The premise and all canon characters of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' belong to Joss Whedon and his collaborating deities (sorry: corporations, organisations and individuals), and I had no intention of claiming otherwise. Please, don't sue me: I'm not making money off this, so the only things you might win would be my Sarah McLachlan CDs and my computer - and you can have the CDs when you pry them from my cold dead fingers. :-) On the other hand, any character you *don't* recognise from canon is almost certainly my creation, and my permission should be sought before anyone else uses them.
CSI Sara Sidle is the intellectual and legal property of Jerry Bruckheimer Films and Alliance Atlantis (the lucky sods!) and is used (for all of three seconds!) without licence or intent to profit.
Pearse J. Harman, Vaughan Rice, Michael Colefield and Angie March belong to the BBC and the production team of 'Ultraviolet'. No infringement intended, no profit anticipated.
The opinions, views, and biases that may be expressed by the characters within this story are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the author or archivist(s). Certain real-life organisations are mentioned, but any similarity to actual persons, policies, practices or events is purely accidental.

Through the end of the third season. After that, it's effectively alternate-universe stuff.

R, for coarse language, fairly graphic violence, and adult themes. If you couldn't handle 'Saving Private Ryan', you might want to find an elsewhere to be. You have been warned. ;-)

DISTRIBUTION: and the XanderZone; any others by permission only.

1. Takes place just after 'Graduation 2'; as such, all three of the high-school seasons may be referenced. I may cherry-pick Seasons 4 and 5 for elements to use in later fics; all canon after that I'm dismissing as an extended psychotic episode. :-S
2. 'Zulu' time is Greenwich Mean Time, the universal time standard used by the military; 'Lima' is local time, whatever/wherever/whenever that may be.
3. Italic text indicates thoughts or non-verbal communication, non-English words, or names, depending on context; \backslashes\ indicate dialogue translated from another language; and {brackets} is a transmitted medium - electronic, written or true telepathy.
4. Yes, I know that canon has it that it was the Army that Xander 'joined' on Hallowe'en and robbed during 'Innocence'; the change is deliberate. I've also fudged 'Lover's Walk' and 'The Zeppo' a little; it's complicated, but it'll all work out in the end. You should understand if you bear with me - patience is a virtue, after all! ;-)
5. Feedback is, of course, welcome (either in reviews or by e-mail); criticism that is in any way constructive will be accepted, but out-and-out flames will be met with HALON.
6. Many, many thanks to my betas, including John McCarrick and DaBear, and everyone whose comments and feedback have helped improve my writing.
7. More notes may follow when (and if) I can arrange my thoughts into something approaching coherence.

Latest addition


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

When are you gonna learn, B? It doesn't matter what kind of vibe you get off a person. 'Cause nine times out of ten, the face they're showing you is not the real one.

Faith - BtVS 3.15: Consequences

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

H: Together again, huh?
L: Wouldn't miss it.
H: How we doin'?
L: Same as always.
H: *That bad*, huh?

Han Solo and Luke Skywalker - Return of the Jedi

04:32, MONDAY JULY 5, 1999, ZULU TIME


PASSWORD: ********




**** **** *****


Omnes moritatem; Deus suos cognoscet.




>>K>> It took you long enough.

>>O>> You know how much I despise these contraptions, Keystone. What is it?

>>K>> I need you to go to Sunnydale to institute the Judas protocols.

>>O>> I can't say I'm overly surprised. Which subject?

>>S>> Both.

>>O>> I see. Parameters?


>>O>> Punctual as ever, I see.

>>R>> Go kiss a vampire. What *are* the parameters?

>>K>> There are none.

>>R>> It's about fucking time we took the gloves off.

>>O>> Grow up, Ruby. Public considerations?

>>K>> Just try to keep extraneous carnage and media exposure to a minimum. We don't need a circus like the Zyrianova deployment.

>>O>> The Triads were blamed for that.

>>K>> Only because you were so bloody obvious and clumsy about the whole thing. It's hard to keep a lid on things when you're shooting people on the streets of a country where the annual number of firearms murders rarely reaches double figures. Try to blend in a little more this time, will you?

>>R>> Look, just get us their records, Keystone. We'll come up with something appropriate when we have a better read on things.

>>K>> All the necessary data is being couriered to you now, and to Agate.

>>O>> Agate!?

>>K>> We can't season him without actual field experience, can we?

>>R>> You just said you wanted minimal collateral -

>>O>> If you saddle me with that congenitally incompetent butcher -

>>K>> The decision is made. All three of you and your SHRIKE teams are to be in place as soon as possible. Understood?

>>O>> Sir!

>>R>> Sir. What about local assets?

>>K>> It's in the intel packets, Ruby. Read them when they arrive. Good day.

LOGOFF Keystone

>>O>> Sanctimonious bastard, is our beloved Sub-Coordinator (Security/Operations)....

>>R>> That's rich coming from you, Opal. See you in Sunnydale.


>>O>> ........



LOGOFF [unknown user]

Part One

23:41, MONDAY JULY 5, 1999, ZULU TIME

"Well, póg mo thón ...."

"Not in public, Topaz," Onyx quipped from behind his Times. "What is it?"

"I've got some bots monitoring our subjects, yeah?" the cracker reminded her boss - albeit respectfully, bearing in mind that the Englishman hadn't become SHRIKE-1's Deputy Commander by being overly forgiving of slights, real or imagined. "Harris' car just changed registry again."

"What?" Onyx blinked, dropping his paper to cross to the brunette's shoulder. The Silicon Graphics workstation, next-generation satellite phone, and the top-of-the-line shadow-market ICe-breaker programmes Topaz wielded meant that she could punch through data-walls few others could even dream of scratching, even travelling at three hundred knots at thirty thousand feet, and now her screen showed a correction to the California DMV database. Of course, it wasn't like said database was anything resembling a real challenge, but still.... "He was so fixed on the idea of wandering America. Why the devil would he sell his car like that - less than two months after buying it, and after only driving it from Sunnydale to Los Angeles?"

"You tell me, sir, you're the one who's met him," she shrugged.

Onyx reminded himself that he couldn't shoot her under present circumstances - explosive decompression, and all that. "Pull up airline ticket purchases. Perhaps he's taking a different route."

Topaz nodded and rattled the keyboard for a moment. "Just as well 'Xander' is such an unusual name, yeah?" she observed as she waited for the results. "If he was going by 'Alex' or something mundane, I might as well try to find a given water molecule by running a sieve through the Thames."

"I'm well aware of the difficulty of the task, Topaz." His tone was patient but crisp. "You don't have to impress it on me to inflate my opinion of your skills. Erwin Rommel did the same thing with his superiors... and look at how *he* ended up."

Topaz swallowed carefully. "I'm just saying that it's easier said than done, sir. I - here we go." The screen had changed again as the search-bots came up with something. "One hit returned: a United flight from LAX to... Dulles? What the hell does he want in D.C.?"

"Who gives a damn?" her superior countered, tapping the screen. "The flight lands around nine p.m. tomorrow, Eastern. That gives us barely a day to get people in place to intercept him. Who's available?"

Topaz pulled up another window and ran through her database. "Uh... Jasper and Bloodstone are in New York." She clicked for more details. "They're currently, uh, 'convincing' an antiquities dealer that the suit of armour he just received - the armour of a Knight Templar who was crucified for heresy - would be better off in the hands of someone who can better manage its more... esoteric properties."

"If we don't get a clean sweep on every one of Buffy's lackeys, Keystone will floss his teeth with our spinal columns. Tell Jasper and Bloodstone to expedite the armour's recovery and get to Washington within the next twelve hours."

"Any special instructions for how they should deal with Harris?"

"No. They know what to do with him, and there's no need for any precautions in handling, the boy has trouble putting his shoes on the right feet."

"Sounds like he made an impression on y', sir," the Belfast native opined, switching her head-/eye-phone rig to a mode that allowed voice telecommunication.

SHRIKE-1-Deputy shrugged. "Stupidity that gross is hard to forget."

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

21:23, TUESDAY JULY 6, 1999, LIMA (01:23/07-07-99, ZULU)

Xander rubbed his eyes and checked his newly reset watch. And *that* explains why I never wanted to be a pilot. Okay: now I find a hotel, a rental car, and a 'phone. Anything else can wait.

He slung his carry-all and started picking his way through the crowd. As he went, he reached into a pocket and produced the pamphlet he'd acquired at the '98-'99 Career Fair, once again contemplating the caption at the bottom. {The Change is Forever. 1-800-MARINES.}

He'd told his fellow Scoobies that he was heading away to find himself; true enough, as far as it went. But the whole Kerouac thing had been a blind. Let's face it, I *ain't* cut out to live an unstructured life. 'On the Road'? Give me a break! Hell, my life fell apart in the school holidays because I didn't have any idea of what I was gonna be doing. Six months without a plan, without being part of a team, and I'd just end up another 'missing hitch-hiker' statistic.

And why not the Corps? After Hallowe'en '97, I'm already pre-trained, and it's not like I don't have combat experience, he thought wryly, giving way to a couple of screaming kids and their harried-looking mother. Besides, it's not like I've got any real reason to -

Hey, just a par-boiled minute.... His head came up again, and he searched the concourse for the oddity that had caught his -

There. A tallish Asian man was standing near the exit, holding up a sign. {X. HARRIS}

Everything around the dark-haired Scooby went into slow-motion, and alarm-bells went off in his head. I never told *anybody* I was coming out here to go to Parris Island, not even Willow - hell, I didn't even buy the plane-ticket until I got to L.A. yesterday! - and yet Mister Sign-Man is here, waiting for me. Ergo, he *ain't* somebody I want to meet. "Excuse me, pardon me, excuse me," the Scooby repeated, carefully making his way through the crowd - *away* from his reception committee.

He'd made not fifteen yards before something cold and round screwed itself into his left kidney. "Going somewhere, meneer Harris?" a cold male voice asked, its accent distinctly Afrikaans.

"Baggage claim. I forgot my Kevlar underwear," he riposted. The terror that had instantly leapt into his throat he seized in both hands, wadded up into a ball, and stuffed back down into his stomach - panicking would *not* help.

"Then you'd better do exactly what I say, hadn't you?" The pistol-muzzle dug into his back a little harder.

"What're you gonna do, shoot me in the middle of the concourse in front of a few thousand people?"

"I'd just be another shocked bystander, meneer. Now get going. Out in the parking lot there's a red Lexus with grey stripes and New York number-plates. Get into the passenger's seat. I'll be right beside you every step of the way, so don't think running will get you anything but a bullet in the spine." The man stepped up next to him. He was blond, blocky, vaguely military-looking, and the overcoat draped over his right arm just happened to mostly conceal the suppressed SIG-Sauer P230 he was holding.

Cute trick, Xander noted, starting in the direction he'd been given. The Chinese man was headed towards the same door, wearing a carnivorous smile as he looked over at them; Xander noted that he had a rolling sort of gait, like he'd had both his knees busted at some point. "Where'd you learn your trade-craft, Sesame Street?"

"Unlike you, meneer Harris, some of us in the real world can actually read," the guy responded, his voice completely level. "You should have tried it when you had the chance. Now move."

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

Out on the freeway, Xander kept his mouth shut and tried to figure out how the hell he was going to get out of this. The Asian was in the seat behind him, undoubtedly with another P230 levelled at his spine. Blondie was keeping his eyes on the road.

Who the fuck *are* these guys, anyway, and what do they want with a nobody like me? "Can I ask where we're going?"

"You can ask all you like." Blondie smiled thinly. His tone made it clear that the question would be ignored.

"That's what I thought." These fuckers are gonna shoot me as soon as they get to where they decided they're gonna dump the body, and there's not a damn' thing I can do about it! he railed.

There was a flash of lights behind the Lexus, and a siren whooped. The Afrikaaner breathed a curse as he checked the mirror. "Never a blery cop around when you need one, and just when you don't.... Jasper -"

"Got it," the Asian man said crisply, in New York inflections. Under his voice was a distinct dry 'klik', awfully like the sound of an autopistol's hammer being earred back.

"Meneer Harris, say nothing, do nothing to betray us. I'd hate to have to kill you."

You'd hate to have to kill me *here*, you mean, Xander sneered to himself, breathing deeply and quietly gathering himself as the car pulled into a lay-by. Gun at his back or not, he couldn't afford to waste his only chance - no matter how slim it might be.

The Virginia State Police cruiser came to a halt just behind the stopped Lexus. The uniformed man who emerged had grey hair and skin so beaten to leather by the elements that it prevented any sort of guess about his age; he wore a wicked-looking Glock strapped to his thigh, and under his uniform cap, shooter's glasses shielded his eyes, despite the darkness of the hour.

Xander watched the man approach through the rear-vision mirror, and his alarm-bells went off again. His Marine-memory recognised something in the oncoming man's body-language, the way he moved, the way he looked at the two hijackers. Ohhhh, *shit* - that is *not* a cop!

The 'officer' came up to the driver's door, tapped on the window with one knuckle, then rested his hand on his holster (as cops do, any normal onlooker might assume). Blondie obediently rolled down his window and offered his licence and registration without being asked. "What can I do for you - Officer O'Ryan?" he asked pleasantly, reading the man's nametag.

"Step out of the car, please, sir," O'Ryan replied, quietly but respectfully insistent. Something about his accent was... *off*, somehow, and those alarms got louder.

"Is that really necessary? We're late for an appointment."

O'Ryan's tone got firmer. "Please step out of the car, sir. All of you."

Jasper sighed, and Xander could almost see him slipping his pistol into his pocket as he opened his door and climbed out. Here goes nothing.... The Scooby carefully climbed out of the car and stepped into full view, closer to the edge of the gravel than Jasper. As the two older men turned to face the cop, he started sidling towards the underbrush, one inch at a time. Closer... closer....

Muzzle-flashes shattered the darkness.

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

21:23, THURSDAY JULY 8, LIMA (05:23/09-07-99, ZULU)

In times past, the (not completely unjustified) accusation had been levelled at Willow Rosenberg that, sweethearted girl that she was, she wasn't quite assertive enough; she simply didn't have the instincts to go for the throat.

The people who'd said that must've never seen her bowl.

Oz watched all ten pins crash about the triangle, his expression (as always) giving nothing away as his girlfriend practically capered with delight; it was her fourth strike in six frames. "Okay, you're using magic, right?"

She gave him a superior look as she came back to their seats. "What makes you think that?" For all her mock snootiness, his being relaxed enough to tease her was a source of comfort. Things between them had always been a little... uneasy since the fluke, despite the way they'd talked and seemingly reconciled at Christmas, and lately she couldn't shake the feeling that he wasn't quite... *settled* around her. Xander's leaving had made it worse somehow, not better, and Oz wouldn't talk about whatever was bothering him at all. Not that he'd ever been Joe Loquacious in the first place, but -

"You're getting sixteen-pound results with a twelve-pound ball, Will. Not a natural phenomenon."

'Da dooo da-do-do!'

Both teenagers blinked at the woman who'd just taken to the next lane; she didn't seem to realise that she'd whistled that horribly off-pitch but still recognisable counterpoint.

"Maybe I'm just a better bowler," Willow sniffed. "There's your 'natural phenomenon'."

'Do d-do do!' The whistler wound the ball up, took careful aim, and dropped all ten pins with a shot that drove into the pocket like a stake into a vampire's heart. "DAMN I'm good!" she cried, raising a triumphant fist.

The teens turned matching 'what the hell' looks on her. Willow did the honours. "Phenomenon."

'Do dooo da-do-do, da-do-do, da-do-do, da-do-do-doo-do!' She half-chuckled and turned to the duo, smiling crookedly. Her English held an odd accent, like it wasn't her first language and she'd learned it from someone who didn't come from the US. "I'm sorry. My husband keeps telling me I need to grow up - right before he sticks his tongue out at me," she added wryly.

She was perhaps two years older than Oz, five-feet-nine or so, with a sort of sleek, graceful power to her slender frame that reminded Willow of nothing so much as a panther. Her skin was as pale as fine porcelain, completely flawless, and the mid-back-length tumble of raven-wing hair complemented it perfectly; behind frameless, yellow-tinted glasses - Willow remembered that cops and soldiers called them 'shooter's glasses' - her dark eyes twinkled with mischief, laughing at the entire world. The glint in her eye, the gamine cast to her features and her infectious grin made it seem like just being alive was an exhilirating experience to her; she fairly radiated energy, and a limitless confidence that somehow managed to be completely devoid of conceit. She was dressed in a red-and-grey-checked long-sleeved shirt over black jeans; a battered black denim jacket was slung over her seat, a pair of much-abused Nike running shoes were piled atop each other on the floor, and a Chevrolet baseball cap hung from the score-table's overhead-projector mount. She was wearing no cosmetics, her earlobes were adorned only by silver studs, and the twin rings on her left hand looked like polished stainless steel(!), one inset with diamonds and dark sapphires, the other inlaid with silver and platinum.

"Miss that show too, huh?" Oz asked, mainly for the sake of politesse.

"I was *gutted* when I heard they weren't making it any more," the brunette declared. "At least I can get it on cable out here. I'm forgetting my manners: call me Shooter," she half-smiled.

"Oz," the guitarist nodded, shaking the proffered right hand; her grip was surprisingly strong, albeit controlled. Weird calluses she's got, he noted in passing. "This is Willow."

"'Shooter'?" Willow asked, a little incredulously.

"It's better than 'hey, you'," she said, waggling blue-black eyebrows over her shades; Willow giggled at the taller woman's deadpan delivery. "Oz, you're up."

"Oh, yeah. Thanks." The guitarist retrieved his ball from the runnel and took position at the line. "New to Sunnydale?"

"More or less. A... a professional opportunity came up, and I couldn't have made myself say 'no' if I'd wanted to."

Russian, he realised. *That* was her original language; she sounded almost exactly like that lady you saw on CNN, Ralitsa somebody-or-other. He took a breath, released it, made his delivery; he ended up with a 6-7-10 split, which wasn't too bad considering he'd almost guttered out.

"You're hitting the pocket a little too fine. Try starting a shade further to the right next time," Shooter suggested.

"Whatever you do, don't start betting against her," a male voice interjected wryly, its owner stepping up to Shooter's console with a couple of bags of M&Ms in one hand.

"Hey, sexy!" Shooter cried, her already animated face outright lighting up at the sight of the newcomer.

He glanced over both shoulders, the gesture not entirely an act. "You, uh, you *are* talking to me, right?" he hazarded.

"I don't see any other gorgeous men around here; do you?" she near-purred, wrapping her arms around his neck. He slipped his arms about her waist and kissed her, long and deep and with an almost cherishing passion.

When they broke for air long moments later, they rested their foreheads together and shared a private smile. "Well, I'm not in the market and you're biased," he half-chuckled whimsically.

"I'm gonna take a wild guess and say you're the husband," Willow deadpanned.

"I'd better be; any other man she kisses like that'd be a dead man when I found him," he grinned as they both turned to face the two Scoobies. "Call me Nemo."

Nemo was about twenty, a touch under average height, with a wiry compactness of build. He had sandy-blond hair and pleasant, freckle-strewn facial features marred by a pencil-thin scar that started at the left corner of his forehead and ended at the point of his cheekbone; a black patch covered his left eye, and his right eye was a warm, almost wolfish shade of topaz, its gaze reflecting skewed humour, a wryly cynical appreciation of human folly. In contrast with Shooter's borderline hyperactivity, he was possessed of a respectful, caring mien; Willow's sense of him was of thoughtful intelligence and a steady temperament. Like Shooter's, his pronunciation was British, but his accent wasn't quite Australian and had an oddly lilting touch to it. He was wearing semi-casual grey slacks and a long-sleeved white shirt, and his jacket (an aviator-style black Nomex affair) lay on the chair next to Shooter's; strangely enough, despite the warmth of the night his cuffs were securely buttoned. When he extended his hand to her, Willow saw why: the back of his hand was covered with faint but distinct scars - old burns? - that stretched up under his cuff, and probably beyond. She also noted, with a twitch of one eyebrow, that the rings he wore on his free hand were identical to Shooter's.

"So what's your *real* name, Mister 'My name is Latin for Nobody'?" she asked archly, hiding a puzzled frown. Scars aside, Nemo had the same disciplined strength and calluses as Shooter did, though both were a little more pronounced.

If he'd been wearing glasses, he would have looked at Willow over them; his voice was suddenly a perfect mimic of the sort of high-class English toff who would think of Wesley Wyndam-Pryce as 'dreadfully common'. "Tut-tut-tut, dear... don'tcherknow that's a *terribly* gauche question to ask in our profession?"

Both Willow and Oz blinked, unsure of what to make of that.

"You'll have to forgive him," Shooter smiled, absently rubbing Nemo's shoulder with one hand. "His subconscious collects languages and accents the way housewives collect recipes, and he has a slightly twisted sense of fun."

"This from a woman who routinely starts brawls with Recon Marines just for the sheer hell of it," Nemo said dryly, playing to their two-person audience.

"Don't brag, love," she chided. "It's unbecoming."

"'Unbecoming'? Coming from you, *that's* a laugh!"

Oz and Willow shared a look. These two against Marines? Yeah, right!

"Hey, are you guys gonna talk all night? There *are* other people who wanna use those lanes, y'know!" a beefy jock-type snarled from a couple of paces away. He was flanked by a group of similarly beefy individuals - they looked like a high school wrestling team.

"Who asked ya, Bullwinkle?" Shooter jeered, motioning for Nemo to take his ball from the runnel. "There's free lanes over there."

"Who the hell do you think you are, bitch?" the jock demanded.

Nemo froze mid-step, cleared his throat, and quite deliberately turned to look at the wrestler. Neither Scooby could see his face, but the jock could, and whatever he saw in the older man's expression put him and his companions to something that, if it wasn't open, terrified flight, would do until something better came along.

"Sweetheart," Shooter chided fondly.

"You know I have no tolerance for lèse-majesté."

"But, still, maybe they wouldn've listened to reason."

He gave her a *look*. "Okay, what was that, a rush of blood to the brain?"

She rolled her eyes fondly, then kissed his cheek. "All right, all right.... We're going to have to talk about this protective streak of yours some time."

"Gotta love me!" he grinned, in an eerily good Elmo impression.

Shooter chuckled softly and kissed him again. "You're incorrigible," she sighed. "Oz, I believe you were about to make your clean-up shot?"

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

22:54, JULY 8, LIMA (06:54/09-07-99, ZULU)

'Shooter' tossed her jacket and cap onto an armchair and crossed to the work-desk, setting her shades atop the PC's monitor. "They're great kids, aren't they?" she noted absently, sorting through the file-folders that lay on the desk.

'Nemo' nodded, hanging his eye-patch on the back of the door. "I can certainly see why he's so taken with her."


"Well, him too," he shrugged, joining her at the desk.

"When do those SHRIKE teams arrive again?"

"Keystone seems to think there's an overpowering need for more firepower on this one - I don't know why, really. SHRIKE-1, less Opal, should be fully assembled by the end of the week. SHRIKE-2's going to arrive in a couple of weeks, and SHRIKE-3's going to come in at the end of the month. They should be set for action by mid-August."

"And once again, Agate comes in late and decides to skimp on his homework so he can make a big, flashy play. Someone's going to have to learn that boy a sharp lesson in field operations."

"He's due," he agreed.

She finally found the folder she'd been looking for. The sticker on the front had been neatly printed: {ELIZABETH ANNE 'BUFFY' SUMMERS. SLAYER: 18-01-96 - } "Six weeks," she mused. "Will Sucker Punch be ready by then?"

"Better be," he noted wryly. "It's about our best chance of pulling this caper off." He reached around her and tugged another folder from the pile. "Well, everything's set on the other end. Now we just set up, wait for Opal, and roll up the whole lot in one go."

"We hope."

Nemo slipped his arms about his wife's waist and dropped a gentle kiss on the sweet spot under her ear, smiling at her soft moan. "Since when are you a pessimist, cariad?"

"I guess I'd just feel better if we didn't have to rely on 'Colt' so much," she sighed, snuggling back against him. "Based on recent history -"

"That was a decision based on options that made Hobson's choice look downright reasonable. I didn't much like it myself at the time, but it was necessary. Besides, we've pulled off hairier capers on sketchier intel." He hugged her closer for a moment.

"Yeah, but that was just our necks on the line. If this goes wrong -"

"I thought *I* was the designated worrier around here," he teased, kissing her pulse-point again. "Relax, cariad: we'll get 'em. The whole treacherous lot of 'em."

Part Two

19:05, MONDAY AUGUST 23, LIMA (03:05/24-08-99 ZULU)


Willow contemplated the sign over the new wing with an admiring smile. Mrs. Summers had worked long and hard to put that collection together, and getting the loan to renovate the new space had been (from what Buffy said) a slice of financial and bureaucratic hell, but to be here for the wing's opening was... very nice.

"Cool, huh?" Oz agreed.

"Uh-hmm. Shall we?" she asked, offering her arm, very Olde Worlde.

Oz nodded a little, but instead of putting his hand in her crooked elbow, he slid it down the inside of her forearm and laced his fingers into hers, hiding a smile as she shivered. "Why not?"

Buffy watched the redhead blush pink, and hid her smile by turning to her mother. "Pretty not bad, Mom."

"Well, here's hoping it pays off," she fretted.

"Mom, if the gallery was going to collapse, it would've done it in the first year."

"Your confidence in me is whelming," the elder Summers said dryly.

"What can I say? I'm proud: my Mom's managed to run a successful business *and* single-handedly raise a daughter into a not-too-bad person and pretty good Slayer." Buffy fought the impulse for an instant - Ah, what the hell? It's not like anybody here's going to get on my case for being soft. - and flung a quick, fierce hug around her mother.

"Thanks, honey," Joyce smiled, returning the embrace for a moment, then pulled back and raised a curious eyebrow at her offspring. "And how much of this pride is storing up on motherly affection before making the big move to college in a couple of weeks?"

"Would *I* do that?" Buffy grinned.

"Are you sure you want me to answer that?"

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

Either I'm growing up, or I'm dying of boredom and don't know it.

Buffy stifled the impulse to giggle and took a closer look at a necklace hanging on the wall. Her mother's job to the contrary, she'd never been really, really into art before, but graduating or being at a Grand Re-Opening must have changed something inside her, because some of this stuff was catching her interest. What's *this* ugly little guy supposed to -

"It's a tiki," a cultured voice said behind her, with a faint Welsh lilt. The Slayer didn't (quite) jump, then turned to face the speaker.

The woman was in her early fifties, but looked twenty years younger. She had an almost aristocratic sort of attractiveness, stern without severity, charming without familiarity, upper-class manners but working-class tough; she was about average height, and trim and fit in the way that came only through real exercise, not health-club conscience-salving. Her hair, strawberry blonde densely shot with grey, was cut in a Miss Calendar-like bob that came to just below her ears, and silver-rimmed oval glasses were perched on the bridge of her nose. The grey-blue eyes behind those glasses were warm, but somehow gave Buffy the uncomfortable sense that she was being evaluated - and she didn't even know what the woman was looking for, much less if she'd found it. Her dove-grey pants-suit was a classic example of understated English elegance, and it was complemented by diamond-stud earrings, no fewer than three diamond rings on the middle and ring fingers of her left hand, and a silver necklace that disappeared under her collar.

"The tiki is a fertility symbol," she went on. "New Zealand's Maori natives wear them to promote health and general good fortune. It's carved from greenstone, an indigenous jade reputed to have mystical properties; I've yet to encounter a piece of Maori jewellery with any such powers, though that doesn't necessarily mean they don't exist."

"That would make you Professor Cerian McKellar, AKA 'Indiana Jane for hire'," Buffy smiled sassily. Giles had said a number of things about this woman when he'd heard she was coming to town... and not all of those things had been flattering. Apparently, in addition to being actively assigned as Watcher to a New Zealand-based Slayer - Buffy's predecessor, no less - Cerian had been a paid anthropologist/relic-hunter for the British Museum during Giles' time there, and she'd apparently given most of her attention to her paying job and left the Watching to her son Peter. After her Slayer and son had been gunned down in the street (having run afoul of the Triads, accepted wisdom had it), she'd quit with the Council and the Museum and gone hunting both relics *and* demons full-time... as long as the price was right. "I thought Giles was going to call me when you got into town."

"I came straight here without stopping in to see him; this part of the world is my main area of concern," the Welshwoman waved a hand at the pieces shown in the new area, "and I rather suspected that you'd be here to share the moment with your mother."

"Studying up on me, huh?"

"It's always wise to know who you're dealing with," she nodded. "Besides, your telling the Council where to get off caused rather a stir in our sub-culture."

"I had my reasons," the Slayer declared guardedly.

"And they're none of my business, dear. I was, well... ours is a community that is small and not a little over-prone to secrecy - for obvious reasons - and without the Council's support, you might find that making your way as a Slayer will be rather difficult, unless you can turn elsewhere for information and aid."

"Which is where you come in."

"We need working contacts to stay in business," Cerian shrugged, taking an hors d'ouevre from a table nearby. "Let's be pragmatic: since the Council withdrew its support for Rupert, you've had a fair number of problems keeping up with the play - the incident with the Sisterhood of Jhe trying to open the Hellmouth being a case in point. Unless we pass information around our little community, we can't hope to operate effectively, so we... I think the current jargon is 'network'. We talk to each other, ask for information and give it, sometimes lend a hand when necessary. You and I may well become working associates, Buffy, colleagues, even friends... or we may end up hating each other's guts, but we'll have to do business regardless."

"My, aren't we blunt?"

The ex-professor finished her canapé and smiled. "It saves time. Besides, I have a great deal of experience with this. Just think of me as another Willy the Snitch - only getting information from me would require only the exchange of money and what you Americans call 'markers', not of insults and blows."

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

A few metres away, Oz and Willow were inspecting a painting that depicted a New Zealand legend. "'Maui the demi-god beats the Great Fish into submission, cutting pieces of its flesh for food and forming the North Island.' Well, that's one way to get sushi," the witch noted dryly.

Oz looked at her sideways, one eyebrow quirked in the closest to an expression of amazement she'd ever seen from him.

"Occasionally, I'm callous and strange," she smiled, in her best dignified manner. He hadn't been there for the skirmish with the Jhe demons, after all, and she quite liked that one-liner.

"Whaddya mean, 'occasionally'?" another man deadpanned behind her other shoulder.

Willow whirled and stared. "Omigod - *XANDER*!"

"How ya doin', Wills?" he grinned.

God, he looks so good! raced across the redhead's mind as she flung herself into his arms and hugged him for all she was worth. He'd only been gone for a few weeks, but his departure had left a huge, gaping hole inside her, and for all her shame at that, for however disloyal it might be to Oz, she couldn't make it any less true. Xander had always been *there*, so much a part of her life that without him there, she... just wasn't *complete*.

Xander's arms closed around his lifelong friend almost tight enough to bruise, and he rested his cheek against her hair for a long moment, taking a deep breath, inhaling her unique Willow scent, savouring the soft warmth of her against him, luxuriating in the reunion in a way his hormones didn't play any part in. Well, not the really important part, anyway. All the million thoughts flying around inside his head really came down to just one thing. "I missed you, Will," he whispered.

"I missed you, too."

Seeing Oz's gaze on them both, he stifled what he'd been about to say and simply held her for a long, long moment, soaking up the sensations, saving up the memories as best he could, before slowly, reluctantly, letting her go. Again. "So, what's the what?"

"Not much of not much, until college starts. But what about you - where have you *been*?"

"Here, there, and the other place." There was a certain smug vagueness in his tone; even if he told her, Hellmouth or no Hellmouth, she'd never believe him.

"Why didn't you call?"

"I've been busy," he shrugged.

"Getting a tan?" Oz hazarded with the faintest hint of acid, regarding the younger man levelly.

It was no less than the truth: Xander *was* looking a little weathered, and Willow frowned a little as she took in the changes. He looked fitter - not in the bulky way of a weight-lifter, but instead with the lean stamina of a runner. There was a new tone in his manner as well, a confidence, a *competence*, and his movements gave an impression of controlled strength and grace that was almost... predatory? That impression was only reinforced by his outfit: midnight-blue pants and shirt, under a black wool sweater with reinforced joints and button-down epaulettes; the only hint of relieving colour was the American flag sewn to his sleeve, just below his left shoulder-seam.

It's probably just the clothes, Willow mused. Black makes *everybody* look different, better. Not that Xander ever needed the help to look great, but - no, no, bad Willow, *bad*! You don't - you *mustn't* - think things like that about Xander again!

"Did I - *Xander*!" Buffy cried, hurling herself into the group; she wrapped him up much as Willow had done, and let out a little wince as he lifted her clear off the floor. "Ow! When did you get so strong, you big goof? What are *you* doing back here?"

"I'm not *back*, back, Buff," he smiled, setting the Slayer down. "Sunnydale got between the 'here' I was leaving and the 'there' I was heading for, and I heard there was a showing here, so I figured I'd stop in and say 'Hey'."

"Good. If you hadn't, I'd'a kicked your sorry ass."

Xander's smile was a little odd, almost... amused? "If you say so, Buff. So, how is everybody?"

"Pretty much the same," Oz said, still regarding him with something just shy of open hostility. "You smell different, though."

The dark-haired youth gave the werewolf a steady look, then wondered idly, "Different how?"

"Can't say." Oz couldn't quite put his finger on the change, or how to describe it, and even *his* normal stoicism couldn't hide his puzzlement.

"Colour me shocked." Xander, on the other hand, still had that 'I know something you don't' thing going, though he was far from open gloating.

"Guys, can we save the macho posturing until *after* we celebrate the reunion?" Buffy drawled, snagging four cups of punch from the table next to her. "Xander, you mutant, you've been away too long and we've missed you too much."

"Then what about a toast?" Xander suggested, raising his cup like he was in some old movie. "To knowing where and with who you belong, and to being there with them."

"Belonging!" the girls chorussed, rapping their cups against his.

"Belonging," Oz nodded, rather less enthusiastically; his eyes were still on Xander, and the look he was giving the taller youth boded ill.

All four Scoobies drained their cups, and Xander grinned. "So, where's the food around here? I haven't had a bite since I left Vegas."

That occasioned a general laugh. "Some things *never* change," Willow giggled.


Screams. Everyone looked towards the gunshots.

Jeff Rance, the security guard that Joyce Summers had hired when she'd started this gallery, lay sprawled on his back at the mouth of the entryway to the new wing, the centre of a rapidly growing crimson lake, four rents gaping in his chest and an astounded expression on his face. He'd never even had time to go for his pistol.

Aw, *shit*! Xander moaned to himself, his stomach sinking. Looks like Agate's running true to form after all.

Four individuals dressed all in black (including Kevlar vests and ski-masks) had appeared at the wing entrance, each wielding an assault carbine and with a pistol at their belt. "Ladies and gentlemen," the leading man called with a Russian accent, "I'm sure you realise what this is, so please, remain calm, co-operate, and nothing unpleasant need happen." For punctuation, he aimed the still-smoking muzzle of his CAR-15 at Joyce, 'encouraging' her to abandon her sidle towards the gallery office and the phone it contained. She took the hint and went very still.

Smart, Mrs S. Agate's got ninety-six rounds left in that double-drum C-MAG, and that sicko ain't gonna be shy about handing 'em out if anyone gives him lip.

Buffy started forward - and Xander's hand lashed out sidelong, closing over her wrist like a vice. She was startled by how strong his grip actually was. "No," he said under his breath. "If you try anything, they'll shoot more people."

"I have to do *something*," she hissed.


Buffy looked at him in amazement: he wasn't *suggesting* patience, he was *commanding* it. "For *what*?"

He jerked his chin a little, and she followed his gaze. The gunsels had missed one of the guests: Cerian had been behind a column as they went past, and now she was edging around it behind them, a sleek autopistol in one hand. And where the *hell* was she hiding that? Buffy wondered, hurriedly averting her eyes before she gave the demon-hunter away.

Two of the gunsels started on the exhibits, dropping the entire contents of the new wing into gym-bags. Paintings had their frames smashed away so they could be rolled up; display cases were caved in with gun-butts. As they worked, the other two, including the Russian, prowled the room like caged tigers, keeping watch on the patrons/hostages, their fingers on the triggers and their eyes wary.

After a minute or so, Russkie came to a halt in front of the Scoobies, looking them over with sneering eyes. He indicated Willow with the muzzle of his carbine. "You. Step forward."

Oz stepped between them, more by instinct than consideration. "Not happening," he said, his voice tight.

Without a blink of hesitation, Russkie swung up and smashed the werewolf right in the ribs with the butt of his weapon, sending him sprawling. The other unoccupied gunsel stepped in and kept the other Scoobies covered as the Russian stood over Oz, wound up, and outright lifted him off the floor with a boot in the stomach. Another kick took Oz in the face, knocking him senseless, and a final stomping blow tore his forehead open and bounced his head off the parquet floor with a sickening *clonk*.

"Anyone else feel mouthy?" Russkie asked the room at large, then looked back to Willow. "I said step forward, Red. I won't say it a third time," he added, aiming his CAR-15 down at the fallen youth.

Pale with barely-controlled terror but maintaining her poise nonetheless, the witch obeyed his order; when she was within arm's reach, Russkie swung the carbine around on its sling so it hung across his back, took the pistol from his belt, wrapped one arm around Willow's midsection, yanked her back against him, and jammed the pistol's muzzle up under her jaw. He looked right at Buffy, earred back the hammer, and pulled the trigger; now, the only thing keeping Willow alive was his restraining thumb.

Buffy's hands clenched, and Xander's grasp on her wrist closed with bruising force.

"If you try anything, Goldilocks, you'll see your little friend's legendary brain first-hand."

"You realise you're a dead man," Xander said conversationally. And if you're lucky, Buffy'll get to you before I do.

Russkie cocked his head, looked back and forth between Buffy and Xander, then smiled nastily. "I think we've got a couple of heroes here," he called to his accomplices.

The gunsel who'd covered them during Oz's beating stepped a little closer, shouldering his weapon. "Too bad heroes tend to get killed," he sneered in a French accent, his finger closing on the trigger.

Cerian stepped around the column at the wing's entrance, her pistol in both hands. "DROP YOUR GUNS!"

In the split-second where everyone was looking that way, Xander let go of Buffy's wrist and lunged forward, even faster than *she* was moving. His left hand seized the man's wrist and twisted down and outwards, turning the man's arm out straight and the pistol away from Willow; the hammer fell, and an ear-splitting POW! sounded as the bullet buried itself in the floor. Xander's right hand came over Willow's head like a spear-thrust, his stiffened fingertips driving into the man's windpipe. Russkie made a choked sound and went staggering, releasing Willow to clutch his throat. Even as the gunner reeled, Xander grabbed Willow by one shoulder and pushed her down and back past him. His free hand snatched the pistol out of the air and brought it around to slam the butt into the side of the man's skull, sending him crashing to the ground, stunned.

Buffy let only the thinnest sliver of her mind marvel at her friend's new skill as she crossed the two paces to Frenchie, who was still looking the wrong way; she knocked the carbine's muzzle up towards the ceiling with one hand - a staccato B-B-B-BAM! assaulting her ears as the weapon fired a burst into the plaster - grabbed the gunner by both collars, rolled backwards onto her butt, and drove both feet into the robber's midsection, throwing him arcing back over her head to land in an untouched display case with a resounding CRASH of shattering glass.

Both of the other robbers had turned on Cerian and opened fire without thinking, driving her back into cover even before Xander and Buffy reached their victims; all the other patrons had gone to ground. Now, the ex-professor leaned back around the column and into view again, her glasses crooked and her hair messed. More autofire came her way; high-velocity bullets blasted chunks from the column, and one of her eyelids twitched as a razor-edged shard of concrete slashed her cheek open, but she coolly, calmly raised the pistol shoulder-high and fired at the closest gunner twice, KR-KRAK! Her face was utterly expressionless as her target choked and crumpled, clutching at the bloody rents the bullets had torn through his neck, and it didn't change any as she ducked back out of sight.

Robber #4 snarled something in what sounded like Spanish and shouldered her weapon, firing a long burst into the column, eroding Cerian's cover like a fire-hose would erode a sand-castle. Suddenly, the burst ended - not with the noise and fury of another shot, or the click of an empty chamber, but with a sickening metallic *crunch* as something shattered inside the carbine. Another curse; she let the carbine swing loose on its sling and went for her pistol.

"FREEZE!" Xander roared, dropping to one knee and taking a textbook two-handed firing position, his acquired pistol aimed right at the gunner's chest.

The robber saw Xander had her beaten and just stopped, her posture that of abject defeat; she didn't raise her hands, but she stopped going for her sidearm.

Just as Xander was nodding a 'smart move' to her, Cerian swung back into sight, in a shooter's crouch that matched Xander's, closed one eye, and took deliberate aim along her pistol's laser-sight beam.

The beam caught Robber #4's attention, and she turned and locked eyes with Cerian -

- her eyes widened -

- she snatched for her pistol again -

- the relic-hunter almost casually shot the woman through the left eye, KR-KRAK! The robber's head snapped back, its back third blowing away in a gruesome spray of blood and bone and tissue, and she dropped straight down, utterly limp.

After the body hit the ground, there was an eternal split-second of thunderous silence. The air was dark with gunsmoke; the acrid reek of cordite bit at the nostrils; ears stunned by the cannonade in close quarters strained to hear anything past their own ringing.

Cerian rose to her feet and crossed to where her first victim lay, keeping her weapon aimed at him all the while. She stood over him for a moment, watching him choke for breath, her gunhand hanging loose at her side... then casually swung her hand forward again, pumped two shots into his face, and turned away to go to Oz's aid.

Motion to Buffy's side caught her eye, and she watched as Xander crossed to where Russkie lay face-up on the floor, groaning. He knelt down over the robber and pistol-whipped him again, knocking him all the way out. With that done, he decocked the pistol, jammed it into his waistband, tore the man's carbine free of its sling and laid it aside, then yanked off the robber's ski-mask. "I told you," he noted, his voice pitched only for his victim's ears. "If you live another day after this, I'll be very impressed."

Only Buffy was close enough to overhear him, and that only because of enhanced Slayer senses. The complete absence of compassion in Xander's manner made her blink in astonishment. After a moment, the dark-haired Scooby yanked the man's left collar down for an instant, nodded to himself, and rearranged the man's clothing like nothing had happened. Then, beyond him - "XANDER!"

The dark-haired youth went into a sideways roll, turning to face the target of her gaze and scooping up the discarded CAR-15 as he went. Frenchie had hauled himself upright, wavering on his feet, covered in glass fragments, and was aiming his CAR-15 their way one-handed; his left arm hung limp, blood streaming from several wicked gashes. Xander skidded to a halt sprawled on his elbows and belly, shouldered his liberated carbine, thumbed the selector to 'single', and fired four aimed shots in less than a second. The rounds stitched across the chest of Frenchie's 'bullet-proof' vest, punching straight through, blasting large chunks out of his back and spraying gore across the wall. Dying spasms closed Frenchie's finger on the carbine's trigger, and five more rounds tore through the ceiling as the bullets hammered him backwards. He hit the wall; sagged like he'd been boned; the carbine fell from slack fingers; and the dead man crumpled, sprawling on his belly with all the grace of a bag of laundry.

Another moment of stillness and silence.

Xander pushed himself to his knees. After another moment of observation, he rose to his feet and moved to within a couple of metres of the fallen man at a deliberate pace. Despite the adrenaline still surging through his system, his breathing was controlled and regular, his motions precise and cautious; his sights never left the target's chest for an instant.

After a moment, his adrenaline-sharpened senses took in the man's complete stillness, and the crimson lake that was rapidly forming on the floor beneath him, and confirmed what he'd thought as soon as the man fell. Target neutralised - scratch Spinel. Anything else he might have felt about what he'd just done was lost, washed away in the familiar rush of adrenaline, the satisfaction of surviving and saving his friends. "Clear!" he breathed, dialling the carbine's selector to 'safe' and letting the weapon hang loose in his left hand. "Thanks for the warning, Buff." Just that fast, he dismissed the corpse, turned away, and knelt by Willow's side, helping her sit up. "You okay, Will?"

She gave him a somewhat shaky smile. "I-I-I'm fine," she finally managed, shaking her head. "Th-thanks. Oz?"

"Ask her," he suggested, gesturing at where Cerian was just crouching at the fallen werewolf's side. "Miss....?"

"Cerian McKellar," she provided crisply, gently pressing Oz back onto the floor as he tried to rise. He was hugging one arm tight to his ribs, his face was covered in blood, and his eyes were unfocussed. "Buffy and I are in the same line of work, though I don't have her special aptitude for it. Has someone called an ambulance?" she cried to the room at large.

"They're on the way," Joyce Summers answered, returning from her office with a first-aid kit and a cordless phone in the crook of her shoulder. "Police too."

"Good." Cerian shrugged off her suit jacket (revealing a white silk blouse and a Rosen 'Style Master' shoulder-holster), bundled it up, and tucked it under Oz's head. "Incidentally, Xander, that was nicely done. How did you get the pistol off that first fellow?"

"He dropped it when Buffy tore Willow free," he supplied easily. "I figured you might need some help, but by the time I was ready, they were all down - or I thought they were, anyway."

Buffy shot him a baffled look. "That's -"

SHUT UP!!! his eyes begged.

What the *hell*? she wondered. Xander - the same man who'd begged her *not* to kill Faith not two months ago - had just killed a guy stone dead, he didn't seem to care a bit, and he didn't even want credit for saving the day? Okay, what have you done with the real Xander?

Willow was just as mystified, but she picked up on the play a little quicker than the Slayer. "Y-yeah, that's about how I saw it. How's Oz?"

Outside, sirens began to approach.

"Looks like a concussion and some broken ribs. He should be fine, with professional attention," Cerian clipped, then turned her attention to the other guests, many of whom were doing their best to pull a quiet fade. "No-one go anywhere: the police will need to take statements from all of you."

Buffy moaned in sudden dread. "Oh, great: *another* chance for Detective Stein to bust my chops."

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

DATE/TIME: 0707Z (07:07:23/24-08-99, GMT - 23:07:23/23-07-99, PDT)

OPAL: [sarcasm] "Well, *that* went *brilliantly*, didn't it? What the *fuck* did Agate think he was doing?"

ONYX: "It would seem his ambition rather got the better of him."

OPAL: [sarcasm] "Gee. Ya think? Have the others taken heed?"

ONYX: "I rather doubt any of them will be violating your orders in the near future, yes."

OPAL: "Good. The 'botched robbery' was always an amateur ploy, and we're professionals, [extreme sarcasm] aren't we? Where were Peridot and Turquoise, anyway?"

ONYX: "Peridot's in position to take care of our other little problem, he should be able to keep Agate from telling the authorities anything awkward. Turquoise was driving the getaway vehicle, he's here at the safehouse now. I've already torn a strip off him a yard wide."

OPAL: "I see. Is everything set for Thursday night?"

ONYX: "Yes, but that was set up on the assumption that Osbourne and Rosenberg would have their usual night out. I can't see it happening with him injured."

OPAL: "Just be ready." [terminates call]

CALL TERMINATED 07:07:52/24-08-99.

Part Three

06:24, TUESDAY AUGUST 24, LIMA (14:24/24-08-99 ZULU)

Detective Janelle LaFollet took another swig from her coffee cup, absently noticing that it was barely warm, and turned her attention back to her computer screen. I wonder....

Her partner had gone straight home from the gallery, looking to get some sleep, and the coroner wouldn't get to work for hours yet, but LaFollet was far from deterred. There was something about this case that didn't *feel* right....

Ah, the hell with it, she decided, and did something that would have horrified her colleagues - much less her *superiors* - had they known. She knew full well that going outside 'The System' that was Sunnydale was career suicide if she was caught; what she hadn't been able to figure out, in three months of trying, was *why*. Maybe this'll help me find out.

Punching a key, she ran the finger-prints of the living bandit against not only the NCIC, per standard practice, but also master databases held by the FBI and Interpol... which was most definitely was *not* SOP in Sunnydale.


She leaned back in her chair and wiped her face, waiting.

LaFollet didn't know it, but despite the usual rookie hazing, she was well-regarded by her colleagues, even the partner she dismissed as 'a jingoistic, Neanderthal myrmidon'. They agreed that the hawkishly-attractive African-American woman with the piercing jade-green eyes would make a first-rate homicide detective, once she learned to look past her own ideology and see the world as it *really* *was*. Unfortunately, right now she was so far to the left politically that she considered Bill Clinton a blazing reactionary, and had absolutely no time for the military. Which, in Sunnydale, was a distinct liability.

{Match found.}

"What?" she blinked, calling up the hit. Already?

The Interpol mug-shot that appeared on her screen showed the lantern-jawed man the EMTs had carried off to hospital in handcuffs; the photo's captioning was in Cyrillic. LaFollet punched a couple of keys to pull up the appended file.

"Leonid Nikolai'ich Khokhriakov, 37," she murmured, skimming the records. "Russian citizen. Conscripted Soviet Army 1980; volunteered for Spetsnaz special forces 1982; service in Afghanistan 1983-86, awarded Order of the Red Banner for bravery under fire. Spetsnaz speciality: assassination. Pensioned off in 1994 as part of military restructuring. Last confirmed location: Cali, Colombia, March 1996."

So what the hell is a known mercenary/assassin who was earning six figures working for the Cartels doing trying to rip off an art gallery in small-town California? she wondered. Especially when the entire gallery wouldn't fence for even three hundred grand. Her innate thoroughness now married to outright curiosity as a driving force, she took the prints from the female subject and ran them. Less than three minutes later, another match came back.

What the *hell*? "Aleja Sampedro, 38. Spanish citizen. Degree from Madrid University, double major in psychology and computer science. Known member of Basque separatist group ETA: four known operations, three of them assassinations... carried out with a *knife*?" Almost despite herself, LaFollet pulled up one of the attached case-files - and immediately wished she hadn't. "Jesus wept...."

Sampedro, it seemed, had taken a very direct approach to the Guardia's encroachment on ETA. For instance, she'd found the captain in charge of computer operations in her area, who had access to a certain database of informers inside ETA cells. She'd seduced him to get the access-codes, then returned to his house a couple of days later, shot the man's wife dead on the doorstep, duct-taped the captain himself into a chair, then spent ninety minutes cutting pieces off his six-year-old son with a blunt steak knife before neutering the boy and putting out the captain's eyes so it would be the last thing he ever saw. The man had shot himself three weeks later. Simply reading about it was bad enough, but the file included crime-scene photographs. *Those* images would have turned the stomach of a veteran, and LaFollet was nowhere near that desensitised.

Hail Mary, full of grace, she thought weakly. Hearing footsteps outside her door, she quickly closed the Interpol window and sat back a little, putting the back of one hand to her mouth to control her nausea. What kind of human being can do that to a six year old child?

No - not a human being. A monster in human form. Some people are better off dead, she thought, distantly shocked that she could think such a thing. But why was she - *it* - here? With three other monsters and assault carbines, moreover? She never even remembered reaching for the 'phone.

{"Sunnydale County."}

"Yes, this is Detective LaFollet. I'm after the John Doe armed robber who was admitted last night."

{"One moment, please, I'll transfer you."} After a few moments, another voice came on the line, one with a Middle-Eastern accent. {"This is Doctor Hamshari. What can I do for you, Detective?"}

LaFollet was too tired - and motivated - to beat around the bush. "Has Mister Doe regained consciousness, Doctor?"

Pause. {"Uh, Detective, I don't know how quite to tell you this, but your John Doe died of a pulmonary embolism twenty minutes ago."}


{"The fellow who hit him seems to have done a thorough job of it. I can't be sure without a full autopsy, but at this stage it appears that his injuries were severe enough to release particles of fat into his bloodstream, one of which caused a massive heart attack. I'm afraid he won't be telling you anything, Detective."}

"I see. Thank you for your time, Doctor." LaFollet rang off and slammed a fist down on her desk. "*Shit*!"

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

Detective Sergeant Robert Patterson - also *Gunnery* Sergeant Robert Patterson, USMC/Force Recon (ret.) - eyed his partner from just inside her office doorway. She was ashen-faced, obviously running on sheer willpower and bad coffee, but she was still working. Say what you like about her politics, but she's got what it takes... if she'll just lighten up on us jarheads a little.

As a town, Sunnydale had symbiotic relationships with two distinct communities: the Marines and dependants of the 29th and 33rd MEU(SOC)s based at Fort Quick (itself a quasi-suburb of the sprawling Camp Pendleton), and the faculty and students of UC Sunnydale. In fact, despite the area's previous settlement by the Spanish, Sunnydale itself had only become more than a backwater way-stop when senior California politicians of the time (with the... 'encouragement' of one Richard Wilkins 'the First') had secured the establishment of both facilities in 1899. Both were substantial employers of Sunnydale citizens, and though their actual non-native populations were a fraction too transient to feature in the offical census figures (which would have almost doubled otherwise), the members of each generally had more money than they knew what to do with and too little free time to spend it in. Thankfully, despite the naturally hawkish leanings of the Marines and the generally leftist sentiments of the UC Sunnydale student body (and faculty), the two groups interacted with each other without any real tension. However, even with the modern 'zero-tolerance' policy, Marines were Marines, which made for a lot of bar-fights and other assorted hell-raising. Hence the presence of (among others) one Robert Patterson on the Sunnydale police force, to counterbalance the civilian cops and keep them from railroading leathernecks who were just out for a little fun. When he'd returned to inactive reserve status after Desert Storm, he'd joined the S.P.D. for a new challenge.

Had he known what he was in for, he might've stayed in Recon. Getting shot at was one thing; this job was something else completely.

'Little Bob' - who stood six-foot-four in stocking feet and ate a barbell for breakfast every day as part of a balanced diet - stifled a sigh and crossed to his partner's side, offering her a Danish and a fresh cup of coffee. "And they say *I'm* a workaholic. You okay, Janelle?"

"Don't be a prick all your life, Bob," the African-American woman snarled absently, then pinched the bridge of her nose. "Sorry. I just... can't shake the feeling that we're missing something, y'know? And since our suspect just caught a fatal embolism, it's probably gonna *stay* missing."

"John Doe's dead, huh?" Patterson's tone made it clear he was anything but heartbroken.

"He was our only solid lead."

"Lead? There were only four bad guys in there, and they're all dead. We don't need leads; we need to celebrate - preferably with a lot of beer."

"Bob -"

"I know what you mean, Jan. We'll run down the weapons, the ammo, the armour, do all the usual sniffing, but I don't think it's gonna lead us anywhere but back to our four morts. I also know that John Doe machine-gunned a man with a thirteen-year-old daughter without the slightest warning or provocation. I wanted answers too, but if it's a choice between answers and four bad guys getting away and no answers and four *dead* bad guys - hey, I'll settle for four dead bad guys."

"I won't."

A chill ran down Patterson's spine. "Jan... drop it, okay? This one's open and shut."

"Not to me. What about that kid you interviewed last night, Harris? I could see from the way you were talking you knew him. Where the hell did he learn to shoot like that?"

"He and the redhead were friends with my sister's kid. I used to take them all out to Quick now and then." Patterson didn't mention that the same question had occurred to him the night before; those visits (and lessons) had been a long time ago, and Xander had never been accused of having the world's best memory. Besides which, his manner during the interview last night had been....

Almost like a Recon Marine giving an after-action review right in the wake of a firefight. He was pumped, a little shakey, but he was keeping it all well together, he remembered; that was *not* the Xander he'd last seen two and half years ago. Jan was right about that much: *something* was going on here.

But pursuing it fell well inside the realm of Really Bad Ideas. Digging too deep in Sunnydale, even *with* Mayor Wilkins I/II/III dead, was exceedingly hazardous; too many things could (literally) jump out and bite you. Some things you just had to keep your hands off, and it felt like LaFollet was pushing awfully close to one of them. Another chill of fear ran down his spine. Fear not for himself, or what LaFollet's digging might bring down on him; he'd long since accepted that risks came with the job. He was afraid of what it would bring down on his *partner*. His voice was pitched at the edge of audibility. "Look, Jan, take some advice - if not as a friend, then as a concerned colleague? We've got an open-and-shut case: four shooters, three dead at the scene, the fourth on his way to the morgue now. No paperwork or lawyers, no appeals process, no parole. The good guys won this round. Let sleeping dogs lie, okay?"

LaFollet stared at him, amazed... then her eyes narrowed. "Suit yourself, Bob."

And as she turned back to her computer, Little Bob could only hope that, unlike most things in Sunnydale, he could actually take that statement at face value.

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

07:34, AUGUST 21, LIMA (15:34/21-08-99 ZULU)

Giles looked up from his reading at the knock at his front door. At this hour, that could only be one of his 'Scooby Gang'. Marking his page, he crossed to the door and opened it. "What is it -?"

And his sentence died in an astonished blink. What the hell?

"Hullo, Rupert," Cerian McKellar smiled, offering him the 'Sunnydale Chronicle' that had been lying on his doormat. "I'm sorry I didn't call, but you can imagine that last night was rather busy."

"I'm sorry?" the younger ex-Watcher blinked again. "'I can imagine'? Why?"

"You haven't heard?" Cerian grinned crookedly. She unrolled the 'Chronicle' and turned it to his eyes.

