life with that ball in your chest?" "Not gonna happen coz you know what? If they don't, I'll really know how they think of me and I'll have my closure. One way or the other, this is going to be an end. Or a new beginning."

Both people stood there, gazing at each other, thinking over the revelations of the last few minutes. Cassandra could understand Alex's reasoning, even some of his actions, even if she didn't condone them. Still, not having known the man before her, she still disagreed with the way he was handling everything. Alex, for his part, couldn't think of anything to say at that moment. He felt exhausted and numb. The reason for telling this teenager things he'd never told a living soul were as much as mystery to him as it was back when he started talking. But maybe that was what he'd needed. Someone to challenge him, call him on his behavior. Someone to break through the armor he'd built up and bare his soul. Someone who didn't know him like Buffy, Willow, Dawn, Faith or any of the others did. It was strange but somehow, it had felt good getting all his frustrations out of his system. Just like it had felt good to finally be able to make things right with Willow. Not to mention that Cassandra wasn't one to back down and seemed to be willing to go toe-to-toe with him, calling him on things she thought he was doing wrong. Smiling slightly, he scanned his surroundings, feeling better then he had in a long time.

"So, now what?" "Now, we kick ass", Alex answered as he straigthened up, his eyes riveted on the entrance to the Bronze.

Immediately on guard and following his line of sight, Cassandra's eyes narrowed as she noticed the six newcomers enter the club. Nothing about their outward appearance set off any alarm bells; at first glance, they could be mistaken for typical teenagers. It was the havoc they were creating with Cassandra's Slayer sense that warned her.

"How did you know?" "When trouble has been finding you as long as it's found me, you develop an instinctual response to it", Alex said as he stepped backwards from the pooltable. Two of the six vampires had stayed behind near the door, ready to stop anyone trying to escape while the other four were walking through the club, sizing it up.

"Newbies in town?", Cassandra ventured. "Or our unseen buddy has some loose cannons in his ranks", Alex whispered back. "Not likely, gyrene, the Bronze has been a neutral zone for years now. Just like Willy's. Vamps and demons know better then to come here, especially with that protection spell we put up for the management. They shouldn't be able to come in at all."

Cassandra seemed to consider her words as she rethought them, her features clearly displaying her surprise.

"I stand corrected then, these aren't loose cannons." "But how...", the young Slayer began. "Our chesspartner must have removed the spell. I suggest you take it up with management after we take care of this little problem. Don't want them reporting you to the Better Business Bureau, now would we", Alex told her.


Cody Sinclair was happy. Things in Sunnydale had been going downhill for his kind ever since not one but three Slayers and their support troops were in town. But now, now there was the new Master and things were about to change. Cody Sinclair wasn't stupid, either. He knew that the new Master was planning something apocalyptic, which meant he and his brethren would be placed somewhere on the bottom of the foodchain as the stronger, more powerful demons would again roam the earth. However, for as long as it took to accomplish that, he'd be around doing the things that had been denied to him for so long. Things like entering The Bronze without running into the magickal barrier at the entrance. And who knows, maybe the Slayers would be able to stop the Master this time too. After all, their track record regarding averting apocalypses was impressive. But with luck, maybe all three would perish in the attempt; even one of them would be cause for rejoicing as things in town would be easier for the vampires. For now though, he was going to enjoy himself by wreaking a little havoc here, as he was ordered to.

Putting on his most charming smile, Cody began to walk over to the bar and the pretty brunette sitting there with her friends, his eyes riveted at the pulse point in her neck. Maybe a bit of dancing and some other 'activities' before he had her for dinner.

"Heads up!"

Sinclair turned towards the loud voice, instantly alert. However, none of his vampiric senses could prepare him for the object rapidly growing larger in his eyes.




Cassandra's eyes shifted from side to side, trying to keep track of all six vampires as they shifted through the room. Turning her head slightly to look at her companion, the young Slayer was surprised to find that Alex stance was that of a man bored with his surroundings. One leg slightly bend, resting his weight on it, a disinterested look on his face, Alex was the epitome of someone without a care in the world. She was about to hiss an angry retort, when events suddenly exploded.


Dawn had been dragged to the club, her friend Stacey having noticed the melancholy mood her friend had been in. It had been a while since the two girls had been in here, what with exams and such taking up most of their time. Dawn had noticed the two vamps by the doorway and the four others almost immediately as they'd entered the club. Her hands were halfway into her purse, already closing around the stake she kept there and her cellphone, before Stacey had caught on what was about to happen. Dawn's momentary panic was shortlived however, as she spotted Xander and Cassandra.

"Dawn, call Buffy!", Stacey hissed, her eyes almost popping out of her head in fright as she frantically looked around.

"Chill, girlfriend. Cavalry's already here", Dawn whispered, nodding her head in the direction of her two friends.

The events that followed that statement would leave both girls in bewildered awe for a long time....


Alex quickly catalogued the positions the vamps had taken up around the large floor, several tactical scenarios running through his mind at once. Quirking his lips into his trademark lopsided smile, the former Zeppo and current Marine moved into action.

"Clear the entrance", he told the Slayer standing next to him. Before she could respond, he'd already moved....

"Heads up!"

His right leg lashed out, the tip of his combat boot hitting the pooltable's corner pocket, causing the ball inside it to fly straight up into the air. As it hit its apex and began to fall back to the ground, several things happened at once.

Alex's shout had alerted everyone in the vicinity, making heads turn as one towards the sound.

His right leg, having returned to the floor, pushed off, making his body jump into the air; twisting his upper body to the right, Alex's left leg whipped backwards. As it reached its maximum rearward movement, it exploded forward again, gaining momentum. Just as its forward momentum was at its peak, the tip of his boot made contact with the falling ball with a loud thunk, proppelling it forward in a straight line at maximum speed. The look on the vampire's face as he saw the approaching poolbal was reminiscent of Wiley E. Coyote, just as he's about to be hit by the oncoming rock.


The striped ball hit Cody Sinclair head-on, just above the bridge of his nose at full power. At a distance of less then twelve feet, a normal human's skull would have been badly fractured under the tremendous amount of pressure, almost certainly killing the victim. Sinclair faired worse then said human as the force of the hit caused the ball to literally rip through his skull, like an oversized bullet, spraying brain matter and blood around and punching through the rear skullplate, leaving a large, bloody hole through his head....


A fraction of a second later, Cody Sinclair was no more.


"Clear the entrance."