"Good Lord," Giles gasped, taking the paper from her hand and absently stepping back to let her inside as he read quickly. Over yearbook-photos of Buffy, Oz, and Xander blazed the headline:

  Daring intervention by two teenaged patrons and a professor prevented a massacre during an attempted armed robbery at the Sunnydale Art Gallery last night.
  Four would-be bandits armed with assault weapons burst into the gallery during a showing that celebrated the opening of a new wing, killing security guard Jefferson Tyler Rance, 45, as they entered and beating a patron, Daniel James Osbourne, 19, into unconsciousness. Witness reports say that further bloodshed was prevented only by the interference of Cerian Rhiannon McKellar, 51, an anthropologist who habitually travels armed, and two bare-handed teenagers, Elizabeth Anne Summers and Alexander Lavelle Harris, both 18. McKellar called on the robbers to surrender, then shot two of them dead in the ensuing exchange of gunfire; Summers, an accomplished hand-to-hand fighter, disabled a third man, and Harris used that man's assault weapon to kill the remaining bandit.
  Both Osbourne and the as yet unidentified robber were taken to Sunnydale County Hospital for treatment, the latter under guard by police; McKellar's superficial wounds were treated at the scene. Osbourne's injuries have been described as 'extensive, but moderate'.
  McKellar, who had been offered a position at UC Sunnydale prior to the incident, holds Ph.Ds in archaeology and cultural anthropology and is well-regarded in her field. Her carriage of a firearm is a habit she attributes to 'the... *volatile* political situations around some of my past excavations'. Summers is the daughter of Joyce Summers, the gallery's proprietor, and is enrolled to start at UC Sunnydale in the fall semester.
  Editorial, p.2}

"Is everyone all right?" he asked of his colleague, his distaste for her falling by the wayside in his concern.

"Apart from the security guard and 'Oz'? Yes, quite," the Welshwoman smiled, flicking one fingernail against the three butterfly-strips that closed the slash across her cheek. "This is about all. Buffy's at home with her mother, undoubtedly preparing to visit Oz in hospital as we speak. Willow and Xander went straight to the hospital once the police were done with them, and I don't imagine they've shifted since. But I'm afraid that's not why I'm here." She took the paper from his hand and pointed out another article, this one below the fold and only marginally less lurid.


This, too, Giles read quickly, and as he read, he felt a sudden ball of heat within his chest, like smouldering coals flaring under a gust of wind. One encountered atrocities as a Watcher, but if you ever became inured to them, you were lost as a human being. "A matter for the police?" he suggested, mindful of the Hansel and Gretel incident.

"I don't think so, Rupert. If you read between the lines, this rings of blood magic."

Giles set the newspaper aside and took in his colleague's appearance. This morning, she was dressed in a royal-blue skirt-suit and a sky-blue blouse, but under the jacket, he could see the edge of a shoulder-holster. A full one. "I think we need to be sure before we do anything irreversible."

"Of course," she smiled.

He waved her inside. "My occult library - such as it is - lies just yonder."

"At least you *have* one, Rupert," Cerian observed sourly, crossing to his packed shelves and quickly perusing the titles. Seeing his baffled look, she explained over one shoulder, "The Council felt Tatyana Zyrianova was so ill-suited to her Calling that she'd fall within weeks and sending any resources our way was pointless. A good third of the trips I undertook during my assignment to her were in search of reference materials, and often fruitlessly at that."

"That, uh, sounds familiar," he noted, remembering some of the comments he'd heard from his colleagues about Buffy. *This* put a new light on things - not one that excused her behaviour completely, but - "How long was she the Slayer? Two years, wasn't it?"

Cerian cocked her head and worked it out, as much to herself as to Giles. "I Called her the night of Peter's fourteenth birthday, so, mid-March '93 to early December '95 - the better part of three years, actually."

"And they *refused* to support the Slayer for *that* long?" Especially a Slayer like *her*, he added privately. Tatyana Zyrianova and Peter McKellar had spent almost their entire tenure fighting a bitter, quarterless guerrilla war against the Ordo Astra warrior sept, among the élite of vampiredom, and it had made them legends in their own time. Many front-line Watchers used their performance as *the* yardstick of Slayer capabilities, though for some reason many of the Council's higher-ups cursed their names.

"I think it was rather more a case of their refusing to support *me*." She turned to face him and shrugged, opening Kane's Twilight Compendium. "I'd imagine you know how I kept tilting at the windmill of reviewing and revitalising the Council's training procedures and goals, for both Watchers and Slayers. However true and necessary, that little crusade of mine didn't win me many friends within the bureaucracy... or on the Central Quorum, for that matter."

"I can imagine." Council politics were not Giles' strong suit - political dealings of almost *any* stripe were anathema to him; he was a creature of field operations - but he'd felt enough fallout from this feud or that to believe her. A case in point was his recent skirmish over the necessity of the Cruciamentum test, and his ensuing relief as Buffy's Watcher in favour of Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, an overbred buffoon whose only redeeming 'virtue', it seemed, had been unstinting loyalty to one Quentin Travers. "Would you like some tea?"

Cerian glanced up from her reading, and her smile was unexpectedly warm. "Cocoa, if you have it, please."

"Certainly. I'll be just a moment."

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

08:03, AUGUST 24, LIMA (16:03/24-08-99 ZULU)

Buffy took one step out of the elevator and stopped short in the waiting-room door. Awwwww....

Xander was sitting on the couch, legs stretched out before him, his chin on his chest and one arm about Willow's shoulders. For her part, Willow was half-lying against him, her legs curled up under her, her cheek resting on his shoulder, and what was obviously Xander's jacket draped over her shoulders. Both of them were very rumpled and soundly asleep - and shock of shocks, Xander wasn't even snoring!

If things were different, they'd be a *perfect* couple, the Slayer decided, setting her Oz-bound bouquet on a chair. I wonder -

"Hey, Buff."

JEEZ! The Slayer jumped and whirled.

Xander hadn't moved at all, but his eyes were open and on her. As she recovered from her heart attack, he shot her a wink and lifted his head to look at her properly. "Time to switch to decaf, Buff?" he suggested, his voice still low-pitched - he obviously didn't want to disturb Willow.

"I thought you were asleep!"

"That was the idea," he smiled. Despite what had to be a monumentally uncomfortable posture and 'bed', he showed no signs of cramps or pangs. More bafflingly, he usually spent an hour waking up, but he wasn't the least bleary-eyed or groggy. "You come bearing get-well presents?"

"Yeah. Have you guys been here all night?"

"Came here as soon as the cops finished taking our statements. Will was kinda... well... *frantic*, and I didn't want to leave her alone like that. I guess we conked out. How's your mom?"

"Contemplating suicide," the Slayer said dryly. "The cops are still working the place over with forensic stuff and they won't let her in, but it looks like a couple'a hundred grand in damage and unsaleable inventory, much less the PR thing."

"It'll be okay."

"Don't be so sure. Oz?"

"If they ever came in to tell us anything, we must'a been asleep."

Just then, Willow stirred and blinked her eyes open. "X-Xander? What -?"

"Hospital, Will. Oz was hurt, remember?"

The redhead's eyes shot wide open and alert at that, and she cast near-frantic looks around; when she saw Buffy, she blushed a little. "Uh, hi, Buffy."

"Hey, Will. Relax, it *was* a really long night, even for us." The blonde grinned crookedly.

"That said..." Xander carefully unentangled himself from the redhead and stood up. "I'm gonna go get some breakfast snacks, maybe coffee. Will, you want?"

"J-just some hot chocolate, thanks."

When he was gone, Buffy cast a long, speculative look at her closest friend. Willow blinked in puzzlement. "What?"

"Nothing that matters," the Slayer decided. Her two Slayerettes had always been really close anyway, and flukes aside, thinking it was any more than that would probably just be borrowing trouble. But on the subject of trouble.... "What d'you think that was about last night - y'know, him giving me all the credit for the big save?"

"I don't know," the Wiccan frowned, absently hugging Xander's jacket tighter around herself. "I-It's not like him. And the, the shooting that guy - okay, the cops said it was legit self-defence, but...."

"Maybe he had a Marine-guy flashback," Buffy suggested. That might explain the jacket, she noted privately: olive-drab Nomex in the classic aviator style, it bore parachute-qualification wings at the left shoulder-seam. "Besides, Will, d'you really think he'd let anybody hurt *you*? You saw how he reacted to that guy holding the gun on you!" There was something about that incident that bugged her somehow, but -

"Miss Rosenberg?" A tall, not-completely-unhandsome man in a doctor's coat - his nametag said {HAMSHARI}, which was a good match for his English-educated Middle-Eastern accent and swarthy complexion - was in the doorway.

Both young women stood up automatically. "Yes," Willow nodded. "How's Oz?"

"What internal bleeding there was we caught in plenty of time, and the repairs to his broken cheekbone were routine. We're going to keep him in for a while longer for observation - he had a mild concussion when he came in, and we want to be sure there isn't any other damage - but unless complications arise, which I sincerely doubt, he should be out of here by the end of the day. The rest of it's minor stuff, cracked ribs, a nice collection of bruises - all he really needs is bed-rest and some time to heal."

Willow let out a relieved sigh. "Can we see him?"

"Mister Osbourne's sleeping just now, and pretty drugged up to boot. You might want to try coming back in a couple of hours. If he comes to in the mean-time, I'll tell him you were here."

"Thank you." The redhead almost sagged as she was finally, *finally* able to relax.

When the doctor was gone, Buffy blinked and looked at Willow sideways. "'Osbourne'?"

"Uh-huh," the witch nodded. "You didn't know?"

"I never got a chance to sign his yearbook, Will," the Slayer shrugged. "We were kind'a busy, remember? I guess it slipped his mind."

"I'll go get it for you!" she offered brightly. "I-I was gonna get some things for him anyway, so he didn't get too bored before they released him."

"Good idea. Der Kindestod aside, hospital: *not* Excitement Central. You want me to get Mom to give you a lift?"

"No, no, it's okay, I'll get Xander to drop me. Your mom'll need more support than I do right now."

"You sure?"

"Sure about what?" Xander asked, stepping out of the elevator with his hands full of chocolate bars and dispenser-cups.

"Travel plans," Buffy drawled. "You up to taking Will by Oz's place to get some stuff?"

"Ahhhhh...." He winced, setting his foodstuffs down and producing a hefty-looking keyring. "I can drop you, Will, but you'll need to catch a ride back with Buff. I went straight to the gallery last night; I still need to find a place to stay -"

"Your room's still free at our place," the redhead blurted.

"And how's Oz gonna react to that?" Xander countered promptly. "He's in hospital one night and you move me into the room next to yours? I don't think he's *that* understanding, Will, especially since - well, *since*," he pointed out, wincing at the memory. "Besides, I'm only gonna be here long enough to get some things taken care of, then I'm Not-Here guy again."

"You don't -" Willow began, hurt.

"It's not that I don't *want* to stay with you, Will; it's that I *can't* and *shouldn't*."

Buffy stifled a snort. Loaded statement much? And I *wonder* where I've heard *that* argument in the past few weeks? Just that fast, she came up short. Okay, *when* did I get so cynical?

About the same time you lost sight of Angel in the smoke? another part of her suggested, a little snidely.

Who asked *you*?

Unaware of Buffy's inner discussion, Xander went on, "Tell you what: Will, I'll drop you back at your place so you can change -"

"Huh? Oh," Willow realised, blushing a little as she looked down at her crumpled dress. Green silk, it was probably beyond saving by now. "Yeah, I guess."

"- Then I'll meet you guys back here about... eleven-ish?"

"Yeah, sure," Buffy nodded.

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

Willow gratefully drained the cup of hot chocolate Xander had fetched for her as the elevator headed for the ground floor. "Thanks."

"All part of the service," he shrugged, 'no big deal', but his eyes and voice were... tender.

"Like the, the save last night?"

"It's in the job description, Will: evil fought, dragons vanquished, vampires slain, fair ladies rescued...."

She gave him an indulgent look. "Where'd you learn to do all that stuff, anyway? You were always...."

"Zeppo-like?" he nodded as the elevator came to a halt; he waved an 'after you'. "I met some... *interesting* people while I was away," he grinned. If only I could tell you.... "They taught me some things."

"Oh." Willow suddenly remembered she was still wearing his jacket about her shoulders and slipped it off. "Here."

"It's okay, you hold onto it for a while." He plucked at his sweater. "I'm gonna cook as it is."

"Why the dark colours, anyway?" she frowned, as the automatic doors at the main entrance slid open for them.

"Haven't you heard? Blue is the new black."

Her half-hearted giggles lasted them the twenty yards to the parking lot. Xander produced his keys again and thumbed the attached remote, and the vehicle that chirped in response made Willow blink. She'd been too wigged to notice the previous night, but - "A Suburban? Where'd you -?"

"Vegas. Would you believe it turns out that not only do I *rule* at poker, but a single silver dollar dropped in the right slot machine will win you a brand-new SUV?"

She came to a sudden halt and gaped at him. "You *won* this?" she squeaked.

"Uh-huh. And some spare cash, too. I got you and Buffy some going-to-college presents."

"Really?" Her eyes brightened even as her heart melted. "Xander, you didn't have to -"

"No... but I wanted to," he smiled gently. "C'mon."

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

09:14, TUESDAY AUGUST 24, LIMA (17:14/24-08-99 ZULU)

LaFollet looked about her living room, admiring what little she'd been able to do with it on her budget, and settled onto her couch. Little Bob had all but ordered her to get some sleep, and she intended to just that... once she put some of these pieces together.

Now clad far more comfortably in sweat-pants and her UC Sunnydale sweater, the youthful detective curled her legs under her and started sorting through the papers and files she'd brought home, trying to see the patterns.

As Little Bob had identified the previous night, the robbers' shoulder-arms had actually been Canadian-made C-8 carbines, capable of full-automatic fire, as opposed to the burst-fire CAR-15/M-4 used by American services. They'd also been reported destroyed in a fire at a Canadian Army depot five months ago, which made them black-market and thus virtually untraceable. The same went for their pistols, Italian-made Beretta Model-92s stolen in a massive robbery at an Illinois National Guard armoury more than two years before. (That set off a little bell in her head to go with the one started by finding out who Khokhriakov and Sampedro really were. Normally, hoods bought whatever weapons they could get, from all over, but these weapons all had uniform origins. *Not* something you found in two-bit art heists.)

The C-MAG double-drum magazines and the 5.56mm ammunition had also been stolen from the Illinois armoury (which would get her a pat on the head from the National Guard), but the 9mm ammo was a different story. 'Starfire' expanding bullets made by PMC/El Dorado, those rounds had been traced back to five boxes bought over the counter, perfectly legally, in Vermont three weeks before. (LaFollet winced in revulsion at that thought. To her mind, expanding bullets were a necessary evil... emphasis on evil.) She'd had a track started on the credit card involved as a matter of routine, because that was what policework actually was: you followed every last detail, no matter how trivial, because cases could turn on the tiniest little thing, and so the only real way to solve crimes was dogged persistence and anal-retentive attention to detail.

All the weapons involved in this 'heist' were black-market and perfectly clean before now. Which means they were bought specifically for this stunt and were probably bound for a blast furnace immediately afterwards. During her time at UC Sunnydale, LaFollet had had a seven-month dalliance with a Marine who'd been desperate to get into 'special operations', and it was just *amazing* the things a man would say to get your interest. On LaFollet's part, it had been a case of 'know thine enemy', and she'd learned a great deal. And the sex wasn't all that bad either, she noted, with a fond smile. One of the subjects Sammy had held forth on was how one ran a 'deniable' operation, one that never officially happened and could never be linked back to its true perpetrators. Simply put, nothing - *nothing* - about it could *ever* be directly linked back to the operation's organiser. All the gear used had to be clean - or, more easily obtained (and useful), lead to someone else who had a grudge against your target. If you couldn't hide what you did, you made it look like somebody else did it.

This never felt right for criminals to start with, and the more I look, the more I like it as somebody trying to pull a covert paramilitary operation, she realised, her thought processes leaden with fatigue. But if *that's* true, who or what were they really after, and why?

Part Four

09:43, TUESDAY AUGUST 24, LIMA (17:43/24-08-99 ZULU)

Willow was distinctly grateful that Oz's parents were out of town again. Scooby support aside, she wasn't ready for the questions David and Georgia Osbourne might've asked... especially about why she had a key to their door. Though, come to think of it, they could probably make a guess about *that*.

And they wouldn't be wrong. She blushed scarlet even at the thought, moving towards Oz's room. Okay, can we focus now? Jeez, you'd think I was Xander - or old-style Xander, anyway. I don't know *what* to make of new-and-improved Xander... but I think I like it. Well, okay, apart from the, the killing people thing. I mean, he's thoughtful, attentive, decisive... and he's *definitely* been working out, she added wickedly, remembering how she'd woken up. He'd been toned when he'd been on the swim-team; now, he felt like he was all sinew and whipcord muscle, warm and lean and -

Heeeyyyyy!!! she suddenly remembered guiltily, coming to an overly abrupt halt inside Oz's doorway. Not *here* to think about *Xander*! "Okay, what do I need?" she murmured aloud, running through the mental checklist she'd prepared. Yearbook. Those lyric sheets we were working on the other night. She mostly controlled another blush as she remembered how they'd been... *distracted* in the middle of that. Plus college stuff - I don't remember Oz telling me what classes he was gonna take; if he's still choosing, he'd better do it lickety-split. A change of clothes for when they let him out.

"Ooo-kay...." The yearbook was first, and the easiest to find, lying as it did atop the low rank of shelves under the window. The sheet-music lay in a crooked, half-organised pile on the bedside cabinet. Tossing the yearbook onto the bedspread, Willow shook her head at Oz's typically male messiness and gathered the papers in both hands, juggling them all straight.

Just as she got them all settled, a couple of sheets slipped through her fingers and - Awww, shoot! - went spiralling under the bed. I hate Mondays, she groused, setting the rest of the papers on the bed and lying flat on the floor to reach the wayward leaves. But most especially Mondays that pretend to be Tuesdays on the calendar but act all Monday-y when you get to them and then - hey, what's that?

'That' was a fairly thick-looking envelope, about the size you posted forms in, lying right under the centre of the bed, where you couldn't see or reach it unless you lay down flat like this. Almost like it was deliberately hidden, she mused. It was distinctly familiar-looking, and a moment later Willow realised why: it was just like the one she'd got her UC Sunnydale forms in.

It was a warm summer morning, but the Wiccan suddenly felt a little too cool.

Unsure of exactly why she felt so uneasy, she fastened two fingers over one corner of the envelope and dragged it out in the open. UC Sunnydale, all right, and it's still sealed up - like it's never been opened.

She zipped the flap open with her thumb - she'd had a lot of practice with that in the 'pitching woo' stage - and tugged out the papers within; their alignment was perfect, undisturbed. What the... enrolment, student loan application, dormitory placing application, class selection forms - none of them even touched! she catalogued, with a weird sinking feeling.

It's... it's almost like he was planning on *not* going to UC Sunnydale, and that can't be right.

Can it?

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

09:52, AUGUST 24, LIMA (17:52/24-08-99 ZULU)

SHRIKE-2 turned away from the parlour window and arched one eyebrow at the woman with him. "You are *sure* about this?" the former US Army Ranger posed, trying to keep his tone questioning instead of snide.

"Yes, Ruby." Amethyst's patient tone was just exaggerated enough to make the older operative flush in embarrassment. She shot him an understanding wink before going on. "The body in the park will have Cerian screaming 'blood magic' from the highest hill-top, and everybody who can come, will. It's part of their 'Scooby Gang' tradition. Hell, I'll be surprised if Osbourne doesn't join them before sundown."

"Isn't that nice?" he smiled, glancing back out the window.

That window looked out on Stennis Ave, and directly across the way was the Carver Condomium Complex... including a perfect view through the living-room windows of one Rupert Keith Giles, one of which was a straight shot - literally - to the front door, the other to the staircase landing. God Himself couldn't have laid out a better field of fire.

With that thought, the ex-Ranger sat down on the couch again and started inspecting the G-36 he'd brought into the house in a gym-bag. Heckler and Koch's latest-generation 5.56mm assault rifle, designed for the Bundeswehr but already enjoying wider popularity, the futuristic-looking weapon was perfectly compatible with the two double-drum C-MAGs that lay next to it; a bipod lay ready for fitting. He'd removed the carrying-handle and its built-in sights, a simple task given the weapon's modular design, and replaced them with a simple reflex red-dot scope; a blind man could hit a target at thirty metres with an assault rifle. There was no need for any sort of specialised ammunition, either; at this range, a standard SS109 bullet would go clean through the concrete façade of that apartment and still retain killing power to spare, and he could empty both C-MAGs into the apartment in less than twenty seconds. Two hundred rounds going into that small a space in that short a time... nothing could *conceivably* survive.

Which was the problem, in Amethyst's mind. "Uh, sir, with all respect, what about Cerian?"

"What *about* her?" he sniffed disdainfully, locking the weapon's folding stock in the fully-extended position.

"Leaving aside the, uh, *other* considerations involved, her public persona's combination of relic-hunting skills and mercenary amorality is very useful, and close to irreplaceable - and I think we both know that Agate's 'embolism' wasn't the result of his injuries."

"Fuck it," he snorted. "Onyx can't argue with a clean sweep. And have you really considered how it'll look?"

"Sir?" The blonde cocked one eyebrow curiously, absently rubbing the back of her right hand over the wicked mass of scars and black speckling on her left cheek, a souvenir of the 'incident' in London three and a half years ago. It marred her otherwise haughtily attractive features, but she kept it as a reminder of past reverses. Her cover-identity explained it away, but her prideful refusal to have the mark removed was still distinctly awkward, because if you knew what to look for - and a lot of people did, especially in places like Sunnydale - it looked exactly like what it was: the result of being so close to a gunshot that the muzzle-blast had ripped her face open.

And that little bastard can't *ever* be dead enough, Ruby noted, raising one hand to his spectacularly broken nose. Despite four trips to the plastic surgeon he *still* had the worst sinus trouble in history; that *prick* Peter McKellar had busted his beak - twice - during the fiasco *that* operation had devolved into. Not to mention the seven other operatives young McKellar and that slut Tatyana had killed and wounded - Amethyst among them; though the bullet itself had missed, she'd still spent two weeks in hospital after the boy shot her - and all the other disruptions they'd caused. And the worst of it was, Zyrianova and young McKellar hadn't even *realised*; most of the damage they'd inflicted on the organisation had been incidental. Heaven only knew what they could've done if they'd actually known enough to focus their attentions.

Ah, well, we *did* stop them in the end. Permanently. He smiled thinly as he remembered a drizzly night on a Napier street, two teenaged bodies lying crumpled on the pavement, Opal standing over them with a smoking pistol in hand, watching the blood mixing with the rainwater in the gutters....

He shook himself back to the present. "Cerian McKellar prostitutes her knowledge and talents for anybody who'll pay enough. In the process of retrieving all those artifacts and other arcana over the years, she's worked for - and against - the Triads, the Yakuza, the Organizatsiya, and half a million more organisations and powerful individuals, any or all of whom might've gotten sick of her bullshit and have the resources to do something like this." He looked up at his subordinate with a smile that never approached his eyes. "So if we go over there afterwards and put a couple of just-in-case rounds through her head, the cops will think she was the target and the others were just collateral damage, now won't they?"

"True. But Onyx, for one, will know that the reverse is true."

"It's not like he'll be heartbroken: he doesn't have a heart to break," Ruby reminded his junior. Both suppressed a shiver at the thought. Opal had an evangelical fervour about their whole enterprise, the zeal of the original witch-hunters and a sadist's glee... but at the same time, it was *personal* to Opal. SHRIKE-1 seemed to draw some sort of perverse sustenance from torturing and murdering those who crossed their organisation. Opal's protegé, on the other hand, purged those among their own number who screwed the pooch because it was his *job*: no less, no more. Some of their various colleagues were, in all frankness, psychotic or worse - but Onyx's completely dispassionate ruthlessness frightened even *them* into obedience. "If we explain it to him afterward, I think he'll see the light." He set the rifle on the floor on its bipod and pistol-grip, leaving it unloaded for now. There'd be plenty of time for that when the time came.

"You're the boss, sir. Are we going to stay here all day?"

"Why, Margaret: do you have a date?" he teased.

She shot him a *look*. "I was just wondering what we were going to do about food."

Ruby looked out the window at the target area for a moment, weighing alternatives. "They probably won't all be here for a while. You go ahead; I'll keep an eye on things here, call you if I need you."

"Thanks, sir." That was the good thing about Ruby: his time in the military let him understand two-way loyalty. Opal was an academic and a sadistic power-freak, which meant leadership, in SHRIKE-1's mind, was driving people to better efforts with threats and keeping them in line with terror; Ruby knew you got better results by treating your people like *people*, not slaves. You never let them forget *you* were in charge, of course, but you still treated them as human beings. "You want me to get you something?"

Ruby blinked, taken a little off-guard by the offer. "Thanks," he nodded. "Uh, hit a burger place for me. Anything's fine, just no salad in the damn' thing, 'kay?"

"Sure. Back soon." As she left, Amethyst stepped over the cooling bodies of the house's original occupant, and her four-year-old daughter. Both operatives had been careful about using silencers with their standard-issue Walthers.

After all, the live could be downright talkative... but the dead weren't known for being chatty.

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

10:03, AUGUST 24, LIMA (18:03/24-08-99 ZULU)

Xander sat on the bed to finish drying his hair, still bare to the waist. Despite the eternally-happy-go-lucky front he'd put on for his friends, he was a little uneasy about this whole thing. This had all seemed so *simple* when it had been laid out for him - but last night's little mêlée, for a start, had *definitely* not been in the plan. On the other hand, there is Murphy's 16th Law of Combat: 'The plan never survives initial contact with the enemy', and its corollary 17th Law: 'There is NO SUCH THING as a perfect plan.'

Christ, I just hope things go a *little* better from here on, he added, on a half-sighed outward breath, then looked down at the small, spiral-bound notebook lying on the bedspread next to him, opened to a page that bore a printed list of eighteen names, divided into three groups.

{SHRIKE-1 - Opal
{ Onyx - 2 i/c
{ Topaz
{ Diamond
{ Sapphire
{ Emerald
{SHRIKE-2 - Ruby
{ Jade - 2 i/c
{ Amber
{ Garnet
{ Beryl
{ Amethyst

Whoops... I'd better update Team 3's status, the Slayerette realised, with a thin smile of satisfaction. He took a red pen from the sheathes on his jacket's sleeve and amended the final six-name list. Now it read:

{SHRIKE-3 - Agate
{ Turquoise - 2 i/c
{ Peridot - hospital/Faith

It's a start, he shrugged... then his smile died. Under any other circumstances I'd say I trusted them to deal with these bastards, but with stakes like this.... Xander closed his eyes and took a deep, steadying breath. This thing *will* work. It *must* work... 'cause I can't bear thinking about the alternative.

Opening his eyes again, he tucked the notebook into his jacket's inside pocket, then hauled on a pale grey T-shirt emblazoned with one of the better commentaries on their profession he'd ever seen: {You shall know the truth - and you'll wish you didn't.} Forgoing the Nomex as simply too damn' hot, he instead hauled on a lightweight Seahawks warm-up jacket he'd acquired during his travels, idly wishing as he did so that he could carry his newfound best friend without arousing suspicion. Hard on the heels of that thought came a snort of wry disdain. If wishes were horses, beggars could ride. And let's face it, carrying a pistol is *not* the sort of low-profile this caper needs.

Well, that aside, I'd better get rolling back. Wouldn't want anybody getting *too* curious about where I might be. Next stop: Giles'. He needs to know the latest, and besides, he probably hasn't had enough aggravation in his life since I left, he smirked.

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

He was driving down Grant Terrace, almost at the Carver Complex, when he spotted a familiar figure... one that brought a familiar lump to his throat. Willow was headed the same way as he was, and he slowed for a moment to get a closer look at her. She'd changed into jeans and that impossibly cute fuzzy purple sweater of hers, and she was carrying a small gym-bag and her laptop-case slung across her body, from left shoulder to right hip. Even from this distance, she was heart-achingly lovely.

And where did *that* end up? he reminded himself. In cheating on two damn good people while trapped in a burned-out factory basement by a drunken lovelorn vampire. Face it, Harris, you *are* doomed, relationship-wise. Even your oldest friend prefers a werewolf musician to y-

Wait a minute! There was something about the set of her shoulders, her walk.... He pulled up beside her without thinking, rolling down the passenger-side window from the central control panel. "Wills!"

The Wiccan's head snapped around, and the look behind her eyes gave him pause. There was *definitely* something amiss here - well, okay, something *else* amiss.

"Is everything okay?"

She nodded, smiling brightly; anyone who hadn't known her forever and a day wouldn't have realised there was anything wrong, but Xander could read this woman's emotional patterns like a book, and she was a little too keyed up. "Yeah! Yeah, yeah, why wouldn't it be?"

"You sure?" he pressed, not prying but in the spirit of concern.

"I-I-I'm fine," she assured him. "Just, just a little anxious to see Oz. A-are you going back to the hospital already?"

"Actually, I was gonna raid Giles' cupboards," he half-grinned. "You want a lift?"

She nodded and pulled the Suburban's door open. "Thanks. I was just gonna stop by and see if Giles needed any help later - he's been kinda, y'know, crazed, trying to reorganise his library after the blowing-up-school thing."

And didn't *that* look good on my resumé, he noted, with an inward smile. "Let's roll."

When she'd settled into her seat, he checked for traffic - thoroughly, now that Willow was aboard - and pulled out again. Once they were fully up to speed, he dropped one hand from the wheel to the hands-free cellphone he'd had put in, punching the #1 quick-dial. I think reinforcements are in order, and if Will can't/won't talk to *me* about whatever it is....

{"Hey-llo!"} Buffy's voice chirped from the speakers.

"Yeah, hey, Buff, it's Xander," he smiled, keeping his eyes on the road the whole time. "Wills and I are on our way to Giles' place right now. Can you meet us there? He's probably heard about last night, and my guess is he's polished his glasses into a whole new prescription by now."

{"Ohhh!"} A dull *thud* as the Slayer smacked herself on the temple opposite her cellphone. {"I can't *believe* I forgot to call him! Yeah, I'll be there in a few minutes."}

"See you there." *bleep!*

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

10:21, AUGUST 24, LIMA (18:21/24-08-99 ZULU)

"Is anybody home, as if I need to ask?" Buffy drawled, walking straight though Giles' open door without even thinking of knocking. It wasn't like he'd ever kept her out when he wasn't drunk or on band-candy, so -

She came to a screeching halt. "What the heck are *you* doing here?" she asked Cerian blankly. The former professor was quite comfortably nestled in one corner of the couch, her jacket lying over its back, a half-empty cup of cocoa sitting on the neighbouring shelving unit within easy reach, and what looked like - Well, *there's* a shocker. - a monstrous book in her lap.

"Quite apart from catching up with a colleague, there was an incident last night that may merit the Slayer's attention," the relic-hunter smiled pleasantly. "Have you read this morning's paper?"

"Only the cartoonies," the Slayer quipped.

Cerian looked at her over her glasses. "I can see *this* is going to be a real love-affair," she murmured.

"Good morning, Buffy," Giles interjected from the kitchen, quashing a smile. "I trust Oz will be fine?"

"You heard, huh? Yeah, all the bad stuff's fixed, he's gonna be out this afternoon. What's she mean about the paper?"

"There was another article below your, uh, front-page heroics," he observed, pushing the Chronicle across the counter towards her. "It's circled in green."

{  Two joggers discovered the body of a young boy in Weatherly Park early this morning, the apparent victim of a ritual murder.
{  Police are yet to release the identity of the eleven-year-old, whose naked body was found lying in the bushes at the edge of a culvert, or the identities of the couple who found him. They are currently awaiting the results of a full post-mortem, but on-site investigators did reveal that the apparent cause of death is a single stab-wound to the neck and that several seemingly occult symbols had been carved into the victim's chest.}

Buffy needed to read no more. "More Hansel and Gretel?" she hazarded, half-hoping she was wrong. She *really* didn't need to be burned at the stake again.

Cerian shifted on the couch, turning to face the other two, and Buffy's eyebrows rose as she saw the pistol the woman was wearing. The cops had taken her gun last night for forensic purposes, but either Cerian had gotten *that* one back super-quick or she'd had another one just like it, and the Slayer fleetingly wondered just how many guns the woman actually had. And why she would need them. "No, I don't think so. Rupert explained the, uh, 'Gingerbread case' as he calls it, and while there were some similarities, they're merely superficial."


"Meaning that unless I'm dreadfully mistaken, we're dealing with a blood magician."

"And that is?"

Buffy whirled towards the speaker, a stake coming to hand by reflex. "*God*, Xander, that's *twice* you've spooked me today!" she shrilled.

"Really? Cool," he grinned, looking very much the cocksure hotshot as he leaned back against the door-frame with crossed arms.

"Where'd you learn to be so stealthy?" she accused, tucking the stake away and trying to get her heart-rate back under control, *again*. God, how the *hell* did he *do* that? I'm the Slayer - even *vampires* can't sneak up on me!

"I could tell you, Buff, but I'd have to kill you," he winked; behind his shoulder, Willow rolled her eyes and smiled fondly at his Xander-antics. "Giles! Greetings and salutations, citizen!"

"Welcome back, Xander," Giles said, albeit without complete enthusiasm. "I'd expected you to be gone much longer."

"Time... is what you make it," the youth said, with that same cryptic almost-smugness he'd had last night, as he stood aside to let Willow inside. A moment later, he crossed to where Cerian sat. "Mrs McKellar. How nice to see you again when we're *not* being shot at."

Cerian shook the offered hand, Xander's blatant attempt to charm her bringing a faint blush to her cheeks. "My, oh, my... the girls must just melt at your feet," she smiled warmly.

"Girls, ma'am? Why would I want to deal with 'girls' when I can spend time with *women* like yourself?" he replied easily, grinning a little as her blush deepened a shade.

Buffy blinked in amazement. "What's with the Lando Calrissian?"

"What? Is there something wrong with making a good impression? Especially after the TARFU that was our first meeting?"

"TARFU?" Giles wondered faintly.

"'Things Are Really F... Fouled Up'," Cerian supplied, taking an almost perverse delight in the phrase. "And don't worry about it, Xander, I met my husband under worse circumstances."

"That must'a been an interesting marriage."

"For all of seven years, yes. Then he had the good grace to get killed in a car accident."

"Oh-kay." The dark-haired Scooby gently guided Willow to a seat at Giles' study-desk and half-sat on the desk next to her. "So what's the scoop?"

Buffy lobbed the paper his way, and he and Willow read quickly and silently. The redhead's expression was outright appalled. Xander, on the other hand, was outwardly just a little too calm as he wondered, "And why does sliced-neck kid sound like a job for Super-Slayer?"

"I'd need to read the forensic reports to be sure, but unless I miss my guess, this is the work of someone practising blood magic." Cerian crossed to the shelves to retrieve another tome, and Buffy blinked: the woman was *barefoot*. Jeez, make yourself at home already!

"Uh, Bob, could I get the sub-titles here?" Xander asked, doing a passable TV Presenter voice.

Cerian sighed and fondly shook her head at him as she sat down again. "So much of magic is symbolism. Blood symbolises life - in many ways, it *is* life - and thus it symbolises, *is*, power, power of a magnitude much greater than almost any other in magic. With the right mindset and paraphenalia, a spellcaster can draw on that power to fuel their magics much more efficiently than by simply drawing ambient magical energy out of the environment about them. Some casters sacrifice themselves for their magic by inflicting wounds on themselves and using their own blood. Others take a darker path and draw their energy from other donors. Sometimes those donors are willing; but all too often" (she nodded at the paper) "they're not."

"Is that why vampires drink blood?" Xander frowned. Buffy blinked; normally he got bored with this stuff faster than she did - which was saying something - but now, he seemed almost... well, *eager* to learn.

His ability to make connections had apparently caught Cerian off-guard, too. "Well, yes. I'll forgo the deeper layers of metaphysics in deference to the impatience of the youthful mind, but when a human drinks vampire blood in a Turning, they're sending out a... a ritual invitation to a blood demon, which replaces their soul. The demon can stay in this reality only so long as it is bound to that human body, and they subsist on the magical energy in blood to maintain and reinforce that bond.

"Back on the subject at hand, if I could read the forensics reports I could be sure one way or the other. If it's a blood mage, the weapon used would have been silver, and the wound will have its long axis parallel to the artery to maximise the blood-flow."

"Why silver?" Willow wondered, ever the glutton for knowledge and/or punishment.

"Because silver has a certain... affinity for magical energy. It absorbs it, channels it, redirects it, in a superb manner - it's often used in enchantments to summon and command spirits, for example."

"Oh," she chirped, visibly filing away that little tidbit, then started digging out her laptop. "If we need the autopsy reports, we'll just have to get them, won't we?"

Buffy shot a glance at Xander. She'd seen the odd note in the redhead's manner. What's up with her?

He shrugged a millimetre or two, helplessly. Beats me!

Oblivious to the by-play, the Wiccan punched up the special function she'd assigned to accessing the coroner's office. As far as their computers were concerned, she wasn't there and her cyber-invasion wasn't happening, but for as long as it wasn't happening, she had user-privileges even the original installers hadn't had. She scrolled down the list of recent case files - Only nine since sunset last night, counting the boy and the gallery thing. Must've been a slow night in Demon-land. - and was about to pull up the boy's when - "Hey!" she frowned.

"What is it, Will?" Buffy wondered, standing over her friend and peering at the screen.

"There's somebody else in the coroner's system - another hacker." The redhead tapped a few keys, then peered at the code that came back in response. "And he's changing the files - he's deleting stuff out of the original autopsy records!"

"Which ones?" Giles frowned, coming over.

"It looks like the files on the robbers from last night," she murmured distractedly, turning the laptop a little so Xander could get a better look before she started rattling the keyboard again. She didn't see the amazed looks passed about above her. "I'm gonna try and save what they're cutting, at least for us."

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

"Barring Osbourne, that's all of them," Amethyst noted, lowering the video camera she'd been using for closer observation. Its zoom function wasn't as good as the magnification of a good set of binoculars, but people tended to remember binoculars; cam-corders were ubiquitous.

"Right. We won't get another chance like this, and Peridot can take care of him." Ruby picked up the G-36 and crossed to his chosen firing position. They'd rearranged the living-room furniture so that a side-table was directly under the window he'd chosen, with an armchair backed onto it. It gave him some place to kneel and shoot from comfortably, while providing the bipod-equipped rifle a stable firing platform and being just far enough back from the window that its barrel didn't protrude into the open air where it might be seen. The drapes on the other windows were pulled tight and the lights were off; you'd need to be right in front of that window to see inside, and then it'd be too late.

Ruby snuggled the rifle's butt-plate tight into his shoulder and rested his cheek on the skeleton stock, getting comfortable with his weapon. The view through the sight was perfect: the red dot of the aimpoint hovered less than an inch behind Summers' neck as she leaned over Rosenberg to watch what she was doing. He didn't put it right on her just yet; if he had, those damnable Slayer instincts of hers would warn her of the threat before he could fire.

He took a deep breath, then slowly released half of it as he took the slack out of the trigger. "Say 'good night' to the folks, you traitor bitch...."

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

Even the simplest operation can be derailed by unexpected occurences, usually brought about by the intersection of your own oversights and mistakes, happenstance, fate, random factors, and pure dumb luck collectively known as Murphy's Law. In this case, Ruby had overlooked the fact that his chosen line of fire crossed a residential road, and had thus forgotten to have Amethyst look for traffic that might cross said line of fire.

A fateful miscalculation, as it turned out, because even as the former Ranger's finger exerted the eight pounds of trigger-pressure necessary to release the G-36's sear, a Toyota Land Cruiser driven by a thirty-eight-year-old mother of two, with her nine-year-old daughter in the back seat, crossed between the sniper's window and Giles'.

Propelled by the gases produced by the combustion of 1.75 grams of Ball Powder, a tungsten-tipped, lead-based, full-jacketed bullet massing 4.02 grams left the G-36's muzzle at a forward velocity just exceeding 929 metres per second, its forward passage stabilised by the once-every-178mm-of-travel spin imparted by the weapon's rifled barrel.

That bullet travelled approximately twenty meters before impacting on, and passing through, the passenger's door of the Land Cruiser without appreciably slowing. It struck Suzanne Henley's right thigh three inches above the knee, tearing through muscle, striking the femur dead-centre and explosively shattering it, and shredding the femoral artery as it passed out the other side.

Of course, these collisions had a significant effect on the bullet itself, deforming it, transferring much of its energy to the impacted tissue, and altering its original vector. It struck Henley's left thigh just above the mid-line, half-severing the left femoral artery and glancing off that femur, sending more bone fragments flying in all directions and taking on a distinct tumbling motion of its own. Its now distorted flight-path took it ripping out through the thigh-muscle and hammering through the Land Cruiser's driver's door, mostly sideways. It struck the window of Giles' condominium above and to the left of the originally desired point, exploding the glass into razor-edged fragments.

The bullet intended to pass through Elizabeth Anne Summers' right temple and shatter her head like a watermelon instead only exploded her top-knot before burying itself harmlessly in the wall.

Its flight, which ended one woman's life outright and irrevocably altered innumerable others, had lasted not even five one-hundreths of a second.

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

To Buffy, it was all one complex sound - *CRACK*/*crash*/*BAM*! - and something yanked at her hair harder than most vampires wished they could. Her instincts were moving before her brain ever caught up. "*DOWN*!" she bellowed, bodily flinging Willow sideways out of her seat and dropping flat beside her.

Xander was in motion just as fast, and his dive for safety 'just happened' to take Giles' knees from under the older man, sending him crumpling to the floor. Awkwardly and painfully, perhaps - his forehead bounced off the floor - but in the end, more or less safely.

Cerian, while lacking Buffy's Slayer skills or Xander's newfound reflexes, had been shot at enough to recognise it, and went sprawling on her belly in front of the couch.

"*FUCK*!" Ruby snarled as the four-wheel-drive crossed his sights. His first and best shot had been wasted into the side of some idiot's *fucking* SUV, and now the 'Scooby Gang' would be alerted! Forgoing precision (and needing to relieve his frustration at botching so simple a shot), he put into action an old Ranger saw: 'When the going gets tough... the tough go cyclic.' He thumbed the G-36's selector to 'full-auto' and started squeezing the trigger, firing a series of half-second bursts into the side of the apartment building, swinging the muzzle back and forth to rake the entire room. Each squeeze sent five or six rounds down-range, and even if he couldn't see through the wall, he could sure as hell kill through it.

Inside Giles' living-room, everyone was making *very* good friends with his carpet, cringing as bullets cracked past overhead and the unmistakeable staccato of automatic-weapons fire hammered from across the way. Every fifth round was a tracer, and the resulting red streaks over the Scooby Gang's collective head looked like something out of Star Wars as they tracked back and forth across the room, leaving swathes of destruction in their wake. Shelving units and items of furniture were ripped to toothpicks. Two shells blasted fist-sized holes through the screen of Willow's prized laptop. Books priceless for their antiquity and virtually irreplaceable for their contents were torn into so much confetti. A reading-lamp disintegrated. Stuffing and shredded cloth exploded out of rents in the couch Cerian had so recently vacated. One bullet punched straight through the flip-file that held Giles' record collection, wrecking the lot.

His voice half-submerged by the gunfire, Giles was cursing the unseen shooter - in terms that would've made a sailor blush - as his apartment was devastated. Xander, sprawled next to him, kept tabs the former Watcher's profanity with one portion of his mind, absently impressed by his vocabulary and cataloguing some of the choicer comments for future use. Another portion of the youth's consciousness was trying to count the shooter's rounds - though at that rate of fire, the count was almost certainly out to lunch. A third portion had brought his cellphone to one ear, and he covered the other ear so he could half-hear the operator.

{"911 emergency - *Jesus Christ*!"} the woman exclaimed, as another burst wiped out the record player and three hundred years' worth of Watcher diaries.

"Not exactly!" Xander snorted into the receiver, half-shouting over the gunfire. Giles' grandfather clock took one right in the face with a hollow 'b-chong!' He didn't realise that Willow was staring at him, goggling at his calm. "We're at the Carver Complex, apartment seven, and some bastard's machine-gunning the place. You wanna send us all the cops you got? And an ambulance or two, while you're at it?"

{"A-absolutely, sir. Just stay on the line."}

"Not an issue," he drawled, wincing as the study-desk Willow's laptop rested on came crashing to the floor with two of its legs shot away.

"Hey, Cerian, you've still got that gun, right? You wanna think about shooting back?" Buffy suggested, her fingers exploring the wreckage of her hairstyle. Now *that* ticks me off!

"Shoot at *what*?" was the caustic response. The ex-professor had crawled across to the wall next to the window without revealing herself; now she was standing, her back flat against that wall and her pistol in hand, mouthing curses in several languages as bullets and other shrapnel ripped past her. Her hair was messed again, and she was covered in scraps of couch-material. "If I stick my head out to look for the shooter, he'll blow it off. Besides, he has to be shooting from across the street - I'd be lucky to hit the *house* at that range!"


"Pistols are for up close, Buff," Xander supplied off-hand, his main attention still on his cellphone.

Silence from outside. Two breaths' worth. Three. Four.

Letting out a relieved breath, Giles levered himself up on his knees. "Well, that's it. We -"

"*STAY DOWN*, dammit, he's just -!" Xander began.

A new fusillade. The red streak of a tracer speared Giles through the left forearm, half-spinning him to the carpet with an agonised howl; even as he began falling, the following round punched through his chest, trailing blood and bone-splinters in its wake. The same burst, longer than its predecessors, raked back across the entire room; another round chewed through the meat on the outside of Cerian's right thigh and she, too, crumpled with a shriek.

- Changing magazines, Xander didn't finish. "*Shit*!" he hissed, almost forgetting the cellphone as he started his own crawl towards where Giles lay, staring at the ceiling in confusion and breathing in shallow gasps. "*Hurry up* with those cops and ambulances, goddammit, we've got two people down in here!" There was new urgency in his voice, but no panic.

{"They're on their way, sir, the lead car will be there in four minutes."}

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

Ruby released the trigger and glared at the side of the building. He'd emptied both C-MAGs into that room, all right - the wall looked like a cheese-grater - but there was no way of knowing what he'd hit, if anything, and already he could hear sirens approaching. *Shit*! We should've timed the patrol-units' patterns and waited until there'd be the longest delay, opportunity or not, he realised in chagrin. "We're gone."

"What about cleaning up?" Amethyst wondered.

"It's go now or get into a firefight with the S.P.D.!" he snapped.

"Better them than Opal or Onyx!" she shrilled.

"I'll take my chances. Let's *go*!"

The blonde licked her lips fearfully, but she didn't argue any further. They left the rifle where it sat - they were both wearing surgical gloves, so fingerprints weren't an issue, and the rifle itself was 'lost' - and headed out into the garage, where an almost-new Lexus awaited them.

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

Xander absently set his cellphone down as he knelt over the fallen Englishman. Their unknown shooter might not have finished, but that concerned the Slayerette only peripherally as he took in the gravity of Giles' wounds. The upper-left quadrant of the Englishman's pale-blue shirt was already soaked with dark red blood, and every breath he drew was accompanied by a hideous sucking sound. Oh, shit. Okay, panicking will *not* help. He dug out his keys and back-handed them at Willow. "Will, there's an old shell-crate in the back of the Suburban, full of medical stuff. Get it." His speech was clipped, detached - commanding.

"Bu-but...." The redhead stared down at the fallen Englishman in horror, transfixed.

"*MOVE*!" he thundered, crossing his hands over the exit-wound and pressing, *hard*, to seal it as best he could. The word didn't have the volume to be called a shout, but his tone had a complex little 'don't-mess-with-me' waveform that sent Willow halfway to the door before she realised what she was doing.

For her part, Buffy had taken in the situation and half-scrambled to Cerian's side to see to her, keeping low. "How bad is it?" she asked, quasi-rhetorically. The answer was self-evident: a chunk of meat the size of her fist was missing from the woman's thigh, but the blood was streaming out, not spouting as it would if anything major had been hit.

"Didn't hit bone," Cerian shrugged, her teeth set in a grimace that, for a moment, turned into something like a smile. "Aren't I the lucky bitch?"

"I guess." The Slayer glanced around her, tore a swatch of cloth from the wrecked couch, and fashioned a rough bandage.

"I don't bloody well believe this," the relic-hunter muttered. "Thirty-five years in the field, and the first time I get wounded, I'm having cocoa in the middle of a colleague's living-room -" She broke off, then went on with an odd certainty. "Somebody is going to pay for this. In blood."

Across the room, Xander was, on one level, mentally running through all the curses he knew, and a few he'd made up, while another kept the pressure on Giles' wound. What the *FUCK* is keeping those ambulances? he thought frantically. He cast a quick look around the room, taking in the destruction in a single glance. "Gotta talk to your new decorator, Giles. What's this style again? Stuffy Old British Guy meets Late Beirut?"

Giles was in no condition to speak, but his glare was eloquent.

"Just between you and me, Rupert old son," the Slayerette went on, doing an oddly good imitation of a Cockney squaddy, "I fink vis might be a good time to fink about an 'oliday. Remember Murphy's Fiff Law of Combat: 'A sucking chest wound is Nature's way of telling you to slow down.'"

Giles coughed a weak laugh, and an amount of pink froth, and winced as the laughter jarred his injuries. As much as he despised Xander's flippancy at times, it was oddly reassuring right now. If the boy could still joke, the situation - and his own wounds, as agonising as they were - couldn't *possibly* be the disaster they looked (and felt) like.

"Just stick with it, Giles, the EMTs *are* coming. Just stick with it." Willow reappeared at his side, lugging the red-cross-decorated crate in both hands, and dropped to her knees and set it between them, flipping the lid open. Xander shot her a quick 'good work' nod and rooted through it, dragging out a moderately-large Ziploc bag full of bandages and Curlex pads which he sent Buffy's way in a Hail-Mary lob; she fielded it without even looking and went to work. He straightened Giles' broken arm, stretching it out perpendicular to his body, then grabbed Willow's hands and put them over the wound, crossing them and making her press down hard. "Remember the drill for a sucking chest, Will? Keep the wound sealed so the incoming air doesn't crush his organs."

Absently noting her nod, he turned away to rummage through the kit again, pushing this and that aside until he found what he needed: a super-large Ziploc bag labelled {THORACIC, MAJOR}. Laying that on the floor, he dug out his pocket knife and sliced the older man's shirt away from the wounds so he had a clear area to work with. The part of him that was still a normal teenager recoiled from the grape-fruit-sized cavity in nauseated horror, but the rest of him was too busy. His motions were precise, swiftly certain; he knew what (and how much) he had to do and how little time he had to do it in. He yanked a large Curlex pad from the Ziploc and tore the wrapper open, flattening the wrapper out as far as he could, then slapped the plastic over the exit wound. The Curlex itself covered the wrapper, forming an airtight seal, then a bandage went over the top to secure it. "Okay, Giles, we're gonna roll you onto your side so I can get at the entry-wound, okay? It's gonna put your weight on that bad arm and hurt like a sonofabitch, but it can't be helped right now. Will, get his legs. On three: one, two, *three*!"

Giles let out a gurgling scream as they shifted him, and both teens winced in sympathy. Xander repeated the patch-pad process with the quarter-inch puncture on Giles' back, and the bandage went around both airtights to hold them in place. "Okay, lower him."

That's the sucking-chest dealt with, but he's looking awfully shock-y. A couple of units of blood-expanders came out of the crate next, along with another large Curlex pad and another Ziploc, this one full of splints and bandages. Xander slashed open Giles' right sleeve and prepped one of the expander-bags; without needing to be told, Willow snatched up the bag of splints, then flipped the crate's lid shut and slid it under Giles' feet, elevating them to combat the shock. That done, she turned away to tend to the broken/torn arm.

Goddamn, that woman's switched-on, Xander thought absently, grabbing Giles' good arm. "Giles, I'm gonna start an IV line to replace some of the blood you lost. Make a fist so I can find a vein." The ex-Watcher obeyed, and Xander's stick was right on the money. He held the bag high and watched Willow tend to Giles' arm with motions that were just as swift as his own had been, if less certain. "Buffy, how's Cerian?" he called sidelong.

"Pissed off!" was the Slayer's half-sarcastic answer. "It's a flesh wound, she was lucky. Giles?"

"I think... I'll be fine," the Englishman managed. His voice was weak, somehow squeezed-sounding. "Xander... where did you... learn to do all this?"

"Field Manual 21-11: 'First Aid for Soldiers'. I printed it off the Internet a while ago." It had been the morning after that thing with Jack O'Toole and his gang of psycho zombies, in point of fact, but they didn't really need to know that, did they? At Willow's amazed blink, he went on, "I had to do *something* with my study-time after I blew my SATs, and I figured with the way I keep getting clobbered, not to mention everybody else around me...." He shrugged his free shoulder. "I got the field-kit in a fire-sale in Vegas."

"Including the IV bags?" the ex-Watcher wondered, a little uneasily.

"There are fire-sales and there are 'fire-sales', Giles," the Slayerette half-grinned. A pair of men in white EMT uniforms appeared in the doorway, medical kits in hand - then stopped short, gaping at the scene before them. "What, didya take the scenic route?"

"You want us to leave?" the lead man demanded with matching acid, kneeling beside Giles and opening his kit, all the while taking in the scene with trained, professional eyes. "We'll take it from here, folks, y'wanna back off?"

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

Meanwhile, the metallic-green Lexus that held Ruby and Amethyst was carrying them north-west at just over the speed limit: not fast enough to draw a ticket, but enough to get them out of Sunnydale faster than the limit allowed.

For her part, Amethyst was working herself into a good, old-fashioned state of hysterical anxiety. "Ruby, just forget the safehouse and let's get the fuck out of here! If we run now, we -"

"Won't live three days," the ex-Ranger countered dourly, almost dully. "Onyx arranged all our paperwork, remember? Identities, accomodation, credit cards, the whole lot. If we try to run, if we're lucky, he'll find us and treat us no better than any other traitor. If we're *not* lucky, Opal will get us."

"Opal's gonna get us anyway! Did you hear about the São Paolo job eleven years ago?" she shrilled.

"I've heard rumours -"

"They're true. I was there, Ruby. We bagged the Slayer nice and easy, drugged her and tied her up, then took her out to this riverbend Opal had chosen. When we got there, Opal brought the girl around and gave her The Speech, then tossed a piece of bloody meat into the water to attract the pirahna and pushed the Slayer in after it. You should've seen Opal's face, Ruby: the expression was verdomme orgasmic. D'you really think SHRIKE-1 will be so kind to *us* under *these* circumstances?"

"Then we go back and make like it was an accident," he suggested levelly.

"An *accident*?"

"We got impatient, that's all. If we shade the facts a little when we report to Onyx, he can explain it to Opal and it'll be his neck, not ours."

Amethyst was far from convinced by *that* argument... but on the other hand, it wasn't like she had any other realistic choice.

Part Five

10:57, TUESDAY AUGUST 24, LIMA (18:57/24-08-99 ZULU)

Reflexes like chained lightning; the strength to bend a rifle-barrel into a hoop; hand-to-hand combat skills to shame most black belts; resilience sufficient to shrug off blows that would incapacitate a normal human; senses as sharp as those of any great cat. Such is the Slayer's power.

And every last dot of it completely useless right now, Buffy thought bitterly, looking down at trembling hands. I never thought I'd feel as horrible as I did during Cruciamentum: I'm so *used* to having these powers, to doing superhuman things, that losing my powers was terrifying. But this is worse: I still have my Slayer-ness... and right now I can't do a damn bit of good.

"Where's Will?" she asked, almost absently.

"Restroom. She wanted to wash the blood off," Xander shrugged. His attention was bent on the laptop he'd snatched up in their scramble to get out of Giles'. Or, rather, on the two jagged rents straight through the LCD.

Buffy lifted her head a little, glancing at what he was doing with curiosity, but little enthusiasm. "What're you doing?"

"Just checking this thing out. I'm curious," he murmured. "Somebody was editing the post-mortems on our four tangos from last night, and I'd like to know what they were taking out - plus we've still got that possible blood-magic case to check out. Wills might've got what we need, but without a display, there's no way to tell yea or nay."

The Slayer blinked and cocked her head a little. God, he's even talking smarter! "Xander, where the *heck* did you go when you left here?"

He glanced at her sidelong and gave her a strange little smile. "You're not asking the right question, Buff. No, wait, I take that back: you're not asking *all* the right question."

God, and I thought Angel was annoying when he did this! "Xander, don't make me hit you."

He coughed once - or was it a muffled laugh? - and turned his attention back to the laptop.

Buffy let out a little scream and shot out of her seat to pace some more. She'd already left a race-track pattern in the linoleum, and now she was trying to make it a permanent fixture. "So?" she prompted, flicking her eyes at the laptop.

"The screen is, well, *shot*," he smiled, poking two fingers through one of the bulletholes and waggling them to illustrate, "beyond repair, but it looks like that's the sum total of the damage. CPU and motherboard, hard-drive, keyboard - all that's on this other half, and as far as I can see, that's untouched." He paused and cocked his head thoughtfully; after a moment, a mischievous smile crept across his face. "Y'mind holding on to this for a minute, Buff? I'm just gonna get something from the Suburban."


Xander shot her a wink on his way out the door. "You'll see."

Buffy leaned back in her seat and looked down at her hands again, one corner of her mind marvelling at the change in Xander. When she'd gone to help Cerian, she'd thought she'd been leaving Giles in safe hands - i.e. *Willow's* hands - and that she'd be better off *doing* something instead of hovering at the Wiccan's shoulder, being useless again. She'd been right on the second part, but the paramedics had made it diamond-clear that Xander's - *Xander's* - prompt action had almost certainly saved Giles' life.

And half an hour ago, I wouldn't have been happy betting money that Xander could *spell* 'prompt action', she mused, with a tiny sniff of almost-humour. God, in high school he ran late so often I wondered why he bothered wearing a watch in the first place. Now, he's Johnny-on-the-spot.

She looked up again as Willow came in. "This is so *not* the way I wanted to get back here."

"Seconded." The redhead's cuffs were still speckled with rust-red blotches, and she was just as down - and adrenaline-fatigued - as the Slayer was. "Where's Xander?"

"Getting something from the car. Something to fix The Wonderful Willow-Machine, I think."

"Oh. Wait, how? Xander can't fix computers and he doesn't have the things he'd need and it's all FUBAR-y anyway and -"

"'FUBAR'?" the Slayer interjected, arching her brows.

"Uh... Oz and I went to Saving Private Ryan the week before things got fluke-y."

"You don't see enough blood and guts around me?"

"Dad and some of his buddies saw it, and when he got home, the first thing he did was come into my room and tell me I should go. 'So I could see some *real* values in action,' he said. Since it was about the only thing he said to me all year...." Willow shrugged.

Buffy nodded her understanding. Okay, now, let's keep this small-talk thing going, okay? Just to keep our minds off the uselessness. "Where *are* your folks, anyway? They weren't exactly ringing our phone off the hook looking for you this morning. They in Phoenix again?"

A shake of the head. "Baltimore. Dad's taking some vacation time from the DA's office to tag along while Mom does the speaking-circuit thing. Y'know, about that paper she helped write?"

"*Oh* yeah. She still in denial over the Wicca thing?"

"Are you kidding? She still thinks I go to Temple on Saturday mornings," the redhead drawled.

Buffy thought better of asking her where she *did* go; she could make a pretty fair guess on her own, and the object here was to occupy, not to mortify. "You gonna shake her out of it?"

"What's the point? We'll be at college in two weeks anyway, and then it'll be a question from Mootville."

"Biggest town in I-Don't-Want-to-Know County," the Slayer half-smiled. "What's in the bag, anyway?"

Despite herself, Willow dropped a hand to the gym-bag. "Stuff for Oz, clothes, his college package -"

"He hasn't got it in yet? Ouch - penalty fees!"

"We had an Ascension to worry about, Buff. I think he wanted to wait until he actually knew he'd be going before he sent anything in - y'know, in case it became more moot-ness?"

The Slayer raised one eyebrow a little. Jeez, Will, rationalise much? she didn't say.

Xander reappeared through the doorway; he carried a brace of gift-wrapped boxes, about shoe-box size, under one arm. "*It* has returned," he intoned sonorously, his eyes dancing merrily.

"And it comes bearing gifts," Buffy chirped, cocking her head curiously. "What'cha get us, Xand-man? And how should we react?"

"Knowing him? Be afraid," Willow sniffed.

Xander ignored the commentary, setting one of the packages on the coffee-table next to Willow for a moment; the other he held in hand as he turned to Buffy. "Y'know, Buff, you're a hard person to buy for... but with time, and some advice, I finally found something."

Buffy accepted the offered package a little warily, not knowing what to make of all this. She tore through the green-and-blue wrapping paper, opened the lid, and found two smaller packets inside, a flat one about fourteen inches by five and the other a... a jewellery box? "Xander, if this is some sort of proposal gag -"

He gave her a steady look. "Open 'em and find out."

Inside the jewellery box was not a ring, but a ball-chain necklace bearing a stylised shield about an inch high, made of what looked like solid silver and set with a crucifix made of - Buffy blinked and gaped. Those *can't* be - "Are those *rubies*?

"Nothin' but," he smiled gently. "That's the Cross of Saint George: patron saint of England... and of soldiers." He inclined his head at her.

That was good for a Buffy/Willow "Awwwwww" duet... but Buffy was a little confused, and a lot stunned. Where'd he get the money for something like *this*? This has to be custom work, and if it cost less than five grand, I'm Ivana Trump!

Tabling that issue for another time, Buffy opened the snap on the other box... and blinked again. "Knives?"

"The big one in the sheath is sold under the model-name OSS: it has an eight-and-a-quarter-inch blade with a clipped point and a textured non-slip rubber handle. The smaller one's called the Recon One; it's a tactical folding knife - basically a pocket-knife you can fight with - with a four-inch blade and a clipped point. I picked 'em up from a cutler's shop in Ventura that calls itself - get this - Cold Steel." Xander raised both eyebrows. "Kind'a says it all right there, huh?"

Buffy shivered at the idea. Try as she might, she couldn't forget that places like that, ignorant of the dangers in the dark, made implements that were used to kill other human beings. That's probably where Wilkins got Faith's knife, she guessed, incorrectly. "The pretty *and* the practical. Thanks, Xander."

"Well, you junked Faith's knife, and I don't think we want to repeat the Exact-O incident, do we?"

She snickered, fondly remembering that God-so-long-ago conversation they'd had in the sewers on her second day on the Hellmouth. But then, it beat hell out of the *last* conversation I had in a sewer, she remembered, her smile dying again at the spasm of pain in her chest.

When she looked up again, Xander was looking at her with concern in his eyes. She waved him off, tilting her head towards Willow. I'm fine. Go on, give Will *her* present(s).

He spared her another split-second of 'are you okay?' before finally obeying and turning to Willow. "Go ahead and open yours, Wills."

Like Buffy's, Willow's necklace was of the ball-chain variety, but its shield was set with six sapphires that described a five-pointed star, circled by a platinum inlay. Long moments passed in which Willow could do nothing but stare at the adornment in open-mouthed shock. "H... h... how much did you win in those poker games?" she finally managed, in a breathless, freaked-out squeak.

Xander plays poker? And *wins*? Since when? Buffy wondered.

He cocked his head and ran the math in his head(!). "All told... a little under ninety grand. I banked forty, splurged on goodies with the rest."

"So I see," Willow breathed. "I... I c-"

"You *can*, and you *will*," he said firmly. "Even if you never wear it. You... you guys mean *everything* to me; those pendants are just one way of showing it."

Still in shell-shock, Willow missed the way he'd corrected himself and dug into the other box, producing... "What the heck are these?"

'These' was a set of goggles, similar in style to those one-piece eye-shields skiers wore; the lens was made of a translucent, dark-blue material, and the arms and brow-piece were of very thick plastic. A curly-cord ending in a very rugged-looking plug dangled from just forward of the left hinge; an ear-piece/ lip-mike rig was swivel-mounted on the right.

"*Those* come from a Taiwanese outfit called HyperComm that just started product-testing 'em; they call 'em 'eye-phones'. Here." He took the laptop from Buffy and plugged the headset into the video-jack at the back, then carefully settled the screenless keyboard onto Willow's lap and the goggles onto her face. "Put the earpiece in, you'll need it for the new interface." He flipped a switch on the plug. "Watch out, it's gonna take 'em a moment to synch with your current hardware."

Before Willow's astounded eyes, the inside of the lens lit up with {OS LOADING - PLEASE WAIT}. "Wow! What *is* this?"

"It's a holographic display system, like they use in fighter jets; it projects your desktop from inside the brow-piece. There're sensors in there that track your eye-movements, too, and the interface software lets you give voice commands. Think of it as a computer screen you can wear like glasses and a mouse you can talk to."

A moment later, the 'wait' prompt was replaced - by her laptop's desktop interface! Her eyes tracked back and forth across the screen, and the cursor followed her gaze with millimetric precision. Willow let out a squeal of geeker joy, and post-high-school dignity be damned. "This is *SO* *COOL*!" she chortled, setting both eyephones and laptop aside for a moment so she could stand up and hug him nearly in half. "Xander, these are, like, beyond the cutting-edge - how'd you *get* them?"

"One of HyperComm's sales-pukes sat in on the last game I played before I left. Everybody else quit, and he was desperate to call me, so he pitched those in. The pot was worth ninety-odd-thou, so I can't really blame him; I guess he thought an ace-high straight was unbeatable. It would've been, except I was holding nothing but hearts, queen-high. I told the guys I'd take those eyephones as my only prize, left my money in the pot, and went straight out the door to let 'em duke it out."

Both women stared at him. "You gave up *ninety*... *thousand*... *dollars* for these?" Willow repeated faintly. "For these for *ME*?"

"I can always win more money, Will. Ninety thousand dollars is worth ninety thousand dollars - but that look on your face is beyond price," he smiled.

The tiny part of Buffy's mind that wasn't swooning at that impossibly sweet gesture was glaring a hole in the side of Xander's head. Xander, you'd better not be doing what I think you are!

He coughed and pointed his chin at the laptop again. "Besides, I figured you'd want something you could use for college *and* Slayerette stuff. And as much as I don't want to break the mood before you two kiss me senseless for all these wonderful toys, we've still got four or five case-files to look at."

"What about Oz? Shouldn't we go visit him while we're here?" Buffy suggested, a little tartly.

"Oz?" Willow repeated - then it sank in. "Ohmigod, *Oz*! He must be -"

"Will." Xander laid a hand on her shoulder, shifting gears in nothing flat. "If they release him before we're finished, they'll tell him where we are. If they don't release him, he'll still be there when we're done... and considering that Giles has already been shot over what's in those guys' files, I'm kinda curious to see what they want to hide."

"You think the people who shot at us were buddies with the guys from last night? Why?" Buffy frowned.

"You know anybody else running around Sunnydale with assault rifles shooting at civilians?" he countered easily. "Somebody was trying to sanitise their autopsy reports, so we know they've got friends out there. Maybe they wanted payback for last night."

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

11:24, AUGUST 24, LIMA (19:24/24-08-99, ZULU)

Ruby and Amethyst couldn't help but notice the looks their fellow operatives gave the sniper-duo as they walked through the mansion's games room-cum-command post. Looks of covert sympathy. They know what's happened... and they know we're in for it. The Afrikaaner swallowed at the thought.

Onyx was standing behind Topaz's chair, watching as the cracker finished sanitising the autopsy records on the downed members of SHRIKE-3. Behind him, Emerald was sitting at the scanning equipment, her bobbed auburn hair stuffed up under a Vancouver Canucks cap to accomodate her headphones, which were currently hanging about her neck. Even from where they stood, the duo could hear the faint chatter of the S.P.D. working the Carver Complex scene.

Onyx doffed his glasses and polished them, his movements very precise. "Doing a little hunting, Ruby?" he asked crisply.

"I saw an opportunity to finish the job in one go, and I took it," the ex-Ranger declared.

Onyx's calm was disturbed not a whit by the insolence. "You know the Judas Protocols as well as anyone here, Ruby. As a team leader, you have to. 'All sanctions must appear to be -'"

"'- Accidents or incidents naturally occurring in the target area', I know," the American repeated over-patiently. "This is Southern California, Onyx. People get machine-gunned here every day."

"In inner-city barrios and ghettos, not in nice, quiet, middle-class Caucasian suburbs like Sunnydale," SHRIKE-1-Deputy returned, still unperturbed. "In drive-by shootings, not in such a clear-cut stalk. And *especially* not with people like Cerian McKellar in the room."

"What?" Ruby blinked, doing a perfect imitation of blank surprise. A little *too* perfect.

Amethyst kept her face blank, masking the sudden redoubling of her dread. Her team-commander had played that wrong: he should have been appalled, not surprised.

"You had a clean chance at all of this 'Scooby Gang', and who did you get? You killed two housewives and a four-year-old and wounded - *wounded* - Rupert Giles and *Cerian McKellar*."

He put his glasses back on. Every operative in the room had been waiting for that signal, and there was a sudden, multi-faceted rasp of metal against ballistic nylon. Everyone barring Onyx himself had drawn their sidearm and levelled it on the two miscreants before they could think of reaching for their own.

The new Walther P-99 .40SW was standard-issue for SHRIKE operators, but that wasn't set in stone. Circumstances often required different weapons, and the best operatives were usually allowed a certain leeway. Onyx, for his part, carried a Delta Elite 10mm. He left that weapon holstered and took a spare weapon, a suppressed .22 HK4, from the desk next to Topaz's elbow, resting it against his thigh as he faced the duo again. That it was the very same pistol Opal had used in Napier did not escape anyone's notice. "You wounded someone who has been an asset to this organisation for thirty years, and you *missed* your primary targets completely. Putting Giles in hospital may prove useful, but the fact remains that you violated protocols, disobeyed Opal's specific orders, revealed our presence, put the subjects on their guard, and generally - what's that American phrase? - 'fucked the dog'." He released the Heckler and Koch's safety and earred back the hammer. "I had thought last night was sufficient warning about the consequences of ill-considered and intemperate action. I don't enjoy being mistaken. The question is, what do we do about it? And which of you should be punished?"

His gaze fell on Amethyst first. "There's no point asking who did the shooting, since you'll simply blame each other and we'll get nowhere. Besides, you were both there, so you're both responsible. Amethyst is of limited value to the organisation. Her linguistic gifts are useful but not unique, as are her medical skills. She's only an average shot, and possesses limited tactical abilities. In fact, she is eminently replaceable."

He turned his eyes on Ruby. "Ruby, on the other hand, is a SHRIKE team commander. He's a trained sniper, with fieldcraft and tactical skills many of you can never hope to match. He's seen more combat than the rest of you combined, and, in fact, is one of the finest assets we have." He cocked his head as if to say 'don't you agree?' to the American, turned his eyes to Amethyst, swung the .22 up waist-high -

- and put three hollowpoints through Ruby's liver.

The ex-Ranger went down shrieking, clutching a bloody and mortal wound. Amethyst blinked and stared down at the fallen man in shock, not daring to move. Onyx crossed to stand over the larger man, then shot him again, this time putting two rounds into his crotch. Ruby howled and thrashed on the floor, blood rapidly pooling on the floor beneath him, much of it streaked with yellow bile.

Onyx handed the HK4 off to Garnet. "You and Jade strip him of his valuables, lock him in the boot of a car, park it in a rest area off the highway, then burn it with him inside; make sure you leave some of his blood on the driver's seat. The police should take it for the work of garden-variety criminals. Leave his gun in the car so they can match it to the victims at the house."

"Should we kill him before we torch him?" Garnet asked.

"Why?" Onyx asked blankly.

Garnet winced, then moved to obey, taking the wounded man by the shoulders while Jade got his feet. They left a long, almost uninterrupted line of blood spatters on their way out the door.

"I don't envy the individual that has to get *that* out of the carpet," Onyx observed, almost whimsically, then turned and went back to where Amethyst stood, still frozen to the spot. "You've been party to a mistake, Margaret; everyone is, sooner or later. Because it was more Ruby's mistake than yours, you're going to get a chance at redemption," he said... then smiled, in a way, and added, "of a sort."

He crossed to where Topaz and Emerald sat and sat on the edge of the desk. "Now, for reasons both various and obvious, neither Opal nor I can participate in the action on Thursday night. With that in mind, Amethyst, *you'll* be in command of SHRIKE-1 during the operation; Turquoise, you'll be her second."

Neither operative knew how to take *that*.

Onyx ignored their stunned looks and went on, addressing Amethyst. "The plan's as ready as it can be without details we won't have for a few more hours, so until we get those details, you'd do well to study the basic concept and the locations involved. Turquoise has more experience at the command side, so don't be afraid to ask for his opinion or listen to what he has to say. The mark of a good leader is being able to accept advice. Remember: quick, quiet, and with a minimum of bother. Rosenberg must be *alive* and more or less unharmed if we're to exert effective leverage on Summers. Taking any more 'Scoobies' alive would be useful, but ultimately they're expendable."

Part Six

11:29, TUESDAY AUGUST 24, LIMA (19:29/24-08-99 ZULU)

Willow's first ten minutes or so with the new 'eyephones' had been devoted to learning the various commands and eccentricities of the interface. After that, it was pure hacker heaven. When the laptop had been hit, a power-surge had junked most of the file-fragments she'd had time to save, but after a great deal of coaxing (and a couple of naughty words in Hebrew and Latin) she finally decided she'd recovered all she could. Not that it was much: only a couple of partially-scrambled photo-.jpg files and maybe twenty lines of text, mainly disjointed phrases in pathologist's jargon. What sense she could make of the information posed a new puzzle. "That's it, guys. I only got the 'deleted' portion from one of the reports before the shooting started, and I've recovered about as much of it as I can, but it's funny: all they were deleting was a description of the victim's identifying marks."

"'Victims' are innocents, Willow. These guys were tangos who got what they had coming," Xander reminded her, harking back to a long-ago conversation with Gunny Patterson. "But I'm being a jerk again. What'cha got?"

Willow answered by reaching into her laptop's carry-case, producing a notebook and pencil, setting the former on her knee, then looking *through* the images on the inside of the data-goggles to trace them on the paper. When she was done, she showed the page to both of her friends. "Two tattoos. The first one was on his left bicep, the other one on his left collarbone."

"Well, you and I both know what that first one is," Xander pointed out, tapping the upper symbol. "The red star and thunderbolt is a Spetsnaz mark, remember? Our boy served in Afghanistan, which means he was a *lot* of firepower to be involved in a simple art heist... if that's what it was."

I drew it in *pencil*, Xander; how did you know it was red? Willow wondered. Well, okay, our time at Quick, but still....

"'If that's what it was'? What are you saying?" Buffy blinked at him.

"I'm not saying anything. If I had anything to say, I don't think this is the time or place to say it," he smiled. "This other marking... is not something I ran into when I was Research Boy. Buff, you got a clue?"

The second tattoo Willow had traced consisted of a figure-eight lying on its side; inside the left loop was a circled Star of David; within the right loop, a right-angled triangle rested on one short side, three lines extending to the right from the long face to make the symbol roughly square.

"Hey, it was always a case of *you* guys doing the book-stuff so *I* could Slay things; how should I know?" the blonde asked, taking the notebook from Willow nonetheless. "Naw, sorry. Will, any ideas?"

"Well, this outer symbol, the leminscate, represents 'infinity', so whatever's inside is meant to be eternal. The hexagram could be alchemical or religious, but this one on the right is completely new to me."

"Maybe Giles or Cerian can spot it."

Xander cocked a skeptical eyebrow at her. "They're both wounded, Buff; our reference library is so much papier mâché right now, and you told the Watcher's Council to take their job and shove it. Got any more bright ideas?"

"How about Willy? He *always* knows what's going on."

"I don't think he does mundanes, but it's worth a shot," he shrugged. "When shall we head down there, about seven-ish?"

Buffy raised both eyebrows at him. "'We'?"

"Willy responds only to money or threats, Buff. I seem to have a *liiittle* disposable income right about now, you're the Slayer, and I made the papers for zapping a man. I think he's going to be most forthcoming. Don't you?"

"That smart-ass thing's gonna get you in trouble one day," the Slayer warned him, mostly joking.

"*Way* too late for *that* warning, Buffster." He shrugged and looked back to Willow. "Wills, didja get that stuff on the kid yet?"

"Uh... no; that data-reconstruction was pretty involved. I'll get on it now."

"Good woman." Xander gave her a gentle smile-and-wink of encouragement.

Which reminds me.... Buffy crooked a finger at the young man as Willow went back to work. "Could I talk to you for a minute? *Over here*?"

Xander moved off to one side with her, his eyes and manner wary. When they were outside Willow's immediate earshot, he lowered his head and voice. "Okay, Buff, what's on your mind?"

"What are you up to?" she hissed.

"What do you mean?"

"The necklace, the techno-goodies, the extravagant gesture - it's all really sweet, Xander. *Too* sweet for a guy who wasn't even away two whole months. Are you making a play for her? Because she's *happy* with Oz, dammit!"

"I'm not making a play for anyone, Buff." His tone was even, patient. "I wanted to show you guys how dear you are to me, and for once I actually had the means. Is it a crime to miss your closest friends?"

"So that last little gambit was just *ninety grand* of 'I missed you'?"

"You say that like you can put a price on true friendship," he said, as if mystified, and went back to Willow's side.

Buffy threw up her hands, muffling another scream. If he keeps this up...!

When Willow looked past the images on her eyephones a few minutes later, she was struck by the difference in her friends' demeanours. Buffy was pacing back and forth again, muttering a constant litany of vengeful threats against whoever had hurt Giles, visibly agitated and in the express lane to 'frantic'. Xander, on the other hand, was sitting on the other couch, his hands free in his lap, his eyes leaving Buffy every few seconds to check the doorway, at once alert but somehow at ease. The question went straight to her mouth without consulting her brain. "Xander, how can you be so... so *self-possessed* at a time like this?"

"What happens to Giles is out of our hands," he said mildly, unsurprised by the question. "We can't help him, and worrying ourselves crazy sure isn't gonna achieve anything, so we might as well concentrate on something productive. For my part, I'd like to come back in a couple of days and give him this blood-mage's head on a plate as a 'Get Well Soon'."

"So you're not worried?" Buffy snapped.

"Of course I'm worried, but what's next for Giles isn't up to me. There's no point bitching about things that are outside our control. Worry about what you *can* do, Buff, not what you can't. Anything else is a fast route to a nervous breakdown, an ulcer, a heart attack, or a combination thereof - and you're too cute to have an ulcer."

"Thanks. I think."

"You're welcome. I think," he mocked.

Before Willow could add her own two cents, a dialogue box appeared before her eyes. "Got it!" she chirped.

A heartbeat later, both Xander and Buffy were at her side. "And?" Buffy prompted, her voice taut.

"I'll print it all out when I get home, but it looks like Cerian was right on the money: the killer used a slightly curved edged weapon, which left traces of silver in the wound, to slit both carotids longtitudinally." Willow illustrated by tracing both of those arteries from jaw to collar with her fingertips, then used a fingernail to score an inverted pentagram on the pad that lay on her knee. "I don't recognise most of the symbology in the other wounds, but the old favourite was carved over his heart."

"Any sign of, uh...." Buffy trailed off.

"I think she means, 'is there any evidence of sexual assault'," Xander provided, not shrinking from the thought as Buffy had.

Willow shook her head. "Nothing. They ran a full autopsy and examination, and nothing like that."

"I'd almost feel better if there had been. How callous does *that* make me?" he drawled.

"Well, that's work dealt with, anyway," Buffy shrugged. "We can try and sort this out at my place later. For now, Oz is probably feeling real lonely right now. Are we gone?"

Willow carefully packed away the laptop and its new peripheral, slung the case over one shoulder, then handed the gym-bag to Buffy. "Here, Buffy. Feel useful," she smiled.

"Thanks a bunch."

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

Oz was propped up on a nest of pillows when the trio came in, and he looked like hell. His bottom lip was split and swollen, eleven stitches closed the curved gash on his forehead, two more sealed a surgical wound over his left cheekbone, and his pallor only highlighted the angry, purple-red contusions that stretched from hairline to jaw, half-closing his eye. However, he wasn't alone, and both Xander and Buffy came up short at the sight - and sound - of the strangers.

"Oh, *bullshit*!" Shooter near-yelled, gesturing emphatically as she half-rose from her seat, her cheeks flushed and her eyes flashing behind her trademark glasses. She spoke quickly, her accent thickening slightly as her passions rose. "The only reason the American economy came to dominate the global after World War Two was because it was the only one still intact! All the other major economic powers had had most of their productive capacity destroyed and their civilian populations decimated or relocated. Quality control might have been a small part of the equation, but basically, America is where it is today because after World War Two, its was the only major economic/industrial infrastructure that hadn't been burned down, blown up, fought over, rolled under, uprooted, incinerated, or just plain bombed flat!"

Oz's lips were twisted almost sideways by his smile as he glanced at Nemo, who was standing behind his wife's chair.

"Don't look at me, priyatel," the older man said reasonably, gently patting his wife's shoulder to settle her down a little. "I'm with her."

"Hey, Oz, you asked for my opinion, and that's exactly what you got. If you don't like what I have to say, you shouldn't've asked in the first place." It was as close to an apology as Shooter would come.

"Who the hell are they?" Xander asked under his breath, blinking at Willow.

This should be... interesting, the redhead noted. "Buffy, they're the ones I told you about, remember? Xander, that's Shooter, with the glasses. You can see what she's like," she smiled wryly. "That's her husband Nemo with her. He's...." She spent a moment trying to frame it right, and eventually went with, "Complex."

"Look, Oz, consider the major economic powers of the time," Shooter continued, still very gesture-y; her blood was most definitely up. "Russia: twenty million dead, everything west of Moscow a former battleground, and the NKVD purging *anyone* who had an idea that deviated from the Party ideal. Japan: every major city repeatedly firebombed by B-29s, plus two *nuked*. France, Italy, Germany: all bombed silly, every inch of territory fought for, plus the aftermath of their various Occupations. Great Britain: clawing to simply feed itself after six years of near-strangulation by Doenitz' wolf-packs. America: untouched. Gee, you do the maths," she sniffed sardonically. As she finished, her gaze lifted towards the doorway. She examined the trio of newcomers with cautious eyes, relaxing when she recognised Willow - then she took in the bloodstains. "Bozhe moi!" she blurted, bolting out of her seat, her eyes widening. "Willow, are you all right?"

Willow didn't have a chance to answer; with characteristic disdain for restraint (and the finer feelings of onlookers), the taller woman crossed the room and wrapped her up in a nigh-bone-crushing hug.

"Shooter, I need those ribs," she squeaked.

"Sorry," the brunette shrugged, releasing Willow and stepping back. Today, she was wearing a scarlet(!) denim jacket over battered jeans and an orange T-shirt. Emblazoned across the shirt's chest was an image of a mouse raising a middle finger to the eagle that was stooping on him, with the caption {THE LAST GREAT ACT OF DEFIANCE}.

Nemo was right behind his wife in approaching Willow, but contented himself with grasping her by both shoulders when Shooter stepped back; he was dressed in dark-blue trousers, a pale-blue shirt (long-sleeved, of course), and a black leather aviator's jacket that matched his eyepatch perfectly. "Ye look like ye've been through the devil's own wringer, my sweet," he observed, in a perfect Belfast accent.

Thursday night dates with Oz had become a near-permanent fixture of Willow's vacations since junior year; that first night they'd met at the bowling alley, Shooter and Nemo had traded 'phone numbers with the younger couple and turned it into a double-date scenario. 'Colourful' was probably the best nutshell description for these two, she decided privately. Not that she didn't like them, of course, but she was halfway convinced that Shooter was probably at least a little crazy (in a hyperkinetic, tomboy free-spirit kind of way); being around her was like being at the centre of a tornado. But on the other hand, she's not *crazy*-crazy, like Faith.

On the other hand, Nemo was almost impossibly laid-back and good-natured - which, thankfully, seemed to be a tempering influence on his wife. He was one of those people who simply took whatever came with philosphical humour, despite some often piercing insight and shocking cynicism. Willow remembered the brief conversation they'd had a couple of weeks ago, when they'd come out of a movie and he and Shooter had been laughing at all the holes in the plot:

"Nemo, do you have to make fun of *everything*?"
"The Irish have a blessing, darlin': 'May I never take life too seriously, knowing I'll never get out of it alive.'"

Which is about all I know about them, Willow realised, frowning a little on the inside. They'd talk about almost anything and everything, with the ring of experience and wide reading and each in their own... *unique* fashion, but never about what they did or why they were in Sunnydale; their past was such a big ol' blank that she didn't have enough biographical information on them to cover a postcard.

Thinking all this took Willow less than a heartbeat - more than enough time for what little contrition Shooter had shown over her ebullient greeting to vanish completely. "That blood's fresh - what *happened* to you?" she demanded, brow furrowed in concern.

"We were at a friend's place and somebody decided that it'd be fun to do a drive-by on an unemployed British librarian," Xander half-lied quickly.

Oz sat up a little. "Giles is hurt? How bad?"

"You say that like there's a *good* way to get shot," Nemo murmured, with droll, good-natured derision.

"Sucking chest and a broken arm, he's in surgery now," Xander confirmed to the bed-ridden werewolf, giving Nemo a foul look. "Cerian's gonna have a limp for a few weeks, too, but she should be out of here tomorrow morning. It could'a been worse."

"Are you hurt?" Nemo wondered, examining Willow closely.

"Just a little shakey. I'll be fine." She smiled crookedly, quoting one of his favourite sayings right back at him. "'Never let 'em grind you down', right?"

He chuckled and nodded, ruffling her already wrecked hair. "You'll be okay, kiddo."

Willow gave him the indulgent look she'd always reserved for Xander at his most boyish, realising as she did that while these two might know herself and Oz - "I'm forgetting things in all the, the being shot at. Natalya Kerensky, Phelan Travis, say 'hi' to Xander Harris and Buffy Summers. Xander, these are Shooter and Nemo; Buffy, these are the two I wanted you to meet but you were always too busy." She gave this a little touch of the accusatory; Buffy had a right to mope over Angel's leaving, true, but that didn't mean she couldn't come out and have fun.

"I've heard a lot about you," Buffy smiled. "Willow seems to think you can walk on water."

"Likewise on both counts." Shooter ignored the blonde's offered hand and simply inclined her head, 'hi there'; her manner towards Buffy was... correct, but somehow lacked her usual all-embracing enthusiasm. "Zdratsvuite," she added, waggling her fingers at Xander in a slightly warmer greeting.

"Willow is very trusting. Perhaps a little too much so," Nemo pointed out to the Slayer, a little crisply, then sketched a salute-like wave Xander's way, 'hi'.

"Will, you never mentioned you knew Tori Amos and Jon Gruden," Xander grinned.

"Jon Gruden?" Nemo wondered mildly.

"Head coach for the Oakland Raiders. A regular baby-faced assassin."

Willow couldn't help but hear the... *deliberateness* of that last sentence - and she could've sworn the older couple twitched at hearing it.

"I can't say I follow the inner workings of the NFL too closely." Nemo shrugged, then nodded at the chairs at Oz's bedside. "Incidentally, are we gonna stand in this doorway all day, or shall we repair to the cheap seats?"

"Uh... two chairs, five visitors," Oz pointed out.

"Easy solved," Nemo grinned, tugging Shooter to one side and waving the other three forward. Buffy took one seat; Xander stepped back to let Willow take the other, then stood behind her in a manner that was oddly reminiscient of a bodyguard's.

Nemo settled on the windowsill beyond Oz's bed, half-sitting with a full view of the door, and Shooter snuggled against his right side, sighing contentedly as his arm automatically went about her shoulders. "So *you* are the notorious Buffy and Xander," she observed. "I can't say you're exactly what Willow's stories led me to imagine."

"What *did* you expect?" Xander wondered, his eyes levelled at Nemo.

"Lucy Lawless and Jim Carrey," the eye-patched man drawled. "But then, Jim Carrey's never shot anyone dead, has he?" he added significantly.

"I wasn't what you'd call overburdened with choice." Xander's tone was just a touch frosty.

"It wasn't a criticism: you did what you had to," Shooter shrugged. "But people *are* going to treat you differently."

Willow's ears pricked up. If she hadn't known better, she'd have said there was something almost... *multi-layered* about the tone of this conversation....

"It's called the Mark of Cain syndrome. It's a by-product of 'civilisation'," Nemo put in, the last word a caustic epithet. "People attach so much of a stigma to violence that they forget that not only is it sometimes necessary, but that some people are just better off dead."

"So you think I did the right thing?"

"The way I hear it, the joker was about to machine-gun a bunch of unarmed innocents, including the people you love. Far as I'm concerned, that's as justifiable as it gets," the eye-patched man declared unequivocally. "But whatever the circumstances, a lot of people will be incapable of seeing past the fact that you've killed someone. The human animal doesn't like to be reminded of its own darker nature," he added blandly.

Buffy spared a moment to consider the truth in that observation before cocking her head at Nemo. "You think people aren't civilised?"

He laughed softly, then spoke with the rueful cynicism of someone old far before his time. "Civilisation is a very recent development in evolutionary terms, and we're still working the bugs out of it. In all frankness, I'm not sure it isn't a futile effort. In my experience, humankind is like a lot of other things: it seemed like a good idea at the time... but the execution left a great deal to be desired." As he spoke, his free hand rose to massage the scar on his brow.

Xander cocked an eyebrow. "Nice jewellery you've got there. Diamond and sapphire?"

Again the deliberateness. Again the twitch-y.

"Well, if they're not, we've been to a lot of time and effort for nothing." Nemo's smile was a little cool. He turned his attention back to Buffy. "You were saying?"

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

Janelle LaFollet half-sighed and lowered her pad. "Mrs. McKellar, you're not being very helpful."

"I can't tell you things that I didn't see, Detective," the older woman countered. She'd been under only local anaethesia in the surgery she'd emerged from not fifteen minutes ago, and it had to be wearing off. Between the pain, the stress she'd been put under less than a hundred minutes beforehand, and a healthy dose of annoyance at being told she had to stay in hospital overnight, she was visibly restraining her temper, and having a harder time of it by the second.

"Look at it from our perspective, ma'am," Little Bob suggested reasonably. "We've got a housewife and a four-year-old with forty-calibre brain haemorrhages, another housewife who bled out after having both legs almost blown off by a single rifle bullet, *her* daughter injured in the resulting head-on MVA, a former high-school librarian undergoing thoracic surgery as we speak, and *you*, for all intents, are the only real eyewitness."

"They had the curtains drawn in the house they were shooting from, Sergeant. I didn't dare stick my head out for long, and when I *did* glance out, all I could see was a muzzle-flash. I'm sorry."

Patterson stifled a disappointed sigh. "You seem pretty sure that it was the Triads. Why?"

"I recently... procured some items that the chieftain of Pak Ying Sh'e, Hong Kong's 'White Eagle Society', was most eager to get a hold of. He was *not* best pleased at being denied, and this is certainly Triad style: brutal, messy.... They prefer to let you know that you've done A Bad Thing: you, your spouse, your children, your parents, the random bystanders around you, passersby on the street, your third cousin living on a mountain-top in Tibet - they're not known for being overly subtle," she finished, with a roll of her eyes.

Little Bob snorted a laugh and cocked an eyebrow. "So how d'you figure they knew where to wait for you?"

"It's a matter of public record that Rupert Giles and I worked for the British Museum concurrently, and the Cultural Sciences department at UC Sunnydale offered me a post a couple of months ago. All they had to do was come here, find out where Rupert lived, and wait for me to arrive in town; as soon as the newspapers reported my intervention at the art gallery...." She shrugged.

"I see." LaFollet closed her pad and pinched the bridge of her nose for a moment. She'd had less than an hours' sleep before Patterson's call had woken her, and she still wasn't tracking too well, but something about that answer sounded a little too pat.

Patterson shrugged and tucked away his own notebook; his hand re-emerged from his jacket holding the pistol they'd confiscated from McKellar the previous night. "While we've got you here, you might as well have this back."

"Thank you, Sergeant," the ex-professor smiled, accepting the weapon. "Though how I'll carry it for now is, if you'll pardon the pun, an open question."

"P-9 Gyurza - 'Viper'," he noted, with absent professionalism. "Double-action/single-action, dropping-block recoil mechanism, fires a proprietary 9x21mm armour-piercing round off an eighteen round magazine. I hear that puppy's been tested against two stacked Threat-III Kevlar vests, *with* strike plates, at fifty metres and gone clean through, front-back-front-back."

"Yes, I believe that's the case," McKellar nodded, manifestly not seeing where he was going with this.

"What do you need that much gun for? And if it'll punch through Kevlar so well, why did you shoot for the head last night?"

"I run into a lot of unsavoury characters in the course of my work, Sergeant. Do you know how many members of the underworld wear body-armour these days?" she pointed out. "The Russian government issues these to the Militsiya and Federal Security Service for dealing with Organizatsiya goons who wear Kevlar and drive armoured automobiles. I can never know who's wearing, so I'd rather be prepared. As for last night, I aimed high because I didn't want to hit any civilians."

"You do realise that California does not issue civilians licences to carry a concealed firearm, don't you? And that armour-piercing ammunition and magazines exceeding a capacity of ten rounds are also illegal outside of the hands of law-enforcement, security-agency, and military personnel?" At her arch look, he explained, "I'm not going to bust you for it - if I didn't last night, I'm damn-sure not gonna do it now - but some eager-beaver patrolman might not be so understanding."

"Security agency," she murmured, considering for a long moment.... "Very well. I'm probably going to get a world-class bollocking for this, but if I'm to make California my new base of operations...."

The detectives exchanged baffled looks as McKellar dug through her wallet for a moment, then came out with a laminated ID card and handed it to Patterson. "What's that?" LaFollet blinked.

"Identification provided by my nominal employers at Sturmfalke Sicherheitskräfte."

Another exchange of looks, this time amazed. Sturmfalke Sicherhietskräfte - Stormhawk Security Forces - was a relatively new player on the security market, only about eight or nine years old, but well-financed and -organised enough that it was already providing bodyguard, large-scale corporate security, and (if persistent rumours were to be believed) mercenary contingents to anyone - anyone - who had the ready cash. Rumours also implied that unofficially-official Stormhawk policy was 'shoot first and question the corpse'.

"They rate me as 'executive personal protection', which is a fancy way of saying 'bodyguard' if ever I heard one, but in actual fact, my employment by Stormhawk is a blind for my 'real' employers. MI6."

"As in the British CIA and James friggin' Bond?" Patterson blurted.

"You're letting Hollywood do your thinking for you, Detective," McKellar smiled. "James Bond is more a product of a fever-dream than of the true intelligence profession. MI6 sometimes contracts me for analytical purposes, and in my travels I often hear or see things that Her Majesty's government finds useful... and valuable."

"You're a paid snitch, you mean," LaFollet half-sneered, fatigue overriding her internal censors. "They give you money, you give them information. Sounds a little too much like being a whore for my tastes." And what the living hell is a British spook doing in small-town California?

Unless... unless she knew something about Khokhriakov and his buddies that she didn't want to share with the FBI or us local yokels.

"Mercenary, in any case." McKellar's smile and tone held a calm, distinctly icy viciousness. "Yes, I'm paid for my services, Detective. As you are. And as for any question of negotiable affection, you're far closer to the normal age-bracket than I am."

LaFollet sucked in a breath, her lips curling back from her teeth, but Patterson stepped in before she could say anything. "You asked for that one, Jan. Besides, she's right. Cops are paid to provide a service, just like hookers; the only difference is the nature of the service."

"And you'd know about hookers, wouldn't you?" she snapped.

"Listening to squad-room gossip again?" Patterson said sourly. "In any case, Mrs McKellar, until we hear back from Stormhawk about you, it might be best if you used a ban-compliant weapon to avoid future entanglements. Some people" (he carefully didn't look at LaFollet) "get a little uptight about things like that."

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

"How long it takes your Giles to recover is a function of his general health and outlook," Shooter stated, tipping her head at her husband. "Look at misery-guts, here. When he was burned, he was up and around in a little over three weeks."

"That was under... unusual circumstances, cariad," Nemo pointed out, smiling at some private joke. "Not the least of which was the overriding desire to get home to you."

"And our shared bed," she purred wickedly - then perked up. "Now *there's* an idea! Promise your friend a weekend at the Moonlite Bunnyranch when he's better. He should be up and around in no time."

Xander blushed a little.

"The *what*?" Buffy blinked. "What the heck is a 'Moonlite Bunnyranch'?"

"It's, uh... (*kof*) it'sabrothelinNevada," Xander mumbled into his fist.

"It's a what?" the Slayer blinked again, turning her gaze on her friend. I *know* I didn't hear that right.

"It's a brothel in Nevada," he repeated more distinctly, blushing brighter.

"Why am I not surprised you know this?"

He gave her a *look*. "Some of the guys I played cards with talked about it. Apparently most of the women who work there are glamour models or A-list porn stars."

"Prices start from about a thousand dollars an hour, but no-one's ever complained about not getting his - or, occasionally, *her* - money's worth," Shooter grinned wickedly. "Which just goes to show, you should go to a professional when you have a problem that needs seeing to... even if the problem is just needing a good seeing-to."

Despite her previous experiences with Shooter's frankness, Willow's eyes were very wide, and she was blushing from hairline to collar. Nemo buried his face in his free hand and laughed helplessly. "*Jesus*, cariad...."

"And *you* know about this place... *how*?" Buffy asked.

Nemo glanced at his wife, who nodded. "We ended up paying them an unexpected visit a few weeks ago. We're involved in the acceptance trials for a new photo-reconnaissance drone; the Corps was flight-testing it out of Fallon when it force-landed at the Bunnyranch. It seems the jarheads had been using the place as a navigational reference," he finished blandly.

Xander quashed a smirk.

"It's interesting, the people you see and how," Shooter added thoughtfully. "The... staff offered us the hospitality of their bar when we were done picking up pieces of UAV, and while we were in there I could've sworn I saw Gavin Rossdale marking time with Teri Weigel."

Buffy shuddered at *that* image. Ack. There goes *that* Anywhere-But-Here! "Okay, back up a minute. Are you *seriously* suggesting that we send Giles off to a -?" She couldn't finish her sentence.

"Old does not mean incapable; hell, some of the worst skirt-chasers I know are in their fifties or older. It might even improve his disposition towards you, since Oz gives me to understand he's a little too staid for his own good."

"My wife, mistress of the 'blunt instrument' school of diplomacy," Nemo drawled.

"No way. Uh-uh, *for*-*get* *it*!" Buffy declared categorically. "The last time Giles got unwrapped like that, he seduced my *mother*!"

"Just goes to prove my point. Besides, if you send him off somewhere else to get his ashes hauled, your mother's virtue is safe!"

Nemo groaned and clapped his hand over his wife's mouth. "Better?" he asked the assembly, a little desperately.

"Uh-huh," Oz nodded.

"It's not that she's *crazy*, really," he half-apologised. "She just gets a charge out of being outrageous." Then he yelped and snatched his hand away, glaring at the woman in question. "Will you stop licking my palm!?"

She gave him a smouldering look and murmured something in Russian that probably didn't bear translation in polite company.

"See what I mean?" he said ruefully, blushing afresh.

"Are they *always* like this?" Buffy asked of Willow, a little dazedly.

"Nah. Sometimes we act *crazy*," Shooter grinned.

Oz's mouth quirked. "You get used to it."

"Which is a scary thought in itself," Nemo noted blandly.

Giggling helplessly, Willow lowered her head and started massaging her eyebrows with her fingertips, trying to soothe a faint but developing headache. The pair's whirlwind antics often had that effect on her. I don't think the world's ready for *three* Xanders, she decided, a little faintly.

Doctor Hamshari came in just then and glanced about, manifestly wondering what he'd missed... and how good it had been. "Uh...."

"It's okay, Doc, we're just making ribald suggestions," Shooter tossed his way.

"I, uh... see." He shook himself, re-cloaking himself in medical dignity.

Before he could gather himself completely, Nemo looked over at him, completely serious just that fast, and asked him something. What prompted amazed stares from the assembled Scoobies was the fact the way he asked: in perfect Arabic. All they could understand of what was said was Giles' name.

Hamshari blinked and missed half a beat in an astonished gape before responding in the same language, albeit at rather more length than the eye-patched man. Apparently satisfied by what he heard, Nemo nodded and subsided back beside his wife, motioning for the doctor to carry on.

He wavered for a moment, not knowing who to address, before turning his attention to Xander. "As your friend has just asked me, while I'm not directly involved in his treatment, it's my understanding that your friend Mister Giles is out of immediate danger. Might I ask where you learned the language, sir?" he asked as an aside.

"Mate of mine." Nemo's dialect and dismissive delivery almost made it sound like motor-mind. "He spent a lot of time in Saudi and Oman. Heck, it's what I'm doing in this city."

"You teach languages?"

"Out at Quick." He jerked his head towards the window and the base. "At least, that's what I do between my trips to the photo-interpretation shop. I've got to do *something* while gorgeous here" (he squeezed Shooter's shoulders) "has her head buried in an engine-cowling. I'm starting to think the contractors sold the Corps a lemon."

"Oi! No bad-mouthing the people paying our expenses," Shooter rebuked him sharply, nudging him in the ribs with an elbow - and none too gently, at that. "And you say *I've* got a big mouth."

He grunted in half-feigned pain, recovered his breath, and deadpanned something in Russian that made Shooter chuckle - and blush bright pink.

"Hey, can you knock it off with the multi-lingual innuendo?" Xander wailed plaintively. "Some of us get into enough trouble in *one* tongue. *Don't* say it!" he added, aiming two fingers at a grinning Nemo.

The freckled foreigner raised his free hand placatingly and let the opening pass.

"It's like being on 'Whose Line Is It Anyway?'," Oz observed.

"Or 'Jerry Springer'," Buffy countered.

Nemo grinned crookedly. "Or crack."

"All of the above?" Xander suggested mildly.

Willow pressed the heel of one hand to her aching ribs, tears in her eyes. She hadn't laughed this hard since the time in fifth grade when Jesse brought a horned toad back from Texas and dropped it down Harmony's collar.

For his part, Hamshari was admirably poker-faced. "Actually, I came in to give you some good news, Mister Osbourne. All your scans have come through clean, you're free to leave whenever you choose. We'll leave your ribs taped for the next week or so, then re-evaluate your condition when you come in for a check-up next Tuesday. I'd also advise you to get lots of bed-rest to recover from the surgery. There are prescriptions for antibiotics and painkillers waiting for you at the pharmacy."

"Thanks." Oz immediately shifted his legs towards the edge of the bed. "My clothes around here?"

Hamshari nodded towards the small table/cupboard that stood beside the bed. "In there, but I'm afraid your shirt and sweater were ruined when we took them off you. I'd better get on with my rounds."

Even as the doctor passed out the door, Willow hefted the gym-bag Buffy had carried for her. "Clothes. A full set, even."

"Thanks, Will." Oz levered himself upright, with obvious effort and discomfort, and swung his legs off the edge of the bed, ready to stand.

"Hey-hey-hey-hey-hey," Nemo chided, making a 'go easy' motion. "I've spent too much time at the panel-beaters myself to blame you for wanting to get out of here ASAP, but the man *did* say 'take it easy'. As much as I distrust the public health system, I don't think he'd cut *that* sort of corner. It's not like a dead man can pay his bills."

In any other town, you'd probably be right, Willow smiled to herself.

Xander plucked the bag from Willow's grasp. "Jeez, Will, what did you pack in here, the Encyclopaedia Britannica?" Before she could protest, he opened the bag up and started digging things out, tossing them onto the bed for Oz. "Underwear. Pants. Shirt. Socks. Shoes. College package. Yearbook."

Oz froze.

Propelled by a slightly too-enthusiastic toss, the maroon-bound tome half-skidded across the bedspread and tumbled off the edge at Shooter's feet. "Nice shot," she drawled, kneeling to retrieve it. "Wait a minute...." Straightening again, she snapped the book closed in one hand and plucked out a folded piece of paper that protruded from the pages, apparently loosened by the fall. "What the devil is this?" she wondered aloud, opening it one-handed.

Oz's expression was stricken; he seemed to want to speak, but he couldn't get the sounds out.

A moment later, all the humour had vanished from Shooter's manner, and her eyes turned on the battered guitarist, as narrow and dark as a bunker's firing-slits. "Oz, you *pedik*!" she snarled, her voice impossibly ugly.

"Huh?" Buffy wondered. All the joviality had left the atmosphere just that fast.

Nemo took the paper from his wife's hand and read quickly; within a couple of seconds, his mouth thinned down to a furious white line. Ignoring the ashen-faced Oz and his attempts to intercept him, Nemo stepped around the end of the bed and handed the paper to Buffy without a word.

Baffled by the sudden shift in their mood, she accepted the proffered document. "It's just a class-confirmation form -" she shrugged - then took in the letterhead and turned stupefied eyes on Oz. "What the hell is *this*?"

"He's turned *deserter*, by the looks of it," Shooter growled.

"*What*?" Xander and Willow chorussed. They'd grown up in a Marine town, so they knew exactly how vile an epithet 'deserter' was. Xander knew that 'Shooter' knew it, too, and had used it deliberately.

Buffy passed the form to Willow sidelong, all the while glaring at Oz, who avoided her gaze as best he could. "That's funny, Oz: you never said anything about going to Seattle before."

"Seattle?" Xander asked blankly, reading over Willow's shoulder.

Baffled, afraid, hoping all this was a horrible mistake, Willow read quickly. No mistake. Under the letterhead of the University of Washington was the usual verbiage confirming that Daniel J. Osbourne had been enrolled and entered in classes about this, that, and the other. Nothing after the first paragraph really registered.

Willow looked up to her boyfriend's face, hoping to see him denying any knowledge of this. All she saw was guilt.

"You want to explain?" Nemo suggested, his tone like a sword-blade on a frosty winter's morning.

"What possible explanation -!" Rage clogged Shooter's vocal cords, rendering her speechless for the first time since Willow had known her, but her expression spoke to murder. She started towards Oz, but the back of Nemo's hand pressed against her midriff, stopping her before she could even shift her weight properly.

That's weird; I can't feel anything. Even my limbs aren't working right, Willow thought distantly. Some foreign, lucid part of her added, Well, that explains why he's felt so weird lately.

Behind the redhead, Xander was looking at the werewolf with diamond-hard eyes and fists clenched so tight his arms shook. No-one in the room knew what it cost him to speak calmly. "Let's hear your side of this, Oz."

"You're taking *his* part?" Nemo demanded incredulously.

"I want to hear all the sides before I draw any conclusions. I learned *that* lesson the hard way," Xander bit out. "Now butt out, this doesn't concern you."

"The fuck it doesn't!" Shooter snapped, her accent as thick as the Yellow Pages. "Willow's our friend -"

"I said *zip it*!" It was that same Command Voice he'd used on Willow, and Shooter went silent, with an astonished blink. "In fact, would the two of you excuse us for a few minutes? Go get some coffee or something, you're new to this situation and we don't have the time to subtitle everything for you."

"Who the hell do you think -" Shooter began.

Nemo nudged her into silence. "That might not be a bad idea, at that. We'll be back in a few minutes. Xander, Buffy, it's nice to meet you; Willow...." He shot her an encouraging wink. He quite pointedly did not acknowledge Oz's existence. Shooter dug in her heels, levelling a burningly-cold look at Oz for a few seconds, but her husband hissed a few words in her ear - in Russian, naturally - and she eventually allowed him to usher her out, figurative smoke streaming from her ears.

As she reached the doorway, she looked back over her shoulder and speared Oz with a look. "Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens!" she spat, before Nemo dragged her around the corner.

She argues historical world economics and quotes J R R Tolkien as a go-home line, Xander smiled inwardly. Interesting mix... if she were only a grease-monkey.

"Even-tempered, isn't she?" Buffy bit out, then turned lethal eyes on Oz. "*Well*?"

The guitarist had struggled out of his hospital gown (with a couple of pained gasps), revealing the sterile bandage taped to his ribcage and a hand-sized black/purple bruise across his midriff, a souvenir from Russkie's boot. "These," he said simply, waving at the bruises as he reached for the khakis Willow had brought.

"You might want to expand on that, Oz. In case you hadn't noticed, I'm the only person even sitting on the fence around here." Xander jerked his head the way Nemo and Shooter had departed. "Those two are probably starting to simmer a cauldron of oil right about now, so do yourself a favour and talk. *Fast*."

Oz sighed, pulled on his shirt, and took a moment to order his thoughts. When he spoke, it was not with the hysteria of the desperate, but with the calm of a man who'd made a rational, reasoned decision. "Since I started Scooby-ing, I've run the nightly risk of injury, death, or worse. I've been ducking vampires and demons for more than a year now, and what has it got me? I spend three nights a month locked in a cage so I don't eat somebody. I've lost all my other friends. The Dingoes think I'm a flake. My parents saw some slaying stuff in my room and they're talking about sending me to a shrink. I'm out of high school, I've got the right to choose where I'm gonna spend the rest of my life, and I'm *not* gonna spend it getting the living hell kicked out of me by ninety-nine different shades of demon and not even getting a 'thank you' for it! I served my hitch on the Hellmouth, I've saved the world - and now I want to get on with a *real* life! I never asked for this!"

"Neither did I, but here I am. If you didn't want to help, why'd you sign up?" Buffy clipped.

"I got dragged in, remember? If I'd said 'I want out', you'd've all thought I was a coward."

"So you try to sneak off and 'Dear Jane' Willow from two states away instead. Oh, yeah, that's the mark of a *real* stand-up kinda guy!" Xander snapped. "You could've *told* us you'd had enough, and we'd've -"

"Like *you* told us what really happened that night in the factory?" Oz countered mercilessly.

Willow went ashen. Xander paled, though for a different reason. "That's an entirely separate issue," he growled.

"You're the one holding forth on how honest people should be!"

"What the hell is he talking about?" Buffy asked, feeling distinctly left behind. No-one heard her.

"If you want to blame anyone for that, Oz, turn it this way." Xander's jaw was set.

"Very noble, Xander, but last time I checked, it took two to fuck."

Buffy let out a shocked gasp and started to stand, her eyes aflame at his hateful tone. "Hey!"

Xander's hand caught her shoulder, stopping her movement less by main strength than by sheer projection of his will. "There are distinct differences between the two situations, and don't *EVER* say that about Willow again."

"I'll say whatever the hell I please." Oz's teeth were bared.

For all the (considerable) self-control he'd developed in his time away, Xander was about a microsecond away from putting Oz back in the emergency room himself.

Despite her confusion and outrage, Buffy still summoned her best we're-all-friends-here manner. "Uh, guys, I don't know exactly what the hell you're talking about here, but can we all take it easy? Oz, maybe this can wait until you're feeling better."

"You wanted to know what's going on," he countered. "Ask these two. Go ahead and ask - right now. A few more hours aren't going to change the truth."

Oh, God.... He's not going to let this go. Not that I blame him, but I wish there was another way out of this.... Willow cleared her throat somehow, dreading what she'd have to say next. "Wh-when... just after Homecoming, when Spike kidnapped Xander and I and locked us in the factory... we couldn't get out, nobody was going to rescue us, we were certain we were going to die -"

"- And, being me, I didn't want to die a virgin, so I seduced Willow," Xander declared evenly.

Buffy blinked. "You -"

"Something tells me she didn't try too hard to change your mind," Oz sneered.

Xander didn't let himself react to that visibly. "Spike was damned-sure going to kill us sooner or later, there was no way we could know you were about to rescue us... I was lying on a bed with a wonderful, gorgeous woman, and consequences were a moot issue. I thought."

"And you didn't tell us because -?" Buffy trailed off.

"Cordy was never going to take me back, but I didn't want to rub salt into the wound. Oz and Willow had a better chance of staying together, and as it was you saw how hard a road that was; this would've been the last straw. And as big a bastard as I may be, I wanted her to be happy. Oz makes her happy - or did," he added. "Which brings us back to the actual point of the discussion. Why take off in the middle of the night, man? Shame? Or have you just lost your guts?"

"Okay, that's it," Buffy said, before Oz could deliver a truly vicious riposte. "Xander, why don't you take five, huh? Before your newfound macho impulses get us all into a train-wreck? Go and check on Giles."

His first instinct was to stand his ground and keep snarling at the smaller youth, but after a long, deep breath.... "Yeah, that's probably a good idea. 'Cause I'm not really helping here, am I?"

"What's new?" Oz sneered.

"*Hey*!" Buffy snapped. "*You* can back off for a minute too, y'know!"

"You and I *are* gonna talk later, Oz." Xander patted Willow's shoulder gently and levelled a piercing look at the werewolf before he started for the door. "And you will *not* like what I have to say."

Oz gave Xander's departing back a dismissive snort.

"He's got a point, Oz," Buffy said, trying to stay calm. "Why do things this way? You could've talked to us."

His look was steady. "And admit I'd lost my nerve less than a month before the Ascenscion. *Lots* of sympathy potential there."

"You could've trusted us." Willow was still having trouble with her voice. "You could've trusted *me*."

"No, I couldn't." It was cold, and distinctly bitter. "I trusted you with my heart, Willow, and you abused that trust. How the hell was I supposed to trust you with my life or soul?"

Those words were a dagger in her heart.

Oz sighed, shrugging helplessly. "Willow, I *do* love you... but it's not enough. If you don't love me enough to tell the truth about something that major.... I've lived a lie for a year and a half, and I can't - I *won't* - do it any more. I'm sorry."

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

Xander was leaning against the wall when Buffy half-carried Willow, shattered, stumbling and weeping, out into the corridor; he'd manifestly gone no further and, by the flat look in his eyes, heard every word of what was said inside. Willow was too lost in her pain to even look up, much less see through the tears, and his voice was deliberately pitched too low for any but a Slayer to hear.

"Loyal breed, huh?"

Part Seven

12:41, TUESDAY AUGUST 24, LIMA (20:41/24-08-99 ZULU)

Xander shut the Suburban's engine off and glanced over at his two friends, unlocking his jaw for the first time since they'd left Oz's hospital room. "We're here. Will, can you walk?" His voice was husky.

"I... I think so," she sniffled.

He nodded. That's what I thought. Sighing, he got out of the four-wheel-drive and went around to the passenger door. Opening it to let Buffy step down, he helped Willow out and quickly caught her by the waist when her knees wavered. "C'mon. Buff, is your guest room still free?"

"If it's not, it will be," she promised.

Joyce had heard them pull up, and now flung the front door open, alarm writ deep upon her face as she took in Willow's condition. "Honey, what happened?" she asked her daughter.

"Nothing demon-y," Buffy said with a shake of her head, motioning for the elder Summers to clear the way to let Xander help Willow inside. As the duo headed for the stairs, the Slayer sighed, took her mother into the kitchen, and started telling the whole sad story.

Upstairs, Xander gently eased his friend down onto the guest room's bed, then sat down beside her. "Better, Will?"

"A... a little," she nodded. She was a wreck: she'd cried away most of her energy, and her face reflected that.

"You gonna be okay if I leave you here with Buffy and Joyce for a while?" he asked gently.

"I guess. Why? Where are you going?"

"Off to squeeze Willy. I've done enough damage here for one day."

He was almost to the door when her voice came after him, tiny but clear. "Xander...."

He stopped in his tracks, then slowly turned to face her again. "Yeah, Will?"

"Thanks. For what you tried to do back there."

"I figured it'd be easier for him to forgive you if I was the villain," he shrugged. "It was worth a shot."

She paused for a moment, visibly debating whether to ask her next question. "If... if you could take back what happened that night... would you?"

"If it meant you'd be happy, yes. Otherwise, not a chance in hell."

She blinked, not expecting the unhesitating answer... or its adamantine certainty. "But...."

Man, I'm really pushing my luck now.... crossed his mind as he went back to where she sat, crouched down in front of her, and cupped her cheek in one hand, brushing a tear back from her eye with a callused thumb. "Look, Willow.... Do I regret the ways that night has hurt other people? Of course... but I could *never* regret that it was you and me that first time. Never. Some things are... some things are just *right*, in here." He tapped his heart.

"Oh...." Willow's tear-reddened eyes were very, very wide.

Swallowing the lump in his throat, he leaned up and pressed a kiss to her forehead. "Try and rest a little, okay? I'll be back soon."