The clipped reply from the man standing next to her grated on Cassandra's nerves. 'Who the hell does he think he is', went through her mind. After all, she was the Slayer. Granted, the junior Slayer, but still, she was a Slayer and as such had dealt with similar situations before. He was just a normal human.....

That thought brought her up short. Alexander Harris or Alex Harrelson as he was now known, had been fighting vampires and demons while she was still happily playing with dolls. The few stories she'd heard over the last few days had shown her a man who'd not only been able to survive anything the Hellmouth could throw at him but had actually contributed to keeping it save. Even if everybody else only realized it way too late. And she'd personally seen him in action a few days ago. His technique had impressed her and Cassandra wasn't someone easily impressed. These thoughts zipped through her mind in seconds, even as she was starting to move towards the Bronze's entrance, her eyes still on her companion. Her eyes grew saucershaped as she witnessed what happened next.


Having turned almost three hundred and sixty degrees, Alex's left leg hit the floor, bending slightly under the impact of his bodyweight, as the other leg came down. Straightening his legs, the young Marine Lieutenant proppeled himself up and over the pooltable in a somersault, his hands flashing out and grabbing the poolcue he'd been using. Coming down into a crouch, he surged upwards, the cue held in the traditional poolplayer's grip.

"Eight ball in the corner pocket."

As he said this, Alex moved the cue through his fingers, as if he was hitting the ball. Instead, it entered the chest of the second vampire closest to him, piercing its heart, turning the demon to dust almost instantly, the look of bewilderment still on its face.

Twirling the oversized stake between his fingers, Alex turned and slammed the thick rearend across the third vampire's face, sending him flying. The fourth vamp, shaking off the amazement at the events surged forward, intent on ripping out this human's throat. Alex met him head-on, using the cue like the pugil stick he'd learned to use in basic training. Slamming the rearend into the vamp's throat hard, he followed it up with a right downward slash to the face, sending the vampire staggering. Alex then rammed the butt of the cue into the vampire's crotch, dropping the demon to its knees, wheezing in pain. Before he could finish him off, however, the vampire he'd send flying earlier barreled into him, causing him to fall to the floor.


Two vampires had been dusted in the matter of seconds and Cassandra's brain was still trying to process what exactly had happened as her senses told her the two vamps at the entrance had shaken off their momentary stupefacation and were headed towards the fight. Quickly stepping in their path, she smiled her best 'vacuous airhead' smile at them.

"Hey boys, buy a girl a drink?"


Before either vamp could say anything else, Cassie had already made her move. Jumping up, both legs extended at a forward angle, she kicked her opponents in the face, sending them back several steps. Coming down in a crouch, Cassie extended her right leg, using the left to spin herself around, causing the vampires to crash to the floor with a resounding thump. Cassie jumped up as two stakes fell from their holsters around her forearms, straight into her hands. She then rapidly crouched, intent on stabbing both vamps in the heart. The first hadn't recovered quickly enough from events and dusted almost immediately. The other however, managed to block the downward thrust, using the momentary imbalance of the Slayer, caused by the death of his partner to yank her to the floor. In a flash, Cassandra was staring up in the face of death, all ridges, fangs and yellow eyes.


Alex quickly recovered, rolling backwards to his feet. The vamp let loose with a barrage of punches, pressing its advantage and putting Alex on the defensive. He was blocking the rapid strikes with the cue as he danced around, trying to find an opening. However, his opponent was experienced and that, coupled with the fury of watching his friends get dusted and his strength was enough to keep Alex off his game for the moment. The vampire executed a spin kick to Alex's left side, powerful enough to break ribs. Alex brought the cue up as he stepped backwards, intent on blocking the strike....


Suddenly, the young Marine held two pieces of wood in his hand. The vamp grinned, clearly enjoying his victory as he saw that his opponent's weapon was now in shambles. That momentary triumph turned to a sudden fear as he noticed the evil grin on Alex's face....

With the quick snap of his wrists, Alex twirled the two pieces of wood in his hands and attacked. His hands were a blur as they rained down a flurry of strikes all over the vampire's body, the sound making the other occupants of the room cringe. The vampire tried his best to defend himself but the amount of hits he was taking was overwhelming. They cut through his defenses like a hot knife through soft butter, bruising the skin and breaking bones. A particularly savage hit broke his jaw as at the same time he could feel the sudden painful snap of several of his ribs. Before he could scream out his pain and rage, a sudden pressure in his chest startled him. Looking down, he saw the front end of the broken cue stick straight through his chest. Looking up in surprise at the human in front of him his only thought was....

'Oh Crap!'

Alex's victory was shortlived, however, as he was suddenly hit from behind with such force that he lost the grip on the sticks as he crashed to the ground.


Dawn and Stacey had been watching as the events unfolded before them, wariness and fear turning to complete awe as they witnessed Alex's seemingly casual demeanor turn into focused energy, dusting first one then two vamps and knocking two others around as if they were bowling pins. Feeling a nudge in her side, Dawn watched Stacey's frantic headshakes, finally catching on and turning to look towards the entrance. The sight brought a wry grin to her face.

'I almost feel sorry for the idiots', shot through her mind. When Cassie wanted to, she could play the stupid blonde part better then any stupid blonde ever could. Watching Cassie fight was like watching a combination of Buffy and Faith, a combination of witty banter with almost unstoppable concentration. just as she thought it was all over, Dawn's heart almost seized functioning as one vamp managed to block Cassie's strike and turn the tables around on the young Slayer. Frantically whipping her head around towards her one-time crush, Dawn nearly screamed in rage as she Xander go down, the fourth vampire standing over him with a dented metal chair.


"Girly, I ain't buyin' ye a drink but all this ruckus gave me a mighty big appetite. So y'all hol' still while I get me an appetizer 'fore the main course, ya hea'?"

'Great! Just great! I'm stuck with the Southern Yokel from Hillbillie land', Cassandra fumed as she watched the glittering fangs descend towards her neck. Putting all her strength into her upper body, Cassie thrust upwards, headbutting the vamp in the face. The shock rattled her straight to her toes.

'God, I hate this! I'm gonna need those extra strength Advils tonight.'

With a roar of pain, anger and surprise, the vamp flew backwards, losing his grip on his prey. Using her hands and upper back to push off, Cassandra landed into a crouch and immediately straightened up, falling back into combat stance, a stake in each hand.

"Sorry Billyboy, but I've already got nine piercings. Ain't lookin' to make it eleven, y'all catch mah drift?"

With a roar that would make anybody else but a Slayer cringe, the vamp rushed forward, intent on ripping this upstart to pieces. What he got for his trouble however, was a booted heel in his face.