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

In a reversal of roles that proved the universe's sense of humour to Xander once again, Buffy was leaning against the corridor wall when he emerged, with a slightly bemused look on her face.

He raised a hand to forestall any comment. "Before you say anything, Buff: I'm sorry. That 'loyal breed' thing was out of line."

"A-apology accepted," she nodded, still a little out of it.

"And whatever you heard or think you heard, it stays right here, understand?"

The Slayer blinked at that order (for order it was), but did not demur. "So now what?"

"Stay with her, okay? I'm gonna go 'talk' to Willy, maybe work out some of my frustrations," he shrugged, with a smile that was a hollow ghost of its normal self.

"Maybe I should do that -"

"If I stay with her at a time like this, this whole thing would get a hell of a lot messier before it's over. She's looking for someone to cling to right now, Buff, and with all the stuff I've got to deal with right now, I would *not* be a good choice. I'm *not* going to add to the damage that way. I'll see you in a couple of hours, 'kay?"

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

13:17, AUGUST 24, LIMA (21:17/24-08-99, ZULU)

Calling Willy Stanton a weasel might have been a slur on the good name of all weasels, but no-one could ever call him outright stupid. He'd heard and read about the shootout the previous night; now he saw the Harris kid coming through the bead-curtain in the doorway, dressed like a SWAT-man (Xander had changed back into the quasi-uniform he'd worn at the gallery) and visibly not happy. The times, they were a'changin', and Willy had absolutely no intention of being the second man to die at this young man's hand in twenty-four hours. He was going to be a good little boy and hope he came out of this with most of his skin. "Wh-what can I get'cha, son?"

"I'm not your son, Willy." Xander smiled like a shark scenting blood as he laid both hands flat on the bar. "And I'm really not in the mood for small talk."

"Yeah, I, uh, heard you had some trouble over at the Watcher's place."

"Yeah, we did - hence the no-small-talk mood. What do you know about the kid in the park?"

"Nuttin'," the bartender shrugged, glancing about at his patrons nervously. He *really* didn't like the feel of this -

Xander's left hand lashed up, seized Willy by the hair, and brought his face down on the counter, *hard*. There was a wicked *crunch* as the man's nose broke, and Willy squawked. Dragging Willy's head up again, Xander brought up the right hand that had retrieved his Recon-One from his front pocket and laid the razor-edge of the four-inch blade against the man's throat just under his right jaw. "You're not my type, Willy - so don't try to fuck with me," he smiled nastily, shifting the blade just enough to start a trickle of blood. "Take two: the kid in the park."

"I tell ya, I don't know!" the man gabbled. "Everybody's askin' the question - nobody knows the answer. Whatever did that ain't come here, and it ain't gonna, neither."

"Now, *why* don't I believe you?" the Slayerette asked. One of the vampires at the back of the room shifted in his seat, and Xander transfixed him with a look. "You move again, mate, and I measure you for a thimble!"

"You think I'd serve something that did a thing like that?" Willy protested, oozing genuine outrage even as the blood ran down his face. "I ain't no saint, kid, but even *I* got scruples. The vampires that come in here? The blood they drink here is blood they ain't sucking outta somebody's neck in an alley. This is neutral turf: they come in here to shoot the breeze, tell a couple'a Slayer stories, have some drinks, not conquer the world or murder kids."

"So where *would* that sort of crowd go?" Xander asked, deceptively idly.

"Place called Umbra, Garrison Street. Used ta be a biker bar, but it got too rough for most of 'em. It's the Wild West in dere, makes the Mos Eisley Cantina look like a kindergarden."

"Really? I know a couple of people who'd just love it," he smiled. "When do they open?"

"'Bout nine."

"Thanks, Willy. I appreciate your candor." Xander released the terrified barman, took a napkin from a pile on the bar, and wiped his knife clean before folding it away again. After handing Willy a couple more for his nose, he produced his wallet, counted out four fifties, and laid them on the counter. "Sorry about your face, but I've been having a bad day."

Willie moderated his angry glare - he *really* didn't want an encore performance. "Don't worry about it." Hesitating, he swept up two of the bills and let the other two lie. At Xander's quirked eyebrow, he shrugged, "I got a niece dat kid's age. Like I said, even I got scruples. And one more thing: if you wanna walk inta Umbra and walk out breathing - walk soft, and carry an Uzi."

"Willy, the way I'm feeling, *they're* gonna need the Uzi. But if you're certain, I think I can make arrangements." Xander smiled... in a fashion.

Willy put his free hand to the seeping cut over his jugular, then he too smiled... in a fashion.

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

17:23, AUGUST 24, LIMA (01:23/25-08-99 ZULU)

"Mrs McKellar, this is a *very* bad idea," Felicity Chu repeated, trying to bar the older woman's way.

McKellar spared the girl a cold look. Someone had brought some things from her hotel room, and she'd replaced her ruined skirt and jacket with a black trouser-suit that concealed the bandages wrapping her thigh (as well as her Gyurzas, one in her shoulder-holster, the other tucked into the back of her waistband), but she couldn't put much weight on her wounded leg and had to lean on a crutch to get around. That was incredibly draining, and with that on top of the day she'd had, she was in no mood to be lectured by some girl half her age who thought a piece of paper hung on her wall gave her the right to bully her elders. "With all respect for your qualifications, nurse, I don't like hospitals. I've had a number of bad experiences with the public health-care system, and I don't care to remain in its hands one moment longer than I have to. My leg is entirely stitched up, I'll be riding in a cab rather than driving, and the first thing I'll do when I get back to my hotel room will be sleep for about fifteen hours, so either give me a prescription for painkillers or just get out of my way."

"Mrs McKellar, procedure obliges us to keep you overnight for observation," Chu pointed out, with a calm she didn't feel. Jesus, and I thought doctors were arrogant!

"Be damned to your procedure," the Welshwoman snapped. "I'll not stay here to be examined like a lab-rat over a simple flesh-wound. Now give me the paperwork to sign so I can get *out* of this place."

"If we release you now, we're opening ourselves to liability claims from your family." Doctor Franklin Galloway, a somewhat rotund African-American man, had the rounds that afternoon, and he *really* didn't need a malpractice suit on top of the other troubles this town had given him.

"My family are all dead, doctor," Cerian responded, with thinning patience. "If you'd like, I'll sign a waiver. But I will *not* stay here."

Despite the wide social and authoritative gulf between nurses and doctors, Chu and Galloway shared a glance of complete empathy over this... *woman's* obstinacy. After a long moment, Galloway let out a breath and nodded to the nurse. "Have an orderly bring up the necessary forms, Felicity." And the sooner we get shot of this woman, the better, he didn't have to add.

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

20:27, AUGUST 24, LIMA (04:27/25-08-99 ZULU)

Vampires were usually very thin on the ground in Sunnydale during summer. It was a natural consequence of their own dislikes and feeding habits: the longer days didn't really agree with their sleeping habits, and the pickings were leaner as people went away on vacation. Few people in their right mind came *to* a town like Sunnydale for a holiday.

Thankfully, those vampires who were dumb enough to stay in Sunnydale over summer were also dumb enough to roam the streets when the Slayer was in one of the foulest tempers in recorded history. When one considered that she'd been venting all her Angel-angst on them since graduation, that was saying something.

This particular vampire had suffered what self-defence gurus shed crocodile tears over as one of the cardinal lapses of the urban predator: 'catastrophic failure of the victim-selection process'. Spencer Burke had taken the petite, harmless-looking blonde girl at face value. He could, perhaps, be forgiven the error: he hadn't bothered with newspapers since FDR died, so he hadn't seen the girl's picture attached to the tale of the art-gallery skirmish, and the rumours on the street about the Slayer were vague, contradictory, and generally useless.

None of which helped him right now.

Even as the demon staggered away from her first blow, Buffy seized him by collar and cuff, pivoted, and heaved, sending Burke half-flying into the side of a crypt - forehead-first. His face left a dent in the concrete. Even vampire resilience couldn't withstand *that* sort of blow, and he was a long moment sorting things out. A moment he didn't have.

Buffy swarmed after her victim. I am *so* glad you showed up, buddy. I can't kick the hell out of Angel, or Oz, or whoever it is out there with the guns, but for *you*, it's Slay-time. Willow, completely drained as she was, had fallen asleep not ten minutes after Xander left, and Buffy had left her mother to watch the heartbroken hacker while she went out and exorcised her need to *hurt* things. Forgoing her normal lots-of-kicks style for a while, she simply grabbed Burke by the shoulder and hammered a right hook into his kidneys. Something cracked, and the vampire's back arched in agonised, involuntary spasm.

Working with your hands is just so much more *gratifying*, the Slayer thought with fierce, dark enjoyment, yanking Burke around to face her. Even as he wavered, she grabbed him by both lapels and brought his face down swiftly, where it met her fast-rising right knee with another *crunch* of breaking bone. As he straightened again, she held him upright and drove her balled right fist straight into his face once, twice, thrice. Releasing him, she wound up and nailed him right on the cheekbone with the back of her open hand; she felt things give as she connected, and he went a good ten feet before he touched ground, tumbling over a headstone and sprawling on the grass in a particularly ungainly-looking heap.

"Y'know, I hear South Africa's good this time of year," she half-smirked, heading after her victim as he struggled to his feet. "Long nights, lotsa nobodies to snack on," (she drove the heel of her left hand into his sternum, cracking a number of ribs and knocking him flying backwards again) "and greenbacks go a *long* way."

Burke was back on his feet again a moment later, but even behind the game-face, he looked like he *wished* he'd gone on vacation. He saw Buffy coming for him again and started to back away, real fear on his features.

As he passed the corner of a crypt, Xander's dark-clad form emerged from behind it. Catching Burke by the near shoulder, he hooked his foot in front of the vampire's ankles and pushed on his shoulder, hard. Burke yelped and fell flat on the grass. Xander dropped his knee onto the small of the vampire's back, grabbed his hair, hauled his head back as far as it would go, and brought his right hand forward to drive a stake clean through his victim's spine, heart and sternum forehand. Its tip protruded a good half-inch beyond the front of Burke's shirt for the moment before the vampire vanished into dust.

"Yeah, but the streets in Jo'burg are a killer, Buff," the dark-haired youth pointed out. "Literally. You can buy an AK-47 and ammo for five bucks."

"Their NRA must love that," she drawled. "Nice work. What's up?"

"I've got a sniff about the kid, but I figured I might need some backup when I chased it up. Willy says the place we're going to gets kinda... lively."

"Nice idea, but maybe we should check on Willow before -"

He cut her off with a head-shake. "I stopped by your place on my way here. She's still asleep, thank the stars, and your mom's not going anywhere."

Buffy raised an eyebrow at his forethought, but said nothing, instead waving an 'after you'.

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

21:12, AUGUST 24, LIMA (05:12/25-05-99 ZULU)

Jeez. Willy wasn't kidding! Xander realised dazedly.

Though Umbra had opened its doors barely ten minutes ago, it was already a third full, and neither teen thought they'd see a rougher, uglier, nastier collection of humans, vampires, demons and beasties this side of a maximum security prison. A massive, boar-faced Frag'chal acted as door-demon, its bristly arms bared by its leather jerkin, its beady eyes fixed on the two young humans suspiciously, one fore-trotter hooked through its belt not far from the grips of a scarred wooden club and a Desert Eagle .50AE that looked like a derringer against its owner's titanic frame. The overhead lights were far apart and dim, the air was already thick with smoke (tobacco and other kinds), and the floorboards were stained from ten years' worth of spilled food, drinks, and other substances probably better left unidentified. Just in front of the bar, a vampire and a snake-skinned Ventros demon suddenly surged to their feet, knocking over their card-table to go for each other's throats. Two Latino-looking biker-type humans with really evil-looking tattoos turned away from the bar and started cheering on the fighters, and other patrons quickly joined in.

"Oh, boy," Buffy said in a much-put-upon voice.

Xander sucked in a breath and shifted mental gears. If the two of them played nice-nice in this place, what these guys would leave of them wouldn't be worth the cost of mailing home. This was big-dog territory, and the only way they'd get anywhere - including out the door again - was if everyone thought they could bite. "Follow my lead, Buff," he murmured, then started projecting his best tough-guy persona. "Ten bucks on the copperhead," he quipped in a louder voice, watching the two creatures wrestle back and forth across the floor.

As though his words were a signal, all conversation died and every eye in the place turned their way. Even the fight stopped as the two combatants realised that they had two *normal-world humans* in their midst. After a moment, most eyes went to some pieces of paper tacked to the back wall, next to the payphone.

Buffy followed the looks and raised an eyebrow. Glaring back the demons in her path, who watched her passage with a mix of bloodlust and sullen resentment, she walked over to the payphone and leaned on its plastic surround as she read; Xander stood at her shoulder and, after taking in the posters at a glance, looked back out at the patrons, his gaze flat.

{WANTED - SLAYERS} read the header on the larger of the homemade posters. Underneath were sketches of both Buffy and Faith, the latter rougher and less detailed. Each was captioned with the girl's name and { REWARD: $75,000 ($250,000 alive) }.

A second poster was headed, {WANTED - SCOOBY GANG}. Below was a five-panel rogue's gallery.
{WITCH - WILLOW ROSENBERG. REWARD: $45,000 ($150,000 alive)}
{WEREWOLF - 'OZ'. REWARD: $40,000 ($120,000 alive)}

Two of the pictures - Cordelia's and Xander's - had been circled in green marker that looked a few weeks old. Giles' picture had been crossed out in red ink that had been there only a few hours.

"This explains the gunfire," Buffy observed.

"Maybe," Xander shrugged, eyeing the crowd. Several of them were obviously getting ready for trouble. The Ventros, for one, was eyeing the pair with a gleam in his dead black eyes and cracking the knuckles of his seven-fingered hands, the coloured patterns of his scales shifting with his mood. Ah, what the hell. He raised his voice again. "But those posters beg a couple of questions. Who's paying, and..." (he looked the Ventros square in the eye) "... who's gonna collect?"

Baring its fangs, the Ventros started forward, letting out a rattlesnake-like buzz as it came.

"You want him, Xander?" Buffy wondered.

"All yours," he said, waving 'after you'.

It wasn't really a fight. The Ventros launched a hooking left at Buffy's head; she ducked it, caught his wrist, drove her fist into his short ribs. Twisting the arm up and pivoting under it, she swept the snake-demon off his feet in a beautiful throw that dropped him through a table. A solid kick in the snout kept him from getting up too fast, and she planted her foot on his throat to keep him down.

"And thank you for playing 'How Dumb Can I Be?'" Xander chirped over the din, again doing his game-show host routine - though with a steely undertone. "Will our next contestant please step up?"

"Okay, y'all made your point, Slay-kiddies," the (human) bartender declared from beside the cash register, his hands hidden by the counter. "Now git out."

"We came to ask some questions," Buffy declared, prudently leaning down and removing a .45 from the Ventros' waistband before he got any ideas.

"You ain't askin' anybody anything, sweet-cheeks," the redneck sneered - and his hands came back into sight, holding a pump-action shotgun. He racked the slide and levelled the twelve-gauge at the two teenagers, a little below shoulder height. At his post by the door, the Frag'chal hauled out the Desert Eagle and thumbed off the safety. "Now git the fuck outta here, afore Ah git ideas about collectin' those tabs."

As if echoing the sentiment, the majority of the patrons turned their way and cleared for action. One of the Latino bikers brought his own sawn-off pump-action twelve-gauge from under his duster; his companion swung a pair of nickel-plated .44 Magnums to bear. The vampire two stools down slipped a hand-axe from his belt. Another in the booth by Xander's elbow produced a huge Bowie knife from somewhere.

Oh boy, Xander gulped. Individually, he could take any of these guys, weapons or no, and Buffy was one of the ass-kicking-est people he knew, but outnumbered twenty-to-two and them all armed to the teeth (and back)? "Uh, Buff... I think that's our cue."

Taking in the visible hardware, she nodded a little. "Yeah, I guess. But we'll be back."

"Ah don't reckon so," the bartender snorted, jerking his chin at a panel by the door. It bore a pool-style blackboard with two columns; the first column held seven tally marks, the second more than thirty. "Them's is all the bounty hunters as tried to take mah customers. Most of 'em limped out. They had to drag a few. Either of y' comes back ever agin, y'all go on the board."

"Wanna bet?" Xander snorted, joining Buffy and accepting the .45 she offered him. MEU(SOC) version of the Colt M-1911A1. Looks like I'm not the only one who's been shopping at the 29th's armoury. Baring his teeth, he leaned down, knocked the Ventros out with a belt of his left fist, then took both spare magazines from its inside pocket. "Thanks, pal."

"Bet?" the redneck sniggered. "Oh, hell yeah. I'll bet that twenty grand that you're worth."

"So if I come in here again and walk out under my own power, you'll throw me a bag holding twenty kay when I get onto the street?" Xander smirked, as he and Buffy backed towards the door. All the glares and weapon-muzzles tracked them as they went. "Free money's always cool."

Once they were out the door and safely around the corner, Xander stuffed the .45 into his belt and cradled his left hand in his right. "OW! Sonofa - You'd think I'd learn, right? Using your fist on somebody's head is a good way to break your own knuckles! *Damn*, that hurts!"

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

DATE/TIME: 0858Z (08:58:31/25-08-99, GMT - 00:58:31/25-08-99, PDT)

[Transcriber's notes, based on prior traffic and intel on S.P.D. codes and deployments:
VDG is radio brevity code for S.P.D. Dispatch.
2LS9 is supervisor unit, Sgt. Jack Fenton.
2A7 is two-person patrol car, Cpl. George Wyszynski and Off.(P) Rachel Greyfeather (2A7W).
2L13 is single-officer patrol car, Off. Denise Jordan.]

2LS9: "VDG, this is Two Lincoln Sam Niner, 925 [suspicious individual] corner Daly Place and Masters Avenue, show me Code 6 [leaving vehicle to investigate]."

VDG: "Two Lincoln Sam Niner, copy you Code 6 Daly and Masters."

2A7: "VDG, Two Adam Seven, show us en route to assist Two Lincoln Sam Niner."

2LS9: "Two Lincoln Sam Niner copies. Appreciate the thought."

2A7: "Just remember that the next time we go drinking, Two Lincoln Sam Niner."

2LS9: "*I* can't afford to drink on what I make, much less pay for you too!"

2A7: "You always were a cheapskate, Two Lincoln Sam Niner!"

2LS9: "Huh - says you. 10-23 [stand by], Two Lincoln Sam Niner is Code 6."

[Next 2LS9 transmission: 09:01:06 Zulu.]
2LS9: [excited, over gunshots] "Shots fired, shots fired! Two Lincoln Sam Niner is under -" [transmission ends abruptly]

VDG: "All units, all units, officer-involved shooting corner Daly and Masters, repeat 998 Daly and Masters, Two Adam Seven respond Code 3 [emergency]. Two Lincoln Sam Niner, come in."

2A7: [excited] "Two Adam Seven, responding to 998, Code 3."

2L13: "Two Lincoln Thirteen, responding to 998, Code 3."

VDG: "Roger, Two Adam Seven, Two Lincoln Thirteen. Two Lincoln Sam Niner, come in."

VDG: "VDG to Two Lincoln Sam Niner, come in."

VDG: "Two Lincoln Sam Niner, Code 1 [acknowledge]!"

VDG: "All units, negative contact with Two Lincoln Sam Niner, shots fired and possible officer down Daly and Masters, responding units proceed with caution, Code 77 [possible ambush]."

2A7: "Two Adam Seven, 10-97 [arrived on scene], Code 6."

VDG: "Two Adam Seven, copy Code 6."

2A7: [agitated] "VDG, Two Adam Seven, officer down, officer down! 11-42 [paramedics required], Lincoln Sam Niner is down, say again, Lincoln Sam Niner is down! We - [sickly] oh, good Christ...."

VDG: "Two Adam Seven, repeat last transmission?"

2L13: "Two Lincoln Thirteen, 10-97, Code 6."

VDG: "Two Lincoln Thirteen, copy Code 6. Two Adam Seven, come in."

2L13: [crisp] "VDG from Two Lincoln Thirteen, 187 [murder] and officer down, corner Daly and Masters. 11-42; also requesting Henry unit [Homicide] and 2-Henry-90 [Forensics]; Code 20 [notify media]. 187 victim is Caucasian female, approximately nine years of age; same apparent MO as last night. It looks like Lincoln Sam Niner interrupted the suspect. Two Adam Seven William is attempting to render first aid to Lincoln Sam Niner, but it looks pretty bad. Better tell those paramedics to haul ass."

VDG: "Two Lincoln Thirteen, paramedics en route. Status of Two Adam Seven and Two Lincoln Sam Niner?"

2L13: "Lincoln Sam Niner has suffered multiple GSWs [gunshot wounds] to chest and head. Adam Seven is, uh, temporarily out-of-contact."

VDG: "Two Lincoln Thirteen, say again?"

2L13: "He saw the kid and started puking his guts into the gutter, VDG. Somebody took their time on her with a knife."

2A7W: [worn-down] "VDG from Two Adam Seven William, no rush on that 11-42. Double 187 at Daly and Masters, unknown Caucasian female child and Two Lincoln Sam Niner. They executed him - he was dead long before we got here."

[Transcript ends.]

07:43, WEDNESDAY AUGUST 25, LIMA (12:43/25-08-99 ZULU)

"Hallooo! Anybody home?"

Looking up from her place on the couch, Joyce Summers dropped the handful of forms she'd been struggling with - she'd said it time and again, bureaucracy would be the death of her *and* her business, and this insurance stuff was proof - turned down the radio, and headed for the front door. That voice sounded familiar.... "Professor McKellar?"

"You expected Indira Gandhi?" the impeccably-dressed older woman drawled, hefting a full McDonald's drinks tray in her left hand; her right held two large bags in the golden-arches livery and the cane she was leaning on. "With Rupert out of action, his tasks would seem to fall to me by default. That being so, Buffy and I have a great deal of research to do, and with both the library and Rupert's flat unavailable to us, I thought it might be best if the mountain came to Mohammed, as it were. I've brought my own breakfast, to ease the imposition."

"No, no, it's okay -" Remembering herself, Joyce snapped her mouth shut on the words 'come in'.

Cerian arched one eyebrow, waved her hand through the plane of the doorway - no invitation barrier - and smiled understandingly.

Could this lifestyle be any more absurd? Joyce thought, with a soft laugh. "You can use the dining room. I'll find Buffy for you."

"Thank you." Wincing a little and leaning on the cane heavily, the Welshwoman limped into the spacious dining room, set her burdens on the table, then eased herself down in a chair. "*Damn*, that's annoying...." she gasped, straightening her leg a little.

A few moments later, Buffy came down the stairs, a little bleary-eyed, a lot disheveled, and wearing a distinctly puzzled frown. "Shouldn't you still be in hospital?"

"I signed myself out, AMA. Against Medical Advice," she clarified, when the Slayer's frown deepened momentarily. "And in our line of work, you tend to pick up bits and pieces. In my case, I learned a few spells that have come in handy now and again - including one that accelerates the healing process markedly. In a week or so, I'll be as good as new."

"Neat trick," Buffy chirped.

"Quite. The first chance we get, I'll extend Rupert the same attention... though the medical community's reaction should be worth the price of admission," she added blandly.

Buffy snorted a laugh. "Mom said you were Research-o-Gal today. Where's the books?"

"I haven't unpacked many of them yet - those I do have are in the car."

"Y'mean these?" Xander waved 'hi' to Buffy as he walked past her and set a five-high stack of thick books on the table at Cerian's elbow before plundering one of the McDonald's bags. Today, he was in olive-drab slacks and a (long-sleeved? Why?) khaki shirt over a white T-shirt; at a distance, it would've been easy to take him for a Marine in garrison uniform. "You left the doors open."

"How did you know I was here?"

"Didn't," he said around a mouthful of sausage-and-egg McMuffin. "Saw that rental Taurus of yours as I pulled up. I actually came to check on Wills, see what the sitch was. She still asleep, Buff?"

"Last I saw," the Slayer yawned. "Didn't they feed you at the hotel?"

"Yeah, but I have an active lifestyle," he grinned, reaching into the bag again for a fistful of fries.

"Huh!" Yawning again, Buffy swiped the rest of his McMuffin from his hand. "Save some for the people who actually do the work around here," she smirked.

He shot her an oddly sharp look, but said nothing as he demolished the fries.

"What's wrong with Willow?" Cerian frowned.

"Broken heart," Xander said succinctly(!), unloading the bags completely. "We found out when we visited Oz yesterday; he's binned it - called it quits with the whole Slayage deal. Can't say I really blame him for that."

"What?" Buffy blinked. "You've changed your story!"

"I've just calmed down some," he countered, opening a cup of hot chocolate. "I still don't like the way he did it, Buff, but - the guy's only nineteen. Suddenly, one day, he realises out he's been living in a war-zone all his life. He's got no training, no preparation - *plus* the whole werewolf issue. Look at it this way, Buff: courage is a bank account. You never know how high your starting balance is. Good conditions, training, experience, success, belief in what you're doing, the support of outside parties, they're all deposits. Bad conditions, constant anxiety and uncertainty, not being able to trust part of yourself, fighting a 'pointless' war, your nominal supporters either ignoring you or outright undercutting you - they're all drains on your balance. Sooner or later, if your deposits don't cover your withdrawals, you run out of credit and you just can't hack it any more. Oz exceeded his limit at the First National of Guts," he shrugged. "It could've happened to any one of us, including you or me; hell, Buff, you *did* run out of credit last year, as I recall. Sitting down, thinking about things, and making a considered decision to quit or stay, facing up to the fact that you either can't cut it any more or need to dig deeper, actually takes a fair bit of character. What murders my appreciation of that character he showed is the absolutely fucking piss-poor way he chose to do things. Pardon my French." Finished, he drained his chocolate in one long draught and absently crushed the cup.

Both Cerian and Buffy blinked and stared at him; so did a very wan-looking Willow, who'd appeared in the doorway behind him as he began to speak. Cerian spoke first. "You've read Lord Moran's Anatomy of Courage?" she asked, recognising his analogy.

"I got to gossiping with a couple of guys who did while I was away. It seemed relevant," he shrugged.

"Who'd thunk you were an intellectual in disguise?" Buffy smiled.

"I just fake it well," he half-laughed. Hearing something, he looked about and saw Willow, and his mood instantly shifted. "Hey, Wills. How're you doing?" he asked tenderly, taking in the way that she was still wearing yesterday's outfit, and not all that well at that.

"Maybe a tiny bit less horrible," she managed, with a weak smile. "Can't resist the food, huh?"

"Hotel food is passable, Wills, but this is *McDonalds*!" he grinned, taking a chunk out of a hash-brown. The redhead managed a weak smile.

"Well, it would seem that everyone who's coming is here," Cerian drawled. "With that in mind, shall we begin?"

"Begin?" Willow blinked.

"She's throwing a research party," Buffy smiled. "You in?"

"Sure," the redhead nodded. "I - wait." She raised a hand; everyone went quiet and listened. Joyce had turned the radio back up when she went back to her paperwork, and the eight-o'clock local news update was on.

{"- dead officer, Sergeant Jack Fenton, a decorated veteran with fifteen years of service in the S.P.D., apparently interrupted the killer and was shot down moments later. Police sources say that despite his surprise Fenton managed to draw his sidearm and return fire, possibly wounding his assailant. Both Fenton's body and that of the as-yet-unnamed nine-year-old girl have been removed for analysis, and scene examinations continue. Spokesmen refuse to comment on speculation that a serial killer is on the loose in Sunnydale -"}

Xander swallowed his mouthful, looked at the remainder of his hash-brown as if not recognising it, and dropped it on the table-top like it was suddenly rotten. "And *this* won't complicate our lives...."

Buffy cocked her head. "Whaddya mean? We're already after this guy -"

"And now the police will be, too, Buff." He rubbed his face with both hands, looking oddly tired. "Whoever this blood-mage is, Buff, they just killed a *cop*. The S.P.D. never acquired the habit of competence 'cause Mayor Snakely didn't want 'em in the way, but now, they're gonna be *pissed* enough to actually look around, assess the situation realistically, and start doing their job, Hellmouth or no Hellmouth. Hell, I'd be surprised if they didn't call in some guys from Fort Quick to help train their guys, maybe even set up a hush-hush task-force. Which means that when we kill this guy, we're gonna have to duck skilled, motivated cops before, during and after."

"Who said we're gonna kill 'em?" the Slayer asked.

"I don't see any other option. Just finding 'em is gonna be a job of work, and catching 'em alive will probably be about as easy as taking Gwenny Post would've been."

"Quite," Cerian clipped, setting her orange juice aside. "Though the reward money would be quite nice...."

"What reward?" Buffy frowned. She can't mean those ones we saw in Umbra....

Cerian blinked in surprise. "You didn't - no, you wouldn't know, would you? There's a subsidiary division of the Templar Trading Group that supports anthrolopogical and archaelogical research projects. One of them deals in magical research and some of its more... *exotic* flavours. They pay a quarter of a million pounds - not American dollars, but pounds Sterling - if you hand them the living person of a blood-mage for examination. To further their knowledge of the nature of the beast, as it were. I've handed them three in the last eight years... and believe me, that money is well-earned. I had quite the time catching each one of them."

"A quarter of a million... pounds Sterling?" Xander let out a wolf-whistle. "That's real money to *this* kid!"

"How else do you think I could afford my wardrobe?" the relic-hunter smiled.

And I'm only worth the same amount in US dollars, Buffy thought sourly. Ego, meet the bitch-slap from hell! "Just a minute. You sell these people off to this corporation as what, lab-rats? Guinea-pigs?"

"I prefer to think of it as helping to gather intelligence about these people and their... proclivities," Cerian said levelly. "And before you start shedding tears for their fate, you should consider that each one of these people was responsible for a string of murders, and that at least one of them did so as preparation for a ritual that would have made your recent little tête-a-tête with Mayor Wilkins look like a day at Disneyland. During their captivity, these people are housed, clothed, fed and treated as humanely as any prisoner in the United States, and their abilities are probed with the minimum possible amount of discomfort."

"And what happens when the tests are over?" the Slayer persisted. "Do they go free? Or to jail?"

Cerian snorted. "Imprisoning a blood-mage is hardly practical, and freeing them is no option either."

"So they're just...?"

A thin, jaded smile crossed the woman's face. "I have no definitive information about their final dispositions, Buffy; TTG have never told me, and I have never asked. I can make educated guesses, but that's all. You might want to leave the matter lie."

"Buff, these guys routinely murder people to power their magic. If someone gives 'em a bullet behind the ear, it sounds like good riddance to me, y'know?" Xander suggested.

"That's murder, Xander."

"It's capital punishment," he said coolly, "just like you hand out to vampires every night."

"Those are *demons*, Xander, not humans!"

He gave her a look of strangely pitying bafflement. "You say that like there's a *difference*, Buff." Before she could respond to that, he looked back to Cerian. "But still, how much help did you have on those captures? A full-blown magician or two of your own? Some hired gunsels?"

"Yes to both, actually," Cerian frowned. "How did you know?"

"Like the fighter-pukes say: you tell me the threat, and I'll tell you the tactics," he smiled. "Basic educated guesswork, really. You'd need someone to counter the bad guy's spells and banish any spirits he might summon, hence the magicians. People like that are also usually a little paranoid, so you'd need someone to deal with *their* hired shooters and any security systems they had."

Cerian inclined her head. "Bravo!" she said, not a little impressed.

"Thank you, thank you - and *WELL*-come to the Muppet Show!" he cried, throwing his arms out like Kermit the Frog greeting his audience; even Willow raised a giggle, faint as it may have been. Reining in his theatrical tendencies, he grinned for a moment, then took a seat at the table and leaned forward on his elbows intently. "My Krusty the Klown act aside, if we're gonna go mage-hunting we're kind'a short-handed and undergunned for a capture, considering what's in this room is *it* for the time being: a Slayer, you, me, and Willow, who's only just starting out, Wicca-wise. Being so, you might want to tell us more about this whole 'blood magic' thing. I'm still a little fuzzy."

"This is news?" Buffy drawled.

"Knowing this stuff could save your neck, Slay-chick, so you might wanna switch-on yourself," he pointed out sidelong.

Buffy shot him a mock-glare, but sat down and went into 'this-is-me-listening' mode. Willow took a seat herself.

"Where should I start?" the Welshwoman asked.

Xander shrugged, casually leaning back against his chair and half-slinging one arm over it. "You mentioned yesterday how vampires were blood-demons bound to a human body. Can they be summoned *without* a host body?"

"Yes, but the amount of energy required still means that the only way to do so is by killing the donor; the stronger the donor, the stronger the spirit. In a pinch, any animal that bleeds will do - some use rats - though such spirits are usually very weak. The 'best' - meaning the most powerful - blood spirits are summoned from the corpse of a sentient, especially a magician or a magic-using creature."

"Or a Slayer?" Buffy asked on impulse.

"A curse on that thought!" Cerian spat quickly, appalled.

"That bad?"

"Worse!" the relic-hunter nodded, visibly shaken at the idea. "You've fought vampires, Buffy, but you can kill them easily enough because of the nature of their bond with their host body. A raw blood spirit summoned through a ritual sacrifice *has* no body: it is a creature of pure magic, pure will... and pure malevolence. A typical blood spirit summoned from a human victim is as strong and fast as a Slayer. It is only as solid as it wishes to be, and that renders most conventional weapons useless against them. The only way to defeat them is to banish them back to their home plane with magic, or to disrupt them in hand-to-hand combat."

"How does that work?" Buffy wondered.

"They are creatures of magic, which is essentially the wielder's will - their will - imposed on the universe. By striking them with your bare hands, or with a stake, a sword, or whatever, you impose your will on them; if yours is the stronger personality, if the intent behind your blows is pure, you disrupt the enchantment that holds them in this plane... at least, for a time."

"How long?" Willow posed.

"At most, a moon; often it's less, depending on how strong the spirit in question is."

"Any suggestions about fighting them?" Buffy asked.

"One word: don't," Cerian smiled mirthlessly. "The last Slayer to try it... well, the Council spent a year picking up her remains, and they still didn't find all of the pieces. But if you must try it, use a weapon of cold iron, or a consecrated blade. Magic acts like magnetism in many ways, and we all know how cold iron distorts magnetic fields; a bar of unforged iron driven into the gut of a blood spirit acts on its magic like salt on ice. Consecrated blades are in themselves magical after a fashion, so they serve in much the same way. Either might truly destroy such a beast, but inflicting a truly mortal wound is very difficult: lacking solid form, they have no vital spots, no joints or bones to break, no organs to pierce."

"Do other weapons work?" This came from Xander.

"Only as symbols of your manifest intention to destroy the spirit, as, well... extensions of your will. Bullets and other missiles are completely ineffective; they have no connection with you. You might as well try to shoot a wind."

"Guns and crossbows equal nothing against these things. Check," Buffy nodded somberly. This is *not* of the good. "The kids this guy's killed. He's building an army of these thingies as flunkies?"

Cerian shook her head. "I shouldn't think so; these murders are too public for that. Besides, children are too small for really strong spirits; their only real advantage is that they're easier to snatch and control than an adult - they can't put up effective resistance. No, whatever's brewing is something *special*," she declared, with heavy irony. "Absent knowledge of this mage's actual intentions, all we can do is speculate based on the evidence and past cases. Hence my calling this - 'research party'?" she finished, with a whimsical smile.

"Uh-huh. Well, Buff, it looks like you and I are doing the book thing again," Xander half-smiled. "Wills, you up to taking another run through the coroner's files?"

"No, but it's got to be done," she said bravely. "The kid from last night?"

"Yeah. Make sure it's the same MO - we've got enough trouble as it is; let's not borrow more by jumping to mistaken conclusions. And check on Fenton's post-mortem results, too, maybe we can get some clue about how much gun we need to bring to the OK Corral. Cerian -"

The relic-hunter hefted an Iridium satellite-phone. "Travelling introduces you to all sorts of people, in all sorts of places and professions. I'm going to run the events of the last couple of days past my contacts; maybe someone's heard something that would explain this particular outbreak of insanity."

"So why are you still talking to *us*?" he asked blankly, getting to his feet. "Buff, you and Wills want to start sorting through that lot while I bring the laptop down?"

"Yeah, I guess," the Slayer nodded, a little taken aback by Xander's assumption of authority. "It's on the bedside-table in the guest room."

Cerian watched him go, her hands flicking through a thick pocket-planner all the while. After a moment, she mused, "Well, *he's* certainly not what I was led to expect...."

"What *did* you expect?" Willow wondered.

"I'm not entirely sure. But whatever it was... he's not it," the ex-Watcher smiled wryly.

You said it, lady! Buffy thought, leaving her chair. "I'll... be back in a second."

She caught up with Xander just as he started back down the stairs with the laptop and eyephones under one arm. "Okay: spill."

"About... what, exactly?" he wondered.

"Xander, I love you to bits, but since *when* are you the poster-child for International Organise and Take Charge Day?"

He laughed, shaking his head at some private joke. You just came far closer than you realise.... "That's not exactly a question with a twenty-five-words-or-less answer, Buff."

Huh? "*Well*?"

"Hey: look around. Giles is out of action. Angel's gone. Oz quit. Cordy's auditioning for soap operas. Wesley - who knows? We are *it*. Somebody had to stand up and get things sorted, and nobody else was doing it," he shrugged.

"When you left you had a hard time matching your *socks*!" she protested. "What *happened* to you while you were gone?"

He smiled, fondly, a little cynically - but there was no give in his eyes. "A wise man once said, Buff: 'if you don't want the answer - don't ask the question'."

"Xander -!" she began hotly.

He had one hand over her mouth before she knew he'd moved. "*Keep it down*, dammit!" he hissed, in that increasingly-familiar command tone.

When he lowered his hand again, she gave him a piercing look. "What... is going... on?"

"I can't discuss that, Buff. Not here, and not now; too many neighbours on this party line. I'll give you the answers you want when I can - *but not before*. Okay?" Obviously considering the matter finished, he started down the stairs past her.

She seized his arm. "That's not good enough!"

He looked down at her hand, then back up at her face, and Slayer or not, Buffy was a little frightened by the steel in his eyes. "That's as good as it gets, Buff. Now, are you particularly attached to that hand?" he smiled, with an almost playful idleness that hid his intent (and intransigence) not a whit.

Buffy let out a huff and made a show of taking her hand away. He probably wouldn't really follow through on that, but with one of the few true friends I have, I'm not gonna try it to find out. "Xander, you *are* still my friend, right?"

"Always." His nod was oddly sincere.

"So what's the sitch?"

Xander turned things over for a moment, then sighed and relented, albeit obliquely. "When you get a chance - *when Cerian's not here* - have Wills look up the Templar Trading Group. It'll make interesting reading." He headed downstairs without another word.

Buffy stared after him in utter bafflement. Can I just say: *HUH*?

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

Three hours later, the dining room was a mess. All of the McDonalds' had been consumed, leaving wrappers, bags, and empty cups scattered about the table like the aftermath of a cyclone. Willow had somehow convinced the Summers' fax machine to work as a printer for her laptop, and two small scrolls of thermal paper lay among the wreckage: the autopsy reports for both Jack Fenton and the nine-year-old Jane Doe.

Cerian had been limp-pacing the room on her cane almost incessantly since the 'research party' began, talking into her sat-phone animatedly in a number of languages. Her first call had lasted more than half an hour, and it had *not* been a pleasant experience for the person on the other end; while she'd been speaking in Afrikaans, her tone had made it clear that whoever she was talking to was getting chewed up one side and all the way down the other - with T-Rex teeth. When she finally hung up, it had been with a sigh of exasperated fury, and she'd said nothing to the group.

Her subsequent calls had been shorter, ten minutes or so apiece. Some of them had been in English; others had been in Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese both, in separate calls), French, German, Russian, Japanese... one had even been in colloquial Latin, such as was spoken on the streets of Rome in the day of Marcus Tullius Cicero. (Willow had pricked up her ears at *that* conversation, virtually green with envy at the older woman's casual fluency. Despite her best efforts, her own Latin was still a little stilted.)

And every one of those calls had been utterly fruitless. "Nothing," Cerian finally spat, setting the 'phone on the sideboard to recharge. "Not a bloody thing. Nobody's talking, and those few who are don't have anything useful to say. It's like everyone I know on this half of the continent has dived into the deepest hole they can find and pulled it in over themselves."

Xander pushed away the tome he'd been engrossed in the whole while and worked his head from side to side, grunting as his vertebrae aligned with a series of audible *snaps*. "*Oooohhhh*, yeahthat'sbetter," he growled, sitting up straight. "I've got a similar amount of nothing. Buffy?"

"Just a headache. Did they pay these guys *bonuses* to use all these really long words?" the Slayer asked Cerian, a little testily.

"Having never met them, I couldn't say," Cerian drawled. Xander coughed a laugh.

"Maybe we should go back to Umbra, see if that tap-puller'll be a little more talkative by day," Buffy suggested.

"With those wanted posters tacked to the wall? Buff, half those guys'd gut their own mothers for a shot at *ten* grand, and the other half already did," the young man snorted, leaning right back in his chair, looking at the ceiling and covering his face with both hands. "And he's the nastiest of the bunch; he'd have to be to still be alive and running the place. Besides, those guys are low-lifes, pure and simple; both of our current problems... well, they *feel* too upscale to consort with villains so common, if you know what I mean."

Cerian arched a brow at his choice of words, but said nothing to contradict him. "I think we might be approaching the point of diminishing returns here in any case; a break would seem to be in order, then we'll see where we go from there."

"Yeah, sounds good," Xander nodded, lowering his hands again. "Call it an hour? I'll bring back Chinese food and a change of clothes for the Willster. And no offence, Buff, but you might want to take the time to get cleaned up yourself. Maybe even cut your hair properly?"

Buffy automatically put a hand to the disaster that was her bullet-cropped hair and mock-growled at him.

"I love you too, Buff," he grinned, levering himself to his feet. "Okay, everybody, I'm off for a while. Hasta lasagna."

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

11:42, AUGUST 25, LIMA (19:42/25-08-99 ZULU)

The sales assistant raised an eyebrow as she took in Xander's purchases. "Anybody I know, Xander?"

He gave her a steady look. He'd known Angela Harriman since the ninth grade, and while they weren't actively friends, they'd always got on well. "Wills just can't get home to change right now, Angie. It's a long story."

Yeah, right, her eyes smirked as she started bagging things. "I just hope she appreciates all you're doing for her."

He snapped his mouth shut before he could respond to that. What was the point? Leaving aside how unresolved things were one way or the other, teenaged guys did not show up in the women's section of a department store and buy several complete sets of clothing - including some less-than-plain items of underwear - for women they *weren't* romantically interested in. That was especially true of guys who could pick items in the woman's sizes without refering to any pieces of paper and paid with a thick roll of fifties to boot.

Well, at least she doesn't think I'm buying this stuff for *myself*! he smiled inwardly. "Yeah, me too. But like I said: long story."

She raised an eyebrow, packing away a lacy item that Victoria's Secret wouldn't dare stock, but said nothing. Xander met her gaze steadily, steadfastly determined *not* to blush. After a moment, she finished her bundling and moved on to less embarrassing items. "How've you been, anyway? Going to college?"

"Up and down, and not yet. I need to clear up a few problems first," he smiled. "You?"

"Friday's my last day. I hop a plane to New York Monday morning, I got a place at BAM and most of my stuff's already in an apartment there."

"The Brooklyn Academy of Music?" Xander arched an eyebrow and whistled softly as she finished bagging his purchases. "Very not bad! Thanks, Angie. Good luck," he smiled pleasantly, absently noting that she wore silver cruciform earrings.

"And, Xander?" she added as he turned away.

"Yeah?" He turned and eyed her cautiously, not knowing what to expect.

"Thanks. For everything you've done."

Xander cocked an eyebrow. "How's that again?"

She gave him that don't-kid-me look again. "I was *at* graduation, remember? Hell, Devon even took me out for coffee after."

"I guess that explains the earrings," he smiled.

She nodded. "Yeah. Half the town must owe you guys, for graduation or other stuff; the 'Class Protector' award went to Buffy, but I don't know if anyone's ever said 'thanks' to you support-crew guys."

"We're just doing our jobs, it's no big deal," he shrugged. This was not said to be modest, but as a simple statement of fact. "But I - we - appreciate the sentiment." A thought suddenly occurred to him, and he cocked his head. "Hey, do you know Oz?"

"Said 'hey' to him in the corridor a couple of times. Why?"

"He's, uh... he's having some confidence problems, thinks he can't hack it and nobody out here really appreciates what we do. Maybe you could stop by his place and tell him what you just told me. He's a good guy in a bad mental place; besides, we kind'a need him on deck right now."

"The thing in the paper?"

"Which 'thing'?" he asked sourly.

Angie took that in, thought things over, then nodded. "One pep-talk, coming up."


"It's the least I can do."

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

Many would think that Sunnydale was too small a city to have an authentic Cantonese restaurant, complete with proper décor and traditional fare and dim sum selections as well as American-style 'Chinese' food. Such an assumption held water only until one considered that the mystical traditions of the Chinese culture pre-dated the rise of Rome, and if anyone knew how to find a mystical convergance and how to properly harness its power once found, it was a Chinese geomancer. Thus ran the reason for the inclusion of the Red Tiger Restaurant from the start of the Sunnydale Mall's planning and construction.

Xander scooped up the carry bags and thanked the clerk, turning away from the counter to head for the door. As he went past a booth, a familiar voice breathed, "Snoopy!"

Even as his head whipped around, he cursed his carelessness in not having a hand free. He relaxed a shade as he recognised the person in the booth, but still.... "Don't *do* that, okay? I'm on-edge enough as it is."

"Really? Why?" the speaker wondered, cocking one sardonic eyebrow and eyeing Xander's burdens. Kind of hard to go for a weapon with both your hands full, isn't it? their eyes smirked, to drive the point home. "What's the word?"

Xander leaned his bags on the table and worked his head around to mask his true reason for stopping. "Cerian's gathered everybody who's willing and able over at Buffy's for a research party."


"Hell, no. What's the word from Colt?"

"That sniper incident yesterday cost Ruby his life. Amethyst's got the team for tomorrow. Proceed as planned."

"Would this be a bad time to mention that I'm *not* loving the plan?" he asked rhetorically, picking up the food again.

"Absolutely," the other smiled thinly. "I'm not really thrilled about it myself, but it's the most workable option. Besides, Snoopy, you must remember Commandment VI of our profession: 'you don't gotta like it; you just gotta do it.' See you later."

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

12:10, AUGUST 25, LIMA (20:10/25-08-99 ZULU)

A double rap on the open door brought around both Buffy's head and Cerian's. The Slayer automatically drew a stake, while similar subconscious caution sent Cerian's hand under the left breast of her suit-jacket.

Xander's dark head peered past the edge of the doorframe. "Munchies are here!" he chirped, somehow not the least disconcerted by looking right down the barrel of Cerian's pistol. "Sheesh, nervous much?"

"I should think that getting shot gives one the right to be a little edgy," Cerian smiled blandly, lowering the Gyurza's hammer again.

"Hear, hear," he drawled, stepping fully into the room. "I like the hair, Buff. Trés chic."

"Really?" she asked, tucking the stake away even as her free hand patted her new hairstyle. Willow had done the honours, trimming the whole lot to a uniform two-inch length. Buffy had to confess it did look very sophisticated, but she'd been used wearing her hair past her shoulders for so long that it was a heck of an adjustment; she suspected she'd mourn her lost locks for weeks. And when I catch whoever did that...!

"Yeah. In fact, I'd go so far as to say you look *extra* foxy like that." He waggled his eyebrows mock-lasciviously, and Buffy couldn't help giggling. Setting the two bags of food on the table with one hand, he hefted a shopping-bag in the other. "Clothes. Where's Will?"

Buffy pointed upstairs with her chin. "Showering."

"Ah. Well, you guys get fed, and I'll take these up and leave 'em at the door for her. Try and leave *some* food for the two of us, okay?"

She took in the number of cartons Cerian was unpacking from the bags and gave him a look. "A *brigade* couldn't eat all that in one sitting, Xander."

"I don't know, it might depend on the brigade," he snorted, heading for the stairs.

When he returned a moment later, Buffy and Cerian were already attacking their meals with gusto. Tossing his jacket back over his chosen chair, he took up a set of the disposable chopsticks the Red Tiger had provided, popped open a carton of rice, spiked both sticks into it, and pushed it towards Cerian, who was working on some noodles. "Here you go: try some of that."

Cerian looked down at the offered serving and went very still for a heartbeat. "I'd rather you hadn't done that," she said coolly, reaching over and plucking the chopsticks out of the carton again. "It's bad luck."

"Hmmm?" Buffy wondered around a mouthful of noodles.

"I spend a lot of my time in Hong Kong, dear," the relic-hunter explained. "They consider it an ill omen to give someone rice with the chopsticks sticking straight up. That's how it's offered to the dead."

"Oh," Xander said, then shrugged and took back both rice and sticks. "No harm, no foul, right?"

"Here's hoping," she sighed.

"Hey, Xand, Mister Rosenberg had a security system installed just after graduation, right?" Buffy frowned, voicing something that had occurred to her even as Xander pulled away earlier.

"Yeah, top-of-the-line: contact switches on all the doors and windows, motion-activated lights outside, thermal sensors for intruders and fires, the whole package. Why?"

"How'd you get in? I don't remember Will mentioning the access code."

"Didn't," he said around a mouthful. "Spare cash, remember?"

"What do you - You *bought* her a change of clothes?" she blinked.

"Several, actually. I figured things might get a little intense around here." Like they aren't already, he didn't have to add.

"Isn't that a little extravagant?" Cerian frowned.

"My money - my business," he told the Welshwoman, with the barest hint of frost.

"M-maybe. But this?" Willow's voice asked from the doorway. Xander looked up - and almost dropped his food. He'd put outfits together in his head as he bought things, and he'd left this ensemble for her entire, but he hadn't anticipated exactly how good she'd look in it.

It wasn't exactly the normal kind of Willow-wear - but it *definitely* worked. She wore a deep-purple cardigan (entirely unbuttoned) over a sleeveless, scoop-necked lavender T-shirt that ended an inch or so above the waistband of her jeans. The top's lines subtly emphasised her bust, the glimmer of flesh it left bare at her midriff was impossibly tantilising, the colour set off her skin and hair superbly, and her jeans were just loose enough to be comfortable but still snug enough to be eye-catching, hugging her hips and almost caressing the sleek lines of her legs. Fresh-bought sterling-silver barettes kept her hair back from her ears, also-new emerald-chip earrings glinted at her earlobes, and the silver-and-sapphire pendant he'd commissioned for her hung just above her heart.

Xander intended to use real words. He really did. His mind even sent some to his mouth. It was just that all that came out at first was a stunned, reverential "Hhhhyyyyjjjj...."

Cerian and Buffy traded a look; they hadn't known each other even two days, but they didn't need a long acquaintance to share that most basic of disgusted feminine accusations. Men!

Shaking himself thoroughly, Xander tried again. "Uhhh... hey, Wills! You look great! I mean, you look... better. Than... you did, when I, uh, left," he trailed off, knowing he was babbling but unable to help himself. Despite all his best intentions, his eyes fixed on the exposed curves of her belly again as he remembered the feel of her skin under his hands, soft and smooth and....

OWCH! He flinched as Buffy's toe caught him in the shin; the pain was enough to jar him out of his R-rated daydreams just before they tried for NC-17. Thanks for the reminder, Buff! At this rate, I'm gonna sabotage my own virtuous intentions. "Sorry: mouth in gear, brain in neutral," he shrugged, even as the 'phone rang in the kitchen. "You like?"

"Well, yeah, but -"

"Then that's all that matters," he said simply.

"*Very nice*, Will. Where did you get that sort of fashion-taste, Xander?" Buffy wondered.

"Sure you wanna know?" he evaded.

"Uh... *yeah*!" she insisted, looking at him closely. What is *with* you, Xand-man?

Before he could answer, Joyce appeared in the doorway behind Willow, extending her new cordless 'phone to her with a distinctly bemused expression. "Willow? It's for you. Some weird guy with an accent?"

Willow laughed in genuine delight and took the 'phone from her. "Hi, Nemo."

{"Borag thungg, Earthlet!"} the foreigner cried, with an impudent smile that she could all but hear. {"First of all, tell Mrs. Summers to mind her tongue, I resemble that remark. In any case, what goes on in the Wacky World of Willow?"}

"Nothing too much," she smiled, then sobered a little. "Well, other than... y'know. What's up?"

{"Ah, the Mad Russian and I were just working out what we were going to do tomorrow night. We were thinking of trying out that Cantonese place at the mall, then hitting the movies or maybe Starscape; we thought you might need some time out. We already tried your place, but nobody answered. Anyway, y' keen?"}

"I-I can't, Nemo. I've, uh, got a lot of things to deal with right now -"

{"Still be there in the morning, won't they?"} he countered. {"You, my sweet, have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. I think you need to learn to leave work *at* work, and who better to teach you than us?"}

{"And if it's Oz that's got you tied up in knots, *forget him*, at least for the night, 'kay?"} Shooter chimed in; evidently the pair were using a speaker-phone. {"That sonofabitch isn't worth your time or tears!"}

"Shooter, did anyone ever introduce you to the theory that there are two sides to every argument?"

{"'Understanding is a three-edged sword'. Kosh Naranek, Babylon Five. It's a bullshit theory,"} the other woman snorted expressively. {"Either he loves you or he doesn't. If he does, why is he leaving? And if he doesn't, to hell with him! You cried yourself to sleep last night, pravda?"

"Yeah, that's right."

{"Then you don't need to spend every waking moment agonising over it. He's made his choice, dumb bastard that he is; now he has to suck it up and live with the consequences, which is just too frickin' bad for him. You can wail and wonder 'why?' for the rest of the week, but tomorrow night, you come out with us and forget all your troubles. University, Oz, whatever the hell else you do with your time - leave 'em at the door. Tomorrow night is for nothing but pure... unadulterated... mindless... *FUUUUN*!"} The last word was a party-animal's roar, straight out of an old Pepsi ad.

{"My beloved lets her enthusiasm rule her - as usual,"} Nemo added ruefully, {"but she does make a good point. It'd do you good to step back from your problems and let them simmer for a few hours. Give you a new perspective on things, y'know?"}

"Hey, Will!" Buffy called.

"Can you wait a second?" Willow said into the 'phone, then tucked it into the crook of her shoulder and looked over at the Slayer. "Mmmmm?"

"If they're asking you out, go ahead. Cerian's the expert on this, uh, particular sort of stuff," (Buffy didn't dare say anything spooky, lest the other two heard her) "and I can handle the 'night-shift'. Go on, you need the break. You *deserve* the break."

"You sure?"

"Will - go! So says me *and* Mister Pointy!"

Thanking the blonde with a split-second smile, she lifted the 'phone again. "Okay, I give up. I'll go along. Sheesh," she groused. "Has anyone ever told you guys you make very good bullies?"

{"Oh, you'd... be surprised,"} Nemo murmured. {"Pick you up at your place at six?"}

"Yeah, why not? See you then. 'Bye."

{"Dasvidanya!"} Shooter chirped, and rung off.

Willow punched 'disconnect' and set the phone down on the sideboard, rubbing her eyebrows again as she turned back into the dining room and took a seat. "Owww... Suddenly feeling migraine-y. Your Mom's right, Buffy: I love those two, but they're nuts."

"My kind of people." Despite Xander's grin, there was... *something*, behind his eyes. Reservations? Suspicion? "Going out on the town to forget your troubles for a few hours, huh?"

"Uh, yeah. Tomorrow night, around six. You wanna come along?" she offered without thinking. It's not like either of us can do much good at this research thing like this anyway....

"You have to ask?" he smiled. "Meet'cha out front of your place?"


"I'll be there, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed," he grinned. And packing a .45. Or two.

Part Nine

17:21, WEDNESDAY AUGUST 25, LIMA (01:21/26-08-99 ZULU)

LaFollet dumped three sugars into her coffee and ignored the creamer completely, wondering what the heck was going on in Sunnydale. In the gallery case, we have C-8s stolen off the Canadian Army; in the sniping incident, a G-36E 'stolen' from a Sturmfalke Sicherheitskräfte unit in Oregon. Unrelated weapons - but the shell-casings are from the same batch of 5.56. The connection between the two attacks? Buffy Summers and her pals. But why go gunning for an eighteen-year-old and her clique, even one that trouble-prone?

She'd pulled the S.P.D. file on Summers, and it made for fascinating reading, if altogether too patchy for an official document. Her school record since the start of 1996 listed almost as many fights as in *all* the wrestling shows in the same time period, but no charges ever laid with the police, not even disturbing the peace. Questioned in relation to the death of one Theodore Buchanan; no charges filed (death by misadventure). Briefly sought in relation to a brawl in the Sunnydale High library in 1998 which resulted in the death of one 'Kendra' and serious injuries to Rosenberg and Harris; warrant canceled following the testimony of the survivors. Questioned in relation to the death of Deputy Mayor Allan Finch. Plus there were the persistent (yet confused) rumours that circulated about her and her little pack of friends, especially over the 'LAW Theft' and the riot at their school graduation; little that didn't contradict itself, but all those rumours agreed that that group had been involved in those incidents *somehow*.

Even reading about the girl's hangers-on was enough to raise her hackles. Why would the curator of the British Museum abandon such a prestigious post to become librarian at a second-rate high school in Nowhere, California? And the girl's associates? Cordelia Chase, Alpha Female of Sunnydale High, daughter of Gabriel and Olivia Chase, the financiers now serving five-to-eight for tax evasion. Daniel Osbourne, garage-band guitarist and exceedingly bright underachiever, three incidents of public intoxication, one of public lewdness, a DUI, and a warning for drug possession (he claimed the twenty sachets of pre-cut methampethamine found in his van belonged to a band-mate. Of course. He'd only skated on that one because none of his fingerprints had been on the drum-kit in question.) Xander Harris, class loser, his father dishonorably discharged from the Navy for black-marketeering while serving in the Mediterranean. And Willow Rosenberg, hacker extraordinare and resident genius, daughter of the assistant DA. What the hell holds them together like that?