Cassandra met the vamp's charge with a spin kick that nearly took his nose off, her right leg leading. She completed the movement with her left leg, slamming the foot into his face again, again followed by the right. Not giving him a chance to recover, the Slayer used the momemtum of her right leg to push off the ground, her left foot smashing into her opponent's chest. Next, her right foot slammed into the same spot, cracking the bruised ribs. To the onlookers, it was as if this slip of a girl was walking an imaginary stairway, as her feet seemed to slam into the vamp's chest and face with rapid succession.

Somersaulting backwards, Cassandra landed on her feet, grabbed hold of the vampire's arm and using a hip throw, landed him on his back. Quickly crouching down next to the disoriented vamp, she then slammed her stake into it's chest, piercing the heart and watched in satisfaction as the creature dusted.

"Should have bought me the drink, sugah, might 'ave let ya'll get tha' first base befo' dustin' yo' ass."

Turning around to see how Alex was fairing, Cassandra's eyes turning into saucers again for the second time that night.

Chapter 13

His head was throbbing. Correction, it was about to explode. He should get up and kill whoever was banging those drums at this ungodly hour. That's what he should do. IF only he could get up. And the swaying... It was enough to make him nauseous.

"....." "'eave m' 'lo-"

He tried to slap away whatever it was that was crawling all over him and get back to sleep, but for that damned POUNDING! Didn't anybody appreciate a nice rest anymore?

"W- up, ....." "-o aw.."

No, it wasn't a drum they were playing. It was a whole friggin' rhythm section! And an industrial strength drill seemed to be drilling into his skull! How was he ever gonna get his rest? Not to mention that infernal shaking! Somebody was going to pay for this.

"Ang.., ..ap out o. it!" "Whu?"

The shaking was getting stronger; earthquake? Was it the season? Gotta get up an' check.

Slowly the fog began to lift from his brain as he tried to wake up, the dull thumping in his brain sending bolts of pain through his body as if somebody had shoved a hot spike through his skull.

"Aaaah!" "Angel!"

Another powerful shake, even more pain but his ears finally could make out his name being called.

"I'm up! I'm up. Just shut down the radio... stereo... just make that damn racket stop", the souled vampire groaned out as he opened his eyes. Bad mistake. The light behind the silhouette above him bored into his eyes, like hot needles, sending even more spikes of intense pain shooting through him.


He could feel someone lifting him into a sitting position as he prayed to whatever Gods could hear him for the welcome oblivion of unconsciousness.

"Welcome back, Angel. Just take it easy for a few minutes. You got the worst of it."

Hunched over, his stomach roiling, Angel did as the voice told him, the pain and nausea slowly receding. After several minutes, he began feeling a bit better and ventured to slowly open his eyes, avoiding looking directly upwards into the light. He sighed in relief as his eyes locked onto the floor.

"Angel, are you alright?"

Wesley. It was Wesley who'd been calling him, Angel realized finally as his brain slowly began to process information again.

"Wes, why did you let me drink so much?", he asked, his voice sounding like it had been ground with broken glass.

'Certainly feels that way', he thought to himself.

"Neither of us drank anything, Angel. Don't you remember what happened?" "If I didn't drink, then why do I feel like I've been on a bender for a month?"

Angel finally managed to raise his protesting head, looking straight into the worried eyes of Wesley Wyndham-Price. His friend didn't look all that well himself, paler then anyone who lead an active outdoor life in Southern California was supposed to be. Shifting his gaze from his friend and partner to their surroundings, Angel noticed the decor and it suddenly came all back to him.....

"We're screwed." "Really? What was your first clue", Wesley asked deadpan.

Ignoring Wesley's attempt at sarcasm, Angel let his eyes travel their surroundings.

Rock.... No, not just rock.... Caves.....

They were in the caves underneath Sunnydale.


"How long?" "Nine hours until I woke up. Four more before you came to, Angel." "So, it's around 1 PM." "I'm afraid so", Wesley stated, looking at his watch. "We've got to get out of here and warn the others", Angel said as he tried to stand up, but his body refused to cooperate and he stumbled backwards onto the hard ground. Shaking his head, Wesley reached his hand out to Angel, pulling him up to his feet. The souled vampire wavered a bit on his legs, his body still not fully healed from the punishment it had taken.

"I'm afraid things aren't as easy as we'd wish, Angel. I have absolutely no idea of where exactly we are in the caves. As I recall, they stretch out underneath most of Sunnydale." "The air here is stale. I figure we just keep walking until we find fresh air flowing in, then keep following that until we hit an entrance." "Ah yes, vampire smell. Good show."

Each man grabbed one of the two torches that had been 'conveniently' left hanging on the walls and began to investigate the chamber they were in. It was then they encountered their first problem. There wasn't a single entrance to the chamber.

There were four, next to each other.

"Angel?" "Yes?" "Rock, paper, scissors? Or do you want to flip a coin?"


They had been walking for several hours now, turning from one cave into another and they still hadn't found a way out. It was both a blessing and a curse, since it was still light outside and if they did find a way out with the sun still up, it meant Angel had to stay in the relative safety of the cave. However, neither man was too happy about that prospect, not knowing the forces arrayed against them. On the other hand, the information they possessed was of vital importance.

"I don't like this." "You've said that several times already, Wes", Angel ground out in irritation. "We've not run into any opposition, we're going roughly in the right direction and we pretty much know the enemy's next move. I'd say we're doing pretty good so far."

"Exactly my point! We've not come onto ANY oppostion! From what I remember, this place used to be a favorite hiding place among the demon population of Sunnydale. Even if we forget that, wouldn't our 'host' have made sure there were some guards left to keep us inside that chamber?"

Cursing his stupidity silently, Angel stubbornly kept his face pointed forward. Had he been on top of his game, Angel would have noticed that little piece of information right from the start. Why indeed were there no guards? Why wasn't there some kind of magical forcefield around their chamber to keep them in?

"Why not make it even easier and just kill us? We wouldn't be able to warn the others and our deaths would severely weaken the group's combat power." "Just say it, Wesley, whoever is pulling the strings, is doing just that. We're the puppets and he the puppeteer." "Yes, we're doing what he wants us to do. Keeping us unbalanced. Off our game. It's like we're rats in a maze." "Do you think it was all a setup?"

Angel had stopped walking and turned to look at his friend questioningly. Both remembered what had happened the previous night....


0002 AM, July 15th, Angel's former Mansion, Crawford Street

Angel and Wesley cautiously entered the empty building that held so many dark memories. So much pain and regrets. If someone had told him a week ago, he'd be back in this place again, Angel would've called that person crazy. Yet, here he was, on his way to meet someone he hadn't seen in years. Someone who might be able to shed light on the coming events.

"I take it this friend of yours is someone from the 'Old Days'", Wesley asked in a low voice as his head turned from right to left, scanning for any signs of a trap, the curved dagger held low against his leg.

"Something like that." "Vampire?" "No." "Ah."

After this sterling example of informative conversation, both men stepped into the main room of the mansion, their eyes automatically taking in their surroundings. There were several large earthen bowls, suspended from chains, hanging within tree-legged iron stands around the room; each filled with scented oils and a large, burning wick floating on the surface. The room was filled with exotic, soothing fragrances, the lights from the fires dancing on the walls and roof of the room. Under other circumstances, Wesley would be admiring the effects, thinking this setting would be well suited for a romantic evening. Now, however, it made him even more apprehensive as to their host's intentions.


The voice seemed to come from all around them. Wesley visibly shuddered as the sound washed over him. Scratchy, with a slight hissing quality, it was literally dripping evil. Following Angel's lead, both men turned towards the entrance of a darkened hallway. Squinting in the flickering shadows, Wesley could make out a pair of glowing eyes, bathing their contact's head in a purplish hue. As the 'man' stepped into the large chamber, the flickering fires revealed a person dressed completely in black robes, like a Bedouïn, the only visible part of his body, being the glowing eyes. He reminded Wesley of Giles' friend, who'd played a part in the sting they'd played on Faith and Mayor Wilkins all those years ago. This man, however, gave off a more sinister aura, almost suffocating, paralyzing in it's intensity. It bothered the former Watcher that such an obviously skilled practitioner of the Dark Arts would let his aura slip. Normally, one wouldn't know that one such as him was around, so great was their control over their own being. Before he could ponder this subject further, the being spoke.

"I see you have brought a companion, Angelus. A human, no less. How the Mighty Scourge of Europe has fallen", their contact stated in a slightly bemused and disappointed tone.

"There was a time when you were a force of nature, Angelus. A time when the blood flowed wherever you went. How magnificent you were then. Alas, all that power, all that bloodlust destroyed the moment you made that single, cardinal mistake. You should have known, my old friend, never to cross the Rom." "Cut with the reminiscing, Banacek. You said you had information. Tell us, then be gone." "Just a minute, Angel, how do we know we can trust him", Wesley interjected, as Angel was about to square off against Banacek.

"A good question, indeed, Mr. Wyndham-Pryce. Do tell, Angelus." "I don't trust you. I've never trusted you, not even when the Demon was in control." "Very good, Angelus", Banacek continued in an almost mocking tone. "You see, I am a Dark Mage, Mr. Wyndham-Pryce. To me, the pain and suffering of others is a singular pleasure. Causing it, or merely being in its presence. Your companion and his merry band were, for a time, one of my best sources of this particular pleasure."

Wesley could feel the blood leave his face when their informant told him what exactly he was. A dark mage, one of the most deadly of the ancient Elementals.

"If what you say is true, sir, then why would you help us? You said it yourself, pain and suffering is what draws you. Why not stay around and soak up all the experiences?" "Do you believe in God, Watcher?"

Taken aback by the sudden change of subject, all Wesley could do was stare.

"Allah, Jahweh, Vishnu?"

Finally, Wesley shook himself from his stupor; clearing his throat, he answered the question.

"I.. I really never thought about it." "With all the evil you've faced, not one moment did you spare a thought as to the existence of a Higher Power? Shame on you, Watcher", the dark mage answered sarcastically.

"What has Wesley's believe in God to do with anything", Angel interjected.

Ignoring Angel's question, Banacek instead posed another one.

"Do either of you believe in the story of creation?"

Not waiting for an answer, Banacek continued.

"Creation, according to Scripture, took six days. According to science, it took millions of years of evolution to get where we are today. They are both wrong and both right." "Fascinating. Now tell us what we want to know, or we're out of here", Angel said, taking several steps towards the dark mage, his expression threatening.

"I see that the return of your soul hasn't destroyed your lack of patience, Angelus. Ah well, I shan't bore you any longer. However, I must give you some background. I insist."

The dark mage chuckled at Angel's impatience as he slowly walked around the room, moving his hands through the flames flickering in the oil pots.

"Time is relative, my friends. What takes over a million years here, is just the blink of an eye in the spirit realm. Scripture also has it wrong, whether deliberate or through misinterpretation."

Banacek had moved to the middle of the large room and turned to face Angel and Wesley, his hands clasped together.

"The Maker didn't take six days to built the world and then rest on the seventh. No, in six 'days', he built six identical realms. Six alternate universes, if you will. He populated them with millions of creatures of all kinds, looking on critically as they evolved, or making changes himself, like a true artist. The age of the Dinosaur, the Ice Age, countless changes he made in those six days.

But as with everything else, balance is required. Without balance, there is no natural order, without balance, excesses will occur. To that end, The Maker created gods and goddesses, demons, faeries, trolls and other mystical creatures. Odin, Mars, Zeus to name but a few.

Finally, at the dawn of the seventh day, he was finished. The last act of The Maker was to create 6 Caretakers, one for each realm. In his all-encompassing wisdom, he gave them unlimited power to do their work; to keep a balance between all things.

Things went on for millenia without any trouble. But the Caretakers grew bored, resentful. For all their power, in their minds, they were just puppets, taking care of someone else's creation. So one day, they decided to do what The Maker had done, create their own universe. And so, the The Six of the First were born. Six new realms, teeming with diverse life. And just like The Maker, the Six created Caretakers for the six new realms. Euphoric over their accomplishments, the Six held a grand feast.

But just like the Six felt like they were puppets to The Maker's grand schemes, the Six of the First saw themselves as mere dolls on a string. Especially since the Six had not given them the same power stature as they had received from The Master. The Six looked upon the Six of the First with contempt and scorn. In defiance, the Six of the First followed the same path and created their own six realms with their own Caretakers, The Six of the Second."

"Does this tale have a punchline or should I just provide my own, like maybe on your face", Angel interrupted. Banacek's eyes glowed eerily as he turned his head fractionally towards the souled vampire.

"Be quiet."

Angel opened his mouth to respond. Or rather, he tried to. The souled vampire found that he had lost all control over his bodily functions. None of his limbs moved; even his eyelids refused to blink. Wesley noticed the sudden tensing of Angel's body and stepped up to him, placing a hand on his shoulder.