And then we have what happened last night, she added, her lips thinning. She'd served a tour in Patrol before testing for detective early (thank the patron saints of affirmative action!), and Jack Fenton had been her FTO. He'd been another ex-military type (Army Ranger, no less), which had made her leery of him from the outset, and his paternalistic coddling had truly rankled, but she did have to give him credit: he'd been fair with her. What was that he said? "Like the jarheads say: we have light blue cops, we have dark blue cops, and we have bumpy cops - but they're all *cops*. Long as you're there for me when it hits the fan, I don't care if you're a goddamn Martian." By the end of her training tour, while they weren't friends as such, there had been respect... and now he was lying in the morgue with three big-bore tunnels through his vest and chest.

With the first of what people around the precinct had already started referring to as 'the Cult Murders', there had been a sudden wave of absenteeism, and Stein had shown no real passion about finding the killer. Now that Fenton was in the morgue alongside the second victim, every Sunnydale cop who wasn't outright dead themselves was reporting for their shifts, many of them wearing their Kevlar (few cops habitually wear body armour, especially in a California summer) and drawing spare ammo. The rangemaster hadn't been this busy teaching pistolry since he left the Marine Corps.

As if summoned by her wandering thoughts, Stein's partner, a fellow Detective-Third named Rafael Nuñez, appeared at her side. "Hey, Jan."

LaFollet had always wondered why and how a Cuban had become a detective in Sunnydale, but she wasn't about to tick off a fellow 'minority officer' by asking - especially when he and Stein had been given the Fenton case as an extension of the Cult Murders. "How's it going, Rafe?" It was *not* small-talk.

"We got *nothin'*, mira. Lab recovered fifteen bullets from the scene, seven nine-millimetres - all matching to spent cases, and the ballistics file on Fenton's P9S; gun itself's missing, I guess they stole it when they killed him - and eight .44 Magnum slugs and *no* shell-cases. My guess is the guy used two revolvers, but who the hell can use two guns at once and actually hit someone - much less do it with .44 friggin' Magnums? No blood at the scene that wasn't Jack's or the kid's. No fibres, no blood, no fingerprints, no useable footprints. *One* witness, and they only *heard* the shoot-out and the guys leavin': a car and two bikes, heading north; no makes, 'cept that the bikes sounded like 'real Boss Hogs'. *Nothing*. *Shit*!" he spat in disgust, setting his cup down to stare off into space with a wistful, cheerfully bloodthirsty smile. "Just *once* I'd like to just charge into Umbra and start bustin' heads, y'know? Just to remind those scum whose town this is."

Since when has violence ever actually *solved* anything? LaFollet wondered, frowning. "What's 'Umbra'?"

Nuñez came back to himself and went suddenly, guiltily silent. "Uhh... no offence, Jan, but if you don't already know, I can't tell you."

"Oh, *bullshit*, Rafe!" she spat at him. "I *never* get told anything. Why? Because I don't belong to 'The Club'. I'm a rookie detective, I'm black, and I'm a woman - three strikes, so nobody tells me *shit*! All the other detectives are out there, they've got all their sources and their unofficial networks, they talk shop at barbecues and ball-games, all that Good Old Boys bullshit, and they don't invite me and they don't tell me a thing, because I'm not a Good Old Boy. Until I prove myself, they won't talk to me, but if they don't talk to me, I never get the information I need to do the job and actually prove myself! Do you know what that's like?"

"*Yes*, Jan, I *do* know. I used to be the low man on the totem pole 'til you got promoted, so I went through the same damn thing, okay?" he countered, keeping his voice a little lower than hers. "Look, I'm not keepin' you outta this 'cause I want to keep you down or nothin' like that. You're gonna make a hell of a detective - but you gotta live long enough to make it that far, y'know? And if you don't know what I'm talkin' about, then you don't know enough to survive there. Hell, the *SWAT* guys don't go near the place. Okay?"

"Okay. So why is it such a no-go zone?" she persisted.

Nuñez stifled a sigh. "What part of '*I can't talk about it*' don't you understand?" he said plaintively.

"Hey, make way for a *real* detective, sweet-cheeks," an all-too-familiar voice interjected, as Detective-Second 'Frank N' Stein himself elbowed his way past her. (His given names actually were Francis Nathan. Some parents have strange and sadistic senses of humour.)

"*What* real detective?" she sniffed venomously, sick of this Cauc's attitude. How Nuñez put up with this dinosaur's male-WASPs-only condecension without shooting him was anybody's guess.

He gave her a you-are-*so*-funny glare. "C'mon, LaFollet, come clean: whose dick did you have to suck to get your gold shield anyway?"

Oh, because a female officer couldn't *possibly* achieve anything on the basis of anything so manly as mere competence, is that it? Three long, sickening months of leers and needles and jibes finally broke LaFollet's patience, and she gave him a poisonously sweet smile. "Well, the list is long, but distinguished - two things *your* Johnson will never be." (Nuñez choked into his coffee.) "Thankfully, *your* name appears nowhere on that list, and never will. At least, not for any *female* officer."

Stein went still for an instant, then turned on her, visibly unable to credit his ears. "*What*?" he demanded, going ever more red by the instant.

"Aw, c'mon, Frank. According to you, that's the only way to get promoted, right? Which makes me wonder how you got *your* gold badge - and how any officer's gonna get one when *you* sit on the boards -"

Now the colour of a well-cooked lobster, Stein launched himself at the smaller officer. Seizing LaFollet by both arms, he slammed her back against the wall so hard that she saw stars; her coffee fell free, drenching them both, though neither noticed. "You'd better not be calling me a faggot, you little bitch!"

"Hey, if the garter-belt fits, *sweet-cheeks*," she smiled viciously. Go ahead and do it, asshole. If I file a grievance against you, The Cop's Code will finish me with the S.P.D., but taking you with me would almost be worth it....

"Frank, for Christ's sake!" Nuñez cried, grabbing his partner's arm.

Stein shook him off and dropped his hands to LaFollet's hips, squeezing once, almost bruisingly hard, with a truly unpleasant gleam in his eyes. "I oughta prove you wrong, bitch," he growled.

"Go ahead and try," she smirked - and head-butted him.

She got him good, too. She could *feel* his nose break under her forehead, and was distantly shocked at how deeply gratifying a sensation that was. Stein reeled back, clutching his face as blood streamed down over his fingers and chin. "AAAAAHHHHH! You fugging slud-bidch!"

"*WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?*" Little Bob roared from the break-room doorway, his Gunnery Sergeant's tone dreadful enough to make the very rocks cringe.

"Just getting a few things straight, Bob," LaFollet smiled, making a show of straightening her clothing. This outfit cost me a week's pay, thank you very much. "I think Frank and I now see eye-to-eye on at least one issue."

"Nuñez?" Patterson barked, still in Gunny mode. The younger detective stiffened to a brace without thinking, but shook his head and spread his hands, 'that's her story and I ain't gonna argue about it'. The ex-Marine turned his gaze on the bloodied detective next, and his eyes boded ill for the younger man. "Stein! Get your sorry carcass down to the infirmary and get that nose looked at. You had that coming, and if you try to tell anyone any different and slandering her, you don't wanna *think* about the rumours I can spread about *you*. LaFollet! Get the *hell* outta here for now; come back at ten tonight, and you'd damn-sure better have cooled off by then, you get me?"

"Yeah, yeah, I get you, Bob," LaFollet clipped, resenting the enforced down-time but not about to argue with her partner when he was in *this* kind of mood.

"As for *you*, Nuñez - get this place cleaned up. *Right now*."

"You got it, Gunny!" the Cuban nodded.

Patterson gave them all a disgusted look, glared Stein out the door, and went on his way.

"You need to watch yourself, Jan," Nuñez advised under his breath. "Stein's Old Guard, yeah, but there's still a lot of 'em around. You keep going like you are, one day you're gonna put out a 999 and nobody's gonna show."

LaFollet sniffed. "The day I need help from *Stein* is the day I turn in my shield."

Nuñez stifled a world-weary sigh as he watched his younger colleague head out. Yeah, well, you gotta remember that admonition Spartan mothers gave their sons: 'come home with your shield - or on it'.

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

21:04, AUGUST 25, LIMA (05:04/26-08-99 ZULU)

LaFollet had parked her car a block away. She paused at the corner, checking first her pepper-spray projector, then the Asp folding baton in her left coat pocket, and finally, reluctantly, her sidearm, a 9mm Heckler and Koch USP. God alone understood why Jack Fenton had been so in love with his HK P9S (a distinctive weapon, but far behind the technological fashion curve), but he'd talked her ear off about HK's engineering, and after a month or so in his company she'd tried out a USP, liked its feel, and handed her Beretta back to the Department the next day. Okay, so in three years as a uniformed day-shift officer, she'd never once had to *draw* her sidearm in the line of duty, but her quarterly range sessions meant that (God forbid) if she ever had to shoot, she'd probably hit what she aimed at.

Finding Umbra itself hadn't been all that hard; they had a picture-ad in the Yellow Pages, though it had been a little odd. 'UMBRA. Drinks, sustenance; no questions asked, no tales told. Open 9pm-sunrise. 452 Garrison St.' Now what the heck could that second line mean?

I'd better hurry this up if I'm going to get back to the station in time to meet Bob again, she decided, and straightened her coat once more before heading down the street.

The bouncer at the door looked like a pro-wrestler turned street-biker; he looked her up and down, snorted a laugh, and waved her in without a word. Gawd, what a stench! she thought immediately, taking in the room. There were only four patrons; two tattooed Hispanics in leather dusters sitting together near the register, and two white guys in booths at either end of the room. The bartender eyed her with a leer that combined the worst sort of chauvinism with something just shy of open suspicion. "Can Ah help y'?"

LaFollet had debated how to approach things, but had finally thought 'the hell with it' and went for the direct approach. "Yes, you can," she smiled, showing him her badge. "Detective LaFollet, S.P.D. I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions?"

"Well, don't that beat ever'thing? They gave a badge to a nigger bitch," the bartender sneered, playing to the two Latinos. "And no, y' cain't. Now git out."

"When I'm ready, sir," she smiled sweetly. "I -" What the hell? she wondered, catching sight of the posters on the wall. Suspending her questioning for the moment, she moved down the bar a few steps to get a better view. 'Slayers'? 'Witch'? 'Werewolf'? What the living -

"You wanna git out afore you're thrown, Miss Nigger Cop?" the bartender suggested.

"What's your name?" she asked sidelong, still focussed on the posters.

"Hank Clanton," he responded, still in a sneer.

She turned to face him again. As she did, she realised that she'd moved so far from the door that the Latinos, and one of the solo patrons, were on her path back. Aw, *shit*. "Well - Hank? - I'm investigating the murder of a police officer who happened to be a friend of mine, so you'd do well to co-operate."

"You're in the wrong part'a town for that piece'a tin t' scare me, Miss La-Fo-Let," Clanton sniffed.

"Let me handle this," the closer of the white patrons said in a bass rumble (and odd accent), standing up. He was a good six inches taller than her five-feet-seven, rough-hewn, and outweighed her by half at least. As he moved, the Hispanic duo turned to watch. The closer threw his coat open to reveal a pair of Smith and Wesson Model-29s thrust through his belt. (LaFollet's blood chilled as she recognised the weapons.) His companion also opened his duster, grasping the pistol-grip of a cut-down SPAS-12; the motion also revealed the pistol tucked crossdraw into the left side of *his* waistband -

- a Heckler and Koch P9S.

Son of a *BITCH*! That fast, LaFollet drew her USP and levelling it right on the white man, the closest threat. "Don't move! You two, by the bar, lay your weapons on the counter and assume the position, you're under arrest!"

"What for, puta?" Magnums spat.

"We'll start with brandishing a weapon and see what else we can tack on when we get to the station," she smiled, turning her attention to him for a moment.

Too long. The man in front of her darted forward - no human being was *that* fast! - and struck her wrists. The USP went flying. When she looked back at him, his face - his face was all *wrong*, ridged and distorted, his eyes blazing yellow, his teeth - his *fangs*! - too, too long.

"\Our Father, who art in heaven....\" she breathed in Latin, flashing back to her time in Catholic school. Almost on instinct, her right hand dug under her collar, produced her gold crucifix from her collar, and presented it to his eyes.

Her assailant gave her a contemptuous grin, baring even more teeth. "\Do you think I should *fear* the words and symbols of your impotent little tree-hung godling, Negro?\" he sneered incredulously, in the same language. "\I am five centuries his elder, and he was nothing but another rabble-rousing criminal!\"

"Marcus Lucinius!" a familiar voice barked from the doorway.

McKellar? LaFollet thought wildly, looking past this - *thing*! - to see the Welshwoman standing just inside the door, her Gyurza in hand and the bouncer lying at her feet with blood running down his face.

"One police officer dying in Sunnydale has brought *her* to your door, Marcus!" McKellar continued, leaning on the cane in her left hand. "Kill her as well, and no vampire in this district will know a peaceful day thereafter."

While Marcus' attention was on McKellar, LaFollet scrambled across the room to retrieve her USP. What the *hell* -? she wondered, not bothering to finish the thought as she came to one knee and brought the gun around again.

The two bikers turned to McKellar and stared at her in - amazement? Had LaFollet spoken any Spanish, what was said next might have intrigued her.

"\What the fuck are you doing?\" Magnums wanted to know.

"\What I must.\" McKellar's voice was even, and the red dot of her Gyurza's laser-sight was just as steady on the shotgunner's chest. "Marcus, step away from her!"

"Hey, cain't you read the Terms of Entry? No gunfights in mah place!" Clanton cried, clearly ready to dive for cover.

"Shut up, fat man," McKellar said sidelong.

"Bullets are no danger to my kind, Cerian," the - vampire? - sniffed. "And I am too valuable for you to kill." With that, he turned back to LaFollet.

Who blasted him with her Department-issue pepper spray.

Marcus howled and staggered back, clutching at suddenly smoking(!) features. Clanton dropped flat and crawled for the back door. The scream set off both Latinos. Magnums drew one pistol with his left(!) hand and threw down on LaFollet; SPAS-man turned to McKellar and raised the twelve-gauge.

The shotgunner was trying to 'beat the drop' - draw so fast as to out-shoot someone who already had him under their sights. This is at best a risky proposition for master gunslingers with a pistol; for a low-rent thug trying to bring a twelve-gauge into action, it was the worst kind of folly.

He never even got close; McKellar had him cold. Even as his hands closed on the shotgun, she rapid-fired three, four, five rounds into his chest, the rounds punching straight through and shattering the bar-mirror. The impacts, each a body-blow from Mike Tyson, rocked him back and closed his fingers on the trigger, sending the buckshot into the floorboards in front of Cerian's feet. Balance wrecked by the bullets, SPAS-man reeled, sagged back against the bar, and slid down into a seated position, coughing blood; the twelve-gauge fell from suddenly slack fingers and clattered to the floor.

LaFollet's first shot went wild, tearing a chunk out of the bar beside Magnums. His aim was no better; though the bellow of his revolver was ear-splitting in the confined quarters, the bullet went over her head and tore into a booth, bringing shards of table and booth-seat raining down on her. Not about to give him a chance to improve his shooting, LaFollet ditched the pepper-spray and rolled left. Marcus got between her and the second shot; though the impact tore a bloody chunk out of him and knocked him against a booth, he looked more enraged than injured. Coming to a stop against the bar on her belly, LaFollet rested her elbows on the floor and fired, ripping a furrow across the man's left trapezius. It threw his aim off; the shell intended for her face instead blasted through the panelling of the bar. Yelping as splinters gouged into her scalp and neck, LaFollet fired again, taking him through the belly. Magnums grunted, but stood fast, lowering his aim.

God have mercy, he's got me! LaFollet realised, even as her fourth shot hit the man's thigh.


The chest of the Latino's T-shirt erupted in a spray of bone and gore; twin bloody patches the size of her palm were left behind. He grunted again. Looked down at the twin wounds. Turned a puzzled gaze over his shoulder at McKellar; she was raising her Gyurza shoulder-high, aiming for his head.

The last patron came at her then, drawing her attention back to her own predicament. Her assailant was built like Jonah Lomu, and the barbed tentacles already extending from each cuff under his hands marked him as part Zal'kiir. McKellar ducked a swinging tentacle. Her leg gave way, and she fell against the wall. Raised her gun again in both hands. Started unloading into the half-demon's body.

LaFollet thrust herself back to one knee and levelled her USP again, emptying her magazine at the Latino. Absently, she noted that her perceptions were off: she could see every detail of her opponent, the gore soaking into his shirt, the chipped tooth, the three-day stubble - but nothing else registered. She didn't even know she was screaming, a savage keen of fear and anger. Only five of the eleven rounds actually connected; hit all about his torso, the man rocked back but *still* didn't fall. With her USP's slide locked back, LaFollet dumped the empty magazine, dropped her left hand to her hip for a fresh one -

- his Smith flashed again -

- LaFollet felt a sudden *smack* against her left deltoid, knocking her arm and shoulder back - it felt like her brother had punched her. There was no pain, only a sudden warm ache. What the heck was that? she wondered distantly, her attention focussed on the new magazine she was slapping into her USP. The slide snapped back into battery, and she opened up again. Her first five rounds tracked up the Latino's torso from right hip to left shoulder, rocking him again. While he was still looking baffled by this development, LaFollet brought the USP down from recoil, set her sights square on the bridge of his nose, and fired twice more.

Magnums dropped like he'd been boned.

Christ, I never knew stopping someone with a pistol was so damn' hard! she thought wildly. A child of the TV age, she'd always believed the one-shot-one-kill myth perpetuated by the media. The ache in her left shoulder suddenly kindled into wet fire, and she stifled a gasp. Ahhhh! Dammit, I must've pulled a muscle or something -

Then she saw McKellar's straits and forgot her own discomfort. The Welshwoman was half-sprawled against the wall with the other patron standing over her, her Gyurza locking open even as the hulking brute jolted backwards, the round punching out between his shoulderblades.

Shit, she's empty! LaFollet brought the USP up again - unsteadily; her left arm didn't want to work properly - and fired into the behemoth's side, taking him low in the chest. It didn't stop him outright, but it got his attention. Even as he turned her way, she kept firing, this time single shots all deliberately aimed for the X-ring. Several rounds went past him harmlessly; others struck him in the chest, the belly, the arms. He didn't even seem to notice the impacts, just looking at her curiously, those - *tentacles*! - hanging from his cuffs whipping back and forth like they had minds of their own.

McKellar took the offered breathing space to reload, *fast*, and swung her gun back up; a split-second to think, and she shifted her aim. Four rounds ripped through his chest, about where a human's left lung would be; he choked, toppled backwards like a cut tree, and didn't move again.

With a satisfied smile, McKellar lowered the Gyurza and glanced LaFollet's way. Seeing Marcus getting to his feet again, she flung herself across the floor to where the SPAS-12 lay. Snatching it up, she rolled onto her side, racked a fresh shell into the breech, and took a careful bead on the vampire's neck. "Far enough, Marcus!" she cried.

Marcus Lucinius Valerianus had not survived twenty-five centuries by being foolhardy. He knew about modern weaponry; he knew a shotgun shell would tear his head from his body at that range. Raising both hands, he slowly got to his feet and backed away from LaFollet a couple of steps. "What of my value to you, McKellar?"

"Right now, it's debatable, Marcus. Be elsewhere for now."

Inclining his head, he acceded, heading for the back door.

"\You fucking shot me! I thought we had a deal!\" the fallen shotgunner spat at McKellar's back, blood bubbling from his lips.

"\The deal was just altered,\" she responded coolly, sitting up. "\And don't try to tell me you weren't planning a double-cross of your own.\"

"\You slut -!\" And with that snarl, he snatched for his purloined P9S.

LaFollet got there first, pumping two shots into the man's cheek and eye. His head virtually came apart; his whole body spasmed and went slack. She half-sighed in relief even as ingrained instinct noted the USP's slide-locked state and made her reload again. For some reason, her fingers wouldn't close about the fresh magazine properly, and she looked down.

"Blood?" she said in a mystified voice, looking at the red fluid streaming out under her cuff and over her hand.

"Sit back against the bar," McKellar advised.

Obeying dumbly, the detective looked down at her left shoulder, where she'd pulled her deltoid somehow. There was a red-rimmed hole in her coat. For a long moment, she simply stared at it in confusion, trying to think how the hell she'd got that.... "I'm *shot*!" she marveled.

"Yes. And with a .44 Magnum, no less; quite the way to start your combat career," McKellar smiled. She reached into the small of her back and unsheathed an oddly recurved knife to cut the coat away from the wound; beneath it, the sleeve of the detective's pale blue blouse was already soaked purple. "Thankfully, it would appear that the bullet neither expanded nor hit bone."

"H-how can you tell?" LaFollet asked. The room was spinning around her, and her stomach was churning.

"Your arm's still attached," the older woman said dryly, tearing LaFollet's coat and blouse-sleeve open to get a better look. "Uh-huh: right through the meat, in clean, out clean. I need -" She broke off, reached up, and snatched down the towel Clanton had left behind when he went to ground. Returning to where LaFollet sat, she ripped the sleeve completely off the younger woman's coat and wrapped the towel around her deltoid in a makeshift bandage. "There, that should hold you for now."

LaFollet nodded, ever more nauseous by the second as the pain and adrenaline-shock hit her. Dimly-remembered training made her lay the USP on her outstretched thigh and produce her radio with her good hand. It was a long, fumbling process; her whole body was shaking like a leaf in the wind, her hands most of all. "VDG f-from Henry Thirteen X-ray."

{"Henry Thirteen X-ray, go ahead."}

"O-officer needs assistance... 452 G-Garrison St. Shots fired... th-three suspects D-DOA, officer injured. Request H-Henry units... paramedics and meat-wagon." She barely heard the acknowledgement; letting the radio fall, she glanced sideways at the mangled bodies of the men she'd killed.


It hit her like a train. Good God above, I *killed* two men!

Cerian saw the direction of the younger woman's gaze, and her sudden pallor, and remembered her own first firefight oh, so long ago. Tying off the bandage was the final straw; she could virtually see the new wave of pain run up LaFollet's arm to her head and belly. Choking once, the detective turned away, leaned over onto her good elbow, and vomited up everything she'd eaten that day. When she could bring up no more, LaFollet coughed and spat a few times, pushed herself upright again, and wiped her mouth with her cuff.

"Feel better?" the relic-hunter asked, with an oddly maternal gentleness.

Despite herself, LaFollet nodded. She couldn't meet McKellar's gaze.

"I think it's probably best that that's out of the way," McKellar drawled. "Your brother officers wouldn't have let you live it down if you'd puked on their shoes."

LaFollet nodded again.

"You needn't be ashamed of it, Detective; it's normal post-combat shock, even trained soldiers go through it." McKellar smiled gently. "Hell, the first time someone shot at *me*, I wet myself."

LaFollet's eyebrows shot up. "B... But at the gallery -"

"I've been doing this for longer than you've been *alive*, Detective," the relic-hunter pointed out blandly. "Can you stand?"

"Y-yeah, I think so...." LaFollet picked up her pistol, levered herself to her feet, and (with McKellar's support) made it to a booth where she could sit more comfortably. Setting her gun on the table by her right hand and laying her left forearm across her lap, she jerked her chin at the third dead 'man'. "What th-the liv-living *fuck* was that?"

McKellar didn't answer immediately, instead moving down to the end of the bar to tear the posters down and stuff them in her coat pocket. Returning, she settled herself on a stoll at the bar and laid her own pistol on the counter. "By the looks of things, he was part Zal'kiir," she said off-handly. "Even as demons go, purebred Zal'kiirs are a nasty breed; they share some biological, physical, and even behavioural traits with Carcharodon carcharias, the great white shark. The tentacles are primarily for capturing prey, though they can be lethal weapons in their own right."

Only one word really, really sank in deep. "Demons," LaFollet repeated.

"Yes, Detective, demons. We haven't much time before your colleagues arrive, so I'll be brief. Marcus is a vampire, and an informant on their doings here. Sunnydale is atop a sort of magical hotspot called a Hellmouth, so there are a great number of vampires and demons here. I hunt them, along with a number of others; their existence on Earth predates that of the human race, hence my interest in antiquity. As long as demons have walked among us, so has the Slayer: one girl chosen by destiny, given the strength and skill and instincts to fight them and destroy them wherever they may appear. For the moment, the Slayer is my young colleague Buffy. Slayers are usually assisted by Watchers, an ancient society who find Slayers when they are young, train them for their destiny, and guide them once they come into their birthright."

"That e-explains the posters, I guess," the detective nodded. "So wh-who's this 'Faith'?"

"Well, under normal circumstances there can be only one Slayer at any given time, but there was a... mix-up, and she was Called. Unfortunately, the power went to her head and she came off the rails: she killed a man and repudiated the Watcher Council's authority over her. With great power comes great responsibility, and Faith forgot that - which is why she's in a coma."

LaFollet raised an eyebrow, but didn't speak as she tried to reassert her self-control.

"The Watchers exist to train the Slayer, to guide her. Slayers are usually chosen when they're about sixteen, so if they're not prepared for their roles properly... well, would *you* wish to deal with someone with the martials arts skill of Steven Seagal, the strength of Samson - and the maturity and emotional stability of a hormone-ridden teenager? Faith rejected the Council's authority to command her, and for the public good, we - they were forced to take drastic steps. Unfortunately, Buffy has also repudiated the Council's authority to command her, and without supervision it's only a matter of time before she goes down the same road."

"So why the S-Slayer? Why not let the police handle things?"

"Demons and the Slayer *predate* such concepts as governmental protection of the populace, and frankly, I don't think they would have worked too well in Sunnydale in any case. Do you remember how Mayor Wilkins was killed at the high school's graduation? That graduation was the culmination of a hundred years of plotting to turn himself into an all-powerful demon, though thankfully Buffy and her friends stopped him before he pulled it off. He'd been running this town for his own ends for the entirety of his reign, and I'd be willing to bet that he arranged the police here in such a way that most of the Department's people don't know the truth, and those who do were working for him to cover it up." McKellar shrugged and smiled crookedly. "Besides, Detective, everyone knows that demons and vampires aren't real."

"Okay: let's pretend, just for a m-minute, that this *isn't* completely in-insane. What the b-blue hell do I do now?" LaFollet's ears pricked up as she heard the sirens outside. Just in the nick of time, huh, fellas?

"I would advise you not to talk about it with anyone until you determine where their loyalties lay during the Wilkins Era. Read up on the subject of vampires, and learn from that reading; avoid anything written this century, there's far too much pulp out there that views these things as tragic heroes rather than heartless killers. The older legends are the most accurate. For the meantime... well, you have a cross and a pistol, so you're hardly likely to be chosen as a mark any time soon."

There was a screech of brakes from outside, then car-doors opened and slammed closed again; both women put their hands to their guns just in case. A moment later, a male voice called in through the doorway, "Police! Anyone in there?"

"LaFollet and an armed civilian! Come ahead - nice and easy!" the black woman added, readying the USP.

A Beretta preceded a chunky uniformed officer through the doorway. Seeing LaFollet and McKellar both lower their guns a shade, he sighed and put his own away - then took in the carnage and went green. "Jesus Christ!"

"Out of the way!" a familiar voice barked, and Little Bob shouldered the 'uniform' aside, sparing the scene only a passing glance as he searched for his partner. "Christ, can't you go *anywhere* without somebody getting shot?" he spat at McKellar sidelong, ignoring her quirked eyebrow as he crossed to LaFollet's side. "How bad is it?"

Stress, pain, and blood-loss notwithstanding, LaFollet gave him a caustic look. "Is there a *good* way to get shot with a .44?"

"Looks like *you're* gonna be okay," he drawled, checking her arm. Though the flow of blood was steady, it wasn't enough to be life-threatening.

"Hey, Sarge, look at this!" the 'uniform' cried, taking in the weapons the two Latinos had dropped.

"I already saw," he answered, mostly to himself. He looked right at LaFollet. "What happened?"

It came out as a babbling, near-hysterical rush. "I h-heard some chatter about this place earlier, and I thought I'd check it out for leads, so I came down here and th-the bartender gave me attitude and the bikers showed off the guns and I recognised Jack's HK and I figured they killed him and I tried to arrest them and this guy knocked my gun away and McKellar shot the guy with the shotgun and I killed the guy with the Smiths and -" LaFollet gasped for breath, hearing the tears in her tone and hating herself for the weakness.

Cerian, for her part, stifled a smile as she realised how to play this. This LaFollet was made of sterner stuff than she'd realised to hold things together this well, and knowing the cop mentality as well as she did, she secured the younger woman's acceptance by her peers with a few words. "Your partner gives me too much credit, Sergeant. I rather had my hands full with that big brute over there; it was she who put those two out of action."

"No shit?" the 'uniform' marvelled. "She did all *this* damage?"

"I always knew you were a hard-ass, Jan, but this is taking it a little far, don't you think?" Little Bob smiled, re-securing the makeshift bandage.

LaFollet looked up at him. Despite her fuzzy mental state, the implications of that statement were clear. I'm *in*! Three and a half years I've been the token 'sister', always on the outside - and now they're all going to let me in!

And Cerian smiled. Yes; her gratitude for this could prove *quite* useful....

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

01:22, THURSDAY AUGUST 26, LIMA (09:22/26-08-99 ZULU)

Even as she prowled among the headstones with unconscious stealth, Buffy was feeling decidedly scratchy. A whole day of research that had gone nowhere, because Cerian's books had held almost nothing on the desired subject; her Watcher in hospital, and the temp who'd been filling in for him had been nowhere in sight since late that afternoon; one of her best friends was heartbroken, and the other was taking over the 'Cryptic Guy' role Angel had left vacant; her Mom was desperately trying to get the gallery repaired and open again - All in all, this week has sucked in ways I hardly knew existed.

A sound ahead of her interrupted her internal gripe-session, and she automatically shifted mental gears. Slowing her steps, she sidled around the corner of a crypt to survey the situation.

Two men were kneeling on the grass by a headstone, looking down at something that was hidden by the grave-marker and the closer man's body. The farthest one was kind of side-on to her, and she took a good, long look at him. He was of medium height, stocky, dressed in a much-abused black denim jacket over a charcoal-grey sweater like Xander's and jeans that matched the jacket; the skin of his stern face was leathery from time and weather, and under a black 'FBI' baseball cap, his hair was uniformly iron-grey. His eyes, from what she could see, were dark - and very, very cold right now. But what made him most interesting to her eyes was the big, black Glock autopistol holstered at his right hip.

His companion wasn't looking Buffy's way, but from what she could see of him, he was a giant, at least as big and muscled as that guy Bear in 'Armageddon' and just as dark. His hair was shoulder-length, and a shade of black so dark that it reflected blue in the street-lights; like the old man, he was wearing jeans, but his jacket was leather, and very expensive at that.

" - it's the same fing, Toa," Old Guy was saying softly, in a thick Cockney accent.

Big Guy shrugged a fraction. Watching his shoulders move was like seeing a mountain-range rise and fall.

Old Guy shot him a sudden poisonous look. "Do you really fink I don't know vat? Vis is -"

Even as the older man spoke, Big Guy shifted his position a little, and Buffy caught a glimpse of something past his knee.

A child-size hand, lying loose and open on the grass.

Flames appeared before Buffy's eyes. Got you, you bastards! A stake leaped into her fist without being bidden, and she simply charged, making no sound. Her eyes were locked right between Big Guy's shoulder blades.

Old Guy looked up and saw her, and his eyes widened a little. Big Guy whipped around to look her way -

- Buffy got an impression of yellow irises -

- that reflected green, like a wolf's -

- then Big Guy *turned sideways to reality* and was gone in an instant.

Old Guy, for his part, stood up and took a defensive stance. "You must be -"

Buffy simply launched her fist at his face. He could talk *after* she'd beaten him to pulp. Or not. Right now, I prefer not.

What happened next happened so fast as to defy even Slayer senses.

Spinning aside to take his head out of her fist's path, Old Guy seized her arm by wrist and elbow, pivoted, and threw her over his shoulder, slamming her flat on her back on the grass with a lung-emptying *thud*!

"Look, Summers, you've got vis all wrong," he said reasonably, stepping back and half-raising his hands placatingly.

I'll bet! she snarled inwardly, sucking in a breath and snapping to her feet. She launched a spinning high kick at his head, a strike that had been the undoing of many a vampire. She had just enough time to see him duck it before, in the same flowing move, he swept her other foot from under her, and she again crashed to the ground.

"I'm tryin' not to 'urt you, y'know," he pointed out, again backing off.

"Makes one of us," she growled, surging back to her feet again and charging.

He caught her right fist as it drove for his belly, swept it outwards, and yanked her forward. His right forearm caught right her between the eyebrows, hard enough to daze her, hard enough to send sparks dancing across her field of vision. Grasping her shoulder, he yanked her past him, sending her stumbling into the side of another crypt. Her forehead bounced off the concrete, and again she saw stars. Before she could recover, he was there. His left fist hammered into her kidneys. An agonised cry escaped the Slayer as her back arched spastically. The ridge-edge of his right hand chopped in under her arm, catching her in the short ribs. Her lungs emptied with a convulsive *ooofff*! He brought his right arm back, then hammered a back-elbow into the nape of her neck, bouncing her head off the concrete again. Stunned by the double blow, Buffy dropped to her knees, frantically trying to sort it all out. Wh -?

Old Guy grabbed a fistful of her newly-short hair, lifted her a little, then caught her right under the ear with a carefully-measured knife-edge chop that turned all her bones to rubber. Letting her fall limp on the grass, he crouched by her side and smiled amiably, speaking in an off-hand tone that was somehow still deadly serious. "I'm not even 'ere for you, Blondie, and I just 'anded you your arse. You might want to fink about vat the next time you look at your trainin' schedule. Especially considerin' how light I let off. 'Ave a nice day." With that last little smirk, he patted her cheek in an insultingly avuncular manner, straightened up, and walked off without looking back.

It was a few moments before Buffy could even think of moving. What the hell just happened? she thought at length, slowly, painfully rolling onto her back and staring up at the stars as she took stock and gathered the energy to sit up. Her lower back was afire; her ribs jabbed her every time she breathed; her neck felt like someone had taken to it with a blunt axe; and a vice of pain was clamped on her forehead and the base of her skull. I'm the Slayer, and he tossed me around like a Cabbage-Patch Kid. I've fought vampires and demons and all sorts of beasts, but somehow he's faster than them all - hell, he's probably half-again faster than *I* am - and God, he's strong with it!

When, at last, she could trust her limbs, she levered herself upright and slowly, unsteadily moved over to where the child lay. She'd seen the autopsy photos, so she knew what to expect... but a photograph wasn't, couldn't be, any preparation for seeing the reality of a naked, bloody, mutilated eleven-year-old girl with a ribbon in the end of her pigtail.

How'd he do all that and not get a single drop of blood on him anywhere? she wondered absently, then dismissed the stray thought. It didn't matter. Okay, buddy, you were right: I wasn't ready for you tonight. Next time, I will be.

Part Ten

07:19, THURSDAY AUGUST 26, LIMA (15:19/26-08-99 ZULU)

"So where's your Mom?" Xander wondered, carefully setting an ice-pack to the Slayer's neck and the puffy bruises thereon. He'd appeared at her door ten minutes ago to find her still lying in bed, distinctly reluctant to move, and he'd only started asking questions *after* he began tending her injuries. Now, she lay on her belly on her bed in her sleepwear, her cheek pillowed on her crossed arms, Xander sitting next to her hips and thankful she couldn't see his expression. Even though the bruises were already turning yellow-brown instead of their original, savage red-purple, she looked like she'd gone twelve rounds with Apollo Creed. Jesus T. Kirk, did he have to go *this* far?

"She left me a note - she went down at the gallery half an hour ago. The contractors wanted to get an early look at the place, see what kind of a mess they needed to clean up. Thank God the cops are finally finished with the place," she responded, wincing as blissful coolness started spreading through her neck. She didn't know why Xander had shown up, but she was indescribably thankful that he had. She ached like each blow had been from a baseball bat, and the idea of moving to treat her injuries had *not* sounded like fun. Sighing in relief, she closed her eyes again.

"Makes sense. You actually slept like this?" he asked, piling ice into another tea-towel.

"Didn't have much choice," she drawled.

"Uh-huh. Hold that?" He set her hand to the first ice-pack, then scooted the next under her head; Buffy settled her bruised brow and blackened eyes onto it with another sigh, curving her free arm under her chin so she had space to breathe. "Where else?"

"Lower back and right side. I tell you, Xander, this guy was *lethal*! He was so fast I couldn't figure out what happened until afterwards, and he hit harder than half the vampires I ever fought."

"Yeah, well, I figured he must be a hell of a mechanic, Buff - because he *really* tuned you up," he commenting, rolling up the back of her cami-top to bare that injury. Kay-rist! He tried - and failed - to cover the whole of the bruise with both hands set flat, but he kept his voice normal. Somehow. "Hell, if he'd hit you much harder, he could've caused some permanent damage, Slayer or no. Any guesses about why these haven't healed yet?"

"You tell me, Mister FM21-11," she teased, gasping as he laid more ice across the hyper-sensitive small of her back. "Oooooooh! Coldness!" The sensation washed up her body like a wave, and she was aware (a little awkwardly) of how it left goosebumps and tautened nipples in its wake. Between that and the warm, gentle touch of Xander's roughened hands, she was feeling a little dizzy... and not entirely from the head-injury, either.

"That's the general idea about using ice, Buff," he chuckled, not knowing what was going through her head. He massaged the ice-pack a little, spreading it out. "Better?"

"Mmm-hmm," she nodded, lowering her head again. "Y'think that blood-magic stuff might be the answer?"

"Hmmm?" he wondered, gently rolling her top up further to bare the spot on her ribs. Both were very aware of how close this was coming to naughty touching. Buffy again firmly pushed those thoughts away. Xander, for his part, reminded himself that he was here to minister to his friend, not take advantage of her, and slipped back into his pose of professional detachment, gently probing the bruise to make sure nothing was broken.

"Well, Cerian said - uh! - blood-magic is to regular magic what crack - ah! - is to cocaine, right? Maybe he used it to become, I don't know, Slayer Lite? Normally I don't bruise at all, but this... maybe he used that blood-magic power to, y'know, counteract my Slayer defences?"

"Breathe in? Hold, two, three - and out. Well, there's no crepitus - the ribs should be okay. Yeah, could be," he said to her question, not sounding too convinced. "But don't get too locked into one explanation, Buff. Commandment VIII of our profession: Thou Shalt Never Assume."

"He said he took it easy on me. What 'nasty' is in his book, I don't think I want to know. And you just made up that 'Commandment', didn't you?"

"Actually, I borrowed it."

"From who?" She gasped again, louder, as that last icepack went against her side, heightening that goosebumpy feeling even further.

"I'll tell you some other time," he smiled, massaging the pack into place. That done, he ran his hand down her spine tenderly. "Just lie there and rest for a while, okay? Give that ice and the Advil a chance to do their work. I'm gonna go downstairs and call Wills and Cerian, get 'em over here so you tell 'em what's the what."

"Good thinking," she mumbled as he left, her voice muffled by the bedspread, thanking heaven that he couldn't see the effect that casual caress had had on her. I did *not* just have a whole bunch of sex-thoughts about Xander. I didn't. I absolutely did not.

Oh, God, who am I trying to kid?

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

Forty minutes later, freshly, painfully changed into real clothes and relocated to the living room, Buffy had just finished describing her abortive skirmish. Now that she'd had a bit more time to go over things again, she looked about as embarrassed - and angry - as she felt at being so easily disabled.

"You sure you're okay?" Willow asked intently, brow furrowed in concern.

"Yeah, I'm gonna be fine," the Slayer nodded, touching the still-fading bruises on her face. She'd been horrified at how she'd looked in a mirror.

Cerian's expression was thoughtful. "It's certainly something to think about."

Xander had listened to her recounting with keen interest, despite having heard it all before. "Buff, how smart was it to go out on patrol alone?"

She blinked at him. "Huh?"

"That first bullet on Tuesday almost took your head off. Given that there's somebody out there with a proven desire to blow you in half, was going out on the streets with no back-up really a good idea?"

"You needn't worry about the sniper," Cerian cut in before Buffy could respond. "I had a little run-in with the police last night, and they gave me some good news while I was in their care. It seems that some opportunist robbed and killed our sniper and burned his car with him in it."

"How do they know it was him?" Willow wondered.

"The owner of the house he shot from was executed to keep her out of the way. The remains of a pistol were found on his body, and it was a perfect ballistic match to the one that killed the house-owner."

"Sounds like *his* luck ran out," Xander grinned. "But still, Buff, you could probably do with some help hunting down those two behemoths."

"Nah," she said, shaking her head a little - then wishing she hadn't. Owwwh! "I'll be okay; I just need to stop charging in like that. More firepower wouldn't hurt, either. A couple of crossbow-bolts in the legs might make Mister Sorry-About-That a little easier to deal with."

"Sounds like a plan to me," Cerian smiled thinly. "What about his companion?"

Buffy described the second man as best she could, which didn't take long, and how he'd departed so unusually, which made Cerian's eyes widen. "Something you know?" the Slayer wondered when she was done.

"It sounds like accounts I've heard of 'slip-travel' - effectively teleportation. Only a handful of human magicians have ever been able to manage it, and there are precious few other creatures who can pull it off either... none of which match your description."

"Why's it so rare?" Xander frowned, oddly intent.

"The spells involved in the creation of a slip-gate involve moving the subject across both space and time, which is a business that is dreadfully delicate, *insanely* hazardous in all manner of ways, and shatteringly demanding of one's reserves of magic and stamina. Only a handful of human magicians ever managed it, and they all came a cropper in short order: they took one trip too many or too long and dropped dead of exhaustion on the spot, or they missed their destination by a hairs'-breadth and landed in a hostile environment - or never landed at all. The Watcher rumour-mill tells of people going on vision quests and encountering the shades of people who tried slip-travel and became lost in time, trapped between moments, and aware of it... for all eternity." Cerian shuddered. "A more hideous fate, I have a hard time imagining. Reliable slip-travel is usually confined to beings far more intimately acquainted with magical energies than humans, such as Archons, who directly serve the will of Fate and act in the furtherance of its wishes."

"No shit," he breathed, at once thoughtful and deeply impressed.

"So, this guy - thing? - is *really* dangerous, then," Buffy observed sarcastically.

"Not necessarily. As I said, slip-travel is highly draining, so last night's little stunt will have depleted most of his reserves. I'd imagine he's laid up in bed somewhere bending all his energy on keeping his heart beating. He's almost certainly incapable of wielding any significant magic for the next few days."

Xander mopped his brow theatrically.

"So, now what?" Buffy wondered.

"I'll have to go back to my storage lock-up and go back through my books for a reference that might give us some clues on this fellow's haunts and habits. I'm afraid the three of you will have to make your own fun in the meantime."

"We've got be somewhere soon anyway," Xander pointed out.

"Huh?" Buffy frowned.

"Well, they should have Giles up and about by now, walking him about, trying to get the last of the fluid out of his lungs," he explained. "I don't know if they'll let him have visitors yet, but we can try."

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

09:38:06, AUGUST 26, LIMA (17:38/26-08-99 ZULU)

:>>> SIGN-IN
USER-NAME: Colt []
PASSWORD: Loyalist
SIGNING IN . . . . .
- MacGyver []
- Orion []
- Fenris []
- Snoopy []
- Zorro []

MacGyver: Hey. How goes it?
Colt: Fairly well. I have a brief update on Team One's composition for tonight.
MacGyver: Hit me. :-D
Colt: No, thank you - I'd like to keep both my arms. :-)
Colt: Team: Amethyst (CO), Turquoise (2 i/c), Topaz, Emerald (driver), Diamond, Sapphire, + 2 demons, full-blood Zal'kiirs.
MacGyver: Nothing we can't handle, then. :-D
Colt: There's a fine line between self-assuredness and outright arrogance, y'know. :-D
MacGyver: Have you forgotten the combat environment we cut our teeth on?
Colt: Touché. :-J
MacGyver: Why the sharkies?
Colt: Amethyst wanted an extra safety-margin. For her peace of mind.
MacGyver: Come again?
Colt: The improvement(!!!) in Snoopy's skill-at-arms made her nervous.
MacGyver: My heart bleeds. :-D
MacGyver: I'll give Orion and Fenris the bad news.
MacGyver: Which reminds me - he gave B the *good* news last night.
Colt: !?
Colt: Who - Fenris?
MacGyver: No - my uncle!
Colt: Just as well - meeting Fenris like that could have been complicating.
MacGyver: We're not *amateurs*! [glower]
Colt: A thousand apologies!
MacGyver: There's no need for sarcasm.
Colt: There's no need to be a bitch, either.
MacGyver: [blink]
MacGyver: Since when are *you* so irritable?
Colt: [sigh] I'm just wound tight. Playing agent provocateur for this long hasn't been all that kind on my nerves. I'm sorry. What happened?
MacGyver: She happened across Orion and Himself while she was patrolling. She charged, Himself slip-tripped out of there, and Orion dropped her in six seconds flat. Nothing worse than a few bumps and bruises, but....
Colt: ... It won't improve her mood or Snoopy's. Got it.
Colt: Look, I've got to go before Topaz comes back on-line. I'll IM you tonight, once I've taken care of the other half of this problem. Luck!
SIGNING OUT . . . . .

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

10:11, AUGUST 26, LIMA (18:11/26-08-99 ZULU)

Topaz peered down the barrel of her field-stripped P-99, then ran a cleaning-brush down the bore one last time, whistling tunelessly as she worked.

"You *do* realise that that's the third time today you've cleaned that weapon, don't you, Colleen?" Emerald smiled, not looking away from her scanners and monitors.

"I'd rather not be caught out by a stoppage like Coral was," the brunette replied, smiling a little herself. "Especially not after the way Harris dealt with Spinel. Besides, it kills time, yeah?"

The Canadian nodded. "Yeah - this waiting's hard on the nerves. Never mind - only seven hours to go, eh?"

"Mmm." Finally satisfied with the state of her sidearm, Topaz started reassembling it. "I just... something just feels *off* about this, y'know, Lisa? Like our luck's gone sour?"

"How d'you mean?"

"Bloodstone and Jasper were supposed to snatch Harris at Dulles, yeah? But nobody's heard from them since and he turns up here, safe and sound, right in the nick of time to help smash Team-3. Then Peridot tells us that his swift action helped save Giles' life? I've read his profile: he was *not* that good nor lucky when he left. And let's face it, if we fuck this up and the 'Scoobies' or Opal don't get us, Onyx sure as hell will."

"The man's dedicated, Colleen." Emerald carefully adjusted a dial, tuning back into the S.P.D.'s radio chatter.

"Oh, yeah, he's a True Believer," the Irish woman sniffed, setting her half-assembled weapon back on the table. "He shops Zyrianova and McKellar Junior and goes straight to the top. The fact that his uncle's one of our most fervent supporters among our 'main-stream' brethren had absolutely *nothing* to do with it. God, he didn't even pull the trigger on them himself!" In fact, she realised with a faint frown, she couldn't remember him *ever* pulling the trigger on someone who wasn't one of their own operatives....

"Tell that to Ruby."

"I'll do that," Topaz muttered sourly. "Which reminds me: where's our Glorious Leader Amethyst, anyway?"

"Went into Sunnydale about half an hour ago... after making sure she still had her suite at the Sunnydale Plaza, making an appointment at a beauty salon and lunch reservations at an Italian restaurant, and calling an all-hours escort agency," the Canadian added blandly.

Topaz went back to reassembling her P-99 with a sly grin. "I've heard worse ideas. Hell, I might even follow her lead once we've got this done."

"I heard *that*."

Topaz chuckled for a moment, then put the final pieces of her Walther back together. "It doesn't alter my original point, though. I've got a bad feeling about this deployment, Lisa."

"Gawd, and I thought Opal was the only tea-leaf-reader around here." The comms specialist rolled her eyes and adjusted her gear again.

"Don't tell me you don't feel it too."

"Agate and Ruby fucked up, Colleen. It's that simple. We'll have the numbers on our side, and only Harris is anything like a threat. Once we put him out of things, it'll be plain sailing."

Sounds like famous last words to me, the cracker didn't say.

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

10:22, AUGUST 26, LIMA (18:22/26-08-99 ZULU)

Cerian glanced over at the pile of tomes she'd retrieved from storage. She'd chosen them very carefully... though the criteria she'd used in that selection process might have surprised her young companions. In any case, they would hold the Scoobies' attention for long enough.

In the meantime, there was... *something* niggling at the back of her mind, an unease about this whole affair that was too vague to be defined or articulated, and she needed to put that veiled spectre back in his closet. Which was why she'd also dug out her Tarot deck. Time to see what the night holds. She carefully settled herself onto the suite's couch and started unfolding the purple silk that swaddled the cards with deliberate motions, already losing herself in the mild trance that always accompanied a reading. She wasn't going to do a full pattern, but the ritual itself provided a sense of peace and calm, which was what she sought.

First, she quickly riffled through the deck and drew out the Magician, the card she thought of as best representing herself, and laid it face-down on the coffee-table. Skill, diplomacy and subtlety, strength of will.

Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes, shuffled the remaining seventy-seven cards, and cut them thrice, all the time keeping her mind on that simple question. What will happen tonight?

Exhaling slowly, she opened her eyes, took the top card off the deck, and laid it below the Magician. This first reading-card stood for the atmosphere and influences around her, things as they stood now.

The Moon! She blinked in shock: drawing one of the Major Arcana as the first card in *any* reading, much less a quicky like this, meant that something major was in the offing. Danger, hidden enemies, deception and error. Well, no surprises there.

To the left of the Moon fell the next card, which represented the immediate past, what had most directly caused the current situation. Page of Swords: perception. Someone vigilant and mentally agile, most likely a young man, was even now exercising those talents, somehow disturbing her designs. But who? Harris?

On the Moon's right was the immediate future, what would directly come of the circumstances as they stood. Knight of Swords: reckless action. A once-stagnant situation will be altered by bravery, wrath, skill, and defence - by whom? Of whom? - and destruction and ruin will follow. Something or someone will rue this night.

The far left was the deep past, the root of the whole matter. The High Priestess, reversed. Ignorance, conceit, and shallow knowledge brought me to this point - but whose, and of what?

Lastly, the card on the far right spoke to the long-term future, what would finally come of it all. The Lightning-struck Tower: false hope and mistaken ideas. Unexpected events will bring unwelcome change.

"But change for whom? Unwelcome to whom?" she mused aloud, trying to calm whatever instinct? intuition? was niggling at the back of her mind. I know who *I* think is going to get the short end of the stick, but this doesn't sound right. This is why I always hated having to deal with prophecies and divinations: all too often, they only make full sense after the fact.

Further contemplation was cut short by the ringing of her satellite 'phone. Blast! "Hello?"

{"Hey, Cerian!"}

"Buffy. What can I do for you?"

{"They wouldn't let us in to see Giles, so we're back at my place. Xander and Will are doing the research thing, but Xander just made a suggestion that made sense."}

"Which is frightening in itself, judging by all Rupert's told me," Cerian smiled.


"Sorry. What did he say?"

{"The way I got smacked around last night was kind'a embarrassing, and I don't have anyone to train against or anywhere to train *at*. That is, until Xander suggested I bring you in for sparring practice and rent a dojo for a few hours. You interested?"}

Cerian's mind went into high-gear for a moment. Knowledge of the Slayer's fighting style was always handy, and under the current circumstances - "I don't see why not. When and where?"

{"There's a place on Hamilton Street; Xander says they have some sparring rooms free today, though how he knows this is a mystery to me. Anyway, see you there at eleven? Xander and Willow are gonna stay on the research side of things while we're gone."}

"I'll see you there." Thumbing the disconnect, Cerian looked at the phone for a long moment, weighing her options. This could all be over by noon.... No. I've come too far to ruin things by acting precipitously now.

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

12:41, AUGUST 26, LIMA (20:41/26-08-99 ZULU)

Willow didn't even blink as the doorbell chimed. Xander looked up from the tome he was reading, shot her a glance, and made for the front door, shaking his head in wonder. As he went, he reached into the small of his back and produced the .45 Buffy had acquired for him, thumbing off the safety. It was unlikely the Shrikes would pull anything in broad daylight, much less at the Slayer's home, but Opal had always been the joker in the deck....

Standing against the wall next to the front door, he held the .45 against his thigh, out of sight but ready for rapid deployment. "Who is it?"

"Pizza, sir!"

He turned the door-knob with his left hand and cracked the door so he could identify the newcomer. Delivery uniform - blonde, average height, on the solid side, twenty-ish, lively face - not familiar, she doesn't match any of the photos they gave me. Probably not a bad guy. Not relaxing completely, he tucked the pistol back into the back of his belt and opened the chain. "Yeah?"

"Order for Harris at 1630 Rovello: one large deep-dish pizza, a ten-pack of bread-sticks with garlic sauce, one two-litre Coke," she chirped brightly. "Plus delivery charge and tax, it comes to $17.78, sir."

"Thanks." Xander counted twenty-five dollars into her hand and accepted the whole bundle of boxes and packets on the flat of his left hand. "Cheers. Have a good one, kid."

"Thank *you*, sir!" she said with gusto, tucking the spare five-spot into her pocket as she went.

Manuevering himself and his load back to the table with the ease of long practice, he set the whole lot down and looked at Willow for a long moment. She hadn't looked 'up' the entire time, and didn't now, her eyes locked on the display before her eyes, her fingers flying across the keys. After a few moments, he shook his head again and laughed softly. Put that woman in front of a computer with a job to do, and you could set off a *nuke* in the next room without her noticing. "Willow, you are priceless."

She looked at him past the data on her eyephones with a 'huh?' expression, then went back to what she was doing as though the comment hadn't registered.

Xander took a closer look at her and sobered. "Wills, you've been at that for more than four hours solid. Take a break, huh?"

"In a minute," she said distractedly, rattling the keys again.

"No, now. You only squint like that when your eyes are blurring on you, and I can see the tension in your shoulders from here. Knock it off for a while."

She turned her visored gaze back on him. "Xander, I'm -"

He cut her off sternly. "'But' me no 'buts', Rosenberg. Save what you're doing and turn the computer off."

"Oh, all right," she sighed, sounding very put upon, then logged out, shucked off her eyephones - then winced as unfiltered light struck her eyes, sending a tension headache stabbing into her temples like chisels. Whimpering, she rested her elbows on the table, put her face in her hands, and started rubbing her eyes.

Xander moved around behind her and started gently massaging her temples. Willow moaned and tipped her head back to give him better access, gasping as he found the worst spots, sighing as warmth spread from his touch to soothe away the pain and tension. After a minute or two of that, he started working his way down, carefully popping each of her neck-bones back into proper alignment with his thumbs as his fingers loosened the muscles that lay over them with strong, precise motions.

"Ohhh, Goddess, Xander, you have all day to stop that...." Willow leaned her head back against his chest, luxuriating in the controlled power of his touch; he'd always been good at this. "You're spoiling me, y'know."

"It's a dirty job, but someone's gotta do it," he smirked, his hands reaching her shoulders and carefully, deliberately digging out the knots stress and too much concentration had tied them into. "Slayerette job description, paragraph one, sub-section one, clause two."

"I ought to hit you for that... only all my bones are melting," she sighed. If this keeps up, he'll have to pour me out of this chair....

He chuckled at that but didn't comment. After a few more minutes that saw him minister to the upper portion of her back as well, he slowed his pace, then stopped altogether. That ought to do it. Besides, if I touch her any more right now I'm liable to do something that's stupid even for *me*.

Willow's lids flickered, and she stared up at him with eyes that were dark with a complex mix of emotions. "Xander...."

That look did *really* interesting things for his pulse, but dammit, for all sorts of reasons this was *not* the time! "Feel better?" he asked, more casually than he felt.

Disappointment flickered across her face and was gone just as fast. "Mmmmmm," she nodded, rubbing her cheek against one of his hands. "Thank you."

He shrugged. "You've been working so hard, I figured you deserved a little pampering. Which reminds me, pizza's here."

"Pizza?" she blinked, not really hearing him... then the smell registered. "Hey, *food*!" She started to bolt from her chair -

- and Xander's hands held her firmly in place. "But you're gonna stretch out first. You've been sitting in that same position for too long."

She gave him her best copy of Buffy's glare, and he shrugged off the death rays like so much rain. Sighing in irritated acquiesence - In some ways, it's kind of annoying how Xander 1.1 has twice the 'stubborn' of the original. - she obeyed, gasping as bones and joints snapped back into place with a series of crackling pops more felt than heard. "Satisfied?"

"It's a start," he said neutrally. "I've got some sweats in the Suburban; once we're finished eating, you can change into a set and we can jog a couple of blocks to make sure."

"*Jog*? Since when do you jog?" Willow blinked. "Since when do *I* jog?"

"Yes, you'd be surprised, and as of right now: a healthy body equals a healthy mind, Wills, and let's face it, the ability to run away from trouble is one we both need to cultivate," he added drolly, sliding off the edge of the table and deliberately stepping from between her and the food.

Shooting her lifelong friend a ha-ha look, she proceeded to almost bowl him over as she lunged past him, snatched away a bread-stick, and tore into it like a half-starved wolf.

Xander chuckled again. "And again I say: you're priceless," he smiled, opening the packet of garlic sauce that went with the bread-sticks. "I didn't know if you still keep kosher these days, so I got a Harris/Rosenberg special. That okay?"

"Xander, right now I'm so hungry *I* could eat Herbert," Willow smiled, opening the box. The 'Rosenberg' side was topped with beef, mushrooms, onions and green peppers; the 'Harris' added to those enough ham, bacon, Italian sausage, and pepperoni for three men - or one Xander. She smiled as an old memory occurred to her. "Hey, you wanna pizza-race?"

Xander blinked for a moment... then he remembered a tradition that was as old as the Harris/Rosenberg pizza itself, and he grinned predatorily. "You think you can beat me in a pizza-race these days, Rosenberg? You haven't managed it yet in thirteen years' trying!"

"You can't shut me down forever, Harris," she grinned, a competitive gleam in her eyes. "Pizza race."

"Oh, yeah, gingi - you're on!"

The rules of the Harris/Rosenberg pizza-race were pretty simple. Each contestant took one slice, and on the word 'go!' they tried to eat that slice as quickly as possible, crust included. The contestants could not roll their slice, nor interfere in their opponents' efforts in any way. The winner got first crack at the Coke and dibs on the last slice and any left-overs; the loser(s) had to get the glasses and ice for the drinks and clean up the mess afterwards.

The original Slayerettes grinned at each other as they took their marks. They solemnly saluted each other with their slices; then, after a steadying breath, Willow cried "Go!"

Despite being ravenously hungry, she was never really in the running; Xander had a bigger mouth, a black hole for a stomach, and no apparent need to breathe while eating. As always, he was finished a good five bites ahead of her and indulged in a celebratory 'burp!'. Willow finished her own slice and chided him with a look for that, as ever... and suddenly, they were both laughing. Xander leaned back on the table-edge and chortled like Muttley; Willow grasped at a chair and giggled helplessly at their silliness, at the feeling of... *rightness* that old game had brought to the fore.

"Da winna, and still da champ," Xander grinned broadly, feigning a damn-good Brooklyn accent, and started sniggering again. A moment later, he calmed a little and cocked an eyebrow. "Hey, how long's it been since we had a pizza-race, Will?"

Willow sighed and straightened a little, still smiling... mostly. "Too long. I don't... I don't remember us having one since Jesse died."

"Yeah, sounds about right." Xander sobered a little.

"I'll be back in a minute. Try to leave me some bread-sticks, okay?" Willow ducked into the kitchen.

When she returned with their glasses, Xander cracked the Coke and started pouring, tipping his head at the stack of print-outs she'd made in the past while. "What're you doing, anyway?"

The hacker accepted her glass and half-drained it without taking a breath. "Trying to dig up more on that tattoo those guys at the gallery had. There isn't much out there, but I remembered something Giles told me and played a hunch... and came up with these." She plucked up a roll of printout and handed it to him, then reached for another slice of pizza.

"More autopsy reports?" he puzzled, reading nonetheless.

She swallowed so she could speak clearly. "That top one was conducted almost three and a half years ago, in Napier, New Zealand."

"And?" He carefully didn't let on that she wasn't saying anything they hadn't already told him a good while ago.

"That's where the last Slayer was based, Xander. Look: the guy was killed on the night of September 25/26, 1995 - less than six weeks before the Slayer was shot - and look at how he died. He was killed bare-handed, by someone incredibly strong and very skilled." She raised her brows significantly. "And he had the same symbol as those guys on Monday night, in the same place on his body. He was wearing a shoulder-holster and magazine pouches, but the gun and ammo were gone."

"Yuh-huh." Xander started in on another slice of pizza, his mind's eye seeing how the man had met his fate. Swift, certain, and brutally efficient.

"And then there's this one, found in a poor district of São Paolo in October of '88: same tattoo, also killed bare-handed... but they found a gun in his hand, a SIG-Sauer P230. A *silenced* P230."

"What are you saying?"

The redhead set aside the bread-stick she'd been gnawing on and frowned a little, nibbling at her top lip. "The way these guys died, the way they were armed... I think maybe they were looking for the Slayer and found her, which was an 'Oops!' for them."

God, Wills, sometimes you're so smart it's scary! he thought, wishing he could tell her the full truth right there. She was so excruciatingly close, and on just these scraps of evidence, but she would never come to it on her own; even if she'd had all the pieces, she couldn't put it together the right way. One of the reasons he'd always loved Willow (on various levels) was that her mind just didn't work in terms of treason, intrigue and back-stabbing; it simply wasn't in her nature. "So they're what, assassins? Like the Order of Taraka?"

"That's my guess. Giles said Napier was the Slayer's turf in '95, and São Paolo was in '88; I'd have to check the Watcher Diaries to find more locations to see if the pattern holds, but for now, once is an accident, twice is coincidence -"

"Three times is enemy action," he nodded, completing a maxim Little Bob had been fond of. "What do we tell Buffy? I mean, we've already zapped four of these guys, maybe that's all there were." Gotta keep her thinking I'm in the dark, too, at least for now; Gawd only knows if the Shrikes have this place bugged....

"The sniper?" she reminded gently, then added, "And we both know that snipers usually work with a spotter, Xander, so there's at least one more out there."

"And one roach in the open means there's a hundred more under the stove. Vaffanculo!" he muttered.

Willow blinked. Rosella Valenza Harris' husband hadn't allowed her to speak a single word of her native tongue for almost fifteen years, so where the heck had Xander learned to swear in Italian? She absently filed it under 'To Obsess Over Later' and came back to the issue at hand. "And then we have to wonder, who are they working for? Who hired them to kill the Slayer - and two other Slayers, by the look of it - and why?"

"You assume they're hired," he pointed out. "There *are* other motivations."


"M-I-C-E, Wills," he said, then counted them off on his fingers. "Money; Ideology; Conscience; Ego. These guys killed an innocent bystander, so we can forget conscience straight up, but we're left with three possibilities. Money: they're being paid to do this. Always possible, but that leads us to ask who commissioned them and why. Ideology: they were ordered to or they believe it has to be done. Again, why? Ego: they're doing this for the prestige. Let's face it, taking out a Slayer makes for a lot of critters wanting to buy you drinks, but why the rest of us?"

"I don't know, and that's what bothers me," she admitted, tipping her glass for a refill. "Maybe Mayor Wilkins left some poison pills behind? Y'know, time-delayed orders?"

"Nah. Those 'Wanted' posters sound like his kind of spite; Wilky was a manipulator and a crazy, yeah, but going to this much trouble post-mortem? Nah. Besides, this feels like it's being actively directed."

"But by whom?"

"That's the sixty-four thousand dollar question, isn't it?" he shrugged. And the answer would probably shock you....

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

13:15, AUGUST 26, LIMA (21:15/26-08-99, ZULU)

Breathing a little heavily and coated in a layer of sweat, Buffy eased herself down onto the practice mats and probed her left thigh through her pants, stifling a wince as she found the fresh bruise. Cerian might be almost three times her age, but that also meant thirty years' more *experience*. With Buffy holding back much of her Slayer strength, the Welshwoman had actually given as good as she got. Maybe that's how that old guy did it last night. But who the hell *is* he, to be that good?

Cerian sat down next to her, just as gingerly, and pressed the heel of one hand to her ribs. Like Buffy, she was clad in sweats and a tank-top, both decidedly damp. They'd been at this for more than an hour, with pads work before that, and both women were feeling their exertions.

"You're not bad for an old chick," Buffy half-joked, swiping the sweat from her forehead. Her breathing was already falling back to normal, but then, so was Cerian's. Jesus, is she in shape! "I didn't know anthropology was such a *physical* field."

"Age and treachery will defeat youth and strength every time," the Welshwoman responded, with a crooked grin of her own. "And it's not, but staying fit is an imperative when you deal with people and demons as many and as varied as I do. Running away is *not* an ability to neglect."

The Slayer chuckled. "How's the leg?"

"You tell me, it was your arse I kicked with it," Cerian smirked, taking a long swig from a sipper-bottle of Gatorade.

"Dream on, Watcher chick," Buffy snorted. "If I'd come after you with my full strength, they'd be picking you up with a spatula."

"*Now* who's delusional?" Cerian gave Buffy a level look. "You *did* notice how I was fighting, yes?"

The blonde considered it for a second. "Yeah... every time I attacked you, you used it against me somehow, threw me or tripped me or countered. You didn't have all that much direct offence."

Cerian nodded. "Most of my training is in styles like aikido and jiu-jitsu, the so-called 'soft' martial arts. They're primarily defensive styles that use an opponent's own energy against them. You don't hurt them; they hurt themselves. If you hadn't been pulling your blows, you would've just hurt yourself more."

"Yeah, right," the Slayer sniffed skeptically... though privately, she did have to admit that maybe the older woman had a point. "Mind if I ask you something?"

Taking another drink, Cerian nodded. "Ask away, though I'm free not to answer."

"When Giles first heard you were coming, he went kind of, well, *postal*. He *really* doesn't like you for some reason - but he just wouldn't stop raving about your Slayer and your son. Why doesn't he like you? And what were they like, since he's so hyper about them?"

"You'd have to ask *him* that question, my dear. And Tatyana and Peter?" Cerian's colour began to rise as she remembered. "Tatyana was an arrogant, insolent, headstrong, hot-tempered, bloodthirsty, hidebound -"

"Hey, whoa - tell me how you *really* feel!" Buffy blinked at the venom in the older woman's voice.

Cerian coughed and took a breath to calm herself. "I'm sorry, I just - she and I just hated each other's guts on sight, and our relationship went downhill from there. Frankly, I was grateful that my cover necessitated my spending as little time with her as possible."


"The 'police' in Napier were in the pocket of the Ordo Astra, and they were actively hunting for the Slayer. If I'd spent any real length of time with her, it would have been noticed; they'd have traced my connections, discovered I was a Watcher, and we all would have had 'accidents'."

"So how did she do her job without a Watcher?"

"Peter was effectively her Watcher. They developed their own networks of informants, they planned and executed strikes against the Astra's strongholds... he even put together a field-reference on the various creatures they encountered, sort of a pocket-bestiary."

"What about prophecies and stuff?"

"They weren't an issue. Tatyana had a truly uncanny talent for being where the trouble was thickest, and she was so mercurial that prophecy simply didn't seem to apply to her until after the fact. It's rather hard to tie down a loose cannon, especially in the middle of a typhoon."

"And these Astra guys - were they really that nasty?"

"Oh, yes," Cerian said feelingly. "Not only were they firmly entrenched in Napier's infrastructure, and not only did they control the 'police', but their membership consisted almost exclusively of warriors. Most of the vampires you've fought were simply predators: they thought with their teeth or their cruelty, and they relied on their strength to carry the day against any opposition. The Astra bought slaves to feed on, which freed their time and mental energy for training and thinking like fighters. Any one of them had skill-at-arms that would at least match my own. The Astra date back to the Third Crusade, and their splinter factions are the ones that most plague us these days: the Spanish Order of Aurelius, Italy's El Eliminati, the French Fraternité du Sang, Scandanavia's Winternight.... Thankfully, Tatyana and Peter's efforts effectively broke the Astra's power; as far as I know, the Astra are a spent force these days, a mere shadow of their former glory, holding on to what little power they have by their fingernails. Not that the splinter factions aren't an issue these days, but the Astra were the only sept that ever truly terrified me."


"They had money." Cerian smiled crookedly. "Their leader, Freiherr Gerhardt von Hausmann, had been carefully investing his wealth since he returned from Jerusalem, and by the time he was forced to move to New Zealand after World War Two, he'd rat-holed enough money to buy half the world... and with that much money comes power, and influence, and connections. Stopping him was Tatyana and Peter's finest moment... for all that they did it completely the wrong way."

Buffy raised an eyebrow. "There's a wrong way to kill vampires?"

"Their last raid against the Astra turned into a bloodbath, Buffy. They decimated the Astra's troops and crippled Hausmann and his operations, yes... but the 'collateral damage' amounted to several *billion* dollars of destruction and damage, not to mention all the casualties. To this day, I don't know how they got out; Tatyana *fired* me that night, and I'm not even sure they made a report to my replacement on the matter before they were killed. It certainly never made it through channels before I was... *encouraged* to leave the Council." The relic-hunter set aside her drink and stood again, favouring her wounded leg only a little. "Well, have I punished you enough for one day, or are you thirsty for more pain?" she asked, her tone distinctly challenging.

Buffy caught the 'that subject's off-limits' in the older woman's manner, put it aside for later study, and bared her own teeth. "Lady, *Faith* couldn't beat me; what makes you think *you* can?"

17:48, THURSDAY AUGUST 26, LIMA (01:48/27-08-99 ZULU)

"Are you sure you're okay with this?" Willow asked, accepting the hair-clips Buffy offered to her. "I mean, with what we found out earlier -"

The Slayer cut her off with a level look. "Will, if that tattoo bunch are after me, being away from me makes you two safe. And if they're after all of us, well, they're not gonna come after you two in the middle of a mall."

"I'm just getting started on my research -" the hacker began.

"And it'll still be there tomorrow," Buffy countered. "Besides, I can barely get my head around what you've already come up with. Do I even want to know how you got some of that stuff?"

Willow quashed a smile and shook her head. She'd taken the fingerprints from the autopsy records she'd discovered and cross-referenced them against the NCIC, Interpol, FBI, and a half a dozen other databases without leaving even a whisper of a trail. She'd pulled up files on all six of the 'tattoo bunch' that she'd been able to pin down, and that reading had been both baffling and frightening. They came from all over the planet, and had a bewilderingly wide range of specialities; all they seemed to have in common were those tattoos, a propensity for violence, and (if their rap sheets were anything to go by) a complete lack of scruples or moral qualms about exercising that propensity... or selling it to anybody who could put enough zeroes behind a number. "But, Buffy, if these guys are in town -"

"I seem to remember some people throwing me a *birthday party* in the middle of a crisis because we all needed to relax," the blonde noted with a smile. "Okay, things didn't turn out so well, but you tried, and I owe you the same consideration now."

About to keep arguing, Willow fell silent as the Slayer's face started to harden; she sighed and nodded. "Okay, okay.... Maybe Nemo's right: maybe I *do* have 'an overdeveloped sense of responsibility'."

Buffy nodded, grinning crookedly at the choice of words. "He said exactly that? I may end up liking him after all." Shaking off the semi-random thought, she held up a set of earrings for Willow's scrutiny; the redhead nodded in approval, and Buffy handed them over with a tiny smirk. Who da Slayer? At least I can still get *some* things right. And so can Xander, she added privately, taking in Willow's outfit (courtesy of said Xander): leather pumps, cranberry jeans that were just snug enough to draw attention to her legs and curves, a white blouse open at the throat, and a form-hugging pale purple sweater, along with the sapphire necklace and the silver hair-clips. Well, it's not 'dressed to kill'... but she's sure not going to go out with a bag over her head, either! "Just how dressy is this thing, anyway?"

"I'm not really sure," the hacker shrugged, donning the earrings. "Nemo and Shooter don't go for formal places too much, but I don't know where we'll be going after dinner. They were going to play things by ear - they do that a lot."

"No. Really?" the Slayer mugged outrageously. "I'd've *never* guessed."

"Okay, you've been taking too many sarcasm lessons from Xander," Willow smiled.

"Like the fitness lessons *you've* been taking from him?"

"Don't remind me," she groused, remembering the humiliating showing their 'jog' had been. Despite Xander setting a very gentle pace, she'd been sucking wind when they finished the two-and-a-half miles he'd insisted on, while he hadn't even been *sweating*, damn him! "I hope he's not going to make a regular thing out of that. I *like* being able to breathe!"

"He does have a point about the whole 'ability to run away' thing, Will."

A high-performance engine Dopplered closer, then downshifted and pulled up out front, idling like a roll of distant thunder for a moment before shutting off. Beep be-be-beep beep - beep beep!

Willow shook her head, laughing inwardly. That man's sense of humour....

"What the heck kind'a car is that, anyway - Corvette?" Buffy wondered, trailing her friend towards the front door.

When they got outside, the two new arrivals were lounging against their vehicle (Nemo half-sitting on the driver's side of the hood, Shooter leaning on the passenger door) and Xander was on the sidewalk a couple of metres from either of them, talking with the duo, albeit quietly; if gestures and body-language was anything to go by, Xander was exceedingly tense about something, and Nemo was doing his best to mollify the younger man. Shooter spotted the two women emerging from Willow's house (Willow turning to lock the door and set the alarm) and said something that silenced both men instantly; Xander gave Nemo a last glare and turned to face his friends, suddenly radiating 'cool'. And what're they talking about? Willow wondered to herself, her main attention on what she was doing.

Buffy got a good look at Xander and froze in her tracks. "Oh. My. *God*!" Her voice was part breathless prayer, part plea.

"No, Buffy, it's an emerald-green XJ6 Jaguar. Shooter's quite taken with -" The sentence died as she turned and saw what the Slayer had - and whimpered a little. Have mercy....

Xander had gone for Drop Dead Gorgeous 101 when he dressed for this occasion - and he'd nailed it.

Truth be told, his clothes were nothing really out of the ordinary: black workman's shoes, like-new black jeans, a grey T-shirt, and a black denim jacket to match Shooter's (only with a shield-shaped Cross of St. George at the right shoulder). But more than the clothes, it was the way he wore them: with an almost cocky ease, that same 'I'm so cool I don't need to prove it' attitude he'd had at the gallery. And it *worked*.

Buffy was right: oh, my God indeed, the hacker thought distantly. That outfit was just snug enough to outline a *killer* body; suddenly it was *far* too long since she'd explored it, and her hands itched to discover the improvements since - No! I can *not* be standing here lusting after Xander!

Even as the Slayer and hacker were coming to a sudden halt on the path, Nemo looked past Xander, blinked, and frankly stared at Willow. Xander turned to follow his gaze, and his mouth dropped open a fraction. Shooter took in their reactions, rolled her eyes behind her glasses, and half-launched herself from lounging against the Jag to standing on the footpath, grinning like a maniac and moving with catfooted surety even in black cowboy boots. She wore her black denim jacket tonight, and though meticulously clean, her jeans and blue-on-red flannel shirt had seen better days. "Hey, Willow!"

"Oh wow," Xander breathed, his bemused gaze locked on his childhood friend.

"You ain't just whistlin' 'Dixie'," Nemo agreed fervently. Barring his jacket and eyepatch, he was dressed all in pure white, even his sneakers; he almost looked like 'Andrew' out of 'Touched by an Angel'.

"Hello, Buffy," Shooter added, without much warmth, then looked back to the hacker, appraised her for a long moment, and jerked her head back at the two men. "I think I know what they're trying to say."

"What's that?" Willow wondered, stifling a smile.

The older woman let out a long, lingering wolf-whistle.

"Really? Thanks. No-one's ever given me one of those before."

"An oversight *I'd* be happy to correct," Nemo leered comically.

Xander leaned over and casually clipped the older man over the ear, almost dislodging his eyepatch. "Be*have*, boyo: you're a married man."

"Ah, who asked ya?" Nemo jeered, hurriedly putting his face back to rights. "Y'ready, kiddo?"

Willow hefted her handbag; small though it was, it was still large enough for her purse, an emergency stake, and a couple of other items. "Yeah. That Cantonese place at the mall, right?"

"That's the one," Shooter nodded, frowning a little. "You're not riding with us?"

"No, I, uh, kind'a invited Xander along, he'll drive me. That okay?"

"Shouldn't be a problem," Nemo shrugged.

"You guys go ahead," Xander suggested. "We'll drop Buffy back at her place and meet you there."

"Right-o." Nemo sketched a jaunty little salute Willow's way - not *quite* ignoring Buffy - and wasted little time about climbing into the Jaguar.

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

17:58, AUGUST 26, LIMA (01:58/27-08-99 ZULU)

"Who the hell designed this place, anyway?" Shooter groused. "The only access to the ground level from the mezzanine is at the *other* end of the building from the parking structure? Don't they teach common sense at architecture school any more?"

"You presume they ever did," Nemo murmured dryly. "Which reminds me - you remember the time we went fishing with the Pom?"

Judging by the way she started sniggering, she did, and Nemo grinned himself as he turned to the two Slayerettes as they walked. "This was, oh, almost four years ago now. We used to live in a port city, and every man and his dog had a recreational fishing boat, right? Anyway, this English joker in our trade comes out to visit us, and we took him out on the bay one day when we all needed some down-time. There's the two of us, the Pom, and the boat's owner, and we've been out there about three hours when gorgeous here hooks this eleven-foot thresher shark. The boat's owner gaffs the thing aboard and drops it right in the middle of the deck, *bam*.

"Well, the Pom, he takes one look at this thing writhing about on the deck, all black eyes and grey skin and a mouth full of teeth - *BOOM*, he piles straight over the side. The three of us look each other askance, then she" Nemo tipped his head at his wife with a smirk, "goes over and leans her elbows on the gunwale. 'What're you doing in there?' she asks.

"'I'm not getting back on board until that thing gets off!' says the Pom."

He even mimicked the man's public-school accent perfectly, and it sounded vaguely familiar. Willow was listening attentively, her eyes dancing and almost choking on her giggles as she imagined the man's expression; Xander was stifling a grin as he imagined the torment he could inflict with this story.

"Being the sick bitch she is," Nemo continued, grinning ever more widely, "she turns back to the two of us, gives us this evil grin, then leans down to him and points out, 'You *do* realise that all his mates are in there with you, right?'

The face that Nemo made, mimicking the Englishman's expression, was enough to send Willow into another burst of giggles. "'*Oh*!' he says, in that plummy accent of his. 'I never thought of that!' He takes one quick look around, sees how much Pacific he's swimming in, imagines how many *other* things are swimming in it - and he comes out of that water like a Polaris missile!" the eye-patched youth cackled, so hysterical at the memory that he couldn't speak for a few moments. "It was just as well he'd brought some dry clothes, but we didn't let him live it -" His voice died, suddenly and instantly. Shooter followed his gaze, and she likewise went still.

Xander keyed off the pair's suddenly screamingly tense body-language and followed their eyes - and he, too, went rigid. A pair of the mall's security guards were approaching... and both he and Willow recognised the taller one.

Moreover, they both wore the ochre-trimmed beige jumpsuits of Stormhawk Security officers.

"Well, well, well," smirked the larger Stormer, a blocky, square-faced blond fellow with a complexion that had known too much sun and a midsection that had known too much beer. "I should've figured you'd sink to your natural level sooner or later."

Xander smiled thinly. Had that comment come at him before his trip, his voice in reply would have been defensive and fearful; now, it was cool and controlled. "Funny; I was about to say the same thing to you."

The blond blinked. For as long as he could remember, this little mistake had been his whipping-boy, meekly, mutely taking all the invective and belittlement he'd cared to heap on him. Back-chat was completely unprecedented - especially back-chat in so calm a tone. "Jealous that *you'll* never have a real job?"

Oh, am I gonna enjoy *this*! Xander smiled inwardly. For as long as he could remember, *this* had been the terror of his life - not vampires or demons, but a man who'd heaped scorn and ridicule on a child he'd never wanted, who'd tried to make himself feel bigger by making his own wife and child feel worthless. Nothing had ever been good enough: every effort, successful or not, had met with derision and scorn; every quality, every flaw, was twisted into grist for the mill whenever this bastard needed to feel a little better about his life. And now, after living as his own man for a goodly while, he knew he *could* hack it on his own, that he *could* do it right - and now, looking this... *individual* through the eyes of that new man, rather than those of a frightened child, he saw that not only was the man *physically* smaller than he'd once thought.... He took a fine, fiery, passionate woman and battered her, emotionally *and* physically, until the only time she can stand up to him is when she's half-trolleyed; he damn' near had me convinced *I* was worthless - Jeez, talk about your Size-7 body and Size-8 ego in a Size-4 soul!

... which means he should feel right at home in that uniform, too. "Stormhawk, a *real* job? Oh, puh-leese! If it were anybody else, I'd suggest you find something more respectable - like cleaning sewers with your tongue, perhaps?" (Willow choked and went pale, staring at Xander with wide eyes.) "But then again, that would require some actual *competence*, wouldn't it? And that's something you've never possessed. No, working as hired muscle for drug-dealers and slave-traders, that's more your métier."

"Who the *fuck* -!" started the shorter Stormer, in a pronounced German accent.

"Choke it, Stasi boy, this isn't your concern," Nemo inserted coldly. He'd spotted the blond's name-tape.

"And what the hell would you know about uniformed service, you little shit!" Blondie snarled. "When I was in the Navy -"

"When you were in the Navy, you were a Petty Officer, *Third Class* - and 'third class' was about right, too." The contempt on Xander's voice was bitingly cold. "I did some checking while I was away, *Ryan*, and I found out you were cashiered for selling *tyres* on the black market. You had access to the base's entire logistical system. You could've stolen fuel, spare parts, weapons, vehicles... but you didn't have the imagination or drive to do any better than tyres for a deuce-and-a-half. You couldn't even do a proper job of *fucking up*!"

"Says a boy who barely scraped together eight hundred SAT points," 'Ryan' jeered, shifting his stance a little as he remembered how to *really* aggravate this boy and psyched himself for the reprisals. Nemo's eye narrowed suspiciously as the man's hand dropped to the nightstick sheathed at his hip.

Xander caught that too. Go ahead and pull it, asshole; it *might* just even the odds... but I doubt it. "I can and will retake my SATs; you'll never have the chance to redeem *your* failures."

"Including you." Ryan's sneer turned on Willow as he played his trump card. "I should've figured you'd shack up with *her* sooner or later. Little Christ-killer always did go down faster than a hooker on a hundred-dollar tip."

All four youths went still. Willow was pale with shock, Xander with restrained fury. Shooter and Nemo were both watching the blond with expressions that were ominously blank.

"Do yourself a favour: *don't* go there," Xander breathed, far readier for action than the Stormers knew.

"Oh, come on," Ryan smirked, misjudging the boy's stillness. "Why else would you be around her? You never learned anything from her, you never got any status from being around her - the little kike slut must've -"

Xander MOVED.

Ryan was half-expecting the boy to attack, but not so *fast* - nor so well. He'd barely started pulling the nightstick when the heel of Xander's right hand smashed his nose flat, sending him reeling. His left fist hammered into Ryan's belly, though the blow was blunted by the Stormer's Kevlar vest. Xander's right hand chopped down like an axe-blade, snapping the man's collarbone; the blow flowed into an elbow-smash that mashed Ryan's lips and broke three teeth at the gumline. A knee drove into his groin like a battering ram, doubling him over with an agonised croak.

Even as Xander reached the older man, the German was grabbing for his pistol. Willow reacted instantly, going stock-still as she focussed all her will and magical power onto one tiny task: keeping the holster's retaining-strap closed. The German tugged at the 9mm once. Blinked as it didn't move. Tugged again. Looked down -

- And Nemo was there, seizing the man's wrist and twisting it into a vicious hammerlock in one deft move. "I said 'leave it alone', boyo; this is a family matter," he purred into the man's ear, and his smile was not a pleasant thing to see.

Xander stripped the nightstick, pistol, and handcuffs from Ryan's belt in swift, precise moves, tossing the nightstick into a nearby trash bin. Ejecting the magazine from the P-99, he worked the slide to clear the chamber and tossed the ammo to Shooter, who caught it with casual ease. That done, he hauled Ryan back upright with a strength that widened Willow's eyes, whip-snapped the man's own handcuffs onto his wrists, ratchetted them tight enough to draw blood (and another croak of agony), and laid a forearm like an iron bar across the older man's throat, bending him so far back over the railing that he could see the food-court - and the thirty-foot drop thereto - out the side of his eye.

"A fall from this height might not kill you outright," Xander said in a soft, casual voice - with oddly British intonations. "Might not even break your neck or back, if you don't land on a table or something like that. Hell, that Kevlar vest you're wearing might even save you punctured lungs." His voice was all the more dreadful for its softness. "*Might*. But understand this: you do not own me anymore - *I* own *you*. From this moment on, you are nothing to me. If you have any shred of wisdom in your soul, you will keep it that way. Because if I am forced to notice you again - say, if you ever, *EVER* say anything about my friends, much less Willow Rosenberg - I will rip your lungs out through your arse and your balls out through your nostrils. I give you my word as a Sicilian."

And for perhaps the first time ever, Ryan Harris really *saw* his son... and was afraid.

On the heels of that last hissed promise, Xander shoved himself back from the blond man and let him collapse against the inside of the railing, watching as he almost blubbered in terror. A tiny part of him was ashamed of how much he'd enjoyed that. Another part knew that it had needed doing for a long time.

Shooter casually lobbed the P-99 mag and loose round into a nearby planter-box and looked at Xander with a crooked smile. "Sicilian?" she asked idly.

"My mother was born outside Messina," Xander smiled crookedly, field-stripping the Walther in a few sure moves and dropping the pieces into the trash bin. "Hell, the name on my birth certificate is 'Alessandro'."

"Feel better?" Nemo asked, just as off-handly as his wife, releasing the German. Wild-eyed, he half-scrambled away from the youth with the eyepatch and went to assist his partner.

"It's closure," the Scooby shrugged, looking to Willow, instantly back to the dapper, slightly daffy young man he'd been a couple of minutes ago. "You okay?"

She nodded, massaging one temple - working magic was *always* a strain, and trebly so from a cold start - even as she regarded him with amazed eyes. "Where did you - *when* did you -"

"I'll tell you when we have some privacy, okay?" Xander suggested gently. "Sorry about that, folks. Shall we move on?"

Nemo considered the suddenly diminished blond for a moment, cleared his throat - then spat full in his eye and turned back to his companions. "Absolutely. There's nothing *here* worth our time."

"What happened to that second joker?" Shooter wondered as they moved away. "It was like he couldn't get his holster open."

"Maybe he fumbled it," Nemo shrugged.

Xander glanced at Willow, saw her pained expression, and knew better. "You?" he breathed sidelong, knowing the other pair were safely a pace or two ahead.

The redhead nodded a little, rubbing her temple again. "It was all I could think of."

"Hey: even the little things count, especially at times like that. You always were switched on," he smiled, squeezing her shoulder. "You did great!"

And despite her sudden fatigue, Willow smiled.

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

"Well, *that* was certainly interesting," Emerald muttered. She and Topaz were sitting in the food-court below, looking like a couple of dateless yuppies; despite the bad angle they'd seen, if not heard, a fair deal of Xander's part of the incident.

"Christ, that boy's too dangerous to trifle with," the brunette decided. "If he gets even a fraction out of line, we'll have to sanction him right on the spot or this could all blow up in our face. Why the hell don't we have tranqs for this, since Opal's so dead-set on the 'firebug' plan?"

"Ask Onyx; he was the one who requisitioned our gear." Emerald turned her attention back to her steak sandwich and fries. "But once you do, stand aside so I can kick his ass?"

Her companion snorted eloquently. "What's that phrase you North Americans use - 'take a number'?"

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

A smiling waiter led the quartet to their reserved corner table, and Willow noted, almost absently, that Shooter and Nemo took the two seats that faced the front door. What's that about?

The waiter hovered for a moment, and even as he settled himself into his seat, Nemo was speaking to the man in Cantonese, going on for almost half a minute solid before dismissing him.

Xander had listened to the monologue intently, and smiled crookedly as the waiter disappeared into the kitchen. "All of that, huh?"

The scarred man arched the brow above his eyepatch. "Well, there's four of us, and we want to be sure *everybody* feeds well, right?"

"What'd I miss?" Willow wondered.

"Polyphemus here just ordered some appetisers-slash-side-dishes."

"??" eeped Willow - a linguistic feat that impressed all present, even Nemo.

"What's wrong?" Shooter wondered, mystified by the redhead's reaction.

"Polyphemus was the Cyclops Ulysses blinded in the Odyssey." Willow was still looking at Xander strangely. "Classical literature, Xander? And since when can you speak Cantonese?"

"You'd be surprised," Nemo said smoothly. "That Pom I mentioned earlier? Joker was a four-eyed geek, and his idea of a fun hobby was milking snakes for anti-venin. The reason that truth is stranger than fiction, Willow, is that there is no requirement for it to be consistent."

"Samuel Clements, AKA Mark Twain," Xander declared.

"*Ding*! Fifty points to Harris!" Nemo grinned in a Game-Show Host voice.

Shooter rolled her eyes indulgently, but had no time to comment before the waiter returned with a tray. Smiling at everybody, he laid several bamboo baskets on the turntable at the centre of the table, handed out menus, and disappeared again. He reappeared again an instant later, setting a steaming pot of green tea at the centre of the table. Xander tapped his middle finger on the table; the waiter noted it and shot a slightly puzzled look at Willow, but Xander repeated the gesture. The waiter shrugged and vanished yet again.

"What's that with the finger?" Willow wondered, before surveying the rest of the newly-arrived items. "And what the heck -?"

"The finger-tapping is a standard gesture in Hong Kong and Cantonese food etiquette, thanking the waiter for delivering the tea. Middle finger only if you're single, middle and index if you're with a date," Xander smiled, demonstrating. "A dim sum meal isn't really complete without tea."

"And you know this how?"

"Something I picked up in my travels," he said easily. "And these" (he waved a hand at the bamboo baskets) "are the appetisers. Dim sum - the ish, the real deal, not that ersatz stuff you get in cardboard cartons or a self-serve smorgasbord. So, what'cha get?" he asked Nemo, eyeing the baskets. "My Cantonese is a *little* patchy, so I didn't quite catch all that."

Nemo chuckled and started lifting the lids on the baskets, pushing back them towards the centre of the table as he identified each. "Four servings to a basket, people, so don't be shy about grabbing what you like. That first one's gàisi cháumin, fried crispy noodles with shredded chicken, really nice stuff. Over here we have hà gáu, shrimp dumplings; this one is... chà sìu bàu, barbecued pork buns, I guess that one's optional for you, Willow... ho yip fan, which is rice wrapped in lotus leaf; and this last one is cheung fan, steamed rice flour rolls with, uh, shrimp filling by looks of it."

"Go ahead and tuck in," Shooter urged.

Having received his hosts' permission, Xander obeyed eagerly, grabbing chicken for himself and dumplings for Willow. "We can decide on our 'mains' while we snack," he suggested to Willow, handling his chopsticks confidently. "Communal dishes, or individual?" he asked Nemo.

"Either," the smaller man shrugged, then explained to Willow: "In Chinese culture, meals are social occasions, and ordering a dish for yourself is considered selfish unless you're among close and dear friends; usually, everybody orders at least one dish, and anybody can have a whack at it."

Willow nodded, impressed at (and filing away) his knowledge of another culture as she tried to read the menu, absently spearing a dumpling with her fork. (A moment's thanks for the restaurant's thoughtful - and tactfully subtle - provision of both chopsticks *and* forks for their patrons.) "Am I crazy, or are they actually offering *pigeon* on the menu?" she blinked.

"You say that like one would preclude the other," Nemo murmured playfully, then flinched as Willow gave him a good-natured kick under the table.

Shooter noted the by-play with a smirk, but her main attention was on the menu-item Willow had commented on. "*Outstanding*," she said with relish. "Don't knock it 'til you try it, Willow; you'd be how surprised how tasty roast pigeon with lemon sauce actually is. Tell you what, I'll get some and you can try it if you like, 'kay?"

"Okay," the hacker nodded, not convinced.

"Hey, they're cheating!" Nemo said lightly. "They market this place as 'authentic Cantonese', but at least three of these dishes are from Chaozhou!"

"Will you *please* suspend your thorough-going attention to detail for five minutes?" Shooter wailed, though less plaintively than she might have; both Scoobies stifled laughter.

"You were singing a different tune last night," her husband murmured, a wicked glint in his eye.

"No, I was *moaning* a different tune last night!" she countered shamelessly. Both Nemo and Willow went a little pink; Xander tried to snicker and almost choked on a piece of chicken. "Of all people, my beloved, *you* should know that I sing about as well as a troll tap-dances."

Xander finally cleared his windpipe and cocked an eyebrow at the Russian. "Wouldn't that rather depend on the troll?" he asked thoughtfully.

There he goes again! Willow noted with a tiny frown. She'd first noticed it at the hospital that first time and thought she'd imagined it, but as she'd kept listening over the last few days, she grew more certain. When Xander was worked up or he wasn't paying full attention, his voice took on *British* intonations. It's almost like he's spent a long time living with a group of Gileses, but he's only been gone six weeks! What the heck is going *on* with him?

"Remind me to introduce you to Detritus some time, Xander," Nemo drawled.

"'Detritus'?" Willow blinked.

"He's a character out of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels. Before he became a cop, a pub called the Mended Drum used to employ him as a splatter." Off Willow's perplexed stare, he clarified in a deadpan voice, "A splatter is like a bouncer - only trolls use more force."

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

Turquoise cocked an eyebrow at the quartet's general snigger. "They're certainly comfortable enough," he murmured into the microphone in his cuff, masking it as a yawn. The one-time CIA man was sitting alone three tables over, dressed in battered jeans and a flannel shirt, playing the part of a blue-collar joe.

{"Is there any reason they shouldn't be?"} Topaz asked from outside.

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

19:24, AUGUST 26, LIMA (03:24/27-08-99 ZULU)

It didn't take too much effort to locate the Slayerettes and their companions. All you had to do was look at the knot of appalled spectators at the bank of interlinked 'Daytona' racing-game machines... and listen for the voices.

"MOVE OVER, BLONDIE!" Shooter snarled sidelong, doing her level best to put Willow's car into - and through - the guard-rail.

"IN YOUR DREAMS, GREASE-MONKEY!" the Wiccan returned in a like tone, her hair flying about her face as she shot a quick, sidelong glare at the older woman.

"Who knew Willow was *this* ferocious?" Nemo wondered in a distinctly bemused voice, peering over the back of the redhead's seat as she controlled her skid, stood on the gas, and rear-ended Shooter's car at almost 160 MPH.

"I guess you've never seen her really mad," pointed out a wild-eyed Xander, watching Shooter's car do a back-flip before landing upright and continuing the race. "I seem to remember an incident with a baseball bat in our sophomore year...." Each of the women seemed more focussed on trying to put the other out of the race than on actually winning it. But then, Nemo could have predicted that anyway: his wife was one of those people who gave 150% to *everything* she did, and her enthusiasm was a contagious thing. It looked like Willow had caught a massive dose and simply decided to go with it.

"Aw, Christ!" yelped the other racer in the match, a thirty-ish, tow-headed guy in a very loud Metallica shirt, as he inadvertantly drove between the two women and got sandwiched for his trouble. Shooter got out of it okay; the guy went headlong into the barriers, and Willow spun four times before she brought her vehicle back under control and hoofed it after Shooter.

Seven laps later, both cars looked like fodder for a junkyard, the student had dropped four places to stay well clear of the dogfight, and Shooter crossed the finish line - *sideways* - half a car-length ahead of the hacker, raising both fists into the air and letting out a deafening rebel yell.

Xander looked over at Nemo dazedly. "Are you completely aware that your wife's an absolute nutter?" he asked faintly.

"Why d'you think I married her?" the other man grinned, patting Willow's shoulder consolingly. "Good on you, kiddo."

"I just *lost*," she growled, the firm lines of her mouth worrying Xander for a few seconds; that was the incipient stages of Resolve Face.

"No - you *came second*, against a woman who has far more experience at this, giving her all the trouble she could handle in the process. You gave it your dead best shot, Willow, and that's all that can be asked of anyone."

Willow pondered that for a moment, then shrugged and conceded the point, a little mollified. "I guess." Both she and Shooter climbed out of their seats, and the redhead cast about the arcade with flashing eyes, her blood up. "What's next? I wanna get even!"

Shooter laughed, enjoying the show of spirit. "Okay, Scrappy Doo: you ever played 'NFL Blitz '99'?" she posed, tipping her head at where the gridiron sim stood.

"Nope, but it's got instructions, right?"

"Hey: Heckle, Jeckle," the Russian said, looking over her shoulder at Nemo and Xander. "It's a four-person game; you guys in?"

"How 'bout you let Willow play a quarter or two by herself, so she can figure out how everything works - *then* you can try to kick her ass head-to-head. We'll just stand there and kibbitz," Xander suggested. And here's hoping all this 'we don't have a clue' stuff puts our tattooed friends into the lackadasical mood we need them in for this to work....

"Fair enough."

Thirty minutes later, Willow had triumphed in her first two games against the computer, but Shooter had challenged her during the third and it wasn't going so well for her. In fact, in the dying stages of the fourth quarter, Shooter held a twenty-point lead, and possession of the football.

Observing the duel from a table a few feet away, Nemo cocked an eyebrow at Willow's stubborn body-language. "Not one to give up easily, is she?"

"She's been putting up with *me* since we were five," Xander shrugged.

"'Nuff said," the amber-eyed youth murmured blandly. A harried-looking mother went past them, carrying a baby that apparently needed changing; a four-year-old trailing in her wake lost sight of her in the forest of legs, stopped next to Nemo, and started snuffling and tearing up. Exchanging an amused look with his dark-haired compatriot, Nemo slipped out of his chair and knelt before the toddler as Xander went to recall her mother. Fascinated by his eyepatch and the strange colour of his other eye, the child went quiet and stared at him. "Hey, what'cha grizzling for?" he asked gently, his voice wryly amused as ever but devoid of the sing-song tones people usually use on young children. "All your meals are laid on for you; you're chauffeured everywhere you go; no bills, no homework, no-one out to get you - make the most of the soft life while you can, kiddo, 'cause it only gets worse from there on out," he drawled feelingly.

Her mother reappeared through the crowd and retrieved her wayward offspring, taking her by the hand and flashing a smile at Nemo. "Thank you. How'd you do that?"

"I've always had a way with kids, ma'am," he said politely, sketching a salute.

As the family departed, back at the 'Blitz' console Shooter was on defence again after blowing a long-yardage fourth-down play; Willow tried to make a miracle happen as the game-clock hit zero, but Shooter read the pattern with negligent ease, mugged the receiver and swatted the ball down before the play ever really began. With the console announcing her victory, she gave Willow a little grin of triumph.

That alone was enough to burn Willow's toast, but the Russian's cocky wink back at the guys was just the last straw. "*Right*!" the Wiccan growled, absolutely fed up. "Xander, get over here and help me kick her ass!"

The two men exchanged looks of private amusement and obeyed. For three frenetic quarters of play, the balance wavered back and forth. Shooter and Nemo were the first to score, playing with savage aggression and ruthlessness, using only a few of the in-game tricks but employing them masterfully - and they had the added advantage of being able to discuss strategy in a language their opponents couldn't understand. Xander and Willow were only learning the game controls, but a few lucky breaks, some foolhardy play-calls by the foreigners, and sheer my-heart's-still-beatin'-so-I-ain't-done tenacity let them claw back to near-equal footing every time the others edged ahead. A fair-sized crowd gathered as the game progressed, attracted by the noise and word-of-mouth, and their cheers only added to passions running extremely high as the fourth quarter began; all four players were jostling and yelling at each other, the banter of friends mixed with do-or-die insults and jeers. Feeling quite warm, Willow had cast aside her sweater, and puzzled over why her sweating companions didn't do likewise.

Finally, it came down to the last twenty seconds of the fourth quarter; the two foreigners led 43-38, and the Slayerettes had possession. Willow took the snap, faded right - and Shooter got to her, smashing her player into the turf amid a cacophony of synthesised groans and impacts. {"And he makes him eat the ball! Oh, *that* can't taste very good,"} observed the console, before flashing the message that the ball had been turned over on downs.

"Damn!" Xander hissed, swiping the sweat from his forehead with his jacket-cuff.

"Kiss it goodbye, Blondie," Shooter smirked, murmuring something to her husband in Russian as she chose their offensive play.

"It's not over yet," Willow said grimly as the field of play reappeared.

Shooter set up to receive the snap - but instead of using zone-defences like she had for most of the last eleven quarters, Willow threw in a zone *blitz*, and the sudden shift caught both foreigners off guard. Xander's linebacker slipped through the offensive line and laid out the quarterback like a cheap tablecloth; the Russian lost six yards on the play, and Xander's linebacker gloated, {"I'm gonna send you back to your mother in a BOX!"}

"You sneaky little minx," the denim-clad woman breathed. "You've been setting me up! Okay, let's see how you like *this* one...."

Only 'this one' fell prey to a corner blitz, and this time it was Willow who got to the QB. She got up - and immediately dropped an elbow on the Russian's player, just to underscore the point.

{"Was that absolutely necessary?"} the commentator wondered.

"Actually, ummm: *yes*!" Willow nodded fiercely, and Xander had to choke back a laugh.

{"Third and forty."} Nemo went in motion; Shooter took the snap on one, dropped back, looked for the open man - but Willow had chosen an all-out suicide blitz, high-risk but also high-gain. Shooter threw under pressure -

- but Willow was there first, intercepted the pass, took off running. Shooter and Nemo quickly switched players to try to stop her; only Shooter was close enough to have a chance, but Xander threw a perfect block and Willow danced across the goal-line with the game clock flashing {0:00}.

{"Touchdown, Raiders!"} cried the console. {"Raiders win!"}

The crowd went nuts, not a few paying off bets, many cheering, others gutted. They weren't the only ones.

"YEEEAAAHHH-HA-HA!!!" Willow howled, jumping up and down, wired on adrenaline and victory. "WEWONWEWONWEWON!!! TAKE THAT, YOU SMUG COMMIE ROUGHNECK!"

"AND YOUR MOTHER, TOO!!!" Xander gloated, breaking into a triumphant Snoopy Dance.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah." Nemo rolled his eye indulgently.

Taking no notice, the Slayerettes continued their celebration. Both were completely caught up in the moment, feeling nothing but exultation.

And that's when the perfect night started to go pear-shaped.

Xander caught sight of Willow's face, flushed and a little sweaty, laughing and cheering to the heavens, her eyes bright and flashing with energy and joy - and his baser impulses, restrained for so many months, did all the rest.

Willow had only a split-second to blink as Xander's hands cupped her face - then there was nothing in the world but him and he was kissing her like there was no tomorrow and she was kissing back and *Goddess* it had been forever since they'd last kissed and he tasted even better than she remembered and her hands were on his shoulders and *ohhhh* that sweet thing his teeth did to the tip of her tongue and Oz had *never* kissed her like th-


Oh God - Oz.

It was like being doused in a glacial stream. Willow pushed herself away from Xander like he was radioactive. "I... I.... I can't do this. I can't...."

And she fled as fast as her legs would carry her.

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

{"Rosenberg's on the move."} Emerald's voice came through Turquoise's earpiece as clear as a bell. {"Looks like she's heading for the parking structure."}

"Excellent," he breathed into his mike, abandoning his place in the movie foyer. "We can pick 'em off individually. Get there, fast!"

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

"Aw, *shit*." Xander sagged, looking and feeling far too old for his years. How the *hell* did I let that happen! Especially *now*, for Christ's sake! He'd intended to give her time, he really had, but seeing her like that....

"Well, that went swimmingly," Nemo observed sardonically. "Nice going, Bullwinkle."

"We'd better go after her," Shooter pointed out, her voice heavy with resignation.

"No; *I'd* better go after her." Nemo gave them both a level look. "I don't think she'd react well to you right now, Xander - and as for *you*, cariad, your devotion to the 'one-rip-and-it's-off' school of sticking-plaster removal has its place, but this... isn't it. I'm about the only safe choice going."

Xander stifled the impulse to argue. "I suppose you're the expert."

Nemo snatched Willow's discarded sweater off their table and took off at a pace just under a run. Shooter gave her husband half a minute to get out of sight, then jogged Xander's elbow. "C'mon - we'd better make sure those two don't get into trouble. This is *Sunnydale*, remember?"

"I grew up here, remember?" he countered acidly, leading off.

Half a step behind him, Shooter raised her cuff to her lips and breathed, "\Headed your way.\"

{"\Copy,\"} said the man on the other end. {"\Ready out here.\"}

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

20:27, AUGUST 26, LIMA (04:27/27-08-99 ZULU)

When her panic receded a little, Willow found herself huddled against a pillar, her mind awhirl, her hands shaking.

Oh, Goddess, how did I let that happen? Oz only broke up with me two days ago, and here I am kissing Xander again! What kind of slut am I?

Someone cleared their throat behind her, and she whipped around, dashing the confused tears from her eyes with one hand, the other flashing to her purse to grasp her stake.

Nemo spread his hands - Easy, kiddo, it's just me! - and hefted the sweater she'd left behind. "You forgot your jersey."

The redhead relaxed a shade. "Thanks. You startled me!"

"Sorry." He lowered his hands again and gave her a concerned look. "You... want me to take you home?"

Willow drew breath to say 'yes' - then simply let it out in a sigh, shaking her head helplessly; her voice was unsteady. "I don't know *what* I want."

"I know the feeling." His smile and tone were rueful, but gently sympathetic. Glancing about, he nodded at the Jaguar. "Shall we sit down? Might make it easier to talk."

Feeling not a little drained after the emotional high - and turmoil - she'd just been through, the Wiccan slowly crossed to where he was perched on the hood of the Jaguar and hopped up next to him. They sat there for a few minutes in a companionable silence that Nemo did nothing to break, letting her pull herself together.

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

Xander was in the lead as they came around a column, and Shooter ran straight into his back as he saw the others sitting on the Jag and came to a screeching halt. She muttered something about his parentage and half-dragged him back under cover before they could be spotted; after all, the point was for those two to talk alone, right?

"Look comfortable, don't they?" she breathed.

"*He's* comfortable; she's...." Xander's voice failed him for a moment. "God, it's like she's made of spun glass right now, like she'll shatter at the slightest touch."

"My hubby has a light hand," she shrugged, her tone soothing. "Incidentally, was that a gun I felt under your jacket?"

"What if it was?"

"Well, what would you say if I told you that Doctor Joyce Brothers has publicly declared that men who own and carry firearms are trying to compensate for sexual inadequacies?"

"Given that her husband Milton straps on a nine-millimetre every time he leaves the house, I'd have to say she's full of shit."

"Just checking," she grinned.

Their conversation was cut short by a quiet yet carrying sound, a dry *shik-klik*... like a pistol being hand-cycled into battery.

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

Finally, Willow simply buried her face in her hands. "What am I gonna do?"

"Beats me; clairvoyance isn't among my talents."

She shot him a sour look.

"Force of habit. Sorry." He shrugged, speaking softly and looking straight ahead. "I don't know what to say, Willow; my only knowledge of the emotional dynamics of break-ups and rebounds is, at best, second-hand."

"It's *Xander*," the Wiccan said helplessly, feeling like she'd fallen under an emotional avalanche. "For twelve years, it was Xander, and he didn't know, then it was me pining for Xander and Xander pining for Buffy, then Xander and Cordelia were fighting and kissing and I had Oz with his taciturn coolness and his being my-boyfriend-in-a-band, then there was Homecoming and it was me and Xander behind everybody's backs and I didn't *want* to hurt Oz or betray him but I couldn't help it, I've *always* wanted Xander -"

Somewhere off to their far right, a horn tooted; Nemo's ears pricked up.

Willow was too wound up to notice. "- But then Oz gave me that second chance and everything was uneasy but we were okay then there was Graduation -"

"Willow!" he interjected, with just enough exasperation to break through her babble.


"Slow down, huh? Parse things. As endearing as I find your tendency to babble, it'd be easier for me to listen and give advice if I could actually follow what you're saying," he teased gently.

Again with the dirty look. "I... I -"


A *slap*? "What the hey?" she wondered, turning towards the noise, almost glad for the distraction. Two people were coming from the direction of the mall doors. In the lead was a late-thirties blonde woman in grey slacks, a blue silk blouse and a leather jacket; she was half-scampering their way, her left hand to her cheek, her right clutching at her side under the left breast of her jacket, her breathing a series of blubbering sobs, tears running down her face. A fortyish guy in jeans and a flannel shirt was a couple of paces behind her, his expression murderous and his fists clenched.

Game time. "Doesn't look good, whatever it is," Nemo shrugged guardedly, scratching the back of his neck; Willow didn't know he was clearing his access to his cuff-mike. So, Amethyst, we finally get to settle our unfinished business....

"Don't you *ever* talk back to me again, you bitch!" Flannel Shirt snarled after the blonde. "Don't you fucking *dare* -!"

Well, *this* is another fine mess I've gotten me into.... "Of courthe you realithe thith meanth war!" Nemo stated firmly (in a perfect Daffy Duck lisp) as he stood up; he was as much speaking to his radio-pickup as to the two 'disputants'. "Can we help you, miss?"

Why's he using a Californian accent? Willow wondered... right before events went into fast-forward.

The blonde's right hand came into sight -

- holding a silenced P-99 that lined right on Willow's midsection. Both youths froze.

"As a matter of fact, you can," Amethyst smiled, lowering her left hand to reveal her powderburned cheek, and the mark from the slap she'd had Turquoise lay on her for authenticity. Even as she spoke, her companion was producing a suppressed Walther of his own. Behind her, Shooter and Xander appeared around a column, each being frog-marched by another pistolero. "You can start by coming with me - and let's keep this nice and quiet, hey? It would be a shame to end this lovely evening by putting a bullet in Miss Rosenberg's guts."

"Yes, it would," 'Nemo' agreed evenly, with a cryptic little smile. "It'd defeat the whole purpose of the exercise."

Part Twelve

20:39, THURSDAY AUGUST 26, LIMA (04:39/27-08-99 ZULU)

Amethyst smiled thinly as the four youths trudged towards the waiting van. God, how easy was that? Opal was right after all: little Miss Rosenberg *is* their centre of gravity. Threaten her, and everyone starts playing nice-nice; kill her, and it'll gut them all.

Their vehicles were parked at the far end of the structure, in a nice, semi-private alcove that could accommodate a dozen cars. Whoever had put that alcove in the blueprints had either been pig-ignorant of the habits of urban predators (human and otherwise), or some of those predators had talked him around, because it was a death-trap in Vampire-Town, USA: right at the extreme end of the structure, poorly lit, the shape of the walls cut it off from plain view until you were right on top of it, a fire-ladder set into the corner of the parapet, no surveillance cameras, and any sound would go out over the parapet and be lost to the open air, instead of echoing inside. A perfect killing ground.

"Mind telling us what this is about?" Harris asked casually, his voice pitched just at the threshold of audibility.

"You'll find out soon enough," Turquoise said in a dead voice.

Emerald and Topaz were standing beside the van, both of them with their weapons drawn but not aimed anywhere in particular; the van's side door was already open, and the front two bench seats were all prepared for the youths, complete with seatbelts and manacles and gags. Two hulking shapes were on the rearmost seat, and even though she knew what they were, Amethyst couldn't control a tiny shiver as she caught a split-second glimpse of light reflecting off row upon row of serrated teeth.

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

For her part, Willow was trying to understand how her friends could be so calm about this. Here they were, surrounded by six people with guns, and nobody was even saying 'boo'. Okay, *Sunnydale*, so a big no to the shouting for help, but Nemo and Shooter can't know that, so why are they so quiet? I mean, I don't want to see them killed, but you'd think someone like Shooter would be trying *something*....

A few pushes, and the quartet of youths were standing with their backs against the side of the van, careful to keep their hands in plain sight as they faced six guns. Willow's sweater was still dangling from Nemo's hand, and without it she was starting to shiver a little... even more so when she saw how one of the men - that guy in the Metallica shirt they'd met at Starscape - had his eyes virtually locked on the front of her suddenly too-thin blouse. She could *feel* the touch of his eyes, like a thousand spiders crawling all over her skin. Ick! Scary visual place! she shuddered again.

"Search them," the woman with the scarred face ordered.

Metallica stepped forward eagerly. "We'll start with the redhead," he leered.

"Suit yourself, but you're asking for trouble," Nemo said off-handly, completely unmindful of all the hardware pointed his way.

Willow backed away as far as the van's metal side would allow, her eyes wide as the tow-haired man put up his weapon and approached her. "You've probably seen cop shows; assume the position," he ordered, and however slowly, however reluctantly, she obeyed, turning to put her palms flat against the van's side and leaning on straight arms.

His hands closed about her left ankle and slid upwards slowly, leaving a wave of oogyness in their wake. This wasn't a search; it was an indecent assault. He repeated the motion on her right leg, then set both hands on her rump and squeezed a little before running his hands up her flanks. Willow tried to school her expression into impassivity, to deny him the pleasure of seeing her squirm, but she couldn't bring it off all that well.

"Oh, son, I take it back," Nemo said, and his voice had that same purr he'd used on the Stormer. "You're not in trouble; you're dead where you stand."

"So can you be," Scarred Lady said lightly, turning her weapon on him for a moment.

Nemo went quiet, but his manner was... *off*, somehow. In fact, Willow could see him, Shooter and Xander out of the corner of her eye, watching this 'search'... all with an ominously blank expression - the *same* ominously blank expression! What the heck -?

Metallica's hands closed over her breasts, squeezing so roughly that she winced; she'd have bruises tomorrow, she was sure. The man's body pressed up against the length of her back, and hot breath fanned her ear. "Verrrry nice," he exhaled. "Y'know, maybe we should keep you around for a couple of days."

And something went *snap* behind Willow's eyes. In the last four days, she'd been caught in a firefight, held at gunpoint, shot at (and watched Giles gunned down to boot), interrogated by cops *twice*, Dear Jane'd, kissed by her best friend, basically plunged into the depths of emotional chaos, and now once again held at gunpoint - all par for the course as a Scooby, but being pawed by *this* degenerate? Okay, that does it!

Without warning, she snapped her head back, breaking the guy's nose -

"AWGH!" he gasped.

- snatched one hand off the van and drove her elbow back into his midsection with all the power she could muster -

"WOOOOOFF!" he grunted.

- then pushed herself off the van, whipped around, and ripped his cheek open with her nails -

"Aaacchh!" he yelped.

- wound up and drove her knee square into his groin -

His eyes bulged, but he could make no sound at that; he simply folded up about himself.

- then bunched one small fist, measured the man to the millimetre, and nailed him right on the point of the jaw with a beautiful overhand left. He grunted and went sprawling, unconscious or close enough to it.

"Owwwwwch!" Willow moaned, cupping her throbbing knuckles in her other hand. You'd think after Anya I'd remember how hard people's heads are.... Seeing Scarred Lady's gun swinging her way lest she get any more bright ideas, she stepped back against the van again. "I'm done. I'm done."

"Good," Scarred Lady said in a voice as dry as the Mojave, not quite lowering the gun again.