Almost immediately, Wesley noticed the rapid movements of Angel's eyes, his rigid posture...

"What have you done to him", the Englishman all but screamed. "Nothing much. Just made sure I have his undivided attention, Mr. Wyndham-Pryce. Now, where was I? Ah yes! May I continue?"

Wesley's gaze moved from his friend to their host, thinking of ways to counter his moves. Finally realizing that it was no use to try and fight the dark mage, Wesley conceded. If Angel couldn't take him, he sure couldn't.

"I sincerely doubt that I could stop you from prattling along, so by all means", Wesley bit back, anger and a little fear evident in his voice. "But first, could you please undo whatever it is you've done to my friend?"

"Oh very well", the dark mage sighed theatrically before motioning with his hand. Almost immediately, Angel's muscles relaxed and he was able to move again. It was only Wesley's hand on his shoulder that stopped him from going after Banacek.

"Angel, not now. We don't have time for a pointless display of testosterone." "It wouldn't be pointless, Wes. Just want to show my appreciation, is all." "Yes, well, I'm sure it would make you feel better, but now is not the time. So, as they say 'take a chill pill'."

Angel turned towards his friend, his eyes almost bulging out as Wesley gave him a halfhearted shrug and a wry grin. He turned back towards Banacek as the mage cleared his throat.

"As I was saying, there were now a total of 18 realms and 18 caretakers. But just like the next copy of a copy isn't as clear as the previous copy, so too were the last six realms anything as vibrant as the six first realms. Their caretakers were ridiculed by their creators for this. The Six of the First had become what they had resented in their Creators and this led to deepening anger for the Six of the Second.

With less power at their command than the Six of the First, the Six of the Second thought up a plan to take what they believed was rightfully theirs. Namely the powers of their Creators. Having become complacent, because of their stature, the Six of the First were totally unprepared when the Six of the Second attacked, leading their hordes across their realms. It was a short, yet deadly battle. In the end, the Six of the First were slain, their powers usurped by the Six of the Second. However, as a consequence, 12 realms lay destroyed, devoid of all life. It was, at best, a Phyric victory."

"Let me guess, those last six guys decided to go after the first six guys, right", Angel interjected angrily.

"That's quite good, Angelus, I take it you've heard the story before", Banacek answered, his tone condescending.

"I've heard some stories bandied about, yes."

"Some stories", Banacek grinned, the gesture malevolent. "Yes, the Six of the Second, had won the battle but with twelve realms completely destroyed, they had nowhere to go. Nowhere that is, except to the Six. The Six had witnessed this grand battle and rather than await the inevitable, decided to attack, using their first line of defense, the Gods.

Greek mythology speaks of the Twilight of the Gods. Norse mythology of Ragnarok. In whatever culture you look, mention is made of this. Many of the Gods decided to fight; those that did, died a gruesome dead. Zeus, Odin, Mars, Apollo, Ares, to name but a few. Those that didn't join battle, lost most of their powers. Luckily, none of the six remaining realms suffered great damage. Oh, there was the odd disaster, like Mount Vesuvius, but for the most part things for the people remained roughly the same. In the end, the Six of the Second met the Six on the battlefield, as they were the only ones left. It was a very uneven contest, as the former had absorbed all the power of those they had defeated. The Six were utterly destroyed."

It is said that silence can be deafening. Angel had always believed that whoever had coined the phrase was a fool. Two opposites like that could not exist together. Yet again, he was proven wrong as he stood there, in the large main room of the mansion. The silence seemed to be pressing on his eardrums, trying to squeeze his brain out of his head. The silence that was permeated with the words so recently spoken. The silence that was even now, squeezing his unbeating heart in his chest.

Angel could taste the fear in the air. He could smell it, wallow in it. As Angelus, he'd struck fear in the hearts of so many over the centuries. Even now, as Angel, he struck fear in fellow creatures of Hell and evildoers of the human variety. But for the first time in his unlife, he could smell his own fear, the stench flowing from every pour, its sickening, cloying smell nearly choking him.

"That is not the whole story, is it?"

Wesley had finally broken the silence that had descended upon them. Even so, Angel could detect the slight tremor in his voice. Wesley was scared. Angel didn't know what frightened him more, the fact that he could feel the paralyzing power of fear in his own bones, or the fact that Wesley too seemed be suffering from it. His friend, who wouldn't hesitate to step into battle against seemingly insurmountable odds, a man who always managed to mask his fear under the typically British stiff upper lip, was fast losing the control over his emotions.

"Indeed not, Wyndham-Pryce. Why don't you finish the story?", the dark mage answered, his voice carrying an indulgent tone.

Angel turned to his friend, a questioning gaze marring his features. Right now, he was lost, feeling as if he was seeing events from outside, as if he was watching a movie. It frightened him even more and as he watched Wesley lick his suddenly dry lips, those feelings intensified tenfold.

"One of them killed the other five, absorbing THEIR powers, didn't he? The Sixth of the Sixth of the Six. Six Six Six. The Number of the Beast...", Wesley whispered, his face paling to an unhealthy pallor as his voice cracked, seeing Banacek nodding in affirmation.

"Wes? What is it? What? Talk to me!", Angel fairly screamed at his pale companion.

The former Watcher turned towards the former Scourge of Europe, a haunted look on his face.

"Don't you get it, Angel? The Mark of the Beast! The last one of those... caretakers... killing his brethren and absorbing their power!"

At Angel's bewildered look, Wesley grabbed him by the shoulders, shaking him, his eyes wide in fear.

"Angel! It's the Devil himself! He's playing with us! He's the one who's orchestrating all of this! Even if he only has a fraction of his true power, we're not match for him! We're all dead, already! We just don't know it yet!"

Before Angel could get a word in or process what Wesley had just said, Banacek interrupted.

"That is not entirely true."

Both men turned towards the dark mage, identical looks of fear and hope visible in their eyes.

"The Beast is not the Devil, although he is thought of as being Satan's son, imbued with his power and the authority to act in his name." "But that isn't true, is it? Not if what you've just told us is true", Wesley interjected.

"Indeed you are correct, Wesley. You see, the Beast, having slain his comrades and usurped their powers, wanted it all. And so, he challenged the Maker. Foolish really, as the Maker is all-powerful. It was the last, grandiose battle, the Beast's armies against Heaven's legions. The Beast knew he wasn't going to be able to win, unless he could distract the Maker. And what better way to do such a thing then to corrupt those close to the Maker?"

"He corrupted Lucifer, didn't he?", Wesley said excitedly, the pieces falling into place. "He corrupted Lucifer, one of the archangels, hoping that would guarantee his victory!" "Correct again, Wesley. Yes, the Beast indeed corrupted Lucifer, but it was all for naught. As I said, the Maker's power is absolute. The Beast was defeated, stripped of his powers and thrown in the deepest, darkest pit to be found. Lucifer was cast out of Heaven with his followers and made into the Keeper of the dark realm, of Hell, guarding the Beast until such day the Maker would forgive his transgressions and he would again take his place as the Archangel Lucifer."

"So, what happened?" "What else, Angelus? A prophecy, as usual." "What kind of prophecy? Come on, tell us!"

The dark mage sighed, shaking his head slightly, "I do not know. What I do know is that he escaped imprisonment and that right now, he's laying the groundwork to reclaim his powers, as was written in a book, over two millenia ago, a book written by an insane monk. A book so controversial it was stolen from the Vatican's Holy Archives by the Watcher's Council and ordered destroyed because of its inflammatory predictions."

Angel turned his attention back to Wesley as he heard the younger man hiss in surprise; if at all possible, the Englishman had turned even paler then he was moments ago.

"Wes? Are you alright?" "The Grimoire of Alexandria...", Wesley whispered as he slowly sank down onto the floor, a look of fear, anxiety and bewilderment on his face.

"Yes, the Grimoire of Alexandria. A book of such power, that it couldn't be destroyed, not by fire nor any other means."

Angel looked between the two men, noting that their gazes were locked with each other.

"If it couldn't be destroyed then..." "Then the Council still has it. I'm sure between you and your friend Ripper you'll be able to figure out where it is kept. In the meantime, if you want to destroy the Beast before he manages to complete whatever it is that this prophecy requires to regain his powers, I suggest you do it fast." "Look, I don't know what you're on, Banacek, but right now, we don't know where this 'Beast' is, much less how to stop him! So if you know where and how, just tell us, will you?", Angel fairly screamed as he helped Wesley back onto his feet.

"The Beast will be at a gathering tomorrow night, at midnight, in the industrial district. The old Cyberdyne Center grounds. As for killing him, as he hasn't regained his powers yet, I'd say the old-fashioned way." "And how do you know this?" "Even without his powers, the Beast is still formidable. His essence calls those who seek the dark powers, like a moth to a flame. The only thing is, I'm not interested in the destruction of this world, this realm. Which is, I'm afraid, what would happen if he regains his power."

Before Angel could voice an answer, something in the corner of his eyes distracted him. Turning towards the movement, his eyes grew wide but before he could utter a warning, the warping air had reached the three men, knocking them off their feet into unconsciousness...


"I don't know, Angel. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. If what your 'friend' said is true, than the Beast isn't really worried about is. He's been playing with us since the beginning; this could be just a continuation of that."

Angel didn't say a thing for several minutes as they kept walking.

"What is this book you were talking about?" "The Grimoire of Alexandria? Like Banacek said, it was written by a mad monk. Or rather, seeing our current situation, by a supposed mad monk. I've heard stories about it, usually when we, that is, the other watchers were drunk. It's supposed to contain prophecies that, if they were come to pass, are the direct opposite of those in the Codex. Things that contradict everything that's supposed to be in all the books and scriptures in the Council's possession. In short, things so dark, so evil and destructive, it could rip apart everything we know." "And it is supposedly somewhere inside the Council's headquarters?" "IF the stories are true that the Council couldn't find a way to destroy the book, then it is most likely that they have it placed somewhere for safekeeping. Most likely, within the deepest bowels of the Dominion."


"...within the deepest bowels of the Dominion."

"You are quite correct, Mr. Wyndham-Pryce. That is exactly where it is", the Beast whispered as his fingers slipped through the image portrayed in the water of the silver bowl.

"You have done quite well, Gras'nvor." "Thank you, My Lord. The Vampire had no idea I was not his old 'friend'. Do you think they will take the bait?" "They will, whether they believe it to be a trap or not. They will be there. That is so predictable about the forces of Light. As Holmes would say, 'The game is afoot, my dear Watson'. The game is afoot."


Chapter 14

*** 0034 AM, July 15th, The Bronze, CA ***

Groaning, Alex tried to turn onto his back; before he could do more than roll to his side, however, he was lifted off the floor. The next thing he knew, he was looking into the pissed-off gameface of the last vampire.

"That was my kid brother you just murdered, you bastard. Now, I'm gonna hurt you", the vampire hissed. "Hate to break it to you, bro, but his dietary habits sucked. Ya see, I'm a food critic and drinking blood is just so passe. Ergo, he had to go", Alex quipped, willing the room to stop spinning around. "And use a breath mint if you're gonna get up close and personal, will ya? The fumes alone are hazardous to one's health."

With a roar that shook the building, the vampire threw Alex across the room. Alex's body crashed through a door, his body then impacting a steel table, slamming what little air he still had in his lungs out and toppling off the tabletop to the floor with a thud. Dazed, the young Marine shook his head, trying to get a clear look at his surroundings. A loud roar of rage coming closer spurred him into action and Alex quickly started to scamper backwards, using his legs and arms to propel him.

The few people that were in the room, the kitchen, Alex belatedly realized, fled hastily through a side door as the vampire stormed inside, noticing his prey on the floor, moving backwards rapidly.

"Hello, are we going somewhere? Did I give you permission to get away, little man?", the vamp mocked as he began to stalk his prey.

He struck out with his right arm, clearing a countertop of its contents, spilling pots, pans and ingredients all over the place. Alex had moved as far as he could in the small space, his back impacting on a solid object. His mind still blurry from the two solid hits he'd taken, he looked up and behind him. Suddenly, a grim smile lit his face as he turned back to his opponent.

"Not such a smart mouth now, hey, meat?" "That was your kid brother? And you have the courage to tell that to people? If I had a brother who was as stupid as him, I'd change my name and disappear. Guess you've got even less brains then he did", Alex said mockingly, only slightly succeeding to keep his voice from wavering.

The vamp's eyes grew wide and he roared in rage, charging forward. Alex's hands flew upwards, wrapping around the long handles of two frying pans on the industrial stove and threw the contents onto the charging vamp, hitting him straight on. The vamp roared in pain as the burning oil made contact with its face and hands. Instantly, Alex pushed himself back on his feet, a bit unsteadily, but determined and swung out his left hand, quickly followed by the right, resulting in loud, satisfying CLUNKS. The vampire was thrown against a counter, but quickly retaliated, using his right arm to swipe several jars and plates in Alex's direction. Crouching low to avoid the onslaught, Alex extended his left arm, slamming the front end of the frying pan straight into the vamp's exposed belly, doubling him over. His right hand surged upwards, the bottom of the second frying pan connecting with the vamp's chin in a sickening crunch, sending the demon somersaulting to the floor.