Even as she massaged her sore hand, the redhead allowed herself a tiny little smirk of satisfaction; she hadn't spent three years backing the Slayer without picking up a *few* things. Now if only I'd remembered that I don't have Slayer-strength or -healing. DAMN that hurts!

Nemo was giving the fallen man a look laden with false sympathy. "He was warned," he murmured philosophically, then added (with tongue firmly in cheek), "She'll bear watching, that one, she's got a temper on her."

One of the other gunsels, a brunette dressed like an earlier-model Cordelia, snorted a laugh. "Couldn't've happened to a nicer fellow," she smirked, her accent Irish. "Diamond always did think with his little head."

That brought a general (if humourless) snigger from the other gunsels; they were still laughing when it happened. The rearmost of the would-be kidnappers was a tall, Nordic-looking woman with wavy blonde hair in a pale blue dress. Before Willow's astounded, horrified eyes, a weather-beaten man suddenly, silently surged up behind the blonde like a shark taking a surfer, seized her by chin and nape, and wrung her neck with a dry-branch *crack*!

What followed was not a battle. Battles are two-sided.

All the other gunsels looked towards the sound... and thus sealed their own doom. Nemo, Xander and Shooter all moved in the same instant, almost blurringly fast. Shooter had less distance to cover to her target, the Irish brunette. Her left hand drove forward in a piston-like heel-punch. It hammered into the Irishwoman's midriff, blasting the breath from her lungs. Even as she whooped in agony, Shooter's right elbow swung forward, crushed the woman's windpipe so she'd never breathe again. As the finisher, she chopped the woman under the ear, her rigid hand landing like an axe-blade; stunned, the brunette sprawled on the concrete, writhing in silent, helpless spasms even as Shooter snatched up her gun.

Nemo flung Willow's sweater full at Scarred Lady's face, followed right behind it. She saw the sweater coming, swatted it down - *with her gun-hand*. With the gun safely out of line, Nemo's left hand chopped down, caught the inside of her wrist, knocked the weapon loose. His right hand came up, bladed; his fingertips speared into the woman's throat, collapsed her larnyx. She choked, sagged backwards, clutching her throat, staring at him.

Xander seized the auburn-haired gunsel by the wrist of her gun-hand, twisted the gun from her grasp. Brought his right hand up in a heel-strike that caught her nose right-on, driving cartilage and bone splinters up into her brain. Her face went slack; trickles of blood ran from her nose down over her mouth; she crumpled forward, utterly limp.

The last gunsel, a guy in a flannel shirt, was still turning to face Weathered Guy, his gun leveled chest-high. Weathered Guy's right hand flashed down, seized the Walther, yanked it out of Flannel Shirt's grasp; the gun swung up and inward in a smooth, blurring arc, the steel slide slamming into Flannel Shirt's forehead. As he blinked and reeled, stunned, Weathered Guy's back-swing crashed the butt of the Walther against his temple, crushing the thin bone into his brain. The gunsel choked and collapsed straight down on the spot.

All five conscious gunsels had been taken out in the first two seconds.

A creak from the van's suspension. "The Zal'kiirs!" Nemo hissed urgently, snatching the eyepatch from his face. "Willow, back away!"

Even as she obeyed, aghast at the carnage she'd just witnessed - And, hey, there was never anything wrong with Nemo's eye! - a hulking form lumbered through the van's sliding door. It was humanoid in shape, but in detail it was shark-like. At least seven feet tall and proportionally built like an offensive lineman, it had a shark's face and grey skin, webbed fingers and feet, and barbed tentacles trailed from its wrists beneath each hand, whipping back and forth eagerly. Its beady black eyes were dead of all emotion, but serried ranks of shark-like teeth were revealed by an eager grin.

Shooter tossed her acquired Walther to Weathered Guy, reaching inside her jacket; her right hand emerged holding - Whoa! - an OSS fighting knife to match the one Xander had given Buffy, the left something that looked like a black fountain pen. Nemo did much the same, his right hand producing a matching black tube, his left opening a Recon-One folding knife.

The Zal'kiir looked at Nemo first, since he was closest, retracted one tentacle, pointed the arm at Nemo. The barb shot forth like a harpoon; Nemo twisted aside with speed worthy of any mongoose. The knife flashed up and severed the tendon in a spray of thick pink ichor. Even as the Zal'kiir recoiled and brought its arm back, the foreign youth darted forward, drove the end of his 'pen' up under the beast's chin. A dull *chwump*, like a cardboard box dropped on the floor; the demon's head snapped back, and it crumpled like it had been boned. Nemo lowered the tube again; wispy smoke - CO2? - trailed from the contact end.

Not to be outdone, Shooter hurdled the falling corpse and lunged inside the van. Willow couldn't see anything, but the van rocked for a moment; something slammed against one side, then the other, there was another of those dull thumps, and a louder one as a body hit the deck. Shooter emerged from the van a moment later; her knife dripped ichor, and there were splashes of the stuff on her jacket. "MacGyver, clear!" she said, her voice low, but authoritative and completely level.

"Orion, clear!" Weathered Guy confirmed in a matching tone. He was hugging the wall at the corner, keeping an eye out along the parking structure in case someone had heard something, a Walther in each hand.

"Fenris, clear!" Nemo added, pocketing his tube-weapon and snatching up a loose P-99.

"Snoopy, clear!" Xander nodded. He'd retrieved his .45 from Diamond's waistband and had it aimed down at the back of the man's head, one foot on his neck. Well, *that* went as planned: swift, certain, and brutally efficient. None of the bad guys had a chance to even squeak. The PWs at Lympstone really *would* have loved these guys. "Why don't we police up all this shit and get outta Dodge while the getting's good, huh?"

"Sounds like a plan to me," Nemo - Fenris? - conceded drolly.

"Merciful Goddess," Willow breathed, utterly appalled at the scale - the *speed*! - of the massacre. From the first woman dying to Xander's 'clear', only seventeen seconds had passed.

"Our trademarks, Willow," Nemo said absently, kneeling over Scarred Lady. "Speed; aggression; surprise. Hit 'em while they're off-balance and don't let 'em recover. Do you remember me *now*, Amethyst?"

Indeed, Scarred Lady's eyes were focussed on his face, and despite the way asphyxia was darkening her face, she *did* recognise him.

"I always knew I'd catch up with you sooner or later. Tell the doorman in Hell who sent you; you'll get the group-rate discount," he smiled, in a tone of mocking good cheer. Seeing Willow staring at him, he shifted a little to clear her line of sight and pulled down 'Amethyst's' left collar, revealing that now-familiar tattoo. Her eyes widened, and she looked at all of her companions again, trying to figure out what the *hell* all this *was*. Glancing over at Xander, Nemo double-took at seeing the rise and fall of Diamond's chest, then did a perfect - eeriely perfect - David Letterman imitation. "Hey, Snoopy: what about *that* guy?"

Xander glanced over at him, shrugged, removed his foot from the man's neck, and considered his prisoner for a moment. Killing a man in the heat of battle was one thing, but killing an unarmed, unconscious prisoner... then he remembered exactly why Diamond (AKA David Fletcher) had been cashiered from the US Navy. No further thought was necessary; he drove his toe into Diamond's temple, crushing in his skull with a steel toecap. That done, he looked back at Nemo and shrugged again, his expression mock-baffled. "What *about* that guy?"

"Fair enough," Orion said, in a Cockney drawl(!). "But tempus fugit, an' all."

"Granted," Shooter nodded, looking at Willow. The redhead's appalled look was turned on Xander now, not quite believing that she'd just seen her best friend - loveable, dopey, goofball, wouldn't-hurt-a-fly Zeppo Xander - casually murder a helpless prisoner in cold blood. "Willow, if you have any questions, they'd better wait; we have to be not here, and soon."

"Wuh... wuh... wuh....?" she squeaked, meaning 'what's going on?'

Orion said something in Russian and tucked his acquired guns into his waistband; Nemo looked up at him sharply and questioned him in the same language, even as Shooter moved to take the older man's place. Orion answered briefly and crossed to stand before Willow, smiling gently. "Willow, right? Can I 'ave a look at your 'and?"

Blinking at him, she extended the bruised appendage without thinking. He cradled her hand in one of his sandpaper-rough, heavily callused mitts - then brought the other up and stuck a little dart through her blouse into the inside of her forearm. "Ow!" she gasped, more in surprise at the jab than real pain.

Orion removed the dart and lowered her hand again. "I'm sorry to 'ave to do vat, Willow -"

- Willow suddenly realised that the world was going all fuzzy and muted and soft around the edges -

"- but we 'ave a clock to beat, and I'm afraid we *don't* 'ave time for you to get over your 'isterics," he shrugged apologetically.

Willow's knees suddenly went on strike, and she sagged forward into Orion's waiting arms. Her last, hazy impression of the night was looking over Orion's shoulder into Nemo's face and seeing his compassionate expression...

... and his eyes reflecting green, like a wolf's. Just like Buffy had described.

Oh, Goddess....

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

00:44, FRIDAY AUGUST 27, LIMA (08:44/27-08-99 ZULU)

Garnet eased the door open, tucking his lock-picking gun away. As the former KGB burglar saw into the apartment's interior, he let the muzzle of his suppressed P230 lead the way inside.

The place was eeriely empty. The furniture was comfortable, but generic. No pictures on the walls. No personal momentoes on the shelves or tables. *Nothing* that could have given anyone a clue about the people who lived here. Almost exactly like the place he himself lived in, he noted with a grunt of amusement. Either 'Shooter' and 'Nemo' were completely without personality, or they kept all of their personal stuff at their quarters at Fort Quick (a momentary pang of regret that he wouldn't be able to sanitise those, as well), or they deliberately didn't want to give anyone anything to work with.

I somehow doubt the latter, he thought, tucking the SIG away again. He contained a sigh of annoyance at having to do this, but Onyx's orders had been explicit: there had to be nothing left in the couple's apartment that could connect them to Rosenberg and Harris. Of course, they might have been something in their VOQ, but Onyx had also explicitly forbidden him to try for those; too risky. Damned idiot! I used to break into far more secure facilities to secure - or plant - evidence against enemies of the people....

He ducked down the hallway and entered the main bedroom. There were a few books in Russian on the shelf (mainly Tom Clancy, which rated another grunt), but barring the PC, there was nothing of interest in sight. Leaving the computer for Topaz - whenever she showed up - he pulled open the drawer on the bedside cabinet.

There was a faint 'klik', and his eyes widened as he saw into the drawer. On the left side was a small note, written in a small, neat hand. On the right was an electrical circuit that opening the drawer had completed, connected to an LED timer and a large block of what looked like grey putty.

The note read: {Welcome to the last five seconds of your life. Four....}

The LED read: {0:03}


Garnet's shoulders slumped. "\Aw, fuck me....\"


- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

It is police policy to put officers involved in a shooting on two weeks' paid absence, to allow them to get over the psychological and emotional after-effects. Thus, instead of being out on duty with her partner, Janelle LaFollet was comfortably wedged into one corner of her couch, turning McKellar's remarks over in her head and making notes on a legal pad as she reconsidered what she knew about her colleagues in light of those comments. Well, well, well: it looks like old 'Frank N' heads the list of suspect individuals. He's what, a Detective-Two, pulls down a little over thirty-two five a year - and he's already paid off his house *and* drives a '99 Lexus? God, it's amazing how *obvious* it all is once you actually start l-


The world outside LaFollet's window went bright yellow for an instant; the concussion rocked the whole building, shaking it as a terrier shakes a rat. Pictures and knick-knacks went everywhere, and even as LaFollet's head snapped up, the sky outside was dimming and filled with fluttering scraps of debris - coming from this building! Jesus Christ! She snatched for her phone and her (thankfully returned) USP in the same motion, hitting the speed-dial even as she unsafed the nine-millimetre.

{"911 emergency."}

"This is Detective LaFollet at the Sunnydale Arms; there's been an explosion in one of the other apartments. Send fire-crews and ambulances immediately!" She hung up that fast, wincing as her shoulder panged her, and lunged for the door, oblivious to the fact that she was clad in sweats and slippers.

Out in the hall, several people were at their doors, looking towards the noise. "Everybody back inside!" LaFollet barked; they took one look at the gun in her hand and obeyed super-quick. She came around a corner and saw at the door to apartment nine was now mostly splinters embedded in the opposite wall; smoke wafted from inside the door, but she could hear nothing from inside. No crackle of flames; no moans of pain; nothing. I remember meeting the couple who live here; God, I hope they're okay....

Her USP was the first thing to swing around the door-frame, and her head was just behind it. The entire apartment had been gutted, all the non-load-bearing internal walls smashed to flinders, everything in sight pulverised and/or charred beyond recognition - but apart from a few votive flames dancing on the kindling and matchsticks that were the few remnants of the dining suite, there was absolutely no sign of residual fire. What the hell? A gas explosion should've caused more structural damage than this, *and* the whole place'd be burning....

She eased into the room, watching her step on the rubble, her eyes and pistol tracking back and forth cautiously. Theoretically, she was looking for survivors, but this was already a 'suspicious' explosion in her mind, and that meant being ready for anything.

LaFollet stopped in her tracks at the entrance to the bedroom, staring, ashen and appalled, at the ghastly sight of the half-charred mass of pulp splattered against one wall in a vaguely humanoid shape. Whoever the poor bastard was, he must've been standing almost on top of the blast; if and when they redecorated this place, it'd be a choice between scraping him off with a spatula or simply painting over the top of him.

Something bright and metallic was embedded in the wall next to what might have been a hand. LaFollet narrowed her focus to that, trying to block out the gruesome scene for a moment longer.... That's a gun. A *silenced* gun! she noted, then turned and made for the front door at her best speed.

Forensics would have kittens if she puked inside their crime-scene.

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

02:03, AUGUST 27, LIMA (10:03/27-08-99 ZULU)

'Doctor Rashid Hamshari' glanced either way before he slipped into the room. Only the nurses were about at this hour, and they wouldn't be back this way for twenty minutes, but this was not the time to get sloppy. Securing the door behind him, he turned to look at the patient again, contemplating her face.

'Faith' - no-one knew her real name, either here or among his employers - lay still in the bed, the expression on her pallid face almost... serene. All of her once-visible injuries had healed, and she was breathing on her own, but that and the beeping EKG were the only signs that she was still alive. If you could call this 'life'.

I'm doing her a favour, really, 'Hamshari' decided, taking a syringe from his pocket -


Lightning exploded along his every nerve. A moment later, he found himself sprawled on the floor face-down, his mind a red haze, fiery agony radiating from a spot under his right ear and his whole body aching, every muscle about as powerful as jelly. Hands like steel grapnels seized his wrists and dragged them into the small of his back, where they were pinned by a knee; his attacker then clamped one hand over his mouth and leaned down over him. "Hello, Peridot," an educated voice - a *familiar* voice! - breathed in his ear.

What the fuck? the Shrike wondered in sudden fear. I'm following my orders - what's -

"A syringe full of air, hmm?" his assailant mused, considering the item curiously. "The same way you did for Agate three nights ago: inject an air-bubble into the patient's IV line and give them an embolism - and by putting it through the IV, you even make it look like medical incompetence, not murder. A classic assassination technique."

Peridot tried to gather himself to buck his attacker off, but the other felt the slight tenseness as his muscles started to consider returning to their owner's control, shifted off him, and nailed him with the tazer again. This time, the fifty-thousand-volt current was applied at the juncture of spine and shoulders, and the contact held until the Iranian's nervous system was as effective as so many strands of overcooked spaghetti.

"Oh, no, you don't," his captor purred. "This is where you leave us, Peridot."

Rolling 'Hamshari' over and keeping their hand over his mouth, his assailant retrieved the needle, raised it like a dagger, drove it down into the would-be assassin's carotid artery -

No, please! Peridot's eyes begged wildly. Helplessly. Wait! Please, O-

- and pressed the plunger all the way down.

A few seconds later, as the embolism took hold of Peridot's brain and he began to convulse, his killer got up off the thrashing body, stepped away as if the dying man was of no more importance - which was true, really - and crossed to Faith's bedside. The flashing EKG display reflected off silver-rimmed glasses as one hand came up to oh-so-very-gently caress a lock of hair back from that pale, lovely face. I'm so, so sorry I couldn't help you earlier, Faith. Despite my appointed 'role', I should have been there for you, and I couldn't be. I wasn't. And I can never, ever make that up to you.

But I can bloody well try.

We'll start by getting you and Rupert out of the way of these murdering bastards and somewhere safe. With that accomplished, I can see about setting your condition to rights, and then? Then... then we can each take it a day at a time.

"You'll be all right," the double-agent known as 'Colt' breathed, leaning down to press an ever-so-gentle kiss to the girl's brow. "I believe in you."

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

06:43, FRIDAY AUGUST 27, LIMA (14:43/27-08-99 ZULU)

"Whaizzit?" Buffy slurred into her pillow. Lemme 'lone, I only got to bed at two....

Joyce shook her daughter again, more firmly this time. "Buffy, wake *up*! The hospital just called."

Hospital? she puzzled - then was suddenly wide awake. "What is it? Is it Giles?"

"They called us because we're his registered contact -"

"What's the problem?" the Slayer demanded, lunging into a seated position. "I thought he was going to get all better! What's wrong?"

"Buffy, Faith's disappeared. They went to check on her about four hours ago, and she was gone... and there was a doctor lying on the floor, dead."

Yeah, that sounds like Faith's style, all right. She wakes up, and the first thing she does is kill someone. "Oh, great. Why can things never be *simple* in my life!" she moaned. "Does Giles know? They were supposed to tell him about any changes in her condition, weren't they?"

Joyce took a deep breath. "He's missing too, Buffy. Everything was unhooked neatly, there aren't any signs of violence; the two of them just *weren't there* when the rounds went through at two-thirty."

Oh, God! Buffy brushed past her mother without a further word, taking the stairs four at a time on her way to the 'phone.

Her first call was to Willow's place, but she got only the answering machine; swearing fluently under her breath (and getting more anxious by the minute), she left an URGENT!!! message for the redhead and dialled again. Maybe she's still with Xander. Maybe they just went home with those two in the Jaguar to watch movies and fell asleep on the couch or something....

{"We're sorry, the number you have dialled is no longer in service -"}

"*WHAT*?" she shrieked. You have *GOT* to be kidding! Xander only bought that cellphone a couple of weeks ago, right? *Right*!? This time swearing out loud - If Mom wants to wash my mouth out, she can do it later! - the Slayer re-dialled the number carefully, and got the same robotic message. Now bordering on a full-fledged wig-out, she punched in another number.

{"Hello?"} asked a muzzy voice.

I guess Cerian isn't a morning person, either. "It's Buffy, Cerian. Can you get over here, like, ten minutes ago? Things have gone insane."

{"That bad, huh? I'll be there in twenty minutes."}

Buffy hung up on her with a curt thank-you, then stood there for a long moment, considering the 'phone - and her options. Do I make that call? I mean, right now I hate the son of a bitch, don't I?

But everybody else is unaccounted-for, and reluctant help is still better than no help.... Buffy sighed and dialled one last number.

{"You've reached the Osbournes!"} Oz's dad chirped. {"What's your pleasure?"}

"Um, yeah, could I speak to Oz, please? Tell him it's Buffy."

{"Uhhh... okay, I guess."} After a few moments' wait, the receiver was picked up again. {"Buffy?"}

"Oz, things have gone to hell. Giles and Faith are missing from the hospital, and I can't find Xander or Willow. I -"

{"I'm there." *klik*}

Buffy looked at the handset and sighed. "Right."

Fifteen minutes later, Oz came through the door without knocking. Though the bruises were now starting to shade towards brown and yellow, he still looked like day-old roadkill and his movements were very careful. He nodded a hello to the Slayer; though his face was its normal impassive mask, his eyes were borderline frantic. "Nice hair. Any news?"

"I only know about as much as I told you -" Buffy broke off as Cerian came in (without any sign of a limp), a steaming paper cup of coffee in one hand. Her hair looked like a tornado zone, her eyes were bleary behind her glasses, and she'd missed a button on her blouse. "Glad to see you dressed up."

"I didn't get much sleep last night, all right?" the Welshwoman said irritably, turning her gaze to - "Oz, isn't it?"

He nodded. "You're from the gallery."

"In a way. I was a Watcher, until the Council and I had a philosophical difference; it's a long story." She drained the cup in one long draught, wincing as the caffeine hit her system.

"Got fired?"

"All right, perhaps not *that* long after all," the relic-hunter conceded, with a wispy smile at the werewolf. "So, what's the emergency, Buffy?"

"Giles and Faith are missing from the hospital, and they found a doctor dead in Faith's room; Willow's not home, and Xander's cellphone has been disconnected. Now, maybe Faith breaking loose is a coincidence, but I thought that about her and Kakistos and look how *that* wound up. Plus, Willow found these." Buffy snatched up the stack of printouts the hacker had made the previous day. "Rap sheets on those guys who attacked us at the gallery, plus a couple of others she tracked down. They all have the same tattoo," she added, tapping a close-up photo among all the other shots. "Put that together with the thing at Giles' place, where they were trying to put a bullet in *my* head... add all that up, I don't know what it means, but we've got some bad-ass perpetrators and they're here to stay."

Cerian went very still at the sight of the tattoo.

"What?" Buffy demanded. "You know something?"

"Nothing I can place," she said, shaking her head. "It'll come back to me, though."

"Yeah, well, in the meantime, Oz, you start coming up with places Willow might hide if she didn't think she could go home and you start checking 'em out. Cerian, you and I are going to the hospital to get more details about these disappearances. I don't know about you guys," she added, in a not-funny drawl, "but I find this lack of Faith disturbing."

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

An hour later, the relic-hunter and the Slayer were back at the Summers house, no better informed and Buffy, for one, a great deal more wigged. God, I knew the cops in Sunnydale were worse than useless, but how the hell can a Slayer just get up out of a coma and carry off a two-hundred-pound ex-Watcher without anyone *noticing*? she snarled inwardly.

"Buffy." Joyce was waiting for them at the door, holding an envelope. "This was with the mail. It's addressed to you."

Accepting the envelope with a frown, Buffy examined it for a moment. It bore her name (typed, no less), but no stamps or post-mark, and something heavy was sliding about within. Wondering at the sudden churning in her gut, she tore open the flap and tipped out the contents.

Two necklaces fell into her palm, along with a slip of paper, and Buffy went cold all over.

"What is it?" Cerian asked, frowning at the necklaces. "Do you recognise those?"

"Yeah," the Slayer said curtly. She hefted the first medallion: a stainless-steel ball-chain, supporting a silver shield; the inset sapphires and inlaid platinum formed a pentagram. "Xander gave this to Willow at the hospital three days ago." The other was simpler, fine silver links bearing a St. Christopher medal. "And as long as I've known him, Xander has *never* taken this off. Somebody's got them, Cerian." And, oh my stars and garters, they're gonna wish they hadn't by the time I'm done with them, she promised coldly, turning over the note (typed, of course).

It said simply, {Do we have your attention?}

Part Thirteen

08:04, FRIDAY AUGUST 27, LIMA (16:04/27-08-99 ZULU)

Little Bob leaned back in the seat of his car, sorting through what he'd seen inside. Strictly speaking, this wasn't his case, but his partner was involved, and that *made* it his business, assignment be damned. Nuñez had told the press the usual fairy tales - in this case, 'probable gas explosion' - but Patterson had seen inside that apartment, the pattern of damage and its origin, so he knew that 'fairy tale' was all it was.

Especially when the records show the gas to that apartment being shut off five days ago! he added humourlessly. A Forensics type rapped on his window; winding it down, he cocked an eyebrow. "What'cha got?"

Why on Earth the S.P.D. Forensics Division had hired Sara Sidle during the Wilkins Era was anybody's guess. She might have been cute, with her wavy brunette locks and her pointed chin and her flashing eyes, but she was three other things that should have absolutely precluded her from being hired: aggressively competent, stubbornly honest - and nobody's fool. "We just got the chemical-residue results back from the lab. The explosive agent? Everybody's favourite way of cancelling Czechs."

Little Bob whistled. "Semtex? Nice."

"There's more. We got a DNA match off the vic to an Interpol file. Ilya Vassilievich Borodulin, KGB Second Chief Directorate, dropped out of sight about five years ago. So, what the hell is a Russian spy-chaser doing getting blown up in Southern California?"

"I don't know, but it looks like he spread himself pretty thin doing it," Little Bob essayed. Both chuckled at the gallows humour.

"Nice, Bob, real nice," LaFollet inserted, dropping into the car's passenger seat.

Bob tipped his head to Sidel; she took the hint and went back to work. "Jan, you look like hammered dogshit. Have you slept?"

"After what I saw last night? You gotta be kiddin'," she snorted, draining her umpteenth cup of coffee. She'd changed into slacks and a T-shirt, and (following a stern talking-to from the EMTs last night) put her left arm back into its sling.

When LaFollet's syntax starts to deteriorate, you know she's pretty out of it. "Maybe you should try, y'know? You've got two weeks off *with* pay, partner; make the most of 'em."

"Somebody just blew up my apartment building, Bob, and no pun intended, but that's kinda close to home." The end of her sentence was muffled by a jaw-cracking yawn. "What the hell happened, anyway?"

"Judging by the pattern and the extent of the damage, it looks like a booby-trap in the nightstand in the master bedroom. 'Bout a quarter-kilo of plastic explosive, probably on a trip-wire, just waiting for the first poor schmuck to open it."

"You sure?"

"I spent fifteen years handling C-4 and planting booby-traps, Jan; I know from explosives."

"But why? I knew the two kids who lived there: they were flakes, but I can't see why anybody'd want to *kill* 'em. And that kind of expertise costs money, right?"

"When I have some answers, you'll be the first to know, okay? But *after* you've rested."

"You're too ugly to be my mother, Bob."

"Jan -!"

"I'm going, I'm going," she said in a long-suffering tone, climbing out of the car again. Between the bad arm and her fatigue-born lack of coordination, it took her a couple of tries. "Talk to you later."

As LaFollet slowly and carefully made her way back up inside the building, Stein and Nuñez appeared at the entry-way again. She couldn't completely contain a gleeful smirk at seeing Stein's face, what with the tape on his broken nose and both of his eyes blackened.

"Hey, LaFollet. Kill anybody today?" he asked archly.

If she'd been tracking even a little better, that would have been a knife in the heart. As it was, it just pissed her off. She hooked her thumb through her belt just forward of her holstered USP, looking him over. "The day's young, Frank," she said significantly.

Nuñez carefully didn't laugh.

Stein faltered, then shifted tacks a little. "They called us off the scene of the fourth Cult Murder to look at this. Y'know, the case we might be making some headway on if you hadn't killed our only leads?"

"What was I supposed to do - pose for 'em?" she snarled back. "And you weren't exactly busting down Umbra's door to talk to those guys ahead of me!"

"What did you think you were doing, anyway? Who do you think you are, trying to solve my cases for me?"

"Somebody who actually *can* solve cases," she snorted, heading inside. "Got a suspect in Allan Finch's death yet, Frank? Oh, wait, it's too soon for that: after all, it's only been, what, five months?"

"You -!" Stein seized her by her arm and whipped her around. Unfortunately for him, he grabbed her wounded arm, and none too gently.

His grasp sent a wave of agony through her body. LaFollet yelped; pain blanked her conscious intellect, and primitive reflex took over. She lashed out as she turned, her fist catching Stein right in the bridge of his broken nose.

Stein howled and reeled backwards, falling right on his ass right there on the steps, once again clutching his nose as blood ran through his fingers. "MUDDERFUGGER! GodDABBIT, dat's twice, you fugging bidch!"

LaFollet cradled her arm for a few moments, gritting her teeth against the flames shooting down to her fingertips and up her shoulder. "What goes around, comes around, Frank. Happy trails."

And as she passed Officer (Probationary) Rachel Greyfeather, who was standing guard just inside the front entrance, LaFollet was cheered to see the Comanche woman shoot her a not-so-subtle thumbs-up. As a patrol probie, she might might not have been square in Stein's sights... but that didn't necessarily mean she didn't want to see him taken down a peg or three.

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

Meanwhile, back in the car, Little Bob was smirking at Stein's misfortune when something hit him. He'd spent fifteen years handling explosives and setting booby-traps, all right; and one of the prime uses of booby-traps was to - To cover your escape! Plant a few charges on your escape-route, and when the bad-guys show up, *pow*! You kill one or two of 'em and sure as hell make the others a lot more cautious about trailing you.

Nah, can't be. That's military thinking, and there's no way this was a -

"Sergeant Bob Patterson?"

Little Bob looked up again. He didn't recognise the man standing at his window: about twenty years his senior, weather-worn, grey-haired... and despite his casual dress, his eyes were those of a Warrior.

"Drew O'Ryan, Gunny. Can I 'ave a quick word?" the newcomer asked in a broad Cockney accent.

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

08:21, AUGUST 27, LIMA (16:21/27-08-99 ZULU)


Pain was the first thing to register on her mind. The residual ache from her bruised bust; the throbby pangs in her knuckles; the dull, clamp-like pressure of a phenobarb-hangover behind her temples.

Next came sound - at first muffled, as if heard through cotton-wool, but clearing with every painful pulse-beat. The quiet murmur of air conditioning and passing footsteps was overlaid by distant voices... and one closer to hand.

"- phone rings at oh-dark-early. I pick up, and *guess who* it is -"

Xander? He's doing his British-Guy thing again.... Willow thought muzzily, even as she realised... I'm lying on a bed, with a pillow and everything, and it almost feels like a hospital bed, and I'm still fully dressed and I'm not tied up at all - which makes me ask 'what the heck?' -

"- and, shock of all shocks, he's well-pickled. He and Jack and Sharky have mustered just enough surviving brain-cells between them to realise that they're in no fit state to drive, so he's called *me* so I can call *him* a taxi."

"Why didn't he simply call it himself?"

I know *that* voice, too....

"That's kind'a what *I* say," Xander replied. "He twigs, then yells 'just do it, would you?' and *blip* hangs up. About two seconds later, I call him back, and y'know what I ask?" (A snigger.) "'Where to, smart-arse?'"

A stifled laugh from the other man, which turned into a groan of pain. "Xander, please don't make me laugh when I'm in this state."

Wh - Giles!? The surprise of that made her crack her eyes open - an action she immediately regretted. The bright morning sunlight drove straight into her brain like lances of brightness, and she flung her good arm across her face with a near-soundless whimper.

The men's laughter broke off. Willow felt/heard someone approach, then a callused hand brushed at her hair. "How are you feeling, Wills?" Xander asked, her voice ineffably gentle.

"Kind'a... all-over-ache-y," she said, her voice tiny.

"Can you sit up?"

"I guess, but there's this whole 'ow' factor involved...."

He chuckled softly, then slipped an arm under her shoulders to help her into a seated position. That done, he moved away for a moment; when he came back, Willow jumped a little as she felt him sliding a set of sunglasses onto her face. "That should help. I've got some Advil here."

Oh, God, what a beautiful thought! she sighed, cautiously opening her eyes. It took a moment or two for her eyes to see more than colourful blurs; resolving what stood in front of her into focus as a man-shape took a couple more seconds, and realising the details of exactly what it was took longer - but when it all sorted itself out, her jaw sagged open in astonishment. "???"

The man standing before her was not the regularly scheduled Xander Harris. That fact was made abundantly clear by the now-familiar midnight-blue battledress he wore - and by the dark green beret (adorned with a globe-and-foul-anchor) tucked under his left epaulette... and the parachute-qualification wings at his left shoulder-seam... and the way his short sleeves bared arms that were not bigger but a hell of a lot harder than they had been the last time she'd seen them.

Between the fog her mind was wrapped in, the aches, and the surprise, her mental editors really didn't have a prayer. "Do you look as good *out* of that uniform as you do *in* it?"

Behind Xander, Giles gurgled and shifted in his bed, trying to simultaneously choke back a laugh and pretend he'd never heard that. Xander himself kept his expression neutral only by conscious effort. "Well, nobody's said anything, Wills - but if you ever want to judge for yourself, let me know."

Willow cringed, her face virtually flaming as she heard her own words. Oh *God* - where's the Hellmouth to swallow you all up when you need it?

"Saying the first thing that comes to mind - you've been hanging around with Taz too long," he added dryly, offering her those pain-pills he'd mentioned and a glass of water.

Willow accepted them, frowning at him even as her blush faded. "Who?"


"Oh. Taz is her real name?"

"More or less."

"Okay. I guess." She knocked back her painkillers, drained the glass completely to get the weird taste out of her mouth, then glanced about, taking in her surroundings even as she tried to sort the zillion-and-one questions in her head into some sort of coherent order. "Hospital?"

"Fort Quick infirmary," Xander nodded. "One of our Special Guest Bad-Guys-of-the-Week came gunning for Faith and Giles at Memorial last night, so we figured it'd be safer for everybody here."

"'We'? And who's 'everybody'?" the Wiccan puzzled.

Xander tipped his chin to the bed behind her. She followed his gaze - and went cold as she saw its occupant.

Faith. Still unconscious; hooked up to IVs and monitors and stuff; but Faith, nonetheless.

Well, at least she's still comatose. Hooray for the good guys! she thought uncharitably. "And the 'we'?"

"Big surprise: that's a long story," he said wryly, taking a seat between the two bed-bays.

"Start at the beginning," Giles suggested, with a hint of strained patience.

"Which 'beginning', Giles?" Xander countered earnestly. "From whose perspective? Mine? My colleagues'? The bad-guys'? This caper has more layers than a frickin' matryoshka doll."

Willow sighed and massaged one aching temple. I can't wait for that Advil to kick in.... "Maybe you can start with who we're dealing with. Bad-guy-wise, I mean."

"Go ahead and show her, Snoopy."

The Wiccan turned to look at the speaker - and immediately regretted it. Again with the dizziness... and who the heck is that -? "*Nemo*?"

"Not... exactly," the foreigner smiled blandly from the doorway, shooting her a wink with his left eye - the one that there was never anything wrong with. His hair was different, too: not the ash-white she'd become accustomed to, but a gingery shade of blond that somehow suited his freckled face better. He wore short-sleeved midnight-blue battledress virtually identical to Xander's, but the beret under his shoulder-board was sandy-beige and adorned with a wingéd dagger; the entire upper side of his right arm was a sheet of plastic-y burn scars from wrist to just above his elbow.

Owwch! she winced to herself. Jeez, how'd he get that?

Giles' eyes locked onto the youth's scarred face. "I know you!" he breathed. "The people from SO13 showed me your picture when all the shooting was over."

"SO13, Mister Giles?" the young man sniffed. "They were no more Metro-Cops than I am Mahatma Gandhi. That notwithstanding, it's good to finally meet you. The last time I tried, there were... *complications*."

"'Complications'? A running gunfight in the middle of my museum that caused more than half a million pounds' worth of damage is a little more than a bloody 'complication', my lad!"

"Testy when he gets shot, i'n't he?" 'Nemo' observed to Xander, tongue firmly in cheek.

"He doesn't have your practice with it," Xander shrugged.

And there was a distinct *click* behind Willow's eyes as it all fell into place.

- A twenty-year-old Russian woman who brawled with Recon Marines - and apparently won a lot.
- A twenty-year-old man with lots of scars and a casual facility for languages. Such a useful gift... especially if one were to be raised as a Watcher.
- Nemo's natural accent having a faint lilt - like Cerian's. A *Welsh* lilt.
- Their out-of-character coolness towards Buffy.
- Their almost blithe efficiency in hand-to-hand combat, manifestly the product of gruelling training and broad experience.
- And now Xander's joke about getting shot.

The conclusion all that led her to should have beggared belief... but instead, there was a peace to it, an almost gentle humour; she'd solved a riddle she'd barely realised she was struggling with. Willow smiled at her foreign friend, wondering how in the blue *heck* she hadn't seen it sooner. "Hello, Peter," she said, strangely calm.

The banter between the two young men died, and 'Nemo' cocked an eyebrow at her, letting out a soft, impressed whistle. "As smart as advertised! Well done, Willow - though I haven't used that name for a *looong* time."

Giles was looking back and forth between them, frowning deeply. "Do you know him, Willow?"

"Sorta. If I'd had anything like a normal life, I'd say this was impossible."

"'Impossible', Willow? The impossible is what we do best," a familiar Slavic accent interjected. 'Shooter' was just coming to a stop in the doorway, half a step behind her husband's shoulder and smiling crookedly as usual. At least, it looked *mostly* like Shooter: she wore the same uniform and beret as her husband; without her formerly-ubiquitous shooting glasses, her eyes were a puckishly sparkling grey-green, and the hair that had tumbled past her shoulders like an ebony river was now bound back into a tight French braid a shade of auburn so dark it resembled embers in mahogany.

Even as Giles' eyes went to 'Shooter', something about their lack of insignia tickled at Willow's memory.... That's it: they must be Special Forces of some sort or other, she realised, half-remembered conversations with Jesse and Little Bob flitting across her mind. Only two types of soldier went around in unmarked uniforms: those too lowly to merit identification, and those too good to need it.

"*They* are the best-kept secret in the world," Xander drawled in his best Tommy Lee Jones. "Their mission is to monitor and police all extra-dimensional activity on Earth. They are your best, last, and only line of defence. They work in secret. They exist in shadow. And they dress in -"

"Blue, actually, but why quibble over details?" 'Nemo' murmured blandly. Ignoring Xander's Death Glare for ruining the joke, he gave the assembled crew a flourishing, semi-mocking bow. "Misha Bleddyn, at your service."

"Trooper Michael Bleddyn, of the New Zealand Paranatural Defence Service," Xander supplied.

"New Zea-" Giles' eyes bugged out of his head like an out-take from 'Tom and Jerry'. "*Peter McKellar*!?"

"That took him long enough," the scarred foreigner observed blandly. "Medication must be slowing him down."

Again with the Xander-Glare. "You'd know, Mister 'three weeks in a narcotic coma'! And, of course, ladies and gentleman, we have Misha's wife: Buffy's predecessor, and perhaps the only woman in the history of the Slayer lineage to permanently lose her title and powers and survive the experience... NZPDS Lance-Corporal Tatyana Alekseyevna Zyrianova."

"Please: Taz," the Russian smiled genially.

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

Willow was the first to find her voice again, and she didn't know what she was going to say until her lips started moving. "Don't tell me: reports of your deaths were greatly exaggerated."

Misha laughed, softly and gently. "Actually, they were downright falsified," he corrected wryly.

"But -!" Giles began, still staring at 'Taz' in bewilderment.

"Mister Giles, death is not necessarily a career-ending injury in our line of work; you're Watcher to living proof of that!" the amber-eyed youth smiled blandly. "But we have more pressing issues to deal with. Snoopy?"

Xander nodded at that cue, producing a thin white folder from an attaché case set atop Willow's bedside table; opening the folder, he took out two copies of the frontmost page and handed them to her and Giles.

Giles had only to see the watermark at the top of the page to go chalky-white and sag back against his pillows. "Oh my God...."

"You don't seem completely surprised, Giles," Xander said, with only the faintest of harsh edges.

The ex-Watcher couldn't quite meet his eyes. "I had... suspicions. I thought bureaucratic inertia would buy us some time -"

"They were signing the order before the last pieces of Sunnydale High hit the ground, Giles. They don't waste time when it comes to ensuring their grasp on power."

Willow's pains had short-circuited her temper, and being talked past like this -! "*Heeeyy!* Wanna explain something to the outsider here?" she growled, waving the document vigourously. She'd recognised the symbol in the letterhead: the triangle-and-three-rays from their assailants' tattoos. "What the heck *is* this? And who wrote it? And why?"

"It's the Scooby Gang's death-warrant, Wills," Xander told her, his tone almost sadly gentle. "And the seal at the top of the page? Well, that's the mark of our old friends -"

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

17:28, AUGUST 27, LIMA (16:28/27-08-99 ZULU)

Thomas C. Winston was reviewing the files of the Potentials.

He sat at the magnificent mahogany desk that went with the post of Sub-Coordinator (Security/Operations), as had his seven predecessors in the last twenty years - wearing a hand-tailored Italian suit of finest silk, with a belly full of rich English food, a comfortable bed waiting for him upstairs, armed guards seeing to his absolute personal safety, a full private hospital wing tending to his every paper-cut, and properly servile peons to see to his every whim - debating with himself over which of these poor fifteen-year-old girls would be condemned to a life of privation, sacrifice, misery, and a mean life-span once Chosen of 16.7 months (with a standard deviation of 2.3 months).

There's no real need to *rush* this decision, 'Keystone' smiled thinly, laying his hand-rolled Havana in an ash-tray as he turned a page. Opal and the Teams won't be certain of the matter for a few days yet. But still, it's best that I be fully acquainted with each of these girls before I make my decision. Poor Elliot Merrick wasn't half so thorough, and look what happened to *him*: personally saddled with that arrogant, self-absorbed, mutinous slut Summers. We can't afford that sort of disaster again; the next Slayer we call must be more... tractable, or our grasp on our control of our front-line brethren will slip even further.

Turning aside from his reading of the Potentials' life-histories for a moment, he looked at the PC next to his blotter - the sole anachronistic element in a room that hadn't substantially changed in almost a century - remembering the document he'd drawn up and presented to the Quorum less than five minutes after speaking to Wesley Wyndam-Pryce after that... fiasco at the Sunnydale High School Graduation. We can't have *two* Slayers walking the streets without any sort of leash, now can we? Much less all those insurrectionist friends of theirs....


   It has been made clear to the members of this Tribunal that the Slayer, 'Faith', is guilty of crimes including, but not limited to, the attempted murder of a human being, two instances of the murder of a human being, and mutiny against the authority of the Watcher Council. Given that under Council law these are all capital crimes, and given the unique nature of the Slayer, it is the finding of this Tribunal that she be put to death forthwith so as to allow the Calling of a Slayer who may discharge her responsibilities with more regard for the authority of the Council and for human life.
   It has further been made clear to the members of this Tribunal that the Slayer, Elizabeth Anne 'Buffy' Summers, is guilty of crimes including, but not limited to, the attempted murder of a human being, mutiny against the authority of the Watcher Council, and the rejuvenation of a vampire. Given that under Council law these are all capital crimes, and given the unique nature of the Slayer, it is the finding of this Tribunal that she be put to death forthwith so as to allow the Calling of a Slayer who may discharge her responsibilities with more regard for the authority of the Council and for human life.
   Moreover, it is the finding of this Tribunal that the assistants of the Slayer Elizabeth Anne Summers - being her former Watcher Rupert Keith Giles, Alexander Lavelle 'Xander' Harris, Willow Eileen Rosenberg, Daniel James 'Oz' Osbourne, and Cordelia Evelyn Chase - are guilty of complicity in her crimes, and are thus to be put to death forthwith so as to prevent any spread of their seditious sentiment.
   Finally, this Tribunal sentences to immediate destruction the vampire Liam Padraig 'Angel' O'Donoghue, also known as Angelus. It is, after all, a vampire.
   All sentences were passed without dissent.

Coordinator (Security) Francesca Mainprize
Sub-Coordinator (Security/Operations) Thomas C. Winston
Sub-Coordinator (Security/Intelligence) Pertile diCastra
DATE: July 05, 1999

The enaction of these sentences has been approved in the interest of the public good and safety.
Quorum Chairman Selwyn Wellesley, 5 July 1999

Selwyn's signature had been nothing more than legal formality; the poor man was almost eighty and three-quarters senile. (Which was just the way Winston and his Branch liked it; after all, a strong or dynamic Chairman might get some sort of daft notion about restricting operations.) Nonetheless, they'd needed his signature for this to at least appear legal, and that had required a confirming vote by the Central Quorum... but only Amelia Barton-Davies, Sub-Coordinator (Archives/Research), had held out against the 'manifest will'.

And God, is it past time for me to give that bitch what she has coming! Winston added, with a tiny little private grimace.

Buffy Summers, perhaps the longest-lived Slayer in history (if not the most notorious), doom of countless legions of demons and vampires, thrice a foiler of a full-scale Apocalypse, had been sentenced to death by the very people who'd Chosen her. As had all her friends... merely for knowing her and holding true to her friendship.

And not one of the people who had passed that death sentence had ever even seen a vampire with their own eyes.

Part Fourteen

08:33, FRIDAY AUGUST 27, LIMA (16:33/27-08-99 ZULU)

"Bu... *why*?" Willow finally managed.

Misha and Taz had drawn up chairs of their own, parking themselves at the foot of Willow's bed. It was Taz who answered her question, with a twisted smile: "'Wesley, go back to your Council and tell them, until the next Slayer comes along, they can close up shop. I'm not working for them anymore.'"

"Fine sentiments," Misha noted, then his voice turned rueful. "I've voiced them myself... but Buffy's saying them to the face of the Council's number-two hatchetman probably wasn't the best idea in history."

Hatchetm - Wesley!? Willow's first impulse was to break into hysterical laughter at the very idea... but the uniformed trio (most importantly Xander) were conspicuously *not* smiling. "You're serious."

"Not if I can help it," the yellow-eyed youth said levelly, "but in this case: damn straight." Seeing Giles' skeptical expression, he leaned back in his chair a little. "They needed to keep tabs on you lot, and none of you would've *ever* lowered your guard if he'd come on like Eliot Ness, so he played the overbred dandy instead... and he saw your *real* attitudes. Just like he hoped."

"Um... still with the 'why'," Willow pointed out, a little testily.

Misha sighed, trying to frame his thoughts properly. "You've always been told - and believed - that the Council exists to support the Slayer, right?" When she nodded, he shook his head sadly. "Once, maybe. But after the first couple of centuries, that attitude changed into one more to the effect that the *Slayer* exists to justify the *Council's* existence."

When the Wiccan gave him a baffled look, he sighed and went on, "The Council has power and position, Willow, and it has done since before Christianity was an officially recognised religion. Every member of the Council's senior leadership has grown up in an environment almost completely insulated from reality by eons of privilege and patronage, and their view of their supposed 'duties' is seen through those distorting prisms. As far as they're concerned, the shadow-world doesn't exist to be fought; it exists so they can live in posh houses and be waited on hand and foot. These people could care less about demons: what drives their every move is not living up to the Council's own ideals, or even fulfilling their responsibilities - but to protect their own little private empires and carve pieces off of everybody else's."

"I can't... entirely... accept that," Giles protested.

Misha cocked an eyebrow. "I'll admit there *are* exceptions... but they're few and far between. Most of the ruling cliques inside the Council are nothing less than a hereditary aristocracy. The award of every posting or position of any significance is decided not by who could perform that role best, but by whose great-great-forebear did this or that, or by who's trying to curry or return favours - or, occasionally, trying to dispose of someone who's just a little too inconvenient. Like you, Mister Giles."


"Didn't you ever wonder *why* they yanked you out of your little grotto in the depths of the Archives/Research service to make you a field-Watcher? Especially to an untrained Slayer with an attitude a mile wide who hadn't even *read* the friggin' Handbook? They sent you out here to *die*, Mister Giles; if Elliot Merrick got the chop in less than two months as Buffy Summers' Watcher, how long would *you* last in that post - especially atop a mystical nexus like Boca del Infierno?"

"Mister Giles, would you mind outlining the structure of the Watcher's Council - as you understand it?" Taz posed courteously.

Giles blinked at her, then took a moment to order his thoughts. "Of course. There are three main branches: Archives, Training and Security, each run by a Coordinator, and though they do communicate with each other a great deal in the course of their duties, in the course of normal events they're completely independent of each other. Each branch is broken down into two subsidiary services under a Sub-Coordinator. Archives/Research is the service I was in until I was assigned here: they handle interpretation and analysis of prophecies, mystical artifacts, and sundry other arcana, as well as being the, uh, the keepers of the Council's own institutional lore. Archives/Warehousing store those arcana and make sure they don't fall into the wrong hands. The responsibilities of Training/Watchers and Training/Slayers are self-explanatory. Security/Intelligence use whatever means they must to keep track of individuals of interest to us: Slayer candidates and their associates, and various, uh, 'movers and shakers' in the underworld, vampire sept-leaders, the more powerful demons, those who do business with them, and so forth. Security/Operations are the active arm of the Council: they're responsible for assigning and supporting field Watchers like myself, for policing the Council and the Slayers, and for, uh, 'retrieving' artifacts that prove too dangerous. The Coordinators and Sub-Coordinators of each service all hold seats on the Central Quorum, the Council's ruling body, where they answer to the Chairman."

"That's what they *want* you to think, Giles," Xander said gently. "Truth is, almost all roads run through Security/Operations - they call it 'Mentor' for short, makes 'em sound more warm and fuzzy than they are. Sec/Int and Sec/Ops were always intimate out of necessity, and these days they're separate only on paper. Mentor's powers to police the Council mean they control both sides of Training to make sure the people they 'educate' have been properly indoctrinated. The nature of the gear Archives/Warehousing looks after makes *them* a security concern, too. They haven't touched Archives/Research, mainly because most of those people have their noses too deep in a book to cause any real problems.

"So instead of being first among equals, Mentor has been the man behind the throne to every Council Chairman in the last few hundred years. Anyone who threatens their control is squashed: with blackmail, with extortion, even with one-way assignments or outright assassination.

"The problem is, while almost everyone *inside* the inner circle knows that, everyone *outside* thinks that the Council is all about sweetness and light and looking out for the human race - not number one. And the entire key to the Council's political legitimacy, hell, to its whole *existence*, is the Slayer. As long as the Council is associated with the Slayer - or controls her, as has become the case in recent centuries - they're perceived to be the good guys and deserve to be in charge; but if the Slayer ever left the Council, its entire raison d'être would go with her.

"Buffy told the Council to go to hell, in almost as many words. If they lose their ties to the Slayer, they lose everything they've built for themselves in the last two thousand years. The Council knows where the next Slayer is coming from." Xander smiled thinly. "Hell, Wills: *you* do the maths."

"That's... that's...."

"Cynical? Self-centred? Amoral?" Misha suggested, with that crooked grin of his. "'What is a lifetime politician, Alex?'"

"And Misha Bleddyn picks up a thousand points," Xander smirked.

"They're a Watcher's KGB, Willow - and I *do* use the comparison advisedly." Taz's gaze dropped to the end of Willow's bed, her thoughts fifteen years and several thousand miles away for a long moment, then shook herself back to the here and now.

Misha squeezed her shoulder gently. "Your recent attackers were from Mentor's quote-unquote élite SHRIKE-Teams - the name actually comes from Slayer Hazard STRIKE, but given their clumsy, indiscriminate and unnecessarily brutal approach to things, it's also pretty appropriate in itself. They're the worst of Mentor's goons, most of them recruited from the dregs of the military and intelligence communities specifically for their lack of moral qualms, then rendered loyal to Mentor through magic."

Xander grinned suddenly. "Those tattoos you found, Wills - and, by the way, really nice work - they're the active component of a spell that twists the bearer's original ideology and loyalties to serve the caster's end. In this case, Mentor."

When Misha spoke again, it was with an acid layer of contempt. "Thing is, they can't come right out and kill the Slayer in front of the entire Council - if they openly act against the very person they're supposed to be supporting, it'd spark a revolution faster than the Boston Tea Party ever did - so over the centuries, they've cloaked their self-serving assassinations with a series of pretexts and covers and illusions. They set down a rigid code of conduct for the Slayer and made any infraction punishable by death... though cloaked in mealy-mouthed 'public-good' rhetoric. Slayer's quit the Council? She's a mutinous, super-powered vigilante: unacceptable risk to the public, kill her. Slayer's killed a human being, accidentally or otherwise? Superpowered vigilante, public menace, kill her. Slayer's helped a vampire? She's gone over to the other side, public menace, kill her. They never kill a Slayer to serve their own ends, you see; they do it to protect the public."

"They were the ones who instituted the Cruciamentum test, too," Xander offered. "Classic Catch-22. If the Slayer survived, the Council hadn't trained all the creativity and independence out of her; she could go rogue, better keep a closer eye on her. If she bought it, they'd trained her into an automaton, they'd done their job right: aw, too bad, next please!"

"Of course, the excuses for issuing an Edict of Execution were for the consumption of front-line Watchers *only if* they found out that the Slayer had been 'disciplined' in the first place. To prevent that, they've gone to elaborate lengths to cover their tracks. I've lost count of all the recorded instances of Watchers with Mentor loyalties knowingly sending their Slayers into death-traps, but if that doesn't work or isn't feasible, they make it look like a 'natural' environmental hazard. Susana Bocanegra, São Paolo, October '88: she was training street-kids so they could fight back when the Ordo Astra's private army made slave-raids. They fed her to a school of pirahna... fully conscious. Jemila al-Farooq, Cairo, February '92; she waited to stake a vampire until *after* it finishing eating a known child-molester. Mentor set off a carbomb in front of her apartment building that brought half the place down and killed a hundred and seventy nine people, Jemila among them; it was blamed on terrorists. Tatyana Zyrianova and Peter McKellar, December '95; officially, gunned down by the Triads as retaliation against Cerian McKellar for some noses she'd put out of joint during her last trip to Hong Kong." Misha snorted. "Yeah, right."

Willow looked back and forth between the two New Zealanders. "Uh...?"

"Our main enemy in Napier was the Ordo Astra vampire sept," Taz supplied. "They owned - and *still* own - a corporation called the Templar Trading Group" (Willow blinked) "which, in turn, owned a 'security' company called Stormhawk Security Forces. The Stormers ran Napier like they were an occupying army; hell, TTG practically owned the entire *country*. Apart from their legitimate businesses, the Astra are into almost anything you care to think of: drugs, standover rackets with their 'security forces', the fouler forms of slavery, talislegging -"

"Talislegging?" Willow frowned.

"The shadow-market trade in mystical artifacts and arcana," Misha explained. "And one of their main sources of supply? Mentor. They've been pilfering Archives/Warehousing to fund their operations for centuries. We'd been playing run-and-gun with the Astra and their gunsels for better than two years when we stumbled across their cozy little arrangement with Mentor... who promptly decided to squash us for it.

"Thankfully, we had a little forewarning, and we actually managed to turn it back on them - used our 'assassination' to slip a fifth-columnist into their good graces."

"How?" Giles asked.

"Believe it or not? Quentin Travers and some of his mob." Misha quashed a smile at their goggle-eyed looks. "Look, Travers may well be a sanctimonious, hidebound, reactionary old dinosaur -"

"Not to mention a prick of the first order," Taz added feelingly.

Misha coughed a laugh and pressed on. "- but in his own way, he's loyal to the Council's ideals. Despite his post as Sub-Coordinator (Training/Slayers), he's about the only person in the Council who isn't under Mentor's thumb - and *that's* only because he acts like he already is anyway, to curry favour.

"We had a very public 'falling out' with our Watcher of the time, and of course Mentor snapped them up. That agent-in-place, 'Colt', has been accepted into their very top echelon, and they've given us Mentor's entire network: the name, address, posting, and complete biography and work-history of every Mentor member, shooter, mole, double-agent and informant across the whole of Europe - they're not really strong in the Americas or Asia, for some reason.

"But more to the point, Colt has given us the exact strength, dispositions and intentions of the SHRIKE-teams here in Sunnydale."

"With a couple of exceptions," Xander noted pointedly. Jesus, if Agate had been even a little more on the ball - or if Ruby had been a little luckier -!

Misha shot him a steady look. "We've already *had* that conversation, Snoopy." Taking a breath to put himself back on track, he looked back to their guests. "There *were* eighteen of them, counting the would-be robbers, the people who shot up Mister Giles' flat, and the team last night. After the smoke cleared this morning, they're down to five, one of whom works for us... and has them convinced that you, Willow, are in the hands of Team-One, along with Snoopy and the two of us. Their current plans - which they have no reason to change, thanks to Colt's maskirovka - call for them to haul the two of you in to meet up with Buffy at Sunnydale High School gym on Sunday night, execute the lot of you, and burn the whole place down to make it look like she repeated her final act at Hemery and took you two with her.

"Most of the SHRIKEs are sitting tight at a safehouse just outside town, so theoretically we could sweep them all up tonight... but there's a complication. One of them's virtually living in Buffy's pocket, and if that one gets even the vaguest hint of trouble, the last thing to ever go through Buffy's mind will be a bullet. Probably the *first* thing, too, come to think of it," he added sourly. "So we're going to let them think everything's going their way and show them exactly what they expect to see... until Sunday night, when we shove their preconceptions right down their throat."

"How?" Giles asked.

Misha smiled thinly and explained for a couple of minutes. The plan/scam he outlined exploited their opponent's mental blind-spots and arrogance to the fullest, and showed that as quiet and unassuming as he might seem, he had a first-rate grasp of tactics, the keenest appreciation for the need for surprise and 'maskirovka' (deceptive operations)... and a ruthless streak a metre wide.

When he was done, Willow shook her head. "I almost prefer the hummus offensive," she murmured. "That's... that's.... I mean, I've seen you guys work, *you* guys can pull it off, sure, but that plan...."

"What? Features Xander in a crucial role?" Taz asked, her tone a little harsh.

"Well... yes," Giles nodded. "And as much affection as I may have for Xander, I doubt -"

"Mister Giles, you're thinking of the Xander Harris who left Sunnydale six weeks ago. Y'know: the one you lot considered nothing more than an errand-runner and whipping-boy because he has no supernatural 'gifts'?" Misha's voice was cold and hard, a scalpel that peeled the skin from the Scoobies one strip at a time. "The Xander Harris *we're* thinking of is the one that I watched kill an Arulcan bloodcat with a knife."

Xander shifted uncomfortably as Giles arched a brow. "'Bloodcat'?"

"Think of the biggest fuck-off man-eating Bengal tiger you ever heard of, feed it steroids for a year, then fire it from the US Post Office," Taz said baldly.

"Good Lord!" the Englishman gasped, staring at the young man in question with something approaching awe. "And you killed one of those with a *knife*?"

"Seemed like the thing to do at the time," Xander shrugged, manifestly uncomfortable with this sort of attention.