Still a bit disoriented, Alex moved to finish the vampire off on unsteady legs but the vamp had other ideas. It quickly got up, throwing several quick punches towards its opponent.





Alex had blocked the incoming fists with the two frying pans, the power of impact almost snapping his wrists. However, the impacts did more damage to the vampire's fists, breaking the bones inside. As he screamed in equal parts rage and pain, Alex quickly smashed the frying pans against the sides of the vamp's head. If the situation wasn't so deadly, he would have burst out in laughter as the vampire tried to hold his head to stop the shaking. It was reminiscent of a scene from a Tom & Jerry cartoon. Not giving him a change to gather his wits, Alex pressed the attack, using the frying pans as he'd used the broken pieces of the pool cue earlier. He rained down hits on the vampire, knocking the creature around the kitchen, smashing him into cabinets, the meatlocker and walls.

After a particularly vicious hit slammed the vamp over the center counter, Alex quickly rounded it, ready to finish the fight. The vampire had other ideas, as it threw one of the big kitchen knives it managed to pick up from the floor at him. Jumping to the side, Alex bumped into the counter, his already bruised ribs taking the hit and causing him to loose his grip on the frying pans. Seeing his chance, the vampire jumped up, hands outstretched, ready to wrap them around Alex's throat. Alex's arms flew upwards, between the vampire's arms, slamming them away. He then grabbed the vampire's coat and pulled him forward even as he moved to meet the vampire and slammed his forehead into the vamp's face. Dazed, the vampire almost fell backward, only Alex's hands on his coat keeping him from doing so.

Pulling him close again, Alex slammed his right knee into the vampire's crotch; he then smashed the vampire's head into the left wall, immediately pulling him back and repeating the move, this time hitting him against the steel doors underneath the central counter of the kitchen. As the young Marine kept walking towards the industrial stove, he continued to slam the vampire alternately into the wall and any solid object on the opposite side. Finally, he threw the dazed vampire to the floor, its face completely shattered, the bones deformed and pushed into themselves. Had he still been human, he'd probably be dead already. Alex grabbed a bottle of corn oil, liberally squirting it all over the vampire, then lifted him up by his bloodsoaked hair, pushed him facefirst into the burning flames on top of the stove. The vampire's scream echoed through the building as the oil on his face caught fire, quickly spreading to the rest of his oilsoaked body. He tried to put out the flames by batting at them with his hands, only succeeding in setting his arms on fire. As he writhed on the floor, his body began to break down rapidly and in agonizing seconds, the last vampire that had entered the Bronze was dust.

"You know, you think a vamp would know better then go into a kitchen. I mean, they know they can't stand the heat, yet they just happily take a stroll inside", Alex said, giving Cassandra, Dawn and her friend a lopsided grin as they stormed into the kitchen.

"Xander! Are you alright?", Dawn fairly screamed as she ran towards her friend, Cassandra and Stacey behind her.

"Five by Five, Dawnpatrol."

The young brunette leveled stern blue eyes at him, her arms crossed in front of her.

"Maybe Four by Four.... No, scratch that. That's what he hit me with. Okay, enough already, Dawn! My ribs hurt, my head hurts, I'm pretty much in complete pain. Satisfied?"

"No, that's why I'm taking you to the hospital right now."

Alex suppressed the groan that threatened to slip his lips; Dawn could be so bossy at times.... It must be something genetic with the Summers women. Or maybe it was women in general. Right now, he didn't want to think too hard. Or rather, he couldn't think too hard as his head hurt enough already.

"No, no hospital. I've been hurt worse before and I didn't need any hospital then. I'll just go home, take some Marine candy, hit the shower and get some rest. In the morning, I'll be right as rain", Alex said, grinning as he put an arm around Dawn and steered her towards the entrance.

"You're gonna eat candy after the thrashing you got? You really are nuts", Cassandra stated, shaking her head as she and Stacey fell into step behind the pair as they walked back into the main room of the Bronze.

"I said Marine candy. Advil? You know, those powerful, over-the-counter painkillers?", he added sarcastically. "I'll just pop a few with water, get me a hot shower and a warm bed. Does wonders for one's disposition", Alex tossed back as he gave Dawn his trademarked lopsided grin. The younger Summers pulled herself closer to him, mindful of his injuries but not wanting to deny what the combination of his smile and being this close to him was doing to her insides. She could happily stay in his embrace for a very, very long time. Behind the pair, Cassandra and Stacey gave each other identical knowing looks. Dawn had it bad for the young man.

"Come on, let's get you home, soldier boy", Cassandra said, shaking her head. "I don't need an escort home, Cassandra", Alex said, stopping in front of his motorcycle and turning towards her. The look the young Slayer leveled at him was met by an equally stubborn stare from the young Marine officer.

"Look, mister, I don't care if you're fucking Iron Man, you got thrashed pretty badly in there. I'm not gonna explain to Buffy and the others that I let you go home while you're in no shape to drive, let alone ride a motorbike. Even if you got home safely, they'd still kick my ass."

Cassandra's stance, crossed arms, frown marring her forehead, one leg bent, showed that she wouldn't brook an argument. Alex sighed internally, again wondering what it was with him and the women in his life.

"I could drive you", Dawn offered brightly. Alex smiled at her, pulling her tight to him.

"Thanks, Dawny, but that's not necessary. We don't want to get Cassie here in trouble, right", Alex said, throwing his keys to the younger Slayer. Catching it, she looked at him in surprise.

"You want ME to drive you home?"

"Hey, you're the one who doesn't want to get into trouble with Buffy. Besides, there is no way I'm leaving my bike here, so you might as well give up and get on. You do KNOW how to ride a motorbike, right?", Alex finished, smugness dripping from every word. Doing his best not to show any pain to his companions, he let go of Dawn, dropping a kiss to her forehead.

"You wanna follow us and take Cassie back?"

"You sure you don't want me to tuck you in", Dawn said softly, looking up through lowered lashes, a coy smile gracing her lips. Alex fought the flush he felt rising to his cheeks.

'Oh man! Dawn is flirting with ME! This can't be happening! Got to put a stop to this right now!'

"Definitely no tucking in for you, lady."

"I'd just be returning the favor, after all the times you've tucked me in", Dawn replied in her best little girl voice, her lips pouting slightly.

"That's not the same! Not even remotely!"

"Why isn't it?"

"Because... because..."

Alex had taken a step back from Dawn, trying to think of a valid reason why it wasn't the same, but his mind was a blank. Stammering and waving his arms about wasn't helping, so he turned his attention back to Cassandra and Stacey. The identical grins they wore told him not to expect any help from that corner, so he turned back to Dawn. Taking a deep breath, he prepared himself to speak.

"It's not the same coz I wasn't thinking what it is you're thinking." "Who said I was thinking anything, Xan", Dawn countered in a too sweet voice. "Implying, thinking, hinting at.... whatever it is.... Oh, for crying out loud! I'm so outta here!"

In a huff, Alex turned around and stalked to the dark green motorcycle and got on; turning back to where the others stood, he raised an eyebrow at Cassandra. The three girls looked at him, then turned to look at each other. Then, they broke out into hysterical peals of laughter. Alex turned away in disgust at himself, for being manipulated so easily, doing his best impression of Lieutenant Mumbly as he muttered some of the more colorful curses he'd learned back in boot.

*** 1717 PM, July 15th, 1630 Revello Drive, CA ***

Buffy Summers looked around the house. Every single room had been thoroughly cleaned out. Not a spot of dust anywhere, potpourri filled the air with sweet scents. Indonesian noodles were ready to be cooked, vegetables washed and chopped and chicken and pork were marinating in the fridge. Surveying everything, the elder Summers smiled slightly. Everything was on schedule; in a few minutes, she was going to start cooking, then wash up. Tonight was an important night. Probably the most important night of her life. Tonight, for the first time in years, Xander Harris would set foot in her home. Tonight would be the night that would decide whether eight years of absence and resentment could be overcome. Tonight would be the night where they would find out if it was possible to bridge that gap and to capture what had been lost.

Buffy Summers wasn't the young college student who'd felt that she knew what was best for others anymore. She liked to think that time and circumstances had made her face some harsh truths and take appropriate actions.

'Now you just have to proof it to yourself, but most importantly, to Xander', flashed through her mind. For the last eight years, Buffy Summers had done nothing else but play each and every encounter with Xander through her mind. All the little and big things he'd done for her, all the times he'd saved her life. All the times he'd stood up to her, told her the harsh truth.... every thing, every event, major and small she had gone over. Every time she hurt him, every time she had used him, or pushed him aside.

Buffy had finally grown up, her maturity matching her age and not for the first time, the daughter of Joyce Summers wondered how it was possible that the young man known as Xander Harris had always been the more mature of their little group. Yes, he was always cracking jokes, half the time at his own expense, or acting the fool. But when it was crunch time, he'd shown a maturity that was way beyond anything she'd ever witnessed, even from adults. At times, Xander had even shown a maturity that dwarfed that of Giles. Looking at a very old picture of her, Xander and Willow together, Buffy couldn't help but smile at the memories. The White Knight had returned. It was time to see if they could keep the heart of the Scoobies where he belonged.

Buffy picked up the frame holding the newest picture she had of her best male friend. It was a copy of the one in his military file; he was dressed in full uniform, the white cover, black jacket with red trim. To say he looked good enough to eat was an understatement, Buffy thought. But that wasn't the reason why she'd asked Willow for a copy. It was the look in his eyes. It showed nothing, not a single emotion. They were cold, lifeless eyes. They held the same look she'd seen these last few days since his return and it hurt her in a way Buffy never would have thought possible. Oh yes, he joked at times, telling humorous stories as only Xander could. To a casual acquaintance, it would look as if nothing had changed. But Buffy knew better. Through it all, his eyes never lost that cold look, the guardedness they possessed now. The walls Xander Harris had built up since his childhood had become as impenetrable as granite. With a start, Buffy realized that in all the years they'd been friends, she'd never learned anything about his childhood. Nothing except the stories Willow had told her. A sudden feeling of shame enveloped her and Buffy swore to herself she'd do anything, anything at all to show Xander that she'd changed. She was going to earn his forgiveness. He wasn't going to walk out of her life again without a fight. A fight she intended to win. As Buffy prepared herself to start working on dinner, the phone rang, cutting through the silence in the house.

"Summers Residence."

"Buffy? Giles. I need you to come to the shop immediately!"

"Giles? Come on! Xander is coming over and I still have a ton of stuff to do", Buffy whined.

"Now, Buffy!"

Without waiting for an answer, Giles had thrown down the phone and the only sound Buffy heard was the steady dialtone. For an instant, she looked at the phone as if it was something from another planet, before the tone of Giles' voice send a jolt of alarm through her. Forgetting everything else, Buffy grabbed her jacket and was out of the door in a flash. Giles' tone had been one he barely used; it had been the tone of Ripper and she knew better then to argue with the Englishman when he was in that state of mind. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong....


*** 1732 PM, July 15th, The Magic Box ***

Buffy burst into Giles' shop, frantically looking around and fearing the worst. Giles had never been this short with her and it was freaking her out big time.

"Giles! Giles!"

"I'm here, Buffy. No need to yell", Giles said as he came out of the trainingroom, carrying the large First Aid kit.

"Giles, what the hell is wrong with you? Xander is coming over tonight and I've got a ton of stuff to do", Buffy said, the edge to her voice clearly showing her displeasure.

"I'm afraid that'll have to wait, Buffy. Angel and Wesley have gotten some rather disturbing information."

Looking towards the large round table Giles was walking towards, Buffy caught her first glimpse of the two men mentioned. What she saw shocked her; both Wes and Angel looked like they'd gone ten rounds with a demonic Mike Tyson. Which was saying something because she'd always thought the former World Champion had to be a demon. It would explain the biting of his opponents.

Both men sported numerous bruises, cuts and scrapes, their clothes torn and dirty while both looked to be in a great deal of pain, judging from the painkillers and empty glasses on the table. The feeling of dread she'd had in the pit of her stomach since Giles' phone call intensified and the elder Slayer turned towards her Watcher.

"Okay, so what's the sitch?"

Giles turned to look at her as he continued cleaning Wesley's wounds.

"We know who our opponent is."

"Okay. Good. So we research, then we slay. Piece of cake."

The grim look the three men gave her made Buffy Summers swallow.


"I'm afraid it'll be a bit more complicated than that, Buffy", Wesley stated calmly as he eased out of his jacket slowly.

"You see, we're about to face the Devil himself."