"'Sides which, it'd already had his rifle for an entrée and was eyeing Taz up as the main course," Misha added.

Willow gave them a dubious look. "Uhhh... when was this?"

"'Bout four months ago," Taz shrugged.

"???" the Wiccan gaped. "How can that - but he only left here at the start of July!"

"And promptly got so lost he wound up in September, 1992," Misha countered blandly.

"... huh!?"

{It was my doing.} All five heads whipped around as a massive individual *appeared* in the middle of the room, turning back into phase with reality. His 'voice' was as deep and rumbly, fit to shake the very earth - yet his lips didn't move. He was as he'd appeared to Buffy: a black man about seven feet tall, wall-to-wall muscle, with shoulder-length hair and yellow eyes - with red slit pupils.

Misha nodded in greeting; his voice just a little too neutral. "Toa."

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

08:41, AUGUST 27, LIMA (16:41/27-08-99 ZULU)

Buffy stared down at the pentagram necklace in her hand through a thin red veil of blood-fury. These people couldn't *possibly* know what they were doing, messing with a Slayer like this, but when she caught up with them, she'd -!


Her head whipped around. Oz had unlimbered Willow's laptop to try a few things, and now he'd pushed the eyephones up onto his forehead. "Got something?" she asked hopefully.

He shook his head. "Calm down, hmm?"

"'Calm down'? Well, *excuse* me for actually caring about my friends! Not all of us can be Prozac Poster-People!" she snapped, resuming her pacing. "I mean, what the hell are they thinking? *Who* the hell *are* they!?"

"Whoever they are, they'll contact us when they're ready, Buffy," Cerian said levelly. "This is exactly why they're waiting so long: they *want* you to work yourself into a lather, so when they *do* make contact, you'll be so wound-up - or exhausted - that you can't think clearly or react coherently. Overwrought people make mistakes, Buffy, and under exactly the circumstances when they can't be afforded."

"How do *you* know what they're thinking?"

The Welshwoman cocked an eyebrow at her, looking very Giles-esque for a moment. "I'm an anthropologist, Buffy; anthropology is nothing more or less than the study of human behaviour, its hows and whys. Besides wearing us all down so we make mistakes, this sort of delay is little more than a reminder that in this situation, *they* have the power. And your 'freaking out' is giving them exactly what they want."

Joyce had come in as Cerian was speaking, bearing a tray of steaming pancakes and maple syrup and glasses of Gatorade that she set on the coffee-table. "She's right, honey. We're all worried, but getting upset isn't going to help. Now please, eat. I'm gonna go change for the funeral."

"Funeral?" Buffy blinked, drawing a blank.

"At ten o'clock. The one for Jeff Rance?" the senior Summers prodded. "The security guard who was killed Monday? I owe it to him and his family to be there, Buffy; I employed him, and that makes me at least a little responsible for his death."

"And give these... *whoevers* a chance to grab you too?" the Slayer countered, and for his own part, Oz was a little unnerved by the hint of shrill panic in her voice. "Nuh-uh. We're coming too."

"Not without breakfast you're not."

Buffy tried to stand her ground for a moment longer... but as tough as a Slayer might be, there was one thing she had no chance of defeating: the force of Nature known as Mom. She let a sigh, subsiding and turning towards the table and the tray thereon. "Okay. Fine. You win; we'll eat, then we'll go. I'm not letting *any* of you guys out of my sight right now."

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

08:43, AUGUST 27, LIMA (16:43/27-08-99 ZULU)

Both Giles and Willow had dabbled with magic, and they knew Power when they saw/felt it. Giles simply stared at this 'Toa' with a pale face and wide eyes. Though her own ability to feel and channel mystical energies was yet very limited, Willow reeled a little, bracing herself on the bed as she *felt* the magic in the newcomer; it simply roiled off him, it was all primal and raw and elemental, it weighed on her tongue like sweet, clear water and on her skin like the near-pain of driving rain and on her ears like a continuous roar of thunder and it made her feel all tiny and insignificant and terrified and enervated and alive and *real* -!

"Tone it down, Toa," Misha said, his voice still completely uninflected. "Now."

The... *being* didn't react to that in words, but suddenly that feeling of Power faded from Willow's senses. She put a hand to her head, feeling as giddy as if she'd just stepped off a rollercoaster; her whole body was tingling and -

Whoa! She held up her bruised hand, marvelling as actinic sparks and arcs of raw magic danced across her skin, running up her fingers like they were Jacob's ladders, flickering across her bruises and scrapes. Even as she watched, the skin flowed together and knitted, the swelling subsided and vanished, the bruises faded from purple to brown to yellow to nothing. All the while, all her other aches and pains were dissolving away, too. Oh, wow!

"Convenient timing," Taz observed coolly. Willow looked back to her... and went a little wild-eyed.

Her eyes were reflecting yellow-green, just like a wolf's. Just like Misha's had the previous night.

Just like Toa's were now.

{Time is neither convenient nor inconvenient, mortal; time *is*.}

"Save the platitudes and do what you're here to do, okay?"

"Who - *what* -?" Giles began.

{Your friend Buffy has told you of Whistler?} Toa asked. When Willow nodded, still a little dazed, he - it - shrugged. {I'm with them: same people, different department.}

Seeing Willow frown, Misha told her kindly, "That's all *we* could get out of him, too - and we've known him five years."

'Toa' gave them a glance and crossed to where Faith lay, touching her forehead. {Her physical injuries I can heal, but the rest -}

"Is *our* problem, not yours."

Toa nodded, and suddenly Willow could feel Power swirling past her, spiralling in towards him like an invisible tornado and building like a thunderhead. He touched Faith's lips, parting them a millimetre or two, then raised his left arm over the comatose Dark Slayer and poised his wrist over her lips -

What the heck is *this*? flew across the Wiccan's mind.

- his right forefinger morphed into a talon that slashed open the poised wrist.

Even as she and Giles gasped in astonishment, a single drop of blood, iridescent with all colours and with none, gathered at the centre of the wound, fell free, landed in Faith's slightly-open mouth. A second. A third. And all the while, the Power around the pair built and built and *built* -

Toa rested his hand on Faith's forehead, drew a deep breath -

Willow gasped as the gathered mystical energy ran *through* the big black 'man' into the fallen Slayer. Spillover Power hammered into the redhead like a tidal wave, and for a moment, every colour she could see was blindingly vivid -

{It is done.} Toa's hand returned to 'normal', and he waved it at his cut, which vanished as if it had never been. He turned to look at Taz and Misha. {I have paid my debt to your group; I have paid my debt to you, Slayer; I have paid my debt to you, Defender; I have now paid my debt to your companion. My obligation to all of you is ended. From here on, a favour asked will be a favour sought.}

"When will she wake up?" Misha asked.

Toa shrugged. {She will wake when she wakes. That is her choice, which I cannot interfere with.} He paused, then cocked his head a little. {I leave you with this: beware. Mine is not the only Life Magic being worked in this area; nor is the other worker using their skill so wisely.}

With that, he turned sideways to reality and was gone.

Xander massaged his neck, trying to get his hackles to lie down again. "Jeesh. He certainly believes in making his Presence felt."

"Mmm." Misha turned back to Giles and Willow. "You jokers okay?"

Willow still had a hand to her forehead. "Whoa. Wh-what was that?"

"From things Cerian said, he's an Archon - or was," Xander amended. "The way I hear it, he got canned for overstepping his limits - they stripped him of most of his powers."

That was after he'd lost most of his power!? she thought dizzily, feeling the sensation begin to ebb. She didn't hurt anywhere anymore, and something told her that all her bruises and scrapes were just *gone* as if they'd never been.

"And he owed us. You've seen our eyes? That's about the only outward sign of the, uh, *legacy* left by the ritual he just performed on Faith." Misha ran his hand over his scarred arm. "Without his attentions, this would have killed or crippled me. As it stands, I've been left with certain enhancements compared to the normal human. My sensory acuity is significantly improved, as well as my kinesthetic sense and what you might call my 'sixth sense'; I heal at a vastly improved rate, though not to the same degree as a Slayer; my neural impulses travel about ten percent faster than those of a normal human of the same age and training, meaning improved reflexes and coordination; and my system scavenges out fatigue-toxins with greater efficiency than normal, which makes for improved stamina and alertness for extended periods."

"Toa owed the two of us, and 'Colt', as individuals, and the three of us as a group. I called in my favour to save Misha's life when he was burned," Taz amplified. "He used his marker to save *me* when Mentor shot us four years ago, and what you just saw was Colt's call on Toa's honour. But Toa's enhancements and the Slayer Gifts can't co-exist in the same person, so my Slayer 'powers' were stripped away."

"And went to Saint Buffy," Misha muttered sourly.

What's his problem? Willow wondered in passing. "So, Faith's -"

"There'll be a new Slayer in a month or so," Xander nodded. "Faith will lose most of her powers - the strength, the speed and reflexes, the mystical fighting instincts, the super-healing - but the 'enhancements' will replace most of them, if at a lower degree. On the other hand, she'll need a lot of training and therapy to get back into fighting trim when she wakes up, and time to figure out how to handle her new capabilities."

"All the *Slayer* fighting skills will evapourate; her own experience won't. I know that first-hand," Taz smiled thinly, giving her sister-(ex-)Slayer a sympathetic look. "She's been surviving on the streets since she was twelve; she *knows* how to fight. She'll be fine."

Willow blinked at her. "You make that sound like a *good* thing!"

Xander snapped his mouth shut before he could say anything. Misha flushed an angry scarlet and looked away, taking a deep breath.

Taz turned hard eyes on the Wiccan. "That's a discussion for another time," she said, her accent thick.

"Speaking of, uh, 'other times': I believe you were describing how Xander seems to have been in two places at once four months ago?" Giles inserted carefully.

Taz looked back to the Watcher and visibly swallowed her ire... at least for now. "We rescued him from a couple of Mentors outside DC six weeks ago and explained things to him. Being that he is who he is, his only question was 'where do I sign up'?" She gave that sentence a certain degree of emphasis. "His heart was in it, but frankly his technical skills weren't up to the job and we didn't have the time to correct that... until we remembered Toa and called in the collective favour he owed me, Misha and Colt. We laid out the options to Xander, and he elected to go to Lympstone."

"Lympstone?" Willow repeated blankly.

Giles wasn't so uninformed. "The Royal Marines!?"

"The very same," Taz nodded. "Toa sent him back to them to... September 1992, complete with a false identity as 'Harrison Sanders' and cover as a US Marine sent to the bootnecks as an experiment, measuring the relative results of the two basic-training programmes.

"Y'see, most other training programmes melt a recruit down and pour him into a mould." Taz snorted. "It seems to work, more or less, but it was completely unsuitable for our purposes *and* for Snoopy: none of you would have recognised him if he'd turned up as a brain-washed automaton. *Royal Marine* training is a matter of turning the screw week by week, encouraging a man to find and improve himself, kind of like a high-pressure education. It's time-consuming, of course, but the end result is worthwhile: every man who comes out of Lympstone wearing a green beret is distilled down to *himself* - and he's a member of an élite that knows few equals and only a couple of superiors." She smiled wryly at that, touching her own sandy beret thoughtfully.

"'Superiors', my arse," Xander sniffed, his voice lapsing even further into those British intonations even as he squirmed, a little uncomfortable with all the attention being directed his way... all over actions that were no more or less than what he'd needed to do. "Since when are the 'Sports And Social' 'superior'?"

"Let's table that issue for now," Misha suggested quickly, seeing the familiar challenging glint in his wife's eyes. This is *not* the time for an SAS/RM argument! "In any case, once he was finished at Lympstone - which took longer than usual, since he showed a truly impressive talent for getting himself busted up - he went through parachute qualification and Small Craft Branch and got posted to 3 Raiding Squadron in Hong Kong, an anti-smuggling patrol unit. About three months after he got there, he 'disappeared' and Toa dropped him in *our* laps... last November."

"After we sorted out who he was, which was kind of a production," Taz explained with a roll of her eyes, "we dropped him right into *our* training programme. It's even more high-intensity than Lympstone - which isn't really surprising, since my uncle designed it, based on the ones he's spent thirty years running for the NZSAS - and for all that he was a trained, experienced Royal Marine, he spent a lot of time bleeding and sweating and learning a lot of new stuff.

"He trained and worked with us from the start of November until the end of April, learning all sorts of fun stuff - martial arts and close combat, tactics and fieldcraft, parazoology, specialist training as a battlefield medic, various other esoterica - and deployed on some missions with us for practical experience, which is how he got that bloodcat-skin rug for his living room. When we got back from that caper, he took some personal time to stay out of his own way, traveled the world, met interesting people and killed a few of 'em, that sort of thing. We met up in Vegas about nine weeks ago - the two of us were doing product-eval on a new UAV for the manufacturers and the Marines - and he filled in the last details we needed to take care of this little problem, then spent most of the rest of his time trying to bankrupt the casinos before he came back here. And did a fair job of it, from what I hear.

"So, Mister Giles, Willow, if you have any concerns about Snoopy's competence, forget 'em. There are five shooters in the world that I trust without question." Taz gave them both an unyielding look. "Three of them are sitting in this room wearing Nga Kehua uniform."

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

Giles looked back and forth between the trio of young soldiers(?), assessing their manners. Xander was blushing a little, clearly uncomfortable with being praised so highly... but none of them was backing off.

"I see," the former librarian said eventually. "Might I ask what this... 'Nga Kehua' might be?"

"The name means 'The Ghosts'. It's what the goblins call the strike-teams fielded by the New Zealand Paranatural Defence Service," Misha explained easily, "though in all honesty, 'service' might be stretching the point a little. We're a very small and very 'black' organisation - that means we don't officially exist, and our government funding is washed through other sources - dedicated to fighting this shadow-war Taz and I blundered into six years ago. Our support crews include all sorts of analysts and intelligence types, and we've got several paramilitary strike teams, most of whom are military or military-trained; Taz and I, for example, are technically civilians, since we never joined the Army, but we've completed NZSAS training and are accepted as members of the Squadron. Taz's uncle Andrushka handles their training like he did ours when we were younger, and since he's been operating with the NZSAS in various capacities for almost forty years, by the time he's done with the recruits - no matter if they were SAS, police, or just some really determined volunteer civilian like Taz or myself - they *know* the job. A lot of our people are just attack survivors who're determined to do whatever they can to help, even less qualified to do this job than Snoopy here used to be... but, *unlike some*," he added significantly, giving his guests a look that matched the one Taz had handed out a moment ago, "we don't believe in turning away those who want to do their part."

"That's neither here nor there," Xander inserted quickly.

"Really?" The New Zealander sounded far from convinced, but didn't push the point. For now.

"So what happens now?" Giles asked.

Taz shrugged. "Now, you and Willow sit tight here until Monday morning. The surviving SHRIKEs don't even know you're still alive, and even if they did, they wouldn't think to look for you here. After we kill the Council's assassins on Sunday night, we'll go back to training a Nga Kehua-style operation among the SPD and MFR troops, and you'll be able to go back to business as usual."

"I rather doubt that," the Watcher said gently. "Once they realise they've failed, Mentor will assemble more assassins and try again."

Taz gave him a flat look. "Do we *look* that stupid, Mister Giles? Of *course* they'd try again - that's why they're never gonna get the chance!"

"I'm sorry? I'm afraid I don't follow you."

"The Slayer's conduct is no longer a matter of concern to Mentor, Giles, because in about... thirty-four hours," Xander said, consulting the inward-turned face of his watch, "there will no longer *be* a Mentor."

Giles went stark white.

Taz nodded soberly. "Colt's information is very complete, sir. And right now, assault teams from several special-operations forces, including the SAS, Royal Marines, and the British Paranatural Defence Service, are staging to remove every last Mentor inside the Council. Come Sunday night, when they think *they're* going to take out *Buffy*, *we* are going to put *them* out of business. All of them.

"And the Council's going to need cleaning up afterwards," she added. "With that many key people ripped out of their infrastructure, *someone* will have to take over and turn the Council into something that actually *works* - and remembers its responsibilities."

Giles raised a querying eyebrow. "Do you have a particular 'someone' in mind?"

"I should imagine Travers does," Misha murmured blandly.

"To which I can only say 'pride goeth'," Xander added with a smirk. None of the three paramilitary types had any illusions about Travers' *real* motives or ends... or any sympathy for what the Fates *really* had in store for him.

Taz gave them both a *look* and shrugged to Giles. "Look, what happens after we're done is an internal matter. We're soldiers; we just break stuff. That said, Colt's compiled a list of suitable candidates. One of the benefits of being in charge of monitoring malcontents is that you know exactly who to go to when you're setting up a coup," she grinned crookedly.

"Right." Giles leaned back to digest all this. "Might I ask how you set all this up? The external forces, I mean?"

Taz touched the sandy beret under her epaulette. "Mentor didn't do their homework about the two of us. My uncle Andrushka lives under a false identity as Andrew O'Ryan, who's just a harmless longshoreman. His real name is Andrew *Hazelton*, and he spent twenty years in the NZSAS under that name - he's still an instructor, works with our SAS and the NZPDS, Force Recon and FBI HRT at Quantico, people like that - and he likes to keep his hand in with actual field-operations. He also has a lot of friends in low places in the special-operations community, a network with fellow 'retirees', what-have-you."

"And what will you do with your prisoners?"

Misha gave him a blank look. "Uhh... 'prisoners'?"

Part Fifteen

08:49, FRIDAY AUGUST 27, LIMA (16:49/27-08-99 ZULU)

"\Why couldn't Team-1 have just come straight back here? This is supposed to be our most secure location!\" Beryl pointed out acidly in his native German.

Onyx took a deep breath, controlling his urge to simply take the man's head off - verbally or otherwise. Thank God I only have to put up with him for a little while longer.... "\Because this *is* our most secure location, Florian. 'Hellmouth effect' or not, people might have noticed the snatch, and this place is only secure as long as we don't draw attention to it.\"

"Are you sure they're okay?" Amber asked.

"I talked to Topaz by IM a couple of hours ago. She gave me the green-light code-phrases; they're in place, with all their prizes in tow, and without casualties. That'll be the only contact until the hand-off." And you know that, so why are you whinging to me?

"Why?" Jade wanted to know.

How many times do I have to go over the same bloody procedures? Ye Gods! Onyx cried inwardly. They're all hardened operators - and not one of them less than ten years my senior to boot - yet they've all come crying to me wailing 'Daddy! Daddy!' Even the Scooby Gang didn't bleat and moan like this! "Because there's more than ten thousand bloody bootnecks camped two hills over, and some of them have electronic surveillance gear. D'you think they only dust that off once a year for their annual exercise?" he demanded caustically. "I know they listen to every last microwatt of electronic communication in this district, and if someone picks up something they consider curious, we're liable to find the Sunnydale Police at our doorstep - or being paid a surprise visit by a couple of platoons of Force Recon shooters. That's why we all 'report by absence': contact is only sought if something goes wrong."

"\And if something goes so badly wrong that they don't get the chance to tell us?\"

"Then it'd be just as well we've got Opal as our ace in the hole, yes?" Onyx said crisply. "Now, get back to work, all of you. Most of the Scooby Gang may be under wraps, but the Slayer herself is still at large, and we still need to keep tabs on what she's up to."

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

16:55, AUGUST 27, LIMA (16:55/27-08-99 ZULU)

Pearse J. Harman, nominal director of the United Kingdom Paranatural Defence Service, considered the plan before him with little outward emotion. A distinguished man is his early fifties, the medical condition that would soon retire him (possibly permanently) had given him the pallid skin-tone and emaciated look more commonly associated with the 'Code Fives' he hunted, but he'd lost none of the keen intellect that had gotten him through Oxford, nor the sheer driving force of will that had made him about the only man for this job. One of the other things that made him such a good boss was the fact that he knew when to yield the floor to the experts, like now. Vaughan Rice, the lanky, ebony-skinned man standing at his left hand, was Ultraviolet's head paramilitary man, and he'd well proven over the last eight years that he knew what he was doing. "You're satisfied with this, Vaughan?" he asked, merely to be sure.

"Based on the information we've been given, yeah." Rice's East London accent might have seemed out of place, especially compared to Harman's sophisticated tones, but that idea had never occurred to anyone here; when you were fighting for the very survival of human civilisation, you took volunteers where you found them, and Rice was one of the best anywhere. The sole survivor of an SAS Scud-hunter patrol attacked by 'leeches' in the Iraqi desert in '91, he'd personally hand-picked every one of Ultraviolet's small unit of shooters - most of them British military personnel who'd had experiences similar to his own - and trained most of them in the specialised weapons, tactics and disciplines of their new trade.

Sergeant Jack Nolan, Royal Marines (ret.), one of the key movers in the strike-plan they were surveying, shot his commander a dour look at hearing the qualification. "How many times do I have to vouch for the intel, 'Major'?" the Irishman asked patiently.

"I realise that this American Sanders is a former comrade of yours, Sergeant, but allow us a commander's prerogative. You can't expect us to feel *entirely* comfortable in setting up an operation this large based on information we didn't develop ourselves." Harman's dry tone was quintessentially British. "Especially when that operation is directed at an organisation that's supposed to have the same goals that we do."

"With all respect, Director, you don't know Snoopy Sanders. I do. Our Squadron in Hong Kong got into some real pinches against the Triads and the leeches and the goblins, and Snoopy and Steve Wells got us out of 'em as well as anyone could have. He's a joker, and he doesn't have a lot of natural talent for soldiering, but he never sent any of us anywhere he wouldn't go himself and when he sees something that has to be done, the only way to stop him doing it is run him over with a tank and park it on him. If he says this intel's good, it might as well be the word of God Almighty Himself - if you'll pardon the expression, Father."

"I'm hardly the sort to send you to Confession over it, Sergeant," Harman smiled dryly.

Rice shrugged, dismissing that portion of the argument as he contemplated the proposed deployment. "Well, 'is info's been good so far; most of their crews are off in the States playing clay-pigeon, with Sanders and those Kiwi crazies in the traps, and this place is wide open."

"Everyone's memorised the pictures of those on 'The List'?"

Rice grunted an affirmative. Colt had been very specific: amongst the copious notes, pictures and other information they'd given had been a list of several people of key importance of one sort or another who were not to be harmed under any circumstances. That list of 'no-shoots' included a couple of surprising choices, and a couple of equally startling non-inclusions given the structure of the target organisation, but a brief explanation of the intended results had cleared up that confusion - and set off mental alarms in both Harman and Rice's heads. After all, from their perspective the end result Colt envisaged was just a little too good to be true, and if it *looked* too good....

Ultraviolet's military commander shook off that thought. If someone was trying to pull a swifty, it was a mistake Colt wouldn't live to regret - and if this *wasn't* merely bait, the payoff would make all this trouble more than worthwhile.

"And Michael's ready with his end of things?"

Rice nodded against, this time with the barest hint of an indulgent smile. His one-time partner, Michael Colefield, was handling some of the negotiations for the aftermath. Under Angie's eagle eye all the while. I may rate Michael, but after that thing with Beresford, it's pretty obvious he needs constant adult supervision....

With that snarky observation, he leaned back towards the maps, diagrams and blueprints they'd been given, once more refining his planned assault-and-seizure of Greymoor Manor.

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

08:58, AUGUST 27, LIMA (16:58/27-08-99 ZULU)

Willow stared out through the Humvee's windscreen with unseeing eyes, feeling decidedly dizzy as she tried to put everything she'd just been told into some sort of real order. Misha had bustled them all out of Giles' room only a few minutes ago, citing the need to let the Watcher rest and regain his strength - adding, somewhat dryly, that he'd had enough shocks for one millenium.

"Penny for your thoughts," Taz smiled, not taking her eyes off the road.

Before the Wiccan could even register the comment, Misha was speaking. "Hey, Willow, you're the resident smarty-pants, maybe you can help me figure out something I've always wondered about: when someone offers a penny for your thoughts, and you put in your two cents' worth - what happens to the other penny?"

That broke through, in a way, and Willow turned to give him a *look*. "N- Misha, don't take this the wrong way... but you're a thundering loony!"

"Really? Thank you!" he beamed, the very picture of sincerity. "That's the nicest thing anyone's said about me in days."

"I wonder why," she countered, sinking back into her seat to try and hide her smile.

Taz shot her husband a wink in the rear-vision mirror. That broke her out of the fugue state - nicely done!

A few moments later, they pulled up outside the visitor's quarters, and the two senior Kehua shared a private look of amusement at the way Xander virtually hovered over Willow, helping her out of the Hummer and pacing her all the way to the door in case her still-dubious sense of balance deserted her.

Willow's eyes took a moment to adapt to the relative darkness inside, and when she could see properly, she couldn't help but gape. Far from the sterile, impersonal look and feel one would expect of transient housing, this place looked lived-in and almost homey. There were photos on the wall, a nearly-full bookshelf, several sizeable and well-worn tomes on the coffee-table, and - Willow choked and stared. "Is that -!?"

"Yeah, that's *their* Bloodcat hide," Xander grinned, tipping his chin at the black-striped reddish-orange rug that lay in the middle of the living-room, 'snarling' at the new arrivals. It was even more substantial than the hacker had gathered from Taz's description: if the animal that had owned that skin in life had been less than eleven feet long and weighed under seven hundred pounds, Ira Rosenberg was Catholic. "We had a couple of scrapes with 'em; Taz took that one with a single shot, front-on down the body. Cleaning him up for tanning was fun, but it was worth it."

"*Oh* yeah." Taz nodded feelingly, then turned wicked eyes on the younger redhead. "You ought to stretch out on it some time; it's *sinfully* comfortable."

"Especially if you're a home-nudist like her," Xander murmured dryly. The Russian heard him, grinned unrepetantly, and headed into the kitchen to start the coffee-machine.

Willow blushed a little at the comment, then looked up at him and all but accused: "I thought she were *kidding* about the rug thing!"

"You did, huh? Remind me sometime to tell you about how Taz got her shoes for the School Ball," Xander drawled. "We figured you'd want to get cleaned up, so there're fresh clothes and things for you. Your room's at the end of the hallway on the right, bathroom's at the middle left."

"We'll have some food waiting when you're ready," Misha added, casually rummaging through the fridge. "I don't know about the rest of you, but me? I'm starved."

"No wonder you get along with him so well," Willow murmured, cocking a wry eyebrow at Xander.

"Yeah, we're both the sensitive type." He rolled those oh-so-lovely brown eyes of his and jerked his head towards the hallway. "G'wan, scram. If you're quick, there might actually be something left when you get back."

"I'm not gonna hold my breath," she laughed, and was gone.

Xander looked after her for a moment, then voiced something that was almost a sigh and turned back to his fellows. "Jeez, guys, anybody's think you never got fed."

"After three months in Arulco, living on compo rations and food from an agricultural system that would have appalled the Soviets? What do you think?" Taz smirked, digging out the various components of her peculiar form of coffee.

"We got back from there in April!" Xander protested.

Misha had found some corned beef and rye bread and was layering sandwiches together. "We're fattening up for the slaughter. So who gets to play minder?"

"Not I," his wife shrugged. "We won't have the Kill-House time we need to rehearse Sucker Punch unless I go give Colonel Gregan his weekly anal craniocotomy."

"Try and be a little less bolshie this time, okay, cariad?" he sighed in a long-suffering way. "Gregan may be a dick, but he's also a full colonel - and in command of our host MEU(SOC)."

"Hey: it's me!" the Russian grinned.

"Exactly my point," he noted wryly. "I love you, Taz, but in your natural state you're about as tactful as a bris with a piledriver."

"Freaky image-place, Misha," Xander chuckled, cringing a little.

Misha's cell-phone went off before he could respond to that. "Saved by the bell, Snoopy," he smiled, answering the call.

While the older man was busy, Xander looked to Taz and cocked an eyebrow. "Look, maybe it'd be better if I talked to Colonel Gregan. I've got rank on both of you, it might be easier to swallow coming from me."

"Like a corporal looks any better to a bird-colonel than a lance-corporal does," the Russian snorted. "Especially when the colonel is a smug ring-knocking prick like him." Behind her, the coffee-machine finished its cycle, and she went to work on the contents, shaking spices into the pot in carefully-measured, practiced proportions.

"Yeah, but American military types react better to the green lid than they do the sandy one."

Misha, finished with his call in time to hear that last comment, shrugged to his wife. "He's got a point. I guess that's why they call bootnecks 'the thinking man's infantry'."

"'They' usually being bootnecks," she countered with a snort.

"I think that's a 'yes'," the amber-eyed operator drawled, one hand tucking away his phone as the other took up a sandwich.

"Cool. What's the what?"

"The guys working Project Wasp just spotted something they said we'd find 'interesting' out UC Sunnydale way, they need me over there like now. Mind if I catch a ride with you, since you're headed that way? Or better yet, we both go see what the UAV boys're talking about, then we can go tag-team Gregan."

Xander was about to say 'yeah, sure', but checked himself as a thought occurred to him. That'd leave Taz looking after Wills - Looking to the Russian, he opened his mouth to speak -

"What's the cardinal rule of command, Snoopy?" Taz asked mildly, pouring a mug of her notorious 'go-juice'.

"Never give an order that you know won't be obeyed. All you do is undermine your own authority," he repeated... then sighed, recognising how masterfully she'd cut him off from what she *knew* he'd been about to say. "Just... try to take it easy, okay? They weren't *that* bad."

"Says a man too close to the problem to see it as it actually is," she countered reasonably. "Don't worry, Snoopy, I won't break her."

"Says the woman whose patrol-speciality is explosives and demolitions," he laughed sourly, turning to head for the Hummer. "I swear, it's like arguing with sphinxes, each as bad as the other...."

"We're not *that* bad," Misha told the Marine's disappearing back... then glanced at his wife plaintively. "Are we?"

Taz shrugged, swiped his sandwich out of his hand and silenced his protest with a brief, sweet kiss. "Mmmm. Thanks, sexy - now get out of here, you're gonna miss your taxi."

"Y'know, this is why I try never to get involved in my own life," the amber-eyed operator murmured ruefully, snatching up another sandwich as he went. "Too much bloody hassle...."

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

Willow came back into the living-room perhaps fifteen minutes later, looking a little uncertain; seeing Taz lounging in one of the armchairs, she cocked an eyebrow and waved a hand down herself, wordlessly indicating the USMC garrison khakis that had been laid out for her.

"'Low profile'," the Russian smiled blandly. "Mufti'd draw attention, but no-one'll think twice about a uniformed Marine hanging out with us. Saves a lot of questions."

"Oh." And you walking around wearing a gunbelt *won't* draw attention? she wondered to herself, her eyes lingering on the big Glock strapped to the other woman's right thigh. She took a seat in the sofa opposite the older woman, eyeing the plate of sandwiches laid out on the coffee-table a little dubiously. "Uhhhh....?"

"Rye bread with corned beef, tomato relish, and potato-chips for texture," Taz supplied; when Willow goggled, the Russian shrugged. "Misha's blend. He claims he's second cousin to Gonzo the Great, and sometimes I believe it. Snoopy's warned me about your reactions to coffee, so I got you some juice instead. Go ahead and tuck in; you must have a thousand questions, and between those and other stuff... well, a conversation that long is best held on a full stomach."

"Especially when it's with you," was the wry retort. She'd tried arguing with this woman several times in the last few weeks, and it was An Experience - a draining one, at that. With that in mind (and her stomach reminding her that she hadn't had anything to eat since dinner the previous night), the younger woman set about demolishing the offered refreshments with almost Xander-like gusto. Taz grinned fondly at the sight, killing the time by leafing through one of the books from the table. That said tome would feature in the coming discussion was not a coincidence.

It was a measure of Willow's hunger that she'd gone through two sandwiches before she glanced at what Taz was reading... but when she did, she went utterly still. Swallowing her current mouthful, she did her best to keep her voice even. "Is... is that what I think it is?"

"Uh-huh." Taz smiled gently. "I understand that Mister Giles has said that it was one of the most salient books of Slayer prophecy, but that it had been lost. Correct?"


A nod. "Yeah, that's about right. He was repeating what he'd been told by his teachers... but since we've already established that his teachers were Mentor, it's safe to say what they told him was probably ninety percent bullshit." She slapped the big book closed, considering the gold lettering on its cover for a moment. "'The Tiberius Manifesto.' Do you know who 'Tiberius' was?"

"Giles never said."

"Because he didn't know, because nobody would've given information that inflammatory to a field-Watcher." The Russian cocked her head and looked at the younger woman closely. "Why does Buffy do what she does, Willow?"

"W- she's the Slayer!" the Wiccan stammered, a little baffled by the question. "She's the Chosen One, she has a sacred duty -"

"Duty to whom, Willow?" Taz demanded. "Sacred - to whom? Chosen - by whom? Did it ever occur to you to ask those questions? If only to establish that Buffy was in the trade for the right reasons?"

"W- she was chosen by the Higher Powers -"

"That'd be ample proof that the Powers are meth-addicts, if it were true. D'you really think they'd choose some self-absorbed airhead cheerleader to be the protector of mankind? Please!"

"So who *did* choose her?" Willow shot back, rising to her friend's defence.

Taz settled back in her chair a little, taking a deep breath. Misha was so much better at these long explanations than she was... but he wasn't here. Besides, she'd had some time to think this one over. "Do you who the first Slayer was, Willow? A young Etruscan woman, back before the entire people was absorbed by the Romans.

"The Etruscan society had the same problems with goblins and such back then as we do now, but they didn't have the tools to deal with them: there were no formal police back then, so private citizens had to look out for themselves - and for others. Unfortunately, as is all too common in decadent cultures, nobody wanted to take the responsibility... until a fifteen-year-old girl named Amanda woke up to what was going on around her. She saw how the spooks and fangs and goblins had the run of the night - of her world - and she couldn't stand by and do nothing about it. She sought training from the best fighter she could find - an expatriate Spartan, of all things! - and she did what she could, but a kid who weighs maybe fifty kilos soaking wet isn't much shakes against full-fledged vampires, and she knew it. So did the Spartan, Alexios, and he did something about it.

"Alexios was pretty old by the standards of the day, in his mid-forties, and he'd gotten there the hard way. You'll recall that the Spartans devoted almost their entire culture to warfare, and for him to be that old, what he didn't know about personal combat wasn't worth knowing... but it wasn't the sort of knowledge you could impart to a teenage girl in a few months, so he did the only thing he felt he could. He found a couple of fellow warriors who would watch over his young student once he was gone, then sought out a group of local magicians and convinced them to transfer *his* prowess, *his* instincts, *his* strength to her. The transference killed him, of course; he'd known it would. But he knew that it was the only way for Amanda to make any headway. And it worked."

"He sacrificed himself... to turn her into the first Slayer?" Willow asked, and got a confirming nod. "Why?"

"Alexios chose to die in a manner befitting a Spartan warrior: giving his life so a comrade might know victory, that a loved one might be kept safe. Leave us not forget, this is the same culture that brought us Leonidas' stand at Thermopylae not a hundred years later.

"Those warriors he'd chosen as Amanda's guardians fought beside her in her battles, while the magicians provided advice and kept records of her deeds." Taz tapped the cover of the 'Manifesto'.

"The first Watchers."

"Both factions together? Yes. Amanda's fellow warriors had children of their own, many of whom chose to fight beside her. You see, instead of spending every waking moment whinging about how she didn't want the job, she just sucked it up and did it - she was assertive, confident, self-reliant, someone who not only did what was required of her but more, someone who sought more responsibilities to fulfil, someone who'd do the right thing under pressure. She was a selfless warrior and an example to emulate - not a cheerleader assembling a coterie of yes-men and sycophants."

Willow's eyes flared at that. "We're not -!"

"Xander isn't; you, I'm not sure about. But we're getting off the topic at hand."

"You -"

"Shut up and listen, Willow, I'm not finished. When Amanda was killed three years later, the magicians knew that the essence of power that she had borne was a weapon too valuable to dissipate or destroy, so they went to Amanda's fellows and offered them the choice: who would take up her burden?"

The Wiccan blinked as she grasped that. "You mean they didn't just - or They didn't just -?"

"By 'They', you mean the so-called Powers That Be? Hell, no. People are *always* crediting them with things that are no more than happenstance or the product of some human agency. 'God's Will' is a handy cop-out, no more. The magicians? Well, back then they understood the most important thing about this calling of ours."


The Russian's eyes met Willow's, and they were as unyielding as steel. "That which is *given* is far more powerful than that which is *taken*. That there is nothing so powerful as the will of a volunteer."

Things went *click* at the back of Willow's brain. "You mean Xander."

"Precisely. But we'll get to him soon enough.

"Both of Alexios' fellow warriors were getting past the point of being combat-effective themselves by now, so after one of the volunteers was chosen to be the recipient of Amanda's gifts, they submitted to the same transference as Alexios had done, adding their skills to her powers. A corps of dedicated volunteers led by a girl with a warrior's prowess and instincts was a positive worry to the goblins; that same corps led a girl with three warriors' abilities threw them right back on their heels, and they stayed that way.

"You see, Willow, the Slayer was never meant to be humanity's last hope or a solitary defender; she was meant to be a leader, an inspiration to others, an example to follow, an ideal to strive towards.

"Things continued in that vein for about a hundred years. Candidates were chosen for their integrity and courage, trained by warriors, then asked if they would accept the price that the Slayer's calling demanded; if they accepted - which they almost invariably did - the Slayer's gifts would transfer to them. Each of those girls consciously accepted the responsibility of protecting others' lives at the risk of their own. Unfortunately, after that first century or so, the magicians started thinking they didn't really *need* the warriors after all and phased them out, started putting their own spin on things, starting their slide towards the Council of today, Mentor in particular. The 'Tiberius Manifesto' is the final chronicle of one of those last warriors, trying to preserve the truth for future generations."

"How did pushing out the soldiers start them on the way down?"

"Because without the warriors to give them perspective, the girls started believing the pseudo-religious spin the magicians put on the whole tale, and the emphasis on choice went by the boards. Instead of 'Here is what must be done. Will you accept this duty?', it was 'There's your duty. Accept it. Do it.' But one thing remained constant: because of the nature of the original empowerment spell, it always remained the girl's choice. Buffy likes to make a lot of noise about how she was drafted and dragged into this without any consideration of her wishes. That's bullshit. Admittedly, they browbeat her into it, and if she'd refused when Merrick asked the question he'd've probably put a bullet in her - but she said 'yes', and now she's got to live with that choice. And so do the rest of us, unfortunately."

"You think she's an unfit Slayer?" Willow asked a little hotly.

Time for Phase Two. "I think she's exactly what Travers wanted when he arranged for her to be Chosen: a cheerleader on a power-trip who likes to play the martyr, spends too much time whinging about problems that aren't worth the name, has no real appreciation of how much support she's received from you all, and makes choices on the basis of her own selfish interests at times when the fate of the entire world hangs on her judgement. I've seen the internal communications on the matter. Travers wanted to score a political point within the Council by proving that a Slayer raised outside of their purview couldn't hack it, wouldn't be able to handle the responsibility or do things the way they wanted. Misha and I were only told about the whole 'Slayer' routine a month *after* we started smoking vampires, yet we were getting it done in spite of everything that was thrown at us. Mentor didn't like my methods, so they had me removed; Travers didn't like my proving him wrong, so he stood aside to let it happen. Buffy was meant to be his object example, a Slayer who just couldn't cut it and got herself killed inside a month. She doesn't seem to realise that she's survived this long mainly out of Scooby support and pure dumb luck - and it hasn't sunk in yet that sooner or later her luck is going to run out!" Even as Willow began to bristle at her words, Taz picked up the combination remote that lay on the coffee table, turned on the TV, and hit 'PLAY'.

{"So this spell might restore Angel's humanity?"}

Willow's head whipped around. What the - that's Xander! And me, and Buffy - this is the meeting we had just before the Acathla thing!

The on-screen Xander continued to speak, turning hard eyes on his companions. {"Well, here's an interesting angle. *Who cares*?"}

{"I care."} Buffy was standing her ground against him.

{"Is that right?"}

{"Let's not lose our perspective here, Xander,"} Giles urged.

{"I'm Perspective Guy. Angel's a killer."}

Taz paused the playback, turning to Willow to answer her questions before they could be voiced. "Archons like Toa are sort of temporal archivists who see all, know all, record all, for the Universal Library, a celestial archive where every word, every deed, every feeling and every thought that is, that has ever been, that will ever be is recorded. It's the central storage for Truth in the universe. According to him, Archons exist simultaneously in all moments in time, past and present and future, and see all the consequences of even the most insignificant change, so they're the only ones who can truly access or comprehend those archives - which explains why the best and most accurate prophets are uniformly nuttier than a muesli bar; a normal human mind can't handle information that complex. He felt that we needed to understand all that's happened in Sunnydale, so he gave us your last three years' exploits on DVD... with some *very* interesting Easter Egg features," she added dryly... then hit 'FORWARD' a touch and restarted the playback.

{"I-I don't know. What happened to Angel wasn't his fault,"} Buffy sighed.

{"Yeah, but what happened to Ms. Calendar is." Buffy and Willow focussed incredulous stares on Xander, who pressed on coldly. "You can paint this any way you want. But the way I see it is that you wanna forget all about Ms. Calendar's murder so you can get your boyfriend back."}

Taz skipped forward again, to another conversation the next night.

{"So that would be the literal kind of 'sucked into Hell'. Neat," Buffy drawled, then turned to her friend. "Willow, I think you should try the curse."

{"I tend to side with your friend Xander on this one," Kendra disagreed. "Angel should be eliminated."

{"Oh, I'll fight him," Buffy told her. "I'll kill him if I have to. But if I don't get there in time, or if I lose, then Willow might be our only hope."}

"And that was the whole problem," the Russian said harshly, pausing the playback again. "Do you know how many people Angelus had butchered to that point, Willow? Just in the not-quite five months since Buffy's little hormonal lapse?"


"Counting Miss Calendar, fifty-three. He'd left a trail of bodies in his wake to do Charles Manson's heart glad; here he is, about to see the entire world dragged into a hell that's less than pleasant even by the standards of the breed; the fate of the entire planet hangs on her right now, and what's Buffy thinking? She's going to fight a holding action until you can resoul her demon fuckpiece! Let's see how that ends, shall we?" The Russian had raised her voice not a fraction during her diatribe, but the frigid contempt in her voice had been flaying. Another skip-forward, this to outside Angel's mansion.

{"You're not here to fight." Buffy set off down the path again. "You get Giles out, and you run like hell, understood? I can't protect you. I'm gonna be too busy killing."

{Xander took in the sword she was carrying, Kendra's last gift to her. "Now, that's a new look for you."

{"It's a present for Angel."

{"Willow. Uh, she told me to tell you...."}

{"Tell me what?"}

Willow was so intent on the screen that she didn't see Taz tap a green button on the remote.

{"... She's trying the curse again. It should kick in any minute."}

Willow knew what happened next, of course - the parts she hadn't been there for, the others had told her about - but seeing it like this was quite another. As Buffy entered the mansion and events progressed from there, Taz called up an inset view of the Scoobies setting up and enacting the soul-restoration ritual.

But as the sword-fight between Buffy and Angelus developed, Willow started to frown. This *wasn't* how Buffy had said things went; even she could tell that Buffy was merely playing for time.

"Do you know what happens to rearguards who try to hold out too long, Willow?" Taz asked, as clinically as any surgeon.

A flare of light from one side of the combatants. Buffy's head whipped around; Acathla was glowing. Opening.

If she'd been going after Angelus with all her energy, he might have been worn down enough that her distraction didn't matter. As it was, he was fresh enough to see the opening and exploit it. Even as Buffy turned her attention back to her opponent, he dashed her blade to one side and hacked off her sword-hand.

"They get over-run," the Russian finished, in that same dispassionate tone. "Messily."

Even as Buffy shrieked and stared at the bloody stump of her right wrist, Angelus' backstroke laid the Slayer's belly open to the backbone. The blonde stumbled to her knees, staring at her own entrails spilling onto the floor in mute shock, then looked up at the demon wearing her lover's face. "A-angel?"

"Why do you keep calling me that?" he asked scornfully, and beheaded her with a casual flick of his wrist. Leaving her corpse to crumple to the floor, he turned and crossed to where the blonde's head had come to rest. He picked it up by the hair, contemplating the baffled expression her face had worn as he struck. "Should've figured this was the only way to get head from you, Buff," he quipped.

In the inset view, Willow finished her incantation, and Angelus' eyes flashed an instant later. He blinked, visibly disoriented as Angel started coming back to himself - then he saw Buffy's severed head hanging from one hand, and the bloody sword in the other. "Oh, no... oh, dear God -!"

Then the screen dissolved into the whirling colours of Acathla's vortex.

Taz punched 'stop' and looked to her ashen-faced companion silently.

"That... that's not what happened!" Willow finally managed.

"No, Willow, that's exactly what happened. The integrity of the Universal Library is utterly inviolable: anything recorded there cannot be anything less than one hundred percent accurate. What you just saw is exactly what happened when Buffy was left to her own devices: she played for time when the fate of the world depended on her giving her all, she died for it, and the entire world literally went to hell because she *still* couldn't think of anything but getting Angel back! Thankfully, that record is of an *alternate* timeline - not an actual occurrence."

Still wide-eyed with horror, the Wiccan turned her eyes back to the screen as Taz rewound the recording, this time leaving the green button alone.

{"Willow. Uh, she told me to tell you...."

{"Tell me what?

{"Kick his ass."}

Willow blinked. "He lied...?"

"He made the choice Buffy refused to - to do what had to be done," Taz countered, her voice like forged steel. "Look at the situation, Willow - use that renowned intellect of yours.

"He'd seen how you and Buffy were acting about the curse. He'd watched Buffy stand by and do *nothing* as Angelus tore Sunnydale to pieces because she couldn't bring herself to kill the beast that wore Angel's face. He knew Buffy wouldn't go all-out if she knew there was a chance she could have her cake and eat it too.

"He also knew how risky a proposition the curse was. You'd never cast a spell before in your life, and your inexperience might cause it to fail. You were seriously injured, still physically weak and mentally scrambled by that bookcase landing on you; you might not have enough energy to make it work - a valid concern, in the actual event - and it might fizzle, or even drain you dead and *then* fizzle.

"In short, Willow, he realised that the fate of the world depended on him - and unlike Buffy, he acted like it! He knew there'd be hell to pay when the rest of you found out, and he accepted that."

By this point, Willow was bone-white, almost shaking in horror. "Wh-what do you mean, 'not enough energy'? It worked, didn't it?"

"Not off your powers, it didn't," Taz snorted, calling the image of the Scoobies at the hospital to full-size and pausing as the on-screen Willow flung her head back, shouting words that had never been part of the script Jenny Calendar had translated. "D'you really think that's you casting that spell, Willow? Do you speak Romanian? No. That's Janna Calendar's last hurrah you're seeing. She came back from the beyond to finish what she'd started, and she used the only available vessel to do it: you. She threw every last erg of power left to her shade into you to make that curse work, and that's why you suddenly developed kick-ass magical abilities you didn't have a year before. You cast one huge spell, but about all you can do reliably now is levitate pencils, right? Because you're drawing on the last dregs of the supercharge she gave you... and it's running out. When you finally deplete those reserves... well, personally, I'm guessing you'll probably just revert to being a null like the rest of us. Misha's of the opinion that you'll probably retain the capacity for magic, but that you'll have to start over from scratch, relearn how to channel mana all over again."

Leaving the shell-shocked Wiccan to contemplate that, Taz crossed to the DVD player to touch a few controls, removing a couple of lock-outs on the disc the Archon had left with her. It would take Willow a few minutes to get her head around what she'd just learned, and she wouldn't be ready for the next part of this conversation until she got her feet under her again.

- * - * - * - * - * - * - * -

09:33, AUGUST 27, LIMA (17:33/27-08-99 ZULU)

Project Wasp's mobile telemetry centre wasn't all that elaborate or fancy, but then, that was the entire point. The system was designed for low-profile, easy-deployment operation, so the MTC was built into the back of a single five-ton truck. Misha pulled the Humvee to a stop a few metres from the dismountable launch-ramp and waved a 'hi' to the civilian technicians and Marine mechanics who were working on several of the bat-winged UAVs. "Hey, Kodiak. How's it going?"

"Shitty," said a grease-stained Staff Sergeant Stanislaus Bartkowiak. "Groucho's still not hacking it in the ground-tests, I think we're gonna have to send him back to the factory for a full rebuild after all."

"That's what happens when you crash into a bordello's back yard from half a mile up," Xander observed dryly. "The others?"

"Chico's flight-control actuators are still out to lunch - I think it's a software glitch - and Harpo's hydraulics locked solid last night, the camera-turret won't budge an inch. Gummo's ready to go, and Zeppo's in the air right now. He's the only one of 'em I can depend on."

"Imagine that," Misha deadpanned, not looking at his companion. "Chief around?"

"Yeah, he's inside."

"Thanks. Have fun," Xander added maliciously, eyeing in the scattered components of the other two Wasps and their innards. A third stood off to one side looking a little forlorn, the uneven wear on the paint showing where entire sections had been replaced, including one wing. Groucho's mishap had taken him from star performer to hangar queen, and this was with lavish technical support and parts depots on hand. That didn't bode well for future field operations in the field, with minimal support facilities.

The MTC's interior was dimly lit, mainly by the displays. The flight-control consoles ran down the left side of the truck, with the imagery section against the forward wall; three technicians sat in cushioned chairs, one at the controls and two with the telemetry, and a blocky Marine was leaning over the imagery-techs, frowning at the screens.

"Chief," Misha nodded to this last man; this was a work-area, so he forwent the normal salute. "You said you had something for us to look at?"

Chief Warrant Officer-2 Julio Marcales nodded and showed the younger men to the playback area. "Yeah, it's on the recorder - it all went down about twenty minutes ago. Karl, if you please?"

"Okay, now this is the Sunnydale Stormhawk base, about five klicks due east of the UC Sunnydale campus, 'kay?" civilian tech-rep Karl Maitland said, starting the tape. "Get a load of this."

The image was an overhead view of a typical garrison complex: a company-sized barracks, a smaller complex of officer's quarters, a block of administration buildings, a firing range and Kill-House, an armoury, a large motor-pool full of Pathfinders and hard-top Hummers in Stormhawk beige-and-ochre police-pattern livery, and a cluster of supply warehouses. (A glance at the secondary display showed the same base in imaging infra-red, where slight temperature variations in areas of meadow inside the perimeter wire that seemed pristine to the visible-light camera marked the locations of camouflaged defensive bunkers. It seemed that the Stormers had followed their usual pattern of 'peace through superior firepower' - not that either Kehua was surprised.) In front of the main admin block, a small motorcade was just pulling up: a dark blue late-model Mercedes with pennons at either side of the hood, preceded by a blocky ochre Suburban. Someone had rigged up an awning from the admin block's front door, and the Mercedes stopped just at its end. The Suburban's passengers dismounted first.

"Interesting, indeed," Misha murmured, watching how the quartet of bodyguards formed a defensive pocket around the Suburban with admirable speed and precision. They weren't to the level of the American Secret Service's Presidential Detail, but they knew what they were doing.

"Just bloody charming," Xander concurred sourly, taking in the beige/brown/ochre/black camouflage pattern of the newcomers' battledress and the G-36K carbines they bore. Both young men had spent more than enough time trading small-arms fire with men in that livery to know who and what it symbolised. Regular 'security' Stormers wore plain beige jumpsuits; camouflage was restricted to the higher-prestige (and better-trained and -armed) units, like the Tactical Response Corps. "I thought we left all this down south in Arulco."

"'Twould seem that were wishful thinking, my friend."

The view had shifted slightly in that brief span of time, the angle changing at the picture receding a little - the observer had locked his cameras on the scene, even as Zeppo flew onwards. Now it started to grow again as the UAV came back around to get another look at what was going on below. With a secure cordon about them, the men in the Suburban climbed down under the awning's shade.

"Can you zoom in on those guys?" Xander asked. Both men wore the ochre blouses over tan slacks that formed Stormhawk Class-A uniform, but neither seemed old enough to rate a four-man personal-defence detail.

"Sure." Maitland paused the playback, then tightened the picture and punched a couple of keys to digitally sharpen the image. Most of the older UAVs in use had optical-technology cameras, but Wasp used CCD-TV, imaging infrared and straight thermal imaging, all collimated on a computer-stabilised, full-traverse belly turret and linked to a new digital recording system that allowed for sharper imaging both live and in replay. Pretty soon, the duo filled the entire screen, and the observers could read their name-tags and insignia.

"Now *that* is very interesting," Misha murmured. "This joker - see those black facings on his uniform?"

Xander nodded thoughtfully, recognising the markings. "Stormhawk Special Purposes Group," he mused, taking a closer look at the screen himself. "And the question then becomes 'what is a Major from von Hausmann's personal Death Commandos doing in Sunnydale?'"

"He could be here by coincidence," the technician suggested.

"'Coincidence?'" Misha snorted. "In this trade, boyo, there is no such beast."

"Shift the main view to the thermal picture, please?" Xander was looking closely at the senior Stormhawk officer, though he'd already spotted what was wrong on the secondary monitors. He's keeping a really close eye on how close he is to the sunlight....

Maitland cocked an eyebrow, but he complied. An instant later, he let out a startled curse: the junior man showed a normal human IR profile -

- but the Major's body-temperature was uniform all over his body - just above ambient.

Misha traded a look of grim amusement with his fellow Kehua. Looks like we're going to need those local trainees sooner than we thought.

Xander nodded, letting out a long sigh. "Up to their old tricks again, I'll be bound. There goes the neighbourhood...."

"You're the one who says this place is *supposed* to attract the lowest of the low, Snoopy."

"Yeah, but even *this* town's scum have standards!"


09:36, AUGUST 27, LIMA (17:36/27-08-99 ZULU)

"Where the hell is Patterson?" Stein snarled, slamming his fists down on his desk. The supervisor's 'phone had been ringing for almost two minutes solid, and there was no sign of the big ex-Marine.

"He took some personal time, Frank, remember? He's going to the funeral for that security guard who got smoked at the gallery heist," Nuñez supplied.

"What does he care about some idiot clock-puncher?" the senior detective griped. Letting out a put-upon huff, he set down the papers he was working on and ducked into the other office to pick up the line. "Sunnydale Homicide, Detective Stein."

{"Sergeant Dobrowolski, Homicide, Chicago P.D."}

Stein frowned. "What does Chicago Homicide need with the Sunnydale P.D.?"

{"We've got some bad news to give to one of your citizens, and it'd probably be less of a hit coming from one of your uniforms. I'm looking at a double homicide out here, looks like a carjacking gone bad and really messy. Vics are a couple of locals, Grant and Arlene Burdette; their daughter survived the attack, and she's talking some really weird stuff."}

"I'm still waiting for this to be my problem."

A patient sigh from halfway across the continent. {"Arlene Burdette's maiden name is Murcheson, and her only listed next-of-kin is her sister, Joyce; she lives in Sunnydale under her married name, Summers."}

Stein perked up. Oh, reeeally? "What, you want the S.P.D. to notify her about the deaths?"

{"And check if she's willing to take the daughter in, none of the Burdettes want her. She's fifteen and kind'a going through a rebellious phase, y'know?"}

A wild array of thoughts flew across the detective's mind. About how he'd watched that juvenile delinquent tear Sunnydale High to pieces, Slayer or no. About how he'd had her dead to rights for two separate murder charges that could have taken her out of Richard Wilkins' way for good... only to be forced to let her slide on both when too many people heard the real story. About how he'd never been able to pin Finch's death or the attempt on Faith's life on that blonde bimbo, despite almost endless trying. About how the Mayor's second pay-cheque for keeping his mouth shut and doing exactly what he was told had had him raking in almost eighty grand a year... until that little cheerleader barbecued him and the acting mayor dried up all the 'contingency funds', pending full review. It probably wouldn't be too long before someone started investigating where all that money went, and when they did, I.A. would swoop on the S.P.D. like the vultures they were. Which meant he had to do what damage he could while he still had the chance. He could say any number of things, take any number of courses.... between one breath and the next, his mind was made up. Time to poison the wells.... "You better notify Social Services, then, pal, 'cause there was a 211 at Joyce Summers' art gallery on Monday. Five dead."

{"And Summers was amongst 'em?"}

"Yeah, that's right, Joyce Summers included."

As the other detective said his goodbyes, Stein was toting up the final results. Even if Social Services sorted through this mess and got the real story, it'd take them months to deal with all the necessary bureaucracy. Months of being in foster care. Months of teenage angst compounded by knowing she'd been rejected and left out in the cold by her own flesh and blood. Months of pent-up grief and loneliness and resentment that would probably fester into outright hatred. By the time they got things straightened out and put Dawn Burdette with her real family....

Stein settled the phone back into the cradle and leaned back, a distinctly satisfied smile spreading across his face. _The best way of making a summer's day has to be making a Summers' day...._

"You know something, Frank? You're a real piece of work," Nuñez declared. He'd heard enough of Stein's side of things to put it together... and be appalled.

"Thanks, Rafe, I try."

That wasn't a compliment, you fucking pendejo.... "Look, I'm turning up nothing on these two kids who live in that apartment that got redecorated. Customs and the INS never heard of 'em, they paid for everything in cash, and that Jaguar LaFollet says they drive? They bought it outright, with cash, at the tax-auction after the Chases got caught cooking their books. People who don't exist throwing around a lot of hard currency, their apartment blowing up with a known merc inside... I'm smelling 'drug connection', Frank."

Stein turned that over in his head a couple of times. Nuñez might only be a couple of years out of uniform, but he learned fast. "Yeah. Yeah, that sounds pretty good."

"Okay, so, I'm gonna go have a word with Willy Stanton, maybe he knows if anybody's broken into the market since those two showed up."

"Want me to come with you?"

"Nah, I'd be more intimidating on my own. Latino temper and all," the Cuban grinned. "I ought'a be back in an hour or so."

"You better not be too long, I can't get through all this on my own." Stein waved a hand at all the paperwork clogging up his desk, inches deep at some points.

Nuñez shot his partner a grin and was gone.